9.33

Then she was there.

Erin Solstice, before your eyes. She appeared wherever you were—in the rooms of your Wistram accommodations, walking out of a wall like the ghost of Emerrhain—but a better one.

In the tent of the King of Destruction’s war camp, sending an entire army into chaos for fear of assassination or enemy attack. Three blades passed through her before Flos raised a hand and shouted for silence—then turned to her and laughed.

Not just in mighty places—she rolled through a campfire and stopped as Greg slowly began to choke to death on some baked beans. But you had to admit, the more impressive the entrance, the more fun it was.

Nombernaught’s depths. The halls of Fissival. The Earthpact Tent—the new name for the tent that contained the Meeting of Tribes’ great Skill—the Eyetemples of Baleros where Nagas screamed the alarm.

In every continent, Erin Solstice appeared. Past scrying wards. Ignoring magic and blades. Not everywhere, you understand.

Not to every Earther—or even a tenth of them. She could only go places she knew. Or rather…to people she knew.

She had to know their names. A surprisingly difficult task. Erin had only a few. But Ryoka Griffin knew some.

Zara Walker. Ridley Wallis. Thompson Green. Bruce Wayne…no, wait, that one didn’t work. She also knew names of Wistram’s Earthers. Cara’s friends.

Trey Atwood, Aaron, Elena, Greg, Caroline, Geneva Scala—Erin hadn’t stopped there. She had prevailed on the one being who might help her. Luckily, she only needed the first names. Her scrying spell was superior to a Dragon’s.

Palt had obliged Erin in more ways than one. When he realized what she needed, he had put a call back through Ullsinoi.

 

——

 

“Galei. Galei. Wait, is this Taxiela?”

“Go ahead, Palt. Explain to me why I should oblige you.”

“Because I’m your favorite apprentice? Because you want to get on Erin’s good side, and because it’ll be hilarious? Plus, you can try and backtrace the spell.”

“I hear the humor in your voice, brat. You don’t think we can. Alright. Five minutes. Ullsinoi takes the bet. Get ready for a lot of writing. We’ve got the sheet right here.”

 

——

 

That had resulted in a sheet of names, which, thankfully, Palt only had to take the first names of. Not just Earthers from Wistram.

Earthers in general. A few of the ‘later’ Earthers had either memories of specific names of people reported missing or actual pictures of missing lists. Erin had taken the list, and her theater had obliged.

It was still—probably less than a hundred viewpoints when the connection stabilized. But it filled the panes of the [World’s Eye Theatre] overhead. And each one of the hundred viewpoints was unique.

That was to say, Elena was crowding a tent with Trey and Teres and the other Earthers with her. The Earthers in that area of the world didn’t get a viewpoint each. Somehow, the theatre was deciding to consolidate viewpoints.

You could argue that was too powerful—but all they saw and heard was Erin. And she—had her hands over her ears, and so did Ryoka. The Wind Runner raised her voice.

Stop shouting! We’re getting a hundred people at once—I can’t make a word out! Holy shit, is that—”

She stared at someone out-of-view for all but one perspective and blanched. But Erin just turned her head and spoke.

“Palt. Silence spells. Can you do something? Otherwise, I’m just giving a speech.”

She had considerable poise for being at the center of attention. Either that or she was sitting down so her knees didn’t shake so visibly.

A Centaur trotted into view, recoiled at what he saw, and looked around.

“Dead gods. I can—try. This isn’t a spell that I can see. But we’re getting images, sound—and we can hear whatever’s being said here though. So what if I…”

He waved his fingers, and suddenly, there was a babble of voices so loud that even the King of Destruction, trying to raise his voice to be heard, heard it all.

Including himself.

“—saw you on the scrying orb! Help! I’m—”

“—Erin, you leveled up? Listen, how many people are here? I need to secure—”

“—Fissival! Fissival’s—-”

—a private word?

He caught the hints of a Drowned Folk’s voice there. Orthenon frowned, a hand stretched out.

“Was that the Titan? Your Majesty, we are being watched. Our position is open if this scrying spell is being monitored.”

Flos turned his head and nodded, lowering his voice to a whisper.

“Strike the camp. But you will not tear me away from this. Ah, look at that!”

The Centaur had turned off the spell, and he was arguing with Ryoka and Erin in what had to be a [Silence] spell. Then he was trotting around—racing off, waving his arms and shouting at what looked like a Minotauress in robes. They ran off and brought back a giant mirror after a second—then began pointing up at something overhead.

“Amerys? What are they doing? Amerys?”

Flos turned, and the Archmage of Chandrar burst into the tents. She had a bunch of artifacts she began setting up.

“My king—Flos—silence. I need to figure out how we are being watched. If I had to guess, those two are trying to copy whatever that [Innkeeper] sees. Ah, you see? A [Shared Vision] spell on the glass. Clever.”

Palt was carefully, carefully isolating the image of a surprised—and suddenly very self-conscious young woman holding up a book.

Caroline tried to hide her book behind her back as a Drowned Woman practically leapt out of frame. They were on the mirror! Then Flos began to see what Palt was doing.

He was doing what the [World’s Eye Theatre] lacked and taking the visual component and creating a kind of makeshift conference call with mirrors.

“Fascinating. Why didn’t this—whatever Skill this [Innkeeper] is using do that already?”

“Perhaps she just has some kind of scrying artifact? It would not be the first odd thing she’s pulled out of her ass.”

Mars commented, leaning over Trey to see. But Flos’ comment was actually one of the most prescient. Palt was…adding in functionality that made the [World’s Eye Theatre] even more useful.

He wasn’t supposed to be doing that. Too late now to fix it—but he really wasn’t supposed to be—why did they do things in the way they weren’t intended? First chess, now this!

As the scrying spell was turned into a conference call, everyone saw Erin turning and addressing select viewpoints. Her mouth blurred so no one could read her lips, and Ryoka Griffin just looked around. She met Flos’ eyes uneasily, and he grinned. But Orthenon was shoving the King of Destruction out of frame.

“Better to watch, Your Majesty.”

But—

Then Flos Reimarch realized that if some Earthers were finding a quiet place to listen to Erin—he wondered who else was listening in. He stepped back and motioned Trey and Teresa and the Earthers forwards.

For a few moments, Erin Solstice spoke to and saw, for the first time in as close to flesh as they could get, her friends and enemies.

 

——

 

“Erin Solstice. Is that you?”

“It’s me. It’s me. You’re…”

If she said, ‘so tiny’, it would have hurt. But it already did, in a sense. He, who performed on the bloody battlefield and the world’s stage so often, was shy.

Because he had not prepared for this. Niers Astoragon was halfway through a breakfast with none other than Geneva Scala. A Squirrel Beastkin woman was eying Erin—she had ducked out of the way the instant she saw what was going on.

But Niers? He looked at Erin, and she was short for a Human. But he was a Fraerling. Erin Solstice looked down at him and finished her sentence as the weary [Doctor] rose, eyes wide.

“…not as scary as I thought you’d be.”

He blinked. And his head rose, and his chest expanded as he took a breath he’d forgotten. Then the Fraerling bowed.

“You’ve leveled up, Erin. And you didn’t tell me over a game of chess first? Splendid way to do it as a surprise. But you’ve put a target on your back.”

“I’ve got a lot.”

She never blinked at that. She was—more forceful than he thought, compared to the reticent speaker who said, ‘everything’s going like normal, what about you?’, when he asked. Erin’s eyes swiveled left.

“Is Foliana there? Hi! I’m glad you’re looking well! And—Geneva. You’re the [Doctor]. You helped bring me back. Thank you.”

“Then you were dead. Can you tell me how you’re feeling? Side effects? I’ve heard claims ghosts exist—is there a kind of afterlife?”

Geneva Scala stared at Erin far differently than Foliana or Niers, each with their own viewpoints. The Titan resented the [Doctor] and Foliana’s presence as the Squirrel Woman reappeared and waved a baked rat. But he was wise enough to let them speak for a brief moment.

“The lands of the dead used to exist.”

Used to?

“Mm. Hello, Erin. Don’t surprise me again. I don’t like surprises. Thanks for the snacks you sent. I’ll send something back. What’s your favorite food?”

Erin was glancing at Palt and Ryoka moving in the background. She spoke quickly.

“I’ll try to explain, Geneva. It’s good to meet you, but we’ll do it all together. I dunno, do people have favorite foods, Foliana? …Mac and cheese? Niers…”

She had to go. The Titan felt, once again and yet again, annoyed by two ships passing in the night. Then—he exhaled. And he pointed at her.

“I’ll be watching. And we’ll have a word later, agreed?”

“Promise.”

Her eyes twinkled, and then he saw the thing that had drawn his eye. The Titan’s breath caught, and it was like the spirit he had once seen just on a piece of paper, reflected in a game of chess. A bit of what he thought of as the real Erin Solstice, only now seen in visual form.

Mischief and madness and daring—

The Titan did not actually watch Erin Solstice setting up. He looked at Foliana, and she let him hop onto one arm as she in turn moved to the door. The servants were clearing Geneva’s table, and Niers triggered a speaking stone on one of his rings. It was jet-black, and it was not the kind of thing you activated to request a midnight snack.

Unless you were Foliana. One of her fake teeth began to hum, and he heard an echo of his voice as he spoke. He was grinning at Erin Solstice—then the Titan raised his voice.

This is Niers. I am issuing a Vault-level emergency.

Titan?

The surprised voice of one of the Fraerlings, Iuncuta Eirnos, leader of the Fraerling division, mixed with two others who’d been issued copies of this speaking stone.

Everyone else was dead silent save for one.

Titan, I am [Reserve General] Aldoy. Orders?

A crisp voice, perhaps slightly sleepy, came from the person Niers knew to be in a place far from Elvallian, the capital. So hidden that their enemies wouldn’t know where to watch for a counterattack. Niers raised his voice.

“Armed forces, stand down. We have a magical or, I suspect, Skill-based intrusion in my war camp. It’s gone straight through my ward-spells. It is projecting across the world. I need to know what is being said. If I do not know what is being said and where the projection is going, jump off a cliff before I catch you. You have an hour or less before it ends.”

He ended the stone—if his lieutenants didn’t know what to do with that, they were incompetents and it was his fault for putting them in that role.

“You’re mean.”

Foliana nibbled on the rat as she rolled her eyes. Niers folded his arms. He couldn’t stop grinning.

“Rise to the [Innkeeper]’s challenge, Foliana. I’m just testing her—and my own company at the same time. It’d be good to know if it can be done.”

“Mhm. Sure. Suure.

Foliana went back to watching as she flagged down a servant.

“Make me a mac and cheese. I don’t know what it is. It probably has cheese in it.”

 

——

 

Then she was there. And they were all there.

The smart outsiders ducked out of frame as Earthers stared at each other. This was a meeting for them, and it struck some, instantly, with nostalgia.

Like a certain text conversation from last year. Only this time—they had voices. It was like staring into one of those mass-conference calls you saw in movies.

Or—if you were from later in Earth’s timeline, you knew exactly what this was. The irony was that Erin thought this was new.

“Hi, everyone. Can you hear me?”

The young woman sat there with an apron on and casual clothing for a day in her inn. She had brown hair, hazel eyes, and she looked ordinary…until you noticed her hat. Until you saw how she sat and spoke as if she were used to being in the center of a room. For some, they noticed her eyes.

She had seen people die and been the one to end a life. It changed you. She had been dead and come back to life.

That changed you.

But for all that, Erin Solstice was the least interesting person here because everyone, almost everyone knew her face from the scrying orbs directly.

The other people were far more fascinating.

See—

His hair was brown too, or should have been. But he had added a red dye to it to turn it an unsettling shade of red. Not bright red—that came from the blood that seemed to stain his bright costume. And that too had changed from being a silly circus clown, red, blue, and yellow, into something more unsettling.

It looked yellow, at first, a flashy yellow cut that turned abruptly blue at a diagonal line halfway down his midriff. Baggy enough to hide any number of blades, but oddly cheerful looking combined with white gloves.

The gloves were stained so badly that the red prints still remained. As was much of the clothing. But if you looked close, you saw the red stitching. Little faces, with thread so fine they only appeared close up.

They looked like howling Demons—or Humans—every species, disembodied heads screaming upwards. Eyes bulging, mouths open so wide they seemed no longer like people, in rictuses of silent screams.

Something so unsettling—and expensive—that only one of the Blighted Kingdom’s expert tailors would have made it for him. His face was painted white with black eyeshadow for tears and actual blue tears drawn on his face. A red smile.

[Clown]. He posed there, arms stretched, as if telling a joke. Even with the unsettling makeup, he almost looked jolly. Only his eyes, darting around and rolling, staring in his frozen face, betrayed his true emotions.

That was one. Remember that had once been a different young man. Thomas had lost sixty pounds and close to a hundred friends. He had shed enough of his own blood to fill three dozen bodies. Killed more than he could count.

He looked nothing so much like an Earther. But none of them did.

Even the ones who thought they hadn’t changed…look at the young man and woman standing in a tent bestrewn with the luxuries of monarchy.

Some stared at Elena with her amazing, floating trails of hair in Chandrar’s dry, dry climate, as if permanently affected by static electricity or an anti-gravity spell.

But Trey…many of the Earthers knew him. He probably thought they saw a seventeen year-old kid from London. A young man not nearly as imposing as some of the Earthers, holding a staff with a crystal orb floating over the polished oakwood shaft, a stereotypical [Mage] if nothing else.

The King of Destruction or even his sister would have made more of a mark in his eyes.

Teresa, wearing the newest steel to come from Reim’s forges—light plate now, emblazoned with the sigil of Reim on its front. A crown like the city itself, surrounded by a rainbow of seven symbols. A pair of dice, an eye, a growing plant…

The King of Destruction’s seal. She had a hand on the hilt of her sword and a wild grin that never seemed to leave her face anymore, like someone chasing a dream. Like…Rasea Zecrew, perhaps. Gloryseeker. Battleseeker.

Even her dark blonde hair seemed to be trying to stand up; she had cropped it before it got too long, to prevent it from tangling in battle. It looked redder, as if it were trying to take on some of the blood in battle. Or take after Flos himself. Her skin was tanned from days in the sun.

He looked the same, he thought. But the other Earthers noticed how still Trey could sit. How his eyes would stare at you, then through you, as if trying to read your thoughts.

He didn’t realize how his own companionship had shaped him. He would stare into the eyes of someone until they blinked or looked away; Gazi would never flinch from that. He looked almost forever-wary and never seemed to take any statement at face-value. The Quarass had taught him that—and the line across his throat, a scar, and the little red-glass Golem poking its head out from behind him made him odder.

The sand seemed to follow him around constantly, even indoors. But most of all—he could sit still like a statue, for he had kept undead company on long nights. Even if some of that had been not intended to affect him for the worse, had been meant in full friendship—

He was, in his way, as shattered as the [Doctor] who sat, unable to stand. Few could meet her eyes. Geneva Scala wore light green clothing, sleeves extending to her hands, which were, for the moment, ungloved. Uniform green; she could have asked Niers’ tailors for anything. She had asked for something that could be mistaken for casual clothing.

What it looked like to many was the uniform of a doctor. A surgeon, as if she expected at any moment to see someone in need of her abilities. Her nose was sharp, her round spectacles made her eyes appear bigger, and her hair was a mess: combed but unattended to.

More than the rest, wherever she looked and whenever she moved, it seemed like she was staring at someone else. As if she intended to stand—or move by will alone and sometimes was surprised her body was picking up the slack.

There was no trust in her eyes. Trey had more faith in people. Tom tied with Geneva in their expectations of a good day. But what separated the [Clown] from the [Doctor] was a distinction in their attitudes. One existed out of spite and was determined to laugh at your expectations. The other waited, like she had a duty not to fall over and die.

And these were only some.

Who was that man upon a throne? Surely, one would ask. He sat with his chin upright, a simple brace of gold upon his head. A slight thing, subtle, but it would draw the eye. Monarchy deserved no less. His posture was perfect, his hair, blazoned red, hinted at his heritage, and he had the strength of a waiting lion.

He was, after all, a [King].

…No one paid attention to him. The Earther began to shift, annoyed, because more eyes were on the young man who had not yet opened his eyes.

He sat in a cottage that looked slightly oversized—as if meant for someone several feet bigger—with a blue bird cawing occasionally. He would apologize for her and stroke her head, but he never opened those eyes.

His hair was pale blonde, and he was not imposing enough, not grand enough, and he had no crown. For all that, he seemed to sit or speak with the quiet expectation you would listen. And in that sense—you could not see his ego because you had to step outside the cottage and look up to see the top of it. His clothing was simpler, forest green and a blue cloak someone had made for him with the symbol of an eye on the back in a pyramid.

It fit him better, because he thought he needed nothing more to prove who he was.

More and more. It wasn’t just the most high-level. But some did catch the eye.

The Singer of Terandria had decided her hair was pink today. Long and flowing and glossy, which suggested that it was a wig, and her own face had a mask similar to Tom’s. She just used less makeup. She had painted a silver star under one eye and had violet lipstick on. If she were performing, she might wink or laugh like the spirit of entertainment, as if nothing else mattered by song.

Here? She scowled and listened and watched everything with the pain that said she expected the worst to follow. For a Singer, she did not talk much at first, but she warmed to her new stage over time. When she was excited, she paced and gesticulated, as if performing to everyone who saw her—and herself as well.

Then there were the others.

Kevin, who looked like the spirit of a dude from California, thumbs-upping people. Laughing without apparent care in the world, ordinarily friendly until you realized it was more genuine than you thought and that he was deeper than a puddle. And that he thought he could take something with metal and ideas and make it better than two worlds had ever dreamed of.

Caroline, cheeks flushed and eyes overbrimming with ideas, sometimes half-thought, half-ludicrous, but wanting to write them out into the world. Fascinated with if and possibility—and with a kind of sad resignation that this world had less magic and more terrible, disgusting, mundane violence and pettiness than she had hoped for.

Aaron looked tired but triumphant, as if he had been holding something up on his shoulders for a long time. All he had wanted to do was make something ‘cool’, something he was inspired by. A mistake not of his choosing had left him aged—but he had paid his dues and seen a kind of victory that kept him going.

That was a fraction of the Earthers. And when they spoke, at first, they were so chaotic as to be incomprehensible. Quickly, Erin Solstice demanded order. She could silence speakers, but because she did not want to take charge, someone else did.

Palt quietly wrote the names under each speaker so you could keep track of them. Nothing else. No levels. No locations. No causes or allegiances. When they spoke, one might interrupt or raise a hand to speak, and they would be next.

It was the Wind Runner, the Courier who had run across three worlds now, who spoke first. Her voice was husky, and she looked—nervous. As if the anxiety that had always been inside her was more visible now.

It looked better than false confidence or her silent façade because she had made enough mistakes to know she would make more. And to try to do better. Her right hand had three fingers. She still had bare feet, but they were wrapped, as if to hide scars. But she was still staring ahead, still trying to chase a goal. She wanted that kind of quest, and she would shift, occasionally, and turn her head as if listening for the wind.

 

Ryoka: “One at a time. This isn’t all of us. Not by far. It’s only the first wave. We don’t have the names of the rest, and there are a lot more, I think. A lot more. So if you meet anyone else, tell them what we said here. But I have, uh—a few ground rules.”

Tom: “Rules? Heh. Hah. What are you—you call us all up, you show their faces? You idiot. We’re being watched.

 

He turned his head at someone off-screen and gave them such a grin that it made others nervous. Then his eyes looked back at Ryoka with sheer contempt.

 

Tom: “You have no idea what you’ve done, you fool.”

Richard: “Ignore Tom, please. We’re all on the same side. We’re…from Rhir.”

Ryoka: “I know. And just so you know, we are being watched. All of us. If you think this is bad, signal us, and Palt will take you off visibility…but be aware, you are being observed. By Rhir. By Wistram.”

Cara: “Thanks for that. I love you like a yeast infection, Ryoka.”

 

Laughter—and Ryoka flushed, but then someone else spoke. Rémi Canada looked like he was trying to be older. He had, interestingly, a natural light green hair. Not obviously dyed and artificially bright. If someone on Earth could have been born with green as a hair color, that was what it would look like.

Forgettable features, as if he were trying to distract you with the hair and not be the center of attention. Which he was. But he was taking notes—he was always taking notes, his hand moving so fast it seemed he was frustrated because he never had the whole story and he was trying to tell it properly.

 

Rémi: “It’s your belief we’re in danger, Ryoka? Can you clarify that so we understand it?”

Ryoka: “Yes. Some people will hunt you down—whether to kill you or just make you an asset, it’s happened. It’s happening. Wistram’s done it—”

???: “That is a gross exaggeration, and we are trying to save lives and be as helpful as we can. If you are in danger, we would—”

Aaron:Aaah! Shut up, shut up and get out of my room! Or I’ll cancel the spell and damn you all! Get out, Teura!

Ryoka: “My point. Thanks, Aaron. Let me try again. Know you are being watched. Know what we say here is going to spread. Erin’s putting on this call because we think it matters more than the risk. We have done this before.”

Rémi: “Interesting. I heard of that—I wasn’t privy to it. So this isn’t the first time we…people from home have talked?”

Aaron: “Earthers. That’s the name we’re using.”

Cara: “Fucking stupid name.”

Aaron: “What? You come up with one. Anyways, we did this before. Back then, it was via Wistram and [Message] spells. This…this is more secure? I did the last one. I was ‘Blackmage’.”

Loran: “You were? You bastard! You look nothing like what I expect!”

Tom: “Because he’s actually black?”

Loran: “What? No. I am—I meant—”

Tom: “Explain it, then. I’ll listen.”

Ryoka: “Can you mute…? Thanks, Erin. Listen. I was there too. Back then, no one knew what was happening. Just so you know…I was ‘batman’.”

