(The author is on break before they explode of tiredness. Back on the 28th!)
The following events took place during the month of winter quiet, including dancing lessons, a cold war between two girls, a Gnoll learning how not to fall, and more.
Some days, life kicked you in the face. And you thought that sucked, like a bucket hitting you in the face while you were drawing water and your best, traitorous friend, Nanette, laughing at you if you were a white Gnoll.
Or you were a certain City Runner turning over a new, positive leaf. But you just happened to get in trouble for turning in the wrong denominations of gold coins. They weren’t all weighted the same, and you were being accused of swapping coins around so you turned in the lighter ones and kept the heavier ones.
Or you were a fun fellow to be around, a confidence man, a [Trickster], not a scam artist, and you really didn’t deserve to have a death-squad set fire to your apartment. With you in it.
So, when life kicked you in the face like that, you reeled and perhaps took it on the chin. You complained, you scowled—
Then life drop-kicked you in the groin. It didn’t matter what gender you were or if you even had gonads of any kind. It still hurt. And when you were on the ground, like the white Gnoll girl putting too much death-spice in a plate to get back at her worst enemy—the plate got served to the [Innkeeper] instead, and she died, and it wasn’t your fault.
Or you, the innocent City Runner, Persua, found out that someone was investigating you for previous complaints about supposed sabotage of fellow Runners, and you had a ‘record’—again, unfair.
Or, as a young man climbed out of the soot and ash of the building where he’d used an emergency wand of water to prevent himself from dying, he ran for it and someone shot him through the leg.
That was when you and life had a personal grudge. And you thought, ‘well, this is a bad day, but it can’t get much worse’. And then—you looked up as you were lying on the ground, and life had fifteen friends, and they had spiked clubs.
That was when the little Gnoll girl caught herself in a fight with Nanette as two sides of adults shouted at each other, and she got a bloody nose and scratched up Nanette’s face. And that was when Persua heard that she was under investigation—and the investigator was Mihaela Godfrey, and she was to report to the Haven now.
That was Rickel dragging himself to an [Underground Healer]’s, no longer laughing, no longer having a good time, and being told he could get treatment but no potions. And realizing he didn’t have any either because everything had burned up in the fire. And the [Healer] took a look at his leg and the crossbow bolt in it, checked their notes from the Last Light’s tutorials, and said they hoped they figured out the stitching technique.
That was a bad day. Sariant Lambs knew it because they had those kinds of bad days all the time. The sound you made when life kicked you in the stomach was not a scream of defiance or even a cry of pain. It was, at that point—just a noise you made, like the sound Nanette made when getting hit in the stomach by a flying headbutt from Ekirra.
During the month of winter, not all things were good and pleasant. True, it wasn’t ‘Creler eggs in your cereal’ unpleasant—it was just two kids fighting.
The snowman incident had evolved. Why were they fighting? Well, neither one would back down. But the adults could recognize a bad fight, and so they got together.
Lyonette invited Numbtongue, who was backing Nanette, over for a cordial chat after the second day of hostilities. This was before the Erin death-spice incident. The day before, actually.
“My, they haven’t stopped fighting for two days straight! Nanette’s going around telling everyone how mean Mrsha is, and Mrsha’s been attacking Nanette with beavers.”
“Yeah, that was pretty funny.”
Each girl was using their specialty. Nanette was rallying public support, and Mrsha was rallying the troops. But the [Bard] and [Princess] thought that it could get worse.
“My sisters, you know, get this bad. There would be years of fighting and feuding. All this silly escalation—we can end it now, can’t we, Numbtongue? If I am counting right, it’s Calescent with you, Jewel, Normen and Alcaz, Liska…”
“Mhm. But you get Ishkr and Bird. And all the [Knights]. The Antinium…”
“Yes, but you have all the Goblins.”
Lyonette’s acquaintance with Pawn meant the Antinium backed her implicitly. Numbtongue was a Goblin, and Goblins went with their own. Ishkr had decided to check Nanette, so Liska had joined the opposing side.
In truth, Mrsha, as the older resident of the inn, should have enjoyed unbridled support, but she had grown complacent. Her cuteness had long reigned alone.
A new era was coming. Yet it needn’t be one of strife. Numbtongue sipped from some coffee. It was late, but gaming on the laptop never stopped. Nor did the fun. The ‘fun’ in his case was either going to be seeing if Garia wanted to get into a fight after her training or seeing if Salkis had snuck out of her home.
Lyonette was just having some decaffeinated tea, courtesy of Eloise. She wished Numbtongue had joined her. Tea and coffee was like Nanette and Mrsha. They were on the same side, really. Dreamers in search of caffeine when they woke.
“I appreciate you taking Nanette’s side, really. Both girls were naughty. Mrsha shouldn’t have overreacted, and Nanette shouldn’t have been so…well, petty.”
“Mm. Silly fight, and then they make up.”
Both smiled at each other. Numbtongue nodded to the relieved [Princess].
“Let’s get them to be friendly again. It was a good lesson for both.”
“Mrsha just had to learn she couldn’t keep getting away with things, though.”
That was when Ser Dalimont, standing with his hands folded behind his back, winced. The [Princess] paused for too long, and her voice rose slightly.
“Excuse me? Her get away with ‘things’? Get away with what, pray?”
The negotiations were beginning to break down. Ser Dalimont had heard the like before.
“Could—I get a snack for anyone, Your Highness? Bard Numbtongue?”
“Nothing for me, Dalimont. What did you say, Numbtongue?”
He raised his brows.
“What I said. She does this all the time. Sometimes it’s funny, but she picks fights with bears. Sometimes the bears eat her.”
“Name one time!”
“Belavierr. The Meeting of Tribes, all of it. Fetohep. My laptop. Nanette’s the latest…”
Lyonette’s eyes grew wider with each passing second.
“None of that was her fault! She was defending Rufelt and Lasica, she was a Doombearer hunted by Gnolls—it’s not your laptop either, Numbtongue!”
The problem was the representatives. Numbtongue and Lyonette did not always get along. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh yeah? Even if it wasn’t her fault, she’s smug. Sassy. Sometimes someone needs to dunk her head in the well. She hurts people’s feelings and gets away with it because she thinks she’s cute. Remember her stealing food?”
“I cannot believe you. You are the last person I want to talk to about propriety. You—triple throne-hopping fan-collector.”
That was a Calanferian insult. Ser Dalimont hurried out with a pair of cupcakes.
“Perhaps we could slow down, Your Highness? Mister Numbtongue. A cupcake?”
“If Princess Lyonette eats something so uncouth, sure. Or is she going to lecture me on how to eat a cupcake?”
The [Princess] stared at Numbtongue, and her eyes narrowed.
“It seems someone must. Because for a [Bard], you have no notion of how other people feel.”
His eyes narrowed. He didn’t like her assertion. Numbtongue ignored Pyrite and Reiss, the voices of reason. He turned his head to Shorthilt, listened for a second—then flipped the cupcake onto Lyonette’s dress.
The icing slid down the front of her dress. The [Princess] gasped. Ser Dalimont, the failure of a bodyguard, deflected the second cupcake and got his charge to safety as she shouted insults at the grinning [Bard].
The death-spice incident occured the next day.
The sight of a Gnoll boy cannonballing into a young witch’s stomach was either funny or painful, depending on whether you were a terrible person with the empathy of a raisin or not.
Needless to say, Shriekblade nearly laughed herself out of concealment. Several members of the inn were also laughing themselves silly—but the fighting was actually not that pleasant at this point.
The adults were nastier than children could ever dream. Bird had been putting wormy birds under all the enemies’ pillows. He rubbed his hands as he emerged from Nanette’s rooms, having wormed multiple foes. Octavia, another Nanette supporter, was not going to enjoy the dead bird he’d put on her slumbering back when she rolled over.
But he halted in the second floor hallway as someone emerged from his rooms. Or rather, four people.
Peggy, Sticks, Picker, and…Bird peered at the fourth Goblin. She had a maid’s uniform on. Unlike Sticks and Picker, both male Goblins who were slightly troublesome for Rags and good, if not committed workers, she wanted to be here. Her class was [Maid]. Her name was Ressga. She was waiting for the Skills where she got to throw knives.
“Wait. What are you doing here? That is my room. You are not allowed in there.”
In reply, Peggy gave Bird a huge smile.
“But you are helping other people so much. So we help you, yah?”
Bird hesitated. Then he brightened up.
“Oh? Is there a dead bird in my room? How sad. How sad.”
He turned until his back was facing them and rubbed all four hands together.
“The fools. Another good lie! Heh. Heheheheheh.”
Bird then turned to face the Goblins and gave them an innocent smile. But who was the fool, Bird? Because the big smile the Goblins gave Bird made him hesitate.
“Wait. What did you do to my rooms?”
“We cleaned them.”
The Goblins walked past Bird. He stared at them—then threw all his hands into the air as he rushed inside.
If you thought that was cruel, when Ser Sest had tried to tattle on Nanette, someone had wired the door to Numbtongue’s mining site in the High Passes and not let him back through. Liska. Liska had done that.
Kevin made the mistake of being team Nanette and bit into a Garry-made mealworm pie. In retaliation, Joseph organized Liscor’s entire soccer team to have practice right outside the inn as Lyonette tried to put on a quiet, refined tea party with some friends. Later that day, Joseph was attacked by some beavers who extorted him out of his pants.
Octavia added itching powder to Ser Lormel’s armor.
Erin Solstice died of spice-death. Which, as Goblins could tell you, was a terrible way to die.
Her mouth was still on fire and her face was puffy as Ulvama laughed at her during dance practice. Erin Solstice scowled.
“Or I’ll tell that lot you’re on Mrsha’s side and you’ll be part of it.”
That drew Ulvama up for a second. She, like Erin, had stayed out of the turf war. One would have thought she’d take Mrsha’s side, but the [Shaman] knew a problem when she saw it.
“Ooh. Good answer. You’re being more [Witch] every day.”
Erin Solstice was another neutral party currently being hit by friendly fire from both sides. She glumly got up to do some dancing. Ulvama had not asked why Erin didn’t just defuse the fighting. The [Innkeeper] might have been able to—but the [Shaman] gave her a side-long look as they did some jumping-jacks to warm up.
“You don’t want to stop them from fighting?”
“I want them to stop on their own. If I’ve gotta do it—Nanette and Mrsha were so buddy-buddy I thought they’d never fight. But Mrsha’s fought with Ekirra before. He lost—but she felt bad about it. She’s fought with Visma. I gave Ryoka a flying elbow two days ago. Fighting lets you make up.”
“True…but what if they don’t stop? Then it’s like Garen and Reiss.”
Erin nodded stiffly.
“Yeah. That’d be bad. If it keeps going, I’ll settle it without taking sides.”
The [Innkeeper] was counting the days to what she thought the Winter Solstice was. Her days of relaxation were not pointless. She glanced at Ulvama sideways and, through puffy lips, muttered.
“I destroy both sides and salt the ground.”
Not even a flicker of hesitation. If the Titan of Baleros could have heard that, he would have teleported himself into her inn with a rose. And the [Innkeeper] meant it. She wiped at her face as she felt her body getting tired—but slower than before.
