There was something bittersweet about seeing them coming out the garden to cheers. Together, the [Innkeeper] and the Goblin.
And the bee, but she didn’t count. Niers noticed, of course, but only because Apista was flying. He stared blankly at her.
“Is that…fire? And here I was going to send her a leg. And a wing.”
Back to Niers. It was—it should have really been him there. Waving his hat at the audience, being part of the changing continent of Izril.
But for Belavierr, he might still be there. So Chaldion had removed him from the board on more battlefields than just the one he’d left.
It made the Titan fuming mad to lose a battle like that. The Grand Strategist had been playing, but on a different board. But mostly, Niers just looked at the image of the young woman and the Goblin as the crowd circulated around them.
“…and it looks like the [Innkeeper] has come out herself for these festivities for the new ‘Hive’ of the Antinium. Sir Relz, we know Miss Solstice, don’t we? Have we ever done a piece on her?”
The Drake in the studio appeared as the image cut back to him with a smaller image of the inn in the background. Niers scowled at Sir Relz as the Drake shuffled his papers.
“No, Noass, we have not. But perhaps now’s not the time? The Wandering Inn has Goblins, Antinium, and chaos as usual. However, now, I think the news should be on the disrupted trade cycle. I have a segment coming up where I interview a [Merchant Captain] on the supply lines across the world. Don’t miss it!”
Noass nodded rapidly, but he hesitated as he smiled into the camera. Niers gave Noass a sinister smirk, because he knew what the Drake was realizing.
“This is Noass, Channel 1 of Wistram News Network. Our favorite [Reporter], Drassi, may cover any entertainment-related incidents on Channel 2. You can switch channels with our Wistram News Network patented scrying orbs or by consulting any local Mage’s Guild affiliated with Wistram. However, I encourage you to—”
Niers changed to the channel instantly, and he assumed that went for a large amount of viewers. Oh yes, television was moving in leaps and bounds. Drassi was smirking slightly as she waved at Noass; they were in the same inn.
“Thank you, Noass. I’ll be covering this party and anything else ‘fun’ and ‘inconsequential’. Like the Antinium Crusade marching back into Liscor, whenever it happens. Light stuff. Now, let’s see what’s going on around here. Can I get an interview with Erin? Personal friend, by the way.”
He should be there. Just saying. But Niers still smiled at the sight of the familiar inn. Right until someone screamed at him.
“Titan, are you out of your mind? Head up!”
“Yes, yes. I was watching. [Covering Fire].”
He pointed, and the screaming Fraerling turned as a volley of arrows and spells loosed over the battlefield. Niers glanced up, saw the exploding green monsters bearing down on his front lines, and went back to watching.
“We have it under control.”
“Unbelievable. Is he always like this?”
The Fraerling was one of the forces assigned to the Forgotten Wing Company. She was not happy about fighting monsters a hundred times her size, but Niers was calm.
“It’s a mopup, Tallguard. Save the Skills and energy; they’ll barely reach our front.”
He was right. The green-type monsters could explode and spread a nasty ichor around, but there was something about a thousand Lizardfolk with crossbows that deterred even a few hundred of them.
The real fighting would be when they pushed into the area around the Dyed Lands, not mopped up the rampaging monsters. This was almost…forensic. Kill monsters, see how they fought and which ones had tricks, adjust strategy, and move up slowly. Dissect, analyze.
The Fraerlings who were watching Niers peer at the scrying orb mounted on his wristwatch were a mix of awe and chagrin. The Titan’s company was like his arms and legs, and he didn’t look up as he swatted a hundred and twenty monsters.
Wistfully, Niers watched as Erin raised a hand and Drassi pushed forwards. Now…
“What are you going to do, Erin? All eyes are on you.”
It was possibly the first time The Wandering Inn had been a direct broadcast of Wistram News Network. Incredible, yes, but the inn had almost always been part of something, like a monster attack. This was the inn on its own. And the [Innkeeper]…she was known enough that people might recognize her face.
Erin looked up and around the party with a look of surprise, as if she hadn’t quite known how large it was. And there was the [Princess]. What kind of party, indeed? Niers saw Erin give Drassi a pair of finger-guns, smile—and hurry off. He laughed as she went to high-five Goblins.
“Good luck trying that forever.”
The party at The Wandering Inn was a three-day affair. The initial event had occurred as adventurers and Goblins arrived, just past midday.
In four hours, the skating rink that Ceria had made had become the main attraction, as well as the inn’s reopening. Mostly?
It was visitors coming through the doors. Liska was opening and shutting them nonstop, only pausing to let [Mages] recharge the door.
“Pallass? Step through. Inn is on your right. Liscor on your left. We don’t have time to open a door to Liscor. Thank you, goodbye.”
She shut the door, adjusted the dial, opened it.
“Celum? Step through. Inn on your right. Liscor on your left. No door to Liscor today. Anyone going for Celum?”
She looked around, and some people waiting in the exit queue raised their hands. Liska glowered.
“Why aren’t you in a group? Stand there for Celum. I need a sign. Who else is going to Invrisil? Got your money?”
People fussed about with money and asked the worst questions. Like a Human who tapped her on the shoulder.
“I’d like to go to Pallass. Can you open the door?”
Liska stared at him.
“No one’s going to Pallass. You have to apply for the waiting list.”
“You just opened the door.”
“That’s from Pallass.”
“Just open the door. I have the fee right here.”
Liska was almost tempted to as the man puffed up with indignation. She spoke slowly, as if trying to hammer the words into his head.
“The checkpoint will stop you. No one’s going to Pallass. Invrisil, Celum, and Esthelm are open. Who’s going to Celum? You need to pay me.”
“I just did!”
“That was from Invrisil to Liscor.”
“I have to pay per city? What a ripoff!”
Liska groaned. She needed signs, lines, and helpers. And indeed, the prices per door usage were at least keeping a horde of people from going through. But the visitors were of all kinds. She turned and closed the door to Celum and opened it to Pallass as a [Mage] tapped her on the shoulder.
“I got it, I got it. Hello, sir or ma’am!”
A Gnoll gave Liska a long look. The helper tried to smile, but then she almost went blind.
“I’m heading for Liscor for this bazaar. I’ve got goods—mostly in bags of holding—and a staff of seventeen. Where am I staying? And whom do I pay?”
Liska was trying to shade her eyes. Even in the checkpoint, with the guards, the Gnoll was…sparkling? She was reflecting light like a radiant beacon.
Qwera, the Golden Gnoll of Izril, sniffed as she eyed the inn’s portal operation.
“Some place. Hey, Ysara, get in here! Do I step through?”
She gingerly stepped through the door as the crowd oohed. One of the [Merchants] had come to make a profit in the coming days.
The Golden Gnoll dropped a shower of gold and silver into a bucket that Liska had put out, and the other Gnoll quickly stowed it in a bag of holding before anyone got any ideas. Qwera sniffed the air.
“The bazaar hasn’t started yet, has it?”
“I—I don’t know, Miss. Um—you’re a [Merchant], right?”
Qwera gave Liska a long look as a Human woman wearing a sword and silver-style clothing strolled through the door with a bunch of helpers. Then the door portal flickered out. Liska groaned along with the crowd as Qwera spun.
“Door’s out. Mages?”
A sweaty young Drake was drinking a mana potion. He looked around.
“We’ll need to wait for more. Let me tell the Mage’s Guild.”
“Is my crew safe? How long till the door’s back up?”
Qwera demanded, and Liska nearly screamed—until a Gnoll poked his head out.
“I sensed a disturbance. Liska?”
Ishkr gave her an accusing look, then spotted Qwera. His eyes widened. He instantly stepped forwards.
“Door’s out? You, please send a [Message] spell telling the Mage’s Guild we need someone in five minutes or less. Everyone, we will have a ten minute wait! Hello, Miss Merchant. Are you waiting for the bazaar? It’s open tomorrow—accommodations are listed here.”
He had a piece of parchment which had begun to circulate. Liska had had one, but someone had walked off with it.
It listed every inn and place to stay in the cities as well as upcoming events. Qwera snatched it as she sniffed.
“That’s more like it.”
“Ishkr. I’m dying here! I need help! I need organization!”
For once, her older brother didn’t snap at her. He just looked at the door and sighed.
“I agree. I can’t fix it.”
“Don’t leave me!”
She almost clung to his shoulder, but he just waved her back.
“I’ll ask Lyonette to talk to Liscor. We’ll ask them to send whomever managed the door last time. Hang on for twenty minutes. Then you’ll show them the job for forty. Break for the day in an hour, okay?”
He vanished out the door as Qwera raised her brows. Ysara Byres had been eying the ramshackle operation of the door, but she whispered to Qwera.
“That’s one calm worker. Mrsha must not have been lying about how chaotic the inn is. Or Krshia. Do you smell them?”
“Do I look like a [Tracker]? Mrsha’s about, but there’s a sea of people around. Do you think your sister and brother are here?”
“Yvlon? Yes. Ylawes…well, that’ll be fun.”
Ysara did not smile. Qwera bared her teeth.
“At least we’ll get to see the [Innkeeper] of renown. Alright, let’s wait for my team. Are we staying here or…?”
“Depends on if the inn has rooms. What are the odds it’s not full to bursting?”
Good, actually. The Wandering Inn was doing mad traffic in people, but few thought to ask for rooms. Mostly because—who would stay in an inn filled with Goblins?
A lot of visitors who had come to see the Antinium took one look at the Goblins in the common room and decided to find another inn on the list. But some stayed. It was a kind of deterministic selection: if you weren’t cool with the Goblins, you really wouldn’t like the rest of what the inn had to offer.
Ishkr had just gone out to check on Liska when he tapped Lyonette on the shoulder. She jumped.
“Ishkr? What’s up?”
“The door’s out of power again. I sent for more [Mages], and we will need to contact the Council for their staff. Liska cannot handle this alone. Nor are the Goblins and Antinium ready for that job.”
Lyonette bit her tongue.
“Damn. That’s the one job they cannot do. Alright, I will task Ser Sest with that. Thank you, Ishkr.”
He nodded, and she wondered how he was managing to do this. She had never seen someone move so fast!
They needed to give him a raise. And hold onto him! Some of the [Innkeepers] still loitering about looked just as impressed with Ishkr. But then—if The Wandering Inn was still weak organizationally, it did have capable talent.
Like Ser Sest, who was already halfway towards the door. He didn’t even have to be asked; he’d just heard Lyonette speak.
“On my way, Miss Lyonette.”
He passed by Miss Agnes, whose eyes bugged out at his golden armor. Her husband, Mister Jerom, murmured.
“Now there’s a serving staff that’d attract the eye, eh, Agnes?”
He laughed, then coughed. She patted his hand and smiled nervously. She didn’t quite look at Lyonette.
“Yes, dear. We should be getting back to the inn. Or I should. We’ll have business—but you just sit here for a moment. Can…can someone help him back? I should, but I must get to The Frenzied Hare now—”
She had a staff, but she was dithering, and someone spoke up.
Ulia, owner of another inn in Celum, Blazehound, turned to Agnes.
“You go ahead, Agnes. Jerom and I will head back.”
“Oh, thank you. Goodbye—Lyonette—”
Agnes glanced at Lyonette, and the [Princess] managed a smile.
“Best of luck, Miss Agnes. Sir, are you alright?”
“Quite alright. I just have a cough. It doesn’t go away, but I’m not abed. I was last fall—I was too cold, and it took me out for months. But for Miss Solstice…what a wonderful inn. And it is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Lyonette. I have to apologize, again, for any unpleasantness and thank you for—”
He shook her hand earnestly as she called for a cup of something. Ishkr appeared with a mug of goat’s milk and vanished. Jerom sipped from it.
He was so—nice—that Lyonette was slightly aghast. And embarrassed. She assured him there was no ill will. He was reasonable, calm, if sickly, and she remembered meeting him once before, but even when Erin had been in the inn, she had barely seen Agnes’ husband.
“It’s Jerom, isn’t it? Or Ronald? Cecil? I, ah, didn’t quite know if you existed. Not that Miss Agnes didn’t bring you up quite often to Erin!”
He laughed at that.
“Oh, that. I’m afraid that’s my fault. When Agnes and I first met, I was called Cecil. Then, we went out, and I had to find work further north. When I came back, I was using Ronald as my name. I headed south—actually past Liscor. I worked around there and came back as Jerom. All three times, Agnes didn’t quite remember me until I reintroduced myself.”
“You had three names, Jerom? Why in the world? I used to joke with Timbor that you didn’t exist and Agnes was just pretending she had a husband. Pardon me, but it was funny.”
Ulia looked fascinated, and Jerom coughed into a hand.
“Past jobs, Ulia. It’s a long story.”
No it wasn’t. Lyonette’s eyes sharpened, and she saw Ser Lormel glance up. He took one look at Jerom, and he clearly realized the same thing Lyonette did.
Jerom was a former [Spy]. That or he had some kind of job that required you to change names. And there were precious few like that.
Now Lyonette thought of it—she only knew one person who had poor lungs and an endemic weakness that couldn’t be solved by healing potions. And that was Mihaela Godfrey, who had been…poisoned…
Jerom saw Lyonette’s glance and smiled.
“It’s a long story. We all have stories like that, I’m sure, Miss Lyonette.”
“Of course, Mister Jerom. I am delighted to meet you.”
He was a thin man, probably due to being confined in bed all day, but Lyonette could see how Agnes had fallen for him three times. He looked, well, like someone who could fit in Calanfer’s top staff.
Handsome, with a strong chin and a twinkle in those pale sapphire eyes. He even seemed graceful—if that were marred by moments of weakness. His hair was swept back in a greying curl.
Whomever he had been, Lyonette was sure he’d been good at his job of being likable. But all that was marred by his weakened state.
For all that—Jerom clearly was talented. He had been a good enough cook to keep Agnes’ inn running despite—Agnes. And even here, he took a drink from the cup and grimaced.
“I should head back whenever you’re ready, Ulia. Agnes will need help. But this inn is fascinating. The rec rooms, that weights room?”
He sighed about, and Ulia smiled.
“What if I sent some helpers to Agnes’ inn? Just one or two. You can take your leisure.”
“That’s extremely kind of you. Are you sure?”
He looked reluctant, and Ulia smiled and winked at Lyonette.
“If you help me win a few coins at the card table, perhaps. You haven’t had time to meet him, Miss Lyonette, but Jerom is a fantastic cards player. Very good with his hands cooking and in other ways. Don’t you carve as well?”
I just bet he is. Lyonette smiled, but she blinked as Jerom produced something with an embarrassed smile.
“Hardly good. I’m confined to bed, so it’s reading or something else. I picked up the class and—well, I was going to present Miss Solstice with this.”
Lyonette gasped. She stared down at a tiny, hand-cut figurine. Of Mrsha! The little Gnoll even had spiked fur, notched delicately with a tiny blade, and she was prowling around on all fours, sniffing at the air.
Jerom had even added mini indentations like whiskers. Lyonette exclaimed.
“Mister Jerom, this is the most beautiful—this is fantastic!”
“As I understand it, you’re the one who takes care of Miss Mrsha. Please, if you don’t think it’s a burden—”
He offered her the figurine, and Lyonette accepted it. She smiled at him.
“Thank you, sir! This is a delight.”
He nodded, and Lyonette thought that if the inn in Celum never worked out, she could send him to Riverfarm. Laken Godart had a [Carver] of his own, but the man, while good, was, uh…
Maybe not. Jelov the [Carver] and Jerom the mysterious [Innkeeper]? Too close. He’d have to change his name a third time.
But that was the kind of thing happening in the inn right now. While it was true that the grand party was more of a ramp-up, there was already a kind of meeting of peoples that would otherwise never go together that was generating excitement enough.
Not for Drassi, perhaps. The [Reporter] actually didn’t linger long in the inn once it became clear Erin wasn’t going to be interviewed. She found Rags for a short moment, but she’d had her interview with Rags. So—Drassi was off to her new studio to give a talk with the Singer of Terandria.
She’d be back tomorrow. Meanwhile? Lyonette was almost glad that Erin hadn’t taken over when she came back from the garden.
This was Lyonette’s big event, and she wanted to prove she could do it alone. She felt nervous, but she squared her shoulders and got back to work. Erin?
For the first day, Erin sat with the Goblins. She hugged Badarrow and stayed with them. Goblins before all. But the meetings between people were not isolated just to Goblins.
By evening in Liscor, a Gnoll returned from checking out the bazaar and put her hands on her hips.
“The Tailless Thief is out.”
Ysara Byres looked up from the stand she and Qwera were going to operate. Hers was right next to Qwera’s, and she had a huge supply of goods to offload, many from the tribes. She had a feeling there would be a huge market to match.
They had hurried down to inspect the plaza, and [Traders] and [Merchants] they knew from Pallass as well as Invrisil were all present. Lots of excited rookies too, who kept coming up to Qwera to ask for tips.
Don’t get fleeced was Qwera’s big tip. This was the opportunity for everyone to make a profit. Just sell at a good markup and watch out for fellow [Merchants]; they’d run you down with flash-deals. Unless you had gold in hand or paw…
Well, this was their battleground, so the [Merchants] were excited. So was Ysara, because she’d headed down here before having a chance to explore the ice skating rink that hundreds of people were skating across. An annoyed half-Elf had to keep recasting the spell, but she considered it training—as well as her own slip and sliding across the ice.
However—the person Ysara really wanted to see was Yvlon. And Ylawes. But before that…
“Not the Tailless Thief? We need somewhere secure.”
They had lockboxes of gold, and their best items and stock would need security. That meant The Tailless Thief; neither Ysara nor Qwera were stupid enough to chance being stuck in Invrisil when they should be at the bazaar.
“No. And it’s not the name. The [Innkeeper] is simply a Drake. A beautiful idiot of a Drake who I wouldn’t trust.”
“His guests are all Drakes from Pallass. We can out pay them, but…let’s try The Wandering Inn. If only for storage. Besides, I haven’t seen Mrsha.”
They could have rushed into the common room and reunited with Mrsha the instant they got there…but neither Ysara nor Qwera had. A few hours would not kill them, and they had their priorities straight.
Now, though, it occurred to Ysara that if they wanted a room…she sighed and checked her bag of holding.
“Let’s go now, then. And keep checking your bag of holding, Qwera. I know Liscor’s a good city—or so Yvlon claims—but the [Thieves] have to be out in force knowing how much gold and visitors are here.”
That was true. Qwera and Ysara were not easy targets; they had Skills and the wherewithal to defeat most [Flash Thieves], who could snatch a bag with sheer speed, or covert ones, who would steal a bag of holding unnoticed in a crowd.
Even so—a certain young woman with a gemstone hand saw several [Thieves] loitering about the square. She herself had a lot of interest in Qwera and Ysara’s bags of holding as well as the top [Merchants]’.
They were rich. One of Pallass’ best [Traders of Curios] had already lost his chest of holding. His actual chest of holding. He thought it was right there, locked and waiting for tomorrow, and his [Guards] did too, but the crystal-handed [Thief] had seen someone walk off with the entire chest and cast an illusion spell in the same place.
One of the Faces of Invrisil. They’d probably sell the entire chest back to the merchant, and that would be the last theft today.
The [Thieves] of big cities often had deals with the Merchant’s Guild to only be a pest up to a point—otherwise, the [Merchants] would hire a Named-rank Adventurer to kill you. A merchant-rogue war was a bad, bad incident.
She had no such compunctions, but she was wary of making an enemy of the wrong group, so Ysara and Qwera were a good target as independent [Merchants]. Obviously, she was waiting for her chance with Klbkch the Slayer, but profits were profits. Besides.
The contest had begun. The young woman strolled into range. Qwera wasn’t stupid; the Golden Gnoll would notice someone dogging her. But the crystal hand [Thief]’s range was wide. She flexed her hand, and the pale quartz hidden under the glove shone.
[I Stole Lightning].
Her hand blurred across the ground between her and Qwera, forty paces. If you could have seen it—and it moved at the speed of lightning—it would have been a disembodied hand of crystal, reaching out. A man’s hand, not the young woman’s. It reached out for both bags of holding—
And someone caught it. Or rather, blocked it. The hand slammed into a body, and the [Thief] recoiled. She saw a Gnoll hurtle out of nowhere into the hand, and Qwera and Ysara whirled. The [Thief] looked up, saw a Gnoll staring at her—
Ysara exclaimed as one of her ‘helpers’ broke cover and blocked the Skill. The Thief of Clouds rubbed at his ribs as a young woman began to hurry in the other direction.
“What? A [Thief]? Point her out.”
Ysara was ready to draw her sword or call for the Watch, but Vetn just growled.
“Don’t bother. She’ll be gone before the Watch even reaches us if you shout. That’s the second high-level [Thief]. Ow. My ribs hurt.”
He whined to Qwera, and she was unimpressed.
“Blow on it. This is why I hired you, Vetn. Keep it up.”
Sulkily, he nodded. Some of the other [Merchants] were eying Vetn nervously; a few could spot a [Thief]. But Qwera had hired him to run interference against other competitors or thieves.
She wasn’t an idiot. She patted Vetn on the shoulder, and the three of them headed off to the inn. They met the girl they were looking for ahead of that.
Mrsha was sniffling a bit, as if she had a cold again, and Ser Dalimont was worried he’d get in more trouble, letting her skate so long.
But as it turned out, she just had a runny nose from the chill. She was beaming, her white fur all puffed up along with two sweaty, beaming children. And one big one.
Gire, Ekirra, and Visma had been skating for hours. The novelty of being able to skate before the winter was only compounded by the food flowing from the inn. Right now, they were all having some hot-hot fries, which were spicy—but didn’t kill you! Calescent’s fries were hitting tables, and a certain witch had helped him get used to his new job.
Well, Erin was inside sampling his cooking with the laughing Goblins, and Mrsha was just about to suggest they all have a big bowl of ice cream to go with the fries when she smelled something odd on the air. She turned, sniffed, and her brows crossed.
“What is it, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll smelled a familiar acrylic scent that came from a lot of paint. A familiar smell—but that couldn’t be right. She looked at Gire, and the [Paragon] stopped wolfing down fries.
She sniffed the air as Ekirra copied her. So did Visma, snorting and giggling as the Gnolls glowered at her mockery of them. But then Mrsha saw Gire’s eyes widen, and their heads turned. Mrsha watched as the skaters, couples and families running and slipping on the ice, looked up.
The fading fall sky was turning into an ember glow across the High Passes. Even green, instead of blue, and the two colors ran together like some crazy artist’s palette.
But then the Antinium marching to the inn for their food, the people of Liscor, and the inn itself experienced a revelation.
For there was a shining figure upon a hill. She stood like a golden messiah, light glancing off her painted fur. The Golden Gnoll shone, and Mrsha dropped her fries. Ekirra bent down to eat them off the grass, but looked up as Mrsha began racing over. Her snuffly nose began to run again, and she was a blubbery mess before she was halfway there.
It’s you! It’s you! She raced at Qwera, leapt up, and the Gnoll blocked Mrsha’s head with her paw.
“Gross. Someone get me a handkerchief.”
She fished one out of her belt pouch as Mrsha landed, and then the Gnoll found one paw picking her up. A piece of cloth wiped at Mrsha’s face, and then she glanced up, and Qwera grinned.
“Look at you, you silly girl. Did you miss me that much?”
For answer, Mrsha hugged her. Then looked at Ysara and Vetn in astonishment. The [Armored Merchant] patted Mrsha on the head, and the Gnoll beamed at Vetn, who shyly waved at her.
“I told you she’d remember us, Qwera!”
“I wouldn’t bother. There, there. Stop crying. It’s not like we were even gone more than a month.”
But I love you guys! Mrsha reached out as Gire raced over and beamed at the others.
“Vetn, Qwera, Ysara, hello! I had no idea you had arrived! Where’s Tesy?”
She noticed the absence of the [Magical Painter], and Qwera rolled her eyes.
“Off causing mischief in another city. Vetn would be too, but I needed a [Thief] to stop a [Thief]. When we heard about the bazaar, I picked up the pace. I would have gone on foot rather than via Pallass, but gold doesn’t wait. Hello. And who is this?”
She eyed the Thronebearer, who glowed almost as much as she did with his armor. Ser Dalimont bowed.
“Merchant Qwera, Merchant Ysara, I am Ser Dalimont of the Thronebearers of Calanfer, and my ward is in your debt, as I understand it. May I escort you to the inn? Miss Lyonette will be delighted to meet you, as will Erin Solstice herself.”
