9.24

(Author’s Disclaimer: The numbers contained within this chapter are entirely based on one person’s perception and have no necessary connection with reality.)

 

It was one thing after another, these wild days. It proved the Gnolls were right. They always were when the wind changed.

More than [Historians], more than [Kings] and nations—Gnolls had successfully predicted more changing of eras than any other species.

That was a…fact that either had no value or all the value in the world. It was something that only a few people knew.

The night had been quiet for so many, and when the people of this world woke, they did not know, yet, what had changed.

Selphids did. They woke to news via [Message] spell or the sudden suspicion in the air, like smoke and death and dark things brought into the light of cleansing flame. A familiar feeling.

Suspicion. Their own people warned enclaves and individuals first. Friends telling friends, simple [Messages] that lacked for many facts, but contained the important truth.

The Minds had breached the Minacien Wall. Those that did had been destroyed. Dark deeds had been done.

Unlike other species…no, exactly like other species, the actions of a few would reflect on them all. Was it fair? Possibly not. The Minds had authority among Selphids, but their people had not known, by and large, where or who or what these Minds had done at all.

It didn’t matter. Word would spread. Indeed, it was already being discussed, in what would happen—the fallout.

(This has been the worst day for our people in thousands of years. The Minds have delivered no cure to the Wasting, but more death.)

The Minds. They had not been the only ones in Baleros, but they had been a sizable minority. And arguably…did it matter? Minds had violated the Minacien Wall. They were all culpable in that sense.

(That they—violated the Minacien Wall. We have no context for why, only the outcome. Any survivors must shed some light.)

The remaining Minds were discussing the incident quietly. Their usual secrecy and attempts to work independently had been dropped for the purposes of this event. Indeed—the different Minds were being unusually—frank.

(Context? CONTEXT DOES NOT MATTER. The Minacien Wall was BREACHED. Stay away from the [Doctor]. Stay away from the survivors lest we compound this—this disaster.)

One of the remaining Minds was leaking so much raw distress the others had to dampen the influx of thought. Not all of them were upset, but none of them were in denial. They had processed it and realized the truth.

The six Minds who had convened at that Gathering Citadel had not, in fact, come together organically. They had been chosen, some merged for the express purpose of creating a new Gathering Citadel that would combat the Wasting. Each of the six had adherents and affiliations—if they had been public to the other Minds, they would have had factions of support similar to Wistram and other political bodies.

The First, Second, and Sixth Minds had even possessed what was analogous to disciple Minds who had learned from them.

Under the cold light of day, a decision was being made. The Minds speaking to each other from their citadels were not as numerous as the six. So many Minds in close proximity was not normally needed.

Still. The Minds were interrupted by another Mind who represented a group of three.

(This Mind represents north.)

It combined the mental handshake with images of cold stone and snow. The other Minds recognized it and began to fill it in on what they had concluded—little as that was—but this Mind was brusque.

(Our conclave is at work. We have understood what has come to pass, if not why. The conclusion is enough. The Mind that was spun from Egress has come to a decision on its own. It has voluntarily agreed to unmake itself. Into sub-Minds where Egress’ perspective is reduced or into Selphids if possible.)

The other Minds were shocked into silence by the announcement. Six Minds had perished—and more would also be dissolved.

(The Second Mind is not culpable if it—Redemption—signaled the breach. Few Minds remain. This conclave urges Dissonance to remain.)

Dissonance, one of the Minds who had hither-to been silent, signaled understanding.

(I shall consider these thoughts. Nor shall I be blind to Contradiction’s possible corruption. For now—I shall devote my first thoughts to emotion. Mourning. Then, think.)

It was a perspective different from the others. But they listened hard, because the Second Mind had been the one who called down wrath and truth upon the others. What conclusions did they come to? Simple ones. Cautious ones, tempered by guilt and realization just how dark the crimes had been.

(Leave the [Doctor] alone. Warn Selphids abroad. A scourging must not come again—but perhaps it already has been set in motion. Ten—no. Nine shall remain. The Minds of Baleros should consider their place. Consider the future.)

The remaining Minds felt the Selphids’ place in this world shaking—and they had no one to blame but themselves. Grief from Dissonance…one of them did pulse one last thought out.

(…That we have committed so many wrongs. It does not change the fact that the Dyed Lands are expanding. It does not change the fact that there are children from another world appearing. Paeth on the Coast has appeared. We now suffer—)

(—rightly—)

(—it matters not. This Mind suggests one last course of action to the above. To be deliberated upon: send an emissary in humility and cooperation. To either Forgotten Wing or this United Nations company. If neither will have it, then further abroad, for we desperately need allies who are not Selphid. An alliance that does not contain the Minds as the leaders.)

This proposal was met with arguments, but more acceptance than not. Already, reports were coming in that many Selphids in the Blighted Kingdom were either being watched or politely being asked to leave.

For now, it was polite. Yet—if it needed to be, it needed to be. The nine remaining Minds conferred.

(Outreach? Now? Who would trust…ah.)

(An agent like that even exists?)

Some of the Minds had no idea what was being referred to, but they slowly began to agree.

(Very well. In humility. This is the greatest priority of the Minds. So…send our last representative abroad. In outreach, to aid, not dictate. Send the Duck.)

So the Minds reached out and sent an order to an agent of theirs. It heard and obeyed and quietly…

Quacked.

 

——

 

It was an ashy morning. The ash drifted down from where it had been blown into the skies, like snow. It was probably toxic, and the Great Companies, civilians, and people who had gathered to stare at the crater in the ground were being advised to wear masks.

Even nearby cities saw Lizardfolk wearing cloth masks or staying indoors—but the majority of the fallout was being contained by wind spells. The ash blew across the jungle, and [Weather Mages] were even dispersing water into the air to hopefully mitigate the effects. It might well poison the ground, so they were being careful to localize the rainfall. But the ash had to stop.

Why were the Great Companies doing that? Well—there was a rumor in the city. A Lizardman serving tables was chatting—they liked chatting—

“I heard it was The Last Light.”

Several people at the tables glanced up, and the Lizardman nodded happily as someone at the table he was waiting glanced up. They accepted a cool fruit drink and pressed it to their forehead before gulping it down.

“Really?”

Their companion sniffed—and sneezed. The eighth time since they’d sat down. The [Server] wagged a claw with a wink.

“Yep. Heard of her? The [Doctor] who stopped the Yellow Rivers stuff—she appeared and told one of the commanders to do it all. Then—vanished. I knew she wasn’t dead. But a Selphid fortress?”

He shuddered.

“Right next to our city. They’re crazy. Maybe…”

He trailed off, then smiled brightly. No Selphids were in the cafe; everyone looked too alive, but the Lizardman glanced over to the kitchen where another order was ready.

“I’ll be back in a second with your food.”

“Another glass of water, please.”

The first person sitting at the table waved their cup, and the other one sneezed into a napkin. The Lizardman trotted off, and the two turned to stare at each other.

Geneva Scala glanced at the falling ash and then at Geneva…Scala. Or were they?

A Gnoll and a Drowned Woman looked at each other. The Gnoll kept sneezing, but she eventually got it under control.

“…What’s your name?”

“G…no, maybe we have different names, now? What’s yours?”

“I was thinking on that. And the future. Did—she get out? Did the bad one?”

“I don’t know.”

They had stuck together, but however many others had made it…the rumor was that at least one woman was in the company of the Titan. But these two were not her.

They had no levels—at least in [Doctor]. The Gnoll scratched at her fur. It felt—normal. She didn’t have any dissonance with this body, just a feeling as though everything were new. And everything smelled.

She wondered how much she’d been—altered. But she had to believe she was her. And who was that her?

“…I’ve got seven levels in [Survivor]. Four in [Telepath].”

“That’s a lot. What did you do?”

“I don’t know. What about you?”

“Eight in [Telepath], but it’s [Purified Telepath].”

The Gnoll frowned at the Drowned Woman.

“Why did you get that? It sounds better than mine.”

“Perspective?”

“Hrr. Why did I say hrr? Everything smells.”

The other Geneva took a glass of water and gulped it down. She asked for another refill.

“Well, I’d rather be in the water. What now? Do we find—her?”

The Gnoll scratched at her chin.

“I don’t see why we would. She’s with the Titan. I hope she’s well, but we…we should see if anyone else made it. How much gold did you find?”

Amazingly, they had enough to pay for a café. The Drowned Woman counted and shrugged.

“The Minds must have forgotten to remove this bag of holding. I’ve got…a lot. Was this body a [Smuggler] or something? I may be an alcoholic.”

“Wonderful.”

They sat there in silence as the Lizardman came back and wisely left a pitcher of water. At length, the Gnoll spoke.

“Let’s team up. We can do more together. Let’s team up and…figure out what happens after that. The world has the Last Light. Let’s do something else that matters.”

The other Geneva looked up and smiled. She reached out, and the two shook hands. The Gnoll felt the cold grip of the Drowned Woman tighten on hers. Unspoken…they looked into each other’s eyes. Then outside at the fallout.

But the sun was rising. Slowly, they sat back, and the Gnoll decided to order a baked rat. For just a moment—

Rest.

 

——

 

Quietly, then, the day began. Quietly—with no great wars or events save a kind of exhaled breath, the subdued exhilaration after a party.

In Liscor, The Wandering Inn, guests woke up with hangovers and oddly refreshed minds thanks to the sleeping Skill. They woke up—and knew that The Adventurer’s Haven was still headed south, past Invrisil.

That the legends of the north had come south and were heading to the new lands of Izril. That Erin Solstice had met Larracel Delais and that new, strange, and perhaps wacky days were yet to come.

…One Selphid sat up in bed without her usual smile. Jelaqua Ivirith had rooms at The Wandering Inn, but she often stayed in Pallass. Last night at least, she and a certain Dullahan had found this room, but he’d stumbled back to Pallass after realizing that bed was not going to accommodate someone of his size and weight.

She should have been smiling today as well, but she didn’t. She read the little [Message] scroll that was reserved for emergencies…and closed her eyes. Without a word, she rolled up the scroll, then sat there, head in her hands.

Everyone else didn’t share her sudden change of mood. The patter-patter of eager paws on the floor signaled a little Gnoll bursting out of her room in excitement. And like a herald, she was followed by other feet and then a predictable thump-thump of heavy footfalls.

“Jelaqua, are you awake? Let’s have breakfast together. Is she here, Seborn?”

“Probably. Unless she and Maughin are in Pallass.”

Even Seborn’s usual doleful tones were cheerful, and Moore sounded energetic. Ulinde joined them, and Jelaqua looked up. She hesitated, then called out.

“—Be right there, you lot. Save me a seat.”

Later. She’d tell them—the Selphid didn’t know what to say. She stared blankly ahead and wondered what it would change. Nothing, she hoped. But she feared—

The Minacien Wall. The Selphid put a smile on her face. No use keeping secrets, but no use spoiling their good mood.

She’d tell them tonight.

 

——

 

It would change many things, but not immediately. The only effect that news had, this morning, was that Erin Solstice noticed Jelaqua was bummed out.

The [Innkeeper] was eating leftovers and dipping a roll of buttered bread in her bisque as she grew heartily sick of the taste. However, she was in good spirits, and she sensed that almost everyone else coming down the stairs felt good.

If hungover. Ceria Springwalker was rattling Octavia’s doorknob until the [Alchemist] tapped her on the shoulder.

“Ceria. What do you want?”

Hangover cures. Give. Here. Gold.”

The half-Elf shook a bag of gold at the Stitch-woman pleadingly. She was joined by several other guests, including Seborn, Alcaz, Relc, and Menolit.

“Relc? Menolit? Why are you two here?”

Erin blinked, and Relc stared at her.

“Why am I here? Who am I?”

“Didn’t you give Relc a room, Erin?”

Lyonette looked exasperated, and Erin hesitated.

“I did? I did. You normally go to work before breakfast, even Relc. Hey! Wait. Did Menolit get a room too?”

“I woke up in Bird’s tower. Someone put a blanket on me. I had this pie. Think it’s still good?”

Menolit had breakfast…which might have been what he was eating when he passed out. Bird folded his arms.

“I wish to have a lock installed on my tower, Lyonette.”

“We’re replacing your door, Bird. But isn’t it nice that people like your tower?”

Bird thought about it as he picked up a spare omelet and put a chicken leg on top. He turned.

“No. It’s my damn tower.”

He stomped off, and Erin laughed. It was rare for Bird to be that mad, but he wasn’t seriously angry. It was a difference in emotions.

She was feeling perceptive today after levelling up. Intelligent. Erin noticed Jelaqua trailing behind her team as she came down the stairs.

“Hey, Octavia, better get another cure for Jelaqua.”

“Hm? Oh—thanks, Erin.”

The Selphid jumped, and Erin blinked. Maybe it wasn’t a hangover? Anyways, the inn was filled with chattering guests, and Erin saw Liska wringing her paws as Ishkr calmly passed out food with Calescent.

The Goblin was in the kitchen, and Erin stared at him. He stared back, and she smiled.

“Calescent! Wow, this is wild.”

There were Goblins and Antinium working here, and she didn’t know all their names! She looked around and saw a Hobgoblin with one leg using a long wooden leg as she poked a surprised Yvlon and handed her a plate of food. An Antinium Worker being shown how to sweep by…

“Silveran! There you are! I knew it! Shoo, shoo! You have a job!

Silveran jumped, and his mustache wobbled. He fled as Erin chased after him. The inn’s guests laughed as Ishkr took the broom and began shooing Silveran out the door.

“Morning, Miss Erin. We may need to deal with a small situation after you eat.”

“Oh? What’s up, Ishkr?”

Erin was still waking up, but Liska was opening and closing her mouth behind her brother.

Small situation? They’re trapped in Invris—

“It’ll keep. Have your breakfast first.”

Ishkr nudged his sister in the ribs, and she and he began elbowing each other as Erin blinked at them. She went to sit back down, yawning.

“Erin. Did we really meet the Adventurer’s Haven yesterday? Was I drinking with Named-rank adventurers? And did I really—and you have to be honest here—did I really see Mihaela Godfrey do a kegstand? You have to tell me.”

Yvlon Byres was begging for a whiff of sanity as she raised two bloodshot eyes at the table. Erin Solstice thought about it.

