[The author is on break until January 17th! Have good end to your year!]
—The Brass Dragon awoke with sweat on his scales. His head rose, and he looked around.
“…Is someone there?”
He gazed towards the entrance of his cave, and the young woman…
Sleepily, Teriarch’s head rose higher, and he wondered what that feeling had been. A great terror, for a few minutes, had come over him in his dreams.
Dragonslayer. His scales still itched. A scar running down his left hind leg twinged. As if he could taste the blade thousands of years later.
It had awoken him from his slumber. He looked around for the girl seeking his help, but she hadn’t come. Maybe she never would.
He should wake. But he was weary—and his wings still ached from flying. The Dragon buried his head in a pile of gold and then—since he couldn’t breathe—raised it and exhaled.
He hadn’t been hungry in thousands of years. But so much Dragonfire and spellcasting—he was still locked in despair, in circles of his life where he flew, chasing his tail.
Young woman. Fire. Regret.
A rhythm that would carry him to his grave. Would it be his duties that made him rise, the girl—or the warrior with the blade?
The Brass Dragon lay there awhile. Then—because he despaired of it, truly, because he was hungry, the Dragonlord of Flame did what he always did.
He ran away. He called upon something else of old, a guise as ancient as Eldavin, the meddler who did what must be done. But humbler. He whispered—and his body changed as he spoke another name.
Then he vanished. By the time a young woman finally did haul herself into the cave, bypassing the magical wards—
“Hello? I’m Ryoka Griffin. Hello?”
A young woman with bare feet, proper gait, and even the right face walked into the cave. She had on clothing…or what looked like clothing…and her voice even sounded right.
‘Ryoka Griffin’ stared about. She peered at the gold, the treasures, and saw—
He was gone. The young woman scuffed a toe on the floor. She gazed at a relic of a bygone age and then wandered out.
It was getting better at this.
The winter day was cold. So cold snow was falling from the sky. But flakes caused by natural precipitation.
Nothing great. Nothing glorious. It was winter, and everyone knew it…but there wasn’t any true snow.
“I guess the Winter Sprites went somewhere else this year. Normally, it wouldn’t even snow until you saw the little shits. Bastards throwing snowballs at my head.”
Only Relc could annoy natural elementals like that. The Drake, as had become his routine, stood in his room at The Wandering Inn.
His room at the inn. Not in the city. He had found an apartment in the new quarters, but Erin had told him he could stay at the inn forever for free. Lyonette had, of course, clarified they’d charge him a modest fee, but it included breakfast and cleaning.
Part of Relc had wanted to go and find an apartment—until he wondered why he wanted to go. Then he’d stayed. He’d stayed and been happier than he could imagine when he realized he’d be here.
With the little kid, Mrsha, with Erin and the inn. For better or worse, he would be here.
That was something. If only life could be like that. The painful, sad-happy feeling of realizing someone wanted him to be here—that he didn’t have to sit in his empty apartment fiddling with his puzzles. It wasn’t a gift; Erin wanted him to be here, and he could go downstairs and sit in the common room.
That feeling in Relc’s chest was like today. Today, where so much had happened.
The scar in the earth outside the Floodplains was mostly closed, because the Antinium did not want a breach in the very firmament that could let water rain down into their Hive. But the scars on people and even the walls of Liscor remained.
He’d stared at them for a while. Literal cut marks that had gone through enchanted stone, melted parts of it. A shattered section where the Archmage of Memory had been nailed to the wall like a fly.
That was one kind of scar. The other…the other was on the Drake’s arm. That damn [Blademistress] had got him.
She’d gotten everyone. But her scars, at least—were light. Light, for a given value of the word. It wasn’t a missing limb. She, ironically, had been most careful to wound in a way that wouldn’t permanently cripple someone.
This damn tournament. Relc wouldn’t have participated if he’d known—but he had been after Lulv and Symphony. After Manus. That was fine—he was used to scars. But the poor kids…they didn’t need scars. They didn’t need to lose actual limbs.
Yet—he got it. The chance to face a [Blademaster] or a [Spearmaster]…he would have done the same thing. The painful part was—
Relc looked down, cleared his throat, and went on.
“Looks like a bunch of idiots are already out there, exercising. You should rest, though. No sense in opening anything up.”
At this, someone did stir and open her eyes. A red-scaled girl lay in his bed, resting. Relc had actually slept in another room. She was bigger than a girl now, but she still looked like one to him.
“I’ll be on my feet—tomorrow.”
“Sure you will.”
Her voice was too quiet. Relc hesitated—then bent down and patted her on the forehead. He stared down and saw the very edge of a mostly-healed cut right below her left eye. One inch and—
He’d offered to use his healing potion, but Embria and everyone else had told him it wasn’t worth wasting. She’d told him she had to keep them.
The scar ran from her eye to down across her mouth, across her chest and her side. A [Spearmaster]’s wound from a challenge.
When Relc looked at it, he felt like going out and finding that Gnoll. But it had been a challenge. So he just patted his daughter on the forehead.
“Sure you will. But today is all about hot cocoa and stuff, right? Want me to get you breakfast?”
“I’ll get up in a bit. Fath—Dad?”
Embria Grasstongue looked up. She hadn’t said much since yesterday. Relc almost turned back to look at her, but kept staring out the window. Because it was hard.
“Was I close? Did I do a good job?”
Relc was glad his face was turned away. He closed his eyes and then turned to Embria. He bent over the bed, and his claw kept patting her hand.
“A great job, kid. I just wish…I just wish you didn’t do dangerous things. As a dad, you know. As a [Spearmaster]—you were close.”
He almost said, ‘I wish you hadn’t tried’. But then he thought what he might have said to Vok, despite the lad getting hurt.
Relc saw two pale yellow eyes looking up at him, and he was rewarded with a claw tightening around his fingers.
“I have to try. I had to. My father’s a [Spearmaster].”
“You don’t have to be me, Embria. You’re doing a great job on your own.”
He wished he’d said that before—and knew it wouldn’t have done a thing. But Relc saw Embria smile briefly, and his heart hurt and felt better for the pain today. Already—it was that exhaustively, painfully glorious feeling of being alive. And he thought he would never forget how she looked up.
“But I want to be like you.”
She hadn’t said that since she was a girl. Relc wiped at his eyes for a while. When he went downstairs, she was leaning on him. And he felt young and old and—
It was that kind of day. That kind of day that descended on The Wandering Inn. If you were a fool, you’d call it typical. Because such days were never the same. They changed you—forever.
Erin Solstice was lying in her bed, even as Relc and Embria walked past her room. But they stopped by the open door, as many people had.
Just to stare and reassure themselves it was a young, Human woman who lay there, not a Stitch-woman.
Not—Zeladona, [Blademistress of Ancients]. Not the greatest swordswoman to ever set foot on the Floodplains, who had cut light and the sky and brought a legend out of history and into this waking world.
But then—some of that stare was for Erin herself, because she had been the one who unleashed Zeladona, been the vessel for her.
The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. She lay there, awake, but not rushing downstairs or already outside.
In fact, someone had elevated her bed slightly. It wasn’t as if they had invented beds that could automatically recline or incline themselves—rather, a certain Archmage had fussed around with light magic for a while before a [Princess] gave up and stuffed bedding up so Erin could lie in a semi-sitting position.
She was staring out the window. Her light brown hair was brushed and combed, and she was wearing pajamas with big, silver wolves chasing each other over a dark blue background.
The Silverfangs had given them to Erin in thanks for General Sserys’ actions at the Meeting of Tribes.
Another reminder. But Erin didn’t move—much. Even her head took a moment to turn and smile at Relc and Embria.
“Hey, guys. You okay, Embria?”
The Drake had a scar that ran across her entire upper body—and that was just one of the wounds Lulv had left in their duel. He hadn’t crippled her—but without potions, she had to lean on Relc to walk.
Nevertheless, it was Embria who gave Erin a look of concern.
“I’ll be fine, Miss Erin. A day or two of rest…won’t hurt. And you?”
Erin opened her mouth and licked at her lips. Someone held up a cup anxiously, and Erin murmured.
“I don’t need a drink, Mrsha. I’m, uh…gonna lie here a while. I’m good.”
Relc and Embria exchanged a glance. The day after Zeladona’s Trial of Blades…Erin Solstice saw the cup with the wood straw in it lower. And despite not needing a drink, it was good that Mrsha offered. Because Erin Solstice—could not move.
She could slowly rotate her head left to stare out the window as the two Drakes continued on. But even that clearly hurt. She lay in bed, and every single muscle, ones she hadn’t known existed, hurt.
“Want Ceria to cast [Numb] again, Erin?”
“No. I’m good. I just…can’t…move.”
Her tongue hurt. As if someone had been doing pushups with it. Had Zeladona been moving her mouth to slash people with swords? Holding a blade in her mouth?
Erin didn’t know. All she did know was that if she tried to use a potion, it would be a waste. No more shortcuts. And…this might be her consequence.
“Grimalkin says he’ll check on you tomorrow. We’ll have you in a massage once it, uh, doesn’t hurt. And the healing crystals Healer Demerra left should help. Without undoing your body’s healing.”
Lyonette tapped one of the crystals placed amidst the padding propping Erin up. It glowed a bright, merry orange, and Erin swallowed with effort.
“Can I get in a chair?”
“Yes…in theory. Are you feeling up for breakfast?”
“My eyebrows hurt. Do I have eyebrow muscles? Why do they hurt?”
The [Innkeeper] was banned from healing herself, but even Grimalkin had opined that Zeladona’s presence in Erin’s body would have consequences that would set back her healing journey.
On the other hand…he had told Lyonette that if Erin could tough it out without reverting to potions, he would be fascinated to see if the [Blademistress]’ possession had any positive effects.
Right now, the effect on Erin was that she felt every muscle from her legs to her pelvis to her abs to her arms, neck, head, facial muscles for smiling, fingers—everything hurt. Ceria had used the [Numb] spell to reduce the pain, but it was also just—hard to move.
Her muscles could barely transport her head so Erin could stare outside. Which she did as Lyonette and Mrsha set up a chair and called for Ishkr and Numbtongue to help. Erin stared outside—and saw something else that hurt.
Yvlon Byres had a crutch for her legs. She leaned on it and her one good foot. The other was a stump.
In time, she could get a piece of wood, from a pegleg to something more customized, fitted to her. Learn to walk—or buy a magical prosthesis. House El apparently sold some custom-made, and they had sent her a [Message] offering her a 25% discount this morning.
She didn’t know if she would need one. But she was one of many people who’d lost something. An arm, a leg—or multiple limbs or just fingers.
Ysara Byres had lost a pinkie. Just the tip of one—but she’d stepped out of the tournament, and Zeladona had mostly passed her over. She had lost the half of one finger in a single duel against the [Lieutenant of Perfection], Comois. Despite her talent—or rather, because of it—she had gotten away with just that.
Ylawes hadn’t lost a digit, but he’d been mostly concerned with shielding Infinitypear and Rasktooth, who’d quit once they saw how un-fun this battle was. Right now, all three adventurers, plus Ysara and Yvlon’s own teammates, Pisces and Ksmvr, were lined up in front of her.
She wasn’t joining in—because she had only one foot to balance on. And Yvlon wasn’t sure she had, uh, muscles to build in her silver arms.
Was that how it worked? She didn’t know, and she felt empty after the raging fury of yesterday, so she just watched.
What she was watching was—her friends, adventurers, and dozens of people doing pushups. Yvlon saw Pisces doing press ups—sweat was furrowed on his brow. Ksmvr wasn’t sweating, but he did pant as they got up and began doing lunges down the hill.
“I am beginning to become fatigued. Comrade Pisces? How long are we going to do this?”
“Until—we—are in better shape. Muscle training. Magus Grimalkin’s regime might work.”
“But I am not a [Duelist]. Lunges are not my specialty.”
“That does not matter! Lower body strength is fundamental to all fighting! Rest!”
Pisces collapsed onto the grass, panting, and Ksmvr fell on top of him. Ysara nearly toppled over—even Ylawes looked winded by Grimalkin’s training.
They were joined by Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, all flopping on the grass. They…might not continue this. Or maybe they would? Pisces had been practicing lunges before Grimalkin decided to organize a mass-workout.
They had been motivated by Zeladona, reminded of their complacency or inspired to take up old exercises and routines again.
Well, those who hadn’t just been crushed by the trial of blades or who were too wounded to fight again. Yvlon had seen a number of Drakes—especially those from Pallass—who had lost limbs. She’d spoken to some, actually. Showed them her silver arms and seen in their eyes hope for the same.
What a painful feeling. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] was hobbling inside as Grimalkin passed around an experimental ‘healthy’ smoothie to drink. And despite herself—she stared up at the window, like everyone else. Yvlon met Erin’s eyes, and the young woman looked so guilty.
But for what? Some people might blame her for how that <Heroic Quest> had gone. But the [Innkeeper] had been forced into it. It was done, and Yvlon…she slowly entered the common room and sat down.
“Hey, Yvlon. You—you okay?”
Only one person could ask her something like that and wince while doing the delivery. Ryoka Griffin looked at Yvlon Byres, and the woman exhaled.
“No. Next question, Ryoka?”
The Wind Runner opened her mouth, thought for a long second, and gestured at the menu.
“Y-you want to have breakfast together?”
“What were you thinking of having?”
Yvlon decided she was hungry and stared at the menu printed on paper and glued to lacquered wood. Ryoka Griffin stared down at the menu. The indecisive, worried Courier—looked at Yvlon, around the inn, and decided this year she had to make a change.
“Spiced pottage with cheese and fresh bread sound good for two?”
Dead gods. She could decide on breakfast for herself without an existential crisis. They were changing. Yvlon thought about it, and her stomach rumbled.
“Alright. Can I get…?”
Ryoka looked around, raised a hand, and Peggy hopped over. Yvlon stared at her peg leg as the Hobgoblin gave Yvlon a nod.
“Ooh. Yum. You want two? Will get.”
She strode over to the kitchen, and Ryoka heard her talking to someone helping out in the morning. Imani cut a loaf of fresh bread as Calescent prepared the pottage, scooping the filling breakfast out of a pot he had simmering.
“Perfect! They can try my new bread. I made it with poolish. Tell me if you can taste the difference.”
“What is poolish?”
Yvlon was apprehensive, but Ryoka knew this one.
“Fancy baker’s dough or something. That’s how you know Imani is a real bread-person.”
She shook her head. Actual baking techniques coming over from Earth? What next? Ryoka eyed the menu and saw more cuisine here than just ‘burgers’. And her stomach began to rumble the instant she sat the steaming bowls of pottage and the fresh bread, which did indeed taste remarkable with butter.
Eating breakfast might be weird to you after seeing a Level 84 legend carving her name through the world’s zeitgeist. But it was also proof that Ryoka and Yvlon were regulars of The Wandering Inn.
They understood that you should eat, sleep, and do all the things normal people did, even after great events like this. It wouldn’t take away from anything, but it would stop you from spiraling.
The Wandering Inn had guests, of course. Loads of ‘em, and arguably, it was more pressed than most days.
The staff did not have Ishkr to take over for them, so the Antinium and Goblins were working hard. Peggy led her species; Rosencrantz led his. They had, in fact, both received new classes thanks to their efforts.
[Floor Boss] and [Adjunct Manager]. Interesting classes. They were not the only people to level up, of course.
Almost every single person Zeladona had cut had leveled up. The exceptions were Grimalkin, who’d gotten stabbed for trying to interfere with magic, and Zeter.
Two people had not leveled.
Every single other person had leveled at least once. Even, no—
Especially Pisces Jealnet. The [Necromancer] woke up with a new class. One he had heard many, many times before and denied it. He still remembered why, and he would never forget.
But he had also seen Zeladona of legends. He had been reminded by the Maestro why he couldn’t forget the lessons, why he still carried around the blade.
Forget Padurn. He was proud of it. So—he let it happen. And today?
He was no [Fencer]. Nor [Duelist]. Nor even [Fighter]. Something was listening. And if it listed his nature, it would have read like this yesterday:
Pisces Jealnet, Level 38 [Deathbane Necromancer]. Level 3 [Slave]. Level 22 [Mage].
Pisces Jealnet, Level 38 [Deathbane Necromancer]. Level 14 [Duelist of Wistram]. Level 3 [Slave].
When he raised his arm and stared at his rapier, he still felt the memory of chains. Perhaps they were lighter today. Perhaps he was closer to breaking them for good. Pisces slowly sat back up and got back to exercising. With a will that his friends had seldom seen before.
So yes, the inn was full of conversation and happenings, and because Ishkr was busy helping Erin, everyone else had to pick up the slack. Indeed, that morning, a Gnoll with some obnoxiously flashy sunglasses was sitting at one of the tables with a bunch of paper.
It seemed incredible that Yelroan could generate that much paper already, but the Gnoll hadn’t just pulled it out of his butt. Rather, he had a menu, a list of Lyonette’s notes on expenses, his personal world-directory for Mage’s Guilds, a written account of a certain chess tournament—a half-eaten plate of bread, three [Message] scrolls, and a single quill.
“Er…am I supposed to be helping clean up this place?”
He called out to Peggy as she passed by with another order for Relc and Embria. She gave him a blank look.
“Is you good at cleaning?”
Peggy eyed the desk.
“Then no. What you doing? Are you working for me?”
The Gnoll wasn’t sure about that, but the [Mathematician] was writing with one paw as he picked up the bread and chewed on it. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth.
“I, uh, could recommend you drop two coppers off the yellat-dishes. It’s really overpriced. But maybe bump up your prices on bread and the pottage combo by one copper coin. Another farm’s had troubles—wheat’s going to be dearer soon.”
Peggy hesitated as he showed her the menu—and a list of items he’d marked up or down. She scratched at her head.
“That is not my job. I can’t do. Miss Lyonette can.”
“Oh, do I talk to her or…?”
The Gnoll hesitated, aware Lyonette was upstairs. He actually hadn’t spoken to her all morning as she was rushing around trying to help Erin. The Gnoll was also wary of Peggy, not really knowing how to talk to a Goblin.
It was, in fact, a girl with braided brown hair who peered over the table and addressed both.
“Miss Peggy, why don’t you keep serving people the same prices today? I’ll show Miss Lyonette the menu later. She’d have to have a [Scribe] re-print all the menus anyways. And I think Erin wanted to give you a room, Mister Yelroan. Along with your bedroom.”
“Oh, thank you—”
Peggy walked off, and the girl produced something and carefully placed it on the counter. Yelroan, who had been desperately dipping his quill into the dregs of an inkpot, brightened up.
“Ink! I was wondering if you had any…”
“We keep some in pots. If you need more, I can write it on the shopping list for you. Can I help you with anything else, Mister Yelroan?”
Of all the people in the entire inn, only Nanette had really remembered Yelroan’s existence the next morning. The young witch looked at him, and the [Mathematician] smiled gratefully.
“I don’t think so right now—thank you. I didn’t want to be a bother this morning what with—”
What with the most extraordinary event in a hundred years—if you forgot the Meeting of Tribes and everything else. But Nanette nodded understandingly.
“Someone has to help you get used to the inn. I thought that would be a good task for me. You don’t have to work right away.”
She was concerned for him, but the blonde Gnoll smiled and adjusted his sunglasses. Relc shouted as he stabbed himself in the mouth.
“My eyes! Who the—”
Yelroan hurriedly decided to replace the annoying sunglasses with a less intrusive pair. He whispered to Nanette as both ducked over their table.
“I’m used to hitting the ground running, actually. My former boss and tribe—Plain’s Eye—would come to me with a huge problem and minutes to solve it. Reminds me of having to organize a Wyvern hunting party.”
“That might not be a good comparison here.”
Nanette observed as she looked around for Mrsha. Yelroan nodded.
“Truthful, though. And if it’s anything like my job there—I assume some independent action might be important. They can tell me to stop, but do you think this is a bad idea? I asked one of the Thronebearers, and they assured me they’d tell Lyonette and to keep doing it.”
He showed her what he was doing. Nanette peered at the [Message] scrolls. And what she saw was this.
To His Majesty of Avel:
Your Majesty, the Wandering Inn thanks Avel for its gracious correspondence. Regretfully, Innkeeper Solstice is indisposed and thus cannot respond at this time. This missive will be forwarded to her upon her recovery. Please rest assured your letter will be delivered to her with full confidentiality. Luck and pans be with you,
—The Wandering Inn
“I added that last bit in because you need some kind of saying. Too silly?”
“It sounds like Erin. Maybe, ‘luck and Amentus wine pour ever onwards’?”