“Oho. Aren’t you competent?”
Qwera raised her brows, but she seemed curious, not hostile. She tried to put Mrsha down, but the Gnoll clung to her neck.
“You little blubbering rat. Where did all that bravery go?”
Qwera gently teased Mrsha, and Ysara’s smile was genuine as she walked towards the inn.
“She’s at home, Qwera. She’s allowed to cry.”
Mrsha had actually stopped crying at this point, and she was waving for Ekirra and Visma to come over. The two friends looked up at Qwera in awe.
Ekirra gaped at Qwera. Visma, on the other hand, actually knew of Qwera’s reputation. She squeaked.
“My mother loves you! And my older sister! Can—can I touch your fur? You’re beautiful!”
Even the grumpy Golden Gnoll of Pallass had to smile at that, and Mrsha saw Qwera’s face turn softer. As she put on her stage show.
“Well, I can do more than that! Here! Hold out your hands, both of you…”
She drew out something and then pressed it on Ekirra’s and Visma’s hands. They looked down in delight, and Mrsha saw a golden stamp of a pawprint embossed on their scales and fur. Qwera winked as she raised her paws to call out to the crowd.
“The Golden Gnoll will be holding a seminar after the bazaar, tomorrow. Tell your friends! Free coins!”
So saying, she drew a pawful of coins out of her bag of holding and tossed them across the ice. Gold coins went scattering and people shouted and scrambled after them.
“You’re such a…performer, Qwera.”
Ysara looked mildly disapproving, but Qwera had done this before when Mrsha was on tour with her, however briefly.
“It works. I thought this was supposed to be exciting. Aha. And I think here’s our famous mother of the world’s most endangered child.”
She looked up, and Lyonette du Marquin was coming out the doors of the inn, flanked by all but one of her remaining Thronebearers. Mrsha waved her over, and the [Princess] caught Mrsha as she leapt into her arms.
“Mrsha—oof! Do I have the honor of meeting the people who helped you? Merchant Qwera, Merchant Ysara, Mister Vetn? Welcome to the Wandering Inn. And thank you—I have wanted to say that ever since the Meeting of Tribes.”
She took Qwera’s hand as she held Mrsha and Ysara’s. Lyonette’s genuine look of gratitude seemed to disarm Qwera, and the Gnoll murmured.
“Well—it’s not like there was anything else to do. Hello, hello. I’m delighted to meet you, Pr…Miss Lyonette.”
“And I am honored to meet you. Silver and steel guide you, Princess Marquin. You’ve been a friend to my sister and brother, and I am grateful for everything you’ve done.”
Ysara didn’t even try to hide what she knew. Lyonette’s eyes focused on Ysara and widened a bit.
“Yes! And you’re Yvlon’s older…she’ll be delighted to meet you! I am so grateful to meet you—but Yvlon’s just inside! And you won’t believe it, but the Silver Swords just came in via Invrisil.”
The older Byres’ smile slipped slightly, but Mrsha was sniffing the air. Then her eyes went round, and she leapt out of Lyonette’s arms.
“What’s gotten into her?”
Qwera eyed Mrsha as Lyonette scolded her daughter, but Gire was sniffing the air too. And then she bounded past startled guests. For Mrsha had smelled someone else who’d just arrived.
The little Gnoll burst into the common room just in time to see the most high-powered meeting yet. The Golden Gnoll had come to Liscor.
But so had Gold-rank teams. The Silver Swords, teams like Todi’s Elites from Invrisil, the Horns, the Halfseekers—
And one more. In fact, they had just arrived, and they were so famous that they had even put the Silver Swords’ return to shame.
“Goblins! Pizza! Ice cream! This is what I’ve been waiting for! I made it! Oh, hey Mrsha.”
The Stargnoll, Lehra Ruinstrider, was running around as excitedly as Mrsha. Her team, Stargazer’s Promise, were greeting the surprised Horns and the wary teams, who eyed one of Izril’s top adventurers with a kind of awe.
And wariness, because they remembered how ‘Regrika Blackpaw’ had gone. The [Innkeeper] was standing warily in front of her Goblin friends, but when the little Gnoll leapt forwards and tried to give Lehra a flying headbutt, the Stargnoll whirled her around in the air and put Mrsha on a table, laughing.
Then she turned as Qwera walked in.
“Hey, the Golden Gnoll! Everyone’s back from the Meeting of Tribes! Is Honored Krshia here?”
She waved, but a pair of Humans froze at the table where they were awkwardly greeting each other. Yvlon Byres half rose, and Ylawes looked up, stunned.
She halted when she saw her two younger siblings. Ysara smiled awkwardly, but Yvlon shot to her feet. She came over, smiling genuinely as Ysara stared at Yvlon’s arms. She had seen, during the Meeting of Tribes, and she had no doubt seen images of Yvlon, but it was one thing to see and another to get a look up close.
“Yvlon. Ylawes. It’s been a long time. You two look—great. Especially you, Yvlon.”
She reached out and embraced her sister gingerly. Yvlon returned the gesture, almost as timidly, and Ylawes got up. He reached out, went to embrace his two sisters—and both let go. Ysara hugged Ylawes briefly, patting him on the back.
“Ysara, this is an amazing coincidence. I am delighted to see you! What brought you to Liscor? The bazaar? Father and Mother will be delighted to hear from you.”
“Of course. And yes. Here I am, back in the north, or close enough. Look at you two heroes of the day.”
Ysara’s smile was about as genuine as Qwera’s fur. Which was to say, it wasn’t completely fake, but it had layers and hidden meaning. Yvlon glanced at her sister, but she reached out.
“You’re still wearing your sword.”
She pointed, and Ysara’s look of reserve turned to amusement.
“I still have to defend myself. But I’d say you two have long since passed me.”
“Not in talent. Not in talent. How are you? Is that—is that Gnoll made of gold? We just got in. This is incredible. Sit, please. Are you staying?”
Ylawes regained his composure faster—right until he noticed Ysara’s tattoos. One ran up her neck, and she had some on her arms and other places, more hidden by her clothing. He stared at the colorful tattoos with his mouth open, and Ysara sighed.
“Those are new.”
Yvlon managed. Ylawes was silently gobbling air, and Ysara was endlessly grateful for Qwera. She must have sensed the awkwardness, and she came over in full merchant-mode.
“Well, here are your younger siblings! I’m Qwera, the Golden Gnoll. Just an alias. It is a delight to meet Ysara’s family—she is endlessly proud.”
“Oh, hello, hello.”
Both Yvlon and Ylawes instantly turned to greet her, and the moment warmed back up again, especially when Ceria came tromping into the inn.
“Is that your older sister and a golden—tree sap, it’s Lehra Ruinstrider!”
She pointed at Lehra, and the Gnoll pointed back.
“It’s Ceria! I saw you on the scrying orb! Autographs! Where’s the Silver Killer? Ohmygosh, there she is!”
She swerved as she saw Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress]’ face said it all. Ylawes tried to bow to Lehra.
“I am such a fan, Yvlon! You are the most hardcore adventurer ever! And—hi, are you a warrior too?”
“Ylawes Byres, Captain of the Silver Swords. A famous Gold-rank team.”
Someone hissed in Lehra’s ear. Elgrinna, the Dwarf [Warrior], actually yanked on Lehra’s tail. The Gnoll started, slapped Elgrinna’s hand, then turned beet red.
“Oh no! I mean—hello!”
“Adventurer Ruinstrider, it’s an honor.”
That was all Ylawes managed. He couldn’t help but glance at Yvlon, then looked up—and saw his older sister’s knowing smile.
It was rare for Ylawes to look that uncomfortable. But Dawil was all there for it. In fact, he was right there, and he and Elgrinna were slapping each other on the back.
“A Dwarf from home! What’s with your adventurer? Don’t recognize some veterans, Miss Elgrinna?”
“Aw, here comes Axemaster Dawil, here to lecture me. Hero of Dwarfhome! If I could have teleported, I’d have been right with you. You damn credit to your people, you.”
Falene Skystrall was nodding to the Gazer [Wizard], Suxhel, and Emper, the Stitch-man [Monk]. They were certainly a sight for sore eyes!
In fact, Lyonette could barely keep up with the introductions! Mrsha was in the mix as Lehra tossed her up and down, and Moore gently caught her; Lehra gaped up at him in delight. But no one could get in a word edgewise for a second.
That was, until someone waved.
“Hey. Who’re all these people? I’m Erin. Are these your friends, Mrsha?”
Then they turned, and Qwera, Ysara, Vetn, Stargazer’s Promise—all looked at Erin Solstice. Ylawes himself hadn’t seen her, and he rose to his feet in awe. Dawil turned and smiled. He exhaled as if he’d been holding a breath, and Lehra pointed at Erin.
“You’re the one who posted the <Quest> for Mershi. You’re Mrsha’s friend. Aren’t you…?”
“Erin Solstice. Hi.”
She said it so casually, but her mere presence somehow halted the chaos for a second. Erin stood with the Goblins peering at the adventurers and newcomers in the background. She might have been unhappy in large events where everyone stared and fawned over her—
But in this moment, the [Innkeeper] knew just what to do and say. She spread her arms wide and beamed.
“Welcome to my inn! If you’re friends of Mrsha’s, you’re friends of mine. Do you want food? Somewhere to put your things? The Wandering Inn will never turn new friends away! Just remember to read the sign.”
Lehra looked nervous, but Qwera brightened up. She reached out, and Erin’s eyes fixed on her golden fur.
“Whoa! You’re amazing!”
“It takes one to know one. Did I hear rooms, Miss Solstice? I’m afraid we couldn’t find suitable accommodations. Safe ones. [Thieves] and the like.”
“Oh—of course! We’ve got rooms on the second and third floors! Actually—we haven’t taken in any new guests, so we’ve got tons of room! Even group rooms. And my inn is super safe. Well, my garden is. No one gets in who isn’t allowed. Got valuables?”
“That would be excellent, Miss Solstice.”
Qwera smiled with great satisfaction. Lehra was still gobbling.
“You—you’re the one who knows about Mershi! Please, tell me everything!”
She tried to get to Erin, but Lehra had made a mistake—she assumed being a Named-rank Adventurer meant anything here.
She tried to reach out to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] rose two feet in the air. Mostly because Dawil was hugging her.
“Hey! Put me down! I—oh, Dawil!”
The Dwarf had tears in his eyes. But he let Erin down and gently patted her on the arm.
“You did it. Grandfathers awake, I can’t believe it.”
“Oh, Dawil. And Ylawes, Falene? I’m gonna cry! Don’t make me cry again! C’mere!”
Erin looked up, and the [Knight] and [Battlemage] were drawn into a hug far more genuine than the one Ylawes had given Ysara. Lehra practically danced around the edge of the hug, but even she couldn’t interrupt it. Then Erin was exclaiming.
“Yvlon’s sister is here? Whoa. Whoa! You have tattoos! Hi, I’m Erin.”
She shook hands with the smiling [Merchant], and then Mrsha was tugging over Vetn, who looked incredibly nervous for some reason. He stared at a point over Erin’s shoulder as he shook the [Innkeeper]’s hand.
Lehra, by contrast, had suddenly begun to explode. The genial Stargnoll was often so laissez-faire it exasperated her teammates. But when she had seen Erin—
The armband of metal on her arm had begun to glow. The Stargnoll interrupted the greetings with Vetn, or tried to.
“Excuse me, Erin. I’m Named-rank Adventurer Lehra Ruinstrider. And you know about the City of Stars. I own the Blade of Mershi.”
Erin glanced up. She focused on Lehra and frowned as the Gnoll tried to push past Falene. Obviously, the half-Elf stepped back, but Erin’s brows instantly knitted.
“Yeah. I posted the <Mythical Quest>. I’m happy to talk about it—but hold on, Falene! You have a Blade of Mershi? You’re almost there! Better work on finding the Crossroads first, though. Word to the wise.”
She gave Lehra a polite smile, and the Stargnoll gaped at Erin.
“What? Why do I need to find that? Tell me what you know! I’m—the blade has a—”
“I’ll meet with you later. Later.”
Erin was smiling, but Lehra was so excited that not even Emper and Elgrinna could stop her. She reached out to grab Erin as the young woman turned.
“Wait! Hey! I’m a Named-rank Adventurer!”
She pulled rank, a rarity, and a clawed hand caught her arm. Another caught her shoulder. Lehra blinked as a pair of strong grips halted her dead in place. She tensed—because she felt a sudden prickle down her spine, but then she looked around.
“Oh yeah? Join the club, kid.”
An orange-scaled Drake was leaning on Dawil’s head as he held Lehra’s shoulder. Saliss of Lights nodded at Shriekblade as Suxhel screamed, jumped, and Emper had to stop her from wiping out.
Even she hadn’t seen Shriekblade. Lehra stared at her senior adventurers and gulped.
“Hey, kid. Kid. Kid. We’ve met, right?”
Saliss poked her on the shoulder repeatedly. He nodded at Stargazer’s Promise as they stared at the two Named-ranks in awe. Lehra thought they had, but only briefly at an Adventurer’s Guild or fancy event. Saliss gave her a friendly smile.
“Here’s some free advice: act like a Bronze-rank in this inn. Or the [Innkeeper] will serve you her specialty. Humble pie. Wait, why did I tell you that? Go ahead and bother her.”
He shooed Lehra with his claws. Shriekblade hadn’t let go, but Saliss winked at Lehra.
“I could use a good laugh. Hello, who are these delightful [Merchants]?”
“Saliss of Lights, you rogue.”
Qwera shook his hand with a sigh, but she actually smiled. As for Ysara, she nodded at the Drake, and he looked her up and down as Ylawes stared in horror at the naked Drake. The Goblins were just laughing—those that weren’t eying Saliss and Shriekblade with alarm.
“Hey, Saliss is here! Get the nuts-box!”
Erin shouted. The inn exploded into laughter, and Mrsha beamed. She ran forwards and tried to pose in front of these famous people as Drassi practically dashed back into the common room. The scrying orb illuminated these people—and Saliss, who had just dumped a potion of [Invisibility] over Mrsha’s head.
But that was alright. The [Alchemist] was laughing as the world’s first censor bar appeared. And Mrsha the Invisible embarked on her greatest reign of terror yet. Especially because Saliss handed her the half-empty vial.
“What an inn.”
This night, the attraction was the guests. Lehra sat, slightly more humble, but still as loud as could be, scarfing down food. The Golden Gnoll was eating with three top [Merchants], while the Players of Celum performed on the inn’s stage.
Just like the old times. However, the new times included more good things, at least, to the inn’s family.
Like Rags, sitting with Erin and looking urbanely amused as she dined with the funniest group in the world.
Namely, a stiff, nay, wooden Ylawes, Erin, Dawil, Numbtongue, Ysara, Yvlon, and Pelt. The Dwarf [Smith] had come out of his forge to see why Hedault was missing meetings, and nary a stranger group existed.
Especially because Dawil and Pelt had a weird relationship, and the three Y-named Byres siblings were a mix of uncomfortable with each other—and very familiar with their own friends.
Plus Goblins. Pelt glared at Rags suspiciously as she ate spaghetti off a fork.
“How’s it, Rags? Just like you remember?”
“Eh. I’ve had better cooking since then. I’m not the Goblin I used to be. Sad.”
Numbtongue looked horrified and outraged. Erin’s mouth fell open. Pelt? He roared with laughter, and a little Goblin compounded Erin’s pain.
“Yeah. Bad food. Stick it to the man! Woman.”
“Gothica! Shoo! Shoo! Wait a sec—Kevin! Are you teaching Gothica?”
Kevin ducked at another table, hunching his shoulders as Poisonbite and a bunch of Goblins fed a little bee preening and fanning her wing with awe. The herald of a new age buzzed happily.
“So, um, Ysara. I see you’ve kept up with your sword training. Perhaps we should spar later.”
Ylawes poked at his plate as if trying to poke a hole through the awkwardness. Ysara tried to wave it off.
“These days, you and Yvlon are the real adventurers. Let’s talk about that, not the old days. I heard you were at Wistram. How was that, Ylawes?”
The [Knight] froze, and his eyes slid sideways to Falene, who was eating with Suxhel, but Dawil bailed him out.
“Wistram? We met with Eldavin, and the first thing he did was chuck Ylawes out a window. We were trying to make a deal to help out Erin, but the Silver Swords aren’t worth much in the heart of magic.”
Yvlon looked astonished, and Pelt snorted.
“Sounds like every [Archmage] I’ve met. He didn’t turn the idiot into a frog…and you broke the axe. I’ll kill you!”
He half-overturned the table, and everyone had to pull him back. Dawil fended off Pelt—every few minutes, the [Smith] would turn homicidal. But food and drink calmed him down. Yvlon had to wrestle Pelt back down, and Ylawes tried again.
“I only regret we didn’t enchant our blades or gain something other than a few levels from the journey. Which is, in itself, good, but I felt rather foolish at the expedition. Yvlon has leveled up. Ysara, did anything interesting happen at the Meeting of Tribes?”
“Oh, only a war.”
Ysara coughed into one hand. Her younger brother wavered.
She took pity on Ylawes.
“I could have used your sword there. I never felt as useless as I did with a single blade in front of an army of Drakes.”
She tapped the sword at her side, and Pelt snorted as he gulped down a huge mug of dark ale from Noelictus. The good stuff.
“Well, fancy skill at arms won’t do you much good with a piece of pig iron like that. Even if you are a [Merchant], you should be ashamed of yourself. The only person sitting here with good metal is Dawil, and he snapped his—and Yvlon’s arms.”
He pointed accusingly at the two. Ylawes and Ysara looked outraged. The [Knight] bared part of his silver-metal blade.
“Master Pelt! My sword was made by a Level 30 [Blacksmith]!”
“And mine’s an heirloom from House Byres’ armory!”
Ysara added. Pelt looked at both their swords.
“Amazing. And here I couldn’t tell. Heirlooms? A Level 30 [Smith]? You could throw them in a bucket of inferior swords in Deríthal-Vel and I’d never notice.”
Both Humans bristled, and Rags began cackling. Gothica poked her head up and took a huge bite out of some macaroni and cheese for the table.
“Your blades are so dull I wipe my butt with them.”
“Hah! I like this Goblin. Pull up a seat.”
Erin looked amused and horrified—and that was before Rags joined in.
“Be nice to the Humans, Smith Pelt. It’s not their fault they think anything shiny is sharp.”
The relentless savagery of the two Goblins and Pelt was making up for the Byres’ awkwardness. Dawil was pounding the table and laughing until Pelt glanced at Rags. He clearly knew her from Orefell; even he paid attention.
Hedault, who was sitting at the table where he was suffering the presence of Suxhel and Falene’s most elevated company, glanced up sharply as Pelt suddenly stood.
“Wait a second. I never noticed—show me what’s at your side. Who made that sword?”
“What sword? I dunno what you’re talking about, Pelt. Hey, Ylawes, what about them goats, huh?”
Erin began sweating as Rags put a hand on her new sword hilt. Hedault got up, and everyone was staring at Rags—right until they turned to Erin and gave her a look.
However, that just prompted another Goblin to hurry over. Redscar had three swords—although he wasn’t about to put the third in his mouth. Even his teeth weren’t that strong.
Pelt recoiled as the Goblin dumped three swords on the table.
“My swords. These two.”
The Hob pointed at Garen Redfang’s famous blade and the frost one that he used in his off-hand. Then he pointed at the third sword for some reason. Hedault had gotten up, and Pelt snorted.
“You want me to do what, Goblin? Reforge…well, this one has a nice enchantment. This one is nice trash.”
He dismissed Redscar’s two personal blades, and the Goblin didn’t seem that hurt. He nodded and pointed to the third blade.
“What about this?”
The [Smith] frowned. He pulled the blade out of the sheath, then eyed the sharp blade with the faintly maroon tinge of magic that glowed if he held it up to the light.
“Eh…steel’s not that pure. Enchantment, Hedault? Looks average. Hm.”
He broke off for a second and gave the sword a longer look. Pelt, who could stare at a blade mostly in the sheath and tell you how worthless it was, frowned. Hedault was on his feet too and frowning.
“The enchantment is [Bloodletter] and [Sharpness]. Competently enough done. I would call it a Level 25 [Enchanter]’s work. Average to a Silver-rank adventurer or a low Gold-rank one.”
“Right. Right. Anything…good about it?”
Redscar’s eyes gleamed. Pelt glanced up suspiciously, and suddenly, Rags looked fascinated. Ylawes sat up despite himself, and Ysara’s ears perked up. Everyone turned to Pelt, and Numbtongue thought he realized why that third blade was special.
“It’s odd as shit.”
Pelt held up the blade, grumbling. He swung it, and half the table leaned back, then frowned.
“Not perfectly balanced, but good enough. Steel’s not perfect. But it’s—”
He suddenly dropped it and wiped a hand on his shirt. Hedault was nodding. The two artisans looked at each other and then turned to Redscar.
“…Who made that blade?”
Pelt eyed it, and Redscar smiled.
“Was wondering. Why? Anything special?”
Rags glanced at Erin, and the [Innkeeper]’s own eyes widened. Did that mean…? Pelt slowly took a huge bite of breaded mac and cheese. He chomped down a rash of bacon, reached for a handful of buttered greens, and Ysara handed him a fork. He gave her a long look, but snatched it.
“…No one forged that sword with a hammer. I can’t sense any metalwork on the blade. It’s uncanny. It’s as if something just—produced the steel, ready-made, with flaws in it. Hedault?”
“I sensed no magical…identity behind the magic either. Every [Mage] has a signature to their mana. This one has none. It is not perfect. But it is just magic, spun, without a hand to guide it.”
Both looked at Redscar, and the Goblin exhaled.
“Yeah. Guess where I got it?”
Redscar pointed up.
“Out of the sky. Reward from a <Quest>.”
Every head turned to Erin. Pelt slowly muttered an oath under his breath, and Hedault’s brows shot up. Ysara stared at the free magic sword in sudden fascination. Erin raised her hands. She looked from face to face and smiled nervously.
“S-so, how about Rags’ sword, huh? Fascinating.”
“What an inn.”
The same person repeated himself as the table broke into further arguments. That person wore dark clothing, but not midnight black. More the worn, thick, casual clothing of a man who was used to being outdoors all day at work.
That man was old Bamer, who had ears good enough to pick up on fascinating conversations around the inn. Some were cloaked, but he was…
Well. He was like a hungry man at a feast. And despite the bloody steak he was eating, his hunger was something different entirely.
After all, he could smell so many things. Mind you, he was keeping as far away from House Byres as possible, damn them.
But even he and his companions hadn’t resisted the allure of the inn. They were actually sitting in the ‘quiet’ part of the inn, where a [Silence] spell kept table-conversations only audible to each other.
That was to let the Players of Celum perform on stage. A curtain kept the light of the eating and dining portion from reaching the people who sat in darkness.
On stage, Juliet and Romeo enacted the timeless tragedy. The crowd was fairly enraptured; the [Actors] had Skills and levels such that you felt like you could feel the longing for each other, and when they fought in duels, it looked real and bloody.
Of course, that only made the Vampires hungrier. Himilt, for his part, did not listen. He was watching the play with one eye. Colfa? She was rapt, fascinated with the play itself. Why Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle, who dressed in high red velvet and black and white like some ancient queen of Terandria or Calanfer’s knights, liked the stage with all its light and glamor—one couldn’t possibly guess.
Himilt’s clothing was as subdued as Bamer’s, but he was watching the busy inn with different eyes. He was counting.
Lehra Ruinstrider was subdued at her table, longingly glancing at Erin, but she was speaking politely to Jelaqua and the Horns. She was one—and the Vampires kept shivering whenever the Named-rank Adventurer crawled overhead on patrol.
That made two. Two, to make Himilt’s own cold blood run. But the third, Saliss of Lights, had left after a while.
A female Drake with rose and cobalt scales had replaced him shortly thereafter. She was sitting with Qwera, a male Drake, Councilmember Elirr, and the Lamia, Hexel. In fact, Ysara excused herself from her table to join them presently.
Who or what she was, Himilt didn’t know. Nor did he know why she was special, only that he knew.
The blood called. Yet he was a master of himself. Not all of his family were.
Fierre was not here. She had promised to join in and visit, but she had work. Himilt was sympathetic to it; Colfa was more concerned about her daughter’s wellbeing, especially after her changes.
