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[The Blood of Liscor, Book 8 is out on Audible and as an e-book! Find it here!]
Thereafter, for a short while, as with every single time, they took a break. It was not that the days got less busy.
If anything, they were packed in with things to do. The first thing Erin Solstice did when she got back to her inn, the day when Facestealer attacked and was defeated, was sigh. She stared at the hole in the wall, which looked like a vaguely humanoid brick had smashed through it—then noticed the stress-fractures on part of her common room walls from where it had tried to break through into the garden.
“I wasn’t even here. And it still sort of exploded.”
Lady Pryde was quite upset as she gazed upon the devastation. Mostly because she hadn’t been there. Grimalkin, in between checking on the survivors, passed a stone over Erin’s head. Then he made a few notes as the white runestone glowed and produced a few flashes of color he noted.
“Hmm. Well, I’ll call it ‘inconclusive’.”
Erin gave him a strange look as Mrsha urgently bent over Ylawes Byres, shaking him. Are you dead? Are you dead?
His blonde head rose, and the most disheveled man in the world looked up. Mrsha gave him a thumbs-up of relief, and he fainted again. The inn was swarming with guests like Klbkch, [Crusaders]…and guilty Named-ranks. In the midst of it all, Erin had an odd vase and a dress she’d bought from the antique store, and somehow, that was the weirdest thing to Selys.
“Erin. You went shopping? You—and that dress looks hideous.”
She pointed to the objectionable style, which would probably have gone well with someone else in a different era on another continent. Erin Solstice wrapped the dress around the vase, put it down on a non-shattered table, and looked at Grimalkin.
He pocketed the stone.
“I was testing whether or not someone hexed you or possibly cast a second curse regarding your inn. You haven’t…gained some kind of Skill related to property destruction, have you?”
Erin gave him a sour look.
“Ah. Well. Perhaps it is only a matter of time.”
It wasn’t all funny. In fact, very little of it was. People were dead. An amazingly small number given Facestealer’s danger, but he had still killed a number of Gold-rank adventurers and Antinium [Crusaders].
Anyone not lucky enough to be Ylawes Byres and his team hadn’t survived Facestealer’s attacks. The [Knight] didn’t pin down his survival on luck, either. Dawil had broken six ribs despite his armor, but he was conscious enough to explain it the next day.
“Lad’s got a thick head. House Byres has a long history of taking head-injuries. You think them Yoldenites can survive a blow to the skull? One time, one of Ylawes’ ancestors stopped a cave-in in one of their mines by letting the boulders hit his skull repeatedly.”
Erin’s mouth opened and closed. The Dwarf’s face was perfectly straight—until he snorted. He winked at Ceria, and she cackled.
“Nah. Lad’s got [Avert Mortal Blow]. It’s probably how that thing kept missing him.”
Dawil was checking the odd blade he’d received from the dungeon of Liscor. He was eying the bright metal, closer to white than silver, a pale sheen. A deathly sheen.
“How do you think he’s survived the battles we’ve been in? Luck? Well, he’s got more than a bit of that—and Skills too. [Luck of the Foolhardy]. Don’t tell him I told you that, though. He’s quite embarrassed about some of the Skills he’s gotten.”
That…made so much sense to Erin. Ylawes Byres did strike her as the kind of guy who’d give all his money to a [Scam Artist] and then find a bag of gold on his next mission.
A fool. Arguably, a traditional one who had, at the very least, a family history of trying to kill off an entire species. Fierre Lischelle-Drakle had a lot to say about House Byres, and so did her entire family. Also, he could be really dense when it came to his sisters. And Mrsha thought he wasn’t that cool.
An extraordinary, courageous fool who’d helped bring down a monster that entire Named-rank teams couldn’t. He had possibly helped save dozens of lives, and Vuliel Drae, Nailren, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth had stepped up when Gold-ranks fled. And that wasn’t even thinking about what would have happened if Facestealer had entered Liscor…
So of course, Erin let him rest, and while Hexel slithered around her inn, the next day and the days thereafter, she made sure he wanted for nothing. Every day he came down, looking less dazed and less dead, the guests would applaud.
“You really needn’t have them do that, Erin.”
On the sixth day, he took her aside and told her it wasn’t necessary. The [Innkeeper]’s response was to giggle.
“I never said a word, and I’m not using a Skill or an aura, Ylawes. They just like you.”
And Erin had the pleasure of seeing him turn red to his ears. But then, he quite deserved it.
They all did.
Infinitypear and Rasktooth had been prepared for their eviction or possibly just to pay rent after a month of staying at The Wandering Inn. After all, Lyonette had been quite clear about that. But when they came with all the coins they’d saved up, the [Princess] refused to take the money.
“But you said—”
“I know what I said, but you saved the entire inn! Don’t be silly—we should be paying you.”
“Okay. How much?”
Rasktooth perked up, and the [Princess] hesitated because she hadn’t expected that. She looked around, fussed into the kitchen, and came out with a bunch of mini-cakes. Calescent followed her.
“They’re not ready! I’m practicing—”
For such a big Hobgoblin, he was very picky and nervous about the quality of the food that he served to Erin’s guests. This was his big shot, and he only relented when the two adventurers were quite clear they’d eat anything cake-related.
In the end, the two were given six mini-cakes frosted up, and they were promised access to the inn’s full menu for a while. So it was then they went down into Liscor and finally bought that hat.
A big, red one sat on Rasktooth’s head, and he put a feather that Bird had given him in it. The tricorne had very lovely black stitching and edgework, and it was a royal red.
The [Merchant] who sold the hat gave Rasktooth a discount—for one of the mini-cakes and also saving Liscor. Qwera also sold Infinitypear a shortbow since they had coins left over, and the two went hunting with Bird that very same day.
It was quite fun, although the range of all three varied. Bird had a solwood recurve he’d bought from the Hawkarrow tribe after his last few bows were damaged, with a functional draw weight of about 70 pounds before his Skills.
The actual draw weight was far more reasonable at 45 lbs. Magical wood and the [Bowyer]’s Skills made for a powerful, powerful bow, and Bird could tune that up higher.
By contrast, Infinitypear had a shortbow with a draw weight of merely 25 pounds but commendable strength given the materials and Skills.
Rasktooth had two hand-crossbows. Thus, you had Bird shooting long-range while Infinitypear and Rasktooth would run around, shooting as they got closer like two desperados. And what were they hunting?
Well, Bird kept looking for the invisible bird he claimed was around every corner or the elusive waterbird. Or a penguin that Kevin had told him about. But their real, tangible quarry which they bagged two of was the Garbichug Revolter.
And by ‘bagged’, they shot the gigantic, trash-eating pests, tossed their bodies at a Rock Crab, then into Shield Spider nests. The three and watched as the Rock Crab refused to eat the first Garbichug—and the Shield Spiders actually carried out the other Garbichug and tossed it onto the grass. It didn’t seem to decompose, even eight days later. And only then did Bird spot the mini-Garbichugs eating the corpses of the ones they’d shot and learn he had to burn them.
He announced this to Watch Captain Zevara when she came to The Wandering Inn. The Watch Captain was an erratic guest, but she had plenty of reasons to be there after the Facestealer attacks—coordinating with Invrisil, Pallass, and Riverfarm came to mind—and Erin also had very friendly rates for the Watch.
It was Lyonette’s initiative in conjunction with Imani. The [Chef] was still a friend to the inn, and upon request, she’d done some big thinking with Lyonette. The [Princess] had used her connections to the City of Growth to facilitate a new concept at the inn: cheap, filling dishes.
Oh, they had hamburgers and pizza, but those were still actually fairly intensive to make. You could do a line-assembly job, but for Calescent? Even he would get sick of flipping a hundred burgers.
So why not make something even better? Something…you could sell for cheap (but profitable) prices at a lunch or rush-hour that could feed hungry Workers or even the Watch? Lyonette wanted the [Guardsman] market. She had observed how much Relc could eat—but noted he was not always that picky about what so much as it was plentiful and good.
Therefore, Imani had done some testing and come up with the new lunch menu. One of the hits Zevara herself was chewing on was rice with curry.
…Yep. Rice. Curry. The trick was how you prepared it. A big cauldron could make rice with minimal effort, especially if you had a Skill like Calescent’s.
[Don’t Burn It]. And—[I Stirred That]. His two Skills effectively replaced a lot of the effort that went into manually making soup or rice. So his real limit was how much of the ingredients he had, the prep time, and how many cauldrons he could run simultaneously.
The end result was that he was petitioning for a kitchen upgrade, and so was Lyonette—and the inn had huge bowls of soup, curry, and other foods for cheap.
The Antinium loved the rice-based dishes, and some had their own, personal spoons to eat portions big enough for their different mouths. Long-handled, with their names on it. They loved it, and an [Engraver]-[Carpenter] in Liscor was making fantastic money selling them custom spoons. Custom spoons…and all the business to her because she was kind enough to make spoons for Antinium. There was a lesson there, but most people needed it spelled out.
Bird appeared before Zevara as she was savoring the spicy dish. Calescent had his Skill that prevented people from being too spiced-out, but he would happily turn it off for you.
His spice-levels ran from ‘Mrsha likes this’ to ‘Redfang spicy’ to ‘Void Eater Goat’ levels. That last one actually required you to eat it outside, and you had to pay for a healing potion for your tongue up front. Erin hadn’t actually seen anyone manage to down it entirely. Saliss had done a bite. Pryde had taken a mouthful and then decided she had to sit in her rooms for the next two hours. Commendably, she never made a sound, but she declined another bite.
Klbkch had made the mistake of thinking that, as an Antinium, he did not have the same issues with spice. He did.
The point was that Zevara was enjoying a really hot bite when Bird spoke. He just sat down in front of her.
“Liscor has a pest problem.”
“We have a what?”
She looked up. Of all the things to talk about—outside, the Watch was lining up for lunch. They were occupying the Floodplains in large numbers, not only because they had expanded their ranks, but because the villages and farmsteads needed more patrols.
But the real reason they were out there was because Hexel was marshaling a huge team to secure the dungeon’s openings. He was reinforcing the hole in the ground and building a ‘cap’ over it that could stop hordes of monsters from ever coming out again. Even if Facestealer tried—well, it would buy them time.
It was costing a lot, but they had Antinium and, crucially, Liscor’s support and the Council’s as well. The Shield Spider populations were down—even the Rock Crabs were learning not to try and attack the new villages. Most people had learned Erin’s blue fruit trick, but even the ones that hadn’t?
Zevara had just been over to the Lischelle-Drakle farm where they’d apparently chased one of the Rock Crabs off. Brave [Farmers]—that man Himilt had claimed they’d hit it until it ran and had not gotten hurt. She had advised him on the seed cores and possibly building some walls.
So, Zevara had thought her new focus would be crime in the expanding Liscor. Or diplomacy with other cities. Or hostile cities like Hectval…already enough on her plate.
So what was this about?
“Pests? What are you talking about?”
“Garbichug Revolters. You have them. I have killed sixteen this month. Five this last week. There will be more. They are coming. You are not prepared.”
She just stared at him as he gave her the most serious look she had ever received from him in her life. Bird had threatened war on Pallass with less intensity than this.
It was so disturbing that even when he went off to beg Erin to conjure more magical birdies for him to shoot, guilt-free, that she actually put it on top of her list.
None of the people in the Adventurer’s Guild could help her. Selys, who still worked part-time, helped Zevara pull records on the Revolters, but they were considered a Bronze-rank threat. It was, in fact, the new [Druid], Shassa, and the Ornithologist’s Association—a group of [Bird Watchers] and other people with the class—who understood Bird’s alarm. They told Zevara to issue an alert to all farmsteads and buildings to mind their trash and waste—and to lock down the sewers of Liscor. But, of course—it was too late.
Garbichug Revolters looked like giant, mutated ducks. They had duck-beaks and that kind of form—but they had teeth. Their skin looked either moldy or slightly putrid thanks to the excrement they loved to eat and use as a self-defense weapon. They smelled worse than that.
Oh, and they had the aggressive temperament of geese. They would attack anything they thought was weaker than them and eat anything they could.
They were not Crelers. They were cowardly and ran from almost all threats. They had the offensive power of a giant duck—which was dangerous—but a Bronze-rank team could take them out with little issue most times. A healing potion’s worth of damage at most.
The problem was, Garbichugs dodged arrows, and they were good at escaping. The other problem? They loved big sewers.
They had come to Liscor en-masse as the Shield Spiders were reduced, and their presence quickly earned them a bounty from the Adventurer’s Guild. They found their way into the sewers and began to compete with the other pests—giant rats, sewer slimes, and the larger insects.
Also, they were quite, quite immune to most deterrents. More than one [Farmer] reported trying to chase them away with the seed-core trick only to see them eat the seed core and survive.
The amount of poison in—well, it explained why their bodies were so immune to decay and why almost nothing would eat them aside from their own kind. Calescent himself had a very nasty encounter with them one day when one stuck its head through a kitchen window and began to eat off a stove top.
He promptly blew his famed death-spice into its face, and the creature just spat at him without seeming to mind the attack. Calescent punched it instead.
The sounds of a Hobgoblin charging out of his kitchen to match a Garbichug in hand-to-hand combat was a weird way to start your day. The inn shot out of their beds, and half the guests were armed—the other half retreating into the garden—when they realized it wasn’t a monster attack on the same level as Facestealer.
Ylawes Byres found Calescent covered in shallow bites, slapping another Garbichug as they tried to get at the outhouse. He drew his sword—and felt a chill run down his arm.
You needed gloves to wield the Gravesword without feeling the effects. Or—to be a [Necromancer]. Still, it was light, true, and Pelt had re-contoured the handle to fit a Human’s hands.
The first Garbichug had been ignoring Bird’s two arrows in its sides, but the instant the [Knight]’s blade kissed it, it backed up warily. It actually deflected his sword with one clawed foot and tried to spray him with more spit and dirt it kicked up, but he cut it shallowly six more times.
The sixth time, the Garbichug fell over backwards and was getting up weakly when a spear of metal went through its head. Ylawes backed up as Yvlon’s arm telescoped back into a normal hand. She flexed her arm—which had been torn in half by Facestealer nine days ago. It was almost completely recovered, and she grimaced as she eyed the gore.
Ylawes’ new sword sapped the energy of anything it cut. He aimed the blade like a wand at the second Garbichug and spoke.
The conversion from death magic to other types of magic wasn’t the best, but it still produced a nasty bolt of flames the size of his hands. It sped at the Garbichug—and the monstrous bird dodged. It turned, flipped its feathered butt up at Ylawes, and then began sprinting away.
Calescent was roaring in outrage. Someone raced out of her inn and threw a jar of acid. Erin Solstice nailed the fleeing bird in the back with the green acid, and Ylawes winced. He watched the bird shriek, writhe around on the ground as steam rose—
Then get back up and keep running. The steam stopped rising, and Erin’s jaw dropped.
“Wh—it’s immune to acid?”
“I told you. I told you they were coming! You didn’t listen!”
Bird shouted down from above. Erin was still staring when the third Garbichug poked its head out of the restroom. This one had a mouthful of—and it was about to spray at—
Erin held up her hands to shield her face as Ylawes raised his shield, but the Garbichug never attacked. A third group had emerged, and Infinitypear raised his spear overhead. He was too far to hit the Garbichug, but he raised his spear and shouted.
“[I Have Seen It Die]!”
Ylawes saw the Garbichug’s eyes bulge—and the monster swallowed. It stared at something in horror as it saw Infinitypear—and then turned and began waddling off at top-speed.
“Good job, Infinitypear!”
Erin breathed in relief. Ylawes felt a rush counter to the Gravesword’s chill burning through him. A kind of fearless breath in his body as Infinitypear’s Skill activated.
A fitting Skill for someone who had bested Facestealer—if not necessary against the fear of Garbichugs.
Bird was loosing arrows at both Garbichugs, and Falene poked a staff out the window and sprayed the grass with [Firebolts] of her own until someone screamed at her not to set the Floodplains on fire.
Ylawes’ new sword from the dungeon was very fine—but it was out of stored power, and he didn’t feel like chasing after the Garbichug, so he just cleaned the blade. Normen, Numbtongue, and Calescent were giving decent chase, but the damn birds were so fast they gave up. And they were dodging all the ranged attacks—until someone decided to try out her new Skill.
Erin, Yvlon, and Ylawes turned, and the [Knight]’s left foot went icy cold as a path of ice shot down the hill, covering the grass. And then a half-Elf went down the hill.
Ceria had taken the time to put on some slippers, and she was sliding down the slick ice like a shot. Ylawes had seen this trick before—but what he hadn’t expected was to see Ceria actually using it in a combat situation.
Let alone so…his jaw dropped.
“I thought she was poor at skating. Yvlon—”
He’d seen Ceria skating, and Yvlon and Ylawes, as citizens of House Byres, had plenty of skating experience on a local lake. Ceria had, ironically, been worse than the rest of her team.
At least—she had been. But now, the [Prankster] was skating like a professional. She was adopting one of those poses Erin saw in the olympics or from professional skaters, one leg raised along with her arms. She twisted and did a double-axel spin before landing and speeding up.
Even the fleeing Garbichugs looked impressed. Ceria did a backflip, and Yvlon’s eyes narrowed.
“There is no way Ceria’s that athletic. It must be her new Skill.”
“She leveled up?”
Erin and Ylawes were astonished, but Yvlon shook her head.
“Not her main class. She won’t tell me what the new class is—but that skating. It’s annoying me. Anyone getting that feeling?”
Ylawes and Erin turned back to watch the half-Elf showing off and blowing kisses at Pisces and Ksmvr. Yes…there was something slightly obnoxious about Ceria’s new Skill—
[Mischief Skill: Wings Upon Ice].
She got the Garbichug, though. Ceria’s [Ice Spikes] at close range were fatal, and she was skating back when her Skill ran out of power. She promptly face-planted and had a bloody nose by the time she got back to the inn.
“Wbell, dat sucks. Stop labbing, Yvlon. I got the bird.”
“Healing potion, Captain Ceria?”
Ksmvr offered her a bottle, but Ceria waved it off.
“It’s just a bloody nobe, Ksmvr. We’ve gotta be sparing. Darb it.”
She groaned. Any other time, she’d happily have a healing potion, but they only had eleven bottles in the Horns.
A large number, actually. They’d geared up after coming back from Chandrar, and that was great. The only thing was—Octavia wasn’t selling healing potions anymore. You couldn’t find any at regular prices on the market, and all the adventurers had told each other not to waste any.
Thus, Ceria gloomily pinched her nose until the bleeding stopped, feeling like a Bronze-rank again. She did brighten up when breakfast was served by a grateful Calescent.
“Is a big breakfast for heroic adventurers. New food—is a lobster.”
“Calescent, you don’t serve lobsters for breakfast!”
You did for Ceria. She brightened up instantly and consented to trying Calescent’s new attempt at lobster, a dish which he readily admitted he had no experience in preparing. Still, he knew how to cook something properly, and Goblins were masters at not poisoning each other with cooking.
“Where’d we get lobsters from?”
Erin was confused, and Calescent took the Silver Swords’ order.
“You want lobster?”
His ‘heroic adventurers’ clearly still included the Silver Swords, even now, and they all demurred—they would rather have the standard breakfast, thanks.
“I’ll have an omelette today. I’d like green, red, orange, and purple bell peppers diced up, onions, cilantro, a Yellat mash, cheese, and two mushrooms to complement it. Easy on the pepper, and a tasting sauce on the side. Oh—and will you use one of the nut-based oils and duck eggs if you have them?”
Falene Skystrall’s order made Erin’s mouth fall open, but Calescent happily nodded without even bothering to take notes.
“Is good nuts. And you?”
“Pancakes. With syrup. Lad?”
“Er—the same. Falene, you don’t have to order like that.”
The two other adventurers remonstrated with Falene, who gave a Pisces-sniff.
“I rather think Chef Calescent enjoys preparing something elegant.”
“Disgusting is more like. Why not eat a salad with how much you put in that omelette? That’s not an omelette. That’s a narrow egg shell on top of all that green.”
Dawil was grousing, but good-naturedly. Erin Solstice decided she’d sit with the Silver Swords that morning.
“How’s your back doing, Ylawes? How’s them ribs, Dawil?”
“Almost as good as the ones I had last night.”
The Dwarf smacked his lips, and Ylawes rubbed at his back.
“Huh. I didn’t even notice it when I raced outside. I suppose that’s proof it’s healed.”
They hadn’t spared healing potions on the Silver Swords, but even so, healing a battle like that took a while. Erin was chatting with them as the day started.
Nine days since the Facestealer attacks, and the inn was mostly repaired. Erin had used her Skills along with Hexel, and [Partial Reconstruction] had helped close a lot of cracks on the walls. Even so, he’d warned her the foundations had shifted from Facestealer’s blows, and he’d needed to replace the wall with a hole in it.
Hexel had made the seam-lines almost invisible and used the same wood, but Erin could tell the inn was damaged. It was nothing that’d crop up in a year or two, and Hexel had stated he believed the inn would not last that long—or be rebuilt before he needed to deal with the problems existing.
She had thanked him for his confidence in her. But the truth was that Erin was counting the gold they’d pulled in of late and thinking ahead.