“Is that the thing where you balance on a keg with a straw and drink lots of the alcohol?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds about right. You forgot the part where Ceria did the same thing.”

Yvlon glanced over at the hungover half-Elf.

“…No, I believed that part even without Godfrey. The Adventurer’s Haven. There were what, four Named-ranks? More?”

“Well, counting Saliss and Tessa, yeah—wait a second. Is Tessa here?”

Erin frowned around the inn and then looked up. But the Named-rank Adventurer wasn’t there—she sat up from behind the bar and scared Seborn out of his chair.

“What?”

“Oh, good. You eating breakfast?”

“Yep.”

Tessa crouched back down, and Yvlon stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] scratched at her head.

“Some night, huh? And guess what? I leveled up! I think I did, at least. Wait a second…”

Erin put a hand on her chin. She felt like she was forgetting a key thing. Level up. Great stuff. Fun [Innkeeper]…

Deconstructed door?

Erin’s smile turned waxy for a second, and Ishkr glanced up as Yvlon blinked and smiled.

“That’s great news, Erin! Right?”

The [Innkeeper] gave her an unconvincing smile that made Pisces and Ksmvr stop chewing and glance at each other. Lyonette’s eyes narrowed, and she saw Liska’s panicked look. Seborn grunted and reached for his daggers as Mrsha turned her head.

“Y-yeah. Totally great. Um. Ishkr? What was that thing you were gonna mention? I’m just gonna go over here a second, Yvlon, and—”

A scream echoed from the entrance of the inn. Everyone looked up—and a wailing Gnoll and laughing Drake burst into the room.

Saliss of Lights and Xif had apparently fallen asleep in the rec room. Whereupon they’d tried to get back to Pallass, only to find—

“Someone’s destroyed the door to Pallass! I—I’m stuck here!”

“You’ll have to walk back! Four hundred miles!”

Saliss was laughing at Xif as the [Alchemist] wrung his paws. Erin Solstice saw all her guests look up in horror and lifted a hand.

“Wait, I have a new Sk—”

Too late. The inn exploded into chaos as the adventurers went pouring out to see what had happened. Lyonette threw up her hands in despair. Mrsha looked around for Temile, the Players of Celum, and wondered if they were stranded in Invrisil or worse—Celum.

And Erin? She thought for a second, then waited for everyone to flood out of the common room. Silently, she looked around and counted the people who remained.

“This bad, Miss Erin?”

Calescent looked put out at the people who’d abandoned his meals. He looked at the Goblin and Antinium staff, and one of the Goblins decided that if Ceria wasn’t eating her meal, she would. She sat down and began to eat—until someone glared at her.

Rags had stayed in her seat. Tessa appeared from behind the bar, and Saliss emerged from behind the common room door, sniggering. Erin saw Seborn take a gulp of water and put her hands on her hips. She eyed Ser Dalimont and nodded.

“Well, well, well. Are you all the smart ones?”

“I’m the lazy one. I’m not getting up and running around in the morning. Besides—no one disintegrates a valuable object.”

The [Rogue] toasted Erin. The [Innkeeper] laughed and then saw a timid girl raise a hand.

“I’m here too, Miss Erin.”

“Nanette!”

The witch was munching on some toast with melted cheese on it by the fire. Erin beamed at her. She closed her eyes and thought for a second. She heard a squeak, and when she opened them—

Nanette jumped as a door appeared next to her. But it was not the door to the garden or even the true door of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin opened her eyes—and they widened as Saliss rubbed his claws together and chortled.

“I’ll pay you 50 gold coins to keep this a secret from Xif all day.”

Erin just smiled as a door appeared, framed by stone, and a glittering crystal knob and oval mirror of glass showed another inn—where a distressed group of Humans, including Temile, suddenly jumped and leapt back and began pointing at—

The [Door of Portals]. Erin Solstice felt it ready to go and eight different spots it could reach. She beamed as the door swung open.

Mrsha and the distressed guests were just in time to see the door opening—and the stone archway allowed Temile and a relieved flood of guests to pour through. Liska’s eyes bulged as she saw twenty people race into the inn, and Drassi threw herself down on the floor.

“Oh, thank the Ancestors! I was afraid I’d be stuck—”

The Players of Celum followed and several citizens of Liscor, Celum, and Pallass.

Twenty-nine people came through the door, and Liska expected it to blink out like normal after half that. But it didn’t. The portal stayed open, and Erin exhaled. She clapped her hands and laughed in delight.

“It’s got juice! I could send, like—eighty-three more people! To Invrisil! I could probably open a door in Riverfarm! I’ve got a magic Skill door! I’ve got a magic Skill door!

The upgraded [Door of Portals] looked cooler, could send more people—and it could reach a hundred miles farther than the last one. Erin danced around as her guests stopped in awe—right until someone wandered through the door and inspected it on Erin’s side of the inn.

“Oh. Here it is. And I thought I’d have to begin work right away. Mmm…mm. Apprentice, look at this.”

Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, walked through the door, and everyone turned to stare at her. Valeterisa, or ‘Valley’ as some of her friends from the Adventurer’s Haven called her, had a plate of food floating behind her. It bumped into her cheek as she turned.

“What’s this?”

‘Eat me.’ A folded notecard was placed on top of the plate, and Valeterisa blinked at it.

“Oh, breakfast. How convenient.”

She began eating as Erin turned to her. And the [Magical Innkeeper] saw how Larra ran her inn. The sleepy Archmage looked nothing like the woman who had carried Fissival into the sky.

Yet she was the same one, and Montressa du Valeross appeared to Bezale’s delight. She stopped as she saw Ceria, Pisces, and the others, but she tugged nervously at Valeterisa’s arm.

“Archmage, you’re supposed to be at The Adventurer’s Haven for breakfast.”

“But this is magic.”

“Mihaela Godfrey told me to fetch you! Archmage, please…

The thought of annoying the famous Guildmistress was so apparently distressing that Valeterisa noticed Montressa’s anxiety.

“Oh, very well. After I just inspect this door for a little bit. She’s going to visit this inn anyways. I’m just…hm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. Hm. Ah, it’s been replaced by a door made of Skills. Just as I thought. Completely incomprehensible enchantment if there even is one. Take note, Apprentice. This is what we call a sidegrade. Or—how did Nailihuaile put it? ‘An upgrade made of gold-painted shit’. I was just about to work on this door too.”

Valeterisa poked the door absently. Erin’s dancing stopped, and the [Innkeeper] turned.

“Say what now?”

The Archmage of Izril looked around.

“Well, it’s a Skill-based door. It probably scales off of levels, not magic. Which means I can’t upgrade it anymore.”

Valeterisa looked around, and everyone stared at her blankly.

“I was going to do this. I’m sure I mentioned it? At Fissival?”

It seemed to occur to her that this wasn’t Fissival. The Archmage uncertainly looked around, and she edged back into Invrisil’s side. Then she made a fist and struck her palm with it as her mouth fell open.

“Wait. This means I can make my own teleportation network. And I have less competition.”

She smiled.

“Yay.”

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had a new door. The news was only slightly tempered by Valeterisa’s revelation that it was no longer contingent on the magical enchantment.

“Ignore Valeterisa. This is a good thing for your inn. The best outcome, in fact, and time will doubtless prove that—especially if Valeterisa makes good on her promise to create a teleportation network. Which is no guarantee; she has failed before.”

Larracel herself came to inspect the door, or rather, her inn did. It was still hovering around Invrisil, having stopped for the combined party between inns.

She walked through the door, and Erin felt her enter her inn, as if a sudden charge of electricity were filling the building. Not hostile—just foreign, a sense of an [Innkeeper] whose level exceeded her own.

Was that how Agnes and the others had felt? However, Larracel didn’t look like some former Named-rank monster or a terrifying woman.

She was short, pretended to look like a member of staff, she had greying hair, and the magic in her eyes was only there when she wanted it to be. She was, in fact—a bit like Erin Solstice.

—But the difference was, she was also a [Mage] and an adventurer. And she’d been doing this for a long time.

“Erin Solstice. Hello and good morning. You must have leveled up. I didn’t, but I’m sure I made progress towards my next one. Congratulations.”

“Oh, thank you—”

There was something more formal about Larra, so Erin almost offered her a handshake, but the other [Innkeeper] just stood there until Lyonette hurried over.

“Won’t you have a seat, Innkeeper Larracel? Can I get you anything to drink or eat?”

“Do you have any of this coffee I think I saw your inn advertising? I would like to taste it properly prepared. And whatever anyone else is eating.”

The [Innkeeper] sat down and smiled at Mrsha.

“Hello there. Who is this young woman?”

Mrsha shyly held out a paw, and Larra shook it.

“Ah, the scamp. I think I know your name. Mrsha?”

Beware of this woman’s gifts! Mrsha narrowed her eyes and stared at Larra’s fresh omelette as the [Innkeeper] turned to greet Nanette and the other diners. Larra didn’t even bat an eye at Numbtongue, and Mrsha slowly reached out—

Someone tugged at her ears before she could mess with Larra’s plate. Mrsha froze with a hefty pinch of salt and saw a glowing imp-familiar tugging on one ear. She hid her paws behind her back as that [Innkeeper] turned—and one of Larracel’s eyes glowed.

“I’ve seen a lot of pranksters like you, young woman. If you want to start a war, just don’t complain about how it ends.”

Mrsha decided to sit up and be very polite. Larracel reminded her of Shaman Theikha—in that she seemed nice, kind—and might throw Mrsha into the sky if she got mad.

“It’s great to see you again. I mean—we met yesterday, but thanks for coming over.”

Erin was only slightly flustered, but Larracel just chuckled.

“Let’s not stand on formality, Erin. You, I like. Besides, we’re not two [Innkeepers] who need to negotiate like the local associations. My crowd is sure to bother you—if only because they want to get to the south and my inn’s too slow. As for the door? Valeterisa’s only focused on magic. It’s better to have a Skill.”

“You think so?”

Erin had begun feeling some chagrin about the original door being lost, but Larracel calmly cut a bit of the omelet and ate as she explained.

“Doors that aren’t Skills can be stolen. I have heard a few attempts were made on yours—and a door that can be taken makes you a target for [Thieves], no matter how good the security is. This is far, far better for your inn. If Valeterisa makes her network, your inn is still valuable.”

“Yeah, that’s right! And people have stolen my door before—plus, I think this one’s got a lot more mana. I can tell. I can send way more people over without charging it up. Although…it might not be able to be manually charged by mages anymore.”

“Well then, it’s consistent. Did you gain anything else?”

“Just a spell. Wait, I can cast magic! I have—[Playful Radiant…Fishies].”

Erin’s excitement diminished as she said the spell out loud, and Pisces snorted loudly. Prixall and Ulvama glared at him, and the latter wiggled her fingers. He jerked back as a spider emerged from his hash browns.

“Interesting spell. Is that Goblin magic?”

“Yeah. I mean, I have a few other spells—mostly [Witch] stuff. I can use my craft to fuel the magic. Like a sorcerer?”

“Interesting. I’m a [Mage], but it is something that both our inns are so magically-based. I hate competition, so let’s not compete.”

Larra chuckled. Erin smiled in relief.

“I don’t actually know much about magic to tell you the truth. [Witch] stuff, a bit, but not magic magic.”

Nanette sat up indignantly at her table, but she was too shy to say anything in front of the other famous [Innkeeper]. Larra raised her brows.

“Oh? Well, I can give you some pointers. I’m technically a [Wizard], but [Mage] magic isn’t much like other types. Mine is embodied in a lot of objects, my inn especially. Would you like to visit it? Or I can summon my hordes to your inn.”

Erin had seen the Adventurer’s Haven from afar, but she and Larra had needed to deal with the literal crowds who flooded both inns. She hesitated.

“I wouldn’t be interfering, would I?”

She knew Larra had noble guests and…but the [Innkeeper] waved that off.

“The Haven is large enough to feed an army, which it has done time and time again. My staff can handle everything—you’ve met Barnethei?”

“That guy who snuck in?”

Larra nodded with a smile.

“He’s ambitious. And he’ll probably be your largest competitor—but he keeps my inn running without my direct influence. He could easily accommodate a few dozen more. What do you say?”

Erin looked around, and half her friends were nodding or trying to get her to say ‘yes’. And she had to admit, she was curious, so she agreed.

“Just so long as we’re not being a bother! I could help bring breakfast.”

Larra laughed, but affectionately. She patted Erin on the hand, then reached out and grabbed Valeterisa’s arm.

“You’re coming too, Valley.”

“Hm? I am?”

“Yes, you are. I have new clothing sized for you, so you can put your robe away, and I’ll have it washed.”

“But it’s perfectly clean. I [Cleanse] it—”

“I know. I’ve had a word with your helper, and she’s told me how ‘clean’ you are. You’ll eat more food, then you’ll wash, wear new clothes, and be a person for a bit.”

Valeterisa shot Montressa a glower as her apprentice hid behind Larracel, but she followed the [Innkeeper].

“But I have so much to do. I’m an Archmage, Larra. Technically, I outrank you socially.”

“I’ll let you read books in the bath.”

“Ah. Well, lead on.”

 

——

 

There were so many parallels to Larra and Erin. They had both come from analogous pasts; they had adventurers for guests who treated the inn like a home. Famous friends.

Like Erin, Larracel had built and rebuilt her inn, upgrading it with her levels. Like Erin, she had magical features. She had participated in famous events—in the north—and her inn was a kind of hub, an independent safe haven.

Even the Assassin’s Guild and other nobles knew that a guest of Larra the Haven was not to be attacked. They could try, but she was a former Named-rank adventurer, and her friends were quite, quite dangerous.

However, even the staff were capable of putting up quite a defense. Like Erin, Larra was not always visible, and Barnethei, similar to Lyonette, was the acting head.

Even their inns were similar. For instance, Erin’s was on a hill. Larra’s floated.

Erin had grass outside her inn. You could walk across the dais of the Adventurer’s Haven past the outdoor tavern area that led to tables and benches like a café and stare over the railings down to the earth below, or, if the daises were connected by simple bridges, walk to the connected farm, library—

Very similar. Right down to the second floor of the tavern area where a miniature guild was located that could perform Adventurer, Mage, and Merchant guild functions.

