9.19

[Andrew Rowe has come out with Book 4 in his series, Arcane Ascension! Silence of the Unworthy Gods (great title, we’re on the same page), is out now! Check out the book and series here!]

 

In Baleros, there is a [Doctor].

Her name is Geneva Scala, and she needs to be found. She is waiting, waiting…a ‘guest’ of the Minds of Selphids. Few people know this, and even if they do, who can find her, much less bring her back?

The Minds have her. And whichever Minds they are—they are both secluded and guarded by an army.

The Titan of Baleros had lots of maps. And he had found at least one group of Minds before. As for an army? He had a few. Now, the trick was sneaking up on a telepathic group of super-brains, or at least, cornering them.

Find, locate, extract—and the prize would be meeting the Last Light of Baleros, a woman from another world. Earth.

The Titan mulled over his maps as he sipped a mug of coffee, which he was probably already addicted to. And he had one, crucial thought.

Damn the [Doctor].

The reason why he had a cup of coffee was not because Oteslia’s new product had spread to Baleros—ironically, the species of plant that made coffee was endemic to Baleros anyways.

The reason was because the Titan of Baleros kept tabs on things, so he had heard about the drink. But he was mainly drinking it because…

The Wandering Inn was selling coffee. At a huge markup. The Titan of Baleros happened—just happened to know this, because next to his maps and notes about the offensive against The Dyed Lands, finding Geneva Scala, and pushing back Jungle Tails was a scrying orb.

One of four. But this one just happened to be a feed of The Wandering Inn’s common room. And he was, right now, watching as a flood of Goblins, Antinium, adventurers, and interesting people poured into the inn in what would be a three-day mega party.

And he had just seen Erin Solstice return from her vacation with what he swore was a flaming hat. How Niers wished he could be there.

He had heard, down the grapevine, that The Wandering Inn had famous parties. And an Antinium army would be returning to the city as well as even more fun guests in the next few days.

The Titan was piqued. He hesitated, scribbled in a little Fraerling-sized scroll, then tried to stop. But he couldn’t. So he kept compounding his problem, but…the [Message] scroll read something like this.

 

Niers: Heard about the river incident. Anything interesting happen with your [Emperor]?

Niers: Peki’s at the battlefield. Not my fault.

Niers: Thoughts on the Crusade? Have you met Xrn?

Niers: Nice hat.

 

He told himself that four was too many. Which was why six messages since Erin’s last comment was, uh…he was fiddling with a quill when someone passed by his table littered with tools at breakfast.

Foliana was used to Niers in work-mode. But she definitely noticed the non-war-related paraphernalia at the table. Niers tried to hide the scroll behind his back, and the squirrel just shuffled around him.

She looked up at Niers as he opened and closed his mouth. Then Foliana killed him. She leaned forwards, and her huge squirrel-face contorted into a terrible glee and, worse, sympathy for him as the Fraerling looked at her in horror.

Lame.

She left Niers skewered on the table and hopped off. The Titan slowly rolled up the [Message] scroll and went back to plotting to kill people. Possibly with more vengeance than before. But he didn’t miss the inn’s commotion. He couldn’t see the ‘private’ elements, of course, but he was watching.

The [Princess] was standing in a flurry of people, organizing them pretty well, calling out names, meeting with a Watch Captain and a few Councilmembers of Liscor. A party. They were having a party, and multiple cities were invited.

But the little Goblin Chieftain and Erin Solstice were nowhere to be seen.

 

——

 

Lyonette du Marquin stood in The Wandering Inn, and Pawn was glad to see her. He had missed Lyonette terribly, and he walked forwards.

“Lyonette. You are back. I have missed you. How was—”

Then, like usual since she had returned, a figure in golden armor subtly interposed himself between Pawn and Lyonette. Ser Lormel coughed as the [Princess] hurried into the inn, escorting a young girl.

Who was this? Pawn tried to edge past Ser Lormel as the Thronebearer blocked him. The others were like that, too. Whenever he and Lyonette tried to be private, one of them was there.

He waited for Lyonette to turn to him and order her people out of the way, but she was busy talking to a young Human girl.

“I’m so sorry it’s chaotic, Nanette.”

“Not at all, Miss Lyonette. I should see how the inn is if I’m to live here.”

Yes, but I did hope it would be less chaotic. What am I saying? Here’s the inn’s common room, and as you can see—”

“Lyonette. Lyonette, what are these Goblins doing here? I need to talk to you or Erin about so many.”

Watch Captain Zevara ran into the same problem as Pawn was slowly trying to push Lormel into a wall. Ser Dalimont checked her with an arm, and she stared at him.

“Excuse me, Miss. Her Highness is busy.”

“I am Watch Captain Zevara on business of Liscor. And this inn is technically part of Liscor. One side.”

“I regret that no authority but the crown of Calanfer can supercede my orders, Watch Captain.”

Ser Dalimont and Zevara clashed in a rather impressive way. The Watch Captain was literally breathing fire, but Dalimont didn’t move. And Lyonette was showing Nanette around, still.

Was this a new guest of the inn? Another child?

In Pawn’s view of the world, children could be born naturally, a process which he was still fuzzy about since the Antinium had no place in other species’ biological reproduction. Or they appeared, like Mrsha. Thus, he was the only person to guess that Nanette was staying at the inn. In which case he should obviously introduce himself to her to make a good impression. He had failed with Mrsha, but she was a rapscallion.

“Excuse me, I need to speak to Lyonette. Please move.”

“I regret that Her Highness is busy, Mister Pawn.”

Lormel had the friendly look of someone who really wasn’t that friendly. Pawn frowned.

“I have not insisted because I am being polite to Lyonette’s guards. But I must. Please move.”

“Mister Pawn, I am well aware of your…acquaintanceship with Her Highness, but I regret to say that she is busy.

Lormel stressed the words with that same veneer. Pawn suspected that he wasn’t regretful at all. If he were, he would have let Lyonette know Pawn was standing there. What annoyed the Antinium more than the lies was something else, though.

“I am not ‘Mister Pawn’.”

“Oh? Pardon me, sir. I simply use it as a term to refer to people. As [Knights] of Calanfer do, sir.”

“I am not sir, either. I am a [Priest].”

Lormel hesitated for a second. He eyed Pawn with a look of slight unease, then smiled.

“Well, er, Priest Pawn, as Ser Dalimont said, no force besides the crown of Calanfer supercedes Her Highness’ own will. Please step back, and we will let Princess Lyonette know someone is petitioning her time at her convenience.”

Pawn stared at Lormel as a familiar feeling of frustration began to build in him.

“You know my relationship with Lyonette.”

Lormel’s lips compressed, and his eyes swiveled about, but the inn was flooding—literally flooding with people. Ceria escaped through the door as a flood of people asking for autographs charged in after her. Mrsha had met a wild Grev, and the two were high-fiving as Gireulashia gently picked up a startled Human and moved them out of the way so she could find her little friend.

No one had heard, so the Thronebearer leaned forwards.

“I know nothing of the kind, sir, and I would hope you will be silent about most untoward accusations against Her Highness’ integrity.”

Pawn looked at him. Then something clicked in his head, and he realized they knew. Which meant they were doing this on purpose. And disapproved. And—

Calmly, he patted Ser Lormel on the arm.

“My private life is my business. And Lyonette’s. Who I will now see at our convenience. Thank you for not getting in my way further, Ser Lormel. I would hate to disturb your work.”

“I regret—”

Ser Lormel reached for Pawn, and Gireulashia bodily checked him into a table.

“Mrsha, MrshaMrshaMrsha, let’s sit here with—oops! I’m so sorry!”

She hadn’t seen him, and the Thronebearer went stumbling into a table. Lormel turned to grab Pawn, who was marching towards Lyonette, and slipped. On his ankle.

[Bane of Luck].

Lormel was down, and Dalimont, Sest, and Ushar closed ranks. And all the while? This was the least important thing in the inn in some sense.

Because there were Goblins, and the [Princess] had promised a party. The only problem was—there was no Erin wandering about organizing everything in her odd way. There was a party, and this time, it was Lyonette who had to deliver.

 

——

 

The [Princess] was stressed out. But in that way where she invited the stress. Lyonette was deliberately buying time to think by showing Nanette around the rooms and organizing the little witch her spot.

But she was well aware that Zevara was breathing smoke, and that Lism, Krshia, Elirr, and the Councilmembers were waiting for her.

And the [Mayor] of Invrisil. Nanette seemed to sense it too.

“Miss Lyonette, you can let me look around. It’s safe in the inn, isn’t it?”

“Yes…”

Nanette gave her a brave smile. She looked around the common room and found Mrsha speaking excitedly with Gire. Her eyes went round at the sight of the huge Gnoll.

“She must be Ekhtouch! Mrsha’s here—she can help me if I’m lost, can’t she? I can look around myself.”

That instantly placed her as older than Mrsha. Lyonette hesitated.

“If you’re sure. Erin would be here, but we are in the middle of everything. Thank you, Nanette. I shall make it up to you.”

The girl went to tip her hat again, caught herself, and just smiled. Guiltily, Lyonette nodded to her, stepped back, then clapped her hands.

Every head in the inn turned as the [Princess] invoked her aura. And her voice.

Attention, everyone! The Wandering Inn is open for business.”

Those familiar words. Smiles appeared on toothy fangs and mandibles, and then Lyonette saw familiar faces in the guests.

Old friends. Repeat customers.

They were already here, because they had sensed the moment the instant it began building.

Senior Guardsman Relc, tugging his daughter over to the table that Klbkch had already secured. The changed Antinium had a bowl of acid flies in one hand, and they were seated right next to Menolit, wearing his Liscor Hunted apparel.

New visitors too, like Venaz, staring at the Goblins with undisguised wariness. He twisted in his seat, and Wil put a hand on his shoulder with Merrik as Redscar entered the inn.

With Thunderfur. The Carn Wolf scared every cat in existence into hiding behind Elirr as the [Beast Trainer] eyed the giant wolf with appreciation. Lyonette saw a Lamia poking his head out from behind Elirr’s back and smiled.

Nerry the Sariant Lamb scuttled into Garia’s arms as Numbtongue looked around. And he grinned as a sleepy [Alchemist] poked her head out of her shop and smiled and waved at him. But there was Badarrow and Snapjaw and—

Ishkr. The [Head Server] was everywhere, showing Antinium who to give food to and how to record receipts in the busy inn. Amazingly, he was keeping up with the chaos so far, but one look and Lyonette knew he needed backup.

So—with countless more faces she knew, like grumpy Tekshia banging a claw on the table and demanding cookies, Ceria slyly offering Bird a ‘stone bird wing’ she’d claimed from a Gargoyle’s corpse and getting a hug in return, Lyonette called out.

“We are slightly busy! So I hope you will bear in mind that these are going to be busy days. Please do not disturb any other guests, including the adventurers. The second floor is off-limits. Lastly, do not go into the kitchen for food, no matter how hungry you are. We store jars of acid in there.”

Some of the guests blanched, but the others just laughed. Mrsha was staring at Lyonette, and the [Princess] caught her daughter’s eye. She jerked her head and gave a meaningful nod to Nanette, who was watching Lyonette’s crowd management appreciatively.

Mrsha’s eyes went round, as if she’d forgotten Nanette. She had to be responsible now! She slid out of her seat and went to grab Nanette’s hand, much to Gire’s shock. Grev, the rascal, was just grinning, his feet up on a table as he leaned back in his chair.

The inn was warm with so many bodies and smelled like something wonderfully spicy coming from the kitchens. The Goblins smelled a bit travel-worn, a bit muddy, wet, like clothing got or leather, after being frozen and doused in water, and some were shivering from their long, high-altitude flight. So Lyonette gave orders fast.

“I could use a larger fire and a second fire, Liska. Ishkr, please call out if you’re in trouble, but focus on food for the tables.”

They had no bartender, unfortunately, which meant Ishkr would have to somehow fill mugs as well as deliver food.

…That was what Lyonette thought until a familiar figure paused and tried to duck behind the counter. She thought it was that other [Innkeeper]—until she saw the beetle shell. And the waving silver antennae.

The Antinium polishing the counter clean and filling mugs peeked up at her as he surreptitiously took money and filled a mug of ale. Lyonette glared at Silveran, but it was not Silveran.

Because of the huge, bushy mustache he wore, see? He stroked it as Silverstache, the temporary [Bartender], got to clean up all the horrible messes on the bartop. And yes, it was a silver mustache on his face.

Lyonette just sighed, but all hands were needed, and more were in fact wanted. So she clapped her hands.

“Right now, I would like to ask anyone with personal business to wait—I need to speak to Liscor’s Council, Watch Captain Zevara, and the [Mayors] of Invrisil, Celum, and anyone from Pallass regarding the parade. Next, I would appreciate it if Menolit, Temile, Kevin, Joseph—someone find them if they’re not here—Imani and Palt, uhm, Selys, and a few others would wait for me. I won’t be more than fifteen minutes.”

Now that was odd. It was like Erin telegraphing her seemingly-random moves ahead. But this was Lyonette style, and Menolit looked as curious as Kevin. Selys glanced at Lyonette sharply, but the [Princess] was already heading off to meet with Zevara. She passed by Pawn, smiled at him, took his hand for a second, and had to go.

For the news was this: the inn was throwing a party. But it required everyone’s help.

 

——

 

“A holiday? Really?”

The news in the rest of Liscor was simple. The Council, after a flash-meeting with the [Princess] at the inn, had come to an agreement.

In fact, the word was being cried across Liscor. A panting Ser Lormel, trying to escape his run of slips and bad luck, was standing at a bakery supplier.

“Yes, sir. And I shall need all the sugar you have. Flour, er—I have a list—”

Lyonette had called for supplies knowing that among the things you could sell in this three-day holiday would be cakes, cookies, and other confections. Ser Lormel wanted them run to The Wandering Inn, but the [Baker] wasn’t done. He eyed the radiant Thronebearer—who had fallen in the mud on the way here—and frowned.

“Well, I can do you a lot of these goods. All your meat stuff? Try the [Butcher]’s three doors down. Liscor Cuts—been open for decades, you know.”

“Thank you, sir. Now, if you could deliver within the hour, we can pay—”

Unfortunately, Ser Lormel had run into a Drake who would have his say. Not because he spoke fast, but because he would speak over you until you listened.

“—decades, a family run business. Not that we aren’t adapting. Those new [Farmers], the shady ones? In that they’re all wearing dark clothing? The Humans? Wonderful products. Lischelle Herders, even I’ve heard of ‘em. So you’ll get fine meat there. Not that we’ll be open since apparently it’s a holiday. Nevermind that we got no warning. I suppose I’ll keep the store open today and tomorrow and maybe close it. Them Antinium are coming back on the third day, right?”

Lormel realized there was nothing to do but rehash the entire plan Liscor had laid out.

“Yes, sir. We’ll have two days of celebration whereupon the Crusade should arrive by the third day. Or even tomorrow if they march fast enough. The Council and Celum and Invrisil have not shut down businesses; in fact, many are advised that this is a profitable moment, but they quite encourage it, and there will be activities, free, free goods which will be paid for by Liscor’s Council. Which you may want to get on, sir?”

The [Baker] hmmed; his shop was filled with busy [Apprentices] and the orders. Yet he had the time to look Ser Lormel up and down.

“And all this is by way of The Wandering Inn, eh? Going to be music?”

“Yes, sir, that is planned.”

“Dancing? Something crazy? No monsters this time.”

“If it can be helped, sir—we have Goblins, which is why I am slightly pressed for—”

“You’ve changed.”

The Thronebearer hesitated.

“Excuse me?”

The Drake shook his head slowly and sadly. He tapped a claw on the table.

“You’ve changed. Tell that [Innkeeper] that. I remember when she’d have her big parties out of nowhere. One second I’m dusting flour off my claws, the next? Moths. And then we’re eating snacks and clubbing the stragglers down. Or what about the party with music? Now you’re organizing it? You’ve changed.”

“I…will relay that to Miss Solstice at your convenience, sir.”

“You do that. Now, as I was saying, what kind of flour did you want? Because there’s acorn flour and wheat flour, and I assume your list just says ‘flour’, which is wheat flour, but sometimes you get things wrong. Why, once, I delivered six bags of wheat flour only to learn that I was supposed to have—”

Ser Lormel’s smile calcified in place. But while some [Bakers] could object, the rest of the city liked the actual time they had to prepare for this big celebratory bash.

The only question was…some people were making plans to close up the next day or already headed to the inn, which was a known quantity in celebrations.

But the question was—what was going to be on offer today, tomorrow, and so on? Drinks? Food? The moment? Yes, but if it were a holiday, there was a plan, right?

 

——

 

Lyonette du Marquin was a Calanferian [Princess]. She knew she had upped the stakes by calling for a parade and holiday.

If anything, she had had the easiest time talking the various leaders of cities into it. The potential for profits drove Liscor’s Council straight into a ‘yes’, as well the opportunity to garner attention and acclaim for their army.

Invrisil? The City of Adventurers’ [Mayor] had been bowled over by Lyonette in the first engagement, and they were no stranger to delights and parties. Same for Celum; the [Mayor], Cetris Duiland, had practically begged to be invited to the festivities.

Because there was a high, high profit incentive. Imagine, Lyonette had claimed, having a door open to all the cities? Obviously, Invrisil would be a long commute, but what if visitors trickled into Liscor for two days in preparation for the third one? Then, on the third day, they’d be able to transit to local cities like Esthelm, Celum, and a few would get to hop to Invrisil or Pallass.

During that time, all the cities would be putting on a joint holiday, and so you’d get your share of activities in each city, pay for food or lodging at inns, and fill the coffers of every city. This event had the potential to draw in people in the radii of every city, from noble guests to people who wanted to see the Antinium or be part of a news event.

Most of the leaders of their cities were canny enough to see how valuable this could be, and they agreed to spread the word. Visitors from Wales would head to Celum to see their army celebrated. Nobles in Invrisil could come to Liscor to safely see the Antinium and appear on the news.

All great. All wonderful. However—that left Lyonette with a problem she knew would come up, and it was this.

Activities. Festivities. You needed them. Now, Erin could throw a party in a second, but she mainly threw it around something new, like baseball being invented or a monster disaster being defeated. But for days of festivities?

Calanfer had [Troubadours] who sang in shifts. They had events for little children, late-night festivities; some funded taverns to hand out free drinks all day, and a parade was almost inevitable, with at least one [Princess].

And that was the baseline for Ielane to even consider something. She always kept Calanfer’s celebrations fresh and exciting. Lyonette had no smaller aspirations.

Fortunately, she had four Thronebearers who knew the score, and she had talked to Lism in a quick conference.

“You need to subsidize several taverns to give out free food.”

Subsidize?

He said the word like it was a filthy thing. Krshia was also huddled with him, and she gave Lyonette a puzzled look.

“Ah, like the Meeting of Tribes?”

“Exactly. Free food—but not so much. Don’t scowl at me, Lism. It just needs to be a mix of free and paid food. Find a hole in your budget.”

“Our budget is calculated, you—you—okay. I can see the point. Free samples. What else?”

“Parade routes. How is the army coming in? Where are you giving speeches, and how many times are you going to repeat them? Get me a map of Liscor, Dalimont? Thank you. I suggest doing a route. You need to avoid crowds so pedestrians can get around…talk to Hexel. Now, I will try to provide entertainments, but you’ll need to help me. Invrisil has a lot of performers, so I suggest dividing them up.”

“And we’re paying for them too?”

Lyonette gave the Drake a sweet smile.

“I suggest taking an estimate of how much coin you think will be paid and selling permits for [Shopkeepers]—like yourselves—to sell at the best points, Councilmember. Also, remember the door travel fee.”

That mollified him. Krshia gave Lyonette a respectful nod, but she glanced at the second group waiting in the wings.

“And what about the entertainments?”

Lyonette bit her lip. She smiled at Krshia anxiously.

“…I intend to have something grand. I will let you know on the hour, Krshia. Alright?”

The Gnoll gave Lyonette a look that said she knew Lyonette had no plan, but she nodded and then grabbed Lism and put him into an clothesline across the throat because he was trying to talk to Lyonette.

“So let’s talk about civic awards. How many medals does Invrisil give out? Do they even have a trad—Krshia, let go, you’re strangling me.”

“We can ask the [Mayor] ourselves, eh, Lism? Elirr, you stay here and monitor the inn.”

Elirr jumped. He was ‘monitoring’ a drink and a sidebar of tapas that Imani had delivered as he chatted with Redscar, who, amazingly, was prone to socialness. He gave Krshia a relieved nod, and she winked.

Lism was being strangled by Krshia. He hissed at her.

You’re choking me. I do the—save that for later, Silverfang. Fine, let’s convene the Council. Where’s Jeiss?”

