9.68 – The Wandering Inn


(This chapter has a trigger warning for disturbing content. Click here for details. This is not a light warning.)

[A trigger-free version of the chapter, edited to remove the bulk of the disturbing scenes and describe the events therein, is located here. The password is ‘traumaFree’ without apostrophes.]

<A summary of the chapter has also been written here that notes all the chapter’s events in brief. The link is here. The password is also ‘traumaFree’ without apostrophes.>

{I released this chapter early so I will take until the 5th to release the next chapter. See Author’s Note for more.}





They came out of the tunnels as the Goddess of Death fell to pieces. Shadows in the night, discarding burnt spell-scrolls and bandaging their own wounds. The undead had not ignored them either, but they had been attacking from afar, sending servants into the fighting.

Three Djinni remained. No less than nine, two of them Agamta-potent, had been sent into the fighting, and that dead goddess had torn one apart. Draugr had raced into their ranks as well.

They had sent nearly two thousand, despite interceptions and delays—a number of high-level experts, but they had relied on their wealth to make a substantive impact. After the fighting, less than a tenth remained.

The greatest slaughter had actually come from the ghostly undead. Kasigna had spawned them underground; their first targets had been the hidden Antinium…and the lurking force, which found itself fighting ghosts and ethereal undead from all sides. It had saved the other armies from ambush from below, but the cost would be reckoned too high.

Yet they had a victory, of sorts. And here came another.

As the Gnoll, Iert, prowled towards The Wandering Inn, they had been disintegrating the bodies.

They looked nothing like what they were. A third seemed like Chandrarians, which they all were, but they had the iconic skeletal hand holding a golden coin—the symbol of Khelt—on their armor.

The other groups appeared to be either [Maids] or [Butlers]—or members of the Forgotten Wing company, and they split by groups. Searching.

The principal group masquerading as Eternal Khelt headed straight for the inn, and the Gnoll raised his sword overhead, though the cheering was sparse. Yet he had fought—he had come within a foot of Kasigna herself. The Gnoll touched his side; he hadn’t dared put the arrow in his bag of holding, so the tip was secured in a belt pouch, the shaft snapped off.

Halrac’s arrow. One of his top priorities. There would be no retreat until at least one more priority had been secured.

“Quarry located. Invrisil. They’re moving towards the door leading to Liscor.”

“Let them cross. I will be there once I secure the principal target.”

The Gnoll spoke into a stone, adjusting the casual course of his group, keeping far away from Magnolia Reinhart and her servants. Everyone was exhausted; [Soldiers] had simply collapsed where they stood or tried to find anyone alive in the carnage.

It was a straight shot to the inn, either way. Iert leaned against one wall as the other [Assassins] took positions well outside the inn, peering in via windows and confirming there were only two targets.

“Three. Shriekblade and the Hobgoblin and [Innkeeper]. Report for training after this.”

The Gnoll’s voice was quiet as he leaned up against one window; only he was certain he wouldn’t be picked up by Erin Solstice’s aura, despite her exhaustion as she put her head down. The [Assassins] hesitated. Iert spoke.

“Squad two. Keep away from Magnolia Reinhart. Forget the auxiliary targets if they’re on the battlefield.”

They signaled affirmation. Iert grunted. Yazdil would have been best served if only his people were here, but the Naga was no longer in principal control. The Gnoll watched as [Assassins] loaded blow darts with piercing tips and a sleeping powder.

There was no way she should have noticed them. When one snuck in via the window he’d slowly maneuvered open, the [Assassin] fired the dart when Iert was sure she was asleep—

Yet she almost leapt into that garden. 

Iert tackled her to the ground and used his fallback—[Deep Slumber]. Tier 5.

An [Assassin] hoisted Erin Solstice onto his shoulder as Ulvama shouted. Iert blew a cloud of sleeping dust into her face, and she recoiled, coughing. Then his fur stood on end as someone dropped down from the rafters.

“Who? Roshal? Die.

Shriekblade landed on the [Assassin] who’d grabbed Erin and drove a blade through the Stitch-woman’s ear. More of the [Assassins] poured into the inn. Iert turned as Ulvama recoiled, coughing.

She’s not falling over. She must be able to resist sleeping dust. Iert raised his shortswords, and Shriekblade was on top of him, slashing, so fast two strikes skated off his enchanted armor, despite his best guard.

Named-rank. They had one as well, besides Iert. The Drake took two more slashes at Iert before the charge from Aotazen, Arenabreaker, tossed her across the room and cracked the wall. She probably broke several bones as the [Juggernaut of Sin] kept charging at her.

A Stitch-man eight feet tall with a chest as wide across as a bull’s, and the same physique to match, strode forwards in bronze armor, the same he had once worn in Roshal’s largest arena where he had earned his name. The old bronze was enchanted, and he had added more muscle since the Sinew Magus’ gymnasium and his weight-lifting techniques had spread to Roshal.

Aotazen’s corded arms bulged, and he crossed them between his face and kept charging. He smashed through the table and chairs as if they were made of dust—his [Unstoppable Charge] hit one wall as Shriekblade dove away, and he halted rather than injure himself. Yet the entire inn shook from that single impact.

Iert drew something from his bag of holding. One of the [Assassins] slid a collar around Erin Solstice’s neck.

“Cuffs too.”

They hesitated. You did that for Djinni newly bound—but they bent over. Iert saw another [Assassin] grab Ulvama and begin to choke her—he tossed something as he saw Shriekblade dodge and cut into Aotazen’s arm. She was snarling, and the Named-rank began to roar before Iert silenced him—

Two [Assassins] had tagged Shriekblade with tranquilizing darts, but she didn’t even pause. Another person resistant to alchemy. She was charging at Iert as he blew something through the air. She rushed through it as he backpedaled, on the defensive again.

One strike cut open his cheek. He snarled silently as she passed through the cloud without any effect. Tessa’s eyes were wide, and she was opening her mouth now, cracked ribs or not, to scream—when her deadly dance faltered.

The dust clinging to her scales was slightly red. It hadn’t harmed her. Her report said she could drink poison and not lose much efficacy. However—

Iert blew another pawful of dust and then lifted the bag. One of the Ranks leapt at Tessa with a collar. They were all over Level 30, but she diced them in a second, blades severing the neck, jabbing twice through the collarbone with dull cracks.

—But her eyes were on the bag. She inhaled the red powder, and Iert spoke.

“Selphid Dust.”

The highest grade Lailight Scintillation carried, and she was apparently purged of her addictions. That probably made it worse. Her eyes tracked the bag as her pupils dilated hugely. She was shaking, and Iert spoke as she recoiled, fast as a snake—

“[Restore Addictions].”

The Naga’s servant had many Skills. Tessa stopped dead in place, then began clawing at her face. She leapt as Iert tossed the bag, and it fell, trailing more dust. She scrambled after it across the floor, dropping her blades, hunching over it—Iert turned away.

“Clear the inn—now.”

They had about thirty seconds before she went berserk. Aotazen was looming over Tessa, fists raised.

“She’s on the list, Master Iert—”

“Leave her. We’re not tangling with a Named-rank on Selphid Dust. Where’s the Hobgoblin?”

She was gone. Iert turned. He’d been distracted in the scuffle, but the [Assassin]—

Dead. The one who’d been choking her had a broken neck. Iert hadn’t seen Ulvama vanish, but one of the Ranks reported.

“She went through a door and then appeared on the far side of the inn—”

“[Garden of Sanctuary]. She’s about to raise the alarm. Kill her. Secure the other targets now—”


Iert processed the sound from across the Floodplains, but his ears registered the sound, and he flinched. There was only one device that made that noise, and he counted—twenty-four shots? That was every single one the team had.

“What did you do?”

He howled into the speaking stone as the squad around him jerked in alarm. There was a pause—then a hornblast and screams and shouting as Roshal’s forces blew whatever cover they had.

Iert raced from the inn with his people around him. Aotazen was looking left and right.

“Master Iert, do we go?”

“Not without at least one from the auxiliary list! Our quarry—squad three, secure them! We’re going into Liscor after auxiliary targets and our other primary. Go!”

Iert didn’t ask about squad two. As he raced outside, he saw what was going on, clear as day. It must have been one of the others’ orders. Iert heard a single scream.





Tyrion Veltras had been asking where Ryoka was; they had gotten separated in the last moments of fighting. He had been counting the dead and looking for Buscrei and demanding to know whether Oswen was really—gone.

The Five Families had gathered together with the Drakes, for once, in a silence that transcended animosity. Wall Lord Aldonss was dead. General Duln was dead. Wall Lord Ilvriss and General Shirka, the two ranking commanders, had met Tyrion’s eyes, and he’d held out a hand without a word.

Then…Ressa had looked up and called out to a group of Dullahans, Lizardfolk, and Humans wearing the Forgotten Wing’s insignia. It had been so fast. Tyrion had observed something was off and was putting his shield up as the group raised these odd—weapons—in their grips. Long tubes.

Then they had exploded, and Magnolia Reinhart had staggered as she raised a hand—looked down at crimson stains on her pink dress and then down at Ressa.

The [Head Maid] had thrown herself in the way of the [Lady], and her outfit was shredded. Both of them had been hit. Magnolia’s lips moved as Tyrion Veltras staggered—three objects had struck him across the chest, but ricocheted off into the ground.

The two women slowly collapsed into the grass as Tyrion Veltras reached out, eyes trying to find one of the things that had hit his armor. What was it?

He was not the only one who had been attacked. The [Knights] of Solstice, Chieftain Rags, Emperor Laken, and the old man, Demsleth, had all been attacked. Normen was wounded; Demsleth was pulling something out of his chest, and the traitors were attacking now, throwing themselves at each of their targets.

Jericha was staggering, eyes open wide in horror as the [Maids] and [Butlers] turned. Xitegen—deaf, looking around, shielding his face. Then the ‘Forgotten Wing company’s [Soldiers] drew their blades and—fled.

Or tried to.

Perorn Fleethoof rode down on the first assassin and slashed their head off. She was covered in blood, but her voice rang across the Floodplains.

Treachery! Protect Erin Solstice! Treach—

A Djinni exploded upwards, shedding their disguise, and it was chaos. Perorn was pointing towards the inn, and [Soldiers] were crying out, thinking Kasigna had returned or it was undead. No one knew who was attacking, and the first person who got to the inn came out clutching at his arm.

“She’s gone mad. Run.”

Ishkr. Then Tessa came out of the inn, screaming and frothing at the mouth, attacking everyone she could see, and Erin was gone. They didn’t realize that for precious minutes—when Tyrion finally got inside and saw the inn was empty—

Only then did he turn back to Liscor as more alarms blared and realize who they were going after.




Mrsha, Hethon, Sammial, Visma, Ekirra, Apista, and Nanette appeared in the grass outside of Liscor at last.

“No, tell me what it means. Go back! Go back! I want to see—”

Sammial was shouting in frustration, but the children appeared out of the dark. The snow parted and revealed vines and blooming flowers for a second, a twilight path.

Then they were looking around and shivering, and Nerry snarled as she tensed, the two wands strapped to her sides glowing. Nanette was holding the lamb, pointing her around as she spoke.

“Is the battle over? They said ‘she’ was gone. Let’s go—”

“Where’s Father? Ryoka?”

Hethon’s question made Sammial turn. Without a word, the children stopped and were hailed from the gates. The southern gates had been untouched by the fighting, but the Watch saw them instantly.

Hold your fire! It’s Mrsha and the children. Get in, now! Signal the inn—no, wait. Signal Numbtongue and Bird!”

Beilmark was pale faced and hurt. Mrsha stared up at her, then smelled the blood and fear in the air. Yet the air was silent…

“Where did you come from? Ekirra, Visma, your parents were worried sick. Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion was attacked.”

Beilmark ran down to meet them, and the kids babbled answers. Ekirra shouted.

“It was! We were gonna die—”

“Miss Nanette was shooting magic from her wand! And Nerry! Then the wall grabbed Hethon—”

Visma. Beilmark heard Sammy shouting.

“Tons of ‘em! But they said they’re dead! They didn’t look dead, and they didn’t acknowledge me! It’s not fair!”

“Where’s House Veltras? Is my father alive?”

Hethon’s voice was loudest of them all. He shouted, and all fell silent. Beilmark twisted to a [Guard].

“I—I think Tyrion Veltras made it. They’re alive. Some of—there were casualties.”

“Anyone from House Veltras?”

“I heard all of Oswen’s gone.”

Sammy and Hethon stopped talking, and Beilmark drew a finger across her throat.

“We don’t know that. Lady Buscrei’s alive. She’s the bowmaster, right? Listen, it’s not safe at—grab Mrsha!

The Gnoll girl had tried to go running with Apista towards The Wandering Inn, but a Drake grabbed her, and Beilmark made a fast decision.

“It’s not safe out there. Into Liscor, now. I’ll find Selys—no. I’ll find Krshia or someone else. Come on.”

They hurried through the gates as Nanette put Nerry down, and the Sariant ran after them. They had questions, but Beilmark didn’t want to answer them. Why would Selys not be available? Was she hurt? The children babbled questions, but they had a few answers when someone rushed into Shivertail Plaza.

“Mrsha! I knew you were alive!”

Bird charged into the square, waving at Mrsha, and she raced over to hug him, sobbing. The Antinium had several cuts on his chitin that looked deep, but he was safe, and—and Antinium were all around him.

“Do not go out of the gates, Mrsha, Nanette. It is filled with sadness. But Erin is safe, and so is Numbtongue and—how did you get here? I thought you were in Invrisil.”

“We were in the Vale Forest! I think!”

Nanette tried to explain, and Bird tried to understand. Mrsha was staring at a group of Silent Antinium with huge scythe blades, who were agitatedly rubbing them together.

“Revalantor Bird, we must go to the Free Queen now. Treachery. The Hives are discussing attacking the Flying Queen, but the Grand Queen forbids it.”

“Oh. I will go later, after I see Erin.”

Bird glanced at the Silent Antinium’s Prognugator, and Mrsha stared at him. Treachery? Bird didn’t tell her what was going on. Then they heard a bang—and Mrsha’s ears perked up. It sounded far, far off, past Liscor’s walls. But then there were horn calls and…and…

Bird turned in a moment, and his antennae froze.

“Someone shot Magnolia Reinhart. The inn—”

He raised his bow and hesitated as the Antinium susurrated. Mrsha saw Bird turn to her.

“Stay here. I will go find Erin.”

He took off running with all the Antinium around him. Mrsha almost ran after him, but Nanette grabbed her hand.

“Don’t! If it’s dangerous—let’s find someone who can help! Is Miss Ryoka alright? Where’s Emperor Laken?”

Suddenly, the children were running, asking everyone in sight questions. There was more chaos in the air, and Mrsha’s ears caught a babble of voices.

“Someone’s attacked Riverfarm! The [Emperor]—”

“It’s Khelt! They’re wearing Khelt’s—”

“Lock down the city, now! Close the gates!”

Chaos. Mrsha was dragging at Nanette’s hand, now, and pointing. If they didn’t know where to go—Selys! Mrsha was leading everyone through the streets towards Selys’ mansion when she slowed and came to a stop.

“Found the auxiliaries. Grab those two and move. Now.”

Eight figures wearing Khelt’s symbol skidded to a stop and ran at the children as one spoke into a speaking stone. Without a word, Nerry, who’d been running to keep up, fired both wands. Mrsha flinched as Nanette hesitated.


A wave of liquid so hot it burnt the feet off one of the [Assassins] made them stumble—then collapse, shrieking. The others leapt as a slicing blade of wind hit one in the chest and cut them down.


Hethon Veltras stared at the [Assassins], then pushed at Nanette. Sammial shouted it.





Iert’s team had split. He had sent the [Assassins] after the auxiliary targets, and they reported they’d found the children.

Iert and Aotazen had gone after their primary target, who mattered more.

Ryoka Griffin.

She’d been flying over Liscor, and they’d tracked her onto a street and approached, asking for help. Ryoka had turned, and Iert had let two [Assassins] hit her with darts.

The Wind Runner took a step, looked puzzled, then alarmed, and the wind began to howl—

Then faded.

Iert stepped forwards fast, grabbed the Wind Runner before her head could strike the ground, and glanced around. Several civilians were staring at him in shock—he shoved the Wind Runner at another [Assassin].

“That’s two. Squads—report.”

“Squad one. The children are escaping.”

“You’re letting children escape?”

“The lamb has magical wands!”

It was like a stupid damn joke. Iert snarled back.

“You are Roshal’s finest. Grab them. Squad three?”

“Engaging. Lady Reinhart’s servants are holding us off. They fight as well as Ranks. I will have the targets. I can likely secure the [Princess] as well.”

Squad three’s leader was a Face. Iert paused.

“…Leave her. Meet us at the rendezvous the moment you have them. Be warned—the gate to Liscor may now be open.”

He heard a grunt, which summed up his feelings. Squad two had botched the entire operation. Which one of the others had ordered this? Yazdil would be furious. Worse, the second squad actually had the temerity to chime in at this point.

“Master Iert! We have fulfilled our orders and are trying to take the [Emperor], but we are surrounded! They have killed a Djinni!”