Oh, and the arcane familiars who helped the staff were analogous to…Mrsha…and, uh—uh—the multiple suites of guest rooms were like how Erin had multiple floors to her inn.

By the time Erin Solstice’s eyes stopped bugging out, even her most loyally proud friends had stopped trying to make comparisons.

The Adventurer’s Haven was a complex. And it had multiple rooms as large as Erin’s [Grand Theatre], each one styled to the Haven’s unique reputation.

“Magic and excitement. The outdoor section is for relaxing—our indoor areas are often used for the nobility, like the Pub of Best Moments. Not usually one for children, but all your guests are welcome to it—it’s semi-exclusive. For children, we have a few magical rooms I’ve made over the years.”

Pub of Best Moments? Erin had no idea what that was, but Ceria was nudging Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] was refusing to look too awed.

“Whoa, so all these rooms are ones you’ve made?”

“With Skills. I enchanted around the Skills I have. I was a Named-rank adventurer, so I have less Skills than you do solely based around the inn, I suspect. But here—take a seat, and I’ll give you the regular’s experience.”

Larra led them to the nearest table, and Erin saw that there was a crowd this morning. In fact—the nobility were nowhere to be seen. This was the open area, and so it appeared that few of the most exclusive guests wanted to hobnob with the crowds.

Or maybe they were nursing hangovers. Aside from Valeterisa, few of the famous guests had appeared, and Erin suspected they were getting hangover potions sent to their rooms.

Unlike Erin’s inn, they had soundproofed walls, so a noisy little Mrsha wouldn’t wake them up. But Larra’s inn was not just for the wealthy.

In fact, Erin saw some people who looked like they had nothing to spend sitting nervously at a table—but sitting there as Larra nodded to them. They didn’t recognize her, despite her meeting Erin—their eyes were on the man who was walking through the inn with twenty members of staff.

Barnethei, the [Vice Innkeeper], played the part. He strode past tables, shaking hands, and, Erin noticed, personally delivering baskets of food to some or directing guests elsewhere.

“Barnethei comps drinks and food. He’s also in charge of entertainment—he was a [Server] working my tables, and right now, he’s over Level 40 and he could start his own inn and make it famous. He might, but he’s agreed to at least stay with me until we reach the new lands.”

“So you are heading all the way there?”

Larracel seated herself with Mrsha, Lyonette, Nanette, and the other guests with a smile—but this one was tired.

“Oh, I couldn’t leave my idiots behind. I’ll go as far as I can. The Haven is not prepared to be on the edge of a wild zone, let alone a death zone; in that sense, I feel like your inn is better-prepared. But we’ll at least make the journey.”

That was part of the reason she’d sought Erin out. Barnethei glanced up, but Larra didn’t say that, and a warning flick to his hair with magic made the [Vice Innkeeper] keep on his way.

Erin Solstice didn’t seem to notice. She glanced at the new guests, but saw no one coming to take their order. Larra smiled as she saw Erin checking out this area.

“Confused? You don’t get a waiter unless you want to buy something. There’s a law in my inn, and so I think even Invrisil’s people have heard of it. Like this—”

She raised her hands…then eyed Nanette and Mrsha.

“No, how about this. You two, lean over.”

They did, and Erin heard Larracel whisper to them. Mrsha blinked, and Nanette let her clap her paws loudly. Then the witch spoke in a nervous, loud voice.

F-free bread?

Erin looked up and saw something soar out from behind one of the open windows to a kitchen at once. An Arcane Familiar, the imp with little horns, wings, and a tail, leapt into the air and grabbed something. It flew their way and instantly deposited—

Bread! A basket landed on the table, and Larracel added.

“Water, too.”

More cups and a pitcher were dragged into the air, and to Erin’s delight, water, bread, hot and crispy, three long rolls similar to a wider baguette, were placed at the other tables in a basket with a big blue cloth.

“Free bread?”

Lyonette was astounded and mildly aghast. But when they saw that, the nervous guests copied Larra, and regardless whether they muttered or shouted, the familiars brought out a basket.

Valeterisa hadn’t yet gone to her bath, so she stopped and absently tore off a huge chunk of bread, despite her breakfast. She began nibbling.

“It’s better than it used to be. You’re still not giving out free butter?”

“Go take a bath.”

Larra pointed, and Valeterisa wandered off, Montressa correcting her course. The Haven’s [Innkeeper] whispered to Erin out of the corner of her mouth.

“I used to give out free butter. But it does cost too much—and someone would eat as much of it as she could when she was a poor student. Every single day. That’s what each guest gets, though. A basket of bread. I have a Skill. [The Innkeeper’s Daily Supply].”

Oh! Rags blinked. She had skulked behind the others, wondering if she needed to use her ring, but she and Numbtongue were being suffered, if warily, because of Larra and Erin’s presence. That sounded like her Skill.

“That’s so nice of you.”

Erin was smiling hugely, but Larra waved it off, embarrassed.

“I have a farm—the Haven is fairly sustainable. I decided the free bread was a good way to welcome people. Besides—it’s only something I can do with the familiars. They take baskets about, wash dishes—put dishes in soapy water, that is. They’re not clever enough to wash anything but enchanted dishes without me breaking a dozen each week.”

One of the familiars floated past Erin, and the other woman checked to see if they were intelligent, but the familiar didn’t react to the insults.

“Are they smart?”

“They’re no Djinni. Or Golems. They’re just mana—Valeterisa taught me the spell, and I’ve adapted my own. Hers are ironically more clever—and I heard how she was stuck in her mansion for years. I have your friend to thank for that, actually.”

“Ryoka?”

Larracel tried her bread as Mrsha picked up a menu and stared at the food. The [Innkeeper] gave her a smile.

“Order what you like. Yes, Ryoka Griffin. She may have stopped by the inn—most City Runners do—but before she freed Valeterisa so no one took notice if that was the case. If she is ever in the area, I intend to thank her. No one else could free Valeterisa—and we should have. But she informed us she was well.”

She sighed, and Erin suspected that Valeterisa’s absent-mindedness was not new. Larra stretched at her table as Erin looked around.

“So you have tons of guests who come and go, huh?”

“Some, like Viecel, our gambling addict, travel to other continents like Baleros. It isn’t uncommon for them to appear after years. Mihaela’s constant; I’m just a short run away for her. Valeterisa…she used to be here every day, reading my books and eating bread. When she became an Archmage, she fell out of touch. I got a [Message] spell from her every year, and the people I asked to check on her never came back. More than a few friends are like that.”

For a second, Larracel looked old and sad, and Erin imagined Ceria or Pisces coming back as they became famous adventurers. But then Larra was briskly countermanding Mrsha as the girl scribbled an order for a waiting familiar.

“I said order what you like—but you’re not having wine. That’s the Royal Menu. Everything on there is overpriced. Order from this instead!”

She tried to hand Mrsha another menu, but the girl reached into her money pouch and slapped down a handful of gold coins as she glared at Larra, much to Lyonette’s chagrin. Larra eyed her, then turned to Erin.

“…I can see you have an equal number of characters in your inn.”

“Yep. Goblins and silly kids. Say, no one’s gonna try to kill Numbtongue and Rags, right? I kind of have this thing in my inn…”

“No killing Goblins.”

Larra finished Erin’s sentence, and the young woman’s mouth dropped open in pleased surprise. But Larra just chuckled.

“I did do my homework. Barnethei can read. Ah, here we are. This is our menu…and get Miss Mrsha here some of our finest white wine vinegar. Since she would like an experience of fine drink.”

Mrsha sat up excitedly as Lyonette opened her mouth to protest…then closed it. Which really should have clued Mrsha in. Erin was still admiring the look of the inn.

“It’s so vast! You’ve got a library and a farm…do you have a hot spring?”

Larra looked amused.

“Not a hot spring. I have bathtubs, and it’s hard enough to transport all this wood and metal—let alone that much water! I would like a swimming area, but I can barely lift all of this.”

She gestured at the floating inn. It had descended a bit, and to get to the inn, you could walk up a ramp or use stairs. Erin imagined it could also descend to ground level if need be.

“So you’re the one lifting all this? With magic?”

“Yes. I lift it all. When I was a Named-rank adventurer, I created safe zones out of magic. It’s my speciality, and in this area, I may be one of the world’s best.”

That was Larra’s simple reply. It wasn’t arrogant—you could certainly take it that way, but she was a Named-rank.

More food flew in, although one of the servers wearing that colorful uniform appeared to present a plate of hot food with a flourish. Mrsha glanced at the duck leg and full meal—but she stared at the pale liquid in a crystal cup. She looked at Lyonette, but the [Princess] whispered to her.

“If Larracel allows it, I suppose there’s no help but to let you have a bit. Just a sip, though.”

Mrsha importantly lifted the cup—then hesitated as she smelled the white ‘wine’. However, she noticed the other guests watching her, and so she took a huge gulp.

Mrsha tried to swallow—then her eyes bulged. She stared around—then leapt off the table and ran to the railing.

Someone cried out in horror as a little Gnoll spat her mouthful of vinegar into the air…and glumly sank back to the table.

Alcohol ain’t great. I don’t see what you find in it.

She handed the notecard to Pisces, who gave her a bemused look. But he folded the card up and tucked it in a pocket.

“It is an acquired taste, Miss Mrsha.”

Mrsha the Suddenly Sober nodded as Erin covered a laugh and Larra nodded.

At this point, the Haven’s open deck was inviting and fun for Erin—and she saw Larra’s familiars and her style as something to admire.

—But she still had that feeling Inkar would have known very well.

That of someone seeing a hill smiling at you. Erin was waiting to see more of Izril’s greatest [Innkeeper] that she knew was there.

The irony, of course…was that Erin Solstice herself didn’t see how Larra welcomed her into her inn as equals. The irony was that her friends, her guests were as familiar and normal to Erin—but even the Haven’s regulars woke up and took notice.

 

——

 

“…my back itches.”

Deniusth, the Named-rank adventurer and captain of Orchestra, a Named-rank team in its own right, was a gold-bell duelist. One of Izril’s most famous bachelors—but not because he was celibate. He was a famous figure in the north, a musician, and he came stumbling out of his rooms looking like he was dead.

“You smell like shit.”

“You look like shit.”

Mihaela Godfrey and Colth bullied him the moment he stepped out of his door. Deni glared at both, red-eyed.

“You had your fun yesterday. Stop bothering me.”

“You’re too old to drink like a Silver-rank. You coming for breakfast? We’ve got that other [Innkeeper]. Eld’s already heading down with most of the others.”

Deni grunted. In truth, after a night like last night, even Mihaela would have lain abed for a while. They were older, and getting up at the crack of dawn wasn’t mandatory, especially in the Haven.

…That they’d woken up was because it was hard to sleep. Nigh on impossible, actually.

“My damn back itches. Who’s here?”

“Shriekblade.”

Colth spoke, and Deniusth looked at him.

“Who—oh, Salazsar’s killer. Damn. We’re going to be meeting our southern counterparts, aren’t we? I hate [Rogues].”

He rubbed at his back where a [Rogue] had once stabbed him, and Mihaela glanced out the window. She was no [Lady] or high-level specialist, but…

“I don’t see more than a few Runners, but I’ve heard of Garia Strongheart. Some kind of fighter-Runner. Those Gold-ranks look snappy.”

She’d delivered for adventurers in emergency runs, even gone on a few adventures herself. Colth grinned, but Deni just grunted as he checked his clothing in a full-length mirror.

“We’ll see. Reputations in backwaters are always inflated.”

He said that—but the truth was the captain of Orchestra took the time to fix his appearance, and his entire team was waiting for him to make an impression as they descended towards the open seating area.

If Liscor was getting to meet the myths of the north—the same could be said of the Haven’s guests. Here came the south, and they wanted to make a good impression. After all, some of them forgot, but most, even Deni—remembered.

They had once been Silver and Bronze-ranks too.

 

——

 

It was in the eyes. A reflection. It wasn’t that the older you got, the more you changed. It was just that you kept remembering.

What was it like, that sensation of first meeting a Named-rank adventurer, a Courier? That feeling in your chest of intimidation, comparing yourself against them.

Ambition. I will be this someday—

But the surreality of it never faded, sometimes. The feeling of being a Courier and turning your head before realizing it was you.

Colth was like that. Mihaela envied him. She was the Guildmistress of First Landing. The Courier of Izril. That was bone-deep.

These days…she looked and saw a young woman sitting with a Goblin, and her eyes flickered as she saw Garia Strongheart’s awestruck face. The City Runner had muscle—and showed it off. She’d adjusted her shirt so it exposed her stomach. She looked a lot thinner than her Runner’s Guild image on file.

So much so—that she could be a different person except in eye and hair. Mihaela saw Deni’s eyes lock on Garia’s midriff and took care to step on his foot by accident as they walked towards Larra.

She just wondered if Garia got cold. Then she remembered she wasn’t young and cursed.

When was someone going to invent a potion of de-aging?

The most famous [Alchemist]-adventurer, Saliss of Lights, had put his feet up on his table as he watched his peers approach. He nodded to them, as relaxed as he looked.

No one else was. There sat a young woman with arms made of metal, staring at the Named-ranks and Gold-ranks who’d tagged along with Larra’s inn. As if her arms made of metal didn’t make even Viecel blink and Colth ooh under his breath.

The [Necromancer], Pisces, sat next to an Antinium that Mihaela’s skin crawled just from looking at. But there was a half-Elf with a skeletal hand, a half-Giant trying to hide behind Jelaqua Ivirith…

Like Erin, Mihaela thought of her company as entirely normal. Deni dyed his hair blonde. Colth was still a kid who called everyone ‘boss’ and acted like his class, [Supporter]. Eld? Eld was a responsible [Lord] of House Terland. The other adventurers, Gold and Named-rank, were people. Powerful, but only impressive at times.

Like Larra.

In that, Mihaela didn’t realize how she came off to the others. She would have seen a white-haired woman in the mirror, grumpy, coughing blood occasionally, no longer the fastest, proudest Courier who had served in two Antinium Wars. She would claim that she walked around like everyone else and that only when she used her Skills did she move fast.

That kind of talk made it sound like Mihaela was just any older woman in the crowd. Selys Shivertail knew better. She looked at Mihaela and saw someone like Tekshia. Her grandmother had the mark of her level. Mihaela walked like she was on a piece of moving ground that carried her forwards while the rest of the world had no escalator.

