It was one thing to be old.
Another, to be the last of something. The Last Dragonlord of Flame was still sleeping day after day when a visitor came to his cave.
They passed through the High Passes warily, but with some wisdom, having seen it before. The trick was to not attract attention. Once you had one thing after you—or fleeing from you—something else noticed it.
And like a game of eternal one-upmanship, every monster in creation would invariably join the fight. But if you never got to that first point? You might well be safe.
A bit of luck. And not running into the nastiest elements of the High Passes. There were some…unique monsters lurking about.
The Void Eater Goat, for one. The…shapeshifter, another.
It was wandering about, blabbering as the visitor passed behind a cluster of rocks, heading towards the cave with the yellow scarf still tied to the rocks, fluttering in the wind.
“I’m not saying anything. I know my rights. Fuck you, pig—it was an accident, Mom. Buy another car. No, I’m not sorry. Hello. Hello? Hello. I’m R—Ry—Ryooookaaaaa—”
Completely undisturbing. It looked like it was feeding off some poor soul’s memories. The visitor decided not to disturb the young woman wandering around in circles.
Mind you—that wasn’t the disturbing thing. The disturbing thing was…the shapeshifter was practicing. Now, who had given it that damn idea? The creature had ceased lurching around in a way that said it had never understood the pain of falling over as an infant. It was no longer naked, and the voice—despite the modulation—was sounding passably normal.
Practice. Did you understand why that was scary? Natural talent abounded, but it was only when talent was refined through effort that things became scary. Gargoyle Bossels, despite their intelligence, strength, and ability to use weapons, were not largely scary because they were just bigger versions of their kin.
Few of them had the diligence to practice or train their underlings. Thugen—their word for lesser Gargoyles—were as lazy as their leaders.
Same for Eater Goats. They were suicidally mad—not diligent. Void Eater Goats, though…they were scary. Because once, that little, innocent goat with its black fur and insatiable appetite—once it had been an Eater Goat, a nasty one. An Eater Goat that practiced the art of eating.
The visitor was one such being who had learned practice would put them above other people. And yes, it sounded obvious—but who truly did practice with such diligence? Few people. Work was not always practice. Survival was not always practice. Training, deliberate—was difficult and unintuitive at times.
Like, for instance, being able to walk without a sound such that even the keen-eyed Gargoyles never stirred from their perches, the Eater Goats never looked up from foraging for food. And even the sleeping Dragon and all his spells did not wake at all as the visitor tip-toed into his cave.
He was waiting for a young woman. He was always waiting for one. The visitor rolled their eyes. Not that they were one to talk or lecture normally.
But this was a special occasion.
Even slumbering, Teriarch was too canny to have forgotten all his tricks. Despite the intruder bypassing his wards, a feat few could ever boast of—and only because they were one of the few welcome visitors—he was already stirring.
Smell? Or detecting aura? Or…instinct? He cracked open one huge, heliotrope eye, and his claw reached for a floating alarm-spell. Then he spotted the visitor and surged upright.
Many tonnes of Dragon flesh rising made the light in the cave shine brightly and wildly as his brass scales flashed—a river of metal. He boomed as he inhaled—reflexively.
The visitor side-stepped just in time, and the fireball blew a hole straight through the cave’s entrance and into the rock beyond. The shapeshifter was probably two hundred paces away—and it began screaming as it caught on fire. The actual impact cratered a hole in the stone cliffs that cracked the stone and gouged out a molten center of lava.
Every monster in the area looked up, smelled or felt or saw the burning attack—and decided they had other places to be.
It was a killing attack—and it probably would have eliminated, beyond the Dragon’s means to bring back, any number of young women who could have come calling for help.
The visitor, though, just stared sideways at the trailing smoke and flames, unimpressed. Teriarch spotted his guest and closed his mouth. And the first thing the visitor did was paw at the ground and speak in a higher voice than you might think, precise, even pedantic. He tossed his head back, and a shimmering mane of hair fluttered around him like gossamer spider webs.
Or some such. He’d gone silver this year, and he was thinking he’d go back to blonde. Or pink. But everyone noticed pink. The visitor eyed Teriarch as he threw back his head.
“Weak. And slow. I’d have run you through an eye if I were going to kill you.”
The Brass Dragon’s mouth opened slightly. He blinked—and it seemed like they hadn’t seen each other for centuries.
It had probably only been…four hundred and twelve years? Give or take. Time passed fast and slow, sometimes.
“Taletevirion. What are you doing here?”
Once again, the visitor pawed at the ground, a sign of restlessness. He dipped his head, and his horn—and it was a long horn, straight and tipped at the end—gleamed with a kind of magic few had ever seen. He normally kept it hidden, but Dragon eyes saw most things.
The last Unicorn of the Vale Forest, Taletevirion, trotted left and right, eying the hoard and cave with distaste.
“Asking if you’ve lost your mind. Here I thought I’d be seeing war-camps, the Dragonthrone open, and armies of Golems or something. But no—you’re sleeping like usual. So it was someone else, then. Waterboy himself. The sheer pomposity was you, though. Lady War would never bother with that.”
“…Huh? What are you doing in my cave?”
The Dragon blinked at the Unicorn, looking sleepy and not quite alert yet. Nor could he memory-wipe his guest and present his best side. The Unicorn kicked a crown next to his hooves.
“Calanfer, Calanfer, Teriarch. Was that you? If it was—what possessed you? I also heard of a ruckus in Ailendamus. The last Dryad’s dead…but you wouldn’t have done that. Yet she died of flames. So the spirits of nature whisper—or something like that. They’re antsy, all these forest memories. The Green King, Winter Sprites here in number—something’s up. So are you awake or still sleeping?”
Here was the thing. As Teriarch’s eyes widened and he began to regain full control of his mind, he looked at his visitor and saw a number of Unicorns. The one in front of him looked much like the others, mind you.
He had never quite lost his fighting trim—which, if you knew horses, meant he was in quite good shape. Although he didn’t look like a racing horse, all running muscle to no other point. Possibly few horses outside of the ancient wilds had ever looked like he did. Not bulky, but rather like a [Duelist]—compacted against his form.
He was quick. But the Taletevirion of the modern day struck a contrast to those who had come before. And the Dragon remembered them all.
This Unicorn was more like a charmer, for all he was in shape. You’d find him mysteriously in one of your stables or in a field with some mares or stallions—often in compromising situations.
He had no shame. And he was probably why a good portion of Izril’s horses were so famously capable. Teriarch had heard when an impulsive [Lady] had bought some of the finest horses from overseas, Taletevirion had stayed on Walchaís lands for two decades. And nearly died of dehydration.
Knowing that definitely put a damper on the awe of meeting Taletevirion for the first time. But then—Teriarch could not blame him like he held Eldavin, himself, to account.
The last Unicorn of the Vale Forest…was the last. And whatever you blamed him for, you had not seen him, clad in armor, marshaling [Soldiers] to battle. Weltered in gore until his horn shone red, his hooves leaving footprints in his forest as it burned.
He was done with it all and had said as much. It was one of the reasons, actually, that the two had kept in very sporadic contact. They were both done—only, Taletevirion meant it.
Now, he had come to see what had woken the Dragonlord of Flame from his long isolation. As Taletevirion looked around, he could see no clues—but he sensed them.
Death hung in the air. Death…and another Dragon? The unicorn didn’t sniff—his horn glowed faintly as he twisted his head left and right, like someone using a dowsing rod. But delicately. He had taught [Duelists] how to fence, and he had added to the magic of his kind with the horn that so many would try to cut from his skull.
The idiots never seemed to realize it would regrow. Not that it was wise to hold a Unicorn captive, but still. No foresight.
Someone died here. Someone powerful—Taletevirion glanced at Teriarch. Which made no sense. Or rather, it did and he would have expected it for any number of reasons, but why was the Dragonlord here?
Actually, two people had died here recently. But one was definitely mortal, and the other was definitely immortal or highly magical. Plus the other Dragon…Taletevirion’s face wrinkled up, and he stuck out his tongue as he sensed a final presence.
“Eugh. You’ve been having the intruders over. A lot of them. Have you been rhyming or throwing swords into lakes? Please tell me we’re not doing that again.”
“I…stop dowsing my caves!”
“Why? You haven’t been doing anything inappropriate. Haven’t been doing it for the last twenty thousand years, by the feel of it.”
And now he was getting angry. The Unicorn rolled his eyes.
“Poly. Morph. I know you can do it. But that answers another question—so it’s not you, but someone else calling himself ‘Eldavin’? It was certainly the old you in style, but not in caution. Is it someone who’s out to ruin your reputation? You and our Dragonlord of Waters having a spat? If you’re going to mess up his reputation undersea, take me with you. I haven’t seen any Kelpies in a while. Mm.”
It was too early to deal with this. The Dragonlord stared at his guest, then looked around.
“I will have tea. Will you?”
“Sure, give me a bucket. Make it the good stuff. Something Drathian. I had a plot of some good herbs that the [Druids] knew not to touch until recently, but some damn [Witch] got into it. Harvested the entire thing, plants and all. Damn [Witches].”
Without a word, Teriarch levitated the largest bowl and whisk in the world down, and tea leaves and water flew about him. There was an art to it, and even sleepy, he paused to let Taletevirion purify the water.
The whisk was made of old heartswood, gifted by Dryads themselves. The tea leaves seemed to brighten and return to their fresh state as he mixed water and tea, heating it with his breath. Although—even here, the Unicorn was annoying.
“Poor flame control. You’re boiling it too fast.”
The whisking was pleasant, though. And though it took a while as the tea leaves were ground and a powder added to the hot water and mixed—the two did take a repose.
With unique drinking vessels. A ‘bucket’ for Taletevirion that was made to stand such that he didn’t have to dip his head far, a stand of old jade. Teriarch had a more cup-like vessel, which he levitated up and down, blowing and sipping.
“—How did a [Witch] get into your private herbal supply? Was it the…Spider? Or was one so eminently talented as to bypass your wards?”
Now, the Unicorn looked uncomfortable. He coughed to one side as he took a draft of tea.
“The Spider appreciates tea like you appreciate pun-poetry. No, this was someone new. Decades back. Maybe she talked her way into my gardens. She was quite attractive, you know.”
The flat response and look in his eyes said it all. Taletevirion snorted.
“You are the last person I will take a lecture from about being swayed by pretty eyes and a sob story. It’s just tea. I go harass her when I need some more.”
The Dragonlord looked at the Unicorn, then coughed to one side.
“I don’t keep plants unless it’s in preservation—I can’t stand to water the things, even with spells. And they still die after centuries, even with the finest care. But if you’re truly hurting for beverages, I could lend you a packet or two. And I might be flying by Drath in the future. If you want, I could bring back a hibiscus or whatnot.”
The Unicorn’s head rose, along with his eyebrows. It was the rarest thing in the world for a Dragon to give anything away from their hoard, unprompted. And it was the rudest thing to ignore.
“I could take—do you have any Halfling’s leaf?”
“Not the smoking kind?”
Teriarch flicked open a huge set of enchanted drawers. He lifted a few huge pouches out—then judiciously measured enough for three months straight of tea drinking into a smaller bag of holding. He presented it to the Unicorn.
“How are your hooves? I know a fine [Handler]…”
“I’m the one who tends forests, not you. Thank you. But every hostler eventually tries to put horseshoes on me. Cold iron, sometimes. I get depressed if I have to kick them. I scrape them pretty well.”
He showed Teriarch his hooves, which were in good condition. The Dragon smiled at that. The Unicorn didn’t look poor after all this time. Reminded, now, Teriarch’s head turned, and a rack of bottles stacked a thousand high and racing along the walls of his cavern glinted at him. Slightly dusty.
“Can I offer you something stronger? I think I have something preserved to eat.”
He was beginning to enjoy himself, and Taletevirion regretted having to break Teriarch’s growing enthusiasm. But he did, coughing to one side.
“I don’t think it’s the moment to enjoy ourselves. I’m pleased you won’t ever starve—if you needed to eat in the first place. Thank you for the tea, again. Speaking of which—why is there an Archmage Eldavin on these scrying orbs, and what’s up with Calanfer?”
This was no social call, after all. So Teriarch put the cup down and exhaled slowly. He looked—
Well, he looked awful. Not much worse since the last time Taletevirion had seen him, but that wasn’t saying much. And from the way he flexed his wings and winced, he was having some kind of muscle pain.
Taletevirion should have come centuries ago. The Unicorn felt that guilt—and accepted it. He should have raced the Dragon, coaxed him out of his cave. But the Dragonlord was so stubborn—he had half feared he’d spend another three months arguing with him to keep his eyes open and listen.
Yet—the Unicorn should have come. With grasses and tonics from the [Druids], with honey from vast beehives, and with more than caution and worry. The Dragonlord slept overlong, and it showed.
He even had poor control of his flames at the moment. Suggesting…he’d been using them liberally.
Was that Wyrm the Unicorn smelled? Great. Another pest. He’d heard one was causing trouble in Ailendamus. And Lucifen. Wonderful. You never forgot infernal stench. And a Titan? And…
A cough made the Unicorn stop dowsing magically again. Teriarch spoke quietly.
“In short—and I will thank you to mind your tongue until after I have conveyed my information—the situation has changed, Taletevirion. Dramatically. I—we are called to war.”
“I’ve heard that before. Who’s calling? A Treant? Some random Human, Drake, or Gnoll girl? Magnolia Reinhart? No—she’s trying to build wall-bridges because she’s bought into your ideas.”
The Unicorn snorted, and the Dragonlord lifted his head imperiously and tilted it away.
“Oh, alright, I’ll be quiet.”
Teriarch paused a good minute, pointedly, before he spoke.
“We are called by the dead, Taletevirion. You did not see…ghosts? When Fetohep warned us of Seamwalkers, did not a single ghost come to you and warn you?”
Then the Unicorn fell silent—and his head rose slowly.
“The Unicorns of the Vale Forest are gone. Their last ghosts told me something was haunting them—last year. All of Izril’s been emptying—I can’t find a single one. What do you know about—ghosts?”
Then he listened. And the Dragonlord spoke.
“Eldavin is my simulacrum—an accident left him with some of my memories and independent will. He cannot be reasoned with, nor do I trust him. Nor was I able to best him and remove his presence. I went to Calanfer to inspire and dare the Terandrian kingdoms to come to the new lands. To level and forge connections. I did reveal myself—just as I met the Wyrm of Ailendamus and the immortal cabal therein to try and make peace and a lasting alliance. That failed, but we have some accord. All this is in service to fighting a power older than your forest, Taletevirion. Something is back—and the lands of the dead have become the first casualty in this conflict.”
He did not say it precisely like that—but if you wanted to summarize the longer explanation with occasional questions, it was essentially that.
When he was done, the Unicorn looked at the Brass Dragon for a long, long time. Not as if he were crazy, but just taking in the magnitude of it all. And here was one who could believe and understand because he had lived through times as dramatic and crazy. What Taletevirion said, after all that, was simple.
“Right. Thanks for telling me. I’m off. See you.”
The Dragonlord saw the Unicorn turn around and trot back the way he’d come. Teriarch coughed.
“You aren’t going to do anything?”
Taletevirion came to a stop. He turned his head back.
“I’m going to raid someone’s wine cellar, get so drunk I wake up next month, and then I’ll see how many charming mares I can meet. Or stallions. Heck, maybe I’ll polymorph myself. I’ll come back, probably, if you’re here in a month or two. To say goodbye. I don’t think I’ll see you in the next millennium. If you’re right—I might not be there myself, so we’ll make it a real thing. Break out all the good liquors. I’ll bring something nice as well.”
Teriarch unfolded his wings.
“Taletevirion. Didn’t you hear what I said?”
The Unicorn exhaled.
“I heard you. I’m done. It sounds like you were called, not me.”
“Only because Izril was already lost before the final conflict began. Even if one had wanted to talk to you—”
“—They wouldn’t, because I would have told them to sod off before I banished them into Baleros. Don’t give me the ‘one last time’ speech. I gave you that when the Treants left. I’m gone. There’s no side left. Soul-eaters? Ghosts? The mortals of this world?”
He threw his head back and laughed, a braying laugh, like a donkey’s, derisive and crude.
“They killed my forest and hunted us all down. I’d have thought you’d abstain as well. But if it was ghosts…”
Taletevirion’s head dipped as he looked at Teriarch.
“…that would do it. Maybe do some laps around the High Passes before you head off to war though, hm?”
He headed towards the cave’s entrance. The Dragonlord looked at one of his few acquaintances, who wasn’t as old as Teriarch—but they were of a kind. They were all like that.
“Taletevirion. What would it take for you to take up arms? You cannot ignore what is happening or hide from this calling.”
He was glancing back across his hoard, and the Unicorn, despite himself, slowed at the entrance. Taletevirion’s hooves came to a clattering halt—and it was unusual because he was normally so quiet.
