9.55 (Pt. 2) – The Wandering Inn

9.55 (Pt. 2)

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It was possibly the longest day in the history of ever, this Christmas. It was barely 3 PM, and it felt, to some, like an entire week had passed.

That was because—while the adults had dignity and were too good to admit it—the children were not. To Mrsha, Ekirra, Visma, Kenva, Sammial, Hethon, and all the other children waiting for Erin’s Christmas party to begin, this wait on Christmas was intolerable.

Good parenting was letting your children at the presents under the tree as soon as they woke! Or even opening on Christmas Eve! Ryoka found Mrsha banging her head against the wall of the World’s Eye Theatre after Erin took a break from calling people to figure out a better strategy.

“Mrsha, what are you doing?”

“She’s trying to knock herself out so she can wake up when the party starts. I tried. My head hurts.”

Ekirra had a bump on his forehead, and Ryoka stared at them. For all Mrsha’s ability to write diatribes on paper…this was the most kid-thing she had ever seen.

“Guys, it’s just three hours.”

It feels like three days. I want my presents now! Some of our friends are playing with their toys already! Esciht got a kite that he’s going to use to fly like Felkhr!

Mrsha was slightly dizzy, but she flicked her wand, and a magical quill dashed the words onto a card for Ryoka very quickly. The Wind Runner hesitated.

“Uh. That’s highly concerning. Do his parents know about that? Because that’s not good. Who are they?”

What’s it to you, narc? Gonna tell the man?

“Okay, I know Kevin taught you how to say that. Kevin! Stop teaching Mrsha to be anti-authoritarian!

“Why not?”

Kevin hollered back, and Ryoka had no response. She turned back to Mrsha, who looked smug.

“Mrsha, you’ve got to chill. Erin’s stressed, and remember how last Christmas went?”

Thanks.”

Erin stomped by Ryoka, and the Wind Runner flattened herself against a wall. She felt like she was getting the raw end of the stick!

“I’m trying to be thoughtful! Mrsha, you’re a year older, which is like one point four years in Earth-terms. Can’t you wait until dinner? Be a little more mature, huh?”

Mrsha’s look of disdain for Ryoka only grew by the second. She slowly wrote on a card and held it up.

Ryoka, were you a good girl when you were young and had Christmas?

Ryoka had to think about this.

“…I think my parents let me open gifts on Christmas Eve after dinner.”

Mrsha folded her arms, and Ryoka sighed.

“I was a spoiled kid. Do you want to be—stop nodding, Ekirra. Nanette, back me up here! Riverfarm’s kids are waiting until dinner.”

The witch adjusted her hat and sniffed in a very Piscesian fashion.

“Riverfarm’s children listen to His Majesty, Miss Ryoka. And it feels like three days because it’s probably been a day and a half.”

“…Huh? How’s that, then?”

Nanette cast a look at Erin’s back. She coughed into one fist.

“[Immortal Moment]. Miss Erin’s been using it every time she has a conversation to buy time. Or did you think she normally has this much time? I counted how many bubbles she blew out of her pipe. She blew two thousand three hundred and six during her first conversation with Niers. Where they played three games of chess?”

Ryoka’s head slowly turned towards Erin. Mrsha threw up her paws. See? Erin was torturing them all to death!

Ryoka debated between going to help Erin or confront her about her indiscriminate time-stoppage. In the end, she decided both ideas might end up with the [Innkeeper] taking out her spite on Ryoka.

New year, new Ryoka. She thought, then pointed.

“What if we play a board g—”

She stopped, then slapped herself so hard and fast that Visma, coming towards them with a new plate of cookies, squeaked and nearly dropped them. Ryoka reeled, but she had deserved that.

“Ryoka?”

Hethon and Sammial paused as they saw Ryoka give herself a high-grade slap. Ryoka caught herself.

“I’m getting old. Dead gods. Forget the board games. Let’s watch a movie. Die Hard! That’s Christmas.”

She led the charge back into the [World’s Eye Theatre] with the children. Ryoka, over Lyonette’s protests, grabbed three drinks and ordered the children to secure as many snacks as possible and drag some blankets out.

“Is this movie child-friendly, Ryoka?”

“It’s set around Christmas.”

Lyonette gave Ryoka a deeply suspicious look, but the other Earthers, with Imani being the exception, assured her it was entirely friendly towards children. Ryoka stretched out and decided to relax. You could waste a week following Erin around. And the movie did appear overhead, so Erin had clearly watched it.

 

——

 

At this point, Erin was truly afraid she wasn’t going to get any presents for anyone. And—seriously, truthfully, it made her upset beyond words.

It was all very well for people to laugh about it and say ‘everyone will get it’. They meant it, but also, Erin could tell they were expecting her to do something unexpected. Something heartfelt and good enough, like a giant stew for all or just…a fun party.

But she hated it.

“I’ve let them down, Shaestrel.”

 

“Yup.”

“They brought me back. In a week, now…the Solstice begins. I don’t know what will happen, but my instincts are telling me it won’t be normal. This was my moment to say ‘thank you’ as much as the beach, and I can’t figure out how. They deserve more.”

“Absolutely. Check.”

 

“Damn.”

Erin moved a piece sourly and stared at the board in front of them. She was in her room, sitting cross-legged on her bed as a green faerie moved pieces left and right, more concerned with munching on a larger-than-life muffin filled with almonds. Glazed, nay, Calidus-level body-painted in syrup. Some was dripping onto Erin’s sheets despite the plate.

It was their custom to play chess together in Shaestrel’s ongoing lessons about…something. Fate, Erin suspected.

Destiny.

Erin always lost, but the act of playing chess calmed her. Was this a good use of the last few hours of her day? Heck no, but it was necessary.

“I can’t help but feel like you know what I’m going to do, or say, and you could really help me out here, Shaestrel, pal, buddy, friendo.”

The Spring Faerie cracked one eye open as she took a bite of the muffin so huge she nearly choked to death.

 

Hrkgh! Fghre! You wtched Mo Country for Mold Men?

 

The Spring Faerie bringing up a movie like that was so weird—but Cara had just been dropping albums and songs, and Erin had been doing a lot of reflection today.

She was still chewing on the pipe clenched between her teeth as she played, and so she engaged with the premise.

“Yes, I did. My dad loves the writer guy who did the show. You watched it in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. What’d you think of it?”

 

“I fouht—hkk. Kkgh…

 

At some point, Erin realized Shaestrel was actually choking and hesitated.

“Is this an act or do you need—?”

 

“Hllllp!”

So Erin carefully flicked Shaestrel on the stomach, and the faerie expelled the piece of muffin straight into the queen piece, moving it forwards. She coughed, exhaled, and spoke.

“Damn the almonds! I nearly died! Also, checkmate.”

 

Erin threw up her hands, and the faerie laughed. It wasn’t even that Shaestrel gloated…okay, the faerie did, and it was annoying because Erin knew she cheated. But Shaestrel clearly didn’t think it was a problem.

“I don’t get it, Shaestrel! This isn’t fair! I have two questions.”

 

“Go on. For saving my life, I offer ye a boon. Wait. Hold on, before you ask…”

The faerie flitted away to get some milk. When she came back, Erin folded her arms.

“Okay. Did you actually nearly just choke to death there?”

 

“Yes. It would have been a terrible death if I had. Died by almonds in this world of dangers. Then again…I doubt I would have died. This body isn’t one for breath or air. Just choked for another ten minutes. Eugh.”

 

Shaestrel coughed, and Erin nodded. The fae could eat more than they should and could feel pain and other things, but she knew they were proxy bodies. It had to suck if that happened, but they were generally good about not getting into trouble.

“So hold on. You choked. But you beat me, again. How can these things be true? I haven’t said what I think you’re doing, but I’m almost certain you’re using fate against me, Shaestrel. You don’t see the board. You’re good, but you’re not playing just chess. If you were, I’d win or draw at least once.”

The Spring Faerie’s eyes glinted, an amber glow of mischief—and faint delight. She closed one eye as she continued eating greedy handfuls of food and drink.

“Oh? Let’s say that’s the truth. And it is not complete, nay, but I will humor it. Then what is your real question?”

Erin leaned forwards.

“How can you choke? If you’re teaching me how to read fate, how can you genuinely choke on a muffin bite—unless you were doing it to checkmate me in the dumbest way possible.”

The faerie laughed, her voice deepened, and while Erin did not see Shaestrel as Ryoka claimed she could be, an imposing woman dressed in the auspices of a court of immortals, she did change.

A stalking marten nibbled on the muffin, then looked at Erin with bright eyes that were intelligent and feral both. It spoke with Shaestrel’s voice but a yowling tone as Erin resisted the urge to pet it.

“Let’s say I was reading something of fate. ‘Tis hardly that advanced. You think of fate as a thing of gods and destiny. But is it not the fate of stones to fall? Many ‘fates’ are simple.”

 

“Oh, like gravity. So most people can see stuff like that. It’s just prediction, right? Ryoka told me that.”

“Ryoka is dumb as Merlin.”

 

“Um…”

The marten scoffed, rolling its eyes expressively.

“All the knowledge of things and he still sleeps with Morgan le Fae! Each time. It is not him accepting destiny. It’s just an old man coming up with reasons to do something stupid. Because she’s hot. You know what we used to call yon crystal orbs? Merlin’s balls! Because after a few centuries of sitting in his tower…”

 

Erin wanted to cover her ears. She reached out, opened the door to the kitchen, grabbed a cookie off a plate that Calescent had just pulled from the oven, and pushed it into Shaestrel’s face, distracting her with food.

“…Stop ruining the stories of King Arthur for me, please. How is Ryoka wrong about what you’re doing?”

Shaestrel shrugged as she flickered back to her fae-form.

 

“She can see the nature of me. She can trust the wind and come before greatness in wonder. But she does not like to move it. You are more stubborn than she. You like patterns. So maybe you get it. Answer your question for me.”

Erin sighed, but she gamely went along. If her theory was right and the fae just had a more advanced version of humanity’s ability to see cause-and-effect…she held up a hand, vacantly, and thought about it.

“You can read me like a book. When we play chess, there’s always that ‘inflection point’ where you start playing seriously. I bet that’s the moment when it becomes impossible for you to win with the pieces remaining. I’ve gone over some games, and there’s always a point where you need enough pieces in the right place or you’d lose to me no matter how good you are.”

Glinting eyes, an undisguised smile. Erin warmed to Shaestrel’s silent approval and went on. She never noticed the little lamb hiding under the bed, furiously listening, but Shaestrel did.

“You see a lot, Shaestrel, but I also think you manipulate me in some ways.”

At this, the faerie waved an admonishing finger.

 

“Ah. Careful how you use that word. To move someone like a puppet is truly the thing of wretched gods. And I would boot ye in the cunt before I was called such.”

 

“Hmm. Well then…it sounds like you’re manipulating me in the way any chess player can. You move a piece, I make a bad move. But it’s more advanced than that because I can draw against a computer. Not always, and probably not Bluesky a lot, but the top chess players can make perfect moves a computer would. Given our games, I should have drawn a lot even if you play a perfect game. But I can’t. That means…okay, let’s switch it to your hint.”

Erin frowned at the muffin, and Shaestrel hesitated.

 

“Y-yeah. My hint. ‘Twas definitely that.”

There was a loud sniggering from the window, and Shaestrel shot up.

“Are you listening again? Get out! Get out before I rip your ears off!

“Big threats from a tiny mouth!”

“Ooh, she’s going to hit us with her noble hands. Flee, sisters! The Lady of the Spring Court descends!”

Erin watched the scattering blue faeries dodging Shaestrel—one even drop-kicked her—and focused on the board. Then on the faeries. Then on the muffin. Then on her bed.

“Nerry, are you spying on me again?”

She hadn’t noticed, but it was obvious now that she un-focused on the board. Nerry scampered for the door, but Erin called her back.

“No, it’s okay. I mean, I guess. Shaestrel would have definitely hinted for us to eat you or something nasty if you were a threat that shouldn’t be around. Actually…hm.”

The lamb hopped onto Erin’s bed using a chair and began eating Shaestrel’s muffin as Erin stared at her. Erin had missed Nerry’s presence despite having her inn-sense.

 

——

 

There was actually a cunning psychology behind it. You see, most people like [Emperors], [Kings], or anyone with a land-owning class had a kind of ‘eyes in the back of their head’ instinct for danger if they were sufficiently high-level. So to trick their detection abilities, it was wise never to get near them until you were ready for a killing blow.

So many of Erin’s foes had used her door or tried to use it, which invariably got them in trouble. But a truly dangerous foe who thought about how to murder someone—in style—didn’t need to do that. All they had to do was jog from Celum to the inn. They’d thought about the portal door, but one look had revealed a guard and a door-class user, and a hundred miles wasn’t that hard to run.

Even if Erin had focused, she couldn’t detect someone measuring distance, say, two miles out on a hilltop. In the same way Erin’s blind-spot was everything not in her inn or if she was lacking focus…a muffin had nearly killed Shaestrel, an immortal fae.

She stared at the muffin and then her hand.

“Oh. Of course! She didn’t spot the muffin because she’s got no mirror!

Nerry’s head rose, and her little eyes blinked at Erin, then she got it. Erin leapt up excitedly and got milk everywhere. She backed up, cursing, and a spectral bolt of magic, invisible, passed through her window, shot through the inn, and straight out the other side.

“Aw, darn it!”

Erin cursed as the milk got everywhere. The fighting faeries paused a second, and Shaestrel muttered.

 

“One. Hey, Erin.”

 

The [Innkeeper] turned her head, stubbed her toe, and flinched. The second bolt passed over her ear, and someone lost their temper. One of the Winter Fae winced; it was close.

“What, Shaestrel?”

 

“…Ye got shite on your toes.”

 

Erin frowned, bent over, and the faeries wiped at their brows. Two miles away, someone stared at the window and decided there was no style to long-ranged kills. But that was ridiculous. Either she was a Level 70 [Fool] or…

Tolveilouka grew increasingly more cautious. Even that damn Unicorn and Dragon couldn’t do that. Could they? Was it that annoying [Necromancer]? He decided to sweep the area for traps again. Maybe she was just lucky.

 

——

 

“Thanks, Shaestrel.”

Grumbling, Erin cleaned up the milk spill.

But like a glass of milk flying over her sheets, she had not understood the consequences of her actions. Similarly, if Shaestrel could read Erin like someone calculating how an apple fell from a tree with instinct—how was she to do it to herself?

Viewpoint. It all came down to that. Erin had to toss the sheets in the laundry before the milk got her bed wet, and she came back, sat down, and stared at her chessboard where Nerry was pushing pieces around with her hooves.

“Okay, if she’s doing that and reading my fate or…the near future, why can the other fae avoid her? She’s not letting them sucker punch her on purpose. Under my theory, they should be, like, doing an eternal game of figuring out the best move, or they just don’t have the ability to do what’s optimal.”

She stared at the faerie-brawl, which had resumed in earnest, and one of them heard her.

 

“Hear that? She’s right! I am the Fist of the North Star! Haaaaaah—

 

She did a dive-bomb attack and actually got one of the others in a haymaker punch. Erin regretted showing the faeries the limited anime she’d seen. She felt like Mrsha, and the fae, were getting too much from them.

Then someone put Shaestrel in a choke-hold, and the two slammed into the roof, rolled off—swearing, Shaestrel retreated, hurling insults.

“They got you good.”

 

“Shut up. Where’s—my muffin! You damn piece of mutton! Damn you!”

Shaestrel began attacking Nerry, who gamely fought back, but the faerie effortlessly dodged her hooves and began trying to choke Nerry out. Erin watched, frowning.

“You can read everyone’s fates but the other fae and your own. They’re not reading you and countering; you’d look cooler like that or like someone feinting a thousand times, which sounds cool but looks lame. They’re…hiding their moves from you. That’s it.

Her eyes lit up. Shaestrel stopped wrestling Nerry and gave Erin a long, level look as a bunch of Frost Faeries poked their heads up over the windowsill. Erin looked around, beaming, and Shaestrel exhaled.

 

“I mean, it sort of works. It took you almost all month…6/10.”

Erin’s face fell. Another voice chimed in.

“She had to watch us fight and get help! 2/10!”

“Even Ryoka would have gotten it faster if Shaestrel was teaching her! But I think for a mortal she’s smart. 5/10!”

“She can’t make good muffins or cook! 0/10!”

Erin turned redder as they laughed at her, but Shaestrel’s eyes were glinting.

“Shaestrel? What am I getting wrong here?”

The faerie leaned forwards.

“Since you need more hints, consider it in a different way, Erin Solstice. Say rather…say rather it were you not hiding your fate—for how would that help us? A bit, perhaps, but not much. Say rather—it were more clever.”

 

Erin’s heart leapt as her mind flashed to the conclusion.

“Instead of hiding fate—you’re twisting it. That’s why everything can go your way. You’re taking what’s going to happen and nudging it a bit! That’s why I lose! It’s impossible for me to lose! I’m too good at chess for you to beat me without drawing all the time.”

“Well, I dunno about that—”

 

“Shushshush! Be shush! You’re not only seeing the ‘right’ way to win, like Chaldion’s [Path to Victory], but you’re maneuvering me into losing! Is that what I’m learning? Fate itself!

Erin threw out a hand, and the faeries made ooohing sounds and applauded. They sounded genuinely impressed, and even Nerry sat up. But Shaestrel just sighed.

 

“You’ll be about as smart as Merlin. And again, look how he turned out. You will be surprising at best. Someone who can make a move no one expects.”

Erin stopped and saw the faerie hunched over, sitting cross-legged again, and now Shaestrel’s eyes looked like a foreign sun. She spoke, and Erin’s skin tingled like Ryoka probably did whenever she met a new immortal. For Shaestrel was looking at her.

 

“There is a board in the kingdom you call the lands of the fae. Some come to play on it. The Faerie King’s court plays it for fun; he is the master bar only the Queen who was. Betimes, visitors come, and occasionally one plays with a genius unheard. It is the final game, the game of gods, and even we do not play it to the level some fiends and glorious few can aspire to. After all, ours is but a board, as chess is like to war.”

Erin’s fingers tingled, and she thought she could almost see that board, sitting in the court Ryoka had described as being at the center of things. Yet Erin longed to know what the pieces looked like, read the rules…touch it.

Shaestrel saw Erin’s expression and snorted lightly.

 

“I knew it was the right game to play with ye. If you could visit us like days of old…a hundred years. No, for you, a decade of watching and playing and you might play a decent game. We have not even a year. I had not even a month. Come again, let’s play.

 

She spread her hands, and Erin saw the chessboard was restored. The [Innkeeper] knew time was passing, but she saw Shaestrel waiting for her, and never had Erin run from a great game. She sat, and the fae looked at her.

“You might sense it, now. Try.

 

——

 

They began to play. It was…what, 3 PM? 4? Erin felt time pass as she moved pieces slowly, trying to feel Shaestrel moving her, moving the board. She would play, lose, play, and then ask for the board to be reset, experimenting. Sensing, even playing blind.

Shaestrel humored her, and Erin did think she felt it.

An odd sensation, like she got when, sometimes, in the heat of a game, she had a perfect understanding of how to win. Yes, exactly that! The moment of inspiration that all Humanity had felt one moment or another, where their mind connected the dots—that was what Erin wanted.

Yet it almost felt like Shaestrel’s presence on the board was the inverse of that. If Erin felt certainty in how to win—she then sensed Shaestrel undoing everything.

Oh. This is witchcraft on the level of Belavierr. She would call this the threads of fate.

Erin’s skin chilled, but her heart blazed. And Shaestrel nodded.

“I am playing poorly, with all the intent of the world made obvious and none of the finesse or strength. You cannot beat me, but you can hold onto your own fate.”

 

That was what Erin was doing. She felt like she was guarding herself against Shaestrel, preserving her moves in the game of chess from being manipulated. And if that was the case…

“Check.”

Nerry watched as the game turned slowly against Shaestrel. Not because the Spring Fae couldn’t see countless points to victory—but because Erin’s mastery of chess itself left fewer and fewer.

This time, Shaestrel had to play perfectly from the start. The next game, she drew with Erin; neither one had an appropriate move for victory.

“Ach. You drew that only because you play like the greatest of losers, mastering this stupid game. Less of that!”

Shaestrel kicked her king-piece over, and Erin protested.

“Aw, come on! I can’t move you, Shaestrel. It feels like it’d be changing the course of an ocean.”

“Well, of course not. I’m so good a player even the gods themselves can’t use me as a piece easily.”

 

The faerie puffed out her chest, and one of her sisters jeered.

“Yeah, and the god of muffins nearly killed ye!”

Shaestrel leapt up into another fight. Nerry finished eating the would-be god of muffin-kind as Erin frowned at the board. The final piece to the fae’s lesson was not moving fate around for other people; Erin imagined even reading the perfect move was beyond her in everything but chess. No. The feeling she had was—

“If it’s my fate? I thought I couldn’t see my own—ah, of course.”

Erin sighed. She picked up the queen piece and stared at it. Just as she had once with Skinner attacking and everything ending. As she had felt it many times before, when death should have come and a group of Redfangs and Goblins followed her onto the Floodplains.

Even when her luck ran out—that sensation of unreality, of being outside her body, of a moment that was so far from ordinary and normal that it became that element she coveted and used in her magic.

Wonder. That magical moment. Erin lifted the piece up, and her hazel eyes shone a second.

“A wondrous move. Something that surprises even me. If I see what I do, and what I’d think of, and what my opponents think I’ll do—what might Erin Solstice do that will surprise us both?”

Shaestrel and the fae looked over and fell silent. Nerry’s own eyes gleamed, and she watched as Erin Solstice picked up one of the beautiful chess pieces that Altestiel or Chaldion or one of her chess-head admirers had sent her. The dark marble of the queen piece was polished so finely, why—it reflected Erin’s face vaguely. Like a mirror.

And what she saw in those depths made her smile.

——

 

“Feeling better, now? I was thinking, Erin. If…you opened up the Drathian garden, we could have a very lovely time there. It’s not as festive, but it is lovely and bright. Or—another garden. Not the Snow Golem one. If you wanted to put on some event for everyone, I think that would be a wonderful gift.”

Lyonette was trying to help at this point, the only way she knew how, but when Erin came downstairs, she looked calmer.

Erin stressed. Ryoka stressed. Everyone had their breaking point, and Lyonette had seen Erin’s last Christmas. She didn’t want that now.

“I need to do something meaningful, Lyonette. You’re right, I think the gardens are the best bet. But changing one is tough. The beach garden, well, that’s the former mage’s garden to begin with. Because there wasn’t much of anything there…huh. There wasn’t much of anything there. It was just this blank room when I found it.”

Erin rubbed at her chin and looked—different. She seemed normal, but she was thoughtful, like someone constantly second-guessing herself. As if she were appraising the world twice.

To Lyonette, Erin seemed more deliberate than usual, like when she tended to focus on things rather than being silly. But Ryoka gave Shaestrel a sharp look, and the fae looked smug. Erin…

Erin didn’t feel more intelligent, but she had a clear mind, like those days when you woke up and you felt at your sharpest and most incisive. Like all those moments of inspiration were at her fingertips to call upon.

It felt amazing. But it was also scary because she was pushing herself to…not be Erin. Or to do something she might not think to do regularly. No, that wasn’t right. These were all Erin-moves, but she was looking for rare Erin moves. The kind that would help, here.

“Hum. That garden. You know, I think I didn’t do the owner any credit. I turned their garden into my personal beach. Terraformed it. True, their garden was always sorta…empty. But maybe—I’m gonna use the beach a moment, okay?”

Erin strode into the beach and found it had a good number of people, even now. After all—there was a lot of the world who experienced a warmer Christmas than she remembered.

“I bet this is what it’s like for that guy, Daly, or people living in Australia.”

“What is?”

Ryoka followed Erin into the beach, and the young woman waved her arm around.

“Christmas! It’s hot in Australia in winter, isn’t it?”

“Reversed seasons. Yep. Wait, I think that’s how it works. Now I’m not certain…”

Erin was walking along the beach, clearing the water and sand away. She made the sand stretch to the ceiling, cordoning off this area and revealing that blank room that this place really was.

A training ground for a [Mage].

Or so she assumed. The power to move the elements and even call magical examples of fire and so forth from the sky at a command seemed the most [Mage]-like thing imaginable. She was sure Ceria would love to use this room as a training ground, like Pomle’s holder.

But in hindsight, was that bias?

Now Erin was here, she strode around, poking at the blank walls and floor and ceiling. With her was Ryoka, Nanette, Rags, and, because he wanted to be in on things, Ilvriss.

Everyone else was stuck outside, including Lyonette, who shouted to Erin that she had to work her crazy ideas fast; it was 4 PM and she had two hours!

“What? Come on, what about seven? Eight?”

“Erin, we have to have gift openings, parties, dinner—six is the latest!

“Great. Two hours to do…what? Think, Erin. Optimal move, optimal move…garden, reveal your secrets to me! By the power of the key! Open your hidden areas! Reveal the true owner’s…stuff!