These days, these quieter days, Erin was focused on a few key elements. Now that her inn didn’t have a huge hole in the wall, she decided to speak to a few people as she dined with Ylawes.
“Are you going back to House Byres, Ylawes?”
He looked up from a mouthful of pancake. Ylawes grabbed a napkin and spoke, shooting a glance sideways at the other guests.
“That’s right…and I was wondering if Yvlon and Ysara wished to accompany me. With their friends, of course. It is only a few days’ ride from Riverfarm. With travel Skills, we could cut that in half.”
Erin glanced over, and Yvlon’s head rose sharply—but Ysara only glanced up from where she was eating with Qwera, Vetn, Mrsha, and Gire that morning. Yvlon was conflicted. Ysara…unenthusiastic.
“Are you gonna go with your team?”
“I’ve actually invited Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team to go with me. And, ah—Infinitypear and Rasktooth.”
Ylawes hesitated as he glanced at his team. Falene bit her lip and didn’t speak, but her silence said as much as Dawil’s actual comment.
“It’d be good to welcome them into House Byres. Especially if we’re journeying together.”
The Silver Swords were expanding. It wasn’t finalized—not yet—but Erin glanced over at Rasktooth and Infinitypear. They looked eager. She? She saw Falene’s unspoken words, and while Erin didn’t share the half-Elf’s likely reservations, she had a few of her own.
“Got it, got it. So you, uh—you’re gonna all adventure together?”
“I’d be proud to.”
Ylawes Byres either didn’t notice or didn’t acknowledge Falene’s reservations. Erin Solstice opened her mouth—but she glanced over and remembered how strong certain species’ hearing was. So what she said, instead, was—
“Let’s hang out later, okay, Ylawes? Just as soon as I check in with the Haven and everywhere else. M’kay?”
“M’kay? Er—of course.”
Then Erin was up—she’d had her morning bisque, and she estimated she had till sometime this evening before it conked out on her and she had to rest. She was experimenting with the flavor and figuring out how to make it last longer. [Lion’s Strength] was another option, but since Bezale used scrolls, it meant that another [Mage] had to learn it. Falene, Pisces, and Ceria had all offered to add it to their lists of spells to learn.
Now, one of the things that had changed since the Albez and Facestealer incidents, as they were being known, was that the Haven was on the move. It had passed Invrisil, and while it still had many notable guests and more flocking to see the famous inn, it was heading south.
To Liscor. They’d be going past Liscor in fact, once the Haven got here, and the adventurers were either already moving through Pallass and heading to the new lands or content to wait for the Haven to keep moving.
Some—like Deniusth and Orchestra—were already gone. Variable Fortress had apparently decided to move out, and they would be passing through The Wandering Inn today when heading to Pallass.
Colth was one of the few adventurers not heading ahead, and a few other teams were considering their routes still. However, they were not staying at The Wandering Inn.
There was a divide since Erin’s actions at Albez. And from the Facestealer incident. Erin thought the reason Colth hadn’t shown up so much was because he was embarrassed to have let Facestealer escape. As for the other teams like Deniusth? Well—she suspected they were holding a big grudge.
Larra was cooler to Erin than their first meeting, but the two were still friendly enough for Erin to install one of her gateways in the Haven. Bribing her with a spellbook had helped, but, as the [Witches] would describe it, Erin was in competition with Larra. They weren’t hostile. They weren’t enemies, but they had different goals.
A friendly rivalry? Erin certainly wasn’t inclined to be that unfriendly, but she wondered if they’d be at odds in a more serious way later. Larra had complimented her on her inn’s defense against Facestealer—and warned her never to pull the same trick on Deniusth and the other teams again.
“The fact that you gave away the treasure from the other adventurers was wise, Erin, and I have put in as many words into the others’ heads as I think will fit. But they are adventurers. They do not take kindly to being stolen from.”
To which Erin had given her a big smile and said…
“And I don’t like them murdering lower-rank adventurers, even if they are thieves. I’m sure you would have reined ‘em in.”
“They’re adventurers, my dear. Ever tried to rein back a flood of wild animals?”
“So? They’re still our guests.”
That was pretty much the difference. Anyways, Erin still had the benefit of meeting the Haven’s guests, and not all of them were jerks. In fact, more adventurers were still heading south. Larra had prevailed upon her closest friends to accompany her, like Mihaela, but some were just—associates.
For instance, Erin always stared at the fellow in Larra’s inn who was sitting this morning at a table with a cup of tea in hand, reading from a newspaper over a refined breakfast. She stared and stared until the Named-rank grew so uncomfortable he put down his newspaper.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
Caleis Berkesson, the Favor of the North, was a man made out of handkerchiefs. His very face, and what ‘skin’ he showed underneath a kind of old-fashioned doublet, was made up of the cloths.
“…How do you drink like that?”
He tilted his cup up, and Erin saw the liquid pass through a ‘mouth’ of cloth. The Named-rank adventurer was made up of questions.
“Please stop calling me that. It’s an effect.”
“So all the clothes, Hanky Man—”
“Please call me Handkerchief Man.”
“So all of them are from nobles you’ve helped or who like you?”
Caleis nodded. He pulled a seat out and stood until she sat down. He was—mannered.
In a way that even Deniusth or Colth were not. Some of the Named-ranks had the etiquette they learned to socialize with others in high-brow society—for Caleis, it seemed not only second-nature but intentional.
And yes, he did the pinkie-thing with the cup of tea. He inclined his head as Erin sat.
“Each one is a bit of power. A bit of—well, I suppose you’ve noticed how my class has changed me? It’s not detrimental. Or rather, it saved me. I was scarred badly from an encounter with a monster once, and this is far more preferable to how I looked.”
“What kind of monster? If that’s not private?”
The Named-rank shook his head.
“This is all a matter of history. I ran into—well, it is a bit embarrassing. But topical. I ran into an Acidfly Queen. Something local to Liscor, in fact. My encounter was much further north. It melted—”
Erin blanched, and Caleis nodded.
“Since then, I was lucky enough to gain this particular class and Skill. I was a [Noble’s Friend]—a very odd class, I know. Since then, I’ve become a [Warrior of Etiquette], an [Oathsworn of the Aristocracy], until my current class. Forgive me if I do not divulge the exact nature and level of it.”
“Whoa. That’s so—fascinating. But does that mean your power will get weaker if you head to the new lands?”
Caleis didn’t shrug but lifted a hand and gently waggled the fingers.
“Some authority is direct, but Named-adventurers can’t rely on a specific place and time. Besides—my interests in the new lands aren’t quite the same as Orchestra’s or even Eldertuin’s. I will be escorting the Five Families and other noble interests. Hence my delay—most have not yet reached even Pallass. I believe I am contracted to look out for an Ieka Imarris, House Reinhart, Terland, Wellfar…House Veltras has not yet made any direct moves that I know of, but I will check on each group regardless of a contract.”
The Favor smiled, or at least, his ‘lips’ moved like that.
“Levels, Innkeeper Solstice. I’m bound to my class. Supporting the interests of the North’s nobility rewards me in levels far faster than combat with monsters.”
Aha. That made all the sense to Erin. What else would attract someone at his rank? Well—she shook one gloved hand and stopped bothering him. She’d sort of gotten to know him this last week as he hadn’t been part of the original group.
The other Named-rank adventurers who’d recently appeared were nothing like any Named-rank team or individuals that Erin had ever met. They were scary, terrifying, and Erin had no idea what to make of them.
…Mostly because the Champions of the Coast were a pair of Named-rank adventurers. And they were a married couple.
Rasen and Teithde Verithe were the first two adventurers in a committed relationship that Erin Solstice had ever met. And despite being an item for twenty years apparently—they were in their forties—they had been together even before that as Bronze-rank adventurers.
If they made Erin uncomfortable with their displays of actual affection and Teithde feeding her husband breakfast, then they made the other adventurers really uncomfortable.
“So are you ever going to marry, Halrac? Come on, you can’t sit like that forever. You’re already turning grey.”
“Teithde, leave him alone.”
They were an interesting duo, too. Rasen looked more normal—at least compared to his wife. He had a huge greatsword that reminded Erin of Ulrien, but unlike Ulrien, Rasen’s greatsword accompanied a bow and a host of gear. He was apparently a great all-rounder—
And his wife was a Silver-bell [Spell Duelist]. She had a tattoo on one cheek and down her neck that looked like a flowing tide, and she introduced herself to Erin.
“I’m Teithde Cirullina Verithe Wellfar.”
Her husband looked extremely embarrassed, and Erin blinked at the first four-name person she’d ever met. Teithde had blue hair, flawless skin, and she looked like Mars or another heroine straight out of a story. Her eyes were bright, bright gold.
“Wellfar? Wow, you’re from House Wellfar?”
“No. I mean—that’s unproven. Teithde—”
Rasen muttered, looking askance. Erin blinked at Teithde—and the woman rolled her eyes.
“House Wellfar denies it, but I have roots. I was the bastard daughter of—”
“Let’s not get into it. Especially with the Favor here. It’s a delight to meet you, Miss Solstice. I suppose it’s rare to see a couple adventuring?”
The two were friendly, approachable, and Erin was privately delighted to hear Teithde gently bullying Halrac. As Larra put it when she came over, the two were a sight.
“The Champions of the Coast are proof that adventurers can hold down permanent relationships. However rarely.”
“It just takes work. As much work as adventurers put into their exploring and slaying monsters. Not everyone wants to do that—and it’s hard for a Level 40 [Warrior] to acknowledge anyone else as being an equal. But you have to.”
Teithde frowned, this clearly being a sore point with her, and Rasen ducked his head. Erin was fascinated by the Champions, but again—they were one group on their way south. She hoped she would meet them again.
Erin was sure they all had the same qualities that Saliss talked about that made them ‘crazy’. But today, she was just here to meet one more person.
“Hi Larra, how’s it going? Oh, you’re pretty close to the High Passes!”
Erin turned and peered out across the slowly-moving landscape—every day they drew closer to Liscor. Larra’s smile was patient.
“The same as ever, Erin. I’m mostly preparing for our trip past the Bloodfields.”
“You’re going around it though, right?”
The older [Innkeeper] brushed at her black skin, and Erin saw a long scar running up one arm—a claw wound.
“You can never be too sure. I heard about the Adult Creler, and the Bloodfields have tricks like any death-zone regardless. I have been hiring [Mercenaries] and more [Guards].”
Now Erin looked around, she thought she did see an uptick in the armed forces here. However, Larra was a stickler for quality.
“I may ask to visit Pallass again—it’s a shame that Drake, Guardsman Relc, won’t consider an offer. Do you think there’s any chance?”
“Relc? Uh…no. I don’t think he wants to have that kind of danger in his life.”
Larra nodded understandingly. She glanced around and summoned a familiar with a crook of a finger. The spectral imp hovered as Erin looked around for Barnethei, but she only saw the busy inn. It was always busy and had some event going on, or promotion. Erin had heard that Lyonette was going to coordinate a night with the Haven—they traded guests or used Erin’s access to Invrisil to funnel guests to the Haven. It was making good money, and Erin was so glad she didn’t have to deal with it.
“Who are you looking for today?”
“Colth. And maybe Valeterisa, but mostly Colth. He’s gotta stop hiding! At the very least, everyone wants to talk about the hide and stuff.”
“I’ll have him directly. He is embarrassed, you know. He took the dead adventurers personally.”
Erin nodded, her smile growing serious, and the other adventurers looked up.
“Yeah. How—how’re the survivors?”
“The Dullahan—Griniev—would like to thank your [Server], Ishkr.”
“Oh! Should I send him over?”
“What if he worked at the Haven for a day? Lightly—and we could send over eight of our staff? As part of our shared guest night?”
Barnethei appeared, and Erin jumped. She gave the energetic, dazzling [Vice Innkeeper] a long look but then nodded slowly.
“I guess that might work—but Lyonette needs lots of help, and Ishkr—”
“Not to worry. Our staff can adapt, and we just want to toast the brave Gnoll. He’ll mostly be fawned over.”
Barnethei winked, and Erin sighed.
“Well, sure. If Ishkr agrees, okay. Can Lyonette visit too?”
She didn’t miss the [Vice Innkeeper]’s wide smile—but Erin just frowned a second as Larra interjected.
“Just so long as that little child—Mrsha—doesn’t get up to too much trouble.”
Larra’s reservations echoed Erin’s in a sense, but where Erin was dubious about Barnethei…well, Larra was right to fear Mrsha the Conveyor of Mischief. Erin smiled politely at the other two [Innkeepers] and felt like this was all what Agnes, Ulva, and Timbor had wanted to do with her back in the day.
Only now, she really was among [Innkeepers] of her level. It was not entirely unpleasant—but neither was it always fun. Yet she could accept the Mrsha part. So Erin gave the two an evil smile.
“Don’t worry about Mrsha. She’s…going to have a fun day too. Heh. Heheheheh.”
She tried Elirr’s evil laugh, but Erin really didn’t have any natural talent.
Mrsha du Marquin didn’t see her friends as much these days. Oh, she had new ones who were just grand.
Nanette was settling into the inn. She was still getting to know people, and she’d follow them around all day to learn how they lived. She was endlessly curious, and she’d already spent a day sitting with Selys at the Adventurer’s Guild, petting Jeckel the Wyvern at Elirr’s shop, and being a credit to her age.
Mrsha, by contrast, had thrown mudballs at passersby on the main road with Gire until they got in trouble. But Gire had a job, and she was being a Chieftain, so Mrsha had to find other great peoples.
Like Vetn, Qwera, and Ysara, who were lots of fun—but Qwera didn’t want Mrsha ‘messing around’ when they were selling goods. Vetn was bored.
“Tesy’s off causing trouble again. I’m just guarding Qwera’s shop, but I’ll head off soon—she’s nearly done her bazaar work. I won’t stay with her. You be good. Have you seen that Wer guy?”
Mrsha shook her head as she and Vetn laced up skeins of thread. He was making a ‘grab pouch’ which would wrap around something if he delicately flicked it out—and like a miniature net, secure it for later.
Mrsha really wanted a few of her own, but the process was intensive and the grab pouches broke fast. She was really just waiting for more cool people.
In other words, Visma and Ekirra.
The context of Mrsha’s development as a child was—interesting. Well, being a Doombearer, the last survivor of a tribe, being raised in Liscor and being adopted by a [Princess]—that was all within the realms of normality.
It was all within the realms of this world. But Mrsha also had, to put a fine point on it, alien tutelage. Which was the cooler way of saying that Earth’s children had also invested in her upbringing with mixed results.
She had older brothers in Numbtongue and Bird. She also had Kevin, who would tell her stories of Earth and play his many, many pirated movies or songs and relay anecdotes of various quality with Joseph and anyone else.
Erin had told Mrsha about things like the nature of gravity as it pertained to mass. She had also described airplanes.
She also told Mrsha about cotton candy, and Kevin had broken down the lore of Lord of the Rings and Halo.
The point was that this was at odds with Mrsha’s two friends, Visma and Ekirra. And they too were different. Visma had a doll collection that now included Antinium and was expansive enough to have intergenerational blood feuds.
She was normal. She was growing up in Liscor—Ekirra was the Little Crabs’ star player under Joseph, and Pallass was scouting him.
Yet they were kids, and so Mrsha was waiting for a fun day of…something. There was always something to do with cool people. But they had to be cool.
Erin was not always cool. Lyonette was dubiously cool at the best of times. The Thronebearers were uncool. Cool people could always find something to do, like fishing in the koi pond, exploring, trying to get a class—
And today, Lyonette had arranged a big group of people including Mrsha’s best friends. In fact, eleven other children, two Human, the rest Gnolls and Drakes, were lined up at the door as Mrsha saw her friends arrive.
Vetn waved Mrsha off as she raced over, looking curiously at the children whom she didn’t all know. But to her great astonishment—two of the children were from Riverfarm! Prost’s daughters!
“Miss Mrsha! Hello! Are you joining us? What are we doing?”
The girls were confused, and Mrsha realized she could show them the garden and all kinds of stuff! She was delighted—and Lyonette was smiling as she nodded to Ser Dalimont, who was, for some reason, apprehensive.
“Should we fetch the nets, Your Highness?”
Mrsha’s ears caught their muttered conversation, but she was shaking paws with Ekirra.
“Mrshamrshamrsha—introduce me to these people! They smell weird. Where are they from? Did you see my game? The coach let me score two goals! What are we playing?”
Ekirra was bouncing around with energy as usual, and he was wearing his jersey—he had four copies, and some of the other Liscorian kids were looking at him with awe and jealousy.
“You played in the game. Can I be on the team?”
A younger Drake tugged on Ekirra’s tail, and he turned.
“Don’t grab my tail! And only if you’re super-good and practice hard. You should come to practice. It’s fun!”
Mrsha listened as Ekirra told the others about the best thing ever—playing soccer. He had levels, and he was very cool to the other kids. Mrsha, herself, wished Ekirra had more time to play with them.
She expected Visma to be just as happy to see them, but the Drake girl was oddly subdued.
Visma? Where have you been?
“Mom was helping the Council do something. So was I.”
The evasive answer didn’t quite register with Mrsha right away. But she was waiting for Lyonette to tell them when they had to be back or ‘stay in the inn’. Still, her instincts let her down.
“I hope you all behave yourselves, especially you, Mrsha. And Ser Dalimont will be helping mind you, so listen to him, alright?”
The [Knight] bowed, and all the children but Mrsha looked up respectfully. Mrsha just wrinkled her nose at Lyonette as they lined up behind Dalimont. Were they playing in the city on the playground? That was cool.
She wasn’t going to steal food after Mister Wailant lectured them. She was a good girl. Mrsha was curious why they all lined up and held hands. She held Ekirra’s and Visma’s as Lyonette smiled.
“Ser Dalimont will take you to your activities. Alright, Mrsha—let me know how much fun you have!”
Only then did a little bell go off in Mrsha’s head. Fun? Lyonette’s idea of ‘fun’ sucked. She twisted around and then scribbled a note.
Hey, where are we going?
They marched through the door to Liscor as Liska let them through, and Ekirra’s nose wrinkled up as he read Mrsha’s note. Some of the children were impressed; Ekirra’s literacy was worse than the other two’s, but he had had to learn to read because Mrsha could only write.
“I thought we were gonna play at your inn, Mrsha. Visma, where are we going?”
“You’ll see. We’re doing what I did yesterday.”
The Drake’s ominous comment made Mrsha’s hair stand up. She poked Visma.
Wait, what are you talking about?
Then she saw Ser Dalimont watching her out of the corner of his eye. Then Mrsha realized…they weren’t going to the playground at all. And when she saw the Drake holding her staff and waving at the children, Mrsha felt a pit open in her stomach.
Shassa Weaverweb was the opposite of cool. Ekirra glanced at Mrsha, then Visma.
“Visma, you said you were helping your mom with Council stuff. What was it?”
The little Drake girl’s head rotated slowly. She gave her two friends and the other children listening in a big, toothy grin.
“The Council made it. They call it school. And we all have to go every single day except weekends. And I had to go yesterday. Now you’re doing it too.”
Ekirra’s face went blank. But Mrsha—Mrsha’s face went pale. She tried to back away, but Visma had a hold on her paw, and Ekirra wasn’t letting go.
School? Skuul? Schuuuuuul?
Then she realized why Dalimont was there and why Lyonette had been smiling. Mrsha tried to yank away, and she howled silently.
You traitor! You sold us out!
Visma was laughing at her. Laughing and laughing as Ekirra began to panic, but the children were linked up, and Shassa was beckoning them to a classroom, a jail cell!
“We’re all going together!”
Visma pulled Mrsha into the hell of education. Mrsha tried to resist. She made a break for it, and Ser Dalimont had to carry her back, kicking and fighting and biting. Her paws latched onto the doorway, and she howled.
No! Noooooo! Noooooooooooo—
Then the door closed. And Mrsha was in school—and the passersby were extremely disturbed and decided to call the Watch just in case.
School. Mrsha sat in the little desks made for this prototype school and class and knew it was the end of good things.
She was going to sit here and do homework. She’d have lessons and have to do math all day. School? They were dead.
“Mrsha, it’s not that bad! Stop scaring me!”
Ekirra whined. Visma looked almost happy, the traitor. But Mrsha just wrote on the card.
We’re dead. You’re dead. You just don’t know it.
She knew school. Lessons and tests and—Mrsha clawed at her face and pulled down her eyelids as she recounted the horror of it. If you didn’t get good grades, you were in trouble! You had to sit here—for hours and—
By the time Shassa finished introducing herself to the other students, Ekirra was in a mortal horror like Mrsha. The two sat there as Shassa clapped her claws.
“I’m Shassa Weaverweb, a [Druid] from Oteslia. I am going to be teaching you all today, like we do in the City of Growth. I hope you’ll all have lots of fun and mind your manners, okay? I know some of us come from very far away, but I want us all to enjoy ourselves. If you have any questions, just raise your paw or claw or hand like this.”
She was laying out classroom etiquette, having them introduce themselves. Mrsha darkly watched Prost’s daughters tell everyone they were from Riverfarm and answer questions.