She would walk, head turning to lecture her friends, and walk around a surprised guest without even bothering to look at them. Her feet would carry her over a chair, and she’d skip ahead, a four-foot hop, from platform to platform, like Selys stepped over a crack.

Looking at her reminded Mrsha of Wer. That ease of movement was like everyone wanted to be able to move. Mihaela’s walk was the envy of small children. She looked like she could run up a cliff the wrong way, because she had.

Similarly—her companions. Where Mihaela saw a dyed-hair pretender, she had long ago tuned out Deniusth. When Numbtongue focused on the [Musician]-[Duelist], he thought he heard music. It followed the Named-rank adventurer, a solo violin playing. The bow to his violin hung at his side like a rapier, and the gold bell attached to it never chimed. Pisces glanced at another adventurer, who carried a brass horn, and he heard a trumpet’s solo serenading the new day.

The Trumpet of the Battlefield, Gores Caneth. He scratched at the light beard on his chin, accompanying the rest of his teammates, Orchestra, the band of adventurers from the north.

Even the ones without music or that kind of grace that marked them apart looked different. For there was someone that all the Horns knew and got up to nod or bow respectfully to.

Eldertuin the Fortress, Eldertuin Terland, was a giant second only to Moore. Even in regular clothes, the clothes seemed to be thicker than Ylawes’ armor. He was careful and respectful of others, as someone of his height often was, but people avoided him like they avoided walking into a wall. He just gave the feeling that if you slammed into him at full force, even on a wagon—the wagon might be the one that gave way.

There were other teams hovering in the background, too. One of the adventurers produced a handkerchief as they watched the newcomers to the inn. Or rather…was he made of handkerchiefs?

Mrsha blinked. For there sat someone—man or woman, she couldn’t have said. And the figure looked humanoid, but instead of skin, they had blowing handkerchiefs and cloth of every color, often silk or rich clothing, instead of a body. The bits of cloth waved within a kind of suit, complete with a cane no less and gloved hands…but was that even a person?

Erin turned her head and whispered to the nearest person to her, Ceria.

“Um. Is that person made of cloth?”

“Yep. That would be the Favor of the North, Caleis Berkesson. Stitch-man.”

“Oh, that makes so much…where’s his face?”

No one replied. The two Goblins, Rags and Numbtongue, felt that familiar chill down their skin that made them want to run.

This felt like dying. Rags narrowed her eyes and held her ground. Numbtongue felt for his sword self-consciously and saw the gold-bell duelist looking at him.

Even Shorthilt wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Numbtongue was sweating along with the other teams who were Erin’s friends.

The Silver Swords, the Halfseekers, the Horns of Hammerad—even the Wings of Pallass and the Flamewardens had shown up. Nailren’s team and the Silver-ranks like Vuliel Drae hung in the background. But Larra got up slowly and urged Erin to her feet.

“This would be my crowd. More of them in one place than usual—but I hope you will treat them kindly. Many of them cause trouble, and if they do—refer them to me. You lot, stop showing off. This is Erin Solstice. And she suffers mischief about as much as I do.”

The little speech made the watching Named-ranks stir. With that kind of endorsement—they looked at Erin Solstice, and if some of them had been acting superior, it faded.

For there sat the world’s greatest chess-player. The [Innkeeper] who had posted a Mythical Quest. She looked at them and smiled.

What did they see? A smiling giant with black wings playing chess against the greatest [Strategists] of this world? Or just a young woman who looked slightly uncomfortable in her body, slightly weak—and her hazel eyes had no magic in them.

But if you looked close, you realized her hat was made of flame, and it flickered almost invisibly in the air. A certain stillness hung about her. Like a moment that stretched on forever.

“Hi. I’m Erin. These are my friends—the top adventurers around Liscor. You’re all welcome to my inn.”

Two groups met, and Erin Solstice’s voice reminded her guests of who they were. Pisces’ chest inflated, and Erin wished that Griffon Hunt were here. Then she had a thought.

Wait a second. How good was her door?

She focused on something—then cursed and realized she was out of her inn. Everyone else was searching for the best way to make contact, and Erin’s eyes flickered to Invrisil. Her inn was in the capable paws of Ishkr. She wondered if…

 

——

 

There was a right and a wrong way to make an impression on this group. One bad word—and the two sides were enemies, and the Named-ranks were the high-and-mighty lot from the north.

Mihaela said nothing. She had been that bad impression many times, and she wasn’t an adventurer. She waited for Eldertuin to say something, but Eld was so slow. He was just opening his mouth when the wrong person spoke.

Deni.

“I don’t recognize a lot of the teams here…”

The Violinist glanced at the Horns, the Flamewardens, Bevussa, and Mihaela wondered if kicking him off the Haven’s edge would save the moment. As Lyonette had noticed—she reacted faster than anyone else. But she didn’t, and to her relief, Deni continued.

“…but that face looks familiarly unfamiliar. Ivirith, is that you? How the hell are the Halfseekers? You haven’t been at the Haven for a long time! Get over here.”

He broke the ranks and strode over to Jelaqua. To everyone’s surprise, he clasped hands with the Selphid, and she rose.

“Ah—you remember me, Deniusth?”

“Of course I do. Eld, Colth—who here knows the Halfseekers?”

“Ah, I knew it. Only, I didn’t recognize the half-Giant or the others. Seborn, though—looted any ships recently?”

“Learned to swim, Alburz?”

The Drowned Man called back, and a Gold-rank Captain came out of the crowd and feinted a punch. But he stopped as Moore stood.

“Dead gods, a half-Giant. Er—hello. The Halfseekers always change.”

To Erin’s gratification, more adventurers recognized Jelaqua, including Eldertuin, Colth, and a number of others. Even Larra nodded.

“I did have the Halfseekers at my inn more than once in their iterations. I should have said something, Miss Ivirith.”

“Oh, no. We’ve just been knocking around for a long time. Since we were Silver-ranks. We get everywhere…”

Jelaqua’s cheeks were orange with a huge blush. But Deni turned to Mihaela.

“Have you met the Halfseekers, Mihaela?”

“…Name’s familiar. Why?”

“They’ve been around since before we were Bronze-ranks. In one form or another—I remember the Halfseekers when Jelaqua was a rookie fresh from Baleros. Well, they’ve changed, but I recognize another group there. Silver Swords—the team that can’t go a week without getting into some kind of adventure. I heard you lot could find a damsel in distress in every well you pass by.”

Dawil rose to his feet with a laugh. He swept the other adventurers a bow as Falene hesitated, but countless adventurers recognized the name, if not the trio by face.

“That’d be us. Dawil Ironbreaker, Ylawes Byres, and Falene Pointyears at your service.”

He began shaking hands as Falene turned red with fury. Erin let out a sigh as Eldertuin himself turned.

“…And this is Captain Ceria of the Horns of Hammerad. It’s good to see you so well. I thought you’d died.”

“Without you, we would have. Eldertuin, it’s an honor.”

The half-Elf took his hands, and eyes turned to the Horns. Then the murmur picked up because even if they weren’t as old—this was the team who’d been on the news.

“The team that raided the death-zone? The ones who got teleported to Chandrar…?”

A few incredulous murmurs, but then people were shaking hands. Introducing themselves. Ironically, perhaps, the older teams of Flamewardens and Wings of Pallass were least-recognized. But Keldrass rose, and the Humans and other species warily approached.

The one person who didn’t immediately rise was Saliss of Lights. He grinned at the other adventurers as they recognized him—but it was only when the smiling Colth appeared that Saliss swung himself up.

“Saliss of Lights, it’s an honor. Colth the Supporter.”

“I know you, kid. Looks like the north’s come down to play. Watch out—us southern Named-ranks aren’t fun. Right, Tessa?”

He glanced sideways, and a Drake appeared, much to half the adventurers’ shock. But Colth just shook Saliss’ hand so earnestly the Drake was taken aback.

“I am delighted to meet you, sir. And if I might add, it’s my fondest wish to adventure with you at some point.”

Saliss blinked at Colth, then his face turned to one of horror and disgust.

“Uh…you’re being serious. Dead gods, you’re actually…gaaah.

He fell out of his chair and lay on the ground.

“I’m allergic to people like you. Someone save me.”

He tried to cling to Yvlon’s legs and was rewarded with a look of surprised annoyance. Then Saliss sighed and sprang to his feet.

“Saliss, hello! Need a potion—you see me, not Xif. Hello, yes, I’m naked. And I still dressed better than you. Saliss—hello, Eldertuin. Where’s your crazier half, Viecel?”

Mrsha was shaking hands with bemused adventurers as if she were a peer. They rubbed her head and exclaimed.

“Who’s the cute kid? Wait, I think I know this one from the television—it can’t be, right?”

She puffed out her chest and began to introduce herself—but then someone raced into the inn and began shouting.

“I’m here. I’m here! I thought it’d be next year when I got to visit—where’s the free bread? Suxhel, Suxhel, take a magical picture of me!”

Lehra Ruinstrider tried to pose in front of a pair of people eating at a table, and Stargazer’s Promise arrived with a bang. Literally, as Lehra ran into a chair.

Ordinarily, Erin just bet that Larra would be judging, and the [Innkeeper] was watching Lehra with a combination of forbearance and mild disapproval. But she clearly knew adventurers, and Lehra froze when she saw the horde of adventurers. She collected herself, then formed up with her team.

The rest of the adventurers certainly knew the Stargnoll. In fact, they seemed hugely complimentary, and it was such a departure from how Ceria had experienced Invrisil’s elitist adventurers that it was gratifying.

Then she had a thought and adjusted the invisible circlet on her head as she muttered to her team.

“Looks like Erin or our reputations are earning us more respect.”

“Skin-deep. We’re getting the Haven herself to vouch for us and Erin. They’ll be meaner later.”

To her surprise, it was Yvlon who muttered that back. Pisces looked up, and Ksmvr’s mandibles clicked together.

“Should I be more reserved, Captain Ceria?”

“Nah, Ksmvr. But what a crowd!

It felt like something to be recognized, even so. And to the Horn’s astonishment, several Named-ranks were singling them out, even amidst the meetings.

“So you’re Captain Ceria herself. Hello, hello. My name is Colth. Colth the Supporter. I am truly pleased to meet all of you, Pisces, Ceria, Ksmvr, Yvlon. I hope we have the chance to work together at some point!”

Colth the Named-rank shook all of their hands so fast that the Horns were left staring at him. He was one of the youngest Named-ranks, Lehra obviously notwithstanding, but he looked excellent.

Orchestra, Deniusth’s team, were dressed like a cross between performers and adventurers. Eldertuin had a more nobleman’s casual outfit, and his partner, Viecel the Selphid, was similarly attired.

But Colth? He wore chainmail over leather—mithril chainmail—and he had one of the most diverse adventuring belts Ceria had ever seen. His hair was one of those rarer colors—green and brown—and his belt had a throwing axe, sword, wand, two vials, and a loop of something, clearly magical rope attached.

And that was what was on his belt, not in his bag of holding. The [Supporter] was mobile despite the heavier armor and all the gear, and he smiled earnestly at the surprised Horns.

“Adventure with us?”

Ceria blurted before she remembered—this was Colth the Supporter. Famous for empowering teams and being a force in his own right. The Named-Rank grinned.

“It’d be my first time adventuring with a [Necromancer] and the Antinium. That’s valuable insight. But excuse me—is that Jewel I see? Glitterblade? Colth.

He strode over and scared the daylights out of Jewel. In fact—Ceria saw him shaking hands with a surprised Anith, Nailren—

“Does he know every adventurer by name?”

“He should. It’s practically his class.”

Yvlon muttered back. Pisces blinked at Colth and then glanced around uneasily.

“It is quite convivial, I agree, Ceria. Suspiciously so. One has to imagine that there is a Captain Todi for every Colth.”

“I do not see a Todi, Pisces. Maybe the Haven only has nice friends?”

Ksmvr’s optimism was cute. Ceria smiled as she glanced around—she didn’t miss that some of the adventurers were hanging back, especially from Ksmvr and Pisces. Or just the Drakes. This was a good meeting, but she…

She focused on Numbtongue. And Rags, but Rags was sitting at her table since she wasn’t an adventurer. Numbtongue, though, Erin was tugging him forwards, and Ceria was expecting something else here. But even she was surprised by what happened.

 

——

 

“Um. Um—Larra, have you formally met one of the inn’s family? Numbtongue.”

Larracel turned, and Mihaela Godfrey stopped shaking Garia’s hand—the [Martial Artist] looked as though she might faint. Deniusth turned, and the adventurers fell silent.

The Hobgoblin stood there as Erin stood in front of him protectively. She went on, voice determinedly cheerful.

“He’s actually a Bronze-rank.”

“What.”

Mihaela’s voice was flat, but Erin explained how Numbtongue was technically an adventurer. She was eager to introduce him to the adventurers. Even if they reacted…

“There’s a rule in my inn. No killing Goblins, so I’ve got them as guests. I figured it was best to introduce him around. Just in case.”

She met Larra’s eyes, and there was the first point of dissonance between them. Larra’s brows rose silently, but she nodded to Numbtongue and—

Everyone waited for the adventurers’ reactions. Especially and critically here—

Deniusth’s. He had felt at the red scarf around his neck the instant Numbtongue had appeared—and his healing wound. His eyes sharpened, and the pupils turned into points as Numbtongue stared at him. Erin cautiously lifted one of Numbtongue’s hands for him—and the [Bard] gently plucked his arm out of her grip.

Not a good idea. He spoke, and Mihaela started at the sound of his voice.

“Hi. I’m Numbtongue. Goblin.”

The Guildmistress stared at him, but then Eldertuin nodded.

“Eldertuin the Fortress. Viecel the Gambler.”

He spoke, carefully, indicating the Selphid. Colth started, then smiled—but more artificially.

“Colth the Supporter. Well, there’s an adventurer I didn’t know about!”

A few chuckles, but everyone turned to Mihaela. She eyed Numbtongue.

“I’m not an adventurer. Mihaela Godfrey. I can see this inn’s guests are going to be weird. Still better than Saliss.”

“Love you too, Mihaela.”