Erin began raising her arms, commanding the garden to show her what she thought was there. Ryoka glanced at Rags, who calmly poked at the floor and tried to lever up some of whatever this place was made of.

“I missed this.”

Rags watched, and Ilvriss nodded a few times.

“Me too. It feels like a lifetime ago. To be so carefree as to only have to worry about one calamity.”

“Yep. Think she’ll cry again?”

“I don’t believe I was there for that, last time. Why was she crying?”

Rags shrugged in reply to Ilvriss’ consternation.

“Lyonette told me to watch out for it. Happened last time.”

“Huh.”

Ilvriss turned back to watching Erin. The [Innkeeper] was shouting at the sky, red-faced.

“By the power of Khelt, I command you. F-forsooth! In the name of Empress Sheta, open the hell up!”

Even if they couldn’t see her, she still had an audience, and Erin quite clearly heard Kevin muttering to the others.

“Oh come on, she’s doing the Gandalf thing.”

“The what?”

“Mines of Moria, Imani? Joseph, back me up.”

“Nerd.”

“I remember that. Erin, try ‘friendship’!

Someone shouted, and Kevin turned with a look of displeasure on his face as he realized who had been tagging along despite not being very welcome.

“Dude. Who let you in, Troydel?”

The [Innkeeper] decided she needed more sand to prevent eavesdroppers from having an opinion. Nanette tapped Erin on the shoulder.

“Miss Erin, are you sure this garden has a secret function?”

“No…but most of them do have something. In fact, I’d bet every garden has a trick. I have that hill—do you think the owners wouldn’t do something unique? Some like the Pomle garden only have that sparring room, but that’s because the owner lacked imagination. This one was a blank room. It just had some stuff in it, but doesn’t that sound—suspicious?”

Erin was thinking of the other gardens. Some were for a purpose, like the room she and Rhaldon had been in. Actually—that one was very much like Shaestrel’s teaching Erin about fate. Only, right now Erin felt like she was losing that lesson.

Nanette tilted her head sideways.

“It is…odd. What items did you find in here?”

“Some broken and decaying wands, a spellbook, I think some magical reagent stuff like gems…”

Erin waved it off, but Ilvriss and Rags focused on her.

“Spellbook?”

“What kind of gems?”

The [Innkeeper] fended them off.

“They were all dusty and broken! The spellbook was mildewed so bad even [Repair] didn’t work, so I threw it out.”

Ilvriss clapped his claws to his head.

“Erin! There are [Librarians] who can restore a book from nothing!

Erin froze, and her new fate-instincts told her that a smart Erin would probably have thought of that.

“Oops. I, uh—I, uh, might have tossed it in the fire.”

Rags didn’t freak out like Ilvriss and even Nanette and Ryoka were doing. She just walked over and began hitting her head into one of the sand walls.

“I feel like this team isn’t very supportive. Can you guys trade out? I’m looking for…something. But what? Who wants a room to just train in? That’s lame.”

Ryoka was trying to puzzle it out with her knowledge of stories as well.

“There was a room like that in a lot of stories. The Room of Requirement, the…hey, Troydel! What’s that room in the manga with Goku that does something weird?

The Room of Space and Time which lets you train for a year in a day’s time!

“Thanks! Nerd.”

Imani shouted through the sand walls.

“How do you know about it then, Ryoka?”

The Wind Runner blushed.

“I’m part Japanese! It’s my heritage!”

“That is the lamest retort—”

“She doesn’t even speak Japanese. Is that racist? She’s a poser, that’s what…”

Erin laughed as Ryoka grew flustered and ran away from the voices muttering, but it made her think of her own upbringing.

“Even I know Dragonball Z, guys. Hey, if Mrsha wants to watch things in the [World’s Eye Theater]—she can watch that. It’s probably like a few hours of watching a guy scream while his hair changes color.”

“That’s so harsh, Erin. Accurate, but…you watched anime growing up?”

Erin pshed, looking amused as she walked around the blank part of the garden, feeling at the walls, frowning as she tried to sense any hidden features. Rags was listening in, as were Nanette and Ilvriss, and they all knew more or less about Earth.

But Erin—thought of home, and a lump rose in her throat as it did whenever she actually recalled Earth.

“It was on the cartoons channels. I’d sit in my living room and watch them all the time when it was snowy. We used to have this huge, fluffy rug that I’d roll myself up in. Mom used to call me a ‘pillbug’. She let me stay up if it was a snow day.”

Ryoka…blinked. The bickering, jesting Earthers outside the walls of sand stopped a second. Ryoka rubbed at her ears and felt like a locked part of her brain suddenly opened. Her emerald-green eyes opened wide, and the next words came out of her mouth unbounded.

“My parents were never that nice. Except—”

She hesitated and scuffed her foot on the ground.

“—I suppose they did care enough that when I was sick, one of them would always stay home and make sure I was okay. My dad nearly died of chicken pox when he was older, and my mother had these terrible fevers, so they had a thing about getting sick. My happiest memories were when I had a little fever and they’d stay up watching a movie.”

Erin half-turned as Ilvriss and Rags turned. The [Innkeeper]’s voice softened, and she looked at Ryoka with mild astonishment.

“I never knew that. You never say anything nice about your parents.”

“Yeah. Well. I just remembered it.”

Ryoka hunched her shoulders defensively and realized she should have corrected Erin. Even she rarely talked about her parents…Rags snorted softly.

“Erin. What’s a pillbug?”

“Oh, it’s this cute bug, Rags. It curls up into a ball if you poke it. I don’t like bugs, but they were the only ones I ever picked up. Well, that and cicadas. They would molt on the trees, and I’d collect shells. I don’t remember when I thought they were ‘gross’. One time I made a chess board with cicada shells, and they broke up and got everywhere.”

Erin chattered absently as her poking around the garden became less focused, and she stood there, staring at an imaginary sight.

“Yeah. There are trees all down my street, and they would have them every fall. Ryoka, did you have cicadas growing up? Kevin? Joseph? Imani?”

“Nope!”

Kevin shouted happily, and Imani called back.

“We had locust swarms, Erin. Not so cute. Don’t cicadas only come every thirteen years?”

Erin pshed with the air of one who knew it all, which indicated to Nanette that Erin probably only knew a bit more than most people.

“Of course not! They come every summer and fall, but they have, like, this super-year every thirteen years when more come out of the ground. That’s when they get gross. Ryoka?”

The Wind Runner folded her arms.

“Hell no. I had no idea you were cool with bugs. I never messed around with them. That’s gross. I had to have an ant farm in my home for a school project, and I hated it.”

Erin rolled her eyes until Ryoka realized there was a silence coming from the people who had been playing outside the sand walls to their left. She realized some of the people playing at the beach were Antinium when one of them spoke loudly.

“Priest Pawn. My feelings have been greatly hurt. What do I do?”

“Pray for her. She is a hurtful Human. You will find more.”

“Guys! I meant ant ants.”

Pawn spoke over Ryoka’s attempts to clarify the situation.

“Ignore her. She is not a bad person. But she clearly has no taste. Ants are delicious.”

“…Is that cannibalism? You’re sorta related, Pawn.”

“People eat monkeys. Is that cannibalism?”

Troydel wondered out loud. Imani made a sound.

“They eat what?

“I’d think you’d know more about that, Imani. Don’t they eat them in Nigeria?”

Joseph kicked Troydel.

“Now that is racist. Hey, Erek! He said it!”

“Ohshitohshitohshit. Don’t hit me!

Troydel ran off. Erin, meanwhile, was shaking her head.

“I dunno about eating animals, but we had this great zoo we’d visit all the time. The animals looked happy there. We went there every winter. A sort of tradition. Wow. I’m not gonna cry…but I haven’t thought of that in a long time. I miss all that. Then again, it’d be so snowy that maybe Dad would be making me shovel. For a quarter! He paid me a quarter when I was a kid until I realized that doesn’t buy nothing.”

She shook a fist at the air, and Ryoka had to lean on one of the sand walls to stay upright. She was shaking harder than she had when Cara brought up the date. Because it was one thing to talk about Earth; Earthers always talked about their home. But this? Rags was the one who made the quiet observation.

The Goblin Chieftain stomped over to Erin and glanced up at her. The difference between their heights wasn’t so much anymore, and these days, Rags wasn’t the timid yet vivaciously intelligent Goblin. She tapped Erin on the shoulder and murmured as Erin turned to her with a smile.

“Erin. You’re talking about Earth? Your home?”

“Yeah. Why? Do you want to know what a zoo’s like, Rags?”

The Goblin shook her head. She gave Erin a crimson-eyed stare of puzzlement, then looked at Ryoka.

“You never talk about your home. None of you do. Your world—but not your family.”

Yes! Ryoka stared at Erin, and Ilvriss blinked as he realized the truth of that statement. Erin laughed, confused.

“Why not? I guess it’s because it makes us sad. But I—”

Then she put her hand to her head, and her eyes widened as she realized—she had. She had brought up her parents unbidden—well, not entirely—but she had spoken of them.

Where once that would have prompted nothing but a recollection—Erin Solstice flashed to her fake Earth that Kasigna had made. Yet this was different.

“Who were they? You knew my…parents. Are yours alive?”

 

——

 

Rags stared at Erin, curious. Erin’s heart hurt, and she hesitated. One long second as the beach-goers played and people celebrated in her inn, and somewhere, a kindly half-Elf helped carry a delivery to the front door of the inn, but he didn’t enter and prowled around the side. Lyonette hurried out and gasped as she saw a delivery, a massive one, being pushed in by a panting Garia, Fals, and Charlay.

It was…a statue. It was gigantic, made of bronze but polished until it shone, and it was so iconic that Mrsha raced over and began giggling and went to show it to everyone. It might have been silver, but the collapse of silver mines had made the caster think bronze was better. Silver was too gaudy, and there was an honesty to the bronze. It shone less brightly, but better.

The statue was…of a beaming, short man, too tall to be a Fraerling by far, but shorter than a Dwarf.

He had a magnificent beard, a cap with flight goggles on his head, and as Troydel observed before Erek grabbed him and began slapping the back of his head, he looked like he had some kind of fantastical astronaut’s outfit on.

The Gnome was standing on a rock, so he could better hold a bearded, bald man with a terrified look on his face by the throat. Zineryr was, with his other hand, knocking a trio of women off their feet and stomping on the back of a pitiful [Mage] while a shadow-thing fled in the other direction.

It was beautiful, and even as a statue—the person who had carved and then cast it had worked from life. Zineryr’s eyes shone with mirth, and a laugh was upon his lips.

 

——

 

A Gnome laughed and entered the inn as Erin Solstice looked down at Rags.

“Shauna Solstice. And Gregori Solstice. My mom looks sorta like me, and my dad’s taller. He’s got some Scottish in him, but he didn’t give me any height. He’s a super-nerd.”

“…Unlike you?”

Rags bared her teeth, and Erin nudged her.

“Hey. I like chess. He’s the computer dude, and he plays video games and stuff. And Dungeons and Dragons.”

Ryoka felt her chest squeezing as Erin spoke of her family. Spoke, as if she remembered them and they weren’t lost in her mind. What was going on?

“What’s his job?”

Ilvriss was asking next, and Erin shrugged.

“Lawyer. Worker’s compensation and stuff. My mom’s sort of a housewife, but she doesn’t want to call herself that, and she’s got this huge store on Etsy—that’s this way to sell goods online. Uh, online is…she likes handicrafts. And before you ask, neither of them are good at chess! My dad likes it, but he’s like 1400 ELO at best. But they’re encouraging.”

She paused.

“…They kept wanting me to get a job. Parents. But they were really nice and…”

She wasn’t crying. Her eyes might be overly sensitive, but she was speaking of them, and on this day? It felt right. It was right. And surely they all would have done that.

But no one did. Home, the most precious of core memories, was never invoked by an Earther. Even Ryoka, who had no levels. Yet Erin said her parents’ names where she had said them before only once, and Rags looked up and gave her a smile.

“Someday I’ll meet them.”

“Maybe. But don’t eat any chocolate they give you. They love, like, 90% stuff. Which no one likes.”

Erin winked, and Ryoka felt the wind blowing around her, a gale on the beach. Kevin was lost for words, but Imani was touching her heart, and Palt was galloping towards her, drawn by the look on her face. Joseph was closing his eyes tight, as if fighting to not lose something, and Erin?

Erin stood there and felt it. Not a weight on her shoulders or a shackle upon her tongue, but a lack of it. She stood there, unbounded by that hidden law, and realized what it was.

Fate.

Somewhere, a faerie was laughing at the plans of gods. Just like that statue of the Gnome.

 

——

 

Oh, yes. The statue. Erin had no notion he had even come in at first. She was too busy remembering, and the word reached her slower than you might have expected.

After all, he came in humbly. There was no flash nor herald of his presence. The Gnome strolled into the inn, hands behind his back, looking right and left, a smile on his lips. At first, he took a seat at a table, and only one of the Antinium Workers noticed him and came up to take his order.

That winking, short man would sit there, and gently, the room would notice him. A little Gnoll would scamper up, ready to steal some snacks, and he would end up with her sitting across from him, him stealing fries from her plate as she howled in outrage. Until her mother ran over and he began chuckling.

Playing pranks until the [Innkeeper] noticed him. A laughing little man with the ability to humble Dragons, pausing as he saw the prankster, Saliss, seeing a rival. But terribly kind. He would stand, without Erin’s ability to bring tears to those she loved.

All he wanted was their laughter, and he would step on the dignity of the mighty like Laken and tear his own to shreds because there was a world of pride that could never be ruined, a grace that was better than any fragile grandeur. The Gnome who had walked the lands of the fae as a great guest.

—For a second, it almost felt like spirit was there, and if only he could have come there, like that, Zineryr might never have left.

Somehow, when Numbtongue saw the bronze statue being gently carried into the inn, he felt all of that pass him by. Contained in a single smile.

“Numbtongue? Are you okay?”

“Uh? I’m fine. Why?”

Then he realized he was sitting down. His legs had gone out from under him. He was holding his guitar, but when he looked at that statue…he couldn’t rise.

Something old was calling to him, and he would have wept. Those crimson eyes shedding tears. But the other part of him was saying ‘don’t cry’.

They wouldn’t like that.

Rags had come to a halt in the inn, and Garia’s face was red.

“Can we—put this down? It just came from the [Silversmith], Orreh.”

Lyonette was gratified by the statue, but she was a bit concerned. She didn’t want to cause a fuss, but she had to point this out as she turned to Fals.

“It’s the statue Erin wanted. Just on time. But bronze?”

The City Runner shrugged.

“He said silver was too expensive, and—and that it just fit like this. It’s a lot bigger than Master Orreh thought. He says don’t mind the cost. He wanted to make it like this.”

The huge statue was dominating the room, and guests came over, peering at it and chuckling. Some, like Menolit, didn’t get what was so special, but he laughed at the image.

“Look at this fellow! What is this, some kind of fight I missed? Who’s this bearded fellow? He’s bald. Humans and their hair.”

He flicked at Tamaroth’s image, and Ryoka shouted. She had just appeared.

“Don’t—don’t touch that!”

Surprised by her tone, Menolit twisted. Ryoka looked afraid as she saw the images, however caricatured, of the six. At least, some of them.

Cauwine and Laedonius weren’t included, but was this right? She had never met Zineryr, and so it was the others who provoked fear in her. Yet a peal of laughter made Ryoka’s stomach untense.

Visma had come running with Mrsha and Kenva and Ekirra, and at the sight of the statue, she began giggling. The laughter was innocent and genuine, and it made Ryoka’s stomach unclench.

“Is that…?”

Joseph nodded covertly, and Ryoka nodded without a word. She recognized the three-in-one and the shadow.

They had been around the fire. Her face was filled with fear, but then she saw Numbtongue looking at her. He felt something too, perhaps because he was a [Soulbard]. Slowly, he walked over to the statue.

“What’s his name? Oh. It says.”

He bent down and read the title.

“Zineryr. The Triumph of Gnomes.”

He grinned at the simple title. Then he looked up. Numbtongue might have said something more, or touched the bronze statue, but he heard, then, a loud meow.

Before he knew it, an orange furball, annoyed at being ignored by his caretaker, launched himself off a rafter. Reagen, the orange tabby, hopped down onto the only logical place.

Reagen!

Octavia shouted in horror as the cat landed on the tallest landing point and the flattest surface he could see. The orange cat curled up and gave everyone an innocent look.

What? What?

He was squatting right on top of Tamaroth’s bald pate. Numbtongue began to grab him, and Reagen swatted at his hand, thinking it was playtime.

“He’s going to scratch up the statue! Numbtongue, your stupid cat—”

Garia was worried as she was responsible for delivering this. Numbtongue glowered at her.

“Don’t call him stupid, Garia. Psst, psst. Reagen—”

And that, of course, was how Erin Solstice found Zineryr. She stopped, in her inn, as a Hobgoblin tried to pry a cat digging its claws into the metal Tamaroth’s scalp. Erin Solstice halted, and her eyes went wide, but before she could cry out or solemnly burst into tears—

A laugh escaped her. A guffaw, and everyone looked up, and Garia sagged in relief.

That Gnome laughed. Just as he had intended, and Erin began giggling, then laughing. Then the faeries were swooping around, shouting.

 

“There he is!”

“The mighty! Undefeated! Godslayer!”

“Hail to the Gnomes!”

 

They cheered, and Erin would have fallen over, but someone was there, and she bumped into another Goblin with a strange look on her face.

“Erin. Is that…a Gnome?”

The [Innkeeper] stopped giggling and saw Ulvama had come out of the Drathian garden she liked so much. Like Rags, the [Shaman] looked shaken beyond words.

Erin’s laughter faded. She walked forwards. Then turned around.

“Yes. Everyone, this is Zineryr, and this statue is absolutely true to what happened in the lands of the dead. He saved my life. He…I wanted to remember him. Properly.”

She looked at that statue and wondered if, in time, it could help replace her memory of what had actually happened. Perhaps it would always serve to show her how it should have been.

That smile was perfect. Erin tried to copy it, then gently put a hand on his shoulder.

“Orreh did an amazing job. Garia. Can you invite him here for the party? This…I don’t know if we should put it in the garden. The common room, maybe, but I don’t want him to get dirty.”

“I can polish the statue. Silvermop can, too.”

Peggy offered. Erin nodded.

“The others are fine. Reagen using that dude’s head as a cat rest is just…perfect. Yes. This is how it was. How it should have been. He wouldn’t have lost to anyone in a fair battle. Bongcloud Attack.”

Then she looked so sad that Mrsha took Erin’s hand. She held up a card.

He looks fun. A really brave guy.

Erin read the note. She wiped at her eyes.

“Yeah. He was as brave as all the ghosts. They all deserve monuments like that. But he gave me hope.”

That was all there was to say. So the guests looked upon the one person that had given Erin a spark in those darkest hours. Thoughtfully, with wonder. With amusement or, yes, fear and apprehension.

But the statue had the greatest effect on one person, and Erin had to go after her. She found Ulvama squatting in the Drathian garden.

“Ulvama? Sorry. Is something wrong?”

“Who—who was that? A Gnome? It’s too old. I don’t remember him.

The [Shaman] was clutching at her head. Erin didn’t understand why Ulvama was so worried. Rags, Numbtongue, had all clearly felt something thanks to their advanced connection to the heritage of Goblins; Badarrow hadn’t been as affected and just laughed.

“That’s right. He’s one of the Gnomes. I don’t know how old—why? Is something wrong?”

I don’t remember him. It’s too far back.

Ulvama’s hands were shaking. She looked at Erin, snapping, and then her gaze was uncertain.

“The—Solstice. You kept saying bad things were going to happen. Everyone knows. But that? That is older than Goblin Kings. What is going to happen, Erin? I want to run.”

Perhaps, of all Erin’s guests, Ulvama had not realized just what was coming at them. Erin realized the [Shaman] was understanding it now as the memory of Gnomes struck the [Shaman of the Old Ways], something that ran far deeper and greater than all the magic and secrets she’d known.

Erin paused, then took a seat cross legged in the grass of the garden. She exhaled slowly,

“If you want to go, Rags can take you to her tribe. Or Laken has his own area for the Goblins, and they’re not necessarily safe—Elia proved that—but it’ll probably be safer than the Solstice will be, here.”

“Yes. Maybe.”

Ulvama’s eyes were hunted now, the same look of a Goblin pursued by killers. Yet Erin hesitated, then came out with it.

“I…wish you’d stay. I need your help.”

The [Shaman] blinked and looked back at Erin. She rallied enough to scoff.

“You don’t need me. You have the tiny [Strategist], one-eye, Rags…”

“Yeah, but they’re not part of the inn’s family. You are, by now. I could use your help, Ulvama. They’re coming. And I’m afraid. Zineryr is there to give me strength—but I’m afraid. He died.”

Erin’s voice cracked. She looked back, and the statue was in her inn. But his ghost?

“He was the last Gnome, and he did everything he could. He beat them! He put his thumb in their eyes, but he told me we had to carry on after him. I can’t do it alone. I never could. So—so if you could—”

She was shivering, and Ulvama stared at Erin. It was hard to say who was reassuring who now, but the [Shaman] closed her eyes. She wavered for one second, then looked at Erin. Ulvama bit her lip, then told Erin a secret. And Ulvama was better at keeping secrets than even Erin.

“Every [Shaman] does this, Erin. Probably every Chieftain. From Tremborag to Rags. No matter how hard I try. Ever since I was small. I cannot remember the First Goblin King. I can only remember four Goblin Kings back.”

Ulvama’s eyes opened. The [Shaman] stared down at her feet and plucked at the grass.

“Every Goblin wants to fix it. Their rage. I thought I could. Then I gave up and tried to live happy. Then my tribe vanished. Now—I see something from the beginning.”

She wiped at her eyes.

“I was always a bad Goblin, and Rags knew me the moment she saw me. But even I…I want to know why. I looked at him, and I felt hope and safe for a second. I want to remember. If I follow you and risk it all. Can you help me find it?”

The Goblin’s voice trembled, and Erin Solstice looked at her, mouth open. That façade of uncaring tough cynicism broke down a second, and Erin put a hand tentatively on Ulvama’s shoulder. She looked back, and that Gnome was smiling at her now, not just laughing. Erin’s eyes shone with determination.

“I promise.”

Ulvama’s sigh was the longest in the world, and she flopped onto her back. She lay there.

“Great. Then I guess I have to stay. If I die…I need to eat more tonight. Smart Goblins die with a full belly.”

Somehow, they were the bravest words Erin had ever heard Ulvama say. She smiled—then she stood. And when she walked back into the common room, that Gnome’s smile shook her to her core.

But even after the hundredth time she looked, after the thousandth—

He still did seem to embody courage to her.

 

——

 

She was breathing too hard. The [Innkeeper] felt like she was under the effect of a Skill again. She knew it was impossible. Her wild flailing around for a Christmas gift, learning the fae’s lessons, remembering home…

It was all heading towards something. Perhaps, in her Erin-way, she’d tricked even herself. After all.

She knew what she was looking for, in the back of her head. As Erin stood in the cleared part of the beach-garden, something was in her hand.

The young woman only noticed it when Rags’ eyes fixed on the object she was holding.

“The key.”

The Key of Reprieve was in Erin’s hand, though she had never called for it. A feather, glittering under a false sun.

Ilvriss was staring at it, and Ryoka was doing that thing where she looked around to make sure this was happening and everyone else saw it.

Always. Did she always have a trick to pull? Maybe…it wouldn’t have worked an hour ago. But this time, Erin felt it.

This was, after all, not her place. It wasn’t her garden, but it was someone’s [Garden of Sanctuary]. And with the exception of the Strongest of Pomle, Collos, each and every other owner had truly needed this place and changed it to become integral to them.

Wasn’t it strange to have a glorified training room? Then again, Erin looked around at the walls of sand, and one parted slightly at the merest thought to reveal Lism and Krshia floating by on a makeshift pair of inner tubes, one feeding the other silkap.

Ilvriss, Rags, and Ryoka stared as the two Councilmembers stared back at them. Erin closed up the wall of sand.

“I didn’t need to see that.”

Whatever you saw, you were mistaken!

Lism shouted back. But Erin had mostly wanted to see the water again. With only desire, she could create a current or even a tidal effect. The beach-villas were still there, and the sun felt bright and warm; heck, she had a tan! She thought out loud to herself about all this.

“Home. Strange, how—how easy it was for me to make this beach. Even with all the powers of this garden, it’s not like it’s easy to terraform somewhere. Ilvriss, how hard would it be to create a manual beach like this?”

The Wall Lord scratched his neck-spines as he considered the question.

“Taking aside finding a space for the matter and obtaining all the sand and whatnot—the spells to replicate the atmosphere, the way the water moves, and even, it feels, contain this environment and move all this sand around at a whim? Five Level 30 [Geomancers], some kind of specialist on par with Magus Grimalkin in the area of dimensional bounding, a, uh, [Hydromancer] who can somehow affix this magic—I wouldn’t pay the budget for this.”

