[This chapter is 45,000+ words long. Consider breaking it up into chunks. Unless you’re snowed in some airport or something. It may need to last you a month once I go on my year’s end break.]
In the morning, Hethon Veltras was blowing on his fingers as he emerged from a frost-coated tent and decided winter had come too fast. He did feel guilty.
After all, he hadn’t done more than ‘help’ set up the tent with Sammial. House Veltras’ guards and staff, from Ullim to Jericha, had done the real work of setting up camp, brushing down the horses, digging a latrine; even scouting a place to rest. Also, making breakfast and breaking down the tent as Hethon got up.
They were eternal campaigners, Veltras folk. Either you took to the wilds with bow in hand or became Izril’s finest soldiers. The main family, under Tyrion, was so used to spending a night in a tent or bedroll that they did it in their sleep.
Even the youngest ones, fourteen, could have a horse saddled and ready to go in the blink of an eye. It made Hethon, a [Lord] who would lead them, feel—off.
He studied mathematics and took other lessons, and Ullim said it was harder to master a variety of talents than be an expert in one thing.
But what if you weren’t that good at the variety of things either? This was Hethon’s old worry, and it crept on him today—for a bit.
Life was so odd of late, though, that he almost forgot when he saw someone sitting at a fire and briskly folding a seared piece of meat into some travel-bread. Tyrion Veltras looked like a stranger to his son—until Hethon remembered, again, his father had lost decades of his age.
Ironically—Ryoka Griffin looked more familiar, along with Ullim and Jericha, than the younger man who glanced up. He offered the food to a young boy, who didn’t notice until a hand nudged him. Then Sammial took the food and began eating.
Breakfast—in House Veltras’ household—was a quiet, strained thing if Tyrion were there where you watched your manners as he discussed work with Jericha or Ullim. Or it had been. On the road, now, Tyrion had changed with the world, or so it seemed.
For one thing—breakfast was accompanied by a glowing scrying orb, and Hethon looked at it as he glanced at another tent of Corusdeer hide that held Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner—who had been up all last night arguing with Tyrion. She didn’t want them to follow her, and Hethon got why more than Tyrion.
Ryoka was headed to Liscor. Tyrion had sieged Liscor. Of such math, even Hethon Veltras got the impression they might not be wanted. But his father refused to stay, and the argument had ended without resolution.
Tyrion had made the incredibly…unique argument that since he was going to Invrisil, he, vis-à-vis, was not going to Liscor, and he had every right to take his children to see the City of Adventurers, which was coincidentally linked to the city that Ryoka was going to by a magic door.
Hethon had never heard his father play word games. Well, he’d see what today would bring.
They were a hop and a skip from Invrisil. So close, in fact, that Ullim had asked if House Veltras wanted to find an inn. But Tyrion liked camping.
An oddity this morning. As someone woke up from her tent, the wind blew, and Hethon wondered if it would snow. There was only frost and a few snowflakes today; but he was used to Winter Sprites. An advent of snow coming across Izril. Ryoka had claimed, for some reason, it wasn’t going to happen.
The Wind Runner herself emerged from her tent, looking sleepy and focusing on Tyrion as he turned to her.
“Good morning, Ryoka.”
“Hmpgh. Hey, Hethon, Sammial.”
“Good morning, Miss Ryoka.”
Sammial said nothing as Hethon ducked his head and gave Ryoka a smile; Jericha, who was inspecting the camp, came back with a cooler nod. But even she passed Ryoka a cup of tea with one spoon of sugar, having added Ryoka into her morning rotations.
The Wind Runner might not have been more than a passing heroine to House Veltras before—but her continued presence there and a month in the north had at least made it so Jericha knew how Ryoka liked tea.
It had also changed Hethon and Sammial’s mornings. For instance, while Tyrion gave Sammial, his younger son of ten, an exasperated look, he let the boy be.
Because Sammial was watching the scrying orb, and as Ryoka Griffin pointed out—it made Sammial less likely to try to make any conversation center on himself. Today’s scrying orb broadcast featured Drassi.
It was always Drassi. Tyrion hated her less than Sir Relz and Noass—and she had the best content. There was always something going on in the world of note.
Not just wars—Wistram had really got the television idea down. These days, you couldn’t win people’s attention with a soccer ball and a scrum. This was an example of the morning segment’s entertainment:
It was a bunch of grapes on the vine that a man, Kenjiro Murata, gingerly lowered into a box. He lowered it out of sight—raised it up—and a bunch of Fraerlings were clinging to the grapes.
One was literally hanging on by his mouth, having swallowed the entire grape in a single chomp. Alchimagus Resk and a bunch of Fraerlings, young and old, were munching with delight on the fresh grapes as they had an interview with Wistram.
The sight of a Fraerling grape-vine was so funny that Drassi lost track of what she was saying. Meanwhile, Sentry Leader Ekrn was scowling hugely.
“Make them stop that. They look like [Fools].”
He snapped at Guidance Heish, but she elbowed him aside. Enchanter Ilekrome was giving the interview today.
“It makes them people, Ekrn. If we can’t have fun—”
The camera swiveled left as the two Fraerlings leaders argued. Noa bobbed up from behind a little platform of wood. She had on a bright jester’s costume, and she swayed left and right as if she weren’t entirely in control of her body.
“Hey everyone! It’s me! Noa the puppet! Oh no! A villain!”
She produced a little club as she saw a second Fraerling emerge. Then Noa began to chase the other one around—but the entire time, her lower half was out of sight.
The ‘sock puppet’ theatre made a bunch of little Lizardchildren laugh so hard they fell over. The Fraerlings were putting on a show! To the delight of the world, they realized that Fraerlings had a huge sense of humor—and they could be cute.
Which, of course, was Heish’s idea. Ekrn hated it, but Paeth needed to be well-loved, not merely tolerated. Hiding had not kept them safe, but endearment and respect might.
“Is this what you do all the time, Enchanter Ilekrome?”
Drassi was trying not to burst out laughing, and the important Fraerling rubbed at his bearded chin.
“Well, Miss Drassi, we might be relieved from our siege ending. But if you’re our height, there are any number of things to do that are quite fun. Oh, here comes the high-dive.”
Aiko rushed past in a panic. She put a full cup of water down, and a Fraerling balancing on a rooftop spread his arms to cheers.
“I shall now dive into this body of water and survive! I’ve been practicing for twenty minutes and landed successfully two times out of five!”
He leapt to wild cheers and boos from the crowd below—the Fraerling dove straight down then realized he was going to miss the cup by several inches. He swore.
The sight of a Fraerling hitting the ground made Mrsha cover her own eyes—but she raised her paws when she realized there was no splat. Instead, she saw a Fraerling bouncing wildly as his Rubber Body Ring saved him.
“You missed it! You missed it! Mrsha, he bounced!”
The Wandering Inn in the morning was having a sedate day. Well, slightly sedate—it was like they were waiting for something. Or someone to come in.
Gire shook Mrsha excitedly, and the younger Gnoll was saved by Lyonette. She made Gire let go, but the excited bigger Gnoll was agog.
“Their magic is so advanced. Drassi is so lucky!”
Mrsha, dizzy, nodded. She wanted to meet a Fraerling! And by that, she meant a fun Fraerling, not the Titan, who smoked and cursed and was sad about Erin being dead.
Noa was so cool. She was swinging around on those ropes—and she was leading a group of Fraerlings up to one of Paeth’s branches to jump off! Being small looked like fun.
Erin Solstice herself was watching the news, although she wasn’t smiling as big. In fact—she should have really been watching what she was working on.
“Erin, the cake! You’re messing up!”
“Whoops. Oh man. Well, uh—it’s okay looking.”
Erin stared down at the cake. The huge, frosted cake was being set for the party today. It read:
Going to miss you! Wil, Merrik, Peki, Venas…
The ‘z’ had turned into an ‘s’ that trailed across the cake and onto the table. Erin wiped at the frosting.
“Er—well, it’s close enough. Let’s just pretend I was bullying Venaz on purpose.”
“Maybe let Calescent do the rest?”
Lyonette suggested. Erin moved the cake to one side and fiddled with the frosting bag.
I shall take that off your hands, Miss Solstice!
Mrsha reached for the bag. Absently, Erin handed it to her. Mrsha instantly tried to squeeze frosting onto her cereal. She got one dollop before Lyonette tried to snatch the bag.
Gire got to it first and put half the bag in her cereal bowl, a huge amount into her mouth, and then she handed it to Nanette. The witch put a frosting sample on her cereal and handed it back to the [Princess]. Lyonette sighed…then did the same with her cereal because why not?
Erin never noticed. She was—distracted. She was watching the broadcast with the Fraerlings with some worry.
“Damn entertaining Fraerlings. I can compete with that. I’ve just gotta…get Drassi. Yeah, yeah. She goes on break at lunch, right, Lyonette?”
Lyonette narrowed her eyes at Erin, but the young woman was nodding.
“Great. Then we’ll just pop over to Pallass unless Ryoka’s here—you know what? I bet she can help me endorse it too! Wind Runner! She’s sorta famous. Where’s my prop?”
“You mean that disfigured rat? Made out of wood and badly painted?”
“Yes. No, wait. It’s a reindeer, Lyonette. A reindeer head. Where’d you put it?”
“Bird took it outside. He’s been shooting arrows at it with Badarrow all morning. To ‘make it look better’.”
Erin uncrossed her arms. She threw up her arms and rushed outside.
“My reindeer! Bird! Don’t hide! I see you up there! You too, Badarrow!”
A normal, sedate day at the inn. Snapjaw was so sad that the frosting bag was empty she nearly cried—until she began licking the frosting trapped on the inside of the canvas. Which was so disgusting Rags kicked her. But the [Eater] refused to stop.
The Goblins were here. Numbtongue was here, showing Reagen to a delighted—but exhausted—Garia Strongheart, who’d just run in after days on the road. She was watching the cat nibble on some kibble as Apista flew past their table. She landed, flexing her new wings with pride, as she saluted the Fraerlings on the scrying orb. Then she settled down next to a certain [Bowman] having breakfast in the inn.
Halrac Everam had realized he could do that after Revi had visited, and the entire team of Griffon Hunt was here minus Typhenous. Cade was staring at a plate of eggs and bacon in a smiley face with delight as Briganda looked around for water elementals.
“Where’s Typhenous, Revi?”
Seborn was only watching the Fraerlings out of the corner of one eye. The [Summoner] broke away from the scrying orb.
“Wh—having breakfast with one of the [Witches]. Shh! Those Fraerlings have amazing magic! Are you not fascinated?”
The Drowned Man looked sideways and shrugged. Revi waved her hands at the scrying orb and then at him in outrage.
“Oh, sure. You’re so cool because you’re a [Rogue]. As if you’ll ever meet one yourself.”
“The Titan was sitting in this inn, Revi. And I have met Fraerlings before. Unlike you.”
Seborn lifted a mug of coffee to his lips as Revi stared at him. A fine morning. The doors opened, and the [Strategists] of the Titan himself walked in, accompanied by Palt and Imani.
“The celebrations look to be in order. Good, good. We begin in about four hours. Is that our cake? Excellent. Ex—”
Venaz looked happy, if somewhat maudlin about leaving, and he strode in, smiling until he saw the cake. Erin waved at him and grinned at Merrik, Wil, and Peki, all of whom had that look of regret. The Horns of Hammerad were coming down the stairs with The Silver Swords, Infinitypear, and Rasktooth.
Today was a day of leavings and parties. Venas stood there, woebegone. But it was a fine morning.
“I intend to head straight for the High Passes as soon as Erin Solstice opens her door. I would assume Miss Griffin is on her way—see if she will meet us there, Ressa.”
Reynold stopped chewing on his food when he heard that. The [Maids] looked at each other as Magnolia Reinhart put down her fork. They were staying at The Noble’s Fancy, Pallass’ premier inn.
Although, the [Maids] and Ressa were waiting on Magnolia instead of the inn’s staff trained and dressed to look like actual noble’s staff. Some of them were taking notes as Ressa hesitated in pouring more milk into Magnolia’s morning cup of tea.
Some people refused to switch from tea to coffee. Others had thrown tea behind them, never to return. Magnolia?
She was a heathen, forsaken by all, loved by none. She raised the cup of milk tea with sugar to her lips…and a latte filled with more sugar was waiting for her after the tea.
“The High Passes aren’t safe, Lady Reinhart.”
Ressa muttered, and Magnolia’s eyes glittered.
“Tell me when they were. You couldn’t clear them with an army, Ressa. No waiting, no delays. News of my presence has spread already. I shan’t suffer the Cyclops on one shoulder—to the inn, to Invrisil perhaps, to collect anything else we might need and Bekia, and then to Celum. I imagine speaking to Miss Solstice might take a moment.”
“Lady Reinhart, we don’t have the carriage. Your safety…”
“Ressa, this is not up for debate. The number of magical objects poking me in the side as I slept should give us more of a chance than Miss Griffin had. To. The. High. Passes. Now—ah, good morning, you two. I think we will part ways at last. You slept well?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s blunt tones turned more welcoming as she rose, and Yelroan and Tesy halted. Tesy looked around furtively—and with ill-concealed dislike for this fancy inn. He probably would have drawn on it if it weren’t for current company. And the fact that he was afraid someone was following him.
Yelroan, for his part, was adjusting his sunglasses rather nervously.
“Thank you, Lady Reinhart. I’m heading to the inn, as I imagine you are, whenever it opens. I—hope it’ll go well.”
“Perhaps you should allow us to go first, then. Or maybe we should cede it to you. I don’t believe Miss Solstice will be in a good mood after I speak to her. Then again—you said you knew the inn, Tesy?”
“What? Yes! I know the inn…is the Golden Gnoll in Liscor?”
Magnolia eyed the nervous, white-scaled Drake.
“I believe so. Then we’ll all go together. Ressa—why don’t you check on the carriage? Sweep for dust mites, would you?”
“At once, Lady Reinhart.”
Ressa nodded to two [Maids], and they walked out the front doors. Magnolia sighed. Delays. But she offered Tesy and Yelroan a seat, and Tesy made the mistake of thinking Magnolia’s latte was for him. He took one gulp—sprayed the sugar and coffee out over Yelroan, and looked more nervous still.
To be fair—he’d thought it was poison. Which, also to be fair, it probably counted as. The Drake turned around, looking about as someone hurried over with a wet cloth and soap.
He thought he could hear…music.
Hethon Veltras felt like he was the only one who foresaw complications today. No—wait. Ryoka Griffin’s face said that she had the same premonition. But that was probably just because she was Ryoka.
“Where are we staying in Invrisil, Father?”
Hethon looked at his father as the camp was struck and everything packed up. Sammial glanced up from the scrying orb—only because Ilekrome was speaking to Drassi about what Paeth might trade and what they needed. Ryoka’s head turned as Tyrion Veltras looked up.
They had been eating Corusdeer venison. They’d chanced upon a herd and downed one of the bucks. Or rather, Tyrion had. With a lance. The [Lord] looked at Ryoka, and her glare bounced off his face.
He was clean-shaven, his beard gone. The younger man—and he was, in his late twenties—didn’t have the older, more commanding tone age had given him. He looked…less authoritative, and that was age and maybe just his class.
His levels were gone. Only Hethon knew it; Sammial hadn’t been allowed to know. It was a terrible thing that had hit House Veltras’ leader. A disaster, but everyone was pretending things were normal. If it came out Tyrion had lost the bulk of his levels and his class…
Bad things might occur. However, the [Lord] was still intent on following Ryoka around. He cleared his throat and nodded south, where Invrisil was visible in the distance.
“We’ll find an inn there.”
“If I may, Lord Veltras?”
Ullim broke in gently, his white hair blowing in the chilly breeze. Everyone else shivered—but the [Majordomo] was tough as boot leather, it seemed. Tyrion frowned as Ullim replied.
He didn’t really seem like he’d changed in twenty some years. His mannerisms were the same, although…he seemed more restless than the older man that Hethon knew. And he was more—more agreeable? He let Sammial have the scrying orb, let them have more fun. But maybe that was Ryoka.
“We may well continue onwards. The Haven—for all it has been moving a month—has not gone far. Lord Veltras, the Haven would be an ideal spot to take the lads, at least before it’s gone from the north before they have a chance to visit it.”
Ullim murmured in that way Hethon knew he said things when he wanted Tyrion to agree. The [Majordomo] looked up carefully, and Tyrion grunted.
“I don’t know if that’s necessary.”
“Father! I want to go to the Haven! It’s famous and magic! And it was on the scrying orb!”
Sammial burst in at the worst moment, as if insisting would help. Hethon longed to kick him, but Tyrion just frowned.
Instead of snapping that Sammial was out of line, he folded his arms.
“There is no need. The Haven’s fame is just that. You won’t get a better rest from the inn—or better food for a day or two. Most of the attractions are for large parties. We are simply residing.”
And if you needed to sleep, the hard ground or a tent was as good as some famous inn. But Hethon wanted to see it, so he joined in.
“But wouldn’t it be good to see the inn before it leaves, Father? Just so we can talk about it?”
Tyrion stared past them at Ryoka, but the Wind Runner flapped a hand.
“Why not? You’re not going to Liscor, and you should have fun while you’re not going to Liscor, Tyrion.”
“We could—book you a room as well, Ryoka?”
The Wind Runner froze, and Ullim blinked. Lord Pellmia had done the impossible. Was that slyness? Well—for Tyrion.
Ryoka shook her head instantly.
“I’m staying at The Wandering Inn. And I have business. Private. Runner’s business. You said you got it, that I have a life.”
“Indeed I did. I just decided that you might appreciate company. And my sons should see Invrisil. And you have a habit of landing up in mortal danger. Hence my decision to be in the area.”
Tyrion laid out his reasoning simply. He looked at Ryoka, and she glared at him. He turned back to Ullim and spoke.
“I don’t believe the Haven is necessary, Ullim. Despite the interest—it is a matter of House Veltras’ budget.”
Sammial and Hethon’s faces fell. Oh, the budget. That settled that.
House Veltras was the second-poorest of the Five Families, behind House El. Terland, Wellfar, and Reinhart were far richer.
Actually, it was true that House Veltras was not economically destitute like House El was famously at times. It was just—the main family, under Tyrion, requested enough money to fund their soldiers, and having a standing army of their size cost a fortune.
But the branch families could support them and arguably give more. That Tyrion and the main family did not normally ask was because they let the branch families focus on their holdings. The wealth of Veltras was spread out, like roots, not held at the top.
…It still meant that it sucked sometimes. And it was not always true. For instance—Jericha coughed delicately.
“Lord Tyrion. Pardon me for mentioning it, but it may have slipped your mind that House Veltras was awarded a sizeable prize for our contributions in the Dawn Concordat’s war. It would not…strain our budget for this year to let the boys see the Haven once.”
Tyrion hesitated. Hethon sat up, beaming at Jericha. If she took Ullim’s side—even mountains might move.
“They might as well if they’re coming here. Isn’t the Haven fun to be at?”
Now, Ryoka joined the forces arrayed against Tyrion, and everyone held their breath. The [Lord] stared at the sky—and despite the pressure, didn’t sway.
“I still don’t feel the need.”
Everyone’s faces fell, and Tyrion looked around. He seemed to read their disappointed faces and hesitated. Then he elaborated, another surprising moment. Tyrion lowered his voice and muttered.
“I—perhaps it would be fair for the prestige of it. But I dislike the notion even so. The Haven is…a thoroughly unpleasant place. You may not be aware of that, Ryoka, but it has objectionable qualities.”
Ryoka Griffin blinked at Tyrion, and Hethon and Sammial made puzzled faces. It did? Tyrion Veltras seemed uncertain of how to explain it.
“The Haven is all show, little substance. It is a place for one to enjoy themselves, to be self-congratulatory and indulgent. To be—”
He stared skywards.
“—it plays well upon noble fancies. Let us put it like that.”
The Wandering Inn’s guests were coming through from the Haven today as well. Colth the Supporter, one of the Named-ranks not heading south like Deniusth and Eldertuin after the thieves, was waiting for the doors to open.
“To the Haven—people coming out! Five for The Wandering Inn? Come on through.”
A bored Gnoll was yawning into her cup of coffee that morning. Liska, the [Door Gnoll], sent in one person to the Haven, which was interesting.
Now that the Haven had passed Invrisil, she normally just took visitors from the Haven who wanted to get to Invrisil or somewhere else. But today, someone wanted to experience the Haven’s largesse—yet not the crowd who’d booked a room.
Menolit, one of Erin’s known guests, strode through the door in a rather handsome suit. He also had a flower, and Colth turned his head as the Drake strode by.
“Excuse me—are any of the guests having breakfast this morning? Which was it…”
He heard the Drake asking, and the [Supporter] muttered under his breath.
“Uh oh. Poor fellow.”
Someone should warn him. Was it going to be Colth? He hesitated as Liska waited at the door.
“I’ve got people waiting on both ends. You coming?”
She was still lacking for manners, but she was better at her job. Colth put his hands together.
“Miss Liska, could you open the door in—five minutes?”
“What—oh, fine. Five minutes.”
She closed the door, and Colth hurried back the way he’d come. Most of the diners were having breakfast in the outdoor seating. It was cold, yes, but Larra had cast a heating spell that cut the chill, so you could eat in warmth while admiring the cold winter. It was a big area with two floors. Maybe he’d be in time to—
Nope. By the time Colth had strode after Menolit, the Drake was already at a table where a [Lady] was having breakfast with two of her friends. She had faintly red hair, and she was perhaps forty…three by Colth’s measurements.
Arch nose, perhaps Terandrian bloodlines. Lady Werirose of House Dullvan if he didn’t miss his guess. He didn’t know her class, but he suspected her house had holdings that she mostly was rich off of.
Low-level [Lady]. Call it 18-23 by his understanding. Not specialized; she was from Vaunt, so she might have some economy Skills. They did cheese, after all, but she was a landholder family, not directly involved in management. Decorative enchanted blade dagger on her hip. Contraception spell, earring that kept bugs away…
Typical guest of the Haven. One of Larra’s ‘regulars’. And right now, Menolit was offering her a rose.
“I hope we could have another conversation, Werirose? Perhaps I could take you around Liscor.”
You poor man. The Drake wasn’t much higher-level for all he was a [Veteran]. He’d never cracked Level 30, but Colth could imagine and see he had been a decent [Soldier] in Liscor’s army before taking the tail-wound. And a leg-injury that he mostly hid. That was probably why they’d given him an honorable discharge.
He was more interesting because he was clearly a [Manager] of Liscor Hunted. He might be Level 20+ in that class already. He was new to wealth, but he’d pivoted classes and purpose well of late.
And he had been a guest of the Haven and a guest of the Pub of Best Moments. Someone should have told him one of the rules. Barnethei must have dropped the ball or forgotten that Menolit was a Drake and thus he didn’t know anyone here.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir? You must be mistaken.”
Lady Werirose looked blankly up at Menolit. The Drake hesitated.
“I’m sure we met. I’m Menolit. We—we chatted in the Pub of…?”
“I have no notion, sir. Please.”
She sounded defensive; her breakfast partners were pretending they had no idea what was going on as well. Colth touched Menolit’s shoulder.
“But we did. I wouldn’t forget. We—”
“Excuse me, [Ladies]. Menolit, right? Let’s just take a step back. One second—”
Colth pulled—hard—and Menolit took a step back despite himself, looking hurt and confused. Werirose flashed a relieved smile at Colth, which he returned falsely.
“Supporter Colth, a delight as always. Thank you.”
“What’s going on? That’s Werirose. She told me—let go, would you?”
Menolit tried to shrug off Colth, but the [Supporter] just towed him away. Then—he really didn’t want to start his day like this, but he had to.
“My friend, I think no one told you the unwritten rule of the Pub of Best Moments. I’m sorry—I keep telling Barnethei to write it down, because there’s a fellow every month, or a lady, who runs into this. But the Pub of Best Moments…do you know the Court of Masks in Ailendamus?”
It took Menolit a moment to understand. When he did—
Ah, damn it. Colth had shouted at Yvlon yesterday. Furiously, because she’d lost her temper and attacked her team and she was a liability. He felt bad about that—and because he hadn’t stopped her.
He felt bad, sometimes, fighting low-level people like [Bandits] who jumped him, people who might be desperate or stupid or not know who he was.
But stabbing this Drake in the chest repeatedly? Damn it, Barnethei.
The Pub of Best Moments was where you could look your best. Where you could be the part of yourself you hoped was there: eloquent, handsome, your literal best self. It meant people liked you, especially when you sat in that chair.
It was, therefore, also a notorious place for people to meet each other. To—have an intimate moment. But the reason people wore masks and Werirose was pretending she had never known Menolit was the same reason she had probably chatted him up in the pub.
Interest…and the clear understanding that she’d never be able to talk to a Drake in such circumstances normally. In that pub, you could do what you wanted.
Here? Menolit dropped the rose. He didn’t take it as Colth grabbed it before it could fall. The [Supporter] saw the Drake standing there, looking so hurt…he gently put the rose in Menolit’s lapel and patted the Drake on the shoulder.
Then he walked off. Larra’s Haven had edges. Of a different kind than The Wandering Inn.
But people wondered why Tyrion Veltras disliked this place.
♫ Love was gonna lift you up, and drop you. Then break your legs. ♪
It was hard to read the room or see if it was a permanent thing. It was…far harder to find something that would last. Especially if you wanted it and it wasn’t that way at all.
Senior Guardsman Relc hadn’t put on a suit, but he had buffed his boots last night and had to buy some shoe polish. He’d spent some time getting the rust off of his chain mail and checked for dead scales and trimmed his neck-spines. He was in a good mood today. Mostly.
Klbkch kept patting him on the back, which annoyed him. Relc had made the mistake of telling Klbkch about his acquaintanceship with Ryoka—which provoked the motion. Relc knew it had been just a thing. Maybe because he’d been so sad—
But you never knew.
“Klb, buddy, I swear. Pat me on the back one more time and I’ll hit you.”
Relc finally interrupted the incessant patting as he sat at the inn’s bar. Klbkch halted.
“I shall wait until later, then.”
For some reason—that hit Relc harder than the patting. Because he realized Klbkch meant it. Then he saw Menolit come back in.
Relc hadn’t known Menolit well from the army days, but he had a vague memory of a Drake covered in blood, asking if someone had found his tail.
This was the second-worst he’d ever seen Menolit. Then Relc realized—Ryoka Griffin was just coming here to see Mrsha.
“…Didn’t the rumors say she and Tyrion Veltras…?”
He sat back in his stool, and suddenly, all of his good-nature in the morning deserted him. Klbkch came back to pat him on the back a few more times before walking off to say hi to Erin.
In silence, Menolit sat at the bar.
“You got any Rxlvn?”
He addressed the Gnoll behind the bar. It wasn’t Ishkr. Today, for the party, Erin had asked a friend to help out.
Rufelt looked a lot better, and the [Bartender] hesitated because you weren’t supposed to harm your clients. But one look at Menolit and he measured a third of a shot into a glass, mixed it up with an ale, and handed it over. Menolit took it down fast.
“I, uh…I might need one too.”
Relc sat there, drooping. Menolit glanced sideways at him.
“You didn’t go to the pub.”
“Nah. But Ryoka’s coming back. Just—nevermind.”
In silence, Menolit turned back to his cup and waved a claw for another.
“Yeah. Don’t bother hoping.”
The two Drakes sat there a moment, and someone came over to join them. Pawn had reappeared for the party, but he was avoiding Lyonette. After a moment—a fourth person sat down.
Relc, Menolit, and Pawn, now being served what Rufelt was deciding he’d call the Heartbreak Healer, glanced at an unexpected guest. Relc made a claw so as to shove off the young woman sitting there.
“What’s your problem?”
He glowered with Menolit and Pawn at Garia Strongheart. The City Runner just glanced over her shoulder.
“He got a cat. Did she get it for him?”
All three turned and saw Numbtongue, still laughing about his orange tabby. But Garia was focused half on Numbtongue and half on…Octavia. Relc raised his brows at Menolit, and the Drake scowled.
“I hear that [Witch] in Riverfarm sells curses.”
In silence, Relc drew up a stool for Garia. Who was only going to sit here for a moment. She knew Numbtongue was in an open relationship, even if he didn’t call it that. And Octavia was fine with it. So was Garia.
It felt like the only stable thing in this world was that which wouldn’t last. And at least Kevin and Ceria looked like they were vaguely having fun as she held a raw steak over an eye.
“I haven’t done this since I was a poor Bronze-rank. No healing potions—ow!”
“Now you know how us Earth-lovers do it.”
“Your lives suck.”
“You’re telling me. So where are you going first? House Byres or…?”
Ceria Springwalker shrugged and glanced over to someone sitting by herself—well, Ksmvr kept checking on her—staring blankly at the table and carving in it with one finger. She lowered her voice conspiratorially.
“Depends. Yvlon’s wavering. Her brother and sister are going north, and it’s apparently only a two-day ride to House Byres from Riverfarm. I’m down to make a stop—but, er—it might not be fun.”
“I thought you said you liked House Byres.”
Ceria took a long swallow of blue juice.
“I did…but look over there.”
Ysara Byres was smiling about as hugely as Yvlon. For different reasons, but her brother, Ylawes, was eying her. He was definitely going home—and so was she.
Rasktooth and Infinitypear and Vuliel Drae were more excited than Ysara. Ylawes, for his part, looked disappointed—but only because he was shaking a Gnoll’s paw.
“You’re sure I can’t ask you to reconsider, Nailren?”
The leader of The Pride of Kelia gave him a regretful smile.
“I’m afraid so. I have my team to at least return to Hawkarrow—and I’ve promised to help take the Titan’s students south. I might be going with the Horns if they head south immediately. Tribes willing, we’ll meet again in the new lands, for I’m bound there.”
