[Selkie Myth, author of Beneath the Dragoneye Moons has made an amazing collab between the characters of Beware of Chicken, Salvos, Melas, The Wandering inn, and his own story to celebrate Inktober! I know all the authors and encourage you to check out their stories if you ever run out of The Wandering Inn or just want a change of pace!]
Art by fuyudust! https://www.instagram.com/fuyudust/
It felt like this great—uncertainty.
It hung over The Wandering Inn. Or perhaps the entire region. Like a cloud had fallen, a black mass of snow that was too light to be anchored to the ground and billowed upwards, casting a pall over everything, growing with each day leading to—
The Winter Solstice.
Hethon Veltras hadn’t realized what he was feeling until the last few days, when it seemed to hit him suddenly. He would wake up and feel dread.
Like a hand wrapped around his throat. He would wake in a panic, tangled in his sheets, and then forget why he was worried. Even when he went to sleep, he would brush it off as nightmares or memories of being poisoned.
Hethon dreamed of numbers. He understood numbers. He could count the blades of grass and tell you how many there were in a patch, or see a flock of geese and say ‘there are forty-six of them up there’ in the blink of an eye.
Sammial didn’t believe Hethon could do that. Ullim told Hethon he needed to learn numbers, arithmetic from troop reports instead of counting manually like some [Backwater Lordling].
But the boy had been sitting in The Wandering Inn and watching Drakes march in by the thousands. Last night, he had seen five groupings of Civic Militia—the Veltras name for the local cities’ standing armies, which wasn’t very polite—making camp far to the east, away from the Drakes holding the center of the Floodplains.
Hethon Veltras thought he’d counted twenty-one thousand eight hundred and ninety-two Drakes on the Floodplains. He thought he’d seen more hiding in the High Passes; camouflaged rock-people who sometimes sneezed or shifted and revealed themselves.
Tyrion Veltras’ own forces numbered eight thousand seven hundred and eleven, and Lady Buscrei was riding with Oswen’s Marshrangers; the full Otterrats Vanguard, as they called themselves. Eighty-eight plus the [Lady] herself.
And more were coming. Lord Xitegen had brought less than four hundred troops, but a full quarter were Golems. In his mind, Hethon saw the scope of the armies; less than had been sent to kill the Goblin Lord, perhaps, but higher-quality.
The Antinium were digging. There weren’t ‘three thousand’ Free Antinium; he had counted over five thousand digging outside, though they looked the same, so it was a harder game for him. Already, their walls of dirt had risen nineteen feet high and climbed higher. Seeing them work without rest or verbal speech had truly made Hethon feel the terror of the Black Tide.
In his dreams, these armies lined up and formed one great army, Drakes hunched behind spearwalls, Human archers taking aim while Goblins flew overhead on Wyvernback, and Golems turned, their precise, controlled movements as alien as the Antinium standing in a black sea, illuminated by the flames of emotion’s fire.
But in his dream, a withered hand reached across the world and snuffed the lights out in a single motion. Fingers withered and rotten, like claws, plucked the formations and defenses out of the world, and an inn cracked before it. And the boy saw three women—or was it one?
Three women, one face, walking forwards, and the ground split, and he fell screaming into a void with no end. But that was somehow still better than touching her.
What would become of The Wandering Inn? Of Erin? Hethon didn’t know, but he kept falling and falling in that dream…
And this time, he thought he heard a voice.
“—not ready yet. Phaugh. I can smell her deeds even here. She’s ate the entire afterlife.”
“Eaten it whole! Like the greedy guts she is!”
“Shut up, Theillige. I cannot see anything of what that one does, or the insane warrior. Least the God of Magic is trapped. He’s as like the worst to have a trick we cannae predict.”
“Aye, Gnomes. But how long? We see little, Lady Shaestrel. Yon [Innkeeper]’s blasted bread leaves us both in shadow.”
“Beaten by bread! How the Court of Winter must be laughing their arses off!”
A weird group of people were talking. Hethon could hear them. They had oddly…cold voices, most of them. As if winter itself were chiming in his ear. Though they weren’t speaking in his ears, in the dream. One sounded like spring, like shoots of grass under snow pushing upwards. But the cold voices were grumbling.
“The damned stuff draws from our power. Tricksy Human. She put some of our flowers in the bread! She’s not supposed to have them, Lady Shaestrel. I swear, I thought some of them were growing to adulthood, and if they do…is this place going to become part of Avalon?”
“Let it be. So long as it exists, those six cannot walk into her inn like last time. We know the lost one and the God of Rulers are still flying upwards.”
“Aye. Fighting the Last Dragonlord of the Void and Agelum. Foes too good for them. A battle they can never win. Someone should sing of it.”
“Not us. ‘Twill be a glorious death for all of us!”
“Shut up, Theillige. But I am blind. I sense nets closing in the dark and like it not. And…is something listening to us?”
The voices grew alarmed. The bright one, like spring, seemed to cast around, and Hethon was watching the battle again.
Three-in-one. And a new thought popped into his head as he saw her face.
Goddess. The word seemed to write itself in his head then vanish, and the disturbance made the voices swoop in closer.
“Hark! A spy! No, wait, it’s the boy with good eyes.”
“Is he a dreamer? Damn classes.”
“No. Maybe his connection with Ryoka Griffin? He is dreaming of the Solstice, sisters. And he has a dark right of it.”
Death! Death! Death! A laughing maw opened, and a crone turned into a young woman who gobbled down soldiers, who fled screaming. The voices were silent as dream-Hethon screamed and went running for his father, Tyrion.
“…Dark as shite. Think that will happen?”
“Dunno. But he knew her nature a second. The old whatit thing the Gnomes addled, the work of that idiot, Isthekenous, is still at work. Erasing their names and nature for the ones of this land. Good thing, too, or they’d be close to full strength already.”
“Why? He’s really dead. Dead dead. So dead half the others ate him. Gruesome it was.”
The bickering voices were silenced as the green one spoke again. Yes, green. Hethon knew her. Shaestrel. And she seemed to be swooping around him as the ground opened up, and he fell once more, flailing and shrieking. Hovering at the edge of his dream.
“Yes, but why is the boy dreaming of it? Let alone so close to us? Something isn’t right. Let’s pull him out of it. ‘Tisn’t a thing a boy should suffer.”
“Oh, there goes Lady Shaestrel again, always meddling and being kindhearted. This is just like when you gave fire to those poor idiots like some Giant of old—His Majesty will ban ye from mortal realms another ten thousand years!”
“Shut up. Something’s—”
A bunch of tiny hands were pulling Hethon up—and then there were screams. The ground caught Hethon and whispered in a voice like thunder.
“She is returned. ___ess of Death. Ruler of Kasignel. The cruel one. Without mercy. Without justice nor vengeance. She who holds us all. Three-in-One. No armies stand before her, son of House Veltras.”
The words rolled through his being, and dream-Hethon shuddered. He heard screams.
“Fecking Satyr balls! I thought they were dead!”
“They are dead! This is another stupid—”
Then they vanished. As if a curtain had suddenly been pulled across the world. And once more, Hethon was standing in front of The Wandering Inn.
Brave armies of mortals quailed as a woman walked over the earth. Hethon turned, screaming for Sammial, Ryoka. His father. He saw a [Lord] fighting to control a steed as a hand reached for him, the glorious pink flame of the Antinium [Knight] faltering. A half-Giant slumping over, eyes lifeless.
Mrsha, Moore, everyone collapsed in his dream, and Hethon was running from the woman. Then the ground opened, and he fell into it, screaming and shrieking…and the new voice whispered.
“Why do you scream? You alone would not die, son of Veltras.”
Falling, Hethon flailed, and finally, the dream-part of him wondered who was speaking. How was falling into the earth salvation? And the voice grew puzzled.
“Can’t you hear us? Take the seed. We have been calling. You are oathbound to the old pact. We warn you of her. Find us. Can’t you—HEAR US?”
Then Hethon Veltras awoke with a scream.
The boy would have tumbled out of bed and onto the floor, but he was snagged around his sheets. He flailed wildly as the dream vanished and, again, almost forgot why he was so terrified even within the moments of choking back a scream.
But this time it lingered, and he lay there, panting as if he had run a mile in a minute, looking around an unfamiliar room and remembering he was in an inn in Invrisil, on the third floor, and it was seven o’clock. Breakfast.
Not in the Adventurer’s Haven, that magical place with lovely beds, amazing staff as well as guests, and the sense that you were part of some grand legend and adventure. A place where you could see Mihaela Godfrey hanging out with Deniusth the Violinist—even if Mihaela was grumpy.
Instead, he woke up in a plainer inn named the Terland’s Service, so-called because it had impressed a Terland back in the day. Also, because it had Golems.
One was knocking this very moment, which was why Hethon knew it was seven.
“Hello…sir. This is your morning wake-up check at—seven o’clock. Are your rooms now vacated for…morning cleaning?”
“Um. I’m fine without cleaning.”
“Understood. Breakfast is being served…now. I wish you a fine day…sir.”
It wasn’t a very good Golem that greeted him from the hallway, and it had a polished wood ‘face’ and body that made it look more like a training dummy had come to life. It was, as Hethon understood such things, very cheap.
—Which still meant it probably cost hundreds of gold pieces for the chassis, and hundreds more for a Golem Heart capable of doing more complex tasks like remembering greetings and making beds.
In fact, it made the inn notable as very high-class. But Hethon had noticed the beds didn’t have any flourishes like folded covers, and the Golem didn’t understand what to do if it found something weird like a cat on the bed; it was programmed to just walk out of the room and hang a note that said it had been interrupted.
Still, a mostly-Golem staff meant no one had to do the cleaning, and so the [Innkeeper] had invested in the kitchens. Also, being affiliated, even loosely, with House Terland meant you got guests who sometimes brought their own Golems.
Lord Xitegen’s two Golem maids were porcelain, had set the table, did his rooms, and stood behind him as he ate. He was probably downstairs now.
Hethon Veltras’ heart rate was calming down with this new Golem-reality making his dream already feel part of the past. He shook himself. Just a dream.
The thing was…he remembered the faeries more than anything and resolved to ask Ryoka about them. Maybe they’d remember his dream? But Hethon Veltras didn’t tend to remember dreams that well. His mother had told him as a boy they were just things to be forgotten. Sammial was the one who disobeyed and probably had a wild imagination.
That went some way to explaining why Hethon Veltras was deliberately calming down, relaxing by the time he tried to roll out of bed onto the floor. But he paused, felt something on his arm, turned, and recoiled.
A hand was holding onto his shoulder. Hethon punched at it, calling out with a scream.
One of House Veltras’ guards was in the room like a flash. Golems or not, Invrisil and the Circle of Thorns’ and Assassin’s Guild’s demise or not—he had a shortsword drawn, and Jericha had two wands aiming over Hethon’s head.
“Lord Hethon! To me. What—”
She found him rolling around, fighting with—Hethon saw Jericha tear at his sheets and reveal nothing. Just his bedsheets.
The [Guard] strode around the room as Jericha hesitated, cast several detection spells, and relaxed. She spoke into a speaking stone that had lit up on her wrist.
“Code Itvern. False alarm. Checking.”
The [Message] spell waited for her to speak the decoding phrase before accepting Jericha’s words. Coded transmissions. Jericha pulled at the sheets.
“It was a nightmare. I’m sorry, Jericha. I thought someone was grabbing…”
Hethon was red with embarrassment, and Jericha gave him a sympathetic look. Now that he looked, it was just his bedsheets.
But for one second, he swore it had looked exactly like a hand of some kind. Only, Jericha unwound the sheets and gave him a small smile.
“The mind plays tricks, Lord Hethon. It looks a bit like a hand. And it was good you called. Even if it wasn’t something this time…better that you have that instinct.”
She was trying to praise him, and the [Guard] bowed. Hethon turned redder as he apologized. Here he was causing trouble again. Hethon pushed the dream out of his head as he saw Sammial flanked by six [Guards] asking what was happening and began to explain and apologize.
Yet the dream was in the back of his head. And that was how he started his day.
Omens. A voice. Every now and then, Hethon would brush at his shoulder as if expecting something to be there.
Lord Xitegen had his two personal Golems serving him breakfast by the time Hethon was downstairs. By now, the boy had apologized to several guests, the [Innkeeper], and he just wanted to leave, so he tried to go out the front door. Unfortunately, it was never that easy.
“Hethon. Where are you going?”
Tyrion Veltras spotted his son, and Hethon froze.
“Um. Ah. The Wandering Inn, Father?”
Xitegen glanced up from a newspaper and twisted his lips. His father’s head rose from a cup of coffee. He paused—and his stoic expression changed. His eyes narrowed one fraction, and he visibly frowned.
“Breakfast is being served here as part of our service.”
Are you wasting money? Hethon twisted inside, but he had a counter.
“Miss Ryoka’s going to get us breakfast. Me and Sammial.”
Pause two. Tyrion’s eyes flickered.
“—I will be visiting midday. Do not embarrass yourself. Also: wait for Ullim and your brother.”
He paused a moment, and his eyes focused on Hethon. One look at the dark black speaking stone, made of a river-stone polished bright, with a current of blue running through it on Tyrion’s wrist, and Hethon knew his father had heard of the false alarm this morning and turned red.
But Tyrion hesitated, and rather than bring it up, the now younger [Lord] seemed to notice Hethon’s discomfort. He paused and spoke slowly.
As parenting went, it was probably 2/10, but that was like an 8/10 for Tyrion Veltras, so Hethon actually felt better as his father nodded at him. A victory for low expectations!
Lord Xitegen raised his brows.
“Was that the scuffle and noise upstairs?”
“A false alarm.”
Tyrion assured him as Hethon bowed, mumbling more apologies. As ever, Lord Xitegen sort of scared Hethon. The man was imposing.
Well, he was fat. But he was also a man known to run; he’d even raced Ryoka, and he was an important noble of the north. He could rub cheeks with Tyrion and not lose for personality. But the main thing was his smile had that reserve to it.
It was a noble’s look that hid how he was truly feeling. Like how a scary member of the House of El would smile at you and ask how things were—and you were supposed to lie and never answer truthfully. And here, Hethon was smart enough to notice some of the things Xitegen did. The [Lord]’s eyes swung sideways to Tyrion.
“Strangely, Tyrion, my Golems didn’t pick up the communication spells of your speaking stone. Not that we were listening in. But Primera here is equipped with a simple device that routes all speaking stones and [Messages] to her. It’s dull listening most of the time, but I realized all of House Veltras’ communications have suddenly been absent.”
She had a what? Hethon only knew the two beautiful Golems by their names ‘Primera’ and ‘Seconda’. They were not originally named, but apparently were guardian-golems that had existed in Xitegen’s family a long time.
The first one had golden pupils in its porcelain face, and they flickered as Xitegen spoke.
“Primera, scribe the last five incoming [Messages] in a hundred feet.”
She wrote swiftly on a napkin he passed to her, and Xitegen eyed it. Grunted.
“Well, that’s embarrassing. But nothing from House Veltras. Why’s that?”
Lord Tyrion’s face didn’t change as he raised a cup to his lips. Coffee.
“One can’t say, Lord Xitegen. House Veltras always improves its security, especially after the Circle of Thorns. It is impolite to snoop.”
“Relic or magic? Can’t you share?”
Xitegen pressed Tyrion with a smile. Tyrion didn’t blink as he took a sip of coffee and patted his mouth. He was so good at not showing his feelings—in this one case, it came in handy.
Hethon glanced at Jericha. As far as he knew, she was the one who’d done all the ‘encryption’ through some new magic she’d learned. She hadn’t said how, but—
Too late, he saw her eyes widen fractionally, and Hethon glanced over and saw a round face and two sharp eyes on him. He jumped, felt his heart lurch, then sink, and Lord Xitegen sat back.
He glanced once at Jericha, then smiled at Tyrion, whose face still didn’t change.
“Well, we’re partners for this Solstice event anyways. House Terland would pay for anything House Veltras might share with its cousins. Quite handsomely. Of course, we did send a few Golems during the war, but that was a matter of standing together. How are the provinces holding up after all this strife? We could send you a Farming Golem or two.”
Tyrion sighed audibly. And his fingers drummed on the table a second.
“If we did have anything to share, Lord Xitegen, I would not trust in the methodology yet—perhaps just your personal house?”
“I’ve pulled three Farming Golems from my lands, and Aunt Ulva hasn’t threatened to do more than double my tithe. Four?”
“…Do you have a Golem that can perform manual tasks? Lord Swey was injured, and if one could operate the elevators he’s constructing around his plateau…”
“That [Emperor] is doing that, isn’t he? Drake machinery. I’ll send a nice stone one.”
The two [Lords] exchanged a glance, and Tyrion jerked his head fractionally.
“Jericha can meet with one of your [Mages] after our conference with Erin Solstice. Hethon, why don’t you and Sammial go to The Wandering Inn for breakfast?”
One look said that he didn’t want Xitegen grilling the two boys more, and the [Lord] of House Terland sat back, looking highly pleased.
Greatly relieved, and even more guilty about letting Jericha’s magic slip, Hethon nodded and stood there until he heard the patter of feet, and Sammial came racing downstairs.
This was the fun part of their extended vacation. Freedom, breakfast at The Wandering Inn—which had better food—even Lord Xitegen seemed to admit it.
“You know, I was endlessly impressed with the ‘mayonnaise’ until I realized it came from Liscor. The food here still beats eating something made by a Goblin, but I fear I’ll need to put my posterior where I’m installing the Golem heart.”
“I don’t understand your analogy.”
Tyrion returned calmly as Hethon caught Sammial and pointed out Ullim coming downstairs and sighing. Xitegen sighed behind his newspaper.
“Celum. I believe Blazehound might be my new abode, at least until I find permanent residences. I should live in the city I’m sponsoring. Maybe I’ll just steal Chef Imani. She was the architect behind the banana muffins that impressed me.”
Tyrion Veltras talked about matters of governance like a Golem himself. But his lack of any real insight into the world of cooking made him pause.
“Yes. Delicious. From Oteslia; that’s one benefit of the inn’s door. Another reason for me not to let it get destroyed until Archmage Valeterisa sets up her delivery service. I had a half dozen and could have taken the tray…glorious. Actually, Golem Seconda, go and buy whatever is the special of the day—but only two servings. Budget: five gold coins. No, wait, two. Only edibles. No, wait. Only food.”
Xitegen waved at the Golem maid as Ullim told the boys to put on mittens and boots for the short walk through the snow. As they raced upstairs, Hethon paused, because it was always funny seeing how Terlands worked.
“Last time she bought me about ten bags of something that Centaur whipped up. Smokable hash or whatnot. I’ve accidentally bought two hundred pies with them before.”
Xitegen confided in Tyrion. The [Lord] nodded.
Xitegen’s wince was a full-face effort that showed how fun it was to hang out with Tyrion. But Tyrion was still on the muffin thing.
“Banana muffins. I’ve eaten many muffins. I know bananas. I’ve also sampled mayonnaise. It’s not exactly a difficult dish to copy, so it was already in House Veltras lands before I visited the inn. But these muffins…where does the mayonnaise come in?”
Lord Xitegen hesitated.
“…You know, I didn’t ask. But they were damned good.”
“Does—do they taste sweet?”
Tyrion Veltras had faced down Crelers with less cracks in his demeanor. Xitegen beamed.
“Primera, go after Seconda and amend the order for a dozen banana muffins as well.”