She knew the [Emperor] was a dithering fool, but this was pure treachery. This was against all that was good and proper. How could Erin allow this?
Mrsha got up and sulkily held up a card explaining who she was when called upon. Ekirra, the vacuous nincompoop, gave his spiel about soccer and how much he liked his team as if he’d forgotten what was coming upon them.
“Alright, now we know each other—let’s begin a lesson, shall we?”
Everyone looked apprehensively at Mrsha as she lay back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling. Death upon them. A death of boredom, the Goblins would call it. The other children had heard—or rather, read—Mrsha’s dire portents. So they gazed upwards in trepidation as Shassa fussed around and then produced her first prop of tedium.
“Alright. I know this is something you’ve never done before, go to class. Or have you? Miss Chimmy?”
“N-no, Miss Weaverweb. We don’t have schools as such in Riverfarm.”
The girl stood, then remembered she could sit, so she raised her arm and blushed as she replied. Shassa corrected her with a big smile.
“Thank you, Chimmy! You don’t have to raise your hand. I’m just explaining what school is. It’s a way to learn instead of apprenticeships. Every child takes lessons until they’re thirteen in Oteslia, by law. There are all kinds of lessons and [Teachers], from mathematics…”
Mrsha slumped in her chair.
Ekirra’s smile faded.
“…and all kinds of exciting classes and lessons. Why, you might even get a class! [Student] is a class that comes from only school. So let’s have a little sample class—if you like this, your parents will hopefully agree to send you to school and Liscor will adopt the practice. That would be wonderful—Oteslia isn’t the only place to use school education. Why, even Wistram and other nations use this method.”
Mrsha’s head rose.
Wait, this wasn’t guaranteed? If this went badly, they might free the rest of Liscor’s children from this fate?
She knew what she had to do in that moment, and Mrsha stared around the bare classroom. It was going to be hard to burn this place down, but as Erin was her witness—she would see it done.
At the very least, she’d make sure this lesson didn’t go the way these scheming [Princesses] and [Teachers] wanted. So she waited as Shassa lifted her prop for the first lesson.
“Alright! Who here knows how to string a bow? Raise your claws!”
Mrsha’s face…screwed up in confusion. She saw Chimmy and one Gnoll boy raise their paws slowly as the nervous children hesitated. Then Mrsha recalled that, yes, she too knew how to—
“How many of you have shot a bow? Has anyone ever hunted before?”
Uh…this time, only the Gnoll boy’s paw stayed up, and Mrsha realized he was a Silverfang from the tribes. Shassa asked him to stand, reintroduce himself as Kolm Silverfang, and explain that he’d once shot some arrows at a Corusdeer herd from the safety of some wagons and he knew how to sling-hunt. Mrsha was impressed. Even she had only hunted game and hares and such did not count to Gnolls.
“Sling-hunting is very convenient. It’s more economical since you just need a stone, but bow and arrows translate better across professions. We may have time to do both, but right now, I’m going to pass the bow around. I have two more—I want you to get a feel for it, and then we’ll show you how to hold them and learn how to be responsible. No one wants to hurt someone else, and you can injure someone very easily with a bow, understand? Kolm, can you tell us what the biggest animal you hunted was? Does anyone have a [Hunter] or an [Archer] in their family? Anyone they know?”
Well—the children looked at each other, and Mrsha of course knew Bird and Halrac and all the great [Archers]. She had to write out a small recount as the children were given the shortbow sized to them and shown how you held it.
“Remember—never nock an arrow when you’re facing something you don’t want to hit. Don’t aim it at anyone. ‘Nock’ is a word we use to describe loading an arrow into a string. This is how you write it.”
Shassa was demonstrating bow handling, writing the word on a chalkboard, and making sure they all got the bow safety tutorial as well. By her own admission, she was not a high-level [Teacher], but she had adopted this lesson plan from…
…wait a second…
It was only after twenty minutes of helping Visma hold the bow correctly and being shown a target they could shoot little cloth bag arrows at that Mrsha remembered they were in schuuul. She looked around apprehensively.
Where was the essay? Where was the—Shassa saw Mrsha’s look of confusion.
“We can’t shoot too much indoors or use slings in here. Don’t worry, Mrsha! We’ll be going to Celum next where we have a nice, safe place to practice shooting.”
“Are we gonna hunt, Miss Shassa?”
The [Druid] lifted a claw.
“People do hunt with bows all the time, Ekirra, but as a [Druid], I don’t wish for us to hunt without necessity. But that’s a lesson for later—we’ll be practicing on targets. Don’t worry, I’ve set them up, and we’ll even have a competition! If you’re lucky, maybe one of you will get an [Archer] class!”
“We get classes like that?”
Chimney’s eyes went round, and Shassa nodded.
“It’s rare, but if you should have a talent—alright, follow Ser Dalimont, please! Remember, bows down, and no one nock an arrow. Does anyone need to go to the restroom at the inn before we go to Celum?”
Mrsha walked with Ekirra and Visma and felt—confused. When they got back to the inn, Lyonette appeared to watch them, but she let Shassa take them to Celum. Where, as promised, there was a little archery area set up just outside of the city with logs, rocks, and other targets. The children were allowed—in groups—to shoot arrows, and Shassa watched.
She only intervened to break up arguments, stop someone from swinging a bow around and aim at another child, and to direct them at various targets. They even had slings—but only two children very far apart were allowed to whirl them.
You could slap yourself in the back of the head with the sling, too. Mrsha did just that the first time she tried over-energetically to whirl one, and she clutched at the back of her head.
“Are you bleeding? Remember, everyone, be careful.”
Where’s my healing potion? Mrsha rubbed at her head, and Shassa carefully inspected the wound. She did not give Mrsha a healing potion. But she did hear Mrsha’s thoughts and cheerfully held the sling out.
“I think you’re okay, Mrsha. Pain is a wonderful lesson. I believe that’s something Druid Nalthaliarstrelous would agree on.”
Mrsha hated it when adults got smart. But she learned how to skim a stone through the air with commendable speed, and her arms were just getting tired when Shassa clapped her hands.
“Wonderful, everyone! Who’s tired?”
They raised their hands, and the [Druid] laughed.
More hands raised. Mrsha’s stomach rumbled, and Shassa pointed.
“Then we’ll go back to the inn and then to Riverfarm! Then—we’ll see if we can find food.”
“Find it? But the inn’s right there.”
The Drake gave Ekirra a mischievous smile.
“Yes…but Riverfarm has a great big forest. We’ll forage for some snacks. I’ve heard there are even natural sweetberries and Sage’s Grass there. Miss Lyonette has promised to give anyone who finds Sage’s Grass a cupcake for lunch.”
Wait. Wait…Mrsha saw the kids look up, and she was more confused. We’re gonna forage for food? Shassa pulled out a little book, and she led them to Riverfarm—where the first thing they did was get a lesson on what to do if you saw a monster or dangerous animal, although the [Emperor] was keeping an eye out. The next thing they looked at was a book of local fauna and how to spot a good mushroom or dubious berry.
Then they were set loose in groups of four, with Shassa, Ser Dalimont, and a volunteer from Riverfarm watching the children from afar. Mrsha picked her first blackberry and got a thorn in her paw, but she was allowed to eat anything she found—so long as it was actually edible.
And only after they’d come back, shared their haul, and Shassa was teaching them how to make a fire and cook some of the food did Mrsha see the little hamper of actual lunch they’d have once they learned how to cook it all. Then—she had to raise a paw.
When are we going to start the school lessons?
Shassa blinked at the question—then she began laughing, and Mrsha realized—this was it. This was skuul. No, wait.
This was school. And it was entirely unlike what she’d expected. But then—Mrsha had been taught by bona-fide aliens. Foreigners to this world.
The horror-stories that Erin, Kevin, Joseph, and other malcontents of Earth’s various educational systems had related had an entirely different culture, level of industry, and requirement of their school systems. They were expected to learn algebra and progress into physics and biology—which were not inherently boring subjects.
Mrsha herself would have loved to know how this world worked—for instance, how far down the water tables went. What she hadn’t realized because the Earthers were bad teachers themselves was that education wasn’t the problem.
Sometimes you had bad teachers. A good teacher could make anything fun or, at least, easy to learn. A bad one?
In that moment, Mrsha realized one thing that she had taken for granted: Erin and Lyonette were bad teachers. She had never stopped to think of their aptitude, but they taught math like a chore. Shassa played games—she wrote ‘nock’ on the board and taught the children a word in between showing them how to draw a bow rather than Lyonette’s lessons the way she had learned it—reciting a string of words from rote.
It was not Joseph’s fault he might have had a bad science teacher, but it didn’t mean that the science or the education was faulty. And Shassa was teaching lessons of this world, things Oteslia thought every child should know.
By the time they were done with lunch, the Drake was directing them to somewhere else—and it was the inn’s own garden.
“Swimming lessons! Who here can’t swim?”
Mrsha got to cannonball into the pool with Ekirra and Visma and help the nervous children to swim for the first time. Then she learned to float on her back and three different ways to swim. Breaststroke, free crawl—of course, Shassa had different words for it.
“It’s hard to swim with fur, so you Gnolls need to learn how to tread water differently. At sea, there are riptides which pull you through the water, sometimes deep down or far out to sea! If we have the chance, we’ll find a gentle river and show you what that’s like or just a bigger lake. When you’re tired, come out on the grass, and I’ll tell you about Drowned Folk!”
By the time the midmorning turned to early evening, Mrsha was exhausted in the best of ways. When they came back to the classroom, Shassa asked them to name every known species in the world and gave them a little fact about each. Mrsha, of course, knew almost all of them perfectly, but even she hadn’t known there used to be a Halfling people.
Then their parents and family members came to pick them up. Mrsha went with Ser Dalimont as Shassa called out.
“Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting some friendly animals at Councilmember Elirr’s shop and learning how to take care of them. Then we’ll be practicing magic!”
Mrsha walked straight into the doorway as she turned her head. All the children looked back, and the Drake winked.
“Make sure you can attend!”
In that way, she was very clever, because Mrsha almost turned right back around and demanded to learn Shassa’s arcane ways. The [Druid] did know how to tailor a lesson to convince even the most dubious families that school might not be a bad idea. As she’d told Lyonette—she’d save the mathematics classes for a bit later and make them only one part of the day.
Mrsha went away, thinking this thing might not be such a bad idea after all. But only because she’d given it her full approval. And besides—
This beat Lyonette’s lessons any day of the week.
While Mrsha the Scholastic was at her first day of lessons, Erin Solstice returned with Colth in tow to The Wandering Inn.
The Ultimate Supporter was subdued, but when he saw the Horns he went over to shake their hands—and the Silver Swords’—and assure them that their hard work and sacrifice had not been for nothing.
“Stalker’s hide has been fully cleansed and processed by the Haven’s own teams. Larra’s an expert at magically ensuring there’s no residual poisons or whatnot in that kind of stuff. She can’t tailor to save her life—but I’d trust her to purify anything but Creler corpses.”
“It’s only been nine days. What, does she need that much soap?”
Yvlon’s attempt at humor provoked a silence until someone realized she was joking. The [Armsmistress] had a deadpan delivery that was too good. Yvlon coughed, flushing, as Erin listened in, and a few other teams gathered around.
Colth had compensated most of his friends and the teams in gold, but the Horns were in this for the hide, and the Silver Swords were due something.
The Graveblades they’d found from Facestealer had been divided up. They were all swords, interestingly, an entire small armory of death-magic that was shaped for Drake claws. What that meant…well, Pisces had an incredible theory that the Horns believed.
In practice, the swords had gone to the other teams who’d helped do the fighting. One to Orchestra, for instance, one to other teams—of note, Griffon Hunt had gotten such a sword, and Briganda was the one happily swinging it around in lieu of her axe. No one in the Halfseekers wanted or used swords.
They were already top-tier artifacts, but the real bounty was the hide. Colth shook his head as he explained.
“Soap would ruin the hide in some cases, and nothing’s strong enough to remove a serious toxin.”
“I know, I was just making a joke—”
Yvlon flushed, and the Ultimate Supporter grinned.
“Just making sure you know I’m not messing up twice. Larra has a process. [Cleanse] is simple—but it can fail. She takes it in a room and bombards the hide from all angles with her [Arcane Familiars]. Purifying crystals, physical scraping—the works. Anything that’s removed that isn’t valuable is incinerated and disposed of. Then she runs purified water across what remains, and if she thinks there’s any contaminants, it goes back. She didn’t like Stalker’s hide or Facestealer’s, so she ran it through multiple cycles.”
“Fancy. That’s a high-level [Mage] for you.”
Ceria wanted to know the exact process and resolved to spy on Larra’s setup if she could later. Pisces frowned.
“That’s surely expensive.”
“It is—and I took care of it. Larra’s a friend, and besides, this is all my fault.”
“It was a good plan. Right until we were all fooled.”
Ksmvr offered Colth a double-edged olive branch, and the [Supporter] grimaced.
“I should have thought of that trick. The deaths are on me—and I thank you for letting me give away the Graveblades to the affected teams. Now, though, let me report. I took the liberty of sharing the hide—or rather, letting experts inspect it because it’s so damn big. I convinced the best [Tailors] and [Leatherworkers] I could find to take a look, and I had Master Hedault pop in.”
He produced a piece of paper and read out their findings.
“Stalker’s hide has faint enchanting marks, as if it used to be a conduit for more spells. Facestealer? None besides magical damage. Both are clearly magical, artifact or relic-grade hides. Stalker’s is in remarkable condition despite the age and destruction of the head—Facestealer’s is a mess. However, testing indicates they surpass Wyvernhide quality in both cases. No one went up in scope, but I can personally guarantee Facestealer’s is rated against Tier 5 spells.”
The adventurers looked at each other. Colth went on, eyes flicking up to gauge their reactions.
“…Stalker’s hide would fit a being about as large as a small house. Even accounting for the need to process it and scrap it—it would make numerous full sets of armor, and it has an active camouflage effect. Of note—we have no bones. Neither Stalker nor Facestealer left any behind.”
Pisces did move at that. They had used undead to port the corpse in their desperate pursuit of Facestealer, and he had tried to animate the dead monster—but he had chalked his failure up to its power, not the bones. Colth made a face.
“No bones in all the body. Odd, right?”
A shiver ran through the Horns. Odd…Ceria was reminded of Skinner. But Colth went on.
“Regardless—the hide seems to be fit to pass Relic-grading according to the Guild of Tailors. That’s preliminary, but it’s either relic-grade or top-tier artifact level. And we don’t have grades of relics anymore.”
He folded up the paper and looked at the others with a smile, and Pisces rubbed at one ear.
“Did I, ah…are you implying, Colth, that there might be enough of the hide to fashion a set of armor for all of us?”
He meant all five of them, including Colth. The [Supporter] raised his brows.
“Five? Possibly we could give away a set of armor—depending on how economical the hide is processed.”
A suit of Relic-class armor? Ksmvr’s mandibles were open, and Ceria whistled—then her eyes narrowed. Yvlon Byres had realized something as well, and she coughed into one fist.
“I think there’s a catch, isn’t there, Colth?”
The budding excitement waned, and the [Supporter] winked at her. He spread his hands.
It took them a second of looking at each other, and then Dawil, who’d been listening in, grunted.
“Aha. I got it. It’s the Adamantium hammer issue.”
Ylawes opened his mouth. He had been about to ask if Larra or another team wanted the hide, but Colth nodded.
“What’s the Adamantium hammer issue?”
“The Adamantium hammer fallacy is that you can’t hammer Adamantium without an Adamantium hammer. Even Mithril deforms. But how do you make an Adamantium hammer without…”
…The ore itself? Maughin was a perfect example of that too—he had yet to even manage to heat his ingot to forging temperature. Dawil rolled his eyes.
“Which, by the way, is how they did it—they cast a lump of Adamantium and stuck it on a handle. But I assume none of those [Leatherworkers] wanted to try a shot at Stalker’s hide?”
Colth shook his head.
“The woman I asked wouldn’t even consider it, and she’s the best [Tailor] Invrisil’s got. So here’s our issue—we need an expert in working monster hide. It has tons of quirks, and it’s difficult and requires a specialized class and equipment. Either we went to First Landing—and there’s only a high-level [Tailor] there—or we find somewhere else. Anyone have a contact? Because, frankly, I know people who could do Wyverns, but not this.”
Few people had ever hunted a monster on Stalker’s level. The Silver Swords were at a loss, and Ceria, Ksmvr, Pisces, and Yvlon were all helpless. The half-Elf scratched at her head.
“You know—someone from my homeland might be able to do it. The Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, is known for, uh—fantastic stuff. Worth a shot?”
Colth pulled a face.
“You want to send something that expensive over a continent? Let alone the fact that every [Bandit] and [Pirate] would go after it—”
Ylawes Byres wondered if Gralton or House Veltras might be able to help. Famous hunters often had access to good craftspeople, but it was, in fact, a newer prospective member of his team that spoke up.
“I know who to contact.”
Everyone turned—and Larr of Vuliel Drae puffed out his chest. Even Anith stared at him blankly until the Gnoll looked around and glared.
“Has everyone forgotten who I’m related to?”
“Aren’t you Hawkarrow? They do bows.”
“No, my uncle, my uncle! I tell you all the time—”
Dasha slapped her forehead.
“Of course! I always put wax in my ears when you say it! But you’re related to some important Honored Gnoll…who?”
Larr was getting angrier and angrier.
“My Uncle! Honored Shedrkh! Of Soliest Yerr! The Gnoll who made Kraken Armor!”
Colth’s eyes lit up. Insill, Pekona, and Anith gasped as if this were the first time hearing it, and Larr got so mad only Nailren’s paw on his shoulder kept him from exploding.
“Now there’s a famous leatherworker. And we’re heading south—I’d hate to leave this hide with anyone short of a Gold-rank team for security or Larra’s inn. But Larr—could you contact your uncle? Or get us a way of introduction? It’s far from the new lands, but worth a shot.”
At last, Larr hesitated. He scuffed at the floor.
“I, er—my Uncle does keep up with me, but I will have to wait. Yes, I can tell him—and he will surely be interested!”
“It looks like we have a place to visit. The Gnoll Plains. Huh. I was just there.”
Ceria Springwalker cupped her chin in her hands, and her eyes twinkled. Pisces frowned at her.
“Are you suggesting we go all that way?”
“Someone’s gotta guard the hide. Besides—we might have some credit with the Gnolls. Doubly besides? It’s closer to the new lands, and if you’re set on going…”
Ceria Springwalker looked around, and Colth smiled.
“Well, that makes me feel like we’ve got a path forwards. Let me know if your plans change, but otherwise, I might count on you to make the pilgrimage south.”
Erin Solstice looked over from pretending to play a game of chess against Niers—well, she was playing, but she was listening in. She looked at the Horns, and it hit her.
Her friends were going to leave soon. Again, and once again—Erin Solstice exhaled. She hated change. No matter how good it was.
She hated the fact that they got better and shined so much. If they didn’t, maybe they could have stayed. But Erin’s eyes strayed back to the board—then she looked around for Venaz, Peki, and Merrik. And they too…had to continue onwards. So Erin only waved a hand.
“Guys—if you’re gonna go south, you might as well take the Horned One.”
She pointed, and Venaz looked around. He stared at Erin, aghast.
“…What did you call me?”
She gave him a blank face. Venaz’s superior attitude did provoke some bullying in Erin.
“Don’t like that? How about Venaz the Great and Powerful Whose Wisdom Cannot be Surpassed? The Second Coming of the Titan of Baleros? Mister Green Greatsword? Calruz 0.5? Mister Minotaur?”
The Minotaur’s look of chagrin grew and grew—especially because he had yet to take a single victory in chess off Erin. It only grew worse as he heard his classmates laughing—and then the quiet guffawing coming from the speaking stone attached to Erin’s chessboard.
Lyonette was teaching one of the little Goblins how to properly organize a serving tray so it wasn’t balanced badly. She was patiently trying to show the Goblin balance—and the Goblin was protesting that balance didn’t matter. If they stacked all the drinks on this edge, they could just carry it in the most dangerous-looking way possible.
What was life without the thrill of fear that any second your Goblin [Server] might toss an entire tray of flaming Minotaur Punches into your face? Nothing, that was what.
To be fair as well—that was the charm of The Wandering Inn. Erin’s relentless nicknaming of people, the chaos, the surprise—and let’s be fair, the poor service. You came here for the magic, the possibility of seeing something to make your day that much more unusual.
Lyonette had finally gotten Sticks—the Goblin was nicknamed Sticks—to carry the tray in a semi-logical manner when she heard the front door open and what sounded like a larger crowd blow in. She turned, smiling—and blinked.
“Hello, take any s—oh.”
She started as the most colorful crowd strutted into the common room and formed a line. And they did strut.
The Haven’s serving staff had on that bright uniform that Larra had tailored in multiple colors according to the buildings they worked in. Eight of them marched forwards and nodded to Erin.
“Miss Solstice? Innkeeper Barnethei sent us over. Where would you like us?”
Their leader had frosted green tips to her hair, and she either had magic in her blood or the most unusual set of ruby-sparks in her brown eyes. Erin blinked as Lyonette looked around and realized why the inn was lagging a step behind was because Ishkr had left for his appointment at the Haven.