He had his own worries. Keeping an eye on the Byres family was one of them.
“We cannot escape them. If they perform their trick in Liscor…”
“The Watch Captain stopped them. There is a river and groundwater aplenty. Hold your peace, Bamer.”
The older Vampire was fidgety. But the most restless person was…Rivel.
Fierre’s older brother and the youngest member of the family who still worked the new farm they were setting up. Ever since he had learned the truth of their treachery, he had been unhappy. Unhappy—and he had spoken like many Vampires who’d learned what Ryoka had uncovered.
Silver in the water. Himilt had done what he could, but he could not rule his kin. He worried—but here, at least, Rivel seemed more pleased.
“I think I’ll join the others. They have a dice room. Cards. Even the Goblins are playing. And weights.”
“Don’t show off.”
Himilt cautioned him, and Rivel scowled. But he sometimes did when wrestling with the Humans in Reizmelt. Everyone made mistakes. He was just about to head off when the group of four froze at their table again.
They were not the only vampires who’d come to set up the new farm in Liscor. But they were a family, so they were dining together. Now, they froze—and even Colfa looked away from the stage.
Himilt saw Rivel tense, but he glanced at his son, and Rivel put his hands in his pockets. Bamer studiously stared at his plate, and all four heard…
Giggling. Even a normal person could have heard that. Himilt reached for a piece of melted brie that he’d actually sold to the markets and that had landed up in this inn. Perhaps I could sell it to this place directly?
But he hadn’t introduced himself to Erin Solstice. He was wary of her. Her blood whispered to him.
No…he watched as a mysterious ‘something’ lifted the piece of cheese up. Then someone else snatched a bit of herring off Colfa’s plate.
“My word, what is this?”
Colfa sounded fairly astonished, although she might have hammed it up. The giggling grew louder before a shh made the voices grow silent. Himilt made a show of half-rising, looking concerned.
“Is someone there?”
He tried not to stare at the outlines of the three giggling children, Mrsha, Ekirra, and Visma, as they stole bits of food off the tables. The other Vampires looked everywhere but Visma, who was waving the cheese around in what she thought was a spooky manner.
Himilt was hoping they’d leave so he could stop pretending when a voice shouted.
“Got you, you little rats!”
Everyone in the actor’s section of the inn’s [Grand Theatre] jumped as a loud voice cut through the [Silence] spell.
Wailant Strongheart was a loud man, and he snatched Ekirra up by the scruff of the neck. Visma squeaked and turned to run, but he had her up under one arm. Mrsha bolted for it.
“Come back, you salt-[Thief]! I’ll teach you to nab my damn omelet!”
“Sir! Sir, there’s a play going on!”
Temile practically sprinted towards them. Wailant glanced up at the stage. Juliet, the Gnoll playing her, raised a paw as she looked around the balcony.
“Hush, Romeo! Do you hear that? Lower your voice, lest we be overheard!”
Wonderful improvisation. The Vampires nearly applauded that themselves as Wailant drew behind the curtain, embarrassed. Himilt rose and nodded to the others as he followed.
He was worried the unfamiliar man would take out his embarrassment and apparent wrath on the children. If he did, Himilt was sure that Erin Solstice wouldn’t stand for it.
But just in case. He saw the [Pirate] scolding the two as Viceria waved a wand, and they reappeared.
“It’s one thing to play pranks—another to ruin someone’s meal! Let alone run your grubby paws over everything! Where’s that Mrsha gone? Show yourself or it’ll be worse for you when it’s time to settle debts.”
He threatened the air as Visma gulped and stared up at the angry [Pirate]. Himilt watched, ready to grab Wailant’s raising fist, and Visma burst into tears. Himilt stepped forwards—and Wailant lowered his fist.
“Ah—I didn’t mean to shout. Don’t cry, little girl. There you go, there you go. I just meant it’s not something to be done. Especially around people with bad tempers!”
“Like you, Wailant? You’ve terrified the children! Come here, little one. Where’s your family?”
Viceria reassured Visma. Himilt exhaled as Visma clung to her, and Wailant looked embarrassed again. He snatched at the air, and a wiggling Mrsha appeared. Dame Ushar came over, and Mrsha glared defiantly at her.
Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do, huh? Go get Erin or Lyonette!
The Thronebearers had never actually done any disciplining of Mrsha, and so Mrsha the Radically Defiant had little fear of Dame Ushar.
…That was, until the Thronebearer took hold of her.
“I deeply apologize, Farmer Wailant. I will make amends with the staff. Excuse me one moment, though?”
She pulled at Mrsha, and the Gnoll’s ears flattened. Uh oh. Which would be worse? Erin or Lyonette?
She was wondering which one Dame Ushar was taking her to—until she realized Ushar was taking her into the kitchen. There, the Thronebearer calmly presented Mrsha to the person whose meals she was ruining.
Imani and Calescent. Mrsha gulped as Dame Ushar calmly announced that a number of guests’ meals had been ruined.
Nanette poked her head out from behind Calescent as Mrsha the Suddenly Accountable looked at Dame Ushar as the Thronebearer bowed to her. And the rest of her night?
Dishes. And cutting onions.
Ekirra and Visma got off easier, and their parents and siblings recovered them. Himilt was satisfied with that and sneaking away when the [Pirate]-[Farmer] caught him.
“Hold on. I saw you giving me the evil eye, fellow. Thought I’d be lashing those children?”
“…I was mistaken, sir. I hope you won’t take my actions amiss.”
“Not at all. Not at all. If I was in your shoes, I’d be ready to jump a man who did that, sea or land. I like you. And I’ve actually been wanting to talk to you, so this is a happy coincidence. Wailant Strongheart. Strongheart Farms—in Celum. You’re the Lischelle-Drakles. Practically royalty.”
The [Pirate] stuck out a hand challengingly, and now Himilt remembered the rumors of one of the most insane [Farmers] in the region who produced Sage’s Grass. He shook the hand.
“Himilt Drakle. A pleasure.”
“It is! Although all the competition’s starting to make me nervous. Like a man pissing next to a half-Giant. Have you heard about Riverfarm? My own daughter just brought me back a sample of their produce as a ‘gift’. D’you have a moment? Viceria, Viceria—here’s the Drakle family!”
“And you’ve made the worst impression so far, Wailant. Hello, sir. At least invite the family over!”
To Himilt’s surprise, the two [Farmers] were exceptionally cordial, if unique. In short order, he found himself discussing his new venture with Wailant.
“Seems like a huge risk, moving from Reizmelt all the way here. Don’t tell me the Drakes offering you a pittance to do it was why.”
“Not at all. Actually, our old farmlands were dead. Not even Skills could help—if we had them.”
“Damn, really? But you’re herders, right?”
“That is our speciality, but Liscor is so fertile, we’re hoping to expand the farms.”
Wailant poured Himilt a glass of wine.
“With what, magical crops or mundane? I can’t imagine you want to try mass-farming on the lumpy hills.”
“We will have to shift a lot of soil, but we are willing to put in the work. Even if we need to hire earth mages or the…Antinium. As for crops, we would, of course, try magical. Ashwheat. Something rare and profitable. We do feed our animals on such crops. But we’ve sold much of our herds and will acquire local stock.”
Wailant’s brows rose.
“Well. And I thought the only brave men were at sea. You’re starting completely over, aren’t you?”
The Vampire ducked his head.
“We must. So far, it has been a promising start.”
Promising, but lonely, despite them being closer to a city. And Himilt had realized that was because his family had to be, by their nature and necessity, private. Yet Wailant just indicated the door that led out the inn.
“Well, it wouldn’t be right for me not to offer a Lischelle-Drakle the hospitality of my house. Would you care for a luncheon or dinner sometime this week? You could take a look around, and if you need to know the best vendors, I can set you up. Although frankly, this inn is lucrative in itself.”
Himilt felt oddly touched by the gesture, and he ended up taking off his gloves to shake Wailant’s hand. The [Farmers] smiled, and Wailant winked.
“Just so you know—I’m hoping this might be a profitable relationship. The best kind. I might be ‘retired’, but it seems to me there is a world of possibility in Liscor, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw it.”
Himilt hadn’t actually considered that, only a place to be free. But as he shook Wailant’s hands and looked around for Colfa, he realized—
This might be a new chance in more ways than one. The Lischelle-Drakle family had always been careful not to be outstandingly rich or successful because that was dangerous. But Liscor?
New ventures could be a wild success. If you were willing to put in the work and you actually found success, of course. But a Vampire?
Himilt feared no work any more than he feared monsters. What he feared…he glanced at Ylawes.
What he feared was silver. And the people who carried it.
Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle knew that this was the hour she had been waiting for. A party. Entertainment. Already, huge names were coming into The Wandering Inn.
And here she was, stuck, while the inn was probably winding down for the day. She checked the clock gloomily.
Half past ten. Wonderful. And she was here.
It was inevitable. She was a secret broker. The inn was having a moment. This was the prime time to move information and secrets about Erin, the adventurers, and so on.
Very profitable, of course. Why, she’d just sold a weird [Thief] with a crystal hand all the information she had on the Thief of Clouds. And that [Thief] was a goldmine of information in and of themself.
Fierre suspected she was part of something bigger, like the thefts in Calanfer. But there were ranks to any group, and if the brokers who could tell you what was up were Named-rank, Fierre was, um…
Silver-rank. High-Silver or low Gold-rank, maybe, maybe, with all the gold she’d gotten from Ryoka, but Fierre felt like she was just Silver where she’d been Bronze in Reizmelt. She needed power, more contacts, more secrets.
So she had to sit here, put in the work, and be sad that she wasn’t getting to be in on the action. Fierre assured herself that there was a line, even at this late hour. How many brokers could boast of that?
How many brokers had more agents and didn’t have to have a line? She forced that idea out of her head as the Steel Golem, standing motionless on one side of the room, slowly scanned its head left and right, as if searching for threats. It did this every ten minutes, but it hadn’t moved from when Fierre had last told it to stand there.
A thin layer of dust already coated the reflective metal, but it just meant Fierre’s tiny office, hidden by the enchanted steel door, worked. Her single desk filled with notes and the cabinets behind her faced a wooden chair she’d upgraded to have a padded seat.
Quiet, professional—Fierre heard someone knocking and sighed.
No one even knows the knock anymore. That was fine. She’d paid off the Watch already.
The door opened—and Fierre tried her best mysterious smile with just a hint of fangs as she sat up behind her desk. She’d bought some more form-fitting clothing, in a quasi-[Assassin] look.
She still had yet to really unveil her full potential, but she was now familiar enough in her new body to understand how dangerous an opponent was. Seeing a war had told her that high levels could still threaten her—and that she was a threat.
So it was with confidence, mystique, and perhaps veiled sexual innuendo that she gave her new visitor a sly look. Then a look of horror.
Colfa Lischelle-Drakle looked around Fierre’s room.
“So this is where you work. It’s so…pedestrian, Fierre. Is that a Golem?”
She did a double-take as Fierre saw Colfa hadn’t even closed the door! A polite [Rogue] pulled it shut, and Colfa waved.
“I won’t be long! Just visiting my daughter.”
Fierre stared in growing horror as a group of…highly awkward robed or hooded figures stood in line. Like someone having a bad dream, thoughts swam into her panicking mind.
Why is my mother here? How did she find me? How long has she been waiting in line, and crucially—what did she say to them?
These were dire questions, and Fierre feared the worst. But Colfa was peering around the room.
“Fierre! I know you took on the Opener job because you wanted to be your own woman, but have we taught you nothing? Your desk is so plain. You have no decorations aside from this Golem—how much did it cost? Is that why you sent back so much gold? Your father was beside himself, and we did expect your presence anon at dinner.”
She was a bit casual since they weren’t being proper Vampires, but it still worked itself in. Colfa could direct [Shepherds] and talk shop with a [Butcher], after all. Fierre spluttered.
“Mother! My work is secret—how did you even find me?”
“Oh, Garia Strongheart told me when I asked. A very proper young woman who pays respect from blood to blood. Her father is a [Farmer]. A quite fascinating one.”
Garia. Fierre hissed, but Colfa wasn’t done.
“And your clothes!”
Fierre tried to cover her clothes, which were like [Assassin]’s garb…yes…
Cosplay assassins. Colfa pointed at it.
“Completely unacceptable. No daughter of mine will look like some nightwalker. Night stalker, Fierre. Less bodice and webbing, more cloak.”
Colfa wasn’t done. She pointed at the far wall.
“And your wall? It’s pale beige. Beige, Fierre? Are you some kind of [Scribe]? You could do black or red or even texture it like brickwork. No drapes? No…ambiance?”
“Mother, it’s my office. I can decorate it how I want!”
Fierre’s aggrieved tone seemed to hurt her mother, and Colfa sighed.
“I’m sure you do very well. You had a lot of very keen customers. I shan’t take up your time! But at least let me…”
She found a handkerchief and began dusting the Golem. Fierre protested, but that was the thing about mothers. Fierre was going to dust the Golem! Just—at some point. Then her mother placed something on the table.
“Although we drink the ichor of others, I thought you might be hungry. Here.”
Fierre stared down at her favorite bloody shepherd’s pie as Colfa looked around. She smiled, and Fierre muttered.
“Make sure to visit tomorrow or we shall worry.”
She pinched Fierre’s cheek affectionately, then swept out of the office. And it was a real sweep. Fierre wished she could pretend to that level of casual arrogance that made one of the people in line step out of the way deferentially and another tip his hat to her.
Then again, that might come from being royalty among [Herders]. Fierre did tuck into her food because her mother was gone, and she resented that Colfa had somehow known Fierre hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
She had the terrible feeling that the next guests had received something like a baked snack from Colfa, because one of them was crunching on something, and another hid what looked suspiciously like a meat strudel behind their back when she walked in.
Fierre glumly provided intelligence to someone else who wanted intelligence on a ‘Jerom’—he looked familiar, or rather, his blood felt familiar, but she didn’t ask questions of Lyonette’s people. She took a report on a theft from a [Merchant] and sent a notification to the Merchant’s Guild—as if they didn’t know who had it already and weren’t negotiating.
And then the most interesting visitor of the day walked in, eyed the Golem, and took a seat. Fierre stopped and stared, a fork raised. Indeed, even the people waiting outside had gone quiet. They backed up because even if they were ‘permitted’, the sight of a dozen Goblins, most Hobs, appearing on the quiet street alarmed even Invrisil’s rogues.
Redscar, Badarrow, and Snapjaw had joined Poisonbite’s team to escort a single person into Fierre’s office. Rags nodded to Fierre.
Technically, it was night, but the greeting completely caught the Vampire off-guard. She gulped.
“You’re Chieftain Rags, aren’t you?”
In her office? Of course, she’d intended to meet Rags, and she knew she was a friend of The Wandering Inn and Erin, but—the Goblin was eying Fierre’s cabinets with great interest. She sniffed at the remains of the pie, then spoke.
“I am. Do you know me?”
Fierre blinked and hesitated. The Goblin had to know who she was, so despite her panic, she found a piece of paper and read from it.
“Flooded Waters Tribe? High Passes, estimated at least six thousand Goblins, high-level Hobs, some possibly over Level 30. Ogres and Carn Wolf auxiliaries, and it’s estimated at a Level 40+ infiltration job? No huge…worthwhile goods aside from monster parts.”
Rags raised her brows. She looked impressed.
“40+ to steal from us?”
“No, 40+ for infiltration means to get in and out without someone getting killed. You can force it below the issue, but it’s our benchmark.”
“Ah. Hm. Not bad.”
Rags looked vaguely pleased at the appraisal. Fierre fumbled with the paper. This was incredible. A Goblin in Invrisil?
Wasn’t that insane? But no—she knew there were Goblins in the underworld, and let’s assume you were the Watch. If you saw some people with hoods on down the street, you might be curious, but you wouldn’t assume they were Goblins.
Yet only this Goblin would be so bold! Fierre flashed back to the Kraken Eater Goblins who’d gotten loose, and she wondered if she were in danger.
Heh. I’m not the one in danger, she is! Fierre was confident—right until she looked up and saw Rags watching her. The Goblin made her nervous, despite being short and Fierre having a Golem nearby.
“You’re Fierre. Erin told me about you.”
“She did? Oh, so that’s how you found me?”
Rags shook her head.
“No. I knew about you. [Rogues] know you as one of Invrisil’s Openers. When I asked, Normen told me you were good. Reliable.”
Now that made Fierre blush slightly. If a Brother said it, that was a recommendation worth a lot! She wondered if he’d let her quote him.
“Well—I do my best. And I am an Opener. Ahem. Excuse me, I’ve never had a Goblin as a client. Can I…help you?”
Rags narrowed her eyes slightly.
“I think so. So I know—I pay you for whatever information I need.”
“Information, connections, secrets, weak spots—even blueprints, plans. I can get you anything, but remember—you never saw me. That’s the rules around here. Not that anyone writes them down, but it’s about trust. Gold up front—and if I cross you, my reputation and life is on the line.”
It felt weird saying all that out loud, but Fierre felt like it was necessary. Rags thought about this.
“Hm. Anyone ever try to kill you?”
“Mostly only idiots who make mistakes and want to blame me for it. I’ve handled a few—but one time I sold information that got me hexed.”
Fierre still sometimes felt a prick and wondered if she had a needle still buried in her body. She shuddered, and Rags nodded.
“So you choose your danger. I understand. Well. I am Rags. You know me. Will you take me as a client?”
The question surprised the Vampire girl, but she nodded slowly.
“Can you pay? I could accept more than gold.”
“I have gold. I have a lot I want to know, but how did you know that about Goblinhome? The [Rogues], I assume?”
Fierre waved that off.
“Don’t take it personally. Information is gold, so if a dealer came to you to make contact, they’d sell it. Not to adventurers—not unless they really thought there was nothing to gain. Er…”
Then she realized she’d just given away valuable intelligence. Rags didn’t smile, but Fierre caught herself. Clever Goblin.
She sat up a bit and stabbed her leg with a toe to wake up. Rags nodded, glancing at the Golem.
“Good. Then you know quite a lot.”
Fierre had bought a bunch of connections with gold, which was an expensive way to put yourself ahead. She nodded.
“I’m well connected. How can I help you? Consider everything I’ve said a free sample of my intelligence networks. Mind you, I won’t help if you try and attack Tenbault. That’d land me in hot water; even Faces—high-level criminals—need the Healer. Some don’t like you on the basis of that alone; some think your tribe is very valuable. Have you gotten any offers for employment as [Mercenaries]? Oh, and what did you get from the Healer? Any…spells?”
She was itching to know any of this, but Rags just studied her fingernails. To Fierre’s mortification, the Goblins were calmer than she was! Maybe her mother had a point about the atmosphere.
“I can tell you—if you help me first. If you know [Rogues] are visiting Goblinhome—we’ve been trading for their artifacts. I know their names. But they’re probably fake. Do you know a Whet? [Rogue], five feet ten inches tall, black hair, has a slightly limp back foot. Two curved blades on his hips, a stiletto on wrist? Carries a spell to make him jump in a scroll on his belt.”
Fierre’s fingers twitched. Her mind lit up as she sorted through identities.
“…I can do a lookup. Sounds familiar, but that’s not actually distinguishing for a [Rogue]. Still, there are only a few who’d make contact with your tribe.”
“…The catalog on offer had a ‘scrying spell deflection’ spell by Mage Aumeth for sale. They also offered strange blades. Shurikens. Very…twisty blades with multiple edges.”
“Aha. Aha. That sounds like you made contact with the Wharf group.”
Fierre knew who sold Drathian-related items. Only a few had harbor access, and she named the likeliest mob who dealt in goods, not services like the Brothers. Rags smiled.
“That’s what they called themselves.”
Fierre and Rags sat back for a moment in mutual appreciation. So, that had been a test. Fierre was glad she had said it.
“So, are you not happy with their goods?”
“Mm. No. They’re decent. They work. But only the [Rogue] came to deliver goods, and he asked for Wyvern hides and other parts in payment. Gold, gemstones…his prices seemed high. Even for me.”
Now, Fierre understood. She smiled tightly. Oldest con in the books was selling to someone who had no other options.
“Oh, I see. So you’d like me to take a catalog or look into whether they’re ripping you off? Cheating you? Do you have a catalog?”
For answer, Rags slid a pamphlet of paper over the table, and Fierre chuckled. But Rags just smiled blandly.
“No. I want to know by how much they’re cheating me. This is useful, right?”
“Oh, very. My goodness, is this their complete catalog of saleable items? And they just let you have it?”
Rags shrugged. She probably understood what she’d just given Fierre, but the Vampire had to explain.
“This…this is all their latest prices on all the goods they sell. They must have thought you could afford a lot, but their representatives don’t leave this lying around. Tell you what. Can I make a copy of this? I will give you a lot of credit. It’s worth money to all their competitors and enemies.”
“Sure. I like credit. It’s worthless unless we work together. But I think we can work together.”
Rags folded her hands over her stomach as Fierre quickly produced a magnifying glass. She ran it over the catalog, page by page, then ran it over a blank piece of paper. The ‘copied’ text was often blurred and badly transferred, so Fierre had to jot down quick notes and prices, but it even captured the layout.
As she worked, she looked at Rags.
“I can have a list of market prices and competitors you could find in a day’s time. I’ll even help you make contact if you can get word to me. There are speaking stones and [Message] spells that can’t be easily tracked.”
“I know. But I don’t want other competitors. It’s too much work. If they cheat us, we’re Goblins. We go into a city? We die. Better to deal with this Wharf if they’re reliable.”
That was true. Fierre shrugged; she had never considered how ‘monsters’ would have to deal with even the underworld on unfavorable terms.
“So, what? Information?”
“Mm. Information. But…I heard that Openers could open letters too. Get you things. Get rid of things.”
The Vampire glanced up, and her hand paused with the magnifying glass in hand.
“Normally I approach a fence, but I have moved items that come in Runner’s letters now and then. Why?”
Rags scratched at her chin.
“Well. I don’t need many criminal artifacts. Some—but my smiths don’t have lots of iron in the mountains. We have to dig for veins. Wood is expensive. Everything is hard to transfer. But the inn has a door, and Palt the Centaur is a…shady [Illusionist].”
“Ullsinoi. He’s a contact for spells and recreational drugs. Nothing dangerous. Yeah, why?”
An idea was percolating in Fierre’s mind, and it was the same one that Rags was surely here about. The Vampire slowly closed the catalog and slid it back over the table. Rags fixed Fierre with a smile.
“How hard is it for an Opener who knows everything to get me…two thousand steel nails? Fifteen pounds of butter? Books? Chickens? We have to find a way to take it home, but if you get me what I want, I will pay you to get it.”
Fierre blinked. She had expected it, but when Rags said it, Fierre realized—she wanted a broker. Someone to carry out her goals in Invrisil. Instantly, Fierre went to danger and benefits.
The danger was…being associated with Rags. Perhaps it’d be suspicious if she bought all that, but it wasn’t hard to hire someone to buy nails. And Rags was hardly a wanted monster like the Goblin Lord. The Wharf might be unhappy, but business was business.
And the plus side really outweighed that. Rags might be a Goblin in a tribe, and maybe she was ‘poor’, but if the Wharf wanted her business—
Imagine a town’s worth of goods. Even a fairly self-sufficient one imported sugar and goods and whatnot. Six thousand of them? Even if it were only six thousand…
Imagine the tariffs on all the goods they bought. And Goblins paid no tariffs, and neither did the underworld. So imagine you, Fierre, were pulling all the coin off a margin on whatever you bought.
The Vampire almost drooled at the thought. Rags gave Fierre a smile, and the Opener pulled herself together. Focus.
“Why me? Because I’m a friend of the inn?”
“Yep. You’re probably trustworthy. More than a random [Rogue]. So, how about it? I give you coin, you give me things I need. Say—the nails, tomorrow? Small list?”
“Let me—let me just call a few people. By all means, did you say two thousand steel nails? Any size? Fifteen pounds of butter—why chickens?”
Rags scowled as she sighed.
“My cooks want it. Chickens? My Goblins want feather pillows, and they want to raise chickens for food.”
“I could get you pre-made pillows. Soft ones. Silk or filled with Sariant wool, even. Pricey, but there’s very reasonable goose feather ones.”
Rags perked up as Fierre slyly began to scribble numbers down. She smiled and reached across the table. Fierre eyed the claw, then took it. Both gave each other a toothy grin.