It was too bad. But Ylawes had seven new members to his team. Anith, Insill, Pekona, Dasha, Larr, Infinitypear, Rasktooth—
He looked around and realized two were missing.
“Practicing. She’s at the training courts or by herself all the time. Trying to make up for ‘disgracing’ herself at the Village of the Dead. She needs a confidence boost. Dasha’s right over there. I’ll get Pekona and tell her to show up for the party.”
Insill slid out of his seat as Ylawes tried to think. Anith had agreed to give over his leadership role—though he’d still be invaluable, but they were his teammates now. Lower-level, lower-rank…he winced as he saw where Dasha was.
Dawil was sighing into a cup wistfully.
“It’d be a shame not to visit Dwarfhalls Rest before you go, Merrik.”
“Aye. Maybe. But the truth is, I’m sure it’s just a mess of setting up. I’m angling to get my friends to Deríthal-Vel sometime soon. A more peaceful vacation. Meeting Master Pelt was enough for me, even if he just threw coal at my head.”
Dawil, Merrik and Elgrinna were standing together. It was Elgrinna who’d suggested Merrik delay their departure a day or two, and the Dwarf did look regretful. But they were long-lived folk. And he had to get back to class.
He was the youngest of the three Dwarves too. Dawil and Elgrinna were older and didn’t bother with years, but Merrik was noticeably young if they compared sheer lifespans. Well—except for the fourth person, who broke in.
“Ah, home. I’ve been meaning to make a pilgrimage home myself. See where my roots are. I mean, where I’m hewn from.”
Dawil closed his eyes. Elgrinna rolled hers up, and Merrik smiled as politely as he could. Dasha was currently annoying all three Dwarves with references to their ‘culture’. And she kept stroking her beard.
Dawil gave Ylawes a pointed look, but the [Knight] was enjoying this so much he just waved at his friend. The truth was that Dasha had a right to talk with her kin—but her blood was thinner. She was a bit taller, and Insill had told Ylawes that Dasha had used a tonic to grow the full beard, which Elgrinna lacked.
“Anyone seen Drassi? Oh hey, Peki.”
And here was Erin Solstice. Her inn was just filling up, and already, there were all kinds of odd conversations occurring. Like Peki stopping Erin as the young woman wandered around with a folder of papers she’d prepared.
“Innkeeper Erin. I want to have one last match before I go.”
“In chess? I suppose I could do a speed set with you all.”
Erin pointed over as the colorful Garuda with her bright purple-and-green plumage halted her. Peki shook her head and opened her beak as she made two fists with her claw-hands.
“No. I want to face you.”
She lifted her fists, and Erin went cross-eyed.
“Oh. Er—I’m not really a fighter.”
“You have a [Minotaur Punch] Skill. And you’ve fought.”
Peki ignored Wil trying to drag her back.
“Yeah…about that. My back’s been hurting a bit since we shouldn’t waste healing potions. And the bisque—euigh.”
She stuck out her tongue. Peki lifted her fists higher and shifted her leg to kick.
“You can fight. I’ll use one hand.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Tell you what, why don’t you beat, uh—Gire! And Fierre. Then you can take me on.”
Erin looked around for a distraction and found one as a huge [Paragon] chased around Mrsha, Visma, and then turned in alarm. Peki eyed Gire. She raised her fists obligingly and looked sideways at a pale young woman with red eyes.
Fierre looked up in alarm from a bowl of rare cuts of meat. She pointed at Garia.
“No, beat up Garia first. I’m, uh—I’m busy.”
Erin ducked away from Peki as the disappointed Garuda tried to talk her into it. Gire ran on as Mrsha came to a halt next to a table filled with food. She poked a paw up to steal.
She’d gotten better about food-theft after getting in trouble, she had. But this was a special exception. Mrsha reached for a piece of brie and got a foot in the face.
Ulvama put her foot in Mrsha’s face, and it was a bare foot. She had a slipper on the ground, two pillows in the chairs she’d leaned back, and her table was filled with food she’d taken from the kitchen.
She had created a kind of hammock bed to watch the scrying orb and the inn from, and she could lay here for hours, eating everything she wanted.
Mrsha flung insulting notecards at her until Ulvama shot a spark back that made Mrsha’s fur stand on end. Visma peeked at Ulvama as Gire raised an experimental fist.
“Don’t shock Mrsha.”
“Go away, little girl.”
Ulvama sneered at Gire. The [Paragon] hesitated.
“I’m big. I could hit you.”
The Hobgoblin hadn’t even bothered to stare at Gire as she watched the scrying orb with both arms behind her back. Which was impressive given how tall Gire was. But she raised two bored eyelids.
“I am a [Shaman]. [Great Shaman]. You go. Children stop bothering me.”
There was something in her tone that reminded Gire of her own [Shamans] or Theikha. More importantly—Ulvama had mastered the tone some adults had. And she used it—on Gire and Mrsha. Both girls slunk back to Visma, defeated by an adult who acted like one and ignored Gire’s size.
“That’s Ulvama, right?”
Visma knew most of the guests of the inn. Ulvama was lounging about, ignoring Rags’ Goblins. But she nodded as a Goblin with a parasol strolled over and pointed at a chair. Gothica threw herself into the chair and began to munch.
The two female Goblins were—formative to something in Visma’s head. Maybe it was Ulvama’s paint, pierced ears—which Gothica was adopting—or the smaller Cave Goblin’s all-black style, edged makeup, and attitude.
If Visma’s mother could see her daughter now, she might worry for Visma’s next few years of adolescence. But the Drake was also prescient. While she admired the two Goblins, she whispered to Mrsha.
“She just sits there and eats? All day?”
She watches the scrying orb too. Or lays in her room and steals books. Sometimes she makes up paints.
It was a lifestyle of such sloth that Mrsha herself had to grudgingly admire Ulvama’s commitment to her place in the inn. Visma asked the one real question that no one else had.
“…How is she not fat?”
Gire frowned. She turned her head, and Mrsha and Visma looked over. It was true. Ulvama certainly wasn’t as skinny as Redscar, who was all muscle and sitting and enjoying Minotaur Punches with some of his Redfangs already—but plush was about as far as you could go.
Given how much she ate, though? Gire was doing some quick math. She had seen Ulvama take down an entire pie. For lunch. On top of the regular lunch plate.
Either she was casting a lot of magic or she had a Skill. Or the metabolism that Ekhtouch’s finest would envy. It was a mystery, but then again, Gireulashia had once calculated that Magnolia Reinhart ate so much sugar she should also be heavier.
“Maybe it’s lots of sex. I hear she’s promiscuu—promisco—promiscuous.”
Gire stared at Visma and wondered who’d said that. But the [Paragon] just sniffed.
“She’s not that bad. Actually, she’s not active. Not half as bad as Captain Jelaqua. She—ow, owowowowow!”
“You kids. And here I was coming in to be nice.”
Jelaqua Ivirith herself had to stand on a chair to pinch Gire’s ear, but she did. The [Paragon] whined as Visma jumped. Everyone was coming into the inn! Erin turned. Drassi?
No. There was some violet-scaled Drake she recognized, Onieva, Maughin, Moore and Ulinde, Jelaqua of course, a white-scaled Drake, a Gnoll with some amazing sunglasses, Magnolia Reinhart, but no Drass—
Magnolia Reinhart stepped into The Wandering Inn like a quiet breeze. It quieted the inn as Erin’s head snapped up. Lyonette turned as she belatedly sensed the aura.
Shriekblade dropped out of the rafters, staring at Ressa as five [Maids] and Reynold walked in behind the [Lady]. Reynold shut the door as he gulped, and the [Head Maid] glanced around the room heaving with high-level people.
The [Lady] had entered so innocuously that Liska had barely noticed her except to think that was a lot of pink. She had kept her aura suppressed, politely walking in with the guests past the trapped hallway.
The door opened, and Normen and Alcaz peeked in warily—Ressa had winked at them through the arrow slits. Yelroan glanced sideways at Normen, fiddling with his bag of holding. His sunglasses flashed.
Calescent dropped a tray of cupcakes as he came out of the kitchen. The crash was the loudest thing in the silence. Magnolia stood amidst the ringing of metal. As quiet as a mouse—and she provoked the silence that followed.
And the coming storm. Erin Solstice’s face turned hostile as Lady Magnolia folded her hands in front of her. She looked around the inn—and then at Erin Solstice. Nerry hid behind Nanette in alarm as Magnolia’s gaze swept the room.
Rags, Pawn, Niers’ students, adventurers—the [Lady] exhaled as she saw a head of blonde hair. To her credit, Lady Pryde barely moved as she sat next to Grimalkin. But a blink was a flinch from the [Lady] of House Ulta.
“Hello, Miss Erin. If I’m unwelcome, I will of course leave. But I hope I may at least speak to you. This time—may I step into your inn and speak cordially?”
Lady Reinhart did the most surprising thing—which was bow slightly, extending one arm. She looked at Erin Solstice, and the [Innkeeper]’s face was hostile.
“You—you—look who’s here? Who needs my door—wait, how are you—? Did you enter from Pallass? Chaldion let you in?”
She was taken aback, just like last time. But Magnolia Reinhart just waited, and she responded equitably.
“I do have a passport. And while I believe the gate-guards were more strenuous in their search than they had to be—well, perhaps understandably—I am travelling. And your door is the best way to travel, even for me. Again, I should love to chat and meet the—fascinating folk within. But if I am not welcome, I will just ask to use your door…four more times.”
She waited. Erin Solstice was focused on Magnolia like lightning to a lightning rod, and she was angry. She remembered the last time Magnolia had stormed into her inn to endanger her friends.
And sometimes that was fair. But when Erin’s immediate flash of hostility faded—she noticed Mrsha was vibrating where she stood. For Mrsha had noticed Magnolia’s guests. And a gold-furred Gnoll stood up incredulously as a snacking Gnoll [Thief] choked on his snacks.
Inkar turned from holding Tkrn’s paw, another successful meeting spitting in Relc, Menolit, and Pawn’s faces. Erin blinked as the Gnoll grinned nervously behind his sunglasses. She eyed Magnolia—and the [Lady] stepped to one side.
“I may have picked up some passengers who claimed to be on their way to your inn along the way. You may wish to take care; they can be rambunctious, these young folk running about.”
She fixed Dame Ushar with a glance. And the Thronebearer jumped, looked at Magnolia, then Tesy, and began whispering to Ser Sest.
Erin didn’t miss that. But she was staring at Reynold’s legs as the [Butler] sketched a bow, and then…the hostility was already draining away by the time someone spoke.
“Lady Reinhart. I don’t know about Erin, but may I say—welcome to The Wandering Inn.”
Lyonette du Marquin answered Magnolia’s bow with a kind of curtsey, though she only had an apron on. She looked at Magnolia, and Erin was confused.
Confused, until she remembered the recordings of the battle she had ‘been’ at. Then Mrsha herself was running forwards to hug Tesy—and look at Reynold and shake his hands.
“I merely sent a carriage. Miss Marquin. Those two lovable rogues in Oteslia could not help but pester me while we were anxiously watching the battle. They asked to be remembered to you.”
Wilovan and Ratici? Erin opened her mouth. Wait a second, she was still mad! But—Magnolia had tried to help Mrsha, hadn’t she?
And Reynold was cool, and he’d lost his legs. When Erin saw that, she remembered Magnolia’s war against the Circle of Thorns. She looked up, and Magnolia Reinhart stood there.
A [Lady] in pink. Intimidating, able to do what she wanted and get anything she needed—
A year ago.
It felt like ages. There they had been whisked into her carriage, Ryoka and Erin, and even later, Magnolia had been like the leader of Izril while they ran around their lives.
Now here she was in Erin’s inn, and she didn’t seem smaller…her aura was still there. But Erin’s was larger. It was like she’d gained a foot while Magnolia stayed the same. And now, Erin could make out details on Magnolia’s hither-to unreadable face.
She looked tired. Tired—and wary of Erin, of all things. Or was it the Thronebearers? Rags? Something else?
A [Witch] met a [Lady], and belatedly, Erin Solstice realized how close the two classes were. One was a pariah, a woman with a pointed hat. The other was defined by her bloodline and, often, a dress.
Magnolia Reinhart, the Deadly Flower Blooming in the North, was well-liked by few. Loved, by some, like her servants who had bled and died for her. In her long year in Izril, Erin Solstice had met few people who had Magnolia Reinhart on their side.
But she had noticed that even in Liscor, hers was not the first name they cursed when they talked about the Humans of the north. When she had visited the [Witches] of Riverfarm, they had not invoked her name with a curse, and some, like Mavika and Oliyaya, surely would.
Maviola El had once praised Magnolia Reinhart and called her a failed heir to her flame. Erin Solstice did not like Magnolia Reinhart. She had placed herself against the Antinium, run roughshod over Erin and Ryoka and the Earthers.
She had made mistakes like undervaluing—deliberately—Kevin and the others. Erin tried to measure out her each and every grievance against Magnolia.
Bullying Erin—or trying to. Much like Erin had never done to anyone. Not Jewel, gulping as she measured herself up against Ressa, or Todi or anyone.
Taken someone for granted? Never. Not Toren. Not Lyonette or…
As for her deeds, Erin Solstice had once thought she could do the right thing in every situation. Until the right thing turned out to be, for her, counter-charging a group of rioters to save some objectionable [Lords]. Letting a bunch of thieving adventurers go.
Sending bread to men with hats. Erin Solstice looked at Magnolia Reinhart, and it was not that the [Lady] had aged more than anyone else this year. Had she lost more than Erin?
Possibly not. It was just—simply—that Erin Solstice was different.
A [Witch] looked at a [Lady]. And she thought Magnolia Reinhart saw the flaming hat upon her head. A blazing myriad of emotions. But what made Magnolia’s eyes squint, that painful allure and brilliance, was a single word the [Lady] had for it all.
Youth. Magnolia Reinhart, like Mihaela and so many, looked in that mirror, even if Erin was so different, that led her back years and decades and through dreams she’d had, and it hurt her.
The reverse was almost as true. For however much Erin Solstice wanted to blaze with her own indignation and fiery grudges—she saw something coming off Magnolia.
Not…threads. Not a Spider’s web. But something similar. Perhaps—ribbons would be the right word. Fanciful ribbons, like the kind someone used to tie up a box of presents. Careful, even overdone for some.
Each one spoke of effort. Of care. Of a dignity that the gift-wrapper gave, not just to themselves to show how good they were, but to the recipient. To show they cared.
That kind of ribbon. Pink, of course. A silly color. Back home, Erin knew pink was girlish. And so even lots of women didn’t like it. Magnolia didn’t care. She liked the color.
So, pink ribbons, translucent, twining about her arms. Her hands, her waist and shoulders. She was draped in them. Almost a prisoner of a tangled nest of silk cords, but it wasn’t that she was trapped.
She was holding them in place. Almost desperately, and Erin felt that if this woman were to vanish—perhaps—parts of Izril would break apart. And she had only added to that burden since coming to Oteslia.
She looked tired. But she refused to let go. If Ressa bore Magnolia’s burdens, what did the [Lady] carry?
She had come here, chasing the very first ribbon she’d picked up long ago. A promise to a Dragon.
Erin Solstice did not like it. She did not like the anger in her chest having nowhere to vent. She did not like it, because more than even Larracel, she gazed at Magnolia Reinhart and felt a kinship she had never wanted.
That it was there—Erin Solstice closed her eyes and exhaled. Then, and only then, Magnolia Reinhart smiled, and Erin lost the sense of whatever she’d glimpsed.
The [Lady]’s voice was light and careful, and even now—she spread her hands gracefully, bowed slightly, as if a [Jester] inviting the impending enmity. The performer waiting for the loaded stand of rotten vegetables she herself had bought and placed.
“If you are going to throw something at me, Miss Erin, may I ask that you at least throw something solid? I have had to change my dress once already this morning.”
Erin Solstice exhaled hard as she saw it all. And that—she had to respect. She nodded, slowly, as Lyonette started, and perhaps a few others saw what she saw.
Erin still didn’t like Magnolia Reinhart. She took a step as Mrsha, Lyonette, and the others warily looked at her. Erin raised a hand—and then looked around.
“I guess…I guess you can at least sit down and eat food and stuff. We’ve got lots of cake. It’s gonna be one of those days, and I don’t want a fight or trouble. So yeah. Welcome in, Magnolia.”
She extended a hand as if ushering them in, and Shriekblade looked at Erin—then sheathed the daggers she’d drawn from her belt. Onieva relaxed, and Ressa—who hadn’t moved but had her hands behind her back, ostensibly folded—bowed.
The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn relaxed slightly as Magnolia smiled gratefully. It wasn’t just Erin forgiving and forgetting—but she knew Nalthaliarstrelous was Magnolia’s servant, and the [Lady] was trying for peace with the Drakes and forgiveness and second chances and all that.
Erin still glowered, and her lack of retribution earned her a boo.
“Boo. Boo! You’ve changed! Take her down! Give her a punch! No spine! No balls!”
Everyone turned. A drunk Drake waved a fist at Erin as she looked blankly at him. Rufelt covered his face and decided not to exist as Menolit shouted at Erin. The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth.
“Menolit, why are you drunk?”
He looked at her morosely.
“Love. Never had it. It’s just an illusion.”
Erin went over and patted him on the shoulder. Magnolia Reinhart pursed her lips. Rather than look offended—she gazed at Menolit. And she called out over that inn.
“If it was sweet while you chased it, Sir Drake—then you did taste it. For some, that is all you can ever dream of. And it will escape you time and time again. Savor the taste of it. For it may never come to you as you wish.”
She smiled, and like a woman with a crossbow, shot wide and hit Menolit, Relc, Pawn, Garia—and a number of other targets so hard they leaned over the bar like murder victims and called for a drink.
—Erin Solstice hesitated, but the [Veteran] looked at Magnolia Reinhart and lifted a cup. He seemed to appreciate that more than Erin’s pats.
Then, Magnolia turned. She smiled and offered a hand to the first person.
“Waiter Ishkr, isn’t it? How do you do? I was so splendidly amused by your deeds with the Haven. If you ever quit your employment here—do give me a [Message].”
Erin’s head snapped around, and Magnolia flapped a hand at her.
“Before you object, Miss Solstice, I said, ‘later’. Years later, one would imagine. I am not so foolish as to assume I could pry Mister Ishkr here away for any sum. But a uniform would make this Gnoll dashing. And you, young miss, seem to be in the right place at last.”
She smiled at Mrsha and reached down to shake the Gnoll’s paw. Erin Solstice exhaled, but Magnolia was trying. And hey—it was an unexpected, almost unpleasant surprise, but she’d entered the inn, no one was killing anyone else yet—
Why, Murphy’s Law had failed. The big thing had happened, and Ryoka Griffin wasn’t going to come to some kind of death-duel with Magnolia after all. How was that for good?
“I do respect her, you know.”
That quiet comment came from two lips. Lady Pryde to Grimalkin as she gazed at Magnolia Reinhart. But another—
Well, it surprised the heck out of Onieva. The Drake raised her brows as she leaned on a table next to a sitting woman with indigo hair.
“You respect her?”
Onieva wasn’t looking at Magnolia—and neither was Ysara Byres. Rather, the two women were staring at an icy [Lady] shaking a reluctant hand with Magnolia.
Lady Ieka Imarris.
She was the second-best [Lady] you could ask for in any room. Famously, the shadow of Magnolia Reinhart. Successful, wealthy, influential—
A poor woman’s copy of Magnolia, if you wanted to really hurt Ieka’s feelings. She didn’t have Pryde’s sheer ego, Bethal’s wild impetuousness—and she was not Magnolia Reinhart of the Five Families, the Deadly Flower.
But Onieva just saw Ysara staring at Ieka. The Silver Merchant shrugged.
“I don’t know if you know Lady Ieka—but she’s cold-blooded at times. Ruthless—most good [Ladies] have to be. She’s…”
Onieva suggested, and Ysara laughed into her sleeve. Ieka was offering Ressa a hand to shake, and the [Maid] did it coolly compared to the flushed face. Ysara shook her head.
“She might be. But she’s here. Here. No one changed her. No one in Izril, not her peers or family, ever was able to change her. If there were more of her, perhaps Izril would…”
She hesitated, and Onieva looked at Ysara.
“…Have more [Maids]?”
The two lifted a cup, chinked them together gently, and drank.
The sight of Lady Reinhart cautiously shaking hands and speaking with the inn’s patrons was one thing. She was arguably one of the most legendary guests ever to set foot in the inn—Zel Shivertail was the only approximate. You could argue even Chaldion was a rung down for sheer fame and presence.
And she did try—she shook Numbtongue’s hand, then Bird’s, and then Kevin’s, congratulating him and Joseph on their recent successes.
She got a lot of long looks, but it was something. And meanwhile, the inn had some interesting guests.
“Tesy! How did you get here? How did you end up with her? What in the name of the Ancestors did you do? Why is Symphony—”
“Hush! Get over here, Tesy.”
Qwera dragged Vetn and Tesy to one side as Mrsha turned. They looked nervous for reasons that Mrsha didn’t know, but she was half focused on Tesy.
The name made Lyonette and Erin turn. The Gnoll [Mathematician] stood there awkwardly, not quite knowing if he should introduce himself or what. But as Inkar and Gire recognized him, the Gnoll did the only thing he knew to do.
He—posed. Two fingers moved his sunglasses up, and they gleamed. The Gnoll grinned slightly—and Grimalkin grunted. It was no flex—but you had to appreciate his style.
The nervous Yelroan looked at Mrsha, and she beamed at him and rushed to scribble a greeting as Lyonette approached.
“Are you Mister Yelroan—excuse me, Mathematician Yelroan of the Plain’s Eye…do excuse me.”
She wasn’t sure how to address him, and Yelroan spoke, voice creaking with nerves.
“I’m, ah—that’s correct. Mathematician Yelroan, formerly of Plain’s Eye, at your service. I believe I have an employment offer from your inn? I’m sorry it’s taken a while, but I was travelling by myself.”
Lyonette was dismayed; it was a long way north, but Yelroan assured her it had been safe.
“I stayed at inns and taverns, mostly. Down the trade roads. I had an escort from the Great Plains, but every warrior was needed for the coming winter. It will be…a harsh one, especially for the remnants of the Plain’s Eye tribe. My friend, Merish, is leading them. I hope—you can accept my past and connections to them.”
He looked guiltily at Mrsha, but Lyonette just hesitated, then took his paw with two of hers and shook it gently.
“From what I understand, you were one of the few people who stood up for Mrsha from the start. We are in your debt—and we have a room prepared for you. Do you have any luggage? Are you hungry? Please, step in! Erin is—that’s her, she’s just—”
She was speaking to Shriekblade, who was giving Ressa a death-stare. A Face recognized a Face—and [Assassins] and their like recognized each other even if both were former members rather than active.
“I don’t want to be a bother, especially with Lady Reinhart. In fact—I could help if, er, you needed me. I just have a handful of correspondence, no luggage. Though, I will admit my bag of holding is almost full up. I have a letter from Chieftain Feshi to Miss Solstice, one from several Gnolls to Miss Mrsha, some correspondence to Inkar asking if she’ll return…”
Yelroan actually had a lot of stuff, and Lyonette blinked as he turned to Gire, Inkar, and handed out missives from the Tribes. He had them all sorted, and he seemed—
Polite. Odd as heck, but she assumed that would be the case from Mrsha, Gire, and Inkar’s descriptions of him. If anything, she’d been expecting Yelroan to be posing on top of Bird’s tower, blinding everyone in a thousand feet while screaming ‘math’ at the top of his lungs from their accounts of him.
The real Gnoll looked shyer—and more like an actual expert in his class than she thought. He was—well—organized.
“Letters accounted for. Here is the last one for you—I believe it’s a personal note of thanks from Chieftain Feshi. And the next thing I must deliver is…”
He fished around in his bag of holding and had to put it on a table and lift with both hands. Mrsha stared at a letter to her as she sorted through her growing list of contacts.
Feshi, Theikha, Satar, Akrisa…Chieftain Mrell.
She stared at the letter, then tore it up and tossed the pieces to the floor. She kicked it away—and turned back to Yelroan, scowling. Unseen, Ser Dalimont quietly picked up the pieces and tucked them away.
Yelroan had actually carried the letters in a waxed bag—because he had no room in his bag of holding. Now, he grunted and, embarrassed, looked up.
“I—uh—think it’s tangled up all together. Can someone help me…?”
Gireulashia reached into the bag of holding and, one-handed, lifted something out. Calescent, grumbling, had been blinded once by Yelroan. This time, his eyes locked on something that glittered and flashed around the room, and he dropped the dustpan he was holding.
Alcaz and Normen had been heading back to their watch. But Normen had slowed, as if on instinct, remembering something that Mrsha and Erin had been organizing. He turned his head just in time to see Gireulashia and Yelroan lift…a suit of plate armor out of the bag of holding.
Demas Metal flashed, and Rags sat up in her chair. The deep blue metal of the armor came out of the bag of holding, a flared helmet that looked almost like some ancient crusader, angular and given the look of some epic [Knight]—appropriate for its intended recipient.
The armor itself was different from Ylawes Byres’ style; a Gnoll had made it, so it was more compact, less bulky than some sets. Mrell might have only had scrying orbs and measurements to go off of—but Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings knew how to measure a man, and so the armor was sleek. It looked like you could run in it, and it was plate armor indeed.
It came with a mace of flanged blue metal, and a shield as well, round and a cross between a buckler and traditional heater shield’s size. A fast-moving set for a man light on his feet.
Mrell had added only one detail to the beautiful Demas-metal, which was all the decoration you needed. He had drawn, in paint, an image of the inn. He must have seen Silveran’s apron, for the image had the frying pan, the jar of acid, the blue fruit, all around the stylized inn with a pawprint in the background.
The set was so beautiful that Mrsha stared…and every warrior, from Yvlon to Ylawes to Numbtongue, stared too at the beautiful metal worth a fortune. All without a single gold piece spent. Mrsha saw Normen’s eyes go wide as Erin turned in delight—and she looked around for…
The letter? Mrsha uncertainly stared at the empty ground—then saw Ser Lormel proffering something to her. Dalimont had given him the pieces—now, Lormel held the letter.
“[Mend Documentation]. Very handy when investigating receipts or missives. Perhaps hold onto it, Miss?”
Mrsha took it and decided she’d keep it with her letters. For a little bit.
Lyonette’s fingers twitched as she stared at the letter, but Yelroan was smiling, and everyone turned as Normen looked at the suit of armor. Erin stepped forwards and called out.
“Well, now we have three reasons to celebrate! Yelroan? I’m Erin Solstice, and you’re welcome in my inn! Everyone—three cheers for Normen! Now, let’s get this party started!”
Everyone began cheering at that, and Yelroan realized his first entry to the inn was going to be a party. He wondered if he should begin asking about ledgers…but Mrsha was excitedly trying on the helmet, everyone wanted to see the mace, and he was sure they’d be asking about the tribes. Lehra included.
Yelroan guessed Erin would be a bit like Xherw and made sure never to make the comparison out loud. But he suspected the inn might not be exactly as organized as he thought. One look at the menu and the variance in prices and he wondered how hard his job might be.
As he stepped back to watch and see how things worked, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Yelroan turned—and a female Drake whom he was sure…almost sure he’d met before on his last visit to Pallass tipped him a nod. Or had it been Oteslia?
Onieva winked at him, and the Gnoll nodded back to her. He’d only been to Pallass four times as the Plain’s Eye’s [Mathematician], but a wonderfully helpful Drake [Alchemist] had made him the sunglasses for a song. Especially when he asked if it could reflect sunlight in an annoying way.
The irony, of course, was that the most significant reason so many people were converging on the inn—wasn’t about the inn.
It was just that Erin had a magic door that made things convenient. How convenient? ‘I skipped a week or two’ convenient.
Arguably less dangerous as well, especially for Rafaema’s group to have to pass through unfriendly land.
It wasn’t as if the north would kill them on sight. But as Magnolia Reinhart knew—it was risky to be on the wrong side of Izril. She had brought security en-masse to protect her; her servants were very good at their jobs.
Manus would take no less chances with Rafaema, but Dragonspeaker Luciva was aware that sending an army or major force north would place her ward in more danger.
…But was Lulv really that much better?
It was true that Makhir and Lulv were the only two Gnolls on the Security Council who could fight and lead at the highest level. But there was Ferris…and other Gnolls knew who Rafaema was, even if it was a miniscule amount compared to Oteslia.
No, Lulv was here because he was one of the highest-level officers Luciva had—and crucially, he was one of the most deadly in a direct fight. Wall Lord Aldonss was Lulv’s counterpart in that sense; a balanced force.
[Lord of the Walls] was an actual class. Aldonss could reliably ‘shield’ Rafaema if it came to danger while Lulv went on the attack. Ferris was there because he was Rafaema’s bodyguard and functioned as their infiltrator-scout.
All of this ignored the fact that Rafaema was a Dragon. Then again—the Lightning Dragon had to admit she was dreading the High Passes.
“The Wyverns might leave me alone.”
The stupid Wyvern Lord might steal all her possessions again, but she thought they had an accord. Rafaema was trying to plan her route. She’d even brought a lot of ‘treasure’ in case the Wyvern Lord tried to tax her. She had an entire cooked ox in a chest of holding she’d made the soldiers bring and two more giant hogs’ worth of food. And lots of gold.
But she’d have to carry the damn thing into the High Passes. Because she couldn’t take her soldiers. She had to lose them, which would be a trick, and make sure they couldn’t follow her.
Damn. On the plus side, Rafaema wondered if she could run through the door to Celum—then vanish after that. Lulv might think to head to the High Passes, but he wouldn’t be certain.
She didn’t—want them to find the Dragon, Teriarch. Even if Luciva and a lot of the High Command knew who he was or had guessed, this was Rafaema’s matter. This was her people.
