“[Castling the Pieces].”
With a single sentence, they could put a thrill in your blood. Fear—if you were their enemies. A Skill was meant to be used, and Perorn knew that it was not always wise to show your hand.
But Niers’ great Skill had already been publicly unveiled, so there was no point keeping it as a hidden weapon. If you had it—flaunt it.
That was a very Centaur ideology that Niers had adopted. But he put his own spin on Skills, and this was why Perorn was watching early in the morning as she brushed her teeth.
The sight of a greying Centaur brushing her teeth in her command tent was not unusual. Niers didn’t demand everyone show up glossy with their armor buffed like Dullahans. Some of the other officers linked via [Scrying] were doing similar things. Drinking coffee, handing reports to lieutenants…
But it was odd to have the young woman in a wheelchair among their group; Perorn eyed her, and some of the officers tried to look more impressive than they normally did. Erin Solstice was watching Niers, and he was demonstrating his Skill.
A Selphid vanished, and an excited Lizardfolk leapt in the air as he appeared in place. The Selphid [Vanguard] just checked himself.
“Feels good. I can’t pivot into a charge though, Titan. Bit shaky.”
“I’m here! I didn’t die! Yes!”
The Lizardman felt at himself, and both [Soldiers] confirmed the fifteen-foot exchange hadn’t done much. Niers just nodded. Then he turned to Perorn.
“How shaky was your teleport to Izril, Perorn?”
She spat into a bowl and spoke as she wiped her mouth.
“A bit unpleasant. Like a [Teleport] spell, but I didn’t feel like throwing up, so better. But we had to get our bearings a minute or two. Not appropriate for a hot-switch in combat.”
“Understood. Has someone marked…?”
“I have two clocks on you, Lord Astoragon.”
“I have a calendar. Marking the date now.”
Some of his [Strategists] were jesting with him. The Titan rolled his eyes, but he nodded to both.
“Bets on whether it’s a day or hours? I’ll be very upset if it’s four more months, but this is why we do things. We have to know if there’s variance based on range. So—let’s go over our daily affairs. We’ve taken forty casualties against the Dyed Lands.”
“Something out of the ‘black’ color. They claimed it was a serpent: twenty feet long and huge. Virtually invulnerable to ranged fire; it went over a camp wall and into a barracks. A [Captain] only chased it off once it was wounded in close-quarters fighting.”
Perorn winced. She listened as the [Innkeeper] looked around, but Erin Solstice said nothing. This was Niers’ time, and despite him explaining a bit, he was conducting his meetings as if she were just another underling.
But he was teaching her. Perorn knew this entire exchange was for her benefit. Because there was one thing the [Strategist] did that most people didn’t.
When he got a new Skill, he tested it. When his subordinates or Foliana got a powerful Skill or capstone Skill, they iterated upon it to find synergies, wrote down how fast it went off ‘cooldown’—the term for how long a Skill took to recover—and especially how to use them in ways no one expected.
It was, Perorn understood, something the Titan wanted the [Innkeeper] to do. Badly. If he was someone who obsessively investigated every aspect of his capabilities, Erin Solstice had barely experimented with her powers.
Like [Alcohol Brewing]. Or her witchcraft in general. Or…her [Garden of Sanctuary]. The [World’s Eye Theatre] was just one example of this; Erin hadn’t known that she could tie in an existing [Scrying] spell into the dome of her theatre.
…She wasn’t doing that now. In fact, she was using a regular scrying orb because staring and talking to the ceiling gave you a crick in your neck. But it was good to know she could do it.
Anyways, a daily meeting with the Titan could take up to an hour because he clarified who each person was and went slower over their states of affairs.
Enough time for Niers to snap his fingers.
“Skill off cooldown! I win the pool here—what’s the time?”
Half a dozen officers sat up, and someone slapped a clock.
“—Thirty minutes, eighteen seconds—I’m going to say it’s thirty minutes to the dot, Titan.”
“So will I. Alright—preparing one person for a switch. Fifty miles. [Strategist] Gossard, [Crossbow Captain] Ixeth, are you ready? Gossard, looking forwards to some seafood on the coast?”
A gloomy Human raised his hand.
“Ready, Titan. I hate fish—”
Then he vanished. Ixeth reappeared in the scrying orb, knocking over Gossard’s chair, but otherwise, the two were seamlessly transferred. Someone slapped a clock, and the Titan’s eyes glittered.
“Two hours, nineteen minutes. But then the Titan tested a Fraerling over the same distance, and the results were different. Strategist Perorn, thirty minutes! He tested three Fraerlings—thirty minutes. Only when five were placed did the time go up to fifty minutes…”
Later that day, while she was marching with the rest of her company of Centaurs, Perorn twisted her midsection around, and the Centaur snatched a report from one of her subordinates.
“No. It’s based on weight? That’s ridiculous! Is he going to try cross-continental transports?”
“Nothing yet, Commander.”
She just bet Niers was considering his options. This changed everything. Perorn bit her lip as she worked out just what they knew.
Firstly, there was a minimum cooldown on his Skill. 30 minutes for any transport was…very low, and it might have to do with Niers’ maximum level. Everyone knew Skills scaled to your level.
That was fine. It just meant Niers couldn’t pull a cheap trick like hopping someone across Baleros. But it also meant that he needed to decide whether it was worth sending a battalion a continent away every four months or saving the Skill.
If a Fraerling could go 50 miles—five Fraerlings barely added to the Skill’s cooldown…
“He’ll switch Fraerlings across their damn settlements for them. That’s how he’ll use it. Not just that…”
How many Fraerlings could he port across the world? Only a battalion or a battalion’s worth of Fraerlings? He could send a Fraerling city to Chandrar. Or an expedition.
Or a spy.
All he had to do was have someone in the area that was loyal to him. The possibilities for [Spies] and other types of agents or enemies appearing behind your ranks would give Tulm ulcers. Imagine if Foliana traded places with someone? Like a [Double Agent]? Imagine if you sent a Chess Tower into a private warcamp?
“How’s tracing? Can anyone tell it’s being done?”
“Results pending, Commander. Magic availed little, but Skill-detection was set off. So a powerful [Mage] might be able to do likewise.”
Not invisible, then. Well, a sensor-Skill was still rare enough, and this Skill was why Niers made people so nervous. At his level, every new Skill changed the way he fought wars.
Perorn rolled up the scroll she’d been given and then burnt it. She scattered the ashes as she trotted across the grass and then turned. A column of Centaurs looked up, shifting their torsos to stare at her. The [Strategist], Perorn as she was known, Fleethoof, one of the most famous [Strategists] of the Forgotten Wing company, called out to them in a parade-ground voice.
“We’ll have to recruit some more [Soldiers], then. We might be getting more more troops—or you lot will be going on holiday back home. I don’t doubt the Titan will want a volunteer to see how long it takes to send one person to Izril or Baleros. And that first person will be the idiot who breaks his or her ankles. If you don’t want to be laughed at for the next four months, watch your hooves and step to it!”
The [Strategist]’s warning made all the [Soldiers] trotting check their hooves, and it wasn’t just silly advice. This was a new continent, and the Centaurs trotting at a fast pace might well break a leg in a sudden pothole.
Well, that was why they had [Surehooves] in the front. The class didn’t matter so much as the prefix.
[Surehoof Scout], [Surehoof Warrior]…it was an almost Centaur-exclusive class. There were variants for ‘two-legs’ as they were known—or the ‘three-legs’ as you called Lizardfolk and Drakes well behind their backs. But Centaurs who had such classes would lead a herd-company like this one, moving around treacherous ground or calling out potholes.
In fact, that happened no less than six minutes later, and Perorn saw her company split without thinking around a tiny gap in the ground. They moved around it with the practice of a people who lived their lives like this. Nomads on the go, used to Baleros’ wide plains in the upper middle, who ran rapidly.
Centaurs—one of six species endemic to Baleros. Along with Gazers, Selphids, Dullahans, Beastkin, and Lizardfolk, they were rarer in the rest of the world for a few reasons.
One—they hated water. Centaurs could swim, and so could horses, which surprised some people who assumed that was impossible. But Centaurs hated it, and they were slow and in danger in the water.
Two—they were not a hugely prolific species. Centaur births were more difficult on average, and complications were a known factor. They were a complex species.
To look at a Centaur, from a young one to old, was to see a horse’s lower half combined with a humanoid body as it rose from the waist, joined to the horse. A Centaur’s upper half could swivel around with as much or more mobility than most humanoids, and most looked like Humans if you just saw them from that height.
Perorn, for instance, had greying brunette hair cropped short on her head. She carried a spear and a bow, standard armaments for most Centaurs, but she also had a sword and a wand in extra holsters at her side. She was not going ‘barehind’ like some Centaurs, who had no coverings on their horse parts. You could do that, like Gnolls, with less nudity problems than some races, but she was a [Mercenary].
A soldier of fortune from Baleros. So of course she had light cloth armor of padding sewn with links of metal. Lighter than the actual plate or chainmail barding some Centaurs wore; hers was nevertheless enchanted, and it looked like a kind of kilt that went just above her knees, adjusted so it wouldn’t catch.
That meant her hooves and ankles were exposed, a hazard if you were a Centaur in a close-quarters fight. But if you were in a close-quarters fight, you’d messed up. She knew that…and as proof she had learned that lesson the hard way, one of her four legs had a streak of white, scarred flesh running up to the knee. Her left hind leg. It had been wounded in a battle with one of her former students.
Tulm the Mithril. It still hurt, even with tonics, and it slowed her down. The Centauress who had once been called ‘Fleethoof’ for her personal speed and her company was a touch slower by age and injury. She hoped wisdom made up for that gap in speed.
Centaur. Her entire battalion of two thousand were Centaurs too, all of whom reported to her. Female and male, though more male—about a 2:1 split. Male Centaurs in Centaur armies almost always predominated; hers was actually a very high ratio of female Centaurs, thanks to their commander.
There was a reason for that. Most Centaurs who bore foals never returned to the battlefield. And once pregnant, they’d almost invariably resign their commission immediately. Given how hard it was for their species to reproduce, Centaur culture demanded it.
Well, there were aspects of her culture Perorn didn’t care for, but you could say that of every species. The last thing about Centaurs, though, and the reason why they hadn’t proliferated across many continents, was different than the other species who were rarer.
Minotaurs had once been common—they had made such bloody wars they had been exiled to the House of Minos.
Ditto for Lizardfolk, though they were common enough only on Baleros.
Dullahans liked to keep to themselves, and they had enclaves in various places, Pallass being one example.
Gazers…were the ultimate recluses, and they might have more problems with reproduction and their uncertain biology than even Centaurs.
Selphids had likewise been reduced in number for very understandable reasons, and the incident at the Gathering Citadel proved that.
Actually, name one species that hadn’t been artificially curbed by war. Perorn couldn’t think of any. Humanity, as a rule, had spread because individual nations were sometimes put down with blood and fire, but the entire species hadn’t been given the title of ‘enemy’. Yet.
Well, it was also probably because of how damn promiscuous they were. To Centaurs, the rates at which some species like Humans could reproduce was insane. Some families had ten children. No Centaur mother would have more than four, and she’d be considered exceptionally prolific at that!
Anyways, the last reason Centaurs weren’t common was this:
They were sort of fragile.
“Commander, short stop?”
“Thorns. Something in the grass. We’ve got eighteen Centaurs with burrs.”
“Alright. Fifteen minutes, and mark the grass out for our [Outriders].”
Perorn sighed. This was another occurrence as normal as anything for a Centaur group on the move.
Thorns. Or rather, tiny annoying burrs that you had to pick out of your fur were irritating some Centaur legs. Other Centaurs were bending over to tend to them; they could kneel down in the grass if they had to, though they liked having helper species for this.
Here was the thing: a Centaur was a fragile being, despite their size. Actually, because of their size. Perorn would tell a marching Lizardfolk contingent complaining of thorns to ‘suck it up and march’, but she’d coddle her Centaurs.
It wasn’t speciesism. It was just…
She had the analogy of half-Giants in mind because they were so big, but the real analogy was to a car, if only Perorn could make it. Imagine a high-production vehicle capable of doing incredible things. Centaurs were heavy. By pound, they outweighed any species save Minotaurs and half-Giants with ease.
The average horse weighed nearly a thousand pounds. Centaurs came in different varieties too, so you could have small Centaurs with pony-like builds or huge racers—but a Centaur was heavier than its horse counterpart on average.
Imagine how much weight that was. Also, if you knew horses, you knew that if one broke a leg, it was practically a death-sentence for a wild one or even one being raised. Centaurs had prostheses, but breaking a leg was one of their greatest nightmares.
They were also…fragile in other ways. Centaurs got mad. You think Drakes fought each other and held grudges? Two Centaurs kicking and punching each other in some display of pride or wounded feelings was the most common thing in a herd.
Not in Perorn’s forces; she’d beaten that out of her [Soldiers], but they had a competitive streak.
Drakes were petty. Centaurs, competitive. Drakes were greedy; Centaurs got emotional. There was nothing like offending a Centaur. The saying went, ‘offend a Lizardman, and he’ll shout at you. Offend a Dullahan, and he’ll let you know he was mad in eight months. Offend a Centaur, and he’ll kick you.’
All of this meant that in a [Mercenary] outfit, if you were commanding mixed-species, you watched Centaurs. You made sure they weren’t twisting ankles, that morale was up and they weren’t fighting each other, and that they had the right feed and no one’s precious feelings were hurt.
Perorn got why a lot of Balerosian companies hated employing Centaurs. Who wanted that kind of soldier when you could get a Human who’d do all the things you wanted and not whine he had crap in his tail and needed someone to comb it out? Who wanted a species who, universally, had a ‘fight or flight’ reaction that meant they’d gallop in a panic, often into people, and injure themselves?
Who couldn’t use stairs?
Somewhere in the world, Palt was sneezing multiple times as he apologized to his beloved Imani for turning too fast and checking her with his behind. Which was like being hit by eight hundred pounds of rear end.
—the benefit to Centaurs that made up for all of this—well, nearly—was this:
When it all came together, they were one of the most amazing forces on the planet.
“Alright, enough coddling your hooves! We’re on the move, not braiding each other’s tails! Move out!”
Two thousand Centaurs began racing across the grasslands of the Great Plains of Izril. They finally reached a trade road used by Drakes and Gnolls and thundered onto it with relief. Their progress had slowed on the grasslands, despite the relatively flat expanse, but on flat ground?
A group of Drake [Riders] slowed at the sight of so many unfamiliar species to Izril. They were on horses, and the horses reared or shied away from the familiar-unfamiliar species passing them. Some Drakes tried to race the Centaurs.
“Giddy up! Come on, hey, are you those [Mercenaries] from Baleros? Hey—”
They galloped their ‘fine steeds’, raced forwards…and promptly fell behind the Centaurs, who streamed past them, some waving or calling out. Perorn saw half check their bows and lifted a hand and twisted it down.
No combat. They relaxed, and the Drakes, disbelieving, tried to spur their horses to catch up.
They could not.
They thought that a horse and a rider could match a Centaur in most places of the world. They were wrong. Centaurs were heavier than horses because of their torso, but lighter than a horse and rider conjoined by far. They were also thinking, rational beings capable of levelling.
Horses, even racehorses, were animals. They did not understand why you trained. Some were able to run like Demons out of Rhir; a Centaur could study how to run efficiently. They could level.
A Centaur offensive looked like a blur as they flanked you, showering you with arrows, and switched to spears and came in for deadly charges. They would trample you while using a blade to skewer you. They were the finest mobile force in the world, and Izril?
Perorn inhaled the cool winter air as she stared across the grass, frosted in places, but warming due to the sun. She looked across the road as Drakes stared up at her company, and she lifted her hand as Gnolls howled and waved in the distance.
Oh, she thought she’d like Izril. She was a [Mercenary] abroad, and she did not know the last time Centaurs had come to Izril in such numbers. They had a world of things to show Izril, and there was gold to be made.
An endless amount of it. Perorn smiled as she trotted faster towards her first destination.
Niers Astoragon had sent two thousand Centaurs to Izril to fight with the Gnoll tribes. A third had died to Belavierr, the most dangerous combatent on the field. The remainder were now the Forgotten Wing’s representatives here. Precursors to the full land-rush now happening.
To say that having this many mercenaries around alarmed local powers was an understatement. The Walled Cities were not fans, but they had taken a beating in the Meeting of Tribes, and declaring Perorn’s group enemies of all was not desirable.
Especially with a Great Company backing them. But the question was what Perorn would do next.
Being a [Mercenary] was much like being a Centaur: life could suck if you counted the downsides.
As a [Mercenary], everything cost gold. Feed, bedding, lodgings…you were always chasing the next payout, saving coin on everything. Even if Perorn had Niers to pay her funds, she didn’t like going into the red each week.
She had led her own company before joining his, and she had full autonomy to do what she deemed best, so the first thing she’d done was take stock of this land and prepare.
