9.28 – The Wandering Inn


This is a story about [Drivers]. At least, in part.

They took many forms. Sometimes, they were just [Wagon Drivers]; other times, they were more magical and didn’t actually need horses. They just teleported cargo like the bored [Dockmaster] who did all the actual loading and unloading in Fissival’s Teleportarium.

Sometimes—they were the kind of wild, on the edge of your seat racers who would gallop some screaming horses past some screaming [Bandits] while the carriage doors flew open and a narked [Lady] and five [Maids] shot crossbows.

They might even be an overworked, under-thanked Death of Magic, who was a glorified [Teleport Mage] sometimes. ‘Put a [Spy] here.’ ‘Just fly over to Baleros and cast [Greater Teleport], would you?’

…But most of the time, they did have wagons or the like, and they were pulled by mundane animals. They were not Runners, who ran with life on the line. Sometimes, they were ambushed and held up—but most of the time, the [Wagon Drivers] would hand the cargo over. Because it wasn’t worth dying over.

One of them, a new cadet serving under a living legend, Termin the Omnipresent, was a young man with black skin. He had a huge coat on because it was cold, edging below freezing on mornings when he awoke with frost covering the ground, and he sat hunched in his seat as he followed a second wagon through the night until dawn.

His name was Rhaldon, and every time he straightened, his shoulder clicked and he felt something shift and a tightness snap across his arm.

He was sure that was a bad sign. And doubly sure—it hadn’t been doing that a few months ago. Then again—if that were the worst he got for having been shot, Rhaldon would take it.

You holding up alright there, lad?

Termin’s voice floated back to him through the fog. The two were running a late-night delivery across known roads. A mix of danger—but Termin had taken the risk because the area they were passing through wasn’t safe stopping ground.

A word on terminology, first. Rhaldon knew the lexicon of each profession varied. He, personally, had a thousand words that no one with a sane mind would ever need to think of. Or words whose context varied dramatically. Absorption—a process in chemistry, not to be confused with adsorption—atomic numbers, an entire list of elements and how they worked with each other—

Not very useful stuff unless he had the tools of another world to make good on it. Although—perhaps invaluable for the same reason.

But wagon drivers, the Driver’s Guilds of Izril, had their own terms and techniques, and so Rhaldon had written down a list. Termin thought it was ‘odd behavior’, but he just remembered it all. Why not write it down? It had never occurred to him.

Late-night delivery. Not a fun thing to do. Most wagon-drivers didn’t like doing them. For one thing, the night was full of danger. Another—your animals needed rest. Even if you could push them with Skills or just encouragement to pull through the night, it would take a toll on them mentally and physically. Throwing a shoe, breaking a horse’s ankle—it was something you only did across known roads.

Known roads—not just ‘mapped’ roads, but trade routes, roads beyond any variance. These were the only places a sane driver would do a late-night drive. No backwoods trail could count as these. It had to have enough traffic—and enough people watching for monsters—that you wouldn’t get yourself killed.

The reason they were doing this moderately risky thing even on known roads was due to the last term. Safe stopping ground. In short—the last two towns and villages that Termin had passed by on their way to Celum weren’t safe.

They were heading back from a northern excursion, far past the local High Passes region. Nowhere near as far as Invrisil—they’d headed from Romswicht, and Celum was their destination. The city was in need of a delivery of Romswicht’s largest product.

Salamander tails. And scales. And other parts.

Oh, if you headed to Romswicht as a normal—the Driver’s terms for people who didn’t understand what Izril looked like—you might think it was just a warmer city than usual with huge-armed [Miners] boasting about finding a lump of gold in their active mines. Or you’d stop by the hot baths or take a chance panning for some gems.

And you might reasonably think ‘this city’s a big mining city like Esthelm or Salazsar’. And you’d say that, and Romswicht’s populace would agree. And every [Trader], [Merchant], and [Wagon Driver] in earshot would laugh at your ignorance.

It was true they sold such things. And it probably even made up a good amount of the city’s trade. But the real value was the salamanders.

They were everywhere. They nested in buildings, in the mines, would appear in your bath—even leap into your morning cup of tea in a suicidal bid to get you to spill it all over your face. But the truth was, the pests were highly, highly valuable. So much so that there was a Catcher’s Guild devoted to dealing with the pests.

[Alchemists] loved them. The same natural magicore and hot springs that made the town of Romswicht so warm led the salamanders—cold-blooded and magical—to infest the area. Their tails, skin, and everything else were valuable low-level reagents.

Celum wanted them. But really—it was what Celum was connected to that made the trip worthwhile.

“Just a bit further, lad. Celum to Invrisil and Pallass. It makes our trip faster—if cheaper—but I’ll be damned if most [Drivers] won’t hate the route. Two no-stop zones.”

Termin grimaced. The last two places he’d passed had been apparently dangerous enough that he hadn’t considered pulling into an inn.

“How bad was it? They didn’t look—nasty.”

Rhaldon called out. Termin grumbled as he patted Erma’s head. Or Fox—Rhaldon couldn’t tell who was who in the mist.

“Maybe not. But two [Drivers] got jumped in their sleep last year. That’s more than enough to take it off our lists.”

The Driver’s Guild was very careful about the places they knew as ‘safe’. They had lists of inns, pubs, and even had established routes you’d follow as a new driver to maximize your safety. And they had a bit of weight; entire villages and overnight hostels had wondered why they had lost a substantial number of customers. Many would never realize that no [Driver] had stepped through their door—they were an overnight guest, but there could be hundreds each month.

Incidentally, the inn that Termin wanted to stay at was not on the safe-list, but as a top-tier [Driver], Termin often explored new routes and reported his findings to the guild. But he was not exactly charitable to The Wandering Inn at the moment.

“The damned door is throwing all our routes off. Good on Miss Solstice for having it, but it’s making our lives harder, eh, Rhaldon? You not nodding off?”

“Mm. I’m doing okay right now.”

Rhaldon assured Termin and sat up a bit. This was an expensive amount of cargo to haul, and messing it up would be disastrous. Reassured—that was probably why he’d slowed—Termin moved on.

“We’ll have a hot drink on me when we get in. Then—I’m thinking maybe another day off before we hit the road. You…you sure you don’t want to have me introduce you to Miss Solstice? We might get rooms this time.”

They had been at the inn no less than three weeks ago. And then—they’d moved straight on, back to work. Rhaldon sat in the driver’s seat and thought about it.

“—She looked busy last time.”

“Being dead does that to you. Can’t believe it myself. And the 7th Hive of the Antinium and the Haven on the move. Damn Haven. Larracel’s probably transported a hundred tonnes of goods on the sly. Job-stealing [Innkeeper]. Miss Solstice has the decency not to undercut us that much, but her…”

Another funny thing was that the [Drivers] hated the Haven. Larracel could and sometimes did transport items or people in her mobile inn. And while her inn was slow—there was no beating a magical fortress like the Haven.

But Termin liked The Wandering Inn. He had hugged Erin—been given all the new favorite foods and been part of that moment. Rhaldon had eaten a meal in the inn—and then left.

He hadn’t spoken to Erin Solstice. Nor to Kevin of Solar Cycles or Joseph the Coach. All of whom Rhaldon suspected he had things to say to.

Termin noticed. Termin noticed a lot, and as Rhaldon now knew—Termin had the ability to meet people who might matter on the road. He could drive his coach—shift it across vast tracts of land, and he was a veteran of his job.

So he was obviously curious as to why his young protégé was not rushing to meet Erin Solstice. The answer? Well, there were a few.

“It’s a dangerous inn.”

Rhaldon broke the silence as their wagons descended a slight incline. The dirt road was wet by the moonlight now cutting through the mists. It appeared in front of them, fifty feet at a time, and Termin’s figure sat a bit too light in the saddle. Rhaldon knew that the older man had a club under his seat.

Their voices were low as a field of what might be wheat passed to one side, like a whispering sea of hands reaching up. It was just…they were speaking to fill the silence. But so quietly, just over the clop-clop of hooves and the creaking of the wagon wheels. In case something was out there.

“That monster that attacked it? Fair enough. It’s never going to be a safe-spot for [Drivers] even if a decade passes with nary another attack. But Miss Solstice is generous. Is it the Goblins? Antinium?”

Rhaldon shook his head. He smiled at the suggestion.

“She seems pretty open-minded to me.”

Termin couldn’t guess why Rhaldon would take that as a good sign. The man grunted.

“Them monsters make my hair stand on end—but they’re decent sorts. One of them even gambles. The fellow with the guitar. Almost like people.”

“Amazing how that happens.”

If he noticed Rhaldon’s sardonic comment, Termin didn’t react. The man rubbed his gloved hands together.

“It it Erin herself?”


“I admit—seeing her with them flaming eyes and those wings gave me a start. Who knew chess was that dramatic, eh?”

Rhaldon’s heart beat faster just remembering it. He had seen Erin Solstice playing her now-famous match against Pisces. Felt the inn shaking.

Intimidating didn’t cover it. Perhaps if you had known her longer or you were as famous in your own way as Termin, it was ‘normal’. But Rhaldon was like Inkar, though neither had met the other.

They were newcomers, and they saw someone from their world who seemed to now belong to this one.

Myth and legend and—she was intense. Rhaldon couldn’t describe it any other way. He had once met someone who had come off active-duty service. Fresh from a plane-ride home. They had been—well, they’d talked and spoken and reacted normally, but they were also somewhere else. And Rhaldon had felt like they were ready for something he couldn’t even dream of.

If the sky fell down—they’d be the ones who ducked.

What did you have to live through to get like that? He wondered. These were both two good, obvious reasons. She was an established something, and he wasn’t sure he should trust her.

He’d seen the Singer of Terandria’s music video. He’d heard…well, he’d seen the Meeting of Tribes play out on the scrying orb. Roshal existed.

All these things made Rhaldon’s skin crawl, but why not speak to Erin Solstice? Why not? There was one last reason, and it was this:

“I know her, you know, Termin. Or—not know, but I knew her name before we met her.”

The [Driver] twisted around in his seat. His eyes glinted from below his hat.

“You don’t say? Are you from her homeland? I thought so.”

“Exactly her homeland. I know Kevin too. Not Joseph.”

“…How? Is she a famous chess player back there?”

“Funny you mention that. I think they even said something like that. The second chess prodigy gone missing.”


The young man hesitated. He schooled his face, but his skin kept crawling. Because she didn’t really look like the picture of her. No, not at all.

Something had aged her. Five years—but she didn’t look five years older. Not physically. She had aged in the way emotions and maturity aged her, but her biological age was closer to the image he’d seen.

Almost every single night on news bulletins. On the dedicated websites. Rhaldon spoke, and he knew it might be risky to tell Termin, but someone had to know. The thing was…

“I didn’t even believe she was real. Even when I saw her. I thought, ‘no way’.”

“Someone’s searching for her?”

“You could say that.”

A tenth of the country was on the streets, knocking on doors, demanding to search their neighbors’ houses. Every single organization from the FBI to local police—and half the countries were pointing fingers at each other. Taking sides.

“You, uh, think she might want to go back?”

“It’s not that simple.”

He was going to be on that list—if they didn’t declare him dead. Rhaldon shivered. He spoke, trying to explain to Termin what had happened.

“Erin is…one of a few people who vanished, Termin. Now, I guess we know what happened, but back home—no one knew. And people didn’t really take notice until later. But now, everyone’s noticing. There are a lot of false positives. Even more conspiracies. The lockdown didn’t help either—”

“Curfew? Now they see Miss Solstice, surely the panic’s over.”

“…It’s an insular nation.”

“Ah. Inland?”

“No. Private. No scrying orbs.”

Termin whistled as Rhaldon invented a different way to explain the issue. The [Driver] glanced sideways.

“So a lot of disappearing folk makes for trouble. Even I don’t have to guess that.”

“Well, we had a bad few years. Sickness, wars—and we’re having people vanish. On camera—”

“I thought you said they didn’t have them television things.”

“No, they’re just within our nation’s boundaries.”

“Ah. Right.”

Rhaldon rolled his eyes. This was stupid. But he wasn’t going to explain the entire thing right now, so he went on.

“The point—is that no one trusts the crown. Add in the curfew, and nothing’s changed. Now people are seeing—visions. And nothing else is getting better. There were protests. Along with people trying to search homes. Arrest people—vigilantes. Extremists. So there were two kinds of protests. And some of them were put down hard.”

He felt at his shoulder. Termin’s keen-eyed stare shifted to that.

“You wouldn’t have happened to be at one of them, would you?”


Maybe it was just one idiot using live-rounds. But that wasn’t what it had sounded like. That wasn’t—

Rhaldon tried not to think about what might have happened again. It had been a peaceful protest—ish. With almost as many officers to make sure it stayed that way. Right up until the counter-protest got violent.

Disaster back home. And if this were what was really going on, behind the scenes, no wonder no one had any answers. Because this was no conspiracy. Or if it was, it went even above the nations of Earth—unless they were in on this.

He was going too far into Stargate-esque conspiracies. Bring it back, bring it back. The young man closed his eyes and breathed. What he knew was still unbelievable.

He wished he knew a factoid about Erin Solstice beyond the most obvious things. But again—she was one of thousands. And those were only the people from America.

Termin was silent, digesting all of Rhaldon’s half-truths and no doubt forming his own conclusions. He tipped his hat up.

“Well, lad, I can’t blame you for being wary. But Miss Solstice is as real as they come and generous. Think on it, huh? Not that I mind the extra help. You’re a deft [Driver], and you’re levelling a tad too fast for my ego. I wasn’t Level 14 until I was…”

Rhaldon smiled. He’d leveled so fast Termin was jealous. Level 14 might seem low—but he had done it in bare months. Right now, he only had a few minor Skills, but some were nice. And Termin, for all his abilities, liked having someone with Skills in the same area.

“How’re we looking on the track, lad?”


Rhaldon obligingly used the Skill. A long arrow that looked suspiciously like something from home snaked out in front of him, illuminating the road. It curved left in the distance.