And she suspected the Dragonlord of Flame didn’t welcome guests. But they would have been nice, because the High Passes had shown Rafaema how dangerous they could be.
Gargoyle Bossels. This time, she’d brought a bunch of Wands of Flare, which she’d blind them and anything looking at her with. An Invisibility Potion would be lovely—but it was impossible to use some alchemy on Dragons.
What worried Rafaema was the shapeshifter. Or the Void Eater Goat. If it came to that…er…
She’d run for it. That was, um, the blunt truth. Rafaema had seen the Wyvern Lord avoiding that thing, and while she knew it had a weakness, she didn’t have the ability to spit lightning for one minute straight.
She just wanted to meet Teriarch. It was him—but he’d shot out of the cave so fast, shouting about having to stop the fighting at the Meeting of Tribes, she had barely been able to keep up. Then he promised to talk to her and nothing.
She was almost there, though. Rafaema clenched one fist as she sat in the annoying inn they’d found.
The Tailless Thief. For some reason, the [Innkeeper] kept trying to serve them traditional Drake food when she was really interested in Liscor’s unique meals. Why would she come here to have traditional food from home? The logic never checked out.
She would have liked The Wandering Inn for obvious reasons, but her group had actually passed through Pallass and up the Blood Fields—with Lulv and Aldonss speeding them, obviously—rather than use the door.
Because Manus had sided with Hectval over their stupid war. Rafaema should have voted against the stupid idea when it was brought up. Now they were paying for it.
“They don’t know I’m from Manus, though. Well, the Watch Captain does, but I just need to get to Celum. So I get to Celum, move as fast as I can so Lulv loses my scent. No—he picks it up, and I’m heading somewhere else. South, along the High Passes somewhere else. What if…I ‘went’ to Esthelm but really went to Celum? Perfect. That’s the plan.”
She nodded to herself. The person who didn’t nod—or smile—was Ferris.
“Then he stabs me to death.”
Rafaema looked up. She and her most trusted ally—Ferris—were sitting in her room. He was the only person she could command and really rely upon. He’d earned that.
“What? No, he won’t. You’ll tell him I ordered you to do it.”
“Right. He hears me out. I tell him I tricked him on your orders. Then he stabs me to death.”
“He won’t stab you to death.”
The [Infiltrator] gave Rafaema a long look.
“You don’t know Lulv.”
“I’ve known him since he was a baby. Well—since he was accepted into the Security Council.”
Ferris struggled to find a way to explain this.
“…You don’t know Lulv. Because you’re Rafaema. I know Lulv. He’ll stab me. To death.”
The Lightning Dragon folded her arms.
“Well, it’s a workable plan aside from that part. What if you just hid until I came back?”
“What if I went with you? Because let’s assume you stop Lulv and Aldonss from killing me once you come back. From the High Passes. We get back to Manus. Then Luciva either kills me or strips me of my position for letting you go by yourself. To the High Passes.”
Rafaema glared at Ferris.
“I told you, I’m going alone.”
He gave her a shrug.
“Well, I’m not helping unless I go with you. I’ll wait while you meet your Dragon.”
He looked Rafaema in the eyes, and she panicked.
“I never said he’s a Dragon. I never said I’m meeting—what are you talking about?”
The [Infiltrator] slowly, slowly slurped on his jelly tea, and Rafaema resisted the urge to slap it out of his paws.
“Yep. I believe you. Listen—I’ll help you, but you have to take me with you. Deal?”
Rafaema grumbled as she thought about this. Luciva claimed no plan survived first contact—well, everyone said that—but no one had said anything about plans not surviving the planning process.
“…Fine. I bet you he can mind-wipe you like Oteslia, anyways.”
“Wonderful. Okay, your plan might work. Lulv knows it’s the High Passes but not where. Even if he comes after you, he’ll probably slow up. And it sounds like the cave is hidden. I agree with all parts, though, and I just need an hour’s prep time.”
The Dragon brightened up.
“Excellent. Then let’s go now—”
“Hold on. I said I need an hour’s prep time, but we need you to get through the inn. And that’s the part you haven’t counted on. I bet it was easy last time—the portal door was in Liscor. This time, it’s in the inn.”
For some reason, the Gnoll was shuddering and looking uneasy, and Rafaema gave him a blank look.
“It’s a door. In an inn. We pay the silver, we go through. Four silver? Eight? Doesn’t matter. In what scenario is this difficult? I know I sent you to check on Erin Solstice…why are you shuddering?”
“Because she’s going to be a problem. I know you think it’ll be easy! It never is. You’ll be about to go through the door when something happens.”
“Ferris…don’t be ridiculous. Just—go ahead and lay scent tracks in Esthelm. They’ll keep for a bit. Then I’ll head into Celum and start going towards the High Passes. I’ll need to ride a bit or run until I can transform into a Dragon…”
“And take me.”
Rafaema glowered. He’d slow her down!
“I guess you can ride on my back.”
“Can you—carry me?”
Ferris looked dubious. Rafaema’s foot twitched, and he hurriedly coughed.
“Right. Good plan. It’ll definitely work. And we can always try tomorrow and get Lulv. Just—don’t mention your name. Don’t mention where you come from.”
“Ferris. I’m not an idiot. I’ll give you one hour starting now. Meet me in Celum.”
He rose, and Rafaema forestalled another inane argument about the dangers of an inn by pointedly opening the door. If it were a secret tavern run by Turnscales…but it wasn’t.
Complications. She would soon be headed towards the High Passes. Then—then it would be simpler. She’d get answers to all the questions burning under her scales. Rafaema closed her eyes and lay back in her bed. She had to believe that.
Someone knocked on her door, and the Wall Lady of Manus sat up. She called out.
Lulv opened the door and sniffed.
“Are you done telling Ferris to leave a fake scent-trail?”
Rafaema’s face didn’t move this time. Lulv just grinned at her.
“You did that when you were forty. Luciva gave me the records to study. We’re going with you. I told Ferris I’d stab him through the legs if he tried to cover for you.”
“Stab him and I’ll crisp you. You’re not coming. You could…escort me to the area I want to go. No more.”
The Lightning Dragon’s eyes twitched. Alright, new plan. Let them come with her and then fly away in the middle of the night. If they followed, shoot lightning.
It then occurred to her the reason Lulv had come instead of Makhir was because he could dodge lightning. The Dragon was seriously considering just flying over the High Passes and risking all the danger without her escort when Lulv glanced to the side.
“Rafaema—the Security Council’s sworn to secrecy, but Luciva already knows. If it’s a Dragon, we need to negotiate—if only to keep a secret. I can’t imagine a Dragon in hiding likes knowing you’re affiliated with Manus anyways. Let’s just get through to Celum and then talk. Aldonss wants us to head out before midday at the latest.”
So they had already anticipated her plan. Rafaema exhaled tinged ozone in a way that made the entire room crackle with static…Lulv’s fur stood on end, and he winced.
“Take it out on us later? We should go. Liscor’s—odd right now.”
Something in the way he spoke made Rafaema glance up, and her anger turned to curiosity.
“What’s up? Apprise me.”
Lulv did, which showed he wasn’t treating her like an entire child. He nodded over his shoulder.
“Two of our [Outriders], myself, and Ferris have all picked up something odd in the city. Nevermind the inn…we haven’t gotten close because Shriekblade is guarding it. Plus, the Eyes of Pallass have designated it off-limits. But there’s a force in the city.”
“…The [Crusaders]? The Goblins? The Yoldenites?”
Lulv shook his head.
“No. High-level killers. I swear I saw one walking down the street. It might be connected to a report we got about Reinhart. Though if she actually ran into Sellme—”
“The famous [Painter]? Is he in Liscor?”
Rafaema grew excited a bit. She was a fan. Lulv shrugged.
“No one knows who he is—but Symphony is after him. Maybe they’re also after Magnolia? But if I had to guess why there are a lot of Level 30+ [Assassins]—let’s go to the inn, hrm?”
Rafaema was so curious—and she didn’t want Sellme to die, for all he was a troublemaker. But she reluctantly got up. Lulv or not, pestering bodyguards or not—
Let her get to the Dragon. Then it would be alright.
Ryoka Griffin didn’t know what meeting with Teriarch would bring. She only knew it might be terrible—and that she had a bad track record.
For one thing, she still had Tyrion Veltras following her around. Yes, she could have told him point-blank to fuck off. But the truth was it was really hard to do that to someone who had fought in an entire war to rescue you.
And she had gotten a lot of good people hurt or killed. Swey had sacrificed his hand, among other things.
She owed House Veltras. But she was not having Tyrion in Liscor or the High Passes.
“You’ll leave me alone after this?”
They were at The Adventurer’s Haven. Tyrion and Ryoka had arrived despite its distance from Invrisil by the sheer speed at which they could travel. Flying was actually pretty tiring, but Ryoka knew it would make her entry to the High Passes a lot easier.
Unless there’s more than Razorbeaks up there. And Magnolia wants to come. Well, at least Ressa’s probably scarier than most of the monsters in the High Passes.
Ryoka would be content with that. She nodded to Tyrion as the flashy [Innkeeper], Barnethei, pointed at a shorter black woman coming their way.
So that was Larracel the Haven? Ryoka smiled and sensed the woman’s magic as Tyrion nodded to her.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin, Wind Runner. I am glad to meet another promising Courier. I just wish I had personally met you before you did so much. Welcome to the Haven. Will you be staying?”
“I’m, uh—Tyrion is. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Innkeeper Larracel. I’ll be staying at The Wandering Inn, though. I know the Innkeeper, Erin.”
Larra didn’t seem surprised by the reply, but she did glance at Tyrion when Ryoka used his name. He bowed slightly.
“Innkeeper Larracel. A pleasure.”
He lied so badly. But Larra just smiled at him.
“Lord Veltras, it is an honor to see the head of one of the Five Families—much less have two under my roof.”
Ryoka Griffin’s neck tingled. Then Tyrion Veltras blinked.
He turned his head, and Magnolia Reinhart paused as she walked across the Haven. Her maids were stowing the last of her luggage.
“My, my, my. And here I thought I was the only one wishing to stay at the Haven one last time. Tyrion. This is a day full of unfortunate meetings.”
Her eyes pierced Ryoka Griffin like a needle. Ryoka hadn’t expected to see her yet! She froze—and gave Magnolia the guiltiest stare in the world.
When she wasn’t trying to be nice, Magnolia Reinhart was refreshingly insulting. Which was, to be fair, probably what she was better at. Tyrion’s face froze up.
“Magnolia. What are you doing here? I thought you were in Oteslia.”
He bowed very slightly, and Magnolia just stared at him. Her lips moved.
“…Of all the people to lose twenty years. It had to be you. My grandfather will throw a tantrum beyond belief. I’m visiting my estates in Invrisil, Tyrion. And you are keeping the renowned Ryoka Griffin company?”
Larracel stepped back as she and Tyrion squared off. The [Lord] nodded to the inn.
“We are staying at the Haven while we visit your demesne. I trust that will be acceptable, Lady Reinhart?”
She pulled a face.
“Only you would use the word ‘demesne’ in casual parlance, Tyrion. Yes, I am no tyrant no matter what you must think of me.”
“I have never said as much.”
Magnolia rolled her eyes and put a hand over her face. Tyrion’s more youthful face peered at her.
“Dead gods, it’s like I’ve gone back in time. And you’re even more stone-headed than before! Only, now, I’m too old for this. All your staff at the Haven? It must cost a fortune with the prices I see dear Larra has increased.”
She smiled at the Haven’s [Innkeeper], and Larra gave Magnolia a look that told Ryoka the two were probably closer to rivals with grudging respect than friends. Tyrion hesitated.
“Sammial and Hethon were insistent.”
Magnolia tapped her lips and looked at him thoughtfully.
“Well then, let me pay for your group. Larra? Charge it to me. House Veltras has spent enough in the war, I have no doubt.”
By now, House Veltras had spotted House Reinhart, and Ressa was stomping across the inn’s deck while Jericha groaned and strode over. Tyrion hesitated.
“There’s no need for that.”
“Don’t be silly. Reinhart did not stand with Veltras when you marched on Ailendamus. Consider it our contribution to the war effort or something—it will probably be proportionate.”
Larra decided she should take a few more steps back to avoid catching stray arrows. She eyed Ryoka—but Ryoka was staying out of range of this one. Tyrion’s frown only intensified, and he looked—annoyed.
“I don’t require charity, Magnolia.”
“Flowers of Izril, Tyrion. We know each other. Do I need to quote your finances? Just…accept it for your boys.”
She looked so entirely exasperated that Tyrion eyed Magnolia and dipped his head. Magnolia was clearly in a bad mood—but even in acceptance, Tyrion had some kind of amazing power to throw a wrench in the cogs.
“Then I am in your debt. I will remember it.”
Magnolia actually closed her eyes and pinched her nose. Ryoka wondered if this were what it was like seeing him propose to date her—from the outside. It was glorious. Beautiful. Like a car crash.
“In my—no you are not. Take the favor!”
This time, Tyrion looked offended and drew his arms together.
“A favor is a debt enforced by social obligation instead of contracts and law. We word it differently, but the end result is the same.”
“Then. Call it a free gift. You stubborn man!”
Magnolia hissed at him, turning slightly red. She was staring at Ryoka, but Tyrion tapped his foot unhappily.
“I really shouldn’t accept it. We have earned a fee from our efforts in the war—”
The two were locked at the horns so fast and even intimately for the two of them—no niceties, no titles—that Ryoka could believe they’d done this for forty years straight. She couldn’t help it. She stared at Magnolia and Tyrion, and the comment slipped out.
“This is like watching a mom argue with her son.”
Tyrion Veltras, younger, stared at Magnolia Reinhart as the [Lady]’s face went slack. Larracel the Haven’s cheeks bulged, and she turned her head into a cough of such explosive force she hurt herself. Both [Lord] and [Lady] turned to Ryoka Griffin, and Magnolia Reinhart was the first to speak.
“Miss Ryoka. I know we have not seen eye-to-eye, but I expected to be stabbed by an [Assassin]. Not murdered by a potential ally.”
“The comparison is entirely inaccurate, Ryoka.”
Tyrion glanced at Magnolia, and the two stepped back at once. The other [Lords] and [Ladies] had seen them by now, and they watched as Tyrion and Magnolia’s staff met and the introductions continued.
Tyrion nodded at the [Head Maid], who he clearly knew very well. She gave him a look like she was eating a sour plum. Ryoka had heard from Pellmia that Tyrion had once tried to court Ressa. The hilarity continued.
No noble title. No curtsy. Tyrion Veltras didn’t seem to notice the slight—or he was used to it—but Jericha did.
“Lady Reinhart. Miss Ressa.”
She stared Ressa in the eyes as Magnolia turned to her.
“Ah, Jericha. A voice of sense. Hello.”
Ressa refused to say anything more than that. Jericha’s eyes twitched—and it seemed like House Veltras was losing—right up until an old man stepped forwards.
“Lady Reinhart, on behalf of House Veltras, greetings.”
Ullim bowed to her, and she smiled. Ressa jumped slightly.
He peered at her and gave her a slight nod.
Holy shit. Ryoka was updating her rankings as she watched Ressa actually dip him a curtsy. Then Hethon and Sammial were there, and Tyrion nodded to them.
“My, how they’ve grown! Lord Sammial, Lord Hethon—do you remember me? I am so glad to see you two well.”
Magnolia smiled at the two boys in what seemed like actual goodwill—right until Sammial spoke. Hethon was mid-bow, but Sammial pointed at Magnolia, and the first thing he said was this:
“I hear you’re a backstabbing, treacherous snake-bitch. Is that true?”
Ryoka Griffin nearly leapt off the side of the Haven. Tyrion Veltras froze—and Magnolia Reinhart recoiled slightly as Ressa twitched. Jericha, Hethon, Ullim, all stared at Sammial in horror.
“…My, he takes after his mother.”
Magnolia managed after a second. Sammial scowled as she bent over, eying him with less indulgence.
“Young man, who did you hear that from, pray tell?”
“Some [Ladies]. My mother said it. And Lady Werirose. Lady Thymica…”
Sammial Veltras repeated several names as a [Lady] having brunch suddenly decided she needed to visit somewhere else right now. Magnolia Reinhart’s smile didn’t change.
“How unfortunate. Well, young Lord Veltras, if I may offer you some advice—even if we hate each other, we nobles of Izril tend to keep up appearances. We don’t say these things to each other’s faces. As I’m sure you know.”
He studied her, unimpressed.
“But no one likes you.”
Ullim snapped, and Magnolia Reinhart sighed. She looked at Sammial and shrugged elegantly.
“It may be true for many of my peers, young man. But if that is true of me—what do you think they say about you?”
The little boy opened his mouth, and his brows furrowed with sudden, unexpected paranoia.
“People like me.”
“I’m sure they do. Tyrion, I do have to run. Let’s catch up in a year or two? Make it ten.”
Magnolia Reinhart smiled at him as she took a step back. Ryoka Griffin was gasping for air, red-faced, as the [Lady] eyed her. Tyrion glanced at Ryoka, then Magnolia with a kind of sudden intuition.
Dead gods damn the man. He was about as diplomatic as a rock, but sometimes even a half-blind mule with no ears developed the cunning of a fox. Ryoka and Magnolia very deliberately didn’t look at him as they stepped back.
“I’m heading to The Wandering Inn. So I will see you, Tyrion, later.”
“And I need to ensure Nalthaliarstrelous has not overgrown my mansion. Tyrion, perhaps dinner tonight we shall delicately wave at each other and say not a word? I should quite enjoy that.”
Magnolia swanned off as Ryoka marched towards the portal door, took a few breaths, and hesitated. Lady Magnolia and Tyrion saw Ryoka take a few breaths—hesitate—
“The door opens every few minutes, Miss.”
One of the guests informed her. Ryoka nodded.
“That’s true. And—maybe I should fly to Invrisil. Schedule something with Hedault. I need to talk to him, and he hates—yeah. Maybe I’ll fly there, go through the door—gifts. I don’t have any souvenirs. I, uh—”
She panicked in place, which was amazing when you really saw it. Magnolia Reinhart rolled her eyes as Ressa put a hand to her forehead.
“We are never going to survive the High Passes.”
It was difficult, alright?
It was going to be worse, still. Sometimes, you had to do difficult things. Unpleasant things. It did not mean you should run away…
But neither did you have to smile and play nice. Ysara Byres sat in The Wandering Inn, and her scowl hadn’t changed for the last two days. She was not looking forwards to heading out the next morning to House Byres.
In fact, the only thing that had alleviated her bad mood was concern for Tesy. Qwera and Vetn were demanding to know what he’d done.
“I just—did my thing.”
“How did you get Symphony on you? Tesy!”
“I just did my thing! I may have gone overboard—”
Qwera looked ready to strangle her little brother. They weren’t related by blood, but that was how Ysara saw things. She had been worried about him, and now—
Now, he was in deep trouble.
“What did you do, exactly? Spell it out.”
He had been at another Walled City after helping save Mrsha. How had he gotten in trouble so fast? Well, aside from the fact that Sellme quite literally lambasted the rich and powerful—aside from the fact that he caused riots like the ones Cellidel endured—
“Okay. So it was Commie’s idea. We were going to paint on some walls, but she has a friend who had access to this…you know how Salazsar is rich?”
Vetn was already closing his eyes. Qwera just stared at Tesy. The [Painter] hesitated.
“Well, we thought they’d be after us, especially since I was just there and that stupid Ilvriss chased me out. So we said—one big display. And Salazsar has their public ‘museum’ with the art galleries showing famous Wall Lords and Ladies. And Commie had a friend who had some keys. So I went in there and, uh—drew alterations on all of the paintings—”
“Tesy. Was the paint removable? What were the drawings of?”
Sellme bit his lip, and the silence said it all, really. Qwera wondered if some of the paintings had been damaged beyond even magical repair. And how outrageous it had been.
Vetn was clawing at his face.
“You don’t ruin their money! I told you time and time again—draw on walls, but don’t mess with their money! Tell me they were salvageable.”
“W-w-we might have tossed paint remover on some of them. And, uh, poked enough holes that you can’t [Repair] or restore them even with Skills—”
Oh dead gods. Ysara wanted to stop listening, but something was off, and Vetn muttered to himself.
“You’re so crazy, I—who’s ‘Commie’? I don’t know her. Is she a stupid idiot from Cellidel?”
“No, actually. She’s cool. She’s a Human. But she’s wild. It was her idea—I just didn’t realize it would lead to assassins! She’s already a Level 24 [Anarchist], you know.”
There was trouble in more ways than one. Salazsar’s museum, defaced? It had protections on the art, but Sellme could probably have painted holes in the glass cases and bypassed a lot of the security.
They might have done hundreds of thousands of gold pieces’ worth of damage. Possibly millions depending on how rare the art on display was.
No wonder a bounty had come down on Tesy. Qwera looked sick, but she only had a few things to say. After she smacked Tesy on the head.
“You’re staying at the inn, you idiot. In Erin’s garden or—in her inn. Shriekblade is here. I’ll tell Erin what’s happening. You are not going to leave this inn. Have they come after you?”
Tesy was so pale under his scales he looked translucent.
“Yes. I nearly didn’t make it. I thought it was a joke but—they’re everywhere. They play music, and—and I burned through every scroll you gave me, Vetn.”
“All my emergency escapes?”
“I couldn’t outrun them! I tried fake lakes, escape tunnels—they’re everywhere, and they’re so dangerous! I tried hiring [Mercenaries], and they either didn’t show up or…I—I dunno what happened to the others.”
Tesy was pale, frightened, and understandably so. Vetn cursed.
“Let me see if I can pull the bounty on you. Just—stay here, eat something, and don’t leave the inn, got it? We’ll get you a room.”
“He should sleep in the garden.”
That wasn’t even a joke. Qwera was glancing at Erin, and Vetn barely paused before nodding.
“That’s a lot better, actually. We’ll put Tesy in the garden. Just—stay here.”
The Drake looked relieved to be here. Ysara felt for him in the way she felt for someone who deliberately stepped in a beartrap. She saw Vetn hurrying over to Erin, who nodded distractedly.
Erin was still waiting for Drassi, and apparently, she had forgiven Magnolia Reinhart enough to start the party. In fact—she was in the thick of things, showing something off. Ysara Byres watched as Erin roamed about, talking with the people who would leave, like Niers’ students, the Horns, even Ylawes and so on.
“Guys. Guys. Wanna see a magic trick?”
Venaz was playing a final game of chess against Bird. The two turned, and Erin felt at her head. The Minotaur and Antinium exchanged a glance—then she pulled something off her head.
Her hat. She lifted the flaming brim—and then a floating ball of light appeared. Erin lifted it out and tossed it. It floated past Venaz and Bird, who leaned away from it like a landmine.
“What is that?”
“Ooh. Pretty. You can do magic, Erin?”
“Tada! Hat trick!”
Erin laughed and batted the ball of light around. She beamed in delight.
“I can do magic, guys! It’s only Tier 1-2 magic—but I can do it like every fifteen minutes! Less if it’s a low-power spell. Rags! Rags, wanna see my magic trick?”
The Goblin Chieftain called over. Erin spluttered.
“Wh—but no! I can do more! Watch! I’ll pull a rose out of my hat! Palt, I can do illusions too!”
The Centaur gave her a weak thumbs-up. Erin looked around, put out that no one was gasping.
She was delighted. And the Hatmen looked equally happy—what few looked up at her. Alcaz and a bunch of Brothers were clustered around Normen, who was trying on his armor.
“Miss Solstice, this is too much! I can’t pay it back—”
“Nonsense! You’re my [Knight]! And it’s Yelroan we should pay. Like, a lot of money. But you need armor, and you got armor. It suits you.”
Erin pointed at him, and she beamed so determinedly Normen sat up a bit. The Brothers looked at Erin and nodded.
That made her smile. Erin put the ball of light under her hat, and it vanished. She kept smiling—right up until she thought of Magnolia, who had just come through. Then she frowned.
“Erin, you okay? Did Magnolia make you that upset?”
Lyonette looked worried, knowing Erin by heart. Erin exhaled hard.
“You know, she did. It’s sort of like last time—but she did ask! And she did help, so she gets a pass. Plus, she said she’d invite me to her mansion in the next few days. Then I’ll say what’s on my mind.”
Yeah. Lyonette looked relieved that Erin was taking this stance—and that it would be Magnolia’s mansion, not the inn. Erin thought of it like that, to be honest. She had her grievances with Magnolia. But once she said them, maybe they could move on and work together. Or…if Magnolia was dead-set against the Antinium, perhaps that’s where it ended.
She needed to show Erin there was a chance of that. Sometimes, though—it just wasn’t ever going to work. But Erin wanted Magnolia to be on her side. She turned her head, wondering where Ryoka was—and she noticed Tesy’s panic along with Ysara’s bad mood, like a drain of negativity in that corner of the room.
“Hm. Didn’t Vetn say he needed Tesy to stay in the garden? What’s up with that, Lyonette?”
“I’ll ask Qwera.”
“Maybe do that. Hold on.”
Erin walked around the common room, and Wil Kallinad stood up.
“Miss Erin, I wish we’d talked longer.”
She stopped and smiled at him. Then motioned for him to leave the common room with her and walk down the hall.
“Me too, Wil. Say hi to Niers for me, would you? I mean, I guess I can say it faster than you, but…I hope you do well out there. Take good care of the Diamond Swords of Serept, would you? They were made by a genius…and when you’re worthy of them, they’ll be even better.”
She looked him in the eyes, and the [Lord] stared at Erin. He didn’t blush, as he sometimes did when a young woman looked at him so directly—rather, his gaze was a different kind of longing.
“I wish I could ask you candidly all the questions I have, Miss Erin. But you won’t answer me. Not even now?”
He’d asked her twice—and Erin exhaled.
“You’re not ready. Come back when you graduate—and graduate soon. Then I’ll give you something better than Niers’ holiday adventure. Deal?”
He stared at her and nodded slowly. Erin pushed open the rec room doors.
“So this is where you’re hiding.”
Reagen the cat fled as Numbtongue looked up, pointing at his face as Badarrow and Shorthilt gambled with Redscar. But Erin Solstice just marched over and tapped a Gnoll watching the scrying orb on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir?”
A short, slight young Gnoll looked up at Erin Solstice. She beamed at him.
“Get out. I don’t want trouble today.”
Everyone else in the room twisted around, and the Gnoll protested.
“Miss, have I done something—”
“Aha. Want me to stab this one or just keep throwing them out?”
Shriekblade appeared behind Erin, and everyone but the Gnoll jumped. He looked suddenly very nervous as he rose. Erin turned to Tessa.
“Wow, you’re everywhere. I think I sensed Dalimont upstairs. Hey, you. Out. And if you try it again, Shriekblade’s less nice. Got it? Out.”
Without a word this time, the Gnoll rose and shuffled to the door. Erin stared at him, then turned to Wil.
“I tell you, the bad guests you get sometimes…yeesh. Okay, where was I?”
Wil just eyed Erin and reflected that if she could extend her [Innkeeper] abilities to other places besides her inn—some nations might hire her as a [Spymaster] or counter-intelligence. When Erin marched back to her common room, she saw Qwera talking to a moderately alarmed Lyonette, who was nodding at her Thronebearers and motioning to Tessa. And Ylawes had sought out his sister.
“Yvlon, help me speak to Ysara.”
Yvlon Byres looked up, and her reverie ended. For a moment. She was sitting at a table, and even Ksmvr was enjoying himself. Mostly by snacking on Erin’s Emberbread samples.
She? She was guilty.
Colth was right. She had been furious at him in the moment—but he was right. She needed help.
Yesterday, she’d attacked her entire team and Numbtongue, hurt him badly. He had cuts and bruises all over today, and Octavia and Garia had given Yvlon death-stares, but the Redfang was the most equanimous of the lot.
He was used to getting hurt in training—and he had said it was his fault.
But the truth was that it was Yvlon’s.
Yesterday. To cut things short, Numbtongue had found the Horns practicing and challenged them all to a fight. He had told them, to their faces, he’d take them all down by himself, albeit one-by-one at first.
Was that arrogant? Perhaps. Was it insulting? Yes—but it was a warrior’s bravado. The kind of trash-talk you were allowed to say to friends. A Redfang would get mad—and try to beat Numbtongue up.
Pisces and Ksmvr had certainly risen to the bait, but again, they’d fought hard, not angrily. Yvlon?
Yvlon had been angry by the playful talk before she got in a fight. And it had taken a single punch from Numbtongue to her cheek—a cheeky grin—and she snapped.
[Berserker Rage]. It had activated without her trying to use it. When the haze had cleared, Colth had been holding her back, and everyone was hurt.
I’m losing control. The [Gladiators] had warned her, but this?
Had she always been that mad? Yvlon was so morose that she just shuffled after Ylawes, who was still covered in glory from stopping Facestealer. How angry she had been at him—until it felt like the Horns had done more than the Silver Swords of late.
Yvlon passed by a sobbing Mrsha and only looked back to make sure Mrsha was okay. The little Gnoll was clinging to Gire.
Don’t go! Don’t goooooo!
Gire was crying too.
“I don’t wanna go! But I have to! I’ve gotta go to my tribe, Mrsha! But I’ll be back, promise, okay? Nanette, you—you take care of Mrsha!”
The witch was watching the two girls, big and small, sob because Gire had to go too. Instead of mocking her possible-rival for Mrsha’s affection, Nanette just produced a pair of scissors.
“Instead of crying, why don’t you cut each other’s hair off?”
Both Gire and Mrsha hesitated. Nanette elaborated with a smile.
“Make a friendship bracelet. With some hair and some beads. Then you’ll think of each other.”
Mrsha and Gire looked at each other, then Gire patted Nanette on the head.
“You’re so smart.”