Unlike Foliana, who was an eccentric, dangerous [Rogue], or Niers, who could lead an entire Great Company from the top, Perorn was a [Strategist] one rank down from him. Her job was often to make sure things went to plan. Therefore—when she landed in Izril and knew there would be no fast way back—she had taken stock.
“We’re having a moving lunch. Break me out our regional maps and have our local expert meet me. I think we’re close to our destination.”
Perorn barked as they came to a fork in the road. She consulted a geographical map of the region as someone trotted ahead and handed her one they’d bought. The Centaurs behind her were unpacking supplies on the move.
She hadn’t had enough equipment—they’d been in a battlefield—so she’d bought gear and had it resized for them. A royal pain in the hindquarters because nothing was meant for Centaurs, but as they began to reach their destination, a Drake came riding up on horseback.
He looked—windswept. And tired, because they had been on the road since dawn, and he probably hadn’t ridden this far or fast in his life.
“Er—Commander Perorn, you wanted to see me?”
“We’re coming up on our target city. Can you confirm Seenith?”
Perorn was almost certain, but the Drake took one look at the city in the distance and nodded.
“That’s Seenith. Er…what’s the plan, Commander?”
She treated him to a brief smile that gave nothing away.
“You’ve already apprised me of the city’s particulars. You will ride in and deliver the missive on our behalf. We’re twenty to the city—will you have lunch before you go?”
He was a [Negotiator], and the Drake swallowed slightly—then rubbed at his stomach.
“I could, uh, use a snack. Something light. Are we stopping? I heard ‘moving lunch’?”
“Correct. If you’d like to partake, just ride back to the fire and help yourself to the pot.”
“The fire? What—whoa!”
The Drake twisted in his saddle and stared. Passersby on the road were also staring, and some were actually turning around because they had never seen Centaurs eating before—much less having a moving lunch.
It amused Perorn to see how interested the Drakes were, but there was some art to it. After all—without doing more than slowing to a gentle trot, the Centaurs were cooking their lunch. As in—they were riding while eating and cooking food.
Nomadic species hated slowing down. Centaurs, especially if they were on the run from an enemy or heading somewhere, would rather combine eating and movement. But no one wanted to eat dried oats and drink water.
—Therefore, what multiple pairs of Centaurs were doing was hanging a cooking station between them. It was a kind of mini-palanquin stretched between two Centaurs by lengths of rope or wood. You could pack it up into a bag of holding—and the contraption had a basin that held a pot between them, or even a little vessel where you could throw in burning coals to heat the food. A Centaur was stirring a pot as more Centaurs came by and ate from it.
To do all this, they were using long ‘claws’ of wood, which they could use to grab an item off the ground or hold food—they were known as ‘Centaurhands’, and almost every Centaur carried one.
It was that or have to kneel down to pick something up or bend all the way over. They were adept with them, and in this case, the Centaurs were using the tines at the end to place pieces of baked bread, meat, apple—and then dipping them in the pots.
The Drake looked appalled at the idea of a shared pot, but he was hungry enough to take some bread, dip it in the pot, and take a bite. He brightened up; the melted cheese mix had a bit of beer in it to Peron’s taste buds, and it had a lot of delicious fat and probably a broth mixed in to give it filling.
The Drake liked it so much he went back for another dip—with his half-eaten bread. The roar of outrage from every Centaur at the double-dipping attempt made him nearly drop his skewer. Perorn took a swig from her flask as one of her subordinates trotted up.
“Drakes, eh, Commander?”
“They don’t know us, Basal. Keep your ears open.”
He grinned. One of her top lieutenants was [Linebreaker Captain] Basal. A scary Centaur, even by the standards of their fighting elite.
He had plate armor on. His barding was the aforementioned steel, and his helmet was on his head; Perorn would don a simple helmet, but his resembled a [Knight]’s. His entire job was to charge straight into enemy lines and cause havoc. To that end, he carried a greatsword, and his horseshoes were enchanted along with his armor.
He was also—one of the more interesting varieties of Centaur. Such that even though he was male, few of her soldiers bridled at the sight of him speaking so familiarly with Perorn—who, despite her age, was considered one of the foremost bachelorettes among her species due to her rank and fame.
Perorn felt bad for the daughter of Maelstrom’s Howling’s leader. The Bannermare, Aria Fellstrider, was a Centauress in the prime of her life. And she was the most sought-after woman in all of Baleros. She probably couldn’t have a conversation with a male subordinate without a fight over it.
Anyways, Basal was interesting and ‘non-threatening’ to most other Centaurs because he was a Lizaur.
In that, he looked like a Lizardfolk or even Drake with scaled arms from the torso up and a reptilian head. He had mulberry red hide, and he was actually shorter than most Centaurs but compact enough to knock even another Centaur off their feet.
Centaurs could intermingle with other species. And magic definitely helped with the oddities of that—but unlike some magical marriages where a Human only got a few scales if anything from a Drake-Human relationship, Centaurs were more apparent.
Sometimes, they just looked like regular Centaurs, but Lizaurs or ‘Taurkin’, another general word for when their upper halves took on a furred appearance, were considered aberrations to what was ‘normal’ in Centaur society.
Elfaurs were more acceptable, since they only had pointed ears and they weren’t nearly as long-lived as their counterparts. It was mostly a superficial difference with a decade or two added onto a lifespan at most. And it only happened if the Centaur was the one who had the child; half-Elves always bore half-Elves. Perorn thought it was another reason they couldn’t move out of Baleros; they couldn’t even accept all of their own people without a fight.
Basal was getting as many looks from Drakes as his own people, and he rolled his eyes.
“Are we on the Drakes’ side?”
“We’re on the side of whoever pays us, Basal. But no. We have orders to weigh our contracts with Gnolls favored. Yet we’re not making enemies of a Walled City—yet. So play nice and don’t have anyone kicking up trouble.”
“Aye, Commander. Should I escort the Drake in?”
“Not you. You’ll scare their Watch. Give me six with no bows.”
The sight of Perorn’s company definitely alarmed the city of Seenith. Their Watch was already mustering the local army and manning the walls, but not with utmost fear.
After all, it was two thousand Centaurs up against a rather large city. Their standing army was thirty thousand Drakes. A literal fifteen-to-one matchup, and they had their enchanted walls. It was curiosity as much as anything that had Councilmembers on the walls.
“So that’s Fleethoof? This…famous Centaur who fought our people? What’s she want?”
The Council was openly wondering what kind of action some [Mercenaries] would take. To Drakes, [Mercenaries] were respected as warriors—but hardly fit for polite company. They were sellswords, and Liscor’s army was a famous example of why you tolerated them, but didn’t hug them. Foreign mercs were a level down.
Yet Perorn surprised the Drakes by sending in one of their own with an escort of six who delivered him to the gates. She had hired Drakes to deal with Drakes, so the [Negotiator] who came off his horse received a warmer welcome.
“What’s this about? Why is this, uh, Strategist Perorn here?”
Seenith’s Council, their own [Commander], and the Watch Captain gathered around as the Drake introduced himself. His name was Rascale, and he had a rather odd offer to make.
“Commander Perorn presents her greetings on behalf of the Forgotten Wing Company. She identifies herself as ‘Fleethoof’s Gales’, a subsidiary company, and would like to speak under formal terms of negotiation.”
“Formal terms of…?”
What an odd way to talk! Rascale looked as unfamiliar with it as the other Drakes, but he’d been thoroughly briefed on what to say.
“That means she’s negotiating with Seenith in good faith.”
“Oh, well then. Does she want us to hire her?”
Laughter from all around. The Drake smiled nervously—and this was where he was really glad Perorn had checked his Skills.
[Don’t Shoot the Messenger] was his Level 20 capstone Skill. He coughed.
“Actually—she’d like you to hire her not to besiege your city. She’s willing to have you match the offer Marwsh made for her. Which would be four thousand two hundred gold pieces.”
The laughter cut off at once.
“Marwsh? Those Gnoll-loving bastards did—?”
“Four thousand gold not to attack us? Is this Centaur mad?”
Outrage and confusion filled the area behind the gates until the leadership established what had happened.
Apparently—Perorn had been hired at the knockdown price of four thousand gold pieces to besiege Seenith. The city was close to Marwsh. Okay, they were about forty miles distant, but they did not get on.
The Gnoll-heavy population of Marwsh had clashed with Seenith on issues regarding the tribes before, but their history also revolved around wars they’d had where one side had supported Oteslia and the other had taken Manus’ side three hundred and twelve years ago.
The grudge had only deepened since then. Neither side really had the means to take the other city by force, but they fought each other in skirmishes and trade wars. Seenith had been winning by virtue of its larger standing army.
“So they thought hiring a [Mercenary] company would win this war? Classic Marwsh. No wonder she wants to negotiate; they didn’t give her any backup!”
Most of the Drakes were laughing their tails off at the tiny force—a tenth of theirs—standing menacingly in the distance. Well, actually, it looked like the Centaurs were…
“Are they showering?”
The Drakes on the wall were staring as Centaurs dug some polite holes, put up curtains, and, uh, did their business. They recoiled in outrage—which did not help the negotiations on the ground.
“We have a bunch of Centaurs crapping next to our roads, demanding we pay them to not siege us? You can tell this Commander we’ll have her over for dinner if she asks nicely—but if she thinks she can siege us, she’ll be eating arrows and [Fireballs] all day.”
The Council gave their answer with laughs—and only their own [Commander] looked a tiny bit worried.
“It could be possible her [Mercenaries] are high-level, Councilmembers.”
He was aware that the Forgotten Wing Company fought a lot more regularly than his forces, but the Watch Captain ignored that.
“We’ve got the walls, Commander. We don’t need to sortie and make idiots of ourselves. She probably wants us to chase her. That’s Gnoll tribe tactics.”
They were at least smart enough to know better than to sally. The Commander bit his lip. He didn’t think it was a good idea to underestimate one of Baleros’ finest [Strategists].
“Four thousand gold wouldn’t be that egregious…even if we had to fight them off, the cost in lives to take out two thousand Centaurs would be more than the gold.”
But the Council wouldn’t hear of it.
“It’s extortion, Commander Levirns. Extortion. You pay them once and they’ll be back again. We don’t negotiate with bullies.”
And that, of course, was correct. [Mercenaries] were sellsword bullies who wanted to be paid for doing nothing. Perorn would cop to that in a moment. But the thing was…a good [Mercenary] knew that there was a good way to do your job and a bad way.
A bad way made you little more than a [Bandit]. But a professional? The Drakes sent Rascale out with their refusal and waited. They saw the Centaurs greet the Drake, listen—and then calmly ride back the way they’d come, far out of bowshot or magic range.
The Watch laughed about that for nearly twenty minutes. See? All reputation, no action. They kept laughing until a [Merchant] practically ran up the battlements.
“What have you done? What have you done?”
A white-faced Drake screamed at the Watch Captain. The confused Drake turned his head.
“What? What have we done?”
“Our caravan! We had one coming from Oteslia—those Centaurs just captured it!”
Then they stopped laughing.
“Basal. You’re on northern approach. Escofe on the south. The Drakes aren’t going to ignore that if they’re stupid. If they’re smart…well, if they were smart, they would have thought about their roads. [Lieutenant] Tarath? Take the roads.”
Perorn divided her command into three parts and sat on the roads a good five miles out from Seenith. There were three main roads that led to the city; each command had the task of patrolling all the side-roads.
Not hard for Centaurs. And their orders were to let all traffic through; they were not [Bandits]. They very clearly identified themselves to nervous Drakes and Gnolls, announced they were on contract to siege Seenith, and that they were operating under the Forgotten Wing Company.
That was called ‘advertising’. But they did check every caravan coming this way, and Tarath led his patrol down the road, and any inbound or—two outbound groups leaving Seenith had to give all their cargo over.
Not ‘or die’, but ‘or scream until they poured a healing potion over the arrow wounds in their arms’. The caravans did have guards, but they weren’t numerous. So Perorn had ordered her forces to try for no casualties.
One shower of arrows had taken out the bluster from the group heading to Seenith. Incidentally, that was why she’d hurried so much; she hadn’t wanted them to get into the city’s aegis before she was turned down by the Drakes.
They had no custom of huge [Mercenary] companies in Izril, so she’d predicted that they’d laugh off her offer. You had to set the stage and show them how the rules worked.
“Let’s see. Please send in our [Negotiator] Rascale and tell Seenith we are prepared to accept eight thousand four hundred gold coins upon withdrawal—and we will turn over all seized goods pending full payment. We cannot guarantee that in two days.”
“Lots of jams, Commander. Can we break out one crate?”
One of her Centaurs whined as they eyed the goods from Oteslia. Perorn could have used a really nice marmalade, but she swatted at the Centaur.
“Stuff a hoof in it. They’ll be coming soon.”
Here was the thing. Seenith might have not known many mercenaries, but they did know how a siege worked. They knew you could block trade roads; heck, they’d done it themselves. But they just hadn’t expected the small group of Centaurs to do it.
The effrontery! There were barely a thousand Centaurs on each side! Their response was fast, and Basal reported a column of Drakes rolling in on him first.
“Eight thousand? They must be pissed.”
“On approach, Commander! We’re counting six thousand coming south and twelve at us!”
Their entire standing army must have been mostly in the city. Well…maybe that was for the better. No sneaking up on their backs. Perorn sighed.
“Let’s do this, then. Hooves on the ground. We’re going to battle.”
Centaurs armed themselves, forming into groups that were ready for the fight. Perorn had a vanguard who would follow her in a spear-formation into battle, but she had a mobile force of individual groups of a hundred. No massed-formations like the Drakes marching at her. She raised her hand—pointed—
And they rode away.
“What do you mean, no contact?”
“We pursued them for four hours. Not far out of the city, Councilmembers—but they kept retreating! They won’t even get within bowshot, and our [Riders] can’t catch them.”
It was unlike any siege that Seenith had endured. Even the famous army of Liscor would have rolled up to a fight.
The thing about sieges or [Bandits] holding a city hostage was that you could do it with a few groups—but the defenders could chase those groups off with riders or catch and slaughter them. If a small group of Drakes or Gnolls tried this, they, on horseback, would still be vulnerable to being chased and run down.
But the Centaurs just ran away. They ran away—parked on the roads further away from Seenith, and kept capturing each caravan they found. The Council was furious.
“Well, engage them! Find a way to surround them or…”
“They’re sticking to the roads, Councilmembers. I could charge one group with my cavalry, but I do not have the numbers to guarantee success. Their southern group is barely six hundred—I have six hundred some riders. I would like permission to reconfigure my forces and pull back all four thousand of our horse and advance on their positions.”
The Commander was not happy about the Council breathing down his neck and second-guessing his orders. He was even less happy when the Council’s leader snapped back.
“Just engage them with the six hundred and send in the foot! You’ll take the battle, Commander. This is no time to be timid!”
He had, unfortunately, also been an officer in the army, and he had the habit of telling the actual leadership what to do. It was sound tactics, and the [Commander], in response, barked a reply.
“No, sir. I will respectfully decline that action. I am pulling our horse back and consulting with the Walled Cities for a plan of action as this is a foreign company.”
“Commander, you are playing into their damn claws. Don’t be—”
The [Commander] ended the call and went back to his task of pulling his cavalry back for an overwhelming presence on the field. He was also talking to the Walled Cities. Or rather, he’d petitioned their [Strategists] for help.
You were allowed to do that, especially when it came to monsters or [Bandit] attacks. The Walled Cities might not answer if you were fighting another city or the tribes, but they sometimes gave amazing tactical advice. In this case, Commander Levirns had great hopes of a response.
In fact—he got one within twenty minutes. He was setting up the perimeter of his camp outside his city in case of a night attack when a [Message] came from no less than Pallass.
He would have preferred Manus to weigh in, but they were apparently sending a full strategic recommendation. He was delighted—and opened the missive from Pallass first. He expected a breakdown of tactics against Centaurs and even a battle plan.
What he got was more and less than he expected. The missive was simple and had the top-level clearance codes.
From [Grand Strategist] Chaldion of Pallass reg. Battle Plan Seenith v. Fleethoof Gales. Eng. limited, D 11. M 15. Y 23 A.F.
As follows from dictation:
“Pay the Centaurs.”
Levirns stared at the date until he received another [Message]. Not Manus’ battleplans—it was a call for help.
[Major] Yulv had received the orders to attack with the cavalry on the southern front from the Council. He had launched the offensive fourteen minutes ago.
By the time Levirns demanded his retreat, over a hundred Drake riders had been reported as wounded or dead.
“They kept turning. They kept…turning.”
As horrific sayings went, that was not as scary as ‘they were underneath us’, or ‘it came out of his eye’. But it was scary enough for a furious Levirns to realize why Centaurs were scary.
“How do you mean—turning?”
The Watch Captain was on this call, as was a [Strategist] from Manus. Not the Council. The shocked [Major] tried to explain it.