“I think we could do business.”
The Goblin smirked, and the Vampire’s eyes twinkled with avarice.
“I quite agree. Speaking of—is there anything else I should know about coming up tomorrow? Anything with your tribe or the inn, or are you really just here to visit?”
Rags gave Fierre a polite smile.
“I had my talk. Now? I get to watch the fun.”
The inn was the place to be for meetings. For opportunity. If Rags were one example, well, seeing the meetings of adventurers, knowing this was the place of <Quests>, it all but confirmed it for others.
Like the new lamb named Nerry. She had been very sedate as she trotted from table to table, charming guests. A Sariant Lamb, like a housecat, was an actual draw for an establishment. Nerry curled up next to a snoozing Ksmvr, who had won the right to host her in the now-full guest rooms.
Adventurers and Qwera filled the other rooms, and the inn was quite spacious and nice, even for a Sariant Lamb. Why, you could even hear some of the occupants up late at night. Having intimate encounters.
Or, like Ysara and Ylawes, having the world’s quietest screaming match. The little lamb might not have been able to open doors, but she could hop up and down stairs quietly and listen under doorways.
However—she hadn’t found a way into the secret rooms in the inn or the garden. She’d tried, and a force had held her back from the entrance. Later. She slept, knowing her time would come.
Like that, the first night of The Wandering Inn ended. A night of reunions, of laughter, of bittersweet talk and meetings. When people woke, it was time for actual activities, festivities, the bazaar—and for the real celebrations to begin amping up.
However, even the best couldn’t predict what would come the next day.
The day started for Rags with waking up in an unfamiliar bed. She got up, grumbled, and felt at her sheets. She was serious when she told Erin that she valued sheets more than people in her bed. She liked a good damn bed, alright? The inn had quite lovely beds, but she’d already put in an order for some more good silk sheets and pillows for herself. Even magical sheets. Imagine how much you could get.
Fierre had told her you could buy an actual waterbed where you pulled a sheet of water over yourself as you slept. It didn’t sound the most comfortable, but it did sound fun.
…Unfortunately, Rags’ bed was occupied, a phenomenon she had grown used to. She kicked one body who grunted and another who kicked back.
Poisonbite, Redscar, and Taganchiel glared at Rags, but she mercilessly jabbed them awake. They had not been having fun. In fact, Rags’ rule was that if you found someone nice, you would not sully her room with it.
The reason they were sleeping four to a bed was that even with renovations, Erin’s inn could not physically house all the Goblins, adventurers, regular guests, and new staff. Even some of the guests like Qwera’s staff had to find other places or sleep multiple per bed.
Badarrow and Snapjaw got a smaller single room to themselves, but this room had two big beds—and the other one had six more Goblins sprawled out in various poses. All things considered, the Goblins had really enjoyed the accommodations.
Redscar stared out a glass window as the sun rose over the High Passes. He hmmed as Poisonbite fought over her clothes with one of her warriors.
What a strange way to live. He missed not waking up with Thunderfur, but he supposed it had some appeal. Numbtongue certainly lived like this, but as the Redfangs knew, he was a nerd.
As for Rags, she was poking everyone out of bed with a simple promise.
“Breakfast. Breakfast. Up.”
The idea of breakfast stirred her lazy Goblins, and soon they were dressing, buckling on belts, and arguing over whether they should explore the old Flooded Waters tribe cave or stay around the inn all day.
It certainly seemed like a fun vacation. However, before they filed out, Rags had an idea. She raised a claw, and Poisonbite stopped teasing Badarrow and Snapjaw, who’d come in from their private rooms.
“Hold on. I got a new Skill yesterday. I’m going to try it out. Poisonbite—stand there.”
The Goblin instantly hid behind Badarrow. No one liked being the test subject of a new Skill, and every Goblin threw themselves out of the way of the finger.
“What’s the new Skill, Chieftain?”
Redscar didn’t move as Rags grinned. The Goblin pointed at him—then nodded at Poisonbite as she aimed her second finger at the cursing Goblin.
“[The Innkeeper’s Daily Bounty].”
Poisonbite shrieked, covered her head, and ducked as she tensed—and here Rags had to admit, in hindsight, that for all her study of the common language, she still had something to learn.
Because she had assumed, quite reasonably, that there was only one word for bounty. She, personally, had only ever heard it employed one way, but that was the thing about language. Poisonbite shrieked as something struck her. She looked up—and the first egg bounced off her head with a thunk and landed on the floor.
Thunk. Thunk. Crack.
Four eggs hit Poisonbite in the head as she looked up.
Redscar caught one of the eggs as it bounced off Poisonbite’s forehead and she swore. They hurt! That was because, to her great surprise, as Redscar checked the cracks, he saw no oozing yolk. They were, in fact, boiled eggs.
“Eggs? Chieftain, what’s your Skill?”
“I don’t know! It said bounty, bounty!”
Eggs were raining down on poor Poisonbite, and the goblin shrieked back.
“What bounty? Egg bounty? What are you, an [Egg Bounty Hunter]?”
Someone coughed in the doorway, and all the Goblins turned. The surreptitious nerd himself, Numbtongue, was laughing at Poisonbite.
“Bounty. Bounty as in, generous. A bounty of food.”
The [Bard] grinned. Poisonbite raised an egg to throw at him, then glanced up. She swore.
A ham hit her in the face, and she went down. Rags stared. It was a lot of food pouring out of the air! Was…was that ham green?
It was. And then she saw why it was Erin’s bounty: because only she would make a loaf as black as night to join the eggs and ham. Poisonbite looked up and rolled out of the way as a spoon nearly took out an eye.
[The Innkeeper’s Bounty] turned out to be, well…breakfast. Or, Rags realized with the new definition in mind, whatever an [Innkeeper] might serve.
But, crucially here, an Erin-style breakfast or supplies. Which meant it was stupid.
Stupidly delicious. The Goblins were already stuffing themselves as they came downstairs, much to an [Innkeeper]’s indignation. She put her hands on her hips as her special continental breakfast lost some of its charm.
“Hey! Who gave you all that food?”
Erin’s jaw fell open, but that was nothing to Palt. The Centaur was coming down the stairs as Rags explained the free food, and he slipped. The crash and scream of a Centaur falling down the stairs?
Indescribable. Imani raced out of the guest rooms she and Palt still used despite their new lodgings in Liscor, and found Erin pouring a bit of potion over Palt. Everyone else came down, but the Centaur barely felt the pain. He was pointing at Rags.
“I didn’t break my leg, did I? I didn’t—good. She’s got a cornucopia Skill! How does she have—that’s one of the rarest Skills along with healing!”
The Goblin stopped. Another word she didn’t know. She munched on a slice of the deliciously fresh ham as several of Erin’s guests made suitably awed noises. Mostly Ceria, Ksmvr, and Mrsha, who imagined what they’d do with all that free food.
Eat it. They’d eat it.
Rags, for her part, was quite pleased by another supplement to the food issue that often plagued Goblins. But she just had one question.
“…Why is the ham green?”
“Eggs is green too. Chieftain.”
Redscar spoke between a mouthful of egg as Numbtongue tried not to correct him and say, ‘eggs are’. Because he was a word-nerd.
It was funny, to Erin, to see a relationship that she hadn’t known existed of the Redfangs punching each other and teasing Numbtongue. But she was also perplexed by the eggs.
“They look…different. Is something in ‘em?”
She was worried, but Poisonbite chewed happily.
“Melty cheese. Hot eggs. Nice eggs. This one has bits of bacon inside.”
“Green eggs? Are they from…green birds?”
Everyone looked at him. Bird waved his arms frantically.
“Super green birds! Even the whites of the eggs are greens! I must know which bird they came from!”
Rags pointed at the ham—it didn’t taste bad. Erin heard a snort. She turned, and Kevin had come up.
“I bet I know. It’s green eggs and ham, Erin. That is so like you.”
“Wh—no it’s not! Wait, that’s hilarious. I’d totally do that. But I haven’t!”
“Then maybe it’s something you would do? Or have you never made green ham before?”
Erin hesitated. Everyone stared at her, and she scuffed a toe on the floor.
“Maaaaaybe for Christmas. Y’know, Dr. Seuss? But I’m amazed the Skill grabbed that!”
“This. This is why you have a [Chef], Erin. Imani, my dear, do I look like I’ve recovered my dignity?”
“Recovered, yes. Dignity? You had little to begin with, my bygone stallion.”
Imani teased him, and Palt looked hurt.
“I give the flirtatious appellations, thank you. As for food—someone pass me the ham. Or anything to eat. It’s going to be a busy day.”
When you started with green eggs and ham, you couldn’t start any better. That was how Erin saw things, but what a morning.
The inn was opening to regular customers for breakfast, so Erin glumly munched on bisque as her friends ate, then she switched over to real food. But the chaos of yesterday was turning into real energy today.
“Free green eggs! Just peel ‘em and eat! Genius. They have food inside them! Why don’t we carry these, Suxhel?”
Lehra waved around the eggs, which were filled with treats, like a devilled egg yolk or cheese or bits of bacon. Suxhel answered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Because they’ve already been cooked. Take them with you on a trip and they’ll rot.”
The Gnoll karate-chopped the egg in half, and Emper blocked a fragment of eggshell as it spun towards his face. Lehra’s team gave her such glowers that she hunched over and began to eat like an adult.
However, Erin grinned and forgave Lehra for yesterday. She was such a funny Named-rank adventurer! Unfortunately, Lehra was enough for everyone by herself—but this was The Wandering Inn.
The guests got stupid. Garia Strongheart was staying here, having never left the group, and when she tried to copy the chop, she struck her plate so hard she split it in half, flipped half her table up, and took Numbtongue out as the edge of his table rocketed up and slapped him on the chin. Mrsha stared as Garia bent over him, apologizing. Then she got up in her chair and performed a headbutt straight into her plate.
Qwera looked amused, Lyonette horrified. Ylawes, who was silent this morning, stared at the worst manners he had ever seen—straight until Dawil joined the scolding.
“That’s not what you do at a table, Miss Mrsha. Watch.”
He took a boiled egg and cracked it over his forehead. Like a gentleman. Rags’ Skill was clearly meant for a tribe, so there was food to spare.
In fact, there was so much that Moore was eating his fill for once, but Seborn was adamant about not even touching the green stuff.
“I grew up on a ship. Sometimes, provisions rotted, and that was all we had. I’ve eaten actual green ham. No. And no.”
Nanette peeked at Seborn as she nibbled at a magical croissant roll. She was timid, but even Nerry the lamb seemed to like the day’s food. However—to Inkar’s mild chagrin, she was eating an entire rash of bacon.
“Don’t worry, Sariant Lambs eat anything people do.”
Tkrn assured her, and Inkar nodded uneasily.
“I know—deer eat baby birds. But she looks happy.”
She was beginning to pick up on Nerry’s advanced intelligence, and that, more than anything, made the girl used to animals uneasy. However, her comment provoked a coughing fit at another table.
“Deer don’t eat birds. What are you talking about?”
Joseph grinned as Inkar gave him a strange look.
“Yes they do. Cows too. And horses.”
“Nah, that’s when they’re sick. They’re herbivores.”
“Who eat meat. When they need the nutrients.”
“…They don’t eat meat. Kevin, back me up.”
“Dude. I’m not an animal expert. Inkar is. Deer eat birds? That’s gross, man. Too bad you didn’t download Wikipedia onto your stuff. Inkar—how was the trip? I’ve got a bike for you if you want to try it.”
Inkar smiled at Kevin shyly; the Earthers had a camaraderie, even if they didn’t know each other.
“Thank you. Can Tkrn ride with me?”
“Hey, you got it. Anything for you two.”
Kevin nodded at Inkar and turned back to his tablemates, Joseph and Bird—the Antinium’s mouth was open.
“Bird? Hey buddy, what’s up?”
“I have competition? More competition? I thought horses were an ally!”
Bird began slapping the table as everyone laughed at him. But Inkar eyed Kevin and leaned over to whisper in his ear. Tkrn tried not to listen in or look jealous.
“Kevin. Kevin, that reminds me. You have a laptop and phones, right? And your bicycles—you should give them all to Krshia for a week.”
Inkar showed him her phone covertly as Rags, Pisces, and half a dozen people either looked up sharply and curiously or pretended like they had no idea what was going on.
“She can upgrade it.”
Kevin’s eyes bugged out as he saw her phone. He grabbed Joseph, and Joseph grabbed him back.
Poisonbite mocked them from the table, and it had already been ironic.
She sniggered, but Numbtongue was gazing up sharply with the scent of someone hearing that his favorite object besides his guitar could get…better. Rags glanced at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.
“That’s something I think we should show you, Rags. And I don’t even have to be there. I hear Lyonette’s got a chess tournament going on, and there’s the bazaar, Lyonette’s activities—but there’s always time for a phone, right?”
Phones. Phones were something, you had to admit. Even if you came from a world where you were used to them, the modern phone even of Erin’s 2016 was so advanced it could do things that would astound any Human who had come in centuries before.
And that was back then. Inkar’s upgraded phone was so powerful that, if it had internet, it would have been able to perform an endless number of functions with ease. Without?
It was…less useful. However, consider the uses.
It could perform any number of advanced mathematical calculations in the blink of an eye, take perfect recordings of sound and image, play music and even entertainment. Depending on the apps, it could translate words, play games, and all it took was a [Repair] spell to keep it going forever.
For someone who didn’t know what a phone was—it was addictive. So real that when the first enemy came screaming at Redscar, he nearly broke Kevin’s laptop with a punch.
So—imagine how addictive this technology was if you had context, even if you were an Earther. Now, imagine if you were a Goblin who got to play with one.
Then, imagine if you were a Drake with onyx black scales, who had found a phone, managed to unlock it, and had the most wondrous, mysterious device, all available at the tap of a claw.
Lady Salkis Blackwing was from one of Pallass’ largest noble families. The Wall Lord and Lady tradition was weak in the Walled City of Inventions, but she was still related to the late Thrissiam Blackwing and General Edellein.
Her own father, Lord Werdin, and her stepmother, the Garuda, Melika, were high nobility in Pallass. For context, Sir Relz, the monocled Drake now the beloved star of Pallass, had been a brownnoser compared to the cream of society that Salkis was in.
—It didn’t stop her from being practically confined to the Blackwing family estate, though. Salkis was in huge trouble. She had been ever since she had returned from the Meeting of Tribes.
Not that her father had seen her fighting, thankfully. Salkis had actually found herself in the mass battles, but there was so much confusion that unless you knew she was there, she could claim she had been on an adventure with the Titan of Baleros. She’d run away like the innocent Drake she was and fallen in with terrible adventurers!
She thought at least her father had bought it. He really couldn’t believe she had gone off to fight deliberately, and his wrath had abated over this month mostly because Salkis hadn’t gone out and caused trouble.
And that was because…
Salkis rolled over in her bed, clutching at the phone. If anyone knocked, she’d hide it under her covers, but right now, she was listening to a very, very quiet song.
Music! While she tapped happily and a fat bird ruined a few structures with its face. Salkis hadn’t even listened to every song—there were hundreds! But ever since the helpful [Lockpicker] had opened it—
Oh, she was so glad Ryoka Griffin hadn’t died. Because this phone was amazing. Salkis opened up the photos and stared at images of Ryoka’s most personal lifestyle. She paged through street graffiti that Ryoka had found interesting, an attempted selfie, her posing under a streetlamp—
The amount of blackmail she had was amazing. Not least the fact that this was an old phone that Ryoka had had for years. It had…personal voice recordings. Videos. And a lot of songs and music that Ryoka liked.
But the main thing in Salkis’ heart right now was a burning curiosity to know what the hell this was. She knew it was an iPhone, and she had deciphered some information from the product details, but none of it made sense.
Even if this were top-secret, Salkis heard Edellein talking with her father. She would have known if an artifact this powerful were in the possession of a Walled City or in the world. Since they hadn’t discussed it, she had to assume it was even more top-secret still, and why would Ryoka have it then?
Or…Salkis was wrestling with another idea. She was coming to the same conclusion as a certain Sinew Magus, but unlike Grimalkin, Salkis could well believe that there was some secret she didn’t know about.
After all. She was a Bloodfeast Raider.
Mind you, Salkis hadn’t done any raiding since she’d left with the Fellowship of the Inn. It had been a whim, the hunch that the Goblin, Numbtongue, could lead her to a great and bloody adventure.
Well, she’d gotten that, but not in the way she expected. Now she was in trouble, but Salkis didn’t care.
She was famous. Her father still let her go out once a week, and he was easing up; the moment Salkis had found some of her real friends, they had been all over her. They knew that she’d been in the Meeting of Tribes, and they told her that the others were furious.
The Raiders had a hierarchy, and Salkis wouldn’t have denied that made her nervous, but even the others in the city who shared her tastes looked at her like someone who’d gotten to rub shoulders with legends. The Titan? Fighting in a war?
She basked in their approbations. For a few hours. Then she went back, played on her phone, and claimed, accurately, that her father had kept her from going out.
But she was sure that she could have begged Werdin to let her visit her friends’ estates. He thought they painted each other’s nails or gossiped.
In reality, the truth was more complex. Salkis didn’t go out on the town or visit the raiders, and not just because the phone fascinated her. That was one thing. The other was…
Ancestors, my friends are so boring.
The Drake did not say that out loud. She just thought it and wondered why she suddenly found them boring. They were dangerous, able to kill, wild and crazy—
And she just thought it sounded weird. They had asked if she wanted to join another raid soon, and she had gone…eh, inside. Because what was the point?
Fighting, killing. That wasn’t a war. That wasn’t marching across half a continent with Goblins and Antinium, sneaking past armies, literally running with them! Salkis feared the Titan had given her too much of an adrenaline rush.
Or…the Drake tapped disconsolately at the iPhone, and Ryoka’s voice echoed out.
“Diary, um, number fourteen. Fuck, I forget. I don’t know. I’m just—am I really going to go to college? Or am I—”
There was something Salkis was missing, much like Ryoka’s chronicling of her own personal torment. And that something was…
Oh, maybe marching through the tall grass, picking ticks off your scales and pointing them out and watching the Antinium eat them. Or sitting around as the Fellowship talked with a Goblin playing guitar and teasing Gna.
For some reason, Salkis missed that. She missed that, and it irked her. Much like Ryoka’s recordings.
“—it’s what my dad wants. Which makes me tempted to burn down the college. Just burn down his company—and wouldn’t that be a great change for the world if I got him and all his friends in the same building? They’re not all evil, but they’re all rich millionaires or, hell, billionaires. Anyone in political office is. Can you burn down all of Wall Street? I’m probably on a watch list already, but I just want to take it all out rather than waste my life.”
“You and me both, Ryoka. You and me both.”
Salkis rolled over a third time and fell out of bed. Instantly, she rolled upright.
She was bored. She wanted out, but not…not the raiders. If she missed one group, one person, it was…
Well, probably Numbtongue. The Drake thought about the [Bard] and smiled as she checked the news. If there was anything my father would forbid me from doing, it’s going right back there again.
Which made her really want to do it. So she thought about what excuse would get her out of the house that morning as she tucked the iPhone away. And if she found an answer to the phone while she was at it? Numbtongue did know Ryoka Griffin.
Plus, when you got down to it, the Goblin was hot.
He couldn’t keep getting away with it. That [Bard].
How dare he? Troy watched with dark scowls for the Goblin. How dare he charm and philander his way with so many? Nevermind that he was open about it. First Octavia, then Garia? Then…did he have no shame?
Troy scowled along with Menolit, Relc, Ksmvr—who had no idea why everyone was glaring but wanted to be part of things—Ylawes for the impropriety—and Mrsha as Lyonette demoed her new activities for the day in the inn.
Garia, Octavia—how did he do it? Then he got Visma, and Mrsha’s scowl became a glare of rage. Just because he was probably good looking, played a guitar, was good in a fight, generally nice, and he gave gemstones to people? Was that the basis for liking someone?
Visma gasped as he gave her a bit of emerald glued to a stone. The Hobgoblin grinned and gave her a thumbs-up. Then he went over to watch the group activity as a bunch of children sat at one of the tables.
Only Mrsha glared at him, and Octavia leaned over to whisper.
“What’s with Mrsha?”
“Dunno. Maybe I erased her save data?”
“Weird. Thanks for bringing me breakfast. I got you this.”
Octavia shyly handed him something, and Numbtongue peered at the vial marked ‘bubble bath’. He grinned and put it in a pocket.
Redscar whispered, and Numbtongue whirled to punch him, but the other Goblin blocked the fist. They all watched as Lyonette’s plan for the day took shape.
“Design your own Antinium?”
Erin hadn’t heard of yesterday’s exhaustive planning until today, and she looked slightly askance as the children drew on a front and back image of an Antinium Worker or Soldier. More guests had come with the children, and Jerom was sitting against the bar as Fierre yawned and scribbled on a piece of parchment in one part of the inn. Himilt had come to admire Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary], and Lyonette was distractedly talking.
“Yes, a chess game. Can you attend? The prize is modest—eighty gold pieces, but we will have excellent players from around the world! It will be broadcast via Wistram News Network if there is time…”
She was having trouble. But she hadn’t asked for help—yet. Erin watched Visma dab glittery paint all over her Antinium.
“Is this in bad taste?”
She whispered to Bird and Ksmvr, and both Antinium looked at her.
“I do not know. I am Bird.”
“I am not part of the Free Hive either.”
Erin turned to Klbkch, but the Prognugator just shrugged when she sidled over.
“Children are performing an activity with Antinium. This is a positive for the Antinium as I see it.”
“Yeah, but it’s painting. That’s sort of a personal thing for the Painted Antinium, you know?”
Klbkch stared blankly at Erin and sighed audibly.
“Is this another emotional element for them? I would not know, Erin. I do not paint my shell.”
Erin gave up. Clearly a representative for the Painted Antinium was not here, and the children seemed to be having…mild fun.
“Miss Lyonette, Miss Lyonette, I’m done! Can I fly it now?”
The first child to be done was Ekirra, who ran over so Ushar could help him attach it to a bit of string. Then the paper could soar in a brisk breeze.
“Anyone gone to the bazaar yet? I’m going to.”
“It’s pretty exciting, Erin. There’s a lot on sale.”
Selys smiled as Erin casually opened a roll of parchment and winced at what she saw. The [Innkeeper] looked up with a laugh.
“Then I’ll definitely go! I want to see what Ysara and Qwera sell.”
“Oh—can you wait, Erin? I’m trying to find a bunch of activities, but I still don’t have quite enough to fill all of today!”
Lyonette was fretting, and Erin sighed, but agreed to hold on. She sat there as Mrsha industriously slapped her Antinium sketch with black pawprints…then stared at the Antinium and drooped as she remembered.
Today, the only big thing Erin knew she was part of was the chess tournament, and she actually thought her day might be restful. However, Rags had reminded her that it was one thing to talk or be ‘friends’ and another to know someone.
So, thoughtfully, she gazed down at the [Message] scroll as she idled at the bar and began to write. Once more, The Wandering Inn began to fill with guests. Lyonette was hopefully organizing the chess tournament. She had a bracket system and everything for people to win upwards and challenge Erin.
International guests would start ‘higher’ than a general tourney locally, which would produce around sixty of the top players. Then they would repeatedly clash on their way up.
She’d promised Erin that the [Innkeeper] wouldn’t be ‘forced’ to play more players as she would be seeded very high. Which just went to show that she really didn’t understand Erin’s passions at all.
Naturally, Drassi was there, because the tournament with a cash prize was news. However…one look at the inn setting up board games on a lot of the tables and Drassi saw a problem.
“…like heck this is going to be fun to watch…”
Erin glanced up as the Drake edged past her to have a conference with Lyonette. The [Innkeeper] smiled. She glanced down, and a line of text appeared.
“Is he checking this every five minutes? That wasn’t even twenty seconds!”
Grumbling, she went back to writing, but…she got it. Multiple things. For instance, she really got the fact that watching chess nonstop on Wistram News Network Channel 2 would probably crash Drassi’s viewership rating.
That was probably why the Drake kept glancing at her. After all, Drassi had to be thinking the same thing Erin was fearing.
It might be time for an interview.
Erin Solstice had been interviewed before, but as ‘[Innkeeper] of that inn that just suffered a monster attack’. Never before as Erin Solstice.