Meanwhile, Zevara was storming out to convene the Watch. She was hopping mad about the impromptu parade—but she did have the time to prepare. And she was bribed; Lyonette had handed her a bag of coffee beans. Zevara had justified it by saying it would be shared through the Watch House. They’d probably need it.

As for the celebrations? Lyonette sat in one of the private dining rooms and thought. She turned to the dozen people who had filed in after her and smiled.

“Does anyone remember how Erin’s big parties went? She was always good at having one main event, but we need activities for this celebration. I need ideas. How did Erin do it?”

“Well…”

The answer came from a scarred Drake who wore a shirt that said, ‘I survived Liscor Hunted and they gave me this shirt’ on the back. He had gotten that idea from Kevin, but the originator of the now-profitable Liscor Hunted activities was none other than Menolit.

He had no tail, but the [Veteran] looked happy to be here and far more fulfilled than he used to be.

He was also an old customer of Erin’s, and he scratched at his chin.

“—If we’re talking about monster attacks, I recall there being a lot of gore. But you’d have drinks, food, and everyone just gobbled down everything in sight. Conversation? Mostly recounting nearly getting your face torn off by a moth. Then you’d be drunk and high on life and kiss the nearest pretty Drake and pass out. That’s how I remember it.”

He looked around for confirmation, and the rest of the guests chuckled or sighed. Selys scratched at her neck spines, looking slightly miffed.

“That’s mostly you, Menolit. Erin tended to have something else be the spotlight. Remember her plays? It was all about the Players, right, Temile?”

The Human man nodded, straightening his flamboyant dress as befit the [Producer].

“The light shines on the stage, and the food and drinks are background. I recall the ball game being much the same. Erin’s inn was always stocked up.”

“…But she has no secondary activities.”

“The people are the secondary activities. Always someone new to talk to.”

Menolit waved a claw, and Lyonette saw the subtle genius in it. Entertainment via excitement, her mother would have called it. You could get a ballroom of the nobility chattering for hours without needing more than a single string quartet in the background and enough to eat.

The problem was—the Antinium had already won their battle. The people might celebrate, but celebrate what?

“Are there any activities that Antinium do? Pawn?”

“Eat? Paint True Antinium? Play chess?”

He looked happy to be included in the group of successful business people that Lyonette had convened. Temile, Selys, even Palt and Imani, Kevin, Joseph for Earthers—

She needed ideas. Unfortunately, her guests were sympathetic—and not that helpful. Kevin waved a hand.

“What if Numbtongue got the old band back together? We could, like, play some songs.”

What band?”

“Mrsha, me, Numbtongue, Octavia, Saliss.”

“Saliss of Lights is in a band?”

Temile’s jaw worked as he tried to digest that. Lyonette had almost forgotten that moment! Which just showed how Erin did have secondary activities. She shook her head.

“Good idea, Kevin, but this needs to be systematic. A ‘band’ can only be in one place. Yes, we might well do that, but I need all-day activities that tens of thousands can participate in. Even if each city puts on their own performances, we need to give them ideas. Anyone?”

The group shifted. Menolit slowly raised a claw.

“Well, Liscor Hunted can help. What if we let several people go in our groups for free and took some hunting Corusdeer or fighting Shield Spiders? That’s why you asked us, right, Lyonette?”

She smiled at him.

“Yes, thank you, Menolit. And I know that the Players of Celum and Liscor have agreed to put on performances—but we need more. Kevin, Joseph, Imani. You three are…from Erin’s home. Is there another sport you could introduce?”

Kevin, Joseph, and Imani looked at each other. The [Chef] looked surprised.

“What, just introduce a sport? Lyonette…I mean, there are some we haven’t done. Kevin?”

He hesitated.

“What about…basketball?”

“Anyone got a basketball?”

Joseph was well aware of how you needed the right ball for the game. Kevin shook his head. He looked around, scratching his head.

“Don’t they have catgut in Liscor? Or something similar? What about tennis?”

“Do we have bouncy balls? Badminton?”

The Earthers broke off to make a separate group to figure out the problem. But they had only a day or two and none of them knew how Erin had managed to bully her way into creating sports practically overnight.

And Erin was not here! Good! Lyonette was going to do this on her own. Besides, Erin needed rest and to speak to her friend. So the [Princess] turned, desperately, back to the group.

“What if we also involved the Silverfang Gnolls? Krshia?”

Krshia had elected to stay to help this part of the festivities and to let Liscor’s Council to weigh in. But at the mention of the Silverfang contingent in Liscor, she frowned.

“How do you mean, involve the Silverfangs, Lyonette? We do not have a surplus of goods nor do we have the time to prepare as if this were the Meeting of Tribes.”

The [Princess] shook her head.

“I know that. But—Gnolls are one of the most famous species after the Meeting of Tribes. Could we—could we bring some of that here? Wait a second. What about Liscor Hunted?”

She turned to Menolit. He raised his brows.

“What about it?”

“What if—we asked Gnolls to take people out to build fires, set up tents, and live like Gnolls? Show them what the lifestyle is like?”

That could tie up thousands if they had enough [Hunters] and such. Lyonette thought the idea had merit—right until Krshia snorted.

“No.”

“No?”

Lyonette turned to her, and the [Shopkeeper] shook her head. She gave Lyonette a firm stare.

“My tribe is in mourning still. We may participate, but we are not going to ‘show’ visitors our lives. Not in the Floodplains. Not Drakes. Nor even Humans, not right now.”

The [Princess]’ face fell. She needed ideas! To her relief, Selys suggested one, glancing at Pawn.

“Well, if nothing else—what if we have a contest?”

“A contest?”

The [Heiress] nodded as everyone turned to her.

“Drakes love contests. Humans too. Dead gods, we have a lot of crafters and visitors to Liscor too. Remember the Yoldenites are here?”

“How can I not? They were singing all last night.”

Krshia grumbled; the Yoldenites were living it up in Liscor. Selys smiled playfully.

“Well—they make amazing helmets. Could we have a contest to make helmets?”

Like Riverfarm’s hat contest with the [Witches]. Lyonette had never seen who won, but the idea sparked more in her head, and she blurted out.

“Songs. Anthems. Helmets. Paint!

Everyone looked at her as if she had gone crazy, but Lyonette was already motioning to Sest to write up a plan.

“That’s brilliant, Selys. Calanfer often had contests where [Bards] would compose poems, and the winning one would win a prize. What about—a contest for Liscor’s anthem? Helmet-making lessons. I’m sure the Yoldenites would oblige. And we could paint, um, the Antinium’s colors. Hang them up on pretty pieces of paper or kites. Something like that.”

“What’s the prize?”

“Gold. Or—a Yoldenite-made helmet. A bit of gemstone for other contests? Numbtongue has a few rubies lying about. He might oblige!”

“He does? Who has rubies lying around?”

Menolit was struggling to grasp the idea, but he liked it. And yet—contests would not an entire event make. Lyonette knew it full well. She just had to hope the Earthers came through. The Wandering Inn was full of fantastic guests.

Surely one would get up to something amusing? She kept brainstorming as, outside, Kevin, Imani, and Joseph tromped out onto the grass, followed by a small crowd of interested people.

 

——

 

There were Goblins from Goblinhome among the guests. Including Poisonbite, and the Goblin immediately found Kevin and showed him a skateboard they’d made.

“Oh, cool. Hey, Poisonbite. How’s it going?”

Joseph eyed the Goblins as Kevin fist-bumped everyone he knew. Which was everyone. Meanwhile, Joseph was throwing his hands up.

How am I supposed to make a feathercock and badminton racket out of nothing? We’d have to put an order in, get a [Crafter]—how did Erin do it?”

“Well, she had a few leather balls, and she commissioned someone to carve a bat. Baseball’s not that hard. What if we went old-school? Imani, where’s your hoof-shod…boyfriend?”

Kevin grinned at Imani, trying to play on their affectionate titles for each other. Palt, passing by, buffeted Kevin gently with one hand.

“That’s how I flirt with Imani, thank you. Sorry, I had to tell Lyonette to bother Wistram. They might be installing one of their ‘Adventure Rooms’ in Invrisil. If they can put some energy into it—and I bet they can—that’ll be a huge draw.”

Already, some things were coming together, and Kevin grinned as he punched Palt’s flank. Joseph was frowning.

“Old school? Yeah. Ping pong requires a stupidly bouncy ball, but we could have a wooden paddle, right? And can you enchant a ball to bounce, Palt?”

“Of course I can. I’m a generalist. I passed Wistram with flying colors. Got a ball?”

Joseph shrugged.

“I bought the soccer balls from a shop that sold Ekirra’s balls. Hell—Ekirra? Do you have a ball we could use?”

He turned, and an excited little Gnoll wearing his jersey perked up in the crowd. People were following the Earthers outside on a hunch, and Joseph’s smallest fan was tagging along. He wagged his tail excitedly as Joseph singled him out.

“You want a ball, Coach? I can get one!”

“What about a piece of wood? Hey, can anyone carve? We just need a racket like this…”

Kevin could sketch decently well, and his tennis racket was a simple idea. Yes, you needed a strong mesh, but if you just needed something to whack around…Palt raised his brows.

“Doesn’t seem hard. Does anyone have carving Skills? You could turn that into a square with a handle.”

The crowd susurrated until someone spoke up.

“I’ve got a sword. Want me to give it a shot?”

It was, unsurprisingly, Venaz, who thought he had the answer to the world’s problems. He strode forwards with his greatsword, and Kevin eyed it. However, the inn had planks of wood for repairs, and with a few cuts and a bit of cloth to wrap the handle, they had the ugliest ‘racket’ in existence.

In that…it was a flat piece of wood attached to a handle. Joseph and Imani didn’t quite look at Kevin as he swung it around.

“Okay, it’s heavy.”

And Palt had to enchant it so it wouldn’t break. But Ekirra came racing back with a little leather ball he liked to throw and play catch with, and the Centaur gamely enchanted it to be light and bouncy. Kevin tapped it up as Venaz cut a second piece of wood into the shape of a paddle. He raised the mismatched rackets and asked Palt to cast a [Lightwall] spell.

“Right here. Yay high. Can you do that?”

“I’m enchanting your stupid pieces of wood. One second—oh, thank you, Ceria.”

A wall of ice rose as the [Cryomancer] came out to see what everyone was doing. She was watching Palt work, and she looked amused as she chomped on fries.

That worked. Kevin handed Joseph a paddle, and the two faced each other across a flat piece of ground down the hill and just outside Liscor’s gates. There were no lines marking the field, they held two pieces of unbalanced, rough wood as their paddles, and the enchanted ball bounced way too far when Kevin awkwardly served it over the ice wall. Joseph ran after it, cursing, and then lobbed it back. They managed to return it two times each before Kevin failed to return the ‘tennis ball’.

He turned to the watching crowd. Kevin waved the racket at the Drakes, Humans, Gnolls, Antinium, and Goblins. Even the Antinium looked unimpressed.

“Tada. Tennis. Alright, who’s up for a game?”

He waited for volunteers. The crowd looked at each other, and finally, a Drake raised a claw.

“Wait. Isn’t that just Toresball? Only, your paddles are too wide. I play it all the time in Pallass.”

Kevin’s face fell.

“What? You have that game?”

The Drake gave Kevin a long, long look.

“Yeah. It’s hitting a ball with a stick. Walled Cities play it indoors.”

The crowd muttered. Several Humans knew a similar game with horses and long poles where you played a kind of golf. Kevin’s heart sank.

“Well, what about…basketball? Joseph, basketball?”

“Ringshot? Lizardfolk play that with hoops in Baleros. Theirs are sideways, though. Got any other ones?”

Jelaqua leaned against Maughin, cuddling her beau who’d come out to meet her as Joseph slapped his forehead.

The Earthers conferred, talking about other games of varying levels of entertainment. What did they have? Board games? Um…hockey? Meanwhile, the crowd eyed their ‘tennis’ example. One called out.

“You’ve changed, man. The inn used to be fun.”

Shut up! We’re trying!

Joseph shouted back at a [Baker] in the crowd. Of course, that just provoked jeers, and the Earthers turned into the amusement. Imani shook her head as she climbed onto Palt’s back.

“I have to go. We need to cook up a storm. Tell Lyonette we tried.”

The Centaur galloped into Liscor as Kevin looked around for support. But to his chagrin, even Venaz looked disappointed and headed back to the inn in search of more entertainment. Ceria wandered off, munching on her food, and Kevin stood there—until someone poked him repeatedly in the side.

“Hey. Skateboard? Show me tricks. And give bike.”

Poisonbite grinned at him. Then Kevin realized the Goblins were cashing in on some promises he made. Slowly, he sidled off with the Goblins until Joseph realized he was alone.

 

——

 

Lyonette’s inspiration would come, just not from the sources that Erin had used. And she realized that—they did have baseball and soccer here.

So why not put on some games? Let people compete. Yes, compete.

She was coming up with a roster of ideas now, from finger-painting the Painted Antinium sigils and putting them on kites for children and adults to sports. And…

“A chess tournament.”

Every head in her group of brainstormers turned to her. Lyonette sat there and snapped her fingers.

“Erin always puts one on—but just between her guests. Why not a real tournament? With a hundred gold prize! The inn will sponsor that.”

“A hundred gold? You sure?”

Lyonette smiled sweetly.

“Well, we shall enter Erin herself into the competition, so I don’t consider it a cost. But why not? We can even have people play remotely, via scrying orb.”

She was so desperate for ideas, the significance of the first paid tournament of chess didn’t occur to her. Meanwhile, Lyonette was still keenly aware that no idea thus far was large enough to justify a huge crowd.

Yet the Meeting of Tribes had done it. Calanfer could do it—she just needed something. Frustrated, Lyonette looked at Krshia.

“How did the big tribes keep everyone entertained?”

“Aside from reunions and the deals each tribe made? They put on grand shows and activities, but Lyonette—the Meeting of Tribes in itself was the event.”

Krshia raised her brows, urbanely amused. She gestured to her silver earrings, which were in the shape of tiny, twisting Dragons today.

“Silverfang sold goods every day of the meeting for months. Each tribe had something. Ask Gireulashia.”

She nodded out a window where everyone could see the big [Paragon] following two children around. Mrsha was showing Nanette around the inn in Lyonette’s place.

For some reason, she had started with the outhouses. And then the stables, filled with snoozing Carn Wolves…Gire was following, glaring at Nanette. Krshia snorted fondly at Gire’s obvious jealousy.

“Ekhtouch, they had less goods and more services. One expert might teach you how to perfect your aim with a bow or another make you something only they could. Not just goods! There were great [Tailors] and artisans who took orders during the time they were there.”

Now, Lyonette saw it. She chewed at her lip, trying to think of what one city, Celum, Liscor, Esthelm, or Invrisil could do that another might want beyond belief.

The problem was…aside from Invrisil and Esthelm, Celum and Liscor were not hugely famous cities. Liscor’s army and the spring floods were their biggest draws, neither of which were here.

As for Invrisil, they had performers and adventurers and trade, but that didn’t entice their populace. Even the Players of Celum were merely ‘famous’, rather than the all-consuming fad they’d been months ago.

And Esthelm? Well, it had one of the best [Smiths] in the world, but Lyonette had a fairly good idea of how asking Pelt to create metal fast for an audience would go.

She valued her toes. And yet, surprisingly, at this point, someone spoke up with an idea that Lyonette hadn’t thought of.

“Well, if it’s a market or services you’re looking for—why not go to Pallass, Lyonette? I was just at their bazaar, and I saw a Djinni’s bottle on sale. An actual Djinni’s bottle.”

Lyonette looked up. Selys Shivertail sat there as every head turned to her. Menolit frowned at Selys.

“The what? Pallass has a bazaar?”

Selys gave him a long, strange look. Then she gazed around the entire room.

“…Yes. It’s famous. 1st Floor, remember? You’ve probably seen it when you walk Pallass.”

“Oh, sure, all the times I just visit Pallass. I’ve seen scrying orbs of it. It doesn’t look that great, and Erin said there wasn’t much aside from the 9th floor.”

Menolit snorted, waving his claw. Selys’ jaw opened and closed, and she hesitated.

“Menolit.”

“Yes?”

“You’ve never been to Pallass have you?”

“…No. So what?”

“So you’ve never been to Pallass, and your one piece of insight into the City of Inventions is Erin? Erin, who barely knows more than ten streets in Liscor? Erin, who had no idea we had a City Council until they held elections?”

Menolit hesitated. When she put it like that, it sounded bad. Selys shook her head.

“Erin has been on the 1st Floor of Pallass twice. They have one of the most famous trading hubs in all of Izril! They’re practically what Invrisil is to the north because they’re in the middle of so many trade roads. Lyonette, if you want to trade…”

That was when Lyonette saw it. She had a sudden vision and stood up slowly.

“Dame Ushar? I need to go to Pallass. I have to speak to their [Senators] and see how many [Merchants] can come here. They’ll need to bring goods. But what if—”

She spoke, running ahead of her ideas to everyone else. They listened, as Lyonette envisioned it.

“In our largest plaza in Liscor. A…Shivertail Plaza. Everyone brings something. Goods, heirlooms they don’t want, artifacts—and five cities and everyone who wants to come is allowed in. But here’s the catch—no one is allowed to sell with coin. Only goods for goods. Okay, maybe some coin, but the point is that you’re trading items for items. Things that Drakes have never seen in the south. Helmets, soccer balls—an emporium of goods!”

“Oh, bartering.”

Krshia looked amused, but Lyonette had the idea from the Meeting of Tribes. It didn’t solve all of her problems, but it was one of the larger things she could put on.

She quickly arranged the others to do their part; Selys was interested in bankrolling some of the activities, and the other business owners had events they were willing to put on. In fact, Lyonette asked Ser Sest to call up [Innkeepers] next. As soon as she got back to Liscor, she’d speak to them.

But for now, she rushed to Pallass. And when she looked down from the 8th Floor, she saw the largest floor, the bottom, sprawling with colorful tent canopies, people milling about, rolling wagons, the huge elevators—

Like Market Street in Liscor, but a thousand times larger. Lyonette’s eyes shone as she practically ran to an elevator. Yes, that would do. And in her great rush and hurry, she barely saw Pawn waving a hand and trying to speak to her.

 

——

 

While all of the exciting things were happening outside, a young woman was speaking with a Goblin inside a garden.

Time passed slowly. Not because it was immortal, but just because it was just the two of them.

No one entered through that door to the garden.

It didn’t exist. And while that might be selfish with such a busy and exciting time outside, the [Innkeeper] wanted nothing to disturb her conversation with the Goblin. So that was why time felt so slow. Perhaps time itself had been waiting for them to talk.

Properly.

The irony, then, was that their conversation was so slow to begin. Because it was slightly awkward.

There they were. Goblin and Human. Two of the first people in The Wandering Inn’s long tale, and they were—shy.

Shy, despite their long connection. As if they weren’t quite sure that the image they had of the other person was right. So they took their time.

“I’m glad to see you. Do you wanna see my garden? I mean, you’ve already seen a lot of it. But I’ve got more gardens these days. Lots.”

“I know.”

The first thing that came out of Erin’s mouth was silly. She was taking Rags on a walk around her garden. As if she were Mrsha, showing Nanette every crack and crevice of the inn.

Yet the Goblin seemed to enjoy it. Erin led Rags down that dreadful, beautiful hill, and the Goblin seemed to breathe easier. She looked back over her shoulder, but Erin was pointing out the Sage’s Grass and flowers.

“They’re both super important. One fuels the door with magic—and they’re totally safe. Isn’t that cool?”

“Very smart. Free magic. What about the yellow flowers?”

Erin twisted slightly and, once again, marveled that Rags spoke. She was even eloquent, not like how Ulvama pretended not to know syntax and diction. Yet she had something of the old Rags in her.

A recalcitrance to speech. Not as if she were shy like Numbtongue, but weighing her words, choosing them as if each one she spoke were important and reflected back on her.

If Mrsha could speak, she would be a silly babbler at times or as prone to pontificating as Pisces. That was not bad—but Rags’ way of speaking made Erin hang on the words. Because they were ones that the Goblin could never have said to Erin long ago.

And here they were, talking about flowers. Erin’s silly mouth spoke on.

“I got ‘em from faeries. Do you remember the faeries?”

“Winter Sprites? They don’t bother Goblins.”

“No, I guess not. Ryoka says something’s up with them. They’re actually faeries from another world.”

At this, Rags stopped and gave Erin the strangest look in the world.

“Really?”

“Yep. Faerie-people from another world. You’d have to ask Ryoka more, though. She had one as a friend. Ivolethe. She’s…well. Ryoka’s alive. And this is my garden. My [Garden of Sanctuary]. It’s my best Skill, that I got at Level 40. I mean, [Immortal Moment] is cool and I have a few other ones like my fire Skill, but this is really great. And I have more gardens, like I said!”