It was astonishing, almost—and Erin was getting hopeful. Even if this wasn’t being televised, this was a miracle! But Deniusth was staring past Numbtongue’s head. He scowled, then spoke.

“…I’m not doing this. Not again.”

“Deni. This is Erin Solstice’s guest. The Wandering Inn’s guest. Try to at least say hello.”

Larra glanced at Erin and gave him a warning look, but the Violinist threw up a gloved hand. He swatted at a familiar prodding at him with a breadstick.

“No. And don’t try to bully me. I’ve done this dance once. No more.”

No more? Then, Erin blinked at him, and her mind focused on a connection. She looked at Deni—then at Jelaqua’s suddenly melancholic features and the adventurers—some of whom were looking at Numbtongue with distrust or horror or disbelief.

Or among some—a kind of pained nostalgia. And at the Halfseekers. Then it came to her.

“Garen Redfang.”

That name dropped among the adventurers, and then it became clear. A group walking up the stairs and talking in disbelief froze—and Deni turned to look at Erin.

“Yes. We’ve done this before.”

He glanced at Jelaqua, and a world opened up to Erin, and she wondered what it had been like the first time a Goblin came to the Haven. Not today—but whenever the Halfseekers had been here. Deni stared at Numbtongue with a mix of hostility and guardedness. He tugged at his scarf.

“My team just lost a battle against Goblins, Miss Solstice. No offense, but we’ve had a Goblin among adventurers and seen a King. Izril’s done this before.”

Numbtongue’s shoulders hunched—but then he looked up. To Erin’s surprise, the [Bard] spoke to the Violinist as he turned his back.

“Yeah. But I’m neither Garen nor Velan. Garen Redfang was my Chieftain, my father. I’m a [Bard].”

Deni’s head turned back. He blinked at Numbtongue, then the guitar on the Hob’s back, as if he’d never seen it before. He stared at his team, and Orchestra turned with more curiosity than they had to anyone else in the inn.

“…That’s new, at least. Ever heard of Kraken Eaters? Tribe up north?”

Numbtongue and Erin traded a glance. Rags sat up, and the [Bard] replied after a long second of searching Pyrite’s memories.

“…Heard they suck.”

Deni blinked, then he grinned. And to Erin’s huge gratification, the Violinist stuck out a cautious hand and received the most cautious of handshakes.

“I like you. And that little Goblin there. I heard she took Crowdcaller Merdon down a peg. That’s good enough for me.”

A handshake. Erin let out a huge breath, and Larra blinked at Deni as if she hadn’t expected that. But then Erin turned—and threw up her hands. She began running as Numbtongue blinked around, and the adventurers didn’t pay attention at first—until she threw her arms around someone who grunted.

“Erin.”

“It’s you again! I told you it wouldn’t be long! Guess who leveled up? You’re gonna get drinks and—

Mrsha sat up in her chair, then her eyes widened. She howled and leapt over to hug the legs of an embarrassed [Bowman]. Heads turned, and Ceria’s jaw dropped.

“No way.”

Griffon Hunt. Izril’s trackers. What is this, Invrisil?”

Colth laughed at his own joke, and Saliss threw something at him.

“He even tells bad jokes! That’s my thing! Tessa, kill him.”

The team of Griffon Hunt had just arrived, and Larra’s head whirled around as she saw Erin laughing in delight.

“I knew Ishkr would figure it out. My door reaches Riverfarm! My door reaches—waitasecond. Ah, man. Does this mean I’m gonna have to negotiate with Laken? Drat.”

Larracel the Haven focused on Erin as a few pieces came together. The [Magical Innkeeper] had her new Skill all of a morning and she had realized it enabled her to…?

Barnethei had come with drinks and food to the adventurers, but he gave Larra a significant look. They watched Erin try to hug a grumpy Revi and then hesitantly greet Briganda, who gave her a one-armed hug as Cade bounced in her other arm.

So that was The Wandering Inn’s [Innkeeper], eh? The other guests focused on Erin. They had come south to Liscor to make a splash, but it turned out the puddle was as deep as a lake. And Liscor…

Erin wasn’t the only thing changing or ready to roll with the unexpected these days.

 

——

 

Liscor’s Council got news that Erin’s door was ash in the morning. They convened, of course; not a day went by when one of them wasn’t finding the others or they weren’t meeting formally, it felt like.

“Looks like the door isn’t broken. Coffee? Tea?”

Lism had a bagel in his mouth as he shared around a tray of food. Tismel had brought it this time, which proved something about something.

In fact, the two old-guard Council members, Zalaiss and Tismel, showed up routinely, if for no other reason than these Council meetings were important.

“Now there’s a relief.”

Jeiss sighed, but everyone had already agreed to give Erin a day or a week to un-destroy her door or find a new one under a toadstool or something. Lism chewed on the bagel as Krshia cleared her throat.

“Apologies, honorable Shassa. A minor emergency has occurred, and it seems the Council may need to adjourn. Another city has just connected to Liscor, and an [Emperor] has just sent us an—invitation. To Pallass, Celum, and Invrisil it seems.”

“An—an [Emperor]? Not at all, Council.”

A nervous Drake stood before them, and she was properly confused, agog, and perplexed. But Liscor’s Council just gave each other resigned looks.

“Our [Negotiators] are working up a speech and gifts and whatnot. Let’s conclude our business here, first.”

Lism put the bagel on a plate and folded his claws together. The [Druid] blinked at him.

“But the [Emperor]—”

“He’ll keep another few minutes. But we would be delighted by your offer, Shassa. Do you have lodgings in Liscor?”

“I tried The Wandering Inn, but it seemed full up. I found an inn in Celum…”

The [Druid] had been offered a rock in Nalthaliarstrelous’ garden or any place in the hedge maze, but she’d wanted a bed. Instantly, Alonna began scribbling a note. The Mage’s Guild’s Guildmistress passed it to Elirr, who handed it to the [Druid].

“This is for Timbor Parithad’s inn or Peslas’ if your tastes run more to fancy, the Tailless Thief. Both will put you up.”

“Free of charge. Breakfast, dinner. Personal service not included.”

Lism added hastily, but Krshia nudged him. He had to stop saying that—the [Innkeepers] could clarify.

“Oh! This is very welcome, Councilmembers. I actually have one more friend from Oteslia—”

“Let me write a second note. If you, personally, would like to head the sample project, I think we have just the candidates, [Druid] Shassa. Or help find and vet the proper instructors? Make sure it’s all working—we would welcome Oteslian expertise.”

Alonna was smiling, and the [Druid] appeared energetic.

“Of course. I didn’t expect you to see me so quickly—it’s just that I saw the issue and I thought—well, thank you very much. I will, uh, move my things and see that building you offered.”

The Council was very pleased, and they murmured amongst themselves.

“We can have Hexel make a new one if it would help. Something central?”

“We’ll need multiple ones. That’s [Architect] thinking. Nice, safe areas—damn, will we have to negotiate for spaces in established properties? Tismel gets to do that.”

“Me?”

“It’s a net positive, a net positive, Tismel. You just need to convince everyone of that.”

Lism was sighing for some reason, though. Krshia eyed him.

“What, exactly, is wrong, Lism?”

“Oh…damn it. I think we need to pay Erin Solstice.”

Jeiss looked at Lism, aghast.

“For what? For—oh.”

Then they all remembered a promise Lism had made. Off-handedly, yes, and ages ago. But that was the thing. Whether it was coincidence or inevitability—probably pay the [Innkeeper].

“I think this is excellent. And a new Human settlement? At times like this—what do we do? Did the old Council toast things, Zalaiss?”

“Something like that. A cup of wine, clinking glasses together—”

“We’re on the job.”

The other Councilmember sighed, but Lism snapped his claws.

“A good laugh. That’s the thing. A good…mocking, suitably evil laugh. For all the little children and especially Miss Mrsha.”

He smiled with such villainy that Shassa looked aghast—then thought of Mrsha. Mrsha…who, at this moment, was having a sneezing fit and had no idea why.

Why did her fur shiver? Lism chuckled, then tried to really give it a good guffaw and a cackle.

“You baked ham.”

Krshia rolled her eyes, but Jeiss tried it.

“No, I feel what Lism is saying. I can’t wait to see my kids’ faces. Or how Beilmark reacts. She’s going to love it.”

They looked at Shassa, and the [Druid]…the [Teacher] saw Lism’s Council try on a laugh. Tismel was bad at it, but Alonna gave a quite evil chuckle. Raekea…

Ha. Haha. Ha?”

—Had no sense of grandeur. But Elirr’s laughter started back in his throat, and he came out with an escalating overture of dark hilarity, which turned into the deep sinister guffaws of the final villain in a dark castle.

Everyone fell silent, and Elirr turned red.

“Did I do that?”

“Dead gods, Elirr. New talents. New talents. Don’t laugh like that when we meet the [Emperor]. Druid Shassa, we like to have a bit of fun. Thank you for your time. And good luck. We’ll have a class of…students for your school thing very shortly.”

Dark days had come to Liscor. The children sensed it upon the wind, but even they didn’t know what was coming next.

 

——

 

“What a monster.”

Larra had to actually step away when she saw Griffon Hunt appear. Barnethei had found her and whispered what Erin had done. She stood there, shaking her head.

And trying not to let her own hands shake. It was an irrational feeling, but—

“Larra? Is everything cordial?”

“She’s perfectly friendly—but she’s a monster. She hit Level 40 so fast no one saw her coming. Where did she come from? That was deliberate as well.”

Larra whispered back. The [Vice Innkeeper] glanced at Griffon Hunt.

“Should I prepare the welcoming team?”

“Do that. Are you scoping out Liscor?”

“I’ve already sent someone to get all the new things, and I’ve surveyed the inn’s staff—those that you don’t see here.”

“Anyone you want? Be polite, Barnethei.”

He smiled at her reproving look. He was as ambitious as Larra was not these days. It felt, sometimes, like she had a wolf on the leash, and he wanted to run free. But both of them knew—not yet.

Even so, he was preparing for it.

“Just one. The [Princess] is a bad idea—”

“Definitely.”

“—and the rest of the staff are either new, quit, or don’t have much of a spark. But there is one of them I want badly enough to offer him whatever he wants.”

“Make your offer then, but don’t be surprised if Erin comes after you. I need to meet an [Emperor]. Oh—and keep an eye on Deni and the others. Colth knows how to play nice, and Mihaela’s somehow the most professional person here, but we are friends. Allies at least. Oh, and get the inn moving again. It’s a long road from Invrisil to Liscor.”

“Completely heard and understood, Larra. I’ll keep an eye out.”

The Haven nodded, and they broke up. Erin was more than Larra had expected. But the adventurers could be a handful as well. When they got up to mischief, no one could tell what happened next.

 

——

 

Deniusth washed his hands vigorously at one of the Haven’s sinks. The beauty of this inn was that it had plumbing. He envisioned this ‘Wandering Inn’, which he had been told was one of the better ones in the region.

From his brief look in, it was a world apart. But then—these new lands would be even more rugged.

Another adventurer joined him at the sink. Which meant he’d also probably been shaking hands with the Goblin.

“On our best behavior, Deni?”

The tone was a bit too familiar because this wasn’t Colth or Mihaela. But Captain Jolrak of the Salt Reavers was a good Gold-ranker. One of many coming south, so Deniusth let it slide. But he interjected some coolness into his reply.

Larra asked it of us. When the Haven asks a favor, adventurers answer. Best foot forwards with this Erin Solstice. Besides—she’s clearly important. Is that an [Emperor] out there or am I just hearing the gossip wrong?”

His ears were very good. Captain Jolrak shook his head, but not in denial.

“Not there, there, but apparently the [Innkeeper]—not the Haven—opened up a door all the way to Riverfarm. Now everyone wants to meet an [Emperor], and they’re getting ready for formal introductions.”

How many oddities did this [Innkeeper] have? Larra was a force herself, but she wasn’t as…spontaneous. Anyways, Deniusth hurried outside to see Larra and Erin Solstice whispering together.

“Yeah, he’s an [Emperor]. I forgot. You get Griffon Hunt, and he’s gotta do formal…stuff.”

“You mean, introduce himself to Liscor, Invrisil, and all the cities you have now connected? There is a route from Pallass to Riverfarm via your inn.

“Yep?”

Erin gave Larra a blank look. The older [Innkeeper] opened her mouth, then exhaled.

“It must be nice to be so young.”

The [Magical Innkeeper] chuckled, and her eyes swung to Deniusth and then to the other adventurers.

“Well, look who’s talking. You just brought the best adventurers of the north into Drake lands. Or you’re gonna, via me.”

Deniusth paused as he dried his hands on a handkerchief. Larra raised her eyebrows, and the two [Innkeepers] regarded each other.

“I suppose I deserve that. Well, will you give me some hints on how to meet this [Emperor]? Barnethei, come over here. We’ll have to deal with that.”

“Sounds great. I’ll just—hey. Wait. Me too?”

Erin tried to edge away, but Larra took hold of her arm and towed Erin back. The [Innkeeper] would have run, but Lyonette seized the other arm, and Erin groaned as she saw someone storming towards the Haven. Lism and the Council, followed by—

The consequences! It happened to me at last! Mrsha! Learn from my mistakes. Mrshaaaaa—”

Erin let her voice trail off and pretended to sink into a crowd of people who were varying degrees of upset with her. Deni turned and saw a little Gnoll girl give Erin Solstice a somber salute.

“…Even the children here are weird.”

“No, that’s about par for the course. You just don’t see kids that much.”

Colth reappeared, having shaken every single person’s hand in existence. Deniusth glanced at him and grunted. The two Goblins were chattering to each other, and the newer adventurers from the south were swapping stories. But now that the pleasantries were over, Deniusth had one pressing question.

“Say—Byres.”

He found Ylawes Byres, and the Captain turned to him. They shook hands—again—and Deniusth gestured to The Wandering Inn, whose portal door was now surrounded by people entering and leaving. Erin Solstice was shouting.

“Hey! Stop hopping through! I’ve got…fifty-one more transits, then it’s down for two hours! Everybody freeze! Say, this is so neat. I can tell exactly how many people I can transport left.”

“…Some inn, huh?”

“It grows on you, Sir Deniusth.”

Ylawes smiled weakly. The Named-rank waved that off.