“We sent the [Riders] ahead while I moved forwards with the infantry. We were ready to catch them even if we had to bleed to hold them down—bows at the ready. But—but I was watching for a flank charge from the other two Centaur forces, Levirns. I was!”
He was no fool. Major Yulv had been fully aware the Centaurs might reinforce each other, but Perorn hadn’t felt the need. And this was why.
“What happened? Why did our [Riders] fall behind?”
Yulv gulped and then found the words to explain.
“When our [Riders] charged, the Centaurs curved their trajectory then broke away. Which made our [Lancers] move to follow suit, but they kept—zigzagging. It was like chasing a gnat. And our [Riders] couldn’t keep up. They slowed, the horses weren’t as responsive—then the main force of Centaurs split and began hitting us from two sides. When they tried to split in response—”
Horse and rider. Horse and rider. That was it. Tyrion Veltras and some of the greatest cavalry forces in the world had the responsiveness to match that kind of fighting…but Centaurs were the horse and rider combined.
They had effortlessly outmaneuvered their foes, taking advantage of the gap between animal and Drake response time. Then torn them to pieces.
“How many did we get?”
Levirns waited for a number, and the silence was deafening. He looked up.
“We had to have killed one.”
“They showered our infantry with arrows and spells, sir. To—to slow them down. It was carnage amongst our [Riders]. We had [Mages] with [Lightning Bolt] and such—they were the first down. Those [Centaurs] threw in dust clouds to throw off our [Archers]’ aim—not that they had any idea where to shoot. I saw every single one using a Skill. They all had to be over Level 20!”
That didn’t sound high—until you realized that Seenith’s forces weren’t universally all over Level 10. Some were new conscripts, and while the [Cavalry] was better—they hadn’t leveled in half as many battles. The Centaurs?
[Splitshot Arrows]. [Arrowguard]. [Lightning Hooves]. [Fearless Lance Charge]. They had stuck in the fight for barely ten minutes—long enough to do that much damage, then rode off before they took more than wounds.
That was how [Mercenaries] fought. Sometimes, they stuck in a fight if they thought it was worth it, but the smart ones didn’t want so much as a hangnail because it won them nothing. And worse…
Fleethoof was Levirns’ opponent. That night, he told Yulv to pull back and wait for the full force of cavalry. Only to realize the reason you kept some riders around was to harry your foes. And Fleethoof—
“[Your Legs, Heavy as Lead].”
She whispered the Skill like a curse. It made the already-slow lines of Drakes stall in the ground. That was a Skill for someone who believed speed changed the battlefield.
Perorn had a style. Niers prided himself on having none except the element of surprise itself. Perorn?
Everyone knew Fleethoof was fast. And it manifested in her combat. The night air as she raided Levirns’ personal camp was cold, but the flaming arrows made it hot.
The screaming Drakes were up in arms, hacking at the air as her wave of Centaurs descended on them, firing arrows into tents and only taking down [Archers] and [Mages] who looked ready to fire back.
She didn’t want a slaughter. Perorn had let her [Phantom Assault] hit them from the south first. So half the Drakes were in the wrong area before she rode in and they realized they were fighting illusions.
Like the previous engagement, this was quick. Two showers of arrows, and she saw a Centaur go down, howling, as an arrow hit him in the side.
“Centaur down! Covering fire!”
One of her archers shouted, and a shower of arrows made all the Drakes duck. Perorn lifted her own bow, and the [Nighteye] enchantment on her goggles gave her a view of a Drake coming out of his tent with a shield and crossbow.
Commander Levirns. She raised her bow, took careful aim…and fired a shot. He flinched as an arrow shot at him and raised his shield.
It missed him by a good ten feet, and the Drake looked up. A burning arrow was lodged in his command tent. Perorn lifted a hand as her soldiers got the wounded Centaur on his legs.
“Not even barbed. [Get Up and Run]!”
A [Sergeant] bellowed, and the [Soldier] was on his hooves, racing away. Perorn’s company retreated in good order, and she heard Basal had pulled off a similar trick without incident on the northern camp. He’d managed to find a cache of arrows and burned their ammunition to the ground.
He had also—against orders—stayed in the enemy camp for several minutes. She was annoyed until she read his terse report.
“One crate of healing potions captured. Recommend seizure.”
Of course. She nearly slapped herself for not thinking of it! They still had stockpiles, didn’t they? She wrote a memo to all her officers to prioritize raiding for that.
Then she rode off and got a good night’s sleep. Her sentries would let her know if they were stupid enough to launch a counterattack. She doubted they were.
The next day, Perorn sent an offer for twelve thousand gold coins, but she rounded off the six hundred. She waited as Niers sent her a call via scrying orb.
“Perorn, I hear you’re busy.”
The Fraerling was grinning as he spoke to her. She raised her brows at him.
“Sending any soldiers my way yet?”
He shook his head.
“I’m terrified even one individual will take eight days to recharge. Right now…well, what do you think of this?”
He swiveled around a second scrying orb as she chewed on a jam sandwich for breakfast. Perorn rolled her eyes at once.
It was a commercial, the kind that Wistram had begun offering to people not on their ‘high magic plan’. In this case, it was one of Wistram’s own:
The image was of a tired Human walking with a stick in hand and staring across a vast desert. Zeikhal? Words flashed up on screen accompanied by a deep voice.
“Tired of walking everywhere? Horse died? Need to go a hundred miles in a moment?”
The Human looked up. A flash of light appeared, and Grand Magus Eldavin hovered in the air. He held out a hand, and the Human’s jaw dropped.
“Consider Wistram Academy! Offering limited teleportation in select cities! Get where you need to go—if you can afford it.”
The Human man eagerly turned out his money pouch, and a single bronze coin fell out of it. He and Eldavin looked down…and the Archmage sighed and popped out of existence. The traveller looked down at the ground as the wind blew and the sands gusted around him.
It was the dumbest thing Perorn had ever seen in her life. She closed her eyes a moment.
“…We’re buying commercials, aren’t we?”
“Better. Look what I made!”
She covered her face. Niers Astoragon had actually copied the Wistram advertisement—but he had superimposed magical words on the bottom.
“Need to go somewhere cheaper? Try the Titan’s Teleportation! Lower fees than Wistram! Guaranteed results, no magical accidents! For Fraerlings only, at rock-bottom prices!”
He beamed at her.
“I was thinking of sending this around to the Fraerling cities on a crystal. What do you think?”
She was tempted to turn off the scrying orb. Instead, Perorn leaned on her arms; she had a Centaur standing desk so she could talk to people at a reasonable height for her.
“How much time did you, personally, waste yesterday coming up with this?”
He refused to answer. Niers coughed and glanced to the side.
“I, uh, congratulate you on your Seenith play. Nice, clean action. Look out for the students, would you? And the Horns of Hammerad. They’re related to the inn…you aren’t planning on heading to Liscor, are you?”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m working around the Great Plains. Even for me, that’s nigh on a quarter of the continent to ride just to say hello and play a game of chess, Niers. And the Bloodfields and Pallass. No. But I will be offering our services to Feshi. And delivering her our plan. Make sure you’re there?”
He stopped and gave her a serious nod.
“I will. Then—I see you have a [Message]. I’ll leave you to it. I’m busy conferring with our [Innkeeper].”
“Don’t press her, Niers. Tact. Try tact. Ignore Foliana. Find a Fraerling who’s had a relationship and listen to her, would you?”
She hoped he’d listen to her. But Perorn was busy already. She took a [Message] scroll, unrolled it, and snorted.
In the end, the Fleethoof Gales mercenary company did accept an offer of truce between Seenith and their group. They prepared a contract and signed it.
Ten thousand gold coins, no return of merchandise, and two days of combat with one wounded. Perorn rode off from the fuming city of Drakes and then displayed why Balerosian mercenaries were so feared and hated.
She sent a note to Marwsh’s Council that Seenith had bought themselves two mere months of peace whereupon she could continue hostilities against their city. But Marwsh, having not included it in their contract, could outbid on an offer of eight thousand gold pieces for her to raid their city. She was also open to other contracts they had to offer.
They’d come for her, soon. You made a lot of enemies as [Mercenaries]. But the trick was being the middlewoman everyone wanted to hire, rather than the mutual enemy. This was just setting the table and showing the cities how it worked. But Perorn’s real advantage was that the Drakes would be hopping mad. They’d learn to watch out for her, but if they wanted to track her down…she motioned.
“We’re heading into the Gnoll plains. Full march!”
Every mercenary group needed a base of operations or allies. And they were as direct as could be. Perorn motioned to the wide-eyed Rascale, guarding the huge coffers of funds they had just acquired.
“Divvy out four thousand gold pieces from that. Present it to the Chieftains of the Meeting of Tribes with our compliments for their hospitality.”
Everyone knew you could buy friendship. Perorn kept riding as more and more offers started to come in. Niers had chosen well for someone to send to Izril. Everyone liked seeing competence on display.
Some days, it felt like no one liked Jewel. Including herself.
She didn’t know what had gone wrong. She reminded herself she was the leader of Glitterblade. A new Gold-rank team, one of those up-and-comers everyone talked about. She had been, like the Horns, a Gold-rank adventurer to watch.
Now, here she was, staring into a cup in the morning and wishing it was stiff—a disgraced laughingstock who couldn’t even claim she was good with a sword.
Because she had seen what ‘good with a sword’ was, and she wasn’t it.
Toimt and Hilten were watching her as Jewel sat in a corner of The Wandering Inn. After a while, one coughed.
“Jewel? Are we doing something today?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are we…waiting for someone to tell us what to do?”
“No clue. Let’s ask Miss Lyonette. Or Miss Erin. We’re supposed to be on guard duty. Let’s go join that guy with a hat. Or something.”
But the Thronebearers were doing that. Jewel slumped over onto her side until someone offered her the morning’s breakfast. Baked salmon over some rice. She sniffed a bit and saw a Goblin place it on the table.
She nearly drew a sword on the Goblin, and Picky stepped back with a wary look. But Jewel relaxed.
“You’re welcome. Eat fish. Is good.”
The Goblin backed away slowly. The more unique of Erin’s breakfasts made Jewel hungry, and she did eat.
But she stopped and grew pale the moment she saw Erin Solstice.
Erin, who haunted her dreams with laughter, horns, and scaled wings like the Grandmaster of Scales, who posted the quest with the toc that Jewel couldn’t unhear.
Erin…who gave Toimt a blank look and then stared at Jewel.
“Oh! Hey, Jewel! Whatcha doing here?”
Jewel stared with the pain of a woman who had not just been rolled over by Erin Solstice multiple times—humbled, humiliated, and outmatched—but also been, clearly, forgotten.
For an [Innkeeper] who used flame like memory, Erin forgot a lot of stuff. She looked embarrassed as Jewel cleared her throat.
“I, uh—I thought our team was supposed to be reporting to you, Miss Solstice? You had jobs for us.”
“Right. Right. I knew that! Which is why I’m also doing that. Because I’m investigating my Skills today because some jerk thinks I’m ‘underutilizing them’ and ‘ignorant’.”
Erin folded her arms and glowered. Jewel felt for whomever that fool was. Erin looked at Jewel…and then put a finger to her lips. She hesitated.
“You know what? Why don’t you join my party? Let’s go on an adventure.”
Jewel the Gold-rank Captain stared at Erin until she saw the lineup for the day. Ulvama, Mrsha, Nanette, and Ishkr were reporting for duty along with the inn’s regular guests as Erin cracked her knuckles.
“Ow. I don’t know why I do that. Alright. Lyonette, you want to do your princess boons? I guess we can boon some people, then wait for it to recharge. Then—garden time.”
You had to hand it to Niers. He might not phrase it decorously, but he could make even Erin Solstice think like a [Strategist].
Unfortunately, he had underestimated how petty Erin was. He had told her she needed a competent [Strategist] to figure out the full benefit of her Skills. Faced with the prospect of more Fraerling bullying, she had elected to use the Forgotten Wing company…just not in the way he wanted.
“So, you’re [Strategists]. The Titan taught you. Olesm’s busy doing war-stuff, but you guys are on the road, and he probably gave you lessons on how to think with Skills. Whaddya say?”
Venaz, Peki, Wil, and Merrik sat in the bumping wagon with the Horns of Hammerad as Erin rubbed her palms together. They could see Jewel, Mrsha, and a number of other guests hanging out in the [World’s Eye Theatre].
“This is pretty fun. We can eat snacks and watch Erin confuse people at the same time.”
Menolit had been given special access, and his comment drifted down from one of the higher seats. Relc nodded. He sighed, though, drooping into his chair.
“It’s so great. If only my best buddy was here. I used to have one. Then Erin took a crossbow bolt to the chest.”
Nerry nearly snorted blue juice out her nose. She had figured out Relc and Menolit would feed her, and Relc had figured out Menolit would buy snacks for everyone. Menolit didn’t laugh, and he glared—and an elbow caught Relc from the other side.
“I’m still here.”
“Who’s that? Is that the ghost of my buddy Klbkch?”
Relc shaded his eyes and stared through the Antinium sitting next to him. Klbkch folded his arms.
“I was buying supplies when you told me ‘Erin was being hilarious’. I have yet to see anything funny.”
“I have a [Relc Sense] about this, Klb. Just you wait.”
Below them, Wil was speaking back to Erin, apparent as a ghostly figure sitting in the outlines of a wagon.
“You…you want us to help you with investigating your Skills in the Titan’s place?”
“Yeah. Really thorough investigation and stuff.”
Wil nodded…and then he looked around. Venaz’s lips quivered, but he, like Jewel, was slightly worried about the backchat. Wil ended up bursting out with a shout himself.
“And why didn’t you ask us the entire time we were there?”
Erin turned red, but she pointed a finger back at the [Strategists].
“Well…I didn’t know I needed to write down every Skill usage in the books! Besides, I was busy, uh, summoning Zeladona.”
“That’s an excuse. You’re lazy.”
Peki shot back. Merrik tried to save his friend from Erin’s counterattack. He gave her a big smile and raised his hands.
“What did you have in mind, Miss Solstice?”
“Um…well, I guess I need to investigate all my big Skills first. Big then small. I’m always finding new types of fire, so I don’t think [Like Fire, Memory], is imp—something wrong, Venaz?”
Erin turned her head, and the Minotaur jumped.
“I’m just writing down the Skills.”
It occurred to Erin, belatedly, that giving a list of her Skills was…giving a list of her Skills to very curious [Strategists]. Her eyes narrowed, but after chewing on her lip for a while, she went on.
“Fine. [Like Fire, Memory] is a big one. [Garden of Sanctuary]. [Boon of the Guest]. [Wondrous Fare]. [Field of Preservation], um, my [Witch] Skills, but I know actual experts there. Ooh! [From Witchcraft, Sorcery Ariseth]! And…[Door of Portals]. [World’s Eye Theatre] you know.”
She felt like those were the big ones, and there were a lot. She didn’t have many mundane Skills, though, which struck her as funny. No [Evasive Rolls].
“Any other big Skills, Miss Solstice?”
Wil gave Erin an unconvinced look, and she held his gaze blankly until the [Lord] gave up. He conferred with the [Strategists], and they came back with a prognosis that Niers would have respected fairly quick.
“I think we’ll turn [Sorcery Ariseth] to an actual [Sorcerer]. Leave [Witch] business to them, likewise. [Wondrous Fare] depends on a [Cook]. There are combinations, but you should just manage a list of spells you find useful. Flames you’ve used in many ways, and so we’ll focus on the most underdeveloped Skills.”
“Which would those be?”
“[Boon of the Guest]. Cooldown. And intensity. Have you ever used it? I’ve never seen you using it.”
“I have! Like…three times.”
Peki put her head in her hands, and Venaz’s brows nearly replaced his horns. Erin puffed out her cheeks.
“Hey! Lyonette’s got [Boon of the Princess]!”
“Yes, and I kept it active for months, Erin. I only change targets. I don’t not use it!”
Lyonette retorted. Wil shook his head with amazement.
“The fact that you don’t have it permanently active on a guest is incredible to me. You could charge a fee for it, lend it to people in need. Have you even established a cooldown?”
“Now you’re speaking like Niers. Watch it, Wil. Or I’ll…”
“Bully me? That’s also the Professor’s style. We can handle it, Miss Solstice. [Strategists] are trained to say the right thing even in the face of unreasonable hostility.”
The [Lord]’s response took the winds out of Erin’s sails. The [Innkeeper] turned red.
“…What am I supposed to do to time it?”
Here the Horns, who were watching with urbane amusement, cut in. Ceria waved a hand.
“I can timekeep! I’ve got a spell that woke me up.”
Pisces was already conjuring a ghostly hourglass as he sniffed. He’d been missing the opportunity to do so of late.
“I as well. One imagines a clock is in order.”
“Yes—and the ‘weakest’ case usage. So you’d use your worst, uh, [Boon of the Guest] Skill, measure how long it goes off cooldown, and then you have a minimum benchmark. Then you use a powerful one.”
Merrik nodded eagerly, but he sensed Erin’s apprehension.