“Hmm. I know.”

“You do?”

Rags bared her teeth in a grin as she looked around and inhaled the faint smell of mushrooms and damp earth in the soil where that circle of mushrooms sprang up in a faerie ring. She bent down to pick one and stopped.

“I saw it on the scrying orb. The snowy garden. And I know about Ryoka. She’s not dead. I saw her fly.”

Erin realized Rags knew more of her than she did about Rags. She felt…Erin flapped her hands at Rags hurriedly.

“Go ahead and pick a mushroom if you want! I’ve never tried eating one. Anything you want! And look! My [Garden of Sanctuary] opens anywhere in my inn! It’s super convenient to get around and sneak up on people. See?”

She demonstrated, opening a door straight into the kitchen. A Goblin [Chef] was tasting a mana candy surreptitiously. He turned, spotted them, and screamed.

“Whaaah!

“Aaah! Who was that?”

Erin slammed the door shut, then turned to Rags. And the little [Chieftain] was grinning. She pointed back to the empty wall.

“Calescent. My best [Chef]. You wanted one, so he kept annoying me until I told him he could come. I sent more Goblins. As helpers.”

“You did? Oh—thank you!”

Erin put a hand over her chest and felt bad about scaring him. Then she frowned.

“Have you…didn’t I meet him before?”

“When you woke up. He’s a [Spice Chef]. A very good fighter. Very dangerous.”

“With a cleaver or something?”

The Goblin snorted.

“Nope. Throws spice in people’s faces and blinds them. Even Gold-rank adventurers fall for it.”

Erin put a hand over her mouth, then laughed.

“I did the same thing with a bowl of soup one time! No, wait, it was curry. I bet you he and I will get along great! Are you sure it’s okay? Thank you, I mean! I felt bad about making the request.”

Rags brushed at her shoulder as if dismissing Erin’s concern.

“It’s fine. Everyone likes your inn. Not everyone wanted to go. Calescent likes to cook. Just stay away from Redscar. And all the Goblins who fly.”

“Why? Are they…mad at me? For what I did?”

The first real question entered the conversation five minutes in. Rags glanced up, and Erin saw the little Goblin studying her face. But Rags just shook her head again.

“No. Silly. They want you to…post a <Quest>. I have questions about that, too. They want you to give them classes or secrets.”

“Oh—I can do that.”

Erin was so relieved she nodded, but Rags held up a claw. The [Chieftain] searched for words.

“They…would also like you to make one of my Goblins gain a class. Redscar said, ‘if she can make a [Knight], she should make a [Fighter Pilot].’ Kevin told him about it. Idiot.”

She gave Erin a helpless, slightly annoyed, amused look, as if she were—well, a Chieftain who had to hear that kind of request all the time. Erin’s jaw was dropped in a satisfying manner, and she didn’t know whether to laugh or…

The two stared at each other slightly too long. And then Erin realized she hadn’t laughed and tried to, but it sounded unnatural.

“Oh. Hahaha! That’s great!”

“Mm. You don’t have to.”

Rags grunted, and Erin fell silent. She tried to insert a word into that silence—and fumbled.

She fumbled. Where she had spoken to people she hated or, at least, talked to them and known how to persuade them to think or do something, she couldn’t quite do the same with Rags. That bothered her.

“…I’ll definitely post <Quests> that can help, Rags. Definitely. You just ask. You need food? Or, um—things? I can post a <Quest> if you want. Even a hidden, private one.”

“You can do that?”

Rags’ head raised. Her red eyes shone with interest, and she spoke quickly.

“I thought you did. I have questions. About how they work. About the rewards. Are they really random?”

“Yes! They’re totally new. Actually—I might have, uh, unlocked them.”

“You unlocked them?”

Rags just blinked at Erin and then snorted and rolled her eyes.

“Of course. Duh. Strangers from other worlds. You unlocking <Quests> and coming back from the dead. Very normal.”

Erin’s smile felt strained. She didn’t feel like Rags was insulting her. She was just—desperately—

What?

What? What was so wrong that made this feel more painful than it should be? It should be the best. But Rags?

Perhaps Rags felt the same, because she caught herself and shook her head. She kicked at a mushroom and sent it flying.

“I—no. I don’t want to ask you about that. Not yet. Later.”

She stopped, took a breath, and Erin thought she saw the uncertainty in Rags’ face for a second. The Goblin looked up and pointed to the hill.

“I saw the statues there. Is that…part of your garden?”

Erin’s heart squeezed. Then she looked at Rags, and the bit of cheery artifice she’d put into her voice faded. She looked around and realized that the only bench in the entire garden was up in the hill of mists.

“Let’s go walk up on the hill. I can sit in the grass. Sorry. I get tired.”

Rags nodded. They walked up the hill, and Erin, to her great embarrassment, had to lean on Rags’ shoulders. She was still tired from her excitement in Riverfarm. But the Goblin didn’t say a word.

“Sorry. I’m still…”

“It’s okay. You’re not heavy. Sometimes Thunderfur lies on me.”

She meant the huge wolf? Erin smiled and hid her head. Rags glanced at Erin—then she poked Erin in the side.

The [Innkeeper] nearly jumped off the hill, and Rags glanced at her. But the [Innkeeper] finally sat down, and when she spoke, it was facing the hill shrouded in mists.

“…Yeah. The hill was there when the garden was given to me. It’s everyone. Everyone…I’m sorry I didn’t warn you.”

“It’s fine. I saw it the first time I came here.”

Rags settled, cross-legged, as Erin stretched her own feet out. The [Innkeeper] gave Rags a puzzled glance, and the Goblin elaborated.

“When you were dead.”

“Oh. You visited my…my grave?”

Instantly, Erin realized she’d said the wrong word.

“My body, I mean? When it was frozen?”

Rags just nodded.

“Yes. I got here too late. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It was my fault. I was silly and careless and—”

The young woman swallowed a lump in the middle of her throat. She looked down at her weak legs and felt the same sensation that she remembered in her dreams.

A sudden push at her chest and a strange, alien feeling. Lying on the ground and wondering why she couldn’t breathe. A piece of wood and steel buried in her lungs.

Dying. The worst part of all was that in her memories, in that dream—Erin Solstice died smiling. She died too soon, unexpectedly, in the stupidest of ways.

—But no force in this world could stop her. No miracle came, and she knew it and left them her last words.

That last moment before the world ended sometimes called to her. And it pulled her down and down until she woke—and her lungs had stopped, and she rolled over and coughed and sobbed for air. But what frightened her was that calm certainty.

The fear that this was all a dream. The fear that she had died, and this was a true death, and the fantastical land of the dead and ever after was just—an illusion.

Erin had not often questioned if this world were a real one. It felt too real. So, then. Her death had been far, far too vivid, and it haunted her.

The Goblin noticed how Erin stopped. She looked down and regarded Erin, the [Innkeeper] who had begun this, who had come first of all to this world by chance.

Rags said this:

“You changed, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] looked up at Rags guiltily. But the Goblin didn’t mean it like an accusation. She just sat up slightly, cross-legged, and looked at the [Innkeeper].

“I wanted to say, ‘thank you’. I said it. I came back to thank you for everything. I was too late. You died, and I looked down at you and knew you were dead. Now—I see you living again. Strange. I thought I saw so many strange things that I wouldn’t get tired. Now. I wonder if I’m dreaming.”

Erin jumped, and Rags seemed to be echoing her very thoughts, but the Goblin went on, engrossed, reading out her deepest emotions like a list.

“You died, Erin. I did my best to save you—but I didn’t know if it would really work. I did it because I hoped. But when you did wake, after everything? I realized that I was too late. You changed. When I said those words, that Erin wasn’t the one I wanted to thank.”

The [Innkeeper] was having trouble breathing. She looked at Rags, unable to respond. And she realized this wasn’t an accusation either.

“I—I changed a lot in the lands of the dead, Rags. They were all there. Ghosts. Everyone I had ever met—only I couldn’t meet them all. Everyone but Goblins.”

“No Goblins?”

Rags didn’t look surprised by the revelation. Erin shook her head, and the Goblin grinned. Sadly.

“Where do they go? Nowhere?”

“I don’t know. No one does. Except—no. I don’t know, Rags.”

“Maybe it is nowhere. Maybe Ants are right and somewhere should exist. Maybe it’s here.”

Rags tapped her head, and Erin didn’t reply. The Goblin looked at Erin.

“When you were dead…no, it’s not important. I was too late, Erin. You’re sorry? I’m sorry. The Erin I wanted to thank isn’t here. But. Neither is the Goblin who should have thanked her.”

She tapped her own chest, and she looked rueful. Erin gazed at her, and her eyes opened.

“Oh. Oh. You don’t mean I’m—all wrong.”

“Wrong? No. Why would I?”

Rags blinked and gave Erin an exasperated look. The [Innkeeper] ducked her head, and Rags gazed at her. That knowing gaze shifted.

She had pupils, in those crimson eyes. Just a slightly different shade of red. Now, Rags fixed on Erin.

“Who says you’re wrong?”

“No one. I just wonder. I woke up, and I can post <Quests>, and I’m a [Witch] now, Rags. I should have told you about that. There’s a world of things to tell you. I just don’t quite know if Erin woke back up. Or if she died in the grass outside her inn and someone else is here, now.”

The [Innkeeper] stared down at her chest. That scared her. Not just the paralysis or the dreams of dying, but when her family looked at her as if she were made of glass and she thought of who she had been and—wondered if she could ever be that person again. If she had lost a piece of herself, perhaps, as if the crossbow bolts had broken off a piece of who she was and she’d lost it even when they put her back together.

She said this to Rags and felt like she was unloading an ocean as heavy as the one that had poured out of Nanette’s hat. Too quick. This wasn’t how she wanted to do this.

“Rags. I’m sorry. You came back to see me, and I’m just blabbing on. Let’s try again. Let me get you a plate of spaghetti, and—”

Erin began to try to heave herself up, but her arms shook. To her surprise, Rags grabbed at her arm. The Goblin peered at Erin and then gently tugged her down.

That was all it took for Erin to collapse onto her back. Rags noticed Erin’s weakness and let go at once. She seemed ashamed, and Erin played it off.

“I’m as weak as a baby. You could kick my butt right now, if you wanted. I bet that’s what you wanted to do to the old Erin. Even if you thanked her—beat her up for being so weird, huh? So silly?”

“Nah.”

Rags uncrossed her legs and copied Erin. She stared at the hill, as if trying to remember, now, the lines of a script.

“Let me think. I was going to thank you. Then I would sit down, and you would give me a…a hug. Probably. Then a plate of spaghetti and blue juice. Then I would challenge you to chess. And win. Or surprise you.”

“Really? We can do that.”

Erin almost laughed at the idea, but Rags just shook her head.

“It’s only a thought. It would never happen like that. The Goblin—that Rags is long gone.”

The young woman pulled herself up urgently. She propped herself up on one arm and turned to Rags. She looked over the Goblin, and yes, she was taller, but not by much! She had not changed markedly in one year, and neither had Erin. Physically, at least?

“What happened to her? No she’s not. I’m looking at her.”

She was lying. Rags gazed at Erin, and the young woman tried to connect this to the Goblin with almost no hair, wearing practically nothing but filthy rags, scared of everyone, buoyed up only by courage and her wits.

Rags, now, was clothed. The starving ‘monster’ had been wearing clothes because she was cold. If Rags tossed all her clothes to the winds now, she’d be naked.

…That was a bad analogy, but it was the difference in how she held herself. The eyes. Erin had seen those eyes when Olesm came back. They were the same kind of eyes that Maviola El had, that she imagined Niers had. Someone who had commanded and failed and watched people die.

But crucially—the eyes of someone who would do it again. When Rags looked around, it was too knowingly.

A child salivated over a plate of spaghetti. This Rags would pick up a knife and fork and look for seasonings or check if anyone else was eating.

She had become an adult so fast that Erin understood, bitterly, how Goblins aged.

As for Rags?

She saw the same face, but more worn. Not by time, but by struggle. Erin’s cheeks flushed too quick, and she panted, weakly, if she exerted herself. It was all over her. Not that Rags had seen her collapse, but the knowledge that she might. The sudden, painful frailty of someone who had felt their body betray them completely.

And Erin was only one year older. She had seen so many friends die—the wonder that shone through and her determination, however clumsy, was changed to something else.

A great wariness. A terrible fear and knowledge buried deep down. The [Innkeeper] who had chased off Rock Crabs and fought monsters had been brave, generous, and good. She had nearly died, but she had the willpower to fight, the intelligence that Rags admired.

That young woman had no enemies. This woman did, and she knew them well and waited for the day they would return. She had seen every failure in her actions, and she no longer pushed ahead blindly.

The two people they had been were still there, in Erin, in Rags. But there was almost more of them in the memories the others had of them. They saw it reflected in each other’s gazes and looked away.

Silence fell once more. Erin didn’t know what to say. Secrets, perhaps. Even the great secrets of dead gods. Zineryr. She might have told Rags everything—

But that wasn’t what she wanted to say to Rags. It was all going wrong. Erin thought of Ryoka and how they had met after so long. It was like that, but even worse, because unlike Ryoka, she had never talked to Rags.

“What—what were you going to do after the chess game?”

Rags shrugged.

“I don’t know. That was all I dreamed about. Thanking you for helping me.”

“I didn’t, really.”

Rags just narrowed her eyes slightly, and Erin protested.

“I didn’t! I gave you a bit of food, but I never helped you build your tribe, Rags. I didn’t help you against the Goblin Lord. I didn’t do…much of anything, really.”

“More than any other person I’ve ever met. Even Goblins.”

“So? I could have done so much more.”

Rags fell silent. Again, it seemed like something was on the tip of her tongue, but she left it unsaid. Rather than argue against Erin, she just dropped the matter.

Erin wasn’t expecting that. And she realized, to her chagrin, that despite their mutual—respect—for one another, they had very poor chemistry in dialogue. She couldn’t figure Rags out, how to speak to her. Erin could with Grimalkin or Relc, but Rags didn’t respond in the same way. Perhaps because she wasn’t certain how to speak to Erin herself.

“Who…who did you bring to the inn? Helpers, you said?”

Rags sighed slightly, but she nodded. She gestured to the far wall.

“Goblins. Two Hobs. Mostly small ones.”

“Good workers? Um. Lyonette will want to know. Do they have classes like [Server]? [Cook]?”

“…Nope. They’re all different. One is missing a leg. Got eaten by an Eater Goat. Another? [Petty Thief]. One Goblin who wanted to come, he…picks up sticks.”

“Oh?”

“Just that. Picks up sticks. Very good at picking up sticks, but he keeps nearly getting eaten by Wyverns. Goblins like that.”

Erin was silent for a second, but a word was on her tongue too fast for her to stop it.

“…Are you giving me troublemakers?”

Rags grinned.

“Yep. Goblins who are hard to fit in Goblinhome. That’s the place where we are. Maybe you can help them. Like me.”

“I’ll try. They’ll be safer here, I think. There are jerks, but—the inn is safe.”

Erin hoped that was true. She turned to Rags.

“We’ve got some of the Goblins who went with Badarrow, too. I didn’t know if they wanted to stay, but—”

“If they want to come, we’ll take them. Not all survived. Most did. More than I thought. Badarrow and Snapjaw lived. It was good.”

“How many died when you kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault? I had no idea you did that. It was so dangerous—but you did it for me. Thanks. Again.”

Rags waved a claw.

“Less. It was my choice. My choice, Erin. The only Goblins who died for you went with Numbtongue. I chose to raid Tenbault.”

For me. Erin fidgeted, and Rags seemed to take something else from the subtle motion. She lifted a finger.

“If you don’t like them, I will take any back. If the [Thief] steals—it’s not hard. It’s an experiment. I can send good Goblins, but I need most.”

“No, I think it’ll be worth trying.”

Rags shrugged.

“Just send back the ones who don’t work. Silly Goblins are easy to deal with. All cause problems. Even my best ones.”

She heaved a huge sigh, and Erin tried to remember the Goblins she’d passed by.

“Badarrow wasn’t here long, but he told me there are a few who, um, work right under you. Calescent—wait, that’s the [Chef]? Poisonbite, Redscar, Taganchiel…is Ulvama part of your tribe?”

“Eh. Maybe. She would be useful, but I don’t like her.”

“Really? She’s not that bad…”

The Goblin [Great Chieftain] gave Erin another look that was a mix of annoyance and patience. Erin hesitated and amended her statement.

“Okay, she’s a bit of a lazy pest. But Mrsha says she’s actually nice, and she went to save Mrsha. That’s something.”

“More than I ever saw.”

Rags grudgingly admitted. She sighed and brushed at her tufts of hair with a claw.

“Maybe I’ll take her back. Badarrow is my lieutenant, too. Snapjaw as well. All of them have problems. That’s my concern. How about you? Does your inn need guards? Is Numbtongue doing well?”

“Numbtongue? Great. He’s, uh…”

Erin was going to say, ‘indiscriminately cuddling’, but it felt too childish. And after her conversation with him last night—she lowered her head. Rags noticed and changed the subject again.

“So. You were at Riverfarm. Are the Goblins well?”

Again, Erin started, but Rags seemed to have sources of intelligence that at least matched Selys. Erin nodded.

“Yeah, they were good. I met this [Emperor]…he says he has a history with your tribe, actually. But he seemed to be treating the Goblins under his rule well. They didn’t even want to come back with me.”

“Nor me. Good. If they were unhappy, they’d leave. So—a good vacation?”

Rags said the word as if she had no real idea what it meant, and Erin nodded.

“Oh, yeah. I met a friend, and I brought back this young witch—former witch—to stay at the inn. I’ll introduce you to her. Her name’s Nanette, and I met a bunch of [Witches] and refined my craft. Oh! We even summoned a River Elemental and nearly flooded everything, but then we found a Law Elemental, and that was wild.”

The [Chieftain] nodded along, listening. But she only broke in near the end.

“Mhm. What is a Law Elemental? River Elementals? Tell me about them.”

She was far more interested in the Elementals as a subject than Riverfarm. Erin gave Rags a brief recount of her time in Riverfarm and trip back. All the while, she was conscious of how painfully stilted their conversation was.

“How’s Goblinhome, Rags?”

“Oh. Well. We had a goat attack and Gargoyles. So we are building more defenses. Most went down the High Passes, but we are tunneling. Like Antinium, but slower. Sorry. Goblinhome looks like this. First, we inhabited a large cave at the end of a plateau in the mountains. Then we built it out with wood. We had a rampart, like a Terandrian castle, but we decided to make it almost completely indoors. No aerial defenses except in cover, because Wyverns would try to steal Goblins, and Eater Goats attack everything. So now it looks like this. If the original caves are here, we dug out here, here, and began adding wooden exteriors which we covered…”

The more Rags talked, the stranger it became. She was so…neat with how she laid out things. She gestured, tried to give Erin a complete picture of what she was talking about—and Erin had never known Rags thought like that.

The [Innkeeper] was beginning to despair about everything, and Rags was petering off her summary of the choke-points and kill-zones she’d set up to defend her colony. She muttered.

“It’s fine. Goblins are Goblins. Silly creatures. Even when they’re fed and no one is attacking, they get into trouble. Like Poisonbite. And her relationships.”

“Hm? What’s wrong with Poisonbite?”

Rags had to explain that Poisonbite, one of the leaders of the mostly-female Goblin forces, often had an off-and-on relationship with a Hobgoblin under her command. Which then led into all kinds of Mountain City Goblin interpersonal drama, grudges, affairs…

It sounded dreadfully Human to Erin. Rags was apparently called in when the issues got so bad they were on the verge of provoking mass brawls, and her growing scowl indicated how she felt about her time being used that way. And despite herself, Erin couldn’t help but venture a tiny, sarcastic comment.

“Oh man. If Goblins can’t escape relationship drama, who can? That was just like yesterday when I had to talk about—”

She hesitated, guiltily, because that was private.

“—stuff in relationships. I hate it. I would rather eat a handful of grass. Two handfuls! And dirt!”

Erin stopped herself because she was venting the guilt and unhappiness she’d felt about hurting Numbtongue like that. And she was sure Rags didn’t want to hear about it. But to her surprise, the shorter Goblin snorted in amusement.

“You have love troubles, too? I would have thought you had easier times. I thought you were dating the Titan of Baleros.”

Who said that? I’ll slap ‘em with a pan!

Erin sat up with a yelp. Rags just shrugged.

“Rumors. So. Do people come up to you and try to get you to have sex with them? Ask to hold hands? Be…girl-Human and boy-Human?”

She flapped her claws at Erin, urbanely amused. Erin flushed, but she was in it now.