“Don’t do the lordship thing with me, Captain Ylawes. That’s old news. Five Families are the only ones who matter, so Eldertuin is the only real [Lord] about with a pedigree. Tell me, adventurer to adventurer—what kind of amenities does Liscor have?”

All the adventurers not following Erin to meet this [Emperor] looked about. Now they got to the real meat of why The Wandering Inn—and Liscor—were so valuable. After all—they were all headed to the new lands.

“I would have thought you had all the supplies you needed from First Landing.”

Ylawes seemed as surprised by the question as the other adventurers. Colth clarified with a big smile.

“Oh, goods, sure. Food? Larra the Haven’s got enough for anything regular, but we’re headed into the wilds. First Landing has a lot of rare items from abroad, but it’s not an adventuring city, if that makes sense. There are things you can only get for a reasonable price by heading abroad or by finding cities that manufacture the goods. I bet Invrisil doesn’t have that problem, so we’ll hit those markets.”

“So not potions?”

Ylawes scratched his chin, and Deni tried to clarify.

Unique potions we wouldn’t be able to get at First Landing. Any high-level [Alchemists]—First Landing has some, but their best goods are often not for adventurers and are snapped up. Any artisans, rare items—even high-quality rope.”

“Rope?”

It was an interesting paradox with the north and south. The closer to established civilization you came—the less unique and useful items appeared for adventurers.

Oh, you could get good rope that [Sailors] used or high-quality stuff anywhere there was flax or hemp. Or enchanted rope—but if you wanted, say, silk rope that was ideal for some kinds of climbing, you always poked around local cities.

Deni wasn’t actually a specialist, but Colth was. Ylawes…was not.

“The Silver Swords tend to make do with whatever gear we can scrounge. But—Yvlon—this is my sister, Yvlon Byres.”

“Ah, the one who killed an Adult Creler.”

Deni glanced at her arms, which were a sight, and she shook his hand very gingerly. He would have loved to ask questions about that, but it had to be a sensitive subject.

“Yes, Ylawes? Pleased to meet you, Captain Deniusth.”

“Does Liscor have unique amenities for sale? I’m thinking of Pallass and Maughin—Xif and Saliss—what does Liscor have?”

Yvlon frowned, but she knew more than her brother and began rattling off items. At first, Deniusth’s heart sank.

“Well, Liscor does have Shield Spider parts in quantity. It’s cheap gear Silver and Bronze-ranks use. Their thread has never been harnessed that I know of. They have…a local [Alchemist], Octavia, who does reasonably priced potions in her shop at The Wandering Inn. It’s literally connected to the common room.”

“That must be a fire-hazard.”

Another adventurer joked. More were coming over to listen, but Deniusth’s smile grew strained. Reasonably priced potions?

It didn’t seem to occur to the other adventurers that they were Named-ranks. Colth was taking notes and asking questions about this [Alchemist]’s level, but Deniusth was just about to find his teammate, Terra, and get her to take notes when Yvlon said something interesting.

“For unique gear…I’d say you’re looking at the Yoldenites, acid jars, and Master Pelt, but the last one isn’t going to make much gear unless he’s in a good mood. Oh, and Kevin’s bicycles, maybe?”

“Hm? What was that about acid jars?”

The Named-rank swung around warily, and to his mild horror, Yvlon Byres actually found the Antinium and he produced a green jar of glowing acid.

“We are armed with eight of them, Comrade Yvlon.”

“Please tell me you keep them all in a bag of holding, Ksmvr?”

“And on the windowsill. They provide a very beautiful nighttime glow.”

Even Yvlon blanched, but then she was showing the jars around.

“Oh, and Erin does magical cooking. Bulkup Bisque she calls it and another meal that makes your skin tougher. I think she has a few more like Mana Candies—Ceria, got any Mana Candies?”

“I do.”

Revi, one of the adventurers of Griffon Hunt, had actually been snacking on them. Erin had given a bunch to the team, and the [Mages] crowded around.

“Magical food that replaces potions? Acid jars? How fast does it melt skin?”

“Seconds.”

Deniusth held the jar away from him as Colth whistled.

“That inn’s loaded with gear for Silver-ranks. No wonder the adventuring scene has taken off—even Gold-ranks must love the inn.”

“The door especially.”

Eldertuin agreed, but Deniusth scowled.

“Master Pelt’s the person for our team to visit—although we’re relatively good on weapons. Orchestra uses musical instruments. Perhaps he could make a custom horn for Gores?”

He indicated the other Named-rank on his team, Gores, and the younger man nodded. Aside from that—Deniusth was mildly disappointed. And at least a few adventurers noticed.

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker wondered what she would have felt like meeting all these famous names a year or two ago. If she were still in the original Horns with Calruz—she just bet he’d be half blustering, half trying to impress or compete with the Named-ranks.

Herself, she felt different, and the circlet had to be part of it. Even Pisces was watching Deniusth with a kind of awe as he excused himself.

A gold-bell duelist. Ceria had heard that the Violinist could use his bow like a sword and that Orchestra had a powerful combined attack that often led them to fight monster swarms. Eldertuin had personally helped out her team at the Village of the Dead, and she liked him a lot. He was the solid, reliable Named-rank that had contrasted with Elia Arcsinger at the time.

And he was still a contrast to some of the adventurers, who Ceria thought were full of shit. Or at least—they seemed to be looking for magical items and artifacts where Erin sold acid at rock-bottom prices.

They were, Ceria realized, perhaps not arrogant intentionally, but just on another rank than the Horns and other Gold-ranks. And what that rank was—if not just levels—was economy.

“I’ve replaced most of my gear with magical items for armor. It’s very tough keeping the magical interference down—you either have to spend a fortune on something top-end or keep replacing each item and making sure it can fit your equipment. How do you budget in the Silver Swords?”

A [Mage], a Dullahan, surprisingly, was speaking to Falene and Ceria. She had robes but armor underneath, a magical belt, amulet, earring—Ceria and Falene eyed the adventurer.

“The Silver Swords, ah, aren’t as financially successful all the time. We tend to be given an odd assortment of gifts.”

“Really? Maybe you should work around First Landing for a year or two if you want just gold—nothing like cleaning out a noble’s backyard for a few thousand easy gold pieces.”

The other [Mage] had literally hit her magical interference limit with how many magical items she had on. Ceria imagined that even if you hit her with an arrow, her gear would protect her from the first…three. Even in the head.

That was a lot of extra security for a Gold or Named-rank—but even the ones like Deniusth, Colth, and Eldertuin only had one Relic-class item at most. If that.

In Eldertuin’s case, it was his tower shield, a gift from the Terlands. It made his already-formidable defensive Skills better.

The irony to Ceria was this: while her team could always use more gold and artifacts and were undergeared compared to their counterparts, the newcomers had less to gain from Liscor and even Invrisil and Pallass’ markets. Half of them immediately began heading for Erin’s door in hopes of gaining Pelt’s attention.

“…Fat lot of luck they’ll have with that.”

Ceria muttered with amusement to Falene as the Dullahan [Mage] hurried after her team—she was part of Eldertuin’s group, Gold-ranks who supported the two Named-rank leaders.

She thought Falene would make some kind of snippy comeback, but to her mild surprise, the half-Elf rolled her eyes and adjusted her glasses.

“They are the famous northern teams. Not many adventure in the south for a reason. Half would be more likely to take a Terandrian contract than head all the way down to Celum.”

That only mildly surprised Ceria. These were not teams who raced ahead of the pack normally. They had already made their fortunes.

“I’m just surprised Orchestra is still adventuring. They are the team who got part of that four million gold bounty, right? Lord Deniusth—why’s he want to adventure?”

“Purely boredom, Captain Ceria. He retired—then came back—then retired—but I think he gets bored performing in the north. Don’t hold it against him. His team fought the Kraken Eater tribe when they raided a city, and he took that wound against their Chieftain.”

Ceria and Falene jumped, and Colth the Supporter appeared. Falene instantly nodded at him, and Ceria smiled warily.

“And you, Colth?”

He grinned at her.

“I’m young. I still can’t settle down, and I’ve tried.”

Wasn’t he one of Izril’s most famous bachelors? Ceria knew at least three famous [Ladies] had publicly been entangled with him. He certainly seemed more genuine than Deniusth, but Ceria wondered.

…Well, she appreciated the insight, and Colth nodded to the staff of the Haven circulating with drinks.

“Larra’s got refreshments out. Can I get you two anything? You might not know this but she has half-Elven wines, even.”

Really?

Both Ceria and Falene were instantly interested, and Colth spoke to one of the servers, who went into the back and came out with a genuine vintage.

“Berry wine straight from Gaiil-Drome.”

Falene rolled her eyes, and Ceria nudged her.

“Hey, it’s from home.”

“Not a fan?”

“Oh, no. It’s just one of the villages—”

Falene took a sip and found it quite enjoyable, and Ceria snorted as she took a sip as well. The taste was very light to many sensibilities, but it grew on you the more you waited before swallowing.

“Falene’s actually from Gaiil-Drome, so she has standards about wine from our people. This is what you’d call the rural stuff. Me? Anything from home is too rare to complain about.”

“Does the Village of Springwater have a wine?”

Ceria laughed.

“We have a few half-Elves who’ve ‘practiced’ for a hundred years, but they refuse to bottle it. Real old-time half-Elf villages never sell vintages. The traders come by too often—by which they mean every few months. Practically every day.”

She and Falene laughed. Colth grinned.

“Well, I have heard that’s how the old villages work. I’ve always wanted to visit, but the few times I’ve been on Terandria, I didn’t have anyone to introduce me.”

“Yeah, you’d need someone who came from a nearby village or that place to get in. Even for a Named-rank. And there aren’t that many half-Elves in the adventuring scene, even in Terandria. How many have you met?”

Colth counted.

“…About a hundred and five. Above Silver-rank, obviously.”

Ceria choked on her drink.

“What, really?

He grinned like he was younger than they were—which he was—but like he was some Silver-rank scamp.

“I get around. I adventure with other teams, remember? And I have a great memory. I have to, in my class. By the by, I also noticed that a lot of half-Elves at higher ranks here are female. There’s Falene Skystrall, Ceria Springwalker, Elia Arcsinger and her daughter…”

Falene blushed and waved away the compliment, but Ceria’s eyes lit up, and she smiled impishly.

“Oh, that? Well—most half-Elves who make it to high-ranks are female. The male ones just don’t make it. Hazard of the job.”

“…How’s that?”

Falene frowned as a few adventurers turned to Ceria. The half-Elf’s ears lowered, and she whispered somberly.

“Fame. Oh, we’ve got Archmages Eldavin and Feor, but they have access to high-grade magic, and you know [Mages]. Most adventurers? Gold and Named-ranks? Half-Elves live a long time…but disease cuts us down. I couldn’t tell you how many venereal diseases famous Named-ranks have. Tragic. That’s what happens when you’re so famous.”

She looked sadly to the side, and a few adventurers made a face of horror and disgust. Falene hesitated. She narrowed her eyes and whispered.

“That’s not true.”

Ceria laughed, and Colth’s eyes lit up. She watched the other adventurers talking, and the [Supporter] slapped one leg.

“Ceria, this is going to catch up with you someday.”

“It hasn’t so far.”

The half-Elf merrily took a gulp of wine. It was her newest hobby to do this kind of thing, and so far—the consequences hadn’t landed on her.

Tong.

She froze, goblet raised, as she heard a sound in her head. Neither Colth nor Falene seemed to have heard it—but Ceria heard a loud sound that was entirely non-natural in her head. She looked around—but she didn’t know if the circlet had caused it.

That…might not be so good. What was that?

While Ceria glanced around, Colth was speaking.

“…love to join the Horns on an adventure. Or the Silver Swords. Your Dwarf companion, Dawil, is a master [Axe Thrower]?”

“[Axe Champion]—he’s got an odd story behind the class. I’m sure Ylawes would welcome you on an expedition.”

“Just let me know. If I’m free, I’ll join for an equal share of whatever you get.”

Ceria and Falene smiled politely, but Colth glanced at their faces.

“I mean it. Ask around. If I’m free and it’s not crazy—send me a note and call me up. If you’re up against a dangerous monster, need someone with auxiliary Skills—it’s a benefit to me, too. Especially the Horns, frankly. I haven’t partied with a [Necromancer] or Antinium, and that will be a valuable insight to my class.”

“Really? How does [Supporter] work?”

Ceria nibbled on some of the free bread—it was mostly flatbreads—as Colth gestured to a table. Barnethei was whispering to one of his staff, and Ceria noticed the flamboyant [Innkeeper].

“…baking powder, Amentus fruits—we’ll test them for poison—these matches, and any other local goods. Once we can bake it, Larra wants her Skill to produce the fluffier breads.”

He handed the staff member a bag of gold. Ceria’s ears perked up. Well, the Haven wanted all of The Wandering Inn’s advancements, eh?

Colth had heard it too. He made a little note to himself.

“Baking powder. That’s right, you have matches. I wanted some of those firestarters.”

“Can’t you use a magic wand?”

Ceria expected him to have all the gear he needed, but Colth just smiled.

“Deni’s team and I might be able to afford it, but Silver-rank teams would love something faster than flint and steel. Plus—if you need a light and there’s a magical monster about, you don’t want to give it a clue.”

Now that was a level of preparedness the [Mages] respected. Falene looked impressed.

“Do you actually prepare to that extent?”

“If I know the monsters are magical, of course. I’ve gone to House Byres more times than I can count for silver-tipped weapons, and starting a fire is the easiest way to smoke a lot of monsters out. A [Supporter] needs to know these things. And like I said—the more people we support, the better.”

“Ah, so a [Necromancer] empowers your class? Is that secret?”

Colth shook his head.

“Not at all. It’s something I’m quite open about—once I journey with someone of another class, I can pick up some of their class Skills.”

Really? Impossible.”

Colth raised his hands.

“It’s not as convenient as it sounds. I have to practice magic—I picked up instruments from Deni, and I try to learn new trades as I go. Tailoring—difficult, but I spent a few years learning the basics. Spellcasting is the hardest. If I’m in a group, actively casting with you two, I can cast a spell like I were a [Mage] twenty levels lower than my [Supporter] class. If I’m not partying with Pisces? I’d be able to cast about forty levels lower. So, a Level 6 [Necromancer].”