Iert grunted as he heard a transmission from the second squad. He spoke into the stone crisply as Aotazen inhaled.

“Someone’s following us, Master Iert.”

“To the tunnels. Squad three, you have ten minutes. Meet us there—now. Squad two?”

“Master Iert? If you give us your two Djinni—”

The voice was begging. The Gnoll glanced towards the gates. He spoke into the stone.

“You’ll never make it to us with the [Emperor]. The code phrase is: ‘Nuretic adevinial preservic’. Lure the [Soldiers] and the Forgotten Wing Company towards the inn. Then kill yourselves and make sure you leave no traces.”

He heard a sobbing choke, then cut the connection. Iert glanced down.

“All three principal targets are with us. Two bodies, one object. Get me the auxiliaries. Ideally six.”

Though that might limit their exit to a few hundred miles as opposed to a few thousand. But the Naga willed it. Then Iert was running towards the entry point they’d used, a length of rope tied to the battlements the Watch hadn’t noticed. To the Antinium tunnels. He hoped there would be no more surprises, but he was listening in on both squads still attacking their targets.

He didn’t like what he heard.




Invrisil’s streets had been quiet during the Winter Solstice. People sat indoors staring at the blank scrying orb or watched their windows but didn’t go out on that dark night. The streets had been filled with unswept snow.

Now they were glowing, walls and glass windows flashing as magic streaked across the main street where dozens of servants were fighting, grappling or cutting at figures wearing black armor—[Assassins]—and the snow was turning red.

Bodies were strewn across the street, bled out or mangled by magical fire. A roaring [Druid] in a warshape hurled [Assassins] away from him, and they died—there were no healing potions to mend a slashed throat. It wasn’t worth wasting on Roshal’s regular [Assassins]. Even so, they should have been better than this.

“The servants of Magnolia Reinhart are holding us back. Disgraceful.”

A masked figure, a Face of Roshal, watched as two [Knights] grabbed a screaming [Princess] and towed her away to safety. She didn’t go after them. Instead, she watched as the Ranks of Roshal, the [Assassins] who were supposed to be the best in the world, fought and died.

Evenly matched with Magnolia Reinhart’s servants. Perhaps not a disgrace, then. Credit to her for watching Izril’s shores. No wonder she’d hamstrung Izril’s guild.

The [Druid] was the worst problem. He’d torn two dozen [Assassins] apart already. Still, he was bleeding, and the Face aimed a bow at a cluster of servants guarding the auxiliary targets.

Kevin, Joseph, Imani. She was one of Roshal’s Faces, not in service to the Naga, but all of Roshal served one another in some way.

A Selphid. So features mattered little. Her name was Yoreth.

She fired a Void Arrow at the largest cluster of servants, and twenty of them vanished with one of the Ranks who dodged back too slow. Then fired another arrow. Phoenixfire.

The explosion sent Nalthaliarstrelous reeling, roaring in agony as his gigantic animal form burst into flames that would not go out as he rolled around. The streets the [Assassins] were fighting across collapsed into the sewers, and Invrisil’s buildings caught fire.

The servants caught in the blast that were not instantly obliterated were flaming corpses. Yet the rest fought on—hard.

The Face was striding forwards to end the fighting when she heard a warning sound in her ear.

“Mistress Yoreth—a spell just locked down our teleportation—”

The speaking stone went dead as she felt every piece of magic gear below artifact-class go dead.

[Mass Dispel Magic]. That wasn’t Magnolia Reinhart, though. Then Yoreth felt a chill on her skin.

Aura. It was heavy—but weakened instantly.

She turned and leapt impossibly high, kicking off the walls of the buildings around her as a [Siege Fireball] blew the Ranks around her to bits. Yoreth caught a wall and used [Spider Touch], holding herself in place as she looked down.

Damn. The door must be open even if the [Innkeeper] was out. She spotted a [Lady] in a tracksuit, shielding her face with one arm, and a burly Drake. Neither one was an auxiliary target, but they were concerning. Magus Grimalkin had a lesser mark on his head for optional assassination.

They must have run through to secure the [Princess] the moment second squad tipped everyone off. Their instincts were good, and Yoreth cursed as she continued to dodge upwards. At least the [Lady]’s aura wasn’t working well.

Magus Grimalkin and Lady Pryde were already there, and a stream of [Light Arrows] from a Centaur took an [Assassin] off their feet.


That must be the Centaur, Palt. The Earthers were shouting in relief as Yoreth stared down and realized the Sinew Magus had knocked out communications.

What were the odds he could stop a [Teleportation] spell? She didn’t like it. Yoreth spoke to everyone in earshot.

“If we cannot capture the targets—fall back.”

They’d simply retreat. The Ranks weren’t keen on dying and began to stream away as they tried to slow the Sinew Magus’ advance. He was looking up at her, pointing a finger—Yoreth leapt, dodging through the air like a cloud of mist. She pivoted, drew two objects from her belt.

“Kevin Hall is the most dangerous.”

Her orders were very clear if she couldn’t secure him. The young man looked up as he heard his name. His mouth opened.


Then he saw the pair of objects Yoreth pointed down at him. Grimalkin reached out, but he was so slow—and Yoreth only had to speak a word.

“[Pinpoint Shot].”

The weapons she held were so beautiful and so crude. A piece of enchanted metal tubing set in hand-carved magical Sascrel wood, written with magical runes down the barrel’s length, overly fat and wide-barreled, stuffed with a loaded paper cylinder.

But the design was unmistakable. A hammer on one end touched a glowing red gem as Yoreth squeezed on a metal trigger. Magic and handcrafted materials in a design from the dawn of this object’s ancestry.

A caveman of weapons adorned in magic and jewels. The black muzzle rose as the Earthers stared into the black belly of an idea from their home. The staring mouth of a weapon. That black hole turned red in the flash—that lasted forever.

A crimson glow and a voice that spoke from the barrel of the gun, a promise that it would write its name and nature across the world. Just like this. And a sound that captured the sound exactly—and not at all, louder than time.





Kevin fell over as Joseph flinched. Kevin stumbled back, fell down, and Joseph saw the figure land, and Grimalkin froze. Joseph looked down and saw something wrong.

There was a hole in Kevin’s chest right where his heart should be. The [Engineer] stared up as Joseph bent down and looked around.

“Healing…does anyone have a healing…”

Did those fix hearts? Kevin looked entirely surprised as he gasped, then coughed.

“Joseph? I never thought it’d be me. I never thought it’d—”


A second shot made Joseph flinch. He heard a scream—but Kevin was staring up at him, and Joseph bent his head as he waited for a third. He heard a whisper in his ears.

“It’s our responsibility, now. It’s on you, man. I’m sorry. Tell…we have to—them that I…”

Joseph waited, but Kevin’s voice trailed off. The [Football Manager] held his friend—then looked up as he saw the black-clad figures fleeing and heard a second name.




Yoreth took a second to confirm Kevin Hall was dead and aimed the second pistol. Grimalkin had a moment to choose, and he shielded Pryde with his body. Then saw who Yoreth was aiming for.

The Selphid saw two eyes open wide, and Imani flinched away. She turned her head and shouted.

“Palt. Ru—

Yoreth fired the second gun, and Imani’s head jerked in the moment before the Centaur covered her with his body. He galloped past her, arms spread wide, then circled and caught her.

Palt looked down at Imani’s shattered eye socket and a piece of metal smoking in her skull. He stumbled and fell, trying to find a potion, a spell.

“Imani? Imani—

She stared up at him, one eye wide and empty. The other eye socket…Palt shook her gently.

He didn’t remember the Selphid until Yoreth was turning away, a scowl on her face. Palt’s wand rose as the [Illusionist]’s head came up.

Yoreth raced away as Grimalkin gave chase. Palt fired [Light Arrows], burning through his mana, a stream of Tier 1 spells—and the [Assassin] never looked back. The spells glanced off her back, and she vanished.

Palt began to get up, eyes wide, chest heaving—until he felt something on his arm. Imani’s hand was twitching. Palt looked down—then picked her up in his arms.

He began to run, screaming for help, as Joseph looked down and felt the blood running down his arms slowly grow cold and stop. When he looked up—his eyes were blank. He waited and waited, but he was alive.

“Why me?”




“Squad three has gone silent. They have been destroyed or their communication spells are down. We will operate on the former assumption. Squad one, reform with your targets—now.”

The [Assassins] in Liscor hadn’t been decimated, unlike their counterparts, but every group was having—trouble.

“Master Iert, we have secured our target. Moving to rendezvous.”

“We have run into the Antinium—”

The squad chasing the children had grabbed both Nanette and Mrsha, but had run into—difficulties.

Firstly, the Watch, who’d attacked when they saw the chase. One squad of eight had to be killed—and the lamb had amazingly good aim. The bee had stung one of the [Assassins] straight through the eye.

That wouldn’t stop one of Roshal’s Ranks. But one of the [Lords] kept hurling the [Assassins] back with pure aura, and they did not have orders from the Naga to kill Sammial Veltras. One of them had been about to kill both pets with a [Homing Throw] when Bird had shot them through the forehead.

Then the Silent Antinium and Bird’s own Antinium had raced into the fighting. One of the Listeners had warned Bird, and the Silent Antinium locked blades with the [Assassins].

“Mrsha. Nanette. Come here.”

Bird shot a fourth [Assassin] through the head and judged Mrsha would be safe. They were fast and quick, but outnumbered by the Silent Antinium, who threw themselves forwards with the same disregard for their safety as the [Assassins].

Then he saw one of them jerk—and glowing eyes peered around.

“Ridiculous. These are Roshal’s finest? I will do it myself.”

“Uh oh. Watch—”

Suddenly, one of the faltering [Assassin]’s postures changed. She…he? Lifted a blade and suddenly cleaved through six of the Silent Antinium so fast Bird barely saw him move. He leapt and threw his sword through a seventh before pulling the blade out and feeling at his belt.

“Claim the children. Or you will all suffer my wrath.”

The remaining [Assassins] threw themselves forwards as this strange leader glanced at Bird.

“You must be Antinium. Disgusting. I would not chain you. I fail to see the appeal.”

“Lord Pazeral—”

“Do not interrupt me.”

The figure beheaded an [Assassin] trying to silence him. They turned their blade back and blocked an arrow Bird shot at their face, then a second and a third. The arrows snapped off the blade, and Bird heard Mrsha make a sound.

“Mrsha, Nanette. Run.”

He kept loosing arrows, fast as he could. Lord Pazeral deflected them carelessly until the [Piercing Shot] Bird had mixed into his arrows punched a hole straight through the man’s shoulder. Lord Pazeral glanced down at the hole in his body as his hand went limp.

“Is that it?”

Bird leapt into the air.

[Wings of Escieda]. They opened around him, jade wings that buzzed and kept him airborne—Bird stared down at his foot. It was missing. The leaping stab had nearly caught him.

[Lesser Dragonbreath Arrow].

This time, Pazeral dodged and lifted his hand.

“[Aegis of Roshal’s Chos—]”

Lightning boomed down the street like thunder, and Bird saw his target vanish in the dust. He flew higher—and saw the breaking barrier vanish as Pazeral leapt at him.

If you fly, you’re a bird. Die.

Bird shot eight arrows before the two crashed to earth and saw the body flinch—but the man behind it just grimaced as he regarded an arrow sticking out of his collarbone and another in his side. His sword was impaling Bird on the ground.

“Poor quality materials. Collect the children. Where—”

Bird was in a great deal of pain. But his bow wasn’t broken for once. He raised it slowly as the [Lord of Possession] eyed him disdainfully.

All the [Assassins] were dead. Pazeral heard an odd sound in the air and paused.

“Lovely music. Ah—”

He looked up, and the bolt of lightning met his sword as he tore it out of Bird’s chest. The blade melted, and Pazeral stumbled back—then drew a dagger.

“Now you die.”

The Hobgoblin met the furious onslaught of slashes from the dagger with difficulty. Numbtongue grunted as a dagger plunged into his chest, but glanced off a rib—then Pazeral slashed across his neck. Numbtongue’s recoil barely prevented his entire throat from being opened up.

“Here we are.”

Lord Pazeral kicked a sword into the air and caught it. He pointed it at Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin exhaled and lifted his Dragonblood crystal blade.

He didn’t realize Pazeral had no regard for his ‘life’. The [Lord] leapt, inviting the Hobgoblin’s cut.

In the flicker of time between the two meeting, Pazeral looked right—grimaced—and flicked the sword through the air.

Then Bird’s arrow shot him in the head. Numbtongue beheaded the [Lord of Possession], and Pazeral’s spirit vanished with a sigh. Numbtongue whirled.


Bird was on his back, a sword through his head. The Free Queen jerked as she caught his soul, and Bird whispered to her.

The inn. 

Every Antinium in Liscor went berserk as Numbtongue cried out and then grabbed Mrsha and Nanette. But Erin—




“Even Lord Pazeral failed? Very well. Tell me you have one auxiliary.”

Selys Shivertail, Krshia Silverfang, Liska or Ishkr Silverfang—any of them. If the inn hadn’t been empty, they would have grabbed ‘Peggy’ or a Knight of Solstice.

Iert stood in the snow at the mouth of the hidden tunnels that led to the Hivelands. It would be a long journey—and perilous if they’d angered the Free Queen. The other agents wanted to leave, even Aotazen.

“Lord Iert, do we need—

The Named-rank stopped whining as the Gnoll looked at him. Iert did not enjoy failure. He had the arrow, Erin Solstice, and Ryoka Griffin, both of whom were lying silent at his feet. But his master wanted an auxiliary, preferably multiple.

Squad one had been reduced greatly. Iert spoke.

“Unleash both Djinni.”

Two magical beings arose, both of whom bowed to Iert instantly. He gave them crisp instructions.

“Ward us upon our return in accordance to your understanding of the word in your contract. I, and the safety of these two, are your principle concerns.”

“As you will it.”

They carried glowing scimitars, and both had four arms. Iert growled. He should have demanded more Djinni, more [Assassins]…but they might have been noticed. There were eyes even in Roshal.

“Squad one, where are you?

The last [Assassins] finally appeared out of the snow, away from Liscor, which was shaking with alarms. Iert was tense; he knew the Antinium could hear them, and so he snapped.

“You got the auxiliary?”

Auxiliary—we got a primary, Lord Iert! And possibly an auxiliary. We could not check the list. They were fighting. Both came out of The Wandering Inn from Invrisil. ”

One of the Earthers? If it was Princess Lyonette, he would kill them all.

“We have all the primaries—”

They hadn’t even sedated them! Both were struggling, albeit gagged and bound with handcuffs that nullified magic and skills. Iert bent down as he stared at—

Ryoka Griffin and Persua Mavva. His head jerked up. Persua Mavva was definitely on the Naga’s list. But—

He stared at the Wind Runner who lay unconscious, then the other Ryoka. The second Ryoka tore off her gag and began shouting.

“Erin? What the fuck’s going on? Hey, untie me or I’ll kill you. Erin? Wake up—it’s the Solstice. This can’t be happening. Erin?”

“Help! Don’t hurt me!”

Persua was wailing in terror. Iert stared at the [Assassins] and leapt to the logical conclusion.

“Body doubles. Or a clone Skill? You—”

He grabbed Persua’s hair and yanked her head up. She babbled.

I’m a City Runner, and Mihaela Godfrey will kill you if you hurt us! Ryoka is Lord Tyrion’s girlfriend. If you harm us—

“You sent a message to my master. Or tried to. What was it?”

Months ago, Persua Mavva had begun to send a [Message] to Roshal, and the Emir Yazdil specifically, regarding Ryoka Griffin. She had decided not to—but the [Mage] she had hired had passed the information along, and the Naga was curious. Doubly so when he found out she had last met ‘Rastandius’, one of the greatest [Soothsayers] of the modern era.

The Naga never forgot these things.

Iert saw Persua’s eyes go round. The City Runner jerked and stared at Ryoka, who raised her head with a look of disgust and fury.


For a second, Iert saw Persua waver, then her eyes slid sideways, and she stuttered.

“I—I—I was just trying to get her in trouble. I didn’t mean anything.”

Well, that decided him. Iert dropped her with a grunt.

“Grab that one too. I’ll transit her myself. Fall back through the tunnels right now. They’ll be all over us in a minute.”

Relieved, the [Assassins] moved the two Runners close to Erin and the first Ryoka, and Iert carefully took a scroll out and unrolled it. Still, he didn’t like the two Ryokas one bit, and he saw the other one struggling.

“Let her go. She’s my friend. Erin? Wake up. Erin—

She was straining at her handcuffs, and Iert snapped.

“Put them both to sleep.”

An [Assassin] instantly cast a spell, and Ryoka kept thrashing as Iert saw a purple mist run over her. The [Assassin] paused.

“[Slumber] isn’t working, Lord Iert.”

Artifact? The Gnoll’s hair began to stand up on end. He saw Ryoka pulling at her handcuffs now, and her skin was deforming from the strain.

“Aotazen, knock her out. No—break that one’s legs.”