“No, but not for want of trying. I have the Titan in one corner, and, um—someone just sorta confessed to me, but it didn’t work out. And it hadn’t worked out, so I—I don’t think I handled it well.”

“Ah, Numbtongue.”

Erin bit her lip. Rags just peered back at the inn. She nodded to herself.

“I’m right. I can sense sad Goblins. I am a [Chieftain].”

“Oh no. Is he broken up about it? This is like Altestiel all over again.”

Now, Rags was counting.

“Three…any more?”

“No! And it’s three too many! People were already making rumors that I was engaged to Ilvriss!”

“That’s four. Let’s see. [Earl], famous [Strategist], Wall Lord. Numbtongue is the worst one. Only a [Bard].”

Erin glared at Rags. The Goblin seemed to find this hilarious. Erin didn’t find it amusing. At all. The snap in her tone made Rags go quiet, as did the flash in Erin’s eyes.

“It’s not funny! I keep hurting them. It’s not right of me. It’s not fair—and I know that. I want to find love, but I’m—I’m not able to. Even though I died. I realized I didn’t want to die without trying, but I’m…such a failure.”

She was whispering by the end, and another piece of her heart felt like it was out of place. As if she was on the wrong track, going the wrong way, with no idea how to right things. Let alone between her and Numbtongue.

Then Erin felt bad for flaring up at Rags. She thought of Olesm and Niers and—and wondered why she was so terrible.

To her surprise, the Great Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe didn’t take offense. Her eyes widened, and she sat back as her armor crushed the soft grass and a Faerie Flower. Rags gazed at Erin and then spoke, sounding surprised and hesitant.

“I didn’t mean it was silly. I just laughed because…it sounds like my life. Too many Goblins, all of whom want to hop in my bed. Or throw other Goblins in.”

“…What now?”

Erin sat up as Rags heaved the largest sigh in creation. She gestured emphatically as she stared across the garden.

“Goblins want a Chieftain to have partners. It makes Chieftains more balanced. That’s what they say. Children are good. First it was Pyrite, then Redscar—but that was stupid. Now Taganchiel, but he doesn’t want to. Then—well, all this year, Poisonbite tries until I kick her out of Goblinhome and lock the doors. Now? Probably Ulvama. Or Badarrow or Snapjaw. Or both.”

She glared past Erin, clearly venting over a long-standing issue between her and her tribe. Erin was mildly appalled.

“What, they want you to get in a three-way relationship?”

“Eh. Anything.”

“What’s the basis in thinking that a partner makes a Chieftain stable?”

Rags counted on her claws.

“Garen? No partner. Very crazy. Tremborag? Only has sex. Very crazy. Reiss? Goblin Lord. Very crazy. No partner. Goblins get stupid ideas.”

Erin had to admit, when she put it like that, there might be causation or correlation. But Rags wasn’t done.

“Now? They just want me to have fun. So every fourth night, I find Goblin in bed. Naked. In my bed. Tall, short, big, small. Very muscly, very scarred. Very magic—all the attractive Goblins, even ones in relationships.”

Attractive meaning, of course, any quality a Goblin thought was attractive, including the more technical aspects of sex to being a very attentive companion. Rags had shot them all down faster than Fightipilota in her dreams of soaring through the air in a jet plane.

Her scowl was huge, and, when she realized she was confiding all this in Erin, hugely embarrassed. Rags turned away.

“Stupid problems to have.”

“You’re telling me. Do you—do you feel bad?”

“About what?”

Rags looked over, and Erin’s face was guilty. And wistful.

“Not giving any of them a shot? I mean, I don’t have people in my bed—and that sounds like a real problem. Especially if they don’t wash their feet first! But I…I almost wish I had given all of the relationships a try, y’know? Just so I could say I tried. It’s not like I didn’t like Altestiel, you know?”

“…No.”

The [Chieftain] gave Erin a strange look, but Erin was trying to explain. Her cheeks flushed.

“I liked Altestiel. A bit. Just not in the way I thought I should if I was gonna love him or anything. But isn’t that how it starts? You really like someone and that turns into love?”

Rags sneered.

“Looks more like needing to jump each other, first. Love? Different. Snapjaw and Badarrow are a couple. Not like Poisonbite and her problems.”

Erin hung her head.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. But I do like Altestiel. I do like Numbtongue and even Niers.”

Rags cast a glance at Erin.

“So you don’t try. Hmm. I thought you would have an easy time. Be an easy person.”

“What? Me?”

Erin turned red and grew a bit outraged, but Rags just shrugged.

“Love. Not sex. Easy person to have loves with. Bah. What do I know?”

She stared moodily away, but Erin turned to her. Hungrily.

“No, wait. Why would I be good at it? I’m terrible. I’ve never held down a good relationship for more than, like, two weeks. Except one time, and that was long-distance. On a computer. What…what makes me good at it?”

The Goblin thought for a moment how to explain it. Then she jerked a thumb to the dome above them and the opening.

“Did you see the Carn Wolves in the stables?”

Erin gave her a strange look, and a door swung open.

A doorway appeared in the grass on the hill, a line that slowly opened, as if it were always there, but hidden by some geometry such that it swung open and revealed itself in one motion. Through the portal in space, a stable appeared, past the outhouses, where a bunch of rust-red shapes were piled up.

Rags nearly backflipped into the Sage’s Grass in surprise. The door’s appearance was uncanny. She was also unsure of what she was looking at—a wooden stables with wide berths, filled with red fur?

Then she saw a bunch of Carn Wolves snoozing from their ride from the High Passes. They were munching on some fat bones that Ishkr had found for them, and a few were forming the most natural fortress of fluff that Erin had ever seen.

“Whoa. Big doggies!”

One perked an ear up at her voice and saw the door open on one wall of the inn. The Carn Wolf blinked at Erin and Rags, and then its eyes opened wide. It howled and freaked out in surprise. Erin guiltily closed the door as the snooze-pile turned into a chaos of barks.

“Sorry. What about them?”

Rags picked herself up, grumbling.

“Carn Wolves. Even they have pairs. One wolf, male and female. For life. Some just have sex, like Poisonbite. But when they are a couple—even Carn Wolves love uniquely. That’s what it looks like. Like Badarrow finding weird things to feed Snapjaw. Not like any other relationship. Goblins in the Molten Stone Tribe trade masks or make each other a mask. Mountain City Goblins make rings. But each one is different.

She was making a point Erin understood, but she was still astonished when Rags pointed at her.

“You are those moments. Even if not love itself—unique. So. I thought it would be easy for someone to fall in love. Because it’s already…special.”

That was the most interesting way of thinking about a relationship that Erin had ever heard. She knew it had to come out of Rags observing these things and thinking hard. And yet—it also struck her as quintessentially wrong. She shook her head, smiling sadly.

“Yeah, but Rags…loving like that would mean I’m like—in a relationship with everyone. It should be even more special with that person you’re going to spend all your time with, right? And it’s not like that for me. Look at Jelaqua.”

“Who? Oh, the Selphid. What?”

Erin tried to explain.

“Jelaqua likes everyone. She’s great. She’s nice, doesn’t judge, and she’s friendly. But once she met Maughin, she really did change a bit. She sometimes gets nervous that things are gonna fall apart. She gets anxious, obsessed with being a good partner—she’s even a [Lover], you know?”

The Chieftain grunted as she scratched at her head.

“Seems like she got worse.”

“Maybe—but she does seem happy. I don’t see myself adding more than—well, being the best of friends. Even with Numbtongue.”

Erin swallowed a lump in her throat. She hesitated and then burst out a bit.

“Maybe I’m just cold. In a relationship. Romantically, I mean. Someone told me that once.”

The Goblin turned her head to Erin. She raised both of her brows, then saw how seriously Erin said it. Instead of laughing at the idea, Rags stared at the jungle of trees in part of the garden and shook her head.

“Cold people don’t have hats made of fire. Cold people don’t see Goblins instead of monsters. That was wrong.”

It made Erin feel better to hear Rags say that. Silly as it was—she ducked her head.

“Thanks. It’s just that I’ve messed up all the relationships and dates I had back—back home. On Earth. I did tell you about it, right?”

“Eh. I heard it from Kevin.”

Kevin!

Erin shook her fist randomly at the sky. Then she laughed.

“What are we doing talking about romance when we could talk about my world? Or anything else, Rags?”

The Goblin Chieftain sighed.

“We’re both bad at it. Besides. I can’t talk to my Goblins. I tell them I’m not interested, and they told Kevin to sleep in my room. Which he did. I had to find another bed. They want me to be happy. Maybe I’m young. But lots of Goblins my age are happy having sex, falling in love. Not me. I am cold. Or Chieftain. Probably both.”

She sighed and looked so tired that Erin’s heart went out to Rags. The Goblin gazed at Erin for a moment and hesitated.

“…Can I ask you a question, Erin?”

“Shoot. We’re being personal. Anything you want. Except the super embarrassing stuff.”

Rags rolled her eyes. Then she paused and seemed confused. Hesitantly, she looked at Erin.

“You said you were dead and knew you wanted to find love. Why did you—? No, why were you certain?”

The [Innkeeper] scrunched her legs up to her chin and curled into a sitting ball, but she relaxed after a moment. It wasn’t a hard answer. If anything, it was the easiest thing to say. She gazed at a sleepy little bee napping on a branch of the tree. And she thought of how she had wept in the lands of the dead and heard their sorrows until Gresaria Wellfar reminded her of what it was to be alive. How empty she’d begun to feel until Fetohep promised her to bring her back.

“…I was dead, Rags. Dead, and I thought—I’d never get back to my body. If that was it, if that was all I had—I thought I’d regret not trying to find someone forever. Even now? I’m afraid of dying without…without…”

Her voice trembled, and she couldn’t go on. That was the fear of the lands of the dead, as they had been. A void of forever with nothing but your regrets, if you let them haunt you.

Her words struck a chord with Rags, but not the one that Erin had expected. The Goblin sat up and exhaled.

“Regrets. I understand that. If you die tomorrow—if I die—there are so many things I want to do.”

“Yeah.”

Erin closed her eyes and imagined all the things she had left to do. The terror of the burden she might leave behind—opposing Kasigna—weighed her down. As well as the small desires to love and be loved. To find…even more happiness than she had right now. To stand and run, without feeling weak again. To put a smile on Nanette’s face.

To tell her parents where she had gone and tell them she was alright. Erin closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Rags was staring at her own vision of life. Life and the clear things left done and undone. If you looked at it with death at your side, it all became so easy to see.

And what Rags said was this:

“I don’t see it. Your need to have someone. My tribe is that someone.”

Erin knew what she meant, but she gave Rags an incredulous look.

“You don’t…want someone specific, Rags? Not one person? Someone to—to share things with, to reach out and touch?”

For answer, the Goblin reached out and poked Erin’s arm.

“Not privately. Not like that. No. I don’t get it. If I die tomorrow, I will leave too many things not done. Finding a lover isn’t one of them. I don’t have time. It’s not interesting.”

She turned back to Erin and gave her a rueful smile.

“Maybe I’m a child, still. Not a Hob.”

Erin sat up and looked at Rags in astonishment. Could that be true? No…the Goblin was as old as many she’d met. And yet, Rags shook her head.

“I don’t want these things. I never have. It’s just curious to me. Curious. Silly. If you want to find someone, Erin. Good for you. But I just want to be left alone. I wanted to come here and find you. I wanted to thank you, and I wanted to talk and sit here and not be a Chieftain for a while. But I will be a Chieftain. I like you, Erin. More than any person in this world, living or dead. But I want my bed to be empty.

Her teeth flashed, and the little Goblin stood there, arms folded, glaring into a world filled with disgusting beds and nosy people. Erin Solstice looked at her friend, Rags, and then she giggled. She laughed as Rags scowled harder.

“I mean it. They’re my sheets. They’re silk and furs. They’re my sheets, and they get dirty. It’s a Chieftain’s bed. Stop laughing.”

But Erin did. She giggled and threw back her head and laughed, and eventually, Rags chuckled herself. Then, when they looked again, Erin saw no more stranger in Rags.

She just saw an incredibly picky little Goblin getting hilariously mad at attractive Goblins flirting with her from between the sheets. And Rags? She saw a person, lonely and silly and grand—

But not the [Innkeeper] who towered over her, mysterious and kind—but just a memory. Slowly, Rags reached down, and Erin felt a claw ruffle her hair.

Blinking, wide-eyed, Erin saw and felt the Goblin rub at her hair, then pat Erin on the head. Rags stood, triumphantly, over the sitting [Innkeeper]. She turned and spoke out of the corner of her mouth.

“I wanted to be taller than you, too. This is fine. I hated it when you patted me on the head.”

Erin blinked. She eyed Rags’ styled hair and hesitated.

“Is that an invitation to do it again for old time’s sake?”

She reached a hand up, and Rags slapped it down.

“No.”

Then they were laughing, and Erin was getting a feel for the Goblin that she had known and not known for ages. They had already shared a secret that both were too nervous to talk about to anyone else. So—Erin eventually got up.

“Hey, Rags.”

“Hmm?”

“Wanna see my secret gardens?”

The Goblin glanced up, and she grinned in that familiar way. When she sprang to her feet, Erin thought that this felt right.

 

——

 

New friendships could be disastrous. Old friendships rekindled could burst into a flaming fireball if things didn’t work right.

They were unpredictable, and not always because there wasn’t willingness. Sometimes it was about the circumstances. The outsiders, the secrets, the pasts—

The jealousy.

The Wandering Inn was experiencing one of those booms in guests coming through. If it wasn’t actually partying, the sight of half of Pallass’ top [Merchants] and [Traders] coming through the doors was enough to grab anyone’s attention. In fact, Lyonette had gone back to an old habit—begging the [Mages] to charge the door. Then she had to shell out coins to pay [Mages] to charge the door up via the system Liscor had figured out.

Spend money to make money, one supposed. Not that Mrsha supposed a lot. She patted a wall, proudly, as Nanette and Gireulashia, behind her, stared at it.

“What’s behind this? What’s behind this innocent wall?”

The Gnoll girl held up a card. Nanette hmmed. It took her a few seconds to see the ventilation slits of the secret, inner rooms, and Gire interrupted Mrsha.

“They’re hidden rooms. You can see where someone blocked off the walls. There and there. And you can smell something from inside. Obviously. See the vents?”

Mrsha’s ears flattened a bit as Gire folded her arms and gave Nanette an arch look. For her part, the girl shyly ducked her head.

“Is that true, Mrsha?”

Yes! And I’ll show you, but Erin is busy. And we’ll go to the playground—and Ekirra and Visma are here! But let me show you Bird’s tower next!

Mrsha went scampering up the stairs. She had a less organized way of showing people around and often travelled across the inn to one spot before running back. But fair was fair—Nanette and Gire had energy to burn unlike the sluggish Lyonette and Erin, who got tired and had ‘jobs’ or had been ‘shot with crossbows’.

Nanette began to hurry after Mrsha until a huge Gnoll with reddish fur blocked her and ran after Mrsha, just slow enough to keep forcing Nanette to halt. She saw Gire give her a huge scowl as they went up to Bird’s tower.

“Mrsha. Shoo. I am eating a rock bird. Go away. Oh, hello, Gire.”

Bird was just as friendly as the rest of the inn. Nanette found herself greeting him, and the Antinium was instantly fascinated with her.

“Do [Witches] fly? What requirements does a [Witch] have for the class?”

“Only being female and having a hat, Mister Bird.”

“Tricky. Tricky. And how good at flying is this Alevica?”

“She can fly for…a few minutes. I think longer if she charges her craft, but it’s not forever.”

Bird wrote this down.

“I see. Miss Ryoka can fly longer, but she sometimes breaks every bone in her body. Also, she may attract bolts of lightning and ‘drama’. Whatever this means. On the other hand, a [Mage] can cast [Levitation]. Thank you for telling me about [Witches], but they seem suboptimal on my ranking list.”

Nanette covered her mouth as Mrsha pointed at Bird, who was indeed a character. The [Witch] saw Gire fidgeting. She spoke up loudly.

“Well—you could ride a Roc like Az’muzarre’s tribe, Bird. We saw one, right, Mrsha?”

“Really?”

The little Gnoll shook her head emphatically. No old tribe stuff, thanks! Gire’s face fell, and Nanette smiled. She couldn’t help it.

“You could turn into a bird if you were Witch Mavika, Bird. And she has thousands of birds.”

Wh—really? Tell me more! Your class has now reached the top of Bird’s flying class ranking. You are Nanette? Can you turn me into a bird? Not yet? Then I will be nicer to you than Mrsha in case you ever develop this power. That is called foresight.”

Giggling, Nanette shook all four hands. Mrsha was beaming—and Gire was not. Her scowl had manifested itself the moment Mrsha had told her about her new ‘best friend’.

Which wasn’t a misnomer. Children could have multiple best friends, and Mrsha meant it in the sense of wanting to be one.

But Gire was behaving…well, in a way as unfamiliar to her as Mrsha, really. She had never been jealous, and Mrsha was the one who was mostly jealous, vengeful, and petty.

So Mrsha didn’t notice Gire slowly ramping up her campaign of sabotage and harassment. First, she got in Nanette’s way. Then—she got really petty.

“Hello? Hello?

Nanette was in the outhouse when she realized the door was blocked. She tried pushing, then using both her legs, but something—namely a nine-foot tall Gnoll—kept her blocked in for four minutes until Mrsha came to see if Nanette needed more toilet paper.

Whereupon Gire was innocent and helpful. Nanette adjusted her robes as she stared at Gire, and the [Paragon] gave her a challenging look behind Mrsha. Again, the Doombearer was more focused on swinging the door open and shut to make sure no one else was stuck in a dark purgatory.

But—well, the three were running around a busy inn. In fact, multiple [Innkeepers] were now coming to the inn itself.

So they came. Walking up to the inn by themselves in small groups, coming from Celum, Esthelm, Invrisil—and even Pallass.

Timbor Parithad, Peslas Folktale, Ulia Ovena. Drakes and Gnolls and Humans.

Some paused before The Wandering Inn and gulped. Others walked in as if they were Silver-rank adventurers entering a Gold-rank’s domain. Or defiantly, as if denying something right before their eyes.

One or two walked in like challengers or peers. Such as a Drake who Peslas practically fawned over.

Adalton Serristail of The Noble’s Fancy in Pallass. But most, like Timbor, came somewhat humbly. They were seeking an audience with The Wandering Inn regarding the coming celebrations.

After all—the inn would be the focal point for all the visitors and traffic flowing through the door. And while they did not have control over the people—they could recommend any inn they pleased. So if you were hoping to have your inn packed and full of paying guests…

Lyonette was holding court like the [Princess] she was. Mrsha rolled her eyes as she, Nanette, and Gire slowed to let the procession of [Innkeepers] past as they came down the trapped hallway. It was always funny to Mrsha to see the reactions of guests who looked up and saw a murder hole. Then she pointed.

Look! That scoundrel! That wastrel of no good purpose!

Miss Agnes was trying to hide behind Ulia, ducking, as she came into the inn. A coughing man was being helped by her. Miss Agnes and her husband! What was his name?

Mrsha’s glower softened a tiny bit, because she remembered Agnes’ husband was sick. Nanette, obviously, had no context for the grudge Mrsha held against The Frenzied Hare. Mrsha turned to tell Nanette all of this in writing and found the [Witch] had disappeared.

…Mostly because Gire had picked Nanette up, opened the hidden side passage in the main hallway, tossed her into it, and shut it in her face. She looked innocent as could be as Mrsha saw Nanette breathlessly open the hallway door, scaring the daylights out of Ulia.

At this point, Mrsha got the first sense that Gire might not like Nanette. The little [Druid]’s flaw was that she didn’t quite believe Gire would be so mean. In that sense, Mrsha made a mistake, because Gire had no idea who Nanette was. Mrsha, in her way, thought everyone knew why Nanette should be loved and made to feel happy and warm.

So she was uncertain and wavered before calling Gireulashia out on anything. Which could have led to a very unpleasant day for Nanette indeed—except for one thing. Something Gire had failed to consider or didn’t know and Mrsha and Erin and Lyonette and everyone worrying over her had forgotten.

She was Califor’s daughter. She was a witch, even if she had no hat or class. Kind as Nanette was—Alevica and Mavika had been [Witches] she regularly met, and she had roamed for twelve years with Califor in places hostile to [Witches].

So when she came back, she marched over to Gireulashia and looked up. The [Paragon] gave her a sinister smirk, as if daring Nanette to call her out on it. That smirk turned to chagrin as Nanette did just that. She stuck a tiny finger up at Gire.

“Miss Gireulashia, I must tell you I don’t appreciate you pulling tricks on me. I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong to you. I’m sorry if you feel upset that I’m taking Mrsha’s time away from you, but I just want to be Mrsha’s friend, not your enemy.”