Which meant he was claiming his level was…Ceria blinked. Falene frowned.

“That doesn’t sound…too useful, I must admit.”

“Ah, but animating a skeleton even at Level 6 could be very situationally useful. And having a backup caster at Level 26 is useful too. Combat classes—I can pull good Skills. In fact, I’m always searching for someone with a good, low-level Skill to complete my build.”

“Your what?”

Colth pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Ceria and Falene.

“My classes and Skills. I’ve organized them—I can choose which ones I use, so I configure it. This is my go-to arrangement, but I’ll change them up for magic or stealth as needed.”

Ceria stared down at the strangest thing she’d ever seen. It was…a list of Skills, spells, and other notes about Colth.

Warrior Skills: [Basic Footwork], [Survivalcraft], [Improved Parry], [Evasive Roll]…

Tier 1 Spells: [Stone Shard], [Arrow of Light], [Flareburst], [Detect Magic]…

He had it all noted down, and Ceria felt like she was reading something intimate—yet Colth’s class let him choose.

Colth. Are you showing them your stupid adventuring sheet? Stop harassing the others.”

Mihaela caught sight of Colth and shouted, but the [Supporter] protested.

“It works! They don’t appreciate it.”

“This is…amazing. It’s almost like I can picture you fighting. You could put this in one of those Adventuring Rooms that Wistram’s come out with. Or those games the E—the children were talking about.”

Colth’s eyes lit up as Falene murmured. She was somewhat aghast, but he—

“You know, I’ve thought about that! If you can write down someone’s Skills and talents, why not make a game of it?”

Colth! I swear, you’re not starting this again. Colth!

Mihaela and his friends were shouting insults at him. Ceria grinned as a certain Kevin turned his head, and his eyes lit up. If only Leon and Troy were here to hear this!

“A game?”

The [Supporter] nodded sadly. He jerked a thumb at Mihaela.

“Larra’s banned me from trying it. But I had rules and numbers to represent combat. Actually, I do it for adventurers too, but privately. But in this game, you’d have numbers to represent how good you were at, say, swinging a sword. So if you hit someone, you’d calculate that against how good a monster was at defending or how tough its scales were. I didn’t really have it down—and Named-rank adventurers get touchy when they fail to stab a Creler and get eaten.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I call it—Havens and Havoc. For Larra. I was even going to have a full game made. With little pieces and maps for kids to play. But I couldn’t figure out how to do combat or the rest without it being arguing over whether you’d hit someone or not. I had these cards—”

“You need dice, dude. Twenty-sided dice.”

Kevin sat down at the table. Colth’s head turned, and the Named-rank adventurer blinked.

“Who’re you?”

“I’m Kevin. Hey. Just wanted to say dice is the way to go. I’m not an expert, but twenty sides on a die, a hundred—and then you roll for damage and stuff. Cast the lightning bolt!”

Kevin winked at Ceria, who gave him a knowing look. Colth blinked.

“A twenty-sided die? Can you even make one? But…oh, I get it.”

Who was worse, Kevin or Erin? He winked as Ceria snorted. She ran her eyes down Colth’s list. The [Supporter]’s eyes lit up, and then he sighed.

“Where were you eight years ago? If I’d put in dice, figures…”

“What happened to the game? I imagine it had a shot.”

Colth gave Ceria and Falene a woebegone smile.

“Oh, I put gold into the project, and I had it all going well. Then I found a backer. Maviola of the House of El.”

He spread his hands and threw them up.

“Poof. It wasn’t even her fault. But half the [Traders] heard House El was backing it and decided it wasn’t worth the investment. That’s reputation for you. At least Valeterisa’s projects are making money. You want to talk about bad investments—she’s always been eating Larra’s bread for free. Come to that—Viecel’s adventuring because of the money too.”

The Selphid [Gambler]? Ceria glanced at him.

“Is it the gambling?”

“Partly. He also has about eleven children he’s raising across the world. Anyways, you two want my help? Just let me know. It’s also good for me to know a team’s specialty. Sometimes I might connect a team to another that needs a good group of trackers, for instance.”

He nodded to Griffon Hunt. Ceria smiled and thanked him. The [Supporter] smiled at her as he stood.

 

——

 

The world according to Colth was far more analytical than not. He could—or at least, he tried to—pin a value on people’s abilities.

Whether or not that worked was debatable, and Mihaela would kick him if he did it around her, but Colth believed that there was some merit to reducing people’s abilities to numbers.

After all—a number could be used in a calculation. And wasn’t that similar to someone’s gut instinct if you could win a battle or not?

His number-theory had made some people’s fortunes, and so he often ran the simulation in his head. With that young man’s tip, Colth now thought it made sense. There was randomness in everything. So…for instance, how would you rate that little Gnoll girl’s attempts to steal from Deniusth?

 

Stealing Check: 13 (random: 5, he turned his head as she was reaching up over the table + 2 concealment + 4 [Natural Concealment] + 2 agility. Dexterity?)

Target Check: 33 (random: 15, looking her way + 9 dexterity + 3 fencer’s gloves + 6 [Flash Hands])

 

The end result was that the girl, Mrsha, put her paw on the plate of honey bread as Deniusth stared at her. She tried to snatch it and ran, crowing, with an empty…plate…in her paws. The Violinist took a bite from the bread as Mrsha the Slow stared at him and slunk away.

Well, you couldn’t reduce the world to numbers. There was always an unforeseen variable, but it was fun. Speaking of which—Colth got up to do the other thing adventurers loved doing, especially veterans to new ones.

Pump them for valuable information. And if he could have seen an invisible roll in the skies, he would have realized there was at least one odd variable going on.

 

——

 

“So, tell us about this dungeon in Liscor. And Albez—any other big dungeons about? Come on, Jelaqua, Ulinde, help a fellow Selphid out.”

The Halfseekers fell silent as Viecel brought up the topic. He was smiling at Jelaqua and Ulinde, who looked intimidated and gratified that their senior Selphid knew them.

“You want to ask us for advice, Adventurer Viecel?”

Ulinde squeaked. But Viecel just winked.

“Jelaqua’s a senior adventurer. I’m just sorry we never seemed to meet—I was in Baleros a lot, but I definitely know of her. It’s a long route to the new lands—anything worth seeing before that? Deni, you want to take a stroll in Liscor’s dungeon?”

“Pass. I’ve had enough dungeons for a lifetime. I made my fortune there—I’m after more in the new lands than a hole to wander around in.”

The Violinist waved his hand, and Yvlon interjected seriously.

“The dungeon in Liscor is no joke. It may have been cleared of a lot of traps, but there’s at least one monster that’s Gold-rank or above. It nearly killed Xrn the Small Queen, and it’s still roaming.”

All the adventurers looked up. Viecel’s smile turned serious.

“I heard about that. But I heard it was a [Witch]…what monster?”

Numbtongue started, and Rags turned from surveying the inn, because she knew it too, at least, from Badarrow’s stories.

Facestealer. Mrsha shivered, and Deniusth noticed. He swung himself up and offered her his violin’s bow. When she grabbed it, he hoisted her up onto the table.

“There’s a dungeon boss monster on the loose and no one’s hunted it down? Seriously?”

Mrsha blinked as Orchestra surrounded her—and then began to feed her snacks.

“Such a cute girl!”

Some of them had families, and Mrsha squirmed as they tried to pat her on the head. Help! I’m surrounded by old, affectionate people! Help!

“Boss monster?”

Ksmvr tilted his head, but this was adventurer jargon.

“Dungeon bosses. The biggest, baddest monster, sometimes the leader or head of the pack. There is usually one or two—how bad is this one?”

“It’s gotten Gold-ranks. And it paralyzes everything that gets near it. I don’t know…we never went up against it ourselves, but we’ve heard stories. It lurks around corners with a bunch of severed heads on sticks.”

“Dead fucking gods. An intelligent one lurking in—how big is this dungeon?”

Some of the Gold-rank teams from the north lost their appetite for Liscor’s dungeon just hearing about Facestealer. Others wanted to know if it was really ‘that’ tough. Ceria…

 

Intelligence Check: 26 (random: 6 + 4 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

Scratched at her head. Yvlon shook hers.

 

Intelligence Check: 27 (random: 18 + 4 memory + 4 lore + 1 specific intelligence)

Target Check: ??, check impossible.

 

…If you were still representing it as Colth thought of things. Something about Ceria made the [Supporter] curious. He kept glancing at her. He had no idea what it was, but his instincts told him that she was, even among the adventurers here—

Promising. So he was inclined to listen to the Horns’ perspective. Then again, he also had a strong feeling about a number of adventurers present.

Colth could be considered to be a kind of talent scout on par with the best [Generals] and [Trainers], even if that wasn’t his exact class. A lot of the adventurers present were the real deal in his mind. Character and natural ability made up a successful adventurer, and they’d survived a lot.

Anyways. The adventurers looked at each other until one of them, arms folded, spoke.

“If you want an actual expert who’s run into it before—ask Numbtongue.”

Halrac the Grim glanced over, and the [Bard]’s head rose as everyone turned to stare at him. Numbtongue blinked—and then realized, yes. Even compared to the Flamewardens and Bevussa’s Wings of Pallass—he and his brothers had gone down into the dungeon and seen more of it than any but Ceria.

“You actually ran into that monster and lived? How?”

Deniusth was mildly incredulous, but Numbtongue shrugged.

“Luck. Trapped it in a trap room.”

Oho.

Nothing would do but for Numbtongue to repeat the story he’d once told about surviving the dungeon and getting treasure from one of the rooms. He told it well, and even Erin’s guests were surprised—they hadn’t heard all of it before.

“Wait. Wait. That thing was melted by acid and what sounds like dozens of Tier 4-5 spells and then broke a trap room? That’s…not right.”

One of the Gold-ranks didn’t believe Numbtongue at all, but Garia Strongheart broke in.

“It did. I saw it when Belavierr was here—it attacked Xrn, and her head opened and…melted part of it. Straight into the bone. But it still survived.”

“…Okay, it’s a Named-rank boss that stalks a dungeon on its own territory. And you lot haven’t tried to trap it? Then again—if these Raskghar didn’t and the Antinium couldn’t—damn. That’s some monster. I wouldn’t want to live near Liscor with that thing around.”

“They have precautions. But yeah.”

The Horns shivered, but Ceria raised a hand reluctantly. Her mind flashed back to the time when she had met Calruz in the darkness, and she shivered.

 

Intelligence Check: 31 (random: 10 + 5 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

“…I have to break it to you all, but that isn’t the boss of the dungeon. Not even close. That Facestealer is one of three sub-guardians, and the real monster is way deeper down.”

Keldrass, Bevussa, and the other teams who’d made a history of going into the dungeon turned. Eldertuin’s brows rose.

“And you know this how?”

“Skinner and Facestealer were part of a trio. Along with another one that’s dead. Well—that means one’s left, and they were all guarding the real center of the dungeon. Along with other monsters like those suits of enchanted armor and Crypt Worms.”

Ceria remembered the inner city, and the other adventurers listened to her tale of screaming fleshy monsters in that ruined city that even the Raskghar wouldn’t enter. An entire tribe of them under Calruz had failed to reach the hole in the center.

“…Well. That’s a Vengeance Dungeon if ever I’ve heard one.”

Colth remarked slowly. Eldertuin nodded.

“No wonder you tried the Village of the Dead. That dungeon…sounds no less nasty in its way. And Liscor is keeping it contained?”

“The monsters either have to go through a series of trapped rooms or a hole in the ground. Liscor’s been building defenses around it, but the truth is that most of the monster attacks that hit Liscor came from there. I think they killed a lot of what was likely to come out. Plus, adventurers have fortified the area, so it’s harder for a swarm to emerge.”

“Nasty. Well, I’m not going down there.”

One Gold-rank Captain shuddered. Another shook her head. Ceria closed her eyes and remembered that dark time—but it was over. And she agreed. There was nothing more down there.

 

Intelligence Check: 24 (random: 2 + 6 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: ??

 

“Let’s do the Ruins of Albez instead. I know it’s empty, but a team just found some treasure there—wait a second. It was you!

The Horns were again the center of attention. Pisces brushed at his hair as the other adventurers talked enviously—until someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Say. You wouldn’t happen to have that map you used to scout the ruins of Albez, would you? Where did you get that information?”

“Ah—the Free Hive had a map in their possession, and Ksmvr, apparently, gained hold of it.”

Pisces nodded to Ksmvr, and the Antinium clarified.

“As a matter of fact, Pisces, it was Olesm who had it from Prognugator Klbkch.”

Ceria remembered that. She still felt vaguely bad about letting Olesm down—and in hindsight, he’d been robbed of a fortune. Then again—Yvlon rubbed at her arms.

“That was another adventure with some high costs. We ran into a series of traps and a Flame Elemental.”

“Nasty. But—do you have that map by any chance? Because I’d love to buy it or look at it.”

Colth’s eyes lit up as Pisces frowned at him. The [Necromancer] absently began to dig through his bag of holding. Ceria glanced at Colth as she felt a prickle of…insight.

“Why’s that?”

The Named-rank adventurer saw Pisces produce a roll of parchment and elbowed Deniusth hard in the side as the Violinist suddenly left his seat. He looked at the Horns seriously.

“Because…if you found one hidden vault in Albez, who’s to say there isn’t another? Did you ever check that original map for hidden text? Enchanted writing?”

The Horns looked at each other as every adventurer sat up and a burn of excitement ran through their veins. Pisces froze with the map in his hand.

“We cross-referenced it with older maps, I believe…”

He turned to Ceria and Yvlon for confirmation, and Yvlon’s eyes flickered.

“Yeah, I went to the Adventurer’s Guild and bought some of the treasure maps on offer. They had pretty thorough records if you wanted to pay for it—it’s been tapped for ages, so even the best [Treasure Hunters] sold their findings.”

“But that means there might be a room that you could have missed or—you have a map. Actual blueprints. All they had were the ruins. Hey, let me look at that map, and I’ll pay you for your time. If we find anything…I’ll give you a cut of what I get. How about it?”

Deniusth reached for the scroll, but Colth elbowed him hard.

“You’re done with dungeoning, Deni. And you’re old. See? You can barely stand.”

He’d gotten the other man in the liver, and Deni doubled over.