“Left turn up ahead.”

“Sounds about right.”

The light was rising, but because the High Passes blocked the sun, they’d be traveling through the mists for a while yet. The horses were calmer than the [Drivers]. This pre-dawn hour was when trouble struck.

Rhaldon had a club as well, but Termin had told him to surrender unless the [Bandits] were out for blood. Monsters…if it were monsters, you unhitched the horses and took cover. Hide under the wagons or run.

The [Driver] was scratching at some light stubble on his chin and wondering if he had the courage to try shaving on the bumpy wagon when he heard something.

Scritch. Scritch.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose. It was coming from behind him. Slowly, his head swung around. Short, unevenly cropped hair from a Level 5 [Barber]’s haircut covered by a riding hood exposed two careful, amber-brown eyes.

Was something moving in the back of his wagon? Rhaldon stared at the covered bags of salamander skins and tails and jars of goods.

One of the salamanders wasn’t dead? Some were wholesale, dried. He hoped that was the case. But then he heard the sound again.

Scritch. Something made a loud, scratchy noise. And he saw some of the canvas move. Something too big to be a salamander…

“Lad? You heard that?”

Termin glanced around. Rhaldon didn’t make a sound. The horses plodded along, and he saw the other [Driver] turning his head in the darkness. He opened his mouth—and Rhaldon pointed.

Termin’s wagon slowed. Erma and Fox’s eyes went round in the midnight—and the man slowly reached under his seat.

“I’ll, ah…”

His voice trailed low. Rhaldon gripped the hard handle of his club with a suddenly sweaty palm. He turned—it was rustling closer. Termin looked at Rhaldon—then he grabbed the edge of his seat. His wagon slowed—and Rhaldon lifted the bulls-eye lantern shining ahead and swung it back.

Get ‘em! Erma, Fox—[Run Free]!

The two ponies leapt out of their positions as Termin freed them with a Skill. The older [Driver] and Rhaldon whirled on the thing in the back of his wagon. Rhaldon’s wild, dancing light illuminated the creature bent over the first bundle of salamanders, holding on with its mouth. The monster reared up in alarm. The—


Freaked out and did a screaming jump, landed on its back, and leapt out of the wagon, shrieking. Rhaldon froze, club comically raised, and Termin nearly slammed into the wagon’s side.

“A fox.”

The two stared at each other, and then Termin let out a breath. Rhaldon began laughing shakily. He put down the club and felt limp with exhaustion. He wiped some sweat away from his face. Termin climbed back on the wagon as Erma and Fox trotted back.

“Dead gods, lad.”

“I thought it was—”

“Me too. Foxes. Too brave by half! Did it jump up? Eating salamanders? Must’ve been hungry for the winter. Little bastard. Let’s go.”

He had to re-hitch Erma and Fox. Rhaldon sat back, then soothed his nervous horses. He heard Termin fussing with the reins and a few loud stomps from the two ponies. And a squarb sound.


He’d never heard Erma and Fox say that. Rhaldon looked up and saw three shapes in the mist. Erma, Fox, Termin—no, wait, Termin was standing behind Erma. The tip of his hat stood out. So who was the fourth…

The Garbichug had a mouthful of Termin’s salamander cargo. It opened its toothy beak—then smacked Termin in the face with a wing as he gaped at it. Rhaldon reached for his club and then heard a second sound at his back.





Octavia Cotton was grumpy in the morning as she waited for her delivery. She had a cup of coffee, which made her less-grumpy. The highly caffeinated beverage was a hit among [Alchemists].

But she was grumpy—as she always was when she had to spend gold on things she didn’t need to spend gold on.

In this case—an entire set of alchemy supplies. Someone’s new cat had broken them. And while Reagen was now a proud member of the inn with Erin Solstice’s blessing, guess who had to buy a new set?

“How many vials?”

“Fifteen. Three flasks. Four beakers. Oh, and he fouled up all my alchemy work for the day, so I have cat hair and a mix of thirty-eight grams of associated reagents all swept up on the floor.”

A wince didn’t begin to describe the reaction of the other two people keeping her company. They stood—all of them glaring at the sun as it dared to rise just outside the gates of Celum.

Erin’s door was actually in Celum once more; Wailant was getting tired of the foot-traffic, and besides, a crossroads was not always the safest place to be, even one close to the Strongheart farm. That Octavia was here didn’t endear her to her former home of several years.

She remembered how she’d left. But she had to be here, because she was expecting a delivery.

Salamander tails. They were essential in creating warming tonics and for a lot of low-level potions. They’d be popular this time of year—the winter got cold, and she could also use some parts in her matches, and it was good to buy them cheap, wholesale from Romswicht.

Before some [Trader] got ahold of the delivery and marked everything up by 30%, she was going to buy the goods in person. Which was why she was here, shivering in the pre-dawn light, with two other people.

Saliss of Lights and Xif of Pallass were the two other [Alchemists] who could persuade Liska and Erin to let them through before dawn. Only friends of the inn could prevail on the annoyed [Innkeeper] to make an exception—and so the three of them were sharing cups of coffee.

“At least you’ve got a shop.”

Xif whined. Saliss glared sideways with red-eyes.

“Shut up, Xif.”

Someone burned down my shop!

His entire fortune and home, ruined. The Gnoll seemed close to tears as he recounted it—but Saliss just glared.

“The city helped you build a temporary one—and I gave you some reagents. It’s tragic, horrendous, blah, blah. I let you have the first thousand complaints. This is one thousand two hundred and five.

Was he actually counting or making that up? Xif grumbled into his fur. He didn’t look cold in the dawn chill. Then again, neither did Saliss. Saliss just looked tired.

“I feel like an apprentice starting from scratch. Having to beat the rush on salamander parts. At least it’ll be a huge profit once I put out Warmth Tonics on sale. You don’t do mass-produced items. Why are you here?”

Saliss glared.

“Salamanders go boom.”



Octavia and Xif nodded. That checked out. They were three kinds of [Alchemist], standing in a line at the gates. Octavia had yet to find her true specialty—but Xif was a famous producer of more standard potions while Saliss was an exotics and battle-oriented catalyst expert.

That meant his specialty was in explosive reactions or just deadly ones. There were [Alchemists] of completely different breeds, who did work with more classic acids or metallurgy or were even able to harness Skills and put them in a bottle.

Octavia was in awe of the two older [Alchemists].

She sneezed.

Well, mostly in awe. They were more normal than you thought once you got to know them. Even Master Saliss. Xif eyed the naked Drake as Saliss poured some coffee into his mouth and began to gargle.

“Why are you sleep-deprived? I thought you’d reconstructed most of your battle potions.”

“Fifty percent.”

“Dead gods. You’ve been putting Octavia on grinding and mixing for months. How many did you have?

Saliss glared at Xif as he lowered the cup of coffee.

“Enough to create a damn lake and blow up an entire Guild of Assassins. Enough to crater all of the 9th Floor. When you sleep at night, remember that.”

The Gnoll shuddered. He took another sip from his cup of coffee and grimaced.

“But you could at least sleep rather than bite our tails off.”

“Can’t. I’m researching the stuff from the laboratory the adventurers found. And you’re supposed to be helping.”

“I have to sleep, Saliss.”


The Drake seemed to be determined to drink his way back to wakefulness. He poured another cup of coffee out of the flask and gave Octavia and Xif a top-up. Octavia took a sip and promptly sprayed Xif with it.

Dead gods! Master Saliss—this is filled with sugar!

“It’s called ‘energy’. More efficient than eating.”

“My fur! Saliss, give me a cleaning tonic. I know you have some—not a fur-remover! You turned me bald two years ago, and I haven’t forgotten it!”

The three [Alchemists] were bickering as Saliss laughed at Xif and the enraged Gnoll demanded a cleaning tonic. Octavia was apologizing when she saw the two wagons finally roll in.

“At last! There they are! Over here! W—oh dear.”

The Watch and the [Alchemists] noticed the two [Drivers] coming in and stopped grousing about their own mortal complaints. Mostly because they were staring at two half-ransacked wagons.

And two dirty, battered, pecked, scratched, vomited-upon, and foul-tempered drivers. The horses too.

“Dead gods, what happened to you?”

One of the [Guards] strode out the gates, worried. All Termin did was grunt.

Garbichugs. Three of ‘em. They’re still out there. Find them and shoot the damn things.”

“Garbichugs? They attacked you?”

“We had to fight them off.”

The younger man made Octavia blink. He looked like someone from home, but he had no stitching. He was lankier than she expected as he stood up, and he had on a cheap waxed riding cloak and some horribly-cut hair a [Barber] had mangled into clumps.

Also, about fifty-two scratches she could see. Most unhealed.

“Don’t you have a potion?”

“Think we’re stupid? A potion costs too much—and those things are foul as can be. Those roads are supposed to be safe! The Driver’s Guild will be lodging a protest, and if there are more Garbichugs, no one’ll be driving or running the roads!”

Termin growled back. Saliss agreed as he strode over. From being annoying, he was all business as he inspected the foul odor. Even Xif and Octavia, veterans of bad smells, were keeping back.

“Don’t put a potion on that. You’ll turn into a ball of infections. Here—douse yourselves with this. It’s a cleaning vial. Get a bucket of water, heat it up, put this in it, and douse. Clothes, everything cut—and then keep it dry.”

“Thank you. Alchemist Saliss, isn’t it?”

“My cleaning fluid!”

Xif whined, but Termin looked grateful. Saliss strode over to the carts next as the young man, wincing, felt at a cut.

“How likely is it we were infected? One threw up on me.

“Self-defense mechanism. They shouldn’t be this widespread. But the damn things love garbage…Garbichugs. You can’t even burn ‘em. Some explode, and others create toxic gas. They aren’t worth anything. Not hides, not any part…”

The guards were groaning at each other. But Saliss was peering at the salamander parts, and his shout drew everyone’s attention.

No! Half the parts are fouled!

Everyone rushed over to the carts. And sure enough—the hungry animals had eaten and broken into dozens of crates and sacks and jars. Termin grabbed at his hair.

“Tell me the remainder can be used.”

“After a Garbichug so much as looks at them? Are you mad?”

The [Alchemists] clustered around, groaning. Octavia’s heart sank as she saw the mess. You could purify some things—like ore—but the salamanders and a Garbichug’s filth introduced far, far too much contamination into most alchemist procedures.

“You can sell the bad parts at rock-bottom rates—but not much else. Dead gods, the Alchemist’s Guild is going to die. Wait—is this the entire Romswicht delivery? All of the last four months?”

Termin and Rhaldon exchanged a long glance as Saliss looked between them. Xif, paling, began counting less than a third of the driver’s goods that could be sold. Octavia reached for a money pouch.

“I’ll buy anything I can afford—right now.”

“Me too. And I’ll double your going rate.”

“I’ll triple it. This is going to be a cold damn winter.”

The [Alchemists] began fighting over what remained. Termin, meanwhile, just grabbed the cleansing fluid and motioned to Rhaldon.

“One side, [Alchemists]. This was a Merchant’s Guild delivery—sort it out with them. But we’re getting cleaned up first. Master Saliss, here.”

He tossed a good bag of dead salamanders at the Drake.

“This is no good. Might as well take it. Thanks for the potion.”

The Drake made the bag of ‘bad’ parts disappear and nodded. Termin, shaking his head, grabbed the reins and headed for the Merchant’s Guild. First thing, he’d get himself, Rhaldon, and the animals cleaned up.

No telling what kind of nasty was on those Garbichugs.




What really annoyed him about the modern era was that it was so pathetic. They had no great weapons of war.

The Emperor of Lightning had once mass-produced spell-weapons like the cheap wands of Tier 2 magic. In his day—

In Tolveilouka’s day, those were standard armaments any force might lug around if they could afford them. An [Alchemist] of the level of that Drake would have been normal in any major hub.

…Then again, there had been a lot fewer cities and towns about. The Humans had infested the north and spread out.

They were weaker, more pathetic, and their warriors were inferior to his age of grand strife. He had fought with Dragons.

Here? Dragons were a myth. The half-Elf, the being of death who had served the Putrid One, stood at a remove, watching the two drivers delivering their destroyed cargo to the city.

Garbichugs. Rihal had bred them. The stupid imperium hadn’t realized how much of a pest they were. Of course, Tolveilouka and his master had laughed at the creatures, and they only spread minor plagues.

But they were fun to germinate. They had come from Rhir—and if you knew a trick and had the mana…

The three Garbichugs that had gone after the wagon drivers were nursing their wounds. Tolveilouka had actually been impressed—the two ponies had fought off the Garbichugs, and the three giant birds were all six feet tall and fairly dangerous.

“A more competent driver. But you have served well enough. So—[Plague Pustule].”

Even he would not kiss a Garbichug. Tolveilouka reached out—touched a Garbichug on the head, and the duck-creature jerked up in alarm. It didn’t see him under [Greater Invisibility]—but it did see the pure amalgam of putrefaction slowly swelling in its chest.

The other two Garbichugs looked up as the first ran around, squawking and screaming. The pustule grew and grew—then exploded.

Tolveilouka held up a parasol from the Empire of Drath as bits of the creature rained down.

“Alas, thou hast met a cruel fate. Sayest anything for thy kin, fellow Garbichugs? What nobler—eugh.”

Mid-eulogy, he wrinkled his nose. Garbichugs really were disgusting. They were trying to eat the pieces of their fallen comrade.

He kicked one, and it went flying over the nearest hill. The other decided this was a dangerous place and ran for it. Wisely.

Now, why had he killed the first one? Tolveilouka bent over the one he’d exploded with the plague spell. And—even after seeing this a thousand times, he was always amused.

The pieces of the destroyed bird were shaking. Coalescing into a ball—then morphing. Of course, he had accelerated the process a hundredfold with his spell. But it was remarkable.

A tiny, tiny Garbichug squawked as it rose from its dead parent. And it was accompanied by sixty more such voices as Tolveilouka saw the infused parent’s remains shifting.