Gire’s eyes went round and innocent as Mrsha stared up at Gire with a sudden suspicion.

Me? What are you talking about? She’s lying, Mrsha. What did I do?”

Nanette refused to play into the [Paragon]’s games. She just reached for her hat and then folded her arms.

“Miss Gire, I have done nothing wrong to you, and you have been a bit unkind. If you cannot tolerate me, that is how it must be. But I want you to know that I would like to be your friend. I do not wish to make Mrsha unhappy by fighting for her affection, but I will not be bullied.”

“I didn’t—I’m not—”

Gire was turning red under her fur. Nanette held her ground, her round cheeks slightly flushed. She looked around, and even Ulia, the [Innkeeper] who ran Blazehound in Celum, was taken by the girl’s composure.

Gire! What did you do? Apologize! I’m sorry, Nanette!

Mrsha was writing furiously. Gire was mumbling an apology as if she were a third her actual age, but again, Nanette just pulled her robes straight.

“Thank you, Mrsha. I think I’ll explore the inn by myself for a bit.”

“No, wait, I’m sorry!”

Gire looked hunted as Nanette began to march off. The little witch turned back to her and, to Gire’s surprise, smiled.

A kind smile, if not a happy one. Nanette dipped her head and looked at Mrsha.

“Then you can prove it in a bit. Let’s try again in half an hour, Miss Gire. Mrsha, don’t be mean to her. Everyone makes mistakes.”

And with that, Nanette walked off, leaving the [Paragon] speechless. She also put the fears of Lyonette and Erin to rest—if only the two could have seen her.

The sight of a twelve year-old girl lecturing someone twice her height and fifteen years old while they fought for a seven year-old’s affection was so mundane as to pass everyone by in the inn.

Getting Normen the [Knight]’s autograph was far more entertaining. Or looking at the Goblins, who were largely left alone by all the new guests. Liscorians were friendly; other cities were not. As Nanette wandered through the inn, she saw people investigating the weights room, the rec room with the billiards table and cards, and all the while, people were buying food and drinks.

Ishkr was everywhere. He raced down one hallway with a platter of drinks, showing a pair of Antinium how to take the food in and collect coins, then Nanette saw him behind the bar, serving more guests. She turned her head back, walked into the hallway, and stared as the two Antinium trundled back with empty serving trays.

…She definitely didn’t imagine that. Nanette’s brows rose. But then she was stepping aside to let the Workers pass, and someone was speaking loudly.

“Ants. Ants and Goblins. Who’s in charge here? They’re monsters! Monsters. Are you all blind?”

The angry voice was coming from someone in armor. An adventurer from Invrisil who was calling out. Some people turned, but the Human from the Waterborn Raiders, a team of Gold-ranks, was actually lost in the general hubbub.

He was staring at the Goblins with such hostility that some of the warriors were eying him back. However, what made the Gold-ranker so nervous was how the Redfang veterans who’d come with Rags were sizing him up.

As if he would be the one who regretted drawing a blade.

The rest of the Waterborn Raiders were not here, so the man was making a broad appeal to what he saw as common sense. Relc, leaning against a wall and trying to convince Embria that this would be a great opportunity for them to check out Pallass’ puzzle market together, glanced over.

“What’s that?”

Goblins! You’re a fighter, right? Who’s in charge?”

Relc cupped a claw to one earhole.

“Goblins? Right! Yeah, are they getting served first? Damn Goblins!

He shook a fist at them, and this might have been true; they were all accounted for. The man stared at Relc and decided he’d get better backup if he just forced the issue. He headed for the Goblins, a hand on his sword.

“Excuse me, sir. No attacking Goblins. No killing Goblins in this inn. There’s a sign.”

Ishkr intercepted the man as Nanette looked around for Lyonette—but the [Princess] and her Thronebearers were meeting with the [Innkeepers] in another room. She was worried for Ishkr and, broadly, for the man if he drew blades.

After all, Shriekblade was about. But even so—it just took one stab for Ishkr to be in trouble. Or dead.

Yet the Gnoll was fearlessly blocking the Gold-rank, who was shouting now, and people were turning.

Those damn Goblins are murdering monsters! There’s letting [Bandits] at your inn and there’s this!”

“Sir—I will have to ask you to leave if you don’t lower your voice. No one is harming Goblins.”

The man finally focused on Ishkr. He turned his uncertainty over whether or not he’d be able to beat the Goblins in a fight into a certainty about the Gnoll [Server].

“If you’re with them, you flea-ridden bastard, you’ll have every Gold-rank in Invrisil coming down on your head! Get your hands off me.

There was a flurry as Ishkr tried to gently move him back. At this point, Nanette was reaching for a wand and looking for help.

—And help was there. Todi had heard the argument, and Selys’ bodyguard and enforcer of all things Selys was pushing through the crowd with three of his team.

He was too late. A scrum formed and broke up fast as people crowded in as the Waterborn Raider exploded into physical fury. Todi drew a club, cursing—and saw Ishkr, panting, next to the bar.

“Where is he? Ishkr, you alright?”

“Captain Todi? Everything’s fine.”

Ishkr looked up, and Todi whirled, looking for a ducking figure.

“Where’d the bastard go?”

Ishkr got up. He was breathing only a bit hard. He nodded to the closest window.

“Outside.”

Todi stared at the window, a good eight feet away. He strode over to it, cracked the glass open, and stared down straight at a man’s crotch. Never a good place to stare, but that was because he was staring at the Waterborn Raider—upside-down and struggling to get up. Todi glanced back at Ishkr and then shrugged.

He cracked open the window and happily leapt on his opponent as he called for his three teammates to back him up. The Todi school of fighting had all kinds of ways to kick someone when they were down. Very few moves in an honest fight.

 

——

 

The entire scene was just one of many in the inn. Nanette saw it because she kept her eyes open. She walked around the inn, sizing it up.

So that was how she met the new [Chef].

He was in the kitchen, warming up food and serving it out, but Calescent was cursing and sweating.

Not because he didn’t get how Erin’s inn worked. He had been here before, and her system of serving preserved food was perfect for rushes like this.

No, he was upset because he was trying to cook and he had no idea where anything was. You see, the Goblin was trying to make a good impression. And the problem was—he wanted to prove to Erin he could cook something for the guests.

Like some hot-hot fries, which he made with some sliced, roasted bell peppers, a unique spread of his own you lathered over cut french fries that made it delicious with his Skills.

He felt like this would be a good showcase of his talents. But Calescent was heating up lasagna and other stuff like pizza in the ovens while trying to find everything.

“Pepper. Where is peppers?”

The [Chef] was, in short, having the crisis of anyone thrust into someone else’s kitchen. All the organization and where you put certain tools and foods was unknown to him, and Erin had not, as of yet, labeled everything.

“Can we get pizza sliced for nine? Nine?

Liska appeared at the kitchen door as Calescent banged around. The Goblin yanked a pizza out, drew a knife, and had to calculate the geometry of a pizza. Then he was hunting for a peeler for potatoes before he realized—he’d burned his bell peppers!

The chef had to toss them out. This was not a good look! And then he had to begin heating up a tureen of soup—

If Erin or Lyonette could have seen him, they would have probably advised the [Chef] that he didn’t need to try so hard and been very sympathetic to his plight, but Calescent wanted to make this work. So he was suffering. Not in any grand way like being stabbed through the stomach and bleeding out on the ground, but in a mental way that was new to him, even with a horde of hungry Goblins banging on the table and demanding less spice.

After all, these were paying customers. Ishkr had also left Calescent with the least help because he understood that the Goblin at least knew his trade.

Well, Calescent was going to make at least some fries!

“Bell peppers. Potatoes! Where is the peeler thing—waaah!

He had a knife out to peel the potatoes without a specific tool when he screamed. In a very embarrassing way. Mostly because a little Human girl had suddenly appeared at one of the counters.

Nanette jumped, but she kept her hands steady. Calescent peered at her. He recognized her from the inn’s staff—Lyonette had done that much—but he was afraid she was going to grab a bunch of food like Mrsha and uncertain if he should stop her.

That was, until he saw what Nanette was doing. Namely—slicing up bell peppers for him. She did it in very neat rows, copying him as she pulled the seeds out of a pepper. Then she took a smaller knife and began to peel a potato in one continuous strip.

Someone had taught her how to cook. The girl looked up innocently and slightly warily at Calescent. Yet she had met Goblins. Even a Goblin [Witch].

“Hello, sir. Do you need any help?”

The Goblin blinked at her. Then a huge smile came over his face. He looked around and saw a secondary poofy chef hat on the wall. He took it off the peg and handed it to Nanette. She tried it on and smiled shyly at him.

In that moment, Calescent began to pick up on how Nanette might be better for the inn than most of the others. The same girl who had survived wherever she went with Califor could at least handle the chaos of the inn. He began asking her to dice up the potatoes for him as two people took on the hungry customers of the inn.

 

——

 

Mrsha du Marquin was mad at Gire. She peeked inside the kitchen and saw Nanette was helping the Goblin [Chef] and chatting up a storm. So she went outside and sulked.

“Mrsha? Mrsha, I’m sorry. I was just jealous. Don’t hate me!”

A big Gnoll snuffled and tried to pick her up, but Mrsha just bit at Gire’s arms until she let go. Mrsha sat on the ground, arms and legs crossed, refusing to look at the [Paragon] as she apologized.

When Nanette came back, she had better be super nice! Or Mrsha was gonna go back to her savage days of poisoning sandwiches!

The girl was justifiably upset over Nanette, and even the sight of Todi, three Gold-ranks, and Alcaz kicking a man on the ground didn’t cheer her up. They hauled the fellow off with admonitions as Mrsha eyed the crowd outside the inn.

Kevin and Joseph were still doing their best to provide a floor show. Kevin had brought a few bikes from his shop and was letting people take them on rides—but not joyrides. In fact, Poisonbite and her gang helped here; whenever someone looked like they might be trying to make a break for it with a new bike, the Goblins would chase after them.

Mrsha was writing a dissertation on why Nanette was a treasure and that anyone who bullied her was compounding multiple instances of horribleness, and Gire was learning the error of her ways as Joseph organized a soccer game.

But—it wasn’t the Erin moment that Lyonette wanted. Maybe this bazaar would be fun, but there wasn’t a high enough zany quotient in the air for Mrsha’s tastes. Still, people were getting into the mood, and there were celebrities.

Not just the Players, but the adventurers. Jelaqua was autographing people’s cards, blushing orange as she stood next to Maughin. In fact, she was making him sign the cards too.

“It’s Maughin and Jelaqua. A couple! He’s the best [Armorer] in Pallass. In fact—he’s been teaching me to smith too.”

“You’re very good at it, Jelaqua.”

“Well, I did need to learn to repair gear—Seborn! Seborn, stop acting aloof!”

The Drowned Man was refusing to autograph cards. He was giving Wailant a play-by-play of the battle as the two old seadogs talked, and there was a smaller crowd around him. Even the Drowned Man looked pleased by the attention.

As for Moore? He was talking with none other than…Mrsha sniffed the air. Yes, that was definitely Himilt. Fierre’s dad? Moore was leaning on a staff and asking about plants or farming, and Mrsha was thinking of going over there and giving him more hugs.

However, there were also the Horns of Hammerad. And the Silver Swords should be coming soon! Mrsha had a few pranks to pull on Ylawes, and she wanted to say hi to Dawil.

Even if it wasn’t entertainment, it was pretty darn good in the friends department for Mrsha, and if Gire straightened up, they might have a fun few days! She saw Ksmvr signing autographs with all four hands; he was so popular as Ksmvr of Chandrar.

But where was Pisces? Mrsha’s ears perked up as the [Necromancer] himself came out, talking quietly with Yvlon.

“…Ceria go? If she’s eating those spicy fries—”

“Just find the nearest plate of food. I swear, she’s going to gain weight all over again. So are you sure that woman’s from your home, Pisces? That’s an incredible coincidence.”

They were speaking so quietly only Mrsha and Gire, with their excellent hearing, could pick their voices out in the crowd. The irony was that Gnolls had great ears, but even adults had to struggle to differentiate individual conversations when it was so noisy. Pisces muttered.

“I think so. There were things only Ama could know. She likely fled Terandria.”

“So…are you going to catch up with her? If she was robbing battlefields, that’s not an upstanding person to associate with, Pisces.”

“It’s…a [Necromancer] thing to do. I shall wait at her meeting point and see what she has to say.”

“Take me with you. Or Ceria. Or Ksmvr. What do you hope will come of it?”

Pisces looked troubled as he scanned the crowds.

“Knowing if anyone else made it. I…there you are. Ceria! Here!

He waved, and Mrsha’s head turned as a half-Elf walked out of the inn, behind Pisces and Yvlon. It seemed like they’d missed her, but Ceria wasn’t holding a plate of food. If anything, she’d changed clothes and swapped robes for some light travel gear.

“Hey, you two. What’s going on?”

“We’re talking about Ama. What are you doing?”

Yvlon eyed Ceria’s dress. The thing about [Mages] was that they were sort of pigeonholed into the same attire; if you had magical robes, you tended to wear them at all times. Right now, Ceria was wearing a kind of pale blue Liscorian jeans, a light red jacket over a knitted maroon sweater, and even a belt.

It looked modern, and Kevin pointed Ceria out to Joseph, as if Ceria could walk into their world and almost fit in.

But for the pointed ears. And the skeletal hand. But she even had a variant of sneakers on, and the half-Elf [Cryomancer] grinned.

“Just doing some training. I told you; we looked bad out there, against the monsters.”

Pisces and Yvlon exchanged a look. The [Armsmistress] inserted a metal finger in her ear and winced because it was cold.

“You. Training. Of your own free will?”

Ceria gave Yvlon a look as she put her hands on her hips. She noticed Mrsha watching and winked at the Gnoll girl and waved.

“I deserve that. Hey, Mrsha. Hello, Gireulashia. Anything fun happening?”

Not as of yet. Our festivities, while potentially entertaining in the future, have been thus far as dull as to leave me recumbent.

Gire read for Mrsha, and Ceria laughed. Pisces was working on the last word as Yvlon shook her head over the flowery prose.

“Well—I had the same thought. And since Erin’s busy and we’re out of shape, I’m going to work on my flaws. I noticed a lot in our battle. We weren’t mobile; we lost the Behemoth fast, and Yvlon and Ksmvr were just fighting.”

“As opposed to staring?”

Pisces was sardonic, but Yvlon nodded slowly. Ceria rolled her eyes.

“Pisces, we’re Gold-ranks. Yvlon once killed an Adult Creler with a broken sword. Everyone’s changed classes; we should either be able to lock down half the battlefield or take out the huge threats. You’ve always been the best in your role. You can [Flash Step] for mobility, turn invisible, and now you can animate dead while firing [Deathbolts]. You’re the least flawed. The rest of us need work, and we need team tactics. The chariot’s no longer good enough.”

“Oh, well…I’m pleased someone recognizes my talents.”

Pisces was great because if you complimented him genuinely, he turned red and got embarrassed. Mrsha smirked at him as he glared at her. But Ceria seemed—well, confident.

“I have ideas on how to fix my problems. I’ve been fighting like an [Ice Mage]—or how people see my class. Stationary, walls—but there’s a better way. I found it on Chandrar, but I’ve been so lazy I didn’t keep at it. Vacation’s over. I’ll just find some space over there. It’s not like I’ll be throwing too many spells around. Say…Mrsha, are you bored?”

Mrsha nodded eagerly, and Ceria flashed her a smile.

“Well then, maybe you can join me. It’ll be fun.”

So saying, she pointed, and Mrsha raced over as Ceria led Pisces, Yvlon, Gire, and a small group of people listening in down the hill. A Thronebearer was following them, Mrsha realized.

Ser Dalimont was still doing his job. She gave him a grudging nod as Ceria stopped halfway down the hill.

So what is it? Are we shooting at things? Raising mighty blockades?

Mrsha had her own wand out, ready to cast her single [Stone Dart] spell. She looked at Ceria, and the [Cryomancer] laughed. She raised a wand and glanced at Mrsha.

“No. Just try to keep your balance.”

The little Gnoll’s face went slack. What? What was that supposed to m—

Then Mrsha realized she was sliding. Sliding, and her arms flailed as she tried to keep her balance. She sat down on her butt, and it was cold. Cold, slick—and she saw Ceria brace, lowering her stance.

The two began sliding down the [Icy Floor] spell that Ceria had cast. Mrsha’s eyes went round. She tried to stow her wand, fell flat on her back, and then she was going faster, faster—

“Miss Mrsha!”

Ser Dalimont ran down the hill as the Gnoll went careening down the first hill, over the slick ramp of ice. Heads turned as Ceria, laughing, went skating down the ice.

“Whoa! Mrsha! Are you okay?”

The smaller Gnoll went streaking down the hill, and the momentum carried her up a smaller hill. And the slippery ice launched a flailing little Gnoll up into the air.

Mrsha landed on her back on the grass with a whumph that forced all the air out of her lungs. She stared at the sky, wide-eyed, as Ser Dalimont nearly slipped and went crashing down himself. Then she got up and, laughing, leapt down the ice.

“Icy floor? Ceria, what are you doing?”

Yvlon tested the ice with one foot. It was far, far slicker than she thought. Not like Ceria’s regular ice, but slick, that stage between solid ice and meltwater. In fact, it refused to give even a bit of traction, and Yvlon slipped, cursing.

Pisces had begun laughing when he saw Mrsha’s expression, but he doubled over as Yvlon went down on her back. The [Armsmistress] skidded down the hill as Ceria, windmilling her arms, came to a halt.

“It’s all hills and valleys! Well, I suppose this is training. Pisces! Do you get it?”

He did. The [Necromancer] felt a pang in his heart, but he was smiling. He shouted one word down to Ceria.

Illphres!

The [Cryomancer]’s smile was his reward. Yes, just like she’d tried against the Bloodtear Pirates in Savere—she tried to do a run-up on the ice and nearly slipped. Windmilling her arms, the half-Elf cursed, grabbed at her head, and righted herself.

“If I can skate—I can move as fast as Ksmvr. If I can skate! I don’t know how Illphres did it!”

“Ceria! Warn me next time! Mrsha, are you okay?”

Yvlon had hurt herself more than Mrsha. She got up just as the Gnoll did a cannonball onto the icy ramp. Ceria was casting her spell wider, and Mrsha slid past Yvlon.

Now this was what she’d been waiting for! Mrsha got up on all fours, instead of her two legs like normal. She scampered forwards and began sliding. Then she tried to run on the ice and barely got anywhere.

It was so silly that Pisces kept snorting as he tested the ice himself. But it reminded Mrsha of the Horn’s finest hour.

Not killing Crelers—but sliding on waxed floors at night. Yvlon herself got up, tested the ground, and eyed Ceria’s sneakers.

“So that’s why you took off your boots. Do you even know how to skate, Ceria?”

The half-Elf made a face at Yvlon.

“My village didn’t do it during the winter. ‘Too dangerous’, they said. My grandmother told me she used to skate now and then, but no. Illphres made me do it a bit, but I never picked up her style.”

“Ah. Well—you could wear ice skates.”

“What?”

Ceria had never actually heard of the metal blades you could put on your feet. But Yvlon had.

“House Byres looks wonderful in the winter. The lake near our keep freezes over. Although…I don’t think you can walk around with skates on.”

Another thing this world already has. Cross it off the list, Joseph!”

Someone called out. Kevin was standing on the edge of Ceria’s skating rink, delighted. He tried a few steps and slid on his shoes. Then he wiped out.

My hip! Whoa, this is slippery!”

Ceria came to a stop again and nearly face-planted as she realized halting was just as hard. She grinned at Kevin.

“Like it? I’ve been experimenting with my ice. See, Pisces, Yvlon? I can create barriers and ramps. So if I can manage my balance—what’s wrong, Pisces? Afraid?”

He was still testing his balance on the edge of the ice. At her words, the [Necromancer] glanced up. Then he did a little hop and went shooting down the side of the hill. He passed by Ceria and Yvlon, arms spread wide, and even did a little twirl on one foot as his teammates stared at him.

Mrsha stuck out a foot, and Pisces tripped and went flying. She laughed until he came up with a bloody nose. But the [Necromancer] just grabbed her and tossed. Mrsha went skidding past Ceria like a giant, white puck.

“Okay, slightly dangerous.”

Pisces dabbed at his nose with some potion. But he gave Ceria an arch look as he cleaned the blood away.

“As Lyonette saw fit to remind me—I do come from Ailendamus. They had frozen winters, and I learned to keep my balance on ice. As part of my father’s wonderful training.”

Indeed, Ceria saw Yvlon was gingerly trying to skate on her own boots. The half-Elf tried to copy her two teammates and nearly wiped out.

“Wait. I’m the [Cryomancer]. You two—off the ice! I’m the one who’s supposed to be better than you two.”

