9.55 (Pt. 1) – The Wandering Inn

9.55 (Pt. 1)

[I am taking a 1-update hiatus purely because this chapter is 70-80,000 words long. It’s in two parts; read the Author’s Note at the end for details. I worked hard, so I rest…hard? Something like that.]

(The Wind Runner, Book 10 of The Wandering Inn, is now available for pre-order on Audible and Kindle! The release date is September 19th! Andrea worked hard on the audiobook and check out this cover!)

 

 

It was a special day today. An important one filled with many things. Christmas?

Christmas.

A holiday that had wormed its way into another world like a parasite with a Santa hat. Today was Christmas, just as Erin Solstice had promised. Even if it had come earlier in other parts of the world, it was that special day in Liscor, at least. Everyone was ready.

Especially Erin.

Definitely Erin.

Lyonette was getting very concerned about Erin.

However, the [Innkeeper] couldn’t have missed the leafy boughs that were being strung up from the tiled shingles on each house, the mistletoe bundles being avoided by everyone except for a few very desperate-looking people loitering underneath, the ‘candy canes’ being sold by Barehoof Kitchens and adopted and altered by street vendors, or the red hats.

Surely Erin had noticed the preparations. She definitely had the date memorized, and she had sneakily, in her Erin-way, been preparing all month, right? Just like Erin used the big calendar Lyonette hung up on the 2nd Floor hallway with important dates circled. Like today. Lyonette had even done two circles, one red, one green.

Because Erin definitely also used that calendar*.

*(Erin did not use that calendar.)

It might have been that Lyonette was in denial. The rest of the inn’s family were figuring out how to broach the subject on the day of…Christmas. Which was today.

Numbtongue was of the opinion it’d be funnier to let Erin catch on since she was already out of time.

However, as a sleepy [Innkeeper] awoke, hair tangled, blinking blearily as she hunched over in her triple-layer blankets and stared ahead for a good eight minutes without really waking up—she eventually looked sideways and saw about eight people staring at her through her half-open doorway and freaked out.

Aaaaah! I’m not dead!

An interesting day. An important, special day. It had Christmas, people scrambling to buy presents, gatherings of old friends and enemies alike—like Wall Lord Ilvriss, who was attempting to spit in his clawed hand properly so he could give the Sisters of Chell a proper greeting under Xesci’s and Nerul’s supervision—doubtlessly hijinks, and—

Racism. The most special of all things.

 

——

 

It was an odd thing. Visma, Ekirra, and Kenva were running around Liscor in the morning and practicing their lines. Mrsha wasn’t there yet; she’d catch up with Ser Sest after talking to Erin.

In a way, it was better she wasn’t here. The Thronebearer was the most Archmage of the Thronebearers that guarded Mrsha—whatever that meant, Visma wasn’t sure, but he’d taught her that word, and some of the older kids said he probably wasn’t, but anyways…even the coolest [Knight] was still a minder.

Mrsha had guards. It was sometimes fun to have him around because adults were good at doing things, but other times, Visma asked if Mrsha could lose him. Mrsha was reluctant to because Lyonette would freak out and there was probably a 1% chance of a Raskghar popping out of the air to try and kill her at any given moment, but still.

Ekirra was picking his nose with his tongue, which was gross and Archmage. His voice had a hint of a whine as he hopped down the street. He had boots on for the slush and a big scarf with blue and yellow that read ‘Little Crabs’ and had a crab and soccer ball logo…and pants.

Nothing else. He didn’t look cold, which made Visma mad because she was all bundled up with a coat and two layers of pants and a sweater and shirt and it was still freezing. But the [Kicker] was running around so much he kept warm.

Kenva had a heating charm, because she was from Pallass and her dad had bought it for her. Watch Captain Venim was moving to Liscor, though, so she was now in their group. She kept twirling, arms spread, over patches of ice, giggling; her tail balanced her and kept her from falling. Whenever Ekirra tried it, he wiped out. As the Gnoll boy picked himself up, he looked east, towards the inn.

“She really didn’t know about Christmas? Are we not gonna get any presents?”

Visma folded her arms anxiously, but tried to sound like she knew what was going on. Someone had to take charge, and it was either her or Mrsha, and she was better at leading.

“Mrsha says…said…Erin might not know. In which case, there’s not gonna be a crazy weird thing. But maybe she tricked us? She’s got tons of presents either way. We could get a quest!”

“I don’t wanna quest.”

Ekirra grumped. Visma scowled at him.

“Well, that’s why we have to practice our lines! Go on, you do it.”

“Me? Oh…I’m first. Uh—uh—”

Ekirra’s face screwed up as he tried to remember, and Visma slapped her face as Kenva giggled. Ekirra looked at her with a grin, and Visma scowled harder. She wished Kenva wouldn’t encourage him. Or that Ekirra seemed to like her. Ekirra finally remembered what he was going to say.

“It’s Christmas! I’m so glad it’s Christmas today. I can’t wait for my present!”

He piped up with that somewhat flat intonation of someone reciting from memory. Visma followed him with considerably more panache and inflection to her lines.

“Yes, Christmas! What a wonderful time of year! And I’m sure since it’s the first Christmas, all the adults will want to make sure we have a wonderful time! But…”

Visma paused, and Kenva hesitated.

“Should I do Mrsha’s part?”

“Yeah, then yours.”

“Okay! U-um! But I hope adults are fisc…fiscal…‘fiscalilibily responsible’ about their gifts for this upcoming seasonal holiday. Given the current economic prospects.”

The children were skipping down the street, largely ignored by most Liscorians, but at that line, a Gnoll [Butcher]’s mouth opened and stayed there. Kenva delivered her next line.

“Yes! Because while coins are very nice, a few silver coins isn’t much money these days!”

Visma nudged Ekirra, and he piped up.

“Gold coins are the bare minimum! Otherwise we can’t buy anything! Even a snack costs, like, eight silver! This holiday only comes once per year…”

“It’d be terrible if our first Christmas wasn’t amazing!”

Visma ended their little play and nodded. Delivery needed work, but it was a solid script that Mrsha had worked up. They were going to recite it around significant Christmas gifters like Selys and Lyonette and everyone else all day.

Obviously, there was the Christmas spirit, but they had to make sure they got enough of the Christmas spirit. If all the adults they knew fell for it…Visma knew a lot of adults. They could all be rich!

“Ekirra, do your line better.”

“What? I thought I said it right!”

He whined as they turned the corner, hurrying down the street. They were getting something special for Christmas. Garry had made Christmas muffins with little red ‘hats’ of frosting each child could get, and they were going to get one. Visma’s mother had asked for a non-bug pie to round out their lunch.

It was going to be an amazing day. Visma couldn’t wait till nightfall, which was when the gifts would be opened. According to Mrsha, they had to give Erin time to find gifts if she wasn’t ready.

“What if she gives us Faerie Flowers?”

Ekirra was still worried about the lack-of-gifts-from-Erin aspect. Visma scoffed.

“That’d be the best, Ekirra. We sell them. That’s like…ten gold coins!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. What did you get her?”

“Um…um…I think my family got something. But I got my Secret Santa gift person something and other gifts!”

He looked suddenly worried, but that was how it worked. You couldn’t Christmas everyone; Lyonette had told the adults, who were justifiably concerned about the holiday, that you gave gifts to immediate family, best friends, and one other: the Secret Santa person. She’d done a raffle among all the inn’s guests and friends, so Visma had ended up buying and making only six gifts this month.

Obviously, Erin Solstice had to gift a ton of people because she was the Crazy Human [Innkeeper] of Liscor. But that was her problem. Visma wouldn’t want to be her and have to think of gifts.

Anyways, they were about to slide down a patch of ice leading towards the ‘Antinium District’, as it was now being known as, when they heard it.

Damn you Drakes! Die!

A voice shouted the words, someone screamed, and all of Ekirra’s fur stood up. Visma’s head spun, and she saw someone flinch—a Drake woman went stumbling and fell in the snow.

“What was that?”

Kenva hadn’t seen it, nor had Visma, but a Drake woman with rose-red scales was picking herself up, and someone was protesting.

“It wasn’t me! It wasn’t—”

“Hey, who shouted that?”

Several people whirled around, and a Human man, young, wearing trousers crusted with snow, backed up, looking panicked. The children watched as someone hurried over.

“Are you alright, Miss? You—what was that?”

“I’m—I’m fine. I think someone hit me. I’m not hurt. I think? My back—”

The Drake twisted around and gasped, but she just looked cold. And she turned to the Human as he protested.

“It wasn’t me!”

More people arrived, justifiably due to the concerning shout. The Gnoll [Butcher] appeared with a cleaver, and someone called out.

“Call for the Watch!”

“You’re not hurt?”

Everyone looked at the female Drake, and she wasn’t hurt, but she was shivering and looked shaken.

“I was just shoved hard—wh-what was—”

“Don’t move, Human. And put your hands out.”

A hostile crowd was gathering, and it might have gone poorly for the young man when Ekirra piped up.

“It wasn’t him!”

Every eye turned to the Gnoll boy. Ekirra stared around, frowning.

“It wasn’t him. His voice is different. And it wasn’t coming from where he was standing when that lady got shoved.”

“Really?”

Several Drakes were suspicious, but another person who’d been walking down the street raised a paw. A Silverfang Gnoll, one of the Plains Gnolls, looked cautiously at the Drakes, but rumbled an affirmative.

“I heard it too. The voice sounds different, yes?”

“No!”

The young man protested, but he just didn’t understand Gnollish speech patterns. He looked incredibly relieved as the crowd’s animosity subsided, and then Visma heard brisk stomping.

“Guardswoman, answering the call! What’s going on here?”

A Gnollish [Guardswoman] stomped over, wearing a festive hat over her leather armor. She frowned as everyone tried to explain what was going on.

“Then who did push this woman? [Identify Perpetrator]!”

Everyone looked around, and the [Guardswoman] stared about…but only focused on the Human for a second. She gave everyone a blank look and frowned.

“…I don’t see anyone. Maybe they ran off?”

How’d they do that? Visma hadn’t seen the push, but had they vanished in the second it had taken to look around? The [Guardswoman] began noting down details and checked the side-alleys, but no one had seen anything suspicious.

Odd. It was just one small thing on a Christmas day, and thankfully, it didn’t even ruin the Drake’s day. She even ended up shaking hands with the young man and apologizing for suspecting him, and he went to thank Ekirra, and when he realized Ekirra was that kid who played football, he asked for an autograph!

A small incident that could not disrupt the Christmas cheer. Hardly concerning.

…Except perhaps if you were Watch Captain Zevara and you had over fifty reported assaults that very morning.

Almost all of them on Drakes or Humans. Some Gnolls. Not one perpetrator found.

Racism.

 

——

 

“Say it again.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“No, it’s not.”

Lyonette had her face in her hands, avoiding the truth. The truth sat in front of her, arms crossed in the early morning, a steaming Christmas crêpe half-eaten, as Calescent, Mrsha, Numbtongue, Kevin, Apista, Octavia, and Lyonette held an intervention.

“Erin, you invented Christmas. You’ve been pushing it—please tell me you’re joking. This is like the beach, right? You were working on it in secret?”

Lyonette begged, but Erin had the most…unnerved and half-amused look on her face. Like she was hoping this was a prank.

“No, we did it, though. Remember? Fetohep had his gifts, and there was that Death of Wings in Rhir? Everyone was singing songs, and…and people were complaining about a ‘scary flying undead Santa’ in Chandrar? We did Christmas.”

Oh dead gods. Mrsha’s mouth was open, and Numbtongue was grinning happily as Octavia elbowed him. Lyonette’s lips moved.

“That…you said it was early. And that was Khelt, Erin.”

“Right, but they forced Christmas early.”

“But we didn’t celebrate it.”

“…Oh. I guess we didn’t. But then—why today?

Erin was starting to sweat. Logically, it made sense. If some fools wanted to do Christmas early, that was their prerogative. But why today?

“It’s gotta be a mistake. Listen, Lyonette. You might not know this, but Christmas is—”

“—On the 25th day of the month? Today? The second month of winter, which is halfway through the season, which is what you calculated as being ‘close enough’. Which I told Liscor’s Council and wrote down on the calendar.

“I have a calendar. It doesn’t say that on mine.”

“You have a—where?

Erin had to go and fetch it. She presented it, and Lyonette stared down at it.

“Erin. There’s only one day circled here. The end of the month. The Winter Solstice.”

The [Innkeeper] gave Lyonette a long, long look.

“Yeah. That’s what I was focused on.”

In a way, it made sense. Christmas? Impending doom. Christmas? Nah, impending doom. Erin had been so focused on that, the beach, and things like Ilvriss’ return that she hadn’t actually gone out that much from her inn. She’d done a lot of gazing around the world using her theatre.

Not a lot of walking down the streets and seeing the candy canes on sale. Now, Erin was sweating hard.

“…So how much, um, preparation has everyone been doing? Gifts? A little get-together like last time?”

Lyonette’s eyes slid sideways, and Erin saw Peggy hanging up some mistletoe. The Hobgoblin blew her a kiss, and Silvermop paused as he realized he had fallen under its aegis. He sighed and looked at Peggy, and she nodded.

“Is a trap. Should put one over the outhouse for fun.”

Some traditions were being taken literally. Erin’s stare—as Peggy planted a kiss on the top of Silvermop’s head and he shyly blew her one with his mandibles—encapsulated Peggy’s red serving outfit, the green sash Silvermop wore, and then the tree that someone began lugging into the inn.

Hey! I’ve got a tree from Celum! Where do you want it?”

A City Runner, Garia, was red-faced as she lifted an entire tree into the inn. This was no house-sized pine, but one that reached into the rafters of the inn. Lyonette rushed over with Calescent.

“Garia, perfect timing. Oh, that’s wonderful! We might have to cut the bottom branches a bit to make room for all the presents—”

“P-presents?”

Erin’s voice was faint. She turned and then relaxed slightly.

“Well, I guess I can whip something together. If it’s just the regular crowd…”

She began to think of Ilvriss, all the inn’s guests, and a meaningful silence followed her. Numbtongue’s huge smile made Erin focus on him.

“Numbtongue?”

“How many guests do you think are coming? Lyonette really counted on you.”

“…F-friends of the inn?”

That would include all the adventurers Erin knew, obviously, which wasn’t—well, that was still the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, miscellaneous ones like Jewel’s team—wait, the Knights of Solstice—and Ilvriss’ group.

And Mrsha’s friends. And their families. And, Erin supposed, people like Zevara, obviously Relc, the Antinium, and people they knew in the other cities like Rufelt, Hedault, Pelt…and he had his apprentices…

“We did a Secret Santa, Erin. Only family and close friends! But I thought you had a plan for the party.”

“B-beach?”

More people were filing into the inn now from said beach. Such as Ser Normen and Bethal, who had a tan, and Erin latched onto that moment of hope. She sat back and smiled.

“Right! I can whip something up. And this is a new holiday. Not everyone will be on board. Or ready. So I’m sure if I do something for people who forgot to wrap any presents—”

Oh my! Is that the tree? I was waiting for that! Thomast, look! The tree! Let’s get our presents, quick!”

Bethal clapped her hands the moment she saw the tree being set up. She beamed, and Thomast instantly stepped over and produced…Erin’s eyes popped as nine wrapped presents went under the tree. Some of them…big.

“I think we have the rest in our trunk, my dear.”

“Oh my, will there be enough space? And that’s our gifts. Where’s that damn saddle going to fit? We haven’t wrapped it! I have to spread the word to the others. This is so embarrassing! My first Christmas and I’m doing it wrong. Thomast, to me!”

Bethal dashed off, then ran back to ask Calescent what was for breakfast. Yes, her and her unwrapped saddle. Embarrassing.

“Your Highness. Is it appropriate for us to place our gifts here as well? Some are to Lady Walchaís, but if there is a more commonfolk hearth to use…”

Ser Kerrig was inquiring with Lyonette, who, realizing how many presents there might be, hesitated.

“I—think we’ll need to use one of our rooms for that. Maybe both private dining rooms? Assuming Erin hasn’t rented either one out. With her new Skill.

She gave Erin a flat look as the [Innkeeper] sat there. Mrsha climbed up on the table so she could dab Erin’s forehead with a handkerchief.

“We should use the theater, Lyonette.”

“That’s not a bad idea! It can probably fit all the guests, but it’s rather…well, I suppose it is a giant dome. I will not have all the sand tracked into the inn. Let’s have the gifts put…”

“Ah. Aha. But not everyone’s that prepared, right?”

Erin’s voice was getting fainter, and she was beginning to think hard and fast. Obviously, you had people who gave gifts to their friends. She could get gifts for the inn’s family, and no one would be hurt if she didn’t give them a present!

Like Halrac! Halrac would definitely understand. He’d give her that serious look and assure her his feelings weren’t hurt at all. And that it would be wrong to expect anything. And he certainly hadn’t earned a gift from defeating Elia or all he’d gone through this year.

“Okay. Maybe I’ve forgotten, but I wasn’t the only person. There’s always someone silly, right?”

Erin was…now she wasn’t even denying she was falling off a cliff. She was just hoping she had company on the way down. She looked around and then spotted the best, her favorite person in the world right now.

Bird! Hey, Bird, did you know it’s Christmas?”

Bird was coming downstairs. He turned, and Erin froze as Bird held up a rather mangled present wrapped with no discernable geometry. He carefully put it below the tree.

“Yes. I am very happy it is Christmas. I would like to see the flying Reindeer-birds soon. Also, you have forgotten. I told Lyonette, and she did not believe me. Ha. Hah. Ha-ha.”

He turned and began to trundle back upstairs for his presents. Then he poked his head back downstairs.

“Ha.”

Thus the [Innkeeper] sat in her domain as her guests began to flood down in good cheer and with, of course, presents. A Wall Lord striding down with a host of wrapped presents, each bearing the seal of the City of Gems.

A merry [Pirate] kicking the door open and holding out his homemade alcoholic eggnog for the Goblins to enjoy. A smirking [Chieftain] with a literal Wyvernload of presents.

They were coming. Across the city, like the bickering Councilmembers, Drake and Gnoll, one of them slapping discount coupons out of the other’s claws. An Archmage absently crafting a present-wrapping spell as her red-haired [Apprentice] performed the task manually.

Why, even that sinister, one-eyed [Strategist] had an obligatory red hat on his head, and one of his adjutants had prepared an appropriate present for everyone. Above, the [Innkeeper]’s personal [Message] scroll was beginning to sound off with greetings and inquiries about when her well-wishers should deliver presents.

The greatest [Strategist] of Fraerlings wanted to time things right. The Gnoll tribes had sent gifts with their people.

She had until night. Or rather, maybe only early evening. Tic. Toc. Tic…

Toc.

There she sat with the nightmare of all parents upon her. Surrounded by goodwill, with no tangible proof of her own. That [Innkeeper] who had so many friends.

Erin Solstice. Caught in a trap of her own ignorance. Unloved by gods. Definitely unloved by gods.

Presentless.

 

——

 

The Christmas spirit was in the air, and everyone was feeling it and rather enjoying Erin’s desperation, frankly. In fact, they were taking bets.

“This time, she’s cooked. She can’t do it. No way. And that’s a mundane bike coupon saying that.”

Kevin slapped it down, and Palt noted down the bet. The Centaur turned, and Chaldion puffed out a plume of smoke from a cigar.

“She’ll amaze us.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“She’ll do something that reaches the criteria for ‘amazing’. I have such confidence, I’ll let you judge that. Put me down for two thousand gold coins. If the other bets don’t match up, I’ll collect the entire pot.”

Palt the [Illusionist] gulped as Kevin whistled. But the other bettors were jockeying for position, and this was a fun part of the day. Kevin was shaking his head.

“No way. I know Erin’s got tricks, but she used them all up for the beach. And the other preparations are for the Solstice. Not this.”

His face grew troubled a second, but then he grinned with a twinkle in his eyes.

“She’s hosed.”

Even Erin’s greatest friends had to agree. The spirit of good cheer was in everyone such that even Ryoka Griffin, holding a present as Sammial and Hethon transported more to the presents-room, looking around wide-eyed and beaming, had to stop and place a bet down.

“I bet Erin does a party-type event. But she can’t gift everyone.”

Palt frowned as he tried to work out odds.

“That seems basic.”

“Well…put me down for ‘big party event’…in her Garden of Sanctuary. Deal?”

Palt thought about that.

“One-to-one odds.”

“Fuck. Okay, fifty gold. No, wait…healing potion.”

Ryoka pulled one out, and Palt’s eyes lit up.

“Now there’s a nice wager. Enjoying the holiday, are you? There’re smaller gifts already being given out, you know.”

“Really? Can I get some? For Sammial and Hethon.”

Ryoka looked around, and Palt pointed out some stockings that you were allowed to reach into and pull a gift from. They were cleverly disguised bags of holding, and they had all kinds of trinkets.

“One per person.”

“Hethon! Sammial!”

Ryoka strode over, and they raced to see what they’d get. Ryoka pulled out a pair of knitted socks and stared at them as Sammial yanked out a huge candy cane and Hethon a very lovely dagger in a plain sheath.

Who put the dagger in there? Pelt!”

Lyonette shouted, and Palt ducked—until he realized she meant the Dwarf, who was already getting drunk on eggnog and laughing at the fire. Ryoka was still having a good time, and so was her company.

Even Tyrion had been allowed in on the virtues of him having an army and Erin needing him, but he was staying away until the party began.

Possibly because he realized he hadn’t prepared enough presents for his noble cousins. Everyone was enjoying the day, though, except Erin. And, oh, one more person.

The ugliest scowl in the world was written all over Nerry’s face as she watched people playing and having fun. Numbtongue, who was feeding Reagen, offered her some little snacks of bite-sized jerky, and she spat on his hand.

 

“Hah! Look at this sour one! Even we’re having fun!”

“I got socks! Socks! I’m free! No, wait. Damn. I was already free. Feck.”

 

Shaestrel and the Frost Faeries were swooping around, causing havoc. One dropped a snowball on Relc’s head, and he swore.

“Damn Winter Sprites.”

“I could attack them if you want.”

Valeterisa offered, and Ryoka nearly dove in front of the Archmage to prevent an indoor avalanche. She almost slammed into Wall Lord Ilvriss, and he blinked.

“Ryoka. Good to see you. Is Erin really not prepared for—did you get socks?”

His cheeks inflated as he made a snrkch sound, and Ryoka, scowling, tucked them away in her belt pouch.

“I get the irony. Are you prepared, Wall Lord?”

His face straightened, and Ilvriss drew himself up.

“Absolutely. I had planned to send gifts; I merely brought them instead. You?”

“Yep. It’s not much, but I called in some favors and, uh…”

Ryoka had to admit she’d been caught off-guard a week out from Christmas too. But even she wasn’t blind, and after an obligatory panic-phase, she’d rallied together a lot of gifts. The fact that Erin hadn’t planned anything?

Sorta said a lot.

“Hey, everyone! Having a good time? I’m just, uh—I’m just going to Pallass, Lyonette! Are any of the forges open? What about Esthelm?”

Not mine! You want a rush deal? I’ll make you something—triple the price!”

Pelt shouted and laughed hugely as Erin stared at him, then dashed off. Smiling evilly, Nerry followed, probably to bask in Erin’s desperation. Ryoka decided to let her go.

“Nerry’s following you, Erin!”

“I kno—oh, you little monster. Come on, then.”

Erin glared after the Sariant Lamb, and Ryoka turned back to Ilvriss, who looked like he was having the time of his life.

“This is so nostalgic.”

“I know. Except the food is better, the inn is better, and there are more faces around.”

He took a huge gulp of some cranberry juice and sighed.

“Sweet and sour. Disgusting. Where’s the water?”

Ryoka hadn’t gotten a chance to really talk to him, and she doubted today was the moment, but as they walked over to the buffet table, Ryoka noticed two tough-looking women eying her and Ilvriss and muttering.

“This shit’s fancy. Maybe Haple was right. The Brother was nice enough.”

“Fucking hatters. Eat up. ‘Least we’re fed before we get to the knives and stabbing.”

Ryoka blinked and leaned over to Ilvriss.

“Are those…?”

“Sisters of Chell. Liaisons. Xesci has them in hand, I think.”

Sure enough, the bland-looking Drake [Courtesan] was already heading over, and the Sisters glanced at her—then stood a bit straighter as Xesci pulled over Normen.

“Stop muttering insults, you two. Join Normen’s group. You can talk about the street with us.”

She pointed out Grev, Alcaz, Jewel, and a few Brothers, and one of the Sisters smirked.

“What, with ‘Grev the Player’? The greatest Face of Invrisil?”

“Be nice.”

Xesci pulled one by the ear, and the yelping Sister followed.

“Hey! Just because Haple gave you command, doesn’t mean—hey, that’s my ear! You’re supposed to be nice, today! You’ll get coal! That’s how it works!”

“Wow.”

Ryoka and Ilvriss watched Xesci effortlessly bully the Sisters, and the Wall Lord nodded.

“Yes, quite. So, your association with Lord Tyrion Veltras aside, how are your companions doing?”

Ryoka glanced around and blinked. She spotted Garia and Fierre, of course, but she was surprised to see…

“Is that Lady Ieka and Fierre under the mistlet—ah.”

Ilvriss turned. His mouth opened.

“I should stay away from that.”