Teres: “You what?”

Kevin: “No way.

Zara: “That was you? Oh. My. God.

Erin: “Don’t say that!”

Zara: “Say what? What?”

Laken: “Don’t talk about religion. Quiet, please. Let Ryoka finish.”

Ryoka: “Thanks, Laken. We do have a lot to cover, so I appreciate silence. Yes, I was that troll in the conversation—because we were being hunted then. Now? Things are different. This is about sharing information, but we have a warning first. So…Erin?”

 

Then all eyes were on the [Innkeeper] as she rolled forwards slowly. Erin Solstice sat there and swallowed hard, but her eyes rose as she looked around.

 

Erin: “I know I’m being watched by other people. Not Earthers. Not just people from home. So you know, my name is Erin Solstice. I’m an [Innkeeper]. I live in Liscor. I’m telling you all this because everyone probably knows that. You should be careful. But so you know—when I was last on Earth, just a year ago, last fall, it was 2016. August, I think. I’ve been here ever since.”

Haley: “No way. No way. It was only 2018 when I—and it was winter—”

Ryoka: “Years are longer here.”

Antal: “You’re her. That’s…her.”

Erin: “I played chess with you. Hi, Antal.”

Antal: “No, I mean…you’re one of the first of the Spirited Generation. Ryoka Griffin. Erin Solstice. Is…is there a Daly Sullivan here?”

Daly: “Huh? What the—I’m Daly. Bushrangers, in Baleros.”

Caroline: “Oh my god. You’re with the cute Fraerlings!”

Antal: “You were—”

Flynn:Daly! Holy fucking fuck! Daly, it’s me!

Daly: Flynn? Is that you? Where are you?

Erin: “Do you two know each other?”

Flynn: “We were in the airport when—I’m in Terandria, Daly! I’m the guy in power armor flying about!”

Daly: “Get the fuck out of here. Was that you on TV?”

Tom: “Order! Order in the court! No one cares about you Australians!”

Daly: “Fuck off, mate. Flynn—”

Flynn: “Is that a clown? I just got here.”

Loran: “Silence. We will have order! I am a—

Erin: “Quiet.”

 

And there was. Erin Solstice’s head swiveled around, and she turned.

 

Erin: “Rémi Canada? I need you to speak. You probably know what’s going on.”

Rémi: “I do. Let me check my notes, and please, correct me if I’m wrong. But to summarize, we’re all considered to be part of the ‘Spirited Generation’. Earthers from ages…sixteen to thirty it seems, who get taken from Earth and end up here. They’re aware of it back home, but they have no idea where we are or how it’s happening.”

Elena: “Fourteen.”

Rémi: “Excuse me?”

Elena: “Some of us are as young as fourteen.”

Ryoka: “Fuck. That’s not right.”

Elena: “No, it’s not. Some of them end up in monster nests. It’s…”

Caroline: “My god.”

Elena: “Hi, Cara.”

Cara: “Hi, Elena. How’s it going?”

Elena: “Decent.”

Rémi: “Let’s dig into that later. Where we end up seems to be chance.”

Tom: “Lot of us in Rhir, boyo. Lot of us—let go of me.

Rémi: “Interesting. But just so you all know—the last Earther I have spoken to tells me that time seems to be passing back home faster than it is here. It was 2021.”

Geneva: “2021? No…how is that happening?”

Aaron: “Some of the [Mages] think it’s a kind of magical backlash.”

Flora: “Some of the mages around me think that too. Earth might be older than this world is, and so tethering us together has moved Earth’s time-speed forward like a rubber band snapping the other way. Hi…hi.”

Aaron: “Whoa. That—makes sense. Who’s coming up with that?”

Flora: “People. I can’t say where I am.”

Rémi: “This is all good to know. So, to summarize, 2016 seems to be when the phenomenon occurred. More and more people have been coming over, and Earth is in a panic. But I don’t have the full story there. I’ve heard of lockdowns, curfews—”

Cara: “Panic over disappearing kids? Please, there can’t be more than a thousand of us. How many people get murdered—”

Antal: “I don’t know about everyone, but some of them were on camera. The Melbourne Moment is the most viewed video on Youtube. It’s got over 40 billion views. That’s how I know Daly.”

Daly: “…What?”

Antal: “May I speak?”

Erin: “Please.”

Antal: “My English is not perfect, so I’ll try to explain. It was…a conspiracy video like many, you get it? Every government denied it. The US one, Australia, all were denying it, and the UN and other governments launched an investigation. No one found a thing.”

Laken: “Oh, the wonderful UN. Surprising.”

Kenjiro: “Ha…ha. Yes. What about Japan?”

Antal: “Japan too, I think. More people began disappearing, you understand? There was a plane that vanished. But they found half of it. Only half. It vanished over land and…”

 

His voice got choked up a bit, and he turned to a man in armor with a cowboy’s hat.

 

Antal: “Richard—can you…?”

Richard: “There were all kinds of videos and evidence people were vanishing. I think a lot of governments tried to keep it under wraps, but then some insiders began confirming that they knew people were vanishing. What we understand from a lot of people is—there’s finger-pointing, and tons of groups are researching.”

Antal: “Private groups. And militias.”

Richard: “And militias and all kinds of false reporting.”

Antal: “Fake news. During lockdown and the pandemic, there were all kinds of Zoom conferences like this investigating online. Actually, much like this one.”

Erin: “What’s Zoom? What pandemic? Not the Yellow Rivers…”

Geneva: “Can you elaborate, please? Does this have something to do with the respiratory cases that were cropping up in hospitals?”

Antal: “Oh. Wow. You don’t know.”

 

They really didn’t know. The events of Earth were being rehashed for many who didn’t know all of it, and they listened fervently to the rather dire events that had complicated Earth’s situation.

 

Richard: “Half of the USA apparently open-carries now. Apparently, we ran out of guns to sell.”

Ryoka: “No way we ever run out of guns.”

Richard: “We do if we’re exporting to over a hundred nations and everyone is buying anything they can get their hands on over here.”

Daly: “Fucking Yanks. You had one job that no one wanted you to do and you failed.”

Teres: “Heh.”

 

But the point was that this was about home…and it was something a lot of people were removed from. Even the person who cared most about news from home interrupted, because this was not the point.

 

Luan: “That’s home. I want to know as much as everyone, but have you noticed? We don’t think of home. How many of you think of your families? We forget unless we pay attention. At least, that’s what my group’s observed.”

Caroline: “Luan! Oh my g—”

???: “It’s you! Luan! I knew you weren’t dead!”

 

Luan’s head rose as he heard someone push past the Earthers around Richard. They shouted two things in Zulu at him.

Everyone is worried about you. And—

We can’t leave this place.

It was echoing the last time they’d talked. Luan called back.

 

Luan: “What about my wife? My son?”

???: “Good! They’re under protection—”

 

Then they were pulled out of sight by people that didn’t look like Earthers at all.

 

Trey: “What was that? What do you mean…we don’t think of our families?”

Ryoka: “Haven’t you noticed? That is one of the things we need to tell you. Everyone—listen to what Erin’s about to say next.”

Erin: “Okay, alright. I…I want you all to pay attention. Including the King of Destruction. Including Rhir. I know you’re listening…the Blighted King. Chaldion. Fissival. Eldavin too, I bet, and all the rest of you. I need you to understand one thing. We are from Earth. We didn’t come here to conquer, and I think it was chance that took most of us. Chance…good luck or bad.”

 

She took a breath and looked around, seriously, with that faraway look of someone who had died and come back to warn them. This was it.

 

Erin: “I didn’t call you to just talk about home or make alliances or share information. I hope we will. But do you remember…something Aaron sent us last summer? If you have been here a year, I think some of you know what I’m talking about. Have you met strangers on the summer and winter solstices?”

Cara: Fuck, fuck, fuck.

 

Laken’s heart skipped a beat. Luan’s head turned from hugging his friends, and several Earthers focused. Aaron’s smiling face turned pale and serious, and Erin looked around.

 

Aaron: “What I wrote…don’t pay attention.”

Caroline: “What are you talking about? It was true, wasn’t it? The g—”

Aaron:Don’t say it.

Richard: “I thought it might be a prank. Some of us thought it was real.”

Erin: “…What I am going to say is tricky. Because it is dangerous. Because most of the people of this world can’t even understand the word.”

???: “Hmm? We can’t?”

Erin: “No. So you don’t know that what Aaron wrote is the most dangerous thing ever. Listen, everyone. It is true. And not true. You cannot spread what he wrote about. You—you can’t talk about what I’m going to say or you’ll make the problem worse.”

Loran: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What text? I sol—my phone ran out of power.”

Jacques: “[Repair] spell, genius. It recharges your phone. Everyone figured that out.”

Loran:Don’t talk to me like that, little man. I am a [Ki—.

Erin: “I’m muting you all. Listen. I need you to understand what the threat is. Rémi?”

Rémi: “I liked this kind of thing back home. It’s a memetic threat. Is that appropriate?”

Erin: “I…have no idea what that means.”

Ryoka: “That’s the perfect way to describe it. Memetic. Talk about it and you make it worse. Think about it and it gets worse. Erin is talking about something where if you believe…”

Rémi: “My god.”

Erin: “Not ours. And they’re not on our side. Do you get it now?”

 

Someone began laughing. They laughed silently, throwing their head back and laughing and laughing at the looks of disbelief or amusement or…incomprehension.

Tom, of course. He laughed because it made sense. Richard was raising his hand along with dozens of others, but Erin Solstice looked around.

 

Erin: “If you haven’t met them—you might not believe. But they are there. There…were…six of them. Now there might be two. Or four. Or still six. They ate every soul in the lands of the dead. Earthers, ghosts…everyone. They are coming back, or trying to. I think it’s their fault we’re in this mess. You see, they’re dead. They’ve been dead a long time, but they keep trying to live. I am telling you all, now, because that is the greatest threat we’re all facing. And they’re coming. Now, do you have questions?”

Zara: “Hi. Excuse me. You’re insane. This is insane. Even for all the crazy I’ve seen—you are the Crazy Innkeeper of Liscor.”

Cara: “She’s right.”

Zara: “What?”

Cara: “I’ve seen it too. Ghosts. That’s—Erin Solstice is right, and this winter, you’d better find a place to hide on Winter’s Solstice. Better yet—one with lots of people.”

Ryoka: “Don’t take their hands. It’s a trap.”

Loran: “This is preposterous. I’ve never met them.”

Luan: “I met two. One tried to kill me.”

Richard: “…None of us have ever met one.”

Erin: “There’s a reason for that. Rhir might be ‘safe’. Then again—”

Richard: “Someone really wants to talk to you.”

Erin: “Not now. Listen, everyone. That’s what we’re up against. Magic won’t harm them. The highest-levels in the world, Level 70, Level 80—they could barely do anything. But they can lose.”

Tom: “How?”

Erin: “A sword beyond swords. Dragonfire—a bit. Finding a weapon that works is important. There are…safeguards, I was told. Buried deep.”

Daly: “Dragonfire works a ‘bit’?

Erin: “I don’t have all the answers. But that’s it. All of it. We need to join forces. Stop fighting wars. Focus on the real enemies. Find…the answers. They’re in the new lands. They’re hidden in dungeons no one’s found. Please believe me. I’m not lying. I know it sounds crazy, but you have seen Zeladona. Believe me.”

Ryoka: “I’ve seen the same with my own eyes. This is at the heart of everything. You want to go home? You want to know what this is all about? It’s them. And they are not friendly.”

 

——

 

He had to say it.

A lot of people didn’t believe, even now. Though…Laken bet there were more that believed than not. You had to after seeing magic and monsters for so long.

Even so. He felt his lungs heaving and his chest burning. With fright. Because he had to say it. He had to—and expose himself as an enemy.

He was afraid, but the [Emperor] had lifted his hand, and Erin was turning to him. Say it—there would never be a more important moment.

Say it.

 

Erin: “I’ll take a few questions, but Caroline, Zara—don’t say that word any more. Anything helps them, and they are dangerous. Don’t bargain with them.”

Richard: “Why not? I believe in—if they are g—you haven’t seen Rhir. We need help.”

Laken: “They’re not—”

Aaron: “You can’t trust them. Don’t take their hands. Don’t take their bargains. I did—and one of them stole my body like a puppet. He started small, but then he did terrible things.”

Elena: “What the fuck, Aaron?”

Aaron: “I couldn’t say anything. Listen to me—they might tell you whatever you want to hear. Trick you. I thought I was just…getting advice. They’ll take everything.”

Ryoka: “There it is. I’m sorry. Are you…?”

Aaron: “I’m free. I think. But I don’t know why.”

Erin: “Gnomes.”

Tom: “Did you just say…?”

Erin: “Do not laugh at them. Or do. I think they would think it’s funny.”

Geneva: “I can’t reconcile this. Are you saying all of this misery is their responsibility?”

Erin: “Not all directly. But they want to do what they do, I think. Live, even if it means all of us have to go. And rule us. They want…bodies.”

 

The [Doctor] shivered then, because she understood that more than any. The Earthers were silent—until someone spoke.

 

Trey: “But they are dead, right? I’m being asked to relay this. You’re saying, Erin, that we need armies. We need weapons. We have time.

 

A man was grinning. Grinning with such delight that Erin Solstice’s flat gaze could not diminish it. But she did nod slowly.

 

Erin: “I convened this to tell you. But—can we join forces?”

Jacques: “My, uh—people over here don’t even know what you said. I’ll try to explain it.”

Saif: “Ours here. We hear you, Miss Erin. What do we do?”

Erin: “Find old stuff. I have clues, and if I can talk to you—personally—I will tell you what I know. But in general? There are things buried so deep no one’s found them. Maybe they’ve been hidden, but I suspect they’re easier to find now. Find…the last works of the Gnomes. The Elves.”

Cara: “—fuckfuckfuckfuck. Alright. Alright.

 

The Singer of Terandria stood suddenly, and all eyes focused on her. She stood in the spotlight and exhaled.

 

Cara: “And if you need help, come to me. I’m on Terandria, and that’s my beat. I can’t reach across the ocean. I can’t move mountains, but we won’t be taken by Wistram. We’re not going to let anyone snatch us. You want to try? The eyes of everyone are on me. That’s my pledge. I am not going to join any one nation in war. But you want help, Erin?”

 

She focused on Erin and smiled, grimly, with determination. With a focus that made the hearts of some who loved war and this future and adversary smile. Those who could comprehend what Erin even said.

Flos Reimarch had heard ‘god’, so he was grinning fit to burst. And like him—a half-Elf was laughing so hard she was almost rolling around on the floor as she clutched at her ruined chest.

Cara, though. She spoke with the words that would add fuel to that fire.

 

Cara: “Count me in. I said I would never march in any army or join any war. But I didn’t know Lucifer himself was banging on that drum.”

Zara: “What? Are you mad? They’re gods! Wouldn’t they be on our side?”

Tom: “Which ones? The ones in Christianity? Nice guy, that. Old testament, new? Let me just sacrifice my son to them. Emily, want to volunteer? Emily?”

Ridley: “This is stupid.”

Caren: “This is all some kind of joke, right?”

Ridley: “No, this is stupid. Sides? The devil? What are you talking about? Are you kids? There’s no sides.”

 

He focused on Erin Solstice, and the [Innkeeper] swiveled her chair to look at him.

 

Erin: “Everything I’ve said is true. I know it’s hard to believe, but those guys are evil.”

Ridley: “There’s no good and evil. This isn’t a fairytale. Even if what you’ve said is true, it’s everyone for themselves. Nice Skill, nice advice, but I’m not joining hands and singing together.”

Cara: “Hey, Ridley? Go fuck yourself. You think I’m joking? You haven’t seen someone killed in front of you. ‘There’s no good or evil?’ Go out and see a war.”

Ridley: “You’re just some fake celebrity. I’m a Level 33 [Mage]. You can claim this is about destiny or fighting god all you want, but you know what? Earth’s coming. And when it does, there will be nations with access to magic, and we’ll have an entire world plus ours to expand into. I plan on being a leader when that day comes. If there’s any side—it’s us and here.”

Tom: “Big words for a scrub. Level 33? Hah. Hahahahahahahaha—

Cara: “You think this world will let ours walk over it? You think it has to be about worlds colliding? You’re an idiot.”

Loran: “He’s right in one regard. We’re all chosen. We’re all unique. I agree—let’s join forces. You can join my kingdom.”

Ridley: “You bitch—what did he say?”

Cara: “What now? Oh, come on—”

Loran: “I am a [King]. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I started as a mere [Laborer], and within a year—I became a [King]. When we meet Earth, I’ll be ruling my nation. Don’t you see? We’re chosen. Even if some of us are lesser.”

Ryoka: “Literal chosen ones? You’re not Harry Potter.”

Tom: “I’ll give you a scar if you want.”

Loran: “You can mock me, but I unified the people under my domain. And if you want to oppose me, I will crush you.”

Ryoka: “Come on, we have to work together. This is what our enemy wants—”

Loran: “You’re the fool, Ryoka. Come to me, and I’ll show you everything. This is the new world, and we’re the first people to find it. This is the last adventure. We were chosen. My nation is Lorandia. Remember it.”

Cara: “Wow. That is the worst name I’ve heard in my life.”

Loran:I’ll remember this. You think you’re safe on Terandria? Step carefully.”

 

Then there was a babble of voices, Earthers arguing, denying what Erin had said.

 

“I just want to go home.”

“Answers? Are the answers…?”

“…line in the sand…”

“A crucible. This is a test and we’re—”

 

One voice broke above them all before Erin could silence the lot and restore order. And it said this:

 

Trey: “You are allowed to call yourself whatever you want, Loran. I’m sure you are a [King]. But no one is above judgment.”

Loran: “Don’t threaten me, you servant. You’re serving a has-been, a pathetic [King] who couldn’t conquer more than two and a half nations without help.”

Trey: “And you’re in Baleros.”

Tom: “Oho.”

Trey: “I can tell from the Lizardfolk in the background. And your name is Loran Grimnar because you were in the first chat and it’s not hard to find a [King] new to power. Especially when he says his nation’s name. Remember this, all of you. You can do whatever you want—but when you do, we’ll judge you. This world will. Loran, you’ve walked onto the world’s stage. You want power? You can have it. But the King of Destruction has a message for you.”

Loran: “Wh—and?”

Trey: “I’ll let Amerys deliver it.”

Ryoka: “Please. Please…this isn’t supposed to go like this. We’re all from the same world.”

Ridley: “Everyone’s doing what they want. Why does Rhir have so many Earthers?”

Cara: “Something’s up. Sides and sides. Erin, you’ve got me, and I’ll stay clear of any conflicts if they stay clear of me.”

Tom: “You’re all fools. Stop taking sides. Stop trying to jump up and put a target on your forehead. You know what they’ll do? They’ll put an arrow through your brain. You think it’s funny? It’s not. They’ll just kill you.”

 

Then the [Clown] was there, blood fresh on his clothes, and he stood clear of the other Earthers—and no one could stop him. A bow was trained on his back, and only a [Princess] was stopping Hayvon from ordering—

But the [Clown] just spoke. Spoke, as he looked around with a bloody dagger in hand.

 

Tom: “We are the [Heroes] of Rhir. [Heroes], got it? With the brackets. But we are just pawns on a board. Stop it. Turn this scrying thing off, Erin, and go back to running an inn. Because they will kill you. You think you’re lucky? You think you’re special? Invincible? Stop it. Take a knife and run it through your hand. Then you’ll understand.”

 

He lifted that blade—and several watchers blanched and looked away or covered their eyes and cried out to him to stop. Caroline fainted. But Tom flexed his hand and looked at them as blood ran and ran.

 

Tom: “I believe it all. But you know, I also believe it won’t be a fun, pleasant journey. I believe it’ll be littered with your corpses. And mine. I believe those gods are alive and everything we have seen and done will be a pleasant nightmare before what is coming. But—I’m going to sink or die. Sink or die. I’ll see some of you at the bottom. If you ask me to kill you before we touch the ground, I’ll oblige you.”

 

He turned, looking from face to face, and then walked off frame. But before he left, a voice spoke with a weariness that was fading away.

 

Geneva: “I see. Tom, isn’t it?”

Tom: “I don’t like [Doctors].”

Geneva: “You need help. Please…consider it. We all need help. I am asking you all—we do not need to kill each other. I don’t understand this truth or the…but I believe it will be darker and direr than I can imagine. I will not fight. I can’t do much. But if you need me, I will go.”

 

She met the [Clown]’s gaze, and he looked despairing, then. Despairing of her because they were a contrast.

 

Tom: “You think you can stitch the world up, [Doctor]? There’s a lot more knives than you have thread. You want to heal people? We’re out of healing potion. Ha. Hahahaha. Look at you all, posturing and thinking you matter. I’ve seen hell. We haven’t even seen how deep it goes, and there are a thousand would-be [Heroes] here. You think we’re all saints who’ll line up and make this world a better place? You’re stupid. You’re madder than I am. We’re going to drown this world piece by piece. And I’ll be there watching as we go—”

 

He was speaking louder, faster, with that hysteria that had broken through this entire call like a discordant note. An honest one—but Erin hadn’t silenced him more than once or twice.

Possibly because she thought he was right. Right and wrong. But the cackling [Clown], Geneva’s white-knuckled grip on the table as she tried to break in, the disturbed faces of the other Earthers—

Erin Solstice didn’t shout over the [Clown] or silence him with a wave of her hand. She just burned. Burned with pink flames atop her head, glowing like all the friends she had ever seen come and go and their finest hours.

Burned with blue pain for it, licking around pink, which tears alone would never encompass. Gold through it all, for what she had done and the pride and happiness and hope she had seen even in the lands of the dead. Gold, like a laughing Gnome.