Flustered, Erin swung away from her regular Venaz harassment and hurried over. The staff bowed a bit then, but very shallowly. They were interesting.
Not just because they were clearly a professional staff that were sizing up the inn and guests—and Antinium and Goblins—like seasoned veterans of the service industry, but because they had a number of qualities Lyonette noticed.
Obviously, anyone who could see a Goblin or Antinium without blinking was good. This lot may have seen The Wandering Inn’s guests before, but they had a veneer that gave them a friendly attitude without going into too intimate.
Practiced, in short. Lyonette had seen the same from Calanfer’s staff, and you noticed when it was lacking in other nations or places. This lot could handle unpleasant guests without ever giving away their distaste, Lyonette bet.
However, what struck her were two things. The first was, well, their skin tone to the Terandrian. Only Kaaz and a few nations among Terandria’s kingdoms had a majority of darker skin tones that Lyonette normally associated with other continents. But like Larra, it seemed the staff was more diverse—among humanity, at least.
Second, and tangential to that, these [Servers], [Waitresses], possibly just [Staff Members], were clearly trained to wait on nobility. They had that subtlety about them. The way they drew back a foot when they bowed, how they held themselves—even rudimentary hand-gestures made Lyonette feel vaguely like she was in court.
However—they struck an interesting chord in that their bow to Erin and to Lyonette as Erin introduced her second-in-command was slight. Respectful, but not deferential. They knew who Lyonette was, but the [Princess] got a nod as if they were [Earls] meeting a [Duke]. Not staff members addressing a [Princess]—or even servants in a household.
That had to be either the difference between Izril and Terandria or Larra’s particular spin on things. Either way, it didn’t actually bother Lyonette, but she found it interesting.
Interesting as the way the staff were clearly here to spy on the inn, even if only on a personal level. They followed her around as she took charge, and she noticed their brows rising and the silent looks as they met Calescent and saw how the inn worked.
“Alright, that is the basics of—of how we run. Do you have any questions?”
The Haven’s staff shook their heads, and their leader addressed Lyonette.
“Eight of us should be enough for a crowd, Miss Marquin. Innkeeper Barnethei did say to call in reinforcements if it was needed.”
“Oh. How very generous of him.”
Possibly condescending. Lyonette had an image of that flashy [Vice Innkeeper] smiling superiorly, and she felt a flash of rivalry with the Haven. Yes, The Wandering Inn was far more humble, but it had shot up in prominence. She’d show the Haven’s staff what they had.
“Alright, then, Miss Navien, will you take the bar? Ishkr normally runs that. Three for the floor orders, two for the [Grand Theatre], and if two of you could help clean up…”
The Goblins and Antinium were hard-working, but they hadn’t figured out the flow of the inn yet. A table full of dirty dishes from a large crowd of [Guardsmen] needed washing. Lyonette hurried over to help—and one of the Haven’s staff stepped over.
“[Kitchen Delivery]. I’ll begin washing right away, Miss Marquin.”
The plates, glasses, and utensils vanished. Lyonette blinked—another of the Haven’s staff produced a cleaning cloth emblazoned with the Haven’s sigil and ran it over the table. The pieces of food that were too large to catch ran onto the floor—another had a broom already. Two passes and the table was spotless.
Lyonette gulped as the Haven’s staff spun into action. She looked around for Erin, and the [Innkeeper] was watching.
“Whoa, they’re pretty good. Do they get magical dustrags?”
Erin looked fascinated, not intimidated. The Haven’s staff were watching her as Erin socialized with her guests. Lyonette began to step up her own game, realizing she could take more time off with this crew. She wondered…what Ishkr was seeing.
She hoped Barnethei was just being friendly.
The truth was that the eight members of staff who’d gone to The Wandering Inn were not ordinary employees. Each one was at least Level 20+, which was high-level for service industry jobs at entry-level positions like that. In fact, three were sub-heads of their various buildings and thus over Level 30.
[Staff Manager of Cleaning], for instance. That was Navien. Barnethei had told her to take a visit to The Wandering Inn.
Because of course he wanted to show them off. It was only good manners to be as friendly as possible too, but honestly?
The Haven and The Wandering Inn were in competition. It was friendlier than most other classes, and Larra and Erin themselves weren’t putting on the sparring gloves—at least not openly. Still, two famous inns?
You had to strike a contrast. Barnethei was the [Vice Innkeeper] of the Adventurer’s Haven, but to many, he was the [Innkeeper] they thought ran the place. He was the front, and he made sure the Haven actually ran events, that everyone had a good time.
He was the Lyonette of this place, and he might quit his job within a month. Certainly, after they got past Manus his days were limited.
‘Quit’ might be too dramatic a word. Barnethei was checking his coat—royal purple today and gold-edged. It was always gold or silver filigree and such. He knew he looked like a performer, the leader of a circus or menagerie. That was entirely by design, as was the staff’s flashy dress in bright satin and faux-silk cloths; shiny without being too gaudy.
It was meant to make the Haven feel special. More than your run-of-the-mill pub or tavern. Of course, this sprang from the days when Larra was first getting started and the Haven didn’t float or have an entire complex attached to it. Still, now the Haven had a reputation to maintain.
Same with the bow-tie. Barnethei had a top-hat too that he sometimes used, but that was pretty ostentatious, even for him. When he was done, he exited his private dressing room and strode into the Haven.
“Guests, esteemed friends, I’m sorry to keep you waiting! Shall we?”
His eyes twinkled. His voice was a stage-voice, and even the Players of Celum’s famous Kilkran had complimented him on his projection. As if those [Actors] were the first people to learn how to play to a crowd.
Barnethei had learned from [Bards]. In fact, Lyonette’s observation about the staff of the Haven was spot-on. They did get etiquette training, and it was actually very hard to apply for a role here.
Not just because the pay was excellent—you got all the free bread Larra produced and free food as well. But Barnethei had to know you were here for at least a year or two to justify the lessons in how to serve nobles, speech lessons, even tutoring in how you walked.
The staff were spaced around the first area he entered, which was the Haven’s outdoor deck and public areas where most people got their baskets of free bread. They had the largest kitchen here—which often churned out the bread sticks and other cheaper foods for the casuals.
‘Casuals’. The Haven’s staff had a private lexicon for the type of guests they got. The outdoor decks and such were lovely viewing places that even the best guests like Mihaela liked—they had a second floor, and the entire expanse looked out over the circular railings across wherever the Haven went. You could watch the farm building slowly float past the central Haven building, or the library—and walk across the various bridges to anywhere you liked.
The Haven had a library, farm, extended guest suites, and even a bathhouse attached to it. Larra was always adding buildings and removing them—she had a limit to how many she could make fly, and she might decide they really didn’t need a set of rooms and remodel them. But the core amenities were always the same.
Fine beds, fine food, and fine entertainment. The central Haven building had three floors, but each floor was massive. The outer guest area where they stood was the cheapest and largest, and they got progressively more impressive the further in you went.
Outside, the library and farms were always huge draws for casuals. You could pet cows, some of which were magical, and buy feed to give to little chicks or even rent a horse to ride if you hadn’t come with one from the stables. As Erin had noticed, there was an attached Mage’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, and even Merchant’s Guild in miniature here so you could conduct business while staying at the Haven.
[Mages] loved it here. Barnethei, surveying the outer deck, spotted a familiar figure he hadn’t been able to get rid of. He strode across the deck as a [Stellar Server] accosted him and spoke. She didn’t whisper—they spoke while walking along. Even if there was an emergency, you played it off.
“Barnethei, there’s a duel brewing in the Moments Bar.”
“[Lord] and some Drake. They got into it over the Veltras attack on Liscor—”
Barnethei didn’t groan, but his smile turned into a wince. Duels between noble guests were not uncommon. Though sometimes it was a matter for bodyguards. Still, they knew the rules…the Drake and Gnoll populations would cause friction.
“I’ll be there in a second. Buy me time.”
She vanished. Barnethei quickened his pace, slowing only to pat someone on the shoulder.
“Yes, the bread’s free. Hello! I’m Barnethei, the Haven’s [Vice Innkeeper]. I hope you’ll enjoy yourselves. Ask the staff or a familiar for anything.”
A smile was all it took sometimes. He often did linger and chat with someone wanting to talk—but he had to move. So he slowed for only a few steps at the tables before hurrying across a bridge. There, he called up.
“Archmage. Archmage Valeterisa. Innkeeper Larra would like you to return any books you’ve checked out.”
A figure jumped and hid a book behind her back. She was sitting on the roof of the tower-library, impressively tall and one of the larger private collections. A red-haired [Mage] standing below the tower turned around, looking guilty.
Montressa du Valeross had been trying to get her mentor to come down for the last half-hour. Valeterisa peered down at Barnethei and called out cautiously.
“I’m not done reading them. And I’m stealing nothing. I am an Archmage, you know. Montressa, I’m still an Archmage, aren’t I?”
Barnethei knew her of old—she had been a guest here when he had first been employed by Larra. So he let his tone grow slightly acerbic.
“Archmage, you have a habit of teleporting or flying away with all your books. Larra would prefer to get some of her books back before eight years have passed. In fact—you still have several books in your mansion. You may check out one book at a time.”
“I am an Archmage, Barnethei.”
“Larra’s orders. Incidentally, will you be staying here much longer?”
Valeterisa was fiddling with her glasses. She frowned as she checked her books.
“You seem to be keen on getting rid of me, Barnethei.”
He lied with a smile. And he knew she cast [Detect Truth] on everyone—but he was a [Vice Innkeeper]. He had to lie to the nobility of Izril all the time.
“Not at all. I’d just remind you that you do have a habit of turning off any spells you run into that you don’t care for. And your shadow familiars get in the way of our arcane ones, and guests mistake them for the staff. Finally, Archmage, you keep asking our staff to buy you any reagents or materials you need.”
“Aren’t I an honored guest?”
He ignored that. Technically she was, and Larra would suffer Valley’s presence for ages, but Barnethei always tried to expedite Valeterisa’s leaving if only for the staff. He was in charge of their morale, and he was allowed to move the inn.
“Consider leaving in a week? Mage Montressa, I’m sure you have work to do.”
“Archmage, we are going to be at Liscor soon, and you have that project…”
“Oh, very well. I’ll think about it.”
“And the books?”
Valeterisa grudgingly began sorting through the pile of thirty-eight she’d piled up on the roof. Barnethei decided that was a win—he’d also have to send up some familiars to clean the giant picnic she’d made with all the dishes since he was certain she was not going to do it for him.
Small potatoes, really. But here was the thing—Barnethei was passing back when one of the staff who managed the library poked her head out and gave him a relieved nod. He winked with one eye as he passed.
Colousa was a proper [Librarian]; Larra needed a dedicated one, but so far, she’d just recruited a series of lower-level ones who tended to leave after a year or two. Colousa was good, knew every book in the library, and she’d shout at a [Lord] dog-earring a book. You needed that kind of spunk in the job.
—However. Even Colousa had limits. She was terrified of the Archmage of Izril. Not least because for all of Valeterisa’s good qualities, she had levitated Colousa into the ceiling to get a book she wanted. And then left her there.
You needed to be able to dance with Dragons to rise to the top here. Well, you needed the levels too. That was part of Barnethei’s permanent issue, which was going to be compounded when he left the Haven.
He wanted talent. And talent?
The Adventurer’s Haven had all of the north’s youths to recruit from. True, they didn’t want to train up someone with no levels, and not everyone wanted a job here when you could be an adventurer—but they could poach good staff from any inn they wanted. Even so—Barnethei could replace all of his regular staff in about a week. He’d hate doing it—but he could.
He could not replace the heads of each building. The good ones, at least. Navien was one such—losing her would be like losing a foot. A Level 30+ expert in the exact class that was needed—a [Head of Cleaning] as opposed to a [Cleaner]—was a very specific role that he’d be competing with Magnolia Reinhart and every major employer over.
It was like the famous Salii paradox. If you had someone that good—you were almost bound to lose them because they’d outgrow your position. Barnethei was proof of that.
He was going to quit his role in the Haven, and Larra needed a replacement. She had yet to find one—oh, she’d have temps, but he’d be gone, and he suspected she’d have to step in and resume her role for a year or two before she found someone who could run things in his place.
However, Larra had let him go—even encouraged him—rather than double his pay or offer more incentives because she thought it was for the best. Her answer to the Salii Paradox was simple.
If they were going to leave because they were so good, why not give them your job?
Barnethei was going to quit the Haven…and start up a new inn with Larra’s blessing, a quarter of her staff, and all of her support. That was why she was moving the Haven to the new lands. He didn’t know where exactly, but when it opened, the Second Haven—his working name for it—would be one of two inns that Larra controlled.
Possibly one of dozens, in time. Barnethei had a vision. It was one Larra shared, and it was of a series of the best inns across Izril, possibly even other continents, with Larra’s name attached. Inns so good they took over the top spots in whatever region they landed in.
If Larra could expand her class and magic…if they found the right talent, they could do amazing things. It wasn’t far-fetched either.
Larra the Haven had been a Named-rank [Mage], but like Deni, like all her friends, her levelling had slowed to a crawl once she’d passed Level 40. However, she’d passed Level 50 by doing the unthinkable—gaining the [Innkeeper] class and then merging [Wizard] and [Innkeeper] together.
These days, Barnethei thought Larra leveled faster than her adventurer friends, for all they risked their lives, because running an inn was a constant. It was hard to find a challenge as a Named-rank, and you could die, as Deni’s wounds against the Kraken Eater tribe had shown.
But running an inn? Running two inns? Taking one across the continent? That was what might take Larra to Level 60. Same with Barnethei.
Hence the Haven’s decision to go south. The new lands would mean gold and levels and opportunity for Larra and Barnethei. The Haven was well-defended, the staff were excellent, and if Barnethei wanted for anything, it was just more top-tier talent.
And he thought he’d found at least one in Liscor. Even if Larra herself was disappointed. She had come to see if the new [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn might be a good replacement for Barnethei. One look at Erin Solstice had told her that The Wandering Inn wouldn’t be joining hers any time soon. She had decided Erin was just a very convenient ally.
However, Barnethei wasn’t inclined to be entirely toothless. He was sure he couldn’t steal an actual [Princess] of Calanfer—and he still wanted to know why one was working at the inn. But he could take one other person.
The Haven was not The Wandering Inn in many ways. It didn’t do ‘amiable chaos’. If you didn’t get your order within a regular, narrow window, something had gone wrong.
However, it was also far more of an attraction than Erin’s inn. The free bread was the lure for the casuals, as were the magical lightshow and the familiars. They did a lot of the dirty work behind the scenes, cleaning, delivering things, doing simple tasks as they were rather stupid.
One floated through the first hallway Barnethei strode into, through the main doors of the Haven that you saw when you came up the main ramp. Most people passed through the foyer to the right where the open-seating area was.
From the foyer, you went left for some of the more interesting rooms, or up where they had private, large-scale dining for nobles or important guests who wanted privacy. The guest-suite also stretched out from here, and Mihaela Godfrey was currently…
Barnethei slowed and saw the Guildmistress of First Landing giving him a warning look as she slowed, sweating, and a few nervous City Runners looked up. She must have taken a few under her wing.
“Keep it up. I thought you wanted to train. You—Fals? Chin up here.”
Mihaela Godfrey indicated with her chin, and a pair of City Runners that Barnethei recognized grunted. Garia Strongheart and Fals were both hand-picked by Mihaela, and he memorized their faces because it meant they had a shot at being Couriers.
“Guildmistress, I see you’re teaching some prospectives?”
“Got a problem with it, Barnethei?”
She was daring him to say something, and unlike Valeterisa, Mihaela threw her weight around deliberately. Often with kicks. Barnethei smiled weakly. He noticed a few guests staring at the six Runners and Mihaela.
“Perhaps you could refrain from using the balustrade as a work-out device, Guildmistress?”
They were hanging from the railings of the curved staircase that led up, beautiful alabaster marble by the by. Currently doing pullups. Mihaela was sweating onto the floor, and this was why Barnethei was happy about his new inn.
He’d get his own weirdos, but he wouldn’t have to deal with Larra’s old friends.
“I’ll send a cleaner, then. Larra will bill you if you break the marble.”
He gave up and walked away. The truth was that Mihaela, Valeterisa, and to some extent, any Named-rank adventurers were a match for Barnethei most of the time. Anyone else?
“Innkeeper Barnethei! I was looking for you! Are we having another gentlemen’s night tonight? Soon? I have Lord Detri here and Lord Alman—Alman, have you been here? House Sanito. We were going to stop by at least once before the inn leaves the north!”
A [Lord] stopped Barnethei on his way to the Pub of Best Moments, the dedicated bar and one of Larra’s most famous rooms in the inn. He stopped, smiled, and took the [Lord]’s hand.
For the [Lord] of Izril, Lord Ilner El—one of the distant members of the famous House of El—was very congenial with Barnethei. In fact Barnethei even clapped him on the shoulders.
“For you, Lord Ilner, I will set up a private room tonight. What time and how many should I expect?”
“Oh, I think we’ll be…six? Six. Alman, you will enjoy it. Don’t worry, we’ll play for small coins at the start.”
“I’ll be skewered if I lose a fortune, Ilner.”
Barnethei knew House Sanito, and he knew that Alman Sanito had to be worried about his finances. Especially when gambling with peers. But he took the man’s hand and smiled in such a disarming way that Alman blinked with gratification as he leaned in.
“Don’t worry, Lord Sanito. The Haven offers fake-currency instead of coins. Little ‘adventure-coins’. The kind of thing adventurers would use on long expeditions. You can bet a favor or a dare instead of gold.”
Another thing from Larra’s past. It also explained why Ilner loved the ‘gentlemen’s night’ where a number of men would gather for drinks, good food, and Barnethei overseeing the event and games. It was a getaway from their wives and duties and—crucially—very cheap compared to some of the entertainments you could buy.
“You will enjoy it, Alman. On my word. Barnethei is the finest [Innkeeper] I’ve met. If you aren’t laughing within the first twenty minutes…feel free to invite any other guests, Innkeeper.”
Barnethei smiled as Ilner gave him permission to fill the room with ‘commoners’. It was going to be a challenge. You had to meet people that Ilner’s—nobility—wouldn’t rub against.
“I will have everything set up at a quarter to ten then.”
“Splendid. Don’t let me keep you. Let’s get settled in then.”
They had a waiting member of staff to lead them to their rooms, and Barnethei smiled—and then sped up. He was really hoping there wasn’t any blood in the Pub of Best Moments. It would also take him a good thirty minutes to organize the gentlemen’s night…
All within spec. All within control. Barnethei’s head turned, and he saw a flurry of no less than eighteen familiars carrying the luggage of the nobles after the servants. Another was coming from the kitchens with a complimentary glass of wine for each man.
Barnethei could sense the Haven moving, and it wasn’t even rush hour yet. Above, he thought that a certain [Lady] Tetra El was having a girl’s moment with her friends away from her husband—they were probably laughing over a late lunch.
That was just food. That was just—the basics. What the Haven was known for was spectacle. For magic.
A different kind of magic than The Wandering Inn’s though. When Barnethei pushed open the double-doors to the Pub of Best Moments, he felt the air change.
A pitch of excitement rose through the room that had nothing to do with the standoff between the angry Drakes and the [Lord]. The very air felt alive, and there was a spice in it—
This was one of the rooms that the regulars, the real regulars came to. [Lords] and [Ladies]. [Merchants] and famous folk. Less adventurers than you thought. Those were the serious guests, the ones who arguably got the least from the Haven besides shelter and companionship.
But the regulars loved this place because it came from Larra’s magic—and her Skills.
This was one of the [Innkeeper] class’ greatest Skills that Barnethei had ever seen. He had gotten no room-Skills yet, probably because he was a [Vice Innkeeper] and had no place. It was an enduring grief of his because he might have gotten one already.
This…this [Pub of Best Moments] though. It sparkled. And he thought his coat took on an additional luster. He felt taller, and when he spoke—
“Ladies and gentlemen, please! Remember the rules. The bar’s a place to leave our troubles behind. What seems to be the issue?”
A wave of people in dresses and coats turned, like a kind of ballroom. Extraordinarily beautiful women and the most handsome of Izril’s men stepped back, cheering him on, and he nodded to people he thought he remembered despite the masks.
You could take the most attractive people in the world—from Mars the Illusionist, Lady Wuvren, the Lord of the Dance—and they’d fit right into the crowd here.
The Haven’s regulars. Most had masks on, conventional ones that looked like a statue’s face or worked silver or gold. Some had cloth coverings or veils—but they were largely ornamental, covering only the mouth or letting the eyes peek through the masks.
They were sharply dressed too, and Barnethei’s resplendent coat seemed right at home with the finest tailoring in the north. Normally, the room was filled with conversation, laughter, and cheers—right now it was quieter.
Because of the pair of Drakes—well, the two standing with fists clenched were opposite a cluster of men. At least one was a [Lord], and he had a hand on his sword.
“Ah, Innkeeper! These—Drakes were arguing about House Veltras and the Goblin Lord. They were bringing up—”
“You sieging our city? What were you going to say, you puffed up fleshbag?”