Gladeswalker. Champion of the Canopied Path. When you were so old and had done so much, you had these endless names. But the silly Unicorn with his libidinous pursuits—
He turned his head back, and one eye flashed brightly, and Teriarch knew he’d gone too far.
“Hide? That is the most hypocritical thing I have ever heard you say, Dragonlord of Flame. Who walks the forests and lands of Izril while you sit in your cave and sleep away the centuries?”
“I only meant—”
The Unicorn came striding back, horn glowing dangerously. He stopped, stomping his hooves and snorting with ill-concealed ire.
“Hiding? Do you know I had pledged to your precious Magnolia Reinhart to lift my horn for war if it came to Izril? If the Antinium of Rhir ventured north, I, foolishly witnessing their destruction of the ‘Hivelands’, swore to defend this land. You accuse me of hiding? Shirking my duties? I will own that I am lazy, indiscreet, and that I will take no sides even if my kin’s ghosts were to beg me. But my ruined forest has regrown.”
He meant the Vale Forest. And yes, it was still one of the world’s largest forests, the largest by far on Izril. But the great trees were gone.
“The Dryads are dead. The Unicorns are gone. All the other species who sheltered under the branches—lost. No more communities of bear and wolf, no more Beastkin. The Corusdeer herds run wild and without purpose. The tribes of ape and monkey are dead; their kin on Baleros still mourn.”
The Unicorn’s voice was heavy and deep. Like a dirge. Teriarch tried to speak. His scales were hot. With embarrassment.
“I only meant—”
The Unicorn looked up at him, and his gaze was empty. Then—he shook his head and looked dismissively around Teriarch’s cave.
“Yet I am still here. My wards have changed, from that folk, from the great aspens and oaks and the will of Treants to little Humans playing under the branches. [Druids] who still remember how to live without cutting down everything in their path. I am here, Teriarch. And I tend to my wards and friends. What few who still remain on Izril.”
Then he looked at the Dragon, and Teriarch realized that was why the Unicorn had chosen to visit. He—even in waking—had not first thought to visit Taletevirion. The Dragon hung his head, and the Unicorn went on gently.
“If it comes, you shall see me at the last. But I am done with making empires. I thought you were. You warned me that the half-Elves would create no more great forests, but I did not listen. We have always remembered the folly of the past, us two. More than your cousins. Why would I make war and call the last of the last forwards again?”
“Perhaps the cause matters enough. Perhaps the foe is horrific enough.”
The Dragonlord’s throat was dry, but he growled the words. Taletevirion looked at him bleakly.
“Spawn from the edge of the world? Worse? Old Ones buried deep?”
The Unicorn considered that. Then he turned his head.
“—And when will we hold a blade to those unwilling to help us and declare our ultimatums? Destroy an enemy’s camp so thoroughly we slaughter their livestock and salt the earth with flame? I am weary of it. Take my invitation, Teriarch. And know the Vale Forest will have one protector.”
Then he turned around once more and began to walk away. And Teriarch’s eyes burned, for the Unicorn truly had walked every century the Dragon lay sleeping. He was younger—but how many monsters, Crelers and the like, had died to that silent protector?
Perhaps the Vale Forest was the safest of its kind yet left in the world. He would be a mighty ally, though. Teriarch had a vision of the Unicorn of old, challenging a [King] to a duel as three champions lay at his feet, each one disarmed. So he called out.
“A gift, then, Taletevirion. Anything within my power to grant you—is there nothing left you desire?”
His wings took in relics, gold enough to buy the forest the Unicorn called home, even if it was from the nobles who ‘owned’ it. The Unicorn looked over his shoulder. He knew what Teriarch possessed. He thought for a long time, and his eyes sharpened.
“Still got your Dragonthrone?”
Teriarch’s voice was instantly defensive, possessive, but the fact that he even acknowledged it…the Unicorn exhaled. It really was serious, then. Even if he looked like he’d been napping. Teriarch was already yawning, but the light of hope was in his eyes.
If he had Taletevirion, a peer to stir him…the last Unicorn looked Teriarch in the eyes and considered the Brass Dragon’s treasures.
“—Then we’ll have the party there.”
He didn’t turn around this time, because he knew Teriarch was going to make him an offer. The Dragonlord tried.
“Taletevirion. If there is any object or favor or debt I can call upon—”
And the Unicorn interrupted him with an almost ironic, sing-song rhyme in his voice—but a deadly serious look in his eyes and a voice like old brambles in the forest, like dead earth under fallow trees.
“Dragon. No treasure of yours shall compel me.
Nor favor nor threat impel me spill my blood.
My days are done. No friends to aid nor kin to free.
My worth as warrior and guide I would rather be to stud.
I am no friend of Drake nor Gnoll nor Human nor any other kind.
Only for something new even to Dragons will I ever, ever change my mind.”
The Dragonlord looked down, dismayed, and Taletevirion bent a knee, giving the Dragon a too-formal salute with his horn.
“There. A true Geas of the Vale Forest upon myself. Oathsworn upon my horn. Do you have anything to add?”
Though he knew how stubborn Taletevirion was, how weary of this he must be—the Dragonlord did try one last trick. He slowly, slowly, lifted up something odd, flat, and rectangular that glowed with something other than magic.
“Will you not look at this, Taletevirion? It is new.”
The Unicorn’s eyes widened as he saw the odd device—and he trotted forwards as Teriarch lowered it.
“It is called—a laptop. A Dell. It has a number of interesting features, including…images…that you may be fascinated by.”
Teriarch sighed as he brought that up, but it was certainly new. The Unicorn’s Geas—his keen intellect focused on the laptop—and he exhaled.
“My, that is new. And this…”
He lowered his horn slightly, staring at the screen—and Teriarch sensed the near-instantaneous spellcasting only after Taletevirion’s horn extended.
A sword of light slashed the laptop in half. As the Dragon jerked it away—the horn flashed twice, and Taletevirion blew both sides of the laptop into fragments that exploded around the cave. He raised his horn as Teriarch’s mouth opened wide. The Unicorn stared the Dragonlord in the eyes.
“Don’t try to play me like an Agelum, Teriarch. Objects have always been worthless to everyone but Dragons and Drakes. A million of Veltras’ children play under the leaves of my forest. They may burn it one day or cut it to the roots. But they are innocent of their deeds of the past and when they age.”
He looked around as the stunned Dragon stared at his broken treasure, and the Unicorn spat.
“—A treasure beyond any you have ever accumulated. I have never forgotten what wealth looks like.”
Then he was trotting out of the cave, fast—so fast he left a trail of wind in his wake—before the Dragonlord could vent his incredible pique. The roar echoed around the High Passes…and then Teriarch lay down. Sulking, he reconstructed the laptop from a fragment.
Wearied, once more, the Dragon slept. The last Unicorn? He went off somewhere to find a drink. He knew an ending was coming, but so what?
It was always coming. He had seen the Creler Wars come and go. He’d seen Dryads die, seen his forest burn. Not for laptops. Not for Dragons or young folk. Teriarch was that noble soul, nobler than even the Silver Dragon Knight. He would fly and die for someone else’s future.
But Taletevirion? There was no future for Dragons. Nor for Unicorns. Not for Humanity or even the memory of the dead. The Unicorn trotted off.
He needed a drink.
Fights were never fun, emotionally-uplifting affairs. Especially when they were between two people who liked each other.
The last Redfang of The Wandering Inn was Numbtongue. Oh, Badarrow was back and Rabbiteater was alive.
But they weren’t here. For all he had hugged his brother and they had gone out hunting and talked—they were somehow separate.
It had taken Numbtongue a long time to understand what that sense of disconnect was—until someone had summarized it for him.
“You’re living different lives, Numbtongue. Different jobs. Different—roles. Even if you are brothers, I felt the same way with my sisters. Even when they came back, they were different. Not always better or worse, but separate.”
Lyonette knew the feeling that Numbtongue had experienced—possibly for the second time in his life. He hadn’t realized it before, but the Redfang Tribe meant that a warrior was only separated from the others during scouting missions or after a battle if they were lost or left behind.
When the thirteen Goblins had been sent to kill the [Innkeeper]—they had changed greatly over their journeys. The five who had made it to the inn…they had been strangers when they met Garen Redfang.
Now, in the same way, Numbtongue felt like Badarrow was different. Closer to a Chieftain, a member of Rags’ tribe.
He envied Badarrow in some ways. In others, he felt like the [Sniper] had left the one good place they knew. And Badarrow—seemed to think Numbtongue had had it hardest.
“We are Goblins. We have Goblinhome. You…you’re here. With Erin. With ghosts.”
Truer words had never been spoken. Badarrow liked the inn. He liked Erin—but it had too many painful memories for him. He would not stay. He had asked—tentatively—if Numbtongue wanted to go to Goblinhome. Just to visit.
The answer was no, Numbtongue was almost sure. Erin needed someone to watch out for her. Mrsha needed someone to look out for her. The inn was fun, it had all the things Numbtongue liked.
One of them was Octavia. And Garia came by here. And that had amused his brother almost as much as anything else.
It was an open relationship. Where the relationship was forged of having known people for a while. Like Octavia.
Numbtongue had first defended her from being attacked with Yellow Splatters in Celum. After that, he’d learnt you could sometimes find Octavia starving to death, having not slept for thirty-six hours, and that if you put something in front of her, she would eat it and not die.
It became customary for him to wander into her shop, poke her if she were nodding off into a boiling beaker, or put a blanket on her—or food in front of her as she worked. He’d also sell her gemstones in return for potions, and she later realized she had an unwilling test subject for some of her potions.
That was probably how it started. Numbtongue would come into her shop to practice on the guitar as she worked and then…
Garia Strongheart was different. They had met a bit later and gotten to know each other more intimately.
Mostly—by kicking each other in Garia’s barn or practicing sparring combat. Which was a time-honored way for Redfangs to get to know each other too. Also, Numbtongue would occasionally be found wandering around naked and dead-drunk with Wailant and Viceria in the night.
And people wondered why Garia didn’t visit home that much. Well, she had been stopping by more often.
The point was, Numbtongue made it clear he quite liked both the [Martial Artist] and [Alchemist], and they were aware he wasn’t being serious. Which, to Goblins, meant babies more than a commitment.
Neither one was interested in babies at this point, so it worked out well. At least, Numbtongue thought so.
His ghosts had other opinions, but he ignored them when he could. And he had learned the ghosts could go elsewhere if need be. Which was really—really—really helpful.
There was something about Pyrite, Shorthilt, and Reiss sitting there and running commentary while he was trying to flirt that really threw Numbtongue off his stride. Let alone anything else.
The point was that Numbtongue had quite enjoyed the fall as it began to turn to winter. He enjoyed the cold, fresh air, the changing colors of grass, the new inn, the cities, and…The Wandering Inn being open and Erin not being dead.
He still woke up sometimes and wondered. Then he’d hear her voice and all was well. There were Goblins in the inn, guests and employees, and Numbtongue felt happy.
Which was why his first major fight with Octavia was such a dramatic thing.
“Tada! What do you think, Numbtongue?”
The Hobgoblin had been giving Octavia a gift when she surprised him with one. The thing about Numbtongue was that he quite enjoyed things. He made it his goal to find things to enjoy.
If he found he were cold and there was a nice fire, the [Bard] would obsessively grab some of Erin’s cocoa if he could find it, or hot milk and honey, two blankets, and a shivering Octavia and then sit there in front of the fire for an hour. Just because he could. Plus snacks. And a scrying orb.
If he were mining in the mountains—an actual thing he did and not just an excuse to take Octavia or Garia or someone else out to have fun—he would search for gemstones to give them. Or something fun or useful like a scarf in Invrisil that looked like a river over red soil that Garia used.
Or massages, which he was good at. Enjoyment was something to be cultivated, and Numbtongue was a connoisseur. It was also why Badarrow, Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater used to make fun of him. For optimizing his good times.
A Numbtongue-gift was thus quite regular. But Octavia had been bundled up in a coat and had a hood up when he came in—and she had been sitting with her back turned until he slyly poked her. Then she turned, threw off her coat—and blanket—and beamed up at him.
That was Octavia, always thinking or chewing on a stirring spoon or a flurry of energy until she collapsed. Her and her light brown eyes, sometimes ringed by soot or lines of exhaustion. And her green skin.
…Huh? Numbtongue looked at Octavia as she threw off her coat, and her skin was definitely green. Not lime green, but a natural green—like a Goblin’s, in fact. Her body was the same—but the skin?
“I’ve been working on it all month! It took ages to get cloth dyed right, but there’s a Stitch-folk [Seamstress] in Invrisil. Who’s ready for a fun evening? I don’t have work and—Numbtongue?”
He stared at her in such a way that her excitement over her surprise faded. When she reached for him, he panicked. Or did something.
His arms went up, and he just—jumped back. Octavia’s face fell.
“Numbtongue? I thought you’d like it.”
When he could speak, the Hobgoblin got angry. And he snapped when Pyrite was poking him before he could think.
“Why would you think I’d like that?”
Hence the argument. It lasted for twelve minutes. And Numbtongue told Octavia not to do the skin, and she was upset and told him it wasn’t her intention to make him mad.
She was a Stitch-folk, and this was one of the few times Numbtongue had realized there really was a cultural difference.
Stitch-folk changed parts of themselves as they pleased. They didn’t value appearance as much, because if you had an unlimited budget, you could look like whatever you wanted.
The cut of cloth mattered less than the quality of it, to quote a Stitch-folk saying. So they had little judgment on skin tone. Green wasn’t something they did, but Octavia had pointed out—in increasingly exasperated tones—that she’d changed her own cloth colors and appearance many times.
“Why can’t I do it? I thought you’d be happy—”
“Well, I’m not.”
Twelve minutes later, Numbtongue was still mad about it. He was stomping around The Wandering Inn’s second floor, his room, and he only had his ghosts for companionship.
Pyrite, Shorthilt, Reiss. All three a different kind of Goblin. One, a Chieftain; another, a younger warrior; the third, the Goblin Lord, a [Necromancer].
Each one had different opinions. Sometimes, he saw them often and they were loud in his head. Other times, he could go days without thinking of them. He had their memories—and opinions. Sometimes if he wanted them or not.
“Mean to nice [Alchemist].”
Shorthilt was poking Numbtongue as they walked. The [Soulbard] swatted at his brother.
“She was wrong.”
“Why was she wrong?”
That came from the larger Hob, Pyrite, who sat. But he seemed to reappear every few steps, such that Numbtongue kept passing by him. The ghost was chewing on the memory of thistles, grimacing every few seconds.
It was actually a good question and a Pyrite-question because it made Numbtongue think. He didn’t really realize why he had been so upset by Octavia’s skin tone change.
“Was it because she should not? Or because it was bad? Or because she didn’t ask?”
Reiss was the analytical one, who was a Pisces-esque character of the three. Pyrite was a deep thinker, the Goblin Lord more academic sometimes. Plus, he knew magic and things even Numbtongue and Pyrite and Shorthilt combined couldn’t come up with. Like law and so on. Still, Numbtongue often took Pyrite’s advice over Reiss’. The Goblin Lord’s life had shown where Reiss’ decisions led.
“I…don’t want her pretending to be like a Goblin. Is bad. Not because she wanted to be—be—”
Numbtongue nodded as the ghosts suggested words.
“—That. She wouldn’t. But I looked at her, and I thought—no. Not because she’d be a bad Goblin. Maybe. I don’t know! But because I…”
He searched for words.
“I thought—‘she shouldn’t have this fate’. To have green skin. To be…”
He touched his chest, and he realized that was a lot of it. Some of it was being offended that she thought looking like a Goblin would make him happy. That she didn’t know what being a Goblin was. But he’d also been afraid.
His ghosts looked at each other. Then, Shorthilt nodded at the others and reached out.
“Brother. Give me a minute.”
He meant—[A Minute, Reborn]. Numbtongue’s greatest Skill. And it was so rare for a ghost to ask for that time that Numbtongue instantly agreed.
He reached out—
And Shorthilt took over. Numbtongue’s posture changed. He checked himself, felt at his cheeks, and the true Hob was like a dreamer watching himself from up high. He would remember, when the minute ended—and it was closer to two minutes, anyways.
But he felt Shorthilt’s vague intentions, if not understood all the ghost’s thoughts. Shorthilt took a second to wave at a curious Apista crawling out of Lyonette and Mrsha’s room and grin. He felt pleasure at that. Then he walked towards the stairs heading down to the first floor.
There was a bannister rail that helped people climb up. Nothing that needed to ever be mentioned in the history of Erin’s inn and the stairs. Just a salient point at this particular moment. A staring little Sariant Lamb poked her head out of the doorway as, below, Erin Solstice was noisily hmming and going about her day. It was about an hour before lunch, and the inn was quieter than most parts of the day.
