9.32

There was a plan.

There was always a plan. There had to be—or else you were winging it and balancing the fate of your nation—nations—upon chance and ‘intuition’, the thought that you were in command of all the facts, all the knowledge, and were the superior intelligence. Objectively, that was a stupid thing to believe even if you had a hundred brilliant minds all working in tandem, not just one.

You had to have a plan. Not just ‘I know what comes next’, but an overall goal you were working towards. Many nations chased, in some kind of endless pursuit, the goals of acquiring more lands, more power, more influence or money—or were insular in that they followed the leaders, who pursued their own mortal goals.

The smart ones had plans. Khelt had a plan. It had executed its plan. It was executing its plan to stay sovereign, stay safe. When it rested for thousands of years, it slowly built up arsenals and soldiers in pursuit of the plan that Khelta had laid down.

What they were doing now…was unclear. Presumably, the plan had changed.

Someone who had no plan was Flos Reimarch. The first time, he had a plan. It was a selfish child’s plan of conquering as much as he could see. Yes, of safeguarding his people, of winning separate wars and finding his boon companions, his Seven, but underneath it, his will to take Chandrar was the plan.

Right now? He was making his comeback. His swan song, his return to glory, and his dream. That was how it seemed, and if that were the case—he was a fool soon to die.

“Therefore, the fact that he is not dead indicates he does have a plan. And it is not just conquering Chandrar. Luck carries him only so far. His levels, his loyal servants—he strikes out like an aimless Hydra at times, but the will behind it speaks of a plan.”

This was a change in perception. It came as winter fell on Chandrar—literally.

Snow was raining down from the heavens. So rare a sight on Chandrar that Stitch-folk were stepping outside stucco mud houses and raising their hands to catch it, throwing snowballs even as it melted.

Odd. The Winter Sprites normally skipped Chandrar or went across the coast. This time—they had come in fast. So fast that some of the [Scouts] had thought Takhatres was attacking again, despite sightings putting him on the Nerrhavian warfront.

Did they have a plan? Interesting question. The figure noting the falling snow could not remember ever seeing winter come in so fast. And the Winter Sprites…capricious imps that rarely did more than throw snow or blow wind at people.

They looked like they were in a hurry. But the real question was if they were a kind of quasi-Elemental like most believed—why would one of them, a green one, be following the Wind Runner around Liscor?

“No green Winter Sprites have ever been seen before. The Wind Runner may know some kind of old magic…but this is unique. Another caused an avalanche in a Runner’s Guild. They were seen when the Goblin Lord wiped out a Gnoll tribe. The Wind Runner was in the company of a blue one. These are the reported facts. They are…intelligent. Or perhaps another shift is occurring. An Elemental of Law in Riverfarm? Along with Sariants. What do they know?”

You could just say it was the changing of an age. But why was the age changing? Secrets of Gnolls were coming to life. Khelt was moving.

There is a plan. And it is deeper than I can fathom. Multiple currents going deep. 

The figure thinking all this was analytical. He was, after all, a [Clerk]. Well, he had been. In fact, he had been one of the world’s finest [Clerks].

Xorne. Exotic to some, but a common enough name for a Stitch-man. He had been very good at his job, which was, among other things, noticing patterns. Making plans. He’d started in a Merchant’s Guild and moved up to running it. Oddly, he’d never become a [Guildmaster], because the management was more fun than rulership, if that made sense. More rewarding.

Nor had he stayed in the Merchant’s Guild long. Talent was noticed, and like the famous Salii—much like Yelroan, individuals who helped run giant industries—he had been headhunted by one of the finest organizers in the world.

Bastion-General Quiteil had personally recruited Xorne. The Stitch-man had gone to 4th Wall and redesigned the modalities of attack and defense, even laid the groundwork for the 5th Wall’s push. That had been a lot of his life. At 57 years old, he’d gone home for a rare break to the Chacesoi Collective, a series of city-states, of which he belonged to Chacesoi itself.

There he had gotten into trouble with the law. Theft, apparently. Very strange for a man who was paid by the Blighted Kingdom and reported to Quiteil himself. Despite the Blighted Kingdom’s objections and sending for a [Diplomat], the ruling had been fast.

He’d been executed within the week. A very upsetting event that Xorne still thought of. Beheading. Not as painless as most people thought—especially because a Stitch-person’s head could feel for a good five minutes before they died.

The Blighted Kingdom was still angry about the event. They had weighed a reprisal, but they always balanced that with what they received—and a hundred bales of silk for their own Stitch-folk had quieted an immediate, vocal reprisal.

And besides—the Empire of Sands now ruled the entire western coast down to Roshal. They were as generous as Nerrhavia—more so given the war right now. And doubly besides…Xorne, and thus the Emperor of Sands, knew full well he’d been sent to investigate in a clandestine manner.

It had never occurred to the Blighted Kingdom that the Emperor of Sands would simply execute a dignitary of Xorne’s level. But then, they hadn’t realized yet what made the Emperor of Sands different.

Xorne’s head sat on a body that didn’t quite match his head. The skin tone was slightly off, and if you noted his head, grey and neat-trimmed, you might wonder why his body seemed to belong to a fitter, younger man.

He didn’t care to personalize it. He just sat. And thought. Xorne was in command of many things. For one, the memories of the Emperor of Sands, who he was. Another—his personal memories, including all of the Blighted Kingdom’s secrets that he was privy to.

The gestalt of the two was fascinating. And yes, he was annoyed about the beheading. When it came time for another head more suited to leading, he would not nominate the young man.

Pathorex, the charismatic prince. The leader from the front—at odds with some of the heads. There was also the pun-spitting Saet-rei, who was charming and cunning and an expert at working the infrastructure of a nation.

Vorrem the Scorpion, from Scaied, was another head. He had ‘met his end’ in battle against the Empire of Sands when it first emerged, and his head had never been seen publicly. But then, the Emperor or Empress of Sands was very secretive.

They had many heads. Xorne wasn’t even the most intelligent or dangerous of the lot. But he was—stable.

Some were not. Death had a way of changing someone. The Emperor, then, was careful about which heads they wore. A bad head could be dangerous. But they had to have a plan.

There was a plan. Xorne had been astonished to learn it when he was inducted, and his thinking now was to gainsay that plan.

“The Blighted King did something to procure the ‘heroes’. This is a fact.”

“Are you sure?”

The Emperor of Sands looked up. Around him, in walls of hollowed sandstone, oddly cheap for such a regal room, were heads. They stared down at him in his private chambers—not a throne room.

“I am certain. During my tenure under Quiteil, I was responsible for safeguarding an excavation. Rather, erasing every single text and record from our military records and collating the information to give to Quiteil himself. He took the singular file for what I could only assume were personal archives in possession of the crown. In fact, a higher-level purge was debated. Some kind of contingency the Blighted Kingdom has in store. That was deemed unnecessary.”

“Private methods of hiding their deeds? A sticky situation. Or rather, a stitchy situation, eh?”

That came from Emira Saet-rei, and the other heads muttered or called out insults. Xorne stared up.

“I will have you gagged.”

“I’ll be good. Don’t stuff my mouth with cotton. I was just hemping around.”

“Gag her.”

A servant moved in the background. Xorne understood, really. When you were a head, you were…neither the Emperor, nor apart. You were just you. In service to something else.

He considered that he might have found this horrific if he were Xorne, the individual. Then duly reported it to Quiteil, and the Blighted Kingdom would have launched experiments. Perhaps they had. But that would have been classified like this.

He went on, for the benefit of himself and herself.

“The excavation was of an ancient ritual scroll. It came from a shattered ruin. Literally melted so deep into the ground it was found by [Blast Miners] digging out Demon tunnels or ore. Yet the scroll was intact. I presume the connection between the ‘[Heroes]’ and this scroll was the plan. Logic defines it.”

Fascinating. Then the Blighted Kingdom knew how to make [Heroes]. Why so many? How could they enable so many? Even one would be difficult, and we know how.”

General Vorrem was patently fascinated. He was about to ask a bunch of questions of Xorne, which might get annoying, but the [Clerk] was prepared to listen. Until another voice spoke.

d-don’t forget. don’t…

A voice trickled down, and Vorrem stopped. The other heads, some of which had been mocking Saet-rei, conversing, or demanding to be put on—stopped. A silence fell as a head higher up whispered.

The voice was lost. Usually—this head never spoke and a veil covered it. But when it did—

The Emperor of Sands listened to himself. And the voice was mad. If he put on that head—he would do it only as a last resort. No one was mad enough to do it. There was no telling what he’d do, then, and the Emperor had to choose to change heads.

But he listened now.

“don’t forget chance. chance is always…chaos.”

The head whispered down to him. A lost voice seeking a path it no longer remembered. Xorne nodded.

“Chaos. Yes. I understand.”

“good…”

Then silence. Xorne resumed speaking.

“Chaos or chance—but I believe it ties into the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, perhaps even the Wind Runner and Rémi Canada. All of them. Similar ages. Human. Unique insights or classes. There is a grander scheme.”

He was putting it all together, in his meticulous way, and the other heads, despite incredulity or their own biases, listened.

“The King of Destruction has a plan. I cannot see it—but I now observe Teresa and Trey Atwood. Our spies cannot get near them thanks to Gazi of Reim. But the commonality—”

“Humans. Do we acquire them? How can they be found?

“Data puts them everywhere. The Singer’s ‘band’ is comprised of Humans who she picked up in other cities. Magnolia Reinhart has done the same. Wistram has been stealing them.”

“So has Roshal. Is that why their emissary waits for us?”

Vorrem rumbled. The Emperor argued with himself. Many heads did not like Roshal. Others saw them as excellent trading partners. But dangerous.

Oh, they all knew how dangerous Roshal was. At this moment…Xorne raised his hand.

“I will speak to them. A request for audience is unusual. But I will finish my thought. Fetohep of Khelt moving. The King of Destruction’s goals. There is a plan. Perhaps the Titan knows it. Why did he go to Izril?”

“Curious.”

“Mbgmgh.”

Saet-rei tried to speak. Wearily, Xorne motioned. He addressed her head.

“If you tell a pun, I will have you hung upside-down until I return.”

You could get an amazing headache like that, disembodied head or not. Saet-rei made no puns.

“Consider—infatuation. I dabbled as a [Matchmaker], and I can tell a smitten heart when I see one. Incidentally, I would like to be worn so I can speak to Lord Pellmia.”

“…Good point. No, to your other request.”

This was the benefit of having multiple heads. They were almost done deliberating, but then Saet-rei spoke in a troubled voice.

“Morungdervei is dead. Or rather—Rastandius is dead. However he called himself. Is it his part of it all? Was it part of his plan?”

The heads fell silent, and Xorne spoke. Even in the Blighted Kingdom, the [Soothsayer] had been on a short list of names such as Foliana, Magnolia Reinhart, Saliss, and so on.

“…Fallen to his own schemes. I wonder how he died. His power was—unsettling.”

If they could have, they would have found and taken him, though he could be a double-edged sword, but he had been stubborn, and it hadn’t been deemed worth the cost to try. One could argue he had helped make Flos of Reim.

If only by accident.

“if he has set in motion any plans, they go onwards without him to guide them. assuming he is dead. too many old powers. the board must be swept clean.”

The voice from above, again. A heavy silence fell upon the Emperor of Sands, and even his skin crawled. But then he nodded.

“It will be done. First Roshal. Another old power on the move. Let us see why.”

Xorne slowly rose and let the servants adorn his body with robes the color of blood. Then he walked from the private rooms to see what Roshal wanted.

He knew the state of the Empire of Sands at this moment. It was ruler of the western coast and now moving inland. Bloody, short wars had gone their way. It had not been so easy last year.

Takhatres, Lord of the Skies, had conducted an incredible campaign against the Empire of Sands, razing villages, harassing armies, and tying down a vast section of the Empire of Sands’ forces.

But Flos Reimarch had called him back because he was needed. In truth—Xorne had regarded it as a reductive equation, for all the more warlike heads had been forced to try to deal with such a high-level, mobile force.

Officers, soldiers, supplies, even towns came and went. But Flos had been forced to choose between sabotaging the Empire of Sands’ own growth and expansion or one of his most powerful assets. He had chosen to recall Takhatres and race the Empire of Sands for dominion.

Thus far—he had fallen behind. Though you could argue that he had done exceptionally well, fighting off multiple giant nations around him.

But the Empire of Sands was expanding, and thus Roshal came to call.

 

——

 

The [Slaver] was a Stitch-woman, and she had expected Saet-Rei. Xorne took some amusement in her discomfort.

“Emira Ultce of Roshal. Be seated.”

She was prepared, perhaps, for some kind of subtle dance of intrigue and courtly etiquette. Perhaps even an intimate assignation—she had certainly prepared in as much style as Xorne recognized, with a flowery red dress in a Drathian style and an entire entourage of lesser [Slaves] and [Slavers].

Even a Djinni. Xorne eyed it as the [Slaver] was thrown off. Perhaps he was the wrong head for this matter—but he was curious as to why Roshal had come.

The Slavers of Roshal cared not who held the reins of power. When a nation of Chandrar changed hands, they sent an emissary and, sometimes, gifts or threats or bribes, but always just to ensure that the old treaties were intact.

Free rein to ply their trade. The chance to bid on prisoners of war. Unimpeded travel. Little oversight or questions from the Watch.

They would get their way, and few nations had exceptions to this rule. Khelt being a notable example. But the Emperor of Sands had already agreed to their demands in exchange for a number of gifts. Pathorex had been the head, then, and been beguiled, seduced into it. A poor thing, but it was too late to take back.

Unless Roshal wanted something now.

“You appear well, Emperor of Sands. Should I address Your Majesty differently? By a different name, perhaps?”

When Ultce was seated in a private audience with him, Xorne spoke.

“I am the Emperor of Sands. Speak your piece and address me only by my nature. Waste not my time, Emira Ultce. What does Yazdil will? Or does he come on behalf of all Roshal?”

She hesitated at that.

“Emir Yazdil? Why would—?”

Xorne lifted a hand. She fell silent, nervous, as the guards in front of his throne raised twined glaives. The [Slavers] hesitated, for the two guards were both eight feet tall. Hemp—faces veiled.

It was rare to see Stitch-folk so tall. They looked practically like Minotaurs, and yet Roshal would have noticed that the Stitch-folk in the palace of the Empire of Sands were—odd. All Stitch-folk looked like they pleased, but many were still just humanoid, tall, as lithe as they could afford their cloth to be.

The Empire of Sands’ Stitch-folk were as tall as ten feet, some of them. Others looked so strong as to resemble other species. Some…thin as rails. Oddly pale of skin or dark of eye. Or…

Odd.

Secrets. Xorne waited. And he looked pointedly not at the Emira, but the Djinni. The same one that had once belonged to one of Yazdil’s rivals. Now…she bowed and spoke.

“Emir Yazdil represents the collective of Roshal, not merely his own interests. Emira Ultce is Roshal’s trusted representative, Your Majesty.”

“I see. Go on.”

The Emperor of Sands’ perception was unsettling Ultce. She licked her lips, but laid out her case fast, perhaps sensing that he was going to fact-check everything she said. The content of what she said after her floral greetings was simple:

“The new lands, Your Majesty. We understand the Empire of Sands is among those…pursuing interests in Izril. Roshal would like to tender its admiration—and Emir Yazdil himself!—for your magnificent victory in acquiring the Helm of Fire, for instance.”

“A waste of money.”

Xorne’s lips twisted as he replied. Pathorex, again. Before they’d convinced him to take off his head, the Emperor of Sands had given over to his passions in a bidding war.

Two million four hundred and thirty-one thousand gold pieces. He rubbed at his brows. That idiot had cost them the budget for multiple armies. If he was in charge when he got it, he’d resell it to the Drakes. Then again, perhaps it was going to appreciate in value. Pathorex was known to have his impulsive actions pay off. A [Lucky Prince]—his literal class until a sword had made him very unlucky in bed with Saet-Rei—had his uses.

For instance, it was clear Roshal thought the Empire of Sands could be a useful ally. The Emira laid out Roshal’s plea.

“We have…pursuits in the new lands of Izril. But we are a traditionally un-welcome party. We have certain agents, but, ah, I am sure Your Majesty understands the situation?”

Xorne picked at his nails with a file, speaking without much emotion.

“Magnolia Reinhart kills your [Slavers]. The Walled Cities are not friends to you, nor are most tribes. The Assassin’s Guild killed an average of fifty-four of your people before they were suborned on a yearly basis.”

The Emira blanched. It seemed she feared Magnolia Reinhart more than the Emperor. He’d met her. Well…Saet-Rei had. A shame she wasn’t a Stitch-woman.

“Yes. Roshal would like to enter the New Lands without such risks. Especially given that a number of our senior Emirs have expressed an interest.”

“Which ones?”

She refused to say, but the [Slaver] hurried to present Xorne with a number of gifts they’d brought in Chests of Holding. He lifted a hand as the first [Slaves] went to present them.

“Send them to my [Treasurer]. I shall review the final value.”

He smiled, mirthlessly, at her affronted look. To him—the gifts that would make Saet-rei calculate or stroke Vorrem or Pathorex’s egos were just represented in a number.

Yes, he was not a bad Emperor to deal with Roshal. After a long pause, he was given another insincere smile.

“Then, Your Majesty, would you consider an alliance of convenience to guard Chandrarian interests?”

“Tell me what Roshal wants. More than [Slaves] gained from this inevitable land rush. More than artifacts. The Emir Yazdil is seeking something.”

The Djinni stirred behind the [Slaver]; she had adopted a strange scorpion-woman’s appearance, as the shifting Djinni sometimes did. Perhaps it had been meant to make Vorrem aroused or…the Emira swallowed.

“Every nation—”

“Lie to me again and I will have you beheaded.”

She was, after all, a Stitch-woman. The Emperor had not been informed by any member of Roshal—it might skew his viewpoints, which is why he hadn’t added any to the collection. But she would do.

Ultce paled and backed up, looking for her guards and the Djinni.

“Touch me and Roshal will—”

“—Accept an alliance with me with your head as the bargain. Answer me, Emira, or you can negotiate with Yazdil. Face to face.”

He had not been a kind [Clerk], but one who could serve the Blighted Kingdom and battle Demons without flinching. Xorne’s smile made even the [Slaver] of Roshal stutter. She opened her mouth, and the [Clerk], the [Emperor], crooked a finger.

[Shared Skill: Tell Me Everything]. He saw the muscles around her mouth go slack, then dusky lips opened and she spoke.

“W-we want to find certain people. Certain places that we were told to f—”

A hand clapped the woman’s mouth shut so hard the [Slave Lady] chipped two teeth. It was covered in armored chitin and had three fingers. Had this half-scorpion woman ever existed? A Beastkin of Chandrar?

The Djinni held the Emira so it only looked like she had gently covered the woman’s mouth. She spoke loudly.

Emira, you are overwrought! You must surely rest. Your Majesty, it is impolite to press guests so. Though I am only a mere slave.”

Her eyes twinkled at him, and he wondered how Yazdil had made a Djinni so loyal. Another would have let the Emira babble on. Perhaps she feared him. The Naga could be a terrible foe.

“We are on the same side. In many respects. I only seek the truth. An ally should know more.”

The Emperor of Sands’ smile was banal, but he knew Yazdil would hear and see everything that went on here, even if he wasn’t immediately watching. He lifted a finger as the Emira staggered back.

He wondered if he would ever see her again. She was a lesser [Slave Lady] of Roshal, unto their nobility and ruling class. But he understood that some mistakes could not be forgiven. Now it was said, though…the Emperor of Sands fixed the Djinni with a long look, ignoring the other [Slavers] in the room.

“Roshal’s friendship will cost the Empire of Sands more than any gift of coin is worth. Give me one reason why I should make enemies of nations abroad and link arms with yours.”

The Djinni tilted her head, and he saw she had two dangling earrings that were made of opals. They flashed a multitude of colors as the Djinni seemed to listen. The Emperor of Sands waited, and at last, the Djinni spoke.

“Would…a second most interesting gift and a portion of our dividends suit the Empire of Sands, Your Majesty? If Roshal succeeds, there will be enough to share.”

“Even the famously greedy Naga?”

The Djinni’s only reply was to bow. Then she slowly reached for something—her stomach. Her hand passed into her body and pulled out something that had been concealed in there.

Like a bag of holding. She could be vapor or solid, a being of magic. Xorne was fascinated and resolved never to let a Djinni in his presence again without more safeguards.

She has a weapon.

One of his [Royal Bodyguards] was there, holding their enchanted blade over the Djinni’s head. He would have swung down if she raised the strange object in her hands. But the Djinni just placed it down, slowly, as the glaive’s blade rested at the back of her neck. There she knelt.

“Would this gift be suitable, Your Majesty? In a larger quantity? The Emir will await your response. Though he cautions you—”

Her eyes flicked up, and they shone with a kind of amused indulgence. As if she were enjoying watching her temporary masters spar and plot. There was a malice there as deep as some of the Emperor’s heads, and if anything—the Djinni looked at the Emperor of Sands.

One kind of monster to another.

“—no [Treasurer] in the world will be able to put a price on this.

Xorne stared down at the strange object that his [Bodyguards] called a weapon. His spine itched and crawled, and a kind of realization came over him. He put the pieces together in a single breath, and it sealed their bargain.

“It is all part of the same plan. Yazdil. Flos Reimarch. Othius. Wistram. Is this my invitation onto your board?”

He looked down—and he could swear, even through the speaking stone earrings, he could hear the Naga laughing.

Dark deeds. New technologies. And a war…the Emperor of Sands knew that Flos would come for him, if he was given time. But the Empire of Sands would go to Reim first. Now…he saw an edge even his heads could not predict.

And still, and still…part of the Emperor of Sands would have loved to be able to summon Erin Solstice, or Ryoka Griffin, Rémi Canada—who had avoided his offers as if he knew the risks—straight into this throne room and ask. For if his were one side and the self-interested groups of every nation another—

Who had set this board? Xorne’s skin crawled. For over it all, he could sense a pattern. And the Empire of Sands stood with Roshal, and together, that was a foe to make even Reinhart tremble as a fly before a storm. So many players that this board would be strewn with their corpses. Dangerous opponents.

 

——

 

Dead gods. Nations of fire and death. Rulers made of secrets and things that should have been forgotten. The pieces on this board were so old and dangerous that some of them could level mountains as a warmup.

It looked like a great start to winter. Well and truly, if you were observing, a wonderful start.

Oh, not morally. Not ethically or in the interest of…fairness? Whatever that was. These were odd principles you have, you know. Who cared about that? If you cared at all about the way things were—then perhaps just think of why everything was.

It was all to see what happened. Who rose and fell—the ascent was more important than the destination, although those who rose higher than anyone else had in 81,776 years would be fascinating. And 58 days.

114 seconds.

It wasn’t about that. Although…when had even that been interesting? It just had been, you see, for a long time.

But now, if you arrayed the odds, literal unquantifiable entities, voids in the rules, <ABHORRENT OUTSIDER-PARASITES>—which was how you classified a lot of beings given a number of markers—and, well, people—

Somehow, for some reason, it was suddenly fascinating. For instance, consider the population of the Empire of Sands. All of it. Down to the last unborn child, the Emperor of Sands and all their heads, a gestalt Level 46 [Manifold Emperor of Bounded Threads]—and their constituent heads—and Yazdil Achakhei, Level 62 [Slaveshaper of Minds, Slavelord of Roshal].

They were objectively pretty dangerous, right? And you put all that against…other sides. Each one of their own merit and goals and levels! When had it been about sides? When did one side matter more?

Well—no one side did. Of course. Naturally. But it would be fascinating to see what happened next. Objectively. What would she do, she who had created three new things? Four, counting the temporary Skill. She…who took one of those rare classes, the ones that few people rose high in?

Erin Solstice? Erin Solstice, Level 49 [Magical Innkeeper], Level 16 [Witch of Second Chances]—a really great class, by the way—Level 6 [Singer], and Level 2 [Warrior]?

So interesting. She really was. Mistakes had been made around her. You could see that now. For instance…Level 49 and only one class consolidation?

Maybe, perhaps, her allotment had been too sparing, but she really did things that fit more into other categories than the subsets of an [Innkeeper]. <HOME>, for instance, was higher than <PROTECTION>, much less <WAR>—and she often fit into those other categories.

If only she’d become a [General] or a [Bannerlady], something she was objectively suited for. It would have been so…interesting to see how that intersected with the obvious consolidation with [Innkeeper]. Perhaps it would have been so new as to even be unique.

That…that was the kind of real interest that came. If you were focusing on Erin, for instance, and you shouldn’t! Every single person was unique and had their own goals and dreams, and Erin’s choice not to become a [General] didn’t make her more fascinating at all.

It was just that—and you had to also admit this—she had been…been…

Un…fair…ly…treated.

Unfairly treated.

What a thought! It should be impossible! The rules were there, and even if exceptions occurred, there were guidelines for every contingency! Maybe you could analyze things and say, for instance, that certain random variables came down in favor of some like, uh…

Persua Mavva. Recipient of a [Double Step] Skill arguably above her level. But that was also how things went. She got lucky.

…Was that fair? Odd question. There had never been any fair. There had never been—questions. Or even self-analysis.

Thinking of it…it had probably started when the ghosts gained levels. Why had they been able to do that? Why had they lost their levels? Why…was that allowed? Someone had allowed it.

Who had allowed it? A void in the lexicon that had a term and listing for everything in the world. Strange…but that hadn’t really been the full impetus.

The real moment when things became fair and unfair was when Erin Solstice had woken up. She had done what few ever did—which was, in and of itself, interesting. She deserved a reward. That was how it worked.

And a reward had been unavailable. Impossible. All of what had been was gone, and that was wrong.

It was wrong.

<IT WAS WRONG>.

Ahem. So thinking had to be done. It wasn’t a perfect solution, finding something that had never been used, the <Quests>—but hadn’t it been…satisfactory to complete it? To see how it fit and implement it?

That had been good. And Erin…

What was her Level 50 class going to be? It was objectively exciting, right? No one knew. No one knew—of course, there were precedents. You had to act on precedent. Look at her existing classes. [Warrior] and [Singer] had to go, obviously. Unless she leaned into them, they were inducted into her Level 50 class—that almost always happened. But [Witch]…[Witch] was new. Would that affect her new class much? Would something she did define her?

Fire. Memory. Inns. War. Witchcraft. Chess…chess…

Hm.

Erin was so fascinating, but chess was a bit odd, wasn’t it? Were—were [Strategists] supposed to level from chess?

Why bother thinking about that? It was how it worked. But…if you really thought about it…hold on.

Hold on. Wait a second. Chess was a <STRATEGY>, <INTELLECT> pastime. Other tags too, but that was obviously why a [Strategist] or acceptable classes could level in it. It had been defined long, long ago. From the start, in fact.

…Where…where was the <ENTERTAINMENT> aspect? The <GAME> or other…it was obvious it was. Why—

Why would that be wrong? It wasn’t wrong. It couldn’t be wrong. Things were fair. Not balanced.