This was, incidentally, why you had to burn the damn things. Garbichugs reproduced when they died. Anything they ate turned into fuel for another generation—and they could do wonderfully in sewers. Or against plague spells.

Rihal had tried to use them as weapons of war against the Putrid One—until he had realized he could just multiply the pests. They, ironically, halted some of the worst plagues, but spread tons of low-level ones. It was why the imperium had declined…though it had stuck around for a long time, apparently.

And they were very helpful in ruining shipments of alchemical items. Tolveilouka was just annoyed about one thing.

This modern era. Inferior. No more great beings—or very few. Such a lack of elegance. Pitiful nations—no more Walled Cities to replace the ones that had fallen.

And yet—he glanced up, annoyed, as he stared at the city in the distance.

Why were they all so damn determined to wash their hands? When he had roamed the world with his master, the idea of constant obsessive cleanliness was more of a thing you did every few days. Half-Elves would famously go for months without bothering. A bit of dirt was natural. If you could see skin, it was good.

It was almost as if something or someone had traumatized generations into learning to heat water and use soap. A weird legacy, but his master might have laughed.

Oh, his master. Tolveilouka clutched at his heart. Time to go back to the city and lay there a while. He tracked down the mostly-dead Garbichug he’d kicked—you didn’t survive that kind of impact anyways—and created fifty more to harass the area. Then he continued on his way north.

It wasn’t really about starting an avalanche of Garbichugs or ruining the entire salamander supply. It was just about resources. As in—valuable heating gels and tonics were already in high demand for the winter.

Izril would make do, even if a dozen suppliers of the reagents had shortages. After all, they had big, lovely cities to cling to. It wasn’t as if there were thousands of people headed to new lands. Was there?

The half-Elf stopped by a field of wheat and admired it. Then he pointed a finger.

“[Flame Swathe].”

In his master’s experience, you could starve a nation, and that hurt them. But it was one thing for everyone to starve with nothing to eat. Far better—if two nations began fighting over a half-supply.

Whistling, the half-Elf began flying north, towards that so-called City of Adventurers, then faster. Every now and then, he stopped and cast a spell. You could deliver a lot of misery if you just put in the effort. He quite respected [Wagon Drivers]. It might be humble—but Tolveilouka was also putting in a hard day’s work.




When Rhaldon felt clean, he met the [Alchemists]. They were busy fighting the [Merchants] for the salamander parts, and the [Merchants] were arguing with Termin.

“We were counting on the entire delivery, Master Termin—”

“Take it up with the Driver’s Guild. Accidents happen. We were attacked on the road!”

“Yes, but—”

The angry [Merchant] blustered. The rest of his sentence was something like, ‘yes, we know there are accidents and we have a standing arrangement with the Driver’s Guild and we know we can’t hold you responsible for monster attacks. But it’s inconvenient, and we want to blame you.

Termin, though, was foul-tempered enough to get into a chest-jabbing match with the [Merchant] and high-level enough that the furious debate had lasted twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, Octavia Cotton, Saliss, and Xif were shoveling as many salamander parts as they could into bags of holding. They were paying four times the going rate—because they all knew that would be cheap compared to the prices soon.

“Damn. Alright, apprentice, I’m going to Pallass. Damn, damn, damn. These alchemy shortages.”

“At least we’re going to make a profit!”

The Gnoll, Xif, looked happy, and Saliss jabbed him in the side hard.

“Sometimes, it’s not about a profit, Xif. Who’s going to afford your warming tonics? Not the lower half of Pallass’ citizens anymore. Eat Garbichug. Apprentice—drop by my shop to do some work later. Oh, and tell Erin I’m really busy, and it had better be something good. Nicely or something.”

He stomped off. Which left Octavia looking around the Merchant’s Guild. She walked over to the counter as Rhaldon—listening in to the conversation about Erin—heard her speaking to one of the workers there.

“Excuse me. Can I lodge an order through the Driver’s Guild? Or do you have a [Merchant] or [Trader] on stock with the following items? Alchemy-related.”

The man at the desk nodded and brought out a catalog. If you were anyone with money, the Merchant’s Guild would order items, hold them, or just provide you with what you wanted from their stocks. The Runner’s Guild was for fast items, letters, and individual-deliveries like groceries.

The Merchant’s Guild, in tandem with the Driver’s Guild, fulfilled orders for shops, restaurants, smithies, and so on—which was why Termin could shout at a [Merchant] without being blacklisted forever. Both sides needed the other.

“I need good beakers, vials, uh—tons of low-level reagents. Can I get someone good on the job? Please?

“Do you have a specific [Driver], Miss?”

“Not Grenim. Or Llerif. Or this Gnoll who likes chewing on a piece of straw. Or a Human—Moodif. Or Rena. Or…”

Octavia rattled out a list of nearly eighteen [Drivers] as the [Clerk] looked a bit harried.

“I meant, do you have someone you’d like to run the delivery, Miss?”

“I’m telling you who I don’t want. Those are all bad [Drivers]. They don’t know how to store alchemical items, they can’t transport glass—and I’d like the delivery to me, not sitting in the Merchant’s Guild where it’s improperly stored too.”

The [Clerk] gave Octavia a long-suffering look as Rhaldon listened in. He’d heard [Drivers] hated working for [Alchemists], and he could see why. If it were even remotely like home—

Well, even the salamander parts had taken Termin, a good driver, to transport them safely, and Rhaldon had made sure they were not going to be rained on or frozen. Termin had grumbled about storing them from the frost, but Rhaldon could only imagine how tough it was to be a chemist. Especially if this world’s version of the USPS dropped or bounced things around on a wagon.

Actually, he felt for the [Drivers]. Imagine transporting something you knew was volatile.

“Miss, I can only lodge an order. And I don’t know when it’ll be fulfilled. We’ll ask our Merchant’s Guild to inquire with traditional suppliers.”

The Stitch-girl looked more and more peeved.

“There’s no dedicated [Merchant] around? What about the Golden Gnoll? The Silver Merchant? They sell alchemy items too!”

“Aren’t they in Liscor? Wouldn’t you have better access to them?”

Octavia pulled at her dreadlocks in frustration.

“I already asked! I meant—there’s no good [Merchant] you can prevail upon?”

“They are two of the larger multi-specialists in Liscor. You wouldn’t happen to know Miss Qwera personally, would you? I’d love to attend one of her seminars…”

Octavia groaned. It was at this point, as she was glumly telling the [Clerk] that Qwera was giving a seminar later that day, that Rhaldon strolled over.

“If you need glassware, doesn’t Invrisil have an entire import of it from one of the coastal cities? I know [Alchemists]. Pallass should have dozens of suppliers, shouldn’t they?”

Surprised, Octavia and the [Clerk] looked around. The man was about to tell Rhaldon this was private when he recognized Rhaldon as a driver. Octavia swiveled around, looking mildly exasperated by the obvious questions. But she relented when she noticed Rhaldon.

“Pallass? They don’t import the reagents cheap. Are you—oh, you’re that poor [Driver]. The problem is—you can’t go to a big city. Everyone in the damn Merchant’s Guild marks everything up at least 20%.”

Octavia gave the [Clerk] the evil-eye. He smiled politely.

“Guild practice, Miss Cotton.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why I want a [Merchant] to haul the goods from another town or get a [Driver] to get it to me direct. Even hiring them, it’s a profit. That damn glassware is too expensive in Invrisil.”

The [Clerk] was nodding with Rhaldon.

“Well, Miss, what if you rode out to one of the towns where the goods pass by and negotiate with someone to buy the goods there? That’s what any basic [Trader] does—and if they can do it, why not an [Alchemist]? You’d have all your glassware for cheap instead of going through the Guild.”

Octavia gave the [Clerk] a long, long look.

“Am I made of time? Do I look like I want to ride four days and nights to get a beaker? I’ll pay your prices, thanks. As for the reagents—give me the entire catalog. If I’m paying in bulk, I might as well…”

She glumly began writing down notes, and Rhaldon eyed the sheet. That was a…lot of gold.

What a racket! No wonder the Merchant’s Guild ruled each city. He hesitated—and glanced at Termin—but then he couldn’t help it. When he saw the prices on what looked like salt, he winced, tapped Octavia on the shoulder, and took a breath.

“Um—excuse me, Miss? I could get you all of that. I know there’s a glassware route from Invrisil. It’s a four-day round trip if you have [Faster Rolling], which I do. And if I ask a few [Drivers] to pick up the other things you want at villages they pass by, I can get you the rest. It’s only a few [Message] spells. If you want to cover that and my prices, it’ll cost you about half of what you’ll pay here.”

Octavia looked up, and the [Clerk] frowned at Rhaldon. Technically, you weren’t supposed to ask other [Drivers] to share the load, but Rhaldon knew that you could do it. Octavia turned, eyes wide.

Really? Wait, what’s your name? I’m Octavia. Stitch-folk [Alchemist].”

“Rhaldon. [Driver]. Er—Human?”

He took her hand and smiled. She looked him up and down and eyed his haircut with a wince. But then she was nodding.

“If you can do a delivery for me—I’m willing to wait. I’d wait longer with this lot.”

“If it is a request through the Merchant’s Guild, there is a fee and I can arrange it now, Miss. It would be a personal delivery request through…Driver Rhaldon. Ah, you’re new, but Master Termin vouches for you. Is that what we are doing today?”

The [Clerk] folded up his catalog and poised, quill in hand, ready to make another order. Rhaldon hesitated—and then a few other people heard.

Termin had finished arguing with the [Merchant]. He was red-faced, but he strode over.

“What’s this now? Rhaldon, are you doing your first personal delivery? Good lad!

Rhaldon had been afraid Termin would be angry, but the [Wagon Driver] looked delighted instead.

“About time we got you doing independent work! Not that I couldn’t roll with you to…oh, glassware, is it? Damn fragile stuff. And alchemy? Are you sure you can handle it? You need to keep it dry and such.”

He knew the job, and Rhaldon felt worried—but then again, he did know how to be cautious in a lab environment.

Transporting the stuff will be rough. But he’d promised, and Octavia looked so hopeful Rhaldon gave her and Termin a smile.

“I think I’m ready to try as long as Miss Octavia’s going to give me a shot.”

“I will! Especially at these prices. Hey. Hey, Xif!

The Gnoll turned from where he was still packaging up his salamander parts. He came over, whining.

“It’s Master Xif, Miss Octavia. Please. I know you’re Saliss’ apprentice, but…”

His eyes focused on Rhaldon as Octavia introduced the young man and his offer. Xif peered down his spectacles at Rhaldon.

“You think you can get all of what we need at those prices? Are you, uh, experienced in delivering alchemical items, young man? Even Saliss would rather get his goods in person. I went to Oteslia because good delivery [Drivers] for alchemical items are so far and few between. We had a wonderful Drake who ran practically all of Pallass deliveries, Norish, two years back.”

He put a paw over his heart and sighed wistfully. Rhaldon and Octavia hesitated as Termin winced.

“What happened to him?”


That—said it all, really. Rhaldon gulped, but then he took a deep breath.

“I am actually familiar with keeping to lab protocols, Master Xif. If you could give me a list of dangerous items you’re requesting and how to store them—I think I can do it.”

“Well, well. A list? No driver has ever asked for a list of procedures before. As it happens, I could give you a basic guide for young [Alchemists]. Why not?”

That reply seemed to impress Xif, and soon, he was writing down his order on top of Octavia’s.

“If you do well, I can recommend you to a dozen [Alchemists] outside of Pallass—let alone the ones within. But let’s see how you tackle this, eh?”

Termin was patting Rhaldon on the shoulder, albeit a bit worriedly as he eyed the highly esoteric orders. But Rhaldon was getting excited.

“I can deliver straight to your laboratories.”

“You mean, our shops. Of course! Thank you.”

And I’ll get to know what they’re buying and why. Some of it looked obvious. They wanted salt, flour, mundane things like that—but also salamander parts, roots, and what Rhaldon wondered if he knew from his world.

Tipath ore, for instance. What was that really? Charcoal…his eyes ran down the list, and he smiled as he shook their hands. Termin put a hand on his shoulder as the two [Alchemists] hurried back to their shops.

“Lad, it’ll be a challenge. The first thing we’re going to do is get a Wand of Fire Bolt. Upon me. I think we need it if there are more Garbichugs.”

“You’ve already paid for the wagon and the horses, Termin—”

Rhaldon hesitated, but Termin waved this off.

“I’ll take a cut of what you make—and if you get through this delivery without breaking a thing, you’ll be closer to paying me off even with that wand. Any good master does that for an apprentice. But no—the first thing we’re gonna do is stop by The Wandering Inn, alright? Because if you want to get those deliveries done—time was it’d be a month of travel. With Invrisil and the magic door? You could do this all within four days. The glassware at least!”

Rhaldon gulped as Termin steered him out of the Merchant’s Guild, but he nodded. The [Clerk] made a few notes for the record, and Tolveilouka laughed his way north.

But no one really paid attention to the [Drivers]. They were the hidden grease in Izril’s axles. Not the main players of any story. When someone needed to get somewhere or had something delivered—that was them.

The real heroes rode horses. Or ran barefoot or had fancy hats.

Or wore aprons. Well—Erin Solstice was an exception to that rule.




Erin Solstice was reading a [Message] with some dismay that morning as Ishkr greeted two men at the inn.

She was reading a note from Wilovan and Ratici. Something bad was going down in Oteslia. She barely glanced up and smiled at Termin—but Ishkr was talking with them.

“—very standard to go through the doors. Liska can set it up outside temporarily to get your horses through. The wagon won’t fit.”

“Ah, well, he can use another one in Invrisil. Thank you, sir. Good to see you, Miss Erin!”

“Termin, hi! Get him a burger on the house, Ishkr! If you’re staying, let’s talk…later.”

Erin half-waved at the two men. She was reading the note instead and barely looked up. Erin was far away, in a place she’d never actually been to.