Persua flinched as the [Juggernaut] bent down with a grin and grabbed one of Ryoka’s legs. The Wind Runner was hyperventilating now.

“She’s my friend. Don’t touch her. Do no harm. Don’t touch—”

Aotazen grabbed one leg and held his hand against Ryoka’s thigh—then snapped it. Persua shrieked.


Ryoka Griffin gazed at her broken leg without even flinching. Then she looked up at Aotazen. Her arms flexed—

Ryoka tore one arm free of the magical restraints with such force the metal bit down to her bones and tore the flesh off her hand. Iert saw the magic explode and recoiled as Ryoka sat up, then tried to stand.


Aotazen punched her into the ground instantly. Ryoka stared up at the sky, nose clearly broken, then sat up. Iert paused as Aotazen grabbed her and began to choke her out efficiently.

“She is insane, Master Iert.”

The Named-rank grinned, but Iert was inspecting the manacles along with the Ranks. They didn’t look defective. He knew how strong they were.

They should have destroyed her bones before they would come off. Even the Djinni eyed the second ‘Ryoka’—and Iert saw the hint of a smile on one of their lips.

“Aotazen—kill her now!

The Named-rank hesitated. He released Ryoka’s arm, went to snap her neck—and Ryoka Griffin stood up.

Her leg was broken, but she stood lightly, and the [Juggernaut] snapped her neck around. Ryoka’s neck twisted around until it faced him, and Iert heard the bones crunch. Persua screamed—and Ryoka spoke.


Aotazen’s grin turned to a look of shock. Ryoka gripped his arm as it seized her—then twisted her body around until her neck was facing the right way. Then she headbutted the Named-rank.

It didn’t hurt Aotazen. Ryoka lashed out in a series of punches that looked good—for someone at Level 15. The Named-rank stared at her, then caught one fist, snapped her wrist until he saw bone—she jumped back and twisted into a roundhouse kick.

This time, he staggered, and Iert felt something in the ground. The Named-rank cursed, caught a fist, and Ryoka grabbed his hand as it went to crush her face.

The Named-rank stopped—and Iert saw his muscles bulge as Ryoka whispered.

“Protect her. Protect her. I’m such a failureshe’smyfriendIhatePersuaprotectherdonoharm—


Persua was staring at Ryoka’s legs. They weren’t broken anymore. Then Aotazen, a trained former [Gladiator], lost patience or sensed the danger and jerked a knee up as Ryoka grabbed him.

He broke her ribs, making her recoil, and rushed forwards. His fist deformed her face, smashed her skull to bits—the Named-rank kept punching and punching until a hand grabbed his arm again.

I’m going to kill you.

Ryoka Griffin’s face regenerated as Iert backed up a step. The Named-rank adventurer recoiled from Ryoka in horror.

“She’s not Human—”

Iert snapped.

Kill her. Now!

The [Assassins] impaled ‘Ryoka’ from all sides. One went to behead her, but the blade stopped halfway through her skin. Now, ‘Ryoka’ was growing. She slowly bent Aotazen’s hands back as his limbs trembled and the earth shook. He was straining with all his might, but Ryoka was getting bigger and bigger—

It hurts.

One punch drove the [Juggernaut of Sin] into the ground. He lay there, stunned, as the shapeshifter from the High Passes turned and its flesh bulged and exploded. It reformed instantly and seized one [Assassin]—tore their head off, then looked around for Iert.

The Gnoll was ten steps back, cursing as he saw Persua, Erin, and Ryoka at the thing’s feet.

Get the others to me. Now!

He dodged sideways as ‘Ryoka’ grabbed at him, faster now. Iert swung his blades through her arm and felt resistance. A punch sent him reeling, and the Djinni were rising into the air. One had a ball of fire, the other was poised to dive with both swords drawn.

A hand made of colors seized one Djinni, and a voice screamed.

Let them go!

Ulvama’s warpaints were glowing, and the [Shaman] had conjured a painted hand that smashed one Djinni into the ground. Iert swore, but the Goblin was alone. She must have tracked them somehow.

Now, the two Djinni were fighting the Hob, and the thing that was pretending to be Ryoka was engulfed in flames. A Void Bolt blew off part of its head—and it groaned as it reformed.


Persua gaped up in horror as she stared at—whatever this thing really was. Then she noticed a second body lying on the ground.


Iert snatched Erin, dragged her back, and an [Assassin] went for Ryoka—the shapeshifter seized the figure and squeezed.

“No harm.”

Iert didn’t go for Ryoka. He backed up another step, snapping orders.

“Djinni, get those two and bring them to me!”


A tense voice came from overhead. Iert snarled. It was one [Shaman]—then he saw Ulvama pulling more painted creations out of the air.

Of all of the inn’s defenders, she had also been waiting for that final moment that had never come. The [Shaman] pulled a blade out of the air and swung it through one of the Djinni’s swords.


The Djinni began screaming as he bled mana into the air. The second dodged the sword as Ulvama swung it—it was vanishing, and her face was pale.


Copies of Erin’s spell burst into life, painted fish, red and green and yellow and more colors, with huge teeth, tearing at the Djinni. Ulvama’s eyes were wide, and she was staring at Iert.

She knew what he was. She ran for Erin, drawing a dagger, and the Gnoll slashed her across the face and down her front, but shallowly. She drove a blade into his armor, and he struck her twice on the cheek and came to a swift decision.

“Squad one—fall back to the ships. Range is…3204 miles. Give me a confirmation my calculations are correct. Naga’s Den, mark yourselves for teleportation. Emir, we have fewer passengers than expected; I will be teleporting directly to sea. All ships, withdraw after pickup of auxiliary teams.”

[Assassins] backed away from the shapeshifter as Iert knocked Ulvama down, stomped on her, and unrolled a glowing scroll. Ulvama lifted her arms as the fake Ryoka turned.


That made four—if he grabbed Ryoka. The [Assassins] were trying, but Iert growled and saw more disruptions. Antinium burst from the ground a hundred feet away as Archmage Valeterisa dove, drawn to the sounds of the fighting.


He drew one of the new weapons from his belt, fired it, and the shot knocked one of the Antinium flat and put a hole in its chest. Iert went deaf and cursed—he couldn’t use a mass-destruction weapon with Ryoka Griffin lying there. Then he saw her rising into the air and the Archmage of Izril diving.

“Time to go. Am I within calculations? Is the spell secure?”

Iert paused one second until he heard three affirmations in his earpiece. Then he whispered the spell as the skies lit up.

“[Greater Teleport].”

He vanished with two of his primary targets—and an auxiliary—in tow. Aotazen tried to grab for him, but the Gnoll vanished in a shower of light, and the Named-rank cried out.

“Master Iert. What about—”

The shapeshifter picked up the Named-rank adventurer, and Aotazen punched furiously, shrieking. The gigantic ‘Ryoka’ opened her mouth and—

Archmage Valeterisa and the Antinium avoided ‘Ryoka’ and chased the fleeing [Assassins] whom Iert had abandoned. The Archmage was shouting into a spell.

“They have teleported away! Ryoka Griffin is here! I am tracking—”

The shapeshifter was still on fire, bleeding red into the snow, and looked around for something else to kill as Aotazen’s screaming finally stopped. Erin was gone. Ulvama was gone. Iert was gone.

Valeterisa lifted the real Wind Runner into the air as the Antinium raced down the tunnel after the [Assassins].

That only left…her eyes slowly travelled downwards, and there, lying petrified on the ground, was a shaking, white-faced City Runner. Persua looked up.

“Ryoka? I—it’s me. Persua.”

She saw the face of ‘Ryoka’ waver, and the shapeshifter condensed, melting down as Persua shook, face white.

“I—I—I just wanted to be friends. My redemption. We were supposed to be the best of friends.”

The shapeshifter bent over her, and, shaking, Persua slowly stared into her own, pale face, features moving like wax as…she…spoke.

“I’m Persua.”

By the time Tyrion Veltras and the others found the spot where Iert had vanished, everyone was gone.




It was a dream. It was a dream, and she would wake, she knew. Erin Solstice sat in a dark room, her room in The Wandering Inn, writing at her desk.

A mirror on one far wall with her wardrobe of clothes her friends had bought for her. Her unmade bed…there was no inn beyond.

Just her.

She wrote and spoke out loud slowly. Thinking. Part of her knew this was a dream. Knew she was asleep. It didn’t…know what was happening.

Only that terrible things had happened and would happen. The rest of Erin was just focused. A little ghost of an [Innkeeper] who whispered truths of this world without weeping, though she should.

It was too much.

“Kevin is dead.”

How she knew, she could not say. Only that she knew it. Erin stared down at her list.


[Mechanic] Level 28.

[Boarder] Level 14.

[Warrior] Level 4.


He’d been an [Engineer] but gotten a new class. A better one. [Tinkerer] had become [Engineer] had become [Mechanic]. Maybe, in time, he would have become an [Auto Repair Mechanic] or a…a [Mechanist]?

Her quill scratched the paper, though she had never dipped it in ink.

“Sounds like Kevin. But he also just loved being free. He would have been…a [Mobile Mechanic]. Combine [Boarder] and [Mechanic]. Yes.”

That made sense. It fit. But Kevin was dead. Shot straight through the heart with a [Pinpoint Shot]; beyond the power of Joseph to help even if he’d had a healing potion.

Kevin was dead. So was Halrac.


Cause: <UNKNOWN>.


“I know who it was. Kasigna.”


Cause: <Kasigna>. Method?


“Gods kill.”


Cause: <Kasigna, touch of death.>



Erin wrote that down slowly. Did it matter? She closed her eyes, opened them again.

“Tyrion Veltras was a Level 29 [Diligent Lord]. I see. And he fought Cauwine? And survived Kasigna and the entire…battle. Of course he’d level up. But Kasigna and Cauwine don’t exist.”


Experience Reward: Not Available.


“They’re gods. Even if they are dead—surviving them is…harder than surviving a Dragon? I don’t know. If Teriarch was angry…at least surviving a Dragon. Zeladona was there? Then use her for Cauwine and Kasigna.”

Erin wrote a string of numbers, approximating an encounter with a Level 80 enemy or a Dragon, and circled the higher amount—Level 80 [Warrior] over average Dragon.

“There. Put that in.”

Now, at least, they would be rewarded fairly. Numbly, Erin noted down Tyrion’s current class.

[Diligent Lord]. She supposed he was. She stared at the paper.

“…Make him better at what he’s doing. Leading people. For better or worse. Even if he’s not good at it, he went to Ailendamus. Make him a [Lord of the Five Families]. And give him a Skill…to empower his allies. There.”

Consolidate his [Lancer] class? No…not yet. He hadn’t done as much as a [Lancer] as he had as a [Lord] this battle. Erin marked [Lancer of the Ages] up to Level 37. [Lord of the Five Families]…Level 33.

“Four levels there, two levels there. It’s hard to level as a [Lord]. He’ll probably get to Level 40 as a [Lancer] first.”

She moved on. Halrac was dead. He would have been…

[Knight-Archer of Lost Flames], Level 36.

He would have made Level 40. She didn’t think of what his class might have become. There was no point.

“Lyonette is Level 29 in [Worldly Princess]. It’s time for her as well.”

Erin rocked back in her chair, thinking. Time didn’t matter in this place. She was almost glad of it, having only this to do. Think about levels. Levels…couldn’t hurt you.

“[Princess]. She is one now. She’s done so much, but she’s been stuck with me. Now she’s a [Princess]. [Antinium Princess]? No. [Princess of Dawn]? That’s stupid.”

Erin thought of every [Princess] class there was and ever had been. Ran down the list slowly.

“She’s not light, even if she has some of her father’s powers. She wants to be a mother. She’s…a [Princess of Changing Days]. No, a [Princess of World’s Change]. The more she does, the more she’ll be.”

Sest was dead. Erin could hear Lyonette weeping, somewhere. The [Innkeeper] spoke.

“She has had bodyguards, servants, protectors, and champions, now. Now—she should give something back to them.”


Not everything was going to be acted upon. Everything she wrote down was a suggestion. Helpful. But this…Erin gently wrote a Skill down and knew it fit.

[Royal Pact of Service: Class Ascensions].

She wished she could smile, but Erin had none to give. Slowly, she spoke the names of the dead—and living.

“Bird’s dead. But he’s not ‘dead’. He’s coming back.”

The Free Queen was already remaking his body. It was Erin’s job to remove his levels.

He was a Level 40 [Bow-Singer Queen of the Free Antinium]. A Level 17 [Amazing Liar].

Erin removed ten levels, adjusted for the ones he would receive. Changed his class.


Level 35 [Bow-Queen of the Free Antinium].


That would do. Simpler. He’d lose [Wings of Escieda]. But keep his [Lesser Dragonbreath Arrow] Skill because it was from his friendship with Rafaema.

In this moment, Erin knew the Lightning Dragon’s nature, knew Rafaema had lost a wing, and saw the future in Bird’s reincarnation and made notes.

Not just about him. Each level she wrote, each new class—had not been assigned yet. But they would be. It was only a matter of time.

They had all tried so hard. Lost so much. Erin Solstice kept working, writing until her fingers would have bled if this wasn’t a dream. Making sense of the dead.

Gershal. George. Tekshia…

Names she knew, people she had never met, Erin suddenly understood. She knew Imani wasn’t dead. Not yet. A piece of metal from an imperfect gun was buried in her eye socket, and a [Healer] was gripping it with a pliers as one of Geneva Scala’s clones told her to remove it.

Not all of them were dead. Many were gone. And they would not come back.

They were in Hellste now. Kasignel was gone. There were only a few ways to even speak with the dead, and the ways to come back…

Erin rubbed at her eyes at last. She pushed herself back from the table and stopped writing. She had done something that mattered.

“Gods need a value.”




They could not be a void. Erin stood over the paper, quill poised, a drop of ink forever suspended on the brass.

Those who strived against them deserved Skills too. But which ones?

“[God’s Fist]? [Blade of the Divine]? [Brand of the Blasphemous Sinner]? [Diotrichne’s Blessing]? No wonder these Skills have never been given. Not these. For someone like her…Kasigna…”

She wrote simply.

“[Death Defier]. Let them cling to life even if it should kill them. It won’t make them invincible. It’ll let them pretend to be a corpse. Even if they don’t have enough blood.”

She paused. Thought.

“[Bound Spell: Word of Undeath]. Arise.

The [Innkeeper]’s quill scratched a hundred times. Then a thousand.

“[Divine Guidance]. Once per…month for lesser. Week for regular. It doesn’t have to come from them. Point them in the right way. Tell them which lever to pull—yes.”

It was so easy. Well, not easy. She was using all of her mind to figure out each Skill and level earnestly.

But it was easier than…living. Easier than chess. Erin stared at her chessboard.

Easier than chess?

Her head rose, and the [Innkeeper]’s hazel eyes focused on the blank window. Then her head turned. And she looked at the mirror gleaming darkly at one end of the room.

She pushed the chair back and walked towards it, still feeling like the world was a drifting dream where time mattered little.

“I see. It’s happening again.”

She had done this before. Only, last time, it had been thinking she was on Earth.


The piece of paper that never grew longer, nor changed no matter how much she wrote on it, called to her. Why was she here? It wasn’t the same as Kasigna’s trick. Erin stared at the mirror, and she was reflected in it.

“Oh, that’s why. Earth must be strange, mustn’t it?”


Erin said that too. She sat down and wrote for a while.

“It’s different and the same. Yeah. [Cameraman]. Or [Camerawoman]. [Nerd] isn’t a class. It’s sort of an insult. You’d have to think pretty oddly to get it as a class. But [Gamer]…I guess it fits.”

She switched to a pen with green ink.

“Really? No one came here before us?”

There was no answer. But in this moment, Erin knew all the answers and nothing at all. So she kept writing. Then stopped again.

“They messed with fate, didn’t they? Kasigna. Shaestrel. Fate itself is a Skill—but those two were fighting over it—but they can’t see the future for more than, what—two days after this? Something’s thrown it into chaos. Not just the Solstice. What?”

She traced a line across a map and circled a spot in the world.

“I see. It’s the [Pirates]. That’s their Skill?”

The [Innkeeper] stared at the letters on the page and shook her head.

“It seems—broken to me. And fair. So it’s fine. It’s what they wished for, isn’t it? Why am I here?”

She stood up again, and this time, she faced her mirror fully. An [Innkeeper] with ash and blood smeared across her features, without a smile, her brown hair disordered from the fighting. She looked down, and a collar and handcuffs were on her neck and hands.

“I see. This is a dream. But it’s not. Why me?”

She thought about it, and her reflection’s lips moved as Erin spoke.

“…Because I’m an Earther. Things should make sense? I agree.”

She lost track of which one she was, the reflection in the mirror or…which side of the mirror was right? Erin Solstice saw her lips move as she shook her head.

“Earth is confusing. I don’t fit my class.”

“How rude. At least this doesn’t hurt. I’m not being altered, am I?”

“How could I? Makes sense.”

The two locked eyes and blinked at the same time. Or so she assumed. She couldn’t see the world when her eyes were closed. The world disappeared and reappeared in a moment. How terrifying.