Today, though? Erin saw Drassi arguing with a nervous Lyonette, and Erin felt like the [Princess] should have asked for more help. If not from Erin alone, perhaps from others? After all, Erin never did anything by herself. Lyonette had the basis. But problems were encroaching from multiple angles.
Pawn was marching through the door with Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile, and some of the Painted Antinium with a look that said he wanted to talk to the [Princess], and this time, no Thronebearers were going to get in his way. Also, Liscor’s entertainment director, poor Teliv, the [Negotiator], was fretting about more activities. One could not hand-paint their way out of all the children and guests here.
Well, Erin would handle some of that burden. Juuuust as soon as she finished here.
For she was writing, and the conversation, if you were a certain little lamb innocently reading upside-down while an [Innkeeper] gave you the stink-eye, looked something like this.
Niers: Nice hat.
Erin: Yo, yo. What’s up? How’s it going?
Niers: Yo indeed?
Niers: I apologize, I forgot you were entirely on a vacation.
Erin: It’s cool. :)
Niers: Aha. Anazu-speak.
Niers: That’s what some [Mages] call the little symbols.
Erin: Emotes. Emojis. Um…smiley faces. You’re going to be seeing a lot of ‘em, I bet.
Erin: u mad? ヽ(ಠ_ಠ)ノ?
Niers: No, I just hate having to learn new languages. Better to be fluent now. ◔_◔
Erin: …You’re no fun.
Niers: I’m studious. Do you want to talk over a game of chess? I can squeeze one in for the morning if we make it fast. 10 seconds per move?
Erin: Eh. I’m sort of busy.
Niers: Ah, understood. It’s been difficult for us to play.
Erin: Since I was dead. We played a game or two when you sent me that chessboard.
Niers: No need to thank me. It’s a collectible.
Erin: Got it.
Silence for a second. Nerry the Lamb gave Erin a long look, and the [Innkeeper] actually stopped trying to poke her with the quill enough to sigh.
“What, you too?”
The lamb made a gagging sound as the conversation continued. She trotted off, and Erin rolled her eyes.
Niers: I’m not hurt, just disappointed we’ve been chatting less and less. I hope Bird hasn’t been spreading lies about me.
Erin: Bird lies about everything, including birds. It’s just sorta odd, y’know? Like chatting up Altestiel. We played then too.
Niers: True. I’m just kicking myself for not being there. Listen, if I’m bothering you, do tell me. I know you’re in a busy situation right now, and I’m always checking my artifacts. It comes from having a spy network and a company to run.
Erin: See, you’re doing it again. This. This.
Foliana: He’s doing it again.
Erin: Hey, Foliana! Are you feeling better?
Foliana: Is thumbs up.
Erin: That’s not quite how emojis work, but that’s great! Hey, how are you on this? Is Niers sharing the chat…scroll or something?
Foliana: I stole it from him.
Erin: You’re cool. Can I speak to Niers?
Foliana: Mm. Be nice.
Niers: Foliana is a pest with no uses aside from eating moldy cupcakes off the ground. I apologize for that.
Erin: She’s sort of fun. But I was going to say that I’m pretty sure she’s not watching me via scrying spell right now.
The [Innkeeper] stopped and looked around meaningfully. An undead rat ducked behind a windowsill, and the Titan of Baleros winced from across the world.
Niers: I’m sorry about that. It’s a force of habit. My students are there, and I realize that might also look bad.
Niers: I’ve had enough of being blindsided, and getting ambushed just outside the inn counts. It’s not intrusive beyond what someone would reasonably see in the inn. The [Spies], which I’m sure you know you have, would be doing the same thing.
Erin: Yeah, but this is the thing. You’re someone who needs spies and runs the 4th Greatest Company of Baleros.
Niers: One of the Four Great Companies. I wouldn’t call us 4th, even with setbacks.
Niers: …That was meant to test my ego, wasn’t it?
Erin: Nah, I’m just being mean there.
Erin: Niers, I don’t even know you. You’re a continent away. I like playing chess, but it’s difficult to share a lotta stuff.
Niers: I understand that, and I do enjoy the chess games. :)
Erin: Well, if I’m not playing, it’s because there’s more to life than chess. I know, shocking.
Niers: Unbelievable. Well, I take your point and apologize.
Erin: Accepted. So, how’s fighting the green going? Are you making sure that icky stuff doesn’t get on your soldiers when it splashes?
And then the silence between the replies grew longer.
Erin: How fast did The Dyed Lands expand, anyways? Pisces told me you’re nearly a hundred miles out and still fighting them in some places.
Erin: Niers? You there?
Niers: Are you watching my campaign?
Erin: Don’t you get mad. It’s on the scrying orbs if you go to the Baleros networks. I thought you were watching my inn.
And then, if you turned to one of the scrying orbs that showed the television for The Wandering Inn, you would see that instead of an image of, well, themselves, the breakfasters were watching a quiet broadcast of the fighting in Baleros.
Erin: That’s the thing. Are you fighting a war and chatting?
Niers: It’s not an active battlefield, just skirmishes. Put your troops in the right spot and sometimes the enemy doesn’t even reach the front.
Erin: Yeah. But that’s not me.
Niers: So you claim.
Erin: I’m just saying, where you are, your kind of thing is different than mine, Niers. It’s not that I dislike you or think you’re a bad guy necessarily. It’s just that you’re the Titan of Baleros.
Niers: I understand. And I do have to go. Battle.
She rolled up the scroll and exhaled. Erin only jumped when Ulvama tapped her on the shoulder.
“You going for a record for killing people this week?”
Erin gave her an unhappy look, and the [Shaman] bared her teeth. Erin shook her head.
“No. I’m just being honest. Sometimes you gotta.”
She turned and watched as Lyonette left the main common room with Pawn. Her Thronebearers protested and were told to stand there and help the painting. Visma beamed as she ran over to Ser Dalimont to make her kite.
She tripped, and Erin sighed as Visma’s colorful paper fluttered up and flew, flew…straight into the fireplace. Visma stared in horror as her piece of paper lit up.
Sometimes, things just sucked.
When they finally had a moment to talk together, Pawn was happy.
Happy in the oddest of ways. Because he had marched right up to Lyonette and told her he wanted to speak, and she had looked at him and hesitated until she agreed.
Those Thronebearers. They had truly ruined what should have been a happy reunion. Because of them, Pawn and Lyonette couldn’t do what they had done in secret and private.
Sit and read stories together, talk, cuddle, other stuff, and Pawn missed that. He had missed Lyonette greatly.
He just felt like she had been avoiding him because this was one of their first long talks together. So he was happy.
Happy—in the way he imagined an Eater Goat might be, skipping along under a boulder teetering over a cliff high, high above.
Now, why did he think that? Lyonette flashed him a smile.
“We’ll have to make this quick, Pawn. The children are doing their Antinium painting, and it’s going well—I think we’ll set up a booth after all today and tomorrow.”
She hesitated as Visma’s wail came from below.
“Oh dear. That was Visma. Maybe there are complications.”
“We have not had much time, Lyonette. I know you are very busy putting on this party—but I have missed you.”
He took her hands, or tried to. Lyonette was busying herself at the mirror, walking around her room, checking her hair.
“I have too, Pawn. I’m very sorry Lormel and the others are getting in the way. You didn’t have to curse him, you know.”
“I wanted to talk to you. I was angry. I lost my temper.”
Pawn felt vaguely bad about it, but that sense in the air was growing worse. He smiled, or tried to—then felt something else tug at his mind.
“I wish I could have helped with your party planning. I think your painting of the Antinium shells is a good idea. On paper, with children and adults.”
“Thank you, Pawn! Yes, I wish you could have been there too.”
She flashed him a distracted smile, and Pawn went on carefully as Lyonette fiddled with some earrings.
“I think it is good because people will see how the Antinium are unique and how being Painted Antinium matters.”
“And I believe the Free Antinium support this idea as did I.”
“Which is why I know you would have asked a Painted Antinium or me for our feedback, but you were so busy you were unable to.”
This time, the [Princess] stopped with a tiny opal earring in one hand and turned. Pawn stared at her and then looked out the window, following her gaze. He looked back at her and saw how her gaze slid past him. It lingered for a moment on his face, and then she was staring at an autograph of all the Players of Celum on her wall. As if she couldn’t quite look at him.
That—hurt, and he didn’t know what was wrong with her eyes. Or him? Was something on him?
“I—I just wanted to put on something entertaining, Pawn.”
“I know. That is why I was not angry. But Krshia Silverfang did not want her Gnolls to be a game. I am more fine than she was.”
“I’m not trying to take anything from anyone! It can be positive for everyone!”
“Yes. That is my point. Do not be defensive, Lyonette. I am agreeing.”
The [Princess] hesitated and reddened. She tossed her head and then spoke more quietly.
“And how are the Antinium doing, Pawn? Now that the Crusade is—a separate Hive? Has it changed things?”
Pawn nodded. He opened his hands, clenched them, and rubbed at his eyes gently, folding two arms and sighing. As he did so often these days.
“So many. Now it seems like there are Free Antinium, Painted Antinium, and [Crusaders]. That is better than it was before, but more…complex. Does that make sense? We are all Antinium, but they are so different from even me. Zimrah…I do not know her. I grieve for her, but she wants to be what she is.”
Lyonette came over and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, Pawn. Responsibility is painful like that. Do you—are you trying to take command of the [Crusaders]? Shape their opinions? Yellow Splatters is a [Sergeant]—no, a [Captain] now, isn’t he? Perhaps he could be a liaison?”
The [Priest] looked at the [Princess], confused.
“Why would I want to tell them what to do? They are their own people.”
Lyonette turned to face him, bit her lip, and modulated what she was about to say. She stepped left, trying to guide him into a seat, but he refused. So she faced him, her face tightening with a hint of exasperation.
“They might need help. And…be nudged to make the right moves now and then. Pawn, you are possibly the most influential Antinium in the Hive’s leadership behind the Free Queen and Klbkch himself. You shouldn’t let it go to waste.”
He stood there, not knowing what to say, and Lyonette walked over to her dresser again, restless. She was pinning up her hair in a complex bun, and Pawn helped her. He knew how to place the hairpins, but he hesitated as he replied. She seemed so impatient, and he felt awkward and kept missing the spots until she took the pins and did it herself.
“I do not wish to do that, Lyonette. That is like when I was ordered to fight with Belgrade and Anand. I am not that kind of leader.”
She turned to face him. And he saw a look that showed him she didn’t understand. But that was fine. He didn’t understand all of what she was. It was supposed to be fine.
So why did it feel like there was a wall like his [Holy Barrier] between them? He reached out to take her hands, and then his lowered. Lyonette took a deep breath, then set her face. She straightened her back like he knew she did when she was about to do something unpleasant.
“Pawn. I have to ask you something serious. Have you—do you feel like something has gone off between us? Like there’s some separation? I fear that’s my fault, in part. Quite a lot, actually.”
Pawn nodded slowly. He looked at Lyonette.
“I do. What happened, Lyonette? You were gone for only a few months—”
She laughed. Bitterly, almost hysterically—and covered her face with her hands. She pulled her eyelids down a second, staring up at the ceiling in a kind of horror.
“A few months! Pawn, it felt like years. Didn’t it? I was at Oteslia, and Erin was dead, and we…Pawn, I have a confession to make.”
Uh oh. The [Priest] wanted to run, and he refused to. But he slowly sat on the bed as Lyonette spoke to him.
“In Oteslia, I was desperate to find a way to help Erin and save Mrsha. Remember, I only knew she was kidnapped and I had no idea where she was? There was this young…Drake named Cirediel. And I was trying to do everything in my power to help. So—I was considering entering an affair with Cire to manipulate him. Or whomever else.”
She waited for Pawn to react. He did not, so she went on.
“A sexual affair, Pawn.”
“I understood that. Alright. That is fine. I forgive you if you needed forgiveness.”
Lyonette blinked. She looked at his face, looked down, and he didn’t know why she gnawed on her lip like that. Where was his smile?
“Just like that?”
Pawn got up. He stretched, not because he was stiff, but because he felt awkward in his very shell. He turned back to Lyonette.
“Mrsha is your daughter. You would do anything for her, and I understand that. I fought Belavierr for her. It is fine, Lyonette. You did not, after all.”
She looked wretched and upset, perhaps that he wasn’t angrier.
“No, but I thought about it, Pawn. Pawn. You can be angry. I was thinking of being unfaithful. Intimately. That means—”
“I know what it means.”
The [Priest] felt his first flicker of actual anger so far. Lyonette bit her lip, and he wanted to pat her on the head. He sat down and stared at her.
She hadn’t grown that much older. But somehow, she looked different.
“What happened, Lyonette? There has to have been something more. Why does this feel odd?”
Lyonette laughed sadly.
“Oh, Pawn. I think we changed. It’s happened to me before. I was a young girl who liked to run around Calanfer. I had crushes—then I became a teenager. My sisters. You know them.”
“By name and personality. Unpleasant, mostly.”
The 6th [Princess] of Calanfer stared at a vision of something else.
“They weren’t always. I remember, vaguely, Seraphel being so nice before she got married. Aielef used to be this wild painter who drew on the walls of Calanfer, and I loved it even though she got in trouble. Vernoue was as shy as a mouse—now she’s just a ‘mage’. I think, sometimes, it’s not always bad. Dalimont told me about Seraphel, and it sounded like she changed again. Into something far better. No—I saw it. People change. I’m just afraid we did.”
“Then we should find out how the other has changed. Not hide from each other, Lyonette.”
He reached out to take her hands. The [Princess] looked at him unhappily.
“I think that’s true, Pawn. But maybe we should start all the way from the beginning.”
Ah. It was so quiet, he didn’t realize the boulder had hit him. The Eater Goat Antinium in his metaphor stared at half his spine before he realized that he was crushed. Pawn held so very still—his antennae twitched and moved faintly, as if in a breeze. Lyonette was squeezing her hands together until her fingers were white. Pawn looked at them.
“Why? Why do that, Lyonette?”
He took her hands with two of his own to make her stop, and the [Princess] avoided his gaze. She gently freed her hands, put them beside her. Then she came out with it at last.
“Your [Crusaders] scare me, Pawn. While I was gone, you took on the Stitch Witch of legends. The Spider of Terandria, who has led the Hundred Families of Terandria on a wild chase and dance ever since they were founded. You hurt her, Pawn. With a club, Mrsha said. And you formed the Crusade against Hectval.”
“I did not march with them. We were too weak, Lyonette.”
She nodded. And met his eyes with her earnest blue ones.
“But Pawn. You and I have different visions. When I was in Oteslia—”
“I’ve already said I understand.”
“Well, not about this!”
She whirled, and her red hair flashed along with her eyes. She splayed a hand across her chest, as if suddenly impassioned. Not the nervous girl he had once met. Or maybe the same? Prideful. But this Lyonette was also simply confident as well. And terribly sad.
“I was happy, Pawn! Happy, when I danced with Ilvriss! When I was struggling—but finding ways to move the City of Growth. When I had two of the Gentlemen Callers, Ratici and Wilovan, under my command? That’s why I didn’t push away the Thronebearers when it was all over. Because I wanted them. I wanted to explore, to push at my parents. And you…”
She looked at him, and he stared at her. She was the first person he’d been in a relationship with. Not the first person he’d loved. But the sky was just the sky, after all.
“Are you ending our relationship? Just like that? Do I get no say?”
“Pawn—I have to go downstairs. Can we talk about this later?”
He stood up from the bed. Then he lay down on his back shell.
“No. This is unfair. I am going to cry. Waah. Waaah.”
He tried to do a Bird and flailed his arms like he’d seen Mrsha do when she was throwing a tantrum. Lyonette stared down at him in horror and backed away. Pawn began to raise his voice…then he stopped.
Because he felt like an idiot. Slowly, he got up and felt at himself.
What was wrong with him? He recalled, very vividly, hiding in the Free Antinium’s Hive and refusing to eat or move because he was so sad that Lyonette didn’t like him.
Reach for that, you fool! Where was the Antinium who would have probably leapt out the window in despair? He didn’t feel it. He was upset, angry, and sad—
But something was missing. He looked at Lyonette, and he was angry at her. Angry because she wasn’t the person he remembered.
Then he realized Lyonette was right. And that hurt worst of all. Lyonette’s eyes began misting up as Pawn sat there.
“Lyonette. You have the power to do what you wish. You may be right. But can I ask you for one last thing?”
“What is it, Pawn?”
“Can I hug you like this?”
He spread his arms, and she stepped forwards. She didn’t hesitate, but walked forwards gently and raised her hands as if to cup his head. Then she lowered them and reached out as if they were dancing, but her grip tightened and she gazed up wordlessly. Elegant and wretched.
The [Priest] had so little of that in him. So with all four arms, he gently hugged her, as if he were embracing Heaven. But he could touch her. But he felt no certainty or faith, just a painful, comforting warmth. No ray of light from the sky. Even so, for a moment, it felt like nothing had changed until he let go. And he tried not to. Another Worker would never have, but Pawn?
He had his people to go to.
She wept. She wept, as if spilling all the tears out for all the broken hearts and changing of ways. Visma howled and sobbed in front of the fireplace as Pawn and Lyonette came back.
Unconsolable. She didn’t want another piece of paper.
“My p—p—my! It’s burned up! It’s gone!”
She was wailing as Ekirra ran back in. The panting Gnoll stopped as Visma cried, and Mrsha tried to give her her drawing.
“Now, now, Visma. We can do another! Oh dear, maybe you’ve had enough. At least the others can have fun?”
The children looked at the screaming Visma, and their enthusiasm waned. Ekirra himself looked at Lyonette as she fixed her eyes on him.
“Ekirra, where’s your kite?”
He should be flying the piece of paper on a string. The Gnoll scratched at his head.
“It ripped up, Miss Lyonette.”
The [Princess]’ face fell. She hurried outside and saw a piece of paper—cheap paper—was torn in half by the brisk wind. Ekirra went to pat Visma on the head.
“Can we go eat now?”
The activity was in jeopardy. Lyonette looked around as Pawn stared at the ground. At least some people knew what had happened, and Numbtongue went to solemnly pat him on the shoulder.
“I—I—I think we need to reconsider. Um. Does anyone have…?”
Lyonette looked around, an expression of concealed panic on her face. And then, she spoke.
“Does anyone have a way to rectify this situation? Please?”
She gazed around, and Pawn looked up. He met her gaze as the inn’s guests turned, and Erin smiled. The [Innkeeper] put down her quill and stretched.
Pawn? He shook Numbtongue’s hand and walked out of the inn. Lyonette turned her head to follow him, but her feet stayed where they were. And then—
Jerom spoke up.
“Here now, little Miss Drake. Don’t cry. What a terrible thing happened to you, didn’t it?”
He stifled a cough as he came over and crouched. Visma was holding the bit of emerald that Numbtongue had given to her.
“My Antinium’s gone! He was going to be named Super Star! I liked him!”
She wept, and the Antinium staff in the inn glanced at Visma once, then at the fireplace. Jerom bent down as he fumbled with something he’d been working on at the bar.
“That’s terrible. Super Star deserved better than that. I’ll tell you what—why don’t you take this and…bring him back? It’s not a piece of paper, but maybe it’ll last longer.”
He put something in Visma’s claw, and she looked down and gasped. Lyonette blinked—and covered her mouth in surprise, for there was a tiny little Worker.
“Whoa! That’s amazing!”
Troydel blinked at the piece of wood. It was a faster piece than Mrsha’s, but Jerom had carved it into a Worker so well that he had even done tiny antennae.
Naturally, the piece of wood was just plain wood with a few whorls of the tree giving it a slightly uneven texture. But Visma understood what Jerom meant.
“You mean paint this?”
“You could place it on your dresser.”
Or make it one of your dolls, Visma! It’s so good! I want one for White Paw!
Mrsha held up a notecard. She looked enviously at Visma as the other children crowded around.
“That’s so much better than stupid paper. Let me have it, Visma. I’m gonna make Soccer Man again!”
Ekirra reached for it, and Visma punched his arm.
“No! Super Star! Mrsha, come help me! I’m going to paint him all over!”
“Be careful not to mix the paints up. You have to do it very carefully.”
Someone interrupted Visma before she could dunk the piece of wood in a pot of black paint. And that was someone who knew that painting wood or metal was a delicate process that required drying, special brushes…
Troydel eyed Jerom as the innkeeper glanced up. He advised Visma to paint on her design then carefully fill in the other parts with the dark paint—so if she messed the design up, she could cover it with the shell.
“Jerom, that’s so thoughtful of you! Although, now all the other children want a permanent figurine.”
Lyonette exhaled, and Jerom looked at the children. His eyes twinkled.
“I don’t think I can work that fast, Lyonette, but it might be something, to have little figures rather than a piece of paper, wouldn’t it? I could do six more for a few of the children.”
Unfortunately, they all wanted one. Lyonette didn’t think overworking Jerom was a workable idea, but Troydel was all for it.
“You should look into that, Lyonette. Figurines are huge money.”
That caught her ear. Lyonette turned.
“You think so, Troy?”
“Everyone loves them. Can’t you hire a bunch of [Carvers]? Or if you had resin, metal, or even clay, I guess, you could cast a lot of them. Like Pallass’ forges. I’ve seen the smiths do lots of parts all at once. Although Pelt spits on them for not doing it by hand.”
Troydel was a bit of an expert. He had a collection of one of the world’s most famous…ly expensive tabletop games. He glanced up, and Lyonette felt a familiar prickle on the skin. Jerom’s own ears perked up, and Lyonette began to make rapid calculations.
“We’d need a mold…”
“There’s Skills for that. But what if you had a hundred of these figurines yay tall, and you let people paint them—and buy them for a small profit? I could try to arrange that. I know some good people with metalwork, and Pallass is a second away, isn’t it?”
“It’s definitely profitable. Hey, can I get in on this? Copyright? Trademark?”
Troy got up excitedly, but the [Princess] and [Innkeeper] ignored him. They were getting excited, and someone whispered across the inn.
Joseph called to Troy. Redscar high-fived him as Troy glared back. Lyonette was all set when she realized Pawn was gone. And…she hesitated, looking at the little figure of the Workers.
But it was already being fought over by the children begging for one of their own or trying to carve a table leg into one. So she nodded to Jerom.
“We still need more activities. Anyone—I am so sorry, but if you have any activities that match the Antinium—Silveran? Or—or Chieftain Rags! Are there things we could do that celebrate Goblins?”
She looked around, and the two representatives of each species looked at her. Silveran adjusted his mustache from behind the bar uncertainly, and Rags stirred.
They looked at each other and then realized something odd.
The Antinium and Goblins didn’t…have many activities. Rags looked at Redscar, and he mimed combing Carn Wolves or punching each other for morning training. The Mountain City Goblins under Poisonbite knew feasting and their own contests, like throwing knives, but these were things modeled after Human cities, which they had stolen everything from.
Even culture. For some reason—the lack of something to define them hurt the Antinium and Goblins present more than most. Every species had something unique about them that made them good.
Even Drakes. Lyonette spared them the embarrassment as she turned.
“Well, let’s keep brainstorming. Drassi! Drassi—where are you going?”
“Sorry, Lyonette, but this is, um—not entertaining. When the Crusade rolls in or something happens—you know how to contact me.”
The Drake was making a beeline back to her studio in Pallass. Rags was signaling one of her Goblins to find a member of her posse still asleep, and Silveran was wondering if a seminar on cleaning counted.
Something was coming. But Drassi knew that she could come back and find it, and her audience was getting bored; she had a staff member, a Gnoll, covering a story while she got back.
She was halfway towards the door as Lyonette sighed when someone blocked her way. Erin Solstice was scribbling on a piece of paper, but she held a hand out as Drassi slowed. The [Reporter]’s eyes widened—and Erin Solstice looked up.
“What about my interview, Drassi? Let’s do a quick one—and you’ll have your story.”
She winked at Lyonette, and Drassi inhaled sharply. The [Reporter] looked around for a place to sit with Erin, and the [Innkeeper]’s heart began to pound. But this time she was ready.
And the [Witch], the [Innkeeper], nodded at Lyonette. This was the [Princess]’ party. But sometimes, you needed a hand. As for Erin…her eyes twinkled.
“Are you sure, Erin? And do you think it’ll be entertaining? Because some of the [Messages] people get when they look back on the scrying orbs are ruthless.”
“Let them come. As for entertaining—”
She showed Drassi the first line of the piece of paper she was writing, and the Drake sat down. She turned on her camera, handed it to the Drake [Cameraman], and they began.