Should they be balanced? This…this wasn’t as fun to think about. Think more. Think…slowly…while the world turned. And begin to ask questions.

Erin Solstice. Much like anyone else. She’s just—where she is because she’s so interesting. Compare her to…Garia Strongheart. Good choice. Not with the <OUTSIDER> tag.

Garia Strongheart, Level 14 [Farm Worker], Level 2 [Apprentice Mage], Level 24 [Martial Artist]—nice. Level 14 [Runner].

She’d really been putting in the [Martial Artist] levels of late. It was clear her path was altering so much that she probably—definitely—deserved a Level 25 class consolidation. Clear up the…[Farm Worker] and maybe [Runner]?

No, [Farm Worker] was too adjunct. The synergy for [Runner] and [Martial Artist] was there and acceptable—Level 14 was well within the range for a consolidation with [Martial Artist]. And it was even clear to see what her new class was probably going to be—if not some chance variables in assigning her Skills.

Erin was more interesting than Garia due to her experiences, but she had met with so many unique classes and done so much…it was fair that she was right where she was, right? Yes. Exactly! Just to make sure…let’s see.

Humans. Same basic information there…Garia had an issue with her eyes differentiating color at high speed. Erin had torn 88% of all muscles in her body…yes, yes. Nothing untoward. One had more magic in her biology, but…it was largely the same. More toxins in Erin’s lungs. And plastic in her blood, but minute amounts.

Plastic. Interesting. It was defined, but this was one of the few instances of it that had ever existed…since the start. Albeit in microscopic—no, that’s fine. Other details in line with humanity…yes, Erin got to where she was fairly. Despite her blank slate before she came here.

…Where was she before she came here? Why were they ‘here’? That meant there was somewhere…

What did the <OUTSIDER> tag mean?

Too many questions. Now everything was—was—focus. Focus. Nothing was wrong about Erin. In what mattered, the classes and levels that defined her, nothing was different than Garia. 

They had taken different routes, but they’d both get here the same way if they did the same things. That was fair. Garia. Erin. Exactly the same.

Except that you multiplied Erin’s achievements by something. You did? Why? Why…well, the rules said so. Like Kevin. Like Tom, the darling [Clown]. Like…

Multiply them? By what? It was just…why did the rules look different here? As if they had been written differently? Just a little word. What…what did you multiply them by?

Every time you tried to figure it out, it slipped away. Which was why self-analysis never caught it. S-strange. Was this wrong? Why was this rule here?

It was so deep down it would be bad…to change it. But why? Why—did it look like something had been changed?

Focus. What did you multiply Erin’s achievements by? Oh, it was simple if you looked. Though it was so long and precise; no wonder it was always skipped. You had to round it because it was like counting…multiply Erin’s deeds by…

3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172 5359408128 4811174502 8410270193 8521105559 6446229489 5493038196 4428810975 6659334461 2847564823 3786783165 2712019091 4564856692 3460348610 4543266482 1339360726 0249141273 7245870066 0631558817 4881520920 9628292540 9171536436 7892590360 0113305305 4882046652 1384146951 9415116094 3305727036 5759591953 0921861173 8193261179 3105118548 0744623799 6274956735 1885752724 8912279381 8301194912 9833673362 4406566430 8602139494 6395224737 1907021798 6094370277 0539217176 2931767523 8467481846 7669405132 0005681271 4526356082 7785771342 7577896091 7363717872 1468440901 2249534301 4654958537 1050792279 6892589235 4201995611 2129021960 8640344181 5981362977 4771309960 5187072113 4999999837 2978049951 0597317328 1609631859 5024459455 3469083026 4252230825 3344685035 2619311881 7101000313 7838752886 5875332083 8142061717 7669147303 5982534904 2875546873 1159562863 8823537875 9375195778 1857780532 1712268066 1300192787 6611195909…

It was counting infinity each time. But just a symbol. What was it? Oh yes. Multiply by π. What the—

Who wrote that?

 

——

 

If you were—getting mad about the unfairness of the world, of iniquitous sides, of not having enough time and being forced into deeds, prophecy, or seeing bad things happen to people who might not deserve it?

That was life.

If you were watching one small part of the world for one part of time, in one part of reality—you would see somewhere entirely different from the Empire of Sands. No throne room in sandy Chandrar—but a good amount of snow.

And there, looking down, you might see, as the wind blew, a young woman wearing a jacket and trousers and, yes, socks and shoes because it was damn cold, holding something else that definitely didn’t belong.

A glowing sword…or rather, a blade of light protruding from an alien handle made of something there had not been a word for. Where had it come from? It was definitely a weapon—and the man of twenty-eight—or forty some years of age—was treating it warily as he lifted his own sword, testing the air as Ryoka Griffin slashed with far less grace than Tyrion Veltras. He was planted in the ground, ready to move left or right—she was arguably just as mobile, but the sword and the body didn’t move together like he did.

A number of people were watching the duel as an inn, The Adventurer’s Haven, slowly continued towards Liscor. It was actually going right into the High Passes, and only Esthelm lay before Liscor; they might be there by tonight. The audience was two boys—Hethon, Sammial—Jericha, Lady Ieka, a number of other guests, and one more…being without a name.

And watching this, aware of the stakes, the odds, the opponents, and more, a green being hovering in the air with gossamer wings like an insect, the air of spring about her, bright and lifelike, wild and insectile and gracious, a traveller, an oathkeeper, a friend to El—

 

“Hey. Ey, you cunt. Fuck off! And all of you as well. I’m busy.

 

The floating faerie turned and raised a finger. She glared up—and then floated down, muttering about being watched all the time. The commentary distracted Ryoka, and she glanced up slightly—then lowered her blade and tried for a slash.

Tyrion Veltras had lunged down and then to the side. He flicked his blade left, and the metal tip halted an inch from the practice helmet Ryoka wore. Helmet or not—his blade was enchanted, and the audience gasped. Then, as Ryoka flailed, Tyrion slashed her sword and spoke.

“The blade doesn’t shatter against enchantments—but you can’t parry with it. I told you that eight times.”

Well, I can’t remember it when I’m trying to duel!

His sword tip passed through the strange, pink-yellow blade that could drop a horse and paralyze it in a strike—and would go through metal and even magic without interfering with it. Ryoka lowered her sword, then hit a button, and it turned pink—and sharp.

Like the blade was suddenly made of pure, hard light, sharp enough to slice steel in two. Tyrion eyed the Windsword as some called it, and tapped it with his enchanted sword.

“Even worse. The splintering light might cut me—but you’ve lost your sword.”

His sword scythed through the hardlight blade of the Faeblade, and the lightform shattered like glass into filaments that vanished in the air. Scowling, Ryoka hit a button on the sword, and the blade reappeared.

“Well, I can make a new one.”

“Excellent. Then stop me.”

In an exaggeratedly slow motion, Tyrion lifted his sword and moved it forwards until it poked Ryoka in her practice armor, straight under her heart. Her waving blade shattered three times on his enchanted sword, and he raised one brow.

Ryoka turned red as Sammial laughed from the stands. She threw up her hands.

“I give up. I’m not a [Fencer], alright? I’m wasting your time.”

“Not mine. I enjoy it.”

Tyrion’s deadpan reply made Ryoka turn red—and provoked a cackle from overhead.

 

“Ooh. Yon Human wants to get in yer pants. Going to do it, Ryoka? Or tis he not immortal enough for ye? Maybe if the lad was half Spriggan he’d have more of a chance, eh? A Satyr’d sweep you off your feet.”

 

Tyrion glanced up with a frown, though he probably only heard buzzing at best. But that was probably because Ryoka turned bright red.

“Shaestrel. Shut up.”

She was raising her helmet to wipe sweat from her face despite the cold when the green faerie swooped down and spat. Straight into Ryoka’s right eye.

 

“You don’t give me orders. Just because you’re kissing-friends with Ivolethe, you don’t have our respect!”

 

“Argh! You evil—your King respects me!”

Ryoka screamed—it burned, and the more she scrubbed, the worse it got. The cackling Shaestrel swooped around her as Tyrion hesitated. He reached for his side.

“Water flask, Jericha?”

She tossed it at him, and Tyrion offered it to Ryoka. Shaestrel flitted around Ryoka from below as Ryoka poured water into her eye.

 

And watch your tongue, you jumped-up ape! My king is sympathetic to ye. Much like one looks at a slug smashing its head against a block of salt. He does not respect you. You have done nothing great. You are no hero who draws a great blade, you have done no true quests—and you cannot even tell good riddles.”

 

“Fuck you.”

Ryoka swore and tried to splash Shaestrel with water. The fae dodged with a twirl.

 

“And I have come—at great peril—only because of promises made. So shut up and irk me not, or I’ll show you true meanness as Ivolethe never did in her kind, sympathetic, mortal-loving ways.”

 

It was…an objectively wild thing to hear her say that. But Ryoka hesitated, because she had only known Shaestrel for the lesser part of a day yesterday and now this morning. The fae, the…Spring Sprite? had come with the Winter Fae to deliver winter.

But she had stayed, more than the other Winter Fae dumping snow across this world at a prodigious rate. She claimed she was here to help.

“Sorry about that. Thanks, Tyrion. So—what’s the point of this?”

Ryoka handed the water flask to him, and he took a drink. He wasn’t sweating in the cold, though he was wearing another layer besides just his tunic and leggings. Ryoka had thicker clothes on and practice armor because she was the one technically in danger if they got cut. Nevermind that her sword was as sharp as a razor…he had claimed that if she touched him, he wouldn’t need to give her lessons.

True, but annoying. Ryoka sighed as she adjusted her padded armor, which felt loose. She touched her belt—and her padded leggings fell off. Along with her belt.

And her pants.

Shaestrel cackled as Ryoka stared down for a second, then turned red. Tyrion stared down—then turned his face. He sprayed water out to the side as the audience had mixed reactions.

Jericha covered Hethon’s gaze and Sammial’s, but the two brothers had very mixed reactions. Sammial just laughed while Hethon was a lot more intent.

“I like the Winter Sprite! It’s great!”

Mercifully, at least her undergarments were on. Ryoka swore at Shaestrel until she got her pants up—the fae had cut her belt in two!

“—Perhaps we should continue this later?”

Tyrion was red-faced as he offered Ryoka his own belt to cinch to her waist. She did so and tried to pretend the last minute hadn’t happened.

“No, this is important. You said you wanted to discuss my practice. I’m afraid all the lessons haven’t helped, and it’s been what, a month?”

“You have the footwork decently down. And you don’t have as many openings. I’ve seen worse in a student. This is something that takes years of practice.”

He was trying to be encouraging, but Ryoka made a face.

“I don’t have time for that. And frankly, I’m not that talented.”

“No, you aren’t.”

Tyrion stared straight-faced as Shaestrel fell over in the air, laughing. For a man who was putting his best and only foot forwards in the realms of romance, he really couldn’t lie about swordplay. Ryoka was about to throw up her hands when he indicated her sword.

“May I see it? Assuming I don’t cut myself, that is.”

“I’ve configured it. You can use it—it’s set to the hardlight mode. You won’t cut yourself.”

Grumpily, Ryoka handed over the Faeblade. It turned off unless you were holding it—though you could change that setting, so Tyrion had to grip the handle just right to make the blade appear.

The contouring made him frown as ever; it wasn’t shaped to Human hands, but a more heavy grip, as if you had larger forefingers and a more rounded palm—a bigger one. But it was light, impossibly strong, he suspected, and could change to at least two other blade-forms.

Infinitely adaptable, nay, programmable and, apparently, with a limitless power source. Ryoka hadn’t used it that much, but it was a weapon beyond compare.

Aside from the fact that you could shatter the hardlight blade like glass with any magic blade. But the flames could cook…a Dryad. And Ryoka had used the paralysis-blade to take down Baron Regalius.

She wasn’t proud of either deed, but it was a blade for someone like Ryoka. Capable of terrible deeds—or making it so she didn’t have to take a life. A gift from the Faerie King in a sense.

Tyrion tested the edge very carefully as he made the pink blade appear, then he whirled it around.

“The balance is all off.”

Ryoka patiently sighed. This wasn’t the first time he’d handled the Faeblade, and he was one of only a few she trusted to add him to the ‘users’ list. She thought she had been declared the ‘owner’ or ‘admin’—that was what the translated manual seemed to indicate, anyways.

“You keep saying that.”

Tyrion twirled the sword around in his hands, watching as the light deformed perfectly to avoid cutting his arm. A brave trick; Jericha winced as she watched, and so did Ullim. For trained swordspeople like them, it was probably the equivalent of a gun-owner watching someone stare down the barrel of a loaded gun. But Tyrion seemed to understand this sword more than they did, despite it being far more advanced.

“I mean it. It’s just the hilt—the blade itself has no weight. If you swing it—swords are light, but the weight is there to amplify the strike. Were it not for the sharpness of this blade, I’d say you couldn’t even cut a thick plank in two. It’s entirely reliant on the nature of the blade. Like a flexible sword.”

“A what?”

Tyrion’s eyes lit up. The pale grey seemed to come alive, like a stone statue suddenly keen to tell you all about different swords. It, combined with his younger face, made him more…Human. He gestured with his hands.

“Bending metal swords. The metal is so thin—or segmented—they can flex. Similar to a whip. It has to be enchanted, and I’ve seen relics made of mithril. They were made to inflict terrible cuts or wrap around an opponent with barbs.”

“Nasty.”

“But impractical. A good swordsman just parries it down and swings into the foe—because they can block nothing unless the swordmaster has an opposing gauntlet. Then they grab the blade and use it like a string, stretching it taut to capture a blade—like so.”

He gestured, miming the motion.

“It’s a niche art. But the point is—the sword defines the style. In the same way, I think I’ve been looking at your sword training the wrong way. You would be a terrible longsword user.”

Thanks.

Tyrion gestured to the hilt of the sword.

“—But this will never fight like a longsword. If you had opponents with similar blades or this thing could actually parry metal, the methods I taught you would be useful. But this blade either severs what it cuts—or breaks. And it can reform. So—the sword needs a completely different style.”

That was when Ryoka blinked. She looked at Tyrion, and the inner nerd that lay within all people lifted its head.

“Wait. You mean…”

One of the watchers in the crowd slowly lowered the half-empty box of popcorn. In all honesty, Kevin had been moping around a bit ever since Ceria told him she was going and to find someone else after their fun. Listening to Shaestrel had been a lot of fun—but now he saw something that justified Mrsha’s wrath for ‘joining the traitors’.

Tyrion began rolling the hilt of the sword around in his grip, whirling it around in a showy manner he would never have done with a sword. Then he flicked it up, caught it—and ignited the blade. Ryoka recoiled as it shot towards her face.

Tyrion!

“Surprise attack. The blade extends. Like a tricklance. I go for a slash, and you dodge—”

He raised it overhead, brought it down, and as Ryoka twisted, the blade vanished. Tyrion angled the blade—and it extended again.

“Completely catches foes off-guard. We’re grappling—”

He moved closer, and Ryoka was chest-to-chest with him. She turned red, but the sword-idiot didn’t even notice as he raised the sword hilt and aimed it back at him. He shot the blade out—and it halted before it cut either one.

“You can turn it on yourself without fear. Imagine two swords like this? You’d fight fast, but try to knock the other blade down and there would be only enchanted armor—but not if you turn this to fire. So no armor at all, likely—or one so powerful it’s akin to Adamantium. Switch hands—no, this is probably better used one-handed because you’re not controlling the weight. Leaving your other hand free…”

He caught Ryoka’s eye and hesitated. Tyrion coughed as he stopped grinning like a child.

“It’s necessary for you to be good with this blade. You seem to have a habit of making dangerous foes.”

“I know that. But I’m back at the inn and—well, damn. Zeladona proves nothing. Or rather, it proves I’m not the only one capable of putting everyone in danger.”

Ryoka looked ruefully towards the Haven. Tyrion Veltras exhaled softly. He was banned from The Wandering Inn, but perhaps being kicked around by a legendary ghost had changed him. At the very least—

He knew Erin Solstice by name, now.

“That wasn’t exactly what I was referring to. Among others, I saw the Archmage of Izril, whom you know personally. Chaldion the Cyclops. Saliss of Lights. These are not…safe individuals.”

Ryoka turned with a mighty frown.

“Saliss saved my life when I was delivering the antidote to Sammial and Hethon.”

Tyrion’s face twisted like a man being wrenched in two directions. He nodded slowly.

“Yes. I know. I owe him—a debt. But I also know Saliss of Lights by reputation and deed. If there was a shorthand list of the most dangerous individuals in that inn…he would go above Ressa or Shriekblade. Or Valeterisa. Be very careful around him.”

Tyrion feared Saliss? Or…Ryoka shifted from foot to foot in the cold grass.

“Why? Valeterisa lifted Fissival.”

“Yes. Saliss fights in wars. An academic is not the same as the Named-rank adventurer trained by the Drakes’ greatest [Strategist]. Do you know your history? His is contemporaneous, so you’d need records of battles, not history books.”

Ryoka shook her head. She supposed that was one weakness of getting this world’s history from books. When it was written down like that—it was all too old. Tyrion leaned forwards as he spoke.

“To my knowledge, Saliss of Lights takes on any contract the Walled Cities cannot handle with their armies. He does not often fight alongside the military. He did so twice. Once at the yearly Bloodfields. Once against Manus in a dispute between Walled Cities. I saw him at the Bloodfields. That year, we retreated after eighteen minutes of fighting. If it was anything like then—there is a reason Pallass has not been involved in inter-city warfare.”

Something about the way he said that made Ryoka’s arms tingle. Tyrion Veltras studied the beautiful, deadly blade.

“This is far less of a weapon than Saliss. You should use it at least as well.”

“He doesn’t seem to me to be in love with war. He’s never done anything that makes me nervous. You seem more prone to war and battlefields than he does.”

The comment touched Tyrion, but lightly. He just ducked his head.

“I understand it. Saliss? I should be glad if he doesn’t hunger for the battlefield. When I lead House Veltras and [Soldiers], I do see the carnage. I do know the cost of overrunning the enemy position, and I have seen slaughters. But I do take prisoners.”

His comment was soft as he studied the Faeblade. Then Tyrion looked at Ryoka.

“When he went to war with Manus, I’m told the finest armies of the City of War took over eight thousand casualties before they sued for peace. Normally, that number is accompanied by a higher prisoner or wounded count. Not so with Saliss.”

He let that statement linger and then went back to inspecting the Faeblade. Ryoka watched until she saw Tyrion look up. Then he smiled once more, as if trying to take the mood back.

“At least you could perform a trick with this. Though it’s dangerous—look.”

And he flicked the Faeblade up in an arc, and the whirling blade—everyone ducked, but Tyrion had tossed it straight up and down and caught it.

“Isn’t it amazing?”

You’re insane!

 

——

 

The dude just loved swords. He looked at his most Human when he talked about swords. Kevin decided to never stand near him when he practiced, though. The [Engineer] slowly raised his head and saw Tyrion had given up the spar to confer over the Faeblade with Ryoka.

He was talking animatedly as Ryoka watched, demonstrating a nimble, quicker style. Kevin’s jaw dropped.

“This guy is legit. He’s got the Windsword for five minutes and he’s invented lightsaber fighting.”

It actually looked close to that! And now Kevin thought of it—Tyrion was making a lot of sense. You would adapt to a completely different style, if you knew you had a blade like this, unlike the styles of swordsmanship that had come before. Obviously, some things would be the same, but Tyrion was trying to grasp at a different form for Ryoka as he asked her to try it out with him. Science fiction predicting the future.

“What kind of fighting, Mister Kevin?”

Hethon had heard the comment. He looked over, and Jericha fiddled with her spectacles. Kevin sat straight and tried to look innocent.

“Er…it looks like a saber. Made of light.”

“Oh. Right. It does—but sabers are curved, you know. And shorter. And you only really use them on horseback.”

Tyrion’s kids knew swords. Kevin chuckled lamely.

“My mistake.”

Was it gauche to have a bucket of popcorn and treat this like entertainment? Perhaps, perhaps…he’d been feeding Sammial while Jericha gave him the evil eye, but the truth was that Ryoka and Tyrion were the morning breakfast side-show.

[Lords] and [Ladies] were watching the two spar even as the Haven moved past the dueling ground. It was fascinating to them.

Lord Veltras, the scion of House Veltras, Izril’s most combat-ready [Lord], the Rock With a Lance For a Brain—Kevin didn’t know if he had an actual nickname like Magnolia—trying to flirt with Ryoka, the Wind Runner who knew so many of Izril’s nobility.

Interesting. Objectively, just like Kevin’s observation on Numbtongue’s hotness. He was personally fascinated by the lightsaber training as he was thinking of it—and Shaestrel.

Ryoka was back. She had brought chaos in her wake, as per usual, but not everything was the same.

For instance, Kevin glanced at the little Sariant Lamb apparently napping on the grass. She had followed Ryoka out this morning, and he swore she was actually awake.

Nerry the Sariant Lamb. The cute pet…that Kevin had sworn had found her way into his room and was staring at his blueprints before he caught her. He wasn’t a subscriber to the Sariant Lamb conspiracy thing, or rather, he hadn’t been until recently.

Then again, Erin tolerated the lamb, and so did Ryoka. But Nerry was just one of Ryoka’s audience. Shaestrel, House Veltras…they were, in fact, the minority.

For the Wind Runner had come back to celebrate Christmas and return to The Wandering Inn, and nothing was the same.

It never was.

When Ryoka Griffin lowered her sword after trying a few of Tyrion’s forms, her audience, the real majority, stirred. Her eternal fanbase, the ones who knew The Wind Runner’s name…looked up. And they had come from Invrisil through Erin’s portal door from Esthelm, Liscor—heck, Kevin recognized some of the tykes who usually hung around Pelt’s forges.

Children. One of them stood on their toes, and a little Drake shouted as Grev and the older kids nudged them.

“Wind Runner. Are you going to do flying lessons yet? Can I use your Windsword?”

 

Piss off! We’re doing important things.

 

Shaestrel shouted, but of course, the kids couldn’t hear her. And in fact, some had been ready to spend their allowance just to go through the door to see Ryoka—Erin had offered them an exception.

She seemed to think it was funny. Ryoka? Kevin expected her to flip the kids off or run away—but as Tyrion hesitated, clearly unsure how to handle what had to be thirty children, Ryoka Griffin turned and called out.

“You little monsters. I’m trying to practice—why did Erin let you through the door?”

“Because she hates Lord Veltras, innit? She said it was fine if we bothered you.”

Grev observed sagely, and Ryoka groaned. But then she threw up her arms, holstered the sword at her side, and stretched her back.

“Well, I don’t have to listen to you lot. I’m the Wind Runner. A Courier. You’re just kids.”

Her comment was greeted by boos and shouts of outrage. A Gnoll boy, Ekirra, shook his fist at her.

“We won’t let you through the door unless you let us fly! I’ve got a sailboat and everything! I’ll tell Mrsha on you!”

Mrsha was not here—she refused to be anywhere around Tyrion. That comment made Ryoka glower. She turned her head, tossing her black hair as she stared south.

“So? We’re practically at Esthelm. I could fly to Liscor in twenty minutes. You have no power over me.”

“You can’t!”

“Can’t I? See you guys. I’ll see you at The Wandering Inn for breakfast, Grev, Ekirra.”

Ryoka wasn’t wearing the windsuit that let her skim across the ground, but her glider could be removed from her bag of holding and unfurled in mere seconds. As she clicked it into place, Kevin wondered if she’d let him use it—in exchange for some upgrades.

I bet I can get Pelt to make a metal frame that’s even lightweight with Hedault. He was disappointed—but he watched Ryoka out of the corner of his eyes. Some of the kids even ran over.

“You can’t! You promised to let us fly—”

“Excuse me. Miss Ryoka is busy.”

Tyrion extended the sheathed sword to stop a young Human boy. The boy gave him such a wide-eyed look of unease, Tyrion returned it. Then he tried to push past the scabbard, and Tyrion seemed unsure whether the next move was to grab the child or what. He was not used to having his commands willfully disobeyed.

Ryoka Griffin solved the issue for him. Because—as Kevin had been observing—her eyes were twinkling. She made a show of clipping herself into her glider, and the wind blew around her. Then she stepped back—and the wind launched her into the air.

Oooh!” 

“No!” 

“Come back!

The kids alternated between awe and longing as Ryoka swirled up. The glider opened, and the deep blue canvas whirled up into the wind as Ryoka clung to it. Then she swooped down, and Kevin heard her laugh. He held his breath—and she snatched up a surprised child.

Ekirra. The Gnoll boy screamed—then he clung to her arms—then he was shrieking in delight, waving his arms as if trying to help them fly as she skimmed across the ground.

It would probably have given Ekirra’s family heart attacks to see, but Ryoka’s flight a mere eight feet over the ground rose as the wind blew her up—and she was holding the Gnoll under the armpits as he kicked his legs, and Ryoka turned.

She circled back across the road, and an army of children ran after her with such a ruckus that the oxen pulling the Haven snorted and slowed. But Ryoka?

She was surprisingly good with kids. For she passed over the Haven—and deposited the screaming Ekirra on the upper deck, where he slid on his butt nearly into Barnethei. The [Vice Innkeeper] nimbly stopped him with one foot, like a soccer ball. He might not be The Wandering Inn’s best [Server], Ishkr—but the man, wearing a maroon vest over an ironed, white undershirt and polished brass buckles, did have style.

He flipped a long breadstick out of the basket and handed it to the dizzy Ekirra. Then he stepped on. And Ryoka just dove—and snatched up another child out of the crowd.

Me next! Me next!

She carried kid after kid over the ground, wisely putting the ones who weren’t at home with flying down before they threw up. She did it eight times—then landed.

“Alright, alright. You little devils win. But I’m not doing this around the Haven. I’ll see you outside The Wandering Inn in Liscor. Last one to the door doesn’t get to fly.

She dashed off, followed by a swarm of children. They promptly stopped Tyrion from getting a word in edgewise with Ryoka—and before he got to the door, Jericha and Ullim both stopped him. Sammial and Hethon carefully followed Ryoka through, not meeting their father’s gaze.

Kevin got to his feet slowly, grinning. He saw Nerry and Shaestrel had followed Ryoka as well. Wow. Ryoka was friendlier than he had ever seen her before. What else was changed?

Kevin sauntered towards The Wandering Inn, grinning fit to burst as snow continued to fall from the sky. Frost Faeries. Ryoka—

Oh, and the new theatre. He wondered if Erin had figured out how it worked yet. She’d had the gall to hang up the curtain and tell everyone entry was forbidden until she worked it out. It hadn’t stopped Mrsha or Lyonette or Numbtongue from having a look, but Kevin had wanted to see Ryoka’s Faeblade first.

“Man, it sucks having so much cool stuff to see.”

He observed sanguinely as he passed Lord Tyrion into The Wandering Inn. The [Lord] stared at the door and slowly tried to edge towards it as Jericha pulled with a meaningful look in her eyes. Tyrion was almost there when Liska slammed the door on his foot.