“An unfortunate coincidence?”

Ryoka somehow doubted that. But she was very surprised to see Ieka in Fierre’s company even outside of work. Fierre had mentioned the employment, but this seemed like real bad employee-client practice. And speaking of which, Ryoka’s brows rose.

“Wait a second, there’s Fals! Excuse me—”

“Of course. Is it mandatory to kiss? Because if so, I really need to speak to Lyonette about placement. That could cause an incident. Are you attacked if you don’t?”

Ilvriss’ concern about mistletoe-enforced violence wasn’t actually the worst instinct to have. While it was true you could refuse, there was punishment.

Namely, the angry red traffic-light would flash red at you and scuttle after you for breaking the code of mistletoe.

Traffy, the Law Elemental of Riverfarm, didn’t really seem to ‘get’ the difference between custom and law. But he was here! In fact, members of Riverfarm were ducking in, like Prost, Master Helm, and Griffon Hunt.

They were very careful not to overwhelm the inn, and Riverfarm itself was celebrating, but the [Witches] certainly showed up.

In fact, it was no less than Hedag herself who was laughing and talking to Fals and three others. Who were Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, Erek, holding a cup in one hand and glancing at the mistletoe, and…

Ryoka!

Charlay turned and nearly stomped Ryoka’s feet flat. Ryoka dodged and hugged her, one-armed, as Sammial trotted over, staring at the Centaur.

“Charlay! How did you get here?”

“Oh, you know. I was in the area, and I just happened to hear The Wandering Inn was doing a Christmas. I, uh, brought presents.”

Charlay was trying to play it cool, but she was looking around with delight. Fals looked at Ryoka and did an eye-roll to Seve.

A Courier! Well, technically, Ryoka was one, but he seemed unsure of what to say. Seve, on the other hand, was smiling.

“I was talking to Witch Hedag about her customs. I’ve never heard of the like, but we have…or had the same in A’ctelios Salash.”

“Old ways. And brave runners.”

Hedag laughed, and Seve nodded and smiled at Fals.

“You seem to be the top runner around Celum. I heard you’ve run through snow and blizzards of late.”

“[All Terrain Step]. It’s a new Skill.”

Ryoka’s head turned, and Charlay stamped a hoof.

“What? That’s great! I’m Charlay, by the way. Ryoka’s best friend. Is the running around Liscor nice? Maybe I should work here. Everyone in the north seems to be heading south. Hey, who’s this staring kid?”

She pointed at Sammial. Erek groaned, but Sammial piped up.

“I’m Sammial!”

He didn’t say ‘Lord Sammial’! Or mention House Veltras! He was improving! Charlay might have met him, actually, but the Centauress clearly didn’t remember.

“Hey, you have a familiar-sounding name. Psst, kid. I’ll pay you a copper coin if you introduce me to someone famous.”

“Me?”

Ryoka bent down to whisper.

“Take her up on it, Sammial. It’ll probably be really funny.”

He looked around uncertainly, then brightened up as he spotted Saliss of Lights. The naked Drake had a box on, but he was currently occupied with shaking each present under the tree to the indignation of everyone around him.

It was a full party—and it wasn’t even 9 AM yet! People had just come, the moment they woke up, to be here. Goblins, friends, even potential enemies had put aside their differences because they really, really…wanted to see what Erin would do and get presents.

“Hobgoblin.”

Redscar looked up as he watched Numbtongue and Badarrow jostling each other and laughing by the fire with Yellow Splatters and some Antinium. He almost reached for his sword, but General Shirka was smiling.

She had taken Chaldion’s invitation and orders to ‘not cause trouble’ to heart as one of his serious supporters. Even General Duln had declined to actually participate in this event and would be in Pallass’ version of the Christmas celebrations.

However, General Shirka had noted that Sir Relz and Noass would only be attending those parties because they hadn’t secured an invitation to The Wandering Inn, and Drassi was already here. As were Rufelt, Lasica, Maughin, Grimalkin…

But she was still the 3rd Army’s General.

“Drake.”

The two stood there, and Shirka offered him a drink.

“Want to try this? It’s something they pulled from storage. Not many want it.”

Redscar sniffed the red drink.

“What is it?”

“Borsch? That Human with the dark skin made it.”

“Huh.”

Since it was Imani, Redscar took a gulp and frowned. He’d expected something sweet, but this was more savory, even salty. He liked it.

“Tastes like food. Why are you here?”

Shirka eyed him.

“To celebrate. And because this seems like it might help me level. Who knows? I might get a relic-class sword if Miss Solstice fails to produce any presents. Or a quest to slay a Giant that rewards me with a legendary Skill. I’ll take that.”

“Or one of the presents has an Adult Creler inside.”

Redscar smacked his lips happily. Shirka paused.

“Yeah.”

They stared at their imagination of that event. Both sipped the warm drink.

That would be so much fun.

 

——

 

It was almost a crime for anyone not to be here today. In fact, the Watch had been forced to implement a shift-system, as well as a raffle, and offer triple-pay for people willing to work on this holiday.

It should be a crime to take someone away from this day of fun and good cheer. And if Watch Captain Zevara had her way, it would be.

She was rather sour as she scooped up as many cookies as she could and shoved them into her belt pouch. In fact, she was resenting Watch Captain—nay, Watch Commander Venim today.

Not because he’d taken the role she’d declined. No, because he wasn’t starting his job yet, so she had to deal with today’s incidents.

“Watch Captain, something wrong?”

Selys noted Zevara’s scowl, and Ilvriss drifted over as Zevara jumped.

“Nothing. Sorry, Selys. I’ve got to get back to work.”

“What, today? Zevara, surely today—”

Zevara held up a claw with a huge scowl.

“Believe me, Selys. I’d love nothing more than to take my break. Even Liscor’s army is doing it—but there’ve been dozens of assaults this morning. Nothing fatal, but there’s been injuries, and someone’s been attacking people. A species-motivated crime.”

“What? Really? On Christmas? Who is it? One of the gangs?”

Selys was outraged, and a bunch of the members of the street glanced over in alarm—and outrage at being implicated. Zevara just shook her head.

“No one’s seen the perpetrator, which makes me think it’s some kind of organized assault from individuals. Invisible, it sounds like.”

“What kind of injuries?”

Ilvriss was curious. Zevara shrugged.

“Mostly shoving. People getting tossed into the snow—or pushed in front of a vehicle in one case. They got out of the way, thank the Ancestors, but there’s also been slashes. Someone with a knife, it sounds like.”

“Dead gods. Some people are monsters.”

Zevara gnashed a cookie in her teeth and turned.

“Yep. When I get them…I’ll be back for the party tonight, hopefully. If not, we need to patrol the streets. One attack was in someone’s home, and if that’s the case—”

She began to stride out the door as Ilvriss adjusted his clothing and decided he needed to put on some armor. Drassi raised her brows with the scent of a story, and Selys put her claws on her hips with the outrage of a Liscorian. But Zevara turned back and raised a claw.

“…Is there a party tonight? I’ve got my presents.”

 

——

 

By the time it was about 11 in the morning, even the latest sleepers were awake and celebrating Christmas. Not that everywhere was as festive as Liscor.

People made an effort, but honestly, it was hard to make everywhere have that Christmas spirit. Oh, sure, it was cold and wintery the world over. But snow?

…There was some on the railings of the rocking ships. And yes, a few had cast illusion spells to look green and festive.

Earl Altestiel had put on a Santa hat. But Rabbiteater felt, strongly, that Terandrians didn’t ‘get’ Christmas.

Case in point, one of the nobles of Pheislant appeared on deck with a green-and-red dress. Which consisted of slashes of the two colors twining into a complex pattern as they became ever more intricate and reached the hem of the dress.

It wasn’t the worst look, and she had, apparently, commissioned it when Erin first announced the holiday at a fine [Seamstress]’.

Everyone was complimenting her on it. Except Rabbiteater.

“That’s not Christmas. Christmas is fun and silly. It’s not a banquet.”

Sometimes it felt like Cortese liked to argue just because he wanted to win, be it duels or debates. He scratched at his chin and seemed to recall something.

“I think you’re being rather prescriptive on what this holiday should be, Ser Solstice. I have it on good authority Christmas originated from a winter banquet tradition. Goodwill towards men. In fact, there’s a song, Good King Wenceslas…”

The Goblin [Knight] turned his head and gave the person chastising him such a blank look that, even with his visor down, Hundredlord Cortese hesitated as he sipped some eggnog the ship’s [Chef] had prepared.

“…It’s no fun on the water either way. Why are we arguing?”

“You tell me.”

They were on Throne’s Will, the flagship of Calanfer’s forces that Princess Seraphel was on. Cortese, Menrise, and Rabbiteater had all abandoned their ships to join Seraphel for solidarity—only Earl Altestiel had to reside aboard his flagship, Rainbringer, which sailed pride-of-center in the Terandrian fleet.

It was a massive cavalcade of vessels, and they had been nearly a week at sea. It wasn’t the fastest going with all the currents mixed up, but they had wind spells and were taking a long route that actually passed by Wistram to get to the New Lands of Izril.

It was very, very boring to Rabbiteater. For one thing, he was on deck, so practicing fighting was hard—even the huge ships didn’t have much space, and slamming into the wood keeping them from all drowning made the [Captains] upset.

For another, there was virtually no privacy onboard, so he had to remain with his helmet on at all times. For the third thing…Meisa was gone, and while Rabbiteater’s friends like Markus, Talia, Greysten, and even the Spring’s Warden had joined him, he had to put up with the company of people he didn’t like.

Like the Thronebearers and much of Calanfer’s delegation, who seemed to be people chosen to ‘control’ Seraphel or just weren’t the finest. Seraphel herself was under the protection of Dame Neranthei, her personal protector; her new maid, Beacle; another maid called Mariel; and a Ser Thilowen, the leader of all the Thronebearers and Calanfer’s forces.

He was Knight Resplendent, Radiance Commander of the Thronebearers, which meant he outranked every single Thronebearer that Rabbiteater had ever met with the exception of the Lightherald and perhaps Dame Vensha, who was the Queen’s own [Knight].

Rabbiteater didn’t care for him. Ser Thilowen was too thin to be a warrior, reminded Rabbiteater of a fussy maître d’, and he’d prepared the eggnog and a banquet on board the Will for countless other dignitaries.

He was apparently a capable warrior…according to Seraphel, who knew nothing about fighting. And it was very clear he was there to make sure the [Princess] did what the Eternal Throne wanted.

Yet—they were at sea, and soon they might be close enough for him to go home.

He just wished he could have had Christmas with the others.

Terandria was so full of artifice and fake things. Just as Rabbiteater had observed at Calanfer, there was this…glitter and gaudiness that sometimes covered over the fact that there wasn’t anything valuable underneath all that.

However, the fact that they could afford the gilded paint at all was a valuable thing.

Case in point, the armada of would-be colonists literally filled his vision as he had breakfast. No matter where he looked, he saw sails, painted hulls, and soldiers and sailors shouting importantly at each other.

In fact, there was even a horn being blown to herald the morning. It rose into the air, a sonorous melody by a single [Trumpeter] standing on a crow’s nest, solemnly greeting the sun.

Even the Goblin’s spirit rose as he shaded his eyes and saw seagulls and other birds flying alongside the huge, billowing sails, as if they thought this fleet of over a hundred ships were larger kindred. He glimpsed Altestiel’s ship cutting a path close to the vanguard and other ships carefully sailing at a decent clip to avoid the dangers of collision. Some were connected by bridges, though; more fancy versions of a gangplank or even lightbridges or paths of air let nobles and other dignitaries greet each other.

Strolling over the sea as if they were on parade. Some of them looked like they were on their way to a ball, fur coats mixing with fancy dress hats and plumes that whipped around in the brisk wind. Others, noble and common alike, were dressed for the sea, sitting in the salt breeze, their eyes ever turned southwards. The real colonists and explorers.

The Kingdoms of Terandria had set sail, and Rabbiteater realized that such a great fleet of so many nations might be the largest in an age to take to the seas. This was a grand moment in history, and despite himself, his spirits lifted to be part of it.

The melody of the trumpeter filled the air, a beautiful note. Then another horn began to play, a dueting note. Rabbiteater looked up—and heard a string quartet begin their morning routine.

Then a bass rumble of a tuba. And then someone began singing opera.

 

Benedictus Taimaguros in aeternum!

Eurom dentes! Superbia eurom!

 

It was the old language, and the only word he caught was ‘Taimaguros’; Rabbiteater turned and saw a woman singing from the front of one of her ships painted down the middle into two halves: Taima and Guros.

The delivery was powerful; she had some lungs, and he imagined it wasn’t a bad song. However, the singer was trying to deliver it as a solo act when right now there was the original trumpeter, the other one, and about three other nations’ performers all vying for the earspace.

The cacophony began, and Rabbiteater wished he could make his helmet soundproof. Yep. And here was the part where he remembered why he didn’t like Terandria after all.

“Dead gods, what a racket.”

Hundredlord Cortese put his hands over his ears as his lioness, Baeris, yowled in complaint. Princess Seraphel was too mannered to do the same, but she grimaced.

“I thought there was a moratorium on morning performances?”

The various national anthems quieted down as shouts erupted from various boats, hurling insults at each other. Cortese tilted his head, glaring.

“There was. That wasn’t a national anthem! That was one of Avel’s [Hornplayers], and it was a damn fine song. Some idiot must have thought it was their anthem and started the fight all over again. Who was that?”

Seraphel shaded her brows, and Dame Neranthei, one of her bodyguards, coughed into her fist.

“I believe the second hornplayer was from the Kaazian ship. Honor’s Wake.

“Ah.”

Cortese grew still as Seraphel and Rabbiteater stared at him. The Hundredlord brushed at his hair and his jacket theatrically.

“Well, you can’t fault someone for assuming it was an anthem. Kaazians hate being second-best in anything, and it’s not our fault everyone else joined in.”

Seraphel and Rabbiteater exchanged a look, and the Hobgoblin leaned over and poked Cortese.

“It was your fault. Say you’re sorry.”

“Me? Never. I’m not responsible for some member of my crews.”

“It was Kaaz’s fault. Say it.”

“That’s only your opinion, Ser Solstice. I don’t apologize for minor things.”

“Say sorry.”

Hundredlord Cortese lifted his chin.

“Never. It’s not that I don’t believe in saying sorry in principle, Ser Solstice, Princess Seraphel, it’s that I object to apologizing if I don’t feel like it.”

Seraphel’s mouth opened a fraction, and Rabbiteater digested the statement of Cortese’s attitude towards life. Then he nodded.

“Seraphel, help me drown him.”

He was trying to pick up Cortese’s chair and dump the man over the railing. Cortese nearly drew his sword on Rabbiteater.

“Solstice! I’m warning you! I quite like you, but there are limits to your japes!”

“I’m not japing. Ow.”

Baeris bit his shin, which arguably hurt her more than him because he was wearing armor. Seraphel was trying to talk the two down.

“Solstice, please. Cortese, let’s not have a scene. Menrise should be up in a moment, and Altestiel will be with us for breakfast—Dame Neranthei, do something!”

“Your Highness?”

The Thronebearer who was acting as Seraphel’s personal champion and bodyguard looked uneasily at the two fighting figures, who both outlevelled and outranked her. She hesitated, then cleared her throat.

“Ser Solstice! Is it not improper to commit ‘naughty’ acts on Christmas? You as well, Hundredlord. The spirit of the holiday should be preserved!”

Rabbiteater and Cortese stopped fighting and looked up. Rabbiteater stopped trying to heave Baeris overboard, and Cortese’s arm around his helmet loosened.

“Ah. Right. Christmas. I forgot it was today. It doesn’t feel very festive on the water. How do Drowned People celebrate anything?”

Cortese threw himself back into his chair. He looked around rather unhappily.

“I should have loved to see a city and done this on land! Maybe we should have gone to First Landing, then around the coast.”

“The nobles of Izril would have hated that. We’re practically an army, and I wouldn’t put it past some of our number to start a battle at sea.”

Seraphel pursed her lips, looking rather knowledgeable about the potential problems. Cortese huffed.

“And instead we have to dine on ship rations and make do with presents and whatnot here? What trouble could we have gotten up to?”

He leaned back, then put his feet up on the table they were using for breakfast. Rabbiteater didn’t object, but Seraphel was mildly horrified. However, her Thronebearers were equal to the task; within ten seconds, a second table appeared, and all the breakfast dishes except Cortese’s own were transported onto it.

Ser Thilowen’s doing. The Thronebearer bowed to Cortese as the Hundredlord glanced up.

“Hundredlord Cortese, I believe Lady Menrise is late to rise, but she shall be with us anon. Earl Altestiel is likewise delayed, but his ship is signaling to join ours within fifteen. May I offer you any further refreshments until breakfast is formally served?”

“I shall take a ‘coffee’ with sweetening. And find Baeris another one of those large mutton bones if she’s to wait for breakfast. She bites if she’s left hungry.”

His cat yowled, and Ser Thilowen bowed. He was marshaling the servants, and Seraphel sighed.

“Cortese, this is exactly why we would be a disaster at First Landing. The Thronebearers can put up with anything you do, but other nations would not enjoy your company onboard, let alone in their city! If we put into First Landing, your Kaazian delegation would kill a dozen people within the day in honor-duels.”

“We wouldn’t do that. It’s a stereotype we fight to the death. That’s highly—”

Seraphel’s glower made Cortese hesitate. The [Deathtouch Princess] was the most mild-mannered of the Ivory Five, so, ironically, when she did raise her voice, the others listened.

“Hundredlord, the Five Families and the nobles’ children have no experience with Kaaz. Or Golaen, or many other nations for that matter. Half of them would agree to a duel not realizing your people take it very seriously. Can you imagine one of them making a comment to Golaen’s folk and thinking they’re half-Giants? Or the possibility of someone being wounded and their bodyguards escalating the situation?”

“…Now that you mention it, that sounds possible.”

Cortese grudgingly admitted. Rabbiteater could just imagine what might happen if that were the case. Cortese frowned; he wasn’t an idiot, just pompous.

“The Five Families are fairly dangerous.”

Seraphel clicked her tongue, annoyed.

“In Izril? They are the dominant force of the north, Hundredlord! Even if you kept your blade sheathed, you might well offend them with your attitude.”

“Yes, well, they’re noble families.”

Noble families who have won wars with Terandrian kingdoms! You’d be lying abed with poison in your veins if you offended the wrong Reinharts. A generation ago, the House of El would go to war over a slight, and if you think House Veltras, Terland, or Wellfar are less touchy, you haven’t heard of Wellfar sending their ships to raid and harass anyone who gets on their bad side! It could be a disaster.”

Now she explained it, Rabbiteater sort of wanted to see what bad blood might turn up between the Humans of Izril and Terandria, who were so similar and so different. Seraphel was keenly aware of the power of the Five Families, whereas Cortese, a member of the Restful Three of Terandria, powerful nations, looked down on ‘noble blood’ as well as anyone who didn’t belong to a kingdom over twenty thousand years old.

“I suppose you have a point.”

He conceded after a moment, and Seraphel sat back.

“I suppose I am perfectly right, Cortese. And I hope you remember that in dealing with your peers and Izrilians we come across when we reach the New Lands. Or else you may jeopardize all our fates.”

She was rather forthright these days. Rabbiteater smiled under his helmet as Cortese turned faintly red. Many of the Calanferians looked approving, including both of Seraphel’s maids.

Ser Thilowen frowned a bit, but he couldn’t deny she was right.

Seraphel had changed a bit since she had made her declaration that she would go to the New Lands. She seemed happier, more confident, like someone who had finally slipped the shackles off her. Rabbiteater liked it.

“Yeah, Cortese. Use your head, you idiot.”

He grinned—right until Seraphel rounded on him.

“As for you, Ser Solstice, I’d thank you to stop making violence your first resort. Throwing someone off the deck, let alone Cortese, is not appropriate.”

“But he was being an idiot.”

“He is a Hundredlord of Kaaz. Protocol dictates he avenge himself if you embarrassed him before so many. It’s not about ‘pride’, which you love to disparage. If you did the same to Ser Greysten, do you think the [Knights] under him could let you get away with that? If your commander were embarrassed, would you, as someone following them, be able to take that lying down? What would it do for your trust? Morale? Stop throwing people overboard.

She poked him so many times he actually overbalanced, and his chair fell over. On his back, Rabbiteater stared up at Seraphel.

“But—”

No buts. Now, we shall have a pleasant breakfast when Altestiel and Menrise greet us, won’t we? Then we’ll have a splendid Christmas. Hopefully your friend, Erin Solstice, will visit us.”

Seraphel sat back, and Rabbiteater and Cortese sat in their seats, defeated. Rabbiteater wanted to object—or toss Seraphel overboard—but he had a nagging feeling she was right.

If someone had humiliated Garen back when he was a Redfang, he’d have started a fight no matter what. Sometimes he might look down on Terandrian customs, but he squirmed when he realized Seraphel was right.

Cortese was equally embarrassed, and the two exchanged a long look.

“Her Highness seems to have the spirit of adventure in her. So, Rabbiteater, have you secured any presents for this holiday?”

Cortese turned casually to address him, and Rabbiteater latched onto that.

“Some stuff. I bought it from the quartermaster.”

“Oh? I as well. It’s hard to…well, if we were closer to home and had more practice, we’d make more of a to-do. Small gifts.”

“Yep. Nice celebration. Think they’ll have fancy food?”

“I think I heard talk of someone breaking out some of the finer vintages, and the word is there’s an entire Wyvern in a bag of holding that someone brought via Courier from Izril. One of the ones killed at Pallass, allegedly kept fresh.”

“Ooh. Wyvern meat is good eating.”

Cortese clasped his hands and tapped two fingers together.

“Not too tough? I have this image of it being unpalatably chewy. Griffin meat is rather stringy…”

“Nah. You marinate it.”

“Ah, splendid, splendid…”

 

——

 

The two cautious men were having civil conversation, and despite herself, Seraphel’s lips twitched as they glanced at her. The truth was that they were her closest friends on this voyage and, outside of her immediate servants, the only people Seraphel could trust.

Ser Thilowen and the majority of the Calanferians sent to colonize the New Lands of Izril were not on her side. They were hand-picked by her parents and decidedly more competent than Calanfer might have sent otherwise.

They were effectively the leash upon her neck, and Reclis and Ielane did not want Seraphel to go the way of Lyonette. In fact, Seraphel rather suspected Thilowen’s orders were to bring Lyonette back, in which case things would get messy.

Things were already messy, to see how many Terandrians were coming to settle the New Lands. This was a full army, no mistake. For every noble ship with its genteel lords and ladies waving at each other and treating this like some grand holiday, there was the belowdecks or a warship or huge passenger ship with thousands of [Soldiers] miserably stamping their feet and trying to get their sea legs on this voyage.

No one nation had sent an entire army over the sea, but combined? If they worked together, they had a force to make the Five Families or Walled Cities tremble. Yet it should not come to war.

I imagine the politicking will be beyond fierce. Having Cortese, Menrise, Altestiel, and even Ser Solstice presenting a united front with me will be invaluable. Assuming their nations agree to help.

She wanted to see the Walled Cities! See Lyonette. Seraphel imagined they might go to various places, like Liscor, and delicately forge alliances. She was excited to do it all, and even the knowledge that she had to represent Calanfer did not weigh heavily on her. This felt like freedom.

I did it at last. Look, Cara, Dalius, Culin, Sasi—look. I did it.

She was smiling, and Cortese and Rabbiteater stopped talking and watched Seraphel sit back and admire the seagulls flying along. She didn’t realize they were noting how happy she was. She just blushed when she noticed them watching.

“Mariel? Where is Menrise?”

Altestiel’s ship was inbound, and the Earl himself was striding over a bridge of water that flowed across the decks, carrying him, Strategist Kiish, and a few others on-board. He was a seasoned ocean-campaigner and thusly moved from ship to ship and commanded a great deal of the fleet.

Oh, people like Prince Iradoren and Golaen’s Titanguard Etrogaer were unhappy to have Altestiel leading, but the Earl of Rains was a military leader, and his naval combat prowess well exceeded their own. Yet he did make time for his friends, and he strode to the breakfast table with a sigh, brushing at his purple hair.

“Merry Christmas, all! Good morning, good morning—I’m sorry I was delayed. An incident among the fleet. Where’s Menrise?”

Altestiel looked surprised not to be the last one present. Steaming platters were unveiled, but the Ivory Four hesitated as they realized their fifth member was still abed.

“I think she’s sleeping in.”

“Seasick? She was dancing on the railings yesterday.”

Rabbiteater grunted.

“Impossible for Menrise. She’s too fun to be seasick.”

The last member of their group was Lady Menrise of Tourvecall, who was indeed so playful as to be outrageous at times. Seraphel was both horrified and envious of Menrise’s ability to pull pranks on a level few could manage.

Half the fleet still thought her ‘parents’ were sailing with Tourvecall’s pair of ships, and poor Lady Ficombe and Lord Ostevar kept denying they were, in fact, Menrise’s parents who had borne her out of wedlock after a tumble in a barn.

Menrise and Rabbiteater had also conspired to spread outrageous tales about Izril, from the fact that Izrilians loved to eat Shield Spiders to exaggerated tales about swarms of acidic flies that would melt your face off. Seraphel normally found Menrise first to rise—but the helmeted spellcaster-lady only appeared a minute later, looking unnaturally tired.