Oteslia, City of Growth. It was, by all accounts, one of the better cities to live in if you were a Gnoll. Maybe not the most military-minded, and certainly the poorest, vying with Manus for rock-bottom—but Manus poured their resources into their army.

Yet Oteslia had some ideas about how to run itself. For instance, it was the only Walled City—one of the only cities in Izril at all—which thought that criminals, [Prisoners], and so on deserved a place to stretch their legs and mill about.

Oteslia’s prison complex had an outdoor component where the imprisoned could, at daily intervals, stretch, exercise, and actually socialize. And while Erin hadn’t realized this—and most people did not have an intimate knowledge of prisons—the thing that she considered standard to Earth was not usual in this world.

Liscor, for instance, had a prison. Prisoners went in, and when they were released, went out. At no point did they have a recess or chance to move about. Calruz had nearly gone insane from his confinement.

Pallass was like that too. In fact, it had low incarceration times and high fines—the idea was you paid for your mistakes in a literal sense. Drake cities liked that model. It was how Pisces had been allowed to roam about despite being a criminal after paying his fines.

But in other cities—you were thrown behind the bars, and you sat there. Sometimes, you died there. Or some Walled Cities had other practices.

In Salazsar, you were given a forced conscription sentence where you labored in the mines. Some companies ‘rented’ prisoners instead of hiring [Miners]. In Zeres, similarly, you were made a rower on some of their ships along with jail terms.

Manus was different. You were given military duty for them or work in the same way as the other two cities—but they also would lash offenders.

Fissival tended to simply exile most criminals or downgrade their citizenship papers after enough infractions. But no city—none of them—let you leave the cell. Once thrown in, you might spend ninety days in a box too small to do more than pace about, using a privy that fed into the sewers.

Some might consider this fair treatment for prisoners. Oteslia was of the view that they could at least walk about for a bit—tend to gardens they let prisoners grow seeds in. Which made it a fine city to be arrested in, especially if you were a new gang of Brothers fighting the Earthtenders, right? You’d be put in there a week at the most for brawling—or more if there were blood—but then come right out.

Rickel stared down at the Gnoll’s body. The young man had his paws clasped together and eyes closed—and the [Gravekeeper] had prepared him for burial. But that didn’t hide the wounds on his chest.

“Stabbed. Eight times with a shiv.”

Wilovan and Ratici stood around the dead young man. He had no hat—the Watch had taken it when he was jailed. So, Wilovan produced a hat and covered the young Gnoll’s face with it.

He looked—grim. So furiously silent that the [Gravetender] didn’t interrupt the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. The new recruits from Oteslia’s streets and the Humans who’d come to aid the Gentlemen Callers.

“Is he the first?”

“Fourth this week. We didn’t realize they weren’t coming back—the Watch notified their kin, not us.”

Ratici squatted down, face hard and bleak. Rickel wanted to tell a joke—he wanted to laugh—in denial, because this was dark.

“I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence?”

One of the Brothers from the north was a man with a goatee and a scar that closed one blinded eye. He looked down, and Wilovan shook his head.

“It’s not always the same weapon.”

The Brothers murmured to each other. One of the veterans exhaled.

“—Then these Earthtenders have a way in with the Watch. No wonder they’re calling for the law. Their lot might get booked—ours won’t come out. Spread the word. Better to die than go in. It’s the same either way.”

“We will not be shedding blood with the Watch, Torpith.”

“And you’d have us let in young lads who’ll go up against bastards with blades?”

The scarred man and Wilovan squared off—until Ratici lifted his voice.

“Silence. You’re in the company of this brave lad. Show some respect.”

Instantly, both Brothers stood down. But there it was. Rickel saw it.

So this was Poruniv’s plan. Ecleeif had feared these ‘Gallowsmen’ and their swift justice, but the Earthtenders were willing to let the Watch and law enforcement arrest their own and the Brothers.

Because once they were in Oteslia’s lovely, social prisons, the Brothers would be unarmed, in theory able to hold their own if they stuck together against Earthtenders in the jails.

—In practice, the Earthtenders would miraculously somehow smuggle in blades. And without Wilovan or Ratici, the junior members of their gang were sitting ducks.




They buried the young Gnoll, and Rickel stood around the small funeral as dirt was piled in. Oteslians didn’t believe in coffins. They knew what happened to those buried, and the bodies in this graveyard would grow the somber plants and trees from Noelictus. The only thing Oteslia did to make sure the undead wouldn’t rise was remove the head and add salt between the shoulders and head.

Only afterwards did he realize no one had told him the young Gnoll’s name. Wilovan, Ratici, and the veteran Brothers spoke on their quiet walk back.

“What can be done?”

“Keep the Watch back. Run interference. No one goes into the jails. No blood on the Watch—for now. I said, for now, Torpith. We can’t destroy this city in the process of taking it from the Earthtenders’ hands. Put a line in the ear of any [Guard] who’ll listen. Tell them to open their eyes. We don’t want sides—but we want justice. Even for folk such as us.”

“Or else?”

Wilovan’s eyes glittered.

“Or else there is no law to respect. And we do respect them, for all we step over the line. That’s all.”

The Brothers fell silent, and Rickel’s skin crawled. Oh shit. Things were going to get super real soon—unless something was done. He tried not to smile. He knew that would be intense. But—holy shit. What would that look like?

Could he help? He wondered about bribes…but then Ratici spoke up.

“Perhaps there’s a way. I sent a line to Miss Solstice. As we happen to send a monthly letter.”

“You what?”

Wilovan looked annoyed, and Ratici adjusted his cap.

“Perhaps she has some good idea. Perhaps—as I asked—Miss Lyonette had more words with that Cire fellow. Rickel knows him too.”

“I can bring it up.”

Rickel thought that was a good idea. A few eyes on the prison situation might calm the stabbings—but it wasn’t a permanent solution. He was curious, though.

“What do you think the [Innkeeper] can do?”

The [Thief] gave Rickel an expressive shrug.

“A fellow never argues with help, Rickel. Or doubts it might come at times when it’s greatly appreciated. Especially not from a lady who’s flouted death.”




Hence, the letter to Erin Solstice. She sat there, thinking, aware of her debt to the two Gentlemen Callers. But what could she do?

She barely noticed the door opening and closing as Ishkr handled the mundanities of inn-travel and transport. And while Rickel might doubt the young woman, he’d never met—Erin Solstice.

Could she fight dirty and low, as the streets fought, with mud in the blood and teeth cracking on the pavement? Erin Solstice looked up, and her eyes rested on a jar of acid for sale clearly marked ‘DO NOT DRINK’ on the far end of the room.

Oh, yes. She knew how to play dirty indeed. Then Erin twisted her head.

“Watch Captain Venim? Got a second?”

The Watch Captain and his daughter looked up from their table. Kenva, who was Mrsha’s new friend and a huge fan of the inn, glanced up from listening to a tale of school from Mrsha with interest.

“Miss Solstice?”

Venim’s face took on the pained look of a man who knew she was about to inject trouble into his life with a needle the size of a turkey baster. Erin glanced casually to the side.

“Would you, uh, in theory, as a Watch Captain overseeing a prison…Let’s say someone was gonna bring in some green…glowing…juice into the prison. Would you allow that?”

The Watch Captain stared at Erin. Then at the jars of acid. He stared back at Erin.

“…No. We can tell if something’s dangerous, you know.”

“Damn. Well, there goes my idea.”

Erin folded her arms. Venim opened his mouth—then decided he didn’t want to know. He hesitated—then decided to get up and tap Erin on the shoulder as she thought.

“We would test the food as well to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. Jello, for instance.”

Erin gave him a wide-eyed look of innocence. Then she scowled.

Double damn.




Erin was walking into Calescent’s abode—the kitchen—when she spotted someone even better.

“Oh, Imani! What’s up? Not working today?”

“It’s Tirenv, Erin. Palt and I only work five days of the week. I’m helping Calescent learn how to make jello. Palt, stop being a little foal.”

Erin came across the funniest of scenarios. Which was Imani bossing around Palt, a Centaur, and Calescent, a big Hob, as the two of them fiddled with a bunch of powder and a pan. They looked exceptionally reluctant, and ‘ick’ was written across their faces.

“You get three days off a week? What?

“Comes with being a successful bakery-restaurant. Timbor took a page from your book, and I prepare dishes in advance for his preservation runes. Besides, I often do tutoring on my weekends. Come on, you two. Erin, what do you want?”

Calescent made a face as Imani showed them how to mix the gelatin, which you could make into all kinds of dishes. Boba, jellied eels…Hectval had ironically helped import the recipes to Liscor.

But, funnily, both the [Spice Chef] and [Illusionist] didn’t like making jello.

“Is gross. Wobbles like intestines. Like Wyvern-brain jelly. Nasty to make.”

Calescent grumbled. Palt nodded. Imani slapped his hand and glared at him.


“But it’s made of gelatin! Darling—”

“You were all for it before you knew it had horse in it. Besides—this is apparently slime-stuff from Onononno…”

Imani rolled her eyes. Palt whined.

“That’s worse! I don’t want to eat a slime!”

Imani threw up her hands. As if he didn’t know how you made sausage! She turned to Erin as the [Innkeeper] laughed at the cooking antics.

“How can we help you?”

“Oh—I was gonna ask. Can I borrow your kitchens and some ingredients? Yours are bigger, right?”

Imani’s fond smile vanished like someone turning off a lightbulb. Palt’s cigar fell out of his mouth into the jello. Both looked at each other and chorused.


“Absolutely not.”

Erin was hurt.

“Wh—come on! Just for a bit? You can watch!”

“Erin—how can I put this gently? No. Calescent, we’ll teach you in our kitchen. If Erin needs this one—let’s get out of here. We’ll help you clean—no, Erin should have to clean up her own messes.”

The Goblin looked confused—then worried at Imani and Palt’s reactions. Erin put her hands on her hips.

“Guys. I’m a good cook. I’m a decent cook. I don’t start oil fires. Accidentally. Pawn—Pawn, they’re bullying me!

Erin looked around and called out to the first person passing by. Pawn hesitated as he walked with a group of Workers and Soldiers through the inn. He stared at Erin as she pointed at Imani.

“I am sorry to hear this is the case, Erin. Did you deserve it?”

He left Erin with her mouth open. The [Priest] was on a tear of killing people recently. He quite enjoyed it. Everyone expected the Mrsha-card to hurt their feelings. No one expected the [Priest] to put a knife in their back.

Since Hexel and Pelt were working on his requests, Pawn had decided to visit the inn more. And he had just taken his new group of Workers and Soldiers to lunch.

Sashimi. Imani and Calescent really were good for the inn. They had it on that lovely rice and even some weeds from the sea. It wasn’t ‘good’ yet according to Imani, but she’d started another trend in the city.

In fact, Lord Alman Sanito was so engrossed in his meal that only when his wife seized his arm did he look up.

“Alman, the insects! The insects—”

“What? Oh—”

Alman slammed back in his seat when he saw two dozen Antinium filing past him. His wife nearly spat out the ‘sushi’, and his children stared at the Antinium in horror—but Alman croaked.

“They’re under Miss Solstice’s control. In fact, a few saved my life during that Invrisil unpleasantness. Just let them pass. Don’t stare so.”

Lady Edere Sanito looked horrified. But Alman stood up, appetite suddenly gone, and intercepted Erin as she poked around the kitchen.

“Miss Solstice.”

“Hey—you! Wait. Lord Alman Sanito, put her there!”

Erin stuck out a hand, and the man stared at it before shaking it. The [Lord] bowed slightly, uncomfortable, and Erin smiled.

“What are you doing here? Visiting Invrisil? You missed the celebrations.”

“Seeing the Haven before it left, actually. We have rooms there. But, ah—I wished to have a word with you. About matters of trade.”

Erin gave him a blank look.

“What are we trading?”

The [Lord]’s heart sank. She’d forgotten? He looked at Erin and at a [Princess] who had appeared and closed her eyes.

“The…the magical connection to the lands of House Sanito? We had a shipment of our goods to send, but of late, the door has not been opening in our lands. As I was in the area, I was asked by the other [Lords] to check on the issue. Temporary, one hopes?”

Erin’s puzzled face turned increasingly wan—which meant pale—as Sanito kept speaking. And her smile turned increasingly guilty.

“Oh. The door. Uh oh. The door.

She looked around, and Alman began to sweat. He lowered his voice, trying not to sound worried.

“The door is still there. It’s surely a matter of—reconnecting it?”

He had come in through the Haven door and if she could make new connections…but Erin was looking at Lyonette, and the [Princess] was putting her hands over her mouth. And the truth…Erin turned to face Alman slowly.

“I’m afraid—the door’s changed. It’s now a Skill, Lord Alman. It connects to Riverfarm, and it can go further—but only places I’ve been. And since I’ve never been to House Sanito, wherever that is…”

His heart had begun sinking already. But when she said that—Alman thought of the funds coming in that had been making things good enough that he’d elected to visit the costly Haven before his children lost the chance. But wasn’t she wrong?

“You have been there—briefly, Innkeeper Solstice. I recall you petitioning my house for help—”

Erin frowned. Then she snapped her fingers, but regretfully.

“That’s true! Unfortunately—I don’t remember it. Did you have, um…paved streets?”

She gave him a blank look. Alman Sanito hesitated.

“W-where exactly? Outside my manor?”

“Yeah, paved streets? Was there a shrub somewhere around? I don’t remember. I think I needed to spend longer there. I could tell you all about the Players of Celum’s inn—or Emperor Laken’s guest houses and his mean traffic light, Traffy.”

“An [Emperor]? A what light?”

He was getting lost, but it was clear that Erin Solstice needed more than a second in his lands. She gave him a helpless look.

“If I’d spent a day or two there, I’d probably have a way to ‘anchor’ the door. It’s not an improvement, it being a Skill instead of magic. No one can steal it, but it has different requirements. And then you can only move it around a little bit, not grab them and run to a different city. Sorry, Alman. Trade might be out.”