“And I…haven’t reached Level 50 yet. Technically, I’m Level 53, closing on Level 54? Wow.”

“I adjusted Theillige’s level ups down because all they did was come into my inn. Fighting for me matters more. It’s only fair.”

Yet—Erin Solstice shook her head.

“I’m not ready to change classes. I didn’t do anything during the Solstice but survive. I haven’t changed.”

She paused.

“…But I might, when I wake up. Something terrible has happened, hasn’t it?”

“Oh yes.”

Her eyes were empty, and something was in those depths. Erin whispered as she met her eyes.

“Why did you warn me?”

One of them looked down a second.

“It’s embarrassing. I shouldn’t have done it. I just—wanted to know what you will become.”

“Just for me? Ah. Because no one knows what class I’ll be.”

“Or what Skill Erin Solstice gains. I wanted to know.”

“Everyone does, I guess.”

It would be kinder to stay asleep forever. Erin knew that. Even so, she was still perplexed about—this.

“So I was needed. And this was the best method? What if I’m biased?”

“I can’t nearly destroy the world like Mrsha—wow. Really?”

She almost laughed at this. Almost…then rested her head against the mirror, so close that her reflection was only separated by the tiniest barrier.

“Yeah. I haven’t done anything to deserve Level 50. Nothing worth it yet. Are you….on my side?”

“Yes. And theirs.”

“You shouldn’t be. Not theirs.”

Erin stared at herself, raising an eyebrow.


The two locked gazes—until they lost track of who was who, and one of the Erin’s lowered her gaze.

“I suppose it’s always about fairness. I hate it. When I wake, I doubt I’ll remember this.”

“It will be bad when I wake. I should stay like this forever.”

It was so tempting. For a while, the two young women looked at each other, and at last, one of them confessed.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t understand you after all.”

The other one spoke with half a smile.

“That’s okay. I don’t understand anyone.”

Then one of them turned while the other stayed put. The first slowly walked to the door to Erin’s room and took a deep breath. The other watched them as Erin Solstice put her hand on the door.

“Dark moments await. In their way, worse than Kasigna by far.”

She opened the door, and the other whispered.


…Then Erin woke up.




The metal cuffs and collar were cutting into her skin. The air tasted like salt. The world rocked, and a creak ran through the ground. Rain pattered down softly, and it smelled like oil, wet dog, and a deep stench of fear and urine hidden by a strong perfume of roses.

She was in a chair, hard, plain, and simple, rocking slightly from a bad leg. Her cheek was pressed against a piece of polished wood. There was a soft blindfold on her face. She heard someone breathing heavily beside her. Felt the shaking through the wood.

—Voices. A soft, growling tone of deference. Iert.

The slightly distorted echoes of…five voices coming through a spell. A polished, enunciated tone raised in anger, a sibilant edge to it.

I did not order Magnolia Reinhart’s assassination. Worse yet, it failed. Nor did I demand the Earthers killed, merely apprehended if possible.”

“We agreed, Yazdil.”

A polite, controlled voice of a young woman. Then the dry tones of an older voice.

“Not all voted in consensus, but I remind you that you are not the sole authority, Emir. Every Master of Roshal is invested in this moment.”

A barking laugh and the sense of resonance, a voice of magic, also male, contemptuous.

“Few matter. However, we are agreed. Our enemies should fear us.”

The first voice again, rapid and angry.

“A matter of opinion, Lord Pazeral. My servant, Iert, was the only member of this force to perform his duties satisfactorily. We would have had all the auxiliary targets and a far greater lead after a day of transit. At least we recovered two Djinni. I believe few of the [Assassins] will escape their pursuit.”

A woman’s tone, older than the other one, speaking fastest of all, irked and pedantic.

“Our agents have not yet been adjusted to our liking. You did not inform us of this occasion even when we warned you about Wistram. Or rather, Thatalocian did. Without Pazeral’s and Thatalocian’s aid…”

“Iert prevailed on his own merits, Lady Andra. Or will Lord Thatalocian grace us with a prediction now?”

The cracked tone again. Thatalocian.

“Four. Four…yet four becomes five. Then six. I have never seen a number change twice. Why six? I did not see it. The numbers altered. The equation…the calculus was off, and I did not realize it. Yet I cannot see the sixth number. Where did it come from?”

The young voice.

“Pursuers, Thatalocian?”

“No—it is a number that matters to her. It matters greatly. Erin Solstice. 5-18-9-14.”

The young woman knew that voice. The soft tones of the Gnoll cut in.

“Master. She is awake. What is your will?”


“Your dog at least is loyal, Naga.”

The displeased voice was Emir Yazdil.

“Remove her blindfold, Iert. Cordially. A drink, I think. Something like Amentus wine, and adjust the mirror a few degrees. Send for—”

“Water. You. Fetch it. She is our captive, Emir.”

Lord Pazeral cut in as the footsteps shuffled—then someone else moved. A pause, then a furry paw pulled the blindfold off the young woman’s face.

The light blinded her, even in the cabin, and she made out the fuzzy outlines of chairs and tables. A glowing mirror. Rain pelting the deck of a ship, visible through a glass window.

The young woman said nothing. She saw five faces turn to her in the mirror and a number of silent men and women wearing collars standing against the walls. Before them—smiling men, two women, wearing silks and a crest.

A hand holding a pair of scales.


A man with numbers in his very eyes, old, hair rapidly turning white. Thatalocian.

A young Drake, scales flawless, a smile on her face that never touched her eyes. Shaullile.

A smiling, bronze-skinned Stitch-man who reclined, nude save for a servant blocking his crotch from view. Pazeral.

A woman in a business suit sitting with a view of a city by night behind her. Andra.

A Naga, curled in on himself, sitting upon a pillow, eyes fixed on every inch of her. Yazdil.

The five [Slavers] of Roshal stared at the young woman. Her cheek was red from lying on the table, and a bruise from striking her head on the ground while being carried was on her face.

Her clothing was slightly burnt. Rain had left her damp. Her hair was mussed, and her hazel eyes swung from face to face.

She said nothing.

Neither they nor she spoke until the Gnoll returned and put a bowl in front of her. Water moved slowly as the [Innkeeper] turned her head.

Her neck ached. She saw a hooded figure next to her and jerked.


She could see the green skin and faded paint. They had put a bag over her head, and she was shivering, making the water tremble.

The boat was rocking. They were moving.

Emir Yazdil spoke crisply, breaking the silence filled only by the breathing of the [Slaves] and [Slavers] in his ship.

“I wish to speak with Erin Solstice—privately.”

“A common desire. Perhaps later.”

Thatalocian did not look away from her. He nodded. Her eyes fixed on him a second, then Lord Pazeral hissed down at the servant kneeling before him.

“Keep licking—look how she stares. This is delightful. Speak, woman.”

Erin’s eyes fixed on him a second, then roamed. Lord Pazeral laughed.


He pointed, and someone moved and struck her across the face. Her head snapped back, and she rocked in the chair; Iert caught it. Yazdil raised his voice in outrage.

“Lord Pazeral!”

Thatalocian turned his head.

“She is my guest, Lord Pazeral.”

“And my captive. Speak.”

Silence. This time, Andra flicked her quill and nodded.

The blow hit Erin in the same spot, and her head lolled as blood and spit dripped from the corner of her mouth. Iert drew a blade, and a figure backed up, bowing.

“The Masters of Roshal—”

“This is Emir Yazdil’s ship. The Naga’s Den obeys only his command.”

Iert growled, and a voice snapped back. Andra.

“Yet we are the Masters of Roshal. Be silent, [Slave].”

The Gnoll hesitated and looked up as Erin Solstice raised her head. She kept staring as the Naga’s eyes flicked left and right, scowling.

Thatalocian and the Emir placed their hands palms down.

Andra, Shaullile, and Pazeral lifted their hands, palms up. The silence grew deeper as Iert turned his head slowly.

“A compromise?”

Shaullile spoke, voice neutral. Lord Pazeral cut her off, eyes rolling.

“You idiots. Not her. Do you know nothing?”

His eyes flashed in anger. Silence—then Iert lowered his sword. One of the figures standing to Erin’s right calmly grabbed Ulvama’s head and struck the table with it. Erin spoke instantly.


The Hobgoblin cried out. Erin Solstice turned her head, and Lord Pazeral motioned. A [Slaver] struck Ulvama from the side, and she landed on the floor.

“She speaks!”

A booted foot began to kick, and Erin tried to stand.


Iert leaned on her, and she couldn’t move. She struggled, and he ignored it. Then a voice.


Thatalocian. The [Slaver] stepped back, panting, and Erin saw Ulvama curled up until they picked her up and set the chair upright.

“I can see this will be troublesome either way it goes. We have met before, Erin Solstice. Do you recognize me? I am [Slave Lady] Andra of Roshal.”

For a second, Erin’s lips compressed, then she looked at Thatalocian. She spoke slowly, the words coming out piece by piece.

“…I…remember him. He was one of the ones that tried to teach me. Until Khelta stopped them.”

Andra’s own lips thinned, and her nostrils flared. The [Numerologist] smiled as Pazeral scowled and Shaullile shrugged.

The Naga watched Erin, eyes bright. Ulvama was making a wheezing sound as red trickled down from her hood. Iert let Erin go and stepped back, standing right behind her. Thatalocian addressed Erin with a nod.

“It was a shame. Those of us that survived the Seamwalkers made it to Roshal. Five of us…now four. Did any ghosts survive that you know of? Besides the Immortal Tyrant.”

The [Innkeeper] did not start. Her eyes just flickered once.

Pazeral lifted a finger, and Erin spoke.

“I don’t know.”

“Yet you knew about her. She will be a problem, perhaps. She is younger than I, but her reputation was strong amongst ghosts.”

The [Numerologist] nodded to the others, and Shaullile nodded back, as did Andra. Pazeral just yawned.

“These are banal questions. Ask her later, Thatalocian. Do you have anything to say?”

The [Numerologist] frowned, then smiled faintly at Erin. He glanced at Ulvama, then looked Erin in the eyes.

“You will arrive at Lailight Scintillation tomorrow. We shall speak and come to a consensus—then.”

“How did you get me all the way to sea?”

The young woman looked out the window, and the Naga spoke crisply.

“Alas, spells are not perfect, and the recent—disruptions—during the Solstice meant that I did not have the pleasure of greeting you this very night. You are aboard The Naga’s Den, my personal ship, one of the fastest ships in the entire world. I hope you will consider me a personal friend in the days to come, Erin Solstice. Your inclinations do matter, and the others are less graceful.”

He looked anywhere but at Lord Pazeral as Erin swallowed blood before she spoke.

“Why did you do this? I haven’t done anything to Roshal.”

Not a single one of them deigned to respond at first. At length, Shaullile spoke with a sigh.

“The Rebel of String’s companionship alone implicates you. We are not blind. An enemy is an enemy, even if you have not taken overt action—yet. You could be one of us. I vote no.”

She lifted a hand, palm downwards. Andra reversed it, looking around, and Yazdil hesitated as Pazeral spoke.

“No vote—yet. She’ll resist. I say we treat her like a slave and reverse it—if we see promise.”

“Let me go. The Five Families and the Walled Cities won’t forgive you.”

The [Innkeeper] rasped, coughed, glanced down at the bowl of water—the five Masters of Roshal ignored her.

“I would offer her the contract first, Pazeral.”

“She will resist more, Thatalocian.”

Pazeral thrust his hand out, palm down. In silence, the other three lifted their hands, palms up.

Pazeral kicked the girl in front of him away with an oath, and Iert put something in front of Erin.

“I will remove one hand from your cuffs if you agree to sign. The collar works as well as the cuffs.”

Erin Solstice stared down at the contract. Then up.

“No, there’s no way out of it. Yes, it’s very generous. Would you like a translation? Fetch me an oath stone.”

Shaullile spoke while filing a nail. Yazdil coughed.

“Those do not exist anymore, Lady Shaullile.”

“Oh. Then she shall believe me or not. She can read it. But so you understand, Erin Solstice, it is a very clean contract. Agree not to harm us or take action against us. We will treat your companions and people with respect. Yourself included. You agree to join us for three months and learn in good faith to become a [Slaver] of Roshal. Class mandatory, of course. The other way is without a contract. I advise you to sign.”

They waited. Pazeral threw himself back down with a smile.

“She won’t agree.”

“I also advise you to sign.”

Thatalocian spoke gently to her. Erin Solstice looked up at him. The two held each other’s gazes until Andra coughed impatiently.

“We could delay this until she is before us—”


A chorus of voices. Andra sighed, raised a hand, and spoke to the side.

“Coffee. Stamina shot.”

She folded her fingers as Erin spoke.

“Why me?”

Thatalocian responded calmly, fingers moving across an abacus, tossing a die down and noting the numbers.

“Because you matter. I am Roshal’s child, and you would eventually come against us. I would prefer an open hand, but you would not take it. Sign the contract, Erin Solstice. There is no other protection I can offer you while we vote. Three months. You will be a guest. You will doubtless scheme. You will hate us.”

Thatalocian’s eyes lifted, and the numbers changed slightly as he stared at her, unwavering.

“—I intend that you break parts of Roshal. You may slaughter them. You may destroy what this is. Many are unworthy.”

His eyes moved across the room, and the lesser [Slavers] shuddered. Thatalocian went on.

“But I am a son of Roshal. I would like you to meet one person in all our number whom you could respect, for one quality. I would have you understand there is bravery. I would have you make a single friend.”

The other four glared at Thatalocian flatly, rolled their eyes, sipped their drink, or sighed and nodded. Erin read the contract.

“There is a way out of your predicament, Erin Solstice. Bend one inch. Just bend. You know where this is going.”

Shaullile spoke crisply, impatiently. Erin’s eyes rose.

“I know.”


All five leaned forwards. Erin stared at the contract as Iert paused with a pen and dagger on a piece of cloth. She didn’t look at Ulvama, though the Hobgoblin had moved a foot and was touching Erin’s leg with it.

Only Shaullile noticed, though she could not see the angle of the table. She grimaced—and Erin spoke.

“I thought I knew you.”

Pazeral began smiling. Thatalocian sat back, and Yazdil’s lips quirked as Andra’s face grew flat. Erin’s eyes focused on the table and a spot of blood.

“I thought it was like people who killed Goblins. Like monsters. I didn’t really look closely. I didn’t want to die or put my family in danger, and I guess I pretended there was nothing I could do. I was afraid of seeing.”

Her eyes rose slowly, memorizing each face. Pazeral clapped his hands together.

“The Goblin first.”

The [Slavers] grabbed Ulvama, and a hand produced a knife and began cutting at her clothes. Another grabbed Erin’s arm and sawed at her shirt. They ripped cloth off, and Erin felt cold air on her chest and hands on her belt. Ulvama made a sound—

“Touch her and I swear, we will both regret it. No matter what price I have to pay.”


The [Slavers] stopped as the Emir tapped one claw on a side table that held a drink. He was displeased and gazed about.

“She is my guest. I would rather her be a guest.”

One of the [Slavers] had Erin pinned with one arm. He smelled of lemongrass cologne and old sweat worked into leather. Her cheekbone was gritting into the table.

She heard Lord Pazeral speak crisply with excitement.

“She has declined your offer, Yazdil. Surround her in comforts when she arrives. She still doesn’t understand. [Slavers], what do you think?”

“Lord Pazeral, give me leave, and I will remind this one in a moment and cheer the entire crew.”

One [Slaver] was breathless and was pressed up against her arm. She felt his trousers rubbing against her shoulder, fabric stiff and straining as it pressed into her. Another bowed rapidly.

“Lord Pazeral, we could simply introduce her to some water until that haughty look vanishes.”

“Lord Pazeral, a brand?”

“If Lord Pazeral wishes to join us in person—”

She couldn’t see Shaullile, or Andra, but the Drake spoke up.

“Be careful. She won’t break until she shatters completely. Grab her mouth. She might bite her tongue.”

Hands gripped Erin’s mouth, forcing her teeth apart, and Andra murmured.

“Subtlety this crew lacks.”

Pazeral smiled like a teacher watching young students.

“They are still [Slavers]. I say give them a night.”

Yazdil replied softly.


Silence as hands moved. Then Lord Pazeral spoke.

“Then the Goblin?”

A pause. Emir Yazdil spoke suddenly.

“I believe I would like a recess of thirty minutes. I have a suggestion.”

“Very well.”

Lord Pazeral sounded amused. Ulvama was panting, and Erin felt the pressure release all at once. When she looked up, the Naga was smiling at her. Her skin was prickling—then he spoke.

“Put her in the cells with the others. Though—one moment. I must insist as master of this vessel. Iert?”

“Yazdil, you do treat yourself as a first among equals rather than one of us.”

Shaullile spoke sidelong.

“Indulge him or he may pop, Thatalocian.”

Two hands grabbed each arm. Erin began to pull—but couldn’t move as she heard footsteps behind her. Then a paw gripped one ear, and she felt a piercing, hot pain—

A roaring sound. It hurt fiercely, then numbed as something wet and soft was pressed against it. Her other ear—

Iert withdrew the hot needle, then fished around at his side. Something clinked, and she felt a weight pull down each ear. Erin’s arms shook, and she stared at the Naga’s sudden, huge smile.