“Oh, hello, everyone. Sorry I’m late. I had a terrible night sleeping.”

“Kept awake by snoring? I have soundproofed rooms, but Baeris snores terribly.”

Cortese frowned. His cat looked up from her bowl of meat scraps, incredibly hurt, and Menrise shook her head.

“No, I can cast [Silence]. It was a nightmare. A bad one. Heya, Rabbit. Hey, Courty.”

“Hey, Menny.”

They had nicknames! Seraphel was astonished. And slightly hurt she didn’t have one. Cortese, on the other hand, paused with his first breakfast tart halfway towards his mouth.

“Do not call me that.”

“Aw.”

Menrise and Rabbiteater traded fingerguns, and she sat down, already rallying a bit. She raised a cup of coffee and inserted a straw into her visor. Rabbiteater, meanwhile, used a kind of privacy screen to swiftly raise his visor and shove a full pastry in. The sounds of him chewing it down and the two helmeted diners were odd—but Seraphel enjoyed their company.

“I’m glad you’re still enjoying yourselves. Though you may not be tonight; we have banquets on eight different flagships, and I’m told half have speeches planned.”

“Damn. Let’s skip those.”

Rabbiteater groaned. Seraphel protested.

“We can’t! It would hurt their feelings terribly if Altestiel and I didn’t show up.”

“Plus, they have little gifts to incentivize people to turn up. You want your Christmas presents? You’d better show up with a gift of your own. Do you all want to come with us?”

Altestiel looked hopeful, and Menrise leaned over the table seriously.

“Not all of them. But I bet someone knows what kind of presents we get. Let’s only go to the ones who have good presents.”

“Kaaz is giving out daggers.”

Cortese muttered around his breakfast. Rabbiteater rubbed his gauntleted hands together.

“Okay, that’s one ship.”

Seraphel laughed, sighed, and confessed that Calanfer had a small gathering that would let anyone who wanted to come over toast the Eternal Throne—and receive a pouch of glowing candies in return. Menrise immediately began drawing a magical map in the air and plotting their route for banquets while avoiding the bores.

It might be a fun Christmas after all. However, Altestiel looked oddly perturbed and brought something up before they could begin fully enjoying the day.

“I hate to say this, but it might not all be roses and winter cheer. I was delayed because there was a disturbing report at sea. I may have to investigate this and, obviously, keep this private—but there was an assault last night. One of the female [Sailors] from Pheislant was attacked in her room.”

The Ivory Five paused and turned to him, and Seraphel’s heart sank. Christmas. The day of cheer. And also racism.

And sexism?

“What? Who did it? Someone from her ship?”

“No—and the perpetrator wasn’t found. That’s why it’s suspicious. Lord Firrus Kallinad, who is leading Pheislant’s ships, did a full search of the ship on truth stone, and no one he could find was to blame. He’s no fool either; the [Sailor] claimed she barely saw the attacker, and they apparently leapt out an open window. One of the porthole ones that was open.”

“Maybe that’s how they got in? You’d have to climb up the ship’s side and be a good swimmer or…all that to attack someone? Was she hurt?”

Cortese looked outraged, and Altestiel assured them not, to Seraphel’s relief. That would have soured everything.

“No. She was, uh—licked. On the back. But then the attacker fled.”

Licked?

Seraphel and Menrise were horrified. Rabbiteater frowned, looking around the ships.

“Sounds like someone needs beating up. Who do you think did it?”

“Now that is what we are trying to avoid, Solstice.”

Altestiel wagged a finger at him. Rabbiteater sighed, and Altestiel went on, lowering his voice.

“I have asked, and a few other ships reported a disturbance. It seems like someone is going around from ship-to-ship. I highly doubt it’s a monster. It sounds like a deranged member of the crew, and I intend to capture them before this becomes an incident. Kiish is going to see if she can trap them. But I wouldn’t want to spoil your day.”

“Nonsense! We shall help you apprehend the miscreant.”

Cortese leapt to his feet, looking outraged, and put a hand on his sword’s hilt.

“A rapine beast should be put down like one. If there is such a miscreant among the sailors or soldiers…Solstice! We have a hunt at sea.”

Rabbiteater nodded, now cracking his knuckles.

“I always wanted to have a fight on a ship. A proper one. Last time we surrendered really fast. Sounds good.”

Altestiel looked rather amused by their willingness to forget about Christmas, but even Seraphel wanted to join in. It actually sounded more fun than banal Christmas greetings, and she would sleep more soundly if she knew the attacker was caught.

But speaking of sleep…Menrise yawned hugely.

“I’m all for this. Maybe the person was sneaking up on me last night? Then again, no one came in my rooms, so it was probably a dream.”

Cortese turned in his seat.

“What’s this about a dream? Why were you so late, Menrise?”

She shrugged.

“Seasick, I was using my helmet as a privy.”

Everyone stared at her. She raised her hands.

“Kidding. But seriously, I had a terrible night’s sleep. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night unable to move, sure someone’s staring at you from around the corner of your door and they’re about to stab you to death?

Hundredlord Cortese’s mouth moved as he pictured that.

“Absolutely not. That is horrifying. I shall have nightmares of it myself. Was that your night?”

Seraphel had heard of night terrors, and Menrise nodded, shuddering despite herself.

“I have those dreams now and then. I just know someone’s there, and I can’t move, so I’m waiting for them to walk in, leap on me, and stab me. Any moment. That was how it was last night for hours, but it was the most vivid experience I’ve ever had. Me, lying in my cabin, waiting to die—”

Aaaah! Stop! What a horrid thought!”

Cortese put his hands over his ears, and Menrise threw a napkin at him.

I’m the one who had that happen to me! It was bad, this time. I swear there was something there.”

Earl Altestiel was frowning and tapping his lips as he glanced at Kiish. The [Strategist] was already heading to Menrise’s quarters to investigate.

“Maybe it’s just as well we’re looking into the matter. If you want to investigate—I believe the last ships reporting something odd were Cenidau’s. It does seem like this perpetrator is moving from ship to ship, so if we hurry and spread a net…do you wish to come, Your Highness?”

He looked at Seraphel, the least likely to want to get into the fray, but Seraphel was already rising. She dusted her skirts.

“Of course! Although I may wish to go in pairs at least. A hunt for Christmas! Will we get coal or something if we do end up fighting?”

Rabbiteater shrugged.

“Maybe. Then we can beat them over the head with it.”

The Ivory Five headed off as Altestiel summoned a water bridge for them to go ahunting. Seraphel thought of it as little more than a diversion at first, to pass the time. After all, it was probably some [Climbing Pervert]…if such a class existed.

She doubted a monster would go to all that effort to climb into a ship to lick someone.

 

——

 

At the same time, another hunt was going on in the city of Liscor. Watch Captain Zevara was striding along, albeit with a cloak concealing her armor, moving down the snow-encrusted streets, waiting and listening for the sounds of another assault.

However, she wasn’t alone. Along with several [Guards] also keeping a lookout, a hooded Drake with purple scales and a shorter one with green scales were following. And Drassi, who had yellow scales, was bringing up the rear, but she just had a scarf around her face.

Zevara hissed at them.

“What are you lot doing?”

“If someone’s attacking Liscorians, I want to stop it! Especially on Christmas! I can defend myself, Zevara!”

Selys assured Zevara. The Watch Captain stared at Selys and knew that, while her uncle had trained her, the [Receptionist] was hardly a warrior.

“I have magic artifacts! Plus—look at this.”

She moved her cloak, and Zevara nearly walked into a lamppost as she saw a burnished glint of metal under Selys’ cloak. Ilvriss nearly leapt into a cart passing by.

You’re wearing the Heartflame Breastplate?

Selys looked incredibly smug as Zevara gasped.

“No one’s leasing it at the moment. Think I’ll get hurt now?”

“This is a Watch matter, not for civilians! Wall Lord Ilvriss—”

He adjusted his collar to the wind.

“I must insist on helping, Watch Captain. A disturbance in a Drake city does concern me, and if there’s interspecies hostility—that’s the last thing my expedition needs.”

Since it was hard to argue with that, Zevara glared at Drassi, and the [Reporter] held up a claw.

“If it’s news, I’m covering it. Relax. I’m safe with you big, strong, sword-swinging people around, and no one has anything to do with Erin working on her Christmas presents. Frankly, I think even Lyonette is bored enough to investigate with the [Ladies].”

What ladies?”

The problem with telling people in The Wandering Inn about a problem was that unlike other civilians, the guests of Erin’s inn were trained to do something about problems. Zevara groaned as Drassi counted on her claws.

“Well, there was Lady Bethal, her husband, Lady Pryde…they said it was a [Lady]’s job to solve problems.”

“Wonderful. If any of you get hurt, I am not paying the [Healer]’s bill. At least there’s a chance someone will find something.”

Zevara stomped onwards, then remembered she was trying to blend in. She wasn’t much good at this…what would you even call this? Subterfuge…hidden Watch patrols? She felt like there was a name for this kind of thing.

She also felt like there was a better way of doing this than just walking around Liscor hoping someone got attacked. But then again, the attacks seemed mostly rand—

Help! Watch! Heeeelp!

The Watch Captain heard a shout in the distance and took off sprinting. She didn’t have long to wait at all! She rounded the corner, ready to see someone under attack—

—And saw a Drake running full tilt with a money pouch in his claws. Zevara paused and remembered.

Oh, yes. Crime happened regularly. She sighed.

[Freeze, Criminal].

The Drake froze, pitched over in the snow, and then began to squirm as Zevara charged at him. He was almost up when Ilvriss calmly pointed a claw at him. A pale beam shot at the Drake, and he froze up again.

“[Lesser Paralysis Ray].”

“Huh. Thank you, Wall Lord.”

Zevara secured the criminal and money pouch anyways, then whistled for a [Guardsman] to take the prisoner. She was returning the pouch to the grateful citizen when she felt the spines on her neck tingle.

A fell chill descended across her scales, and the Watch Captain felt an unnatural cold seeping into her bones. At the same time, a bell rang in her head. [Dangersense]. Selys, looking around at all the Christmas decorations, stiffened, and Drassi sneezed.

“Whoa. Did it just feel cold to any—”

Watch out!

Ilvriss shouted. Zevara turned, and someone screamed in her face.

Die, Drake!

She dodged, and something cut her cheek open. Zevara dodged left, rolled to her feet, and Ilvriss drew his sword as Selys shouted and then activated her Heartflame Breastplate. Flames roared over her as Zevara threw back her cloak.

“Liscor’s Watch! Surrender or—”

She pointed her sword at the attacker, then froze along with everyone else. Zevara stared.

What is that?

 

——

 

It was not hard for the Porcelain Five to find the attacker. It was almost disappointing, really. By the time they had even reached the part of the flotilla that had reported incidents, there was a cry from one of the Cenidau vessels.

Pervert! 

There was an uproar on deck. Furred Cenidau warriors were milling about, and someone was shouting. Another man was rubbing at his face.

They took a swing at me! Find that bastard!

“There. I’m heading aboard. The rest of you—that ship!”

Altestiel pointed, and Cortese protested as the Earl of Rains indicated a ship neighboring Cenidau’s vessel, this one from Taimaguros. It was a huge ship, one of the massive ones meant to transport thousands of troops at a time.

“But the attacker—”

“They’re likely to hop ships! We have a view of the waters—if they head to you, grab them!”

“You heard him. Let’s go!”

Rabbiteater charged onto the other deck, and Seraphel and Menrise leapt after him. One of the officers on board looked alarmed at the commotion.

“What’s going on? This is the property of the Taimaguros Dominion. Who—”

He made to intervene, but Dame Neranthei was there, and the Thronebearer shouted loud enough for all to hear.

Her Highness Princess Seraphel, the Hundredlord Cortese, Lady Menrise, and Ser Solstice about the security of the armada! Make way!”

She strongarmed the fellow, and the Ivory Four rushed belowdecks. Seraphel had seen multiple windows open to give some fresh air belowdecks, and sure enough, it was fairly stale air and many, many corridors leading throughout the huge ship.

Even so, it was still only the size of a modest building at best. She stumbled down the stairs, and Cortese steadied her.

“Damn, I forgot how big some of these boats are. Altestiel might be engaging the rogue at any moment. If they did flee to this ship, where might they be? Anyone have sensing Skills?”

Rabbiteater’s head turned right and left. Then he shook his head.

“Nah, we should wait. Then—we hear something and we run. That’s how G—my people do it.”

“Primitive, I suppose. Try to wound the bastard. Baeris won’t lose their scent.”

Menrise punched a fist into her palm.

“That’s right. What do we do when we catch them? Hang them upside down and drag them behind the boat? Tar and feather?”

“Likely it will be an execution if they really have attacked dozens of people.”

Rabbiteater, Menrise, and Cortese looked at Seraphel. She lifted her hands.

“It’s not my idea. But that’s traditional at sea! Or you lose a hand.”

Rabbiteater poked her.

“You’re depressing. It’s Christmas.”

She poked him back, through his armor, and once again wondered who he was. She had a distinct feeling she was poking flesh as he recoiled and slapped her [Ghostly Hand]. She would have felt scales or fur.

Was he just a Human behind the helmet? A…disfigured fellow? Or a member of the Five Families or someone who couldn’t reveal himself. She wondered. And she knew she’d have time to ask him more once they reached his home.

Then—they all felt it. A strange chill in the air. Cortese stiffened, and Rabbiteater looked down at his feet.

“Huh? That’s cold.

“That’s no aura. What was that?”

Menrise pointed.

“One floor down. [Heatvision]!”

She passed a hand across her helmet, then stared.

“Wow. Something cold is down there, heading across the corridor! Want to bet that’s what it was? Come on!”

She ran the way the figure was going only to realize Rabbiteater, Cortese, and Seraphel were gone. Each one had gone running a different way, looking for the stairs. Menrise hesitated—but then dashed away, looking for a way down.

And as any Earther could tell you, it was when you split up that things got…interesting.

 

——

 

The warship was hardly uncrowded, but the sight of Baeris and Cortese racing down the corridor, sword drawn, shouting to clear the way, tended to get people to move. More than that; the unnatural chill the Hundredlord was following would probably chase most people off.

He got to the location first and stopped when he saw frost on the wooden deck and vapor in the air.

“What idiot uses that kind of magic? Perhaps they froze the ice to climb to this ship? Baeris—back.”

The snarling lion was normally raring to attack any foe, but to his surprise, the Hundredlord realized he needn’t hold her back. In fact…when he turned around, he saw Baeris hiding in an open room, staring at him with wide eyes.

“…Baeris? What’s gotten into you?”

Someone had spooked his lioness! Few things did that. She’d even snap at a Griffin! Suddenly wary, Cortese adjusted his grip on his sword and drew his dagger in his offhand. He whispered.

“[Stalker’s Prowl]. [Ready Attack]…[Sword Art: Lion’s Fangs].”

He slunk forwards, now stealthy, readying a powerful attack for his first blow if it came to combat. He was, after all, a dangerous duelist, and his rings began to glow.

The vapors increased as Cortese prowled forwards, turning into actual mist down the corridor. Some kind of concealment spell? Frost was already growing on the walls, and Cortese’s sense of wariness grew as he sensed his quarry ahead. Oddly—he didn’t see any feet as he stared at foot-level to gauge where to strike.

Yet he did hear a voice now, whispering ahead of him. Cortese frowned.

…damned. Rosy flesh and lips like red blossoms. Love to kiss them said I. Notta one willing to take my hand. Hungry and cold…

Someone was muttering to themself, and Cortese snarled with contempt. He hesitated, wondering if he should wait, but decided he daren’t wait for this person to escape. So he leapt forwards, sword drawn.

Aha!

 

——

 

After finding some stairs, Menrise had gone downstairs only to find people flooding upstairs, complaining of an intense cold or looking uneasy.

She’d felt it too and had warily stopped and begun casting protection spells. The sound of Cortese’s shout made Menrise turn. A second later, she heard a piercing scream.

Cortese?

Menrise ran. She wasn’t wearing a dress, but more serviceable leggings for a ship, but the rocking ship made her slow. When she saw the mists, she froze—yet the sight of the body on the ground made her dash forwards.

Cortese!

Baeris was prowling around him, whimpering, and Menrise ran over to him—and froze.

Cortese was on his back, his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. He had foam around the corners of his mouth, and he looked terrified.

“What the—Cortese?”

She shook him a few times, but he didn’t move. Baeris made a strange yipping sound, and Menrise looked at her. Then Menrise realized she wasn’t alone.

Whoever had gotten Cortese was here. Menrise saw the mists return and threw herself into a room. To her surprise, it was some kind of dressing room, and she was backing into it when she heard the same voice Cortese had heard.

It was…low, a long, plaintive stream of words that seemed…half formed. As if the speaker were sleepwalking, and there was a strange echo to the words. They grew closer as Menrise backed towards the wall, wishing Rabbiteater or someone else were here.

Thou laggard filth besoiling the deck. Come at me, ye swine. I’ll cut ye down tip to groin. Heheheh. The bilge decks swabbed with blood. I dream of it. I died hanged about these waters. Rotting into the surf. Where’s the filth on decks?

The voice grew nearer—and Menrise saw frost curling on the doorframe, then—something drifted through the door. She saw a hand, unnaturally pale, even bluish, and then the figure appeared—

And Menrise saw a ghost.

It wasn’t even a full body, more like a swirl of mists that parted to reveal pieces of a face that had literally been blown off, bone and an empty socket—yet the other half was unmistakably a man’s. He wore part of a pirate’s hat and had a torn set of clothing on that looked like he had tried to style himself as a [Lord]—but was unkempt and filthy.

Yet—he was also pale, semi-transparent, and oh yes. Dead.

A ghost? The figure spotted Menrise, and she felt the same chill and now the terror she had felt last night. The ghost stopped, spotted Menrise, and leered.

Helmet? But a fine bosom, aye. Come to my arms and warm me some.

It stumbled forwards, half-vanishing into a cloud of frozen air, then rematerializing. It was…nothing like the ghosts that Menrise had heard of. It reached for her, and the [Lady] reached forwards—and closed the privacy curtains.

The voice made a puzzled ‘uh?’ sound, and Menrise exhaled. Then she theatrically wiped her helmet across the brow.

“I have had too much to drink. Aha. That’s what I get for playing pranks so much. All in my mind. All in my mind.”

Menrise edged past the curtains and began walking towards the door. The ghostly [Pirate] stared at her as she passed.

Lady love, cold am I…

“La, la, la…oh, hello Baeris. Why don’t we go abovedecks?”

Menrise skipped past him, and the ghost stared at her. Baeris took one look at the specter and bolted. The ghost was at her back, and now Menrise began walking down the corridor.

Ignored? Wrong, says I. Lady love!

It started following her. Menrise began walking faster. The ghost, accordingly, floated after her faster, calling out louder. Menrise broke into a run. Then a chilling hand touched her and gripped, and she stumbled.

Swine and curs! Ignore me not!

She turned, and the dead ghost’s face was pressed against her helmet. The metal froze. It leered at her, and she saw a hand reaching for her—Menrise screamed.

Aaaaaah! Wait, a swine!”

“Huh?”

The ghost hesitated, turned its head, and Menrise tore loose from the freezing grip and went sprinting away, arms flailing, screaming.

“Help! Heeeeeeelp—

The ghost caught on and followed her, snarling. It flew at Menrise—and straight into the axe that Ser Solstice swung through its head as he appeared out of a doorway.

Rabbiteater’s swing passed through the ghost, and he overbalanced, stumbled—and caught himself as the enraged ghost whirled. Rabbiteater stared at his axe, the unharmed ghost, and he muttered.

“Uh oh.”

 

——

 

Watch Captain Zevara stared at a whirling vortex of what looked like frozen wind and hesitated. Her sword was pointed not at a criminal, but…what?

It looked like nothing at first but malevolent frozen air. Then a hand emerged and pushed at her, and a voice screamed out of the storm.

DAMN YOU DRAKES!

It missed as Zevara pivoted, and she slashed—her sword passed through the thing, and she felt a chill run straight up her arm! She cursed, leapt back, and the thing dodged as Ilvriss slashed at it.

“Curse all you! All your rancid lot!”

It wailed and flew down the street. Zevara could barely see it as it flashed into the winter sunlight; it was almost invisible unless you had the right angle, and the hand had vanished.

“What was—what was that?

Selys breathed. Ilvriss covered Zevara, torn between chasing it and protecting her.

“Watch Captain?”

“After—after it! Don’t let it get away!”

It couldn’t be. And yet, now people were screaming as the four Drakes charged down the street, and Zevara had to give a name to what she was seeing. So she did. It was impossible, yes. Erin had said—but the word sprang from a terrified Human woman’s lips as she abandoned her Christmas shopping and fled.

“Ghost. Ghost!

A ghost was swinging wildly at every Drake it could see. Just a floating hand, the sense of a baleful stare, and Zevara, seeing a Drake family under attack, finally found her breath again.

Halt! Halt in the name of the Watch!

The thing rounded on her and attacked, the floating mists turning into a clawed hand. It slashed at her quickly, but not so fast she couldn’t dodge. So this was what had attacked people?

Die, damn you!

It screamed, and Zevara was wise enough not to parry this time. She stuck her sword through it again as it charged at her and, again, felt a chill and no sense of contact. But she wasn’t prepared for the thing to dive through her. Her shoulder went numb and rimed with frost in an instant.

Argh!

The cold was intense! Ilvriss leapt forwards, swearing.

“Watch Captain!”

He slashed, his enchanted blade cutting the air, and the spirit made a faint keening sound and backed away. Had he hurt it? Zevara was staring at her arm, covered in a thin layer of ice.

It was freezing! Zevara exhaled, and her own Dragonbreath cooked her arms with flames. She hissed—but it warmed. For all she knew, the cold was deadly.

“Get back! Monster on the loose!”

That was Selys. The street was clearing, and now Zevara, Ilvriss, and Selys were trying to attack the strange ghost. Drassi was hiding behind a barrel, just watching, as the three Drakes with swords attacked the ghost and found their blades doing nothing at all.

“Have at you!”

Ilvriss’ swordsmanship was the best, and he tagged the ghost several times as it flew at him. It seemed to want to try to pass through him and, heedless of the danger, let him stab into it, but only made the faintest of sounds. He backed away as Zevara shouted.

“Wall Lord! Breathing!”

She spat flames, and this time, the spectral air screamed—but emerged from the steam and flew at her. Zevara dodged, and Selys stood there. The ghost hit her armor—and shrieked.

It recoiled from the burning Heartflame Breastplate with a true wail of pain. One of the wisp-things screamed.

It burns! It burns—

It flew around Selys, then backed away as Zevara shot another jet of flame at it. Meanwhile, Ilvriss shot a ray of paralysis through the ghost, then eyed his [Fireball] ring. He was wary to use area-magics in a city, but the Wall Lord was making a tactical assessment, and he didn’t think they were hurting the wisps without it.

“Watch Captain, we need to use magic or something! Selys, back up!”

“I’m trying! Don’t worry; it can’t hurt—”

Selys was shouting, flailing at the ghost who was wailing and wailing—then Ilvriss’ [Dangersense] began tingling. He turned his head and swore.

“Ancestors.”

A dozen more wisps of air poured out of the walls and buildings, coming to attack. Zevara turned, and then she and Ilvriss were fighting in earnest. He slashed, feeling cold freezing his arms, legs, armor, regardless of the magic, and saw the ghosts recoiling from his blade—but only a bit.

His sword barely did any damage! It was like he was inflicting papercuts with each slice, and Zevara was doing just as badly.

Her Dragonbreath burned them, but there were dozens of the wisps now, each one chilling and cutting to the touch. They whirled around, and the cold grew more intense the more there were. They might have frozen Ilvriss badly—his arm was already going numb—but for Selys.

She stood there, not even waving her sword, as two dozen of the wisps that had been attacking people in Liscor flew around her, shrieking insults and trying to get close to her blazing armor. She was smirking at them. They, on the other hand, were giving mixed signals.

DAMN DRAKES!

“For House Terland!”

“It’s cold. It’s cooold—

“Liscor! Liscor, walls of stone and spears of spite—”

They seemed to each be individual—and at least one was chanting what sounded like an anthem to Liscor! But what they agreed on was that they really didn’t like the Heartflame Breastplate.

Even as he watched, the roaring green flames engulfed one of the ghost-things, and it vanished with a scream. Selys waved a hand.

“I’ve got this! Get back, you two!”

“Wall Lord, form up!”

Zevara was backing away, and more [Guards] who’d come running at the commotion were backing up, trying to fight off the wisps with even less success than Ilvriss and Zevara. Their ordinary steel weapons did absolutely nothing, and a Gnoll cried out as his fur frosted over.

They weren’t…deadly, but if the wisps kept freezing them, everyone would have frostbite or worse. Ilvriss was taking slow aim at Selys with his [Fireball] ring. He knew it wouldn’t hurt her, and he felt like it might do enough damage to the wisps.

“I’m sending a [Fireball] your way! Selys, brace!”

She nodded, raising one blazing arm.

“Go ahead! I’ll be just fine! Good thing I’ve got—”

Her confident grin and the flames on her armor were both blazing—right until the magical fires on the Heartflame Breastplate abruptly went out.