Nanette was nodding rapidly as her earnest face screwed up in thought, and she looked delighted to be part of this moment. The people outside, though, were missing out, and Erin requested a drink for her sore throat. Inkpaper handed her a cup of water and someone tried to trot in; Erin slammed the sand walls in front of Charlay’s face.

“Hey! I’m Ryoka’s best friend, Erin! Don’t forget that and let me in! I know tons of [Witches]. I’ll tell on them!”

Charlay kicked the walls, clearly not understanding witch-dynamics. Erin twitched. Ryoka hurriedly patted her on the shoulders.

“Charlay’s a good person, Erin. Just—Charlay.”

“She’s your friend, Ryoka. It fits.”

The Wind Runner’s brows crossed, and she folded her arms.

“I don’t deserve all the teasing I’ve been getting today. Come on, Erin. What did you find out about this garden? Share it.”

Erin relented and looked at the others. Rags, Ilvriss, Nanette, and Ryoka gave her attentive looks. Erin pointed at the unnaturally pale tiles on the ground.

“It really does look like some kind of room meant to simulate stuff. Like fighting another [Mage] or training. But I turned it into a beach, and it’s doing a great job. Why would someone make a [Garden of Sanctuary]—a place that has things you want, or makes you feel comfortable, yes—only into a place to train magic?”

Rags rubbed her nose.

“[Mages] are weird. Quite smart. Not very intelligent.”

“True…”

Everyone agreed to that as several [Mages] outside huffed angrily. Valeterisa, who was trying to bore a hole through Erin’s sand walls to peek through with a beam of fire magic, glanced up at Relc.

“I would make a garden like this. Except mine would automatically feed me and have…mm…more books. Actually, my garden would probably be a gigantic library. One immune to silverfish. What would yours be?”

Relc scratched his head, looking perplexed.

“Dunno. Maybe somewhere relaxing? What about…a room that’s a gigantic puzzle? So you have to solve the room itself, and it keeps changing every time you go in.”

“Oh. That is a splendid idea.”

See? Even they had better ideas for a [Garden of Sanctuary] than what this room apparently was. However, the real kicker came when Nanette frowned and remembered something.

“Wistram has a room just like it, or so I’ve heard. One that makes anything you want. Like a beach. I thought you got the idea from them.”

Nanette looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] scratched her head.

“No. I just thought it’d be fun. But you’re right, it was easy. Easier than…huh. Easier than I would have thought, right? I couldn’t do this in another garden, even if I was okay with changing it. Hey! Does anyone remember some kind of beach-room in Wistram?”

She had to open the sand walls further, and Palt, Imani, Montressa, Bezale, Valeterisa, and Relc all hurried in, looking pleased as punch. And all but Relc and Imani knew what Erin was talking about.

Palt lit a cigar up. When Erin glared, he switched to a pipe, and when she didn’t immediately slap it out of his hands, he blew an ostentatiously orange smoke ring.

“You’re talking about the Room of Vacations? Every student knows about it. It’s locked to [High Mages] because everyone loves it—when they remember. I heard a bunch of Earthers started using it. Frankly, a lot of [Mages] won’t go to a beach even if they know it’s an option. You’re right, Erin; it does exactly what this one does. Although I will admit, all the things in there are fake, so it’s less pleasant. You can tell the sand in here is real. True, you had to import it, but the room in Wistram does not work that way. It just ejects foreign matter before creating the illusion.”

Montressa chimed in excitedly.

“I remember that room. It does more than just beaches! But it’s not adaptive. It can only do pre-set locations. I remember Archmage Naili…”

She hesitated.

“Nailihuaile showed me how to use it and gave me access. She thought an [Archmage] had made it a long time ago. But she said the room’s actually rather useless. More illusion than substance. It’s still really nice.”

“You have a free beach-room yourselves, and you don’t use it? Palt?

Imani was scandalized, and the [Illusionist] shifted on his hooves.

“Well, we don’t have an Erin, Imani. It’s less fun without the food and company and activities. Come to think of it—that room looks exactly like this one.”

He kicked at the white floor tiles suspiciously.

“Look at that. See how they’re mostly square until they get up to the edge of the dome? Then they’re cut off. But there’s hexagonal tiles in the center…I recognize that pattern.”

Even Bezale, who had quite a fine memory as a [Spellscribe], gave Palt a blank look, but the member of the Ullsinoi faction had an eye for shapes. Now, Erin felt her mind lighting up.

She was coming close to the truth. She stared at the Key of Reprieve and wondered why it had suddenly appeared. These things didn’t just happen without reason. Erin murmured to herself.

“Once. A long time ago, perhaps. Either someone was making this place and that room was an experiment, a prototype. Or someone came here and tried to copy it.”

Rags was grinning as the other [Mages] looked at Erin. The Chieftain nodded.

“A powerful [Mage] owned this room. But there was nothing valuable in it?”

“If they lived at Wistram—they’d have rooms higher up. With respect, Erin. Unless you have a laboratory, even a garden like this needs countless magical circles and setup for advanced spellcasting. I can understand someone not wanting to make their personal garden into another workspace. Archmage, am I thinking about this right? Master?”

Montressa prompted Valeterisa, who was busily writing down everything Erin said. Valeterisa looked up blankly and tapped the side of her head.

“What? I was just asking Feor who made that room. He says he doesn’t know. But we would have dedicated rooms, um…higher. Looped into Wistram’s magic. That’s correct.”

So that explained why Erin hadn’t found a plethora of magical items here. She wasn’t disappointed by that. Rather, she was now sussing out the true motivation for this room.

“If you had a [Garden of Sanctuary], you’d use it for, well, sanctuary. The Dullahan [General] made his a place to contemplate things. To carve those heads. What would a [Mage] want?”

Everyone tried to think and muttered about the uses of this room for training, casting some kinds of magic, and so on. However, Erin was going to a more simple conclusion:

Maybe the room was meant for exactly what I used it for. She had felt guilty at the idea of turning this place into a gigantic beach holiday, but in hindsight…it had been wildly easy. All the functions were set up, so she could manipulate any geography in here at will.

What had she been doing when the key appeared? Erin closed her eyes, then had it. She spoke slowly, and every head turned back towards her. Nanette began hopping on her toes excitedly as Erin’s hazel eyes focused on the key in her hand.

Home. I lived in an ordinary house. At least—I thought so. When I was watching movies, I’d sit right up close to our TV, and Mom would tell me I’d get bad eyes. There was this huge beige carpet that was fluffy, a throw rug, right here, and we had hardwood floors, but they were scratched up because my parents owned a dog before they had me. And the kitchen was right back there, and the stairs—”

She was laying out the house and closing her eyes now, picturing what only she could see. Ryoka felt a pang once more and murmured.

“Erin—where did you say you lived again? I forgot.”

“Michigan. Well, if you want a city, Grand Rapids.”

“Right. Never been. What’s it like?”

“It’s here.”

Erin held up a hand, a trick any person from Michigan was familiar with, and pointed to the left of it, just below the midway point on her palm. No one else got it; your hand looked like a picture of the state, roughly.

Her eyes were still closed, though, and she felt the key warming between her fingers. Erin took a breath.

“It’s a great city. My house is in some suburbs, and this time of year, there’d be snow everywhere, probably. Some years, there’s none, but I—I just bet I’d be out shovelling my driveway, and right when you come in, there’s a foyer with all the plants indoors ‘cause my mom likes them. There used to be this stupid cactus that my dad kept stepping on. Barefoot. And then the living room and—”

There was no perceptible change around her that she could sense, but she still felt it in her mind. And the gasps from those around her and the cries of astonishment were enough.

Erin kept her eyes closed as Relc shouted.

Look at that!

Don’t go in! Get back!

That was Ilvriss. Outside, the people clustered around the walls of privacy sand began hammering on it.

“I want to see! I want to see! Let me in!”

Ekirra howled as he raced around, and even Chaldion ordered Shirka to break the walls. Somehow, though…Erin was calm.

When she opened her eyes, she knew what she would see. She lifted the Key of Reprieve and slowly inserted it into the second door, set in the wall. Nanette stared at Erin, beaming, and the [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Secrets within secrets. That’s so Wistram. Of course. What were you hiding?”

She threw the door open, and the light blinded Ryoka for a second. When the Wind Runner lowered her hand, she stared. Then tears sprang to her eyes in a heartbeat.

She had never seen the place that lay beyond. Yet it was instantly familiar. Topical. She croaked.

“Erin—”

“Shh. I get it now. Ah. Aha. So that’s how it works. I guess it was smart to do the beach after all.”

Erin’s laughter was quiet. It was the only sound within the sand walls, because everyone else had gone still. Imani was hugging Palt slightly, and he was staring inside at the most powerful illusion magic he had ever seen. Even Valeterisa was astonished.

“Oh. Oh…how advanced. And how sad. Is that all the owner wanted their magic to be?”

She sounded almost disappointed. As if she had hoped they could sacrifice their heart to magic itself. But this room proved the opposite.

Ryoka was afraid to enter, but Erin walked forwards fearlessly. After all…her feet trod onto a wood floor, then a familiar carpet. She stared down, then pulled off a shoe and sock and wiggled her toes in the thick rug. It felt exactly as she thought it should.

“Yeah. I think I know…what I’ll be doing for my Christmas present. I have an idea. But first?”

Her eyes weren’t running over like some. They were just filled with nostalgia, wonder, and…Erin turned, walked forwards, and found something that didn’t belong in her memories of this room.

The others hadn’t seen it at first; it was blocked by one of the armchairs. Then Montressa leapt back, and Bezale uttered an oath. Nanette gasped, and Erin stopped. She stared down and saw a crumpled silhouette, still partially upright, yellowed ivory gleaming in the light.

Erin nodded to herself and slowly squatted down.

“There you are.”

 

——

 

When Erin Solstice re-emerged from her [Garden of Sanctuary], it was in, as you might expect, chaos.

Everyone was demanding to know what she’d found, but she’d sworn the group who’d been with her to secrecy. The one thing Erin did bring out, though, was rather macabre for Christmas.

A body.

She didn’t seem bothered to handle the remains, though; she’d wrapped it all up in a bedcloth and carried the bundle in her arms. After all. She’d found the original owner of the beach-garden.

Erin had a plan for the Christmas party. What, she didn’t say, but it was going to work. First, though—the body.

She was talking to Lyonette, who held her hands over her mouth.

“I want to bury them. Somewhere appropriate. But I bet I need to make sure they’re put to rest properly, right? Maybe I need to buy a coffin?”

“If those are the bones of a powerful [Mage], you’ll need more than that. Mm. Wistram has a special crypt because dead bodies tend to rise. The garden probably absorbed all their death magic. But if you want to give the bones to me…”

Archmage Valeterisa was chased off in a second with a single glare, but it was actually a fair point. From outside, a certain half-Elf suspected that any [Necromancer] who so much as got a whiff of those bones would be salivating.

Certainly, the [Knight-Artisan of Bones], Ama, looked like she was fighting not to beg for at least a clavicle for herself. She had to know how valuable it was.

Dead gods, even Tolveilouka wanted those bones. He was being very careful as he peered in through a window; he didn’t get too near to the inn, because at least one guardian had already noticed him.

But the Dragon and Unicorn weren’t here yet; he had done his homework and heard Magnolia Reinhart would be appearing—later—with guests. The Five Families were too new for the half-Elf to know, but he’d picked out the association between her and ‘Demsleth’.

I need to get my hands on those bones. If that annoying [Necromancer] that uses the undead rat to spy on this place sees that, he’ll want them too.

A powerful [Mage]’s corpse was valuable beyond belief for any number of professions. He would become a fine undead even without influence. A Lich, most certainly, the more advanced form of Skeleton Mage. But with support and shaping?

There might rise a truly dangerous magical undead.

Unfortunately, Erin seemed determined to put this person to rest with dignity, and worse, she was consulting with the others on the right spot to bury them.

“If it’s dangerous to have them outside, I’ll bury them in my garden. Okay? Or maybe the peaceful one. But if they’re gonna turn up as undead…is there a step beyond, uh, coffins and silver and such?”

Most Liscorian graves had the basic level of protection against the dead rising, but Erin was justifiably worried. As it so happened, someone did know exactly what to do.

“Chop its head off and bury it somewhere with plants.”

Erin turned and looked astonished as Ser Dalimont spoke up.

“…How do you know about disposing of undead?”

He gave her a wintery smile as he gazed at the bones.

“If you recall, I served in Noelictus alongside Her Highness, Princess Seraphel, Erin. Life magic cancels death magic.”

Erin’s eyes lit up as Tolveilouka, Ama, and Az’kerash all began cursing under their breaths.

“I’ll do that! Thanks, Dalimont. And Lyonette—”

She turned as she stepped back towards her garden. Tolveilouka glowered…then slunk to the side. He was definitely being noticed. An undead rat was scurrying his way, the eyes in its sockets blazing with emerald-green wrath, and a shadowy Drake was skulking along The Wandering Inn’s perimeter, daggers drawn, sniffing the air and hissing under her breath.

Just as anticipated.

Inside, Erin pointed a finger at Lyonette with a smile.

“The party’s on. We’ll still open presents in the World’s Eye Theatre, but prepare some tables and chairs and food to move somewhere else, would you?”

“Are you going to tell me where, Erin?”

“Nope. I’ll be back in a second. I should check in about that music. Now I definitely need some. And hey! Maybe I can do a tiny bit of gift making after all. I definitely replenished some of my craft just now.”

Erin vanished, and Tolveilouka paused just past the outhouses. The half-Elf checked himself and decided his undead-hunter cosplay wasn’t going to be appropriate. He began rummaging in his bag of holding.

“Robes, perhaps. In keeping with the theme of magic and such. I have so much Drathian clothing…well, it’s good stuff. Maybe something more formal? This doublet is terrible. No, no…”

What a silly half-Elf. What a ridiculous monster. If he thought he could cause trouble—Tolveilouka winced as a thunderous voice assailed him, though only he could hear it.

I have warned you once, minion of a fallen [Necromancer]. This place is under my protection.

Az’kerash, power leaking from the eyes of the skeletal rat, stopped in the snow and grass outside The Wandering Inn. The air around him was trembling with power, and Tolveilouka looked up.

“Oh, it’s you. The annoying one. Begone.”

Touch this inn and—

Tolveilouka sighed. He straightened, took two steps forwards before the rat could react—and kicked it.

 

——

 

The impact of Tolveilouka’s shoe meeting the skeletal rat didn’t blow the thing to bits. It was highly reinforced and filled with death magic. But the blow was so powerful that the minor shockwave of sound made Tessa jerk and look around as she exited a window on the second floor.

She whirled and saw a blur streaking through the air. She saw it flying high, high—and realized it was a thousand feet up and not even slowing.

Bird took one wild shot at it, then stared around, trying to figure out what the hell he’d seen.

Was that—a rat-bird?

 

——

 

The Putrid One’s finest servant dusted off the tip of his shoe as he sensed Az’kerash’s puppet flying into the sky.

“Have fun on the other side of that mountain, fool.”

He sneered, then spat onto the grass. The day he was threatened, truly threatened, by a rat puppeteered by a distant [Necromancer] half as strong as his master was the day he disintegrated himself. Tolveilouka had allowed the other [Necromancer] to chirp at him, much as one let a dog yap, because it was hardly a threat.

By his own admission, he liked to have fun. Sometimes he made silly mistakes, and he fondly recalled his own memories of his master scolding him for his japes and fumbles.

“—However. I am Tolveilouka, beloved of the Putrid One. Foil me once, send me packing a thousand times. But kill me? No one has. My master has rebuilt me a hundred thousand times, each time more deadly. How they laugh and laugh—”

He slapped his chest and guffawed to himself. Then staggered as a Drake dropped on him and threw a dagger into the side of his head.

Thunk. Tessa saw her dagger go straight into the intruder’s brain. She had orders not to kill unless necessary, but every instinct told her—

The sizzling blade should have cooked his head, and steam rose from the hilt. But the half-Elf just calmly pulled the dagger out and flicked it back at her. He finished his thought.

“—until I stand over the corpses of their loved ones. Then I laugh, and it is far sweeter because of the struggle.”

He moved, leaping at her, and she got him eighteen times, each stab in his throat, groin, stomach, eye—slashing his vitals, but the wounds closed almost as fast as her blades left his body. And then she was trying to get away—but a single arm was around her throat.

Shriekblade thrashed, a blur of stabs that Tolveilouka absorbed. His voice was very soothing as, behind the outhouse, her feet scratched at the ground. He was impressed; one of her Skills fired straight into his chest and opened a hole through his back. But the wound closed, and he whispered in her ear.

“Shh. Shhh…go to sleep. I need bait. Wake up and know you’ve failed utterly and completely. That’s right. Lights out.”

It took a while, and she kept trying to sound an alarm, but he could wait. At last, she did slump, and he decided he’d put her in a bed rather than let her catch a cold outside once he was done.

It was the little details that mattered. The half-Elf slung her over a shoulder, then regarded the inn.

“In. Out. No one notices, no one dies. Well, almost no one. That’s style.”

But first…he went back to consulting his bag of holding.

He had to figure out the right attire.

 

——

 

Something was wrong.

Erin felt it at last as she was digging a hole in the Drathian garden with Ulvama’s help. The [Shaman] had been pestering her for details about Erin’s plan and whether it involved food.

But Erin turned her head and frowned. It was on the barest edge of her inn-sense, near the outhouses.

“…Tessa?”

Shriekblade had vanished. Erin had told her to relax on Christmas, and she’d sensed Tessa stealing snacks from the buffet lines and even talking with Saliss a bit.

However—

She had sensed Tessa’s presence vanish abruptly. Maybe she’d gone off to bully a spy?

Something felt off. Erin couldn’t place it, but her internal sense of danger suddenly spiked. A wisp? No…she wondered if her [Dangersense] should have been going off.

“Ulvama, I’ll be back in a sec. I’m just gonna check on something.”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin was digging with Apista and Nerry watching, oddly content to help bury someone. Erin, on a hunch, stepped back into her inn—appearing in the tower with Bird first.

“Hey, Bird. You seen Tessa around? Anything odd happen recently?”

Bird gave her a helpful salute as he wore his Santa hat.

“I never see Miss Shriekblade. Sometimes she steals the seeds I leave out for birds. Nothing odd is happening…although I did see a rat-bird. It flew over the mountain, there.”

“…What? Just keep a lookout. I think we’ve got a snoop or something.”

“If I see a spy, I shall either shoot them gently or call for the Thronebearers, Erin.”

“—Okay. Just be careful.”

Erin looked around, then teleported into her common room. Instantly, everyone flocked towards her, and she took the door to her [World’s Eye Theatre], shouting.

“Not now! Busy!”

If a few of her guests noticed her odd behavior, they might have put it down to stress or the Christmas plans. And no one could keep up with her when she was using her door like that. Erin stood in her theatre.

“I should call Rabbiteater and Cara back…but first? Show me Tessa!

The theatre’s dome blinked—and Erin narrowed her eyes.

“What the—?”

She saw Tessa slumped against the wall of the inn, on the outside, by one of the windows that led to the common room. She looked propped up there, not like she’d decided to take a nap. And she was visible. The Drake was breathing—but Erin swore she’d seen a flicker of movement that vanished as the image appeared.

What was that?

She hesitated a second, and her instant instinct to open a door to where Tessa was made the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door open. Erin did a single step back into her personal garden, and the door flickered to show Tessa outside.

But Erin’s foot stopped just before she walked outside. She couldn’t have said why. It wasn’t [Dangersense], again. It was a sudden suspicion.

Step out and I am in danger. Whether or not her finding Tessa was anticipated, the slumped form of the Drake looked like—

A trap.

Erin took her foot back and balanced in the garden a second. Now, her mind was moving faster.

What in the world could that be? Kasigna’s minions? I swear she summoned the wisps. But that was fast. Facestealer? Something from the dungeon? Raskghar? Why today? Well, it’s Christmas. Who else could do that? Think. Think. Manus? Nerrhavia? 

She didn’t have an immediate answer, but now Erin was frozen in place. She called out.

“Tessa? You awake? Tessa?”

She tried to sound as innocent and natural as possible. But in her mind, she was trying to work out a plan of action.

Chaldion first. Then tell Ryoka to grab everyone and put them in the garden. Who else could fight? Saliss. Grimalkin. Valeterisa, Relc…Numbtongue. Rags’ Goblins…

But what were they up against? If Tessa was down—

Where were Demsleth and Magnolia when you needed them? Yes, she could count on them! If—

The problem was, Erin was trying to catch up to someone, and they had clearly realized she was too smart to walk outside. In that moment of uncertainty, a decision was made.

Erin felt a presence on the second floor, in her rooms, and at last, her [Dangersense] exploded. Every alarm bell in the world blared, and she clutched at her head.

“No. No—

The door flickered, and she appeared in her rooms where the intruder had slipped through a window. Erin hesitated one second—then leapt through her door. She landed and came face to face with someone she had never seen before.

A half-Elf, skin pale as a sickly moon, wearing the same red robes like blood, exposing his chest, that the Dragonlord of Flame had once seen, was standing in her rooms.

Tolveilouka, first servant of the Putrid One, smiled as Erin stopped. He looked up, and she knew nothing of him save how dangerous he was. To her, he felt like a false flower, a thin veil covering a sea of rot and decay.

Plague manifest. Something about that was familiar. He had a single curved blade at his side, and he even had a flower, a rose, tucked behind one pointed ear.

It was the most pretentious outfit she had ever seen. Erin should have been ringing the alarm, but he had entered in a single moment, and she had gone after. Why?

“Oh my, little Miss. You shouldn’t go peeking into other people’s rooms, even for presents, you know.”

Tolveilouka was speaking to a little Drake girl, who looked wide-eyed and nervous—but only like a naughty child. Kenva, Watch Captain Venim’s daughter, had been creeping around Erin’s rooms, possibly searching for hints about a present. Tolveilouka had been wagging a finger.

“Miss Solstice! I’m sorry! Don’t tell my father! Strategist Chaldion dared me to do it!”

Her eyes filled up with terrified tears, and Erin held out a hand.

“Don’t—don’t cry, Kenva.”

Don’t touch her. Tolveilouka drew his hands back and held them up. Erin looked at Kenva.

“I’m not mad. Just go downstairs and tell Mrsha that Headscratcher’s present is safe.”

“Okay! I’m sorry!”

Kenva ran downstairs. Erin watched her flee out the door, and it shut hard after her. The lock clicked without her touching it. Then she and the unknown half-Elf were in the same room, and he was beaming.

“Innkeeper Erin Solstice? My name is Tolveilouka. Good Missus! I am delighted to introduce myself, albeit belatedly.”

“Hi. How did you get in my rooms? Why are you here?”

Erin was slowly buying time, tracking Kenva dashing downstairs. Would she tell Mrsha properly? Would they—?

The door was open behind her, but he’d moved so fast. How much damage could he cause? She was trying to slowly redirect her center of gravity for the fastest step in the world back. The half-Elf’s smile stretched ear-to-ear, somehow wider than regular lips should contrive to move.

“I just wanted to pay my respects to the great friend and patron of the Horns of Hammerad. I am intimately acquainted with that team.”

—Fuck. That didn’t sound good. Who had the Horns made an enemy of? Someone from Chandrar? Roshal? Then Erin locked onto the disgusting sense of how foul this person was.

Like he wasn’t half-Elven, like the fake Named-rank, Regrika Blackpaw, had been. The sense of plague…her mind flashed to a single story Ryoka and the Horns had been part of.

It couldn’t be. Could it?

She was in a place beyond mere danger. Tolveilouka’s smile never reached his eyes. They were, Erin realized, pale blue; his hair was golden flax. Sort of like Ceria, yet he paid more attention to his looks as his flashy attire indicated.

Yet everything about him was slightly off. The golden hair color, like wheat, perhaps, but a sickly crop before the harvest. Plague in the fields. Skin as if drained of blood.

“How do you know the Horns?”

Erin was waiting for her moment, now. Tolveilouka sighed dramatically.

“You may ask them. I just wanted to tender them some Christmas greetings! Properly! So you know, my full name is Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer.”

Erin jumped backwards. She was right in front of her door. She never made it.

The world spun so fast that Erin was dizzy, stumbling, when she realized the half-Elf had switched places with her. Suddenly, she was standing in front of her bed, and he was standing in front of her door.

He placed a palm against the entrance and looked into her garden. Erin staggered. Had he just swung her around in the instant she’d leapt?

That made him faster than anything she’d ever run into. The half-Elf pressed at the barrier into Erin’s garden, and she felt the pressure.

“I recognize this. How…nostalgic. It only works if you get in. Ah!”

He reached out and caught Erin, holding her up before she could fall into the door that had opened below her feet. This time, Erin punched him in the face.

[Minotaur Punch]! She hadn’t expected it to work, but to her surprise, he took the hit full-on. It was a nasty punch. She felt her fist mash his face, connecting with his cheekbones, and even saw his skin distort as her blow snapped his head back with the force of it.