Xitegen would happily treat his peers to a banana muffin any day of the week. Especially if it made Tyrion Veltras look uncomfortable.
It was so much fun visiting The Wandering Inn, but Hethon still felt that dread when he returned to his rooms and searched for his boots in the untidy mess of clothing.
Maybe he should have had the Golem clean up. Hethon yawned as he scrambled around; he still felt like this dream was in his head. Normally he forgot but this time he still felt a hint of that unease…
And the whispers. Hethon paused once more as he stared at his sheets. Someone—perhaps Jericha—had remade the bed, perhaps to check if there had been anything off after all, so it was just memories.
But he had been having that kind of dream for a while, hadn’t he? Maybe it meant something—
“Hethon! I’m leaving without you! Come on!”
Sammial’s shout made the older boy jump. He was standing in the doorway. Hethon found his boots and put them on hurriedly. When he clattered downstairs, Sammial raced out in front of him and headbutted a woman coming down the stairs so hard she nearly fell flat on her face.
“Lord Sammial! I am so sorry, Lady—”
Ullim was beside himself with chagrin. Tyrion half-rose as the woman caught herself; Sammial was howling, clutching his head.
“I should apologize to Lord Sammial. Boys run around so, don’t they? No offense is taken. Ah, Lord Veltras, Lord Xitegen.”
Then Hethon, mid-bow, noticed the woman was definitely a [Soldier]. Her posture, the way she addressed the two [Lords], the uniform that had the pearlescent white and blue look of House Terland, and their crest on her shoulder were all big giveaways.
But the other sign was the war wounds. She had a Golem hand, and what had made Sammial’s headbutt turn into self-inflicted damage was…
Clickclickclick—the sound was coming from the woman’s back. When she noticed Lord Hethon’s stare, the woman bowed.
“My torso is mostly that of a Golem, Lord Hethon. It makes it hard for one to stab me in the back.”
“An [Assassin] learned that the hard way this year. Magnificent design, incidentally. This is Automata Controller Lectara, who will be taking charge of my forces.”
“That would put you at about [Major] in class equivalence. Greetings, Controller.”
Tyrion Veltras translated Terland’s internal rankings into a metric that made sense for him. The woman sat down slowly as Hethon and Sammial stared at her.
“She’s part Golem?”
Ullim hissed at them.
“It is a war wound. Lord Sammial, Lord Hethon, don’t stare.”
The woman turned and waved with a smile, and Hethon wondered what kind of war wound you got that replaced most of your back and stomach. He noticed Lord Xitegen instantly ordering a soup instead of the food on offer.
“I am hardly an able commander of non-Golems, Lord Tyrion. But I will be leading House Terland’s mixed forces.”
“The class has always seemed disrespectful to your station.”
Tyrion frowned as Xitegen shrugged.
“It’s how a lot of the family view regular [Soldiers]. They’re there to support a Golem. Dig them out of the mud, repair them, or screen their advances and retreats. Hence ‘Automata Controller’. I agree, it’s not very apt, but I wasn’t the one handing out titles. Plus, you have to have a steady voice to shout orders at a Golem in the middle of a fight. How’s the condition of the reinforcements, Lectara? I was surprised to see Aunt Ulva sending in some real Golems. The Wind Runner and Tyrion’s doing, I suppose? She wouldn’t send them to me.”
The woman inclined about ten degrees and nodded her head; she seemed very stiff.
“Lady Ulva did indeed send some of House Terland’s main battle Golems. As for myself, I am eager to see the famous inn, Lord Xitegen. I cannot say how we will mesh with this coalition army until I hear the battle plans.”
Xitegen’s smile turned into a scowl.
“Well, the [Innkeeper]’s promised to tell us something about what we’re facing at last. Drakes, adventurers, a whole lot of irregulars—I even hear the Centaurs are riding north. Though that last part isn’t surprising if the Titan’s really besotted with Erin Solstice, as rumor has it. I hope they’re not in bed together, though; that sounds like he’d die the moment she rolled over.”
Tyrion looked amazingly uncomfortable as Lectara and Xitegen began laughing. But there it was again. He saw Ullim glance back, and Tyrion turned to regard his son.
A sense of unease sweeping through the inn. Then his father was lowering his voice.
“I have sent for the Oswen Marshrangers, and Lady Buscrei has just arrived in the city. She might be arriving for breakfast here. Aside from that, if you would agree to relocate your artillery Golems—Lady Magnolia has agreed to shelter my sons at her mansion.”
“I suppose I can do that…”
Shelter us at Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion? But Tyrion hated her. Why would he do that?
Unless he thought it was dangerous. Hethon remembered his dream. He looked at Lord Xitegen, almost hoping the [Lord] made light of Tyrion’s preparations. But Xitegen just flicked his fingers.
“You have my support. Put Terland’s forces where you wish, Tyrion. But I will control my artillery Golems. Don’t worry. I’ll agree to put the covering fire where you need it.”
“Agreed. Will you be staying at a remove?”
Tyrion’s voice was calm, but Xitegen steepled his fingers and sat back. Controller Lectara added in a calm, but pointed tone.
“Lady Ulva has instructed me to ensure you have the best vantage point, Lord Xitegen.”
“So she wants me where? On Liscor’s walls? Part of me insists on staying at the inn, despite all the Goblins and Antinium I’ll have to rub shoulders with. There’s nothing like being at the center of…whatever we’re at to make me fight like my life depends on it.”
“You’d do that?”
Tyrion spoke, surprised, as the boys hesitated. Xitegen looked at the [Lord].
“Well, I understand Lady Pryde will be there, and I cannot imagine she will retreat. With that Drake, no less. Magus Grimalkin?”
A flash of disapproval crossed Lectara’s face, and Xitegen shuddered.
“No accounting for taste. But she will be there. Lady Bethal Walchaís. You will take the field?”
“Depending on how the circumstances play out, yes.”
“Then I may take the inn.”
Lectara protested instantly.
The [Lord] calmly stabbed the table and several plates shook.
“We cannot have four or more Flowers of Izril dying. No more! We have been pruned by the last great war. Like her, hate her, Magnolia Reinhart’s death would result in a power vacuum. You too, Tyrion. Even that strange [Emperor] fellow is an asset with his [Engineers]. Ah, Lady Ieka is about! Not one. Rest assured, I won’t treat the inn like Fortress Gallam. But I will be there to pull our number out if it goes south.”
If it goes south? Hethon licked his lips, and Tyrion Veltras hesitated. But before the two could argue further, more people swept into the inn.
“You’re going right back to Oswen! Palec, tie her to her horse.”
“Reneil, my boy, if you grab me I will put you over my knee and give you a spanking in front of everyone.”
“Mother, you can’t—”
Lady Buscrei strode into the Terland’s Favor so fast she nearly ran over Sammial. She caught the boy as he recoiled, grinned down at Hethon, and raised her voice.
“Hethon! Sammial! The two at last! It feels like ages since I saw you two together. Come here!”
She lifted Sammial, gave him a huge hug, and the two [Lords] beside her sighed.
“Hethon. Nice to see you.”
Hethon recognized two men following Buscrei. Reneil and Palec, the eldest and third-eldest sons of the sprawling Oswen branch of House Veltras. They lived in the swamp, and the two instantly clapped him on the shoulder in a familiar way.
Unlike House Veltras’ main family, the Oswens were personable, fun, and Hethon had stayed with them while Sammial was kidnapped. He liked both, though Palec was the one Hethon knew most; he’d taught Hethon more of how to ride in the swamps and how to shoot and hunt.
It had been fun, as worried as Hethon had been, those months of his father being at war. Lady Buscrei had gone with Lord Tyrion, though, so Hethon was shyer around her as she hugged him. She smelled like the road, snow, and still, that earthy odor of the marshes and Otterdogs.
“Dead gods, you’re growing, Hethon. It’s good to see you. Why haven’t you visited our swamp since you and Sammial got back?”
“We’ve, uh, been with the Haven and visiting Invrisil, Lady Buscrei.”
Hethon mumbled as Sammial shouted.
“I’ve grown too! What about me?”
Buscrei glanced down at Sammial and ruffled his hair.
“Nope. Still a runt. I have Otterdogs longer than you. And here’s my young cousin! Dead gods, it turns my hair to look at you, Tyrion.”
“Buscrei. Thank you for making it. Did you bring all of the Marsh—”
Tyrion got the words out as he rose, but she just put him in a headlock and rubbed at his hair. Lord Xitegen was laughing already, and Tyrion glared at Buscrei.
Jericha was horrified, but the [Lady] grinned.
“What? It makes me annoyed, seeing him this young. Xitegen, you rogue. My entire family wants your autograph after seeing you chase the Bloodfeast Raiders away. Marshrats, your thighs. Every time I see you, I want to hunt down an elk and eat venison until I’m sick.”
“Lady Buscrei, you are a rogue and nightmare to my cousins. Well met.”
Xitegen rose, and they exchanged a kiss on each cheek. Controller Lectara looked vaguely horrified by Buscrei, as one did when they met one of Veltras’ earthier cousins. They were as unhappy as Lectara with the state of things.
“Lord Reneil, Lord Palec. Greetings.”
Tyrion turned to Buscrei’s sons, both in their thirties, and they bowed. Reneil was the serious one, and he offered a formal bow to Xitegen as well.
“Lord Tyrion, a pleasure to see you. We have indeed brought the eighty-eight Otterrats Vanguard. As well as nearly three hundred of Oswen’s regular archers.”
“That many? I’m gratified.”
Tyrion murmured in surprise. Reneil nodded stiffly.
“We hope you’ll accept that—but in return, we must beg your forbearance. Lady Buscrei will not be joining your forces for the Solstice event and will be ret—”
Buscrei had been elbowing her eldest son, but now she gave him such a hefty buffet he stumbled.
“Ignore them. My boys have been after me all this ride to return home.”
“Are you needed in Oswen?”
Tyrion looked surprised, and his eyes flicked to Buscrei in concern. But Xitegen had sat back, letting the family drama play out, and Hethon felt his skin chill as Palec burst out.
“We will not let our mother die in this coming conflict, Lord Veltras. Reneil and I will take her place. We can cover most of her abilities with our Skills. We were warned by that [Innkeeper]—Swey’s lost his hand already, and Mother nearly got skewered by that Great General. The entire family’s agreed. If it’s going to be a charnel house, she cannot be there.”
The two [Lords] squared their shoulders as Buscrei raised a fist, looking readier to brawl than they were. She swung around to Tyrion.
“The day I thought I’d be treated like a damsel in need of protection by my own sons—they got a scare during the last war, Tyrion. Ignore them. You called, and I’ve come. Reneil and Palec can fall in with the others, or I’ll ship them home with tanned backsides.”
She stood there, glaring, and all eyes turned to Lord Tyrion. He looked troubled.
“It is within my authority to order Lady Buscrei to return, but I do not interfere with family politics, Lord Reneil. She is the head of her house. By rights, you should obey her orders. Unless you are attempting to unseat her. In which case, you would present that claim to me, formally.”
The sound Reneil made was like steam escaping a kettle. Hethon winced; Tyrion was probably the worst man to try and get to bend the rules. The younger [Lord] spread his hands.
“Then tell me, at least, Lord Tyrion, why you have called for some of House Veltras’ finest soldiers! This is no ordinary battle; you didn’t call on the Otterrats for the Goblin Lord! Why are we fighting around a Drake city, and what are we fighting against? If this is because of Ryoka Griffin, then respectfully, I’ll call that a breach of conduct on your end and defend it before the entire family!”
His voice rose, and Palec and Buscrei stomped on his feet. Tyrion went still and glanced over Reneil’s shoulder. He spoke slowly.
“…Today, we will be called for a briefing by Erin Solstice about the nature of the danger, and part of your answer will be revealed then, Lord Reneil. As to the other, I can personally state that while I am romantically engaged with Miss Griffin, I do not believe it is why Lord Xitegen or Lady Reinhart are here.”
“Perish the thought.”
Xitegen spoke, blotting at his mouth with a handkerchief. Reneil stared at Tyrion, and then his head turned, and Hethon waved guiltily at a young woman. Tyrion sat back down.
“However, if you would like to address the complaint to Miss Griffin, here she is.”
The Wind Runner was standing in the doorway of the Terland’s Favor, staring guiltily at Buscrei as Winter Sprites buzzed around her. Hethon stared at them, at Ryoka, and reflected that she really did have the worst timing. But all Ryoka Griffin said was this:
“I—don’t know how bad it’ll be. Buscrei. Reneil. Tyrion. I really don’t. I’m honored you came, but it might be bad. Really bad.”
“It could not be, but it might be. There’s no telling, but the scale of how bad it could be goes beyond even the war against Ailendamus.”
Lord Reneil exhaled slowly as Hethon felt it again. He looked at the sky past Ryoka and thought he saw a shadow over the High Passes, in the south. Was it just his imagination? He looked past the mountaintops and thought he saw trees. Then he rubbed his eyes and they were gone. Hethon felt a tremor in his soul, and Reneil nodded.
“I was afraid of that.”
He sat down hard as Buscrei folded her arms, glaring at her sons, daring them to try. And Lord Tyrion looked at his cousin once and hesitated.
“So you know, Buscrei. I will not order you to return if your will is to command the Otterrats.”
Buscrei smiled, and her sons groaned. And Tyrion’s voice firmed.
“But. It isn’t their belief you are a damsel in need of protection. Children don’t wish their parents to die. I believe that’s true of most.”
Lady Buscrei stopped smiling, and Palec and Reneil’s heads rose. Palec nodded silently as Lord Xitegen lost his appetite and Controller Lectara wavered. Lady Buscrei stood there a second, and avoided her son’s eyes. Then she smiled like a hawk, resting one foot on the chair, resting a second, proud and weary.
“Tough luck. House Veltras doesn’t do it any other way.”
She nodded at Tyrion, and the [Lord] offered her a rare smile. Like someone drawing a sword.
The argument between Buscrei and her sons about her staying didn’t resolve in the next few minutes. They were ready to all but drag her away, but Buscrei warned them she’d lay both out before she went, and she might win a fight, even two-on-one.
In the meantime, Ryoka stood there. Tyrion went to greet her, and they spoke, awkwardly, as Hethon and Sammial watched. Then Ryoka turned with a too-big smile.
“Hethon, Sammial! Sorry I’m late!”
Ryoka Griffin was ever-so-subtly off. Which, for Ryoka Griffin, was normal, but the Wind Runner’s stress levels looked elevated. Even for her. It seemed she had the same feeling Hethon did. But the Wind Runner pretended all was well.
“Let’s get breakfast. It’s sausage minestrone.”
Sammial proved he was Tyrion’s son with the blank look he gave Ryoka.
“I don’t know what that is.”
Ullim knew everything and anything, and so the two boys’ heads swung over to him instantly as he clarified.
“A stew, Lord Sammial. Beans, vegetables, a pasta—very tasty.”
“On the beach. It’s gonna be a busy day, so I might have to eat and run, but you two can play with Mrsha, right?”
Play with Mrsha. Hethon felt a pang because he was fourteen, and he resented being treated like a kid. But then again, Nanette was thirteen, and there was all kinds of stuff to do at the inn.
Actually, Sammial seemed to resent the suggestion too as he folded his arms.
“I don’t like her. She keeps insulting me, and she bullies me.”
Someone bullies Sammial? Hethon, Ullim, and Ryoka all looked astonished. Ryoka leaned over urgently.
“Bullies you how, Sammial?”
His voice raised petulantly.
“I don’t know! She just keeps telling me she’s bullying me by handing me a stupid card!”
Hethon began grinning as Sammial showed Ryoka six, all of which definitely were proof of bullying. Even if the actual form it came in was in doubt.
It was fun at the inn. Mrsha, the crazy Gnoll girl, was crazy. There was Apista, a flying bee, Goblins, sometimes even beavers, and there was always something fun happening.
The beach, the theatre, and if they were bored of any of that, they could watch the scrying orb or run around with the kids.
There weren’t many Hethon’s age, but Nanette was a witch, and she was—sort of annoying, but Hethon liked her more than most [Ladies] her age.
It was just a shame that his father was still not welcome at the inn. It was a shame that it felt like this couldn’t last forever. All the adults were talking, and Tyrion kept glancing their way. But Hethon was watching Ryoka’s face as she led them down the straight. And eying the Winter Sprites.
“Um. Ryoka. Are the Winter Fae…talking?”
He couldn’t hear them most times. Or even see more than a blue blob, despite Ryoka assuring him they had more defined features. Ryoka blinked, looked up, and shrugged.
“They’re always talking.”
Are they talking about me? That was such a crazy thing to say that Hethon bit it back, but Ryoka frowned.
“Be glad you can’t hear them most times, Hethon. Hey. That’s rude. Buzz off.”
“What’re they saying?”
Ryoka played it off.
“Nothing polite. They insult everyone. You should hear what they say about Tyrion.”
“I wish I could hear.”
Sammial complained. Hethon hesitated, bit his tongue, and then glanced at a blue blob that seemed to be hovering right over his head.
“Did they say anything about me?”
Ryoka hesitated again, then glanced at the air. She shrugged.
“Don’t take it personally. Like I said…they just said you had a bad memory. And sometimes they mention you have good eyes.”
She didn’t know why that suddenly made Hethon pale. Ryoka Griffin hesitated, then glanced back at the inn where Tyrion was staying, then ahead, and took a deep breath.
She lost track of whatever she’d noticed about Hethon. She was stressed, but even the Winter Sprites seemed nervous. And when they got to The Wandering Inn, the signs Hethon was feeling grew more obvious.
The first sign was a quarrel before they even made it into the inn. Five Drake [Soldiers], each clearly an officer by their armored and plumed helmets, were arguing with an [Innkeeper] that made even Sammial wipe his shoes on the entry mat and sidle to one side.
“No one spat on anyone.”
“You spat on the floor in front of Inkpaper.”
A worried Drake with purple scales was trying to defuse the situation. Erin Solstice pointed at a sign.
“See that? What does that say?”
“We can read. We were briefed.”
The Drake in charge had yellow-themed armor, which meant he was from Pallass. Manus would be orange or red, Oteslia green, Salazsar purple, Zeres blue. Fissival’s would probably just have robes on.
He didn’t look like a regular of the inn, or one of the old Drake’s, Chaldion’s, cronies. For one thing, he was arguing with the [Innkeeper]. A mistake.
“I was under the impression my soldiers would be allowed to visit this inn.”
“Not if they’re spitting at my Goblin friends.”
“I will speak to them, Innkeeper Solstice. Threatening them with violence is not acceptable.”
“What, this? It’s just a pan. I want an apology for Inkpaper.”
Erin hid the frying pan behind her back. Hethon was wincing half in anticipation. Here it came…
“I am not going to make my officers do that. We would appreciate non-Goblin servers. Non-Antinium too.”
The Drake crossed his arms. He had red-grey scales like a rock, two semi-translucent wings, and Erin’s eyes narrowed almost as dangerously as his.
“Most of the inn’s staff are Goblins and Antinium. Buddy.”
“Then we would appreciate those who are not, Innkeeper Solstice.”
Was she going to open the door under him? Teleport him into the waters of the beach? Use her aura? Call for one of her people to thump him? One of the [Knights]?
Hethon and Sammial waited in the horrified delight of something nasty about to occur. But after a second—Erin Solstice’s eyes flickered. She noticed Ryoka, Sammial, and Hethon, and her hazel eyes blazed—and she turned away.
