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When she woke up in the inn, Mihaela Godfrey felt like a young woman for the first second of every morning. In that brief moment—it felt like the inn hadn’t changed from when it first opened.
Which was silly because it did change. She had silk sheets instead of cotton covered by thick wool. These days, she had a suite instead of a cramped room with a crooked picture nailed to the wall.
But it felt like the same inn. And she felt like a young woman, a City Runner ready to run a hundred miles again.
Then she inhaled and coughed. She felt tired and parts of her broken.
Then she realized she was stuck in a body that seemed older than her soul. And she remembered her son was dead and that decades had passed.
That was why she avoided the inn, sometimes. It had all the memories. Good and bad. Yet Mihaela still clung to that illusion. If she sat there for a second, mastering her breath, she could pretend she was young again. Young, and as old as she was, as if everything that had gone on in her life had taken a single year.
Memory wasn’t that kind. It always caught up with her, along with her body. Mihaela coughed again and wiped her mouth on the clean sheets. She stared at the drops of blood and then swung herself out of bed. She dressed herself with one of the neatly-folded sets of clothing on the dresser; she never bothered to put them away.
Then she strode over to the door. It took her about three minutes, and that was slow, but a Courier was a Courier. And she was the Guildmistress of First Landing. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d had to get dressed in seconds while an [Assassin] was creeping up the stairs and then jump out the window.
Instead, she kicked the door open, and it hit Viecel in the face. The Selphid had the misfortune of walking past her door for the morning. In a sense, it was good it was just him. She stared down at the prone adventurer.
“Mihaela. I think you broke my nose. Let me fix it.”
The groaning Selphid got up. He rubbed at his crooked nose, and Mihaela shrugged.
“You know how I open doors.”
“Does it have to be a trap?”
Eld picked up his friend and gave her a look like she was a girl again, and she avoided his gaze. The responsible friend loved to lecture everyone.
“It keeps the [Assassins] guessing.”
“What about your guild? I’ve heard you’ve broken more toes than any other Guildmistress in the history of First Landing?”
He folded his arms, and Mihaela lifted a finger.
“Reflex training? Besides, Viecel shouldn’t complain. He’s an adventurer. Are you a he, today?”
The Selphid grumpily finished repairing his nose and indicated his Human body.
“As long as my nose holds up. This was a good body too. Barely rotten.”
“How many fingers have you got left?”
Mihaela looked down, and the Selphid waggled his fingers at her.
“Seven. I’ve been getting lucky recently.”
Eld sighed, and the three talked in the corridor of the private guest suite of the inn. The same rooms they had always had, even though it was different in almost every way. If you looked down, what did you see? Beyond the rich floorboards, the rooms—those changed. These days, the walls weren’t cheap, plaster over cabin wood, but old heartwood, the stuff Treants and the oldest trees were made of.
Not cut from the Treants themselves, no. That was how you got [Druids] after you. This was salvaged from an old ship, and it still was better than anything fresh-cut. Nor were there the embarrassing paintings and such of the guests themselves—Mihaela saw a flattering wood-cut of her face, and she resolved to bury it before she left.
“Nice bust of you.”
Viecel admired the latest addition to the inn. Mihaela changed her mind. She was picking it up off the podium it was resting on as a door opened and another old friend came bounding out with way too much energy.
But then, Colth was just a kid. He had always been the kid, and he wasn’t as old as the rest. He did a cartwheel, spun into a bow, and cried out.
“Today’s the day! Hello, Mihaela! Eld, Viecel, what’s wrong with you? Aren’t you excited?”
“You have too much energy, Colth.”
His friends looked resigned as the other adventurer beamed at them. Colth, the embodiment of energy, and Mihaela sometimes tried to kick him, her default solution to problems she didn’t like. But she had to admit, she did like Colth.
She liked all of them. Four of the gang were here. So she nodded to Colth as more doors opened and people she vaguely recognized—favorites of the inn, Larra’s special guests—came out to see what the noise was all about.
This wasn’t the quietest or even most luxurious part of the inn. Oh, no. This was for the real friends. You didn’t pay regularly. If you needed a space, you knew it was always here. And no one, not [Assassins] nor nobility could touch you here.
After all, this was The Adventurer’s Haven. And Colth, like Viecel, was important enough that the bright-eyed member of staff was peeking at them as she brought a load of fresh linens down the hall and began cleaning Eld, Viecel, Colth, and Mihaela’s rooms.
The staff sometimes made Mihaela feel old, but she didn’t recognize a lot of them. Barnethei had stayed around for a long time, and there were a few constant faces, but Larra was the inn. Anyways—Mihaela was used to looks.
“Colth, open that window, would you?”
He instantly moved to oblige her. Eld cleared his throat as he saw Mihaela picking up the bust of herself.
“Colth, don’t. Larra will kill you and Mihaela.”
The man hesitated and looked from Eld to Mihaela.
“Open the window, Colth.”
“You got it, boss.”
The older adventurer rubbed at his face as Colth obliged Mihaela. The member of staff and several of the other people in the inn watched as Mihaela Godfrey tossed the carving of her out the window.
She smiled—for about a second. Then she heard a scream and a crash of too many dishes. She winced, and Colth gave her a thumbs-up and a grin.
“Nearly hit the entire trolley of breakfast dishes. Good shot, boss?”
“Colth, you idiot. Tell me if there’s someone outside!”
It must have been a delivery to one of the other buildings. Their rooms didn’t pass over a busy part of the inn—Mihaela slapped a hand over her head. Eld and Viecel slowly backed away from her because all of them knew what was happening next. There was a pause as someone called out—then a familiar voice rang through the inn.
Larra was pissed. Mihaela looked down the corridor, and Colth ducked as five flying imps, spectral and made of magic, came charging at her with dusting cloths and a pitcher filled with ice water.
Arcane familiars. Mihaela bailed out the window. She did it like a professional. No judging what was below her, no hesitation. She grabbed the top of the window and swung herself out legs first.
The world was bright and spun below her as the Guildmistress of First Landing flew for a second. Early morning diners looked up, and Mihaela saw a panicking younger member of staff gaping up at her. A certain [Vice Innkeeper], Barnethei, saw Mihaela about to land on him as he bent over with a broom and pan.
He twisted, and the shattered glass and food below Mihaela disappeared in a flick of the wrist. Then he was stepping back, pulling the new member of staff to safety.
All of that took a moment. Mihaela landed and nodded at him.
The Guildmistress ran, and the familiars chased after her. As did a thin bolt of lightning. But the woman just ran, laughing, and leapt for safety behind the nearest guest. Then she coughed—and cursed.
But the bolts of lightning and attacking familiars, the other half of the staff, never struck her. They vanished because Larra didn’t attack her guests.
And this guest in particular would have gotten herself fried or walked straight over the glass. Valley looked up from the book she was reading as a little girl squeaked.
Well, she was older than a girl, but she looked so terrified of Mihaela that the Guildmistress knew she hadn’t been to the inn before.
“Valley! Is that you?”
Flight forgotten, Mihaela stopped. Colth leapt out the window, mimicking her move to the awe of the people outside. Eld and Viecel came down more sedately, but they looked just as astonished to see Valley.
“Valley, when did you get in? It’s like a complete reunion, now. How in the name of anything did Larra get you?”
Colth came over, and Valley looked entirely surprised as he hugged her. The shy reclusive girl looked around—no, wait. She was a woman now, too.
“Yesterday. Oh, hello, Colth. Are you being bullied by Mihaela into pranks again? Should I find Larra?”
“No, it wasn’t a prank—”
Colth laughed, and Mihaela remembered too late why she should be dodging.
Thock. That was the sound of a familiar bouncing a mug off her head. Mihaela turned and made a fist at the imp—a miniature gargoyle with horns and wings. Lots of people compared them to Demons, but these ones were harmless unless Larra was mad at you or they were doing something stupid.
“Destroy my familiar and I’ll cast [Slippery Footing] on you.”
Larra warned Mihaela, and the Courier hesitated. She lowered her fist.
“That was a bust I hired a [Carver] to make. If you didn’t like it—Barnethei, put it somewhere else.”
“At once, Larra.”
He bustled over to the bust, which was still objectionably intact. Mihaela rubbed her head as Valley looked around.
“Oh, hello, Larra. Where’s my breakfast?”
“Mihaela threw a bust at it.”
“Is she bullying me?”
Valley looked slightly worried, and Mihaela pointed at Colth.
“No, I was just getting rid of it. Colth was the idiot who didn’t tell me to stop.”
“Me? Mihaela was giving me orders—”
Larra slapped Colth on the arm, hard.
“You’re a grown man. Eld, didn’t you stop this?”
“I warned them both. They’re both grown adults.”
“No one’s an adult. Not even you, Eld.”
That was how they started their day. And today seemed like an auspicious day; four friends were already here, and with Valley and Larra, it made six of the old lot. It was rare for so many to be in one place.
In fact, the diners of the inn, the ‘normal’ guests, were giving them wide-eyed looks, and all of them were probably listening to the banter. No one paid attention. Not even Colth. They had done this from the start, before they had hangers-on and admirers. This was their inn.
Larra’s inn, and she left most of the day-to-day to Barnethei. So not even the haughty [Lady] eying Mihaela like a challenger dared intrude into this conversation. Although—Mihaela glanced around.
“Is that Lady Pryde Ulta staring me down?”
“Nevermind her. She wants to arm-wrestle you. Or have a weight-lifting competition.”
“Pass. You beat her, Eld.”
The strongest member of their group by far pretended not to see the woman mad-dogging them.
“No. Are you installing a weights-room in your inn, Larra?”
“I’ve been asked, and the answer is no. Maybe a separate building if it’s that popular, but it seems entirely unnecessary. The farm’s already hard enough to lift—”
Expanding The Adventurer’s Haven was no easy task. Larra shook her head, then gazed southwards. The sun was dappling the open road, and as always, Mihaela heard exclamations in the distance, cries of astonishment. After all—this inn was on the move.
And it was famous. Mihaela stared at distant faces below, travellers pointing up at her and at Larra’s inn. The [Innkeeper], though, was staring at something further south. A shape in the distance.
“It’ll be today, then. Took long enough. I could have gotten out and pushed and gotten us here faster.”
Mihaela groused. But she ducked behind Colth as Larra clicked her tongue at her.
“You had half a month to do it. Besides, not everyone’s here yet.”
That made all of them stop.
“Is someone else coming?”
“Deni and his team. They should be riding in any second now, actually.”
“No. I thought he was still injured.”
Even Colth, who knew where almost everyone in the adventuring world was, was astonished.
Mihaela’s heartbeat picked up. She turned too-casually to Larra, and the [Innkeeper]’s scowl vanished.
“So he’s not—crippled?”
Gently, the other woman pointed north.
“You’ll see him shortly. Every word is he may make a full recovery. Just with a scar. Most of Orchestra made it out of fighting the Goblins.”
“A Goblin tribe took him down. What was that one called?”
Eld and Viecel muttered. Colth nodded guardedly, and Mihaela let out a breath. She pretended not to be rattled. But they all looked at her, and she saw a name unspoken on their lips. They pretended to hide it, but she heard it.
Her son. Colth was the worst. He looked over and coughed.
“How’s Resber doing? I mean, are you keeping in touch with—”
Eld put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, but it was too late. Mihaela blinked, and even Valley glanced up and decided to kick Colth. But—
She still felt like it had just been a day ago when a little boy had been running around this inn. Getting familiars to fly him around, pestering Valley with questions until she complained to Larra, and Mihaela was introducing him and her husband to her friends.
Then he was a young man, complaining about being mothered to Colth. Then—he was heading south to Liscor on a routine delivery.
And he never came back. Mihaela realized she’d been smiling this morning. Now, she remembered why she shouldn’t be.
The Guildmistress stood there for a second as Larra pointed and Colth shuffled back. But Mihaela just turned her head, and her eyes focused on someone she knew.
“Salamani. What are you doing?”
A man jumped at a table. Another Courier glanced up with his slitted, reptilian eyes, and the other person at the table sat up nervously too. The moonlight mare herself, Ci, part of a duo that would never ride again, looked almost as wary of Mihaela’s attention as Salamani.
Of course both knew her. Of course both were here—even if they weren’t part of Mihaela’s group.
“Guildmistress. Just having breakfast.”
“I see that. Why are you feeding Ci eggs? Horses don’t eat eggs.”
Salamani hesitated. He’d been offering the horse a boiled egg—shell and all. She opened her mouth and slowly crunched it off his hand as the others watched.
“…Apparently she does, Guildmistress. She even has chicken sometimes.”
“Horses eat chicken?”
Everyone but Eld and Colth looked surprised. Eld sighed.
“You can’t raise horses with chickens free-roam. Any [Farmer] knows that.”
“Right. I’ve done a lot of work with horse-handlers. Even horses like a bite of meat now and then. Sheep do it too.”
Colth said it like it was obvious, but he was probably the most worldly of them all by far. Instantly, his friends turned on him.
“Don’t say it like we’re idiots, you know-it-all. Even Valley didn’t know that!”
The bookworm nodded, and they picked on him like they always did. Colth grinned, and then—Salamani rose. He pointed.
“I think your guests have arrived, Innkeeper Larra, Guildmistress. Not to be a bother—but look. Listen.”
His eyes lit up with a kind of wonder, and Mihaela turned as she heard a familiar sound in the air. Then she did smile. Despite herself, because another friend was coming their way.
“That pretentious mule. He’s putting on a show.”
“It’s Deni. What did you think?”
Her friends looked amused, but even Lady Pryde was getting up to see. The guests hurried to one side of the inn. Mihaela didn’t shove—people made a path for her and her group.
But even if she hadn’t, she would have known Deni and his team were coming. After all—they were playing.
Wagons were riding across the ground. To be precise, it was three wagons, all being driven hell-for-leather by someone intent on catching up to The Adventurer’s Haven.
“Whoa. Fast transit. I’ve seen slower carriages. Who’s delivering them?”
A group of people were sitting in the wagons, along with a good amount of luggage. Deni never went without a lot of stuff, and sometimes, admirers of his famous team. Colth just took one look at the wagons and Mihaela answered Viecel at the same time he did.
“Must be Chaoisa. A famous [Wagon Driver].”
“There are famous wagon drivers?”
The Selphid was a career adventurer of decades—but then he did work on Baleros as much as on Izril. Mihaela snorted.
“Of course there are. Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man. Wagon drivers have the stupidest nicknames. No wonder she’s sped up. She must hate Deni’s guts.”
Colth grinned, but even at their speed, everyone had time to admire and listen to Deni’s team coming. After all—
They were playing music. All ten of them, and it looked like they’d pulled in six more new recruits to the regulars. Mihaela knew most of the ten, but Deni and a few others were the real old ones.
“There he is, the showoff.”
She pointed, as if everyone couldn’t see him. His bright blonde hair was blowing in the wind, as if everyone didn’t know he dyed it, and he wore a suit as if he were at a performance in First Landing. Ruffles of white blew at his sleeves—but his violin still sang. Another adventurer holding another violin was playing with him, and the music sang through the air.
A sight few would forget. Here came an adventurer of adventurers. He was beaming as he played—but his friends just laughed at him.
They were applauding as he slowed, the regular guests. Deni disembarked from his wagon and took a bow as Larra’s inn lowered and slowed so he could stride up the ramp. A red scarf blew around his neck, and all his friends looked at that for one moment, but he was actually moving. He was alive and he was here; that was all that mattered.
…And that was when they remembered how Deni was. He had a flourish to every step and a twinkle in his eyes for all the lovely young ladies—
So Mihaela put him in a headlock. She strode towards him as if she were about to give him a great big hug, and he really should have remembered that Mihaela hugged no one.
She had him in a flash, and she began to rub his hair with a fist. The guests’ admiration turned to slack-jawed disbelief as Deni spluttered. He tried to break her grip, but he wasn’t that strong.
“Mihaela, let go of—”
He couldn’t make her. And he was an adventurer! The adventurer. His team looked up, but no one stopped Mihaela. Then Colth was there.
“I’ve got this.”
“Thank you Colt—Colth!”
The other man picked up Deni’s legs. He had nearly gotten free of Mihaela, but now he was prone in the air, and the two laughing friends swung the red-faced violinist around like a silkworm.
“I’ll kill you! Let me go! Let me—”
“Rub his dye out of his hair, Mihaela!”
Viecel egged them on, but Mihaela dropped Deni after only another moment. The other guests stared as Deni scrambled for what was left of his dignity. He kicked at Colth. Then he turned.
Mihaela grabbed him in a one-armed hug and let go as Eld and the others came over. Deni’s combed hair was tousled, but he calmed down as he gave her a look of pure exasperation.
“I should have known. I dragged myself all the way here and even put on a show, and I get no respect. Mihaela, you’re looking well.”
“And so are you for a dead man.”
Mihaela had stopped teasing him when she saw the wound on his neck. It was a gash that was nearly half a foot deep, running where his neck and shoulder met at a diagonal, down into his chest.
It should have killed him. It would have—but the red scarf was covering the wound. An enchanted blade had done that, or else he would have healed it with a potion. Deni covered it with the scarf as he saw her look.
“As you can see, we had a bad scrape. I’ll tell you about it later. I could have used Colth or—is that Valley?”
He did a double-take as the woman drifted over. She had actually closed her book, and Deni was so astonished he didn’t realize she was more interested in his apparel.
“Hello, Deni. Good to see you. Wonderful music. I think. What kind of enchantment is this?”
He batted her hands away urgently.
“That scarf saved my life—and I won’t have you touching it! Back, back, you insane brat! Knowing you, you’ll rip it off, and I’ll be dead of your curiosity.”
Deni actually drew a blade, the bow of his violin, to ward Valley off and retreated down the hallway. Colth was still trying to rub his hair for ‘good luck’, but he dodged a slash.
“All of you, hands off! Larra, we’re famished. We rode in before eating. Breakfast! And I swear, if any of you poke more fun at me, especially you, Mihaela, I’ll stab you. I’m not in the mood.”
He brushed his hair back, then noticed Colth copying him motion for motion. The other man swept his hair back ostentatiously, and several of the friends nearly died laughing. Then they were all looking around as a familiar voice called out.
“I hear you. Stop bullying Deni. Come over here and eat.”
Larra stood in front of a table ready for them all, with their favorites, and then—a group of laughing young men and women were dragging Deni over, teasing him, telling Colth to bring Valley over because she was drifting off, and asking who else would come.
Young and old. Larra went around slapping hands before they could eat. She got their attention, and they looked at her obediently.
“Alright. Here’s a light breakfast—I said light, Eld. There’ll be more food later. Now, listen up. We’re almost at the City of Adventurers. Deni was the last person to make it. When we get there, there’ll be a little event. I need you to all listen to me.”
“Do we have to act? I need to rehearse. I’m terrible at acting.”
Viecel looked nervous as he sat next to Eld. He was partners with Eld, and their team was hovering at another table—this one was just for the old friends and Larra’s guests. The [Innkeeper] hurried to reassure Viecel as Deni beckoned his team over.
“No acting. It’s simple. You’ll barely do more than sit. Now, here’s how it’s going to go, and if you mess it up, Colth, I will ban you from the inn for three months.”
Chastened, he nodded, and everyone leaned forwards to listen. Mihaela listened and half-smiled. She looked out the window, though they had a bit of time yet.
After all, this inn was famous and old, almost as old as she was. But she had to own, she was excited to see this new place she’d heard about. She’d been meaning to visit, but it seemed like she’d forgotten until now. Their destination, at least, today. And, it seemed, a place with a lot of strange happenings of its own if yesterday’s broadcast were anything to go by.
The Wandering Inn.
What a strange name.
On the third day of the celebrations in Liscor, Erin Solstice slept in.
Almost no one else did. But by the same token, no one woke Erin up. Not that they could avoid making noise, so Pisces just cast [Silence] on Erin’s room. The [Innkeeper] deserved it. Just yesterday, she had earned her title as the greatest chess player in the world. She had, by herself, taken on the world’s best players.
In and of itself, that was a moment. But consider the context. That had been Day 2 of the promised three-day celebrations, and the third one was when the Antinium Crusade was slated to return to Liscor and the Humans of Wales and the combined cities would be celebrated in Celum.
So Erin’s chess tournament had been the leadup to today. Naturally—today had better be good.
Now, was everything ready? Well—visitors had been pouring into Celum, Liscor, and Invrisil, where the celebrations would be held for two days straight. The door had been recharged countless times, and there were [Merchants] ready to hawk goods, festivities planned, and more organization by the various cities than there ever had been before for this inn’s parties.
In fact, there had even been a budget, and Invrisil at least knew how to throw a celebration. The Players of Celum were participating, along with the Silverfangs and a bunch of other performers who normally catered to the nobility and adventurers.
Nevertheless, when she woke up in her bed, Mrsha du Marquin had severe doubts. She woke up just past dawn, despite staying up all night watching Erin play. That was the benefit of [Twofold Rest], and the girl realized she’d still missed Lyonette and Apista rising.
She sat up and glumly saw a kilt waiting for her and a shirt. Grumbling, Mrsha put them on. She walked around on two feet, but she threw her shoes out the window like usual.
This was normal to Mrsha by now. And it slightly surprised her that it was. Why, Ekirra was always in his jersey and shorts, and he had shoes for soccer. When had he stopped running around butt-naked in his fur on all fours?
Thus attired, Mrsha sniffed the air. It was barely past dawn, and she wondered if breakfast would be extra-special today.