“I shan’t take up your holidays, Miss. A woman like yourself deserves fine company, and I hope you will quite enjoy the seasons! Now, here is my present. I didn’t wrap it, but I am sure you don’t mind.”

He kept talking as if he hadn’t even registered the punch. He put Erin down, and then she was calling fire to her. Fire and witchcraft.

Too slow. Too late. She should have abandoned Kenva. But what kind of a person did that? Would it even have mattered?

Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer didn’t strike her. He didn’t break her neck or cast a spell or draw that sword from his side. He just opened his palm and exhaled.

A faint, cloying breath of air blew across Erin’s face, and she recoiled. She stepped back, tossing pink flames, and he stepped out of the way of them.

Erin stumbled back into her [Garden of Sanctuary], coughing—and then realized she had made it. Tolveilouka beamed at her and bowed.

“Merry Christmas to you, Miss Solstice! I shall see myself out.”

“What? What did you d—”

Erin coughed. She had no idea what he had done, but a cough exploded out of her lungs, hard and fast. She blinked.

“You—”

“Don’t let me keep you from the party. Remember me to Ceria, would you? Tell her I hope she’s enjoying that circlet. Fine work, you know. And Pisces! The spellbook, likewise. Yvlon? I hope she’s gotten her arm back on. Ksmvr…I’ll see him last.”

Twinkle-eyed, Tolveilouka was opening the window, theatrically swinging a leg out. Erin stood there.

You—what did—? St—”

She was coughing harder now, and something was wrong. Her head felt foggy, and after the third cough, her lungs were heaving, burning as if something were in them. She tried to say something—doubled over. Erin coughed into a hand, and then there was blood.

The half-Elf was watching her, face a seraphic smile.

“You’re not looking too well, Miss Solstice. Careful who you hug. You never know what you might catch on the holidays. It would be a shame if those children got sick. You might want to stay there for a bit. For…three days, I’d guess. Say, would you mind if I nabbed some sweets on my way out?”

Erin gulped for air. Her lungs! She knew what he’d done now; her head felt like it was swimming. Poison or plague. Something like that, but so fast—she reached for a healing potion at her belt and hesitated.

Wait, that made diseases worse—Tolveilouka applauded as she hesitated.

“Good idea! The next thing you’ll do is ask for that silly woman who can only cast [Restoration] or the Antinium. I wish them the best of luck. The Unicorn might have a shot, but I truly doubt it. My master and I made plagues to kill them when they sauntered out of their forests. And the Dragonlord of Flame was never a good healer.”

He was gloating. Erin doubled over in a coughing fit, and her lack of a reply seemed to annoy Tolveilouka. He rolled his eyes, lifted a finger.

“I forgot how much hacking is involved in the first stage. I’m sorry, you were saying?”

The burning pain in her lungs stopped for a second, and Erin looked up at him. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and it belonged to the grave. She had felt this once before, this certainty, and she had the phantom pain of the crossbow bolts lodged in her chest.

Death.

Today? It was painfully fitting. You never knew when…but Erin was staring at the half-Elf, and she did not want to die. She was afraid of it.

She knew there would be no coming back. Not again. She couldn’t let it happen, but she had no miracle cure. Nothing…and there would be no Maviola, no ghosts…

Ghosts. He was so familiar that she had an image in her head. Not of the last gathering of ghosts in Khelt. Rather…before that. A chance encounter as she had fled the six, finding the first sanctuary. But before it had fallen and they had run to Chandrar! Before that—!

The Horns had raided the Village of the Dead. A grave of a famous, forgotten [Necromancer]. The Putrid One. And she had met someone in the lands of the dead. A lonely half-Elf like her—

“I think your friends are coming to save you. I am on a bit of a time limit. Some of your guests might get a bit stroppy with me if I don’t make my exit. I know it’s sudden, but any final comebacks? Remarks? ‘This can’t be happening’ or ‘what’s going on?’ are rather banal, but acceptable. I’ll take a scream.”

She had one shot. Erin’s mind connected the dots, and she spoke, her body growing hotter, feverish with each passing second, as she felt her mind literally beginning to cook.

“You…you’re his servant, aren’t you? The Putrid One?”

Tolveilouka paused, then actually pinched the bridge of his nose delicately between two fingers.

“Belated recognition is…well, I can’t fault you if that’s how fast your mind works. Let’s go with that.”

He turned, and Erin croaked.

“He found respite before they killed him. That’s all he wanted, at the end. To rest. If you’re taking revenge for him, I think he forgot all his hatred and grudges. The Horns didn’t kill the Putrid One. Zacheales didn’t die at their hands.”

Tolveilouka’s body froze as he swung himself out of the window. Below, a clamor was beginning, but neither he nor Erin cared. Her [Immortal Moment] was active, trying to buy her time before whatever was in her veins took her out of consciousness. And he?

His head froze, then swung around, twisting unnaturally far. It did a nearly one hundred and eighty degree spin, and his eyes locked onto her.

“What.”

Erin was on her knees, now. Did he say three days was how long she had? She felt like she didn’t have three hours. Then again, he might not have meant she’d be conscious all three days.

“I…”

Tolveilouka strode back into the room and put his hand on the door.

What did you say? How did you know that name? No—you looked it up. Of course. But so few knew—a Skill. Answer me. Or else this will be twice as painful!”

He made a gesture, and whatever link he had to the plague made the symptoms abate. The half-Elf was pressed against the barrier to her garden and looked ready to smash his way in. Yet he was surprised when he stumbled forwards.

Erin gasped as she got to her feet.

Come into my garden. You’re his servant, aren’t you? You were one of his regrets. The Putrid One? I met him in the lands of the dead.”

Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer hesitated at the entrance to Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary]. He knew what it was, and for a second, even with the plague in her veins, she was glad to see the look of sudden paranoia flash over his face.

But the name of his master made him take a step inside. The grass wilted under his feet, and he had her by the throat in a second.

Yet who had just grabbed who? Because Erin had a gleam in her eyes, and he looked disconcerted; he made up for it with a crushing grip around her neck.

“Start talking. My master is—was—dead. Trapped in stasis after his wounds. He was healing—there is no way a measly insect like you could have met him.”

“He was dead. Guess I was, too. I met him when I was a ghost.”

A—

Anyone else would have probably scoffed at that, well, before the changing of the era. But Erin knew that Tolveilouka was a being of the past. The wisps, all these ‘new’ things come again? He had lived their times, and the mention of ghosts made him pale.

“No one can walk the lands of death and come back easily. [Spirit Shamans], [Warlocks]—even in my time, half came back eaten or not at all! Empty husks. I have peered a thousand times, and the veil was just dark. How did you do it?”

“Someone froze me in ice. Stop killing me, and I’ll tell you. Better yet, I’ll show you.”

Erin gasped. Whatever plague effect was in her, he was forcing it back. The half-Elf hesitated. He eyed Erin’s face, which had begun to develop red blotches, and lifted his hand. The symptoms nearly fully abated.

“You’ve been infected with a killing disease. Even here, you are at my mercy. Talk, and pray to [Paladins] I like what I hear. If you’re truthful, I might give you a swift death.”

He thought he was in control, still. So many had come with force, and like them all…a group of faeries who had been biting their fingernails watched from the top of the dome, laughing now.

Nothing was ever certain, even now. But true power was the ability to take one chance out of a million and seize it. Now, Erin was coughing, and fate swirled around her.

“He told me his name. And I can prove I met him.”

“Anyone can look up a history book. Your tales about ghosts could be just that. This…I’ve known charlatans who could fool Gazers before. It is only prolonging your fate if you lie, and believe me, I came here in amusement and dignity. I can be properly vengeful.”

Erin didn’t dignify that with a reply. She just pointed, and Tolveilouka’s head rose as he saw that hill of statues. Once more, he hesitated as he saw the mists, and then he gazed down.

The [Innkeeper]’s hazel eyes were blazing with fire, and her hat was aflame. The [Witch of Second Chances] looked Tolveilouka in the eyes.

“Welcome to my garden. You’re going to suffer.”

 

——

 

With each passing second, Erin understood more of the half-Elf. With each frozen moment, he began to believe she had met his master.

He was a monster. One look at him and Erin put together things she’d heard about. Sabotage, by a half-Elf at that village of necromancers, Rheirgest. Flames in fields. Plague…

The Horns had nearly been killed by him, and nothing and no one had laid him low.

Yet he was on his knees. Clinging, yet unable to touch, huddled beneath the statue of a weary-looking half-Elf who sat on a bench, staring into the distance. Just as she had first met him.

The Putrid One.

His name was Zacheales. At least, his real name was. Perhaps, like Tolveilouka, he had changed it. Or maybe that was just the half-Elf’s full name as it had ever been.

Erin didn’t know. She had not talked to The Putrid One long. But he had been there, spilling his regrets to her, and she had forged some small connection.

Enough so that he had found his death in opposing the six, buying her time to escape.

Yet Erin was aware that it was not him that she had to contend with, but his servant. Tolveilouka’s face was a mask of tears as he knelt there, and yet Erin had no sympathy for him.

“You tried to kill the Horns. You’re the one who’s been spreading misery around everywhere. Ylawes said, before he left, he saw a half-Elf who’d been fighting a bladesman. You know Teriarch.”

Tolveilouka didn’t answer her.

“Master. Master. Was it for her? Is this worthless lump of flesh telling the truth? For her? What happened to your promise to return? I waited an age—is she lying? Should I eat her brain? Kill her and have her corpse speak the truth beyond doubt?”

His head twisted around, and he gave Erin a stare with two bloodshot eyes. Erin just pointed at the statue.

“Do you believe that or not? I met him. The proof can’t be denied.”

Tolveilouka lurched to his feet as Erin retreated a few steps. The plague wasn’t cured from her veins, but she was checking her bag of holding, and the Key of Reprieve glittered in her mind. She knew, outside, her friends were panicking, but she had to settle this here.

He’d cut a hole through her entire inn, all her high-level friends or not. Tolveilouka hissed as he clawed at his face, opening up huge red gashes.

“This is a trick. I have seen tricksters—it is not impossible for them to fool me! Everything I see says this is real, but so what? Tricks are the common practice of those without my power.”

“Sure. Keep believing that, buddy.”

Erin gripped something in her bag of holding. Tolveilouka drew himself up, panting.

“No…let me think. Let me think!

He shouted and worked his fingers through his hair. The amount of mental anguish he was going through made Erin suspect he hadn’t had to use his head for novel cogitation for a long, long time. Tolveilouka was muttering to himself, biting his thumb—the actual thumb—hard and ripping chunks off.

“Gross.”

“Is it a trick? It could be. But everything sings of him—even if it was a trick. Master! This is you, too well!”

He turned to the statue. Then looked around.

“This damn [Garden of Sanctuary]. You can’t lie with it. No, is this real? You met her and died for her. Respite? If you’d just held on, then maybe…”

His hands trembled as he went over and touched the other half-Elf’s cheeks, holding them gently. A great sob erupted from Tolveilouka’s chest, then he swung back to Erin.

Gollum. That was it. He reminded her of that famous character, alternating between adoration and hatred in the flicker of an eye. She was just waiting. This could go very bad. Because even if she knew his master…

“I see. You did meet him?”

“I did.”

She never blinked. The [Witch] waited, and Tolveilouka drew himself up slowly.

“I should like to hear all the details. I may get it from you, after all. After I kill you. I have promised to do so, and the Horns of Hammerad deserve to suffer.”

“You’re back to that? What happened to the part where he tried to save my life?”

Erin reminded Tolveilouka of the facts, and he hesitated, swung his eyes guiltily to his master, and lifted a finger.

That could be a lie. And even if you’re telling the truth…so what? My beloved master, Zacheales, whose name you do not have the right to utter, is still gone. I know it. You know it. There is no denying this fact, and I doubt your claim that he gave up his life wholesale, just to help you. You, who he barely met?”

That was, unfortunately, true. Erin knew that the Putrid One had likely been trapped in a world of despair, and the temporary hope and reminder of his life had given him the will to spend his last moments opposing the six dead gods.

Worse, Tolveilouka was debating with himself and rationalizing what came next.

“You and I are fundamentally different, Erin Solstice. You may think I would turn and hug you and throw myself behind you for merely knowing the greatness of my master. But I have the ability to kill people I like. And people my master likes. So you knew him. So he helped you. The Horns disrupted his tomb, and for that, they, and by proxy you and every living thing, should die. As we had always wished.”

It was sort of amazing how fast he rationalized murder. However, it made sense as well, unfortunately. Even him standing in her garden felt like he was contaminating it. He was a murderous monstrosity, and Erin knew it.

This was no noble Redfang, but a true undead creation who reveled in death. His pretense towards style and fashion? She had seen him as she was dying, seen how he looked at Kenva.

His mistake was thinking that Erin was some noble heroine from bygone days. She was not. She was an [Innkeeper]. Ryoka might like immortal monsters, for all their faults, because they were their nature.

Erin? She saw Tolveilouka turn, and clearly, he was now debating taking her prisoner or killing her and raising her as some kind of zombie-Erin. Imagine that.

But Erin just walked backwards slowly, down the hill, and Tolveilouka followed.

“Did he have any messages for me? What was his…waiting like? Why did he seek respite? You might as well tell me. I am going to kill you, but in deference to the fact that you do know him…wait. The statue. If you die, the statue disappears!”

He clapped his hands to his head.

“…Alive, then. Maybe if I take you prisoner and cut off your limbs or something. I wonder if I can find a jar.”

That last comment, whether he knew what it meant to Erin or not, was enough. The [Innkeeper] stopped in the center of her garden. The wind was picking up, and she pulled something from her bag of holding.

A knife. Tolveilouka eyed it without any sense of danger, but Erin Solstice wasn’t smiling as she pulled out a green jar of acid.

“You really are a monster, aren’t you? The Putrid One told me he wasn’t a good guy, but I never knew what he did. Not really. His enemy, the Silver Dragon, wasn’t the best either. But you? You’re disgusting.”

Tolveilouka made a snarling sound.

That wretched Dragon-Knight was tormenting my master in death? Wait. House Byres. I’ll raze it twice! But first—I sense you’re stalling for time.”

“No. I’m just getting ready. There’s something you seem to be forgetting, Tolveilouka.”

The half-Elf paused suspiciously.

“And what’s that? Bring your little friends in, by the way, and I’ll just murder them. I’m considering it anyways to wipe that smirk off your face. I am the greatest servant of death in this world.”

“Maybe. But you don’t know who killed your master in the lands of the dead, do you?”

Then she saw his eyes widen. The half-Elf stiffened, and all the hair on his body actually rose up as his pupils dilated.

“Wait. What? I thought he just—”

He saw Erin smiling at him, and a snarl twisted across his face into a rueful smile.

“My, you seem to think you have all the cards. Very well. Let’s talk after all. Do you have a chair? Shall we picnic on the grass? I have some wine and a blanket here. Let’s hold hands and sing elegies to my master, then. Should I get a present for your party?”

Tolveilouka actually pulled out a pale linen cloth, mocking Erin. The [Innkeeper] felt the air growing heavy. Nay, charged. Her eyes were beginning to glow, and yes…

She was ready. Erin calmly walked forwards, hefting the knife.

“Nah. That’s what I do for people I want to be friendly with. You? I’m going to kill you now. You’re just a monster. And I don’t serve monsters in my inn.”

She lunged, knife aimed at Tolveilouka’s face, and he caught her kitchen knife before Pelt’s blade could hit him. He was so strong he effortlessly held her hand and laughed.

“Feisty. I admire the attempt, but why do you think I’d entertain that when I can just do this? Nice knife, by the way.”

He snapped his fingers, and Erin suddenly went weak. She felt the plague in her veins, but before it took her out, she gasped.

“You’re not going to putrefy me before you find out why your master helped me. Or who killed him as a ghost. Careful with the sickness or you might damage my memories of him.”

The undead hesitated, and the plague stopped burning Erin’s insides. She saw him grimace and gave him a huge, beaming smile.

Then she threw the acid jar point-black into his face.

Argh!

Even Tolveilouka recoiled, swearing, as steam rose from his melting flesh. Some splashed on Erin, and she scrubbed at it frantically as her skin burned and melted. She saw Tolveilouka, flesh melting to bone and revealing fat and organs inside, cursing.

My clothing! You—”

She took two steps forwards as he somehow stopped the Acid Fly acid from melting him. Tolveilouka laughed—then his hips lifted as she kicked him so hard in the groin that his feet left the ground.

Erin stabbed him in the chest. His flesh was already regrowing, but she threw a [Minotaur Punch] that snapped his head back, then opened her palm, copying how he had infected her, and blew.

The flame of hate was nigh-invisible, and of all the things she’d done, that made him actually wince a second. He scraped at his flesh, then raised a lazy hand.

“I can strike you back, you know. Pain isn’t death.”

Erin ducked back several steps as he took a lazy swing—and Tolveilouka’s carefully-aimed blow for her arm that would have broken it—missed.

She swung under his punch, and he blinked. Even slow—she seemed to slide left and threw a combo of punches and a kick.

[Rhythm Combo]! Another punch, and she dodged back, so light on her feet that he blinked. It was a far lesser version of how he and the Unicorn had fought, but—

“Oh. A dancer?”

[Safety Dance]. Erin was moving faster, whirling left—Tolveilouka calmly kicked her in the stomach, a blur that sent Erin crashing down the hill.

“My, you must think I’m some regular monster come down from the High Passes. If you want to try that…you had better reclaim the spirit of Zeladona again. Hup.

He squatted slightly, then leapt. Erin was on her back, stomach bruised, and she looked up as he casually dropped towards her. Tolveilouka hesitated.

Why was the [Innkeeper] smiling like that? What he didn’t realize, as a door opened behind Erin and she scrambled through, was that she was ready for this.

Not him. Not Tolveilouka. But it was Christmas.

A week away from the Winter Solstice. Erin was panting as water ran down her body, soaking her clothes.

“You’ll be a good practice run for the real thing.”

“The arrogance of—”

He walked forwards, and the sneering half-Elf was intending to break her legs and see if that wiped the smirk off her face. Then he tried to d—

 

——

 

Dodge?

Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. Champion, first servant of the Putrid One. Greatest of undead.

The world flashed around him. He landed on his back in Erin’s personal garden, smoking. Not smoking like someone smoked a pipe; more with ash and smoke rising off his body.

What remained of it.

There was a huge crater in his chest, smoking black, and the second strike had blown his head off. The half-Elf, or rather, the true being that he was wouldn’t die to that. But he hadn’t been able to dodge the blow.

He’d barely seen it coming. Tolveilouka lay on his back, stunned a moment, and felt pain.

Real pain. He had one thought as he tried to rise—another blow hit him mid-regeneration, and he was forced to roll away onto his feet.

True lightning. Not [Lightning Bolt]. Not even [Grand Lightning]. I forgot how much it hurts.

How? The air, he realized, stank of ozone. It was charged, the tingle of storms in the air. Tolveilouka pulled himself upright and saw her.

She stood in a garden filled with rain, a hat burning, a shining crystal tree behind her. The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn had her knife drawn, but she had something in her other hand.

“You’re not going to enjoy this. My turn. If I can’t kill you, I guess I need more work. I’ve been preparing all month. Buddy, Tolveilouka? You’re going to have a really unpleasant time.

He levered himself up onto one arm with a snarl.

“I am T—”

He dodged a lightning bolt—straight into a door that had opened for him. The half-Elf’s eyes went wide.

She has more than one garden? D—

He stopped as he found himself neck-deep in snow. A being made of ice turned, and a fist descended. Tolveilouka caught the Snow Golem’s blow and sensed a door opening behind him. He twisted.

“Where did you get that weap—”

The half-Elf heaved the Snow Golem back, but then he shouted as a blade pierced his side. It hurt! Then there was fire. Green flames, and he was grabbing for her, snarling, and then he remembered he couldn’t spit his bile on her.

He needed to know how his master had died. She was—checking herself, falling into her door, realizing he could catch her.

Using him like a training dummy? He began howling as his body bulged and started revealing his true nature. Then he saw Erin lift a hand.

Lightning.

Her first door opened again, and he realized the three lightning bolts were nothing compared to the light coming from that tree. His larger shape was capable of nigh-unlimited regeneration, but it was slower—and he was a huge target.

Tolveilouka howled again. She couldn’t kill him, but some of the blows hurt! He’d never seen an [Innkeeper] fight like this, even the ones he’d slaughtered when they razed cities!

She’s smirking at me. That smile—

“I know you now, [Innkeeper].”

A huge voice echoed from Tolveilouka’s body. His eyes stared at her, running with mucus.

“Your kind. Your kind doesn’t stop even if I murder all your loved ones. You keep biting even if I cut off your head. Do you think you can really kill me?”

He rose, ever higher, a corpulent abomination of rotted flesh that even the Snow Golems backed away from. But Erin just leaned on the weapon she’d produced, and she was panting. But the gardens were coming alive, and her eyes were locked on his.

“Kill you? What am I, an adventurer? I’m just practicing my moves on you. If I could kill you, I would. But you need to know who killed your master. Who ate him and laughed.”

His blood was boiling, and he roared.

And why do you think you’ll survive once I find out? You think you can remove me from your lists of enemies with words?”

Tolveilouka grabbed at her, and Erin jabbed her knife into his hand as he gripped her. But he didn’t dare squeeze. She looked him straight in the eyes, teeth bared.

“Kill you? Remove you? Why? I’m not playing chess. Chess has no capture moves in the base game. I know how to play othello. Do you know how to play shogi, Tolveilouka? I don’t have to take you off the board if I can flip you.”

There she was, in his grip, a gnat he could kill in a moment. Yet no matter how he raged and howled—he couldn’t close his fist, and both of them knew it. Tolveilouka had never seen such an insolent smile. Not on Yderigrisel, not on that [Paladin]’s face.

He had one thought before Erin hit him with the full weight of her gardens.

…I truly don’t like her at all.

 

——

 

When Erin Solstice emerged from her garden, the small army of worried people stared at her.

“Erin. What is the situation?”

Chaldion snapped. But Erin just brushed at her head and realized all her hair was sticking up. Some of it was burnt, and she was both soaked, smelled like ozone, and panting.

“Nothing. I chased off that suspicious dude. All’s good, guys. Back to the party?”

Absolutely no one believed her. However, the mysterious culprit that had accosted Kenva was gone, nowhere to be seen, and Erin’s first action was to check on Tessa.

When Shriekblade awoke, she nearly took off Saliss’ hand, tearing around, looking for the attacker, but Erin talked her down.

“Tessa. Tessa…come with me a sec.”

She dragged the Named-rank into her [Garden of Sanctuary], and after about fifteen minutes of talking, Tessa came back and sulkily began eating everything in sight.

“Everything’s sorted. For now. Back to that party, guys.”

“No…Erin, what happened. Was it one of the six? Was it—wait, did the suspicious dude have a suit and smell a bit like brimstone?”

Ryoka suspected Ailendamus, but Erin refused to answer. She did turn to Ryoka.

“Listen, Ryoka. It’s sorted. If you want to help, go get Magnolia. She’s bringing Demsleth and, I think, even Rafaema over here. That’d ensure nothing bad happens, right?”

“True…I’ll go get them!”

Ryoka dashed off, relieved that Erin was making sense. She didn’t notice nor pay attention to the slightly-different looking half-Elf who was sitting in a corner of Erin’s inn, drinking. He looked so sullen and miserable that he didn’t even have the heart to stomp the undead rat biting him under the table.

Az’kerash seemed more concerned with appraising Erin to make sure she wasn’t infected with Tolveilouka’s plagues, but the undead had already removed it. He was trying to work out why Tolveilouka had gone from murderous revenge to meekly sitting in the corner of the inn after curing the [Innkeeper], working out defense strategies.

Yet her fight with him…Tolveilouka had to own—if that was how hard the [Innkeeper] was preparing for whatever she claimed was coming in a week, she might survive anything except him. And she claimed she hadn’t even used her ‘trump card’ on him. Which was just insulting.

 

——

 

Erin, though, Erin looked alive. She was in her [World’s Eye Theatre], hyped up on adrenaline, and Lyonette, brush in hand with Nanette, was trying to comb Erin’s hair.

“What happened to you?”

“Just, uh—Christmas preparations. You know how it is, Rabbiteater. How’s things, guys?”

None of the Ivory Five believed Erin one whit. They were enjoying themselves on Altestiel’s boat, and Erin was astonished to see another ship and personage she hadn’t noticed close enough to lower a gangplank.

“Wait. Who’s that guy? Do I know him?”

He looked shy—at least, he was hiding slightly behind Altestiel, and yet his footwork across the moving decks was fluid, and Ulvama turned her head to stare as Lyonette gasped and then checked her own hair with Nanette.

“Lord Belchaus isn’t coming with us for the journey to the New Lands, Erin. He’s a great friend of mine; frankly, he should be in Nadel, but even he couldn’t resist joining the armada. Bel? This is Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper] herself.”

“Miss Solstice, I am delighted to meet you!”