Some of the guests gasped—but there was a lot of laughter there too. Barnethei was relieved about that. The Pub of Best Moments wasn’t a place where fights often broke out due to its nature—it was mostly between people showing off.
Indeed, the two Drakes seemed mostly defensive, though both looked ready for a brawl. If anything, the [Lord] brandishing the sword seemed unwilling to put it down and come to fisticuffs, for all neither Drake had reached for a blade.
Then again…Barnethei wouldn’t have tried either Drake with his bare fists without a really good reason. They both had scars, and one was missing half his tail. Former soldiers, Barnethei had no doubt.
Menolit and Relc had refused to back down even with the sword waving in their faces. The only thing that had saved the [Lord] from Relc taking the sword and shoving it somewhere unpleasant was the Gnoll who was interposed between the two.
Barnethei exhaled as he saw the [Bartender] waving apologetically at him and the staff keeping the crowd back. This was another room that he personally oversaw, but it needed a dedicated expert.
Normally, it was Alanna who could handle this thing—but he’d sent her off to The Wandering Inn. Yet, Barnethei’s exchange was already paying off.
For it was no less than the star of the show, Ishkr, who was standing there. The [Head Server] looked vaguely exasperated as he spotted Barnethei, but he was fearlessly blocking both sides with nothing less than a furry arm.
“Lord Coore, please, you know there are no blades allowed in the room. I would not like to ban you—let’s sheathe the blade and sort this out.”
The [Lord] hesitated as Barnethei strode over, equally fearless of the blade.
“But the honor of the north—”
“Rules are rules, Lord Coore. The Haven is very strict about them. It would be unfortunate if Innkeeper Larra were to need to invoke the [Law of the Inn]. That would certainly result in a year’s ban, or longer.”
That was all it took for the sword to hastily go back in the sheath. In fact, Coore’s supporters vanished as soon as Barnethei appeared. No one wanted to be banned from this place.
“What, we’re not fighting? Lame. I would have taken them all, Ishkr.”
Relc was disappointed, and Barnethei heard Ishkr murmuring.
“This isn’t The Wandering Inn, Relc. How did you two get in here anyways?”
“We were invited. Specially. At least, I was. Relc tagged along since I was told I could take a guest.”
Menolit adjusted his jacket haughtily. He looked around and whistled.
“Some place. And here I thought Erin was the only one with a special room.”
It took only a few minutes for Barnethei to send Lord Coore away, calmed down, with a drink on the house. Then he was approaching the Drakes.
“Gentlemen. Is this Menolit from Liscor Hunted and Senior Guardsman—no, pardon me. Spearmaster Relc?”
A few heads turned as Barnethei raised his voice slightly. People loved to listen in, and he saw Lord Coore’s head rise from his table.
“We’re allowed to be here! And yeah, that’s me. Er—you’re not that short [Innkeeper]. This place has two [Innkeepers]?”
The Drakes weren’t as up-to-date on the dynamics of both inns. Relc looked guilty, but Barnethei held out a hand and shook the Drake’s crushing grip with a huge smile.
“If you were admitted at the door, you have every right to be here, sirs. In fact, I just wanted to offer you two a drink at the bar, gratis. Free. I apologize for the commotion.”
“What? I mean—that’s great. It wasn’t our fault anyways. That guy brought up—”
Barnethei interrupted carefully as he took Menolit’s claw.
“It was no one’s fault, sirs. Let’s leave politics at the door, shall we? This is the Pub of Best Moments, and if you’re not smiling when you leave, it’s a shame all around.”
The Drake [Veteran] and owner of the rising company blinked at him. Relc hesitated and then grinned.
“Sure, so, uh—hey. What’s this place about? And why’d Menolit get a fancy invitation?”
“Well, because he’s clearly someone worth meeting. And the Haven welcomes anyone worth meeting—I believe the invitation was to all parts of the inn. The Pub of Best Moments is more informal, you see. A bar and hangout. If you two wanted a different kind of experience, we have private dining above, the balconies are for public dining…”
Barnethei rattled off a few of the areas as the Drakes listened. He gestured around the bar as he signaled to the doorwoman.
“…But this is really one of the Haven’s treasures. I’m not surprised you two found it. But please—let’s start you off right. Try on a mask if you fancy it. It’s not a requirement, but it is part of the fun.”
The two Drakes eyed the set of masks that were offered to them. Relc put on a feathered Garuda-type mask, laughing.
“What are we, putting on costumes like Erin’s Halloween thing?”
That must be some kind of Drake custom. Barnethei shook his head.
“Not at all. It’s for informality. You don’t need to use names, gentlemen. I may have given you away—which is my fault—but you don’t ask, and you don’t need to tell. Of course, the fun is also sharing stories and accomplishments.”
“Hm. I still don’t get it.”
Relc was scratching at his neck-spines, but Ishkr seemed to understand. He was staring at the bar, and he’d already found another Skill of Larra’s. Barnethei beckoned the Drakes over to the bar.
“Clear a space, please! First-timers here…if you don’t quite get it, sir, take a seat here.”
He pointed to some slightly worn seats that were coveted at the bar. They were dead-center, and the [Spearmaster] clearly sensed there was something different about them. He eyed the red padding—then sat down gingerly. Relc gazed around blankly, then rolled his shoulders as if he felt a prickle running down his spine.
“What’s going to—whoa. Hey. What the—my voice!”
His voice had suddenly changed. Gone up slightly while keeping the deep bass rumble. But it wasn’t just his voice. Relc looked down, and for the first time, realized his casual [Guardsman] outfit, worn leather and chainmail, had vanished.
“Wh—where’s my uniform?”
Merry laughter filled the air. The guests—Humans mostly, nobles and guests who knew the Haven and had come with it—weren’t being malicious. Not here, at least. Not even to Drakes.
And not to Relc when he sat in this seat. The Drake turned, and Menolit slowly sat down next to him. The Drake looked at Relc and then at himself. Then he twisted—and exhaled.
They were sitting in the first Skill that Larra the Haven had ever gained as an [Innkeeper].
[Seat: My Best Angle, My Finest Side]. Menolit looked down, and the casual jacket and clothing he had worn to the Haven was gone. In the [Pub of Best Moments], he was wearing a hand-tailored checkered jacket that showed off his chest. There were no stray threads, and the flaking dead scales along one claw had vanished.
It looked like he had applied scale cream and had worked on his appearance for hours over the last two weeks. His neck-spines were sharpened, and his boots were buffed and shone. But that was just the effect of this room.
Everyone looked good here. Hence the crowd, which looked like a vision of Izril’s finest Humans mingling without showing the imperfections. When they spoke, they didn’t stutter or hesitate. It felt as if someone had given you a silver tongue and a rod in your spine, more courage than even liquor could fortify in your veins.
But the seat…ah, that was different too. Menolit glanced down, and his tail curled around the chair. His entire tail. He looked at it, mystified, and then at Relc.
“What happened to you, Relc?”
The [Spearmaster] looked up, and Barnethei saw a slightly younger Drake, his scales flashing green, leaning on the bar. An enchanted spear rested next to him, and when he touched it—Barnethei thought he could cut down a tree with a single blow when he held it.
The Gecko of Liscor sat there, and it felt as if you had just seen him walk off the battlefield, covered in glory. Relc’s goofy look and genial face that so many took at face-value…
Even Ishkr had rarely seen the Drake that Erin Solstice knew and called friend. He wondered if this was the Relc that Erin had always known.
[Spearmaster]. Veteran of countless battles. But when Relc turned his head, they caught another side of him too.
A grinning, rueful face as he checked himself out in a small mirror placed just for that purpose. A low chuckle—and you were reminded he was older too. A father. If he’d been a Human, he might have had a beard. Relc rubbed at his chin.
“Would you look at that? I cleaned up okay, didn’t I?”
Then you could see it, the longer you stared. The kind of father who did check on his daughter. A Drake telling jokes—
Turn and turn. A [Spearmaster], a [Sergeant], wearing burnished armor where the crest of Liscor sat proudly on his chestplate.
A Senior Guardsman, a member of the Watch who had stood in front of corruption in a city far from home.
A father doing his best.
A friend and [Guardsman] on patrol you wanted to see.
So sat Relc. On that slightly-worn bar stool, he had no bad angles no matter how you tried to see it. It was doing a lot of work right now, and Menolit looked no less good. From one side, you could see the Drake who’d fought in war until he’d been wounded so badly he had to leave. From another—the man who’d built up a company. A brave, if sometimes bluff figure—
The crowd looked at the Drakes and crowded around as they exclaimed, laughing, teasing—and Lord Coore himself stood up.
“Well, there’s a better look at you two. Another drink for the bar, upon me! And I shall apologize, especially to a [Spearmaster]. I’m something of a duelist myself, friend. What’s your name again?”
Relc glanced up—then laughed and took the man’s hand as Menolit ordered a drink from the [Bartender]. Barnethei exhaled as Ishkr eyed the chair and then stepped back, trying to fade into the crowd. But Barnethei kept an eye on him and the Drakes. They did look extraordinary so long as they sat there, and that was the allure of this room.
The chair didn’t lie.
Not exactly. You see, it was just showing you what people like Erin Solstice or a partner saw. What it took time to see, what could sometimes be hidden or what could not be seen any more. Your best angle. Every good quality you had.
And people wondered why the nobility flocked to this inn when there were rich and private establishments elsewhere. This room was famous.
The chair hadn’t always been that good, by the way. It had just been a fun one that made you look good at the start. The room and Larra’s levels had made it stronger. When Barnethei had first joined the inn, oh, twenty years ago, it had already been famous.
Why, he’d heard that people had copied the mask motif and the informal setting even in Ailendamus of all places. Their Court of Masks was different.
“So what, we don’t use names unless we want to?”
“It’s fun for anonymity’s sake. But we do tell stories. Soldiers always have some good ones when they find their way in here. I imagine you have at least one, Mister Spearmaster?”
A teasing voice replied, and Relc turned just in time to see someone, a Human woman with a mane of brown hair, seat herself across from him at the bar. He stared at her low-cut dress and hesitated. Relc realized that the two seats he and Menolit were in had a thirty-minute time limit. Small wonder; everyone wanted a turn. However, in the interim, the two Drakes were being warmly greeted. Very warmly in the case of the woman leaning over.
“Uh…I, uh—have a few. Hi. I’m R—I mean, nice to meet you.”
She chuckled like velvet rubbing together, and he jerked his eyes up and blushed. And then Relc and Menolit realized the other reason why this room was so popular.
Barnethei was circulating the room and greeting people he could recognize, masks or not. He was smoothing over any small issues people had, taking personal requests—
Entertaining the regulars. He leapt upon a table and shouted as the bar rumbled.
“Ladies, gentlemen, whomever you are, we’ll be having a display of magical lights in two hours come dusk—and we’ll give out wands and targets! Apparently, Larra’s decided to make it a hunting game, and you’ll win prizes if you can score enough points! Then, I have the pleasure to announce a gentlemen’s night as well as a ladies’ retreat—I’ll be heading the gentlemen’s night, so inquire if you would like to come. Finally, we have a set of two new drinks and the latest treats from The Wandering Inn, which we’ll be distributing in moments!”
Cheers greeted his statement. A few of the staff were bringing out bowls of popcorn and other foods that Barnethei had asked for, but pride of place was the bowl of flaming gelato—and the Minotaur’s Punch.
Glory and fire. Barnethei saw one of the staff pouring flammable alcohol onto another dish and lighting a cherry jubilee on fire. He wondered if it would start a trend. The Haven had—and fiery dishes were fun, if hazardous.
He wished he could steal the flames that Erin Solstice produced. But for now, the guests practically fought over the precious shots of glory, and Barnethei lifted the second…canister…gingerly.
“We’ll be saving this one until tonight, I think. After dinner.”
“Come on, Barnethei! What’s the second drink?”
Several people demanded to have a sip now and flashed gold—but the [Innkeeper] held it back teasingly.
“I’ve been assured this is—unfortunately—too strong for all but the best! No, I’m not lying—it’s called Rxlvn, and the Antinium made it. Aha, who wants to have it now? It’s apparently so strong it can knock someone out with a single shot. We might have a contest later.”
He winked, and the crowd cheered. This was the role Barnethei liked. Beautiful women and handsome men enjoying themselves with no thought of tomorrow.
The regulars fed the Haven’s coffers. Oh, the adventurers were the guests Larra truly cared about, and she had free bread for the regulars and entertainments for all—but the nobles of the north came to the Haven because of what Larra gave them.
When Barnethei got down from the table, the [Bartender] on duty, a woman with black skin and white sweat—pale and brighter—spoke to him. She mopped at her brow as the magical sweat showed she’d been working hard. You didn’t have sweat like that from drinking regular water.
Larra liked having a mostly female staff, and she had views on her guests for all they liked her. She was very protective of her people being harassed, and those helpful familiars could get nasty very fast if you broke the Haven’s first rule.
“Barnethei, sorry about the fight. Should we start doing toasts? We’ve got two Gold-rank teams who are willing to recount the Facestealer attack.”
“What about Colth?”
Barnethei had expected that, and he turned around. He narrowed his eyes at the crowd and spotted a Gnoll trying to hide behind a cluster of people.
“Go ahead and bring Griniev in. I’ll get our guest of honor too. Did he do anything?”
“Besides stop the fight? He asked what he could do, and he’s pretty good at serving drinks. But I didn’t see any wild Skills off him. Is he going to be Alanna’s replacement or did you want to put him somewhere else?”
Everyone in the senior staff knew of Barnethei’s goals. The [Vice Innkeeper] shrugged.
“Skills don’t matter as much as personality, and if he can face down a fight within ten minutes of walking in here—make sure he doesn’t slip out, will you? Not that he will, but he’s tricky.”
Ishkr had been running from Barnethei for the last two weeks. The Gnoll gave the [Vice Innkeeper] an exasperated look, but he hadn’t refused to come here. Barnethei thought that was a good sign—although the Dullahan who strode into the room and took Ishkr’s paws before hugging him—a huge sign of affection from a Dullahan—might have been the reason.
Either way, he wanted Ishkr to hear his pitch. Barnethei looked around and saw Relc sitting at a table with who he thought was possibly one of the [Ladies] of House Merrimorn from Terandria. He laughed and lifted a flaming glass of liquor and called out to get the crowd’s attention again.
The Wandering Inn was interesting—but how could you ever beat the Haven’s magic?
Ishkr Coresh Silverfang hated being the center of attention. In that way, the Gnoll being toasted by the adventurers and thanked by the profusely grateful Dullahan was like Larracel herself.
Larracel Delais had never craved the spotlight, so she had installed Barnethei as the ‘innkeeper’ long ago when she realized he liked and was very good at his job. In fact, the ‘regulars’ didn’t know she was the owner of the inn. Some of them legitimately thought Barnethei was the owner. Others, that he was the real [Innkeeper] and ‘the Haven’ was the owner who rarely visited.
They did not square the humbler, shorter Larra with the imposing Named-rank [Wizard]. She added to the effect with her outfit, which made her look like the cleaning staff. In that way, she could see people unguarded and make decisions without them presenting their best selves to her.
Ironic, in her [Pub of Best Moments]. Then again, it didn’t touch her. It was her Skill, and this was her inn. She had only popped in to see if Barnethei had handled the fight—and to watch Ishkr.
She caught Barnethei as he shared a Minotaur’s Punch with some delighted [Lords] and [Ladies]. They were cheering the Sacrifice of Roses, and their eyes were wet already. The [Innkeeper] stepped away as the drink took hold and the nobles saw the past. Larra nodded at Ishkr, who was refusing a Minotaur’s Punch of his own.
“He makes little of himself. Are you sure you want him?”
“There’s a lion under that Gnoll’s fur. If I met you for the first time, Miss Larra, I might have been fooled.”
That made her smile because it was true. Then Larra eyed the flaming beverage.
“What a terrifying drink. No wonder that Erin made it if she ran into Maviola El.”
“She was a patron here, wasn’t she?”
Larra waved that off.
“Everyone from Tyrion Veltras to Ulva Terland has been here. She was never a regular. She claimed my inn lacked the heat for her. Always a flame-metaphor, that one. She detested this room as well.”
It was not hard to see why, if you knew the secret of this room and the seat. Oh—it did make for pleasant encounters. The two Drakes were melding with the nobility better than they would in any other setting. Yet—the Haven was not run just to make the nobility happy.
“How much have you sold today?”
“Let me check with Roreen.”
Barnethei stepped back and whispered with the [Bartender]. She was an interesting class—you couldn’t just be a [Bartender] in this room. Roreen was actually a former [Accountant] who had run with the Merchant’s Guild for a while. Thanks to that, she never missed an order served.
“…four hundred and eight gold pieces as of today. We’re advertising the Minotaur’s Punches as exclusives.”
“Just so long as they don’t realize Erin Solstice is selling it for a fraction.”
Or that it was cheap liquor with the flames added. A massive killing—but the nobles were misty-eyed, speaking of the Sacrifice of Roses.
Perhaps they’d been there. Perhaps they’d lost family—but Larra had been in First Landing too, and many of the faces here hadn’t been the ones who walked against the Goblin King. House Walchaís, House Valerund—those had been the houses that bled out on that battlefield.
She said none of this. Like Colth…no, his issue was different.
Larracel just let the nobility have their fine moment, their private dining, and the gentlemen’s nights that Barnethei arranged. It was Roreen who made sure all the drinks were counted and the meals, the complimentary glass of wine, the expensive linens all were added up and presented as an unobtrusive bill for her richest clients.
It was best to have an underling pay it—even the [Lords] and [Ladies] sometimes gulped at the prices they racked up. If you could charge it to House El’s [Financier], for instance, you didn’t have a fight. Then the nobility would head off happy, groan about the costs later, and come back when they had more or felt like splurging.
Larracel cared about the gold her inn made. She cared about it so much sometimes it kept her up. It was said that all Named-ranks were crazy—she had retired, so perhaps her madness was just the madness of an [Innkeeper].
The inn was, in a way, Larra’s nightmare. Oh, it generated vast profits, but the irony was that it ate away at her coffers too. For all the thousands of gold it made, she had to pay her staff—and she did pay them well!—pay Barnethei, pay the magical costs of running it.
Animals required feed. Her famous ‘free bread’ benefited from her Skills, but all the liquors, foodstuffs cost a fortune. And even if she made a massive markup—let’s say she had a hundred thousand gold.
She could sit on that hundred thousand—or use it to buy enough magicore, enchanted materials, and such to build a new building like the library. Larracel had been saving up desperately, hoping that someone would find an artifact of cornucopia.
For every valuable item or relic she recovered that added to the value and profits of the Haven, it cost a fortune to acquire—but she’d be earning more money after the purchase. Enough to buy the next great improvement or hope she leveled.
Gold and more gold. Barnethei looked slightly harassed as she pressed him about the gentlemen’s night.
“I have three [Merchants] in Invrisil I’ll reach out to. Perhaps some of the Drakes in Pallass?”
She was satisfied with that. But then Barnethei brought up something that made her scowl.
“I had a word with Valeterisa about—”
“Leave her be. Her young apprentice is keeping her far, far more in check than before.”
“Yes, but the staff are getting tired of her, Larra. I didn’t chase her out! And you know she’s occupying your [Law of the Inn].”
Larra had to admit, it was true. But her serious guests, the adventurers, Valley, and the others? She had told Barnethei again and again to spare no expense on them. They were her children, and Valley was a silly girl who needed someone to make sure she did things as mundane as eat food and wash her clothes.
Someday…someday she’d have enough gold. Barnethei’s new inn would double their profits if it went well—of course, there were all the startup costs, hiring new staff, the risk—
But someday, she’d have enough. Larracel the Haven had not been the hero who went into Chalence and came back as nobility. Deniusth, damn him, had done that. He’d been generous with his friends—but not enough to buy her a landed nobility.
Then again. Four million gold pieces each to the teams who’d gone in there and survived among the hundreds who had not. All that gold—barely bought a landed nobility among Deni’s spending.
Larracel didn’t want to spend that much. All her friends? The nobles who came up to her, delighted by the new drink and asking for little favors? They’d make that day easier.
Of course, she didn’t want to be noble for the sake of it. It was just that the title and class came with many perks, and using that influence, using a fortune in gold…
She was old now. Old—like Mihaela always complained they were, white-haired. But in a decade, Larra might have enough to put the Haven down. To buy enough land and places and staff—to keep the rest of her unruly children occupied.
It cost a fortune, a fortune of fortunes to keep Deniusth from going crazy. To provide for their quirks and madnesses? Larra had done the costs, and she knew it would take ten years yet. Less, if this venture in the new lands worked out. But then…
She had seen her Haven break. Seen monsters flood in, armies go through the walls, and seen too many of the people she had promised would be safe die to ever go back to dungeons. To adventure, like Deniusth. Gold came slower in her inn, but safer. Far, far safer.
She might be seventy or eighty or even ninety by the time she was ready. Then they’d truly be old. Ten years, maybe more if she found a way to buy Saliss’ Potions of Youth. Ten years and possibly, then, there would only be a handful left and their children.