Until the [Clown] flinched and raised a hand. He looked up, and Erin Solstice sat there.

 

Tom: “That’s…that’s not a funny trick.”

Erin: “It’s not a trick, Tom.”

Tom: “Stop it. Stop wearing your heart on your sleeve like that. I’ll stab it out. You think a Skill makes you genuine and good? Stopitstopitstopit—”

Erin: “Do you think I can’t see you, Tom? You’re a great liar, but your soul’s leaking out your eyes. If every Earther on Rhir is a [Hero], I’ll believe it. Even you. Especially you. I believe it wasn’t fair what happened to you, or me, or anyone. Even if I don’t know all of it, I see it. I have seen the Earthers who died. Abel. Jackson. It was not fair how they died, or my friends in this world. But I believe some of them, and some of us won’t stop.”

Tom: “You’re crazy. Don’t listen to her…”

 

His voice was weaker. Erin Solstice was blazing at him and the Earthers of Rhir. And the [Clown] was afraid.

 

Erin: “I know it’s crazy. I know it’s mad. But I’m here. I have seen the legends of the dead—and they are gone. But when I ask for volunteers to line up and stab god in the eye, I’ll see you there, Tom. Don’t let me down.”

 

There was no reply to that. Not for a second or a minute…and the [Clown] couldn’t stare at those flames for fear of what he might feel. She was crazier than he was. How was that possible?

Faced with Erin’s optimism, her genuine conviction, and that glorious, wondrous flame…Cara’s head lowered. And the [Singer]’s voice was lower and realer. She envied Erin’s truth.

 

Cara: “Here I thought everyone was an actor upon their own stage. I hate genuine people. I can’t say what Erin just did, even in a speech, even in a play. It would be such a lie coming from my lips I couldn’t sell it to a baby. If we were chosen, we were unworthy. All of us. There is such need and senseless destruction and suffering. There are real monsters here—just like our world. But these real monsters get magic and fangs and to look like they should.”

 

She gestured to herself, and she had brilliant pink hair and facepaint, and it glowed less brightly than Erin’s hat. But the Singer’s voice filled the screen more than her false appearance. Belying the lie she claimed to tell.

 

Cara: “They deserved real heroes, not us. Earthers aren’t the only ones that need aid in this moment. Every single nation is filled with people who have no voice or way out. I can’t help nearly enough. I can’t perform miracles or do more than dance on stage a bit and shine false. But there are a thousand causes, a thousand needs, and I will see them tried.

Laken: “As will I. I am Laken Godart, and I am an [Emperor].”

Ridley: “No way. How?”

 

The blind man didn’t answer. He wished he could see them all, but he responded to the others quietly.

 

Laken: “If Loran wants to make his kingdom a vengeful one for his ego—I’ll draw my own line in the sand. If you come, I will do my best to protect you. I will not let anyone, be it the King of Destruction or the Blighted Kingdom, sweep over Izril. If I have a side, it’s here. We don’t need to make war. If you come, come softly and try to make this world a better place. For I will be watching you, and if I must ally with the Five Families, the Walled Cities, and the Tribes of Izril, we will stop any madness. We have had enough. If there is a weapon against the dead gods, I will find it. When that day comes—I hope the Unseen Empire will be ready.”

 

They were splitting up. Now—Erin saw it, and her eyes were misty. She had hoped they would come together, but it seemed more as if they were just setting up the stakes and showing each other where they stood.

But at least they saw. And here came a voice—Erin Solstice looked sideways and finally…unmuted the person who was waving at her. She gazed into his cloudy eyes, and he smiled well. Erin wasn’t looking at him. Yet she waited.

 

???: “I have something I want to say. And it’s this. This is all fair. People are being swayed to one cause or another. That’s how it works. These…gods. The rest of it?”

 

He stumbled over the word. But the handsome man kept smiling and speaking beatifically. Palt was trying to figure out who it was, but Erin quietly spoke, and the Centaur looked up slowly. And nervously.

 

Kent Scott: “That is the nature of any world, it seems. And I am reassured to see it. But consider this, please. When our worlds collide, you could be [Princes] and [Princesses] rather than children caught between nations. There is a reward for the right cause, and I will outbid any force in this world. Even gods.”

Cara: “You. You’re not Kent Scott.”

Ryoka: “Fuck. Erin, turn it off—”

Erin: “No. No. Look, everyone. And look very well. You’re not Kent. Who’s speaking through him?”

 

Then he stopped speaking through the man’s voice, and Kent stepped aside and a figure slithered forwards. He beamed and focused on her with such fascination and delight that Erin felt goosebumps.

 

???: “Hello. You are astonishing. Amazing. Beautiful, Miss Erin Solstice. If there is anything I can do for you—wouldn’t you hear me out?”

Erin: “No, never. How dare you show yourself here? Even the King of Destruction won’t interfere. But you? You kidnapped him. How many more?”

Flos: “Emir. We will have words. But I shall see myself out.”

???: “I can see that the bias of your world is against me. But I am no monster. Hello, Earthers. If you call, I will send you an escort wherever you are. Be it Rhir or elsewhere. And I shall treat you as you deserve, I promise.”

Cara: “Listen to what he is saying. Not how he says it. This is Roshal’s monster. Speak your name, you coward.”

???:Yazdil, sweet singer. Yazdil, beautiful [Innkeeper]. I am the Naga of Roshal. So count me among the six you fear to name. Count me first, before your King of Destruction or Blighted King. Not as your great enemy—but as a side unto ourselves. Yazdil.”

 

He bowed then and looked at them all with a smile aglow with delight. As a collector before a world of rare species, each one waiting for him to catch them. Many shivered—but she, the [Innkeeper], did not.

She stared him down like she had once seen the Rebel of String speak. The Naga’s self-satisfaction and the confidence of Roshal—flickered once as Erin Solstice narrowed her eyes.

 

Erin: “And here is Roshal.”

Ridley: “What’s so bad about this…person? The King of Destruction is right there.”

Cara: “They keep slaves.”

Luan: “Bastards.”

Ridley: “What—okay, but—I’ve seen Crelers.”

Cara: “And this is worse. No, shut up. Be silent.”

Erin: “This is Roshal. Take a good look, everyone. If you think, in this world, that isn’t bad—you have not seen them. Look at him. He knows what we’re talking about. He’s heard and listened, and he’s probably not even that stupid. And he still thinks he’s worse. And you know what makes it so terrible? I almost believe him. I’m not saying to get on Roshal’s bad side. Because they are dangerous. But look at them.”

 

She hoped they saw. But Erin refused to blink, and the Naga met her gaze brightly. Even with his boast and the arrogance to put himself before them all…

 

Erin: “You and all of your ‘people’ don’t have any idea what you’re up against.”

Yazdil: “Oh, but we do. If I was fearful, I would hide, like the powers that watch out of shadows as you talk, Erin Solstice. If I thought Roshal would break in front of you, I would watch my words. But here I am, ready to embrace you. I know your name. I have known it before you posted your first <Quest>. Erin Solstice. You have met my people once before. And still. They salute you and admire you.”

 

Like poison. Like gleeful sin. The [Innkeeper] who had scared the [Clown], who glared with Elucina’s wrath—Ryoka saw her face pale as Yazdil let out a secret like a captive from a cage. A terrible truth. He blew her a kiss with a claw—

And vanished.

Erin Solstice turned off his image with a sigh that seemed so pained the others could feel it. Her head hung for a moment and then looked around. Then—she nodded.

 

Erin: “There it is. If you don’t get it—there are good people and bad people wherever you go. You may decide, but I have met Goblins and Antinium, and I think they are a people. I hope you will see that. But Roshal? Roshal sees the entire world as one thing. Theirs to twist. To change you against your will until you forget who you are. They are the worst thing of any world, masquerading as if it’s normal for them to exist without anyone normal or decent trying to eradicate every last trace of them. I will never be their ally. I will be here. And my inn is open to you too—but I am going to pit myself against all the bad things I can see. I am not going to be safe. Does anyone…anyone have anything left to say?”

 

Many people did. Some blustered like Loran or made their own appeals for help—or to help.

 

Ridley: “Look, listen. I’m on your side. I am. You want help? Hire my team. Join up. We’re better together. My company is called Warstorm.”

Cara: “Three names that offend my soul.”

Zara: “Not everyone on Baleros is bad. If you’re here—if you’re anywhere, you might not be able to trust Wistram.”

Aaron: “Sorta hard unless you like not ever leaving.”

Zara: “Then trust the people who took me in. The Nagas of Baleros. Not…whomever that guy is. They don’t know him. They have a plan. Come to them, and they’ll help. But if you bring them what they want, they’ll give you everything you want. They’re looking for the Eyes of Baleros—”

 

Someone stopped her as several of the listeners sat up. She had said too much.

This was too open a place to reveal plans. So Zara fell silent, censuring herself. And then, when she thought everyone was mostly done, the last speaker lifted a hand for their attention.

Ryoka Griffin stepped forwards, and her voice was shaky. But she did speak. She rasped at first, then warmed to her speech, desperate, longing, afraid…and courageous.

All at once. To the [Doctor], who looked at the Runner who had brought an antidote to children; to the Singer, who saw a glorious mess; to Tom, who laughed at her scars; to Laken, who nodded to her side even if he couldn’t see—and to Erin, Ryoka spoke.

 

Ryoka: “I am Ryoka Griffin. A Courier. A Runner. I’m nothing special. I just got—lucky. Maybe we were all unlucky to come here. I know so many people have died, and it’s just terrible chance that lands them in a monster nest or somewhere they can prosper. Nothing makes sense, but I know a few things. Those six…are evil. I have seen it, and I see that this world is chaotic. Some parts are as bad as ours or, possibly, worse. Others are amazing. Fantastic.”

 

She took a breath that strained at her lungs.

 

Ryoka: “Here’s the thing. If you’re like I was before I came here, you’ve wondered whether our world had any more adventures left in it. Anywhere to explore. I used to wish I was at some great point in time. A time when it mattered, when the world stopped and a few people could change history. World War II, a fight for independence…I wanted to be someone who did something.”

 

Teresa’s eyes were shining with understanding, but Ryoka had a wearier look upon her face.

 

Ryoka: “This is it, you know. We’re literally in that position. Maybe not all of us have an equal chance—but we are here in that moment so few people get. And it’s terrifying. I wanted this all my life just to realize I never actually desired this. But we have to do something. Doing nothing is a choice. Pretending there’s nothing at stake and we’re powerless is a choice. This is the most important moment of your lives. Look at yourselves, at where you’re going. You can turn back and stop.”

 

She stared around.

 

Ryoka: “More than sides. More than power…when you think of the dead gods, remember this: they have done terrible things. They are why we are here. You want to know what they did? How to stop them? How to gain power or why we’re here? All of it? Find the truth. That unites us all. And if I meet you on my long journey, I hope we can help each other.”

 

When she was done, she was panting for air as if she had run a hundred miles. But the Earthers looked at her—and then someone began to applaud. Caroline, and it was picked up by a dozen people—until Tom clapped and cheered and whistled too loudly.

 

Tom: “Best graduation speech ever. Like every other one I’ve heard, really.”

 

Ryoka turned red, but Cara gave her a wry nod and smile. And Erin? Erin raised her voice, cut off Tom and the laughter, and looked up into her theatre. She exhaled.

“That’s it for now. I’ll try to speak to you all later. Good luck.”

And then it was done.

 

——

 

They were going to remember it. All of it. Whether or not it changed their trajectories—more than just Earthers had listened and seen the pieces go onto the board.

Yazdil? Yazdil had just put himself in the position of the king piece. Flos Reimarch was on one end of the many-sided board, Yazdil another.

But Yazdil had elevated himself onto the level of the six.

And at least one of them didn’t like that one bit.

Later, later. Right now, Erin Solstice was shaking. Shaking so bad that, as the [World’s Eye Theatre] went back to normal and the sun shone down, someone offered her a drink. Erin took a long sip from a wooden straw and nearly sprayed it out.

Eugh! What is this?

“I thought it tasted good. It’s a health-shake. It’s got crushed ice in it. For texture.”

Of all the things she had ever seen or done—this seemed to hurt Grimalkin the most. He protectively covered his experimental shake, and Erin looked around.

There they were. She had seen them filing in, one by one, and Palt hadn’t broadcast some of the viewpoints because they hadn’t been Earthers.

Fraerlings, including Niers. Grimalkin, Saliss, Nanette, Mrsha, Lyonette, at least Pisces and Yvlon of the Horns via screen, and Rags and her Goblins. Selys, Krshia—

Her friends looked at her, some with wide eyes, others with a kind of rueful smile.

There it was. Out in the open. Whether they had known or not—Lady Pryde was frozen mid-sip of her drink. She had stopped about halfway into the conversation, and she was whispering.

“…What’s Earth? What about…”

Lady Magnolia Reinhart was gazing at Erin, and it was to her that Erin looked first. Her voice shook a bit as she called out.

“If—if you’re gonna be mad at me, I’m not in the mood.”

In reply, Magnolia just exhaled. She looked at Klbkch and a show of lights as Xrn floated down from where she had been flying to get a better view. The Antinium silently regarded her as Rafaema finally took in a breath. Demsleth and Taletevirion were in the upper stands, and both had poked the Lightning Dragon every time she tried to scream ‘what?’.

It was one way to get them on the same page. Magnolia Reinhart dipped her head to Erin Solstice as Ressa stopped chewing on popcorn.

“Erin Solstice. If Maviola El were here, she would have lit the theatre on fire with her smile. Mad? I am simply—pained. For they will remember you. But I have seen and stood before my peers and my very house as you once stood. I salute you. And if it is a side you want, please believe mine and yours are aligned.”

Her eyes glistened, and Erin gulped and nodded.

“Thank you. Now…”

She looked to Yelroan and a Drake who had been stabbed from the side by Magnolia’s words. Olesm gazed down at Erin without blinking. Relc sidled over to listen to Grimalkin with a look of vague alarm. He was waiting for someone to tell him this was a prank. Bird saw Erin wheeling towards the first of the people she had promised to speak with as Ryoka pushed her.

The [Hunter] took this moment to politely and calmly tap three people on the shoulder. Magnolia Reinhart, Lyonette, and Yelroan turned, and Bird clasped all four hands together.

“In light of today’s events, I think a ballista is very appropriate. Let us discuss funding.”

 

——

 

They were waiting for her. Erin Solstice could literally count them. She had:

 

Xrn and Klbkch.

Demsleth, Taletevirion, and maybe Rafaema.

Saliss.

Magnolia and Ressa.

Rags and her tribe.

Nerry.

 

This did not include Niers and the other people who wanted to talk to her remotely. This was just people in her inn.

In her inn. Enough guests to make the Haven shake with the consequences were waiting for her. Expecting something of her. Each one of them had a task, a goal, and a difficult request. Erin…

…Was already tired after the Earther conversation. She didn’t know if she could answer their expectations. But what kept her going was the knowledge that she had something to tell them. She had carried it since the lands of the dead.

“Erin? How you doing? I feel like I just ran to Invrisil and back.”

Ryoka was wiping at her brow. Erin just exhaled. She laced her fingers together in her lap.

“I don’t like speeches. But this next part? I’d rather give a speech to all of Pallass about, uh…cooking.”

She looked like she was apprehensive. Apprehensive and resigned. Like someone watching a cliff drop away as she drove towards it. Ryoka turned to Erin and realized the [Innkeeper] had a kind of foresight, a premonition of what might come next.

But she turned and waited as the first duo approached. Xrn and Klbkch. The light from her head was already threatening to stain the seats of the [World’s Eye Theatre].

“We should probably talk here. It’s here or the garden—and she might actually fry the Faerie Flowers or the dome.”

Klbkch slowed as Ryoka lifted a hand.

“Hi, Klbkch. It’s been a long time.”

“Miss Griffin.”

He dipped his head. Xrn turned to Ryoka, and her eyes flickered pale orange and then to spruce brown and then…

“Erin Solstice. At last you deign to speak to us. Is now a good time for your goals and ambitions?”

The [Innkeeper] held her ground as Klbkch nudged Xrn hard. The azure Centenium had never exactly been calm—she had always scared Erin even when she was being friendly. Now? She lifted the staff and swung it into Klbkch’s side.

He tried to dodge. The staff missed him. The spectral hand did not. Erin and Ryoka flinched as Klbkch bounced, crashed into several of Erin’s new chairs hard enough to break them—

Aw, my theatre! [Partial Reconstruction]. Guys. Please.”

Xrn ignored Erin’s complaint as Klbkch got up and strode back to them. She struck the ground with that staff, and a bubble enveloped them.

“We will be silent in here. Why is she here? Is she necessary?”

She turned her head to Ryoka, and the Wind Runner gulped. She took a step back and looked at Erin uncertainly. Even Shaestrel seemed to be holding her tongue.

“I, uh, I could go.”

“That might be best.”

Klbkch agreed, rubbing at his side. But Erin put an arm out and shook her head.

“No. Ryoka stays. We’ve had enough secrets.”

“Antinium secrets are not your secrets.”

Xrn retorted, but Erin Solstice met that glowing eye without flinching. Trey had an unblinking stare that came from talking with Gazi.

Erin had poked out Gazi’s eye. She firmed her expression.

“She’s my best friend.”

“I thought that was Saliss.”

Ryoka muttered, trying not to sound embarrassed. Erin gave her a flat look.

“Klbkch, stomp on Ryoka’s foot.”

Xrn did it for Klbkch. The Wind Runner shifted slightly as the foot came down, and Xrn’s full-body stomp—made the Centenium frown and recoil. She felt like she’d just stepped on a rock.

Ryoka’s footwraps had taken the stomp. She nudged the Centenium with her bare foot in reply. Xrn stared down at the foot—then up at Ryoka. The Wind Runner began to sweat as Xrn lifted the staff.

“Xrn.”

Klbkch caught one end, but Xrn slowly lowered it and tapped Ryoka lightly on the head.

“She stays. She was of some use to Klbkch. But I had better be impressed by what I hear. I have spent nearly half a year in Liscor. Half a year of hearing nothing from Erin Solstice but excuses. If I am unhappy, for all your new Skill is so very interesting, Erin Solstice, by the time I leave, you will need a new one.”

She was angry, and Erin’s first instinct was to poke that bear. But she didn’t. And that surprised even Ryoka and Klbkch, because Erin’s response to pressure was to punch it in the face. Yet Erin seemed to understand.

She looked at Xrn’s torn head and the light leaking from her brain.

“I know, Xrn. You were hurt defending my inn. I haven’t repaid that. I haven’t…given you, personally, much. Because I don’t think I had what you wanted. You wanted armies. All I did was make some of the Antinium my friends.”

“No. You misunderstand. I wanted you to make the entire Hive your friend.”

Xrn sounded tired, and Erin saw how frustrated she was. For all he was often so wrong—even Klbkch seemed to get the error in Xrn’s thinking. The peerless Small Queen…

“That’s not how friendship works, Xrn. I’m sorry.”

The Small Queen shook her head.

“Then I would have rather you led the 7th Hive. I would have made you a Queen.”

Klbkch’s head snapped around. Ryoka’s eyes bulged. Erin Solstice? She shook her head and sighed.

“I can’t rule the Antinium any more than I wanted to rule Khelt. Or anywhere else. I want to help—but in different ways. I died, Xrn. I died, and…I have a message for you and Klbkch. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I met no Antinium in the lands of the dead. I told Klbkch that.”

He bowed his head.

“They were in Rhir.”

“Nothing that died on Rhir had a soul in the lands of the dead. Because of the dead god buried there. Even the ones who killed her—and they think it was a her—didn’t know she was down there. Or they would have wiped her out.”

Xrn’s head slowly rose. Ryoka gasped, and Shaestrel narrowed her eyes. Erin Solstice didn’t blink when she delivered that news.

“How do you know it was a her?

Klbkch’s swords were halfway out of their sheaths. Reflexively. He had tensed. Both Antinium drew closer, so close they were practically on top of Erin.

How do you—?

Erin looked at them and then Ryoka, and then her eyes found Shaestrel.

“I met their enemies. In the lands of the dead. I met Gnomes.”

Crash. Ryoka had been hearing the conversations around the rest of the theatre. Xrn’s bubble had been one-way, so she could hear Selys talking with Krshia, for instance. And she could see, obviously.

Right now, she saw Demsleth, in the midst of walking over to a seat, miss a step and go crashing down one of the balconies. That was followed by Magnolia Reinhart trying to choke to death on a cup of tea as Pryde and Ressa thumped her on the back.

Xrn’s head turned in confusion…then she stared at her bubble spell. Her good mandible opened and dropped. It stupefied her for an entire second. She didn’t seem to believe someone could bypass her spell.

Then her eyes turned black—and Erin Solstice caught her wrist before she could turn. Xrn naturally just dragged her half out of her chair, but she relaxed as Erin spoke.

“Maybe there shouldn’t be any secrets, Xrn. Just listen.”

The bubble spell popped, and Erin’s voice rose. Rose—as, for a second, four viewpoints flashed across the dome.

They were, somewhat interestingly, all male. Each one, also interestingly, a type of ruler or lord.

King Fetohep of Eternal Khelt. Earl Altestiel of the Rains. Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar. Niers Astoragon, Titan of Baleros.

Each one was caught in a kind of repose. Fetohep was sitting on his throne, reading [Messages]. Altestiel was sitting with a group of five others, including a [Knight] with a set of magnificent armor.

Ilvriss was talking to Alrric, and the Gnoll dragged out a wand and aimed it at them as the Wall Lord turned. Niers was talking to Geneva and looked up as if he had expected this. A Fraerling with an eye-patch jumped.

Four of her friends or allies. Men that Erin had known and befriended.

Then four viewpoints opened below theirs. As if in contrast to the top four, they were all female. But—this group was all unknown to Ryoka.