“Like Zel Shivertail or the Titan himself if he counts as a guest. What’s the matter, Miss Solstice?”
She was fidgeting in her chair. Erin looked extremely unhappy.
“Nothing. Well—this is why I don’t like testing it.”
“If this is because it makes you important and you’re declining that—that ship has sailed.”
Venaz harrumphed, and Erin shook her head.
“No. I get Lyonette’s [Boon of the Princess] is great. And the few times I’ve used my [Boon of the Guest] it’s also powerful, and that’s important. But…how can I describe it?”
She met Lyonette’s puzzled gaze.
“Lyonette, is it—personal when you use the [Boon of the Princess]?”
The [Princess] in question exhaled—and no, she was not trying to hide her identity in front of the inn’s guests. They would have laughed at her if she kept up even the hint of a pretense at this point.
“No, Erin…I feel as though it’s important, and it was hard when I gave it to…to someone far away.”
She avoided Wil’s pointed stare. Erin shook her head.
“That’s different from me, then. Lyonette’s boon feels regal. Like someone giving something from a throne. But mine? Mine feels…intimate. It’s not like bestowing the boon lightly. It’s from one person to another. Even—even if they’re dead.”
“Fascinating. An emotional component. It must be awkward if it stops you from leveraging any available asset.”
Venaz muttered as he wrote. That ticked off Erin again. She glowered at him.
“Hey, Venaz. Do you often get on the Titan’s nerves?”
“Every day. My points still stand.”
The Minotaur retorted. Erin Solstice inhaled and exhaled.
“Well, maybe you don’t get that the boon is more than just—even intimacy. It’s not a boon from a [Princess]. It can be Zel Shivertail’s boon. This is from them to you. And for a moment—for a while—it will define you. Pisces, what did you feel when I used the boon on you?”
“Er…Miss Griffin’s boon was mostly just helpful. I felt the wind in force, and it was certainly a helpful combat asset.”
Erin stared at him, so annoyed the [Necromancer] felt like he had to apologize. But then a glowing green faerie swooped down and whispered in Erin’s ear. The [Strategists] couldn’t see more than a blob, and Venaz wrote ‘green Winter Sprite’ and underlined it a few times.
“Oh. Oh, that’s right! That’s because Ryoka, er—doesn’t count.”
“You mean she really has no levels? So the Skill doesn’t work as thoroughly on her?”
All the [Strategists] sat forwards, and Erin scowled.
“This is why no one likes you people. You pay attention to what’s being said. Can we get on with the testing? Please?”
“Let’s do the lowest-level boon you can. On…well, does distance matter?”
“Nope! Probably not. I haven’t noticed a problem.”
“Hm. Then can you do a weak one close to you? Then we’ll time it and do it again…maybe on someone here to calculate for distance.”
Erin liked that. She looked around and raised her voice.
The cast of the inn looked about. Lyonette raised a nervous hand, and so did Ishkr, Kevin, and a number of guests. Erin eventually pointed to Lyonette.
“Aha! I choose you, Lyonette! And who’s the booner?”
“Not Mrsha. With respect, sweetie, I don’t feel like growing fur.”
Mrsha scowled hugely at Lyonette, who considered this to be a very real probability. Erin thought hard.
“What about…[Boon of the Guest: Pebblesnatch]!”
She pointed, and Lyonette gasped.
It felt like she had a little Goblin holding her hand. When Lyonette looked up and stopped flinching, she felt…
Restless. As if she hadn’t realized how much good food was around her. Or how much she wanted to…make something.
“Princess, are you alright?”
Ushar was worried, but Lyonette just ran a claw—hand through her hair. Then she looked around and jumped.
She felt like she had just seen Pebblesnatch. But the Goblin wasn’t visiting the inn. Yet it seemed as though the Goblin was there, just in the corner of her eye with that silly, oversized hat. And she had a ladle, and Lyonette…wanted to cook.
There was nothing more than that desire. A little Goblin stood there, waiting, as Lyonette heard a voice speaking in her head.
[Temporary Skill – Cooking: No Bad Poos assigned!]
[Temporary Skill – Goblin Cookbook assigned!]
“Oh, really now.”
Lyonette was exasperated and embarrassed when the [Strategists] demanded to know what Skills she’d gotten. Mrsha fell over, rolling with laughter.
“Weird. Did Rabbiteater get Skills too?”
Erin muttered as Lyonette repeated them. The [Princess] shrugged.
“You gave him his in a fight. Maybe he was busy. I certainly heard my—delightful Skills. Now, am I supposed to try them out?”
“That helps. But we’ll time Erin’s Skill. She should be able to tell when it’s available to be reassigned.”
So, Lyonette headed into the kitchen and realized there was a side-effect to Erin’s boon Skill immediately that trumped hers.
“This beef sucks. You. Give breading. We make it good.”
Apparently, one of the things Goblins knew was how to bread and fry poorer cuts of meat. Or did Pebblesnatch know it? All Lyonette knew was that she was hammering a piece of cheap tenderloin with a hammer and poking Calescent.
And the Goblin [Spice Chef] was meekly obeying her! And she was speaking like a Goblin! Calescent seemed just as confused by it.
“Why am I speaking like this? Ooh. Nut flavor. Is good flavor. Argh, I’m doing it again!”
“You’re speaking like a real Goblin. Feels right to obey you. Like [Chieftain of the Kitchen].”
Calescent shrugged, but helpfully. He hurried around as Lyonette breaded her steak with, of all things, a mix of flour and ground nuts. It was an odd choice, but she soon realized that if you fried the steak in some animal fat and gave it a distinctly acorn flavor, you had some real food out of inferior ingredients. And while she was at it, why didn’t she mix up a stew with some dandelion roots? Not the stems or flowers, but the leaves and roots…
By the time about twenty minutes had passed, Lyonette had drawn half the Goblins in the inn into the kitchen, and they were sipping dandelion tea and munching on the acorn-steak and calling it the ‘best food they’d eaten in a long time’.
It’s super tasty!
Mrsha agreed as she and Nanette got a bite. Bemused, Lyonette protested.
“But it’s practically terrible beef! We might feed it to pigs in Calanfer rather than cook it up!”
“Good seasoning, though. And good Goblin cooking. Makes me remember being on a hunt. Very practical.”
Numbtongue was complimentary. Octavia…enraged.
“My dandelions! Oh, come on. At least it proves Erin’s Skill is powerful. That is lovely steak.”
“I didn’t know Goblins made acorn-batter for meat. I will remember it.”
The proudest person of all was Calescent. He seemed—touched—by the fact that this was a Goblin recipe, and Lyonette looked at him and didn’t say another bad word.
“Maybe Erin can give you a Goblin boon, Calescent? She’s going to do it again—”
Ishkr had popped into the kitchen to tell them Erin thought it was already reusable. Surprising to say the least, but Octavia’s eyes widened.
“Wait! I’ve benefited from it—can she use Master Saliss’ boon on me?”
“What if you go naked?”
This wasn’t a negative in Numbtongue’s eyes, just a possibility. Octavia shook her head.
“I’ll take nudity if it means I can brew like he does!”
There was a flood of guests clamoring for Erin’s Skill when Lyonette got back to the theatre. But unfortunately—Erin had agreed to do a long-range test to see if that affected things.
“Twenty minutes is extraordinary, Miss Erin. Can you do someone around Pebblesnatch’s level? She was only Level 15 in her major class, right?”
“That’s right. She’s getting better, but, uh, still, she’s young. Super good for her age. Who wants to get the Skill over there?”
Everyone but Yvlon and Pisces raised their hands. The two more serious Horns had reservations. Yvlon’s was personality related. Pisces had already been booned by Ryoka, and he’d had the distinct desire to go barefoot for the rest of the day. He’d heard from Montressa that nudity had not been off the table when she had gotten Saliss’ boon.
“—and that time Montressa gained no Skills, but she grew exceptionally dangerous with edged weaponry.”
That didn’t dissuade the other volunteers. Erin looked around, hmming loudly.
“Well…let’s do another boon, then! Boon of the Guest: Visma…wait a second, it doesn’t feel right. It’s not working.”
“Has Visma ever been a guest by herself, Erin?”
“Drat. No. Not really. She’s been on playdates, but her family pays for her. Psst, Mrsha, bring Visma in as a paying customer sometime.”
All she has is four copper.
“We’ll do a special deal. I need to take children’s money from them sometime. Who else is low-level…how about you, Mrsha?”
I’m super-high level! I’m Mrsha the Leveller!
The Gnoll was instantly outraged. Erin patted her on the head.
“Yes, you are! But, uh, Pebblesnatch might beat you in max levels. Come on, don’t you want to see what awesome powers you give people?”
Well, when you say it like that…I agree! Boon my great talents upon the plebian peonic masses!
Mrsha beamed, and someone put down their hand. Venaz snorted.
“I withdraw my request. Anyone but the silly child, please.”
Erin Solstice’s head snapped around as Mrsha fell over, wounded. Gireulashia had come to join the scene, and she punched Venaz in the arm. Erin, though…
“Hey Venaz, want to see if I can give a boon to an unwilling person? Also—you’ll eat your words about Mrsha.”
“Please, on both accounts. I don’t know if I can be entirely unwilling as I am curious, but consider me unimpressed.”
The Minotaur drew himself up as Erin Solstice narrowed her eyes balefully at him. Then…Wil felt a prickle on the back of his neck, and he had a thought.
“Wait a second. It occurs to me just now that the [Boon of the Guest] might have another parameter. What if it’s not about the level of the guest—or it’s not just that? What if it’s how hard Erin throws—”
Too late. The [Innkeeper] thrust out a finger slowly, as if dragging it through an underwater world. She spoke with laden tones as Venaz’s smug look turned to one of worry.
“[Boon of the Guest: Mrsha]!”
And for Venaz the Minotaur, the world turned black.
The Minotaur flinched backwards and caught himself. He raised one hand—shielding his face—then turned.
“I don’t feel—Wil? Peki? House of Minos!”
He turned—and he was no longer sitting on the wagon. He was standing in the midst of the snow, high across some kind of mountain range in the winter. It fit the season, at least, but Venaz somehow felt like he was at the wrong…time.
His feet crunched in the snow as he turned.
“Miss Solstice? Did you use the Skill on me? Miss Solstice?”
That had to be what was happening. He had been told the same thing happened to one of the people Erin had used the Skill on, a ‘Rabbiteater’…but this had to be a powerful effect.
Perhaps one of her other Skills elongated time? He knew she’d been lying to him about all her Skills. But Venaz was still uncertain why Mrsha would cause this. And that…was because he thought of her as a child.
A willful child, one who had survived being a Doombringer and a war, but still a little rascal with all the intelligence and personality of…a child. They were to be indulged and safeguarded, but he was an adult.
Perhaps no one had told him Mrsha’s full story. And perhaps—Erin Solstice had informed the boon. For now, the Minotaur turned and realized he had no weapons upon him. He stared into the dark night surrounding him, and then he heard voices.
They sounded like howling. He turned once more, and a valley stretched below him. In that valley were Gnolls, fighting. Goblins everywhere.
Venaz reached for a blade he didn’t have. Then he balled his fists and went crashing down the slope. But he never seemed to gain on the sight below him. He slowed…and there he saw the Stone Spears tribe at their end. Fighting and falling as the Goblin Lord’s forces overran them and a single Wind Runner carried a brown-furred Gnoll away. Venaz heard a long howl, and his blood chilled.
Always and always, Ryoka Griffin carried Mrsha away through the snow.
But this time, she was staring at him. Staring into Venaz’s eyes, her little brown ones lost as her fur changed color. Though she could not speak—he felt her grief and loss and guilt like a physical thing.
“What—what is happening?”
The Minotaur’s chest was rising and falling with the desire to fight. He looked around, angry at Erin Solstice, even as he felt a wrenching pain of loss in his chest. He whirled—
—Then he was in a prison cell. One made of metal and wood, so crude he tried to break out of it at once. That was before he smelled the rancid odor of something feral—dung and piss—and looked up to see a great beast hunched over an altar.
Raskghar. A struggling Gnoll was being carried into this chamber by several Raskghar. Venaz’s eyes widened, and this time, he shouted.
“Enough! Erin Solstice, I recant my words!”
He looked around, but she wasn’t there. Only a little white Gnoll, hiding in the same cage as Venaz. He tried to break the bars, but they were Adamantium as far as he could bend them. He turned his head away, knowing what was happening—and mercifully, he was allowed to look away. But that left him staring into Mrsha’s eyes.
The little Gnoll had been chained. Now…she was standing free of the chains. Like a dream, Venaz saw an older girl standing there, armed with her notepad and quill. He looked back as the Raskghar lifted a dagger—
Then he was at the Meeting of Tribes. Xherw stood with the Daemon of Luck at his back, made of the dead Doombringers who had died for the Plain’s Eye tribe. And Venaz realized something.
These scenes were not here merely to scar him. If they were, a hand would have held his face and subjected him to the worst of the sights. His breathing calmed—and he looked at Mrsha. Then she held up a notecard, and Venaz heard her voice like the words were being read aloud. A solemn little girl who rolled her r’s and spoke precisely, as if taught by a [Princess]. He was the first person to hear how Mrsha wished she could speak.
“I have survived it all. Not all of it was my fault. Someday, I shall believe it. But I lived through it—and I would like you to as well.”
He found himself kneeling and reaching out to her. Venaz held the Greatsword of Serept in his hands, and he offered her its hilt.
“I take it back. I do take it back. I have never seen it, little one. I’m…sorry.”
She looked at him, and this vision of Mrsha smiled. Then she pumped one fist in the air and bade him do the same with his sword. Venaz raised the greatsword with one hand overhead, and he shouted for both of them—
[Temporary Skill – Survivor’s Call: Tell My People I Was Here obtained!]
The Minotaur stood and drew his sword. Everyone recoiled, and Yvlon rose to grab him.
It seemed as if he had frozen a good ten seconds, and Erin had looked incredibly worried. Mrsha…Mrsha had been waiting to see if she got to bully Venaz in his head. But she had seen the Minotaur’s face slowly change from one of mild contempt to sadness to…something else.
Now, he stood, heedless of the rocking wagon, and the green gemstone sword rose over his head. Everyone ducked—but Venaz didn’t swing it. He opened his mouth and roared.
It was an ear-splitting bellow, mixed with a howl. It came out of the Minotaur’s lungs, and the corners of his eyes glistened with tears. When he lowered that sword—he looked at her, and the little Gnoll nearly burst into tears herself.
Because it seemed as though he understood her for a moment. Understood something that hurt him as much as her. Venaz the Arrogant, Venaz the High and Mighty, Venaz of Minotaurs Are Best, Venaz the Target of Niers’ Chalk—a man with almost as many nicknames as she—
He had witnessed what it was like to lose so much. It was something he would not process in a moment or a day—and Erin had done it to him. Mrsha was so filled with sympathy that she went over to Erin and smacked the [Innkeeper]’s knee. Hard.
Ulvama eyed Mrsha, but let the girl do it. Lyonette went to scold Mrsha—and then considered Erin might deserve that.
“Ow. What—Venaz, you, um, good?”
Erin looked worried. The Minotaur was breathing as if he’d run a race. He looked at her, lost for words. Then he turned.
“No. But you were right. Mrsha has not lived a carefree life. I respect that. Nor is your Skill meant to be used lightly. Please. Never use it like that again.”
He sat like that for a good five minutes as Wil confirmed Venaz had seen something—and they timed it out, and Erin began to apologize. Then—Venaz looked up as something vibrated.
Not just a [Message] scroll. He pulled out a speaking stone from a hidden compartment in his belt pouch.
“I—need to take this. Hello? Your Majesty?”
Wil’s head turned, and Erin slowly tried to roll away. But the amused, female voice that spoke into the stone wasn’t angry.
“Venaz. Can you explain why the entire isle of Hammerad claims to have heard your voice? Your family—your people claim they saw a flash of you standing in a wagon? Half of them can point to you on a map. The exact same location…south of Pallass on a trade road? I felt something myself, but I blocked it.”
“Y-your Majesty, I will explain.”
“Please do. It is quite amusing.”
Erin decided to take a break from using her boon Skill—not least because it was definitely on cooldown after that. In the meantime, she sat there, head in her hands.
“I’m such a dummy.”
She’d gotten mad and, pettily, not only sent a message to thousands of Minotaurs, but inflicted extreme emotional damage on Venaz. She felt bad about the second part.
But what made up a bit for the first was that…Venaz’s parents had been glad to see him. Even if it was disruptive, the Minotaur hadn’t realized how welcome his appearance was to them. How much something like that could matter after three years of not being home. He should write more letters back.
She needed to take this seriously. She needed…to respect what she had done.
“Someone hit me.”
Ulvama, who had been walking past the door, stepped into Erin’s room. The thwack and shout of pain drew Jewel, who had been pacing down the corridor. Erin clutched at her head.
“If you get mad—I leave. But you want punishment. This good?”