Perfect. Shorthilt calculated his trajectory, took a few steps back—and by the time Numbtongue realized what he was going to do, it was too late to stop. Shorthilt aimed at the stairs—or rather, the banister going down, did a flying leap—
The crash made Erin Solstice jump in her seat. She whirled—and saw a Hobgoblin slam into the floor. Well, he came down the stairs. But she had never, ever seen someone do a flying, groin-first leap into the bannister on purpose.
It looked like it really hurt. Especially because the Goblin was clutching at his private parts and rolling around. He was cursing the air—and for some reason, Erin didn’t think it was aimed at her.
“Numbtongue? You okay, buddy?”
He didn’t seem to hear her. Erin looked at him and shook her head.
Shorthilt stood over Numbtongue. He’d given Numbtongue control back right before impact, and he, Reiss, and Pyrite were clustered around the downed Redfang.
“Can’t punch you, so this is easier.”
Numbtongue had tears in his eyes from the agony. He was trying to ask why Shorthilt would do something like this—but the Redfang kicked at Numbtongue’s chest. His foot passed through.
“Is bad to be a Goblin? You sound like Humans. Or Drakes. Why you think like that? What bad rot in head?”
He crouched down and poked at Numbtongue angrily. He was angry—and Numbtongue saw Reiss nodding. Pyrite…Pyrite was more sympathetic.
“Is a bad thought. Sometimes you have bad thoughts.”
They all knew what it was like to be a Goblin. Hunted and hated—even this inn wasn’t completely safe. The ghosts were proof of that. Pyrite nodded reasonably, but he took a ghost-thistle out of his mouth and tossed it to the side, where it vanished.
“Not wrong. But not good to hate. Also—not Octavia. She likes you. True?”
Numbtongue sat up, wincing, and Pyrite went on.
“She doesn’t know Goblins. She likes Numbtongue. Thinks he’ll be happy. So does this. Then he gets mad at Octavia for something she doesn’t think. Here is good question: is Octavia bad?”
The [Bard] sat there for a while. He knew the answer, of course. He just hadn’t thought of that when he was angry.
“No. Of course not. I should have explained. I’ll go now.”
He stood up, looking to the far hallway. This time, it was Pyrite who blocked him.
The Hob stared seriously at the [Bard], as if he were being stupid.
“Angry Numbtongue shouts at Octavia. They fight. Then he runs off. Seven…eight minutes later, he comes back to apologize and make up. Expects to. As if they did not fight.”
“But now I know.”
“So wait. Until evening. Come back later. Like soup. When it all nice and cooked, not hot and bubbling. But not wait until lukewarm.”
The Goldstone Chieftain smacked his lips. His food analogies…Numbtongue edged around him.
“Good idea. Or I go now.”
“She still crying? She still upset? You’re not mad because of us. Two hours. One.”
The Hob was pointing out a difference in moods, but here, at least, Numbtongue thought he was wrong. He was quite the type to leave someone alone and go off until they were calm and would talk again. It was something Shorthilt agreed with, but then, Redfangs often settled most things as Garen had taught them—with actual combat.
The [Bard] took a huge breath. He strode over to the door, and Pyrite tried to stop him.
“Don’t go. Or I’ll use a minute and eat…Calescent’s death-spice curry. All the plate. And let you poo it tonight.”
The [Bard] hesitated—and then pulled on the doorknob.
“Pyrite, you’re wise. But sometimes you don’t know everything.”
The Goldstone Chieftain frowned and hmmed. He backed up a step.
“Good point. We’ll see.”
When Numbtongue pushed open the door to Octavia’s shop, he called out.
“Octavia? Can we talk?”
He didn’t hear anything inside. But when he stepped through the door, he froze up instantly and decided Pyrite was right.
“Uh oh. She’s super mad. Give me a minute and I’ll cast [Barkskin].”
Reiss observed as Numbtongue’s boots crunched on—glass. He looked down, and three beakers were shattered on the floor. Thankfully, only one of them seemed magical—and it was Sage’s Water. But clearly—Octavia had been more upset than Numbtongue thought.
[Alchemists] might get mad, but they never threw things in their work areas. Let alone reagents and stuff. But several of Octavia’s mixing vials were shattered on the floorboards, and one of her Sage’s Grass water bases.
It looked like she’d tossed more tools to the ground too, and Numbtongue looked around and didn’t see her. One of her windows was slightly open to the cool fall air—he closed it.
“Octavia? You—you mad?”
He looked around the room, but she must have stormed out, because he didn’t see her. The Hobgoblin searched about. Then he bent down.
“Hm. Alchemists don’t break their own stuff.”
Pyrite reappeared, looking warily at the ground. Numbtongue suddenly looked up, and his hand reached for the Dragonblood crystal sword…which he did not always carry around with him inside the inn.
Shorthilt cursed, and instead, Numbtongue reached for his bag of holding and a jar of acid. Then he sidled over to one of the work tables, reached under it, and pulled a knife out of a sheath he’d glued to the underside. The long dagger came out as Numbtongue turned.
Reiss reached out, and Numbtongue hesitated—before shifting control to the most powerful Goblin present. His eyes—turned darker, and when he rose, the Hobgoblin turned and whispered.
“[Detect Life]. [See Invisibility].”
His fingers glowed with a [Deathbolt] spell as he placed the jar of acid in front of him—and held the knife at the ready. The Hobgoblin slowly rotated around the lab—and his eyes narrowed.
Octavia Cotton had a total of about three close friends in Izril. Well, more after going south with them to rescue Mrsha.
But she hadn’t spoken to Gna for a while, or Salkis, and she missed that. The camaraderie of the road.
Really, it was Numbtongue. Saliss was her mentor, but she spent as much company in his time as not. But in lieu of finding Saliss when she was so distraught, she went to the only other friend she had.
Yellow Splatters sat there as Octavia related their fight. Her skin was still green, because it would take an age to replace all the cloth. She’d even done her face!
“And he told me I was, ‘stupid for thinking he’d ever like it’!”
“I shall hit him.”
The Antinium Soldier concluded. He stood with a nod, and Octavia grabbed his arm.
“Then what am I doing?”
The [Sergeant] obediently sat back down, and Octavia sniffed.
“Just listen. Don’t hit him. Like you two do when you gamble.”
“That is a game.”
“It’s a game?”
The Antinium Soldier nodded reasonably.
“Yes. We play cards. Then, whoever wins gets to throw a coin at the other. Like our game where we toss one of Mrsha’s balls at the other and must not flinch.”
“Oh, Redfang games. Boy games.”
Octavia rolled her eyes. Yellow Splatters smiled, raising his mandibles.
“It is a funny game. But Numbtongue refuses to play because I have no ‘jewels’. So I do not fear the ball like he does.”
The [Alchemist] snorted about that and actually stopped crying a bit. Yellow Splatters patted her on the back.
They were not in the Free Hive. Rather, they were in a new part of Liscor—Antinium-based dormitories. It was a kind of super-reward that let Painted Antinium and members of the Hives like Silveran, Yellow Splatters, and so on have actual rooms and possessions and access to the city without having to navigate the Hive every day.
Yellow Splatters’ room was filled with paintings. He painted the Soldiers and Workers he remembered and put them on the walls. He also had a lot of the little figurines, and he had bought some tiny brushes he was learning to paint with when Octavia came in. He was, in fact, a [Painter].
“So I am not hitting Numbtongue. What is my role here?”
“Listen. Make me feel better. Take my side!”
Yellow Splatters instantly turned to face the way Octavia was facing. But he also, gingerly, patted her on the shoulders.
“Numbtongue is a bad person today. I will speak to him. He should not make his friend cry.”
“Thanks, Yellow Splatters. I just—don’t know what to do. I didn’t realize it’d make him upset.”
The Antinium stared at Octavia’s green skin blankly.
“I do not know why either. The Crimson Soldier is red. Xrn is blue. If you wore my shell, I would not be angry. But perhaps I would be if you wore Whitepaw’s paint. But I know you like me.”
“Do you think that was why it was? He could have said that! He knows I change my cloth. What if I decide I want long hair and he doesn’t like that?”
Octavia was getting mad now and throwing out examples that Numbtongue probably wouldn’t be upset about. But she was angry. Yellow Splatters nodded thoughtfully.
“If Antinium could change their cloth, they would.”
“Yeah! This isn’t home—we’re not in a Stitch-folk city. I can do what I want! I could—I could put on Revi’s cat ears if I wanted!”
Now, Octavia had to explain about how some Stitch-folk altered their bodies in ways even their own people thought were radical and extreme. Yellow Splatters hesitated.
“Yes. These cat ears are…not problems. I think.”
“I’m trying to show Numbtongue I care. I was going to keep the skin tone all week! At least! What if I started a trend? Wouldn’t that help Goblins?”
“Maybe. Maybe we should find Numbtongue.”
The Soldier felt like his unconditional support of Octavia’s position—especially vis-à-vis the cat ears—was weakening. He just felt—
“Why not dog ears? They are the superior pet.”
Octavia gave him a blank stare as the Soldier folded his arms. Then she realized that the new Antinium dorms really were different from the Hive. For nothing would do but for Yellow Splatters to have Octavia rise—and come over to another room.
“Silveran. Silveran. Are you in here?”
Yellow Splatters knocked on a door two doors down, and a voice came from inside.
“Silveran is not here.”
Octavia hesitated—and Yellow Splatters sighed. Loudly.
The door sprang open, and an Antinium with a huge, silvery mustache opened the door. He had something in his hands. It was blonde and looked like an old man due to the mop of hair around its face.
It was a puppy.
“This is The Spotted One, Octavia. He is a good puppy. Silveran and I share him.”
“And me, Silverstache.”
The Antinium smiled as Yellow Splatters sighed and ignored that. The little puppy was madly squirming to lick Octavia and to run about. It barked excitedly, and Octavia feared the loud sound would wake up the apartments.
Which it did.
Doors swung open, and Octavia winced as angry…neighboring Antinium delightedly came out.
“It is The Spotted One. And green Octavia. Hello!”
“The Spotted One. May I pet? Who is this green Goblin? I am Super Cleaner. I work for Silveran. Hello, Silverstache.”
“The Spotted One! Say hello to Longboy!”
A long, thin dog raced up to join the first, and the two ran about as the Workers and Soldiers bent over to pet the dogs. One offered them a treat, but Silveran stopped the Worker.
“They have already eaten. We must not feed them. Or…Furfur will not let them stay.”
The Workers and Soldiers muttered darkly. Octavia had heard of the dreaded Furfur. Silverstache confided in Octavia.
“He has let us have three doggies between us. But if we give them too many snacks or do not take care of them, we will have our permissions revoked.”
“I hate Furfur.”
One of the Workers glowered into the distance. Octavia, meanwhile, was getting her hands licked by the dogs.
“Sorry, they love [Alchemists]. We smell of all kinds of things. See?”
The Spotted One began sneezing, and all the Workers clustered around to observe in delight. They were having so much fun that Octavia forgot her argument with Numbtongue. Right up until someone came walking along.
“Oh, Yellow Splatters. And Octavia. Hello. This is a rare surprise. Is your skin now green, Octavia? It is very good-looking.”
Pawn of the Free Antinium was walking with his censer-stick and the dread Furfur himself. All the Workers guiltily hid the puppies behind them.
“We are just playing! We are not overexercising them or letting them stay up or overfeeding them—there is no reason for you to be here! Go bother the kitty-folk.”
The Antinium pointed across the complex to the other side, which was presumably where the cat-loving Antinium were. It seemed there were actual differences of opinion between the Antinium living above the Hive.
Pawn, though, just quieted the group with a wave.
“Furfur is just checking in on the pets. They like him. See?”
Indeed, all the puppies ran around him, barking in delight, and Furfur bent over. But the Workers knew that he had the power to take away the puppies. One turned to Pawn.
“He cannot take The Spotted One or Longboy away. Or I will die. They are the only reason living is worth it.”
Several Workers and Soldiers nodded with him. The Worker thought about it.
“That. And food. And music. But I cannot not have the puppies. I thought my life was fine without them, but it was only because I did not know they existed. I will never sleep without a fluffy thing in my lap.”
He bent down, and the weiner-dog lapped at his fingers. The Worker, Excessive Combs, produced his specialty object—a comb—and began to comb the delighted, wiggling dog’s fur. But when the dog lapped at his face, the Worker smiled. He swung around with the dog in his arms.
“It was worth fighting Flesh Worms and three years in the darkness for this.”
Combs had been gloomy about being a Worker—even a Painted Antinium—after all he’d seen. That was, until he realized he could take a little puppy and give it everything it wanted. And that it loved him.
Excessive Combs had never been loved like that. His only fault was feeding the dogs too many snacks, and he glared at Furfur with deep distrust.
Nor was Furfur about to confiscate the dogs, unless it really was for their own good. He was doing a checkup of their health, making sure their fur wasn’t matted, and so on. People needed a Furfur—and as for Pawn?
Octavia hadn’t seen him around of late. He clearly recognized her, green skin or not.
“Have you been crying?”
“She has had a fight with Numbtongue. Who I should not hit, but speak to civilly. It is very confusing. Perhaps you should pray with Pawn?”
“I—don’t know if that’ll help, Yellow Splatters.”
Even Octavia was unclear over what Pawn did exactly. She got his class—but Pawn winced and waved it away.
“I am not the best person to speak to for…this, Yellow Splatters. Why don’t we go back to the inn and find Numbtongue? Octavia can have a talk with Numbtongue. As long as they are not breaking up. Are you? Because I will go away and not witness that, thank you.”
He was quite relieved when Octavia told him she hoped it was a temporary fight. So, back to the inn they went.
“Where have you been, Pawn?”
“Avoiding Lyonette. Suffering. And writing and speaking with Hexel.”
The Worker muttered. Octavia had heard…about the breakup. Erin probably didn’t even know about the relationship. She looked sympathetically at him, but Pawn just stared ahead.
“I have things to occupy me. But it would be good to go to the inn now and then. Especially because I am told our spiritual guide is returning.”
That was an odd way of saying her name. But Pawn just smiled as Yellow Splatters looked intrigued.
“No. I am told Ryoka Griffin is coming.”
“Oh. Oh. Wait—she’s a spiritual guide?”
Pawn nodded sanguinely.
“As much as we have in anyone. I have spoken to many people from Earth. Rose, Erin, Joseph, Kevin, but Ryoka least of all. And she was the first who put us upon our path.”
No wonder they were so lost. But really—Pawn smiled, and so did Octavia, because she wanted to talk to her now-famous friend, or at least, a person she’d known.
She was smiling right until they got back to the inn. Then—she stepped into her shop and saw the broken glass. Yellow Splatters stared in dismay at knocked-over beakers, reagents spilled about, and Octavia saw her entire morning of prep work spilled.
In the center of her store was Numbtongue. He was beaming, their fight completely forgotten. The [Bard] held something squirming up in his hands.
“Octavia! Octavia, look what I found! It was in your shop! Look—”
He held out a young, mangy, striped orange-and-white cat with a ragged ear who kept trying to bite his hands. The Hobgoblin was delighted. Octavia looked at her shop and the beaming idiot. Yellow Splatters raised a tentative fist and glanced at Pawn, who shook his head. Then the [Priest] eyed the shaking [Alchemist] and closed the door.
The second fight revolved mostly around Numbtongue’s delight and Octavia’s ruined shop. And him completely forgetting what the first fight was about.
“You cannot have a cat.”
“Why do you even like it?”
“It’s hungry. See? And it fights things. I like it.”
“You’re feeding it bits of Erin’s best steak! She’s never going to let you keep it.”
“She said I could have a pet.”
“It ruined my shop!”
“You left the window open. This is a good cat. It doesn’t even want to go, see? It’s hurt.”
“You wasted a healing potion on it.”
Octavia was fuming, but Numbtongue just bent over the singed fur and cuts on the paws. The kitten was digging its claws into his shirt and skin—but it slowly stopped as the wounds healed. And he was whispering to it.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now. I’ve got you. Brave cat. It fought something with fangs and teeth. That’s why it clawed me. See? It’s already calm.”
In fact, once the nervous kitten realized it was not about to be eaten or killed, it fell asleep in Numbtongue’s arms. It wasn’t one of Elirr’s cats, nor was it a pet—it had no collar, and no one in their right mind would have let a cat out onto the Floodplains, away from Liscor.
Octavia had no idea where it had come from. The stray must have wandered away from its mother—or there was no mother anymore. It had clearly gone through some rough times before it had found its way through Octavia’s window.
It looked thin, dirty, and yet it had scratched up Numbtongue’s hands and knocked over all the alchemy supplies in his attempts to corner and grab it. The Hobgoblin already loved it.
“It must have fought off Shield Spiders to get here. And evaded Rock Crabs.”