“My floors are clean. Spit on them again and I’ll eject the Drake. Got it? If you want service, you’ll have to hope our few Drakes and Gnolls can get to you.”
“I’ll take care of it, Erin. This way, sirs and madam.”
Ishkr pointedly gestured as Erin stomped to her garden through a door that opened in a wall. The other regular inn-goers exchanged looks of incredulity as the officer muttered to his fellows and they followed Ishkr.
What was going on?
“Sorry, Inkpaper. I told them off, and they shouldn’t do it again, but they’re still in the inn. Can you—can you bear with it for a bit?”
“So long as they only spit, is good.”
The Goblin was reading a book, and Erin was already talking to him in the beach when Hethon and Sammial tumbled in and saw a Hobgoblin tending to a huge pot of minestrone with sausage. Calescent was serving the real guests, the trusted ones, in the beach.
The main inn was crowded with unfamiliar people. Lots of officers. Erin was checking on a Hobgoblin who didn’t look particularly bothered. He had an edge to his grin, but she had given him an hour off—and he was reading a book from Selys’ new library.
Erin patted him on the shoulder. Calescent spotted Hethon, Sammial, Ullim, and Ryoka and filled four bowls. He had a twinkle in his crimson eyes.
“You want death spice for their food, Erin? I can add.”
“No. Stay here, Calescent. We’re full up on pre-made dishes, so Ishkr can warm them up. Those idiots don’t even know who’s in the kitchen…leave it be.”
Another not-Erin statement. Calescent’s grin faded, and Hethon and Sammial looked at each other. Then they realized The Wandering Inn was entirely off today.
There were over a hundred guests for breakfast—in the main room of the inn. Hethon turned his head and saw more than just the Drake officers. There were Pallassian [Soldiers], a red-scaled Drake eating with some Drakes and that Relc, who looked slightly uncomfortable as they traded loud laughs with another table of Drakes in Pallass’ armor…
Sitting exactly opposite them were a lot of Antinium, who ate quietly and regarded a lot of Humans, who seemed split between horror, disgust, recognition—that lot were eating cheese for breakfast—or who were too busy giving the Drakes and Goblins the evil eye to focus on the Antinium.
All of them were soldiers. The last group were Goblins, but they were in the beach; a bunch had red warpaint on, and they were squatting around, sharpening weapons.
This looked like an army camp. Then Hethon saw Erin’s features were strained. Ryoka was waving off her minestrone and looked vaguely sick as a few blue Winter Sprites and a single green one flew overhead.
Oh. The Winter Solstice is nearly here. Then Hethon saw Calescent’s grip on his ladle was too-tight and he was glaring at the Drakes. Until Erin patted him on the shoulder.
“Just for a couple of days, Calescent. Please?”
“If you tolerate it, is good.”
The [Chef] gave Erin a sideways glance. A testing one, Hethon thought, and he paused with his spoon raised. More than one Goblin had slowed, and their pointed ears seemed to perk up slightly. Erin didn’t look away from Calescent, but Hethon bet she had noticed too. Yet her face was calm. She nodded, meeting the [Spice Chef]’s gaze.
“They’re going to die here. I’ll tolerate it.”
Hethon felt a shiver run down his arms and back. Despite the warm beach, he suddenly felt cold. And the Goblin’s grin reminded Hethon of how the Five Families’ eldest members smiled at each other. Like Magnolia Reinhart smiled at Tyrion Veltras when they hated each other the most. His mother’s smile.
“U-um, Miss Erin. Where’s Miss Nanette? And Miss Mrsha?”
Hethon was surprised by his own voice. He had spoken up, maybe to pretend everything was well. When the [Innkeeper] turned to him, she wasn’t as serious as before, but he still flinched when she smiled.
“Oh. Right. I forgot you two were in the inn. Ryoka, I’m meeting at midday for the big conference thing. Want to go over our speech? Ullim, right? Can you take Hethon and Sammial to the kids?”
“Of course, Miss Solstice. Where would that be?”
Ryoka grabbed her untouched minestrone as Erin pointed back the way they’d come.
“They should be unpacking in Selys’ mansion. Unless Mrsha’s still causing a fuss. They’ll be staying there, or Invrisil. Ask one of the Thronebearers if you can’t find them. The third option is Riverfarm, but I sort of doubt it.”
Hethon and Sammial looked up from their breakfasts. They stared at Erin.
Twenty minutes later, Hethon was back in Invrisil, riding in a carriage towards Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion on the outskirts of the city.
Thirty-two minutes later, he was standing in a gigantic, pink mansion with a bunch of [Maids] and [Butlers] and one Gnoll girl silently screaming and trying to cling to the carriage and demanding to be brought back. Nanette was pleading with Princess Lyonette, who was handing luggage to Reynold.
“I have to go back and manage the inn, Mrsha. Ser Sest is going to stay here to take care of you. Please, be good. Reynold, I am terribly sorry about this, but I thought it would be better than Selys’ mansion—she escaped twice this morning already. It’s too close to the door and the inn.”
“Not to worry, Your Highness. We will watch her most intently. May I inquire when you will be joining us?”
The [Princess]’ hands bunched up in her apron.
Reynold bowed smoothly, and his own prosthetic legs gleamed as he turned.
“Majordomo Ullim, are the [Lords] Hethon and Sammial also prepared for their stay?”
“Jericha will send someone with their effects. Their rooms were quite messy. Is Lady Reinhart present?”
Reynold bowed as Hethon and Sammial swiveled towards Ullim, and their mouths opened wider.
“I believe she will be attending the briefing, but her whereabouts until then are slightly confidential.”
“Very good, sir. Then I will remain with the boys and get them settled, then meet with Lord Veltras if you are also heading to the inn.”
Reynold nodded, and Ullim bowed slightly. Hethon and Sammial looked around and realized they’d been duped. Suckered. Mrsha was being restrained by Ser Sest as Lyonette walked out, and Nanette was staring around with a bleak look on her face. She caught Hethon’s eyes and rolled hers.
Possibly because Hethon’s mouth was open as wide as it would go. He looked around, and all he could say was…
The Wandering Inn was closed for kids. There would be no theatre movie night. No running around the gardens. No more beach.
It wasn’t just Mrsha and Nanette, either. Hethon and Sammial didn’t really put up much of a fuss when they learned they’d be staying at Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion.
“But Father hates her. And she threatened to kill us, I thought.”
“She is…a woman of her word, Lords Hethon, Sammial. But remember: when the Five Families stand together, they do protect one another. Lord Veltras evaluated the places you two could go and found this the most safe. For the next couple of days. Please think of what that means.”
That was what Ullim said, and he seemed to be looking more at Hethon than Sammial when he said that. And the boy’s stomach began hurting.
A big cloud hanging over more than one city. Vast shadows that made all the fun and joy he’d been having suddenly feel inconsequential, short-lived, and dark.
Something was coming, and now that Hethon saw the [Soldiers], it made it real. He had studied as a [Lord], and there were a lot of officers for one spot. But he’d been seeing Erin Solstice preparing all this month.
What made it real was being told he was staying at Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. Not just seeing Mrsha and Nanette there.
What made it real was when he saw a bee and a Sariant Lamb meandering down one hallway, followed by a yowling orange cat. And then three Humans.
Kevin, Joseph, and Imani were standing in open rooms on the second floor and looked—nostalgic. And worried, but Kevin was joking.
“I never thought I’d be back here again. It makes me remember…hey, Joseph, you want to trash your room again?”
“I’m so fucking embarassed. I was apologizing all morning. At least Troydel’s not with us. I can’t believe he decided he’s staying in Pallass.”
Joseph muttered. Imani shrugged.
“Do you want him with us?”
Even Erin’s regular guests had been evicted. Or rather, chosen to go in the Earthers’ cases. Joseph reached for Reagen and got a swipe for his troubles.
“Numbtongue’s cat is going insane. Maybe we should have left him with Octavia? Where’s she staying? Hexel?”
“Hexel’s in Liscor, remember? He’s been staying with, uh…Elirr, I think. His apprentices found lodging. Octavia’s staying at Timbor’s inn.”
“Maybe we should have stayed there? What about Solar Cycles, Kevin? And I have to coach the teams…”
Kevin shook his head.
“Forget about it, dude. Let’s just not work for a bit. Besides, someone has to take care of the pets and kids. Imani, what’s Palt doing?”
“He’s attending the briefing. He’ll tell us what Erin said. Let’s…let’s make sure Mrsha doesn’t cause too much trouble. Hey, you two! Want to explore Magnolia’s mansion and settle in?”
The fake smile that Imani gave Hethon and Sammial made the boys feel worse, not better. Only one person could fake things being well, and that was only because Lord Tyrion was hard to read at the best of times. Adults seemed to forget they weren’t gifted actors.
Magnolia Reinhart was no fool. She might be twisted, cruel, vicious, petty, and consume too much sugar…but she was no fool, even her enemies had to admit.
She might be bad with children, though. The [Lady] had not shown herself as the kids got checked into her mansion, but she did arrange things in a very lady-like way.
“Miss Mrsha, you have visitors. One Ekirra, Kenva, and Visma have all come to enjoy themselves for the day.”
A Gnoll and two Drakes were both staring around wide-eyed in the huge foyer leading up to the staircase by the time Hethon and Sammial rejoined Mrsha and Nanette.
Kids. They were kids, so no one was telling them what was going on, and yet they had to be ‘managed’, hence Mrsha’s three friends appearing. Nanette looked distracted; she was frowning and rubbing her head, and she’d been silent as the adults hurried around. Sammial was uncertain, so he was getting angry and bored, and Mrsha had finally stopped trying to break out of the mansion.
At least, her first round of attempts had stopped. Hethon didn’t know Mrsha well, but she was like—a girl who had done a lot.
She’d survived people trying to kill her, been on television, and she knew important people. She couldn’t speak, but she could write like some kind of [Diplomat], and she could cast magic and had a bunch of unique Skills. She was also amazingly fast and never seemed to run out of energy.
She was sort of an annoying brat, like Sammial, but Hethon liked her more because at least Mrsha had good reasons to be the way she was.
Well, better than Sammy.
He and she really hadn’t exchanged words, or letters, but Hethon and Mrsha vaguely knew each other. He had been impressed by her, in a way.
Mrsha Escape Attempt #1: Crash out a window, through the glass if need be, with her [Fur of the Fortress] Skill.
…The windows were made of enchanted glass, and Mrsha concussed herself for a few minutes.
Mrsha Escape Attempt #2: Open a window and then bail out.
The windows were also locked.
Mrsha Escape Attempt #3: Using her incredible gifts of stealth, cause a distraction via setting fire to a rug with her wand, then sneak out!
The mansion had automatic fire-extinguishing spells. When Mrsha tried to sneak away, every single [Maid] noticed her thanks to Ressa’s anti-[Assassin] training. She was made to scrub the soot from the carpet.
Mrsha Escape Attempt #4: Using her luck powers and Apista’s ability to fly, steal the keys off Reynold’s belt! Throw an orange at him, and when he slipped or something hilarious happened, grab the keys and go out a side door with sheer speed!
The luck powers backfired. Hethon had never seen an orange bounce like that, but it hit a banister when Mrsha missed, ricocheted up, and hit the Ashfire Bee, which made Mrsha do a running dive to save her. The orange bounced off Apista and into a bookshelf and dislodged a book, which brained Mrsha.
The fifth attempt was just sort of sad, which was Mrsha trying to beat up one of the weaker [Maids] and take them hostage on the basis that they couldn’t or wouldn’t hurt her. She’d almost knocked one off their feet as four non-combat [Maids] had been screaming for help when Mrsha was reminded of a salient fact:
Maid Bekia was a former Gnoll [Chieftain]. She also had no compunctions about violence towards children.
Mrsha was rolling around on the ground, holding her butt, when Ekirra, Visma, and Kenva found her. Nanette spoke up as Mrsha drew her wand for round two.
“Mrsha, stop it. We’re not getting out of here, and even if we did, what are you going to do? The Winter Solstice isn’t for a couple of days. If Miss Erin’s sending even Lyonette here, that means she thinks the inn isn’t safe. Don’t cause more trouble for her unless you have a plan.”
I do have a plan! She needs me there for my luck! I won’t let her be alone! I’m not leaving ever again!
Mrsha held up a card with trembling paws. Ekirra whined in the back of his throat like a dog until Visma nudged him. And Hethon felt breathless.
“So it’s happening. Something bad is going to happen on the Winter Solstice.”
Mrsha and Nanette gave him a look like he was stupid, and he flushed.
“Well, it is, isn’t it? Only, no one knows what. I thought—there’s a lot of [Soldiers] out there.”
No kidding, genius? Can you believe this guy?
Mrsha held up a card. She wrote as Hethon spluttered, a magical quill appearing with a flick of her wand and dashing across the paper.
“No, I just meant—my father is helping. But Innkeeper Erin’s called in so many people. Does she need that many? What’s going on—hey!”
No wonder he’s Tyrion Veltras’ son. He’s pretty dumb.
Nanette hid a smile as Hethon turned red. But then she grew serious.
“It’s…something big. I’ve never seen Miss Erin that worried. Not that I’ve known her that long.”
Neither have I. She never prepares for things. This is bigger than when the Goblin Lord came. I think. But that means we’re ready, right?
Mrsha looked around nervously, and Sammial stomped his feet.
“But what’s happening? No one tells me anything! I need to know! Tell me! Tell me or I’ll—break something!”
Sammial raised his voice, his face turning red, and shouted. He had grabbed the first vase he saw when Hethon glared at his brother.
“Sammial, I don’t know! No one knows!”
The [Lord] hesitated, and Ser Sest, the only minder on permanent kid-duty, gently put the vase back on a stand.
“That would be correct, Lord Sammial Veltras. No one but Erin Solstice, and possibly Miss Ryoka Griffin, are aware of the nature of the—event. Only that it is coming. Details may be provided shortly, but I understand it has caused a good deal of consternation. The threat, the form in which it arrives, and how likely it is to actually occur on the Winter Solstice are all a mystery.”
He smiled, but with that reserve that suggested even the [Knight] was forcing it. Sammial looked around, and Nanette snatched a hand away from rubbing her head when she noticed Hethon glance at her. Mrsha sat there as Visma patted her on the shoulder, and Ekirra patted Mrsha on the head, and Kenva hugged her new friend.
And then Sammial saw Mrsha’s worried tears, and he looked around.
“No one knows?”
Even he began to look worried.
Oswen’s Marshrangers entered the Floodplains of Liscor slowly. Piecemeal.
“Five at a time! Then we have to charge. Welcome! Come on in—there’s some free minestrone soup if you’re one of the soldier-people. Just write down your name on the ledger so we know who to charge later.”
A tired Gnoll was at the door, letting in different groups in small numbers. An annoyed Drake was trying to call at her as some bemused [Rangers] filed in. One of the Humans raised her hand.
“And we’re in Liscor? Just like that?”
The Gnoll nodded with a tired look that said she’d had this conversation a thousand times. But she stopped, eyed their green garbs that even resembled fronds and local fauna, and blinked at the Otterrats.
“Yep. Say, where are you from?”
A woman with one eye and a patch grinned.
“Never heard of it. Where on the map? Put a pin, see? Excuse me, sir. Don’t shove or I’ll forcewall you!”
The Drake was trying to get through.
“I’m supposed to be at the conference in ten minutes! I’m an officer of Pallass—”
“Oh, well in that case, come on through. But everyone else has to wait! I’ve been letting through soldiers from Pallass all day. You’re lucky I didn’t tell Alcaz to hit you.”
The Drake huffily stomped through as a man with a hat offered the Marshranger a ledger, and he wrote down ‘5’ and listed Lady Buscrei. Then the man pointed to a big map.
“We put pins in it if you’re from somewhere new. Where’s Oswen?”
They pointed to a small place where river tributaries met along south of the gigantic Vale Forest. Alcaz put a yellow tack there, and one of the Marshrangers grinned.
“Wow. So you’ve visitors from all those places?”
There were pins along the entire lower section of north Izril, and the same for the south, with sporadic pins as high as First Landing. Alcaz nodded.
“Yes, sir. It was a little idea. Makes people get a sense for what this is. Now, please read the signs before you head in. I imagine you’ll want to put down camp? You can get that free soup first. It’s already paid for.”
“How’s it free if someone’s paying?”
The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings gave them a twinkling smile.
“If someone else is paying for it, it’s free.”
That made them all laugh. The Drake officer signed his name and station while giving them all a huge side-eye. It was weird standing next to a Drake officer, but the Marshrangers were so distracted by Liska changing the magic door to Celum and beginning her rant that they could barely focus on any one thing.
They’d come via Riverfarm, not Invrisil, actually. Lady Buscrei and her sons had already transited over to Invrisil, and the few hundred members of Oswen’s forces had been told it would take all day for them to be teleported over. This first group of five had the unenviable task of setting up the camp and making nice with the others, but it came with some perks.
Such as getting to see the inn before it was full up. For instance, Alcaz was pointing out some hanging signs, and one of the Marshrangers nudged the others. Pointed.
‘No Killing Goblins.’ They’d heard about that famous sign, but it was hanging up in green paint, a bit sloppily done, and yet it meant something. There were other, neater notes, of course.
‘Antinium are guests. No fighting or discrimination allowed in the inn.’
‘The [Garden of Sanctuary] is not open for the general public.’
‘Spying will be penalized with penalties. You don’t wanna know what they are.’
‘If a little Gnoll girl tells you she’s starving, don’t feed her.’
‘The bee is a pet. It will not sting.’
Some of those tickled the Marshrangers so much one muttered.
“Wish we’d brought one of those scrying orbs so we could show everyone what we’re seeing. Are you sure we’re in Liscor?”
That got a laugh from Liska, and Alcaz tipped his hat.
“I’m just about to go on break. Why don’t I show you around, gentlemen, ladies? Sorret? All yours.”
A Gnoll had just walked in and sat down in his chair. Alcaz stood, and the Gnoll folded her arms and looked grumpy, but she nodded to Alcaz.
“There are more [Soldiers] than you can throw a stick at on the Floodplains, you know. Our [Shaman]’s pulling up the tents. Everyone but the warriors are going north. I might stick around to help you manage the room. Especially if it pays well?”
She sounded hopeful, and Alcaz nodded.
“I’ll put a word in with Miss Lyonette. Or Yelroan. Just remember, holler if you spot trouble. Otherwise, the lads have you covered.”
Sorret shuddered and, for some reason, glanced at the far wall behind the Marshrangers.
“No fear. I’ll just play nice with the antsy Drakes.”
One of the Marshrangers looked around and then swore. She tensed up as Alcaz led the others out the door; the Drake was already stomping down a long hallway.
“What’s wrong, Ames?”
“There were arrowslits in that room! Did you see where that Gnoll was looking?”
Even the Marshrangers hadn’t seen it. One twisted their head and saw the tiniest sliver of wood closing and felt a chill run down their spine.
Wait, were there more watchers than just that lone Gnoll? Arrowslits on the inside of the inn?
Suddenly, that entry room took on a new context. And forewarned, the Marshrangers noticed the odd cuts in the ceiling, ground, and sides of the hallways and grew wary. The Drake barely noticed as he hurried to the far end. Alcaz winked as he noticed their reluctance.
“Just some precautions. You must be fairly good, sirs and madams.”
“We have to spot things in the swamp. Does this inn see a lot of fighting?”
