Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 3)

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(The author is on break until November 26th! I’ll be going to things. Like a wedding. Wish me luck and rest!)

 

Monsters.

They never left. They were never gone, even in bright days, even in happy moments—they were out there, preying on people in shadows. The only difference in this world was that monsters sometimes looked like what they were supposed to.

That felt like an appropriately Nerrhavia-like thought. She had told Erin, in private, that deep down under flesh and cloth, people were not so removed from animals. So—why quibble at being a ruler who employed horrors like you did [Soldiers]?

That was her logic. If someone committed dark deeds, the question was not whether they should be punished, but what use they had. The kingdom’s needs superseded the peasant’s. Not to say that the guilty would not pay, in the end, after she had used them up.

Everyone paid, in the end.

The cold logic of the Immortal Tyrant came back to Erin Solstice as she walked through the streets of Invrisil. With an armful of books. Mrsha was balancing one on her head that read, ‘The Lightning Thief and the Eyes of Baleros, Book 11’.

One of Garia’s favorites, apparently. It was one of those adventure tales and one of the few popular books in print across the world. Nanette had Book 15 in the series.

“I didn’t know they were still coming out with books.”

“The Lightning Thief is an enduring classic. Most likely because his adventures touched every continent in the world, giving him universal celebrity. I also note that his ‘sidekicks’ and his crew of affably-written rogues and associates are also diverse. Unlike other tales, which often tokenize the other species. Krsysl Wordsmith, for instance, has an objectionable habit of making non-Drakes a supporting role at best.”

Grimalkin of Pallass carried the most books, and he was reading as he walked. Why they were carrying books instead of stuffing them in bags of holding, Erin didn’t know. Perhaps because you should carry books. It felt like you were smarter.

“Well, I dunno about all that, but any reading’s good. I just hope Lyonette lets Mrsha claim this as reading practice.”

Erin herself had a book on Fraerlings. She’d asked, and the owner of the bookstore—a rare occupation given how expensive they were—had sourced two books.

The Hidden Folk of Baleros, by Eineith Stoneshield

Or—

The Titan’s Folk, by Niers Astoragon.

She’d picked only the first one at first. Not that she didn’t trust Niers, but Erin figured she’d ask him herself. Plus, it felt weird. But in the end, Erin had bought two. Because she had enough money, and because she sorta wanted to know how the Titan talked publicly about his people.

At any rate, she had no idea the Titan had so many written texts attributed to his name. Grimalkin was more impressed by Erin’s own attitude towards reading.

“You know, with exceptions, a lot of citizens read less than a book per year. Some, despite the common literacy of Izril, are not fluent enough to read novels. I assume it’s different…where you come from?”

Erin nodded.

“Y’know, Grimalkin. It amazes me the printing press hasn’t been invented here. I know you can magically copy books, but it’s less fast. I think.”

But then—it made sense why a magical quill that slowly, slowly could copy a book halted the printing press invention. People focused on making a hundred such quills or a Golem or…they managed to create entire libraries when there were magical kingdoms, but that vanished when someone turned off the magic.

Grimalkin’s scowl grew huger.

“A device to copy words? And Troydel has been—excuse me.”

He scribbled a quick note and then looked abashed. Erin smiled, noticing.

“Hey, the printing press is one of those things even R—well, even I think is great for everyone. But good luck figuring that out. What, do you print words on a piece of paper? Well…yeah, but good luck on typewriters. What, do you have a word, connected to a button and…I’m sure it’s hard.”

Nanette was happily peeking at the book as she walked.

“Thank you for helping me find the bookstore, Miss Solstice. Magus Grimalkin.”

“You’re welcome.”

He nodded, and Erin sighed.

“Yeah! It was fun, Nanette. I think I’ll go back and buy more books once Lyonette decides on our inn-budget for the month. Besides, I was getting tired of walking in circles.”

Or to be more accurate—not finding whatever prank Nerrhavia was pulling on Erin. They had spent most of the day, and Erin’s little bird had gone silent.

“It felt like we were right on top of it. Then…it vanished.”

“Some kind of moving individual? Mrsha smelled nothing.”

Grimalkin had tried to help find whatever they were searching for until the trail vanished, but he had admitted his magical means hadn’t located it. Erin frowned.

“Maybe. Maybe we could try later. Darn.”

Despite that, it had been a fruitful outing, and Erin got to relax and talk with Grimalkin about things other than serious matters. In fact, Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, was fun to visit on its own. Much like Pallass. How about that?

One of the things Erin did notice, though, was an increased population of Drowned Folk. Not a huge increase, but from one in ten thousand, they were now one in a thousand or more. They were just…there.

“Drowned Folk. I thought they were only really common on the coasts.”

“Thanks to your door…no, Invrisil is a hub. Yet it is true, they have appeared in Zeres and the other continents, but Izril especially. They are leaving the deeps. Nombernaught has surfaced on Izril. We may see them now as trade-partners, although the Walled Cities are wary of them.”

Grimalkin always had to take it political. Erin frowned, but she admired a shrimp Drowned Woman’s antennae. Although—said Drowned Woman was looking askance at a seafood display with smaller versions of her fish-half on display.

The [Grocer] was avoiding her eyes. Mrsha was trying not to laugh. And so was the Drowned Woman, Erin suspected. She looked mortified, but Erin detected more than a whiff of humor from her, and she wondered if this was a fun prank Drowned People liked to play. Her small group were entirely straight-faced.

Then again, so was Seborn. Erin wanted to talk to them—and she had plenty of time, so why not? Still, how did you go up to strangers?

“Hey, can I get fifteen shrimp—wait, how dare you?

Erin banged a fist on the counter and gave the Drowned Woman a look of horror. The [Grocer]’s face turned pale, and the Drowned Folk began laughing.

“Now there’s someone with proper sea humor.”

One of them commented. Erin stuck out her hand, and the Drowned Folk walked over as the [Grocer] looked down and Mrsha importantly pointed to a mackerel.

“I’ll take a bunch of shrimp, [Grocer].”

The Shrimp-Woman looked completely unabashed to be eating the smaller crustaceans, and Erin shook her Human hand. There was even a half-Dullahan Drowned Man, half shark, half armored figure crusted with barnacles. Another was half-half-Elf…

Another was a half-Elf. They greeted her and Mrsha and stared at Grimalkin.

“Seas take you deep.”

Nanette got an approving look, but the Drowned Woman exclaimed.

“Is that the little white Gnoll child in the scrying orb? It can’t be. And you…you look familiar.”

Erin was still not used to being recognized randomly. She turned beet red as the half-Dullahan man’s eyes lit up.

“I’d ask to play you in chess, Innkeeper Solstice! But not if you turn into a giant with wings. So here’s two little land-legends! Can we get one of those—autographs?”

Erin was so flustered she actually gave him a scrawled signature—Mrsha, a very fine one. The Drowned Folk answered her questions with great amusement.

“Why are we here? We’re just seeing which cities are best to travel to. With Nombernaught docked, Izril is not too far to sail about. The sooner we find which cities are friendly to our kind, the better.”

“Oh! Well, Liscor’s pretty far, but it has access to Invrisil and Pallass!”

The Drowned Folk traded glances.

“So we know. If it’s friendly to our folk, it’d be a wise place to mark. Is it?”

Erin hesitated.

“We only have one Drowned Person in, like, the entire city. Seborn. You don’t kn—Mrsha, don’t kick me. Anyways. Liscor doesn’t know Drowned Folk, but it’s pretty good, and my inn’s always open.”

The half-Shark man smiled.

“Those are good words to hear spoken, Miss Solstice. Better than most.”

That was better than most? Erin blinked, but the Drowned Folk nodded at each other. The Shrimp Woman popped a smaller shrimp into her mouth and ate it, shell and all, raw.

“Perhaps we’ll visit. Though I’d watch yourself. If it’s Seborn Sailwinds, he sails on the side of the Undersea Crews. And they’re unto [Pirates], not Storm Sailors. Then again, most look at us and see [Pirates] nonetheless.”

“See, I told you people know Seborn.”

Only because he’s a Gold-rank. Stop being weird.

Mrsha held up a notecard with a huge scowl. Erin floundered until Grimalkin raised his brows.

“You know Seborn Sailwinds despite him being a land adventurer? That was my understanding of how he became famous.”

“Not for his team. Sailwinds is a famous name. Therrium Sailwinds is one of the greatest [Captains] under the sea, for all he’s a raider. He and his sons—well. Watch out for him if you ever encounter his fleets at sea, Miss Solstice.”

The Drowned Folk nodded at each other, and Erin nodded slowly in return. It looked like Seborn had a past deeper than she thought.

 

——

 

At any rate, the Drowned Folk and books made for a fine day. Such a fine day that Erin enjoyed walking with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha—and Ser Dalimont—despite not finding what she was looking for.

“What if we tried it tomorrow? I think we could.”

“I’m happy to do that, Miss Solstice. Mother never took me to Invrisil much—a [Witch] is less needed here.”

And Mrsha didn’t want to take boring lessons from Lyonette! She nodded too. But to Erin’s gratification, Grimalkin hmmed, then nodded.

“That’s acceptable. I’ll meet you in the morning.”

“Grimalkin, you have time? Thanks!”

“I can make time. It’s not as if I’m constantly in demand, even with my apprentices. Besides, I understand Lady Pryde arrived with the Haven. It’s been my intention to thank her for her support of my weights projects.”

“Oh. Oh? Pryde?”

Erin bristled at the name, but Grimalkin shrugged.

“She’s been the most studious adopter of my ideas. I owe her quite a bit.”

“She’s weird. And rude. And arrogant.”

“…I believe I can accept those qualities. It would not be the first time I’ve met eclectic characters. Like Saliss.”

Grimalkin looked everywhere but Erin as he said this, and the [Innkeeper] colored. Mrsha nearly fell over laughing, and Nanette pretended not to notice—or smile—and Erin fell silent for a bit.

That was the moment, and it was a fine, good one. Erin felt like it was a nice and peaceful day as they headed back to the street where a small queue was waiting for the door. Half the people wanted Erin’s or Mrsha’s autograph, but they hurried past the two [Guards], and the door opened instantly for them, as if Liska knew they were waiting.

A fine day—right until Erin got back to her inn and saw the churned terrain from the battle with Facestealer. And heard that Albez’s dungeon had led to six fatalities and half the adventurers were on the run and headed to her door at Wailant’s farm.

Then—well. Then Erin felt Nerrhavia’s hand on her shoulder. Or the Tyrant’s tongue licking—she twitched her fingers and grimaced.

Monsters.

 

——

 

The Albez thefts.

Facestealer.

Both events were massive, but the Facestealer attack was far, far more concerning to Watch Captain Zevara and most Liscorians. The first was just an adventurer problem.

“If it can climb once, it can climb twice. And it just ate all the Watch’s attacks. I am going to tell the Council we cannot stop it and Liscor is in danger of massive casualties. The Antinium have told me they’ve fought off Facestealer before, many times—and paid for it in the hundreds or thousands of deaths. While it was in the dungeon, I was—if not content—I assumed it was just another threat. Now that we know it can climb, I need action.”

“Yes, Watch Captain. I will kill it.”

Erin returned to see Colth the Supporter standing with Watch Captain Zevara and a number of people, including Guildmistress Tekshia herself. The old Drake was eating cookies as she listened.

Zevara was the incredulous one.

“You didn’t do more than cut past its hide, Adventurer Colth. And it’s retreated into the dungeon.”

“It’s been marked, and more Named-ranks will be returning to the Haven or The Wandering Inn shortly. I intend to kill it, Watch Captain. If we fail, then it will be a threat beyond Named-rank adventurers. But there are more ways to kill something than with blades alone.”

Colth smiled tightly, but he held his ground in the face of the Watch Captain. It was Tekshia who muttered.

“Bold words. And how far will Colth the Supporter go?”

She met his eyes, and the old [Spearmaster] gazed at Colth—a gaze he returned blandly. Blandly, but for the sharp emotion Erin felt under that smile.

“Right to the next level or the end, Guildmistress. I am a Named-rank adventurer. I don’t let that kind of threat live.”

She held his gaze, and Tekshia turned towards Zevara abruptly.

“Let them try, Watch Captain.”

Zevara nodded slowly.

“I’m pulling Relc and Klbkch into reserve. Beyond that—the Watch will take precautions, but we really are…I’ll ask Commander Olesm for reinforcements. Yes. Of course.”

She seemed relieved at the thought. As if she had forgotten she now had an army to draw upon.

“Hey, guys. Is everyone alright?”

Erin looked anxiously at the Horns and the people standing around as she put her books down on a table. Everyone turned, and Zevara gave Erin an incredulous look.

“You had nothing to do with this, Miss Solstice? You weren’t even here?”

“Not everything’s my fault, Zevara. Did Facestealer really attack?”

“You missed the fight of a month, Erin. That thing—I might have nightmares.”

Ceria Springwalker grinned from a table. Erin turned red as she realized Ceria was disrobed! She had put on pants, but her top was being covered—by bandages.

Ksmvr was holding up a modesty-towel as Yvlon secured Ceria’s ribs with some bandages. The half-Elf winced.

“I cracked some ribs. Don’t worry, it’s mostly healing. Turns out Facestealer can throw dirt.”

Dirt did that to you?”

“About a few hundred pounds, yeah. Broke my barriers.”

“That kind of strength—can I hear what happened, Captain Ceria? Is there a recording?”

Grimalkin was all alert as he listened to the Horns’ recounting of the event. Erin’s blood chilled to hear how even Saliss and Colth had barely damaged it.

“Tough—but not exactly the fastest foe about. It relied on its aura, but we never got hit.”

“One hit would have been your last. Yvlon nearly got killed, and it was missing her.”

Yvlon’s arm had a chunk torn out of it. The [Armsmistress] was gulping down food, and she shook her head.

“I’ve never seen anything so tough. Even the Adult Creler was weaker. It killed the Frostmarrow Behemoth—”

“Always nice to know there’s something worse out there, eh, Pisces? No wonder we’re not ready for a <Mythical Quest>.”

Ceria grinned sardonically as she put on a shirt and looked over, but Pisces was bending over a shaken young woman sitting with streaked white face paint. Erin blinked—who was this?

“Is that a [Necromancer]?”

She blurted it out, and Grimalkin looked at her sharply—as did Zevara and Tekshia. But Pisces was comforting Ama, who had lost Rodden. He turned as Erin approached.

“Erin, this is Ama. She’s a—friend of mine from the past. I hope she’s welcome here?”

“Hello.”

Ama looked up warily, but Erin bent down kindly and offered her a hand. Ama took it and realized she was a mess of snot and tears and face paint. She searched for her mask, but Erin just took her hand and squeezed.

“Of course she is. Any friend of Pisces—well, friends—are welcome here. Ama, right? You’ve been through a lot. I’m…sorry. Just sit there, and anything you need, we’ll get, okay?”

“Thank you.”

She seemed gratified by the welcome. Erin just looked bleakly at Pisces. Someone had died, and she wasn’t here.

Really, in this moment, Erin wasn’t the principal actor of the moment. Colth, the adventurers—even Lyonette was as the [Princess] helped serve tables and restore order. Erin nodded to Rags, who was watching, and then looked around.

“Did anyone else get hurt? I thought I heard Saliss and Tessa fought?”

“I didn’t. It never got to the inn. Saliss lived.”

Tessa appeared, and Erin saw the Drake pointing. She looked over, and the [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Well, at least he’s alive. Saliss, you good?”

The Drake was lying face-first on the floorboards, much where she’d last seen him. He raised a thumb-claw, and Erin turned.

“Well. Now, will someone explain Albez to me?”

She felt like she was playing catch-up. And that was before the Titan’s students hurried in.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights was getting tired of having to remember so many people. First the Titan’s students, now all the adventurers—at least they weren’t staying.

“We could stay and help deal with Facestealer—I mean, we will. But the Titan’s called us back to the academy.”

“You’re going back to class? What about Calruz?”

“I’m rendering my judgment—but frankly, I’m inclined to let Liscor adjudicate the matter. His behavior in the dungeon and out of it and his class are all at odds with Captain Ceria’s testimony. It is not the answer he wants, but I am not prepared to execute him.”

Venaz was speaking to her as he put a hand on his diamond greatsword. Now there was a fine weapon.

Saliss wondered if it would have harmed Facestealer. Then again—the Blade of Mershi hadn’t. He lay on the floor and appeared dead.

It was a sign the inn was getting to know him that no one paid much attention to Saliss. Ishkr put down a drink on the floor, and the Drake grunted thanks.

Amateurs.

Ishkr paused, and Saliss’ head rose.

“Not you. Them. Bunch of sprouts not ready to be corn or some farming analogy. You get it.”

Ishkr hesitated—then nodded. He walked off, and Saliss put his head down after taking a nice long sip of the blue juice. Nothing like possible poison to make a drink taste sweet.

That went for the Goblin Chieftain who kept eying him. She was intelligent—but she fit right into the mold with the Titan’s students. Saliss hoped they left rather than join whatever Colth had planned.

Colth was corn. Baby corn, but pretty tough corn. So were Viecel, Eldertuin, and Deniusth’s team, for all they had…ticks. Did corn have ticks?

The point was made in Saliss’ mind, but someone always needed clarification. In this case, it was the timid [Alchemist] who came over and poked him a few times.

“Master Saliss, Master Saliss, I’m halfway done with your latest batch. But I need you to, um, check my work? Please?”

“Drag me.”

He lifted a claw, and Octavia hesitated—until Numbtongue grunted, got up, and dragged Saliss into her workshop.

 

——

 

Octavia Cotton had been apprenticing under Saliss of Lights for a while now, albeit with a long hiatus for Erin’s death and her adventure.

She still hadn’t gotten used to the honor. Or Saliss’ ways. He lay on the floor, making her place bottles and items down and raising his head to grunt at them.

“Good. Good. That looks iffy…it’s nice having an apprentice do boring work. You ready to kill me yet?”

He meant because Octavia had been pulling up to seventeen-hour shifts to get through his massive backlog of alchemical items. The younger [Alchemist] tried to smile.

“It’s—intensive, Master Saliss. But I am learning and levelling!”

“Good. I don’t have time for this. I’m very busy, as you can see.”

Saliss put his head down, and Numbtongue stared at him. The Hob wanted to listen to the preparations for Facestealer, so he motioned to Octavia and mouthed, ‘you okay’?

She nodded, and he retreated with a look at Saliss. Even the [Bard] was fooled, but Octavia was not.

Saliss did joke and pull pranks, but never when working. He was very careful about teaching her personally how not to injure herself, and if she was working on something dangerous, he’d make her use his personal lab, which she had access to.

Frankly, she felt like between him and Xif, she had actually lucked out. She knew Saliss was very thoughtful—so Octavia squatted next to the Drake, who was just lying flat on the floor.

“Master Saliss, may I ask a question?”

“That’s one. You get two more. Call me a Djinni. Don’t forget the collar.”

That was probably a joke. Even so, Octavia chose her words carefully.

“Master Saliss…why are you lying on the floor if you’re so busy?”

“I’m thinking.”

Alright, Octavia supposed she deserved that.

“…What are you thinking about, Master Saliss?”

Then he didn’t answer, and Octavia feared he’d not respond—but Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes were sharp as he gave Octavia a look.

“[Battle Simulations].”

The Stitch-Girl blinked at him, and Saliss put his head down.

“Remember how I told you I used to be Chaldion’s student? You can get rid of anything you want—but some of what I got was useful. It’s nothing strong like…this annoying metal kid I once met. But it works.”

“What are you simulating, Master Saliss?”

The Drake grunted.

“After today? Facestealer. But I’ve been figuring something out. First that [Witch]. Xrn. No, damn it. Seamwalkers and that war—Sserys is a great benchmark. The Shark Captain’s still a rookie. More like almost-corn. Lots of almost-corn. Even you.”

“Me, Master Saliss? What’s the corn about?”

Saliss was making no sense, but Octavia tried to follow his analogy as the Drake spoke.

“Eldertuin has a [Farmer] friend. Never met him. He probably knows more about it, but I’m just looking around. Corn and not corn. I’m corn. I’m weird corn, but I’m definitely corn by now. Grimalkin’s corn, if weak corn. Erin wasn’t corn—now she is. Not battle corn, but she’s like Larracel. But the rest? You could argue Relc was retired corn. But those students of the Titan aren’t full-corn yet. Nor is that Goblin, Rags. Maybe one or two of her lieutenants are—but the real corn isn’t developed.”

He was talking about levels. Or…Named-rank adventurers? And he thought she was on her way? Octavia was excited until she realized what Saliss was saying.

“Numbtongue?”

“Haunted not-quite-corn. How’s your relationship?”

Octavia blushed.

“It’s fine. He takes me food and makes sure I wake up. Puts a blanket on me and tells me to stop.”

“Now that’s a great relationship. Good.”

“Master Saliss?”

“Hm?”

“Why are we corn? What does that make monsters?”

The Drake was silent a moment.

“…I don’t know. I didn’t think the metaphor through. But the point is, I’m realizing the inn’s got some good plants. And I’m corn. And corn doesn’t beat Seamwalkers.”

Then Octavia felt a lurch in her stomach. Saliss glanced up, and he spoke.

“My battle potions are weak. My acid’s weak. It barely did any damage to Facestealer. I can kill an army—but I can’t kill Belavierr. I need to upgrade them.”

Saliss of Lights, considered the adventurer with the highest firepower on the continent—if not the world—was saying that? The [Alchemist] put his head down.

“Here’s the thing, apprentice. Crafter-fighters have a different problem than [Warriors]. All they need is a Relic-class blade. Find one. Me? If my best potion can’t scratch this new caliber of foe—I need to invent one better. Or discover it. That’s clear.”

“Does that mean you’re headed to the new lands, master?”

That seemed like the best place to find anything new or old. Saliss just laughed.

“What am I, good at camping? No. It’s a waste of time. I’m getting back into the laboratory, apprentice. And you and I will have to work harder. I need…more powerful reagents. Damn it. I hope those Albez thieves got something. Maybe I should rob them, but—that’s it.”

He pushed himself up suddenly.

Albez. That damned [Chronomancer] had to be a multifaceted polymath, didn’t he? They’re all pretentious—all I need is to compare his inventory with mine. Reagents, Octavia.”

She knew what he meant. That was the fuel for most alchemy, like Sage’s Grass. Saliss glanced up.

“Old-era alchemy might not have had easy-access healing potions, but they had stronger stuff. Potions of Regeneration, Ryoka’s damned Haste Potion—we’re missing the booster. Probably Unicorn testicles or something. Of course, finding that’s one half the puzzle. The other half is formulas, but I need to do it. Otherwise, I’ll be throwing water at [Witches], and contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t melt them.”

Octavia understood. Saliss sat there, and Octavia saw him exhale hard.

“The new lands aren’t for me. I’ll be here, so you’d better prepare for more lessons, apprentice. Because I need your help. And…”

He looked up seriously.

“…we will both be needed. You, me, Xif, and every [Alchemist] in Pallass.”

“For creating new potions?”

He shook his head.

“The Eir Gel Reef is gone. I don’t know what happened, still—but the world’s out of our supply of healing gel. We have to find a solution.”

The two [Alchemists] looked at each other, and Octavia gulped. If there were no more healing potions…Saliss of Lights looked ahead, past Facestealer, at a battle only his class was ready for.

“It’s gonna be an ugly winter and next year.”

He sat there—expression grim and unusually tense. Until Erin Solstice came to ask him for a favor.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had listened to the reports about Albez. She knew the adventurers were coming.

Maybe they hoped to beat news of their thefts at Albez. Some of them were certainly attempting to bribe her. No less than eight [Message] spells were promising her gold if she let them through and didn’t let Deniusth or the others after.

They were in hot pursuit, but the thieves had a good march on them. Even so, Erin guessed it might be a half-hour’s difference between the two groups at most.

“The easiest thing is to not open the door. Let them sort it out. We’ll hunker down—Viceria’s putting barriers up, and we’ll let them run for it. I’d think about offering some space, but not with Named-ranks out for blood.”

Wailant had moved his door off his property due to the increased traffic, but he had liked the proximity to the inn, and so he’d put it at a local crossroads five minutes from his farm. Now, he’d moved it further so the adventurers wouldn’t endanger his farm.

“I’ll let you know what I decide, Wailant. What do you think about the thefts?

The [Pirate] gave her a sardonic look.

“You mean, what do I think, was it right or wrong? I know I’d probably try to swipe a little something, even if I didn’t do a big theft. That many artifacts? I bet you a Silver-rank team’d get gold and spit rather than a single wand. But hey, I don’t moralize when I stab someone in the ass, either.”

“Good point.”

Erin walked back through her door and stopped for a moment. Travel was out due to the Facestealer attack, so only a single Gnoll was sitting there, chewing on a hamburger. Erin glanced at her.

“Liska? How are you doing?”

The Gnoll jumped.

“Er—fine, Erin. I mean, Miss Solstice. Doing my job!”

“You’re not nervous from the attack?”

Liska tried to grin, but her eyes flickered, and Erin knew she was rattled.

“Me? No. Someone’s got to stay and keep Ishkr safe. Besides—it never got the inn. You want me to go somewhere else?”

“Not just yet. I’m just thinking. I’ll be back. Just—thanks for helping.”

“No problem. Do we get a hazard bonus?”

Erin didn’t answer that last one. She headed into the inn and asked where Saliss had gone. She thought about Grimalkin, but she didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship after they’d just started talking. Ceria was groaning.

“Guys, let me know when Deniusth and the others are here. Want to meet in the Haven? I hear they’ve got crystal healing beds.”

“I can ask Larra to give you a room. And she does have healing. Let’s meet there, alright? Pisces, how’s your friend?”

Colth nodded at the others. Erin heard Pisces murmur a reply.

“Ama will be heading back. She’s upset—we can pay and thank her later. I don’t think she’s up for an attack on Facestealer.”

“No, and her undead won’t do much. We’ll talk. You lot take some time off. If you want to chat—I’ll be in the Haven.”

Colth smiled at Pisces, and the [Necromancer]…Erin eyed Pisces and wondered why he was looking at Colth like that. There was a lot she didn’t know about. Sometimes it was fine. Ceria rubbed at her ribs.

“Well, I’m going to see you later. I’ll be going on a little date.”

“Oh, again? Have fun, Captain Ceria.”

Yvlon and Pisces nodded along—then the two of them turned back from Colth and stared. The bug-eyed expressions on the two non-Antinium members of the Horns made Ceria grin.

“What?”

“Yes, what?”

Ksmvr looked at Yvlon and Pisces, and the [Armsmistress] pointed.

“You—you—wh—”

“I’m not allowed to have private time? Can you believe these two, Ksmvr? I don’t bother you two on the dates you definitely have.”

Ceria’s impish look grew, and Yvlon and Pisces made a garbled noise until she headed off, past Erin. The [Innkeeper] gave Ceria very much the same look.

“Huh?”

 

——

 

There was a lot she didn’t know about. Case in point—Erin walked into Octavia’s shop and stared at the Drake lying on the ground.

“Um. Saliss? Do you have a moment?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

The Drake kicked his feet until he shuffled around so his face was pointing at Erin. Still staring at the floorboards.

Erin squatted down as Octavia glanced up.

“You okay? Thanks for protecting the inn.”

“Hey, don’t worry. I’ll bill you at market price for all the potions I used, how about that?”

Erin hesitated, and Saliss grinned.

“I should. But I won’t. Don’t worry about it. What’s the word on Albez? Asking me what to do?”

He was perceptive. Erin Solstice sighed and sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Octavia, can I ask a favor? Saliss, you want food?”

He cracked an eye open, and the [Alchemist] nodded.

“Oh, of course! Can I get you…?”

“Give me one of those hot sandwiches with the things in it you had for breakfast.”

“A grilled pastrami on rye, Octavia. Can I get, um…fries? Calescent’s spicy fries.”

“Sure thing.”

Octavia hurried out, and Saliss glanced up.

“Not exactly subtle. So what do you want?”

Erin bit her lip.

“I…what do you think about the Albez thing?”

“Silver-ranks and Gold-ranks stealing from competitors to the north? I wouldn’t have been that stupid. Deni’s been retired for a while. First, he underestimated the most dangerous Goblin tribe in the north. Next, he forgot that adventurers are hungry and poor, and he’s an ass. Eldertuin’s solid, and Viecel’s crazy like me and Tessa—but a different kind. That answer your question?”

It did, a bit. Erin glanced over her shoulder.

“And Colth?”

Saliss’ eyes sharpened.

“Colth’s a real Named-rank in his prime. Not too old. Grew up with legends. You want to know why Mihaela Godfrey’s here? Because she’s retired. She’s still dangerous, grouchy, and competent—but if she was in her prime, she’d be running deliveries as a Courier and kicking [Generals] in the face. Colth’s not as good as she was—but he’s the best. Notice how his first instinct was to kill Facestealer?”

“Yours wasn’t?”

Saliss shrugged. He put his head back down.

“My potions are too weak. But he’s got a better handle on it. I’ll listen if he needs a favor. Next question?”

Erin sat there.

“…If I asked you for a favor, Saliss, a sorta big one that might get you in trouble. And me—how can I pay it off?”

“Been speaking to [Witches] lately? Or the old man?”

Saliss’ head rose, and his eyes glinted. He looked at Erin, and she showed him the wicker bird on her finger.

“Been cursed? Nevermind. Erin—we don’t do favors. Not us. Just give me something. Anything from your gardens—because I need it. But say it.”

That was why she liked him. And of all of the others, she trusted Saliss. More than Grimalkin. Frankly, more than almost anyone. She didn’t know why, only that she thought, despite his secrets—she knew Saliss.

“Okay. I’ll have as much help as I can get—what do you need?”

“Whatever those bastards stole from Albez. I can’t let them have it or Deni sell it.”

“Oh? Well—that actually works. Because I need you to go into Pallass and move my portal stone. Without being stopped by Sergeant Kel or Chaldion. Right now. And do it within about forty minutes.”

That was how much time she thought they had. Saliss’ head rose slowly, and his neck spines seemed to rise.

“And where would you like me to move it, Erin?”

She knew the spot.

“There’s a place a good ways outside Pallass. Where Pallass Hunting does its work. It’s in this nice glen—there would be pretty private. And you can hit the road not far from there. If…Pallass didn’t know it was there, anyone popping out’d be pretty far away. Then I need you to move it back to Pallass.”

Saliss stared at her. His lips moved soundlessly for a second.

“Right back on the 8th Floor?”

“Yep.”

“In the checkpoint with Desk Sergeant Kel, the most friendly and relaxed of Drakes, and the Old Man’s lenient policies towards anyone who comes through on a whim?”

“Uh huh.”

“After placing it far outside Pallass’ walls?”

“Do I keep saying yes?”

Saliss just looked at Erin. Her stomach was twisting, but…she met his gaze. The Named-rank adventurer whistled.

“…How badly do you want them to level? What’s in those new lands?”

Erin bit her tongue. She didn’t answer, but Saliss swung himself up into a cross-legged position. He thought for a while.

“Deniusth might try to kill you. But let’s say we send those thieves straight into the new lands. How do you explain why you did what you did?”

Erin held out her hands and shrugged.

“Leave that to me. I’ll take all the responsibility, Saliss.”

“Humor me.”

Erin Solstice met Saliss’ eyes, and he saw her worried look turn into a colder look of—anger.

“Deniusth’s team—or he and the other Gold-ranks—killed six adventurers in cold blood. Even if they were thieves, I don’t trust him, and I don’t think that was the right call. And the rest? We need levels, Saliss. We need levels.”

It was the worst thing she’d ever done consciously. Far, far worse than plotting to destroy a Raskghar camp or…Saliss gave Erin a longer look, then nodded.

“Corn against Seamwalkers. Give me twenty minutes.”

 

——

 

Liska Coresh Silverfang had always thought Erin was sort of…boring. She knew Erin was the ‘crazy innkeeper’ who spat blood and caused trouble, but Erin hadn’t ever really impressed her in person.

She was fun-ish, and she was certainly nice and had powerful Skills, but she had always seemed to be, in Liska’s estimation of the world, sort of a law-abiding, boring person.

Much like Ishkr, her brother. This?

This was crazy. When Erin told Liska what she wanted to do and had Liska move to a series of rooms inside the inn, which Liska hadn’t known even existed, the Gnoll was alarmed.

“Wh—we’re really doing this, Miss Solstice?”

Erin was dumping items onto a table. She had a list of Lyonette’s prices, and she turned.

“Yep. Wailant! Where’s the rest of the food?”

Coming. This is crazy, Erin. I love it. It’s crazy—but that Violinist is going to kill you.”

“He could try.”

“Larra the Haven will kill you, then.”

Wailant grunted as he placed a pack full of, ironically, dried cornmeal on the table. Erin gave him a slight smile.