“Or maybe it fell off a caravan or snuck out the city gates. It’s not even magical.”
“How can you tell? It could be magical.”
The Hobgoblin looked offended, but Octavia just picked up some fur and, glaring, melted it in one of her Sage’s Grass bases. It didn’t produce a reaction.
“No magical fur—not a magical cat. Even the ones that are just smart have a tinge to them. Elirr’s cats are smarter and better than this one.”
“Don’t be mean. This cat is brave. He made it here—he’s the best cat. Like a Goblin.”
Then Octavia figured out why Numbtongue liked the idea of a single cat finding his way to a safe haven. Especially a ‘warrior’. She rolled her eyes. She was so mad about her shop that she was angrier at Numbtongue for not sharing her pain. Her tools! Her stuff! Her reagents—she could replace it all with her earnings working for Saliss, but she wanted to cry. And here this beaming idiot was, sitting and petting the cat.
“Not going to talk about my green skin anymore?”
The [Bard] looked up suddenly, and his face fell.
“Oh. I was going to say I was wrong, Octavia. I shouldn’t have shouted and—”
“You’re unbelievable! I hate you!”
She shouted, and the Hobgoblin winced as the cat woke up in his arms. It panicked—and he held onto it as it squirmed.
“Good cat. Good cat, no one’s going to harm you. No one’s going to harm you~”
He was actually singing to it. Crooning—he didn’t even like singing for her without a special occasion! Vengeful, petty—Octavia searched for the lowest blow she could think of.
“Erin won’t let you keep it. She might not want a pet now she’s got a Sariant Lamb and Apista. This thing is dirty and violent.”
Suddenly worried, Numbtongue looked up.
“She’ll let me keep it.”
“Not if it’s a threat to the other animals. Or it causes more chaos.”
“Then I’ll…I’ll train it in secret and show it to her!”
The [Bard] had a brilliant idea. Octavia stared at him as he got up, looking around. Then he opened the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“I’ll take it to Elirr’s tomorrow. Then I’ll show it to her after a week. With a name. It should have a name. What about…Orangefang? Orangestripes?”
Octavia saw the Goblin beaming—and she shouted at him as he hurried into the garden.
“We’re still fighting! I’m furious at you! You can’t come up with good names, you stupid—stupid singing [Bard]!”
In fairness to Erin Solstice, she might have okayed a cat if one had been presented to her, even the new one that had caused so much havoc. But she didn’t think of cats that morning.
She thought of something else. Ideas. Ideas like…time travel, plans, and schemes revolving around this time of year. In fact, she was so lost in thought she’d spent the last two hours here.
She hadn’t even noticed the faint crashing and Numbtongue bumping around Octavia’s shop, far down the hall. Erin was balancing a quill on her nose and sneezing now and then.
“Goblinfriend…something I’d do once I had time…think, Erin. Think like Erin Solstice. No, wait, Erin Solstice in a year or two. Something grand. Something scary. Thiiiinnk—when is Ryoka getting here?”
Every few minutes, she’d look up and get distracted. Erin was excited about the news Ryoka had sent ahead of herself. Apparently, she was already halfway to Invrisil, and she’d use the door to come on through.
Where had she been? A continent away, that’s where. But she’d [Messaged] Erin, and they had so much to talk about. Too much. Erin was looking forwards to it, but she was also conscious of the winter.
The winter. Erin knew it was upon them, but the first snowflakes hadn’t actually fallen. She was wondering if the Winter Sprites would be back, actually. Ivolethe was dead. Or something confusing. But would the others come?
Would the dead gods object to that? Erin had no idea about the fair folk’s relationship with the dead gods, but she worried. And if they didn’t come—what about the snow?
“I need snow for my plan. But when do I spring it on them? And is it a good plan?”
“Hello, Erin. What is your plan?”
Pawn sat down in front of Erin, and she glanced up. She smiled, but absently.
“Pawn! Pull up a seat. Wanna play chess while I think? Sorry, but that’s all I’ve got power for. Big ruminating. Big plans. I’ve gotta be…ruthless. No, not just ruthless, pragmatic. Really ‘Rhavia-type moves here. Have you seen Saliss?”
“I have not seen Saliss. May I ask what this plan is about?”
Erin glanced up. She looked at Pawn, and since it was him—Erin lowered her voice and leaned forwards and whispered.
“I’ve got a kinda big plan, Pawn. The kinda thing on the level of my Mythical Quest.”
It was a sign of Pawn being Pawn that he didn’t so much as flinch when she said that. The [Priest] leaned over.
“What is it going to be? Is anyone in danger?”
“Not—this time! But I think it’ll really move the timeline forwards. A bit. It’ll be safe, huge, and I think you should be part of it. And Numbtongue. And Rags. And heck, Lyonette can probably make a bajillion gold coins off it.”
The [Princess], who had been trying to ignore Pawn while being cordial—turned her head slightly as she caught wind of that. Erin nodded as Pawn clicked his mandibles together.
“That does sound impressive. What is this plan?”
Erin lowered her voice further. She whispered as Pawn’s antennae waved.
“Goblin and Antinium-themed…Christmas.”
The [Priest] stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] put two hands on her head and opened them up to indicate explosions. She beamed at him.
“Huh? Amazing, right?”
“I don’t quite see the appeal. You have done this before.”
He had quite enjoyed the last one. Erin Solstice just leaned back and folded her arms with a smug look.
“Yeah. But only in Liscor. This time—I’m going global.”
Pawn’s mandibles opened. Erin Solstice waggled her eyebrows triumphantly and looked about. Huh? Huh? Imagine it. All she had to do was invent a holiday. Or rather, bring an existing one into fruition.
“I might need to speak to Fetohep and Drassi and stuff—but it’s the first part of my grand plans. And if I could just get a few more things done, I could do, like, another Quest and…Lyonette, let me know if Saliss gets in! Or Ryoka! I’m gonna pop over to Esthelm and borrow Kevin’s stone, okay?”
She got up and then turned to Pawn.
“Do you want to come with me, Pawn? I’ll just be talking to someone I know, but I could introduce you for a bit. And we should hang out. Where have you been all this time?”
The [Priest] sat there, smiling wanly at Erin. He looked older than she was for a moment.
“Thinking. Writing. Talking to Hexel. I may sadly have to attend to my responsibilities today, though.”
Erin opened her mouth as her feet tried to take her to Esthelm, but she stopped.
“Are those three things connected?”
The [Priest of Wrath and Sky] nodded. Erin’s brow wrinkled up. She came back over and touched Pawn’s arm.
“Well, if you have work, you have work. But just grab me and tell me you want to talk, okay? Don’t be a stranger. Not you. Not here.”
Pawn smiled widely. He nodded, and Erin headed off as Numbtongue edged around the back of the room, holding something behind his back. Mrsha followed him with Gire, both of them sniffing pointedly. But the Goblin tried to shoo the tiny Gnoll and the giant Gnoll away.
Erin didn’t notice, or if she did, she considered this background ambiance in the inn. She was already down the hallway when her voice floated back to the guests.
“Oh! Mihaela! Hi! Are you here for something to eat? Come in!”
Then stomped in the Guildmistress of First Landing. Pawn looked up as she spotted him, and he ducked his head politely.
Her face froze—and she stared past him at Numbtongue. Then decided to stand there, looking around the inn. Taking it in—or rather, the guests—with hostility.
But even she wanted to visit on her own terms and see this inn. It was, she had been told, the place where her son, Valceif Godfrey, had lost his charm before he was murdered. And what she saw was the Goblin with the cat. The Antinium, praying in his seat and occasionally making notes in a journal.
What she failed to recognize was that they were just as unusual. Even amongst their kind. As strange as a certain Unicorn who’d decided to find something to drink and was scouring cities for something nice and unusual.
The common thread that united Numbtongue and Pawn was simple. They were older than their ages—and old by the standards of their species.
Pawn was 3. Numbtongue…well, Goblins didn’t count age as much, but they reckoned anything above ‘six’ was pretty old. The number of Goblins who could remember the Goblin King of a decade past were vanishingly small.
They were also the last. Not the final survivors, but the last of a group. For Numbtongue, it had been the five Redfangs.
For Pawn—a chess club that came to Erin’s inn every day and played.
Oh, there was still Garry, Bird in his tower, Belgrade, Anand, and more Individuals, more than Pawn could even name at this point, but he was the last one from those days whose role mostly echoed how it had begun.
Bird was now a child of the inn. Belgrade, a commander of more than Antinium. Anand was serving the Queens in the Hivelands.
Pawn was the one who was—uncertain. Even Xrn and Klbkch did not give him direct orders.
As always, he was searching for a path. Forging one by faith and experimentation. Leading the Antinium in his own way.
It was confusing. It was scary. It was hard, and—in that sense, it was no different from the first time Erin Solstice had turned around and asked him his name. So, when you wondered what Pawn had been doing, he didn’t lie when he told Erin it was thinking, writing, and talking to Hexel.
But the truth was deeper than that. He glanced over at Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin slyly showed the two Gnolls his wriggling cat.
“I will take him to Elirr. No telling Erin, okay? Okay? Or Lyonette.”
That was a smart move. He instantly had two allies, and the delighted Gnolls pet the wriggling cat, who was clearly worried it would be eaten by Gire and possibly Mrsha. But it settled down as the [Druid] solemnly placed a paw on its forehead.
“Miss Lyonette? We’re going out to Elirr!”
Gire ushered Mrsha and Numbtongue off, and they ran before the [Princess] could shout that Ser Sest was going too. The Thronebearer went charging off anyways, and Pawn nodded to himself.
He felt a kinship with Numbtongue, for all the Hob and he weren’t weekly gamblers like Yellow Splatters was with the [Bard]. After all—Numbtongue knew how it was too.
He had chosen to pursue relationships, practice his guitar—and apparently—learn to smile after his own devastation. He had become as part of the inn as the floorboards.
But Pawn? He passed his time in thought as Mihaela Godfrey stared about the inn. Lyonette hurried up to the woman and asked if she could do anything—she was disappointed to receive a request for a glass of water and some snacks. Mihaela stared at the fries she was given and ate them. Slowly.
Fry by fry. Her eating speed was about one fry per eight minutes. Which meant even her basket lasted her an hour without depleting noticeably. She was watching—
Mostly, she was watching the inn’s guests, looking out the window at Liscor, and listening. Whenever Lyonette came over, Mihaela would ask her a question.
“The Runner’s Guild? We get…Street Runners quite often. They do grocery deliveries.”
“Hm. And Hawk?”
“He’s…a rare guest. But very welcome here! Uh—he had a relationship with one of our regulars, so—”
“You know about that?”
Mihaela took a drink of water, and it was refilled from a pitcher with ice cubes. She grunted in satisfaction.
“He cried about it in every Guild in the north. Fine. Tell me about Celum. I hear there was some business with Runners attacking other Runners.”
“Runners attacking—oh. You mean Ryoka Griffin.”
Mihaela’s face soured further.
“Yes. Her. I have the official story from the guild. Do you, personally, know anything about it?”
Lyonette hesitated, fussing with her apron.
“That was before my time. Erin might know, but she wasn’t there, either. Ryoka got one of her legs smashed by some Runners—”
“Persua, Toriska, Claudeil…well, Persua is the Runner who remains. Along with a number of younger ones who weren’t punished. Who else was there? Who else can corroborate their stories? The old Guildmaster resigned. Courtesy of Lady Reinhart, who decided the Runner’s Guild needed outside arbitration.”
If looks could shoot laser beams…the inn would have scorch marks everywhere and Pawn would have three dozen holes in his back.
“Someone who knows…Fals or Garia?”
“Huh. Strongheart did mention that. So they were there, and you know—concretely—that Ryoka Griffin had her leg broken. Anything else?”
Pawn watched Lyonette with the same sadness at seeing her. She was clearly intimidated by Mihaela and stuttered a bit. He wanted to go over and take her hand, but now they were separate.
“Uh…uh…she went running in the High Passes later. But then I heard Persua might have started a barfight? Which Garia was part of.”
“After breaking her leg? And where was the Runner’s Guild in all this? Senior Runners and staff were…?”
“Trying to stop Persua? Ryoka went south after that, and the Horns went to Liscor—she went to the Bloodfields, and the feud might have ended there.”
“No more witnesses. Right. That’s all I need.”
Mihaela sat back. She put her feet up on a chair she’d propped up—and Lyonette decided not to mention it. The Guildmistress stared ahead—then glanced up.
“Oh, not at all…”
The [Princess] trailed away as Mihaela raised something to her lips. It turned out to be a speaking stone.
“This is Mihaela Godfrey. Send me Fals and Garia Strongheart. Now. I’m at The Wandering Inn, Liscor. Which one’s closest? Nevermind. Both are to report to me at their top speeds.”
Mihaela sat back and continued eating her fries at the same pace. In the meantime, Pawn finally got to meet with who he was waiting for.
“Architect Hexel! Are you here to talk to Erin? I’m sorry, she’s out.”
“Erin? I don’t think so. My appointment is for—ah, there he is. No, not Erin. Do you have two hundred thousand gold pieces yet? Anything from the chess tourney?”
Lyonette stared at Pawn as the Lamia slithered into the inn. Mihaela raised her brows and sat up a bit as Lyonette bit her lip.
“Actually—not much. A lot of places took in a considerable amount of coin for the tourney—each participant paid a small fee of silver. But few have…remitted the coins to us.”
“Ah. How troublesome. Well, just drop me a [Message] or Street Runner when you need to. How are the wall repairs? Good, good. Mister Pawn, I’m sorry I was delayed. Sealing up the dungeon. We had Children climbing up.”
“Oh. Monsters or actual children?”
“Monsters. I hate the damned things. Now…you’ve bought three hours of my time and we’re on the hourglass, so let’s not waste time in the undergrowth. I’ve used up two hours and fifteen minutes already…”
The two sat down at a table, and Lyonette, perplexed, stared at Hexel as he began placing items down. Pawn put his hands together.
“I hope we can settle this matter within this latest round of revisions, Architect. You are an expensive person to hire.”
“My price goes up with how busy I am. But I love a challenge. And I level from challenging customers. Which you are.”
The Lamia, one of Erin’s rarer guests, was not someone most people talked to. He had survived Drake hostility to get to Liscor, and he was one of Baleros’ talented [Architects]. But how much did you know about him?
Mrsha, arguably, knew more than most people about one aspect of Hexel. But the Lamia was an [Architect]. Not a [Builder], not just a [Supervisor].
He made things. And the fact he and Pawn were working together? What was Pawn up to? Lyonette edged over until he looked politely her way. Then she hurried off.
And this was the truth. Pawn closed his journal and sat forwards. He was doing what he always did.
Believe. Pray. And—
Define the Antinium’s faith. Hexel spread out the blueprints and gave Pawn a narked look.
“So, to summarize your requests. You wanted a specialty design. Something replicable by Antinium techniques—underground and over it—for your, ah, ‘faith’ activities.”
“For prayer. For gatherings.”
Lyonette’s head turned back as she swabbed at a table. Mihaela wasn’t even pretending to hide her interest. As Fals ran in, panting, she pointed at a table.
“Sit there. Where’s Strongheart…?”
“I thought you had one in this inn. Some kind of room here? I saw it—briefly.”
Hexel was referring to the prayer room, which Erin had given the Antinium. And it was nice, designed after the model of her world, churches…but Pawn shook his head.
“That is something Erin gave to us—but it is not ours. This must be ours. Unique to the Antinium. We will make them everywhere we go.”
“And my design will be the basis.”
The Lamia’s eyes glinted. No wonder he’d taken the commission cheaply. But he was working at cross-angles, trying to understand something that Pawn hadn’t fully been able to explain. Nevertheless—Hexel went on.
“You had a few requirements. One—that the building evoke a sense of wonder and reverence, like a memorial or site of reverence. I took from palaces, natural wonders there—second, the place had to be made of mundane materials. Even if it was underground as well—you wanted the motifs to be ‘sky’, ‘gardens’, and colorful. Finally, it had to be defensible. We spoke about your fellowship’s last stand.”
“Chess club. They were a chess club.”
Hexel looked around The Wandering Inn. He fixed on Pawn and nodded. His serious look turned to one of slight kindness.
“I’m sure they were. Well, let’s go over my ideas now.”
Thus, he began to unroll blueprint after blueprint, ‘fast’ sketches that nevertheless looked quite beautiful to Pawn, interpretations of what the Antinium’s faith could be. The [Priest] stared at the images and felt it.
This is what we need.
When had he realized it? Sometime last year, probably. Then, throughout this one, he’d been working in private. He’d had to teach the Painted Antinium how to be, organize in Klbkch’s absence, and do so much.
But faith was what Pawn was good at. He had understood there was a flaw in even his prayers to the Painted Antinium in their barracks. It was good—it was true, and it meant a lot.