Due to her history with the law—Lyonette and the Thronebearers—Mrsha the Outlaw had gotten less dessert than most good children like her. So special days like this where the cake was part of the meal were to be desired. Mrsha expected good food, but she still had doubts about the, uh…how fun this day was really going to be.
Oh, she’d seen Lyonette working hard. She’d had a few lucky windfalls, like the idea to have an Antinium doll you painted. Visma had already added Starry Skies to her collection, and she was planning on how his or her life would invariably weave its way into the sordid and often violent lives of her dolls.
However, a few good ideas did not fun make. To Mrsha, Lyonette had a more fundamental problem than just her planning. It was about her character versus Erin’s.
Namely, Lyonette was boring. Mrsha had seen how her mother had ‘fun’ in Riverfarm and elsewhere.
Tea. Conversations about politics. ‘Responsibility’ and why ‘playing pranks wasn’t a good idea’.
Erin had the kind of spontaneous craziness that meant fun was something she practically generated. Even when she was calm, she was cool. Lyonette? Uncool.
Mrsha feared this party would be a dud. She was staring out the window, paws clasped behind her back, dourly envisioning a world of hemming and hawing adults standing around chattering while children died of boredom along with the Antinium.
Liscor’s bleak, grey walls rose over the colorful Floodplains changing color as orange grass ran up to the dirt roads leading to the eastern gate. Mrsha saw a few [Builders] already at work paving the roads; Hexel had planned on constructing roads heading north instead of relying on the dirt paths that flooded every spring. Floodproofing the roads so they wouldn’t completely disappear every spring would be a challenge, but a fun one, according to the Lamia.
Mrsha could even see a few [Guards] on the walls, including an Antinium, and the High Passes were still dark as they hid most of the sun. It was the calm, pre-dawn shade, rather than night that made it feel like Liscor was under a giant shadow.
Then the air exploded. Mrsha saw something flash, and the air lit up as a flickering, grey-purple bolt of light rose above the walls—then bloomed into a flash of sparkling, twisting trails of amethyst light crossed with viridian spirals that shot out into the air.
Mrsha’s jaw dropped. She saw the magical explosion pew across the air, the magical debris unfurling then vanishing as it glanced off roofs and the walls. The Watch turned—but no one shouted the alarm. Then Mrsha realized it wasn’t an attack.
She saw another bolt of magic rise—and this time, it exploded into a fiery tempest. A [Fireball]? No—Mrsha saw a grinning Drake’s head flare into life, fifty feet wide, wink at her, and rise upwards before the flames vanished.
Then the rest of the magical fireworks began shooting up, and Mrsha’s mouth opened so wide that Apista could have crawled inside and made a nest. She saw flares of magic light up the dawn as the day of celebrations began and realized her mistake.
Lyonette might be a fuddly mother—but she was a Calanferian fuddler. And they knew how to throw a party.
Not everyone appreciated being woken up by fireworks, but it did set the mood. By the time a little white Gnoll raced downstairs, half the guests of the inn were out of bed and blinking.
“Whuzzat. Whuzzat. I nearly shot an [Ice Spike] through my window!”
Ceria was looking slightly murderous as she blinked around the inn, but the rest of her team, especially Ksmvr, looked delighted.
“Skylights. Now this is rather fancy, isn’t it? I’d expect that of Invrisil, not here. Miss Lyonette, did you organize this?”
Pisces looked around, and a [Princess] stood, beaming, with her four [Knights] standing to attention. Ishkr was slowly lighting candles, and Mrsha stopped as she saw three rectangular tables had been pushed together to contain the breakfast buffet.
A buffet. Along with the adventurers, several Goblins had not appreciated the boom waking them up. But they too grew gentle and accepting, nay, forgiving like Ceria in the face of a bounty of food.
There were pies and cakes, charcuterie platters and hamburgers. Eight different kinds of pasta, delicate pudding, salads and fruits from every continent but Rhir, and, yes, even pizza. The Wandering Inn had pulled out a huge variety of dishes it had stockpiled over this month, and it had added Imani and Calescent’s food.
In fact, the [Chef] was beaming nervously as he stood behind the bar. Mrsha, Ceria, and Snapjaw, all big eaters, stared at a sign next to the Goblin.
Omelets upon request. Please select spice level and toppings*.
*The Wandering Inn and staff are not accountable for any injuries arising due to excessive spice levels which invalidate the [Chef]’s [Hot Enough For You] Skill.
Omelets? Kevin smacked his lips as he eyed a mound of toppings ready to go into an equally obscene number of eggs, some already beaten and waiting to go into a pan.
“Ladies and gentlemen—please help yourselves. Today, we will be opening the inn for a small fee to anyone who wants to come in. No menus, no ordering; eat your fill.”
Lyonette’s eyes glittered with the avarice of someone who had discovered the secrets of buffet income. She gestured to the food.
“This is the, ah, breakfast buffet. We will have more formal meals later. For now, if you wish to look for activities, we have a list of every activity by time of day. Now, we cannot tell when the Antinium army and Brigadier Forount will enter their cities, but they have given us estimates. And we do have a parade for our adventurers as well! If you would like to go anywhere, be aware that the door will be in use all day. So Miss Liska will not be able to accommodate personal requests. Aside from that? I hope you enjoy! We have begun with magical illusions courtesy of Illusionist Palt and several [Mages] of Invrisil.”
It was then that Mrsha began to get a good feeling about today. And not just because she was eying the cakes.
She only noticed that Drassi was there with a small camera crew when she looked around. The Drake was broadcasting the moment! And…Mrsha realized something else.
Everyone was here. In fact, there were people staring in through the windows! And a line outdoors! Liska was, in fact, already letting people in, but they had to get through Alcaz first.
“Ten silver coins? That’s a ripoff!”
Relc stared in horror at the man as he tried to get into the inn’s common room. The rest of the inn, such as it was, the long hallway and portal room, were open to the general public. But to get in for breakfast?
“It may be, sir, but you’re getting the friend-of-the-inn discount. 50% off.”
“I am? Well, uh—here’s ten silver, then.”
Relc heard groans from behind him as he fumbled for coins. A lot of prospective guests peeled off instantly, and that was how Imani realized how Lyonette intended to make a profit on the sumptuous buffet.
She walked right past Alcaz without paying; she’d made a number of dishes! The Brother assured the other disappointed guests they’d be able to come back later.
“If you can’t make the breakfast buffet, we’ll have menus and even some free food later on today, sirs and madams. If you need a place to go—there’s a list of open establishments right here. And maps. Don’t take the map, please, sir.”
The inn was hopping, and everyone was there. In fact, a bleary witch, Nanette, was staring around at all the faces filing in.
A blue-scaled Drake was about to pay for an Antinium with a poofy hat when Garry was admitted, free-of-charge. After all, he had baked all three cakes.
Erin Solstice and even Imani had no time to bake a three-layer cake frosted with strawberry, vanilla, and lemon, a shortcake infused with acid flies—and clearly marked as such—and an experimental cheesecake with actual…cheese…
The point was that Garry was there. So was Olesm and more people that Mrsha knew were coming in. Venaz, Merrik, Wil, and even people from Invrisil! Like the Halfseekers, including Maughin!
Pelt, the Silver Swords—who were guests who’d been sleeping above—and a drooling Lehra. A few people were absent, like Qwera and Ysara, who were getting ready for a full day of sales and had no time for leisurely breakfasts, and Palt, who was coordinating the illusions.
In fact, Mrsha was so engrossed in watching the illusion spells that she didn’t even eat breakfast until someone handed her a breakfast burrito.
“Psst. Mrsha. You want me to put in an omelet order? You’d better hurry—my man Calescent’s on six pans, but he’s getting orders from everyone.”
Mrsha glanced over as a screaming Wyvern conjured by a spell ran into a hail of fireworks. Kevin stared out the window and whistled.
“Dude. Fireworks are a bit more impressive in the bang and explosions, but they can’t touch great illusion spells. Joseph, Imani, look at this!”
Mrsha took the piping hot burrito and found it was filled with, among other things, bacon and saffron rice. She began gobbling, then reconsidered and took slow bites.
One must savor this food.
Kevin was impressed by Mrsha’s slow pace. He was eating cake already, but he nearly spat out the cheesecake.
“Whoa. Does this have actual cheese in it? I don’t mean cottage cheese or ricotta—there’s brie in here. That’s…a taste. So what do you want?”
Mrsha scribbled down her order, and Kevin ran it off to Calescent. And this was how the day was starting?
Promising, promising. The people peering through the windows clearly thought so too, but a gold coin?
Lyonette had calculated the fiscal economics of the food she had put out. She had reasoned that even if you got the rare Relc, who could take down expensive food nonstop, or Moore, the other guests would overpay by a generous margin for breakfast. There was a limit to how much they could eat. Eggs were copper coins; if you filled up on Calescent’s ‘fancy’ omelets, chomped down two burgers, and had a slice of cake, you might pay, oh, eight silver, and that was a twelve silver win.
What made Lyonette sweat was Snapjaw, Moore, and, again, Relc. So even friends of the inn had to pay to get at the buffet. Most didn’t care, like Ceria, who practically tossed a handful of gold coins at Ishkr to elbow Kevin out of the way for her omelet order.
“Are those shrimp? From a port-city?”
Calescent hesitated. Ceria was pointing to some artfully arranged on a separate platter. Mrsha was sniffing them suspiciously.
“Put them in. Alright, I’m going to want double whatever you thought you had for cheese, pieces of salami, uh—uh—slice up some green onions and peppers, and then you can put in some steak or other pieces of meat. Give me your ‘almost painfully spicy’ option, and can you put some ketchup and mayo on the side?”
Calescent stared at the half-Elf. She stared back, deadpan, and Lyonette looked over in concern. Would this new member of the staff rise to the occasion…?
Calescent eyed the pans he’d set up on the portable stove. He walked away from Ceria, into the kitchen, and came back with a wok. Then he poured in eight eggs without breaking eye-contact.
The [Cryomancer] smiled.
Among the people not smiling was the sniffing Gnoll who was almost in tears. Mrsha heard him outside and saw no less than Ekirra.
“T-ten silver coins? I don’t have enough!”
He looked heartbroken, and a concerned Alcaz was looking around for Lyonette. Mrsha reached for her bag of holding and realized it was upstairs. She was just about to tell Alcaz to let her friend in on credit when someone slapped two gold coins into the man’s hand.
“Let the kid in. Hey, and that’s for me’n Temile! And Miss Drake here.”
Grev, bold as could be, strode past Alcaz as Temile walked in along with Visma and Ekirra. He nodded to Mrsha and fixed his eyes on the food. Visma ran over as Ekirra brightened up.
“Grev! You needn’t do that—how many gold coins do you have?”
Temile was slightly scandalized, but Grev just rolled another coin over his fingers. The former street urchin winked at Temile and the people behind him.
“I’m a Player of Celum; Jasi sends me back lots of the profits. It pays to be a generous person on the streets. I’m a Face, aren’t I?”
“Oh, you’re the face of something. Hello, Mrsha—what a feast! Is that cake, uh…I may just take a slice or two back to the others. They’re all setting up.”
Temile headed for the cake, and Mrsha turned to Grev. She remembered him vaguely from Celum, but she hadn’t known him as long as Erin had. While Lyonette had taken care of her, Grev had been Erin’s ‘friend’ in Celum who had turned into an actual one after he’d stopped trying to mug her.
“Hey, it’s Nanette, right? The [Witch]? Whatcha doing today, Mrsha?”
The girl shrugged. She grabbed Nanette’s hand as the witch tipped her chef’s hat and greeted Grev.
“I’m not a [Witch] anymore. Just…a witch without a class.”
“That’s weird, but okay. Hey, maybe you can star in Macbeth if one of the [Actors] gets sick.”
Nanette had no context for that, and Grev was wandering off anyways. She looked around as Mrsha tugged Ekirra and Visma over to a table.
“That’s a lot of strange food, Mrsha. Can you recommend me something?”
Of course, of course. Ekirra, the omelets! Visma, get some of the mana candies! In that bowl! Nanette, you should try…a pizza!
Mrsha was showing the witch all the various foods, mainly by telling her what they were made of. When they were sitting down at a table, they all had full plates of food. But the four children would not be out of company for long.
“Mrsha? Do you want to sit together? Oh, hello there.”
Visma looked up as a shadow loomed over her and squeaked. Even though she knew Moore, he had that effect on people. The half-Giant instantly retreated, but Mrsha practically ran to bring his custom chair over, and he sat with more food than all the children combined. Ekirra’s mouth dropped as the half-Giant showed Mrsha his food.
“Miss Lyonette was very kind. She prepared an entire roasted chicken and food enough to fill me all day!”
The cynical Mrsha eyed the huge mound of pancakes, the roast chicken, the vast quantity of goat’s milk, and other slightly cheaper options for the half-Giant. But Moore seemed delighted, and so he sat with the children. Visma looked very nervous, as if Moore might fall on her, and Mrsha realized she hadn’t even eaten with the half-Giant much. Moore looked nervous of scaring her and tried not to open his mouth much as he introduced himself to Nanette.
Ekirra didn’t care. He was already face-deep in his own omelet—no spice, he had trauma—but Moore was saved from awkwardness by the arrival of more breakfast partners.
“Oh, Moore! Wailant, you sit with Mister Himilt and don’t talk his ear off about business. Today is a day of celebration.”
Viceria Strongheart came over as her husband and Himilt walked in. Then, almost as fast, Gire appeared with what Mrsha realized was an entire pizza—stacked onto her plate.
Different slices, to be fair, but you could organize them into an entire pizza. Between her and Moore, the table was groaning with food, and Ekirra almost choked trying to compete with the two giants.
“Are you Mrsha’s friend too? I’m Gireulashia. Ah—your road is long, half-Giant friend.”
Gire bowed very respectfully, and Moore smiled.
“Our stride is ever longer. You know half-Giant greetings?”
“I studied them. We met a few half-Giants. Are you…with any of the last clans?”
Moore shook his head, but he was so pleased that he and Gire shook hands, and Mrsha sighed in relief. Gire wasn’t nearly as jealous as she had been of Nanette.
Meanwhile, the witch was quite taken with Apista, who was nibbling at some syrup. She had not, in fact, met the bee, and Mrsha was glad she hadn’t freaked out.
“She’s so cute, Mrsha! For a bug.”
“You’re not afraid of her?”
Ekirra looked impressed. Nanette shrugged.
“A pet is a pet, and I’ve met Sephraic. He eats eyes—dead animals’ eyes, mainly. He’s a giant raven. All of Witch Mavika’s familiars are scarier.”
Apista fanned her wings approvingly as Nanette gently stroked her body. Why, another connoisseur of removing eyes from people? This raven sounded like an ally!
Mrsha’s own omelet appeared, courtesy of Ishkr, and she beamed at the stuffed omelet.
“What’s inside, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll investigated and found exactly what she’d ordered. Bacon and fish sauce! And cheese, of course. Ekirra sniffed at the omelet and wrinkled his nose.
“Ew. Gross. You put fish sauce in your food?”
Mrsha jabbed him with a fork. She didn’t want to hear that from someone who had put ketchup on his omelet!
As the children squabbled in the background, Drassi committed her first sin as a reporter. Which was unwitting; she was showing the merry inn and commentating at the same time.
“Now, folks, you can see that all the drama of yesterday is mostly gone, and it seems like a really fantastic start to a day of celebration! I’ll be taking you on tour of Liscor most of the day, but I will, sadly, be going back to the studio to cover other segments. However, please send a [Message] into the show and let us know how you rate this celebration or what you’d eat! Now, I’m going to try this…drink. Coffee, from Oteslia, drunk a certain way on advice of Coach Joseph himself!”
She nodded at Joseph, who was sitting with Imani and the others.
“If it tastes horrible I dump it on his head. Okay! You take a big mug of coffee—I love this stuff, by the way. You think tea wakes you up? This is like a stamina potion but without the taste! Then, according to Joseph, and I think this is almost criminal, instead of milk or sugar, you take a scoop of ice cream or gelato…”
She took an entire scoop of ice cream and put it into the mug. It began melting at once, and Drassi sniffed.
“Oh, that does look good. Now, what can we get to eat? I see a Goblin making omelets, and yes—that’s weird, even around here. Can a Goblin make a good omelet? Your [Reporter] is going to find out.”
Among the many complaints written into the show about featuring a Goblin, which put a lot of watchers off their breakfast, even more were about Drassi’s attitude itself.
Which was, namely, how dare you make me hungry? Especially if other people had to eat anything less fun than the spread she was showing off.
In fact, no less than Earl Altestiel was penning a missive on behalf of the Lord of the Dance and himself. They had been having a quite civilized meal of toasted bread and jam, whereupon they had planned on recreating some of Erin’s games and perhaps sparring in the dueling courts.
“‘…find your display of food quite upsetting to my stomach, and I am now forced to make my own omelet. Sincerely, A Hungry Earl.’ How does that sound, Lord Bel?”
The Lord of the Dance stared pensively at the ceiling as Kiish and a [Chef] hovered in the background. He nodded to himself thoughtfully as he stared at the scrying orb.
“…Sautéed oyster mushrooms, some common pork sausage, and an avocado on the side. Write that in.”
The [Chef] hurried off as Earl Altestiel gave Lord Belchaus a long look. He scribbled an addendum to the [Message].
“I have noted your preference, you monster. I shall have a far more civilized breakfast. A Desonian classic! Trout and green onion for my stuffing!”
The Lord of the Dance gagged behind a hand as Earl Altestiel folded his arms proudly. Both men turned to the scrying orb to see if Altestiel’s missive made it into the commentary.
It did. Drassi was happily eating her omelet as one of her staff read comments out loud.
“Um—someone’s claiming that all you need in an omelet is Yellats. And someone else has written that an omelet should have sautéed mushrooms and sausage with avocado on the side—or trout and green onion?”
Drassi stopped eating for a second and lowered her fork.
“All Yellat? Mushroom and sausage is…okay…what’s an avocado? But trout? Viewers, audience—please tell me this isn’t normal? S-should I try a trout omelet? It sounds disgusting. Well, let’s see. Hey, any takers to help me try three omelets?”
Drassi looked up and heaved a huge sigh of relief.
“Oh, good. I won’t have to suffer alone. Here’s Gold-rank adventurer Seborn, and it looks like we have Gold-rank adventurer Dawil here too. Hello!”
The Dwarf smoothed his beard importantly as Seborn appeared. He had beaten Ceria to the punch by tripping her, and Dawil had been heading over before anyone else.
“I believe we can add the Terandrian and sea palettes to what, a taste test, Miss Drassi? Plus, I want to be on the news.”
“I’ve eaten Chandrarian food and Balerosian. And a trout omelet sounds disgusting, but I’ll try one bite.”
Like Dawil, Seborn scented fame, and the two adventurers smirked at their teammates and other guests as they sat down. Drassi’s lips moved in silence as she sat there.
“…I think I foresee what Channel 3 of Wistram News Network is going to be. We’re going to need a sports channel, a food channel…alright, let’s start with the Yellat omelet. Who sent that one in?”
The Gnoll reading the notes out had a bevy of more suggestions as people tuned into the most successful channel yet again. He nearly dropped it as he stared at the note.
“The, um…um…King of Destruction.”
Drassi stared at the Gnoll for a second, then swallowed hard. She looked straight into the camera, hesitated, and then smiled.
“Well then. He has terrible taste.”
Wistram News Network was, among other things, passing out surveys about what you could add to its new television service in local Mage’s Guilds.
Popular features or news anchors could also be tabulated, and Drassi’s enduring popularity would be most notable in nations like Jecrass, Hellios, and any harboring an anti-Flos sentiment.
Rémi Canada, in his own Chandrarian newspaper, would later pay for the first political cartoon in this world’s history, which was a caption with one of those humorous, not-humorous images featuring an upset Flos Reimarch and his objectionable Yellat-omelet with Drassi laughing at him. The tagline would read:
‘The King of Destruction was burnt to a crisp by a Djinni, but Drassi really roasted him.’
After staring at the completed product in silence, Rémi would then try to remove the cartoon. However, his editors would sneak it back in, and the newspaper would end up breaking ten thousand daily sales, a barrier the fledgling paper had thus far failed to hit.
Rémi’s newspaper would later be banned in Reim for a week. But that was another story.
Alright, breakfast was a big thing. The inn was packed, despite the [Grand Theater] giving enough room—everyone was crowded around the buffet, so one side of the room was full, the other empty.
Still, it was delicious, fun, and almost everyone was there. Yes, and yes. However, there was an entire day of fun to be had, and if you spent all the time describing the conversations at breakfast, you’d get nowhere.
So Selys Shivertail, Olesm, Belgrade, and Pisces all piled their plates together and finished eating in the far, far quieter [Garden of Sanctuary].
Koi garden edition. Even the water-phobic Belgrade lingered a few minutes to keep tossing pizza crusts into the pond. A hundred koi fish fought over every scrap, and that had entertained the quartet for quite some time.
“I must admit, Lyonette can serve a most replete breakfast experience. But what, I wonder, will be her pursuant activity to begin the festivities?”
Pisces sniffed as Selys gave him an exasperated look. Olesm just grinned. They headed out to the inn and found their answer.
The city of Liscor had opened with the bazaar, hand-carved Antinium figurines (sold at a very minor price) which you could paint free of charge, and the ice-skating rink.
“Brigadier Forount is due to arrive in Celum in two hours! There will be an announcement—and a celebration over there! Celum is holding a horse-race, and they’ve hired [Bards]!”
There were [Criers] shouting the news over the largest bazaar that Pisces could remember seeing. It was like Market Street in principle, but it filled Shivertail Plaza, and there were [Merchants] from all over hawking wares while watchful [Guards] dueled with [Thieves] in quiet.