“Alright, what’s our first dance, Ulvama? Also—you promised to share your magical recipes, remember?”
“Oh, right. You doing something witchy?”
Erin Solstice’s eyes flashed slightly.
“Just a pet project while I’m waiting on an Ashwheat delivery.”
She was a [Witch], after all. And she had not made use of many of her other class’ abilities. But Erin Solstice had decided there was some utility. She might not be able to compete with Imani, but she could cook her own brand of food. And yes, it might be less edible, but it was magical. And no one had ever said [Witch] brews were supposed to be tasty, right?
“[Basic Brewing]. Let’s toss in [Wondrous Fare] because it boosts everything. [Infuse Witchcraft]. Well, what’s the point of infusing food? I guess I’ll save that for something else.”
Erin Solstice was running down some Skills she had later that night. The inn was…quiet.
There was a lot of scheming abounding. And no one wanted to be out.
If you were on either side, the other side had a target on you, and you might run into a trap. But if you were one of the few neutrals left, like Relc or Bezale or, ironically, Ryoka Griffin, you did not want to be seen as being on one side or the other.
So Erin had the run of her inn, and at the moment, she was making a fire in the [Garden of Sanctuary].
She might be too tired to do anything but roll around in her wheelchair, but a bag of holding and the ability to use her [Portal Door] in imaginative ways let her collect most of what she wanted in moments.
And what she wanted was firewood, the big cauldron—it fell through the floor and nearly brained Erin as it landed in the grass.
“Whoa! I could kill myself like that! Okay. Damn, it rolled over. I wonder if I can infuse witchcraft into a sword? But why would I?”
She was thinking hard. About…enemies. And about how the heck she’d be able to confront them with her limited resources.
The sword in the stone would work—but anything short of that was worthless. A legend of Chandrar had not left a scratch.
But sunlight had. Ideas. Ideas like loaves trumped magic, which was why she hadn’t convened Pelt and Hedault and tried to buy a weapon.
“If I can’t hurt them, I can at least hide or piss them off. So I’m gonna do just that. [Basic Brewing]! Fire! Hah!”
The witch pointed her fingers at the pile of wood where she’d kicked the cauldron into place. Her fingers…sparked.
Erin stared at her fingers.
“Wait a second. I don’t know any regular fire spells.”
She had every kind of magical fire, but in this case, she actually just wanted regular flames. Erin scratched her head.
“[From Witchcraft, Sorcery Ariseth]! Flame, glorious flame!”
She pointed again—and her fingers pffed some smoke. Erin looked around, and to her relief, no one was watching.
“Wait a second. I can levitate things, and I can even do spells. Where’s my magic?”
She still had enough craft, especially from the [World’s Eye Theatre]. Having an audience watching movies for the first time generated a good amount of wonder. But it occurred to Erin that sorcery, or [Sorcerer]’s magic, was harder than she thought.
Unlike [Mage] magic, this was all about willpower as well as imagination. And Erin didn’t actually have much practice with it.
“Flame, dear flame. Hot. Rising from my hands. Really hot…”
She managed to conjure a small flame after several minutes of really hard concentration. But when she hopefully tossed it into the logs of wood—it didn’t catch. It needed tinder, more power, and Erin needed to ‘solidify’ her idea of fire.
To make a [Fireball], she would have to conceptualize the raw explosive power of one from start to finish. Imagine both how it formed—and how it would invariably detonate—and give it enough fuel to realize that vision. Once done, she could probably do it again far more easily.
But even creating a flame hot enough to set logs of firewood ablaze was a pain in the ass. Erin rolled back and forth—then coughed into one fist and looked around.
“…Apista! Hey, Apista, I’ve got a job for you!”
A lazy bee about to sleep for the night crawled out of her nest and flew over. She gave Erin a sleepy look, but when the [Witch] explained what she wanted, Apista grudgingly crawled over to the firewood and set it ablaze with her body.
[Witches] were pragmatic, and Erin didn’t feel like working on that kind of magic. She had another kind. She poured water into the cauldron, this time by levitating the bucket Mrsha had so painfully drawn from the well. As the water began to steam and bubble, Erin began whispering the Skills she had gained as a Level 17 [Witch of Second Chances].
“How did it go? Nanette said…ah. Of course. I’d better toss some Sage’s Grass in this. Witch brews have actual rules. Stir counterclockwise and roll around the cauldron, I guess. I have a potion I’m trying to brew. It’s something weird and new. And if you cross me, it’ll be the death of you. Or at least, something nasty. Nasty enough to start with, I guess. I’ll use it on both sides and then make a bigger one to use against them. Proof of concept. No…[Distill Simple Concept].”
Witchcraft was not about magic as [Mages] understood it. They put a spell into anything they used. [Alchemists] craved reactions that were chemical and obeyed different laws. Witches put feeling and intent into their magic.
The first brew that Erin tried was a copy of one she’d seen others do. Just a proof of concept. And in this case, she rolled around the cauldron vigorously. She had just danced with Ulvama, and she took that effort—some sweat from her brow—and even hopped up and danced about the cauldron.
A liquid appeared and fell, drop by drop, into the cauldron, turning the liquid inside a sour green. Erin danced harder—then flopped over and nearly set her hair on fire.
“That’s…too…much…work. How am I supposed to do that for three hours? Stop, stop!”
Apista, crawling on the edge of the cauldron, ignoring the bubbling heat, poked her face down and tasted the brew Erin was working on. She sipped a bit, then turned to Erin.
Weak. The [Innkeeper] glumly got up after eight minutes and groaned as she peered in the pot.
“Oh no. It’s way harder than I thought. I’ll have to be at full-Erin power before I can do this.”
The world’s weakest energy brew was bubbling in the cauldron in front of her. [Distill Basic Concepts] meant her vigorous workout had been channeling energy into the brew.
Much like Wiskeria could draw on nature to create her brew and used ingredients, a [Witch] could provide a lot by herself. But Erin didn’t have the energy to put in, so her energy brew had less energy than a cup of coffee in it.
If she’d danced about for three hours straight, she was sure she’d have something that would knock your socks off. But…glumly, the [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“That’s a no go. Besides—it’s not even that useful with stamina potions.”
Back in the day, the coven of old [Witches] claimed they’d been the ones selling lots of energy draughts until [Alchemists] completely muscled them aside. But—
Erin was about to toss the entire cauldron aside when she realized that was stupid. You could add layers to your creation. She swirled the liquid in the pot as she thought hard.
She had one idea. It had come to her after her Earther call. It dovetailed with something she thought would really annoy Kasigna. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt her, but…
“I don’t think I can weaponize it without making something other than a brew. A glass bottle, perhaps, you could throw. This is drinkable stuff. But hey, I could use it on Mrsha and Nanette?”
You what now?
Apista hadn’t been involving herself in partisan squabbles. She believed in the team. Erin’s smile, though, was so evil that the Ashfire Bee decided it might be better to take cover. She crawled into a spare pot that Erin had brought out and peeked out from under the lid.
“Don’t worry, Apista. But don’t get scared if I, uh…I’m going to do something a tiny bit stupid. Or crazy. Or scary. I don’t wanna put blood in the pot because Calescent makes stew with it and I sort of have a thing about bleeding to death. There’s a limit to how much I can put into the pot. If I had [Distill Advanced Concepts], I bet I could put law into a brew. But then again, I’m not Wiskeria. I have to put things I have in, right?”
Erin was explaining her understanding of witchcraft to the bee, and Apista gave her a wary nod. You only put in what you had. Checked out. That was why [Witches] kept storing things in their hats.
Nanette could have put grief into a creation. She hadn’t and it had been too heavy, but Erin, by the same token, hadn’t collected enough unique resources. The [Innkeeper] rolled left and right.
“Maybe I could bring Mrsha over and get her to dance for three hours if I needed energy. But for a test-run…I’ll have to track down the real Earther to get the good stuff. But I can prove the idea now. It’s just, um. Embarrassing. No one’s allowed in the garden for a moment!”
Erin locked down the garden and took a deep breath.
“I can do it. Anyone can do it. In fact, it’s even a [Witch] thing. I mean, maybe it’s stereotypical and racist…but Oliyaya would be proud. Okay. Here goes. Don’t tell anyone, Apista.”
Erin leaned back in her chair, stared up at the ceiling, and went for it. It was one of the most classic things you could imagine with a [Witch]. At first, she just made stupid sounds. But it was in there, wasn’t it? No one had ever heard Erin do it.
But any [Witch] could laugh. Had you ever been so angry, so hateful, so despairing or happy or any emotion in between that you could only laugh? If so, you could understand the hysterical cackle, the laugh of a demon, or the pure peals of joyful relief.
Erin Solstice had recently met a [Clown] who laughed like that. But the impetus for this brew was both an item of utility…and a way to hurt her greatest foes. And they might fear the laughter of Gnomes above all. She wanted to put that into this brew, and she could.
That was one thing. But the real question was—
What did Erin Solstice cackling sound like?
The [Garden of Sanctuary] was closed, for some reason, this night. The feuding factions obviously suspected the other side of using it. Liska, Numbtongue, and Jewel were plotting in Octavia’s shop while Lyonette held court in her room.
Both sides were trying at this point to get Erin on their side. They feared the other using Erin, much like someone watching for a weapon of war rolling towards their battlements.
But there were some people skulking about by midnight. They kept to the shadows.
The inn felt darker some nights. The winter moons didn’t glow so brightly tonight, shuttered by clouds. The shadows drew long—the animosity filled the air.
And the candles and lanterns weren’t lit. Ishkr might be on strike.
No—wait. The inn was dark because Gothica was blowing out the lights. The Goblin was standing on her toes as she snuffed a candle. She grinned in the darkness, a cheshire smile of needles and glowing red eyes. She turned—and Ryoka Griffin held her hands up.
“Holy fuck that’s creepy, Gothica.”
“Thank. You want to scare someone?”
“No…I’m just going for a walk. That cool?”
The Goblin stepped back—and melted into the shadows. Ryoka stepped forward and waved her hand into the shadows.
Gothica wasn’t there. It wasn’t a trick of the light.
“She’s getting higher-level. That’s creepy. That is creepy, right?”
Ryoka Griffin looked around, and her companions were less impressed. A lamb kicked Ryoka in the ankle, thoroughly unimpressed. And a faerie shrugged.
“Eh, she’s no nuckelavee or redcap yet. Those’d scare the shit out of ye.”
Ryoka sighed, and a patch of shadows glared indignantly as Shaestrel floated by. The faerie shrugged innocently as Ryoka whispered back.
“Shaestrel, no offense, but the fae always one-up whatever we do. You know how it gets annoying with Earthers and tech? Gothica’s pretty good, right?”
Shaestrel gave Ryoka an odd look.
“I meant no offense by it. Just the truth as I promised to speak, Ryoka. I mean it. Have ye…no, you didn’t meet any redcaps in our lands. Just as well. I mean what I say. There are some of their number that scare me.”