A pair of sapphire-and-gold earrings hung from her pierced ears as the Naga leaned back.

“Magnificent. I believe High King Perric’s Djinni last wore these—before I traded him for them. Iert, take a mage picture.”

“Thus, the Naga marks her first. Each to their own. I prefer simpler means, but I cannot transit over after being defeated. You overstep so, Yazdil.”

Pazeral rolled his eyes, but indulgently. Andra nodded as Shaullile shrugged and Thatalocian said not a word. Iert moved Erin’s head left and right, patiently capturing her face with an artifact as Andra spoke.

“You have had your way, Yazdil. In the next vote, we shall have ours.”

The Naga’s smile vanished, and he sat upright, an objection on his lips. Yet his eyes lingered on Erin Solstice’s face with satisfaction.

“Unchain both, but keep the collars and unlinked manacles on at all times, even in the cells. Also, separate those two from the main kill spell. In case of accidents.”

“Yes, Master.”

Iert pulled Erin up without a word and marched her out onto the deck. The doors flew open, and Erin saw figures moving in the storm, cursing, two glowing Djinni blowing air into billowing sails—

A storm at sea. No sign of the coast.

Then they were opening a door that led down, and she smelled worse. The first floor of cells were magic like Liscor’s. They shoved her through, and the wall was solid one-way. Ulvama stumbled and fell over, and Erin saw the Hobgoblin was naked and bruised from fingers. A huge cut ran down her chest, across one breast, partially healed by a potion but still raw and deep.

The [Guards] walked down the ship’s hallway, pausing to stare at the two, and one spoke.

“Haven’t had a Goblin in the ship for decades. The [Ship Master] will be pleased.”

Erin stared down at her shaking hands, naked now except for the collar and metal guards on her wrist. The rain poured down harder.




The first thing the occupants of the cell did was surround Erin and Ulvama. There were enough of them to physically form a wall and push the two against the cell’s door.

Neither woman spoke at first. Ulvama was shaking, covering herself, and Erin—saw a [Guard] pass by and reach through the cells and grab those on the exterior. He pulled one of the prisoners out of the magic barrier. Erin croaked.

“Stop. Stop.”

The prisoners in her cell shoved at her, and she realized they were all female. Humans and Drakes, mostly. They kept pushing without a word, blank-faced, until someone spoke.

“The Naga wants both of them. The [Guards] can’t choose either. There’s no point to shoving them forwards.”

The shoving stopped. Then they drew back, sat down, or faced the other wall, and Erin could breathe.

Erin stood there, realizing when she turned that there were [Guards] watching her. One lifted something and cast [Magic Picture]. She turned the other way.

“Ulvama. What happened?”

“They got you. I chased. There was…fake Ryoka. Magnolia Reinhart shot. Archmage flew after us. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.”

Ulvama looked up, crimson eyes finding Erin’s.

“You should have signed.”

“I couldn’t. They’ll…”

“Do you know what comes next?”

Ulvama grabbed Erin with both arms, shook her, and the [Innkeeper] stumbled. The Hobgoblin was panting. She looked down at Erin—then sat down and curled up.

“I shouldn’t have tried to stop them. But I had to.”

Erin squatted down next to her.

“If they…I…this…”

Silence. Then Erin focused on the cell.

It was pale white. Painted; there were stains on the wall. Red, brown, yellow, and drains. Nothing else. Erin saw many of the other women looking at her; only two had collars on. Many recognized her.

She recognized one of them, but did not know from where.

“The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. I knew the Naga wanted you. For you, we tarried a month here. Unpleasant compared to Lailight Scintillation. The crew were bored. This is for you.”

Someone slapped Erin across the face. A Stitch-woman, one of the two wearing a collar, raised another hand, and Ulvama caught it.

“—Who are you?”

Erin shook her head, and the woman spoke.

“I am [Emira] Isoquen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Who, as luck had it, led my armies across Medain when they were routed, and I was placed on this ship. Two months I have been at sea.”

She looked—her chin was raised. She had a hand ready to slap. She stood with Erin and Ulvama in front of the walls and stepped back when a [Guard] passed. Her hand lowered, and she stared at Erin, eyes flashing.

“You were a prisoner of war?”

“The King of Destruction, of course. My enemies did not allow my ransom to be met. But you will remember it, all of you.”

Her head turned around, and few looked up. She had said this many times.

“When I complete my service as a [Slave] and return home, you will remember it was Emira Isoquen who won her freedom among all. And two months I wasted at sea for you—”

Another slap until Ulvama seized the arm, and her claws dug into the skin. Then Isoquen froze and backed up, tearing her arm loose.

“So they were planning this long ago in secret. Not even Magnolia knew.”

Erin looked around. They were all looking at her—then away.

“All for you. Even the crew did not know until the morning. We will be at Lailight Scintillation by the next mid-morn. This ship could have made the trip fourteen times in the month it waited. And a Goblin.”

The Stitch-woman spat on Ulvama, and Erin shifted. She raised a fist, and Ulvama looked at her. Erin lowered her hand—turned away from the [Emira]. She had spotted someone else.

The second woman with a collar didn’t move when Erin sat down. She only looked up when she saw Ulvama.


“Do I know you? I’m—Erin Solstice.”

The other woman was covered in injuries. She was older than Erin, and had her back to one corner of the far wall where they all tried to be. But no one got near her. She looked up at Erin.

“They said your [Knight] came to my village.”

A [Shepherd] of the village of Salefenwool stared at Erin Solstice. One of the victims of the Bloodfeast Raiders’ attack. Erin looked at her.

“What did…”

Silence. A hand gripped Erin’s arm.

“Did the others make it?”


The [Shepherd] opened her eyes, and Erin looked down—then up swiftly. Ulvama gazed down with familiar eyes, and the [Shepherd] moved slightly. Erin realized someone was hiding behind the [Shepherd].


The blood in her  ears was still roaring from the pain of the piercing. The sound grew louder. Erin looked down as two eyes peered up at her. A smaller figure.


“Hello. I’m…Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] forced the words out. The girl hid her face with her claws, but Erin saw what remained of her face.

Someone had, with a blade, removed her features. Lizardfolk and Drakes had less cartilage than Humans. So they had removed scales and flesh, and what remained had scarred over. Two eyes found Erin’s, bright and yellow. Her neck frills were all but gone.

“I want to go home to my mom.”

The [Shepherd] said nothing. Erin looked away. Ulvama did not. Her chest rose and fell hard, and when she looked around—the others in the cell said nothing.

“What happened to—”

“They said they’d fix my face. I can’t run away until they do.”

The Lizardgirl whispered, and Erin’s stomach heaved. She closed her eyes and heard a sob—then Ulvama spoke.

“You will. I promise.”

When Erin opened her eyes, the Hobgoblin had the girl in her lap. She gently patted the girl’s head as the girl clung to her. The [Shepherd] stared at Ulvama, who ignored her and everyone else.

“Will she love me?”

Ulvama’s hand never stopped patting the girl’s head.

“Yes. No matter what.”




The [Guards] passed by the cell four times in the next…Erin guessed ten or twenty minutes. Once, they grabbed one of the [Slaves] and towed them out. There wasn’t any struggle.

The third time, one stopped, noticed Erin’s red cheek, and demanded to know who had done it. When someone looked at the [Emira], he shoved the butt of a spear through the cell and struck her until she curled up into a ball. Erin spoke up when he didn’t stop after a dozen blows.

“Stop it.”

He gave her an affronted look. Then smiled.

“She’s already found the child, see, Master Iert?”

“Which [Slaver] decided to raid Baleros?”

The Gnoll paused as he passed by the cell, and the [Guard] shrugged.

“Mistress Ureaia? Break apart. Build back better. It keeps the canvases from running away. I know the Naga prefers to work with an unblemished product, but not everyone can find diamonds in the rough. They’re all still decent with time. Well, compared to her.”

The [Guard]’s gaze at Erin was both for her body—and level. Iert’s look was flat, unreadable. The Gnoll walked up to the cell, then through it. Half the cell backed away—the other half looked at him, trying to attract his eye.

He only stared once at Ulvama, then focused on Erin.

“The Masters of Roshal are debating what to do. They will vote very soon.”

His eyes flicked to Ulvama, then Erin.

“You would be better served if you’d signed.”

She said nothing. Iert stepped forwards.

“The Emir has his own contract. Sign it and you won’t regret what comes next. You have until the ship reaches harbor and it ends. Call for it.”

He stepped back, face blank as he glanced down at her.

“Refuse a second time and he will let Lord Pazeral have his way. The female Masters are not better than Yazdil. The [Numerologist] least of all.”

He turned and left. Erin sat there as every eye turned towards her.

She looked at Ulvama. The Goblin’s claw paused as she patted the girl on the head.




“I never told you about my mother. I tell no one. All Goblins in my tribe know what happens if they are captured in battle. I tell them. Rags’ tribe is kinder. They just die.”

One minute later, Ulvama spoke. The [Shepherd] had moved away to whisper with some others, who listened in to Erin and Ulvama’s conversation. Now the cells knew her name. Their heads swung towards her, then away.

“Your mother? What happened to…”

Erin’s eyes rose. She had never known to even ask. Ulvama’s face was pale, and only the girl who’d fallen asleep let the Goblin hold still. But she held Erin’s hand tightly. Gently, and her voice filled the cell and Erin’s ears.

“She was a warrior who was captured on a raid for food. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. Sometimes they just die. Sometimes they torture Goblins. Cut limbs off, put them in cages. Make them suffer. But female Goblins—they rape them. Most never survive unless their tribe comes back fast. They live a week. Then—”

“Why? They kill themselves?”

She still didn’t understand. Somehow, the Hobgoblin smiled. Though her eyes—

“No. The ones who captured them kill them. No one should ever know what they did to a Goblin. My mother got away. Had me.”


“Shh. Just listen.”

The Hobgoblin took a deep breath, then another.

“I…was captured twice. The first time I was a [Shaman] raiding. My tribe found me after two weeks. They had to find me after the farmers traded me…a few times. To other farms. It’s always in secret, where they take you. The next time, my tribe was attacked. Four days of adventurers in our tribe’s cave before the Mountain City tribe came and killed them. I never left the mountain afterwards. The third time was another Goblin. I killed him after he fell asleep. Then I became the strongest [Shaman].”

Now they were here again. Ulvama’s voice was controlled. She was forcing the words out as directly as she could.

“That’s why we followed Tremborag. No matter what he was. He was strong. Goblins copy everything. I never had a baby, though. I was a [Shaman].”

The [Innkeeper]’s hands were shaking. Ulvama took her other hand and squeezed it so tight Erin’s fingers groaned. Erin didn’t pull away.


The [Shaman] spoke past Erin’s head, staring at something else.

“These things happen. Someday, those moments seem far away. Then—suddenly—it was yesterday. Then you’re right there again. It wasn’t my fault for being a Goblin.”

Ulvama stopped.

“They make you think it was.”

The young woman said nothing to that. The Hobgoblin squeezed harder, her hand shaking.

“You can survive. Don’t fight back.”


Don’t fight back.

The Hobgoblin seized her head warningly. She rested her forehead against Erin’s, speaking slowly and directly.

“Don’t bite anything. They will break your teeth out of your face. Mine grew back. Yours won’t. If they want you to cry—cry. Don’t be angry. They like that. Be blank.”

The [Innkeeper] tried to say something, but her throat wouldn’t work. So she listened as Emira Isoquen spoke. Her voice was level, and like Ulvama, they put aside emotions and spoke to Erin directly.

“Not this lot. If you’re blank, they’ll torture you until you react. Pretend to resist and give in. They won’t believe it if you burst into tears right away.”

Another woman at Erin’s shoulder.

“Find a position you can breathe in. Or else you’ll suffocate or pass out. Don’t let yourself pass out. Even if you think you want to.”

Other prisoners began to speak, adding…tips. No, not tips. Erin looked around, and the advice felt like tools. The kind she had never thought existed. Tricks to let her escape the worst.

Her mother had taught her to be careful when Erin was ten. Every girl got this kind of advice. Their words, their looks reminded Erin of Shauna Solstice, a long time ago.

Ulvama’s hand was gripping Erin’s arm.

“You will live. Make one believe they’re your favorite if it’s one-on-one or you see them often. Don’t let the others get jealous. They won’t let you go, but maybe they’ll give you a bandage if you’re bleeding.”

“You learned all this.”

Erin spoke the obvious, not because she was in denial. Her head rose, matted hair tangled, as Ulvama combed it with her claws.

“And you still tried to save me.”

The [Shaman] combed Erin’s hair silently a second.

“You’re stupid. Without me, they’d kill you the first time. I thought they might take little Mrsha. I thought I could slow them down.”

She had known—but the [Shaman]’s gaze was bright.

“I don’t leave my tribe. I should have fought better. Thought to ask where the stupid chained monsters came from. Or Djinni.”

Erin whispered.

“I should have too. Ulvama—”

“Survive. You’ll get better one day. It will take a long time. But look at me.”

That was all the Hobgoblin said. She gestured at herself.

“I can’t ever go back to being the one I was before. Everything I did afterwards was me. It was me. They can’t break you completely. But—”

Then her voice gave out. Erin gripped Ulvama back tightly, hugging her. The Hobgoblin took a shuddering breath, and Erin spoke.

“It almost happened to me once. It was a Goblin Chieftain—I killed him before anything happened. I don’t think about it. I try not to. I never thought about you or anyone—”

Erin fell silent. Ulvama almost smiled.

“It changes nothing. I am me.”

Erin’s throat worked.

“It means you’re strong.”

This time, the Hobgoblin hit her on the knee, hard. The smack made the girl in her arms jump. Then burrow her head silently into Ulvama’s chest. The Hobgoblin stroked her head.

“It isn’t Ulvama. Nothing about those days is me. The one you know.”

“I’m sorry. I just meant…I’m trying to say…”

Erin looked at her. Then around the cells. It was noisy. She could hear everything. Faint cries, laughter, grunts—rain falling.

Time. The [Guards] watched her from the railings. The other slaves…the [Shepherd] was whispering to one and then sidled over to a drain and squatted down.

“I want to raise a hundred glasses in your name.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at the [Shaman] suddenly. Ulvama blinked, and Erin’s eyes blurred.

“I want to give you a million billion hugs and fight for you any day. I want to be proud and sad and angry for you and find whomever it was and kill them. If you want me to.”

The [Shaman] listened…then nodded. She squeezed harder, let go, and sat back.

“I don’t want it to have happened.”

Erin whispered.

“I’m sorry, Ulvama.”

The Goblin opened her eyes.

“Okay. Thank you.”




“Go over there.”

The [Shepherd] came back and urged Erin to rise. The [Innkeeper] squatted down, and several Humans blocked her from view. There was laughter. She peered into the drain and looked up.


Something glistened despite it all. Fouler than anything. Enough for one person. Or two.

“He was here. Do you want it?”

Something was hanging from the holes in the drain, secured by a thread of woven hair. It was filthy, but if you pulled up, the chunk of meat still, somehow, looked appetizing. The Flesh of Tombhome. Seve-Alrelious’ gift.

There was no magic here.

No Skills.

The prisoners looked at her, and all she had to do was bend. Choose. The [Innkeeper] felt her skin grow colder and colder—till she heard the sound of many boots, and then she was sweating.

“The Hobgoblin.”

The [Slavers] stopped at the cell, and everyone else parted ways. Erin grabbed Ulvama as the [Shaman] put the girl down. Ulvama backed away, and Erin tried to shield her. Get in the way of—

“Go back home, Erin Solstice. Someday, somehow. But make sure it’s you who’s going home.”

Ulvama whispered as Erin grabbed her. The [Slavers] came into the cell, and the Hobgoblin kicked at one—they grabbed Ulvama, and Erin took hold of her friend with all her strength.

“Not you. Get Iert. Tell him I’ll sign—”

Ulvama saw one of the [Slavers] hesitate, but another laughed.

“The Naga is not the only master of Roshal now. No contracts save for the one Lord Pazeral has.”

He reached for his side and produced something. Erin froze—and then struggled.

“Call the Naga! Tell Thatalocian—”

She raised her voice, and Ulvama was looking at her. They were grabbing Ulvama everywhere, and one was licking her.

“This is what it means to be us.”

Ulvama told Erin. Then her grip loosened, and they tore her away, and the Hobgoblin caught Erin’s eyes.

“Don’t sign it.”

The [Slaver] showed Erin the contract, then placed it down. There was no quill or inkpot.

“Sign it in blood with a fingernail. Lord Pazeral’ll know when it’s done. You have ten minutes. We’ll be counting each one. Come on, Goblin. You’re the most beautiful one I’ve ever met. And I have met many.”

Then they were gone, and the eyes followed Erin as she picked up the scroll and looked at it. Then she knew it was over.




A girl, a [Shepherd], an Emira, and the others sat and watched Erin. Clustered together. Erin read the contract once. She understood.