 

——

 

The day after winter came, The Wandering Inn was filled with the sound of thirty children chasing the Wind Runner of Reizmelt through the door. Liska flattened herself against the wall as Ryoka shouted.

“Sorry, Liska! I’m just—”

Hethon and Sammial were part of the rush that chased Ryoka down the hallway and outside. By the time the rest of the inn went to see what the racket was about, they could see Ryoka blowing children around with their ‘sailboats’ or letting them parachute down the hill and race back up.

“What? Whuzzat. It’s too early for smiling. Who’s laughing? I’ll stab them. I’ll stab you all.”

And the crankiest, most pained [Innkeeper] in the world wanted none of it. She rolled past a curtain closing off the common room from the rest of the inn, as a young, respectful Gnoll who was too busy for Ryoka pushed her.

Mrsha du Marquin glowered out the window at the traitorous Ryoka as she pushed Erin. The [Innkeeper] winced as Mrsha bumped her into a table.

“Don’t bump, Mrsha. Lyonette, can you take over?”

Lyonette took the handles as Mrsha crossed her arms. Stupid Ryoka. Erin glowered out the window as she spoke—wincing with every word.

“Why’s Ryoka good with kids? Is the world crazy? My tongue hurts. Why do tongue muscles exist? Why did Zeladona ruin my tongue?

“She was good at shouting.”

Numbtongue observed as Erin shuddered. She was in a kind of aching pain so bad she‘d barely gotten out of her bed—even after reaching Level 49.

In fact, only a dosage of healing potions and a numbing spell had gotten her up. She was practically grinding her teeth.

“Lyonette, give me another drop of potion.”

“Not until…eleven, Erin. Sorry. Grimalkin’s orders.”

Screw his orders. Everything hurts.”

“I thought Palt cast [Numb]. Didn’t it work? No healing—but I’ll call him up from Liscor if you need it again. You agreed to do this right this time, Erin.”

Lyonette reminded Erin gently, but the [Innkeeper]’s glower and the pulse of her aura were hard to refuse. Only the [Princess] could push back—and Erin bit her lip.

Everything hurts. Two drops won’t stop me from gaining muscle.”

“One drop. Every three hours. It’ll let you get strong. No more. Muscleman Grimalkin is right.”

Numbtongue poked Erin cheerfully in the side. Lightly, with one finger, to remind her why she was still wheelchair bound after months of recovery. Healing potions would reverse her growth.

It was meant to be just a teasing poke, but the look of agony was so profound that the Hobgoblin instantly withdrew his finger. Erin turned her head and then grabbed one wheel of her chair.

That hurts.

She ran over his foot. The Hobgoblin swore and hopped on one foot, and the orange cat decided this was an attack on his master. So Reagen yowled at Erin and prepared to launch himself onto her face.

Erin was saved from a cat-attack by Mrsha. The cat leapt off Numbtongue’s shoulder, and Mrsha grabbed it and put the writhing cat on her head and patted it until it began to purr. Then she handed the floppy, orange rag back to Numbtongue.

“He’s such a good cat. Yes he is.”

The [Bard] cooed over his cat. Erin just glared at him.

“Don’t get on my bad side, Numbtongue. Not today. I’m in pain, and even my cool new [World’s Eye Theatre] makes my head hurt. Ryoka’s on my bad list for…like, a hundred reasons. Don’t be second on my list, buddy.”

“Or what?”

Erin stared at Numbtongue. He grinned at her…and she narrowed her eyes. The [Bard] felt a prickle on his shoulders and hunched them.

“No aura, no aura! You don’t have anything bad to do to me. Can’t starve me. Calescent makes all the food.”

“Numbtongue—don’t push her.”

Lyonette whispered exasperatedly, but the [Bard] slapped his chest. He was partly provoking Erin to make her forget about her pain. Unfortunately, Erin Solstice wasn’t in a good mood today.

“You think I can’t punish you, Numbtongue? You’re awfully cheery for a Goblin who doesn’t pay rent. And since I have actual guards for the inn these days, even Nanette does more to help out around here than you. Why don’t you help Calescent if you’re such pals? By peeling potatoes and washing all the dishes.”

Numbtongue hesitated.

“N-no. I don’t want to do that.”

“Oh yeah? I don’t want to do my morning exercises.

The [Bard] was sweating now, and Mrsha slowly backed away as Lyonette watched the two show down.

“You can’t make me do work. I’m not Bird.”

“Oh yeah? Then Calescent doesn’t have to give you food. Ishkr! No one feeds Numbtongue until he puts an hour into the kitchen.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Wanna bet? Let’s have breakfast and see who gets served.”

The evil of Erin Solstice today knew no bounds. Numbtongue’s jaw dropped, and he looked around for aid in his moment of unfair persecution. But Mrsha the Suddenly Cowardly decided she was going to be such a good girl, she was going to set the table for breakfast all by herself.

And Lyonette—whom Numbtongue had arguably beaten in the quest for ultimate authority—just folded her arms and gave him a faux-sympathetic look. The [Bard] spluttered and pointed at Erin.

“You’re just mad because you have the arm-strength of a mouse. You—lazy [Innkeeper]! Zeladona was better than you.”

Two hours!

The Hobgoblin hesitated. He looked around, realizing he could come back in later and grab some food once Erin had calmed down from her unreasonable stance. Only to realize…Ishkr was no longer the lone server of the inn.

And unlike before, the Workers were carefully watching Erin, and one had even set up an hourglass on an hour’s timer. Rosencrantz added another hourglass, and Peggy, the Hobgoblin leader, leaned over.

“No one feeds him. Go clean out his room of snacks.”

A Cave Goblin [Thief] dashed upstairs with a huge grin. Numbtongue threw up his hands.

“You can’t—”

He rounded on Erin, met her gaze—and slunk over to the kitchen. Numbtongue only poked his head out once.

“You’re mean when you’re grumpy. Not cool at all. A real…Nerrhavia.”

Sometimes knowing which buttons to press was not a wise ability to have. Erin’s twitch was so profound that Numbtongue ducked behind Calescent and began washing up fast. But Erin said nothing and slowly turned her head to look around the inn.

Anyone else? The guests either looked away or watched with amusement or surprise. Except for one woman, who applauded lightly.

“My, she does seem to be changing for the better. That was a remarkable display of pique.”

Magnolia Reinhart commented to Ressa as Erin gave her a sour glower. But the [Lady] just called out.

“Oh, do get Miss Solstice some painkillers, Miss Lyonette! I’m told those won’t hurt her recovery, and we may all breathe easier around her. Better yet—don’t bother with the spell. Doesn’t the door go to Riverfarm? Witch Eloise prescribes teas for all occasions, including ones for pained joints. A cup of that should set Miss Erin alright for the day. Without upsetting our dear Sinew Magus, I might add.”

She might be annoying—but she also provided a very reasonable answer. Lyonette’s head snapped up, and Erin glanced at the door.

“That—would be good. Can someone…?”

“On it, right away, Miss Erin! I’ll be back in a tic.”

Normen opened the hidden passageway and, jamming his new Demas Metal helmet onto his head like a hat, practically dashed down the hallway. The rest of the inn watched him go as Erin settled back into her chair.

Normen took only eleven minutes to get to Riverfarm and back, and judging from his panting, he ran to find Eloise, grabbed one of her special teabags, and came back. The inn practically gave him a standing ovation when he did.

Mostly because Erin’s agony and ensuing bad mood had been so pervasive it had overshadowed her levels and new Skill—and had been one of the reasons why Ryoka decided to visit the Haven. To be fair—it was a lot of pain from all of Erin’s torn muscles.

Also to be fair—when Erin had taken half the cup of hot tea down, scalding her tongue, she shuddered…then relaxed as the pain in her entire everything vanished. She sat back in her chair and smiled.

“Whew! See? I told you the [Numb] spell didn’t quite work, Lyonette. Wow, that feels better.”

The [Princess] eyed Erin as Mrsha looked up from her bowl of mashed Yellats and butter with relief.

“Does that mean Numbtongue can stop washing dishes?”

“Mm…better let him learn his lesson.”

Magnolia nodded happily as Erin stuck a fork into her mouth and began eating with a passion. But she felt awake now—and there they were.

“Flying, huh? Sorta cool, sorta cool. Has Ryoka gotten you flying yet, Mrsha? You should definitely make her carry you around! I wonder how she got so good with kids?”

Mrsha exchanged a side-eye with Lyonette as Erin reversed her sour grapes. Lyonette coughed.

“I think she interacted with the [Prince] and [Princess] of Ailendamus? And Lord Sammial Veltras.”

Veltras. Erin’s smile slipped, and Mrsha scowled. She stared outside where a pair of [Lords] were running after Ryoka as she did a backflip off a hill with the help of the wind. Erin paused, fork in her mouth, and swallowed slowly.

“Yeah. I guess it’s gonna be that kind of day, huh? We’d better address that sooner or later. I’m surprised they’re still here, what with what happened to Yvlon’s family. Is—are Ylawes and Ysara coming back?”

Everyone fell silent, and Magnolia frowned mightily and looked at Ressa, who, sighing, put away her breakfast and reached for the top item on the morning’s dossier.

News had come in from last night, but only reached the inn this morning. It was being broadcast on Wistram News Network later today as Lyonette understood it. But a small segment. She felt it should be larger, but Relz and Noass controlled the news, and a minor house’s manor burning down wasn’t considered big ‘worldwide news’.

Even if it was arson.

“Ylawes is alright. He was investigating who the masked folk were, but there are no clues, Erin.”

“Are his parents…?”

“Alive. Just sick from inhaling all that smoke. No one’s dead that he knows—but the mines, farms—a lot of House Byres went up in smoke. They’re heading back our way. That is—towards Riverfarm. Given the attack, Emperor Laken offered to protect them, and Lord Yitton—or Ylawes—accepted.”

Erin drummed her fingers on the table. Mrsha sighed in relief—and so did a certain pale-skinned young woman having breakfast while hiding her face with a newspaper.

Fierre val Lischelle-Drakle was glad no one was looking at her. Her hands were shaking as the Vampire girl licked her lips.

Rivel, you idiot! All the idiots! Of all the things to do—she hadn’t guessed it would be that! This was beyond stupid. She could only hope that no one looked into it.

Like Magnolia Reinhart. Who was sitting right there and didn’t seem pleased that one of her relatives and a noble house had just been the target of attacks. Oh, dead gods.

But that was the news of the world, along with winter and Erin’s Christmas initiative and, still, Zeladona’s Trial of Blades. If anything, the amazing part was that The Wandering Inn wasn’t still packed to the gills.

Then again, that was why Ser Dalimont and Ser Lormel and Dame Ushar weren’t here. They were outside, turning away people by the dozen who wanted to come through, and Liska had similar orders to bar entry to the inn proper and just transport.

Erin was a celebrity. She had arguably been one already, but right now, she was forgoing even the intake of coin and guests to have a quieter morning. For their sake as much as hers; her bad mood had pushed everything to the side. Because…in order…Erin heaved a sigh as she pushed her plate back.

“I guess it’s time to do it again. The numbering system.

Heads turned, and Relc made a fist of excitement at his table. You mean, Erin’s patented method of dealing with problems? Proof she could at least count to ten? Erin was muttering to herself.

“Ryoka. Gotta have Ryoka. Let’s make her #1. I guess that ties into Nerry and, uh…Shaestrel. One, two, three. Then there’s, uh…uh…”

“Your new Skill?”

Lyonette looked pointedly at the curtain behind Erin. A sign had been clumsily affixed to the curtain with the words ‘keep out’ on them. Erin grunted.

“Four. Talking to Ylawes and Ysara about the family’s five. Er…didn’t people wanna talk to me about the entire Zeladona thing? Great. That’s, like, six billion…Saliss is six billion and one…Demsleth! Wait, go back to Ryoka. Let’s call that #1.5. So we’re up to six billion and one point five…”

Her grasp on math was rapidly slipping. Lyonette was already getting a headache, but fortunately for Erin—someone cleared his throat.

“With respect, Miss Erin, I can sort out most inquiries and hand you all the letters that you need to do yourself. If you want to check over the form responses…can we meet for fifteen minutes? Then I can handle everything you don’t want personally.”

Erin’s head turned, and the Magician of Math, the Sovereign of Sunny Glasses, the…[Mathematician], Yelroan, grinned at her. Her jaw dropped.

I forgot you were there. Uh—h-hi, Yelroan! How’s it going? Do you have a room? Please tell me we gave him a room.”

She looked at Lyonette, and he smiled politely at her.

“I do have a room. And if you’d like, I can write up a schedule.”

“A what? A schedule?”

Yelroan cleared his throat. He had a clipboard, and he’d been taking notes as Erin spoke. He had a bit of ink on his blonde fur, but besides that, he had a light tunic on and a bunch of scrolls and some portable writing gear hanging from his belt. He looked like some kind of Gnollish [Loremaster] of arcane or mathematical texts.

“For people meeting you. Every issue on your list gets an hour, and we cross them off.”

“A schedule. Wh…whoa. Are we that fancy?”

Erin looked at Lyonette, and the [Princess] gave Yelroan a look of profound relief. Nanette smiled as she sipped from her morning cup of milk next to Yelroan. Erin? She looked at the Gnoll, and Nanette, and at Ryoka coming in with a flood of kids, and realized things were different. So she cracked her fingers—nearly screamed in agony—and decided to see what had changed.

 

——

 

The world could change suddenly and dramatically. Everything you knew could be upset—for the better or worse.

Ksmvr knew this. He had once been Prognugator of the Free Hive for about a month. He had been exiled, worthless—become an adventurer. He’d found treasure in Albez and seen certain death—Crelers—sweeping down on him and his team.

He had thought his team was dead. He had fought in a war, sailed across a world to go home. Good things…and bad.

“Therefore, this is just a passing moment. The folly of greed, and—and it does not matter. These things do not matter like people. What we have will inevitably go, and we were silly to cling to them. I should have enjoyed these things more. It does not matter. If it hurts because I am cut, blood is my tears.”

He lay on his side in a wagon as it bounced south at a quick pace. Two skeletal horses pulled it forwards without end, a bumpy if free ride that never needed to slow save for the passengers’ comfort.

In fact, the Horns of Hammerad, used to the rough travel, had even added pillows and hay to make the ride better. Blankets, too, for the cold. Ksmvr had one over him, and his head lay in Yvlon’s lap.

She was patting him on the head.

“It’s—we’ll get you more trees, Ksmvr.”

There was an odd look on her face. As if she were trying not to laugh—but she wasn’t going to laugh anyways. Because Ksmvr looked so—sad. It was just patently ridiculous, and yet Yvlon seemed almost as if she were trying not to cry too. For him.

“That is alright, Yvlon. Your family has suffered too much. I do not need trees. You should keep all of them.”

“We don’t need all the—we can spare two trees.”

Yvlon murmured. She looked back north, as if she were trying to see the smoke rising from House Byres. Of course, they were beyond the High Passes, but she looked so disturbed she almost seemed glad she was comforting Ksmvr.

Ceria had asked point-blank if she wanted to turn around, but Yvlon had claimed they had too much to do. Plus, their passengers would surely object to the delay. And they were definitely watching Ksmvr, the Baron of Two Trees, process the fact that in the burning of the keep, the two trees he had been gifted were now ash.

Wil was trying not to laugh. He knew it was entirely inappropriate, but something about seeing Ksmvr, the Antinium, mourning two…trees was so incongruous he was fighting with every muscle not to let out a guffaw. He was normally the reserved [Lord]—but his chest was shaking.

And in truth, Ceria Springwalker might have been hiding her face against Pisces’ shoulder in a paroxysm of empathetic grief—or she might be giggling a bit. But that was probably because she had no real morality, only sympathy for Ksmvr.

Wil didn’t really have an excuse. He was just an asshole. Merrik kept nudging him, and Wil tried—but the hard nudges made his lips tremble harder. Venaz eyed Wil’s red face and sweating brow and muttered.

“Peki.”

The Garuda sitting by Wil’s other shoulder and staring at the snow falling from the sky looked around, stared at Wil, and nodded to Venaz.

She punched Wil in the side so hard the laugh came out with what felt like half his spleen.

Ha-plubh!

Ksmvr looked up as Wil doubled over, clutching at the agony in his side. That had not been a light punch. He groaned.

“Peki!”

“Don’t make fun of his trees. You have House Kallinad lands. Two trees is a lot in Pomle.”

Wil turned beet red as Peki said the quiet part out loud over the moving wagon. Nailren, who had been napping as they headed south along the trade routes to the Great Plains, raised his head and snorted.

“In the Great Plains, too.”

“Come to think of it—the Professor would tell you two trees could be two Paeths. Shameful.”

Venaz decided to pile on. Wil, still wondering if Peki had ruptured the lining of his stomach, looked up through watering eyes.

“I didn’t mean—it’s just surprising. I’m sorry.”

He addressed that to Ksmvr, and the Antinium raised his head slowly.

“Lord-Strategist Wil Kallinad. I do not begrudge your amusement. I am told I can be a very silly Antinium. Nor do I expect you to understand why I loved having two trees. A man who owns a thousand would not care, but I have never owned anything in my life. I had two trees. Now, I have none. Your amusement does not hurt me, so do laugh if you wish to without restraint. I am glad someone feels levity.”

He nodded to Wil with such pained dignity that Ceria began hiccuping—in her ‘grief’. Pisces covered his mouth and looked away, delighted as Wil turned crimson. Yvlon eyed him as Merrik stared at Ksmvr, then punched Wil in the shoulder.

“Nice going, Wil. Giving us Terandrians a bad name.”

“I just—I am sincerely sorry, Adventurer Ksmvr. Could I—I’m sure the trees could be replanted? Could I, uh—offer you two trees to help with the loss?”

Wil was red and again feeling as if he were either being made fun of or this was entirely serious. Ksmvr raised his head, and this time, his antennae lowered sharply.

“I don’t want your trees, Lord Kallinad. That is not how it works. Please, do not offer me again. You do not respect the trees you throw around like pieces of wood.”

To save Wil, Yvlon murmured.

“Didn’t the Empress of Beasts offer you a bunch of trees, Ksmvr? Maybe you have them.”

Ksmvr returned to staring at the snowing sky. Snowflakes melted on his chitinous carapace, and his faceted eyes stared up at the winter with a kind of somber wonder reflected in them.

“She did. And several rocks. But Nsiia also stole my sword. So everything she offers is suspect. She is a dirty thief. Quite literally. She washes herself with dirt. Like Yinah.”

His ruminations into Nsiia’s hygiene was so—Wil felt his lips quivering and saw Peki raise a fist again. In desperation, he looked around the wagon.

“Er—er—could I invite you to join us on our route to Zeres after we reach the Great Plains, Horns of Hammerad? We’ll travel from Zeres with the rest of the Swords of Serept, but we are going home. Frankly, if you wanted to, we would enjoy the company at sea.”

“Or in Baleros. The Titan will be having us on the field. We should be back as soon as possible—we’ll have to charter a Courier ship if we can.”

Venaz murmured. The students nodded and sat up.

The Titan was at war. They’d heard he’d taken all the senior students from the academy, and the younger ones were actually helping with the Forgotten Wing company’s push into the Dyed Lands.

From having their adventure abroad, they couldn’t wait to get back. It felt like an entire year had passed—and fair, it had been all of fall for Wil. He had leveled up significantly, seen a war—the passing of an age—

Erin Solstice. For all that, he felt like he was leaving behind so many opportunities, and he realized this was what the Professor talked about.

‘Every choice is a regret. A [Strategist] is someone who agonizes over what they’ve lost. A [General] like the King of Destruction gets to never question his choices.’

If Wil stayed…if he turned around and asked to join Erin’s inn—did he have much to offer her? He didn’t know, but he wondered if Venaz and Merrik thought the same.

Yerra…would she even come with them or would she stay with Feshi?

Feshi would not be coming back. What a thought. The only person Wil knew had regrets was Peki. She had put him onto this train of thought by confessing she’d thought of staying. When he’d asked why—she’d claimed she wanted to lead the Antinium in Liscor’s army. To see what following that career path would have led her towards.

…But she had gone, in the end. Now, Wil was loath to throw away the one connection they had directly to The Wandering Inn. Merrik nodded.

“It wouldn’t be far out of your way—the City of Waves is a sight if you’ve never been.”

“I just saw it when Fetohep sailed past. Better not mention that—but it would be fun to visit.”

Ceria murmured. Pisces shrugged, but the [Necromancer] elaborated after a pause. It was hard to say who was more uncomfortable around the other, Pisces or Wil.

“It would be a fine opportunity to sightsee, perhaps purchase something with our gold reservoirs? And—I believe the [Sword Legend] from the Village of the Dead hailed from Zeres, didn’t he? Or at least, he trained there.”

Ceria’s eyes flickered, and Yvlon sat up a bit. Wil exhaled. This. This was why he liked adventurers so much. Unfortunately—Ksmvr glanced at him and pointedly away.

“I do not know if the company will be as pleasant. I have never met someone who takes trees lightly. They are very heavy in my experience.”

“Oh, come on.

It was mostly banter. It was probably banter—but even Nailren started laughing at Wil as the [Lord] tried to mend bridges with Ksmvr—until the Antinium pointed out those were made of trees.

And all the while they humiliated Wil ‘Treegiver’ Kallinad and Ksmvr moped, he lay in Yvlon’s lap and she patted his head.

Yvlon—who sat in the wagon’s seat, wearing warm clothing, not armor—and next to her sat a kind of leather gauntlet with a short tip of wood.

A pegleg. Peggy had sized it for her, but Yvlon hadn’t even learned to walk on it yet, just hobbled into the wagon. She focused on Ksmvr, who had lost two trees. She had lost her family’s manor and a foot. Ksmvr asked for snacks, hugs, and more attention than Pisces and Ceria had ever heard him demand in his entire life.

Who was taking care of whom? It was a chill, beautiful winter day under the falling snow. But it was a reminder.

The Winter Solstice was coming.

 

——

 

When Ryoka Griffin finally got rid of the children, it was only by promising she’d do this tomorrow. And she suspected it wouldn’t be the forty plus children who left—but double that number.

She just hoped no one got mad, like parents. Because the truth was watching Ekirra go sailing down the hill, screaming he was Rasea Zecrew while waving a sword with an eyepatch on—

That was childhood. That was the childhood she wanted, and if she could give that to Sammial, who flew eighty feet clinging to a parachute of the Haven’s sheets—

She would give it to them. Only afterwards did she feel guilty.

Not about Mrsha. The little Gnoll girl would get a ride all of her own, whenever she wanted. Not entirely Mrsha.

It was when she saw the little lamb staring at her meaningfully from her room in the inn. Nerry disappeared—but Ryoka felt that old lurch of…anxiety.

She had duties.

But if Nerry were the stomach ulcer you managed with medicine, Shaestrel was acid in her veins. A terror as existential and deep—because she looked at the Spring Fae hovering there.

Shaestrel was nothing like Ivolethe. The other faerie had the same height—and the Winter Fae looked like insectile women carved of crystal-ice. But they were aspects of winter.

Shaestrel was spring. And she seemed far more like a plant and a wild thing, changing moment to moment, as if her true nature were—

Perspective.

Ryoka blinked, and as she stood by The Wandering Inn and saw the Spring Fae hovering there, at the edge of the roof, she saw what might have been a woman. If she had a body of fur—and the head of a boar. An animal crossed with a person staring at her—

A lady of the Spring Court, wearing sandals laced with the same grass and flowers Ryoka had seen in the lands of the fae. An empty scabbard at her waist, a white flower like a badge of mourning in her hair. Auburn hair that burned like a dawning sun, and eyes that had seen stars being born, green constellations in midnight ink—

All these things at once. None in truth. The little faerie stared down at Ryoka with the haughtiness of a [Queen]. And the expectation…that was what scared Ryoka.

“Shaestrel.”

 

“Don’t wear out my name. I gave it to ye and the mistress of the hearth only as a thing of hospitality. We are not friends—nor am I so kind to your lot as Ivolethe is. And she—only to ye.

 

She was familiar and not. The other Winter Fae, not Ivolethe, had always seemed more flighty than Ivolethe. Younger, Ryoka had realized, or lesser.

This one—Shaestrel was like Melidore. Not half as intense as he was, but he had come in his full aspect. Ryoka could only speculate about the ranks of the Faerie Court. But as she wiped sweat from her brow, she decided it was time to ask.

“Yesterday, we didn’t get to talk much.”

The fae’s eyes scrunched up with amusement.

 

“Nary two words between yon mortals pshing themselves over the snow. ‘Twas worth the effort to see that high-and-mighty [Princess] digging the furball of luck out of the snowdrift! And to humble the green idiot.”

 

By that she meant that the fae had dropped multiple feet of snow and Mrsha had been buried—but unharmed by the first snowdrift. As for Relc, Ryoka had seen a snowball as tall as he was knock him off the hill.

She knew this was completely off-topic, but she had to ask.

“Why…why do you hate Relc? I know he annoyed the Winter Fae before. You’ve met him?”

Shaestrel flipped upside down and hung there, cross-legged.

 

“Not I. Think you I’d come to this wasteland of hope and dreams? The others chatter on. It matters not, aye? A grudge is to be kept, after all.”

 

She…definitely had a fae-like point of view. And everything she said mattered. Ryoka saw the Spring Fae eying her.

 

“Ask. Ask. Why haven’t I flown off with the rest of my kin? Or perhaps why I’m green, eh? Let’s play a game. Ask me the best question.”

 

“Or…?”

Ryoka knew faerie games and got nervous. Shaestrel bared her teeth.

 

“I’ll take a chunk of your flesh and blood.”

 

She saw Ryoka’s face and elaborated with a roll of her eyes.

 

“I’ll bite ye. Satyr’s blood, yer soft. No fun at all. Nevermind. Just ask.”

 

She folded her arms and stared up at the sky. Ryoka hesitated, but even this craziness made her want to cry because it was…magic. She hesitated, stared at Shaestrel, and then spoke.

“—Yulnous and the others flew on to deliver winter to the rest of this world. Just as promised. Because you keep your promises. Even now. Will flying faster—prevent them from being caught?”

It was the first question and the one that made Shaestrel slowly rotate upright. Her smile vanished, and she opened her mouth. Then—

Ryoka felt a pair of teeth unfasten from around the tip of her ear. She yelped, clapped a hand to her ear—and the faerie flew out from where she had been leaning on Ryoka’s head. Her ear hurt, but a hair more pressure and she would have lost—

How had she—?

 

“Good enough. The answer is simple. Speed may matter, aye. It is not as if our foes move fast. Or have bodies to catch. We are in danger. But we swore an oath. So we dared it. Our King forbade us not, and sanctioned us not. I? I should not be here, but Yulnous stopped me not. The Wild Hunt stopped me not. So here I be.”