The Golden Gnoll herself was selling goods from the Meeting of Tribes, including the rarest of dyes, cloth bolts made by Longstalker’s Fang, and yes, even herbs and ingredients from Gaarh Marsh.
She had generously bought the tribes’ inventories, even from Plain’s Eye’s stocks, and she was looking to make a killing in Liscor. The dyes were in great demand for new clothing and for their quality, but as anyone knew, the rarer the good, the more expensively it could be sold even further north or abroad.
Thus, a lot of [Traders] were buying carefully or impulsively from Qwera, betting on making profits later.
“It’s going well! Lyonette did all this?”
Selys herself was surprised by the sheer scale on display—until someone laughed in her earhole.
“Lyonette? You’re giving her too much credit. [Princesses] love stealing praise for things they don’t really have much part in. This is Pallass’ bazaar, just adopted for here. She didn’t have to work hard at all.”
Saliss of Lights stood behind Selys, and the Drake put her claws on her hips. Belgrade put two hands over his eyes, but peeked.
“Adventurer Saliss! Will you ever put on clothes?”
For answer, Saliss spread his arms wide, and the horrified visitors from Invrisil met a Named-rank adventurer in the flesh. Scales, rather. All the scales.
However, Liscor was changing. Watch Captain Zevara came storming through the crowd.
“Adventurer Saliss! You are under arrest for public indecency! [Freeze, Criminal]!”
She pointed at him, and Saliss threw up his claws and pressed the back of one hand against his forehead dramatically.
“Oh no! Woe is me! Liscor’s Watch has me!”
He put out his claws as the Skill locked him down. Pisces and Olesm, on a hunch, pulled Selys back as Zevara strode over. Saliss didn’t move as he froze up for another second—then, as two magical handcuffs tried to encircle his wrists, he winked.
“Neat Skill, Watch Captain. Has Pallass tried to headhunt you yet?”
Zevara clicked the handcuffs around Saliss’ wrists and stepped back. Then she stared at the grinning Saliss…right up until he melted. His face turned from amusement to horror.
“Wait, are these handcuffs laced with copper? I’m allergic to copper! I’m melting! I’m meeeeeeeelting!”
The screaming Drake turned into a bubbling pile of fizz as horrified bystanders turned to stare at Zevara. Her face turned waxy—until someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Fake Drake. He’s already run off. Probably invisible. Good luck.”
Zevara started breathing again. She looked around, and a Drake holding his daughter’s claw nodded to her. Watch Captain Venim and his daughter, on break, looked practically inured to Saliss of Lights.
Zevara looked around, and the Watch Captain of Pallass saluted her with a look of deepest sympathy.
A wise Watch Captain cut her losses. There was a lot to patrol, from petty theft to simple crowd work, and Liscor’s Watch did not have the time to chase around a top-level [Alchemist].
In fact, part of the issue was that there were so many festivities, people were getting run-into trying to hop from experience to experience.
Liscor Hunted was having a group hunt of Rock Crabs. The Antinium figurines were selling like cookies—and the street vendors were making a killing. There were even opportunists touring brave visitors around Liscor’s Crypt.
Not the dungeon; that had been sealed off, and good thing too. People fancying that numbers = power had tried to peek inside without realizing that more people just meant more food to some monsters inside the dungeon. Or a trap.
Anyways, there were a good number of festivities on offer. But you know who didn’t have any activities?
Goblins. And Antinium. The two races who, in theory, were partly being celebrated by today had no culture.
It was a deeper cut than Lyonette had realized when she had asked them yesterday for some activity. Drakes, Humans, Gnolls, every species had lots. Even if something wasn’t unique to them, they had their own take on it.
For instance, Humans played horseback polo. A Terandrian game where you rode on horses and swung mallets at little balls to knock them through hoops.
Riveting as that was, Drakes had a kind of bowling—albeit with different pins and no lanes. Gnolls had a game you could play on grass with no pins and just the balls.
Goblins and Antinium, though—had no variations or games. And that hurt Rags’ pride.
She sat in one of the guest rooms her tribe had been allotted, moodily chewing on some corn on the cob sprinkled with mayonnaise and cheese for some reason. It tasted like food, and that was all she had to say about it.
Well, part of her bad mood was that even if Goblins weren’t killed on sight, she would have to deploy illusion spells to shop in Liscor. Which she was going to do, but she was sitting in her room with some of her head Goblins.
Poisonbite, Snapjaw, Badarrow, Redscar, and Taganchiel. All her lieutenants, who were practically Chieftain-rank on their own. And judging from their faces, just loving being here.
“Chieftain. Can we go?”
Rags grumbled at Badarrow as he raised a claw. Snapjaw answered for him.
“Anywhere but here, Chieftain. Numbtongue?”
“What’s he doing? Going in the city?”
“Nope. Going to play in a band. With Kevin. Can we go? Or play on the com-pu-ter.”
Snapjaw savored the words as she gobbled down another cone of ice cream. Poisonbite nodded.
“Or buying swords. Pelt has swords for sale.”
Redscar was antsy too. None of the Goblins wanted to be here, but Rags slapped one knee.
“Culture! Anyone got ideas?”
They’d been side-tracked by Erin’s games, but Rags was determined not to leave without something to show for it. Or—at least—stealing a game or two.
“Maybe chess? Bring back some boards, Chieftain. Goblins play. Culture. Tada.”
Redscar tried valiantly as all of Rags’ officers smiled and nodded. Rags scowled at him.
“Something unique to Goblins, stupid.”
The others groaned and looked at Taganchiel, their [Shaman], hopefully. Rags was in a mood, and it meant she probably needed something she considered useful before she’d relent. Unfortunately, the problem was that Rags, a thief of so many things, was having trouble.
Because ‘culture’ was not a trebuchet. It was not something one person could steal. The poor Goblins might have wasted more time they could have spent like Hedault. He hadn’t shown up for breakfast, but he was working on a 360 off a ramp as Poisonbite stared out the window.
That was culture. And Poisonbite, if she’d been lucid, might have made the case that of all the species to adopt Kevin’s unique imprint on this world, the Goblins of Goblinhome were certainly skateboarding enthusiasts.
…However, she did not think to say that. So, the Goblins hemmed and hawed. Redscar suggested that some of his Goblins offer to duel anyone. Badarrow offered a shooting contest. Snapjaw offered an eating contest, and Rags threw her finished cob at her, whereupon Snapjaw ate it.
The moment was ripe for someone to speak. Someone to prove that Goblins did have culture, but only a true [Shaman], not pathetic Taganchiel, would remember it.
Someone like…a [Shaman of the Old Ways], for instance. Someone super-valuable and definitely so important that Rags would have to respect and honor her.
Ulvama was crouching outside one of the windows that led out onto the inn’s roof. Bird had been staring at her for the last eight minutes straight, but she knew the value of a good entrance. She was just crawling back to her window to knock on Rags’ door when something unexpected happened.
The door opened, and another Goblin walked inside. Ulvama froze and stared as an unfamiliar Goblin entered.
“Chieftain Rags, you wanted to speak to me? Taganchiel sent for me via Wyvern, but I have only arrived just now. We had to ride here via Carn Wolf to hide the Wyvern’s flight path.”
This Goblin was notable in a few ways. Firstly, she was a she. Secondly, she was a spellcaster. Thirdly?
She had a mask.
A blonde Goblin with a tangle of hair like a spider’s nest adjusted a mask that appeared to be a cross between a snarling bear and a warthog over her mouth and nose. She also had a pointy hat.
The Goblin [Witch] tipped her hat to a wide-eyed Nanette passing by their rooms, and Prixall bowed to Rags. Anazurhe’s daughter, a Goblin of the Molten Stone Tribe, looked at Rags, and the Chieftain sat up.
“Taganchiel sent for you?”
The other [Shaman] smiled in relief. He pointed at Prixall and nodded.
Prixall blinked, then smiled as he explained what Rags wanted. Her eyes lit up, and she nodded. The Goblin who had come from one of the world’s safest tribes after seeing Rabbiteater and Rags’ own tribe bowed.
“Of course I can show them a Goblin game, Chieftain. I know just the magic.”
Ulvama kicked the door open, and all the Goblins jumped. She pointed at Prixall, and the [Witch] turned and blinked at her.
“You? Molten Stone? What about me? I have all the culture! I have more culture in half my butt than she does!”
Prixall bristled as Rags looked between Ulvama and her newest leader in magic—nay, witchcraft. She turned—and found Snapjaw climbing out the window. All her officers fled as Rags pinched the bridge of her nose. But then she brightened up a bit. Rags turned to the celebration outside and wondered why an Antinium on a wagon was rolling towards Liscor. Lots of Gnolls, too. She shrugged, then nodded at Ulvama and Prixall.
“Alright. Show me. No—show them what our culture is.”
Hungrily, she waited as the two Hobgoblins glanced at each other and smiled.
Now, they were here at last.
It had been the opposite of a boring ride north. It never was boring with Termin.
Rhaldon, the trainee [Wagon Driver], was so new to this world that he enjoyed just seeing different cities and the changing landscapes.
However, their trip north had been fairly uneventful in terms of violence or chaos. They camped rather than stayed in cities due to their Antinium passenger, and the Gnolls did not like Drakes—but they stayed out of the way.
Aside from a few furious arguments where some Drakes shouted insults at the warriors sent to guard Antherr—nothing had come close to a fight. The Antinium, ironically, had been one of the least contentious parts of the journey due to Termin’s genius strategy to keep him hidden:
He gave Antherr a cloak and a hat. Now, masterminds like Niers had camouflaged Antinium and Goblins before by making use of perception—if one did not expect an Antinium on the road, they were less likely to look closely.
Termin took it a step further. Who could imagine an Antinium wearing a hat? So a bulky figure in a cloak had sat with Rhaldon, staring out with the young man from Earth.
In that way, they were similar. Rhaldon had gotten to talk a lot with the Gnolls as well. They were fairly friendly, if clearly still haunted by the trauma of the Meeting of Tribes. But Rhaldon had gotten to talking with one of the Gnolls he actually had a kind of friendship with.
That Gnoll was a fellow who had a bunch of feathers tied to one armband like a decoration, always carried a recurve bow, and whose name was Nailren.
He was the Captain of the Pride of Kelia, and he apparently came from the tribes, but he had travelled further than most as a Silver-rank adventurer. So far, in fact, that this was not a voyage out, but a kind of return for him.
He knew Liscor, and he was only too happy to brag about knowing Erin Solstice. Now that Rhaldon and Termin were coming up to the city—no, now that he had seen the chess games that took the world by storm, Rhaldon was nervous.
Was she from home? She had to be. Could he talk to her?
If there was any feeling in his bones, it was a great apprehension. Not just that he might find someone else—Rhaldon felt at his aching shoulder. It still ached, even after being healed.
Antherr didn’t notice; their wagons were rolling across the neat road that had led them past the Bloodfields. Fox and Erma were trotting ahead of Termin’s wagon, and the old [Wagon Driver] was chatting with the Gnolls sniffing the air and twitching their ears.
They were all excited to get to Liscor for the big celebration. Termin especially. He had grumbled about his age because he had to camp out rather than sleep in a proper bed. For all that, his Skills had kept them out of danger quite easily.
Rhaldon, though…he watched Antherr bouncing excitedly in his seat. The big Soldier, like a child, stared at the square fort—a massive one to Rhaldon.
Perfectly solid walls. A square—not including the new area under construction. It amused Rhaldon because…he wasn’t sure that was a natural architectural feature. He’d heard Liscor flooded every year, and so the walls were waterproof?
Even Venice wasn’t that strange, and that was his only comparison. He wondered about the architecture that Earth would need to employ to build a city like Liscor. Could the modern era do something like this? Skyscrapers had that kind of impressive verticality due to steel and current construction techniques, but how nervous would even an engineer from Earth be about making a waterproof city that had to avoid springing a leak? If the walls gave in, a hundred thousand plus people drowned.
Well, Rhaldon was no expert in architecture. He was just a…chemist. Although he had no class, and alchemy was this world’s only equivalent.
Right now, Liscor was more than a square box. It was lit up with distant music, wagons rolling in and out and headed north, and that inn on a hill came into view slowly.
“There it is! Faster, Erma, Fox! We’re eating well tonight!”
Termin cackled with delight. The two ponies actually slowed down until he bribed them.
“Oh, come on—I’ll find you sweetgrass hay! There’s a door to the Strongheart Farms. Sweetgrass hay, an apple, carrots—I’ll make a damn salad!”
That put some pep in their step, and Rhaldon laughed. His ponies were hardly as intelligent as Termin’s. They were friendly, but Erma and Fox were people.
“Liscor. It’s changed, yeah?”
Nailren lifted his head, and his team stirred. They looked up as some of the Weatherfur and other Gnolls sniffed the air.
“Is that a team of Gnolls hunting I see? Silverfang should be here. Chief Warrior, what should we expect?”
“A friendly welcome. Find Krshia Silverfang; don’t ask me. Be on your best behavior. This city…is full of Antinium. And more Humans and less typical Drakes. I heard it was a literal backwater city before now. So it’s better than most Drake cities, eh?”
Chief Warrior Toresh Weatherfur looked warily ahead. He had rings of white on his fur and a splash of color across his chest. Torishi Weatherfur’s colors. He was related to her, and all the Gnolls of her tribe wore her markings, yellow and purple and blue like a slash across their chest.
Yet even he looked slightly excited, despite the mourning, to see the inn. Rhaldon craned his neck and frowned.
“…Is that a skating rink? Termin, do you see that?”
“It may be, it may be, Rhaldon, my boy. You expect to see that kind of thing around the inn.”
“Will we be able to get in? It looks crowded.”
Termin hesitated, then smiled affably.
“I hope Miss Erin will remember me. I did take her back from Celum. If we can’t get a place, we’ll see about the city. But we are dropping off Mister Antherr. Do you want to meet the legendary [Innkeeper], Rhaldon? She’s a character, and I’ve met almost every [Innkeeper] in Izril!”
“I’d be delighted to. And Joseph. He plays football, right?”
“Right, right. I have no idea who that is. Captain Nailren, do you remember him?”
The Gnoll scratched his head and turned to his team. He kicked a snoozing Gnoll gently, and she sat up.
“Oi. Cuska, Bekr. Anyone remember Joseph?”
They all stirred from where they were napping along the wagon. The Pride of Kelia knew The Wandering Inn. However, they were not the most regular visitors.
“Joseph? Was he the one who kept drinking himself sick? And those annoying kids the Wind Runner brought in? Remember the one who kept comparing little Mrsha to a dog?”
“Oh, right. Hate them. Sounds like they’ve changed.”
Rhaldon listened with both ears to the casual banter. And the pit in his stomach grew wider. Nailren actually noticed Rhaldon’s apprehension.
“You nervous, Rhaldon? Don’t be. She’s friendly. Just don’t do anything like try to stab a Goblin. All the rumors about her are exaggerated.”
“Rumors? Like what?”
Rhaldon, of course, knew she was the Innkeeper Who Lived, who had come back from the dead, the great chess player, and had possibly been Sserys reincarnated. He wondered what rumors could add to that.
“Oh, people say she’s able to spit blood like an Oldblood Drake. She’s a Wall Lord’s secret mistress, uh…what else? She’s crazy, obviously, she has acid instead of blood—”
“No, she just throws jars of acid. That’s not a rumor, it’s true.”
Nailren jabbed his teammates.
“You’re messing up the rumors! Rhaldon doesn’t know—”
The Earther gulped. None of this helped, but she seemed like a good person. Antherr clearly appreciated the rumors, and Erin Solstice was a friend to Goblins and Antinium. From what Rhaldon saw—that was a breath of fresh air in a bog of general species bigotry, if Gnolls and Drakes were anything to go by, and that made Erin all right by him.
No, what made him so nervous was—he wondered if he could ask her for help. Just—help. Someone to explain what was going on. He liked to think he’d managed to find a way to survive after literally bleeding out on the side of a road. He’d gotten lucky, and Termin was incredibly generous and powerful in his own way.
From one person from home to another, though? Rhaldon looked at the inn, three stories tall, and the crowds surrounding it. He thought of the world’s best chess player, and he felt like he didn’t quite have the authority to approach her.
The Wandering Inn was so crowded, in fact, that Termin, Rhaldon, and the others never even got to head up the hill to it. They tried to find a path up the huge hill, but someone stopped them.
“Hey, you two wagons! No going towards the inn.”
“What? We’re on a special delivery, sir—”
A tired [Guardsman] waved them off. A Drake pointed to the city gates, and there was a line even on the south side.
“You and everyone else. If you want to get to the inn—foot traffic only.”
“But we have an Antinium—the Antinium—”
Termin seemed quite upset not to be able to roll straight up to the inn, but he hesitated as he looked up at the inn.
The crowds surrounding the inn would have made Erma and Fox’s transit up the hill impossible on their own. People were clustered around the ice-skating rink on one side, lined up for the inn on another, and the stables and one area of the inn looked clear—until a Carn Wolf trotted out of the stables and yawned hugely as a Goblin fed it a huge piece of meat.
“Ah. That’s probably not a good place for Erma and Fox to bed down.”
Rhaldon couldn’t take his eyes off the gigantic wolf with red-rust fur. It had to be three times the size of a regular wolf! How much did a creature like that eat? And if it were in the stables—Erma and Fox had instantly lined up for the gates.
“We’ll get you to the inn on foot, Mister Antherr. It’ll just be one tic.”
Termin reassured the Antinium, and the Soldier nodded happily. Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus, his full name, was an odd Soldier. He could not speak, but he seemed quite genial, which was at odds with the giant greatsword he carried. He seemed friendly, gently inquisitive—and the Gnolls and Drakes talked about him like he was a soldier from one of the most terrifying armies to ever invade Izril.
The wagons rolled through the gates after a cursory inspection. The [Guards] frowned at all the armed Gnolls, but when they saw Antherr, everything clicked.
“Is that one of the Soldiers from the army? From the <Quest>? Well, well! Today’s a big day! Go on through and take him to the inn. Hey, Sergeant, I’m off-duty in five minutes. I want to watch. Need a stable? There should be an opening if you go left and then right on the second street.”
Termin smiled, but Rhaldon cast a glance at Antherr. The Soldier’s mandibles were raised and wide, which Rhaldon knew was a smile, but aside from the [Guards], people barely noticed the Antinium. In fact—for a city ‘filled’ with Antinium, Rhaldon saw very few among the visitors. Humans, Gnolls, Drakes, even Garuda and Dullahans.
Few Antinium. Yet here was a Soldier who’d survived a deadly war, and the celebration barely focused on him. It seemed unfair to Rhaldon, but Antherr seemed so happy he kept fidgeting as Termin rolled into a Driver’s Guild headquarters and asked for a place for the wagons.
“We’d better head to the inn straightaway. Especially if rooms are as expensive as they sound. Rhaldon, help me square the ponies. Mister Toresh, are you staying with us? Captain Nailren?”
Both Gnolls nodded.
“Until the Soldier—Antherr—is delivered, we will, Driver Termin. You two, help with the wagons.”
Then the two Human men, Antherr, and a group of Gnolls were walking through the streets, headed towards the eastern gate and the inn on a hill. They attracted some stares then, because Antherr had taken off his hat and cloak. Now, the [Immortal] walked with his wounds—a missing arm, scars on his chitin—visible to all.
And his greatsword strapped to his back. People did notice him then. And they seemed to realize—
“Hey, is that the Soldier that was part of that <Quest>? Is he going to the inn? He is—let’s go! Forget the jugglers. They’re just juggling knives.”
A glaring duo of performers watched the Antinium draw a crowd away from the street shows. It seemed like there were a number of local events going on, but the bazaar and the promise of the parade was the biggest allure. Rhaldon’s eyes hurt from trying to take in foreign architecture, read signs in Drake script—and hear the babble of voices.
He couldn’t know it, but the massive influx of visitors was overwhelming Lyonette’s entertainments. Lines for Antinium figurines were so long that the [Carvers] were working overtime trying to produce enough pieces. And the larger events like the skating rink still had a capacity limit. Liscor’s unique food was the biggest draw, but since it required money—the parade couldn’t come fast enough.
Even the display of Master Pelt smithing was so crowded it was easier to watch it on scrying orb than try to get a view. So there was boredom in the streets as well as a sense of excitement.
“Dad. I’m bored. Dad. Daaaaad.”
A Drake girl was tugging on her father’s claw. She normally would have gone to her aunt, who looked after her a lot more than her busy father, but her aunt was engrossed in viewing some Gnollish earrings in the open market, and she was lost to time. So she went to her father.
“Dad. Dad? You said there would be things to do, but the skating rink is closed. What are we doing?”
Venim’s daughter looked up at him, and the Watch Captain started and guiltily turned away from talking with Watch Captain Zevara. He had his work face on.
“I’m sorry, Kenva. Let’s—”
He looked around with the desperation of a father trying to impress his daughter on his rare days off. He needed more Father Points, and his gift of cookies that one time had long since expired.
Kenva, for her part, was already staring at a shift in the crowds. An Antinium was walking with two Humans and a bunch of Plains Gnolls! She drifted after him, but Venim grabbed her hand.
“Careful of the Antinium.”
“But Dad, you said it was safe!”
“Don’t let her near the Antinium, Venim.”