There was a difference between Shaestrel and Ivolethe that Ryoka was picking up on. They had a lot of similarities, but Ivolethe was, somehow, pricklier than Shaestrel. She would be flipping off most people à la Gothica and be more strident at times. Shaestrel was closer to the truthful storyteller.
Also, she had come here on a mission, so she was friendlier by default than Ivolethe had been. She also seemed more prone to admitting fear or other emotions.
“I’ll tell ye what’s creepy. This inn, right now. Gives me the need to pish in the outhouse.”
The faerie commented as they tip-toed down the inn. Ryoka had been wanting to go to the garden for a private chat—but the door wasn’t working. The [World’s Eye Theatre] was Ryoka’s next stop.
“What, you too? I thought it was just me.”
Nerry snorted at both cowardly females as she trotted along. But Shaestrel and Ryoka looked slightly uneasy.
“‘Tis nothing. Ivolethe would be laughing around like Nerry here. Then again, she’d be walking with sword in hand. Warrior-born, that one. She used to run with the Wild Hunt.”
“She never said? Aye, of the two of us, she’s the more dangerous.”
“I thought you were both members of the Faerie Court, though. And you both talk like you’d been to war…”
“A difference between one who takes to it and one who picks up the blade out of necessity, Ryoka Griffin. Note that I don’t give that [Lord] tips on the blade? I have been spanking yer [Innkeeper] in games of chess, though.”
“Please don’t ever use that turn of phrase with Erin. How are you beating her?”
“I’m better. It makes her mad as shite, though. Gaaah! What’s that sound?”
This time, even Nerry heard it, and everyone halted. The inn felt ominous and creaking—and the plotters and the quiet, dark hallways added to the effect, but Ryoka’s skin erupted into goosebumps.
The sound came from everywhere and nowhere. As if wherever the person was, they had no physical presence. But she swore she heard, like a phantom-sound in your head, both there and not there, but loud—
“Is that someone laughing? Who the fuck laughs like that?”
A terrible noise was echoing faintly down the hallway. Nerry slowly slotted her wand into place as Shaestrel rubbed her ears.
“…That’s spooky. You laugh like an evil villainess about to send a poor girl into the woods alone or push someone into a burning oven. That sounds like the laughter of a devil spitting in the eye of god.”
“I don’t laugh that bad, do I?”
Ryoka shuddered, but it was true that if she had a menacing laugh…this one sounded like wrath. It sounded like hatred and mockery. It wasn’t laughter. It was…a cackle. The kind of cackle that someone might make as a bee hid in a pot in her garden. But instead of a dark night, rain was lashing down and a storm blew about that place, as if she stood on the edge of a cliff, a pot burning over flames now burning clear, shimmering shadows with hate.
That was [Witch] magic alright. Then Erin Solstice caught herself and decided maybe she needed to reign it in a bit. Then she looked at the pot swirling crazily with color—and kept laughing. Letting it out. She laughed as if she’d laughed at Skinner. Laughed like the crackling sound of a skeleton’s clattering jaw. Laughed like a Gnome guffawing in a dead god’s face.
Tom, Tom—the [Clown] sneezed as he stood aboard the Blighted Kingdom’s ships, far at sea. Then he cleared his throat a few times and began doing breathing exercises. He had the uncanny feeling he needed to up his game. Almost like he had competition.
The sound of laughter and the dark night filled with angry people was the backdrop to Ryoka Griffin pushing her way into the [World’s Eye Theatre]. But again—she was too late.
She froze as she saw two figures meeting in the center of the theatre. They looked around, but Ryoka Griffin had ducked when Nerry noticed the two, and so the two operatives thought they met in secret. Ryoka heard them whisper as she slowly found a magical artifact, a conch shell, and put it to her ear.
Hedault had furnished her with a number of items in exchange for more of her coin, and this was an artifact that improved her hearing. And what she saw as she peered down was…
A young girl with two braided pigtails and a little Gnoll girl with white fur, looking around. They stopped warily as they came face to face, then Nanette spoke.
Mrsha nodded seriously. They were meeting in secret. No one knew they were there. And as Ryoka Griffin crept away, Nanette whispered to Mrsha.
“This has gone way too far. Why are we fighting?”
F-forsooth. I felt bad when you got hit.
“And I felt bad when I punched you in the nose!”
Nanette, I’m sorry. It was my fault for being petty. Like a real Terandrian noble.
“But I’m older! And I’m a witch! Can we make up and fix this?”
Both girls nodded and hugged each other. This war had done nothing but hurt both sides. But how would they fix this? Someone had to. The adults were all stupid.
“Damnit, is everyone plotting around here? I bet it’s Erin in the garden. Let’s try the basement—”
Ryoka tried to find a quiet spot in the basement—right until a shadow shouted in pain.
“Off my foot!”
Ryoka leapt back, and Gothica hopped around in a circle.
“Sorry, Gothica. I didn’t see you there! It’s your fault you’re invisible. You’re too good at hiding.”
A patch of the wall spoke up right next to Ryoka and Gothica.
“She’s not that good.”
This time, Ryoka and Gothica leapt back, screaming, and Shaestrel dove into Nerry’s fur. Shriekblade looked slightly pleased as she appeared. She slowly uncrouched from her spot, and Ryoka pointed at her.
“What are you doing here? Er—Shriekblade?”
“Hiding. I’m not taking sides in this war thing, and Lyonette wants me to prank someone. I don’t prank. I stab. Don’t tell anyone I’m here or I’ll stab you.”
“Got it! We were just leaving. Um…”
Ryoka backed up the stairs quickly. Gothica held up a middle finger at Shriekblade experimentally. It worked well on Demsleth, Erin, Magnolia Reinhart…the Named-rank adventurer eyed the middle finger.
“What’s that for?”
Gothica lowered the finger, feeling embarrassed.
“Is there anywhere private?”
Ryoka Griffin ended up standing in the snow outside the inn, shivering despite the coat and boots she’d put on.
Nerry had it even worse. The lamb vanished into a snowdrift and came out spitting snow and shivering. Shaestrel grumbled, and she was shivering, arms folded together as snow came down.
“This is stupid. ‘Tisn’t as if the inn isn’t warded. Let’s risk prying ears and just use yer rooms.”
“Can’t you ward them with something, Shaestrel?”
“Oh, sure. Let me just pull all the magic I have into a spell that works under your stupid rules. Because that’s what I get to have here. Magic in spades. Notice how my form is also so mighty? Or maybe I’m weak as a puppy and can only work in my element.”
“But you’re still a fae.”
“Aye! And ye see all the bloom and flowers and crap? My power is weak! It’s winter! I’m cold!”
Above her, a few Winter Faeries who were as yet not known to Ryoka were flying around, sprinkling snow in places. They came and went and seemed to be just having fun. Or perhaps just trying to literally freeze over certain places.
“Hah! Shaestrel’s lost her touch! She never was good at snow! She just had to come through in spring!”
“Shut up, you lot! You worthless pixies, go off somewhere else. Eat sh—uh oh.”
The downpour of snow covered the front door of the inn, and when Ryoka, Nerry, and Shaestrel collapsed into the hallway, the snow literally blocked the front entrance.
“Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen one of the fae get their ass kicked by one of their own.”
“Shut up, Ryoka.”
The laughter had gone quiet as Nerry, Shaestrel, and Ryoka, thoroughly defeated and cold, got back to Ryoka’s rooms.
Nerry was disgusted at both. She set about putting down the ward-stones that Ryoka had been given and checking the room for cracks. She put a blanket by the crack in the door.
“We’re already warded, Nerry. If someone breaks through the spell, I don’t think that will muffle us.”
The lamb was so annoyed that she had to write a reply. It took her longer than Mrsha, but her writing was more economical. She took the time to get across some salient points.
“Idiot. Ward spells don’t block wires. Wire under door and sight spell. [Rogues] can put tube under door too.”
There was an odd balance between the three. Ryoka was an expert on Earth and some other things. Shaestrel was a magic, mythos, and fae expert. But Nerry was actually the most knowledgeable about this world.
Unfortunately, the lamb was incapable of doing much, so Ryoka was the mind of the hapless vessel Shaestrel and Nerry had to work through.
The fae seemed content with how things had been going, but Nerry was not. She was a mad ball of spite, and she would often follow Ryoka around, kicking her in the ankle or being darkly amused at everyone’s ineptitude at best.
She had every reason to be, really. That bad day that Mrsha and others had had?
Imagine being a Sariant Lamb. At best, they were pets. At worst, monsters who didn’t appreciate their charm would devour them, and they were a conscious species living in mortal terror of being found out, unable to easily manufacture tools or advance out of a primitive stone age without stealing. In some places, people ate them.
Sariants had tried. But hoof-based tech was just—cumbersome. There was a reason why Earth’s predominant species had digits and opposable thumbs.
Well, actual sheep or goats would have still had a lot better time than Sariants. They had just been built too small to do much. Their one hope, as mentioned, was the Trials of Levelling.
But as Ryoka was learning, the solution was far from easy.
“Alright, sorry, Nerry. We wasted a bit of time, but at least we learned Mrsha and Nanette are burying the hatchet. That matters a bit.”
Nerry rolled her eyes, and Ryoka persisted.
“No, it does. I mean what I say. We’re spending time here gearing up and trying to introduce people to one another, but that’ll help your people and my goals. If I can get Tyrion to sit down with an Antinium or Goblin—that’s something. Erin Solstice’s inn works literal wonders, but only when things are good.”
“Fine, true. It is why we wanted her help.”
Nerry allowed. Ryoka sat down and reviewed the scrolls that Nerry and her people worked so hard on. She had been provided with a lot of info, and she was right now…understanding more of the Trials of Levelling.
“Okay. I get the Tower of Sariants issue. The highest you guys have ever gotten is two hundred feet?”
“214.4. It counts for us.”
“Odd. I never knew it did that.”
Shaestrel muttered. The…system or whatever governed classes apparently kept tallies on the Sariants. It was not in constant contact, though; since they did not level, it essentially had a kind of ‘report’ that would generate every year on their progress to their goals.
Ryoka was rubbing her head.
“It’d be so easy if we could only do one of these. Alright…tell me about the other trial. The Respect of Species?”
Nerry glumly indicated a scroll. Ryoka picked it up, and her face turned into a gigantic wince instantly.
“Oh my—and you guys did six? Wait, this is amazing, it’s over half-done!”
Nerry gave Ryoka such a sour look that the Wind Runner lifted her hands.
“I know, I’m—and there aren’t many people at all! Dead gods.”
“Let me see. Let me see. I don’t see what makes it so hard. Explain it to me?”
Shaestrel flew over to stare at the scroll, and Ryoka tried to explain.
The second trial, the Respect of Species, was arguably easier than the first to the naked eye, at least on a practical level. But as Ryoka read the exact wording, she had to think that this would have been far, far easier in another age.
<Trial of Esteem — The Respect of Species>
To justify yours is a group worthy of its place amongst the other species, receive the respect and accolades of the worthy. An individual must, without coercion or influence, genuinely offer one or any number of your people the sincerest token of personal gratitude, admiration, respect, envy, or fear.