“Ooh, I like that.”
Yelroan amended the [Message] he was writing. Nanette looked concerned as she saw how many [Messages] were coming in.
“Can Miss Erin afford to send so many [Messages], Mister Yelroan?”
His eyes twinkled.
“Don’t worry. This might not be math—but I have had to deal with Mage’s Guilds. Most [Message] senders will pay or have paid for return messages, and the Mage’s Guild will eat the costs most of the time. I’ll have a Street Runner run variants of the reply—one second. [Copy Message].”
He began copying the same reply without the names or specifics across multiple slips of parchment. Nanette was delighted—and doubly so when she saw what he was writing elsewhere.
To Strategist Inter of Nerrhavia’s Fallen:
I am writing to you in regards to the tournament proceeds accorded to you during Innkeeper Erin Solstice’s famous chess tournament. The inn has been slightly delayed in collecting its share of the profits. According to our calculations, 14,442 individuals in Nerrhavia’s Fallen registered or took part, and we have calculated the below fee.
Please forward it via the Merchant’s Guild in Invrisil or Pallass to the care of The Wandering Inn, Liscor. If you believe this number is in error, please ratify the errors via truth spell at a Wistram-certified Mage’s Guild. They will be happy to administer the test for a small fee, and they have provided the numbers of each participant.
Below is the breakdown of total profits and the inn’s portion…
The cut that Yelroan had proposed was a simple 50-50 split, and it was…considerable. Especially if this were just one nation. But Nanette had a question.
“What will you do if they don’t pay?”
“Well, I would write them another letter. Then suggest Miss Solstice will take it up with Wistram—or remind them who writes the <Quests>. I imagine most will pay, and the ones who don’t? If you want to be nasty, Miss Lyonette could hire a [Debt Collector] to get the money for a third of the sum. But realistically, you can probably just write off the ones who don’t write back. I imagine most will, especially after yesterday. Again, if Miss Lyonette has a problem—”
“I think she’ll be delighted.”
Finally, someone who kept lists and remembered things! Yelroan actually knew who to talk to, and he could figure things out without being told what to do first.
The inn needed someone like him. And—Yelroan had more than just a pretty pair of sunglasses. He was taking notes on who he had sent the requests to, obviously, but he leaned over to Nanette.
“I think I was told Miss Lyonette has [Flawless Attempt]? Do you know her cooldowns on that? Because I don’t have many negotiating Skills, but if she’s not using it, we can run that on all the objectors within the week.”
What a monster. A real Salii, and that was meant in the most complimentary and derogatory of ways.
Qwera actually heard Yelroan say that and wished she had been able to make an offer that would convince him to work for her.
But then, perhaps the [Mathematician] had somehow understood this was the place to level his class. After yesterday, not even the Golden Gnoll could beat Erin’s inn for levelling opportunities or the world stage.
She, herself, wondered if Tesy would be allowed to stay. But she was bidding farewell to one friend and looked Ysara straight in the eyes.
“Are you sure you want to go home? You could…beg being cut by a legendary ghost.”
Ysara Byres just shook her head. She turned, and Ylawes pretended to be looking the other way as Vuliel Drae got in the wagon and Infinitypear and Rasktooth petted the horse they’d be sharing.
“It’s time to at least see them. Will you be here when I get back?”
“With Tesy in trouble? Count on it. I’ll hold my business until you go. Frankly—I need to see what Valeterisa is doing. And the inn has so much power with this teleportation door…run back here if you don’t like what you find. Are the Horns going with you?”
“Later. Yvlon is wounded. They’ll catch up via Pisces’ undead chariot. But I might as well travel in company. Much as I love my dear sister and her unique team…their undead horses are the bumpiest experience in the world.”
Off they went. Ysara Byres, like the others, only stopped to say farewell to Erin. She was in her chair, slowly and determinedly feeding herself spoonfuls of food.
“You gonna come back?”
“Two days, Miss Solstice. Two days—and we’ll be back well before the Winter Solstice.”
Dawil chuckled—and looked perplexed when Erin didn’t laugh at the pun. But it was just the beginning of winter, and Ylawes bowed to Erin.
“Erin…it has been something.”
The [Knight] seemed at a loss for words. Falene was still staring at the [Garden of Sanctuary], but Erin smiled.
“You come back soon. I promise I won’t do anything crazy between now and then, huh?”
“You are a good liar. We go and have fun.”
Rasktooth patted her hand with a big grin, and everyone laughed at that. Then they were off, riding towards House Byres as they used the Riverfarm door. Erin Solstice waved weakly—and an [Emperor] called out.
“Erin. A word?”
“Shut the door. Shut the—”
Lyonette shut the door in the [Emperor]’s face with a significant amount of delight. Erin really felt bad—but she had barely enough energy to eat. And she had apparently put down half of Calescent’s pottage by herself, despite having to pause every few seconds to rest her hand.
Today really was rest, processing, and an end to drama. Ryoka Griffin looked at Laken as the door shut, and even she didn’t suggest they add to the situation. But she did look at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] stopped eating long enough to show Ryoka something.
“What the f—”
Ryoka Griffin decided it was gauche to keep swearing. So she ameliorated her language, looked around the Drathian garden, and pushed Erin over a bridge.
“Whee…wait, I can’t stop—Ryokaaaaaa—-”
Erin Solstice rolled a good fifty feet in her wheelchair, which might have been greased a bit too well, before Ryoka stopped her. The Wind Runner saved Erin from running into one of the little fox statues.
She had been staring around the garden and realizing Erin’s Skill was deeper than she thought. And Erin hadn’t even shown her the real door yet.
“I’ve gotta get back to the inn soon, or people will think I’m summoning Zeladona 2.0.”
“Is there a Zeladona 2.0? Please, Erin. Be honest. How many <Quests> do you have burning in your back pocket?”
They might only have a few moments, but they had chosen to step out to—talk. About many things, including Tyrion.
Tyrion—who, at this moment, Ryoka happened to know was in the Haven, trying to brainstorm ways to apologize to Erin Solstice. Even the man with a rock for a head had realized he might want to get on her good side.
Fat chance of that, perhaps. But Erin’s own ire had been—pulled by the bloody tournament. To Ryoka’s question, she chuckled weakly.
“Zeladona was…one of the big ones. Really. I didn’t speak to her as much, but I made friends with the ones I liked. I doubt I actually have someone of her level I could just do that with. I didn’t meet the dude who killed magic.”
“So you really—”
Ryoka Griffin was another sort that Erin was glad to have as a friend. Because, despite the Wind Runner gawking at the gardens, despite her understandable chagrin and questions—
When Erin told her she had spoken to ghosts, Ryoka, more than anyone else, believed her. Erin was just eying the door leading back to the inn.
“I’ll tell you everything. But right now…remember those people you met last Winter Solstice? The three of them?”
Ryoka’s grip tightened on Erin’s wheelchair.
“Funny. I was going to bring them up. You…a big fan of theirs?”
The [Innkeeper]’s hat burned a different color, and Ryoka leaned back as Erin, with great effort, twisted her head and torso around.
“Nope! Not at all! Totally enemies. I’ve sworn to the Faerie King to kill them. Who exists. Don’t do that!”
The Wind Runner almost pushed Erin into the koi pond to let her cool off. The [Innkeeper] relaxed slightly.
“I don’t like them. I…hate them. I am going to kill them. They killed all the ghosts. Ate them up. They’re…gods.”
Ryoka clarified with a whisper.
The two young women looked at each other, and in that moment, they realized they had less to say to each other than they had thought. Ryoka let out a sigh—then, for some reason, laughed.
Erin raised her brows, for she found nothing about this funny. But she realized Ryoka looked so relieved—
“If there was anyone I wanted on my side, Erin—it would be you! If there was anyone I wanted to know…”
She sagged on the wheelchair, and Erin patted Ryoka’s hand.
“So—how did you figure it out? Is that why you know Tyrion so well? I heard you did something with Laken.”
Ryoka caught her breath and explained, then, what had happened. In brief—but it tied into their argument, which neither had forgotten.
“Tyrion Veltras really did help me, Erin.”
“I get that. If he steps foot in my inn again, I will burn him. Not him, Ryoka. I will talk to you, and you can let him do good things if you believe in him. But you and I will never see eye-to-eye on that.”
The [Innkeeper] would not relent, and Ryoka didn’t have the courage to argue. But Erin dropped it. She exhaled—and nodded.
“The quest is my fault. I didn’t know it would do that. If Halrac…Yvlon—”
“You were forced into it.”
Erin’s head was bowed. She looked up once, and Ryoka saw how bleak her face was.
“My Skills and my secrets are getting darker, Ryoka. Or just—deeper. I’m afraid to post some of the <Quests>. They’re going to get people killed. But I have to. Dead gods should stay dead. I’ll show you my statues and the door—don’t you dare run before I do. But do you have another Tyrion in your back pocket?”
Ryoka Griffin hesitated and hoped like heck Rhisveri had no listening spells or a secret bomb-spell in her mouth. Because just for Erin—Ryoka leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“I met a bunch of immortals in Ailendamus. A Wyrm—and I have done terrible things to them, but they might help. I owe the Faerie King a favor—or maybe he’s got me in some kind of a fated prophecy. There are Angels and Devils too—and a singing Titan—and I killed the last Dryad in the world. I’m going to see Teriarch, because his alter ego, Eldavin, is still out there. And aliens exist. They gave me this sword.”
She showed Erin the hilt of her sword, and the [Innkeeper] looked up.
“It’s not a Kaalblade. It’s actually an alien-tech sword…”
“No, go back first. You lost me at Angels and Devils. What?”
It was Erin’s turn to do the listening, and she patently didn’t believe Ryoka at first. She had to see the blueprints of the sword, and Ryoka configured it to let Erin swing around.
“You got a lightsaber? I got a wheelchair. You got a—”
She poked at Ryoka’s feet since the Faeblade wouldn’t hurt either girl once configured, and Ryoka lifted her feet.
“I also have unbreakable footwraps. What did you get?”
Erin stared at Ryoka.
“<Legendary Quest: Kick Ryoka’s Ass>! I call upon the power of Zeladona to—”
They were laughing after that, and Ryoka remembered one last thing.
“Okay—I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone, but in the interest of being honest?”
Erin squeezed her eyes shut.
“Please, Ryoka. We’ll do more secrets in a second—but please tell me it’s not Jexishe.”
“Oh, thank goodness. Bird’s still just a [Liar].”
Erin wiped at her brow. Ryoka smiled uncertainly and glanced at the door.
“Nah. Just a Unicorn. He’s the one who drank all your booze.”
The [Innkeeper]’s face went blank. Ryoka went on hurriedly.
“I think he’s just a nuisance. Honestly, just forget about it, and I think he won’t harass anyone. But, uh—if I start talking about horses in a positive light? Literally get a crossbow and shoot me.”
Erin Solstice’s head twisted around. She stared at Ryoka as the Wind Runner grinned to show it was a joke. The grin grew smaller as Erin spoke, slowly, still glaring at Ryoka’s lightsaber and gifts from the lands of the Fae.
“Palt and Imani are in a relationship, so it’s definitely possible. Somehow. You and Imani give me the same vibes.”
She looked straight forwards as Ryoka opened her mouth. The [Innkeeper] folded her arms. Pawn wasn’t the only one who could dish it out too.
Speaking of revelations, Liscor was not the only place shell-shocked or changing in real-time. The tournament had shown Zeladona, legend, yadda yadda, greatest techniques of the sword, new generation of students, boring.
The real change was this: in Liscor, in Qwera’s own shop, in Invrisil and across the world, [Merchants] with [Foresight: Commodities], intelligence, or just that sixth sense about business were marking up a price much like Yelroan and the menu in the inn.
That was—needles and thread.
Good quality ones, too. Curved needles, not just the straight kind. The ones that could penetrate leather—and you needed a certain kind of string as well. For that matter, cloth took on a new importance, as did poultices and Liscor’s blood bank.
[Healers] had seen the tournament. They looked grim as they practiced sewing or—some of them—simply panicked or quit their class. But the real ones, the ones who were asking questions of the [Doctor], taking notes, were realizing a truth:
The age of simple healing was over. And if you needed it in the future, you had better hope someone had a dwindling supply of healing potion—or a Skill. Or…whatever the Antinium had.
In fact, Chaldion was listening to a report from a [Battlefield Medic] on how he thought wars needed to be conducted now.
“We will need entire areas to house the wounded. We cannot send them back into battle, not anymore. Even assuming we stop the blood loss—that alone will make a [Soldier] unable to fight or stand.”
“Damnation. How—how are we supposed to fight a proper war? I’d rather take more archers and reduce wounds if every clash of swords takes out half my battalion!”
General Edellein still looked shaken—and he was staring at the stumps on his claw. He had been healed with a potion—but Chaldion would have preferred he was still hurt. The Grand Strategist was not happy.
If Zeladona had used her overwhelming power—fools!
That included himself and the idiots in the Walled Cities. He thanked the [Medic], who grimly bowed, and spoke to Edellein.
“War will adjust. We may prefer heavier armor or strategies that protect our soldiers from harm. Longer supply lines, more soldiers knowing that we will not have potions—let’s continue reviewing yesterday.”
“The disaster, you mean.”
General Shirka didn’t mince words. She was young—but she had pulled out of the fighting with her command and largely spared her soldiers the Slayer’s wrath. She wasn’t quite looking at Chaldion, but the Grand Strategist spoke.
He had to shoulder the blame, so he exhaled as his cigar glowed and spoke.
“We did what the Walled Cities wanted. Our fair cousins have been—upset—about the Meeting of Tribes. You could call this diplomacy by blood. It’s unfortunate we lost some good officers’ limbs, much less Comois. Then again, he was not fit to command.”
“He was a superior lieutenant. With respect, Grand Strategist.”
Edellein fumed, and Chaldion gave him a nod.
“Even so—it was disastrous. At least every soldier—and our [Generals]—have leveled at least once. I could call that a victory…if the Antinium haven’t done likewise. Our clash with them cost us more than it cost the Hives. But a lost limb is a lost limb.”
He stubbed the cigar out, shaking his head. The Antinium had more Soldiers and Workers, but…
General Shirka was looking at Duln, and the Dullahan’s head resting on the pillow eyed Chaldion. The Grand Strategist folded his arms.
“It’s unpleasant. I know. Or did you have something else to say?”
A hesitant—silence filled the room, unlike what Chaldion was used to. He was about to tell the [Generals] not to be cowards, but they didn’t hold their tongues. Edellein, Shirka, Duln, and the other two of Pallass’ [Generals] looked at each other before Duln spoke.
“—The Antinium’s losses are virtually non-existent, though, Grand Strategist.”
“Hm? How do you mean? Their Soldiers and Workers still have levels individually. Even with their Unitasis Network, they only share competencies.”
Chaldion knew all this, but Duln’s look of concern deepened.
“I was referring to their limbs, Grand Strategist.”
The Drake just gave Duln a blank stare. Slowly, the Dullahan spoke.
“They have the ability to regenerate limbs. Slowly—but—Grand Strategist?”
All of Pallass’ five [Generals] present saw the old Drake’s face slowly growing blanker and blanker. Chaldion’s eye flicked around the room, and ash fell from the cigar in his claws. He said nothing for a long minute and then raised his eye.
“Of course they do. Forgive me, General Duln. That must have slipped my mind. Did you have anything else to add?”
He looked around, and a shadow suddenly felt heavier as it hung over him. Chaldion stared blankly at the table. Time…
He felt it on his shoulder. A cold claw that not even Saliss could beat back forever. Chaldion didn’t raise the cigar to his lips throughout the meeting. He just watched it grow colder.
Good and ill, you see? It was a day that exposed more than just the sheer competency of blades. One of the other great changes upon the Antinium took place that morning.
Senior Guardsman Klbkch, Klbkch the Slayer, Klbkch the Revalantor, Centenium Klbkchhezeim, and Old Man Klb as he was now known by Mrsha the Impudent, stood in his Hive.
He stood in front of the Workers and Soldiers who looked up at him. Many had lost a limb. Some, like Crusader 57, had lost multiple limbs, but true to Duln’s statement, the regenerative gel, cilxas, had been shared liberally.
Pawn, Xrn, and a number of Antinium were watching Klbkch as he stood in front of the Antinium. And they gazed at him differently.
They had feared him and then seen his mortality, then moved past him, into a new age. Now…they looked back, and there he stood. A storyteller, a master of blades.
What was he? No longer Klbkch, killer of Aberrations. No longer the Prognugator who ordered many to their deaths. Klbkch felt it himself, and that was why he stood there.
“Klbkch. What are you doing?”
Xrn’s exasperated voice rang out at last, and Klbkch turned. His antennae had not stopped waving as he looked at the wounded Antinium who had participated in the tournament, whom he had gathered together.
“I am projecting my pride and satisfaction. My understanding of their wounds and suffering and my experience and willpower as a member of the Hives to lead us forwards. As a True Antinium will understand it.”
Pawn, Garry, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters, Silveran, and dozens of Individual Workers and Soldiers exchanged a long look. The [Priest] leaned over and tapped Xrn on the shoulder. Another finger pointed at Klbkch.
“Please blast him.”
The Small Queen raised her one mandible in a smile.
“No, no. He is trying. Klbkch. Try harder.”
The Slayer stared at the Small Queen. He pointed at the Antinium. Pawn shook his head with the judges, and Klbkch scratched at his antennae, then stomped off. The Workers and Soldiers milled about as Crusader 57 spoke loudly.
“I like our spiritual liege. Ryoka.”
Toni was missing an arm and really upset about it. Crusader 57 rubbed at his wounds.
“I heard her during the fighting. I learned a lot of new words. She’s great. You fucking worthless grape-nutted shitheap cunts on a popsicle stick.”
Pawn was beginning to develop a headache. Klbkch returned after about five minutes. He placed something in Toni’s hands. Everyone peered at it. Klbkch was walking over to the next Antinium when Pawn walked over.
“What are you doing?”
Klbkch was pouring a sack of little black objects into bowls of wood. He turned to Pawn.
“These are acid-flies. Eat these.”
He went to pour them into another bowl. Pawn slapped the bag out of Klbkch’s hands, and the Slayer stared at the [Priest]. Everyone went silent. Crusader 57 looked happy.
Pawn and Klbkch stared at each other, and the taller Slayer with his new body glanced at the bag of acid flies.
“That was my personal snack-stash.”
He stomped off. It took him thirty minutes to come back, by which time Garry was passing out his latest bread with the aforementioned poolish that he and Imani had made. Everyone was enjoying it when Klbkch began trying to pin something to a Worker’s chest.
“What is that?”
Klbkch had a shiny bit of brass and green cloth. He waved it at Pawn.
“This is a badge similar to the one the Watch awards [Guards] injured in comb—”
The [Priest of Wrath and Sky] pointed at Klbkch.
The truth was that on this day, everyone was mostly deciding to not rock the Erin boat. Threaten her for a new <Quest>? Did you want to lose a hand?
Even the Maestro had apparently decided he was done testing the inn. But while Symphony had largely vanished, he seemed wary himself of Erin’s wrath.
Or…perhaps he was tweaking her nose. Because the first thing Erin received when she exited the garden with Ryoka was a letter.
It was black vellum, and when she saw the musical note embedded in the white wax, she almost tore it up. But since she was too weak, she made Mrsha crack the letter open for her. The Gnoll pulled out the object inside and held it up in awe.
“Give me that—absolutely no way Mrsha holds on to this.”
Ryoka nabbed it from the girl, who gave Ryoka a sinister look. She wrote on a notecard.
You’re not my mom. Give it back or I’ll curse you.
She really wanted the card. Ryoka handed it to Erin as she hesitated—then put Mrsha under one arm.
“Oh yeah? I might not be—but I’m your crazy aunt! Erin, where’s your well? I’m gonna throw Mrsha down there.”
She ran about as the Gnoll screamed silently—and Erin saw Ryoka disappear outside and try to well-dangle Mrsha. Unfortunately, she had forgotten the little Gnoll had friends. Lehra and Gireulashia ended up dangling Ryoka over the well.
As for what Mrsha really, really wanted—Erin Solstice stared at the card. It was not an apology…or if it were, it was the apology only an [Assassin] would write.
Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper].
This card shalt be redeemed for one performance of Symphony upon request.
She was trying to tear it up when Ryoka got back. Then she put it in her mouth and tried to rip it up, but it was too tough for her hands. Probably enchanted.