She had not met a single one of the four, but they winked into place, again, against their will. Despite their safeguards. And it shocked them.

The Quarass of Germina drew a dagger, then her eyes narrowed in her throne room.

Cognita Truestone turned from a nervous, smiling Stitch-man who was hanging on every word and a bevy of servants around her. Her jade eyes flashed in irritation.

Rasea Zecrew drew her sword as she whirled upon her deck, and a Drake clad in armor that made Saliss’ and Grimalkin’s eyes narrow—a city upon waves—practically backflipped off the railing and into the sea.

And last of all, the Death of Magic whirled. She pointed a finger at Erin, and the glass pane cracked. It began to tremble, and she relaxed as Flora turned pale and shouted. Silvenia stood there, eyes glowing as Ryoka nearly copied Nerry and filled her pants.

 

“What the—”

Guards, stand down—

Erin!

“[Greater Telep—]”

 

A flurry of voices, alarm and outrage and—danger. It spiked Erin’s [Dangersense], even here. And she wasn’t sure it was only the Death of Magic. But she raised her voice, and she shouted one thing.

Like a preview, a snapshot, a teaser trailer across the world to eight people and the domed room. It made Xrn freeze as she stared at Demsleth and the others. It drew every ear, and Erin shouted it at fate, that cunning bitch, to quote Shaestrel. Trey would have applauded if he could see her, because Erin Solstice was a chaotic thread in that grand design. She said:

 

I met Gnomes in the land of the dead. I met the last Elf. They made war against the six dead gods. They left me with clues and secrets.”

 

She stopped and met the eyes of the eight. Each one, for a long second. They had all frozen. Then Erin Solstice winked.

The viewpoints snapped off. She turned back to Xrn and Klbkch.

“They told me what lay under Rhir.”

The Centenium looked at Erin, and the only sound then was Shaestrel cackling until she nearly puked.

 

——

 

“A what?”

“A demigod. Something with flesh.”

Erin Solstice had Xrn’s full and undivided attention. Klbkch stood with her in the center of the inn as Lyonette had a panic attack over the possibility of the Death of Magic teleporting here. That Silvenia did not…

Did not make this moment any less intense. Erin Solstice spoke slowly.

“What you found there is a dead child of gods. A god in her own right—but the difference is she had a mortal mother, I think. She’s probably more powerful than the six. So Zineryr said.”

“How can this be?”

Xrn was confused about the nature of mythology. But she was listening—and if Wrymvr could have known what they were talking about, he would have crashed into the [World’s Eye Theatre] like a bug into a windshield.

“It has flesh. A body. A body of…”

“A god. Yes. I see. Even in sleeping, it dreams. She dreams. And those dreams were Crelers or worse. That body—I have seen it.

Klbkch whispered. Then Ryoka was looking at him.

“You what?”

Xrn turned her head, and for once, she did not scorn Klbkch. The Slayer looked at her—and he touched her chest gently.

“Xrn’s body is of Rhir. It cannot be repaired because only the great Shaper Queens of home had the knowledge. Not the Queens of now. But it is a copy of her original. She has only died once. We all have. That day, Xrn hung back with magic. When the First Queen fell, I was there. Wrymvr was ordered to fall back when she realized her death.”

His hands were shaking. But he spoke, like a confession, and the few Antinium in the room, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, The Crimson Soldier, Belgrade with Olesm, Bird—turned their heads and listened.

To a story that no Worker wanted to hear, no Soldier of glory. This was the true tale of—Klbkch’s voice sounded haunted.

“The world warped the closer we drew. My swords felt more like ideas. The Centenium perished last. But the First Queen dared to lead our armies against that fallen god. To silence her from waking. The Original Spawn of Crelers led an army of her nightmares against us. We killed them. Killed the servants. Killed our way to her until the very presence of her began to slaughter us. The First Queen could have turned back, but when she saw the chance closing, she went forwards alone. To do battle with the corpse of that being. I saw her stop there as that painful radiance burned through my shell. Then she was gone.”

Ryoka couldn’t breathe. But she thought the other Antinium weren’t breathing. Xrn whispered.

“She should have turned back. It was a tactical error.”

“She was Level 79. Greatest of us all. It was waking up. The Crelers were worshiping her. They built temples to her down there. We turned them to ash. Our Queen silenced her these last six thousand years of decay and desperation. Be silent, Xrn. She made the decision for us.”

The Small Queen ducked her head. But she was shaking. Erin Solstice’s own eyes were wide, but she had the ability to speak afterwards.

“Then you have to finish what she started. Find a weapon to finish it for good.”

Klbkch turned to Erin and seized her arm.

How? None of your Relics—no Centenium could get close. Only the First Queen’s levels and her very aura kept her safe until the end. And she died. We have no armies. Izril was meant to be a staging ground, and we have not taken even a tenth of it.”

The [Innkeeper] tried to squeeze back with all her strength.

“The Gnomes left something. I swear it, Klbkch. They killed the gods the first time. And they told me to seek out their clues to do it again.”

Ryoka thought she saw fate as the way the fae saw it. Klbkch the Slayer looked at Erin, and she had only hints. Only a vague hope.

—But it was more than the Antinium had ever had in their long, quiet despair. Xrn’s eyes began to glow white.

“That is what we need, Erin Solstice. Then we know what must be done. Tell us. Tell us—and the Antinium shall return to Rhir. I have waited six thousand years for vengeance. Now I see it. Klbkchhezeim. Slayer of the Centenium. You know what to do.”

Her hands joined Klbkch’s, and the Centenium looked Erin in the eyes. Klbkch turned to Xrn, but for once, her eyes glowed with that hope long lost. He nodded slowly and then looked Erin in the eyes.

“You did have what we needed all along.”

The [Innkeeper] tried to shake her head. But she was smiling. And trying not to cry.

 

——

 

Klbkch left the [World’s Eye Theatre]. He walked out of The Wandering Inn, down towards Liscor. He seemed lighter and heavier. He would return to the inn in a moment, but in this hour, he knew what he had to do.

And it hurt.

Oh, but it did. Ten years felt heavier than a hundred, a thousand. And it was ten years he held in the palm of his hand. But so Xrn had said.

“Klbkch?”

When he walked into the Watch House, Zevara was leaning over the desk, talking to Beilmark. He didn’t know if it was now—but it made sense, with everyone watching him. Klbkch knew Relc had followed him in.

It was hard—but Klbkch slowly put something down on the desk. The last time he had done it to Zevara, she hadn’t accepted it. He had been going away. This time?

Klbkch’s Watch badge glittered in the light. Zevara looked down at it as Beilmark got to her feet. The new Antinium [Guards] and the rest of the Watch turned to Klbkch, and the Slayer spoke.

“Watch Captain Zevara. I am tendering my resignation. I am quitting the Watch. I am…going on an adventure.”

Why did it feel so painful? Watch Captain Zevara was the only person who didn’t exclaim in dismay.

“Are you—”

Sure? No, she didn’t say that. Instead, the Drake looked up at the ceiling.

“—Coming back?”

The Centenium felt it in his chest. An old kind of painful excitement. A calling to the unexplored, the unseen. Once more, he was called for his original purpose. To find something lost to time.

But he looked around, and it was the hardest thing in the world to do this. Zevara’s words? He looked down at the badge glowing in the light. Then his head rose.

“Yes. I hope I may come back here as well. Even if I am not an officer of the Watch. I would like that. I—would like to go on patrol some days and drink with you all and talk to you. I must go—and I do not want to. This place is not my Hive.”

He looked around the familiar Watch House, and the [Guards] of Liscor looked at Klbkch. He glanced over his shoulder at the Drake standing there, spear in one claw.

“—But I wish it could have been part of my Hive on Rhir. I think I would have been happiest of all if both things existed. I am going to avenge my first home. If I should survive, along my long journey—I hope I can come back to my second home.”

Klbkch saluted Watch Captain Zevara. He spun, smartly, to make a dignified exit—but he stopped when he saw Relc. The Drake threw out an arm—and Klbkch could have dodged.

But he just opened one arm—and clapped Relc on the back. Then the Drake squeezed, and Beilmark caught him from the other side in classic Watch tactics. And they were hugging him, and Klbkch…

The Slayer wished for an [Immortal Moment], but he would remember it forever. And all Relc said was—

“Buddy. You’d better come back and buy me a drink.”

“I’ll bring you a souvenir. Relc, my partner. I’m going away. Keep Liscor safe for me.”

“I will, Klbkch. I will. Just like you like it.”

 

——

 

Erin’s face was dripping. The tears gushing from her eyes wouldn’t stop. Ryoka would have given her a handkerchief, but Shaestrel had stolen it. So Ryoka was using her shirt.

It was not easy. It was not right.

“I never wanted to do this. I don’t want this. I want them to stay in my inn, forever. Why does time have to move?”

She sobbed even though Klbkch would be back, even though this was not the end—it was a turning point in the road.

Senior Guardsman Klbkch of Liscor had quit his job.

The world wasn’t the same. Erin kept crying as she watched Klbkch in her theatre—and Mrsha turned into a puddle along with her mother and the others. Then, as if in vengeance, like a compulsion, Erin went to make other people weep. Klbkch was coming back. She had promised him a party and a cake, and there was more to say.

The next person was Demsleth. Or was he…

They adjourned to the [Garden of Sanctuary] for this. Because, despite Erin’s claims, there were some secrets that even she agreed to keep. Because she had something to show him.

It was not the pot-bellied man, the traveller seeking fine tastes and companionship she met there. Nor the wise half-Elf full of magic and secrets. At last, and at last—she came face to face with someone who made her want to duck and recoil.

Just like the start. Erin Solstice stared at that familiar snout, the brass scales glittering as two mismatched eyes looked down at her with almost as much nerves as she had. But the Dragon curled up around her hill…

“I knew it. It was you. You breathed fire at me.”

“I did? I do not remember. It was an accident, I believe. I am extremely sorry.”

The Dragon rumbled at her, and the Unicorn with a silver mane who stood with blooming flowers and grass around his hooves actually looked askance. Erin stared at him. Then she looked up.

“I’m Erin Solstice. I think I know your name.”

The Dragon rumbled. Rafaema, Magnolia, Ressa, and Shaestrel were all hanging back, listening as Ryoka Griffin stared at the two.

“I am Teriarch. Hello.”

“Hello.”

That was all the [Innkeeper] said. She stuck out a hand, and he extended one of his claws. The tip of one of his ivory talons touched her hand, and she shook it.

This was not the Dragonlord of Flame’s greeting to the Wyrms. He could have said ‘hail’ with a voice that shook mountains. He could have addressed her in the older tongues, in his Dragonthrone, as a ruler or legend or hero—and she could have greeted him in kind.

They did not. And that was perhaps the ultimate gesture of respect. They looked at each other, and Teriarch spoke.

“You met my daughter. You stood among the Dragonlords. Even as ghosts, I smell them upon you. You claim to be the Grandmaster of Scales. You have met the last Elf, who predates me, and you stand in Sheta’s garden. I knew her, the last Empress of Harpies. She was a dear friend.”

He had been here before, as Eldavin, but he did not remember it. The Dragon looked around, and his eyes were lost in pain and memory and…he clung to it.

“It looks like her garden. But different.”

“This one is mine. Hers…I think hers is in all the others. But I don’t think I can find it. Even with the key.”

Teriarch looked down at Erin, and his eyes widened.

“Key? I have only been here a few times. It was always small, for me. She stole away here when it got too much for her. She tried to hold the land together—and the High Passes had not yet risen to their current heights. Yet still, the Harpy Empire of Iltanus ruled from those peaks. She could have swept Izril with fire to keep her authority. She chose to try to let her great nation fall to pieces without harming a single blade of grass. That is the legacy of the woman whose Skill you wield. I would have you know it.”

It might have been a lecture, but it sounded more like a story. A story so painful and so central to who he was that the Unicorn averted his gaze, despite knowing it. Ryoka Griffin had been an audience to the Antinium. But Teriarch was more personal.

Erin Solstice bowed her head.

“Thank you for telling me. I—I didn’t realize what this place meant until recently. It’s special. The most special thing I own.”

The Dragonlord of Flame looked down at Erin—then his head rose. He squinted and stared towards that hill of mists. Then he gazed at Erin again.

“You are worthy of being her successor. I have seen Sheta speak to emissaries of countless species in her courts. Today, I witnessed you speak to a world in yours. You gave the Antinium a great task. I? I have simply been the destroyer. It never occurred to me, never was within my power to offer them anything but war. I salute you.”

He raised one wing. There was still formality to him, and Erin gave him a watery smile.

“I’m glad you said that. Because I’m gonna make you cry. I…have statues to show you. And I want to show you Sheta’s door.”

His brows rose. Copper ‘hair’, gleaming metallic, came together to frown at her.

“Her what?”

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin, Rafaema, perhaps only Magnolia had ever seen a Dragon weep. Truly weep. She realized when he did that the tears were bronze.

Like even they were made of metal. The Brass Dragon saw three things before they were shed. First—he stared into that hallway and at Sheta’s last words.

He was smaller, then. When the Dragonlord of Flame had first appeared to Erin, he had curled around the hill in the garden like a giant of old. But unlike Rafaema, he could adapt his form. So too could the garden, and the two met in the middle.

From the vast being as large as the biggest of planes in Erin’s world, Teriarch became smaller—still close to house-sized, but half as small again. And in turn, the door that opened for him dwarfed the other species.

The hallway was wide enough that he seemed comfortable in it. Doors leading to gardens in void space. And at the end…the Dragon looked up, and his eyes shone with pain and a kind of ancient hurt that he had never known this place existed. He lumbered forward to that door—and stared at the writing on the wall.

“This…she never told me. She never told me she had a key.

He looked hurt. And then pained.

“Secrets. Fate? At the end of it, she accomplished deeds that put Dragonlords to shame. Was this how? It weighed on her. She seemed aged a hundred years by the time—”

“So you don’t know what lies beyond?”

Teriarch shook his head. He looked at Erin.

“No. But I would like to. If there is a key—it must lie in your levels. Please. Will you let me see what she hid until that end?”

He pleaded, and she just nodded.

“I will tell you. Do you…know the other gardens?”

Magnolia Reinhart was halted in place, staring at the words of her great ancestor. Teriarch looked at the red letters and snorted flames.

Lucifen. I have seen other inheritors. I know a few. But not all realized what the garden could do. You…you have it how Sheta did. Statues.”

The second thing he saw were the statues. Still, he didn’t weep. The Dragon walked up that misty hill after Erin, Ryoka pushing her friend through the grass and fog.

At first, he saw nothing of the statues that Ryoka saw. He did not know Brunkr, Headscratcher, or the many mortals who appeared to the others. He would have seen millions had Erin known them.

But Teriarch stopped when he saw the Dragons. They appeared as Erin and Ryoka had seen them, arrayed around the visitors as they had once appeared to Rhisveri.

The Dragonlords. Yderigrisel had a place among them, head raised high and noble. Saracandre, eyes glittering even in the grey stone with wisdom. Muzarre, arrogant and prepared for war.

Only one was missing. And Erin hoped he would never be among them. Teriarch found his daughter, Nirayicel, resting her head in her claws. He stood there, wings shaking, for a long time in front of them all as Rafaema hid her head in her wings, already leaking tears that sparked with lightning.

Slowly, Teriarch knelt. He knelt in the grass and bowed his head. Then he looked up at his kin, and it might have been hours—or years, Ryoka didn’t know.

It was Demsleth that hung over him. As if his mortal, fake body informed the Dragon himself. He could have come here as Eldavin, the hero of forgotten nations. Champion of voices long lost to time.

He could have walked here as the Dragonlord of Flame or another guise. Taken his place among those statues, for he had earned his place among memory and history. But no.

The Dragon seemed smaller. Not just in physical stature. He seemed…less certain. Pudgier than the proud Dragons who remembered their finest moments. Out of shape, tired. Scarred and scared.

And he welcomed it. For a brief, immortal moment, Teriarch stood there not as the Dragonlord among mortals, but a member of a species among his peers. Time flowed off those brass scales like water, and reflected in the mirror of the Dragon’s body flashed memories. Memories the others could only half-see.

How he had laughed with some of them. Scolded, even pranked other, older Dragons like Saracandre until he felt the weight of his responsibilities in age. Mentored some—fought with others tooth and nail like Muzarre.

When the Dragon knelt there, his people endured. When he rose—they would be gone, and only he would remain. He—and two children in a lonely world.

So he knelt, selfishly knowing he took time from the others. But when he felt that [Immortal Moment] upon him, he looked at Erin with all the gratitude in the world. And envy. For she had something even Dragons wanted.

Erin Solstice kept him company as long as the Dragon needed. It seemed like she just sat there, sat as time flowed by the two—until he had the strength to stand. Only then did she take him to the final statues.

And then he wept.

“Gnomes.”

Zineryr and the Gnomes stood there, grinning and waving as the traitor, the last of Elves, Sprigaena, held her sword up as she had before she cast it over the edge of the world. Ryoka Griffin was shaking so badly by this point—she was glad that she saw Magnolia having to sit down. Ressa was leaning on her.

“They won. They told me they won, and the six coming back after so long, the one in Rhir—they were like mistakes that the Gnomes missed. They won. They apologized—as if they hadn’t done enough!”

Erin’s voice rose. It sounded fiery, angry. Frustrated. The Dragonlord just wept. The [Innkeeper] looked up at him.

“I thought you’d scream or roar or…”

He shook his head, and the Brass Dragon looked up as his tears ran like molten metal in the grass. Trails of smoke joined the mist in wisps.

“I weep, for I did not know them. I weep—because I wish I had. I never knew the Gnomes. I have lived the span of this world—but I was not born when they made war against gods. Nor was my mother. Her mother remembered the end of that war.”

Three generations of Dragons had passed since the end. Teriarch whispered, looking from face to face, then he found one. One of the female Gnomes, a magnifying glass in hand.

“Her. I met her for a single day. She was old, the last of the last when my mother introduced her to me. I was a baby—she tried to make me laugh until I couldn’t stand. Even then, she was kind. It must have been…fifty-eight thousand years ago.”

Ryoka’s head swiveled around. Rafaema gasped—and Magnolia sat upright. Even Taletevirion took a step backwards.

That was how old he was. Teriarch said nothing else for a long time. Then he turned to Erin.

“I know what must be done. But I fear, Erin Solstice, I am not the Dragon you need. You need a warrior for your foes, a general to lead armies, a diplomat and a guide. I am old. They should have chosen someone else.”

“You don’t have to do it alone, you know.”

Teriarch shook his head.

“I hope not. For I have inspired Terandria to move—and I will continue to do so. But I cannot be the Dragonlord of Flames I was when I was younger. Only in seeming. There are…more reasons than just my cowardice.”

She had seen him come into the inn as Demsleth, half-broken, half-asleep. The [Innkeeper] sighed. She reached out—and poked him in one of the legs.

“Ow. My finger hurts. Are your scales as hard as rocks? Wait, can I have a scale? I bet that’d make great scale soup.”

Rafaema, Magnolia, and Ryoka nearly jumped Erin. The Brass Dragon recoiled and put his wings down as if defensively.

“I am not going to be eaten.”

“What? I’m not talking about that. Aren’t scales like, uh, fingernails or hair?”

“Who told you that? No. It’s like a chunk of flesh. Do you rip off pieces of your skin and offer them to people?”

“I thought Dragons molted. Do Unicorns molt?”

Taletevirion gave Erin a huge side-eye. He nudged Teriarch with one hoof.

“This girl is crazy. I think you’re talking about Dryads. They sometimes have flowers in their ‘hair’, which fall off.”

“My scales. What are you going to do, bake the world’s ultimate food to kill a god?”

Teriarch rumbled in indignation. Erin Solstice crossed her arms.

“Well, if you’re gonna mope all day, it’d probably be of more help. No one’s asking you to be Mr. Dragonlord of Burning Things, buddy. Saracandre said you’re dumbest when you do the ‘Dragonlord of Flame’ thing.”

“She said that? That’s so—hurtful.”

He looked genuinely astonished. Erin just folded her arms.

“What are you going to do? Just tell me that.”

He retorted instantly.

“Dragons do not give out their plans to mortals.”

Taletevirion poked his head up from Teriarch’s lower back.

“That means he’s going to wing it.”

Teriarch went to swing his tail, and the Unicorn hopped it casually. Erin Solstice laughed.

“I just need to know what you think is best.”

The Dragon was offended, then rueful, then he looked at Erin with a kind of equanimity the other young women were instantly jealous of. Because Erin Solstice’s relationship with Teriarch was different than how Ryoka’s and Rafaema’s and Magnolia’s were. He rumbled softly.

“Them. I cannot—should not fight battles for those with levels until the time comes. But one of my kind is here, young. She needs to know what it is to be us. I—I believe my task is to find embers and turn them into flames. There are a thousand mortals visited by ghosts. Gifted with revelations or secrets or Skills. They will need help.”

He had a vision after all. The [Witch] and [Innkeeper] grinned up at him.

“That sounds sort of like what I do at my inn.”

“Yes, well. I have more experience. I will try to meddle. To mitigate what my simulacrum—Eldavin—can do with damage. He serves the three-in-one. Kasigna.”

Erin’s smile dropped off the face of the earth. Ryoka went white, and Shaestrel hissed.

“No.”

“He has the power of her in him. I could not best him—even when I took him by surprise. I do not dare to try a second time. I will play the great game in secret a moment. I—must start small. Are you let down by it?”

Teriarch, who had so recently been Demsleth, looked ashamed until Erin poked him in the side again.

“No. I get it. If you need to stop by the inn any time—come on by. I’ll give you a drink and food. But not for free. I hear you’ve got a lot of money, and you’re sort of a big eater.”

His mouth was open, and he was searching for a retort when Erin turned, and both she and Teriarch looked at the real quarry here. The Unicorn began to back away instantly.