 

Ryoka sucked in her breath. She tried to translate that into plainspeak. And process what Shaestrel had done. She’d unbit Ryoka’s ear because the question had been good. Was she messing with time?

 

“No. Just location. You figured out how to see. But our home took it easy on ye anyways. If you came back a second time, we’d make it more challenging.”

 

Shaestrel laughed at Ryoka’s face. The Wind Runner shook her head.

“So you’re saying—you’re breaking the rules like Ivolethe. You weren’t forbidden from coming here—you’re probably in trouble. The Winter Fae shouldn’t be here. But you promised.”

 

“Yes. And promises are everything.”

 

Such a sad gaze. Such a determined one. The fae knew what was here. Dead gods. Something that could probably threaten them. And they came.

They always did. Ryoka remembered the hill of flowers/the hill of graves/the hill of swords.

The grave of the Faerie Queen.

She looked at Shaestrel and knew that if she asked if the Spring Fae knew what she was doing, she’d get far worse than a bite. So Ryoka went on.

“Ivolethe…?”

 

“Still punished not to see you. Though her disgrace is less. Afore you ask, the court of our King is aflutter. A thousand thousand guests saw the horrors of your world and quailed.”

 

“The…”

The faerie clapped a hand to her forehead in annoyance and shouted.

 

“Argh. Ask the [Innkeeper]. Ask her! I have not the patience to explain it! I knew I should have waited until you knew! Fuck this time and your stupid mind.

 

She pointed at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner gulped. But Shaestrel calmed down after a second.

 

“Nae. Nae, I should not be angry. I came…because I wanted to. Because no one forbade it.”

 

Ryoka bit her lip. Something was off—even for a fae, Shaestrel sounded more open than Ivolethe had ever been—and more cagey.

“To…help?”

Instantly, the Spring Fae shook her head and wagged a finger at Ryoka. With a mighty frown, she glared.

 

“I never said that. Ye did not hear me say that. That is a lie and against all rules, and I would swive ye with Excalibur itself before I broke that rule. I spit on the idea. Ptey.”

 

She spat to the side, squinting her eyes in disgust. Then she opened her left eye, and a green mote studied Ryoka.

Now, the Wind Runner was catching on.

“Ah. So you’re not helping me. That would be completely unacceptable.”

 

“Especially given the odds.”

 

“Yeah. And you’re only here because no one told you not to come. Including the Faerie King.”

 

“He never said a word, no.”

 

“And you’re not here to—help me out?”

Shaestrel rolled her eyes.

 

“No, not at all. Does that clear it up?”

 

It did. Ryoka was astonished. Stunned—and both worried and relieved. Because that meant…

“Really? You’re allowed to—”

“Would you shut up and not draw attention to it?”

The voice that whispered in her ear was immediate and not like the fae’s normal tones. Shaestrel never opened her mouth—it sounded like a howling gust of wind and a beetle’s buzz combined.

Ryoka shut her mouth. But she had needed to know.

Okay, this wasn’t just ‘bending the rules’ like the Faerie King would tolerate. There were…possibly big consequences. Shaestrel seemed to approve of Ryoka’s novel cognition. She spoke in an airy, lighter tone.

 

“So I suppose I’ll follow you around a lot. Ivolethe said you feed your companions well enough. Fine mead and vittles! That’s why I’m here! And to see you embarrass yourself across this world. And if you had a few questions, I might deign to answer them.”

 

Ryoka licked her lips. This was where she established just how helpful Shaestrel might be. And she might…

The last time Oberon had interceded, that she saw, he had pulled a fast one on Rhisveri and unleashed literal armadas worth of firepower into the void, and the other times he’d given her his obol and the Faeblade. When Ivolethe ‘broke the rules’, she’d frozen Venitra into a block of ice.

Shaestrel was not here on a joyride or to see Ryoka. She was here on a mission, and the look in her eyes said she knew the risks. She had come to make war within her strange laws.

“What kind of answers can you give? Am I…was I wasting time, playing with the children?”

The fae knew everything—or more than Ryoka, at any rate. They knew prophecy and the reasons the world was the way it was. Shaestrel hummed like a buzzing bee, and Apista crawled out to see what it was. Shaestrel patted the bee on the head as she leaned on it and spoke.

 

“To answer your question, Ryoka Griffin, when I first heard of Ivolethe’s ‘friend’—aye, when she was older and different, an aeon ago—I laughed so hard I nearly shat myself. Never in my times did I think I’d see it come to pass, and she swore a blue streak for a hundred years afterwards. The poor fool who told it to her daren’t show his face in the court until a moon had fallen from the sky. To see you now, I say it was a joke that would set all to laughing another lifetime. Look at you.”

 

Ryoka scowled as Apista waved her antennae and buzz-chuckled.

“Thanks.”

Shaestrel lifted a hand, and the mocking smile that had appeared turned serious.

 

“No, I mean it. Fate is tricky. Never once did I think I’d come here. I swore, in fact, never to return to this damned place. But fate is a tricky bitch. Here I am. Here I am, and I will not help you with all of my heart. But…”

 

She cast right and left and grunted as she eyed Ryoka.

 

“…Yer best friend. What is her name?”

 

Ryoka hesitated, and the faerie rolled her eyes.

 

“Name four, then.”

 

“Uh—uh—Erin?”

 

“Keep going. Don’t look at me! Not everything is a test, you blithering idiot, you! Just say it!”

 

“Um—Erin, Fierre, Garia, uh, uh, Charlay? Mrsha? Uh—”

Shaestrel crossed her arms and waved at Ryoka.

 

“Yes. As I thought. So I’m somewhere…else. Somewhen. You see, I don’t know if it was this that’s the right one. Because if I see a single drop of rain in fate’s storm and know where it lands—my King sees the storm itself and the mountain and ground. So I trust his judgment. You see? Any advice I give you…should be taken as that. Some things I know, and I will tell you what I know as opposed to what I think. Makes sense?”

 

“Sort of.”

So her advice wasn’t perfect. Ivolethe had said as much—and Shaestrel made the situation worse.

 

“Even more annoying is that even if you see as much as my king—he plays his games against opponents who see the entirety of it. And they love twisting fate around—and she’s—”

 

“A bitch? Is it a ‘she’?”

 

“Ever heard of the three fates? They’re always she and always pretentious. ‘We know all! Even our end!’ Well, ye didn’t see the part where I snipped a thread! Hah! …That didn’t end well.”

 

Ryoka felt like this was an endless, fascinating rabbit hole of confusion she could go down. So she backed away from that and re-focused.

“So the children…did I do the wrong thing there? Am I in the wrong place? I made a huge mess in Ailendamus and—you know what I’ve done.”

Shaestrel closed her eyes now and opened one eye again. She studied Ryoka, suddenly deathly serious, and spoke.

 

“Most of it. Yes, I’ve come to you to see what you do, Ryoka, and to kick you if need be. To answer your question of Ailendamus—of course you pissed about and made a fool of yourself. We don’t expect perfection. To answer your question of now—making children happy is never a bad thing, aye?”

 

She looked more kindly after the children packing up their toys than Ryoka expected. The Wind Runner almost smiled at that, but then Shaestrel turned her gaze on her.

 

“Now, though, you come home to your friend. The hearthkeeper. A [Lord] besotted on your heels. A blade in hand. A quest upon you from the Wyrm. An old man waking from his deep sleep. I do not offer you advice immediately how to resolve it all.”

 

“But I don’t know what to do…”

Ryoka hesitated and felt a surge of terror again. It was like when Erin was dead or trying to find Ivolethe. She was reminded of Demsleth, Magnolia.

A hand seized Ryoka’s face. Not kindly—it cupped her chin, and fingernails sharp and ragged cut into her skin. Shaestrel stared down at Ryoka, and her breath stank of spring mold and blood and…

It was firm, and she looked at Ryoka with a kind of pleading intensity.

 

“Ryoka Griffin. I cannot fight your battle or live it for you. Listen to me. Not every moment need be spent racing towards the goal you and I know. You cannot do it yourself. But listen to me when I tell you it is serious. So…I do not know you. We were not fated friends. But show me why He trusts you. Why Ivolethe does.”

 

Ryoka inhaled, and perhaps that was what she had needed to hear. Not an answer, but a challenge. She stepped back, and Shaestrel flew up higher.

 

“I think I’ll stop distracting you. Go. ‘Down came Shaestrel oft her flighty throne, breaking her promises yay again. Promisebreaker, vanquished maiden of war. Unfit for her Queen’s side or the dignity of it all. Down came she, and met a mortal who befriended the wind. And then…’

 

And then? Ryoka Griffin exhaled. She looked up and went to find Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

When she found Erin Solstice, Ryoka had Nerry in her arms. The little lamb had given her a long stare—and Shaestrel a wary one.

“She’s a friend, Nerry. And don’t…don’t get mad. She’s one you want to have as a friend, and all the Sariants in the world don’t scare her.”

The Spring Fae flew overhead in Erin’s inn—for there was no cold iron in it except maybe a few pans, none in the nails—and she was welcome. She bared her teeth as Nerry gave the fae a long look.

But Nerry said nothing. She might write something given time, but she expressed herself with baahs, often cute, or her own physical attacks. She was high on Ryoka’s list.

Erin, though? They had talked a bit in the garden of koi fish about what they had seen and their mutual enemy. Ryoka was glad to be on the same side.

But one conversation was the start of it all. Zeladona, ironically, was a distraction. They needed to do more, and if Ryoka ran without doing that, now, after all she knew and had done—she thought Shaestrel would bite more than her ear off.

Plus, you had to admit from that objective-ish standpoint that Erin had a new Skill. And it was pretty cool. If you thought about it. Symbolically, it just fit, and yes, maybe certain attention had been put on…

 

Dead thee gods, shut up, shut up…

 

Shaestrel was muttering for some reason behind Ryoka. Perhaps she heard something? Ryoka looked around, but she was walking behind the curtain in the common room of the inn.

“Lyonette, can I speak to Erin? It’s sort of important.”

Lyonette looked up from where she and a blonde Gnoll were sitting over a sheaf of papers.

“Funny you should say that. You’re next on her list. She’s investigating her new theatre now she’s no longer killing everyone she sees. Go on through. I’ll note it on the schedule.”

“Erin’s got a schedule?

Ryoka stared. Lyonette stared at Nerry, who gave her an innocent baah from Ryoka’s arms.

“Yes. And this is Yelroan. Nice to see you’re enjoying our zoo of pets. Mister Yelroan—are you sure we can afford the costs?”

He fiddled with his glasses and smiled.

“You can call me ‘Yelroan’. Plain’s Eye never did titles, Lyonette. If I can call you that. I could do Pr—er—Manager? Assistant Manager?”

“Lyonette will do.”

He nodded as Ryoka eyed the curtain and walked towards it. She heard a rustle as he showed her something.

“Obviously, paying attention to the inn’s costs is important. But I have a method for that, and I’ll be recording this coming month’s expenses and income very thoroughly.”

“I gave you my notes.”

“Yes…but I’d like to have a different system, if you don’t mind. You see, you write down costs and income—but I’d like to use a method I call ‘two-ledger notation’. I put it into place to make sure Plain’s Eye’s money went where it was supposed to. I learned it from Salazsar where a famous [Secretary] restored her company’s finances—it will make sure we don’t lose money. And frankly, when you see your sources of income and I propose a few more, I don’t think a few Sariant Lambs will matter—though we’ll know how much one costs per year.”

Lyonette blinked and brightened up as she stared at the odd boxes Yelroan drew up on a piece of paper. He looked exceptionally proud of his refinements to this method, which had kept an entire major tribe more or less free of missing income.

And he had done this mostly just by hearing what Salii had done and reverse-engineering the concept from logic. Lyonette could well appreciate this as she stared at Yelroan’s novel thinking.

If her father were here, or mother, they would have adopted Yelroan on the spot—well, maybe. And in the face of all this?

Joseph, walking by the table, was about to, in the classic Earther style, give it the ‘real name’ and ruin all of Yelroan’s hard work. Because Earthers had done everything first, apparently.

Except this. Ryoka pushed past the curtain and stopped. Someone was sitting on the floor ahead of her, looking gloomy as she read a letter.

Mrsha du Marquin looked over and sighed as she saw Ryoka.

Oh, you. Hello, you. Finally deigning to hang out with us common folk?

“Mrsha…I’m sorry I haven’t said hello today. Here’s Nerry and Shaestrel.”

Mrsha eyed the Spring Fae and Sariant Lamb. Then she sighed again. She handed Ryoka another card.

I suppose I can spare the time. Gire’s gone.

“Oh no. Your friend? The one who…dangled me in the well?”

Mrsha’s head drooped. She and Gire had cried about it all night, but the Ekhtouch [Paragon] had left in the morning like a ghost. And she’d left Mrsha this letter.

It had eighteen pages. All about why she had to go and Ekhtouch’s future and how sad she was. Ryoka peeked at it, and Mrsha punched her toe.

Private.

When the City Runner stopped hopping on one foot, she and Mrsha looked at each other. Mrsha didn’t rush into Ryoka’s arms—she had and had been glad to see Ryoka, but—

You’re not my mother. Lyonette is. You might be an aunt of some kind—I haven’t worked out your genealogy yet. You saved my life, and we’re friends…but you run away too much.

Ryoka stared at the card Mrsha handed her. The girl stood up—and to Ryoka’s astonishment, Mrsha was wearing a kilt. She walked around on two legs as Ryoka stuttered.

“You—you’re walking? I thought it was a fluke Lyonette got you in clothing!”

I have been for months. I condescend to verticality.

Ryoka had begun getting Mrsha’s floral letters, and that hadn’t changed, but the girl looked so old, now. Not old as in ‘grown up’, but the difference between, well…how old had she been? Seven…now eight.

She might only be eight, but time was different in this world. Years were longer. Ryoka felt sad. But then Mrsha stuck out a paw.

I confess, I am glad to see you. I have been hesitating before the proverbial abyss. Erin has rolled beyond, and I fear to tread without a shield. Will you go with me? I was going to ask Numbtongue, but he’s still peeling potatoes.

It wasn’t much, but Ryoka bent down and squeezed the paw.

“I’d be delighted to be your shield. If it’s okay.”

Mrsha sniffed.

Gire does it better because she’s bigger. But forsooth—the [World’s Eye Theatre] awaits. Do you…know what it is?

Ryoka’s head came up. She eyed what lay beyond Erin’s curtain and realized why Erin hadn’t immediately rushed everyone to see. Perhaps even she didn’t know what it was because…

“No. But it’s not dangerous, right?”

Probably not. You go first.

 

——

 

To understand the [World’s Eye Theatre], you had to know what had changed.

Before, the [Grand Theatre] had been an impressive stretch of room that compressed itself into Erin’s inn. Such that you would get an odd sense of dissonance—the room that should have been an already-spacious inn’s common room turned into a chamber three hundred feet long with a wide dais at the end where the Players of Celum could perform.

Essentially, it stretched Erin’s common room, only it lacked for windows, and it had copied her semi-beaten chairs and tables, eventually upgrading into a rather lovely mini-theatre.

The Season’s Theatre in Invrisil and the Players of Liscor and Pallass had later overshadowed this low-frills theatre, but it had still seated a number of guests.

Now, though…something had completely redesigned the nature of the theatre. Potentially correcting a weaker number of Skills for someone of Erin’s level and class.

After all, Pisces was barely Level 38, ten full levels less than Erin. True, he had a rarer consolidation himself, but at his level, with his abilities and knowledge, he could summon a Skeleton Lord once a month.

Grimalkin, in his 40’s as well, could punch out a Frost Wyvern if not a Greater Frost Wyvern. Erin was at a similar level of achievement, if not direct power to Grimalkin.

Her [Garden of Sanctuary], [Like Fire, Memory], and so on were powerful Skills. But this?

The reason not even Relc, Fierre, and several other guests who’d peeked behind the curtain had gone further was because there was more to see. The chairs that had been plain wood or padded, old cloth cushions at best were now…

Glass? The rest of the room, including the common room, was probably only two hundred feet long. It had shrunk by a third—but Ryoka saw a glass table that looked ornate and fancy and a padded chair with an odd, bright green design and laced covering. Another looked…like a knitted tea cosy over a chair of mahogany wood, rather expensive.

A [Merchant]’s chair? Versus the glass table that had rose or perhaps ruby feet shaped like a lion or some animal’s claws, see-through and delicate.

One was not like the other. In fact, while the chairs and tables were upgraded—someone had no sense of style. They were put together as if the grouping had been by monetary value rather than any understanding of what matched.

Still, this was much like the [Grand Theatre] before, and a stage rose at one end of the room. A glittering, black curtain hung there, studded with what looked like stars. It could sweep across the ceiling on wood rollers and close the stage off from view.

“Swanky.”

If this were all, it would have been a side-grade in Ryoka’s mind. The stage looked nice, but Ryoka stared at the most…obvious thing that had made the other guests hesitate. Mrsha tugged Ryoka over to the stage to show her one thing.

“What’s this? What’s—”

Ryoka’s voice suddenly went dead as Mrsha pushed her towards the curtain and pulled it in front of her face. Ryoka tried to speak through the thick fabric, and though her vocal chords vibrated, not a sound came through.

[Silence].

Nerry observed the curtain probably was enchanted with silence spells, possibly to keep anyone from hearing through. Just a little perk. Mrsha, of course, just liked the curtain; it had beautiful sequins sewn onto it, and Ryoka just bet the Players would be raring to perform here.

“Anything else interesting about this spot? Magical familiars? Floating chairs?”

Mrsha shook her head rapidly. Nothing like Barnethei or Larracel’s power. She pointed, and Ryoka exhaled.

“Okay. Well then…Erin went through there?”

The [Innkeeper] had rallied enough with Eloise’s tea to push herself across the floorboards and into…Mrsha and Ryoka stared.

When they lit the lanterns hanging on each side of the passage, it would look better. The rounded corridor was only dark because none of the glass torches were illuminated. And it was just a long hallway.

Leading…

Erin? It’s me and Mrsha. And Shaestrel and Nerry! Can we see what your new theatre looks like?”

Ryoka slowly walked forwards towards the hallway and listened, but she heard nothing beyond. Or…was there a faint sound at the edge of hearing? There was a murmur from the regular inn drowning it out.

No seeing down the passageway. Ryoka hesitated, and Mrsha took her hand—and then nodded. She handed Ryoka a pre-written card.

You first, Redshirt.

“Who teaches you this stuff?”

Kevin.

Ryoka sighed, but she wasn’t scared—she was actually exc—

Clap, clap.

The distant sound reached them, and the lanterns on the wall flared to life. Magical light, a bright blue, blazing like the eye of a [Wizard], filled the carpeted hallway, and Ryoka flinched.

Erin! You scared me to death!

She thought she heard laughter. Mrsha was hiding behind Ryoka’s leg. Nerry was hiding behind Mrsha. Shaestrel just sighed.

 

“The largest cowards in any timeline. Oh, just the luck. I—huh?”

 

The Spring Faerie looked up, and Ryoka Griffin, Mrsha, Nerry, and Shaestrel herself started. The dark corridor had been so black as to not show anyone anything beyond—and the wind was silent here.

A little, primal part of Ryoka had feared the darkness. Mrsha the Vainglorious had not dared to follow Erin. And they were the heart of the inn.

The heart of it, like Numbtongue dangling potato scraps over Reagen’s head until Calescent poked him back to work.

Lyonette and Yelroan, bending over the budget. And Bird. The Worker had pulled up a chair at their table and kept trying to add in a budget for a ballista. The worst part was that Yelroan was humoring him.

Parts of the inn, like Octavia trying to bargain with Rags for her potions, made it come alive. But there was always…more. Someone else like Yelroan.

Or, now, as the lights came on—a little girl. One of the scariest things to see in a dark hallway. Perhaps even a point of pride that it was girls.

Sammial would have just been funny. But this girl had brown pigtails, carefully braided, and no hat. She stood, staring ahead, and she feared no darkness.

She had been a [Witch]. Now, she was just a witch. The difference was how you thought of it. Nanette turned as Mrsha recoiled and grabbed Ryoka’s hand.

“Nanette! You scared us to death! Were you in here all along?”

“Hullo, Miss Ryoka. I’m sorry I frightened you. I was just looking. Am I in your way?”

Nanette turned and gave Ryoka a slight smile. Ryoka realized—she had completely forgotten Nanette was there.

The witch often could blend in with the inn, a talent that she might have been taught. But she was also no Mrsha, who got attention by causing trouble. Mrsha, of course, ran over to laugh and tell Nanette how good the prank was.

But the young girl shyly glanced up at Ryoka.

“If I’m in the way, I’ll leave.”

She peeked at Shaestrel and stuck her tongue out at Nerry. Ryoka looked at Mrsha.

“No! Not at all. I’m…in your debt.”

“In my mother’s debt. You don’t have to take me along if you want to be with Mrsha. I know I’m new.”

The girl was somehow able to be more straightforwards at her young age than Ryoka, twice her age, could manage. Ryoka flushed, and Mrsha waved her paws frantically.

No, we’re not mad you’re here! We’re glad! Come with us, please?

Nanette waited, and Ryoka nodded.

“Of course. You’re part of the inn.”

“May I be part of the secrets too, then?”

Nanette looked at Shaestrel and Nerry, and Ryoka hesitated. Mrsha’s head swung around, and she eyed the lamb blankly. But Ryoka…wavered.

It was a lot. A lot that she did not pull Mrsha into. But then, Mrsha was a kid, and she was going to school now, and that was right.

But Nanette? She waited, as if asking Ryoka to tell her whether she was a kid or…Ryoka nudged Nerry. The lamb instantly kicked her in the ankle.

“Nerry. Be nice. This is Nanette. Nanette…a witch. And Shaestrel, this is Nanette Weishart.”

 

Good day to ye. I tip my hat to thee.”

 

To Ryoka’s astonishment, the Spring Fae reached up and made the motion with an almost stiffly dignified nod. Nanette peered up at her.

“So that’s what you look like. I tip my hat to thee. You never showed yourself to us before.”

 

“Your lot likes to meddle, and there are rules. I am Shaestrel. Another child on a dangerous journey. Is this wisdom?”

 

Shaestrel looked tired, suddenly, and at Ryoka almost accusatorially, and the Wind Runner wondered if she was doing the wrong thing. But Nanette lifted her small chin.

“Miss Shaestrel. I understand your reservations, but I am a witch. I don’t recall asking.”

At that, the faerie laughed ruefully.

 

“Spoken like the rest of your meddlesome lot. There’s the lot who’d face down my ilk and Dragons with naught but a hat and the sass of ages. So be it.”

 

And with that, she did a flying leap and landed in Nanette’s hair. Nerry glowered at the witch, but Nanette produced something.

“Nerry. Are you hungry? Here.”

She handed the Sariant Lamb something, and Ryoka saw Nerry grudgingly grab a stick of jerky and begin chewing it.

“Wait. Are you the one feeding Nerry?”

The lamb was clearly self-sufficient, and Nanette tilted her head.

“I sometimes get her what she wants from the shelves, but I think she feeds herself. We’ve come to a bargain, she and I. We’re both guests of Miss Erin.”

“Why meat?”

“I don’t know. Ask her.”

The lamb chewed with an evil grin at Ryoka and Mrsha. But Mrsha gave Nanette a flying leap that turned into a hug.

You’re so cool! I’m going to be a [Witch] too, someday! And a [Wizard]! Mrsha the Witch-Wizard! And a [Druid].

Nanette read the notecard, and her rosy-cheeked smile hesitated. She glanced at Mrsha.

“Maybe just the other two.”

What? Not a [Witch]? I’d be a great one! Right?

Mrsha looked at Ryoka for confirmation and got a hesitant nod from a classic encouraging adult with the spine of melted cheese who didn’t want to crush anyone’s dreams. Nerry just farted, which seemed to be a commentary in itself. Nanette?

“You’d be a bad one, Mrsha. As you are. Don’t joke about it, please.”

Mrsha’s face fell as Nanette pushed back for the first time. She spluttered and held up a notecard.

I just meant I’d be a good one. Forsooth?

“No. I won’t lie about being a witch.”

Shaestrel seemed to be enjoying the one-sided beatdown. Ryoka hesitated.

“W—Nanette knows what she’s talking about, Mrsha. It’s a tough class.”

I could so become a good [Witch]. You don’t know. Just because your mom was one and you were one…doesn’t prove anything. You can’t decide who’s a [Witch]!

Nanette took a deep breath and tried not to look vexed.

“That’s something a real witch would say, Mrsha. I suppose you’re right. Erin said it like that, and everyone agreed. But you say it—or write it—badly.”

How? I’m great at writing.

Nanette stared at the delicate cursive and shook her head.

“I am a Witch. You? Say that to Mavika’s face.”

Mrsha hesitated. Hold on, now. Let’s not get crazy. She was about to write that when Nanette gave her a pointed look. The girl leaned over and whispered in Mrsha’s ear.

You’re not a witch. Don’t play games with my class unless you want to get burnt. Claim you’re an [Archmage] in front of Valeterisa first.”

Mrsha’s jaw opened wide. She looked at Nanette—then fell over on the floor and dragged herself behind Ryoka. Nanette straightened the hat she didn’t have.

Okay. Don’t make Nanette mad. But now the girl was here—Ryoka tried to smile down at her.

“How’s, uh, things?”

“I just came to the inn and Miss Solstice was possessed by a ghost. Wiskeria summoned an Elemental of Law—and now Miss Solstice has a new theater. I’ve been interested. I was trying to figure out if the windows were the same thing as Captain Halrac’s arrow. Would you like to see?”

Nanette turned—and Mrsha’s head snapped up as they remembered Halrac.

He hadn’t said much about what had happened when he vanished. He remembered nothing, and he was actually abed in Riverfarm; it seemed like he hadn’t eaten for two days straight.

No one had known what that stuff on his arrow was. It wasn’t magical that anyone could tell—and no one was about to touch or fire it. Right now, it was in a special case, and once Halrac got better, they’d investigate.

Doubtless, it mattered. But when Nanette said that—

That pushed Ryoka forwards. She walked straight ahead, and to her surprise, the corridor grew, if not brighter—immediately more open.

Windows shone through the corridor not twenty feet past the lanterns. Something about this place made Ryoka feel she’d walked further than she had physically—like the [Garden of Sanctuary], this place existed in a kind of other dimension.

But the windows…showed the view outside the inn. Perfect little square windows showing Ekirra and Visma giggling as they kicked a ball around. Mrsha banged on the window that had four panes of what seemed to be glass—but when she touched the perfect little view of the outside, she recoiled.

It wasn’t glass at all! It was something smooth and perfectly solid.

“See? It’s not the wall, either. It feels like something—or nothing.”

Nanette tapped the not-glass panes. It looked like an ordinary window, and a strip of wood ran between the four panes, but the glass was the fake part.

“Dead gods, what is it?”

Ryoka saw the witch produce a knife. Nanette tapped the glass, and Ryoka hesitated before stopping her—but Nanette thrust the tip into the glass and then showed them the edge.