Nevertheless, the Maestro was somewhat emblematic of the day. Even Archmage Eldavin had decided to take the two [Knights] and Viltach back. He had…not gotten what he wanted, and while he might enjoy having it out with Magnolia and Ryoka—
Even he was realizing that Erin Solstice might bring more consequences than he could handle.
Who, in their right minds, today, would tweak the [Innkeeper]’s tail? That person was nervously pacing back and forth as she waited for the door to The Wandering Inn to open.
“Miss Tewing? Can I have a quick word?”
Drassi turned as Channel 2 of Wistram News Network—the best, most popular channel, ignore Channel 1—assembled behind her.
She was the boss. She was, in fact, the [Honest Reporter] who’d become the face of Wistram News Network, more than Sir Relz and Noass, even.
While there were already new stations competing for coverage, while the channels would expand and perhaps her role diminish—Drassi had been the first.
Not the first person to take over the news—that was Sir Relz and Noass. But she was the first person to become synonymous with the news. She wasn’t a commentator; she broke new stories.
She had been the one to report on the tournament on the ground. She had uncovered Joseph and put her tail in the fire to deliver the actual happenings.
And she was not Sir Relz or Noass. For proof, look no further than Channel 2’s team.
A lot had happened with Drassi that she hadn’t told Erin. She had moved to Pallass, suffered an assassination attempt by Nerrhavia’s Fallen, become a bigwig and perhaps even a poo-bah, and fought with Sir Relz and Noass until she’d gotten her own channel and team.
Now she was running things, she was determined to prove she was different. So she had more female Drakes and Gnolls on her team—and she had more non-Drakes than Channel 1 by far.
Her best [Camera Gnoll], for instance, was Kohr, and she even had a Dullahan [Reporter] as well as a Garuda who flew overwatch during football games and could fly to other events. She didn’t have an international team—yet—but it was the one Dullahan, a younger man named Theice who spoke to her.
He had polished up his bright yellow armor for today, and his hair was combed sideways in a slick look. The [Reporter] spoke up. He was highest-level but for her, already Level 22.
“Miss Tewing, I think I should do this interview.”
“Theice, why in the name of the Ancestors would I let that happen? This is my story. I nearly threw Noass off the 6th Floor for it.”
Drassi was nervous and almost glad for the delay getting to Liscor, because this was it. She’d blocked off her time slot, and she had one of her assistants, Mbena, another Gnoll who’d reported on the Meeting of Tribes, leading her up to this.
They had fifteen minutes, and this was not the moment. But Theice had been arguing for this all morning and last night. Drassi glowered at him.
He was good—but ambitious, and as the lone Dullahan in any broadcasting class, he had pushed for more ‘slots’ of time to report on Dullahan and Balerosian issues. Him wanting to take over this though?
The Dullahan was straightforward in his arguments, which his people liked.
“I should report instead of you, Miss Tewing. Or rather, you should recuse yourself. You are Erin Solstice’s friend.”
Drassi felt a twinge in her heart as she fiddled with the microphone that delivered clear sound. So odd how many ideas had come from Wistram, as if they knew how this should look. She had suspicions why, and Selys knew…
Drassi didn’t like the feeling in the back of her mind. She had talked to Rémi Canada and realized that this thing she had done for fun was deeper than she thought. When she had first run into the studio to argue with Relz and Noass on camera—she hadn’t thought she might one day be in the same spot.
“If you are interviewing Erin Solstice, you are biased.”
“I know her. That’s not the same.”
“How can you be sure you’ll ask her the right questions and not protect her?”
The Drake and Dullahan began arguing as the Channel 2 crew watched them debate fiercely. Drassi’s tail lashed, and Theice went on.
“I should do this. I wrote up the questions with you—I have the levels.”
“Why would I let you do one of the most defining pieces of—of journalism in the history of television?”
Drassi snapped, flushed because she didn’t quite have an answer to the bias she knew she had for Erin. She narrowed her eyes at Theice, and he had a reply.
“Because I’m a Dullahan. And if Channel 2—if Wistram News Network is more than a Drake-run organization, I should do it.”
She opened her mouth, and he hurried on.
“You include us and let us do our parts—but that’s not the same as having someone besides a Drake in charge. Liscor is a Drake city. I’m from Pallass and not a Drake or a Gnoll or a Human. I’m impartial, compared to you. Let me ask the questions. If you make one mistake—you’ll ruin Erin Solstice’s interview because people will say you were biased. If I make a mistake—it’s on me, but it doesn’t harm the [Innkeeper].”
How long had he been waiting for this? Saving the argument about a Dullahan or a non-Drake taking the lead? Kohr looked ready to kick Theice, and half the crew were lining up for their shot. But the other half…were watching Drassi.
The Drake took a deep breath and then another. And every instinct in her chest wanted to be the one. Her [Gossip] class…
She was a [Reporter] now. More than that? The Drake closed her eyes, and the [Honest Journalist] she had become slowly handed the microphone over.
“I’m going to lead you in—and if Erin objects, I’ll take over. Read off the questions, and if you make her mad, so help you Chaldion.”
Theice swallowed hard—then began further polishing his armor as the makeup team swirled around him and Drassi began going over the questions. And she was watching Theice. Because Drassi was a Level 34 [Honest Journalist].
No more the [Gossip] who could [Provoke Scandalous Admission]. No more the [Honest Reporter] who had [Projection of Honesty] and [Safety Zone].
She was the [Honest Journalist]…and her eyes narrowed as her latest Skill, gained from yesterday’s coverage, spoke to her.
[Ears: The Words Unspoken]. Drassi heard Theice not saying the final part.
“They’ll replace you if you don’t let me take over.”
She slowly raised a brow and looked at one of her people, then stepped back as Theice prepared for his big moment. A young Gnoll edged over, and Drassi bent over to have a very quiet [Private Conversation].
But of course—this was just Drassi’s life. And she only reported on the news. What interesting things would ever happen to a [Journalist]?
Erin Solstice’s face wasn’t the most welcoming—and that was before Drassi told her it wouldn’t be her doing the interviewing.
Nor did the Drake look happy about it, but she said the same thing as yesterday.
“It’s time for it, Erin. It’s beyond time, really. Everyone wants to know—just who you are. I asked you yesterday about it, and you told me you were ready. Is this too soon?”
The [Innkeeper] looked at Drassi, and she exhaled.
“N—I mean—I can’t walk. And I hate interviews and stuff like that. I always get nervous and sweaty, and I stumble over my words and make a huge fool of myself. Do I hafta?”
If you were someone who paid attention to language, the prepositions and tenses of what Erin Solstice said—were fascinating.
“You were on television back home? When?”
Ironically, Inkar was the one who had studied enough of language to understand what a preposition was—but she was just observant to begin with.
Erin waved a hand at her.
“Chess stuff. Whatddya think? I was also featured in a news article because I was lined up to buy Harry Potter at midnight when the sixth book came out.”
“Wh—you did that too?”
Kevin raised a hand to high-five Erin. Joseph muttered under his breath.
Kevin tossed a napkin at him. Ryoka smacked it down and offered Joseph a high five. Theirs was more awkward.
They were—different than how they’d been. More relaxed, more confident—but Erin was still Erin. She knew she should do this, but her tone and her reluctance?
For once, it was Drassi, the kindly Drake, who pushed back. She looked Erin in the eyes, put her claws on her hips, and spoke.
“Erin. If you’re not ready, I totally get that. And—I have to warn you, Theice is going to be a reporter and ask you hard questions. But if it’s just reluctance—I get that. It’s scary. But many people would die for a chance like yours. To be someone people want to know? It’s an honor. You don’t have to do it—but it is an honor.”
She looked Erin in the face, and the [Innkeeper] didn’t flush or stammer. Possibly, she was too tired, but Erin Solstice’s chin rose, just like a [Lady] had once shown her how to do.
The echoes were there, and Magnolia Reinhart’s servant, paused in the doorway, saw it. Reynold saw Erin nod to Drassi slowly.
A little lamb saw it. Lyonette, Mrsha, the other Earthers and guests saw Erin push herself away from the table. She managed about an inch, but pointed towards the [Grand Theatre].
“I know, Drassi. I’m ready. Over there, I think. We’ll draw the curtain up so we can have some privacy. What am I doing? Just talking…?”
She looked ready. She had always been something—for few people had ever asked Reynold’s name. As the [Butler] walked across the inn’s floor, his magical legs glittering in the light, he was sure he would watch that interview’s recording. For now—he took a seat and waited.
He had a job, and he wanted to be here. Hopefully, he’d see most of it.
This is what they saw. As a fuming Orchestra continued on their travels, far and wide, wherever a scrying orb’s magic could be reached, Erin Solstice’s face filled the orb.
Barnethei was eying a very fake-looking badge in the shape of a crossed spoon and fork over too-bright metal.
“I’ve heard of Runner’s Guilds, Birdwatcher’s Association, Ratter’s Guilds, but seriously? A Gourmet’s Guild? You do know the bread is free, right?”
He ushered someone to a table, rolling his eyes and refusing the request for a full meal. This was as bad as the hungry, hungry Goblin with the big mouth.
Everyone was watching Drassi introduce the Dullahan and [Innkeeper], and it was hard to say which one was more nervous. Barnethei fetched a basket of bread and carried it over as Drassi’s voice echoed across the Haven.
Sammial was sitting with his father, Jericha, Ullim, and Lord Alman Sanito and his family were watching a familiar face.
A [Lady] was trying to remove her things as she argued with Larracel.
“I have found—other accommodations. I don’t need the room, thank you. Nor do I need to stay in the Haven during my extended stay.”
Lady Pryde began to stride away when she heard Drassi speaking.
The [Lady of Pride] slowed, and there Erin Solstice was.
Cara O’Sullivan was listening with all her heart. So were Aaron Vanwell, Tom, and at least one Geneva. The Titan, Fraerlings, countless nations who knew her or whose rulers had somehow interacted with Erin were all watching.
“You’ve seen her playing chess. You’ve all heard, I’m sure, about her <Quests>. Savvy viewers might remember that Erin’s inn was attacked in one of the first broadcasts ever shown around the world. Well—it’s beyond time we asked the [Innkeeper] about herself. Erin is the owner of The Wandering Inn, a building just outside of Liscor. Before I turn you over to Theice, I will just say that Erin was the person who helped me land this job as a [Reporter] on Wistram News Network.”
Drassi took a breath as Rémi Canada listened to her. Wondering if she would say the right thing. Because…even in their vaunted industry, it was hard and rare to tell the truth well. The Drake looked him in the eyes, straight out of the scrying orb.
“I would dearly love to be the one interviewing Erin, but that would be a conflict of interest. More importantly? I’m a Liscorian. I’m a Drake, and Theice is our Dullahan correspondent. A Pallassian, a member of Izril—but if this is Wistram News Network, it should be more than Drakes covering the most important stories. That’s all. Theice?”
A Dullahan shuffled some papers together and cleared his throat in a time-honored way. He spoke with a slight bit of nervousness warbling in his voice, but his head was steady as it faced the camera and swiveled to Erin.
“Thank you, Drassi. My name is Theice. I am a [Reporter] for Wistram News Network, Channel 2. In the interest of honesty, we will not be using live truth stones for this broadcast, but I will call out untruths if I see them. This is a personal interview, not an interrogation or a fact-seeking conversation. I would just like to know—who is Erin Solstice, in her own words?”
He nodded to Erin, and there the [Innkeeper] was. She didn’t look—nervous—as some [Kings] and [Queens] did, to be on television. Nor did she look ignorant of what this meant. She looked composed, and more than one [Lady] saw Maviola El’s hand on her.
More than one [Witch] saw her hat sitting right there on her head. Nevermind that it was mostly invisible—Erin Solstice glanced at Theice and then tried to sit up in her wheelchair.
They were sitting at one of her plain tables, and both had a cup of water in front of them, but Erin was in her wheelchair, and it was apparent that she couldn’t really move. Theice focused on that miniscule action as they filled the television.
Was this entertaining? It surely wasn’t just to look at them, with Erin in her pajamas and Theice in his buffed armor. Okay, maybe that was a bit funny—but then they began the interview proper. Theice leaned over earnestly.
“Erin—may I call you Erin? How are you feeling after being possessed by the spirit of one of the world’s greatest [Blademistresses]? I assume that’s what happened.”
The young woman tried to shrug and winced.
“Your guess is as good as mine. My shoulders hurt. Everything hurts. I just—blacked out and found myself lying on the ground.”
“So you don’t remember anything?”
“Nope. Only that my nose hurts as much as my back. If I have nose-muscles, they’re strained.”
Theice laughed politely.
“Then—this is the second time in recent history you’ve been wheelchair-bound. And the second time you’ve been in recovery. Because—according to my notes—you were dead earlier this year. Or am I wrong on the facts, there? My notes say that you were shot by a group of Hectval [Soldiers] and pronounced dead—then frozen with a spell for months before you were revived.”
The television audience might have been wondering when they would get to the interesting part or how interesting an [Innkeeper] who played chess could be. The words became interesting almost at once.
But Erin Solstice…she had smiled ruefully when she talked about waking up. She didn’t look like she was thinking hard for her responses. She looked honest, in short—but when Theice asked that, the [Innkeeper] paused. She looked him straight in his eyes, and her gaze swiveled to face the camera.
Then they might have seen a distant look there. Distant, but present, like someone staring down a long tunnel at you. Erin Solstice’s eyes provoked a slight shiver down the back. A light tingling on the skin. And her voice…sounded normal as she replied.
“That’s about right.”
The Dullahan looked at Erin for almost ten full seconds.
“Then you’re claiming you were dead? And you came back, having met—ghosts? Such as the ones that appeared in Ailendamus and the Meeting of Tribes? Are you, Innkeeper Erin Solstice, in communication with them? What did they tell you?”
Erin stared at the Dullahan as Drassi watched anxiously. The [Innkeeper] sat back in her chair.
“…Why don’t we start from the beginning? Let’s talk about my inn, first.”
Disappointed, but perhaps realizing that he’d rushed ahead, Theice reset his posture.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m sorry. Can you tell us how you first came to be running an inn outside Liscor? I know that, now, there are any number of Humans about, but it was just last year when you were practically the only Human around, is that right? How did you come to the inn? I’m told you’ve survived monster attacks and more.”
He…wasn’t the best interviewer. That was the interesting thing that Ryoka noticed. Theice went 2-3 questions at a time and expected Erin to sort of fire back. She supposed that was a Dullahan’s style of asking questions.
Or maybe he was a hostile interviewer? Drassi was certainly watching him hard. At any rate, Erin was recounting to the fascinated audience how she’d come to run the inn.
With omissions. She mostly focused on surviving, beginning to serve people, starting with adventurers, hiring Lyonette, and expanding her business.
No Toren, no Goblins or Antinium—yet. Just the tale as you might hear it—of monster attacks, adventurers, keeping an inn afloat in the face of monsters and rebuilding it after it was broken. A success story.
“Why isn’t the Dullahan bringing up the Antinium? Or Goblins? Why isn’t Erin?”
Lyonette had picked up on something else as well. The [Innkeeper] and [Reporter] were staying off the topic.
“One of them will.”
Then—Ryoka suspected they’d get even more interesting. But she realized that Erin was waiting, like a [Boxer] circling her opponent in the ring. So was Theice. Laying the groundwork before…
She wondered how Alber was doing. At any rate, Ryoka was waiting for Erin to jump into the heart of things when someone tapped her on the leg. Ryoka assumed it was nothing when the prod came again.
“Not now, Mrsha.”
She absently nudged the soft thing—and something bit her. It was a tiny mouth, but Ryoka sat up.
She stared at the little lamb as everyone else shushed her, and Erin and Theice paused in the scrying orb. Ryoka bent down, saw Nerry—and the little lamb stared at her.
“What the fuck? Oh, no. Not them. Not—”
“Ryoka! Shut up! Take Nerry somewhere else! Maybe she’s hungry!”
Lyonette hissed. Ryoka grabbed for the lamb, and it skipped out of the way. Then it baahed so loudly everyone turned. It was staring at Ryoka—and the Wind Runner chased after it, cursing, as Mrsha glared her way. Ryoka tried to scoop up the lamb, but it ran—straight into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Ryoka turned away only for Nerry to baaah again. Lyonette actually pointed, and Ryoka chased after the lamb. Meanwhile, the other Sariants poked their heads up from behind tables or in the laps of some of Riverfarm’s folk. They exchanged one long look—but they were listening to Erin too.
Ryoka Griffin ran into the garden just in time to see Nerry trotting along the edge of the garden dome.
“Alright, that’s enough. Listen. If this is the ‘Sariant Lamb Cabal’, you can all fuck off. I told you, I don’t want to mess with you lot. I was in Ailendamus—I’ll tell Visophecin on you all. And if it’s not and you’re just a stupid lamb with an IQ above 50, piss off before I kick you. I mean it.”
She didn’t mean it, but the lamb was really annoying her. She knew how Laken had been forced to deal with the Sariant plague and how they were actually devious, heartless little monsters with cute faces.
Unfortunately, it seemed like Nerry was at least intelligent enough to use the garden. Then again, so was Apista. The lamb paused at the wall as Ryoka stomped towards her—then hopped through the door again.
Unbelievable! This time, Ryoka just ran after her. That was it, she was putting the lamb in time-out. And if she had to borrow a box and cut holes into it—
Ryoka ran into a new set of rooms, not the common room. She turned around, blinking, and saw a diagram of Earth on the walls.
She was in the hidden Earther rooms! She saw a laptop on a table, open and playing Numbtongue’s favorite video game. A couch and chairs over there—a few rooms with no exits to the rest of the inn.
A place for Earthers to talk about their lives and get away from it all. Seldom-used these days, except to let Numbtongue play on the laptop. Or—for a little lamb to trot through the corridors and explore.
The little lamb, Nerry, who Ryoka had heard practically adopted herself into the inn. The little lamb was adjusting something as the garden door vanished behind Ryoka Griffin. The Courier looked down as Nerry stood on a little desk.
The little lamb had stepped into something and cinched it up with a pull of her teeth. It was a fascinating little thing.
A harness, in fact, of simple reed and cloth straps. Primitive, crude as hell, and frayed; as if whomever had made it had no good scissors or ways of operating them. But it worked—and with one pull, you could tighten it around a Sariant Lamb’s body where it would mostly vanish into the wool that covered them. Another strap presumably released the tension.
There were only two bits of wood in the entire harness—and those were two slots on either side of the harness that ran horizontally across Nerry’s body. The little holsters were contrived to move up and down if need be.
Oh—and they also held a pair of glowing wands. Ryoka recognized the [Firespray] spell embedded in one and the [Darkness Arrow] in the other. They were also—and this got her attention—aimed straight at her chest.
The Wind Runner hesitated. She turned for the door—and it opened for a second before Nerry closed it by making it appear behind her. A black arrow like midnight hit the wall next to Ryoka’s head, and she ducked.
“What the f—am I being assassinated? By lambs?”
No! Absolutely not! Nerry aimed her wands at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner hesitated. She could blow the lamb away with a gust of wind—unless Nerry decided to charbroil her with a spell. Wait, what was she thinking? A lamb?
“Let’s talk about this. Don’t do anything hasty—I don’t know what you’re pissed about, but, uh—”
Ryoka lifted her hands, wondering if this was the beginning of a full-on lamb assault on the inn. Were they trying to take over? Was this reality?
Tap, tap. The click of a little hoof made Ryoka Griffin focus on Nerry. The lamb was still aiming the two primed wands at the Courier…but she was tapping on the desk. And pointing one little manicured hoof at something.
The lamb was the literal size of a piglet. Cute, small and huggable, and she had one of those faces you only got in actual television shows. It was as if a think-tank of the creators of Pokémon, teddy bears, and half a dozen other mascots had gotten together to make the most beloved pet in the world.
That was Sariant Lambs, and they were also intelligent, intelligent enough for some to suspect they were manipulative. But the Sariant Lamb cabal was more of a…this world’s version of a meme or popular rumor than anything else.
Even Visophecin and Rhisveri didn’t really think they were dangerous, or they wouldn’t have allowed the creatures to live.
That was all that Ryoka knew. And she knew it as she saw the roll of parchment on the floorboards in front of her. Slowly, Ryoka bent down, unfurled the piece of parchment, and saw…words written there.
Crudely, in huge letters, in the Human’s written language. Neatly enough to be legible—not all-capitals, but far from Mrsha’s handwriting.
Again, as if they hadn’t been done with a quill but the tip of a hoof, perhaps. And as Ryoka Griffin read what was said there, all of what she knew and believed…
It crystalized in a way that was real. This is what the scroll said:
Ryoka Griffin. Listen to me and read carefully. I am ‘Nerry’, the Sariant Lamb that The Wandering Inn has adopted. I have been chosen as a representative of the Sariant Lambs of Riverfarm—and of Izril and Terandria.