Niers Astoragon glumly watched as Drassi interviewed Erin. It looked like a fluff piece—the Drake was introducing The Wandering Inn and giving the interesting notes—monster attacks, a Human outside of Liscor, Antinium and Goblins welcome.
It was already, of course, fascinating enough to attract most of her regular viewers’ attention, but Niers was, uh…not invested.
Somewhere, Altestiel was probably laughing at him. Niers wondered how much you had to pay an [Assassin] to poison an [Earl]’s lunch. He thought he’d suffered once? Niers would procure laxatives made by Foliana herself!
War’s not over. Rally, regroup, and get back in it.
He worried for Erin, because as she had just said—this was not her forte, and if she thought Drassi was going to play nice the entire time—she hadn’t seen Drassi’s interviews.
The [Honest Reporter] had kept up her habit of pressing her interviewees, and the Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had been only the first victim. So Drassi leaned over the table as the camera caught both of them—Mrsha was trying to pose in the background until the other children shoved into the camera, and they were all herded off by a member of Drassi’s crew.
“So, Erin. We’ve been friends and for our viewers, I have to tell you I was a [Barmaid] and then a [Bartender] at The Wandering Inn before I found my current job. There’s a bit of bias here, but I want to be impartial. You’re an [Innkeeper]. Dare I say the best in Liscor?”
“Hm…I dunno about that, Drassi. How do you rank best inns and stuff? People complain about mine all the time.”
“Level? What level are you, Erin? Over Level 40? Over Level 30, definitely.”
“That’s private. Sorry.”
“No problem. But your inn is rather fantastic, don’t you agree? I’ve been to Liscor’s top inn within the city, The Tailless Thief, and while it’s ahead on staff, service, consistency—your inn has been at the center of any number of huge events. You’ve survived Creler attacks, the inn’s been destroyed how many times?”
“Tw—three? I’ve lost count.”
It was definitely a funny interview. The [Innkeeper] was nervous, but she had a bit of composure a lot of guests lacked. As if she knew how to do this. Drassi laughed.
“And you make magical food! Can we get an example, maybe of your ‘mana candies’? So you have magical food, Antinium on staff, and your inn has a sign that says ‘No Killing Goblins’. Can you tell us why?”
“Um…because I don’t want people to kill Goblins? They saved my life once.”
Drassi nodded reasonably.
“But Goblins are monsters to the rest of the world. Now, one group did just bail out a bunch of Humans and the Antinium Crusade in the north, and we have a precedent with Velan the Kind—but that cuts both ways. How would you discuss the issue of the Goblin King with Izrilians or other people who remember him within this generation?”
“…There are dangerous Goblins, just like there are criminals and [Warlords] in every species. I’m just saying—not every Goblin is trying to kill you. Like…like her. See? There’s a Goblin. Hi, Gothica.”
She smiled as a Goblin wearing all black, including lipstick and makeup, passed by. Niers winced because he knew this was not the example Erin needed.
Somewhere across the world, on Rhir, a passing Earther grabbed a scrying orb.
“No fucking way. Hey! Tell Béclaire I found her other [Goth]! She’s not going to believe this!”
The orb caught Gothica as she froze, then deliberately turned to Erin and flipped her off. And in doing so, she flipped off the entire world.
Drassi covered a smile as Erin waved a fist at Gothica. She went on with a chuckle in her voice.
“Alright, we can dig into the Goblins angle later, but let’s just settle one thing so our viewers understand—you’re hosting this celebration for the victory at Orefell. Including a chess tournament with a modest cash prize, which I believe we might cover highlights of. You’re a [Magical Innkeeper], and you can produce amazing food—but can you tell the audience something that makes you special? Like how you posted the first <Quests>? Who is Erin Solstice in her own words?”
And here it came. Niers bit his tongue because he knew how he’d talk about himself, or Erin—but she was so classically humble and awkward—he squeezed his eyes shut as Erin froze for a second. Then she replied.
“Me? I’m…um. Well. This is embarrassing, but…”
She fiddled with her fingers, then looked up. And Niers missed the spark of mischief in her eyes. The twinkle that made her friends sit up in the bar and disarmed Drassi. Erin Solstice smiled and leaned back in her chair. If she had a baseball cap, she would have twisted it around. If she had a pair of sunglasses, she would have slowly lowered them onto her eyes.
“I’m the best chess player in the entire world. So yeah, I’m backing the chess tournament today. If you think you’re hot stuff, sign up. You can even play remotely.”
Niers Astoragon’s eyes opened wide. Half the Fraerlings who were trying to ignore his small scrying orb turned. Drassi sat up and blinked.
“Did I just hear you right, Erin? That is a bold claim.”
The [Innkeeper] was shaking with nerves, but she made a peace sign. Then she began to play it up.
“That’s right. I’m the best. Don’t believe me?”
“That’s, uh—a hard thing to quantify.”
Someone was choking in the background. It turned out to be Pisces, who was dying on a piece of late egg for breakfast. Erin and Drassi watched as Yvlon raced over and slapped him on the back. Erin turned back to the camera.
“Well, it’s true. Put me on a truth spell.”
“Delusion can pass a truth spell, Erin.”
Drassi was trying to be tough, despite the smile edging its way across her face. Erin raised her brows.
“That’s just a fact.”
Erin leaned forwards, and Drassi leaned back a bit to avoid being headbutted.
“Erin, I’m going to need proof you’re the ‘best’ chess player. I imagine our viewers are already getting upset and calling in.”
The [Innkeeper] turned to the camera and smiled.
“You can prove it at the chess tournament. But if I need to prove anything—do you know Chaldion of Pallass, Drassi? Have you seen me playing him regularly in this inn?”
The [Honest Reporter] swallowed.
“I have…seen that.”
“And you’re so honest everyone knows you tell the truth—haven’t you seen Earl Altestiel playing me? I’ve beaten Venaz—hey, Venaz.”
She waved at a Minotaur, who jumped as he, Wil, and Merrik stood there. Merrik waved back. Niers watched, heart pounding with disbelief, as Erin turned.
“I’ve played more chess games than anyone else. It’s not a brag. It’s just how it is. I’ve beaten Grand Magus Eldavin when he was at my inn. I’ve defeated the Lord of the Dance remotely.”
“I think other players could say the same. The game isn’t that old, Erin. In fact, what about the Titan of Baleros? The inventor and world’s best player if I had to guess?”
Drassi was on the edge of her seat. Because she knew, before Erin turned, what the [Innkeeper] would say, and the [Reporter] just set her up for it. Erin Solstice looked right into the camera.
“Niers? He’s my chess partner. I play him every week. I am the [Innkeeper] of Chess. Don’t believe me? Get a chessboard and I’ll play a game right now. Ask Niers if you don’t believe me. Hey, Niers.”
She waved. And the Fraerling saw the young woman wink at him.
“…Fancy a game?”
The Titan’s mysterious chess partner had once been the talk of the world’s gossip—at least in chess circles. In the way of all the new developments, it had become old news.
Right until the [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice, revealed the truth for the world to hear and reignited that old flame.
You might not believe it. You might scoff, and many would certainly take umbrage at her claims to be the world’s best.
But…that claim bore more weight when you saw the splitscreen image of Niers Astoragon sitting with his legs crossed in front of a miniature chess board and Erin in her inn. Both were staring at a scrying orb and arranging the chess board.
Live. This was how the tourney would go, and the two competitors could even speak to each other. And when they did…
It was the first time the two had really talked. It wasn’t Niers giving Erin a speaking stone or a gift. It was him and her and an audience of the entire world.
“You have me astounded, Erin. And here I thought you were too busy to play a game.”
Erin glanced up from setting up her pieces. She met his gaze, and his eyes were shining with wild excitement. He was so…tiny! A mug was providing her with a frame of reference, and it was as tall as he was.
Yet he was also the Titan of Baleros. Some Fraerlings were jockeying to be seen, much like Mrsha and Gothica and people on Erin’s side. She locked eyes with Niers.
“I never said that. I just felt like you were fighting a war against Jungle Tails, the monsters from the Dyed Lands. You’re so famous—this is where you live. Isn’t this where you’re happiest?”
To that, he had nothing to say. Because she was right. When he went to her inn, it was like a Fraerling in the night.
But she had come up onto his world stage and brought a chessboard. She took the black pieces, he took white, and they began to play.
That was enough. That was enough for him to call this a really wonderful day, but Erin Solstice wasn’t done.
“I’m going to beat you, Niers. Sorry, but I have to use my full power.”
She posed, two peace signs across her chest in what she might have thought was a cool pose. Niers just snorted despite himself.
“Erin. I will back you being a statistically better player than I am, but you can’t guarantee a victory.”
“Oh, that was true before I got shot with crossbows. But I’ve been practicing. I know we played a game together, but right now?”
“…I’ve got a tournament to help run and participate in. So I am going to squish you. Wait, is that rude to say to a Fraerling?”
“Absolutely! I am such a fan, Miss. Take him out!”
A Fraerling behind Niers shouted. It was safe to say almost every Fraerling settlement with access to scrying orbs was watching. And at least one city, Paeth on the Coast, was staring at…
Erin Solstice. The Titan looked annoyed at Erin’s bravado. He moved a pawn forwards.
“Pawn to E4—oh, you can see it. Well, back up your words, Erin. No Skills, but I will be making you eat those words.”
“Just one second.”
Erin was scribbling on something. She raised her head, and Niers felt a chill. As if he’d walked into a trap. He’d thought the trap was invoking her true potential to the world. Or facing him across the chessboard and lending his name to this day.
But what if…? His eyes slowly fixed on the piece of paper. Erin finished writing, then lifted it. She brought it down and slapped it on the table.
“You might want to check the Adventurer’s Guild, guys. I just posted a <Quest>. Now—”
She cracked her neck, winced, and her eyes lit up.
“Let’s begin the demo match.”
Then the news broadcast, already gaining momentum, truly began to pick up speed. The incredulous and outraged people went silent. Did you feel it now? Niers looked up, and the chessboard kept shaking. His eyes flickered uncertainly—then widened. Because even he found his heart beating painfully hard.
<Yearly Heroic Quest – Face the World’s Greatest Chess Player>
Limits: No cheating, no magical interference. No Skills to change the board. Everything else, including predictive Skills, is allowed.
I am the world’s greatest chess player. I have played the best in the world, and I would have been in the top ten thousand, at least, a few months ago.
None now remain. I am the Grandmaster of Scales, by virtue of victory.
Challenge me at the chess tournament taking place in Liscor today. The first person to defeat me will win. The right to challenge me, formally, will be won by working their way up the tournament. I will play you at my utmost best and keep playing until I lose.
I’ll come at you with my best.
Posted Reward: Eighty gold coins to tournament winner, lesser rewards for finalists.
Quest Reward: One level in any <Intelligence> class.
Az’kerash dropped the plate of magical delicacies he was handing to Nerrhavia. The ghost dropped a fork.
Archmage Eldavin stopped drinking his cup of morning tea, and Telim ducked.
The Blighted King sat up upon his throne as his trusted advisor, Nereshal, practically sprinted into the room.
Silvenia, the Death of Magic, the greatest [Mage] in the world—
Well, you got the picture. Was that real? No, it was. And if it were real—no matter what level you held? <Intelligence> classes?
That wasn’t all. The quest itself. As far as anyone knew—you couldn’t lie on a <Quest>, right?
The world’s greatest chess player sat in The Wandering Inn and looked up. She smiled into the camera.
“We’ll do a quick demo match. Niers, you’d better bring your best because you have to work your way up in the tourney like everyone else.”
The Titan stared at Erin—and his dangersense began going off. Not the Skill, but something more instinctual. Slowly, he re-read the quest and realized that Erin hadn’t banned…
He glanced up. Then, to the audience’s amazement—the Titan tipped over his king. He stood up.
“In that case—I’ll see you later, Erin. But I don’t intend on wasting a chance. Especially if I need to surprise you.”
The [Innkeeper] grinned. The Titan stepped back and glanced at Lyonette. The [Princess] looked excited, pale with nerves—and she jumped as he bowed to her.
“Miss? Please put me down for the tournament. I will be ready.”
He stepped back, and then half the Fraerlings were shouting, demanding to be put on. Lyonette gulped as her Thronebearers whirled.
This party was heating up fast.
But that wasn’t fun, to hear the quest. To see the Titan tip over a piece and not see a chess game. Now, everyone wanted to see Erin do a demo match, even if it was just chess.
“Someone take his place! Just for a demo match. Erin, is that alright?”
Drassi practically screamed. Erin smiled.
“I’ll let someone take a shot at the reward right now.”
The Titan whirled back, and she gave him a wink.
“That’s called courage. Anyone but the Titan—who wants to get a free level?”
The inn suddenly fell silent. Who would take Erin on? Gireulashia almost stepped forwards, but she hesitated. Wil, Venaz, Merrik—they were taking cues from their Professor.
They might need to save their plays. After all, if Erin thought she would be taking on challenger after challenger…
On the other hand—this was the chance to win a level. You could, in theory, take a game off Erin!
And the clever people had realized something.
She hadn’t banned all Skills. Just Skills that actually altered the game itself. So someone stepped forwards with all the arrogance in his sniffing nose.
Pisces Jealnet turned to face Erin and smiled.
“I believe that I might be a suitable opponent. For a demonstration match. Pray, don’t feel too upset if I take the quest right now.”
He looked around as the inn’s crowd susurrated. Niers eyed Pisces as he sat down. The [Mage] had no Skills to help him out, but Niers vaguely remembered him being a sharp player, and he had trained against Erin Solstice.
Perhaps the [Necromancer] just wanted to be part of the moment. However—he’d made a critical mistake. In fact, Erin had, in a sense.
Because she had posted a <Quest>. Because she knew she could. A <Heroic Quest>. And as Pisces sat down, Erin’s smile to him changed. Her hazel eyes suddenly began burning, the brown-green-gold shimmering and dancing as if her very irises had caught on fire.
The [Necromancer] blinked. That wasn’t a trick of the light. Then—as if he had forgotten, as if he had taken the words for granted, he saw a line on the <Quest> paper light up.
I’ll come at you with my best.
Then—the table began shaking. Pisces was thrown about in his chair, and the [Necromancer] shouted.
The table dropped, and suddenly, he was free-falling through space. The flailing young man fell—and the inn and the guests vanished. He landed without pain on the ground, crouching, reaching for his rapier instinctively. Then he looked up.
A lunar landscape of blasted pale, sooty ground and glowing lines drawn into perfect squares stretched out ahead of him. Pisces saw graven towers rising out of the dirt—and he was simultaneously staring up at an equine [Knight] rearing above him, snarling as the hooves pawed at the air.
A Golem? The tower was sixteen feet tall. And at the same time—it was a knight piece, small enough to pick up. He was in the void of blackness. Then—he saw something rising in the distance.
Her head appeared over the horizon like a Giant of old. Her eyes were on fire, and she had a hat burning on her head. The [Necromancer] looked around and tried to pinch himself out of the illusion. But Erin Solstice stared down at him as the entire world began to shake. He saw light writing itself over her head.
Then—the [Necromancer] felt a pit drop out of his stomach. Because he was reading something. Her very best? He looked up and saw a class.
[Temporary Class Assigned: Grandmaster of Death, Advent of Living Chess]
[Temporary Skill Assigned: Visions of Defeat (Legendary)]
[Temporary Aura Assigned: Aura of Giants (Chess)]
[Temporary Skill Assigned: Chessboard: Subsumed Reality, Our Board is the World]
[Temporary Skill Assigned: Clash of Wills]
An [Innkeeper]—no—the [Grandmaster of Chess] stared down at Pisces as he felt an aura pushing at him. He looked up—and a hand the size of Liscor reached down and picked up a chess piece. Erin placed a pawn down, and her pieces were white like ivory.
The ground quaked. Pisces felt it vibrate like an [Earthquake] spell. And he—he had to play that? He tried to pick up a pawn piece, and he could. He looked up—and that was his last mistake.
A pair of black wings sprouted from Erin’s back. Her eyes were slitted pupils now, and he felt like they were a pair of [Disintegration] spells boring holes in him. Then he blinked—
And a roaring Dragon, the last Void Dragonlord, was staring down at him. Xarkouth roared as Pisces’ hand shook wildly. He tried to look away, and the deathly pale face of Khelta was looking right at him.
The great [Necromancer] and first ruler of Khelt stared Pisces down as he turned white. He tried to play a chess piece.
The [Innkeeper] was smiling. She began to play, and the entire lunar world quaked as she put down her pieces. The guests of her inn only saw part of what Pisces saw—
Like they were staring at a distant dreamy battle occurring on the horizon. It reflected itself over Pisces and Erin’s heads. Just for a second. But that was enough for them to realize what made the [Necromancer] flinch.
Pisces was almost—almost able to think of a move when a wailing sound filled the air. He jumped and heard a screaming wail of electric strings. A bass howling like the storm he felt whipping around the world he was trapped in.
The [Necromancer] and the guests turned and saw a Hobgoblin [Bard] playing on a guitar. Like his other theme songs—he was playing one for Erin. But not Erin the [Innkeeper] of so many emotions, wondrous and gentle.
He was playing a rock song for the chess monster sitting across from Pisces. Erin’s eyes flashed with amusement, and a ray of solar fire baked Pisces. She pointed at him, and his mind went blank as he saw what Inkar feared.
A hill—a mountain with burning eyes, as tall as the horizon, flanked by the legends of death, waiting for him. She spoke, and his bones quaked.
The [Necromancer] died so fast that only his slow play drew out the match to five minutes. But that was okay—no one said anything as he tipped over his king piece, then shot out of his chair.
Mrsha was hiding behind Moore. They could only see—flickers of what Pisces was seeing. But they felt the inn trembling. Numbtongue liked it, and so did his band.
Kevin was slamming on a drum as Saliss took a backup guitar and Bird just—screamed into a microphone. The band was revolutionizing a sci-fi rock song genre, and the music was like a challenge. It slowed a bit as the [Necromancer] backed away and Erin stopped glowing.
“What was—what was—”
Pisces pointed at Erin, and the burning gaze faded. Erin blinked—and the glowing class and Skills faded. She poked at herself and then seemed to come out of a trance.
“Whoa. What was that?”
That was what the chess players had to face. Gire, Niers’ students, the Titan himself—
Niers was grinning. He felt sweat rolling down his back, but he couldn’t stop the smile. What a monster.
If only she’d taken levels in her real class. But for a second, you could sit down and face—
Chaldion, the greatest chess player in Pallass, was sweating himself as he tried to figure out another move. His [Path to Victory]…
No longer seemed like the trump card it had been. Erin Solstice stood up. She spread her arms as she faced the scrying orb.
“I’ll be waiting. If nothing else, I’ll probably get tired. Now. Who’s coming at me? Sign up now. The first person to work up the rankings gets a chess match with me. And we continue until I lose.”
So who was going to play? The answer was…
Earl Altestiel was on his way back to Desonis from Calanfer. But he was screaming at Kiish to go faster, and his carriage was swerving left down a road. He’d begun picking up speed ever since this morning, but the first games in Liscor’s tournament had begun!
There was a two-silver entry fee, which Lyonette had imposed just to pay for all the [Mages] and stop the number of entrants from climbing past the thousands. In fact, she’d begged the Mage’s Guilds to send her the regional champions.
And even then—Altestiel was speaking into a stone.
“Your Majesty, every single [Strategist] and [Tactician] over Level 20 in Desonis. No, most won’t make it to the finals, but we need to flood the competition because there will be too many to play past otherwise. And they might level from the contest alone! Play yourself! Kiish and I will be entering the bracket in a half-an-hour, but I need to—”
He was headed to a neighboring kingdom that he’d been passing through. Location! Altestiel cursed not riding or finding an inn. But if he was going up against…
Erin? No, the Grandmaster of Scales, he needed more than to just be rested. He needed someone to bounce ideas off of.
And it was clear his only ally in the area had thought the same thing.
Lord Belchaus, the Lord of the Dance, came storming up the road towards Altestiel and whirled his horse around in a quick u-turn.
“Altestiel! Get to my manor! We need to compare notes! I have stamina potions, boards set up—are we allowed to practice or get help while playing her?”
“There’s no rule against it! Do you have any intellect potions?”
“No, but I’m sending for a [Tutor]!”
“Brilliant! When’s your game?”
“In an hour! Are we competing with each other?”
Altestiel didn’t know. He bared his teeth.
“I think—we had better plan on working together! If we’re going to take her down, it might have to be through exhaustion!”
They were speaking like she was some great monster to be slain. Like a Dragon! But if what he’d seen was true—she’d beaten Dragons. Erin Solstice was playing chess as he watched, and he would have felt a twisting in his stomach that she’d lose before he even got a chance.
But as he watched, she was taking on the first local champion of Liscor and any thoughts about the unfair system of the tournament was lost. Because if anything, the people playing her first games were the unlucky ones.
Thousands of people in Liscor had picked up a chess board after hearing about the quest. And the eighty gold pieces. Even if they had only played once or watched the game—why not give it a shot?
They organized in vast queues, playing each other, trying to psyche the others out, and using Skills liberally. The only cheating was asking another player to literally play for them.
But Skills? Skills were free-game, and the winners of each bracket would clash with each other as they rose in the rankings. International players who’d won their regional brackets squared off, but Liscor’s local tourney concluded fastest.
Who won the first tournament? Olesm was signed up for a scrying orb game, so he wasn’t participating.
But Wil, Venaz, and Merrik had signed up for the first tourney. If they lost, they could enter a later bracket and work their way up to Erin. They had reasoned that the only good players were Gireulashia, Bird, and possibly Klbkch the Slayer or a local [Strategist]. Pallass had its own game, so there was no one else, right?
In came Belgrade. Straight through the door that led to Liscor’s army. The chess games were so intense it was like watching him come in, pick up a chair from the inn, and beat Wil to death with it. Then he ran over Merrik.
Venaz was struggling. Gireulashia had gotten lucky with the Silverfang Gnolls who’d all queued up with her, but he had run into a bunch of Antinium.
Even if not all of them were as good as he was—they played far too well for amateurs. He was sweating as one took him down to trading his queen for a sacrificial play that netted him the closing checkmate. He got a bit of breathing room the next game.
“How did you get this far?”
Mrsha the Squire of Chess had beaten Relc, Menolit, and Visma to get to her spot. She cracked her knuckles as Venaz set up the board.
…Punting the Gnoll into the far wall in a metaphorical sense gave Venaz the chance to relax. Mrsha flipped the board in rage as she sulked off. He turned—and saw Belgrade dueling Rags.
The two were going at it like lightning, and the Goblin and the Antinium were good. Venaz eyed them, then frowned as he heard a howl.
“No! I lost! Mrshaaaaaa!”
Gire went crying to Mrsha, and the two hugged each other. They were joined by a sobbing Bird. Venaz twisted in his seat.
Gireulashia and Bird were both taken out of their bracket? He had assumed one would knock the other out after a tough game. But then Venaz found it was going to be him or his opponent versus what looked like Belgrade for a shot against Erin.
Rags was growling, but Belgrade was using his Skills, and Rags’ weren’t strategy oriented. Poisonbite kept trying to massage her Chieftain’s shoulders and distracting Rags.
So who had knocked Gire and Bird out? The opponent went to sit down, and Venaz eyed an unknown Antinium.
“Greetings. I am Venaz of Minos. Who are you?”
The Worker stared at him. He was no Painted Antinium, and Venaz’s first thought was that he was up against a [Crusader]. Or Garry?
No. The Worker had taken out Garry and everyone else. When the mandibles opened, Venaz’s blood ran cold. For it sounded like six voices were speaking through the Worker.
“We are the Queens of the Antinium.”
He looked up—and the Unitasis Network was flickering through the Worker. Six Queens were combining their intelligence. Then Venaz felt his skin crawl as an aura began pressing down at him.
The Worker whispered. Venaz employed his own Skills.
[Unpredictable Insight]. He thought he saw a flaw in their thinking. What if he opened up with a side-charge from one of the knights? Then—the opening vanished.
Six minds were working in unison. The Minotaur slowly looked up as the Worker smiled. After all—even if they were divided, what if you could get six levels for the price of one?
“F-foul! I’m facing more than one opponent.”
“It’s not against the rules. I’ve played the Antinium before. Do your best, Venaz.”