“No, she won’t. I think she might take my side, actually. Especially if I pay her.”

“Oh. Maybe Viceria’s right. Maybe I am a bad influence.”

Even Wailant looked askance, but Erin just nudged him.

“Nah. Seborn is worse.”

You little—we’re having a drink tonight, Miss Innkeeper. Alright, that’s the last pack I’ve got.”

The room was crowded, and Liska was about to pee. She had to run to the restroom, and she felt the door was fully-charged.

Her new Skills as a [Door Gnoll] let her sense its ambient mana levels like Erin. Liska had all kinds of cool powers.

Like knowing which entrance of the door had people waiting. The ability to calm down a crowd. And the power to…

“[Conjure Stool].”

Liska sat down as she hurried back into the private rooms. Erin glanced at the plain wooden stool.

“Uh. Is that your new power, Liska?”

“I’m a Level 6 [Door Gnoll], Miss Solstice.”

“…Cool. Can you do two?”

“No.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled. Then they went back to waiting. Erin seemed far, far more composed than Liska. Her leg jiggled as she sat at the edge of the table, but Liska was about to be incontinent with nerves.

When the adventurers did arrive, they came in a storm.

The door! The door! We’ll pay for—there!”

They came riding horses hell-for-leather, some in battered wagons showing damage from spells and arrows. More than one was looking over their shoulder even as they slowed, but they charged for the door while carrying—

Treasure. Some was in bags or even chests of holding, but Liska saw one of the Distinguished Staves holding a beautiful staff—and the area around the orb seemed so still, so calm—

The leaves were falling from trees outside the route near Wailant’s farm. One flew into the proximity of the stave as the [Mage] holding it ran—and the leaf fixed in place.

Time magic. Erin looked at the staff as the adventurers came to a halt.

“Miss Solstice! Let us through to Liscor, please! Or—Invrisil?”

“Anywhere, we’ll pay!”

“I have one place I’ll send you. And if you want—come on through. But before that, we’ll negotiate.”

Erin Solstice called through the door. Wailant was standing to the side, a hand on his own blade, but the Gold and Silver-ranks started. Erin glanced at Liska, then walked through the door. She shut it, and Liska gulped.

This was part of the plan—but it was still incredible that Erin did it. Liska waited, standing up from her stool, and paced around the room. The laden tables were filled up—she passed by jars of green acid, Erin’s travel foods, mana candies, Scaleguard Sandwiches, and bags of animal feed and provisions. Even camping supplies that Erin had asked Liska to buy as many of as possible.

When she finally felt Erin tug on her [Portal Door], Liska swung it open. She was almost certain Erin could do it herself, but the [Innkeeper] walked through with the first teams.

“Put anything you got that’s alchemical or enchanting-related on the tables.”

“Miss Solstice—”

“No buts. That’s the fee. Not all of you are even paying it.”

Erin pointed at a rough-looking man, one of the Waterborn Raiders, drenched in sweat. His eyes flickered to the door, and Erin raised a finger.

“Harm Liska or me, and that door will never open. Colth is still in this inn and the Horns and Grimalkin of Pallass. He’s big. Plus, Shriekblade is standing right behind you.”

The Waterborn Raider went white, and he whirled. Tessa tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled again and backed up.

Liska’s nerves actually decreased as she recalled that Erin had a Named-rank as a bodyguard. The Gold-rank adventurers traded looks as more filed in.

“All of it?”

“All of it. It’s not useful where you’re going, is it? How many artifacts did you get? How many books? I’ll take any books you want to offload, too. For a price. Anything you want here—well, you’re all one buyer, so decide what you want.”

Erin indicated the supplies. The adventurers stared at her and then the supplies. Bird’s arrows, gear—one of the raiders whistled as he picked up the jar of acid. He almost opened the lid, but Erin snapped at him.

“Don’t do that. And don’t get it on your skin unless you want it melted. Hurry. I thought they were right behind you?”

The teams glanced over their shoulders, and Liska backed up as someone led a horse through the door. Erin called out.

“Pick what you want—come on through now if you’re coming! If you’re going to surrender, Wailant will give you a drink.”

“All the way past Pallass? And then to the new lands?”

It seemed to hit some of the Silver-ranks only now. Erin Solstice saw one of them turn to her.

“Can’t you send us somewhere else? Just around Liscor or…”

“The [Portal Door] doesn’t go anywhere else, sorry. And what would you do if I did? I’ll be letting Deniusth and the others through, and they’ll follow you. Like I said—if you want to give up everything you stole, stay at Wailant’s farm. I’ll transport you to my inn, and then Larra’s Haven, and the Named-ranks and Gold-ranks won’t touch you, you have my word. I can’t promise you’ll be adventurers after that, but they won’t kill you.”

And the rest? They looked at Erin’s overpriced stocks and then her map that showed a path across the trade routes to the New Lands.

“We’re going. This staff…I’ll find the half-Elves or another continent. Damn Deniusth. He didn’t even promise us a spellbook.”

The leader of the Distinguished Staves was in his fifties, but he calmly walked over to the table, began selecting gear, and tossed down some of the loot he’d stolen from Albez. Leaving his life behind.

“Captain Geith—my family.”

“Should have thought of that before you pissed off Orchestra.”

Wailant was sympathetic, but only a bit. He nodded at the other wavering adventurers.

“I can take a letter, but you’d better write quick. Free of charge, even.”

He said that as if Erin wasn’t collecting a good portion of the gear. It was the largest door tax that Liska had ever seen. She’d heard Erin complaining about Magnolia’s mandatory tax to Invrisil.

After today…Liska didn’t think Erin got to complain again.

For all of their talk, it was fast. The adventurers grabbed almost everything, and the only delay was taking through some of the animals—turning them around and sending them to the spot where Saliss was waiting outside Pallass. Liska heard him speaking to them.

“I’ve got free advice and people to talk to. Don’t be stupid, and don’t go to a Walled City. Hey, Geith. Nice staff. Good luck.”

To Liska’s surprise, she saw Erin Solstice shaking hands with the Waterborn Raiders and every adventurer who went through. Thieves or not—she took the hands of the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders.

“Don’t die out there. And if you ever do manage to make it back to Liscor, without bounty or someone after you—come here and tell me what happened.”

“You’re…alright, Innkeeper Solstice. Funny. I thought you were different.”

Erin Solstice looked the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders in the eye.

“I don’t approve of stealing, Captain. But it’s your choice. The new lands…Deniusth isn’t that charming. No matter what, it’s going to be dangerous. Good luck.

Then they were heading out, and Liska saw only seven adventurers remain, a tiny fraction of the ones going through the door. Erin could send roughly two hundred people to Pallass. By the time she closed the door, it had just enough juice to send Wailant back and deliver the seven adventurers to his farm for that promised drink.

“Pretend they’re not there, Wailant. I bet you Deni’s going to be coming for my door. He probably won’t even think they’re at your farm. Liska, is there power to let him through?”

She could check, but Liska, amusingly, seemed to be better at estimating relative to distance and place, thanks to her class. Erin just knew her door was ‘low’ and she was busy, so the Gnoll focused and answered for her.

“Just—just six more, Erin.”

“Well, let him through, but not his team. And Halrac and any captains. If Deni wants to kick up a fuss—Tessa, don’t kill anyone.”

“Yes, boss. Can I kick him?”

“Anywhere you want as long as it’s not permanent. But we’re going to be reasonable. How much did we get?”

Erin turned, and Wailant winked at her. He cast one last admiring look at the books, bottled alchemical reagents, magical crystals, and trinkets the adventurers didn’t think were the most valuable—or immediately valuable—piled on the table. Erin Solstice exhaled as the real haul—and largest share of Albez—sat in her inn. She turned to Liska, and the Gnoll stared at her.

“This room doesn’t exist, Liska. And since Wailant’s being so quiet—”

“Lips sealed, Miss Solstice. Maybe one book and a gift for Viceria?”

Erin gave him a patient look.

“Come by later. Yes, since Wailant’s being so quiet—this room doesn’t exist. Larra will maybe want to be here, but no one’s coming here without my permission. You have access to the garden—only let Saliss in here unsupervised. He’ll probably want to look stuff over.”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

Liska stood there, knees trembling, and then followed Erin into the garden and back towards the regular hallway of the inn. Erin made the [Portal Door] reappear, and then she turned.

“Lyonette? I have something I’d like to let you know about. Um. Colth too. Liska, just let through Deni. And if Larra wants to find me—I think her Haven’s past Invrisil, but I set up a portal stone there for now. Let her through.”

Liska sat down on the ground since her stool Skill was on cooldown. She stared at Erin’s back and listened to the sounds of the [Innkeeper] walking off. There was silence…then the sound of a [Princess] screaming.

Ishkr opened the door to the portal room as Deniusth pounded on Erin’s door in Celum, screaming for answers. Before Liska opened the door to Celum, she looked at her brother.

“Well?”

He raised his brows, and Liska pointed after Erin.

“She’s crazy. You said this job was fine! She’s crazy and cool.

“Obviously.”

Ishkr smiled at his younger sister, and Liska stared at him. Then she really, really began to wonder just what his class was. And his level.

 

——

 

“What level is Ishkr, do you think? I heard a birdie tell me that Chaldion tried to hire him—or buy his loyalty. And by that, I mean Bird told me.”

“What makes you think Ishkr’s high-level?”

“What makes you think he’s not?

“…Fair point.”

Today was a day of missing things. In an interesting way, in Invrisil, people hadn’t heard of the Facestealer attack. Larracel the Haven, the connected [Innkeeper], had heard about the Albez debacle—

But not about Colth’s plan to take down the monster. Similarly, Larra didn’t know what Erin had just done with the adventurers.

And neither did Ceria Springwalker, who was on her aforementioned date. She’d shaken off Yvlon and Pisces, who had a mountain of questions. She wondered if this counted as a prank, but really, Ceria felt like this was the most normal thing of the Horns.

Ksmvr didn’t really date. He was a kid and had a very limited understanding of how or why you did these things. That wasn’t her being mean either.

Children could occupy themselves all day with certain things. For instance, Ceria had seen Ksmvr sitting in front of a scrying orb for about seven hours. True, one could vegetate to that level—but he had been engrossed.

She didn’t think he was on the dating part of his life, was the point. Pawn now…

Pawn was interesting. Anyways, the point was that Ksmvr was out—and so were Yvlon and Pisces. Yvlon’s dates…well, Ceria wondered how well they’d gone when Yvlon was in the Silver Spears. As awkwardly as dating Ylawes, Ceria just bet.

As for Pisces—she might have expected it from him before. Not after Chandrar.

These were troublesome topics, and this was really to relax and have fun. Which Ceria was allowed to do. She was not being serious and long-term like Jelaqua with Maughin—or any relationship the Selphid engaged in, really. Ceria was glad most people got that.

The Ice Squirrel made one mistake. Silly squirrel, really. She had thought that was the only crazy thing that could happen in the inn, so she’d left and was blissfully unaware of the heist Erin had just pulled off.

She’d learn.

However, in the interim, Ceria Springwalker felt at her cracked ribs and winced. They’d heal fast due to the potion she’d been given, but she dreaded to imagine how long it would be if it had been infected. Pisces had fused the bones together to help the potion stick, but it still hurt, damn it.

[Necromancers]. Very handy for a number of reasons. Anyways, this was not the first date with this individual, nor was it serious like going to…well, Wishdrinks would be casual and fun. The Tailless Thief would be a nightmare and too expensive.

Work did follow you about, too. Her partner on the date glanced up.

“Are you really going after Facestealer? Is this the right moment for, uh—dating?”

“Let’s not talk about it. I adventure, and that’s that. If I don’t think about it, you don’t need to. Deal? Let’s try to have fun—although, let’s not break my ribs.”

“That’s…pretty good compartmentalizing. I’m just about done…”

The [Prankster]’s eyes twinkled as she watched. She’d arrived on-time, but she was being stood up for time. So she adjusted the light shirt she wore and pulled it up to expose her bandaged ribs, among other things.

“Sounds good. I’ll just count my fractures. Do you think I’m bleeding?”

Kevin looked up, did a double-take, and stared for a bit. Ceria cackled—then wondered if the circlet made her more likely to do that.

The [Engineer] closed his books and laughed. He looked at the closed door to his office.

“You are so lucky my helper wasn’t staring.”

“Why? It’s not like you can put out bad rumors about me. ‘Ceria has breasts’. Fire her from Gold-rank immediately!”

“No, it’s inappropriate in a work-environment.”

“Oh. Earth-stuff. Sounds interesting. Tell me more about it. Or do I get more poetry?”

Oh Captain, my Captain…

Kevin and Ceria chuckled. She quite liked her latest dance partner—and he was willing to try to dance. It was very informal, but she thought it was a good match. For one thing—he knew about Earth, and she was still curious about that.

You’d have to ask Kevin if he thought he got an equal benefit from the dates. They departed Kevin’s office in Solar Cycles, the little Esthelm office close to Pelt’s forge.

“So, are we going to Esthelm or…”

“I saw a cool pub in the city. They’re expanding fast. I booked a table, even.”

“Fancy. A place that books tables. So, is life working for your company actually that rewarding? And what is this about inappropriate work environments?”

“Well—aren’t there rules about not sleeping with the staff if you’re the boss?”

“Hm. Nope. It’s definitely bad form, but your world has rules and regulations for everything, doesn’t it? That’s another big difference I’ve noticed in your stories. Most [Lords] and [Ladies] wouldn’t stand for it. Actually—they probably harass the staff a lot.”

“I bet. Well—I’m not doing it. Plus, Solar Cycles is fun. I get to test our bikes, and we finally shipped out a bunch to all our waiting clients. Say, do you want to try our new dirt-bike?”

“Sure. But if I break those ribs…”

Well, Ceria did suspect that at least a few of her adventuring peers had social lives outside of work. Not poor Moore, although you never knew, but Jelaqua? Definitely. Seborn? Probably, but who knew.

Halrac, Revi? Uncertain.

Typhenous? She’d bet her circlet on it. She just wondered if he’d finally managed to woo his targets—which were apparently Witch Eloise and/or Witch Mavika.

You had to admire his balls, if he had any left.

The point was, Ceria enjoyed this for however long it would last. She glanced at Kevin slyly.

“Let me know if you get competing offers for your time.”

“Business-wise? Oh—no. I mean, I’ve been asked by a few people in Esthelm, and Bezale, but this is cool.”

Kevin seemed to regret mentioning the Minotauress, but Ceria passed a finger over her lips.

“Mouth sealed. But I’m telling you—there’s an open market for Kevins. And there are only…four.”

She meant the Antinium, and he laughed about that. Although it appeared to weigh on Kevin the fact that there were Soldiers and Workers who bore his name—and died. He was not all ‘chill’ and relaxed, but you did have to get to know someone to hear about that.

“Uh…who’s in the market for a Kevin? Not that I’m not really having fun here.”

The [Cryomancer] teased Kevin as he turned red. Ceria put her hands behind her head and whistled.

“Oh, believe me. I’d say at least a few interested parties might ask—but it’s tougher for them. How do you feel about pointed ears?”

Kevin hesitated.

“I, uh—like Falene? And would never date her.”

“Okay. Green skin?”

Oh.

Ceria watched his expression. Kevin thought about it, and Ceria laughed to herself. And wouldn’t that be interesting? She wondered what Erin would think about that. Of course, that was the last thing on Erin’s mind right now.

And frankly—if Larracel the Haven thought she’d caught up with Erin’s madness by dealing with the [Emperor]—tonight would prove they were only getting started. Ceria nudged Kevin after a while.

“No guessing. I’m just here to watch and eat popcorn if it turns out to be funny. But it’s not Ulvama.”

“Aw. I mean. Oh.”

 

——

 

The night was quiet, like the calm before storms. Like the silence in which you could forget your troubles…or brood. Some chose the former. Some—like the being that stalked below the ground of the Floodplains, did not forget. Did not forgive.

SNATCHER WAS ANGRY.

But it was also in the dungeon, nursing its light wounds. Aware that above there was at least one…adventurer and unable to strike. For now.

There were a lot of people who were angry that night, though. Like Deniusth. Or Deniusth. And Deniusth.

Other angry people included Troydel. Who knew exactly whom Ceria was dating, and he was seriously considering buying a curse from Oliyaya in Riverfarm to hex Kevin.

Kevin, living out the dream of Earth’s young men who read fantasy or played such games! Damn you, Kevin!

His fury was about a fifth of Deniusth’s. Which meant Facestealer was about 8 Troydels of wrath incarnate.

Lyonette was 1.5 Troydels, and Larracel actually reached about 3 Troydels, which was far into the realms where physical or magical violence became a possibility.

However, both calmed down a bit when Erin talked them down. Not because they appreciated Erin’s arguments about how the adventurers deserved a chance with their loot, how this would fuel the landrush, and the benefits of having lower-level teams with artifacts level.

No. They calmed down when Erin bribed them.

“I have—well, I don’t know how much, but I’d pretty much bet it’s more than even Deniusth’s Orchestra team could demand in shares. Wanna book, Larracel? You help me calm Deni down and I’ll let you pick. But Saliss is going to investigate the alchemy items.”

“You…you’re stealing from Orchestra? Are you mad?”

Despite herself, Larra the Haven was impressed. Impressed because she wasn’t sure Erin knew how dangerous Deni was—or Viecel when crossed. But Erin just folded her arms.

“Not stealing. I just refused to let Deni murder those adventurers. And he failed the truth spell when he told me he was going to let them live. I’ll give him and the other adventurers a bit of what I convinced the teams to part with.”

“And the rest?”

“They can get it if they catch up. Call it a game of tag or hide-and-seek. And then tell Deni that he might get nothing or very little now…but he might get everything later.”

Lyonette wondered if she were listening to her mother or father instead of Erin. Was she suggesting…? Larra blinked.

It was true Deni had lost all the artifacts he wanted. But he would have had to share most of the precious relics with the many teams in the dig. And with the Guild, Remendia, Laken…

But if he reclaimed all that lost treasure, he could gain…a lot of it.

In blood. Or perhaps just by convincing the teams to hand it over “peacefully” when he was in front of them with a sword.

Cold. Cold and ruthless and—Larracel glanced over and saw Deniusth pacing around outside as Colth and Eldertuin talked to him. He was so angry his voice was audible even through the stout windows.

“I’ll have a word. A pick of spellbooks?”

“Sure.”

Erin Solstice held out a hand, and Larra took it. The two [Innkeepers] locked eyes, and neither one quite smiled this time. Larra looked warier of Erin, and Erin…

…Glanced at Larra’s friends. Deni had killed two Gold-rank adventurers that morning, and she didn’t sense more than fury from him. She didn’t regret her decision.

“Much.”

There was more at stake here. There always was. When Deni came back into the inn, he refused to look at Erin—but he did listen to Colth as the Supporter spoke.

“Deni, we’re hunting a boss monster. And I’ll cut you in on whatever you want up front—Stalker’s corpse especially.”

His eyes twinkled at Erin, but the Named-rank was deadly serious as he looked at Eldertuin.

“I want it dead. Liscor wants it dead. So I’m going to pay you what you ask, but I’m calling in the favors. You, Mihaela, even Valley if she’s still around.”

“She’s treating my inn like a research lab. She’s around. Are you certain, Colth?”

The Supporter smiled as Deni’s head rose, and the leader of Orchestra looked at him. Colth turned to the Horns and nodded.

“Oh yes. Killing a monster like that—I’d say that’s the reward in itself, but we all know the levels and parts and its lair will be too. But it has to die. Are you in or not?”

Deniusth exhaled. He glanced at Erin, away—and then ground out.

“I’m in. You have a plan of attack, Colth?”

“I have eight. And we’ll take all the top-level help we can get. Saliss—I don’t know if I can get Tessa, but Saliss, the best Gold-rank teams—it’s time for a hunt.

The Ultimate Supporter looked around, eyes gleaming. The other teams looked at him. Erin had seen dungeon crawls. She’d seen raids and adventurers and monster extermination—but never a hunt.

This was going to be the hour of adventurers. And of course, it began in an inn.

It so often did.

 

——

 

The other teams returned from Albez mad, betrayed, and tired. They mostly took lodgings in the Haven, not Erin’s inn.

Their fury over Erin letting the adventurers go was slightly mitigated by the thought they all had that they could get a majority of the pilfered artifacts without having to share—and Erin doling out portions of the treasure she’d reclaimed.

Erin had, in fact, taken virtually nothing of the ‘door tax’, and a lot of the items, alchemical especially, were in Saliss’ claws or elsewhere. So she could argue she’d done very little of this in self-interest, just someone else’s interest.

In fact, Chaldion of Pallass was there in the morning, and it seemed he had decided Pallass could help recompense the losses.

“And it just so happens Pallass is doing this because Saliss of Lights has all the alchemical items he needs?”

Even Halrac had sour grapes with Erin, but the Grand Strategist was upfront as he handed a bag of gold over.

“In a sense, I’m indebted to Miss Solstice. She has done the more good in the name of alchemy—”

“—And Pallass—”

Revi muttered. Chaldion ignored her.

“—Than there would be if everything were auctioned off like the Village of the Dead raid. This is less…profitable, but I will consider this a favor for all the teams inconvenienced. In fact, Miss Solstice, would you care to have a cup of coffee and discuss the issue this morning?”

Erin stuck a tongue out at him. She had been drinking with Wailant last night after talking to most of the Gold-ranks, and she had a full day of activities. Not least going to Invrisil with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha on the hunt for her curse!

“I’d love to, Chaldion, but Halrac’s right. You coulda been here earlier, but you only seem to turn up when it benefits Pallass. Or the Drakes. Not much love for the northern teams?”

The [Strategist] faltered.

“They are historically employed by the Five Families in times of war and occasionally as hostile combatants, Miss Solstice—”

“Yeah, but that cuts both ways, don’t it? Don’t expect me to always get Pallass’ back! Or tail. Being biased isn’t good. Why ask me for coffee? What about my friends? Even poor Keldrass?”

The Drake jumped as Erin pointed him out and tried to shake his head, but Chaldion protested.

“I believe I’m a regular of this inn.”

“Oh yeah? What’s Yvlon’s middle name? What’s Bird’s favorite food?”

“Bird?”

What kind of Bird? See? You only talk to me. You’ve never even said ‘hi’ to Mrsha. Pssh. Fake friends.”

Erin’s bullying of Chaldion left the Grand Strategist speechless. Mrsha held up a frowny-face notecard, but she was slightly delighted by Erin’s new attitude. Chaldion looked around, floundering.

“I think I’m quite sociable, Miss Solstice. I am pressed for time, but I know a number of guests.”

“Not me.”

Saliss raised a claw, and Chaldion glared at his grandson.

“—I would have a drink or conversation with anyone here. Even—Pisces.”

Pisces’ head turned in his seat as Chaldion pointed around, and the [Necromancer] pointed at himself.

“Me?”

“Sure. Suuure.”

Erin snorted, but her ribbing of Chaldion was light. Mainly because he was passing out gold and the adventurers were getting ready for their hunt. Colth had the lead, and Erin had decided not to linger in the inn. She would trust him to succeed—plus, Nerrhavia was getting on her nerves.

 

——

 

So Erin left the inn to the adventurers and business as usual. Similarly, there was one other duo of adventurers who had an appointment with trouble, though. An implacable force, perhaps. A guardian of old ways. An executioner, a judge and arbiter.

Klbkchhezeim the Slayer.

He sat in an office in the Free Hive. Once, it had been the only place with a desk in it, where only he was allowed. It held his work-gear, what records the Antinium needed to write down, and it was a kind of sanctuary.

A…unique place, for he was one of two True Antinium in the entire Free Hive. A sad, lonely journey.

These days, lots of Antinium had seats. There was a reading room, a room of paints, the Painted Antinium’s barracks, and he was no longer alone.

Somehow, Klbkch felt more alone. Despite having met Wrymvr, the Grand Queen again, despite the new Individuals, he felt less connected, less sure, and more tired and old than he ever had been.

Naturally, he blamed the new Antinium for this. They just weren’t as good as the old ones.

When he had been first created at the advent of the Antinium species by the First Queen, there had been a lot of improvements needed. Mistakes, costly ones, entire revolutions in their design.

But they’d been amazing Antinium. Shaped by the First Queen, not carbon-copies of Galuc. As good as Galuc was—the Antinium in Klbkch’s day could have swept Izril, and those weren’t even modern Antinium.

He had, privately, expressed these feelings to the one person besides the Free Queen worthy of his commentary. Well, besides Relc. And maybe Anand, if he were here. And Xrn, obviously, but—

He had talked to Erin. And do you know what she’d done? She’d laughed, patted him on the hand, and told him he was old.

Him. Klbkch! Yes, he was…but the implication was…she had said it like it was a failing.

You’re old, Klbkch! Be nicer to the new Antinium or I’ll get mad. You don’t remember what it was like to be young.

And he had assured her he did and remembered all his forms and his inadequacies and that even with all of them, he was simply holding the Painted Antinium to real standards. And she had called him old. Again.

Right now, Klbkch was mad. He was already irked by the Free Antinium’s new direction, but he had been changing bodies, among the Hivelands, and gone since his control had effectively been revoked. The Free Queen had assured him she had everything in hand.

Now they had a 7th Hive, even if it was more theoretical than practical. They had [Crusaders]. They had lots of Painted Antinium and a new group that had come from Liscor’s ‘Fellowship of the Inn’ as they kept calling themselves.

And guess who had to clean up the entire mess? Not Xrn. Oh, no. Klbkch sat in his office in this new Hive, as he had since the [Crusaders] had started coming back.

He had a cup of water in front of him for hydration and a piece of half-eaten bread since he could digest it. Bread. No butter on top. It was perfectly nutritious…although Klbkch had, for some reason, decided to buy bread instead of the nutritional paste the Antinium ate. The stale crust was there if he was hungry. Which he was not.

Klbkch also had sheets of paper, and he selected another and began to fill it out as the Antinium in front of him fidgeted.

“Designation.”

“Fuck you.”

Designation.

One of the other Antinium nudged the Worker.

“Lord Commander of the Centenium, Greatest Ant alive.”

Klbkch wrote down ‘Crusader 57-8’ on the piece of paper as one of the Workers whispered to him.

“Class.”

“[Crusader]. You blind?”

“Level?”

“Higher than your mother.”

Klbkch paused.

“I do not have a mother.”

“That’s what she said. Last night.”

Crusader 57 paused, and it occurred to him that the insults he’d been learning in Liscor’s army didn’t really work here. The Revalantor sighed.

Level.

“Level 21 [Spitfire Crusader].”

“Any unique Skills or abilities to report? I am going to note ‘verbal insults’ here preemptively.”

Squad 5 nervously waited for Crusader 57 to come up with a new insult. Klbkch listened and did not rise to the numerous personal attacks on his character, body, and non-existent family.

He would have dealt with this situation far differently a few months ago. But instead, Xrn had told him he had to be…gentle with these Workers and Soldiers. While unhelpfully not writing down any details about them whatsoever.

“Squad 5 is in service to the new 7th Hive of the Antinium under Prognugator…Centenium…Queen Xrn. As this is the case, I will not discuss your future within the Free Hive, and you are exempted from any further reports. You are dismissed.”

“Your face is dismissed. And ugly. Too afraid to fight me, Klbkch?”

The Revalantor’s head rose, and Squad 5 pulled Crusader 57 back. Klbkch spoke quietly.

“That would not be a concern if I were inclined to waste the Free Antinium’s resources.”

Crusader 57 just laughed at Klbkch.

“That’s supposed to be scary? You’re weak, Klbkch! Weak! Come over and fight me! You won’t! You’re useless! Let go of me, Crusader 53. I’m going to crap on his desk…

Crusader 57, despite the unpleasant dialogue, was one of the more expeditious such meetings. Klbkch suspected the Worker had seen him execute an Aberration before. If Crusader 57 turned out to become one himself…and the signs were there…well, it wasn’t his problem.

“Next.”

He’d forgotten the last part. But since Squad 5 had run, Klbkch let it slide. The next—duo—to come in made Klbkch’s hands twitch towards his side.

“Goblins are not permitted in the Hive.”

“We are sorry, Revalantor Klbkch. But he is my brother.”

“That Goblin is not your brother.”

“He is. I am here.”

Klbkch stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth and twitched. Then he decided that since he had 259 more Antinium to go—he was going to let this slide.

“Designation.”

“Infinitypear and Rasktooth.”

Klbkch slowly, and deliberately, wrote only the first name down on the new sheet.

“Class.”

“[Adventurer].”

This time, the quill slowed a bit. This was not the typical [Crusader] group. Adventurer? Klbkch realized Infinitypear was going to mandate a second page of notes and sighed as he dipped his quill in the ink pot—but he had to admit, it was a rare class.

This was more the kind of thing the Free Queen and he had wanted from the start. Well, the [Crusaders] too, but unique classes? He nodded.

“Level?”

“I am Level 13. Rasktooth is Level 4.”

“Hmm. Low-level. I thought you participated in the Meeting of Tribes war. Most of the other Antinium, especially Battalions 1 and 6, leveled far more.”

“That was not an adventure.”

“Unique Skills?”

That meant all of them. Klbkch wrote them down, asking for details, and then glanced at Infinitypear.

“Unique gear?”

“I have a spear Guardsman Relc gave me.”

“Adamantium spear…owned by Spearmaster Lulv.”

Klbkch underlined that a few times and noted Infinitypear’s name down on a separate ledger. Perhaps they should take it from him. Yes, he’d order Infinitypear to turn it over after this interview.

He’d been tempted to make Crusader 53 do the same, but he was a fighting soldier in Xrn’s army. Klbkch drummed his fingers on the table.

“As you are not part of the 7th Hive, and you are technically Painted Antinium, you fall under Pawn’s authority. However, you are a resident of The Wandering Inn—so you are to be classified independently of these two authorities unless you place yourself under the command of any body. The Free Queen or other Hives also being acceptable. Is this clear?”

“Must I do this, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“No.”

“Oh, good. Why am I here, please?”

At least this Worker was polite. Klbkch spoke the same words again, waiting for the blank look or questions.

“Every new Individual must prove its usefulness to the Hive and submit a plan of improvement or jobs. I will cite you Silveran, who has not only leveled in a class at commendable speed, but operates a business which provides other Antinium with jobs and earns a profit, which he remits part of to the Hive. His use to the Hive is commendable and an example—you must submit a proposal now or later to justify your activities. Or else you will be assigned to another group.”

Pawn had lobbied against this, as if this were a democracy—and his Painted Antinium had a lot of leisure, but he was allowed to do that given his command. However—Infinitypear was not Pawn’s. The Worker sat there, and it was Rasktooth who raised a hand.

“Infinitypear must get a job?”

“Yes.”

Oh.

Both Antinium and Goblin looked at each other and nodded. Klbkch wondered if he should just say it like that and then wondered how much time he had wasted with his other explanations. Unfortunately, it was clear Infinitypear might be one of the hard cases.

“I do not know what I can do, Revalantor Klbkch.”

“Then I can assign you to an appropriate role as a fighter or…”

“I do not want to do that, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch paused in tugging out a list of names. He looked up, and if he could have glared—his mandibles came together.

“You must provide some worth to the Hive. That is my role here. Assigning you a task that will either produce something of value or let you level. Or both.”

“Oh. Can he level instead of work?”

“That…is acceptable. Do you have a proposal?”

Klbkch waited patiently as Rasktooth and Infinitypear whispered. Then they turned to him.

“I want to adventure, Revalantor Klbkch. With Rasktooth. We will go explore many places.”

“Where?”

“Izril? Baleros? Everywhere. The sea and High Passes and…”

The two grew excited at the thought. Klbkch just shook his head. He stabbed the paper in front of him with a quill, hard enough to embed the tip into the wooden desk.

“I am looking for actionable proposals. Not…fantasies. You are combat assets for the Hive, if lower-level than some of your peers.”

“But we are [Adventurers]. We want to adventure.”

Infinitypear was getting stubborn. Xrn had so many rules. Klbkch’s hand was messing up the quill.

Don’t snap at them, Klbkch. Don’t shout at them, Klbkch. Don’t throw anything at them or I’ll blast you with lightning, Klbkch.

When he was an Antinium, everything was in service to the Hives. The Queen! There was no need for this because they were united. Klbkch ground out each word as he looked at Infinitypear.

“You must have a plan of action. Something you want to do and a goal that is clearly definable and within reach.”

“But what if I do not know what I want to do or what will happen? I wish to stay with my brother.”

He is not your brother. You are Antinium.

Klbkch slammed his hands on the table and stood. Rasktooth and Infinitypear rocked backwards in their chairs, and the Antinium outside Klbkch’s office stirred as the door trembled a bit. Klbkch stared at Infinitypear—and another Worker would have turned into a trembling ball by now. But Infinitypear protectively held Rasktooth.