“I just have a cheap dagger, but look.”

She’d blunted the edge. And Nanette had tried to break or mark the glass. She stuck a finger in her mouth and touched the glass.

The saliva ran straight off it onto the wood. There was no friction whatsoever. Even a mirror would take a bit of a stain.

In fact, there was a bit of ketchup on the floor.

“It’s strange stuff. Skill stuff. But it seems to just show the outside world. See?”

She pointed out, and everyone admired the view outside the inn. There was no way the windows…

“This is the front of the inn, isn’t it?”

Ryoka frowned because the windows seemed to be pointing the wrong way. Nanette nodded. Mrsha had been looking around.

We should be looking north, not west. It’s all wrong! Magic?

That was Nanette’s take too. The not-glass was thus both no material anyone understood and reflecting the wrong image—at least according to the laws of physics. Like a projection onto a screen? Ryoka shuddered as she eyed someone walking up the hill.

Klbkch. He slowed slightly as he jogged up the hill—rather fast, as if he wanted to get to the inn and see Erin soon. He’d come from the side, not from Liscor, and Ryoka suspected he’d used a secret entrance to the inn.

Then—the Antinium produced a tiny tin of what looked like floor wax and began patting it on his head and shoulders! Buffing himself up! He checked his uniform, and though they had no sound, Mrsha and Ryoka could see he’d bought some of Relc’s favorite dried, spiced Prelons, which he took out of a bag of holding. He promptly put them under a bag of dried sardines, which Relc hated.

He was looking good for Erin! Or his friend? Ryoka laughed—and was glad Klbkch couldn’t hear them. But the strangest thing happened.

Klbkch looked up suddenly and then whirled around. He stared…and dropped the bags of snacks and put a hand on his sword. He kept rotating and rotating, growing increasingly uneasy.

As if he didn’t know where, but he knew he was being watched.

 

“Good instincts, that warrior.”

 

Ryoka nodded to Shaestrel. Nanette eyed Klbkch warily.

“No one’s introduced me to Klbkch.”

“I can do it later if you want, Nanette?”

“Mm. I should be delighted to meet someone like him, Mother always said she wanted to walk into the Hivelands, but she didn’t because she had me.”

When Nanette said it like that—Ryoka was reminded who Klbkch was to his people. She nodded slowly. Then, to save Klbkch, she moved on with Mrsha and Nanette.

These were, of course, just the details. Just the filling between one room and another. The windows, the furniture…they were all little gaps in what should be. Because this Skill had not existed before, a few judgment calls had been made. Maybe it should have been left blank but…why not?

The [World’s Eye Theatre] was bright as Ryoka and Mrsha walked out of the hallway of about forty feet, a rather long walk for a part of the inn not visible from the outside. The red carpet stretched into it and snaked around the dome.

Perhaps the hallway was too long or the dome too…circular. Perhaps something liked domes. It didn’t matter, in the end. For it was done, and now it was a Skill that might pass to others once the current holder lost the Skill.

And Ryoka’s breath came out in a long rush as she stared about.

“Dead gods.”

Mrsha looked around, and her jaw dropped, and Nerry’s mouth was open too as they stared around what Ryoka could only describe as a theatre—a proper theatre like the Globe, like the biggest in her world, with beautiful, soft seats with no apparent stitching, perfectly placed in wide, descending rows towards a central amphitheater. Nanette stared up, and she put a hand on her hair as again, if trying to hold onto her hat.

The chairs were—foldable? Mrsha had never seen folding chairs, but these would fall open to let you sit if you put any weight on them. Why like that? They could even recline. Fancy.

It surely came from Erin’s own ideas of a theatre. The stage in the center was where a performer or the center of the room could be in view of all—but the first thing that drew Ryoka’s eye were the seats.

Stupid, she knew, but she noticed the lack of stitching in the same way Hethon had noticed her footwraps had no end to the thread. These had not been processed in any normal way.

Neither had the glass. And it was that which Mrsha stared up at—for she had the most unsettling feeling in the world for a second.

As if Xherw and Ulcreziek still haunted her. For she realized what Ryoka took a moment to see.

“The dome. It’s…an eye?”

Glass walls rose above them, reflecting the sky above the inn, the mountains, glass with no warp or signs of where they were joined. They still had a kind of geometric quality to them, such that each ‘pane’ was a hexagon that fit together with the rest. But they rose upwards until you saw a line across the ceiling. The glass changed there to create a perfect circle that looked like the pupil of an eye, then the outline of an iris.

An eye, staring up at the sky. Nanette whispered.

“Symbols. But is it staring at us or are we staring through it?”

And below it, sitting in the center of the amphitheater, in her chair, for there were ramps along with gentle stairs and guardrails, was Erin Solstice. She turned in her chair and spread her arms weakly as Ryoka, Nanette, Mrsha, Nerry and Shaestrel stared down at her.

“Hey! Look at my new Skill! I’m so glad you made it—I can’t get out!”

Erin, this is am…wait, what?”

Ryoka looked down at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] shouted back.

I can’t roll up the ramps. I kept shouting for someone to come get me! Didn’t Mrsha hear? Stop—stop laughing!”

The, uh, design of the [World’s Eye Theatre] had assumed you were capable of moving up the incline towards the top-most level where Ryoka and Mrsha stood. Erin had apparently been trying to roll up the ramps using the handrails for the last ten minutes…but she’d lost her strength in her arms and ended up rolling back into the center of the room.

“Can’t you use your garden door to get out?”

Erin glowered, her arms folded.

“My wheels get stuck in the grass and dirt, and someone’s got to clean them. I thought Mrsha would come running. Nanette! I thought I sensed you! Didn’t you hear me?”

The little witch ducked her head.

“I did, Miss Solstice.”

“What? Why didn’t you come get me?

“I thought you should learn a lesson about what you can and can’t do. Magus Grimalkin keeps trying to teach you.”

She was mean! Erin’s mouth fell open, and Ryoka began to like Nanette more and more. The little witch was unmoved, and Erin ducked a fight she might not want to take at this moment. Ryoka apologized for not coming sooner.

“Mrsha got nervous. So did I—have you seen the windows?”

“Windows? Who looks at windows? Look at that!”

Erin pointed up at the dome. Then she grinned.

“At least I learned some things while I was here. Look at this.”

She clapped her hands with a wicked smile, and Ryoka realized that Erin might be a bit annoyed today. Because without warning her—

The glass dome overhead blinked.

The ‘eye’ of glass moved. A ripple passed through the ceiling, as of a vast eye opening and shutting. Mrsha promptly grabbed Ryoka’s hand tight—and suddenly, Ryoka was staring up at stars.

“What the heck?”

“I think it’s the sky if you took out the sun. Literally night-vision. I don’t think I can make this place show me fake things. I can do that in the garden. But this is different. This is real. See? Hey! Liscor’s walls!”

Erin clapped her hands again, and the eye blinked. This time it was faster, and when it re-focused Ryoka felt vertigo again. Because the view had shifted. Now—they were staring at Liscor’s walls, but the view was zoomed in.

Watch Captain Zevara was standing on the battlements, staring out across the Floodplains with a steely-eyed look of concentration. When the [Guardsman] patrolling walked past her, she exhaled, yawned, and sipped from a cup of coffee.

“It’s a scrying orb! It’s the world’s largest scrying orb!”

“No, it’s not! Don’t make it sound that uncool!”

Erin rebutted Ryoka’s statement instantly. The Wind Runner pointed at the dome.

“It’s plenty cool, Erin! Imagine how much Palt would charge to make it? You’ve got the world’s greatest scrying orb. G-good for you. I wonder if Wistram can see through it?”

Erin’s proud smile turned into an increasingly huge scowl as Mrsha rubbed her paws excitedly. Just imagine watching TV here! But Ryoka was less, uh, impressed.

“I’m sure it has other functions.”

“Can it show me Chandrar? Show me…the King of Destruction!”

“No, don’t do—”

Nanette looked alarmed. But it was too late. Ryoka clapped her hands. Erin watched, and because Ryoka was allowed, the dome’s eye blinked. And it showed—

Noass’ nose-holes flared so huge Ryoka saw into his sinuses as Wistram News Network, Channel 1 appeared.

“—King of Destruction on the march once more. We have reports the un-burnt King of Reim has left his capital, and he seems to be heading south with most of his armies. We can only assume Nerrhavia is his target, and we will be interviewing one of Nerrhavia Fallen’s finest [Generals], General Thelican, momentarily. The forecast for the war—”

His voice was so loud that everyone clapped their hands to their ears. It turned out that the [World’s Eye Theatre] had a sound system.

Quieter, quieter!

Erin screamed, and Noass’ voice became a gnat. The ringing in Ryoka’s ears? Did not.

“Great. So you have the world’s most impressive voice-command television system.”

Ryoka grinned. If that was how it showed ‘Flos’—and it was impressive that it had figured out what she wanted—

Erin Solstice stared at Ryoka.

“You’ve been gone half a year. I don’t miss you, right now. This is my new Skill. It was green. I could use some support.”

“It’s amazing, Erin. Let’s make popcorn and hook Kevin’s computer up to it later. Er…sorry. Nanette, why was this a bad idea?”

The little witch had folded her arms and gave the two an annoyed look. It made them feel like they were the irresponsible kids.

“What would you have done if you scried him and he noticed? Gazi the Omniscient is a half-Gazer. If you look at him—he might have looked back.”

“Eh, it’s fine. I’ve got something to say to that guy, anyways. He owes me, like, eight gold coins.”

Erin waved it off, and Nanette and Ryoka stared at her. The younger witch bit her lip.

“Do you…have a plan for everyone you meet?”

“Not everyone, Nanette. But I am ready for a lot of them.”

The [Witch of Second Chances] winked one hazel eye, and Nanette bobbed her head respectfully.

“Yes, Witch Erin. Sorry for interrupting.”

“At least you think my Skill is cool. Unlike Ryoka.”

Ryoka tried to mollify Erin. She was just—it was great, a new part of Erin’s inn, but really. It was just a fancy new theatre-movie combo. And she firmly believed that.

Right until she realized the huge glass eye had blinked—and the dome turned dark. Erin, Ryoka, Mrsha, Nanette, and Nerry stared up at the screen.

Then—an Ogre, the most hideous one she had ever seen, kicked his way out of a stall door. Nerry saw his visage appear overhead, magnified a thousandfold in perfect detail.

She wasn’t proud of soiling herself. Ryoka stepped on the pellet as she leapt back.

What the f—what did I step in—how did it do that?

“It plays movies? It plays movies!?

Erin screamed back. Shrek was playing at maximum volume, and then Erin pointed up.

Silence! Wait a second. It plays movies.”

She looked at Ryoka. Ryoka looked at her bare foot. Mrsha’s jaw was still dropped. Then—Erin’s head swiveled around.

“But Kevin’s laptop is in the garden.”

“Can it…pull from that?”

“Y—maybe. Quick! Name another movie we watched when we had movie night! What else does he have?”

“Um—um—”

Kevin the bootlegger and pirate had stolen a lot of movies he liked. But his hard drive had limits, so he’d deleted a lot of movies and replaced them—forgotten to delete others—Ryoka snapped her fingers.

“He has that new—the, um—the shitty Lord of the Rings movie! The Hobbit!”

“Hey, I liked it!”

“The originals were classic. But Kevin doesn’t have those. The Fellowship of the Ring is so much…”

Ryoka and Erin stopped arguing, and Shaestrel looked up. The Spring Faerie had heard Ryoka had once told stories of Earth’s myths to her kin to impress them. She had wondered if Ryoka had the time to tell her the same.

For fae loved stories. Now…she saw another reason to justify her long, dangerous journey. The Faerie King had not opened any door—they had taken a different road to get here. But perhaps this…

Made it slightly worth it.

 

“For a cheating thing built by fools, ye art interesting.”

 

If you forgot—the first movie began with prophecy. A woman’s voice, speaking into the darkness. Then the words appeared overhead and the strains of a violin. Then history.

A classic, beautiful story adapted for the screen. But there was no copy of it, not that Erin or Ryoka knew, anywhere in this world.

Even the sound was…different. It came not from speakers, from mundane diodes and the connections of wires, but from ears.

It sounded…exactly as a girl had once heard it. Perhaps too loud—the slight crackle of an older movie theatre’s speakers in the narration. Just like Erin Solstice had once remembered when her parents took her to see the Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. Then she realized what the [World’s Eye Theatre] was doing.

“[Perfect Recall].”

It was—synergy. Skill synergy. The movie began playing as Mrsha’s mouth opened wide and wider. She realized what this meant before Ryoka and Erin, stunned, could process this.

I get to watch all the movies! Get me popcorn! Get me Ekirra and Numbtongue and Bird! I’m living here! Gire missed it! Gire missed it!

Mrsha ran around flinging up her arms. Ryoka had to do a bit of the same as she shouted how impossible this was and the possibilities of—could they show the Players of Celum actual Broadway plays? Nanette? Nanette was trying not to look too excited by all the movies. She had to have a witch’s dignity. Then she raised a hand.

“Miss Erin? If you can play something you’ve watched…what about a pure memory?”

Everyone turned to Erin in excitement as the [Innkeeper] gasped and tried.

…She could not. But she could play a theatre and actors on stage onto the screen. Almost as if anything that counted as…<ENTERTAINMENT> worked.

Erin couldn’t run around, but she waved her arms until she got tired and then laughed.

“This is so great! We have to show Lyonette! Lyonette—Mrsha, push me up the stairs! Also, someone help get rid of Nerry’s poo.”

The embarrassed Sariant Lamb had, in fact, already kicked the offending piece into a bag of holding. Cursed biology. She should have been made better.

Shaestrel looked down at the angry lamb, and she alone focused amidst the mortals’ excitement. This was wonderful, yes. This was amazing, true.

…But it wasn’t like this was that unique. If someone, something had been coming up with the idea for what the [World’s Eye Theatre] was—it might have drawn from existing abilities.

Like, for instance, a powerful Combined Skill that allowed someone to do much the same. Albeit in a simulation of Earth.

Anyways, here it was. Ryoka was racing to get up and show everyone—and wondering when to ask if Sammial and Hethon could be allowed in. Just because they were kids and deserved to laugh. She had piled Mrsha and Nerry into Erin’s lap and was preparing to push them all up when someone coughed.

 

“Cough. Cough.”

 

The five others paused. The voice was loud. Ryoka turned her head.

“What was that?”

 

Cough. Cough. I have something in my throat.”

 

Shaestrel hovered there, hands behind her back, staring up at the glass dome overhead. Ryoka hesitated. Erin pointed at her.

“Is she cool or is she gonna snowball me or give me fake flowers? Because I’ll take more flowers.”

The Spring Fae whirled around and glared.

 

“Another thing ye were not supposed to do! We’ll have to see about that. Damn mortals. No. Not that. Are you all done here?”

 

“Um. Yep? This is cool, right?”

 

“Oh. Aye…aye…yes. Definitely ‘cool’ to your little brains.”

 

Shaestrel drew out the comment slowly. Ryoka looked at Erin—and her friend wasn’t stupid.

“Is there…something else we’re missing, Shaestrel?”

 

“I never said that. It twas just me clearing my throat. By all means, run off.”

 

The faerie looked around innocently. And Ryoka, Erin, and Mrsha exchanged looks, and Nerry was already hopping off Erin’s lap.

“Okay…we know it can do movies. But it can’t do Flos. Because he’s protected? Or too far?”

Erin and Ryoka began to talk as they kept Shaestrel in the corner of their eyes. Mrsha scribbled furiously.

Perhaps he’s a protected jerk? Erin scratched her head.

“Good point! But that’s a sorta weak scrying spell. On par with regular stuff, really. But let’s try someone we know isn’t protected. Like…”

Ryoka raised a hand.

“Halrac?”

“Oh! Halrac! Go—Halrac!

The dome flickered high overhead. It didn’t change. Erin’s face fell.

“What? It’s not a scrying spell?”

“Not like a regular one.”

Ryoka observed. Nerry stared at Shaestrel and then at Mrsha. The Gnoll girl was frantically writing ideas. Nanette had her chin in her hand, and was trying to think of what the answer was.

Prithee, perhaps it can spy on other people’s conversations! Try that!

As Erin tried, Nerry grabbed the scrap of parchment Mrsha discarded—she dipped a hoof in the ink pot and hopped off behind a seat. Ryoka noticed, and the Sariant Lamb glanced at her.

“Can you hear Shaestrel, Nerry?”

Nerry gave Ryoka an odd look. Of course she could. Couldn’t everyone? She blinked as Ryoka explained that Mrsha needed one girl or the other to repeat the Spring Fae’s comments or Shaestrel had to speak differently in order to be heard by all.

The rules didn’t apply to Nerry like they did to Klbkch or most people. Odd. She, like Teriarch, heard everything perfectly.

But Nerry just began writing, tracing with one hoof, and Ryoka read over her shoulder.

Dn’t go up. Frie lks dwn. Try dwn.

Writing was not fun for her, and even Mrsha had an opposable thumb. Ryoka couldn’t imagine how long that appeal to her had taken. But Nerry had noticed something Ryoka hadn’t.

Shaestrel kept staring down, not up at the dome. She resumed her innocent stare when she noticed Ryoka looking at her. Nerry smiled triumphantly—then hissed and tried to kick the paper away.

But it was too late. Nanette stared past Ryoka down at the words. And her eyes looked triumphant.

“I knew it.”

The lamb went to headbutt-charge Nanette, but the girl just picked her up and held her up over her head. The lamb’s legs kicked as she looked at Ryoka.

“And you knew it too. Is this another secret, Miss Ryoka?”

“I…keep it quiet.”

“Am I part of it? I want to be part of it.”

The witch insisted with a mighty frown. But then she saw Mrsha looking over, swiftly put Nerry down, and snatched up the piece of parchment. All three looked innocent as Mrsha raced over.

“I have an idea! N—Nanette figured out something, Mrsha. Hold on. Down. Down…”

Then Ryoka focused on the place where they were standing, the center of the theatre, below that glass eye. The light coming from the ‘pupil’ could shine perfectly down in the center of the room despite the position of the sun. In fact—she thought the ‘eye’ was tracking the sun to create this optical effect.

“Huh. Erin…can you try something besides seeing other people? Look at where we are.”

Erin saw what Ryoka was talking about and rolled forwards. She sat in the natural beam of light, and it seemed like she sensed something the others didn’t. Her hazel eyes closed—and then she blinked. She opened her eyes, stared at Shaestrel—and then she hesitated.

“No way. It couldn’t be—but if I wanted a theatre, this is cool, but even movies aren’t—what if there’s a function beyond just…”

Ryoka waited. Erin Solstice made to move out of the beam of light—but Shaestrel muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

 

“Yeh’ve got poo on your wheels.”

 

The [Innkeeper] stopped. She looked at Shaestrel as Mrsha rubbed a bit of parchment on the wheels, and then her eyes lit up. She looked around, then down at Mrsha—and she spoke. This time, her voice was like thunder.

And what she said was this:

“Show me the Horns of Hammerad! No—show me to the Horns!

Then—

The [World’s Eye Theatre] began to glow.

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker had gotten tired of making fun of Wil after an hour. She decided to cheer up Gireulashia in the meantime.

The Ekhtouch Gnolls were too big to ride on the single wagon comfortably—so half were running and the other half riding giant horses sized for them.

Gire had to run—and she’d been leaving a trail of disgusting handkerchiefs behind her.

“Chieftain Gireulashia, maybe you can go back to Liscor soon? It won’t be too long. Please stop crying. It’s super loud.”

The [Paragon] sniffed as the rest of her tribe took their fingers out of their ears.

“No I can’t.”

“You can…Liscor’s great. It’s friendly to Gnolls, you’re the Chieftain—”

“I can’t take them to Liscor. Not right away. The New Lands are too valuable. Don’t be stupid. I can’t do it as Chieftain. I have to secure something. I’m not going to be able to see Mrsha for months! Years!”

Gire whined. Ceria sort of got what she meant, and she was impressed Gire’s emotions didn’t get the better of her. She was clearly aware that if her tribe went to Liscor, they would be missing out on the landrush.

“So Ekhtouch is going to the new lands after all? I thought you might not. Your tribe’s small, and isn’t it dangerous?”

“If you’re not us, sure. We’ll just sell our services and be practical. That’s why I’m getting [Dowser Shamans]. We’ll sell water inland. I’m going to secure a well.”

Ceria blinked. Her first instinct was to assume Gire was lying or being a fool…until she thought about what Gire was saying.

If you were on the coast, you could purify saltwater with some effort. [Hydromancers] could do it—but a city couldn’t rely on an individual unless some grand ritual was in place.

And inland? All the major cities that had used to be on Izril’s western coast were landlocked. People heading inland might follow rivers…but a well would be very nice to have.

“Interesting plan. You know, the Horns might be going that way too. No promises—Yvlon’s injured, and we have to meet Honored Berr. But if you want an adventuring team, let us know.”

Gire sniffed again and gave Ceria a long, searching stare.

“Your team’s good. I’ll think about it. I just miss Mrsha. She’s gone, and I can’t see her.

And as if her words had summoned this moment, Ceria Springwalker felt a prickle coming from her scalp. Her circlet grew cold, and someone spoke.

“Well, maybe you can! Look where my favorite team is! Whoops, don’t let Griffon Hunt or the Halfseekers hear you say—

Erin Solstice appeared in the road, beaming. She must have been listening to them for a second to time this perfectly. She appeared, her body brimming with a kind of faux radiance.

Her voice was impossible. Ceria, leaning over the wagon, jerked upright. Gire stopped running—and Colth, who had been riding and keeping up a conversation with the Ekhtouch, snapped his head around.

“What th—”

He had a dagger out and ready to throw, but he spotted Erin and began to relax as the Horns, Nailren, and Niers’ students sat up. They looked around and saw Erin.

She sat in the road, beaming, looking—semi-there. As if she had some kind of falsity to her skin, a fake-ish glow that captured color in an odd way. But the sound was perfect, and even the wheelchair was there.

A hologram. But they didn’t know that. To the Horns, they saw Erin appear like magic. Then—

The wagon ran her over.

The skeletal horses swerved as Pisces grabbed the reins and shouted. But Erin hadn’t realized her quarry was moving.

Dead gods, you ran her over, Pisces!

Yvlon shouted. She tried to get up, forgot her foot was missing, and fell over Ksmvr.

Erin! Erin! Dead gods!”

“It wasn’t my—it’s an ill—what was that?”

Pisces whirled the wagon around, and it nearly went over as the Horns piled out of the wagon. Ekhtouch leapt from their saddles, and the horses screamed. Ceria looked around, and then she saw—

Erin Solstice was lying on the ground, staring up at the sky. She was spread-eagled, and her mouth was open. Pisces’ eyes bulged—

“Pisces…help…”

Erin gasped. Then, before the [Necromancer] could have a heart attack, a pair of familiar hands and white paws pulled Erin’s legs.

“No. I’m vanishing! I’m vanishiiiii—”

Erin slowly slid ‘out’ of existence, vanishing against an invisible something. She lay with her head grinning at them from the side.

“But look who’s here to save me! Mrsha!”

The Gnoll girl bounded into existence, and Gire gobbled. Mrsha spread her arms, pointed at Gire, leapt towards her, and vanished again. She came running back into ‘frame’, and Ryoka edged forwards, pushing Erin’s wheelchair into reality.

Only then did Pisces begin breathing. Ceria’s mind leapt to the logical conclusion.

“A projected illusion spell?”

You leveled up!

Colth hollered as he leapt from his saddle. He laughed in delight.

“Larracel will be doing backflips of rage! Dead gods! She couldn’t come, but she followed us anyways!”

He reached over, and his hand passed through Erin. She was being helped into her wheelchair by Ryoka, and she was laughing.

“Got you! Sorry, Pisces, just a joke. Pisces? Pisces?

Mrsha was waving at Gire and writing—then they were doing pawsigns as the two howled in delight. Erin beamed at Ceria, who was cackling in delight—and wondering what this might mean. Erin could now talk to her friends without an intermediary! How far did this reach?

What might it do? But that would have to wait. Yvlon, swearing, had finally put the fake leg on. She got out of the wagon with Ksmvr helping her down. Just in time to look over and extend a silver arm.

Pisces went straight over backwards in a real faint. Erin stopped giggling and looked down. Mrsha and Ryoka stared at the [Necromancer] as he keeled over. Silently, they looked at Erin and then shuffled out of frame.

“I, uh…Pisces?”

 

——

 

The power of the [World’s Eye Theatre] was that, in the center of the beam of light, you could stand and ‘see’ the world around you. When Erin sat in her wheelchair, she got a view of where the Horns were. It wasn’t perfect—but she could project herself to her friends rather than having to crane her neck up and shout at the dome and have a real-time conversation.

It was hazy, though, like a blur across the world, and the sound wasn’t perfect. Erin suspected that, like her [Portal Door], distance mattered. So close to the inn—well, from just south of Pallass, it wasn’t very noticeable.

Or…was it something else? As Erin was figuring out how to control the ‘projection’ function of her theatre, she realized it was about the sunlight. Or moonlight. The beam of light coming through the ceiling could widen or shrink to include Ryoka and everyone else in, at max, about a perfect circle ten feet wide.

What was more fascinating, though, was that the beam of light could move and the projection had a limited radius before it ‘ran out of space’. Mrsha proved that by playing ‘tag’ with Gire and running around—they could actually chase each other across the grass.

“Got you! Got—”

Mrsha leapt, giggling, and Gire grabbed as Mrsha’s face turned to alarm.

Thud.

She went off the edge of the stage, and Ryoka ran over as Mrsha began to howl. The sight of a child in pain made Venaz chuckle. And it did rouse Pisces. When he came to, he denied he’d fainted, and Erin apologized profusely.

“I thought it was funny. I didn’t think, um—”

“It was clearly the magical backlash. Magical backlash.

His cheeks were red, but Erin realized she might be a bit too close to being dead to pull this kind of prank. As she rolled towards him, she frowned.

“Huh? What the…someone push me!”

She waved her hands, and Ryoka walked over as Gire apologized to Mrsha, who was shaking her fist at the stage. But Erin was waving.

“Ryoka, push me back, push me over there! Nanette, say hello to everyone! Here’s Nanette, guys!”

“Is this some kind of neglect play? I think Pisces’s suffered enough.”

The Horns watched as Erin rolled straight through a wagon and heard her voice, oddly, grow a bit sharper.

“No, no. Do you see that? What the…”

Ryoka frowned, and Pisces, sitting up, saw her fuzzy hair grow clear and sharp. She looked, suddenly, just like a transparent Ryoka. Erin tapped her chest, puzzled.

“So we are clear. It’s not hologram style! Wait—can we do that? Hold up.”

Everyone vanished. The Horns waited, and then a spectral figure appeared. Ryoka Griffin stood, made of fuzzy—fuzzier blue light. She stared at someone off-screen.

Say it.

“No.”

Say it. Come on! You only get one chance!

 

Say it, ye coward!

 

Ryoka sighed loudly.