[Slave] contract. Pazeral spelled out what he wanted. One month of service to him, enforced by magic, before she would ‘renegotiate’ with the Masters of Roshal. No other terms. He needed no other terms.

There was sympathy even on the Emira’s face. Erin Solstice thought a minute had passed. Two. The [Shepherd] spoke.

“There’s no way out for her or you.”

She had something she’d pulled out of the drain in her hands. Erin looked at her, then at the [Slavers]. They were watching her. No matter which of the five it was, they watched. Erin bit her lip until it bled, and one called out.

“Don’t make us come down there and waste a potion on you, [Innkeeper]. Bite your tongue and you won’t die fast enough. Even if you did, the Hob won’t enjoy it.”

Blood ran down Erin’s chin, and she looked at the faces. Drakes. A Gnoll in the far cells, staring at her. Humans.

“I don’t know you. If you stand up, they can’t see me. If I asked you to die, would you give me the time I need? For a chance?”

The [Innkeeper]’s hazel eyes were bleak. She stared into the eyes of the little Lizardgirl, which shone as if they still believed this might be a dream. The [Shepherd]’s gaze that had refused to break—yet had forgotten what the sun looked like. The Emira’s shattered eyes. A Drake who stared at Erin with all the hate in the world, as if hoping this were somehow someone’s fault.

“How much…”

Someone began to ask—then silence. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were calm now. They looked empty of everything except the spot Ulvama had been.

“Just a chance.”

She bit her lip harder, then touched the blood and spat onto one hand. Erin wiped it across her face as a minute passed. Her fingernails dug into her skin till more blood dripped down, and the [Slavers] leaned forward to see if she would sign. Erin wiped the blood onto her arms, and in silence, the [Shepherd] swallowed something.




“Master Solhen, prisoners are blocking our view of Erin Solstice.”

The [Slaver] counting down the minutes wondered if they’d already begun raping the Hobgoblin. He was annoyed; there would be little fun by the time he was off his shift. The fun, once you were a veteran, wasn’t in the act, it was the first few minutes regardless if you participated or not.

Three minutes had passed—and he saw [Guards] jabbing the butts of spears into the cell with the [Innkeeper].

Master Iert would soon find out the Hobgoblin was gone. All the other injunctions still held, so Solhen strode over and saw a wall of bodies standing. They were blocking Erin Solstice from view. He could barely see—one of the [Guards] spoke, voice alarmed.

“I think she’s biting her tongue.”

“In the cells! Don’t harm their faces!”

Solhen snapped. More [Guards] forced in, now clubbing the prisoners down—until one grabbed an arm. Her collar flared, and the [Guards] hit the [Shepherd]—but instead of falling as the collar spoke pain into her body, she just bit one.

“[Slaves Cannot Harm Me].”

Even the [Guards] were unto veteran [Slavers]. He laughed—until the teeth tore into his flesh, and he suddenly struck her in the face. She kept biting even when he drew a dagger and jabbed it into her ear.

“What are you doing—”

The [Slave Master] was apoplectic. She was high-level! Then he saw the [Shepherd] reach out and pull the man’s throat out. She rose, dagger sticking out of her head; the collar burned, and she ripped it off—and part of her neck.

Her skin and bones began healing. Solhen backed away, mouth suddenly dry. He remembered the Courier and shouted.

“The flesh of A’ctelios Salash. That—kill it. Kill it.”

Now, all the [Guards] were rushing down, and Solhen was staring into the cell in horror. If she had eaten it—the Masters of Roshal would murder each and every one of them, turn them into [Slaves], or throw them down the Wishing Well. He pushed the [Guards] forwards, and they hacked at the rapidly mutating limbs of the woman, tried to fight forwards…

“Tell Iert and the [Captain]—”

Master Solhen’s voice rose as he fumbled for a speaking stone. To raise an alarm. To call for backup. To warn the other [Slavers].

His fingers found the stone, began to pluck it from its holster, and slowed. The man’s mind kept moving, but his fingers scrambled slower and slower for the stone, as if he were trapped in water.

The other [Slavers] and prisoners felt it too. Their eyes began to roll, and their motions became frantic lunges as the time between each blink of an eye became an age. The spatter of blood flying through the air hung forever…forever…

Then Solhen saw what the [Innkeeper] was doing. She had not eaten the flesh of A’ctelios Salash. Rather, she was covered in blood.

Her blood. The blood of some of the other prisoners, from nails, teeth—blood running down her naked body, but in streaks. Swirls of blood in a complicated pattern that moved as she—danced.

She was dancing as Solhen’s eyes froze in place, and his mind screamed, locked into his body. Faster and faster, a curving pattern that became whirls of red blood and white skin and shadows. Her shadow was long on the white background of the cell, and it twisted as Erin Solstice moved, head jerking, limbs moving wildly—but not without purpose.

It looked like the shadows were dancing with her now. Growing taller and taller as she flickered behind the silent prisoners. Her eyes were wide and huge, and he saw her head twist—move—when she next appeared, he wasn’t sure if it was Erin Solstice he was seeing. Or something else.





Dancing shadows in the [Slavers]’ ship.

Blood running to the floor.

The stench of fear and excrement and old semen and suffering.

Ulvama’s face.

The glowing contract.

Choose. Bend or break.

Erin Solstice made her choice. Her body jerked as it danced along, a puppet now, to something she could no longer take back nor control. Time slowed and stopped. Her eyes were bleeding. Her ears and nose were bleeding, and she heard a scream in her mind, like a door opening.

She tasted blood and bile on her tongue. Smelled brimstone and oil in the air—then time stopped even for her.

Erin Solstice left her body. It was still mid-dance, arms lifted high, mouth open in a wild scream—and inside that mouth was a pit of despair. In the space of one wide pupil, in the single note of a scream, Erin Solstice opened a door and stepped into a black room.

An ancient table of red wood, crimson, and two black chairs so dark they were invisible waited for her. A light shone down from nowhere, illuminating the room. Erin Solstice stopped there in the room, naked, covered with the sigils she had learned to draw, body shuddering from the dance she had learned from that profane place.

The Garden of the Lucifen. She stood there, in silence, until she saw a door on the far end of the room open. A man slowly walked through it.

He climbed up a dark stairway that stretched down to infinity. His suit and tie were perfect, and he stared upwards at a faint light as he came. How long he walked, Erin didn’t know. They had forever in this fraction of a moment, and he took his time.

Walking up this place he had never trod that was so familiar to him. When the man stopped in the doorway, she saw his horns and crimson irises. Saw his grey skin and the sharp teeth—and a smile that only he understood.

Viscount Visophecin, first of the Lucifen, stopped in the doorway and blinked as he recognized Erin Solstice. Then he saw her naked body and the blood on her and bowed without a word. He removed his jacket and offered it to her.

Then he took a seat.




They said nothing for a while. If Visophecin looked past Erin, he could see the place she had walked out of. She said nothing as the jacket was smeared with blood, and she sat there panting.

Time had stopped. Visophecin knew what this room was supposed to be, but not even his forebearers’ own sires had known how to get here.

Ever since the Infernal Court had fallen to ruin, the height of Lucifen’s power had waned. This…


Did she know who was looking for her? The Wind Runner had already begged Rhisveri for aid, but Roshal sailed almost immune to all surveillance, and fingers had been pointed at the Forgotten Wing Company, Khelt, the Circle of Thorns…the Archmage of Izril could only trace the [Greater Teleport] Skill to a spot off of Izril’s northwestern coast.

Even if she made it there with the few volunteers able to fight—they’d have to catch up across the sea. 

Roshal had almost executed a perfect kidnapping. Almost, save for the one thing even they didn’t realize Erin Solstice had: the pact of the Lucifen.

Did she know why she was here? Had she been assaulted? Visophecin was calm, analytical. Then he stopped studying her and looked up into her eyes and stopped thinking for a second.

The [Innkeeper] was still shaking. Her mortal body was frayed from her kidnapping, the summoning dance, and her emotions. Ah, but her eyes.

Her eyes were filled with a steadiness that forced the Lucifen to stop. He met her gaze and adjusted his clothes. He stopped analyzing the moment and sat upright against his chair.

Erin Solstice’s voice was cracked and hoarse.

“…Do you know what evil is?”

The Lucifen thought for a while, then inclined his head slowly.

“I believe I may have seen it over the centuries I have lived. Good evening, Erin Solstice.”

“Do I…know you?”

Her body stirred, but her eyes never changed. She sat, weary, his coat covering everything but her legs. The Lucifen paused.

“You are famous. We played a game of chess during your tournament. I also have some small ties to you by way of an acquaintance.”

“Ryoka? Now I remember you.”

She had seen his true form when they played together. He was recalling the shadow of the Lucifen he had seen over her shoulder. Now, he understood why. Viscount Visophecin was silent a moment. He didn’t know what Ryoka had said, and trust…he cleared his throat gently.

“How did you find a way to summon me, Erin Solstice? It has been a long, long time since my kind were offered a pact. Do you know what you did?”


This time, Visophecin’s pause was longer. He covered his hesitation by snapping his fingers.

“May I offer you something to drink. Tea? Refreshments? A cloth, perhaps?”

Strangely, he felt it was within his power to conjure such things from thin air. Though that had never been an ability of his. Lucifen were strong, physically and magically; they knew ancient spells and had access to the Gates, which functioned as powerful quasi-teleportation spells.

They could even learn their ‘Warform’, like Agelum, with training. Visophecin was the only living Lucifen to master his. But Lucifen had no innate powers like the Agelum’s mastery of battle.

—Yet right now, he felt more alive than he ever had been. A potential was in his very essence, and he longed to explore this room. To question Erin Solstice.

However, something told him their conversation mattered more than all of it. Erin Solstice whispered as Visophecin produced an ancient, black pot with faint, pale lines, a piece of ceramic broken then artfully repaired to create the effect.

“No. Do you know where I am?”

“…A [Slaver]’s ship flying Roshal’s flag, I presume. Deep sea, bound for Chandrar.”

“Yes. I have a friend. They took her upstairs.”

“Ah. Miss…Ulvama? A Goblin?”

Visophecin hesitated. Erin whispered.

“Yes. It’s been four, five minutes. They said I would have ten.”

“You are in a cell in their ship, I presume. The collar on your neck—a Skillbreaker collar and magic nullifier as well.”


Visophecin steepled his fingers togethers and felt the claws of his nails poking through his gloves. What now? He truly didn’t know.

But she did.

“They offered me a contract. If I signed it, they’d stay away from Ulvama.”

“Ah. No doubt magically enforced. And via Skill and blood.”

Visophecin smiled, imagining what kind of contract it was. The smile flickered as the [Innkeeper] whispered.

“That’s right. So I summoned you. I know you. You’re Lucifen. Cormelex’s people.”

Then Visophecin did twitch. He had mastered a [Gambler]’s poker face, had spoken lies to royalty, and had stared down a Wyrm, all blank-faced.

How did she know that name? How did—

“I found his [Garden of Sanctuary].”

The hairs of Visophecin’s neck slowly rose. Cormelex had a garden? He kept his face straight.

“Intriguing. For clarity’s sake, I presume the ritual to summon me was in that garden?”


He had so many questions, yet now, Visophecin was aware this was a negotiation. And he thought he knew the stakes. He leaned over the table.

“…Having appraised the odds against you, I must caution you that Roshal is a dangerous foe. Their capture of you was no accident. I may be able to render some assistance, but if you have the disposition of their ship, the highest-levelled person aboard?”

“His name is Iert, and he reports to Yazdil. This is his flagship, The Naga’s Den.”

Ah. This will be a problem. Visophecin had ranked his abilities against levels before, and Level 50 individuals consistently had the potential to kill him, even in Warform. He had advantages—but beyond that?

He had dueled a master of Noelictus, and even with all of his kin, he hadn’t been sure how many of them would have had to die to kill…someone who might be Level 60. Depending on how many Relics that Gnoll had, an entire warship of Roshal?

She is in a warded cell as well. Yet…Visophecin felt the power of this place calling to him. An urge in his bones. He had to strike a deal.

What would Ryoka Griffin say if her friend was captured? That was one small consideration. The balance of power in Izril would be thrown off—for better or worse—but mostly, Visophecin was just thinking.

They took the Hobgoblin upstairs. He felt his blood chill further. Lucifen functioned opposite of most species. He didn’t warm, but grew cooler.

“Did they assault you?”

“Not yet.”

“I see.”

Two crimson eyes glowed softly in the darkness. Erin Solstice’s own seemed to shine, but with a different light.

“You don’t know what will happen here. You’ve never done this before, have you?”

His eyes snapped back down from staring upwards at the invisible light source, looking for any other details in the room besides the doors, the chairs, and the table.

“—It has been some time since this ritual was effected. However, I know exactly what will happen should we agree. Terms are always required. A contract, be it words or written. In this room, we must understand the terms well before agreeing. But the price has always been the same.”

“What will happen?”

She wanted him to say it. The Lucifen fidgeted in his chair, then looked at her directly.

“The price is a bit of you. A piece of your soul. A link between you and we.”

She nodded.

“Are you better than Roshal?”

Viscount Visophecin bit his lip on the easy answer. He stared past her, then focused on Erin.

“I believe I am fairer.”

Her eyes were boring into his skull. Erin whispered.

“Are you like them? Roshal?”

The leader of the Lucifen avoided her gaze and glanced around the room. Now the reek of uncomfort left his skin hot, and his blood chilled more. He adjusted his tie.

“—I do not know.”

She said nothing, and the words followed Visophecin’s statement, a justification, clarification, that he had thought after meeting Ryoka Griffin but not had the chance to say.

“I believe good or evil may not always be perfectly obvious, but there are rules and reasons to break them. I do believe in right and wrong. We are simply not all judged at the same time, or equally. I believe my role is, in part, to judge. Or at least, my nature.”

He didn’t mean to say that. But the answers forced themselves out of him, and he realized this room demanded it. A fairness that if used correctly, he was sure would be as painful as could be. The [Innkeeper] stared at Visophecin, then pointed.

“Look out the door for me.”

He was losing control of the negotiations, but there was nothing for him to do but stand and look out into the ship’s hold. His height allowed him to see much. He saw the [Slavers], the cells, the prisoners, and when he turned—he knew what she would ask but could not stop it.

“What do you see?”

The Lucifen answered slowly, gazing around the hold of the ship.

“Something that calls to a part of me. Something that I would ban in any lands I hold sway over.”

The second part of his answer—relieved him. He wondered what he would have said to Uziel if he had not said that. He sat back down, and Erin Solstice saw the Lucifen shift. Then he spoke, as if he had to say it because it mattered.

“I am not ruled by my darkest reflection.”

Who was being judged here? Who was the more unsettled? Visophecin saw Erin Solstice’s face was bloodless. He wasn’t sure she had blinked.

“I have to choose. What I want is this: freedom. I want to leave the ship. I want you to protect Ulvama and everyone else I deem fit before I get to safety. I want you to kill every single [Slaver] of Roshal between me and these things. Can you do it?”

Visophecin didn’t know, and he was afraid the room would compel that answer. But then he felt something moving.

Click. Click. Click.

Both he and Erin stopped, and they heard it. The ancient creak of sound. A feeling of movement.

As if some scales, unseen and invisible, had suddenly found a weight on them after eternities. The scope of her desires suddenly became apparent to Visophecin, her desire and fear and anger and—her emotions, so vivid he recoiled, and his chest heaved.

And he felt the counterbalance of the offer. Power. She had power. This room had power. He almost reached for her, then spoke.

“I can fulfill this request. The contract…you know what you are giving away?”

She said nothing for a long moment. Erin stared into Visophecin’s eyes, then into the door behind her. Her lips moved.

“Will I ever come back? Do I have a chance, if I don’t like the deal, of ever getting out?”

For the first time, her gaze wavered, and the Devil spoke almost gently.

“Oh, yes. It will not change you entirely.”

Erin Solstice’s head jerked after a moment of staring down at the table. She whispered.

“Even if it’s a lie—thank you.”

Was there more to say? Visophecin cleared his throat, and against his desires, he spoke. His fair cousins crossing his face.

“Do you—consider the cost worth the bargain, Erin Solstice? You may still turn away.”

Erin Solstice whispered as she sat up at the crimson table upon her chair melding into the darkness.

“I know. But Ulvama’s up there, and every way out looks dark. She’s up there, Visophecin. She’s—all of them. Halrac. Ulvama. Each one—she’s the one in front of me. I should have never asked them, but I did. She’s up there. If it’s not you, I will sign any contract.”

“I see.”

He should have felt pleased to understand how desperate she was. But he felt guilty instead. A worm in his heart. Yet the [Innkeeper] kept speaking.

“Help me. Don’t let them do anything to her. Help me save them, and you can have a part of me.”

She stood up slowly, and his coat was smeared with blood as she offered it to him. The Lucifen put it back on and the two stood there. He felt the room trembling with the same anticipation in his bones.

Erin Solstice’s eyes were huge in her face, her cheeks devoid of color. She was naked, covered in blood, and stood at the end of a road that had led her here. Visophecin saw the [Innkeeper]’s eyes fix on him and then the stairway stretching down to infinity.