The armor stopped glowing, and every magical line on the plate went dead. Selys’ face froze—and so did the air around her and the armor.

“Uh?”

Then the wisps froze her armor, and Ilvriss shouted before Zevara blew them away with a gout of her fire. Selys was lying on the ground, steam rising from her frozen armor as she stared at it in horror.

“Wait. Wait—that shouldn’t be—activate!”

She tried hissing, but the armor refused to activate. Ilvriss stared as he charged over and dragged her up.

“It’s dead?”

“No, no. It can’t be—”

“Selys, Ilvriss, run!

Now the wisps were coming down, and Drassi shouted as the two looked up and began sprinting for it. Two dozen wisps came shrieking down at them as Drassi threw herself forwards.

“Drassi! Don’t—”

“[Journalistic Shield]!”

Drassi shouted as she spread her arms, and the wisps bounced off a glowing wall in the air. They went scattering, and Drassi exhaled as Selys and Ilvriss stared at the wall.

“Whew, it worked! Come on—it only lasts a minute, and they can fly around it!”

“Don’t tell them that!”

All three of them began running as Zevara’s Watch backed up, trying to get the wisps’ attention. Selys was feeling at her armor.

“What, is it dead? It’s a relic of our species!”

“Maybe it’s out of power? Doesn’t it generate magic?”

“I don’t know. Does it?

Wait a second, does it even generate mana, or did she burn through all of its reserves or something? Ilvriss realized no one had actually tested how the relic worked, just taken its self-regenerating powers for granted.

Nor was there any time to think about that. They were running with the wisps in hot pursuit, and Ilvriss pointed towards the eastern gate.

“Get to The Wandering Inn! The garden can protect us if nothing else can!”

“Dead gods, dead gods—”

Drassi was looking over her shoulder as the wisps came on, and then they saw people ahead of them.

Get out of the way! Monsters!

Selys waved her arms, and Ilvriss joined in. The people ahead began running. All except for a small group, and Ilvriss heart sank when he saw Lyonette and the [Ladies]. He shouted to warn them, but then the ghosts were right on top of them again.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater’s jade axe was covered in frost after a minute of fighting. His hands were cold, and the Goblin was not having a good time.

“Damn.”

He went to kick the pirate-ghost in the nuts. But all he did was freeze his foot. The ghost actually reacted, trying to dodge, then came at him, snarling and hacking.

Swine on my decks.

“Not your decks! Menrise, do something!”

“[Light Arrow]!”

She pointed, and the ghost snarled, whirled, and two more [Light Arrows] missed it. One hit Rabbiteater in the face.

Stop shooting me!

“I’m trying! I—argh! Save me!

It went after her next, and Rabbiteater swung the jade axe through the ghost’s back, and it snarled.

Damn you curs!

It did feel the axe! Rabbiteater saw a faint silver line from the edge of his axe, and somehow, he felt like the jade was doing more damage than anything else. It felt like he made the faintest contact every time he hit it.

However, the Goblin didn’t think the ghost was that hurt, and again—this was not a ghost as he understood them. He had been there when the ghostly kings appeared, and this…thing was as to a ghost what a baby Creler was to an Adult Creler.

It was torn apart, more mist than air, and it didn’t even seem that lucid. It was also cold as heck, and the one thing saving the two was that it fought about as well as, well, a drunken [Pirate].

Rabbiteater and Menrise backed up, fleeing from the apparition, and all the sailors and crew had taken one look at the ghost and run screaming. Menrise aimed another series of [Light Arrows] at the ghost, but it just floated behind a wall, and they missed.

“Can’t you use a better spell?”

He shouted at her, and Menrise bellowed back.

“Lots! But I’m not a warcaster!”

What? You don’t know combat magic? What are you, stupid?

“Do I look like I enjoy fighting in wars? Most people don’t even learn combat magic! Let’s get on deck! Someone will be able to kill it!”

Unfortunately, they were at the end of the ship, and they had just reached a dead end. Rabbiteater cursed as the ghost hobbled forwards, leering at Menrise.

Come warm me up, lovely lady.

“Ew. No. Go away.”

She waved her hands at it, and the ghost snarled.

“I’m cold. I sank in the ocean, but no one embraced me. No gift of the seas. Please touch me—”

He reached out that one hand he held, and Rabbiteater prepared to rush himself and Menrise through the ghost. Maybe if he used one of his other Skills? He was about to try when someone spoke.

“Um. Excuse me. Are you from Noelictus? Hello!”

Princess Seraphel appeared as the ghost turned, and Menrise and Rabbiteater made wild gestures.

“Seraphel! Get out of here!”

The [Deathtouch Princess] ignored them both. She stood behind the ghost, having finally found them, with Dame Neranthei and one of her maids, Mariel, behind her. But instead of horror or shock—Seraphel’s eyes shone.

“Hello! Ser Ghost, I am Princess Seraphel du Marquin. Are you from Noelictus? The tombs?”

A lady?

The ghost-pirate turned and stared at Seraphel. He smiled.

Never touched land, not I. Come hold me.

He stepped forwards, and Neranthei barred the way.

“Princess—”

“Don’t, Neranthei! He’s not like the others—sir? I just want to talk. Will you talk to me? Where are you from?”

Seraphel reached out, wincing as she felt the extreme cold of the ghost. He stared at her hand, and his eyes found her face.

—awoke in the cold. So cold. Even here it’s not warm. Touch me and for a second I’m warm. Cold as the dark. The grave. I died down there—

He pointed down vaguely, and Rabbiteater edged forwards. Seraphel stared at him, shaking her head slightly.

“Can you speak to me, sir? Please—”

It’s cold, and I don’t remember who I was. Death itself brought me back. I’m cold. I’m so—

The ghost was shaking his head. Then he seemed to lose something. Sanity? He reached out—and grabbed Seraphel’s chest.

She stared down as Neranthei tried to beat the ghost off. The ghost leered at her.

Ah, how lovely—

Seraphel slapped the ghost so hard Rabbiteater saw it float through a wall. The [Princess] balled up a fist as the ghost roared.

Damn you—

How dare you!

And she punched it in the face. The blow clearly connected, and the ghost went reeling. Mariel, Neranthei, Rabbiteater, and Menrise all stared.

“How the heck did she—?”

Her [Ghostly Hand]! Seraphel rubbed her hand as she backed up. The ghost seemed just as surprised by the blow and floated backwards uncertainly.

It hurts? It hurts—but I felt it. Touch me. Touch—”

He went for her again, and this time, Neranthei swung her sword without avail, shouting.

“Mariel! Take the [Princess] back! Help! To arms!”

She was shouting for help, and the ghost was attacking her, freezing her armor. Rabbiteater exhaled as he strode forwards. Altestiel and more soldiers were pouring down the hallway now, and the Earl of Rains himself stopped dead as he saw the ghost.

“A ghost? How—?”

“It’s not the same as the others.”

Seraphel shook her head sadly. She stared at the pirate ghost as he flailed around, almost tearfully, as if she had hoped…the ghost was turning.

I’m cold.

“Sorry. But you’re also dangerous.”

The specter turned—and Rabbiteater swung his axe. The ghost locked onto the Hobgoblin’s armored form, then stared at the glowing axe, bathed in sunlight.

[Lightsoaked Armaments].

Rabbiteater cleaved through the mists and the ‘body’ of the ghost, and it separated. He saw the two pieces trying to join, but he finished the swing, and Seraphel cried out as the frozen air tried to reform—then gave up. With a sigh, the strange ghost of a pirate whispered.

Thank you.

Then it was gone.

 

——

 

The wisp attack in Liscor was coming at Lyonette, two of her Thronebearers, Bethal, Thomast, Pryde, and two Knights of the Petal. When they saw the wisps, the Humans froze up—then began fighting with about as much success as Ilvriss and Zevara at first.

Damn! My sword is doing nothing!

Dame Welca Caveis shouted as she swung through the ghosts, and Ser Dalimont shouted.

“Do you know me? Are you ghosts? Please, talk to—”

Dame Ushar slammed into his shoulder.

“Stop talking and protect Her Highness, Dalimont!”

Dalimont rallied and went to Lyonette’s defense; she was swinging her sword around as Pryde and Bethal looked around, wide-eyed. Thomast cut a wisp in twain with a slash of air, but it just reformed and went for him.

I’m cold. I’m cold, and they stabbed me in the Bloodfields.

It whispered as it tried to suck the warmth out of him. The Wall Lord spun away, his arm numb.

“Back! Back to the inn!”

Ilvriss was shouting as Zevara’s Watch came to try and drive the wisps off. It was a melee, but one where one side was invulnerable to harm! A ghost dove at Lyonette, and Ilvriss shouted.

“Get to the inn! Watch—”

Lyonette cut the wisp in two. Then she whirled the sword up and hacked through another specter, who screamed and fled her blade. Her sword was glowing. As Ilvriss halted, mouth open, he saw Lyonette’s eyes lighting up.

“It works!”

“How—?”

Everyone stared, and Lyonette lifted her sword.

“[Silverglow Enchantment]!”

What kind of spell was that? Even Ilvriss, who knew tons of magic even if he couldn’t cast it, hadn’t heard of it. Yet Zevara didn’t waste time.

“Can you enchant my sword?”

She thrust it out, and Lyonette closed her eyes, then passed a hand over the sword. Zevara’s blade took on that same ethereal light. She cut and bisected one of the ghostly breezes, and it died.

“Me too!”

Ilvriss stepped forwards, and Lyonette nodded. She began enchanting blades as the wisps realized they were suddenly in danger. Yet they either had a low sense of self-preservation or not much intelligence to them, because they kept attacking anyone not with an enchanted blade.

One went flying at Lady Pryde, and she frowned at it.

“What new kind of monster are you? It doesn’t matter. I am Pryde. Huh!

She headbutted the frozen spirit, and it recoiled. Ilvriss’ head cricked around, and his jaw opened. Pryde rubbed at her forehead as the spirit went reeling back.

“Hm. That’s cold. Bethal, auras work.”

“Of course they do. Thomast, behind me. Maybe I have to carry you to safety.”

Bethal delicately waved a hand as a wisp dove at her husband, then her eyes narrowed. The wisp ran into something just past her hand, and Ilvriss saw pockmarks appear, as if it had just embedded itself on huge thorns.

The two [Ladies] and the enchanted blades made short work of the others, and four wisps went running, pursued by some of the Watch. Ilvriss, somewhat lamely, realized he was standing there with zero ghost-kills to his name.

The only person who looked more upset was Selys, who was banging a clawed fist on her armor.

“It’s not working! There’s no magic in it! It—did they break it?”

“Someone broke the Heartflame Breastplate?”

Zevara was horrified, but Selys just shook her head.

“No! I think it ran…out of mana? I don’t know what’s wrong!”

“First things first. What was that?

Drassi interrupted, and Lyonette breathed.

“Ghosts.”

“No, not them. Your spell! What spell was that? You cut the ghosts to ribbons!”

“Oh! Um.”

Lyonette jumped and blushed as everyone turned to her. She indicated the glowing blade, which was beginning to fade as the enchantment wore off.

“[Silverglow Enchantment]. Ghostkilling magic. I learned it from Krshia’s book—were those really ghosts? They weren’t as—friendly as Erin made them out to be.”

“Certainly not.”

Ilvriss agreed. He had been at the Great Plains, and those looked nothing like the ghosts, or even the Revenants of Khelt’s undead he remembered. He frowned, staring around, but they had left almost nothing behind. Just some residue on the ground that maybe looked like powder.

“These were nothing like the ghosts I saw. These were just limbs or faces—masses of frozen wind. They were shouting all kinds of slurs and seemed to think we’ll hurt them.”

“One was wailing about dying. They sounded a bit like…soldiers, actually.”

Dame Welca offered. The Rose Knight was checking on her frozen arms, but aside from some potential frostnip, everyone was unhurt. A few [Guards] had frozen cuts from the claws the ghost-things had produced, but they hadn’t been killed.

Then again, if they hadn’t known how to kill them and they’d been caught out, Ilvriss could imagine being frozen to death.

Selys was kneeling on the street now, staring at the inactive armor and something else. Ilvriss rubbed at his own arms, worried.

“Have we destroyed actual ghosts? If so—we may come to regret it.”

“Erin said they were all gone. Every one.”

Lyonette shook her head, glancing towards the inn. Zevara cursed.

“If Erin Solstice did this—she has to know something.”

“Maybe not. Even she can’t make monsters.”

Drassi opined, then hesitated when everyone thought about it. The [Reporter] amended her statement.

“Even she wouldn’t do that. Even to make Christmas gifts. No…no, I’m almost positive she didn’t brew them up in a cauldron.”

She sounded less convinced, now, but then Selys raised her voice and put an end to the confusion, in part.

“Not ghosts.”

Everyone turned to the [Secretary] of the Adventurer’s Guild. Selys looked as shaken as the others, especially by her Relic-class armor losing its power, but she was certain as she dragged a finger across the flagstones and rubbed them together, sniffing and then holding her clawed hand away from her face.

“Everyone, stop moving. Don’t kick up the snow. Those weren’t ghosts, at least, not yet. You’re standing in their residue. We need an expert sweeper at once, and if it’s on your boots—someone call for Silveran!”

Ilvriss looked down and realized the faint sheen of powder on the ground was not snow. Selys lifted her claws as some of the [Guards] nearly walked out of the area. Zevara, though, was more concerned about the threat.

“If they’re not ghosts, what are they?”

“Wisps.”

Selys’ voice made Ilvriss’ brows shoot up. She clarified as she pointed vaguely towards the Adventurer’s Guild.

“I used to read old Bestiaries that Grandmother had in the archives. The new ones are always updated for monsters you face, but the really old ones had all kinds of entries just in case. Those were wisps. Frozen air particles, voices, essentially memories of the dead that roam about and attack people. A precursor to more powerful spirits. They used to form in places with death magic. They’re another type of undead.”

“What? Great. Another new monster?”

One of the Watch groaned, but Selys snapped.

“Stop moving! Their dust is a valuable resource—this might be the first wisp dust anyone’s had in centuries! It’s extremely valuable. Get Silveran so we can analyze it! Also, they’re not new. They’re old! It’s just that ghosts and wisps and even banshees and the like, all the spectral undead, are virtually unheard of in the modern age. Or—were.”

She looked at Ilvriss uncertainly, and the Wall Lord felt a tingle down his spine. Another one of those old legends, resurfacing now?

“These wisps are a natural threat that pop up?”

Selys nodded.

“Yep. They’re rarer than zombies, and arguably, one alone is weaker than even a zombie. They appear in places where a lot of people died. Like—say—”

“The Bloodfields. Dead gods. But all the bodies are gone!”

Zevara closed her eyes. Now she understood why they had gone after Drakes and Humans. If those had been the spirits of dead soldiers—Selys gave her a helpless shrug.

“I don’t think it matters. They’re supposed to be based on dead…people, not their bodies. I just don’t understand why they’re here if the ghosts are gone.”

“Maybe they’re not all gone. Or maybe there are a lot of fragments left.”

Or maybe something in the world had changed to let them come back. Ilvriss didn’t know, but he knew where he would get his answers. Slowly, he sheathed his sword, then began to stride towards the inn. He only stopped when Selys shouted at him. The Wall Lord saw a happy Antinium, Silveran, running at them with a dustpan and broom. This was, of course, his hour.

Everyone needed a good [Cleaner].

 

——

 

“I didn’t do it.”

Erin Solstice sat with her arms folded. Watch Captain Zevara calmly blew on her still-cold clawed hands as she adjusted the [Light] spell she was not-quite shining in Erin’s face.

“No one said you did, Miss.”

“I didn’t bring them here. And I had no idea—you said wisps? The ghosts are dead.”

“Mhm. Can I get that in writing? Your testimony indicates, to your knowledge, under truth stone, you did not summon anything today. Or directly or indirectly cause these wisps to appear? Guardsman, dual confirmation?”

Relc held up a second truth stone and mouthed ‘sorry’ at Erin. She glared.

“No. I did not.

The truth stones glowed, and Zevara nodded as she made a note. She didn’t look entirely convinced, but she nodded to Relc.

“I need to file an immediate report with Selys’ details and how to fight these things. Apparently, extreme heat might work, or light magic. There are countless reports across every city of wisps.”

“Really?”

Erin looked up, alarmed. This was a worldwide phenomenon, then. They were mostly low-level wisps; the Terandrian fleet had encountered a more dangerous one, but they were everywhere. None of them were—coherent in the way that the ghosts of the deadlands had been.

These were somewhat mindless, propelled by faint, disjointed memories, as if they were pieces of whomever the people who had died had been. Less spirits or souls, and more like…echoes. Reflections of the dead brought back by magic.

Regardless of why, ghosts had returned.

Erin felt like she knew who was to blame.

 

——

 

On the ninth day, she rested.

Kasigna, the three-in-one, was weary. The power that ran through her, the combined souls of the dead, was a thin ichor to replace the true blood of gods. Even this took more effort than she wished, but soon, the Solstice would grant her a breach in the veil.

This? This was not the kind of trickery Emerrhain knew. This was the oldest method of the divine.

“Once more, let the dead and living comingle. Let them herald my coming, whispers before a storm.”

They were not, after all, true souls. She had merely allowed the reflections of the dead to reappear. Her hand swept across the falsity of the waking world, and she commanded the veil to part.

In the fullness of her strength, she could reach out and snuff lives like candles by will alone. Her hand closed over that little flame, that obnoxious soul, reaching for Erin Solstice. Even without Isthekenous’ greatest creation…

Her hand passed through shadows, and three faces scowled. No matter how hard she searched, the exact spot, that inn, had gone.

“Little tricks. You still see my will manifest. Erin Solstice. Hear my voice.”

She whispered, and the shards of being, broken memories of the dead saved, tried to echo her name, shuddering as the world twisted and refused to let it be said. Likewise, the undead in their mindless crusade against the living shivered. Once more, Kasigna reached for them.

Heed me.

Yet her voice was too weak to move them. Kasigna was frustrated as she stopped exerting her effort. They had formed a near-perfect prison, those wretched few who defied her to the last. She ruled all dead, in any shape and form, and yet—!

“Hence the ghosts. The living and dead should not freely speak. Only broken memory and whispers I allow. Let the living fear the grudges made manifest. They have no right to more.”

This was how it should have been. And the fragments of spirit would be another tool she could use once she regained more control. Likewise, soon—it didn’t matter if she could not see the inn, yet. She knew where it was.

A thought occurred to Kasigna, and three lips curved in a rueful smile, despite herself, and she indulged in self-congratulatory pleasure. For all it was a scheme, this had been well-done, and she admitted it freely.

“It has been long since I have created. The talent to weave worlds into being has not left me. I am the creator of endings; my bale-light has no mercy or soft promises as my peers make. Heaven. Hah!”

The thought annoyed her, and she could not wait to reign supreme. The idea of some of her peers…the gods of newer ages were always soft and weak. Kasigna stared into the aether.

“That little soul thinks it can create wonders? From the depths of mortality, I have seen and beheld true works of art. No witch has an inkling of what true craft is. That hat you wear belongs to the countless women who entreated me! Me!

She stopped, disgusted with her own anger, and drew a cloak about herself. She was still…cold. Still hungry. She whirled away and resumed pacing this empty land. There were still the half-things Norechl had called, more order to be restored.

A crone hobbled through those empty twilight lands. Yes. Time again. The oldest ways of gods were thus. A child now, she felt younger as she came to rest. One last week. A woman sat there in the darkness.

Waiting.

 

——

 

“This could be a good thing, Your Majesty.”

“How?”

The news of ghosts was so sufficiently distracting that even during Christmas, many leaders had to adjourn to discuss and understand this phenomena.

In Laken Godart’s case, he had possibly the happiest of meetings, far from the panic overtaking many groups who had no way to destroy the wisps other than magic—and with limited success at that.

He was sitting in his throne room, consulting with his experts. And they were happy, mostly. Some were nervous, but as far as the [Witches] were concerned…

Witch Eloise was the one speaking, and she tipped her hat to him with a confident smile on her face, or so Gamel indicated. Laken always wondered what that looked like on the polite tea-witch’s expression. Not arrogant…Erin kept telling him he had an arrogant smile. He suspected hers often got smug.

“Wisps and the spectral types of spirits are our domain. They are part of our craft, Your Majesty. And if they return, our business and the need for us increases.”

“So they’re not a threat? There are some all over Riverfarm.”

Even he couldn’t ‘detect’ them with his [Emperor]’s vision, though he did notice the unexplained frost where they were, so they unnerved him. But Witch Eloise just chuckled.

“Yes. With your permission, we shall catch them. In fact, if you would allow us, we will go anywhere they are present and catch or harvest their remains.”

“You can catch a wisp?”

The witches muttered, and Witch Mavika, their oldest expert, stepped forwards. Even she seemed very happy about recent developments.

“In old texts, there were means to craft a net for even a spirit. I made one as an apprentice, but never to use; the old ways were dying before even my master’s master’s master was born. This is welcome news.”

“For everyone but [Witches], it’s rather dire. Durene was not happy about ours.”

One of the wisps had apparently surprised Durene in the cottage while she was changing, and she’d punched a hole in the wall. She’d actually killed it, which said something about how you defeated them. Laken ticked off the points on his fingers.

“Sufficient heat, though that seems hard in the winter. Light magic or powerful spells. Witchcraft in general. Auras. Anything else?”

“A powerful magic blade, though few of modern make may suffice. And Truegold, Your Majesty. Those are the surest ways to kill a ghost. Silver too, but given the latest shortages—ah, well, it almost sounds connected!”

Agratha folded her hands together, practically beaming in her voice, and Laken sighed.

“Well, there will be a huge demand for all these materials so at least Lord Yitton might benefit. I have…one decision and one question regarding the wisps, I suppose. No, two questions and one decision.”

The [Witches] stirred, never quite happy to get orders they didn’t like, but Laken appreciated that they waited for him to ask.

“One—do wisps get more dangerous in time?”

Yes.

He didn’t like the certainty with which they responded. Oliyaya cackled.

“Everything gets stronger. Wisps, like undead, gather into powerful ones. You know Will O’Wisps? Banshees? Poltergeists? Specters, Wraiths, Boggarts? We’ll be seeing more of their lot, I have no doubt.”

Wonderful. So destroying them becomes a matter of necessity. I suppose I should be grateful that we have so many experts. Very well. That informs my decision, but my second question.”

Laken leaned forwards.

“…Is there any possibility this is Erin’s doing?”

He felt stupid even broaching the question, but the thought had occurred to him. She had brought a Water Elemental out of the river. The [Witches] muttered a tad uncertainly, but Eloise came back.

“We…doubt she could do this. If it was her doing in part, it was events set in motion.”

“I see. Perhaps the death of ghosts sparked this. Or…something else.”

Laken’s fingers twitched uncertainly as he thought of him and his companions. This had their stench, but he had to believe the wisps were a natural phenomenon reenabled by current events. He sighed.

“I imagine most nations will struggle with them.”

Eloise made a faint hmming sound.

“Not immediately, Your Majesty. I believe most nations will drive off the more aggressive ones. But it will be as the wisps gather and grow stronger that greater threats emerge. Some nations are ideally suited to dealing with them.”

“Such as?”

“Noelictus. The Kingdom of Shade has long known how to slay ghosts. I imagine any wealthy nation will have at least one piece of Truegold or something appropriate. It may be that Liscor, and even to some extent, Invrisil and other communities will be in need, however. May we have the permission to deal with the issue?”

The [Emperor] deliberated on his throne and held up one finger. He had never actually told the [Witches] ‘no’ on something they really wanted to do, and he suspected that they would ignore any orders countermanding things they felt they truly needed to do.

It would be bad practice to make people used to disobeying, so he didn’t intend to begin that. Rather…he leaned forwards.

“I have one condition for the [Witches] of the Unseen Empire regarding their use of ghosts.”

The assembly stiffened, and Laken spoke quickly and plainly.

“I do not intend to levy any taxes or restrict what you use their remains on or how you use their essence. For now. But I do insist that any [Witch] only deal with wisps within the Unseen Empire. Any ones in Liscor, Celum, Invrisil, and so on are not within our domain. They may only be hunted…if a deal is struck with these cities or the landholders to purchase the services of [Witches]. Lady Rie will have charge of that.”

Lady Rie stirred, and the [Witches]’ murmurs of doubt stopped. He thought he heard an approving chuckle from Witch Eloise.

“You intend for us to be paid, Your Majesty?”

“You are rendering a service. Lady Rie, Prost, begin advertising our ghosthunting services at once. Thanks to Erin’s door, the [Witches] have plenty of places. Assuming you don’t wish to hold off till after Christmas?”

He politely inquired, and from the negatives, he suspected it was hunting season and half the [Witches] would be racing to collect as many as possible. Laken rather hoped no one else caught on that these ‘pests’ were actually a valuable resource.

“Should we simply claim it is the power of the Unseen Empire, Your Majesty?”

Lady Rie sounded amused at the notion. Laken’s lips quirked up. He hid a smile with his hand.

“—How about we call it the Ghost Sweeper Service? Ghostbuster Witches?”

He grinned until Witch Eloise replied coolly.

“I think we’ll choose another name, Your Majesty. Thank you.”

 

——

 

What a Christmas, eh? Instead of presents and racism, it was just presents and ghosts. Which…was oddly apropos of the entire holiday when you thought about it.