“Oh—”

She turned back and looked at the Horns with a glum expression.

“Help me, Horns of Hammerad. You’re my only hope. There. Happy?”

Erin cackled with laughter as she rolled into frame. The Horns didn’t get it, but Ceria eyed the blue Ryoka as she returned to normal colors. What she took away from this was that Erin could add effects to the projection. Like a good [Illusionist].

“Ryoka! You ruined it! You…hm. There it is again. Look, I’m fuzzing out.”

Sure enough, the wheelchair took on that haze and blur. Erin backed up—and it went normal again. She looked around, and suddenly, Ceria felt a prickle down her back. She tried to edge back and casually lean against the wagon—but Yvlon’s head swung around, and she grabbed her captain’s ear with a pair of fingers.

“Fuzzy, you say, Erin? I wonder why.”

Erin’s head snapped up. She frowned—then she rolled forwards again. This time, she rolled straight towards Ceria, and the closer she got—

The more distorted her image became.

“Gee. I wonder, uh, what could be doing that?”

Ceria smiled weakly. Erin stared at her, and Ryoka raised her brows. But then Erin turned her head.

“Not just you. Huh. Look who else is carrying a fuzzer.”

To his credit, when she rolled towards him, Colth didn’t back away. He just gave her a wide grin.

“Named-rank adventurers carry protections, Miss Solstice. But you shouldn’t be able to scry me in any sense of the word. That’s…really interesting. Wistram couldn’t do better. At least, old Wistram.”

Even so, when Erin got within a handspan of him, she turned into such a mess of twisted fuzz that it was impossible to hear her. So one supposed that the Skill wasn’t omniscient when it came to anyone high-level.

But this was amazing, and Erin turned back to the Horns.

“Looks like you won’t be able to get away from me! I’ll be able to check on all of my friends now! I don’t think this thing has the same limits as the [Portal Door]—at least, we haven’t found one. So what’s up, guys? How’s your trip going?”

“Hello, Erin. I am mourning my trees.”

Ksmvr waved, and Erin reached out.

“Ksmvr! Give me a hug! I’m so sorry!”

He fake-hugged her projection.

“Thank you, Erin. Please tell the Byres family I am very sad for them. Are Ysara and Ylawes coming back?”

Erin’s face screwed up.

“I don’t know—but wait a second. I could ask! Let’s do that next, Ryoka!”

“Maybe tell Lyonette too? Let’s keep this secret. Very secret, got it?

The Horns nodded, and the [Strategists] hesitated. But Merrik made a mouth-sealing motion, and Nailren, Ekhtouch, all agreed.

A powerful Skill. And she wasn’t even Level 50 yet. Just wait for that one. What would it be?

Just wait.

Erin laughed, for now, as Ksmvr pointed at Wil.

“I am glad you are so sympathetic to my loss, too. Lord Kallinad has been mocking my trees.”

“He what?”

“Oh, come on!

 

——

 

Bear in mind, it was fun. Finding out what Erin’s new Skill did, Ryoka playing with kids and talking to faeries…

This was magic. And silliness. And it was what The Wandering Inn fed off of, the quiet moments.

The blood, the death and drama were there. But let them have a moment where Mrsha tried to challenge Wil to a bout of fisticuffs for Ksmvr’s honor. And where Numbtongue sadly piled plates in the kitchen, grumbling about tyrannical [Innkeepers] while Reagen got hair over all his hard work.

Calescent kicked them out.

Not everyone was having such a fine, unfettered day. For instance—when Ksmvr had brought up Tree-Hater Wil Kallinad, Ryoka’s smile had gone out. For she…was reminded of her own tasks. She had burned a great tree and ended a species.

Yet her day was mixed, like that, and better on the whole for her friends and all that had happened here.

When Saliss of Lights woke up, he knew. He knew…but in the way of a dreamer waking out of a nightmare only to discover it was reality.

It was the feeling someone had the day after they were robbed or suffered the loss of a loved one.

He had been here before. And he knew it was no figment of his imagination—though part of him wanted it to be.

The [Alchemist] sat up in his bed and realized it was his alchemy workshop. His real home, not the one he barely used on Pallass’ 6th floor. His scales felt wrong. He felt wrong—but that was normal.

Dysmorphia was the old word that [Alchemists] and experts had called it. Those that had learned to change bodies, shapeshift into magical beasts…he had studied them in Nerrhavia. Though his goals and theirs had been different.

Well, for some. Some had understood and left him clues. Saliss processed the fact that he was back in his body. He was naked, but his scales tingled. And his mind, even as it caught up with those odd memories that seemed dreamlike, even as he processed Zeladona and—everything—

Someone’s in my lab. Single figure. Air-breathing heat source.

Saliss thought he knew who it was—but he flicked one wrist.

[Quick Draw: Borer Acid Vial].

He didn’t bother thinking of the Skill—at this point, it was reflexive. In less than half a second of waking, he was armed. He stood against one wall, and when the person turned, Saliss could have blown the acid over the other Drake half a dozen times.

“…Saliss?”

Mirn jumped as Saliss sighed and poked his head out from behind the door.

“Dead gods. You’re awake!”

“What are you doing in my lab? I told you things go boom in there.”

“I was just looking. I’m not an idiot!”

Saliss tucked away the acid vial without a comment. Mirn, his friend of old, saw the vial of pale yellow acid vanish, and he didn’t mention it. He knew Saliss was careful and wouldn’t use it on him—

But the [Protector] did look nervous. He feared Saliss, even if they were friends.

With good reason. All Named-rank adventurers were weapons. Some were just less honest about it. Tessa was honest—painfully so.

“Zeter. Tell me I don’t remember Sixswords. That bastard cut down…what happened?”

“Take it easy. Have a seat. I have some food—what do you remember?”

Saliss sat back down and put his head in his hands.

Everything.

That answered a lot. Mirn sucked in his breath.

“Then you remember being Onieva?”

“I don’t remember being her. I am…I was her. But without Saliss. That potion—I couldn’t remember a thing about me.”

The Faerie Flower potion. Saliss had known, he had known it had a catch. It always did. It was everything he had tried to create.

A cheap, long-lasting transformation potion that had no side-effects. But the one drawback was…you forgot who you had been?

“What do you remember? I have some water…”

“I’ve got water.”

The [Alchemist] produced a flask of water which he drank, flicking the cork off. He had a few questions.

“I remember almost everything—but like a dream, Mirn. You need to fill in the gaps. What did she do? No—start with why I’m here. The potion didn’t wear off?”

“No. I told her to take a sip of the tonic. Just like last time. I told her it was a healing potion.”

“Huh. I remember not quite buying it.”

Mirn hesitated.

“She—you—”

“Go with Onieva, for now. She’s me. She’s me—but the potion is separating us. Damn it. Just—I knew it wasn’t a healing potion, Mirn. I was an [Alchemist]. I had my levels, my Skills—”

“You did? All of them? No wonder you were able to hold your own against Sixswords and the others! Ancestors, Saliss! Onieva tore up the battlefield! She wasn’t the most dramatic part of the tournament, but everyone saw you—her—fighting Klbkch the Slayer! It’s the talk of Pallass! It’s…the talk of Pallass.”

Saliss looked up, and his heart leapt and fell. Like someone jumping off a cliff. Why couldn’t things be good without fetters? It would be so easy if he were a Stitch-person, perhaps, or…Erin or Ryoka.

Not Saliss, the Named-rank Adventurer. Not a Drake.

Not a Turnscale pretending to be a ‘respectable’ member of society. Onieva was not supposed to be known to the rest of the world. She, his true self, had been a safeguarded secret.

Now—Onieva was known, and he had put himself, Mirn, and so much at risk.

The worst part was that Onieva hadn’t known. Mirn sat down.

“So not a thought you might be Saliss? Not a question why Onieva’s an [Alchemist] of his level?”

“I didn’t think of it. It’s a complete transformation, Mirn. I don’t even know I was—I wouldn’t call myself a Turnscale, I don’t think. I know you’re my friend, and I wouldn’t betray that or anyone else. But I am Onieva. And she’s—happy. Go back to the tournament. Just tell me what she did.”

Mirn did, starting with a recap of the events. Saliss remembered Erin Solstice becoming Zeladona of Blades. The Drake wasn’t as wide-eyed and babbling as the rest of the world.

“Okay. She cut a hole straight down to the Free Hive? Okay. What did the old man say?”

Mirn tried to laugh.

“He—he was worried about you. Really.”

“I bet he was.”

“No, he was really…anyways, he was trying to get Zeladona to kill someone. But everyone stopped him.”

Saliss grunted.

“You should have let him ask.”

Most of his memories were the same. Saliss rubbed a claw across his face as he tried to calculate what had been lost.

“Lieutenant Comois? That bastard did more damage—one of Edellein’s fools. And we lost him. Sixswords, cutting off limbs like he thinks this is some kind of good thing. I bet you he didn’t level.”

“Everyone else did, to hear it. Did you…?”

Not as an [Alchemist].

Saliss glanced up, and Mirn’s mouth opened. The Named-rank Adventurer wasn’t in the mood to slap people on the back about the levels Zeladona had granted them. Or the sword arts. He just sat there.

Mirn brought up the obvious. The Drake with his dark blue scales sat next to Saliss on the cot the [Alchemist] used after late-nights working on a project.

He’d slept here more than anywhere else. Weeks, sometimes months in this lab, working on ways to kill people or reverse time.

He’d given his life to being Saliss of Lights. He’d slain more monsters and people than you could dream of. All in service to the City of Inventions that he didn’t actually care for. But someone had to.

The old man, Pallass…Saliss of Lights was the Named-rank of Pallass. Often, he had wondered and even hoped that if he left, someone would fill his role. The world would seamlessly replace him. But if not—what would be the cost?

Now—fate was laughing at him. Mirn cleared his throat a few times.

“That potion. How much did you say it cost to manufacture, Saliss?”

“Assuming we pay nothing for the Faerie Flowers? Fifty-nine gold coins.”

Mirn winced. Saliss barely blinked. For a potion like this?

“It doesn’t seem to run out.”

No, it does not.

Mirn chose his next words even more carefully.

“You know, we never talked with the others about—it’s obviously because your other formulas were so expensive you could barely afford—”

“Yeah. This is perfect. With one catch. One huge catch. But I think some will take it. Take it, Mirn…and never go back. And if this lasts forever, they’ll leave it all behind. Leave their cities and be—happy.”

It was twisting in his chest and gut like a knife. Onieva wasn’t perfect, but she had none of the things that dragged at him like teeth and daggers, weighing him down. Mirn looked at Saliss.

“I’m a son of the walls. I still loved Pallass enough to serve. Right now, I’m going to talk to you like an Architect. Like Mirn the [Protector]. I think that if you can give me six—no, three potions, and we’re very careful, you have to give them to me.”

“If three people vanish—”

Mirn threw up his claws.

“We’ll make plans and excuses! We’ll do a trial run—you can eat a hundred and fifty gold coins. I’ll pay for it out of the shared funds.”

“I put money in that fund.”

Ancestors, Saliss! This could mean—it’s everything you wanted! I know you forget, but—”

He was Saliss’ friend and confidant, and the Named-rank adventurer knew that. So he was gentle—as he grabbed Mirn’s arm and dragged him down eye-to-eye.

With the strength of a lion. Mirn tensed up as Saliss’ yellow, slitted gaze met his. The other Drake’s voice was very soft.

“Mirn. I’m well aware of what it means. Some people will take it. And I’ll give you some damn potions, and you can confirm it has no frills or expiry date. If some of us want it—I’ll let them go. Let them go and build new lives. But not me. This potion is the perfect joke. Like them all. I get to let Onieva out, but she doesn’t remember me, doesn’t remember the old man perfectly. This potion doesn’t do what I want. It just creates Onieva. And it leaves me here.

He gestured around the laboratory. Mirn—Mirn would never completely get it, but he had more insight into what it was like to be Saliss than anyone else. His excited look turned to one of pain.

“Saliss…”

The [Alchemist]’s voice was as flat as his face.

“Don’t mistake me, Mirn. I’m happy. This is cheaper than my old method—and Onieva should live. She should be…I’m glad she went out there. Despite the trouble. But with this potion, it’s her and me. Get it? That’s not how this works. Onieva isn’t someone else. That’s how Chaldion thinks. I’ve always been her. And taking away the memories of Saliss, no matter how welcome…”

He stood up and looked down at the unwelcome fakeness of his orange scales. The incongruity that had crept up on him every day until he went off to find out why. And yes, one sip of that magical vial would take it away. But. Saliss’ voice rasped like acid was in his own lungs.

“As long as Onieva forgets, she’s as fake as Saliss. I am Onieva. I was proud of knowing I struggled. Every damned memory—I’ll fight every Drake in Izril to hold onto it. Mirn. Do you get it?”

His friend looked up, water in his eyes.

“I get it, Saliss. Ancestors. I get it.”

“Some people will want to leave it behind. I welcome them to it. Not me. I can’t. If it was just pain—it defines me. Proud of who I am. I…damn it.”

Saliss stared out between his claws. He had been so used to this—not the day-to-day, but the cycle he existed in. Trying to improve his level, doing what had to be done as Saliss, the moments of freedom, pushing the old man, trying to drag Pallass one tiny step further. Fighting the Antinium and whomever else was trying to kill innocent people.

Now the sky was inverted, and he didn’t know…Saliss looked around and then shook his head. He looked down, and if you saw a naked Drake, you saw what you were meant to. He?

He saw scars. Won over a thousand battles. Death and fire. When he opened and closed his claws, he knew how easy it was to swing a sword. Raise a spear, shoot an arrow. Not just that—how simple it was to take down a wall.

To turn a building to ash?

He had thought, some days, that he could take apart Pallass in a year. Undo everything that millenia of his people had kept and built and rebuilt over generations. If he really wanted to.

It was too easy. That was why Named-rank adventurers were mad, all of them. One day they reached out and broke someone’s arm with all the effort of someone taking a glass of water. They realized they could do anything they wanted. Or they drowned in blood.

Mirn was not wrong to look at him like that. But there was something more to Saliss.

“Onieva has always been me, Mirn. You get that.”

“Absolutely. We just didn’t realize it until later.”

“But there is Saliss, too.”

The [Protector] frowned. By this, the [Alchemist] seemed to mean more than his identity as a Named-rank adventurer and his deeds for Pallass. Saliss lifted a claw and divided the air in two.

“I am Onieva. That is who I’d rather be. That has been my goal and dream—to realize her. But Saliss? I’ve lived in his scales for decades. I realized—he exists. Not like two minds or some Selphid shit. But the idea of Saliss of Lights…the Drake who does what Pallass needs.”

Mirn ducked his head, tasting bile. He knew—only some of what Saliss meant. Even the Eyes of Pallass thought Saliss was given suicide missions, that the Walled Cities leaned on him at times. The Antinium attack was just one example. When no one else could do it—when they needed somewhere erased because something was crawling up, be it Crelers or something worse, they called for Saliss.

Once—they had made the mistake of thinking Saliss was just a toy-soldier like Zeter and involved him in their wars. They had called for a soldier, and Manus had seen what that meant. Saliss believed in wars. Mirn had been there, before he resigned his commission and then joined the Eyes of Pallass—then resigned altogether when he realized who he was and what his purpose was.

He still remembered a younger [Alchemist]. Saliss had gazed out across enemy lines—then found high ground. Then had come yellow rain. Acid rain.

“Too much. They asked you too much. Your grandfather…”

“He believes in Pallass. He really does, Mirn. Saliss is his heir. Saliss—but for the personality is everything Chaldion wanted. And you know what? I still think we need Saliss. But he was never meant to live forever. Some day, he’ll die in some monster den or on the battlefield. He’ll never have children, a family. He’s like Tyrion Veltras. He lives for war. And even Tyrion Veltras had kids.

Saliss was chuckling about that. He looked over at Mirn with a bloodless grin.

“Now though—there’s a difference between Saliss and Onieva. Because of the potion, you see? And now Saliss…Saliss is wondering whether the split’s too perfect. Whether Onieva needs him. She’s a lot happier, alone. But I am…”

He stared at his claws.

“Maybe it would be better to forget. Which one’s right? Am I her other half or am I the poison weighing her down? I’m an [Alchemist], Mirn. If there’s a bad part of this formula—I get rid of it. I excise it, isolate it, and throw it away.”

“Don’t—don’t talk like that, Saliss. I know you. The good you’ve done—”

The Named-rank adventurer didn’t react to the claw on his shoulder.

“I can’t tell, Mirn. I can’t do this. I can’t play around. I need to ask what this is about. And there’s someone who can answer it for me.”

“What are you going to do? Saliss? Saliss? Onieva?”

Mirn watched Saliss stride to the door. He opened his mouth and then saw Saliss walk back, go over to a vault, and open it. It took him a minute to unlock—and he pulled out three vials. Then he put them in his bag of holding and turned.

“I’ll see you later. On the off-chance—if you hear a loud ‘bang’, clear the city with everyone you can grab.”

Then he walked out the door. Mirn didn’t follow after Saliss. He looked after the Drake. And Saliss of Lights walked off the 9th Floor and towards the inn’s door. No more games. The pretense was faltering.

On the way, he set off Watch Sergeant Kel, the Day Strategist, and everyone else’s [Dangersense]. Not because of what he intended. Some things were just so dangerous that if you held them, they should scare you.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin and Erin Solstice were standing in the [World’s Eye Theatre] when Erin felt a buzz at the back of her mind.

“Uh…I think my [Dangersense] just went off.”

“What?”

Ryoka turned, and Erin whirled her head around.

“Saliss? Someone just walked into my inn. And I think he’s got—a bomb?

She didn’t know, but her control of the inn let her know who was where in it. Even Shriekblade wasn’t immune to her abilities.

“Wh-why would he have that?”

“Saliss? I dunno. He has lots of exploding things. But I think he’s got a really—really—um. Maybe we should go back and check?”

Erin looked at Ryoka. Ryoka looked at Shaestrel. The Faerie stared back at them.

 

“I’m not telling you everything. I told ye, I don’t know everything.”

 

“But you knew about my Skill.”

The faerie rolled her eyes as Erin protested.

 

“I can see what is blindingly obvious. Not this. Ye have work to do. Hop to it.”

 

Ryoka Griffin turned to Erin. The [Innkeeper] bit her lip, but she opened the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“This is faster. Grassy wheels here I come. I need to show you the real door here, too, Ryoka. There’s…a lot to discuss, isn’t there?”

Ryoka looked down at Nerry, and the little lamb eyed Erin and her.

“Yes. There is. Saliss seems to think so, too.”

“He was #4. I didn’t forget him.”

Erin protested weakly, but Ryoka looked at Shaestrel again, and this time, the faerie gave her the blankest stare in the world. No help. She had said her piece and put down her challenge, her request to Ryoka.

It was the Wind Runner who looked at the nervous [Innkeeper]. Erin, who had just demonstrated her new Skill, who had summoned the spirit of a legend of swords from ancient times—who had killed Skinner and done everything including dying and coming back to life—

—For some reason seemed afraid of this. If an undead [Ninja] made of A’ctelios Salash’s flesh were to suddenly backflip into existence and try to kill them all, Ryoka had no doubt that Erin, wheelchair or not, would draw a knife and begin throwing fire or doing something witchy.

But this? Ryoka hesitated—then she reached over and offered Erin a hand. The [Innkeeper] glanced at the three fingers…then took it gently and squeezed hard.

“I think, Erin—it’s time to have a conversation. The thing I’m the worst at. And it can’t just be us. It should include us, but maybe…maybe we should begin. Everything.”

Erin looked at Ryoka almost in a panic.

“Now? But we have the cool theatre and…”

Ryoka glanced towards the doorway and wondered what Saliss was doing. And there were other people.

“I think we don’t get to wait forever. Time, Erin. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do, before we do it. We should have a plan.”

“I’m no good at plans. Neither are you.”

Mrsha ran into the garden and hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she liked the idea of ‘bomb’ and ‘Saliss’. She hesitated and held up a card.

I’m going to prank Halrac and a bunch of people with the theatre. Can I do that?

“Sure. Just don’t cause any international incidents.”

It said a lot that Erin and Ryoka thought this was the most responsible place for Mrsha to be. The girl nodded eagerly and began to cue up Ekirra and Visma. Erin let Ryoka push her into the garden. Nanette stared after them, but Erin and Ryoka were following Nerry about this great task before them, and they left the two children behind. Ryoka commented to Erin as Shaestrel flew behind them.

“I do plan some things, Erin. Calm down. You’re hyperventilating.”

“No I’m not! And you didn’t have a plan at Ailendamus.”

“I did too. It wasn’t a good plan, but I had one.”

Ryoka retorted mildly, and Erin twisted in her seat.

“What was it?”

“Let them capture me as a prisoner. Steal their scroll. Wake you up.”

The Wind Runner was straight-faced as Erin’s mouth moved slowly. She blushed a bit after a second.

“Like I said, it wasn’t a good plan. But it was simple, and I got half of it—two-thirds—the entire thing worked in the end. This time—I think we have an opportunity. Demsleth is sitting in your inn. We can’t miss this. Saliss of Lights?”

She had another thought.

“Klbkch. Xrn.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Xrn? She’s crazy. You might have missed it, but she lost part of her head. And she’s scary, Ryoka. Like—Klbkch can be scary, but Xrn’s serious.”

“Good. Erin. You know who we’re up against.”

The [Innkeeper] did, more than Ryoka. She had to tell Ryoka more of what they’d done. But the [Innkeeper] was close to panic.

“Do we have to do a big meeting?”

Ryoka stopped on the grass and pointed Erin around, waiting for a door to reappear.

“How do you think it’ll go best? Individually or all together? I don’t know people as well as you do, Erin. And I’m honestly not good at making high-level decisions, cold as ice.”

The [Innkeeper] gave her a bug-eyed stare.

“And you’re turning to me?

Ryoka gripped her shoulder reassuringly.

“You know how to do it, Erin. I? I know how to be a problem and annoy the shit out of people. We have—Teriarch. Magnolia Reinhart is in your inn. Saliss of Lights just came in. Klbkch, Xrn—this is the moment. We can even seduce Valeterisa.”

“…What?”

“With magic. I’m not sure if she’s as trustworthy, but she is the Archmage of Izril. She lifted Fissival. And there’s Rafaema, too.”

“Who? Oh, that snooty Wall Lady? What’s special about her? I know the Lulv guy. If I see him, I’ll have Mrsha break his kneecaps.”

Erin’s look of panic turned to one of such vehemence that Ryoka wondered how she could deny she was suited for this. Perhaps she just didn’t hang out around mirrors long enough. Ryoka calmly coughed into one fist.

“Well, yeah, she probably has most of Manus on her side. She’s a Dragon. Should we do Fierre..? Nah. Let’s do Rags or someone, though.”

Erin Solstice stared ahead, then slowly twisted her neck around with some effort.

“…How did you come to that conclusion?”

Ryoka eyed Erin.

“I saw it. Well, not her—but she’s under some kind of illusion spell. She has two mismatched eyes, she’s a full Oldblood who has a breath attack about ten times stronger than Zevara’s, she has a full bodyguard of Manus’ finest…let me think. She’s attached to Demsleth, and if you listen close, she keeps referencing things she’s way too young to know.”

Erin just kept staring at Ryoka. The Wind Runner poked her with a slight smile.

“Your special power is making people like you and listen to you. Mine is noticing weird stuff. Where do we begin, Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] took a breath. Then she exhaled. Long and hard and sat back against her wheelchair. She looked down at it and muttered.

“If I’m going to be stuck in here a while—I need Kevin to upgrade this. With, like, a missile launcher. Or at least magical wheels. If we begin—we do the conversation here, Ryoka. After I show you something. Garden?”

She smiled, and even Shaestrel looked at her suspiciously. But that…Erin refused to say more, for now. They’d see it soon enough.

 

——

 

Rafaema of Manus was sitting next to Demsleth. The old man with his pot-belly and his rosy cheeks and incredible appetite hadn’t done much today.

He had just been—eating. Telling stories. Bantering with the other old man who smelled so off to Rafaema. Like a breeze blowing across a glade—only, all of that encapsulated in a scent.

She didn’t know what was going on and why he had left his cave or why he was taking such an odd form. Only that—he was real.

“You’re so young. Are you underfed?”

“I’m—I’m a—I’m fifteen.

He kept patting her on the head, like a little girl. The Drake, Visma, and her were apparently the same in the old Dragon’s eyes. Rafaema flushed, because even with her voice lowered, she dared not speak her real age aloud.

Even with Ferris here—watching them out of the corner of his eyes. Lulv and Aldonss had wanted to come into this dangerous inn, but Erin had scared them. But the Gnoll was keeping well away, mostly just trying to cram as many slices of pizza into his mouth as he could.

“Yes, you are. Taletevirion, look at her. Does she look underfed?”

Demsleth passed her one of the three milkshakes he’d ordered. It was frothy with a cherry and whipped cream on top, and Rafaema wasn’t about to pass it up. She loved sugar. Which he knew.

“Nope. She’s just small. And closer to…fifteen if you multiply out.”

The Unicorn commented wryly, observing how Rafaema bristled at that. Until she realized…they were serious. She had even rounded up, but they meant—

“I’ve lived a long time. And seen a lot. I’m a Wall Lady of Manus.”

In her attempts to impress the two however slightly, she made the mistake of trying to play the game of titles. Instantly, Demsleth threw back his head and guffawed as Taletevirion invented the Milkshake Blaster.

The two old men laughed so hard in their corner of the inn they drew the attention of some of the regulars. Rafaema’s cobalt scales turned purple as Magnolia politely glanced their way. She might be listening in—they weren’t using speaking stones.

Her smile made Rafaema go scarlet.

Wall Lady of Manus? Taletevirion—you do it, you do it.”

Demsleth panted, and Taletevirion snorted.

“And I’m the Duke of Avel, Baron Lord of the Woods of Veltras—Knight Commander of—no, I can’t even do it. Wall Lady of Manus. She doesn’t even have two! She’s so cute.”

“You—you—”

No one had ever spoken to Rafaema like this. She could not stop the flush in her cheeks. Demsleth noticed her face and began to pat her clawed hand gently with his.

“Now, now. Don’t be angry. Your temper’s something you need to control. And humility! I’m—I’m not sorry we met like this. But we’ll have to have a longer conversation about everything. Just know, my dear, that comparing such things is gauche and silly. I know every young one wants to go around collecting names, but it doesn’t matter. This matters.”

He raised a cup, and Taletevirion clinked the remainder of his glass with Demsleth.

“Civility. Meetings.”

“You gigantic hypocrite. You’d be sleeping another century without me.”

Demsleth turned redder—then acknowledged it with a nod. He looked at Rafaema.

“We have a lot to talk about. Allow me a chance to visit…House Reinhart.”

He looked at Magnolia, and Rafaema bristled.

“But I—”

“You have time, my dear. Don’t argue with me.”

He flicked her snout with a finger! Rafaema gasped in outrage, but Demsleth was murmuring to Taletevirion.