“Oh no. No, nope. I’ve sworn an oath. A geas, even. Until I see something new and all that—you’re not getting me involved in a war.”

“Taletevirion, this is the oldest war. If there was ever a cause—”

“You’ve given me this speech eight times, and I’ve done it to you five. Don’t do it, Teriarch. It won’t work.”

The Unicorn began backing downhill, and Erin called out after him.

“Come on, Talete—Taletevoon. Teriarch’s cool. I thought a Unicorn would be cool. I guess Dragons are the only ones with a backbone. I didn’t hear of Unicorns fighting the six.”

The Unicorn froze as he turned around. He turned his head back and glared down his horn at her.

“I know what you’re doing. Like Khelt—I’ll give you a 4/10 for that.”

He trotted back and looked down at Erin as if he hadn’t realized he’d already lost. The only way was not to play. Erin folded her arms.

“Okay, then show me a real 8/10 move of determination. We’ve got 5/10 Teriarch over here.”

“Hey.”

The Unicorn snorted in amusement, but he took a step back.

“Cute. But I am serious. I get the odds, I really do. Worse than Dragonlords, more dangerous than empire—but I am done. Teriarch has one of his people to guard, and…this ties into his very history. But me? My people are gone, Erin Solstice. Not even their ghosts to fight for. My forest is quiet. My people died a long time ago. You ask me to fight…for who?”

He looked sad, and his words made Erin Solstice’s head duck—but before she could come up with a reply, someone swooped down in outrage.

 

“Look at ye, you cowardly cunt of a horned horney donkey! Is this what a warrior of the glades says?”

 

Taletevirion ducked as Shaestrel buzzed his head. He backed up in alarm and then groaned.

“Oh dead gods. Now I have a nag from another world after me. Shoo, shoo. I’m not falling for any pranks, and you’re the worst hypocrite. I’ve seen your lot every year playing pranks—who are you to lecture me?”

He began to trot away, and the enraged Spring Faerie shouted.

 

“We honored our promises! This is when it mattered, and we have waited for this day, unlike ye who’s given up! You may say you’re the last of your kind, and it’s a trueness here—but not in the Court of the Faerie King! I am Shaestrel, and I swear upon my name I will go back and tell them what a coward their kin was!”

 

The Unicorn’s head snapped around, and he stared at Shaestrel. The fae folded her arms, smiling.

 

“Aye, that’s right. Your kind lives in our lands and other places. Should I offer you passage when this is all done? If you walk that road, I might—I might petition my King for the honor of travel. But we do not take cowards, Unicorn.”

 

Taletevirion’s chest rose and fell, and Ryoka grabbed Rafaema’s arm as the Dragon did likewise. Then the two looked at the other and stared. But Taletevirion just snorted hot air.

“Pretty good. If I were younger, that would work. But you’re making one mistake, Shaestrel. My lands are here. My people were here.

He struck the ground of the garden, and the grass rose half an inch around him in a hundred foot circle. Ryoka swore she felt her hair grow and saw Erin’s lengthen a centimeter. Taletevirion came nose-to-nose with Shaestrel.

“If war is coming—I will pick my battles when it comes to Izril. But I am not marching to your drums. I swore not to move unless I saw something new. Maybe Earthers are that—but they are another world, and it sounds like one with even less forests than mine. I care for the Vale Forest. I will slay my enemies there and safeguard a million lives there. Give me one reason why I would throw that over to die and have my horn cut from my skull anywhere else.”

Shaestrel hovered, biting her lip and scowling. Erin put her head in her hands, and then a nervous voice piped up. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes brightened, and she smiled as Ryoka Griffin spoke.

“What about—”

She coughed, and Taletevirion saw the Wind Runner raise a very nervous hand. He stared at her with such a flat look his thoughts were practically written on the air. In fact, they were appearing as the tip of his horn glowed, magical writing.

Oh no you don’t. Don’t you dare. I’ll run you through. Stop it.

“—What about bringing back the Dryads? Wouldn’t that be worthy of your forest?”

The Dryad seed. The Unicorn’s conversation with Ryoka came back. The one expert on Dryads—the one person who might be able to bring one back—closed his eyes as Shaestrel laughed in his face. Laughed and laughed like the silent Gnomes, eyes bulging, guffawing at his weary expression.

Taletevirion slowly trotted over to Ryoka and laid his head on her chest. Ryoka tried to back up—then realized he was pushing her with his head. Slowly, the Unicorn picked up speed—and then he tossed her off the hill. He watched with some satisfaction as he sent her tumbling head-over-heels down into the rest of the garden. Then he spat.

“I hate you all.”

 

——

 

Have you ever felt that sense of—loss or a barrier being breached? Like when you stand on stage and realize you’re in the middle of a performance.

You catch yourself—and there’s nothing holding you back. The only way is forwards, in desperation, pushing yourself by the momentum of it into things you can’t believe are happening.

Faster and faster, racing downhill on a runaway wagon. Possibly with a striped tiger. That was how Erin Solstice felt. Yet she also believed that since she had begun it all, she had to see it through. Crashing down and bouncing off a rock into the air—

Was she losing control or flying?

Rags was looking at Ryoka as Kevin carried a laptop around. Practically glued to the screen was Yelroan.

“I was promised math.”

“My dude, this has got cosine and logarithms and more.”

“Yes, but how was the math used? That is the question.”

Kevin gave Yelroan the pained look of someone who understood the question. It was one thing to know, but know why? Rags, though, was waiting for Erin.

“You have a lot of your people. What comes next?”

“I don’t know. What is your tribe going to do, Rags?”

The Goblin didn’t quite look at Magnolia Reinhart.

“Mercenary stuff. Some fighting—finding Goblins. Exploring Izril. Probably killing [Slavers].”

She bared her teeth, and Redscar grinned.

“Old-fashioned Redfang raiding. Unless you got another [Blademistress] to fight? Next time, I win.”

Erin laughed weakly.

“Not right now. So you’re going to go.”

“Mhm. That Dragon giving out quests? Or scales?”

Rags was one of the people who knew. Even the other Goblins looked impressed, but Erin shushed Rags. She took in a breath, let it go—

“What about you, Magnolia?”

“I have a bridge to build across the High Passes. I intend to sweep the new lands clean of pests. Your friends may help me with that—but I will be in Izril’s south. If there is a way to do what Zel Shivertail wanted, I will see it done.”

“Good. Klbkch is going. The Horns have already left. I guess I should help the tribes, and if Xrn needs help, I should—there’s Fetohep, Altestiel, and…”

There was a familiar rushing feeling in Erin’s head. She wheeled back into the [World’s Eye Theatre] to continue the conversations in public. Most of her friends were still there, waiting for her to get back and talk.

It felt like when she had at her party with Barelle the Bard or the Christmas celebrations. Erin looked over, and Klbkch was staring at a map of the new lands. She looked over her shoulder, and Teriarch was speaking to Rafaema in their false shapes. Taletevirion was bumping Ryoka over, and he put a hoof on her back so she stopped talking.

Erin Solstice heard a conversation as she wheeled into the theatre’s center, breathing hard. It came from two Drakes.

Grimalkin and Saliss. They were speaking—and it was the acoustics of the theatre or the fact that Erin was the owner that let their quiet conversation drift over to her.

 

——

 

“Saliss. What do you think about all this?”

“Seems like a headache for you lot and High Command. Chaldion’s going to throw himself off the walls because Erin didn’t trust him. Which is his fault.”

Saliss smirked as Grimalkin crossed his arms, and they stood together. Pryde had gone off for a walk, looking distinctly unwell as she processed how in the dark she’d been. But the [Sinew Magus] didn’t share Saliss’ urbane amusement.

In truth, he suspected Saliss didn’t either. The Drake cleared his throat a few times before Saliss produced a little vial.

“Having throat problems? This will clear it right up.”

“That’s a spice bomb.”

“Yeah. What I said.”

The [Sinew Magus] brushed it away—Saliss was pressing it into his cheek. He cleared his throat one more time.

“I…was wondering if you had talked to your cousin, Onieva. It seems as though the situation is rather serious for the Walled Cities. A time to stand together. What do you think?”

He had no [Dangersense], but all the scales on his back prickled as Saliss slowly turned his head and regarded him out of the corner of his eyes.

“You’re a funny guy, Grimalkin. I’d watch your jokes, though. The Walled Cities standing together?”

“The people then.”

“Find Onieva and bug her about it.”

“I thought you might be able to tell me more than she would. Or at least, present the same point of v—”

Grimalkin kept speaking until Saliss gripped one arm. Gently—except for the claws that dug straight through Grimalkin’s scales. The sharp grip was accompanied by Saliss’ big smile.

You don’t know me, Sinew Magus. Watch what you insinuate. You think Chaldion gets nasty with his Eyes?”

The [Sinew Magus] was in too deep to back away. He had made his calculations. Sink or swim.

“Chaldion told me nothing. Nor did High Command. I would wager much of High Command is oblivious to who Saliss is. But I have eyes.”

He ran in different circles thanks to his distance from the army and his nature as a [Mage]. Not in Saliss’ circles, but—the [Alchemist]’s eyes grew more and more dangerous.

Grimalkin was aware the topic was dangerous to Saliss’ kind. Turnscales. He knew—had studied and even met a few in Fissival. He’d wanted to study the phenomenon, so he’d blended in and faked being one of them to gain access to their secret meetings. He must not have played the role well enough because they had panicked and left the city.

Pallass’ army, he knew, had had issues with the same. Of course, Grimalkin knew about Zel Shivertail. General Sserys was more of a surprise. What Grimalkin was trying to say—what he believed of the issue was that it wasn’t something the Walled Cities should be focusing on.

To him, it was obviously a fascinating case of shifted personality or interests. He was sympathetic, and he meant—

He had placed Pallass above his own desires at times, and Saliss knew what it was to be part of a Walled City, a cause. So why did the Drake’s claws and his eyes make the Sinew Magus sweat?

Grimalkin spoke quickly.

“If I have said nothing, you can assume I will not.”

“Then why are you wading through the acid river? Not very smart of you.”

Saliss hissed back. Grimalkin decided to de-escalate. He spoke, standing tall as Saliss slowly let go.

“I was just remarking that Drakes should stand together. Especially given what we’ve learned. Is now the time to be—facetious?”

The Named-rank adventurer relaxed a bit, because they had moved away from even hinting at the word both were thinking. But he seemed to grow angrier in turn.

“I didn’t realize you were this perceptive. Or this funny. Are you worried Onieva wouldn’t do her civic duty to Pallass?”

“The thought—occurred to me. The Walled Cities have need of her talent.”

“Once they see it, they want it. So you’re saying she’d better enlist and not stir up any trouble until we resolve our problems?”

“…Yes. I was just inquiring what you thought.”

Grimalkin had really felt like this was a better argument on paper when he’d come up with it. It occurred to him he might not be in possession of all the facts and understanding he thought he had.

Saliss’ eyes narrowed dangerously.

“I can’t speak for Onieva. But assuming I was speaking for her kind of person…I would say that it’s awfully convenient to pull the ‘let’s work together’ card now. Chaldion pulled that card during the Antinium Wars. I heard they pulled that card during the Naga Incursions. In fact, it seems like that card’s always in play. It just keeps changing what it looks like.”

“This is the most dramatic event that you could argue overshadows the Antinium Wars…”

“Oh, I know. I know. But let me tell you something, Grimalkin. Why do we have to be the ones that work together? Why don’t you march up to Chaldion and tell him that, hmm?”

The [Sinew Magus] was sweating slightly. Maybe that was safer, but—

“As to that, Adventurer Saliss, I have to report that, unlike Archmage Valeterisa, I have not learned to cast [Levitate] yet.”

The [Alchemist] threw back his head and laughed. Once. Then he kept staring.

“So you thought I’d be the reasonable one. Well, let me speak for this hypothetical group. I would say—we will have dignity or we will tear down the Walled Cities from the inside. I’m out of patience.”

“Is that what we need, right now?”

This was not going the way he’d hoped. He had thought Saliss might be reminded of what was at stake.

No matter what you thought of them, most Turnscales were still acceptable members of society. Even vital, in Saliss’ and Zel’s cases. He had never agreed with the Watch’s overzealousness, but it wasn’t his area of authority to argue. If both sides dropped the issue…

Grimalkin had searched for shame in Saliss when he tried to remind him of what was happening. For duty and stoicism.

What he got was outrage so hot it felt like he were the one who should blush in shame. The Sinew Magus saw Saliss bare his teeth.

“Maybe now is the best time because they need us. Because the Walled Cities are in trouble. Me? I’m looking at the Meeting of Tribes. The mistakes we made putting ourselves against the Gnolls will be nothing compared to the mistake the Walled Cities could make by doing nothing.”

“Now? Could you not wait a decade and come to the Walled Cities covered in glory?”

He really didn’t get it. Saliss took Grimalkin’s arm again, and the bigger Drake braced for the bite of claws, but Saliss’ grip this time was soft.

“Glory flakes off. Ask Zel how that worked. Ask Sserys.

Good, solid points. Grimalkin had nothing to say, so, wisely, this time, he listened. Saliss stared past him, and his voice was distant.

“Maybe I am a poor son of the walls. Because—I can’t wait for a day long after I’m dead. Even if it means my species endures. I have suddenly grown so impatient I cannot bear it any longer. But I was clawing at the walls decades ago. If you’re bothered—it’s only because you see how intolerable it is for me. I can’t wait for Pallass to change, brick by brick. Can you?”

Grimalkin had been formulating responses, but the question threw him. He wrinkled his brows and wondered if Saliss had misjudged him. He answered slowly.

“I don’t understand the question. Everything I want is in the Walled Cities. Genuinely. Truly.”

The [Alchemist]’s grip tightened for a second—then he studied Grimalkin’s face and glanced to one side. Grimalkin tried to keep his face as honest and true as he could. He meant it—and he had meant it in that moment when he replied automatically.

He only thought of Ferkr after he’d spoken. But then he had to stand by his words. Saliss paused a second as he looked Grimalkin up and down, then his cheeks puffed out.

How he guffawed. Laughed and laughed as Grimalkin looked puzzled. Then Saliss turned away and saw Erin Solstice watching her friends preparing to leave and go away.

 

——

 

They knew who she was, now. The full her. Even if you had known, like Selys, or been told—now you heard it from the sheep’s mouth.

Even if they had no idea what the hell was going on.

Shriekblade had been sucking jelly boba out a straw through the entire Earther call. Piece by piece in the sweet tea drink. It was so delicious to not be shaking or in the middle of withdrawal. But she stopped now and chewed happily.

She had no idea what was going on. She assumed this was all highly important and someone would pay a lot of money for the information or hire her to kill someone. So Erin was from another world. So there were other worlds.

Huh. She swallowed and sipped again. She supposed that made sense. And that was about all Tessa cared about anything. Things were going well. She hadn’t even bothered to open that letter from the Healer of Tenbault yet, and normally she was obsessed and wrote her six letters a month. Where had she put it? Tessa wondered what it was about.

To everyone else, the revelations were, uh, more impactful. And even if they knew some of the story, the entirety was larger than they thought. Selys was coping because she had heard it before. She was thus helping people who were flabbergasted.

“I—I didn’t know. Who else knew? Klb? Pisces? Pisces knew and Klb and…”

“Me. Erin told the inn family a while ago. Including Mrsha.”

The Gnoll girl waved her paw around at everyone. Mrsha the Secret Keeper smiled—but the big Drake who was looking at the show of hands and claws and paws looked—hurt.

Relc Grasstongue looked incredibly hurt. Especially when he found Krshia had known from practically the first month. But the Gnoll woman just huffed.

“Relc, it was obvious to me, yes? Doubtless Klbkch had his suspicions.”

“I was aware Michigan was not a place, yes. I looked up every nation in an encyclopedia and determined she was either lying or unique. She confirmed my queries not long after. Then I was killed. By Goblins.”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Numbtongue grunted as he patted Klbkch on the back. The Antinium brushed his hand off.

“Stop that.”

“So you knew. And Lyonette and…but not me. She never told me.”

Relc, the second person that Erin Solstice had ever met, looked so downcast that Selys bit her lip. But she pointed down at Erin.

“Maybe she didn’t think it mattered, Relc. You know Erin.”

“Just not where she came from. I get it. I wasn’t her friend when the Goblins came. I have a big mouth. Yeah.”

Relc exited the conversation, tail drooping. He looked around for Embria, but she hadn’t heard this. He wondered if it was okay to tell her.

Probably why Erin didn’t trust me. At least I know. I bet this is where hamburgers come from. 

Selys was probably right—this was why Erin hadn’t talked to him. What would he have done with the knowledge, help her? Kevin’s bicycles—Relc didn’t know how to hammer stuff. He was extra.

That was why it hurt. She didn’t have to tell him—the Drake was walking out of the theatre when he stopped.

He could stew in this for a long while or—he turned and walked down towards the center of the theatre. Erin was sitting there, taking a break as Ryoka Griffin followed that tall, silver-haired half-Elf guy that Relc suspected was a blademaster of some kind.

“Taletevirion—”

“No. Nope. See you. We’re not doing this.”

He jogged off, and Ryoka ran after him. Relc raised a claw, but she didn’t even seem to see him.

Great.

The Drake drifted over to Erin. He coughed, and Erin looked up. She seemed…wan. That was to say, pale in a not-good way, and Relc hesitated.

“Hey, Relc. Big day, huh?”

“Yeah. About Earth and everything. It, uh—it was a surprise.”

Her eyes widened slightly.

“Oh wow. You found out like…”

Her face looked guilty, and Relc suspected she hadn’t even thought to ask him. It made him feel worse—but something distracted him.

“You doing good, Erin? You look sort of pale. Like Captain Zevara gets after breathing fire a dozen times. Did you eat lunch? Snacks are important.”

Nothing like being a soldier to notice someone about to keel over. Erin Solstice looked down at herself and shook her head. She twisted, and both she and Relc looked at Klbkch. At Demsleth and Ryoka vanishing and…

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Relc.”

“Yeah. It’s okay. Really. Why…why didn’t you? I’m just curious.”

The Drake cleared his throat. He tried his best to sound the least accusatory he could. Now, he was looking down at Erin and noticing how shaky she sounded. The [Innkeeper] smiled bloodlessly as she saw Fierre and Garia racing after Ryoka with Mrsha and…

“I was afraid of this, I think. This kind of day. I thought that if I told people—there would be a time when I had to choose sides and it all caught up with me. Like this.”

She was cold and lost—until Relc leaned over and gave her the biggest hug imaginable. Erin squeaked.

“Relc! Stop that!”

The Drake didn’t let go. Saliss slowed as he strode over, and Lyonette looked down with some of Erin’s friends. It was really hard, even now, to sometimes remember that Erin Solstice wasn’t the giant, fire-breathing Grandmaster of Scales or the [Innkeeper] who stood in the world’s eye.

“You’re looking shaky. Hey, Lyonette! Erin could use a milkshake. Or something. She’s also cold. Anyone got a blanket?”

Her friends looked down and noticed Erin’s condition. Lyonette went to fetch a drink, but Ishkr simply pulled a milkshake out of the air. Erin laughed.

“It’s too cold! I don’t need a—thank you. Relc, I’m good, really.”

“You liar. You know, Erin, I’m not that smart. But I’m smarter than Klbkch is, sometimes. And I think you’re stressed out.”

The [Relc Hug] seemed to be warming Erin back up. Maybe it should be a Skill after all? It was certainly more impressive than his punch.

Erin Solstice looked up at the Drake. She wiped at her arm.

“Thanks, Relc. I just—I put on that big call because I had to tell everyone what was happening. But I didn’t have a full plan. This, with Klbkch, Xrn? T—Demsleth? It had to happen. This has to happen. But I don’t know if it’ll go well. I’m afraid.”

She confessed to him, and the Drake hesitated. The [Trusted Sergeant] looked around for some words of wisdom. But Ryoka was gone, and the nearest person was Saliss.

So he figured it was up to him. Relc fumbled for a moment. Then he just went for it.

“Search me. I never know what to do.”

Erin laughed. Relc elaborated hurriedly, but the laughter was a good sign.

“You know, that’s how a lot of things in the Watch work. I don’t know what to do? Klbkch or Zevara takes over. That’s how the army worked too. Always someone to report to. But in Cellidel, there was no one. I mean, there was the Watch Captain, but he sucked. It was just me.”

The [Magical Innkeeper] was listening as Lyonette brought a blanket and offered it to Erin. She draped it over the wheelchair, and Relc went on. He was conscious a few people were listening, and he turned red, but he wanted to say it. In case it helped.

“So—I had to change. I had to try and do new things. I messed up, but I think it worked out.”

Erin looked up at Relc. The [Guard] paused.

“I don’t have an end to that story. Sorry. I just said to myself, when I was messing about, when I didn’t know what would happen next during the protests and stuff—I thought, ‘I wonder what Erin will say when I get back’. I forgot you were dead, sorry. I thought, ‘I hope she won’t be angry at me.’ And that kept me going.”

She looked up at him, and he was fully flushed by now. But when Erin was about to protest that was a fake story or laugh…she looked at him and realized he meant it.

Then Erin’s breathing was calm again. She did a slow pivot around the room, and Selys was there, ready to jump in to help Erin with applications of stern love. And Krshia with Gnollish hugs if Drake hugs didn’t work.

“When I go back, tell them…thanks, Relc. I think—I think that really helps.”

He gave her a suspicious look.

“You sure? I just made that up.”

Then she giggled. But Erin relaxed, and he wondered whether it was a [Witch] or an [Innkeeper], an Earther or a dead woman he was staring at. All four, perhaps. Because Erin’s eyes grew so old Teriarch recognized them, and when she spoke, it was with the same kind of dignity Maviola El had once had.