“Fair bit. Don’t worry; no one’s springing us. But it doesn’t hurt to be careful. There were a few lads with crossbows covering us in the other room, but they don’t have itchy fingers. They’d do my job, but people would get antsy if they saw some Goblins first thing.”
Goblins with crossbows? Dead gods! The Marshrangers crossed the hallway slowly, not happy at all to be walking down a kill-zone, but they heard lots of voices from the far end. And more people were passing outside: officers, Drakes, Gnolls with silver earrings—
More species than the Marshrangers had seen in months in a moment! Then again, Oswen was almost exclusively Human. You got half-Elves and Drowned Folk on holiday, but no one else.
This…this was like Invrisil. Actually, even more multi-species! A half-Giant held the door open as the Drake strode through, and one of the Marshrangers pointed.
“Hey, is that one of the adventurers who did the Village of the Dead raid?”
Alcaz tipped his bowler hat, and the half-Giant, wearing a massive fur-lined cloak over armor, looking more like some warrior of old than a [Green Mage], nodded to him.
“Alcaz. It’s getting busy. One second. I think the poor fellow’s coming back out.”
He sighed mournfully and motioned them back. Not to argue with a man nine feet tall, the Marshrangers halted, and Moore held the door open.
A loud roar had filled the common room of the inn seconds after the Pallassian officer had gone through. A chorus of voices with that elongated ‘s’ that made the Marshrangers certain it was mostly Drakes shouting.
Out the poor Drake officer came, tumbling back as he was ejected. Moore sighed as he caught the Drake from actually going head-over-heels.
“Back you go. Sorry about that.”
He patted the Drake on the shoulders, and the officer turned white.
“But wh—what did I—?”
Alcaz tapped him on the shoulder.
“I think you report to your camp in the Floodplains, sir. Shame about that. You missed the traps.”
The Marshrangers looked at each other. The Drake’s eyes bugged as Alcaz tapped one of the hidden traps, and he seemed to literally deflate in place. Moore shook his head as the Drake stumbled back the way he’d come.
The Marshrangers didn’t get the same treatment as the poor officers, but when they entered the common room, they heard a roar of sound and saw over a hundred people sitting around the tables.
“Not one of ours! Send the next officer in!”
Sixty Drakes, all wearing insignias of some kind, were slamming their clawed hands on the tables and slapping the floor with their tails, in a very good mood. In fact, one of their leaders looked like a [General], and she bawled.
“Someone take over for Lieutenant Caoraz! How many of our officers are going to not notice when they have crossbows on them? That’s thirteen for Pallass, Ancestors damn it! Three for Manus! Two for Oteslia.”
“None of Salazsar! Oh, we build our walls of mountain stone—”
A Drake wearing the royal purple of the City of Gems leapt to his feet, and someone threw a bun at him. General Shirka barked back.
“You don’t count! The Wall Lord already told you what’s what. Sit down and shut up! Next! Who’re the Humans?”
Ames called back.
“Oswen’s Otterrats! Is Lady Buscrei here? Lord Tyrion?”
The Drakes fell silent a second and gave the Marshrangers an unfriendly glower. Well, some of them. A few nodded in recognition or didn’t seem that hostile, but the ones wearing Pallassian yellow or the orange-red of Manus glared in recognition.
The hackles on the Marshrangers went up a bit, but a cheer came up from the other side.
“Over here! More Humans!”
And the other half of the room had Humans in it. The Marshrangers saw dozens of mixed groups, soldiers heading out in clumps, but recognized several members of House Terland, a dozen [Maids], an entire squad of men and women carving slices of cheese off a huge wheel and sharing them with—
The Marshrangers recoiled, but the voices from the Human side shouted them down as if forestalling another reaction.
“Don’t throw a fuss.”
“Sit down! Unless you want to cozy up to the Drakes?”
“We need more Humans, anyways! There are too many Drakes arriving, even if they throw a quarter of them out for being too stupid to notice the traps! Where’s you from? Oswen?”
In short order, the Marshrangers were sitting as Alcaz sidled over and received a plate of cheese slices. They were introduced.
“So you’re soldiers? You can’t stay long; it’s officers only, but everyone’s getting some soup. Get some cheese while you’re at it. It’s from Vaunt.”
“The cheese city? Dead gods, Vaunt’s here? And Terland…House Reinhart?”
A friendly [Lieutenant] was orchestrating the cheese handouts, and one of the officers in charge was from House Veltras, a [Commander] Keirne that the Marshrangers had served with during the Ailendamus war. He was friendly.
“There’s even soldiers from the north. House Everight…no, the Everight lands I suppose now that Lord Toldos is passed. House Ulta—those are the huge ones—House Walchaís, House Sanito, soldiers from Reizmelt.”
“Has Lord Veltras mustered a levy on the cities? I thought it was just noble families participating.”
The Marshrangers had understood this to be a smaller gathering, but Commander Keirne shook his head.
“Lord Tyrion levied no one. They just—showed up. A debt of honor for Everight’s militia, they said.”
“Soup! Hello. What lands are you from?”
A Gnoll in uniform was circulating the room with bowls stacked up high. He put down a tray, handed out soup to the Marshrangers, and looked at them curiously as they introduced themselves.
Ishkr grinned. A clawed hand took a bowl from his tray as an old Drake snuck past him, and he frowned at the Drake before turning to the Marshrangers.
“Oswen? That’s far. You might want to secure a good campaign spot if you’re the first to arrive. Good spaces are going fast, or so I hear.”
“Argh. That’s right.”
None of the Marshrangers looked forwards to setting up camp in the damned hard snow. But Alcaz was waving them over, and they stood with the minestrone soup—which was really tasty and spicy, too, put heat in their bones—and pointing out a window.
“There’s proof you’re in the Floodplains of Liscor, folks. Word of advice? Don’t camp in a valley. Snow’s melting with all the camps, and you’ll be up to your ankles in water if you do.”
And then the Marshrangers stared over the most foreign of landscapes. Hills and valleys, up and down without end! Beyond them, the High Passes looming so tall that they couldn’t even see the top, just clouds from where they stood.
They had seen the High Passes growing from afar, even gone up to the mountains, but never been in the middle of them. It was so foreign that it left them speechless—but then they saw the war camps.
“Five Families. Are those Antinium?”
Thousands of black-shelled Antinium were digging outside, making huge walls around the inn. It looked like a maze of dirt fortifications, and beyond them, a huge camp of Drakes was digging palisades. There were tents stretching even up to the spots where the mountain began, and Alcaz pointed right—
“The Human forces under Lord Tyrion are mostly that way. It might be a bit of a march just to get out there, I’m afraid. Miss Solstice is arranging a temporary gate to your camps, but until then, you’ll have to walk back to the inn.”
“Who’re we reporting to?”
Ames was in need of some guidance, and Commander Keirne cleared his throat.
“That’s me. Where’s the map? I have a spot for the Marshrangers…”
They got more precise coordinates and instructions on the command structure and where to report for food as more soldiers appeared. More and more…a flow from other cities, but one with a finite limit.
“Too many people are using the door, Ishkr. Liska says she won’t be able to keep working in two more hours.”
Ishkr grunted as he reappeared; he’d been flitting around the room taking orders and giving out the free soup, and he seemed to literally appear behind the bar when he should have been in another room.
“Liska’s lazy. Can you bring her a snack when you get back to work? That will shut her up.”
So many soldiers. The Marshrangers had finished their food and heard a bark as their second group came in with their Otterdog mascot, Webby, in tow. Instantly, a number of people had to pet the long half-Otter dog that was unique to Oswen. The Marshrangers made to go, reluctantly, and the inn called to them.
They hadn’t even seen the [Innkeeper], the white Gnoll, or the bee! They wanted to see the garden, and Ames had been dying to play chess with Erin Solstice. But…some of the ebullience of seeing this inn faded.
How many soldiers does this inn need? What the hell are we supposed to be fighting, then? Another Goblin Lord?
No one knew, despite them mustering. And the sight of so many soldiers put a pang in the Marshrangers’ stomachs. They were not the only ones wondering, either. Many of the Drake officers looked greatly discontented, and more than one caught Ishkr to ask where Erin Solstice was, or another commander.
But General Shirka just waited, one foot tapping, even as she twitched when Lord Tyrion Veltras entered the room to a massive cheer from the Humans and hisses from the Drakes. She looked at the Lord of House Veltras as he nodded at her, then turned her head towards a side corridor partitioned off with several chairs.
The [World’s Eye Theatre] was where they’d meet, and Grand Strategist Chaldion was there already. Erin Solstice had called for a conference to brief everyone at last.
Answers would be forthcoming. As the Marshrangers exited the room to secure their campsite, they heard a nervous voice from the side and turned.
A young woman with red hair and a dignified bearing, despite the apron she wore, was standing with a Gnoll with blinding sunglasses and two [Knights] in golden armor. She had clapped her hands, but what really silenced the room was her presence.
“Ladies? Gentlemen? We’re ready to begin the conference. Officers only, please.”
Lyonette du Marquin beckoned, and dozens of people got to their feet. The jollity became anticipation, even nervousness as they stood. Some went joking, others skeptically or annoyed by all the hullabaloo. The wise ones went quietly, like the blue-scaled Drake who nodded at an Antinium and Drake, and the trio strode towards the door. And more were still coming, even if Erin Solstice herself didn’t know it.
But she had to tell them what was coming. So when they passed through that corridor that defied the layout of the inn proper and passed into the dome of glass, the panes arranged like an eye, and saw the theatre full of plush seats and the young woman in the center, even the most boisterous officer quieted down a second.
The [Innkeeper] was a [Witch]. She had a hat full of flames, and they blazed pink today. She was smiling, silly, for a second. But her eyes spoke death and terror. If you only saw the smile, you failed.
Then they took seats as papers were passed around, and the factions eyed each other, and a Revenant appeared, his eyes glowing golden in one of the panes of the dome above. The Titan of Baleros, next, wearing a hat with a huge feather as he leaned forwards, as large as his reputation.
The Earl Altestiel, aboard a swaying ship. Magnolia Reinhart, sitting with an elderly fellow with white hair and mismatched eyes. And the Wind Runner strode down next to Erin Solstice and waited until she began to speak.
The [Innkeeper] had—finally—called every single officer and significant player for a summit at her inn.
In her [World’s Eye Theatre]. Even distant individuals like Perorn would be using the scrying function to attend. The Centauress was galloping, and the landscape was passing in a blur behind her, but she was muted and all eyes were on the center of the room where Erin stood.
There were also figures like Fetohep who were invested, but distant. Unable to contribute hugely in a manpower sense. The meeting was organized, and there were maps of the Floodplains, troop counts, and everyone was in one room and ready to lay out battleplans.
But frankly, it might be far too late. This briefing was delayed far too long.
Only a couple of days before the Solstice? Two weeks would be preferable for coordination and planning. As one Drake pointed out angrily—
“We have no coordination with the other forces. Nor any idea if half of them can even hold the line, sir.”
It was the same officer who’d been arguing with Erin. He was not a Pallassian soldier attached to 1st Army or even the other armies who regularly rotated into the City of Inventions.
Which was probably why he was mouthing off to Chaldion himself. But even more incredibly, the Grand Strategist didn’t have the Drake ejected out of the room via his face.
“You have a valid point, Lieutenant Caoraz. But let me ask you this: is your battalion ready?”
“We’ve been dug in for four days and have adjusted for the Antinium’s fortifications, sir. My complaint is that we’re a single tail operating without coordination with any other limbs.”
The Drake was from 8th Army, which was Pallass’ border-keeping force as opposed to one who won wars or kept peace in the city. You could call it their least-funded force who operated on the periphery, but on the other hand, they had to prevent incidents from occurring, and you always saw trouble keeping peace in the entirety of Pallass’ claimed and allied sphere of influence.
Caoraz’s presence and his lack of ejection meant Chaldion valued his opinion enough to let him air it. The Grand Strategist was coughing as he tapped on a cigar.
“—Two months isn’t enough time for cohesion with the north, and we have too many odd pieces. Adventurers. Other cities’ militaries. The inn. We get a view of our battlefield, and we hold our section and organize such that if everything else falls apart, we’re ready to swoop in. Besides which, given the other species, I imagine discontent is high.”
“Yes, sir. No one’s happy about the Antinium or Goblins.”
“Deal with it, Caoraz.”
“Yes, Grand Strategist.”
The Drake stood taller and put his claws behind his back as Chaldion kept smoking, projecting an air of calm. He was surrounded by almost all the Drake forces, including Wing Commander Embria, a division of Liscor’s 2nd army, and even Spearmaster Lulv, Wall Lords Aldonss and Ilvriss, and Rafaema were listening politely.
However, Ilvriss’ back-scales were prickling hard, and he noticed the nervous look on one of the [Strategist]’s faces behind Chaldion, barely concealed. General Shirka and Duln, the two [Generals] attending this meeting, betrayed no emotion, but Ilvriss was highly rattled.
Chaldion’s explanation made sense; if you had a ragtag army, you had to put up with the disparate parts. But what he didn’t say was that this meeting was overdue, even so. Six days, or even a week and a half, would have been perfect for Erin to sit them all down and tell them what was going on, right?
Ilvriss, even in Salazsar, could have pulled more of the Rubirel Guard or even asked his father to send some of Ilvriss’ friends with him. As far as he had been aware, that had been the plan; Chaldion had sent a [Message] informing Ilvriss, Tyrion, and a number of other high-ranking leaders he’d pressure Erin into the briefing.
That had been almost two weeks ago. Ilvriss had assumed Chaldion had been having trouble or there were complications until Erin Solstice, of her own volition, had announced the briefing. When he’d asked why she’d delayed it so long, she’d told him Chaldion had never asked her.
And when he’d asked Chaldion…for a second, he’d seen a look of panic on the old Drake’s face.
A crack in the south’s armor was not how Ilvriss wanted to begin preparations for the Solstice. But even if Pallass was putting a good face on it…General Shirka was the one passing out documents.
“We have a list of questions we will have answers to, Lieutenant Caoraz. If you have any other mandatory questions, suggest them now. These are our dispositions of each force as of our intelligence this morning, and we will obviously request full clarity.”
She was taking over the briefing, not Chaldion. Ilvriss had heard that Grand Strategist Chaldion loved to speak and would micromanage every detail of a strategy room. From the way some of Pallass’ officers and Aldonss shifted—they knew it too.
“This isn’t how I envisioned visiting Izril’s second-most famous inn. No one mentioned the Goblins or Antinium as staff.”
One of the other Drakes joked lightly and got a cuff from a superior. A quiet chuckle ran through the group, and Ilvriss turned his head and saw their counterparts.
Lord Tyrion, Lord Xitegen, Lady Pryde, Lady Bethal, Emperor Laken, and a number of bowing officers standing around the seated nobles. They seemed to be focused around Tyrion, and a number were giving the Drakes dark looks.
Lady Buscrei and her sons were in the second row, below the primary nobles. Lord Reneil and Lord Palec were tense, especially as they noted how many commanders were here, but they, like their Drake counterparts, looked slightly disbelievingly at Erin Solstice.
Was this the woman who’d called them all here?
Buscrei didn’t blink. She was focused on Ryoka as much as Erin and noting the Wind Runner’s expression. But so many Humans…
One good Skill and a lot of their enemies in the north would be dead. It was so tempting—Spearmaster Lulv growled.
“I can’t believe we’re fighting next to the Five Families. I’m not sure which our [Soldiers] will hate more. Humans or Goblins. Ants are worst of all.”
A deeper voice corrected him.
“Antinium, Spearmaster Lulv. Try to act in concert with each other.”
“Easy for you to say, Magus Grimalkin.”
The [Spearmaster] growled as Grimalkin exchanged a glance with him. If you had progressive and regressive factions within the soldiers…they were all here because they had orders. But not everyone liked the orders.
Interestingly, Caoraz didn’t seem as stringently hostile as Manus was—they clearly did not regard this as their fight. But Rafaema stomped on Lulv’s foot, and Grimalkin retorted.
“If you don’t see the value of the door staying open, Lulv, look at it in the following ways. One. Any danger to the inn threatens Liscor, whose position is of paramount importance. Two. The presence of King Fetohep and arguably the Forgotten Wing Company proves this matter isn’t one of Izrilian politics. Regard this like a joint action on Rhir.”
“Is there a three?”
The Gnoll growled back. Grimalkin nodded curtly.
“Three. We’re seeing a new enemy in the field. First contact is the only way to know their capabilities. And four, since I refuse to order myself in trinities—consider the case of the Trial of Blades by Zeladona. You could level. Or we could all lose a limb.”
That did make the [Spearmaster] smile. There was more to say, of course, and Ilvriss wanted to talk to both Humans, Drakes, and Rags and all the others, if only to introduce himself.
There was Halrac the Grim, whom Ilvriss had heard was up for candidacy as Named-rank. Jelaqua Ivirith, the Order of Solstice—so many of Erin’s friends had gathered for this.
A few groups like Lehra’s team and the Silver Swords had headed south, but they had expressed best wishes and even offered to return—if Erin needed them. They wouldn’t sway the odds too much, Ilvriss hoped, because if it was that close…
There was only one group unaccounted for. No one had heard from them in over a week. The Horns of Hammerad. The Gnoll tribes claimed they’d been out of contact for the last four days…
But enough waiting. When Ilvriss heard Erin’s voice, he felt his heart leap in his chest. Time to see whether all this was overblown or whether she had any answers.
The [Innkeeper] stood in the middle of her [World’s Eye Theatre] and listened to the complaints.
There were a lot of complaints.
“I have been told that we are facing, and I quote, ‘war and death’, Innkeeper Solstice. Can you elaborate? Please? Because I have lent my own considerable weight to this battlefield on the understanding it is a battlefield against a mutual foe. I have even received reinforcements from the main family. House Terland stands with you here, but what are we standing against? We are not friends, and so I will have answers or I will respectfully fall back until I see what I am facing.”
Lord Xitegen was the first to bring up the real issue. He did it while Erin was still in the middle of passing out charcuterie boards. She paused, then glared at him.
“—and I have cheese from Vaunt, some really tasty meat cuts, and fresh drinks for all. And I thank you all for not spitting or fighting with each other.”
“We’re wasting time on food when we have two days until hell boils over. You delayed this briefing to check on some [Martial Artist] in Chandrar?”
Another enraged voice, from one of Salazsar’s officers. The north and south were united in their ability to complain. Ilvriss shot the [Major] a reproving look, but Erin had to admit, her two biggest allies in the room were Humans and Drakes.
There were Antinium and Goblins as the second-most numerous forces, and adventurers and Gnolls, but this really did sort of indicate the two major powers of Izril. And as of yet, Erin couldn’t just summon her allies from overseas.
If she could, she wouldn’t have had so many problems because the golden stare of Fetohep of Khelt made even the angry Drakes grow silent a second. His tone was icy.
“That ‘Chandrarian [Martial Artist]’ is named Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle. He battles a sovereign nation larger in scale than every Walled City that is or was put together. Would that he were here in your place. Be silent.”
His glower silenced a few officers, but you didn’t make [General] or even survive as a [Lord] or [Lady] if you couldn’t shoot back. Indeed, even a gently-rocking Antinium waved all four arms and called out.
“Hello! It is I, Bird of the Free Antinium. No, wait, Q—I am speaking for the Free Queen. Which means I am like royalty and therefore equal to you, Fetohep?”
That golden gaze swung to Bird, and Fetohep didn’t even blink.