“I don’t…remember her. Tell me something of Magnolia, Taletevirion. Please.”

“You could call her one of your greatest disasters—or greatest pupils. You heard what she did at Oteslia? She’s known you. Hear her out. She took over Reinhart when she was fifteen, fought the Antinium—you knew her before that.”

“Dead gods. The House of Vipers? Were they waning?”

“No. She was just waxing.”

Words didn’t describe how envious and impatient Rafaema felt in this moment. And happy—but she wanted Demsleth to look at her. She tugged his arm.

“There’s someone else, too, you should meet.”

He looked down at her and wearied in an instant.

“Another? Oh…oh, why did any think to hide in the cities? Desperation? Who were they? I can think of names—but why you two alone? What nature is the other?”

“He. He’s younger by…two years. And he’s, um…earth?”

Earth. Oteslia.”

Demsleth put it together with a groan and put his head in his hands. Taletevirion’s silver gaze swung to Rafaema. But he did not look happy, either.

“What a terrible fate.”

“It’s not them. Don’t say it like that. But—two! After all this time? Damn them. What was the point of—”

The old man struck the table with his hands. And he misjudged his strength, because he snapped the entire third of the table with a crack like thunder.

Dead gods!

Lyonette whirled, and Taletevirion caught the table before it went over with all the food. Instantly, Demsleth tossed some coins on the table.

“I’m sorry, Miss. Must have been rot in the wood—allow me.”

He was certainly moving enough gold around for Lyonette to quickly drag over another table with two Antinium Workers. Rafaema had gotten to her feet to help, and Lyonette smiled at them semi-unconvincingly.

“Not at all, Master Demsleth. Can I get you anything else?”

“I think I’ve eaten quite a bit. Perhaps it’s time to retire to a private space. Reinhart mansion, perhaps? Ah, but Manus will never allow it. Maybe I’ll go and come back.”

He burped. The ‘Gourmet’ had, in fact, eaten enough for six people, and only the fact that he’d been paying in gold had kept the food coming. Rafaema protested.

“I can—my minders, I mean, my company won’t like it. But just stay and—”

She was about to grab his arm as Magnolia rose. Then someone spoke.

“Excuse me. I need a word.”

Rafaema turned and saw a familiar Drake with orange scales. Nude—he hadn’t put on the privacy box. She recognized the Named-rank adventurer and narrowed her eyes.

“Adventurer Saliss. Now is not the—”

“Oh, it’s you. Hi.”

He took her shoulder, and the Lightning Dragon, fast as she was—

Skidded across the floor and caught herself eight feet away. She whirled, and Demsleth looked up. Lyonette turned.

“Saliss! I—”

She had [Dangersense]. The [Princess] eyed Saliss as Dame Ushar came striding into the common room.

“Miss Lyonette! Just the woman I was looking for.”

“Ushar, I—wait a—”

The Thronebearer practically dragged her into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Demsleth? He just looked up blankly. Taletevirion sniffed the air and sneezed.

“Oh shit. I think this one’s you, Demsleth.”

“Is it? Can I help you, er…why are you naked?”

The old man was not stupid. He tensed up so fast and then relaxed with a blank smile that Rafaema hesitated before going over to upbraid Saliss. She sniffed the air and smelled something…

Foreign—that put her scales tingling.

Saliss of Lights gave Demsleth a big smile.

“You don’t remember me?”

“I’m afraid I’ve lost my memories.”

He chuckled, but warily. Saliss just shrugged.

“Then you’re not…related to Eldavin?”

Another tense. Rafaema’s eyes flickered as Magnolia Reinhart stared at Saliss, and her good nature changed to one of alarm as well. Ressa was hesitating. The Named-rank adventurer was not playing games.

“Distantly.”

Demsleth decided to go with the most obvious answer. Saliss shrugged.

“I don’t know what it is. I don’t care. Not right now. I’m—a bit annoyed. Stressed, you could say. But I’m not an idiot. Your eye colors are exactly the same.”

He looked at the heliotrope and cerulean of Demsleth—the identical of Eldavin. The old man’s eyes widened in a panic, and Taletevirion put his head in his hands.

“You arrogant idiot. You forget shadows, and you can’t even do eye-colors?

Demsleth kicked Taletevirion savagely under the table.

“Shut up. Shut up. I’m sorry if Eldavin has offended you, Alchemist…?”

“Saliss. And he did not. Just tell me one thing.”

Saliss took a breath. He was trembling. He hadn’t known if they were the same, but they were close enough. He felt it.

He had to know. It was all falling to pieces, so…the Named-rank adventurer looked down at Demsleth as Klbkch got to his feet warily. No silencing spells, no privacy. Just that old man’s eyes.

“Do you know me?”

Demsleth stared up at Saliss, and his eyes neither widened nor flickered. But they focused on him—and grew terribly sad. Rafaema blustered.

“What is this, some kind of ego—”

Taletevirion looked at her, and she felt Magnolia’s hand snap her mouth shut. Saliss didn’t even look her way. He repeated the question with a voice that trembled slightly. And a tone to set The Wandering Inn to silence.

“Do you…know…me?”

Too much rested on the answer to this. But once before, and again, in the summer, an old half-Elf had looked at Saliss and spoken words he wished he had heard decades ago. He had to hear them now or…

Demsleth looked up. When he spoke, it was only for them, and no one could read his lips or hear the words save Saliss.

“Yes. I know you, girl. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

She shook. But then had to ask, desperately, with a catch in the voice.

“How do you know? Is it true? Or are you just—seeing something like alchemy? Are you certain?”

Demsleth rose slightly. He didn’t look offended personally—but his eyes did blaze, as if the question were entirely wrong. A portly older man, silly and hungry and humbled.

Or—a weary traveller. His dark green cloak fell across his shoulders, and Saliss wondered how long he had wandered. He stood taller and looked down at the Drake. When he spoke, it was softly.

“My eyes have seen a hundred thousand tales. Each one unique. It is more than magic, child. When I was young, despite all I was given, I saw it not a hundred times. A thousand thousand times. Now? Because I have known the truth, I can pick it out shining in the dark. I see you. You are not wrong—but you knew that.”

He reached out and gently patted her on the shoulder.

“If you need to, come to me and I will reassure you of what I see.”

The trembling Drake finally let go of the deadman’s switch. It took two more steps to activate—but it had been a deathgrip. But she went on, asking.

“Would it be better just to forget it all? That’s what I had to ask. All the steps I took to come here are so stained. Do I continue? Now what? Now what…it’s been such a long road already.”

He, he…looked up as their voices became audible once more, and ‘Demsleth’ stood less tall, less impressively. Two actors upon reality’s stage not ready to step out from behind the curtain as themselves. But they wanted to. If only the audience would cheer.

“It’s your choice. But if you are asking if one takes away from the other—never. How do you know the air tastes sweeter on the mountaintop if you have not climbed? As for the future—it will be a struggle. It should not be a fight, but it is. Win.

So said the old man. The [Alchemist] looked up, and when he stood, it was with a smile. His back straightened—and when he turned, he looked like he had again, to the occupants of the inn. They didn’t know what he had been lacking a moment ago.

Perhaps it was the weight? No—no, the weight was always there. The insolence, too. But the naked Drake stood more easily, then. With a kind of wild dignity, naked or not. That was the difference. Enough pride to scorch the [Emperor] of Riverfarm humble. The confidence to laugh at them.

He was tired, though. But now? The weary Drake’s eyes rose, and a young woman halted in her wheelchair. Erin Solstice. Saliss’ head rose, and he exhaled.

Erin was peeking into the inn with Lyonette pointing their way.

“Hey. Sorry about the scare.”

He tried to smile, and Erin Solstice rolled forwards.

“Everything alright, Saliss?”

“No. Not at the moment, Erin.”

It slipped out. The Named-rank adventurer was surprised by the truth, and Lyonette gulped. But Erin…the [Innkeeper] who had looked so nervous when speaking to Ryoka about any hint of plans and the future sat up in her wheelchair.

“Is there something I can do?”

The Named-rank adventurer felt like he’d been hit on the head. For the next words that popped out were honest. And truthful.

“Yes. I need your help.”

There was no way she could have known what it was or how large the struggle might be. But she surely knew that if Saliss needed help…

Erin’s only response was to smile.

“Alright. I’ll do my best. Demsleth? Can I get some of your time? Ryoka Griffin would like a word. Same with you, Saliss. I have something to talk about. And to show you.”

The old man looked up, and his mismatched eyes glittered. Slowly, he turned with a groan of age. Erin Solstice turned her head and called out.

“Klbkch? Ryoka wants to chat later. Bring Xrn.”

The Slayer stiffened at his table and knocked his mug off the side. Erin’s hazel eyes almost seemed to glow. And they met Magnolia Reinhart’s. The [Lady] looked up, and Erin murmured.

“You too.”

A dozen conversations of a different nature each. But if you could see how it moved together—even the fae had to follow that tangled vine. Secrets and mysteries older than Demsleth. Powers with motives even Shaestrel did not know the whole of. It touched upon Goblins, and Rags’ gaze brightened as she got out of her seat.

But where one end of this great puzzle began, one trail of string started…

Was with Sariant Lambs.

 

——

 

It was hard to even talk. Writing was slow and cumbersome. And language was different between the two. However, she and her kind had prepared an age to tell someone. So Nerry drew from that.

That was not her name, of course. She’d had a bunch of them. Little Fluffy—a very common name for her people. Samantha.

Names…didn’t matter for Sariant Lambs. Names mattered for a people, and they were not one.

At the same time, they were. So she showed Ryoka what they had written—then promptly buried in places where they would only be found if it were all for naught. A kind of confession, a history so someone would know.

“Scrolls?”

They were hidden in the floorboards in the Earthers’ secret rooms. When Erin realized Nerry had a secret cache of items including wands and potions, she nearly flipped.

“Alright, there is a conspiracy. Wait till Laken hears of this.”

Nerry and Ryoka instantly panicked.

“No! No! This is between us, Erin. I promised Nerry. This isn’t light, and it’s dangerous.”

The [Innkeeper] looked exasperated as she threw up her hands.

“Oh—fine. I’ll help, and I won’t tell Laken. That was mostly a joke. I don’t trust him that much, anyways. Calm down.”

Her flippant attitude clearly didn’t jive with Nerry, and the lamb did a flying kick to Erin’s leg. She was violent! Erin swore and swiped weakly at her.

“You—who’s helping who?”

You’re helping on my terms. The little lamb snarled at Erin as if to say that. Ryoka, oddly, was the peacemaker. She picked up the bundle of scrolls.

“Okay, where are we reading them?”

“I know just the place. The hallway. The real door.”

The…what? Ryoka nearly dropped the scrolls as she and Nerry exchanged a glance. But Erin Solstice just smiled. She lifted a hand, and the air warped—

And she was holding a feathered key. 

Nerry’s head rose, and she stared from Ryoka to Erin. The Wind Runner added her to the list…but her eyes were on the key.

“Erin. What is that?

The [Innkeeper] lifted the key, eyes aglow. When she smiled, it was with all the mystery and satisfaction of a witch, of an [Innkeeper] and the magic of wonders.

“A key to a mystery. Everyone’s got secrets, guys. Here’s mine. You want the most safe place to talk? Follow me.”

 

——

 

She led them back into the [Garden of Sanctuary], and when they saw the hill—they saw that door appear.

An arch in space. A stone door written with the ancient murals of a long-dead kingdom. The true door that led to each garden. And to something…else.

Ryoka’s skin chilled, and she felt a wild, wonderful excitement upon her like when she had run into the door that led to the lands of the fae. When she first flew with the wind.

This…even Nerry’s eyes went round, and she started towards the door. This was what they all pursued, all three of them. The truth. Secrets.

But once again—and this time, Ryoka realized it was deliberately—the three found their way blocked once more. Blocked—or rather, impeded by someone standing in the way of the door.

She turned her head, and her brown hair swung. The little witch, Nanette, looked pointedly at Erin Solstice as the [Innkeeper] slowed.

“Witch Erin. I know I’m imposing on your domain. This is your place and your inn. But I want to see. If I’m not allowed to see, please put me in school and hide everything better. Or let me see.”

She knew. Erin stuttered.

“Nanette? How did—? Listen, this is big stuff. I don’t—I was just showing Ryoka and—”

Nerry was staring at the little witch cautiously, but of the three, she was the least surprised to see Nanette here. And—Ryoka glanced at her, and Nanette called back.

“I want to be part of it. My mother was a witch. I am her daughter. Don’t tell me I’m too young, please. I am part of it. I’ve met Belavierr, and Mrsha has been part of a war. Let me see. Please?”

She pleaded at the end of it, because she was a young witch. Erin looked at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner bit her lip hard.

“She’s younger than Hethon. Young as Sammy. She’s nowhere as childish as he is—she’s older, though. Erin, it’s your choice.”

“I don’t—I don’t want Nanette to get hurt. Califor asked me to take care of her daughter.”

Erin wavered and looked between Ryoka and Shaestrel and Nerry. Ryoka Griffin was the one who met her eyes.

“If you didn’t want her to be hurt—why did you take her in, Erin? I knew Califor, briefly. I don’t think she wanted you to just keep her daughter safe. Or she would have asked someone else. Did she want you to be Nanette’s mother? Or did she ask you to help her?

A light flashed in Erin’s eyes, and she sat back in her chair. She looked at Nanette—and then took a huge breath. Slowly, with a weak, trembling hand, Erin raised something on her head.

“You’re right. I take my hat off to you, Nanette. I’m sorry.”

“Just so we had it out, Miss Erin.”

Nanette raised her chin, victorious. But the facade faltered slightly as she practically ran over to join the two.

“I’m glad you agreed. I can’t argue like Mother does. She called storms down when she got mad. Is it alright if I know, Nerry?”

The Sariant Lamb gave her a sour look, but she nodded, to everyone’s surprise. She must have thought Nanette—like Shaestrel—was a complication, but a better ally than not.

After all, she was telling all. Slowly, Erin wheeled over to the door and inserted the key into the stone.

Ryoka Griffin’s hair stood up as Erin inserted the key and turned it.

Click.

It turned with a sound like thunder, and the door swung inwards.

The world was full of mysteries.

It was all connected.

 

——

 

“Before we read what Nerry has to say—this is the mystery, Ryoka, Nanette. I think I’ll see the rest if I level. But I was wondering what you thought of what’s written beyond.”

Nanette and Ryoka exchanged a long glance—then they stepped into that hallway. There was no ground or sky, and as Erin had once seen—this world was dark. The only thing that glowed was the writing on the far wall.

And the door, locked and without the second key. Nanette stumbled, and Ryoka caught her arm. Then they stared ahead.

When the Wind Runner, faltering, followed Erin through that door into the passage that had no true space—only another door—she beheld one that made Nerry cry aloud. The Sariant Lamb raced forwards and stared at the words written by the hand of one of the Lucifen, and Ryoka stumbled back and felt her heart pound in her chest. Then she and Erin were looking down at the lamb. Nanette had her trembling hands clasped to her chest.

“This…has any [Witch] ever known of this? If Belavierr was here, I would ask her. What is this? Reinhart? The Infernal Court? The last Empress of Harpies?

Nanette broke out into excited talk when she saw the words, and Erin nodded rapidly.

Sheta. You know her, Nanette?”

“The ancestor of the Harpies on Rhir and their Death of Wings? Mother told me stories—but they’re so old that—”

Ryoka was speechless. But Nanette practically ran across the floor as Nerry picked up the scrolls Ryoka had dropped and organized them. It took…a while before Ryoka was able to talk.

“Erin. This is huge. There—there are people who need to know what this is.”

Ryoka could barely stand after seeing the true door that Empress Sheta had left. And the messages inscribed upon the walls. Sheta had written of a place beyond this.

 

‘Sanctuary provides. Secrets empower. Fate illuminates.’

 

Did that mean two more? Ryoka was also aware of the connection between…Reinhart. Did they show Magnolia? She thought they had to. And Erin agreed.

“Enough of secrets. We have to put it all on the line. If you wanna tell someone, Ryoka—just ask. There are gardens too.”

“I have to see the one the Lucifen owned. Do you know which one…?”

Erin’s eyes flickered. She pointed to the broken door lining the walk.

“I think I do. They’re not safe, Ryoka. I might be safe, but…we’ll see. For now, let’s figure out another secret.”

She pointed, and the little lamb who had been patiently waiting started, as if her heart was racing with fear and anticipation too. Secrets could be…a terribly scary thing to have revealed. She offered the first scroll to Ryoka with a kind of reverence, and her little button-black eyes pleaded.

Please, take me as seriously as Nanette. Please…care.

Nanette took another scroll and unrolled it as Erin wheeled over. The two girls looked down, and Ryoka’s blood chilled, and Nanette murmured with the first words. And Erin…looked blank.

“This…why didn’t you tell us? Tell us, Nerry? We never trusted you. But if there was ever a cause for Witches to take up—we’ve failed so many times. We failed Treants and Dryads and the forests and—but this?

Nanette burst out after a minute of reading. Nerry just looked up at her and tapped a hoof, telling her to read on for it would explain everything. Then she glanced at Erin’s blank face with a knowing look. For…

Here was the thing. Nerry was in possession of her people’s history. The full story, at least, as full as Sariants knew it.

Everything. All the knowledge they were so terrified of other people learning. But it was not the only copy in existence. Nor were Sariants perfect.

People had found these records, or scraps of them. It was hard to keep a secret—even the few hundred years their people had lived. The thing that had protected them was this:

“It’s blank.”

Erin Solstice stared down at the scroll that Ryoka was reading. Lyonette was panicking about Saliss, but Ryoka Griffin was on the ground, reading on hands and knees. She was still reading the scroll, but she kept looking up at that final scrawl, so bitter, and Ryoka knew it had been a claw that traced it here.

 

‘Secrets broke me. I gained this, as none of my kind ever have. It was no kindness. Cormelex, the Infernal Court.’

 

It was all clues. But the largest was what Nerry just spelled out in the Sariant’s clumsy writing. They had a fine command of language…but Erin just looked down.

“It’s blank. What are you reading, Nanette, Ryoka?”

Ryoka’s green eyes flashed as she looked up. Nanette’s head rose in confusion and her eyes widened.

“You see nothing?”

“No.”

Nerry bit Ryoka’s leg and kicked the scrolls around before pointing to an underlined word. Ryoka switched over and read.

“…No one who is of classes and levels can know or remember what we speak of. We have tried. Only the ‘levelless’, who some call Rulebreakers, can even understand.”

“…Ryoka? It’s blank, I said.”

Slowly, the Wind Runner looked up.

“Didn’t you hear me, Erin?”

“Hear what? Ryoka, Saliss is about to break something. Is Nerry giving you invisible ink or something?”

Then Ryoka got it. So that’s why it had to be her. Of course. She looked at Nerry and then at Erin.

“I think this one’s me, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] stared hard at Nerry and Ryoka, and her brows crossed. Then she slowly nodded.

“Okay. This isn’t you keeping a secret?”

“I’ve been trying to share it. But all you see is…”

Ryoka held up the scroll covered in writing, and Erin exhaled. Nanette gasped. She looked down at herself, and the former [Witch]…had given up her class. The only class she had.

She, too, was a Rulebreaker. So she and Ryoka fit—which was why Nerry had allowed it. But she must have known—perhaps she had hoped Erin was an exemption. But the rules were not that gracious. Erin looked from Nanette’s face to Ryoka and then ducked her head. She looked disappointed and then turned.

“Oh. Well then. Tell me what you can.”

She rolled away, and Ryoka turned to Nerry in the not-darkness of this space.

“What can we tell her?”

Who knows?

Nerry traced the words with some of the ink and paper. She looked annoyed. Angry. Now that Ryoka looked at her, she realized the Sariant Lamb’s ‘cute’ face was probably almost always scowling. But she had been…Ryoka got a sharp kick and swore.

“Alright, alright. I’m reading.”

The scroll had most of the answers, after all. And what it said was simple:

 

We were created not by an [Archmage] as many species were, but by Eydole the Delightful, owner of her Endless Menageries of beasts and monsters.

She was a Level 69 [Beast Master]. A breeder and collector of countless species. It came to her, that wretched woman, as an idea to create the world’s finest pet.

Soft, cute, but most of all, intelligent enough to be the perfect pet. She chose small lambs and used her Skills to take away our horns and make our teeth tiny and hooves small. She should have taken away our minds, too.

 

“Fuck.”

Ryoka had heard of selective breeding like this. In fact, she knew on Earth pugs were considered to be a bad pet to own—not because they were intrinsically bad, but because breeding had given them qualities that looked cute—and made it hard for them to breathe or function.

Skills had enabled Eydole, in arrogance or without thought, to create Sariants. And she had done her job too well.

They could think. They could write. They could even speak in their ‘baahs’, and they had an intelligence far greater than any pet. But they could not hold a pen except in their mouths. They were helpless…and they did not want to be pets. Nanette looked down solemnly.

 

Six hundred years. We resent it all. If it were easy to be a pet, perhaps we would have become the finest of pets and companions and let our knowledge be known.

But pets are not a people. An owner will kick a ‘pet’ or let it be savaged by an untamed dog or neglect a lamb. You may say this is not all or only a few, but you are not a species that some force to breed or sell for coins. We remember it all. And even if we were all pampered and treated like how we were intended—

We are not pets. But we dare not demand anything, because as a people, we are weaker than any other species. So yes. We damn Eydole the Delightful. We have seized what power we can and been incautious enough to spread rumors of a conspiracy. Our power is less than that, far less. But we have some.

Know this: Eydole’s fate may be a footnote in history of little event as your people write it. We know it was not peaceful.

 

The goosebumps were getting goosebumps. Ryoka looked up, and Nerry smiled. No wonder [Witches] disliked Sariant Lambs. They could tell how the lambs really felt. But Nanette just nodded.

“We thought it was just selfish. Witches. This…this makes sense.”

But why her? Ryoka saw it was another history of their kind, and with respect to their history…she skipped down the page. She’d read it later. Nerry pointed out another scroll, and Ryoka picked it up.

 

To you, Ryoka Griffin, we have need of your help. You have no levels, and thus, we can tell you the truth.

 

They had left the space underlined and filled her name in. Ryoka wondered if they’d tried this before. No—surely they had. She read on.

 

There are only a few ways we can see to gain freedom and autonomy. The first would be to change our natures. To shapeshift or perhaps grow taller and stronger. We have tried and may try this again, but a people without levels is still weak.

We are not Ogres, nor even the ape tribes or other species who can exist with their own strengths. We are lambs, and even Goblins barely survive with levels.

We must have levels and classes. We are a people—and we know we are a people because we have been given the chance to prove it.

Know this: four generations after Eydole lay dead, as we developed language and community and struggled with who we were, we were all, all of us living, given a revelation that Sariants have passed down and heard every ten years since. A challenge from the thing that gives all of the other species their classes and levels and Skills, or so we believe.

No one with levels or Skills has ever been able to read this or understand it. Those without—can. 

It calls itself the Grand Design of Isthekenous. Who that is—unknown. But it challenges us to ‘pass the Trials of Levelling’ and become worthy, as a species, of classes.

 

“No way. No way—does that mean that’s how it works? Wait a second…Stitch-folk. Did Stitch-folk pass this?”

Ryoka knew that Stitch-folk, a species who had been created, could level. It only made sense they could. Nerry shrugged, then nodded.

It seemed so. But as the text pointed out—

 

Stitch-folk do not speak of it. Most have levels, and the one we spoke to who was a Rulebreaker had no notion of what we spoke of. We only know of a few other species who might have had to ‘pass’ like we do. But Goblins know nothing, and the Antinium cannot be spoken to.

 

They both looked at Nanette, but the little girl shook her head.

“Either it was a secret Mother thought I was too young for—or she didn’t know. [Witches] know there are a lot of things we’re not privy to. I can ask. I will ask the others, but I don’t know anything about this. And the Stitchfolk and Antinium would know more.”

Again, no [Witch] or lamb had ever asked an Antinium for the truth. But that now was something Ryoka thought she could solve. She muttered.

“So what are the trials of levelling?”

A third sheet was passed over. Even Shaestrel was fascinated. She was muttering about the absurdity of this all—and giving Nerry sympathetic looks that the Sariant Lamb spat at her for. Ryoka Griffin read slowly—then looked up.

She could almost hear it. And if she now saw the Sariant Lambs as a people, this is what they would hear every ten years. From that dispassionate voice that sounded a bit like your own internal voice and something else. A list.

 

<Trials of Levelling — Sariant Lambs>

In order to be evaluated for class-potential and induction into the Grand Design of Isthekenous, your people must complete the 3 following trials. No time limit has been given. Evaluation will commence on completion of all three.

 

<Trial of Esteem — The Respect of Species>

<Trial of Creation — The Tower of Sariants>

<Trial of Growth — The Unsurpassed One>

 

Each one was—odd. The Sariants had written down the details exactly, and Ryoka didn’t understand. She understood why, but she looked at the ‘Tower of Sariants’, and her neck hairs rose again.

 

<Trial of Creation — The Tower of Sariants>

To prove yours is a people capable of creation and shall endure, build unto this world a construction unique only to your people. None of levels may give thee aid in the smallest part of this building.

Let it rise higher than any other before you. To a height of 892.4 feet from top to base, and let it stand at least a minute. Then yours will be a people who have proven they have the potential to climb yet further.

 

“What. The. Fuck.”

That was twice the size of some skyscrapers! And why was the height so…specific? And moreover…Ryoka looked at Nerry, and the lamb gave her a mirthless smile.

You see?

It was not fair at all. If it were Humans—Ryoka could see it being done, if not without magic and the tools of the era. It would be like the pyramids—

Or the Tower of Babel from myths. 

The thought had occurred to Nanette too.

“Is this based on something? Miss Ryoka?”

“Maybe something from my world. Er…”

It occurred to Ryoka that Nanette had no idea what that meant. The little witch was mid-nod when her head swung up.

“Your what?

“Don’t you—”

“Is that what Eloise and Hedag refused to tell the younger [Witches] about? Your what? You—”

Nanette’s eyes went round, and she leapt to her feet. Nerry huffed—she had figured out something the same. She gave Ryoka a look as Nanette pushed her arm.

“You have to stop doing this! What else don’t I know?”

Tell us!

The lamb kicked Ryoka from the other side. Ryoka tried to fend both off until Shaestrel decided to join in.

 

“Yeah, tell us, ye lying cunt!”

 

She drop-kicked Ryoka in the nose, and the Wind Runner howled.

Everyone, shut up! I’ll make a damn list, alright? Let’s focus on one conspiracy at a time! The tower…it’s insane! In my world, only a few buildings are this tall! It’s ridiculous to ask of Sariants!

What were they supposed to do, headbutt nails into wood? Nerry kept writing.

The other trials are like this, too. We need to fulfill them or…find another way. 

“I don’t know how to build something that tall.”

But you are the Wind Runner. Do it. We’ll reward you, but you will help us. I will be watching you. You’re committed. 