The next words out of his mouth were quick, desperate, and instantaneous. Along with his smile.

“Then—I should invite you to House Sanito’s lands at once, Miss Solstice! It’s only a two-week ride from Invrisil—why, we’d even pay for a faster carriage…”

Erin looked up into his face, and his heart kept sinking through his boots. Erin Solstice—famous traveller, who’d had such great experiences travelling recently?

Alman Sanito stood there as his family anxiously stared at his back. And before he had to put on a good face and turn to them—someone looked up from her table where she was catching up with old friends.

“Bezale, Ceria, sorry. Give me one second. I think this is what we’ve been waiting for. Do I have anything on my face?”

Montressa du Valeross stood up, and Bezale caught her. She dabbed a napkin at some ketchup on Montressa’s cheek, and the [Mage] strode over. As the hour of Erin Solstice waned…

The age of Valeterisa began.




Pawn didn’t hear the slight hubbub from behind him as he walked through the inn’s quieter corridors. There was always a hubbub in the inn. Unless someone screamed—and even then, you waited for the fifth scream—you didn’t pay attention.

“This is the room in which the [Crusaders] were ordained. It is a small room, and we will someday build a better one. But for now—”

The Workers and Soldiers were filing in past Pawn when they all stopped. Yellow Splatters halted, and a Drowned Man who had decided to shadow Pawn came to a stop. Seborn stared into the prayer room of the Antinium—and the notoriously taciturn [Rogue] made a sound.

He laughed.

“Hah! What in the name of shellfish is this? Some kind of joke?”

His voice startled the beings within. Some jerked around—others squeaked—they whirled and froze up. Some began hiding behind the podiums or altar—but there were far too many.

Possibly as many as a hundred—but they didn’t fill up the room, despite their numbers. How had they gotten in? Pawn stared in confusion—for the prayer room was filled with Sariant Lambs.

They had been crowded around the altar where something was lying open. A book—and one of the lambs was resting on a little stool. It—she—had been bleating something in lamb-speak. And the Sariants had been sitting or standing.

At the sight of the inn’s guests, they began to flee, racing past the Antinium’s feet or baahing randomly. Some looked at the Antinium—and ran, crying loudly.

What the—

The Antinium were so surprised they only realized the lambs were making an exodus as they tried to stampede. Of course, the tiny, adorable things couldn’t push past anything. But they cried like little children—and their caretakers came for them.

“So this’ where they are! The little rascals!”

Mister Prost himself had come to find the Sariants. They had apparently all run through the portal door from Riverfarm. A bunch of Riverfarm folk recoiled from the Antinium and Goblins and rescued the lambs, who were crying and running to them.

“Were they hungry? Or curious? His Majesty noticed them going through the door and sent me to investigate. I’m sorry for the trouble, Miss Solstice.”

What? I’m baking!

Erin stuck her head out of the kitchen and looked blank. She frowned at the lambs.

“Wait, that’s a lot of them. Did Nerry do this? Where were they?”

“Just the prayer rooms. It looked like they were starting a cult. Better watch out or you’ll get [Necromancers] and [Cult Leaders].”

Seborn was highly amused, and even the Riverfarm folk laughed when he related the strange scene. But Pawn…Pawn glanced over his shoulder.

“Just copying us, perhaps?”

Yellow Splatters himself seemed confused as a lamb tried to push past Pawn. But the [Priest]…

The priest looked down at the lambs, ignoring him, pretending to run from the scary Antinium. Slowly, he bent down and picked one up.

It wasn’t Nerry—and the little lamb kicked and wailed as Pawn looked at it. The Riverfarm folk were concerned, but Lyonette assured them Pawn was just curious.

“They were not playing.”

Pawn spoke to himself—to the lamb and the Antinium around him. He stared at the lamb as it stared at him for a second then tried to look innocent and cry.

It was a very little one, perhaps even by their standards. Pawn looked in its eyes.

“They were praying. That was my book. Little lamb…what were you praying for?

No one noticed him. Everyone was laughing at the lambs as they cuddled the guests. But the little lamb stared at Pawn—and he looked it in the eyes.

“Is it something we can pray for, little lamb? What do you want?”

The Sariant looked at Pawn—and its face screwed up. It tried—hard—but it was too late. The lamb’s cute little button eyes began to turn wet. Then it began sobbing. Tiny tears rolled down its face—and they looked different from the wailing lambs crying piteously.

It knew it shouldn’t, and was trying to stop, but the little lamb just began hiccuping, then. Uncontrollable tears rolled down its face. And only Pawn truly saw its face. Those eyes staring at him. As incomprehensibly hard to truly read as…an Antinium’s insectile eyes.

Pawn stared at the shaking lamb—until something kicked him. He jerked—and Nerry bit his leg, or tried to.

“Nerry! Pawn, you might be frightening the little lamb. I’ll take it. There, there.”

Lyonette took the lamb, and it kept crying as the other Sariants surrounded it and Lyonette put it down. But the [Priest] kept staring as Prost assured everyone all the lambs were safe—just emotionally vulnerable.

It was a funny little moment, that was all. And the lambs left as Erin stared at Nerry. Then she went back to baking. She only said one thing, as if to the air. Perhaps to Lord Alman, speaking to Montressa? Or…

“You have to ask. I never get things unless someone spells it out.”

She walked back inside the kitchen as the lambs looked at her—then Nerry. A naked Drake went stomping past Lady Edere, and she covered her children’s faces in horror. Lady Pryde just sipped from a post-workout beverage and rolled her eyes. She was still here too, and she seemed to be spending more time in The Wandering Inn than The Adventurer’s Haven. Probably because Larracel had refused to install a workout room. She didn’t want that much sweat percolating about her inn.

Saliss of Lights was scowling and muttering about alchemical shortages, and he and Erin locked eyes. Both gave each other a look. Erin had asked to speak to Saliss. Saliss was busy.

The [Alchemist] and [Innkeeper] had a look that said, ‘no, you come to me while I’m doing my thing’. Erin stepped into her kitchen. Saliss walked backwards, arms spread wide, heading to the portal door.

Erin Solstice reached up—and the air crackled and flared with a dozen colors.

She took off her hat. Then she reached inside, and the kitchen began to glow. Saliss halted in his tracks. He sighed as Nerry narrowed her eyes and the inn turned. Mrsha calmly tugged on Watch Captain Venim and Kenva’s claws. She was taking cover behind a table. Pawn and the other Antinium decided it was time to pray after all, and Riverfarm’s folk disappeared with their lambs fast.

That was what tended to happen when the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn made food.




This time, she didn’t experiment. She used her craft.

It felt like reaching into a well and hauling something precious out of it. She knew how deep the well was—her hat and inn held everything she had gathered, and it had been practically bursting already.

Just like when she made Foliana’s gift—she could feel how she had to take the feelings and put them into something suitable. But unlike last time, there was more to it.

Like an unskilled pair of hands, she had been clumsy, wasteful, packing power in like packing peanuts rather than anything elegant. Well—sometimes you could do that, but of late, Erin Solstice had been seeing art.

[Witches] sometimes making small things, but infusing craft in every stitch of a hat. Dividing their authority between a thousand crows—or putting it in the swing of an ancient axe. If a single sweep of a broom could be so magical as to clear a room, then you had no excuse not to try to put the same into cooking, right?

She was no expert and never had been. Cooking was a means to an end for Erin Solstice, which was why she didn’t like it. You ate what you made, and what fun was that? It was impermanent—which was why she didn’t often do things like spice rubs and complicated, tedious processes.

Even now, she didn’t necessarily do that, but she put effort in this time. That was the difference. Every step of this process, she stopped. Thought about what she was going to do before she did it and tried to put something into it.

For instance—one of the first things she did, before she even poured the flour into a bowl to mix, was heat some butter in a pan. A lot of butter—sugar, a dash of salt—and in theory, she should be tossing yeast and sugar into some water. Or—lacking that, the baking soda.

But this time, she stopped. Erin Solstice stared at the stick of butter she’d grabbed. And the baking powder—and she spoke.

“No baking powder. Not this time. I think—where’re the butters?”

She put away the mundane stick of butter. Erin Solstice looked around and threw open a cupboard. Then she picked something out of it—a gift from one of the new visitors to Liscor.


The most ominous of happy sighs echoed through the kitchen—for Erin Solstice had just pulled out a pot of dark grey butter. Inedible looking—until you realized it came from a Noelictus-breed cow. A Shadowcalf, raised by the famous Lischelle-Drakle farm. And when she set it to melting, Erin Solstice fetched out something that made Lyonette decide to take a walk rather than watch.

Ashwheat flour. But it wasn’t going to just be dark. Intention…Erin Solstice prepared some of the other ingredients she knew full well. Then she looked around.

“Can someone get me a quick delivery?”

“What do you want?”

Numbtongue poked his head into the kitchen, and Erin hmmed. She stared at the ingredients she was preparing—threw some sugar into the melting butter mixture. Some milk from the same cow—grey—

“I wish we had better salt and sugar. It’s okay. I need…iron. Can you take some ore and wash it so it’s as clean as it’ll get? Just this much.”

She made a tiny amount with her two fingers. Eating metal was probably bad for you.

Iron? Numbtongue hesitated—but then he went running off to Esthelm to bother a Dwarf. Erin stared into the dry mix.

“It needs something else. It’s all about intention. So—if that’s one half—something in the center, I think. Like a coin?”

Her eyes darkened as she thought of a bright flash of metal—then Erin’s gaze brightened.

“Or…hey, is it possible to make alcoholic breads? They have ‘beer battered fries’ and stuff in pubs. I get it now. Anyone know if we have any dyes? Okay, I need two pots, and I guess I’ll use boring butter in this one…regular flour here…where’s my magical ingredient cupboard!? Oh. It’s labeled.”

Erin was banging around the kitchen like a storm, but only to put her ingredients out, check on her milk mixture, and so on. When she began working—mixing the flour—she did it slowly, carefully scraping the bowl as she poured the first mixture in—and did the same with a smaller set of bowls.

She looked…like she was actually thinking about how you were supposed to mix in dough rather than just doing it by rote or sticking a beater in there. The amount of novel cognition might have been taking all of Erin’s concentration.

No [Witch] would mock her, though. Especially not Nanette, who delivered a tiny amount of washed iron dust to Erin herself. She peeked into the kitchen after asking Erin if it were alright to observe. For this was Erin’s craft. And while she might not do it often—

One of her talents as a [Witch] was cooking. Her [Wondrous Fare] Skill, her hat, her [Innkeeper] class…Nanette had never seen Erin Solstice work as hard as she did now. But then—the [Innkeeper] had a reason to work hard.

The inn moved around Erin, but respectful of the kitchen—Ishkr or a worker would pop in to get food, but no one was making anything but her, and the audience in the kitchen was small.

After twenty-two minutes, someone began to boo.

Boo. No explosions. Boo. Hiss. Boring. I want my money back. You’re not the Erin I remember. You’ve changed. You’ve lost your touch. The old Erin was cooler before she died.”

Saliss cupped his claws to his mouth, and the [Innkeeper] turned her head.

“Hey, pal. You try it.”

Then he grinned. And his teeth flashed. Saliss had chosen the part of the process where Erin was carefully mixing up the dough. Two batches, actually. Neither one with baking powder, the most novel and alchemical item in her kitchen.

That was most of Octavia’s local sales. Pallass still hadn’t caught onto the stuff en masse, but some [Merchants] had begun taking it to interested [Bakers], and Saliss knew the recipe was registered and credited to Octavia in the Alchemist’s Guild. Interest was not widespread, though. He wondered if that might soon change.

But Saliss of Lights just stood there. He was weary from his own studies. He spoke as Erin worked.

“I heard you wanted to bother me about something, Erin. If it’s Albez 2.0, you need to bother Xif. Because I’m trying to catalog a bunch of ancient alchemy items and figure out what does what without blowing my laboratory to smithereens.”

“…How likely is that?”

The Drake looked sideways at Nanette and Nerry and lowered his voice.

“More likely than any other time in the last five years, actually. The trick to figure out what you’re working with is identification—that’s a lot of looking in books and figuring out what something looked like before it got ground up or dried out, and so on. But eventually, you do try to figure out what some reagent does.”

“Uh huh. And the boom?”

Saliss didn’t mind giving her a little lesson.

“Well—low-level [Alchemists] use water or something mundane. The idea is to create the smallest reaction possible. I use bases that actually reduce any catalyst’s effect. But if you toss Unicorn horns into the right mix—even a gram—”

He raised his claws and made a pshow sound.

“Did you know that if you move glass fast enough, you can break enchanted metal? The trouble is that I have over a hundred and twenty things to catalog, and some might be the equivalent of old-era simple acids. And some of it is definitely the real stuff.”

And it was the real stuff that he both needed—and needed to identify before he blew his face off. Erin nodded. No wonder Saliss looked stressed.

“Sounds about right. Second question—you were in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, right?”

The Drake frowned at her. He didn’t look pleased by the question and never talked about the place he had apprenticed for ages.


“It’s a place full of Stitch-folk, isn’t it? Famously where Nerrhavia died after they rebelled and took her kingdom? Lost her fortress, though.”

“…Awfully odd way to describe it. Earth-shatteringly odd, one might say. But yes, I was there. I wasn’t a local, but you pick stuff up.”

Erin carefully spread the dough out and grabbed a rolling pin. Saliss eyed the black mass. Erin turned her head to him.

“You, uh…got fifteen minutes to stare at something for me? It’s in my room. How good are you at dresses? And cloth?”

The [Alchemist] stared at Erin, lips moving as if he were trying to work out if this was a trick. In the end, he managed a grunt.

“You might be surprised.”




Saliss wasn’t the only person that Erin called in for this. In fact, upon request, she sent Numbtongue to ask if Revi were in the area—and they grabbed Octavia, who was back after sending Rhaldon off on a delivery.

“Hey, does anyone else here know anything about thread? Or pots?

Erin shouted into her common room. In theory, she might have gotten Selys, who was at least a decent stitcher.