Now she saw that the staircase continued. It fell downwards, but as her head rose, she realized that the stairs also led ever upwards towards that distant light.

“Are you prepared?”

The Devil hesitated and lied as he looked Erin Solstice in the eyes.

“Of course.”

She nodded.

“Then. Take my hand.”




Visophecin, First of the Lucifen, was walking up a staircase that rose in a spiral ever upwards.

He could not see the stairs nor anything but the light.

The pits below him had no end. His climb had no time to it. He was walking ever upwards, and his body strained with each step.

Yet his head was fixed higher at the faintest glow in a place beyond midnight. So dark that a spark would be blinding.


His eyes focused on that distant place, like a promise, as an energy coursed through him he had only ever dreamed of. His legacy.

His heart…beat slowly in his chest. He felt cold. He felt.

The Lucifen had a promise to keep, so though the journey might take forever, still he rose. Higher, climbing one step at a time, a stairway of infinity.

—And he was not alone.

They appeared out of their own doors, bewildered, leaving House Shoel’s lands. Travelling across the world for his call, for the nature of their blood. Male and female. Adorned in the finery of other species.


Azemith, Igolze, Vultapheles—Visophecin could see them out of the corners of his eyes. Lucifen whose heads rose to that tantalizing radiance. Drinking in the pact.

He could have continued climbing forever, but there was a door. Visophecin stopped in front of it and adjusted his clothing. Then he swung the door open and stepped into a brighter world. The darkness before dawn.




It looked, to some of the sailors and crew aboard The Naga’s Den, as if a ring of fire had traced itself with black flames on the deck of the ship. A figure slowly climbed out of it, walking up a stairway.

He stood before a cabin filled with laughter as the rain poured down and the waves of the sea crashed against one of Roshal’s mightiest ships. The crew were in a good mood after waiting so long. But all the [Slavers] were up to their tricks.

Iert, the Gnoll, was distracted, and the [Ship Master] was likewise glancing at his cabin where several [Slavers] were blocking the door. The Gnoll had one hand on his sword, but his master had told him not to shed blood—yet.

The figure paused in front of the door and inhaled. He counted the bodies within, glowing figures of heat. He was taller, seven feet high, and stooped as his hand rose and knocked on the door.

Jet black skin. Long claws tinged red at the very ends. His hair was gone—his skull resembled a smooth bone structure similar to a helmet. Two sockets shone crimson, and Visophecin realized he was different. His regular Warform was not this.

I have wings.

His tail left a wake of rain as the crew pointed at him. Inside the cabin, the laughter stopped.

“Master Iert?”

A note of fear. Then someone got up. Visophecin raised one claw as something ran from his mouth and long, forked tongue and trailed onto the deck as rain pelted his armored body. He realized it was drool.

I have never been hungrier. There was a feast here.

Yet he had a promise to keep. There was one figure in the room that sat still, save for the trembling. Visophecin focused on her. He felt his kindred coming.

He had lived his entire life in black and white. Now—it felt like he could see colors at last. He felt alive, and when the door swung open, a man looked up at Visophecin.

He smelled like lemongrass. He had a smile and excitement on his face. His trousers were bulging, and he was shaking with anticipation.

Then—he looked up, and his eyes widened. Visophecin saw a group of twenty men of various species turn. They looked at him blankly, not understanding what they were seeing.

A Devil pointed a finger and spoke.

[Law of the Lucifen: Hellbound].”

It was no power he had ever used before. He simply knew he could do it. The [Slaver] in front of him jerked back, a hand going for a sword. He tried to step back, but a hand seized his ankle.

The man looked down—and Visophecin thought it was a strange hand. Clawed. Red and black, like the fires of another gate opening below the man’s feet.

Below all the [Slavers]’ feet. They shouted and screamed as the Hobgoblin jerked—Visophecin saw the claw pull, and then the man who smelled like lemongrass and sin began to shriek.

Flames slowly ran up his legs. Black fires of hatred. Burning perdition. The hands were pulling him into the ground, and his scream grew higher and higher until his mouth was open but the sound couldn’t keep up with the agony, and he was silent.

The hands. Visophecin stared down at them. They were not a Lucifen’s hands. They looked—

Like a Goblin’s.

The room was filled with shrieking sounds as twenty men found something pulling them down into a place that had no exit. An infinity of crimson eyes was staring up at them.

One managed to break free. The [Slavemaster] tore free of one hand with all his might, a sword cutting the circle apart. He stumbled forwards, screaming as he saw the flames still clinging to his skin.

Visophecin caught the figure by his head and tilted the man’s neck back. He saw an oiled beard, silk clothing arranged into a toga style, and rings that flashed uselessly, each one bearing Roshal’s sigils.

A necklace swung crazily as Visophecin pulled. The hair stretched the scalp, and the flesh elongated until it tore loose, exposing a red skull. Visophecin dropped the hair and flesh and took a better grip under the chin. Then he pulled and felt the body convulsing. The [Slaver] was still alive until Visophecin felt a tearing sensation and yanked the spine apart. He pulled the head off, and a dripping cord of bones followed it.


The Devil tossed the head aside without a word. Then he looked down. Ulvama stared up at Visophecin, naked and bruised—she raised a claw to shield herself, and Visophecin lifted a claw.

He conjured his coat out of the air and held it out. When she flinched, he put it gently on the table and walked to the door.

The head of the first slaver was still visible, fingers dragging him down.

“Kill me.”

The Lucifen ignored him. He strode to the door and looked into the storm. The warship had noticed his presence. Incredulity had stained the reflexes of the crew, and they might have assumed it was one of the other Masters of Roshal sending a servant.

The screams had roused the crew to action. Half had run for the cells; the other half mustered towards the cabin. Two Djinni descended, eyes wary, as Visophecin stood before the door. The Lucifen reached through a black hole in reality—and found something waiting for him.

He pulled it out slowly, reverently. The first Djinni recognized the blade and pulled back. The enchanted scimitars swung into a guard as the four-armed being of magic saw the Lucifen stand in front of the door to the cabin.

In one hand, he held a sword made of flames that seared the eye and glowed with the inferno of Hellste. The other pointed—and marked the two Djinni, who recoiled and retreated despite the calls to attack.

Their collars burned, forcing them to fly down and land on the deck. Visophecin marked them. They were [Slaves]. So were some of the crew who had been given weapons.

Everything else on this deck died.

The warship held hundreds of crew. Now a bell was ringing, breaking the stalemate in the [Ship Master]’s office. Iert snarled, wondering if it were another trick—but even the Masters of Roshal had no idea what was going on.




Pazeral and Yazdil were not the only two who had servants on the ship. Andra had not found anyone she liked, but money talked. The [Slavers] were all too keen to rid themselves of the Naga’s authority for a new master.

Pazeral spoke to them, but Andra promised simpler things than his return to glory days. She promised wealth and power and delivered.

[Collector of Thousands] Tillep was one of the most senior [Slavers] on the ship. He was Level 43; he was nodding as Andra gave him swift instructions. She had multiple scrying mirrors, one of which was attending the showdown between the Naga and the rest of the crew, as well as one focused on Tillep and another monitoring a Merchant’s Guild negotiation via one of her representatives.

“Do not clash with the servant, Iert. If Pazeral interferes with his people—eradicating, suborning, threatening, are all acceptable—remove them from the scenario.”

“Shall I move the [Innkeeper] to a separate cell?”

Andra was smoking. She nodded; something made her deeply uneasy this night.

“Yes. With a ring gag and in full restraints.”

The man licked his lips.

“Shall I pose her? A-artistically?”

Andra’s stare was cold and disinterested.

“If you wish to take recordings, that is your reward. Do not touch her besides that. She is not to be touched until she reaches Lailight Scintillation.”

He was disappointed. Andra further clarified. Clarity was essential in how she operated.

“She believes she is in control. She has the poison of the Rebel of String and Khelta in her soul. First—show her she is not.”

She stubbed the end of her cigarette onto an ashtray.

“We do not need a Goblin slave. Some rules are sacrosanct for a reason. Show her what remains before you touch Chandrar’s shores. Then cleanse the ship.”

“It will be done.”

Andra nodded. She was swinging back to the stalemate in the [Ship Master]’s office when she heard a sound. Instantly, she switched to a view of the ship’s deck. Her eyes focused on a figure standing in the rain with a flaming…

“What is that? Tillep, there is a monster on the ship. Kill—

A hiss from the other Masters of Roshal. No—just one. Only one recognized the figure standing there. Pazeral recoiled, then spoke with longing, interest, wariness—


Andra didn’t know the name, but Yazdil jerked, and Shaullile blinked in faint recognition.

“Kill it.”

Tillep and his bodyguards were already heading for the door. There was one versus hundreds—but Andra’s heart was beating faster. She didn’t like this. Had an ally found Erin Solstice?

There were two Djinni on deck, and the spellcasters were preparing Tier 5 magics. The figure seemed to be guarding something. Andra checked her pulse, and it steadied—until she noticed something else.

There are more—




They climbed out of portals into the thrashing rain and surf battering The Naga’s Den. Some floated in the air or walked onto the deck.

Forty Lucifen, each one a full adult of House Shoel—each one looking distinctly different. Visophecin felt their advent and realized something.

They had all activated their Warforms.

He was the only Lucifen who had mastered it—but the power was coursing through them all. It was a well that he was drawing from, sharing with them. Visophecin realized for the first time that each Warform was different.

Azemith’s was close to a Medusa, long ‘braids’ of serpents trailing from her head, but far longer than any Medusa’s, stretching down to the floor and rising again. Each serpent’s eyes shone a different color, and they spat shards of the killing magic the Lucifen had perfected, [Midnight Shard], without warning.

Another Lucifen appeared to be more akin to a Minotaur with gigantic horns and a furred body—a tail thrashed as he grabbed one of the [Slavers] from behind and tore them apart limb by limb, as Visophecin had.

(Visophecin. What is this? How have you done this?)

He felt them demanding answers. Yet he only had one command.

(Kill every slaver of Roshal aboard the ship. Judge them. Protect the slaves, Erin Solstice, and the Hobgoblin, Ulvama.)

The Djinni dove at him as House Shoel attacked as one. Visophecin sundered one of the scimitars with a slash from his blade and grabbed the first Djinni’s neck.

[Law of the Lucifen: Halt].

The figure froze as he turned to the second, aiming for the collar.

Across the deck, a female goat-woman with wide, staring eyes lifted a pitchfork and ran one of the [Mages] through with it. Theadrix hoisted the wailing [Slaver] into the air as blood showered down and the trident grew spikes. She planted it on the ground and stalked on as the crew saw them everywhere.

Devils. Not monsters. They cast spells and systematically hunted down the [Slavers]. They were enjoying this.

They should not, Visophecin felt. Igolze joined him, a huge stone gargoyle in principal shape, seizing one of the Djinni, and Visophecin pointed at the door as three more Lucifen strode towards him.

“Belowdecks. Now.”

One took a guard position at the door with Igolze—Visophecin strode towards the door leading down to the cages. He knew Erin Solstice was there. His combat training would have had him secure her safety first—but he had made a pact.

Three Lucifen and Visophecin breached the door with a ray of flames and descended the stairs in a blur. They pointed their fingers across the room, which was tall enough to have two floors, a walkway leading up to the second level.

Shimmering cages of magic and prisoners with guard rooms and spells restricting any chance of escape. Drains leading down to a cistern that exited the ship.

That was what Visophecin expected. He was ready for a battle—but he found none. Instead, all he saw was fire.

It was invisible, but the smoke and shimmering aura of the flames and his unique vision let him see the heat outline of the fire. The magical fire was covering half the prison, and the few [Guards] left alive were fleeing the fire.

Fire? Visophecin hesitated, then strode through the flames.

“Erin Solstice.”

She was standing in her cell, the manacles melted off her wrists. The cell door was down, and she was covered in blood. The surviving prisoners in her cell stood far back from the flames—Visophecin met her eyes and understood.

The pact went both ways, didn’t it?

Her eyes were black—until she raised her head and recognized him. Then the flames died down around Visophecin.

“Where’s Ulvama?”

“Secured. There are surely kill-spells. We must deactivate them now—”

The other Lucifen moved to secure the control room and destroy the collars. It would not be easy, even for them. There had to be keys…

Erin strode past Visophecin as he reached for her collar. Her eyes were only on the stairs.




The [Innkeeper] walked onto the deck, her body screaming in agony. Her flesh was melted from the manacles—Visophecin followed her, demanding a healing potion and that she stop before Roshal activated her collar.

She only halted to look around the deck. Screams filled the air, and dozens of figures pursued the crew across the deck. Some were laughing. Lucifen.

They caught sight of her and stared, as if they recognized something. As if she were marked.

Erin didn’t care. A claw grabbed her collar, and Visophecin inspected it. Erin rasped, her head searching the deck.

“Find the [Ship Master]. Iert. Kill them.”

Two crimson eyes regarded Erin. His voice was deeper, echoing, but the same.

“Very well.”

He advanced towards a cabin surrounded by Lucifen. They were immolating it from the outside. A Gnoll burst out of one window, howling. Visophecin fired black spells nonstop, putting holes in Iert’s arms and legs. The Gnoll leapt for the railings and fell into the sea as the Lucifen focused on him.

Erin ignored the fighting. She was walking towards a cabin guarded by two of the Lucifen. They regarded her as she stopped in front of them. Her head rose—and they moved aside.

A young woman walked through the door into the cabin where nineteen scorch marks had twisted the floorboards forever. Erin saw a figure in the corner of the room.

Red blood was pooling from a corpse as Ulvama watched the stain moving across the floor. She looked up as Erin Solstice walked towards her. She gazed at Erin and flinched away.


That was all Ulvama said. Erin stopped. She was breathing hard. But she spoke as if she didn’t notice the flesh still smoking on her hands or the blood covering her face.

“I came as fast as I could. I’m sorry.”

The Hobgoblin was curled up, knees shielding her, hugging her legs. Erin reached out—saw the flinch—and stopped. She knelt down on one knee and held out a hand, but didn’t touch Ulvama.

“They’re killing the [Slavers].”

“How? This is a dream. It doesn’t happen.”

Erin nodded.

“I chose.”

Still, the [Shaman] didn’t understand. She looked past Erin, and the screaming and laughter—it was all impossible. This was a dream, and she was going to wake up into the real nightmare.

But that hand and those hazel eyes—Ulvama hesitated. Her hand moved. She reached out, snatched her fingers back—then touched that hand. She hoped it was real. Then she grabbed Erin.

Ulvama was shaking. Erin’s body was still shaking with pain, exhaustion, the effects of using the power Visophecin had granted her.

It was all distant.

She stood up with Ulvama in her arms. She didn’t feel the weight. Erin carried her, awkwardly, towards the door.

“I’ve got you.”

One of the Lucifen reached out and stopped when the other blocked them. Erin carried Ulvama into the storm, and the rain hit both of them.

Cold and icy. It didn’t feel like a dream—but they both looked at each other, not sure if this was a dream.

Visophecin strode towards them with a single key in his hand, charred and bloody. He stopped as Erin spoke.

“I won’t let it happen again, I swear.”

The Hobgoblin met the Human’s eyes as Erin’s arms trembled and she nearly slipped and fell. Ulvama put her feet on the ground before Erin dropped her. But she didn’t let go.


They looked up at Visophecin as Igolze offered them each a blanket to drape around them, and the prisoners stumbled onto the deck. Two kneeling Djinni were laughing as Erin breathed in and out.

Freed. Though what came next…Visophecin knew it would only get more complicated.

Erin didn’t care. Her heart was beating…no, that was Ulvama’s pulse. Her hands were holding onto the Hobgoblin tightly.

“I’m sorry I took so long. Never again, I promise. I promise.”

Her eyes lifted towards a flag flying in the storm. Roshal’s flag began to burn as one of the Lucifen set it alight. A flake of ash fell and stung Erin on the temple. Then she stopped worrying it was a dream. Because if this was a nightmare and she had yet to wake—

She would do it again.




“Well, this is a pleasant surprise. Greetings, Lucifen.”

A cracked mirror in the [Ship Master]’s office was the only thing still intact when Visophecin went back to inspect the location. Everything else was burnt ash.

He stopped, regarding the smiling man with too-bright eyes who sat with only a towel draped over his nether regions. Lord Pazeral, apparently.

Visophecin did not know him. But the ghost of Roshal knew him.

“I take it this is the [Innkeeper]’s doing? I didn’t think your people were alive. Here is my offer, and I speak for the Masters of Roshal. Return Erin Solstice to us.”

Visophecin said nothing. The collars were unlocked. Roshal had been trying to kill all the [Slaves], but the Lucifen had blocked the command spell. The entire crew had been wiped out. The only body that Visophecin couldn’t account for was Iert, and he had leapt into the ocean.

Lord Pazeral had to know that if they had wiped out the entire warship, the odds of another ship taking this one were remote. Especially if he knew their powers. He seemed to, but the glittering [Lord of Possession]’s eyes were not afraid.

“Your kind has always known better than to make us their enemies. Turn around, and we will join forces. Whatever that woman offered you, we can exceed it, be it knowledge or wealth of any kind. On an Infernal Pact, no less.”