Awe no less than  individuals capable of levelling to fulfill this task.
That sounded really reasonable, right? Sort of like one of those old-fashioned rules that said you had to have a certain number of representatives to start a club or start a petition. In this case, it was dependent on people with levels.
It would be really, really simple for even Sariants to do that.
If not for the next part.
Each one of the ten individuals must be at least [Level 57] or higher.
The Sariants had wept tears of blood when they’d heard that. Level 57? How many people in this world were there that counted? From their time of genesis, they had worked on that one. That was one reason why they tried to become pets of the rich and powerful.
High levels arose at the heads of kingdoms or gave rise to them. And they had diligently pursued that goal.
In this time, they had managed 6 out of the 10. Very promising. But Ryoka’s heart sank at the prospect of getting four more.
Then again, she thought of Larracel. Was she over…?
Um. Well, Erin knew Niers Astoragon, and he had to count, right? That was at least helpful. But the problem was—how did you get genuine respect, awe, fear, or anything for a Sariant? Their perception as pets did not help.
“How did Sariants do it the first time? Or with the others?”
Nerry wrote for a while, and she had an ugly smile that made Ryoka suspect she was not going to enjoy reading it.
“Saving their lives works. But we can’t set it up. The first one we accomplished before we even knew about the quest. That was Eydol.”
“Ah. Say no more.”
“She feared us before she died.”
“Please, say no more.”
Ryoka Griffin shuddered, and the lamb spat, looking pleased. Ryoka had higher hopes about all this. Right until she reached for the scroll and read the last quest.
“…Oh, come on.”
Shaestrel floated over, read, winced, and nodded.
“Aye, there it is. I told ye, those six bastards and all the rest never played fair.”
<Trial of Growth — The Unsurpassed One>
To win the right for your kind to grow beyond their mortal limits, hear these words, worthy one. You of all your people must achieve what is impossible by any member of your species naturally. You must create, in body, spirit, or magic, what lies in the realm of Skills. The foundation of [Flurry of Blades] is unsurpassed motion and ability that cannot be replicated by mortal hands. Create a single concept worthy of a Skill and you shall usher your people forward.
Erin Solstice had told Ryoka Griffin about the origin of blade-Skills. And she had cited the traitor of Elves, the greatest warrior in the lands of the dead with a blade, as the foundation of those.
Ryoka looked at the Sariant Lamb. Nerry stared back at Ryoka and kicked her in the leg. And yes, it hurt like the dickens, but there was a world of difference between that and—[Ankle-blasting Kick].
Because that was a copy that scaled with your level. But the real thing? Ryoka Griffin exhaled slowly.
“There’s no way. I mean—it has to be magic. Do Sariants have mana?”
“About as much as you have in one leg at most.”
Shaestrel muttered. Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. She stared ahead and wondered how they were going to manage that. Nerry gave Ryoka a searching look.
The lamb waited for despair. They had put their burdens on other levelless people, the Sariants. Some had been kind. Others, opportunistic or uncaring.
A few had needed to be killed before they endangered everything. But even the best-intentioned had just flailed around without a plan. Some had helped with the first task, the Respect of Species, and they would be remembered forever. The second, the tower, was ironically probably the easiest to solve, and the Sariants had tried to accomplish the first and last before they tackled the tower. That would be doable—but the effort might expose them.
Far better to know the last could be done. Yet it was the last that made them despair the most because the issue was simplest and hardest to grasp.
Hubwigh. The sound of life hitting you when you were down. Hope without a chance. It was probably the sound that defined Ryoka’s life, of walking around the corner into a sucker punch.
But you know what? If you got hit enough like that—you eventually learned to walk around the corner and punch life in the face before it got the first shot in. Ryoka Griffin opened her eyes, slowly, and looked at Nerry.
“Well. I don’t know about the Respect of Species—and I think we should ask for hints about the tower and…the rest. Tomorrow, I’ve asked to talk to Demsleth and Klbkch because I think both might have…clues for us.”
Nerry nodded. It had occurred to Sariants to ask the species they knew to be new to the world, like Antinium and Stitch-folk, how they’d done it. One had to assume they had done it.
Asking a Dragon was just common-sense if you could find one. But Ryoka was running her hand through her hair.
“As for that last quest…that’s a stinker, for sure. I don’t know where to begin. I don’t think you’d be able to create a new martial art even if we, uh, got you started. We’ll think on it. Shaestrel?”
“I…dunno if she can learn a thing. I could think on it.”
The Spring Faerie was uncertain. Nerry closed her eyes and exhaled. One quest would be appropriate for her lifespan. But then Ryoka Griffin hit expectation in the balls with a kick.
“…But for now, you’re lucky that we have a healing potion shortage and not a mana potion one. I’ll buy as much as we need, and we probably need a lot less given how much you weigh. It might get you killed, though, Nerry—but I do know how you could get enough mana to cast magic. Although…you can’t use traditional spells, I bet.”
Say what now? Nerry opened her eyes, and Ryoka Griffin remembered something Teriarch had once told her. There was a way to expand your mana pool. Shaestrel and Nerry looked at Ryoka with open mouths.
Ryoka Griffin smiled evilly…then shuddered.
“Dead gods. That laughter really is spooky.”
The next day, Ryoka Griffin put a bowl down at the breakfast table, and Nerry lapped at it, made a face, but kept drinking the mana potion. The Wind Runner watched her anxiously, and Shaestrel did too. She’d promised to see if Nerry was about to kill herself with excess mana potion drinking, but the truth was that it was going to be an unpleasant, long process that would strain Nerry’s body either way.
The same way Ogres had learned to give themselves spellcasting abilities, it was like enlarging your stomach by eating too much—or just like how someone built muscle by tearing it and forcing it to grow and get stronger. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the lamb never hesitated.
The one problem Ryoka had was having to keep pushing away a nosy bee.
“Apista, shoo. Shoo! Lyonette—can you take your bee away?”
“Oh, come on, Ryoka. She’s just hungry. She barely eats anything, and little Nerry has a full bowl. Let her have a bit? Why is Nerry so attached to you, anyways?”
Lyonette frowned briefly at Ryoka, but she was distracted. The Wind Runner raised a hand—then gave up and poured some mana potion into a separate bowl. Instantly, the Ashfire Bee crawled over to that.
“There. Both of you get mana potion. Sheesh. Shaestrel, keep an eye on Apista too?”
The reason Lyonette was so distracted, even from her beloved pet, was because her daughter and Nanette were the center of attention this morning.
There the two sat. Mrsha wore a spare set of blue robes that Nanette had, and she was sitting next to Nanette, who’d put on one of Mrsha’s kilts with a trendy patchwork, colorful shawl in the same style as the kilt, boxed tartan lines, over a black shirt. They’d even found a beret hat that Mrsha refused to wear.
The two girls held hands as they waited for breakfast, smiling and showing everyone they’d made peace. Both their supporters stared at the two as Mrsha and Nanette became the bridge for peace in the inn.
“They’ve made up.”
Lyonette spoke, staring at Numbtongue cautiously. He frowned, eying her, and nudged Ishkr, who nodded.
Lyonette looked at Mrsha, and Bird glanced over as he walked downstairs and nearly fell flat on his face. Jewel pushed into the inn, looking tired, and waved something at Numbtongue. She mouthed.
“I have the centipedes!”
He pointed at Mrsha and Nanette, and she nearly dropped the sack she was holding. Lyonette looked at Numbtongue, then exhaled slowly. He looked at her, nodded, and they put out a hand. They shook hands—and Nanette and Mrsha beamed in relieved satisfaction.
For about five seconds. Until Lyonette, Numbtongue, and both sides rounded on Nanette and Mrsha. Lyonette raised a finger.
“You two made up? Now? After all the trouble you two caused?”
“You can’t dress up and make up. There’s a mess everywhere.”
“There’s itching powder traps all over the inn!”
“There’s a sack of centipedes about to go into the bedrooms!”
“You two are in so much trouble, young misses! You have a long weekend ahead of yourselves—guess who gets to clean up?”
“Us? But you—”
Nanette and Mrsha stared in horror at the evil adults. Their scolding only intensified as the two began to protest. And Ryoka was rolling her eyes and smiling in relief as a door opened and the light of the garden in the morning spilled in.
“hEy. aNYonE sTill FiGhting?”
The most scratched, worn out, and hoarse voice in the world made everyone turn. And then they saw Erin Solstice’s haggard face. But that wasn’t the scary part.
The scary part, as the [Witch] rolled into the common room of the inn, was her hair. It was standing up in parts, messed around by a storm, and had dried into place. She had rings under her eyes, and she smelled like a bunch of alchemical items.
But she smiled. And she was holding something in her hands. A flask filled with liquid that swirled around like a vortex even when she held it still.
Acid green mixed with a swirl of black and white, rotating together in a spiral. It made you feel vaguely uneasy when you looked at it.
And it wasn’t even the full-power version. Lyonette stopped scolding.
“Oh. Erin. Um. Actually, Nanette and Mrsha just made up. Silly them. Isn’t it? Was—was that you laughing last night?”
“No one’s fighting?”
Erin rasped. She looked around, and everyone eyed her. Erin smiled.
“Because if someone’s fighting…I have a tonic to mend your ailments. By killing you. Anyone want a taste?”
She looked around, and everyone remembered the tragedy of Numbtongue. Slowly, they backed up, and suddenly, Mrsha and Nanette? Why, what silly children! But girls will be girls. We had a bit of egg on our faces too, didn’t we? But least said, soonest mended, we’ve put it behind ourselves, and we’ll be right as rain now. Punishment? Forget about it!
The [Innkeeper]’s smile was a bit tilted. She looked around as she bit the cork and opened the bottle. Ryoka Griffin eyed the brew.
“Oh shit, it’s smoking.”
Grey smoke drifted from the bottle despite the lack of heat. Erin stoppered it with one thumb as she looked around.
“But I was sure I saw a lot of fighting last night.”
“We’ve settled it. I’m so sorry you were eating spices, Erin. But it’s all sorted.”
“Okay. But you were fighting.”
“But we’re done! This is all good, Erin. There is no need to be scary. I must now go to the outhouse.”
Bird waved his hands. Erin smiled at him.
“Yeah, but Bird…I remember you were all fighting. So here’s a question. Side Nanette. Side Mrsha. You two made up, right?”
Ishkr, Numbtongue, Bird, Jewel—Jewel was outside the inn and running through the snow, the centipedes running too. She was learning. Lyonette, Ser Sest, Normen, Octavia, everyone gave Erin a nod to say they had mended their ways and made peace.
The [Innkeeper] gave them a happy smile. And side Solstice slowly raised the brew and took a huge gulp.
“Well, now it’s my turn to attack everyone. That’s called a grudge. Hah. Heh. Heeheeheehee–ahahahaha. AHAHAHAHAHAHA–”
She began laughing. But—it was hard to even describe how painful the laughter sounded. Instantly, everyone clapped their hands to their ears.
What laughter! It sounded like—Ryoka had once heard laughter like this in a movie. A crazy clown. But that was just special effects and some good lungs.