In practice? Lady Edere Sanito found herself standing with the Drake and two Stitch-women, and at least Saliss had the decency to put on his box. She looked to her husband for help, but Alman was talking with Montressa. And her two children had run off with some Gnoll after a giant bee!

“Oh, Flowers of Izril protect me.”

She was incredibly nervous—you heard things about this inn. And what was worse—she was being actively snubbed!

The [Innkeeper] didn’t even face Lady Edere. She was baking! Doing something with the bread—and she had an entire bottle of rum. Was she drinking on the job? Edere was outraged—until she learned the naked Drake was no less than a Named-rank Adventurer.

And the first thing Saliss of Lights did after he’d brought down two objects from Erin’s rooms and inspected them with Revi, Octavia, and Edere was come to a conclusion.

“Erin. This dress is ugly as a Stelbore’s ass. If you try to wear it, we might have to stab you.”

He stared at the bright green inlays in the dress—which clashed amazingly with the pink. You could run the colors off each other. The green was just the edgework around the pockets and hem and so on—but the rest of the dress was dirty pink.

“It’s got brown buttons. This has got to be Izrilian style. Made by a colorblind [Seamstress]. Only Terandria could export this kind of hideousness.”

“It’s not Izrilian.”

Lady Edere spoke up in defense of her homeland. Octavia, who was the least fashion-forwards, poked at the dress with one of her measuring spoons as if afraid it would bite her. It had two worn straps to hang over the shoulders—she tried to imagine Erin wearing this.

“How do you know it’s not Izrilian?”

“Yeah. Looks stupid enough for the north.”

Saliss and Revi sneered at Lady Edere Sanito. The woman drew herself up.

“Because we would hang the person wearing it.”

“Explains how it got into that antique store. Erin? Erin, you have no taste. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Revi called out, and Erin turned to flip one flour-covered finger up. She glowered back at the [Summoner].

“I’m not wearing it! What about the vase?”

They looked at the giant carp with cream-color, faded paint around the lips, and the vague fish-scales on the side. Lady Edere peered at it.

“The opening is sideways. You couldn’t put anything in it. Is it meant to be some kind of off-kilter flower pot?”

Octavia nudged it.

“Boot holder?”

Saliss kicked it from the other side, and it rocked. It wasn’t even that sturdy.

“Parasol holder? Broom holder?”

Revi put her chin in one hand.

“[Thief] deterrent?”

Everyone stared at her. Lady Edere pursed her lips.

“What would it do against a [Thief]? Do you throw it at them? That’s the only use I could imagine. It’s surely not enchanted or valuable.”

“No, what you do is you put it in the hallway. So when they break in—they look at it and say, ‘this person has no class or taste, there’s nothing worth stealing’. Then they leave.”

Despite herself, Lady Edere laughed, and the roasting of the carp-vase and ugly dress continued. But Erin Solstice didn’t seem hurt by the accusations against either’s style.

“I know they suck. I think they suck. I’d have never bought them from the store I went to—well. I’m not a vase person or a clothes person.”

“Neither am I.”

Saliss put his hands on his bare hips. He had been chuckling along—but he was eying both objects with a kind of keen-eyed stare that made Revi pick up on it. Edere too—she might not be an adventurer, but she had fought with the greatest in another bloody battlefield before.

A [Lady] might not hunt through dungeons, but going through auctions or sales against the top [Bargain Hunters] and [Merchants] and so on? They looked like that. She studied the vase and gown again.

“What, exactly, are we looking for, Miss Solstice?”

Erin turned her head as she poured the rum into a bowl. Then she grabbed a match. Everyone watched as the room lit up for a second. Erin turned to her consultants.

“I don’t know—but I was hoping you could help me. I think there’s something about the dress and vase that matters. Maybe it’s what they’re made of? Or is there something in them?”

All four of her consultants looked at each other. Then—without a word, they bent over the two objects again. This time, Edere did see something to note.

“This came from that famous pawn shop, didn’t it? The antique store?”

“You know about that one?”

Saliss raised his brows—Edere flushed. House Sanito was not well off, so she turned red—until she realized she was not among noble company. Even so, she lowered her voice in case Pryde heard.

“One can find some reasonable deals in a variety of locations. Certain inquiring classes love to hunt about such stores and locales.”

“Huh. I know a few of that kind of place myself.”

Revi looked intrigued. But Edere was eying the dress again.

“It could be hundreds of years old at most. In which case…it’s held up surprisingly well. I don’t believe the entire shop is enchanted in a preservation spell.”

So the cloth could be ancient. It certainly…looked that way. It might have been moths or just the wear and tear of being used until it was donated, but the hem was frayed in several places. Not too badly that you couldn’t see yourself buying it—again, if not for the ugly color, the need to replace all the buttons, the damn stitching—

Okay, this dress was better used as kindling because the effort to make it something worthwhile was better put into sewing a new dress wholesale. Edere, who had hand-made dresses that looked noble enough for her own children at a very reasonable price, vouched as much.

“Eight gold coins—and that can be dear—can still produce an entire matching outfit for a young [Lord]. Dresses are more expensive, but I have sewn one up for thirteen gold coins.”

Octavia had never spent that much for anything but alchemy-resistant clothing and looked scandalized by the price. But Revi raised her brows, impressed.

“That’s cheap! I’d pay for that kind of clothing—is that what your children have on? It looks as good as, if not better, than most clothing on the market.”

Edere was modestly proud about that. Saliss, who was naked, had to rely on Onieva’s expertise. He’d found the inner pockets—but there was nothing interesting in them aside from the owner’s clear desire not to be shackled by the lack of pockets in life. Which was commendable in and of itself.

Yet Edere was peering at the dress.

“Strange. It’s all worn down, and I wouldn’t even try to recycle this. But there is one part that stands out. Do you notice it?”

The Stitch-girls and Saliss stared down, and they all got it. Revi’s eyes sharpened, and Octavia wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before. Saliss too—but the dress was so damn ugly.

The Stitch-folk of Chandrar cared more about cloth than most people. Edere might care for fashion and appearance and comfort—but this was Octavia and Revi’s skin. Similarly…what held them together was just as vital.

“The stitching. I thought it was just some bright thread. But that’s not the case, is it? It’s held up perfectly.”

Odd. Stitching is the first thing to loosen or go. See how the cloth tore here? Either someone stitched this up with a Skill like [Unsnappable Thread]…”

“Erin, can we mess with the dress?”

Revi turned to the kitchen as they conferred. Erin waved a hand and got flour everywhere.

Achoo! Sure!

Edere had a pair of sewing scissors on her, and she began to try and cut the dress apart. The old fabric came apart easily, but she began snipping at the pocket—and realized something. Edere cut across the pocket, intending to pull out the thread. Then she pulled the scissors back, stared at them—snip-snipped again—

“My goodness. I think I just blunted my scissors.”

Aghast, she stared at the slight dimples in the good steel. She kept a fine edge on the scissors—and Revi blinked.

“I have a dagger. It’s enchanted. Here.”

Saliss took another part of the dress as Revi tried to saw at the stitches. Only to realize…she couldn’t cut them. She looked over—and Saliss was chewing on part of the dress.


“It’s tough. What?”

His teeth couldn’t break the thread either, and Octavia ended up with a pocket—Saliss the hemline—and Revi and Edere other parts of the bright green stitching.

“Can we…”

“Go ahead! Hey! Anyone know how many eggs we’ve got? I need dinobird eggs! Someone call for Bird!”

While Erin was baking away, Edere, Octavia, and Revi began digging into the mystery of the thread. Saliss, by now, was inspecting the vase. He cracked part of it—it wasn’t that tough, just thick—and bore it and his sample of thread away to Pallass.

Meanwhile, Octavia tried a knife on the thread. It wouldn’t cut. She tried to burn it with a match.

It did not burn. Staring at the green thread, Octavia felt a tingle in her own cloth.

“There’s no way. Is this…the old Adamantium bricks story?”

Revi looked up sharply and Edere blankly. But now, Octavia was watching Revi experimenting with sharper blades. Octavia went the other way. She looked around—and pulled something off one of the walls.

The acid jar needed a safe place to experiment—so she went to her lab, made sure Reagen wasn’t ambling about—then put the thread in a metal tray. Then she poured some acid over the top.

She watched the thread floating about as the rest of the cloth smoked and dissolved in seconds. Octavia stared at the thread.

“…Yep. That’s not normal.”

She looked up when she heard an aha from the common room.




“I cut it! Or rather—Numbtongue did!”

Revi had won the war. Numbtongue was panting—and he’d cut a line straight into the inn’s floorboards. Lyonette was throwing a fit.


“It was hard!”

He had his Dragonblood crystal sword out—and two tables had been secured with the string stretched between two heavy rocks. Numbtongue had been swinging his sword down, trying to cut the string.

He’d managed it after Shorthilt had taken over, and the resulting slash had cut through the floor too. Numbtongue stared at the thread suspiciously as Lyonette groaned. Erin just poked her head out of the kitchen.

“Hey, where are the baking trays? Don’t worry about the floor, Lyonette. [Partial Reconstruction]!”

The inn’s floor began to mend as Numbtongue felt at the thread. It was as strong as could be!

“That’s the kind of thread you’d want to use in fishing for sharks. What kind of material is it?”

By now, Seborn had cottoned onto Revi’s experiments, and Octavia came back to report it was odd thread too.


“More like the acid doesn’t even begin to dissolve it. It might be dissolvable—but not by acid-flies.”

Everyone gathered around the thread, wondering what it could be. It was the most important part of the dress—Lady Edere was sighing.

“The color is so—bright! It would be hard to fit in subtly anywhere. But the strength of it!”

“It’s a strong thread. Not exactly armor, my dear.”

Alman had the blank look of an oblivious husband being dragged along to a shopping outing. But Edere looked outraged.

“Alman! You have some nerve saying that! You know thread goes into your precious suits of armor, don’t you? A piece of leather is only as good as the stitching that binds it! And thread begets cloth! Why, if you had enough of this, you could make a shirt so tough only yon…Goblin…could cut it!”

“And he barely got one thread! Imagine making my stitches with this! I’d never have split ends again!”

Revi was nodding. Numbtongue was red-faced. He stowed his sword.

“It’s tough thread! I’m going to go practice with my sword. With the Horns. I’ll be back when I beat up Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon.”

He stomped off, ignoring his brother’s ghost, who was saying much the same thing as Revi—but in even less kindly terms.

“The real question is—what is the thread? Because I should dearly love some more, wouldn’t you? Miss Solstice! Miss Solstice, do you think that antique store might have more such dresses?”

Everyone looked up eagerly, and Erin screamed.

I’m on fire! I’m on—oh wait, it’s okay.”

She came out, dusting flames off her. Alman stared as Erin tossed some flames onto the floor.

“Force of habit. What was the question? Oh, the dresses? Nah. I think the pot and dress were the only special things. Or I would have found more fingers in other pockets.”

“Everything about what you just said made no sense. From the fire to the fingers. Explain.”

Lady Pryde folded her arms, glaring, and she had been there. Grimalkin gave her a look of deep sympathies. He had just come into the inn.

“Grimalkin! Man, everyone’s coming here today. Kitchen’s busy, but are you here to talk? I’m a bit busy—can you guys reverse-engineer the thread or something?”

“It’s just a simple thread. We need more…”

Edere was peering at the thread and wishing she had some spectacles from home. Grimalkin just grunted.

“I suspected something was up.”

“How’s that?”

The Sinew Magus nodded back the way he’d come, and Erin distantly heard the wail of something in the background. Did she smell smoke?

“Saliss of Lights blew a hole in the top of his laboratory. It’s now on fire. You…wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

Everyone stopped as they heard the fire alarms in Pallass going off. Erin stared at Grimalkin. She slowly walked back into the kitchen and pretended she wasn’t there.




By the time Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, came to the inn, there was so much fascinating stuff happening that she barely listened to Montressa whispering in her ear.

The first thing she saw was a sooty Drake, Saliss of Lights, pointing at a bit of thread and the vase.

“Both are highly magical. I don’t know what either one is—but it’s the Adamantium bricks story. The thread’s so tough I had to cut it with a Mithril razor. The pot has something in it. Baked into the damn ceramics. And…I think I’ve seen something similar in the ingredients from Albez.”

He was grinning like a madman despite having been caught up in the blast. Valeterisa peered at the pot fragment as everyone drew back.

When you removed the lesser parts of the ceramic, you got some kind of glittering powder. It was white…or translucent?

Oh, and it was apparently so reactive that it had blown a hole through Saliss’ fortified laboratory when he tried to find out what it did.

Erin Solstice’s eyes were glittering—but she was also peering at something in her oven. So that was why Nerrhavia had called her.

“What’s this about Adamantium bricks?”

Lady Edere didn’t get the reference. Valeterisa explained absently as she tried to grab one of the thread pieces. Saliss slapped her hand down.

“Ouch. The Adamantium bricks is a popular—and historically accurate—story about a Chandrarian [Brick Layer] who didn’t realize he had found Adamantium ore in its unprocessed state. A Dwarven [Smith] recognized that entire brick walls had been built out of the raw Adamantium ore. The parable is used to describe something valuable hidden in plain sight. Give me that piece of thread, please. I would like to inspect it. Montressa, secure a sample.”


Montressa was thrust forward like some kind of attack-apprentice. She stared at Saliss—but he grabbed Octavia and put her in front of him.

“Apprentice—throw an acid jar! Attack!”

“Apprentice Montressa, use a barrier spell. Counter with [Light Arrows].”

Before the two respective masters could make their apprentices do battle, Lord Alman Sanito jumped.

Archmage Valeterisa?

He knew she was staying at the Haven, but now she was here—and apparently here for him! Valeterisa focused on the [Lord] as she slowly levitated a piece of thread up with one finger. Saliss grabbed it.

“Ah, Lord Alman Sanito. I am told you are my first test subject.”

“T-test subject?”