“My head is ringing. Yes! Thank you. I deserved that. This time. Hey, Jewel. I looked pretty stupid back there, huh?”
Stupid? Jewel’s mouth opened, but Ulvama was nodding, and so was the little witch. Nanette gave Erin a huge frown.
“Everyone makes one mistake, Miss Erin. But yours hurt people. Can we say you learned your lesson and move on?”
Erin, still rubbing at her head, nodded. She took a breath.
“Okay. No more games. I’m taking it seriously. I am. So seriously…I’d like to call in Ryoka. Does anyone know if she’s here?”
“Cain’t. She’s off riding with the lords of the land. Where I shall be going too, for I was promised snacks without end.”
Shaestrel swooped past Erin’s room, and the [Innkeeper] scowled. She folded her arms, but then sighed.
“Okay. It’s fine. I guess we’ve got a team here. Jewel…”
“Yes, Miss Erin? Do I get my team?”
“…Nah. Not at first. Jewel, Nanette, Ulvama, and me. Mrsha is…?”
“Downstairs. Do we get her?”
Erin thought about it and shook her head.
“She’s got school, and with respect to Mrsha, she does get excited. You know, it’s an all-girl team, though. Maybe we need someone reliable. Like…Bir…Numbt…hm. Rel…Klb…”
She tried out several names, looking at her companions. None of them seemed to quite work for one reason or another. Relc was uncomfortable around Ulvama, a Goblin. Klbkch was sorta scary, especially to Jewel. Bird was a silly fellow. Numbtongue was okay, but he’d bring his cat and possibly Octavia, and that was a crowd. So Erin turned and shouted.
“Ishkr! You free for a little adventure?”
The Gnoll trotted upstairs, saw the team assembled, and nodded.
“What do you need, Miss Solstice?”
For answer, Erin Solstice clapped her hands together and, with a determined look, faced her team of four. Jewel, Nanette, Ulvama, and Ishkr. Erin Solstice exhaled.
“It’s time to explore some of the Gardens of Sanctuary. Who’s with me?”
Ulvama bared her teeth in a grin. Nanette looked excited. Ishkr’s eyes lit up. Jewel?
Erin Solstice was about to head into the [Garden of Sanctuary] when she realized that she couldn’t keep getting away with this.
—In that because everyone knew who she was and that she had secrets, sometimes they wanted in. No sooner had Ishkr lined up with her three other explorers than someone coughed.
“Oh, hey, Erin. I didn’t see you here. I was, uh, going to visit Bird. What’re you doing?”
The [Innkeeper] turned, and the most unconvincing lie of a smile spread across Relc’s face. It was joined by another man doffing his cap and a little Gnoll picking their nose.
It wasn’t Mrsha.
“Ekirra? Normen? Relc? I was, uh…how’d you know I was doing anything?”
“I heard it. I’ve got good ears. Are you exploring Earth? I want to go!”
Erin’s face fell as Ekirra jumped up and down.
“How does he—”
“Somehow, he overheard it. The little bugger—er, child’s been talking loud, Miss Erin. I think Miss Mrsha had a word with him, but I thought I’d pull him away from the regular guests before he said something.”
Erin rolled over to Ekirra, who looked nervous.
“I know it’s a big secret! Visma said to keep it as secret as Ry—”
He put a paw over his mouth before he could leak the second secret. Erin stared down at Ekirra and sighed.
“It’s a super-big secret, Ekirra. If anyone found out—Joseph might not be able to play football and be a coach. Got it? I’m gonna trust you…but do you guys wanna come?”
She looked up, and Normen nodded.
“If I’m a [Knight], I should be there, Miss Erin.”
Relc scratched at his neck spines, looking embarrassed.
“Who, me? I was just walking by, and—Klbkch is busy, so I’m bored. If you have room for me…”
Erin remembered how upset Relc had been earlier. She looked at the three lads and sighed. All of them held their breath, and Erin shrugged ruefully. Ekirra waved his little paw as hard as he could, and Erin had a thought.
“Waitasecond…why are you even here, Ekirra? Shouldn’t you be at school? Mrsha is.”
Was he playing truant? In response, Ekirra shook his head vigorously.
“Nope! I had Little Crab practice, so I didn’t have to go!”
“…Soccer’s more important than school? This is like home.”
“It’s called football.”
The little Gnoll [Kicker] gave Erin an indignant look, but she relented and he joyfully lined up with the others.
“Well. That would make four and four. Anyone else want to join in?”
She looked around, but no one showed up. Erin coughed.
“…Where’s Tessa? I thought she’d appear.”
“I think she’s spanking sneaky people.”
Ekirra volunteered. Erin gave him the fish-eye.
“Is that literally spanking or just hurting them?”
He scratched at his head. He had pants on, these days, and seemed to have gotten used to them and a cute jersey.
“I dunno, but she took the pants off one, and that’s what happens when I get my butt spanked. Then they ran away.”
Was Tessa’s method of deterring spies without killing them stealing their clothes? Erin opened her mouth and decided she’d let Tessa do her.
“Well, we’re investigating my gardens, and I’ve seen the most dangerous one to life and limb. So I’d assume we’re okay. The worst garden just has lightning bolts.”
“Oh, is that all—wait, what?”
Relc raised a claw as Jewel kept gulping. Ekirra looked excited.
“What do I do? I have a soccer ball!”
“Maybe let’s not put the child in danger?”
Ulvama snorted. Erin waved a hand in agreement as she thought.
“There are a bunch of doors, actually. What if we took a look at them and went from there?”
“Wait, how many gardens are there? Erin, how many?”
Relc’s plaintive tone sounded hurt as Ekirra scampered into the garden. Erin opened the door, and Ekirra barrelled through. She led her team into the garden…just in time to see a little lamb and another of her guests rising to their feet.
“Hah. So I was right.”
“Oh, come on.”
Everyone wanted in on this. Seborn Sailwinds and Nerry hadn’t even bothered with asking. They’d just sat on the hill. Erin sighed.
“Et tu, Seborn?”
“If that’s some kind of Earther saying, I have no idea what it is. But I’m bored. Jelaqua’s on another date, and Ulinde and Moore are reading damn books in Pallass’ library. Take me with you or I’ll find myself drunk and naked at Wailant’s farm again.”
Seborn looked so exhausted at the thought that Erin took pity on him and Nerry. In fact, the numbers were giving her an idea, so she punched her palm.
“That’s it! If you can’t beat ‘em and they keep coming—we’ll divide and conquer. Three gardens! And I have just the one for you, Seborn.”
“If it’s water themed, that’s racist.”
Erin sucked in her lips and refused to say a word as Ulvama started laughing and Nanette giggled—until Seborn grinned.
The old sea hatch that appeared made Seborn’s good brow rise until it threatened his seaweed-greenish brown hairline. He bent over it.
“Dead gods. Imagine one of these in a ship’s hold. The ultimate cargo room—safe room—treasury? I take it back. I want in.”
“It’s not entirely safe, Seborn. I’m safe, I think, although I could, like, drown in there. But there are fish.”
He cracked the hatch open, and Ekirra peered down into the murky waters below. Seborn stared into the depths—and frowned. Relc pulled Ekirra back as the others peered down. Nerry shuddered as she saw a giant something slowly swimming below.
“Okay, not safe for everyone—”
Erin was about to close it up, but Seborn held up a hand. He put a hand into the water and, to her vague disgust, put some in his mouth and swished it around.
“Ew! Seborn! The koi pond was filled with koi that were there for generations! It could be nasty with poo!”
“All water has shit in it. You think your well water is clean? Relax. I’ve swum in far dirtier places than this. Interesting. The water’s actually quite clean.”
Erin frowned, but Normen agreed. The man was on his hands and knees, staring down.
“I can see further into this water than most ponds I’ve seen, Miss Erin.”
“Yeah. Come to think of it—it’s salty, but it looks good.”
Relc too was a connoisseur of bad water spots from his days as a [Soldier], and Ulvama agreed it looked potable—but for the salt. Seborn explained.
“If there’s that many creatures below, their bodies and excrement should have fouled the water long ago and killed most of ‘em. Moss and debris. There’s a cleaning method down there. Might be magic. But I bet it’s them.”
He pointed down, and now, Erin could see entire shoals of tiny fishes down there. She even recognized a few. She recognized the flat-ish fish that had coloration like camouflage swimming past a group of shrimp and colorful shoals of tiny fish avoiding the big shape.
“Oh! I know that fish! It’s the one that hangs on a fish tank and eats stuff.”
“Cleaners. Whoever made this knew their fish life. Alright. Do I go in?”
“What about the shark? I’m not putting you in danger.”
The Drowned Man rolled his eyes.
“It’s a sand shark, Erin.”
“…Doesn’t sound better. It’s big.”
The one below might have been literally ten feet long. But Seborn just snorted.
“They don’t attack people unless you provoke them. We’re too much for them. It’s not a swarm. If it comes after me, I’ll punch it. Landfolk might have trouble in the water, but I’ve sharkwrestled and rode them around before.”
“Oh, okay…what? You ride sharks? What are you, some kind of sea-farmer?”
He laughed as he slipped into the water, and his voice drifted up before his head slid under.
“I’ve been a [Pirate] all my life. Why do you think Wailant took to farming so well? Anyone else coming?”
Erin looked for volunteers, but no one else could breathe in the water. To her surprise, though, Ulvama poked Nanette.
“Little girl, you want to swim?”
“I can’t hold my breath that long, I’m afraid. And I don’t have any magic to use now I’ve left my hat.”
Nanette seemed disappointed—she was fearless enough to swim with the sharks! But Ulvama just chortled. She produced a little pot of green and another of blue.
“I paint [Aqua Lung] on us. Anyone else?”
“I hate water. Nope.”
Ekirra backed away. Nerry was not about to become live bait—especially because she was small enough to make the shark go after her. Erin was worried Nanette would be in danger, but the witch protested.
“I’m enough to handle one shark, Miss Erin! Even without Mister Seborn!”
“It’s twice your height!”
“And I’m a witch!”
The ego on her. Relc demurred.
“I don’t know how to fight underwater. Punching and spears are really hard.”
“Well—okay. I’ll check back on you guys later! Tell me what you find!”
Erin waited until Ulvama hopped in the water and Nanette followed. Ulvama was wearing lightweight clothing so jumped in, but Nanette went to take off her robes, which would be a swimming hazard. Erin made everyone shuffle off so Nanette could jump in, then closed the door.
“If they’re in danger, I’ll know, I think. Okay. Where next?”
“Can we get a spread of these rooms? I want to see.”
Relc was plaintive, and Erin hesitated. She didn’t…want to show them the real door and the words at the end of the corridor. Some words had danger, and Ekirra was not trustworthy.
“Sure. Can I get—four of the doors? Ones I haven’t been in for a long time. So no snow, not the flying spot, and not the relaxing garden. Or the mud one!”
She didn’t know if it would work—but then four doors were right there. Relc jumped as they appeared on the hill.
“Ancestors! This is so cool. This door looks like sandstone!”
He brushed at the worn covering that looked like it fit into some dry climate. Then the padded door, which revealed a room so pink Ekirra gagged.
“Gross! Girl stuff! I don’t wanna go in there. What about…oh.”
The third door made Erin’s skin crawl. She looked up and saw no door—just splintered ash and dark marble flooring. This…was the door that had been blasted open.
“Um. Is that supposed to happen?”
Relc hovered there. Jewel drew her sword slowly, and Erin bit her lip.
“I don’t…know. Let’s not go in there, ok—Nerry!”
The Sariant Lamb trotted through the door instantly. She stared at Erin and then clipclopped further in. Erin exhaled loudly, but Ishkr followed.
“I can go with her, Miss Erin.”
He was fearless of the room! Erin wavered.
“Oh—fine! It’s not for Ekirra, though.”
“I don’t wanna!”
The Gnoll hid behind Relc. He looked so nervous that Erin decided to let him choose. She pointed at the other doors.
“Okay, Ekirra, which door do you want? There are three…”
“No, there’s two! I’m not going in the girly room!”
The Gnoll boy had already excluded the padded room that had belonged to some [Lady] from his list. That left the first door, sandstone, worn and old, and the last. The last…looked like a simple study door. And to Erin’s vague astonishment, it even had a nameplate.
Aleieta Reinhart — Personal Study. Does not open for you.
“Wait. This is…”
Relc’s eyes focused on the name, and his eyes narrowed slowly. He looked at Erin, and Jewel’s jaw dropped.
“But I thought that was her study!”
Erin pointed at the padded door and realized that must have belonged to someone else with a [Lady]’s personality. This door looked like it belonged in a neat mansion somewhere, and it had elegant wood paneling, the crest of House Reinhart on the door in gold under the nameplate…
Normen swatted Ekirra’s paw down before he could take it. Everyone recoiled so fast that they nearly fell down the hill.
“What? Why doesn’t anyone warn me of—”
“It’s not setting off my [Trap Sense] badly. Might just be a prank.”
Annoyed, Erin herself grasped the door handle, but nothing happened. As the keybearer, she suspected she was immune to most dangers.
“Don’t safeguard me. Give it to m—yeow!”
The polished brass door handle had an electric charge. Only enough to make Erin’s palms leap off it. She blew on her hands and glared.
“Okay, Aleieta had a dirty sense of humor.”
She wondered how many curious [Maids] or spies or servants would spend all day trying to open her Skill-locked door. Erin turned to Ekirra, and the Gnoll boy had made up his mind.
“I want the sandstone door! I’m not going into any girl’s room! No sir!”
“Alright. But you’re being safe, got it? Relc, Normen, Jewel, you’re all Ekirra’s bodyguards.”
The three looked at each other as Erin waggled a finger at them.
“He doesn’t get hurt. And if the garden hurts him, I’ll burn down the garden.”
She didn’t know if she could threaten her Skill, but she gave it a good try. Then they opened the door and filed through.
That left Erin alone. She counted.
Four in the sandstone door. Three in the drowned door. Two in the blasted doorway…she decided to go through the blasted doorway first, because it might be the most dangerous and Ishkr and Nerry were there alone.
As it happened—the scariest thing in that doorway was what was hidden there. The most dangerous room was the sandstone doorway. The second Jewel stepped through, she was almost immediately attacked.
The [Innkeeper] came screeching through the door as Normen pushed her back through. She’d sensed trouble in a minute and come back.
“What’s going on!?”
The first thing she saw through the sandstone doorway was…a chamber. It was round, circular, and, oddly, enclosed. The entire room was probably forty feet across—and the same bland sandstone walls filled the entire dome-chamber.
But there was light. It came from nowhere in particular. Enough to see by. Relc was covering Ekirra with a spear.
“Jewel’s fighting it! Erin—there are people in here!”
Erin’s head snapped up. Ekirra was hiding behind Relc, soccer ball ready to throw.
“Stand behind me, Ekirra. Out of the door!”
Erin opened the passage, and Relc cursed as another figure came charging out towards him. He whirled his spear up and made to jab. But the [Spearmaster] couldn’t. He turned it into a block—and a fist sent his feet skidding across the floor as it struck his spear.
“Strong—Erin, get out of here! Jewel!”
Erin saw the Gold-rank [Swashbuckler] swinging her sword in concise strikes, keeping another figure off her. It looked like—a Garuda?
The figure was holding a staff and lashing out as he leapt, raining blows from above. It was an angle Jewel hadn’t much experience in fighting, and she was dodging, ducking heavy blows from overhead.
“Stop! Who are you? Stop or I’ll—[Whirlwind Slash]!”
Jewel went for a cut, and the Garuda just jumped it. He flew across the top of the dome and dropped with the staff aimed down like a spear. Jewel threw herself back.
“I’m coming! Watch—”
Normen had his mace raised. He hadn’t put on the Demas Metal armor—he was training to use it properly—but thundered across the ground like a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings.
The side-charge from a Stitch-man as large as he was nearly took him down. Normen pivoted—and the second figure slammed into him. Down they went, punching and grappling.
Where had that Stitch-man come from? Erin realized these people weren’t talking—and they hadn’t entered the room through the door. She began to suspect something was off instantly. Especially when the fourth figure appeared.
It was a half-Elf with a bow. The half-Elf aimed at Erin Solstice, and the [Innkeeper] froze. She fumbled for her knife—but the half-Elf seemed to regard her and lowered her bow. She stepped back…and faded into the wall.
As if Erin weren’t worth fighting? Then Erin saw Relc fighting the unarmed Human whose every punch made his spear shake.
“Ekirra! Get to—”
The little boy was transfixed like most non combatants were in a fight. He flinched as Relc’s duel came towards him—and then the Human froze. Relc’s spear nearly took him in the chest—as the martial artist stared at Ekirra and backed up. He reset himself, fists raised—and Relc hesitated.
He glanced at Ekirra and then saw how close they were to the boy. Relc had been defending Ekirra from…
The warrior waited. Relc flexed his claws, and Erin exhaled.
“It’s not attacking Ekirra. Because he’s a kid?”
“I can fight!”