This sounded like insanity. This made thoughts—jump—made thinking difficult. And it was uncontrollable.
Erin Solstice cleared The Wandering Inn for five whole minutes. Ishkr threw himself out one of the windows with [Emergency Evacuation], and the rest of the guests ran out, covering their ears.
Five minutes, and the [Witch] was lying on the floor, face-down when the laughter stopped. When she looked up and Ulvama nudged her with a toe, hands over her ears, the [Witch] croaked.
“My throat hurts.”
Ulvama gave Erin a look of vague respect.
“Yah. I bet.”
“I call it a Cackle Brew. I’m not sure if it’s something you drink to attack your enemies with or whether it’s something you give your enemies. It’s a work in progress.”
Erin’s voice was still hoarse after all that, but she could at least get that much out. Everyone went back to breakfast, a bit shaken up by Erin’s newest creation.
“But Erin, I don’t understand. By the way, breakfast? Ishkr found a cask of blue fruit juice, so we’re having the last bunch this winter.”
Lyonette poured Erin a cup, and it soothed her throat instantly. The [Innkeeper] brightened up.
“Hey, that’s great. I’m feeling a lot better. Now, have we all stopped fighting? We’re all friends here.”
Erin looked around at the guests of the inn, and they glanced at each other. Erin Solstice had come in with all finger-guns blazing. Numbtongue leaned on a table and frowned at Mrsha and Nanette. Lyonette sniffed as he brushed at her skirts.
“You didn’t need to be so aggressive, Erin. That was practically Kaazian or something Taimaguros would do. I’ll have you know that it was never about the girls. Well, not entirely. I certainly didn’t start anything.”
“You didn’t? You’re the worst one!”
Numbtongue shook his fist at Lyonette. Several members of team Nanette nodded, and Lyonette made a scoffing sound echoed by three [Knights]. Ser Dalimont just rubbed at his forehead wearily. Erin’s face fell. Then her lips compressed.
“Come on, guys. Lyonette, have a drink.”
She poured the cup for the [Princess], and Lyonette hesitated as Mrsha and Nanette groaned. Ser Dalimont looked at Erin, and she gave him a sunshine smile as he opened his mouth. He slowly closed it and looked at his fellow Thronebearers. Then he folded his arms, looking resigned. Lyonette turned to Erin with a false smile.
“I am just stating facts, Erin. But we’re all calm—even if some of us are prone to being unreasonable.”
“Or stuck up [Princesses] who like bossing everyone around and think they know what’s best.”
Numbtongue muttered under his breath. Octavia kicked him. Erin said nothing, but her lips were compressed slightly in vexation. Lyonette was glad Erin wasn’t reaching for more Cackle Brew. Hurriedly, the [Princess] sipped from her cup.
Or rather, she looked at the cup and hesitated for a good second.
“Wait a second. Is this cup unwashed? It looks dirty to me.”
Erin blinked a second and peered into Lyonette’s cup.
“Whatchu talking about? Looks clean to me.”
“No, I think it’s dirty. I swear I can see bits of dirt in it. Ishkr, can I get a second cup?”
Lyonette was just about to get a second pour when Numbtongue called out.
“Ooh. Look. She’s too good to even drink blue juice with a bit of dirt in it. She’s got to waste the last stuff we have.”
Lyonette’s head snapped up. She took one huge gulp of blue juice instantly and glared daggers at Numbtongue. Then she grimaced.
“Nevermind, Ishkr. Although—eugh. Either there was something in there or it’s the cask itself. Is your cup good, Erin? I’m afraid mine’s gone bad. Why did you make your brew, again?”
Erin sipped from her blue juice, face neutral.
“Eh, mine is good. I just made it because…well, laughter’s the best medicine, right, Lyonette? But medicine can also be deadly. And laughter is the cure to fear. Which means it can probably hurt someone.”
Erin-logic was hard to follow before you had your coffee. Lyonette signaled for some as she suppressed a burp. Nanette peered into her cup and slowly pushed it back.
“I have to go to the outhouse. Mrsha, let’s go.”
Erin smiled at Nanette and looked at Lyonette.
“I think it does something. After all, that was one gulp. And I can make it even stronger.”
“Dead gods, Erin. Better? I—hic—excuse me. I—hic. Hic. There’s something in my throat.”
The [Innkeeper]-[Witch] spoke cheerfully as Lyonette took a deeper gulp of her drink, grimacing, and waved for some water.
“Right, and I’m tired and a [Witch]. So I didn’t get the real effect. Plus, I put everything into that brew. But I wonder what comes out if you haven’t had a good cackle?”
“Erin, you’re not–hic–making any sense. I–Heh.. Ohohohohohohoho–you–hahahahahaHEHEHEHEHEHEE.”
Lyonette began laughing. It started as hiccups, then a polite giggle. Then it grew louder and shriller. She stared at her cup, and the blue juice…which barely masked the swirling brew. And it couldn’t hide the taste.
Everyone turned and stared at Lyonette. The [Princess] covered her mouth to muffle the sound. But this time, it was building within her. She looked around desperately—
“[Emergency Evacuation]. Everybody out—”
Ishkr touched his chest—jumped to the window—and Erin’s portal door opened, and the [Head Server] went through it. He popped out of the air and onto his back in the middle of the common room. He stared up—and Erin winked at him.
“You’re part of the inn now, Ishkr.”
Ryoka tried the door to the hallway. It was locked. Erin Solstice looked around as her guests tried the windows, realized they were locked, and stared at her. She smiled happily at them.
A big, happy smile.
“Erin, this isn’t funny.”
“I think Lyonette thinks it’s hilarious. Show them, Lyonette. Oh—and one more thing.”
Erin Solstice stared around as Calescent covered his ears. Mrsha and Nanette were staring through a window in horror and relief they weren’t there. Erin Solstice gave everyone a happy smile.
“This is for the death-spice.”
Then the [Portal Door] opened under her wheelchair and spat her out of the inn. After a second, it grabbed Ulvama, who went through with a shout of surprise.
No one else was spared. Lyonette’s eyes bulged—then she threw her head back and started laughing.
This time, the laughter took out half the inn. Anyone over Level 30 stayed conscious. But despite Erin’s reinforced inn, the laughter cracked two windows and everything made of glass that wasn’t in a cupboard.
It wasn’t eardrum bursting. It was a combination of mental and physical. It had shattered all the plates at the table Lyonette sat at.
The [Princess] was lying on the floor, exhausted, after four minutes when the laughter finally ceased. Everyone else was either passed out or in the furthest corner, covering their ears.
The worst part was that Lyonette had [Detect Poison]. But she hadn’t realized her Skill was letting her know the drink had been bad since she’d never needed to use it before. And Ser Dalimont, who had also noticed, had weighed tipping Lyonette off versus the wrath of Erin Solstice. He was shaking his head as he knelt on one knee and Erin rolled past him, making a show of checking on people.
“Alright. Anyone else want to start fighting? Because if we want to do this, I’m fighting everyone and I can do this all week. Tessa, you’re on my team. So is Gothica and Ulvama. I give you full permission to get nasty.”
The [Goth] poked her head up from under a table and her eyes lit up. But to her great disappointment—the sides were done. So Erin turned to the Named-rank adventurer. She had earplugs in and she was removing them calmly, unfazed by the damage.
“Hey, Tessa, how did you rate that?”
“Pretty painful. Good way to clear a room without killing everyone.”
The Named-rank adventurer popped into view as Erin, being pushed by Nanette as Mrsha held open the doors, rolled back into the inn. Erin smiled.
“Good. I’m still not sure of the final product, but Cackle Brew is a go. Everyone stopped fighting? Also good! Take an hour off, guys. I’m gonna get some sleep. I was working on this all night.”
Erin rolled away in the silence as the two girls who had theoretically started all this looked around at people massaging their heads or picking each other up. And this wasn’t even the full version?
The very good girls, determined to sit there and do nothing contentious at all, froze as a hand grabbed each by the shoulder.
Then Erin Solstice smiled.
“Oh. And since you two got out of the laugh-zone, why don’t you do the shopping for the day? Tessa will watch over you. While you’re there, see if my Ashwheat has arrived from Imani and Palt? Then you can clean the cauldron out. It’s in the garden.”
Nod, nod. Nanette and Mrsha nodded. Do the shopping, get the Ashwheat, clean the cauldron? Sensible work. An honest day’s work.
Mrsha had always said that there was nothing to life like doing chores without remuneration. That was the principle by which Nanette lived.
The two hurried out the door as some stragglers came in. Menolit, for instance, walked in, took one look at the collapsed people and the chaos, and turned right around.
“Alright, crew. It’s another inn thing. Wishdrinks it is! Or do I hear a vote for the Drunken Gnoll?”
Sign of the times if the most popular Liscor-themed pub wasn’t Wishdrinks anymore. Or if there was even competition.
Braver guests stepped into the inn. Klbkch walked over to Relc, who was massaging his earholes.
“I apologize for being two minutes late. So, my day was quite objectionable, Relc. Once again, I have been ‘sassed’. I—are you listening, Relc? Have you seen Ryoka Griffin? I have an appointment with her. But before that, the sass. It is not just Crusader 57. Have you met the Kevins? And Xrn. And…”
Another figure carefully stepped over Liska, who was still out for the count as her brother poked her with a broom. Demsleth looked around, stroking his beard.
“Did I miss a party? Drat. Not that I’d be eating anything…”
He sighed heftily.
“Water and a vegetable platter. Clean living. It’s attitude, attitude. But I’m still allowed to have a party. I could have sworn I heard laughter.”
And clearly half the guests were already passed out from drinking. He sat down at a table, folded his hands, and looked around cheerfully. Maybe there was a [Jokester] about? He could use a good laugh.
As Mrsha and Nanette hurried out the front door with shopping baskets in hand, no Thronebearers or Normen accompanied them.
For one thing, all but one of the [Knights] had been taken out. Only Dalimont was even above Level 30…though it had to be said the others were levelling faster than they would have dreamed possible.
The second reason was that Shriekblade was, um…a good deterrent. Lyonette had backed off from having Mrsha escorted by two [Knights] at all times. She had to trust that Mrsha could go into the city, buy something from Krshia’s shop, and get back.
And you had to admit that even with the [Knights]’ superlative bodyguard training, there was something about having a Named-rank adventurer that was more reassuring when it came to monsters. The two girls were very quiet until they got out the front door.
“That was so scary. She was like Oliyaya—no, Mavika! Wait until I tell the other [Witches] about that!”
Nanette burst out, looking over her shoulder. Mrsha wrote furiously.
r u crazy? We take that to our graves! Why would we spread our guilt around to [Witches]? Especially Hedag? They might punish us again!
Nanette shook her brown hair furiously and gave Mrsha a serious look.
“Erin already punished everyone. But think about it, Mrsha.”
She seized the younger girl by the shoulder and pointed ahead at an imaginary, glorious future.
“They love hearing when Erin does actual witchcraft. This will have all of them asking for details. Maybe there’s scolding. But maybe there’s shortcake, tea, and cookies.”