“What Archmage Valeterisa means is that she would be delighted to help you with your issues regarding trade! Can we discuss the matter somewhere private?”

Montressa hurried forwards and nudged Valeterisa aside. Valeterisa was trying to speak, and she had that uncanny, too-friendly smile on.

“Pitch #1: Hello sir or madam! I have the offer of a lifetime for you. Are you interested in magical transportation similar to Fissival’s Teleportarium grid? Tired of slow [Drivers]? I can send your goods across Izril at a fraction of the cost. No livestock, irreplaceable goods, or people for now. Accidents may occur. I am not liable for any magical accidents, vortexes, or destruction of property that may occur—”

Before the rest of the dreadful spiel could be laid upon House Sanito, Montressa elbowed Valeterisa and spoke.

“[Master, Allow Me].”

Valeterisa blinked—shut up—and then began to silently nod as Montressa took over a more rational explanation of what was going on. Yet—with a deal of magical knowledge that even Montressa couldn’t speak on normally.

“We can do eighty miles, Lord Alman. Eighty miles—and what we’re calculating at six point four filled crates of ten feet by ten per day. Until we work out magical leylines and recharging the spells—think on it. It might not be much, but it will be a daily shipment.”

He was blinking as Montressa spoke. Valeterisa was impressed. Those were her calculations. She hadn’t even told Montressa that. Did the Skill let Montressa use Valeterisa’s magical knowledge?

Imagine how many spells and projects she could make Montressa do. Valeterisa rubbed her hands together. Saliss himself looked envious.

“That’s a good [Apprentice] Skill. Octavia, beat her up and steal her Skill.”

Lady Pryde was listening in sharply, and when she heard what Montressa was offering—Grimalkin was staring at Valeterisa, but in a resigned way.


That was his only comment. Meanwhile, everyone was staring at the thread and powdered vase-stuff. Lady Edere coughed.

“How would one find what the thread was spun from? If it is…it may be highly valuable, but what there is—is limited here.”

Just enough to stitch up a dress, really. Five Families knew she wanted more, but even Edere’s own [Seamstress] class couldn’t pick up what the thread was.

“Some people from home could probably figure it out. If Erin wants to send it to Nerrhavia’s Fallen—dead gods, I’ll send it back home myself.”

Octavia looked passionate about the thread, but Saliss just grunted as he brushed soot off his face.

“Don’t do that. You’ll never get it back if it’s valuable. It’ll be confiscated. You need…a kind of [Historian]-[Scholar]-[Tailor]. I guess it’s back to the old Oteslian research teams again. Hey, Erin! Can we send this off to someone to see what it is?


For once, the [Innkeeper] refused. Now, the smells of something hot and lovely were coming from her ovens, and she emerged with a smile. She pointed at what Saliss had—alchemy and thread.

“Don’t send it to Nerrhavia’s Fallen or Oteslia. Can you divide the thread and powder into three?”

“There’s more than enough for three samples. Who do we send it to?”

Revi was skeptical that Erin Solstice could think of anyone better to talk to than Stitch-folk—until Erin started speaking.

“Send it to the Longstalker’s Fang tribe and ask for that famous [Magic Spinner] that Inkar knows. Send the powdery stuff to the other Gnoll tribes and ask if anyone remembers what it is. That’s one group. Send the other parts to Wiskeria and the [Witches]. I’ll make Ser Dalimont run it over. And give the last to Kevin.”

“…Why Kevin?”

Erin gave them a blank look.

“He’ll send it to Khelt. Fetohep’s got a good [Potter].”




Somehow, amidst all the chaos of discovery, Valeterisa, and Erin baking with craft and magic—

Nothing had exploded.

Well, in the inn. Saliss didn’t count. It was so odd that Lyonette kept checking on Erin’s kitchen, but all she saw was an [Innkeeper] cursing, experimenting, feeding her ‘failed’ experiments to Mrsha, Rhata, and Ekirra and getting them to attack guests—and working hard.

Most of the day, in fact, Erin just stayed in the kitchen. Working.

Two last things happened that day that made Erin break off cooking, even for a few seconds. She was experimenting with her doughs and realizing she needed a very low heat for the first part of her process—and she had to be exquisitely careful with the second bake.

“I’ll never get it to Oteslia fast. Darn! Even if my door can go to Pallass…anyone know how you get something super-quick to Oteslia? This’ll be too much to fit in most bags of holding.”

Valeterisa appeared, munching on one of Erin’s failed prototypes.

“I am busy flying to House Sanito. I am also not working with the Walled Cities as of yet. Inquire later. I will be approaching Liscor’s Council after my trial runs.”


Erin stared at the Archmage blankly. Valeterisa gave her the same look.

“I thought we were discussing deliveries.”

“You deliver things?”

“I transport them now. We are in competition.”

“We are?”

Possibly only Valeterisa could beat Erin in the obfuscation of reality game. And that was because Valeterisa genuinely looked as confused as Erin. But as she walked off, someone else popped up.

“Miss Solstice. I think I could take whatever you’re wishful of. Won’t be a hard trip down the trade roads. Give me a few days, and I’ll run it down, quick, just for you. My own apprentice is doing his first solo-delivery.”

And there he was. The forgotten man—Termin, the [Wagon Driver] in the background. He had been quite ignored in all the excitement, but when you needed him—the delivery man appeared.

Erin turned to Termin, delighted.

“Termin! You’re sure? Are you that fast?”

Termin the Omnipresent’s eyes glinted.

“When it comes to it, I can make good time. Not as fast as a Courier or their fancy Pegasi—but if it’ll wait a few days—these important gentlemen you need me to deliver to?”

“The most important. And the most gentlemenish. It’ll wait till then. It’s probably good if no one notices. I think I’m almost done. Can you set off the next morning? If I need to bake through the night doing two more batches, I will.”

Termin’s eyes glinted. He focused on what Erin was making, and she showed him the trick. He grinned.

“I’d be interested in seeing what that does. I can do a tiny cart with Erma and Fox, then. Make brilliant time. The more important the delivery, the faster I go, Miss Solstice.”

“Hey. In that case…let’s talk fees.”

Erin gave him a floury handshake and beamed. Then Mrsha raced in, waving a notecard.

Erin, Erin!

Erin and Termin turned. Mrsha was dancing around—but she had to put a second notecard down and write out what she wanted to say.

Erin, Ryoka is coming! She’s almost at Invrisil!

“What? No way! That’s great news! Roll out the red carpet—Ryoka’s coming back, everyone!”

Erin laughed in delight. Mrsha smiled—until she wondered if she should be mad Ryoka hadn’t come back sooner. But this was good, and she decided to beam.


Relc poked his head into the kitchen. He was coming in, and his scales were a bit wet from the chill outside. He coughed into one gloved hand.

“It’d be nice to see her.”

The [Innkeeper] blinked at Relc as the Drake Guardsman developed a nasty cough. But then he indicated the door.

“That’s better news than what I’ve got. How’s it going, Erin? Hey, weird food. Mind if I try—”

She smacked his hand.

“No! I’m going to need as much as I can. Have a burger.”

“You don’t make them well.”

Relc sulked. Erin raised a fist.


“Oh, okay. I deserve a slice! I was at work all day—serious work, you know. There was nearly a fight at the gates. You’ll never guess who just flounced into Liscor, throwing their tails around.”

Erin went back to baking.


Relc grimaced as he decided he needed to check his appearance in a mirror.

“Manus. Some Wall Lady who caused trouble is back, and you’ll never guess who I ran into. Captain Z herself had to keep a fight from breaking out. The balls on them—but they are allies. I guess.”

“Manus? Great. Aren’t those the war-jerks? Wait…Riverfarm. Laken is going to hate that.”

Erin shuddered. Then she shook her head as she reached for another shot of rum.

“Eh, I’m sure we can keep them from heading over. What’s the worst that could happen? Oop! Murphy’s law. Remember when I used to talk about that all the time?”

Chuckling, she rapped her knuckles on the wood counter. Relc gave her a blank look as Erin turned. Mrsha eyed the counter. Maybe it was from the Facestealer attack, but the wooden counter had a huge crack in it.




The last notable incident that occurred came as Erin stared at her final creation. Proudly. She was exhausted, sweaty, her back and shoulders hurt from kneading—but she was proud.

Her hat was half-empty. Which…was actually amazing when you thought about it. But when Erin did a test—by waving it in front of Valeterisa’s face, then Bezale’s, both magic-users were mostly either perplexed and hungry or politely annoyed.

Good enough. 

Venaz, Wil, Peki, and Merrik had come in with some news. Merrik cleared his throat.

“Miss Solstice, I think tomorrow’s our last day here. We’re heading south to pick up Yerra…if she’s coming. And to say goodbye to Feshi. Could we ask if it’s too much trouble to have a little party?”

Erin beamed at him. Sadly, but she wiped sweat from her brow as Qwera, Ysara, and Ylawes’ new, expanded team tromped in with the [Knight] and the Silver Swords themselves.

“You bet. A big party? We can break out the cake and ice cream! Play a few rounds of chess.”

“Can that be for us, too? I’m heading north. Qwera is going back—but I’m visiting my family. With Ylawes—and Yvlon too, if we can manage it.”

Ysara Byres looked as happy as a slug showered in salt. Ylawes kept glancing at her, but he nodded.

“We won’t be as long—but I thought returning to home before we set out wouldn’t hurt.”

“Are you taking…?”

Erin stared at Infinitypear and Rasktooth, and the Cave Goblin and Worker grinned.

“We’re going to House Silver! As adventurers. See?”

They showed her bronze badges, and Erin’s jaw dropped. Nothing would do but for her to give them a big hug.

It was going to be a big day! Erin promised both groups she’d have a huge party for them and told the other guests to get ready too. The only thing that could dampen that good mood was Numbtongue, bleeding from the mouth and nose, being dragged in on his back.


He was a mess! He had cuts on his face, his chest—and someone had punched both his eyes black! Erin whirled—then her hand went for her knife. The [Strategists] turned as Octavia whirled and looked around for one of her potions.

“What happened? Who did this? Where’s Manus—

Shriekblade appeared, scrutinizing the damage, but to Erin’s astonishment, the two people who’d helped carry Numbtongue in stopped her.

“Hold it, Erin. It’s not Manus or anyone else. The real culprit’s right there.”

Erin turned and saw it was Ceria. The half-Elf had a knot on her head, and she looked grim. The other person was Ksmvr. He was unharmed, but he looked unhappy—and shaken.

A furious argument burst through the doors as Ylawes and Ysara turned. They saw their younger sister, Yvlon Byres, face completely red, as Pisces walked in. He was grimacing and holding his ribs.

But it was the last person, Colth the [Supporter], who was furiously speaking to Yvlon Byres. Yvlon—who, Erin realized—was responsible for most of the injuries.

Including her own. No one had used a healing potion, and Octavia herself was halted by Saliss, who told her not to waste the potion on the injuries. It was so startling everyone had to check themselves.

If Saliss and Octavia couldn’t waste healing potions on bruises, bloody noses, cuts—

Yvlon might have needed it the most, though. Numbtongue had given as good as he got—and the other Horns had put up a fight too. Especially when she came after them.

You are not ready to adventure. You have a Blood Skill, and you are going to get yourself or your team killed. I may not have the authority to stop you, but your team will if they have any sense. Find a way to remove it or control it or you can forget about adventuring again.”

Colth snapped. He didn’t look hurt, just disheveled.

“What happened?”

Mrsha was shaking Numbtongue, who sat up and groaned before lying back down. Yvlon didn’t say a word—she was breathing hard, and she avoided everyone’s gazes. Especially her brother and sister’s.

“[Berserker’s Rage].”

Colth said it—and the inn fell quiet. He looked at Yvlon and spoke flatly.

“You need to find an expert to help you. Ask Emper—[Monks] know this kind of thing.”


Yvlon took a huge breath, and someone interrupted. Gireulashia peered at Yvlon and then nodded.

“Talk to Honored Berr. Of the Wild Wastes tribe. You’re heading to the tribes anyways, aren’t you? If you’re after Honored Shedrkh—speak with Berr as well. He knows rage. If you’re lucky, his tribe won’t have left the Meeting of Tribes yet.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. Yvlon said nothing—but they had two reasons to head south, now. Venaz glanced at Yvlon and, for once, decided to keep his mouth shut. Erin Solstice bit her lip, but Numbtongue was getting up with less hard feelings than most—and Erin exhaled.

“Ryoka had better not bring anything weird this time. It’s gonna be good. Just a few hiccups.”

Lyonette turned to Erin, and the rest of the inn did too. Relc was eying Infinitypear’s spear…Ylawes Byres was staring after his sister while Ysara stared a hole in the wall. Lady Pryde and Grimalkin were both taking notes on Erin’s pot and dress.

Valeterisa was in direct competition with the Driver’s Guild. Qwera was leaving, and soon, Niers’ students, the Horns, the Silver Swords, and possibly even Gire and the other Gnolls might have to move on too.

In the midst of it all, Ishkr looked around. He knew Ryoka. He had heard Manus was coming—and he saw Erin knocking a hand on a wooden beam. Ishkr eyed Nerry and for once wondered if he should take off work tomorrow.

Instead, he grabbed Peggy by the shoulder.

“Peggy—get the Workers and your Goblins. Tell them to put everything breakable in the Garden of Sanctuary. And is Rags coming back soon?”

The Hob turned warily.

“Chieftain Rags? You want her not to come?”

Ishkr paused a pregnant moment.

“…I doubt she can make it worse. But put some bedrolls in the Garden too. Just in case.”

He looked around and thought that Rags plus Manus multiplied by the party…and the Haven…at the start of winter, the most normal time for the inn. Maybe these were mitigating factors. He didn’t know.

The [Head Server of Tales and Fables] made only one mistake, the first huge one in his career. He just thought it—but he did think it in the back of his mind.

I just don’t see what could make this any worse.




It probably wasn’t the power of Murphy’s Law. These things just happened. They were already in motion.