Ghosts.

The thing was, they weren’t that dangerous. So there was an element to realizing that wisps and the ghost-kind undead had returned that made you think the age of myths had come again. That tingle in your blood wasn’t bad.

Obviously, if one was currently haunting your house, it was a lot less fun. But there were a lot of ways to deal with them, and Fetohep of Khelt, the [Witches], and a lot of older experts were giving out free advice all day.

In fact, one enterprising [Potter] in Khelt managed to trap a wisp in a pot. They were part of this system, after all, and there were Skills and ways devoted to dealing with them.

Of course, these experts couldn’t be everywhere. Which was why it was so lucky that there were already people learning how to deal with wisps.

Why, one [Net Thrower] had managed to catch one! There were already level ups happening, and the residue of the wisps was a valuable substance indeed.

The city of Celum wasn’t as lucky as Invrisil, which had [Witches] prowling about. A few had poked their head into Celum, but Invrisil had a lot of anxious street vendors who wanted a successful Christmas and were willing to bribe the [Witches] with street goods for an uneventful day.

Never let it be said you couldn’t bribe a [Witch]. Therefore, they were in Invrisil, and even Pallass had sent for a few to deal with outlying towns, due to a discreet order by Chaldion.

Interestingly, the Walled City of Inventions had virtually no wisps that germinated within their walls…but there was a real ‘pay to win’ feeling in the mayor of Celum’s mind, though obviously he didn’t know the term. But he definitely got the feeling.

He wished Lord Xitegen could help, but the [Lord] had been occupied temporarily communicating the details of this phenomenon back to House Terland. Therefore, Mayor Cetris was so gratified he personally came out to shake the hand of the first person to offer tangible aid.

“Oh, thank you, sir. Do you think you can cover at least the main streets of Celum? We must have as many as a dozen in the city!”

“Not at all, sir. Simply give me the run of the city and I’ll have them swept up in a moment. My fee should account for a round two dozen.”

“So generous! They wanted three times that in the Unseen Empire.”

“Ah, well, you know. Witches.

The helpful expert twiddled his fingers and laughed heartily. Cetris laughed too, a little too loudly as anxious people of Celum gathered around, hoping this person could help.

“And you’re sure you can capture them all?”

He was a tad worried that the hundred gold coins he’d just paid to this stranger were going to disappear along with the self-proclaimed expert. But Cetris had to own, the fellow did look the part.

He had a veil across his face with a mystical-looking sign on it, and his clothing looked very…floaty and very light for the winter weather. He wore a kind of white robe with a red sash, and he had a number of objects including a net and a strange kind of sword written with odd characters.

Drathian? The half-Elf even had talismans that he’d been placing on the walls, which apparently would drive the wisps away. He winked as he held up a jar.

“I’ll collect those wisps for you in a flash, or my name isn’t Ghost Hunter Molouka! I love wisps. They’re so useful…for business!”

“Really? I heard they were new!”

“Ah, well, I know how to hunt them.”

Hunter Molouka looked delighted as he swished the net back and forth. He seemed to be in a very good mood, and that inspired Cetris.

“Well, I, uh, shall leave you to it, Hunter Molouka! Thank you again, and we will make sure you have access to everywhere you need. It would be a terrible Christmas without good samaritans like you!”

“Not at all. Not at all. I was here on business anyways—oh, incidentally, is that the door to The Wandering Inn?”

Molouka pointed to a certain door in the plaza, and Cetris turned.

“Oh, yes. It’s rather pricey to go over, but if you can get all the ghosts in Celum, I’ll personally pay for a day of travel wherever you want!”

Wonderful! I should be done in an hour.”

“R-really?”

Molouka was checking the sky and nodding as he watched a wisp float down the street, pursuing a screaming Agnes. He flicked his hand, and one of his jars sucked the wisp into it. Everyone oohed and applauded, and he swept them a bow.

“Absolutely. I have an appointment to keep. The Wandering Inn, home to, nay, the start of the Horns of Hammerad’s illustrious career.”

“They came to this city too, you know.”

Cetris puffed up a bit, annoyed at The Wandering Inn getting all the credit. The half-Elf paused.

Did they? I might have to come back after this. But The Wandering Inn is their favorite spot, isn’t it? I’ve heard they’re great friends with the [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice. I’ve been dying to meet her. And I imagine she’ll be doing the same with me.”

Cetris sighed. Another one for the inn. Well, so long as it solved his ghost problem. He stuck out a hand.

“Thank you, Ghost Hunter Molouka.”

“It’s Tolveilouka.”

The half-Elf shook his head absent-mindedly, and Cetris hesitated.

“Is it? I thought it was Molouka?”

The strange character hesitated, then laughed.

“So it is! Apologies, I’m all over the place. I’ll get these wisps out of your hair. Then I’d love to pop in and visit Miss Erin Solstice. After all.”

He gave them a happy smile.

It’s Christmas.

 

——

 

As a lot of ghostcatching and hunting was taking place, Erin Solstice was focused on the real important things in life: presents.

“I’ve got to have presents. I can’t not have presents. Ryoka, shush.

She preempted her friend, who was tagging along on this mission of mercantile mercy. Erin had chosen Ryoka on the off chance the Wind Runner had some good idea, and she’d thrown in Fierre and Montressa for her emergency presents-team.

Fierre and Montressa were both people who did things for bossy, impatient people. If there was any chance of making a real Christmas miracle happen…

The one non-female member of the team was Palt. Erin hadn’t chosen him. He’d just tagged along when they went to Invrisil then begged to stay because he missed being part of ‘the fun’. Since he was Ullsinoi and maybe he could illusion a hundred presents, Erin had accepted him into the team.

“I reckon I need a magical solution. And I have one really cool idea I was working on—but I’ve come to you because you’re a crafting person. Can you help me? Got any, uh, lifewood left?”

Hedault the Enchanter had closed his shop for Christmas in preparation for the party, which he was assured would take place at 6 PM, or else whenever he was duly notified with an hour’s advance warning by Lyonette.

He had not been prepared for Erin to show up on his doorstep, begging for ideas. Only the combined cajoling of Erin’s team had gotten her inside.

“What am I supposed to do, mass-enchant a series of gifts? That would be impossible for me.”

He snapped, uncharacteristically annoyed, and Erin tried to placate him.

“No, no! Not at all, Hedault. I just need…ideas. Say, what are you doing for gifts?”

Even Fierre looked mildly aghast at this.

“Erin. Are you trying to steal present ideas?”

Me? Never. I just, uh, want to know.”

Ryoka had never seen Erin as morally compromised or as desperate as now. It was sort of fun not being the one in the hot seat. Erin fidgeted.

“Come on, Hedault. I won’t steal it, but I’m looking for ideas. Who’re you getting presents for?”

After a long look wherein Palt and Montressa made entreating motions, Hedault slowly, slowly opened the door to his workshop.

“As it so happens, I was about to wrap my ‘Secretive Santa’ gift. I suppose you may inspect it. It would be good to get a baseline on the effect. My other gifts are already wrapped.”

There were seven of them. Erin oohed.

“Nice! Kevin, Pelt, Selys, Lyonette, Grimalkin, Felkhr, Saliss…hmm?”

She knew you didn’t get gifts for everyone, but Erin peered at the presents. Hedault spoke as he went into his workshop where, for some reason, bolts of bright cloth had been stretched out with scissors and measuring tape and so on.

“My work associates, Miss Lyonette, and of course, my fellow artisans in Pallass were all very worthy people to collect gifts for, I found.”

“Right. No one else?”

Erin wasn’t hurt. Absolutely not. She looked up, and Hedault gave her a flat look as he reappeared.

“No.”

Then he reconsidered and went into the kitchen and found two more presents.

“In fact, this was a fortuitous reminder. I forgot these: Rhata’s and Haldagaz’s presents required preservation as they are, in fact, edible.”

Not hurtful at all. Even Palt looked mildly hurt, and Ryoka instantly began rationalizing that of course Hedault didn’t need to get her a present. They barely knew each other. It was just somehow painful to realize you weren’t in his good books.

Because Hedault was actually one of those people you sort of wanted to get a present from, not that you realized it until you didn’t get one. If he liked you, why, that said a lot.

In fact, Hedault appeared uncomfortable at the scrutiny, which was why you didn’t police presents to begin with and why Erin was rapidly realizing this was a bad idea. However, he gave Ryoka a sideways glance and murmured.

“I am told that it would be inappropriate to get a gift for the Winter Sprites they do not appreciate. Avalanches may ensue?”

“Oh—if you want, you could, Hedault. Shaestrel wouldn’t do that. The others…might. And they get jealous. But if you got like two bottles of wine, they’d go for that.”

“I may do that. Thank you.”

And that was it. Montressa wondered if Hedault had considered getting a gift for the literal Archmage of Izril, but then she recalled how much he didn’t like Valeterisa. Fierre and Palt, meanwhile, were reminding themselves to buy off the faeries with alcohol as well.

“Who’s your Secret Santa person, Hedault?”

Erin changed the subject, and Hedault tentatively held out what looked like a bright yellow dress or maybe a bedsheet. It was definitely magical, and Palt looked fascinated, as did the other mages.

“It is, ah…Mrsha.”

Mrsha?

No way! Ryoka was amazed and wondered if Mrsha had used her luck powers—or if it had backfired royally. She wouldn’t put attempting to move the scales past Mrsha, but Ryoka would have assumed Mrsha wanted Tyrion or Magnolia or Ilvriss. Hedault?

“What did you make? Is that a dress?”

Erin was getting worried she might have to warn Hedault about Mrsha’s opinion on clothing, but the affronted look the [Enchanter] gave her said she’d underestimated him.

Here was the thing about gift-giving, and it was making Erin realize she really was in trouble. Everyone knew the best gifts were handmade. Yet they often conflated ‘handmade’ with ‘cheap’, which wasn’t true at all. A slapdash effort like gluing together a stupid card wasn’t impressive.

Making something thoughtfully was top-tier gifting. Expensive gifts were just flashy and actually a low bar. Hedault? Hedault was a master enchanter.

He not only made gifts, he did his homework. As he unveiled his present for them to see and try, Hedault commented drily.

“In light of your World’s Eye Theatre and after observing Mrsha for a week and consulting with Kevin, I decided the best object to try and create would be something both moderately safe and appealing to a child. Therefore, I present: the Cape of Heroes.”

Erin’s jaw dropped as a bright yellow cape sized for a little Gnoll, complete with white edging matching Mrsha’s fur and the symbol of the Stone Spears tribe, Silverfangs, The Wandering Inn, and Liscor all stitched onto the cape, fluttered in the air.

It kept fluttering even when Erin held it, and when she tied it around her neck, she instantly felt lighter.

“What does this do?”

“Try jumping.”

“Why—whoa!

Erin went flying and flailed—then realized she was falling slower and made what she thought was an action pose as she landed. She hesitated, then did a spinning kick that took Ryoka completely by surprise.

“Hey, Erin! I had no idea you could do that!”

“I feel light as a feather, Ryoka! Hedault, is this making me lighter?”

He was checking an hourglass.

“It works for about eight minutes for a child of Mrsha’s mass. For you? It might last two minutes.”

“Hey! I’m not—”

“It’s exponentially mana-intensive. It both lowers your effective weight and provides you with a mild featherfall effect. Try raising your fist up.”

Erin did a superman pose, and her next jump smacked her straight into the ceiling.

Ow. This is so. Cool.”

It was. When Erin landed, everyone wanted to try it, even Palt, even Fierre, who could jump that high on her own. Ryoka gave Hedault an incredibly surprised look. But she noted the pleased smile on his face.

He really did know how to have fun. Of course a man who liked skateboards and bicycles would give Mrsha something that let her copy the movies she’d seen!

“I actually based the regenerative mana effect off her wand. The featherfall effect comes from one of Ryoka’s…study materials. It is far more potent than the usual spell.”

“I’ll say. It’s more like [Buoyancy], but in the air.”

Palt was trotting around with Montressa; Erin was still doing jump-kicks, and she began laughing.

“Hedault! This is amazing! And darn—I’ll never copy this! Mrsha is going to love it. I wish you were my Secret Santa! Wait, do I even have one?”

“I think Lyonette assumed you’d get all kinds of gifts anyways. She didn’t want to pressure you.”

Erin snapped her fingers.

“Darn, well. I guess I’ll have to borrow this from Mrsha.”

Here Hedault paused, and as Erin swung down from a bannister, laughing in delight as she defied gravity, just like anyone who had ever had a dream about being able to leap into the air, his eyes slid sideways to Ryoka for a second. He tapped one finger against his wrist, frowning.

“You would have enjoyed this as a gift?”

“Of course! I love this! Who wouldn’t?”

The [Enchanter] frowned.

“I would never have guessed.”

Here Ryoka saw Montressa glance up and meet her eyes, and unspoken, a thought passed between the others. Maybe the reason Hedault hadn’t gotten Erin a gift was because…it was hard.

What did you get the woman who could literally walk into her [Garden of Sanctuary], who’d come back from the dead and pulled out <Mythical Quests> at the drop of a hat? It was hard, and frankly, Ryoka had panicked over getting Erin a thoughtful, useful gift.

It had never occurred to her to get Erin something silly or fun.

“I—wouldn’t have thought you’d want something silly—I mean, fun but impractical, Erin.”

“Well, I didn’t know about this cape. Whee!

Erin swung herself up, then did a backflip and surprised herself so much at being able to do it that she burst out laughing. She looked so astonished at her own merriment, and Hedault paused before accepting the cloak back.

“Sorry, I think I used up all the magic.”

“I will recharge it before nightfall. You tested it adequately, Miss Erin. Thank you for…informing me of your preferences. I will keep it in mind.”

He met her eyes, and Erin smiled, then frowned.

“I’m no closer to finding a present, though. Darn. You don’t have time to do a quick enchantment, do you?”

“I could do one minor one.”

“…Shoot.”

 

——

 

They were walking back towards the inn through Invrisil as people attempted to brainstorm with a glum Erin.

“What about knicknacks, Erin? I was thinking—and don’t snap at me—what if we gifted smoking pipes?

Palt was trying to help, in his way, and he showed Erin a lovely rosewood pipe with a metal cap. Erin’s stare made him remove the cigar he was puffing from his mouth.

“It’s just a hobby! I put one of these in the stockings; Menolit got it. A few of these…”

“Palt. Am I gonna give that to children? To my friends? How about lung cancer in a bag!”

He looked hurt.

“I know what that is now. Imani told me all about it. That’s hurtful, Erin. This is hand-carved from Baleros.”

The Centaur looked so wounded that Erin snatched his pipe. She stared at it, then developed a cunning look.

“Wait a second. What if…I put bubble soap in there? Yeah! That’s fun! I just blow on it and—”

She blew a few times and felt at the air coming out the end.

“Hey, Palt! This could work! How many do you have? No, wait, Laken’s got Jelov, and I bet some place sells pipes…”

She began scheming, and Ryoka wondered how giving everyone a pipe that blew soap bubbles would go down. Erin wasn’t thinking straight, as evidenced by one detail she had missed. Ryoka coughed, tapped her on the shoulder, and whispered in her ear.

“Erin. Do you know how to make the stuff soap bubbles are made of?”

Erin’s face froze. Montressa raised a hand timidly.

“I think some Wistram [Mages] were actually working on that at the academy, but the project got shelved for, uh, more useful things.”

“Wonderful. And Octavia…no, wait. Maybe Rhaldon knows? Scratch that. It’s an okay idea, but it’s not me enough. Sorry, Palt. It’s a nice pipe, though.”

She tried to hand it to him, but the [Illusionist] refused.

“Call it a gift, Erin. I insist.”

Rather to Ryoka’s surprise, Erin didn’t resist and stuck the pipe back in her mouth. She chewed on the end thoughtfully.

“I always wanted to know how it felt to smoke a pipe like Sherlock Holmes. Feels sorta fancy. And pipes…I have an idea. I was mulling it over for this other project about exploding stuff, but maybe…”

There was nothing like that to make everyone worried. Fierre glanced at Montressa, and the [Aegiscaster] raised a hand.

“Exploding what now, Erin?”

Detective Erin removed the pipe from her mouth. Palt tried to fill it with some tobacco, and she slapped it out of his hand.

“Oh, nevermind that. I was thinking—Palt’s a genius, right? Ryoka, do you think we could make…a lighter out of metal parts? All you need is a flint and a spinning wheel, right? We have all the pieces.”

Ryoka blinked. Palt’s eyes lit up, and Montressa also had heard of lighters, or perhaps seen one in one of Erin’s memory-movies.

“Lighters, Erin? Why a lighter? Non-magical people use matches, but what’s the point of another way to make fire when spells are so easy?”

“Well…it’s not about that. I was thinking—the one thing we don’t have is the fuel, right?”

Ryoka thought pensively.

“There’s crude oil, but we don’t have lighter fuel. Fierre, do you know what I’m talking about?”

She tried to describe a lighter, and Fierre frowned.

“So the liquid goes up a tube and a spark ignites it? Sounds like cooking oil might work or something alchemical. It’s not very useful.”

She gave Erin a sidelong look, and the [Innkeeper] smiled, unperturbed.

“I know. I was thinking the exact same thing, actually. But—and this was an idea for the Order of Solstice—what if you needed a flame? A specific…kind of flame? And instead of oil or lighter fluid, you know what else burns? Alcohol.”

The others blinked. Fierre’s mouth opened, then she covered her teeth.

“Wait, are you suggesting putting your Minotaur’s Punch in a lighter? A glory flame lighter?

“Or any other flame. Mrsha’s told me all about how my flames ‘stick’ to things. If I made a themed lighter set, you could have free fire anytime you want! Glory, honor—”

“—Depression.”

Erin elbowed Ryoka a few times.

“Isn’t that a cool idea?”

It was. Erin had clearly done some novel thinking in the time she’d had. Ryoka checked the sky and guessed it was about half past twelve. Well, that gave Erin about five hours, right?

“Sounds good, Erin. If you work fast and hard, I bet Pelt could prototype the lighters with Kevin, maybe Hedault, and Rufelt could find you the right alcohol.”

“Yep!”

“You might be ready in a month’s time.”

Erin’s face fell. The Wind Runner threw up her hands.

“Sorry, but it’s not gonna work, Erin. Five hours? You’re cooked.”

“No I’m not. I just—I need—”

Erin’s eyes slid around as she trotted back to her inn. She put the pipe back in her mouth and blew on it. After five puffs, a glowing green bubble popped out of it and nearly scared Fierre into the sunlight.

“What was that?

“Oh. Magic. [Light Bubble] or something. I can use my craft, remember? If I can make glowing fishies, this is like a basic Tier 0 spell. Hey, I sorta like smoking on this pipe.”

Erin blew a red bubble, watched it float down and pop, then began running.

Aaaaah! I’m not gonna make it!

“Erin, calm down!”

Ryoka ran after her. The [Innkeeper] screamed back.

You calm down! I can solve this! I just need—ideas!

 

——

 

The worst part wasn’t even the amusement or derision, it was the acceptance. When people heard Erin had forgotten, they sighed, made fun of her—and then told her it would be fine.

“Erin, despite you completely ignoring all my warnings and the calendar—relax. Everyone knows you’ve been busy. Frankly, your presence is enough. They love you. Put something together everyone can enjoy, and they’ll accept that.”

Lyonette sounded quite reasonable, and Erin knew people probably would understand. But—she rounded on Lyonette.

“And would you be okay with doing that?”

The [Princess] raised her brows instantly and brushed at her auburn hair.

“Me? Eternal throne, I’d die of shame! But what is the other option? It surely has to be something mass-produced. You might as well buy gifts in bulk. Krshia’s shop has them.”

“I can do better! I just—I—I’ll make them!”

“You have over a hundred guests you could claim as direct giftees, Erin.”

I’ll make them fast! I just need—

Then she was running, not panicking, oh, no, definitely not.

She could do this.

Erin had tons of abilities. Why, she had Skills! From her [Witch] class! She had the power. She had the means. She just needed an object, something nice, catchy, and, uh—to figure out how to use said powers.

[Infuse Witchcraft]! The best Skill to have! That she definitely had practice with using! Erin certainly had no regrets about slacking on exploring her Skills.

In fact, she grabbed the first person she saw to help her.

Ekirra!

The Gnoll boy was kicking his favorite ball up and down as Visma and Kenva looked around the festive inn. He turned to her.

“Merry Christmas, Miss Erin. We saw a racism today.”

“That’s great. I need your h—wait, what?”

Even Erin had to stop a second and process that. Ekirra told her about it as she charged into her Garden of Sanctuary.

“You mean the ghosts, Ekirra. That’s what it was.”

He rubbed his nose.

“Maybe? Is it a racism if it’s a ghost?”

The question floored Erin and she crossed her arms.

“I, uh, I guess it is? That’s horrible either way, and I’m sorry you saw it, Ekirra. Now, can you help me? I need to work on, uh, a secret project, and you could be the guy to make this happen.”

He stared at her.

“You didn’t make any presents for us, did you? Mrsha was right.”

Erin closed her eyes a second.

“If you help me, I’ll make sure your present is top of my to-make list. Deal?”

He brightened up.

“What do I do?”

“Let me experiment on your ball.”

The Gnoll boy hesitated. His favorite red ball wasn’t the checkered black-and-white soccer ball he kicked around every day, but it was his favorite from last Christmas. He played with it every day.

“What are you going to do with it?”

Erin’s eyes gleamed. She had three, no, four Skills she thought she could use in the process of making a gift. Obviously, she had to buy stuff, but to put her personal touch on things? She thought they were the following:

[Infuse Witchcraft].

[Infuse Color] and [Drain Color].

And…

[Distill Simple Concepts]! Each one was related, obviously, as they were tenants of witch magic. But this final Skill had, interestingly, a power beyond what Erin could expect with just her [Witch] class.

Most witch magic, as Erin had observed, was about ‘craft’. Essentially, taking the element or elements you were good at—in Erin’s case, wonder—and using it to work your magic. That was all fine and good, but it sort of made you very specific. One hammer fits all.

Whereas, even if they were specialists, someone like Eloise definitely could do more than tea magic, right? That was because a [Witch] could work outside of her craft…it was just harder.

Erin could literally pull wonder out of the air if she created it or it was there. She didn’t steal it from people; she was more like an ambient wonder collector, and if the atmosphere was charged with her power, she took it in. Like a solar panel, really. Or a wind turbine.

However, that was the least-effective method of gathering your craft, and you needed a lot of power to work cool magic. Harvesting magical colors or alternate things was what Erin had to do.

“I’m just gonna take your ball a second…don’t worry, I won’t harm it. [Distill Simple Concepts] and—”

Erin pulled a glowing orb out of Ekirra’s ball. It looked like, well, a copy of his ball, but shinier, brighter. She handed his ball back; he bounced it, and it was the exact same.

But Erin held something she’d taken from Ekirra’s favorite toy:

Happiness.

It made her smile, just holding it. Here was all the happiness, fun, and even Ekirra’s affection for the red leather ball in her hands. She tossed it up and down and then held it carefully, feeling that it could disperse if she didn’t hold it or put it in her hat.

“Perfect. This is why [Witches] love objects like this. I can use this! If I put it in…another ball? No, wait. I need objects now.”

Those were the fundamentals of witchcraft she’d been taught by Califor and so many others. To make great magic, you had strong craft and strong vessels—tools to hold it that were appropriate. Erin was brainstorming what would be an appropriate vessel for this bubbly happiness—she might need to divide it into four, but she reckoned it was strong enough to make four gifts!

That was when someone raised her voice.

“Erin. Miss Erin, that’s not a good idea.”

Erin looked up, and there was Nanette. The young witch hadn’t joined the intervention in the morning. It seemed like she’d had a late night; her hair was bushy, she was red-eyed, and she looked tired.

“Hey, witch. Someone’s been making presents last-minute too, huh?”

“I worked hard, Miss Erin. I did my last work in the night.”

Nanette pointedly nibbled on a breakfast tart, and Erin avoided her look.

“…Right. Well, Ekirra was just helping me out. Thanks, Ekirra! I’ll—”

“Miss Erin.”

Nanette nodded at Ekirra, and Erin turned, the happiness in her hands, about to put it under her hat. Then she saw what Nanette was warning her about.

“Okay, Miss Erin. I’ll…”

Ekirra was bouncing his ball on his foot, staring at it. He kicked it up, caught it, felt it all over, and gave her a puzzled look.

She realized he couldn’t see the happiness in her hands. He didn’t know what she’d done, but he felt it. Erin’s heart sank as she saw Ekirra give his favorite ball a mystified look, shake it, even gnaw on it—and then just hold it.

Blankly. As if he could no longer remember why it made him smile. As if, and this was when she realized the problem, as if all his happiness were gone.

Duh. Ekirra looked up at her, and Erin instantly snatched his ball back. She infused the happiness once more and shoved the ball into his arms.

“Whoops! Sorry! Made a mistake there. Here. Everything okay?”

He stared at the ball, then brightened up and exhaled with relief.

“Yep! I dunno what you did, Miss Erin, but that was scary. Do—do you need my ball for something? I don’t think I like what you did.”

He gave her a frightened look, and Erin instantly bent over.

“I would never. Sorry, I was just—learning about something. You can go back now.”

She gave Nanette the side-eye, and the witch nodded. Ekirra ducked his head.