That was pleasant. That was like—well, it was like what single children thought brothers and sisters were like. When, in truth, Gire and Mrsha’s great friendship was because they were friends.
Siblings weren’t like that. Well—maybe other siblings were, but Yvlon had always envied her older siblings, felt like she was in their shadows. Had fun and cared for them—
But this wasn’t that. Ysara looked up, and her scowl never changed as Ylawes gestured to a seat for Yvlon. He dragged one over and sat down.
Three of House Byres’ main family. The three descendants of Yitton and Shallel. Two had gone the way of the blade, one the way of the merchant.
Traditional roles for them…but oh, how they had changed. Ylawes Byres looked the part. Blonde-haired—unlike his father who was going grey—tall, a [Knight] and Gold-rank Captain. A brave, honorable man.
Or, if you wanted to go the other way, stubborn, bull-headed, and committed to ‘the right thing’. Incapable of seeing a Goblin’s goodness until an [Innkeeper] hit him with a pan.
That had been Yvlon—of a sort. She had blonde hair, and she had looked the part—but she had scars.
From the undead and Skinner, from losing her team. Forever second-best to her siblings—and then she had lost her arms. Now they were gleaming silver, but Yvlon felt alien to Ylawes. Her best friend and teammate was a [Necromancer], and she would not have it any other way. She felt more like a [Brawler] or…[Armsmistress] than [Knight].
The youngest sibling, always catching up, always…angry. The one trying to live up, the one without talent. The one so filled with rage she had attacked an Adult Creler with her own arm.
These were the two Byres’ that most people knew. Ysara…Ysara was different. Looking at her, you’d never know she had once been the prodigy. She had disarmed a Silver-bell duelist once in an unofficial match. They had said her sword talent came once in a thousand years.
But she hadn’t become the great warrior of House Byres. Instead, she had become a [Merchant]—which is what some of the family did. But she seldom came back, despite being a good [Merchant].
Yvlon got it. She hadn’t understood for a long time, but now she did. Ylawes…maybe did. The three sat together, and they knew each other, as siblings did.
“Ysara, I know you’re not happy about coming home. We’ve—talked, Yvlon.”
Ysara corrected him, and Ylawes stumbled over his own tongue. She was the older sister, and Yvlon had forgotten how she could pull rank on Ylawes. But they hadn’t argued like this before she left.
“What’s making you so upset, Ysara? You said…you said you’d rather voyage through the Blood Fields than come home. It’s been years.”
“I know, and I know I have no excuse, which is why I came. You know, I made it up here last year. I turned back at the last moment—but I was at the Bloodfields when I came on back. I saw that Wind Runner you’re all gossiping about there, actually.”
Yvlon was astounded.
“Wh—Ryoka? She never said.”
“It was just a chance meeting. She looked busy. I’d like to talk to her. More than go home, anyways.”
Moodily, Ysara took a longer drink from her cup. Ylawes’ mouth worked.
“Even if it was last year—that’d be once in eight years. Ysara, I know it’s a pilgrimage north, but what if you worked in northern lands a year? Father and Mother would love to see you.”
The [Armsmistress] could see Ysara’s grip tighten on her cup. Slowly, Ysara looked up.
“Ylawes, you can’t drop things, can you? Will they like to see me?”
He gave her a long look. Not a blank one—but one of someone struggling. Struggling because he cared about his sisters, and sometimes they resented how it came out in him. Ylawes lowered his voice.
“I just—I don’t understand why you hate our family so much.”
Yvlon looked at him, and Ysara exhaled. Hard. They sat in a corner of the inn, and her eyes glinted as she looked up.
“Let’s pretend you’re right. Let’s say Mother and Father love to see me. That’s them. Do you think I want to go home? Am I going to enjoy visiting home, Ylawes?”
She gestured to her face, and then Yvlon looked at Ysara, really looked at her sister. And what she saw was not the famed blue eyes and blonde hair of House Byres.
Ysara’s hair was indigo, dyed. She had long earrings on one ear and a tattoo running down one arm. Unlike Yvlon, who had lost her arms in a fight, Ysara’s tattoo—her appearance was more shocking to House Byres’ traditions.
Ylawes looked at Ysara blankly.
“We’ve seen your hair before. The tattoo is new—but you could always undye your hair if you think Father will be too offended. It’s not our fault you choose to look like that.”
Qwera was checking on Tesy, and a Drake, Onieva, was doing likewise for some reason. Both of them turned, and Ysara stared at Ylawes in much the same way.
“…Thank you for reminding me why I don’t come back, Ylawes.”
He looked uncertain why even Yvlon was glaring at him. But something was dawning in his eyes. Ylawes, the trained warrior, knew he should retreat, but he kept trying to defend himself.
“I—I just meant that of course Father’s conservative when it comes to dyed hair and such. He might have a few words, but Mother will support you.”
Ysara’s death-glare was slowly chipping away at Ylawes’ hitpoints in Colth’s eyes as the [Supporter] eyed the standoff. But she seemed to sense he was being genuine. That only made Ysara madder. She glanced sideways at Yvlon, then hissed.
“Mother is nicer? You idiot. Then again, you’ve never done anything ‘wrong’. Mother isn’t nicer, you straight-edged, mallet-brained idiot. She just says what she wants to say where no one else can hear her.”
Yvlon’s head snapped to Ysara. What did that mean? Ysara Byres folded her arms as Ylawes looked as confused as Yvlon.
“I’m not welcome back home, Ylawes. I’ve said it again and again—let me spell it out for you. I am not welcome. At home. Not unless I change everything about me. And it’s not our people, but it’s our family, our parents who disapprove of me. I would take Father over Mother every day of the week.”
Yvlon…truly did understand, then. But it hurt to hear Ysara say that. And there was a part of Yvlon that said, ‘no, that can’t be true’. Even if it made all the sense in the world.
Ylawes…Ylawes just looked at Ysara as if he really didn’t understand, even now, what she meant. And Ysara might have been angry enough to shout it out in even plainer words—until her younger brother put his hand on the table. He didn’t grab her hand, but he rested it there.
“—I’m sorry if that’s how you’ve felt, Ysara. I didn’t realize. I should have just said—I hope you knew, you know that you are always welcome with me. And that I’ve never made you feel any other way.”
His older sister’s hostile expression turned to Ylawes, and he might be obtuse—but her glare softened a bit.
“Thank you, Ylawes. That does mean something. I hope nothing changes that.”
“What could possibly do that?”
He gave her a blank look, and Qwera covered her face with her paws. She gave the Silver Merchant a disbelieving look. Was he being serious? You weren’t lying about…? Ysara exhaled.
“Well, if you don’t know—ask your team.”
Ylawes turned and stared at Dawil and Falene.
You know, listening into their conversation—because no one in the Byres family really bothered with secrecy spells—Fierre Lischelle-Drakle changed her mind.
She hated House Byres for what they’d done to her people. She hated them more than any other group in the world.
But even she felt bad for Ysara. A bit. She got it. It was amazing, really, how much of the rest of the world was blind. But maybe that was because they had no notion, like Ylawes, or they were deliberately stabbing themselves in the eyes.
Anyways, she still stayed as far away from Silver Arms Yvlon as she could. ‘Silver Killer’ was right—Fierre felt like she was breaking out in a rash just being in the same room as the three of them.
“Look at those three murderers.”
Fierre jumped and removed the speaking stone from her ear. For a second, she thought it was the Gnoll that Erin had chased out of the inn—but Rivel, her older brother, meant the Byres family.
“Rivel. What are you doing here?”
“I’m allowed to be here. And there’s free food.”
The Vampire defended himself. He had a huge plate of cake—he’d gotten the drippy ‘s’ of Venas. But he gave Ylawes such a deep glare of hatred that Fierre kicked him.
“Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“I’m not stupid. He’s got his armor on, and he’s a Gold-rank. Unlike you…what’s done is done.”
He looked so bitter that Fierre felt for her brother. And her family. She closed her eyes, but Rivel shot her a glance.
“Don’t worry, I’m not jealous. I’m glad. I might live to hit a hundred now we’ve moved. Ryoka did us all a favor. But that lot…”
He glared at the Byres family, then shrugged. And for some reason, smiled and relaxed. Fierre eyed Rivel. She had begun her first career as secret-keeper hiding his pranks and the mischief he and the other younger Vampires got up to.
“What’s with the smile?”
“Nothing. Nothing that’ll get me in trouble. But something good will happen soon. Look forward to it.”
“Rivel. If you’re planning something—”
He gave Fierre a big smile.
“I’m just the dumb [Farmer], Fierre. I didn’t do anything. Anyways, I’ve gotta take this cake to Mother. She’s having a quiet meal with Miss Viceria. Our new best friends.”
He rolled his eyes and departed, tugging his hood up. Fierre opened her mouth, then caught herself and shielded her fangs. She looked around—and someone else had noticed Rivel and slid into the seat.
“Hey, Fierre, how’s it going? Did you hear I ran with Mihaela all the way from Celum?”
“Garia, you nearly gave me a heart-attack!”
Garia punched Fierre in the shoulder hard, and the Vampire grinned at her friend. Even she couldn’t follow Ryoka, but Garia?
“What’s with your dumb brother?”
“Something no good. I’ll ask around. What’s with your…”
Fierre could tell Garia was morose. The [Martial Artist] sighed and leaned over.
“Numbtongue’s got a cat.”
“I heard he found it. Octavia didn’t give it to him.”
Garia brightened up a bit.
“You really have to either say something or stop settling. Garia, just go for it.”
The City Runner turned her head away.
“No. It’s fine as it is.”
“Creler blood it is. Go out, get shot with crossbow bolts, or win. And if you get shot, I’ll help you.”
Fierre replied hotly. Garia glowered at her.
“You make it sound easy. What about you?”
Being a Vampire was really hard to hide, and so it limited Fierre to other Vampires or people she knew. Garia folded her arms.
“And I’m not? I’ll help you if you have anyone you can trust. Alber? Uh…no, wait, that’s about it.”
“I’d try Ryoka, but there’s that Guardsman Relc and Tyrion to hear about it.”
Fierre muttered into her lap. Garia hesitated. Her face made an ‘o’, and Fierre stared blankly at her. Wait—her too? But her father was a [Pirate]—and Garia didn’t seem like she was running away. Plus, her mother was from Wistram.
“What was that about my mother? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Fierre made the mistake of saying that last part out loud. The Vampire defensively pushed her seat back.
“It means she’s probably more open-minded. I didn’t imply—stop kicking me. Stop kicking me. I’m stronger than you are!”
The two were beginning to bicker about things said when someone broke off from Magnolia Reinhart and began to take in the rest of the inn. A [Lady] with a fan in hand, whose dissatisfied look changed to one of…interest. She stopped, and her eyes found Fierre and Garia.
Lady Ieka Imarris snapped a fan across her face as she eyed Fierre and Garia. My.
And here she thought The Wandering Inn was just a topical place to be. She stared about the inn as Erin peered at the [Lady]—and Valeterisa ducked behind Montressa.
“Apprentice, birthday present. Find one.”
Ieka Imarris spotted her aunt, which was one of the reasons why she’d made the journey, because she knew full well Valeterisa wouldn’t visit for a year without constant reminders. And because a birdie had told her Ryoka Griffin was in the area.
She had hated hearing Magnolia was here—but—
…Ieka forgot what she was thinking about. Was that Yvlon Byres? And…Ysara Byres, the ill-seen member of House Byres? Stunning! She turned, and there was Drassi, coming in for her lunch break as Erin threw up her hands. And was that—the [Princess] of Calanfer?
The fan began to move as Ieka wondered how many more—interesting ladies she had failed to run across. Oh dear. She looked around for a seat as one of her own personal servants spoke to Ishkr, asking for a private room.
“I believe I will drink in the ambiance in the common room, thank you. I—”
Ieka turned her head and saw Ulvama, scratching at her bare stomach, reclining there with her bare armpits—hand behind her back.
“It’s just Goblins, Lady Imarris. Nothing to worry about!”
Ieka swooned into a chair and requested a drink of water. Someone had to appreciate fine details. Someone had to.
Nanette Weishart had been wandering around the inn, introducing herself to all the guests she could. Most were charmed to meet the young witch and answered her questions because Nanette was curious about everyone. The young girl peered at Ieka’s flushed face—and decided to say ‘hello’ to Valeterisa instead.
Things were busy.
And that meant The Wandering Inn, The Adventurer’s Haven where Sammial and Hethon were racing about, exploring everything, and Ryoka Griffin was desperately scrounging for gifts—trying to think of something to say while Magnolia Reinhart developed a headache—
And also Liscor in general. A number of odd things were happening in the city of late. Well, there was still a Yoldenite population running around, and the festivities from the triumphant Crusaders and Wales folk had actually resulted in what felt like a permanent influx of visitors.
Liscor was changing in real-time, and no better example of that could be found than Squad 5, Battalion 1.
Crusader 57 swaggered about with his zweihander on his shoulders as Crusader 53 munched on some sugary nut-snacks he’d bought with his pay. Toni was one of the trio, following the two veterans around.
…Mostly because someone needed to watch Crusader 57, who would fight anything. But Crusader 57 was actually in a good mood today. Probably because of the kids who asked to check out his sword or cheered him. Or just the fact that they’d gotten paid.
He had yet to buy a thing, but he jangled his coin pouch deliberately every few minutes to hear the coins ring. Still, he was fairly alert, and Crusader 57 grumbled despite his good mood.
“Zimrah should be here. Artur is a traitor, but Zimrah should be keeping us company. But no, she’s sleeping all the time.”
“She is tired. Please be nice.”
Toni was a Soldier with the ability to speak like Yellow Splatters. The Free Queen had correlated a Soldier’s ability to speak with a 516% increased chance of becoming Individual, and Crusader 57 sneered at him.
“She’s our tired Ant. She should have fun! Before we go to wherever Xrn or Olesm wants us next.”
By that, he meant that Zimrah was attached to Battalion 1. And Artur was attached to Battalion 4—though the [Banner Leader] was often elsewhere. But their younger [Priest] was the pride of Battalion 1. The other Battalions got their own leaders—Battalion 3 was Tersk’s, for example, and some were defined by their officers like Embraim, who carried the Glory Fire, or the [Templars].
Actually, you could argue Crusader 53 and Crusader 57 were icons of Battalion 3 as well, but neither one seemed to consider that. Crusader 53 did have a Dragonbone mace…but Artur had his banner.
Lots of Watch on the street today.
Crusader 53 used his two free hands to sign that. The Mrsha-adapted sign-language was perfectly understandable by the two Workers. Crusader 57 cast a glance to one side.
“They look jumpy. Wonder if we need to save their tails again like we did with Facestealer.”
“The adventurers did that.”
“Shut up, Toni.”
Whatever the case, no one bothered the three Antinium. Even the casual Drakes and Gnolls took one look at them—and stepped to one side. Each one was carrying an odd case—not weapons. Crusader 53 was interested and saw one of them polishing a flute. He heard a snippet of their conversation.
“Third Horn couldn’t even infiltrate?”
“No. They have a screaming defender and some brass of their own from Calanfer. Don’t worry. The Maestro is here.”
“Oh. Then are all of us here? For one…?”
The Crusaders ambled on as Crusader 53 wished the musicians would put on some music here and now. He quite liked music. But they were heading out the gates on 57’s request.
“Where are we going?”
“Inn. That [Innkeeper] owes us food, remember? I’m not wasting my money on feeding myself. Besides, I heard ‘high and mighty’ Pawn was there. Maybe we’ll see Lyonette dump him twice.”
Crusader 57 laughed at that. He would have been terribly hurt to realize how many good zingers he’d already missed today. But the three Crusaders never made it to The Wandering Inn for the drama that would soon ensue.
They ran into someone…coming through the [Portal Door]. But it was odd.
Liska had stomped out of the inn, and she kept pausing to talk to someone on the other side. As they watched, she had to carry a huge, marked stone out—and the doorway kept reappearing. It was not easy, and Liska kept talking into the doorway.
“Is here good? Further out? Okay—okay—I’ll tell the Watch soon! But I have to open the door! Excuse me!”
She waved, and someone on the Walls groaned and shouted down.
“Is it war, monsters, magical disaster, news—”
“Just get down here!”
A [Guard] ran out the gates, and the Crusaders tromped over. All three helped Liska carry the portal stone over to the road, and she began speaking to the [Guard]. Even Crusader 57 helped, though he grumbled.
“What the fucking…what the damn…no, the shit-Creler—”
He was trying to express his frustration in the limited lexicon of English swear words. Liska answered for the Crusaders.
“You might want to stand back—although, you’re the ones they want to see. Hey, stop!”
She had to stop several wagons on the road as the [Guard] ran towards Liscor. But the group coming through the door only came out when Liska told them everything in a hundred foot radius was clear—and they came through fast, looked around, and headed across the Floodplains towards the grass. They were, in fact—
Crusader 57 started forward, but one called out. He had an odd helmet on with what looked like gauze wrapped all around it.
“Don’t come closer! We have sick among us.”
They were bearing what looked like one of those carrying-platforms Pallass had used with Chaldion—only, it was enclosed. Eight Dwarves, and four who Squad 5 could hear audibly coughing or making sounds as they were ported to a hill.
“They had to come through the door outside of Celum—we moved the portal stones and everything.”
Liska kept well back. Toni looked at Crusader 53.
Find Zimrah. And Pawn?
The [Crusader] jogged off at once. 57 called out to the Dwarves.
“You all sick? What’s wrong?”
“Four of us! Badly—we hoped the Worker who helped last time could be of service once more. They were the warriors who went to battle—when the others fell sick a day before reaching Dwarfhalls Rest, we isolated these four. They haven’t gotten better.”
Squad 5 was perplexed. They looked at each other, and Crusader 57 shrugged.
“That sucks. I heard some of the Humans who came from Wales got sick. But Zimrah cured them. She’ll come and heal you.”
The Dwarf with the helmet nodded slightly.
“That is our hope. Thank you, Antinium [Crusaders].”
Crusader 53 nodded respectfully to the Dwarves. Crusader 57 whispered as they watched and waited for Zimrah to arrive.
“Told you other species didn’t have any good classes. Can’t even heal themselves of a cold.”
In fairness, the Antinium were getting sick. It was just that, like most things Antinium, even Liscorian citizens didn’t know much about it.
Also in fairness—the sickness wasn’t that bad.
The sound of a Worker sneezing was so alarming that a Human man nearly leapt into the path of a wagon. The embarrassed Worker hid behind several fellow Workers, and several Liscorians laughed their tails off.
“I am sick. I must get better.”
The Worker began to retreat to the Hive, and that was fascinating. For a few reasons. Firstly—because it sounded like he had a bad cold. But Antinium weren’t even similar to Humans, Drakes, or other species in that they had no noses to run. Some of what the disease might be trying to do to them was ineffectual because of their different biology.
It had certainly hit the Dwarves hard enough—but the damn metal-lovers knew how to isolate and prevent disease from spreading. The fact that they’d been on the road too long had meant it incubated before they reached a population center.
Of course, even among the best [Healers] in the world, terms like ‘incubation’, ideas like quarantining, and so on were very abstract. They might know all these things, but only less than a dozen [Doctors] and a few other beings knew germ theory to that extent.
Ironically, some of this world’s remaining experts had gotten to their level of understanding not because they healed it, but because they caused it.
So the Worker who was unlucky enough to be coughing and sneezing was a curio, and as he tried to head back to his Hive, someone intercepted him.
“Good sah! Good sah, prithee a moment of your time?”
At first, the Worker didn’t notice someone talking to him because of the accent, and all the language didn’t make sense.
But then he turned, and a [Healer] strode up. You could tell he was a [Healer] because of his robes, the pinrose flower attached to his front, and the sigil of healing upon his back. The half-Elf also had a magnificent mustache that reminded the Worker of Brigadier Forount.
“Hello. I am sorry, do you need something?”
“I should say you need something, good sah! I am a [Healer] around these parts, and you seem to be in distress! I say, what seems to be the matter? A spot of illness?”
Some people were staring at a [Healer] addressing a Worker, but the half-Elf was so friendly that the Worker replied—as most Workers did to any questions.
“I am sick. I must get better.”
“Get better, you say? Could you use a tonic or something, perhaps?”
The [Healer] fished around in his robes for a few bottles, but the Worker took a step back.
“I am not able to purchase anything, thank you. I am sorry—I will go to the Hive and get better. Thank you. Zimrah or the Queen can cure me.”
The half-Elf’s eyes narrowed slightly. He looked the Worker up and down.
“Good healers, are they? Splendid ones, I’d imagine. Have many Antinium been getting sick, young man?”
The Worker had no idea who this half-Elf was or how he could tell the Worker was a young man, but he enjoyed the novel conversation. He dipped his head.
“Zimrah can cure any sick Workers. Not many are sick. Most sneeze. A few are very sick. But the Free Queen treats the ones who are sick with Zimrah.”
The half-Elf said it again. He peered at the Worker with a little monocle.
“Then it would appear all the magical plag—er, illnesses are being wiped out. But the mundane ones have more staying power. Good to know. But I’d have expected more spread even from…do you know how this Queen heals your Workers, by chance? A Skill?”
“No. She uses btiqk.”
“…Say what now?”
The very friendly half-Elf fiddled with his mustache and peered harder at the Worker as the Worker—who had no name but a promising career hammering nails into new buildings under Architect Hexel—explained.
“The Queen heard we were becoming sick. She said it was unacceptable. So she gave btiqk. Most Workers do not fall sick if they sleep with it on them.”
Antinium. They had lost almost all their great technology and feats of old, but they’d kept some things on those four ships that had made landfall. Or figured out how to reproduce them.
The half-Elf, whose name was Folveilouka, folded his arms and tapped his foot before asking if anyone who’d recently been cured by the btiqk was around. The Worker actually pointed back to some of his friends, who were standing around and admiring a puddle in the street.
It took Folveilouka one look through his monocle to see what had been done. He shook hands with the Worker who had been cured.
“I can see I’m not needed here overduly, then, sirs. You children have a good day, then. Er—how is this ‘Zimrah’ doing? Are there more of her?”
“There is only one Zimrah, but there are more [Acolytes]. She is tired all day, but levelling.”
“Damn. Er. Damn good. Thank you, young ones. Have a candy.”
He handed them all a half-Elven treat, a bit of tree molasses wrapped around some nuts. The Workers bit into them happily as Folveilouka backed away. He kept smiling until he strode down the streets.
Then Tolveilouka stared at his hands and wiped them a few times on his robes. He hurried off, swearing under his breath—but he felt happy despite that.
Easy information gathering. By the way—the candy was just candy. He had made it himself. You had to play your part well. He wondered if the Antinium weren’t normally talked to—some of the Drakes and Gnolls had been looking odd.
He enjoyed petting cats, walking dogs, and sometimes he let them out of a city while it burned. Principles.
But the Antinium bothered him. So they could kill magical plagues? That was…wonderful to know. And that damned Yellow Rivers mold wiped out too many sicknesses too. Apparently a lot of the Humans getting sick had used some kind of cultured mold on themselves.
“Who figured out to use spores? Who’s bringing this stuff in?”
A Dragon? Yderigrisel was dead. And he was never that clever.
“If it’s some new Earth Dragon or, worse, one of the swamp ones…”
Something was a bit off. Tolveilouka had been delighted to learn that they still played chess—and perplexed by the ‘football’ everyone was kicking around. But then he’d heard chess had been ‘invented’ by some Fraerling.
He felt like he was missing parts of a puzzle, and he didn’t like that. The Antinium might be part of it—or a separate puzzle entirely.
At least he knew why they were so good at holding down his plague that the Eater Goats had spread. Btiqk.
Tolveilouka might not know exactly what the Free Queen had, but he knew what it was. He kept wiping his hands—and then he actually looked down and addressed something on his pristine palms.
“You are the most disgustingly innocent—off, off. Eugh.”
He kept wiping. He hated things like this. They were friendly, innocent mini-beings. His Master used to grow the nastiest strains, let them breed and infect others. But btiqk was a group trained to eliminate other tiny organisms—and it seemed like this lot just wanted to reproduce and excrete oxygen.
He’d have to figure out something that would kill them. So—mundane over magical, and this ‘Zimrah’ was counter-levelling, but she could barely keep up with a small group.
“Maybe parasites. But I was never good at them. Oh, Master…”
Tolveilouka clutched at his chest. He leaned against a wall sadly—and looked around this city that had not been here when he was alive.
How small. How quaint. They had no idea what they were built over. And here were the Horns in this area.
But don’t go to that inn. There were a few dangerous ones about—he could sense them. They could—unfortunately—harm him.
He had not survived war upon war by leaping into a fight with blind confidence, and this lot had chased away even the Stitch Witch. It tempted him, though.
Oh, how it tempted him. In fact, two of them were even in the city. Tolveilouka had to stop himself from literally leaping around a corner when he saw the [Necromancer] and Antinium walking past him.
“Of all the odious tasks, Ksmvr. You could imagine she’d put Ishkr upon the job, but us? We’re Gold-rank adventurers.”
“Yes, Comrade Pisces. But it is just a bag of sugar.”
“And eggs. And two cabbages. It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Helping our friend is a bad principle?”
The young man hesitated, and Tolveilouka eyed him.
“N—w—I meant that it’s beneath us.”
“Oh. So we are too good to do mundane chores. I see.”
“Don’t write that down! Let me think of how to rephrase that.”
The sweating [Necromancer] and Antinium would be the work of a moment to kill. Tolveilouka stared balefully from behind a barrel as Ekirra stared at him from behind, then went to kick his ball somewhere else.
Had they leveled up of late? The [Necromancer] seemed to have increased his death magic mastery by some modicum. The Antinium, though…he seemed more deadly.
That was the problem with levels. Tolveilouka changed his mind. His hands began to ooze as he changed them too, and he stood up slowly and began to stride after the two. Never let an opportunity slip past.
The problem with being an undercover monster, though—was something Tolveilouka knew full well. And he had only artifacts, not his master’s acumen with magic, so it was even more likely sometimes—as he stepped around a group of figures fiddling with instruments and headed for the [Necromancer], two people moved.
Sometimes—you got noticed.
Tolveilouka saw a tiny little skeleton of a mouse skitter out of a sewer drain. It had bright, green eyes, and no one noticed but him. It said nothing—but he felt the mental warning.
Oh, him again. Tolveilouka’s eyes narrowed—but he wavered. And then someone tried to cut his head off.
It was so fast that even the half-Elf barely saw it coming. He just noticed one of the people in the group of instrument-carrying Drakes and Gnolls turn, and a little object flicked out.
A…conductor’s wand, but metal. The kind of thing the leader of an orchestra carried. Or a Symphony.
The metal wand wouldn’t hurt. The sword was a bigger threat.
Tolveilouka ducked. The sword took the top of his hair strands off—and the second cut came straight at the back of his head. Whoever had launched the sneak attack hadn’t put all of their eggs in one basket.
He hated swordsmen like that damn [Sword Legend]. Tolveilouka was adept—but not like the masters of old. Still—he raised two fingers and deflected the second strike as he twisted away.
The third blow was a step-in, a pinpoint strike so classic to fencing that Pisces turned as an older Drake with a maestro’s magnificent suit, ruffled and edged with faint lilac, stabbed. And Tolveilouka—twisted.
The half-Elf with the gigantic mustache murmured. The Drake’s eyes flicked to him—Tolveilouka had a hand on the rapier, moving it back—but the blow had cut the fake healer’s robes. Pisces and Ksmvr turned as the Drake stepped back fast, and the rest of his group turned, grabbing for weapons.
“Hold. We’re done here.”
The Drake was smart enough not to touch the part of the sword that Tolveilouka had touched. To the half-Elf’s vague disappointment, the entire weapon vanished.
Summoned weapons. Too bad. Tolveilouka kept his back to Pisces and Ksmvr. He and the Drake stared at each other, and each noticed one thing.
The Drake probably noticed Tolveilouka had a fake mustache.
Tolveilouka…noticed the golden bell on the maestro’s wand. It didn’t chime.
“Let’s not have a disturbance here. Gold-ranks dying brings trouble—especially with the Haven about. Agreed?”
“Good sah, we have an accord.”
Tolveilouka strode forwards, and the Drake pivoted—but the half-Elf was heading away from Pisces and Ksmvr as they focused more on the Drake than him.
Thank goodness. The little mouse was still staring at him. Tolveilouka gnashed his teeth. Upstart [Necromancers]. This was why—his master always used to tell him to be more cautious.
Be they so humble—they had killed his master. They could kill Tolveilouka. Drakes had slain their parents. Little children could slay Giants. He walked off, sulking.
Pisces wondered who that other person had been. A half-Elf? He hadn’t seen the other’s face—except maybe a huge mustache. He was tempted to look, but that Drake had a golden bell.
He was the real thing. The three strikes—Pisces had only seen the last one—proved that. It had probably taken less than a second for all three, and the other Drakes and Gnolls were still turning.
“Maestro, what was that?”
“Interloper. Focus. I’m thinking adagio, and I will let the First Clarinet lead—but I want range and accuracy. No mistakes. No accidents, am I clear? We do our job professionally and leave. There is too much attention on this city. But I will allow that it was right for me to come.”
Humbled, the Gnoll with a clarinet bowed his head, and the others fell silent like naughty school children. Pisces just kept staring.
“That Drake is an expert with the blade.”
Ksmvr, for once, was not stating the obvious—because ‘expert’ didn’t cover it. Pisces had recently had the honor of facing the King of Duels, Raelt Leysars, in an unofficial match during their journey to Izril.
The King of Jecrass had been carrying a golden bell. He had, despite his long captivity, beaten Pisces, and even with magic, Pisces had doubted he’d fare better. The only other Gold-bell [Duelist] that Pisces had ever met was Deniusth of Orchestra, and that man had been more full of himself—although a gifted musician-duelist.