The Lord of the Dance looked slightly askance at Altestiel’s weak introduction, but he bowed smoothly, and Erin laughed.

“You’re the Lord of the Dance? I remember you challenging me during the chess tourney. Are you not going to the New Lands?”

Rabbiteater sat up a bit; he had known Nadel’s ship was around, but the Lord of the Dance was so popular that he hadn’t had a chance to really meet the man. Lord Belchaus sighed.

“Unfortunately, I am sworn to protect Nadel, and I have too much business to attend to to justify leaving. Altestiel, here, somehow managed it. I don’t understand how he and Kiish managed to leave.”

Altestiel coughed into a fist.

“It was a necessity, Belchaus.”

“You ignored a royal command again, didn’t you?”

The two were clearly friends, and Erin laughed as more nobles tried to get a word with her. Many seemed to think that if they hinted an appropriate Christmas gift to them was a <Heroic Quest>, she’d fork one over, thank you, milord, milady, all impressed to be condescended to by actual nobility.

Rabbiteater was only slightly disappointed that Seraphel’s staff kept them away from that hilarious meeting. Erin was talking to Altestiel.

“I’m just about to get my Christmas party underway. I never did manage to get gifts for everyone…but I do have a small something planned. Even I can’t get all those gifts together in a hurry. But something. Can I call you guys then? I’ll make it so you can see the party.”

“Ab—absolutely. In how long?”

Erin checked the clock and swore.

“It’s nearly six! Half an hour! Well, it’s ready, and all we have to do is get the food set up. We can do that quickly…but I need music! Muuuusic! Where’s Cara?”

Altestiel saw Erin looking around frantically and muttered to Lord Belchaus as Kiish fiddled with a scrying orb.

“Did she just say she got the Singer of Terandria to cater her party? Bel, ask her about that dance quest.”

Bel elbowed him smoothly.

“Altestiel, I’m not going to be a dog with a bone about it. This is a holiday! Relax! Don’t blow around like you always do. Help me make a good impression!”

He cast such a pleading look around that Rabbiteater felt moved to help one of his friend’s friends.

“Psst. Talk chess to her. She likes chess.”

“…Just chess?”

Rabbiteater decided to help. He waved a hand as Erin fussed around.

“Hey, Erin. What’s your favorite chess opening? Belchaus wants to talk chess.”

“Wh—I’m busy, but I do like the Sicilian Defense. Although I keep using the Bongcloud Opening because, uh…say, we’ve played chess before Lord Belchaus, but not on a schedule. I could add you to my list of chess people. There’s always more room.”

“I would be delighted. Not to sound presumptuous, but I do play Altestiel regularly…however, I’ve been into that game you introduced. Othello? Go? It’s very pattern-oriented, and I enjoy the rhythm of play, actually. You’re said to be a master of that, aren’t you?”

The Lord of the Dance instantly lit up. Erin waved a hand.

“No! Me? I play it, but—that’s actually great. Everyone loves chess, but if you want to play Othello, we can do tons of games! I want to train up on that.”

Altestiel made a choking sound.

“Erin! I’d play if you wanted—”

“No, no. Belchaus can be Othello, you can do chess. It works. So you like to dance?”

“Yes. And may I ask if you dance?”

Erin shook her head instantly.

“Nah. I don’t dance. Well—I’ve been practicing for my rehabilitation, but I’m not a—”

She made vaguely tango-like motions, which seemed to be what she thought dancing was. Rabbiteater snorted, and Erin began talking about the other board game—until she remembered.

“Cara! Darn, I am so sorry, but I need to ask if she’s got the songs ready—”

I have and I do. I was waiting for you to call. Can I just play them now? Tell me you’ve got a way to record them.

Erin jumped, and Rabbiteater’s head turned as an unfamiliar voice reached him. He frowned, wondering how Erin had managed that, then saw Strategist Kiish holding up a scrying orb.

Oh. Of course. Erin wasn’t the only person who could use magic to talk to people. Cara raised her brows as Erin gave her a steady look.

“Sorry, Cara. Something came up. You did all that fast!”

Cara shook her head modestly. She whispered so only Erin could hear.

“It wasn’t bad. My Skills approximate all the other instruments, so it’s just singing the vocals. It’s really…I’m a cover artist at best, not a musician.”

“Singer! Is this a new album just recorded?”

It seemed Cortese and Menrise were fans of Cara, and Seraphel waved.

“Cara! Cara!”

Seraphel? Where the hell are you, Erin?”

Cara recoiled as she fiddled with a song crystal that Abebi had helped her make. Erin waved guiltily.

“Uh. Saying hi to other friends? Hey, Cara, want me to add you to the group call like last time to take part in the Christmas party?”

“…Sure. And I have your music. Want to hear it? I can replay, but honestly, just record it and have someone play it live over there.”

“Go ahead!”

Cara touched the song crystal, and instantly, a storm of Terandrians rushed onto Altestiel’s ship, demanding to hear the song and buy a copy. Erin listened as the first song began to play.

Antihero, by Taylor Swift. Cara had even copied the instruments with her Skills, and she was a very good singer. With her Skills, Erin had no doubt that she could match most experts on Earth. Or even possibly exceed them?

For all Cara looked grumpy at being rushed to do this, she seemed pleased by the reaction of her fans. Seraphel listened, tapping her foot to the song, and it seemed to resonate with her. The two were friends, and Ryoka, who had come back, panting, with Magnolia and Teriarch, instantly pointed.

“I need that! Damn, if only I had my iPhone. Teriarch, give me another copy of mine. As a Christmas present.”

The old man huffed.

“It is Demsleth, and I’ll thank you not to rush me! Magnolia was the one who kept us from getting here all day.”

The [Lady] rolled her eyes as Ressa carefully handed a few presents to Peggy. The [Maid] had a Rudolph-themed red nose on her face, and it looked so incongruous that Ryoka stared at it.

“I was preparing one of my gifts for my Secret Santa. As I recall, you were late picking up Rafaema.”

“Where is she?”

Ryoka saw people were listening to Cara’s songs, but oddly, she saw Erin standing in the middle of the [World’s Eye Theatre]…a glower developing on her face. She was giving Cara the evil eye.

Demsleth waved a hand back towards the inn.

“Eating, I believe. She doesn’t need to eat at her age, but she keeps complaining about being hungry. Not adept on the hunting itself. She still has to adjust to the rugged life. Young folk. No spine, but she’s doing her best to grow one.”

Magnolia stepped on his foot.

“I do not want to hear that from you, old man. If you had to live off the wild in the High Passes at her age, you’d quit within three days.”

They began bickering good-naturedly, and Ryoka wondered if Taletevirion would show up. Teriarch had stopped in the inn, sniffing the air and wondering if someone ‘unpleasant’ was around, but he had assured Ryoka that whomever it was had scarpered rather than face him, and that he’d maintain safety.

That was one thing. So Ryoka hurried down and joined the cavalcade listening to the [Singer]’s music.

By now, Cara was on her second song, and she stopped the crystal after the second track. There was applause, people demanding a copy, and Cara smiled.

“My [Manager], Abebi, may be able to reserve you copies, ladies and gentlemen. Please give me one second—”

She vanished as Erin nodded to Rabbiteater.

“It’s good music.”

“Yah. But you didn’t like it? You’re scowling.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just—”

Seraphel was slowly reaching for Rabbiteater’s helmet with a ghostly hand, ready to poke, and Lyonette coughed.

“Seraphel. How do you know Cara?”

Seraphel jumped and turned, hiding her hands behind her back.

“Oh, well, it was in Menorome when we—”

All kinds of things happening at once. But Ryoka didn’t get a chance to tell Erin that Teriarch and Magnolia were here.

Psst. Ryoka! A word!

Someone in The Wandering Inn held up a second scrying orb, and Montressa pointed. Cara’s face was reflected in a scrying mirror, and Ryoka bent over.

“Cara? What’s up?”

“Have I done something to annoy Erin? She looked pissed as all hells just now, and I can’t imagine why. Does she not like the songs? They’re not explicit.”

Cara looked confused as she leaned over, having apparently asked Montressa or someone else to get ahold of Ryoka. The Wind Runner glanced at Erin. She did indeed look irked, and Ryoka knew why.

“She’s mad because she can sense you using a Skill on her, Cara.”

Rather than apologize, Cara gave Ryoka a blank look.

“A Skill? Why the fuck would I do that?

The Wind Runner frowned and held the mirror closer to her face.

“Wait, you’re not using a Skill on her? She thought you were last song too; that’s why she cut the connection.”

“I’m not stupid enough to try to use a Skill on her—let alone a hostile Skill! Maybe if I thought she needed a energy boost I’d use something like when I helped you, but I’m not using a Skill, Ryoka. Swear to it.”

Huh. So what was it? Ryoka whispered back.

“I’ll tell Erin and see what it is. Maybe someone else?”

“Thanks.”

The Wind Runner edged over just in time for Abebi to, at the request of the crowd, play the third song Cara had recorded for Erin. This one was the one from Erin’s favorite artist, or at least, the one she’d mentioned.

Heaven Knows. A piano began to play, and Ryoka reflected that she had to get the entire album and put it on an iPhone. She missed running to music. Maybe Krshia could upgrade a copy of her iPhone if Demsleth made it.

“Hey, I like this song. I think I have heard it.”

Erin’s expression cleared for a second. She smiled, and it apparently struck a chord with her. Ryoka wasn’t sure she would have admitted that. It was a bit too sappy for her to claim as a favorite. She was too cool to tell anyone the truth. Like how she listened to the Pokémon songs on her iPhone.

However, Erin’s good mood lasted only a second. Then she glanced down and raised her voice as she glanced suspiciously at Abebi’s mirror.

“Hey, what’s going on? Is someone using a Skill on me? Stop it!

She snapped, and Abebi halted the song, and everyone turned to her. Cara reemerged into the mirror next to Abebi.

“I’m not using any Skills, Erin. I promise.”

“You’re not? Really? I guess it doesn’t work on a recording. But I feel someone using it on me.”

Erin was staring at her feet. She glanced around, and Altestiel glanced about as well.

“I believe we’d sense it if someone was trying to throw a Skill on you in this company. Anyone? Using Skills against one’s will is criminal in almost every nation of Terandria.”

Many worried-looking people assured him that they wouldn’t do that. And Ryoka had to imagine that it would have been noticed in this company. She glanced over her shoulders.

The same went for here. Chaldion raised his brows, and even Teriarch shrugged.

“I don’t know if it’s hostile magic or what, Erin, but I can’t tell what’s going on. What does it feel like?”

“It—it’s mental magic. I’m getting antsy whenever the song plays. Abebi, right? Can you play that song again? We’ll see if it happens.”

“Of course.”

Abebi rewound the song crystal and played the song Erin liked again. Ryoka was looking around, worried, and she caught someone’s eye.

“Shaestrel. No messing about. We’ve had enough surprises. What’s going on?”

For once, the Spring Faerie gave Ryoka a blank look.

 

“I don’t know what’s going on. Seriously.”

 

Even she was staring at Erin. Erin was nodding along to the song, and it was growing on Ryoka the second listen. Not exactly the kind of music she’d expect at a club or something, but—

“There it is again! Who’s doing it?

This time, even Grimalkin began casting analysis spells as Erin looked around wildly. Ryoka tried to use her perspective trick, and everyone tried to sense something, but no one found a thing.

“What’s it feel like, Erin?”

“It’s my feet! If I don’t stop it—look!”

The music was still playing. Erin decided to give in to the effect on her, and when she did, she exhaled—and then jumped.

She did a hop and seemed surprised as her feet left the ground. For a moment, it seemed like the young woman hovered in the air, then she landed, and her heels tapped the ground, a shuffle of leather, and Erin twirled, her other leg tracing a circle on the floor as she spun around.

Her feet crossed over, and she leaned to one side, closing her eyes as she shuffled left. It looked as if she was walking diagonal to the world, and she leaned back on one foot before catching herself by stepping back.

Hop. She looked like…a sparrow, staring down at her feet, and when she landed, it was like her legs had a mind of their own. They carried her left and right, and Erin looked as surprised as everyone at the spontaneous movement.

Her head was bobbing slightly to the music. Ryoka’s mouth was open, and someone on Cara’s side, Thien, commented.

“Whoa. Girl’s got moves.”

“Look! I’ve been enchanted! And my foot! It won’t stop. See?”

Erin pointed down. Her foot was tapping, edging out from her body with each tap until she was almost doing the splits. Then it tapped its way back towards her. All the while, Erin’s arms were crossed, and her face was deadpan, confused. Then Erin’s feet erupted into another dance, carrying her sideways.

Earl Altestiel’s mouth was open. He made a choking sound, and Lord Belchaus had been staring this entire time. But unlike everyone else—the Lord of the Dance’s face was gratified as much as surprised, and then he began to chuckle and laugh.

You! I’ve been cursed by you! I knew it!

Erin rounded on him, and the Lord of the Dance held up his hands. He tried to speak, doubled over, and looked over his shoulder. He had a number of his supporters on his ship, and as they caught on, they began to laugh as well.

“Miss Solstice, it’s not me. I think I know what this hostile ‘Skill’ was. You have happy feet.”

Ryoka’s jaw dropped as Erin looked down suspiciously.

“Yeah, they do feel sorta nice. What kind of Skill is that?”

“No, Erin—he’s saying you just want to dance! It’s not a Skill, it’s you! You idiot!”

Ryoka cupped her hands over her mouth, and at last, it sunk in. Erin looked up as Nadel’s dancing sailors and soldiers erupted into laughter. A [Mage] serving with the Lord of the Dance spun around on one foot, arms spread wide, then did a flying leap.

“Happy feet! Dancer’s feet! Lord Bel, did you see how she did that? The [Innkeeper] can do it all.”

“Wh—but I don’t dance!”

Erin protested, and Lord Belchaus raised his brows, looking frankly incredulous.

“No one can do that without a good deal of practice and training. Are you claiming you’ve never had training?”

Now he mentioned it—Erin turned her head, and Ulvama had her head in her hands as Rags, Mrsha, and several others who knew about Erin’s training looked at her. The [Shaman] looked up and mouthed down at Erin.

You are stupid.

Suddenly uncertain, Erin turned back to Lord Bel. Worse, Cara was playing the song again, and Erin’s feet were tapping. She realized—she did want to dance, and one of the Lord of the Dance’s people began doing a kind of tap-dance.

“If you want to dance, I suggest you do. It is a healthy, enjoyable outlet. I never stop myself from dancing when I want to. If you enjoy it, of course.”

The Lord of the Dance’s face was deadpan. Erin just looked confused.

“It’s super fun. But I don’t just break into dances.”

She never had danced for fun like that. But Lord Bel corrected her.

“You mean, you didn’t until now. Has someone been teaching you?”

“Yes. I—sorry, Cara!”

Flustered, Erin ducked her head, but the Singer of Terandria looked so incredibly amused she waved it off.

“I’ll accept your apology—if you show us your moves.”

“But I don’t—that was—does—did it look okay?”

Erin grew incredibly shy all of a sudden, and Lord Bel noticed. He gave Erin a thoughtful look, then shrugged. Handing a cup he’d been drinking out of to Altestiel, he shook out his legs. He had something like a formal suit on for the holiday, but like everything he wore, it was definitely fluid enough to move around in. His slightly high-heeled boots clicked on the decks—then he did a hop.

He landed and copied Erin’s first moves. Lord Bel leaned on one leg, hands in his pockets, and gave her a smile.

“You tell me. In fact, Nadel! Let’s show our fellow Terandrians, and these Izrilians, which nation excels at dancing!”

That was all he had to do. His court erupted into cheers—then a dozen sailors threw their burdens down, and all did that sparrow-hop and copied Erin. In synchronization, they slid across the deck of the ship, and one moonwalked back.

Who’d taught them that? Erin Solstice hesitated, but Lord Belchaus was holding his hand out, and the first person to grab it was Lady Menrise, so he swung the two of them out and seemed to slide across the deck. When he did that…

At first it was little hops, like Erin was on springs. Then she did a sideways boogie, as if her mind were trying to sabotage her. Ryoka realized that Erin was serious.

She probably didn’t have a history of dancing, and so she had movie-dancing or really silly dances in her mind. But someone, a certain [Shaman], had been teaching her.

Whether Erin knew it or not, she’d had months of rather intensive training. Something had been building up, and it was exploding out of her like a grey dam bursting as a waterfall of colors rushed out, each one carrying her in a neverending rush until she stopped, uncertain—and her feet vibrated and flew across the ground.

What amazed those who saw her was—it was nothing like the routines that Lord Belchaus knew. Menrise could dance and actually kept up with him, and his people could dance in unprompted flash mobs due to their Skills.

Yet Terandrian dancing was still based off their culture, which was to say that while Lord Bel had made his dancing performative in Nadel, meant to be observed in groups, it was still based on the concept of having pairs dance together. Male and female, usually.

Erin, though…there was no missing gap in the place where the [Innkeeper] found her feet carrying her. She was swaying, arms and hips, head and body moving with her legs now, but it was a solo dance. Individual.

Something Earth understood more than the limited perspective Belchaus had studied in Terandria. The [Lord] of Nadel looked at Erin and remembered. Chandrar. Izril. Baleros. Rhir—the dances under the sea—

I have so much more to see. So much more to level!

Erin slid across the floor, blushing, red-faced, afraid people were going to laugh at her. Just like children stopped dancing when they became self-conscious.

But no one was laughing. Several people were applauding, and Mrsha began trying to copy Erin, throwing her arms up and waggling about, a one-child rave, completely unabashed by how she looked. Then Erin began laughing.

“But I don’t even like dancing! Except this is a lot of fun!”

“I guess you do like dancing, then?”

Ryoka suggested, and Erin gave her a blank look. Then blinked.

“I guess I do! How about that?”

She looked around, so dumbstruck that Seraphel started giggling and couldn’t stop. Lyonette was still agog, but Erin looked delighted.

Some people were still unnerved by seeing Erin of all people dance. Even Pisces had enjoyed skating on the wax floors, but Erin? Really?

“Cara, are you sure this is normal? Is her class influencing her or something?”

Rae, the bassist in Cara’s band, whispered in the Singer’s ear. Cara was smiling, and she snorted as she watched Erin go.

“Her class? Rae, have you never seen a shy person cut loose? It always looks like that. Dead gods damnit…I think she’s got talent. Ryoka said she was good at fighting; I guess that meant she was always coordinated.”

She rolled her eyes, exasperated. Erin was laughing, now. She turned—and Rabbiteater was looking at her.

Almost as if they were strangers. But behind his helmet, the Goblin’s face was gratified. He and she hadn’t known it, but he was glad to learn something else about her.

She would never stop surprising him. In this moment, Erin surprised even herself. But she had one more for everyone.

 

——

 

The Christmas party had been a long time coming, and arguably, it had been going on all day. Mrsha’s belly was already full from eating delicious food all day, and she’d hugged Moore and a bunch of people so many times. Including Halrac and Pebblesnatch.

She was worried she might not have room for dinner. But Erin had promised a party, and the Gnoll stared at Erin as she pointed to her beach-garden.

“Ahem. Excuse me, everyone, but I have a place I’d like to show you. The door will be open tonight. Anyone interested, please follow me. It’s not much of a gift; you may have realized I wasn’t ready for Christmas.”

Boo! Give me presents!

Relc shouted, and good-natured laughter followed him. Erin shook her fist at him.

“…But this is something I want to share. It—”

She hesitated and looked uncertain and vulnerable for a moment.

“—It’s the only gift I can give.”

What the heck did that mean? Mrsha had heard that Erin had found the ‘real secret’ of the beach-garden, but Nanette had refused to tell her what it was even when Mrsha tried to bribe her, and Kenva hadn’t found anything while snooping.

Erin had clearly prepared an open-enough space for people to gather. Peggy had set out buffet tables for people to heap plates up, and they had Cara’s mixtape of songs at the ready.

But what was it? What waaaas it?

Mrsha was first in line, shoving with Sammial until someone scolded them.

“Sammial, do not shove a girl.”

Tyrion Veltras glared at him, and his son protested.

“But Father—she’s strong!”

He shoved back, and Tyrion moved to separate the two, but then noticed Erin staring at him. He backed up at once.

“I will remove myself if I’m unwelcome, Erin Solstice.”

Her voice was sugary sweet, but Erin lacked the usual venom.

“Oh…today, I’ll make an exception even for you, Tyrion. This is for everyone. It’s Christmas. Come on, monsters. Come on, Goblins, Antinium, and everyone else!”

The Lord of House Veltras blinked, but then stepped back into line. Numbtongue got into line with Octavia, Garia, and Salkis and spoke loudly.

“I don’t want to stand behind a monster.”

Someone laughed, and Lady Bethal stood on her tip-toes as a huge line gathered. The door was wide enough to let two in abreast, and Erin was making everyone walk into the beach—and then into a second door. But she’d angled it such that Ryoka, who was trying to get ahead in line, couldn’t see more than…grey stone? What was grey stone? Stonehenge? Had she found a Stonehenge super-portal to…were they doing witch magic?

“Oi! No cutting!”

Grev elbowed her, and Ryoka protested.

“Come on, Grev! I’m Erin’s best friend!”

What?

Fierre, Garia, and Charlay all shouted, and Ryoka flinched. Grev just wiped his nose with a finger.

“Hah. Says you. No one cuts the line. Oi! Hold it!

He bellowed as the faeries tried to fly past. They looked at each other—then filed back into line. Ryoka ended up jumping up and down every few seconds, trying to see what was going on.

“Dead gods, Ryoka. Try to look slightly dignified. We’ll get to see it in moments.”

Lyonette strode over, turning her nose up as she lined up next to Ryoka. The Wind Runner heard loud exclamations from ahead, some of puzzlement, and Erin wasn’t saying anything.

“Excuse me, Lyonette. I believe you are also cutting in l—”

Grimalkin tried to remove the [Princess] who had sidled close to the head of the line, and Lyonette turned her head and snarled. He took his claw away from her shoulder. Lyonette brushed at her hair.

“Patience. Also, Erin is showing this to her guests in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. I believe everyone from Niers to Rabbiteater will see it. You could go there to get a look.”

No one moved. Ryoka heard a strange sound, a kind of odd roaring—dull but persistent—as she got closer and closer. Ekirra scampered through the door, and Ryoka wondered what Erin could do.

An experience, definitely. That was what she was going to gift her many friends in place of a tangible gift. But what could amaze them? She had danced. She had done so much this year.

What could an [Innkeeper] do when you expected her to do anything? Ryoka walked through the door at last into the secret realm of the beach garden and stopped.

Her feet were on a rough stone surface. But for the calluses, they might have hurt a bit. She was confused as she turned the corner; she had thought she knew the power of the beach garden.

It was the power to show you a place. Ryoka had walked into a reflection of Erin’s home, perfect except for the body of the original owner who had been there.

But that—wasn’t where she was. She stared down at the rough ground, unlike flagstones, floorboards, or the smooth ground of places like Pallass. This was rougher…easy to lay. Slightly broken up from years of movement and shifting.

Concrete.

Not just any concrete, but Earth-concrete. And up the path that people were appearing in, Ryoka saw the black tar of…asphalt. A parking lot, complete with a few cars.

Then her heart began beating fast. She looked up, and the sky looked smaller. Ryoka’s head whirled around, and Lyonette gasped.

“Where are we? Those buildings…”

She stared ahead, and Ryoka saw a city’s skyline, but short buildings. She heard that sound from up ahead, and five running steps later, she burst forwards and saw it.

A huge river was rushing down a stone channel in front of her. Like Los Angeles’ famous waterway; a huge stream of blue water in the evening light. Water was pouring off a ledge possibly eight feet high; that was the rushing sound that Ryoka had heard. And next to it was a curious section of stone. But Ryoka was staring across the river at the city on the other side.

No city from the world she was in looked like that. To the right there was a bridge, and she saw a passing metal box, a red car crossing the river as she watched. Ryoka’s heart was pounding.

“Home.”

But not her home. She turned and saw Wall Lord Ilvriss standing there as Mrsha splashed a paw in the waters and sniffed her hand. Sammial was leaning over the railing to the left, staring down at something.

“What the heck is this? It’s…a bunch of steps in the water?”

He was pointing down at something, and Ryoka saw, connected to the river, was a series of steps sectioned off that let water flow down from spot to spot. She had no idea what they were for, but then a voice called out.

“That’s a fish ladder. That’s the fish ladder. Every spring and summer, fish try to get up here. But they can’t make the jump, see?”

Erin pointed, and Ryoka turned. Erin was standing on a piece of ground, a ledge from which she had a view of her guests and…her city. She pointed, and there was even a plaque.

“They built that so that salmon could leap up the steps, see?”

Oh! Ryoka did see now. You’d have to be good at jumping, but a fish could summit their way up this area and continue swimming upstream. She nodded—then shouted.

Erin! What is this?

More people were entering this reflection, this piece of illusion magic, and Erin’s chest was rising and falling. She looked nervous—but as Lady Bethal looked around and nearly tripped down the slope that led to the waters, Erin lifted her hands.