“One would accord me the respect of a fellow monarch regardless, Revelantor Bird. Or we are all ignorant savages. A High King who condescends to a King is one who views arbitrary titles as more important than basic decency. And is proven lesser.”
“…Oh. I have been humbled. I think. I am not sure I was, but I am sorry. Your Majesty?”
Even Bird hesitated at that, and an angry voice rose.
“We’re wasting time. Is there an order to this meeting or—”
The Drakes wanted a system for people to raise their voices. One of the adventurers raised a hand.
“Yeah, and are we getting paid now or later? Also, who am I reporting to?”
Captain Todi might have had the lowest rank—since he wasn’t even a proper military captain—but he did have balls that were at least made of brass or something, because he beamed around.
“I’m happy to offer my support to whichever force pays me the most. We can put down forty-eight [Fireballs] in a single battle. But we do need a leader. Otherwise we’ll be the last line of defense. That’s Todi’s Elites if we haven’t met. Gold-ranks.”
A Drake about to shout at him to get out—hesitated, and someone whistled. That was pretty dangerous and a sign of why a Gold-rank team was wanted.
Erin was looking around, hands half raised, but letting people talk while she sensed out the room. Ryoka was more of a statue next to her, and everyone was waiting to see if she’d actually say something.
Tyrion Veltras, Niers Astoragon—there were famous military commanders here, and most of them were holding their tongue rather than taking charge. It was on the [Innkeeper]. It was a test. If she fell flat on her face, they’d pull her up.
But most of them didn’t expect her to fall. Stumble, maybe—but when Erin Solstice spoke, her aura did the talking.
“I don’t know if the enemy will even show up. Which is why I hesitated. If we dig in and nothing happens the entire Winter Solstice, I’ll have wasted everyone’s time.”
The audience felt like a great breeze had suddenly swept through the theatre. It blew away sound, and words, until Erin’s voice was the only thing you heard, perfectly clear in a world of silence.
She stood there, and despite their misgivings, dislike, impatience, worries—they focused on her. And when they spoke, they found themselves waiting until she looked at them.
As if she were now in charge of a classroom, each person speaking so they could articulate their points, the rest waiting despite their personalities. No—not a classroom.
A war room meeting. Even the most angry officers from Manus fell silent, and a Fraerling’s eyes gleamed as he began to smile. Chaldion? He puffed harder on his cigar as Saliss slowly held up a cup of water and dipped the cigar into it.
What a waste of a [General].
Lieutenant Caoraz was first.
“Are you telling me we might have mobilized all our forces and the enemy won’t even show? What’s our likelihood?”
The room susurrated. Lady Bethal waved a hand.
“Explain to me, please, Erin, what this is about? Magnolia just told me it was an enemy, but we’re vague on the details.”
“It’s hard to explain. They’re more like ideas. I don’t know their full abilities; no one does. But they’re like ‘war’ and ‘death’. Those are their natures.”
“That is the most unintelligible—”
The Salazsar [Major]. Erin glared at him, and here her vagueness became a veil. And she knew—Niers knew as he opened his mouth and lifted a finger—
She had to tell them. But the [Innkeeper] didn’t want to. She hesitated and closed her eyes, then looked up with a resigned look in her eyes. She cut the Drake off.
“They’re super Seamwalkers. Okay? They’re the things that ate the ghosts. That is the best way I can describe it. They’re more like ideas, but I can’t tell you their names or—or more because the more you know about them, the more powerful they get. Can you understand that? Please, is there any equivalent to this kind of thing?”
“A memetic threat.”
The whisper came from Ryoka hoarsely. The audience fell silent, and the Drake from Salazsar sat down. His voice was perfectly audible.
“A super Seamwalker? What does that even—has anyone ever fought one of those?”
Three voices answered at once.
Seve-Alrelious, Niers Astoragon, and Chaldion. But they barely paid attention to the concerned looks on the faces of those trying to understand what a Seamwalker was—a hand waved energetically.
“Pick me, pick me—”
Archmage Valeterisa bounced up and down in her seat like a schoolgirl until Erin looked at her. And the Archmage spoke.
“This is wonderful. Terrible, I mean. I am familiar with memetic threats. If I may provide an example that soldiers may be aware of—is this similar to the Rune of Soyekol’s Madness that was drawn in the air? 4452 of the Era of Glass. It is not a perfect analogy, but every [Soldier] who beheld it was said to have gone permanently insane. However, due to the altitude the spell was cast at, it was, in fact, visible for over a thousand miles. [Archmage] Soyekol was unaware that even if the rune was too remote to fully see, the magical effect worked. The casualties were in the millions on the first day—”
Half the room blanched as Valeterisa brought up an example from ancient history. Chaldion stubbed his wet cigar onto a chair.
“You might not know that historical example, but here’s one you should know: Eyeslayer arrows. Once fired into a room, it targets anyone who beholds it. Worse were Mindslayer arrows employed to kill Selphids. Anyone who becomes aware of its presence dies, including the archer.”
Valeterisa was nodding, and Halrac hesitated as Erin pointed at him. He spoke reluctantly.
“I’ve got a last one. Bogleraums.”
“No, no, you idiot! Don’t—ah, shit.”
Jelaqua shouted and clapped her hands over Ulinde’s ears, but too late. Halrac just shrugged.
“What the fuck is that?”
The [Archer] responded to Lord Xitegen, who was frowning hard.
“An adventurer story. I’ve never met one, but the tale is that it’s a kind of monster that, once you become aware of it, learns your greatest weakness. Just knowing it’s out there means it knows you and will hunt you down. If you’re afraid of spiders? It’ll lure you into a cave full of them. Afraid of fire? It’ll burn you to death. Named-ranks would be told of them and end up slaughtered by them.”
The room fell silent, and Erin opened her mouth.
“Yep. That’s the best example yet. You know about them? They get nastier.”
“Wait, and you just told us about them?”
Someone in the audience began freaking out, and Halrac sat down and crossed his arms.
“Well, they’re supposed to be dead. If they’re alive, you’re all now on their list. It’s a popular story among adventurers; a kind of rite of passage Gold-rank and Named-ranks haze each other with. And if one does exist, it means people work together to kill it. Even Rhir tells its adventurers and officers about it as an example of the threat, so it’s largely safe.”
Halrac went for a reassuring smile. It didn’t work. The audience was half-skeptical, but now understood what Erin meant when she was vague on the details of Kasigna and Cauwine. And as they were turning back to Erin, Niers coughed and leaned over.
“Captain Halrac. Rhir has a lot of policies in place that don’t exactly add to the life expectancy of its soldiers. I’d keep that apocryphal tale a secret, if I were you. Also, don’t visit Baleros.”
Halrac’s smile turned into a look of skepticism. He eyed Niers.
That was definitely a joke, right? The Titan…sat back in his chair and, after a second, poured himself a drink. He took a sip of that, then one from his cup of water.
“—Okay. That’s horrifying. I’m glad Mrsha isn’t here. So that’s why you can’t know about them. There are two—possibly six, but two are still—around.”
Laken Godart twitched as Erin went on. He had known two remained, but now he was going to have nightmares about Bog-whatevers and the other two. He wished he could pretend this was all a joke.
It sounded unbelievable, and Erin was smiling as she spoke. She almost looked relaxed.
“Why armies? Why summon us if the threat grows when people learn about them? If it’s two, call for Named-ranks or smaller squads. We can set up a battlefield, but why like this?”
Now it was Wall Lord Ilvriss’ turn to stand. He felt like it was something as yet unsaid and looked down at Erin.
Okay, yes. Why? Even Ryoka Griffin didn’t know. And she knew what was coming.
Two dead gods. Two beings who, while weak, had absorbed the lands of the dead and grew more powerful every Solstice. This was the moment when they’d be able to touch the living world, at least in theory.
Why…armies? Especially given Cauwine was the Goddess of Adventures and War. She was literally empowered by this kind of thing, and Kasigna was the Goddess of Death. Why not hide, or ask for Saliss to get a dozen buddies and get ready for a fight, or just run from them an entire day?
The answer Erin had was simple. She took a breath, looked Ilvriss in the eye, and said:
“Because, Ilvriss. I’m taking someone’s advice. And the advice I got was from the smartest people in the entire world, who knew their enemies.”
Ryoka’s head snapped around, and Niers’ eyes sharpened.
That had to be what Erin was referencing. Now, the [Innkeeper] was walking forwards, talking faster now, all the secrets leaking out.
“This was the last thing they could predict—the first Solstice back. Why armies? Well—because when the Solstice happens, those two are going to get a lot of power. I could hide. I’ve hidden the inn, but I challenged them. These armies? All of you? It’s like a gigantic target on me.”
“And you’re drawing us into this…why?”
Xitegen raised his brows, but his leg was shaking, and he was beginning to smile, despite himself. The Goblins were starting to grin. Redscar blew a kiss at Erin, and she turned and met Rags’ eyes. Even the Chieftain was grinning. Erin turned, and she was terrified, but her eyes were alight.
“Because I can take it! If I don’t challenge them, especially Kaligma—that’s her name, go ahead and use it—she’ll go after everyone else. But you know what? They’re arrogant. When they come—you know the stories of someone who challenges an entire army? Like Mars the Illusionist, but not the enemy champion, the entire army? Or someone who attacks you right down the center in a glorious charge? That’s who we’re facing.”
Back to Lieutenant Caoraz, and he looked interested for the first time.
“Wait. We have training manuals about Terandrian armies, back in the day, when you had idiots who thought it was best to hit the enemy where they were strongest to show how strong they were. [Knights] who’d charge straight at pikelines. They’re not that stupid.”
Erin gave him a look.
“They are that stupid. If you think they’re not—I know it’s hard, but listen. When Cau…Cawy, the other one, appears, if she appears? If you say ‘I am the greatest warrior, I challenge you’—she’ll probably come after you.”
Now, even the nobles of the north were raising their brows. Even Tyrion Veltras was incredulous that someone could be that stupid. Lieutenant Caoraz just smiled.
“Sounds like we have a tactic. Bait them into mine spells and crossfire?”
Erin gave him a thumbs up. Then her smile flickered.
“The problem is, she’ll probably mince everything up she runs into. She is…better…than Zeladona, probably. If she’s at full strength, she definitely will be.”
Another pin dropped, and the room went silent. And we’re supposed to fight that…Erin was lifting a hand again, though everyone was silent.
Magnolia Reinhart was listening now, and she was sitting with Teriarch; the old Dragon was in the form of Demsleth.
He knew the stories that Erin was invoking. He, more than anyone, knew the risk. That made Magnolia’s heart flutter. The Dragon was whispering to himself.
“No one can beat her. She could kill ten [Blademasters]—she did, back before classes were invented—what are we supposed to do?”
She had to have a plan. So wait. Magnolia captured Erin’s gaze as the [Innkeeper]’s head swung around. Now, Magnolia understood the nature of the threat…as well as the personalities they held. And she thought she saw it.
“The reason…the reason this works is because there’s only one of them that hates my guts. And that’s Kaligma. Cawy actually might not appear, but…death is coming. But here’s the thing. Here’s my advice: instead of dodging or running, I made a stand. I challenged her. And you know what she’s going to do? She’s going to send an army at me.”
And there it was. Of course! Magnolia saw an [Emperor] sit up and open his eyes, though he was blind, and she felt a little ‘click’ in her head.
“Why would she do that if this…being is so powerful?”
Erin held up two fingers.
“Two reasons. One. She sucks at fighting or she does not want to. Even when I was dead and met her, she never ran. She never moved above a walk. She thinks it’s beneath her. If I throw down a gauntlet, she’ll reply in kind. That was the advice I was given. She was famous for it.”
“Yes. She did do that.”
Teriarch had stopped shivering. And now his eyes were on her. Erin went on.
“She’ll send a legion of the dead. That was her style. Those wisps? I’m pretty sure that was her doing. She will come right here, and that’s what we’re facing. The second reason I needed an army is simple: she’s a [Necromancer]. She’s like the archetype of all necromancers. She loves armies. So there’s your answer, Mister Spitting Lieutenant, Bird, Niers, Thigh-Lord, and everyone else. You’re preparing for an army of the dead. Undead.”
A great sigh ran through the room, at last, as Erin revealed everything. Then it made sense. Then…a certain [Lieutenant] stopped gobbling down bites of cheese, turned to an Antinium [Knight] he recognized, and Gershal shook Embraim’s hand.
Manus’ soldiers sat back, and Lulv began to grin. Ilvriss nodded at Grimalkin, and Pryde caught the Sinew Magus’ eye, and he nodded at her as half the Drakes glared at him. Tyrion half-stood, already reaching for a copy of the map of the Floodplains.
“Undead? Why didn’t you say so from the start?”
Xitegen complained loudly, but now he saw it. Walls. Walls, trenches, anything that could slow down a zombie or a Ghoul or…Chaldion was speaking furiously.
“Get me Truegold out of the vaults. And I want every [Druid] we can muster. Life magic disrupts death magic. I’ll fling salt and silverdust over them if it slows them a step. Corpses are also highly flammable. I want a count on how many mass-drying scrolls we have…”
Erin Solstice sat there and realized no one was asking her for advice. Fetohep was already making notes.
“Titan, I am writing in your [Message] scroll directly. I shall consult with a representative of the Drakes—Wall Lord Ilvriss, most astute, your handwriting is quite elegant—momentarily regarding historically successful tactics against Khelta’s armies.”
“Undead, huh? It’s always fucking undead. Where’s the Horns when you need them?”
Todi put his feet up, but even Shriekblade looked slightly happier as Saliss began scribbling notes for Octavia to brew up new potions in his workshop.
So that’s what was coming. Erin stood there, and Ryoka glanced sideways at her.
“Do you think it’ll turn out just that way, Erin?”
The Gnomes were dead and gone. They hadn’t seen everything. Erin whispered back, smiling, her eyes blazing with a suppressed fire.
“No. I think it might be a surprise. But they did know her. I’d expect that, if nothing else. You should go. Mrsha, Lyonette, Nanette, Ishkr—the only one staying in the inn will be me.”
Erin prodded Ryoka hard, so the Wind Runner recoiled, then Erin took Ryoka’s arm in a strong grip, but it relaxed after a second. The [Magical Innkeeper] tried to smile again.
“Just me, Ryoka. I’m ready. Someone has to defy her to her face. It’s almost time.”
She took a breath in, then let it out.
“I forgot one thing, actually. Good that I have a couple of days, even now.”
“What did you forget?”
Erin turned, and her gaze swept her busy, arguing inn, the chaos, and the gaps where people should be, but weren’t. Gone for their safety. On an adventure, waiting to return. And new people who had never met her but who were going to die here.
Soon, then. The days were now in a row and falling like dominos, and soon the chess pieces would be falling off the board. Only, they weren’t chess pieces and never had been. And Erin stood in the center of the board.
But she had always promised to be the queen. And sometimes…the queen went out first, before the game had ended. So Erin took a breath, let it out, and then she felt calm, in the middle of a storm.
“I forgot to write a will.”
She gave Ryoka a smile like an umbrella in the middle of the lands of the dead. A bright light, made brighter by all the darkness. And the Wind Runner was wiping at her eyes, crying now, and attracting attention like a kid. But Erin Solstice looked around with a rueful smile on her face.
What a silly meeting. She’d known they wouldn’t get it, not really.
Even she didn’t understand what she was facing, completely. How were you supposed to tell people they were facing literal gods? And brave and doughty as some of these people were—they had never faced overwhelming odds.
You had to be there to understand it. Erin had been there, and half of them didn’t even believe she had seen more than the weight of their military careers.
But some did. A Drake who’d stayed silent the entire meeting, despite his arguable seniority in this, his city, slowly got to his feet.
Olesm Swifttail was looking around with less of an eye for where to place new trenches or how to counter an undead attack. He even had less imagination than the Titan.
Most of the officers were imagining ten thousand Ghouls coming at them. Niers was imagining what would happen if they were all Draugr. Or worse.
Yet Olesm had some qualities of a leader. One of the people watching via the [World’s Eye Theatre]’s magical panels on the dome had noticed the Drake moving. Perorn Fleethoof was still riding, and she looked irked.
As if this briefing had been entirely unsatisfactory. It was the same look on Niers’ face, actually, though the Titan was speaking to Altestiel. He was glancing at Perorn, and she’d given him a nod.
Idiots. But now one of the Drakes was waving at her for attention. The Centaur shifted her gaze, and a Drake nodded to her.
“Commander Fleethoof! As one of the premier commanders for this event, would you care to join our conference? We were just laying out the field—”
Even Wall Lord Aldonss was warily respectful of one of the top mercenary commanders in the world. However, Perorn’s gaze found Olesm, and she smiled ruefully as she saw him speaking to Caoraz. Ignoring Aldonss completely, she muttered.
“I’m getting slow.”
The blurring background behind her slowed, and a strange, box-like city appeared behind her. Perorn came to a halt for a moment, looking into the scrying orb as the winter sun shone brightly on her face.
The Centaur shaded her brows, and some of the people watching her stirred. Wait a second. That looked like…
Aldonss’ head swung around.
“—Someone query Pallass. I thought we were waiting on the Forgotten Wing Company at Pallass?”
A nervous [Strategist] fumbled with a list of reports and [Message] scrolls.
“Yes, sir. We’ve pre-approved passports already. They haven’t been called in at the gates yet. But they’re on a priority to shift over. There are thousands of Centaurs, and we were warned that because they have a higher mass, they might have to go in trios and it would take a long time even with recharging. We told Commander Fleethoof. She’s aware.”
“Yes. She is.”
Chaldion muttered. The Centaur wasn’t even breathing hard. But she was staring down into the [World’s Eye Theatre].
It wasn’t Olesm she was looking at; well, not just him. Rather, the blue-scaled [Strategos] was tapping a Drake on the shoulder, and Lieutenant Caoraz turned mid-conference with elements of Pallass’ 8th Army.
“Can I help you—sir?”
Unfamiliar army or not, he recognized Olesm’s rank. Olesm glanced at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] was watching him too. Olesm jerked a thumb-claw away from the table with all the commanding officers crowding around it.
“Lieutenant Caoraz, I’m sure the next couple of days are going to be filled with strategic assignments of each force. Neither you nor I are particularly senior or the best picks for planning the battlefield.”
Caoraz opened his mouth to respond, then fanned his wings as he looked at the image of Niers high above him.
“…I’d protest anywhere but here, sir. Did you need me for something? My battalion’s pretty small. We’re not used to Liscor. If they’ve caused another incident—”
His head turned to Erin, and Olesm shook his head. Another jerk of his thumb.
“Let’s get a drink. I’ll introduce you to my subordinates. Belgrade, and there’s one of my sub-commanders who’s from the House of Minos. He’s staying out of the inn for personal reasons.”
“I—wouldn’t mind a drink if you’re paying. But I’m sure the Grand Strategist will be calling for a briefing any moment.”
Caoraz was still confused, but Olesm patted him on the shoulder.
“I know. When we figure out where we’re going, we’ll begin practice and doubtless coordination. But what I’m saying is—you’re with me.”
At his table, Grand Strategist Chaldion stopped lighting a cigar and turned. Caoraz was still laughing the request off.
“What? Sir, you must be Liscor’s 2nd Army commander. With respect, the Grand Strategist called for my battalion.”