It had been hard to get a grasp on how good Deniusth was—but it was safe to say that anyone with a golden bell was automatically Gold-rank or better. If you had honestly earned it—it meant you had been acclaimed by other Gold-bell carriers in an exhibition.
Or killed or bested the original owner in a fair match.
This Drake stood with perfect posture. If you had never seen it before, it looked uncanny. He held himself upright, as if in front of an audience of tens of thousands at every moment, chin elevated, surveying everything around him without needing to constantly hold his head.
He looked dignified, especially in the suit. His scales were a bit grey, but they were still deep sapphire, and his eyes were faintly silverine. The plant, not the color. Green irises tinged crimson at the exterior, unfolding in petals of subtle patterns.
The Maestro turned to Pisces and Ksmvr and nodded slightly to them.
“Adventurers. I apologize for the interruption.”
“Er—not at all. Are you a duelist by any chance, sir?”
Pisces hesitated, and the Drake glanced down at the golden bell on the conductor’s wand. He smiled ruefully.
“I’ve forgotten to take it off again.”
He detached it with a single pass of his claws and tucked it into his belt pouch. Then he bowed slightly to Pisces and Ksmvr, hands at his side.
“I have been worthy of the honor for thirty years. But I fear this is not the moment to talk to a promising young duelist, even a Gold-rank Adventurer. Pisces Jealnet of the Horns of Hammerad, isn’t it? And Ksmvr of the Free Antinium.”
He knew Pisces? But then—all of the men and women there seemed to know Pisces and Ksmvr. They all had the same dress and attire on, male and female Drakes and Gnolls, ranging from just over nineteen to what might have been their sixties.
They all looked…sharp. Pisces’ warning bells began to ring, and Ksmvr peered at the Gnoll with the clarinet.
“Comrade Pisces, I think he has weapons in his musical instrument.”
“Ksmvr—why don’t we save observations for later?”
Now, Pisces was sweating because the Drake was eying them. But the unknown Maestro just smiled.
“I would hate to cause a scene, gentlemen. And again—a young Silver-bell fencer should be focused on honing his technique. Padurn Jealnet was a good [Fencer], and his son looks to have surpassed him.”
“You know my father?”
Pisces’ stomach twisted up, and the Maestro shrugged.
“I’ve met him twice. Young man, continue practicing.”
He looked at the rapier as Pisces flushed and felt awkward, as if the Drake somehow knew that Pisces had been resting on his laurels, not training to improve. Even Yvlon had a hard time pressing him with the sword because he had [Flash Step] and magical tricks.
But the bar…the true bar of excellence looked at him. Then the Maestro turned smartly, and he raised his wand.
“Company. Ladies and gentlemen. Let us begin.”
Then they grew somber, the Symphony members. They did not sit, and this was no great auditorium. The street was just one adjoining Market Street, and the players stood in neat ranks in front of the Drake. He lifted his wand and flicked it, measuring a tempo.
But they were a band of musicians—and unlike Orchestra, they played in the streets. A Drake struck the drums lightly, and four violinists played together. But they sounded like thirty-two. Each one had Skills that doubled their sound or let them play like a group. Flautists began to blow gently as the First Clarinet inhaled softly—and began to play.
People stopped and stared in the streets. Yoldenites turned, intrigued by the softer music than their communal songs. Major Voita herself wondered if it were a street performance Liscor’s Council was putting on.
There were horns, but most of them rested their brass instruments rather than play. Two trumpets played so very softly—this was a song for the woodwinds.
But they weren’t the entire song. As the Drake conducted, measuring out the tempo, watching their performance with one eye while he observed Pisces and Ksmvr behind him without looking at them, he swung his head up.
And then—Voita jumped as she saw a group stand up from the rooftops. Eighteen figures stood on the roof of an apartment, and, wearing dark clothing that concealed them, they took the masks of cloth from their faces and began to sing.
It was either one of those made-up languages or words sung so slowly unlike normal conversation that they became more like music. A choir’s voices drifted over the rooftops, haunting, almost longing. Sweet and saccharine—eerie.
The people of Liscor poked their heads out of their apartments—and a swearing Drake who had really been looking forwards to his day off stomped out of Krshia’s apartment and looked up.
“Who the hell is on your rooftop, Krsh—what the?”
Lism goggled at the choir of singers above him. They ignored him completely. Lism was only wearing a towel around his waist. He slowly shut the doors as the song grew.
Nevermind the voices. Nevermind the distractions. The Drake with the wand closed his eyes now, listening to the music as his hands moved. He had a purpose in this city that was far baser than the music.
But the music—still mattered. Pride in your craft. Just like how you honed the blade. The singing choir above him was raising their voices, but still without words, and it sounded—
Eerie. A beautiful wail or perhaps a dirge accompanied by the musicians on the street. The perplexed adventurers, the wary Watch, Antinium Workers who paused and stared, and the admiring Yoldenites saw Symphony begin to play. The magic did not wait long.
It sprang up, drifting from the rooftops, rising from the streets. A fog, a mist that grew and spread from their location. Drifting across Liscor, obfuscating sight. Watch Captain Zevara’s scales prickled as she looked out her window, and she heard the music as she called for all her Senior Guards.
But it didn’t matter. The sound was rising, and it was going far further than it should have, but it was only affecting one person. The performance drifted over the walls—and someone heard it as they paced around the room they had been given. A white-scale Drake shook his head as he heard the music—put his hands over his earholes—and then his claws fell limply, and he stood, swaying, blank-eyed.
Vetn and Qwera had made one mistake:
They should have made Tesy go to the [Garden of Sanctuary] immediately. For the song went through The Wandering Inn, bypassing the [Knights] and Shriekblade, who turned her head warily, listening.
Even if you could not go in yourself—Symphony had ways. Tesy began to stumble out of his room, down the stairs, like a sleepwalker. He went out of the common room, past Erin Solstice as she talked to Drassi excitedly, and slowly began making his way out of the inn. Down the hill, into the city. Drawn by the music.
[Siren’s Song]. The Maestro kept conducting, listening as he waited for the song to end.
Onieva turned her head and cupped one claw to her earhole.
“Does anyone hear that? Sounds like music.”
She frowned, but the inn was busy with the party, and whatever it was—was so faint she could barely pick it up. Especially because Erin Solstice was currently shouting to the left.
“So I have this huge idea, Drassi! But I want to broadcast on your channel. Can you get me on tomorrow or tonight?”
“What? What? Stop shouting, Erin!”
“Oh, sorry. I thought—”
The [Innkeeper] rubbed at her ears, but whatever it was—was subtle and neither magic nor aura. She looked left as Tesy walked into a wall.
“Tesy? Tesy, that’s a wall. Is he—sleepwalking? The outhouse is that way.”
Erin pointed, and the Drake [Painter] shuffled left towards the door. He leaned against it, and Erin sighed.
“Where’s Vetn and Qwera? Mrsha, can you point this goofball to the bathroom?”
“I’ll do it.”
Kevin volunteered, and Erin shook her head. Poor Tesy. He must have been exhausted. She turned back to Drassi.
“So where was I?”
“You had some kind of plan? Erin, I’m on break. And look—I really appreciate the free food, but I can’t just give you a moment on my broadcast for no reason. You have a good one, right? If it’s another chess tournament or something’s going to explode, I’ll cover it.”
“Sorta. See, it’s actually an idea for the holidays. Remember Christmas last year?”
Erin was excitedly showing Drassi a bunch of ideas. She wanted time to present, but the Drake was a bit—dubious.
“You want to tell everyone about a holiday? I mean—that sounds as boring as anything.”
“W-well, I think it’d be fun! Everyone loves Christmas where I come from! And I might have a few special guests…can we do it in my inn?”
“What kind of special guests, Erin?”
“Goblins and Antinium?”
Erin was sweating a bit. Drassi froze mid-gulp of her drink. She put it down slowly and exhaled.
“Okay. That’s a significantly larger ask than you led with. Erin…”
“Give me a chance! I’ll make it cool.”
“Erin—even if you put a Goblin on television, can you beat cute Fraerlings with your holiday? No offense—I know you can with your chess tournament. That was crazy. But you don’t have, uh—anything interesting about a holiday where someone breaks into houses to leave gifts. Well, it’s a funny story, but not better than Paeth. No one will watch.”
That was true. Erin hesitated.
“W-what if I spiced the pot a bit? With a <Quest>?”
Onieva had been about to raid the buffet table and maybe introduce herself to one of the famous [Strategists], but they were too young for her taste. But she had to hear that. And in fact—she elbowed someone in the crowd.
“Hey, you old snake. Can’t ignore Erin for a second, huh?”
A Drake with one eye froze as Onieva grimaced at him. Chaldion of Pallass stared at Onieva. He hesitated—then pointedly looked the other way. Onieva’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh, ignoring me, are we? Saliss gets all the attention and pressure, and I get spit. Fine, fine. Hey, Miss Erin! Look who the Wyvern dragged in. Do you remember me?”
Chaldion stared at Onieva as she strode over and gestured to him. He looked—disconcerted, but Onieva took Erin’s hand.
“And Miss Drassi, talk of Pallass!”
“Hello! Miss…? I think I know your name, but I’ve met a lot of Pallassians. Onieva?”
Drassi was interested as the violet-scaled Drake grinned. Onieva took her clawed hand.
“Oliwing. I’m the outcast. Chaldion’s grand-niece. Cousin of the famous Saliss of Lights. That’s how I introduce myself. I don’t go to parties much, let alone with the high society I’m technically part of.”
Selys muttered. She waved at Onieva, and the Drake laughed.
“I should get out more! But I’m so tired most nights—and the days just keep going by, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I’ve seen you around the inn before, but Saliss never brings you up. I didn’t know you two were related.”
Chaldion slowly stepped over, leaning on his cane. He nodded to Erin, but he looked uncharacteristically distracted. And alarmed.
“Onieva is…a relative. One of the few I have left. Miss Solstice.”
“Hey, Chaldion! You should take better care of your family! Saliss too! Why didn’t he come with you?”
The [Grand Strategist] of Pallass had an amazingly stoic face when he needed to, but his tail twitched slightly. No one noticed—and Onieva, rather than look guarded, just laughed.
“I say that to him all the time. But he’s sleeping in his workshop, I think. We could run over and bother him?”
“If he’s sleeping—let him. Octavia is like that. [Alchemists] and poor sleep. No wonder they make things explode so much.”
The female Drake laughed.
“See, I like you. What’s this about something interesting going on? Let me in on it—and the ‘old man’. He loves prying. Is it going to be something hilarious like the chess game?”
Erin hesitated, but she made room as Drassi sipped from a drink, trying to hide her amusement as Onieva pestered Chaldion.
But he was staring at Onieva in alarm he barely disguised. In fact, a sweating Drake had just come into the inn and stopped when he saw Onieva bullying Chaldion.
Mirn looked around for backup, but Qwera was out, and he didn’t know if he should grab Onieva or let her talk. She wasn’t going to say anything—wrong. Not exactly—
But she thought Saliss really was asleep. And—Onieva never talked to Chaldion normally. That was why he was staring at her. But Onieva, thanks to the faerie potion, didn’t remember why she kept away, so she was needling him as hard as Saliss.
Drawbacks indeed. Mirn sidled away, listening as hard as he could, ready to grab a pitcher and just throw it over everyone. Meanwhile, everyone else was listening to Erin.
“I have this holiday idea. It would be great if Pallass adopted it. Hint, hint. And, okay—maybe it’s got some Goblins in it, but I think it’d be great for the winter. Very festive. There’s not much snow yet, but sometimes, you don’t get a white Christmas. The idea is…”
Erin was outlining her holiday, but Drassi was patently skeptical.
“Erin, even Sir Relz would run your story because you’re…you. But you’re not getting some Balerosian city to adopt it. Actually—scratch that. The Lizardfolk are the most likely to do something like this. But you want a worldwide holiday? You need a hook.”
“Like a <Quest>. Got one up your butt?”
Onieva nudged Erin, and the [Innkeeper] hesitated.
“Up my—you mean, I should draw everyone’s attention? Make the reward Christmas-related?”
“Or just post a big one. Come on, everyone knows you’ve got another. Lay it on us—that’s what Drassi is trying to say nicely. Then, while we’re all goggling and competing, tell us about Christmas.”
Erin folded her arms and bit her lip. It was the most direct request she’d ever gotten, and it made her uncomfortable.
“I don’t just have unlimited quests, you know.”
“So use one if you want this holiday to be big. Don’t you have…something?”
Erin hesitated, and Chaldion and Drassi focused on her. She squirmed.
“Well—some. But most have requirements. I’ve actually been trying to, y’know, prep them. I can sort of tell if I can post a lot of quests, but all but a few are no good.”
“Really? I mean, uh—hello, Drassi! I was just standing here.”
Someone coughed, and Erin jumped and saw Jelaqua edge into the conversation. She had a drink and a cupcake on a plate. She innocently stood there…and Erin saw Halrac standing behind her.
He didn’t even come up with an excuse. He just stood there, arms folded. Erin looked over his shoulder, and Gireulashia tried to hide behind Inkar. She actually managed to hide most of her body, somehow.
“Oh, come on. Who’s listening in?”
Half the people loitering around her coughed or looked away. Venaz wasn’t even bothering, like Halrac. He was pulling a Grimalkin and taking notes. He raised his brows as Erin shook a fist at him.
“Miss Solstice, this is exceptionally valuable information. At least put up a privacy spell if you really want to keep this ‘secret’.”
Erin glared at him. She raised her voice as Rags glowered at everyone taller than her.
“Alright, you want to hear it? <Quests> have requirements. Requirements! Not just rewards—well, they’re tied to rewards. I have this one I can’t post because I’m missing something. Or I don’t know exactly where something is, or I can’t—fulfill the reward.”
“Really? Like what?”
Erin huffed, but she was in too deep now. She scuffed a foot on the ground and turned red.
“…Apparently, I can’t dance good enough. And I can’t sword well enough either.”
“You mean, use a sword?”
“Yeah, to teach people. Which is rude! I can definitely dance. I think. I mean—I don’t dance. But isn’t that rude?”
Dance-based quests? Wil mouthed and decided he needed to send a [Message] to the Lord of the Dance. Onieva just started laughing.
“She can’t dance? Or use a sword?”
“Don’t bully me! Just because you’re Saliss’ cousin—I’ll hit you!”
Erin turned red. She raised her fists, and Onieva ruffled her hair.
“And I’m a bit of a good fighter too. Chaldion teaches all the family how to fight. But if that’s the problem—I think I’ll go kick Saliss after all. Or just raid his lab. Has he never told you about Talent Potions?”
“What now? Oh…”
Erin’s eyes widened, and Onieva winked at her. Mirn cursed as she called over her shoulder.
“He might actually have one for sword-fighting. Not that he’s a specialist. Maybe that’ll help? Or you could get someone to give you a boost.”
She headed for the door, and Mirn ran after her, swearing. At least she hadn’t told Erin to come with! In the meantime, Chaldion was murmuring to Erin.
“If you need a boost to fulfill these requirements, we could set up a test with—”
“Gyaah! I just want Christmas! No one make me any offers!”
Erin scowled around and broke up the group by dashing out of it. She put her back to the wall.
“Anyone wants to get a <Quest> out of me—you’d better beat me at chess first!”
“Well, let’s have a game, then.”
Venaz grunted. Erin smirked at him—and Peki cracked her knuckles.
“I have an idea how to win.”
“Punch me and die.”
The Garuda sighed. No one liked her solutions. Erin was just about to sit down and begin deflecting people via her one game when something happened.
The wind had been brisk and chilly this winter day. Enough to make people hurry in and out—while one white-scaled Drake, oblivious, slowly stumbled his way down the hill. Kevin kept directing him back to the outhouse and shaking him, growing more and more concerned. But he needed both hands to drag Tesy back, and no one heard him calling for a hand.
—Because the wind suddenly picked up. It turned from a breeze to a sudden gale.
The shutters on The Wandering Inn’s windows suddenly clattered against the glass. The wind blew, a fierce storm of air, like the jangling of nerves. Like the beating of someone’s heart.
Erin Solstice froze and turned her head. Mrsha’s little head had snapped up when the wind blew, and the thing she had been waiting for…forgotten at last in the excitement…suddenly burst into her mind.
She sniffed, but could smell nothing in the crowded inn. But Erin was getting to her feet, ignoring Venaz. She turned to the common room door, and Lyonette, Ceria, the others filled with a premonition, got to their feet.
“I, uh…I think someone’s come to the inn.”
That was all Erin Solstice said. She turned to the door, and then a hush fell over the common room. The sound that had been echoing from within went quiet so fast that the person in the hallway heard it.
It did nothing to quiet their heart…but sometimes, you had to do something that was scary or unpleasant. That was called being responsible.
Especially if you had been running too long. So—and Erin Solstice could feel her guest, now, from her bare feet slowly walking down the hallway. The long hair, uncut and windswept, the nervous way three fingers of one hand rested on the door. She paused and took a deep breath sharply—and Mrsha, Gire, and the Gnolls heard it.
A second, two…and then a hand pushed the door open. Ryoka Griffin looked into a room filled with more people than she had ever seen. She looked at someone standing there—and her heart faltered.
For Erin Solstice was not frozen. Nor a ghost. She stood there, hands clasped together, squeezed tight, staring at her friend. Ryoka Griffin’s eyes widened.
Was she the only person who saw the flaming hat on Erin’s head? It burned in vivid colors, pink glory, pale grey mercy, blue sadness—each color bright and licking upwards.
Emotion burning over her. The [Innkeeper]’s hat glowed brighter than anything else in the room, and she stood there—staring at Ryoka Griffin.
The Wind Runner looked different. Older, perhaps, dressed differently in richer, well-tailored clothing with a foreign crest on one shoulder that made Lyonette frown. Her bare feet were wrapped now by pale white cloth, and she carried an odd hilt of some weapon on her side that Chaldion stared at.
She carried currency from another land in her bag of holding, and she looked guilty, afraid, and uncertain. But that—that was how you knew it was Ryoka Griffin.
The Courier stopped in the doorway, looking around. Ceria Springwalker, Mrsha, Lyonette, Pawn, Relc—
So many faces she knew. So many, like Chaldion or Lehra or Shriekblade, that she didn’t. Ryoka eyed the veil of shadows as a Drake with countless scars stared out of it, looking disconcerted. She turned—and a little, white Gnoll stared solemnly at Ryoka. An orange cat meowed curiously as a Hobgoblin lifted it up, and that little sound made Ryoka start.
That was the first thing she said, as if it were the strangest thing in the world. She missed the Sariant Lamb staring, staring at her from the stairs leading to the second floor.
A cat? Everyone turned to Reagen—and then Erin Solstice began laughing. She laughed and laughed, then held her stomach and laughed harder as Ryoka Griffin turned beet red. Seborn choked on his drink, and Garia and Fierre, getting up, started giggling too.
Even if you didn’t know her—Erin Solstice stepped forwards as Ryoka hesitated there. And though she had been gone too long, though some people held back like strangers—the first thing Erin did was give Ryoka a big hug.
Just like last time. She grabbed hold of Ryoka and refused to let go.
“There you are. I’ve been waiting, you—you slow Runner! Where have you been?”
Ryoka Griffin looked down at Erin and awkwardly hugged her back. Her speech vanished from her mind, and she said the only thing she could think of. Silly and mundane as it was—
“I’m sorry I’m late.”
Then someone got up and grabbed Ryoka in the hug—and Ceria Springwalker was cackling with her own delight. Ryoka tried to get free—but Erin clung to her, and a little Gnoll had one leg. So Ryoka Griffin stood there, paralyzed. She didn’t even try to run.
Nerry should have found a way to cause a distraction at once. Or—wait. But she had been waiting for months, and this was her chance. The Wind Runner was notoriously flighty. This was the moment—
The lamb knew that. But even she hesitated. Even she waited. Even she had a heart.
Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin stood there, in the [Garden of Sanctuary], and the [Innkeeper] had buried her head in Ryoka’s shirt. She was speaking.
“I’m not crying, okay? This—this is so embarrassing. I can’t stop.”
“It’s okay. It’s alright, Erin.”
Ryoka wiped her face on an arm before Erin could notice. The little lamb rolled her eyes and trotted off. But Erin wasn’t fooled.
They’d stepped through the door for one moment. Just because everyone had tried to get at Ryoka at once. From Visma begging for a flying lesson with Bird to Relc to…
Erin had done the one thing she could, the selfish thing. Mrsha was currently howling and banging on the sealed [Garden of Sanctuary], which let no one through. Nerry had already been inside.
The [Innkeeper] and the Courier.
The girl with a hat of flames, and the fae-touched windfriend.
Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin.
They stood there a moment, and Erin muttered.
“I’ve stopped. I should—show you around the garden. I should let Mrsha in, and there are statues and—”
“That can keep. Right? It’s good to see you.”
Erin still hadn’t let go. It wasn’t the two-armed hug any more, but she had a hold on Ryoka’s shoulder with one arm. It trembled, and it felt weaker than it should have. For all that, Erin was on her feet.
She was alive. Ryoka’s own eyes were glistening as she looked at her friend.
“Here you are. I don’t believe it. If anyone could do it…I saw you, dead, Erin.”
“I’m sorry. I was a fool.”
Erin hung her head, and Ryoka stared at her, breathless for words.
“You’re saying that to me? Erin. I’m just glad you’re back. Even when you were dead—did I really see you there, at Ailendamus, during the battle?”
Ryoka Griffin had seen the Faerie King. She had seen Ivolethe come back to life and met immortals and more. But even she took a second to try and believe. Erin just leaned on her friend.
“And you went all the way to Ailendamus to try and cure me? Did I hear you stole a scroll from a Wyrm?”
Ryoka jumped and looked around, and Erin was too distracted to notice Nerry—but the lamb knew that already. The Wind Runner just shrugged helplessly.
“I thought it was the fastest way to help you. And it sort of was—or I might have been meant to be there. But I just messed up a lot.”
“Compared to me being dead.”
Ryoka had to turn to Erin. She took a breath—exasperated—and then almost snapped back.
“You were dead—but somehow, even being dead, you helped me. You helped save Mrsha, and Fetohep of Khelt helped the Horns of Hammerad. Erin. We were trying to do the impossible for you, and you did it right back.”
The [Innkeeper] just wiped her eyes and chuckled.
“You’re my friends. I just feel—everyone did so much and was in so much danger for me.”
“That’s because you’re you, Erin. I’m sorry I’m late. I’m an idiot, and I’ve brought more trouble and—things to deal with with me. But I wanted to help.”
The shorter young woman looked up. Ryoka Griffin looked nervously down at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.
“Don’t look so guilty. I know you run around. I’m just happy to see you, my friend.”
She said it like that, because, somehow, she knew that meant more to Ryoka. The Wind Runner ducked her head.
She stuttered, and Nerry threw up in her mouth as she tried to dig a hole in the dirt to bury her head into. But their laughter didn’t sound that bad. Of any two in this entire world, the two Earthers had a different sort of connection. Erin glanced over her shoulder.
“Mrsha’s threatening to throw all my cakes on the ground. We’d better go back. But—tell me everything. Come on. And stop crying. You’re supposed to be a Courier, huh?”
Despite Erin’s comments, it took about twenty minutes for Ryoka to convince Erin to let her go once they returned to the common room. And Erin only did when Onieva came back.
“Ooh. Am I interrupting something intimate?”
The Drake had a vial of something in one claw. Erin let go, flushing.
“This is Ryoka, Onieva. Onieva—what’s that?”
“Talent Vial. Saliss must have been out. If he complains—tell him Chaldion did it.”
Onieva tossed it to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] dropped the vial. Ryoka didn’t bother trying to reach for it—as it tumbled to the ground, she flicked a finger up—and the vial’s fall halted as the wind blew around it.
“Whoa! Ryoka, you’ve got wind powers!”
“It’s just a trick. I’ve been practicing.”
Erin fumbled with the vial, putting it in her bag of holding to Onieva’s disappointment.
“Sorry, Onieva. I’ll look at it later. But it’s just—Ryoka’s back! She’s a super big friend of the inn and one of my first guests.”
“The Wind Runner herself. I saw you blowing around Izril with Saliss. Good job out there.”
Onieva shook Ryoka’s hand. She looked—interesting. Ryoka frowned at Onieva. It wasn’t that she saw anything different about the Drake—and she was seeing all kinds of weird things around the inn that no one else was pointing out.
Rather, Ryoka had the sense that Onieva could probably kick her ass. Which—as the Ryoka Standard went—most of the people in this inn could do.
“How do you know Erin? Sorry—”
“I’m Saliss’ cousin. I do deliveries for him sometimes, disgrace the family—but don’t let me keep you.”
The Drake waved Ryoka off, and Erin turned to Ryoka.
“Yeah! Everyone wants a piece of you! But you’d better not run off or I’ll put a bounty on your head. Or a <Quest>.”
She—didn’t seem to be joking, despite the smile. Ryoka looked around the inn.
“Where do I start? I—it’s good to see you, Erin.”
“Yeah, you can stop saying that now.”
After eight times, it got old. But Erin was beaming so much she grabbed Ryoka’s arm.
“So, how did you get out of Ailendamus after that? Did that scroll work? How’d the dude take seeing all those, uh, cousins of his?”
Ryoka’s head snapped around with alarm. She stared at Erin as if the young woman were a ghost again.
“So you remember everything? The cousins? Who the fuck were—”
She saw Chaldion and the others glancing at Erin and caught herself. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes twinkled, but also warningly.
“Let’s save that for later. In the garden again. Oh—the gardens! Plural! You don’t know—you’re going to love it. But later, later! So you were in Ailendamus for a long time.”
“I was—trying to help. It went badly.”
“Eh, you go to another continent and it always goes badly. You should have seen what we did when we tried to help Erin.”
Ryoka was still not even processing Erin being on her feet. She had been—afraid, despite having seen Erin on the scrying orb, that this was all some dream. It had occurred to her that the silly sock puppets, leaving Ailendamus—
This could have all been a masterclass in Rhisveri or Visophecin torturing her. But Erin felt too real—and Ceria Springwalker was looking about.
“Of all the times—can’t those two even buy groceries and come back? Pisces and Ksmvr are out, but Yvlon—over here!”
The [Armsmistress] appeared, and Ryoka started.
“Yvlon! It’s so good to see you.”
Yvlon Byres paused, and Ryoka looked at her two beautiful arms because it had been so long she had forgotten. And she meant what she said—but she was instantly embarrassed. Everyone else giggled with humor at Ryoka’s flushed face. She was doing that every two seconds. But Yvlon just smiled.
“You as well.”
Ryoka still remembered their first meeting and fight—but so long had passed since then—she took Yvlon’s grip and felt a terrifying strength made as gentle as could be. Ryoka stared at her and Ceria.
“That’s right. You two were on Chandrar. What the hell happened after the Village of the Dead? I had to get out of the way. Rhisveri was—”
“Long story. I bet that’s going to be said a lot here. But ours really is.”
Ceria looked amused as she realized how much she had to tell Ryoka—including the truth of what had happened when they reached the center. Ryoka exhaled.
“I’m glad you four are all okay. You are, aren’t you?”
The half-Elf thought about it and shrugged as Yvlon bit her lip.
“A few more scars. A few more levels. Ksmvr got his arm back, so that’s a net positive. And we survived. What more can an adventurer ask for?”
Ryoka nodded slowly. It seemed like a real positive on limbs, here. She pointed at Ceria.
“Plus, you’ve got a few new Relics by the look of it. Nice crown. Is it magic?”
Ceria Springwalker’s smile froze on her face. Yvlon turned to Ryoka and then to the half-Elf as Chaldion’s head snapped around. He fumbled with his eye—and Ceria blinked at Ryoka.
The half-Elf gave Ryoka a blank look while her eyes flashed at Ryoka as the Wind Runner stood there. Oh shit. She looked about, and Erin stared at Ceria.
“You seeing things, Ryoka?”
“Maybe. Maybe I am. I—uh—okay. Okay, let’s forget about that. Erin, do you have a hat made of fire or am I crazy? And is there a Drake glued to the wall like Spiderman over there?”
Erin began to grin—and everyone turned their heads as Ceria ducked away from Yvlon’s pinching fingers that were going for her ear. Shriekblade appeared and stared at Ryoka. She was indeed glued to the wall, and she’d been stealthing her way around the inn as Ryoka watched.
“I work here. What are you?”
“My favorite troublemaker. You keep her safe, alright, Tessa?”
Shriekblade nodded dubiously. Ryoka stared at Erin.
“And the hat?”
“Oh, I’m a [Witch] now. Hey! You know Riverfarm! My door now goes there.”
“What? Have you met Laken?”
Erin nodded as she watched Ceria walk swiftly out the doors with Yvlon in hot pursuit. The half-Elf started running before the door even closed.
“Yup. Not a fan. But let’s keep moving. You, uh, see anything else weird?”
Ryoka stared around the inn. Everyone gave her a look. The problem was—Ryoka was now having trouble switching her vision to ‘normal’ mode.
“…Is that Valeterisa stealing Grimalkin’s notes? Am I seeing a Hobgoblin [Chef]? Is that—Rags?”
Everyone turned. The latter two things were just Calescent and Rags—but Grimalkin turned and yanked his notepad out of Valeterisa’s hands. He was extremely glad he didn’t have his notes on Earth on there. Then again…
“Hello, Miss Ryoka. I haven’t killed anyone that I know of since last we met.”
Valeterisa waved idly as she reappeared. Then she hesitated.
“Outside of a war.”
She thought harder.
“Or a personal duel.”
Ryoka stared at her—the Archmage seemed to be trying to think of anyone else she might have inadvertently killed of late.
“Is everyone I know here?”
Then someone else grabbed her in a bear hug and lifted her up. Garia and Fierre grabbed Ryoka, and she struggled.