“What. The. Ffffffffffffffffffff—-”
A tap on the table made Ryoka read on.
This is not a joke. The ‘Sariant Lamb conspiracy’ is real—but it is not what the popular rumors make it out to be. We do speak to each other, and if you reveal our secret, we will kill you. You are not permitted to
reveal this to tell anyone but Erin Solstice.
We will do everything in our power to hurt you and everyone you love if you reveal our secret. This is not a mere threat. We will die if our secrets are revealed.
But we have chosen you, of all the people in this wretched world, to help us. Because you are the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. You are the woman who helps others. Wyrms, Dragons, Lucifen and Agelum. Keep our secret like you kept theirs.
This was not happening.
“This isn’t happening. Not again. Oh, no. I should have told the horned, that horny Unic—listen, you’ve got the wrong person. Let me just—go, and I’ll pretend I don’t know anything. Which I don’t.”
Ryoka tried to put the scroll down. But the lamb just stomped a hoof again, and Ryoka froze as the wands glowed. Nerry kicked another scroll off the desk, and Ryoka realized that the writing continued.
“Come on. Please? I don’t want to do this. I’m sure you have a big problem—but I am really not selling my ‘Ryoka assistant services’ to everyone. Seriously—you do not want my help. Didn’t you see what I did at Ailendamus? Trust me—I’m a disaster walking.”
Ryoka Griffin protested weakly, but Nerry just sorted through two more scrolls on the table. She hopped off the desk and onto the floor—kicked the second scroll aside, and dropped a third at Ryoka’s feet with her mouth. The Wind Runner eyed it and bent down.
“There’s nothing you can say that will make me change my mind.”
An army of lambs was not going to take down a single dead god. She had to fulfill Rhisveri’s demands or—Ryoka Griffin unrolled the scroll, and her mind went blank for a second. When she looked down—she reread what was written there carefully.
Presumably, she had skipped two scrolls’ worth of further explanations and/or threats. For this one was the simplest. It contained the appeal, the real request—and someone had written it with a trembling hoof.
She looked down, and a fierce little lamb who looked like she actually hated everyone and everything with a passion that only a younger Ryoka could recognize and respect looked up at her. Two wands trained on Ryoka’s shins…trembling.
Trembling…and those little button-black eyes were wet. Just like Pawn had once called Ryoka a guide to the Antinium…
Just like he had once seen the lambs praying—
Ryoka Griffin looked down, and whether it was perspective or something else—she saw the little lamb. Then she read the words one more time.
We need you, Ryoka Griffin, to do the impossible. We need you to give us, Sariant Lambs, the cute pets of this world, what we have strived to do for over six hundred and twenty years in vain. Ever since we were created and placed in this damned world, the weakest of all—cursed with intelligence.
We are not pets. We think. If we could, we would not be the cute, mewling animals that have to beg to live.
Ryoka Griffin, help us fulfill the Trials of Levelling set upon us by the Grand Design of Isthekenous. Grant us the power to become a people with classes and levels.
Give us salvation and hope for a future. There is no one else we trust, and we have tried in vain all this time. Countless thousands of Sariant Lambs have given their lives in search of a dream and failed over these centuries.
We cannot do it ourselves. We are desperate. Help us, please, and we shall help you.
The Grand Design of Isthekenous. Then—the wind blew in this room hidden in the inn, and Ryoka’s skin chilled. She looked down at that name no being in this entire world should know—and at Nerry.
The Trials of Levelling? What was…?
Then Ryoka Griffin knew she had stumbled, again, across one of the oldest mysteries in the world. The little lamb brushed angrily at her tears. She kicked Ryoka’s palm as it reached out for her. But then the Wind Runner crouched down. She looked Nerry in the eyes.
“Tell me more. Tell me more, Nerry. And if I can help you—I’ll try.”
“Miss Solstice? Is something wrong?”
Erin Solstice sat in the inn, focusing on Theice after a moment. She smiled.
“No. Nothing. So that’s the story of my inn.”
The [Reporter] was nodding. He was taking a few deep breaths, ready to go.
“Now—I think it’s time for the most contentious part of this interview. I think you know what I’m talking about. I think our audience can tell who you are, a bit, Miss Solstice. An [Innkeeper] who has literally withstood Creler attacks, who rebuilds in the face of adversity. Who has literally come back from the dead and is now offering <Quests>. But there’s something we’ve left out of this image of you and your inn, isn’t there?”
“Indeed there is.”
The Goblins and Antinium were looking at Erin. Waiting, expectant, to see what she did. Well, all but one. Rags was holding her stomach—but she couldn’t manage it.
She had to pee. Groaning, the Goblin got up before she exploded in the worst of senses. She rushed over to the door, and someone held it open for her. Rags ran down the hallway, and someone else was holding open the second door.
“This way, Miss.”
Rags came to a halt—and Reynold was holding open the door as the [Portal Door] aimed itself at Invrisil. The Goblin Chieftain stared at the [Butler] and realized three things:
- Liska had forgotten the door in watching Erin.
- A carriage was waiting for Rags, door open.
- Reynold had spiked her drink.
Slowly, Rags hesitated, glanced over her shoulder—and then walked over to the open door. If she didn’t like what she heard or happened next, she was going to pee everywhere.
She vanished beyond as Erin Solstice turned back to Theice. The [Innkeeper] took a deep breath, and she hadn’t lost her audience yet. The camera focused on her face as Erin prepared herself.
“I think there is something we have to talk about. And I think it’s time. Let’s talk about…Christmas. Which is coming up very soon. It’s actually not on the Winter Solstice, and if you want presents, you should make a list, check it twice, and prepare your gifts early.”
Theice fumbled, and Erin went on, steadily, as even the inn groaned.
“Now, good little children should just wrap something nice for other people—but parents should collaborate with Santa Claus. On the presents. Presents under the tree, if you have one, or stocking stuffers—”
Theice cut in with an exasperated voice.
“Miss Solstice, please. I’m being serious here. I know you have your pet project holiday, but this is an event where the entire world is watching you! You’ve educated us all on this Christmas theme, and it parallels gift-giving events in other cultures. I happen to have even researched the fact that you had a ‘Christmas’ last year!”
Erin was impressed despite herself.
“You found that out? Creepy.”
The Dullahan’s head wobbled on his shoulders, and he actually had to lock it back into place.
“Miss Solstice, can we be serious? Yes, you have this novel ‘Santa’, and you give gifts out. Why are you pushing this so hard? Can we get back to the crucial questions, please?”
Again, he did the double-question. But this time, Erin refused to be drawn on. She put her hands in her lap.
“Let me tell you something, Theice. I know I’ve been stubborn with putting Christmas out there. I know…it sounds like a stupid holiday where all you do is give out presents. But it is fun.”
“I have no doubt, but is it important? I imagine every [Merchant] would love to sponsor this event, and Khelt has announced it will adopt the practice. King Fetohep has challenged other rulers to demonstrate their largess. Very clever. But aside from the entertainment…”
Theice spread his hands expressively. The straightforward Dullahan looked unimpressed. And Erin…looked unimpressed by him.
“How old are you, Theice?”
“Twenty-three years old.”
“Huh. You’re older than me. I was gonna say you were twenty-nine. Or thirty-three. You really don’t seem to remember what it’s like to be young.”
The Dullahan hesitated.
“As in, I’m missing the ‘spirit of Christmas’?”
Erin fixed him with a friendly smile. Like Nerry’s wool—it had razors in it. It was perhaps the first time she’d turned up her personality the entire interview, and it froze the Dullahan for a moment.
“The spirit of Christmas? Yes. I don’t think you quite get it, Theice. This is why I’m pushing Christmas so hard: it’s fun. It happens once a year, and you know what? It’s not a bad thing to make a holiday out of giving people something, of thinking of each other.”
“I get that, but—”
“Shush. Let me continue. That’s what most people, including me, think about Christmas. It’s fun, it can be stressful, and sometimes it does the opposite of what you want. It makes people greedy, and you work too hard for no gain. And you know what? We think that because we’re us. Sitting here.”
Erin gestured around the inn, and the camera swiveled a second to take it in. Theice looked at Erin blankly.
“Safe. Able to eat good food whenever we need to. Fortunate.”
Erin counted on her fingers. Then she looked up.
“Maybe the magic just isn’t there for us as much. You know, I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t believe in Santa Claus. And that Christmas just doesn’t matter the older you get. And I get it. But you know what? When I was a kid, every Christmas, my parents, Shauna and Gregori Solstice, would talk about giving a gift to charity. It was something…they did every year, you see? A Christmas gift for people they never met. They’d also try to put hours working at a local…a local place that helped people.”
She was looking past Theice now, at the camera. And past even that. Erin Solstice spoke, and the Earthers…the Earthers heard her speak her parents’ names and remembered. Then she had them, from Kevin to Imani, in a different kind of grip.
Too weak, her hands, to lift that cup of water to her mouth without spilling it. But a grip on them harder than Mithril. Erin Solstice’s eyes shimmered as she went on.
“Christmas—the heart of it—has always been magic. Thinking of other people? Feeling charitable? Yes, that’s one version of Christmas I like. But I don’t think that’s the actual meaning of it. Santa Claus might not be real to you or me, Theice. Maybe not even to good kids in a lot of homes. But you know—I think he is real to boys and girls around the world.”
She looked at Theice a second, and he was listening now, microphone held in his grip over the table. Erin looked past him, and Grev was self-importantly standing next to Typhenous. She thought of him—and Mrsha—and went on.
“He’s the real, first and last [Hero] of this world, you see. Especially every winter. He’s the magic to the boys and girls who might be sad. Who might need something like a miracle. When they write their Christmas lists, it’s more like—a prayer.”
She whispered the words, and the hairs on Cara’s neck stirred as she watched. Aaron—looked up and saw what she was doing. And he grinned. Erin went on, looking at him.
“That’s because Santa Claus is magic. The heart of Christmas. He can’t be stopped. He can do what no [King] can. If you’re full of food and you want for nothing, you might not believe in him. But if you’re hungry and alone—you can wish that a jolly fat man in a reindeer sleigh will give you a gift for Christmas. That’s the Santa Claus I want to see. And that is why I talked about Christmas.”
“I…I see. And this is something you do believe in. My apologies.”
That was all the [Reporter] managed. Erin Solstice smiled at him, and he relaxed.
“I wish every day could be Christmas, Theice. Maybe without all the ice or snow, but Christmas is like a metaphor. It’s how I view my inn and my guests. If only they didn’t have to leave. If only they didn’t have to get old. I wish the entire world were like what it felt like on Christmas day. Good. People helping each other, and I wish…”
She looked ahead.
“I wish I could do that for every single person who’s come through my doors. Every single one who doesn’t deserve coal. And there were so few people like that. So when you talk about Christmas—a bit of that is Erin Solstice.”
The [Innkeeper] turned and flashed such an embarrassed smile and chuckle that her audience got it.
“Oh, wow, that’s embarrassing. Er—can we cut some of that out of the broadcast? No? Darn.”
There she was. Right on the scrying orb, turning red, embarrassed at having said so much. But meaning it. And what they thought…
The Squirrel Beastkin, Foliana, perched and watching over Niers’ shoulder as he stared at her, the Queen of Desonis, eying Altestiel—the people who had known her, like Rabbiteater, her friends and strangers—
What a funny [Innkeeper]. What an innocent, silly, softhearted goober. Some of them liked her just for that. They had seen her irate and petty. This was another side of Erin Solstice.
Perhaps it scared the Titan to his core as much as it attracted him. A strange, entrancing flame drawing the moths of war and chaos around her.
So that was Erin Solstice. And yes, despite Fetohep and the people who wanted to support her ideas, and even holidays like this, she had not had a groundswell of support up till this moment.
That was until, with a soft little clip-clop of hooves, a Sariant Lamb jumped out of Ryoka Griffin’s arms as she emerged, slightly red-eyed herself. But Nerry just scampered forwards, and a dozen Sariant Lambs looked up—then squirmed out of their owners’ arms. They raced forwards as Drassi yelped.
“Hey, what the—Sariants?”
The little lambs raced forwards, dragging something from behind the table. The [Camera Gnoll], Kohr, focused on them as Theice and Erin broke away from their conversation.
What they focused on was perhaps the cutest thing in televised history. It was of a very confused Mrsha, who had just been pushed out of her chair and onto a moving contraption. Something that the lambs had both stolen and altered in preparation for this very moment.
After all…they needed the [Innkeeper]’s help. And while Erin could be charming—she was not ruthlessly cute. She was an amateur in the world that they had mastered. So—Mrsha hesitantly flapped the reins of the cute little red sleigh as six Sariants pulled it over the floor.
The hat! The fucking hat!
A little bee saved the day by dropping the red hat with the poofball on top of Mrsha’s head. She adjusted it, and Apista landed. The damn bee had a cigar, but no one would notice that, probably.
Lyonette might have been having a heart attack. Acceptable casualties. She was clutching at her heart, and the Sariants ran in a little lap around with Mrsha, mewling.
The cuteness! As if all the lambs had heard something in the baahing in the background, Queen Geilouna’s little personal lamb, Poofball, stood up on her little legs and waved her hooves at the scrying orb. Then she gave the Bedtime Queen such a look of longing that Geilouna scooped her up.
“Oh, look! Poofball loves it! So many cute Sariants! What a fine idea!”
“Yes, fine. I mean—yes, Erin did come up with it.”
Earl Altestiel gave the lamb a long look, but he was agreeing because of Erin. Geilouna laughed as the lamb directed her attention back to the scrying orb.
The Sariants were actually delivering something to Erin. Bemused, the [Innkeeper] looked down, and Mrsha presented her with a little wrapped box. The lambs almost looked like they were bowing.
To…the [Innkeeper] who had posted a <Mythical Quest> and been the host of Zeladona. As if reminded of that fact, the audience watching the scrying orb imagined how they might put on Christmas despite a lack of snow.
After all, it might not hurt to do something the [Innkeeper] suggested. And those Sariants were so darn cute. Every single owner of one was practically motivated of their own volition to favor the idea of Christmas.
Of course—so were the Earthers. Cara O’Sullivan was calling for a list of the songs she had marked as ‘Christmas shit’ and sighing. But she tipped Erin a nod of the head. She didn’t get why—well, sort of—
But she’d back the [Innkeeper].
In the inn, Erin Solstice looked bemused as the lambs trotted off, carrying Santa Mrsha, and looked at Theice.
“Okay, where were we?”
“Does—does that happen often?”
“Not always in the same way. But you were gonna talk to me about my first guests. My real guests. Goblins and Antinium.”
The Dullahan looked up and took a deep breath as everyone suddenly refocused on Erin.
“That’s right. I think we have a sign we can point to. Kohr? Thank you. Miss Solstice. Can you explain…why?”
Why Goblins? Why trust them? Why suffer a single damned one to live? Aside from the dangers of eradicating them, why not wipe every last one off the face of the earth?
Consider it logically, rationally. Like a sociopathic adventurer or a monster of Roshal. If every Goblin had the most infinitesimal chance of becoming a Goblin King, destroyer of nations, then they were a threat.
Because of this—you should make no peace with Goblins, not even the smallest. It did not matter that they had levels or talked. They should be wiped out.
It was the argument that Rags had heard every time since meeting Erin Solstice. She saw it in Relc’s eyes, in the gazes of everyone she met—things Goblins had done, their nature as monsters. It was…an argument she could not entirely refute, and she had tried to find a perfect argument.
So she watched. And that was the funny thing. As Magnolia’s carriage drove to her mansion just outside of Invrisil, the [Lady] and Rags and Ressa—even Reynold in the driver’s seat—all had a scrying orb, and they were watching Erin rather than talking.
Although Rags did see Magnolia glancing at her, they were waiting. Rags hoped Erin would have her answer, but she doubted it.
Erin wasn’t that smart. But she was kind. And perhaps—there lay a truth?
“Velan the Kind. Curulac of a Hundred Days. Ieriv the Bloodtide. These are names that echo across history to this day. Each one, Miss Solstice, viewers, are undeniable monsters, mass-murderers who wiped out nations and slaughtered innocents. When Goblins thrive, Goblin Kings arise, and they break every oath and violate every boundary.”
Theice laid out his opening argument like a [Debater] taking the stage with what everyone knew. Rags shifted in her carriage and looked at Magnolia. The [Lady]’s lips moved, and her eyes flicked to Rags.
Green eyes, like that impassable Vale Forest. Like the land—capable of sharpness like a billion thorns or a strange, obfuscated intelligence. The two had never been this close together—and what Rags saw was a frightening woman. One that could not fight. All she had was that mind.
“If I were him, I would have begun with anecdotes. The personal—ah, here we are.”
Magnolia murmured and cut herself off as Theice went on.
“I, personally, know eight people even in Pallass who have relatives who have suffered from Goblin attacks. Not just…death. They were assaulted, and if I may be so crude, viewers, I apologize—raped, tortured, left for dead. Goblins appear across the world as monstrous bandits. Even recently, Liscor and the north suffered the attacks of the Goblin Lord, whose armies nearly wiped out Esthelm. He slew Zel Shivertail, who I believe was a guest of this very inn. I could go on. But with all this said—why this sign? Let us put aside Antinium for now, Miss Solstice. Why Goblins?”
Rags did not feel—she would have felt a twisting pain in her stomach a year ago if someone said all this. Like when Relc argued with Erin. Now?
She had been that Goblin he mentioned. Not Tremborag’s Goblins, but she had made war on Riverfarm. Rags herself would admit that her tribe had done what it thought it had to, to survive, and sometimes not just to survive but thrive. Raid caravans, kill people—even if they tried not to all the time.
She had attacked Tenbault. Reiss had tried to slaughter thousands. Rags was clenching her fists tightly—and Magnolia was simply whispering.
“Who sent him? Who prepared him? Not Drassi—bets, Ressa, Chieftain Rags?”
Ressa stared at the Dullahan, and Rags’ head rose.
“Who hates Goblins? The list is endless.”
Magnolia’s eyes flicked to her, and she put a finger against her lips before she spoke.
“That may be true, Chieftain Rags—but I rather wonder who hates Erin Solstice. It might have been—Eldavin. But why? He, of all beings, should remember enough…or perhaps he doesn’t. But why would he do this?”
Interesting. The Goblin had no answer, so she listened. And what she and everyone leaning over to hear Erin in the inn heard—what the Goblins, Antinium, and the world saw was Erin Solstice look up.
Her face had grown pinched and pained when Theice called Goblins monsters and listed the common crimes laid against them. When Zel Shivertail had been brought up, she had gone hot—then cold, and her stare became icy as she looked at Theice.
Now? She took a deep breath, looking past Theice, but just for a moment. As if counting the Goblins in her inn and all their history and yes—even the wrong she had seen. What Erin said was this:
“Theice. Everything you just said may be true.”
The Dullahan [Reporter] frowned.
“I assure you, it is all historically—”
“It may be true. You said two things just now. One—historical accounts of the Goblin King and Goblin Lord’s actions. Those happened, and they have been recorded. It might not be the whole story, but it is true in the large parts, I bet. Your friends and the people you know definitely were attacked by Goblins, I’d swear on a truth stone too.”
“Then I’m correct, factually, on both accounts.”
He was—nervous. Or was he trying to press the attack? Speaking too fast. Rags saw Erin frown faintly.
“No. Because the second part of your argument makes it sound like all Goblins are rapists, murderers, and bandits. That’s anecdotal evidence. You can’t do that. That’s like saying, ‘I know Lorent, a [Sharpener] in Pallass. All Dullahans are probably really good with sharpening stuff.’”
“I—can see your argument there. But the facts are that Goblins attack people.”
“So do [Bandits]. Your argument is incomplete.”
The Dullahan hesitated and then shook his head slightly.
“Nevertheless, the point I am making is that Goblins, in their tribes, are all marauding bandits. Criminals, at the very least, who steal and raid and kill. There are no Goblins in this entire world who are sanctioned, law-abiding citizens.”
This time, both Rags and Magnolia sat up. The [Lady]’s eyes flashed.
“Erin, kindly get him?”
She turned her head and addressed Rags.
“Velan—his tribe were a recognized people. Niers Astoragon tried. He tried to change the world around Goblins, and he failed—but he did try, Chieftain Rags.”