Torkessa hissed at her brother, and Venim nodded. Kenva tried, by sheer force of muscle, to pull him over, but he insisted they stay back. The Antinium walking through the streets was the coolest thing Kenva had seen aside from the market—and that wasn’t as good as Pallass’! She wanted to skateboard in the ice rink, but it was crowded. She wanted an Antinium doll, but it was ‘bad taste’ according to her Pallassian father.
This was the worst vacation ever. The Drake girl bit back tears as her tail curled up. She watched the Antinium walk past and do nothing interesting—and then the Goblin appeared.
“What the—is that a Goblin?”
Venim came to a halt as the parade neared the gates. The crowd stopped too and drew back. For just outside the gates was a Goblin. To be more precise, a group of Goblins.
The small Chieftain, Rags, stood with a pair of female Hobs and a few other Goblins who looked…big. Kenva hid behind her father as he put a claw on his sword.
“Keep calm. The Goblins are not entering the city.”
A [Guardswoman] was calling for quiet, and she seemed to be warning the Goblins as well. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark eyed Rags, Ulvama, and Prixall warily. Especially because she recognized spellcasters when she saw them.
Ulvama had her staff, and her magical paint was glowing. Prixall, wearing her terrifying…ly cool mask was adjusting her hat. She took it off and peered inside as if checking for something. Kenva stared behind her father.
These were Goblins? They didn’t look like monsters at all!
“I think we should go back and see about those dolls, Kenva. Come on.”
Venim didn’t like them. He was trying to lead his daughter away when Rags gave an order. The Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes stepped back as the two Hobs, Ulvama and Prixall, argued a moment.
It seemed like they were in competition—but then Prixall made a universal ‘give me’ gesture with her palm. Ulvama folded her arms and sneered until Rags glared at her. Then she grudgingly slapped something into Prixall’s palm and sulked.
What she had given Prixall was magic. Kenva was taking magic lessons since she had the aptitude, and she thought she saw a current of power. And she had never seen that before. She pointed it out, and Venim decided this was dangerous.
“Who knows what they’re doing? I need to find Watch Captain Zevara. She can’t be alright with this. Kenva, we’re going. How much magic did you say that was?”
Now, he and his daughter were engaged in a tug-of-war. And Kenva was only holding her own because she was going to start crying if she didn’t get to see what was going on. However, Venim almost had her hurrying away when someone interrupted with a deep growl.
“A tribe’s worth. Quite a lot, Watch Captain Venim. Don’t worry. Logic dictates that the Goblins won’t do something hostile. If they do, I will address it immediately.”
Kenva looked up—and realized why people were staring their way. Even in this moment, the sight of the most muscular Drake the world had ever seen deserved a second glance.
Grimalkin of Pallass stood with his arms folded. Kenva stared up, awestruck, at him. The hero of Pallass’ Wyvern attack!
“Are you sure, Magus Grimalkin?”
Her father talked to him! The imposing [Mage] nodded. He wasn’t taking his eyes off Prixall as she put her hat on her head, and her red eyes flashed yellow a moment. She raised her claws and cupped them. Then blew into the cupped hands.
“She’s working something…large. Shamanic—no, [Witch] magic. I can’t quite tell what she’s doing. It’s probably not hostile. But it’s big. How does a Goblin know magic that complex? That mask. Where are my notes on Goblin tribes?”
He began fumbling for a journal as Venim and his daughter watched along with the crowd. Even the Antinium had slowed, and Kenva saw a sign of real magic appear.
Real magic, as her teacher had explained to the young Drakes, was magic manifesting itself. To make it simple, the bigger the magic, the more it affected the real world. Low-tier magic was temporary and vanished.
Big magical spells changed the air itself. Like how the sun seemed, suddenly, less bright. As if a shadow had fallen over the world, despite the relatively clear skies. A shade in the air, a humming in your teeth and bones.
“What is she…?”
Senior Guardswoman Beilmark was about to tell the Goblins to stop, and Sinew Magus Grimalkin was carefully preparing a dispel magic effect. But it was too late. Indeed, a group of children came tumbling out of the inn as they noticed the magic too.
“Whoa! What’re those Goblins doing?”
Grev, Mrsha, Ekirra, and Visma all stared down at Ulvama, and Kenva pointed excitedly at the famous Gnoll girl. Mrsha, with the white fur! And there was Drassi!
“Dad, Dad, there’s Miss Drassi! I need an autograph or I’ll die!”
Her father was busy watching Prixall. The Goblin [Witch] lifted her cupped hands—and something was glowing inside them. She smiled—and then tossed something up into the magically darkened air.
Then, Kenva saw something float out of the Goblin’s grasp. Rags, Mrsha, Antherr, Rhaldon, everyone stared at the Goblin as the Molten Stone Tribe’s daughter answered Rags’ request.
Culture. More culture—a visible kind of culture that Rags wanted. Nevermind that the Mountain City Tribe had their own culture, like Ulvama’s painted skin. Or the Redfang’s own decorations and lifestyle. What Rags meant was—something like chess. Something like skating.
Tell me we at least have games? Something more than war and death?
The tribes of Izril had almost forgotten it. But [Shamans] remembered. And the Molten Stone Tribe’s Chieftain hailed from a place that had never been conquered. The Isle of Goblins.
From there to Anazurhe’s tribe to here. Prixall cast a magic spell. And a little, glowing fish made of bright orange light swam out of her cupped hands.
It had a trailing fin and a pair of catfish-like whiskers on each side of its face. Its eyes were bright green jewels, and the fish was like a beautiful decoration, like you might see in Drath—or the actual fish it was based on, swimming in deep waters, that Goblins admired and caught in their nets.
Yet this one was made of magic. The crowd stopped recoiling and stared as it swam through the air. A dancing fish, darting about, circling slowly, and then jerking away as Ulvama swatted at it and put her hands in her pockets grumpily. She had stolen a pair of pants.
Venim halted, worried, perhaps, that the fish was a harbinger of some Tier 5 [Fish Swarm] spell. But Grimalkin just blinked.
“That’s…a Tier 3 [Light] spell. Or something close. I could make that. But the aesthetics are beyond what half of Fissival’s graduates can do.”
By that, he meant it was a beautiful fish. It dazzled Kenva’s eyes, and in the darkened air, it shone even brighter. Rags was pointing at it and clearly asking—what the heck is this?
She reached out for the fish as it nosed around her, and the fish darted away. Prixall smiled. Then she made a grasping gesture as she spoke out of earshot.
Grab the fish? No, catch it! She looked around and then made a swishing gesture. With a net. Yes, grab it with a net!
The adults didn’t get it. But the children watching, all of them, instantly understood. They eyed the darting fish and saw how clever it was. Where Grimalkin saw an adept piece of magic—the children saw a fish you caught.
And what happened after that? Prixall demonstrated, and the fish came over as obediently as could be. She grabbed it—and it dissolved into a shower of sparkles.
“No, she killed it!”
Kenva was horrified—until she saw the shower of magical dust that coated the laughing [Witch]’s hands and arms. It clung to Prixall, a glowing, shining sparkle on her skin.
“Aha. Residual magic…must be a Tier 2 enchantment. You can definitely do this with an equivalent, nevermind the shamanic magic.”
Grimalkin was still muttering his notes. Kenva was still upset the fish was gone, but Prixall had demonstrated the rewards of the game, how it went—and then she clapped her hands.
Another fish swam out of the air. This one was long and sinuous—it was a silver eel! Then something flew out of the sky, and everyone gasped.
A regal bird, a Soerluing, the self-styled ‘king of birds’ due to the crest it had on its head, fluttered down, and the magical illusion fanned its wings. Prixall let it land on her arm with a laugh—
…Right before its head exploded. All the Goblins jerked as an arrow passed through the magical Soerluing, and Rags turned. She shook a fist up at the inn’s tower, and an Antinium with a bow lowered it. Then Bird tried to hide behind the lip of his tower.
That aside, more creatures were swimming out of the air. Fish were emerging, darting across the air, past the dazzled crowd and children rummaging around for something—sticks, cloth, netting—and there were birds!
Even squirrels! They began to scatter, and Venim looked around.
“Magus Grimalkin, what is this?”
“I believe…it’s a Goblin game.”
A game? Everyone looked at him, but then Kenva let go of her father’s hand and jumped.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got—”
A yellow squirrel leapt and spread its wings as the tree-squirrel flew. Kenva ran after it as Venim turned.
“Don’t! It could be danger—”
Too late. Kenva was chasing the squirrel. Another child, a Gnoll, had already caught a butterfly, and he was giggling as his worried mother peered at his face. But all he had was a shower of blue dust that made his fur light up like it was glowing.
“Catch the fish! I need a net!”
“Someone sell me a fishing net! I’ll make little nets, one silver each!”
“Nine copper per catching net!”
“Wood for a fishing net, two copper per rod!”
The adults and children began shouting, and suddenly, the little creatures were everywhere. They mostly flew around outside of the walls, but Prixall was casting a big spell. With all of the magic of a tribe behind her.
The adults were wary, but the children were delighted. They began running—and before Venim could halt his daughter, a flying Gnoll cannonballed into the back of his legs.
Ekirra stopped to apologize to the man—then he was running after Mrsha, Visma, and the others. The magical creatures were quick! Some were slow enough that even a baby could catch them, but some behaved like, well, the genuine article.
Have you ever tried to catch a squirrel? Kenva realized why the animals were mostly outside Liscor’s walls—with the windows, stalls, and whatnot in Liscor, the little creatures were impossible to catch. She leapt, and the eel-fish darted past her—
Right into the jabbing tip of a spear. It burst, and Hickery shielded her eyes. Then someone shouted.
“No fair! No spears!”
The Gnoll looked in delight at her ‘enchanted’ spear as more Gnolls ran out. The [Guards] were calling.
“Not in the city! Out in the grass—no spears!”
Children and a few adults began pursuing the magical creatures running about. Then—Kenva was laughing as a little Gnoll girl spotted some nets being made by someone with [Advanced Crafting]. She raced over, and Mrsha handed Kenva, Ekirra, and Visma each one. They began racing around, trying to find the most alluring creatures.
“Get the pink jellyfish! I want my scales to sparkle!”
Visma screeched, but Ekirra was racing.
“No, the white rabbit! Put it on my soccer ball! Ekirra kiiiick!”
He kicked the soccer ball, and it missed the rabbit and bounced off Palt’s chest as the Centaur trotted out to admire the illusion spells.
From the walls, Beilmark blew a whistle.
“No soccer balls, no spears!”
Ekirra’s ears flattened, and he went to put his ball away. But then Mrsha saw the Antinium standing still and staring at the beautiful creatures.
A Goblin’s game for children. The crowd had almost forgotten, but they turned back to Rags and the Hobs. Then—Mrsha went racing over the ground.
Antherr! It’s him! Antherr!
Grev, who was too cool to play catch, uncrossed his arms, and Nanette released a magical dove she’d caught. Everyone turned as the white Gnoll silently shouted and raced around the Soldier.
It’s Antherr! And Termin! And Nailren!
She recognized the Weatherfur Gnolls too, and they nodded to her. Mrsha fumbled for her notepad, realized she’d left it behind—then pointed at the inn. She mimed—wait, wait—and began racing up to the inn.
She realized what Antherr being here meant. Then Drassi, who had captured the entire Goblin game, focused on Antherr.
“Oh my. I believe we’re about to capture another quest being fulfilled live, folks. If I don’t miss my guess, that might be Antherr, a soldier of Liscor’s army who fought in the Meeting of Tribes, returning to the inn. We—is there time for a celebration?”
The Drake looked around, but Lyonette was already hurrying out the door to greet Antherr with the Thronebearers. And Erin was still asleep!
Pisces gently picked Mrsha up before the Gnoll could open Erin’s door and wake her up. Instead, the guests filed outside. It was not the full celebration he deserved, but it was on the scrying orb.
…He deserved more. Not that Antherr seemed to care. In the scrying orb, the Antinium silently looked up, mandibles parted, as he stared at glowing creatures flying around him. The magic-laden air was shaded, but not dark, and it seemed as beautiful as the morning had been.
But he deserved everything, and they were missing it. So a group of people watching the scrying orb furiously sped up.
“We’re going to miss the party! That’s Antherr! I knew that bastard was alive. He owes me money. Move faster you slow pieces of spidercrap!”
Thousands of Antinium were marching past Esthelm as the cheering Humans waved at them and the Antinium waved back. Crusader 57 was screaming at the Antinium as wagons rumbled behind them, laden with pieces of jade and other triumphs of the war. Crusader 53 nudged Crusader 57—but they all did increase their pace.
They wouldn’t make it. Even at full-tilt, they’d need another hour or two to get there. So every Antinium was watching the orb anxiously.
They felt that Antherr deserved more. Every promised fanfare, every moment the Crusade had earned—give it to him?
Perhaps that was enough. He was walking through a dark sea filled with vibrant creatures, shining, as children ran and laughed around him. Antherr shaded his eyes and stared up at the inn, newly-built walls gleaming, as an Antinium waved at him from the tower.
One of Antherr’s hands waved back, and a beaming Gnoll girl with white fur was leading Lyonette and four shining [Knights] in golden armor out. Adventurers stood, some waving at Antherr, others nodding to Nailren.
Wasn’t that enough? It should have been. Would have been for Antinium in any time but now. The Crusaders were learning greed. They wanted more. More, to fill empty hearts and heads which had never encompassed anything so glorious.
Into that desire, someone answered their request. The Antinium, staring at the scrying orb that Artur had mounted on top of his banner so everyone could see it, heard a strange sound coming from the orb.
It sounded like…music. To be more precise, it sounded like a cello. A deep strain, running across the ground and grass. The children stopped a second, and heads turned. Even the Goblins’, because this was not their doing.
“Wait. Is that…”
Crusader 57 recognized the sound before anyone else. He looked up as a second group emerged, and the crowd drew back once more. Then he covered his eyes.
“No. No! It’s so embarrassing. It’s so st—”
All of Squad 5 began slapping him on the shoulders to get him to shut up. For the sound coming out of the scrying orb was not the cello alone. It was quickly joined by a flute and other soft instruments. In fact, the orchestra was so astounding to many because—
It sounded Terandrian. In fact, it sounded exactly like Terandrian music, so much so that the Thronebearers and Lyonette started and looked around.
Then the [Princess]’ head rose, and she recognized that familiar music. As if she were in a ballroom listening to one of the famous songs that was played when…
When you danced. Antherr, striding up the hill, slowed, and his head turned. His antennae, waving, stopped, and then he stared as the second group that this day was all about finally emerged.
Pawn, the [Priest] of the Free Antinium, had returned. His mysterious absence the day before and the lack of Antinium was not accidental. Like Rags, they had been faced with a lack of…anything that defined them.
Unlike Rags, Pawn knew one thing that defined them. And for the Painted Antinium, it only took a bit of preparation to show everyone what they had learned.
The hardest part was finding musicians willing to play for them, but gold talked, and Pawn had gone to Invrisil to find the best. So a group of nervous Humans and some Drakes and Gnolls were performing a…Terandrian orchestra piece.
That was not what made the crowd stare. It was the Antinium coming across the grass. But not in a horde. Not marching, like the Crusade.
They were dancing. No, they were waltzing. Crusader 57 was muttering about how embarrassing it looked—but even the [Crusaders] were watching in awe.
Even they had not known that Antinium could dance. Much less in the way that a [Princess] had once taught a [Priest]. The artful steps, the carefully clasped hands and rotating bodies. An Antinium spun out from a hand, and another couple glided across the ground as if it were a palace ballroom.
They danced, coming across the grass as if flanking Antherr as he walked up to the hill. Painted Antinium, their carapaces decorated with their identities. Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile waltzed past Antherr as Pawn took his place at the top of the hill.
And it was all being broadcast.
Some people could not bear to see it. Goblins, suffered to live. Antinium, dancing. They turned away in disgust and horror at the folly of Drakes and everyone else who pretended the unnatural was natural.
Any number of nations had blacklisted the broadcast. However, some had not, and fascinated nobility and influential figures ignored the politics anyways.
Lord Belchaus, the Lord of the Dance, just watched. In silence.
“Any comments, Bel?”
Altestiel looked at the astounding sight, and the Lord of the Dance spoke softly.
“They do not all have the greatest of gifts. But some do. And most dance better than a nobleman’s son. I had no idea they could dance. And some…”
He raised his head, and his eyes shone with tears. He pointed at one Antinium, who twirled softly. Decorated, from their upper elbows on all four hands and along the lower parts of their legs, as if wearing gloves and leggings made of colorful flowers.
Silveran’s Cleaners had danced one kind of performance in the inn for Lord Bel to see. This? This was something else.
Antinium dancing and Goblin games. Antherr marched up to the inn slowly as the doors hung open and a hundred delicious, foreign smells invited him in. But he stopped as a [Driver] took off his cap and bowed.
“Miss Solstice ain’t here, is she?”
“She’s asleep. But she will be down as soon as she wakes. Hello, Mister Termin. Hello—Antherr, isn’t it? I’m sorry; I didn’t know you were coming. But I hope you will forgive me. This day will surely celebrate you.”
A [Princess] bowed slightly to Antherr, and he raised all three hands. As if to protest. But then Mrsha was waving at him, and Pawn stepped forwards.
“Welcome back, Antherr.”
He took Antherr’s hand in two of his, and the Soldier looked around. His antennae trembled, and Termin smiled as a young man hung back.
“Is that Nailren? What are you doing? Get in here and fill your plates! Where have you been?”
Ceria called out, and a group of Gnolls looked up. Weatherfur’s guards nodded as their Chief Warrior approached.
“On behalf of Chieftain Feshi, we have escorted the Antinium, Antherr, here. Is Honored Krshia present?”
“Here. You have done well, Chief Warrior Toresh. Come in.”
Krshia Silverfang appeared—behind the group of Gnolls—along with Lism and the Council. She smiled and grasped Toresh’s shoulders as he did the same.
Drassi let out a sigh as Termin turned to Antherr. The [Driver] stuck out a gloved hand and hesitantly shook Antherr’s. Then—he blinked and cursed.
“Ow. What was—”
A gold coin bounced off his brow. Then money began raining down. The [Driver] ran out of the hail of coins, which landed in a neat pile. He blinked, eyed the coins, and laughed—right until the saddle landed on his foot.
Antherr looked around as Mrsha reached out to shake one of his hands solemnly, and Numbtongue grinned and offered him a thumbs-up. He looked at the inn, and at that moment—the other Antinium realized this was the first time he had ever entered. He was no Painted Antinium, no lucky Soldier who had gone on patrol.
So it was a special moment. The Antinium hesitated in the doorway of the inn as a Gnoll, Ishkr, poked his head out and got a bowl of acid flies ready.
There was only one thing that could make it better. And that was—as the Antinium stepped through the doorway, a slumbering young woman who had occasionally punched at the air in her sleep stirred.
Above, in her room, Erin Solstice opened her eyes. She sat up—and laughed. By the time he reached the common room, she was waiting for him with open arms.
Then, the celebration really began.
He expected nothing. He was, after all, just a soldier. A member of the Beriad. He was no Painted Antinium, and an entire crusade was coming. They deserved more attention than he—they had fought two battles.
In that way, the Antinium really were silly, kind little children. Just like every member of the 7th Hive of the Antinium would have given all their accolades up for one of their own, with the exception of maybe Crusader 57, he would have done the same for them.
What Antherr didn’t realize was that the [Innkeeper] had something for every one of them. The first thing she did was ask his name.
“Is it…Antherr? Hello, I’m Erin Solstice. It’s so good to meet you.”
It’s good to meet you.
Words that had never been said to a Soldier. He smiled as he gently took her hand. But he clicked his mandibles helplessly, and Antherr had no lips. No voice to scream or speak with.
He wanted to be a Human again, if only so he could shout and weep. Laugh and be that person who could talk.
But this was good enough, and Antherr realized he was lying to himself. Nothing would ever be enough. What a greedy ant he was. Yet the [Innkeeper] looked him in the eyes.
“Can you tell me your full name? Or…Termin, is that you? What are you doing out there? Come in, come in! And who is this?”
She beckoned, and Termin walked in, beaming. A young man with black skin hung back. Timidly. This wasn’t his moment, and Erin didn’t quite notice him.
“Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus? You have a middle name? That’s so cool. Mine sucks.”
She winked at him, and the Soldier felt a strange tingle in his carapace. Because the [Innkeeper] was looking at his injuries, and she seemed sad—right before she looked at a little Gnoll girl trying to carry a bowl of acid flies to him.
“Mrsha, give me a hand. This is Mrsha—and you need to sit here and have some food. I wish I could—can you write?”
He couldn’t write, or read. It embarrassed Antherr, and he felt a helplessness that made him understand why some [Templars] had longed for a voice. He hung his head, and Erin rested a hand on his arm.
“At the very least, you should be able to tell everyone your great name. Mine’s lame, so I don’t use my middle name. Actually—my parents thought they were being so smart. Guess what it is?”
She leaned over as Mrsha’s ears perked up, and she brought out a notecard and began to write. Pisces, the guests, all looked over as Erin whispered something for only Antherr to hear. And Mrsha.
“It’s ‘Summer’. Erin Summer Solstice. Can you believe it?”
She rolled her eyes and snorted, and he longed to tell her what a great middle name that was. As if she could tell how frustrated that made him, she smiled—and then showed him something the little Gnoll was working on.
“This might be a temporary measure—but Mrsha’s going to help you out. She has her Mrsha signs, but people are stupid. So—you can do your own, but take a look at this. Good handwriting, Mrsha!”
She showed him a card with a scribble on it. Antherr recognized the writing, and he stared at it. Then he fixated on the words when Erin told him what it was.
“It’s your name. See? At least you can show people that. It says—‘Hello. My Name is Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus.’”