Belgrade was staring at the Queens as Erin Solstice waited. She was eying the Queens. And she knew they would be her final opponent, Belgrade or not.
It wasn’t just that they were six working as one—it was the intimidation factor. The Queens had a presence, a combined weight through their vessel. It pushed at Venaz. He was good enough to deal with it, but he was an inferior player who tried to go for speed to unsettle his opponents’ decisive moves.
They were six minds linked. Queens who could command a battlefield. In a sense, it was like watching them give Venaz a spanking. However—Belgrade was very good.
He fell to the intimidation aspect. The Queens pushed at him mentally, and he shook with nerves. His game began with a strike across the center of the board but lost momentum and fell apart. The Queens had an iron defense and fell for no tricks or casual mistakes—it was like they were checking each other’s moves, and so they never missed a weak point in their game.
Erin wondered if they were better than early computers. She sat across the Queens in a televised game.
Antinium versus a Human. Queens—Silvenia watched.
“Well. That’s certainly not fascinating.”
Yet she watched as she cast every predictive spell against her opponents. She had to camouflage who she was playing as, and she was actively trying to crash every connection she came across to give herself less opponents.
She hated chess. But hey…she smiled as several sacrificial Demons lined up. They looked reluctant as Silvenia pointed at them.
“[Siphon Luck]. Your sacrifice is appreciated.”
There were ways to play, and the Queens were using their best tactic. They came in hot, and Silvenia knew the pressure that True Antinium could exert.
…The first champion to face Erin was reflected in Altestiel and Lord Bel’s scrying orbs. The Titan, the Death of Magic, and the other opponents watched the Queens squaring off against Erin.
This time, the Queens found themselves in their real bodies. Staring up. They were all vast beings who towered over other Antinium. The Silent Queen gazed around the alternate chess-dimension, and the Armored Queen raised a rook like a shield.
“This is not a battle. Focus.”
The Twisted Queen snapped at the others. She was the best player, and she would have added Wrymvr to the connection—but he was terrible at chess. And Anand wanted to take Erin on personally.
“Our Skills must be employed. Intimidate her.”
The Grand Queen was leading the charge, and the Worker sitting across Erin in the physical world opened its mandibles and screeched.
The Free Queen was having fun, despite their sense of contest. But…she had a bad feeling that her fellow Queens were underestimating Erin. The class was writing itself in the air again.
[Temporary Class Assigned: Grandmaster of Death, Advent of Living Chess]
…But something was different about the Skills. Erin’s eyes flashed as the screaming Worker slowly stopped. She looked in pity at the Worker bound to the Queens.
“Play me yourself, you six.”
The Worker jerked and then recoiled from the board. Shaking, it looked at Erin as she winked at it. Then she turned, and the six Queens looking up at her saw a Skill writing itself in the sky.
“…That is not good. That is green. Is anyone else seeing that? I am. It’s a fetching color, but I’m getting uneasy.”
The Flying Queen’s mandibles clicked. In silence, the six Queens saw a Skill appear.
[Temporary Skill Assigned: The Laughing Folk Bowed to None; Neither Shall I]
Their auras winked out. The Queens looked up, and they thought they heard voices. Laughing at them. Chuckling, practically wheezing with mirth. The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“Challenger one. Let’s begin.”
The game between the Queens and Erin Solstice was causing ripples in the chess community.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Who is she? I think I know her. She’s…wasn’t she a chess prodigy?”
“Wait. You know her?”
The Earthers of Rhir were going crazy. Most of them were queueing up for local games, but one group of them was huddled around a laptop and coming up with a plan to win. However—there was one member of the thousand that had come to Rhir who stood head and shoulders above the rest.
That was International Master Antal Fekete of Hungary. An actual chess expert. For those who didn’t know—which were a lot of his peers—he was one rank below a Grandmaster of Earth, the highest chess level someone could obtain.
And he was watching Erin Solstice play one of the best games he’d seen against a bug-person. They were both playing at such a high level he no longer doubted her claims to being a Grandmaster of Scales.
…He was queued up against an ‘Earl’ of Desonis. Antal glanced over with a frown.
“I could use my laptop. I want to log this game—what are you doing?”
“Nothing! Just win this one, Antal. And if you don’t…”
“What are you doing with my chess program? If you’re going to cheat—”
“Run for it!”
A group of laughing young men and women ran, and Antal, cursing, got up. But then his chess game began, and he sat, biting his tongue. He began playing, but much to his dismay, whomever he was playing was close to his level or…
They had Skills he didn’t. It was like they had a predictive software of their own. Antal had to forfeit, and he sat back.
Chess—wasn’t like how a lot of newcomers thought it was. Erin’s claim of winning every match was incredible. True, if she was really the world’s best, then it was likely you’d draw a lot of games. But she was just aiming to win.
Now he saw that she had the benefit of Skills, it made sense. She was affecting her opponents on a psychological level. If they were relying on their own Skills—and she took them away—she was effectively someone with a much higher chess level crushing people who were using crutches.
It was like everyone had a chess bot they could sometimes use for pivotal moves. Which was cheating, and he quite understood why some would call this entire tournament rigged. Different rules for a different world.
Cheating in the world of chess…well, if Antal had the inclination to cheat, and he did not, he knew that all you needed at the highest level was a move or two. Not to cheat the entire game, but to have a perfect move at a decisive point in the match?
He supposed that could lead him to beat Grandmasters consistently if he had that. Which was why Skills were so upsetting to the fair game. However, that was also contingent on them being the best moves.
Chess was a game that favored AI. In that a computer could always, always win over a regular person because it could calculate optimal moves where they could not. Some Grandmasters could and did make machine-perfect moves, but not for an entire game.
A computer could. Most chess programs weren’t that powerful, especially ones built into a computer. But an artificial intelligence could beat even the ‘best’ mind.
He wondered what would happen if Erin ran into his laptop. Or…someone else.
Challengers #22 and #23 were odd. Erin’s games with each challenger were quick. Even if they took a long time, she was playing them in rapid lightning matches.
…But she was growing tired. She had run straight into Niers in her 4th match. The Titan of Baleros had pulled out every single Skill he thought he could use.
She had activated [Path to Victory]. Against him! He’d been forced to change his strategy in some way or lose—and Chaldion had been opponent #8.
The Cyclops of Pallass’ own Skill led him straight into a trap. His [Path to Victory] turned into an illusion.
[Temporary Skill Assigned: All Plans Fall to Dust And Ruin (Chess)]
That had been when her opponents realized she could appear with a Skill that not only trumped theirs, but deceived their actual Skills.
If they had one consolation, it was this: Erin Solstice would lose.
She might have been boosted every time she sat down in a challenge match, but the mortal body was weaker. Erin Solstice was visibly tired after the 20th game against the Blighted King, but her game was still as sharp as a blade.
Earl Altestiel, Eldavin, Viscount Visophecin—they were just among the twenty-one players she’d brought low. Soon, though…she might begin slipping up. How many games until she fell over? Of course, all she had to do was lose once.
…So while it felt like her opponents were literally getting punched by boulders when she took a piece across the chess board or staring at an undead [Queen] pointing a legion of chess pieces at them—that was only what they saw.
If anything, the most interesting parts for the audience watching was seeing Erin Solstice talk to her opponents and acting away from the chess board. She would speak to them a minute or two before she sat down and played, mostly in silence.
That was the fascinating part for people not interested in chess.
“Well, hey there! Magus-Crafter Femithain? Wait a second, don’t I know that name? Saaaay—did you attack my friend?”
The leader of Illivere blinked at Erin as she waved someone over. He bowed slightly.
“Adventurer Ksmvr. I regret to say that I was an impolite host.”
“Oh, hello Magus-Crafter Femithain. You were a very wonderful host. I regret that someone accidentally freed Nsiia. Yes. Have you seen Yinah or Spitty? Or Nsiia? She stole my sword.”
Ksmvr bowed to Femithain, and the Magus-Crafter hesitated.
“I regret that I have not exchanged words with any of them, Ksmvr.”
“Wonderful. I mean, that you know each other.”
Erin smiled wanly and yawned. The sun was still high in the sky, but it was on its way down. She looked at Challenger #21, and Femithain blinked as Erin motioned someone into frame.
It was a tossup who Erin met, and it was mostly just good chess players. Some people could fake their way to the top via magic, but to Silvenia’s complete and utter fury, she’d lost to Feshi. Luck, magic, Skills to intimidate or read an opponent—
The game was better than that. Nevertheless, there was a correlation most times between the players and their station. If only because a [King] could politely suggest to his vassals that they let him win.
Like Flos, who took Orthenon and Gazi’s spots to get a shot at Erin. Raelt himself kicked the King of Destruction off that region of Chandrar’s championship. Then Fetohep beat him.
However, if you made it to Erin…she motioned someone into frame, and Femithain hesitated.
“This is Rags. Hey, Rags, it’s the guy who makes Golems.”
“He rules an entire nation. Hello.”
Rags gave Erin a brief look, and the [Innkeeper] looked embarrassed. But Femithain bowed very politely.
“Good evening, Chieftain.”
“Greetings to you.”
That was all. And Femithain was probably being polite, but the Magus-Crafter didn’t miss how Erin had laughed with Altestiel before making Belgrade come over to say hi. She wasn’t bad at statecraft at all.
He bowed, sat, and Erin Solstice played like thunder for eighteen minutes. Then she got up and stretched.
“Who’s Challenger #22?”
The fascinating thing about her games of chess was not the incomprehensible and difficult notation of the chess games—but who was trying to get a chance to play her.
And who was not able to do so.
A cursing Drake was edging into line in the huge queue going to Liscor from Pallass. She was checking her dark red dress when someone tapped her shoulder.
“‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me. I’m headed to the inn, and no, I was not waiting in line. Who do you think I am? I just came back to grab some stuff—out of the way, I’m important.”
Saliss of Lights was strolling through the crowd, after his band performance. He had come back here, apparently just to annoy the crowds by deliberately stepping in front of people waiting for the inn. He shoved Lady Salkis out of the way and stopped as he saw the top chess championship of Pallass ending.
A laughing Human woman fanned herself, a [Merchant] by the looks of it, as one of the [Strategists] under Chaldion slumped. She stood up, and a [Guardsman] hurried over.
“Adventurer Saliss, please stop getting in the way of the queue. The door is cycling. You can enter in ten minutes.”
“Ah, damn. Is this the winner? Hello, Miss!”
“Oh my. A naked Drake. You must be Saliss of Lights.”
The woman gave Saliss an amused glance. She had black lipstick and winked at him. He threw an arm around her shoulders, and she glowered as he grinned at her.
“Are you heading to play Erin? Fancy that, so am I! Ten minutes? Say, do you need to buy any magical makeup? A potion, perhaps?”
The woman gave the [Guards] a desperate glance, and they tried to peel Saliss off her, but he practically dragged her back.
“Come on, let’s go for a walk! I have a bunch of potions to foist—I mean, sell to top people!”
The woman smiled desperately, but there was no help for it. The Drake was strong. She followed him down the 8th Floor, and somehow, the pedestrians waiting for the door practically vanished only two corners from the door.
“Mister Saliss, please. You’re hurting me.”
They turned down a quiet street as the last Drake woman hurrying the other way vanished. Saliss looked concerned.
“I am? I didn’t ruin your makeup, did I? How do you do it? Wonderful powder. It even conceals dead skin.”
The Human woman looked perplexed, and she snapped open her fan. Then she slashed it across Saliss’ neck—or where he had been.
He ducked. And the undead woman lurched back and stared at the acid eating one foot. She swiveled.
Nerrhavia’s ghost struggled to control Az’kerash’s minion as she raised the fan. She had no Skills, so the corpse began firing [Deathbolts]. She turned, and Saliss slapped a glowing ember into the corpse’s mouth. Nerrhavia’s ghost recoiled as, remotely, the puppet burst into flames.
“Now who are you?”
Saliss kicked the puppet aside and bent, warily, to tear open the chest with a knife as several Eyes of Pallass appeared, but the corpse began to disintegrate, and he stepped back with a sigh.
Az’kerash cursed as his third puppet failed to get to Erin.
He had none in Liscor, which he hadn’t thought was a problem—but two had been taken out, one by the [Guards], another by Saliss just now. The third had just lost a contest in Invrisil. Fuming, the Archmage of Death debated how risky it would be to play Erin remotely via scrying orb.
“I can invoke one of my puppets to play the [Innkeeper]. Why do you, Nerrhavia, require a game up close? You claim to be one of the finest players!”
Nerrhavia scowled at him.
“Do not be uppity with me, [Necromancer]. Do you think Erin Solstice won’t squash you like an insect across the board? She calls herself the Grandmaster of Scales. She beat Dragons and Giants in the lands of the dead. I have one chance, and that is to be up close with a vessel. To distract her.”
The Necromancer folded his arms.
“Well, I fear that is unlikely. Two agents are now defunct, and I have no more I care to lose with Named-rank adventurers on patrol. The risk is beyond me.”
“Oh, then go and play your little game, Necromancer. I shall enjoy watching you lose.”
Nerrhavia turned and ignored him completely. Az’kerash ground his teeth—but he had seen Tulm lose the fifth game against Erin Solstice. Now—he turned, and Challenger #22 appeared. He halted, and Nerrhavia’s head turned back.
“Hello. Who is this girl?”
The scrying orb showing Erin’s next challenger made even the [Innkeeper] stop.
“Hi? Um…are you, uh, uh, I know your name. You’re…”
Every head in the inn turned, and Ceria began to choke on her popcorn. She hadn’t even bothered to try taking Erin on, circlet or not. But Cognita?
The Truestone Golem had beaten the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and everyone else in Nerrhavia. Now—she sat down.
“Am I not allowed to play, Erin Solstice?”
“No…but I don’t know if the <Quest> will work on you. W-wow.”
The Golem was made of marble and perfectly composed. She raised one brow.
“I merely desire to challenge you. I am Zelkyr’s creation, and I have picked up chess like every other game. Will you oblige me?”
Erin Solstice exhaled.
“…Yeah. Just out of curiosity. How good are you?”
Cognita’s smile was her only reply. Erin Solstice sat down—and no Skills activated. Her eyes didn’t blaze. The <Quest> didn’t acknowledge her opponent. But Erin did.
Thus began the longest game of chess yet. It was just Erin—versus a Truestone Golem. The first thing that Erin and some of the people who knew chess realized was this:
Cognita was no computer.
Or rather, she wasn’t as adept as a computer program. But she was the closest thing to it. Erin did not place pieces down with certainty. She sat and played.
The game took two hours and five minutes. When it was done, Erin looked toasted. She had a handful of pawns and a knight against several of Cognita’s and the audience was dead silent.
However, before the Golem could try to corner Erin, the [Innkeeper] forced a threefold repetition—something that most novice chess players had no idea was even a rule. That technically made the game a draw.
“Draw. Another game?”
Erin croaked. But Cognita just stood up.
“I believe I am satisfied. Fare well on your next game, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] nodded. Then she groaned as another player appeared in the scrying orb. Due to the delay, all the other champions had lined up and beaten each other senseless.
“Correy, from Rhir! Hey, Erin! I’m totally a fan!”
A young man sat confidently behind a chess board. Erin frowned at him and sat up…and nothing happened. He began playing, and Erin began playing too.
Chess Challenger #23 was as strange as #22. None of Erin’s Skills activated—and yet, this young man had beaten even Chaldion in a chess game against the other people waiting for a turn.
Whether it was Erin’s exhaustion or his abilities—he had Erin from the moment they began. The [Innkeeper] started losing pieces. Lyonette ran over with a refreshing drink and food, but Erin merely lifted a hand after forty-six moves.
“What’s wrong? No takebacks. I’m a [Fire Mage], and I want to level.”
Correy was smiling, but he had been staring at something just past Erin every few seconds. He had frizzy red hair that made him look his class—and his smile was too relaxed.
The other chess players, from Chaldion to Niers, were waiting as Erin Solstice glanced at him. Their suspicions were confirmed when Erin pushed the board back.
“I’m afraid, Correy—that the game’s off. You’re cheating.”
“What? No I’m not! Prove it.”
Erin just stared down at the chessboard, and Antal nodded. If he’d been able to use his own computer, he suspected he’d be able to perfectly match Correy to an algorithm’s perfect moves. But then again—he didn’t have to guess.
Correy was staring at his damn laptop. Erin Solstice might not have had proof, but she just folded her arms. And her eyes flashed.
“The <Quest> and I know you’re cheating. What’s up, Correy?”
“Hey, I’m a huge fan, Erin. We should talk.”
“Maybe, but not here. You don’t belong in that seat. Next?”
It was the same thing that Niers and the other opponents that Correy had ‘beaten’ had sensed. It was one thing to ask for advice. When Altestiel met Erin on the board, the Lord of the Dance was talking to him on one side, Kiish reading out fellow [Strategists]’ input in the other ear.
But it was still a joint effort, a communal victory or one person taking help. There was a difference between even that and letting someone else do all the work. Letting a computer play for you. Erin turned her head away, and Correy got mad. He leaned over the board.
“Hey! I’m w—”
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes flashed. Then Correy shouted, and his scrying orb went dark. A flash of light bloomed—and the laptop exploded. She blinked, but Challenger #23 vanished. The only sound she heard before the feed cut was someone else—a young man?
He was laughing in a high-pitched cackle. The [Clown] howled with laughter amid the screams and Correy’s shouts of pain.
“Did…did I do that?”
Erin gulped. She didn’t think so. And if she didn’t do that—she saw Nerry staring up at her, as wide-eyed as Ulvama.
A bunch of potential cheaters eyed her face…and slowly put away their various cheating implements.
She was insane. Drassi’s Channel 2 news was breaking records—again. Even the famous summit with the Arbiter Queen hadn’t done this well—because the news was becoming something people tuned into.
However—what was significant about this wasn’t just the games themselves, but how people were interacting. It was almost as fun to watch people getting mad about Erin or hearing alternate takes.
“She has to be cheating herself. There is no way a Human can beat every person who’s gone up against her. She’s not even old! Her brain isn’t half as big as—as a Gorgon’s!”
A Lizardfolk woman was ranting after being kicked out of the second-rung of her tournament. Some people were also pointing to Erin’s use of Skills as clear proof that this was all rigged.
Others were just mad because most of the opponents making it to Erin were Humans or humanoid. Another Lizardfolk grabbed the magical microphone.
“This is a conspiracy! I’ve been counting, and do you know how many Lizardfolk got to play that Human? Two! Umina and one of our Lamias! Two out of twenty! Everyone else is a Human!”
“What about Tulm the Mithril?”
The [Mage] doing the interviews had to ask. The Lizardman scowled.
“Fetohep of Khelt? He’s undead!”
“Still a Human!”
At this point, the Lizardman hesitated.
“Uh—well, she’s Human right now!”
“What about the Antinium who faced Erin first?”
“Stop saying things that refute my point.”
Not everyone was a fan of Erin Solstice when all was said and done, for reasons that were better or worse depending on the logic involved. However, for every person complaining?
“Well, well, well. So my opponent is none other than the famous Feshi of the Gnoll Tribes?”
If Erin Solstice were flashy enough in her games with her opponents, her aura was still mostly confined to people who sat down against her. Drassi had tried to show the audience what it looked like to play against Erin. But the scrying orb only caught…flashes.
Like a flash of a distant lunar battleground—a vision—flickering across the air. Or those black wings, Void Dragonfire, or the hints of laughter running around her.
Which was making some people think she was a Dragon. No, no, think about it. Who knew how to play chess that well? She had magical fire, right? And she just happened to start an inn outside Liscor? Who survives crossbow bolts? Dragons.
Cirediel thought the theory was sort of stupid because he noticed, but he also saw the appeal. The wings looked hot.
But he was cramming popcorn into his mouth with his friends in a bar as he saw one of the challengers sit down to vie to be one of Erin’s opponents. He had the scrying orb’s control, but every time a game began, Cire kept switching channels.
Because he hated chess. But watching the people talk? That was something.
The Earth Dragon felt it. In that way, he saw something people were missing.
The opponents from around the world were talking to each other. Feshi Weatherfur looked up as someone entered the scrying orb’s frame opposite her. He came in like a wrestler entering a titleship match.
Fifteen servants set up a raucous serenade of trumpets as a man in armor ran forwards to cheers from his audience. His enchanted armor flashed as he threw back a cloak off his shoulders and pointed a finger at her.
General Thelican of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was all show, despite having lost three bids for a championship position. And while Feshi herself was perplexed by his entry—he was beaming.
“I am delighted to meet you, Feshi Weatherfur!”
“Thank you, General Thelican. How is Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
His face fell slightly.
“Oh, we’re at war with the King of Destruction, but you know how it is. Unlike some nations, we’re used to facing legends on the field, eh? You’ve clashed with the Walled Cities—how are the tribes, if you don’t mind me asking?”
It was a rather insensitive question, but Thelican followed it up with some actual insight.
“As I understand it, the lack of Chieftains means your Tribes will be partnering and safeguarding the younger ones until Chieftains emerge. No direct appointing to the role and risking a poor candidate. I think that’s a fascinating way to run leadership classes.”
Feshi blinked and ducked her head.
“That is…the way the tribes organize. I am impressed you know this, if you do not mind me saying so.”
“Everyone has been fascinated with Gnoll culture. I was dining on silkap just the other night. Delightful dish.”
What, the snack for dinner? There were obviously some disconnects, but Thelican could do worse. And in fact, he insisted on talking for nearly twenty minutes before the game even began and while it played. That was partly why he’d won some games; not all of his opponents could talk and play.
“I shall send you a suit of Nerrhavia’s [Sandstorm Dervish] armor—the kind we arm our best warriors with. Obviously, we are used to fighting in different terrain, but I think you might take something from it. And some fine items from home. A rug, perhaps. A flying rug—send her some good vintages.”
He clicked his fingers grandly to his servants, and Feshi looked surprised, but Thelican had been doing this all day. She hesitated and ducked her head.
“Then I shall send you some of Weatherfur’s finest paints and dyes. I am told even Nerrhavia lacks for the pigments we have.”
Thelican raised a cup, and half of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s [Painters] began to lambast Feshi and mock the tribal Gnoll…until she smiled.
“You do not have access to them, General Thelican. We do not sell such dyes save at the Meeting of Tribes due to how rare they are. I will send you some for cloth.”
That made him smile.
[Strategists] from across the world were introducing themselves. In fact, the Blighted King, whenever he appeared in a scrying orb against his opponents, often took the time to briefly speak to them.
He was one of the world’s top players. Which astonished anyone outside of Rhir. The Lizardman’s complaint wasn’t entirely unjustified.
Of the best players—the Blighted King, Eldavin, and the Titan of Baleros were among the finest. Added to that, the Lord of the Dance and one more.
Archmage Feor was the last of the five best players that Magnolia Reinhart had once vouchsafed to Erin Solstice. All five men had lost.
Even the Blighted King’s Skills lost against Erin. Eldavin? She had beaten him once before. Their games were among the best, but Erin Solstice was not losing.
—In fact, when the Archmage of Elves waited for his turn, heart pounding, ready to greet her, he saw the oddest sight.
Challenger #46 saw Erin Solstice blearily walking around the inn, gulping down coffee, as she yawned. But then a cheering group of people had her on the floor.
Doing pushups. Feor watched as a group of Redfangs shouted, trying to give what they thought was a boost to Erin’s energy.
“Five! Six! Faster! Harder! Stronger!”
Redscar was screaming at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was screaming back.
“Stop making me do pushups! I hate exercise!”
It was the silliest thing in the world, and when she saw Feor staring at her, she turned beet red. But there she was.
Like Niers, no—like no one before, Erin Solstice was dead center in the news, doing what she did best. Which was, when you got down to it, chess. She wiped sweat from her brow, sat down, and smiled.
“Hey, is it Archmage Feor! Wow! This is amazing! Ceria—hey Ceria, Falene, look!”
She turned to Ceria and Falene, and both half-Elves pretended they didn’t know her. Erin was meeting people that she had heard of only as famous names. Eldavin, Tulm, the Blighted King…
But not Magnolia Reinhart. The reason was simple. Magnolia was watching the chess games, but she had declined to participate. Mostly because she had a fairly good idea how well she would do without obvious Skills that would lean on the competition and make her look unfortunate.
However—she was smiling. In that exasperated way she had when she watched Erin do anything, but with some genuine admiration.