“You’re back! You’re back! And just in time too! Guess who’s here, Ryoka? Mihaela Godfrey! And Salamani! And there’s a Centaur in Riverfarm who claims you’re her best friend!”
“Wh—oh shit. Mihaela?”
Ryoka’s stomach began hurting at the very idea. But Erin Solstice was snapping her fingers and whispering to Ishkr, who obligingly went to the Haven. Garia was swinging Ryoka around when someone interrupted them.
“Excuse me. Miss Griffin, I never thanked you properly for your services to me and my aunt. Hello. And who are these charming Runners?”
Fierre, Garia, and Ryoka all turned to Lady Ieka as she pushed her way forwards. Ryoka blinked.
“Lady Ieka Imarris? Oh—thank you for your help! I, uh—”
She was flustered as the [Lady] took her hand.
“I am in your debt, Miss Griffin. But I see so many fine folk—let us just agree that you won’t leave without accepting my invitation at least once! Agreed? Wonderful. Hello, Miss…?”
She turned to Garia, who looked astonished and nervous. Ryoka was relieved by that. She turned and looked for Mrsha.
Mrsha! Lyonette gave Ryoka a cool smile and extended a hand.
“Lyonette. Hello! Are—are those Thronebearers?”
Ryoka did a double-take at the sight of Ser Dalimont, Lormel, Sest, and Ushar. All four bowed, and Lyonette coolly nodded. She still didn’t like Ryoka—but like Erin and Magnolia, she was warmer than before.
Mostly because Ryoka had moved down the ‘bad not-parental figure’ list under Mrell and Prha. So Lyonette took her hands.
“I hope you won’t bring more trouble to the inn—but I doubt you can beat our regular craziness.”
“I’ll try not to. I really will.”
“Eh. We beat Facestealer. Hey, you. Look. I have a cat. His name is Reagen.”
Numbtongue. He pushed forwards, and Ryoka blinked at him.
“What was that about Facestealer?”
He was in the midst of telling her, and she was growing increasingly alarmed—but Mrsha was sitting at a table—back facing Ryoka. After her initial big hug, she had looked at Ryoka and turned away. Now, she was having a cup of milk with a giant…giant Gnoll with reddish fur who was giving Ryoka the evil-eye.
“That’s a class?”
Numbtongue just grinned at her. Ryoka was edging over to Mrsha, apologizing.
“Excuse me—Halrac? Good to see you. Nice bow. Where’d the invisible one go?”
The [Bowman] nodded—checked his bow and raised his eyebrows. But that was all he needed. Even Ryoka had to stare at it for a second. But then she was moving forwards.
“Mrsha, hey, Mrsha. Hi.”
The Gnoll stared up at Ryoka—then turned around. She idly looked back, scratched on a notecard, and handed it over.
Oh, hello, Miss Ryoka. I didn’t see you there.
Ryoka’s face fell. The Courier took a huge breath. She deserved this.
“Mrsha, I’m so sorry I was gone. I was trapped, and I was trying to help Erin.”
I totally get it. Hi.
Mrsha handed a card back. Ryoka hesitated. Then she bent over and tried to hug Mrsha.
“Can I get another hello?”
“Hey. Don’t touch Mrsha without permission.”
Before the Courier could hug Mrsha, a paw the size of her face grabbed Ryoka’s head and moved it back. Gently—but the [Paragon] was nine feet tall, and Ryoka recoiled.
“W—uh, hello? Who are you?”
“Gireulashia, Chieftain of the Ekhtouch Tribe. Mrsha’s best friend. And you? I haven’t seen you around. Mrsha doesn’t seem like she knows you.”
Gire stood, looming over Ryoka. The Wind Runner stared at Gire, then Mrsha.
“When did you meet—hello, Chieftain Gireulashia.”
She tried to bow formally, and for some reason, Joseph, Inkar, Tkrn, and several people in the inn found this hilarious. Ryoka looked helplessly at Mrsha. One second she was hugging Ryoka, the next she hated Ryoka’s guts. The Gnoll turned her head and handed Ryoka a third card.
You don’t know me, fool. You’ve been away too long.
Gire smiled archly at Ryoka. Crestfallen, Ryoka stood there—then Mrsha’s paw vibrated as she held her cup of milk. She spilled it over—turned, and leapt at Ryoka. And then she was crying again and punching Ryoka’s arms.
You stupid person! Stop coming back and leaving!
That made Ryoka feel even worse. She held Mrsha tightly.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was in Ailendamus and a prisoner. Honest!”
What about the month you were here and didn’t come visit?
Mrsha glared up at Ryoka, too upset to even write. Ryoka’s stomach twisted as Gire interpreted Mrsha’s pawsigns.
“I—I tried! But Ulva Terland made me visit her for a week—and then Deilan El tried to invite me to his estates—it’s hard to say ‘no’ without offending them so they put a bounty on your head.”
“You were hobnobbing with nobles this entire time?”
Revi looked mildly outraged as she listened into this. Only mildly—and Badarrow gave a thumbs-up.
Numbtongue smacked his brother on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. Badarrow looked disappointed.
Mrsha punched Ryoka’s arm, glaring, but the Wind Runner looked very sorry.
“I was trying to make connections to help with—it’s all my fault. You should be very angry at me. But I, uh, brought you a little gift. It’s a song crystal from the Singer of Terandria. And, uh—I have a cool sword. I can let you swing it later.”
Lyonette cheerfully barked, but Mrsha perked up at the mention of Ryoka’s famous sword. Wait a second—did this mean she could fly? Bird was going to love this! Ryoka was holding Mrsha tightly as Gire re-introduced herself with the added context of her age. That was when someone tugged on Ryoka’s arm.
“Miss Ryoka. Do you remember me?”
Ryoka stared at Nanette without a word. Then she collapsed into a chair, face white. Nanette smiled politely at Ryoka and dipped her head.
The little witch seemed vaguely pleased at the emotional damage she was inflicting on Ryoka. Then Rags was standing there.
The Goblin corrected Ryoka. The Courier’s lips moved. Rags peered at Ryoka and nodded.
“Stop by our tribe too. With your glider and windsuit thing. And your sword.”
Fightipilota punched a hand in the air, and Ryoka’s open mouth stayed open. She stared around and stuck out a hand.
“Hi there. And are you with Rags’ tribe too?”
Mrsha stared at the blank spot in the air. Ryoka shook someone’s hand—or tried to—then stared. She looked at Mrsha, and the Gnoll hesitated.
“You are so cool. You’re crazy. I love it. Mrsha, introduce me to your friend! I’m Lehra, Named-rank adventurer.”
A Gnoll grabbed Ryoka—and then Ryoka was standing with Stargazer’s Promise. She was flabbergasted—and Lehra pounded her on the back as Ryoka eyed the Blade of Mershi. Thankfully, she didn’t see that ghost.
“This is insane! This is—is that armor blue? Who’s the [Knight]?”
“…And? Wait, he’s your new [Knight]? And—Tkrn?”
The [Companion] and [Guardsman] looked—good! He had armor, he looked a lot older and better, and he had this young woman with an amazingly good-looking dress, beautifully sewn, who offered Ryoka a shy handshake.
“This is Inkar. From the Longstalker’s Fang Tribe, Miss Ryoka.”
“Hello. I think we come from the same place.”
Then Ryoka’s eyes were bulging. She took Inkar’s hand slowly, and they looked each other up and down. Ryoka wanted nothing more than to sit down somewhere absolutely private and begin asking questions. But everyone wanted to talk to her.
“Miss Ryoka? Ysara Byres. I think we met at the Bloodfields long, long ago.”
“You? I’m so sorry I—ow! Who the f—”
Ryoka whirled, and Valeterisa pulled her hand back with several hairs. Ryoka Griffin was inhaling and exhaling hard. But she was happy. She really was. It was just—she knew Magnolia wanted to move now. She had told Ryoka to greet everyone and meet her by dusk in Celum.
That was going to be hard to do, because Erin looked like she would actually have her guests tackle Ryoka if she even tried to use the outhouse. But then—it was a great day. Calescent was beaming as he ran about his kitchen, and Rufelt was calling out.
“I need more of your kegs, Erin!”
“And where are my eggs?”
The [Chef] complained. Erin threw up her hands.
“Pisces and Ksmvr! Sorry, Calescent. I forgot. You send the Horns to do something and they get it done—after a huge adventure and like eighteen months. They’ll come back from Rhir with like fifteen Demon-chickens.”
Everyone laughed at that. Rufelt rolled his eyes as Lasica got up. She looked at Calescent.
“I can get some eggs from my kitchen if they’re so late…”
“Nah, just ask Larra. No, wait, Ishkr might be picking them up too.”
The Wandering Inn was having a blast. People kept on heading over there. Because of their linked doors, it was like the Haven and the inn had a push and pull.
When one had an event, people would stream through to the Haven’s side. When Erin was doing something crazy or the Haven was resting, they’d head to Invrisil or elsewhere.
Again…with a steep fee associated with the transit.
Eight silver cost a lot when you kept using the door. Erin had decided to waive the fee for Haven-to-Liscor transit…until Larra objected. She liked the profits, so they had come up with another arrangement that fulfilled Magnolia’s own requirements.
Eight silver coins per day if you stayed at the Haven or The Wandering Inn. Everyone else? That was the flat fee per door usage.
It incentivized staying at the Haven. And yes, it meant only the nobility were just hopping through the [Portal Door] at random. At any rate, you could tell The Wandering Inn was the place to be.
“Ryoka Griffin is there?”
Mihaela was resting after her long run motivating the local Runners. She looked up as Ishkr held a basket of eggs and the groceries he needed—courtesy of one of the Haven’s staff. She stared at the Gnoll.
“Thanks for telling me. Another reason not to visit.”
She stared at the passing scenery from her seat; her feet were on the table. Meanwhile, someone else was happier about the news, even if his own reaction were also colored.
Salamani the Mage Rider was tugging on the reins of a horse.
“Don’t you want to at least see her, Ci? Ci? Maybe not. I’ll go, though, Mister Ishkr. Will you let Ci stay with you, Mihaela?”
Mihaela gestured to a spot, and Ci sat there, harrumphing at Salamani. Never let it be said the Haven didn’t have fun things too—but The Wandering Inn was cooler.
For one thing, Sammial and Hethon had seen so few Gnolls they were staring at Ishkr—and the famous Mihaela and the Courier! But they were headed through that door! And the Haven would only get exciting that night.
Oh, it had a farm and floated and a library and famous people—but Ryoka was somewhere else, and in Sammial’s mind, the most interesting things happened with Ryoka.
“It’s fun here, Sammy. Miss Larra is a former Named-rank adventurer.”
Hethon tried to reassure his brother. Sammial just stomped one foot.
“So? Ryoka’s cooler. She made half the palace in Ailendamus explode. I bet you she’d blow up the Haven if she was here.”
The [Vice Innkeeper], Barnethei, heard that. He decided to make sure Ryoka Griffin was being watched at all times—but the man had other things on his mind. He checked on Ci to make sure the horse had a bucket of water—because she was a type of honored guest. Then he pulled aside his [Bartender], Roreen.
“What do you mean, ‘we’re running low on drinks’?”
“I can’t find a bunch of kegs and barrels. I checked—we have a [Thief] or something.”
It seemed odd that they’d be robbed—Larra and Barnethei had amazing abilities. She could change her [Law of the Inn] to prevent all but the highest-level thieves, but normally, Larracel could sense them.
They were rolling down the High Passes towards Liscor, and Barnethei knew they got deliveries of the local specialties—as well as [Traders] who unloaded things via Invrisil. He went to see the problem.
Sure enough, half the wagon was empty, and a [Driver] was claiming he’d brought everything here—only for it to vanish. The horses he’d hitched up were nervously stamping on the floating ramp; you could literally ride up onto the Haven while it moved, but it scared most animals like crazy.
Two stallions rolling their eyes; a fast wagon and a small fortune in drinks!
“They got the most expensive stuff, Barnethei. I swear, I didn’t take my eyes off the spot.”
And Roreen hadn’t stolen it. The delivery area was in plain sight. Barnethei scrutinized the [Driver], but he was in good standing with the Driver’s Guild. He looked around.
Open road moving past at a decent pace, three horses, a few guests passing by…one of the horses sniggered. Barnethei stared at it vaguely, and the horse stopped.
…The [Vice Innkeeper] stared at the horse. It was definitely neighing at him. Why did he feel…? He turned away, and Taletevirion edged down the ramp. But he stopped, and his ears flicked up as Barnethei cursed and turned to Roreen.
“Well—we’ll just order a second batch. Keep an eye on it. At least we have that Antinium Rxlvn. No one can handle it undiluted—the nobles love it. And the Minotaur’s Punch.”
Oho? What was this? The disguised Unicorn flicked his ears up again. New drinks? He decided to clop up the ramp after the [Innkeeper] as the [Driver] settled things with the [Bartender]. People noticed him, of course—he was a horse. But somehow, most of them didn’t seem to realize it was odd having two horses just walking about the inn.
In fact, the only people who saw the horse and looked twice were a certain [Lady] and her [Maid]. Even they missed Taletevirion at first. Then Ressa’s head snapped around, and she whispered to Magnolia. The [Lady] put her head in her hands—and pretended to ignore him.
“That’s right. I’m just a horse. Neigh. Neigh, you stupid idiots.”
Lord Tyrion Veltras slowly turned his head as a horse walked past him. It sidled away as he felt…something…bothering him. But the horse was just lining up for the magic door. He only stopped once.
“Hey, kid. Keep your chin up, huh? I know it feels like the end of the world, but the world doesn’t end, sadly. Hold on and keep running.”
Ci looked around and then stared at Taletevirion. He dipped his horn and trotted through the door. Her mouth stayed open as Mihaela slowly sat up in her chair.
“What was that? Did that horse just—?”
Sammial Veltras didn’t notice the other guests. He was just staring at the portal door and sneaking glances at Jericha. Ullim should have been watching the boys, and he was.
The problem was…the [Majordomo] kept trying to stare at Sammial and Hethon…and he kept losing track of Sammial and forgetting the lad needed an eye on him at all times.
It wasn’t his fault. A certain Unicorn was standing right behind him and the [Lord], and his ‘don’t notice me’ spell was so powerful that even the [Majordomo] was forgetting Sammial.
It wouldn’t have mattered…except that the [Lord] was staring at the door. He tried to go through it when it opened, but he bounced off something invisible.
“Eight silver pieces. Sorry, kid. Get your parents to pay for the day if you’re staying at the Haven.”
Liska yawned hugely. Sammial’s features crossed. A Unicorn huffed.
He walked through the door without more than a second’s pause. Sammial stared at the talking horse, and his face went blank. Then he frowned.
“Why do I have to pay?”
Liska shot back as she let her brother through. She was yawning as [Lords] and [Ladies] fished out coins and fumbled them into the pot on this side. Sammial’s features turned hostile.
“I don’t want to pay. Why do I have to pay? She’s not the boss of me.”
“Well, good luck on getting through.”
You literally couldn’t walk through the door unless you were Erin or someone close to her. Liska watched with urbane amusement as the boy pushed at the invisible barrier at the door.
“I…am…Sammial…Veltras! I don’t want to pay! I—don’t—want—”
He was pushing against Magnolia Reinhart’s power. By now, Taletevirion had passed through the door, and Ullim remembered Sammial, and his head snapped around.
“Oh no. Lord Veltras, get back here!”
He strode across the deck as Tyrion, Jericha, and Magnolia and Ressa themselves noticed Sammial. Hethon ran over.
“Sammy, you stupid idiot! I told you—”
The [Lord] was throwing his full, untrained aura at the door, and his time in Ailendamus had, sadly, only made it stronger. Meeting Oesca and the other nobles, surviving his time abroad—
He might not have won a clash of wills against Magnolia herself, but she sensed him bypass her tax Skill on the door. The [Lady] saw Hethon grab at Sammial—just as the barrier vanished and they went tumbling through the door.
“Oh my word. Tyrion’s sons are as inescapably bad as he is.”
Magnolia groaned as Sammial and Hethon vanished. Tyrion went striding after them—only for Jericha and Ullim to grab him.
“Lord Veltras, it’s fine. Sammial, come back here!”
“I just want to see Ryoka’s inn! Hey. Is that a—Goblin?”
Tyrion froze—and then Magnolia got to her feet.
“Tyrion, don’t you dare—”
Sammial and Hethon Veltras had about two minutes’ head start on Tyrion. Mostly because Liska had closed the door after they tumbled through. She was yawning and didn’t realize they hadn’t paid the fee. She switched the door to Pallass.
“Anyone coming through here? Hello. Where to?”
The boys stared at the Hobgoblin. They were alone, unguarded, and in Sammial’s case, a true hazard to everyone around him.
Ulvama peered at the two boys as she came back from the outhouse. She’d been out there a while because she’d been eating all day—and then she’d been laughing at Kevin trying to hold back a silly white Drake as he went tumbling down the hill.
“Oh. Little boys. You lost?”
She looked around for parents and saw none. Sammial fumbled for his belt.
Hethon was trying to guard his brother. Both had a hand on their belt knives. Ulvama peered at the little blades as they drew them. She shrugged.
“Liska. Two lost little boys. Go find their parents.”
“What? Damn—can you tell someone?”
Ulvama glared at Liska, but the Gnoll was busy. The two Humans—and the Drake—stared at Ulvama in horror, but the [Shaman] just sighed. Long. And loud.
“Okay. You two boys. This way.”
“It’s a Goblin!”
Sammial looked around for someone to kill Ulvama, but Liska just tapped a sign. There were three of them, one on each side of the portal door. One hung above the entrance.
No Killing Goblins.
Hethon read the words and stared at Ulvama. She just pointed.
“Yeah. No killing. Stupid. You want cake?”
Sammial Veltras’ mouth opened—and stayed open. Hethon was looking at the door, but Ulvama just beckoned.
“We find your parents. Come on, little stupid lost boys.”
“I’m not stupid! You can talk? Why can you talk? Are you a Hobgoblin?”
“Am a Hobgoblin. This way.”
Hethon ran after Sammial, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Ulvama for different reasons. She snorted and pushed open a door to the inn down a long hallway. The noise that hit the boys was huge, raucous, and exciting.
The first thing Sammial and Hethon saw was Moore tossing a white Gnoll up in his arms. He was a half-Giant! They goggled up at him—then the equally-tall Gnoll who was chewing with an entire steak hanging out of her mouth.
“Gross! Stop having an eating competition, Gire, Snapjaw!”
Someone shouted. An [Innkeeper] with the most powerful aura that Sammial had ever sensed from a non-noble was shaking her fist at a Goblin with a huge head—and there was a half-Elf with a bone hand stabbing a woman in the chest. Then a metal hand stabbed her back, harder. Yvlon Byres’ hand morphed, and the boys stared at a real adventurer from the scrying orb.
“Don’t play games with me, Ceria! How long have you had it? Did you lie to—”
“What is this place?”
It was amazing! The Haven was grand—The Wandering Inn was weird chaos. Sammial looked about, and the white Gnoll girl, dizzy, stumbled around as a little Drake girl shouted.
“Me next! Me next!”
Visma climbed up as Moore gently tossed her up and down, and someone strode past the boys. Hethon recoiled from a Goblin as tall as he was wearing a warlord’s armor in miniature, complete with reddish fur. She had a huge crossbow strapped to her back. She eyed him.
She opened the door, and Hethon stared at Rags. Hethon was still trying to pull Sammial back to the door, but weakly.
He…wanted to look around. He hadn’t said it to Ryoka, but he had felt the urge to ask to come along even if Tyrion couldn’t. Sammial was doing what he shouldn’t, though, and the two boys bickered.
“We should go, Sammy. You’re already getting us in trouble. Ryoka’s fine. Goblins or not.”
“She’s never fine.”
The little [Lord] proclaimed boldly. Hethon nearly decided to put him in a headlock when Sammy looked around earnestly.
“She’s been worried all month. Someone needs to help her, and it’s going to be me! This is just like that stupid Duke. You should come too. She likes you more than me.”
His head ducked, and Hethon opened his mouth to tell him how stupid that was when a bee flew past. The two boys stared at it. Mostly because—they might have seen bees that big in the Vale Forest, but never a bee with a tiny Fraerling-made hat, smoking a cigar and shooting green jet flames as she blitzed past them.
“Wh—was that real?”
Sammial was agog—and twice agog when Ulvama came back with huge slices of cake on two plates.
“Here. Ishkr—look. Little lost boys. You find them parents.”
“I see. Excuse me—where are your parents?”
Sammial had a fork in the cake already, and Hethon bowed.
“My father is—”
He hesitated, realized where they were, kicked Sammial so hard the boy’s eyes filled with tears as he tried to speak with cake in his mouth, and pointed at the door.
“In the Haven! We just went through by accident.”
“In that case, why don’t I wait with you and we’ll bring you to the Haven right now? Keep the plates.”
Sammial kicked back ferociously as the Gnoll did the most sensible thing and escorted Hethon and Sammial back to the portal door. Sammial pointed.
“But thereth Ryoka! Can’t we stay?”
“Sammy, shut up. We’re in huge trouble. Don’t you know where this is?”
Hethon was sweating. A Unicorn was trotting out the front door, muttering about ‘damn doorknobs’, and looking around the Floodplains with interest as Ishkr patiently waited for some people to come through from Celum.
“Liska, open a door to the Haven, would you? These two came through without their parents. Something you shouldn’t have allowed.”
“Father. My father is—”
Sammial yelped as Hethon stepped on one foot. Ishkr glanced at the boys, but Liska was already setting the dial to the Haven, arguing with him. All would be well.
Then—as so often happened around Ryoka Griffin in Sammial’s experience—
Tesy ran through Liscor. Screaming.
His eyes were no longer clouded, and the [Magical Painter], Sellme, had a cut on one cheek that made his scales turn red with running blood. It was probably poisoned, but he’d drawn a bandage over it with an antidote sign on it.
Behind him came a song. Through the mists, the shouting chaos in the streets of Liscor as the Watch blew alarms calling everyone indoors, past the sounds of fighting—people shouting as he slammed into them and ran past stalls—
He heard the music. It was just one instrument right now. Someone was striding after Tesy and playing music.
A violin’s wailing strings. Just like in Salazsar and everywhere he’d run—he heard a single note.
One of Symphony.
She came after him in leaps, her violin still playing that eerie wail. But she didn’t hold the instrument. Every time she stepped or moved or slashed—he heard the notes, as if she were the violin herself.
A Drake with a fan of dagger-blades. She hurled one, and the [Magical Painter] whirled.
Time slowed as Tesy drew a page, ripped it out of his artbook, and threw it up. A wall of bricks. The blades thudded through the masonry, lodging halfway.
Tricks. Sellme, the famous painter, was so high-level he could neutralize poisons, create fake walls—or literally put doors down that created temporary boltholes.
His newest creation was simply a trick of perspective. A long tunnel—not a door. He threw it up and charged through an apartment complex and out the other side. The [Assassin] had paused at the entrance of the tunnel. He slashed paint across his creation as she threw another knife—it vanished and fell to the ground as his magical painting ended.
This would have been enough to escape most pursuers. And certainly—Tesy kept running, and he was fast on his feet.
But the problem with Symphony was that they were more than one group—or even a group of associates.
They were—a team. No sooner did the violin’s strains fade behind him than he heard another sound.
A trumpet. It played ahead of him, and Tesy froze. He looked around in the mists. The gates. He had to g—
His scream was loud in the mists. A feathered piece of metal was sticking out of his hand. His—
The dart had gone straight through his right hand! He looked up and dove—and the trumpet player emerged. He was carrying something.
Blowpipe. He’d loaded it into the trumpet, and his cheeks puffed. Six shots before he needed to reload—Tesy stumbled away and realized the darts were poisoned. He felt sick and ripped another emergency bandage from his artbook.
Only one thing was saving him right now. And it was the fighting around him.
“In the name of the Watch, halt! Lay down your—”
A Watch Captain was actually doing their job for once. Tesy had never been happier to hear the thud of the [Guards]’ boots. In fact—the only thing that had saved him from being murdered the moment he entered Liscor were two factors.
First—Kevin. He’d finally found out how to wake Tesy up—he’d thrown an entire bucket of water over the Drake, and as Tesy froze—booted him between the legs as hard as he could.
Mixed results, but it had stopped Tesy from literally walking into the ambush. The instant Kevin had seen the killers coming for Tesy, he’d run for the inn. Symphony had only gone for Tesy, though.
The real reason Tesy was alive was because Symphony hadn’t expected the complications. Not the two Gold-ranks harassing their members. They could handle that. And the Watch—though they should have gotten Tesy from the jump.
The real complication had been the group led by their Maestro coming under attack. A howling Gnoll had plunged into them with a spear. Tesy could still hear him.
“Assassination attempt! Keep her safe!”
Who was ‘her’? All he knew was that he knew Manus when he saw it, and the furious [Soldiers] were battling in the streets with Symphony. Spearmaster Lulv had seen the mists, heard the music, and assumed it was an ambush at the gates.
He came barreling through the mists, spear striking in endless attacks—but the Drake cursing him kept dancing back.
“Symphony, to arms! Upon me—[Company, In Attendance]!”
Spearmaster Lulv cursed—and it was one second of cursing. But then he had stopped attacking, and he was running. The Maestro’s blade slashed at his back and cut across Lulv’s enchanted Wyvernhide armor, but it didn’t cut flesh. The Gnoll gave the Drake that opening—
—Because every single [Assassin] in Liscor appeared around the Maestro. And there were sixty of them, singers, musicians—and the Drake himself. They opened fire with hand crossbows as the Maestro flicked his wand at Lulv. The [Spearmaster] turned and had to parry an exploding bolt, throwing daggers, and more in midair.
No spells. All throwing weapons or actual crossbows. Tesy was running, sprinting towards an alleyway’s corner. But the Maestro—
He flicked his wand left, and his Symphony unleashed a barrage. Tesy saw just a flicker before the throwing knives went for his throat, his chest, the darts from the trumpeter, an arrow—
Symphony halted as the Drake escaped around the corner. He should have been a pincushion. Dead a dozen times over. But he wasn’t.
The Thief of Clouds landed, paws dropping the arrows and blades he’d caught. In a moment! Despite himself, despite the frustration he felt at the botched attempt—the Maestro took that moment to salute Vetn.
He must have blocked a few shots with his body. But the [Thief] bounded after his friend, and the Maestro sighed.
“Maestro, that was Manus’ [Spearmaster]! Are you injured?”
“No. I am not. But we have multiple Watch officers closing in. Manus is in the fray and—”
The Maestro’s head turned towards the eastern gates, and his eyes narrowed.
“—our famous inn. The plan has gone awry.”
Symphony looked at each other. They hated failing. They were professionals. The First Flute lifted a pair of daggers.
“Say the word and we go, Maestro.”
He surveyed the situation. Two Gold-rank adventurers—Manus was reforming, and he smelled lightning crackling through the air. A powerful Oldblood. The Watch and Antinium were in the streets, and a Face was protecting Sellme. He nodded to himself.
“No one dies but that [Painter]. Symphony’s pride upon it.”
The company nodded. The Maestro lifted his wand as he came to a decision.
“—One attempt. Fall back after our assault. [Concerto: Glass Rain Upon Issrysil’s Plains].”
The most logical move. Symphony nodded, and the Maestro counted them off.
“One, two, and—”
The music swelled, this time a faster performance, sharp notes singing down like death across the City of Liscor. The Watch, Manus—and the other warriors including Pisces and Ksmvr—slowed, because the sound had no fear. No remorse, and when the five-minute piece ended—
Manus was arrayed in a line. Wall Lord Aldonss stood upon an actual wall in the streets. Manus’ [Soldiers] stood behind the temporary fortifications, aiming crossbows down. They had enchanted bolts, the high ground, and three floating magical shield icons were hovering over their heads. Three arrows or bolts which wouldn’t strike home.
Yet—and yet—even with the famous [Spearmaster] and Wall Lord there. Even with Zevara’s Watch forming up a hundred strong and a furious Crusader 57 stomping around with Pisces and Ksmvr—
The streets of Liscor heard a sound. Five dozen instruments sang—and Symphony charged out of the mists. Straight at Aldonss’ wall. They leapt under crossbow bolts, kept going as Lulv stared at their fearless charge.
“Take them down—”
Aldonss speared one [Assassin] through the chest, but the rest kept going. The Maestro walked through the streets of Liscor.
“The painter dies!”
His people knew no fear. But one halted. The First Flute touched the Maestro’s sleeve—it was cut slightly by Lulv’s attacks.
“Maestro, the concerto was for us. Fall back.”
He gently untangled her claw.
“I fear not death. This is personal. I will draw the most dangerous fighters off. Go.”
He drew his sword, and Symphony ran faster. After the Drake, who was stumbling now, stumbling as Vetn dragged him up.
Tesy’s head was spinning. Vetn was there—but they had both heard that performance. The Gnoll was shouting at him, but the [Magical Painter] had already come to the same conclusion.
“Inn. Have to find…”
He began running as Vetn looked behind him and paled. The music began as an instrument picked up in the distance, and Tesy whimpered. He looked around.
Where was The Wandering Inn? Then he heard the whumph, some sound in the distance, and knew where his destination was. But then he wondered if the inn was safe.
The explosion of sound made Ryoka’s head snap up.
The sound of Tyrion Veltras shattering Magnolia’s ward broke through everything in the inn. Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes as Erin Solstice’s head snapped around.
“What the—someone just busted my door. Liska!”
“Oh my—Erin, listen. I was going to tell you—or not tell you—but that idiot—”
Ryoka grabbed Erin. The [Innkeeper] turned to her—then to an opening in the side of her wall. Liska and Ishkr appeared—the Gnoll hurried his sister into the common room.
“Erin, some Human just busted through the door on the Haven’s side. He might be looking for his sons—”
“Who the heck—nice work, Ishkr. What was that, Ryoka?”