But the Antinium’s faith was fledgling compared to the depth that Ryoka Griffin had once told him about.
Cathedrals, entire organizations of faith—services and traditions—a culture unto itself. Pawn wanted it. He wanted more than just faith. It might move mountains—but it would not be so bad to have walls and books, would it?
It would not be a bad thing to have something of their own. Now, he could, of course, do it himself, but it occurred to Pawn that a [Carpenter] under Level 10 was nowhere near as good as an [Architect].
The book—he was writing the book himself because no [Scribe] could comprehend what he wanted of them. And Krsysl Wordsmith had ignored his letter.
Pawn sorted through the pages. He spoke before Hexel even had a chance to lay some out.
“These three will not do. I am sorry.”
“If you’re sure—that’s often a sign the client knows what they want. May I ask why?”
The Lamia didn’t react poorly, but he tugged the pages out of the way. Pawn nodded.
“They are closer to throne rooms. This one is too regal. This one too grand. This one—it is not a happy place.”
The three designs he indicated were all reminiscent of traditional Terandrian architecture. Spacious, designed to emphasize the grandeur. Hexel had left spaces for plinths or altars where someone might stand—but it wasn’t right.
“Hm. I thought we wanted to evoke open spaces. Alright…how about this one?”
Hexel submitted a kind of amphitheater that drew inwards. It incorporated a labyrinth design on the floor, drawn in bright colors, and it looked like an odd gathering spot. Sort of like how Pallass was designed—an inverted pyramid. Only, this was circular.
“It looks like a basin.”
“Everyone flowing together—you enter, descend…I have a Selphid-inspired one, but I think you’ll hate it. It made half the cats in Elirr’s shop puke up their disgusting hairballs.”
Hexel held up another design of the same room—only instead of a graceful basin and labyrinth walk—it was a spiral. A spiral that turned dizzyingly into the center, down and down—Pawn felt vaguely sick just looking at it.
“No, thank you.”
“Thought not. I’m keeping this one for Selphids and Gazers. They love this kind of architecture. What’s wrong with this one?”
“It’s…communal. But not inviting enough. You should be able to walk in and out.”
“Too much ceremony? Hm. Okay—how about a Lizardfolk style building?”
This time, Hexel presented the image Pawn liked the most. It was a rounded design with holes to let in light. And on the ground, Hexel had drawn a bunch of grass, flowers.
“A little sunshine dome. It’s reminiscent of my people’s mud-based houses. Druidic, too.”
“I like it. But it will not do. Sunshine does not filter that far down in the Hive. And this one is too humble if I am making sense. I am sorry, Architect Hexel.”
The Lamia waved a claw. Pawn glanced over—Mihaela Godfrey was speaking to Garia and Fals at a table, interrogating them. She looked over—scowled as they locked gazes. Pawn fixed his attention back on Hexel.
“Don’t apologize. This is part of the process. We’re getting somewhere, though. Okay…Drathians have this lovely motif with these gates leading up to a very temple-esque building.”
“I am familiar. I will not copy them.”
“But take inspiration? The Blighted Kingdom loves pure metals, so they might clash with your natural feeling. As for Chandrar…here are three more.”
They took thirty minutes out of the forty in the time it took for Numbtongue to come back. He had left Mrsha and Gire behind—they were still petting Jeckel, the Wyvern in Elirr’s care. But the angry, frightened cat had turned into one mostly curious by virtue of Elirr’s abilities. He had reassured it that Numbtongue was not a threat and skipped what sometimes took weeks of adjustment by being able to communicate with the animal.
They were, after all, intelligent, even if Elirr had told Numbtongue his newfound stray was nowhere near as ‘evil’ as Elirr’s intelligent animals. If he gained a pet-based class and Skills, that might change.
Hexel was gulping down some blue fruit juice as he rapidly sketched. He and Pawn had gone over twenty-three designs, and none quite worked.
“These will be adaptable—”
“—but you’re asking for something I’m not seeing, yet. I wish I had [Eye of the Client] or something similar, but it sounds like you don’t quite know what you want yourself. I’ve got a [Quick Sketch] left—let’s summarize. This should be a room that can connect to multiple others. Open. Free. Natural—druidic inspiration was what you liked. Evoking the sky…underground.”
The Lamia was having trouble with that one. He was no subterranean dweller, and even his wide-ranging experience couldn’t encapsulate the claustrophobia of the tunnels Antinium had made. Pawn had described it and the limited amount of things an Antinium could quarry by hand.
“Stone. Not metal. Not glass—which would be very nice. Paint?”
“We can procure paint. But the rest is…”
“Not a lot of options. I might have to insist you produce some carved stone. Alright. Alright…we’ve got ten minutes left.”
“I will pay for another two hours if we need to meet again.”
Pawn checked his money pouch and knew he’d have to apply for the funds from Xrn or the Free Queen. Hexel sketched furiously.
“You’ll need that anyways if I’m laying out the actual specifications and tweaking a prototype, but I’d hate to do more than one or two more design passes…alright. I’m going to need you to work with me here. A circular room, I think. Broad, dome center. What we’ll do is paint the sky you want, or night sky, on the roof.”
He was outlining a dome-like room, and he gave it…six entrances. Pawn was nodding. He could imagine that. A place Antinium could pass through, even briefly. The Hive loved rooms that were so useful. He could place them at intersections.
“Grass might be impossible without light. But you decorate the rooms. Now, for each tunnel…an arch reminiscent of Drathian gates, perhaps. What about a pillar of stone? No—”
“Yes, yes. Too austere. Then—how about something simple?”
Hexel outlined a rough-hewn piece of stone, and Pawn sat up a bit. Hexel noticed the look and duplicated it. Only when he placed them around the room did Pawn start to feel something.
He had no idea what the room was evoking—not yet—but the pillars of stone, the room filled with natural elements, the center where you would have a floating [Light] spell or something like Erin’s grass garden and a vision of the sky, even underground?
“You could easily translate this aboveground. Then—you have actual glass or just a view of the sky. Frankly, if we want to cut it down, the Antinium could just build these stone arches. Giant pieces of stone. If you need it defensible, the arches can be collapsed. Entire tunnels, too.”
Hexel was adding defensive security measures, but Pawn was studying the proposed rooms. He could imagine standing there, speaking, or letting Antinium just wander about. A big room, such that they didn’t feel quashed by the walls. Color such as ordinary Workers and Soldiers could never see.
A circle, as when the Workers and Soldiers had stood together outside Erin’s inn. Stone, like the statues.
“Has this ever been done?”
“It’s [Druid]-style architecture. But if you’re asking if I’ve seen it—no. I imagine Antinium could easily build this with access to dirt, stone, and paint.”
Hexel and Pawn stared down at the image. Both seemed pleased by the direction, to start with. Pawn looked around as someone yawned their way into the room.
Joseph had been sleepy—but he had taken a nap, and he was walking around the common room.
“Hey, does this inn have rats? I saw a huge something upstairs.”
He told Lyonette, and the [Princess] groaned.
She raced upstairs. A Hobgoblin was chasing an excited cat around, and Pawn heard Lyonette’s voice from above.
“Numbtongue, help me find a r—what is that?”
She was brought into the cat-conspiracy as well. But Joseph, circulating the tables and saying hi to people, paused by Pawn and Hexel’s table.
“What’re you guys working on?”
Hexel covered the designs, but Pawn decided to show Joseph. They revealed the newest iteration of the faith-based building, and Joseph blinked.
“It will be a place for Antinium. Joseph? What do you think? Is it unique?”
The Earther blinked. And then his mouth opened.
It was amazing how fast someone from Earth could ruin your day. Anything you invented—they stared at and said they’d done it first. Pawn deflated.
It wasn’t exactly that, but the design of the stone monoliths, the chamber—it evoked the famous monument from Joseph’s world. Hexel raised his brows.
“Oh, so it’s been done?”
“Is it…a place of faith?”
Joseph saw Pawn lie back in his chair, defeated. The [Football Coach] tried to reassure Pawn.
“It’s super old, though. And no one knows exactly what it was used for. This looks really cool. Are you going to build it?”
Pawn sat up a bit. He hesitated. Well…
Hexel was continuing to sketch, adding all of Pawn’s little desires. In the center, he placed a huge basin where you’d burn a flame.
“Fissival’s famous plazas…a burning flame in the garden-design. You may need a smokeless flame. Or an illusion. That, or a light spell.”
“I know where to get magical flames.”
Hexel smiled. Then he added more objects.
“Give it music. Nothing grand. Nothing like Terandrian harps—but something where you can play sounds. And on the pillars, around the room—”
“Paint. The Antinium Soldiers and Workers. Can you put…little bowls or something? To put gifts or things for them. And sound—you must not have much sound here, aside from music and talk. No loud noises of stomping from the other places.”
Hexel quietly did just that. Now, Pawn could see it. In every Hive, wherever they went. Somewhere quiet like this, where Antinium could go.
A garden just for them. Pawn’s hands closed around his journal, and he reached into his bag of holding and gripped something tightly.
“Yes. This will do. This is what we need. Architect Hexel, please continue working on this. Then we will build one. It will be worth more to the Antinium than I can provide.”
Joseph laughed slightly, looking from Pawn to Hexel.
“You, Pawn? No one can replace you.”
But the [Priest] shook his head solemnly. He put his hands together and took something from his bag of holding. This too—was a work in progress, but Hexel eyed the leatherbound cover one of the Workers had made for Pawn, and so did Joseph. Pawn addressed the [Coach].
“It must. Because this place will be there when I am dead and forgotten. We must leave something behind. Something for Antinium in the future. For places where I cannot be.”
His eyes shone with conviction. Pawn lifted the book he had written over this long year, and it was heavy with words.
“Faith doesn’t need a voice, Joseph. Sometimes, it can be a place. Or a book. This will do more than a thousand prayers or swords.”
He lifted his greatest work up and showed it to Joseph. The hair on the young man’s neck rose as he looked at something he was familiar with. But this was no bible, no text from his world.
It was Antinium-made. Pawn brushed over the carefully hand-written title, and the words within were the first copy he’d asked an Antinium Worker to make. The original looked much less fine.
The Wondrous Sky.
A book meant for Antinium. And perhaps—more. Pawn showed it to Joseph, and the Earther exhaled.
“Oh man. That’s going to change things.”
He looked at the faith shining in Pawn’s eyes, and he shivered. Pawn placed the book on the table, and the sound was so soft—yet it ran through Erin’s inn for a moment.
Mihaela Godfrey wanted to know what was in that book. The Antinium had it on the table, and he kept showing it around. He was offering it to Joseph, that famous boy who could kick halfway decently.
But Joseph didn’t want to read it, and so, disappointed, the Worker let it be for a second.
Less than half a second to grab it. Even with her legs on the chair. Mihaela thought about it—and wondered if Shriekblade was around.
She relaxed, and the two nervous City Runners looked at her.
“Hm? Right. We’re done here.”
Mihaela looked up. She’d gotten their accounts of what had happened with Persua and Ryoka Griffin. Their Runner’s Guild…
“Your Runner’s Guild in Celum is shit. And it’s the biggest one around? I’m heading over. But first—explain to me why Runners are telling me they’re earning less this year?”
Fals gestured helplessly around the inn. He was more interesting to Mihaela than Garia. The [Martial Artist] was on her way up. She’d found a path—even if it involved something less focused on running.
The City Runner, though…he had no specialty. But he’d run through a battlefield. He’d journeyed across Izril and gone further than most City Runners, north and south. But he had no confidence.
You could practically see his ego, shattered slightly from being passed by three Runners in the region. Yet he knew running—the society of it, the bones of being a Runner—better than Garia or Ryoka.
“It’s the inn. Not its fault, but we’re earning coppers instead of silver for letter deliveries. Bulk deliveries from Invrisil are done via the door sometimes—”
“So? A letter from Celum to Wales is still a letter. Same for one along the northern route. It has to go from Invrisil or Celum. Even if you start from one of those two areas—the distance is the same. Plus, the door charges a damn fee. The silver to go through it isn’t worth anything but a huge delivery.”
“You say that, Guildmistress, but a lot of cities have refused to pay the old prices. The mayor of Celum, Cetris, negotiated down the prices with the local guilds, so it’s pinching our money pouches. Not a lot of Runners want to do this if there’s more profitable work.”
Mihaela’s eyes narrowed slightly. She put her feet down.
“A [Mayor] dictated to the Runner’s Guild what prices we charge?”
“He’s had a tough year rebuilding Celum.”
“He’s going to have a worse one. Your Guild—all these local ones have taken the prices lying down. Invrisil’s Guild hasn’t.”
“They’re the largest one until you get to Pallass, Guildmistress!”
Garia protested. Mihaela grunted.
“So the ‘small’ Runner’s Guilds are eating the price drops? All because of an inn? Ridiculous. And here I thought I only had to deal with you lot.”
By ‘you lot’, she meant the promising City Runners. Fals, Garia—all the local prospects had been given the Courier ‘test’ by Mihaela and training at the Haven. But this was a problem that went to the root of the Runner’s Guild.
It annoyed Mihaela. She felt old when she stood. Old—and annoyed. Like a headache in the back of her mind that wouldn’t go away. The same when she looked at the Goblin brushing the little cat with a comb and the Antinium.
“Guildmistress, can we get you anything to go? I hope you enjoyed your stay?”
Lyonette approached one last time, and Mihaela grunted.
“The inn is fine. Nice place for a Runner, I suppose. I’d rather sit in a hole in the ground than deal with the Antinium.”
Pawn looked around, and Lyonette’s face froze up. But Mihaela Godfrey, the Courier who had run through the Antinium Wars, didn’t mince words. She coughed—and the [Priest] rose slightly and bowed.
“Guildmistress Godfrey. I am sorry if I have offended you.”
“There’s no fighting in the inn! No killing Goblins—and no attacking Antinium!”
Lyonette moved her Thronebearers in front of Pawn like a shield—and Ser Lormel and Dame Ushar looked like they were quite aware how long they’d stand between Mihaela and a target.
Garia gulped as Mihaela looked at her. The older woman just folded her arms.
“I’m not going to start a fight. You know me, Antinium?”
She didn’t react to the name. The [Priest] bowed again.
“You are Mihaela Godfrey, the Courier of Izril. We know you—like we knew Zel Shivertail and Magnolia Reinhart. Even Workers know. You were the one who ran across Izril during the First and Second Antinium Wars. The only Runner who could never be stopped.”
“Your Prognugator, Wrymvr, tried. And you have the Slayer and the Small Queen here. I’ve outrun them both. Remember that, Antinium. And don’t speak to me again.”
Lyonette swallowed again. Now she recalled it—Mihaela’s permanent cough, which happened every fifteen minutes or less—she had run in both wars. She had injuries that hadn’t healed since then.
Of all the people to come here from the Haven, from the north—more than even the Named-ranks, Mihaela had a true grudge against the Antinium.
“I will remember it. But I would appreciate it if we did not fight, Guildmistress. Are you intending to attack me or my people?”
Pawn sounded—wary and curious. Mihaela stared at him blankly, then threw her head back and sighed. Loudly.
“I will say this once. Just so the annoying [Rogue] sneaking around behind me understands. And so the rest of you do. I am not Deniusth. I am not Valeterisa. I am not an impulsive idiot, nor a thoughtless moron. I ran through Izril through both Antinium Wars, it’s true. When the Antinium were everywhere, I delivered to entire Drake cities and villages across the south.”
She stared at Garia and Fals. Hoping they took something from it. Teaching. She hated teaching—but she’d had to do it. There was a time when she was just a City Runner, and she remembered that. These days…
Children. They really were. It wasn’t just that she felt old, sometimes, when she saw mirrors or statues of herself. It was that the people who looked old—twenty, even thirty—were like children to her.
They didn’t understand running. They forgot or no one bothered to teach them. Someone had to. Mihaela went on, staring past Pawn. It was Hexel she looked at, the scar on the Lamia’s face.
“Everyone knows I ran war correspondence and letters when even [Messages] couldn’t be trusted. Potions and weapons. But I ran regular things too. Food for encircled places. Scrolls and relief for Drakes and Gnolls. You know what I ran into? I met places where Drakes confessed they’d eaten Humans. Or where someone took me aside and told me to run on—because I’d have my throat slit if I slept the night.”
It wasn’t just Drakes—but the Human Runner stared back.
“I had stones thrown at me, and I was mocked when I came in, bleeding, or insults hurled at me for being ‘too slow’ when their local runners, Drakes and Gnolls, didn’t dare take the roads. Not just in war. I’ve run to villages where City Runners’ and Couriers’ bones lined the roads, and they mocked the dead because running ‘isn’t hard’. We’ve been pulled into political games, used as pawns, treated as expendable. And you know what? I still ran my deliveries. Because I am the Guildmistress of First Landing. I can be professional.”