“He is my brother. You are wrong. We are [Adventurers]. I think you do not know what that is, Revalantor Klbkch. Respectfully.”

Klbkch stared down at Infinitypear, and for a second, he was so furious he nearly drew his swords right then and there. For a second. Then—he stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth, who had a clawed hand on his dagger.

And the spear. The spear Relc had given Infinitypear and the Worker was holding across his chest. Klbkch looked at the duo—and something in his brain seemed to—click.

A duo. One with green skin, the other with bug-shell. Not green scales—but close enough. Klbkch calmed down as the new chemistry in his body put him into an ice-cold, reflexive state. The Silent Queen’s adjustments.

But he was still Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. He always had been, though the body changed. And when Infinitypear said that…

Slowly, Klbkch sat down. He adjusted his papers, filed most of the finished ones, and picked up the glass of water. He sipped, took a bite of the bread, and then spoke as Infinitypear and Rasktooth watched him.

“You are incorrect, Infinitypear. I am quite familiar with the role of an [Adventurer]. Your ignorance is forgiven, because this knowledge could not possibly be rendered to you.”

Rasktooth poked the Worker’s shoulder and whispered to Infinitypear.

“He rude.”

Klbkch ignored that. He turned to the dirt wall behind him, upon which was tacked a map of Izril. He stared at it—and imagined a place far from Izril. A continent more deadly, and a land with no sun where even light sometimes vanished.

He felt as he had when he spoke to Anand and indulged the feeling rather than put it away. After all—he had time.

“…When I was first created by the First Queen of the Antinium, at the dawn of our species from the wild species we had been, she gave me my name. Klbkchhezeim. I was one of the first Centenium created. Eighth. Two had already fallen, and my role was to be independent. She designed my body to go for weeks alone—I stalked through the areas around the Hives, slaying foes. Hence my name. When new areas opened, I was the first Antinium there. I encountered magic and other creatures and learned how to deal with both.”

Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and the Workers and Soldiers outside Klbkch’s door, which was open a crack—looked at each other. Infinitypear raised a hand timidly.

“You were the eighth Centenium ever made, Revalantor Klbkch? Were Centenium Xrn and Wrymvr before you?”

“Them? Ha. Ha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Klbkch laughed like Relc and Erin did and felt like he was getting the hang of it. He looked over his shoulder.

“No. Xrn was created with the greatest achievements of the First Queen, at the end of the hundred Centenium she ever made. Wrymvr is older, but his eternal regeneration and Xrn’s magic were products of the culmination of her knowledge. He is among the oldest—but the first ten Centenium were made slowly, each one taking an age to be created. More Centenium appeared later as the Hives grew.”

“Oh. So you’re a big brother.”

Rasktooth happily replied. Klbkch…stared at him. The Goblin looked uncertain until Klbkch hesitated.

“That is not how Antinium view such things. But functionally—would that confer some degree of authority over those two?”

“Yep.”

Intriguing.

Klbkch turned around again and decided to remember that. He went on, though, indulging himself in old memories.

“There would be years when I did not see another Antinium—before we expanded. With naught but my blades, I cut down threat after threat. I was one of two Antinium to learn the art of swords and teach it to the others. You see, Antinium learned all these things and adapted, grew. The swords I bear are borne of that knowledge, and they, like my body, were refined by True Antinium techniques.”

“You taught Antinium things?”

True Antinium—of course. I would instruct War Queens and the greatest Antinium how to fight in combat. My role changed. As we delved deeper, grew to know what lay above and beyond, the Antinium Hives grew more powerful.”

“How long ago was this?”

Rasktooth waved a hand because he felt like this was pertinent information. Klbkch hesitated.

“We did not count time in the Hives in the same way, having no days or nights to mark it. By your standards, by estimations…the Creler Wars were six thousand years ago. The Hives had already been expanding, powerful by then. But we unearthed them—or rather, they were unleashed upon us. I remember that. So we are older still.”

Rasktooth’s mouth fell open, and he pointed at Infinitypear. You never said! But Infinitypear had not known.

“You’re really old, then?”

The Worker tried. Klbkch turned his head.

“The body has changed. I have not. My blades have changed. I have not. I remember different eras. I taught Mirrex the Bard the art of swordsmanship when he was made. I was old, then. I have seen the death of the First Queen. I was at the dawn of the Antinium.”

The Goblin and Antinium sat there, entranced, as Klbkch continued. He touched the swords at his sides.

“Adventuring is lonely. It is a journey into the unknown, knowing you might not come back. There is a joy to it, such as finding a species that bears no hostility to you. I once delved into the waters surrounding Rhir and nearly drowned. I sank into a nest where…”

Where the deep waters seemed to glow with rays of light that reached down even here. He was drowning, sinking—but it was a beautiful way to die.

It would take him long, for neither the pressure nor the lack of air could kill him so fast. Klbkchhezeim sank past a strand of…some great plant, so huge that it could shelter hundreds of Antinium upon one broad blade. And underneath, trapped in some bubble of air, was a hanging ecosystem of its own.

A kind of land under the plant’s broad aegis. He could not reach it—and the Centenium saw broad bulbs he thought to be infection or eggs upon the plant. Until he realized they were giant…beings with shells. They poked their heads out, and he felt a mind of such complexity only the First Queen could match them.

Then—his fall into the depths slowed, and the rays of light twisted as the curious beings down there sensed his drowning. And they lifted him up—and he encountered the first ally of Antinium.

 

——

 

“They were the ones who taught the Antinium to master their control of minds and form the Unitasis Network.”

Klbkch turned his head and saw the two [Adventurers] staring at him—and a crowd of Workers and Soldiers peeking through the door. They fled when he stared at them.

“What happened to them?”

Rasktooth’s voice was quiet, awed.

“They fled the Crelers when they first emerged. A peaceful people. No doubt as strange to the rest of the world as we are to them. That is what it means to be an adventurer. That was the lesson I learned as well—to walk with blade in hand, but to look into the mysteries I found. Wisdom and blade. Not everything must die. Nor is what is strange a threat.”

He missed those days, he remembered. When it was simpler. When the First Queen was alive, and he…he wondered what the rest of the world looked like.

When he first saw the sky—how long ago was that? When the First Queen herself stood upon the land and met the one who called himself a ‘Demon’ of Rhir.

An age passed, and he had no eyes to blink. So he saw it all. Then Klbkch looked at Infinitypear and Rasktooth.

[Adventurers].

“I want to see that.”

Infinitypear stared at the images that Klbkch had conjured. Rasktooth was nodding. The little Worker patted his knees excitedly as he rocked in his chair.

“We can go in the water. I will learn to hold my breath or swim. But it is far. And we cannot buy a hat. And we have to have a job.”

His antennae drooped, and Klbkch looked at him. Slowly, the Revalantor sat back down.

“Indeed. You have no body made by the First Queen. The magic of Drakes and other people is some small replacement, but only Relics would match the might of Centenium. Nor do you have my levels. I was Level 40 in one class and decently strong in another. And that, despite the inefficiency, places me above Named-ranks of this era with my body of old. For my body was a work of art on its own.”

The Worker and Cave Goblin looked at Klbkch. It sounded like he was telling them how hopeless their dream was…but something was different from his brusqueness of earlier.

“You would have to begin from the first point. Find artifacts, level. Learn the lessons you do not know. You hold that spear without mastery, Infinitypear. And Rasktooth cannot walk.”

“I can carry him.”

Klbkch was writing. His pen gently scritched on the parchment.

“Of course you can try. But even I did not always go alone. In these days, adventuring seldom comes with the class. Yet—they too know some of it. Adventurers often operate in teams of more than two. And only one Antinium and one Goblin have ever become adventurers. Numbtongue’s rank is more of a formality, so I exclude him.”

Rasktooth exchanged a quick glance with Infinitypear. Klkbch kept writing, and now he was doing sums.

“It is not inexpensive to become an adventurer. Their initial startup is compounded by the cost of healing, transport. To the Hive, they are a risky proposal which often loses money. Which ends in death. Knowing that—would you two still pursue that class?”

“Yes.”

“Yah.”

“I changed my answer. Yah. Yah.”

The Goblin and Antinium smiled at each other. Klbkch looked up reprovingly, and they stopped, but then he nodded. He finished writing.

“Very well.”

Hmm? They looked at him blankly. He said it as if something were decided. Klbkch lifted the piece of parchment up.

“I will consider that a plan of action. The complications abound—but if Guildmistress Tekshia accepts your position as Bronze-rank adventurers, the Hive will allocate a budget to your team. Miss Solstice will no doubt have thoughts. If you manage to party with other adventurers or complete requests or clear areas, monetary rewards and assistance from the Hive may be permitted.”

He showed them the piece of paper, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth saw that Klbkch had written in the Goblin’s name and levels below Infinitypear’s. They looked at each other.

“Bronze-rank adventurers?”

Klbkch had no eyebrows, so he raised one antennae instead.

“That is what you are intending, isn’t it?”

The duo sat there, and suddenly, it all made sense. But could they do that? Were they allowed?

Klbkch didn’t know. They might be hunted the moment they left Liscor—but he had been hunted too. If they wanted it…

Rasktooth grinned first, a mouthful of teeth, then Infinitypear lifted his mandibles. Klbkch did not smile, but he nodded.

“It seems all is in order. Next. Ah—wait, one more thing.”

He halted the pair as they rose. The two looked back warily, and Klbkch lifted another piece of paper and read from the notes Pawn and Xrn had given him.

“Before you go, ‘have I offered you a helpful and useful service today? Did I at any time make you feel uncomfortable or afraid?’”

The Goblin and Antinium traded glances. Rasktooth answered for Infinitypear.

“You scary.”

Klbkch filled in the form and noted how most of the answers seemed to congregate on one side of the little chart. He steepled his hands.

“I see. Dismissed. Next!

The data pointed one way, and Klbkch calmly ignored it. It was just data. He felt more content after speaking with the duo, though. And life was not eternally hard.

Relc was waiting for him after this, and the two had agreed to visit an Adventure Room, whatever that was, if Zevara didn’t need them on-duty at all times. Besides…Klbkch saw the door open, and he perked up.

“Ah. You.”

He knew the timid Antinium who froze as he saw Klbkch, but the Revalantor motioned him into a chair, even pulled it out for him.

“Would you like a glass of water? Sustenance?”

He had been waiting for this Individual for the last four days. The nervous figure shivered—but Klbkch just sat back down eagerly.

“I have had eighty-two complaints about you. And I note your position is highly contentious within the Free Hive. I understand your job makes other Workers and Soldiers upset. Let us discuss a budget…Furfur.

He smiled as the Worker perked up a bit. Klbkch had broad discretionary powers that Xrn and Pawn had given him. He intended to use them.

Purely for the betterment of the Hive, of course.

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn rose for a new day with more alacrity than before. It wasn’t that things were happening. Things were always happening.

But there was a sharpness in the air that had Ishkr polishing the bar tops by the time Liska raced in. The Gnoll clutched at her side.

“I…I ran here. You were still putting on your shoes!”

“Too slow.”

Ishkr looked at his younger sister, and her eyes narrowed.

“Oh, are we doing this? You want to do this, Ishkr?”

“I don’t know what ‘this’ is. I’m just doing my job.”

“I’ll do it alright. I’m on to you.”

Ishkr rolled his eyes, but Liska glowered—until Ishkr nodded at the door.

“Get ready for the Haven’s guests.”

“I know, I know.”

She stomped off since she could already sense Colth and the others waiting. However, Ishkr called out to her.

“If you see Barnethei—the other [Innkeeper]? Colorful coat, sometimes a hat? Don’t let him through.”

She turned, surprised by the injunction.

“Why?”

Ishkr grimaced.

“He’s troublesome. Hopefully he just stays away this time.”

That was background, of course. By the time Lyonette came downstairs, the two siblings were already moving around Goblins and Antinium showing up to work. Peggy was dragging Inkpaper out of Erin’s new, and tiny, library.

Gothica was being evicted from her cellar hideout by an Antinium called Rosencrantz. And yes…there was no Guildenstern. No one had volunteered to make it a duo act.

It was a good morning for most—even if everyone seemed to be waiting for Erin Solstice to show up. She had pulled big, big moves off last night, and the Thronebearers looked like they had all been sucker-punched. Even the inn’s family, who felt they should have known better…

Well, Mrsha had gone back to her old ways and put on a huge fake mustache, and she sat at the breakfast table with her paws folded. Mrsha the Godfather…the Godmother? Mrsha the Bad Guy sat there until Bird took her mustache.

“That belongs to Silverstache. Shame on you.”

Yet Erin did not immediately appear. Even as Grimalkin showed up and nodded to Nanette, who was feeding Nerry, the Sariant Lamb namesake glanced up and frowned with her cute little face.

She wondered what Erin was dreaming about when she’d peeked into the [Innkeeper]’s room. It sounded like a bad dream.

 

——

 

A hand patted Erin Solstice on the head. A beaming face smiled at her, and her mask was simply her face, painted with so many delicate layers of color that moved and shifted with affection, like a piece of living art.

“Well done, my little [Innkeeper]. My tyrant-to-be.”

Erin Solstice took a swing, and Nerrhavia glided back. She was a ghost, applauding Erin lightly, swinging forwards to seize her hands in an all-too-real grip.

Stop showing up in my dreams!

“Make me.”

She was taunting Erin. Why? This wasn’t Nerrhavia. At least—well, it was. She annoyed Queen Merindue to no end, and she was petty and spiteful, but why—

Nerrhavia!

 

——

 

Erin punched forwards, out of her bed, and landed in a tangle of flailing limbs and sheets. She rolled around—then realized she was tangled up.

“Uh.”

“Miss Solstice? Everything alright? Can I come in?”

“I’m decent! Just—can you get me out of this?”

Normen the [Knight] opened the door to find Erin being slowly strangled by her sheets. The [Innkeeper] was glaring as the Brother hesitated. But all Erin said was—

“Bad dreams. Hey, can you hand me that little wicker bird on the dresser? Oh, and my knife. Is Grimalkin below?”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

“Good! I’m taking him and Tessa. I’ll be back late. Mrsha can come with Nanette if they want.”

Today…was a day of reckoning. Erin stared at the ceiling, like a cloth sausage, as Normen untangled the sheets.

 

——

 

“Deni.”

“Colth, Eld. Morning.”

“Deni.”

He ignored her until Mihaela put him into a headlock. The Violinist broke free and snapped.

This is not the time, Mihaela.

“Well, say hello to me. Are you still mad about that [Innkeeper]’s trick?”

Mihaela had heard everything. Not that she’d seen the fun—she had been auditing Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild—and Celum’s. She’d heard some bad practices had cropped up. Like the Wind Runner getting her legs crushed by hostile runners?

Like Ryoka or not, a Runner’s Guild had to have principles. And Mihaela did actually do her job. Garia Strongheart had been there to see her gently dispense wisdom.

Mihaela dispensing wisdom was kicking a hole through the [Receptionist]’s counter and asking where the old Guildmaster lived. Then she tested all the City Runners who thought they were Couriers.

However, she was sorry to have missed the Albez dig, if for no other reason than she could have halted the thefts. In truth, Mihaela was on Deni’s side.

But what an odd move from Erin Solstice. No one had described her being quite that underhanded. Even Larra seemed taken aback.

Deniusth was not happy. Nor were most of the adventurers, but Deni was the one to watch. He was—impulsive.

“You’re going to take on Facestealer? Let me know when. I’ll warm up—and I need to borrow Larra’s healing beds if I’m going to move about.”

Mihaela coughed. She’d take a double-dose of her tonic. Colth nodded, and Eldertuin looked around.

“I’ll find Valley. Knowing her, she’s forgotten—oh, wait, there she is.”

Valeterisa emerged from her suite, practically being pushed out the door by the young [Mage], Montressa, who bowed, flustered, to the group of friends. Even Deni was astonished by a dressed and somewhat cognizant Valeterisa.

“That girl is good for Valeterisa. Who would have known? I would have thought any of her apprentices would starve to death when Valley locked them in a broom closet and forgot.”

“Bad joke, Deni.”

His glower returned. The Violinist began walking down the hallway, and he answered Mihaela curtly.

“I’m going to kill this ‘Face Stealer’ or whatever it is since Colth is calling in a favor. Why not? If I get a cut of whatever loot we find from this Stalker-corpse—well, I’ll do it for gold because I remember my debts. I’ll even be polite to Erin Solstice. For now.”

Mihaela glanced at Colth. He was looking more serious today than ever, which made her feel like stretching and getting ready. Colth didn’t take things lightly. But Deni’s words were too ominous to let go.

“Deni—she played like a Reinhart, it’s true, but you did murder a few adventurers.”

Thieves. She let them go, and now she’s trying to pay us back with our own treasure!”

“I know. I’m just saying, don’t fight with her. She’s backed by two Named-ranks on her own, and this isn’t the point. The New Lands are.”

The Violinist glared at Mihaela.

“Orchestra won’t forget this. Nor will any of the teams. Larra wanted to make peace? Well, Erin Solstice has earned a grudge, and I—”

His rant was cut short as Colth turned and, unexpectedly, grabbed Deni’s arm. His sword-arm, his playing arm.

“Deni, do me another favor. I have at least two. Erin? The inn? Drop it.”

“Let go of me, Colth.”

Deni jerked away as his team emerged from their rooms. Mihaela saw Colth’s grip tighten, and Deni stiffened in surprise. Colth leaned over, and his usual friendly demeanor and obsequious attitude…

Drop. It. We have a job to do.”

He let go, and a long silence followed as Mihaela eyed Colth. That was—Deni yanked himself away and stared at Colth along with everyone else. Valeterisa looked up and murmured.

“Now Colth is bullying Deni. How the times have changed.”

Strange things. Mihaela excused herself and walked off to prepare as the adventurers began to head to The Wandering Inn. She wondered what was up with Colth. Then again—he was younger, he was at the prime of his adventuring, and he might just like Erin Solstice. Or the Horns.

Or maybe he had a goal that was different from the others. They were all adults. They had their problems. Mihaela sighed as she began to stretch. If there was one thing that united them—it was a purpose.

Monsters died.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was, perhaps tactfully, not at the inn by the time the adventurers began to muster up. Breakfast was laid out, and the Horns were ready—although they were not the principal actors here.

Ylawes Byres was just grateful for a nice bed and wash after a few days of camping at Albez. Of course, Orchestra had actually had a shower in their magical accommodations, but he had been camping.

Once more, though—Ylawes Byres was not at the center of this adventure. He accepted it this time with better grace. He hadn’t been chosen.

Falene was on a shortlist, and Dawil had been—until Colth learned his axe was broken. Ylawes had not been on any list, anywhere.

The Horns were included, all four of them, even if Ksmvr and Yvlon would be getting supporting roles at best, and Pisces and Ceria were only there to fuel spells. Colth was not apologetic about any of it.

“I want top Gold-rankers only in our specialist slots. Every [Rogue] we can get and some lineholders—but the rest will just clutter our attempts. No Silver-ranks. No gawkers at the pits, no one goes down. This is a Named-rank mission, and if anyone fouls us up, I’ll call the Adventurer’s Guild down on their heads, got it?”

The Ultimate Supporter was in his element, and he had maps and fallbacks. Ylawes listened for a while and then went over to find Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team.

“Good morning, you all. Are you staying here?”

Insill waved at him, and the Silver-rankers smiled but were subdued.

“Well, no one’s entering the dungeon. We thought we’d rest a bit—not that we did much at Albez. Hunt Shield Spiders, maybe.”

“There’s a job working for Menolit’s adventuring group. Just saving idiots who run into Hollowstone Deceivers.”

Nailren was debating it, and Ylawes looked at them. Now that the chance for treasure was done, they were back to being Silver-ranks. Straining to get to the next level, for their big break.

He…knew how they felt. Ylawes pulled up a chair as Falene walked away from the planning.

“I am not needed, Ylawes. Hello, Anith, Nailren, everyone.”

She looked annoyed as Dawil sat with more equanimity than the others.

“Can’t fault Colth, Falene. I guess we’re staying to see if they pull it off—then to the north?”

“House Byres, Dwarfhalls Rest—then we’ll see about these new lands.”

Nailren glanced up as Ylawes agreed.

“You are going too, Captain Ylawes?”

“After a visit to my home. And the new Dwarven settlement.”

“I forgot Erin’s door makes it so easy…hrr. Buying some good gear there might make the difference. Maybe I should visit.”

“Dwarfsteel? We could use our haul from the Village of the Dead raid and gear us up, Anith.”

Dasha nodded. It was a good compromise, Ylawes knew. If you couldn’t afford enchanted gear, Dwarfsteel or other high-quality weapons were excellent stopgaps. He had been hoping they could reinforce his armor, himself.

“What if we went with you to Dwarfhall’s Rest, Captain Ylawes? If you’re going.”

“If you’d like, I could invite you to House Byres too. We welcome guests.”

The Silver-ranks perked up at this. Ylawes thought it would be a nice break from all the drama he’d been engulfed in. They were tentatively making plans, but all eyes were on Colth and his crew. They wouldn’t be able to see what happened when Colth left, but Ylawes Byres felt a pang.

It’s really not a place for the Silver Swords, is it? He had felt like they were the premier Gold-rank team taking on challenges no one else would, even if that were arrogance. Now? He felt like a Bronze-ranker again. But perhaps that was fine. After what he’d seen at Albez, Ylawes would frankly admit that he had no desire to team up with Deniusth or even most of the northern teams, even if Eldertuin hadn’t been as culpable as the others.

This was their battle.

So where was his?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice walked along Invrisil, humming. She had a knife at her belt, two acid jars in her bag of holding, and she’d taken a backup wand too. Mrsha swaggered along next to her with her kilt—red today—and her own wand in her holster.

Nanette had a wand too, but she refused to brandish it. She was counting her allowance that Lyonette had given her.

Are you sure it’s alright to give me so many coins?

She had been dismayed by the amount of money, but Lyonette had told her to buy as many books as she wanted—for the inn would use them too! The spoiling of Nanette had begun—but Erin had a task before going to the bookshop again.

The three dangerous women of various ages…were not what was clearing some of the pedestrians in front of them. Mrsha’s swagger actually decreased her walking speed, so she kept having Grimalkin nearly walk into her.

“Mrsha, please walk faster.”

The Sinew Magus didn’t look as ‘tough’, but he was surveying the street and Erin’s moving bird-charm. The little Gnoll glanced up and decided he could swagger for both.

Watching Grimalkin walk was an exercise in anatomy. It always was. He made even the biggest people look twice, and the Sinew Magus wasn’t even the most dangerous person in the group.

Tessa, fully visible, had both hands on her daggers. The scarred Drake was so menacing that half the criminals who saw her decided today was a day of rest. A peaceful holiday.

“Tessa, you don’t have to glare and hold your daggers.”

The Named-rank replied out of the corner of her mouth.

“This is my first big job. You told me there might be danger.”

“Yeah, but—I don’t actually know how much. Don’t hold the daggers, please?”

“Mm.”

Shriekblade let go of her daggers, but she stared so hard at a little baby in a stroller the baby stopped crying and played dead. They were on the hunt for Nerrhavia’s curse upon Erin.

…However, once more, Erin felt like they were going in circles. She cursed as they came to a street, and everyone looked at the little wicker bird tugging left.

“Hey. This is like—a nearly complete circle.”

“One more left and it will be. Perhaps we should speed up?”

The swagger-speed intensified, and Erin hurried down the street…only for the frantically-tugging bird to suddenly go still.

Damn.

Mrsha nodded at the bad language. Erin was too annoyed to not curse.

“This is just like last time! Is it someone running away from us?”

“I don’t think so, Miss Solstice. Or else the bird would tell us to keep going. I think something is vanishing. May I see the charm?”

Nanette peered at the little bird as Grimalkin and Tessa looked around. The [Rogue] actually leapt into the crowd, vanishing, and came back to report.

“I didn’t sense anyone. They’re either higher-level than me or it’s something else.”

“I think…we’re falling behind whatever it is. Or we’re being deliberately kept away.”

Erin Solstice growled.

“Sounds about right.”

“Who are we up against, Miss Solstice?”

Grimalkin lifted a claw as she hesitated.

“If it is secret, don’t mind me. But it might be helpful to know what we are trying to accomplish.”

He was being—careful. Polite. Erin sighed.

“Grimalkin, of all the questions I think it’d be bad to answer—this is one of them. Let’s keep going.”

The bird would reactivate soon, if yesterday and today were any indications. Grimalkin nodded, and they walked on. Mrsha pointed at a stall selling roasted chestnuts and tugged Nanette over. Erin stopped so they could buy some.

“Get some for Tessa! So…not going to ask, Grimalkin?”

She looked at him. The Sinew Magus was so loudly not asking anything she could hear it. But the Drake coughed.

“I—am trying to be a good friend of the inn, Erin. Of yours. It occurs to me that pressing you at every opportunity has been unwise and unkind.”

“Sometimes I deserve it. You didn’t even talk about me doing the Albez thing.”

He shrugged fractionally.

“Frankly—that was the kind of thing I would have advocated for. Because you did it…you had to have good reasons.”

He gave Erin a long look, and she appreciated that he got it. Erin scuffed at the ground.

“Yeah. No excuses. I did it because I thought I should. It definitely wasn’t nice.”

She waited, but the Sinew Magus just nodded.

“What else is there to say? I have noted your <Quests>. I imagine everyone has asked you about that. I—I do respect your privacy, Erin. I have theories, of course, but I will not attempt to force you to answer them.”

He seemed awkward, and the [Innkeeper] glanced up at him as Tessa tapped a young woman with a crystal hand on the shoulder. Well, she didn’t look like she had a crystal hand—or that she was right behind Erin until Tessa grabbed her.

“Get lost. Try it again and you bleed out.”

Erin and Grimalkin turned as someone fled. The [Innkeeper] looked up at Grimalkin and smiled faintly.

“Lay it on me.”

The Sinew Magus hesitated. He spoke as he watched Mrsha pointing at the chestnuts she wanted.

“—These are not questions, but my line of thinking. When I heard you posted a <Mythical Quest>, after I ascertained the phenomenon and the legitimacy, of course, I had a few thoughts. I won’t ask how you know how to post it. Or why it mirrors established <Contract> Skills and rare Skills of that nature. However—I considered the psychology.”

Tessa was already lost, so she decided to ignore Grimalkin, but Erin listened as the Magus lifted a few claws.

“You, Erin Solstice, do not act without foresight. Some might think that was simply a way to show off or—thoughtless. I do not. Why post a <Quest> to find the City of Stars? And why post a secondary quest to find the Crossroads of Izril? The two are certainly related. But it must be that this will be a net boon to all.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

The Sinew Magus watched her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Yes. But my theory was this. If we must find these two places for whatever they bring—why did Chaldion not bring this up to me? Or, to my knowledge, the Assembly of Crafts? They are disturbed about the Meeting of Tribes, the new lands, Khelt—but I do not hear of any Walled City cooperative actions aside from securing the new lands.”

“Huh. Are you sure you can tell me that?”

Grimalkin shrugged and grunted.

“This is not a secret. And you yourself, Erin, are pushing adventurers and people to the new lands. As if much of what we need to find is there. However, I do not hear of Grand Strategist Chaldion pressing Fissival for access to their Grand Librarium. I do not hear Luciva convening me or any other Drakes to form an inquiry group.”

“What’d they inquire about?”

Mrsha and Nanette came back and shared the hot food around. Grimalkin accepted a chestnut but didn’t eat. He glanced at Erin’s blank expression.

“Why, the legitimacy of these crossroads ever existing, of course. The City of Stars does have them agitated—but Wall Lord Dragial has been looking into that for decades, and whatever he found is likely collated. But the Crossroads of Izril? Erin. I know you. I believe in the <Quests>. But if I did not, I would first verify it even existed. That Chaldion, the leaders of the Walled Cities have not? That implies they know it exists. That the Wall Lords and Ladies are entirely aware of where or what it was—and how it was lost. Perhaps, that the access to this place was deliberately lost—or at least that records exist of why they are no longer used.”

This was the theory he had come up with. An exercise in logical reasoning. Grimalkin could not press Chaldion on it, but he saw Erin Solstice’s blank expression change.

She…smiled. A huge, beaming smile, and he knew she let him read her expression. But Erin Solstice’s eyes twinkled as she shrugged.

“I dunno about all that. But what does that mean?”

Grimalkin surprised her with a smile of his own.

“In that case—the question is not whether these Crossroads exist—it is how they are accessed. And if the Walled Cities are focusing on the new lands, it may be that they are hoping to find a route in. That answers some of my questions, Miss Solstice.”

“I heard it’s easier than that—there are ways even now. But it’ll be dangerous. What would you do then?”

Grimalkin pondered the question as Erin checked her bird, and they resumed walking.

“Form an appropriate group.”

“With Pallass?”

“No.”

This time, Erin did turn her head, and Grimalkin exhaled.

“No…I can fund a group and source—allies. Like-minded individuals. But I do not think Pallass is—appropriate. I’ll have to see how much I can afford to spend. If Chaldion requests my aid, that is one thing. But if this were a Drake matter, why would you post this as an open quest and not the personal quests I know you can give? What will we find? Will it break the Walled Cities or…is it the search that matters?”

He looked at her, and Erin spoke ahead of his thoughts.

“Are you leaving Pallass?”

The Sinew Magus turned his head. Ask a question, get a question—he took a deep breath and looked around Invrisil, a good city, a fine city—but a foreign one to him. Yet he thought of Pallass, and the words came deep from within his chest.

“…I have been a loyal citizen of Pallass all my days. Fought for it and supported it as best I could. Until now—I began to have questions. It was not until I saw him there, General Sserys, when I realized I was no son of the walls. Yet it is my city. And yet—even if I thought it best to take a remove, my fortunes and influence are bound up in Pallass. I am a magus alone without it, and I did not realize that until recently. Besides, where would I go? Fissival?

They both laughed at that. Yet Grimalkin felt raw—and he also felt relieved. His conclusion was not the same as Valeterisa’s. There was a chance—but not under the Cyclops alone.

He was not Pallass. But did he remember that? Did the city? Erin glanced at Grimalkin, then sighed as she stared ahead and came to a stop.

“Maybe what you need, Grimalkin, isn’t to leave. Maybe you just need a different kind of ally.”

“Such as?”

He looked at her until he realized Erin wasn’t staring at Grimalkin at all. The [Innkeeper] rolled her eyes. Then, and only then, Grimalkin felt a pressure in the air. A weight on his shoulders. His head rose, and Mrsha dropped her bag of chestnuts.

Oh. Oh! It’s you?

She made fists with her paws and glared down the street. The crowds of citizens had thinned out—as if they couldn’t stand in this particular area. Grimalkin’s head turned—and one person flanked by her own escort stood there.

Chest puffed out, looking down at Mrsha and her friends. All the arrogance in the world in those glittering eyes.

Oh? Oho. Are you approaching me? Mrsha spread her paws and slapped her chest. She stared down the other figure walking their way—and the air began to get really heavy. Mrsha felt her arms and legs grow heavy.

Are you approaching—wait a second, she’s sort of scary.

Mrsha backed up, and Nanette was already behind Erin. The two girls stared as the blonde woman stalked forwards, wearing a bright tracksuit. And showing off a lot of muscle.

Erin, Tessa, and Grimalkin held their ground. Erin felt the other aura press at her—overpowering, inflated.

Pure ego. She pushed it back, but the weight of it made Grimalkin shift. It was vanity, it was self-confidence and assurance—

It was Pryde.

She walked like she was the center of the world—and she was certainly the center of attention on the street. House Ulva’s guard stood behind her, showing off some impressive biceps. Pryde herself was just like Erin remembered.

Bobcut hair, blonde, and imperious as could be. Unlike Bethal or Wuvren or Magnolia herself, Pryde did not act like a [Lady]. But she was one, a different kind.

“There you are.”

ゴゴゴゴ. It was like a ‘dun-dun-dun’ sound in the air, the beating of blood in your ears.

The [Lady] approached as Grimalkin blinked at her. Pryde came to a halt as she glanced at Tessa, then stared down at Erin.

“The [Innkeeper] and Magus Grimalkin. I’ve been searching for you two. My. What trouble you cause. Erin Solstice.”

“Hey, Lady Pryde. What’s up with the aura? You’re scaring Nanette and Mrsha.”

Erin was forcing the [Lady]’s aura back around her, and Pryde raised her brows.

“This? My apologies. I barely notice it. Magus—I see you’ve failed to improve since the last time we met. I, on the other hand, have taken your lessons to heart. You have my thanks.”

She indicated her physique, and Erin had to admit—Pryde had gained a lot of muscle since the last time she’d come to the inn. It wasn’t as pronounced as Grimalkin’s, but it was definitely there.