“I know. I’ll ask him to approve it, and he will. You’re. With. Me. Liscor’s army doesn’t have the levels like some groups. But we’ll be close to the inn, I think. I couldn’t bring all my forces back. When we get into the fighting, your soldiers are going to be with mine. I want someone who isn’t going to flinch. Who gets it.”
Olesm prodded Caoraz in the breastplate, hard enough to actually make the Drake move a bit. The blue-scaled [Strategos] was younger and smaller than the [Lieutenant]. But his gaze was very direct.
Him? The [Lieutenant]’s fellow officers grinned until they heard what Olesm said. Then they looked at each other, about to tell this idiot how command structures worked—and then they hesitated.
Caoraz, of the many Drakes and Humans, hadn’t been the one scoffing when Erin had told them about the dead gods. He’d frowned, asked questions, and wanted to know information about the enemy. But he hadn’t blinked. He’d taken it seriously, even swallowed hard when Erin painted a picture of the undead.
Not grinned. Now, the Drake turned his head, looking around for guidance, and Chaldion’s gemstone eye flashed as Olesm twisted his head. The [Strategos] gave the [Grand Strategist] a cool look and dipped his head respectfully.
Chaldion blew smoke out his mouth and snorted. But he didn’t immediately censure Olesm. And another voice spoke up, louder now.
“Excuse me, Miss. You, sitting in the second row, Antinium side? Third from the left? I’d like to do this in person, but it seems I’ve lost a step with age. To preempt anyone else; I am Commander Perorn, known as Fleethoof, of the Forgotten Wing Company.”
The image of Perorn talked over everyone else, and every head turned as she signaled out an Antinium in the meeting. The Centaur bowed at the waist.
“Be it so presumptuous, but I would like to formally request the induction of yourself into my unit for the duration of the coming battle. If you agree, I would like to offer you amenities as soon as we set up camp to begin discussing battle preparations and establishing friendship, if possible.”
She stood, formally, favoring her back right hoof, in front of one of the Antinium. A brown Worker who’d been sitting with the officers like Tersk, Dekass, Belgrade, and so on with Bird’s group. Only, if you looked very closely, you could recognize all the leaders.
Tersk, Dekass, Olesm’s battalion commanders, were all very iconic Antinium. Except for this lone Worker with an ordinary brown-black shell.
Miss? Then General Duln nearly leapt out of his chair as the Antinium’s chitin changed.
An azure Antinium slowly stood up, and her head began to leak magical colors as Tyrion grabbed his sword and the nobles of Izril withdrew. Half a dozen Drakes drew blades—until Chaldion snapped an order, and Lulv raised his spear. He stopped dead when Perorn glared at him.
“You want to put me under your command?”
Xrn’s voice said she couldn’t tell whether she was amused or angry. Perorn nodded.
“I am one of the most senior commanders on the field. Frankly, I doubt any other commander will be able to synergize with the Antinium due to your species’ history. Whatever post we take, I would like to partner with your 7th Hive. Mercenaries should stick together.”
Xrn’s eyes glinted, and Perorn’s head shifted. Xrn spoke in a rasping, slightly accented dialect, but the word wasn’t English. She said—
The Goblin’s tongue. And then Rags, the ignored Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe, got up and grinned with all her teeth. Rags walked forwards as Perorn’s finger pointed at a third person in the audience.
“You’re with me as well.”
Olesm cursed under his breath as Gershal of Vaunt turned white. The [Lieutenant] looked around and stared at someone’s midriff.
“M-me, Commander Fleethoof? I’m Lieutenant Gershal. Uh—uh—from the City of Vaunt! I have, erm, two hundred assorted…I have a report with our disposition—”
He forgot even his city as he stood, nearly knocking over a milkshake he’d been given. He looked like a mess, but Perorn answered the question before he made it.
“I know who you are. You have good synergy with mixed-species forces. And you don’t run. You, you, you. You’re with me.”
She tagged three more officers until someone cleared his throat. Tyrion Veltras slashed a hand, and Lady Buscrei halted as she levered herself up.
“Oswen’s forces will remain with House Veltras. I, too, would like to request auxiliary units join forces with my people. Emperor Godart, will you consider merging your forces and Captain Halrac’s Griffon Hunt with my soldiers?”
“…It seems like the best move. Though I don’t care for the repetition. Where are the Knights of Solstice? If we’re grabbing forces, I want them. Unless they’re holding the inn itself.”
Laken Godart grunted. And though the theatre was full, his voice was the only one speaking. This time, it wasn’t Erin doing it. Though the [Innkeeper] did roll her eyes, she was taking notes.
So that’s how you used your aura to get people’s attention and made sure no one talked over you. One of Pallass’ [Strategists] opened his mouth to protest until Chaldion spoke.
“Archmage Valeterisa has experience working with Drake forces. I am seconding her magic and Liscor’s forces. I will take charge of the city’s defense.”
Valeterisa looked around in surprise. Montressa hesitated—and Chaldion crooked a finger. Olesm had started something, and he turned his head as Perorn spoke up again.
“Not bad. I’ll ask Niers to put you on a wing we need held. If your army can hold in the middle of a rout. Can they?”
She turned her head, and Olesm found his tongue.
“We went up against Manus in the war. Ask Lulv if they’ll break.”
The Gnoll’s head twisted around, and Aldonss put on a confused face for the benefit of the audience. But Perorn Fleethoof just nodded.
“Good. I’m taking the Hundredfriend Courier and any other Couriers you’ve got. Seve-Alrelious? Compliments of your friends for the Yellow Rivers delivery. Is that Erek?”
A grinning Courier stood up. Half the people here hadn’t even realized he was going to stay and fight.
“Oh come now, Commander Fleethoof! Are you trying to poach all the talent in the room for your mercenaries? You’ll have the makings of a new Great Company on Izril if they stick with you after this battle is done. Which I, personally, would enjoy seeing. But not if you were hired by the Drakes, eh? House Terland would have to stridently object to this.”
Lord Xitegen stood, chuckling loudly, but his tone was warning. The [Lord] was as concerned as Wall Lord Aldonss by Perorn’s straightforward approach to grabbing talent. Which was to say very.
And he had missed the plot. Erin Solstice was still standing, somewhat forgotten, as the movers and shakers were planning for their war against the undead. Perorn tossed her head as the image of the scrying orb shifted.
A rank of Centaurs was at rest, halted on top of a hill, a column of them pawing at the snow, steam rising from their sides in the cold air. The hills…and valleys…and behind them was a stain of red partly covered by snow, stretching down the huge valley in the distance as the land descended.
The Bloodfields. At this, Olesm’s head snapped around. If that was where she was—
“She’s at the Floodplains! She’s at the edge—we can probably see her from here! How did she run—”
Someone squeaked in disbelief. Xitegen’s eyes swung towards a junior [Tactician] as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
“She’s the fastest [Mercenary] in the world. Shut up. Commander Fleethoof—”
“Do you think I’m focused on building a mercenary company, Lord Xitegen? For a man of your reputation, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed by this entire conference. You are not taking this seriously.”
The Centaur snapped down at the officers present. One of Manus’ [Captains] snapped a salute as he rose.
“Rest assured, Commander Fleethoof, we won’t let you down if you wish to coordinate with Manus’ forces. We are prepared for the fray no matter what comes.”
Perorn’s eyes narrowed dangerously and zoomed in as she held the scrying orb close to her face. She barked back.
“Oh yes? You are? Then where’s Dragonspeaker Luciva? Have her meet me with the Security Council and Manus’ 1st by midnight. Ready? No wonder the [Innkeeper]’s letting you sort yourself by who’s expendable and who’s not! I’m on my way. Give me three minutes.”
The image of her winked out as the [Captain] was left gasping for a reply. And then everyone was standing, half of the voices raised in outrage. But Erin Solstice snapped her fingers before people could rush out of the theatre—and the viewpoint changed.
An image of The Wandering Inn from above appeared. It showed the city of Liscor, the digging Antinium, and columns of soldiers winding in and out. Then they stopped.
Men and women pointed and backed away from something in the distance. Slowly, the viewpoint altered—and Ryoka Griffin whistled softly.
A Centaur was racing over the hills and valleys to the south of Liscor, leaving a trail of snow in her wake. No, not just one; she was in the lead by far, but thousands of Centaurs were kicking up an entire blizzard in their wake. They surged up and down the hills so fast that they set the soldiers’ teeth on edge.
Imagine fighting something that fast! Even the famed Tyrion Veltras looked impressed by Perorn’s speed. And she was closing on the inn so fast—Erin Solstice’s eyes locked on the figure as she galloped up the hill—
The Centaur slowed as she stampeded up the hill. Humans and Drakes were making way for her, staring up at her as she reached the doors. But they were already open.
A Gnoll was holding the door open, and Liska stared up wide-eyed.
“Are you another soldier?”
Perorn grinned. The sound her shod hooves made on the floorboards was loud. Hollow. She noticed watchers in the walls and didn’t miss the trapped hallway. But she was in a hurry, so she just galloped past Liska.
Goblins in the walls blinked as someone flashed past them. Then Perorn was in the common room, and nodded. Someone had opened the door for her. Another Gnoll.
Ishkr. The Gnoll was beaming and bowed.
“The [World’s Eye Theatre] is that way, Commander Fleethoof.”
He had never looked happier than when he met someone like Perorn. The Commander tossed her head.
“What’s your name?”
The Gnoll blinked and hesitated, caught off-guard by the sudden question.
He tried to duck his head, but the Centauress tossed her head. She had braided her hair for travel, and she turned her head as a storm of hooves halted outside the inn.
“Basal, officers only! With me! Secure a camp to the south.”
She roared back the way she’d come, and three Centaurs stormed through the hallway after her. Perorn nodded at Ishkr.
“Surprise me with a drink, please. Non-alcoholic until the meeting is over. Then something refreshing.”
He bowed fractionally, and she turned around the room. The soldiers stared at her, and the Centauress trotted around tables and chairs, moving amazingly nimbly for someone who was half-horse, half-Human and larger than either.
She didn’t go to the [World’s Eye Theatre] right away. She made one final stop at a side door. Yanked it open.
Eight Goblins, six of them Cave Goblins, two, former Redfangs, stared up at Perorn as they sat in the killzone fortifications with crossbows, magic wands, and snacks. One of them was choking on a popcorn kernel. Perorn eyed them.
“You never managed to fire a shot. You’re all dead. Install some tripwires.”
Their jaws closed. She closed the door.
The Centaur was sweeping through The Wandering Inn as fast as her title. Erin Solstice felt Perorn enter the inn, like someone had loosed an arrow. Her only warning was a sound, the thump of hooves on carpet.
Then Perorn was riding into the theatre, so fast she nearly trampled Lord Palec, who threw himself to one side. The [Mercenary Commander] had arrived.
“Commander Fleethoof! Greetings.”
Aldonss still didn’t get what had ticked off Perorn. He paused as he noticed her flashing eyes. Perorn’s right foreleg pawed at the ground, but her Human half kept her arms folded, her back straight as she surveyed the room.
Her eyes found Olesm, Xrn, Erin, Ryoka, and darted around. When she spoke, it was in the same bark, a semi-roar in the enclosed room. As if it were the lowest volume she possessed.
“You are disgraces of commanding officers! If I were your superior, I would replace half of you. If I were your subordinate, I would be taking my cues from you and think this battle was a little skirmish against the undead. Haven’t you been listening? I will kick dirt into your graves, but I’d rather dance on top of beartraps than trust you with my flanks! What are you doing?”
Her bark provoked fury from both assembled sides. Controller Lectara leapt to her feet. She offered a clasped fist against her chest, a Terland salute, before calling out.
“Commander! This is hardly a polite way to enter this meeting. We have brought the fury of the Five Families south. The insinuation we are not regarding this event as serious is improper, I must say!”
The Centaur turned her head, regarded Lectara, then nodded at Erin.
“So that’s why you didn’t call this meeting. Better they were uncertain.”
She looked Erin in the eyes, and the [Innkeeper] hesitated. They hadn’t met, but Perorn spoke as if they had skipped all the introductions. Which they had.
“Yeah. That’s definitely why I did it. I’m Erin, by the way.”
Perorn Fleethoof descended down the stairs swiftly. She was in front of Erin so fast the [Innkeeper] jumped. She was as fast as Hawk!
“Perorn. We know each other through Niers. I apologize for the entry, but I couldn’t stand to see this. Let’s have a pleasant discussion later. Right now, I need you to turn it up.”
“Turn what up? Whoa—”
Erin had offered Perorn a handshake. Instead of the handshake, Perorn clasped Erin’s forearm in a tight grip. Then she pulled Erin forwards a step and hissed at her.
“Your aura. Your voice. All of it! Show them what the stakes are or you’ll have only a fraction of them you can count on. You called them here. Tell them how they’ll die or you’re stepping on their graves.”
She barked straight into the young woman’s face. Perorn was older, not as old as Niers and Foliana, but she had years on many of the officers here. She turned her head and glowered at Chaldion.
“What are you doing, Grand Strategist?”
Her snap made Chaldion stir. He flinched and sat up, as if stung. Before he could reply, Perorn was trotting around the room.
“I am Commander Fleethoof of the Forgotten Wing Company! You may not recognize my rank; in your terms, I am a foreign [General] of Baleros. I bring Fleethoof’s Gale, my personal unit of Centaurs, into battle. We have come from Baleros’ jungles to Izril. At the Titan’s request, I have elected to take my unit to defend The Wandering Inn. Here, we will plant the banner of the Great Company of Baleros. Here we die. But I expected to find Izril’s finest at my back, not a complacent bunch. Tell them again, Erin Solstice, what we’re facing. But say it correctly.”
She swiveled, and the [Innkeeper] jumped. Even Lord Xitegen was astounded at Perorn’s arrogance. He was on his feet, leaning on the back of another seat.
Say it correctly? How? Erin seemed about to say she’d been doing that all along. But one look at Perorn’s flashing gaze and she hesitated.
Kasigna. Cauwine. She couldn’t even say their names. She had tried to explain the threat like…like the concept of gods. The same way she’d told Fetohep. But maybe that was all stupid. No, it was.
She should have said it right. With the stakes first. With what they’d done, first.
How did you say it?
Erin Solstice closed her eyes hard and felt it. Not the thought of Kasigna, that petty dead god lecturing her, being annoyed by Erin’s playing of chess. Not them when they were humiliated by the Gnomes.
That was good. That was right. But if she listened too long to the laughter of Zineryr and his folk, she forgot who they were.
They were the reason the statues were just that. She…
Erin Solstice opened her eyes, and they were black. The [Innkeeper]’s head rose, and her hat, which had winked out, reappeared. Only now, it was black fire.
Slowly, she reached up and held the flickering hat in her hands. A [Witch], then, spoke. And her voice echoed. She should have been a [Witch], not an [Innkeeper]. She had not invited them to her inn just to relax and enjoy each other’s company. She had invited them, yes.
But she had invited them to die.
“She is the greatest Necromancer in the entire world. Forget everything I said. You are facing the three-in-one. The lady of death. Her name is profane. She died and came back. But she is the master of the dead. More than any other [Necromancer] you have ever known. Az’kerash. The Putrid One. Do you know them?”
Erin raised her voice, and every Drake and Human in the room froze. Now, the [Innkeeper] knew how to say it. Her gaze swung around the room, and a half-Elf slumped in his chair, a veil over his face—twitched. He had been mostly ignored, even with the perceptive people in the room. But his careful disguise and concealment spells began to crack.
A [Necromancer] paused as he tapped into this conversation via a hidden spell on the bottom of one of the chairs. His black eyes widened. And Erin Solstice said it in ways even he couldn’t ignore.
“She is the greatest spellcaster you will ever meet. She could roll over this entire continent with the dead. If you met her at full strength, even the Goblin King’s armies would look small compared to hers. And you cannot kill her with a single arrow.”
Now, Xitegen. He stiffened as Erin said that, and his teeth drew back in a real snarl. The [Lord] of House Terland rose to his feet.
“I have seen the Goblin King. His [Lords] plucked the Flowers of Izril and left us strewn and broken. His minions sieged my castle until my family died defiant. Watch. Your. Tongue, Erin Solstice. The Sacrifice of Roses put [Ladies] adorned in finery against steel itself. We never backed down.”
Lady Bethal’s eyes were blazing, and but for Thomast and Ser Kerrig, she might have jumped down and attacked Erin herself. She nodded furiously as Erin Solstice met Xitegen’s gaze.
“I don’t mock your family, Lord Xitegen. I never would. I am being serious. I would never mock the people who fought the Goblin King. Do you understand? That’s why it’s so unbelievable I tried to explain it another way. Do you understand?”
Xitegen hesitated. The embers in his gaze blazed up—and then he looked at her.
“You are mistaken. You have never seen a Goblin King. That—I allow—”
“No. I’m not. And that’s what should terrify you. I have seen Seamwalkers by the thousands. I have met The Putrid One. And she’s worse.”
Erin didn’t look away from Xitegen as the air between the two ionized. Gershal of Vaunt was ducking and accidentally touched a metal part of a chair. Lightning flashed, and he cried out as static discharged from his fingertips.
“Zeladona died fighting them. Remember that.”
Xitegen didn’t reply. As if he realized Erin were serious, but acknowledging the truth of what she meant would cost him something. His fingers tightened against the wood back of the chair he was leaning on.
The Drakes were watching the exchange with something like satisfaction. So Perorn’s voice cracked across their ranks.
“Are you smiling, Wall Lord Aldonss?”
“Merely with confidence, Commander Perorn. We are ready. The scope of the foe does not matter if we have taken every possible contingency.”
The Drake returned. He had his claws behind his back, and Perorn paced towards him.
“Well then, I hope for your sake you truly do have half your army where I can’t see it. Because if Dragonspeaker Luciva deigned to show her head, I’d caution her that she might lose it. Do you think the Walled Cities have brought an appropriate force? The Antinium rolled straight over your armies twice. Both times on your watch. You don’t look ready to die.”
The Drake hesitated. Before he could come up with a response, Perorn went on. The Centaur’s head turned, and her eyes flashed as she raised her voice in a shout.
“If you don’t think this is going to be hot, watch a recording of the dungeon monsters coming out or say you think this will be simple to someone who lost a limb at the Trial of Blades! Get your tails out from your asses and grab a drink. Then look your worst enemy in the eye and shake her hand. I don’t care if you lot minced each other during the last war. We’re dying on the Floodplains of Liscor. But I won’t be going out with a dry throat. Glory’s writing your name on her arrow. And she never misses.”
Her words were a bark that put a smile on Niers’ face and made him lean forwards as if wishing he could pull himself through the scrying orb. It made even the most reserved officers hesitate. And it provoked a cheer from several voices. Spontaneously—Redfang Goblins leaping to their feet and cheering her, a roar of approval from several members of House Veltras, and two Drakes leapt to their feet and began applauding.
Then looked horrified at their company. The rest of the room just took a moment. Something settled on them, and they stopped grinning. But Redscar kept cheering and laughing. Perorn was about to bite his head off, then turned her head.
“At least someone here looks ready to die.”
She turned, disgusted, and one of the Drakes from Salazsar couldn’t resist muttering, annoyed by the Centaur’s speeches.
“It’s an [Innkeeper]’s mortal enemy. What are we doing?”
They would never understand. Erin lowered her head. Ryoka Griffin, outraged, almost asked the wind to blow that idiot off their feet. Perorn?
She drew a bow from her back. The room saw her move. She wasn’t going to—
It was a warning shot or a graze, right?