But that was her dream, the Haven’s private little dream. A plot of land and enough to occupy the silly children she had left so they wouldn’t walk off and face another Facestealer. So yes—
The gold kept her up.
“…Valeterisa won’t walk off with any books. I have changed the law. No stealing the inn’s property. Do you need me to change it to violence?”
“For Lord Coore? I think it’s sorted.”
Larra nodded, relieved. Her great Skill, the [Law of the Inn], was a famous one among [Innkeepers]. With it she could compel even Valeterisa—if not to stop hoarding dozens of books.
It did not work on monsters of Facestealer’s ilk. Another thing to fear…but Larra said none of that out loud. She patted Barnethei on the shoulder as she watched Ishkr. He was bowing slightly to her.
“He’s promising, that Gnoll. If you steal him, I’ll handle Erin Solstice.”
She thought she could calm the other [Innkeeper] if she was angry. Barnethei smiled.
“Afraid we’ll lose Alanna and the others to Erin?”
Larra looked at him blankly, then the two chuckled and laughed. Larra’s inn dazzled the nobility, and they tossed gold coins down like water. Erin had fine guests…but she needed a true grist to fuel her inn. And Larra would not—would never charge Colth what she charged her regulars. Erin needed people she did not love. So Larra blew a kiss to this silly room.
May it once again make her lots of coin.
The top staff at the Haven were holding down The Wandering Inn’s regular crowds quite easily. Even with the Players of Liscor putting on a performance, they were easily able to coordinate with the Goblins and Antinium.
If anything, Lyonette was purely just amazed by their levels. Twice now, she’d seen one of them using a Skill to rectify a problem before it began. A raised voice from a squalling infant turned quiet. A dine-and-dasher froze until Alcaz put a hand on his shoulder.
They were unfortunately competent, and Lyonette gave up trying to direct them after it was clear they knew how to adapt to minor issues.
She almost wished Erin had caused some chaos that required her direct intervention. Just so she could show off how the inn really was.
But the [Innkeeper] herself was relaxed. She was sitting, chatting with one of the Haven’s staff.
“Whoa, so Larra’s got an entire bathhouse?”
“It’s not quite the same as Liscor’s, Miss Solstice. It’s private bathing in the larger guest suites. The piping was expensive to lay—the bathhouse proper is no hot springs as it’s too heavy to transfer. The farm is the heaviest due to the soil and animals, and Miss Larracel can barely keep it in rotation. She’d try having it roll across the ground, but there’s no way to transport something that heavy without a huge amount of magic. So she hasn’t paid for that yet.”
“Gotcha. Gotcha…so what’s the bathhouse?”
“More like a steam house, Miss Solstice. Have you ever seen…?”
Erin snapped her fingers as Alanna sat at the table, glancing at the rest of the inn. Mrsha was telling Lyonette all about her satisfactory schooling experience as the [Princess] listened in.
“I should do that. Steam…house…got it. And she’s got a library. And a farm. And she puts on magical lightshows? Did I hear you right when she said she’s copying Wailant? Hey—hey Lyonette, Mrsha! They’re gonna pass out wands and shoot targets! We should go!”
“I—er—that does sound like fun, Erin!”
Lyonette replied as heads rose and people looked around. It did sound like fun, and Mrsha brightened up. It was just—why was Erin saying the competition had something better?
She was too relaxed. She didn’t seem bothered at all! Erin was joking with Alanna.
“Hey, if she’s copying Wailant I hear that’s lots of fun. Just so long as everyone’s not naked. Because I hear that’s also a Strongheart thing.”
In fact, she was so unguarded it seemed to make even the Haven’s staff curious. Alanna glanced up as Navien passed by, and the two shared a look for a second that seemed to last slightly longer than usual. Erin Solstice blinked at them, smiling, and then poked someone passing by.
“Peggy, how’s it going? You want a break?”
“Nah. This job is easy. Not like getting leg eaten.”
The Hobgoblin grinned, and Erin smiled.
“Just so long as you’re not tired! I don’t want Rags to beat me up. Say—is she coming back soon?”
Rags had begun heading back to Goblinhome to manage it, but she had returned fairly regularly. Alanna glanced at the other staff and then smiled at Erin.
“Miss Solstice, are you planning on moving your inn or expanding it?”
“Hm? Me what now? Are you talking to Hexel? I’m thinking about adding more—but it’ll be costly. As for moving it, I can’t just put the inn on wheels. I feel like it’d roll down the hill and crash. We’re not going to the new lands, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“So—are you planning to expand or change anything in the future?”
Alanna pressed her. Erin Solstice frowned and chewed on her lip as she shrugged.
“Hm. I guess so. I mean, there is a huge remodeling job I want to save up for. Aside from that—maybe I’ll see about opening my portal door further. That’d bring in new guests. Why, are we gonna be competing with the Haven?”
The woman smiled, but oddly. She looked at Erin and then gestured around the inn.
“It’s just—you’ve reached such a high-level, Miss Solstice. The staff and I were a tiny bit curious how you got here so fast and whether you had any plans to keep on going. Innkeeper Barnethei will be starting his own inn, you know. Were you planning anything like that?”
He was what? Alarm bells rang in Lyonette’s head, and she felt a sinking feeling as she thought of Ishkr. But Erin just nodded.
“I think Larra told me that. I think I was…lucky I leveled so fast. Plus, I’ve had a lot of monster attacks. My ambitions for the inn, y’know, aren’t like Larra’s. Barnethei seems like an ambitious guy. Do you like him?”
Alanna smiled, and Lyonette sensed her gaze searching Erin up and down, puzzled.
“He is. And we do quite appreciate him—he’s worked for Larra longer than anyone else. We like the Haven, Miss Solstice. It wasn’t easy, getting to where she is. So we were just wondering…”
What is it you do? Erin’s inn had the [Grand Theatre], but it was humbler. More than that? Now Lyonette sensed the real difference between the staff—even the way Erin talked to Peggy.
Ambition. The same thing burning off Barnethei hung about the Haven’s staff, and Erin…Erin had such a polite smile on her face and looked so calm, Lyonette finally realized why the [Innkeeper] was hanging around here rather than wandering off.
“…why my inn’s sucky?”
“I’d never say—”
Alanna looked alarmed and glanced at Navien. Erin laughed.
“No! I know you didn’t mean it, but it really is ‘humble’. We just don’t have that much gold compared to the north. Plus, you’re right about me not having many scheduled entertainments. I should do more. Is your ability to talk with your eyes a Skill you get from a serving class?”
The Haven’s staff froze—until Navien raised a brooch hanging at her neck.
“Innkeeper Larra enchants our gear herself, Miss Solstice.”
“See, that’s useful. I could use a magical dustrag.”
Erin sighed longingly. Then she slapped her hands on her knees and got up. Lyonette saw Erin holding her back and wincing. The plain, brown-haired young woman hobbled about, swearing, and Lyonette suspected Erin had been cutting down on healing potion.
The Haven’s staff watched her out of the corner of their eyes, but Erin had no familiars to help her up—just Gothica, who laughed at Erin as she passed by. Her inn of three floors was mostly devoted to the common room and guest rooms.
For all the food was preserved, it was largely mundane, and there was no farm or library, and the high-level guests…
Well, it did have those. If anything, the one thing that felt familiar to Alanna and Navien and the others were the guests.
Gold-ranks, hanging out around Erin’s inn like this was the most natural thing in the world. Even Named-ranks. Lehra Ruinstrider, offering Mrsha a bit of taffy she’d just bought in Invrisil.
Ylawes Byres, rubbing at a black eye as Yvlon profusely apologized, tromping in with Vuliel Drae and the other teams. Erin Solstice looked about and called out.
“Hey, Ishkr. Didja run away?”
“I had a number of toasts. I said all I needed to to Adventurer Griniev. I wouldn’t expect Relc or Menolit to be back though, Miss Solstice. They seemed quite happy in the [Pub of Best Moments].”
“Oh! I want to visit that!”
Erin Solstice laughed. Every head spun around. And there he was. Alanna actually jerked in her seat—because she hadn’t seen Ishkr come in. Neither had Liska, who was on a short break as Inkpage took over. She stared at Ishkr as the Gnoll placed two mugs of ale on the bar, and Navien nearly leapt over the counter.
The Haven’s staff looked at him, and then they felt prickles on the backs of their necks. Alanna turned—and Erin Solstice was staring at her. The hazel eyes were wide—and then she looked like the Grandmaster of Scales for a second.
The eyes were plain, but they twinkled with mischief. Then, and only then, Erin Solstice tilted something back on her head and you remembered her hat was made of flames.
Blue fire roiled around her fingers. It burned azure, like a Dragon’s eyes, like a nebula deep in space, flickering as Erin took her hat off for a moment and stretched. She put her hat on the table, and it burned there as the Haven’s staff slowed, and a swearing [Vice Innkeeper] looked around his bar for a Gnoll who’d vanished.
The hat burned like sadness and like something else. Because, of course, a color was deeper than one meaning, and so was a memory. Erin held her back a moment, then looked up.
“Since you’re having an employee exchange and since Ishkr’s sorta done, I’d say you all can go off-duty for an hour or two. If you want—why don’t you come with me? It’s a special occasion, but I’d say it’ll give you perspective. Plus, you should all get dinner after.”
The evening was growing later and later, and the Haven’s staff looked at each other as guests began to file towards the door for The Adventurer’s Haven. After all—all the spectacle and fun was over there. Erin Solstice winked, then she looked over.
“Hey, Ylawes. Does your team have a second?”
Dawil raised his brows as Falene stopped ordering a complex salad and sighed, mildly exasperated. But Lyonette felt the hair on the back of her neck begin to rise. And when Erin Solstice slowed down and plucked at someone’s shoulder, Lyonette felt one of those chills she sometimes got.
It ran down her arms and back. A shiver—but not of fear. Of anticipation. Erin Solstice looked down, and Lehra Ruinstrider looked up, and her eyes opened wide. She almost fell out of her seat as Stargazer’s Promise gazed upwards. Erin stuck out a hand.
“Hi there. I realize I actually never introduced myself to you. Emper, right?”
“Of the Monastery of Galam. We have spoken briefly, yes. Has Lehra done something again?”
Elgrinna, the Dwarf, stood as Emper, the [Monk], took Erin’s hand. She looked at him.
“Galam? Where’s that?”
“Northeastern Chandrar. Along the coast. My monastery is small—it is hardly the same as the…Monks of Sottheim for instance.”
Emper’s hesitation said it all if you knew about Sottheim. Elgrinna chuckled.
“And I am from Dwarfhome as every Dwarf is. Suxhel?”
The Gazer didn’t elaborate, but Erin just met one of her many eyes and nodded.
“Of course. May you see with eyes unblinded.”
“Truly, without mind’s clouds. How do you know that saying?”
Erin chuckled as the Gazer [Wizard] hesitated.
“I’ve met a few Gazers in my time. Do you all have a moment? I’d like to show you something.”
The two teams looked confused as they rose. Erin waved at the Horns apologetically and called out.
“Just a small group. I guess the Haven’s staff can come. Just this once. After all—we’re showing off, aren’t we?”
She smiled at them and then tried to shoo Mrsha away, but the Gnoll had suddenly glued herself to her best-buddy Lehra. Erin sighed, but nodded.
Silver Swords. Just the three and the four of Stargazer’s Promise. Plus eight of the Haven’s Staff and a rogue Mrsha…Erin gave the Haven’s staff a second look as if regretting her promise already.
“Should I come, Erin? I can take Mrsha—sweetie, let go—”
Mrsha was horizontal as Lyonette pulled, trying to dislodge the furry barnacle from Lehra’s shoulder. Erin looked at her—then Yvlon, Pisces, and around the room.
“Let’s…do this in smaller chunks. I’ll call on you another day, Lyonette. We won’t be long. Possibly. I’m probably lying. Alright, this way everyone.”
She pointed, and a door appeared. Then—and only then, Alanna looked up and shaded her eyes. After all, light was pouring into the inn.
Then she saw the [Garden of Sanctuary].
What the [Knight] and the Stargnoll saw and what it meant to them was—different. Alanna was one of Larra’s staff, and she knew House Byres, of course, as well as the famous Named-rank. She had a lot of context, but all she could speak to was her experience.
Which was—after a disappointing inn, the feeling that Erin Solstice had been holding back. Now, Alanna felt goosebumps as if she were walking into the Haven’s most magical rooms for the first time.
The [Garden of Sanctuary] was unlike anything she’d ever seen. Oh, a magical pocket-garden was something Larra could probably do. That wasn’t what made the Haven’s staff slow. Larracel the Haven could do almost anything with magic a modern [Mage] could, even one of the Archmages of Wistram. She could buy fantastic spells and enchantments.
So what impressed them was something impossible. And what was impossible were the falling stars.
They rained down, showers of light across a black night sky as the two teams entered the garden. Suxhel stared at them in bewilderment, same as Falene.
“Like it? I can do special effects now.”
Erin caught a glowing ray of light, bright orange, that splintered across her hand and faded. Ylawes Byres stared, but Dawil was simply chuckling in delight.
“Do we get to see the other gardens, Erin? I’ve been dying to ask. You know, that little rascal caught a koi fish and put it in a pot? It slapped Numbtongue in the face while he was playing on that device he likes so much.”
Erin stared at Mrsha, and the Gnoll looked the other way as she held Lehra’s paw. They were all walking up the hill as the [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“No, not the other gardens. Although it’d be sort of fun to see if Suxhel can see through mud.”
“I have no context for that statement. May I receive it?”
The Gazer raised a hand, and Erin fluttered her fingers.
“Later. We’re doing something more important first. Something a long time coming. I know I’ve been tardy…but I didn’t want to do this, really. I guess I hafta, especially if Ylawes is going home.”
The Silver Swords looked at each other, and Lehra’s ears perked up.
Everyone looked at her, and Lehra held the Blade of Mershi. Her gauntlet was…vibrating under her paws. She stared at Erin.
“What do you know? Do you know what the blade is? Do you know—”
She was almost gagging with all her questions that she had put off. But to her disappointment, Erin shook her head.
“You know, I don’t actually know where it is, concretely. Or all of what they did. All I have are stories. Second-hand reports and such. No one…who was there told me anything. So I wasn’t lying when I posted that <Quest>.”
“Oh. Wait. How do you have second-hand reports?”
“Dead people like to talk.”
At this point, Alanna was sure the [Innkeeper] was just conjuring illusions and lying well. Because this seemed to be going too far. Barnethei could put on a show, but he knew the difference between unreality and even the Haven’s best illusions. She began to fall out of Erin’s little trick as they passed up a hill.
The mist was just a low-tier spell. And the statues she saw…the huge amount of space was probably an illusion spell. The [Innkeeper] looked back at Lehra.
“The Crossroads are where you start.”
“But where do I find them?”
The frustrated Stargnoll cried out. Erin Solstice sighed patiently as Mrsha nodded rapidly.
“I’m sorry. I don’t actually know. I know there were a lot of ways in. Magically, with Skills even—some people said they’re all overgrown. Dangerous. But that’s where you’ll find it.”
The [Witch] turned her head, and a strand of mist floated past her face. She might have even been enjoying this—her smile vanished, and her voice seemed to come from everywhere as Alanna lost track of her.
“No. Mershi. You can’t find what was lost if it was never here to begin with. Izril was always bigger than Izril.”
Lehra ran forwards a step—and Mrsha began tugging on her paw excitedly as she had a sudden, incredible thought. Maybe—maybe—if they were talking about weird places with tons of magic and stuff—hadn’t a certain white Gnoll talked about…?
But the Stargnoll wasn’t listening. She ran forwards through the mist and cried out. Ylawes stumbled after Erin.
“Erin, where are we going—”
Then he too vanished.
“Alanna. What’s going on? Is this magic or a Skill?”
“It’s just a trick.”
Alanna reassured one of her coworkers. She was convinced of it. Right until she saw Ylawes Byres had come to a halt. He had fallen—onto his behind—and he sat, holding himself up with his arms. The Stargnoll, Lehra, had frozen, and her team had drawn their swords. She held a glowing blade, coated in the Armor of Stars. Like some kind of tableau—Dawil had his broken axe raised, and Falene was backing up, holding her staff.
The Haven’s staff watched from afar as the mists parted. Mrsha hid behind Erin, but her eyes were round. Erin stood there, amidst the black sky falling with bright stars of color, and looked up at the Dragon.
He was larger than any monster that Alanna had ever seen, the statue grey—but somehow still managing to convey the shining scales and the form of the Silver Dragon.
He was larger than a house, half the size of the Haven’s main building, and he stood there. Not rearing, not with wings spread menacing like some Wyvern caught in battle.
Not like a beast at all. Instead, the Dragon sat on his haunches, like a cat almost, head raised back, snaking upwards. He had a helmet upon his head, like a [Knight]’s, and armor arrayed his body. He even had pauldrons upon his shoulders and an armored tail—graceful metal that evoked his very nature.
Yderigrisel, the last Dragon-Knight, stared down imperiously at the son of the house he had championed for countless millennia. He was haughty and proud, brave and virtuous.
Like the Haven—the statue of this dead soul caught his finest side. He was so real that as much as she tried—Alanna couldn’t claim he was fake. How…how…
Erin stared up at Yderigrisel solemnly. Solemnly, sadly, and with familiarity. She was the one to break the silence.
“Ylawes. That’s the Dragon you’re looking for, isn’t it? The Silver Knight of House Byres. He’s dead.”
The [Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon] jerked around. Everyone turned to Erin, and Lehra lowered her blade, but Mershi’s relic was screaming, a call to battle that ran through her. It sounded like—
But Ylawes? The [Knight] looked upon the end of his quest—before he had even begun it. His voice shook.
“How—how do you know—?”
“I met him. He’s dead, Ylawes. If you’re searching for his body…I don’t know where it is. But he was brave. If this helps you level or helps you search—he was a brave Dragon. I think he did terrible things, though. As terrible as the foes he helped slay. But I don’t know his story.”
Erin’s eyes glittered as she pointed, and Ylawes’ head turned to the Silver Dragon. Now…now…he thought he could hear a whisper. A whisper in his very marrow, that came from his class.
Seek…Dragon of knightly pride….
…where Dragons died…
It was a voice that would grow louder when he slept. The next hint in—he tried to rise, to ask more questions, but he couldn’t. Erin Solstice looked at him and then jerked her head softly.
“Stay here a second. I have something else to show the rest of you.”
“Erin. Who did you meet? I mean, how did you meet…? No. The real question is—why are they gone? Are they ghosts? Or—”
Falene was the one who spoke. And it was to Falene that Erin went next. She stopped Mrsha.
“This one’s just for you, Falene. I don’t have anyone for Dawil. Sorry.”
“Sorry? I’ll just stay here with the lad—and the Dragon. I’ll, uh—settle for that.”
Dawil twisted his neck, trying to formulate a joke. But Erin just drew Falene off into the mists. When Erin came back, she was alone.
“Lehra. You guys, come with me. I don’t have…anyone special to show you, Suxhel, Elgrinna. But Lehra should at least see a few people. I never really met them up close and got to ask—well. Maybe it’ll help you level.”
Help you level? Lehra gripped Mrsha’s paw for emotional support.
“Who—who am I meeting, Erin?”
“Chieftain Seru’nial. Emper—I just want to introduce you to some great rulers and people I met. I don’t know the Monastery of Galam, but perhaps you know—”
This time, Alanna followed Erin through the mists. She kept seeing flashes as she tried to follow the [Innkeeper], and she realized she really was being let to see something she shouldn’t. Erin Solstice had pulled something out of her bag of holding and lit it.
A lantern burning with pink flames illuminated the mists like a will o’ wisp. The Haven’s staff followed Erin through what felt like darkness—and one of them grabbed the others.
“What? It’s safe.”
“I—I saw a spider-person. I swear. It looked like a Centaur, but it had a spider’s parts for—”
“Don’t be silly. Don’t—”
Then they heard a howl from Lehra and froze. But the Gnoll had vanished with Elgrinna. And what they saw instead, in the brief swirl of dark clouds, was—
Falene Skystrall. She was kneeling in front of a statue that Alanna thought looked—normal. Normal, until something about the ordinary half-Elf made her heart palpitate too hard. And why was Falene weeping?
Then the mists closed in, and they found themselves standing in front of a sea of statues that had Emper bowing before them. Alanna stopped—as eighteen figures stood in a line behind a sea of faces.
The rulers of Khelt were overshadowed by Serept, the half-giant, but only in size. Erin Solstice stood with Emper, pointing out figures and asking if he knew them.
“That dude’s the King of Destruction’s grandfather. You know him?”
“I—yes. And this is—”
The Stitch-man had been lucky enough, like the rest of Lehra’s team, to see the Pub of Best Moments. Like the Haven’s staff—they had seen the best side of Lehra, not the goofball that got them into trouble and ate—and slept with—everything in sight.
The changing seat of good angles presented a hundred different viewpoints, all flattering. The statues had only one face when you saw them, and they had no color, no context.
Yet…the wind blew, and Emper shivered, though the [Monk] had [Lesser Resistance: Elements]. He shivered, because the stone eyes that stared down at him had a story he only knew in fables. Stories and illustrations and carvings, of which there were thousands.