“Thanks, Miss Erin.”

He ran back towards the door, then skidded to a stop. He turned and, to the great approval of his friends, called out.

“Um! If you don’t have time for presents, we accept gold coins! Or Faerie Flowers!”

Nanette didn’t say anything, but she gave Erin a meaningful look as she finished her breakfast.

“I’m sure the older [Witches] warned you about harvesting—”

“Yeah, yeah. They did. I just never pulled anything from an object before. It’s all…air stuff. Y’know? That was a lot stronger than me grabbing wonder.”

The little witch knew what Erin meant and adjusted an imaginary hat self-importantly.

“You do what Mother called ‘responsible harvesting’. It doesn’t intrude on anyone, but it’s a lot weaker than pulling from an object or person directly. B—Belavierr practices the other kind. It gets you power, but nothing’s left.”

She made herself say her enemy’s name, and Erin exhaled.

“Great. So I can make enough presents if I steal the hopes and dreams of children?”

“Mother always said children had the brightest ones. Adults have less, but their hopes and dreams run deeper. If you steal those, you could probably ruin their lives and make most of your gifts.”

Nanette gave Erin a teasing smile, and Erin’s sour glower made Nanette blush.

“You wouldn’t happen to have any good ideas, would you?”

Nanette nodded instantly.

“Forget trying to get that much craft, Miss Erin. Just buy something nice and add a drop or something else. This is a year’s work in a day. Maybe just put on a party?”

“I did my beach already. It’s hard to top that, and I don’t have another idea! Argh! Christmas! Damn you, Christmas! Who came up with this stupid idea?”

Erin threw up her hands and went stomping around her garden. Nanette raised a hand, and a bee flew down to land on it. She and Apista exchanged long looks as Erin threw a tantrum.

 

——

 

The news about wisps was everywhere by the time Erin got to Pallass. There were more [Guards] on the streets here, but it was Liscor and apparently Invrisil where it was bad.

She knew because Sergeant Kel was asking about it.

“Yeah, I know. Wisps everywhere. Anyone gotten attacked in Pallass?”

“No…not the main city. But our allied cities are reporting incidents. We are sweeping all nine floors, but they don’t appear to be able to germinate in our graveyards.”

He looked smug, then frowned as he eyed Erin.

“If you do find any—tell us. And if some ‘happen to appear’ while you’re here…”

He trailed off meaningfully, and Erin protested.

“It’s not my fault.”

The Drake stared at her as he raised the checkpoint gate.

“I didn’t say it was.”

The [Guards] stared at Erin as she trotted past with Nerry. Erin met Kel’s eyes.

“Seriously. I didn’t do anything.”

“Right, but if you find anything out about why this is happening, the Watch also appreciates your cooperation in advance, Miss Solstice.”

“I have no idea what’s going on.”

“I know, this isn’t an accusation. If you discover anything…this pertains to crime, as well. Gangs. Wyvern attacks. Any [Guardsman] will hear you out. Intuition, even. I’m off work at 5 PM so after that—”

Nerry rolled her eyes at the casual suggestion Erin might discover a horde of ghosts on a walk. She trotted after Erin and had to run to keep up. Erin was on the move.

“I need to get presents, Nerry! High-quality ones. In bulk! And I know I can’t get the same thing, but a variety is good! Which is why I am stopping by the best place in all of Pallass to get something for adventurers and warrior-types. The one, the only, the [Sharpener]! Lorent!”

Erin spread her arms, turned the corner, and Nerry stared at the shuttered windows of—a bookstore.

Erin stared at it. She checked the street, walked down a few stores, walked back, and hesitated.

“Um. Did he move? Excuse me…”

It took her a little bit, and the [Shopkeeper] themself actually came out, a Dullahan woman, to tell Erin that she was at the right place, but about a week too late.

“Sharpener Lorent has closed his shop, Miss Solstice. He has left the city.”

“What? Lorent? Why?

The Dullahan gave Erin a puzzled look, as if surely the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn would know. She adjusted her head. Her armor was stylized cloth and had text scrolling down the sides, very artsy.

“He has gone to the New Lands, Miss. To seek his fortune as so many have.”

“Lorent? But no…it’s dangerous. He was just at the beach.”

Erin’s face fell. Nerry saw the look of alarm, then guilt flash across Erin’s face. The Dullahan gave Nerry a curious look, then a half-smile and bent to pet her. Nerry glowered but let it happen, and the woman addressed Erin.

“He saw the opportunity there. Even though his class didn’t match. I believe seeing the fantastical ‘beach’ made him wish to leave the City of Inventions and see the world.”

Ah. There was the guilt that Nerry wanted to see. The Sariant Lamb developed an evil, cute smile and practically ate up Erin’s expression.

“I see. Thank you. Come on, Nerry. Let’s…”

Erin walked away in silence, reminded of the things she had helped to set in motion. She walked along in silence a while, then stopped as she saw a store selling some familiar products. Erin walked inside, made an impulse purchase, and Nerry rolled her eyes as she saw what Erin held.

What now?

“I’ve got to try something. I can do enchanting work. Well, sort of. I’ve got my own craft. Here. Let’s go back to my garden.”

Erin held a soccer ball in one hand. She exhaled.

“Time for some magic.”

 

——

 

The process of adding craft to something was time-intensive and took effort, but it wasn’t the same as painstakingly drawing runes on an object like Hedault did.

In Erin’s case, she could just pour in power to an object if she had no set idea, but that was risky. Like rolling the dice. You would get a random result.

In her case, she put her craft into the soccer ball. She put her hands on it, and her hat blazed as her eyes lit up.

Wonder.

Nanette and Nerry had followed her into the garden because watching Erin work her craft was infinitely more fun than even the party. In fact, Wiskeria had appeared too and commented as Erin worked.

“She was taught by experts. She’s putting a lot of her craft in there.”

“Yes…too much?”

Nanette wasn’t sure, but Wiskeria shrugged. She had seen her mother working magic, so she never looked impressed, more analytical.

“If she wants to get it to stick forever, this is how much she has to use. It’s a bit unfocused, though. See how she’s bleeding craft? I’d bet as much as one-fifth is being lost to that and how she’s adding it.”

“Oh, you’re right.”

Hey, guys, take the commentary to Sir Relz!

Erin snapped at them, and the two witches shut up. Then they just began whispering as Erin narrowed her eyes and spoke.

So mote it be!

She lowered her hands, and the ball flashed, and all the black spots on the soccer ball turned…purple? Yes, vaguely purple! Erin laughed in delight—until she heard another whisper.

So mote it be? That’s so cliché. Who taught her that?

An older witch. She said it with a straight face, too. I don’t think even Mavika could do that.

Erin threw the soccer ball at them. Both witches ducked, and Nerry performed an evasive roll. Erin had enchanted it! What would it—

The ball rolled down the hill, hit the far wall, and rested there. Wiskeria and Nanette picked themselves up, glared at Erin, then pointed at the ball.

“What did you do?”

“I…don’t know.”

Erin was panting with the effort, and she stared at the soccer ball. Slowly, Nanette slapped her forehead.

 

——

 

Witches were annoyed at Erin for essentially performing wild, random magic. She had put the power of wonders into the soccer ball, and the result would be wondrous…if Erin could figure out what she’d done.

Joseph was pissed at Erin for entirely different reasons.

Football, Erin!”

“No, that’s a soccer ball. Footballs are the, uh…well, what do they look like? A triangle hotdog thing!”

That’s an American football. This is a football!”

“Soccer ball!”

They were arguing as Ekirra, Mrsha, and Kevin tried to figure out what the ball did. They were kicking it gingerly at each other in the snow, and the person being kicked to would flinch or take cover. Then they threw it, bounced it…

“It’s a soccer ball, and you can’t make me—whoa.”

Erin sat down hard as she argued, and Joseph caught her.

“Erin! You okay? Do you need your chair?”

Mrsha raced over as Ekirra began kicking the ball up on one foot, juggling it. Erin shook her head.

“No, I don’t think—wow, I’m out of energy.”

“You used up all your craft. Silly witch. You made a single gift with all your might. Now your limbs are weak and your head is light.”

That was Mavika. She stopped outside, eying the soccer ball and Erin with mutual disdain. Erin shook her fist at the crow-witch.

“I wanted to see how hard it…okay, that’s not workable. At least I have one gift!”

She smiled, and Ekirra shouted.

“I don’t want it! I want gold instead!”

Erin put her head down in the snow. She listened to Ekirra kicking the ball up.

Doing, doing, doing, WHAM.

Erin sat up just in time to see the shockwave kick all the snow up in a huge flurry and Ekirra stumble backwards. He caught himself, then stared up as Erin watched the wind rippling after the soccer ball.

The soccer ball, which was so high up she couldn’t even see it. In his tower where he’d been camping out to get a vantage point on Santa and the flying reindeer, Bird’s mandibles opened, and he stared up.

“Ooh. That’s high.”

Erin! You created a weapon of death! It could have killed us!

Kevin shouted, and Erin lifted her hands.

“No, I didn’t! It probably only does that if it’s safe.”

She hesitated and looked at Mavika.

“Right?”

“Wonder.”

The crow-witch spat and walked inside. Her raven cawed loudly, and Erin raised one fist.

“Did you see that? It only took like 90% of all my craft!”

Nanette slapped her head again, and even Mrsha gave Erin a look of intense skepticism. She held up a card.

Erin, what are you doing with your time?

“Come on, Mrsha. I had to try. I just don’t know whether…I don’t know what to…”

Erin sat there, panting.

“What am I going to do about presents?”

She looked so genuinely miserable that Mrsha ran over.

It’s okay, Erin! Everyone will be fine! They just want you to be here and alive!

“I know. But I want to repay them for everything they’ve—thud.

The soccer ball landed about a thousand feet away. Joseph stared at it.

“Fuck, that went high.”

I want it after all!

Ekirra raced after it, and Mrsha dashed over to kick it around with Kevin, who wisely insisted they not kick it at them—or anything else. Erin sat there watching as they discovered the ball really didn’t seem to want to hurt someone.

Also, the ‘magic’ in it seemed to only have like a 1% chance of triggering. When it did, it’d be a super-powerful kick or some other effect. Mrsha kicked the ball through Kevin, and it phased through a hill. Kevin, meanwhile, created a fiery comet that blazed into the sky before stopping.

“Yeah. That’s cool.”

Erin smiled at what she had made. Joseph gave Erin an exasperated, amazed, and yes, wondering look, and she snatched some of the energy back for her craft.

“Okay, we could use that in a fun game of football sometime. Never an official game…well, we could make a game with that ball. Magiball or something. Random effects. What are you gonna call it?”

The young woman rubbed her chin.

“I’m gonna call it—the Wonderball. Think it’ll be a good present? Joseph? Hey. Why are you walking away? That’s not a bad name. Joseph? Get back here. Joseph!

 

——

 

Half an hour later, Erin was snacking on lunch desperately. She gulped down a burger courtesy of Calescent, sipped on some eggnog that the guests were imbibing, and then blew another bubble out of her pipe.

She seemed to be enjoying that. As to where Erin was and what she had gone to next—well, there was actually a certain predictable element to Erin these days.

One could feel that she had become lax. Dependent upon certain factors. And one of said factors thought he had to put his foot down at last.

Fetohep of Khelt coughed into a fist, motioning aside a [Message] scroll advising the Seer of Steel on wisp countermeasures.

“—And your first instinct, having failed to find any material solution nearby, was to consult with me, Erin Solstice?”

“Yep. I’m in a pickle. How’s, uh—how’s Khelt doing now that it’s already celebrated Christmas, Fetohep? I bet you have lots of wrapping paper left over. Maybe a few knick-knacks. Anything cool there?”

Fetohep ignored the leading question. He could tell, since Erin was using her World’s Eye Theatre more like a scrying orb and not as a projection, that he had an audience. Several people, including Mrsha, Ryoka, Charlay, and the inn’s trusted guests were in the seats as the staff prepared for a party of some kind.

They were eating snacks and watching the show. Which was Erin bothering the King of Khelt for help.

He supposed that it was only natural that a long-time guest of the inn would have a warped perception of what constituted entertainment. In fact, Fetohep allowed that given the holiday, this conversation might as well amuse someone.

However, he sat back in his chair and gave Erin one of his most regal looks. She was normally a match for any level of intimidation, but she was blinking rather too fast, and she had a too-wide smile on her face as she dabbed at her mouth with a napkin.

“It occurs to me that our time would best be served tending to our respective domains, Erin Solstice. Naturally, Khelt has the largesse to pay and secure any number of gifts.”

“Right! And I wouldn’t ask, but—”

Fetohep lifted a hand, and Erin hesitated as he spoke over her, rather enjoying the moment.

“…I am sure Khelta’s worthy chosen would not be so banal as to demand mere riches. If one such individual were to come before me for such a reason, why, I would consider it a low point in all the time I had known her.”

Oooh. The audience muttered as Erin flushed and squirmed in her chair. Fetohep’s meaningful look didn’t stop her, though.

“B-but Khelt is all riches, right? They’re there for a reason. Fetohep. Buddy. Pal…”

The Revenant interrupted her firmly.

“Erin Solstice. I cannot transport you a hundred gifts to your inn in half a day—”

Fetohep hesitated.

“—and consider it worth the expenditure. Nor would the gift be yours, but Khelt’s by proxy. Betimes one errs greatly, and a true leader must face their mistakes honestly.”

“Oh, come on. Khelt’s rulers never admitted they were wrong! Fetohep! You probably have all your Christmas decorations left over—”

Erin was begging now, and he averted his gaze so he didn’t have to see it. There was something pitiful about it. He spoke to the air as he gazed out the window, and Erin hesitated.

“…Are those bells? And caroling I hear on your side?”

“I believe the Corusdeer sleigh is doing another lap. I called for snow via magic. A very rare luxury. Half my citizens are merely eating it rather than making snowfolk.”

“Wait. You’re celebrating Christmas twice?

Erin was outraged. Fetohep strolled over to his balcony to the cheers of his people and waved a regal hand as he surveyed his city.

“Given the impromptu nature of my first Christmas occasion, I decided to declare it a test-run. After all, the Gnollish people are newly come to Khelt, as are the Centaurs and Jecrass’ folk, and my citizens have not celebrated this holiday once in their lives. Why have Christmas once when you could partake of it—twice?

His eyes shone like gold, like the spirit of overly good will, and the indulgent King of Khelt glanced over his shoulder as all the children began begging to immigrate to Khelt. Erin Solstice put her head in her hands.

“Erin. A gift need not arrive on time if the giving of it would be poorer for the rush. Nor do I believe you will lose the goodwill of others. Perhaps a delay would be appropriate, or a gift made of hard work, not random largesse.”

He took pity on her and gave her the best advice he could. She sighed as she nodded.

“Maybe. I still think—maybe if I asked—”

She trailed off, lost in thought, and he rather suspected her desperate flailing would continue for a while. Never let it be said Khelt’s rulers or would-be rulers were not stubborn as camels. She was about to sign off when he coughed theatrically.

“Erin.”

She paused, and Fetohep leaned forwards and lowered his voice conspiratorially.

“I would happily accept a card with due care and effort put in. A mere thousand words would do.”

Erin closed her eyes a second.

“Do you ever wonder if you’ll get coal, Fetohep? Metaphorically, I mean.”

“Never.”

The [Innkeeper] stared at him without a word as he smiled at her from his throne, and then her image vanished. Fetohep felt rather hurt by this. Then he rose to take his first, inaugural ride on the flying sleigh. He thought he’d fit through one of the chimneys quite easily. But he had no idea how the other fellow did it in one night.

 

——

 

“So you don’t have presents. That’s okay. Ours suck. But I killed a wisp-thing today. Cortese fainted.”

Rabbiteater was next to see Erin. He was smiling hugely under his helmet, and despite her distress, she gave him an air-hug.

“He did?”

Ser Solstice, don’t you dare impugn my name!

Cortese was still red-faced about fainting in fright, and Menrise had regained her good spirits. Seraphel, meanwhile, was still mildly shocked about Erin’s ability to spontaneously appear anywhere.

“Miss Erin—it is a delight to see you once again. On behalf of Eternal Calanfer, I greet you.”

She did her best. Erin stared at Seraphel and then hesitated as Rabbiteater rolled his eyes.

“Oh. Hi, Princess Seraphel. Hey, Altestiel!”

She waved as the Earl of Rains practically charged onto the deck.

“Erin! What brings you here? Merry Christmas! Hold on, I have a gift for you. Kiish! Where’s our agent? Tell them to deliver it!”

He was flustered, which made Erin flustered, and she waved her hands as he smoothed his purple hair and adjusted his festive jacket.

“No, no! It’s fine! The party’s not here yet, and I wanted to say hi later, anyways. I, uh, have a gift problem myself, and I was sort of hoping anyone had good ideas.”

The Umbral Quintet blinked and listened to Erin’s description of her problem, and Cortese started laughing.

“Are you going around to various people in the world and asking for ideas? That’s—”

Insane.

Seraphel muttered. Menrise chimed in with Cortese.

Hilarious! I love it! I’d do that if I had a room that let me scry people!”

Erin relaxed and grinned.

“I know, right? Everyone was getting mad at me for asking Niers and other people for advice. Psh. Someone’s got to have a good idea, right? Rab—Solstice, what do you think I should get?”

He gave it serious thought and came up with a good answer.

“Little chicks.”

“What, like baby chickens?”

Erin was astonished, but Rabbiteater had been giving her issue serious thought, and he made a little ball with his hands.

“Yeah. Farms have tons of them. G—my people would give each other chicks as gifts.”

“Really? I had no idea they, er, did that. Wow. Why?”

Rabbiteater smacked his lips.

“Well, they eat all kinds of stuff. They’re small, easy to carry—then they get big, lay more eggs, or you eat them.”

“Ah. Um.”

“You could get a hundred. Very easy. If someone doesn’t want to raise them, they just—krsch.

He made a gesture, then chomping sounds, and Seraphel turned white. Even Cortese turned vaguely pale.

“Dead gods, Solstice! I’d rather get nothing at all! Don’t be ghastly.”

“Baeris would love it.”

Even the lioness was giving the [Knight] a side-eye. He folded his arms, grumpily realizing this was another Terandrian moment.

“I can’t wait to go home. Can you teleport me to the inn? That’s a good present.”

“No…what about food? Maybe a big dish.”

Erin glumly rubbed at her head, and Rabbiteater raised a hand.

“If you get an egg that’s got a chicken in it before it hatches and chomp it down—”

No!

Everyone shouted at him, and Seraphel did break in here to defend him.

“I do hate to break in here, but that is a delicacy, you know. It’s called balut, and some people eat the chick in the egg—”

She saw them staring and decided not to volunteer more rare culinary facts. Erin was shaking her head, then she leaned over to whisper.

“I’ve got nosy people watching me—but what about cuisine, guys? Some fancy dish? I could make something for everyone. That works, right?”

“Yes…do you have anything novel in mind, Miss Solstice? Surely something from your background would do.”

Altestiel was hinting with a smile, but Erin’s frown grew deeper.

“I wish. With Imani around—she’s made everything from sushi to chiffon cake. I need something from Terandria! What’ve you got that’s original? Come on!”

The others looked at each other, and Menrise raised a hand.

“How about mana jellied eels or the like? It’s sort of disgusting, but—”

“Nope. We do jello, and Mrsha would throw up on us.”

“Ah, well. I never ate mine, I just threw it in the potted plant. Cortese?”

He scratched at his head, miffed.

“All the latest foods in Kaaz are donuts, pastries, and the like. From, uh—”

He hesitated and looked evasive as Erin narrowed her eyes. Altestiel just rolled his at the Hundredlord’s attempt to be subtle.

“—very interesting young folk. Kaaz has a lot of meat dishes, but it’s highly dependent on the animal or even monster. I rather doubt you have any zebra? We imported ours from Chandrar.”

“No zebra. Wait, did you do that to feed your lions?”

“And pumas. And tigers and ligers and—”

Rabbiteater interrupted impatiently.

“They like cats. They’re crazy cat-people. Seraphel, you make fancy stupid dishes in Calanfer all the time.”

“Ser Solstice! How about a gelato? There was this lovely one with a fruit-based dip that I—”

Erin’s face fell further as she realized most of what the Terandrians considered good was the sweet, novel stuff from Earth! Altestiel mentioned his fish-fry, and he also knew a lot of seafood dishes Desonis partook of, but it was the wrong climate.

“We could ask our [Chefs].”

“Maybe. Maybe…I might have to go, guys. I’ll be back later, I promise, but I need to keep trying.”

Erin looked so upset that Rabbiteater almost took hold of her, but his hands passed through.

“Hey.”

She looked at him, and the Hobgoblin lowered his voice.

“It’s just Christmas. You don’t have to be sad, right? You’re alive. Not dead. That’s pretty good, I think.”

The [Innkeeper]’s wretched face softened, and she relaxed a bit.

“No, you’re right, Rabbiteater. I just—want to do something, you know? And if I don’t get another chance…”

She looked tired, then, and frightened, and he hated seeing it. He wanted to shake her or throw her off the railing so she stopped focusing on that, and he craned his neck to call out behind Erin.

“Numbtongue! Numbtongue, are you there? Hit her for me so she stops panicking!”

Erin laughed as he didn’t hear a reply.

“He’s canoodling, Rabbit.”

“He’s what?”

Rabbiteater was mildly outraged. Erin opened her mouth to reply, and a muffin bounced off her head. She swore, whirled, and shook her fist at something.

Badarrow! You’ll pay for that!”

Rabbiteater began laughing, and he was glad his other brother was there. In fact, Badarrow would have bounded down to greet him until Erin realized how a Hobgoblin greeting Rabbiteater might reveal everything and almost tackled him. She vanished—and after a second, someone else appeared.

“I, ah—I hope I can say hello very quickly. I’ll greet you again tonight, but, um—”

Seraphel nearly leapt into Menrise’s arms as Lyonette appeared.

“Lyonette!”

She rushed forwards and knocked over her brunch table, but half the Calanferians lurched forwards or fell to one knee as the [Princess] halted. Rabbiteater stared at Lyonette as her apparition appeared.

“Hello, elder sister Seraphel. Are you enjoying the trip?”

She sounded—cautious—as if she didn’t know how Seraphel would react this time. However, Seraphel reached for Lyonette’s apparition, and her fingers hovered close to Lyonette’s cheeks.

“Lyonette! It is so good to see you again! Are those your work clothes? Eternal Throne, you look so much older when you wear that! You’ve grown in a flash! Are you wearing a servant’s outfit? Is that a sword? Mother would have a fit—well done!”

She took Lyonette in, and Ser Thilowen spoke urgently.

“Your Highness. I am cordoning this space off, but please, do not move. Your companions need must be sworn to silence. At least plausible deniability for now.”

Seraphel blinked and realized he had erected barriers of light to hide Lyonette’s presence from the other ships. Of course. They still claimed Lyonette was at the Eternal Throne, even if most people knew it was a lie.

“We hardly have time to talk. I’ve made it difficult. I’m sorry. I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I was glad you could visit Izril.”

Lyonette forced a smile, and Seraphel hesitated. Neither one had had a chance to speak overlong, and now was no exception. There were always eyes on Seraphel, and Rabbiteater saw her glance at Thilowen.

“It is the chance of a lifetime, Lyonette. How are—is Ser Lormel alright? That brave man is heading back to Calanfer, I understand.”

Lyonette’s face grew bleak.

“We’re sending him as soon as he can move. He’s—I’m glad you’ll be bringing more Thronebearers. To help Ushar, Sest, and Dalimont, that is. I hope to represent Calanfer’s interests for Mother and Father. They’ve been very understanding about everything, even my objections to returning home.”

Seraphel’s expression froze up a bit at the mention of their parents and family. She gave Lyonette an incredulous look, which the younger [Princess] seemed to mistake for Seraphel being angry at her.

 

——

 

What Lyonette couldn’t have known was how odd her words sounded to Seraphel. The 4th Princess realized that her younger sister still held Reclis and Ielane in some regard. Even if she was defying them…

“Lyonette, I am sure we will do our best for Calanfer, the both of us. I cannot wait to speak to you in person.”

So I can tell you not to go home if you can. Dead gods, Thilowen will do his best. Seraphel deliberately didn’t look at him, but she widened her eyes, hoping Lyonette picked up on what she meant. Her sister looked confused, and Seraphel wondered.

She’d always thought Lyonette had run off—in a silly way because the girl had been thoughtless and arrogant at the time—because she understood how miserable her role was.

But maybe she had overestimated how much Lyonette had known about what her parents were like. She was still young. Seraphel had been like her at her age. Aware, but still patriotic enough to marry herself off…

“I want to be a credit to everyone I owe a debt to. It’s just that I have so much to do here, Seraphel. I cannot wait to see you, and honestly—if it’s alright, I’ll pay you another call later. Certainly when Erin wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, but I should get back to work. She’s panicking a bit.”

Lyonette smiled at Seraphel, and her older sister whispered.

“Yes. I hope so too. When we get together, nothing will tear me apart from helping you.”

Then she did turn her head, and her eyes glinted as Ser Thilowen gave her an impassive bow. But Altestiel smiled like the calm before the storm, and the Thronebearer glanced uneasily at him.

“I’m back! Sorry, Rabbiteater. Badarrow is busy.