Ekirra piped up. Instantly, a short Gnoll appeared. It seemed as if the figure stepped out of the wall, coalescing into shape—glowing mists taking on more color, turning into features. Even clothing and details like long, baggy pants. A nick in one ear. Erin almost thought it was Mrsha—but it was a dust-colored Gnoll girl who had pale white linen wrapped around both paws. She instantly charged Ekirra, and he ran out of the garden.
“I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to—”
The apparition faded with a look of vague disappointment on her face. A body broke into mist and vanished, and it was uncanny—because it had seemed like that person was too real.
Almost like a memory of someone the owner of the garden had known. Captured beat for beat. Then—Erin realized what was going on.
“It’s a training room! Or a test! Jewel, you can stop fighting! Normen—”
The [Knight] kicked his foe off him or tried—but the other Stitch-man just staggered back, then took Normen down with a waist-level tackle. Jewel shouted back.
“I’m winning! I’m w—”
A staff clocked her on the shoulder, and she stumbled. Relc’s spear was blurring in jabs, but his opponent was deflecting them with his palms away from his chest.
“Guys, you can stop!”
“Give me five minutes! No, wait. One! [Triple Thrust]!”
Relc shouted back. His spear performed three simultaneous attacks—and his opponent just stepped back as all three missed, inches short of his chest.
“Hey! You can’t do that!”
The Drake charged in. Erin opened her mouth—then realized the three fighters were having fun. So was Ekirra.
“Go, Mister Relc! This is so cool!”
Erin had the intense urge to cancel all three apparitions. She stared at the fights in progress and shook her head.
“Everything alright, Miss Erin?”
Ishkr was peering into the sandstone doorway with Nerry. They’d come out at the alarm, and Erin rolled her eyes. She saw he held a cup, ready to throw.
“They’re having fun. Where were we?”
It would take a while for the fighters to clear the test in the sandstone doorway. Meanwhile, Erin returned to the broken doorway, and she realized a few things at once.
This room had actual life in it, not artificial.
The life was nasty.
This door was one of the most significant she would find, even among the gardens.
“Cockroaches! Come on!”
Erin shuddered, and Nerry spat at a roach on the walls. It hissed at both, and Erin flinched—Nerry just bared her teeth and savagely kicked at one.
“They must have gotten in. I can try to get rid of them. But there are a lot of them.”
This room was a mess. Mold and dirt and—bugs—were everywhere. Erin looked around and instantly regretted returning. She looked at the broken doorway.
“None of them better get in my garden.”
In fact—she saw a few cockroaches trying to explore her garden and instantly freaked out. But they were unable to pass through the invisible barrier. Ishkr hurried out—and came back two minutes later with some pest-poison from Octavia.
“It might not kill them all, but it’s a start. Should I put it down?”
“Yes! And get me a flamethrower!”
Erin was incredibly grossed out, but the bugs seemed wary of her, and while her wheels went over some shells—
“Nerry, I want to go. Nerry?”
The lamb just sneered at her. She trotted past Erin, kicking detritus out of the way. She…she was intent on this room. She stared about, and Erin wheeled back to the entrance. Then…Erin got the distinct impression that she knew whose room this was. She spoke a word, and Ishkr looked up as he began to sweep.
There was no handy nameplate on the door. Nor—from this blasted room—any useful tools at first to identify the owner. Unlike every other room that had overgrown or been filled with snow—but been preserved despite that—
Someone had blown the door open and tried to destroy everything in here. They had hammered the floor, breaking off huge pieces. Blasted what might have been a tapestry on the far walls to ash. Broken stone everywhere and fused some things to melted, dirty glass.
But Erin Solstice still saw…traces that hinted it was the Lucifen who had owned this place. For one thing—the motif.
Red and black.
Not very subtle, especially when Ryoka had hinted at what ‘Lucifen’ meant. It matched the color of that note on the door. Also…there was a kind of horned element to this room.
“Is that a statue of a person?”
Erin stared down at the upper half of a head. Only—it was a bald, domed head but for where a pair of very diabolic horns rose out of the skull.
“That’s no Minotaur.”
Ishkr was a good test-person to have here. Nerry certainly seemed to know or suspect that a Lucifen had owned this room. She had access to the Sariant Lamb’s intelligence and gave Erin a significant look as she kicked a nest of roaches and unearthed something glowing on the floor. Erin shuddered…then tried to piece together the statue.
“Ishkr, can you see if there’s anything that’s a clue in here? Damn. If only I could stand. What kind of statue were you? Where’s your pieces?”
She rolled around, but someone had pulverized the entire piece. If only she had more! Erin saw there were five vast pillars around this circular domed room.
Not a hint of grass. Nothing like the original room. It was like some kind of grand, somber chamber. But there was a glowing runework in the center, and Erin…
“Someone really must have hated the owner. Is this you, Cormelex? If only this was my inn. I could…use [Partial Reconstruction]. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”
Erin stared at the statue and thought that was a very Niers-way of thinking. Then she heard a crackling sound of stone on stone.
Erin’s head whirled and Ishkr backed away as a piece of stone lifted—and slowly reattached itself to a wall. Erin’s head swung back to the statue as the half-head turned into a full one. Nerry leapt away with a baah of alarm, and the roaches—shuddered.
It was just a few minor repairs, but it worked! Erin’s jaw fell open.
“My Skill—can I repair this place? Do I want to?”
Ishkr seemed delighted by the fact that the [Partial Reconstruction] also did some sweeping for him. He glanced around the room and shook his head.
“Even Silveran won’t enjoy all the bugs. I think. Maybe he’d eat them. Erin, I think we had better call him in for a day before continuing to explore. This place is disgusting, and neither Nerry nor I want roach eggs in our fur. I also see centipedes over there…let me see if I can put more poison down.”
He trotted off into the darkness, and Erin was inclined to agree with him. Then…she saw something on the ground.
Nerry was still unearthing it between the five pillars, so she didn’t realize what she was trying to uncover. But Erin’s intake of breath made the Sariant Lamb look up—then race over and climb Erin’s chair to get a look. When Nerry saw it, the lamb exhaled.
In between the five pillars, dominating the center of the room, was…something magical. Or something more than magic. Between the lamb and Erin’s Skill, enough of it was visible for Erin to see the basis of what it had been.
“I dunno if this is a good thing or not. I want to say ‘not’, but maybe Ryoka needs to see this. I bet she’d love something like this. Dead gods and…”
Erin Solstice had never seen something as instantly familiar to her as this. But one look at the red, glowing lines of the broken pentagram stretching between the five pillars and she thought that she knew exactly why someone had been angry enough to smash the door.
What did you do here, Cormelex?
Erin Solstice was about to ask Nerry if she knew whether the Lucifen had anything like this when Ishkr’s voice drifted over to them.
He sounded—worried. He trotted back into view, eyes wide. Erin’s head snapped up.
“What is it, Ishkr? Did you find something intact?”
“Not—intact. But I think I know why the bugs are so prolific here. And we might need that flame thrower after all. Or to hire Archmage Valeterisa to come in. Maybe not. But—you had better see this.”
Erin exchanged a glance with Nerry. The lamb leapt off her lap, raced ahead—then came running back. She looked equally unnerved. Erin Solstice rolled forwards as Ishkr came over to push her. The fearless [Head Server] and the lamb both hid behind Erin. The [Innkeeper] took one look at what Ishkr had found along one of the walls. She opened her mouth to scream.
“No. Nonono. Take us out—”
Ishkr turned her around, and they shot out of this garden and only came back for Erin to demand Ishkr put up a fake door with wood so the bugs had no shot at entering her garden. But she kept staring at the far wall.
Someone had broken Cormelex’s room to bits. She knew it was his. The figures of the horned people were everywhere.
Unlike any other species—the only one that Erin could think of was ‘Demon’. But a Devil had owned this room. And as hard as his enemies had tried to erase it…
They had shattered the pentagram. Shattered his statues, burned his possessions, and incinerated the walls that held whatever secrets he had hidden here. Destroyed sanctuary and tried to erase it all then condemned it to insects and filth and time.
…But somehow, the garden endured. And the garden of the only Lucifen to earn this Skill…had a broken mural of some kind on the far wall.
In the gloom, amidst the skittering of insects and the smell of oil and fire—was a dancing man. Not like Lord Bel of Nadel, no, not at all. The man was stylized and had red horns. A face blackened by soot. Old clothing as formal as Terandria.
He was shown in poses across the wall. Holding his arms and legs out in unsettling patterns. A dance choreographed in every pose, like sinful worship. Below that dance was an image of a hand…rising out of a crack in the earth.
The ‘hand’ was clawed, and the crack was glowing. Erin did not have to guess what it meant.
Now, why was it so disturbing? Because the people who had found this room would have destroyed this mural, right? Even if it were made of Adamantium, they would not have let it endure. And so they had. They had blasted the wall with so many spells it was pitted and broken, and even Erin’s [Partial Reconstruction] couldn’t repair it. But she saw nearly all of it there.
After all…the dancing Lucifen, the instructions in pictograms were there. Spelled out in vivid detail by the insects clinging to the walls. Hanging centipedes, living and dead, twined around roach bodies and spiderwebs. As if the insects were themselves compelled to recreate what had been lost.
“[Fireball], Miss Erin? Acid jars?”
Ishkr had a glowing jar at the ready. Erin Solstice took one look into the room as he hammered the last boards into a makeshift wall. She looked at him—and shook her head.
“Not yet. Just close it.”
The door vanished, and Erin’s skin crawled and crawled. Nerry? Nerry looked back into the room.
“I gained this, as none of my kind ever have. It was no kindness.”
—Cormelex, the Infernal Court
Erin Solstice, Nerry, and Ishkr were disturbed and felt unclean after entering their door. By contrast, they found Jewel lying on her back, panting as Ekirra poured water over an eye blackening already.
“Jewel? Are you okay?”
The [Swashbuckler] gasped. She sat up a bit.
“Relc’s fighting his second opponent. Normen got choked out.”
The [Knight] was okay. He was just sitting up, feeling at his throat and coughing a bit.
“Damn grapplers. The door opened when Jewel beat it. We’re waiting on Relc.”
“Anyone seen Ulvama, Nanette? Seborn?”
Erin looked around and decided to check on them. The hatch opened—and she shouted down.
“Hey, are you all eaten by sharks yet?”
No one responded for a long while…until she saw a light rising, and a figure poked her head out of the water. Ulvama was grinning. She had something in her mouth.
It was a fish. She spat it onto the grass.
“Good fish. Tell Calescent I want to eat it. Nice garden.”
“How’s it nice?”
Two more figures followed Ulvama up. Nanette was beaming in delight as Seborn carried something up from the base of the garden.
“Erin! Erin, I petted the shark! He’s super friendly! And there’s a little baby one, too! Their skin is rough as sandpaper, though!”
“It’s definitely some Drowned Folk garden. There wasn’t much loot, though. Someone got there first.”
“How do you know?”
Seborn snorted in annoyance.
“I saw where someone had pried gems off the walls, and the treasure pile—I think it was a treasure pile—was damn empty. Has someone been able to open the gardens before you?”
“I…at least two people. Wait, have they pillaged the other gardens? Or maybe the owner just cleared out their own garden before they died?”
“Whatever the case was—the most valuable thing I found was this. Take a look.”
He dumped something on the ground, and Erin peered at it. It looked like…a map. Only, not like one she was used to seeing. It had all kinds of lines, and it looked vaguely like…
“What kind of map is this? I’ve seen this kind of weird one before…”
“Oh! It’s one of those maps adventurers use!”
Jewel sat up, and Seborn nodded. Nerry was peering at it.
“Hey. How do you know that word?”
The Drowned Man sighed.
“It’s a sea map, Erin. See the lines? It’s showing currents and landmass. This…this is the kind of thing a Drowned Ship would pay a hold of gold for.”
“Wh—really? That’s great!”
“Yep. Even if it’s this old—last year, we’d be rich. Now? It’s at least half-useless. Krakens take it.”
Seborn sighed. Erin realized what he meant, and her face fell.
“Aw, come on. The new lands…?”
“Every current’s probably off. Yep. And it might have changed the geography. Even so…this is extremely valuable. Can I…make a copy of this?”
“Gonna send it to those Drowned Folk at Nombernaught or something? Sure, if you think it’ll help. Just tell them it came from me!”
The [Rogue] lifted his brows.
“What? Give them this for free? They won’t have gratitude for that. They’ll laugh at you. I’ll keep it and trade it around. Cut you in whatever I get—but I might keep it until I go back to the ocean. I’m planning on it, someday. Maybe now that Jelaqua’s staying around Pallass it’s time to think about it.”
“What? You can’t leave Moore and Ulinde! You guys are a team!”
That was the most distressing news Erin had heard all day. More than even Cormelex’s garden. Seborn shrugged as he climbed out and dried himself off.
“Teams change, Erin. Adventurers don’t have to adventure until they die. Typhenous is a rarity. But I…I left the sea because of disagreements. I always knew I’d go back. I don’t have the levels yet to beat my father and take what’s mine. But there’s never a good time, and I’ve caught up a lot. Nice garden, though. Do you want to see what’s down there? You might be able to swim if we pull you around.”
“Nuh. Nope. I’ll check it out when I can swim.”
The thought of being helpless in the water did not appeal to Erin. She peered into the water and turned to Nanette.
“What else did you see?”
The girl sneezed—until Ulvama threw a towel around her and put one on Seborn. Nanette smiled as she pointed down.
“Oh, Miss Erin! There’s tons of kelp and such growing on the bottom of the floor. There’s dirt in some places, sand in others…it truly is a garden! What was the broken door like?”
Ishkr shuddered, and Seborn spat.
“You have terrible luck. Yeah, it’s a veritable landscape of fish and flora in there. If you ever run out of food, cast a line down there. Mind you, I’d feel bad about eating the sharks. They’re friendly as can be. Big suckers, though.”
As if to confirm that, a teensy little shark’s fin broke the surface of the water just below the hatch. It was tiny! Erin stared at the baby shark as the mother shark, ten feet long, circled below.
“Aw. How cute. I’m never going down there.”
Ekirra’s fur stood on end as he nodded rapidly. He backed away from the opening, and everyone turned as one to the first door.
“Relc? You good?”
“Don’t come in, Erin! Don’t come in!”
The Drake shouted as the entire team went through the door. Relc Grasstongue was in the domed room…lying on his back. His spear was on the ground.
“Relc? Did you lose?”
“I didn’t! I just slipped. I—”
A Stitch-man was pointing a sword at Relc’s throat. As the Drake swore and sat up, the figure stepped back—and vanished. Relc was beet red.
“Who kicks while using a sword? That—that bastard. Give me ten minutes, Erin. Round three! Two on one!”
He punched his fist into a claw, and Erin held up a hand as another two figures appeared.
“No, stop. Relc…can we at least go through the door? Jewel passed the test. And so did you, I guess.”
The [Swashbuckler] perked up. She looked at the open door, and dry wind blew through as Nanette decided she was dry and donned her robes. Ulvama just snorted as Relc protested.
“Aw, Erin! But this room is so great! Weird fighters, though.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean…they’re good. I’ve sparred all over, and most idiots can’t use a spear. These, though? That first guy nearly knocked me flat with his hands. And the one I just fought was pretty good with a sword, but his kick launched me. It’s almost as if this is a training room for hand-to-hand combat, though. Or…”
Normen had gone striding through the door, mace raised, to check it out. Jewel’s gasp made Ekirra run after them on all fours. Ishkr pushed Erin forwards, and the [Innkeeper] blinked.
“What. No way. Has someone made a mistake? Or is the owner that unoriginal?”
She stared out of a little room set into a rock wall. Just sandstone doors, cheap and unassuming. No fancy murals, and the rest of the garden had virtually no…fun to it.
Seborn had found some gnawed-on pillows for a Drowned Folk to lie on in his garden. Erin assumed that Cormelex had possessed some relaxing qualities to his garden or used it for his ends.
But this garden was as relaxing as…well, a desert. Nevermind the oasis in the center; it was tiny, practically a mud hole. Five palm trees were growing there, but the entire mini-canyon was harsh, unpleasant to live in, even if Erin saw a few vaguely edible-looking things like what might have been an agave plant growing in the grass.
What made her think something was off was that she had seen this before. Oh, rocks had changed places, and the oasis was smaller than it had been—but this was almost a one-to-one copy of…
“Pomle. This is just Pomle. What the heck…?”
The Strongest of Pomle must have been a garden holder. Which meant—was this the newest garden since Erin’s?
It might be. The oasis proper was showing signs of overgrowth, but nothing nearly as dramatic as the filled garden with snow or the sea of insects in the other gardens.
Erin Solstice had to have someone push her through the grit and sands as her friends spread out. Ekirra ran around—then promptly came back howling about sticker-burr bushes.
This was not a pleasant place. It was as harsh as the real Pomle. But why copy one to one?