Mrsha handed the Antinium the notecard, and he took it like a priceless treasure. He—he needed to pin it to his chest. He’d put a little nail in his carapace. But Erin wasn’t done.
“Psst, Mrsha. Give him copies of your best cards. But without the sass.”
The little Gnoll nodded vigorously, and Erin turned to Antherr.
“I bet you could make your own, but—what if we gave you cards for ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘I’m hungry’? Then you can tell me to shut up, huh?”
He’d never need a card like that. The Soldier looked at Erin Solstice as he entered her inn, and he was swept away at once. He wished he’d met her a long time ago.
Termin the Omnipresent was there too, and new guests, and Erin Solstice saw them—but she kept returning to his table, even as she gave Termin a huge hug.
“I’m gonna make you stay, Termin. Okay? There are a lot of guests, but the quest worked, right? Hey, anything Termin wants, Ishkr? He gets! Him and anyone with him!”
“That will suit me just fine, Miss Solstice. Never you fear. And if you had a room or two…I have a helper somewhere around here.”
Termin looked for Rhaldon, but Erin was nodding. Drassi was trying to interview her again, but Erin headed straight back to Antherr. She only paused once.
“Lehra, is that you? Hi.”
“Uh—hi! I‘m making a good impression!”
The Gnoll jumped guiltily as she tried to hide half a pizza behind her back. However, Erin just laughed.
“Help yourself to the pizza. That’s what it’s there for. You should try a stuffed crust one Imani made—but she hates it. Oh, and have you met all the adventurers?”
“A lot of them. Nailren I knew—”
Lehra pointed vaguely at him, and Erin brightened up.
“Nailren? Get over here! He’s great. Oh, and this is Jewel. You should meet her, too. Jewel—wait, what are you doing?”
She pointed to someone, and the Gold-rank adventurer jumped. She and her team looked petrified, but Erin saw to her amusement that they were helping Alcaz stop the crowds from bursting through the inn. She nodded to Lehra.
She was? Jewel looked amazed, relieved, and gratified as Lehra instantly headed over with interest. Captain Todi, who was accompanying Selys, strolled over.
“And I’m Captain Todi—”
“Who? ‘Scuse me. Hey, aren’t you from the quest?”
The Gnoll shook Jewel’s hand as Erin sat back down. She winked at Antherr, and he smiled. Then Erin Solstice leaned on her hands.
“Now, what can I get you?”
Slowly, the Soldier picked up a notecard. He inspected it, and Erin told him what it said. And his smile grew wider.
When Brigadier Forount rode through the gates of Celum, she passed by the [Guards] and into the city so fast that Mayor Cetris was still hurrying over to the gates by the time she had reached one of the main plazas.
Never let it be said that the Brigadier of Wales was late for anything, let alone her own celebration. She had to actually ride back to the gates in order to begin the parade properly.
It began with marching drums, horns, and it had the elements of a military parade—so Wales obliged. The combined riders formed up and marched, horses stepping ahead of proudly marching [Soldiers].
Gershal of Vaunt was almost deafened by the cheers as Celum’s populace and visitors from the local region and beyond flocked to the streets. They were waving local flags. That was what made the local soldiers smile.
Ocre, Celum, Remendia—local heroes. But even Vaunt’s own flags were hanging over the city of Celum. The parade began before the Antinium reached Liscor, and Gershal found it was not tedious at all.
Imagine how an adventurer felt after, say, emerging from the Ruins of Albez to cheers and a celebration. That was spontaneous and deserved.
But a [Soldier] who’d just marched for days after fighting a grueling battle might get a bit tetchy if they had to stand and march around a city in an interminable parade. There was nothing like a grousing group of people being celebrated to bring the mood down.
That was why Lyonette had borrowed a tactic from home, and the [Soldiers] didn’t even have time to contemplate the parade’s length before they were accosted—by people passing out mugs and free food. Hamburgers, street-vendor food, which the [Soldiers] snatched at. Mostly non-alcoholic drinks because you could end up with a bunch of rowdy drunks.
Forount herself was caught snacking on a slice of pizza as Drassi hurried to showcase the parade. She preened, brushed at her mustache, and then gave the camera a salute with her sword. The cheering grew louder as a marching band accompanied people tossing flower petals like there was no tomorrow. Especially for the flowers.
It was…entirely military. Which struck a contrast with how Liscor was preparing. Liscor, Celum, Invrisil. Three cities were the center of the celebrations, and each one had styled themselves differently.
For Celum, wholesale destruction of flowers, cheap, filling food, and a military parade celebrating the local pride in what they’d done. It reminded some people from Drake cities of, well, military parades similar to the ones Pallass, Oteslia, and all Drake cities held.
So in that sense it was well done. And they had none other than Brigadier Forount, who, while twirling a mustache and beaming into the camera, was a character who could hold up the entire parade by sheer personality alone.
Those poor flowers, though. A Drake sighed and stared at a basket of petals. But the Antinium had been sighted on the edge of the Floodplains, and so the visitors here had about thirty minutes to an hour to party. Then it was back to Liscor, because the Drake city had a different idea of how to party.
Aside from the magical animals, the waltzing Antinium—Liscor had paid for a far more relaxed atmosphere. They had a bazaar, streets filled with people, and a lot of private businesses were making a killing. For the Antinium especially, Lyonette had contrived a festival to welcome them in. Naturally, there would be cheering and a few speeches, but their parade would be less drawn-out.
Especially because the Antinium were a more contentious force to celebrate. However, people were unabashedly celebrating the Humans, even Drakes in the crowd. And Erin Solstice was awake.
The saddest person in all of Liscor, Celum, and Invrisil combined was Liska. Every time she opened a door to Celum, she heard cheering, and all the fun things outside the inn were being gossiped about by people in line or queuing up to various attractions.
Gloomily, she stared into Invrisil as a cartwheeling [Actor] passed by to cheers.
“The Players of Celum are putting on a public performance in Celum and Invrisil! The Players of Liscor for their city! Come attend the shows at half-past six and then every two hours afterwards until midnight!”
She got off work at eight. Liska perked up. Then she grumbled about having to work until eight!
Her bad mood was only slightly alleviated by all the food she was being supplied. A very useful Antinium Worker called Dots—because of all the dots of paint on their armor—kept bringing her everything she wanted. Ishkr did know how to placate his sister.
Anyways, she was just letting through the same Drake she’d sent to Celum. The Drake was holding two free tankards of beer, and she had an armful of breadsticks. She deposited the lot in front of a grumpy man who smelled like a bog and a Gnoll. All three wore very…natural clothing.
They were either vagrants or [Druids]. Given the nest of spiders in the Drake’s staff and Nalthaliarstrelous’ familiar look, Liska bet they were from Oteslia. They walked into the inn, now serving customers for money, and sat down. Not that this lot intended to pay.
They sat with the free food. For only the cost of travelling two ways—admittedly close to a gold coin—Shassa had contrived to have herself a good time, and she’d brought back as much of Celum’s free food as she could carry. She was telling the others about it, but she cautioned the Human man.
“Don’t go into Celum, Nalthaliarstrelous.”
“Why not? Don’t go into the garden, Shassa. See how you like being told what to do?”
The Drake heaved a huge sigh.
“That was an accident. Eforte, don’t go into the garden. Just…don’t go into Celum, Nalthaliarstrelous. We don’t need to cause more trouble.”
“How many people are mistreating animals?”
The [Druid] began to get up with a dark look, and Shassa tried to stop him.
“No one! They just—they’re tossing flower petals. The poor things!”
She sighed, and the Gnoll shook his head. Nalthal gave Shassa a blank look, then sat back down.
“Flowers? Who cares? I thought you meant people. What’s this, free? Give me that.”
He began to gnaw on the free breadsticks, and a squirrel poked its head out of the neck of his robes, and he fed it a huge chunk of bread. Shassa opened her mouth indignantly—then turned her head.
A little Gnoll girl scampered by without noticing her fellow [Druids]. Mrsha the Partier was racing around from place to place. A puffing Thronebearer, Ser Lormel, jogged after her.
“There’s our little Landfriend. Should we introduce…?”
“Do you want the [Princess] to break your legs? What’s the menu say? Everything’s expensive. How much gold do we have?”
The [Druids] gloomily checked their pockets. Shassa and Eforte, both [Druids] of Oteslia’s circle, received a modest stipend from the City of Growth, but their benefits were mainly in the city.
Free housing and food was cheap. Gold was not, if that made sense. Eforte turned to Nalthaliarstrelous.
“Don’t you get paid by Magnolia Reinhart?”
“Where’s your gold?”
The [Druid] scratched at his beard.
“…I don’t know. I probably buried it in the maze or gave it to the circle in the Vale Forest. It’s just coins.”
Shassa gloomily stared at a pile of silver coins. Nalthal saw her expression and grunted. He reached in his bag of holding.
“Let me see. No…no…that’s mold. That’s dead worms. Aha!”
He pulled out several calcified worms, which he offered to some of the spiders in Shassa’s staff. Then he plonked a handful of dirt onto the clean tables, much to the vague horror of everyone around him. Nalthal blew half of it onto the floor, and gold glinted between the dirt.
“Dug up a bunch myself just the other day so I could travel to Oteslia. There. What are we buying?”
At this point, he was so noticeable that the [Druid] became part of the inn. Erin Solstice stopped patting Antherr on the hands long enough to turn.
“Hey! Who’s throwing dirt on the ground—is that Nalthaliarstrelous! The ultra-violent [Druid]!”
She bounced over in delight. And she was almost as happy as Silverstache, who bustled over with a dustpan and broom. All this dirt coming in! Tsk, tsk, they’d have to brush it up, then mop, then do some minute floorboard cleaning and then wax—
The adventurers looked amused as the nervous Shassa stood up. But Moore bowed to Nalthal, and he even grudgingly nodded back. Erin motioned him over to the tables where Nailren was looking slightly overwhelmed by all the Gold and the two Named-rank adventurers.
“Aha. [Druids]. Sell me reagents!”
Saliss rubbed his claws together, and Xif poked his head out from shaking paws with the Gnolls from the tribes. Nalthal put up with it grudgingly as Erin introduced him.
“Everyone, this is Nalthaliarstrelous. Don’t kick a dog or do anything to animals around him or he’ll kill you. He’s a nice g…he’s a [Druid]. But I like him. Oh, and he’s apparently someone who actually carries around pocket-dirt. And he’s the reason why people find buried treasure in the ground. Wild, huh?”
In any other time, he would be fascinating and Mrsha the Treasure Seeker would need a word with him. But she was already racing down the hill because—
The Antinium were coming.
Liscor had huge drums that were booming, and the Goblins started because it reminded them of far less welcome memories. But when they looked out, even Redscar smiled.
The Antinium were marching on Liscor, and for once, their arrival was not greeted with a rain of arrows, but magic instead. Magical fireworks began shooting up, and people began cheering.
Even Liscorians! Mrsha came to a stop, panting, as Visma’s family and Ekirra’s joined the people spilling out of the city and waving flags and cheering the Antinium.
Whoa! They’re so happy!
Gire and Moore had to be adults and shake hands, but Nanette could catch up with Mrsha, and so could Ekirra and Visma. The four kids stared at the merry adults as Ser Lormel clutched at his side.
Visma stared blankly up at her parents. Her mother was a [Painter], and her father made drinks as far as Mrsha understood it. She only knew Visma’s parents as adults, and they smiled at her. Visma had a big brother who had a crush on Erin and…that was about it.
Ekirra had a larger extended family, and they were fighting to see—and pestering Ekirra to give them a bite of the ice cream he’d been given at the inn. He whined as his cone disappeared, and Mrsha promised she’d get him another.
“Mom is happy. I wonder why.”
Visma conferred with Ekirra, vaguely puzzled. Ekirra prodded his bigger sister—he was the youngest of his family.
“Hey. Why are you cheering? You don’t like Ants.”
He conferred briefly with his family, which resulted in ear-pullings, and he had to bribe one of his cousins with a pizza slice so Mrsha, Visma, and Nanette could join him in the front. But then they saw the first Crusaders marching into Liscor and waving. Mrsha beamed and waved at the Antinium, genuinely, but the cheering was coming from countless citizens.
Again—why? Well, her two local friends translated the answer to Mrsha.
“It’s because they’re gonna get free stuff! Mom says we could get jade! It’s like when the army comes back. They make trouble, but we get loot!”
Ah. It all made sense. Nanette looked amused, and Mrsha rolled her eyes. Then she saw the wagons rolling in, and the cheers grew louder. Nothing like the promise of free jade to add to the Antinium sentiments.
Well, the [Crusaders] looked pleased enough to be cheered at all. And Commander Olesm himself was poised to greet them with Liscor’s Council, who had medals and a speech.
It was great. Mrsha beamed as the entire army marched through the gates—then she decided she was done. When they came to the inn, she’d be back, but she had about as much desire to hear Lism give a speech as she did to hit herself on the head with a baseball bat. Repeatedly.
Besides—the two armies coming into both cities had really kicked off all the events! Mrsha had chased the magical creatures still floating about nonstop, and her fur was decorated with a bit of green and red, proof of her victories.
However, she wanted to see more!
“Mrsha, while everyone’s cheering—let’s get some Antinium dolls! Someone’s selling ones made out of black wood—they look perfect!”
“Aw. I don’t want to. Dolls are stupid.”
Ekirra grumbled, and Visma rounded on him.
“These ones have moving arms! Mister Jerome made them!”
“He did? Can I give mine a sword?”
“You won’t get any if you don’t come, stupid! Are you coming, Miss Nanette?”
The witch seemed pleased to join Mrsha as she dashed off. Ser Lormel ran after them, and by the time they stopped in the line for the best dolls yet—he was making painful wheezing sounds.
Those turned into gasps as Mrsha and the rest dashed over to something Nanette wanted to see—Imani’s restaurant. They lined up as she offered food to people, and Mrsha importantly slapped some coins down, and they all received a skewer with eight different kinds of meat all stuffed together. Each child got a piece, and Mrsha’s first bite was trout!
Imagine! It was good stuff too, and she was licking her paw as Palt came out with a stamina potion to rescue Lormel. Then she noticed a girl staring at her. From the magical creature catching!
Kenva pointed at Mrsha as her father queued up for food for the family.
“You’re that Gnoll from the television! You’re Mrsha. You’re famous! Can I have your autograph? What are you eating? Is it good?”
And to Mrsha’s astonishment, she saw heads turn, and a few people stepped out of line.
“Wait, it is that Gnoll! Wasn’t she kidnapped? Is the bounty still on?”
“Don’t be stupid. Hey, little, um…Mrsha! Doom-girl! Can I get an autograph?”
A Drake hurried over and tried to get Mrsha to press her paw in some ink and put it on an autograph card. She gave him a long look, and disappointed, he tried to get back in line and found he’d lost his place.
However, Mrsha realized she was slightly famous. She had been on television more than most people could boast of, and her white fur was a reminder of recent events.
Mrsha the Celebrity preened as she offered Kenva some of the skewer and won instant friendship with the Drake girl. She was admiring Visma’s new doll when Mrsha pointed. She held up a card, and Kenva squinted.
“What’s that? You write? ‘Let’s go to Celum and see Forount and the cheese-people?’ Free food? Let’s go, let’s go! Can I go with them, Dad? Dad? Daaaaaad—”
That of course bought Lormel a few moments where he assured Venim his daughter was in good hands. Then he was running, running as the children raced off to the next encounter. And the [Knight], who was supposed to be trained for combat, reflected that he really should work harder on his running.
He took some solace in the fact that Watch Captain Venim was already swearing under his breath as he accompanied them. Children…children just ran until they stopped, and they had too much energy. They sprinted from spot to spot with sugar for blood.
The parade of the Antinium into the city was grand and celebratory.
Erin Solstice saw almost none of it. Not Peki, flying triumphantly above the Antinium marching with the wagons of jade or the crowds pointing at the monster parts or cheering them or Liscor’s army welcoming their soldiers back from the battlefield.
She stood with Antherr as the door to her inn opened and Antinium walked in. Pawn was patting Zimrah’s shoulder as Squad 5 poured into the inn after the Beriad.
They charged at Antherr and covered him in pats and hugs. The [Innkeeper] laughed. Then she had a bowl of something hot for the grumpy Worker with the huge sword.
“Hello, Crusader 57. Want to try some mana candies and some egg drop soup?”
The Worker looked at Erin, uncrossing two arms, and she winked.
“How could I forget the grumpiest Worker in the entire Hive?”
“Grumpy? Me? I’m not grumpy.”
All of Squad 5 looked at him, and Crusader 57 snatched the bowl of soup so fast it almost spilled.
“Give me that. At least this inn is good for something.”
Crusader 53 raised a hand to chop 57 on the head, but then Erin Solstice was giving Crusader 57 a hug.
“Meh. Get off me.”
Nothing would do but for Squad 5 to all receive a hug, and then Erin was greeting the Beriad. She had only two arms, so it took a long time. But she had all day. Antinium poured into her inn, but not all stayed.
“Wait, where are you going? You can’t leave!”
No sooner had the Beriad, Battalion 5, come into the inn than they were all trying to leave. With Antherr! Erin was dismayed, until she realized—
“We are reporting to Captain Calruz. He cannot enter the city. We may return, Innkeeper Solstice.”
A Worker with a greathammer saluted her. The Horns stirred at their table, and Erin’s eyes flickered.
“If you’ve gotta go—you need to promise me you’ll be back. And before you go—”
She looked around, grabbed a bunch of pizza boxes, and demanded they take as much food as they could carry. For the Minotaur and his company.
Then Erin stood there as a thousand Antinium slowly circulated through her inn. Many left, to go to the army and tell them it was alright or report to their friends. But before they went, they came to the inn.
They’d heard she was giving out free hugs.
Watching Mrsha run from city to city, often with splurges of coin and her friends bouncing from attraction to attraction, was mildly horrifying to anyone who might have observed how much gold she had to spend. Or her celebrity status—or the poor bodyguards.
Actually, it was more than just a temporary issue. Just like Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings made for poor bodyguards, the [Knights] were not all-encompassing child experts. They could provide for a lot of needs, but they were still there to keep someone safe, rather than raise them completely.
“Do they…do they not have teachers in Liscor? I mean, [Teachers]? Is this still all apprenticeships? Surely they have some for children too small to work, right? Right?”
It seemed incredible, but Celum had none, and neither did Liscor, not that Shassa could see. As for Invrisil?
Since Nalthaliarstrelous had so much gold, she decided to poke her head into the City of Adventurers too. The [Druid] had to admit, it was shocking to see Mrsha and the children running around. Oteslia had [Teachers] and [Minders] who led groups of young Drakes and Gnolls around the city and filled their days. Why, even she’d done that, teaching them how to garden.
What a strange city, but then, not everywhere was Oteslia. Shassa was poking around Invrisil and saw nothing like a teacher in the brief time she was about. And interestingly…less celebrations here.
Oh, there was definitely a feeling of celebration in the air, but Invrisil was less active than both Celum and Liscor, having sent some of their best performers over. Shassa noticed it, and Mrsha definitely noticed it as she galloped into the back of the Drake.
“Ow! Excuse me, Miss!”
Mrsha backed up and hastily flashed a ‘Sorry’ card at Shassa, but the Drake stopped her.
“Running around without looking where you’re going is very inconsiderate. And a quick sorry is not enough. May I receive a formal apology? You needn’t run everywhere in crowds—you may dodge around people, but you’re making them jump.”
Chastened, Mrsha wrote a formal apology, and the little children promised not to run so fast. Shassa nodded and then saw them looking around in dismay.
Hey, there aren’t any cool things over here! What gives?
Mrsha was put out by the lack of full fanfare and wonderful chaos. Oh, there were some performers like a [Bard] putting out a song commemorating the victory at Orefell, and people were certainly having fun.
“Adventure Room! Enter the Adventure Room and fight monsters and seek great mysteries! Become the [Adventurer] you always wanted to be! No danger, all thrills! Free trial!”
Mrsha’s ears perked up as she saw a young [Mage] calling out an advertisement—but the line was long, and as she looked about, she saw more signs that Invrisil was sort of festive, but not enough.
“We’ve got Liscor themed treats here! Spider Succulents, Rock Crab muffins, and all kinds of goods! Even cookies!”
Ekirra tugged Mrsha over to a likely bakery, but it was all paid goods and expensive. Mrsha put her hands on her hips.
Where was the free food? Where were the parties? She had been here to celebrate with the Players of Celum, and she knew they could throw wild stuff.
It seemed, though, that the Mayor of Invrisil was a bit more cautious, or perhaps the local vendors were. Spending a bunch of money to hopefully attract even more business made sense—if you weren’t competing with two other cities, though. Especially with a finite door’s worth of mana for teleportation.
However, Mrsha didn’t care about that. She just wanted a party for the Antinium and Humans and adventurers. She knew for a fact that the Horns and the other teams would do a small parade through here later today, and if this was what they got, they needn’t bother!
Heck, even Numbtongue was preparing for a few songs with the band—Kevin and Octavia, and he’d enlisted a few other people to play other instruments. Even Bird was going to sing!
Mrsha just knew that Lyonette had probably decided to focus on Liscor and probably didn’t know Invrisil wasn’t living up to snuff. It occurred to Mrsha that…she could do something.
Why not? Again, Shassa’s fears bore fruit as Mrsha du Marquin thought about how she, the [Emperor]-hobnobbing, important Mrsha Doomgirl, who was famous, could just nip into the Mayor’s office and make some deals.