“Oh, indeed? Dear me, then I’m sure you’re holding back.”

Pisces, smirking, skated in circles around Ceria as Yvlon managed to do a straight line and break. Ceria wobbled, tried to take a step, and fell forwards. Mrsha skated past her, this time giggling as Gire hopped onto the ice and did a perfect slide.

This is wonderful! I’ve only done this once before. Mrsha! Let’s skate!”

There was nothing like a [Paragon] for making you feel like an idiot. Gire skated with one leg raised behind her, wobbling, and looked delighted when she nearly fell over. And by now, Kevin was asking if anyone did have skates. When it turned out no one did, he did a running start, leapt onto his knees, and did a slide, arms raised.

Ceria’s ice was indeed like a maintained ice rink from Earth. Wet, fresh, and slippery. Possibly too slippery. The half-Elf got up ruefully and pointed at the ice.

“Maybe I need more grip. Or those skates. Let me try drying it out a bit. I—oh, there you are, Ksmvr!”

The Antinium had spotted his team doing something without him and came running.

“Captain Ceria, are we training on icy terrain? Novel idea! Let me try to whoa—whoa!

To Ceria’s great satisfaction, their [Skirmisher] slipped a bit as he ran forwards. Despite his [Sure Footing] Skill, ice was ice. He slipped onto his back—

—And flashed past his teammates. Ksmvr’s four limbs flailed as he shot past Mrsha on his back shell.

His back shell—which was perfectly smooth. Like an Antinium cannonball, he ramped up over a hill and landed on the other side—and kept going on the ice.

I believe I have discovered a faster method of travel—”

Pisces and Yvlon were laughing. But then Ksmvr got up and, to Ceria’s great pique, began to hop across the ice, running about with his Skill with only a minor amount of slippage.

“Ceria, this is great. Can you make your spell go further? Pisces, how good at ice skating are you?”

“Only as talented as the most capable amateur.”

Pisces polished his nails on his robes. Yvlon bared her teeth at him.

“Race you all the way over to the edge, there? Ceria, make the ice three hundred feet long. First one wins, but if you slip, you lose.”

“Hey! I’m the [Cryomancer].

But it was too late. Pisces and Yvlon were off, and Pisces did a running start, then just stopped, sliding and maintaining his balance. Yvlon went running, then drew her sheathed sword and used it as a guide to push herself onwards. Pisces shouted as Ksmvr ran past him, ignoring the slippery ice.

No fair!

They were…better than she was! Ceria’s outrage knew no end. She tried to speed up, raised a ramp of ice to leap off of, as if she were jumping over a Gargoyle—

Kevin watched and then winced as a sprawling half-Elf went flying over a ramp, six feet into the air and—

Oooh! Oh god!

Joseph covered his eyes. It was one thing to see someone bellyflop like that. Another to see someone hit solid ice that hard.

All the Horns skated over as Ceria slowly picked herself up.

“If anyone laughs, you freeze. My master could do it. Dead gods, she could skate over waves. She once sawed a ship in half.”

“She what? What’s all this ice? Are you talking about that story about a crazy [Cryomancer] skating on the ocean? That’s a myth I heard eight years back!”

Wailant had discovered the icy skating area. More people were testing the edges of the ice, but only a few were willing to risk their safety. He laughed—until Pisces and Ceria gave him a strange look.

“Icy floor? Interesting idea. I wonder how many monsters can skate.”

Seborn was just as nimble as Ksmvr and Pisces. He stepped onto the ice and began to slide.

“Oh, look at that! Remember when I told you about the waxed floors, Maughin? Let’s try it!”

Jelaqua was eager, but the huge, armored Dullahan had a healthy respect for how hard you could fall. He demurred as some Goblins came marching over.

“Kevin! More bikes! What this?”

Poisonbite tugged him over as she scuffed at the frozen ice covering the grass. Kevin got up reluctantly.

“It’s skating. It’s fun! Damn, if Pelt wouldn’t kill me, I could ask him to make some skates. I bet he could in minutes.”

Poisonbite just gave Kevin a look.

“Good way to break head open. Only crazy people run on ice.”

She stared deliberately at Ceria. Mrsha didn’t care. Ekirra had found the ice rink and had run onto it with his soccer ball. She watched him try to scamper after it and go sliding the wrong way and begin running on all fours to get back to it.

Ice physics were hilarious. Mrsha was having so much fun, and she noticed more and more people taking interest in Ceria’s winter wonderland.

However, that wasn’t when it got interesting. Not yet. The interesting part came with the most uninteresting, boring man in Mrsha’s personal fun-rankings. She was surprised to even see him, but the annoyed [Enchanter] came marching down from the inn, and Kevin groaned.

“Oh no. Hedault, I’m sorry—”

“You missed our meeting, Kevin. I have been waiting for twenty minutes. I should have known the inn was to blame. Again. I have the latest ‘ball bearings’ enchanted and—why is half the area covered in ice? Ah, the Horns of Hammerad. I will be leaving now. Will you be attending the meeting or not?”

Hedault took one look at Ceria and the Horns, and his expression of distaste for everything here ramped up. Kevin got up, apologizing profusely, and Ceria blew Hedault a kiss.

“Hey, Hedault! Nice to see you too! Don’t you want to join the party?”

Hedault’s look of antagonism only grew when he saw Mrsha, begging to be turned into a shot-put by Gireulashia. He only stopped when he saw something strange.

Poisonbite. Not that the Goblin was, to the [Enchanter], novel. See one Goblin in a non-antagonistic setting and you’d seen them all.

No, what Hedault focused on was something the Goblin had in her hands as she tried to drag Kevin back to the Goblins in her posse. It was hardly similar to the ones he had been making for fun with Kevin. A modest side-business that was plaguing Pallass.

No…it wasn’t steel, enchanted, or finely machined.

But it was a skateboard. The Goblin had made it out of wood and pieces of scrap she’d salvaged from around Goblinhome. It ran downhill fairly well, but not much on straights. Then again—the High Passes were all downhill. And cliffs. To be a Goblin skateboarder, even for fun, was to risk your life.

The one thing that Poisonbite had that Hedault hadn’t seen before was style. In that she’d decorated her skateboard with paint to resemble a snarling Carn Wolf on the board. His head turned, and he pointed.

“Why does she have that?”

“A skateboard? Oh—the Goblins like to skateboard. Some of them. Yeah, you can have a bike. But not the enchanted ones!”

Kevin was distracted. He was admiring Ceria’s ice ramp. He looked frankly envious as he turned to Ceria.

“I’ve gotta go, Ceria. But that ramp of yours is…gnarly. Is it easy to, y’know, just make them?”

“Sure, why?”

The Californian surfer, biker, and general enthusiast gave Ceria a wistful look.

“You would have been so popular back home, you have no idea. Being able to make—well, it reminds me of a skateboarding park.”

“A what park?”

And there it was. Hedault’s head turned, and the slightly balding [Enchanter] with orange hair’s almost perpetually annoyed expression of impatience turned to fascination as Kevin described what a half pipe was. Ceria was so taken that she tried to replicate it, raising ice to form walls.

“I thought about that. But unless I can keep my balance, there is no way I’ll be able to risk it in a fight. You’re telling me people do tricks? With skateboards?”

“Sure. Let me get your board, Poisonbite. Not on ice, usually, but—”

Kevin was no huge expert in the field of skateboarding. He was, like many people, an amateur with enthusiasm who’d done it more in his youth. He could ollie, and he’d shown Hedault and Poisonbite how to do that. Now he wanted to show a kickflip. To his extreme mortification, he couldn’t do it instantly.

“Well—you’d do that on the top of a ramp, during a jump. Then you land on your skateboard and keep going. You can grind down railings—oh man. I suck. Dude. I can’t do it. I’ve gotten old. Joseph, we’re old!

The [Football Coach] flipped him off. Kevin was just eying the ramp and wondering if he dared try skateboarding on ice to show them how it looked when he saw Hedault move.

The [Enchanter] was fishing around in his bag of holding. Kevin was afraid he was going to storm off—until he saw the familiar, steel skateboard that he had worked on as a prototype.

The same, insanely dangerous, enchanted piece of metal was in Hedault’s possession? Kevin had always thought that one of the Pallassians had stolen the first copy.

Then he remembered how Hedault had gone down Pallass’ ramps. Kevin had—thought—that Hedault had just done it for fun once. After all, the [Enchanter] had never done it again.

Because he didn’t visit Pallass. And there were rules about it, and Hedault probably read the rules. Now, though? The [Enchanter] eyed the ramp as every head turned. Mrsha’s jaw dropped as Hedault put one foot on the back of the skateboard, kicking it up. Then he put his other foot down, and the tip of the board touched the ice.

“Hedault—dude—”

And down the [Enchanter] came. Poisonbite had been sneering at the Human until she saw the skateboard. She monopolized Kevin’s time! Then her eyes went round as the bearded man, balanced low, came shooting down The Wandering Inn’s hill. The over-tuned magical skateboard was already ridiculously fast.

On Ceria’s ice? He blasted past the Horns of Hammerad as Kevin shouted.

Hedault, watch—

Up the ramp. Ceria had made one six feet high, the one she’d fallen off of. Hedault shot down the hill, along a valley, and summited the ramp in seconds. He went flying into the air. That would have been enough to make even Calescent, the guests staring out the windows, stare.

But Hedault, that precise genius who could memorize any enchantment—had watched Kevin demonstrating the kick flip. He tried it, his foot sliding across the board as he went off the ramp.

And the skateboard spun. A Human torpedo flew through the air, over the Goblins’ heads and their open mouths. Mrsha the Extremely Lame stared up at the coolest sight she had ever conceived of, mouth agape.

And Hedault’s feet came down and found the skateboard’s top. He looked down—and there was only grass. He’d cleared Ceria’s ice, and he landed on a hill covered with grass.

He should have wiped out and possibly fractured a foot, but a ring flashed, and he slowed a millisecond before impact. The metal skateboard hit the earth and buried itself a third into the dirt like a deadly missile. The [Enchanter] turned, glanced at his stunned audience—

And smiled.

 

——

 

The ice spread. By the time Lyonette poked her head out of the inn, she saw a foreign landscape, filled with ramps, half-pipes—and even an insane loop-de-loop that Ceria made just to see if anyone would try to do a complete rotation.

“…What?”

That was when Lyonette saw her first big attraction spontaneously generating itself. She saw skateboards, Goblins doing tricks, and an [Enchanter] flying through the sky with a screaming white Gnoll clinging to his back.

Lyonette shrieked—until she saw Hedault’s magic saving Mrsha and him from the crash. In fact—Kevin was as horrified as Lyonette, because the people of this world had a different attitude towards the threat to life and limb skateboarders faced.

They just ignored it. Hedault could ramp off a jump twelve feet high after shooting down a hill and land head-first, and his ring would just flip him right-side up and land him like a feather. And if you thought there wasn’t much of a market for his featherfall rings before?

Here was the thing about ice. It was cheap, easy to make if you had a Level 35 [Cryomancer] around, and it was cold. A few minutes running about on the ice and you were in the mood for something hot.

Skateboards? Skateboards had been around for a while, but as the Pallassians had noted—while it was hugely appealing, it was dangerous as all hell and a hazard to pedestrians in the City of Inventions. The ramps on the great walkways were, ironically, too steep for anyone to actually do more than risk breaking every bone in their bodies if they wiped out.

It was almost like you needed a separate…contained…moderately challenging…space for people who wanted to pursue something like this. Like a skatepark or ice rink.

Or both. Hedault had completely forgotten about his meeting with Kevin. So had Kevin—he was wheeling one of the new bikes over to the tallest hill and eying a ramp.

“He’s not going to—”

Kevin went down the ice, tried to do a bike jump, and wiped out. He was followed by fifteen of Poisonbite’s Goblins and Poisonbite herself, who tried to do a series of tricks on the boards. Half made it and then raced back to do it again.

“I think we’ve got some entertainment.”

Lyonette spoke, amused, and the [Innkeepers] peered outside. Some of them looked horrified by the dangerous sport. Others, like Ulia, were quite interested.

“Should we let it continue, Miss Lyonette?”

Ushar was glaring at Dalimont, who was allowing the Mrsha-endangerment, even if she had a ring. Lyonette tapped her finger on her lips.

Erin would. Erin would embrace this whole-heartedly. But Lyonette? She closed her eyes.

“…No. No, Ushar. Approach Ceria—no, she’ll agree. Find me [Woodworkers], [Carpenters], and ask Kevin how the skateboards are made. If they can be made easily, then requisition their services. Then we will organize a proper park…potentially not with such dangerous ice. Is there anywhere in Celum, Invrisil? Would wood work? Then we will have Kevin do tutorials and let people make these boards. And he can advertise Solar Cycles.”

Dame Ushar gave Lyonette a respectful nod as the [Princess] smiled.

“We also might need to make sure no one gets hurt, Your H—”

She glanced at the [Innkeepers].

“Miss Lyonette.”

The mother gave Ushar a happy smile.

“Of course! Which is why we’ll sell those helmets and pads Kevin wants to make with the bicycles. To parents. [Tailors] and [Armorers]. Oh, and find Drassi and tell her we have a story.”

“Are you sure she’ll find it newsworthy?”

Lyonette eyed Hedault, the famed [Enchanter] of Invrisil, doing a 360-degree spin through the air before landing and continuing his mad tricks.

“I’m sure she will. Now, back to business. [Innkeepers], please tell me how many guests your inns can handle and what kind of guests you can host. Please, don’t exaggerate. We will have lists and track how many guests we send where. And you, in turn, will kindly direct them to the following attractions…”

She turned to the [Innkeepers] briskly, and they were listening, and Lyonette was being fair. Even to Agnes. She had a grand celebration to run, and it had skateboarding, a bazaar—and it was starting to feel like an actual party.

 

——

 

The [Princess] had such grand dreams. And she might well do it all by herself. Wistram was setting up its Adventure Rooms for a huge opening, and she had so many people speaking to her, learning her name as someone who did these things.

All the while, the actual [Innkeeper] was almost forgotten. She was in a world of her own with Rags. She put one guest above thousands.

That was just her way. Erin Solstice and Rags stood in the [Garden of Sanctuary], brushing snow off their clothes. Erin was shivering despite having gone into her room for a coat. Rags was warm enough; they had just come back from the icy Dullahan’s fortress.

The Snow Golems had not troubled them. The survivors watched Erin, but the owner of the Key of Reprieve was not troubled. Nor was Rags, so long as she stayed close enough to Erin.

“So that’s what it looked like. How many are there?”

“Dozens. Um. Two dozen? I forget. Not as many as a hundred by far. Do you want to explore the others? I haven’t really, so far.”

Erin turned to Rags, and the shorter Goblin nodded, smiling with interest. The smile was mirrored on Erin’s expression. This felt like the old days.

Strangeness, something new and wondrous. And…talking. But talking while doing something else. So Erin took Rags by the hand, and the Goblin frowned at her.

“I’m not a child. Do you need to hold my hand?”

Erin went to ruffle her hair, and Rags poked her in the side. The [Innkeeper] protested, teasing the Goblin.

“Aw, come on. Your tribe isn’t watching. You can do mine too.”

The Goblin glanced up at Erin and finger-combed her spiky mane.

“Your hair isn’t that nice.”

“Wh—how dare you?”

Erin’s hands flew up to her own brown hair.

“I comb my hair every day!”

“Yeah. So do Carn Wolves. No style.”

“Are—are you and Gothica sharing notes? Stop bullying me about my fashion. Just because you wear color-coded armor and fur and—do you do anything with your hair?”

Rags snorted.

“Duh. Redfangs have great style. We have a [Stylish Cutmaster].”

A what? You’re making all this up. I won’t be bullied about my hair.”

“You don’t need to. Your hair bullies itself.”

Erin opened and closed her mouth. Of all the fights she didn’t want to pick, her style was not one she was comfortable with. Stupid [Goths] and [Chieftains] and people with their ‘aesthetics’. She didn’t let go of Rags’ hand, but pulled her on.

Rags huffed and rolled her eyes, but she let Erin drag her to another waiting door. They were, after all, alone. Completely alone.

A huge bee crawled over the front of the door, and Erin screamed.

Aah! Apista! I forgot you were here!”

The bee gave Erin a hurt look as she fanned her good wing.

You and everyone else! Who’s this? She eyed the Goblin, who’d put a hand on her sword. Erin guiltily reached out, and Apista crawled onto her hand.

“This is Apista, Rags. Oh my gosh, I forgot she was sleeping here! We left her when we went to Riverfarm. She doesn’t look hungry—”

“I’ve seen the bee. Want to take her with?”

The bee certainly seemed to be trying to cling to Erin’s hair. Like a second, insectile hat. Erin grimaced, but she didn’t have the heart to chase Apista away.

“Oh—fine. But it might be, uh, dangerous. Sanctuary only extends to this place. So—stay close to me, you two. It’s just what’s in the garden that might be dangerous, but there were huge Frost Golems.”

Rags checked her sword and shield and nodded. Apista jabbed her stinger into Erin’s hair.

I got you, kid. I’ve stabbed a legendary [Witch]’s eye out and a [Shaman]’s eyes. I’m the eye-stabber.

The door to the other gardens changed depending on what the garden had been. The camouflage stone door to the [General]’s frozen garden was a contrast to the rosewood door that led to the Drathian flower garden with the lacquered bridged and beautiful pond.

It took but moments for Erin and Rags to hurry out of the frozen, snowy keep, kicking snow off their boots, into the far warmer, pleasant red bridge over the water. Rags felt the air change in a moment and inhaled faint pollen and floral scents. She felt wood, not freezing stone underfoot, and turned as the other door swung shut.

From one garden to another. Door by door. Erin could walk through completely different worlds at will, and this one was the quiet, natural garden surrounded by the flowing stream that encircled a meditative garden filled with splashing, the gentle thock of a bamboo pole filling with water and striking a rock every few seconds, and the splash of fish.

A place to rest and be happy. Erin smiled as she stopped shivering and spread her arms wide to the Goblin, and even Rags laughed for a second in delight at the new garden.

Apista hated it. The koi fish were everywhere, splashing under the bridge, and she climbed all over Erin’s face, breaking the moment up.

They were certainly a bit too numerous to fit the garden; a thousand greedy mouths gaped up at Erin as the fish begged for food or just wondered what had disturbed their peaceful utopia again. Rags eyed them.

“Nice. Free food.”

“You think that, but they don’t taste that good. Plus, I feel bad about harvesting them. They are everywhere, though. I think they eat each other. Not everything here is…perfect. Especially after the owners die.”

“Sounds fitting. If the owners die, this is no longer a sanctuary. Anything special in here?”

“No…just some poetry in another language. Kevin thinks it might be Japanese, but what does he know? He was in here with his computer, trying to translate it before we left. Oh—that reminds me, you should see our computer and stuff!”

“Mm. He promised to show it to me too.”

Erin chuckled as Rags stopped to admire some of the trees, including the one shedding pale green petals.

“That Kevin. He gets around everywhere. He’s pretty good at that.”

“Not as good as you. But close.”

Erin didn’t know what to say to that. She let go of Rags’ hand so the Goblin could get on her hands and knees and peer at the flowers growing around here. Apista crawled down, and Erin held her out so she could suck up nectar.

“Sorry, Apista. We really haven’t been nice to you. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. And we’ll get you flying around, somehow. I swear.”

Erin had asked if the Antinium’s restorative gel would work on Apista, and Pawn had told her flat out that Apista was an insect. Antinium had developed their biology to the point where they could teach it to regenerate—the gel would be useless for Apista as well as anyone else.

Erin could have sworn the tiny bee gave her a salute with her antennae. Erin cuddled the bee gently. And to think she’d once been weirded out by Lyonette’s pet.

The restful garden was the favorite of the two doors that Erin had explored remotely thoroughly. Which wasn’t saying much. Rags glanced at Erin.

“This place is nice. Where next?”

“Oh—well, I haven’t checked out the other ones. Shall we try one more?”

Apista tensed a bit, but Rags just nodded.

“How? Do you know a good one?”

“Nah, nah. Watch this. There’s a trick to it. When I first discovered the garden—I asked this place for something exciting. Well…I can ask for a door.”

Erin closed her eyes and thought for a second. Then she cracked an eye open.

“…What should I ask for?”

Rags slapped her face. She thought and narrowed her eyes.

“How about—the most dangerous garden? So you can see which is bad.”

“Oh! Good idea! Er—can you hold Apista? Just in case. Give me the most dangerous garden! Stand back—I’m safe, you’re not.”

“As far as she knows.”

Rags warily put Apista on her shoulder as the bee nodded. She drew a sword and waited as Erin closed her eyes.