Lyonette’s head had snapped around, and she was staring, staring at Ryoka’s tunic and the icon on her sleeve. She knew more than Erin about whom Ryoka had been associating with of late.
But there was no way she’d be that stupid. Right? Yvlon and Ceria’s argument halted as the two turned to Ryoka. Relc was fumbling with a speaking stone.
“Say it again, Beilmark? What the heck do you mean—Klbkch, something’s wrong.”
Klbkch turned his head, and Qwera stormed downstairs as Erin listened to Ryoka whispering desperately.
“Tesy? Where’d Tesy go? Has anyone seen…?”
“Goblins, Dad! But the sign says—”
No. Nononono. Ryoka Griffin was pushing towards the door to literally kick that idiot in the face. But it was too late. Tyrion Veltras yanked the door open, sword drawn, as Jericha, his soldiers, and Ullim brought up the rear. Hethon had him by one leg, and Sammial was pointing.
Tyrion Veltras halted in the inn as Ryoka Griffin saw him. He saw the Goblins, the Antinium—and Erin Solstice.
His face froze up, but he saw Ryoka was safe. Then—he halted.
“Good. What in the name of…”
He stared at the Goblins and Antinium, but then seemed to remember his promise to Ryoka. He backed up a step, and Erin Solstice—
Everyone else was staring at Tyrion, in recognition, horror, or just stupefaction. But Erin wrinkled her forehead.
“Hey, buddy. Who are you? What are you doing barging into my inn?”
She didn’t know. She had no idea. Maybe—Ryoka stared at Erin. Maybe she had never seen him. He had been at a distance the entire siege of Liscor except the end, and she might not have glimpsed his face. She began to stride over to Tyrion.
“Erin, this is someone—you and I need to talk, but he’s leaving now. He just came because his sons must have wandered in here. Now we’re going. Right now.”
“Erin, Erin, help. Tesy’s in danger.”
Kevin pushed into the inn, gasping—one of the [Soldiers] held a sword out, but Erin focused on him.
“Where’s Tesy? What’s going on? And who is this, Ryoka? He’s…a [Lord]. So’s that kid.”
She looked at Sammy…and Ryoka hesitated. She stared at Tyrion, and he looked at her and hesitated. Every bone in his stupid body told him to introduce himself, but the younger [Lord] didn’t look like the older one Erin might know.
He closed his mouth and took one step back. Slowly—Ryoka felt like she was holding back an avalanche with her fingertips. She prayed and prayed to the god Murphy of causality himself. But it was too late. It probably had been the moment he burst through that door.
Because it wasn’t Erin who realized it first. Slowly and calmly, someone drew a sword.
Numbtongue drew his Dragonblood crystal blade, and the [Bard] stared at Tyrion Veltras. Redscar unsheathed his swords as Badarrow lifted his bow—and every Goblin in the inn except Ulvama drew their blades.
“That is Tyrion Veltras.”
Goblins never forgot. Let alone the man who had sieged Liscor. The man who had pushed Reiss, the Goblin Lord, to attack the city.
Relc’s head snapped around. Klbkch turned—and suddenly, the room was very quiet. Ylawes Byres stood, and he felt like he was there, looking out across the muddy Floodplains, where his father and Lord Tyrion were sieging the city with trebuchets, innocents by the thousands in hiding.
Tyrion Veltras. He just nodded, eyes flinty and watchful.
“My apologies. I feared my sons were in danger.”
The [Innkeeper] said the words. Just said them. Quietly. But when she looked at Ryoka, her eyes lit up. She was not the fastest for politics or intrigue, but she knew people.
She looked at Ryoka and saw how Sammial and Hethon knew her. Erin remembered what Ryoka had said. She then remembered…
Lord Deilan El. Lady Ulva Terland.
“You’re his friend, Ryoka? His friend?”
It all came together. Ryoka saw her great friend’s face change. She looked at Tyrion, and he eyed her.
“The [Innkeeper] who posts <Quests>. Good evening.”
The Wind Runner turned to her friend. And there—they stood apart. Ryoka had come back time and time again. Each time, the inn was different.
Sometimes, it was rebuilt. Sometimes, it was Erin who had a bad day. Sometimes, Ryoka brought trouble—sometimes, she left.
But in the times when she was gone—Ryoka Griffin missed the moments that defined the inn. She knew Rags.
—But she did not know Goblins. Nor Antinium, like Erin did. Pawn was hurrying out of the inn, using the [Garden of Sanctuary] to bypass the frozen Veltras family. He ran out the front door—and Magnolia Reinhart had come to stop a disaster.
She felt it. If Erin Solstice’s wrath upon Magnolia had been brief—now the inn was trembling. Ressa yanked Magnolia back, and the [Lady] glared—until she saw the glint of metal in the hallway.
Crossbows. A Brother tipped his hat to Magnolia, but he had a bead on Tyrion’s back. Erin Solstice’s voice came from within.
“Arm the hallway. If he so much as lifts his blade—shoot him, Bird.”
“Through the face or the legs, Miss Solstice?”
Magnolia experienced a thrill of panic. She could not be serious! But then—Tyrion was there, that fool, and Erin Solstice must not have realized the younger man was a shell of who he’d been.
A shell waiting to grow ever larger—but she saw the Lord of House Veltras. But in this moment, he only had Ullim and Jericha and a handful of his soldiers.
Magnolia saw Reynold kick the secret passage open, and they hurried past the Brothers. They pivoted—and decided not to tangle with Ressa. Magnolia entered the common room and felt another thrill of worry—and delight.
Bird, Halrac, and Badarrow had their bows raised. Three of The Wandering Inn’s finest archers had Tyrion in their bowsights. And they were just the archers.
Jelaqua Ivirith had her new flail out and was covering Maughin. Moore was shielding Mrsha and Visma, who stared out from behind him, with a staff in hand—and Gireulashia was craning her neck, one paw under a table. Ready to throw it.
Redscar looked right and left, at Snapjaw and Numbtongue, and if Tyrion Veltras, immobile in the doorway, were to sneeze—he narrowed his eyes, because some Gnoll with sunglasses was also blinding him in the corner of his eye.
It was Ryoka Griffin, Ryoka Griffin who stood in front of him and death. She had her hands raised, and Bird kept adjusting his arrow as she moved in front of Tyrion. Her hands were up, and she was speaking slowly, carefully. Pleading with Erin. Magnolia Reinhart hesitated. This was not the time to use a charm Skill—especially not in this inn. But Ryoka Griffin? Tact?
Then she heard what Ryoka said, and it was so extraordinary that Magnolia Reinhart had to listen.
“Listen, Erin. Just hear me out. I know this man has done…terrible things. I know he’s done things to you and Liscor—and he has committed acts of war. You have every right to hate him and hold a grudge.”
Tyrion Veltras was looking at Ryoka as she pointed to him, and Hethon and Sammial were hiding behind the soldiers and their father, looking at the hostile faces. Ryoka…was she defending them? She was gesturing to the young woman with a hat blazing with invisible flames.
The inn was—oppressive. But Ryoka just said this:
“I know what he’s done, and there might be no redemption. But—I have done terrible things too. Erin—you and I know we might need help. Flawed help. Everyone should be held to account for the things they’ve done. But if he can help you—can you hear me out? Talk?”
It was something Magnolia Reinhart had never expected to hear from Ryoka Griffin. She looked at the Wind Runner’s back. And Erin heard Ryoka. The Courier was saying everything that made sense.
So Erin looked at Tyrion—and he had no idea who she was. She saw it, written all over his face. She was—the owner of The Wandering Inn. Questgiver. The young woman who liked Goblins and Antinium.
He didn’t remember a white flag as it rained. He was watching the Goblins, and there was no recollection there. Ryoka was speaking earnestly, logically—and Erin heard her.
But Ryoka had not been there during the siege. Erin Solstice drew a knife from her belt, and Ryoka held up her hands.
“I understand what you just said, Ryoka. I get it. You raised a lot of good points just now. Forgiveness. Working with—people who have stains. I get it. Sometimes, to stop a monster, you might join forces with tiny monsters. I’ve decided to do things I know will hurt people, lately, and I know exactly—exactly what needs to be done.”
Erin was breathing harder. But the [Innkeeper]’s eyes never wavered from Tyrion Veltras.
“I believe in second chances. I believe in redemption and trying again.”
Ryoka saw Erin turn her head. And she recoiled from Erin’s look. The [Innkeeper] reached into her bag of holding and pulled something else out.
A jar of acid. She held it in her other hand as Tyrion’s eyes focused on that.
“Not him. Not him. I’ll take Magnolia Reinhart’s hand. I’ll forgive anyone else. But he—you don’t know what he did, do you, Ryoka? Do you even—you weren’t there. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Pyrite—that man murdered my friends. He brought war to Liscor and murdered countless innocent people. Not. Him.”
The floor was beginning to shake. Mrsha squeezed Gire’s arm tightly, afraid—but the words were ringing in her heart too. Numbtongue looked at Erin, and he smiled.
Not in happiness or satisfaction—but the same kind of deathly grin as when they had followed a girl waving a white flag into battle. Redscar bared his teeth as he nodded.
Tyrion Veltras stared at Erin Solstice. He looked at the Goblins—and when he spoke, it was softly.
“I do not believe we’ve ever met, Miss Solstice. I have made war on my enemies. But I do not remember slaying innocents.”
He stood there, and Erin’s eyes flickered. Just once. Then she looked at Sammial in his father’s shadow and lowered the jar of acid. Ryoka breathed—and Erin tucked the jar into her bag of holding, drew a smaller copper frying pan, and threw it at Tyrion’s face.
He parried the frying pan. His sword flicked left—and Numbtongue was in front of Erin. Her voice thundered.
“Numbtongue! If he takes one more step into this inn—take him out. If any one of them does—they’ll regret it. A [Witch]’s word on it.”
Ryoka shoved in front of Tyrion, trying to stop the Goblins as they advanced past the tables. But Tyrion was stepping back. He didn’t look confused—rather, he seemed grimly set.
“Leave, Ryoka. And don’t come back with him. Get out of my inn.”
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were baleful as they stared at Ryoka. And her hat…Ryoka stepped back, sweating. But Erin Solstice’s eyes softened a tiny bit. She turned her head and spoke to Redscar, who looked sidelong at her, a snarl on his face.
“Ryoka…you saved my life. So get out before Redscar loses it.”
He grunted—but Erin widened her eyes at him, and he hesitated. House Veltras was backing up already, and Ryoka was trying to say something to Erin as she pushed Tyrion to the [Portal Door].
Then Ryoka heard the horn calls from outside and turned her head. No, not something else! Not now!
Jericha fumbled with the door, but it wouldn’t open for someone who wasn’t one of Erin’s friends. Tyrion Veltras was moving back, his sons behind him.
“Wait. We’re not done. ”
Redscar stepped past Erin. She hesitated—but the Goblin’s eyes were locked on Tyrion. Erin raised an arm to block him—and didn’t quite do it.
“Erin Solstice. You do not want the blood of the Five Families shed here. Kindly open your door.”
Magnolia Reinhart warned her. Erin looked at Magnolia.
“As opposed to Goblin blood? Antinium? I’m opening it. Just—”
Erin lifted a finger, looking for Liska, and someone shook her. So hard she twisted and nearly punched the frantic young man in the face. It was—Kevin?
“Erin, Tesy is in danger.”
Kevin was shouting in her ear.
She turned—and Relc and Klbkch were already at the doors. They tried to push past House Veltras—and halted as they raised their blades. The corridor was packed—despite being wide enough to let channels of people through, Veltras had formed a wall of steel and Klbkch and Relc were trying to slide by—
The arrowslits and secret hallway were lined with Brothers, who had crossbows in hand. House Veltras saw them and were adjusting their shields. They were in the middle of a killing ground—but Relc actually shoved a spear back as he pushed forwards.
“Watch on duty! Move it!”
Relc shouted in the face of a guard from House Veltras. Klbkch saw Tyrion pivoting to face him—but then everyone heard the sounds from outside.
“Move! To the inn!”
“The Watch is sounding the alarm. Klb—”
A second of pause—then Ullim raised a hand and the blades went up. Now free, Relc barreled out the door, spear raised, and Klbkch leapt after him.
House Veltras took that moment to head for the door as well. Jericha was covering Hethon and Sammial with her body—this place would be their grave if it came to a fight. Not that anyone had fired—yet.
Erin Solstice was looking around in alarm.
“They’re after the [Painter]. They must have gotten him out of the inn.”
“Someone protect Tesy!”
Qwera knocked over tables and chairs, running for the door. Ceria looked around, swearing.
“Who? What’s going on?”
The word made Tyrion’s head snap up. But now, Grimalkin was checking himself.
“—Never a dull moment—stay here.”
He strode towards a window, intent on just heading out there instead of past the wary House Veltras. But now, Erin was snapping her fingers, and the [Portal Door] appeared in the middle of the common room.
“Go to Liscor! Tessa—”
“No. You’re in danger. Symphony is no joke.”
“Did she say Symphony? Dead gods—”
Typhenous uttered a word, and Erin hadn’t even seen him come in. Grimalkin just went for the door. He had nearly reached it when he turned his head.
“This will be dangerous.”
Lady Pryde Ulta stared at him. She actually tried to elbow him out of the way as the two headed through the door.
“Find Tesy! Get him back here. Ceria—”
“Pisces and Ksmvr are in Liscor. Yvlon, they definitely ran into them. What if Roshal—”
Yvlon kicked a table out of the way and went through the door. Ceria and Ylawes and his team were after them.
Half the inn was streaming through the door, and Tyrion glanced over his shoulder.
“We’re trapped here. Step out of the inn.”
He was watching the Goblins, because Redscar was sizing up the Veltras soldiers and counting his own Redfangs and warriors. Peggy had a crossbow, and Tyrion was staring at the trapped hallway.
“No, Erin, the door—”
Erin wasn’t listening. So Tyrion thrust open a door rather than be trapped in the confined portal chamber. He stepped outside, ushering his sons with Jericha and Ullim guarding them. It was actually a de-escalating move.
It led them outside—and right into Rags. The Goblin looked up, stared at Tyrion, and he swung his sword unconsciously towards her neck. She stepped back, and Erin whirled around.
Ryoka shouted at Tyrion—he’d halted his blade, but Redscar had come snarling out the doors.
“To the Chieftain!”
Every Goblin flooded out the inn, and House Veltras was moving back faster now. Goblins on one side, Veltras on the other—and Magnolia Reinhart’s staff were forming a line between Tyrion’s left side.
“Enough! Everyone, lower your weapons!”
Magnolia Reinhart’s command forced a few arms down, but Rags was just staring at Tyrion. Staring with the same kind of hatred that Erin—
“Ryoka, we could use that door—now.”
Tyrion’s voice was still calm. And Ryoka hated him a little for that, because he knew Erin’s hatred, saw the depths of her anger—and he was cold. But maybe that was just how he fought, in his tranquility of battle.
When some went hot—he calculated, like Halrac. Tyrion Veltras’ sword was pointing at the ground—in the distance, Liscor’s fog was clearing. There was fighting in the city, flashes of light, but a lot of the figures were fleeing. Or rather, headed to the eastern gates. Following someone running for their life.
The Thief of Clouds was stealing arrows out of the sky. Sellme ran for the inn as the Sinew Magus and the Lady of House Ulta went crashing into the streets, adding to the havoc. Symphony took one look at the Gecko, the Slayer of the Antinium, and either surrendered or ran.
But—there were lots of them. And the best, including the Maestro, were hot on Tesy’s heels. He ran past the two sides, screaming.
“Let me in! Let me—”
He ran into the trapped hallway, nearly ate a crossbow bolt from Alcaz, and collapsed as Erin Solstice looked around.
“Garden of Sanctuary! Now!”
Lyonette was already inside with Mrsha, and Gire dragged Tesy in as they bent over him. Better. Right up until a second group exited the city of Liscor and came charging up the hill.
They were in good formation. Tyrion Veltras and Rags noticed the tight, overlapping shields of the first group, footfalls practically coming down at the same time. Long Drake tails, bright, fiery armor—and a sigil of war.
“To the inn! Get to Celum—now!”
A panting Wall Lord was ushering a very upset Drake with bright azure scales, his sword and shield out. Erin Solstice was just calming down inside her inn when Tyrion Veltras moved.
Ryoka had been focused on Tesy, wondering who the heck he was and what ‘Symphony’ was. But Tyrion Veltras looked down the hill, and he recognized the armor. She saw him turn, and Jericha reached for him—but the [Lord] took three steps.
A short one, then a longer stride as he began to head down the hill’s side. Then his legs pushed off the ground, and the third step was more a leap.
Ryoka Griffin caught sight of his face. And then she saw the cold features of the Lord of House Veltras come—alive.
Alive with malice. With the kind of fury that would drive someone to send a Goblin Lord against a city. To plot to break a city of millions to dust and damnation. It came out in a word as Wall Lord Aldonss looked up and his eyes widened.
He brought the sword down as his leap carried him straight into the [Soldiers]. So fast—only Aldonss saw it. He tried to raise his shield, but the angle was off. So he guarded with his sword—
Tyrion’s blade buried the Wall Lord’s own blade into his neck and chest. The Wall Lord hadn’t been wearing armor for their ‘covert’ mission. Blood welled up as Rafaema whirled.
The Drake wrenched his sword free as Tyrion whirled. Manus’ Drakes turned on him. He looked up as Rafaema’s mouth opened.
The bolt of lightning glanced off Tyrion’s shield, and he recoiled. He leapt back as the Drakes shouted.
Who was shouting that? Ullim was bellowing at the [Soldiers] under Veltras’ command as Aldonss said the same thing. Rafaema had drawn her sword, and Ferris had a crossbow aimed at Tyrion’s head.
Jericha was aiming a wand down, but she hesitated. Tyrion was stalking left, and he brought his shield up as a howl split the air.
“Oh come on.”
Ressa muttered. She looked up as Spearmaster Lulv charged at Tyrion. The [Lord]’s sword blurred as a flurry of stabs crashed against the shield.
“Lulv, fall back! Hold your ground! Hold your ground!”
Aldonss’ voice froze the [Soldiers], and Lulv himself drew back a step.
“Lord Veltras, you cannot start a war!”
Ullim howled down at him. Tyrion was hesitating, eyes blazing with fury as he looked from Lulv to the Drakes. Rafaema was staring at the inn. It was so close!
Stalemate—and now it was Goblins eying Manus and House Veltras. Meanwhile—the Liscorians present, including Drassi, hadn’t forgotten who had entered the Hectval Alliance’s war.
“Manus? Here? The bastards!”
Selys shouted out from the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Chaldion was shouting as Onieva dragged him towards the garden.
“Let go of me. Get Saliss—we cannot have a war between north and south! Stand down, you fools!”
In the middle of this, three sides of soldiers. High-level warriors about to gut each other—the inn literally shaking with an [Innkeeper]’s fury—you would have to be insane to come up that hill.
Professionals. For Tyrion Veltras turned as Lulv tensed—and he spoke another word.
“[Assassins]. Ullim. Shield the boys.”
Symphony came up the hill, three dozen figures who saw the standoff. Even they hesitated. But they still went for the inn.
“Fulfill the contract.”
A Drake pointed. One of the [Assassins] went down with an arrow in the leg—another deflected an arrow from Bird before he leapt down the stairs of his tower and into the inn. He locked the door—[Assassins] swung up onto the roofs. Others lost their blades in a moment as Lulv disarmed one—another raised their paws, and he halted the killing stroke.
“Who are they—”
Confused, he saw an [Assassin] leap for an open window. The figure actually made it into Joseph’s rooms. But then they saw the golden-plated figure slap a talisman to the door—slam it—
The blast of fire had nowhere to go in the contained room but out. Ser Lormel took his fingers out of his ears as a figure went shooting out of the window and landed, tumbling down the hill. He slammed the window shut.
“Second floor secure!”
The [Assassins] were trying to get in, but Dame Ushar was slamming the hilt of her sword against her shield.
“[Safehouse: Lockdown]. One made it onto the third floor—”
Only one [Assassin] had managed to bust in with a breaching Skill. The rest were frozen as Goblins aimed their bows up at them. A furious Frost Wyvern was in the skies and threatening to blast across Erin’s inn with ice.
But they had a job. Find that damn [Painter]. The figure leapt down the hallways, fan-daggers ready. They saw the Gnoll at the same time as Ishkr ascended the steps.
The daggers lashed out. Ishkr poked the masked Drake in the head.
The Drake appeared on the rooftop, rolled to their feet—and froze as a huge crossbow bolt thudded into the wood next to their face. Rags pointed at the Drake, and Numbtongue swung a hand-crossbow up.
“The inn! First Instruments—go!”
The Maestro was shouting. He was slashing with a rapier as Tyrion and Lulv pivoted towards him, uncertain who he was. Six figures broke past the Goblins and House Veltras.
Four made it to the inn. Ullim got one, Ressa another with a pair of spinning bolas. But the other four rushed on, one with a stab-wound straight through their shoulder.
“Damn. They’re like the Ranks! But they’re professionals!”
Ressa snapped. The four were on a suicide attack. The south’s Guild was going to fulfill their contract—or die trying. She had to watch Magnolia—Ressa hesitated until she remembered who was inside the inn.
And—something was wrong. She tried to remember what she knew of Symphony and cursed as she looked down at the struggling [Assassin]. He didn’t even care that she had broken his legs. The Gnoll kept moving until she planted her poisoned Blade of Grasses in his skull.
Magnolia shouted at her. That would only make things worse! But Ressa just pointed down, and Reynold cursed.
Lulv realized something was off as well. He had killed eight [Assassins] so far from the famous killing group, Symphony.
Eight of them—and while he knew they were able to replenish their numbers, he had heard they were professionals. One of the south’s top [Assassin]-groups for hire.
He slowed for just a second as House Veltras and his forces took down figure after figure. They were defending themselves—but he didn’t sense many killing blows coming his way.
“Why do they feel—hard?”
Aldonss pointed as he saw Lulv slow.
Instantly, six [Soldiers] took aim alongside sixty spectral crossbows that appeared in the air, ready to pincushion anyone who so much as sneezed near Lulv. The [Spearmaster] took that moment to examine one of the dead Drakes he’d stabbed through the heart. He turned the body over—and cursed.
Lulv saw a hole in the Drake’s chest, torn open by one of his Skills. But what he didn’t see—was blood. And as he looked into the gaping wound, instead of flesh, he saw—
Glass. The figure lay there, slowly crumbling under their dark clothing. Lulv looked up—and he thought he heard a sound. It was echoing back towards Liscor.
“They’re all proxies! This is a clone Skill!”
Their insane charge made sense now. He whirled. They just had to get one person into that inn! He had another thought as well—
Why didn’t Manus have this? But then—the hair across one arm flew away, cut by the sheer force of the swing as the Maestro descended upon him. The Drake fought with a unit of his [Assassins] shielding him, going for the inn.
The inn…where a Drake was clawing at the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door until he collapsed. Lyonette was trying to drag him in with Mrsha and the others, but Gireulashia herself couldn’t do it. The Maestro murmured calmly as he watched four of his best enter the inn.
“[No Sanctuary, No Respite. From Dawn Till Dusk, You Were Hunted].”
Tesy couldn’t get inside. Now—he was being dragged upstairs by Qwera and Vetn as the [Assassins] strove to reach him. But they had to get through the inn first.
Shriekblade stood in the trapped hallway. The First Trumpet, First Violin, and First Drums halted. First Flute looked at them.
“Buy me an opening. If I don’t make it—call off the performance. Protect the Maestro instead.”
This was a disaster. But the three [Assassins]—they looked at Shriekblade.
“One step and you die.”
Someone exhaled. Perhaps it was a laugh. Even Shriekblade had seldom met people who took her threats so lightly. Then—all four figures leapt at her.
Life was a song. And they could sing louder, faster than most of Symphony. But Shriekblade was a terrible, beautiful orchestra all on her own. Her blades kissed flesh the moment she moved.
—To their credit, the three of them gave the First Flute an opening. She went stumbling into the common room of the inn, long daggers raised. And what she found was nothing.
Exactly nothing. She looked around the empty inn—and then saw the [Garden of Sanctuary] shutting as Ishkr hurried in. The [Assassin] strode over to the door and tried the handle. Then she tried her lockpicking Skill.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Some kind of saferoom? Had the Drake gone in here or…? If he had escaped into the garden despite the Maestro’s Skill, it was over. She couldn’t remember running into security this tough before. Dozens of Level 30+ fighters, a trapped hallway, a Named Adventurer as an attack dog?
Killing an officer of Manus was like that—but then the final icing on the cake was a sanctuary Skill of legends? She just stood there—until she heard two things.
A scraping sound from above. An indrawn breath—and the [Assassin] looked up. There you are. But before she could head for the stairs, someone spoke at her back.
“You made a mistake coming in here. Leave Tesy alone.”
The [Assassin] heard a voice, a flurry of voices trying to stop someone—and then she turned. The [Innkeeper] was there. She had a knife in one hand…a glowing jar in the other.
“You’re not our target. Hand him over.”
The First Flute whirled her daggers up. The [Innkeeper] just stared at the [Assassin]. She was—angry. The inn was shaking. The [Assassin] felt like she was underwater. Hostile aura. She fought it off—and the [Innkeeper] whispered.
The First Flute wondered how bad this performance had gone. Had anyone been captured or, worse, died? Symphony’s members were allowed to surrender if their real bodies were in danger, but they were fighting an army of foes.
What a disaster. Salazsar might bail them out—but failure would be on the Maestro’s head. She had to reach the [Painter]. But she didn’t want to hurt the [Innkeeper] who was blocking the stairs, so the First Flute tried words first.
“That [Painter] destroyed eight priceless heirlooms of the City of Gems. There is no replacing them. We won’t stop. Symphony is a performance without end.”
Erin Solstice just lifted her hands, and the First Flute sighed.
She might fail here, if Shriekblade or another fighter caught up. But really. An [Innkeeper]? The First Flute lifted a dagger. Just get around her and—
Erin threw the jar of acid, and the First Flute dodged. It had gone straight for her head. She was leaping at Erin—and the second object, the knife, made her deflect it in midair. Fast throws! But it was just an [Innkeep—
Erin was stepping back to the wall behind her, but one hand was digging at another knife in her belt. The other was raising something over her head. Was that a hat—
[Hat Trick: Light Flare]. The [Assassin] went blind for a second. She swung her daggers wildly, performing an [Evasive Flip] as she heard a click.
Crossbow bolts buried themselves in the wall. Someone shouted—
“Miss Solstice, leave it to us!”
“No! Hold Normen back!”
The First Flute’s eyes cleared, and she heard the voice from behind—
She deflected the second knife stabbing at her back as the [Innkeeper] stepped out of a wall. The garden door had moved! Erin’s arm snaked back behind the door, and it closed—
From below! The knife would have cut her off at the ankles—it could come out of any direction! The First Flute was dodging wildly, and Erin leapt into the inn behind the bar.
“Fire the crossbows! Don’t worry about me!”
She was crazy! The hesitation was followed by the crack of multiple bolts criss-crossing the room. The [Assassin] had to use another Skill.
[Notes of Deflection]! Three harsh chords made Erin Solstice wince, but the sound actually snapped the crossbow bolts before they hit the Drake. Erin Solstice wasn’t done, though. She lifted her hat—and the glowing fish sprang to life. The [Assassin] stared at the fish—
“Is she winning?”
Lyonette was furious—at Erin! She should have left the fighting to someone else. Shriekblade—or the [Knights]. Gire was in Liscor, and the adventurers had gone with her—any second now, someone would come to subdue the [Assassin].
But Erin was attacking from all angles—and in the flashes of the door opening, Lyonette saw a harried figure slashing furious glowing piranhas in half.
The [Assassin] said not a word, but her blades cleared everything around her in a flash. It would have hit Erin too, but the [Innkeeper] threw herself through the door—onto the grass—rolled—
And appeared in the inn at the same time as Ser Sest and Ser Lormel leapt out of the kitchen and other hallway. The two Thronebearers attacked in unison as the Brothers exited the hallway. Normen was in the garden—in reserve—and the First Flute looked around.
She struck her blades together, creating her own spray of sparks that made them jump back. Ser Sest just charged into the sparks, sword swinging, but she ducked away. When she rose, she had something in one claw. Not her dagger but a flute—
Erin ducked into her [Garden] just in time. Everyone else was too slow. Erin heard the most painful, earsplitting shriek come from the flute. And that was nothing to the way the Brothers and Thronebearers fell over
[Wail of Agony]. The First Flute drew her dagger again and stepped over the fallen Sest. She was heading for the stairs—but this time, she saw Erin coming.
The garden door opened, and the [Assassin] whirled.
Her blades stabbed at two shoulders as she knocked a mace aside. The twin strikes kissed—
And screeched off as Normen shield-charged her. A feint! She kicked the [Knight]-in-training back through the door and whirled. Too slow. The young woman was right behind her.
The [Assassin] deflected Pelt’s knife with a curse. Erin punched her in the gut.
She was so furious, and her onslaught of attacks gave her the opening to hammer the Drake in the gut. The [Assassin] stumbled back, clutching at her stomach, and Erin Solstice grabbed a chair to throw. She could sense Shriekblade pursuing two of the figures outside—one was down—but then she came bounding towards the common room of the inn.
She had told Erin to hide—but Erin had the [Assassin] on the ropes. Erin charged the [Assassin] with a chair.
A chair might be a poor weapon against daggers—but it was longer. And the [Assassin] was leaping sideways when something kicked her in the chest. That something was called the [Inn’s Aura]. She stumbled, and a huge Gnoll [Paragon] stepped through the garden door.
Gire’s turn. The Gnoll had a fist raised. The First Flute slashed.
[Phantom Blade: Ritardando Combo]!