Mrsha stared up at the Lady of House Ulva. This was the woman who kept competing with Grimalkin? This was what happened if you lifted those smelly weights all day?

No wonder Normen and Alcaz and Numbtongue liked that place so much. She should go there with Visma more often.

Pryde stepped forwards, and Mrsha waited for Grimalkin to attack back. Flex on her! Throw her into a building! Use your muscle power!

But the Sinew Magus seemed—taken aback. He blinked at Lady Pryde.

“Lady Pryde. You look—what an incredible display of physical conditioning. Over a few months? You must have added a third to your weight, and are your muscles adding to your aura? It feels sharper. Your training records—I have to thank you. My initiatives would have had no ground without your help.”

He held out a claw, and Pryde’s superior expression—changed to one of dismay. But she rallied and accepted his claw. She squeezed, and the Sinew Magus grunted.

“What grip strength.”

“Impressed?”

“Yes, very! What do you do to work out your hands? Squeezing balls of clay or sand was what I suggested, but this is commendable.

Again, Erin saw Pryde flounder. The [Lady]’s face went slack for a second, and she stared at Grimalkin. Nanette covered a giggle and hid behind Erin as the Sinew Magus admired Pryde’s…sinews.

“Well. It seems I have yet to overtake the strongest [Mage] in Pallass. I do—use a magicore ball to squeeze. I managed to actually tear the leather ones.”

Magicore. Genius. You know, the Yoldenites infuse their helmets with magicore, giving it that amazing durability to blows—”

The [Lady] saw the Drake’s eyes light up, and he fished out a notepad at once. She looked over, and her escort approached, seeming more wary of Tessa and Grimalkin than anyone else. Erin Solstice beamed as Pryde turned her haughty glare on her.

“Erin Solstice. You’ve been causing trouble. I commend you on the style of it, though. Your chess tournament…done well.”

She nodded, and Erin realized that Pryde had doubtless watched it. The [Lady] was not someone Erin historically liked—for her attitude or her actions—but the [Innkeeper] was warming to her faster than a kettle on the stove.

Especially because Pryde kept glancing at Grimalkin as he wrote.

“Your House Ulva statistics are exceptional, Lady Pryde.”

“Yes! We passed your Pallassian elites more often than not.”

“Of course. The competition was fierce—and rewarding.”

“It—was. A battle House Ulva won.

“Absolutely, and it has provoked the Walled Cities to continue matching your own prowess. Are these your finest…? Of course, I recognize that amazing pectoral display. Is this the record-holder for the bench-press? I would be honored, Lady Pryde, if you would come to Pallass and give a lecture to my students and [Soldiers].”

“Lecture…?”

She had clearly been expecting this encounter to go another way. Erin looked at Grimalkin with delight—then Pryde with actual sympathy. She coughed, and Grimalkin blinked at her.

“Maybe later, Grimalkin? But it’s great you know each other.”

Grimalkin started. He looked at Pryde, then seemed to recall she was not just a weight-lifter, but a [Lady] of the North. He stiffened—then blushed.

“Of course. I—was simply so used to our correspondence and the ongoing competition that I—Lady Pryde of House Ulva. My thanks as Sinew Magus of Pallass.”

He coughed, and Pryde rallied so fast that Erin Solstice was impressed despite herself. Her chin came up, and she folded her arms.

“Thanks, Sinew Magus? Odd words for someone who pioneered your theory of physical fitness. I would imagine shame at failing to improve would be more appropriate.”

Then, and only then, Grimalkin seemed to realize what she was implying. He drew himself up slowly and glanced at her—and her impressive guards. But they were eying him askance because for all Erin now felt like she was in a room with a bunch of bodybuilders, the Drake had them all beat.

“Shame…? I have yet to see my own efforts passed, Lady Pryde. Your actions and efforts are commendable. Give it a year or two, and we’ll see if you can continue your regimens.”

“My growth is extraordinary and won’t cease. You, on the other hand, Magus, have barely recovered from your admittedly exemplary battle with the Wyverns.”

“I thank you for noticing, Lady Pryde. And your notes to that effect were well taken. I note my recovery was extraordinarily fast—and as I have stated, more muscle would not be advantageous. Your escort looks incredibly fit. Can they use all their muscles in battle? Perhaps that would be wise before attempting to reach my stature.”

Mrsha stared between Pryde and Grimalkin as the two finally began to square off. She tried to flex her own chest and arms and pulled her back. Erin? Erin looked at Pryde, Grimalkin, and thought she sensed a teensy, tiny bit of regret as Pryde sneered at him. So the [Innkeeper] reached out—and grabbed their arms.

“Great! You two know each other. Lady Pryde, Grimalkin, this is Nanette, Mrsha, and Tessa. We’re going shopping and hunting for something. Want to come with?”

Lady Pryde Ulva recoiled as Grimalkin looked at her. The [Lady]’s offended look grew.

Me?

“Well, if you want to talk to Grimalkin—why not? I’m sure you have lots to discuss. And you probably know Invrisil.”

“I do—I suppose I have time. I was intending to visit Pallass anyways. Very well. Who is…ah, the white Gnoll child. And this young woman?”

Pryde noticed Nanette, Tessa, and Mrsha, and somehow, in between accepting a card from Mrsha and letting Nanette shake her hand—she looked around.

“Wait. Where are we going?”

“Uh—hunting for a curse. You do know where we are, right?”

“Oh, of course. I know where all the shops are. We—what was that?”

Lady Pryde blinked at Erin and the bird on her finger. Then she was motioning her escort to fan out, and Magus Grimalkin, prompted by Nanette, held up the bag of chestnuts.

“A healthy snack, Lady Pryde? Do you have a dietary regime your group uses?”

He offered her a chestnut. The [Lady] stared at it, then accepted it and coughed.

“I actually do. A kind of blended drink. Wuvren, Lady Wuvren, enjoys them, so I concocted my own of healthy, plant-based foods and some other ingredients—it is a huge hit in House Ulva. Many different recipes, and I am discussing selling it in restaurants or some other method. You, bring out one of the Ulva Shakes for Magus Grimalkin and company.”

One of her escort dashed back to her carriage and a cooling box, and Erin Solstice turned her head in horror.

No. Not the health smoothies! I didn’t do it! I deliberately never even mentioned them! I didn’t—

She flung up her arms, but it was too late. Ryoka was right! Ryoka was—

 

——

 

It was a search for a moving target. In Invrisil and also below.

Snatcher was roaming the dungeon, angry, angry, angry. It was thinking of how to kill them.

The building with sanctuary in it.

The adventurer. The [Necromancers]. They all had to die. But when? How?

By night, through the earth? With armies in tow? Snatcher—it had been a long time since it had to think like this. It was all one task now.

Guard Mother. Guard Mother…and it had not seen her for a long time. That was what everyone here did.

But they…they would die. It would not wait here any longer, a guardian to Mother.

How to get them, though? They were dangerous—they had Mershi’s Blade on their side.

Yet they hurt it little. Only hide. They were quick—adventurers were always quick.

If Skinner were here, or Stalker, it would be easier. The irony that Snatcher had killed Stalker…did not really occur to it.

Skinner could have led an army of armies. That was his role. But he had shrunk with age, with no more bodies but the dead. Hidden in the crypt after Stalker died.

Some other way, then. Snatcher just had to be clever. Lure them into a trap? Drag something into a trap, yes. But how? Maybe…maybe…

Maybe a tool. Yes, there were tools here, hidden behind all the traps. A lovely tool.

While it thought, it roamed. With the heads on sticks, poking around corners.

Seeing for it. Monsters never saw it. Even the other beings only saw those staring heads—and they fled.

Insects, terrified spiders, Children—all ran if they noticed the staring, rotted heads. Snatcher only took a few, if it was bored.

It had all of them in its collection. Hundreds of one species, sometimes. It craved more.

The blue one. The woman of thread. Another half-Elf, a Dwarf…the white Gnoll…

It was creeping through corridors where the Raskghar had been, looking for that Minotaur again. Another good head it had so few of—and the ones of old had begun to turn to dust, despite its best of efforts, despite the magic that should have preserved them. Well…even the magic had begun to die.

Only when Snatcher was prowling around the empty Raskghar camp, turning over ruined cots, looking to see if they had hidden in one of the hidden trap doors, did it sense something odd.

He lifted a slab of stone up and stared down into the tunnel—then Snatcher sensed them.

Auras. Flickering, so faint—it turned around.

Were they there or not? Slowly, Snatcher shuffled around. Then, it heard a voice.

—now—

Snatcher had no head to raise—but it saw the dark, almost pitch-black camp of the Raskghar suddenly bloom with light. A dozen [Light] spells rose.

[Illumination]. Snatcher didn’t raise its claws to shield its face. It turned—and then it sensed them. A dozen plus presences.

Snatcher turned—and the first spell hit it full-on.

 

——

 

[Support Casting: Intensified Magic]. [Spellbreaker’s Magic].

Link. Pump mana in—Typhenous, now, now!

[Burning Spells]! [Accelerated Spellsling]!

[Valmira’s Comet]!

The first spell hit Facestealer as the adventurers dropped their camouflage Skills. It had noticed them too soon. But they were mostly in position. Colth stood with Typhenous, Ceria, and three other [Mages], all Gold-rank. Two were part of Orchestra and Variable Fortress.

Top-level [Mages], who cast through Typhenous. Or rather, let him have the first swing. Colth called it ‘benchmarking’.

So the first spell was a known Tier 4 spell boosted by as much mana as they could pump into it without overloading the spell matrix and with Skills giving it enough firepower that Ceria wondered if it could have blown one of the giant Shield Spider mothers to bits.

It had a commendable speed to it as well. The normally-slow comet hit Facestealer like one of Typhenous’ fastballs when he played baseball. Ceria saw the glowing, red center of the comet turning to blue trailing fire strike the monster as it turned—then the world flashed.

Eat shit!

That was her additional comment. Ceria waited as Colth turned and chatter broke through her speaking stone.

Did we hit it?

Sealing off the other corridors—[Stone Wall].

Some monsters lurking down our end. We’ll take them out.

That was Halrac’s voice. It was followed by a dim explosion until his speaking stone went dead. The other teams were cordoning off this area.

A perfect spot to ambush Facestealer. They’d been dogging it for a while, and Colth had observed that few monsters liked to stay in its vicinity. Only the Crypt Worms and suits of armor ignored it—possibly because it had no interest in things without heads.

This was almost perfect. Valeterisa was speaking without much fear in her voice.

“I am still preparing. Where is the Chest of Holding? Oh, here it is. Yes, yes, Montressa, casting. Hold up your barrier. Have we killed the monster yet?”

Wait.

Colth cut all the voices short, and everyone paused. In the brief moment where the spell engulfed the room in dust and light—Ceria squinted into the cloud. A [Mage] blew the dust back as Ceria aimed her wand at—

Facestealer.

He stood there, swiveling right and left, his hide scorched by the comet. That was all. Ceria didn’t even see the scars from Colth’s blades and Saliss and Lehra’s attacks from yesterday.

“[Valmira’s Comet] has failed. Benchmarking higher. Tier 4 magic is almost completely useless. Not nullified.”

Colth spoke calmly, and Facestealer slowly turned. He focused on the five adventurers, and Colth locked ‘eyes’ with the monster.

“He’s coming. Phase 2.”

When Facestealer charged, he was so fast it took even Ceria off-guard, and she had seen him fight.

Fast. Just like how fast he could swing. The lumbering monster ran at the adventurers—but Ceria was already raising walls upon walls of ice.

It would barely slow Facestealer down, but that wasn’t the point—

The monster seemed to sense something, and it slowed as it raised a huge claw. This time, it was too slow to move.

[Piercing Shot]!

Halrac and a dozen adventurers volleyed behind Facestealer. Enchanted arrows and bolts struck it in a volley, the air flashed, and some of Ceria’s walls cracked, but Typhenous had a [Forcewall] behind them.

“Stumble, stumble, damn you—

Colth was muttering, but Facestealer just held up a claw—then turned back. It raised a claw, punched through six feet of ice—and Colth smiled at it.

That same demonic smile that Ceria thought was the most honest one he had.

I’m going to kill you.

All the kinetic force of both the comet and arrows—against all logic—didn’t make Facestealer move. He should have. It would make their lives so much easier, but either he was so heavy he should be sinking into the earth and cracking the flagstones of the dungeon or something was letting him resist pure physics.

It didn’t matter. As Facestealer turned, Halrac lifted his bow. He’d been entrusted with something. He launched one single arrow, and Facestealer whirled—lifted a claw—

Vortex arrow! Run! Run!

The [Mages] ran, and Typhenous beat everyone but Colth. Ceria felt her ice walls disappearing as the vortex tore chunks out of the magic. It sucked away magic, and it was the first Relic-class item used so far.

The first. Dead gods.

Halrac, tell me you hit it! Tell me it’s dead or hurt! We’re heading to Phase 3!”

Colth was running, leaping over a painted trap. Ceria slowed, but nothing was coming behind them—so far. Yet she heard Halrac’s terse reply.

It’s not dead. But it didn’t like that.”

“How not dead is—”

Whumph. The sound of Facestealer slamming into a wall was followed by the dust—and the blur of it moving. Ceria had never seen anyone of that size move that fast.

It slammed into the corridor the [Mages] were running down, and the half-Elf saw that Facestealer was…

Torn. No, its hide was. Colth’s brand upon it that was letting them track it was twisted slightly, as was its brown-black, matted hide. Actually, it was fairly pristine now—even the dirt had been sucked away.

It looked like someone had taken Facestealer’s skin and twisted it across its body. That—Ceria wondered what that would feel like if you did it to skin.

She bet it hurt. But that was not what you wanted to see after a vortex arrow from Rhir hit a monster.

Dead gods damn it. An Adult Creler would flinch at that!”

Orchestra’s [Mage] screamed. She stumbled, and Facestealer ran. This time—he wasn’t just charging like Yvlon running at full tilt. He had a blur, he was moving so fast. A horse’s speed? Faster?

Oh shit!

Ceria bent down. She grabbed the woman, and Facestealer was on top of them. He ran through a series of magical spikes that shot up and shattered on his body. He swung a fist as Colth turned.

Ceria!

 

——

 

Facestealer punched through Ceria and the [Mages] and actually stumbled. It swung wildly, at Colth, Typhenous—and they vanished. A few objects clattered to the ground.

Speaking stones. Snatcher stared at them and heard a voice speaking.

“It can’t tell the difference between illusions backed by aura-faking spells. Interesting.

A trick? Facestealer rotated left and right as Ceria exhaled. She hadn’t thought you could use illusions on it! But Colth had speculated that if they used fake auras…

Now the monster seemed confused. It held still—then began to lumber back the way it had come. Warily. As if it knew it was now in trouble. Just how much trouble?

Phase 3. Can’t harm it with a vortex arrow, can’t blast it with a Tier 4 spell…before we bust out our best tricks, let’s see if it has any conventional weaknesses. Valley? Now.”

A wall of stone rose on the far end of the hallway. Facestealer whirled as Ceria watched via the scrying stone they’d stuck to a wall. It began to stride towards the wall—then Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, cast her magic.

“[Tidal Wave]. [Floods of Gaarh Marsh]. And [Mithril Wall], thank you, Montressa.”

Facestealer saw the first wave of water coming from the wall. It held up a hand—began to approach—and then seemed to sense how many protective layers were behind it. It began to run back the way it had come. But now—

The Raskghar camp was ideal for this. It was a huge, domed room, and if you blocked in all the entrances, it was enclosed. The dungeon itself was just a box. And so Colth had asked Valeterisa to flood the box.

Even now, the monster didn’t fall as thousands of pounds of water poured around it. It ran into the center of the Raskghar camp and saw no exits. No hallways. They’d all been sealed off.

“It’s slowing. Anchor it down!

More spells hit Facestealer as one of the walls slid up. It whirled towards Typhenous and a band of [Mages] including Pisces. They had tripvine bags, [Sticky Web] spells—one even cast [Slow].

They’re not really working—

“Other side! [Archers]!”

Halrac and his group shot [Rope Arrows] and more delaying tricks. Facestealer took a step—and a strand of mithril rope from one of the top Gold-rank adventurers jerked it back, snagging it. It halted, began to tug, reached down—

And the tidal wave engulfed it.

The entire room became a blur and chaos as it filled. Ceria saw a flailing shape in the dark—and Colth whispered.

“It’s not…floating. It sinks? Can we use that? Is it going to—?”

Facestealer was anchored to the floor. But even as it tore the mithril rope away—it didn’t float. It was probably far too heavy. It flailed around in the water, then stood there.

“Oh come on. It has to breathe.

Someone, Deni, Ceria thought, said that. Yet she saw no bubbles of air as Facestealer stood there. It turned…and began striding towards where one of the magical walls was. It was slightly slower underwater, but it—it—

It’s not in distress. Valley.

Colth wasn’t giving up. Valeterisa was already on the case. Facestealer turned back as the Archmage of Izril pressed one hand through a magical barrier on the far wall. It looked at her, and she stared innocently back.

“I was told even Xrn couldn’t kill you. Fascinating. You are so terrifying I feel like running away. [Grand Lightning].”

The jolt that ran through the flooded room was more a feeling than a sight. Ceria actually saw Facestealer twitch. Valeterisa paused as it began striding towards her—fast.

“Uh oh. Ah, ah…[Blue Lightning]? [Transmutation: Water to Acid—]”

Valeterisa, run!

The Archmage of Izril stopped casting magic and hurried away as Colth cursed. The magical water and spells didn’t seem to be hurting Facestealer. But wow—it was getting pissed.

It punched through the protective walls and then turned as the water vanished. This time, Facestealer just turned and waited. It paced back into the center of the room and picked something up.

Just a lump of stone from the walls. But like before, Ceria knew how fast and hard it could throw it.

“It’s waiting. Phase 4, Colth?”

“…Wait.”

The Ultimate Supporter was crouched, masterminding the phases of attacks. His first three plans hadn’t been ones he’d sold the adventurers on as being the ultimate stopgaps—but they had assumed they would have borne a bit more fruit than this.

Even so, the Named-rank just waited as Facestealer turned. The other adventurers were getting antsy, but Colth was not.

“How does it think? Does it get mad? What does it do when—ah.”

Facestealer turned. It had apparently lost patience, and it charged after Valeterisa. Colth nodded.

“It’s time. Orchestra? Give it hell.”

Earplugs!

Typhenous grabbed Ceria’s arm, and she was already stuffing wax into her ears. Facestealer didn’t see the Archmage—she’d already teleported to safety with Montressa. What it did see was a group of performers. They sat at one end of the hallway as it halted—then ran at them.

But they were already playing. They had been playing for a while, and all one of the [Mages] had to do was cast what few buff-spells you could add to a musical attack.

[Loudness]. [Doubled Echo]. There wasn’t that much auditory magic most adventurers knew, but the acoustics of the narrow dungeon? Orchestra’s leader, Deni, looked up.

He’d been having a bad day. His teeth bared as he aimed his violin, and a trumpet swung up, drumsticks fell, and Orchestra struck their note.

[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar].

Even with their protective Skills. Even far from the center of the Skill—Ceria still went deaf. She felt the vibration go through the dungeon. Constrained by the magic. Shaking down corridors, killing the closest monsters from the sound alone.

Sound and force and—

A Skill. A Skill so powerful that even Snatcher felt it. A Skill from adventurers. It passed through the tunnels, and the warden of the steeled ones raised its head. It even reached the city within, and the thousands looked up.

It…reached Mother.

And she listened. Listened, but did not move. For Facestealer? Snatcher?

It bled.

It was upon its knees.

 

——

 

It bled red. Oozing blood through the ‘eyes’, the jagged holes in its body.

Snatcher was bleeding? It ‘looked’ down and felt itself bleed. So loud. Louder than anything it had heard since Mershi was lost.

Like the sound of the City of Shields dying.

It—it hurt. Adventurers. Real adventurers.

Pain.

Mother had heard it. But Mother…she was not like Snatcher. It was the last of the guardians.

In its way, it was stronger than her. She hid down there, hid because even she could die. It?

It had forgotten, until the blue insect, until this—that it could die too.

PAIN.

They were fleeing, the ones with sound. Fleeing backwards—but they sounded triumphant. Snatcher could have gone after them. But it got up—and turned. Then—it began to run. Run backwards, towards the other protectors. Towards the nests. But there were more of them—and now Snatcher felt it. Amidst rage, amidst the sudden warning, the intelligence that told it that this was a trap and it had to escape—

It was being hunted.

 

——

 

“You didn’t want to watch the adventurers at work? Named-ranks?

Lady Pryde was odd. Odd, despite being a [Lady] with a literal ego-aura and who thought working your quads was a valuable use of time.

She was odd because she was sort of…normal. In that she said normal-ish things.

Like, why wouldn’t you want to go see Named-ranks? When Erin had asked why Pryde had gone with the Haven, the woman had given her a strange look.

Why would I not accompany the north’s most famous inn?

If anything, it was strange how she was treating Mrsha and Erin and even Tessa—and by proxy, Nanette. As if they were important, because to Pryde, they were.

“You sure we’re not wasting your valuable time, Pryde?”

“You are the Titan’s chess partner. This child was at the Meeting of Tribes. Named-rank Adventurer Tessa—this is fitting company for me. Despite your lack of my given title. Mrsha, girl, come here.”

Pryde beckoned—then lifted Mrsha up so someone could stare at them. Mrsha gave Pryde a blank look. The [Lady] posed cooly, and the [Artist] bowed.

“I have an image, Lady Ulta.”

“Very good. Miss Solstice? We could find a chess board to sit across.”

She was an attention seeker! Mrsha was horrified—then impressed. If anything, the reason Erin wasn’t mad was because Pryde was blatant about it.

“Fame is a resource to be cultivated. I am not Wuvren, who has a dozen suitors dancing upon a finger. Nor am I Bethal, who can somehow muddle her way to success. A [Lady] should mind any number of qualities about herself. Paying for fame is simple. Aren’t you Calanfer’s Sixth Princess’ daughter?”

Mrsha stared at Pryde, and heads turned. The [Lady] saw Erin, Grimalkin, and Nanette staring at her.

“Isn’t she?”

“Wh—you can’t just say things like that!”

Erin looked around, but Pryde exhaled. Loudly.

“It’s hardly a secret. That was at the top of the dossier I paid for when I looked into your inn.”

“Who’s selling info about—well, maybe Lyonette is a bad liar!”

She’s my mom. You’re right.

Mrsha handed Pryde a note, and the [Lady] nodded. The Gnoll girl smiled a bit. Pryde gave her another look and then Magus Grimalkin a nod.

“Interesting company you keep, Magus.”

“They will never cease to amaze, Lady Ulta. Do you have other motives for being in Invrisil at the moment?”

“Besides visiting Pallass and watching the Haven go? House Ulta is considering the new lands of Izril—but I want to make sure my people aren’t attacked by Pallass or the Walled Cities. I came to negotiate. It’s difficult—Pallass has me on a waiting list to go through, and they are slow to respond. Appropriately. I wouldn’t give them passage through the north.”

Her eyes glinted with vexation despite the reasonable words coming out of her mouth.

“I could introduce you to Strategist Chaldion or an appropriate diplomat.”

Pryde tilted her head.

“I’ll take you up on that, Sinew Magus.”

Oooh. Mrsha saw Nanette brighten up. She followed the little witch’s gaze. Then Mrsha beamed.

Ooooooh. Pryde glanced at both of them, and they looked away innocently. Grimalkin didn’t quite notice. Erin…well, she was glancing at her little bird.

“Darn it. Dead again.”

“What are we doing, exactly?”

Pryde was getting impatient now that she had more things to do. She listened as Erin explained the gist of it. The [Lady] frowned.

“A curse. Was it Belavierr?”

“No…how do you know her?”

“We kicked her out of the north.”

Nanette’s head swiveled around with Mrsha and Erin’s, and they stared at Pryde. The [Lady] had to explain, briefly and entirely unsatisfactorily.

“Magnolia led the [Ladies] to deal with her. Maviola El was there—the last time I saw her in person. It happens.”

It does not just happen.

“To you, perhaps. I am a [Lady] of Izril, and that comes with requirements that most people are privileged not to know of. If it is a [Witch]…Magnolia should know.”

“It isn’t. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not. But the curse is in a bunch of cities. Including Invrisil, Oliyaya said. And we keep wandering the streets and nearly getting to it, but it never shows up.”

“Odd. Multiple cities…and it vanishes. It almost sounds like a diffused spell, but who would go to this much work? Either that or the curse is somehow all these places simultaneously.”

Grimalkin pondered. Pryde, though, looked sharply at Erin when she heard that.

“Just which places is this…thing you’re searching for? All cities? Not towns?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re looking for something here that keeps moving? A location?”

“Maybe? Why? Do you know what it is?”

Pryde folded her arms. She stared ahead.

“…It’s unlikely it’s the exact same one. But Magnolia once took me there, and Bethal can’t stay away, the addict. I know what it might be. No wonder you can’t find it. You need an invitation.”

“An invitation? To what?”

Pryde didn’t answer. She looked around and then found one of the magical street lamps that provided illumination at night. Some places used actual lanterns—this one was graffitied by people like Grev’s gang, and they often had fliers put up.

Seldom for adventuring work, but things analogous to Erin’s home. Lost animals, job offers…Pryde began yanking pieces of paper off as she hunted for something.

“It changes if it moves from cities, but if it is here—last time we had to look at fliers in [Butcher] shops. You, children, Sinew Magus, look for an odd piece of parchment.”

Her personal escort, Erin, Nanette, Mrsha, and Grimalkin glanced at each other, and all began searching other fliers and pieces of paper in Invrisil. Erin had just pushed aside a flier asking if anyone had a 1st-edition autograph of Jasi and would they consider selling it when she saw something odd.

A brighter, more colorful piece of parchment was half-rolled up behind the mundane paper. It was expensive—and out of place because someone might well steal it just to re-use it. Unlike the tattered notes, this was an advertisement.

 

Come See Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop!

Buys and Sells Items of All Value*.

(*No refunds, no violence, no trickster or thief classes allowed.)

Served over 120 different cities across Izril and Terandria!

Come While Open!

 

The letters, accompanied by little dazzling brooches and magical wands, were splashed across the garish page. Erin was pretty sure this was what Pryde wanted.

“Hey, is it this?”

The [Lady] dropped a piece of parchment and walked over. The instant she saw it, her face turned to one of disgust.

“That’s it.”

“What is it?”

Even Grimalkin hadn’t ever seen something like this before, but Lady Pryde assured him that he might have walked past it.

“It has visited Pallass and the Walled Cities before—not that you can use it like Erin’s inn. It’s hardly that powerful. It’s more…”

She snapped her fingers, trying to explain, and Nanette clapped her hands in delight.

“It’s a magical travelling store! Like Shellbazaar, the emporium at sea! Mother told me such places still exist!”

“What? A magic store?

Erin grew excited instantly. Now it all made sense! And no wonder they hadn’t found it! Pryde nodded.

“You have to find a flyer, and then you’ll happen across it. Finding it deliberately is, according to Magnolia, more trouble than it’s worth. Only Bethal’s been able to do it. And I think it was because the owner gave up.”

“What kind of person owns it? A Djinni? Should we be prepared for trouble?”

Grimalkin was wary of this store. Tessa gripped her blades, but Pryde gave him a strange face. She looked at Erin’s wicker bird.

“I don’t know about a curse, but the owner? Well—I think he has a knife.”

Erin waited.

“An enchanted knife?”

“No.”

“Is he…high-level? To own a store like this?”

Pryde considered the question.

“Nope. It’s a hereditary store.”

“Do we need more money? Preparations if we only get one shot?”

The [Innkeeper] pressed. Pryde checked her coin pouch as Mrsha nervously held up her own money and Nanette searched her allowance. The [Lady] glanced at Erin.

“I doubt it. It should be right down the street when we turn the block.”

Sure enough, when they turned the street, wedged in one of the alleyways was an odd shop, built into the brickwork. It had a big metal door and a sign saying ‘Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop’.

It even had a little pig with a wand coming out of its mouth for a logo. Erin liked it—until she noticed the worn brickwork. And the slightly-rusty sign. Then she frowned.

This didn’t look like a Skill. Her [Garden of Sanctuary] might have had an ordinary door, but as Pryde walked up the steps and opened the door, Erin heard a mundane, jangling bell. She peered at a very old dustmat that might add more dirt than it lost, and someone called out.

“Hello. We’re open until six tonight. Please bring anything you want to the counter.”

Erin turned, and a bored man at the counter with a balding pate and a mustache that should have probably been waxed stared at her. She stared back.

“Are you Cormeng?”

He grimaced—he had an actual pinstripe suit, white and red. But it was old and worn, and any charm from the unique garment looked sad. The Human answered with a very, very tired voice as Mrsha sniffed the air and began sneezing for the dust.

“No. That’s my great-grandfather nine times over. Welcome to the store. And before you ask—no, I don’t know where anything is. If you have something to sell, I’ll appraise it, but it’s coppers and silvers, not gold unless you can prove it’s valuable.”

He had a dusty scrying orb with a crack he was watching, and Erin realized he was listening to Drassi’s broadcast. The man added as Erin looked around and realized what this place was.

“And if it’s valuable, why would you take it here?”

Then Erin looked past him and into the aisles into that Mrsha and Nanette stared with delight, Grimalkin and Pryde, with a kind of apprehension and awe of their own. But not the awe of a magical shop of wonders.

Erin stared at racks of old, very worn clothing. At gemstones on display and more jewelry than she could imagine that appeared fancy and rich—until you realized it was all cut glass. At old farming tools, rusted with age, dolls of every shape and size across hundreds of years, signs, actual signs for the buildings they belonged to were long since gone, a thousand useless maps and illustrations crammed into a bin, decidedly non-magical books like the 4th book in a series with half a torn cover, a shoe with dirt on it, fake decorative items like one of those snowglobes—without the water inside and the snow—

Erin realized what she was inside, and she stared around the largest pawn shop in the entire world. A thrift store without end, which served a few customers wandering around with the cheap jewelry in hand, willing to fork over some silver for a curiosity they’d lose interest in within the week.

“I hate this place.”

Pryde shuddered and didn’t bother to lower her voice. Mrsha and Nanette? They were delighted by the spread and bouncing to look around. The man at the counter, who tended to this store like eight generations before him, glanced up. Erin winced, but the dour shopkeeper nodded.

“Imagine working here for forty years.”

 

——

 

The shopkeeper’s name was Doren. And he was actually more fascinating than a lot of the goods inside his store.

For instance, the current owner of Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop was not actually Doren.

“It’s a family business. Cormeng made this place—with magic. He enchanted it to teleport to all the places he’d been, and he was a world traveller. That’s why it exists after he died.”

“Clever. I can sense some subtle magic here. So the actual shop is probably somewhere else. A pocket dimension, maybe. And can you go anywhere you want?”

“Nope. Just where the store actually is.”

“So you can’t portal around?”

“Nope. I can’t leave the store. I’d just end up outside where I came in. Cormeng didn’t want trouble. The store doesn’t let in [Thieves] and whatnot…no violence, no tricksters. Hence the flier.”

“Do you have security?”

He gave her a blank look. The man was worn down by his job. Apparently, he’d been twelve when he first started doing this, which made him fifty-two years old.

“No. It’s just me.”

“What if people try to hide things and steal them?”

He gave her a bleak look.

“I guess they get free stuff. What a fortune. We actually buy the fake jewelry even if no one sells us enough. Anyways, we make a profit. A large one, in fact.”

“H-how?”

Erin gazed at the trash. And it was trash. Some of it was appealing trash like the fake geodes or sparkly stuff. Mrsha already had an armful of junk she wanted. She had five bracelets with gaudy gemstones Visma would love, and Nanette was trying on clothes for size, measuring them. Erin groaned.

“Nanette! Don’t buy clothes. Someone else wore them.”

“So? They look nice! There’s fashions from all ages and all over, Miss Erin! I could get a hat and dress. If you think Miss Lyonette’d be okay with it.”

Erin thought it was fine—but the truth was, she knew thrift stores. She’d visited a big one—and while Cormeng’s Emporium was far larger, she did see a number of Invrisil customers walking around. And Drakes and Gnolls.

They didn’t seem to realize the significance. Erin turned to Doren excitedly.

“Wait, if you’re in multiple cities at once, you have guests who’d meet and mingle from different cities, different continents, even! What kind of things do they do?”

He gave her another blank look.

“Buy things? We’re not an inn. Your inn.”

He knew who she was! Erin protested.

“But what if you had a meet-and-greet—”

“That’s not the point. Cormeng’s shop is meant to be low-key. Important people don’t even come here—unless someone gives away the secret.”

He half-glared at Pryde, and she waved at him.

“Bethal’s the one obsessed with cheap junk. How much has she spent here?”