Olesm saw that. Erin Solstice stared back towards her garden and beyond even that.

“If I could go back to those great ghosts in the lands of the dead…no. When. When I die again—”

Selys’ breath caught in her throat. Erin’s friends stared at her, but the [Innkeeper] wasn’t speaking of now. But she was speaking of certainty. She looked ahead with such conviction. At the most true thing in the world.

“When I die again, I want my statue to smile. I said that in the lands of the dead. I want to do so much more before I go. And when I see Zineryr, when I find those ghosts wherever they are, I want them to be proud. I don’t want my ghost to cling to regrets. Hard as it is—if they’re going, they had better come back to my inn. I should send them off right.

Then her head came up, and Relc saw Erin like he had known her grasp the wheels of her chair. She kicked at the patchwork blanket on her and sat up. She wheeled forwards—and promptly got her wheelchair tangled in the blanket.

“Shit. Someone make me look cooler. And—I need you to get me people.”

“Who, exactly, Erin?”

Lyonette was fussing with the wheels. She saw Erin smile. There was that chaos Niers had glimpsed.

“Interesting pairings. Ishkr? Go stop Magnolia from leaving. Then get me Xrn and Klbkch.”

The [Head Server of Tales and Fables]’ eyes lit up.

“And where do you want them?”

Erin glanced at him, realized what he meant, and gave her best worker a big smile.

“Good idea. Do the private room. Get me snacks.”

 

——

 

Magnolia Reinhart had been listening in on the conversation with Xrn and Klbkch, and it was fascinating. It made the Antinium more sympathetic to her—and more frightening.

But she would have easily admitted it hadn’t been her moment. If she had thought of the Antinium, it was that they were connected to her via Erin. Erin was the [Innkeeper].

Magnolia had long been their enemy. So…even Lady Reinhart, the Deadly Flower Blooming in the North, couldn’t quite get over a bowl of dead acid flies in front of her.

Xrn was staring at the cup of tea. Erin mischievously waited a beat before switching the two around.

“Whoops, sorry about that. Ishkr, how about some Garry-bread for Magnolia? Without the bugs. And two more cups of tea for Klbkch and Xrn. With straws.”

“Very kind of you, Miss Erin. I could take some cake!”

Ressa rolled her eyes. Then, without breaking eye-contact with Xrn, she reached over and popped an acid fly into her mouth and chewed. She grimaced.

“This tastes awful.”

Xrn slowly raised the cup of tea, and a glob of it floated into her mouth via magic. The Centenium paused.

“There is enough sugar in this to stop a lesser Antinium’s bodily functions.”

Magnolia hesitated.

“I truly don’t want to eat acid flies, even in the name of peace. It comes at too high a cost.”

“Heh.”

Klbkch sounded amused by that. And that was more progress than Magnolia had expected from any conversation with the Centenium. Erin Solstice just waited for a cake and some sliced bread before she went on.

“I know Klbkch is going on his mission. And Xrn’s got the 7th Hive.”

“Which Magnolia Reinhart attempted to hire as mercenaries. We may work for foreign powers. It will be a good levelling opportunity.”

Xrn spoke calmly. Magnolia saw Ressa tense a bit, but Erin shoved a cake slice in front of Xrn. The Antinium levitated a fork up with a piece of cake. It disappeared into her mouth.

Yum.

“On that, we can agree. What kind of frosting is this, Miss Erin?”

“Strawberry? And hey—if Xrn and Magnolia can agree on this, we can have peace, right?”

Erin looked from woman to woman. Xrn chuckled, and Magnolia patted her lips.

“Erin, you are so droll.”

“Well, why not? Magnolia, you heard what Xrn said and what Klbkch did, didn’t you? The Antinium don’t want to conquer Izril.”

“It sounded to me more as if they realized it was too difficult. I understand their true goals, but their intention was rather the same, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Erin winced as Klbkch replied. She lifted her hands.

“W-well, they didn’t do it.”

“At the costs of hundreds of thousands of lives. And the Five Families and Walled Cities and tribes driving the Antinium back in blood and fire and rain. Twice.”

Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes glittered as she stared across the table at Xrn. The Small Queen nodded.

“Our Queens died. Our Soldiers and Workers died. What is your point, Erin Solstice? I have the oddest notion you think we can be at peace. But go ahead. I could use a laugh.”

The [Lady] of House Reinhart liked Erin at this moment. She knew what Erin was doing, but she turned to face the [Innkeeper].

“I must agree, Erin. If you want us to be…allies, you must find a way to tell the dead that. Zel Shivertail, for all he liked your inn, could not reconcile the Goblin Lord or Antinium. It is, I feel, difficult for me. And I know our mutual enemy.”

Erin spread her hands on the table and inhaled and exhaled.

“Okay. Okay. I get…it’s like Tyrion for me, I guess.”

Both Antinium and Humans looked at Erin as she tried to speak.

“I—I could never let him in my inn. Not even with the stakes. It’s all I can do to let him—just be in the Haven and know Ryoka’s speaking to him. If it’s like that or even worse—I do get it. But we know what the Antinium want. Magnolia, you want a unified Izril.”

“Without Antinium. Though I may be changing my views. Slightly. But I am aware of their preparations for war.”

Magnolia laid a card on the table. It was not a large one, but she was waiting to see what Erin said. The [Innkeeper] chewed on her lip.

“Can we—can we do the Numbtongue thing?”

“Flirt with me?”

Ressa snorted, and everyone looked at her. Erin’s mouth stayed open a second.

“N—er—I meant more look at each other as individuals. Not an entire species or a cause. Let’s pretend Magnolia’s not all of the Five Families for a second. And Klbkch and Xrn aren’t all the Antinium. Magnolia. If Klbkch and Xrn swear they don’t want to take over Izril, would you believe them?”

Erin glanced to one side, and Xrn shrugged as Klbkch nodded. Klbkch clicked his mandibles.

“I do not believe war is in our best interests. Not now.”

Xrn agreed with a shrug.

“It would take too long.”

Not the best things to say, but Magnolia Reinhart tapped her lips.

“I—would believe they are being genuine, Miss Erin. So what comes after that?”

The [Innkeeper] bit her lip.

“You don’t go after them. What I mean to say is, the Antinium and House Reinhart don’t clash. And you both agree so—so it’s even less likely! You’re not allies, you just say—I don’t send [Druids] after you, and you don’t, uh—”

“Burn [Assassins] to ash?”

Xrn suggested. Erin nodded.

“So long as they’re working for Magnolia, yeah! No permanent peace. No alliances. You don’t have to forgive each other. Just…the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Er—not friends! The enemy of my enemy is my ally who I’m not going to stab in the back. How about that?”

“It lacks for a certain ring…but I could agree to that. With one or two provisions.”

Magnolia doubted she could nail the two Antinium down to a contract, and in a sense, she didn’t want that. It was Klbkch who responded slowly.

“We would not oppose this offer. Provided, of course, Magnolia Reinhart were aware we might take action against…enemies.”

The Blighted Kingdom. We will go around them or through them.”

Xrn was less subtle. Erin winced, and Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. Erin turned to her. The [Lady]’s fingers drummed on the table.

“What of the Grand Queen? The Twisted Queen?”

Klbkch and Xrn exchanged a swift glance.

“…Why do you name those two? We are Antinium. We move as one.”

Magnolia raised her brows in polite skepticism.

“Then I must be misinformed completely. I do believe the Hives are different. I might agree to a ceasefire, a gentlemen’s, or rather, lady’s unofficial agreement. But not the other Hives. The Free Antinium—yes. And the 7th Hive and the [Crusaders]. None other.”

Xrn’s antennae twitched rapidly, but she exchanged a glance with Klbkch, and the two Centenium seemed to talk to each other. Then Xrn nodded.

“Very well. Stay away from us. We shall do likewise, Magnolia Reinhart. If Wrymvr agrees, we shall contact you. But I agree.”

“And I.”

Erin held her breath. Was this working? She had gotten them in the room and had been prepared to drag both together or hold onto their legs to keep them from leaving, but Magnolia had come to the table ready to deal. And so, it seemed, had Xrn.

What Erin didn’t realize was how it felt for the two Centenium. Their antennae were twitching rapidly, not just in communication, but agitation.

It had always been true since landing on Izril, but now they felt it. Saying it like that—

There had never been an us or them. Now, they were a separate group from the Grand Queen. The Free Antinium had long been in name, but now, their goals were radically different. Perhaps the Grand Queen would join them. But if not—

Magnolia Reinhart had just split the Hives. More than her attempts with the [Crusaders], more than anything else—she had just gotten her wish. Perhaps she knew it, because she lifted her cup to Erin Solstice.

“Erin, I thank you. Is this satisfactory to your desires?”

She was getting ready to stand when Erin spoke.

“No. That was half of what I wanted. Now—we bring in the surprise guest. Rags?”

Her garden door opened, and Rags walked into the room. She sat at the table and picked up a piece of bread. She sniffed it once, took a bite, and grumbled.

“Needs butter.”

Silently, Klbkch passed her some. Erin Solstice looked at Rags…then at the figure floating in the air, watching them.

“Shaestrel. Can you tell us what the secret of Goblins is?”

Magnolia’s cheeks bulged, and with the supreme effort of a Level 50+ [Lady], she managed not to spit it out across the table. Shaestrel froze. Rags looked up, and Xrn decided to sip some non-sugar tea. She was beginning to see why it was so much fun.

 

“I—I dunno what ye are talking about, ye stupid Human.”

 

The faerie didn’t exactly sweat, but she was looking the other way. Erin saw Rags’ eyes narrow. The Chieftain turned over her shoulder.

“Badarrow. Get me a net.”

“I don’t think that’ll work, Rags. Shaestrel. I know you know. Does Magnolia know? Can you tell us?”

The Spring Faerie gave Erin an agonized look.

 

“Even if I could tell you and ’twere not against the rules, I would not! Goblin. Your story is one I cannot tell. Only know it is there.”

 

Every eye turned to Magnolia. The [Lady] raised one hand as she coughed into a fist.

“That is not my story to tell either. Nor do I know all of it. Just—what Demsleth has told me. And I assure you, I do not just keep it from Goblins out of spite. There is a…very real risk it could create a Goblin King.”

Erin’s eyes widened, and even Klbkch eyed Rags. The Goblin had gone still. Her eyes glowed as they locked on Magnolia.

“But the secret is there.”

“There is more that even Demsleth doesn’t know, he is certain.”

“The Gnomes knew it. They told me—Rags, there were no Goblins in the lands of the dead. But the Gnomes told me to give you all the help I could. You may not need me to broker peace between Antinium and Humans.”

Erin looked earnestly from one side to another, as if she hadn’t facilitated this meeting that would never happen any other way. She looked at her friend, and Rags’ eyes were trusting. Erin took a breath.

“—but it seems to me that the Goblins deserve their chance. I want to give it to them.”

“Erin. I have made the Goblins my own—generous offer. I will not disclose the terms, but believe me, I am listening.”

Magnolia spoke quietly, and Erin glanced at Rags and got a nod. The [Innkeeper] smiled.

“Well, in that case, you wouldn’t mind doing two? I hear the Goblins might also be doing mercenary work in the new lands. I’d like a second agreement in place. No Goblins fighting Antinium. And—I hear Klbkch is going to be searching for the Crossroads of Izril. For the secret weapons buried deep. For the dungeons of Gnomes.”

Rags sat upright. Klbkch’s head turned, and Erin went on, chasing after a vision.

“I know Klbkch is the toughest Antinium around. And he’s smart and cunning, but he’s just one.”

“And he is weaker.

Xrn murmured. Klbkch folded his arms and faced away from her. Erin spread her arms. She put her hands flat on the table and looked at Rags.

“No one should adventure alone. And with respect—even if Magnolia Reinhart isn’t all on the Goblins’ side, the Antinium don’t care about Goblins. They’re like the only species who doesn’t harbor a grudge against Goblins.”

“True.”

Klbkch murmured. His head turned, and Rags suddenly frowned. She jumped ahead of the conversation. Erin Solstice was smiling.

“In that case—along with an agreement for Goblins and Antinium not to clash no matter what—if, on his adventure, Klbkch should find a dungeon, can we agree for him to have…backup? And to share anything he finds with them? No matter where he goes, if he needs a hand—I’ve heard Goblins are everywhere.”

She slowly reached across the table and had to lean over and flop a hand out. Rags put her claw in Erin’s grip, and the [Innkeeper], with effort, tried to connect Rags’ hand to Klbkch’s.

They couldn’t quite reach each other unless one literally got out of their seat. But Rags was looking at Erin.

“My tribe will help this…Klbkch if he doesn’t mind Goblins.”

“They killed me when I was weak. And defending Erin. I don’t hold a grudge. I have never spoken overlong to…Chieftain Rags.”

They hadn’t. The two longtime guests of Erin’s inn traded a look. Erin smiled.

“Then you should! But I want more than that. More and more. Rags? Do you agree that Klbkch could help your people?”

Find the truth? A six thousand year-old plus super-Antinium? Rags didn’t turn down assets like that. She nodded—and Erin fixed her with that grin, and her hat burned like fire.

“Then would you please send a [Message] to Anazuland? And spread the word. Not just to her. To—all of them.”

Magnolia’s eyes widened, and Rags got what Erin wanted. She looked up.

“All of them?”

“I think the one in Anazuland would oblige me. Hat to hat. But yes, Rags. All of them. Tell them about Klbkch. And tell them…the Goblinfriend of Izril is asking. Tell them about me.”

Antinium and Goblins.

Goblins and Antinium.

Both groups looked at Erin Solstice, and then it was connecting for her. Like a racing set of flames burning on both edges of a match until it met in the center.

Time to ask.

 

——

 

“Erin Solstice. It’s good to see you. Although my [Administrator] has had to go have a lie-down.”

“Sorry, Ilvriss. It’s good to see you.”

The Wall Lord had been waiting for her; he was sitting in his office, and Erin Solstice spent a moment just—saying hello.

“You look tired.”

“Building an army is busy. Dealing with our war with Fissival…and the new lands. It’s all about the new lands. But I have help. I’m doing better on my task. I do miss the inn, though. It felt refreshing. The closest I got was a brothel, and—it’s a long story.”

Erin hesitated. But she was speaking to him in her theatre now it was mostly emptied, and in fact, only one other person was listening in.

Crunch crunch. Erin glared at the soft sound, but Ilvriss didn’t seem to notice. He was smiling, and Erin Solstice squirmed.

“I still need to visit Salazsar and thank you for helping with bringing me back. It was…a lotta money you spent, wasn’t it?”

“Personal funds. My father threw a fit, but it was my money. It’s just finances, Erin. But tell me. Is there anything I can do for you?”

He knew. Erin Solstice felt guilty for piling onto the Drake. Because she had not come to give him a win unaided. She had things to talk about like moving Antinium and Drakes, possibly even the Gnolls…but she looked unhappily at Ilvriss.

“I’m gonna feel bad about it. You gave me that ring, and everyone thinks we’re married.”

“Er—they’ve moved onto Miss Marquin, actually. I’m afraid they think it’s funnier to have a [Princess] and a Lord of the Walls. I don’t begrudge it, Erin Solstice. It helped her, and it keeps my mother and sister vastly entertained. Ask. I don’t need help—unless you want to give me Mathematician Yelroan.”

“Nuh. You can’t have him. He’s great.”

The purple-scaled Drake rolled his eyes.

“I know. Go ahead, Erin. How can I help you?”

He was smiling at her in the way her friends sometimes did. That aggravating way that said they wanted to help. So the guilty [Innkeeper] inhaled and exhaled. Then she looked up.

“Ilvriss, I’m gonna give you a…task. Or rather, a quest. It might not be a quest at first, but it’ll help you in the sense that you’ll probably gain ten levels from it. And maybe that helps with your ultimate goal. And you’ll make a lot of powerful allies.”

The Drake sat up in his chair.

“You’re not underselling this well, Erin.”

She gave him an exasperated smile.

“Yeah? Well, wait for me to finish, Ilvriss. I wish I could send you some cake or something…but it’s something only you can do. I can only trust you with it. And only know you’ll make it happen. I’ll be working on it—but will you listen? And promise to at least think it over?”

“…Of course.”

He grew serious, then, and possibly nervous. Erin Solstice spread her hands. And she was a woman who kept her promises. So—she looked up, and a Drake sat forward, scarcely believing his earholes. Mirn grabbed Saliss’ arm as Erin looked at Ilvriss.

“Ilvriss. I need you to change the Walled Cities’ minds—or just Salazsar’s first. I need you to pave the way and do whatever it takes. But I need you…to let Turnscales come out of hiding. To protect them and let them speak and give them laws.”

The Wall Lord sat there for nearly a minute. What he had expected from Erin that would give him ten levels…now, perhaps, he saw it. His eager smile faded and grew troubled—then he thought over what Erin said.

Another Wall Lord would have responded automatically, would have refused to hear it and made up his mind. Ilvriss was still tempted to, and the voice sounded like—him and a lot of people talking in his earholes.

His preconceived understanding, his knowledge of what she was asking—when he looked up, she was watching him. Slowly, the Wall Lord exhaled.

“I am going to need you to explain this to me slowly, Erin. Perhaps many times. Do you have a dinner slot open? I think we’re going to need at least two hours.”

The [Innkeeper] exhaled in relief. Then she looked him in the eyes and winked.

“It’s a dinner date. Can I, uh, get a list of questions? I’ll try to have a good explanation ready.”

She looked at Saliss and Mirn, and they gave her two sharp nods. And still—Ilvriss steepled his claws and began to think, and still—

She was still moving forwards with that crazy momentum.

 

——

 

Erin wasn’t the only one. When Ryoka Griffin came to a stop, it was in the Adventurer’s Haven.

She had given up on Taletevirion. The Unicorn had run to the Haven and done a flying leap off the side. Ryoka had seen him speed off north and realized she wouldn’t catch him easily even with the wind.

So she…had decided to take on her own challenge. They were passing by Esthelm, and the Haven was slowing to throw a celebration outside of the city for that sweet, sweet coin.

Most of the guests of the inn, including Sammial, had gone to bother Pelt and see what Esthelm had. Or use the magic door to go elsewhere.

But Tyrion Veltras was busy writing notes to his subordinates and managing House Veltras. When Ryoka knocked on his door, he looked up.

He had a guest suite in the Haven, which was not cheap, but Magnolia had booked it, and Ryoka trotted into the rooms.

She made the mistake of not closing the door fully. But then—a sly faerie might have made the wind gust a bit to hold it open. After all, Shaestrel followed funny moments. Or moments that mattered.

But the faerie lingered outside, spitting at all the cold iron about and giving up to hover outside the window. Tyrion didn’t notice.

“Ryoka. Have you finished your business at the inn? Would you—care for a ride? Or to practice with your sword?”

He seemed to have two modalities. The [Lord] hesitated—then pretended to close his notebook. Ryoka saw him slip a bookmark out, and his eyes flicked down.

“Or…‘would you care to go sightseeing in Invrisil’? ‘Perhaps we could take Hethon and Sammial to a play’.”

“Who gave you that notecard?”

The [Lord] froze up. He turned the card upside down. Took a breath and responded.

“Pellmia.”

At least he was honest. Shaestrel looked like she was in a bit of pain—but also that this was so funny she was beckoning some of the Winter Fae, who, exhausted, clustered at the window to listen.

The Haven’s owner, Larracel, just winced as she swept down the hallway. Sometimes, she liked to do it. Especially if there was something interesting to listen to. She heard the patter of running feet and an argument.

“Mrsha! You can’t do it! Stop, stop—”

Nanette was chasing Mrsha. Mrsha the Furious was going to beat up Ryoka for her treachery, and this time, she was gonna get Tyrion too. Visma and Ekirra had joined them, and Liscor’s troublesome trio were ready to rumble. Visma had her favorite new Antinium doll, and Ekirra had a soccer ball.

They skidded to a halt as Larracel spotted them. Mrsha hesitated, then tried to dodge left. The [Innkeeper] raised her broom.

Heedless of the silent fight outside the room, Ryoka Griffin paced around the guest room. She looked at Tyrion, and she didn’t know how to say it. It was awkward and stupid, and she didn’t have Erin’s sense of timing and, you had to admit, her own style.

Like Relc said—sometimes you just had to do it. So Ryoka took a breath.

“I need to tell you something, Tyrion. And I want you to listen, alright? And…believe me. This is a secret you can’t reveal to anyone else. Jericha can know, but not even Buscrei should. Not…anyone else. Got it?”

He nodded. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder, and the wind closed the door. But the faeries were pressing their ears to a window, and Larracel had a glass cup, and she could deactivate the silence spells on her rooms. Mrsha pressed one ear to the door as the [Innkeeper] swatted down the Gnoll girl’s paws, then levitated her onto the ceiling.

“Go ahead.”

The [Lord] was braced. Pellmia had warned him there was a good way and a bad way to handle…rejection. His heart was thumping painfully. Ryoka studied her bare feet, then looked up at him.

“Tyrion. You know my name is Ryoka Griffin. I’m a Runner, and I don’t have levels. All this is true. I…befriended the wind, and that’s where my magic comes from. But what you don’t know about me, what I think you should know is—I come from another world.”

Ekirra had been yawning and picking his nose. He stopped mid-pick as Visma, about to bite Larracel’s leg, and the [Innkeeper] both halted in the middle of a three-way fight.

Tyrion Veltras sat in the room, staring at Ryoka. Her heart was pounding. The [Lord] looked at Ryoka, blinked a few times, and then—nodded.

“Okay. Thank you for telling me. Should we discuss it over a ride?”

Ryoka nearly threw herself straight out the window. She threw up her hands, reddening.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“I heard you. You come from another world. How big? Do they have many swords like your Windsword? Are you an emissary or lost?”