She stared at Numbtongue and Pawn and then looked away. What kind of idiot started a fight in an inn for no reason? What a stupid way to die.
Her little speech provoked a silence, but Pawn just nodded.
“Thank you, Guildmistress, for your forbearance. I know we have done terrible things. But—may I ask if your coughing is related to your injuries? Could I ask you about it? Perhaps…”
He was coming forwards. And that was the bridge too far. Mihaela raised a hand.
“Touch me and you will regret it.”
Pawn’s hands halted.
“I only wish to help, Guildmistress.”
“I am willing to tolerate you. But we will not be friends, Antinium.”
She ground out the words slowly. A little lamb trotted in through the front door—saw the cat—and scampered behind a table, glaring hugely as the cat blinked at Nerry. Pawn met Mihaela’s gaze.
“Is it possible for you to hear us out, Guildmistress? We wish you would like us. Understand us.”
Mihaela’s voice was flat. She took a step back, and Pawn gestured around the inn.
“But we are here. We speak. Here is a Goblin—Numbtongue. Here am I. Can you not see we are not monsters or the Black Tide?”
At this, the Guildmistress had to smile. She gave a Pawn a look as dark as the poison in her lungs and coughed again.
“You…do you really think this is going to last? You…and you, Goblin. You have to know they’re watching. They might not touch you here, in this inn. Or your tribe or this ‘crusade’ and the 7th Hive. But they’re just waiting.”
Numbtongue looked up slowly, and the cat wriggled out of his grasp and went after the lamb. He let it, for a second.
“What do you mean?”
Mihaela spat into a handkerchief. She almost felt bad for bursting his bubble.
“You’re only here as long as you’re useful. So long as it’s fun to watch you fighting monsters. Or so long as the Five Families might need some [Mercenaries]. But they see your tribe. And the new Hive. There’s only so long they’ll let you roam free.”
The Hobgoblin saw her eyes on him. Mihaela went on slowly. Ominously.
“When you’re a threat…the Minds of Baleros forgot what happens.”
The Goblin raised his brows. Mihaela stared at him dismissively.
“Find out. There’s a lesson there. There’s war—and there’s annihilation. You’re being allowed to exist because they think you’re not the biggest threat around. But if you unite everyone—every continent—they’ll pull out a spell that’s gathered dust for a hundred thousand years and unleash it on you. If the Antinium had ever begun overrunning the Walled Cities, more forces would have begun entering the war. But the enemy of my enemies…that’s why you exist.”
For now. But once the novelty wore off, once they’d decided on things…Mihaela’s voice dipped low.
“This inn won’t save you. They’ll just turn it to ash. You won’t be here next year. When they come, it won’t matter if it’s day or night.”
She didn’t mean [Assassins]. And the Guildmistress waited for the Antinium to say something, perhaps denial, or for Numbtongue to react. But the Hob and Pawn, who had seen the sky fall and horrors from Liscor’s crypts, just exchanged a long look. They were almost amused.
The Hobgoblin grinned. Mihaela faltered, and Pawn nodded.
“We know. We will be as ready as we can be. But even if we are not, Guildmistress—things are changing.”
She looked at him darkly and wished those words didn’t sound so familiar. The Courier turned on her heel abruptly.
“They’re always changing. What’s new? I’m not telling you this to frighten you. I’m telling you—don’t drag down this place. Don’t bring it down on her.”
Then she was looking at the little Gnoll flashing middle fingers at her from the side. Mrsha hid behind a table, and Lyonette stepped forwards, protectively, in front of Pawn and Numbtongue.
“Guildmistress Mihaela. I know full well you have every right to hold a grudge against both species for—for the past. But they are the guests of the inn. And my family. Please, don’t provoke them. What do you mean, bring it down on Mrsha? On us? The inn is their home.”
Mihaela was breathing badly. She thought her lungs were acting up again—then she realized part of the dizziness—part of the tightness in her chest wasn’t just damage for once.
It was—she looked around the inn and croaked a word.
“Valceif. He was here, wasn’t he?”
Lyonette froze up. Numbtongue looked at Pawn in confusion, but Mihaela leaned over the table. Garia, Fals—their faces turned somber. Mihaela just stared past them. At the Antinium and the Hobgoblin. She didn’t know them. She didn’t want to know them—but there was something she didn’t like.
A kind of understanding. So the Guildmistress spoke, the words coming out like bloody mucus.
“I am the Guildmistress of First Landing. But you’re right. I was the Courier of Izril before that. And I saw war. I suffered for it—and then I kept running. On your long journey, be it Courier or warrior…”
She closed her eyes.
“…You fall in love with people. Sometimes. Those you keep meeting. The ones who are kind to you. Many aren’t. But you meet so many. Sometimes it—clicks. Shelter on a long run.”
Numbtongue felt a jolt, and goosebumps ran up his arms. Now, Mihaela’s gaze was unnerving. She kept speaking, and she was different in countless ways, from species to gender to…but he could picture it. A young woman, coughing and slowing by—an inn? A glowing light in a window lit for her?
“Sometimes you keep coming back. Later, and later—even when I was named Guildmistress. I came back for more than the road, the isolation—and it’s good. It’s grand. It’s also painful—for them. They see you on your longest road, your final road, and ask you to stop. To change. They say—‘you won’t come back someday’. As if I don’t know that. They’re the ones who forgot. They think I’ll change. That I can change.”
She looked at Pawn and Numbtongue and realized she was pouring out too much. But once said—Mihaela exhaled the rest like poison. Grief. She had grieved a year—and it was stronger now.
Let it out. She whispered to the Antinium and Goblin, for they might understand her folly.
“That’s how it ends. The one you love says—they say—‘if you must’. If you have to keep going, go, and come back. But…”
Her voice wobbled, and she was reciting from memory. And the next words were hardest of all to say.
“But…‘but not your son. Don’t kill him too’. Don’t teach him what it’s like to be you, even though he was born with all the talent for it. Even though he understands in his bones.”
Lyonette put her hands over her mouth. The rest of the inn was silent. Mihaela’s head dipped. She looked around—but there was no sign of him here. No chair, no inkling beyond her knowledge that Valceif had ever been here. Had she been hoping for it?
“Then? What happens after that?”
The whisper came from Pawn. The Worker looked at Mihaela, and she jerked, as if forgetting she had been speaking to him at all for a moment. Mihaela’s glittering eyes rose, and the old Runner looked at Pawn. For one moment—not as the nemesis of The Black Tide or the Guildmistress of First Landing.
Just Mihaela Godfrey. She whispered, her voice hoarse.
“We were already split apart when I proved him right. I should have never shown Valceif how to run. But it made him feel alive.”
She looked around blankly, and her eyes focused on Fals, on Garia. They stared at her as if she were a monster, a figure of tragedy, a ghost, a legend…and Mihaela’s head bowed. Her shoulders hunched. She looked at the City Runners and saw the echo of her son everywhere.
Without a word, Mihaela pushed herself back from the table. She walked down the common room, in silence, and rested her hand against the door. She turned her head—and her eyes caught the two Runners there. They had known Valceif, if not well. But briefly.
She saw him everywhere, so the Guildmistress barked.
“Guild, City Runners. Celum. Now.”
She strode out the doors and into the magic portal door so fast that Fals and Garia were a minute catching up. Garia wavered at the door—mostly because Liska had gone out to check something.
“Fire! The outhouse is on fire!”
Garia hesitated—but Mihaela just grabbed her arm.
“Come on. Time to teach you Runners a lesson.”
It was just a small fire that, for some reason, had sprung up around one of the outhouses. The inn put it out in seconds of Liska noticing it, and the charred wood wasn’t even that badly damaged.
Erin would blame an outraged Zevara, but the culprit would remain a mystery. In the meantime—Guildmistress Mihaela visited the Runner’s Guild in Celum.
When she walked in, everyone backed up. She had been here once before, and like Ryoka Griffin—her presence was already the stuff of stories.
“Runner’s Guild, turn out! Guildmistress Izeka, [Receptionists], Street and City Runners, line up!”
Mihaela walked into the guild and began shouting. The civilians looked around and then protested as their [Receptionists] abandoned the counter.
“I have a delivery!”
“I have an urgent letter for—”
“Shut up. One side.”
Mihaela ignored them. The nervous runners formed up. The giggling ones and the ones who thought she was all bark nudged each other—until a foot kicked one so hard in the shin they went down. Mihaela barely flickered as she stood there.
She was a legend in this small Guild. But the point wasn’t that. Fals looked nervous as Mihaela eyed the [Receptionists] and the new Guildmistress, who had replaced the old one—and then the one who’d resigned when the guild was avalanched.
This place had seen better times. But Celum’s Runner’s Guild was one of the more active ones in the region. So why did they indeed look like they’d felt the pinch of less coin, less work?
Even the raid of the Bloodfeast Raiders shouldn’t have caused that. When calamity struck and everyone was battening down the hatches and locking their doors—they called for Runners.
“I hear that Celum’s Guild has been going through a rough state of late. Less work for you all. Less coins in your pocket. I’ve been talking—and listening. Not just about how it is to be a Runner now, but why you’re in this mess. And you know what one reason is? Persua. I’m sure most of you know that name.”
Almost every single Runner in the Guild knew her—and even the new ones had heard of her. They shifted, and the [Receptionists]…gulped as Mihaela walked slowly back and forth in front of them.
“She’s still a Runner. She’s up north, and if she causes a hair more trouble, I will personally throw her into the sea. But you know what she did. And you know what? It wasn’t her—it was that someone like her got to get away with bullying other Runners. I’ve heard from City Runner Fals that when some arrogant newcomer, Ryoka Griffin, stormed in, she got her leg broken for ‘taking too many good deliveries’.”
The Guild was silent. Half the older members were sweating. Mihaela looked around.
“You know what? I don’t blame you for Persua breaking her leg. That’s on the staff. If the old Guildmaster were here, I would strip him of his job in a heartbeat—but Lady Reinhart had to do it for me. That’s fine. The incompetent staff who did nothing? Some lost their jobs. But that’s not on you, so I don’t blame you for that.”
She didn’t? The Runners relaxed a bit. Too soon. Garia was nervous, because she knew Mihaela wasn’t all bark. She was all bite, and occasionally she shouted too. The Guildmistress’ eyes narrowed.
“You know, what I blame you Runners for is the fact that the next day, Persua got to brag that she and her friends ran a City Runner into a wagon—and she walked out of the guild in one piece. Not a scratch on her. It doesn’t matter which guild—and you can be sure I’ll be paying a visit to Remendia, Ocre, Wales, and saying the exact same thing. If a guild anywhere in the north heard that? Every single Street Runner and City Runner who participated in that would be sleeping with one eye open for as long as they were within a hundred miles of the guild—and that’s until word spreads.”
Technically, what she was saying was probably illegal by some measure of Watch rules. But Mihaela didn’t care. It was the rule every Runner should know—and the Runners paled a bit, hearing it said. Mihaela stabbed a finger into her palm.
“I don’t care if this Ryoka Griffin is as arrogant as a Terandrian [King]. Runners stick together. You want to know why you aren’t Couriers? Why Invrisil doesn’t have your backs when it comes to the door stealing your work and low pay? It’s because they don’t think you’re a guild of Runners. The reason why Celum’s mayor is getting to set your prices is because they think they can push the Guild around. And you know what? They can and they are. You dug yourself this hole, and now, only when I come by, do you come begging to me to solve this mess.”
She glared around with all the ire of someone who didn’t want this job. But one of the [Receptionists] protested at last.
Miss Stenei, one of the oldest [Receptionists] still remaining—she was thirty-four—had been one of the ones who used to work with the surly Ryoka Griffin. She was still about, and she spoke up.
“But Guildmistress, how are we supposed to deal with the prices?”
“But if they don’t like our prices, they’ll go to another Guild—”
“Then tell Liscor, Wales, Ocre—to raise their prices. You don’t even speak to your Drake and Gnoll counterparts, do you? Tell the [Mayor] of this city the prices are up. And if he doesn’t like it, he can hire [Merchants] to do the delivering for him. And believe you me, they’ll refuse him too. Or the [Merchants] will get to do all their deliveries themselves.”
The Runner’s Guild had to take a stand. But—one of the Runners, Fals, was brave enough to raise a hand.
“Not to ask stupid question, Guildmistress Mihaela—”
“I’ll let you know if it’s stupid. Out with it.”
He covered his groin protectively and turned sideways, but he did speak.
“—Er. What if the [Merchants] decide they can do all the deliveries with their caravans and with their own [Messengers]? Or they undercut our prices?”
Mihaela gave him a wide, friendly smile. Her eyes opened wide, and her lips curved up. It was definitely a smile—but all the details were wrong.
“You don’t think they’ve tried before? The Runner’s Guild has a word with them about solidarity. And if they ignore it? That’s fine. Then, I guess we’ll see a lot more burning caravans across Izril.”
The Runner’s Guild was silent. Mihaela Godfrey put one foot on a chair and looked around.
“The Runner’s Guild has teeth. It runs together—nevermind the idiots who’ll risk their lives by themselves. There are always some, but even if they don’t have your back—you have theirs. Couriers stand together. When one calls, the other answers. If nothing else—if you can’t do that, you will never be a Courier in my eyes. That’s the first thing you lack. The second is—attitude.”
She had done this before. You could be sad that the lecture worked the same way or see it as a failing of someone else. The Runners were down—now it was time to throw down the gauntlet. And this time, Mihaela had even more of a spark to set ablaze.
An axe to grind. She stared at Fals until the City Runner began to sweat, but Mihaela spoke crisply.
“I heard that no less than his eminence, the glorious Titan of Baleros came through this way of late. Maybe not Celum, but there are stories about the ‘great Fraerling’ and his march south. Some of you, apparently, even ran with him.”
Every eye swung to Garia and Fals, who blushed and looked shocked that Mihaela was bringing it up. But the Guildmistress wasn’t smiling, nor did she appear impressed.
“There’s one story I heard that’s made the rounds amongst Runners. That the Titan single-handedly managed to run a bunch of Antinium, Goblins, and even a thousand civilians and an army of Drakes nigh on forty miles in an hour. The great [Strategist]—who handed everyone a level and taught them to push their limits.”
That famous tale was true. Fals and Garia had been there. They had lived it. But Mihaela? Mihaela Godfrey just sneered.
“If you’re impressed by that—remember that the Titan didn’t run those forty miles. He used a few Skills, gave a speech—he can’t run a single mile without a potion. He’s shorter than he looks. An hour to run forty miles? I’d be impressed, but Fraerlings have no stamina. [Soldiers] march twenty-five miles a day without Skills. But we’re Runners. Anything they can do, we should be able to exceed. But I don’t see daring Runners here.”
Her eyes swiveled around the room.
“Who here has ever run something like that? Run, not jogged from city to city with naps in between?”
Fals, Garia, and a few daring Runners, City and Street, raised their hands. Receptionist Stenei hesitated—and Mihaela glanced at her. She turned her head and noticed a few civilians watching her, clutching their precious deliveries. Now, Mihaela’s voice was far-off.
“If you listen to the Titan, he’d make it sound like you run that once in a lifetime. As if it’s something to cherish and remember. As if it takes him to make you into [Heroes]. Any single Runner in my Guild, from Street to Courier, could run his [Soldiers] into the ground. Now—come on.”
She strode to the doors of the Guild and kicked them open. The Runners and staff looked at her and at each other.
Mihaela glanced over her shoulder.
“Come on. Are you going to miss this chance? Half of you want to run with a legend? Here’s your shot.”
She had beaten them up, lectured them, and put the terror of Mihaela into them, but seldom run. With the Courier of Izril? Half the City Runners were almost out the door, but one of the Street Runners, nervous, fourteen, called out.
“Can we come too, Guildmistress?”
Mihaela rolled her eyes at the girl.
“Yes, you. And you lot. What are you doing?”
The [Receptionists] and staff turned. Fals looked back. Mihaela gestured at a surprised Stenei and the others.
“Runner’s Guild staff are usually former Runners. You—Street or City?”
Stenei replied automatically, and Fals blinked at her. She had a slight limp as she stepped out from behind a counter. Mihaela nodded.
“Anyone who can keep up—come with me. Do you want to level or sit here? Anyone else—go home. I’m going to Liscor. We’ll stop by Wales first. Then Remendia. Then a few other cities.”
The Runners’ mouths opened as they tried to calculate her proposed route. No one wanted to say it, but—did Mihaela know that going from Celum to Wales to Remendia would have her going back the way she’d come? And—
Did she just say Liscor? As in, ‘Liscor, a hundred miles from here’, Liscor? But now the Guildmistress was stretching, and Runners were following suit.
“Who here has never run twenty-four hours straight? …All of you? Well then, we’ll take it slow. But if you have to stop and walk, stop and walk. But keep going. If you throw up, throw up. If you pass out, get up and keep going. Runners don’t quit.”