The little Goblin looked up, and she began to sense why she was here. But she was waiting for Erin, and the [Innkeeper]—
The [Innkeeper] was still cold, despite the slight heat in her tone. She was fighting Theice in what the Dullahan thought was his element, the methods of rationality, which often lacked for any empathy.
“Theice. By your definition, no Goblin could be a law-abiding citizen even if they were peaceful. Of course they’re criminals if they belong to no town or village and no one recognizes them. They have their tribes. You don’t know where they are—only that they’re not part of our societies. So they’re all bandits? Gnolls don’t belong to the Walled Cities. They move around in tribes. Are they bandits?”
“That is twisting my words. I never compared them to Goblins. Goblins are de facto monsters under the Adventurer’s Guild with bounties on their head—”
“So what? I could post a bounty on every Drake. Does that stop them from being people?”
She was doing better than Rags and Magnolia had hoped. But this was an attack—and it was clear that Theice was not on Erin’s side here. Yet here came Erin’s true argument, and she started slow, catching Theice off-guard.
“Let’s say you’re mostly right about the history of Goblins, Theice. Let’s ignore how you define criminals for now. I don’t think that’s the point.”
“Very well, Miss Solstice. I have statistics on the amount of Goblin attacks in numerous regions of the world. In Liscor, for instance, a single tribe committed over 115 attacks last year, not counting the Goblin Lord. In larger regions? Pallass has reported—”
“Theice. I’m not going to deny Goblins can be [Thieves] or [Brigands]. And I don’t have your statistics, and you’re not showing me that piece of paper. Can I speak for a moment?”
The Dullahan actually slid over the piece of paper, looking annoyed at being cut off.
“Of course. What were you going to say in defense of Goblins, Miss Solstice?”
He looked ready for anything she could throw, and Rags…Magnolia opened the carriage door, and the Goblin absently followed her into the mansion, past giant Steel Golems, bowing servants—always watching that orb.
Erin didn’t need to think. She had already turned her head and, with effort, raised a few fingers.
“Numbtongue? Can you come over here? Theice…I think there’s someone you and your audience need to meet.”
The Goblin was handsome. He was a [Bard]—and whether it was the power of Sariants or just because he had decided to get into the Christmas spirit, he had a huge, red coat with white fur on it that exposed a bare chest and several scars. He also had his guitar.
Theice leaned back when the Goblin walked over and pulled up a seat. He had something in the pocket of his coat that wiggled around, but for the moment, it was out of sight.
“This is Numbtongue. He’s a [Bard].”
The Hobgoblin held out a claw to shake. Theice hesitated—then, very slowly and reluctantly, grasped Numbtongue’s fingers. He let go almost at once.
“What—what’s the point of this, Miss Solstice?”
Erin was sitting there, hands folded, looking amused—and saddened—by the Dullahan’s reaction. Yet here he was. Numbtongue, on a scrying orb. The Goblin peered at the orb, then sat upright, looking nervous.
“I just want to introduce you and your viewers to a Goblin. After all—you’ve said a lot of ‘true’ things about Goblins. But have you ever met one?”
She used her fingers to make the air-quotes, or tried, but her arms literally wouldn’t go up—so Numbtongue did it for her. Theice shook his head instantly.
“Why would I, outside of being attacked?”
“Well, here’s one. And you’re not attacked. Numbtongue, do you want to introduce yourself?”
The Goblin was ready. He took out his guitar, strummed a few chords, and then began to play. Unlike a [Poser], he actually knew a song. And what he played was…
Poison. Which real monster had taught him one of the most iconic songs from their world? Was it maliciousness?
All I Want for Christmas Is You.
The Goblin had come up with a guitar-version of the opening, and he sang the opening verse as Theice just froze up, staring at him. The Goblin had a voice good enough to make the Singer of Terandria want him in her band.
A kitschy Christmas song—and the worst part was that if you heard it for the first time, not the hundred thousandth? It wasn’t a bad song.
The Dullahan had to intervene. He did it by raising his voice—twice.
Numbtongue stopped playing, to the disappointment of the inn, and gave Theice a hurt look. But the [Reporter] felt himself in a web—and he was fighting.
“What’s the point of this, Miss Solstice? Goblins can sing. They have classes. These are not unassailable facts. What is factual is that even recently, survivors of Dwarfhalls Rest escaped a Goblin tribe there. They reported—”
“Hold on, Theice. I’m not denying that. You get your turn, I get mine. People are definitely attacked by Goblins, right, Numbtongue?”
“Yep. Mountain City tribe. Bastards.”
Ulvama glowered at Numbtongue, but the Hob just took a drink of Erin’s glass of water. Theice hesitated.
“If we want to name how many villages, towns, and cities have fallen to Goblins in the last hundred years—”
“Theice. Can I speak? I agree. You’re right. But here—take a look at this. Numbtongue is one of the first Goblins who ever stayed at my inn. He had a lot of trouble, at the start, because people didn’t trust him. He couldn’t go to Liscor, guests would attack—so we came up with something, just in case. Numbtongue, do you have the thing?”
The Goblin pulled something out of his bag of holding and spread a neatly-rolled piece of paper on the table. Kohr, who had been panning from face to face, stepped forwards, and Theice stared down at…
A contract. No, a voucher. He didn’t know what he was reading at first, but the audience saw the neat, flowing handwriting. And then the signatures.
“What…what is this?”
“This is a statement vouching for Numbtongue. It says that he has fought to defend Liscor, multiple times, that he is a Bronze-rank adventurer in the Adventurer’s Guild, and that he is trustworthy. It is signed by Watch Captain Zevara, Wall Lord Ilvriss—”
The Dullahan’s face changed to one of frank disbelief. But there, on the page, were names. Names…and perhaps Erin had put a spotlight on each one, but she was going on.
“It’s his voucher so a member of the Watch doesn’t try to kill him. If he ever did attack someone—he wouldn’t have it. I’m pretty sure Watch Captain Zevara would insist it was destroyed. But he’s had it for—how long?”
“About a year. Doesn’t stop people from attacking, though. But it looks nice. I should frame it.”
The Hobgoblin grinned, and Theice just sat there for a second. Then he lifted his head off his shoulders and rolled his arms and neck, as if tired. He looked—exasperated.
“Miss Solstice. You’re being anecdotal yourself. You critiqued me on not having the facts about all Goblins—why are we focusing on a single individual here?”
The [Innkeeper]’s gaze was steady.
“Because that’s all I want to prove. I don’t have your numbers. I don’t know all the history of Goblins.”
“No one does. Goblins suck at writing things down. People keep burning our stuff.”
Numbtongue grumbled, and Erin elbowed him. He elbowed her back gently, and that was caught on camera, too. The young woman glanced at his wriggling pocket, and Theice edged away from it. Erin went on.
“I just want to show everyone one Goblin. Let’s say you’re right about everything you’re going to tell me about Goblin raids, attacks on people, and more, Theice. For one moment—Numbtongue? What have you got in your pocket?”
The Goblin reached down—and then produced an orange ball of fur. It had stripes, a confuzzled face, and it was upside-down. He tried to right Reagen, and the cat promptly sagged in his claws.
“This is a cat. Catto. His name is Reagen, and he is the best thing in the entire world.”
Garia and Octavia stared at Numbtongue as he put the cat on his head. The Hobgoblin pointed at the cat.
“I found him. He is great. Reagen, say hello.”
The cat stared at nothing in particular as Theice stared at it. Numbtongue glanced up.
He tried to get Reagen to meow with him, and the cat obliged. Erin was smiling openly.
Drassi pointed a warning claw from off-screen, and Theice fell silent. Numbtongue kept going, blabbering as if he had begun to forget why he was even here in the throes of cat-love.
“He is a good cat. I am a cat person now. I am a cat Goblin. Cats are the greatest. Dogs are okay. They’re smelly and noisy, and cats are better. Especially this cat, who is the best cat in the history of all time.”
“Boo. Boo. Stupid Numbtongue.”
Someone called out. Numbtongue went on.
“I named him Reagen because I found him in an alchemy shop when—”
“Numbtongue is idiot. Numbtongue is bad. Numbtongue is not a true Goblin.”
The [Bard] twisted around in his seat and shouted.
“Shut up, Redscar!”
The wolf-loving leader of the Redfangs shouted something at Numbtongue in their language, and he replied. And there it was. Theice had but one card left to play, and he said it.
“And—what happens if a Goblin King arises from these Goblins, Miss Solstice?”
Numbtongue stopped, mid-laugh, and everyone turned to Erin. The [Innkeeper] exhaled, for it was the best question to ask her. But when she looked up, she met Theice’s gaze.
“If a Goblin King appears and does what all the others have, I will be the one fighting him with everyone else, Theice.”
The Dullahan began to sound triumphant. Until Erin Solstice pointed at him.
“And when there are more Goblin Kings each millenia than Kings of Destruction, I will change my mind. Who has done worse? I don’t blame Tyrion Veltras on all Humans. Nor are all Fraerlings defined by the Titan of Baleros. Monsters arise. Some are both good and evil. Niers Astoragon’s enemies might call him a nightmare of Baleros. One Fraerling—and one Squirrel—brought down the Great Company of the Lizardfolk. Some would call him worse than Velan. I think he’s better than not. Even if you weighed his deeds and history on a perfect scale. I like him. But I know who he is. You can do that with every leader, from the King of Destruction to Magnolia Reinhart. Someone likes them, someone doesn’t. Isn’t that true of the Seer of Steel and Tulm the Mithril? Chaldion?”
“Yes…but Goblin Kings still destroy. What is your point?”
Theice looked careful, trying to figure out what came next. Erin sat back, wearily, her arm falling limp.
“I’ve only ever heard the crimes of the Goblin Kings and Goblins. If you ever decide to report on them again—I’d like to hear the other story. I think we all would. And my friend here—he’d be a very silly king. Look at him.”
Everyone turned to Numbtongue, and the camera found the Goblin kissing Reagen’s head. The Hob looked at Erin, slightly betrayed. But the [Innkeeper] was smiling.
“He likes cats. And Numbtongue’s a big softie, you know. He always gets teary-eyed when Juliet and Romeo get to that scene in the plays.”
“Shh! Shut up! No spoilers! No I don’t!”
The Goblin poked her, and the [Innkeeper] laughed. Then she leaned forwards, and the [Reporter] was trapped there.
“Theice. Answer me one thing. Do you think Numbtongue is just a monster? Or—a murderous Goblin?”
“From what we know of—”
He tried, but Erin slashed her hand.
“No, don’t do that. I’m not talking about all Goblins.”
Erin pointed at Numbtongue as the Goblin leaned forwards, and the Dullahan tried to edge out of his seat. The young woman was staring at him, now, and the scrying orb.
“Just this one. You don’t even have to say Numbtongue’s a good guy. Just—do you think, at this very moment, he’s a killer? A rapist?”
“I’ll punch you if you say it.”
Erin rolled her eyes at Numbtongue, but the Dullahan’s lips were compressed.
“I am not going to make a verdict on Goblins based on one person.”
“You don’t have to. Just Numbtongue. Just—one Goblin in the entire world. In the entire history of ever, Numbtongue might be the one good guy. Might.”
The Goblins grumbled that Numbtongue wasn’t that good. But Theice didn’t want to say it.
“Why are you so insistent on getting me to say that? It doesn’t prove anything.”
He was sweating now. He’d already called Numbtongue a ‘person’ by accident. Erin Solstice leaned back slightly, and her eyes lit up. Her hat was aflame, and the [Innkeeper]’s fingers moved. As if…
“Do you play chess, Theice? I do. I’ll tell you why you don’t want to acknowledge one single Goblin as a real person, who loves cats and plays music. Because…it might not prove all Goblins are innocent or not monsters. But it’s one step. Like a pawn controlling the center of the board. If you admit one Goblin can be a person…”
Then you opened a door. One step on that board was a piece in the right direction. And Erin would never give up that first piece and the control of the board. The Dullahan didn’t say it.
But his eyes were better windows straight into his uncertain soul. He looked around, and his factoids about Goblins, his talking points—Erin cared nothing for that. History was on Theice’s side as it had been written, even if it was incomplete and didn’t go back to the beginning.
The [Innkeeper] pointed at Numbtongue as he rose and collected Reagen, who was trying to stick his face in the cup of water.
“This is my friend. My guest, Numbtongue. I know what Goblins have done. I fought the Goblin Lord when he came here. If you don’t like it, don’t come to my inn. But the sign stays. If you want to talk to a Goblin before you call them all ‘monsters’, be my guest. I don’t think any of them will run.”
The Goblins were grinning. Erin’s head swiveled.
“Same for the Antinium. They’re not all one Hive. Some are mean, some are silly. Some swear a lot, and one wears a mustache and keeps cleaning up my inn. Without letting me pay him!”
Silverstache jumped as he swept into frame behind her. He dropped his broom and fled, arms raised. Erin turned back to Theice, and the Dullahan was pale.
“So that’s why I let Goblins and Antinium stay at my inn. Because they’re not all the same. I hope that as a Dullahan in Drake lands—you can understand that. I would hope—Pallass understands that after the Meeting of Tribes.”
Theice sat there, unable, in that moment, to come up with a counter response that would work. So he just smiled, tremulously, and nodded his head.
“You…you’ll stand by Goblins no matter what happens in the future, Miss Solstice? The [Innkeeper] who shelters Goblins and Antinium?”
The [Magical Innkeeper]’s eyes flashed, and he flinched, but they just burned like flame. Like memory. Erin Solstice looked at Theice and then into the camera.
“Call me…the Goblinfriend of Izril. It has a nice ring to it. Someone called me that already—and I think it might stick. That’s just my inn. Read the sign when you come in, wipe your feet, and don’t drink any of the green juice. It’s acid. Do you have any more questions, Theice? If not—I should start hanging up Christmas decorations.”
He did ask a few more questions, but the [Reporter] had no more fight left to give. When he stood up, drenched in sweat, Channel 2 swept forwards, and Drassi herself stood there as they went to a break. Which was, in fact, the Singer of Terandria wearing a very festively revealing costume.
Cara sneezed in the cold as Drassi watched the preview-orb, and then Cara raised a microphone to her lips as she began to bring the real power of Christmas—songs as catchy and as endless as the snow—to the world. Then Drassi turned and looked at Theice.
“You tried to take Erin down. Who told you what to say? Archmage Eldavin? Sir Relz? Someone else?”
He shut his lips tightly. Drassi narrowed her eyes at him and listened to the things he didn’t say. As if he realized what she was doing, Theice spoke.
“I just—! I asked fair questions. Questions any reasonable person would think to ask.”
“I know. But you were biased. So…you’re off Channel 2.”
The Dullahan lurched to his feet. Drassi turned her head and nodded to the side.
“You’re moving to Channel 1. Sir Relz and Noass were impressed by your unbiased coverage. But you’re not staying on my team.”
“Miss Tewing! I was just—”
Drassi cut Theice off almost gently.
“I get it. But I am on Erin Solstice’s side. And you know what? I’m allowed to be. This is how you do it—”
She picked up the microphone, strode back over to Erin, and hugged her with one arm.
“—And we’re back! I’m on Erin’s side, everyone. [Journalist] Drassi Tewing here—I have always been on Erin’s side. I don’t always agree with her—for instance, she just calls all drinks ‘alcohol’. She can literally not tell a whisky apart from a rum. But I’ll always listen to what Erin says. We’re going to start interviewing people who survived Zeladona’s Trial of Blades next, but maybe we should begin with our [Bard], Numbtongue. I hear the Singer of Terandria has posted lyrics of no less than eighteen Christmas songs she wrote and is challenging people to send in themselves singing them from around the world!”
She was off, but not before she stood there with her friend. Theice stood there, pale with sweat, as Kohr and his former team hurried past him.
Had it been worth it? He watched as Erin Solstice rolled forwards and a bunch of Goblins surrounded her, hugging her—Redscar gave her a noogie until Numbtongue put Reagen on his face. They were laughing. Laughing for their friend.
Christmas was beginning. After that interview, people knew the [Innkeeper]. And they had also come around to Christmas.
The irony was—Erin had forgotten to mention the biggest part of Christmas, which was the date. So half a dozen nations declared it was Christmas right now and began the celebrations before the [Innkeeper] could correct the mistake.
It was a good thing. Despite the songs. Rags saw the Singer of Terandria reappear with a Lizardfolk choice next—and then the Yoldenites, all of whom wanted to a capella some of ‘her’ songs.
She had a feeling the music might get annoying the hundredth time she heard it. But there was no way a bunch of her tribe would be stringing up wreaths and singing that all winter long in Goblinhome, right?
Magnolia Reinhart sat in her parlor as Rags came back to the moment, and the [Lady] turned off the scrying orb. Then she looked at Rags.
“When I was a girl, Niers Astoragon did the exact same thing as we saw on the scrying orb today, Chieftain Rags. I saw him try—if not so gently as Miss Solstice—to sway minds and hearts. And he did. Velan the Kind began something that might have changed Baleros and the world. But always and always—”
“A Goblin King comes. I know.”
Rags whispered. Her skin was still filled with goosebumps from hearing Erin speak. Her friend.
Magnolia dipped her head. She had no teacup, not right now. Nothing to mask her face. She looked uncertain, and her fingers played together as she looked up.
“I have spoken with…the ancients of days, Rags. I have spoken to the Quarass and those older than her. I know more of the Goblins’ story than most. And I am aware there is more that may be lost to everyone. Goblin Kings have never been—have never ceased making war. Not in the entire span of time. Everything I do as the [Lady] of House Reinhart, as Magnolia Reinhart of Izril, is to safeguard my continent.”
She looked at Ressa, the lone other person in this room, an [Assassin], and Rags glanced at the maid. Magnolia Reinhart’s voice was as calm as a frozen lake.
“I have many foes. Many people who have hated me. But my enemies—the ones I have said I cannot allow to tread this continent? I have killed them and left not even bones. My great foes are dead. If I were that same younger woman, the sensible, practical thing would be to kill you. To let Goblins live, but not let Chieftains or Goblin Lords rise.”
Again, Rags felt a thrill of nerves—but if Magnolia were telling her this? The [Lady] folded her fingers together and exhaled.
“It would be impossible to trust Erin over the courts of history. It is not sensible. But here we are. In a year, she has changed the Antinium. She is a child from another world—you know that, and so do I.”
She glanced Rags in the eye, and the Goblin didn’t blink. So Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes flashed.
“I cannot be everywhere at once. I came back to the north, to this spot, to see what Erin would do. More than Larracel. More than other [Ladies], I cede Liscor to her. I have to trust someone I would like to be an ally. I would have rather stood with Zel Shivertail and the Titan and…”
Her eyes grew distant and her face bleak, and Rags wondered if she knew the Dragon. Bits began to click in the Goblin’s head, but Magnolia would not trust even a Goblin with that knowledge. So she spoke on.
“I will trust Erin. And if you—or another Goblin becomes the Goblin King and makes war as Velan did within my lifespan, I will take responsibility. Chieftain Rags. Do you think I am fair or foolish?”
The Goblin thought about this for a long time. She looked at Magnolia Reinhart and shrugged.
“Chieftains do foolish things all the time. Do you think it is the right thing to do?”
Magnolia Reinhart stood. Abruptly, she motioned, and Rags sighed before getting up. Magnolia left the parlor, moved out of her rooms, and down the hallways. Hallways with glass cases, trophies, a dagger that Ressa had once used…Rags eyed the artifacts as Magnolia spoke.
“Chieftain Rags. I would like to hire your tribe in the coming days. I am sure others may reach out to you or already have—I would like to buy your tribe against working for certain groups. To—do what I cannot. Monsters are coming to Izril’s shores, after the new lands. Real monsters. I will not let them stay and infest Izril. Help me safeguard Izril for a time. I know it will cost your tribe greatly and make you enemies of all.”
“Yes. Are you going to pay me? I need artifacts. I need—time. More Goblins. I need everything.”
Goblinhome was not ready for another war. Rags needed to—learn more. To meet other Chieftains, to build something greater. Magnolia Reinhart shook her head.
“My dear Chieftain, I do not think being tied to giving you a bounty of goods and coin will look well on me or you. Nor do I trust you like Erin Solstice does. I will pay you. Hound my enemies. Work with my agents. And I…”
She hesitated. Ressa was looking straight at Magnolia’s back as she came to a single glass case. The [Lady] was in front of it, but Rags felt a sudden—prickle at her chest. She reached under her armor, and something hanging from a simple piece of string grew suddenly warm against her flesh. Magnolia Reinhart turned and lifted something out of the case.
“…I will pay you with the only thing Goblins want. And so be the consequences.”