Erin reappeared, and Seraphel wondered about the curious name of Rabbiteater’s comrade. Or was it the brothers he mentioned? Such odd names. Perhaps he was some kind of tribal or nomadic folk similar to the Gnolls. Yes, a reclusive tribe?

She saw Erin smiling at the [Knight], and a thought crossed her mind suddenly, one so crazy no Terandrian, not even Menrise, would believe it.

Wasn’t the [Innkeeper] a huge friend of two species no one would associate with? Antinium and…Goblins.

But that was silly. Seraphel smiled as her eyes flickered. She had seen a lot of crazy things over the last year, but that? No way. Then again, most people assumed Ser Solstice was a Drake or Gnoll under his armor. And yet he didn’t have fur or scales…

Her hand twitched as she stepped back, and then she lost track of what Erin was saying before she vanished. No way. Impossible.

…She poked Rabbiteater in the side, and he jumped and then swatted at her hand. Seraphel laughed as the Ivory Five began speculating about what Erin would do, and she slowly crooked a finger behind her back.

Mariel might be able to get her a monster encyclopedia. How…much like Humans did Hobgoblins look like, again? She stared at Ser Solstice’s helmet. Her [Ghostly Hand] had no eyes, but…

Didn’t Goblins have slightly pointy ears?

 

——

 

A momentous day. A day of revelations. Understanding.

Erin was really getting into the pipe. She couldn’t stop fiddling with it. It was like having something fun to play with to distract you. She had a pipe, and she often played chess to distract herself. Lots of people did that with a phone, hand mirror, or fidget-device.

Or, in the case of the man she had come to for ideas, the Bow of Avel, which he was using as a backscratcher.

“Christmas ideas? You have come to the wrong place, Miss Solstice. I don’t have any good ones for you. I’ve been hanging out under mistletoe all morning. Alas…I couldn’t join the flotilla. I could be meeting the love of my life—but my court made me stay here.”

King Itreimedes, the King of Bows, was an unlikely pick for a consultation, but he had instantly agreed to it, and Erin was desperate enough to start rolling the dice.

His royal court were rather festively adorned, and they looked put-upon, even during this holiday.

“His Majesty jests, Miss Solstice.”

“Do I? I’m not allowed to go to the New Lands, despite Avel sending a delegation, I’m not allowed to visit Liscor because I have ‘responsibilities’ here, and I can’t even flirt with anyone today! I’m alone!”

“You have us, Your Majesty. And we, alas, are keeping you company today. My family is waiting for me tonight.”

One of his advisors pointed out. Itreimedes waved a hand at him.

“Not you! Romantic company!”

“Oh, then may we be excused for the holidays, Your Majesty?”

They brightened up, and Itreimedes hit the armrest of his throne with his bow.

“No! If I am to suffer here, so will all of you! If you want a good gift, Innkeeper Erin, I suggest you gift love and actual good cheer to people!”

“…I don’t know if this is helpful.”

Erin had a notepad filled with bad ideas, but this one was so inane that even she didn’t bother writing it down. Yet the King of Bows leaned over with a rather hunted look on his face and whispered.

“Does, er—does this Santa fellow deliver that sort of thing? Not women in a box or anything! That sounds rather dark. But true love? Maybe addresses? Pictures? I’d even accept random matchmaking.”

Wow. Erin edged back a bit, and despite his best attempts at a whisper, the Court of Avel looked astonishingly embarrassed at their [King]’s conduct. However, Itreimedes was winning some sympathetic fans among her audience.

Menolit, Troydel, even people like Ryoka, Relc, Pryde, and a number of others were giving Itreimedes the look of a kindred spirit. The fact that he could be so honest was, in its way, amazing.

“I, uh—I’m looking for Christmas ideas, King Itreimedes. Surely you have lots of romantic…people in your life anyways? A [King] like you with a cool bow like that?”

Erin tried to move the subject back on topic, but Itreimedes just lifted the Bow of Avel and exhaled mightily.

“You would hope! But other bow-users are tricky to, you know, romance.”

He twiddled his fingers expressively.

“Very difficult to get right. I tried to chat up Elia Arcsinger when she was here. I had no idea she had a daughter. Not a good look, that. Plus she’s old enough to be a grandmother.”

The [King] paused, and a full wince came over him.

“Yes. That memory hurt. I’m not good at that thing at all. Love isn’t like shooting a bow. Once you let something fly, you can’t take it back.”

“Uh huh. Like an arrow?”

King Itreimedes tapped the side of his nose energetically.

“Ah, you think so, but that’s what a Returning Arrow is for. Far simpler, you see? I suppose if you were a fellow like Allorev you’d be able to take back a bad compliment, but I’m not him.”

“Right, right. Who’s Allorev?”

The King of Bows laughed and ruffled at his hair.

“Oh, King Nicte! I’m sorry, I forget not everyone knows him by name. But it’s odd to call him ‘King Nicte’, isn’t it? He took the last name on when he married into Noelictus’ royal family.”

Erin began to massage her forehead. Wait a second. How had they gotten off-track like this? She had begun pestering people she’d met because she had a vague hope it would help, and honestly, it was sort of fun, but she was the one who surprised other people. And yet—she had to ask.

“Wait, are you talking about the King of Noelictus? The Kingdom of Shade? The King—Nicte? Allorev? He married into the royal family?”

“Yes! King Nicte Allorev. Of Noelictus. The Kingdom of Shade.”

“Okay. I understand that. Why’s his last name Allorev? You make it sound like that’s his first name.”

One of the members of Avel’s royal court was giving Erin a slow shake of her head, trying to warn Erin off. But it was too late. In a matter-of-fact tone, King Itreimedes replied.

“That’s easy. They flip first and last names in Noelictus when marrying in. To symbolize the predominance of the Kingdom of Shade over your former kingdom. Actually, I think Avel does it.”

One of his courtiers coughed loudly.

“Yes, Your Majesty. We do. So if you ever got married…”

“…I’d have to have my last name be Itreimedes. I’m not keen on that. But I suppose there’s something to it. King Somebody Itreimedes. You know, it’s growing on me.”

The King of Bows stroked his beard thoughtfully and seemed to be on-board after about two seconds. Erin’s mouth was open.

Don’t fall for it! And yet—she felt like this wasn’t an Erin move, but the King of Bows being serious. After a second, she had to do it.

“Uh—wouldn’t someone be marrying into Avel?

The King of Bows stopped and stared straight ahead, then slapped his knee and cursed.

“Right. They would. Damn! But you know, I’m more keen on heading to the New Lands. Which I will! Just as soon as things are appraised. I would have been on the first ship out, but apparently if Prince Iradoren isn’t going, it doesn’t look good on Avel to send its only monarch. I could appoint an heir. Minister of Defense, how about you?”

He pointed at the old man, who jumped, turned red, and then barked back.

“Not if you want to wield the Bow of Avel! If you go, it stays.”

“What? That’s going to be half the fun of going to the New Lands! I need to upgrade it. It—it’s a royal duty.

The King of Bows had a twinkle in his eye, and Erin wished he was on the way. The Court of Avel was highly unamused, though.

“Your Majesty, you can attempt it here, as Innkeeper Solstice has informed you. Any visit to the New Lands will be once we understand the sea, the threats—”

When I’m old and dead! You see? Look at this court. The worst in Terandria.”

King Itreimedes sank back into his throne as his court roundly insulted him. Erin…Erin decided she had to visit Avel. It seemed fun. They could keep up with her, and in some ways, Itreimedes was actually passing her ability to keep up! She decided to poke him a bit.

“I’ve never been to the Kingdom of Shade, Itreimedes. How’s it like?”

Someone gasped faintly at her not using his royal title. Itreimedes just picked at his teeth.

“Oh, you know. Menorome’s a lovely attraction and a delight. I ride the Nighttrain there all the time, but again, I can’t stay there and hold court for some reason. I do visit often. In fact, now that the situation is calmer…”

Someone coughed, and he hesitated. Itreimedes glanced at Erin, looked worriedly to the side, and then stared up at the ceiling before obviously figuring out a lie.

“…With the war in Ailendamus and such, I might visit more often. But then again, there’s more to do these days with king…ing.”

“Ruling.”

Some may call it that. I just wish I had more enjoyable company. Do you have plans on visiting Terandria?”

That was so straightforwards Erin laughed despite herself.

“No. Surely there’s someone closer by?”

“Well…there was Princess Seraphel. And the Singer, Cara. Both personal acquaintances of mine. Nay, friends! But they got away, and you can shoot a bird, but that doesn’t make it stay. It just kills the bird.”

Such bird wisdom. Erin decided she’d bring Bird to meet Itreimedes. Someone coughed loudly.

“And Princess Kadane.”

Here, for the first time, King Itreimedes hesitated and fidgeted on his throne. He coughed into his fist.

“Yes, of course, Princess Kadane. However—it being what it is—she often visits Avel’s court as we’re neighbors, you know—but if I go travelling, I won’t get to visit Menorome. I suppose that’s the one upside of staying.”

Even Erin had to pry at that.

“What’s Princess Kadane like?”

Itreimedes’ mouth moved as he tried to describe the Princess of Noelictus. He frowned, hesitated—

“S-spidery?”

The Minister of Defense closed his eyes. Someone actually threw a shoe at the King of Bows, and he ducked as his court erupted into angry shouts.

Your Majesty!

Shame on you!

Itreimedes shielded his face, shouting defensively.

“Well, she is. In a lovely way! I’m not being mean! I like her! Stop throwing things at me! She’s a personal friend of the throne of Avel, and I’ll hang the first person who insults her!”

This was so fascinating that at this point, Nanette, Mrsha, Visma, and a gaggle of people were listening into the discussion. Erin hesitated and saw Ryoka making wild gestures in the seats. She interpreted it as best she could.

“It, uh, sounds like she’d be a great person to have in the Court of Avel.”

“It’s called the Court of Ranges. I think. And yes—she would be fun. Not that she enjoys ruling and whatnot. But she can drink.

“Interesting. Wouldn’t it be fun to have her around all the time?

Erin wasn’t sure if she should do this. But the rapid nodding from behind Itreimedes suggested that this was a line of conversation they had tried to bounce off his head a hundred times. The King of Bows rested his chin in his hand.

“Oh, one supposes. But you know how people take things. You hang out with a lady five minutes and it’s an engagement. Plus, she is beholden to Noelictus. It would be fun if she could visit the New Lands. Or somewhere else besides Noelictus—which does get gloomy and filled with undead on occasion. I’ve thought about Desonis or visiting Cara or…well, it would be fun.”

“Why not invite her to the Kingdom of Avel for a while?”

Erin read off the signs both Mrsha and someone behind Itreimedes were holding up. They were almost word-for-word identical.

Itreimedes considered the idea a second, then waved it off with a chuckle.

“…That sounds like a proposal of some kind. Imagine how she’d laugh. You may not be aware of this, Innkeeper Erin, but in royal circles, that kind of thing is regarded as flirtatious. Or at the very least, suggestive.”

“You don’t…say.”

She was scrutinizing him up and down. Up and down, trying to look for that twinkle in his eye. But he looked so serious—and then Itreimedes’ gaze shifted, and he murmured.

“Yes, well, it’s interesting but also not a good idea.”

Why not?

Half his court shouted at him, and the King of Bows winced, put two fingers in his ears, and bellowed back.

Because it’s damn unpleasant, that’s why! For her!

Here they paused, and Erin saw the King of Bows twist, glare, and raise his voice.

“The Court of Ranges is not the group you see in front of you, Miss Erin. It’s all the nobility—the Court of Dusks has their Landsreight, that’s the nobility in Noelictus. Mine doesn’t vote because that’s stupid, but they do petition and argue. They’re often less uptight than my advisors, but they’re also an idiotic lot.”

“Your Majesty means a diverse and nuanced cast of characters.”

The King of Bows had an uncharacteristically dark and upset expression on his face as he leaned sideways on his throne.

“Prince Lothen of Calanfer is in my Court of Ranges. That man is as diverse as an uncured ham. Seraphel is a rainbow compared to him. He’s commented on Kadane before. So have others. Since I can’t throw them off a cliff, I would rather not make her deal with them. She gets enough comments as it is. Leave off. I told you, she prefers us to visit.”

He looked so unhappy as he said that, on behalf of the [Princess] that Erin had never met, that she developed an idea of what this Agenote guy was like. Wait…Lyonette’s brother? She glanced over, and the 6th Princess of Calanfer made a face that said quite clearly she knew what Itreimedes meant.

Well, well, well. Lyonette’s family was everywhere! Though it seemed the two [Princesses] had done a far better job of ingratiating themselves than the [Prince] had. Yet Itreimedes’ concern for Kadane?

Like that, Erin’s perception and perhaps the entire royal court’s changed. She gave the King of Bows a second look, and he sat there, conscientious of nothing and enough to make her like him at the same time.

“Well, I dunno about all that, but I’m glad you have a friend, at least. And hey. If you throw one person off a cliff, maybe the others will take a hint. You’re a [King]. You can do what you want.”

Itreimedes’ glare turned into a thoughtful look, then a smile as he looked up at Erin.

“I am, aren’t I? A [King]. You forget, sometimes. Heavy is the head that wears the crown…unless you forget about it or it’s a light crown, in which case not. Thank you, Miss Erin. Maybe I will put my foot down and go to the New Lands of Izril.”

“…Your Majesty, please.”

But he was smiling, and then he looked puzzled.

“I’ve completely forgotten about why you called. What was it again?”

Erin had almost forgotten too. They stared at each other, and then she slapped her head. Behind her, Selys was pointing down and whispering loudly.

“He did it! He actually out-Erined her! I can’t believe it! Zevara, do you see—?”

Erin raised her voice, shaking her fist behind her.

“Christmas gifts. What’s, uh, what’s your plan for ideas?”

The King of Bows steepled his hands together and gave her a grand smile.

“Ah, yes. Christmas is well underway here, it’s just past midday, so right about now, all the girls and boys will be getting gifts. In fact, we even hung some up with ropes, and they get to shoot them down! To the best archer, the prize! I came up with it.”

“It’s a terrible idea. Someone is going to get hurt.”

One of his advisors muttered. Itreimedes ignored them. Erin hesitated.

“Uh—I’m looking for gift ideas, actually. Can I ask what you’re getting people?”

Itreimedes hesitated.

“Well, I’m actually bound for Noelictus via the Nighttrain tomorrow, and I’ll celebrate a belated one at the Palace of Shadows. I may have gotten a lovely bow, yew, shortbow, strung with spider silk, and, uh—other gifts.”

Gee, Erin wondered who was getting the shortbow. Itreimedes coughed a bit, then looked around.

“But I have made arrangements for presents for people here. Including my royal court, who do deserve a gift.”

They smiled, despite themselves, and Erin leaned forwards.

“That’s—nice of you. I don’t know many [Kings] who’d do that. Can I ask for details on a few gifts?”

Itreimedes beamed and, without lowering his voice, waved a hand.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s half a month’s wages. I told our Minister of Finance to calculate it and wrap up the gold in a box for everyone.”

The beaming smiles turned to stares—and then the Minister of Defense picked up a box under the royal tree and hurled it at the throne. It burst, and gold coins showered down as the King of Bows ducked.

“Hey! It’s not time to open the—”

That’s your idea of a gift? You had all month, you idiot! We gave you ideas!

“I am your King! It’s a very generous—you aren’t even royalty! Why are you shouting?”

We’ve known you since you were a boy! I served your grandfather! I’ve had better presents congratulating me on getting a single level up!”

“Well, at your age, any level up is a surprise. Stop throwing my gifts!

The entire court was hurling insults and presents at Itreimedes, and he ducked back around his throne.

“It’s a mutiny. Help! Mutiny!

“It’s a coup, Your Idiotic Majesty! A rebellion! An uprising!”

“Yes, that! Call for the royal guard! Miss Solstice!”

She was vanishing, shaking her head. The King of Bows hid as his royal court attacked him, and there he hunkered, shielding his face, a cautionary tale to all poor gifters of the world.

And yet—and yet. Despite the [Innkeeper]’s chagrin, the children couldn’t help but feel that Itreimedes was a fine [King]. They didn’t see what was wrong with his gifts at all. Adults had no taste.

——

 

Fruitless encounter after encounter. Yet somehow, Erin couldn’t tear herself away from the [World’s Eye Theatre].

Part of it was that even if she didn’t get an idea, she was wishing people she knew well. And there was something to saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to them and seeing how they enjoyed themselves in their unique ways.

Perhaps…that was the true power of Christmas. For it was making Erin approach people that she hadn’t talked to before. People who she was actually shy about talking to, but had never needed to meet.

Call it the desperation of a woman bereft of presents. And in this case, the 5th person she talked to did have a way to help. Although the first thing both did was just stare at each other for a good minute.

“I—um—I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. Well, technically I homed in on Greg, but—there’s no good way to do this aside from calling ahead with, like, a [Message] spell or scrying spell. I should have done that. Sorry. I can go if—”

Erin was suddenly shy and uncertain, and she almost backed out of the center of the [World’s Eye Theatre]—but then the other person held up her hand.

Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, breathed a word.

“No. This—works. Hi there. I knew you could do this, but what an entrance. Erin? Erin Solstice? You look exactly like you did when you called before.”

“That’s me. Hi. Sorry I—this is a mistake. Now I feel stupid.”

At last, the frozen crowd behind Cara moved. Erin had appeared in what she assumed was their caravan’s trailer. She saw a group of young people from Earth goggling at her, and one of them, who was balanced on top of a table, perhaps about to do something stupid, toppled off it with an unholy crash.

Cara winced, turned, and shouted.

“Fecking damn it, Greg! That’s my table! What are you doing?”

“Wh—that’s her! Erin! She’s in our wagon! Cara! This is—”

Greg got up, and Cara’s band ran over, but Cara began shouting.

“Hey! Stop pushing! Clear the—Abebi, Thien, clear the room! Erin wants a word with me, and if you all ask questions, we’ll be here all day!”

“No fair! You got to meet Ryoka and now Erin? Erin! I’m from Nevada! Las Vegas on the strip! I saw your missing poster! Can I visit your—”

Thien suckerpunched Greg so hard the young man doubled over then took a swing at him. But the [Drummer] put him in a headlock as Cara covered her eyes.

“Greg. Zip it.

She made a slashing motion, and he stopped making sound. Cara turned, spotting the people behind Erin, and stared at Greg.

“Erin is with her guests. Why don’t you all give us a moment, and we can talk about other things later?”

“You got it, Cara. Everyone out!”

Abebi, the [Manager], pushed the others out. They were dying to speak to Erin, but now that they were aware they had an audience, they left, only peeking at Erin and pointing. Cara, meanwhile, was scrutinizing Erin’s audience from her limited vantage point and jumped as Ryoka entered the frame.

“H-hi, Cara.”

You piece of sh—Ryoka Griffin. You’re celebrating Christmas with Erin? Of course. You two are in the same spot and best friends. Hello. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Cara spoke through her teeth, and Ryoka’s pained look made Erin suspect the two had a history that was more contentious than Ryoka had related to her. She’d said she’d done Cara a disservice. To look at the Singer’s face—Cara agreed.

“Don’t worry about my friends, Cara. Home isn’t that bad a secret over here.”

Cara stared past Erin and Ryoka at Fierre, Charlay, Ilvriss, Mrsha fighting with Visma and Ekirra over the bucket of popcorn, Hedault accepting a drink from Silvermop, Peggy lugging presents in with Lyonette—

She gave the two Earthers another smile that looked sickly.

“You don’t say. Well, your group-chat a bit ago made it clear caution’s gone to the winds for good reason, eh? I’m glad we had a chance to talk. I was wondering if you’d call, but you never did.”

Erin scuffed a toe on the ground.

“I’m sorry. I meant to, but I got cold feet. I was gonna call some of the others, but Silv—one of them scared the poop outta me.”

“I don’t blame you for being wary.”

Cara muttered, and Ryoka shuddered at the risks Erin had taken. The [Singer] of Terandria looked like she might be having more of a panic attack than either the [Innkeeper] or Wind Runner, though.

She was interesting at once. Erin looked at Cara and realized she’d switched hairstyles. Instead of the garish pink, she was now full blue, and she had shaved half her hair, the other half grown out and long. It glittered faintly, and Erin wondered if she had to apply some kind of alchemical dye every day.

Even on Christmas, Cara dressed as if she were ready for a show, and come to it, she might be. She had on what Erin could only describe as someone marrying Santa’s costume to a performer’s outfit, and she didn’t seem to be inhabiting the Christmas cheer.

If anything, she seemed rather pensive and gloomy, and Erin’s surprise-visit had shaken her out of her funk.

“I don’t like winters. I arrived in one, and they’re bad memories. Plus, that damn solstice is a week away, and I’m racing to get somewhere with the band. What’s up? Do you have more information for me? We’ll be ready—but if you need a song, I’m literally a call away. I can throw my voice far, though I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to sing support. I’ll try if you need it.”

She was so…focused and helpful Erin began squirming before she even brought up why she’d called.

“No—I, uh—it’s not, uh—you know what? I should let you have your party. I just didn’t have, er, any Christmas presents, and you know how it is. I was sort of—now that I say it the fifth time, it sounds stupid—Merry Christmas?”

The Irish [Singer]’s stare just kept going until it felt like she was boring a hole into Erin’s head. Then she seemed to shake herself and gave Erin a rueful smile and almost a laugh.

“That is the dumbest reason I have ever heard to call someone up out of nowhere. You’re definitely Ryoka’s friend.”

“Ow. Hey. Um. Glad you made it out of Ailendamus okay, Cara.”

The Singer of Terandria’s smile grew glassier, and one of her fingers twitched. It was her middle finger, and if there weren’t children and potential fans behind Erin, the two were sure which digit Cara would be using to express her feelings.

Indeed, some of Cara’s actual fans bounded down, begging to say something.

“Cara! Miss Cara, I’m a huge fan!”

“I love your songs! When’s a new one coming out! My mom and dad like your songs too!”

“Can I get you on the show again? You’re a huge hit with our people—hello, Cara!”

To Erin’s great annoyance, Palt, Visma, and Drassi all came charging down to shout greetings at Cara, and the [Popstar] instantly lit up with such pleasure that Erin wasn’t sure if it was an amazing act or genuine.

“Hello, hello! Who’s this adorable Drake girl? And you, Drassi, and hello to you, Mister Centaur! I’m sorry I’m a mess. I’m all off-guard, and I was going to do a little Christmas song this evening, actually. We’re almost at our destination in Noelictus; we’ve been on the road all day. We’ll be in Afiele in about six hours, but if I can help before that with Miss Solstice, I’d love to! I can’t sign anything, I’m afraid, but I’m delighted to meet you all!”

To the two young women who had just experienced Cara’s rather surly tone, the effect of her switching to a likable personality should have made both suspicious that Cara was just some kind of con-artist, an [Actor] certainly.

However, the Singer of Terandria was well-liked. Everyone from Seraphel to the King of Avel had met and liked her, and perhaps that was all part of the act—but in Erin’s experience, you could tell who someone was based on the friends they had.

Not one friend, but the totality of them. It was all too possible someone could hoodwink King Itreimedes. Seraphel, though? Dalimont?

Speaking of Ser Dalimont, Cara paused as she was bending over to listen to Visma shyly whisper her favorite song into Cara’s ear. Her eyes widened, and she straightened slowly.

“Dalimont?”

“Singer Cara. Hello.”

He descended the stairs slowly, as Lyonette blinked, and Cara’s mouth opened.

“I thought you were with Seraphel. What happened?”

“Her Highness gave me a quest to find her sister. I am pleased to say I succeeded. May I introduce Her Highness, Lyonette du Marquin, and her adopted daughter?”

Cara’s eyes widened, and she blurted out something before she could catch herself.

“The runaway? The one that everyone h—”

She bit her tongue fast, and Lyonette turned red as Mrsha’s wide-eyed stare became protective of her mother’s name. Yet Cara recovered faster than Erin expected.

“I am so sorry, Your Highness! I’ve heard some terrible rumors—I am completely scatterbrained. And that’s Mrsha, isn’t it? The little Doombearer with pluck and courage?”

Mrsha’s chest puffed out as Lyonette blinked, realizing her daughter might have more of a famous name than she did, at least on camera. Before Erin knew it, Mrsha was racing over with a card introducing herself, and Cara was being besieged by a number of Erin’s guests.

Forsooth, I am Mrsha du Marquin, and I would greatly appreciate you mailing an autograph to me in quadruplicate…er, no. Thank you, Miss Mrsha.”

Why not? Are you too good for autographs?

Mrsha demanded as Erin tried to get a word in edgewise. Dalimont looked aghast, and Cara gave the girl a big smile as she leaned over.

“No…but I don’t fancy paying the postage on sending four autographs across the sea. I’ll tell you what. If you send me four autographs from Erin, I’ll send you four of mine. Deal?”

Mrsha’s mouth opened, and Erin sighed as Lyonette scooped her up.

“I am so sorry, Singer Cara—I hope we aren’t disturbing you. This is such an imposition on a holiday—”

“I was simply enjoying the road, Miss Lyonette. The entire…long road of the last five days of sitting in this caravan. I should be upset; I was about to watch Greg, my favorite bandmate, do a backflip off the table. He’s been drinking all day. You may imagine how upset I am, but I shall hold it in stride.”