A door appeared in front of her, and Erin recognized it. She hesitated—but then she inspected the door. It was shaped oddly oval-like, a different style of architecture. The ‘knob’ was completely changed; it looked like a handle in the center that you pulled the door open with.

Strange. What species would use that? Erin had seen this door before, and she knew what lay inside. Warily, she eyed the writing on top of the door, which had a very jagged look.

“What species writes like this, Rags?”

The Goblin peered at the words and shrugged.

“Not Drake, Gnoll, or Human. Another species?”

“Hmm. Could be anyone. Okay—stand back. And, uh, maybe put that sword down.”

The Goblin frowned at Erin.

“Why?”

For answer—Erin swung the most ‘dangerous’ garden open. She wondered what the criteria was, but she had a feeling she knew at least one reason why this one might be, uh—deadly.

The first thing Rags saw, or rather, didn’t see, was the flash. Then a howl of rain that made Apista flinch. A bolt of lightning touched down mere feet from where Erin and Rags stood, and the garden with the hill covered in strange pieces of metal and lightning crashing down was in front of them. A vast tree was the only thing in the distance, aside from blowing rain, mud and water and the flashing lightning.

That was all Erin saw. Water spilled into the koi garden, a deluge. There must have been drainage because not everything was flooded—but even so, the storm was in full tempest.

Bolts of lightning kept falling. Not with the full force of a true storm in the skies, but still alarmingly loud and deadly. Apista took one look at the thunder and tried to crawl into Rags’ armor.

No thank you!

“Hold on! I’m going to try and turn the storm off!”

What?

Rags shouted back, but Erin was calling to the garden. To her amazement—the rain lessened. The skies stopped flashing, and soon it was barely dripping. Erin stared into the drenched garden, as amazed as Rags.

“Wow. I guess I do have authority over this place. Well—give me a second. I’m going to look around.”

“I’m coming.”

“But what if you get hurt? The key’s mine.”

“And I can’t follow you if the door closes. Come on.”

Rags stepped forwards boldly, and Erin hurried through ahead of the Goblin. They found themselves in the wettest, muddiest bog that Erin could have imagined.

But that was because of the endless rainstorm. Even with it gone, Erin smelled…the most muddy, destroyed ground ever.

She wondered how long it had rained. That the garden had kept any shape at all was probably because there was nowhere else for the rain to deposit the silt and dirt.

…But this was certainly not how the garden had looked. Erin stood on a relatively flat plain, mud sloshing around her shoes, with a single hill. Now she could see more than a foot in front of her, she realized the tree had more of those odd spikes of metal sticking out of the ground.

Lightning rods for the lightning—but the tree that should have been even more of a magnet, tall as it was, was no tree that Erin had ever seen before.

It was crystalline. In the shape of a tree, glowing with inner light. In fact—Erin realized that it was the catalyst for the storm. She grabbed Rags’ arm and pointed to the translucent interior.

“Look! It’s lightning inside the tree! It’s electric!”

“Magicore, maybe. That’s dangerous.”

Rags had stowed her sword, and she and Erin both felt the charge in the air. Erin’s own [Dangersense] tingled as she looked at the tree.

“Best guess is that the tree’s charged like a power outlet. One touch and you could go boom. Uh—I can see why this is the most dangerous garden.”

Rags nodded. But she almost looked disappointed as she stared around the rest of the garden. They were all huge, but this one was just a flat plain. Mud had indeed destroyed all gradients aside from the hill, and Erin realized that the hill had only survived because the ‘tree’ had crystal roots that held up the hill. Some were exposed by the deluge.

“Darn. I guess some gardens really get ruined if you leave the weather on. Which I did not know I could do, by the by. I’ve got this really cool light trick I can do in my garden. Um…ew. It’s so muddy.”

Erin sloshed a few steps around as Rags peered forwards.

It seemed like there was a path of those rusted pieces of metal leading up to the hill. They weren’t everywhere, and if you marked the pieces of metal, only a few feet high in places, others taller than she was—

They would have formed a semi-circular base around the tree and the hill. Rags could imagine, perhaps, a kind of ramp. Which meant this room was one where you approached through this door.

Erin was walking left, around another edge of the domed room. There were no vines here; the endless water had drowned all but a layer of moss and slime on the wooden walls. She was peering at the flat mud as her [Dangersense] twinged. Rags called out.

“Erin, wait.”

“Huh? Why?”

“The mud is everywhere. It might not be ground everywhere.”

Rags had begun to wonder what the garden was supposed to look like. She turned to ask if Erin could tell—and saw Erin take a step and plunge into the mud.

She sank so fast that she was up to her neck before Rags charged into the mud. The Goblin had to try and haul Erin out, and a frantic Apista was buzzing on Erin’s face as the [Innkeeper] shouted.

Pull me up! Pull me up! It’s deep!

Her feet weren’t even touching the bottom. Rags heaved, and Erin pulled frantically at the muddy embankment. She hauled herself up. Then she crawled onto the ground, up to her wrists in mud, and panted.

Rags stared at the hidden drop next to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] felt Apista fanning her wing desperately on her hair.

“Oh man. Oh man—that was scary. Idiot!”

She meant herself. No wonder this was dangerous! Rags nodded. She pulled Erin up, and they staggered back to the door leading out of here.

“Let’s go, Rags. I’m not coming back, and this is off-limits for Mrsha and anyone else until I find a snorkel. No—a breathing tank. How will I even find what’s here?”

“Turning off the water helps. Maybe you have to dredge it? Put all the stuff inside somewhere else?”

That would be a terrible task. Erin was almost out when Rags stopped her.

“Wait. I think…I want to check something else.”

“What? The tree’s made of electricity, and there’s sinkholes everywhere! What else do you want to see? Whether or not there are evil mud-fish-monsters in the deep?”

Rags’ head rose warily.

Are there?”

Erin had to think. She concentrated. She could sense what was in the gardens, vaguely. She closed her eyes and felt out.

“…No. But there’s a huge underground space. We’re on a kind of—raised area, around the hill with the tree. Don’t go left or right. The bridge is narrow, and you can fall!”

“I know. I can see.”

The Goblin was wading through the mud to the nearest bit of metal. Erin raised a hand.

“Rags! I don’t know what that is!”

“I think I do. What was this place supposed to be? A [Garden of Sanctuary]. So maybe this was all grass. Or dirt.”

Rags was bending down, scraping at a visible piece of thin metal sticking out of the mud four feet high. Erin slowly walked over, cautiously making sure she had footholds. But Rags seemed to have a better idea of this place than even Erin.

Apista, for her part, was freaking out. She hated water, she hated mud, and she hated snow. Erin was 1 for 3 on her gardens that Apista had seen. No, 0 for 3—the koi fish in the ‘relaxing’ garden were monsters.

Yet—this was like playing detective. Or trying to see the intentions of each owner of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. In this case, all the clues were mostly obfuscated by time and the unfortunate rainstorm.

But think of what this might have been. Rags imagined a walkway leading up to that hill. And planted in the walkway, with rain falling and lightning—were these thin pieces of metal.

Very thin, and mostly, very rusted. This piece flaked apart at a touch from her gloved hands. Rags eyed the metal and had no doubt the rain had done this. Yet…she gazed around, eyes narrowing.

“What do you think these are? I think I know.”

Erin peered at the upright pieces of metal. Now the rain was gone, she saw not all were completely corroded. She saw a flash of bright steel as Rags waded over to another. Then Erin’s eyes widened. She remembered seeing a bolt of yellow lightning striking the object that she’d seen before. It would have electrocuted both Human and Goblin in the water, another reason why this was the most dangerous garden.

…Because all of the objects planted here were metal. And Erin realized they weren’t just metal. Rags reached down and slowly pulled out something that neither rain nor time had broken. Nor even the falling lightning.

She lifted a sword out of the muck. It was old, so old that Erin recognized the mithril blade in an instant. But the handle was strange—it had a long guard across the handle, but the handle was curved and contoured in a way Erin had never seen.

It had not been meant for Human hands, but some other grip. Erin’s eyes went wide. She looked around, and then she saw it.

Swords?

Then she made sense of the huge, thin pillar of metal in the distance. The way they all stood mostly upright. Swords! Rags looked around, and Erin caught a flash of what this garden must have been.

A grave of swords. Monuments to warriors, perhaps, or had the owner been a [Smith]? They had been planted in the rain as lightning struck down. Like some kind of terrible art piece.

Rags felt at the blade and jumped. Erin actually felt a tingle in the water as the Goblin cursed and yanked her armored hand away from the blade.

“Rags?”

“Shocking. It’s still charged.”

Or rather—it was charged by the falling lightning. Erin didn’t see any visible crackle running down the blade, but then Rags slashed the water.

Yeowch!

The electricity electrocuted Rags, Erin, and Apista, and all three practically leapt out of the water as Rags held the sword upright. The bee angrily jabbed her stinger in Rags’ direction as the Goblin apologized.

“Sorry. It must be active when I hold it.”

She eyed the blade, and Erin, wincing, gazed into the garden. Now she knew what they were, she saw most of the enchanted blades had probably succumbed to the battering long ago. Only the most powerful or durable ones were still untouched.

“Electric swords. Who made electric swords? Are they all powered by lightning? And it’s expensive, too! Look at that handle, Rags. Whomever had it had…claws.”

That was the only thing she could think of. The sword had deeper divots in the grip than any Human would want, but it fit a Drake or other clawed grip better. Rags nodded; her hands fit a bit better than Erin’s did.

“Insignia’s worn off. Nice sword, though. Balanced.”

It was a shortsword, and it had a curiously slanted diagonal edge along a flat, wide blade. Rags could actually balance it, and she seemed so engrossed Erin pointed at it.

“Why don’t you take it with you?”

Rags blinked.

“Me? Doesn’t it belong there?”

Erin gazed into the muddy pit and shook her head.

“Whatever this garden was—I’d rather take the swords out than risk electrocuting myself. And frankly, whoever owned the garden doesn’t deserve how it looks. Do you need a sword?”

Rags eyed her plain sword enchanted with a bit of sharpness and durability. Then at the mithril blade from a bygone era. She raised her brows.

“I will take it. If you want?”

The [Innkeeper] smiled down at Rags.

“I don’t wanna give anything in the gardens to just anyone. Like that Dullahan [General]’s stuff. So keep this private. But if it’s you, Rags—yeah.”

“Thank you.”

The [Chieftain] looked up, and Erin waved a hand awkwardly. She reached down and grabbed Rags’ muddy glove. This time, the Chieftain let her do it.

“Come on, we’ve got baths—but I wonder. Hey, is there a garden where we can clean up? And don’t do the snowy one. I’m already cold.”

She trudged over to another door as it appeared and then reached out. Erin eyed the strangest door yet that looked like a square…hatch? She reached out, nudged the handle—and the door fell over.

Whumph. Erin jumped, and she and Rags stared as her door fell flat. Erin’s mouth worked.

“What the—”

“Are they supposed to do that?”

“No! Did I break it?

Anxiously, Erin bent over the door and pulled. Her face turned red, and she tried to use both hands. Rags bent down and heaved—and the heavy hatch came up. Erin and Rags looked down, and Apista began lightly smacking Erin with her good legs.

You. Have. Terrible. Gardens.

She backed up and began crawling for safety. After all—Erin and Rags were staring down, down through the wood of an ancient ship’s hold—

Straight into a garden flooded by water. Erin gazed down at the surprisingly bright depths and saw a sandbar just below her and, further down, illuminated by bright coral and even lights, a home untouched by more than the fish swimming around—

“Oh wow. A Drowned Folk garden!”

Rags whistled. Now she understood why the hatch looked like that. What if this had been in a ship? You’d open it and leap into the depths. The water was so close to the hatch that Erin could actually reach down and splash some on her muddy clothing. She splashed some in her mouth as she washed her head and instantly spat it out.

“Peh! Peh! Aw man. It’s saltwater.

“Mhm. Plus lots of fish. Probably been pooing and dying in there for hundreds of years.”

Erin gagged. She ran back to her first garden and splashed around in the pond as Rags backed away.

Yet another garden that was, for now, unexplorable. Rags took off her armor so she could let it dry, and Erin saw she was dressed in a casual set of clothing underneath. She splashed at Rags.

“Hey! Look who’s lightening up! After this, let me give you some cake and ice cream, huh? And that spaghetti and blue fruit juice!”

Rags thought about it and shrugged. She frowned at Erin, then scowled. Something was again off about the way Erin was talking now.

“Cake and ice cream? I’m not a child. Or Ulvama.”

She had seen how Mrsha was treated, and she had a feeling Erin’s hand-holding was more than trying to keep her safe. Erin ducked her head.

“No, I know that. But you’re young!”

Rags folded her arms. She eyed Erin—then kicked a huge splash of water all over the [Innkeeper].

Rags! How dare you! I’ll—”

“Do what? I’m a child. Right? Don’t treat me like one. Garen did. So did Tremborag. I’m tired of it. I am a [Great Chieftain], Erin. Even if we’re friends, I don’t like it.”

She looked Erin in the eyes, and the [Innkeeper]’s face fell.

“Oh. Okay. I got it. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Rags sighed. There was something strange about Erin. She treated Antinium like people. She had treated her skeleton like a lamp. And Rags?

Erin glanced sideways at the Goblin, and Rags saw her bite her lip. The Goblin pretended not to notice. She let Apista crawl over onto her shoulder and stood.

“Do you want to keep exploring or not?”

She thought she had ruined the mood, but Erin shook her head after glancing at the far wall.

“No. No—I want to keep doing this together. So long as you do.”

She looked so earnest that Rags said nothing more, and slowly, the two formed up. Erin was wet and shivering a bit, so Rags suggested she get more clothes.

“Don’t look, okay? I’m just gonna change—”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Rags waited as Erin shuffled into new clothes. Apista was buzzing on Rags’ shoulder as the Goblin patted her head.

One more garden, one more bad one and I swear, I’m stinging both of yous.

When Erin came back into the garden, Rags glanced at her black pants and mismatched, yellow shirt. Apista gave Erin an approving look, but the [Innkeeper] defended herself.

“I was in a rush! Selys bought me all kinds of weird stuff. What’s our garden? Let’s do one more, at least.”

“Your bee is going to sting us if we take her anywhere wet.”

Rags pointed to the fuming Apista, and the bee nodded. Even Erin and Rags could tell how ticked off she was, so Erin clapped her hands.

“What about this, then? Garden! Take us to the place Apista will like most!

The final door was made of glass and as clear as the blue skies. Erin peered at it as Rags felt at the nigh-invisible handle. Apista fanned her wings longingly, and Erin stared into the last garden.

“Oh. Wow. This one was a Garuda’s, right?”

She opened the door, and the wind blew, and Erin inhaled a smell like spring and sky. She knew she had to show this to Ryoka, because this garden?

This one had belonged to someone who could fly.

 

——

 

The ground was not, actually, flowers and grass like Erin would have pictured. Some of it was hard-packed earth, dry because the sun had shone down on this place for such a long time. There were tough plants growing around, including what Erin thought was a bush—until she realized that all the leaves were, in fact, hiding little cotton balls!

The instant the wind blew, a dozen scattered into the air, and Erin looked up and saw the largest garden yet.

It was so tall, vertically, that Erin and Rags stared up and up and finally saw the dome concealed amongst a backdrop that seemed like a world of clouds and blue sky. Until you realized that was an illusion projected across the backdrop of the dome.

Apista was fanning her good wing as the wind blew, almost picking her up, and Erin spread her arms and ran, laughing, across the ground.

Wow! This is a great garden! Look, Rags! Are those floating structures?”

She pointed up, and Rags shielded her gaze against the sunlight.

“Nope. Just wood.”

But they were concealed along the edges of the dome such that it did look like rooms and places were hiding high up there. Erin stomped a foot.

“Yet another secret area out of reach! Just you wait until my friend gets here! She can fly!”

Then she looked down at Apista guiltily, because the bee was staring up longingly into this place where she could fly free. Erin hugged the bee until Apista crawled out and began to hobble across the ground.

Then Erin looked so despondent that Rags had to say something.

“Maybe you can heal her?”

“If we had a drop of Potion of Regeneration—we could. But we don’t have any right now. Ilvriss took his bottle back.”

Erin bent down as Apista crawled along. She looked up at Rags, and her glee was gone.

“I’m sorry, Rags.”

“What about?”

Erin shook her head.

“Remember when Relc hated you? I kicked you out of the inn right after the Goblin attacks or…or something, remember? You had that big Goblin with you, Garen? And I asked you to go? That was the last time I saw you until the siege at Liscor.”

“I remember. It’s fine. You did what you thought you needed to. Goblins did attack and kill people. Garen killed his team. Even Goblins didn’t forgive him. Even his tribe.”

Rags squatted there, and she saw Erin shake her head guiltily.

“Thanks for saying that. It’s just—I haven’t done enough for Goblins. I even got a Skill. [Natural Allies]. But—I don’t feel like a friend to Goblins. Not all the time.”

Rags gave Erin the blankest look in creation. If she didn’t feel like a Goblinfriend, who did?

She spoke after a second.

“Do you know Gna?”

“Who? Oh—the [Sergeant] who came with Numbtongue and the others, right? She’s with the army now. She helped. What about her?”

“Hmm. Badarrow told me about her. Do you know her class?”

Erin hadn’t met Gna personally, but her class was unforgettable. She grinned.

“[Bug Captain Goblinfriend] or something like that?”

Rags grinned.

“Yep. She got that class, and I think it’s funny. But she got that class, and Badarrow told me she didn’t like Goblins that much. Even at the end, she was wary. But she got that class because even marching with Goblins was enough to be a friend. You? You’re the only ally Goblins have.”

The praise might have fallen upon deaf ears. Erin just shook her head.

“But here I am, treating you like a kid. Sorry.”

“It’s not a problem.”

Now Rags felt annoyed that Erin was taking it so personally, and she glanced at Erin.

“I know I’m small. I know I’m young. I shouldn’t snap at you. You have kids like Mrsha. Who is a child. A spoiled one.”

Erin snorted and hoped Rags wouldn’t say that to Mrsha or Lyonette’s faces. She was sort of…a savage, verbally! Not in any other way. But she shook her head.

“No, I know you’re not a child like that, Rags. I know you’re a [Great Chieftain]—Badarrow told me of everything you’ve done and what you mean to the tribe. It’s just…”

She looked wistfully upwards as Apista began to smoke. Rags and Erin glanced at her in alarm, but the bee just ignited and then turned off the flames. She must have been pleased—she was staring around the windy garden, and Erin’s heart went out to her.

Like Rags, actually. The Goblin glanced at Erin.

“Say it.”

“You’re gonna be mad.”

“I’m not. Say it.”

“Promise you won’t get mad? It’s just—I had a dream, too, about you. But it’s sillier than you wanting to thank me. Promise?”

Rags just raised her brows, turning to face Erin. The [Innkeeper] ducked her head. She eyed Rags and then confessed.

“I…I had this idea, Rags. Whenever you came back. Whenever I got my inn in order. You’d be grumpy, and I’d cheer you up. And then I’d feed you, and, um…giveyouapiggybackride.

“What was that last part?”

“Give you a ride. On my back.”

Rags gave Erin a blank look. It grew blanker as Erin explained. Rags had seen little Goblins riding on older Goblins’ backs, but seldom for fun.

“You wanted to give me a ride?”

“Horseback ride. That’s where you’re super high up. Legs around my shoulders. I thought you’d laugh and—and you can stop looking at me like that!”

Erin defended herself, blushing. It didn’t work anymore, not with the Goblin giving her the long look.

Rags could have snapped at Erin, but she knew the [Innkeeper] felt guilty. If anything? She was curious.

“Why? In what scenario of knowing me did you think I’d enjoy that? Pebblesnatch would have enjoyed that.”

Not her. But Erin looked so wistful that any wrath that Rags might have felt was already gone.

“I know. I know, Rags. But in my head…you were the same Goblin I first met. Terrible things happened to you. I just—I wish I could have gone back and my inn of now, this garden, could be back then. Because then I would have been able to properly protect you, give you a room, not just food whenever you came in. I should have.”

“We were dangerous back then. Some of the Goblins would have slit your throat.”

“I know. But I wish…I wish you weren’t so old, Rags.”

The [Innkeeper] cried out. She looked at Rags sadly.

“You’re young! You are small, and I wanted you to be a kid. Properly. I know you’re a [Great Chieftain] and you’ve done so much, but you shouldn’t have been. You should have been like Mrsha, even she’s gone through too much.”

Ah. Now Rags saw why Erin was so upset. The Goblin leaned back and stared at the sky as Apista ignited again, this time testing something out. She stared up.

“To live, I had to be a [Chieftain]. I could have been young. I could have refused to become a [Great Chieftain]. I am no Goblin Lord, Erin. I fear being one. But I want to know why Goblin Kings kill. I want to stop it.”