Oh. Mrsha saw it. Would you gamble a scolding if the reward was witch-snacks? They didn’t ever have terrible, dry snacks either. Everything they made had craft in it.
I suppose we must confess our sins posthaste, then. After chores. That was like old Erin, you know. Scary Erin.
“I had no idea she could be that mean. I knew she could be dangerous—”
You didn’t see her when she got mad at Safry and Maran. That was not-Archmage.
Grev told me to use the word. I am acquiring the lingo of the older youths.
Nanette was fairly certain Mrsha was using the phrase wrong. But it was true that Erin had impressed on some of her staff a reminder people occasionally forgot.
In fact, the group least offended by the laughter-attack was the Goblins. Most of them had liked Erin by reputation and her Skill and knowing what she’d done…but it was one thing to like this Human and another to feel like your Chieftain of the Inn had some bones to her. They couldn’t wait to tell the other Goblins about the new attack and maybe smuggle some Cackle Brew to them.
Speaking of which…Nanette and Mrsha slowed down as they hurried towards Liscor. A gigantic, pale blue Wyvern glanced at them.
“Oh! It’s Icecube! Chieftain Rags is visiting! Look!”
Indeed, Rags was walking up to the inn at this very moment. She had someone in tow—a Goblin boy, an actual child, with a broken leg splinted up. He was hopping to keep up, but excited because it was his first visit to the inn.
“Hey. Where’s Kevin?”
“Um. He’s in the inn. He might be passed out or maybe he’s okay. If you hear laughter—run.”
Rags gave Nanette a blank look, then nodded.
“Thanks. Come on, Balanceboard.”
The Goblins often visited the inn, and Liscor’s Watch ignored them—mostly because they did not want a war with Rags’ tribe. Even so, Icecube had a Hob standing guard as Snapjaw and Badarrow fed him scraps of meat.
The average Wyvern could carry at least twelve Goblins without too much trouble if the [Wyvern Rider] had a passenger Skill. Only two Hobs’ worth without. But most of the Goblins weren’t joining Rags right away.
Oddly, they were all standing together, and Mrsha and Nanette saw the second extraordinary event of this day happening right before their eyes. They would have gotten closer—but Shriekblade picked both up and put them under her arms.
“Miss Tessa, let us go—”
“No getting closer. It’s dangerous.”
The Named-rank would have carried them into Liscor, but Mrsha and Nanette begged her to let them watch.
“Please let us watch! It’s going to be so cool!”
Tessa relented after a moment’s thought. After all—all three slowed down, and there were [Guards] on the walls pointing. No one shouted for someone to stop—instead, half the Watch on the eastern wall gathered over to stare.
This is what they saw:
He was grinning. A smirk over his face. Not overconfident. But the smile of the eternal challenger, a champion of a different kind. He lived for this moment, and because he did, the odds only made him smile harder.
A famous red blade in his right hand, a frigid shortsword in his left. He stood there—and the grass around him drifted away. The snow flurried into the air.
If ever there was a danger-zone, it was that. But the Goblin, still shorter than your average Hob, didn’t move. He just stood there, and the gigantic Carn Wolf behind him growled. Yet Thunderfur was not part of this battle.
So Redscar waited. Waited for the other two people he had summoned to make their move.
But they were also statues. Tensed, leaning forwards. They were breathing, and their eyes were on him. One was a woman with one arm, her black hair growing long and tied back so it wouldn’t get in her way.
A [Sword Dancer]. Pekona held the shorter, curved wakizashi up across her body, horizontally, edge facing upwards. It seemed as if she would leap into the air or start dancing across the snow any moment.
Her teammates were watching from the side. Ylawes Byres himself was standing opposite the Goblins, arms folded. He did not look happy—but that wasn’t due to this occasion. He was watching intently. He might have joined in, despite his aversion to Goblins.
Redscar called to anyone who thought they knew a sword. The Goblin who had held his own against Zeladona longer than most was grinning. But this was not an occasion for Ylawes or Dawil.
This was the hour of those who had been marked. How were they supposed to improve? Fighting monsters? Training?
No. No, the greatest swordsman of the Redfangs refused. So he had put out an invitation—and the second figure waiting to move was still, snow melting around him as he gave off steam.
Calruz, like Pekona, only had one arm. By consensus, they had decided to make it two-on-one. Calruz and Pekona versus Redscar. But was it really going to be two-on-one if both only had one arm?
The Minotaur’s scars stood out in the snow, and members of Battalion 5 were watching their Captain enjoying a vacation. The Beriad were silent. The winter air was blowing softly.
Then, as Mrsha and Nanette held their breaths, Redscar began screaming. It was a war-cry, a bellow of fury, excitement—and it was scary.
The fur blew over Mrsha’s face, and her heart rate picked up. Adrenaline spiked.
His opponents moved as the Skill rushed over them. Pekona made no sound, but she began sprinting left through the snow. She vanished, moving left around him as Calruz roared and charged.
[Flicker Step]. And the Minotaur?
[He Left Pride in his Wake].
Redscar’s eyes widened as he saw Calruz open with the Skill he’d been granted. Redscar dodged left, deflected a slash at his back—then dove right. His swords came up, and he blocked a charging blow from the Minotaur. But then he was leaping back again.
Was that colorful air? It looked—gold.
Nanette pointed, and it seemed like the surging Minotaur’s charge had left a shockwave in the air that was visible. A slicing line of gold that Redscar jumped out of the way of. It was trailing after Calruz, boxing Redscar in! But the Goblin kept grinning. He planted his feet—and skidded.
The Minotaur’s charge slowed—and then stopped as enough snow and dirt blew into the air to knock Falene flat behind the two. Pekona leapt over the first manifestation of sharp pride—and her second swing cleared twenty feet of snow. Redscar and Calruz turned—and both caught the blow. Redscar raised his swords and blocked it.
Calruz took the cut across his chest—then roared and shook himself. A line of red appeared on his arms and chest—barely deep enough to draw blood. He took a swing at Pekona. Then Redscar rammed both blades into his side, but before they could dig deep, the Minotaur hit him with an elbow.
They were fighting for real! Without healing potions! Mrsha and Nanette watched, mouths open, as Pekona came down, blade trying to vivisect Redscar from above.
This was training in the way of blades from the age of Zeladona. It was crazy—but all three were definitely crazy.
And levelling. That was why the Watch was observing the fight. Yes, because Calruz, a known prisoner, was there, but he was fighting in Liscor’s army. Redeeming himself.
Yes, Pekona and her team were there—but it was Redscar who probably made the Watch nervous. What level was he now? The question to the Redfangs, Goblins, adventurers, wasn’t if Redscar was dangerous.
He had always been dangerous, even before becoming a Hob. Even as a regular-sized Goblin, he had been the second-in-command of a famous Goblin tribe. The shadow of a famous Chieftain. But now…
Was he still in Garen Redfang’s shadow? Or was he beginning to step out of it? And even if he still was eclipsed by his former Chieftain—how close was he? A second Goblin of Garen Redfang’s prowess in a Goblin tribe?
Slowly, they had rebuilt. They had taken the survivors of that disastrous battle in this very Floodplain and founded a place to live. They had technology, burgeoning, but their own style in battle. They had Wyverns and lieutenants like Badarrow, Snapjaw.
Slowly but surely—Rags’ tribe was becoming the true equal of the ones that had gone before them. Hers had always been underdogs. But if this tribe had gone back in time—maybe everything, and their interactions with the Redfangs and Mountain City tribe would have been far different. They were still not at the level of Reiss.
But they were continuing to level.
Levels. By the time two girls reached a certain [Chef] in Liscor, it was already midday. They came in cold, with snow on their clothes, and babbling about a sword-fight outside the city. And a laughing [Innkeeper].
“What’s this? Cackle Brew? And I missed it? Wait, she did what—okay, that’s why I missed it. And you two stopped fighting? Very good. I was always team Nanette. Ow. Stop kicking me! Imani! My hoofless filly, we have guests! Can you come out?”
Barehoof Kitchens, the now-famous restaurant attached to the Drunken Gnoll, was doing a lot of good business. Mostly catering or teaching, but they did open the restaurant proper some days. Imani was looking for assistant cooks, though.
Unlike Erin, who operated a one or two-[Cook] kitchen at best, Imani knew that a team took the load off, and she and Palt wanted a proper business. The irony was that if Erin had ever actually hired staff, she wouldn’t have had to cook so long.
“Palt? Is it Mrsha and Nanette? I’m coming—I just have to finish preparing our test-ingredients! Get them the Ashwheat, would you? Erin’s been bugging me about it all week!”
The [Chef] was carefully demarcating a bin, writing an odd note and affixing it to a four-by-four crate. Rather large and packed full of objects. Flour, spices, even eggs, cheese, milk, and meat.
When Mrsha and Nanette came into the kitchen proper, they warmed up thanks to the heat from the ovens. Palt pointed at them.
“I told them they could have some of your viennetta.”
“Again? Palt, half of Erin’s guests want it.”
“Well, half the city is banging down our door for it! Come on, you know Erin will pay us back.”
He was overly proud, and Imani rolled her eyes. But then she pointed towards the cold box.
“Give them a slice. What’s this about swords? Mrsha, Nanette. What did Erin do this time?”
They had been telling the story over Liscor all day, to Krshia, Selys, and now Imani and Palt. The Centaur shook his head as he smoked away. Imani let him smoke so long as he kept it in a contained bubble, and he was taking down some Wireweed Tobacco today. He’d been at it for four hours and barely gone down thirty percent of the cigar. It burned slow.
“My, oh my. Someone gave her the old death-spice and thought she wouldn’t come back at them? Remember…oh, Isceil?”
Palt’s face fell, but Mrsha nodded as she recalled the curry-attack Erin had launched back at the [Mages] when they had first come to the inn. Imani patted Palt on the flank.
“She’s pretty violent to her friends and family despite that, Palt. If she’d done that to me when I first came by, I’d have run right away.”
“Ah, but she let the children escape. She has a way about her, Imani. Erin Solstice only attacks people who will survive.”
“That…sounds terrible. Do you have your bag of holding, Mrsha? Load it up. There’s a lot of Ashwheat. Oh, Palt. What country should we do this time?”
Hah? Something about the question made Mrsha and Nanette look over surreptitiously as they dumped bags of Ashwheat into their bags of holding. Palt was scratching at his chin. He was, as boyfriends did, trying out a beard. It was not the best of looks, but he was trying it. Imani had not given him much credit for the attempt.
“I’m thinking we should have a dartboard and throw darts at it. Your world and mine. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
She rolled her eyes.
“It would be if we wanted to be silly, Palt. Come on. Do you have anything? I was thinking Morocco. Or…I’ve always wanted to know how they cook in eastern Asia. Or we could go New Zealand.”
“I’m down for islander fare. Though I will say—Baleros can’t be beat for some of its spices. What if we did, um…Gazers?”
Imani gave Palt look.
“Do you know their city? Any city? The region? If not, get a map and we’ll do it in four days.”
“Give me one second! I’d love to know…map, map. Excuse me, girls.”