“I’ll pay a fee to look—”

“No, let us look. Hey, Horns, you want a favor? One favor—you name it. You want to hit another Adult Creler, we’re with you. It might not have anything anyways.”

Pisces was backing up, holding the scroll, but half the adventurers weren’t even looking at him. One group was just glancing at the sun.

“…Can’t we get to Celum from that other inn? How far away is Albez?”

They began to stroll off…and then walk and then run as other teams decided this was a fine idea.

“Albez is long empty. The odds of finding anything are minute!”

Keldrass snorted some smoke, but his eyes were on the scroll. Ceria felt like kicking herself. All this time. All this time and they had never gone back!

Then again—Albez had been traumatic, for Yvlon especially. But could Warmage Thresk have had a second armory? Was he the only one who…

“Come on, Pisces. Be a friend and share it. Your team’s already gotten the Village of the Dead raid and Albez. There’s a limit to luckiness!”

The other adventurers were pressuring the [Necromancer] hard. He was refusing, but Ceria saw more than one [Rogue] doing something to the air. She was reminded of [Secretaries] and all the powerful Skills—and Pisces wasn’t warded. One snatched a bit of foolscap up and began to draw as Yvlon noticed and cursed.

“Hey, you—”

Seborn grabbed, but the [Rogue], a half-Elf who looked barely fourteen, did a backflip away.

Come on, guys!

His team began to race away, and Viecel cursed.

“Well, that’s torn it. Let’s share, and I’ll split what I find. Come on—”

Pisces was looking outraged at the other teams running for the door. He began to run after them and Yvlon was doing likewise when Ceria…

Had a thought.

 

Intelligence Check: 41 (random: 18 + 7 memory + 3 lore + 13 combined intelligence)

Target Check: 40.

 

“—Pisces, we’re already in trouble. Let’s share the scroll. For a cut of whatever any team finds.”

She spoke suddenly, and the [Necromancer] looked up. His outrage turned to resignation as she nodded to the other teams.

“Thank you, Captain Ceria, for some sense! Already—oh, look at this. Is there any [Spymaster] in Invrisil? We need to treat the paper—I bet if there was any magic it’s more complex than [Detect Magic]. But these rooms—Albez has shifted, but we could properly check this.”

Deni, Viecel, even Eldertuin and teams like Jelaqua’s were all over the paper. They practically ran towards Invrisil, arguing over what to do first as Yvlon threw up her hands in exasperation.

“Well, there goes anything but a bit of gold! I almost hope there isn’t any treasure in Albez. Damn it, Ceria.”

She cursed, but lightly. She knew that Ceria had a point—it made no sense to hold the scroll after those [Rogues] began stealing copies. But it made her angry.

Only a few adventurers were left who refused to join the rush. Even Orchestra was heading off to find the treasure, but some were either not interested like Saliss, had a job like Tessa, or were just not inclined to join the rush like Stargazer’s Promise.

Lehra was complaining loudly, and the Named-rank was staying put.

“I’m not going to search with a hundred amateurs. That’s how you run into monsters. Besides—I already found everything I wanted in some ruins.”

Ironically, Ceria realized that Lehra, who hailed from a tribe who specialized in searching ruins, was probably the best person to search—but the Gnoll showed little interest in that.

“You don’t want to try to find something in Albez, Lehra?”

“I want to talk to Erin about her quest. Dragial wasn’t the only person looking for Mershi. Niila is still out there, and Fissival is going to be after it too. Besides—so many adventurers are going to fight over whatever they find.”

Lehra seemed fairly certain it wasn’t worth the effort. Or perhaps she had her eyes on something even greater.

Only one last person hadn’t joined that rush from the Haven—and that was surprising to Mihaela Godfrey. She had been staring at Garia, who was full of nerves—but she turned as Colth emerged from the bathrooms.

The world’s greatest [Supporter] had been listening to the entire story of Albez—and Liscor’s dungeon. While it had taken Ceria several attempts to figure something out, it was understandable. Her past felt long ago, and if you missed something once, recorrecting that error in thinking was hard.

But Colth? Colth was the universal specialist. He saw opportunities most people missed—and while any number of adventurers who’d been listening to Ceria, Numbtongue, and the others had made the same mistake, Colth had not.

He glanced at Ceria’s too-cool expression as Yvlon cursed. Ksmvr had already noticed his Captain’s odd silence.

“Captain Ceria. Is there some reason we are not heading to Albez? It occurs to me we could still have a chance at establishing mass-dominance in our hunt, especially because we know Albez.”

The Antinium’s words made Pisces and Yvlon glance up. Ceria glanced sideways at Colth, and the [Supporter] whistled and put his hands behind his head.

“…I might have some kind of an idea. Unfortunately, Adventurer Colth figured it out too and we might be in a competition. Unless we’re going to start elbowing each other for seniority? Yvlon, get over here.”

The [Armsmistress] eyed Colth, but he put up his hands.

“Now, Captain Ceria. I’ve competed with other adventurers before, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth the more vicious it gets. If what I think you and I are thinking is right—we could share. Possibly even with any other interested adventurers here. If I’m right.”

Mihaela’s ears sharpened, and the confused Horns and other adventurers looked up. Saliss blinked—then swung his head from Colth to Ceria. He put his chin in his claws.

“Hm? Hmm…”

What had they just figured out? Ceria stuck out a hand.

“It’ll be dangerous. But let’s say you get a share and we see what we get first.”

“Very fair. We’re going to need to be safe, but we have the drop on everyone headed to Albez. If we swear everyone here to secrecy—”

Ceria. Just what are you planning?”

Yvlon stuck out an accusatory finger at her friend, and the half-Elf turned—and her face turned into a huge, evil smile.

“…I just thought of something. Something we all forgot about, no, I forgot about because I’m dumb as two rocks. One rock. We’ve been leaving something extremely valuable behind from one of our adventures. Something as obvious—and potentially as lucrative—as Erin’s door.”

Her team stared at her. Erin’s door had been, unironically, the greatest treasure to come from the semi-disastrous Albez expedition. What could this be?

Everyone was thinking now of the stories that had been told. The dungeon, the crypt, Albez…Pisces muttered.

“The most obvious loss was all the artifacts that were burnt away. Could there have been something in Thresk’s armory—?”

Could they have reconstructed the magical dust? Ksmvr slapped his forehead.

The runes.

Everyone turned to him. The Antinium waved his arms.

“Captain Ceria, of course! The runes! Each one is so valuable—”

“Dead gods!”

Yvlon turned white with horror as she recalled how Earlia’s team had earned money from the dungeon.

“There’s dozens, possibly a hundred Insanity Runes we left behind! That—that’s a fortune! Ceria, do you think they’re still there? Please tell me we weren’t that stupid and forgot!”

Ceria shook her head, but not in denial.

“No, we definitely left that behind. But don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry? That’s the first place all the teams will check!”

The half-Elf nodded and her panicking team calmed down when they saw Ceria wink at them.

“Doesn’t matter. Someone clued me onto that back when I was on Chandrar. We’re good.”

They were so astonished they just stared at her for a second. Firstly because they’d been left out of the loop—and secondly because Ceria was acting like a proper captain. Yvlon’s mouth worked until she frowned.

“Wait, if it’s not that—what?”

Yvlon’s eyes were squeezed shut. She was going back to the first expedition, and her arms hurt—her heart hurt.

“Could it be…the crypt doors that Skinner came out of? The sarcophagi?”

“Nope. They’re not enchanted as far as I can tell.”

Ceria shook her head. She was thinking of something else, based on the retellings. Her circlet, her conversations with adventurers, dead gods, even Omusc the [Pillager] had made her realize what Colth, with his fresh perspective, had picked up.

One ultra-valuable thing. Just lying there in sight of all the adventurers. Saliss’ eyes narrowed. They swung to Numbtongue, Ceria, Colth—and then he snapped his claws.

“Aha. I’m smarter than you all.”

He sat back with a grin. Yvlon’s kicking foot twitched—and then stopped. She stared at the naked Drake, and her mouth became an ‘o’.

“Pisces. I have it. It’s so obvious—how did you not think of it? You, of all people!”

Pisces looked offended—and slightly paranoid. He sniffed heartily.

“Me? Why—why would I be the lone fault in our collective thinking? I am not the career adventurer here.”

“Yes, but you’re the one who’d think of this first, Pisces. You…filthy [Necromancer], you.”

Ceria and Yvlon were teasing now. Pisces stared at them, and then he felt that tingle in his head too. Wait a second. Wait…

Only Ceria had actually ever ‘seen’ what they had left behind. So naturally more people wouldn’t have had that direct link. But when you thought about it—

What did an adventurer do to earn money? Find treasure, but how many Trolls just kept jars of gold hidden in the earth? How many Crelers invested in artifacts? Dungeons contained such treasure, but there was another basic way that Relics and artifacts were generated and made.

Pallass had done the smart thing after the Wyvern attack. It was now a growing hub of high-quality leather and meat. What had Ceria seen that she had left?

Well—how about the sight a crazed Minotaur had once shown her? Deep in an infested city lay the corpse of one of the three guardians of the dungeon.

Stalker. A once-invisible beast so powerful it had not succumbed to rot. And it was still down there. Hide and all.

Pisces’ mouth fell open, and Colth rubbed his hands together. He looked around at Ceria.

“Now, how big did you say this beast was? No—first off, let’s swear everyone to secrecy. And then—let’s have a team up. Time for an adventure.”

He smiled, and Ceria bared her teeth. After all—Stalker’s corpse was in the center of the dungeon. In the most dangerous spot, where Facestealer hunted. But they had a Named-rank—Named-ranks in the area.

The question was, how would they adventure? And of course—what could go wrong?

All their encounters with Liscor’s dungeon had always gone so right, after all.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Well, after that last big chapter, I am now trying to bring us back to shorter chapters and resume edits.

…I edited two chapters so far and am going for a third. Still, I have about 30 chapters left of Volume 1, so it’s still a bit of a hill that I’ll take down piece by piece.

This is news from me. In other news, I just played and beat Ghost Song and Signalis, both horror/eldritch games that I consider a cut above regular games. Good storytelling in each. Far better than Resident Evil Village’s new DLC, which has the worst story.

Yes, I play games on my time off. I just don’t mention it. It’s my version of TWI, I think, where I destress because games don’t make me think. Finding good stories in games is, uh, rare. But I do have hope. It’s just an interesting genre of its own with tropes and bad writing and sometimes just blind spots I notice.

I’d love to do one of those video essays but I’m no expert in verbal communication and I’m busy, but I always like seeing cool projects like that. Odd Taxi, for instance, was a great TV show I watched. Cells at Work, especially the spinoff, also fun and non-taxing, non-dramatic (like, say, a House of the Dragon or the Lord of the Rings stuff which feels too involved for my time off), and I’ve been pleased by the wealth of good stuff.

Well, I had nothing else to add, so I decided to talk about fun stuff I found for a bit. Look forwards to that poll chapter—it won by one vote! Thanks, and hopefully the story continues to be entertaining. Also, skuuul. Schuul? Something like that.

 

 

[Playful Radiant Fishies] by Lanrae!

 

Frostmarrow Behemoth Upgraded by LeChatDemon!

 

Adventurer’s Haven Symbol by Kylara!

 


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45 thoughts on “9.24

  1. Uh oh. I don’t like that we are finally seeing more of the dungeon after the whole Selphid lore chapters given all the…similarities between the two.

    Also surprised the Named Selphid wasn’t as worried about the Minds as the others. Also also how does he have kids? I’m expecting adopted kids but if not Lyonette has some competition in taste.

    • Nah. The Named Rank was probably asked by Larra and said it was fine. Or they steamed their nerves and faked it. But they’re probably just as impacted as Jel.

      As for their kids? I could see it. A high level Selphid would pay too dollar for preserving their bodies. And if some are male, then the semen would be preserved as well to a degree. So if he was having fun using a fresh body on the right species. Then I could see it.

  2. The third guardian corpse? That dungeon brings a lot of horror and death and while the corpse might be good, I am more willing to bet chaos and death is going to be the name of the game rather than running around with a new undead tool or corpse to harvest.

    Erin fast level is still fun and the DnD gaming party might finally make a arrival (or revival) to Inn World just as soon as they get the rules set, the pieces made, and a dozen [Adventures] starting a fight on what is being done or used for the game.

    Because chaos always happens when the Inn is involved.

  3. As for video essays about video games: I highly recommend Jacob Geller on YouTube. He mostly does horror games, but also lots of other topics

    • That’s Nameds for you; it’s been pointed out in-world several times that nobody normal gets to that rank. You have to either have an ego the size of the moon, be insane, or both, because sensible Gold-ranks who appreciate their limits (Todi, for instance) don’t do anything batshit enough to make the jump from Gold.

    • Well, not me, I wanted that bunch of adventurers to head on to the new lands and not to any dungeon. I dont really enjoy horror/ eldricht chapters, even if Pirataba is really talented with those themes. I like settlement and developpment themes better… anyway I bet it’ll still be good

      • Which makes me really suspect an oncoming disaster. Lehra’s had an incredibly easy road to Named, and it shows: she still treats it all as a big fun adventure. She’s been set up to have reality beat her over the head at some point, and Liscor’s dungeon has a track record of doing just that.

  4. I wonder what sound Ceria heard and what it means.

    Also maybe we’ll learn more about the boss of the dungeon and how it controlled or influenced Calraz

  5. The adventure’s haven brings adventuring, nice.
    I like Colth, I can’t help but feel like he’s gonna join Erin’s simp squad with his “I’m just looking for the right one” comment a few chapters back

  6. If you’re looking for a game with a good story, I’d highly recommend Outer Wilds. It’s an exploration game about, well, uncovering the story. That’s pretty much the entire gameplay so avoid spoilers at all costs or else, well, you kinda won’t be able to play it at all.

  7. Is it me or does Erin have so few skills considering she’s lvl48. Maybe its because of her rapid lvling but she seems kinda normal for a near lvl50

    • I don’t think so. The only characters I can think of with a bunch of abilities are mages and that’s because of their spells, which they can learn through study. When you look at just skills, they don’t seem to have a lot.

  8. “Does the Village of Springwater have a wine?”

    Don’t know if this is a typo,error by author,error by character, or something else ?

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