Why not walk into the Adventurer’s Guild backrooms and assert some Ksmvr-style dominance? She was rubbing her paws together and formulating a plan when she had a thought.
An odd thought in the back of her head, as new to her as clothing, but annoyingly pervasive.
Wait a moment. Wait a moment. Is there the slightest, most inconceivable-yet-possible chance that this could end up in a lot of trouble?
No. No, surely not. Yet it occurred to Mrsha that maybe, just maybe, walking into a room full of Gold-ranks or haranguing a [Mayor] wasn’t a responsible move.
Where was this coming from? The voice sounded a bit like Lyonette. Mrsha prodded her head, scowling. Perhaps it was the kind of instinct that came from being kidnapped across Izril and seeing a war fought out.
Well, poo. She folded her arms as Ekirra bickered over which city was better right now, Liscor or Celum. Was this what being an adult felt like? Seeing the consequences of your actions? How horrible.
“Mrsha? What are you thinking about?”
Nanette was watching her—carefully—and Mrsha sighed. She was just about to suggest they go back to Liscor and just tell Lyonette and have her deal with it—when someone interrupted them.
“Hoi there! Is that you again, kid? This place is boring as feck, ain’t it? Invrisil really is letting us all down. ‘Specially Celum.”
Kid? Mrsha turned with the wrath of punching someone—and noticed Grev. He was hanging out with a gang of kids, who eyed the Drakes and Gnolls with wary interest.
Grev! Aren’t you going to have fun in Liscor and Celum? Want to come and play with us?
He spat, looking amused. Grev jerked a thumb at the gang of kids who definitely had no [Teacher] behind them.
“I’m no kid, Miss Mrsha. I’m a Face of Invrisil. I’ve been hanging out here hoping something fun was up—rumor is there’ll be some interesting guests soon. But this city’s dull as dishwater.”
No kidding. Your city sucks.
Grev grinned as some of his buddies who could read glowered. He glanced around casually.
“Well, Invrisil’s the kind of place where money and favors go hand in hand. I bet you that since the Players are performing in Celum, most’ve the big shoppies and merchies don’t want to put on a big show. See that rich baker? He could put out a buncha snacks for everyone, but he won’t because he’s being cheap.”
Grev had an interesting way of talking. He was right, however, and Mrsha nodded along with his understanding of the problem.
Lyonette’s busy. I was going to do something, but can you think of anything to make this place more hip-hoppity?
She tried to use slang that she’d heard from Erin. Grev’s lips moved as he read that last word, but he shrugged and grinned, puffing his chest out.
“I could. You don’t need Lyonette or Erin. If I got a few of the big shoppies to spread the word, we could throw in a party like when Elia Arcsinger came in. All flash and glamor.”
Mrsha laughed silently. Grev bristled. He pointed at the gang, mildly outraged. They were eying Ser Lormel’s armor and teasing the man; he was dying of exhaustion.
“Hey, like I said, I was a small fish in Celum, but I’m famous now. A Face, a Face, Mrsha. Don’t you know what that means? It means I’m so famous everyone in Invrisil knows me, or ought to.”
“Yeah. You aren’t cool when you have to hold up a notecard.”
Mrsha scribbled, ignoring the taunt.
Then prove it! Light this place up like Liscor. For Erin! For the Antinium!
Grev hesitated, because he realized, too late, he’d made a mistake. The rest of his followers looked at him, and the boy glanced around Invrisil. The City of Adventurers. Which, true, knew the Players of Celum as one of the biggest groups ever.
But Grev? Was he actually a Face or…? The former [Street Urchin] squared his shoulders and exhaled—then he shot Mrsha a cocky grin.
“I can do it. Give me an hour, no, thirty minutes! But you need to have at least something interesting too! Everyone’s seen adventurers before. You have anything cool?”
Mrsha hmmed and put her chin in one paw. She thought of her friends, and then she brightened up.
Well—she had one interesting thing that might work. She scribbled on a notepad.
You do your thing, and I’ll do mine, deal? Coolest person is a Face.
“That’s not how it works, but deal. Come on, lads and lasses. Time for old Grev to pay Erin back.”
Grev adjusted his clothes, looking slightly nervous as Mrsha tugged on Nanette’s hand. The witch looked slightly concerned, but Mrsha wasn’t trying to bully a [Mayor], so was this progress? Grev glanced at Mrsha and then tilted his head to the skies.
“Say. If you’re gonna have a parade in Invrisil—maybe tell Lyonette you should bring all the cool people over. Antinium, adventurers, Forount—and Erin Solstice herself.”
Mrsha blinked at him, and then she grinned.
One hour later, Erin Solstice blinked as she found herself in a new lineup.
“Me? Go to Invrisil as part of the parade? Aw, I dunno, Lyonette.”
“Erin—you have to. Mrsha is right.”
The little Gnoll was dancing around Erin with an excited group of children. Erin didn’t know what had gotten into them, but they’d run back into the inn and began pestering some of the people in here for help for a ‘big thing’.
Which was naturally concerning, but Erin had been so busy greeting the [Crusaders] she hadn’t been able to deal with them.
Anyways, Ser Lormel had assured Lyonette it was ‘mostly harmless’. Which sounded better than most Mrsha escapades. Right now, the Horns, Halfseekers, and Silver Swords were preparing for their parade in Invrisil.
They appeared pleased by the honor, but as Dawil kept joking—
“We’re one team in a thousand that Invrisil’s honored. Don’t be upset if you get less applause than Liscor, Pisces. We’re not giving away free jade.”
“Perish the thought. When I am paraded through Invrisil, I expect it to be purely for my team’s accomplishments. This was a joint effort.”
The [Necromancer] sniffed, but he was adjusting his robes, and he’d even buckled his rapier to his side.
What was new was Erin being added to the group, and she was understandably reluctant.
“This is about adventurers, Mrsha. Not me.”
“But you played the chess game, Erin. And posted the quest. And frankly, we will have some of the [Crusaders] as well as Brigadier Forount, Lieutenant Gershal—I think they’re arriving now. Just go with them? For the occasion? Don’t think of it as you taking credit. You’re adding to the moment.”
“Eh…I don’t wanna walk that far. And I’m not getting in my wheelchair.”
Erin tried one last time, but Lyonette was ready.
“You won’t have to. Ser Dalimont suggested we decorate a wagon—so only a few people will be riding. The rest will be able to sit or stand. It will be a short tour and a small speech. Invrisil is, regrettably, smaller-scale. Please?”
“Is Drassi going to broadcast it?”
Lyonette waved this off, much to the adventurers’ disappointment.
“Unless she can find something more impressive than the other parades, I doubt it. How about it, Erin? Then we can come back to the inn and finish celebrating.”
Exasperated, Erin puffed out her cheeks and gave up. She looked over, and Numbtongue grinned as he stepped out after Mrsha, who was practically pushing him and Moore and…Saliss…
Well, that wasn’t an odd mix of concerning people to be going to Invrisil. Erin shook her head as Lyonette dithered.
“No scrying orb? Come on, we’re heroes! Drassi, Drassi, can I twist your arm and show us off?”
Jelaqua was complaining lightly and mostly joking as she spotted Drassi and a full camera crew heading through the inn. Much to her surprise, Drassi stopped.
“Broadcast you? Of course! If the inn’s going to be there—come on, people, we need to be live in ten! Find a spot and get me multiple angles!”
They streamed down the hallway, and Erin groaned. Then she felt an odd tingling on the back of her neck. Jelaqua and the adventurers brightened up, though.
“We’re on the orb? Hear that, Erin? Come on, we’ll all have a grand time! Please?”
She had already just been on the orb, so Erin supposed she could have fun talking with the adventurers in the wagon. She stood up, stretched, and people began filing through the door.
Erin was last in line, and the door ran out of mana halfway through sending people through. There were a lot of complaints behind Erin too—they were cutting a line for people heading to Invrisil, so the shouting was incredibly noisy every time Liska opened the door.
“Sorry, sorry! Oh, damn. The door’s out.”
Lyonette cursed and looked for Mrsha. A [Mage] hurried over to recharge it, but to Erin’s surprise, someone put a claw against the door.
“Allow me. If you’ll let me join you? Miss Solstice.”
She beamed at him, and he gave her a slow nod. Erin laughed, and the Sinew Magus charged up the door in a heartbeat. She was chatting to him as Lyonette, the Thronebearers, and the Horns waited to go through.
“How are you doing, Grimalkin? It’s so great to see you. We should talk more! Where have you been, stranger? Did you like the p—”
Then the door opened, Erin walked through and went deaf. The noise and light swept over her—and then it looked like they had entered a warzone.
Grimalkin threw up his claws, but it was just the fireworks. Magical lights were blooming in the air so fast that it cast the people jumping up and down—jumping up and down like a mosh pit—into shadows.
Erin Solstice felt her jaw drop, and she nearly ran into the Halfseekers. They were frozen in place—because the quiet City of Adventurers had transformed in an hour. Antinium were clustered together as Brigadier Forount’s horse reared.
The cheering didn’t stop, but Erin just felt it become a background roar. Then she looked out and saw a celebration.
Mrsha herself had frozen when she saw the chaos. But when she saw Grev, waving at her from the back of one of the parade floats, she understood.
A Face of Invrisil had called in favors. How many favors? Well—Mrsha thought she saw no less than three different performing groups playing across the streets so far, and a [Tumbler] was doing backflips across a wire strung the length of the street.
The City of Adventurers had high-level [Performers]. It had been home to a Level 40+ [Tumbler], and even Barelle the Bard. They had watched Liscor and Celum celebrating with urbane amusement, and when they’d gotten the prompt, they’d decided it was time to show off.
However, that was possibly also because Liscor, Celum, and yes, even Pallass had decided to add to the event. Grev had decided that if the three Gold-rank teams weren’t enough to warrant a celebration, why not add the Antinium and Forount’s group? And if you had them—you might as well celebrate everyone you could.
The Players of Liscor and the Players of Celum were striding across the street, handing out the coveted autographs to anyone whose card they managed to grab in the sea of waving hands. One of their number actually copied the [Tumbler] and managed three flips—she kept on going, did a flip and twist in the air, and blew a kiss at him.
Following them came a strange sight that provoked screams and cheers on its own. Saliss of Lights threw up his claws as Erin closed her eyes. He tossed vials into the air, and the sky, already filled with sparkling lights, turned into a full conflagration of explosions. The Drake posed as the Horns looked around.
“Is this all for us? I thought it was supposed to be quiet!”
Yvlon grabbed Lyonette—but then all of them saw someone beckoning frantically to them.
“Into the parade wagon! Come on! You and you—and you!”
Lyonette was astonished, but before she knew it, the Horns and Erin were piling into a wagon. And the [Princess] was going up with her Thronebearers.
They certainly fit the scene. Erin was screaming something at Lyonette about lies, but they were already rolling down the street.
And the sight of the [Innkeeper] made the screaming grow louder somehow. Erin looked around and saw more people in the line of celebrities.
That was what Invrisil respected, she realized. Saliss from the Meeting of Tribes, Lehra Ruinstrider in a float ahead of them—even Wil, Venaz, Merrik, and Peki. The Garuda was showing off kicks and punches as she perched on top of one of the wagons.
And at the head of the group? There were the two troublemakers who definitely needed some adult supervision! Mrsha and Grev were waving at the crowd, and they were getting a non-inconsequential number of cheers.
Actually, there were a lot of cheers, even for this being orchestrated by Grev. Something was growing in the distance, and Erin’s head turned to the northern edge of the city. The parade was headed that way, and her eyes narrowed.
Lyonette’s own head snapped up, and she looked confused, but she was watching the Antinium, and she was, well, smiling and waving at the crowd. Her instincts had kicked in, and she fit into the celebration better than some of the awestruck adventurers.
In fact, Dame Ushar had paused in the middle of joining the Thronebearers standing around Lyonette to write a brief missive. She sent a [Message] spell off, and it raced around the world.
It said this:
To Their Exalted Majesties:
Budget — 5000 Gold Pieces, breakdown 1000 Liscor, 3400 Invrisil, 600 Celum.
Organization time, ~half a day.
The note was hastily scribbled, and it appeared on Queen Ielane’s [Message] scroll before they saw their daughter, due to the time delay on Wistram’s broadcasts.
King Reclis peered over the [Message] scroll and read what it said. Her Majesty of Calanfer calmly eyed the celebration.
Reclis was tapping his foot and nodding to the beat of the music. But then—he was in a good mood after levelling up.
“She did quite well for her first celebration. Very positive sentiment about the Antinium, don’t you think, my dear?”
Ielane’s face was cold as she eyed the [Princess] waving and laughing and the adventurers on show.
“It’s hardly unique. She’s simply tapped into sentiment, not changed a narrative. Enabling an event is basic. If an [Innkeeper] can do it, any royal of Calanfer should be able to do likewise.”
Reclis didn’t pursue the argument. They just watched as Lyonette blew a kiss, looking mischievous. Ielane’s scowl grew larger. But then she blinked.
“Ah. The inn has arrived. That explains it.”
The scrying orb was moving—and the confused but gratified people on parade realized what was going on after the crowds. The cheering grew louder—and in the distance, Drassi pointed and shouted uselessly into the camera. The music was too loud. But it didn’t matter because everyone saw it.
An inn slowly came into sight. The inn. The Adventurer’s Haven had arrived in Invrisil, and it came in like a storm.
“The Adventurer’s Haven is coming! That’s why everyone’s cheering!”
“What? The inn is coming—so that’s why Mrsha saw that other [Innkeeper]!”
Lyonette broke off from enjoying the parade and looked aghast. She realized that this wasn’t all Grev and Mrsha’s doing! But now—her eyes darted up, and she gasped.
“They’re stealing our moment! Those clever little—how dare they!”
“You mean the Antinium’s moment!”
Erin hollered back. But it was too late. The parade was heading north, towards where the inn was arriving, and the cheering seemed to be taking on a different tone.
Almost like this was a competition. Which it wasn’t. Erin looked up, and Ceria shaded her brows.
“Is that an aura I feel? Or just magic? Did they just say The Adventurer’s Haven is coming? Pisces, Yvlon, have you ever been there?”
Yvlon screamed back. She had two fingers in her ears. She shook her head.
“I’ve never been! But it’s famous! I wanted to be a Gold-rank and visit—it’s the best inn in Izril!”
The adventurers knew that name. Yvlon guiltily looked at Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was just frowning. Yet that was the comparison being made.
The Adventurer’s Haven, which was close to First Landing, was home to the best [Innkeeper]. Or had been the best inn?
Lism was riding a parade wagon he’d managed to smuggle the Council aboard, and he was pointing and shouting invectives.
“Liscorians, show them that we have the best inn! Let’s show them a real parade!”
His voice was magnified by a speaking stone. Erin nearly spat out her tongue hearing that, but Liscorian citizens and natives of Invrisil took up the cause.
Palt was firing illusion spells into the air along with Bezale and several [Mages]. Now, they conjured the opposite of the fireworks—a rain of magic spells began raining down. The first elements of the parade began riding through falling streaks of green light and glowing rays that looked like fire.
And that inn kept coming. Erin was standing on her tip-toes, but she was shorter than most of the people in the parade wagon, and she couldn’t see.
“What’s it look like? Pisces, Pisces—”
She turned to the tall [Necromancer] and flinched as the cheers grew wild. Mostly because Ksmvr had just leapt from the wagon. He landed on a four-story building and began hopping across buildings as people pointed at him.
“Ksmvr of Chandrar! Ksmvr of—”
Now, the adventurers were showing off. Saliss threw another potion into the crowd and turned everyone’s hair bright red. Then he threw a bottle down, and the explosion tossed him up past Ksmvr. He flew, spinning, through the air and landed on the ground before rolling to his feet.
“Guys, guys, it’s not a compet—”
Too late. Ceria leapt off the wagon and began sliding across the parade with Pisces on an [Icy Floor] spell. Dawil joined her—or tried to. He couldn’t balance, so he ran and leapt. Then he began skidding on his front, arms raised, to wild cheering.
Ylawes was more restrained, but Falene shot a jagged bolt of lightning into the air. To Erin’s bemusement, her friends seemed keen on proving a point. As if they were defending her honor.
It didn’t make her smile or flush with embarrassed pride at all. Absolutely not.
“Players of Celum, let’s hear it for our [Innkeeper]!”
Temile howled into Drassi’s microphone, and the crowd went wild as the [Actors] began activating Skills. From people in civilian’s clothes, a Drake spun—and emerged in full Juliet costume.
[Instant Clothing Change]. Another did a flip—and snapped his leg. The crowd screamed as he stared at the broken bone and his twisted skin—then he got up, and the broken leg vanished.
[Break a (Fake) Leg].
Jelaqua was trying to whirl her flail around to show off, but everyone was trying to stop her from killing everyone if she let go. Ulinde stood on the wagon, firing spells upwards—
And then they rounded a bend, and Erin saw the inn coming their way.
At first, she didn’t know what she was seeing. It was far enough in the distance for the people to be too small to make anything out—but the inn itself? Erin could see why it was a famous inn. She could see how it had gotten here in about a month’s time, even from First Landing.
Mainly because it was—floating. But it wasn’t an inn. Not exactly.
Erin’s first thought was that part of the landscape itself was moving. She saw a cluster of buildings slowly drifting over the ground. Then she realized—the largest building was the inn. And the entire cluster of buildings?
They were on wooden daises. And they were floating. There was a central building, and each smaller one was on a rounded dais that hovered around The Adventurer’s Haven. Not just buildings; there were even what looked like pens for animals, and Erin swore she saw an actual field of crops.
Floating! Or was it more complex than that? Because what Erin also saw, as the cheering died down for a moment, was that each dais was still being pulled.
They floated, yes, but they seemed anchored to huge pedestals being pulled by oxen, not horses. The animals were pulling the pedestals along, each one directly underneath the floating daises.
Like they were being held up by the magnetic repulsion—or magic itself. It was, Erin realized, like Fissival in miniature. She looked at the central building and saw, to her great surprise, that it was no building like her inn, which resembled a house adapted for the purposes of an inn.
This was multi-sided, because it might face in any direction. It had at least four floors, open balconies—but Erin didn’t miss what looked like turrets or towers. In fact, she recognized that design too.
It looked like a crown or the city of Reim in miniature. Wood and stone, painted a light, bright green visible for miles and highlighted by silver and viridian. The final thing she saw, even from afar, was the symbol, hanging prominently.
A wand in front of a mug and a bag of gold to the side. The crest of that famous inn.
The Adventurer’s Haven. And Erin just knew that the [Innkeeper] was coming her way. She felt it. But their aura was only half of what made the crowds gasp. Ceria slowed down, and Pisces nearly knocked her flat. Both [Mages] stared at the inn.
“The magic! Pisces, is she lifting the entire damn inn?”
“She’s supposed to be a former Named-rank adventurer, right? The [Mage]? Larracel the Haven?”
Her mana signature was so heavy that Pisces could see it from afar. And still, the Adventurer’s Haven drifted slowly to Invrisil. In dead silence, everyone stared at it for a moment. Then Mrsha slapped Grev on the shoulder.
Alright, let’s show them what we’ve got!
He started, glanced at her, and then nodded. Time to unveil their trump card.
Music and the sounds of another celebration were coming from the floating inn. It was hard to tell how many people could fit in the central inn—but with the other buildings combined? It had to have an occupancy in the thousands, not hundreds! If that were really a floating farmstead, the staff alone constituted a village.
Mrsha couldn’t tell who was making all that noise, but she could see a lot of people around the inn—even outdoor tables. Well—well—The Wandering Inn didn’t have outdoor tables because you got eaten by spiders if you sat outside!
And her inn had something cool too. So Grev stood up, and the cheering resumed as he encouraged the crowd to shout.
And if their voices were too weak—there was also music. However, the individual bands were fading out. A trumpeter was nervously adjusting his instrument and mouthing at his friends. Meanwhile, a grinning Kevin was adjusting the volume on his laptop while Palt cast a spell.
When the music began to play, it sounded like the Singer of Terandria’s music. It was an explosion, a shout—and Kevin began to strike the drums on a wagon as Octavia played along as best she could on a guitar. However, they were just the background.
The crowd’s heads turned. They expected to hear Cara’s voice because that was what they associated with that kind of music. They were not ready for what came next.
“Introducing our special musician from The Wandering Inn! Let them hear it, Numbtongue!”
Grev shouted and pointed. Then Mrsha heard screams and shouts and ducked because she had a feeling her mom and Erin were looking at her. But she kept staring up, up—at the Hobgoblin [Bard].
Numbtongue was playing on his guitar. And—Mrsha distinctly heard a nervous tone in his voice as he began singing one of Cara’s songs. Half the crowd ready to panic at the sight of a Goblin stopped. They looked over, and Erin’s jaw dropped.
She could see Numbtongue clearly, along with everyone else. In fact, beyond clearly because Numbtongue wasn’t standing on one of the wagons. It was hard to hide a Goblin that long, even with a cloak and hood. So Mrsha and Grev had put him somewhere else along the parade route, and on signal—
His platform had begun rising. To be more precise, a pillar of earth, brown stone, was lifting him higher into the air as Moore cast his newest Tier 4 spell.
A singing Hobgoblin with a guitar was playing one of the Singer of Terandria’s pop songs, and it seemed like even The Adventurer’s Haven slowed down to check their eyes.
The crowd looked uncertain for a second, and Erin feared they’d either riot or panic. But her friends had pulled an Erin classic. While the crowd was busy processing the fact that a Goblin could sing, they’d forgotten to scream.
And she’d also forgotten something that Numbtongue himself occasionally forgot:
He was a [Bard].