She was forming them into a column, like [Soldiers] of her own, but spaced out. A crowd was gathering, and someone pushed forwards.
“Wait! What about my delivery!”
The angry woman waved a letter. Mihaela glanced at it.
“Since Celum seems to think the Runner’s Guild isn’t worth much—have your [Mayor] take it for you. Celum’s Runner’s Guild is closed for three days.”
“You can’t do that!”
Mihaela gave the woman the blankest look in the world. She didn’t even respond. She just turned and raised her hand.
“Runner’s Guild—on me!”
And she did take it slow. She jogged so slowly that some City Runners flashed past her, but she told them to watch themselves, because this was going to be a run that would have them running the next day, through the night. Street Runners jogged next to [Receptionists]—and they did it together.
Not so fast you felt your lungs bursting with blood, not so fast you’d never forget—but at a pace where they could talk and memorize each other’s faces.
Solidarity. The Guildmistress began critiquing their form, answering questions with more than grunts, and she ran on. She guessed it might be three actual days before they got to Liscor and could teleport back to Celum if she bounced from Guild to Guild—and that would be the fastest City Runners.
It wouldn’t hurt them to learn how to work the guild’s desks. And she had to pay Erin for the teleportation fee—but that was all.
For some, age was that hurdle to overcome. Some found stories or put on entirely stupid plays with sock puppets her little boy would have loved when he was that young. Mihaela stared ahead and ran with a Guild following.
Sometimes—you simply showed them how it was done.
Numbtongue actually managed to keep his cat hidden the first night. And the second.
Erin Solstice was so busy running about she never really noticed the way Numbtongue would sneak up bits of meat to his room—and there was an inn full of guests.
Besides, everyone from Calescent to Mrsha to Lyonette was in on it. But the biggest enabler of Numbtongue’s secret new pet was, ironically, Nanette.
She loved his cat and begged and cajoled the rest of the inn’s family to help him present the animal to Erin so it would be kept. Apparently, the young witch had never been allowed a pet by Califor given how they moved. Or doubly rather—she’d been offered a crow by Mavika and refused it.
“It doesn’t even like you, anyways.”
The one person who didn’t like the cat—mostly because Numbtongue had forgotten their argument and then not really been as concerned about that as feeding his new cat and making sure it wasn’t going to run off—was Octavia. Numbtongue looked wounded—and Nanette shook her head vigorously.
“It does. It surely does, Miss Octavia. Look. The cat knows Numbtongue helped it. Numbtongue. Give him to me? See?”
Nanette took the cat gently—and as it wiggled and yowled, she put it down. The cat stared around Octavia’s lab—then instantly padded over to Numbtongue. It butted him in the side with its head until he picked it up. And he looked twice-delighted.
“It just knows he feeds it.”
Octavia grumbled, but even she had to admit—the little kitten would race around then come back to Numbtongue. Especially if it was scared of something. And Numbtongue would gather it up.
“Brave little warrior.”
He stroked its head, looking so happy that Octavia gave up trying to hurt his feelings. She mashed the pestle in the bowl harder. Stupid little kitten. Stupid adorably cute Goblin. She had another thought and looked up sharply.
“What are you going to name it?”
Numbtongue ignored Octavia’s baleful look as they let it jump around her shop. The [Alchemist] had put away everything remotely breakable, but she hated the cat. Bird had put a standing objection up to the cat as a competitor for hunting birds, but when Numbtongue told him the cat probably couldn’t shoot arrows, he’d been fine.
Octavia, though…the cat had ruined her ingredients, tools, and it would try to pull any loose strings coming off her body. She was meaningfully grinding some rubies into powder as she glowered.
“Cat needs a good name. How—how about Claude? As in ‘clawed’?”
Numbtongue was proud of that pun. Nanette giggled as Octavia groaned.
“It’s a pest, Numbtongue. No.”
“It doesn’t get two names.”
The [Alchemist] was only placated when Nanette gave her a pleading look.
“Miss Octavia! He’s so cute, though! Look! He doesn’t mean harm!”
Indeed, when she held up the cat—and it was still very small, barely more than a kitten—it tried to lick at Octavia. Then get into her bowl.
“Keep it away from my reagents! The last thing I need is cat hair in my potions! It’ll probably make something explode.”
“Reagents. Reagen? Catalyst. Cattalin?”
Numbtongue tried the two words on for size. He saw Nanette’s face wrinkle up. He looked at the male kitten and had it.
He lifted the cat up and got a ‘meow’. Octavia groaned.
“More like ‘spare alchemy ingredients’.”
She muttered darkly, but when Numbtongue held the cat up, she grudgingly waved a used teabag left and right as the cat tried to snag it.
“He needs a bed! And house training! Miss Erin has to let us keep him, right? She has that Sariant Lamb!”
“Nerry. Where is it, anyways?”
Numbtongue’s only worry was that Reagen would turn out to be an anti-Apista or anti-Lamb cat. That would be a huge problem, and Octavia raised her brows.
“You’re not looking after the Sariant Lamb? It’s fragile. Everyone talks about how Sariant Lambs need love and attention.”
“I feed her, but Nerry only cuddles me a bit. She doesn’t like me because I’m—I was a [Witch]. I thought Miss Lyonette was taking care of her.”
“She probably is. The lamb looks pretty good whenever I see her.”
The witch, Stitch-girl, and Goblin agreed about that. And in the meantime, Numbtongue was realizing he needed a sandbox and some house training—the cat had left a poo before he’d found it. But Erin just thought they had rats.
Pawn came back to the inn on the second day of Mihaela’s run that had shut down five Guilds and counting so far. There were over two hundred Runners clogging the roads—and the Worker appeared back in Erin’s inn with a question.
“Lyonette. Have you seen my book?”
“Your what, Pawn?”
“My book. The Wondrous Sky is its working name. I believe I left it here.”
He wouldn’t misplace something like that, but Pawn didn’t remember picking it up. There had been that outhouse fire, after all. Lyonette agreed to ask the staff and see if someone had picked it up.
“Can I, um—help you at all, Pawn?”
“No, Lyonette. Thank you. I am on my way to Esthelm, actually. I have an appointment. Numbtongue, hello.”
“I don’t have a cat.”
The Hobgoblin jumped and looked around for Erin. But she was out—and he showed Pawn a little pocket Octavia had doubly-grudgingly sewn into his tunic’s front. Reagen poked his head out, and Pawn pet his head.
“It is a very cute cat. Why are you not telling Erin, please?”
“Because she might not let me keep it. But if I keep it for a few days, she’ll have to.”
Pawn didn’t follow the logic.
“Erin would not turn away a pet. She likes you, Numbtongue. And she is fond of taking in people. Like Mrsha. Or you.”
Yeah, yeah, I stole your role. Suck it up.
Mrsha sniffed at Pawn and waved a paw from her table. She was attending to her pet and best friend, Apista. Carefully, Mrsha was attaching a teensy-tiny little leg.
Peg-legs! They secured to the Ashfire Bee’s joints with the most microscopic of threads, and a sweating Mrsha was using a needle to do it—they’d loop around securely, and they were as light as air.
They had arrived, ironically, via Hawk last night. The Titan of Baleros didn’t forget his dues. He’d even attached some experimental wings that apparently a few butterflies had been denuded of, and the Ashfire Bee was squirming to try them out.
The only other reason it was so hard was because Mrsha’s eyes were all watery. She kept sniffing when she saw how Apista’s little legs were damaged. And her wings. She’d cried already, but now that she was putting the replacement wings and legs on—
She’d done so much for Mrsha. And Mrsha was a bad girl, and Apista had gotten so hurt—
But the bee fanned her wings aggressively and butted Mrsha in the paw, as if sensing the [Druid]’s sadness. She saluted Mrsha with a wing. As if to say—
I stung a [Witch] and a [Shaman] in the eye for you. And I’d do it again, little one!
Nothing would do but for Mrsha to hug Apista gently, and the bee fanned her wings happily. Lyonette gently pried Mrsha’s arms away, but she sensed how happy Apista was. And she had to dab at her own eyes. Then she glanced sideways and sighed.
“Careful, Mrsha. And Selys, did you have to take all your pets out for a stroll?”
Lyonette was cautioning Mrsha as Gire worked on another leg of the bee, and she pushed down a curious Fortress Beaver’s nose.
A rat protested nearly being squished, and Selys hurriedly picked up Haldagaz as Rhata began shoving the huge beaver out of the way. The Drake [Heiress] protested weakly.
“They get stir-crazy in my home. Plus, they like Apista and Mrsha. Can I let them run around in your garden?”
“Of course. The Beavers’ den is still there. Just—oh my, Apista, you’re so brave! Mrsha, give her here when you’re done.”
Lyonette wanted to cuddle her bee as she saw Apista fanning her wings excitedly. Selys put Haldagaz on her head. The rat perched there, squeaking as it looked around as if it were used to this.
“I have to admit—the two rats have grown on me too. And the Beavers. This one’s Oakly, that’s Chesta, we have Rum Redwood there—”
“Are you naming them after wood, Selys?”
The Beavers came up to the Drake, and she scratched them on their heads rather like dogs. Selys glanced up.
“Sort of. It’s their favorite kind of wood. Each one had a different one.”
“It was an accident. But apparently they also like drinking.”
Selys eyed the biggest beaver. And he had Rhata on his head. Was the little rat trying to flex? Selys bent down and gently stroked Rhata’s head—then straightened, embarrassed by the unguarded moment. But Mrsha had Apista on her head, and the bee was fanning her new wings proudly.
Lyonette clasped her hands to her heart as everyone applauded the Titan’s prostheses and Apista.
“Can she fly? Oh, she’s trying! We have to write a thank-you to the Titan, Mrsha. And none of your scams or jokes! He even sent a little letter. It must be a joke, right? And these…”
She rolled her eyes at what Niers had sent. The Titan had written to Apista, a little note.
I have been remiss in sending you anything after your heroism in battle. I was a poor riding companion, but I hope this helps. I prevailed on some friends of mine to build replacement wings and legs—if they don’t work, we’ll try again. Enclosed are some gifts for your bravery, and if you ever come to Baleros, I should like to brevet you to Wing Captain of my Ashfire Air Battalion in a formal ceremony. I’m adding some Garuda and fliers to it.
Lyonette had thought that was a joke—until she saw the tiny gemstone medal in the box. And until she’d heard from Dame Ushar that there was a new battalion being reorganized into the Forgotten Wing Company.
The Titan took his jokes too far. That was what the [Princess] thought, even if she agreed that Apista deserved all this and more. But the bee seemed delighted by the tiny medal pinned to her fuzz—
It was just the last part that made Lyonette really think the Titan was having fun. She eyed the box of tiny, individually hand-wrapped cigars and other objects she wanted Mrsha not to see.
“This is the most ridiculous part. I’ll just put it—Apista, stop!”
The bee flew at her to stop Lyonette taking the box away. And someone rescued the entire precious crate from falling.
Palt, the [Illusionist] and [Smoker], lifted a tiny cigar and sniffed it. His eyes rolled up.
“Oh, Fraerling-quality. Apista, great friend—lend me a few of these? Please?”
It was ridiculous and silly, but the proud little bee was flying. And Lyonette was laughing with tears in her eyes. That was…well. That was what pets were. A little tongue made Numbtongue look down. Reagen was licking his hand for attention, and he wanted to sit on Numbtongue’s head like the other animals were.
For some reason, the Hobgoblin had never realized why the Redfangs in his tribe who rode Carn Wolves turned into dog-loving weirdos. He had ridden Carn Wolves…but he hadn’t realized how different it felt to have a connection with a creature like this. Now he had Reagen—there was no way Erin could ever make Numbtongue give him up.
Pawn smiled at Numbtongue.
“You see? Even if Erin does not love you romantically, she will accept your cat, Reagen.”
He watched as Numbtongue’s delighted look at his cat slowly faded. The [Bard] looked up—and then slowly sat back in his chair. His cat meowed and tried to climb out of the pocket. It looked up at its master as Numbtongue slowly put Reagen down. The cat stared up at the Fortress Beavers, hissed at Rhata—then backed up as the rat squeaked authoritatively.
Numbtongue lay down on the ground. Lyonette put her hands over her mouth as Pawn stared down.
“I’m sorry, Numbtongue. But I heard you were being mean to Octavia. Take that.”
One should not have two people they loved so much and chase after Erin. He nudged the Hob with a foot and walked off.
Was it odd to see an Antinium walking around a city other than Liscor? Well, yes, but in Esthelm, both Numbtongue and Pawn had more license to move about. Esthelm, ironically, was closer to Liscor than any other city.
And—Pawn was meeting with his second famous craftsman because of the inn as well. Master Pelt might be grumpy, ill-mannered, and…but he did keep a schedule.
Unless he was late working in the forge in some moment of inspiration. Pawn had had to reschedule once before, but this time, the Dwarf grumpily looked up from his anvil.
“Oh, it’s one of you. Want me to make something fancy for a [Crusader]? No discounts. I’m making quality, and no one gets anything for free. Not unless Erin Solstice can give me fifty ingots of Demas Metal to play with or pull a long-lost ore out of her apron.”
“I am sure she can. But my inquiry is personal, Master Pelt. I would like you to forge something for me. Master Hexel has begun work on my rooms. I have written a book. You must help me with the third thing the [Crusaders] and my Painted Antinium need.”
“‘N what’s that?”
Pelt was picking at his teeth as he carved into the hilt of a sword with one hand, looking annoyed by the entire conversation. But he was paying attention—which was more than could be said when someone came over and asked for something for them. Deniusth had tried, and Pelt had laughed about his request to make a violin bow-sword. Not because it was hard, but because he thought it was stupid.
You had to gain his interest. Even now—he’d make wonderful stuff, but he had to be invested in your cause. Also, you had to pay him well.
“I would like you to forge me a…currency. For the faithful.”
The Dwarf’s hand—slipped. He nearly destroyed his work, but caught himself—and then put his tools down. He raised his head.
“Out of mithril? No.”
“Mithril? We cannot afford mithril. I would like you to teach my Workers or Soldiers how to forge tokens. Currency or icons of faith. Both, please.”
Pawn knew of various instruments from rosary beads to crosses to other implements, and the Antinium needed both. Pelt exhaled—his face had gone pale for a second for some reason.
“I—not coins, then?”
“It does not have to be round. But I would like something to give to Workers, yes. It could be a triangle or star or…I am coming to an expert to design it.”
“I see. Nevermind—why would I do something like this? Get Raekea or a lesser [Smith] to do it. I’ll have one of my apprentices make something pretty out of pot metal. Put your paint on it and we’re done.”
The Dwarf turned grumpy again and angrier still, as if Pawn had committed some error. Again, Pawn didn’t know why, but the [Priest] carefully took several objects out of his bag of holding.
“I wish I could, but no [Smith] other than you can help me. None of them can even understand what I am asking. Because…you must make these icons and coins to be beautiful. This is one thing we wish—but also take what is here and put them into what you forge. Do you see, Master Pelt?”
He placed eight objects on the table, and Pelt frowned at them. He touched each one quizzically, and Pawn went on.
“I am sorry not all are metal. But we did not think of that. Do you see?”
“…Cheap iron. Wood. Can’t tell which kind at a touch. A damn brush?”
Pelt looked over all eight items with a blank expression—but as he peered up at Pawn, he stared harder. The first three objects he looked at were all different.
The first was the double colander-contraption fused together. The two sieves formed the crudest censer and still smelled of cinnamon. It was attached to Pawn’s staff. The second was a club.
Made of wood. Pawn also had a worn paintbrush, so used hairs were sticking together and every which-way. And he had another crude bowl…
“This is all worthless crap. Not a hint of artistry in the lot. What’s the sieve-thing for?”
Pelt jabbed a finger at it. His own eating bowls were better-made.
“We serve our bread during our prayers in it.”
“…The club? Do you beat bread with it?”
“No. I hit Belavierr with this one. And she said it hurt.”
The [Smith]’s mouth opened. He touched the club again gingerly, and Pawn recalled that the [Apprentice] who’d made and sold it had come screaming to him about levelling six times. Very good for him.
“It’s not enchanted.”
“No. But it is like the other seven objects. Master Pelt. Do you see what I need you to do? I would like you to put what is in here into an icon of faith. Or objects.”
The [Smith] stared for a long time. He lifted the objects up, sniffed them, weighed them in his hands, and his frown grew deeper.
“…There’s something in them, then, that I can’t see. But it is not magic nor any kind of metal I know. You say there’s aught of value, but I have not a clue.”
“Oh. Then perhaps the smith I need is not you. Alas—I will find one better. Or perhaps we will need one of our own.”
Pelt’s head snapped out. Outraged, the Dwarf slammed a fist on his anvil, and the entire forge jumped at the sound.