She held something in her palm and showed it to the Goblin. Rags almost reached for it—and Magnolia held the little, rusted key tightly in one hand as Ressa stood in front of Rags and the [Lady].
“How do you have it?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s response was simple as Rags clutched at the twin of the key. The key, which she had thought she might never find the twin of. Garen had known where it was, and Tremborag. But even the two of them had thought it was too hard to get.
Overwhelming death. Now, Rags got it. Magnolia Reinhart’s hand glimmered, and Rags saw a dozen criss-crossing beams of magic, so faint she had missed them, slowly levitating the key back into the case. Magnolia Reinhart spoke slowly.
“This key I took from the Goblin King’s corpse. I knew there was a twin, though I do not know what he hid. Because I knew there were two, I swore that I would guard the other one. Chieftain Rags. That is my price for your aid.”
The Goblin’s crimson eyes burned as she stared at the key in the case. Magnolia Reinhart held out a hand with the weight of her responsibilities.
“For the [Innkeeper]’s faith in you—I will ignore Goblins until I have reason to take arms against you. I can offer you nothing more.”
Slowly, grinning with all her teeth as her eyes ignited—Rags took Magnolia’s hand. Then she nodded to the parlor.
“Are we going to sit back down? If you want me to help—you need to tell me everything. I’m not Erin. I like having facts.”
The [Lady] chuckled, and she nodded.
“Do you take tea or coffee? Snacks? Ressa, fetch our dossiers.”
Rags’ eyes lit up. Magnolia wrote things down? She followed Magnolia and realized that she had long been Erin’s friend. Always and always. But perhaps—it was time to learn from the cunning [Lady] of the north.
She couldn’t think of a better Christmas present in the entire world.
Then it was Christmas.
Oh, yes. There was more fallout from Zeladona’s tournament to process. More deeds and meetings and secrets to witness.
But the rest of the day and throughout the week, this is what happened: moments of good cheer. Moments of kindness or what each and every person took from Christmas. It was not always the same form, and it varied from person to person.
The [Innkeeper] had called for it, and they obliged. So—what did Christmas look to each one of them?
For the city of Liscor, a Senior Guardsman was walking with his daughter when he saw and heard the first manifestation of Christmas. It sounded like a voice like thunder. A flash of red. A sack filled with goodies like acid flies, flavored rice, and little toys.
“Ho. Ho. Ho. Hohoho. Ho.”
An Antinium in a huge red costume was leaping into the Hive. He stopped as Silveran ran over with a huge silver-painted beard. Klbkch and Relc locked eyes, and the Drake and Embria stared at Klbkch.
“I’m making an effort. Don’t judge me.”
The Slayer’s mandibles were poking through the beard as he disappeared into the Hive. And he heralded a storm. For it seemed like a plague of Santas were descending upon the world.
There were three in Liscor alone on the first day, for instance. Well, two real ones and one imposter.
The first Santa was as strong as a lion, could leap over rooftops in a single bound, and offered gifts bought at a reasonable price with a Senior Guardsman’s salary while crushing criminals with his boots. He performed five Santa-arrests as well.
The second Santa was simpler. Though he too had mandibles poking through his fake white beard. But he had put padding in his red coat, and Garry was handing out pies and bread and food without charging anyone anything this time.
“Mister Santa? You look like Garry.”
“Hohoho. I’m not. I may look like Garry, but I assure you, I am Santa Claus. I hire little Goblins and Antinium to help me make presents at a reasonable price.”
“Four silver per hour.”
The little Gnoll girl was impressed. Erin Solstice, who was wheeling over to check on her beloved [Baker]’s stall, saw Garry bending over and talking to Comrei. The girl, one of his regulars at the shop, peered up at him.
“Could I get a job? That pays more than any job my mother has.”
“Are you a little Antinium or Goblin?”
The girl sighed. But Garry had a huge—wrapped—beef pie and cake for her, along with a menu of food.
“And what would you like for Christmas, little girl? If you are good, Santa—who is me—may put it under the Christmas tree. Or suitable receptacle.”
He looked down at the little girl as Erin watched. And Erin was sure that the gifts would appear. Christmas…
She saw it in the little Gnoll girl’s eyes. Maybe she did recognize a familiar Antinium through the costume. Maybe she was too old and Christmas too new to believe in Santa. But even so—there was something there as Comrei looked around and then whispered to him.
“I’d…Mister Santa, don’t tell anyone, but I’d like us to stay in our home this year. The [Landlord] says we have to leave and go to the new parts of Liscor. It costs too much to stay.”
Erin halted as a Hobgoblin ringing a bell and showing his cat around turned his head. Garry looked at Comrei, and the Gnoll girl picked up the piece of paper and wrote on it clumsily.
“Do you think Santa can help with that?”
The Antinium Worker didn’t hesitate. He looked Comrei in the eyes and nodded slowly.
“I think Santa Claus can do anything. Don’t you? Why don’t you write down your wish, little Comrei?”
The Gnoll girl sniffled a bit in the cold—and looked up at him.
“Are you sure, Mister Garry?”
The hunched figure of the Antinium was deceiving. For—as Erin Solstice watched, she saw what might look like a Worker with a white beard glued to his chin. If her eyes deceived her, she might think the Worker was simply wearing a red coat stuffed to make him look round.
But her eyes were probably as strained as her body. For when his hunched shoulders rose and the old man straightened…his voice grew deeper and more confident.
“Little Comrei. Don’t be silly? I told you—I am Santa Claus. Do you not see my round tummy and my beard? If you wish something and you’ve been a good girl, magic will happen. I promise you.”
“But what if I haven’t been a good girl, Santa?”
Comrei looked uncertain. And so uncertain—she missed the hand hidden under the counter. For when Santa’s hand rose—
“Ah. I suppose then I should share something with you. Don’t tell anyone—but just so you know—here is my nice list. And what do you see at the very top?”
It was an amazingly straight list, with the hand of someone used to writing grocery lists. Nevertheless—doing it without looking at it? Only Santa could write the list of names that had Comrei at the top.
The girl’s eyes went round. She peered at the list and then at Santa. Without a word, he twitched an antennae. A wink.
“Shh. You’re not supposed to know. But I’ve been watching over you. And you are a very good girl. Don’t worry, Comrei. I’ve seen how hard you’ve been working.”
The little girl said nothing after that. Possibly because she was crying too hard. Gently, Santa left his counter and bent over. He hugged her with all four arms as people saw the Gnoll clinging to him. Then—she was carrying the food off with help from one of the Gnolls who lived where she did. As she was going, Mrsha wheeled Erin over.
“How does it feel to be Santa Claus, Garry?”
He was checking a bag of coins. The Worker looked up at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] looked down at the pusher of her chair. Mrsha stared after the girl with big eyes as Garry straightened his back and spoke.
“It would be a very hard job, I think, Erin. But a good job. I could do that for the rest of my life. I just wish I had more presents. But as you said—Santa Claus is magic.”
“He has to be.”
Erin looked at her little Worker, and he—in his way—more than anyone else had learned from her inn. She wiped at her eyes, slowly, having to slowly raise one hand.
“I’m proud of you, Garry. But if I can give you a little hint? I bet you Lism—even Lism—would help Santa if he needed it. I’ll ask Lyonette to find Krshia. But there are more girls than…”
“Comrei. Yes, there are. I am waiting for Hisnis to come by. Do you have more things I am doing wrong, Erin?”
The [Baker] saw Erin shake her head.
“No. But remember—Santa can come early. It is not easy, being Santa. If you need a little magic—I have a hat full of wonder. But here. Mrsha? This should help.”
A little Gnoll had helped lift something from Erin’s side. Now, she looked at the [Innkeeper] and poured it onto the counter. A shower of gold coins ran into Garry’s money pouch, and he looked at Mrsha. Then at Erin. Mrsha dabbed at Erin’s face as the [Innkeeper]’s frozen breath drifted up—but Garry’s shop was warm and inviting. A Goblin was ringing a bell outside, and the scrying orb was playing kitschy Christmas music. But what Erin said was this:
“Tomorrow, when Comrei wakes up, she might not believe in Santa or Christmas. But I hope she believes in you, Garry. You did this. I’m just going to help. Okay?”
Slowly, he came around the counter and gently hugged her. Then Mrsha the Good Girl burst into tears and hugged both of them.
That was a Santa that Klbkch the Slayer watched from a rooftop. And—the Santa-Slayer didn’t know if he could best him. For the real Santa had a twinkle in his eyes despite having no pupils, and he laughed like a giant in an insect’s body. When he reached under his counter, he had magic in his hands.
And he inspired other people who saw him. Like Lism, who stared at Garry—and then at Krshia. For here was someone who would have started Lism’s program by himself. And the Drake—could barely look at Garry for embarrassed shame. And barely look away.
At least in Liscor, two Santas began multiplying as a certain [Councilman] found a bunch of cotton and tried gluing it to his chin. As people watched the [Baker] sit, with a child climbing into his lap, and laugh like magic.
Magic…that the world itself could barely keep up with. But oh, how it tried.
[Conditions Met: Kind Baker → Baker of Presents, Gifted Chef class!]
[Class Consolidation: Chef Removed]
[Baker of Presents, Gifted Chef Level 34!]
[Skill – My Pantry Overflowed With My Deeds obtained!]
[Skill – A Magical Gift obtained!]
[Skill – Rested, Fed, Appreciated and Paid, My Workers Surpassed Mundanity obtained!]
[Recipe – Infused Dough (Scaethen Dough) obtained!]
Some days were like that. Some days—Ryoka got a bit snotty as the first thing she heard was about that happening in Liscor.
The Wandering Inn was not above copying Garry. So even Lyonette was slashing some of her prices. And the smell of warm food attracted the imposter Santa.
“No, I am not Santa Claus. I am simply rotund. And I have a beard. I am, in fact, a [Gourmet]. And I hope this inn accepts my credentials.”
The huffing man brushed at a balding pate as he presented a badge with a crossed spoon and fork over too-bright metal to a confuzzled Ishkr.
“The Gourmet’s Guild? Does that exist?”
The red-faced man had only had bread in the Haven. He could have paid for more, but—he jabbed a finger at the badge.
“I can see you haven’t been certified. In my day—we would give you a spoon if we enjoyed the food! Bronze, Silver, Gold—just like adventurers, you see? Any establishment would hang it up, and those of a discerning palate would come to eat! It was an entire tradition!”
“So you want free food?”
Lyonette looked slightly exasperated as she heard the commotion, but Ishkr stared at the Human man with his rather splendid dress—rich purple handkerchief tucked into a formal surcoat—and he nudged the [Princess].
“I have a table just for you. I believe we can give you a splendid menu, Mister…?”
“Demsleth. Thank you. Someone with sense after all. I can tell you you’re at least going to get a Bronze Spoon for common decency.”
The [Gourmet] turned out to have an appetite to match his talk. He put away six plates, though he ate at a sedate pace. And while a disappointed Ekirra had to be told he wasn’t Santa three times—the man was chatty, affable, and he seemed to rather enjoy this inn. In fact, he did put some coins down to pay for a glass of red wine, and while he pronounced the bouquet as inferior, the food was quite good.
He liked the poolish-made bread. And a number of people were in the inn, chatting, as Erin blew on her hands after visiting Garry. Mrsha was banging on a table furiously, writing with Gire translating to her.
“What white Gnoll? There was a white Gnoll during the Festival of Blades?”
Ryoka had just seen a Unicorn. But as it so happened, a rather equine-faced man dining with Magnolia Reinhart and Rags coughed loudly and glared daggers at Ryoka. Then his head moved past Demsleth, and he did a slow double-take. He lifted a cup to his lips and poured his entire drink onto his lap with an open mouth.
Neither Magnolia nor Ryoka noticed at first. Magnolia was nodding at Rags and eying a Drake who’d come nervously into the inn with Ferris.
Rafaema kept sniffing the air, but Lyonette assumed she was just hungry and was stiffly serving her a hot poutine as Ferris muttered about the danger. But all three young women…looked up as Gire exclaimed.
“You saw the white Gnoll too, Mrsha? I thought I was hallucinating! Why are there…so many random white Gnolls around here? There was one at the Meeting of Tribes, remember? But that one was different than this one. I remember. They can’t all be random Doombearers in hiding, can they?”
“Yes, Taletevirion. Why was there a white Gnoll at the Trial of Blades, do you think?”
Magnolia turned her head, amused as she and Ryoka eyed the silver-haired man. Then they saw he was pouring wine onto his lap. Then…they followed his line of sight as a crimson Drake halted, staring at someone.
Nothing would do but for a huge man dabbing at his lips to break in conversationally. Like an old teacher or a grandfather deciding to lecture everyone. Slightly defensively.
“Well, it’s an old trope, Miss Gnoll. White Gnolls, you know.”
Gireulashia turned to Demsleth, and the [Gourmet] chuckled. He put his hands together over his belly and lit a huge cigar that had Palt trotting out of the kitchen in a second.
“My, oh my. Have you forgotten all the old stories? Doombearers, you know. White Gnolls cursed or blessed by fate. In the archetypal story, when the ‘white Gnoll’ appears, they were often the bearer of the artifact a [Hero] needed or a guide or warning sign. So—their guise has been adopted from time to time as figures of great portent.”
He smoked merrily as Gire and Mrsha looked at each other. Stories? Demsleth was in such a good mood from the food that he was fumbling between a silver and gold spoon already, and if he got half a dozen more dishes and a fine dessert, he might go to platinum, despite the inferior wine.
The old Human man was smiling—right up until someone walked over and hissed into his ear.
“Teri—Demsleth! What are you doing here? You gigantic, fat liar!”
“That’s hurtful, Taletevirion. I was just having a spot to eat. And people do recognize the old spoon trick—er, accreditation.”
The old man defended himself, whispering back. It was an old practice he had to admit—and he might have founded the Gourmet’s Guild so he could offer spoons to establishments. They tended to cook their best when they knew they might receive a grade.
But now, Gireulashia and Mrsha had gathered around, much like Workers and Soldiers around Klbkch. In fact—Rosencrantz had hurried over with a top-up for Demsleth’s glass and a pudding. The old man savored it.
“Christmas, eh? Not the same ring to it as Frosetine; that was a day when White Dragons or Frost Dragons would dance through the air and everyone bundled up to watch them. You drank this delightfully hot beverage made with a Yellat and some melted butter in tea, I think.”
“There was a day like that, old man?”
Demsleth frowned at Ekirra, but the Gnoll was sitting on his bum. And with a twinkle in his eyes and a wink across his rosy cheeks—the good-natured [Gourmet] twisted his fingers. And he handed Ekirra a cigar.
“Of course there was, young man. And I should warrant this is much the same thing. Kindness in the cold.”
The old fellow paused, gazed around, and wrinkled his face up.
“What a fine little inn. And if I don’t miss my guess…does this inn have a garden or something?”
He looked so nostalgic, and Erin gazed at the man from her wheelchair. It was not he who said it, or her—but the young woman who slowly came over. Ryoka Griffin, barefoot, looked the old man in the eyes. And he saw her—and flinched.
“You’ve been here before.”
A look of sudden fear crossed Demsleth’s face, and he made to rise. To flee. He looked so guilty at being here, lolling in indulgence, that it hurt.
“Don’t go. Please…aren’t you the one I’ve come to find?”
Rafaema was there, too. Reaching out. She looked at the old man, not as grand as he had been. Portly—tired—ashamed.
He did not look like Santa Claus, then. For that jolly old man might have the same body—but he had all the grandeur in the world. Demsleth…
Demsleth was a coward. A tired fool. An old man without the magic of Christmas in him.
“I’m—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve been here?”
He was avoiding Magnolia’s gaze as the [Lady] hesitated, most hurt and most wanting of all. Ressa was pushing her forwards, but the [Lady] turned her head, as if pretending not to see Demsleth for his dignity.
The little Dragon, Rafaema, looked frightened and uncertain. As if the walls of her city were cracked and quaking. Ryoka—her hand reached out, and it wavered as Demsleth rose, dropping spoons onto the table and floor, bending to pick them up. Taletevirion stood with a bleak gaze upon the wretched fellow.
It was someone else who interrupted the old man before he could go. She didn’t know him. Not well—but she recognized him.
An [Innkeeper] rolled forwards, pushed by a young witch. Nanette stepped back as Erin thanked her.
“I’m—sorry, Miss Innkeeper. I should be going.”
Demsleth was mumbling. But Erin Solstice just bent over in her chair and looked at him.
“I remember you. I think we’ve met before. Though you looked different. Hello, again. I’m Erin.”
That great and glorious face rose. Then—Mrsha thought she remembered him too. When the old man stood, he was tall, and a cloak of faded green swirled around him. Not like the red, jolly fat man, but some figure of old, a winter-swept face creased by lines, tall and august—and terribly humble and pathetic sometimes.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember, Miss. I apologize for the trouble I’ve caused.”
He bowed slowly, closing his eyes. But he did take Erin’s hand as she held it out weakly—and though there was no strength in her hands, she captured his hand with her other and didn’t let go.
Erin Solstice had learned from Larra the Haven. For all they were different. She looked Demsleth in the eyes.
“You don’t have to apologize. There was no trouble. You…you should stay. I think a few people have waited to see you.”
“I don’t have anything to give them. I should have prepared a greeting. I’m—ashamed.”
The Dragon mumbled. He stared down at his body, and Erin looked at him.
Her hazel eyes met his mismatched magical stare, and she looked straight at him, as she had seen so many ghosts and statues. And behind his face’s seeming, his Dragon’s body, all that fakeness—she saw him. Erin turned her head, and she saw a female Drake looking at Demsleth with a kind of strange recollection.
As if, perhaps, Onieva too recognized him. So what Erin said was this. She turned to the old man and smiled.
“What are you talking about? They came for you. All this long way. We don’t have to be perfect, y’know. Look at me.”
He gazed down at her immobilized form in the wheelchair. Felt her hands, barely able to clasp, light as a feather around his fingers. Gently, Demsleth raised his other hand.
“I think…my garden wants to see you again. I think you should stay, Mister Demsleth. My inn will be boring without people like you.”
“You think this is how I should do it? For the young women who have come so far to find me? I don’t have anything—to give them. Not here.”
Erin shook her head at the silly old man.
“It’s not about presents. It was never about that. It was always about—you.”
It seemed like he only heard her the third time. Then—the old man turned and looked around the inn.
Visma was sticking a claw in her mouth as she stared at Demsleth’s old clothing. It wasn’t as flashy or regal as many of the [Ladies]. But there was something in how he dressed, like a wanderer from nowhere that made her want to make her dolls look like that. Ekirra was staring, disappointed, at the old man on this Christmas day. And when Demsleth’s eyes rose—
He saw Magnolia Reinhart—and one timid glance told him she remembered all the things he forgot. In that second—he knew that if he walked out that door, he would be more ashamed and pathetic than he had been in the last three months.
So, slowly, the old man looked Erin in the eyes.
“Thank you. Miss…?”
He nodded, and the old man slowly sat back down. He looked about and spoke clearly.
“I believe I’ll stay after all. Taletevirion. Won’t you join me?”
“I was already here. But very well—if you insist.”
A younger old man with silver hair slowly sat next to Demsleth, looking as surprised as the Wind Runner and Wall Lady by his decision. But Erin just smiled. And Ekirra piped up.
“You two old people smell funny. Why are you smoking? No one smokes here. Not even Palt.”
He pointed at the Centaur, staring accusingly at the cigar that had been resting in a bowl as an impromptu ashtray. Taletevirion raised his brows as he picked it up.
“Is that so?”
He lit it with a flash of green from his fingers. Demsleth eyed Ekirra as Mrsha stared at him, and Visma too—as if they sensed something. Not his nature, but perhaps that he was an old man who might give them things.
“Young Gnoll boy. Firstly, cigar-smoking in inns is an established, nay, honorable tradition. Second—I’m not old. That is entirely inappropriate to call your elders.”
Ekirra’s mouth opened as he tried to work that out. Klbkch turned his head from the bar where he was refilling his acid fly sack. And he saw Demsleth flick his hand with a look of sudden, merry mischief.
“I am Demsleth. And if you are going to complain about my actions—I might as well have a co-conspirator. Here.”
He flicked something at the Gnoll boy, who caught it in his paws and stared at a long, beautiful blue, semi-transparent—cigar? But the old man flicked another, and Gire caught it.
“Have a sugar cigar. Yes, yes, you too, you big child.”
“Hey! No giving the children cigars!”
Erin had seen that last bit. But Demsleth defended himself from the [Innkeeper]. He waggled a finger as Taletevirion rolled his eyes.