“Probably a hundred gold pieces. Cormeng is actually very popular, you know. It might only sell cheap glass—”

“—But it’s way overpriced, yeah.”

Erin suspected that Numbtongue or Earlia could get you an actual ruby gemstone that cost less than the fake ones on display. Grimalkin picked up a vase as ugly as sin and nearly dropped it. He caught it just in time, and Doren nodded.

“Between the day-sales and breakages, we make a lot. So my family doesn’t have to work. Each generation, one of us takes over the business. Guess who’s been working here every day?”

“D-do you get breaks?”

“Weekends. I used to work the entire week. Oh, and there’s another fun requirement which means only the family can do this job.”

His eyes—his eyes had once been bright, faintly red, and Erin imagined they bloomed like excited flowers in a younger boy’s gaze. They had the deadness of working customer service for four decades in a business you didn’t own for your family.

There was a depth of despair and emptiness there that even Belavierr would fear. Especially because it turned out that Doren was the most mundane person in this shop.

“I don’t have a class.”

Even Pryde and Grimalkin turned at that. Erin’s jaw dropped.

“But—why?”

Doren leaned over the counter.

“Cormeng didn’t have one. So the shop only lets someone like me open it. Get it? From the day I was a kid—well, I make good money. I can open at eight, close at six, and get weekends off. I am so happy.”

His eyes made Erin’s gaze slide sideways, and she had stared down Xarkouth. There was something off here. Even in the stores in her city—she hadn’t seen this kind of despondency. It was a job, so why…?

“You said you used to not get weekends off. What happened?”

“I collapsed.”

She stared at him, and he avoided her gaze.

“Why…why work like this if it’s not something you want to do? You don’t enjoy this. I can tell.”

“Someone’s got to. The store will be unused, and my family depends on me.”

“So let it—”

“It’ll go to someone else. Appear in front of them. We can’t let it leave the family or someone else without levels will get it. This. Is. Important. I’ll retire and someone else gets to take over the business. I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it all.”

When? She looked at him as he struck the counter for emphasis, and Erin held back that word. She tried to ask something else. Tried to—

“But if Cormeng made this shop—he cast magic! Without levels!”

“Yep.”

“Can you cast—”

No.

“S-so, how’s the job? I mean, how’s your personal life? Got any hobbies? Got a…kid?”

Doren gave Erin a bleak smile. And now he seemed to be regretting talking to her at all because he was looking in a mirror he didn’t want to stare at.

“I sit in this shop for eight hours, five days a week. What do you think? All the attractive women are throwing themselves at…”

He gestured at his form, and to his credit, it was mostly his sedentary job. And maybe he was losing hair in the center of his head and it was spreading out in an unfortunate way, but you could do something with that. It was probably the, uh…

Despair. In fact, he gave Pryde such a long look that Erin really did feel bad for him. She bit her lip.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doren.”

He looked at her, surprised, and shrugged.

“Thanks. But there’s worse jobs. I’ve never had to worry about being stabbed by an angry customer. Just—how would you make this better?”

He showed her the store. Gestured around at it and Erin saw his family perching on one shoulder and that promised day waiting for him. Doren confessed softly.

“It’s fun at first. It really is, and you put a lot of work into it. My aunt told me it was fun for her too. Then it becomes a job—but you can’t run away from it. Day-by-day is fine. The scrying orbs? My aunt read thousands of books. This is fine. How would you make it—”

A sound interrupted his voice.

Crash. Mrsha and Grimalkin stared at the pot, and Doren sighed.

“…That. Let me get the price.”

Erin would have loved to have a longer conversation with the man, and she hoped she would. But the crash had reminded her she was on a mission. She turned back to Doren.

“You…didn’t happen to have any weird guests about a week or so back, did you? Some—odd people? A woman, maybe?”

He did stop, then. The Sinew Magus was offering him some silver coins, and Doren glanced up sharply.

“This shop is neutral. We don’t tell tales about our customers. We don’t get high-level people inside if we can help it. You shouldn’t have found this place unless you knew about it. Magnolia Reinhart somehow found out, and we’ve had the [Ladies], but we keep to ourselves. We don’t want trouble, Miss Solstice.”

“I get that, but—did you? Because I think she left something in here that’s been bothering me.”

Slowly, Doren went back to the counter with the dustpan and tossed the shards into a bin. He looked around and lowered his voice.

“We closed shop permanently in that city. If she did something—take it out. Cormeng’s store can’t keep out…high-level folk. I don’t want to know who that was, and I’m not asking questions. Please.”

He gave her a pleading look, and Erin wondered who…or what he’d seen. She nodded.

“Can I poke around? I won’t be long.”

“We have three floors. And there’s no back rooms—it’s just more rooms. If you need to squeeze past the shoe racks, go ahead. You can walk for about five thousand feet that way.”

“Ancestors.”

Grimalkin muttered. He had trouble navigating some of the displays—this place was cramped to the point of being claustrophobic.

“Miss Erin? Do you need us to come with you?”

Nanette looked up, but Erin pointed to Tessa.

“I’m fine. I’ll go ahead and look—Mrsha, don’t buy all the cheap jewels. They’re fake.”

But they look so cool! Mrsha decided to follow Erin as the [Innkeeper] walked into the antique store.

Here was what Erin knew of such places. They had things people didn’t want to buy.

Oh, you could find tons of stuff you might theoretically buy. Like look at all these sofas! Actual sofas, some in good condition, some worn—chairs on end, tables, furniture, even dressers!

Now, before you thought about finding a high-quality Terandrian dresser that a [Lady] had once used, remember where you were. These were not the kind of items you could just refurbish a bit and have thousands of gold pieces of quality on-hand.

The dream was finding such a chair or some antique you’d take to an [Appraiser] on a network and earn tons of money for, right? That was what Erin recalled of thrift stores in her world.

Here was the thing. If it were here? Someone had already found it. Erin had remembered tons of collectible cards in the big thrift store she knew in her city. Plausibly worth a lot to collectors? Big signs from old company shops, and, oh—yes, clothing galore.

Something else that both that shop and this one had?

Dolls.

Too many of them. All in the old style of those creepy, staring faces shaped a bit too realistically—and yet not quite the real thing.

The worst ones smiled at you. Erin shuddered at one in the semi-permanent light.

“I bet you’re super creepy at night.”

“I don’t go in here at night.”

Doren called out from the desk. Even Tessa seemed weirded out. She hunched, trying to avoid a row of old toys that Mrsha was theoretically interested in. Theoretically as in—the moment she looked at them, like an old push-wagon, she was not interested in them. Tessa bumped into a doll and stared into a smiling Drake doll’s face.

She punched it.

The costs of this visit were adding up, and Erin was still following the wicker bird. It was pulling her in two spots now, and she eventually stomped past a row of urns before swerving.

“Wh—no way! I think I found it!”

Mrsha was staring blankly at a piece of paper on one of the walls. It was of different kinds of gemstones, one of those encyclopedia-something things. She wondered…who would ever buy such a thing. Did you frame that and hang it on your wall like some loser?

Maybe Numbtongue would want it. Oh, and here was one on plants, for Octavia. Like everything, it was semi-valuable, but you weren’t going to buy it.

In the same way, Erin was hunting along rows of pots and vases that looked good.

Sort of.

Not really.

They were the kind of craftsmanship you could admire and never want to put in your home. Not gregariously ugly and not good. Erin came to a stop in front of one that looked almost like the others. She frowned at the creamy vase. It had some nice coloration ruined entirely by the motif it was going for—fish scales. The potter had been good enough to do the effect in the vase—big enough for some rather large flowers?

So you had a cream-color, carp-style vase that weighed…Erin oofed.

“Ten pounds? It’s solid. And hey…there’s something in here.

She nearly dropped the vase and yanked something out. Erin almost threw it at once, and Tessa, who had drawn her blades, ready to attack a scorpion, stared.

“A finger.”

Mrsha’s head snapped around, but it wasn’t a finger. It was wax. And it looked uncannily like Erin’s finger. The [Innkeeper] stared at it.

“What the—”

“It’s a curse focus!”

Nanette had a dress in her arms. She pushed forwards excitedly and somewhat alarmed. Erin prodded the finger, but it didn’t hurt.

“It’s like voodoo magic. Does it—is it harming me?”

“It’s probably how you’re being cursed, Miss Erin. You should destroy it at once.”

“Any particular way?”

“Crush it?”

Erin clenched her fist. The wax was delicate and weak. As soon as she began deforming the wax, the charm stopped moving towards it. And Erin felt her finger, which had been the source of Nerrhavia’s unwanted curse—stop tingling.

Her middle finger kept going. Erin looked around.

“Wow. That was simple. There must be another one here.”

She put the vase back and followed the charm. But now, Erin was thinking. What…what was going on?

Nerrhavia had been haunting her dreams for a week. Annoyingly—after the first few dreams, she’d just appeared and harassed Erin. That was really annoying, and so was the feeling of her fingers from the curse. The occasional lick was bad enough, but now that she was here, Erin had just destroyed the charm.

This was a lot of work for no payoff. Erin’s paranoia mounted, but she hadn’t sensed any duplicity from Doren. If this were a trap, it was a stupid one.

So what’s going on here? Nerrhavia was supposed to be really smart.

As she hunted, Erin saw Nanette, Mrsha, and even Tessa finding things they might buy. The Named-rank adventurer had found a fake sword.

“You like fake swords, Tessa?”

“No.”

She tried to hide it behind her back. But the purely ornamental sword…the Named-rank showed it to Erin.

“It looks nice.”

“Yeah, sort of. Why do you want it?”

“To hang it somewhere? That’s what you do.”

Erin opened her mouth. She supposed Tessa had a point.

“Well, I don’t like thrift stores. So there’s not much for me to buy. I used to play card games, y’know. I had that phase. I would go to this store and buy them, but there’s never anything valuable here.”

Mrsha and Nanette looked at her, and even Tessa listened. Erin strolled through memory lane.

“My city had one big store, you see. And when I went there, I’d hunt for ages for a good card or something rare like a real gem. But you never find it. Because it’s a thrift store.”

What about my treasure?

Mrsha held up a fake pink diamond. Erin sighed.

“Yeah, I did that too, Mrsha. And bought stuff like Nanette. But…oh, I think we’re here.”

She came to a stand of dresses and rifled through them. Erin stared at the dresses and saw one that was dirty-pink and had a bright green thread lining the pockets. That was the only beautiful thing in the entire dress—the brown buttons did no favors. Erin shuddered as she reached into a pocket and pulled out another finger.

“I just don’t get this. There! Curse done!”

She threw the finger down and stomped on it. The curse vanished, and the bird went still. Erin wondered if Nerrhavia might appear in her dreams tonight. She doubted it.

But this was too easy. Think, Erin, think!

“At least buy something, Erin. The dress is, um…there are some dresses that look nice.”

Nanette urged her, but Erin shook her head. She was turning away from the dress. This store was depressing. It was like the opposite of her inn. The depressing store, and Doren—she wished he had a bit of magic.

“Doren, I’m done.”

When she made her way to the counter, the man looked relieved.

“Thanks. Was it anything—dangerous?”

“Nah. Just a prank. Say, you should come to my inn sometime.”

“I can’t—”

“Oh, right. Location. Well—come to Liscor. Do you serve Liscor?”

He checked a list.

“…No. It’s not impossible, but it wasn’t good business, I heard. I could.”

She gave him a big smile.

“Think about it. I’ll bring you some food, special delivery.”

He looked at her, and the man shrugged.

“That sounds nice. Maybe I will. But don’t make a fuss. My job’s fine. In fact—now that you cleared up that woman’s trouble, I think we’ll go back to normal.”

His eyes slid sideways, and Erin looked at him. She wondered if he’d ever go to Liscor. She suspected he was lying to her face. Erin gazed at Grimalkin and Pryde, and the two were discussing going to Pallass.

“…have my estates. Your company could stay there.”

“Intriguing. I will find an inn.”

“I see.”

“However, I may visit.”

Doren followed Erin’s glance. And even without her Skills, she sensed a wave of jealousy and despondency off him. Yet Erin looked at Pryde and Grimalkin, and she wanted to smile. As much as Mrsha and Nanette were doing as Pryde glared at them.

It was a good thing. Erin looked around the store and called out to a Drake gazing blankly at all the fake jewels.

“Excuse me, where are you from?”

“Huh? Oh—I’m just—down the street. Tyss Street.”

“Tyss Street where?”

The Drake gave Erin a long, long look.

“The city? Dessieth District?”

“What city’s that, exactly? You know, you’re in a magical shop.”

“I’m what?

“Miss, please.

Doren looked aggravated as the Drake freaked out. He glared at the [Innkeeper] as Erin explained, and she was definitely banned along with everyone here. But Erin concluded by introducing herself, and the Drake gobbled.

“You’re—you’re the Human on the scrying orb? I’m in Liscor? But I’m all the way down on the coast—”

“No way. Are you east or west?”

“I—we were the northern-most city on the west coast. The Hivelands are north of us. Cabbenest.”

No way! I’ll look you up later! This is so cool!”

Erin and the Drake turned to look at Doren. He glowered hugely and raised his voice as the other customers looked around.

“It doesn’t matter. No one can leave except via the spot they came through. And before you try it, you can’t do anything funny like trade items. This is not that kind of shop.

Erin Solstice looked at him, and the man gave her an actual glare with fire in it. As if—daring her to bring something special into his shop. The Drake looked just as disappointed, and so Erin stuck out her hand.

“Well, even if that’s true, I met someone cool. Who’re you, Miss?”

“Arensspe?”

“Oh! I’m Erin. See—we met each other, Doren.”

“I’m sure the world will remember it.”

He sneered at her. Erin’s eyes narrowed. She looked around, and Magus Grimalkin was writing down an inn for Pryde. Erin snatched his journal.

“Grimalkin, lend me that quill and a page. Doren, how much for…that sign?”

He glanced at a large sign with the name Gorbel’s Sailing Salts. It was huge, wide, and propped up on the wall.

“Eighteen gold pieces.”

Eighteen gold—it’s—fine. Here.”

Erin slapped the gold on the counter. The man looked frankly shocked and glanced at the sign.

“You want help bringing it out?”

“Nope. Just leave it there.”

“But—”

“I bought it. Just leave it there. Now…how do you, uh, spell Arensspe?”

Erin conferred with the Drake and then stuck the piece of paper to the board. Mrsha and Nanette oohed, and the other clients—including the ones just coming in—noticed the tacked on piece of paper. Doren stared at it then Erin.

 

Erin Solstice of Liscor and Arensspe from Cabbenest. 

“Come visit my inn! I’ll give you a free meal!”

—Erin

“I thought this was a normal store. Are Antinium really living in Liscor?”

—Arensspe

 

“What is this?”

The shopkeeper looked nervous—and confused. But Erin just beamed at him.

“It’s proof I was here. And that you had two really cool, ultra neat guests!”

Arensspe stared at Erin.

“I’m a [Net Weaver].”

Two amazingly cool guests. And I’ve left a message for people. If anyone tells me that they saw it—why, they might come to my inn! Or Cabbenest, wherever that is!”

“We mostly deal in fish. It’s a pretty boring city, honestly.”

The point is that we were here. And that people should know they met interesting folk. Or what was the point of coming in here? Cheap jewels? This stupid stuff?”

Erin gestured at the pile of fake gemstones that Mrsha had in a basket and was going to buy. Arensspe was warming to the theme and nodding, and behind her, a man exclaimed.

“Wait, I’m not in First Landing is what you’re saying? Dead gods, I just saw the Wind Runner and now the [Innkeeper].”

Erin and Mrsha’s heads rotated so fast they nearly cracked. A Drake was rubbing at his eyes.

“I’m in Zeres! Wait—let me write something down!”

People wanted to mark they were here. Erin looked at Doren, and he stared at her. He looked at the signboard.

“What are you doing? Are you trying to give me something? I don’t want it. This is a quiet shop.”

His hands were trembling on the counter. Erin Solstice stopped then and looked at him. She was reminded of the adventurers’ faces, because he had something similar here.

“…If you don’t like it, take it down when I leave. Honest, I’m not going to bully you into keeping it. But I think it’s neat. I think this shop is cool. I just don’t want you to feel like it’s—a prison. Besides, there is something cool here. Behind the junk.”

She looked around Cormeng’s Grand Emporium of Antiques and Pawnshop, and Doren gazed at her. When he looked up, perhaps it was like he had first come to this place, as a very young boy, and wandered through the shelves. He looked at the signboard and then at Mrsha’s jewels. Slowly, he began sorting them.

“I don’t know why that woman came here. Or what led you here. But there’s nothing valuable here.”

He lifted a fake pearl, and Arensspe pointed to it.

“Except that. That’s a pearl.”

Erin and Doren looked at it. Erin shrugged.

“Yeah, it looks nice. No wonder Visma will like it, Mrsha. But it’s way too big to be the real thing. Unless there are giant clams…okay, but it’s purple.”

“Yeah.”

The [Net Weaver] stared at it. Doren was about to price it at fifteen silver. Slowly, his hand paused over the register, and Erin’s head swiveled back.

“Pearls aren’t purple, right guys?”

Grimalkin and Pryde turned to look at it. Mrsha hurriedly slapped down a gold coin and grabbed the pearl.

Great doing business with you, buddy.

Doren held onto it.

“I, uh—think I’ll hold onto that sale. Give me that—”

Erin Solstice stared at the pearl. Which, but for Arensspe’s comment, would have been a literal gem in the rough. Grimalkin made an offer on it at the same time as Pryde—one for magic, the other because it looked good. They stared at each other as Mrsha, howling, tried to claim she’d already bought it.

Then Erin looked back into the store. Her neck tingled, and her fingers too.

Nerrhavia never does anything without a reason.

“I, uh, think I need to go find something to buy. Two things. I’ll be back soon.”

She returned later, as the shop began an auction over the pearl and people talked and put their names on the board, with a dress stuffed into a vase. Pryde looked over at Erin and grimaced.

“Your taste is about as good as Bethal’s.”

“Hey!”

Erin juggled the two items as Doren checked them, gave her a suspicious look, then sold her them for a gold piece and two silver. He’d already gotten the pearl, so she kept her face straight as she wondered…if she should ask Saliss or someone to take a look at these.

When he got back from adventuring.

 

——

 

Saliss of Lights stood in the dungeon of Liscor. He hated dungeons.

Dungeons were not controlled environments. Dungeons were where his potions and Skills did the least good, sometimes.

Dungeons were selfish places, and the monsters living there didn’t threaten many people. Dungeons were for treasure, and the Named-rank Adventurer had better uses for his life than to risk it in some hole.

“—but you’re an exception, aren’t you? Hello there. I’m Saliss of Lights. Do you remember me?”

The adventurer closest to Erin Solstice—they both thought they resembled each other—glanced up. He was still naked. But then, so was his opponent.

Steam was baking off Facestealer’s brown hide. It was charred—but the mark of Roshal still burned. It wouldn’t come off. It was etched in the skin, and only cutting it loose would stop the tracking.

People had done worse to escape Roshal. Saliss’ lips curled. Colth.

This dungeon, Roshal’s brand staring him in the face, and the lumbering figure wading through lava—even if it was magical? Saliss had been having a bad day for a week.

Maybe this would make him feel better.

“Clear the area! Saliss is heading in!”

Colth the Supporter was a clever kid. Nine different schemes had damaged Facestealer—enough that Saliss could see that pale yellow-white bone underneath the hide. If memory served—even Xrn hadn’t been able to do more than that until the monster damaged her head.

Well, Colth’s plans also revolved around him adding to the Skills of everyone he partied with. Saliss felt more settling on him.

[Support Skill: Enhanced Concoctions]. [Support Skill: Retreat of the Skirmisher].

The Drake tossed up a vial.

“I’m going in.”

He flicked it forwards, and Facestealer charged. It swung its arms wildly, running at Saliss so fast he suspected it could catch someone on horseback.

Faster than it looked, and it had tricks. It was still trying to paralyze him, but Saliss was immune to that. What made his scales prickle with danger was the certainty that the monster was only trying to get away, to lose them in the tunnels. What happened when they backed it up?

—Colth’s plan. Phase #10 was Saliss. And it was just Saliss. The Drake grinned as he threw the first vial.

Facestealer actually caught it, a tiny fastball delicately held between two massive claws. The glass should have shattered at a child’s touch, but the monster grabbed it and began to throw it back.

[Remote Detonation]. The vial exploded. The liquid covered Facestealer, and it halted. It—tried to remove the liquid for a second, then resumed its charge at Saliss. He saw a claw coming for him.

Saliss—

[Flask: Directional Force]. He aimed it at Facestealer and then broke the Alchemist’s Fireball on his chest.

The explosion didn’t hurt. It was just fire. But the kick sent him flying like a ragdoll, away from Facestealer. So fast that even the monster couldn’t keep up. Facestealer swiped, missed Saliss, then noticed the jars glued to the walls, ceiling, and fl—

The spark was its body and the liquid. Or rather, those were the catalysts. The other jars activated, and Saliss looked up as he heard the chatter.

What was—

Ah. Ah, I really don’t like you. Saliss ignored the voices as he watched one of his nastier concoctions engulf Facestealer. But he already felt like it wasn’t going to kill it.

I made this one to kill Wrymvr the Deathless. It’s not going to work on him either. Not yet.

The [Alchemist] had seen that no spells, not water, not Valeterisa’s lightning, no elements had gone through Facestealer’s hide. Pure force like the Vortex Arrow had—and sound had been the real weapon against it.

He suspected that Facestealer’s organs—or whatever it was—was protected by that bone shell and hide. Proof against elements and even death-magic like the stuff Pisces used. Saliss could try to compete with Valeterisa, and he could probably generate a bolt of lightning in excess of her best spells.

…But why bother? He wanted to kill this thing. In theory—even Wrymvr, even a top-tier monster like Facestealer—

Well, he was pretty sure it didn’t enjoy this. Good use of six thousand, two hundred and twenty-nine gold pieces.

The jar contained a soluble dust from the Izrilian city of Port Isle, famous for its odd, twisted dimensional properties. The Fabledust could be used for a lot of things, mostly killing yourself or being lost forever. [Mages] had never managed to make it that useful except in small, small quantities, and it was very useful then.

Saliss had put far too much in that jar, turned it into a liquid you couldn’t remove that clung to you—and then started a warp-reaction on Facestealer. But he’d gotten it wrong. So in theory—

Facestealer was aglow with that changing light of Port Isle, a brown like no color Saliss had ever seen, not turgid nor mundane but a deep color with more depth than any tree’s bark, basking it in color—

Trying to pull it halfway across the continent. Silly Saliss. He really should have made the reaction work. All his experiments showed that this generated enough pulling force to yank mithril chains in half like they were made of string.

Crack. Crack. Crackcrackcrackcrack—at first, Saliss thought it was working. Then he realized the monster was being held against the Dungeon’s wall and that the dungeon itself was breaking.

Not Facestealer. But it was off the ground, and the adventurers were gasping. It was the first time the monster had done more than stumble.

“Come on, break, damn you. What are you made of?”

Saliss began throwing alchemical items. Big boom. Big boom. Big—

Thwoom—

The third explosion kicked him without a potion nearby. Saliss landed, looked up, and saw both his alchemical creations fizzling out. He stared through the smoke of his reactions and saw something stumbling forwards.

…Well, it looks unhappy. Saliss primed a Frost Wyvern flask made of their dead corpses. It had about the same cold as that damn Wyvern Lord. He stared grimly at the lumbering monster as it looked at him and then tried to run the way it came.

Got any more bright ideas, Colth?

 

——

 

Snatcher was beyond fury. It was going to kill them, all of them. All the intruders and—

It ran.

It ran from the naked Drake. It tried to flee towards the city, towards Mother. The other, lesser defenders were attacking, but only when Snatcher was among the many would it be safe.

Right now, it was being hunted.

That last—attack—had hurt. Hurt, but not as badly as the sound.

They hurt Snatcher.

IT COULD DIE.

Yet not easily. Not yet. Snatcher ran because it knew this was their battle. On their terms. Its fury was mixed with fear, but it took more to kill Snatcher.

Falling stars could not. Foes without end could not.

They didn’t even know how it had been made.

If it could just—get away—then it would have the chance to kill them all. Pick them off, one by one. All it had to do was hide

Snatcher ran. It could sense the naked Drake pursuing it, but warily—and they were blocking off more tunnels. It turned left and sensed more chains, more blocking spells.

They had no idea what it could do.

[Reconfigure Aura: Haste].

Dead gods! It’s—

How were they finding it? Four times now, Snatcher had escaped them, using monsters as distractions, slipping away into the darkness. Each time, they came after it, laying a trap.

How…?

That smiling adventurer. Snatcher remembered that sigil it had seen. It felt not the wounds on its hide.

But—

ROSHAL.

It remembered a trick of old. And Snatcher realized it had to be tricky itself. So long it had been that it had forgotten danger. Forgotten—cruelty. How to fight foes as great as it.

How to wage war.

YOU DO NOT KNOW MOTHER. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU STAND. YOU—

They couldn’t even catch it, now. Snatcher charged towards the city, gloating. They had some tricks, but they were weak. It was going to get away. Get aw—

Then it heard a cough and slowed. Snatcher had no head to turn, so it swiveled its body about. And it had not sensed her—

Mihaela Godfrey jogged next to the monster. She stared up at it, her white hair blowing with the speed of their travel, and Snatcher swung.

 

——

 

The Courier of Izril was on the ground. Colth ran as Deniusth, Eldertuin, Viecel, and the other top-level adventurers raced past the Horns.

Ksmvr was slicing up Face-Eater Moths as he heard Colth shout.

Phase 13! Skip the rest—support Mihaela! Get into position! We’re using the Flying Fortress formation.”

The Named-rank adventurers surged forwards as Facestealer slowed and attacked Mihaela. She? She dodged.

“You run like crap. [Wall Run]—[Mithril Axe Kick].

The Guildmistress of First Landing leapt back so fast she made Snatcher feel slow, even with the aura. She ran up a wall, kicked off it—and her foot connected with Snatcher’s head.

It—didn’t stumble, and the impact made Mihaela grimace. She pushed off it and felt like she was trying to push off a mountain. It swiped again at her, and she landed.

“Nothing?”

She was no adventurer, but she had adventured—run into Chalence, fought monsters, Antinium, everything. This thing was raising all the warning signs in the back of her head.

Chalence’s final boss monster flinched at that.

Facestealer did not. What was it made of? She saw the hide was torn further from Saliss’ attacks. If it were skin, it would be in danger of bleeding out from the sheer volume of damage. She saw red—leaking around the cuts that the other adventurers had left.

“Lehra, pin it down. Mihaela, the Flying Fortress!”

“I hear you. It’s—”

Facestealer lunged, and Mihaela bit back her comment about it being slow. She dodged backwards again and realized it was trying to back her into a wall.

[I Took Eight Steps Like Thunder]—

The sound of it made the dungeon echo, but she dodged under the claw and saw the other positioned, swinging into—

Close. She really was too old for this. Mihaela’s lungs burned. Don’t cough. Don’t cough—

Don’t slow down. Facestealer whirled, and the Guildmistress gripped her trump card, the Wand of Lightning Bolts. But she had to save it—

A figure in armor charged past her and slammed into Facestealer. Lehra Ruinstrider shouted as the Blade of Mershi actually scored Facestealer’s hide, and it backed up. It raised a claw—and struck her.

“Lehra!”

The Gnoll went crashing past Mihaela, but she survived the blow thanks to the spells Suxhel and the others had added to her. She got up shakily—but Facestealer didn’t go after her.

It feared her relic. It was trying to run again. It was getting far too close to that inner city for comfort. Mihaela, breathing hard, looked past Facestealer. It was watching her, but she sensed something oddly…

Maybe it was just her. She had too much experience with it from First Landing, from being a Guildmistress and a Runner.

Was it contempt Mihaela sensed? Contempt, for her Skills, her own speed, and even Lehra? She got a distinct wariness—but this thing seemed to be gauging them. As if it thought it was going to escape and come back.

As if even Orchestra hadn’t hurt it that badly.

She coughed into her hand. Blood, and it hadn’t even struck her. Mihaela’s lungs were burning as they always did when she worked too hard. She sensed Facestealer’s blank face and those two gaping holes—staring at her.

“You’re not going to keep on smiling. Back up, kid.”

Lehra got to her feet shakily. She kept a glowing buckler raised as Facestealer turned. Then…saw the group blocking its way towards those giant stone gates that led to the inner city.

Orchestra. Viecel the Gambler was hanging back, but Eldertuin was standing in the way of Facestealer. He had his famous shield planted, and behind him stood Colth. And at the back—Valeterisa.

Just like old times. There was only one person missing—and she appeared as she blew past Facestealer. Mihaela Godfrey.

A Courier, Named-rank adventurers, and an Archmage of Wistram. Their ranks had changed since Chalence. Their ages. There wasn’t Dorreg or Caulette to foul things up.

Facestealer halted and began to look around. Behind it, Lehra Ruinstrider held her ground as Saliss of Lights appeared, juggling vials.

Boxed in. Facestealer stepped towards the Gnoll and Drake—then faced the Haven’s Named-ranks. As if it were reluctant to flee like this.

That—was its mistake. Mihaela inhaled and prayed for a breath of fresh air down here.

“Ready? Valley—Deni, give us a tune and some magic. Brat?”

Colth the Supporter held up a thumb. He turned and smiled at Facestealer—and then it did begin to charge. Down the long hallway, but it was too slow.

It had been too slow the moment they got into formation. Now, Mihaela’s blood roared. And she heard Valeterisa chanting.

“[Speed Spell]. [Dual Cast: Grand Lightning]. [Haste]—oh wait, you can’t haste Mihaela anymore—”

As she cast, Orchestra struck up a tune. They played a Terandrian waltz—then kicked it into their impromptu covers of the song.

Fast—faster—Deniusth’s bow began to sing across the violin he held. The Gold-bell Violinist played so fast he’d once made an ordinary violin smoke from the speed. Orchestra was playing—

A song for speed.

“[Ballad of the Courier of Izril]!”

Once, it had just been [Speed Melody]. Mihaela turned as she felt her blood accelerate in her veins. Eldertuin braced as Facestealer came at him.

The Fortress of Terlands was staring down the monster, for all he was only half its size even with his armor and shield. His eyes locked on Facestealer’s exposed eye-pits like a wall, and the monster hesitated.

Did it see—? Too late.

Colth looked at Mihaela, and his own face was lit up by Orchestra’s Skill. She saw him whisper and knew the words even if they were moving so fast that sound was slowing.

[Copy Skill: Transfer Momentum].

Mihaela began running. She sprinted forwards with Colth, but they were like Street Runners pacing ahead of the real Courier. Waiting—waiting—

Valeterisa raised her staff, and her eyes glowed. She spoke as she aimed straight down the corridor.

[Grand Lightning]!

Two bolts exploded from her, and Colth and Mihaela activated their Skills. The bolts of lightning slowed, and Valeterisa admired the bolts of electricity that had suddenly, somehow—

Come to a stop. All their speed drained away by—

[Transfer Momentum]. Colth and Mihaela sped up. They became twin blurs so fast that the world vanished except for them. So fast that Facestealer was just registering what was happening as Viecel shouted.

[All or Nothing Charge]—

Then Mihaela sprinted. Next to Colth, who kept up with her, impossibly, almost as fast, straining his Skills as they ran with lightning in their blood. Not at Facestealer, oh no.

At the most immovable force in their team. He was waiting, his back entrusted to them. And like she had so many times—Mihaela leapt. Colth came behind Eldertuin, lower, like a football player from another world, and his shoulder struck Eldertuin as Mihaela timed her kick to his back. Colth activated his next trump card.

[Encore Skill]. [Transfer Momentum]!

Eldertuin and Mihaela and Colth shared one moment in the pure world that only she belonged to. The place where [The Courier’s Last Road] lay.

Speed. Then Mihaela dropped, and Colth stumbled against nothing. Because all their energy had transferred, again—

Straight into their friend. 

Facestealer didn’t even react. Mihaela barely saw it happen. Eldertuin, flying—launched by the impact of his friends, braced behind his shield. Activating all his Skills, his skin turning to Adamantium—

He hit Facestealer shield-first, and Saliss and Lehra took cover. Mihaela saw it all. She saw the shockwave first as the two struck. It rippled through the dungeon and cracked the walls in half, a line sending spiderwebs of broken masonry through the enchanted stone.

The air moved. Dust and debris blew across the hallways, so fast that it was like shrapnel and cut Lehra’s fur and silenced Orchestra’s song. The sound it made echoed for miles in the earth, and the Gold-adventurers clapped their hands to their ears.

Facestealer. Facestealer—

Reeled backwards. It stumbled eight steps and came to a halt as Eldertuin fell, shaking.