“A smith finer than me? You’ll find naught! Not in this world. Not—”
He purpled as he was unable to say ‘not any one is better than me’.
“—One man, perhaps. But you’ll never find him. What’s in here?”
He poked the censer dismissively, and Pawn leaned forwards. He put his hands protectively over the objects.
“Faith, Master Pelt, faith. Have you never heard of someone forging it into metal? Or…putting something of one thing into another?”
Each of the eight objects glowed brightly in Pawn’s gaze. Not in light—but in a kind of value only he could understand. Like the glow of some of the [Crusaders]’ personal faith. It shone in Zimrah and in his eyes.
When he said that, Pelt paled. He pushed himself back from the table and stood. Shakily.
His best apprentice, Emessa, looked up, ready to drag him back if he flew into a rage like when he’d tried to strangle Dawil for breaking the axe. But Pelt just uttered one word. Spat it.
“Taxus. It’s always him. Always a step ahead! How dare you come to me and—”
He jabbed a finger at Pawn as the [Priest] warily stood up. The [Priest] backed up a step.
“I just asked if you knew how to take one thing—”
“Aye, take the nature of it and put it into something else? That was his damn art. Mine was to refine metal! Too much of nonsense you can’t see and feel! Now you come to me and—”
Pelt was rapidly purpling with rage. Pawn tilted his head. He kept his voice light, which perhaps angered the Dwarf more.
“Then can you tell me how to find this Taxus? Because this is what I need. And only a true master can help me.”
For a second, it seemed as if Pelt would come at him with his hammer. But the Dwarf glared at Pawn. As the [Priest] reached down, Pelt snatched the censer up.
“There’s crap metal in here. Give it to me. You can make more, can’t you? And tell if it’s got whatever you need in it? I know my lessons. Give me—give me five days. A week! Anything he can do, I can do.”
Pawn smiled as the [Smith] stalked away. Emessa gave Pawn an impressed look. But the [Priest] hoped for both their sakes that Pelt could do it.
For my people, I shall leave behind book and place and items. There was a method to this all. A method that only Pawn saw at first. He hoped Ryoka would see more and advise him, even if he doubted she would join him.
Pawn bowed to the [Smith] and gathered the other objects up. Then he went on his way. He wondered if there was a great [Composer] of music he could find. Barelle the Bard would have been his first pick. Numbtongue?
Erin Solstice finally spotted Reagen when she was walking into the inn mid-morning of the third day. She stopped Klbkch and Relc—they had all been shopping at that antique store, and Relc had bought fifteen items.
Relc pointed, and Klbkch nodded. Numbtongue whirled, and Reagen clawed at the bit of grass he was dangling, mid-leap.
“You’ve got a cat, Numbtongue! Where did it come from! Wait—why does it have a collar?”
Erin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, mostly because she saw the looks of guilt or panic on the inn’s conspirators. Numbtongue gulped. Reagan hissed at Relc and Klbkch.
Relc hissed back. Reagen instantly ran for it. It raced into a glowing door.
The [Garden of Sanctuary]. Numbtongue twisted—but that was safe. And besides, Erin was glaring.
“I said you could get a pet—but what’s with not telling me? Huh? Wait a second. I knew that was a huge piece of poo. And here I kept telling Gothica that we might have super-rats!”
“I thought you were gonna be mad. I’m keeping it.”
Numbtongue defensively folded his arms. Erin folded her arms harder.
“Well, of course you can! But now I’m mad you thought I’d be dumb and not let you keep it!”
“Well, you’re sometimes pretty mean!”
“Why are we shouting at each other? Also, hey, Selys, how’s it been?”
Reagen the cat was young. And small.
And arguably stupid. At least, the other cats of Elirr’s shop thought so. Not that they were mean, not exactly, but they were aware the orange tabby didn’t really ‘get’ what was going on.
The kitten had a very limited understanding of the world due to its youth. It knew…the grass was dangerous. There had been a flapping of wings.
A great, giant beak. Then it had fled, eating what it could find—but almost everything was faster and cleverer than it was. Grasshoppers flew away, voles dug down—
And the rabbit it had gone after had contemptuously teleported away three times before Reagen gave up. Then it had smelled food and crawled through a window left ajar.
Naturally, the window had been too high up for it to climb through normally, even with a cat’s ability to jump—but it had seen a little lamb hopping out the windows onto little ledges and used that to get inside.
Obviously, it had gone after the lamb, but as small as Nerry was, the young tomcat had been too small to best the lamb. It had received two hooves in the face for its trouble, and then the lamb had begun shooting fire.
When the green thing had caught it—Reagen had thought it was all over. It had taken a while to realize the big green thing was kindly. It gave Reagen hot food until the cat nearly threw it up, and then took it to the one called Elirr.
Elirr was the only name Reagen knew. But the [Beast Trainer] had reached out and told Reagen it was in safety. That the green one was called ‘Numbtongue’—the word only made sense in how the cat heard it, not in language—and that the big white one was ‘Mrsha’ and it should not go outside and it would be safe.
This was now all that Reagen knew, and it had explored the gigantic structure it was deciding might be a home warily.
It did not like the smell or look of the big bugs, and the green things had a lot of teeth. But it liked this place.
It was nervous of the [Innkeeper]—which is why it had run. Not that Reagen understood Erin’s class or even why it felt she was so big. He was sensing her aura.
The cat was young and wild, and so he ran into the garden, then immediately began exploring this place without really wondering how he had gotten here.
It would search for the green Numbtongue when it needed to, and in time, it might understand more, but it was a silly cat.
So silly, in fact, that when the bee crawled out of the grass, Reagen’s first instinct was to leap and attack. The cat opened its mouth, slashed—completely forgetting Mrsha had introduced Apista—
And backed the heck away from that gigantic stinger. But Apista merely aimed her gigantic stinger at Reagen like a crossbow.
Hold it, little one. Let’s not make any moves you’ll regret. Besides—we can’t fight here.
If the bee could have spoken, that’s what she would have said, probably with a southern drawl. She was even munching on a tiny cigar Palt had made for her.
Reagen got none of this. It was just wondering why it couldn’t bite or claw in this place. The cat froze up as some figures loomed behind it.
This cat giving you trouble, Apista?
A tail slapped, and the cat backed away from the gang of Fortress Beavers. Apista waved a feeler, and the beavers stopped looming.
Giant animals! Reagen was nervous—and backed away, hissing, but the other animals were fearless. In fact—one grabbed his paw and dragged him back.
Rhata was still smaller than a kitten, but she was incomparably strong! The overpowered magical rat gathered with Apista, the beavers; a white rat, Haldagaz, chirruped on top of his own Fortress Beaver.
Well, well, well. Here they all were. It was rare that Selys’ pets got to visit, but Apista was flexing her new wings and her prosthetic legs. The Titan might be slow, but he came through! She sat on the Fortress Beaver’s head as a few more animals came into the garden.
The Spotted One raced around, arfing wildly, but one sneer from one of Elirr’s cats and it slowed down and tumbled to a stop. They headed over—no one had invited Elirr’s cat, but it knew to make its own way.
It could read a clock. Elihas, the cat, The Spotted One, and a few more animals all gathered together. Elihas meowed approval for Apista’s leg, and the bee saluted the cat.
The secret lives of pets. All of Reagen’s fur was on end, and he was backing away from the gathering of what he took to be dangerous animals—but the bigger cat just put a paw on Reagen’s head as the silly kitten hid behind him.
They didn’t speak, of course. What each animal understood varied—Elirr’s cats were by far the most intelligent and might even ‘think’ in words. Only Haldagaz, who got a nod, which he returned, had the concept of language.
Even Apista thought more in ideas than words, but thanks to Lyonette, she was quite adept. The pets gathered around, and she motioned Reagen forwards like a little queen.
So, a new warrior is going to join our ranks, eh? Numbtongue’s brought in a cadet? Come forwards, young one. You know, I used to be a warrior like you. Until I took a [Fireball] to the face.
Reagen mowed blankly as it looked at the interplay of the other pets. It began to eat some grass as Elihas rolled his eyes and smacked the back of Reagen’s head with his tail. But that was pets for you. Apista calmly began passing around bribes as Haldagaz dragged over a note it needed delivered to Elihas. The cat accepted it—in return for three spliffs and dropped a small bag of raisins in return.
How much they really understood varied, and it was still not really at the level of even a small Mrsha. But it was more than most people even dreamed. There was only one ‘new’ member of the inn who wasn’t attending, much to Apista’s displeasure. But then—
She had no idea what Nerry, the Sariant Lamb, really did around here.
Dead gods damn stupid cats.
Damn cats and inns with staircases and windows and [Alchemist] labs with volatile materials that you could knock into.
At least no one had noticed the mess with that kitten around. It almost—almost made up for wasting three charges in the wand.
Thirteen left. At least no one had spotted the outhouse. It sounded like the [Innkeeper] was having another inane conversation with her pet Hobgoblin. Which meant there was a vanishingly-small chance of even the nosiest Goblin or [Princess] paying attention and poking around where they shouldn’t.
The inn was too full of inquisitive souls. The Named-rank [Alchemist], the Named-rank [Rogue], the Thronebearers, Erin Solstice herself…
—Well, Erin was different. But no one else should be seeing this.
A little figure was panting by the time it finally—finally reached the Earther rooms. It knew the designation from listening in, and the term was apt. Few people came here, and fewer still would find the floorboard pried up and the small spot in the corner of one of the rooms.
It was hidden behind an easel against one wall, where Kevin had tried to do sketches of his home-city and given up. Where the smooth-cut floorboards met the walls, someone had pried up the edges. With great work, the copper nails had come loose, exposing the insulation and subfloor between the Earther rooms and the basement.
A narrow area, padded with hay and other materials to keep the heat in. Each section was blocked off by more cut wood, so a rat wouldn’t be able to have the run of the house. Antinium construction—but this small section was a perfect hiding place. Once the floorboard was dragged back in place, someone could hide in this tiny section, unnoticed by even the most inquisitive Gnoll child.
Perhaps the [Innkeeper] would notice—but that was a chance that had to be taken. Besides—the figure had to lie on her side for a good eight minutes.
…She didn’t think she could drag this to Riverfarm, even if she could manipulate the portal door and call for assistance. The damn book was heavy.
There was a difference in how the lamb called ‘Nerry’ thought, even compared to Apista or Elirr’s cats. She didn’t just think of how long Erin might be up to her antics in the inn, but also whether or not the Hobgoblin was likely to play on his laptop.
She thought forwards and backwards and about herself as well. And what she thought was—the others were going to kill her.
All this hard work to get here—and the damn [Innkeeper] decided to open up her portal door anyways, invalidating the hard work. But—she was still the one with the job. The little lamb kicked the floorboard shut. Then she scraped around.
She had been tempted to steal a box of matches, but she was a highly flammable being, so she went for the little glowing stone instead. It’d die in about a month and a half—but in the meantime, it was a fine source to read anything by. Notes, correspondence—or a book.
…Turning the pages in this confined space was a nightmare. Let alone with teeth or little hooves.
Yet she did just that. She moved, her limbs shaking with fatigue, unable to lift much of anything. She was exhausted, and even if that little cat, Reagen, had been a kitten—it would have been a match, in theory, for the weakest and cutest animal in the world.
Sariant Lambs. Even with a wand, Nerry would be easy prey to a Shield Spider. Everyone knew this was probably a suicide mission. Raskghar, Face-Eater Moths, Hectval—they’d done their homework.
Erin Solstice’s inn was a glorified deathtrap to something that couldn’t defend itself—or at least, run like Mrsha. Yet here she was. And so desperate she’d set fire to an outhouse.
Her hooves were trembling as the lamb read by the dim light. And unlike the other animals, if you could hear her internal thoughts—or translate the words—
Please. Oh, please. She had not conceived of this answer, but it struck her as ludicrously possible. Her desperation was the impetus for anything. A strand to cling to and…
Of all the beings in this world, she could understand prayer. So the lamb read, squeezed into the hiding spot, and the Antinium’s words glowed on the page.
For here was the thing. Whether or not Pawn had realized the lamb was stealing his book—he would have probably given it to her anyways. After all—
He had made it for her. Not just for his people. Not just the forging of sacred icons for his [Crusade] or the Antinium. This book was the first of many. It was meant for the Hives and Workers he’d never see.
But the [Priest] had looked across the world as Erin did—and he saw Nerry, even if he did not think of her.
This was how the book began. The title was The Wondrous Sky. It had no author. But it did have an introduction. And here was what it said:
To all who might one day turn these pages, I was Pawn of the Free Antinium. I was a [Priest]. My identity does not truly matter, for it does not matter if it is Antinium or any other species who reads this.
But a word of caution before you go on: this book may not be for you. You are free to read it, but understand this. If you are reading this and you are loved and wanted…if you have a place in this world, a people, then—kindly—this text is not for you.
You will not understand all of it. You will think you do, but this is a guide for those without hope. It is meant to be a flame in darkness, a glimmer of sky for someone who has never seen it. This is for the people without hope, without salvation. With no higher power or expectations.
We, Antinium, are one such. Perhaps the True Antinium of Rhir have that higher calling and connection, but not the Workers and Soldiers of Izril, who labored in the darkness knowing nothing of why we died. We were once you—the readers this is meant for. But hear what I have learned and struggle.
‘If Heaven does not exist, we shall build it for ourselves.’ This is our tale and how it may be possible to build something from nothing but faith.
Chapter 1: The Origin of Faith
In the beginning, there was someone else. We were not the first, nor shall we be the last. They were already here, with edifices and culture and Gods of their own. There is great wonder in each religion, but it is not for us. It was never made for us.
The first day I beheld wonder—and it was wonder which founds faith—was when I looked up and saw the sky. I had never beheld the firmament above, nor the colors I had no name for. The second time, someone played a game of chess with me. And I knew a world beyond the tunnels and work that was my entire life…
The little lamb’s eyes burned and blurred. Why was she…? She wiped at her face angrily, and the tears soaked into the soft wool. On she read, hungrily. Hers was a young people. And not a single being, from Wyrm to Agelum to [King] or anyone else, had ever looked at them and seen more than a cute face or, sometimes, their true thoughts.
But even that was barely the surface—not one being ever had known them. Yet this Antinium, this Worker spoke to Nerry as if he had known it all. The very depths of their long suffering and despair.
She could not stop weeping. And it was furious—enraging. Anyone else was unworthy of seeing her torment. But the lamb read on about the only task, the greatest task for her people.
Waiting. Waiting—searching for answers.
From Erin Solstice or beyond even her. The little lamb lay there, the cutest of pets. And the first days of winter rolled on gently.
It caught up. And by ‘it’, I mean, a year’s worth of work and tiredness. It always hits me in the face like a snowball and I, like a surprised Eater Goat, stand there.
I’ve talked about writing cycles and how the end of the month often takes me down in terms of quality, energy, and other stuff like mood. Well, the end of a year is tough, too.
Don’t worry, I’ll be taking my 2-week break for the New Year, and I may even combine it with my December break for a huge, three-week block.
But I may take that break in the middle of this month—if I need it. I’d prefer to have a long, extended rest, but when I was writing this chapter, 9.4k words on the first day, it was a mess.
If you go to the stream archive on Youtube, you can see it was written in a kind of fugue-state. I even had Silverstache like an old-timer Westerner until I came to my senses and deleted that. I think I patched it up, but losing your focus during a chapter that you have only one day to edit can be killer.
…Then again, novels are too slow to come out. So I enjoy this, but these ‘short’ chapters are going to be testing my limits. As long as it’s fun to read, though, let’s continue. December awaits. Have you done your Christmas shopping? Do you even respect the holidays? Hope you’re doing well and bundled up. Unless you’re in Australia. Then maybe go naked.
The Silverstache Fugue-Writing for Context:
“Yes! Yee-haw, partner! Octavia, am I doing this right?”
Silverstache ran after the little puppy, and Octavia realized its named was literally ‘The Spotted One’. And that Silverstache was Silveran with a mustache.
“Doing what right?”
“Joseph told me this was how people like me talked. And Kevin says that is racist to Americans because Joseph is from Spain. Most Drakes and Gnolls enjoy me talking so. Partner. I have a hat, too, and boots. I have bought them with my income.”
Yellow Splatters was still chasing after The Spotted One, and the little puppy really did have a lot of black spots on its blonde fur. It was one of those little dogs, who looked old even when they were young with their mop of hair making them look like an old man.
“Silveran, he is running to the stairs! Stop him!”
The [Cleaner] spotted the puppy’s mad dash, and reacted. He drew four fingers and pointed them.
“I’ve got this one, pardner. Stick ‘em up. [Finger Guns]!”
Stream Art, Hello, Reiss-Numbtongue, Ishkr, and more by Fiore!
Pizza Knight, Mrsha Thumbs Up, and Let it Go Ceria by Brack!
Battle Erin by kim, commissioned by nap!