The answer came as soon as Garia and Fierre were in the training room challenging the specters there. On a hunch, Erin Solstice told Relc and Normen to take a run around the edge of this big garden and find her anything that looked like a living space.
They came back, and a partially collapsed hut revealed her answers. The roof had fallen in because the garden-Pomle had enough wind to probably shift the weaker materials over time with the sand and dust. Inside that hut, among simple gear for living alone—pots, pans, linen bandages—were some books.
Tales of Adventure and Woe, #30,967.
“Well, if that’s not proof this wasn’t long ago, I don’t know what is. Hey, I wonder if any local libraries want this.”
“May I have it, Miss Erin?”
Nanette excitedly took the book—then nearly sneezed herself off her feet. It was dusty. The pages were dry, but again, the climate was ideal for preservation.
Of far more interest to Erin was the dusty journal and scrolls buried under some of the hut’s ceiling. Relc and Normen lifted the pieces of wood out of the way, and Jewel crawled back there and came out with the items. Erin opened the journal, stared at the handwriting, and exhaled.
“Well. I wonder if Pomle’s got a [Message Mage]?”
One of the last entries in the journal in neat writing date marked this as being the era before the King of Destruction. Each entry was generally short and talked a lot about injuries, challenges to the Strongest’s position, and their delving into the functions of the garden. But the second to last one read thusly:
The Garden’s reality is nearly identical to the one around me. I have taken this as a sign it may no longer be needed. But for the training against warriors, it has nothing that captures my heart. And I have surpassed the illusions within.
Pomle is free. I may die, but the tradition of the Strongest of Pomle will continue. We have won this land by strength and skill, and yet I have only one doubt.
Is there more? I can leap from one wall of Pomle to another. My hands have shattered mithril, and I bested their [Mages]—but not magic itself. I sense an end to my path, and I will continue to seek it out.
But I am missing something. If I ever find the answer, I will write it here.
—Collos, Strongest of Pomle. Stitch-man. Level 59 [Strongest of the Martial Age].
Erin turned the page. Relc held his breath as he peered over her shoulder. The next page was written briefly, as if dashed off, and Erin thought a long time had passed, because there were marks on the page as if someone had been using bad ink, an old quill, as if they had walked in here to write one last thing.
I never found it. Nor leveled. I was unsatisfied with this, but I have no right to complain. Pomle is still free.
“Do we…do we tell someone about this, Erin?”
Garia was feeling at a tooth she feared was loose. Fierre looked excited, having punched her way through the room, and half the people here wanted to continue training there. Erin looked down at the journal, then investigated the scrolls.
“It looks like—footwork. Punching moves…wow. I like this better than the dance.”
“What dance? Can I have that?”
Garia practically snatched the scrolls out of Erin’s hands and looked at the simple, easy-to-understand diagrams. Erin let her have them. She rested her chin on her hands.
“We can send this to Pomle. But I wonder…if it would help.”
Jewel looked at her as if she were crazy.
“It’s the Strongest of Pomle. They were almost Level 60!”
“Yeah, but they never found the answer. Maybe Pomle knows it. Aren’t they at war? I’ll send a [Message]…but this garden doesn’t have much in it.”
Erin looked around. Of all the gardens—this one was the least developed. The owner had made it a reflection of their reality and won a nation’s freedom. But they had never asked if something else lay beyond.
They had not been worthy of the key. Erin…she inhaled and exhaled, then turned.
“I think this is enough exploring for one day. Jewel, how are you feeling?”
“Me? Good. I can keep exploring! It was—fun.”
The Gold-rank Captain looked nervous, but Erin just smiled at her. The [Innkeeper] nodded.
“Well, why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll do it again? Same time? Actually, do you have a room in the inn? We probably have an opening on the third floor.”
Jewel inhaled and looked around. Slowly, but surely—she felt like she was becoming part of the inn’s crew. It remained to see…she felt at her black eye and winced.
It remained to see whether that would be a good thing or not.
When Ryoka Griffin jogged in, she was so upset at missing exploring the gardens she insisted on seeing each room—but two minutes of walking on dead insect shells with her bare feet carried her out of the Lucifen’s garden.
She did take a few minutes to get her butt kicked by one of the phantom martial artists too. By the time Garia and Fierre helped carry her out of the training room, Erin Solstice was sitting back in the World’s Eye Theatre.
“Six hours. Thirteen minutes.”
“Maybe just round down to six hours?”
Wil was yawning; they’d been in the wagon all day, and they were setting up a camp for the evening. Gireulashia was out running with Pisces, Ksmvr, Peki, Merrik, and a reluctant Ceria to train up their bodies. The [Lord] peered at Erin.
“It seems very low. The cooldown on your Skill, that is. Although Venaz noticed something. He claims that he couldn’t re-use the Skill even if he wanted to.”
“No. I don’t think it works like that. I wanted to teach him a lesson. So I think the boon lasts for a shorter time. Lyonette’s lasts a long time.”
“Can you try a powerful boon, then? One meant to last a long while? Or is that…personal?”
Wil suggested tentatively. He had realized that Erin was rather like a Foliana. The Professor sometimes talked about what it was like to have a superior who was strange. You had to learn how to convince them to do things, not butt heads.
In the same way, Erin was like Three-Color Stalker. Pushing her got you Venazed. But he was also reminded of a lesson Perorn had held the same week as Niers’ instructions on how to deal with prickly subordinates.
Perorn Fleethoof had entitled her lesson ‘dealing with erratic superiors’. It described working for talented individuals whose ego needed to be checked and how to refocus them and balance support with mindful confrontation.
She had invited Niers’ special class. The Titan hadn’t spoken to her all week.
Wil was wondering if he could say something tactful here, but Erin surprised him. She sat up in her chair.
“I can do that, Wil. I think. But it has to matter. It can’t be for ‘fun’. I have…someone in mind. You were right. Niers was right. I have been slacking on my Skills. If I’m going to use them, though—it’ll be for fun. Or to knock down a Walled City.”
Wil…shivered. He could see why Niers liked her. She was way, way too intense for him.
“What did you have in mind, Miss Erin? I can time it, at least. Both duration and cooldown.”
He was fumbling for a clock and calendar as Erin Solstice looked around the theatre. Behind her, the guests were bickering.
Mrsha was fussing over Ekirra’s fur, picking out some burrs he hadn’t realized he’d gotten on his tail. Nanette was reading her new book as Ulvama peered over her shoulder, pretending to look bored.
Relc was flexing an arm as he described the ‘fun’ garden to Menolit, who looked intrigued by the idea of a non-lethal but serious spar. Normen, elsewhere in the inn, was helping Jewel set up a room. Erin could sense Ishkr serving Seborn a drink at the bar, and…
And there were more guests. Ryoka, Fierre, and Garia, punching shoulders and laughing like a bunch of violent lads after taking on the Pomle Garden’s group fight.
And in the back, speaking with a young Drake who hung on his every word and practically his arm—was Demsleth.
He was watching Ryoka, who would occasionally focus on him. But Demsleth was also looking at a [Lady] who had walked in and nodded to him.
Magnolia, Rafaema, Ryoka.
He seemed uncertain of who he should spend the most time talking to, and Rafaema was the one he understood the most.
He did not remember Ryoka, nor Magnolia. He was…aware of the debt he owed to Ryoka and that he had known Magnolia a long time.
Perhaps he even liked them. But Rafaema was his kind, a lost young Dragon, and it seemed to Erin that Demsleth, Teriarch, intended to talk to her the most.
“Hello, Erin. I just had to stop by when I heard you were causing a ruckus. In the House of Minos no less! I will be jumping around Izril, north and south, but perhaps I might return here more often. If only to use your door.”
The [Lady] of House Reinhart smiled at Erin. And the [Innkeeper] looked at her. Erin tried to roll over, but Magnolia came down to her.
“I’ve been checking out my Skills all day. It’s so stressful.”
“This is why I quite like having passive Skills. But I do appreciate you working hard.”
Magnolia patted Erin’s hand gently. The [Innkeeper] nodded, then whispered with the jolly old man in the corner of her eye.
“Do you know if a Skill would work on…Demsleth?”
Magnolia’s eyes sharpened. She exhaled slowly.
“No. No, I think he would resist most of them. Like magic or healing potions—the stronger one gets, the harder it is to affect them. And he is not like you or I.”
Her eyes sharpened, and Erin Solstice nodded. She had thought that was the case. There was a kind of balance here.
Nor did she think she necessarily knew what fit Teriarch aside from…himself. There was a kind of logic to Erin’s [Boon of the Guest].
She was realizing more about her Skill than the [Strategists] could help her with. Her Skill worked like Erin’s brain. Matching people up. Like…
Nanette and Ulvama. An unlikely pair, but the two had similar classes, and their dissimilarities worked together. Ulvama could be protective of children, but she also liked independent people who took care of themselves.
Similarly, Nanette respected people with views different from hers, but she couldn’t be bullied. So it was a good pair.
Just like, for all it had been traumatic, Venaz and Mrsha could see eye-to-eye. Or teach each other. In this moment, Erin did have a compulsion to use her boon.
There was no immediate need to do it like Rabbiteater. But that was not the only time you needed to give someone something valuable. And of all the people in this inn—at this time—she had the most kinship with…
Magnolia Reinhart saw the [Magical Innkeeper] look up slowly. And if the [Lady] of House Reinhart had learned to respect what Erin had become—the [Innkeeper] had far more sympathy for Magnolia Reinhart.
“You’re going back to the Drakes? Trying to get them to sign your treaty? And the Five Families? That’s…beyond a headache.”
Magnolia smiled. She looked up at the old Dragon.
“Someone must. And don’t you fear, Miss Solstice. I am one of the Five Families. The other four can be bullied. The Drakes will be harder, and the Gnolls…but we must all have a great task. Yours is even worse than mine, I think. I will simply be cleaning house as I collect signatures. Very simple, traditional activities.”
Visma looked at Lady Reinhart, eavesdropping on her and Erin with a kind of awe…because even her little mind got that Magnolia was making allusions. It occurred to her that true style was a [Lady] sipping tea while her rival’s mansions were burning down. Possibly with her rival completely ignorant of the fact.
Erin Solstice smiled briefly. She looked at Magnolia…and her mouth opened.
“Magnolia. Would you care to be the third person I give a boon to today? It might last a while. But I’d like to help you.”
Ressa frowned, and Magnolia blinked in complete surprise. Lyonette’s head snapped around in alarm.
“Magnolia, Erin? Er—Lady Reinhart?”
“Why not? It should work on her. And if anyone needs it…”
The two women held each other’s gaze a second. Magnolia’s face warred with a bit of…indignation. That she had to accept help from someone less than half her age. That Erin had caught up. That she thought Magnolia needed help. All of this compounded by the fact that it was true.
But the [Innkeeper] was serious, and Magnolia Reinhart noticed that Erin’s hat was upon her head. It always was, but…
“I don’t think you mean to give me a boon of, ah, Bird, do you, Erin?”
Magnolia chuckled lightly, and Erin laughed.
“No. I don’t. Can it be a surprise? It might not even work—but I’ll do it if you trust me.”
She looked Magnolia Reinhart in the eyes, and the [Lady]’s hands clenched her skirts for a second. Then—she nodded.
“I’ll accept it.”
Ressa murmured, but Magnolia stepped back. She smoothed her skirts and then stood as the rest of the guests looked up. Lady Pryde stopped sipping one of Grimalkin’s health smoothies—the only person who’d even try them—and the Sinew Magus uncrossed his arms and looked at Erin.
“Excuse me. Excuse me…is this it? Hello, Erin—”
Chaldion of Pallass hobbled into the [World’s Eye Theatre], having pushed past Erin’s bouncers in Alcaz and Jewel’s team. The two huge bodyguards might have helped with that. He waved at Erin—but she barely glanced at him.
She was focusing on Magnolia, and the [Lady] was watching her. The Grand Strategist found a seat, panting, and Ishkr appeared with a drink, sighing. Then—Bird looked down from his tower and used the garden door to appear in the [World’s Eye Theatre].
“Is something happening? Hello, old person. I used to know your name, but I do not like you, so I forgot it on purpose.”
He sat next to Chaldion, and the Drake half-glared at him. But Bird had felt it too. It wasn’t even a patented Solstice Moment. It was the kind of thing that drew Jewel into the theatre, and Normen too.
A static in the air. A swirl of something moving across the inn, into Erin’s fingertip as she lifted it. Like Venaz—only stronger. It was…heavy.
The Horns and Strategists and Gire came racing back as Wil watched. Erin Solstice was aiming at Magnolia, and now the [Lady] was deliberately not flinching.
Who did Erin think Magnolia should gain the boon of? Or perhaps—who did she think that Magnolia Reinhart was worthy of?
The inn was changing. Erin Solstice was growing older. Not a young woman any longer. So she called on it. She wanted to do it—and the world was telling her it wasn’t going to work.
It wasn’t fair. She ignored it. The [Innkeeper] focused—for she knew she had every right to it. So she inhaled, exhaled, and called on the very foundation of her tired limbs in her chair. He had been right here.
In this place. In her very bones. Magnolia’s eyes widened as Erin Solstice focused on her. The [Innkeeper]’s lips moved.
“[Boon of the Guest: General Sserys of Liscor].”
Her finger pointed at Magnolia as Chaldion choked on his drink. Grimalkin seized the railing, and Lady Pryde spat out her drink. Magnolia Reinhart—
And the world vanished. But not just for her, this time.
For…everyone. And when she walked out of that [World’s Eye Theatre], Magnolia Reinhart was different.
The first people outside of The Wandering Inn to see the effects of the boon were the guests of The Adventurer’s Haven. Tyrion Veltras was trying the handle of the [Portal Door].
“Why won’t it open?”
“The [Doorgnoll] knows it’s you, Father. See?”
Hethon marched over to the door, and it swung open. Liska shut the door on Tyrion.
It was the worst Skill in the entire world. Along with [Lock Door]. But hey, it was pretty funny. Hethon reappeared as Tyrion fumed. Someone coughed.
“Er…is the door in use? We’d like to head to Liscor, Lord Veltras. But we quite understand if it’s busy!”
Lord Alman Sanito was very nervous about angering the [Lord] of House Veltras, but they’d been standing for six minutes. The Haven’s [Lords] and [Ladies] were preparing to leave the Haven. Once it passed Liscor…there was some talk of staying at the Haven as it passed the Bloodfields, but it would get dangerous soon, and the Drake lands were coming up.
They were nearly at Liscor. In fact, they were rolling across the Floodplains.
“I believe I’ll go for a ride.”
Tyrion stepped back, glowering. Jericha and Ullim sighed as they realized he was going to try the manual way to get to the inn. Unfortunately, he was a hop and a skip from The Wandering Inn.
By the time Tyrion got to the front door of the inn, eight minutes had passed. He heard a clamor from inside and debated his entrance. He had purchased a bottle of Quellae Cider and wondered if it was a good gift to get back on Erin Solstice’s good graces. Maybe he should hand it to a Goblin?
Tyrion Veltras tried the handle of The Wandering Inn. It rattled a few times, and he stared at it. Then he heard a familiar voice.
“No Tyrions allowed.”
Liska was enjoying her life. Not only was she allowed to bar one of the most powerful Humans from the inn and be rude, she was also—
As Lord Alman Sanito walked towards the common room of the inn to see about a guest-pass for his family to go to Pallass, he heard…nothing. Silence. Well, breathing, but an odd silence had enveloped a normally noisy inn. He opened the door, putting a hand on the hilt of his sword. Monsters? Was his family in danger? Or—
Then he caught sight of the person who was causing the silence. Magnolia Reinhart was standing in the common room of the inn, down that long, trapped hallway. She had appeared in the center of the inn, and everyone had fallen silent. Staring at her.
Alman’s brows rose—and then he too began to stare. He held still as Watch Captain Zevara halted behind the family of Humans. She went to march past him into the inn—and she too was hit by a kind of paralysis.
Or perhaps…a vision.
It hit the Sanitos. It struck Pryde. And Demsleth. And Chaldion. But the person it worked hardest on was…Zevara.
For she knew it more than the others. She had been there. A fell wind blew across the Watch Captain’s face.
Only…she wasn’t Watch Captain Zevara any longer. The wind tasted foul with the smoke of villages burning. It smelled of blood.
It blew across her face, and twenty years pulled back. A Drake girl of eight stood in the city of Liscor as she heard shouting from the walls.
Drakes were standing there, at the gates, some piling rubble back into tunnels. The Antinium were coming out of the tunnels. They’d been coming out of the ground.
She had a spear…but she didn’t know how to use it well yet. She was a [Trainee Guard]. Yet they had called her up.
The Black Tide was encircling Liscor, and General Sserys hadn’t returned. They’d pinned him against one of the mountains. The [General] who had rallied the cities was fighting to get back home.
But the Antinium were determined to punish him for his courage. They intended to leave only rubble behind.
Zel Shivertail, Sserys—the Watch was holding the walls with the remnants of the companies that Sserys had left to defend Liscor.