Fleethoof’s bow twanged twice in quick succession, so fast they sounded like one note. She shot the officer through the thigh on his right leg, and as he staggered, the second arrow punched through his shins on his left leg.
The Drake stumbled, fell over on his back, eyes wide, staring at two shafts of wood buried in his legs. Straight through his armor. He didn’t feel the pain at first.
Then he began screaming as the pain caught up with him.
That was too much. Ilvriss was shouting, but Aldonss drew his sword. The Wall Lord’s scales crackled with lightning as his eyes flashed.
“That’s one idiot down. Next?”
Perorn met Aldonss eyes as the Wall Lord strode forwards. Lulv raised his spear as Perorn’s officers went for their blades. Basal drew two axes with a snarl as voices rose, Drakes drew blades, and the fallen Drake kept screaming.
Then the lights went out. Every light in the room, including the dome, save for the glow of the scrying viewpoints, vanished. The only illumination came from magic rings, the electricity crackling over Wall Lord Aldonss’ armor.
He didn’t care. He strode at Perorn, teeth bared. Snarling until he saw a flash of light. The Wall Lord pivoted, raised his sword—
And a flash lit him up like a hand striking a spark off a thundercloud. A bolt of lightning, a real bolt of lightning, hit the Wall Lord in the chest and bounced.
It glanced off Rafaema, trying to pull Aldonss back, ricocheted off the ceiling, and Primera, Xitegen’s golem, blocked it with one hand. The Golem rocked, and everyone ducked as the room shook.
The Wall Lord hit a row of seats hard. Even Perorn had flinched and aimed her bow at the source of the lightning. But as the lights came back on, Erin Solstice just stood there. Pointing at Aldonss with one hand.
Someone tried to laugh at the sight as Erin Solstice lowered her hand. But the [Innkeeper] looked around, and her face was bleak. Aldonss was struggling to get up, mouth open. What—what—
Had she done that? It wasn’t a spell. That was real lightning. Erin Solstice looked around. The Drake that Perorn had shot had fainted, and Saliss was wrapping a cloth around his bloody wounds, stemming the flow. But everyone else was looking at Erin, and what she said was this:
“I can do that. I can also do this.”
She closed her eyes and lifted her hand, and a ball of flames the size of a pumpkin, bright and pink, burning like a glorious death. Erin held it up, admiring the blaze—then flicked it at Lulv.
The [Spearmaster] cursed and whirled his spear, repelling the fire that tried to cling to it, slashing it down where it burned on the chairs. But it ignored his spear, clinging to his fur, his arms, his armor—
It didn’t burn him, yet he froze as the [Innkeeper] looked at him. Erin’s eyes were glowing. She pointed a finger up.
“I can do this if I wanted to kill someone.”
Perorn’s eyes narrowed. She saw the tiniest sliver appear in the air and then—
Erin fired a lightning bolt straight into the ceiling.
This time, everyone did go deaf or blind. The [Innkeeper] had closed her eyes, but even she flinched. She stood there, and when the ringing had faded, she spoke.
“I can do that. And I still think I might die. I don’t know if she’ll come in the way I predicted. I don’t know how bad it will be. But I think it might be worse than I can imagine. That’s why I called you. I’m asking you to take it seriously. Please.”
The [Witch]’s head turned, and she looked around. At Ilvriss half-risen, eyes filled with uncertainty, Aldonss, eyes blazing. Lulv, snarling. Rafaema, uncertain. Xitegen, Tyrion, Tolveilouka.
A [Witch] spoke.
“If you can best her and it comes easily, dip your blades in her blood and count yourselves lucky. And you will never kill anything so wretched and terrible. But I don’t think it will come that easily. Do you think you are prepared for a new age? This is where you find out. Do you think you could be the hero that replaces Zel Shivertail? The next legend of the north? She’s coming. She has eaten the Hundred Heroes who founded Terandria. She has devoured Dragonlords. Your Ancestors.”
She looked at the Drakes, and they rose to protest, but Erin Solstice went on.
“She is the first and last Necromancer. If you think I am lying, if you think I’m a fool, maybe I’ll be proven to be one during the Solstice. But if I were you, I’d prepare as if I were telling you the truth. If nothing happens and on that day I’m left alive—I’ll post a <Legendary Quest> and give you something worth your time. But I don’t think I’ll see you all after that.”
She lowered her hand and gazed around. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes dimmed.
“The meeting’s over. No more fighting. Do what you have to do. I’ve told you all I can. Whether you believe me or not is up to you.”
She bowed her head, and Perorn Fleethoof suppressed a smile. So this is why the Titan of Baleros fell in love with a common [Innkeeper]. She exhaled, and Erin Solstice stood there in the silence, head bowed.
Even now. Even now, some of them just never saw it. And never would until the day they saw a hole in the world with their own two eyes.
Then it would be too late. But Erin Solstice’s head rose as she heard gentle applause and laughter.
Perorn’s bow rose, and everyone ducked along the Drake side of the room. But a beaming face refused to flinch as the arrow trained on his head. Was he crazy or insane?
The old Drake looked like both. His scales were grey and flaking away. And his claws trembled, but he still wore his armor proudly. He had shined it from his badge to his boots. But even the badge was black. The faintest bit purple, maybe, but he still seemed like a shadow.
The armor and his presence had been almost invisible this entire time. He was applauding, though, a huge smile on his face. When Wall Lord Ilvriss saw him, the Drake groaned. And even Wall Lord Aldonss’ voice held alarm.
Heads turned as one of Salazsar’s oldest officers stood. And he was still applauding Erin Solstice. He called down with a huge smile on his face, his remaining teeth bared.
“W-well said. She’s coming for you. I see her.”
“Major Khorpe, what are you doing here? You’re needed in Salazsar.”
Nerul called out, voice papably worried. Someone had reported he was missing, even with the Last Defenders of the Wall now active. Had he made it here on foot? But the Drake [Infiltrator] was staring at Erin.
“I believe she’s coming. I’ve been dodging her all my life. But you? You’re the girl who became Sserys for a time. You’ve seen ghosts.”
Erin Solstice stared up at Khorpe as he leaned forwards eagerly. The Drake was beaming.
“I am Major Khorpe. A [Rogue]. I have come…no one else would go with me. Not their time. Even Eschowar didn’t want to see his apprentice die.”
He stared down at Wall Lord Aldonss a second, and the Wall Lord opened his mouth. But when Khorpe bowed, he looked like a performer.
“I have come to die in Liscor at the Winter Solstice. To help you dodge death itself.”
His eyes were watery, and his claws shook, and he looked old. Senile, perhaps. But when his head rose, his voice firmed and was faraway.
“—I remember waking on that day when the Dragonward bells rang. I thought I heard a million voices calling to me to take arms. A war in the skies and even in my city itself. But I was afraid and hid. Just as I had gathered my resolve, a voice told me to wait. Wait, for the enemy would come here, next. Then I heard you call. There are a lot of children, here. They have never seen a true war. And some, only one.”
His head turned to Xitegen, Bethal. Then swept past the Drakes. Khorpe leaned on the balcony and looked down at Erin, and her eyes were full of tears. But he was grinning at her with a gap-toothed smile. When he turned his head, the officers to the right and left of him flinched.
“The days of thunder have come again. You have been warned. If, then, you stand there and are not ready, or hold your blood in your claws as it pools out of you, no one can say you were not warned. She is coming with sickle in hand, to clear the field. And we are stalks before her blade. But I chose where to fall and where to lie. Ancestors, it was all ever for me. I did it for none but I. My sins were always only mine…”
The Drake stood there and began singing Salazsar’s lament. Proudly, like the oldest of [Soldiers], a claw clasped to his chest, standing to parade rest. And that of all—Erin Solstice looked up at him and turned away, leaning on Ryoka Griffin, who stumbled, supporting her. Perorn Fleethoof lowered her bow and sighed.
Then maybe they believed, a bit.
It wasn’t their fault. In the end, those silly men and women. They had no conception of it. But if you had been there, you could take it seriously.
No one was really prepared for the world to end tomorrow. There would always be a part of you that hesitated and wondered if it was real. Even at the end. Until you were there and realized that was how it looked when the sky fell.
So you were forgiven for all of it. Even the silly parts.
Mrsha du Marquin sat there, still crying, even after a lot of hugs, and she’d been given sweets and hot milk with Magnolia-levels of sugar. But she was still trying door handles.
“Miss Mrsha, you know it’s dangerous. We shouldn’t get in the way of the soldiers. The battlefield is no place for a civilian.”
Hethon tried to reason with her, awkwardly, like his father would. But he saw Mrsha’s watery eyes turn to him.
I know that. Stupid. I know they’ll get hurt if I get in the way. It happened last time.
She wrote with a wobbly paw, scrawling the ink and still blinking tears out of her eyes.
Hethon didn’t understand until Mrsha spelled it out for him, word by word.
I have to be there. I won’t get in the way this time. I’ll just wait in the garden with Erin. If it’s the very end, I’m going to be there, this time. And they’ll have to stab me first. I can’t run away. I’ll have nothing left. If your father dies, what was the point of being safe?
The words struck him in the chest. Hethon stepped back and almost punched Mrsha and the notecard—then it hit him harder.
“Mrsha…Lyonette won’t be there, I think. We can’t go there. There’s no point.”
Nanette gently took Mrsha’s notecard as the girl rattled a handle. Mrsha punched her hand, then clung to her, burying her face in her dress. The other children read Mrsha’s card, then Ekirra began to howl, and Visma and Kenva began sobbing. Ser Sest looked down at Mrsha as if he’d thought she was really escaping just for fun. And the Gnoll gave Hethon a look that made him think they had known each other forever when she wrote the next words.
I don’t want to be small and useless. I never want to grow up. But I don’t want this.
He hesitated. Then awkwardly went for a hug. He was half-hugging her when he realized he barely knew her. So the [Lord] sprung back. Stared at Mrsha. Then offered her a hand.
The Gnoll girl and Human boy shook hands solemnly as tears fell.
So, in the end, that was how Perorn Fleethoof came to The Wandering Inn. Like a storm. As the gathering in the [World’s Eye Theatre] broke up, people were planning more seriously.
But the Centaur was no [Strategist] to plan with level head and dry throat. She took a tankard from Ishkr and clinked it against a Drake’s hand.
Major Khorpe took down half the mug in one go to a cheering room. Centaurs were stomping their hooves, and he shouted.
“This is how it should be! Dead men are the thirstiest! Stand with me and level! Who’ll dance with death and take her hand?”
“I will! I have come from Yolden for the [Innkeeper].”
A Drake with a funny accent leapt onto a table. And they did laugh at him, some of the other soldiers. After all, they who faced death laughed loudest of all.
Khorpe and Perorn did not. She pointed at him.
“Then you’ll ride with me.”
And she passed like a fell wind, looking for people who would stand and hold the line even when the sky was falling. Of course the Goblins loved her.
Those with families to lose or who hadn’t realized what Erin Solstice had called them for—hesitated. Even Tyrion Veltras looked around and realized he should visit his sons.
Time at last. Upstairs, in her room, the inn felt empty. No silly Gnoll to annoy Perorn, or a bee buzzing around. The inn felt quiet, despite all her guests. Like it had been long ago.
Erin Solstice pushed a few pieces around on her chessboard and felt like she was waiting for Skinner to knock on her door. That eternal moment…she was always back there.
Soon, Erin would stand and visit the hill of statues. Soon, she would introduce herself to Perorn fully and thank the many people and hopefully learn something about them. But for a moment, she played with a queen piece on the board, then set it down.
Enough procrastinating. Erin Solstice bent over her desk and picked up a quill. She began to write.
To Whom It May Concern.
To My Family…
It took her several tries, and she sat at the writing table for a while before she decided it didn’t matter. It did and didn’t. But if they opened the letter…Erin Solstice paused and wrote in as steady a hand as she could.
If you are reading this, I am dead. The following is my will: whatever remains of my inn is to be given to the care of Ishkr Silverfang.
Exceptions: Stitchworks and alchemy room are to be given, contents and all, to Octavia Cotton and Rhaldon Flemmens respectively. Any Faerie Flowers are to be split in half. One half given to Saliss of Lights or, in event of his death, Xif of Pallass with instructions to use them without reserve.
Any possessions in the Garden of Sanctuary, if accessible, are to be turned over to Lyonette du Marquin. All the effects of my room will go to Ryoka Griffin, to distribute as she sees fit.
Exception: My personal chessboard is to be given to Rags. My personal knife is to be given to Nerry, the Sariant Lamb, as well as a lump of metal in the second-lowest drawer to fulfill her task along with any flames still burning.
The sum of gold in my possession and the Garden of Sanctuary I will dig up and deposit at the Merchant’s Guild to be divided as follows.
20% — Ishkr, for running the inn and to be divided amongst the staff as he sees fit.
20% — To Lyonette for whatever she needs and wherever she goes, as well as Mrsha.
20% — Nanette Weishart, to take care of any expenses and needs she has.
20% — To the Order of Solstice for their expenses and needs.
10% — To Tessa, and the other half of the Faerie Flowers in my possession in hopes she can retire from adventuring.
10% — To be divided amongst Kevin, Joseph, Imani, Rose, and Troydel equally.
It is my will and desire that anyone I know personally, be it adventurers, guests, or fellow people from home seek the protection of the following and that they offer them sanctuary, as much as they can:
Krshia Silverfang or Feshi Weatherfur in the Meeting of Tribes.
Niers Astoragon or Commander Foliana of the Forgotten Wing Company.
Earl Altestiel of Desonis.
Fetohep of Khelt.
Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction.
Magnolia Reinhart, the Lady of House Reinhart.
Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria.
Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram.
Chieftain Rags of the Flooded Waters Tribe.
If I am dead, then Ryoka Griffin or Fetohep of Khelt are the last two carriers of my known intent and will and should be consulted. If both are dead or unavailable, then the Winter Fae or one ‘Oberon’ should be invoked. If all are unavailable, I have left a letter in my [Garden of Sanctuary] that explains everything. Only the Key of Reprieve will open the door where it is hidden.
If I am dead then tell my
My final words I will leave for the one who inherits the [Garden of Sanctuary], with my farewells. Sincerely,
She stared at the will, and it was terrible, and she couldn’t think of anything else. She was hungry and tired and empty, and soon…
After a second, Erin had an idea and scribbled at the bottom.
PS: I bequeath my [Garden of Sanctuary] to Mrsha.
Then she folded the letter up. She wasn’t worried about tears; they had stopped. Now, she was just a bit lost. Erin sat there.
“I hope it’s nothing. No—I hope it’s—I’m making such a—”
She didn’t know how to finish her sentence. The days were ticking down, now. A snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger. If she let it, it would crush her.
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes blazed faintly in her shadowy room. And she whispered it. She activated her first true Skill and held it in place. For the long two days, heedless of the cost. For each and every moment, just like she’d been trying all month.
“[Immortal Moment]. [Immortal Moment]. Let it count. Please.”
Her hands shook as she put the letter into an envelope and almost sealed it, then decided it didn’t matter. Erin shoved it into a corner of her desk, straightened it, and put a cup on top so it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Then she stood and burst into flames. The [Innkeeper] recoiled as they burst from her arms and raced over her clothing. The same multicolored flames she had seen only once before…
Erin snatched at them and was about to pat at herself, to extinguish the fire—then she stopped. She let the flames burn, then seemingly vanish. The blazing light faded, and Erin lifted her hands.
She still felt warm. But the cold winter was growing deeper. And she knew death was neither cold nor warm. Sometimes, she wondered if she’d ever woken up or if this was all a dream.
“I counted thirty thousand Drakes. A third for the Humans. Variance within a thousand, but I even spotted the Drake camps in the High Passes. Lord Astoragon, can you verify?”
“Not via scrying spells. But it squares with the spies on the ground and our estimates. I had my students running guesses, and one of them is getting a prize.”
Niers’ droll tone to Yameth, Perorn’s [Captain], belied his true feelings. He sounded amused, indulgent, and if you didn’t know him, you’d think he was having a good time.
Perorn Sadiluc bet he would have paid a million gold pieces to be here instead of her. But he couldn’t be, and so he was trying to keep hands off.
“I’m going to run more apocalypse scenarios with Chaldion. Maybe that will convince some of Manus’ lot to throw in more soldiers. At the very least, we can convince the officers who don’t get it to take this seriously. Perorn, need anything from me? Want me to yank an officer in the crowd?”
“I’ve made enough enemies for today. Leave it, Niers.”
The Centaur was conferencing with her people after the meeting. She had had a drink with Major Khorpe, another old story, and she was getting a feel for The Wandering Inn. It wasn’t like how she’d heard it described by Niers: quiet. Or like she had seen it on the scrying orb.
This was a more honest version of the inn, to her. This was a place she could believe had seen a real battle or two.
The Goblin with the crystal blade playing guitar around one of the fireplaces? The servers who kept food running without the signs of strain that should have led to a hundred broken plates or fights?
There was strain, but the inn didn’t buckle under it. And Perorn had seen even brave, courageous folk bend and break when war was upon their doorstep.
She closed the connection to Niers, then called Foliana. The Commander of the Forgotten Wing company answered in moments as Perorn’s officers shifted. Her going behind Niers’ back unsettled even experienced officers. Which just went to show why they weren’t ready to command; they treated Niers like he was actually in charge.
Only Basal kept steady. If he wasn’t a Lizaur, he’d have been commanding his own Centaur unit already. Ironically, the Drakes regarded him as the most ‘good looking’ despite his Lizardfolk heritage. They probably hadn’t made the connection yet.
“Perorn. Erin seems stressed. Mm. I didn’t watch the briefing entirely. Did you shoot someone again?”
Perorn ignored the smalltalk.
“I’ll find her. Foliana, I’m making a few observations of the north and south. The Drakes are here in force; Pallass is making up the bulk of the forces here, and they can shift their armies around rapidly. Plus, they have their standing armies. But Tyrion Veltras has strained to get even a third of their number here.”
The [Strategist] nodded as she eyed the camps in the distance.
“He’s launched two major campaigns. I don’t know how much it’s costing to feed so many soldiers or get them here…Pallass has to be burning gold. The nobility and their personal retinues are making up most of his fighters, and cities who Erin Solstice has ties to explicitly. The south is doing better than the north; I’m hearing there’s a lot of burned farmland and mysterious sicknesses in the north. Garbichugs, even. Seems like the south is being hit less.”
Thirty thousand was a large mercenary company in Baleros. But compared to what the Forgotten Wing could swing, and for two major players, House Veltras and Pallass? She pawed at the ground.
“…They’ll do. There’s a lot of talent here. High-level classes. Seems like the [Innkeeper] is expecting that to matter as much as bodies. I’m going to have that word. Did you find a Scroll of Greater Teleport?”
“Nnnnnope. And I was outbid. Everyone got the ones from the Village of the Dead. Mm. Bastards. I hope I get a contract on someone so I can loot theirs.”
“Then we’ll stick to our other plans. I have to go. Anything new from the front?”
“Jungle Tails is regrouping. Mostly it’s at sea. Dullahans, Terandrians on the go. But there are lots of ships moving. Lots of ships. Not enough [Scrying] spells to go around.”
Normally, you scried cities or people moving through predictable highways to get a map of an area. You couldn’t easily scry based on coordinates, unfortunately; you had to have a beacon or someone, and people were easier. At sea, of course, it made mapping terrain harder. Perorn paused.