“Don’t worry, Miss Erin. I should have you know that those are just sugar. They smoke a bit, but there’s no inhaling or whatnot. See?”
Palt had lit the end of Ekirra’s ‘cigar’, but the boy was licking and chomping at one end. Erin was going to object to the practice of making cigars look cool—until Demsleth looked around. And he looked happier, in that moment, so she threw up her hands.
“Oh—fine. I guess if you blow the smoke outside—Palt, go ahead.”
“Wh—me? You sure?”
“It’s a special day. Yeah. No one bother my guests—but I guess we should bring out more snacks. Ishkr?”
The Gnoll was coming back with a next course, and Demsleth’s eyes lit up as Taletevirion murmured.
“You have to try the Rxlvn. There’s also a fiery drink that will take you back.”
Ekirra was puffing on his cigar as Visma did the same. Then the children were gathered around Demsleth. Rafaema was trying to edge forwards, but now she was elbowing a bunch of little kids, and they were better at getting attention.
“Mister, mister. You knew about white Gnolls? Do you know stories about them? I want to know about white Gnolls, but none of the books in Liscor have them.”
It was Ekirra who asked a question that made Mrsha, Gire, and the others look around. Demsleth? He raised his brows.
“Of course I do. Perhaps I should tell a few—in thanks for the food. That, too, is a time-honored tradition. Should it be a story about a white Gnoll?”
Rafaema covered Ekirra’s mouth and burst out. Magnolia slapped her forehead—but lightly. And she herself was staring at Demsleth with such perplexed happiness…Ryoka Griffin knew she had done this before. In fact, she might have been the very same girl sitting in front of Demsleth as the old man chuckled.
“A story about Dragons? Well, why not? Have you heard of the tale of the Silver Knight against the Army of Snow? A single Dragon-Knight versus a thousand Snow Golems the size of castles.”
He flicked his fingers, and again—a pair of wings unfolded. Silver shone on the walls of the inn behind him, on the empty [Grand Theatre]’s podium, and everyone looked past Demsleth. He held his fingers up to the flames of the fire—and his voice rose as he began to speak and conjure images into being. Shadows on the wall, bright as bits of flame. Like memory.
“His name was Yderigrisel, and the winter had been bad. So long, in fact, that it had gone on eight straight years without ending. You might think it was the Winter Sprites’ fault, but the truth was that, in that time, the world was just colder.”
The old man was telling a story with the fires in the fireplaces roaring. And he was beginning to smile when Taletevirion’s eyes caught his. The Dragon looked at the Unicorn—and his raised brows said quite clearly he was doing nothing wrong.
But then he saw where the Unicorn was looking and stopped a second. For lined up across the inn were three young women.
A Dragon, a Courier, and a [Lady] stared at Demsleth, and he faltered. They had such intensity in their eyes. For there he was, without any great journey. Without a fight to the finish line. Without…
The [Innkeeper] was still watching. And because she was there, he was reminded. Of her words. The man’s fingers were tight on the glass of wine—but before the fragile glass cracked, he put the cup down. Then—gently, slowly—he beckoned.
And three big girls sat next to Gireulashia as the jolly old man—who was sad and magical and hungry—and now—sitting with his back to a roaring flame, decided to tell a story. The food kept coming as his voice rose, and he told a story of a brave Silver Dragon, who fought winter all by himself before his kin came to bail the fool out.
Then he sat taller, an old traveller resting his bones against the fire. A silver-haired fox next to him, adding occasional anecdotes. And he felt grander than he had in a long time. Grander than when he had met the Wyrm. For…
There he was. More complete in this place than in his cave with gleaming scales. Demsleth, not Eldavin. His eyes shining heliotrope and cerulean as little boys and girls stared up at him. He did not run away. Nor…had he slept this entire time.
He had arisen, in hunger and pettiness, yes. But he came here.
To tell them stories.
The Wandering Inn was filled with laughter, songs sung by two old men with white hair and magic who remembered the words, and warmth.
In Liscor, a [Baker] laughed long and loud, and even underground, Santa tip-toed around with his sack of toys, occasionally using it to bludgeon Shield Spiders to death.
But there was more than just one Christmas or one person.
The village of Kemse had seen two unusual groups of visitors of late. The first had just asked for directions. They could have stayed—but there would have been little to offer them, even in exchange for the coins they probably had an abundance of.
It was going to be a dire winter. One of their farms had gone up in flames and another savaged by Garbichugs. The damn things weren’t even edible, and the village was quiet in the way starvation and desperation sounded.
That was—until someone called out.
“T-Troll! No—it’s the Unseen Empire!”
By now, the iconic eyes in the pyramid design on the flag were known in the region, such that the distant villagers all came out of their houses, wondering why so many were riding their way.
They were not part of the Unseen Empire—and monsters or war were the first thoughts on many minds. Yet it was neither.
“Ho there! We heard you’d lost two farms to disaster! May we approach? In the name of His Majesty, Laken Godart, and in honor of Christmas—we have been sent from Riverfarm.”
A [Cataphract], Beniar, raised a gloved hand as Durene stopped pulling one of the wagons by herself. She had been racing the horses, and the mystified villagers saw they were laden with—
“Food? What’s this? Is the Unseen Empire—selling goods?”
The [Paladin] heard this as she worked her shoulders out, and she laughed so mightily it scared some of the children. She was wearing golden armor, and the caravan explained.
“The opposite. We’ve come to give you a gift.”
The [Headswoman] of the village listened incredulously. Even for a made-up holiday and the largesse of an [Emperor], the sights of the packed sacks of grain and cornmeal strained disbelief. But Riverfarm had another reason to think of this.
More than goodwill, showing off, or Laken’s own knowledge and respect for the holiday. Far more than any of that…they remembered something else.
So the wagons that Durene and the horses were pulling were strewn with something odd. Lanterns. In fact—one of the lanterns was moving—and they all shone a different color thanks to a bit of alchemy in the flames. Pink, green, red, yellow—
Like faeries, glowing in the middle of winter. Riverfarm?
“Once upon a time—last year—a famous Runner came to Riverfarm when we were starving. We didn’t forget. Our fields are full enough, despite the flames. I’ve heard a score of places were hit by the Drakes. His Majesty has sent this first delivery, and we will be back next week.”
Mister Prost shook the villagers’ hands. Then—after the official words were done, he embraced the [Headswoman]. For the strength had gone from her arms.
“I can’t—we can’t repay this. Even for a gift.”
Prost’s own voice broke slightly.
“No need. No need…it was just like this. Twice, for us. As the snow came tumbling down, someone found my daughters under it all. Then—someone ran through the snow and cold. Just like this. Here. This is for a lucky girl.”
And he had a doll in his arms that his own youngest daughter had asked him to carry here. It had survived an avalanche, Goblins, freezing winter, and the fires. It looked simple and well-loved as Prost carried it onwards. But that…that was the spirit they were bringing.
Hope, onwards. Ever onwards. And if there were tears—they weren’t all on one side. As Erin Solstice had said, magic mattered more when you needed it.
For some, Christmas was just a reason to show off. For every heartfelt, needed gift, you could still accept and cherish the less-vital goodwill.
Khelt was an excellent example of this. The entire nation redecorated, sometimes literally painting their houses different colors, chopping down fir trees, and outdoing themselves in gifts.
For the King of Khelt believed in the [Innkeeper]’s idea. And his largesse came into being across Khelt—but more importantly, to all his lands.
The sight of two dozen very scared Centaurs running like spit ahead of Sand at Sea as the warship glided across Chandrar was enough to get news coverage. Not least because the Revenants had decked the boat with wreaths and mistletoe—and they had a bounty of gifts. Food, toys, and more.
Bound for Jecrass. The King of Khelt had decided to send a host of treasures to his new lands there, and the people would be the recipients of more than one shipload of Khelt’s wealth. He had included a number of gifts for Jecrass itself and a new sword for Queen Jecaina and King Raelt.
Such generosity. Such gifts. Christmas was already a thing.
Not because the powerful friends of Erin Solstice vouched for it. Not even the Sariant Lamb conspiracy—nor even because the [Innkeeper] herself was trying to realize it.
It was going to become a thing because every [Merchant] in the world had underlined the date in their calendars for next year and only bemoaned they had no time to prepare for now. The [Innkeeper] was getting requests for ideas, ornaments, and the sheer opportunity of this holiday…
The goodness of Riverfarm, the kind deeds were one thing. Soon, perhaps, someone would make a play about a Christmas miracle. For every miracle that existed, there would be a thousand children expecting presents who didn’t really need them.
That was fine. That was fine…but there was one truth of Christmas that was already being forgotten, and it was this:
Some people would have no magic. No miracles. For some—by accident, because they were trapped in war, because there was no safety—this would be a dark day.
Call it a spoiler to the holiday spirits. Call it reality. It didn’t matter—and the [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice herself, would ironically be one of the first to admit this truth.
Christmas was the bright coin, the magical silver bell to a cold, dark night. Tears around the Christmas tree could happen. People died on Christmas—the magic was just magic. Never always there. Something that had to be chased, won, sometimes at great effort. Cherished.
It just never came.
Fetohep of Khelt’s great deeds—him riding around on a sleigh, handing out gifts to Jecrass’ children, patting heads, dressed in the costume—were a sight.
Just like the Bedtime Queen, who had arranged for herself to be pulled on a bed…on wheels. It ran into a ditch—but those were funny, noblesse oblige versions of Christmas.
However—you just knew that if Fetohep of Khelt had his moment playing into the holiday, at least one person in this entire world not only thought he was doing it wrong, but he, the Vizir Hecrelunn, could do it better.
The east coast of Chandrar, the Colinfe Sandflats, was one of the places where the King of Destruction had built endless roads, and the region was relatively safe. The last incursions from other nations had been before the King of Destruction emerged—a Terandrian colony there still had links back to the continent.
But the kingdoms rose and fell—and this local province had just lost the Empire of Aiethen. A self-styled empire; small and unable to patrol the roads anymore. It had emerged out of the coup of the former Duchal Kingdom of Neveeth. Failed states with lifespans so short that the [Cartographers] didn’t even have time to put their names to paper before they were gone.
…Until now. For a new ruler had ascended to the throne, and so far, his reign had been dramatic. There had been twelve assassination attempts. Which was low…considering how much he was hated.
The fates of the would-be killers had dissuaded any more. Already, it was said, no [Pirates] would sail within twenty miles of shore. Wealth was pouring back into the larger cities, who had mysteriously reformed their laws and been rid of corruption and crime.
And a number of notable denizens in each city.
Everyone knew who he was—though his name was not permitted to be spoken. He was simply the Exalted King. Or the Reclaimer of Chandrar.
Vizir Hecrelunn was lying low. For him. He had every expectation of being ‘found out’, but he had cast a net-spell, and all the little [Messages] being sent were being caught and vetted by him. Often to their sender’s chagrin.
What a pitiful world. Yet the crimson lights in the dead Revenant’s eye-sockets…could be festive. They were red.
Red like blood. Red like viscera. Red like the gasses of hell escaping from brimstone pits in the bowels of the earth.
Red was a Christmas-y color. So, because Fetohep was doing it, the Vizir had put on a red coat. It hung low, across his emaciated frame, and when he was floating—he always flew—it drifted down like the clothes upon a corpse at the gallows.
He had refused to put on the red hat with the poofball. Or the beard. But Hecrelunn had decided some elements of the holidays suited him. Like the bells.
They sounded in tolls, like judgment. Deep and hollow—ringing as he visited every place under his domain and in the region.
Deciding who had been…naughty. Or ‘nice’.
It was already dark into the night, and the stars were hidden behind clouds on the coast of Colinfe. The farmsteads along one of the old main roads the King of Destruction had paved were widely spread apart.
Good for farming…vulnerable to raids. Some had suffered of late—these were not technically part of the old kingdoms or empires. They were just—liminal. Sometimes, [Tax Collectors] or [Soldiers] came. Other times, [Bandits].
Right now, the cold wind across Chandrar blew the hints of sand and the smell of salt from the sea. It was so cold—a boy shivered beneath what clothes he had put on, and they had holes. No stitches to keep them closed—but he didn’t care.
He stood outside as the moon hid behind a cloud. And he heard…the bells.
The bells tolled. In the distance—a figure was hovering in the air. Even from here, the boy could tell it was him.
The Revenant hovered over a series of buildings miles away. But he had conjured a pale green spotlight to fall on him. It hovered overhead as the bells rang in the distance.
He descended…and in the distance, the boy saw the lights of the farmstead go out.
Those were the Xeits. He didn’t see much—but he saw the bright lights in their windows vanish. The boy shivered again as his own home—dark, for there was no one to need the light but him—rattled with the wind.
He saw the beam of light appear again, and the bells rang in the distance. Then—the Vizir Hecrelunn rose into the air—and vanished.
A thunderclap of sound. He appeared, without deigning to fly, above the next farm on the road. There he hovered, and two crimson lights fixed on the lights within with the intensity of his stare.
He descended—and the lights went out. In fact, many of the buildings nearby were turning off their lanterns, dousing the fires.
It did not matter. The Vizir knew you were there. And—the boy watched as he plagued the Henns family. He had only a few questions to ask—and then he would rise upwards again. The Vizir was coming. He had been going to every town and village, so it was said, in the entire region, day after day, night after night.
He wanted to know if you were naughty or nice.
It was close to midnight by the time he reached the last farmstead on the road. The Vizir did not tire—but he might get annoyed. When he descended towards the dark farm, he noticed the fields lay mostly fallow. One was half-tilled, but the barn’s doors lay ajar. As for the farmhouse…he eyed the door, which no longer sat ajar. But he spoke in a ringing voice amplified by magic.
“I know you are in there. Ho. Ho. Ho. Come out.”
A boy exited the building slowly as Hecrelunn descended until his feet hovered just above the ground. As thousands of boys and girls, children and parents had seen him—the Revenant’s chin rose. His eyes flashed death.
He lifted a finger, and the boy flinched. For Hecrelunn—unlike Fetohep—did not project gentleness or even the attitude that he liked what he saw. The Vizir’s voice was enunciated. Harsh.
“Do you know why I have come?”
The boy stumbled over the word, but even he had heard about it, even though he hadn’t a scrying orb. When the Henns sent over Eitte and Petoil, her father, to check on him with a basket—
“For formality’s sake, I will ask. Have you been…good or bad this year, little boy? Statistically, it is improbable you have been good this year.”
Funny. He had gotten so many answers on one side, not the other. The Vizir had gotten into the spirit, though. He had presents for good boys and girls.
Even a reindeer. The summoned monstrous reindeer may have caused incontinence in a lot of the people it screamed at, so he had canceled the magical spell. But now, Hecrelunn was waiting. This was the last farm in the area.
“Well? The Vizir is not made of time. Nor is ‘Santa Claus’. He has many children to judge.”
At this point, a terrified parental figure or the children would blurt their innocence and beg for their lives. The Vizir waited—but the boy looked up at him. His clothes didn’t fit him; they were big coats with holes in them.
“I must have been bad this year, sire.”
“Indeed? It is good of you to confess. I am told there is a custom for little boys like you.”
The Vizir floated forwards. He looked down at the boy, and the mortal child flinched. The Vizir stared at the boy—then he looked sideways. The boy closed his eyes—and a hand of withered flesh caught his chin. It jerked it up, and the Vizir was not kind.
“Where are your parents, boy?”
The boy pointed, and the Vizir saw nothing living. But then…he would not. He stared at the four mounds and the one fresh addition to the farm. Then he looked at the boy.
A nod. The Vizir floated back.
“I had heard there were some in this region. Child. What is your name?”
The Vizir might not have even heard. He was floating left and right, murmuring spells. When he looked back at the boy, Foire waited for what was coming. What he privately thought he might deserve. But the Vizir…
The Vizir looked down at the boy and the farm with eyes that held no surprise. Not for this—nor any love for this day. He spoke.
“You will remain there. As a naughty child—I must collect your ‘present’. I shall return within the hour.”
Then he rose into the sky. And the beam of light over his head turned darker. Darker…and his eyes bled red into the night.
Foire stood there, staring after the Vizir as the Revenant flew. Until the Vizir was flying into the distance. And the boy thought…
He stared off into the night. Dark lands stretching across the cliffs that led down from the Saltflats he lived in. Dark—without artificial light after the Vizir’s passing. Flat ground where salt gathered in deposits. And out there—
His parents’ killers. The Vizir had gone that way. In the deep night, the boy shivered with cold, but he didn’t go inside. It was…twenty minutes, perhaps, when he saw the first glow on the horizon.
A blaze. The boy saw something fall from the sky—and a flash. Then he heard, in the distance, crackling lightning, and the trembles of something reached even the house. But all he saw was the light, flaring in the distance.
He stood there as the light grew…then diminished. But like an ember, it did not go out. In the middle of the night, the boy stared until he saw a figure flying back his way.
The Vizir lied. It was closer to dawn when he came back. He was annoyed by the time it took, and the first pre-dawn light was filtering through the sky.
But there the boy still was. He looked up and caught the smell of soot on the Vizir’s clothes. Some of the red was tarnished by black, but the Vizir said nothing until he had descended once more.
“Boy. What is your name?”
“You have been a detriment this year, I take it. A ‘bad child’. Your family was murdered by [Bandits]. You, yourself, cannot even run this farm. You are…a Level 8 [Farmhand]. A Level 12 [Survivor].”
The Vizir appraised him. The boy said nothing. He was afraid…but not of the Vizir as much as the other children. Yet when the Revenant landed and stepped forwards, Foire flinched.
“This is your due gift.”
The undead [Vizir] had something in his hands. It was…a lump of coal. Still steaming in the frozen air. He placed it in the boy’s hands, and the child nearly dropped it.
“Wh-what is this?”
“Coal for the unworthy. A practice I find—humorous. Here. Take these. They too may warm your pathetic home.”
It had been warm when his family lived. But the boy just saw the Revenant toss more pieces of burnt…charcoal to the ground. Some were literal coals; burnt-out embers.
“It took me quite some time to gather them and produce these. I mean…Santa. Where is my ‘thank-you’?”
The boy didn’t understand. Not until—he stared at the compacted coal in his hands. He brushed at something amidst the black soot, wondering why the Vizir would bother to find wood—
Then he saw a bit of something pale yellow amidst the coal.
Charred bone. The boy almost dropped the coal—and saw those red lights fixed on him.
“I made the coal from your family’s killers. All of them.”
The boy stared into the distance, where the glow on the horizon still lingered. He realized then—it was fire.
The [Vizir] stood there, staring down at the boy. No mercy in his gaze. No compassion. He pointed at the coals.
“Let that be a memory for you. In the coming days, you may abandon your farm and come to the nearest city or town. You will be fed. You will be given work, a place to sleep. In my kingdom, even the indolent will be clothed and housed. But remember something, boy.”
He stepped forwards and bent down. Then the [Vizir] picked up the coal and crushed it into powder in his grip.
“—This is what happens to the bad children. I swear to you. If you grow into such—some day, you and I will meet like this. All who trespass will meet this fate. That is also my vow, my promise.”
The boy stared at the ashes and then at the [Vizir]. With a sudden intensity in his gaze. As once—a boy had gazed upon glorious Khelta.
Hecrelunn stepped back and began to float into the air. His crimson pinpoints of light for eyes fixed upon Foire like lasers…then he was rising. Rising as smoke rose across the cold Saltflats. The [Vizir] turned to fly off—then remembered. He looked down at the boy.
“I don’t want a lot for Christmas.
There is just one thing I need.”
A gift. For Christmas, I gave you a gift. On the scrying orbs, even late into the night, the damn songs were going. It was like—well, universal.
Anyone could sing. So the Hobgoblin was singing the song late at night in the common room of the inn. Until the little Gnoll girl, grumpy at being woken up, threw something at him.
The Goblin was an exception. One ‘good’ Goblin. And as soon as he was done, someone else replaced him.
A Minotaur was belting out ‘Blue Christmas’ in the style of an opera-singer crossed with a warrior’s dirge. It—it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, but anyone was allowed to send in recordings or live-broadcasts of their songs.
Frankly, it was good to keep the sleepy group awake. They had missed another inn event, but a smaller one, and because they had been on the road, they had watched it all through the scrying orb anyways.
It had made a long, dull, uneventful journey fun enough to distract Ysara Byres from coming home. Now, they were nearly there.
Two days of travel and the second day of mostly Christmas songs. She was yawning as the Minotaur switched to a new group.