She never spoke her Skills aloud. She went darting left, blades slashing as Gire dodged and parried two slashes from the Drake with a sword she’d borrowed from Lyonette. But she didn’t get a chance to attack back. Gire’s eyes went round, and she ducked the third, spectral sword that appeared in the air.
The sword was slashing alongside the First Flute! It nearly got Gire, not because she couldn’t fight the First Flute and the sword at the same time—
—But because the spectral blade was slowing with each cut. Like a tempo in music, each cut became slower, which threw off Gire’s instantaneous reactions. She stepped back as the [Assassin] pivoted—
—And Erin brought the chair down on her head.
Her furniture was too tough to break like cheap movie props, but Erin tried to knee the Drake in the face. The Drake backed up as Gire vanished through the garden door. Of all the people, the [Innkeeper] refused to run and was doing the most damage! She splattered the First Flute with a jar of acid, and the Drake felt her fake body burning and dissolving. But she was staring at Erin. How, how, how—?
The Brothers were afraid to fire their crossbows again, and Erin had forbade Alcaz and Normen from fighting to the death. The [Assassin] didn’t seem like she believed what was going on. She waved her good dagger—she’d lost hold of the other as she backed up.
“Last chance! Surrender!”
Erin Solstice was reaching for another jar of acid. Her blood was boiling with fury. At Ryoka—at the attackers—but she didn’t know if she was ready to kill. She was just so angry. Erin was about to conjure flame as she raised the chair when the First Flute flung up a claw.
The [Innkeeper] was charging at the Drake with the chair again. Erin Solstice wavered—began to laugh—
And fell over. Suddenly, abruptly, Erin Solstice collapsed. She hit the floor, and her first thought was—
The [Assassin] was so shocked she stared at Erin for an entire second. Erin Solstice tried to move—and suddenly, her back, her legs, her arms were screaming at her. Her—what had happened?
Then she realized she felt weak as a kitten. Erin tried to raise her head, and it was an effort. Her body hurt. The—
She’d just removed Erin’s Bulkup Bisque effect! The [Innkeeper] had lost the strength enhancement she ate every day. And with it—
“What the? It was an enchantment.”
Oh no. Nononono—Erin saw the [Assassin] grab her dagger. Then she kicked Erin over onto her back.
A door to the garden opened under Erin, and she tried to fall to safety—but a hand grabbed her shoulder, and she couldn’t go through!
The [Assassin] had her. She was so fast—
The First Flute murmured in respect. Then her other claw moved. The blade flashed down.
Shriekblade burst into the inn a second too late. The First Flute looked up, and the Named-rank lifted a dagger. She stopped—because she saw what had happened.
Erin Solstice was lying on her back—and the [Assassin] had a blade at her throat. She dragged Erin up, and Erin tried to pull away, but she could barely move.
“Let go. Let go and I won’t kill you.”
Shriekblade hissed. The First Flute was panting.
“No. Bring Sellme down.”
“I can’t—I can’t—”
Erin was trying to break the grip on her, but she couldn’t! And the blade at her throat—Tessa looked at it. She hesitated—and changed her grip on her daggers. She was still ready to spring, and she could kill the First Flute.
But she couldn’t beat those daggers.
“Let go of her…and I won’t kill all of you.”
Shriekblade’s negotiation had two notes. But she was staring at the blade at Erin’s throat. And the Drake was glancing at the door—at the hallway—
“If anyone moves or tries a Skill—back up!”
She looked around as the Named-rank adventurer, frustrated, glanced around for help. Lyonette had her hands over her mouth, and Gire was hesitating, trying to calculate whether she could reach Erin in time. Dalimont and Ushar were cursing, but the panting First Flute looked about.
“Get—get the Maestro.”
Ryoka Griffin was in a four-way standoff now. Her Faeblade was glowing as she looked across a battlefield with no blood.
Symphony was dead. But their bodies had turned to glass powder and vanished. Only their ‘Maestro’ was standing apart, but there were adventurers, the inn’s guests behind him, and he seemed—resigned.
“Time for the curtain call. Ah—has she failed?”
He looked to the inn as the doors opened. Symphony was all dead. All but two. And when someone stepped out, Ryoka’s heart sank.
“We—we need the Maestro. No one attack him! Put down your weapons! They’ve taken Erin hostage.”
Lyonette du Marquin shouted, and Relc lowered his spear, eyes wide, as Klbkch stopped sidling around the Maestro’s left. The Drake blinked—and he seemed almost as outraged as everyone else. But Ryoka took one step towards the inn.
“No one else come in! Just—just the Maestro. Who is…?”
“That would be me. Excuse me.”
The Drake lowered his blade and began striding for the inn. Spearmaster Lulv snarled.
“Hostage situation? Take the Drake hostage and force a—”
He strode towards the Maestro, and the Drake pivoted. But Tyrion Veltras had had the same idea. The two men saw each other move—and a sword rose towards Lulv’s throat at the same time as his spear aimed at Tyrion’s stomach.
“Stop fighting, you idiots!”
Rafaema howled, but House Veltras and Manus were now at each other’s throats again. Jericha took aim at Wall Lord Aldonss as he took cover behind another wall with Rafaema—and Zevara was storming up the hill.
“Hold your fire! Everyone stand down on Liscor’s authority!”
No one listened to her. The Wall Lord was whispering.
“If Lulv can take out the north’s war leader—can we spin it upon Symphony or the chaos?”
“This is not the time for war.”
Rafaema’s voice was steely, and Aldonss hesitated. But Tyrion and Lulv seemed ready to gut each other without waiting for anything else. The two groups were frozen as Rags eyed Tyrion and wondered if this was her chance. Her crossbow was slowly rising, and she was thinking, thinking while she remembered seeing Pyrite’s back for the last time.
That was when she heard the sound of bells.
They rang across the city of Liscor. Not as large as church bells, but with the same resonance. Skills informed them, and figures marched up the hill, out the gates, and from behind The Wandering Inn, pouring out of a hidden tunnel by the hundreds.
Tyrion Veltras hesitated, and Lulv’s spear twitching with tension slowly relaxed. Both Tyrion and the Gnoll looked around—and slowly lowered their blades and turned.
For if they hated each other—the sight of hundreds of Antinium bearing steel and faith was enough to make them both hesitate.
The 7th Hive emerged from the gates of Liscor. Crusader 57 was marching with Squad 5 as Battalion 6, the Beriad, slammed blades against their armor.
Jericha looked around, dry-mouthed with horror. She gazed down as a sea of [Crusaders] stormed out of Liscor. Watch Captain Zevara whirled in relief.
“Who called for them? Wh—”
She spotted the Antinium leading them. The one who’d snuck out from the beginning. Not to run or avoid a fight—but to make sure if Tyrion died, he died.
The Maestro’s own scales crawled as he saw the [Priest of Wrath and Sky] leading Painted Antinium and [Crusaders] up the hill. The Antinium said nothing as the first rank knelt, aiming spears and shields up at the inn. The second rank aimed over their heads, and House Veltras and Manus’ forces lowered their weapons.
They might have been the finest in the north and south—but they could see the bows and crossbows trained on them. A thousand Antinium were surrounding the inn, and that number was only growing by the minute.
Pawn’s own eyes were glowing with something—like Xrn’s own gaze—and the armor of the [Crusaders] shone as the air clashed with the sound of steel and then fell silent. Even the wind seemed to be holding its breath as Ryoka paled.
Even the Antinium held, though—because Erin Solstice was being held hostage. And so, the Drake standing there and looking around adjusted his suit. He plucked an orchid out of his bag of holding, fastened it to a lapel, and nodded to the others.
“I believe that is my cue. Excuse me.”
The Maestro stepped into the inn as Pawn nodded to Rags. He stared at Tyrion and sighed. The [Priest] muttered.
“It would be war if we killed him. Or Manus, correct?”
He looked at Watch Captain Zevara, and she gave him a tight nod. The [Priest] stared at Spearmaster Lulv as the Gnoll looked around. Pawn slowly clasped his hands together.
“I’ll pray on it.”
A single Drake slowly walked down the trapped corridor of the inn. He paused to eye the arrow-slits, the place where acid had been poured through a murder hole in the ceiling and splashed on the floorboards.
Three of his best had ‘died’ here. Carefully, the Maestro walked through the open door into the common room of the inn and looked around.
He saw smashed tables and chairs, a few men in hats groaning on the floor as someone checked on them, a door leading to a magical garden—and a young woman on the floor, a knife held to her throat.
The Drake looked around and took in a few people standing against the walls. They were not allowed to come closer.
Gireulashia, the huge [Paragon], was watching Erin while Normen, Yelroan, and the others watched the First Flute holding Erin Solstice. The Maestro saw a struggling little white Gnoll in the grip of a girl.
Nanette was holding Mrsha back from adding to the situation—and Erin was just lying there. She had tried to open the door to the garden again, but the First Flute had stopped her, and now she just lay there. Panting, unable to believe she was being held hostage in her own inn.
The Maestro’s gaze flicked to his subordinate. He actually looked disapproving.
“The target…was being guarded by too many warriors, Maestro. I couldn’t reach him, and the [Innkeeper]—”
“I see. So we have a stalemate. Innkeeper Erin Solstice, I apologize for this. But here we are.”
The Maestro looked around—and then took a seat at one of the good tables. He leaned his sword against the table with a sigh, and Erin Solstice spoke.
“Who are you people?”
He brushed at his grey-sapphire scales, and he looked old. Old, for an [Assassin]. The Drake spoke one word.
“Symphony. I believe you have had the misfortune of meeting Orchestra? We are their…let us say ‘rivals’. If the North has their precious Named-rank team, we are the refrain, the countermelody of the south.”
Erin glared, and the Maestro nodded.
“Yes. And Lord Deniusth’s famous team are mercenaries who sometimes kill monsters. We take contracts on individuals or entire groups. In fact, Liscor may one day make use of our services now it has rejoined southern politics.”
Erin just stared at him. The blade at her throat seemed to remind the Maestro of why he was here. He sat back.
“The [Painter] is above. I don’t suppose there’s a chance of this being settled peacefully? You give him to us—you go free.”
Dame Ushar sighed audibly as Erin stared at the Maestro, outraged he would even suggest it. The Drake just exhaled.
“You know why we are after him?”
“He ruined some art? He doesn’t deserve to die! You—you come to Liscor, you hunt him and endanger my friends—if one of them is dead, I’ll find you. All of you.”
The Drake nodded at that. As if Erin weren’t the one being held hostage by the First Flute. The First Flute actually prodded Erin with the tip of her blade to remind her who was issuing threats, but the Maestro glared at her, and she desisted. Instead of getting angry, the Drake folded his claws together and spoke.
“…A year or two ago, when Sellme was gaining notoriety among the Walled Cities, I said once that no sum Salazsar or any Walled City could post would inspire me to go after the famous painter. I confess—I was a fan of his works. Lampooning corruption is not something I believe someone should die for, even if his methods were sometimes—questionable.”
Erin Solstice blinked. Lyonette, who had come in, blinked as well. Chaldion rolled his eyes. The Maestro was pretending he didn’t know the Drake staring at him from the side. The leader of Symphony went on.
“—That was until about two weeks ago. You may know that Sellme and some associates broke into a public museum of Salazsar, don’t you?”
Everyone nodded. Erin nearly slit her throat. The Drake went on quietly.
“He destroyed more than mere ‘art’. His associates burnt—beyond any chance of repair—Requiel ute Minen. Among others—a national treasure of Salazsar is up in smoke.”
Someone groaned. It turned out to be Selys. Even she knew that one. Erin looked at the Drake, and he elaborated.
“It may not look like much. Just—a lifelike picture of some [Miners] in repose outside of the mines. Beautifully done. Oil painted—I shall never remember it in as much detail as I saw it. But if you stare at it, one person or thousands of viewers, it will calm all hearts. Make your burdens ease. It was done by a Level 60 [Painter], and it took the tiredness of Salazsar’s citizens, their aches and pains—each year—for thousands of years. Yes, much of what Sellme destroyed was vanity and overvalued. But that? It was made for the people that Sellme claims to represent. And now it is gone forever.”
Erin just stared at the Drake. That didn’t mean he had to die. But there the Maestro and she clearly differed in opinion. The Drake hesitated, then went on as he sat up and put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“I confess, that is only half the reason I took the contract. He…destroyed something very precious to me as well. It was useless, sentimental, but I will never deny I am motivated by vengeance. But Requiel? An [Artist] should not destroy beauty.”
He looked up to the ceiling, and Erin Solstice rasped.
“You can’t have him.”
The Maestro glanced down at her and shrugged.
“I can see an army outside your inn. That may be so—but we have you. First Flute. Bring her outside. This inn is her ground. Let’s settle this.”
In the five to ten minutes it took for the Maestro to go inside and come back out, everyone began talking. Weapons were lowered. Lulv, Aldonss, Tyrion—all were catching up on the situation.
Why had Erin been captured? Didn’t she have the garden? Ryoka didn’t know, but when she saw the Drake dragging Erin out, Ryoka almost went for the two [Assassins].
“Hold. We have a prisoner. Miss, we are prepared to negotiate. We will defend ourselves if need be.”
The Maestro addressed Lyonette, and the [Princess] raised her chin.
“I think you’ll find that it will cost you more to attack this inn. And if Erin is hurt or dies—”
She was staring at Erin, trying to come up with a threat powerful enough. But a voice rumbled behind her.
“If she dies, the Titan will be after you.”
The Maestro turned—and Venaz pointed his greatsword at the Drake. The Minotaur clasped a fist to his chest as he looked at Erin and then the [Assassins].
“The Forgotten Wing Company will haunt you to your graves. Three-Color Stalker owes Miss Solstice a debt.”
“Oh, Creler eggs.”
The First Flute hissed that. The name of the famous killer of [Assassins] made even Symphony hesitate—much less the Titan. Someone else broke in, coughing.
“Pallass too. Your bounty is in jeopardy, Maestro. Contact your employers.”
Chaldion appeared from behind Lyonette, and now the Maestro was—vexed. He looked right and left, and Tyrion Veltras slowly began to raise a hand, but Magnolia Reinhart beat him to it.
“If it helps, the wrath of Reinharts extends to all of Izril. But I am sure you had already considered that. Let her go, Maestro of Symphony, I take it?”
Three world powers were, at this moment, threatening the Drake with the conductor’s wand. He looked around, and Grimalkin, Rags, and Klbkch all considered that being the fourth threatening force sounded less impressive.
They got the message. Symphony’s members looked at each other, and the Maestro’s lips moved. His faded scales moved as he brushed at his neck spines with one claw. Then he gazed about him.
“…Are you all mad? Symphony does not kill bystanders wantonly. That is your precious Guild of Assassins in the north. Or Orchestra. Killing her is a last resort I trust you will not force us to. Why would we kill someone who can post <Quests>? She is far too important for that.”
He looked at Erin Solstice and then around, mystified, and Ryoka’s mouth opened. Erin was…
Even the [Innkeeper] was puzzled. She was too important to die? But come to that—the First Flute was holding her dagger carefully, making sure not to cut Erin with what might be a poisoned edge.
The tension in the air faded—slightly. But the Maestro was eying Erin.
“It is abundantly clear that this is a failed performance for Symphony. We will withdraw—but we require assurances reprisals will not come after us. Not difficult, I think. No one was killed by our people in this attempt.”
“Don’t negotiate with killers.”
Tyrion stared at the Maestro before directing his comments to Zevara and the Watch. Ceria raised a hand.
“On the other hand—do negotiate with someone who will kill Erin if he has to.”
“Sensible. I have an ultimatum. My people go free—unharmed—that is not up for debate. No pursuit, no bounties. Let them go. We are Symphony. We are willing to die—and I think the [Innkeeper] is worth more to you than our lives.”
“Promise to let Erin go if—”
“Let my people free.”
The conductor’s wand changed to a second blade—a shortsword—and the Drake laid it at Erin’s throat. The Gold-bell on the hilt of the blade never chimed, and Zevara looked around.
“—Agreed. No pursuit, no bounties.”
Erin Solstice watched everything, red with shame. She was so weak, in fact, that the First Flute was holding her upright—she couldn’t even stand. She should have stayed in the inn!
The Maestro was giving orders fearlessly, and everyone was having to obey. The guests, the Watch, all fell back, leaving Lyonette and her Thronebearers, Tyrion, the Manus group, Magnolia…
“Now we negotiate the terms by which she’s set free. We will withdraw and release her once we reach a safe position. You may enforce it with a scroll or truth spell—after swearing to forgo pursuit.”
“Fine. We’ll let you go. But swear on a truth spell first to let Erin as well. Grimalkin?”
Lyonette was breathing hard, and Tyrion just glared, disgusted by the negotiations. But the Maestro glanced down at Erin and flicked up a claw.
“We almost have an agreement. Sellme—we cannot have him. I see that. But if we have a dagger pressed to the throat of Izril’s most famous [Innkeeper]—”
Larra was going to hate that. Erin glared at the Drake, and he looked down at her.
“—Then I think we should insist upon at least one more thing.”
“You have to be kidding me. We’re not paying a ransom. We have a hundred spells and bows on you. You want to extort us? Maybe we’ll take our chances. Not everyone cares about this Human.”
Rafaema barked at the Maestro. Magnolia Reinhart turned her head, then moved her hand. The [Assassins] tensed—but the slap to the back of the head just hit Rafaema so hard she staggered.
“Name your price.”
She called out as Lulv whirled around in outrage. The Maestro just stroked his chin.
“A <Quest>. Make it Heroic or Mythical. Something for us.”
He looked down at Erin Solstice, and the young woman gaped at him like a fish.
Ryoka Griffin’s mouth opened. The fearless Drake stood there, sword at Erin’s throat, and that was how Drassi’s camera crew found him. That was—
Well, that was the broadcast that changed things. An entire world, breaking news from Wistram. A famous assassin group, a blade at the [Innkeeper]’s throat. Erin got her attention. And everyone else learned something.
You could threaten the [Innkeeper]. Probably not kill her—but why would anyone do that? Yet if the Golden Goose didn’t want to produce an egg for you—
A blade might do it.
“I’m not giving a <Quest> to nobody. Eat a Creler.”
Erin snapped, red-faced. The Maestro pressed the blade to her throat.
“Miss Solstice. I’m told you have powerful friends.”
“Yeah? You’re not going to kill me.”
“No—but they might regret wasting a Potion of Regeneration on you.”
The [Innkeeper] hesitated. The Drake’s eyes never wavered as he stared down at her. Lyonette bit her tongue so hard it nearly bled.
“Erin—just give him something!”
“You—you can’t make me give you a <Quest>. I can’t just give them out! They don’t grow on trees!”
The Maestro was amazingly poised. He’d clearly done this before. In fact…now Lyonette was remembering.
Symphony. Symphony and Orchestra. The famous rivals of the Named-rank team were a Drake assassin group from the south. This…
“This is all Deni’s fault. I’ll fucking kill him. He can’t end one damn nemesis? I heard he went to this bastard’s wedding!”
Colth was shouting in the background. The Maestro had a mirthless smile on his lips as he replied to Erin.
“Deniusth is a fool with no musical or martial talent to speak of. No, Miss Solstice, I know you may not be able to post anything you want…but I would bet my life that you could give at least one more insanely valuable, life-changing <Quest> out. In fact, I would bet it on a truth spell. And—I think the world would love to know what you’re hiding. In lieu of anyone else, I will play the villain. I am quite the killer. I wouldn’t hesitate to chop off a limb or a finger.”
Chaldion almost started applauding then and there. You had to admire it. Who here hadn’t privately, in the confines of their own head, considered that the best way to get what they wanted out of Erin was to hold her at knife-point?
But you couldn’t do that to people you liked. This Drake though…Erin was getting redder because she seemed to realize she was stuck.
The Drake might cut off a finger, and she didn’t want to go the way of Ryoka or the Horns. But he was forcing her to—to—
“Any <Heroic Quest>, Miss Solstice. To quote a clock—tick-tock, tick-tock.”
“I’m thinking! I can’t post most of them. And you can’t have…”
Erin was floundering. What could she do? Not invisibility cloth! Or—would he go for a dungeon?
The Drake was reading her mind.
“Something I personally would appreciate, Miss Solstice. Buried treasure? I am willing to race others within limits. No dungeons. If I don’t like it, I will regretfully make you post another. I’d take a free mansion. Do you have anything to do with music?”
“I can’t post my dancing quest. I can’t dance.”
“How regrettable. You might be a very fine study in footwork. The First Flute told me you nearly brought her down on your own.”
She just glared. Erin Solstice knew she had to do something—but she was being honest when she said most of her <Quests> were either long-term, too valuable, or…
<Legendary Quest: Destroy Roshal.>
She wanted to say it. She wanted to—and she knew that would just make things suck. Could she post the <Quest> through him and break every bone in his body like Tekshia’s Guild?
No, no, here was the [Innkeeper], unable to move, and even if she could—the [Assassins] were combat classes. The Maestro was a Gold-bell duelist.
Erin Solstice thought—and thought—and for some reason, something felt different. As she ran through the <Quests> she had and had tried, a short list, Erin realized something.
One of them felt—different.
It was like if Erin was on a computer, trying to click on a dead hyperlink or a program that never worked. Only now—she felt it light up in her head. Like an option suddenly reactivating.
“There is one…”
It seemed then, to the audience—and Erin had most of the world, including a concerned Fetohep, Niers, and Ilvriss—who was currently demanding to know which idiot had activated Symphony—that Erin was almost speaking to herself, now.
Noa, the Fraerlings of Paeth, all watched as Erin puzzled out—on live television—a mystery of this new phenomenon.
“I—I couldn’t post this before. But now I can. Is that because I have to be able to fulfill the reward? Why can I do it now? Is it…something in my pockets?”
She stared down at her belt, and the Maestro hesitated. He nodded to the First Flute, and she searched Erin’s bag of holding.
“Jar of acid…I’ll just take this. Engagement ring of Salazsar—what? Piece of burnt bread, healing potion.”
“That’s a fake ring. That’s not what it’s used for.”
Erin said it instantly. She glanced up, spotted Drassi, and turned redder.
“Hey. Hey! Is that a scrying orb? Am I on television? This is a hostage situation! Get lost! No—wait. Christmas! There’s a holiday coming up and—”
Ryoka just stared at Erin. The Maestro cleared his throat, and the First Flute pulled something out that made Erin stop screaming.
“That’s it! Give it here!”
“Don’t let her drink it. It won’t help you, Miss. It takes a few minutes to activate, and believe me—I am far more adept than anything that potion will give you.”
The Maestro warned Erin, and she held it limply in one hand. But there it was. Everyone peered at it, and it was Alchimagus Resk of Paeth who identified it first.
“Why—that’s a Talent Potion. If I had to guess from the icon, it’s Mastery of Swordsmanship. Or some lesser variant.”
Saliss’ potion that gave someone temporary Skills or abilities with the blade lay in Erin’s palm. And she—she stared at it and then at something else, puzzled.
“Really? Aw—come on.”
“This is all delightfully fascinating. But if you wouldn’t mind—? It sounds like you have something to offer me. I tell you what—I’ll even forgo killing this [Painter]. Symphony’s word on it.”
The Drake was idly checking a [Message] scroll currently exploding with orders. He sighed, and Erin glared up at him.
“I’m going to remember this.”
“My dear. It’s just good business. But remember away. I will note, though, that my association has taken no lives. We are professionals.”
“You won’t get away with…no, that sounds bad. I’m gonna…I…today was supposed to be a fun day.”
The Maestro actually looked sympathetic at the plaintive tone in Erin’s voice. Ryoka lowered her head, and the elderly Drake leaned over and stage-whispered.
“Miss Solstice. If I may be so bold?”
His free claw indicated House Veltras, the forces of Manus, Magnolia, the Goblins—and the Maestro raised his brows.
“…I don’t believe it was going well before I interceded.”
Erin Solstice looked up at him, and in that moment, she decided she didn’t hate him the most. It was probably Tyrion, Manus, Ryoka—a list going down with Erin Solstice’s own stupidity and reliance on her bisque at the top.
All of them hating each other. All of them wanting to attack each other. Tyrion and Lulv staring daggers. The Goblins and Tyrion. Some of them had the best reasons in the world. So—Erin whispered.
“Fine. Fine. You’re right. And you know what? You asked for it. All of you. You want a damn <Quest>? Here’s the one you deserve.”
The air…began to shake. Erin Solstice raised her hand, and the Maestro leaned back. But she was grasping at something, writing in the air—and the words began burning in every [Innkeeper]’s mind in a hundred miles. The glowing words were clearly reflected—backwards—onto every scrying orb in the world, and the smart people grabbed a mirror or waited for someone to project the right wording.
Erin Solstice raised her hand with all the energy she had left in her body, and a piece of parchment flared to life as she drew it out of her belt pouch. The ground shook. And the vial of Saliss’ Talent Potion—
Vanished. Then the <Quest> burned in the air, and Erin Solstice fell back limply.
The Maestro grinned, and when he saw what she wrote—he laughed and raised his sword. He saluted her and stepped back as everyone’s heads rose and they read the glowing words tracing themselves across the sky.
<Heroic Quest – Zeladona’s Trial of a Thousand Blades!>
Limits: Must use a blade of any kind. No magic. No enchantments save your own, not on your weapons, and no armor of any kind but your skin. No killing.
I have been held hostage, and I’m being forced to post this quest by some ‘Maestro’ of Symphony. It’s a stupid name. The Maestro sucks. Symphony sucks. Orchestra sucks. You know what? Tyrion Veltras sucks too. And Manus. They’re all stupid names, and I hate you all.
You deserve each other. Starting tomorrow, gather outside of Liscor and beat each other up with swords, blades, pieces of glass, I don’t care.
In honor of Zeladona, [Blademistress of Ancients] of another era, shed blood—but don’t kill each other—and to the victors, you will have the chance to earn her legendary Skill.
You do not know her. In life, she mastered more schools of blade mastery than anyone else. You may not be worthy of her Skills—but you can try.
Posted Reward: You suck, Maestro.
Quest Reward: Potential to gain the Unique Skill of Zeladona. [Walk of the Blademaster, Path of Legends].
And when it was done—Erin Solstice lay on the ground. Staring at the sky as people shouted and demanded she extend the window, let [Lords] and [Kings] and famous heroes sail or teleport to Liscor. But Erin just stared at the sky, glaring upwards.
Her body hurt. It was her fault. She stared up and up—until someone hesitantly blocked her view of the glorious sky.
Ryoka Griffin had her hands up. Tyrion, Manus, were standing down. Wall Lady Rafaema, the angry [Lord] of House Veltras—everyone had decided it was time to calm down, step back, and perhaps consider putting off a fight until later.
…Mostly because Pawn and a thousand [Crusaders] were aiming crossbows or surrounding the entire inn. The [Priest] was staring at Tyrion, the fearless Maestro and his Symphony, and Manus—and he was the [Priest of Wrath and Sky].
—But it was too late. Erin glared up, thinking that perhaps Chaldion could have stopped this. Or Magnolia. And maybe they had really wanted to see what she’d do.
She glared up at Ryoka as the Wind Runner stood over her. Ryoka stood there—and gingerly lowered a hand.
“Can I…help you up?”
Erin didn’t move. Ryoka flinched slightly, and Erin spoke after a few seconds.
“I can’t even raise my arms.”
Ryoka stood there and looked down at Erin. She scuffed her bare feet on the grass.
“I’m back, Erin. I’m sorry. I always seem to cause you problems. Can we still be friends?”
Erin stared up at Ryoka. The [Innkeeper] exhaled slowly.
“We were always friends, Ryoka. But sometimes—I really want to hit you.”
Ryoka bent down and helped Erin get up. The [Innkeeper] put her arm around her friend’s neck and squeezed.
“We all mess up big time, I guess.”
She buried her head in Ryoka’s shoulder, and the Wind Runner patted her on the back.
“Story of my life, Erin. Come on.”
She gently led Erin back to the inn as the Maestro looked back. For he would be back tomorrow, too. Tyrion Veltras rammed his sword into his sheath as Sammial stared at Erin.
“I like her almost as much as Ryoka.”
As it all ended and everything went quiet, an [Emperor] was sampling a new pumpkin soup his [Cooks] had made when Lady Rie ran into the mess hall, followed by Griffon Hunt. He looked up blankly and then nearly spat out his mouthful of food.
“She did—what? Just now? Just now? And no one told me?”
Well, that was a continuing theme in many places. And—
—the next day—
The tournament began.
Listen up. I’ve been writing my 20k chapters for months now. I am close to finishing editing Volume 1, but the holidays are coming up. Actually, they are upon us.
I plan to write my last chapter on the 26th—though I may be on the road by then. I will take my week break as well as my 2-week break for the end of the year.
I’d be back on the 17th of January or something. I know that’s a lot of time off, but I think I need it. But I plan on using maybe my final chapter to revise. I may not even post on that day.
Until then—I am not editing anything but the current chapter. I am throwing my final energy into the writing, and this is what I’ve got. Time to take off the breaks. Or the limiter. This is not my final form.
...But I may die of exhaustion. Still. I am having a kind of fun.
Two more chapters. I know what I hope to get through in each one, and I got through almost everything I wanted of this one. I may fail to deliver the entire arc I have planned for the month of December.
But I will try. Like a random [Christmas Burglar] hopping through billions of chimneys or breaking into windows and throwing presents in people, the attempt is here.
This is my chapter. Hope you enjoy it, and hopefully the other ones I can do. I do have family and other things, but I’ll try to keep to my plans. This is the only gift I’ve got. Happy holidays, and wish me luck.
Eater Goats and Void Goat by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!
Silvenia, Lyonette the Hag Queen and Geasus Mrsha (Warhammer Fantasy references) by Lanrae!
Emberbread, and Sariants by Brack! Old vs New Bread commissioned by Vondeklompz!