“Eld! On your feet! Back, b—”

Colth’s shout of despair was too fast. Mihaela raised a hand as she saw what Eldertuin did. The Fortress got to his feet and drew his sword. For the sound was loud and filled the dungeon.

Crack.

Facestealer’s head, above the eyes, was bowed in. Mihaela saw, past the hide blown away—the yellow-white bone was cracked. It bled from the wound and, incredulously, the monster raised its claws to it.

Then she felt it.

Fear. It turned to run, stumbling, and Eldertuin’s sword dug into its back. Facestealer whirled, and Deniusth stabbed his rapier-bow into its side. He couldn’t cut through the hide, but the monster slashed at him with a claw. Mihaela yanked Deniusth back as Colth howled.

“Charge! [Bane Blades]!”

He leapt on its back, digging his swords in, and Eldertuin took a blow that sent him reeling backwards, but his shield refused to break. He set himself and charged forwards again as Lehra struck Facestealer from the other side with a hammer.

It was shielding its head. One-handed, Facestealer swung a fist into the dungeon wall, and debris shot out like a deadly spray. It had to lower the other hand to block one of Saliss’ flasks, and the explosion cooked Mihaela’s skin.

Take it down!

Facestealer’s arms swung wildly. It caught Colth—and Eldertuin appeared, taking the blow for his friend. The Fortress went flying this time, and another adventurer took his place.

The Gambler. Viecel lifted a handaxe and spoke as Facestealer turned. Mihaela thought it was making a sound. Like a—scream? So faint—

[Mutual Bet]. [We Both Win, We Both Lose]. I bet my head.”

The monster ripped off Viecel’s head. The Selphid’s body stumbled, and that axe came up. He swung, and Mihaela saw the axe sink into Facestealer’s bone and lodge there. The monster recoiled, and Viecel tore the axe away as he stumbled back.

“Oh dear. Oh dear—Larra, things are going badly—”

Valeterisa was raising and lowering her staff, unable to get a bead on Facestealer—but more Gold-ranks were charging. Now the monster was swinging just to clear them and get away. Away—

A rift opened in front of it as it tossed Colth aside. Lehra was trying to hold it back, but she was being dragged along. She let go as Saliss yanked her back—because the hallway was glowing. Facestealer looked up, and a familiar rift appeared as Mihaela dodged back.

Larracel the Haven.

[Fire Support: Inferno Light Arrows]. They were a foot wide, some of them, and the burning hail struck Facestealer as it flinched—then ran forwards, through the storm, towards Orchestra.

“Don’t let it run!”

Deniusth was behind Facestealer, using it for cover from Larra’s spells. He lifted his blade.

[Sound Sundering Cut].

He slashed at Facestealer’s back as the monster kept going. Eldertuin was on his feet, and Colth leapt again, cutting more strips of hide off Facestealer.

Don’t let it heal! Slow it—hit the broken bone!”

He twisted around Facestealer, swords aiming for that weak spot even as it tried to grab him, fearlessly trying to pry out the bones and expose the gap. A gap—into which all the fire and magic that Facestealer had resisted thus far would—

Colth’s sword swung towards a chunk of misaligned bone like a chisel. Then Mihaela saw his sword twist out of his hands. Viecel’s arm swerved, and the Violinist had to grab the hilt of his blade. Eldertuin swore, and Mihaela saw Lehra jerk and Saliss drop his potions and kick one away.

“What the—”

[Aura of Disarming]. Mihaela looked left and right and then saw Orchestra losing control of their blades. Only Lehra and Viecel managed to hold onto theirs; Valeterisa dropped her staff and bent over it.

“Oh dear. Oh—”

Facestealer brought down a fist, and Mihaela tackled Valeterisa out of the way.

Larra! Teleport Valeterisa out! Now! Colth—

He wasn’t listening. The adventurers were in disarray, and Facestealer was running towards those damn doors. Only a handful of adventurers were trying to stop it as they reached for their dropped weapons.

One of them was a woman who needed no sword. Yvlon Byres screamed and charged Facestealer, heedless of the danger. She punched at it, striking towards the face as Colth leapt on the monster’s back, pounding, his arms plated with metal—

Copying Yvlon? He hammered at Facestealer’s back, then caught himself as his pupils dilated and he practically spat frothing saliva. Colth let go.

“No—that’s a bad copy—”

He looked down as Facestealer grabbed one of Yvlon’s arms as it extended, trying to rip at the misaligned, cracked face. It tore off her hand, and the berserk [Armsmistress] punched it with her other hand. Facestealer recoiled. It tried to escape, and Yvlon ran after it—

Stop! Byres—”

Colth grabbed her, and her arms nearly stabbed him, turning into barbs. But he stopped her.

“[Fall Back]! You’re exposing yourself—fall back and regroup! Now!

He turned, and the adventurers backed up. Ceria was firing spells at Facestealer’s back with the other [Mages], and Halrac tried to ricochet an arrow at its head, but the monster fled past those doors.

Into the city.

Colth picked up his swords, looking at Yvlon’s arms. She—wasn’t bleeding. She stared at the stump and grunted as Ksmvr grabbed her, holding a healing potion.

“It’s just my arm, Ksmvr. It’ll grow back.”

“You’ve got a blood Skill. You’re a liability.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up as Colth pointed at her. She opened her mouth—but the Ultimate Supporter whirled.

“It’s heading into the city. We need to go after it. We broke its bones—Orchestra, I need you to get ready. Can you use your big Skill again? Because we’ll be fighting off those hordes. We’re moving now!

“Stalker’s body is in there too.”

Pisces observed, panting, as he re-sheathed his rapier. Colth glanced at him, then Ceria.

“And an army. I want summoning spells, your behemoth—form up fast. If it runs, it might try to hide or find support. If it hides, we’re safe. Not if it decides the safest place is with a horde of monsters to give it cover. Damn it. I should have slowed it—”

“We cracked it. Our best trick—cracked its head.”

“More than anything else. What the hell is it made of? I felt like I nearly broke my arms and the shield…”

Eldertuin was checking the relic. Viecel waved a hand.

“I need another body. My Skill definitely worked—but I wasn’t going to risk more.”

“Raskghar body coming up. What’s the plan? Yank those bones out with our bare hands? How many auras does it have? We should have brought an aura-specialist with us.”

Jelaqua Ivirith was shaking with adrenaline. Everyone stared at the city. And Ceria had a thought.

“Guys. There’s something else in there. If it goes to the…Mother of Graves I’ve heard about—we should not follow.”

Everyone turned to her, and Colth glanced up. He met Ceria’s eyes as Deniusth swore.

“Let’s get it before it comes to that. Move.

 

——

 

They had broken its bones.

THEY HAD BROKEN ITS BONES.

Nothing had done that since—

NOTHING HAD DONE THAT SINCE—

Snatcher was bleeding. It was wounded.

It could die.

They were in the city. The many were coming after them, but they would not stop. Not relent. It knew that, and it hated them.

They would suffer. All of them. The adventurers were creeping through the alleyways and streets as some of them caused a distraction. Stalker’s body. They were surrounding it, waging a war with fire and blade.

Stealing Stalker’s body? They could not. They could not! The many were furious.

Stalker…

The body did not matter. It had taken the trophy that mattered. Mother did not matter, even if she was in more danger than she had ever been. All that mattered was vengeance.

It was running. Moving as fast as it could as the adventurers slowly tracked it down. How long would it take them to close in?

Forty minutes? They took some time to regroup. Then more, to enter the city and cause a diversion and break the many off. An hour and a half, then? Its bones would not re-knit that soon.

But it would have its vengeance. Now…Snatcher ran as fast as it could. It would have—

SUFFERING.

 

——

 

They were tracking him through the streets. Across the city. Colth the Supporter lifted a finger as the roar of battle in the distance made Deniusth turn back. Eldertuin hefted his shield as the [Supporter] pointed, and Mihaela took up a position. The Gold-rank teams were staying behind to secure the corpse and draw off the horrific beings in this place.

It was close. Hiding down one of the streets with a small group of the red, fleshy things. They…they seemed to wander in packs. Or eat something. Mihaela’s stomach was lurching.

She felt like something had gone wrong. They should have boxed in Facestealer after the last ambush. They had wounded it, possibly given it a fatal weakness, but they were in this city, and she could tell Colth had not wanted this.

He’d still planned for it, even enough to secure Stalker’s corpse, but they had only Orchestra, Variable Fortress, himself, and Mihaela.

Valeterisa had been ordered to stay at the Haven. Larra was helping rain spells down with the Gold-ranks, but this was a gamble. And Colth did not gamble like Viecel.

“We move in now. Eldertuin grabs with Saliss.”

Saliss nodded. He had his transformative tonic ready, and Lehra Ruinstrider was shaking with nerves. She, Mihaela, and Colth had a more dangerous job than that.

Rip out one of those bone chunks, and Deniusth and Orchestra finished the job. Saliss had lent Colth a bunch of acid and poisons to hopefully filter through that gap in the armor. If he had to, Viecel would make his biggest bet. If Facestealer reached this ‘Mother’ or if it had another trick—they fell back.

“See it?”

Halrac was taking overwatch on a building, but he didn’t have an angle on Facestealer. It might know they were there. The [Bowman of Loss] loaded the second and only other Vortex Arrow the teams had into his bow.

“Ready?”

There was no point to asking that. Mihaela looked at Colth, and he rose with an expression she hadn’t seen before in his eyes.

A Named-rank adventurer. He leapt out of cover as Eldertuin raised his shield. Deniusth played a note on his violin as Orchestra rose—but they were all slower than Mihaela. She raced around the street corner and stopped.

“Death or glory!”

Viecel howled. He lunged as Colth lifted his blades. Then slowed. The fleshy, monstrous people of the street looked up. Halrac’s arrow never landed amongst them—but one of Orchestra’s [Mages] unloaded a [Fireball] into their group.

The fire and their screams were followed by several more spells. Mihaela saw three dozen forms recoiling, being cut down by more arrows. She didn’t so much as raise a fist or foot. She—and the other adventurers—were looking for Facestealer.

And they saw him. Saw…

Part of him. Colth’s face had gone still. That smile of a man courting death was on his lips—but it had frozen there. Deni, Viecel, Eldertuin—the adventurers and Mihaela Godfrey stared at Facestealer. Or rather—

His hide.

It looked like a cloak of rags. Bloody, filthy—charred with damage and covered in red. It was draped like a gruesome mask over one of the red, naked monsters inhabiting this place. The brand of Roshal was glowing upon the hide.

“It ripped off its skin?”

Someone whispered in horror. Colth spun on his heels. He looked around—then seized his speaking stone.

“Horns! Fall back!”

“We have Stalker’s body—”

“Facestealer’s removed its skin! It could be right on top of you! Fall back! Everyone, back!”

Suddenly, the voices were filled with panic. Colth looked around, and Mihaela saw Deni trying to activate a teleportation scroll.

“Colth—teleportation’s not working this deep.”

Where is he? Where is—

Halrac loosed mundane arrows as the Named-ranks fell back, shouting at the Gold-ranks to regroup. Mihaela was tensed, ready to run as soon as she heard screams.

But they never came. The adventurers surged back around Stalker’s corpse. Mihaela barely glanced at the massive beast. They had gotten it untangled from the pillar, and it was so large they would have to drag it back or cut it up somehow; the largest bag of holding they had wouldn’t have fit it!

That was secondary. Their entire goal in this dungeon—the Horns were looking around, and Ceria’s ice-fortress was glittering as the half-Elf held back the lesser monsters.

“Where is it? It should have jumped us by now.”

Yvlon said what was on everyone’s mind. If this was an ambush—was it going to unleash something?

“No monster hordes—if it uses the Shield Spider nest or—”

Seborn was glancing about, left and right. Moore stared at the red-bodied citizens of this place throwing themselves into a killing zone fearlessly. But there weren’t more than usual—if anything, they seemed to have been cleared out by the distraction.

Ceria’s pale eyes gazed at the monsters, the lack of an ambush—and then at Colth. He had retrieved Snatcher’s hide. He stared at it, and Ceria wondered how pissed off you had to be to remove your own skin.

How…mad…her eyes kept flickering. What would she do if she were intelligent enough to figure out how to escape the tracking spell? Hide, bide her time to strike back?

But what if she was crazy enough to attack Liscor on her own anyways? And all—all the most dangerous people were right here—

Ceria’s head snapped up. She whirled.

“It’s not here. We have to go back. Now! Warn them! Warn the inn! Get Larra to Liscor now—it’s going after Liscor and the inn!

All the adventurers looked up. Then Mihaela began running, but they were buried in the dungeon. And Facestealer?

Facestealer had been running for a long time. Now it was climbing. Climbing and climbing as its bloody body rose once more.

My skin. Take my skin. Take my skin. Crack my bones.

I will have your little ones. I will creep into your homes.

A claw of bone rose over the edge of the pit, and it heard the horns begin to blare. Snatcher rose—and part of it rejoiced at that sound.

I WIN.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was in Invrisil when the alarm sounded. She was far from her inn. And it was quick.

Oh, it was fast. Everyone in the inn was still listening to the scattered reports from the adventurers. The last Lyonette du Marquin had heard, Facestealer was wounded and they were pursuing it into the inner city.

She was keeping herself distracted, waiting tables and reading a proposal sent to parents asking them to volunteer their children for a new initiative in Liscor.

When she heard the horns from the walls and the ringing of gongs, she felt her stomach lurch. Then she felt it.

As a claw touched the grass—the [Dangersenses] of every single person in Liscor began to scream. Scream—but it was too late.

Facestealer is coming! It’s coming—

Ylawes Byres looked up from a plate of fries. He slowly reached for his shield and sword. Everyone else was frozen.

“What? What’s that? Colth is below with the others. They can’t all have—”

The Captain of the Solar Strikes laughed. A number of Gold-rank teams were in the inn, as well as Silver-ranks. They got up and looked outside.

What they saw was a repeat of a nightmare the inn had had. Only this time—a bad dream grew into a far more horrific reality.

Facestealer was standing, facing Liscor. Ylawes saw the cracked bone of its head, but it stood there, yellow-white bone drenched in crimson. It was smooth, unnaturally smooth—as if the bone had no joints.

As if that were just another protective layer. Two staring pits were its ‘eyes’, and it stood there, arms spread, as spells and arrows rained down around it.

As if mocking Liscor. For a minute, it stood—then it turned towards the gates. To the inn. As if choosing which one to go after first.

“Falene. Dawil…”

Ylawes’ voice had caught in his chest. The Gold-rank adventurers had frozen up—but they moved first. They stared at this monster, which had eluded the Named-ranks. What did you do when it taunted them so?

Of course they went. Ylawes Byres drew his sword. He put his helmet on with one hand—and the Silver Swords charged onto the grass with the other teams. He charged the monster—

And he thought he heard it laughing.

 

——

 

It knew it. It knew it.

IT TRICKED THEM.

These were not like the smiling adventurer. All the dangerous ones, the woman made of speed, the man holding the shield of the trespassers—the Gnoll wielding the memory of stars—

THESE WERE EASY.

Snatcher, Snatcher! The song rang through its head. How they sang and wept of it. For these?

It saw the first warrior slow. His chest was emblazoned like the sun, and he held a glowing mace. He charged…and fell over. Like a toy.

That was so simple. This Human couldn’t even ignore…paralysis.

Snatcher bent down and plucked a head like a grape. It heard the voices then, screams. Arrows lashed it. Spells struck it as if to pierce its shattered bone.

Oh, they had shattered it.

BUT THEY KNEW IT NOT.

Its bones. It saw a [Knight] wearing armor stumble, then raise a shield. He shouted, and Snatcher struck his shield with a fist. The man crumpled—until a Dwarf struck It from the side, shouting.

These ignored its paralysis. Thanks to the half-Elf bombarding it with weak spells.

It could not even feel them. Snatcher ignored both man and Dwarf. It bent down and pulled the head off another. A Dullahan screamed at it, screamed in horror, and Snatcher put him in the bag. Dullahans were the best. They still lived, sometimes for a long, long time.

It ignored the [Knight]. It ignored the Dwarf. They struck it and knew it not.

They knew not Snatcher’s purpose.

They knew not the Mother.

They knew not its city.

They knew not its sins.

THEY DID NOT EVEN KNOW HOW IT WAS MADE.

Snatcher was ebullient. It stood there and let the man with the sword strike it, shielding his face. Yes. Strike me again and again. Strike me.

THEY MADE MY BONES OUT OF THEIR ANCESTORS.

It stood there until the sword tried to touch the crack in its head. Then Snatcher lost patience. It raised a hand and brought it down, and the [Knight]’s shield bent despite his Skills. But he tried to rise, sword flailing.

Snatcher seized him up and saw just a man. Just a man behind the helmet, a boring little man without magic, one of many. So Snatcher threw him. It turned and threw him over the walls of the city and then looked to the building on the hill.

The little people were fleeing. Snatcher hit the Dwarf too hard and watched him bounce over a hill. The half-Elf fled, and the other ‘adventurers’ ran, sobbing, away. Snatcher decided it would be all of them, inside.

SANCTUARY.

It hated that place. This time—it would enter.

 

——

 

…Thought he saw past the crack, and he was afraid to know. Terrified. Ashamed.

The world was spinning. He thought he saw a Drake staring at him below…on a wall. Then the [Knight] realized he was flying and tried to raise his—

He hit something. A roof, and the stone broke as well as his armor and body. He hit it and hit a canopy and hit the ground and lay there.

His helmet was dented. People were screaming, calling for the army, the Watch.

Ylawes! Ylawes!

Someone found him. The man had forgotten his name, forgotten his class—he looked up at a stranger and remembered she was his sister.

He forgot why he was supposed to be at odds with her. She grabbed him as a golden Gnoll appeared.

“Something threw him. Something threw—

“It’s a monster. The monster. It’s Facestealer—get inside—”

“The Watch and army is coming. Where—where are the [Crusaders]?”

A babble of voices. Ylawes tried to speak and ended up throwing up. There was too much red there. Someone grabbed a potion and forced it into his mouth. He spat half it up too—and then remembered.

He had been in a fight.

“It’s Facestealer. Where—where’s—”

It’s headed to the inn! Sound the alarms!

Ylawes looked at Ysara and found she was holding him up. He looked around.

“Where’s my sword?”

He knew where his shield was. Bent around his broken arm. His sword? His sister and Qwera looked at him incredulously.

Ylawes, don’t be mad. That thing—we need an army. Where did the Named-ranks go?”

“Tricked.”

She didn’t understand. There was no time to explain. Ylawes tried to stumble towards the gates. He found they were closed and looked around.

“I have to—they’re fighting.”

“Who is?”

Ylawes Byres stared at Ysara. She helped him up the walls, and the [Knight] looked out.

“The adventurers. They’re…”

He looked out and saw Facestealer. It was walking towards The Wandering Inn. What Ylawes didn’t see—were adventurers.

The Solar Strikes were half gone. But there were more Gold and Silver-ranks. They were…

Standing far away. Some were banging on the gates, demanding to be let in. They weren’t fighting. Ylawes looked around and saw Falene running their way. Where was Dawil?

“I have to stop it.”

“You’ll die. You’re not a match for it. Named-ranks aren’t.”

Ylawes looked at her sister.

“I have to stop it.”

The brother and sister looked at each other, and once more, they didn’t understand each other. Ysara Byres tightened her grip on her brother’s shoulder.

“You won’t be able to do a thing, Ylawes.”

He gave her a blank look as vomit dribbled from a corner of his mouth.

“That’s not the point.”

 

——

 

Numbtongue stood. He saw the Thronebearers rising and pulling Lyonette towards the garden’s door.

“The portal—”

“Get to the garden. Now!”

It was coming. So fast that Liska appeared as Ishkr dragged her into the common room. They had seconds. The Hobgoblin stared down at the Dragonblood Crystal blade.

It won’t do any good. Take my hand.

Reiss whispered. Numbtongue didn’t. Not yet. He looked around, and a figure appeared.

“Normen, let go, let—”

“Crossbows won’t work. Bird’s been shooting at it all day.”

A flurry of voices. The Hobgoblin set himself at the door. He had seen the adventurers run. And they were allowed to. It was a very practical thing—but this was his inn.

His home.

He was just glad that Erin wasn’t here. And Mrsha.

Panic. Lyonette was looking at the guests, but she was ushering them into the door. Menolit, the regulars and guests. Into the garden.

Numbtongue hesitated. He saw someone else setting himself. Despite the fact that he had only a practice sword, Normen looked at him.

“Numbtongue! What are you—”

Facestealer knocked on the inn’s door and broke it. He raised a fist, and Numbtongue heard thunder, and the inn shook from the impact. The monster stopped as it saw the long hallway. As if amused.

The inn had seen this before. This day—the Thronebearers were dragging Lyonette towards the garden.

“Princess!”

“We’ll come in a second.”

Numbtongue really wished Saliss were here. He saw Octavia emerge from her shop, holding a shaking acid jar in one hand. But Lyonette was screaming at him.

“Don’t be a fool!”

“Someone’s got to fight it.”

Numbtongue…Numbtongue was afraid of it. He was afraid it could get into the garden. Erin had told him it wasn’t impenetrable.

He felt like he was dreaming, but it wasn’t Hectval’s soldiers this time. The Hobgoblin lifted the blade. Let’s do this properly. He looked at Normen.

“Run. You’re not ready.”

“No.”

Normen was trying to force Alcaz into the door. Bird had come down with bow in hand and—and they saw it all. The [Princess], the Hobgoblin, the brave Antinium and Brothers.

Not this time. Someone shoved another guest into the door and spoke.

“None of you are ready. Not this time. I’ll greet our guest.”

Numbtongue turned, confused. Lyonette’s face whitened.

“What?”

A forgotten figure in the chaos stood there. He shoved his sister into the door, and the Hobgoblin, the [Knight], the Bird all turned. Numbtongue looked at him.

“You can’t stop that.”

“That’s not my job. But you—”

A paw grabbed Numbtongue’s shoulder. The Hobgoblin tensed—but there was just a gentle pull. And then—

Numbtongue!

Lyonette screamed his name. The Hobgoblin felt the world spin—and he landed on his back.

On the grass—with a buzzing bee jetting over his head. He looked around—and nearly stabbed Octavia as she nearly landed on him.

What the—he saw Normen go flying through the doorway, and Alcaz, and heard a voice.

“—ncy Evacuation].”

Then someone slammed the door—and turned. Numbtongue leapt to his feet as he saw a glimpse of that person who had also been there.

 

——

 

Snatcher smashed into the inn and raised its claws. It looked around, for no one had escaped through the windows and doors. As if it had given them time. As if they could r—

The inn was empty. The monster peered around the huge room—and it sensed…maybe one person here. But no more.

Where were they? Ah. Of course.

Sanctuary. It turned and grasped at a wall. Hunted across the blank boards—until it found the door it had never been able to open.

They were all in there. A [Princess], a princess with red hair. Men and women with bright armor. Even a Goblin with a crystal blade. A girl of cloth.

So many. So frightened. The warriors stood in front of the door—and there was even a tiny Goblin who aimed a crossbow at its face. A lot of Goblins, actually. They chanted at it, and Snatcher reached for them.

Its claws scraped at that door. Frustrated, Snatcher seized the doorknob and pulled.

No door had ever resisted its touch. But this one did. It pulled—then pulled hard.

The inn trembled. Somewhere—an [Innkeeper]’s head rose. She had felt it come in. She was running—but she’d never make it.

Let me in. Let me in. LET ME IN.

Snatcher raised a fist and struck the door. Those inside flinched back from it. They could not attack it. And it could not get—

It struck the door, and the inn shook. Again. Snatcher drew back its head of Dragonbone and smashed it into the door and that invisible barrier. Again and again, until it heard the floorboards begin to crack and the beams shift warningly.

And the [Innkeeper] felt it. She cried out, and the inn began to tremble. Snatcher hesitated as it sensed an aura surround it.

Like wrath. Like fury. The aura told it to leave.

Snatcher ignored it. It raised a fist and hit the door so hard the hill shifted. Those inside drew back. Its next blow they felt in the streets of Liscor.

Snatcher raised a fist—

The [Innkeeper] took off her hat. She came to a halt, panting, and her hat glowed with fire. She tipped it up—and what lay beneath it were days of wonder.

It fist rose, and Snatcher put its strength behind it. The wrath of a city—until it saw the light.

It flickered into being, and Snatcher turned. Confused, attracted by the beautiful little glow. It stared left—and a fish made of spectral blue, a long fin, flew into the air around it.

What? A light spell? A silly little spell…Snatcher felt the inn cast it. It nosed around Snatcher, and it vaguely grabbed the spell and broke it to pieces.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t magic, and it didn’t care. It wasn’t like the beautiful heads in its sack, one screaming and sobbing still. Its…

Wait, why was its sack on the table? Snatcher looked at the sack. It felt at its side. Then—more of the strange little fish appeared. A long eel of green floated past it, and a red shark, a small sand shark appeared. Snatcher ignored them—until it felt a sting on its bones. It looked down, and a lamprey was biting it.

Biting…its bones? Snatcher crushed the fish. Then felt a tiny, tiny impact as something lashed its face. The eel. And the shark was biting at it. The glowing fish—

Began to glow ominously and more and more appeared. Dozens. Hundreds.

They began to attack as the fishies became less playful and more enraged. Snatcher swatted at them as they tried to scorch its bones. They hurt it not! But they—they did feel like something.

Old magic. Different magic. Witch magic. It stung like the Gnolls and their tribes. Stung—but it turned back to the garden. Break it. Break it into a thousand thousand pieces and what lay beyond—

The attacking spell-swarm could not distract it. The horns from the city could not. They could not hurt it—but the mug that bounced off its head thonked louder than the other sounds. And the voice…

The voice was thought-provoking.

“You’ll never get into that garden. You are a guest of this inn—and you are not welcome. In the [Innkeeper]’s place—kindly get lost.”

Snatcher paused with its fist raised. It turned. Who dared?

A shaking Gnoll was standing behind the bar. He looked terrified—and he was not beautifully white or unique.

But Snatcher decided to kill him first. Because he was part of this place. And his head…it turned. The Gnoll was still speaking, and Snatcher listened.

“This time. This time—I was here.”

Then he turned, and Snatcher lunged.

 

——

 

Watch Captain Zevara didn’t blame Erin this time. She blamed herself for trusting the Named-ranks. And she thought they’d done their best. But sometimes—

Sometimes.

“Form ranks! Your job is not to die but to hold it off! Understand?”

The [Guards] were shaking in their boots, but Gold-rank adventurers had run and they hadn’t—yet. She was proud of them.

The inn…the inn was silent. Zevara was afraid, but two figures were running towards it ahead of the Watch. and behind her, she heard the sounds of a prayer. The Watch Captain turned to the inn as she waited for another tremor—and saw something.

One of the windows near the side of the inn opened. The Watch slowed as someone bailed out the window.

Ishkr exited the inn with all the speed and athleticism of someone who was in mortal fear of his life. The Watch pointed, and Zevara’s heart lurched.

Isn’t that—the [Head Serv—]

A wall exploded. Snatcher came through it like a thing out of a cartoon—but there was nothing funny, only terrifying about it bursting through the reinforced wood like it was paper. It went after Ishkr, and the Watch howled.

Run! Run—wrong way, idiot!

It wasn’t his fault—Ishkr was racing away from that monster as fast as he could, with no thought for going towards Liscor.

He was a dead Gnoll. Facestealer was so fast that Zevara doubted she could outrace it on horseback. She turned to see where Klbkch and Relc w—

“No way. He’s outrunning it! Or not outrunning—”

Zevara’s head turned. The Watch stared. She stared. Ishkr was moving across the Floodplains. Even Facestealer seemed confounded as it blurred after him.

“What is…how is he doing that? Did we know he could do—”

The chase across the plains took less than thirty seconds. Ishkr disappeared over a hill as Facestealer chased him, catching up—and then reappeared, looking around.

What the—the monster actually hammered the ground with its bone fists, looking so frustrated—then it whirled back to the inn, and Zevara saw—

 

——

 

Lyonette was arguing with Numbtongue not to go and check outside. It was too dangerous! The garden had been shaking.

They were staring at the garden door when it opened—and Numbtongue nearly stabbed Ishkr. The Gnoll flung himself into the inn, crawled around to slam the door, and lay there, panting.

“I’m done. I’m done. I bought all the time I could.”

They all stared at him as the Gnoll clutched at his chest. Numbtongue looked at Lyonette, Liska—even Rags was seriously impressed.

What the hell just happened?

 

——

 

Skills.

Snatcher ran back towards the inn, so enraged by this—this trickery that it didn’t notice the others until they were right on top of it. It ignored the insect and Drake as it charged at the inn. This time, Snatcher would destroy it, piece by piece, and break that d—

“[Triple Thrust]!”

Something hit it in the cracked part of its bones, and Snatcher recoiled. It whirled—and the Drake’s spear struck it again. Hard.

Snatcher’s hand went up to shield its bones. Another one? How many were there? It recognized the spear, the stance.

[Spearmaster]? Annoying. Not a good one—but it planted itself, and the insect had blades this time. Like the other one. Neither fell down with its [Aura of Paralysis].

All of you, die. Snatcher swung, and the Drake dodged back. His spear lashed out again, like a part of his body. Towards the cracked bone.

Snatcher cared not. But for the cracked bone—this Drake would hurt it not. It lunged—and two blades kissed its back and took a sliver out of its bones.

Snatcher froze. A voice spoke behind it, sounding—happy.

“[Recaptured Sublimity]. Ready, partner?”

“Let’s get him.”

The Drake lifted his spear—and Snatcher whirled. It saw a blur of blades—and felt a nick in its bones. What was that sword? What was that sword? This wasn’t like the other one. It was faster. It looked different.

Snatcher wanted its head, but it had a question first.

Who…are you?

It looked at something as old as it, perhaps. And that something laughed.

A spear struck Snatcher in the back—and it deflected a blade. Fast—Snatcher’s claws whirled. It was slow. Slow—it felt those blades kiss it a dozen times in a second.

No more. 

NO MORE.

[Aura of Disarming]. The Drake lost his spear, and the blades twisted in the grips of the insect. They struggled—even if the insect held the blades, they wanted to be free every second. Snatcher raised a fist—

 

——

 

“Relc Punch!”

The Drake hit the monster in the face. It seemed stunned, but it punched back, and the Drake ducked back. His fist ached—but the incredulous monster took a swing at him, and Klbkch tapped it on the shoulder.

It swung around, and his punch made the bones shift in the monster’s face. It recoiled, and Relc kicked it. They were—

It was fast. But so were they. The Antinium and Drake dogpiled the monster. It was twice their height, but it was stupidly built. Every time it swung around to one, the other would begin hitting it in the back. And their fists—

Relc saw the bone shift. He punched it in those cracked bones and was rewarded with a red seepage. Klbkch was even faster. He calmly hammered on Snatcher’s back—and the monster turned.

The Drake was laughing. He could hear the horns blowing, but they were doing it! Didn’t anyone just think about attacking from two sides? He saw the dumb rectangle of bones turning its two hollow sockets at him, those claws of bone swinging fast—but not fast enough for a [Spearmaster]. He even knew the reach. Relc dodged back as Klbkch sped up.

 

——

 

Faster, faster. He had seen foes like this. The Slayer was hitting Facestealer with all the force in his body. He could sense his foe quailing—and Klbkch was reaching for something he had lost.

[Recaptured Sublimity]. He was going back in time, and Relc was shouting, mocking the clumsy foe. A claw shot out, and the Drake leaned back—stumbled—

Huh?

Klkbkch ducked. There was no way that Facestealer should h—

He dodged one claw that came at him fast. Another—a—flash of bone—

Third—?

Then Klbkch leapt back. Someone stumbled. Relc stepped back, eyes wide. He clasped a claw to his neck.

“That’s…not fair.”

The Slayer and the Gecko looked at Facestealer. Klbkch stared at the—arms of bone. The long, clawing arms that weren’t attached to that odd, rectangular body any longer. Something—crawled across Facestealer’s body. Bones re-shaping. Lengthening.

Bone-teeth opened and closed. An alien head, cylindrical and misshapen, uncannily off, turned left and right. Long limbs—a quadrupedal body.

It was changing. But that wasn’t what made Klbkch halt his attack. He turned—and saw how the arms were longer, thinner—and one claw as sharp as anything was covered in…blood…

Facestealer looked at Relc, and the Drake felt at the cut so deep and wide it went straight down across his neck and left a gap. Blood was gushing from it.

“Ow.”

He stumbled. Facestealer raised its claws—and Klbkch rammed a blade into its back. It didn’t go in far—but the monster recoiled. It turned that alien head to bite—and Klbkch caught it. He slammed the jaws shut, forced them back, and punched.