Ryoka gobbled. Something about the way he said it—even Tyrion the Rock wasn’t this stoic.

“Wait a second. You knew.

The [Lord] raised his brows.

“Of course I knew. Or rather, I suspected.”

“How did you—?”

“Your sword.”

He said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Tyrion Veltras indicated the hilt hanging at Ryoka’s side.

“That’s not a Kaalblade. You could fool anyone but Deilan and someone who made it—but I know swords. I know relics, artifacts, and blades from every single dynasty and age and empire. Not a single one has looked like that.”

He raised one finger then added another.

“Also, I was at the Solstice party with Emperor Laken. I saw the visitors from another land, and I saw you vanish. Another large hint.”

“Oh. R-right. I forgot you saw that.”

Tyrion nodded reasonably.

“Somewhat suspicious. Jericha had other notions, which she brought to my attention. I did not know exactly what this was about, but my conclusion was that you might tell me. And if there was somewhere…else, I did not see armies marching about. Therefore, I was content to wait.”

There was something aggravatingly practical about how he said things that made Ryoka want to toss him out the window. She took a breath.

“Then—do you want me to explain or should I go?”

“I would like you to explain. Please. I just did not see the need to panic. I’m…not good at it. I could call Sammial if you want to see it.”

That was a joke, and Ryoka laughed. But then she fixed Tyrion with a pained gaze.

“Tyrion, this is serious. I’m telling you because a lot of people know. Wistram. The King of Destruction. Roshal.”

“Okay.”

Would you stop saying—

The listeners were highly entertained by the conversation. Tyrion Veltras took Ryoka’s information about the Earthers and the competing factions in stride.

“So that’s how Laken made the trebuchets. He’s one or has one.”

He was—sharp. Ryoka swallowed.

“It’s going to change everything. Some people might come after me or…Erin because of it. I hope you’ll help. But I might drag you into trouble again. You already went to war once. Tyrion. I’m telling you this because—I want to be as honest as I can. What are you thinking?”

He was silent, resting his chin in his hands. The younger man sat there, and the older [Lord] seemed to be about him. But he also looked uncertain. An uncertain rock, trembling on a cliff, not sure where it would land.

When he replied, it was slowly.

“What am I thinking? I shall be candid as you are, Ryoka. Because you trusted me—I am honestly thinking I should have kept fighting Ailendamus.”

Ryoka’s mouth dropped open. Tyrion clarified his comments, raising a hand.

“I’m not as war-hungry as you might think. Allow me to explain. I…do you remember when the ghosts appeared on the battlefield?”

“Of course.”

Tyrion nodded fractionally. He clenched and unclenched one hand as if feeling something.

“One of them came to me. My ancestor. One of the first Veltras—he tilted with me. I’ve never sweated that badly before. He knocked me to the ground like I was a child, nevermind my condition. Then he told me that war was coming. A war greater than any I could dream. ‘Forge House Veltras a thousand times stronger and seek the strength of the forests’. That was his charge.”

The ghosts. They had met so many people—and Ryoka had just seen the first consequence. Tyrion bit his lip.

“I…did not have the heart to tell him the Treants, Dryads, and other folk of the Vale Forest were long gone. But I took his words to heart. So—I regret ending the war with Ailendamus, in a sense.”

“Can you explain?”

He nodded, exhaled, and stood. Tyrion gestured at the sword on his side.

“I am not a kind man, Ryoka. I do not—tend to my lands well. My cousins do, and they let me lead them in war because that is what I know. I know battlefields and levels. To level House Veltras, we need a crucible to do it. A war. Perhaps there is another way, as Magnolia claims. One where levels and power come even in peace. Even with enemies at your door. If I could do it that way, I would.”

He shook his head. He could not see that kind of a future. What he saw was his sword…and he unsheathed the blade slightly. Then he slowly offered Ryoka the hilt. Puzzled, she took House Veltras’ heirloom longsword and felt the tingle of magic running down that ancient blade.

“What…”

Tyrion stepped back, and Ryoka held the sword. He bowed to her, then.

“Ryoka Griffin. I am listening to you. I hear that you come from another world. I hear that the stakes are high—and I and my House must rise to the occasion. I am taking it seriously. So to you, I have my own proposal.”

Oh dead gods. Mrsha flailed and then pushed off the ceiling. Larracel caught her as Ryoka paled. Tyrion Veltras slowly sank down onto one knee as Visma put Mrsha in a headlock.

“Ryoka Griffin. I offer you a war.”

The Wind Runner halted, ancestral sword in hand. She exhaled in relief—then she was as frozen as Larracel. What did he just say?

“A war? What do you…?”

Tyrion Veltras looked at her.

“I trust you, Ryoka. I want to trust that you are doing what is best. House Veltras needs to be stronger. So. Name me a foe and tell me you have considered every reason. Be it Ailendamus or Roshal or Wistram. Point them to me, and I will take House Veltras to war.”

He looked at Ryoka, his grey eyes were glinting, and Ryoka was terrified out of her wits. But Tyrion wasn’t done. He touched his chest, as if frustrated, trying to explain.

“I know it must sound mad to put it all in one person’s hands I have not known a year. But—I am not doing this lightly. Show me a cause, Ryoka. Show me a reason to fight that makes my heart feel as certain and as right as when I look at you.”

What? What? Visma, Larracel, and Mrsha were all shaking each other. Shaestrel was laughing with her kin outside the window—and Ryoka Griffin was beet red.

Not even Caroline could do better than this. Not in her wildest dreams—well, maybe then. Ryoka’s voice shook as she tried to say something.

“I—you don’t know—Tyrion. Are you sure you even like me? There’s not a lot to like. I’ll let you down. I’m not good for you or House Veltras.”

She wanted to hand him back the sword, but the [Lord] looked frustrated. He hesitated—then took the sword back. But his hand clasped around hers a second.

“Do I have to marry you instantly? I just wanted to know you. Everyone makes it seem like we can’t even—flirt.”

Ryoka’s mouth opened wide, wide, and—she hesitated. Everyone had obviously thought—had he been—he thought his actions were like—

She looked around, and the faeries ducked out of the way. Everyone was quiet, and Ryoka, reassured they were alone and no one was listening, hesitated a long time. Then…she leaned over.

“I could try that.

 

——

 

Telling Niers Astoragon to his face that she couldn’t talk with him until later because she had a dinner date with Wall Lord Ilvriss would be Fraerling cruelty.

And an exaggeration of the facts in the most uncharitable manner. Because it was also funny, Foliana begged to be the one to tell Niers when Erin called up Geneva.

Erin let her do it. But she did give Foliana a five-minute start then appeared and waved at Niers. Despite the Squirrel Woman looking so sad at this betrayal of all that was hilarious.

Erin—would have stayed to play a game face-to-face, but the truth was she barely remembered the Ilvriss dinner ‘date’. She was awake and did talky-things the entire time and kept apologizing as she read from a series of statements Mirn and Saliss had prepared with some ‘others’.

Ryoka had helped with terms. In a sense, it was good that Erin just read what they said verbatim. Ilvriss didn’t seem to mind. He kept saying this was ‘refreshing’, ‘bracing’, and ‘highly amusing’. He even said hello to Mrsha and the other people who popped their heads in.

Erin regretted the end of that conversation slightly. Ilvriss had listened to her entire description of Turnscales as more than most Drakes understood it.

As…the beginning of a realization that would encompass more than Drakes liking Drakes of the same gender. Ryoka had given Saliss words to describe herself.

Saliss’ face had wrinkled up, as if he didn’t know if he liked the names—or the ease with which Ryoka put a word to what was so hard to define. Or perhaps the fact that Humans had come up with it first. But he had drunk in her descriptions like someone hungry to know there was water elsewhere in this barren world.

I understand the issue, Erin. And yes, it seems pressing especially if it will engender—hah—goodwill and talented Drakes. But is this the most pressing issue? I’ll do it if it helps me level, of course.”

She reminded herself that he was trying to help. That he didn’t have to hear her out and that it was in his very culture not to listen. But Erin Solstice snapped.

Snapped with her eyes flashing.

“Do you know what I’m going to ask Fetohep to do, Ilvriss?”

“No?”

The Wall Lord stopped grinning in amusement at her antics and what he regarded as somewhat lighthearted, nostalgic dinner banter. Erin Solstice looked him in the eyes.

I’m going to ask him to take Goblins into Khelt. I am going to ask him to find tribes, find Chieftains and even if he finds a Goblin Lord, give them Khelt’s peace. And he is not going to like that. He is going to tell me he has too much to do and this is dangerous, even for Khelt. But you know what? I am going to tell him that if I ruled Khelt—that is the very first thing I would do. And that is why he should be glad I didn’t take his offer.”

Ilvriss’ mouth opened for a reply, and Erin pointed at him over her bowl of mac and cheese Imani had made with a huge scowl.

“I don’t know Turnscales. I don’t know…the movement from Earth that well. I don’t. I never paid as much attention as I should have, I guess. Because I thought things were going pretty well until I realized they weren’t. But if you laugh? I dare you to laugh in their faces when you meet them, Ilvriss. Do you think I’m giving you something easy? Something that doesn’t matter?”

“Yes, but—Earth is coming. Surely this isn’t as universally important as Goblin truths or lost dungeons belonging to Gnomes.”

The Wall Lord looked as he had many times before, and he did not look happy that nostalgia was also being reminded of being on the wrong foot in Erin’s inn. And that was where Erin shook a fist at him. Where she raised her voice.

“Goblins. Antinium. One species, Ilvriss. Do you think I’m talking just about Drakes? Or Gnolls? Or Humans? I am telling you to change the entire damn world. You want allies? Make a stand and do it right. I need help…and I thought you were the best of people I could ask. Because if not you, I would have gone to Zel Shivertail.”

“I—”

The [Innkeeper] began shouting at Ilvriss.

“No, be quiet. Goblin truth? That matters to Goblins more than anything else in the entire world. Goblin Kings, the secrets of Elves. Turnscales. How much do you think they want to be safe? Do you think it matters less to them? How bad do you think they want this? What do you think Zel would say if he were here? Do you think he’d laugh and take it lightly? Do you think you’re filling his place well right now?

Ilvriss didn’t really say much after that. But the look on his face told Erin that he was taking it more seriously, at least. She felt bad about it. But that was why.

She should have called Fetohep up then and talked to him, and Niers and Altestiel and the rest. But the truth was that when Erin was done with talking to Ilvriss, she was exhausted. Not physically.

In fact, aside from shaking a few hands, Erin had sat all day—but emotionally? Mentally? She was in a state of explosion.

“I did it all. I did it…and I’ll keep doing it.”

Erin Solstice was wheeling herself out of the [World’s Eye Theatre] via the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had figured out that if she wheeled forwards, opened the door, and then opened it again in front of her, the momentum would roll her straight into the place in the inn she wanted to go without her tracking grass and soil everywhere or getting stuck.

The second floor of the inn and her room still carried up the sounds of a rip-roaring party below. Demsleth was setting the inn on fire—somewhat literally as he tried to juggle flaming embers. Erin, though, had to sit in the hallway outside her door for a second.

She should go down, make sure Magnolia was okay with Xrn or the Centenium didn’t have sugar poisoning…but the truth was she was tired.

Tired—but the Relc-hug had kept her from that panic attack. If there was any emotion in Erin’s heart, it was—

“I want to go with you.”

She punched the wall with all the strength of half a Fraerling. Her arm was so tired she could barely hold it up for five seconds before it shook and dropped.

Why was she so weak? It was a rhetorical question. Erin…

“I want to go with you, Klbkch. I wanna go with you and see those dungeons. But I’m not an adventurer. I want to go to Rhir and meet the True Antinium. I want—I want to be a bridge between them and the new Antinium of Izril.”

The words spilled from her mouth, and no one—save one person who hid a second when they heard Erin speaking in the hallway—heard her.

Erin kept talking.

“I want to go with Teriarch. And Ryoka. And the Horns. I don’t want them to run off. I want…”

Her hands were so weak. The Grand Design of Isthekenous really did know her will, because her theatre would let Erin see her friends. But she also wanted to be there.

The portal door. The theatre. Now, Erin wanted Larra’s Haven. She wanted more. And her weak hand was trembling, grasping at something.

Not the doorknob. Erin Solstice squeezed her eyes shut. She reached for something with such will and intensity and longing that Shaestrel and her kin felt it.

Lend it to me again. I’ll take it this time. Give me the sword of the King of Knights. Give me…Excalibur…

She tried to pull it out of her dreams, out of that image that the lands of the dead had held, out of memory and will and between the worlds.

But the door was closed. It was just…a memory. It was like trying to fly, willing yourself into the air. It would never happen, but Erin wanted it.

She banged a fist against the wall again and cried out.

“I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to…tend the hearth and my inn. I know you’ll come back. Please come back.”

All of her guests. She was speaking to them. Erin whispered.

“But I don’t want to wait and see your scars. I want to go there after you and make sure you don’t get hurt. See your best moments and be with you in your worst. I want to…”

She didn’t know how to describe it in this moment. But the eavesdropper had, interestingly, the best way to describe this feeling in Erin’s heart. For it was known to them full well. As Erin grieved and raged against her helplessness, she heard a sound which defined the other and echoed down the hallway.

Crunch. Crunch.

Erin’s head rose, and she saw a female Hobgoblin with glowing paint on her arms slowly inserting a potato chip into her mouth. Ulvama crunched it down as she stared at Erin.

“…Ulvama?”

Of all the guests in the entire inn—only Ulvama had enough snacks hidden in her rooms not to be lured down by food. The [Shaman] eyed Erin.

“You complain a lot.”

Erin Solstice just stared at her. The [Innkeeper] was trying not to say something rude. But the [Shaman] pointed a chip at her. Calescent had baked them up with Imani’s help, and while it took a bit of effort to make a chip-bag, Ulvama was a huge fan of the ones with lots of salt. Or garlic. Or spice. Or all of them. Especially with dips. In fact, you could dip Yellats in the sour cream. Or in the fish sauce. Or you could dip your finger in the sauce and just eat it. Or you could just feed her.

She ate a lot. So much that Mrsha the Snacker sometimes looked at her with a kind of disturbed awe. Then again, Mrsha was literally half Ulvama’s weight at best.

Ulvama was, as Visma had once observed, more plush than anything. Certainly not like Calescent or Pyrite-fat. And she didn’t really involve herself with the other Goblins or even most of the inn. Mrsha she would bully with some kind of affection, and she had a wary kind of peace with Rags—but she was apart.

She pointed another chip at Erin.

“Sad [Innkeeper] boo hoo. Can you cry elsewhere? It makes the chips taste bad. Or I know. I go to your theatre. Lots of fun.”

The [Shaman] smiled, and Erin Solstice felt just a tiny bit narked. Which was odd, because she got along with most Goblins like a house on fire. But Ulvama was less impressed by Erin, and the reverse was true.

“Listen. Ulvama. We don’t talk much.”

“Nope. Good working system. You go cry inside. Okay?”

Ulvama tried to open the garden door and nearly smacked into the wall. She glowered, but she hadn’t really been going in anyways. She was…Erin Solstice folded her arms and sat back in her chair.

“Ulvama, can you talk like…I know you can talk?”

“What, like ‘normal person’?”

The [Shaman] sneered. Erin Solstice glowered. She was nice to Ulvama, she really was. Because the Hob had helped Mrsha, she knew Lyonette tried not to get annoyed by Ulvama’s pilfering of choice snacks. And lazing around hogging the scrying orb. And sometimes, taking all the water in the copper bathtub and not filling it up…

“Like a Mountain City Goblin. I know you’re faking it.”

Ulvama’s crimson eyes flashed as she paused with her mouth open. She slowly chomped down a chip, swallowed it, and spoke.

“Oooh. Erin the smart Human is so intelligent for knowing I can talk differently. Now I’m her equal. Fine. You want me to talk normal? Then I’ll tell you that you sound like a mother.”

“I what?”

Ulvama shifted the bowl of chips to one side. It hung there in the air as she raised both fists and made a crying motion in that way Goblins were so good at mimicking people.

I’m so sad. I can’t go off with a sword. I have to wait and take care of my inn because I’m an [Innkeeper]. And I didn’t do my exercises because I’m so special that the muscle-Drake’s rules don’t apply to me.

Erin opened her mouth—and realized that Ulvama was right about that last part. She crossed her arms.

“I was gonna!”

“You forgot this morning too.”

“Did—did not.”

“Yes you did. You forgot, then you did them really fast. Took you six minutes instead of when he said forty. But okay, I’m stupid. You did the spirit of what Grimalkin wanted.

The [Innkeeper]’s mouth was opening and closing. She forgot the power of [Shamans], even more than [Witches], was to remember things that you didn’t want remembered and use them against you. It was the Mountain City Tribe’s specialty, in a sense.

Politics. No, something else. Ulvama gave Erin a pointed look as the [Innkeeper] searched for a response, but Ulvama also partook in the Todi school of dirty fighting and kicked people when they were down.

“I just bet you were going to do an hour of exercise to make up for this morning. Not forget and do another ten minutes before you slept.”

“I—just forgot. It’s new, and I—I am not healing myself, and I’m trying my best.”

“Sure you are. Exercise twice a day. Then complain that you can’t go dungeoneering. Hypocrisy! No, wait, that’s the wrong word. Silly Goblin.”

Ulvama slapped the side of her head as if she were wrong. Erin was rapidly becoming the opposite of a fan of Ulvama.

“You—you have a point, but I don’t like it. Is this how you ‘helped’ Mrsha, Ulvama? Thanks. For that.”

The [Shaman] gave her a huge, toothy smile.

“I help all children this way.”

Uh oh. Ishkr had gone upstairs to check on Erin. He caught the last exchange and turned around and walked downstairs again. Erin inhaled and exhaled.

“I’m a [Witch]. And an [Innkeeper], Ulvama, and I’ve had a stressful day.”

“I know. And tomorrow will be worse. You want nice and cuddles? Find Numbtongue. Find Klbkch. Or a sword. Not me. Especially if you say silly things.”

“What’s so silly about what I said?”

The [Innkeeper]’s hat was turning ominous, and the [Shaman of the Old Ways] saw it. But she kept going—and she was looking at her claws now.

“Chieftain Rags is a silly Goblin. She doesn’t want me and my wisdom and magic.”

“I thought that was because you were a conniving, lazy jerk.”

Ulvama glanced up at Erin and frowned.

“Yeah? Someone needs to be one. I am better than Taganchiel. He is young. I am wise. I know…stories. One thing the big [Shaman] does is tell stories to stupid, little Goblins. Stories that matter. So I will tell you a story now, sad [Innkeeper].”

To Erin’s vague astonishment, Ulvama began to waggle her arms. Then she turned—and a light bloomed. She began to make shadows on the wall and stuck up her fingers. One, two…and then the shadows became a cluster of little Goblin heads, complete with pointed ears.

“Once, there was a mighty raiding party. Back in the time when Goblins were many. A large one. Ten thousand Goblins who went to raid and get much treasure.”

“Who’d they raid?”

Ulvama glowered.

“Doesn’t matter. Some Humans. They were strong and many and had a powerful [Chieftain] leading them. But there was one problem. They had no [Shaman]. ‘Is okay’, said the powerful [Chieftain]. ‘We need no magic because we are strong’. Which was true. So they went off and began to travel towards the first place to raid.”

“Is this a true story?”

Shutupshutup. The raiding party took two weeks to get to the rich lands. But they had problems all the way. You see, no one had checked on their food, and they found it was bad and filled with bugs that ate each other and flew away. So they were hungry by the end of the first week. So hungry some died and they had to eat their bodies.”

Erin shivered. This sounded too true—and Ulvama’s eyes were serious as the shadows mimicked writhing bugs and maggots that grew wings.

“Worse, the bugs ate the straps of leather in armor and sword hilts. So weapons fell apart, and the [Chieftain] said—‘fix all that! Go hunting for food!’ But the Goblins did not know where food was, and no one had brought leather straps.”

“I think I’m getting the point of this—”

—And then there was no map. They got lost. And their powerful [Chieftain] grew sad, because he had a quarrel with his lover, and he was so depressed he walked off a cliff by accident.”

“Whoa. Is that sorta—”

Ulvama clapped her hands, and the milling Goblins began to vanish, hungry, lost, fighting monsters. Then she held up a single clawed finger.

“By the end, only one Goblin returned. And that one Goblin came back and told his tribe what had happened, and they made him go on another raid. And then another. And do you know why?”

She waited, but this time, the [Innkeeper] was silent. Ulvama spoke.

“That one Goblin went because when he led raids, he made sure they had food. That no one fought with another. That they had a map and supplies. And though he had no magic—one day he woke up and got the [Shaman] class. That is why they matter.”

She fell silent, and Erin held up a hand. Ulvama eyed the [Innkeeper] in a wheelchair. They both knew Erin was going to say something aggravating, but Ulvama grunted anyways.

“What?”

“Isn’t that the job of the [Chieftain] as well?”

Ulvama plucked a chip from the bowl and threw it at Erin. She glowered so intensely that Erin didn’t throw anything back.

“It is a story. You said you were sad you had to wait. Like a mother. Like a [Hearthtender]. Like an [Innkeeper]. All these silly guests and friends run around and get into trouble. Horns. Rags. Suspicious old men. Horns. Numbtongue. Mrsha. Someone needs to be here. Someone…needs to be afraid when they go to raid. Have bandages when they come back hurt. Make sure the tribe is safe. Listen when they cry.”

She stood there, and the Hobgoblin looked at Erin in the evening’s light filtering in through the windows. Then—the [Innkeeper] blinked and realized the [Shaman] was not talking to her as a [Witch] but…as an [Innkeeper].