Yes, the [Sculptors] and [Painters] and even the [Writers] had been good enough to capture aspects, even capture her as she had been. But they were still images. This felt…realer. For all the soul was gone, the body long decayed—
Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stared down at the Stitch-man with the same eyes that had seen a tyrant die. They were not the same gaze that Erin had first met her with. Intrigued, kind, and pettily annoyed with sharing the land of the dead with her mortal enemy, Nerrhavia.
There were more sides to the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, but this was somehow more and less than the Pub of Best Moments. It captured only one side of her, and Erin longed to have known the others. How did Merindue look as she laughed with a child upon her lap, as she had told Erin they did when Nerrhavia lay dead, in relief?
How did she flirt or weep or…play chess? Erin would never know, and in that sense, she envied Larra’s great Skill. But what she held was this.
The statue was a memory of someone who would never return to the lands of the living. And so, if Larra could have been here, she would have traded every Skill she had for this one of Erin’s.
The two [Innkeepers] truly did desire what the other held. But this statue—
Merindue wore no armor. Yet she wore her simple robes like a shield, a slash of something—powder—across the front. Each thread and piece of her cloth-body looked like it had been sewn for war, and her skin resembled metal as much as flesh.
Some of the others had no context for who this was. Emper did, and he reached out a shaking hand as he leaned upon his staff. Erin gestured to the faint material that the grey stone revealed.
“Chalk. I think. She said they put chalk on their clothing. To mark them apart from the rest of their enemies on that day. There were so many who fought against Merindue’s allies they couldn’t tell who was who. So—like the Gnolls did, they wore chalk, and she said it worked.”
“What day? Who is this?”
Suxhel thought she knew, but only when Emper turned did he confirm her question.
“This is Queen Merindue. One of the—the first rulers of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. She brought down the Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia.”
The statement shocked the [Wizard] into silence—she looked at Erin and then another statue in the mists. The Gazer saw one of her own kind and froze—
The Witch of Eyes stared down at her. And Suxhel was petrified. It was Alanna who spoke, feeling a chill continuing to race through her. Yet she was compelled to try and throw doubt. How could Erin know…? She pointed at Merindue and the robes.
“She has no armor. If she was fighting, why didn’t she wear any?”
“It didn’t matter, she said. Not against Nerrhavia. Not that day of days. She said…”
Erin put a hand to her forehead and laughed ruefully. She turned sadly.
“She said it wasn’t necessary for her, but I never got the full story. Like them all.”
Her head turned, and the others caught such a wave of sadness from Erin the [Innkeeper] sagged. Yet it was Emper who spoke.
“No. On the day the Immortal Tyrant died, Cotton and Silk and Hemp walked without steel. Without metal or enchanted cloth. With robes alone and plain cloth they threw themselves forwards. Armored in Skills and defiance against the Tyrant’s guardians.”
Erin’s head came up. Her hazel eyes flashed—with gratitude, with light.
“You know her story?”
Emper turned, and his head shook as he nodded. So Erin…Erin took his arm urgently.
“Then tell me. Tell me them all. Suxhel—do you know who this is?”
She pointed to the Witch of Eyes, and Suxhel looked at her as if she were crazy. But now it was Erin who stumbled forwards, desperately, hungrily. Begging them to speak as she told them what she knew.
Was it grief burning across her hat? Hope? Wonder? Something else?
It illuminated Merindue’s eyes. Those imperious eyes, which had stared down immortality and seen it die. But this place was more than the statue. It was a story.
Emper had looked upon the greatest of his people and knew her name and her greatness. Erin…Erin pointed up at Merindue.
“She has a great smile.”
And that changed—everything. Emper looked up, and Erin tried to tell him what it had looked like. It seemed, then, almost like the [Garden of Sanctuary] was listening too, to what even it lacked.
Still, Erin did not weep. Not as Falene did. The half-Elf knelt in front of her statue and knew not who it was who stared down at her with sword raised overhead. Only that her grief and guilt overflowed, and she felt it upon her—a curse. The wrath of Winter Fae.
Grief without end. And Ylawes looked up at his statue, the Silver Dragon, and wondered who the great protector had been. Who his house had been. Dawil whispered his Grandfathers’ names, and on Erin walked as Lehra howled in front of Seru’nial’s statue. With Mrsha, in front of the [Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands], Kishkeria.
We were there. We knew magic. Sadness, loss—and triumph.
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were dry as she led Emper forwards. If anything, she looked more like a [Witch] than she had in any moment before this. Mysterious. Sad—but proud as well. Like a character out of a fable with a mysterious book. Only, hers was a garden that made people weep.
Nanette heard Mrsha howling from afar, but she did not go up onto the hilltop. She was playing with Nerry amidst the Sage’s Grass.
Well, ‘playing’. The Sariant Lamb was trying to drag itself up the hill, and Nanette was stopping it and avoiding being bit.
“Is—is she alright?”
Lyonette was wavering, having come into the garden. Nanette looked up at her earnestly. The Thronebearers were staring above, and their time would come. So would Lyonette’s…
Marquin was here, too.
“I think she’s fine, Miss Lyonette. The garden is terribly sad—but Witch Erin knows what she’s doing.”
“Does she? Why did she let Mrsha up there?”
The [Princess] was more dubious. To that, Nanette quoted Califor’s favorite sayings.
“Children should see wonders and magic. Terrible things. They should meet legends so they know how it was done and that it was done.”
“But she’s so sad—”
Lyonette put a hand over her heart as Mrsha howled again. Nanette just smiled as she put Nerry in her lap, and the Sariant Lamb, panting, gave up and listened. Apista flew over to greet the lamb and got a tiny hoof in one side for her trouble.
Nanette separated the two and patted Apista on the head. She gave the others a bright smile.
“That’s just Miss Erin for you. Every door in her inn leads to something ridiculously happy and funny or cripplingly sad.”
The Thronebearers and Lyonette turned to the witch in silence. Down the hill, Numbtongue, laying on his back and playing the guitar for Octavia, sat up. He jerked a thumb at the witch.
“She gets it.”
The emotional damage of her statues might be impossible to quantify. Falene reappeared later, shaking and speechless. Lehra was wiping at her eyes, and she and Mrsha had howled in front of the Gnolls.
“Why are you doing this, Erin?”
Dawil helped up Ylawes when the [Knight] saw her reappear with the others and the staff of the Haven, dead silent. Erin looked down at him, and instead of answering right away, she sat down on the grass.
“Ylawes. I know you invited Vuliel Drae and Nailren to join your team. I think that’s great. Would you…consider not inviting Infinitypear and Rasktooth?”
“What? Why? They were incredibly brave.”
He didn’t know where the question was coming from. Not at first. Erin sat next to him.
“Yeah, they were. They’re cute kids. They were so brave—Rasktooth went to the Meeting of Tribes for me. We saw what happened. I see. So—do you think you could leave them be?”
Then he saw it. That desperately sad look in her eyes. Ylawes hesitated and looked at Erin. Then at Dawil. The Dwarf gave him no help for once, and Ylawes Byres sat there a long time, listening to Falene begin hiccuping. For some reason, that helped.
“I—I could, Erin. But I meant what I offered them. It would hurt them greatly if I turned them down. They’ve all but accepted.”
“Can I convince you to go back on your word?”
The [Knight] paused. He looked at Erin.
Of course you can. What he said, instead, came out of him like the words he’d said to Ysara. Sometimes, perhaps often, they were poor. Rarely…
“I could. But those two aren’t even adventurers. They stood up when Gold-ranks quailed. They deserve more. They were meant for more. And I think they’re too brave to sit by idly. Better to have someone watching them…”
“…than not. And time isn’t unlimited. You’re right. I just—no. You’re right.”
Erin Solstice stood up, and her face was shadowed. She looked at Ylawes and then nodded.
“Then I don’t regret showing you those statues. I only wish I had more to show.”
Falene choked out. She was wiping her face on her robes—they were streaked with her makeup and tears. Erin looked at her.
“Level up, Falene. It’s all I can give you. Then—when you need help, ask me. Ask me, Lehra. If it’s potions, I’ll ask Saliss. I don’t know where—but if I can help, I will. No matter who I have to find.”
She looked at Mrsha, then, and the little Gnoll solemnly nodded. Then, and only then, Erin turned to the Haven’s staff. She addressed them, as the Silver Dragon and the statues faded into the mists, until they stood on a hilltop above the garden and realized bare hours had passed, for all it felt like days.
An [Immortal Moment].
“I’m not planning on making my business a success, Alanna, everyone. The Wandering Inn’s not really good at making money, and I don’t think even Mr. Math will help with that. Maybe. But it’s just not that kind of inn. Levels? We need more of them. All the levels. So yeah. I guess the first renovation for my inn will be a ballista. If I ever figure out how to buy one. Laken only sells trebuchets. We could use a hand—but only if you’ve got the right stuff. Speaking of which…let’s head down to the garden.”
She was glancing at the door leading out of here, and Erin raised her brows. She gestured, and the rest of the guests realized it was late, practically night. The inn was closing, and a figure walked into the common room as the last employee, the greatest employee of the inn, cleaned up.
The inn was closing as the [Vice Innkeeper] walked in. The Haven had more late-night events, but The Wandering Inn did have a closing time. Even if that sometimes came after midnight.
However, Lyonette had carefully funneled the remaining guests to the Haven for their lightshow event. She ran this place like a home, and she thought—correctly—that children would have a hard time sleeping with people up and about downstairs.
Mystifying. Especially from a [Princess] of Calanfer. She was just leaving coin on the tables.
That was the frustration Barnethei had with this inn. The talent. It was not hopeless—if anything, he knew more than anyone else how well this inn was placed to succeed.
It was at the center of a teleportation network as Liscor re-entered the world as a business hub. It had two new species visiting it that even the Haven couldn’t touch. It had produced Drassi, a world-famous [Reporter]!
And it had let her go. True, that might have been inevitable, but Barnethei had checked the prices. They slashed prices, so he doubted the inn was even making a profit on their Goblin and Antinium prices. They didn’t have to gouge their guests, but they could charge them more, offer them exclusive services.
That Gnoll was here as Barnethei knew he’d be. The [Innkeeper] had no idea how he’d gotten out of the Haven, especially since someone had been at the door, but he couldn’t get away.
The inn had to close, and there was a small crew closing up. Two Goblins and one of the Antinium—none of the Haven’s staff.
He wondered where they were. Possibly, Erin had let them go back to the Haven. Either way, it meant that the inn had a lot of work to do, and Ishkr was directing the apprehensive two little Goblins and the Soldier at a room of tables.
Erin’s [Grand Theatre] stretched hundreds of feet. She’d had a good number of guests tonight with the play, and while there had been active cleaning, there were scraps of food on the floor, chairs and tables pushed back—and most that had been used needed cleaning—and the last dinner-guests had left their plates.
Even Calescent was off-work, happily resting after a full day of cooking. Barnethei eyed the room and thought it would take a crew of eighteen or a smaller group of nine. Six, at minimum, with good Skills to do this in a reasonable way.
From the look of things, the Soldier had [Wider Clean] as his Skill. He was polishing about half again as much dirt around his cleaning cloth, and the Goblins were industriously swabbing down tables.
However, Ishkr didn’t seem perturbed. Barnethei heard his low voice.
“Just take the plates to the kitchen and stack them up. I’ll handle them. Then clean the tables and put the chairs up. Then we push the tables to the walls and sweep. It won’t take long.”
“Lotta tables. Lotta plates. Is this clean-death?”
One of the Goblins grumbled as the other nudged him, but Sticks went to work dutifully as Ishkr promised him it wouldn’t be.
“You’ll get to rest in an hour, I promise, Sticks. The others should be back from the Haven by then. I think there is even some of Calescent’s cookie dough you can share.”
That put a pep in their step. The other workers were swinging around the inn with more of a will as Barnethei coughed. Ishkr looked up, sighed, and the Goblins and Antinium hesitated.
“Inn’s closed. You go. Come back later.”
Sticks called out, and Barnethei chuckled.
“I’m not a guest. Looks like a lot of work. The Haven’s staff should have helped clean up, Mister Ishkr. Mind if I lend a hand?”
The Gnoll hesitated. He glanced around, then turned his back rather deliberately on the man.
“If you’d like. The Haven’s staff are with Miss Erin. This won’t take long, anyways.”
“Ah. So she often leaves you to clean up the entire inn? I heard you were working by yourself when she was—dead. An entire inn’s not a sane job for one worker. Even if it was mostly closed. And you really haven’t thought about my offer?”
The Gnoll said nothing, so Barnethei watched him work. He did know this job. Unlike the Soldier carefully putting one plate on top of the others with his clumsy hands, Ishkr piled them up, whisking utensils out of the way and dumping them on top. Then he repeated the process with two more stacks of dishes seven tall. When he was done, he picked up all three bunches in his arms.
It was an impressive sight, and if he tripped, Erin would lose a non-trivial number of her plates. Improbably, Ishkr seemed to have a kind of third arm that let him keep the three stacks of dishes steady.
Barnethei joined Ishkr without a word, rolling up his sleeves. He wasn’t above bussing tables.
“I started in the Haven cleaning tables, you know. Now, I’m about to start my own inn. Larra knows how to reward loyalty.”
“So you keep saying. And Erin doesn’t?”
The two worked side-by-side, although it was clear that Ishkr was trying to work faster so he lost Barnethei. Unfortunately—the man flipped up a plate and skimmed it into the kitchen.
“Hey! No breaking—”
Sticks’ mouth stopped moving as he saw the plate bounce off a wall and flip itself onto a stack of dirty dishes. The porcelain was completely unharmed, and Barnethei tossed six more, as if they were made of steel.
[Dishes of Steel]. A [Busboy]’s favorite Skill.
Ishkr gave Barnethei an exasperated look, so the [Vice Innkeeper] simply made a stack of nine bowls. Ishkr retaliated with twelve—and the two stacks of dishes grew impossibly tall. Sticks and the other Goblin stared as the Gnoll and Human strode to the kitchen. Their burdens were in danger of hitting the ceiling, so they had to bend over to let them clear the door jamb.
Barnethei stepped faster, his polished boots clicking over the inn’s floor like a tap-dancer. He noted that Ishkr wore plain hide sandals. Cheap—and his uniform resembled any generic [Bartender]’s.
“You never said how much she pays you. A silver an hour? Less? You and I both know you could charge by your level.”
“I like my job. It’s relaxing. I don’t need to be paid a fortune.”
Ishkr tossed the dishes into the soapy water, annoyed. He yanked them out, put them in a bucket of clean water, and tossed them onto a rack to dry. Barnethei passed his own hand over a dish, and the dirt and food vanished.
[Bound Spell: Cleanse]. He looked over to ask if Ishkr was going to wash—then he realized that the dish was clean. Ishkr dunked another into the soapy water, pulled them out—and he just had to wash the soap off.
They tore through the dishes so fast they were stepping out of the kitchen as a Goblin carried in their load of utensils. Barnethei pointed a finger at Ishkr. So that was how one Gnoll had done all the dishes! He wanted Ishkr even more, now.
“Ah—but is relaxing going to help you keep levelling?”
Barnethei saw Ishkr pause as he stacked cups high. The [Innkeeper] did the same, whisking all the tumblers down the bar. They slid across the wood and spilled drinks and stopped at the other end. He took a rag and swept it down the bar, leaving nothing behind in its wake.
“I’m looking for a challenge, Ishkr. I need a staff who can handle anything that comes at them. We’ll be in the new lands, serving adventurers and every nation in the world.”
“And you think I’ll be good enough for that?”
“I think anyone who can lure a boss monster away from the inn has what it takes. I think Erin Solstice needs you more than you need her. And I think you can see what I’m offering. You could be great. You could be serving a hundred [Lords] and [Ladies] every night.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need fame. I don’t need wealth. Besides—monsters are bad for my health.”
Ishkr dumped the last plates in the kitchen and turned, visibly annoyed, and the Goblins and Soldier looked around and realized the dishes were gone. They began to clean the tables, then put a chair up on each clean one so they could push it aside and clear the floors.
The [Vice Innkeeper] and [Head Server] strode past them, still talking.
“Monsters are the last thing I want to see. But you—you’re holding yourself back, Ishkr. I can see it. Does she even know what level you are? Come with me, and we’ll find out who you could really be.”
He swept a cloth over his table, and Ishkr did the same. Now, the Gnoll growled, and some of his fur rose as he furiously mopped at a stain.
“Is it that fun being at Larra’s inn? I saw what it was like. It’s all glamor and show.”
“It’s about a profit. Your real guests are those nobles. How much do they spend on the inn?”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged.
“As much as they want. It’s worth it to them, and they never run low on coins. Larra’s engineered her inn to attract them.”
“Fun. Your staff loves them, I can tell. Especially catering to their every whim.”
The sarcastic comment needled Barnethei. The rotations were tough—but he snapped his fingers and calmed down.
“It pays well. The gold pays for the enchantments on the inn. It pays for the farm. It pays for the magic. And my Skills come from Larra herself. Or do you think your inn’s fine as it is? It could be better.”
His cleaning cloth cleaned the entire table in five point six seconds. Barnethei tossed his cloth aside as Ishkr took slightly longer. He pulled out a second cleaning cloth, slapped it on the other table—and Ishkr looked over. He frowned at the first cloth, wondering if Barnethei was offering it to him. But the fancy red cleaning cloth lifted without Barnethei touching it. It whisked over to a second table, and to the watchers’ astonishment—began to clean the mess by itself.
Barnethei winked at Ishkr.
“My [Innkeeper]’s got real magic. Does yours have automated cleaning? Familiars? How much time are you wasting manually hauling water? Don’t you want to do more?”
“I’m not a talker. Drassi was a talker. Not everyone wants a job where they have to be the center of attention.”
“Then don’t be! Come with me—and find a challenge worthy of your Skills! Don’t you want to know what it’s like serving a hundred guests in a new inn in a land no one’s claimed?”
Ishkr’s paws slowed—then became a flurry. He cleaned one table and a second as his paws moved like a storm.
[Flurry Scrub]. By now, the Soldier was nudging the little Goblins and pointing in awe. Barnethei wasn’t done. He grabbed a bucket and dipped the cleaning rags into it. It came out sopping wet.
[Free Refill: Scented Soap of Taima]. He applied a light coating, then a brisk one with a cloth that was permanently wet. Ishkr glowered—but the tables were sparkling. He grudgingly did the same.
“So you have a lot of Skills and more levels than me. I don’t like you.”
“You don’t know me.”
Barnethei corrected him, and Ishkr sighed.
“I have a sister here—”
“I’ll hire her too. Or if you like, let her stay and find her own way.”
“She’s not clever enough to do that unless I stay.”
Hey. That would have really hurt Liska’s feelings if she were listening in. Barnethei laughed.
“If you’re worried about supporting her, family—”
“Don’t have any.”
The [Innkeeper] clasped hands with Ishkr’s paws for a second and leaned in.
“Then join mine. I can pay you well enough to let your sister not worry about coins. We have a staff. You met Catheis, Roreen? Do they look like they think this is a temporary job? The Haven takes care of each other. No offense to the new workers, but how many stayed on besides you? No one.”
Ishkr looked past Barnethei.
“We never had permanent staff before. This time—they’ll stay. Besides, there was always Silveran.”
“And he left. This inn pushes them out when they get too big. The [Innkeeper] builds people up and sends them away. She’s not making her inn bigger.”
“She’s got plans.”
Ishkr broke away and pointed at a piece of tobacco someone had stuck to the table in the most unpleasant of ways.
[Remove Stubborn Stain]. It vanished, and Barnethei called out at his back.
“She’s not good at her only job: making the inn better. Taking care of her staff. You were stuck here for months when she was—”
“She was dead. Don’t talk about what you don’t know.”
Ishkr’s paw jabbed warningly at Barnethei, and the man raised his hands. In silence, they cleared eight more tables in minutes and then walked back.
Each chair was hoisted up backwards onto the table so the seat—which had to be cleaned—touched the table’s surface rather than the dirty legs. Ishkr lifted them easily with practice, and Barnethei saw him shove an entire table with chairs included across the inn to a wall.
That was a task the Soldier had to help the two Goblins with. Barnethei was impressed. His attitude was simpler.
He pointed—and the table moved. The chairs lifted, and the [Vice Innkeeper] flicked out a hand. He swished his wand and winked. Ishkr glared at him.
“You have to want some fancy Skills. At least a spell.”
[Magic: Advanced Telekinesis]. The Gnoll just shoved—and a table went flying and bounced off the wall. Sticks oohed.
[Heavy Push]. The [Innkeeper] and Gnoll stared at each other—then the two began moving tables faster. Ishkr with his paws, and Barnethei with magic.
“I don’t see—you doing that much better than me.”
“You haven’t seen all of my tricks.”
“Neither have you. Why would I want to go with you? Give me a reason more than gold and fame and a challenge. I get enough of all that here.”
The [Innkeeper] tossed a table aside.
“I’d give you a percentage of the profits you pulled in. In time—I’d give you an inn. You have a future with me. Or are you going to work this job when you’re sixty? Larra will teach you magic. We won’t take you for granted. Can you say the same about Erin Solstice?”