Hello, world!

She waved, and Ryoka turned and saw a second door was open to her [World’s Eye Theater]. And there was Niers Astoragon, fighting for a view as Foliana peered from their section of the dome along with a Selphid and Geneva Scala.

Fetohep was motioning someone over to look. Trey Atwood blinked and glanced sideways; he locked eyes with Cara, and the [Singer] was waving her arms to get Elena’s attention.

The Quarass raised her brows as, in the far mirror, Rabbiteater strode closer so his helmet filled the scrying orb until the Ivory Five shouted at him to move.

Erin’s friends. They were looking at this strange sight, and Erin’s guests were all here.

“But there’s nothing cool here. It’s just a smelly river. Where’s the magic?”

Ekirra whined. Erin turned her head and sighed.

“I guess it’s not that cool compared to some places. Sorry, Ekirra. This is it. This is the surprise.”

…What is? Some of Erin’s guests, like Menolit, had no idea what they were seeing. This was clearly an image, nay, a memory of some place, but it wasn’t as if it were Pallass or the Eternal Throne. Yet Lyonette was already leaning on a railing for security. She understood. And so did the Earthers.

“Erin….where is this?”

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes twinkled with nerves, mischief, and she smiled at Joseph.

“This is…the fish ladder!”

She posed, holding her arms out, and everyone stared at the river. After a second, Erin coughed.

“It’s not the coolest place in my city, but it is one of the places I remember well. Normally, you’d see a bunch of people fishing here. Some even stand in the water, which can be super cold. But here it is. Oh. And this is my city. Grand Rapids. That’s where I’m from. I used to come here all the time with my family.”

Then—they began to get it. Ekirra blinked and looked around.

“This is your city, Erin? Where are the walls?”

“Wait. Her city? You mean…”

Relc blinked. Erin nodded. She took a breath.

“Yep. That’s right. I’m Erin Solstice of the city of…Grand Rapids! I wanted to share this with you all. Now we can eat. If it’s boring, I’m sorry, but—”

She lifted a hand and looked up at the sky. Grimalkin gazed at last into an image of this world he had thought so long about, and it looked…both ordinary and so alien to him that he was shaking.

“Dead gods. She did it.”

“Yes. What happened to caution? Thrown to the winds?”

Teriarch agreed with Magnolia, but the [Lady] slapped his arm. She was staring at Erin.

“Don’t be foolish, old man. It’s her. She’s sharing this with us.”

Yes. Demsleth’s head rose, and Erin spread her arms wider, smiling.

This is who I am! I’ve lived in your cities and seen your places. Well—this is mine. It might not be much, and if you say my city sucks, I’ll kick you into the water. But I realized I know so much about some of you and I have never shared anything about myself.”

She paused and took a huge breath.

“Shauna and Gregori Solstice. I never had siblings, but I’d walk down the river all the time on the far street. There, see? And there’s a market downtown, uh, there…”

She began to point things out, then laughed. Erin turned, and her eyes were glistening as she looked around.

“Welcome to my home.”

 

——

 

A joke among The Wandering Inn’s guests was that Erin served up sadness and happiness in equal measures. That every door in her inn had something ridiculously funny and exciting or heartbreaking behind it.

The truth was that was what you called ‘wonder’. No highs without a low. A flame wasn’t bright without the darkness around it.

Sometimes—it felt like he was tired of feeling things. A young man walked into Erin’s city, and it struck him so hard he sat down in the parking lot, head drooping between his knees. It was such a strange thing to see Kevin with a bleak look on his face that several of his friends stopped.

Hedault hesitated with a hand hovering around Kevin’s shoulder. He had tried calling out to the young man, but Kevin hadn’t heard him for the last six minutes. At last, a Dwarf stumped over and, in a gentle, ungentle way, shook him.

“You alright, boy?”

Kevin Hall, a surfer, skateboarder, biker, an affable young man from San Francisco, California, who spent all of his time not working part-time at a repair shop trying to surf or have fun and dodge the pressure to go to college or seek a permanent job, looked up, and he seemed lost.

His throat worked, and Pelt leaned over, staring at Kevin, who looked like the world had just been yanked from under his feet. The Dwarf coughed.

“That damn [Innkeeper]. Springing things on us and expecting us to cry. Hah. I wish she could meet some of the people I know. If she thinks she can get stone to cry…want me to shout at her?”

Kevin said nothing. He just kept staring up, and then he said something.

“Kendra.”

“What’s that? Is that your city or something?”

Pelt leaned over, and Kevin whispered.

“No. That’s my little sister. I forgot about her.”

Hedault’s eyes widened, and Kevin stared around blankly. Then he ran a hand through his hair, gripping it so tightly he nearly tore it out by the roots.

“I just remembered her. When Erin talked about her parents. I completely—it’s been a year, and I forgot her. Just like that. Whenever I thought of home—my parents. I have siblings, and I forgot.

He lurched to his feet, nearly fell over, and Hedault caught him. Pelt’s mouth worked a second.

“That’s not your fault, lad. Sounds like none of you remember your homes.”

“How could I forget them? I’m Kevin. Kevin Hall, and my older brother should have been getting out of jail. This—last year. They arrested him for selling weed, and he never got out. My sister’s birthday. I missed that the month I vanished. My parents? What—do they think I’m dead? What happened to my—”

He was lurching back, now, to Erin’s [World’s Eye Theatre]. Memory seemed to come to him, desperate flashes that were fading away already. He kept babbling.

“2214. That’s my house—quill. Paper. I can’t forget again. Cara? Cara!

He shouted, and the [Singer] turned. She had that same look of a dreamer waking to harsh reality.

My family. Do you know what happened to them? Kevin Hall! You said there were records. Am I on the list? Do they—what’s happened to California? Someone mentioned a war!”

Kevin shouted up, and Cara’s eyes flickered.

“I don’t know. I can pull the ‘The List’—the war’s in Ukraine. There were curfews and states of emergency according to Rae—”

I forgot my sister.

Kevin shouted up, and Cara’s face went slack. His words seemed to trigger memories in the other Earthers. Imani stopped gazing at Grand Rapids and turned.

“I forgot my family too. How—how could I do that?”

“You were focused on surviving, Imani. Don’t blame yourself. After surviving the Crelers—”

Palt tried to hug her reassuringly, but she pushed him away.

“No! I completely forgot them. That isn’t right. How can I forget my parents?

She looked around, stricken, and Ryoka Griffin called out.

“It’s not your fault, Imani. None of this is. It’s part of their plan. It all is. Even I didn’t remember my parents much. We’re not meant to.”

She looked sick, and the non-Earthers were listening with a growing kind of apprehension. Niers had stopped laughing, and he was looking down and listening with piercing eyes flicking from face to face.

Kevin reached out, not knowing what to look at or do, and Joseph grabbed him. He squeezed Kevin’s arm.

“We’ll get a message back, man. That’s what we’ll do. Somehow—if Cara can find music from Earth, we can find a way to get word back. Maybe through Ryoka or someone.”

They turned to the faeries, but all except Shaestrel had vanished. The Spring Faerie gave them a bleak smile that was too cold. Kevin was shaking his head.

“I just can’t forget again. This is wrong. This isn’t me.

He was clenching his hand so tightly that his fingernails dug into his skin and began to draw blood. Sweating. Before he could break down, a voice called out from one of the panes in the dome overhead.

“Get a tattoo. Write down everything. They can’t erase that.”

Kevin looked up, and Luan Khumalo stepped out from a gaggle of Earthers. He lifted his arm, and the golden words written on his flesh shone. The older man gave them all a look that said he understood.

His own struggle to remember was written in the sympathy in his gaze. Yet there was a hint of triumph as he looked at Erin. The [Rower] exhaled. Then he pointed.

“She did it. She’s remembering, and so can we. Just because you forgot, it doesn’t mean it’s gone. We can take it back, the memories. And look. That city.”

He stared across the river and smiled for a second.

“When I get back, I’ll row straight down that river. I swear to it. And once we find a way back, we’ll find them all. Think of that. That keeps me going.”

Kevin stopped. He started breathing normally again, though jerkily, and looked up. His fist unclenched as Hedault gently loosened his grip and found a cloth to clean the blood.

“Yeah. Thanks. Who—you’re Luan, aren’t you? The [Rower]?”

“Luan Khumalo. South Africa. Olympian hopeful. I might be past my prime, technically, by the time I get back, but I’ll just win the first Skill-based Olympics.”

He grinned, his teeth flashing with confidence. Cara turned and peered at him.

“Wait, an Olympian rower? Fecking shit, they broke the bank when they grabbed you, didn’t they?”

“Earth’s loss is the United Nations company’s gain. I’m a Courier. Baleros; Paeth. Once I hit Level 50, I’ll come visit Terandria.”

He held up one thumb, and that insane confidence and lack of self-deprecation made Cara laugh in delight. She took a bow.

“Ireland, straight off the streets of Galway. I’m the theatre kid. If I ever get back, the music labels are going to hit me with so many copyright lawsuits that I won’t survive.”

“Can’t copyright another world. Out of their jurisdiction. I studied law, a bit. Trust me, you’ll be able to argue your way out of it. They’ll probably steal your royalties, though.”

That came from George, who was waving out of the King of Destruction’s angle. He looked out and sighed.

“Grand Rapids. I visited it, and I saw the river, but I had no idea about the fish ladder.”

“Wait, you’ve been there, George?”

Kevin was finding a quill and writing, but the voices around him were anchoring him back to home, so he listened as more Earthers pushed their way forwards. George looked embarrassed.

“Sort of. It was a road trip up to the upper peninsula. If you’re talking about Grand Rapids, I thought it was only famous for the Meijer Gardens. That’s a nice place and the only part of it I visited.”

“Hey, I’ve heard of those.”

“Did someone say the Meyer Gardens? I used to go there all the time, too! I thought about that, but the fish ladder is more relaxing. Plus, they have these rooms with bugs in them like butterflies and stuff, and it creeps me out.”

Erin walked back into the theatre, and Luan waved down at her.

“Erin. Hey, Erin. If I visit, do you think that garden of yours would let me show you my home? I’ll show you a real pretty city view. Cape Town looks amazing.”

The [Innkeeper] folded her arms, glowering.

“I’ve had it up to here with city slander. But come by.”

She met Luan’s eyes.

“I’ll see anything you want to show me. The rest of you, too.”

She turned to Kevin, Joseph, Imani, Ryoka, Troydel—and a quiet but determined voice broke in.

“Come to us. We can also show you home. I won’t forget.”

Inkar. She and Rose were standing together in the snowy Great Plains, the yurts of the Gnolls behind them. They waved, and the two were supporting each other such that without the other, both would fall down. But they were calling out to the other Earthers.

“Cape Town? I’ll look for it. We have a way to see home, too.”

Rose promised Luan, and his eyes lit up.

“No way. You’re pulling my leg. Don’t just do Cape Town; that’s because I was talking cities. If you can—”

Sydney! That’s a real city! Someone represent Australia!”

Daly shouted, and the Australian Earthers drowned out Luan. They began shouting at Rose and Inkar, and Cara shouted back.

Is that Daly Sullivan? There’s a song about you too! It’s completely shit, but the Melbourne students? You’re famous!

“We are? What’s the song?”

Cara hesitated, and Daly looked around, and dozens of Earthers stared or waved back. Some were teary-eyed, but others were writing down who they were and where they were from and sending that to the others via [Message] spells. So they wouldn’t forget. So someone would know who they were.

Abebi and Imani had decided to simply call out in Hausa, which both were fluent in, rather than try to compete in English. Cara was shaking her head.

“I don’t want to do it. It’s terrible—”

“How bad could it be? Come on, Cara!”

Dawson shouted to huge cheers, and Cara gave the other Bushranger an exasperated look. But her lips were twitching.

“Alright, but I need someone to beatbox for me.”

“I’ll do it!”

Troydel volunteered, and after about five seconds, he was ejected and half a dozen Earthers took over. Two seconds later, Cara began the freestyle rap, and Daly began laughing.

The laughter helped. Soon, the Earthers were swapping stories, telling each other who they were, so someone remembered. Others just listened to Erin, looked out into Grand Rapids, and Geneva Scala, the [Doctor] and the Selphid [Medic] watching, shaded their eyes.

The sun was setting on the city, and the river was turning dark. But Geneva Scala’s eyes caught the light. For a second, despite the great distance between the two, she pictured herself standing on the bank of the river. She spoke, two voices comingling, the same words, and the Earthers fell silent as they heard her.

“One day, we’ll all go there. And stand there. If I should return, I promise. I’ll visit every one of your cities and homes. If it takes me a lifetime.”

“Promise.”

Ken added softly, and Laken Godart nodded as Durene squeezed his hand.

“We’ll make it to monuments. Places we remember. Every one of us who set foot there will bring it all back. Two connected worlds.”

Kevin nodded. He exhaled, looked up, and smiled, then. He gazed at that city and added.

“I swear I’ll be back someday.”

To the [Kings] and [Strategists] who heard it, the immortals and the adventurers and folk of this world, it sounded like an oath. Words to change you forever and to cling to in your darkest hours. So the night deepened, but the light continued. Guiding them onwards.

 

——

 

That [Innkeeper] told people so little about herself, sometimes. It wasn’t that she was secretive in the way Cara could be, or Ryoka; rather, she showed everything about herself when it came to caring about Antinium—nothing at all about who she was.

Part of that hadn’t been her fault. But today? Everyone was talking about everything.

The Titan of Baleros rested his chin on his hands and almost wanted to look away. He knew how intimate it was to share your home with someone.

She looked vulnerable. But she was smiling. She wasn’t running away; she had done this on her own terms. Erin was standing by the river as Mrsha did a cannonball into it then complained she was wet and it was cold. Erin was holding a hotdog and eating furiously.

They were trying to sound normal, even as they invoked their homes, so she grinned as she waved the food around.

“I also go to baseball games. I’m so hungry—I miss hotdogs and sitting in the summer heat! I don’t even like baseball that much, but I miss it. Is that crazy or what?”

“Baseball. So you people actually play that game. Wow.”

Joseph looked around with a faint smile, and Erin scowled at him.

“You guys don’t have a baseball stadium in cities in Spain? Every city in America has one! Lots!”

He gave her an arch look.

“If we do, I don’t care about them. And so you know, I come from Seville.”

Ooh, Seville! I actually know that city by name! Fancy.”

“And I don’t know Grand Rapids at all.”

Erin scowled. She whistled.

“Hey! Someone throw Joseph into the water!”

“No. Stop. Erek—!”

An Orangutan appeared, ooking, eager to ingratiate himself with Erin. He was fascinated by this city, and he’d been prying the door open to one of the cars by force. Then he’d had to smash it until it stopped blaring its alarm at him.

Many of Erin’s guests, especially the younger ones, had already gone back to her inn, having gotten an eyeful. But many, especially the older ones, seemed—shaken, and the joking around was a result of trying to deflect from the strength of the emotions just shared.

Wall Lord Ilvriss had to say something as he held a cup of blue juice and looked across that river.

“I wonder if I’m simply a fool after all. One without empathy or the ability to think about others. Surely not someone who can ever replace Zel Shivertail, who thought of more than just his city or side of the continent.”

Watch Captain Zevara was mostly here for the food. She paused, a huge bite of carrot cake raised to her mouth, and decided after an agonizing moment that she had to engage with that premise.

“Wall Lord? How so?”

Ilvriss’ gaze was so forlorn that he seemed alone despite the gathering. The dull roar of water falling across the artificial river in the heart of the city somehow fit his expression.

Despite himself, watching Sammial and Hethon splash about in the shallows, Lord Tyrion found himself listening to a would-be enemy. And he was not the only one.

Ilvriss spoke to himself and the others as he watched Erin standing there and talking to the people watching her from her theatre. She was smiling, but her eyes swept that city she knew so well, and his clawed hand tightened over his cup as he spoke.

“You know, when I first met Erin Solstice, when I heard of the Earthers and began to understand she wasn’t from any place I knew, I treated her identity like a puzzle. Then, later, I had the instinct of Drakes: to secure as many allies or as much knowledge as I could. To treat these children from another world like pieces of a game. Pawns on the board.”

Grimalkin of Pallass flinched as his head rose, and Ilvriss stared at Erin.

“Even when I learned to respect one of them—even then. They came so strangely, talking of wonders and their own kinds of magic. Never speaking of home. Up till now, this very moment, I did not realize the great injustice done to them.”

He gazed upon this city, this place that surely every resident knew or had seen once. It wasn’t the greatest monument, and this city was sprawling and huge; nothing like Salazsar. The buildings were tiny, not a spire or tower to be seen. If he had no understanding of this place, he might even have called it humble.

Yet it was also an alien place, in the steel and metal and even the taste of the air—far more acrid that tickled his lungs unpleasantly. He felt like a stranger, more than he had in any other place. A fascinated one, longing to see more.

A city. Her city. His eyes fixed on Erin, and he understood, then, what she had left behind. Her family. Her friends. Her home.

That was what was missing from the Earthers any other time, he realized. That—gravitas of loss. Even if it was not upon them all, how many of them would, should weep and shout for their families? They were children, and they might never see their homes again. If not weep, then rage, then push themselves into a frenzy to find that way back home.

But so few did until now. They had remembered so rarely when events reminded them of home. Except now, Erin Solstice stood there, the memory of her home written across the [Garden of Sanctuary] made by a lonely [Mage] who had dreamed of the home that existed only in the past and memories. Yet it was not her alone that Ilvriss observed, but them all.

“What a fool I was.”

That was what Ilvriss said, but someone disagreed.

“It’s not your fault, Wall Lord.”

He turned, and there was Pawn. The [Priest] looked across the city, over the rushing waters, and nodded to himself.

He was happy. At last, he had seen the place the sky came from. He was drinking it all in, and Antinium were flooding in solemnly, on a pilgrimage of faith. Pawn replied to Ilvriss steadily, the light of faith in his eyes, but also understanding.

“You were not meant to think of it. I have known Erin from the beginning, and she never spoke of home. Nor her mother nor father nor city. It takes great effort for her to remember. Now that she can, she is free.”

His gaze rose, and he followed a glowing green dot who flew in the air, laughing like the whispering breeze even in the dead of winter. That was the gift, was it? Freedom. What a beautiful thing. Pawn stared ahead, clasping his hands together as he watched the Antinium gingerly patting the water, some daring to even wade into the river and hop out.

“Why do you think no one remembers, Pawn?”

Selys was gazing at Erin, who was laughing at something Niers had said. With tears in the corners of her eyes. And even her oldest friend among the Drakes had to look away a second. Because it hurt. It was a wounding knife, and Pawn nodded.

“I do not know who did this. I do not know their names or why it was done. But I do understand this: it was cruel. Whoever did this did not want to face the morality of it. It was wrong and unjust, and a coward knew that they would always stand on the wrong side of this. So they hid the memories away. For we would always take their side if we saw it.”

“Yes.”

That word came from more than one mouth. Pawn looked over, and Magnolia Reinhart leaned on the stone railing, looking across the river. Her face was serene, but she gazed around, then away. And her gaze had the venom of Reinharts, a righteous poison upon her tongue.

The wrath of a viper, aroused. She was not the only one, yet what Selys looked at was Erin.

“She trusted us with this. She’s showing everyone. She did change.”

The Erin she knew gave so much, but never this. This was personal. This was her city. Just like Erin had once come to Liscor and Selys had shown her around, the Drake wished she could walk through Grand Rapids with Erin and the young woman could introduce her to the sights and people there.

Perhaps they would. For now…for now. They went towards her, and Erin called out.

“If we could, I’d get some fish so you can see them leaping up the fish ladder! The koi fish are too lazy; I checked. It’s really cool. And people fish all the time. But be careful; you can die if you get too close to that ledge! The water will push you down, and there’s uneven parts where you get trapped underwater.”

Ryoka stopped wading forwards and pulled Sammial back in a hurry.

“Dead gods, Erin. That’s horrifying.”

“Yeah, well, the city’s going to make this entire place into a bunch of actual whitewater rapids that’ll be a lot cooler. Just you wait. They have a proposal in the works. It’ll happen any year now.”

“…How long has the proposal been going?”

Erin ignored Ryoka’s comment.

“Any year now. So. Anyways. This is my city, guys. Don’t make fun of it or I’ll hit you. I heard you lot muttering.”

She pointed a finger at Ilvriss, who held up his claws, but Saliss shouted loudly as he balanced on one of the railings.

“It’s not even a real city! It’s got no walls, all the buildings are tiny—and what did you call it? Grand Rapids?

Erin’s shoulders hunched over, and she turned slowly, forcing a smile at him.

“Saliss. Don’t make fun of my city. I’m gonna get mad.”

The [Alchemist]’s eyes twinkled with delight. He, who had so little ammunition against Erin, had just found an entire armory.

“Ooh, what’s the city of fish ladders going to do to me?”

Erin glowered.

“As a matter of fact, it’s actually got a name! Just like Manus or Pallass!”

“Really?”

Everyone turned to her in surprise. Erin puffed out her chest.

“That’s right! It used to be called the City of Furniture because they’d float logs down this river and make…furniture…out of them! It’s not so famous for that anymore. But see…”

She hesitated. Saliss was sniggering.

“Oh my. The City of Furniture. How grand! How amazing! Pardon me; I didn’t know the City of Furniture was where you came from, Erin. I’ll just head back to my City of Inventions. I think the walls are taller than any building in your city.”

“Saliss…”

Erin was getting genuinely ticked off. She pointed at the ground.

“You think you’re special? How many people does Pallass have in it? A couple million? Well, Grand Rapids has a lot of people too! Not millions, but I think it’s like several hundred thousand. It’s bigger than Liscor! And it’s the second biggest city in Michigan.”

“No way. Really? That’s tiny!”

That stab in the back came from Kevin of all people! Erin rounded on him.

“Kevin!”

He held up his hands, backing away from Erek.

“Sorry, sorry. But it is sorta—it’s a cute city. Really. I lived around San Francisco, so…I’m sure this place has culture. How many bars does it have? Three?”

“And it’s not the second biggest in Michigan.”

Joseph pointed out. Erin closed her eyes for a second.

“And how would you know, Joseph? You come from Spain.

She snapped, and he looked smug.

“I know enough. The biggest city in Michigan is Chicago. Then Detroit. No way this one’s second. It’s third.”

Erin stared at him.

“…Chicago is in Illinois, Joseph.”

He gave her a skeptical look.

“What? That sounds wrong. Are you sure? What’s your capital, then? Not Chicago?”

It’s Lansing!

“Huh. That’s less impressive. Wait, what state is Detroit the capital of? The USA is weird.”

“Nowhere! Lansing is our capital; Detroit is just the biggest city.”

Joseph was straight-faced as he sipped on some eggnog.

“That’s really confusing. They should switch that. And Grand Rapids is second? It looks pretty small from here. How many people live in this city?”

Hundreds of thousands!

“That seems small given the size of it. I suppose Human cities aren’t as densely packed as a Walled City. The buildings are actually the size of Liscor’s on average. Far smaller than you can get in a metropolis in our world.”

Grimalkin was measuring the heights of some of the buildings with Valeterisa’s light-spell, and Teriarch agreed.

“Look at the state of this road! I can pry up this material with one foot.”

Stop breaking the concrete! We don’t have magic!”

“We can tell. I admit, it has something of a homey charm to it, but the trash. Has anyone looked at the bottom of that fish ladder or river? So much metal. No place for fish or children to be about.”

The snooty Dragon shook his head, tsking.

“I noticed. Hey, Kevin, I found a bicycle down there.”

Seborn had climbed out of the river with a rusted bicycle, and Kevin groaned.

“Dude. Who did that to a perfectly good bike? Erin, your city has a trash problem.”

“Shut up. Stop bullying me! Ryoka, you like my city, right?”

“What? Yeah. Definitely.”

Ryoka’s fake smile set Erin off. She ran around, chasing her guests, then stomped over to the river.

“I knew I should have showed you our other landmarks. Like this giant tire swing.”

You have a giant tire swing? And that wasn’t your first idea? For shame!

Mrsha and all the children were aghast. Even Imani couldn’t help but join in.

“A tire swing is your city’s monument?”

Death! Death to all of you!

The laughter helped. It made this moment less heart-wrenchingly personal, and Erin began naming her favorite places to eat, ice cream spots, where she’d gone to school—and all the Earthers were heckling her and adding in anecdotes of their own.

It came out of them in a rush, and Kevin tried to keep his eyes from watering.

“Mint chocolate chip after a day of surfing. Oh man. In a waffle cone?”

“Kevin. Stop. I’m going to fucking cry. Don’t do it, man.”

Troydel had never felt the agony of someone invoking nostalgia like that. Geneva, meanwhile, was pointing urgently to anyone who’d listen.

“You know, Grand Rapids has a wonderful hospital industry these days. I thought about studying there, actually…Erin’s not wrong that it has a lot to offer.”

Foliana nodded to herself. Then she pointed.