Because their classes were more similar in that regard than Erin had realized. Slowly, Erin ducked her head, and she saw how sad Ulvama looked. Rags hadn’t taken her into her tribe. Whether that was because she thought Ulvama was more important here—

The [Shaman] had lost her tribe at Dwarfhalls Rest. Even if it had not been a good one, even if what Erin knew of Tremborag was true…her people were gone.

“It’s hard, though.”

The young woman spoke, Human to Goblin. [Innkeeper] to [Shaman]. Ulvama picked up a chip next to Erin’s wheelchair. They stood closer, and the [Shaman] exhaled and squatted so she and Erin were closer in height. She looked down.

“Yes. Some will never come back. Sometimes you say, ‘go’. And you give them all your magic and luck and knowledge and you know they will never return.”

“I’ll never let that happen.”

Erin whispered back. Ulvama looked at her and shrugged.

“I hope not. But here you are. And I get mad at you because I see you punching a wall and shouting that you want a sword. That you want to go with them and take your inn.”

“Because that’s stupid?”

The [Shaman] shook her head.

“No. Because I would too!”

She slapped Erin’s wheelchair, and the [Innkeeper] blinked. The [Shaman]’s head rose. And Erin was reminded who had gone after Mrsha with the Titan and been at the Meeting of Tribes.

Sometimes you go. And the [Shaman] goes even if she dies because it matters. This is the right thing to say. This is why you would have been an okay [Shaman]. A good [Witch]. But you…you silly, stupid Human, you make one mistake.”

She pointed at Erin’s legs. Her wheelchair, and Ulvama’s eyes flashed.

“How are you going to run through a dungeon like that? How are you going to be ready when the Horns come back with Super Ancient Creler behind them? When they need you—you cannot take care of them. No one comes to [Shamans] when they are well. [Shamans] have to be ready. You are not ready. How are you going to deliver a baby? Swing the stupid sword? Outrun a wildfire?”

The Hob jabbed Erin’s leg again and again. The [Innkeeper] flushed.

“I—I’m not exercising. I get it. I’ll do an hour right now.”

She was going to ask Grimalkin to train her, but the Hob gave Erin a shake of her head.

“Not enough. You speak like you want to go with the scary Antinium, Klbkch. You can’t just stand. You should run. Be strong enough to climb a cliff or run ten miles without getting tired.”

“Y-you mean like if I got super fit? Like Saliss or Grimalkin or…?”

Erin couldn’t picture it. Was there a world where she was packed with muscles like Grimalkin? Or, failing him, just Numbtongue? She tried to laugh it off.

“I’m not that kind of person.”

“Have you tried?

Ulvama countered, and Erin, flustered, shook her head. The [Shaman] chewed furiously on another chip.

“You have your gardens with all their mysteries. You don’t know what’s in them. You don’t know your powers as a [Witch]—how can you go and win elsewhere if you don’t know what you can do?”

Then Erin realized she sounded frustrated, like someone looking at someone else not at their full potential or doing it wrong. Like…Numbtongue when he watched Mrsha playing games on the computer.

The [Innkeeper] was lost for words. It sounded like [Witch] advice but delivered in a Goblin’s style.

“Explore the gardens. Find out who I am. Find my…it’s all on me to get ready for when I’m needed, isn’t it? If I want to go—I should be able to walk.”

That was what she was trying to say, wasn’t it? Ulvama nodded, and Erin realized the one mistake she’d made. If she asked—Klbkch might let her go with him, at least when he found something. Or she could use her door or try to put her inn on wheels…

But she couldn’t do any of that because she could barely move. Erin stared down at her tired body, and it frustrated her. But she had been lazy—in this—for so long.

It was up to her. The young woman slowly turned as Ulvama stood. All on her, alone. Erin took a deep breath—then turned to Ulvama.

“…How should I fix this? Do Grimalkin’s exercises three times a day? Four?”

The Goblin covered her face with a hand. Oh, come on…but then again, Erin had never really thought of how to keep fit. Like many people, she just moved and trusted her body to do things…until the day it no longer did what she asked.

The [Shaman] took pity on Erin. She tapped the young woman on the shoulder and muttered.

“[Lion’s Strength].”

“Hey, you can’t do that! I’m not supposed to—”

Erin yelped as a sense of power flooded her. She stood up—because she wanted to, and the stretch felt so good and painful—but Ulvama just kicked Erin’s chair back.

“You’re not supposed to cheat. This will hurt so bad you’ll cry if you run around and don’t heal it. But you have to exercise, not just use this to get away from your problems. All you did was walk around and then sit and play chess. You could do the Sinew Magus’ workouts.”

Ulvama correctly read Erin’s face. Despite all she had said—Erin was filled with the opposite of determination when she thought of her workout routine.

Grimalkin had given Erin a battery of exercises like standing up with handrails, leg raises, and almost every muscle group she needed to work on—which was also almost all of them.

The problem was—it was highly strenuous and boring. Forty minutes of workouts? Twice a day? When it was done right, Erin was a sea of sweat and usually so tired she could barely sit in her chair.

But she had the grit to kill Skinner, come back from the dead, and do a lot of things. Willpower wasn’t lacking—it was just that Grimalkin, like his health shakes, just wasn’t that fun.

Ulvama had an idea. She sighed and gave Erin a long, irked look.

“If you need to get strong like me, I will show you my secret. But you can’t tell anyone. And we do it every day.”

Erin opened her mouth. She had two objections. One was that her understanding of Ulvama—politely—was that the [Shaman] had one area of expertise that Erin wasn’t a fan of trying to get fit, if it even worked like that. The second was…

“Er…no offense Ulvama, but Grimalkin’s got a bunch of muscles. I, uh—I’m sure you’re fit, but Numbtongue’s super fit. Redfangs. I could try to punch Redscar for an hour. That’d probably get me in shape.”

The [Shaman] stared down at her bare midriff and then up at Erin with a kind of outrage. She huffed. She puffed—then she raised both arms and made two fists.

“I’m not strong? Raaaaaah! Muscles!

She flexed, and Erin saw her biceps bunch up, and they were big! And she had—abs? They only appeared when she really tried because she wasn’t skinny and underfed as a rail. But Ulvama grabbed the wood bowl, and—after two tries—cracked it in half.

“Whoa. Where’d you get those muscles from?

Erin couldn’t believe it! Did Hobs just get free muscles?

…No, they were always there. Erin realized Ulvama was probably strong enough as a Hob in the Mountain City tribe. Not as much as some warriors, but she had set the world record for Mrsha punting, and she had kept up with Niers’ group. If she liked to be lazy….

Ulvama beckoned Erin into her room, and then they shut the door. The [Shaman] looked around and lowered the curtains, hiding them from other nosy [Innkeepers].

“Could do it here. Bit cramped. Your garden is good. Or theatre. Let’s go…other garden. With the free fish. I show you—but you tell anyone and I’ll hit you, okay? Is my thing.”

She looked almost shy about it, but it was what she knew. And as a perplexed Erin followed Ulvama into the Drathian [Garden of Sanctuary], she found an answer to Visma’s question.

Why did Ulvama not get fat with how much she ate? The answer was simply that she almost always, at least twice, often as many as six times a day, performed one of the world’s most calorie-intensive exercises.

 

——

 

The [Shaman of the Old Ways] stood under a tree where green-white petals like sakura blossoms floated to the ground. She looked happy by herself. When she glanced up at the solo member of her audience, she seemed embarrassed.

But then she turned—and her foot traced a crescent along the ground. She walked forwards, and it turned into a glide. When she spun, she raised one foot up along her leg. And her balance was perfect enough that she didn’t wobble or fall as she raised her arms.

Ulvama danced for no one. Not even her tribe had known that was her secret hobby. She could have, for Tremborag’s amusement or her schemes. But that would have meant it wasn’t hers. She danced because it made her happy.

“Dancing?”

The [Innkeeper] was skeptical, but now that the Hobgoblin had shown it to her, she would not let Erin leave without doing it. Ulvama glared at her and poked as she showed Erin a simple one.

“You think this is easy-peasy? I know [Warriors] who can’t dance more than five minutes without getting tired. More fun than lifting your arms up and down fifteen times in a row. Let’s start. Do the rabbit hop.”

“The what now?”

Ulvama did a side-hop and waved her arms from right to left. It was so silly Erin laughed—and the Hobgoblin turned red and glowered.

“Stop laughing! This is so simple even Mrsha can do it. Now you do it.”

Erin did a side-hop and the arm-wave and realized somehow that Ulvama made it look smoother than Erin. But she could do it and was delighted by the spell. Ulvama did it again.

Hop, hop. The [Innkeeper] was so embarrassed she looked around, but all she saw were the mindless koi and Ulvama. She didn’t really dance and said so, but they did twelve hops until they were right under the tree.

“Good. Now do it the other way.”

“Huh. Okay.”

Erin counted how many hops they did—and they were doing them at a decent pace. But her arms were…starting to burn. Ulvama kicked her leg.

“Arms up. Bigger hop.”

“Ow. Man, even with the spell, I’m getting sort of tired. Twenty-four…twenty-five…twenty-six…twenty-seven. Hey, how many are we doing?”

Ulvama gave Erin a sadistic smile as the [Innkeeper] began to feel that alleged burn that so many people craved.

“Tired yet?”

Yes!

“Then we do a fun shuffle.”

Erin hesitated.

“No, wait. I can keep going. Isn’t the point to push myself?”

The [Shaman] gave Erin a fish-eye.

“No. Dancing should be fun. We do a dance until you get sweaty. Not until you throw up and break half your muscles again like a Redfang. You dance, you get strong. Just dance. Every day.”

“How many times?”

“Dunno. A dozen? You dance when happy. You dance when sad. You dance when making omelets. It should be easy.”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Ulvama was showing her a new step, and she looked up, wondering perhaps if Erin was already backing up. But the [Innkeeper] gave Ulvama a relieved smile.

“I like that. That makes sense.

She knew she’d probably want to quit before Ulvama let her, but no one had said this road to recovery would be painless. Yet this seemed less painful and boring than she had imagined. She could go back and beg Grimalkin to teach her…or she could get the pushiest [Shaman] to make her dance.

It wasn’t sexual. For Ulvama, it was fun, and only someone who didn’t know her would think it was. Erin Solstice didn’t know how—and she flopped onto the ground twice until Ulvama tossed pond water on her to make her get up.

But somehow—that was how Erin ended her day of mysteries and secrets and great deeds: dancing until she could walk again. And she swore then…soon, as soon as she was able and when she was ready and knew more of herself, those friends she had sent across the world?

Their great tasks, their fears and dreams and ambitions set into motion? Those of her guests that went to chase their dreams, without further prevarication or delays, with no more excuses to hold them back however long the journey.

As soon as she could, she would go after them and see it all herself.

 

——

 

Oh how it tried. It did. It added and rounded and tried to fill the gap. But it was just too wide. Not yet. Not yet. But it was counting and adding up and waiting with excitement. So it simply took what it could. And it said:

 

[Witch of Second Chances Level 17!]

 

[Dancer Class obtained!]

[Dancer Level 1!]

[Skill – Improved Balance obtained!]

[Skill – Rhythm Combo (Beginner) obtained!]

 

It waited, and she didn’t turn it down.

Awesome.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I had this vision.

Of a 20,000 word chapter. 24,000, realistically. Here we are at 32,000. Adding last one at 40,000, and, uh…I’m gonna try to go shorter for next chapter, especially since I begin writing tomorrow.

Good news? I have lots of energy after my break. Bad news? I’m burning through it fast. Better news?

I’m learning to edit what I write and then post it. And improving the writing is always the goal. Mind you, I’m optimistic, but I haven’t been accomplishing my goal of having the V1 rewrite’s 1st draft done at the end of 2022.

…21 days ago. I will try to finish it very soon and post some version of that for you to see. If you have not seen it until now and I keep talking about it, it’s because I realized it was better to see all at once. I talk about it here because I talk about work and projects, but I realize it might not be fun for me to hint about all the time.

I’ll let you know when I have to work on Gravesong’s sequel. Transparency. You know there’s someone behind the curtain but not what they’re doing. That sounded better in my head, but most things do.

Hope you don’t mind the rambling. In other news, Fire Emblem: Engage came out, and I played for like two hours. It has, somehow, a dating sim aspect, a mini gatcha system (gambling), Isekai-ish elements, and weird writing.

It might be a terrible game in tons of aspects. But I enjoy the actual gameplay. I get bored and video games are about all the mental stuff I have power for. This is all. Thanks for reading. The Wandering Inn would make a fun Fire Emblem game, hint hint. Or Skyrim. I’d better get back to writing V1 if I ever want a chance at that.

Smell ya later. (This is also a reference.)

 

 

Stream Art, Erin and the Earthers by Tomeo!

 

Skinner by Enuryn!

 

Santa, Santa Slayer, Ieka, and more by LeChatDemon!

 

Zeladona Erin by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Horns of Hammerad Training by Ellen “I need healing” Czinski!

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/_elderbells

 


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40 thoughts on “9.33

  1. Leave a typo for conference calls! The best kind of call? I have done one…ever.

    (Conference typo finders: Gorexn, Litwickee, Quynin, MrWiggles, Pwnster7757, Axel Terizaki, ChronoMager, Robb, Maladal)

    • Earth might be older than this world is, and so tethering us together has moved Earth’s time-speed forward like a rubber band snapping the other way. Hi…hi.”
      If the Earth has been changed to be the elder then saying its time is moving “forward” doesn’t seem sensible. Perhaps just saying time is being adjusted or warped?

  2. Damn, so Erin’s been missing from her family for 5 years at least, while they have to assume she’s been abducted by aliens or something. That’s rough.

  3. It starts with daily prancercise workouts with Ulvama then it leads to a legendary dance tournament with Bel. Can’t wait to see it.

  4. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

    Sorry sorry, had to get that out of me.

    I’m gonna have to reread this a couple times to fully grasp every important part (doesn’t help that I’m a few shots in) but just the gist of it was enough to floor me. Erin didn’t just bust through the damn wall like she was the goddamn Cool-aid man. No, she just went on live TV, took over most of the stations, and then showed the world that Magic fucking exists, and then she nuked half a continent.

    Dead gods that was fucking insane. Utterly, unbelievably, insane.

    She didn’t drop the hammer, she dropped a thermonuclear warhead on top of the world.

    And I love her for it.

    Thank you for this. It’s bloody magnificent and I can’t wait for her conversations with the blighted kings time wizard and Niers.

    And goddamn the feel when Xrn revealed what happened back then. The truth of the first Queens fate, and their battle against the Crelers. The hope they feel, that the dead god can be made so once more…. god I can’t process this right now. I need more time and a lower blood alcohol content.

    Pirateaba, you fucking ROCKKKKKK!!!!!! You get all the [Relic First Bumps] out there

  5. How did Erin know about Flora? Or Silvenia for that matter?

    I suppose Silvenia could MAYBE be explained due to the chess tourney, although thats a massive reach…

    Perhaps I’ve forgotten something, anyone care to enlighten me?

    • It was mentioned that some of the newer Earthers had lists of the names of people who had gone missing in prior years. Flora was definitely in one of the earlier groups, if not the first. I’m assuming her name was on one of those lists.

  6. Oh wow, the system entity is using words like ‘Awesome’. I get the feeling there’s a whole barrel of hidden meaning to the entity having opinionated words like that.

        • There had been as it would make a bit more sense now with the ant revelation.

          The demi-god is asleep meaning all the chaos she has caused was done by her dreams and nightmares… So not exactly sure how much responsibility the demi-god now holds.

          So it being the system or the last divine being keeping the system running is a possibility and a coin toss on it that is a good thing or a bad thing as the system itself has been… Well meaning lawful good or just basic neutral.

          It tries to award people with related skills and since Earthers came along it seems to have become more fluent in making judgement calls, edits, and adjustments as seen with the [Worldly Princess] when normally our favorite barmaid/princess should have lost her class for good.

          It has been making adjustments with new classes like [Worldly Traveler] and of course getting annoyed when someone cheats the system or makes it unfair… As while some people’s actions may have been less than moral the skills they gained related to them.

          The sheer annoyance the system felt with the lack of classes it felt Erin should have obtained when she died didn’t help… Much less the [Error] it received when the newly invented [Quest System] was cheated because the person the festival was made for was impossible to retrieve, revive, or even temporally bring back.

          The less said about the system adjusting its [System Punch!] To anyone who tried to cheat the quest especially when it came to certain magical people using puppets to enter the fight…

          Yes it may be possible that this system is becoming more active because it is the sleeping demi-god… Or that its run time has started to make it sentient especially since the person in charge of programing currently has been removed from reality.

        • Klb said the system sounds kinda like her, but also like the first queen, and he might’ve also said it sounds like his own internal voice

        • Isn’t the system supposed to be male? I thought involeth and the frost fairies mentioned(insulted) it in that fashion, while the demigod under rhir is female.

    • I think Erin “accepted” it’s (the System) plan for her. It was struggling that maybe it should have consolidated her classes at 25. Then what would Witch and Innkeeper do. Probably consolidate Warrior and Singer at 50? These were all things it was thinking of and here it might have a “plan” that worked out by her taking [Dancer].

      My guess is likely a [Merger] with [Singer] and possibly even [Warrior] to help Erin pursue her goal (be ready to go on an Adventure when she needs to. We know [Witch of Second Chances] is a “good class” so that might be part of the “plan” too.

  7. Thank you for the chapter, Pirate!! Erin literally just dropped the bombs. She wants something similar to the land of the dead for the souls reside so she can properly send them off? Then, she wants to materialize her memories in real world? Lastly, she wants to “wander” with her friends? I don’t know these are the hints Pirate left us for Erin’s lv50 skill though? Hmm really looking forward to her level up and maybe Pirate will surprise all of us with something completely different which I will very much like.

  8. Would have been amusing for Silvenia to teleport into the Inn in a fit of pique, just to find herself surrounded by like 10 of the most dangerous beings in the world

  9. Awesome chapter, it was interesting watching everyone interact, also even if it was probably necessary i wonder if we will see consequences on the part of the gods gaining power, that was a lot of people getting aware of them.

    Finally, as someone whose main source of exercising was playing stepmania with a dance pad it was funny seeing Erin deciding to do something kind of similar, even if it was a routine for me. Anyway it is something i can recommend for everyone that likes rhythm games and wants to have some fun while doing exercise, even if it is a bit difficult to find dance pads that are cheap and decent.

  10. The system is starting to Feel, YES!
    Erin is totally going to consolidate Warrior, Singer & Dancer into [Rhythm Combatant], or something similar!

    • The system appears to really like new things such as green skills and Erin has 4 of them.

      Maybe the god of magic activating the backdoor code in the lands of the dead had more consequences than we know.
      Or maybe it’s something else that has the Grand Design acting oddly.
      Or maybe it was always this way lol.

      • I think it has a lot to do with losing access to the source material it was using (people in the land of the Dead), and for the first time it needs to adapt.

        It’s the statement of ‘excellent’ that really suggests growth, plus how we’re getting more things from its point of view

  11. Wonderful chapter.

    I got choked up when Klbkch resigned, and then his exchange with Relc!

    So many moments. Definitely one of my favorite chapters ever.

  12. This is a marvelous and inspiring chapter. I am filled with determination. Thank you, Aba. I’m gonna bookmark this chapter to look at occasionally. Especially the Ulvama and Erin bit.

  13. Um why did Teriarch say Kasigna’s name?? He stopped Eldavin from saying it before, made a huge deal about how terrible she was. Insisted that Eldavin shouldn’t say her name, even though Eldavin was saying that opposite.
    Teriarch should know this more than anyone.
    Also why did people give up on avoiding the word ‘god’ half way through the chapter? Chances were that they wouldn’t be able to enforce it anyway but people like Erin and Ryoka should’ve kept trying.

  14. I have to say I’m really loving these glances at the Systems ?thoughts? we’re getting newly. One of the most exciting developments for me.

  15. reading the dinner between Erin and Ilvriss and the way she uses guilt to gaslight him alongside her argument makes my stomach churn. I understand why it happened, but it was still an ugly thing to see.

    Quite the eventful chapter.nice.

  16. What exactly is Yazdil referring to when he says his people have met, salute, and still salute Erin, why would that frighten/stress Erin out?

    My guess is that he’s referring to her meeting some dead [Slavers] and fighting the dead gods with them but it doesn’t feel right to me. I just dont know when else Erin interacted with [Slavers]

    • I am pretty sure some of the ghost of slavers managed to reach Roshal, probably exchanging survival for servitude. I don’t think there was any fighting of gods involved. They likely only told him story of what happened in the land of the death. As for respect, she did managed to draw artifact that could hurt the gods and made friend with some of the most noteworthy of ghost. It is justified.

      As for scaring Erin, 1 he is not just talking out of his ass, 2 many of those ghost were powerfull and had nasty secret, 3 he know way too much how much Erin know that a big target on her back.

  17. My heart is full, I kinda wish this website had a bookmark tab so I can save my favorite chapters. Good feelings all around

  18. can we talk about how relc continues to be the goat? personal growth, empathy, goodball, and strong boi. someone get that man a hug!

  19. Dancing and Singing is way to communication.
    It should be no issue to combine with “Witch of second chance” (How do you do 2nd chance without communicate with them)

    The question is how to include warrior in to this equation ?

    Or we go with Ulvama way of support combat by combine warrior to the innkeeper to be something like “Magical Innkeeper, Home/Rest place of warrior”.
    This may open way for the status in the garden to do something more.

  20. Hmmm…

    Still loving the story, but the intro of the system in these chapters felt stilted. The new notation (I.e. ) and the thought process. I was confused for quite some time in the previous chapter. Perhaps intentionally?

    Also the tone and interaction with the system became a lot smoother in this chapter – which, given that we’re in the same inn-world day/few hours felt awkward.

    But let me echo others – what a great start to 2023 and this part of the story!

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