Ishkr slipped and nearly slammed his head on a table. He took a second to reply.
“She knows me. She trusts me.”
“She has to give you more.”
“No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have to buy my loyalty.”
The Gnoll and Barnethei looked for another table—possibly to throw at each other because now they were glaring. Barnethei told himself to calm down—this negotiation wasn’t supposed to be hostile, but at least Ishkr was raising his voice.
It was time to clear the floor. By now, the Goblins and the Soldier were wavering, clearly unsure whether they were needed here. One offered Barnethei a mop, and the Soldier did the same.
Ishkr had one of those long, horizontal mops that you used for cleaning a wide space, and Erin’s [Grand Theatre] was longer than any area but the outdoor section of the Haven—and it was arguably still longer in sheer verticality.
A giant straightaway. You could run down it and clean it—albeit line by line. Something about this pleased Barnethei’s mind, the satisfaction of not having to think about navigating the room. He might have liked it here if he were a boy—but he was determined to show Ishkr what he was missing.
“What level are you, Ishkr? I’m Level 41. Your Skills are good, but you don’t have the spark. You’re a fantastic worker for an amazing [Innkeeper]—but she hasn’t given you what Larra has to me. I have magic and more. What can Erin give you?”
“Something the Haven’s staff can’t dream of. This inn will never be rich like yours. It doesn’t need to be. Leave me alone.”
Ishkr began running down the floor. But Barnethei was right behind him—and when Ishkr turned—he nearly slipped. Barnethei caught him by the arm—and Barnethei caught him by the other arm.
Two [Innkeepers] glanced at each other and grinned. They adjusted their hats as Ishkr got up slowly. And now—the Goblins were goggling. So were the Soldier and Lyonette and Liska and half the people peeking down the stairway, out of the garden, and from the hallway.
“[I Worked Like Three Men].”
A third Barnethei grabbed a mop—and they were racing along, three-to-one. Each man had thrown off his colorful coat, revealing the white shirt beneath, stained with sweat. Because it was sweat—Barnethei ran down the inn, pushing the mop and sweeping the dirt and detritus ahead of him.
He’d put sweat into every day of the inn. Worked his way up. He glanced at Ishkr, and the Gnoll was keeping up but doing a third of Barnethei’s work.
“Don’t you want to put in the—effort? Ishkr?”
The Gnoll was like him. He’d worked a job without asking for praise, and—Barnethei gritted his teeth and sped up, pushing his legs to run across the ground.
He just wanted to reward him for it.
Ishkr deserved it. They deserved it. How long did they have to do this? Work for an [Innkeeper] in her inn—that wasn’t a dream. Every member of the staff, Barnethei to Alanna to the girls and boys starting work—
They had to have more. Their own inn. Because this was Larra’s dream that Barnethei had given over two decades for. It was time to chase his own. And Ishkr…
“Are you going to shackle yourself to your [Innkeeper] forever, Ishkr?”
He panted in three voices and heard a sigh somewhere behind him. It sounded calmer, unstrained, and as Barnethei turned his head, he heard Ishkr’s reply.
“So that’s why we don’t see eye-to-eye. You think I need to leave. I like it here. And what I get from Miss Erin is something you can’t comprehend. She could never pay me what you want from Larra. Neither can your [Innkeeper]. But I? Look at your Skill, Barnethei. Then look at mine.”
What? What was that supposed to m—
Barnethei looked over—or rather, three men turned their heads. Three clones of the same [Vice Innkeeper]. It was a Skill so rare and so useful that only a few people in all of Izril had ever mastered a version of it. The famous [Assassin] of Magnolia Reinhart, Barnethei…
The product of work and excellence. Ishkr couldn’t keep up with it, it was true. Barnethei was higher-level, and the Skill was superb. Even Larra herself couldn’t duplicate her body like that.
However—as every eye, from Lyonette holding Mrsha to the Haven’s staff peering out with Erin Solstice smiling in the garden—and the inn’s guests staring through the windows or down the stairs—the snoopers finally saw it. Liska’s jaw dropped, and Barnethei?
He slipped, and all three men nearly went crashing down on the cleaned floors before catching themselves. And Ishkr—passed him. He shot across the inn’s floor, holding his wide mop ahead of him, collecting a wave of trash. But that wasn’t the surprising part.
The Gnoll was smiling as he stood there, and his clothing wasn’t covered in sweat like the hard-working [Innkeeper]. In fact…he was standing, not running.
The Gnoll slid over the polished floorboards, balancing on his sandals. He kicked the floor lightly—and sped up. He was gliding across the inn, and he sped up as the three Barnethei’s chased him!
The Gnoll turned as he reached the far wall and deposited the line of dirt there. Then he pirouetted like a [Dancer] and kicked off the far wall. He leaned on the mop, grinning at Barnethei as he began shooting back across the floor.
Gliding. No—sliding. Skating on the floor as if it were Ceria’s ice. He kept going, pushing himself forwards, and Barnethei saw the Gnoll effortlessly spinning across the [Grand Theatre]. Even at a dead run—there was no way the [Vice Innkeeper] could catch up. Not to—
The Skill wasn’t running out. Barnethei had assumed it was a temporary one, but Ishkr kept going as the [Vice Innkeeper] slowly began losing ground in the cleaning war. Ten minutes, fifteen—twenty-three and Ishkr kept going. Then he looked around and saw just sparkling floorboards. The last of the dirt was being swept out the front of the inn by Barnethei. So Ishkr just turned to the [Vice Innkeeper].
“I don’t think you understand, Barnethei. I quite like The Wandering Inn. Its challenges aren’t the Haven’s. You can tempt me with gold and an inn—but don’t tell me your [Innkeeper] gives you more than mine. There’s something here your inn won’t have.”
“And what’s that?”
The [Vice Innkeeper] was sweating. He looked at Ishkr as the Gnoll smiled. The ‘[Head Server]’ put his mop against one wall and turned.
“Your Skills help you work better. Mine? Mine make me happy. I’ve served crazy Archmages and the Titan of Baleros. Your staff’s served a hundred thousand nobles who pay you well. But I quite liked my guests. And even the ones I hated left me something.”
He was striding towards the door. Barnethei ran after him. He reached for Ishkr’s shoulder.
“You’re too talented not to be recognized, Ishkr! Even if you don’t leave—the [Innkeeper] is wasting your potential!”
The Gnoll spun and put his hands on Barnethei’s shoulders.
“My potential? You keep talking like I’m one in a million.”
“You are. I can’t find someone of your level—someone who can stand up to a monster and even the Witch of Webs in any corner.”
Ishkr shook his head. He patted Barnethei on the shoulders and then spun the [Innkeeper] around.
“That’s where you’re wrong. You must think Drassi was born to be a [Reporter]. The truth is that she just talks a lot. If you want a great employee, someone who’ll be famous and as good as you—turn around.”
Then Barnethei saw a tiny crack in the wall he’d missed and a bunch of faces peeking through the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He saw the Haven’s staff—and then looked up and saw the Horns peeking down the stairwell. Ishkr looked at them, at Ceria, at the two Goblins and Soldier having a cookie, and yes, even at Erin Solstice. He spoke as she turned redder.
“Erin Solstice’s inn isn’t a place where she finds great workers. It’s not that kind of inn. It may not be famous or rich—but I like it. I like her kindness and when she pushes people off cliffs. It is not easy or pleasant to work here sometimes—but neither is your inn because all you care about is making that profit. Erin’s inn? Erin’s inn is harder. Most employees quit, but the ones who stay? They are normal people, Barnethei. And if they stay, they become something. Anyone can be special. Much like Miss Erin herself.”
He let go of Barnethei, and the man staggered. The [Innkeeper] whirled as Ishkr stepped back to the open door. Then the Gnoll smiled.
“Even my sister might make something of herself. I doubt it, but I’ve been surprised before. And me? I don’t actually like working that hard. But I stay here—because I’ve gotten things I want. Your job is an obsession. I get off work.”
“And do what?”
The man stared at him. For answer—the Gnoll touched his chest. And he used a Skill that one of the Goblins, Numbtongue, recognized.
A Skill for a waiter in one of the most dangerous inns you could work at. Ishkr grabbed his own vest—and tossed himself through one of the open windows. He bailed out the window so fast that Numbtongue just saw Ishkr roll out through the opening, land on his feet—
“Where’s he going? After him!”
Lyonette, the other spies, and Barnethei went charging down the hallway to the front door. Normen himself had gotten Octavia and Numbtongue when they’d heard Ishkr was having a showdown with Barnethei. Obviously, they’d gone.
Everyone wanted to know what Ishkr’s secret was.
Ceria Springwalker was trying to lug a bowl of popcorn after her team. She was one of the last people outside, and she’d been chewing it down the entire—highly-entertaining—confrontation.
As she reached the front door though, the half-Elf stopped with a handful of greasy popcorn kernels coated with yeast in one fist. She stared out—and saw Barnethei running full-tilt after Ishkr.
For a little bit. But the man gave up, panting, as he stormed up the second hill outside of The Wandering Inn and stared after Ishkr. There was no point, after all.
He was never going to catch the Gnoll skating across another hill. Ceria’s eyes bulged as she saw Ishkr sliding, leaving a trail of grass behind him.
He was still sliding! The Gnoll was balanced like Kevin on his skateboard, arms spread—knees slightly bent. But he was moving across the Floodplains, sliding down hills and picking up speed before sliding up hills and occasionally kicking the ground to give himself a boost.
Skating. It was as if the grass, the soil—everything was coated in a layer of wax. In fact, that was exactly what was happening. Ceria realized that Ishkr wasn’t slowing down. Nor was he going to. The Skill wasn’t turning off.
[Self: Slippery Waxed Floor].
The Gnoll could even cannonball off a hill and shoot down on his back. He was—
Ksmvr spoke happily amid the silent crowd—Mrsha was freaking out, and so was Liska.
“Look, Captain Ceria. Ishkr is also better at skating than you are.”
The Ice Squirrel began choking on her popcorn. And Ishkr?
He kept going. Then he turned, because there was distant cheering going on—and embarrassed, he waved at the walls.
The Watch had seen Ishkr doing this late at night before. Like he had escaped from Facestealer—the Gnoll was shooting across the hills and valleys. When he hit the northern road being paved towards Esthelm by Hexel’s crews, the Gnoll slid across the dirt past amazed travellers. A Drake on horseback looked askance as Ishkr caught up.
His fur was blowing in the wind, and Ishkr was smiling so hugely that Liska was sure she’d never seen her older brother having so much fun.
“That rat-tailed bastard. He never said—he never—”
“Ishkr’s a private guy. He’s probably super-embarrassed. See? He’s going north. I bet Drassi knew he could do this, though.”
Liska jumped as Erin Solstice leaned on Dawil’s shoulder. She was laughing, beaming at her best employee.
“He’s got a few more cool Skills too. I think he gets them every time he meets a weird guest.”
“[Magic Piercing Throw]. Oh, and he’s never late to work. I asked him about it one time, and he told me he got it from my door and just never told anyone. See? He’s tricky.”
Ishkr had vanished behind a hill and hadn’t reappeared as everyone stared after him. But Erin Solstice just straightened and, holding her back, hobbled back into the inn. Liska followed her and realized she should help Erin; the [Innkeeper]’s legs were trembling with exhaustion.
“I just need to sit down a sec. Oh, hey, Ishkr. I think the crowd’s back. And you just cleaned up, too.”
“Perhaps we could sit in the garden instead, Miss Solstice?”
Liska dropped Erin, and Ishkr glared at his sister as Erin yelped and fell over. He walked out from behind the bar, and Liska gobbled, staring back over her shoulder.
“But you—I just s—how did—”
The Gnoll sighed loudly as Mrsha came racing back in and slammed into a table as she spotted him. Erin got up, and she and the [Head Server] chorused.
“[Never Late To Work].”
Ishkr smugly pointed to the bar. Then he blinked out of the air and reappeared behind it. The older brother watched his sister lose the ability to speak. Her accusatory paw pointed at him.
Ishkr laughed. He threw back his head and barked a single huge laugh at his sister—then saw the guests coming back in. He looked around for somewhere to hide—but they were staring at him, and Erin Solstice caught Ishkr’s gaze.
“No getting around it anymore, Ishkr. Now the cat’s out of the bag. Mrsha’s going to be bugging you to give her rides everywhere, and Ceria’ll be competing with you all day. Hedault and Kevin too, I bet.”
He didn’t look that put out, actually. Just embarrassed. The Gnoll turned as Barnethei walked in, and the [Vice Innkeeper] locked eyes with him.
Slowly, Barnethei approached the bar and realized he’d left his top-hat there. He picked it up and leaned against the counter as the Haven’s staff joined him. They looked at Erin, and she winked again. Mischievously.
When Larra heard of this…Barnethei leaned over to Ishkr.
“One question. All things aside—what is your class?”
The Gnoll eyed Barnethei, but he looked at Mrsha, lowered his voice so that most people, even the Gnolls, couldn’t hear, and whispered back.
“[Head Server of Tales and Fables]. And you?”
The Human man sighed. And it was a long sigh that came out of him as he stood there.
“[Vice Innkeeper of Spells]. So that’s it.”
Erin Solstice looked between the two. She patted Barnethei on the shoulder, and he looked at her. The two of them had, interestingly, never really spoken. Perhaps because of Barnethei’s polite disdain for Erin’s methods as he saw them. But the [Magical Innkeeper] just smiled.
“Ishkr’s got a cooler class than I do. At least, I think so.”
“So says the [Witch of Second Chances].”
Ishkr muttered. Erin rolled her eyes. She spoke to Barnethei, looking him in the eyes and finding the Silver Swords, and Stargazer’s Promise behind them, watching her. Then the Horns and Colth, who had appeared as if he’d known this was a good time to show up.
“You’ll find your class in the new lands, Barnethei. I just bet you will. We all have a lot to do. And a long way to grow. Ishkr just might be doing it differently than you think.”
She turned, and the Gnoll sighed longer and louder.
“I have been working hard, Erin.”
“It’ll be different. Less keeping everything in the inn running and more…well, it’ll be hard.”
“I knew it.”
He glumly shook his head, but when he looked at Barnethei, the Gnoll raised his brows. This was his challenge. Erin Solstice reached out, and he helped her stand. She was tired, but she turned to the others.
“I’d like to rest too, but time goes on and stuff. And we will be needed for our friends in the new lands too. Barnethei’s inn—and whatever we can do.”
Then she coughed a bit, and Ishkr looked into the crowd.
“Who are you looking for right now, Erin?”
“Uh…the Silver Swords. I’ve gotta think of another way to help Lehra’s team. I knew…I met so few Gnolls. I know less about Izril than—other things. Sorta ironic, that.”
Erin had to sit down at one of the chairs and tables as Ishkr found the Gold-rank team. Then he was being hounded by Liska and several other members of the inn, most of whom wanted to know if he could extend his personal Skill to them.
“Erin? You wanted to see us?”
The Silver Swords approached somewhat hesitantly. Falene hid behind Dawil and Ylawes, glaring at Erin. She was not in the mood for more emotional damage from seeing images of her ancestors. Nor had it been clear why Erin showed her the statues. Just to make her level up? Was that how it worked?
Maybe for Ylawes’ seeking class, but not her. Erin Solstice waved them down.
“I did. Sorry for springing the statues on you, Ylawes. If I could have, I would have prefaced it with, y’know, stories.”
“Stories of the…of him?”
Ylawes shot a glance around the inn. Erin turned, and half the adventurers looked away innocently.
“Yeah. I don’t know enough about that guy. I met him briefly. And all the people who could tell me the real stories…are gone. I’d—I think I’d be able to show Pisces a lot more. Same with Lehra’s team. I only have hints. Hints and secrets, and not all of them make sense.”
She looked miserable then, and Ylawes looked at her and was reminded of a [Witch] from the stories, the hand holding random swords in lakes. And perhaps that was how one of them had looked when all they could offer was an enchanted blade and guidance.
“What about me? Did you just—show me that to get a rise out of me?”
Falene was less charitable. She had looked upon that statue, and without knowing who the Elf was—felt such a wave of grief and agony that she was still flinching away from the open [Garden of Sanctuary]. As if her very blood remembered something.
In response, Erin Solstice looked up and met Falene’s gaze. She had that same…kind pitilessness that she sometimes used. The very same insistence on getting her way that could make you hate or like her.
It reminded Nanette, peeking at Erin from behind Calescent, of her mother. Of [Witches]. But Erin’s version of it was kind. It probably made the knife sharper.
“No. I showed you her statue because I didn’t really want the Silver Swords to recruit Rasktooth and Infinitypear. It’s…it might be the right thing to do. But it’ll be hard. I have—less to give Ylawes. Just clues. Just a statue and a bit of context.”
“That’s—more than anyone could dream of. Even our tapestries, even back home, I don’t think I’d find anything as real as that statue.”
Ylawes Byres murmured, and Dawil nodded. He looked at Erin.
“And no one for me?”
“If they were there—I didn’t meet them long enough. I’m sorry, Dawil.”
Erin expected the Dwarf to be disappointed, but he just smiled crookedly.
“Then that’s my story to chase down. I know where to begin…but help out Falene first, eh?”
Erin nodded. She took a breath, then looked Falene in the eyes again. The upset [Battlemage] saw Erin Solstice focus on her, and she felt uneasy.
“If you’re going to show me another statue without warning, I will cast a spell on you.”
She vowed, holding her staff at the ready. But Erin Solstice didn’t. She opened her mouth, and her tongue moved. It touched the tip of her teeth, and she closed her lips—as if holding something in. Or building something.
The inn was still buzzing, even if people were watching Erin out of the corners of their eyes. When she did speak, the word was quiet, but it somehow cut through even the loudest laughter and voices.
“Her name was Sprigaena. And they called her the Traitor of Elves.”
Falene’s fingers tightened around the staff. She fired a [Firebolt] past Erin’s left ear—unconsciously—and the [Innkeeper] ducked. But Falene and the Silver Swords were just staring at her. So the [Innkeeper] went on, leaning out of the way of Falene’s staff.
“I didn’t show you her statue to be mean. Find out…I don’t know who she was. I know part of it, but I hope you could—”
“Find out? Me? I’m no [Historian].”
“Then ask your kind. Ask the half-Elves in the colonies. I don’t care who you tell, but I thought I’d leave you in charge. Her name was Sprigaena—and I think she regretted everything she ever did. But I don’t know the history they wrote about her. Her soul is beyond saving. But maybe you can still redeem her past.”
Erin Solstice looked Falene Skystrall in the eyes, and a shiver passed across the half-Elf. A name so old it had been almost lost except…and Falene looked around and wondered who might know.
Archmage Feor? Zedalien of the House of El? The Treespeakers? And she realized why, of the two half-Elves that Erin knew and trusted, Erin had gone to her and not Ceria. The half-Elf of Gaiil-Drome sat there, shoulders hunched, as Erin Solstice exhaled.
“Yderigrisel the Silver Dragon. Sprigaena, the Last Elf. Is that loud enough for you all?”
She turned—and the guests of the inn froze. Erin raised her voice. Then she called out, to the spies that were definitely hiding outside the windows and staring at the guard-adventurer, Tessa. To the chess board that the Titan wouldn’t listen through—and to anyone else.
“I want to know their stories too. And I’ll show their statues to anyone worthy because theirs are tales that should be told. I wish Ishkr had served them. I wish they were here—so find out. I’ll say their names. All the great ones I met. Califor, Serept, Elucina—all of them in time. And each story. I want to know if they were really monsters or heroes. Velzimri…”
She stared around the inn, and some of those names landed. Octavia’s eyes nearly fell out of their sockets, and Erin exhaled.
“Even the Putrid One had a name. I’ll say them and say them again, even if it’s only so we learn from their mistakes. Even if it’s only to steal whatever they left behind. I’ll say every name but six. That’s my vengeance. Everyone deserves a legacy except for those who’ve earned only silence.”
She looked around, and then the names whispered again. And Ishkr? Ishkr stood behind the bar, leaning over it. He smiled—and wondered if ever someone who knew those names, or whose names would echo like that, would enter the inn. Surely, they would. And when they did—
He couldn’t wait to see what happened after that.
Author’s Note: Am tired. Somehow that break didn’t end up curing much. I have 22 chapters of Volume 1 ‘due’ left by the end of the year.
Also, Christmas. Also, work. I think I am winding down on my yearly energy, but I’ll continue on as I can.
Just know that I am looking forwards to the two-week break at the start of the new year. Once again, I have written too much–I’ll do better next chapter.
That’s all we can do. Some days we slip. We go on binges of bad things to have too much of. Food, drugs, alcohol…words…
I’ve written a 33,000 word chapter, and I’ll kick this habit starting tomorrow. Don’t cry for me. I’m already dead. I think a wise man said that.
I’ll see you next chapter with more energy. For now, hope you enjoyed it.
Ishkr, Liska, and Revi by butts! Give likes and the things on Twitter. Assuming it’s still around when you read this.
Valley, Clothing Woes, Philisophical Mrsha, and more by Brack!
‘It’ll Grow Back’ and ‘I’ve Got You’ by pkay!