Cara answered straight-faced, like a courtier, and Lyonette covered her mouth despite herself. That dry humor seemed to amuse Calanferians.

“You know my sister, I believe, Singer Cara? She mentioned you.”

“I’ve had the pleasure of singing for her on a number of occasions. She wintered in Menorome, Noelictus’ capital, and I regard her as something of a friend. I hope she will have a fine time in Izril. She was quite concerned for your safety, and Dalimont—I’m sure you’ll return to her side. She needs people to support her.”

The [Popstar]’s face was carefully neutral, but Erin, even without the benefit of being able to see Cara directly and use her witch-powers, could tell there was a lot under the surface. Lyonette bit her lip as she nodded at Dalimont.

“Ser Dalimont has been a font of…of common sense I rely upon.”

The other Thronebearers, Sest, Ushar, and even Ser Lormel, resting instead of working, glowered at Dalimont, who pretended not to notice. Cara, on the other hand, laughed and favored him with a smile.

“He does seem to have some. And who is…is that an Antinium?”

More people. Erin groaned.

“Guys, I have to ask Cara something—this is Bird, Cara. I think he admires your singing.”

“Hello, I am Bird. I wish to be part of the fun. I did not get a chance to harass the King of Bows. May I bother you?”

Bird appeared, followed by Numbtongue, and Cara’s eyes nearly popped at the sight of a Hobgoblin with a guitar.

“It’s him! The Goblin who can shred! I knew he was at your inn—want to trade him for Greg?”

“Hey. I’m Numbtongue.”

The [Bard] looked very pleased at Cara’s recognition of him, probably from one of his prior performances. Erin introduced him, and Cara looked at the two.

“Antinium and Goblin. Two species people call monsters under your roof. No wonder you’re a high-level [Innkeeper]. Anyone who’s willing to take a stand and doesn’t get killed for it would level up.”

Erin blushed faintly and waved a hand as her friends looked proud.

“I’m not that high-level. And I didn’t think of it like that—”

Ryoka turned her head and gave her friend a pointed stare, and Erin nudged her.

“I bet you’re pretty cool yourself, Cara.”

The [Popstar] winked theatrically, but her eyes were very serious.

“I’ve had a few good performances. Ryoka’s seen at least one; Terandria has a few interesting adventures to be had. Not as many monsters as other continents, or so I’ve heard. But enough wars. Say, Numbtongue, right? Do Goblins have any music?”

The question threw Numbtongue a few seconds, and he frowned.

“We steal a lot. Some Goblins have songs but…not really?”

He scratched his head, looking uncertain, and Ulvama shouted down.

“Yes we do! Old ones.”

“Is that a second Hobgoblin? How, uh, how many do you have under one roof?”

“Only—wait, Peggy and Inkpaper—only five regularly? But a lot more visit.”

“Five…”

It seemed like for all Cara had been through, seen, and done, the idea of chilling with Goblins was still very foreign to her. The Singer of Terandria was still on top of things, though—right until Bird made good on his promise.

“Miss Cara, I would like a job singing. I have an excellent song. For I am Bird, and here I am! I eat green eggs and ham! Erin will not, so I clean her plate. Otherwise there will be roaches, which she hates.

Erin was almost 225% sure that Bird had just made that up. This overloaded Cara’s sense of normality. She rubbed at her head and actually swayed a bit in place.

“That was—I’ll take both your lads, Erin. Assuming no one takes a swing at them…I should start a music label and hang up the microphone.”

She sounded rather serious. But then she turned to Erin, and her eyes glinted as she frowned.

“With respect, I think I’ll be fielding auditions all day. I’ll let you join my band and make songs for you, uh, Bird.”

“Yay.”

“—Once you come to Terandria.”

The Antinium lowered all four hands.

“Ah. I have been outfoxed. Just like Mrsha. How sad. Very well, I will find a ship someday.”

Erin eyed Bird and made a mental note to watch him if they ever got close to a harbor. Cara’s smile said she didn’t like how certain Bird sounded either. She turned her gaze back to Erin.

“How can I help you, Erin?”

“U-um. Well, this sounds a bit silly, but, er—I—uh—do you have any songs I could play? At a Christmas party.”

Behind her, Ryoka Griffin, who was remembering all the off-the-chain things she’d done and made Cara go through, stared at Erin’s back. Even Lyonette, used to royal demands, looked mildly aghast.

Even Mrsha looked shocked.

Had Erin just called Cara, the Singer of Terandria herself, up on Christmas day to make her sing at a party?

Erin turned bright red.

“I can pay! It’s just that—I don’t have any Christmas gifts, and I thought if you could sing one or two songs…I checked the song crystals here, and I don’t, um, have your full catalog…”

Cara’s face was still while Erin made her request, and Erin knew for a fact that Cara had a mouth on her that would make even the Winter Fae blush. However…Cara fixed Erin with a long stare. It seemed to weigh Erin, both what Cara knew and had heard and saw. And whatever she decided, her response was amazingly calm.

“Absolutely, Erin. I don’t do it for just anyone these days, but I’d be happy to do a quick record. The song crystal technology is a level above where it used to be, and Abebi can record any track you want. Actually…if you want to request a song I haven’t recorded, I can use them for a new album.”

“Wh—really? Thank you so much!”

Erin would have hugged Cara if she could. The [Popstar] smiled faintly.

“We salt-of-the-Earth people have to stick together. I heard you had a big year. What kind of music do you want? At least one Christmas song, I bet.”

Flustered, Erin tried to think.

“I know it’s super popular, but I dunno if you want to sing Jingle Bells.”

Cara agreed mildly.

“I might have to swallow a Wand of [Fireballs]. I was hoping you’d ask for some of your favorite tracks. Give me a band you love, and I’ll sing it.”

“Oh—do you need lyrics or notes or anything? I bet you know a lot of songs—”

Even so, it seemed impossible Cara would know just any song. Yet now the Singer’s eyes were glinting. She glanced at Erin’s group.

“Your friends…if they’re in the know, is it cool discussing the current geopolitical climate in the states? Carbon emissions? Climate change?”

Mrsha’s face wrinkled up in disgust, but Erin’s eyes lit up. She glanced around and lowered her voice.

“See that dude with one gemstone eye? That’s Chaldion. If it’s just us here, it’s cool.”

Lyonette hurriedly twisted a ring and set up a privacy spell. Cara lowered her voice, even so.

“Give me your favorite artist and I’ll tell you if they’ve come out with a song in the last few years. In fact—did you know it’s 2023? Could be later, but I can only confirm to 2023.”

Ryoka nearly choked on a cookie she’d been snacking on. Erin just blinked.

“You what? That’s a funny j…are y…no.”

She said it politely. Cara’s stare was serious, and her face was deadpan.

“2023. At least August. Again, confirmed it’s at least then.”

“No.”

This time, Ryoka, Erin, and Kevin, who’d come running with Imani, Joseph, and even Troydel, all chorused. They gathered in, and Cara folded her arms.

“Listened to my latest album? One of the songs is ‘Anti-hero’. Original artist? Taylor Swift herself.”

Kevin snapped his fingers and fumbled at his bag of holding.

“Hey! I think I have that song crystal! That wasn’t bad. I heard the credit, but I’ve never heard that song. Is it…new?”

“2022. October.”

Everyone stared. Erin, who had come to this world in 2016, felt the ground lurch under her feet.

“That’s…how do you know that? I heard you appeared here around the same time I did.”

Cara tossed her hair casually. Or trying to look it. Her voice wobbled a bit.

“I—got here in 2018 thereabouts. But I didn’t loot someone’s smartphone to know that. Like I said, Erin. Favorite artist? I’ll pull the songs they’ve come out with. I have a Skill.”

Then it made sense. Her eyes glinted, and Ryoka inhaled.

“No way.”

“[Learn Song: Home]. Someone left a loophole in. You didn’t think my iPhone had all the songs I’ve been spitting out, do you? It’s 2023, and you should hear this song that just came out of Montgomery.”

Kevin’s mouth was open so wide that Mrsha gave in to her intrusive thoughts and chucked a peppermint candy into his throat. He began choking.

Troydel was demanding a thousand things at once, asking if Cara knew about what was going on, Joseph had fainted, and Imani was falling over trying to pick him up.

That wasn’t him being theatrical either. Erin felt lightheaded.

“Sorry. I wasn’t sure how to say it.”

Cara’s look was sympathetic, and Ryoka exhaled.

“You didn’t tell me that!”

“I said it was 2021 for arrivals. You seemed highly stressed, so I didn’t bring up anything else, and I was only finding music from 2022 back then. Plus, there were ears everywhere. I don’t know much…they put a lot of current events in music, but remember, I can only use artists or bands I know. I’m keeping up with my favorite band—Arizona. What can I do you for, Erin?”

The third time she asked, Erin hesitated. And Ryoka, who herself had a huge collection of songs she loved to listen to on her iPhone, realized that Erin—didn’t talk a lot about music.

“I dunno. I listen to a lot of atmospheric music. Not a lot of, um, vocals necessarily. Whatever’s popular.”

Erin tried to play it off. Cara just raised her brows.

“So you don’t have one favorite artist?”

“N…well…”

Despite everything, the guests of The Wandering Inn were fascinated by this detail. No one had ever really known about Erin’s musical tastes. They knew a lot about her. And some things Erin kept private.

After nearly half a minute of awkward silence, Erin caved.

“H-how about Five for Fighting? I like his stuff. Maybe?”

She turned red, as if waiting for judgment, but Ryoka instantly chimed in.

“Oh, I have two of their songs!”

“I’ve pulled a number of their songs before. Let me check…”

Cara stared up at the air as if looking at some kind of catalog only she could see. Ryoka, privately, was wondering if the Singer could hook her up with some of the latest music. Only like…fifty artists? And if she could put it on Ryoka’s iPhone? No, wait, those damn Bloodfeast Raiders had stolen it. But if she could get someone else’s smartphone?

It’d be tricky, but if Kevin had a dongle and they recorded the song from a song crystal onto the laptop using a program and converted it to an .MP3…

The fierce desire of a running music addict to get some new tracks made Ryoka fidget, but Cara was listening to something now and shrugging.

“Last album is…2013. But there’s new tracks from as late as 2022. The last one, uh…well, that’s something. That’s definitely topical. Not sure you’ll enjoy that at a Christmas party. And it doesn’t look like it hit any charts.”

“You can see how it did on the charts?”

Troydel demanded incredulously. Cara nodded.

“Yep. Comes with the level ups. I’ll probably gain the ability to learn it in other languages if I hit, like, Level 60 or something. Maybe another artist? Let’s see. Top songs are…Superman, Chances, 100 Years, The Riddle, Heaven Knows…

Ryoka knew all those songs, but Erin blinked.

“What was that last one? I’ve heard all the other ones.”

“Heaven Knows? I’ve never recorded it. It’s not bad. Real soulful party vibe. I imagine this is the kind of American midwest pop that’d be popular. I don’t know. I’ve never been to gunland.”

“Hey. We don’t all have guns.”

“So you are Americans? Which ones?”

All but Imani and Joseph raised a hand. Cara snorted.

“Great. You?”

“Spain.”

“And I’m Imani, from Nigeria. But I was in America when I vanished. Chicago.”

Cara was interested in Imani at once.

“Hey, you know, if Erin can let you call me and it doesn’t cost too much—I could pull songs from your country or any artists you know. It’s always good to get more perspectives outside of Europe and the Americas. Also—Abebi, my [Manager] you saw back there, is from Nigeria too.”

Imani gasped in delight.

“She is? I’d love to ask her…thank you! Actually—if you’re in Noelictus, could you show me the food there? I’m interested in cuisine. I’m a [Chef].”

Cara sighed enviously.

“A chef! I wish we had one! Our food’s great, but if you could make me some food from home…absolutely. Noelictus, which is where we’re headed, has great food. Mooncakes, tons of food based on their Ashwheat—I’ll send you recipes.”

They were trading comments as Joseph tried to bounce into the conversation. As someone from Spain, he began asking what was new in their continent, and for once, Kevin was the odd one out.

It was so surreal talking about Earth. Erin was hesitating as Cara scribbled down some notes. Kevin, meanwhile, was trying to impress Cara.

“You know, if you need a bicycle—I’ve got you covered. And speaking of cool Skills, I know this Gnoll. Have you met Gnolls?”

“Yep. Caravaned with them for a few weeks. Good people.”

“Oh. Rad. Well, the one I know, Krshia—she has a Skill that upgrades tech. She turned an iPhone into, like, an 8th-gen one or something!”

Cara’s head snapped up.

“She can upgrade your electronics? Holy shit. How far does it go?”

“Modern day, I think. At least…I don’t think she can do the actual future. Dude, imagine getting something from 2050. It could probably compose music and shoot lasers!”

Kevin stared at an imaginary iPhone, and Cara muttered darkly.

“Either that, or it requires a blood sample and takes fingerprints while recording your every move. Or it’s a pile of scrap cobbled together by survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

“Hey. I’m the one who thinks like that.”

Ryoka tried to joke around weakly. Cara gave her a raised pair of eyebrows.

“Not with me around. So—any more songs?”

“…Nah. How about just, like, five more popular ones from recently? That’d be cool.”

For some reason, the wind had gone out of Erin’s sails, and it took the other Earthers only a second to understand why. Cara’s face softened as she looked at Erin.

“So you know—there are a few songs about us. Lost But Not Forgotten. Spirited Gen. The List…that one has your name on it.”

Erin turned pale, and Cara saw her eyes open wide.

“Did you say ‘Spirited Gen’? As in…the spirited away generation?

Cara’s eyes narrowed a second.

“…Yes. Has someone mentioned them?”

“I—I thought it was all a lie.”

This time, Erin had to sit down, and she did so, right on the ground. Cara hurried on as Ryoka ran to get a chair.

“It’s only been seven years. I know that’s a lot…but it’s not like all the songs are about war or death. The world’s turning. Hang in there. I’ll share everything I know later, but—how about I record those songs, eh?”

She was doing her best to cheer Erin up, which seemed difficult because Cara was winning the award for ‘most pessimistic Earther’ right now. Well—maybe Geneva Scala beat her. Erin’s uncertain expression cleared a bit as Cara went on.

“Incidentally, do I get a Christmas present for all this?”

Erin paused, then chuckled weakly.

“I dunno, have you been naughty or nice? Ryoka says it’s been a mix.”

“Oh, I probably deserve coal.”

Cara put her hands behind her head. Erin slowly got up, and the two regarded each other. Cara’s smile was faint, but Erin’s returned as she looked the Singer up and down.

“Do you want to—visit The Wandering Inn?”

Once again, Cara glanced at Chaldion and the others behind Erin. They still couldn’t hear, but on a kind of hunch, she made sure they couldn’t see her lips.

“It’s a bit far for me to tour, but yes. I’d love to visit. You know how it is, though, being on the road and having this much attention on you. Lots of groupies, and sometimes they get rowdy. If I go, it’d be just the band.”

The meaningful look she gave Erin and the others was not lost on them. Erin nodded slowly.

“If you want to come, I have a room I’ll hold for you all.”

“Better make it far away if it’s Greg. Seriously, I know I rag on him, but you haven’t met him. Ask Ryoka what he’s like.”

“Psh. Everyone’s got a Greg. I had a bunch of them. Even Kevin was a kind of Greg. Now look at him. They get better.”

Erin punched his arm, and Kevin rubbed the back of his head as the others laughed.

“Ow. Hey. I suppose that’s true.”

Cara’s smile was twisted.

“You’re better at rehabilitating than I am, I guess. I’ll give it another try. Like I said, it’s far, and I have roots, now.”

Erin nodded. They felt so far apart now, despite the [World’s Eye Theatre]. She hesitated.

“Are you having fun?”

This time, Cara had to go walking back across the gently moving wagon, past her makeup and dresser, a closet, the table where a little party had been going on, and she turned, and part of the answer was in the worn expression she gave them. Then a smile that didn’t look all fake.

“I don’t know about fun, but it can be fulfilling. The world’s a stage, and I want to have a place on it. I was lost in my own success, spinning my wheels, until I got your message. Now I think I have an answer to a question, focus.”

The warning about the Solstice. Erin’s eyes sharpened as Cara tapped her chest then pointed at the [Innkeeper].

“I’ve got a grudge. You and I are on the same page.”

Then, the [Innkeeper] and [Singer] stopped, and the air around both grew intense. Erin’s eyes flashed, and the hat on her head blazed into life slightly.

“Good. Then if you need something from me…can I do anything for you? Send a message?”

Cara hesitated. But as she stared at Erin’s projection, she bit her tongue, then came out with something.

“…Elena Othonos. She’s a good friend who went to Wistram. I saw she was alive, and she’s told me she’s in Chandrar. If you’re looking for real ones, she’s that and more.”

“I’ll check in on her! Wait…that name sounds familiar.”

Maybe she’d met Elena when projecting herself to one of the Chandrarians she knew? Ryoka coughed.

“We spoke to her back when she was with Wistram and the Ullsinoi, remember, Erin?”

“Oh, Elena! Duh! Sorry, they had those stupid illusion spells and…so she made it out, huh? We have to talk! I’ll make sure you two get to chat, okay?”

Erin promised to look her up, and Cara smiled.

“Okay, then. Enough real talk on Christmas. Why don’t I demo a few songs for this party you have? It might not be good as a present, especially as I can’t do it live, but it’ll be something. Got a preference?”

The Script!

Kevin shouted and beat Ryoka in demanding one of her favorite artists. The others began squabbling, and Cara closed her eyes.

“Okay. How about…”

She began singing a new song, and Kevin’s smile burst from ear-to-ear. Joseph began writing down songs he wanted to hear, and Ryoka felt her heart lift as someone with a tie back to Earth opened a door for the others to peek through.

Numbtongue instantly began trying to memorize the song, and Mrsha began hopping around in what she considered an appropriate dance. She was head bobbing, probably having learned it from Kevin.

The odd style of music wasn’t for everyone, but Joseph was tapping his toes, enjoying the song, even if it didn’t speak all the way to Ryoka. Not running material; therefore, it wouldn’t appear on her smartphone.

However, Erin, surprisingly, developed the first genuine frown on her face, which deepened through the song. Her foot tapped a few times to the strong beat—and as Cara wound down the song, she got an ovation from Kevin.

This is great! Can you do—

“Hey, Kevin. Let’s not make Cara wear herself out. Can we get the music in a few hours before you have your own party? Thanks.”

Erin interrupted with a frown, and Cara blinked.

“Of course. I’ll get a song crystal and…figure out how to get it to you. Worst case, someone can cast [Scrying] or [Communication] and literally play it through the spell. Who can I leave it with?”

“The Wandering Inn, Liscor. Thanks. I’ll call you—later, okay?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

“Appreciate it!”

Rather bemused, Cara watched as Erin cut the connection. Ryoka gave Erin a huge, puzzled frown.

“Erin, what was that? You were sort of rude to her.”

“And I wanted to know who won Eurovision! I have tons of songs I could ask for!”

Joseph complained loudly. Ryoka assumed Erin was having a panic attack about the way Earth was moving far faster in time than this world was, even with the difference in how many days were in a month and months per year. However…it wasn’t that.

Erin was frowning at the place Cara had been.

“Sorry, guys. We can talk again, but she might have deserved that. I think she used a Skill on me just now. Did any of you feel it?”

“A Skill?”

If the others had been under its influence, they hadn’t sensed it. Ryoka felt like she was pretty good at noticing Skills, but she had to own Erin was probably even better at resisting them.

“Do you think she was trying to do it on purpose?”

“…Maybe it was accidental. But I didn’t want to have it work on me. I’ll tell her not to next time.”

Erin scowled a bit, checked herself, and seemed confident it had worn off. Then she looked around.

“Okay, I’ve got music. But I still want present ideas!”

“Erin, seriously?”

By now, even Kevin was complaining, but Erin was adamant. She fired up the [World’s Eye Theatre].

“Come on, guys. It paid off with Cara, and it’s sort of fun! Someone’s got to have a good idea for, like, a random pile of cool stuff. Maybe in my [Gardens of Sanctuary]? I know the perfect person to ask!”

 

——

 

How far was too far? When did going around asking world leaders and the like for favors and bothering them on a holiday stop being ‘amusing chaos’ and become intrusion?

Well, probably five people ago Erin had crossed a line in some way. But emboldened or possibly peeved after Cara, she tried one more person, and comeuppance hit her in the face.

It was a good punch, too, and it rather appropriately came from a man that Ryoka could only describe as ‘Grimalkinesque’. Though he wasn’t as huge, and he seemed more like a statue as he sat cross-legged.

Despite the winter affecting his land, it was still dry and hot enough that his practice routine had set him sweating. An ancient, scarred man with a gigantic club-blade was grinning, and right now, every adventurer in the room was having bowel problems.

“So…I was going to ask about the garden in Pomle. You’re the Strongest, right?”

Erin had a bright smile on that didn’t match Orjin of Pomle’s strange expression. When he did reply, his voice was flat. And pained didn’t begin to describe it.

“Pomle is gone. I am no longer the Strongest. We are at war, and [Martial Artists] die and level. The Pomle you know, Erin Solstice, is a corrupted pit in the earth. Destroyed by General Thelican of Nerrhavia. My home is gone. My people bleed into the sands. And I…”

He glanced at the great Named-rank Adventurer, Torreb the Undefeated.

“I am lost. If you come here seeking knowledge of the previous Strongest, or wisdom for this holiday—I have no right to speak any.”

Erin’s face had slowly lost confidence and turned more and more into a rictus of realization and horror. She was trying to back out of the scrying circle, and looking for a scapegoat, but everyone, from Lyonette to Ryoka, had instantly jumped away and left her to face the Strongest. Erin’s mouth worked as she swallowed.

“Right. I am so sorry. I’ll just, um—be going. Sorry again. For bothering you. And Mrsha and Nanette calling you.”

Don’t bring us into it!

Nanette squeaked. Orjin gave Erin a puzzled look, not even realizing they had once seen him running across the Lantern Lands. He lifted a hand as Erin tried to escape.

“You are the one who asked about the previous Strongest’s garden, aren’t you? Salii mentioned it. May I ask what you saw in his garden? Collos. What did he make of it?”

Orjin seemed desperate to know, so Erin tried to explain.

“It was—it was a lot like Pomle, actually. Identical, really. It had this room where you could spar with people who’d been warriors of Pomle, but it—”

She hesitated. Now was not a time to be facetious. Orjin looked calm, and doubtless, he wouldn’t get mad, but he deserved honesty. Erin spoke truthfully and slowly.

“—I think he forgot why he needed it.”

The former Strongest of Pomle considered this and then bowed his head.

“I thank you for that. At least some part of Pomle remains in memory. I am on a journey to discover what was missing. What I lack. I regret that I cannot answer you in turn with ideas for your party.”

“I, um…please forget it.”

The [Martial Artist] stretched out his feet slowly as Torreb kept laughing, clearly enjoying Erin’s look of actual pain. Torreb eyed her, and the adventurers behind Erin, without much attention to any of them—until his eyes locked on Saliss.

The Drake raised his claws and waved. Torreb saluted him with a cup. Saliss blew a kiss.

“Hey, Torreb, are you going to die yet?”

Come to Chandrar and we’ll see, Saliss of Lights. I will pour a cup to one of our deaths in the Lantern Lands.”

“Now that’s how you banter at the top.”

Seborn muttered enviously as the Halfseekers watched, and Jelaqua shrugged.

“Eh, too aggressive for me. Ulinde, stop looking so impressed. Not all Named-ranks have to fight like that.”

“True. But Torreb isn’t a pleasant figure. Saliss might have a reason to not like him. He often does, you know.”

Moore muttered. Jelaqua considered that and nodded silently, never taking her eyes off the old man. Meanwhile, Saliss nudged Jewel, who nearly died of a heart attack.

“He likes me. Real corn, that fellow. More cob, but hey, everyone gets old.”

Corn-based adventurer analogies aside, Orjin addressed Erin.

“Perhaps this may help settle your mind. Pomle has never had much to give, so I view it as this: your presence is a gift. So long as you are worthy of being present.”

“Thank you. Can I go now and die of shame?”

Erin was red-faced. Torreb waved a hand as he laughed hugely.

“Think nothing of it, woman! I respect anyone with the gall to appear like that. Power is privilege. I have advice for you.”

He leaned over, drunk, and grinned at her with his remaining teeth.

“Give the children gold. It might make them twisted when they grow, but they’re happy in the moment.”

Erin stared at Torreb the Undefeated as his daughter sighed and replaced his jug of spirits with another. She nodded a few times.

“I’ll…bear it in mind.”

Mrsha rubbed her paws together in delight as Torreb’s image flickered out below. Then she saw Lyonette staring at the Named-rank adventurer in horror. Glumly, Mrsha passed a note to Nanette, who read it and nodded.

Poo. I don’t think we’re getting paid after all.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: To the Patreons reading this, this is part one of two. The next part is already up! Yes, I wrote this as one ‘chapter’ but it’s clearly 3-4 times as long as regular. I had high ambitions.

 

pirateaba’s Emergency Rations by Brack! And yes, I would have probably been eating beans if the power was out longer…all my food went bad. Also, Kasigna, and the Sun Umbrella!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Sepsis Dodge and the Solstice Effect by LeChatDemon!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/lechatdemon

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

Erin’s Hat and Fishies by Anito!

 

 


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