But the power of Termin meant that the next morning, very early, the Wagon Driver set out with a small hamper of carefully covered and packed items fresh from Erin’s kitchen. He rather liked the inn—but Termin the Omnipresent hadn’t gotten to his level lightly.

Erma and Fox made amazing time from Pallass. It took some doing to let them through the [Portal Door] and hitch them to the waiting cart, but the door was bigger and a sleepy Liska obliged.

The normally-lazy ponies actually generated a trail of wind behind them as they clopped down the trade-road towards Oteslia. Like Termin…they could sense trouble.

He was leaving it behind him, thank you. The [Wagon Driver] was doubly certain he’d made the right move when he saw a group of yawning people exiting a carriage just outside of Pallass for an inspection.

Magnolia Reinhart was grumpy from sleeping in a carriage—but she was gracious enough despite the [Maids] and Ressa being used to her more indecorous states of being. As Reynold presented passports to some very surly Drakes, she turned to the two guests of her carriage.

“And here we are! I should hope we put any unpleasantness behind us. At least for you, young man. As for you, Mister Yelroan, isn’t it? Won’t you reconsider my offer?”

Sunlight flashed off a pair of amazingly sharp glasses, and a Gnoll grinned. He blinded a dozen [Guards] as he smiled.

Yelroan ducked his head.

“I made a promise, Lady Reinhart. Thank you for picking me up.”

“That poor horse should be just fine. It was my pleasure. The roads are not safe—and you, young man? You might need more help. Shall we discuss the matter? My estates are linked via the door and well-guarded.”

Magnolia turned some keen eyes to the shivering second passenger who had joined them in the night. In much distress. But the white-scaled Drake, who went by ‘Tesy’, just shook his head and glanced behind him. The road was silent this early in the morning.

“I—I have friends in Liscor. I think they’re there. I’ll be fine.”

“Mm. We’ll see. Happily, I have business in Liscor as well. I may speak to a friend—an acquaintance. Larracel. Shall we go together?”

They entered Pallass as Termin flapped his reins and Erma and Fox trotted faster. Magnolia Reinhart turned her head.

“Is that Termin I see?”

Hello, Lady Reinhart! Goodbye!

Reynold himself turned his head, amazed. He had thought he ran the fastest carriage in all of Izril, but the famous [Driver] was set to beat him. Termin fled like a partridge before a magical hurricane.

And this one was called Hurricane Ryoka-Rafaema-Tyrion-Manus-Erin’s Party-Winter…

It touched down in Liscor later that morning. But as things went, Termin only heard about it later. And he didn’t regret leaving at all.




By the time Termin rolled into Oteslia, everyone had seen the scrying orbs, and the world had changed as it always did. He was unnoticed as he unpacked, asked about the Gentlemen Callers or a ‘Rickel’, and found the latter.

By the time the Driver’s Guild had stopped pestering him about what had gone down and if he’d known—Termin met a young man who hurried up, inspected his cargo, and laughed his butt off before agreeing to find the Gentleman Callers.

It was a little thing, in the grand scheme of what was going on. Termin sat in the Driver’s Guild as a group of hatted men came in.

The [Drivers] were wary of them—but since these folk were actually far better to deal with than Earthtenders or the like, they let a pair of smiling men, a Gnoll with a fantastic suit and a Drake [Thief] assuring the others this would work, inspect the cargo.

Termin watched out of the corner of his eye as they read Erin’s note. He had his own [Message] from Rhaldon; the young man had written that he’d gotten the glassware and was heading back on a very safe route to grab some alchemical ingredients.

The Driver’s Guild was abuzz with the news—as well as concerning talk of competition.

“—just flew down, Termin. Then began chanting magic for six hours, and she said she had a teleport-thing for House Sanito! She’ll run us out of work!”

“Don’t ask me about it. I just got in. Give me a moment with my breakfast!”

Termin snarled at the worried Guildmaster. Then he sat back and realized Valeterisa was going to be a problem. Izril was changing, and he had been there. But sometimes he was glad he wasn’t there. He was glad Rhaldon was a sensible young fellow and had missed the worst of it too.

Dead gods. He’d thought Erin had run out of surprises.




The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were still fighting the Earthtenders in the streets. They gained ground—veterans from the north had come, and they were taking apart the Earthtenders, who had gotten complacent in their dominance of Oteslia.

Yet—the Watch still arrested knots of fighting [Thugs] and [Thieves] and [Rogues] and so forth. Neither side wanted to incur the wrath of Oteslia—yet.

And in the prisons, the battle for dominance went one way.

“You’ll get your items back once you enter. No weapons, no tools; if we search you and you’re hiding something, you lose it.”

The Watch Sergeant lecturing the newest prisoners arrested in a scrape was tired—but watchful. The Earthtenders with black eyes and bloody lips were glaring at three of the young Gnolls with hats.

They looked confident, and the Watch Sergeant was worried. Worried—because the First Gardener’s son had put in a request to check on the prisons and a series of murders happening in the ranks.

Someone had blades on the inside. The Earthtenders. But while Cire of Oteslia was…known to the Watch Sergeant, he also had orders not to disrupt things.

The law…was a hard thing to balance against what was best for Oteslia. The Watch Sergeant wondered if he’d lose his class this month or if it would change. The three Gnolls didn’t deserve what was waiting for them inside.

“Let us have our hats!”

One of the Gnolls growled as a [Guardsman] briskly inspected his possessions. The belt-knife, coins, miscellaneous items like a ‘match box’—all went into a lockbox for the Gnoll in question. But the [Guard] stopped and eyed one item.

“What’s this? Charcoal?”

“It’s a snack.”

The Watch Sergeant eyed it and called for a test.

“…Not magical that we can see.”

“It might have a needle inside!”

One of the Earthtenders called out, and the Watch Sergeant glared. He bit his tongue—and broke the item open.

“A needle? Fine—”

The Sergeant inspected the pieces. Nothing. Glowering, he handed it back to the Gnoll, who put the pieces in his hat and pressed them together.

“It’s just bread. Let him eat it—they won’t last in the lockbox. Move them into the cells!

No one paid much attention to the Gnoll’s snack. The three Brothers joined a small group of their own, and the other inmates gave them sympathetic looks.

Dead men, hat men. You may rule the streets, but the Earthtenders have roots inside.

One called out to the trio of Gnolls, who joined some very scared new recruits. But, strangely, the trio of young men looked more confident than the others. Fools, perhaps.

“Here, lads. Take one of these. A little snack.”

Each of the three Brothers had three pieces of bread—which the Watch Captain had assumed were just snacks.

Bad snacks, too. They looked like charcoal briquettes, and when he’d broken them open, he’d seen burnt bread. But sometimes a fellow got hungry, and they’d been in the hats.

In fact—the [Guards] had missed all but one of the little pieces of hard bread. Unleavened and small. They’d fit in the palm of your paw, so they did.

The Brothers—even the new ones—looked at the pieces of bread in dismay, but they had to trust. And recess was coming up—the cells were being opened and groups being led into that courtyard. The Earthtenders, a huge mass of them, strode ahead, some winking at the Brothers.

“If—if you last a few seconds, the [Guards] come. But it just takes a moment. They’ve got shivs. They got Rudinel last week—said they’d get us one by one. Unless we join up and tell them everything we know.”

A terrified younger Gnoll was whispering. Rudinel was the Gnoll who Wilovan and Ratici had buried.

“That’s how it was. But no longer. As it were.”

The new Gnolls were learning the lingo, so they weren’t quite as adept as Wilovan and Ratici. When they strolled out, it was nervously.

Communal gardens—even weight sets to work out at. No blades—the prisoners weren’t even allowed gardening tools for the danger.

Yet the Earthtenders were watching them, clustered up, and the [Guards] looked the other way. Ashamed, perhaps, of their class.

“How’d the rhyme Ratici taught us go? It’s this or nothing.”

One of the younger men muttered. The Gnolls looked at each other as a group began to walk their way, smiling. Hands in their coats holding something. They began to hum—and even the other gangs, criminals, members of Oteslia’s underworld, and people who knew nothing at all of this world—turned.


“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,

But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset

The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,

The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”


They raised something and put it to their mouths. It just looked like a piece of burnt bread. The Earthtenders frowned, and the hair on the back of their necks, their scales prickled.

They stepped faster—as the Brothers took a bite of the bread.

It didn’t crunch like it looked like to the [Guards] and the Watch Sergeant. There was a crust—but it just looked black.

Black as midnight, dark with wheat from Noelictus. The crust was hard indeed, and even they had to chew it down—there was even iron dust baked into the exterior. It had strange ingredients within.

Stonelizard scales. Lemon juice. Lots of mint—but also Wyvern tendons. Corusdeer venison, beets—all these things were appetizingly baked within the flour. Chopped up fine as could be, their taste mitigated by the dough. Dense as a lump of steel, small as a hidden dagger.

If that were all, it would be scary enough. Scary as the look in a [Witch]’s eyes as she made something she knew was illegal. For a friend in low places.

For brave men in hats. But there was a secret in the bread. The Watch Sergeant had not seen it when he tore the biscuit apart. It only appeared after the first hard bite.

Something—inside the bread. It flashed bright under the sunlight shining down on the City of Growth. A second bit of bread inside the first.

Pink dough? Why was it pink? One of the Gnolls stared at it and then nearly dropped his ‘snack’. For it was—

The dough had turned pink with half a bottle of rum. Half a bottle of rum…set on fire. The pink dough within the brick of dark midnight loaf reacted to the light and air.

And then the bit of black bread was on fire. On fire—like a glowing ember. The Gnoll nearly dropped it—then he closed his eyes and took a huge bite. Almost choking as he gulped it down.

The Earthtenders slowed. One drew a knife, not bothering to conceal it. He lunged—and the dagger’s tip buried itself in the first Brother’s chest.

A shout, and the onlookers backed up. The [Guards] turned, knowing that even when they ran, they would be too slow. Too slow for—

A pair of paws gripped the knife’s handle and drew the tip out of his fur. It had gone in about half an inch. No more. And—the Drake [Knifemaster]’s arm jerked back. Or tried to.

Because it was locked in a grip far, far too strong for the Level 13 [Street Tough]. Fur as hard as iron. Arms cording with muscle that locked the Drake’s arm in place. He tried to raise a fist—and a head cracked his skull.

The other Earthtenders froze. A Gnoll with fur as strong as iron, as strong as a certain [Innkeeper]’s bisque—turned. If that were all—

His eyes burned pink a moment. Burning like the flame. Glory.

The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings exercised their necks and raised their paws as the Earthtenders halted. Then the two sides were striding at each other—and one was backing up. When the [Guards] reached them, it was too late. Half a dozen Earthtenders were down—and when they were dragged away, both sides searched, they only found the knives on the Earthtenders.

No sign of what the Brothers had just done. When a curious [Rogue] picked up one of the remaining pieces of bread and bit into it, intending to prove what had been done—he made a face and spat out a cloud of black dust.

The Brothers grinned as they were led back to their cells. And they tipped their hats to the staring inmates. This wasn’t about the inn, really. Or great deeds.

It was just about drivers. Transport, baking, and secret things. And friends. Two thousand pieces of Emberbread came in from The Wandering Inn, and if they needed more, the [Innkeeper] had their backs.

The Earthtenders kept losing the streets. And it began to be whispered—the Earthtenders might have the Watch on their side. They had roots in the cells and vines across the City of Growth.

But the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were the thugs on the streets. Gentlemen in the sheets. They had hats on their heads—and fire in bed. The men of fancy dress—

—Were going to put Oteslia’s war to rest.


[Witch of Second Chances Level 16!]

[Skill — Hat Trick (Minor Arcana) obtained!]





Author’s Note:

I was gonna have a quiet Christmas. Then I started setting up dominos the size of my house. Well, this is how it is, and I have a few things to say.

Firstly—I have just reached the final few chapters of Volume 1’s editing process. I didn’t share them out after all because it’s still the first re-write and I’ll go through it again. Editing is like that, refining.

But I may take an update off or write a half-chapter so I can re-write a huge chunk of one of V1’s chapters. If I do, I’ll let you know. But we’re getting close to the finish line, and that’ll be good for me not working on two fronts at once!

Second, that was all I really had because my life is boring. I could talk about video games, and again, I have tons of opinions I normally share about games I think are lacking (usually in the storytelling department). Ironically, I sometimes like games with less story than the ones who have a lot of story and cinematics and do it badly.

Good games are hard to find. Much less ones you can continually replay. For instance, I played Stardew Valley Expanded + Ridgeside Village and I’ve already gotten to Level 120 in the Cavern, Level 9-10 in all Skills, 20 Ancient Fruits, 80 Kegs…and it’s Winter, Day 1, Year 1.

See? None of this makes sense unless you know what I’m talking about. I also had a dream that my favorite Battletech Mod, Roguetech, was playable as a text and low-graphic game that simulated all the combat rather than the costly graphics system that currently runs on a faulty Unity engine that can crash a modern desktop semi-regularly.

It would be called ‘PotatoTech’ and simulate all the game’s actions and attacks such that a Chromebook could run it…I’m saying this because I wanted to play games while I’m on vacation and I have a Chromebook. Which runs nothing.

I like those kinds of games. By contrast, I still haven’t touched Dwarf Fortress, a famous other game created mostly with text because apparently, it tracks all 36 teeth each individual Dwarf has, you have to literally make shoes for your Dwarves, and it’s so famously complex I think it might be the most in-depth simulator ever made in the video game world.

I don’t like those kinds of games. Stardew/Roguetech is as far as I can go, and frankly, The Wandering Inn is like that for me. Keeping track of too many details in a game? I’d forget Tyrion’s mole on his second ring-hand finger.

Alright, enough rambling. This was a longer, weirder Author’s Note. Blame tortellini for breakfast, and thanks for reading.


‘Try’ and Apista and Sprigaena sketch by ArtsyNada!



Stream art! Apprentice battle, Tesy and Vetn, and more by butts!

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Stream art! Bald Xif, Termin Escape, and more by Fiore!


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