“Sea lanes were clear from our reports?”
“Yep. But there’s blank patches. Places where [Scrying] spells are failing.”
That happens all the time if you have someone with the right Skills or magic. But Foliana’s voice was also too-casual. Perorn listened to what she wasn’t saying.
“Keep me updated, then. It’s not like we have any sea presence, and Tulm isn’t an idiot.”
“Nope. He’s slowing down. Okay. Go check on the [Innkeeper]. Give her a muffin or something.”
The Centaur closed the connection, turned, and gave orders.
“Basal, go make friends with the Drakes. Yameth, hold the camp, but I want our Centaurs playing nice. Socialize in Liscor with the Silverfangs, inn, other camps. Best behavior. If you see someone braying large, smack them. Tarath?”
Her [Lieutenant] looked expectant. Perorn jerked her head.
“In the inn with me. Play nice with the Goblins and Antinium. Feel them out. Break out some of our enchanted arrows if you have to, and if they’re chatty, get a feel for any tricks they’ve got. I’ll try to hobnob with the Small Queen after I talk to the [Innkeeper].”
“Are we cozying up to her or am I playing both sides with the Drakes?”
Basal wanted to know. Perorn gave him a flat look. Were they ever not playing both sides? He raised his hands.
“Okay, fine. Fine. It would be nice having a super-Antinium spellcaster on our side is all I’m saying. Shame we couldn’t steal the Archmage of Izril too.”
“We ally with the 7th Hive and we’re only taking anti-Drake contracts, Basal. That’s an entire hostile south and north.”
“Yes, but…Antinium magic. Enchanted bows. We could operate out of the Gnoll plains.”
“Find out if they have actual enchantments first, hoof-for-brains. Break!”
They were trotting away, and Perorn trotted back into the inn. Heads turned as she entered; a Centaur was the tallest being in the room save for a half-Giant or Minotaur or War Walker. They called her Fleethoof.
She wondered how many of the faces she saw would be gone in a few days. Perorn’s head turned, and she saw the blue-scaled Drake looking at her. She nodded to him. Then found the one-eyed Cyclops. Perorn saluted Chaldion and glanced at Tyrion Veltras.
He was holding the Wind Runner’s hand. She was still distraught, but he was actually holding her hand to Lady Buscrei’s vague approval. Ryoka Griffin stood with the Five Families, and even Lord Xitegen was listening to her.
Tyrion Veltras. Xitegen. Perorn rubbed her eyes, then offered them the same gesture; two fingers touched to her brows.
They seemed to be more vivid than the other people in the room. As if there were more color, more contrast to their faces. She looked left as an ook caught her ear.
“Commander Fleethoof, how about that drink?”
Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, had the same look as the others. Perorn smiled.
“Give me a bit. I’ll find you.”
She turned her head, and they were everywhere. Ah, this reminded her of the stories they told about The Adventurer’s Haven. Only this was how the Haven must have looked in its heyday. It reminded her of the Forgotten Wing company when it was rising.
“She has good guests.”
The [Innkeeper] had the Small Queen sitting in one corner of her inn, across from Saliss of Lights. Like pieces of a chess board who’d decided to stop fighting for a day. She had Gold-rank adventurer friends like the Halfseekers, waving over the Centaurs eagerly, and more than one person had found their moment of glory in this inn.
Ser Normen, Ishkr—Perorn’s eyes roved around as the Gnoll [Server] appeared with another drink. She turned it down.
“Can you tell me where Erin Solstice is? I should offer my formal greetings.”
“Let me check.”
Ishkr vanished, and Perorn glanced at the Goblins. Goblins, and no one was trying to kill them. What would Velan have said if he could see this?
“Even Niers never got someone to share a drink with Velan’s lot besides our company. North and south. No wonder people want to kill her.”
If Perorn were a leader of Drakes, Antinium, or Humans, she would seriously consider assassinating Erin Solstice. Of course, that supposed it were possible.
They’d find out. But first…the Centaur waited until Ishkr came back. Then she trotted forwards slowly, wondering how to introduce herself to the [Innkeeper].
Erin Solstice’s hands shook after writing the will. She couldn’t go down to the common room yet. She kept holding her hands, willing them to stop.
She’d done this before. She’d beaten Skinner’s fear.
“Stop. Stop it. What’s wrong with you?”
Yet they kept shaking.
Ulvama kept coming to check on her. Erin knew she should have gone and talked to Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked like she was doing…as bad as Erin. Only she showed it.
Somehow, her tough friend could cry more than Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared down at her written will. It didn’t feel real. And it felt very real. She might have sat there for a while; it had already been forty minutes, and she was just sitting, thoughts dragging her around, but slowly.
Like a vast river overrunning its banks, flooding the land and destroying everything. Erin Solstice stared at the will—until she raised her head sharply.
She stood as she sensed something in her inn. The [Innkeeper] turned, and a door opened. She reached for her knife. Impossible. She knew her inn was full of high-level people, friendly and temporary allies.
But even so—she stepped into her [Garden of Sanctuary] and halted.
In her personal garden, there was a rule against violence that even Erin couldn’t break. Tussling was fine, but harm? She had never felt in danger there.
But this wasn’t her garden. The grass was wider, wild, and weeds had grown tall and thorny. Erin stared at the walls of a huge fort that filled this garden.
She felt at the kitchen knife at her side. Erin’s feet trod the grass, and she whispered.
“That’s not possible. How did you get here?”
She hadn’t explored this particular [Garden of Sanctuary]. The gates of the keep were closed, and the oppressive fortress that was the entire garden—felt more justified, now. Because despite being a [Garden of Sanctuary], even one whose owner had passed—
Despite this being her Skill—
An old Drake was standing in front of the gates, claws clasped behind his back. He looked around innocently and gave her a smile that looked vacant—yet here he stood.
He hadn’t been invited in. Erin stared at him.
“No one’s ever done that before. How?”
“I knew it could be done. I always wanted to try.”
The former [Infiltrator] looked endlessly pleased with himself. Erin sensed Ishkr looking for her and summoned the door for him.
“Ishkr, I’m here. What is it?”
“Perorn Fleethoof would like to meet you. Is…now a good time?”
Ishkr saw Khorpe and blinked. Erin turned her head.
“Sure. I’ll meet her in…Major? Want to come to my personal garden?”
She stepped into it quickly, and the Drake hopped around the door and then walked on through. Erin felt safer in her personal garden, but she was still unnerved.
“Seriously. How did you get in?”
“I picked the lock. There were stories about people who got into [Gardens of Sanctuary]. Ah. I can’t do any harm here, can I?”
Khorpe produced a crossbow and pulled on the trigger a few times as he aimed it around. Then he gave Erin a beaming smile.
“You have to break the door first.”
He knew about that, too? Erin’s skin crawled, but the old [Major] was peering around. Then he turned.
“I’m on your side. I mean it. Death keeps coming for me. I felt her reaching for me as I heard the bells ring, and it was so terrifying I refused to die. But then Zail had to remind me of a duty. Endlessly, we serve.”
“And you broke into my garden to warn me it was possible?”
The Drake chuckled as Erin heard hooves on the grass. Perorn had arrived, but the Centaur halted, as if unsurprised to find Khorpe here.
“Hello, Fleethoof. I remember preparing for war with Centaurs when the Titan was rising. Preemptive strike! It’s always a preemptive strike with the Walled Cities. I broke into her [Garden of Sanctuary].”
Khorpe pointed at Erin, and Perorn raised her brows.
“B—you’re not supposed to be able to do that.”
Erin was getting genuinely upset now, and the [Major] patted her arm gently. But firmly. He gave her a long stare with his rheumy eyes.
“It was easier because I think you would have let me in. And it was still very hard. But unbreakable? Impregnable? It’s a Level 30 prerequisite Skill. It’s not impossible. They kept a blueprint of the key in Salazsar for the Drake who owned this one. Drakes never forget.”
He smiled with all his teeth. Erin thought of the broken garden and sat down in the grass.
“Thanks for the reminder.”
She was weary, now. Too weary to even say ‘hello’ to Perorn, but the Centaur seemed equal to Erin’s depression. She knelt in the grass, and Khorpe sat down.
“This is a fine way to meet.”
“I’m sorry. Hi—”
Erin looked up, and Perorn was stretching, massaging her back leg with her fingers and grimacing.
“No. I meant it. Hello. And to you, Major Khorpe. Gemsting.”
Khorpe had filled his canteen from the bar, and he snorted some of the drink out.
“That’s an old name.”
“Well, they call me Fleethoof as if that’s my name. But my name is Perorn Sadiluc. I’m pleased to meet you, Erin Solstice. Though I wish it weren’t under such circumstances. I’m…Foliana’s daughter.”
Perorn held out a hand to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] saw her pause at that last bit. Erin’s eyes opened, and she blinked.
“It’s a secret to many. But she raised me. Niers too, in his way. I was a foal when they were adventurers, and I’ve known the Forgotten Wing Company all my life. As mothers go—she’s an odd one. But it makes it easy to trot around and meet other living legends.”
Perorn favored Khorpe with a smile, and he glowered.
“Scary [Rogue]. Izril was lucky she never came to us. The Silent Antinium and Guild of Assassins were bad enough.”
“I had no idea. That’s—wow. I mean, thank you for telling me. And thank you for coming. I’m sorry I was so scatterbrained in the briefing. You got me to say it right. I should have. I just didn’t—didn’t know what to say.”
She hadn’t known, even when she’d tossed lightning at Aldonss, whether it was right. How did you describe Kasigna? Those incredulous faces…Perorn was shaking her head.
“Some of them won’t get it, like we said. You did your best. Foliana told me to check on you. I think she realized you’d be stressed.”
“Is it that obvious?”
The Centaur smiled as she looked around the garden, glancing at Erin.
“Only to me. Don’t worry about speeches or bold statements to get everyone riled up. It’s a difficult art, and even Niers curses and sweats before a big battle if he thinks it’s needed. He likes to say that as long as morale isn’t lower than when you began speaking, you did a good enough job.”
That made Erin smile because it did sound like something Niers would say, but she imagined the Fraerling would be kicking things and cursing if he thought he’d done a bad job. Perorn spoke of him like a person.
She spoke of him…like one of Erin’s friends would speak of her. It was that down-to-earth nature. And yet she also looked like she was ready to race into the fray.
Normen. She reminded Erin a bit of Normen, or Saliss. Casual. Intense. Hat on, hat off. And yet Perorn was older than any of them, and it showed not in her hair or limp, but in how she spoke.
“You memorize a few good speeches and then repeat them. Again and again. Different words, same meaning.”
“But you both sounded so good—”
“I practiced my speech.”
Khorpe added, and Erin and Perorn looked at him. The [Major] looked faraway and distant and present at the same time. He truly was old, but when he smiled, it was again with all his remaining teeth.
“You think of good things to say—afterwards. You remember you should have said this or that, then write it down and remember it. For next time. Good speeches are made of regrets.”
The [Innkeeper] was struck a second. And then she wished he’d been a guest far longer. Perorn as well. The Centaur glanced at Erin and patted her arm.
“You haven’t eaten food today, have you? You look pale as a feather. Let’s eat and you can rally.”
Erin got a bit annoyed at the matter-of-fact tone, as much as she liked Perorn and Khorpe.
“Do you—bully people into being healthy at the Forgotten Wing Company too? Niers? This is a very Lyonette thing you’re doing. Have you met her?”
Perorn got to her feet with a sigh.
“No, but I feel for the girl. Of course I bully the Titan. He doesn’t respect people who can’t tell him ‘no’. Come on.”
She jerked her head, and Erin sat there another moment. She looked up at the Centaur, and a bleak look replaced Erin’s amusement and relief.
“I hope you don’t regret coming. Everyone I asked. And after this…”
After this, Kasigna would still be there. This wasn’t a scenario you won, just survived. Erin’s face fell—and Perorn Sadiluc glanced at Erin. Khorpe was still smiling, plucking Faerie Flowers and tucking them into his pockets, and the Centaur murmured.
“Ah. So that’s it.”
She sat back down again, and Erin looked at her.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been here before. It’s just—this time is bad. It keeps happening, and I…sorry, is that racist?”
“Insensitive. Let me say something, first.”
Perorn craned her head back and stared at the snow drifting down through the dome as Khorpe patted the grass. Both he and Erin waited, and Erin wondered if the Centauress even liked her.
It was hard to read Fleethoof, but when she glanced down, Erin had to believe she was being honest, at least.
“…I grew up with Niers and Foliana, with a lot of people who aren’t alive any longer. I won’t bore you with the stories right now. But when I was a child, they were surviving the Labyrinth of Souls, coming out as a new mercenary company and taking on all comers. These days, people talk about us as if we were a comet flying upwards, smashing through all obstacles, but it wasn’t that easy.”
Erin murmured. She should have read more of the Titan’s history. Perorn tucked a lock of hair behind her ears as she nodded.
“Jungle Tails. They’re back, but they didn’t fall easily, either. There was a time when it seemed like the Nagas were dogging our every step, destroying our hideouts, and it felt like we’d never win. We’d win a victory against all odds and a month later be fighting tooth and nail, burying comrades.”
Khorpe was nodding.
“I served the Walled Cities all my life. There’s always another disaster. Zelkyr’s Golems go rogue except for the ones in Wistram, and we have to bury them deep. Pretend it never happened. What Golems? Naga Incursions. Antinium Wars. Now ghost-eating Seamwalkers.”
They were not making Erin feel better. Why were they telling her these stories? Erin’s head sank.
“So you guys won. But now it’s happening again. And again…even Jungle Tails is back, right?”
Perorn smiled crookedly as Khorpe laughed.
“Well, yes. That’s how it works. But it’d be a boring life if we just took our gold and ran. Niers would throw himself off the edge of the world within a year. I choose this. So did Niers and Foliana, for all they complain. They could have sailed into the sunset and retired. I could have done anything I wanted. But that’s no fun.”
That’s no fun? Erin looked up and amended her comparison. Perorn really was like Saliss or another adventurer. She lowered her head.
“Well, this isn’t fun for me, so I can’t get into the spirit of things.”
“Not what I meant. I suppose what I’m saying is—I think it’s funny. Most people, even Named-ranks, don’t realize it. I’ve met hundreds of people you’d call stories. Big and small. Silver-rankers who make it big. Small folk who step onto the grand stage Niers always prattles on about. Lehras and Erin Solstices.”
The [Innkeeper]’s head rose, and Khorpe watched Perorn as the Centaur went on, straight-faced.
“They win a great adventure and come back changed. The world’s too small for them, and maybe they don’t fit. Most have scars. But they do win. Then comes a day when their enemies hunt them down, or another threat arrives, and they come out of hiding. For death and glory, vengeance and salvation.”
She paused. Khorpe passed Perorn the flask, and the Centaur took a long gulp, wiped her mouth.
“—Then comes the next time. And the next. And they say, ‘how much longer must I endure’? ‘When will this end?’ As if they expected never again to meet a challenge. I’ve heard a thirty-year-old Named-ranker say that to my face. I kicked him.”
The Centaur grinned, and a breeze blew around the garden. She fixed Erin with one eye, laced with sardonic amusement.
“What I’m trying to say is—is this only your, what, sixth great life-or-death struggle? You’ll grow a tougher skin. The enemy comes at you again and again. But they’re not invincible. They’re not endless. If they bleed, they die.”
She sat there, chuckling, and Khorpe laughed as if she had told a fine joke. Erin Solstice half-rose as Perorn urged her up.
She pointed at Perorn and Khorpe, and they laughed at her, harder now, until the [Innkeeper] was chasing them back into her inn. She shouted as she emerged into the chaos.
Erin Solstice stumbled into the common room of her inn with a hat that blazed with all her fire, and a Centaur trotted past a naked Drake who gave her a wary look and edged away, lest he catch what she was spreading.
And then the young woman laughed and dared time to touch her.
Then, Erin was readier. And she suddenly had a thousand questions to badger the old Drake with, and people to meet. The Solstice was coming. But there was time for at least one or two more adventures, right? At least begin them, so she had something to look forward to. The [Innkeeper] looked around as she spoke to herself once.
“It’s never the end. Ever after, no matter who knocks on my door. Though she knows it not, even after death—there will be something more. Enough. Enough weeping. I have two days. What a lifetime.”
Erin seized a chessboard and adjusted the knife on her belt. When she turned to her guests, it was with a smile on her face.
Ah. That’s how you were supposed to do it, she realized.
Erin had never felt more like an [Innkeeper] than today. She adjusted her hat and listened, but she swore she could hear the world waiting.
“Two days then. Then after that—it’d better be the best level up of my life.”
And she swore she heard it say—
A Gnome smiled and winked at her as Erin made a plan for after the Solstice.
I’m back from my break. It wasn’t really a break, as you know. It was work, writing and stressing, but I haven’t posted a chapter aside from that tiny interlude for a while. I thank you all for your patience. I hope this chapter was decent. And I’ll talk a bit about what’s going on, if I may.
Firstly, Inktober has begun, and it is in full swing on the Discord and among the artists of the community. I have felt terrible that I haven’t been posting chapters because there is over two hundred pieces of new art, I believe, waiting for me to feature.
If you’d like to check out our Discord, please do so, but I will be featuring a sample of the great art with each chapter and it will be a long time before I run out! The quality is amazing.
Next, I have done an interview if you haven’t seen, with Matt’s Book Reviews and I’m glad people have appreciated it. It took…four months to make due to delays, so I appreciate his forbearance. Check it out here.
A lot’s gone on since I lost posted, and art contest and interviews aside, on the writing side I am pleased to make an announcement:
I have finally laid Huntsong to rest.
It’s done. Complete editing. Revisions? I reordered the entire book. I revised it twice. Huntsong is done, no more changes, no more edits. No more of me going back for another round.
468,972 words at final count, and it will go to Yonder for review, and we’ll send it off for recording. Though I may have to remove songs because the copyright process takes beyond forever.
I’m scattered, so forgive this Author’s Note. I feel as though I have fought a great battle. I’ve never had a novel take that much out of me or worked that hard on one, I think. Next time I shall do better; I made copious mistakes, but it is done.
What a relief. It hung over me, in both the deadline sense and the fact that I knew it had to be done, and it dragged things down, as I’m sure you noticed.
In victory I came back to the first chapter, and I think this is one of the hardest chapters I’ve fought to complete. Certainly, one of THE hardest first-chapters-back ever written.
It may be exhaustion? It may be that it’s just—time.
Time for the Winter Solstice. I’ve delayed it, and the truth is, I did it because I knew Huntsong was taking away my focus, but also because I didn’t want to write it. The stakes are high, and I, personally, am apprehensive for good reasons. But you’ve been waiting.
I am afraid, because I would tell you, honestly, I think I failed with the conclusion to the Orjin arc. It might have been passable by some bars, but if I write to that quality for the Solstice—I will have failed. Nevertheless, I will give myself time, and rewrite chapters if they are poor.
This one just barely passes my standards to post. But here’s my promise: every chapter is now going towards the Solstice. I have things to set up and I will want to time my break so I go into the Solstice at full power, but each chapter should be aimed at that. No more monthly polls until we’re there.
It’s time. I have a number of perspectives and things to set up, but we’re beginning.
Centaurs Cooking by Jawjee!
Dragonbreath by Paraffin!
Perorn and Foliana by Guliver!
Dreaming by jamcubi!
Seamwalker by Lanrae!
Innkeeper Dreams by adventurer!