He was using his Skills, and Erin felt the nervousness of the crowd drain away like water through a sieve.
[Peaceful Melody]. And maybe—[Ballad of Bravery]. He grinned and winked at Erin and everyone else in her direction, and then someone began cheering him.
“Go Numbtongue! Look at that!”
Drassi shouted, and the voices swelled again as the music played louder. Then you had a Goblin playing music in one of Izril’s largest cities.
Disastrous. Horrendous! It made Goblins look like people, and it fit his class. If this were his kingdom, it would have been a terrible incident politically and socially.
Since it wasn’t, King Reclis laughed his ass off. He wondered how Invrisil would deal with this in the months to come. Especially if a Goblin Lord came of all this.
Queen Ielane hadn’t laughed. Nor had she done more than blink at the sight of Numbtongue playing on his guitar. She was just writing notes back to Dame Ushar.
“Fortunately, it appears our daughter hasn’t taken leave of her senses. She did not put the Goblin there.”
“What? Good, good.”
Reclis collected himself, chortling. He thought it was still a daring move, and Ielane, amazingly, seemed to agree. She eyed the Goblin.
“A [Bard]. It’s that child that Lyonette appears to have taken an affection for. Mrsha.”
Reclis had a lot of thoughts about the Gnoll girl, and a lot of them were troublesome. Some, in light of the Meeting of Tribes, were interesting. Ielane had even more direct feelings—but for once, she was tapping a finger against her lips.
“The Titan of Baleros also visited that inn, and it seems he stayed in the company of that Goblin, among others, if the mess at the Meeting of Tribes was anything to go by. Apropos of nothing—that little girl has made better use of that Goblin’s class than our daughter and the Titan.”
The King of Calanfer’s brows rose as he turned his head back to Numbtongue. Never let it be said that Ielane didn’t recognize a good move when she saw it.
The cheering was still going on as Numbtongue played his finest. Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were staring up at him, hats raised as they craned their heads back to see. He was so afraid he was going to fall or pee, but he was also engrossed in the song. And he had a feeling—
He was going to level up.
He might get addicted to this. Kevin was swinging so hard on the drums that Numbtongue feared he’d hurt himself, but this was their moment in the sun. He finished the last verse in the song and wondered if he’d get an encore. The cheering slowed—and the Hobgoblin, so high he was at rooftop level, was the first to see something weird coming their way.
“Oh? What’s this?”
His voice was still magnified, and the Humans turned. The Hobgoblin stared at a curious sight streaking ahead of the floating inn. By now, it was closing on the city—but the oxen were slow.
Yet the dozens, dozens of rich carriages weren’t. Numbtongue saw a higher class of personal transport than he’d recently ridden in. Gold trim, painted wheels—and crests.
Dozens of crests. Some he recognized as members of the Five Families. Others?
They came sliding to a stop as the horses turned, and some were even magical. Numbtongue saw the astonished crowd turn—and one of the carriages painted almost unbelievably yellow and black, like an angry bee—rocked.
Then the carriage door blew open, and a red carpet began to unfurl. Numbtongue saw it roll out—and out as the red cloth rolled forward with the help of a nervous manservant, who was pushing it to make sure it didn’t tangle.
It was an impressive sight—but he had to imagine that all that cloth had filled up almost all of the carriage. Nevertheless, the other person sitting there must have been content to sit next to a bale of cloth just to make her entrance.
And that person was, of course—
Lady Pryde Ulta. She emerged with that very same tracksuit-style dress that she’d worn in Pallass, one arm raised, like the conquering [Warlady] onto a battlefield.
She got no applause. The crowd just stared at her, completely perplexed. Lady Pryde didn’t seem to care. She threw back her shoulders, spread her arms, and then flexed.
Numbtongue didn’t remember her that well, but he thought he saw a bit more muscle than he’d seen last time. And a group of extraordinarily muscled armsmen and women came flooding out of the huge carriage to surround her like a posse.
That was the first carriage. While Numbtongue was looking around for Grimalkin—he saw another carriage with chalk white, leaf-green, and rose-red trim open.
A [Lady] and a [Lord] he had never seen before emerged as a bowing servant opened the door. They stepped down onto no carpet of their own, but then the [Lord] snapped his fingers.
The mundane, dirt road in front of the [Lady] with a dress that matched her carriage turned from dirt to a polished, marble floor around her. She stopped lifting her dress up and opened a fan with a smile. Then she turned and nodded to another carriage door opening.
More people were emerging—and Numbtongue thought he recognized one of the [Lords] who came out next. Wait—was that one of the ones that Erin had saved? Not Lord Toldos, who’d passed away, but Lord Alman Sanito, complete with wife and even children.
They came out waving, and then Numbtongue did hear cheering. From the inn, from their own servants and staff, who were applauding and raising their voices—
And Invrisil. They certainly knew Lady Pryde, and even if all the others weren’t friends to the City of Adventurers, they could see not one, but dozens of noble families emerging.
The Adventurer’s Haven had brought a storm of the northern nobility south! Its month-long trip to Invrisil had not only pulled its regular clientele after it—it had brought a crowd of supporters.
The sudden carriage attack had completely thrown the parade. Numbtongue stared down at his guitar and wondered if he should play a song, but there was no need. Because his head snapped up as he saw the inn coming within a thousand paces of Invrisil’s walls. And now—someone else began to play music.
Them. Mrsha looked up, and her mouth fell open in outrage. She pointed and shook her fist, but she had known this was coming.
It was him! That man who’d come in, the spy! He wore a kind of suit with a bowtie at the neck, as if he were a bartender. But he was no Rufelt, and the colors of his vest over a white shirt were divided down the golden buttons running down the front. Red and black, emblazoned with the inn’s logo in the opposite color on each side.
She thought he actually looked at her, and his sparkling violet eyes and brown hair were the only things she could see. The rest of his face was blocked by the brass trumpet he was holding.
Barnethei, the [Vice Innkeeper] of The Adventurer’s Haven, was playing music. And that inn had a band. Or rather, its staff were the band.
The same group of women and men that Mrsha had seen during the first day of the parties were playing along with the [Innkeeper]. And they were performers. Unlike Kevin, who was playing on stationary drums he’d tried to make into a crude drumset, Mrsha saw the marching drums and even cymbals and other portable instruments.
Also—the staff of the inn had matching uniforms. They were bright blue, sharp cloth, and made them look completely different from a [Maid] or [Butlers]—or even regular [Waitresses] and [Servers].
The last thing that Mrsha saw as the band performed, walking ahead of the floating inn, was that the Humans looked far different from most of the nobility. A good number had darker skin, which normally meant they were Chandrarian or Balerosian.
Barnethei stood out, but he was a minority among the staff. The guests, on the other hand—the noble ones were trying to get into view of the camera, but all eyes were focused on the inn, now.
It had opened its doors, and the staff and even a lot of cheering guests, from [Merchants] to regular patrons, had come with the inn. It was indeed at least a thousand, and Mrsha saw waving people in farm clothes next to the floating dais occupied by the crops and animals. Amazingly, the cows weren’t panicking, perhaps because they were used to all this.
The marching band came towards Invrisil’s open gates as The Adventurer’s Haven floated forwards. Then the last interesting thing happened.
The floating inn slowly, slowly began to rotate. And the daises slowly began to spin around the central inn.
Like some kind of carousel ride or a child’s toy. The central inn simply rotated from left to right, counterclockwise, but the other daises were spinning around it, slowly, and rotating as they came.
The inn moved! It spun, and Invrisil’s own populace that hadn’t even seen or heard that The Adventurer’s Haven could do that were screaming louder. The Wandering Inn’s parade had come to a halt, and half of them were looking to Erin.
But Erin was just waiting. She’d stood up on the wagon to get a better look. Lyonette was almost audibly grinding her teeth over the crowd’s excitement, but Erin was just waiting.
She could feel the other [Innkeeper] in the air. It felt like magic. It felt…huge, like someone was waiting for her. But it was one strong feeling among many.
The Adventurer’s Haven wasn’t playing a pop-rock song in the same vein as Numbtongue had been. Theirs was a kind of subdued beat, almost eerie, and it took down the excitement in the air into a kind of excited suspense.
Like a racing heartbeat played out by a bass and drums and the instruments. They shrilled in the background as Erin looked at the central inn. It had outdoor tables, as Mrsha had seen, but it was also circular, designed to be entered and seen at every angle. Designed for this very feature, to rotate and float.
Now, she realized that the inn had been deliberately still all this time. It only rotated when it was in sight of the city—because it had been facing ‘backwards’. The people who were sitting at the outdoor tables slowly came into view.
There were barely two dozen of them. Everyone else was on foot, from staff to other guests. So it was as if the entire inn was reserved for them, and every eye fell on the people sitting there. Ser Sest inhaled sharply next to Erin, and Yvlon made a choking sound.
They were nodding along to the beat. Heads bobbing, staring at The Wandering Inn’s procession. Almost in perfect sync, sitting back in their chairs and snacking on food set out for them.
A huge man in armor sprawled out next to a pale Selphid wearing a Human man’s body. Ceria recognized his face—and then Jelaqua nearly swooned into Maughin’s arms. Erin’s face grew blanker, but that was because she had never gone north.
And she had been dead. Ksmvr knew one of the figures by name. He pointed—and then the crowd realized who they were.
Who did they see? Older men and women, probably. But the gang felt young. Young and old, as Larra’s inn reached the City of Adventurers all of them had once lived in at one point in their lives.
Of course, the inn didn’t use to float. So they were old. But young as well, like the kids they’d always been. Every time they came back, or one would go off and stories would be told—this was where they returned to. Even if they found a home, this was their first one.
This circle of friends. When—when was the first time that one had brought a little child into this inn, a baby, and everything had changed? Changed and not changed?
Then a little boy had run around, and Eld had made them all put away their blades out of concern, and the boyfriends and girlfriends and flings became serious, for some. They talked about marriage, wrinkles, and some of them began dying their hair.
Some of them died. The group became smaller. They fought, reconciled, and came back less often. They met new faces, like Colth, and he slowly became part of them, accepted.
Of course, they were slightly nervous. For Larra. This was the first time in decades her inn had come to Invrisil. So they put on a show.
Deni was sitting with both arms spread, elbows resting on two tables he was sitting behind. His own violin was resting against his leg, and he idly surveyed the adventurers.
“Those are the promising newcomers. Horns of Hammerad. Eld. You joined their raid, right?”
The huge man was wearing his armor, not the suit and formalwear he always put on when he wasn’t adventuring. Ever since marrying into the Terlands—Eldertuin lifted a cup as a plate of the colorful corn he’d brought to the inn sat in front of him. He focused on Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr and nodded.
“Brave kids. I heard about them through the runner.”
“Don’t talk about her now.”
Colth anxiously cautioned Eld. He glanced sideways, but the figure sitting just off-center, legs crossed, staring into the parade, searching for the other [Innkeeper], didn’t dignify his comment with a reaction.
There they were. People were pointing.
“Who are they? I feel like I know…”
Drassi was staring uncertainly at the crowd, and some of the Humans looked outraged and offended. But even the Drake recognized some of them, if not by face, then by what they carried. She stared at the man with bright blonde hair and the violin resting by his chair. It had a sharp, sharp bow, and the strings on the violin and the bow weren’t regular. They were metal—and he had a huge wound on his shoulder and neck.
A blow from an axe, maybe. Which fit—he was an adventurer. What kind of adventurer? Well—the other thing notable about his violin, besides the strangely dark wood that came from Noelictus, was a tiny object that Pisces saw because he knew it was there.
A golden bell. It was hanging off the bow of the violin. The mark of a master of duels.
“That’s Deniusth, the Duelist of Strings. A Named-rank adventurer.”
Selys hissed in Drassi’s earhole. The Drake looked at her friend—and then at Selys’ expression. Slowly, the camera panned across the group, and then Drassi realized.
“Wait a second. Are they all…?”
Selys slowly nodded. She pointed, and Eldertuin the Fortress was nodding to the music along with his partner. His team, Gold-ranks, sat in the background, respectfully away from this central table. The only other person sitting with him was Viecel. A Selphid.
Viecel, a Named-rank who often teamed up with Eldertuin and other adventurers. He was tapping his fingers to the beat—well, one finger. He had three fingers on his right hand. The other two were stumps. The Selphid was smiling at Jelaqua and Ulinde.
Viecel the Mad Better. With Eldertuin, they were known as Variable Fortress, a famous duo in the north, who’d conquered dungeons before.
How many Named-rank adventurers were there? Deniusth had his own team, and only one member sat at the principal table. Like the [Vice Innkeeper], he had a trumpet.
“Their team is—The Orchestra of the North. Musician adventurers. A Named-rank team! I thought they were fighting a Goblin tribe.”
Captain Todi was still running bodyguard duty. He looked intimidated, and it was so rare for Todi to look anything but superior that both Drakes turned to him. Selys swallowed.
“I only see one more Named-rank. That’s—four.”
“Oh, only four. Who’s the last one?”
Selys pointed a finger at the youngest person there. They were all middle-aged or older, and the youngest Named-rank was still mid-thirties.
“That’s Colthei, the world’s greatest [Supporter].”
“A [Supporter]? What kind of class is that?”
He was waving at the other adventurers and staring at the Goblin on the tower. But all of the people sitting there, adventurers and other classes, were eying the Antinium. In fact—the [Crusaders] were shuddering yet standing tall as if they were about to go into battle.
Because some of the people sitting there were giving them true stares of banked hostility. And if they weren’t all adventurers…
Garia Strongheart choked. She grabbed Fierre’s arm as the two of them stood in the crowd, and the Vampire gulped.
“Fierre! Fierre! It’s her! It’s her! I thought she never left First Landing except to murder Ryoka!”
“I see her. I see her—and look! Salamani!”
A Courier was sitting at a table near the central one. A white-maned horse was chewing on a salad placed for her. Couriers—Salamani and Ci.
They were guests at this inn. What kind of Courier didn’t know The Adventurer’s Haven and sit there? But it was her, the woman sitting with her friends, who was staring death at the Antinium. She coughed—but among her friends, she looked younger.
Mihaela Godfrey tapped one foot to the beat. She searched the crowds for Ryoka Griffin, but she didn’t see her. And her eyes focused once again, looking for that other one. Erin Solstice.
Or Klbkch the Slayer. Izril’s Courier narrowed her eyes. She lifted a cup to her mouth, but didn’t drink.
“Cheer up, Mihaela. We can put Deni in a headlock again later. It’ll entertain the crowds.”
Colth tried to cheer her up. Mihaela just grunted as the Named-rank glared at her.
“We have a reputation to maintain in public.”
“You have a reputation. And your dyed hair, you insecure poser. Do you dye your nethers as well or is that the surprise for all those adoring fans of yours?”
Mihaela didn’t even turn her head, but her shot hit Deni and turned him red and speechless. Colth started laughing as Eld tried not to snort.
“Come on, Deni. Spill the beans. Dyed or not? Take off your pants and show the world. Ten thousand gold says you won’t.”
Colth was egging him on. The outraged [Violinist] turned his head and narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t want to hear that from a thirty-year old virgin.”
The [Supporter] lost his smile and frowned. Instantly, Mihaela turned and kicked him. Eldertuin smacked Deni’s other shoulder.
“My dyed hair isn’t?”
“You’re older. Show some decency.”
“I’ll rent out every brothel in Invrisil. Colth has chosen his—state of affairs.”
Salamani was trying not to laugh. Mihaela shot him a glare, and he adopted a smooth face—but Ci was rolling her eyes. The people in the center table being exclaimed over? They were just stupid kids.
“I’ve never met anyone I liked.”
“You were engaged to one of Izril’s most eligible bachelorettes.”
Deni hissed at Colth, and the [Supporter] turned his head.
“It didn’t work out. She’s happily married with a child on the way.”
“And how did you not once—”
“A gentleman doesn’t say. Act your age, Deni.”
The crowd was cheering them. Mihaela threw elbows, and both Colth and Deni winced.
“Sit up. Larra’s going to kill us.”
They all did, and Viecel muttered sidelong to the others.
“Those Antinium are giving me the creeps. I haven’t seen them since the last Antinium War. And that inn serves them?”
Since it was Mihaela who said it through gritted teeth, the others fell silent. Some of the other adventurers sitting at the tables were eying the Horns. One muttered.
“Halfseekers. I know them. Viecel, you know their leader?”
“Jelaqua Ivirith? Good Selphid from home. That’s speciesist, asking me if I know her.”
Viecel was flipping a coin up and down compulsively. He grimaced as he checked the face. The other Gold-rank lifted his hands defensively.
“I’m just asking.”
The [Gambler] flipped the coin again as he tossed a gold coin into the tips jar sitting on the table next to him with a sigh.
“She’s upstanding. Be nice to her or I’ll kick you harder than Mihaela does when she’s drunk.”
“Damn, fine. Do I have to be nice to the [Necromancer] too? Which one is he?”
“White robes. Some people say he’s a Silver-bell. We’ll see.”
Deni looked up. Mihaela turned to him, and she saw him feel at his neck. The bandage that was the only thing saving him from losing too much blood—an enchanted axe had struck him.
Kraken Eater’s tribe. She remembered getting the news and wondering if she’d have to attend another funeral. They had so few bodies. Too many paintings in Larra’s inn. She looked at the two members of Orchestra and spoke.
“…We should have put out a call, not let Larra do it. Made an even bigger show.”
“She said she’s not here to compete with The Wandering Inn. Just make an impression.”
“So we should have done it for her. Called in the others. Like Loud Lad.”
Instantly, Deni and his teammate, Gores, with the trumpet, turned hostile. The two members of Orchestra crossed their arms.
“If he was here, we wouldn’t be. We’re quits, Mihaela.”
Deni turned his head.
“Merdon’s got steady work guarding the Healer of Tenbault. Hah, well, ‘guarding’. I heard he couldn’t even stop a single Goblin tribe. Wouldn’t be surprised if she canceled on him.”
Viecel leaned over to murmur behind a gloved hand.
“Didn’t he just get spanked by Xrn? I bet you loved that.”
“I won’t deny it was funny to see him lose. His team’s cheap. He never got why Orchestra works together.”
Deni smiled viciously as Mihaela kept her tongue silent. A rarity, for her. It felt like she could remember the day when the nervous young man, a Bronze-rank, was introduced to her. Loud Lad—because of his voice, you see?
By the time Orchestra became a Named-rank group, he was a fixture. Until he got too big and became a Named-rank after a fight that blew out every window in the inn and half the eardrums of everyone present.
Ancient history. Just like her son, which no one brought up. Just like all the names.
Colth was still the kid, despite being thirty years old, and Deni still bullied him. Despite his numerous relationships and celebrity status.
The world’s greatest [Supporter]. He was already gone from the table. Of course he was. Larra would kill him later. He couldn’t help it. He was partly his class.
So he was down there, playing with Barnethei and the band, taking over one of the drums and playing with one of the staff. As good—perhaps better than the Haven’s staff, who were musically gifted.
But he was the supporter. If he squared up with Eldertuin against a mob, he could go hand-to-hand against the biggest Hobs. If he ran with Mihaela, he kept up.
She still remembered the day he’d become Named-rank. And she hadn’t been there.
His sword had snapped a long time ago. So he was holding a claw he’d snapped off the last Cericel, the blood-frenzied beasts that hunted in packs.
An alpha pack of them. No Scourgequeen—but a dozen competing Fangs and three times that many underlings.
More than one team was supposed to handle, let alone a single Gold-rank team. But they were on the path to Named-rank, right? Beatist’s Brawlers, and he knew them.
He knew them all. Izril’s [Supporter]—a Silver-rank. Deni kept telling him that he was Gold-rank at least, but the Adventurer’s Guild didn’t know what to make of a man who only got better if he was partnered with someone else.
Out of mana. Out of potions. But Beatist’s Brawlers fought with their fists. So did he. Colth buried the tooth again in the empty eye socket he’d gouged out and realized—the Cericel Fangbeast was dead.
He pushed it off him, grateful for the Skills and strength to fight them off.
“Boss. Boss—let’s get the rest.”
The pack was running off. Colth was gasping for air, almost vomiting with exhaustion. How many of the team were left? There were eight of them. His blood was running, but if one Fangbeast were left, he and Beatist could take it down.
He looked around at the fallen bodies. The world’s greatest [Supporter] raised his fists, but all he saw were slumped bodies, broken skulls.
He walked around, pushing bodies aside. Calling and calling, dragging bodies out and trying to heal them. By the time backup arrived, he was still in denial. He carried his friend and captain’s body to the [Healer].
“He’s got to be alive. I’m the support. He’s…”
Then Colth looked around and realized he was the last one who’d made it.
That was the day they made him Named-rank. Mihaela’s eyes lingered on Colth as she remembered that old story that she had pieced together.
Colth lied. He was a better liar than most thought, and he’d told the guild that the Brawlers had killed most of the monsters. The truth, Mihaela and the Guildmasters believed, was different.
His team had never really been strong Gold-ranks. They had fallen in the first minute of the engagement. The real power behind the team had killed all the Cericel.
They all had stories like that. Each and every one of them. Larra herself—they were all adventurers and Runners from the old days, and here the new days were, staring at them.
Goblins, a white Gnoll girl, Drakes, and Antinium. The Guildmistress rubbed at one eye and sighed to the others.
“We’re old. And you’re growing bald, Deni.”
“Would you stop saying that?”
He felt at his hair as the inn slowly began to lower. The cheering hadn’t stopped, and the band was marching themselves at the wagons. In fact, the inn was waiting as the one with the [Princess] and the [Innkeeper] slowly rolled forwards.