Erin looked at Rags. Her hands clenched in the dirt, and she exhaled. Then it seemed like she let go of something. She brushed at her face.

“Ow. Dirt in my eyes. I know that’s what you want to do, Rags. I think it’s so brave. And I promise—whatever you need, if you’re ever in trouble, my inn will always be open. I’ve said that to so many people. No Gnoll will ever leave hungry. Well—no Goblin will die within my walls. Not if I can help it. Whatever happens, no matter what trouble your tribe runs into—you can come here.”

She meant it. Every word. Yet Erin’s smile wasn’t reflected in Rags’ troubled expression.

“Don’t say that. Don’t promise that.”

“Why not?”

Rags had not told Erin about how she had burned across Riverfarm’s lands. She wondered if Erin knew. Now, she told Erin.

“I am not a good…person. Don’t promise to always protect me without knowing what will happen. I kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault. To do that, I killed people. And I would do it again. If they came after my tribe—and they will—I will kill Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. I am afraid of becoming Reiss.”

She looked up. Or Tremborag. She didn’t know how, but this long road was one they had all walked before. The [Innkeeper] was silent for a long while. Then she exhaled.

“…I’m not a good person either, Rags. No one is.”

“You’re better than most.”

Erin turned her head, and she gave Rags much the same look that Rags had given Erin when she realized she was being treated like a child.

“No, Rags. There’s a part of me that knows exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like fire. Maviola El taught me to see part of myself, and I’ve felt it more than once. You’re not good? I killed the Raskghar when they kidnapped Mrsha. I would have wiped them out if I had to. If she was dead…there are things I’ve thought about doing. Some things I might do, against my enemies. No matter what, I will kill them, and if it is as painfully as I can imagine—I won’t hesitate.”

The Goblin looked at the [Innkeeper]’s serious face. Then she stood up lightly. The wind ran through her hair and blew at her clothing, and she felt unguarded without her armor. She had been speaking to the one person she wanted to talk to for a long time. And it had not been what she expected, but it had not been horrible. So—Rags hesitated and looked around this wide plain stretching upwards.

“Alright. Just one time.”

“One what?”

The Goblin glanced at Erin, and she looked completely amused. She gave Erin a real grin.

“You can carry me on your shoulders. I sort of want to see what happens. Unless you’re too tired.”

The [Innkeeper] gave Rags a wide-eyed stare, and then she scrambled to her feet.

“I can do it! Hop on! It’ll be the ride of your life!”

Rags climbed onto Erin’s shoulders and felt the most childish she had felt all year. Erin hoisted her up with a grunt, and Rags was displeased that even the weakened young woman could do it. Then Erin began jogging across the ground.

“Alright. Let me just build up some speed—how am I doing, Rags? How does it feel? Do you feel like a child?”

“It’s bumpy. Go faster.”

Erin laughed and panted, and she actually sped up. Rags was tense, expecting Erin to wipe out at any second, but she realized that she was fairly stable. And if she fell? The Goblin leaned back and saw the sky moving slowly overhead.

The warm air whipped around them as Erin ran, and Rags realized she was laughing with the sheer stupidity of the moment. The innocent laughter filled the air. Rags looked up, and then she wondered if this were how it might have been.

Like Mrsha and Lyonette, a little Goblin riding on an [Innkeeper]’s shoulders. Rags’ eyes stung. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Then she opened them and smiled.

Just smiled as she rode on Erin’s shoulders like the child she’d never been and never known she wanted to be until this moment. An adult capturing something she’d missed.

“Wheeeeeee.”

 

——

 

Erin ran until she wiped out. She stumbled, Rags leapt off her shoulders, and Erin flopped on her back, wheezing for air. Yet they were smiling.

The little bee, flapping her one wing in the quiet garden, watched as Erin and Rags sat up. Then Erin hugged Rags tightly, and the [Chieftain] hugged her back.

Apista thought they might be friends after all. What did the bee see? She was the only observer, besides the empty garden itself, besides the will of classes and levels.

She saw something different, in her bee-like way, as the two spoke. Erin was ablaze with joy. It radiated out from her as she looked at Rags.

A hat full of flame. Yet she was that fire to Apista. A burning hill of fire, like Inkar saw. She was the inn and garden, inheritor of this sanctuary and the will of flames. She was glorious and grand when she was filled with life.

And Rags? Apista saw a little Goblin standing there. As she had stood before Tremborag and the last Dragonlord of Flame. The [Innkeeper], all her foes—Rags’ image of herself was different.

For there stood just a Goblin. But even shorter than Rags was in reality, in Apista’s insight into the two. Just a tiny Goblin, barefoot, wearing nothing but tattered clothing, staring at flame and fire and giants.

Facing them all down. Then the flaming giant wavered, and she took Rags’ hands.

“I wanted you to be young, Rags! I wanted you to be young and grow up slowly. I’m sorry. I didn’t do enough. Anyone else can say I did, even you. But I never did enough for the friends I met. And no one is a Goblin’s friend, so I should have been a better one.”

She was suddenly uncertain. A wavering spark of light buffeted by her own fears and trials and weaknesses, and they loomed large. She kept reaching out, for people. For love. And she was unable to grasp it. She chased a spark she herself couldn’t feel. Not yet.

The Goblin, though, just took Erin’s hands, and she was proud. She stood, leader of a tribe, buoyed up and sheltering, responsible for tens of thousands of lives. They were all close to her, all connected.

—Yet she was proudly alone. She neither wanted nor needed what part of Erin would cry out for. And gently, she squeezed Erin’s hands.

“I was old before I met you, Erin. Goblins. Humans. I will pull us forwards one step, our species, if I can manage it. Half a step, if that is all. Until we can be children together. But I can’t do it alone. You gave a hungry Goblin food. If I’m ever hungry and lost later—can I come here?”

“Always.”

The [Magical Innkeeper]’s eyes shone, and she grabbed Rags’ hands with all the strength in her body. The [Great Chieftain] bared her teeth in a true smile, and Erin’s aura grew larger.

Fire. Those flames that Apista saw around her sometimes—and the Ashfire Bee knew fire—so wondrous and powerful.

It filled the inn and grew from the garden. Such that even the [Princess], the other [Innkeepers], and the guests felt it. They looked up and smiled and suddenly laughed.

From the witch who raised her head and beamed at the ceiling to the nervous Goblins who slowly relaxed and knew their Chieftain would be back shortly. To the giggling, snorting Gnoll girl and the adventurers who nudged each other.

A warm feeling, as if it was inviting them in. The [Princess] threw up her hands, mildly exasperated—

Because she couldn’t top that.

 

——

 

Slowly, a [Baker] glanced up from the table where he had been complaining about everyone and everything and this faulty party. He glanced up and looked around.

Ah. Now this feels more like it.”

 

——

 

Flame. Rags’ own aura flickered around her, that lonely [Aura of Command]. But—she looked in Erin’s eyes and felt like she was lacking.

She was more than the Goblin who wanted to be a leader. A leader? She gazed around, and it was this inn, if not this exact garden and place, she had always been coming back to.

She took in Erin, and the Goblin reached out, across species and time, and took the [Innkeeper]’s hand.

Goblin and Human, not shaking hands, but holding each other’s hand as if supporting one another. Smiling as flames flickered around them.

—The inn was shaking. Apista felt the tremor under her feelers and wondered just how it felt in the actual inn. But she waited as some of that glorious flame licked off Erin, pure aura and will. Almost, almost…

Then the little bee fanned her wings and ignited her own flames. Like one of Octavia’s pieces of fire flaring off a match head, she caught fire. The flames jetted from little vents in her carapace—but Apista was focusing. Some winked off on one side as her good wing beat frantically.

Focus. Focus. Can we do it? Here we go. Herewego.

The bee had little to do while she was resting and while Lyonette was gone. All she could do was watch the scrying orb. For instance—the Archmage of Izril’s famous lifting of Fissival.

To the little bee, she’d seen something really interesting when Valeterisa did that. And if it worked for a city—

A jet of green-red flame shot out, startling Erin and Rags. They looked over, and Erin’s jaw dropped. Rags took one look over and closed her eyes.

“No. Fightipilota was right?

A flame was burning upwards, and a tiny little thing, a bee, was corkscrewing madly through the air. She was flying! Apista was internally screaming for joy and sheer panic because she was not in control.

But the first jet-powered bee was using her wing and the flames burning out of her body to propel herself through the air. She buzzed past Erin as the [Innkeeper] gaped up at her.

“Hey. That’s my fire. That’s my fire!

Apista saluted them with one antennae. Then Erin was laughing and running after her, and Rags’ aura was changing. The Goblin looked up and sighed.

Later, she would hear the voice telling her what she already knew. But that new aura flickered around her. Changed by her meeting with the [Innkeeper].

Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

One last thing happened to the inn as a tremor ran through it, disturbing dishes, startling guests, and heralding the beginning of strange, fantastic days.

The Goblins, Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls all didn’t see it at first. But then Numbtongue nearly ran smack-bang into it when he and Octavia were running out to see what Erin had made explode. He stopped, and his eyes went round.

“Is that—from the garden? It has to be. Numbtongue!”

Other guests hadn’t even realized what had happened. They turned—and exclaimed. Some leapt out of their seats in shock. Relc? His eyes bugged out.

“That’s not supposed to happen. You—that’s from the garden. Erin! Is she alright? Is she—”

He leapt to his feet in a panic, but Numbtongue didn’t think Erin was hurt. Or perhaps…he stared at what was standing in the common room of The Wandering Inn.

It had appeared in the center of the room on a little pedestal. Just grey stone. A function—one of the oldest functions of the [Garden of Sanctuary].

Yet the two statues who stood there shouldn’t have been present. Not…not yet. Erin and Rags stood there. Clasping hands and smiling at one another.

How? Numbtongue didn’t think they were dead. Yet—he looked at the door to the garden, where a laughing [Innkeeper] and the [Chieftain] were coming from, following an out-of-control bee.

She had died. That was her garden, and so Erin’s statue belonged there. As for Rags? It might not be time for her. But the garden surely knew who would one day stand on that hill.

Perhaps that was why. Numbtongue’s claws trembled as he looked at the first statue to fill The Wandering Inn for all to see. It was a [Message] louder than even the Goblins’ presence as helpers.

For you could call them [Mercenaries] or servants or even justify their existence as some did without calling them people.

But if you did, then that statue made no sense. For they were not shaking hands to seal any deal. There was no partnership nor give or take on the gently smiling Goblin’s face or the [Innkeeper]’s beaming smile.

Just friends. They clasped hands as, once again, The Wandering Inn saw its [Innkeeper] walk out of the garden’s doors to cheers. Erin looked around and blinked out a window.

“Is that a skating rink? What have you guys been up to? Let’s do this party!”

She laughed, and Rags smiled. Then the two of them walked out, properly. Not to thank each other anymore, but as friends.

 

[Great Chieftain Level 35!]

[Skill Change – Aura of Command → Aura of the Emissary obtained!]

[Spell: Apista’s Jetflame created.]

[Skill – The Innkeeper’s Daily Bounty (The Wandering Inn) obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I edited 1.02 R along with doing this 30k chapter. In three days. And it was good, substantive edits.

I uh…I’m working hard. I may need to take a day off just to do edits or screw around with fun side-writings. If so, I will let you know, but I think that my rewrite speed on Volume 1 is too slow. Taking an entire update off would be a lot, but I am pushing harder than usual, I think.

Mind you, editing on the third day does sometimes really increase quality so I may change my writing schedule in general, but I am burning hot. And the candle. From both ends. Not with a flamethrower yet; that was the end of Volume 8. But I’m just trying to manage projects and I have more than I thought.

Well, the story does come out fast, and I try to keep quality as high as you can ask for. But wow, having a year to write a book would be so nice. Imagine months of not having to do much…this is more efficient. Just letting you know I might need to borrow some time, but I hope you enjoy and that the waits are worth it.

Also, I would love a garden of my own. Mine would probably be different from the ones I write, though. But we’ll see more. Thanks for reading!

 

Knight Norman by decarbry, commissioned by True Godking Roguish! (Wait, we have another one to kill…?)

 

Fire Hat by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

[Like Fire, Memory] by u/BeforeDreams, commissioned by dado! (They’ve commissioned a lot!)

 


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40 thoughts on “9.19

  1. Leave a typo if you want a garden! Or if you’re in a garden. Or just because you found a typo. I don’t have to make this hard, but I do.

    (Garden readers: Quynin, Gorexn, MrWiggles, Litwickee, ChronoMager, Robb, mrshadawizard)

    • “The electricity electrocuted Rags, Erin, and Apista,”

      Language evolves, yada yada, but formally electrocute implies it was fatal.

    • I would love to see Erin’s input for the party be something like a craft fair/ job fair where TWI’s various regulars, adventurer teams and crafters could share their skills in a “how to” day where people could get a sense of what it’s like to be a swordfighter, wizard, animal trainer, blacksmith, etc. It would be great for Pisces to be able to show off his talents in necromancy and fencing, for Relc and Klblch to have a chance to show their fellow Liscorians a little spear training, and sword fighting. Pelt and Maugham could show off various smithing skills. Pawn could preach about heaven, Ksmvr and Fierre could teach tumbling skills, Shriekblade and Sebourne could showcase rogue skills, Moore, Palt and Ceria could show off their spell casting, etc. The silver and gold rank teams could have mock duels (one on one as well as team to team). Octavia and Saliss could show how they started out in Alchemy. Bird could teach archery, Numbtongue could teach guitar. Calescent, Garry and Imani could teach cooking skills. Rags could organize Carn wolf riding and Wyvern riding (where brave volunteers would have to hold on to the various animal’s goblin handler while the animals charge, dive, roll, etc.). Wouldn’t it be a perfect Erin moment to pull this out of her proverbial hat (plus Lyonette would have to bow to the master of creative, seat-of-the-pants planning). As the various peoples come together, Erin would be doing what she does best: breaking down the walls between individual species as well as the walls between various cities.
      As always, thanks for the wonderful world you’ve created. This work of art brings a smile to my face every week.

  2. Now I know why pirateaba has pirate in their name… because they like to sink ships.

    Is it Erin who gets the Daily Bounty skill?

      • Nah, the Apista one wouldn’t be Rag’s, it looks like it goes from Rags, to Apista, to Erin.

        No reason an Apista skill would be learned by Rags

        • I believe all 3 are Rags. She didn’t believe that jet propulsion would work, then saw it would (fightipilot was right?).

          She also always had a place at the inn, both as signified by her and Erin’s conversation and by the resulting statue, so each day she’s getting something from the inn in remembrance of that.

        • I’m pretty sure that’s all Rag’s info. I think it’s going to be a tribal spell used to make wyvern fighter pilots. She’s a mage that uses fire spells that witnessed how a bee utilized heat to propel herself. And she’s smUrt. So project goblin fighter pilot chieftain is a go. I repeat, project innkeeper scares the crap out of local military leaders by teaching goblins terrifying new skills is a go. XD

          • >be pallasian general
            >steal goblin treasure because it might stop them from making a new goblin king
            >two days later, in a meeting with all the pallasian generals
            >intern slams the door open, “THE GOBLINS ARE HERE”
            >creepy-glass-eye-guy stands up “activate the force field”
            >”THEY HAVE EMOTION-PROPELLED WYVERNS”
            >oh shit it’s the fucking innkeeper again innit

    • It’s deliberately ambiguous — the text identifies only Rag’s level-up while two of the three status updates relate to Erin — but it seems somewhat more likely that both Erin and Rags leveled and the Author is being coy. It makes almost no sense for Rags to create a spell focused on Apista that explicitly uses Erin’s flame. Similarly, it would be illogical for Rags to acquire an Innkeeper skill that references TWI in the title. Hence, it seems a bit more probable, if still hugely speculative, that both Rags and Erin went up, resulting in the transformation of Rags’s aura and the acquisition by Erin of the Daily Bounty. The statue could be a physical testament of either the Emissary aura or the Daily Bounty, or both frankly. The Jetflame spell (an original creation given the color) likely belongs either to Erin or to Apista (manifesting her own magical powers or piggybacking on Erin).

      As a side-point: the timing of level-ups and status updates is far more varied and unpredictable in V9 as compared to prior volumes. It’s unclear if this is a substantive change to “the system” or simply a modification to the Author’s writing style.

      • It’s Rags that got the skills and levelup. She mentions fightipilota and so now that she saw Apista, she gets how to make it, and she gets a skill that helps her even more.

        It’s also Rags that gets the daily quest skill. Erin promised she’d give one, and the system just facilitated that and put it down in stone/skills

        • I don’t believe it’s a daily quest, I think it’s more that it’ll create and give Rags a % of the inn’s income or food production for the day. She said she’d give Rags a quest (or quests) for her people and their interests, even if she had to do anonymous quests for them to get it done.

      • It’s deliberately ambiguous — No it’s not.
        Imagine writing a long essay because of your own miscomprehension in reading further filled with your own delusional analysis.

        All of it is Rag’s skill. Rag created that skill by witnessing the example of how the spell is made. There is no point in whoever flame that made Apista fly.

        it would be illogical for Rags to acquire an Innkeeper skill –except, It’s not an Innkeeper skill. The Bounty name indicates itself. It is something that is given to Rag from Wandering Inn on daily basis.

        Pirate never combine someone level up with other people, they have their own paragraph. If Erin didn’t get her own leveling paragraph then she is not leveling, all of it belongs to Rag. Pirate never change the leveling format.

      • He definitely has a skill to be multiple places at once, right? Some sort of [Quantum Maitre D], everytime you look away he can port to where he needs to be.

        • at this point Ishkr probably has a [perfect] class and he’s completely surpassed all other characters in skill and levels. he can fight god and win, but he knows if he does he will get pulled into the erin-chaos, so instead he just bides his time, waiting until he gets that [chaos immunity] or [no-nonsense aura] before he asks erin for a pay raise

    • I think Erin recognizes that the elven statue is too dangerous. If Rags goes insane then every goblin in the inn will run the risk of rampaging too, even if just to stand with their chieftain. It just has the potential of being a disaster.
      Honestly, my bet is that Rabbiteater will become goblin king. Greydath has certainly taken an interest in him and he is ACTIVELY searching for worthy goblin king candidates.

    • It’s not the right time, it’s party time. Maybe after the three days party is over and they are hungover or tired.

  3. Aba, if you need to take time off or do fewer updates for a bit, I think we’d all understand. I know I would. You give us so much. Do what you gotta do, [Beloved Author].

  4. I’m not normally one for that, but this chapter made me ship Erin and Rags. It just works as a nice little ace relationship, with the added benefit of Apista now being an ace pilot.

    • Note quite, no.

      The concept of achieving forward propulsion by expelling a jet of something in the opposite direction is called ‘jet propulsion’. Jet engines are a specific form of a more general concept called a reaction engine (referencing Newton’s third law).

      A rocket, in turn, is a specific form of jet engine which produces a jet entirely out of its own mass, as opposed to taking in mass from the environment around it. This enables rockets to fly where there is no mass available to harvest, such as space.

      Apista is not consuming her own mass to propel herself, thus she is not operating as a rocket. She is using a stream of fire to create propulsion, though, so ‘jet’ is appropriate.

  5. You know what niers can be lame cause any screen time with him gives me a scrap of Geneva. I loved the meeting of Erin’s and rags, two ace best friends just having a stroll. I’m excited for lyonettes party, the baseball slice of life stuff is one of my favorite parts of twi.

    • I wanted to talk about Witches and Warlocks, since they were talked about so much recently and the comment made by Briganda ‘s boy wanting to be a witch. However in the story they mentioned that in Innworld that Witches are all female….

      Because of all the old tales and the like from our world, I was wondering why this is the case. Witch is historically, a gender-neutral term used for both males and females who practice witchcraft. Though it is popular to think of witches as being a female thing because of large events like the Salem Witch Trials that were largely focused on female witches and other such large stories tend to have female witches on them. You could say that possibly male witches were weaker and thus not talked about as much or they were better at hiding themselves from society…. but that is another thing to talk about I guess.

      • Warlock’s on the other hand, which only recently is oddly used as a male word for witch, is however largely wrong. Warlock means “oath-breaker” or “covenant-breaker. A warlock is a witch (male or female) that has been kicked out of their coven for breaking their oaths and betraying the group. They often tend to focus more on pacts (largely know for making pacts with devils and demons).

        Of which the pact part works well with the mention of making pacts with the elementals that are mentioned in Innworld in previous chapters.

        However, it would be interesting if Belavierr’s class changed from Witch to Warlock for killing Califor, betraying the coven of witches…. Though maybe not completely, while it was terrible, I don’t think Belavierr was ever specifically part of the coven and just happened to be there.

        Anywho, just something to think about.

        (there we go, split long post into two…)

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