Palt trotted around, and Mrsha and Nanette, justifiably wary of a Centaur with four left hooves, let him clatter about, pulling out a map. They were entirely curious as they peeked at the crate, and Imani put her hands on her hips.
“Oh, you two little spies! Are you here to steal my recipes? And here I thought Erin of all people would hold back!”
“No! But we are curious. Miss Imani, what’s this about countries? Are you using a Skill? Can we see?”
Imani sighed. But she was proud, so she explained. Mrsha and Nanette’s eyes went round as they clustered around the crate.
After all. It was ready for Imani’s best capstone Skill, as soon as she and Palt settled on a country.
And she was a Level 35 [Otherworld Chef].
It had taken a while for Imani to find her feet after the trauma of arriving in this world. Magnolia Reinhart had not helped there—though she had with the grief and mental anguish. Erin’s inn had been the start, but finally, after starting her own business and meeting Palt—
Imani had begun stepping into the next level of her own career. She wasn’t chasing Erin Solstice by far, yet. But her rate of levelling had still eclipsed all known speed, and she was going strong. It already put her as one of the best [Chefs] in Liscor, hands-down, and she could have walked into Pallass and Invrisil with respect.
Her Level 30 capstone Skill had also been her class consolidation, and it was therefore a doozy. For reference, Erin Solstice had gained [Field of Preservation] and [Magical Grounds] at Level 30, two Skills that both turned her inn into a free, fully-preserved area and made it magical enough to run the portal door.
Imani had gained only one Skill. And as she and Palt argued, they eventually came to a conclusion.
“Gazers might eat bugs. Or worms or something. I don’t know, but I have heard they eat some ingredients raw.”
“Well, then we’re not doing that. I will not be cleaning that up, thank you. Morocco? New Zealand? We can go more specific?”
“What about…well, what about that place with excellent meat?”
“Turkey? You just want to do more barbecuing with your favorite customers.”
“…I could do that. I’m honestly curious. Okay, Iran. Where’s our list?”
After some consultation, the two found the list, wrote ‘Iran’ on there, and Mrsha and Nanette saw they’d done a number of different places. They had written…
-Nigeria. (Good for home cooking!)
-Hostole Plains. (Too many oats. Palt’s home is banal and must import too much. Hurtful, my dear, but possibly true.)
-Khelt. (Wow! AMAZING option! So expensive!)
-Thailand. (Street food! Sell this to the vendors!)
-Springwalker Village. (CERIA EATS BUGS. BUGS. I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST HER.)
-Samal. (It’s good and fine and has a lot of contrast, but why did we get a key?)
-Nombernaught. (Sushi and seafood options galore!)
What on Earth could it mean? Mrsha was scratching her head, but Nanette’s eyes lit up. Then she saw Imani put her hands over the crate and saw the ingredients.
There were cuts of meat, local venison, a sack of flour, salt, a few local spice-varieties, herbs, even a jar of Gnollish fish paste. Yellats, apples—it was a complete spread. As if Imani were trying to get a bunch of generic ingredients. Because her Skill—the [Otherworld Chef] spoke with great excitement as Palt danced on his hooves.
“[Ingredients: Cultural Shift!]”
And the bin changed before their eyes. Mrsha began choking on her viennetta as she saw the glass jar of salt turn pink.
“It worked! It’s a good one! What is that salt?”
“I knew it. Himalayan salt. Oh, dead gods. It’s the trendiest—it’s just pink, Palt. Stop dancing or you’ll step on my foot again! But the spices…oh, I think we’ve got to make a curry. I knew freshness mattered!”
Imani was not a fan of the salt, which was very popular in her world, but she was all over the spices. In fact—she slowly pulled out a small bag, opened it, and smiled.
“Saffron! They must either have enough of it or—it’s the jackpot, Palt!”
“Free saffron! Wait, wait. What was it labeled as?”
“Um…oh! Some of Wailant’s spices. The good stuff. So we have to put in good materials to get good results.”
“Checks out. How’s the meat?”
“…I don’t know what it is. Goat? It’s not impressive. I told you, we’ll put in a huge box of steak, do Kobe, Japan, and hope for Wagyu.”
“It cannot be that good.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never eaten it! Come on, help me sort through the box.”
The two [Chefs] were all over the ingredients, sorting, cross-referencing them—and Mrsha and Nanette finally got what the Skill did.
It changed them to local variants! Mrsha ran around, sniffing at the box in delight! You could get food from any country in the world! Any one you wanted!
Now the worry about any group that ate bugs or something nasty made sense. Imani was telling them about how she’d experimented—and levelled—like mad after getting it.
“All five of my new levels come from this. We did a few more countries before we took a list, but it was generic. ‘America’ just gets you…all of America. You have to get more specific if you want to make sure you get something good. Also, I was given an entire jug of corn syrup.”
“Have you gotten many good spices and foods, Miss Imani? What did Khelt give you?”
“Nothing but the finest. Old Fetohep really does buy the best. Apparently Khelt imports so much that the ‘national food’ really is imports. In other countries, it’s often what they grow. We’ve had a lot of winners. A few duds.”
Imani was nodding. She pointed to another bin mostly untouched.
“I did an entire spread for London. Four pounds of Calescent’s best spices. And guess what it turned into? Salt, pepper, and vinegar.”
She sighed. Mrsha peered into that box and pulled out a packet of preserved, salted cod. She tossed it back in sadly. Then she pulled out something odd.
“Wait, what is that?”
Nanette had never seen such a colorful object in her life. Imani hesitated.
“That’s wrapping paper. It’s not chips, Mrsha. It’s just fries. They call it chips over there.”
An entire package of…‘chips’ from a supermarket in a plastic bag was in the box. It was still frozen because Palt had enchanted the box to stay cold like a fridge. She stared at the nutrition label on the back and looked at Imani. The [Chef] shrugged.
“I have no idea. I hope I’m not stealing the food from some store. Oh, Palt! We have got some of the good rice, turmeric, a lot of chickpeas over there—I think this is another keeper!”
“Well, my darling Earther knows her countries. Even if she places too much faith in the United Kingdom.”
Palt trotted over to her, and the two kissed. Mrsha gagged, pretending to throw up into a bin, but Nanette watched the two smiling and flirting—before they noticed the children and told them to go back to Erin.
“And not a word to her, got it? I’m going to surprise her, but knowing Erin, she’ll make me get food from her home. And make…ice cream sandwiches or pizza with stuffed crust or something completely banal. Imagine wasting an entire bin on frozen pizzas and hot dogs? Americans.”
Imani’s blatant food discrimination might be a bit too mean, but she was aglow with pride and accomplishment. And food. Mrsha’s mouth watered, and she reflected that Erin should have never let Imani run off with this prancing Centaur. Calescent was very good, but he was taking over the inn and not an Earther.
Imani, like so many, was advancing fast.
“I heard there was a new dessert available in my walk through Liscor. You wouldn’t happen to have a small cake I could purchase, would you? Not for myself. But a certain young woman is a bit down. Lots of pests gnawing on her while camping and whatnot. I would like to cheer her up.”
Demsleth hurt Erin without intending it. But he was a good guest at the moment. He sat at a table as Ryoka first met with Klbkch—but he kept shooing away a pair of Gnolls.
“Where is she? Is she eating well? Is she safe?”
“I think she’s quite well. Thank you, Spearmaster. That will be all.”
Lulv sat down. Demsleth pointed a finger, and Lulv popped out of the inn. He reappeared, and Bird raised his bow.
“Oh, it’s just a falling Gnoll.”
The Gnoll raced back into the inn and this time popped back into the air again. Bird waved at him as Lulv and Ferris fell down. The [Infiltrator] landed hard and groaned. Lulv just got up, ran back into the inn—
The third time he reappeared, he was buried up to his neck in the dirt and snow just outside the outhouses. Erin stopped rolling towards an outhouse, pointed at him, and laughed.
“This is why I let you into my inn. Get Gnomed, sucker. Gnomes laugh at you. No, wait. I can do better. Welcome Gnome…you look stupid.”
While Demsleth nibbled on some Yellats, he glanced over at the young woman making him wait. Ryoka Griffin was talking to Klbkch, and the Slayer had abandoned Relc for a moment.
The Senior Guardsman was a bit hearing-impaired after the laugh-attack, and Klbkch had once again been accosted by Workers and Soldiers. He sat by a fireplace as Ryoka patiently ignored Nerry kicking her and Shaestrel rolling her eyes.
“More stories from my past? Very well, very well. I did once encounter a sonic-based attack. Perhaps it was laughter, but it was so loud it would literally shake your insides and kill you.”
“How did you defeat it, Revalantor Klbkch?”
Rosencrantz scooted forward on his butt, and Klbkch paused dramatically.
“Why, I flooded the entire tunnel by breaching a wall. My theory was that the pressure and water would destroy the enchantment.”
“And did it?”
A longer pause, and Klbkch sipped from some blue juice.
“…No. In fact, the sound travelled through the water, and I think it killed hundreds of thousands of fish. That was the first time I met a Drowned Person, I think. I had kept coming back because I was unable to enter the water—and I saw a group of four individuals breaking the magical enchantment for me. They left quickly, and I cannot believe it was easy. But I must assume the sound travelled a great distance underwater. When we closed the gap in the seawall and dredged the water, I think we recovered enough fish to supply one of the Combat Hives for two months.”
Ryoka exchanged a look with Shaestrel. Klbkch’s war-stories were dubious, ethically, but he was certainly open about his time. In fact, Ryoka suspected there had to be at least a few representatives of both north and south writing down all his anecdotes.
Well, here went nothing. Ryoka leaned over as she signalled to Nerry to deploy the localized privacy spells. There were a bunch of Workers and Soldiers near her, but no one else, and Shriekblade had come back with Nanette and Mrsha, so she thought they could get away with it.
“Klbkch? Would you mind telling me about how Antinium…got the ability to level?”
He gave her a blank look as Nerry sat up.
“Got the ability…to level?”
“I assume you had to gain it, right?”
Ryoka Griffin was gambling on the fact that Klbkch was one of the oldest beings in the Antinium’s entire history. He had known the First Queen. If any being knew the secret—it was him or Demsleth.
But Klbkch gave Ryoka the blankest look in creation.
“—Every species levels, Ryoka Griffin. Every sentient species. With the exception of…Dragons…one presumes.”
He slowly turned, and Demsleth got up from his chair and began to edge over to the private conversation. The Antinium looked from Ryoka to Klbkch, confused as the Wind Runner frowned.
“No, but—does that mean when Antinium were first created, they were able to level? Can you explain some of that for me?”
Klbkch put his chin in his hands, looking intrigued.
“A strange question, Ryoka. But I will answer. No, the Antinium were not always able to level. The first ‘Antinium’ were far more primitive, and Queens warred with each other. The First Queen was the uniter of all, and when Antinium fell under her governance, her Hive became the center of reason and True Antinium. They were the ones who were able to level.”
“Ah. But what was that factor? Were you there? What was the—announcement—like?”
Nerry was vibrating, but Klbkch gave Ryoka an even more puzzled look.
“Announcement? Why would there have been one? We were able to level. I would know. I was there.”