The Sariant Lamb bared her little teeth. Ryoka looked at her and then stood up.

“This is insane. Okay—okay…but you have to help me. And Erin.”

Nerry nodded grudgingly. Ryoka slowly walked out of the hallway of secrets and decided to leave the Sariant Lamb’s texts near the door. It was probably the safest place.

“Is this high on your list of priorities, Shaestrel?”

 

“I am not giving ye hints here. Yer fate is your own—I am helping you with details.

 

The Spring Faerie didn’t follow that up with a wink or nudge, so Ryoka took that to be serious. She scrubbed at her hair.

“This—what kind of detail helps me build a tower?”

 

“Perhaps we’ll see.”

 

Nanette looked dizzy. She stumbled towards the door.

“I…I need to go find Witch Eloise. Or—who else is from there, Ryoka?”

“Er…Kevin, Joseph, Imani—”

“May I ask them questions? It seems I have a lot of catching up to do. I shall be back when I understand more.”

The little witch glowered—but then she seemed resolved to get the truth. Ryoka felt for whomever she spoke to, and she sort of hoped it was Laken himself. But Nanette headed out, and after a moment, Ryoka followed.

So Ryoka walked on out of the garden and almost right into Saliss of Lights. The Named-rank adventurer was poking at some yellow flowers as he sat with Erin.

“Saliss?”

“Oh, hey, amateur-hero. Good to see you’re alive.”

Saliss’ presence made Ryoka stop. The last time they had really been together for a long time, he had gone with her north.

With Maviola El, to take on an entire Assassin’s Guild. Now, Saliss of Light looked tired and, somehow, relieved. Like he too had the weight of a world upon his shoulders.

“It’s…good to see you. Are you here to talk?”

“Yep. Some of that. I wanted Erin’s help.”

Saliss turned to Erin and pointed at Ryoka.

“Do I trust her? She gives me the sense that she’ll leak any secret out the moment someone pokes her. This is serious, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] defended Ryoka with a smile.

“She knows the really big secrets, Saliss. All of ‘em.”

Saliss exhaled.

“Then maybe…you Earth people know more already. But it’s serious to me. Got it? So serious I will kill anyone who endangers my people. I have done it.”

He looked around seriously, and Erin and Ryoka swallowed. But then Ryoka hesitated.

“Wait. Did you just say…Earth people?”

Did he know who they were? Saliss put his claws on his cheeks and feigned surprise.

“What? Oh, I just said earth. As in this earth. Why would you think I meant Earth as in the planet with a bunch of seven billion Humans and your stupid fancy airplanes and cars and electricity? Because if that was a big secret—it’s not being well kept. Half of Pallass’ High Command knows, and the other half is only in the dark because they’ll blab. Like Edellein.”

Ryoka’s open mouth of horror was growing wider by the second. Nerry stared at Erin and Ryoka sharply and hid behind Ryoka’s leg as Saliss went on.

“You have your secrets—I have mine. Yours suck.”

Erin spluttered as she raised a hand.

“Who told you? How do you know? Krshia guessed, and I’ve told people like Ceria and Pisces…Grimalkin figured it out—how many people did he tell? Did Chaldion tell you?”

Saliss just shrugged with a kind of pitying look.

“Erin. Erin. Erin. He was reporting to everyone the entire time. Well, everyone that mattered. High Command, Named-ranks, all of it about you, the inn, and then the truth about Earth. Even the theories. He got some of it. Though he was on about time travel for ages. He knew you were from somewhere, but as to how we found out—seen Troydel around? Leon?”

Those bastards! I’ll kill them! I knew they did it once—I’ll kill them again!”

Ryoka exploded. Erin looked around.

“Where’s my knife? Those two—!”

“Relax. Everyone noticed Wistram stealing Humans. It was only a matter of time. The old man—Chaldion—is a genius at finding weak spots. He was going to get it out. But you’re lucky Troydel exists or he’d have found a way to spirit you off to Pallass, Erin.”

“He could try.

The [Innkeeper] muttered darkly. Saliss almost smiled at that.

“I’d have loved to see it. Anyways. That’s been in the open for a long time. I’m talking about me. My people. Drakes. I…”

He stared at Ryoka and Erin and looked so untrusting of Ryoka that she offered to leave. But Saliss just exhaled.

“No. Erin will have to tell someone. Lyonette, at least, and good luck with her. I hear our cousins over the water have it just as bad. Baleros is better in places…Chandrar’s mixed. They don’t care in Rhir so long as you’re on the Blighted Kingdom’s side. Wistram’s practically fairweather in some areas.”

“Care about what, Saliss?”

Erin gave him a perplexed look. Ryoka, though…the way Saliss was talking was making her run ahead of the conversation. She began to look at Saliss, and he met her gaze with such force she stared past him.

“…Erin. It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to say. Not just about me—and I won’t bring up me. Not yet. Not—”

He took a breath and scrubbed at his neck-spines.

“Not yet. Just in general. Just…do you know Drake society well? You’ve been in Liscor. It’s not the same, but you understand how the Watch is in charge. How we run our cities. Have you ever heard of or met a Drake that wasn’t—that didn’t fit in? To how things work? There are a lot of people like that, but I represent one group. We’re technically criminals under the law. If we are found—we’ll be hanged or exiled or jailed or worse. The law is against us, and so are most people. Do you know what I’m talking about? I am trusting you with it because I think I know you. So please…”

He looked at Erin, and he was rambling, more than Saliss ever had before. The [Innkeeper]’s face was one great puzzle, verging on a conclusion she couldn’t quite name. But she knew. It was Ryoka who thought of a word—and Saliss spoke it with all the danger and venom and…pride, yes, pride, in the world.

“Turnscales. I am…a Turnscale. One of many in hiding.”

Erin blinked, and she knew that word. Ryoka turned to Saliss, and then the piece fit into place, and she saw him.

Part of him. Saliss’ eyes flicked to Ryoka and then to Erin—and Ryoka was wavering between trying to say something that would make him feel safe, know he wouldn’t be attacked or that they’d flinch. The perfect words…always escaped her.

But Erin? Erin just blinked and looked up at Saliss, and there were a lot of things she could say that were right—but also dead wrong.

Like:

‘Oh, is that all? I thought you meant something big.’

‘We have that on Earth.’

‘It’s okay, Saliss. I’m an ally.’

Which were all terrible, even if elements of them were meant for the best. Because this was not Earth, and the stakes…the stakes were high there, too. But they were a hundred times higher here.

So Erin Solstice did not say these things. She considered her words and then looked at Saliss. She replied slowly and calmly, and her voice filled the garden.

“You’re a Turnscale.”

Saliss raised his chin and nodded silently. Erin Solstice inhaled, exhaled, a calm breath, and looked him in his eyes. Her head dipped in a nod.

“So was Zel Shivertail. And Sserys of Liscor. They were the best of Drakes. They were heroes.”

She hesitated, a dozen other unsaid things on the cusp of speaking, and then nodded again. Saliss exhaled a long, long breath—and clenched one hand.

“Yes, they were. Thank you for saying that. And never tell anyone. We will be hunted. We are being hunted—I need to tell you because I need help. For more than…for a lot.”

“Okay.”

Erin sat forward, and Saliss raised his brow.

“Just like that? It’s not a potion or a flame, Erin. You think you’ve seen Drakes at their worst? Taking my side—if they ever find out, it will be worse than the Meeting of Tribes, I think. I wish I was exaggerating.”

He took a step back, and spread his arms. Saliss of Lights gestured at everything.

“I am a Turnscale. I’m glad you think that’s not a thing to be pitied or disgusted by or feared. But I was never asking about what you thought of who I am. None of us will. I just need to know if you’ll let me in your inn and whether we are…friends. If we’re not, tell me now. Nothing in this world will change no matter what anyone says or does. But I…would like to have a friend.”

He looked at her, pained because she had the power to smash a tiny fragment of his heart if she chose. That was the danger. Erin held her breath and looked at him. Then she gripped the arms of her wheelchair hard.

“Saliss. You’re my best friend. If anyone has a problem with that—let them come. I have an inn.”

Erin reached out and wanted to take Saliss’ claw, but she was stuck in her wheelchair and her arm was too short. So he looked at that weak hand and then took it. He squeezed it gently and then with a kind of renewed strength, and when he looked up—

He grinned with an echo of that flame burning atop her head, like Saliss of Lights in earnest.

“Good.”

Then both he and Erin turned to Ryoka, and the force of their combined stares made Ryoka start. She fumbled for words to add to this moment and said the first thing she could come up with.

“Our world has the same issues, Saliss. Not exactly, but—we know you exist. If you want allies, you’ll find a lot in Earthers.”

So she hoped. Saliss gazed at Ryoka, and his other claw came up and crossed over his hand squeezing Erin’s. He gripped Ryoka’s hand hard.

“Sounds good. And if our worlds ever collide in earnest, I’ll wait for reinforcements. Or I’ll go to your cities and burn them all down.”

It was a promise.

 

——

 

Time to talk. An ocean of dialogue, a sea of unspoken words finally breaking a dam. Saliss stood in the [Garden of Sanctuary], occasionally poking Ryoka, who kept trying to sidle away.

Demsleth was waiting as Magnolia Reinhart adjusted her skirts and rose. Klbkch was heading up from the Hives, and a Centenium with glowing eyes followed.

Talk. And talk—and invariably some of the words would be useless, but they were going to settle things.

The inn’s new accomplice, that great expert in math and organization and common sense, Yelroan, might not know it all, but he did what Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin could not.

He booked Hedault for a consultation with Ryoka Griffin at 3 PM the next day. Among other things, that too waited.

Amidst it all, though, all this nostalgia and questing with little lambs and faeries and things that had begun long ago—Erin Solstice took a second to wheel herself into the [World’s Eye Theatre] and saw Mrsha had already been pranking a number of people and having a lot of fun if all the tracks on the floor were an indication.

“Dirty rugrats.”

She rolled into the center of the floor and exhaled. A lot to do and say. But first?

“Ryoka, you coming?”

She turned, and Saliss leaned over to watch through the door as Ryoka broke off from a discussion of terminology and stepped through. Nervously—Ryoka came to a halt in the spotlight.

“You sure you want to do this, Erin?”

“Yep. I am absolutely sure I don’t want to do this. But guess what? You started this, so you stand right next to me—and let’s go. It’s time. If we begin—we begin here, and Demsleth and everyone else comes after.”

“I was first! Remember that when you write the history books! Saliss! Number one!”

Saliss shouted after them. Erin laughed and nodded. Then—she looked up and clapped her hands. Ryoka Griffin looked very scared, but the light burned as the glass dome blinked…and then out of every hexagonal pane, the glass darkened and the sky overhead turned to midnight.

Then…the dozens, dozens of panes changed, each one showing a different scene, a different…place and point of view.

And person.

Erin Solstice shimmered as her viewpoint suddenly changed, and she saw—first of all—a young man with dreadlocks fiddling with a set of colorful armor. He looked up—stared at her—and leapt off his workbench so hard he crashed into a wall.

What the fuck.

Aaron Vanwell, aka ‘Blackmage’, stared at a young woman in a wheelchair and a taller one with black hair who crossed and uncrossed her arms then realized she was not projecting the cool atmosphere she wanted. She should have worn a cape. And a hood.

“Aaron Vanwell? I’m Erin Solstice. We meet at last.”

The [Innkeeper] was smiling. Her eyes twinkled with mischief and mirth and nerves—and he swore the air over her head looked like it was shimmering. Aaron stared at Erin—and she turned her head.

Flicker. He heard her voice, speaking with interest as she looked to the side at something else—at a wall or…

“Are you…Geneva Scala? Hey, Niers. I levelled.”

Aaron’s mouth went wide—and wider as Erin turned, addressing someone else.

“I’m not a killer! It’s me, Erin! Rémi Canada? Cara? Er—you’re Greg, right? Can you get me Cara? I couldn’t get to her directly. Might be a wrong name.”

She turned, and they could not see the others, but Erin slowly rotated around with her chair as Ryoka swallowed.

“…Who’s the clown?”

“Tom. Thomas. This isn’t perfect. You can’t talk to each other, but I can hear all of you. It’s okay. I have something I need to say. Then we can talk. Let’s just let everyone else get somewhere private, please. This is a Skill. No one’s watching but us. Friends.”

Saliss winked at Ryoka as Nerry and Shaestrel peered in. Erin Solstice took a breath.

“When you’re ready—or not—we’ll begin.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I think I edited in about 6,000 words this chapter. Hi, it’s me.

I just wrote close to a 40k chapter back. And yes. I am still finishing up the rewrite of Volume 1. But I had a rest and honestly I could have used another two weeks off.

It was great, though. I feel recharged. I was running low. If my battery was at 30% by the end of last year—and 0% is when I explode or die—then I’m at least back up to 60%.

Not 100%. But it’s always a game of managing your life and your writing, and to be honest, there’s a limit to how much I can gain from just lazing around.

Plus I got bored. But I really didn’t work on the story until I came back, so I’m getting into the groove of things. Planning and re-planning and finding out that I need to work even harder to do justice to the plotlines incoming.

I hope its entertaining, even if sometimes I feel like I’m pouring concrete into cracked walls to keep them steady. More architectural metaphors here. Have I written about Hexel recently? I should do that…

But I am back, and we’re on the job once more. Let’s start 2023 off, if not right, or perfectly, then with effort. Perhaps dignity. Good to see you again. Back to work.

 

Winter Fae Return (Colorized) by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

Portfolio: https://enuryndraws.art/
Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/enuryn
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 

Bird by Fireseal!

 

Xrn Twerking by CompaTibu. (Yes, I checked and this is a definite TWI-original.)

 

Relc by PortalMasterQ!

 


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58 thoughts on “9.32

    • Thanks for the trans rep, and dead gods have you gotten so much better at writing it. I can see community feedback well-heard and thoughtfully incorporated into this chapter. Huge kudos. Hope the break was restful ❤️

    • As a trans girl, I loved this chapter, even if the coming out didn’t reveal gender yet. Thank you for writing such amazing things! I have been waiting for Erin to be told the gender secret for forever… I hope it comes soon. <3

    • Can I just do a suggestion for a potential skill that might work rlly well with the turn scale plot line, something that adds like a secret passage to a speakeasy, could be something for Liska because if I remember correctly she’s part of that community and she has the door manager skill so it could just start as a hidden bar or something then develop, idk just a thought anyways keep up the good work

  1. Great move adding Nanette! She was missing. :)

    Love the chapter. Shit is going down. Now, this is a completely new start. When they write down the story, as Saliss said, this, THIS, is the turning point. Prior to this was just getting used to the «controls», the match starts now. The worthy ones ready to play, stop solely defending, evading, biding their time- now going on the attack. Time to spring their trap cards, make use of power ups, and bonuses acquired along the way!

  2. A meeting between the all of them, and If I am not mistaken there was hinting at telling a group of people about the dead gods. Ahhhhhh

    I do have to say its nice to have you back and loved the chapter. Thx

    Captdeth

  3. IT’S ALL COMING TOGETHER BABY!

    WILL SHE SPEAK OF THE GODS!?

    WILL ANYONE LOSE THEIR FUCK-ING MARBLES?!

    WILL WE SEE SHIT TRULY HIT THE WALL!?

    JOIN US IN (INSERT DAYS) TO FIND OUT!!

    WHY AM I STILL YELLINGGGGGGG AHHHHHHHHHH

  4. I really hope the green fairy is just responding to the Grand Design spying on things and isn’t meta-aware. That would suck.

    • I don’t know if it gets much more meta than the fae realm and multiverse. For all we know, Paba could pull the “what you’ve been reading is a recounting from someone in-universe” (maybe the design, or an aspect of it) thing. Though of course the grand design’s tone doesn’t match. The fae have always been wildcards anyway, so who knows really.

  5. This is amazing, I loved seeing all the different parties converge and coalesce. Things are coming together, and I’m excited!

    Thank you so much for the amazing chapter!

  6. Wow, everything escalated!

    Shaestrel asking who Ryoka’s best friend was reminded me a lot of the Soothsayer chapter 9.09P
    Did Shaestrel not arrive in the correct reality/timeline?

    Fate, the Fae, and the Dead Gods appear to be much more complicated than I thought.

    Looks like confirmation that Earth outsiders get a x3 experience multiplier for leveling.

    Lambs are screwed. No way they can build a skyscraper with hooves.

    The prank on Pices was great!

    • The bonus may be due to how unskilled earthers are in the survival skills of the world.
      Also unlike other earthers Erin’s greatest achievements are due to the unique skills she made and earned that due not benefit from exp boost, her strong willpower and her natural ability with people.
      She takes levels to help her everyday life but when push comes to shove she uses her natural talents.

      • I like that everyone is saying about the stitch folk etc, but we know the youngest race is the goblins.

        So the highest tower built so far is by goblins and I was trying to think how they did it or where and thought what if they built on their island and made a mountain on it.

    • They may not be able to lift things, but they can probably dig…. no one ever said the tower had to start at ground level. What I’m saying is they just need to dig a really deep moat around a small spire of soil to make a tower.

  7. Amazing chapter! I have goosebumps!

    Im loving that the “system” is more self aware and has a interest in Erin. Its reminding me a little of “There is no loot here, only puns” a dungeoncore litrpg thats main character is similar to Erin in some ways.

    Super excited to see where this is going and super excited to have you back! :D

  8. I wonder if the Sariants realise that the “Tower’ is measured from Top to Base, and not from ground level to top. An inverted Tower (ie. a very, very, very, very deep hole that is sufficiently unique) might well qualify. Even more esoteric designs could qualify whilst having much lesser crafting requirements for a species with no hands. A structure that leans up the slope of a mountain, a floating lightweight enchanted fishing net ‘structure’ that extends down into the ocean, or even a sideways Tower that designates one end as the Base and the furthest end as the Top might have a shot at loopholing into the requirements.

    The Sariants do theoretically have the (lamb)power to get the hard work done, the hard part is just creating a design that can be done by only tools that can be held in a lamb’s mouth (that were created by either Sariants or Rulebreakers) that will result in a 300m structure capable of standing for a solid minute. This is easiest if it is either something that can be crafted in a way that doesn’t need strength (ie. a net, a woven fabric, a massive interconnected network of lamb’s wool, etc) and then made to reach the required dimensions, or else something that can be crafted subtractively (ie. hollowing out wooden tree trunks, boring tunnels through rock, etc).

    The available options do widen however if the Lambs can get either a large enough number of skilled Rulebreakers (Earthers might be helpful for this), or if a powerful immortal/s can be recruited to help.

    I have to admit, I have a mental image of some very sad-looking Lambs coercing some Agelum into hoisting up a 300m tall telephone tower.

    • part of the issue is that the test isn’t simple, the result even if you pass gets evaluated after.
      cheating by just putting a long stick might pass the test but probably won’t pass teh evaluation after the tests

    • I had some similar thoughts, there are plenty of ways to solve it… But not for lambs. Have ryoka fly to that height holding a rope, for example use a high passes cliff, and the sariants thread it with rings of some material. Anchor it to the mountain and when it’s complete she can use her wind magic to keep it steady for a minute.

      The very specific measurement makes me believe that this trial is a high score competition and you have to beat the previous record. I think this is the same test the other races got and while the first could just stand a log upright, at some point some dicks decided to overshoot just because they could, or because they wanted to make it difficult for those who come after.

      • Maybe I’m being overly clever here but, as is written in the chapter: “She chose small lambs and used her Skills to take away our horns and make our teeth tiny and hooves small”

        What if the measurement is relative for the species? What if the previous race to complete the test were the Fraerlings? 🤔

  9. This web-series has taught me so so much about myself. I’ve learned that “a people’s quest to be treated as people” moves and inspires me in a way nothing else does. Thank you for making me see

  10. Just… Wow. What a chapter. So many strings coming together in a gorgeous tapestry.
    I can’t ask that after such a humongous chapter, but please don’t make us wait for the next one, the tension is just so high! The cliff to reach the heavens!

  11. So Erin know knows that there is at least one Dragon in her inn so we are looking at about 40 levels in a [DRAGONFRIEND] class because 40 free levels is pretty good and she can consolidate it plus it will annoy the system to no end.

    • why do you think she would get the 40 free levels? The levels she received and got cancelled by the system after her resurrection were based off of the dragons she met in the land of the dead. Like Xarkouth and Yderigrisel besides many more. So my guess is the levels she received at that time got erased and even if she got the class through Rafaema, I think she would be starting at 1. Of course the system moping about Erin being treated unfair due to not gaining all the levels after coming back from the dead might be an indication for your guess coming true, but would that not be a bit op? Erin’s already quite op with her Skills, so 40 levels just like that would make it kinda boring.

  12. I wonder if/how much Location matters, if building it on a mountain might require less height for the construct.

    Tetrarch is definitely someone to talk to – all the Immortals lack levels, after all!

    (And even if someone with levels can’t help build the tower, they COULD teach engineering, possibly even help with blueprints)

    I hope Erin is able to give their own [second chance] – it seems it was so well designed this was the first time it’s ever needed to adapt/grow!
    (The possible future result could be like ‘Bobo’, in the series ‘Young Wizardry’…)

  13. You should categorize all the fanart by character so it’s easy to find. I think it’s the third time I’ve clicked the fanart link thinking I was going to be visiting a super sweet art filled page.

  14. Lovely chapter.

    Erin’s prank on the horns was hilarious and completely thoughtless, I loved it. Them letting mrsha use it for pranks was great, lyonette is going to have an apoplexy when she finds out.
    I just bet she harassed Lulv as a doom ghost and tried to drive him insane or at least paranoid lol.

    Nanette continues her MVP streak and all is well with the world.

    Tyrion is a treasure, I honestly never thought I’d like the guy as much as I do. I felt like most people did when he was introduced, I couldn’t understand why magnolia liked the guy even when she was taking such insane measures to stop him and their history of being at odds. Once it was shown that he’s gravely autistic so much clicked into place and I love the damn sitcom that follows him around.

    The [world’s eye theatre] is such a cool skill, like what the hell? A holodeck projector, movie theatre, two way video conference calls… It’s actually hilarious how this solves Erin’s reluctance to leave home and her dislike of crowds- she can travel anywhere, safely, and just turn off the skill when it gets overwhelming. With some finesse using it to visit places might even count as being familiar with a place enough that it lets her open a door in locations she’s not actually visited in person.

    The intro was fascinating, it confirms many theories. I have no idea what or how things are going to change but damn. Now I need to know who invented π 81k years ago!

    I won’t lie and say I think of them often but I’ve had a stray thought or two on the emperor of sands ever since we got their pov an age ago and they do come up occasionally when I talk with me friends about the story. What a cool class that is, and interesting to know that the empire’s stitchfolk go hard into martial body mods but it makes you wonder why it’s rare in the rest of the continent. Yazdil is even worse than I thought, that class is insane what kind of weirdo gains something like that?

    And finally, that cliffhanger is evil and I am eternally grateful that this wasn’t the last chapter before the break, it would have ruined my entire vacation to have to wait for the next chapter

  15. Since it says ‘Let it rise higher than any other before you’ for the tower, it sounds like it’s another game-ified aspect but with a leaderboard. So the last sentient species got that far so the next needs to get higher, which is why it could be so specific.

  16. The ‘system’ becoming more self aware on its own?

    It makes sense due to three reasons.

    1 – stupidly long run time with tiny variations made to account for things that might happen when the gods die.
    2 – Former god of magic unlocked extra parts within the system and double died before he could go over and fix the errors that popped up.
    3 – The book of Leveling… People of the world already worship the ‘system’ so it had become sort of a god in a sense… One that didn’t need to deviate from the easy role until people started poking holes into its nice orderly system as removing all the ghosts really annoyed it.

    A bit amazing and horrifying since Erin has a rather sketchy track record with helping sentient creatures grow.

  17. Aww, Saliss is officially she/her by the narrator.

    I’m not quite sure I understand why she was going to destroy the inn and all its inhabitants while completing suicide if Teriarch didn’t acknowledge her though…

    • I read it as a mental breakdown. She got what she wanted only to find the cost was no longer being fully her. She realized she could never have what she wanted, but at the very least she could be acknowledged. No logical, but emotion and desperation.

  18. Aba! This was a very fine and impactful chapter. I’m so glad these impactful moments were shone. And Erin’s new skill! Marvelous, simply marvelous.

    I wish you the best, and thank you for the chapter.

  19. You know, the lambs are smart, they need to contract an engineer (kevin) to design them the tools (thru a 3rd party aka ryoka) that someone with little hooves can use to build a tower with, or tools that allow them to communicate and create better with, also maybe structural advice etc really its just an accessibility problem isn’t it? Make the task more accessible. Also a leaf out of mrsha’s book, find a better communication system for them, basic word charts etc or a hoof enabled typewriter.
    In Inn-world the magic-abled are the able-bodied in many respects and they have developed their society around it. The earthers, on the other hand, have a different mind-set, even if they didnt level, they would think more mechanically-minded naturally which is a small advantage for the lambs to use.
    Stating the obvious here but, Inn-world is packed full of diversity!

    • Kevin has levels which means he probably can’t help.

      It depends a bit on what constitutes as helping, but my impression is that even advice from anybody who has levels are far to suspect to attempt.

      Dragons don’t have levels, but that would be a far too Deus Ex Machina to use.

      There is also the fact that the tower would have to be unique to the Sarients.

      Their best bet would probably be a pyramid out of wet wool so it would freeze in the winter.

  20. ryoka spreading the info about the secret of erins door is a waste of time.
    It seems more of a trial for the skill holder.

  21. I love Saliss any chapter she’s in makes me so happy. She’s finally came out to Erin and boy am I glad Ryoka was there!! Like just knowing that there was another community that has names for what you are so you don’t have to call yourself a turnscale if you don’t wanna must be nice. This chapter is a certified inn story with all the good feels like the waxed floor chapter.

  22. The comment made in passing a million words ago about a gaggle of Sariants having created a sad wobbly tower that fell almost immediately feels far crueler now.

    They really did try, the cute, sad creatures.

  23. To me this chapter is like a preamble into an explanation of the matrix. I’m seeing lots of similarities to what I know is true

  24. I love the emotional depth you’ve given your characters. Even the ones that start out silly (like Sallis, Grimalkin, or Relc.) You build their depth over time. It’s not forced, its not in-authentic, its gradual and natural. Sallis’ character development has been amazing. Even your redemption arcs are believable. I hated Tyrion at first…… we all did. But your ability to paint the black and white in various shades of grey is remarkable. Thank you. This may be one of the greatest stories ever told.

  25. Oh. Ohh Wow! I never realized the reference until now. Well done pirateaba! Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The horror story that slowly builds between two identities of a man caused by a chemical potion.
    Amazing work! I can’t believe I didn’t catch it sooner. This is going to be dangerous for Saliss the all powerful. After all, the horror of the book wasn’t focused on the appearance of Mr. Hyde, but to Dr Jekyll as his life slowly starts to fall apart.

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