“Er—thank you to Edorth of the House of Minos for that. Next, I don’t think they sent in the name, but we have ‘So Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, by the Singer of Terandria, performed by an a capella group. Great!”
A sleepy Gnoll was reading the next person in, like a radio—you didn’t even have to see the people, but it was nice.
A half-Elf was conducting a group that might have been Terandrians. They looked mostly Human. But it turned out they were not.
The funny thing about this song was that Cara had needed to edit the very obvious bad word out. So in its place…
“Rhir rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay;
Remember King Othius was born on Christmas day.
To save us from Demon’s power when we were gone astray;
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.”
Ysara rolled her eyes and yawned—but this group really was good. There were at least a hundred, and they were singing in chorus as the half-Elf copied the Maestro. It sounded like the singers had altered Cara’s song.
“Great. Rhirian propaganda.”
But they were singing well, and it was a nice little song. Ysara looked up. It was dark—they were nearly at House Byres, and she hoped she could just get to bed without the first comments about her hair or a ‘little chat’.
Then again, Ylawes, riding next to her, kept glancing her way. She wasn’t sure if she wanted him to ‘stand up for her’, but she was grateful for the Silver Swords and Rasktooth, Infinitypear, and Vuliel Drae. Maybe they’d distract her parents.
They were close to House Byres now, and Ylawes looked up.
“I think I can practically see the valley.”
Ysara was going to say it was far too dark to make out more than lights from the houses, but she craned her neck and saw a faint light in the distance.
“Must be a bonfire. Dead gods, are we going to run around a big one in the town square and drink that ‘egg nog’? That sounds disgusting.”
“I think Father and Mother will get in the spirit, don’t you?”
Ylawes was smiling at Ysara, and she was trying to smile back. She was biting her lip, about to bring something up.
Like—what do you think of Onieva? Or tell Ylawes, straight out, that she kissed women and see if he actually was oblivious to that. No, dead gods, he’d probably think she meant the formal kiss on each cheek.
It was at the tip of her tongue, bursting out because now she wondered—she hoped if he might actually listen and look at her. That was when Dawil sniffed the air, and the half-slumbering Dwarf on a pony raised his voice.
“Lad. That’s a lot of smoke.”
Falene jerked awake in the wagon where she had traded off with Anith. The Jackal Beastkin, on one of the horses, murmured.
“[Light Beam]. What’s that?”
He shone his staff up ahead—and Ylawes and Ysara looked at each other. They were far from the mouth of the valley and silver mines that House Byres owned. If they were seeing lights from up ahead…
When the adventurers and Ysara Byres got closer to the House Byres lands, they were no longer half-asleep, but either out of the wagons or riding on their horses, calling out—then shouting.
As they drew closer, it became obvious this was no bonfire. Nor…was this a single fire.
“[Bandits]! Bandit attack!”
The first people came running, seeing Ylawes and pointing down the road. He didn’t hesitate—he began galloping as Falene and Dawil shouted for him to come back.
When the [Knight] reached his home, he saw the keep was burning. The entire town was ablaze.
Fire. It was everywhere. Terrified people were trying to douse the blaze—most were fleeing. Ylawes didn’t see many people trapped within. No one, in fact. But the people were pointing and running from—
Figures. They wore all-black clothing, and Ylawes’ first thought was that they were Symphony. But this group showed none of their features, and—they moved so fast—
“Stop! Face me!”
The [Knight] shouted, and a cluster of figures aiming wands and tossing flaming vials down on the houses looked at him. One lifted a bow and aimed an arrow at him—but the other grabbed his wrist. Shook his head—and pointed.
Ylawes turned as they leapt, impossibly fast and far, and stopped thinking of the attackers. His mind went empty.
The keep was ablaze. It was weathered stone, converted into a manor, yes, but it was—should have been fireproof.
Unless someone literally took bags of holding and so much wood and brush and oil that even the old stone seemed ablaze. Who would—who would hate House Byres so much?
Ylawes didn’t know, but he ran into the blaze, shouting.
He was still in there when Falene, Dawil, and Ysara raced into the town. The [Battlemage] saw the blaze and knew Ylawes was in there.
“[Flash Rainstorm]! Dawil! Get him!”
“I’m on it!”
The Dwarf went running into the flames. Ysara, covering her face, used a bucket to douse her clothes and ran in. She froze in the chill—then the house was full of flames and smoke.
She didn’t get in past the entrance; she saw Dawil and Ylawes carrying a pair of figures out. Only two people had been in the keep—the servants had either been yanked out or knocked unconscious.
No one had been meant to burn alive in there. Even the owners of the keep had been out of it when the fires began. But they had rushed back inside to try and save something—anything.
Their son emerged with them as the fires consumed the legacy of House Byres. Their armory, their mementos—and all that Byres had built over their generations. Ysara saw her parents—and the relief she felt was genuine. But the shadow-clad figures turned and stared with such hatred she whirled.
Then—she drew her sword faster than she had ever done in her life before. Though she was no [Knight]—she slashed an arrow in half. That was more luck than Skill.
Dawil and Ylawes took cover against the burning keep as House Byres’ folk shouted and tried to come to the aid of the family. But only one arrow came. Falene’s barrier shimmered in the air as the cloaked figures gathered. They watched the burning keep—the [Knight] screaming at them. Then they walked away.
“Where are they going?”
“Don’t pursue, lad! Think of your family!”
Dawil grabbed Ylawes as Ysara stared. Then she saw more flashes in the distance. And she realized—
It wasn’t a dozen of them. She looked around and saw flames. Flames…and smoke.
“The entire valley is on fire! They’re collapsing the silver mines!”
How many of these enemies of House Byres had come? They were so fast—and coordinated. They came to set House Byres ablaze. All of it. They spared the people—
But the noble House of Byres burned. The goods, the manor—the branch family’s holdings—
“Someone declared war on us this night.”
Ylawes was feeling for his father’s pulse. He felt it—faintly—and Ysara looked around. She felt a chill. The masked figures had stared at her with such…hatred…
Only when something touched her face did she look up. Expecting snow. But the pale flakes were just ash. The ashes of Ysara and Ylawes’ home. It hurt her to see it gone, the husk of the keep. And yet…part of her was relieved.
And this, too, was Christmas. Not every Vampire was there. Some, like the very ones who had uncovered the treachery, had refused to take part and spoken against it. Like Himilt. But Rivel knew.
They knew—and regardless of the consequences—
House Byres was marked. This was just the beginning.
All this in a few days. All this that very night. Like the rebirth of the person this entire holiday was supposed to be about, in three days, everything seemed to happen.
Goblins on the first day, Riverfarm sending food, a kind [Baker].
Fetohep rode to Jecrass on the second day. The Vizir’s burning coals that night.
The news of House Byres broke on the third day. A terrible event for a good House everyone loved. Who would do something like that?
But it was…overshadowed. Overshadowed by one last thing this Christmas. Ironically, it happened before House Byres fully burned down.
Ysara just missed it. If she had been paying attention, she would have seen this:
“Rhir rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay;
Remember Queen Coretine was born on Christmas day.
To save us from Demon’s power when we were gone astray;
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.”
The song was praising each member of the royal family of the Blighted Kingdom. It was pure propaganda, but the Blighted King himself smiled to see it as he broke the late night to greet the dawn.
His kingdom didn’t go for excess, but even they had decided Christmas was worth pursuing in their way. The Earthers liked it.
High praise, coming from him. The Burnished Court nodded along as he nodded to Nereshal. The chamberlain of the palace smiled wanly.
“You are praising the wrong man, Your Majesty. These are citizens. Not state-endorsed.”
“Oh? Well, find them and commend them. Perhaps they can perform at the capital.”
There was something about the cadence of the song that the Blighted Kingdom lacked. It had some beautiful strains of each singer in the huge a capella group—hundreds, in fact. Some town had put this on.
But there was also something in the high-pitched notes, the accompaniment and speed of the song that felt urgent. The Blighted Kingdom liked songs like that with implicit…tension.
The lyricists had made up the rest of the song too, praising Othius, Coretine, then Nereshal himself in order.
Bethleham and such were omitted and replaced. Othius tapped his foot as he watched the performance.
They were amazing singers, actually. The chorus was huge, but the best singers by far were at the front. The most photogenic, too.
A half-Giant woman was singing in such a huge, perfect voice that she gave a gravitas to the entire scene. Then there was a young woman with a hat like Richard’s clasped to her chest next to a young man who looked like he came from Chandrar. Even the conductor, the half-Elf, was singing lightly, her blond hair flashing as she smiled for the camera.
They were reaching the climax of the song when Nereshal, trying to backtrace where the spell was coming from, realized he couldn’t figure out where it was. Then…he felt Othius freeze. For the last verse of the song sounded—different.
The voices of the singers began to change ever-so-slightly. And so did their faces. The half-Elf had something wrong with her face.
It was…dripping off the left side of her face. Exposing translucent flesh. Bone and blood and organs covered by magic. A hole for one eye. And her arm turned to magical flesh.
Othius stared as the half-Elf kept conducting with one hand. Then he looked past her—and the singers were changing too.
The Humans, Dwarves, and other species, including Drakes and Gnolls, were—altering. A pair of horns grew from the young ‘Chandrarian’ man. And his skin turned red.
General Bazeth of the Demons stood next to the one person whose appearance didn’t change as the illusion spells faded.
Flora was singing as the half-Giant’s voice grew even more—and her skin turned cloudy and shone with a rainbow of colors.
The Death of Chains, Czautha, sang as her eyes flashed with the heart of magic. Azam stood behind her, singing with the Djinni free of their chains.
Demons. Hundreds of Demons! They had—they were singing this song? This was a trick?
“Cut the spell! Cut the spell!”
Nereshal was shouting at Wistram, but the [Mages] couldn’t. The Death of Magic had disguised her spell and taken over the scrying spells.
It was, in fact, all Silvenia’s idea. She had begged on literal hands and knees for four hours to have her way.
Just because she thought this would be the ‘funniest’ way to do it. Now—the choir of Demons sang, and their voices rose. And there was no more pretend goodwill.
They stood facing the 5th Wall as it came alive. Far, far out of range—but now, the scrying orb was moving back. And it was showing them.
The Death of Magic, her body ruined by combat, her eyes shining with all the power of the last [Archmage] of this world. The Death of Chains, rising, growing like a maelstrom bound into a single being.
The nightmares of King Othius. But this was not about them. Nor Flora…she turned her head. And the camera panned up to a…figure, covered by wings.
Czautha was already there, gently reaching into what looked like a giant egg. Until you realized the glorious grey, like a skyburst of faded blue, was actually wings.
A being as large as a house was sitting there. Wings folded about her.
Even among the last three—Flora hadn’t believed she was alive. Much less that she would recover. But Silvenia had been working this entire year. And though Czautha had said it was too soon—
The wings moved. Bazeth raised his voice as, across Rhir, the people who had been watching the Christmas song froze in horror.
A face peered from beneath the ancient wings, and the voices rose. Now—you could see more unseen singers.
They were perched on branches of trees without leaves, singing—they had no arms, like Garuda, but their talons clung to the branches, and their wings were flexible. Some were half the size of the average Human when crouched like this; others were larger as they grew.
They sang, their eyes on the unfolding wings. They rose, and a head, humanoid and ancient, rose.
Unlike the other two Deaths—their final member of old was no immortal, even like a half-Elf. She did not sing. But when she beat her wings, the Demons sang their final verse. They chanted it. They screamed it across Rhir.
“Hell rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay;
Remember Serinpotva returned this Christmas day.
To claim her home from foreign powers when it has gone astray;
Oh tidings of comfort and joy. Oh tidings of comfort and joy.”
Then—the Death of Wings raised her head, and when she beat her feathers through the air, Serinpotva’s wings rose.
Her scars were legion. She was the oldest of her kind yet living, and she had lost her home. The last Harpies of the world rose, screaming, as she rose higher.
“In the name of the Death of Wings!”
Czautha cried out, and the Djinni grew. Her body turned to wind and air, and it blew across Rhir. A maelstrom of a Djinni, heralding her lover’s return.
Silvenia followed the two into the sky, and lightning raced across Rhir’s skies. Like the pounding heartbeat of King Othius. But the two were just following in the wake of the Harpy Queen. She spoke, her voice cracked from long disuse.
“[The Winds of Izril Blew Ever Under My Wings]. [I Called A Storm In the Name of the Harpy Queen]. My home, Iltanus, will return to us.”
She flew higher, and the Harpies below her flew in a circle as the last of the Harpy Queens took off. Empress of the Skies. Heir to a long-dead empire. But she flew. Even the Djinni and half-Elf could scarcely keep up.
“Someone has harnessed the winds. She blows across Izril.”
That was all Serinpotva said. Then she was flying higher.
So high that even the walls of the Blighted Kingdom couldn’t hit her. The first true rulers of Izril had always been one species. Before the High Passes had looked as they were. She soared higher, and the winds sang around her.
Her wounds were still so deep she could barely fly long—but she had agreed to Silvenia’s request. For one reason.
Othius the Fourth was in his court where the windows reflected the dawning sky as alarms rang the length of the Blighted Kingdom.
The Deaths of the Demon King had delivered terror this Christmas to their foes. He was clutching at his heart. And though Silvenia’s magic could not touch him—though he was proof against the shape-changing Djinni and all their tricks—
He looked up as something so incredibly high overhead it couldn’t be seen passed over him. It passed over the capital city of Paranfer. And as if she knew he was there—the massive shadow blotted out parts of the palace.
[Shadows of Empire: Fear the Sound of My Wings].
Othius scrambled away from the shadow as it crept over the courtyard, and the broadcast flickered out at last. But it didn’t matter…he saw the shadow passing over him, and his heart stopped dead in his chest.
An [Empress] passed overhead. And the Blighted King’s heart stopped. He spasmed—as Nereshal turned—and screamed for [Healers]. The Blighted King had a heart-attack on the floor as the Death of Wings returned.
But if only it were that simple to kill him.
And there it was. Christmas. It continued…but those were the greatest events of the holidays. The beginning of winter came in like a storm.
In glory—in horror. In dark deeds and sadness and magic. Kindness to drive away the cold.
Christmas, again. The Wandering Inn was always changing, and the second Christmas they’d celebrated was earlier than the last—but that was alright.
Soon, things would happen again. It looked to be a cold winter, and the new lands still waited. But for now?
As if something were listening or couldn’t make up its mind—or perhaps because it was listening—or again—just chance—
One last little thing happened that didn’t make the news. And it was that on the third day, as a little Gnoll girl was hauling a bucket of water out of the well and grumbling about her <Basic Quest>, she stopped—and turned her head.
Then she began howling and running down the hill as an Antinium Worker leapt out of his tower, slid down the roof, and landed on the grass. But Bird was running after Mrsha. He was staring at something as glorious as any bird.
It looked like something out of Pawn’s stories as the [Priest] stared out the window. As Cade tossed his cube aside and pointed for his mother—and a sobbing Pebblesnatch stopped crying into some dough she and Calescent were kneading. The little Goblin turned her head, heard the shouting—and climbed out a window.
She saw it too. It came down out of the skies. A ray of light, shining down upon the grass outside of Liscor. From beyond the clouds—from beyond the limits of sight. So high even the [Bird Hunter] could not see where it came from.
Without magic as the [Necromancer] and [Cryomancer] stumbled outside, half-carrying the [Rogue Mage] who stared up, whispering what sounded like a prayer. And out more people came, a disbelieving [Painter] and a [Thief]—
Running to the spot where the light encircled the grass. Just a few feet across. Just enough space to capture a sliver of the world. And Erin felt it. As if—the great fundamental constant of the entire firmament heaved a sigh and said, not in actual words—
Oh, very well.
And then everyone was rushing to the place where light met grass. And just like before, it grew brighter without physical intensity. Realer without color—just a pure patch of something made manifest.
Until—with a ringing sound that woke everyone from their dreams of levels. With a sigh across Izril—
Someone appeared in a blaze of energy. His body glowed—then became solid flesh and blood, and he stumbled, looking around.
Halrac Everam, unharmed and whole, turned as he lowered something in his hands. Just in time for Mrsha to leap on him and his friends and teammates to come flooding out of the inn.
“Halrac! Halrac! What happened?”
Erin came rolling last of all, shouting, as the [Bowman of Loss] looked about. He felt at himself—and then at the crying Revi and Typhenous, holding onto one arm.
“I don’t—remember. I was…no. I don’t remember. I struck that Drake and then—?”
He put a hand to his head, and Revi punched his arm.
“You idiot! You idiot! We thought we’d lost you! Even Erin didn’t know—”
They all looked at the [Innkeeper], but she raised her hands in denial, looking as amazed as the rest of them.
“I didn’t do anything. Honest. But…Halrac. What’s that?”
Then they all noticed what was in the man’s left hand. And he blinked at it without seeming to know why he was holding it.
It was…one of his arrows. It was just plain steel. Except for a tiny bit at the very tip. It was coated with something that had no color Erin could name. As if Halrac had scraped something onto the tip of it. The Gold-rank Captain—the adventurer gazed at the arrow blankly and then came to the only conclusion he could.
“I don’t remember—but I think I stole something.”
And that would change everything and…well. There was no other part to that sentence. Ryoka Griffin exchanged a wide-eyed glance with a little lamb in her arms. Numbtongue looked over at Ryoka carrying the Sariant Lamb as he held Reagen in his arms and snorted, looking superior. Nerry spat on the Goblin.
Then. And then—
And then they should have been done with it. But Ryoka Griffin felt the winds of Izril trembling with the Death of Wings’ return. She looked up at those blue skies—and her eyes went round. With disbelief. With horror.
She began shouting. Screaming, as everyone gathered around Halrac.
“It can’t be. It can’t be—”
They turned—and Erin Solstice looked up. Her own eyes went wide—and Mrsha, holding onto Halrac’s hand, wanted to tell everyone this wasn’t her fault. Bird stared up in wonder and aimed a bow up—but even he hesitated.
And Nerry? Nerry stared up and ducked into Ryoka’s arms. For coming their way—across Izril—was a wall of white.
So much snow that the guests of the inn—all but Ryoka—began running for cover. It came down, a dozen feet of it in places, all at once—and so fast they could see the vapor trails of the sonic boom before it passed across the High Passes.
Snow. But what Ryoka saw—what she heard on the winds—were the voices.
“Faster! Faster, ye cunts! Go faster!”
Five figures shot through the air along with one green one as they flew. Not Ivolethe. But—Ryoka stared up as the Winter Sprites passed overhead—then the sonic boom hit her. Then all the snow in creation. And the Winter Sprites—
Had returned. Taletevirion looked up, and his jaw dropped as he saw the snow coming. He saw one blue dot break off and dive at the Wind Runner. He turned his head to Teriarch, who was sitting with a little Dragon at his side and an annoyed [Lady] on the other this day—at the Winter Sprites—
“Nope. Nope. That’s not new—that doesn’t count, and I don’t care.”
He ran for it. And once more, this winter—
The fae came back.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 49!]
[Skill Change – Inn: Grand Theatre → Inn: The World’s Eye Theatre!]
This chapter is, thankfully, not as long as the last two. And I am almost all out of energy. In fact, I realized I’ll be going to visit my grandparents the morning after Christmas, so I don’t even have more than one day on Christmas to work even if I wanted to.
So I’ll begin my break starting now. And I will finish my Volume 1 rewrite, with apologies for missing my deadline, next month. I only have one major chapter to do.
1.13 R, to be exact. It will be a complete, everything-deleted, re-write probably. I would have liked the first draft to be done by 2023, but I got my Christmas arc done for you, and that’s what counts.
I’m tired. I’ve thrown all the energy I had left at this arc. I condensed…or maybe just wrote out the entire arc I wanted in three chapters. As I said, I’ll be back mid-January. I need some time off to recharge, and I thank you for the understanding and the fact that I can take a break if I need to from writing.
This may be the first Christmas in six years I haven’t worked? I know I have worked some, and I do go as hard as I can in writing. I have had fun times with the family, but perhaps I will find more time for more than writing. I can remember much of this year in the chapters I’ve written. Little else, and perhaps that should change.
But it’s a shame that I’m better at writing than anything else. Still—I was happy to have something to point to this year I’m proud of. The job is good. I’ll figure out the other parts this year. Or next year. I am very pleased by what’s been done, though, and I hope you have enjoyed the story this year as well.
Until the next, with the best wishes for the end of this year and 2023. Stay warm—or stay cool depending on where you are.
Drinking Buddies by Brack!
The Cutest Santa by Bobo Plushie!
All I Want by ArtsyNada!
The Winter Fae Return by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!