“Ooh. A squirrel. Hello, kindred.”

Menrise spat juice out her visor as Foliana waved at a tiny illusion-squirrel that was staring at her. Foliana looked around as everyone but Niers gave her an uncertain look.

“Kidding. It’s just a dumb tree-rat. Chipmunks are nicer. That one is pretty fat, though.”

She smiled, watching Erin flailing about trying to hype up her city. Then she glanced at Niers.

“She got you pretty good, this time.”

“A blow to the heart.”

He admitted. Niers looked around, and the Earl of Rains and Lord of the Dance were watching Erin. Many of her friends were coming over, and sure enough, Palt was gloomily counting out the bet’s proceeds to Chaldion.

“How did you know she’d manage it? Wonder and heartache this time.”

The Grand Strategist snorted.

“Heartache? Hardly. I expected nothing less of her, as I said. That woman always has another dagger to stab with.”

He looked at Erin, and Saliss shook his head as he jostled Chaldion, nearly sending him tumbling down the slope.

“Old man, how can someone with an eye of [True Sight] be so blind? Do you think she thinks of things like you do, even now?”

Chaldion’s good eye glinted as he caught himself, and he sneered at his grandchild.

“Whether she understands or not what she’s doing, the result is the same. She knows what she is doing, and it’s effective. Or don’t tell me even you fell for her act?”

His look of contempt grew until someone clapped her hands and an entire flotilla of pointed hats, most lower to the ground, passed by.

Agratha! She and an entire gaggle of [Witch] apprentices had been let in, and she raised her voice.

“Did you hear that, everyone? That is a classic example of someone who goes too far in rationalizing the world until they can only look at things as examples of emotional manipulation. That’s a very Belavierr-like thing to do. Don’t let it happen to you. And remember! This is a holiday in an inn with a buffet. Fill your hats and pockets!”

The teacher-witch passed by and floored Chaldion so hard that Saliss fell into the river laughing. And for that? Niers fell off his own podium guffawing.

You couldn’t predict this kind of thing! Not only that! There was Emperor Laken with the foulest scowl in the entire world on his face.

“Laken, come on.”

Durene was trying to cheer him up, and the [Emperor] snapped half-jokingly.

“Argh. I can’t see it! All I smell and feel is a city. I hate Erin’s entire inn so damn much! If we conquer it, maybe I can finally see this entire beach!”

His voice was a bit too loud with genuine longing, and Tessa, who had found an inner tube, raised the fist of anti-authoritarianism in case there was trouble. However, a booming laugh from one of the parts of Erin’s theatre interrupted Laken.

“Not if I conquer it first! Do you see that, Orthenon? This garden has no limits!”

The King of Destruction himself was beaming. Then he added in a low voice.

“I think we’ll skip this city, though, if we ever do launch an invasion of Earth. I’ve seen better.”

Laken’s head turned in the vague direction of his voice.

“Durene? Who is that?”

His [Paladin] was petrified, and Gamel stuttered.

“Th-the King of Destruction, Your Majesty!”

“Who? Oh, the has-been. Can you find me King Fetohep? I’d like to pay my respects.”

Bam. That was the sound of Flos cracking a walnut he’d been breaking apart to snack on. Laken wore a self-satisfied smirk.

The shade. The pettiness. The…genuinely heartwarming dialogue at times. But who cared about that?

“Elena. Say the word and I’ll get you back. Promise.”

Cara was calling out to her, and Elena was shaking her head.

“Cara—it’s been a long journey. I’m fine. I told you, I had to try to get them out if I could, and I ended up taking care of all the kids instead. Just like you and Seraphel once did with me. Now? I’ll tell you, but is it safer in Terandria or here? At least he seems to like us.”

Cara chewed this over as Elena pointed at the fuming King of Destruction.

“Fair point to you on that. Let’s talk…”

But her eyes and Elena’s were straying back to Erin. Erin, who had shown everyone a piece of her heart. And now that they saw what she and the others had lost, their perspectives changed once again.

They thought they knew that [Innkeeper]. Yet today, they learned she had a city. They learned Erin could dance, and she hadn’t known that either. Perhaps it didn’t change how they saw her. Or perhaps…perhaps you saw her in a new light.

Another lonely seeker looking for a home where one had been torn from her. Someone else unjustly burdened by the world, a toy in a game they had never asked to play. A kindred spirit. Nerry gazed up at Erin, and the [Witch] nodded down at the Sariant Lamb.

 

——

 

Erin excused herself from the inner garden for just five minutes. She was keeping a tab on her inn and noticed someone appear in Bird’s tower. He was probably there because he was avoiding Taletevirion, who was trying to talk hoof-treatments with Charlay, who was wondering who this old, silver-haired Centaur was and hoping he wasn’t flirting with her, and Demsleth, who was trying to hotwire one of the illusory cars with Kevin, Erek, and Seve.

Erin opened the garden’s door under the intruder’s feet, knowing it wasn’t Bird. Bird was, as ever, fearlessly singing his latest song to Cara, who was actually writing down the lyrics.

By the time she stepped into her personal garden, Tolveilouka was there. He gave her an ostentatious bow; he’d changed into what looked like a Santa outfit. Although he’d once again chosen one that exposed as much skin as possible.

“I believe I shall take my leave. The Solstice? I am going to help you as much as I care to, in the name of my master. That is more than most beings can do, so consider yourself grateful, Erin Solstice.”

She put her hands on her hips, eying Tolveilouka. Even for her, she felt like this was a fast turnaround.

“Don’t tell me I convinced you with my view of another world.”

Tolveilouka had a boiled egg that someone had put a spicy ‘hat’ on that was carved out of a pepper, and it had a jacket of red mayo and little flakes of pepper that looked like a Santa outfit. Calescent had begged for permission to put out the eggs, and few people had dared try them.

Tolveilouka was mid-bite when his chewing stopped.

“…Another what?”

Erin gave him a blank look. The half-Elf’s head slowly turned and regarded her. He began coughing, and Erin exhaled.

“Wow. You’re not very bright, are you?”

The snarl that came from the undead was bit back. His eyes were flickering, and he drew himself up grandly, dabbing at his mouth with a red handkerchief.

“—In the name of my master, and because he spent his grand existence on a worthless, pathetic, unattractive speck like you—”

“You have no taste. How would you know?”

—I shall give you my aid. You have my word, as if you could stop me if I changed my mind.”

Another bow, as if he were some kind of butler in a Terandrian court. Erin stared at his hand just below his throat and the other held out.

“Why?”

She had to know. There was a not-inconsiderable chance she might have to ask Teriarch to defend the inn. However…Tolveilouka’s smile seemed genuine.

“Why, because there is no joy in striking someone braced for the blow. I understand, now, why I was so fruitless. I have seen men and women prepared to die. You have that look. From what you have said, two things happen. Either you die, despite my considerable strength, and I see this ‘enemy’ and their strengths and get my wish. But if not? My master would wish me to battle, and so I honor him.”

His logic seemed to work out. Erin nodded, but Tolveilouka wasn’t done. Then he stepped forwards and took her hands. She kicked him, but he kissed one hand until it punched him in the face. And his smile was filled with writhing maggots as the half-Elf bent forward and whispered.

And if you win—

His grin widened and split his face at the edges.

“If you win, then you will have hope. You will cling to life as your dreams and ambitions sprout anew. When you are at your highest, not your lowest, we will do this again.”

The [Innkeeper] gave him a steady look as he released her hand and stepped back. Perfect again, and he even produced a fan and waved it in front of his face, a perfumed scent in the air.

“Goodbye, Miss Erin Solstice! Goodbye! I wish I had a gift, but once more, my aid is a present beyond what you deserve!”

He even blew her kisses, and she dodged them as he stepped backwards towards a door she had opened as far as she could from her inn, behind the outhouses. Erin knew that everyone, including Shriekblade, would be happier when he was gone and the plague in her had vanished, or so he claimed.

This was the best of all outcomes, wasn’t it? A Christmas miracle. There was the slightest chance he was lying, though, so Erin watched as he trailed towards the door and then called out at his back with her final attack.

“Your master vanished without striking his foes a single real blow. They ate his soul.”

Tolveilouka’s foot halted in the air, and she saw him stop dead. Not a single breath. Not an ounce of movement. Then she saw his delicate features twist as corded muscle rose beneath his skin. Erin had seen rictuses of rage; it seemed like every conceivable piece of flesh turned into taut, bulging muscle, and his very face twisted so badly that she would never have recognized him.

Even she nearly took a step back as Tolveilouka’s eyes, filled with red blood and bulging in their sockets, stared at her. After seconds of incoherent sound, he finally spoke.

“Thank you. For telling me. After I eat their entrails—”

Erin met his gaze and spoke before he could finish that thought.

“I liked him. I don’t like you, but he was kind. I have always liked [Necromancers]. Just not the dead.”

The half-Elf stopped, and his twisted features slowly, slowly went back to normal. He stood there, staring at Erin, then shielded his lower face with his fan.

“I wonder how he would have come to this inn, my master. Fare thee well, Erin Solstice.”

Without any more pretense, he stepped out the door and vanished.

 

——

 

Only after he was gone did Erin collapse onto the grass, gasping, and roll into another garden. She lay there for a long time, panting.

If that was somewhat dramatic—a certain Hobgoblin had been having heart palpitations herself, seeing that monster get mad. She felt like her heart had stopped, and she was pretty sure both Apista and Nerry, who had also been there, had been having incontinence problems. Assuming bees even had that issue.

Erin lay on her face for a while.

“Ow. I’m so stiff. Those last two things…am I a bad person now?”

She meant the stick and the kind of carrot she’d offered the half-Elf. Frankly, as the Hobgoblin stepped over and poked at Erin with a toe, Ulvama had nothing to say.

Full marks. Even Nerrhavia herself might applaud if she’d seen it. But Ulvama just paused, then put a knee in Erin’s back.

Ow. Ulvama! I’m sorry! Don’t kill me—I didn’t realize you were there!

“Shush.”

Ulvama grabbed Erin’s shoulders, and the [Innkeeper] yelped.

“Owowowowow—hey, that’s not bad.”

Ulvama was kneading her shoulders, and Erin relaxed after a bit. The [Shaman] popped Erin’s shoulder.

“Oooh.”

“Thanks. Ow. I punched him so hard I did that to myself. So anyways. He’s on our side for now. If we survive, I’m in huge trouble. Did—did you see what I did?”

“Made him mad and charmed him a bit? Mhm.”

Erin lay there, staring ahead, in the Drathian garden the two were used to. Her face was sober and even guilty as Ulvama eyed it.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever negotiated with a monster like that.”

“Really? What about old one-eye?”

Erin shook her head.

“Chaldion? Tyrion? I’ve been forced or I’ve needed something, but I’ve never looked someone that—evil in the eye and just let him go. I know he’s killed people. I know he might kill more, but I needed his help and…”

She closed her eyes.

“Does that make me weak? Ulvama? Lacking conviction? Am I turning into someone like him?”

The Hobgoblin [Shaman] thought about that and poked Erin.

“Hmm. Lift your head?”

Erin did, puzzled. What kind of backrub was—?

Ulvama put Erin in a headlock, then slammed onto her.

Argh! That hurts so much!”

After undoing all of her work, Ulvama then began undoing the huge crick she’d put in Erin’s neck. But she slapped Erin on the back of the head.

“You know, I was Tremborag’s [Shaman]. He was not a good Goblin. Or person. We needed a strong Chieftain. Is it weak to do what you have to to live?”

Erin gave her a guilty look. Ulvama poked her in the head again, but gentler.

“That one is a balanced scale. You balanced it. You cannot stop him. Many people would die to kill him. What else could you do?”

Erin exhaled and nodded. She got up, rubbing her neck and holding it at an angle. But she gave Ulvama a serious look of thanks.

“I’m going to kill him if he tips that scale before we stop needing his help. And if he kills people before I can figure out how to stop him…that’s my fault.”

Ulvama gave Erin a bleak smile.

“Yeah. That’s how it is.”

 

——

 

“What a fine day. This had everything. Wisp dust. Sand. Wet people getting dirt on the floors. And Erin’s gift was very touching. I am most satisfied by this party. Merry Christmas to all.”

Silveran was shaking hands as Antinium filed out of The Wandering Inn, clutching pieces of food for later. They had seen Erin’s city. True, it had too much water, at least from what they’d seen, but she had shared a truly momentous experience with them.

They had been there and seen it, and surely they would level and be better for this day. So Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas indeed! They slapped each other on the back-shell. And to all a good n—

What about the presents?

Visma shrieked at the top of her lungs, and the Antinium leaving The Wandering Inn turned. Silveran paused.

“Oh. Right. That.”

Presents! At last, the children who had been dying all day saw Lyonette throw open the room devoted purely to storing the presents. Then she began shouting.

Saliss! Stop stealing presents!

A mob chased after the [Alchemist], who was attempting to literally take presents and throw them down Erin’s well.

A monster.

“Alright, everyone! It’s time to give out presents! Someone suggested we give them out in order, and each person should say something that they’re grateful for before unwrapping each gift so we can appreciate what every person got.”

Ryoka was clapping her hands and getting everyone’s attention in the middle of the inn. Lyonette turned red as the Wind Runner listened to the rumbling.

“—Since there are way too many of us, no way! Hand them out and open in your own time! But let’s do the Secret Santas later, got it? Merry Christmas!”

The inn exploded as people turned, shouting for one another and holding out gifts. Mrsha went wild, bounding towards Moore, then Halrac, then Lyonette, looking every which way, and Erin heard dozens of people calling out her name.

“Delivery for Erin Solstice from the Forgotten Wing Company!”

Fals shouted above the din, holding a present. Charlay nearly tripped over her hooves.

“Wait! Wait! I’m doing that from Altestiel, and, uh—”

Now, there were so many presents being unwrapped and heartfelt gift-givings going on that to catalog them all was as boring as listening to a list of levels, Skills, and class consolidations someone got.

So it hardly mattered. But if there were mundane presents, there were high-value presents that got big reactions.

The first of which was not, as you might expect, a Mrsha-present, but rather, a very sneaky young Gnoll boy edging over and trying to hide something in a pile.

“Ekirra! No stealing!”

Visma was having a relapse of her hoarding problem, much to her parents’ worry. He jumped, turned red, and tried to hide something, but she snatched it—then read the label.

“Wait, it’s for me?”

She stared at the clumsily-wrapped gift, then unwrapped it and found a new item, fresh-carved and in stock from the carvers: ironically enough, a figurine of The Singer of Terandria! Visma’s jaw dropped as she stared at a new doll, and Ekirra looked nervous.

Mrsha turned to stare, then saw Visma throw her claws around Ekirra and kiss him on the cheek. He fell over on his back, a look of delight on his face.

What? Where’s my present?

“Mrsha…I don’t think you get what’s going on.”

Nanette whispered in Mrsha’s ear as the girl demanded her share of the gifts. Then Mrsha stared at the two and made a gagging motion. No! Only adults were that stupid! No! Noooo—

“This is for you. It’s, uh—well, I thought it was hard to get you things, but you love the food at our place, so—”

Numbtongue stared at the pile of delicious farm products that Garia had run all over Izril to get. She was nervous, but he leapt up.

“We’ll have a feast! Picnics!”

He hugged her, and across the table from some of the inn-crowd, Rhaldon watched as Octavia fidgeted with her gift: a hand-brewed potion. He wondered if Numbtongue’s clear love triangle would come back to bite him soon.

He, Troydel, and several others hoped it was soon, but then Rhaldon blinked as someone put an object on his head.

“Hey, kid. I’m not gonna be sappy, and I’ll vanish in a second—this is for you.”

Saliss had plans to not involve Saliss throughout most of the party, but he waited as Rhaldon unwrapped his gift. Even the [Alchemist] grudgingly smiled as Rhaldon gasped—nearly burnt his face on Saliss’ gift, which was already active, and looked at him.

“Saliss! Is this an—Everburning Candle?

“Don’t damage it. They’re more expensive than you think. I thought an Earther would love to mess with one. Alright, where’s Mrsha? I have just the potion for you. A potion that makes you fart huge purple clouds! Use it on your enemies!”

Mrsha solemnly accepted his gift as Lyonette and the Thronebearers tried to grab it from her, but the Drake really had been smiling. And despite himself, he stopped as Grimalkin offered him something.

“This is from myself, Felkhr, and Hedault. It’s not much—”

“Come on, Grimalkin. I didn’t get you anything.”

Saliss lied as he breathed. He waved off the present—then stared in perplexity at what he had just unwrapped.

“Is…what is this?”

Grimalkin looked highly serious as Felkhr and Hedault poked their heads over his shoulder to watch Saliss’ expression. It was really hard to get a gift for Saliss, just like Erin, so they had consulted with Palt, Erin herself, and Octavia to come up with this.

“It’s a list of people pre-approved to trial Felkhr’s flying glider. Both in ‘tandem’ with him controlling it and solo with a lot of protective spells.”

“Gee. For me? I love paperwork.”

Saliss commented drily, trying to figure out what this was. He glanced at the bottom and noted a huge, fat seal from General Duln, Chaldion’s signature—he raised his brows.

“It’s already stamped? Where’s, uh—the names?”

Grimalkin handed him a second list, again deadpan.

“These are the applicants. Senator Errif, General Edellein—you probably know most of the people here. This is in the proposed order.”

The movers, the shakers, the Noasses of Pallass were all here. The list was so long; there had to be over six thousand names on it. Saliss’ gaze slowly flicked to the blank list. Grimalkin had a throat problem.

“The list is already stamped. A clerical error. So once filed, it will be highly, highly difficult to redraw, especially as it will be sent to the Engineer’s Guild and circulated across Pallass’ systems. A number of citizens and soldiers have applied, but obviously, people like Sir Relz and Noass are top billing. It would be a shame if the order was mixed up, but it’s out of my claws.”

Saliss stared at Grimalkin, then turned his head, and Erin ducked her head. But she was grinning, and Saliss put a claw on Grimalkin’s shoulder. The [Sinew Magus] looked genuinely worried.

“If it’s not that funny, I—”

“You are a hero of Pallass. I love you. This is the greatest gift ever.”

Across the room, Chaldion rolled his eyes as several people, including General Shirka, presented him with their own tokens of affection. Saliss was laughing as he went to his flying comrades, and Hedault was presenting the faeries with a tribute of alcohol.

 

Look at this wise one! We bless your fields!

“He doesn’t have fields.”

“We bless…your armchair! An entire bottle, for each? Wait, is that a keg?

 

One of the faeries uncorked a wine bottle and then crawled in headfirst. There were people still watching from the theatre, and Cara stared.

As ucht Dé! I thought I knew drinking problems.”

She caught herself, cursing as she invoked ‘god’; in Gaeilge, the phrase was ‘from the breast of God!’, a common expression of shock.

 

“Hah. I’d drink from their tits, but I’ll take ambrosia instead. Here’s to ye! Spit in the eye of everything and everyone! Sláinte, girl who knows the tongue!”

 

Shaestrel winked at Cara, raising a tiny mug, and the [Singer] almost fell out of her chair. They began shouting at each other in Irish.

A little lamb was watching the two, trying to learn the language, when a buzzing sound made her look up. Lots of people had food gifts for Nerry, or things they thought would make the Sariant Lamb smile.

The grinch of a lamb cared nothing for any of it—but she did grudgingly look over as Apista landed. The bee was getting bigger, and while she wasn’t the lamb’s size, she was big enough to delicately place a present in front of Nerry.

Shoo, shoo. The lamb jerked her head, but Apista nudged the ‘wrapped’ present to her. It was more a piece of wrapping paper she’d glued together with some secretions. Nerry saw Apista was already smoking a tiny blunt that Palt had gifted her, and, rolling her eyes, she kicked the wrapping paper apart and found…

Eh? She stared down for a second at the mysterious object that Apista had gotten her. Then Nerry realized what it was. Somehow, Apista had found a lockpick, perhaps stolen from one of the less-scrupulous members of the inn.

A lockpick set, well, two parts of the set, enough to actually pick something, was lying there. A tension wrench and a pick—it’d be hard to get to a door lock at her height, but the inn had lots of locks, and if Nerry wanted to practice…

The bee saluted Nerry with a leg and went to fly off, satisfied. Nerry blinked, then stopped the bee. Grudgingly, she trotted over and nuzzled Apista on the side with a cheek, and the bee flapped her wings happily.

“How cute! Hey, smile you two! I’m taking a picture!”

Kevin held up his smartphone as he watched the two cute pets snuggling. Nerry instantly backed up and spat on his foot.

“Aw. Gross.”

 

——

 

The first wave of presents were between friends, family, and Mrsha lay on her back, a vaguely dazed look of happiness on her face.

This was even better than birthdays, and they got to do this every year?

In fact, even Erin had given a few gifts around, and not just the Wonderball. Somehow, that sneaky [Innkeeper] had actually found time to make a few gifts!

“It’s not as cool as your gifts to me—but I thought it’d be sort of nice. See?”

Numbtongue had gifted her, rather thoughtfully, a full set of new and stylish clothes. He, Lyonette, Selys, Mrsha, and Bird had all gone out to Liscor, Pallass, and Invrisil and conspired to update Erin’s wardrobe. She did wear clothing she got, but she never altered her style without someone getting her things, and so Erin had dozens of new outfits.

Bird had gotten her a huge feather she had tucked behind one ear, and Erin had surprised them with a single object.

It was…a needle on a string. It was faintly gold-looking, being an ornamental bronze needle, and Erin held it up on a little piece of string.

“Erin. You didn’t have to…”

Lyonette seemed more worried Erin had made a stupid gift. She had a dozen needles on a string, and Numbtongue, amused more than anything, held one up.

“What’s this, then?”

“Go ahead and spin it around.”

Erin urged him, and he spun it and noted it kept swinging back and pointing towards the center of the common room. She winked as he blinked at it.

“It’s a needle that works like a compass! This one always points to here. It—it points to the inn. This one points to home.”

She gave him a second needle, this one made of a pale wood, and he held it up. Numbtongue eyed both.

“I don’t see the difference.”

She hugged him tightly, and the Hobgoblin stiffened—then hugged her back, grinning.

Instantly, a bunch of people clustered around, realizing Erin had found a practical little gift after all! One of them shouted.

“I want an inn compass needle!”

Erin was dishing them out, giving most to the Goblins, who grinned, and she gave many to friends. But she had avoided one group—the Antinium.

Because she had something for him, too.

“This is for you, Pawn. It’s—a gift to the Painted Antinium.”

“Oh?”

He turned in his seat as Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile, Garry, and countless Antinium looked up hopefully. The sky hadn’t forgotten them, and in her limited time, she had found something. Or rather—made something.

They were the tiniest of pots, sealed with a little piece of cloth and tied tight to prevent the contents leaking. Each pot was so small Pawn could fit three in his palm, but there were lots of them. He opened one as all the Antinium leaned over—and the bright color shone in his gaze.

Slowly, Pawn dipped a french fry slightly down, and it came up shining a color of blue he had never seen. He turned to Erin without a word, and she explained.

“I just made it. It’s my power to steal colors. This is the color of Grand Rapids. Magical paint.”

The colors were from her home. The Antinium solemnly stared at the paint, and Pawn got up to hug her.

“Thank you.”

Slowly, behind him, one of the Workers tried to eat the painted french fry.

 

——

 

“Thanks for doing this, Cara. Really. I owe you one.”

There would have to be a lot more conversations. Erin already needed to apologize to Orjin—again—and she had enjoyed talking with people.

“It’s nothing, really. Talking with someone who knew Gaeilge and wondering if all the folktales of my home are true—that’s something.”

Cara tried to wave off Erin’s compliments, but the [Innkeeper] insisted.

“I mean it. Ryoka and I both owe you a lot, and I don’t want you to be a stranger, alright? Thank you. I’m just sorry we didn’t involve you in the present-giving!”

The Singer rolled her eyes, trying to sound acerbic.

“Erin. I had a great time, and I’ll be celebrating with some kiddos of my own, soon. Having a drink and a chat with the others—like that Geneva—that’s the real gift. Your inn connects people, and I wish I had that power.”

Erin made a face of mild horror.

“You sound old, Cara. Too old for gifts? How old are you, anyways?”

“Twenty-four. And that’s—”

Twentyfour? You’re ancient!

Erin shouted, and Geneva’s head turned, and she gave Erin a flat look. Erin shook her head.

“You’ve gotta be one of the oldest Earthers around! Wow, is this what happens to you when you get old?”

“Erin…we’re practically the same age.”

Cara’s left eye was twitching, and Erin was shaking her head fiercely.

“Nuh. No way. There’s miles of difference between you and me. Lightyears! I’m twenty. Ryoka’s older—but twenty-four?”

At this moment, Erin was making an enemy of every single person older than twenty. Niers was trying to stab Foliana, who was poking him, a huge grin on her face. But Cara?

Oh, Erin shouldn’t have messed with Cara. The Singer was nice, helpful, and really trying to be a positive spirit of good cheer on Christmas. But she did snap. Her eyes lit up, and then she gave Erin the most Nerry-like smile in the world that made Erin hesitate.