Crack. The spider web across its chest—the damaged spot was its chest now, as the bones shifted place—grew. The monster backed up, and Klbkch advanced.

“Relc. Your potions. Relc?”

He deflected a claw—this time, the earth moved when he hit it. The monster was backing up. And Relc was—

Lying down—

Klbkch saw the Drake collapsing. He hesitated—and the changing Facestealer backed up. It crawled backwards, and Klbkch looked at it. His Skill—

He ran at Relc, yanked him up, and reached for a potion. Facestealer was headed to the inn. Relc was gasping.

“I got nicked—”

“I’ve got you.”

But the inn! Now, Facestealer was crawling, like some insect crossed with an alien, fangs gnashing. It was wearing a shell of bone. Klbkch held Relc’s blood in, pouring the potion. He let the monster go.

After all—

The faithful were in its way.

 

——

 

They were coming, one after another. But none of them beat it. That…that insect…

It disturbed Snatcher, but it was no longer dangerous. The Skill ran out. More bugs in armor blocked Snatcher’s way.

They could not harm it. Death, death, death.

It charged them, claws reaching to pluck their heads. To teach them—

“—[Weapon of Faith].”

A mace rose, glowing, and a [Templar] set himself. Snatcher wavered. And a mace that shone with more than magic struck its claw. The [Crusaders] charged, and Snatcher wavered as the blades of a new kind of warrior hit it.

The [Templar] rained blows on Snatcher’s arms and body as it backed up—then stared at the gleaming Dragonbone. At the sudden—

Snatcher ripped off his head. The [Crusaders] froze, and one raised a shield empowered by f—

A claw tore through it. Snatcher threw the bodies aside as the Antinium broke up. They stared at it, and Snatcher roared, for it had given itself a mouth.

Bones gnashed. It turned, green blood covering it. Now—its fury reached a new zenith.

THIS? THIS? YOU THINK THIS IS ENOUGH?

I KNOW THIS TRICK.

A [Crusader] with a bow launched an arrow made of faith—and it snapped on Snatcher’s contempt. Then they felt it, and their powers quailed.

MOTHER. MOTHER. MOTHER!

Bugs, fleeing in disarray. The two warriors, one dragging the other back. Any more? Snatcher looked around and saw a half-child with flaming breath leading worthless soldiers.

Who else? Who else would dare? Did you not see the dead? The monster’s outrage grew, for they did not see it. They did not know it, and so they did not cower or run or beg. And that was its largest fault, its greatest weakness.

 

——

 

It had—forgotten.

Forgotten they would never stop.

Oh, many of them would. Many already had.

Ylawes Byres stood at the gate that was opened a crack to give Zevara’s Watch a retreat route. Klbkch was standing over Relc as a [Healer] bent, checking on the Drake.

“What are you doing? Standing there?”

Klbkch turned guiltily, but it was not him that Ylawes was addressing. Ysara no longer needed to prop him up. The Gold-ranks and Silver-ranks stared as the [Knight] looked around.

“Where’s Dawil? What are you doing? We have to get out there.”

Falene emerged, supporting Dawil. The Dwarf’s armor was rent down the chest, but he was alive.

“Lad…”

Ylawes turned to him, but the Dwarf just raised his hammer.

“Next time, we’ve gotta duck. What’s our plan?”

The [Knight] turned, and for all Falene shuddered—she was right there. But when he looked around, the other Captains and adventurers stared at him as if he were crazy.

“You want us to take that thing on? Byres, Orchestra couldn’t bring it—”

Are you adventurers? That is our responsibility. Who’s with me?”

Spit flew from the [Knight]’s mouth, and he felt himself shaking. He turned to Ysara.

“Lend me your sword.”

Ylawes!”

He turned and stared at Facestealer. And he—

He was not the only one.

 

——

 

Waters were pouring from the heavens. Waters without end—Zevara was trying to drown the bastard, not knowing it had been tried. Or just delay the monster.

“She’s activated a failsafe. She can’t do that!”

“Shut up.”

“But—”

“[Senators]—out of here.”

Chaldion of Pallass growled. He watched as a small lake formed around the inn—but the monster was just walking underwater.

The Watch Captain hadn’t done that for the Face-Eater Moth attacks. It was one of her few safeguards against an Antinium attack—a Tier 6 spell.

Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she thought Facestealer was a greater threat.

“Grand Strategist, we are ready to sortie. But the door is down. Do we have permission to engage?”

Chaldion was sitting outside the door on the 8th Floor as General Duln waited. The [Strategist] exhaled as he smoked a cigar. His third one. The door was down—and he suspected they were inside the garden.

“If it opens—do not engage. Give me a window to use [Path to Victory]. Keep Saliss alive. And the [Innkeeper].”

“Yessir.”

He was waiting.

 

——

 

They were waiting for him. And the cost? It weighed in their bones, like Mihaela Godfrey, running for the surface.

Tekshia Shivertail leaned on her spear as she stood at Liscor’s gates. Waiting for the monster to approach as the Watch fell back. She doubted she could do better than Relc—but was she fleeing?

The Dwarf stood at the door in Esthelm, and his voice seemed to rumble like the High Passes above. He smoldered with a weary guilt and flame.

He was no warrior—but Master Pelt of Esthelm called out as Kevin and his apprentice, Emessa, tried to reason with him.

“If it takes a master of steel and stone, I’ll slay that creature of bone. I fear no monster, and I have held living flame. Tell them, my grandfathers, the day I redeemed my name!”

He struck the door, but it was silent.

Open it, [Innkeeper], and set one wrong in this world to right!

No matter what the cost—the Dwarf raged and waited.

 

——

 

Did Snatcher feel it? A thousand foes, gnawing at its shell, its stolen bones? It was turning as the [Crusaders] regrouped in the Hive’s hidden tunnels.

The Silver Swords were exiting the city, and two teams broke from the silent adventurers to join them.

The Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae. They were Silver-rankers—but they struck each one of the Beriad like a blow to the heart.

That was honor. That was—

Adventurers. Ylawes Byres carried his sister’s sword, and his shield-arm would not work, but he called to the monster as the Antinium watched.

Turn, monster!

Facestealer stopped at the entrance to the inn, and one sinuous head made of lengths of bone turned back. It looked nothing like the old form. Here was a creature to creep through windows, squeeze into houses at night. A monster of nightmares. It regarded Ylawes with little interest, but the [Knight] screamed, his voice hoarse and breaking.

Turn around! By House Byres and Izril, we will see you dead. Turn around by Liscor. By the Five Families! By—Yderigrisel, I swear I will cut you down.”

A hand froze on the opening to the inn, a flicker of recognition made even Facestealer halt. As if it recalled that name and was…offended.

That [Knight] deserved an army at his back. But the [Crusaders]’ faith broke upon that thing—as if it were armored in more than mere bone. As if—they had felt—it had faith of its own, twisted and dark.

“Queen Xrn, Queen Xrn, please lead us to battle.”

The Beriad and 3rd Battalion were ready—but they were holding back as Artur and the other leaders beseeched the one individual who could harm Facestealer. Who had—and who watched the fighting above.

“No. I forbade Klbkch to enter battle. He disobeyed. You may do battle. I will not.”

Xrn’s voice was touched by the colors swirling in her head and black rage at Facestealer. But she held back.

Why?

Artur was confused, and the Small Queen stared at him. Her eyes shone with beautiful, magical light—and a colder confidence than Olesm had yet reached. She pointed with her staff at the monster.

“Level well.”

 

——

 

Cold ice. A [Knight]’s fury. He charged across the open ground at Facestealer, though the monster’s aura tried to stop his limbs.

He was not alone. Dasha was running behind Dawil, and Anith and Falene’s spells rained down along with Nailren’s arrows, but Facestealer snapped the ropes and nets without even slowing.

Nevermind that reinforcements might be coming. Ylawes did not go for that. He did not go in hopes of inspiring or for the glory or levels.

He went because he had to. And two teams joined him. The [Knight] ran—and the [Innkeeper] saw him.

She stopped, gasping for breath in the street as she tried to get back to her door, and saw him standing at the edge of her inn. Erin Solstice’s magic and hat and inn couldn’t slow that thing down.

It knew her garden. Her aura clashed with Facestealer’s, letting Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia move—but it was like a mountain. An old, buried mountain of sins.

Ylawes. Erin cried out and raised her hand. You idiot. You—brave fool. She did not always like him, but he?

He deserved more. So she threw up her hand and shouted to the sky.

“[Boon of the Guest: Yderigrisel]!”

Mrsha slammed into Erin from behind, and Grimalkin and Pryde turned in confusion. They didn’t know that name, perhaps, but—Erin strained and felt a void where she should have felt the Skill working.

He had never been a guest at her inn. But she had been his guest. 

“No—no—damn it—[Boon of the Guest: The Silver Dragon-Knight]. Come on!

She slammed a fist into her shin. Then Erin’s head rose. Falene was glowing with Lyonette’s boon, so Erin shouted.

“Dawil—[Boon of the Guest: Pelt]!”

A Dwarf gasped as his hammer rose—but it swung and bounced against the monster’s armor without doing a thing. He backed away and reached down to his belt, which hummed—

And he drew a blade remade. For a second, for a battle. The Dwarf stared at the axe—and threw. It cut into that bone and shattered again—and Facestealer went for the Dwarf. It seized him up as Falene shouted and hit Ylawes as the [Knight] charged it.

Down the [Knight] went, tumbling down the hill, helmet dented, and he rose before he came to consciousness. Facestealer was raging at the things chipping what should not be damaged. Dawil’s head jerked under a claw—

“[Oil Spray]!”

He slipped out. Insill ran as Pekona slashed and dodged one of Facestealer’s claws. It was…weaker in this form, although it slashed so fast with another claw it ripped out a strip of her flesh and left it dangling. The monster advanced as she stumbled back, and someone stabbed it in the face.

And again—the metal tip of the conical spear left the tiniest dimple in the bone. But it did mark it.

“Run! Run, brother!”

Infinitypear lowered the spear and ran as Rasktooth shot his hand-crossbow into Facestealer’s armor—then threw an acid jar. Neither did much, but the monster pursued them before it was struck by Ylawes.

The adventurers were relieved by a sudden army of [Crusaders]. They charged up the slope but did not surround the monster. They attacked, raining crossbow bolts, letting the Beriad and 3rd Company hammer it—and fell back as the monster lanced through their armor. Green blood…

“Ylawes, Ylawes, slow down.”

The [Knight] nearly fell over as the adventurers rallied. He was almost aglow with battle fury—but he halted.

“We can’t—we can’t kill it.”

Maybe Pelt could, or a higher-level fighter, but the cracks in the bone armor needed to be expanded. Prying a chunk loose? All but impossible with Facestealer’s every blow rending all but the toughest armor.

“Where are the Named-ranks?”

In the dungeon. Ylawes shook his head. He gazed at the inn and realized Erin’s door must not be working if everyone were in the garden.

“That death-death-death-death head monster! Facestealer. No one kills it! Not Raskghar, not Minotaur, not traps, not everything in the empty nest! It kills everything.

A voice was urgently telling everyone that. Ysara had said the same, and Ylawes ignored it—until he saw Infinitypear and Rasktooth. The Cave Goblin was babbling.

“Dungeon only way. You hide and run, and it go to trap room and gets stuck. Never seen it change. Except when it kill too many. Can’t be killed.

“What? Trap rooms?”

Then Ylawes remembered—Numbtongue had trapped it once with the Redfangs. It had broken free but—

Facestealer was not going to relent. It was forcing back the [Crusaders], who retreated, healing up, and Ylawes—Ylawes’ eyes flickered.

“Wait. Wait…I remember something from the dungeon. I have a—plan.”

Dawil and Falene, panting and wiping blood from their eyes, looked at him. Ylawes had read Colth’s warnings—the Named-ranks were still fighting their way back up in the dungeon. But time? Maybe they could buy time or even—

“You—”

He whirled, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth jumped. What were they doing here? Ylawes stared.

“Who are you?”

“[Adventurers]. We fight. That is bad-bad monster. Killed many of my people. Can’t be killed. It killed Stalker. All that? Just bone. Armor.”

Rasktooth saw the other adventurers look at him, and Ylawes realized that Colth had neglected one thing with his adventurer’s bias. He hadn’t asked the one expert on Facestealer. More than Calruz. More than Numbtongue…

“Does it have a weakspot? Never mind that—you—you came from the dungeon. How well do you know it? What’s your—name?”

Ylawes floundered. Rasktooth gave him a bug-eyed look.

“I am Rasktooth. This is Infinitypear. I know every part of the dungeon where I was.”

That—wasn’t perfect, but Ylawes looked at the monster. He wasn’t as—clever as some Captains, he knew. He had a straightforward approach to things, which people mocked. But he did have more experience fighting monsters than even most of the northern teams.

This was a giant Elemental—well, a Creler-type monster right now. But he had noticed one weak spot just now and from Colth’s testimonials.

“I was in the dungeon too. I remember seeing—do you know where this is?”

He spoke, and Rasktooth nodded instantly as Dawil raised his brows. Anith looked incredulous, but Rasktooth was confident.

“I know where that is. Every Goblin.”

“How far away is it from—”

“Not far. You want to take it there? It never goes.”

“Ylawes, we can’t lure that thing! It’s after Erin’s inn!”

That was true. The [Knight] turned.

“Falene, draw it off. Can you?”

She obligingly shot a shower of fiery bolts into Facestealer’s back, and it ignored the spells. Ylawes banged on his shield, trying to draw it away, insult it.

In Yderigrisel’s name—face me, monster!

This time, the monster just turned—then went back to Erin’s inn. It was pounding on the portal door now, as if sensing that Erin was trying to keep it closed. It punched through one of the walls, exposing the hidden kill-rooms in the hallway, and then lurched back towards the common room.

Towards the garden. Facestealer ignored the Antinium. It ignored the Silver Swords. It wanted to start with the garden—then kill everything attacking it. Then the city.

Then—

Facestealer halted. Its sinuous head turned, and it broke off from the door. It turned—and then began to crawl out of a hole in the inn it had chased Ishkr through. Ylawes followed it.

What? Something had drawn Facestealer off. He looked over—and saw the figure. Ylawes Byres looked at the Silver Swords and then the other adventurers.

“We have to stop it. Or—follow me.”

He began running back towards the crack in the earth, and to his amazement—they followed. Silver-ranks, chasing down a boss monster.

Adventurers.

And who were the duo running towards the chasm, sliding down the ropes? [Adventurers] too. A Goblin and an Antinium, being chased by Facestealer itself as the disbelieving Liscor watched. The monster abandoned the inn. It abandoned the fight.

It just went after the two. Or rather…one of them. There it was. There she was. Plain as day. I found you—and this time—

Facestealer chased the beautiful head. It was whole again, which was even better! That lovely, lovely…blue-painted Antinium head. Rasktooth was blue too, with the paint dyes, and he looked at Ylawes as the [Knight] charged at him.

You sure? The [Knight] raced past Facestealer and shouted as it lunged.

Let go!

The Antinium and Cave Goblin looked down the hundred plus foot drop—and the [Knight] jumped into the pit, face-first.

Oh fuuuuu—

Dasha wasn’t that committed and slowed down, but Insill and Larr ran into her, and she went careening into the pit. Nailren’s team halted, but the Gnoll leapt after Anith and Pekona—and Falene shouted as Dawil plunged after them.

“[Mass Featherfaaaaaaaaaaa—]”

 

——

 

Snatcher landed after the adventurers. And the blue insect. She wasn’t casting magic. She was weak. She looked…different…but it could not resist.

This was all her fault. It blamed her. It wanted her head. Such a beautiful head. Such a beautiful color. And the inn—

The inn bothered Snatcher. It reminded it of great dangers, so it retreated from the above. It felt the grudges and hatred of dangerous things up there.

DAMN THEM.

It would creep up in darkness instead. Use the monsters. Use Mother’s tricks if it had to, and tools. It was not going to relent until it had enough heads to fill every part of its vault, the entire nest it had cleared—and all the other three as well.

Until heads lined every part of this dungeon. Snatcher did not fear the adventurers. They had failed.

They had all failed!

THEY COULD HURT IT NOT.

Already, the Dragonbone of its shell was knitting. Already—and they had used their best against it. Snatcher was annoyed as it crawled after the adventurers. They were racing through the dungeon, its home, as if to escape it.

It knew every corner and aspect and trap. The only problem was—Snatcher was slower in this form, meant to creep and bite and claw.

It shifted back to the one it liked so much, which could run amazingly fast. That took time—and to Snatcher’s displeasure, these adventurers did not run into traps.

They navigated this dungeon almost as if they knew it. Leaping around dangerous, hidden sigils, avoiding ambush sites and dead-ends. Even taking shortcuts—

That little green thing. The Goblin. It clung to the blue one’s head, pointing and screeching as Snatcher ran. A strange group.

A beautiful dog-person with black fur. A wonderful head such as Snatcher had never had once.

A woman with one hand and a blade from far-off lands older than even its city.

A boring Drake with black scales, and a Gnoll with a bow, a woman with a beard.

A second Gnoll, a [Chieftain], loosing arrows at monsters to keep them back.

A Dwarf with a broken blade that had cut even its armor.

A half-Elf from the Isle of Mages, a child in magic, but a child of magic, everfair.

And that [Knight]. That [Knight], racing behind the two, the Cave Goblin and the blue one with the spear, shouting the name of a traitor, bearing the shield—like that fortress of a man—of the trespassers, the ones upon the shores to the north. Newcomers claiming this land as their own.

They came to a halt as Snatcher slowed, in a room with many exits but no way out. It had caught up, and its [Aura of Haste] was beyond them.

It was beyond them. Snatcher advanced around a circular room it remembered…though it had changed. A dais of stone stood in the center, and beyond it, the [Knight] stood. He looked around. As such fools did, he spoke.

“…We fight. We have done all we can. You are all the finest adventurers…”

His voice trailed off. They turned, then. And Snatcher looked at them. It saw nothing of value.

Nothing brave, as they charged, spreading out. It threw the first Gnoll into a wall hard enough to crack bones, broke a sword in twain with a single swipe. It stood as the half-Elf threw spells into its claws and looked around for the blue one.

Where was she? Where was…

Snatcher saw Infinitypear slowly scrubbing the blue paint they used on the Antinium figurines off his shell. The ordinary, mundane brown-black of the Antinium’s carapace registered in Snatcher’s gaze at last, like the fake layers peeling off a decidedly not 1st-edition unique item in the world’s most debauched collector’s hands.

Then it raged—and Ylawes Byres raised his sword.

Force him back! Force—

They charged. A screaming Cave Goblin and a jabbing spear, knocked flying by one enraged hand. A broken-armed [Knight]—Snatcher swatted the woman with a beard and stepped back. It reached out for the fallen Antinium’s head to squeeze

And tripped.

Crack. The sound was faint, and Snatcher minded it not because it was not its body. Except…it tripped.

It—

Was it a blow from a Giant? No. Was it a great spell from an [Archmage]? No.

Those things harmed it. But no warrior here had that power. So why was it—

Falling? Suddenly, Snatcher’s arms were flailing and Snatcher understood it not.

Something fell around it. Bits of wood. Bits of fake wood, a Skill—dissolving as the fake floor vanished. But what had it f—

Then Snatcher recognized what engulfed it. It touched Snatcher not—but it was sinking. Sinking in…

Water.

And it realized it had been fighting in one of the dungeon’s well rooms, that deep well which it had never paid attention to for it drank not. But it fed Mother’s creatures and Snatcher—

It was sinking in the center of the well.

 

——

 

The vast, deep well had no bottom that Rasktooth could see as he dragged himself on his front over to the lip of it. No one had ever seen the bottom, and it was so wide across it could feed thousands of disgusting monsters.

Even the larvae and other monsters had fled Facestealer’s wrath—but the great monster of the dungeon had not noticed that the well had vanished in its avarice and then rage.

Mostly because…a Drake had covered it up with a fake floor.

Insill.

Insill—the [Rogue]. He stared down at the sinking shape, incredulous.

“That worked? That w—”

Back! We bought time. We have to leave.”

Ylawes Byres had seen better days. Everyone jerked up, and Nailren grabbed Larr.

“On your feet, brat.”

Dasha was unconscious, and Pekona gave up slapping her awake and just hauled her up with Anith.

“How—how long do we have?”

Anith was speaking around a mouth bruised, and he felt like he’d lost at least one tooth. Ylawes looked little better, and his face was puffy, his arm broken and his armor ripped up. They looked at Rasktooth.

“How deep does the well go?”

The Cave Goblin frowned.

“When big horned man—Calruz—came—he made Raskghar dive. Then he tied stone to rope and tossed.”

“And?”

The Cave Goblin shrugged.

“Too deep. More than thousand feet. More than Raskghar or Cave Goblin dives.

Everyone stared down into the well. Ylawes Byres blinked. He peered down—and Falene threw a light spell down, down…

“It can’t swim. It’s sinking like a rock. Do you think it—”

Facestealer was still visible as it sunk, and they saw it flailing. Flailing and flailing and…suddenly, Ylawes realized something.

“Does anyone have [Dangersense]? I do.”

Rasktooth lifted a claw, and so did Larr.

“Is it going off?”

The other two looked at each other, and Rasktooth tapped his head. Ylawes felt some danger from the dungeon—but the sirens blaring every second in the back of his mind? Larr’s jaw dropped. Slowly, Falene stared down.

[Eagle Eyes]. It’s…still sinking. How far down does this well go? Did the Raskghar see anything?”

Rasktooth innocently smiled.

“Minotaur horn man sent four down. One went one hundred. One went two hundred. One went a thousand. With amulet that lets them breathe water like air. The last one never came back. Well goes down, down, down. Like all the water above. Down.”

Everyone looked up, and Ylawes Byres remembered.

“The Floodplains…flood every spring. I always wondered where the water goes.”

“Sometimes, dungeon floods. Goes down here.”

“What, through the wells? But where do the wells go?”

Dawil looked incredulously at Rasktooth, and Infinitypear decided he had better stand back from the well. The Cave Goblin stared down—then spat into the well.

“Looks like—very far for stupid monster.”

The adventurers gazed at each other. Wait—Facestealer wasn’t even visible now, even by Falene’s eyes. Dawil fished around and found a stone.

“Falene. Can you track this with a simple spell?”

“Sure.”

She tossed it down—and they waited. Falene counted. Everyone began bandaging their wounds. Dasha woke up, and Ylawes Byres sat down, despite the danger, and fished around in his bag of holding on a hunch.

“One thousand…two thousand…three thousand…”

Then Falene gasped.

Eight th—it’s gone.”

“What was that?”

Dawil looked up, and Falene Skystrall shook her head.

“It’s out of my range. It was going down slowly and then—something pulled it down. Something fast.

Everyone stared into the well, and Rasktooth whistled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was in the water, but the water hurt it not.

It did not need air. It had been made to protect Mother. To guard this city.

This…

City of Graves.

And they had made it to destroy Dragons. It had done that. It had survived Mershi’s wrath. So it did not fear the water, but it tried to flail over to one side of the stone walls sloping down, down…

They had dug down deep when they made this place, to protect it from siege. Down and down, they said, to find out where the water went.

Snatcher cared not. Even when they had made it listen and obey—their questions were not its. In time, they had all simply listened to Mother.

It was nearly over to one of the well walls. It would take it a long time, days, perhaps, to climb. It had sunk fast, as heavy as it was. Snatcher reached out a claw.

That [Knight] died. They all died. This group especially. It would take their heads and then all the others. It would wake Mother. It would—

The claw missed the stone wall. Snatcher saw it end—and stared as the last enchanted bricks vanished. Then it looked around and saw something so few ever had. And it remembered…

When they saw what it had done, when they hated us all—they buried us. A fitting end for our deeds, in this warm, dark grave. And we waited, and Mother waited.

The Walled City of Graves had sunken into the earth, and it had not cared. But the parts remained, and the builders dug deep, deep, and built a place in readiness for the day they were found. Yet this…

They had dug so deep, these wells, thousands of feet. To answer the question where the water went. And Snatcher saw the answer. It saw…no wall to grab onto. It looked around, and the current began to pull it. Faster. Faster…and then it panicked.

Then it feared.

What is this? What is—

It descended into a place only clever Gnomes and dead gods had ever known. Deeper and deeper.

Down.

Down.

Down.

Downdowndowndowndowndowndowndown—

 

——

 

Ylawes Byres stood at the edge of the well. And he sensed no more danger. Falene had done her experiment again…and whatever this well led to, it was so fathomlessly deep her magic could not explore it.

“I think we won.”

It was Dasha who said it, and no one believed her, even her. But then they sort of felt it.

An incredulous—relief sweeping hold of them. Ylawes looked at Infinitypear, and the shaking Antinium poked the well. Then he tossed another stone down and watched it go.

“You fucking idiot.”

Larr looked at Nailren, but the [Chieftain] just looked down the well.

You idiot. You can’t swim, and that’s how you lost?”

He tossed in more stones and watched them sink. The Dwarf looked down and then snapped his fingers as he realized something.

“Dead gods, it’s like the Earth Elemental. Lad—is that what you thought of?”

“The what?”

Anith looked up, and Ylawes nodded shakily.

“The first monster Dawil and I ever beat was an Earth Elemental. But we had—bad gear. I’d chipped my blades on it, and Dawil’s axe was lodged in its chest, so we ended up tricking it into a pit. Then we threw rocks at it for eight hours. You don’t have to beat a monster. I thought we could just send it down and buy time for the other adventurers by covering the top. Or turning the water to ice or something.”

“We did it? We did it?

Pekona was staring at Ylawes, but Falene exhaled. She looked around—and to everyone’s surprise, whooped. The half-Elf punched the air and fiddled with her broken glasses.

“Take—take that, Ceria! Our team beat the monster Named-ranks couldn’t!”

She put her hands on her hips and looked around. Falene’s face was flushed, and suddenly, Dawil began laughing, but not at her for once.

“We did it! We did it! We’re going to level up!

Insill shouted, and Larr grabbed him.

“We’re? You’re going to level up! You trapped a boss-monster—”

Everyone began shouting—until they realized that this was the dungeon. They lowered their voices, and Ylawes Byres stared into the well. He wobbled—and his bones ached and he was pretty sure someone had to help him back to the entrance or he’d pass out.

But between that moment of victory, incredulity—he hesitated.

For he did not know his path forwards, but he looked at the Silver-rank teams—and Rasktooth and Infinitypear—and felt a kind of certainty dawn on him.

But first—first—he did this for perhaps the last time. The last time until he figured things out. Nevertheless—he felt right.

Slowly, Ylawes Byres took out something he always carried about. A tradition, really. It was a small bag of powder, bright silver dust. Dawil blinked—and Ylawes dumped the entire bag into the well.

“It’s not connected to Liscor.”

He turned to the Dwarf. Dawil glanced at him, and Rasktooth spat again. The adventurers looked at each other, and a few more tossed in rocks. Ylawes slowly raised a middle finger and wondered what Mrsha got out of it.

“That is for you.”

He told Facestealer, wherever it was sinking. Then he looked over. Someone was clambering over the lid of the well.

“Pekona, Insill, make sure I don’t fall in. I’m going to piss in the well. No, wait. I can think of something better.”

Larr was unbuckling his belt. Anith dragged him back.

“You idiot, that’s disgusting. And too far.”

 

——

 

That was how Mihaela Godfrey found them. Larr, squatting over the well, and half of them lapsing into unconsciousness. She stopped, listened—and made them repeat everything five times.

That was how they emerged as well, to the disbelief of the teams, the armies lined up, and even Erin Solstice herself.

There was, of course—more to say. More to do, and explanations and inquiry into the well—and an instant resolution to hire Hexel to put a damn cap on the rift and make sure this wasn’t going to happen again.

Ylawes Byres mostly passed in and out of consciousness for a bit. Until he woke up and Erin Solstice was sitting there.

“Heard anything interesting?”

He nodded, and she handed him a drink. He moistened his lips and then realized it was a Minotaur’s Punch. Glorious fire.

It was reflected in her eyes and hat, and she saw his expression.

“I can get you something else, but it feels—fitting. You’re a real adventurer.”

Coming from her—Ylawes Byres sat there for a bit.

“I’m going home. And then to the new lands—and on a journey to find something. Someone. Maybe you know where to look.”

“Oh? I’ll help. But it doesn’t sound like you know quite where you’re going. I could show you a statue or two, though.”

The [Knight] shook his head, not quite picking up on what Erin was saying. He glanced around—and saw the adventurers, looking embarrassed, askance—and Ceria Springwalker, talking about the giant corpse they’d gotten.

—and Facestealer’s hide, if we trust that. But guess what we found?”

Numbtongue scratched at his head.

“…A monster?”

“No, under the Raskghar camp. Before we ambushed that bastard, he lifted up this huge block of stone, and Eldertuin managed to lift it on the way back. Calruz had no idea he was sleeping on top of—well, I think we’ll give at least one to the Silver Swords.”

One what? Ylawes glanced up, and Ceria pointed to a bunch of blades that Pisces was making everyone stay back from. Hedault was staring at them, and Ama, Pisces, and the [Enchanter] were pretty sure that they were high-quality death magic blades. With odd handles made for claws.

An armory of weapons from whatever…place this had been. Ylawes realized that Erin was staring at him and forgot her question.

“Where we’re going? I never do. But I think…where are Vuliel Drae? Nailren and—Rasktooth and Infinitypear?”

He looked around, and Erin got them for him. The [Knight] saw the two [Adventurers], the Silver-rank teams, and finished his thought. He talked with Falene and Dawil for a moment, but neither one had any objections.

“I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what our task is—and I can’t promise a lot of treasure. But if we go to the new lands or—wherever adventure takes us—”

He lost focus. This was not the mindset for a speech, and he was pretty sure he had a concussion. They looked at him blankly, and he stared at the Goblin and Antinium especially as Erin’s eyes lit up. Ylawes Byres took a breath.

“What I am trying to say is—if you wish, I would like to invite you to join my team. The Silver Swords. Three is a small number anyways.”

Yvlon’s head swung around, and Insill’s mouth opened.

“Us? Who?”

“All of you.”

Erin answered for Ylawes, and Rasktooth grinned and began to congratulate Anith’s team and Nailren’s—until he saw Ylawes looking at him. And he and Infinitypear exchanged a sudden glance, and Ylawes—

Well. He decided now was a suitable time to pass out. And that night, among the voices that he heard, one said this:

 

[Conditions Met: Knight → Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon!]

[Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon Level 37!]

[Skill — Name of Dragons: Yderigrisel]

[Skill — Aura of Protection obtained!]

[Skill — Legacy: Find the Dragon’s Grave obtained!]

[Skill — Sword and Shield Art: The Knight Charged With Wings of Steel obtained!]

[Skill — Negate Spell obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Adventurer → Horrorbane Adventurer obtained!]

[Horrorbane Adventurer Level 16!]

[Skill — Immunity: Fear obtained!]

[Skill — Tidal Jab obtained!]

[Skill — I Have Seen It Die obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Trap Rogue → Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur obtained!]

[Pitfall Trapmaster Saboteur Level 28!]

[Skill Change — Pitfall Trap → Pit of Many Deaths obtained!]

[Skill — Trap: Masterful Concealment obtained!]

[Skill — Mithril Caltrops obtained!]

[Skill — Incredible Leap obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Join the giveaway in celebration of Book 8, the blood of Liscor coming out! It’s got prizes!

I did little editing this time, could you tell? I fit everything I wanted into the third part because I am on break…

And I probably should have made it four parts. Here are my thoughts.

I am on break. I am death. I played God of War: Ragnarok, and I was so mad I wrote a 6,000 word essay on it while writing this chapter.

Because the story was so bad.

We all make mistakes. I fear I will leave this chapter and post it with a number of things I could do better, but this is a web serial, and I am trying to balance quality with not missing my updates.

It’s…less forgivable in a million-dollar budget game when you have, I presume, an editing team and countless eyes on a story like that. Seriously—it’s bad. But perhaps you can’t see it because all the other parts are good and the ending is where things fall apart. As it normally goes, anyways.

I will spare you my rants, and I hope this was enough word for now. We will see more later—there is always more to see, and process, but I am done. The side story arc was this, and was it worth it? Let me know. Thanks.

 

 

Shellbazaar by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Gnolls and Erin’s True Power Level by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Chapter Sketch by Artsynada!

 


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126 thoughts on “Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 3)

  1. Leave a typo for one of the longest chapters yet! Big thanks to all the people who helped, warts and all. Warts are not structural problems like Ragnarok had.

    (Structural readers: Gorexn, MrWiggles, Litwickee, Quynin)

    • When Erin and Grimalkin encounter Pryde she is incorrectly referred to as Pryde Ulva and House Ulva instead of Ulta. After the Snatcher scene the name is corrected.