“You were? Did you wake up one day and just level?”
“Functionally, one supposes so. I recall gaining levels a number of cycles after my creation. Let me think. I was created when we only had one Hive. By the time we had thirty? Fifty? That was about it. This is an odd question, Ryoka Griffin.”
His head swung to Shaestrel and Nerry, and whether or not he could tell what Shaestrel was or knew Nerry’s secret—and Ryoka doubted both—he was intelligent. But he seemed genuinely confused.
“So…you don’t remember a thing? Did the First Queen ever talk about it?”
“Why would she talk…about something that needed no discussion? It is not like we knew of levels before we were able to level. Nor…afterwards did we need to know why.”
Ryoka frowned at Klbkch, mouth open slightly.
“Huh? You didn’t question it?”
Klbkch’s blank look was intensifying, but the rate at which he was speaking was slowing down. Nerry was staring at Ryoka intently, and Shaestrel was muttering swear words.
“Ye secret keeping shites with your poking of the…too much. Even if it is yer power…”
Ryoka looked at Shaestrel and felt a sudden tinge of unease. The same reflected in Klbkch’s eyes. But the regular Antinium were growing restless. One whispered loudly to another.
“This is a bad story.”
“Yes, I agree. The Wind Runner is bad at asking for stories.”
“Hello, I would like my turn, now.”
One waved an arm as Demsleth sidled through the privacy spells. He sat down, and Klbkch and he exchanged one look fraught with dislike. However, Ryoka wasn’t done.
“—If you don’t know about how you levelled. Then—tell me about towers. Did—did the Antinium ever build a tower, Klbkch?”
The Antinium sitting there all looked at Klbkch dubiously. Ryoka’s question seemed like an uninteresting one, but Klbkch did sit up then and snap his fingers as if in sudden relief.
“Towers? What a curiously stupid question, Miss Ryoka. Why would we echo that kind of egotistical design, underground?”
Ryoka turned red as the Antinium laughed at her—but Klbkch waved them to silence and lifted a finger.
“Curious—but not inaccurate. I remember one time when the Queens sent me looking for resources. Do you recall the gemstones I located in an earlier tale? Well, they had me retrieve the entire vein. Tens of thousands of Workers to quarry them and other, rarer materials. Useless marble. Quarried stone, and we could not repurpose the existing materials at all. Only once did we build an obnoxious tower in our Hives. I cannot understand why the Queens wanted it, but the First Queen allowed it to happen. Such a waste of energy. Then we knocked it over.”
The Antinium listened respectfully, then looked at one another. Rosencrantz raised a hand.
“Is that the end of the story, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“Yes. The most useless building the Antinium ever made.”
Klbkch sat back and helped himself to a plate of Erin’s new chicken tenders as the Antinium muttered. Ryoka, Nerry, and Shaestrel looked at each other. The lamb was so tense Ryoka could have used her like a mace.
The Antinium were not impressed.
“This is another boring story. Miss Ryoka should not be allowed to ask them.”
“Three out of ten. I would like to ask a story now, please.”
“—When was this, Klbkch?”
Ryoka refused to let it go, and one of the Antinium threw a piece of Garry-bread at her head. It bounced off a shoulder as they booed her. But Klbkch just shook his head, also looking exasperated.
“I do not recall the details, Ryoka. It was entirely unimportant. Your talk of levels is—I am sorry, I have stories to tell.”
He turned away from her. Then stopped. Klbkch looked at Ryoka and Shaestrel, then focused on Nerry. And for some reason, Klbkch, who shared his food with no one, not Relc, not Mrsha, slowly pushed his plate over the table.
“…Your lamb looks hungry. Have a snack.”
Nerry blinked at the chicken tenders, then picked one up in her mouth and began to crunch it down. Lyonette looked horrified at the carnivorous Sariant Lamb, but Ryoka Griffin was already looking to Demsleth.
Teriarch, Dragonlord of You Know the Rest, sat in his Human guise at his table. He effortlessly blocked a number of scrying spells, including one he recognized.
That damn Wyrm again. He wasn’t annoyed; this was a decent break from his training, but the line of questioning exasperated him.
“Miss Griffin, levels are levels. Some species gain them, some do not. It is a matter of factors that…”
“Well, in truth, it always seemed to me to be about balance. We, Dragons, are far too powerful to gain levels. We would rule the world…and we already did at many points.”
“So you don’t know about any…secrets about levelling? Did Dragons ever build towers?”
The poor girl was having a bit of a mental episode, it seemed. He’d known a number of people like that. They got into vehicles, got obsessed with aesthetics or building huge edifices or the highest tower…the Dragon sighed, but humored her.
“My dear. You have seen my Dragonthrone. We build everything. Have we built a tower? Yes. I remember one in a Dragonthrone. Ridiculously high. It must have been eight hundred feet, made out of precious gemstones, Adamantium, even the bones of our kind. Magic in some places—all in a Dragonthrone. A true edifice to hubris.”
“Is it—where is it?”
He exhaled over a drink morosely.
“Lost. Destroyed in one of our wars, I believe. A Tier 8 spell hit it and broke the enchantment. All but two or three Dragonthrones have been lost, remember?”
“Why was it built?”
He gave her a confused look. No, a puzzled look. No, a confuzzled look. What were these questions about? Teriarch shook his head.
“My dear, why do children build sandcastles on beaches or people in snow? I think you had better reflect on why you’re drawn to tall, vaguely phallic objects. It’s all conditioning, you see. A respect for height is a completely Human concept. Fraerlings don’t respect that sort of thing. Neither do Selphids.”
She was so stunned that she didn’t say a thing as he patted her on the shoulder. Teriarch leaned back in his seat and shook his head.
What a silly question. What a…
He fixed on a little lamb staring at him with such desperate eyes that the Dragon paused. Ryoka said something else.
“What was that, my dear?”
She gave him an anguished and, for some reason, frightened look.
“I said…didn’t you hear me? About Nerry.”
“What about her?”
The Dragon gave Ryoka a puzzled look. She sat back, white-faced and looked at the annoying faerie. And Shaestrel looked nervous; the lamb looked sad.
He didn’t know why, only that Ryoka gave up trying her silly requests after a minute.
“I’m—sorry to waste your time, Teriarch.”
“Not at all, my dear.”
He should have been annoyed. The Dragonlord felt that in most circumstances, he would have been quite annoyed to come here and be bombarded with pointless nonsense. But for some reason…he wasn’t.
Perhaps he was just in a gracious mood today? That was it. Demsleth got up—then paused.
“Your lamb looks underfed, as Klbkch said, Ryoka. I say, server? Get her something nice to eat. And you should get her to a proper [Pet Carer], Ryoka. Fluff the wool, get her hooves shined, and all that. Here.”
He put a handful of gold in Ryoka’s palms and nodded at Nerry. Then Demsleth walked out of the inn. Before he undid his fake clone, he felt sad for a moment.
And he couldn’t have said why.
The answer was unspoken, but it was there. Ryoka Griffin had never been more shaken than when she sat down and Ishkr brought Nerry a milkshake.
“Oh, aye. But even that Dragon forgot it. We play with deep secrets, Ryoka. Deep ones at the core of it all. That bug-man is ancient of days, and he was there. And he forgot.”
Ryoka’s head swiveled, and Shaestrel stared at Klbkch. The Antinium was back to telling stories, but every now and then, he would glance at them.
“Nerry? What do you think?”
The lamb had been in high emotional distress ever since the first time Ryoka had broached the subject. But at length, she calmed down and looked at Ryoka.
“We know they did it. They did it. We will too.”
That was all she wrote. Nerry looked at the Antinium, then Ryoka, and the Wind Runner nodded slowly.
“Well then, I think we had better start working on what we can do. Finding people with levels and brainstorming how to do the final test. I’m going to loop that into Erin’s goals too. I can go places, even if she can’t, and Hedault…well, hopefully we can hit all three in one go.”
Dryad seed, Sariant Lambs, and fighting the six. Nerry glanced at Ryoka sharply. She didn’t understand the six entirely, but she got the gist.
“Where are you going to go?”
Ryoka Griffin was looking around the inn. Erin Solstice had come back, and she was laughing, if somewhat hoarsely, and making plans for her bread. She caught Ryoka’s eye and waved. The Wind Runner smiled, if somewhat warily, and looked at Nerry and Shaestrel.
“For now? Nowhere. Hedault’s still working on my stuff, and I have a dinner date to plan. Maybe I can get Klbkch and Tyrion to eat a meal together?”
“That seems stupid.”
“Yeah. But the month remains.”
Ryoka Griffin looked again at Erin and then out the window. The snow was falling. She saw the door open and glanced over.
“Hey, it’s that Gnoll again. The one who flies? He keeps visiting the inn. Do you think he hates me? I think he hates me.”
“Plenty of people hate you. It’s fine.”
Nerry wrote, and Ryoka looked self-conscious. Then shook her head.
“I’m staying till the end of the month. At least.”
Nerry frowned, but Shaestrel slowly nodded. She looked at Erin, who had made her Cackle Brew and was upgrading her Shadow Loaf. Ryoka absently felt at her side.
“Hedault better have my Faeblade done by then. He’s not permanently enchanting it…why, Nerry? The Winter Solstice comes dead at the end of the fourteenth month of the year. Halfway through winter. I’m going to be here for that. Then we’ll see.”
She and Erin traded another look, and of all the people in the inn, Ryoka Griffin understood why Erin was working hard.
Dance, dine, fly, and live with little kids like Mrsha and Nanette enjoying food and cuisine from around the world.
But when the Winter Solstice came…Ryoka Griffin tried to make the most of this month off. Because it might be the last one before nothing was ever the same again.
Author Call: Hey everyone, remember 9.40 GG? Remember months ago when I asked for medical readers? Well, now I need chemists. I need people with lab experience or know our version of…alchemy? This is broad, and I might not know what I need so I am asking for any readers with a good deal of knowledge to send in a resume or just a list of experience to my assistant at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can make a chem-reading crew for an advance chapter.
It may take months. I may need to take time off to write it. It may be…a bad chapter. But with your help, I can make it better! Thanks!
Author’s Note: I realized I should have taken my break last chapter. Because I’m tired and my cold came back. Not full-blown, but it’s creeping in there, like a persistent cough, and it’s affecting my physical wellbeing.
It’s not like if I’m 10% off you get a 90% chapter. The personal mathematics of writing means that sometimes if I am sick or in pain, I write a wonderfully good chapter.
But on average, if I’m sick or tired and at the end of a writing month, the chapter becomes worse. At least this time I didn’t shoot for the moon and hit some random tower of Sariant Lambs. Anyways, I’m taking my week off, and I hope you enjoyed this month of writing. I’ll catch you after it, and soon I will be getting to work on other writing projects—but I will schedule it in and let you know what’s up. Thanks for reading and remember.
Don’t get sick.
Ressga and Tolveilouka by LeChatDemon!
Sadness, Selphid Duck, and Torreb by Brack!
Guess that Pokemon and Haven by Mg!
Selphids (Colorized) by Enuryn the Naturalist!
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