“What? I guess I’m twenty-one now, actually. Come to it…but so what? Huh? Huh?”

She was basing her confidence on the assumption that Cara would always be older than her. But Cara didn’t believe in weak blows. She coughed into one hand.

“Well, Erin. I could talk about how years are longer here so, technically, we’re all older by a bit. But I wouldn’t want to argue semantics to a twenty-seven year-old.”

Erin stared at Cara, then snorted.

“Twenty-seven? But I’m only twenty-one…”

She paused. Cara’s innocent look turned into a Lucifen’s smile.

“Not back home you aren’t. Actually, wait, when were you born? Might be twenty-eight. Twenty-nine come 2024. One year away from thirty. But thirty isn’t old. If it was—why, you’d have one year left. I’m no spring chicken myself, but at least I feel young.”

“N-no. That’s just—but I’m not—”

Erin began stammering as the weight of years slammed her like a half-brick to the head. Cara stretched and winked at the other Earthers, who applauded, in awe of someone who could take on Erin on her own terms.

Erin was about to point out that age was a number, that her obvious misconceptions about the nature of time stemmed from her being twenty, which was young, and associating anyone older than her with ‘old’ without really quantifying the number when, in fact, thirty was still a kid. Forty? Barely an adult. Fifty, you were in your prime and—

She had fallen into the same trap. Because as she began to point out how many years she had left, how sprightly she was, and how she could probably do a backflip and was in better shape than she’d ever been, someone padded up to her.

Mrsha handed Erin a note, and the [Innkeeper] read it.

Hey, grandma. Take it easy.

Erin snapped her fingers, and a door opened under Mrsha and sent her plunging straight into the pond of Erin’s personal garden. The Singer of Terandria poured herself a drink, then started laughing at Erin. Like a Gnome.

 

——

 

Secret Santas. What people didn’t know was that the system was rigged. Lyonette hadn’t just done a ‘random selection’; she’d deliberately gone against the system and rigged it in her favor, or upon request. There had been a number of people asking to gift for a certain person, and while some gifts were random…

Mrsha’s face when she opened her present and saw the Cape of Heroes made everyone who saw it burst into a smile. Then she was doing jump-kicks, jumping off balconies, and punching the air before running over to glomp onto Hedault’s leg in a hug.

The [Enchanter] looked slightly smug about that. Though, he grew perplexed as he realized his Secret Santa was Seborn.

“I don’t know you that well. I thought this’d do.”

Seborn handed him a gift, and Hedault, after unwrapping it without tearing the paper, opened a box and blinked.

A huge, fat pearl sat there, freshly secured from a clam. Seborn explained.

“A friend of mine gets them. This is a Purewater Pearl from Baleros. An [Enchanter] might use it, I thought.”

“Thank you. I quite appreciate it. And I can use it.”

The fat pearl made even gem-hoarders like Numbtongue and Selys come over and beg to see it. After all, you couldn’t mine that sort of thing from a mountain. Seborn was nodding, and he was oddly wearing a new set of handsome armor. Wyvern leather dyed dark blue. Not enough to make him noticeable, but enough to be stylish, and someone had even put the flag of his old ship in a corner.

“Who got you that, Seborn?”

“My Secret Santa. Moore. That idiot spent too much on it.”

Erin beamed as Seborn pretended like he didn’t love his gift. She was watching people hand out gifts, and with rare exceptions, everyone had tried hard.

“Wall Lord? This is for you. I hope it’s to your enjoyment. It might be dry, and I do apologize if it is, but I thought it might be something you’d enjoy, and I, er—”

Sest and Ushar stopped Lyonette from babbling as she, embarrassed, handed Ilvriss a somewhat floppy package. He unwrapped it.

“What is this? A book?”

“Not…entirely.”

She looked nervous, as many did, that their presents wouldn’t be well received. At first, Ilvriss thought it was merely useful.

 

A Treatise on Izrilian Politics in the Year of 19 A.F.

 

As, uh, as names went, it was straightforwards. He suspected it was one of those self-published books that hadn’t even gone through the process of bookbinding, but any information or reading on the nobles of the north would be bound to come in handy, right? Especially if Lyonette recommended it.

But then he saw the author of the document and nearly dropped it. The full title read, in spidery writing he suspected was handwritten by the author:

 

A Treatise on Izrilian Politics in the Year of 19 A.F. by Reclis du Marquin.

 

“Is this—?”

“It took some doing, but Father does write them, and they’re very thorough.”

An incredulous smile spread across Ilvriss’ face, and he almost hugged her, then they shook hands. Silly adults. Mrsha was heading over to Moore with her handmade book of illustrations she’d worked on for class, then had a [Scribe] help touch up with some cool-looking artwork.

Her book was going to be a hit. It was the ‘Adventurers of Moore and the Halfseekers’, and it was a somewhat embellished account of how cool he was and all his adventures she’d seen. The half-Giant was already watery, but he had to request a second handkerchief as he took the book and opened it, afraid to tear the pages.

There were many amazing gifts given. Such as the moment when Tyrion Veltras rode in on a horse, dismounted, and tried to present it to Ryoka Griffin. Even Erin didn’t regret letting him in on the party…that moment would go down in history forever.

However, three gifts really left an impact, and that was a high bar at the moment. The first was Grimalkin’s gift to Lady Pryde.

He had a thin box, and she, after Lyonette, Bethal, and several fascinated onlookers like Nanette and Visma had crowded around, opened it with shaking hands. But when she stared at the single object inside, her face fell.

It was…a carnation. A type of flower that, to Mrsha, looked messier than a rose, this one a reddish orange. Unfortunately, since it was so far out of season, even his best spells hadn’t saved it from looking a little mangled.

“A carnation?”

It was neither the yellow that you would expect for someone like Pryde—nor a rose. She gazed at him as she read the note. Bethal read out loud over her shoulder.

My highest esteem and thanks for our mutual correspondence and efforts furthering the field of physical improvement this last year, Lady Pryde Ulta. It is my sincere wish that for the coming year—wait a second. This is a business letter!”

It read like a project goal and essay combined. If there was romance…no, not even Grimalkin would write that. Pryde sagged slowly, and Lyonette and Bethal had to hold her up.

“That’s it, then. Where’s the drinks? How long does it take you to drown?”

Nanette was staring at the flower, and she rushed over to whisper in someone’s ear. Before Pryde could give into despair…she came dashing back.

“Lady Pryde! Lady Pryde, wait! I don’t think it’s bad! Grimalkin’s just scholarly!”

Mrsha and Visma had been preparing to attack the [Sinew Magus], who seemed to have his back deliberately turned to the outraged group around Pryde. They paused as Pryde looked up.

“How? It’s a carnation…”

“It’s flower language! I just asked—Lady Pryde, Grimalkin must think you know it!”

Flower language! That was just the sort of mistake Grimalkin would make! Pryde’s head turned, and there were two experts on the subject in the room. Both Bethal and Pryde knew it, but even they had little handbooks and didn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of all of the blooms. Bethal was hugging Thomast’s arm because she thought she knew, but Pryde had to hear it to be certain.

Lady Magnolia was fluent enough, but Ser Sest glanced down as Mrsha charged over, and Nanette had gone to another expert.

Eloise. The [Tea Witch] favored Pryde with a smile as the [Lady of Pride]’s head rose with sudden hope.

“Roses are romance. What—I don’t know—what are carnations?”

Nanette was dancing from foot to foot.

“There are multiple meanings, but the only one that fits is—fascination. Distinction too! The kind of flower you give to someone who stands out in a crowd!”

Bethal gasped, and Lyonette’s head whirled. She saw Grimalkin had his back to them all…but as she edged sideways, she realized the [Magus] who had survived countless battlefields was using a mirror to observe them! He shifted as she saw it, and Pryde’s head rose.

Fascination. Not anything as overt as a rose, but…Grimalkin’s head turned, and he nodded at her.

“Lady Pryde. It’s a humble gift. But I hope it signals my thoughts. If you would—would you care to tour the party together?”

“I—don’t see why not. Present company is dull.”

That was what she managed, and Lyonette and Bethal decided not to skewer her for the moment. The two headed off, and Colfa, smiling, waved from where Himilt, Fierre, a flustered Ieka, and one of Ser Normen’s squires were all standing together.

The val Lischelle family didn’t have as many presents to share. Fierre had actually bought a lot of gifts, including some animals from the Silverfang Gnolls. One was a baby ‘yak’ that Colfa was already dithering over names.

The young Vampire was trying to put a good face on the fact that…their family fortunes were deeply depleted. Himilt had nevertheless presented Wailant with a wickedly sharp shaving razor, and Colfa had made homemade treats—including the recipes—for the [Ladies] and Lyonette.

However, Himilt didn’t look beaten down by the holidays. If anything, he seemed to be standing taller than he had before. He had a hand on the subdued squire’s shoulder. When Fierre’s attempts at jollity fell quiet, Lady Ieka feared it would be a dour mood. But all Himilt said was this.

“Here we are. Our farm we have left. Things have changed.”

Bamer nodded, and the helmeted Rivel stared down at his feet. Vampires were on the run—and yet Himilt’s voice rose. He looked at Erin Solstice.

“Yet we are here. Here we are, after it is all said and done. The Floodplains are different. Yet I see a new place for us to tame. The roots that we dig may need to be deep when the spring rains come, yet I have not been as excited for the future as before. So, to all present, family and friends.”

He gently lifted a cup of red wine up and nodded at Ieka, and she flushed as Valeterisa and Relc stopped by. Colfa smiled, her fangs flashing, and Erin Solstice smiled as Himilt caught her eye.

Across the inn, another gathering was taking place, and after a toast, not-Rivel had to stride over. Families were celebrating, but other groups were also standing together.

The Knights of Solstice paused a second, and Normen handed Rivel a drink without a word. It was a Minotaur’s Punch, but something was wrong. The flame on top was green, not pink.

“What happens if you drink that?”

The Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice lifted a cup as Ama eyed it nervously. Her cup had been lit by Vess, and it burned with that heavy pale flame of mercy. Yet the Drake lifted his own solemnly, and Normen answered.

“I don’t know. But I do not fear it.”

“Nor I.”

Embraim held his cup out and gently touched it to Antherr’s. Then to Halrac as the [Bowman] stepped forwards. Whatever they were, adventurers, [Necromancer], Antinium, a former Brother—they held each other’s gazes.

“Soon, some of us will leave The Wandering Inn. And we will have to find a good headquarters. This will always be a home, but not our base. I do not have much of a gift to give you all—but—”

Normen hesitated as someone coughed. He turned, and Lyonette innocently approached with Ser Sest.

Dalimont, an honorary member of the Order, blinked as he saw some presents he didn’t recall putting in the rooms in her arms. She had hidden them in the basement, that cunning [Princess].

“As a matter of fact, Ser Normen, everyone, I happen to have some presents addressed to you. Or rather, they are addressed to the Order of Solstice.

“By whom?”

Ser Normen had the knightly speech down pat. Lyonette’s eyes were shining.

“From your admirers, of course!”

Then she showed him the first present, and Normen blinked and saw the address.

“A gift from the Fletchsing tribe…”

There was no mistaking the shape in the wrapped object. He slowly tore the paper, and Halrac blinked.

“That’s a Gnollish recurve bow. One of their finest works!”

A bow from the Gnolls. And—as the [Knights] unwrapped the presents, flaming drinks in hand, they realized it wasn’t just one or two presents. Ama’s hands stopped—and she gasped.

“No way. The House of El?”

She tore off a piece of paper, and the unmistakable form of a Kaalblade rose. Ryoka Griffin twisted around.

“Deilan El sends his regards.”

She winked, and Normen realized who had delivered some of the gifts. That sneaky…he stood there and realized they weren’t all weapons, either. There were potions, letters, and Jewel remarked slowly.

“I guess we’d better get an armory soon. Because ours is already stocked.”

Without a word, he took her hand and squeezed it tight. The trust in this Order—he vowed to repay. Then he lifted the cup.

“To the future.”

It might be dark at times, but the flames burned as the Order of Solstice raised their cups. After all, the closer to midnight it was, the brighter they shone.

 

——

 

“Now, isn’t that something?”

It wasn’t always about presents. The holiday didn’t need any at all—but Seve-Alrelious supposed it was how people showed affection. It could be clumsy or ill-done. But not here.

He was sitting with Erek, and the Orangutan was sipping a drink. Seve was wondering how to say it.

We should be on the road soon. They were—he was a Sea Courier. He had stayed for a long time, here, but he had a job. Didn’t he?

His friends flocked around him, napping by the fire. Erek was staring at the party, and Seve tried out the words.

“I think we should go after a bit. I do have to get back to work, and I’ll need to go home some time. Let’s enjoy ourselves for as long as we can, alright?”

Erek sighed and nodded. Seve sat there.

“It’s a good place to visit. We’ll add it to our routes. And the door makes it easy to get here. Well, mostly.”

He had seen a lot of Couriers at this party. Ryoka, Salamani and Ci, even Hawk the Hare. Seve felt a pang at the notion and resolved himself that this would be the last he said of it. Yet, as someone passed by, an [Innkeeper] stopped.

“Seve. What are you talking about?”

“Oh. Erin—just that we do have to go at some point. But we’ll try to come and visit. We have friends all over the world, after all.”

Seve wondered if some of his friends would want to stay here. Erin Solstice looked at him as the Courier gave her a far-off smile. His home was A’ctelios Salash, but the truth was that even he, a member of Tombhome, had become an eternal wanderer. Erin chewed her lip, and her eyes rested on Erek, who was sipping his eggnog glumly.

“If you have a job, I guess you’ve got to go, Seve. But you know…I have one windy girl who disappears, sometimes for entire months. And she always brings back something weird.”

Erin stared at Ryoka, and Seve nodded, not sure where she was going. Erin leaned over.

“If we don’t get rid of her room, we could hardly do it for a cool Sea Courier. If you have to go on a trip, go ahead. But if you want to come back here for the rest of your life? If you pay for a brass nameplate, I’ll put it on your door.”

It took Seve a second to understand what she was talking about, and Erek’s ook of disbelief followed it. He hesitated—and Erin handed him a little needle. It was blue as it turned around, and he held it up. Then it pointed up to his room. Erin Solstice sat there, then put an arm around Erek.

“If you like travelling, well, it sort of sounds like fun. But if you were looking for a home—who says you have to leave? I’ll punch them.”

The Hundredfriends Courier stared at her. Then his friends set up such a clamor that he couldn’t think. He had searched for places he was welcome all his life. But he hadn’t realized that a home could grin at him and tip her hat up and wink.

It never seemed to stop growing. As Erin turned, laughing, and Seve, Erek, and she began to celebrate, Hexel leaned over to Elirr and whispered in his ear.

“Looks like I’ll have to get started on her inn for that new year very soon. I can’t imagine she’ll have room as it is.”

The Gnoll laughed, and the moments kept flowing. Nostalgia, yes. But there was also a feeling of—anticipating the future. Looking forwards instead of fearing growing old. Now wasn’t that something? As people toasted and celebrated and drank, it tasted a bit like magic.

 

——

 

Gift two came from Niers. Fals had done his best, but Erin’s self-proclaimed Secret Santa had a lot of competition, and so Erin ended up unwrapping the gift as the Titan pretended to be engrossed in talking with the King of Destruction.

Not to be fooled, Flos Reimarch had his head in his hands, eyes dancing, ignoring Niers as he watched the present being opened.

“This could be as bad as my gift.”

Ryoka muttered in Rags’ ear, and the Goblin snorted.

“Nothing’s as bad as your gift.”

Rags was quite enjoying her presents, which included a shower of comfortable pillows and stuff for her bed from her Goblins. What had Niers gotten?

It could be almost as bad. Erin seemed like she was bracing herself as she opened the box—but when she saw what was inside, her breath caught.

“No. Is—it’s not the same.”

She relaxed, and everyone craned their head around to see. Erin looked up as Niers, with the bravery of a Tallguard, turned to her.

“I asked, and I don’t know if it’s in poor taste, but I put the best magic in it I could. Paeth sends its regards.”

“What is it, Erin…?”

Ryoka strode over, but somehow, Rags was there first, and Redscar, Badarrow, and Poisonbite elbowed everyone aside so the Chieftain could get next to Erin. Chaldion, who also used bodyguards to fight through a crowd, gave her a grudgingly respectful look, and both saw Erin lift something up. Erin fiddled with a catch—

And then there was light. It shone down, radiant and strong, from the edges of the object she held up with eyes filled with memory—and determination.

An umbrella.

It was not the one that she had used in the lands of the dead, but magic hummed in it with so much force that Hedault had noticed it, and even Teriarch looked approving. An umbrella to chase away darkness. More than that?

A symbol.

She turned, and Niers raised his brows. That stinking Fraerling had read her face and looked confident. Erin took a breath as she swung the umbrella up, then she put a pipe in her mouth and blew a bubble of light. It floated through the inn, and she sighed.

“Well, damn it. I have two favorite objects now.”

The inn broke into cheers, and a bunch of Fraerlings shouted in celebration behind Niers. He smiled and nodded to her as the [Innkeeper] twirled the umbrella and the light shone triumphant.

 

——

 

The party ended with a speech. It had to. It must. Many people didn’t want the night to end, and even with her [Immortal Moment]…nothing lasted forever.

Erin’s speech came as children began yawning, before anyone had to head off, or in the case of Bethal and Thomast, head back to their villa for a private celebration, and she got onto a table.

Not with mug in hand or flaming drink. In fact, she’d taken off her hat a moment and just sat there, legs dangling. Honestly. She had shown them her city, and her guests listened as Erin found the words to speak.

“Christmas. You know, it doesn’t feel like it, but there were Christmases where it didn’t snow. And sometimes, I wasn’t happy on Christmas, or my birthday, just pretending to be.”

Erin looked around earnestly, and even if they had not celebrated this holiday, most people knew what she meant. Mrsha just looked blank as Lyonette cuddled her, and Erin chuckled. Then looked down at her hands.

“I’m still changing. I thought I’d get old, someday, and forget what being young felt like.”

She looked around and met Cara’s eyes. The Singer gave her a sardonic look, then shrugged, smiled honestly, and Erin nodded. To herself and the world.

“It doesn’t feel so bad. Changing. I can dance, now.”

It was a discovery of herself. She turned, and that genuine light was brighter than the umbrella. It was that of someone who had found something else out about their very nature, when they thought, foolishly, they knew who they were.

Erin stood up slowly, and then she did raise a mug filled with the only drink you could give at a time like this. Pink flames rising over Faerie Flower infused liquid. Everyone gazed up at her and remembered the frozen figure, lying on her bier of ice.

This smile was better. It had fire and hope and determination and more behind it. Erin called out as she looked from face to face. Not all friends. A few enemies.

“Everyone, thank you for coming here. Thank you for getting to know me. Here’s to another year when we’ll do this again. Each time a little bit better. It’s a promise, alright?”

She thrust the mug higher into the air, and her hat blazed almost as brightly as her eyes. Tears were running from Lyonette’s eyes, and she saw the same smile and flame the [Innkeeper] had once given to her. Yet this time, there was a confidence holding the world together. Lyonette wasn’t the only one shedding tears. Numbtongue was wiping his face into Mrsha’s fur as she blew her nose on his shirt.

Erin looked at her silly guests, laughing as if she had no idea why half were teary-eyed. She addressed them, her arm quivering with some strange energy as the Minotaur’s Punch slopped and droplets fell around her.

“I wasn’t always happy, you know. Sometimes, the days were unbearably hard. But! These days have made me feel more alive, made my heart feel like it’s actually beating, made me feel fuller and realer than I have before. It can’t be a dream, because my dreams are too pale to compare to these. Each one of you. I want to understand each one of you! Here’s to another adventure together!”

She thrust the mug higher, then tilted her head back and got half the drink on her face. But the cheering laughter roared higher, like a bonfire of its own, and they drank to that.

The [Innkeeper] stood there, laughing and hugging them, then turning, twirling, and fate spun around her. All ever-connected, a road made of clasped hands and promises. A great journey that bewitched the eye and clung to the soul and ignited it like fire.

Erin Solstice. The Wandering Inn sighed and then filled with laughter until it was full to bursting. The souls within made merry until they fell asleep, some leaving, but ever-connected, ever her. Smiling statues captured forever in her soul.

So that was Erin. A voice whispered to her as she fell asleep, with approval, with awe, with the envy and delight of seeing it.

Almost. You did so well.

You’re almost ready.

I want to see what you do next.

Then Erin Solstice fell asleep, and even in her dreams, she was smiling. Wondering how she would change in the times to come. Sometimes—

It felt like she had truly grown older in the most wonderful of ways.

 

——

 

One last thing. The final gift. Everyone was leaving the party, and someone was throwing a tantrum. He lay on his back, failing his arms.

I didn’t get a gift! I didn’t get my Secret Santa gift!

“Oh dear, Bird? You didn’t get it? Where is it? Where’s Lady Magnolia?”

“Gone, I’m afraid. Having a moment with Demsleth.”

Reynold bowed, and Lyonette gasped. Had Magnolia forgotten? Bird was upset; he’d really been looking forwards to it. But as Lyonette hesitated, someone came stomping back in from outside.

Menolit had been wanting to walk back to Liscor and savor the moment with some hot eggnog. He shoved the door open.

“Lyonette? You, uh—might want to get Bird outside. I think I found his present.”

What? Everyone went to the windows, and Bird got up. He ran out the doors, into the snow, and Lyonette tripped and would have gone tumbling if Dalimont hadn’t caught her.

“Wh—is that? No! Absolutely not!

She began shrieking at the same time as Watch Captain Zevara did. Laken Godart demanded to know what was going on, and even Tyrion spat out his candy cane he’d been munching on.

“Where did she—?”

Lady Magnolia Reinhart was chuckling somewhere, and she only regretted not being there to hear the commotion. But true style was this. It had taken a lot of work, let alone to get everything in place and not let anyone see.

Doubtless, it would cause trouble. But Erin Solstice said everything was needed, didn’t she? A week might be enough time to practice.

Bird almost fainted, and he stood there, in the snow, frozen, as he stared at the gigantic, nay, ludicrous weapon of war sitting in the snow. Gleaming metal. Polished timber.

It had the mark of the House of Minos on it.

The ballista sat there with a pink bow on the tip of one of the bolts. The greatest present of any Christmas now or ever had even Erin Solstice speechless. Bird? He just stared up at the sky.

“Just you wait, birds.”

He finally had his ballista.

 

[Dancer Level 9]!

[Skill – Feather Hop obtained!]

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

As records go, on paper, this is about 70-80,000 words in a single update. Of course, that’s misleading; during the power outage, I had done about 8,000 words. Then I had a laptop. and in the time I had, I kept writing, and I ended up with an additional 10,000 words in pure notes and pre-written scenes.

So this is more like two updates’ worth of effort, albeit with huge disruptions. But it’s also because I’m probably still in writing-mode from finishing Gravesong’s second book.

And it was my first chapter back. I wanted it to be good. Perhaps I pushed too hard and I should have broken this up into multiple chapters, and maybe that would have upped the quality. But part of what I do is deliver the content without as much wait. Or I try.

I hope this was a good chapter. I wanted it to be special, and so that’s why I went for maximum ambition. Another Christmas…matters. Nothing is the same, and in the same way, during my break and that month off, I realized something.

After every break I take each month off, especially after being exhausted, I feel like I wake up and realize how tired I really had been. How uncreative I get when I push myself to the limits. Of course, I do it because I care about the story and I want to deliver to my readers. I make the mistake many people do of conflating ‘hard work’ with ‘value’.

Yet also, I start thinking about places to go. I talk to other people, and I want to travel. I used to, when I was younger, and I had the privilege to see other countries. I want to do that again, soon. I’m not good at going out, but creativity is something that comes from seeing the world. If I sit in my house all my life, some day that well will run dry.

Those are just my thoughts and concerns, but I have also developed my lifestyle to put out as much content as possible. I think…having a family or going out and doing things would cut into my ability to write. It’s just a question of what matters more, and a machine that doesn’t have a life cannot write anything good.

(This precludes talk of AI which people can’t shut up about. All they’re doing so far is copying people who have written the original works. That’s a language model, not actual creation. Therefore not real intelligence.)

Sorry, I’m rambling and it’s been a lot of writing. I’m always chasing the magic in chapters, and if I found it for you this time, I’m glad. If not…well, I hope you enjoy this whenever you read. And yes, I am taking a break for one update.

Patrons will get this oversized chapter in two parts, but released as one. I will be back next Tuesday. I wrote enough for at least 2 updates, and I am being mindful of my health. 80,000 words…well, I won’t take off four updates but I could.

I need to go back to shorter, and more sustainable chapters. Again, blame storms and expectations for this one. Back to it! The journey continues.

—pirateaba

 

 

Luan by Artsynada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

Luan’s Memories by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Stream Art! Pryde’s Drowned Dreams, Christmas and Erin’s New Pipe by BoboPlushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 


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