    • She has done the more good in the name of alchemy—”

      I suspect either the first ‘the’ should disappear, or maybe there was meant to be another word there.

    • While it was in the dungeon, I* was—if not content—I assumed it was just another threat.
      it

      Some places used actual lanterns—this one was graffitied by people like Grev’s gang, and they often had fliers* put up.
      flyers

      last time we had to look at fliers* in [Butcher] shops.
      flyers

      and Grimalkin glanced at each other, and all began searching other fliers* and pieces of paper in Invrisil.
      flyers

      Erin had just pushed aside a flier* asking if anyone had a 1st-edition autograph of Jasi and would they consider selling it when she saw something odd.
      flyers

      Hence the flier*.
      flyer

      That little green* thing. The Goblin.
      grey

      Klkbch* kept writing, and now he was doing sums.
      Klbkch

      Dwarfhall’s Rest
      Dwarfhalls

      Klkbkch ducked.
      Klbkch

      • The “While it was in the dungeon, I* was—if not content” line is correct, “it” does not fit there.

        “Flier” means the same thing as “flyer”, they’re alternate spellings of the same word.

        And Cave Goblins are gray-green, so “That little green* thing. The Goblin” is correct.

    • Honest prefer the less edited stuff. Thanks for a great chapter. Thinking that since the well is so far below ground level and the silver is in such small quantities compared to the volume of water it shouldn’t do much for the vanpires above (I hope).

    • “A wall exploded. Snatcher came through it like a thing out of a cartoon—but there was nothing funny, only terrifying about it bursting through the reinforced wood like it was paper. It went after Ishkr, and the Watch howled.”

      If Snatcher just went through the wall then shouldn’t it be reinforced stone and not wood? The walls of the inn haven’t been made of wood since the Creler attack.

    • “Erin enjoyed walking with Grimalkin and Nanette and Mrsha—and Ser Dalimont—” => Actually, Ser Dalimont has no line at all in the previous scene. Until you mentionned him I had no idea he was there to begin with. So maybe giving him a few lines of dialogue or something might help :)

      “as the Blade of Mershi actually scored Facestealer’s hide” => Scorched, perhaps? Haven’t seen the verb score used like that before.

      And thank you so much again for the great chapter, that arc was a blast :3

    • “Hello. We’re open until six tonight.”

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but does the world of TWI use hours like 6PM? Maybe I’ve forgotten but I don’t think TWI’s world has clocks yet.

      • Rosencrantz is, in this case, the minor character from Hamlet. Paired with Guildenstern, they are pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of the story but remain memorable due to the surreal novel (and even more surreal movie) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    • [Skill — Name of Dragons: Yderigrisel] [Skill — Name of Dragons: Yderigrisel obtained!]

      Just for the sake of consistency, all the other skills are “obtained!”

    • One question I have, are you going to be reposting the edited book 1 chapters like you started? I have been thinking of rereading TWI, but I have been waiting on more edited chapters to compare to unedited chapters

      • That’s easy. Ylawes, Infinitypear, and Insill in order we’re the ones who received those levels.

        Ylawes & Insill are the easiest to guess/know immediately. And we know Infinitypear got those levels because he got a spear skill, and his level was closer to 16 then Rasktooth. Who is definitely getting some explorer skills for this entire fuckfest.

        • I don’t know if Rasktooth will get adventurer levels from this since it’s in a place he already knows perhaps some trickster levels or a class linked with bravery

    • ‘The sound it made echoed for miles in the earth, and the Gold-adventurers…’
      Gold-rank adventurers.

      ‘Men and women with bright armor’
      Men and a woman

      It’s not clear when and how Erin, Mrsha, Grimalkin and Pryde returned from Invrisil to Liscor.

      ‘[Skill — Legacy: Find the Dragon’s Grave obtained!]’
      Green Skill means that nobody got a mission to find Dragon’s corpse for the past N thousand years. That is surprising.

      • I believe the legacy refers to that specific dragon and there’s no one living who has that mission, not that no one has ever had a mission to find a dragons corpse or even this particular corpse. Just no one running around right now has it, and shinymustachelad has it now.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong because I’m still not completely sure how Erin’s skill works but why didn’t Erin open a new door right in front of her instead of running back to the portal door in Invrisil? Isn’t that possible for her given how she connected Riverfarm? She just needs to have been there and in range of 500 miles… right?

    • ‘Crusader 57-8’
      57-7.

      ‘Klbkch had no eyebrows, so he raised one antennae instead.’
      Tilted, maybe?

      ‘I’ll ask Commander Olesm for reinforcements’
      Strategos Olesm.

  2. Just popped up on my Patreon notifications and had to say, wow, this aurhor has *opinions*. And I’m all here for them. Enjoy your break!
    Thank you, as always, for your dedication, storytelling, and innovation of the fantasy genre.
    Technically TWI isn’t an isekai. I wish people stop saying that when I explain it to them.

    • If we’re speaking technically, TWI technically is an Isekai.

      But only if we’re speaking technically.

      Thematically, spiritually, and in all practicality, it isn’t.

    • Isekai just means another world. Athough a lot of modern stories have reincarnations, being summoned to another world like what the blighted kingdom has done is classic isekai

    • That’s cute that you think as well as (incorrectly) tell people that TWI isn’t an Isekai series.
      Isekai is Japanese for “Other/Another World”. Of which TWI is.
      An Isekai can have transportation in complete from one world to another, like a hero summoning (done in Rihr).
      An Isekai can have reincarnation from one world to another.
      I have known Isekai’s that have not even included Earth and done transportation from one fantasy world to another fantasy world.
      The rare Reverse-Isekai, from which one comes from a foreign world to Earth also exists, though isn’t used as often.
      All of these are Isekai.
      Technically TWI is an Isekai, and probably the best one out there (and I’ve read close to if not seemingly all…. I do love my Isekai series, often times hard to find new ones to read).

      • “That’s cute that you think as well as (incorrectly) tell people that TWI isn’t an Isekai series.”
        I feel somewhat insulted by the way you worded that. Patronizing, even if you didn’t intend it as such, but I wrote this to reply to everyone else in the thread too.

        I know what the literal translation of the word isekai is or I wouldn’t have made my statement.
        “Another world” is an extremely simple term which I’d argue is almost never used in reference to simple ‘transportation’ to another world. We don’t call Dune an isekai, but the main character goes from one world to another, and it could very well have been a permanent transfer. He ends up travelling the stars again, and there’s nothing that says the characters of TWI won’t do that, and indeed, many of them *do*.

        The term isekai is a very new phrase, used almost exclusively to describe a genre of anime that’s also recently emergent, although some people will point to old works and call them isekai’s too.
        Every isekai I’ve seen or heard of have a sense of permanence to it. If there are many worlds, and the main character travels from one to another, whether voluntary or not, you wouldn’t call that an isekai. You call something an isekai when their new life is the new world and only *the new world*.

        This is exemplified in the fact that the vast majority of isekais are reinkarnations – the person died, and their soul went elsewhere, and is reborn in a new body. The few isekais that aren’t reinkarnations still carry this sense of permanence, they are shunted to another fantasy world where they live out an alternative life. They generally don’t even consider the possibility of going back, and the majority of these are rife with harem nonsense. Even as a fan of anime, and having tried a lot of them, most isekais end up unwatchable to me, so admittedly there is also an instinctual dislike with the idea of associating something I love so much with this genre. Which, I feel doesn’t hurt to hammer in, is almost exclusively used to describe anime and manga (or korean-style web comics, which you really can’t argue are that separate from manga).

        TWI matches the most basic definition of an isekai in that the characters do experience the shock of being put into another world and having to find a way to survive there, but there are recurring themes exploring the possibility of going back – or going elsewhere. Several characters have been put in situations where they could travel to other worlds, or given the offer by sufficiently powerful entities that would attempt to send them back. The biggest argument, for me, is Ryoka’s travel to the land of the fae, where she gets a glimpse of innumerable other worlds she could go to, and could have easily (probably?) have chosen to return to Earth.

        Mostly, I disagree with putting a literary work (a book) into the category invented for anime/web comic/manga, simply because it involves travelling between worlds. This would retroactively define innumerable other works of fantasy and science fiction as being isekai’s, without there being any utility I could see in such a classification.

        It is a work of high fantasy, which uses the rare mix of real world characters, videogame mechanics, numerous types of magic, and multiple worlds, the Innworld being in the center.

        I, personally, think it’s a disservice both to the person you’re trying to describe it to, and to the work itself, to simply call it ‘an isekai’.

        • You are right, Dune is not an Isekai. It is a Space Opera if you’re looking for the exact genre.

          Traveling to another world by space ship is quite different. Using light speed, warp technilogy (sci-fi style), and worm holes generally does not pertain to Isekai.

          Magic, whisking one from one world to another (again, be it in body or just in soul) IS an Isekai series though. Which TWI does follow.

          You are right that it is also a work of high fantasy (magic, other races, gods, world laws), and has video game mechanics. Both of which are present in 90+% Isekai series as well (some actually are not in magical fantasy worlds, but that is rarer). Having level up systems (skills, jobs, classes and more) is also seen quite standard in Isekai series over the last many years. As that has been very popular.

          • What’s the difference between being whisked magically from one world to another, and technology so advanced that you just lift your thumb in a certain way and you’re teleported to another world?
            Would Dune be considered an isekai if you classified it before you reached the parts where he goes to other worlds than Arrakis? He went from his homeworld, with lots of mysticism. You say it’s a space opera as if that’s the only genre it belongs to. A quick google search shows 7 different genres. No, it’s obviously not an isekai, and not because it’s *technological* but because there’re many different worlds. Can you name any isekais that include travelling between a number of worlds? Can you name any where the characters bring their scientific knowledge (not just their morals) and equipment from Earth and use it to effect a technological revolution?
            You say ‘exact’ genre as if you can take a piece of art and put it in a box and point to it as “That’s an isekai”. You can do that with a lot of those other isekai animes, but not to TWI. You can point to a lot of similarities. But to define it as an isekai is simply not useful to anyone.

            I’m amused by the 10 words person, you’re following a series written by an author that writes 30k words in a day sometimes, and we read it in a few hours. This isn’t twitter with enforced brevity which prevents people from having conversations on complicated topics.

            This isn’t really a hill I’d be interested in dying on, and if the author decides to call TWI an isekai I’ll work that into the definition of an isekai, but no, I don’t believe that phrase fits TWI, and I don’t think you’ve said anything yet that is objective proof otherwise.
            Until you can, please consider phrasing yourself as “I disagree and here’s why” or “I don’t think that’s right”. Not “You’re wrong and childish”.

            You did not address a number of my points at all. Does any of those isekais involve travelling to many different worlds or not? I’d love examples to look up. You’re implying there’re a lot more variety in the isekai genre than what I’ve seen so far, so maybe you’ll even change my mind on them. The vast majority are reinkarnations, I mentioned, you acknowledge that as normal but imply that there’s a ton of other options? Name, like, 10 ones that aren’t reinkarnations, and are any of them serious works of art or primarily just videogame tropes?

            • (part 2 of 3 of my reply from before, wordpress being silly)

              Isekai is not really that new of a term either. Maybe to the entire world (as we were not as connected without the internet), but Japan has been using it in anime since 1918. Though the more modern Isekai that many now a days are used to started in the 1970’s. That’s still 50 years ago…

              Also, you don’t seem to have read a large amount of Isekai series (or at least as many as me…) as you seem to think that most involve a death, then reincarnation in a new world. I will say, this is a very popular trope used in 10-15 years.

              Here, some popular series that are Isekai that MANY people know, that don’t have a death and reincarnation in them: Fushigi Yuugi, The Vision of Escaflowne, The Twelve Kingdoms, Magic Knight Rayearth, Inuyasha, Digimon Adventure and hey, did you know that even Spirited Away is considered an Isekai as the little heroine wandered into another world in our own world.

              • (last part)

                But yes, none of those involved reincarnation after a death and I’m sure most who’ve watched any anime at least know if not have seen them. Seen those all, but I do really recommend The Twelve Kingdoms. It’s so good. The LN’s are nice too, but the anime did a very good job. Hope the author writes some more…

                I, personally, think that you do not understand the term “Isekai”. Or possibly don’t really understand it that you don’t think TWI is one. Or maybe just dislike the term and don’t want it associated with TWI…

                TWI and everything about it is a classic Isekai series. Especially by the current popular standards used today.

                It however is by far the best written one out there and I do love it to death.

                (now that the full post is there, I suppose I could write another response to your new post, if you’d like)

                • I have heard of some of those, and I’ll absolutely look up the others. Apologies if my tone is combative, but I just don’t understand why people would classify things that aren’t primarily an isekai as isekai’s just because they involve magical transportation between worlds. IMO the clearest definition of that genre is a certain permanence to it, it’s not called the ‘multiple worlds’ genre, it’s called ‘New World’ with the implication of ‘it’s THE new world for my life’.
                  Inuyasha seems contentious of whether it’s considered an isekai, I see multiple discussion threads whether it qualifies, and it doesn’t have the word isekai anywhere on it’s wiki page or MyAnimeList.
                  It’s listed as a shōnen action adventure romantic comedy, with elements from the horror genre.
                  Spirited Away is another example of the lack of permanence, a girl experiences a mystical realm of spirits that coexists with our own, and she returns from it at the end. It’s not like she got transported there and is forced to live out a complete life there with no hope of return. This doesn’t seem like an isekai to me, unless you again take an extremely loose definition for that term.

                  Having researched it more, I’m finding articles that describe The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the Narnia books as isekais. I really do find myself disagreeing with that, because they aren’t living there, they’re experiencing another world temporarily, in what’s more comparable with a drug trip. It’s not really “their lives in the new world”, it’s “my experience travelling through the spirit realm”. This definition apparently originates from a centuries old japanese tale, Urashima Tarō, which is the story of a fisherman who rescues a turtle, and is carried on its back to the Dragon Palace and a world under the sea. He spends what he believes to be several days with the princess, but when he returns to his home village, he discovers he has been gone for at least 100 years.

                  This is referenced as one of the first isekai’s by some articles, but the word isekai does not even appear on the wikipedia page, except at the very end as a “Isekai, an anime and manga genre that has roots in the Urashima Tarō story.”
                  I’d say the isekai genre takes ideas from that story, but that the story in and of itself isn’t an isekai, nor does it seem useful in any real sense to classify Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland as isekai’s.

                  • Heck, by this ludicrously loose definition, Dante’s “Inferno” is an isekai. As is any story whatsoever that includes a brief period of experiencing a mystical realm within our world.

                    • While classifying a work of literature or art we use general labels to define a framework in which the artform exists, so that while remembering the common tropes, we are able to find how they deviate fm the same and carve a name for themselves. After reading this page long debate it have come to my notice that the argument is about what camp does wandering inn comes into.

                      Personally, while arguging patrik relies on a very limited and frankly prejudiced view of “isekai’ , while relying on the literal translation of the term isekai being as “new world”. Modern isekai is came into being after the advent of a japanese site ‘ncode.syosetu’ where amature writers like pirateaba or casual farmer write novels like in royal road, but unlike royal road the site is massively popular so much so that its most mediocre author regularly gets a print novel within 1-2 years and subsequent manga and anime adaptation if they remain relevant within 5-7 years and its metric of success is popularilty which is mostly derived fm clicks and views and trends. The isekai is just a section of the wider novel landscape which contains multiple genres like slice of life, romance, etc.

                      Coming onto isekai the the term is there to make reader/viewer understand the common tropes of the setting , the story is not restricted by theses tropes, rather they are the identifier on which these stroies function, I would highly recommend watching two part series on youtube by “pause and select” on this topic for more indepth understanding of iskeai in general.

                      Let me give you example of a famous modern isekai “Log Horizon” in this story charcters use their knowledge of Dungeon & dragon world/ Gaming and knowledge of economics, logistics, cooking and engeineering fm our world to reshape the world they now inhibit and comes into conflict with the fantsay world’s existing world order. Or let us go for another Isekai “Ascendance of a bookworm” , in which main charcter like erin and earthers brings about technology and culture revolution to the new world now she inhibits she brings Shampoo, cuisine and amunitions to this new world , but is inturn is assimilated by the existing system of social hierarchy prevalant in the world for her survial or let us go for ‘Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash’ where a bunch of teenagers are thrown into the brutal isekai world where they must struggle for their day to day survival where their mundane life in the modern world have made them highly uneqipped to deal with the reality of living in this new world , they must face struggle and even face loss of their loved ones to move fwd. All of them are fine examples of modern isekai. Heck even pirate regularly mentions various isekai Like Overlord in their dicsussion about novels they enjoy. Isekai can be as grand as “Twelve knigdoms” or as mundane as “Cooking with Wild Game” , it can be harrowing as ‘Re:zero” or playful as “konosuba” or it can simply fall flat on its face like ‘redo of a healer or Smartphone Isekai’ what is common is that our anchor i.e, our primary POV are those who find themselves in an environment unfimilar to them and they decide by fate or constain or lack of means to back , to settle in this world , to make a living in this new world.

                      But this is not to say that Pirate is limited to the tropes of isekai or rather they draw inspiration from muliple sources like Games, dugeons & dragon world and adult fantasy . While describing that this work is not isekai we are ignoring the culltural cross pollination that is happening in the era of the internet where modern audience is familiar and actively seek works fm other parts of the world like squid game or RRR, and japanese games, anime and light novels are at the fore-front of this cultural excahnge. These works inspire each other and create something new in the process, limiting the Wandering inn in a preffered category of “Adult Fantasy” denies all the framework fm which this work of art can be percieved from, even if pirateaba explicitly says that this work is solely Isekai it will not detratct its readers to find inpiration from writings of tolkein or Prattchet or inspiration from gaming like darksouls similarly restricting it to high fantasy is limiting and doesn’t allow us top view artwork fm a holistic perspective. Isekai and High fantsay are the labels we use to make the sense of the mamoth work of art find we are confronted with and we use these lables to categorize the thing as whole, this approach is akin to the parable of the ‘blind men and an elephant” where one percieve the whole fm the part one experience while missing the whole in reality.

                      In conclusion, the Wandering Inn is both an Adult high fantsay, Isekai, anime, game, dundgeons & dragons and real world etc., inspired work and I believe that makes it more richer and interesting as one gets to know something totally new while exploring an relativley known terrain for example to me being not from America and not a hardcore gamer, cultural realities of America and gaming elements are nice surprise while reading a familiar anime/highfantasy world on the lines of Stormlight Archive, Berserk , Malazan, Hunter x Hunter , Discworld , One Piece etc., and make this work a master piece

    • Yeah, that’s where it’s pointing towards. Though it’s probably not an actual [Horror] and either has a red class or just like one/two ranks in [Horror]

  3. Oof. That. was something… Seeing those adventureres, all of them, going all out, was impressive.

    I am so stoked for Rasktooth and Infinitypear. YAY the new team.

    Between this and the last chapter though: I do wonder, what will happen with our friendly neighbourhood vampires.

    • yes, their farms will probably get “poisoned’ with silver during the spring floods. although i wonder how bad the effects would be when its diluted in a seemingly infinate amount of water

      • I’m curious if that well/ridge was similar to the end of the world. Is it deep enough to connect to wherever the seemwalkers come from? If it is I don’t think any amount of silver in there will have much of an effect. And everyone in Liscor will have a lot more to worry about….

        Even if that’s not the case. The flooding in Liscor is due to the rain, and then it apparently drains into the well, so no water would be flowing out… it would all be sucked further in. I’m more concerned about what would happen if they seal it off come spring. Hopefully there’s another way for all that water to drain….

          • I’m almost certain I remember water being sucked down into a ridge in the ground, which is the same ridge the adventurers use to access the dungeon by rope, and which snatcher eventually climbed up out of. It’s been a while since I read that part of the story though, so I might be misremembering.

            • Yes the ridge down into the dungeon got filled with water. But when they reached the roof of the dungeon there was an invisible barrier that held the water out. It was suspected that this was a intended feature to keep the dungeon from flooding.

    • Nothing happens. The water moves downwards, not upwards. It stated that sometimes the dungeon was filled up Only to empty through that well.
      Even Ylawes said that it is not connected to Liscor.

  4. Thanks for the chapter and have lots of rest :) This is so good. Now, i wonder what the Mother doing? why did she not react? is what she doing related to the orange color? around Liscor and Pallass and other small Drake cities when Valeterisa lifted up Fissival? Too many questions that need answer…

    • There was something said about Snatcher choosing not to wake Mother, but it also was said that she listened to Orchestra’s massive sound attack…and did nothing. So, is she in some sort of mental hibernation or disassociation, like the way the Archmage of Izril was before Ryoka “woke” her?
      I also love all the little hints Pirate threw us this chapter about the history of Liscor’s dungeon. A Walled City, the City of Graves, adversary of Mershi, the City of Stars, that enmity gained by the actions/choices of some or all of the inhabitants of Snatcher’s city. It sounds like this City of Graves was buried by some great alliance of others for the crime of committing horrific acts, though I shiver to think what degree of horrific act would generate such a drastic response of burying an entire Walled City. Or did the leaders of the city bury themselves to make their enemies think they’d succeeded in destroying the City of Graves? Is that why the adventurers call it a Vengeance dungeon? Either way, what horrors did they commit?

  5. Pirate, this was a hugely entertaining arc. I like the way you’re dealing with the branching plotlines and cast of characters by weaving them together into mini arcs. It’s a good way to start bringing all of the disparate threads into more manageable–and readable–bunches.

    One data point, if you’re looking for them: I say this is a great pause point. Enjoy your break and then take a little extra time to just focus on V1 editing. You seem to be burning the creative candle at both ends.

    This seems a good place to focus a bit since you’re close on the editing project. And hey, if you do get an itch to write some new content in the midst of it, you’ve got some chapters in the bag for when you resume. Gives you more breathing space for writing and having time to edit the new stuff when you get to important bits.

    My take, I’m sure there are others who are 100% on the other side of the fence!

  6. This was great!

    Glad Ylawes finally found his path and cut the bad strings of Silver.

    Whoop whoop!

    Now about the casualties caused by the Named- and Gold Ranks entering the dungeon.. I am expecting a HUGE fine on them. I doubt they will keep much of the treasure. People died, great spells were unleashed by Liscor, the Inn got destroyed, and the heroes?? They, are the ones deserving recognition!

  7. The City of Graves delved too deep!

    I always make it a habit the last few volumes to reread the first few paragraphs after I finish for the subtle hints.

    This time was definitely about Horrors.

    Ishkr and the silver ranks really pulled off a miracle with goblin help.

    Taking on a monster the named ranks couldn’t stop, jeez.

    Limited-edition blue heads are just too valuable!
    Gotta catch them all.
    Snatcher can honorarily join the Pokemon Go death tracker.

    RIP you monster. If you really died.

  8. I’m not convinced this is the last we’ve seen of Facestealer, but I’m sure this is the last we’ll see of it in a VERY long time. I imagine the next time it comes around it’ll find far more people are able to take it on. I’m also hyped for Infinitypear’s and Rasktooth’s adventurering career and for Ylaws’ new class.
    Amazing chapter.

  9. I’m kind of disappointed Erin let the adventurers through. A Saliss, Erin, and Tessa adventure to steal all the valuable alchemy ingredients in the middle of an adventurer war would’ve been fun.

    Additionally I’m am very concerned how easy it appears to be to dig through world to hit seamwalker territory.

    • It might be thin around the High Passes because magic was used to artificially lift it up. The city of Raskghars in the Gnoll Plains was something like 5 miles deep.

  10. If that trap hadn’t been available, I wonder what, if anything, could actually have brought Facestealer down.

    Between Saliss and the Haven, the strongest named ranks are already all there.

    We just had a section about how the world powers are running low on awesome world targeting magics, aside from the fact they wouldn’t use them on a single monster.

    We haven’t seen anyone in the Walled Cities to match up – the young dragons aren’t strong enough. Maybe some have a few ultimate relics capable of killing Facestealer.

    The gnolls probably lost a huge chunk of their trump cards in the wars.

    Would old-Tyrion have been able? Nalwhateverhisname? Don’t think so. The faeblade might have been an option, but not much else coming from the human side.

    What are you left with? Teriarch – if he’s even on Izril. Could Azkerash do it? Probably the best option would be for Wyrmvr to fight him to a standstill and let Xrn plus whoever siege him to death.

    I.guess that’s why they call it the waning world

    • Belavier probably could and is sufficiently mercenary, though the price would be rough as can be.

      There are definitely some other people around the world who would possibly be able to kill/majorly contribute to killing Snatcher, but wouldn’t be available/willing. Top of my head list for that, no particular order and not of equal ability: Fetohep, Az’Kerash, Cognita, Teriarch, Ailendamus immortal party, Flos/seven(iffy), the Deaths of Rhir, Blighted King and support, Minotaur King, Emperor of Drath, Greydath or floating island Goblin lady, Torveilouka, that Chandrarian hero, Niers with the Forgotten Wing company, Strongest of Pomle(iffy) and others I can’t remember right now.

      Anybody who has some to add I’d love to hear it below!

      • I thought Belavierr had left Izril? I imagine most of those you mentioned could deal with Facestealer, but how much time would elapse before they could get there?

        I expect a lot of those best suited to dealing with facestealer would be people with specialized classes, rather than outright power. Like the people we saw challenge Belavierr. Tulm is probably one such person, given his class and the dragonbone. Also I’d guess a lot of Drath, not just the emperor, would have the skills to win.

  11. the walled city of graves… now is it called that because they slew dragons, were buried (imo unlikely), or… practiced necromancy?

    • Maybe it was the place where dead dragons were supposed to be interred. Their great sin might have been to violate that duty and they used those dragon bones to instead create weapons like Facestealer.

      • They could’ve also used those bones to access even darker secrets. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Vampire Dragon was linked to the City of Graves in some way. Seems like just the place to have a cabal of Vampires.

        Not to mention the city presumably had contact with an old one…that could’ve also been another final straw. Imagine the damage the City could’ve done if it had used an Old One’s body parts and Dragonbone to create something even deadlier.

        The fact that this creature is a revenant of some incredibly powerful Aura specialist. Or managed to be let into the System only puts into context how powerful and how dangerous the things the City of Graves was doing were.

        • I kind of suspect Mother is a skeleton dragon, vampire dragon, or the necromancer who reanimated them or that necro’s most useful minion (like the way the putrid one’s sidekick is still running around)

  12. Not sure if a seamwalker was at the bottom of the well or a Kraken. Both are possible since all rivers return to the sea… So a deep sea momster could have gotten it.

    Seamwalker is also a bet of only because the edge of the world is a reality warping pit that tries to draw everything into it… So even digging deep might have you run into it.

    Still amazed that the City of Graves (Another walled city) actually had threats old enough to remember Faith magic or possibly even gods. Not that it makes things better.

    Still that leaves only one last threat to deal with and it seems like an infection vector brand… Not super deadly in a fight like Head Snatcher, but turn your entire city into crazed minions.

  13. Wait the Level ups are a bit confusing while I am sure it is supposed to be 3 different ones, it reads on the first pass like that it is all Ylawes level ups ^^

  14. Oh damn, I’m definitely going to have to reread this one to spot what I missed the first time.

    So much lore!

    So many things!

    Klb is 6000+ years old? No wonder Erin called him old.

    So pumped for Ylawes got that level up. Even if it adds more threads, the Silver Swords have been looking like they were going to do their own thing for a while, and I am 100% behind anything that has more dragon lore!

  15. face stealer got reckt and are silver knight learned about the middle finger and leveled finally it was deserved so proud!

    Pryde and Grimalkin are super cute!

    this talk of printers or typewriters with Grimalkin I wonder how plant-based paper would be taken along with some ink recipes ala non-magic or skill? is paper parchment animal hide in this world or skill made?
    could you make magic paper from sage grass?

    also loved the pawn shop that everywhere i can see that being amazing place to ordinary people i hope that signs become famous as a hidden achievement!

    if there are any new plays to be had I hope Erin does nightmare before Christmas or Monty Python and the Holy Grail!
    also, would a live audience and illusion reading be popular?

    I hope for exotic undead crafts like Diaphonized species or crystallization of bones or insects it is oddly pretty and terrifying with necromancy mixed in I bet Osteology would be a popular hobby for necromancers and non!

  16. Kevin is living the dream of all isekai fans, hope he gets invovled with Ceria’s worrying dependance on the dubious circlet. Also, the amount of world building and lore in this chapter was chilling, legit got goosebumps. Hopefully after this mess Erin can finally move through her list of people she needs to talk to, and I hope to see Rhaldon(?) that earther that came with the wagon, interact with the alchemists especially Saliss! Amazing chapter!

  17. Does anyone notice that when Erin outgrows her Inn she tends to shed it like a shell? Erin is a polymorphed Hollowstone Deceiver or as they like to be called Rock Crabs.

  18. So Innworld is like Minecraft where if you dig too deep and break past bedrock you will fall out the bottom of the world… huh so I guess if anyone here is planning on becoming a god try to make a world that’s not flat to avoid things like this happening.

    • You break out the bottom of the world because the gods who made the place were ignorant physics and general planetary science. It’s why they didn’t make stars, they just put some lights up in the sky and figured no one would know the difference.

      • It makes me wonder what they were using as reference for innsworld, like if they used earth as a reference for all the science then does that mean earth is prime plane? Did the gods dimension hop before deciding to settle down and make their own dimension?? Is innsworld round or not ?? This chapter brings up so many questions

        • Innworld is definitely round so theory of falling out of a flat world doesnt apply here, it was confirmed by the gnomes in Chapter 8. 80.

          “Is it—wait. Is it—round? Isn’t there an end to the world?”

          Zineryr snorted.

          “It’s round. They weren’t stupid enough to make a square, and it’s not one of the ones where you can actually fall off. We just…tore a part of it away.”

          • Round doesn’t necessarily mean globe. It could mean a flat circle, like Discworld. Zineryr contrasting round with square rather than flat is a point in that direction.

          • Not a Earth-physics one. If it was, it would have sucked everything in by now. All the air and water would have fallen in over the edge of the Last Tide. If the water under Liscor really goes all the way down, that would get sucked in too. (I doubt it does though, since the ocean has a bottom where the Drowned Folk can build cities.) And most importantly, the rock which makes up the ground everyone stands on would fall in. A hollow shell would crumple under the literal weight of the world unless it had an insanely strong bottom layer. From another direction, the Seamwalkers live down there, and they are akin to Selphids who are affected by gravity normally.

            My guess (on very low evidence) is that physics is broken and/or not applicable down there. The effect seems to reach almost to the surface, but not quite, in that Old Ones and strangenessess markedly increase within 1000s of feet down. It could be some sort of combined aura/effect from all the unrisen Seamwalkers, but I doubt it. The balance is too close and it didn’t shrink with the death of the Timewalker. So I think the effect predates the Seamwalkers and may be responsible for them. Or at least them being the abominations they are.

            We do know that something down there is dangerous enough to terrify the dead gods. The Lost One survived falling in, but the Dancing Man (probably) didn’t. It could be that they were only afraid of the Seamwalkers, but I doubt it. I think there’s something worse.

  19. Ylawes’ plot armor can match Dragonbone.
    Frankly, it’s upsetting (and a bit disappointing) that Snatcher fell victim to the “Just Hit Him!” trope too. Y’know, when ‘bad guy’ start throwing ‘good guy(s)’ around instead of killing them at once. Ylawes, Dawil, and Dasha would be killed otherwise, like nameless Solar Strikes or [Crusaders] were.

  20. Facestealer dead(presumably) is good on many levels, broken inn not so much, plenty of relics around in the hands of friends, kind of is. Looking forward to it.
    Obviously you made it that way, but it was odd they asked Numbtongue and after getting nothing, gave up on it. I don’t think they even went to Claruz. Felt really odd.
    Not seeking other goblins kind of fits the narrow mindedness you portray in people of the world piece(which still feels odd every time it happens, even when you unveil it in the end).

  21. So, just wondering. Did that dullahan ever get his head out of Snatchers bag? Is the bag on its person?
    Or is that dullahan having the worst trip South ever?

    Also, on the off chance that Pirateaba is reading this. Is the thrift store idea influenced by the moving store in Discworld by any chance? Cant remember if it was ever in the books or just the Discworld 2 game.

    • Discworld books have two moving stores. The closer parallel is to the one in The Light Fantastic, which was made by a sourcerer long ago. Rincewind and co. use it to travel to Ankh-Morpork. There is also a different store in Soul Music where Buddy buys the Creator’s old guitar. That one is played for laughs, in that it only moves to the opposite side of the street.

  22. Doren: I can open at eight, close at six, and get weekends off.

    Clocks don’t get mentioned very often but I guess they are more common than I thought.

  23. Is it bad that, because of the idea of getting lost in another… place, without access to the Internet, I’m copying my whole e-book library to my phone’s storage, just in case?

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