“Hold those gates! Hold them another hour. The first Drake that abandons their post I will run through myself!”
The Antinium were surrounding the gates. Their army was pushing—and Tekshia Shivertail, the Spearmaster of Liscor herself, the Gold-rank adventurer, had come back in her city’s hour of need. A young Beastkin, the only one in the city, was running [Messages] as the gates tried to hold.
Another hour, not another day. Wisps of smoke escaped Zevara’s mouth in terror as she tried to hold her spear steady with the second line of civilians. There was no word Sserys’ armies had been spotted—even at the Bloodfields. The Antinium’s shrieking was growing louder, and it was said that one of their Prognugators was leading them. The Slayer himself.
All this was happening in a moment. And just like Zevara remembered—as the steel gates bent as a silver sword cleaved into the metal—horns blew, and the blade disappeared. She looked up—and unlike last time, she didn’t hold her position.
She found herself running, past [Guards], up onto the walls. The little Zevara of before hadn’t abandoned her post and had stood there for six hours until someone told her the battle was done. This time—she climbed those battlements and saw the army coming from the direction everyone expected the least.
“Humans. That’s a Human army. The Five Families?”
“I’m counting banners—it’s all five. What are they doing here?”
They were marching across the Floodplains as the Antinium, surrounding Liscor like a sea, pivoted to them. And they shone. Zevara saw a pink banner flying ahead of the others. Twisting vines around a flower. The vines might look like snakes—and petals might fall from that sharp bloom—but it looked proud.
It was the most beautiful thing Zevara could remember seeing. She turned her head.
“What banner is that?”
She had asked that later, but a Drake squinted and then spoke.
Then Zevara saw a company halting on the Floodplains. So distant that the Antinium with silver blades pointed, and the Black Tide turned to meet them. Even this single army outnumbered the Humans. But it was not numbers the north had sent.
Magnolia Reinhart was sixteen years old when she first laid eyes on Liscor. The helmet was so hot and uncomfortable as it pinned her sweaty hair to her skin. But she kept it on her head. She had been warned that being struck by an arrow, even the primitive ones the Antinium used, would be a terrible way to die before the battle began.
This was it. She was still shaking with the effort it had cost her. The head of House Reinhart—was a month into her new position. Her father and mother were abed with shock. She had claimed Reinhart’s bitter throne. And in the doing, pulled the north with her.
“Magnolia. Stay behind me if we enter the fighting.”
Ressa was whispering to her. Magnolia barely heard her. She was not the war-leader here. That would be foolishness. Yet she was one of five. [Knights] armed with poisoned lances were waiting behind her.
To the right—stood Golems. War Golems, gleaming metal and ceramics. Steel and gem and magic.
House Wellfar’s folk were uneasy on land, but they stood, many armed with dual blades or a wand in their offhands, not shields. They were sandwiched between Reinhart and Veltras.
The most martial family of the five held one side, the western flank. House El, the east. Terland’s Golems stood at the vanguard. Magnolia saw three dozen banners from the [Lords] and [Ladies] of Veltras.
Forest rangers. Mountain folk. Warriors drawn from the vast Vale Forest. Even [Druids] like the barefoot man, the [Druid] of the Vale Forest’s own Circle, Nalthal…she didn’t know the rest of his name.
He was so important he stood right behind the [Lord] who was riding with the other scions of the Five Families. It had taken all her ability to persuade the head of House Veltras to come, but when he had—he had left his son to defend the north.
Then, old Linter Veltras had been second to pledge his armies to break the Antinium in the south. He was entirely grey as he held his ancestral sword at his side, shield already raised. But their war leader was not even the leaders of House Terland.
House Wellfar had not sent any one leader as they did not operate that way. But the twins, Petra and Ulva Terland, were riding upon actual Golem Steeds and raring to charge. The fearless twins of Terland were followed by more Golems than people. Yet their warleader was speaking.
“We have made it after all, Lady Magnolia. The Drakes’ city still stands.”
“Hah. It’s smaller than I remember. All this work to save Liscor. After all this time, I never thought I’d ride to the defense of Drakes.”
A fiery-haired woman was riding left, trying to get a view of the Antinium. Lady Maviola El was growing old, but her hair refused to turn grey. Her older brother glared at her until she quieted.
“Enough talk. Ladies Petra, Ulva. You have the center. Lord Linter. House Veltras will cut across the walls and hold off the southern approach with Wellfar. House El will storm the vanguard with Terland. Lady Reinhart. You are with me. I would advise you to keep well within the vanguard. You need not sally forth.”
“Lord Fulviolo El. I cannot demand the Five Families fight if I am not willing to risk my own life in the process.”
The scion of House El looked at her and nodded as if he couldn’t see the terror on her face or bile on her tongue. Then—he lifted a hand.
“Raise the flags of the Five Families. We have come again and again across these lands in war. We have waged battles against Dragons and called every Drake and Gnoll our enemy in other times. Today, though, I see a blight that unites us all. From Rhir’s spawning grounds onto our soil. Izril will not be engulfed in any Black Tide today. Now—in the name of Izril! To Liscor’s gates!”
Fulviolo El kicked his charger into action and drew a sword. With his other hand—up came a crossbow from El’s workshops. It fired a glowing bolt across the land. Magnolia saw it curve and little wings open as it flew impossibly high and fast.
Burning as miniature spells propelled it forwards. Seeking a target. The highest-leveled individual on the field.
Down it came like a glowing black raven made of death—and the Slayer twisted. He leapt, slashing—the Vortex Bolt imploded; a cluster of Antinium were dragged into nothingness. Fulviolo’s crossbow reloaded in his hands as a fiery red bolt cycled into position from an interior chamber, and he aimed it at the Slayer.
But the Prognugator simply lifted one of his silver blades—and pointed. Then came thunder. The House of El’s riders charged after Fulviolo, already firing impossibly far with their artisans’ weapons.
“Terland’s Golems, honor your designs! Now—forwards!”
Petra leapt. Magnolia saw her brace—the four-legged spider-Golem jumped, and the [Lady] was firing the turret-mounted spells from the top. War Golems ran after them as Ulva raced her horse forwards after Petra.
“Reinhart! Show them a serpent’s kiss!”
Ressa shouted; Magnolia had entirely forgotten her part. The Humans were racing, racing down after Fulviolo in a charge and screams that filled her ears. But it seemed like their foe had no limit.
The Antinium were moving towards them. It seemed like the sea itself had engulfed the lands.
Soldiers and Workers pressed forwards, shrieking, mandibles opening and closing—ignoring the explosions tearing apart their ranks.
Magnolia looked around for her allies and realized she was riding too fast. She was poised at the head of that dangerous vanguard following Fulviolo—and almost upon the Antinium.
Almost—but then something raced across the ground like shadows without owners.
[Assassins] leapt forwards, throwing daggers, slashing, leaping into the first ranks of Antinium and then vanishing. Magnolia saw mithril wires cutting a group of Soldiers to bits as a laughing man saluted her. Then—she felt the vanguard engulfing her again.
House Byres, Pryde behind her Ulta banners and her father and mother, Lady Bethal probably having to be restrained by her retainers, Lady Zanthia—
Then she heard the screech of Antinium. Saw the first lances begin to dip, and House El’s weapons were on fire. A laughing [Lady] followed her brother into battle as crossbows snapped one more time before they met.
House Veltras charged next to the first Golems, who flung themselves at a foe as alien and fearless as they were. A [Druid] roared and even the Antinium flinched as he changed and a bear from legends hit their ranks.
Then Magnolia Reinhart was staring down at the first Antinium biting, flailing at her as she rode into their lines. She lifted her sword with a cry of fear as her lessons fled her mind. Thousands of [Soldiers] came behind her, and Ressa was throwing knives as she raised a shield to cover Magnolia’s other side.
That was the hour when the Five Families of Izril were whole. Before a Goblin King broke the flowers into pieces. Two decades and more past…
The vision was not limited to Magnolia Reinhart herself. It struck people who saw her—but especially ones who had a connection to that day.
Who had been there.
She herself…saw only one more thing in that vision. And that was a wary, furious, and angry Drake who halted at the head of his own battered army and saw Humans around his beloved city.
She remembered he had cursed them at first—before Zel Shivertail talked sense into him.
This time, General Sserys of Liscor looked at Magnolia Reinhart. He seemed tired as he sat upon a rock. She still tasted vomit; she had thrown up after the battle and wanted never to feel that terror again.
“I am dead, you know. This Skill…can’t bring me back. It’s a good attempt, but it’s not me.”
That was what his ghost said. Magnolia’s lips moved as she wiped at her mouth.
“I suppose everything has limits. I apologize. Erin Solstice meant to give me a boon.”
The Drake’s eyes glittered. He sat there another second, then rose slowly. He was holding that sword he carried, green with Antinium blood.
“We’re all dead. Lord Linter. Fulviolo El?”
“He fell against the Goblin King. Maviola El passed away last year. Petra fell in the Second Antinium War. Ulva…Ulva is alive.”
But shattered. The Drake accepted this like a [Soldier], just blinking as he heard it.
“All of them but two. Zel’s gone. I’m dead. And here you are. I never liked you. I thought you wanted to take advantage of the south. I’ve been wrong before. Now here you are. Erin Solstice wants a boon of me? Then take it. I have nothing to give you that is mine. Not leadership. Not skill with a sword. Just this day.”
His eyes seemed to glow. He held out the sword, hilt-first, and Magnolia lifted it. And it was a heavy blade in her hands, clumsy. But the Drake grabbed her arm. So tightly his claws dug into her skin despite the armor.
“I have nothing for you, Magnolia Reinhart. But if you need something—let them remember who you were. Let them remember this day.”
His grip tightened until it became almost unbearable—and Magnolia Reinhart felt…
Younger again. She turned her head, and there she stood in The Wandering Inn. There was Lord Alman Sanito, Pryde, and they saw a battle that some had been at.
Some—had only heard of.
And she was younger, then. A younger woman. Younger than Erin Solstice—and it was here when Magnolia Reinhart had been beloved by Izril. It was this moment that the boon called them back to.
[Temporary Skill: Recall My Greatest Hour assigned.]
A vision. A vision to help her speak and remind them who she was.
Magnolia Reinhart’s deed of uniting the north to rescue the south was two decades behind her. The goodwill had faded, tarnished.
It was a long time ago, yes. But that was the lesson she had taken in grace. They would forget. Only a precious few would remember you without fail. Most might never know how much it had meant.
Erin Solstice and Sserys intended to remind them. It was twenty years ago and people changed. But you should at least know who she had been.
It was a Skill worthy of Magnolia Reinhart. Worthy of Erin, and of Sserys. It did what all three of them wanted.
Magnolia Reinhart walked across The Wandering Inn. Up and out of the center of the [World’s Eye Theatre], down the hallway, through the common room of the inn, and towards the portal door. Head held high. Her wake carried that memory with her, and it struck everyone a different way. It was a gift and desires comingled.
Especially, perhaps, Magnolia’s. For there was a Dragon who looked down at the girl who had rode at the head of so many—moved the north to save the south because it was something he would have been proud of.
Because he had taught her. He sat in one of the comfortable chairs of the theatre, eyes wide, hand clutching the armrest. And Teriarch—
He saw that moment where Magnolia Reinhart and the Five Families charged the Antinium. As if he too had seen it.
A moment when the Antinium were faced with reinforcements from the north. A definitive battle…but not the only one that had taken place in that hour.
There sat a Dragon, watching Magnolia Reinhart do what he was afraid to do. Then he heard the thunder of footsteps. To drown even the denizens of the High Passes and scare them into their caves.
The Queens had not been ignorant of the Humans. When their Listeners sensed the movement from the north, they had sent two armies surging north. Through the other route across the mountain range.
To cross the High Passes. One to hammer the Humans from the rear; the other to spread wide and destroy the north as it was left unguarded.
A Worker led the combined armies, his body…glowing. Glowing, despite the simple form he had been given when his true body was lost.
Devrkr the Glowing. He was urging the Soldiers and Workers on faster, faster, as Xrn floated ahead of them, blasting monsters away.
“We will flank zzthe Humans. Xrn, speed usz.”
He called out as the Antinium ran faster. Faster…until the Small Queen slowed. She flew back, and the Glowing One heard a roar shake the High Passes.
“Something is coming, Devrkr. The magic is…aflame.”
“What doesz that mean? Antinium, prepare for battle—”
The two Prognugators turned, wondering what fresh monster would emerge. Then he came out of his cave as he had many times before. Shamed into action. A brass serpent, flying on glowing wings as the Antinium looked up and Xrn’s barrier caught fire.
The Dragonlord of Flame.
Klbkch saw the second vision flash across his mind, and his sword halted in its sheath. He looked up slowly. He too had been sitting in the theatre as that vision played: a scene from a movie but real and true.
The people around him were waking up from that experience after what might have been about five minutes. But he roused faster—and he glanced up at the frozen old man and his eyes collated a detail he remembered hearing with that time. Slowly, his hand tightened on the short hilt as he rammed the blade back at his side.
“Mismatched eyes. So it’s him.”
Teriarch blinked—and he seemed to feel the animosity coming from the Antinium. He met the Slayer’s stare—but Klbkch just turned to look at Erin. Then away.
“Klbkch? I am very sad. And Magnolia was brave. And we seemed very mean. It was good. And terrible. Who was the glowing Antinium who looked like an acid fly? Did we do that to Liscor?”
Bird was sitting in his chair, rocking back and forth a bit. He seemed as shaken as Klbkch. The Centenium shook his head.
“It was all true. We made war on Liscor. The Five Families turned the tide that day. As did…a giant, fire-breathing Wyvern. He slew Devrkr the Glowing. The second to last time. Devrkr’s acid was such that even the Worker bodies could not contain his powers. Xrn survived that battle. Barely.”
So that was how it had happened. A little witch and Sariant Lamb looked open-mouthed at Klbkch. The Slayer turned away from Teriarch.
“We have settled the matter with Liscor. We fought against the Necromancer. Twenty years is a short time for them to take us back in, Bird.”
“Yes. Now I feel as though the people who threw rocks at me were right.”
“No. It just was. Focus on your current enemy, Bird. Perhaps it isn’t Magnolia Reinhart. But either way…”
The [Lady] walked on, and Klbkch stared at Magnolia’s back. He didn’t doubt she would leave an impact on whomever she met. Drake or Human.
“They were more shiny then. And numerous. Maviola looked happier. The north looked stronger.”
Bird whispered. Klbkch turned his head back.
“Yes. That could be said of north and south. Antinium, Humans, Drakes. It was always better in the past. Our finest hours are always behind us.”
The [Bird Hunter] rocked back and forth a bit in his chair, then sprang to his feet. He stretched his arms and stared around the [World’s Eye Theatre]. Then at Magnolia’s back. He looked at Klbkch, and in the way Bird could sometimes do it, he sounded cheerful and serious and direct as could be.
“Not mine. The Free Antinium’s are all ahead. You just can’t see it because you’re at the wrong time. Someday…my greatest hour will be right now.”
The Dragon heard him, and Klbkch the Slayer stared as Bird walked on. The Antinium turned his head back as he opened the garden door and poked his head back out.
“It will probably be when I finally hunt down the waterbird. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I am going to practice.”
Bird gave Klbkch a look as if he were stupid.
“That was the biggest bird I’ve ever seen. I’m going to shoot it down. I just need better arrows.”
He shut the door, and Klbkch almost laughed at his back. And Teriarch chuckled—until Erin rolled past them both.
“I’d watch out if I were you. He’ll pass you in levels, buddy. And I’ve never seen Bird that motivated. I hear Magnolia’s sending him a ballista.”
The Dragon stopped laughing. And then…Erin Solstice decided she had figured out how to use her boon. She’d work on her garden and witchcraft next. She’d brew alcohol some day.
It’s a mixed chapter, like the days of old. Perorn to start, Skills lower down. Memory…
I think I wrote this, but we have saturated the Erin-market for now and if I go back to her in the next few chapters, something has gone wrong. It is good to go back to her after all of Volume 8, but the world is moving and we have set up her actions to the maximum here.
The Patreon poll awaits. And as you can see—I have also prepared for either outcome should it win. New Lands or Pomle.
For now, I’ll wait to see how the poll goes. I don’t mind using it to decide next chapters. I always do what I want and think is best for the story in the end, and it’s nice to surprise yourself sometimes with new ideas. Hopefully you enjoy the surprises even after…11 million words?
Hm. I wonder if we’re at stale bread now. If so, that’s what fondue is for. Stale rice is for fried rice. I’m hungry—so I’ll see you later.
PS: I didn’t realize the poll won. Pomle it is! Congrats to the backers of that. Seemed like a real voting war.
Throat Goat (no, I don’t quite get it, but it’s Chaldion), Nanette, and Red Crelers Are Faster by Brack!
Dancing Traffy by samsung smart fridge!
Shaestrel’s Forms by Lanrae!
Face Eater Moths by Enuryn the [Naturalist]! Commissioned by Linnet!