“What a monster.”
It was Colth who said that, panting as he climbed back up to their seats. Everyone looked at him, and he nodded ahead.
“I heard she hit Level 40+. What a monster. It took Larra decades to get to her level.”
“Well, she’s the second-best [Innkeeper] in Izril.”
Mihaela bristled with all the pride in the world for her friend. That was why she was here and why she’d ridden the damn slow inn all this way. Because…she looked at the other adventurers. They stared at the High Passes and what lay behind them.
An [Innkeeper] with a magic door. <Quests>. The group stirred, and a final figure slowly floated past them on another dais surrounding the main one. The slowly-turning building revealed a woman reading a book and trying not to throw up.
“Valley. Valley, what are you doing?”
“Oh, hello, Mihaela. It’s quite noisy out here, isn’t it? [Silence].”
The woman waved a wand vaguely, and Eld slapped his forehead. He had to raise his voice so she heard.
“No, you were supposed to be here. Valley—Valeterisa!”
The Archmage of Izril sat there, in the library building, just like the absent-minded [Mage] who would wander around the inn and disappear for ages. Eight years, this time.
And she had a kid. Well—an apprentice. Montressa nervously tugged Valeterisa’s arm, looking horrified by the angry Named-ranks and Couriers. Valeterisa looked up and blinked.
“Oh, the seating, the seats. Yes, here I am.”
She pointed and popped onto a seat next to Mihaela. She pretended not to be reading under the table as the Courier glared at her. She debated kicking Valeterisa, but even now, Valeterisa would just ask, ‘why did you do that?’
So she just stood instead. Valeterisa sat there until Eldertuin tugged her up. Then they were walking down a ramp as Barnethei joined them. One of the smaller daises rose—and then they were floating forwards, towards a young woman.
And Mihaela wondered who she was. She only knew one thing. Ryoka Griffin’s friend. She bristled—but Erin Solstice wasn’t looking at her.
Larra was watching the young woman.
“They’re coming this way. Oh, dead gods, I’m going to faint!”
Jelaqua squeaked at the others.
The Named-ranks, the Couriers, and the other high-level guests of The Adventurer’s Haven were standing. They must be what the Horns were to The Wandering Inn.
Friends. The oldest, the realest guests of the [Innkeeper]. And they were assembling. In fact, the group of Couriers and Adventurers gave way for one of the [Lords] to step forwards.
To the rest of the world, they were the legends of the north. Pisces couldn’t take his eyes off Deniusth. And the famous duelist was looking at him.
“He’s just got a gold bell. So? That’s like a [Spearmaster]. I can take him. Let me just get another spear. Klb can back me up.”
Relc was eying Deniusth and flexing one claw. Ceria gave him a disbelieving look.
“He’s not just a Gold-bell duelist, Relc! He’s—one of the conquerors of Chalence!”
The Drake gave her a blank look and Selys looked aghast.
“Relc, even you have to know that name! Chalence? The dungeon two decades back?”
“You weren’t even a kid back then!”
“Yes, but—the teams came away with four million gold coins! They all became the richest adventurers—that’s one of the Named-rank adventurers who did that!”
Relc’s mouth fell open.
“Six million gold coins?”
Chalence, what an old name! Yet it came to everyone’s lips, and then—Relc looked past Deniusth and he stilled.
“Yeah. I don’t know about him, but I remember her. Izril’s Courier. Hero of the First Antinium Wars.”
Mihaela Godfrey. The Antinium shivered. Because they knew her name. She was walking side-by-side with Eldertuin the Fortress and the people who’d become the most famous names of their generation.
Not even just adventurers.
Lord Erill Fienst, the [Merchant Lord], stepped into place with the others. He had been just a [Trader] when he first visited the inn. Just like Valeterisa had once been a student of Wistram, reading books under the table while nibbling on the free bread. They looked up, and The Wandering Inn’s side saw stories.
The Adventurer’s Haven’s friends and guests saw a reflection.
The [Vice Innkeeper] lowered his horn, handed it to one of the other staff members, and joined the group on the dais.
They were approaching Erin Solstice. Half of them had auras, and Lyonette felt her hands grow clammy. As surprise attacks went—
She looked around desperately, but Erin Solstice was just peering into that group. The staff were flanking the guests. An elderly woman was handing Barnethei what looked like a notecard, another member of staff. Mihaela was staring at her and—
And the [Innkeeper] was waiting. Erin felt goosebumps on her flesh, but not hostility. She was just—curious.
She thought she understood something, but before she could move, someone spoke.
“We should get out of the wagon. Come on—Ceria, don’t make an ice ramp. We’ll slip off.”
Erin started and looked around. Then she saw someone by her side. Jelaqua Ivirith grinned at her.
“What are we doing? Aw—come on, guys.”
But it was too late. The Horns of Hammerad had reformed, and they were forming up with—her guests. Numbtongue leapt off the lowering spire of earth, and Mrsha stomped over, shaking her fist at Barnethei.
“We’re just making a point. Hey, someone cast [Earthen Floor] or something.”
“How about [Light Bridge]?”
A Drake pointed a finger, and Grimalkin’s bridge of light rose. The dais was poised to meet it, and Erin Solstice found her friends ushering her forwards.
“Guys, it’s not a competition.”
“Of course not.”
Ceria soothed her and then made a place for Saliss. The Drake gyrated, giving the other Named-ranks a nod. They stared at him, and half covered their faces in resignation.
“Am I supposed to appear? Alright.”
Shriekblade popped into view, and the crowd turned as Temile and a few [Actors] were pushed into frame. Selys popped up behind Pisces, scowling, and hid behind Relc and Grimalkin. The Senior Guardsman looked very pleased to be included, but to Erin’s pure astonishment, she saw not only the Silver Swords, but—
The Dwarf stood importantly, arms folded. He looked at her and growled, just loud enough to be heard. A bass rumble.
“Why are you here? You hate this kind of event!”
The Dwarf spat as they slowly walked up the bridge and hit someone. He looked at The Adventurer’s Haven and turned his head.
“The south’s gotta represent itself. Pride in your craft matters, girl. See? Even that one’s here.”
“I am supposed to be here! Wait, wait!”
Bird was waving his arms in the crowd. Krshia Silverfang hurried him forwards, and Lism tried to climb up the bridge until Mrsha began kicking at his shins.
Grimalkin, Saliss—the only person not here was Chaldion, and Erin suspected that was purely politics. And there should have been Griffon Hunt, the Wings of Pallass—
This was enough. Seborn and Wailant were glaring daggers at a Dullahan who must have been either a [Sailor] or a [Pirate]—he had tattooed armor?—and making some offensive gestures. Normen made a path for Pawn to walk forwards and was pushed into place by Alcaz.
Numbtongue, Joseph, Kevin, Imani, Palt, Lyonette, the Thronebearers, Mrsha, Grev, Nanette, adjusting her chef’s hat, Maughin, talking shop with Pelt about his smithing projects as Jelaqua tried to shush him, Rags, wearing her disguise ring as Calescent gulped at the Named-ranks. Garia Strongheart and Viceria, trying to keep Wailant from taking off his shirt and showing off his tattoos.
Ceria was still laughing, but Pisces and Yvlon were deadpan glaring at the other Named-ranks, and Ksmvr was writing down the names and details that Drassi was calling out. Grimalkin sighed—and Erin Solstice laughed.
She looked around, and Calruz was not there, but Venaz was, for some reason. He tried to edge forwards next to Erin, but Olesm and Belgrade practically clotheslined him.
“The light! The light! Get an umbrella—Octavia, stand there!”
Fierre was hissing. But Lyonette stood there, and Relc rolled his eyes.
“I see you, Klb. Gonna come with or not?”
“I believe Mihaela Godfrey will try to murder me. Go on.”
Erin looked into the crowd and the void of space surrounding a single Antinium. He nodded to her, and she sighed.
It wasn’t a competition. But it was. The Wandering Inn’s guests lined up as Salamani and Ci looked at Erin. The floating dais lowered itself ever so slightly as the two sides faced each other and a hush drew over the entire moment.
Something like an [Immortal Moment], but not quite. An expectation. Now—even the laypeople could feel two elements pressing against each other.
Erin Solstice’s aura wasn’t something you often felt. It was her inn. It was strange, silly, magical, and wondrous—and it was so her that you didn’t notice even if you were standing in it unless she was angry or something important was happening.
It was only present, like an invisible gas, when something else revealed it. And that was The Adventurer’s Haven’s aura.
It felt like the essence of magic. A charge in the air, far more vibrant than Erin’s. Like possibility, like being alive. The performing staff, the grand, floating inn, the legendary names—
The greatest [Innkeeper] of Izril stood among that crowd. Where was she? The staff? Some of the people standing on Erin’s side tried to pick her out, but perhaps she was still making her entrance. And many had locked eyes.
Lyonette and Barnethei were staring at each other with pleasant smiles on their faces. He was more relaxed than she. Mihaela was glaring into the crowd where a certain Slayer was politely looking the other way, relaxed as could be.
Colth found himself being glared at by a little Gnoll girl, and Eldertuin nodded at the Horns.
Where was the [Innkeeper]? Larracel of Havens?
Grev was peering about, trying to push forwards, and some of the others who had never been there or didn’t know what to look for had missed her.
But Erin Solstice just looked down. She saw one of the staff, wearing a less-flashy uniform than the other performers, standing behind Barnethei. Like a [Cleaner], perhaps, her hair streaked with grey. She was hardly as tall as Eldertuin, and Erin realized she might be taller.
The other woman’s skin was black, and she had no magical robes, nor a wand. In fact, even Pisces missed her as he scanned the group. Yet Erin Solstice just looked at her and saw who many of the new guests to Haven missed.
Not colorful Barnethei, who was the ‘innkeeper’ that a few idiots claimed to have met. The real one, who waited tables sometimes and listened.
Larracel of Havens was watching Erin Solstice. The moment their eyes locked, the two felt each other’s true presence.
The air was like a physical divide between the two. Not even Lyonette wanted to step forwards. She was uncertain what would happen next. Not a fight—but was this a contest? She looked at Erin and saw not a wrinkle of fear or anger on the young woman’s face.
Then Lyonette’s ears cleared, and she finally heard what Erin had been saying this entire time. After all—The Adventurer’s Haven was another inn.
If anyone would have felt the contest, the pressure—surely it was Erin. But she had neither flinched nor felt that hostility.
Slowly, the [Innkeeper] walked forwards, and the older woman did likewise. Their friends stood back, and the crowd looked at the two [Innkeepers] as they approached.
They were…the least interesting people in that crowd of names and faces, surely! Their friends were far more impressive. But Erin Solstice’s hazel eyes lit up, and she hesitantly stuck out a hand.
“I—don’t know how [Innkeepers] are supposed to meet. Hello there. You’ve come a long way. Can I offer you a drink?”
She saw two bright, blue eyes regard her, and then Larra, Larracel the Haven, spoke. Her voice was soft, and each word was enunciated, like the [Wizard] she had been. Someone who had once cast a spell to create a home even in the middle of the dungeon. She had turned that power into this inn.
“When [Innkeepers] meet, most have offered me a room and food. Some compete and show off. Others are less friendly. But we are [Innkeepers]. It would be my honor if you also had a drink in my inn and any meal you wanted. Hello, Erin Solstice. I’m Larracel Delais. [Innkeeper] of The Adventurer’s Haven.”
“Mine is The Wandering Inn, Liscor. But you knew that.”
Erin smiled. She felt the other woman’s force, pure magic behind her, an aura surrounding her entire inn. It was intimidating—or should have been. But Erin’s eyes had lit up.
Was that a hat the Haven’s guests saw? Flickering fire? Larra’s gaze flickered. She looked at Erin and, hesitantly, reached out.
Mihaela realized why Larra had asked for her to come. Perhaps it was she who was…nervous? After all, it was just her old friend, the scolding, bossy—
Larra’s fingers touched Erin’s. She took Erin’s hand as the younger woman closed her hand, and they felt their auras meet.
Magic and wonder met. They didn’t collide, but ran together in one moment. Erin felt the [Immortal Moment] open—and the crowd blinked upwards.
What they heard was different than what the two [Innkeepers] saw and said to each other. Blinking, the crowd saw spells flicker to life.
A Familiar, a spectral imp, floated through the air to The Adventurer’s Haven. The same spell Valeterisa had taught Larra. It flew through an open hatch and came out with a plate of food.
Behind Erin, a breeze blew through the air, and a shower of flower petals rained down. For a second—Mrsha looked up, and the [Garden of Sanctuary] stood open to that garden of fish. She reached out and caught a flower petal.
The crowd pointed up and gasped. Mihaela Godfrey touched her face. The Guildmistress of First Landing looked down, and nothing appeared to have changed.
She wore running pants, a tunic—and her hair was cropped short and brunette. She inhaled through lungs that worked normally—and nothing was different.
For her. She looked as young as she remembered, for a moment. Pisces blinked at a group of young men and women his age, kids, nudging each other and pointing at the garden. Teasing and fidgeting, despite the austerity of the moment.
Montressa’s mouth dropped as a [Mage] her age fiddled with her glasses and peeked over her book.
“Oh, an aura combination. How fascinating. Where’s my notepad, my notepad?”
Grimalkin nearly dropped his. And Erin Solstice looked at someone just a few years older than her as she shook hands.
For everyone else, the moment passed in, well, a moment. But Erin Solstice’s eyes ran from person to person, and she saw them. Young. Crazy. Like the Horns. Like…
“Your inn looks so strange to me. But very familiar. I can see how you got here so quickly. Hello, again. I have to admit, you scared me so much I called in my friends.”
Larra looked at Erin, and the [Magical Innkeeper] held up her hands.
“Who, me? I’m not scary. I’m silly. I’m pleased to meet you!”
“Me too. But I have to say—you know some terrifying people. The Cyclops, the Slayer—and you have a hat made out of fire.”
“A bit of bullshit?”
Erin choked on her words, and Larra put her hands on her hips and gave her a sardonic look. The other [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“Please, my own crowd gives me enough. You’re the world’s best chess player, at least. And a [Witch]? I recognize the magic.”
Erin Solstice nearly lied, then she hesitated. Ruefully, she tipped her hat, then took it off her head.
“…My hat is overfull. I’ll have to do something with it. No, I get to. And you’re a Named-rank adventurer. Larracel the Haven.”
The other woman’s chin rose. Proudly, and she nodded.
“I am. Though my days of adventure are behind me. An inn is a different kind of adventure with dangers aplenty. I’ve seen bandits and war and strife—but I can admit I’ve been retired a while. So have my silly friends.”
She looked at the others, and Erin ducked her head, smiling. Then she realized why Larracel was here and looked up.
“Oh. Is that why you came here?”
She looked south, past Liscor, to what she knew was beyond it. Lands not tamed. Larracel sighed, and she brushed at her hair. She turned to the others and shrugged.
“I would worry about these idiots too much. They need someone to nag them. We look old, you see. Mihaela’s hair is all white. But I feel only as if someone hit me with an aging spell.”
“Is that what being old is like? Don’t you get more responsible?”
Erin looked at Larra, wide-eyed with disbelief. The other [Innkeeper] looked at her, and her teeth flashed as she laughed.
“Never. Now, shall we go to your inn or mine first? Look at all these people. Invrisil was always filled with drama-loving hogs. It is the City of Adventurers. Between you and me, we can probably sell out our inns. Shall we compete?”
“I’ve never competed with anyone before. Not everything’s a compet—ow!”
Larra gently shocked her! With a bit of static electricity!
“I don’t want to hear that from the woman who just played ninety chess games yesterday. You don’t compete because you don’t have any rivals. Well—”
She turned, and her inn came to rest. Every door and window on the inn flew open, and her staff stood there as arcane familiars hovered through the air. Erin blinked up at them all, and The Adventurer’s Haven was right in front of her. Larra pulled down one eyelid with a finger, before she became an old woman again, and stuck out her tongue.
“…My inn can move. So I’ve won.”
Erin looked at her in pure astonishment, mouth open, as the [Immortal Moment] faded. For a second, the crowd held its breath, then Erin threw her arms around Larra and hugged her.
“You’re so cool!”
Larra chuckled as her friends looked at her. She glanced over her shoulder, and the [Vice Innkeeper] snapped to attention.
“Barnethei—get to work. Let’s go to my inn first. It’s closer. You can put your magic door in my inn, and I’ll charge it as much as it needs. Introduce me to your guests. Now, who’s this girl and why does she look like trouble? Here.”
She looked at Mrsha, pulled something out of a pocket, and Mrsha sniffed at the toffee. She popped it into her mouth, and it instantly glued her teeth together. Erin Solstice laughed as Mihaela came forwards.
“Hello. I’m Mihaela Godfrey. Courier.”
“Oh, I’m Erin. Say, didn’t you hit Ryoka?”
Erin frowned at Mihaela as everyone held their breath. The explosively dangerous Courier with her temper stared at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] waggled a finger.
“Well—well—did she have it coming?”
Mihaela stared at the sky.
“Only a bit.”
Erin stared at her and then slowly looked around. Adventurers, new to her, clustered behind Mihaela, and the nobility were getting upset they weren’t being recognized. Barnethei was already jogging to placate them and begin organizing things, and Lyonette was hurrying after him, not to be outdone.
Erin Solstice exhaled and looked around. She took Mihaela’s grip, and the woman coughed. She tried to stop it, but she coughed and coughed, a deep, rasping cough, and produced a handkerchief. There was a bit of blood on her lips, but she just looked annoyed.
“Ah, a customer.”
Saliss rubbed his claws together, and Mihaela shot him a glare. She kicked, and Saliss’s eyes shot open. Erin blinked as Mihaela’s shoe thunked into Saliss’ shin, and he hopped up and down.
“Aaaargh! Pain! Actual consequences!”
Everyone stared at him wide-eyed, and Erin wondered if Faerie Flowers could do anything. Or…she saw the Horns nervously standing there as Larra looked at them. Both [Innkeepers] traded glances and tried not to like the other’s friends instantly.
Erin looked at The Adventurer’s Haven, then put her hands on her hips. Her friends wondered why she looked so exasperated, but then Erin burst out. To everyone’s mild amazement, she stomped her feet.
“I thought everything would go back to normal after this party! But—darn it—it looks like things’ll be exciting for a while.”
She stared around ruefully, and Relc looked at Selys, who rolled her eyes, and at everyone else’s aghast and exasperated expressions. Then he started laughing. Erin turned to face the crowds, and Larra raised her hand. The Adventurer’s Haven flashed with light as spells activated, and Erin called out to the crowds.
“Well, what are you waiting for? The inn is open! Both of them!”
And then she got to work.
That night, two people in The Wandering Inn heard a voice speaking. It said this:
[Goblin Soulbard Level 38!]
[Skill — Directional Sound obtained!]
[Skill — Song: Ballad of Battle (Redfangs) obtained!]
[Magical Innkeeper Level 48!]
[Bound Item: Personal Trapped Safe Room Door of Warmage Thresk deconstructed.]
[Skill — Inn: Door of Portals (500 Miles) obtained!]
[Spell — Playful Radiant Fishies obtained!]
But the first person who noticed was Liska, who came bright and early the next day. She saw the piles of ash and dust and stared at the blank wall where the door should have been and wondered how many people were trapped hundreds of miles away from home. Then she realized she was out of work. And she panicked before wondering why.
Author’s Notes: A few notes to begin with. If you somehow missed it—we have a new audience statistics page based on the survey we ran! Statistics are important, and while we’re still working on the other details, I can say with positivity that the odds are you’re a male reader from America.
It surprises me that 2nd place is Germany for readers! Sorry about, uh, the Laken name. Also, this story appeals to a 90% male audience. I wonder if that’s the story or the audiences it’s found.
Anyways, the numbers don’t lie unless they’re mis-cited or the survey is biased or inaccurate or…big thanks to @Brack_Giraffe for the artwork and for @SimmonTak for putting together the site to show off the numbers!
Now, onto this chapter. Did you know I had a month off at the start of this year? I had to actually check to see if I took that much time off after Volume 8 ended.
I don’t feel it. I think this break helped, but again, I’m learning how to deal with the long journey that is writing. I had to do that at the start of this, and later, and I thought I had a rhythm, but I guess I’m just a bit tired, still.
Making stuff is weird. ‘Creators’ or ‘influencers’ are such bad words for it…it’s a mix of ego and personality and just trying to do something that hopefully matters. Or gains you attention and fame and money. Even the goal matters. I just wish it was easier. I can’t tell what this was, but it felt like a bigger challenge than usual to write.
But perhaps I’ll rally, or keep switching things up if I must. I’ll let you know; I just suspect the projects I have going and want to add to, like editing Volume 1, are adding to my usual fatigue. If I can complete them, I should be able to rest. I promised to release the edited chapters over break, didn’t I? I’m sorry—I forgot because I just zoned out for a while.
The goal is still, somehow, to do the remaining half of Volume 1 by Christmas. That’s going to be, uh, interesting. But re-editing Volume 1 is important. I’ll figure something out. For now, the Geneva chapters await. Those won’t be hard to write at all. Thanks, and hopefully this isn’t rambling.
Persua’s Story by Ellen Czinski! (Like the tweet or however you’re supposed to do it! It’s great. And sad.)
Callidus Meme by Lechat!
Forount, and redrawn Walled Cities with the power of AI by Mg! (No, seriously, I think they fed the AI a copy of their art then redrew elements of it based on their original drawing, but using AI. So it’s theirs but also AI-assisted?)