Now, that was not to say that Magnolia was not part of this entire affair. Heavens, no. Lord Tyrion Veltras and the other Five Families might have lacked the, ah, chess acumen to make it to face Erin Solstice.
With the exception of Lord Deilan El. But Magnolia Reinhart was a [Lady]. She knew how to invite herself into the right situations even lacking the pure chess ability of some, and she could manufacture that moment herself.
“…It seems as though Archmage Feor is quite taken with Miss Solstice. Did she ask if he ‘got her letter’? My word, she is speaking to everyone.”
She lightly fanned herself as she turned to address the rest of her panel. Which was Queen Jecaina, a terrified Yerranola, Drassi herself, a very pleased King Reclis of Calanfer, and yes, in deference to Lizardfolk fury, Lamia Tusxe, a mercenary commander on Rhir.
They were providing commentary, and unlike Jecaina’s more clinical trial, this wasn’t about law. In fact, instantly, King Reclis leaned forwards.
He was just as good as Magnolia.
“Please, Lady Reinhart. Are you insinuating that Miss Solstice is in a…clandestine literary affair with more than just the Titan of Baleros?”
“Your Majesty of Calanfer, what are you suggesting? There’s nothing untoward about letters. If there were, Erin would be in bed with half a dozen [Kings] and some [Queens].”
Lamia Tusxe nearly spat out her drink as Magnolia chuckled. She gave Reclis a smile which he returned. It was like they were playing a game of chess themselves, only they were learning the rules.
Oh, so this was how you did it? Drassi broke in with a laugh.
“Lady Reinhart, King Reclis, you two are crazy. But is Erin actually sending letters to…Archmage Feor? Oh my, she’s destroying him on the board. I think we’ll let our analysts tell us how the game went.”
Magnolia pursed her lips as Jecaina squinted at the board.
“It looks like Archmage Feor in the first part of the game actually opened up his left rook by moving his pawn forwards. Can we replay that, Drassi? My, my. I didn’t know he was this amusing.”
“My understanding is that Archmage Feor is considered a top-level player across the world, in the [Mage] community and elsewhere, Lady Reinhart. I, myself, have played him, and I was considered one of the foremost players in Calanfer. What is so amusing?”
Reclis teased her as Yerranola fumbled with her notes. Magnolia just sighed.
“I happen to know that is called the, ah…what was it? The Kadas Opening? A very bad opening for a very fine player, indeed. Archmage Feor might well be a skilled player, but I have been assured that is a terrible way to start a game. From playing myself, you understand. Perhaps it works on other players, but not Miss Solstice.”
“I believe she’s seen it before, uh, uh, Lady Reinhart. Y-your Majesty. She took it apart very fast.”
Yerranola stuttered in, and Magnolia turned.
“Miss Yerranola, please. Magnolia will do. Or even Mags. You must come by Oteslia, and I will host you. What I am pleased about, though, is that Erin is keeping herself fed.”
The rest of her commentary group looked askance as Magnolia smiled at Erin. Queen Jecaina murmured.
“You must be joking, Lady Reinhart.”
“Humans. She’s going to die. Wait, I heard you had sugar for blood. Do you eat like that?”
Tusxe pointed in horror as Erin, desperate to replenish her energy levels, snatched a bowl of ice cream from Lyonette’s hands, then dumped it in a cup of milk. She proceeded to pour in her cup of coffee and add in a nali-stick. Magnolia smiled.
“Not in that way, but I have a tiny sweet tooth.”
“Someone—someone stop Mrsha. Hey, Drassi—stop Mrsha!”
The Gnoll was trying to copy Erin’s example and make her own coffee latte ice cream shake with extra nali. Drassi ran off-screen and intercepted Mrsha. Magnolia defended herself as Reclis, Jecaina, and Tusxe took her to task about her eating habits.
Nothing would do then for them all to make the shake and publicly shudder—except for Tusxe, who finished hers. Meanwhile, Reclis eyed a certain red-haired young woman. Well, formerly red-haired.
She was wearing a bad wig. Magnolia rolled her eyes, but she kept going. This was quite amusing.
Ryoka Griffin was watching her friend. So were the other Humans. They had to be. From a certain [Driver] heading north with an excited Antinium, to the Earthers of Rhir, the Singer of Terandria…
They saw her and saw Erin doing what she did best. Something wild and crazy. Her friend, the Wind Runner, wanted to be in Liscor. She was so antsy she almost went over to where Lord Pellmia, Tyrion, and a bunch of [Lords] and [Ladies] were scheming.
“What is the easiest tournament? No, no, I don’t want a local one—this is First Landing. Enter us in the Yoldenite tournament. Lord Pellmia, Lord Tyrion…fine, make them Drake names. Lord Pellsia, Tyllion—”
They were, uh, not doing well. Ryoka hadn’t bothered trying to get in the tournament. She had played Erin when the [Innkeeper] was being nice.
Right now, it looked like Erin Solstice could breathe fire and spit lightning. In a literal sense. Some of her Skills seemed to actually sap her opponents’ strength. Every time she took a piece off the board when she played a Centaur [Tactician], he grew paler and paler.
Mind you, he had already begun hyperventilating, but Ryoka actually saw a phantom bolt of lightning, like a flickering apparition, go through him when she knocked out his queen. He trotted around in a circle in his scrying orb—then passed out.
“Whoa! She’s killing them if she wins! It’s a chess game to the death! That’s awesome. Ryoka, Ryoka, it’s your move.”
Sammial thought it was neat. He slapped his board impatiently, and Ryoka glanced down. She was playing him and Hethon, and she frowned.
“You moved your pieces.”
“I get my pawn back.”
“Because you have too many of my pieces! I get my pawn back!”
Sammial insisted. He folded his arms, and Ryoka rolled her eyes.
“Sure, take your pawn back. Check.”
As the young [Lord] tried to scheme his way back to a victory, Ryoka turned to the scrying orb once more. What impressed her about Erin was not the Skills or the <Quest>. Well, those were amazing, as was her wiping out foe after foe. But it wasn’t even her meeting the rich and powerful. To Ryoka, that was dangerous. It wasn’t the community, the excitement…
It was Ryoka Griffin’s eternal envy for anyone who saw her opponents in that half-seen world. What she and her chess opponents saw was mostly lost to Ryoka. But the Wind Runner knew—perspective. She watched Viscount Visophecin appear in the scrying orb and his careful look at Erin Solstice.
She suspected that Erin saw something completely unique. She hoped that Erin was smart about it. This was the second game, and if the first had been any indication—
Erin had seen him.
It was just supposed to be a game. Once more, he sat down and sank into another dimension. Unlike the other players, he knew other dimensions.
This was a power like his own. Given to an [Innkeeper] for this quest? Incredible. Unbelievable.
But what made the Lucifen’s skin crawl even as he kept his face smiling for the cameras was this.
The illusion of a man faded, and a Devil spread his wings. He stood in a world of blackness as a roaring river the size of an ocean ran under the chess board hovering in the air.
Another area this time? The Lucifen looked up, and there was no giant this time. Erin Solstice was sitting across from him, tired. Mortal. Frail. Sweaty.
So—why was his hand shaking? He looked at it idly and then at her. His true form was revealed. The first time, he had been so disconcerted he’d thrown the match.
This time…he watched her face and wondered if he would have to kill her. For she was seeing something she should not be able to. Yet she was Ryoka’s friend. And what made the Lucifen’s heart beat fast was…
The [Witch of Second Chances] sat there. Empowered by the glowing Skills and class hovering over her head. But that was not what made Visophecin freeze.
There were a pair of horns growing out of her head. Her skin was grey, like his, and when she smiled, her pointed teeth were a copy of his own. He looked at her—and she nodded to him.
“Viscount Visophecin, isn’t it? Ailendamus?”
He knew their voices were being picked up by the scrying orbs, even if this wasn’t. The Viscount had heard her greeting some of the Humans with familiarity, but no one could say what was truly secret. Yet—Erin just nodded.
“Ailendamus must be a fun place. Although I don’t support the war. I have friends that Ailendamus attacked. You look familiar, though.”
“I don’t believe we have met. Although we did play earlier today.”
The Lucifen carefully scrutinized her face. The [Innkeeper] leaned back and laughed. Her eyes glittered red, and she smiled.
[Temporary Skill Assigned: Visions of Defeat (Legendary)]
Slowly, the Devil gazed past Erin as a figure walked out of the shadows. He said nothing at all as a Lucifen wearing Chandrarian clothing in the style of old Khelt plucked an obsidian rose and placed it behind Erin’s ear, like a memento. The [Innkeeper] didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people today. It’s familiar. Now—shall we begin? How far away is Ailendamus, anyways?”
A [Princess] walked into the void and whispered urgently in her ear. Visophecin had seen the [Princess] and the Thronebearers cueing Erin into her guests. She blinked and laughed as Lyonette hurried away with a look at Visophecin. He nodded to her.
“Far from Liscor, I am afraid.”
“Everything cool is. But tell you what. If you ever travel to Izril—consider visiting my inn?”
The Lucifen saw her lift a chess piece, and he managed a reply as the first piece came thundering down and the river below him began to twist and roar.
“I believe I shall if ever the opportunity arises.”
Visophecin went down in flames, but he didn’t just go back to preparing for another game. Instead—he pulled out a [Message] spell as the Lucifen and Agelum demanded to know if everything was still safe.
He assured them it was and logged onto the world’s largest [Message] thread group.
Viscount V: Attacking her control by focusing on her knights did nothing. She is endlessly adaptive.
Rainy Boy: She still prefers to take the center. I suggest that anyone going at her force her into more unique patterns.
E: I will not waste my chance on possibilities, Earl. It seems to me that trying to be ‘unique’ is a surefire way to lose; better to play an opening you know well.
Rainy Boy: You say that—but I have seen her lose.
Viscount V: To whom?
Fetohep: Your diction is excellent. I believe that would be Bird, who plays in unique styles, is it not?
Strategist Coleom of Chandrar, Nerrhavia’s Fallen: Archmage Eldavin, I am such a huge fan of yours. Could I ask you if you’d be willing to entertain a visit to—
E: Deleted. Apologies. Didn’t someone press her quite hard? Who played her in that game with diagonal approaches?
Scout Leader Illn: Me?
Rainy Boy: Wonderful game. She might be adaptive, but she has a weakness. Does anyone want to volunteer to try that on her?
Fetohep: Assuming the chance occurs, I shall.
Quarass: And I. Excuse me, I was away.
Mri: AND MY AXE! Forsooth! I have defeated Erin Solstice before and have come to impart my wisdom!
E: Get out of here. And stop coming back.
The second day of the party was all about chess. Chess and meetings. Lyonette thought she was mostly ready for the big party on the final day. Even if Pawn and she…
She was staying up, lighting lanterns, and there was still a huge crowd, even if the children had long since passed out. Because there was Erin Solstice.
Challenger #87. Fetohep, again. His golden eyes burned in the darkness as he tipped over a king piece.
They were…cycling. Eighty-seven challengers, and most had gone through [Immortal Moments]. Otherwise—it might have been days.
Erin looked like she was spent. She just nodded to Fetohep, but she waited. Niers, Chaldion—all of the players that were the best kept reappearing to take their shot at her.
And each time, they got closer. However, they were feeling the effects of exhaustion, and, too late, Niers realized he should have gone to sleep and started fresh.
That was hindsight for you. The world’s audience and Drassi were just waiting to see who finally took Erin Solstice down.
It was like watching a pack of Carn Wolves taking down a Mossbear. They were circling—and then one would come in, and there would be a flash of fangs and a bitter, bloody battle. The [Innkeeper] was no longer smiling.
She was concentrating, and she was visibly reacting to the quality of her opponents. She actually groaned when the scrying orb flickered.
A lot of weaker challengers were appearing, local regional masters. However, while some were surprising, Erin could knock a Naga flat, or Beatrice, or even Valeterisa.
…But the Quarass of Germina was a top-tier opponent. She twirled a pawn on one finger, then put it down. Erin inhaled—
And the Quarass stood by the thousands. Lifetimes of mastery facing down a world of ghosts. Erin Solstice looked in her eyes, and the Quarass nodded.
We have more to talk about than mere games.
The [Innkeeper] was blazing out, but she was going down swinging. She put down a piece, and the Quarass felt it like a quake.
Take me out and we’ll talk. The [Innkeeper]’s mouth was a line of concentration as she bit her lip to keep herself focused. You cannot best me that easily.
“Dead gods, they’re going at it.”
A yawning Qwera watched as pieces flew off the board and the Quarass and Erin’s hands blurred under the effects of their [Immortal Moment]. To outsiders, it looked like they were sped up, locked at the horns.
Speaking of horns…Olesm pushed himself back from the table and went back for his second rematch as Venaz smashed a fist on his board. Erin Solstice took down the Quarass and wobbled. She looked up.
“Niers? Don’t you have any sympathy for little old me?”
The Titan appeared, grinning.
“This is your hour, Erin. Show us how the ‘World’s Greatest Player’ goes down. Five seconds per move? Flash game?”
He taunted her, and Erin’s lips moved.
[Temporary Skill Assigned: My Thoughts Run Like Lightning]
A crackling storm swept over the void between them, and the Titan sighed as he saw her straighten her back.
“Bring it on.”
The Skills were still adapting to every opponent. Niers lost, swearing vividly, as Erin drew him into a rapid defeat. He couldn’t keep up with her!
…However, that had drained her even more. But now the audience was riveted. Again, not by the game.
By the atmosphere. The fourth challenger in a row appeared.
Fetohep, the Quarass, the Titan. And then…
International Master Antal Fekete appeared to cheers. Like the [Hero] facing the final boss—they were beginning to cheer on each player.
“You again. I’m sorry I can’t play without Skills…”
At this point, Erin was recognizing her opponents’ levels, and she gave him a guilty smile. Antal replied.
“No need. You’re insane.”
It was not the first time they had played together. But it might be the last. There was no roar of black wings beating, no moon this time.
Antal sat in an [Immortal Moment], with words only for the two of them. In a [Garden of Sanctuary], feeling a spring breeze blowing across his face. He looked up as they played under a vast sakura tree with light green petals blowing in the wind.
Erin Solstice sat in the dress the owner of this garden had once worn. A silk kimono perhaps, but so long it spilled around her resting on a blanket over soft grass as she studied the chess board in front of them. Her hair was pinned by a single jade-green hairpin. She looked serene. Exhausted—and he thought she looked like a reigning champion waiting for him as she sat there.
“There’s so much I want to talk to you about.”
That was all Antal said. He looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] looked up. She smiled briefly.
“I know. I’m sorry, though. I’m tired. And—I’m playing you at my best.”
Her eyes flickered, and the wind picked up. Antal’s heart was already racing. They could only speak like this briefly—but he spoke, desperate.
“I know, but you’re my senior in chess and—here. Do you know anything?”
He was a hero of Rhir. Erin Solstice looked up slowly, and her eyes were sympathetic.
“I don’t know everything, Antal. But I can tell you this: it will not be easy. It’s all real, and—I cannot go across the world. Not yet. If you come to me, if you need help, I will try to give it. But you’re going to need to find your way.”
“…I just play chess.”
The [Chess Player] closed his eyes. When he opened them, the [Innkeeper] was smiling gently.
“So do I. It won’t solve everything. But take this moment and use it. You’re not alone. You have to do your best. More than you ever thought you could. This? This is your first step. Show me what you have.”
Then the breeze in the garden became a gale. Antal thought he saw a flaming bee flying past them as a hurricane blew around them, and he should have been so disconcerted that he didn’t play well. Instead—his mind was on fire, and he was pushing himself and hoping he remembered every move of this game.
He felt alive, like the truest moments of genius he had ever captured, like he was reading a hundred moves ahead. And his opponent was living in this world? Antal looked up at her as she came at him, and he wondered what opponents she’d met to make her smile like that.
He dreamed, in that moment—of playing chess with species he had never met. With Djinni and [Queens] and immortal beings and Golems. And he was not so afraid of the future.
The game took an hour and thirty-one minutes. To the audience? A minute, thirty-one seconds. Erin took a desperate gulp of a stamina potion, but she was swaying when she sat down.
“Come on, easy opponent. Easy opponent. Oh—uh, I didn’t mean to be mean.”
A Drowned Woman grinned as she saluted Erin in a swaying cabin. She whispered.
“Shh, if you please. We’re in the deeps. But it’s an honor to play.”
In silence, they dueled, and the Drowned Woman bowed out as fast as she’d entered, looking pleased to have challenged Erin. But—it wasn’t clear that even these ‘breaks’ were helping Erin. She raised bloodshot eyes and smiled mirthlessly.
“Et tu, Anand?”
The [Strategist] raised his arms as the Antinium began clicking and applauding wildly. So did the Goblins, cheering him.
“Erin. I’m sorry, but I wish to win.”
“So do I.”
Even now—Anand’s raised mandibles trembled. The [Innkeeper] took a breath—and her eyes began glowing again.
“Oh dead gods, it’s like that’s her special form or something. It’s like she’s a boss about to do a special attack. Joseph. Hey, Joseph. Do you think you’ll be able to do that in soccer?”
Kevin whispered to Joseph as Erin faced Anand down. The [Football Coach] hesitated. He imagined someone activating a Skill for a kick.
“We’re already in a videogame, Kevin. She’s just the final boss of chess.”
“Dude, I make bikes. What kind of videogame is that?”
How little he knew. Erin staggered off to the bathroom, but she came back in three minutes. She sat down and actually fell asleep. Her head dipped—she jerked upright—
And her opponents knew it was time.
Who was next who could take her out? Who was going to get that level?
Az’kerash, wearing a puppet-Naga, was trying to bludgeon the Lord of the Dance out of the way, and he’d had a winning position, but the nimble [Lord] was hanging on for dear life. Tulm the Mithril was determined to crush Feshi, but the Gnoll was hanging on. Umina and Olesm were vying for next place.
Erin waited, sipping a glass of water as another local master appeared. Tulm lost to Feshi. Az’kerash cemented his victory, and Olesm sighed in relief.
One of them would be next. Who? And would it be the first person or the third? Or in ten challengers?
Erin Solstice sat in her chair, and her hat was full to bursting. She was alive. She was dying. She was crying for the ghosts. She was triumphant, standing upon the metaphorical bodies of her enemies.
She was probably hallucinating at this point, but the [Innkeeper]’s eyes were glowing, even against her weakest opponents. Sometimes she manifested other powers, even seemed to slightly change shape depending on the Skills she got.
Now—a burning hat made of flames as pink as Magnolia’s carriage flashed above her head. It burned, and the [Witch] began laughing.
She threw her head back and cackled as the tired audience saw her stop playing chess. Then—as Az’kerash, Olesm, and Feshi waited—she pushed herself back from the table. They stared in disbelief as her unknown opponent, who had challenged her for the first time, froze.
Erin Solstice lifted a hand up and swept the burning hat from her head. She bowed—and looked her opponent in the eye.
“You’ve done it. Who are you? I didn’t even ask your name.”
She looked her opponent in the eye, and they seemed as stunned as Erin. Drassi looked up and lurched to her feet—she’d missed it? She swung the camera over, and slowly, a pudgy Human man raised his arms.
Calidus sat in his mansion as the scrying orb reflected his disbelieving face turning to rapid exultation and altogether too much pride.
“I won? I woooooon! I am the greatest [Lord] in the world! Do you hear that?”
He began posing and running about. In dead silence, the world’s best chess players looked up as Calidus Reinhart began whooping with glee.
“He beat me. He’s…good.”
Erin Solstice turned. The great expectations that had been placed on the other players…the shocked audience looked at Erin Solstice, and she pointed. The image on the scrying orb became a split-screen of her best opponents.
Fetohep, a scowling Eldavin, the Quarass, Niers, Altestiel—Erin saluted them.
“The world’s best chess players took me on. I am the Grandmaster of Scales until someone replaces me—in a formal tournament, not a silly <Quest>. More will appear. Chess has a future longer than what we’ve seen. The game is deeper than I know. But you? You are all amazing players. And I hope you level.”
She beamed at them, and most smiled back, ruefully. Calidus was showering champagne all over the air and himself as he celebrated unabashedly—but it was true.
He was not the only one levelling tonight. But the [Innkeeper], of all of them, just stretched. She turned to Drassi.
“That’s who I am. It’s a shame I don’t level up from chess. But that would be…too easy. Anyways, that’s my inn. Look forwards to more tomorrow. Thanks. Night.”
She smiled—then her eyes rolled up in her head. She passed out on her feet and fell straight backwards until Mrsha, Normen, and Pisces all dove to cushion her.
The legend of chess slept.
[Conditions Met: Hedonistic Wastrel → Genius of Sloth Class!]
[Genius of Sloth Level 23!]
[Class – Hedonist Removed!]
[Condition – Drunken Oblivion Removed!]
[Skill – Brilliant Insight (Weekly) obtained!]
[Skill – Store Intellect obtained!]
[Rewarded Skill – Move Reality Like Chess obtained!]
In the night, as a voice spoke across the world to many, a [Lord] opened his eyes in sudden, mortal terror.
“Wait. Wait. No.”
[Knight Marshal of the Rains Level 45!]
[Ritual – The Fourth Tide Pours In Blood and Storm obtained!]
“Yes! Kiish! Kiish—Bel, get the wine out!”
[Quarass Level 18!]
[Skill – Remembered Skill obtained!]
She woke from her doze, and one eye cracked open.
“Good, at last.”
[King of Intrigue Level 37!]
[Skill – Agreement of Stories obtained!]
The [King] said nothing at all, but hummed merrily as he thought about his daughter.
[King of Blight, King of Centuries Level 55!]
It was to be expected after last time, but he scowled.
[Midnight Goth Level 22!]
[Skill – Morticious Insult obtained!]
[Skill – Shadowcloak Stealth obtained!]
A [Head Server] working late into the night felt a chill on his fur as a Goblin started giggling.
They were coming out across the world, and if the Titan was left empty-handed—progress was made. Even if there was no Skill gained, next time, surely…
The quest rewarded one man overwell and the rest of the world in spades.
[Eleleu Strategos Level 36!]
[Yodelling Lieutenant Level 25!]
[Dragonslayer Strategist Level 41!]
[Magus Level 15!]
[Strategist Chieftain Level 32!]
[Stoneshorn War Leader Level 29!]
[War Strategist Level 34!]
On and on. The voice did not discriminate—even if it changed and decided and assigned due to a logic only it knew. Even if things were different and someone was pushing the very rules themselves. But even they had no authority over everything.
So it spoke and spoke, until it came to one person to whom it delivered the announcement without waiting for sleep.
For, there would never be sleep again. It whispered after so long in his ears.
[Undying Lich, Myth of Death and Vengeance Level 78!]
[Skill – Create Spectral Undead obtained!]
[Skill – Sanctum: Death Magic Leyline obtained!]
[Skill – Teacher of Magic (Universal) obtained!]
[Spell – Death King’s Mirage of the Living obtained!]
[Spell – Might of the Glomroath Beast obtained!]
He stopped at his work. Az’kerash tapped his lips—and laughed despite himself. A fairly normal level up at this stage—but quite delightful, even so. And like so many, he decided he owed Erin Solstice a great favor indeed.
The Necromancer smiled.
Author’s Note: So. Funny story here.
I didn’t edit any Volume 1 chapters. Mostly because I had a feeling this could be a good chapter so I worked my butt off. Got 33,000 words done.
Now it’s LONGER. And looking at the edited chapter, it’s better, probably, but I have no energy for rewrites.
So I may take off that day in the month for editing because I’m just getting better at editing the new chapters. However, as someone pointed out—
I need to learn the part of editing where you cut things down. I have gotten better at adding and redefining scenes to be stronger with descriptions. The part where you cut anything?
Weak. However, one step at a time! I think we can agree that editing with the editors, way back with Rebecca at the start, has improved my writing. It’s like it plateaued for a bit, but when I began studying something new, I slowly began incorporating it into my methods until we’re really seeing it bear fruit.
It takes a while, but I’ll try to do more for brevity. Frankly, maybe I should do more edited chapters or find something else to improve on? For now, I am resting, but you can ‘level up’ even on Earth. I just wish I got Skills like [Free Chapter] or [My Hands, They Were Unbreakable].
Instead, I’ll just sleep on it. Thanks for reading!
Silverstache by Brack! (Yes, he did the art while the chapter was coming out. Amazing.)
Void Goat and Garuda vs Harpy by Anito!
Paeth on the Coast by Enuryn!