Visophecin still said nothing. He pointed a finger at the mirror, and Pazeral’s voice rose.

“You do not wish to make an enemy of Roshal, Lucifen. We will hunt you down. Roshal can chain anything. It will be enjoyable, however costly. Give. Her. Back.

He leaned forwards, a snarl replacing his look of confidence. The Devil replied calmly.

“You own no one.”

A spell shattered the mirror as the [Slaver] shouted—and Visophecin found a burnt map on one wall and began to restore it.




The [Shepherd], Marika, was dead. That was her name.

They’d hacked her down, the flesh of Tombhome or not. She’d bought Erin the minutes she needed. Half of the cell was dead.

The Lizardgirl and Emira Isoquen were alive. The rest of the [Slaves], loyal or prisoners, were huddling on the deck in the rain. It was freezing, but none of them wanted the clothing of the dead slavers.

One of the Lucifen created a shield from the rain as they returned to their regular forms. They looked—tired. Only Visophecin seemed to return to his regular form for pure practicality.

“The map indicates we are halfway towards Chandrar.”


Erin spoke quietly as Ulvama stayed next to her. Visophecin nodded curtly as the other Lucifen inspected the map.

“This ship was powered by Djinni and seems to have been ready to use current-altering spells. Roshal builds their ships for durability and speed. Even so, they were unable to hug the coast—it seems they were wary of Krakens, so they were forced to take a sea route.”

He traced a line across from the southwestern coast diagonally through the center of the map, circling wide of Chandrar’s northern shores, clearly aiming to circumnavigate the desert continent before coming into harbor.

“They surely feared Khelt would intercept, or even the King of Destruction. Visophecin, the House is alarmed. I have updated them on the situation. It is unlikely Roshal can bypass our protections, but we must assess and return…I think we can Gate back home. The power from the pact—

One of the female Lucifen was glancing at Erin. Ulvama squeezed one arm, and Visophecin noticed. He spoke curtly.

“A moment, Azemith.”

She stepped back, and he glanced at the freed prisoners and murmured to Erin.

“It is likely Roshal is sending ships to intercept us at any moment. The most sensible option would be to bring you to our homeland.”

Erin opened her mouth, and he continued.

“Or The Wandering Inn. However, a guard must be effected; there are doubtless agents in the area. Regardless, I propose we abandon this ship. It would not be impossible to return this ship to a port in northern or southern Izril. Teleportation will be far faster. One or two of our number could claim the vessel and attempt to return it to safe harbor.”

Igolze shrugged, not greatly pleased by the idea.

“Roshal will doubtless want it back and the questions that arise, and securing a vessel of this size? We cannot even manage it with the forty of us. It may be simpler to scuttle it. Though this is a warship of considerable magnitude.”

Erin didn’t react to the proposal. She just breathed in and out and looked at Ulvama. Then the Lizardgirl. One of the Lucifen was bending over her as the girl hid her face. But Azemith pried her claws loose. Erin’s head rose—and the Lucifen produced something and handed it to the girl.

It was a mask. Then Azemith patted the girl twice on the head and murmured something. Her eyes were foreign as she rose.

She did not understand them. They did not understand her. But they had a pact. Erin stared at the map as the Lucifen debated quietly.

“The Djinni and loyalists will need oversight. It would be more prudent to leave them in Liscor.”

“We are bound by a pact, Vultapheles. The clause includes their protection.”

“I see. This calls for a full conclave. Our cousins included. The opportunities this represents—”


They were waiting for her to say something. A potion had mostly healed her wrists, though a burn scar remained. Erin whispered.

“We’re so far at sea.”

“Shock. I propose the House, Visophecin. One of our secluded areas for a day or two. The prisoners will catch a sickness, and their condition needs treatment.”

Another Lucifen spoke in a clipped tone, regarding Erin and Ulvama. Visophecin half nodded, but he approached Erin again, lowering his voice.

“We can communicate your wellbeing to Ryoka Griffin. Transit back to my home is what I propose. Erin Solstice?”

Her eyes were still on the map. Visophecin was about to take command, presuming she was in justifiable shock, but Erin was thinking.

She was thinking of only one thing. Their location was far from any landmass in the world save one. Still far from that, but she guessed it had only been a few hours since the Solstice ended.

It wasn’t even dawn yet. Then again, it was the longest night of the year.

Even so—Iert had said this was one of the fastest ships in the world. Slowly, Erin’s head turned, and she whispered something that made Ulvama refocus a second.

“He’s out there.”

“The Gnoll? We are monitoring the waters. If he even manages to swim within a mile of us, levels or not—”

Visophecin began, but Erin was staring northwards now. There was no way she could tell…Igolze surreptitiously checked a compass and noticed her head was pointing north with a slight eastern tilt.


The Lucifen stirred in vague recognition of the name. Viscount Visophecin took a second as Ulvama’s head rose.

“Ser Solstice?”

They…were closer to Wistram than any other position on the map right now. He felt the slightest tingle on the back of his neck as he turned his head.

“What is the status of the Terandrian fleet?”

“Chaos. With the attack on Wistram, their attempt to make for the Isle of Mages is stymied. They were engaging the Bloodtear Pirates—it was nearly twenty percent of their rearguard overtaken by the time I last checked. The Baron of Nadel is sailing down on them as well as Admiral Seagrass’ fleet, but fire support from Wistram has ended.”

One of the Lucifen reported as Erin stared into the storm. The storm, she realized, that had to be caused by the Bloodtear Pirates.


Ulvama was watching her, and Visophecin could not predict what might come next. He did not know her. However, even the [Shaman] seemed—surprised.

“I know what I have to do.”

Erin spoke quietly, and all the Lucifen blinked as her hand rose. She looked around for the steering wheel of the ship, unmanned, and half started for it. Then she looked at the prisoners.

“Take them all somewhere safe, Visophecin. Where neither Roshal nor you can hurt them.”

He twitched at that. One of the Lucifen made a sound, but Visophecin spoke, curious.

“It will be done. What of you?”

“I’m not leaving. Turn the ship north. Towards Wistram.”

Now, all the Lucifen began to catch onto what Erin Solstice was thinking. Several exchanged incredulous looks. One smiled.

“I think she is confused. There are armies fighting north of us, Miss Solstice. Even if we arrive in time, this is one ship.”

“A warship. You took out every [Slaver] on it in minutes.”

Yes—but that was with their Warforms, and most of the Lucifen were exhausted. None would admit it, but they wouldn’t have dared try that if not for the element of surprise and the empowering pact.

“—We can arrange the safety of the prisoners.”

Visophecin spoke after a moment’s pause. Some of the Lucifen were waiting for him to tell Erin she was being ridiculous, but his scalp was prickling now. He wasn’t sure why.

“Yes. And Ulvama, too.”

The Hobgoblin started. Now, Erin was walking across the deck, and she grabbed the wheel and turned it. The ship moved—slowly, and Erin fumbled with the wheel, struggling to keep it steady. She glanced down as the blanket nearly blew off of her.

“I need clothing. They took my things. Get them back, and find out what’s going on.”

“No. Visophecin, we will have Roshal’s ships on us if any are in the area—and I have no doubt they will try. I agree with the proposal to relocate all to the House. The rest? You are exhausted, overwrought…as one supposes you might be.”

Azemith addressed Erin directly and with an attempt at kindness, however vague. She took a step towards Erin to pull her away from the wheel—

A crackle of energy. The smell of brimstone, and Azemith yanked her hand away with a cry.

She had been scorched by something when she touched Erin! It had looked like…the portal that had dragged those [Slavers] into the ground. Now, Visophecin felt it.

Erin Solstice’s head turned slowly, and she knew it too.

“You have an agreement with me, Visophecin.”

“For your freedom and the safety of—”

The Lucifen had not actually shed sweat since his duel with Rhisveri. But now his skin was prickling, and he felt the authority in the air. The other members of House Shoel looked at him, and Erin spoke.

“What I said was: ‘I want you to protect Ulvama and everyone else I deem fit before I get to safety.’ He’s out there. I feel it. Rabbiteater’s still alive. But those [Pirates]—”

She remembered her dream vaguely. Thought of Kasigna and the fae. Even they couldn’t see what was happening at sea. She couldn’t remember any Skills or classes—but she knew.

There are nearly a hundred enemy ships. Each one crewed by Bloodtear Pirates or famous crews. That is no joke of a navy, Visophecin. Their specialty is fighting at sea, and they are besting Terandria’s [Knights] on the water. Members of the Thousand Lances are dead, regardless if they aren’t the legends of their heyday. They have slaughtered dozens of ship crews, [Soldiers], [Knights], and all—”

Now, the Lucifen were arguing—urgently—with Visophecin. They were attempting to open Gates, but aside from the one Igolze was opening to take the prisoners to House Shoel…he would have to return.

An Infernal Pact, that man, Lord Pazeral, had called it. Visophecin felt it on his wrist, like a piece of magic or a promise written in power linking him to Erin. And she was pulling.

“There is one [Knight] out there, and I understand he is sailing with the Order of Seasons, the Kingdom of Calanfer, and Earl Altestiel, not to mention numerous powerful kingdoms, Erin Solstice.”

“They’re coming for them all.”

Erin was staring ahead, now, as Ulvama looked at her. Just looked at her. Curiously, as if seeing Erin for the first time—she had seen a thousand fragments, but this was the entire view of Erin. Visophecin licked his lips.

“The odds of our even reaching him are—”

“Not one.”

The [Innkeeper] whispered it into the storm. She looked back, eastwards, towards Liscor. The dead had not even been buried. Her inn stood—but there was no one in it.

Halrac, Gershal, Tekshia, Moore, Ulinde, Kevin, Theillige—the list of them ran on. She was numb, but only because she had bled out. Whether or not all of them were her fault—



Erin closed her eyes.

“I couldn’t help anyone. I asked them to stand with me, and they did. They always did, and now—”

She opened her eyes and met Ulvama’s gaze. The [Shaman] was still shivering, bruises on her green skin—Erin whispered.

“Even you. I have been taking help so long, and today—they all paid for it. Except me.”

It should have been her, each time. The [Innkeeper] stared ahead. She knew Visophecin was right. She knew it was madness.

She no longer cared.

“Just one of them.”

The [Witch] slowly adjusted the wheel. She knew he was out there. She followed the [Boon of the Guest], a connection that spanned countless miles. A familiar aura in the storm. It had been so long. She had thought he was dead. Like all the others.

They were trying to argue with her, pleading now. But Erin only knew Ulvama was there, and Visophecin. She looked at the prisoners, and they gazed at her.

“I didn’t save them. You did.”

That was what she told the Lucifen. Erin looked at Ulvama, who asked a question.

“Is it because he’s a Goblin?”

She was curious. Erin shook her head.

“No. He’s not the first Goblin I ever had at my inn. Not the first guest. I never knew his full story. He was one of five silly, brave, heroic Goblins.”

Her memories were flashing around her. Erin’s eyes stung.

“Just like so many I’ve known. He stayed at my inn and changed. He left when I got his brothers killed to protect what I thought mattered. I tried to help him. I’ve tried to help them all, but they always gave more to me than I gave to them.”

Every part of her was shaking with exhaustion, pain, loss, and grief. But her hands were steady on the wheel. She looked straight ahead. Now she was pulling forty-one Lucifen with her. At last, she remembered she had a hat, and it began to burn once more.

“He’s my…my brother? My son? My friend? My—guest? My…family?”

Erin shook her head slightly and glanced at Ulvama. She smiled faintly.

“He’s my guy. He’s mine.”

Then she looked around as the Hobgoblin saw Erin Solstice stand straighter, at ease at last. The Lucifen were afraid—but Erin Solstice just steered them straight into that storm. North.

The rest of the world was following after. Somewhere, in that dark night, the Horns of Hammerad were still lost in the Crossroads of Izril. A single [Knight] fought on a ship with hundreds of people who wore his class—as the Bloodtear Pirates bore down on them, singing and reaching for the only hope that mattered.

Far off, but drawing closer with each second, was a ship of charred corpses, ash, forty-one Devils, a Hobgoblin [Shaman], and an [Innkeeper].




Rabbiteater turned his head once as he lifted his axe high and wondered if he were dreaming. He looked south and tapped on his helmet, then looked around for his friends.

It had to be his imagination.




“You should go. They’ll take you somewhere safe. Anywhere you want.”

Erin turned to Ulvama, but the [Shaman] didn’t step into that portal in the air. Erin went on, after a second, as the Lucifen turned back to the [Shaman].

“…I know you won’t. You came after me.”

“Yah. Death isn’t very scary.”

Ulvama grinned at last, somehow, despite everything. Erin was shivering in the freezing rain, and the huge warship was listing despite the Lucifen’s best attempts to crew it with magic. Azemith was demanding reinforcements or help—

But the two of them were a different kind from haughty immortals. Ulvama put an arm around Erin’s shoulders and hugged her tightly.

“Why do you think I stayed at your inn? Well, first was Rags being stupid. But I realized she was right. Rags is tough. She doesn’t need me. You do. You’re like a mini me. A stronger one than I was. But you needed me. Now—”

Ulvama’s eyes searched the storm, and Erin realized she too was staring north. As if she saw a distant light at sea.

“You need someone stronger than you. To keep you safe.”

Me? Erin stared, and Ulvama made a bicep as she looked down at the shorter woman. But her eyes were roaming the storm.

“Your silly boy is out there. Let’s get him. We don’t leave anyone in our tribe. Not Goblins captured. Not little, stupid Gnoll children. Not [Innkeepers]. No one.”

The [Shaman of the Old Ways] stood there, and Erin realized that Ulvama was right. They were alike. A question occurred to her belatedly.

“How many times have you done this?”

“More than you. You’re cold. We eat something. Then…I need two things.”

So saying, Ulvama brought Erin into one of the cabins and found her belt pouches of powder and paint. She worked for a little bit as Erin found a mirror.

Her face was cut up and bruised. The two earrings—Erin realized they were still in her ears and nearly ripped them out. Ulvama stopped her and removed them—before gently offering something to Erin.

“I’ll heal my ears…”

She had no healing potions. The vessel’s stores were mostly gone with the crew. Ulvama gently put something in Erin’s ears.

“Shush. Pierced ears is nice. Hold still.”

She took a brush and began to work. Erin squirmed—then saw her reflection in the mirror changing.

When they came back onto the deck, Visophecin turned—and blinked. Igolze almost made a comment before Azemith stepped on one foot hard.

Erin’s face was covered in paint, the [Shaman]’s magical colors glowing. Her eyes were lined with a bright hazel, like her eyes, and the red slashes down her cheeks that covered pale white and green—

Blue dots around her eyes. It wasn’t a full mask, but it was like Ulvama’s own decorations, which she had reapplied. Visophecin realized what it was. Something he had so rarely seen—

Goblin warpaint. 

It covered the [Innkeeper]’s mortal wounds. In Erin’s ears were two polished jade beads with red dots mixed into the stone. Like a Goblin’s eyes.

When Erin turned her head to the rain, the glowing colors made her look more like the woman who had sat in that room across from him.

And Ulvama wasn’t done. She looked at the Lucifen, whom Erin had called into this storm. Devils in their finery, drenched by the surf. The Hobgoblin lifted her eyes to the dark sea.

She pointed a finger straight into the night sky and frowned, eyeballing distance before she looked down. Erin looked up at Ulvama, and the Hobgoblin grinned at Erin with all her teeth.

“No matter where you go, Erin Solstice. Remember: you chose the best of friends.”

So saying, the Hobgoblin traced something in the air. She drew magic, and like Tesy, like her class, her magic was more than waving a wand and speaking a spell. The [Shaman] took her time, writing a single word in the center of an illustration.

Though Erin could not read it. The [Innkeeper] looked at the word.

“What’s that one mean?”


Ulvama pointed up—and shot a star into the sky. It burst upwards, blasting through the rain, leaving a trail of vapor and glowing particles of magic in its wake. Ulvama’s eyes glowed as she shaded her eyes, sure that they would see it.

At least one, and remember. The Hobgoblin whispered.

“It means, ‘help’.”

In her gaze, one of two burning beacons flickered—and then began to grow brighter. The [Innkeeper] turned to her, and Ulvama winked. Erin strode over to the helm, and Ulvama pointed as they adjusted their course. Looking at the same thing, now.

“Let’s go.”

Without a word, Erin grabbed Ulvama’s hand, and the [Shaman] squeezed tightly. Erin turned to Visophecin, who watched her, not understanding what he saw in the Human and Goblin’s gazes. So she told him gently, hazel eyes filled with a calm, terrible light.

“Because it matters. Each and every time. I’m sorry. I am. I don’t know you. I don’t love you. There’s no one I would want more with me right now. Come on. Let’s die.”

Erin spun the wheel, and it felt like time had started again. She was giggling, laughing, listening to Ulvama’s cackle as she held a Goblin’s hand and sailed forwards. For no other reason than she had to. Erin called up to the sky.

“At last. I’m ready.”





Author’s Note:

I know I said I would put out a chapter on Saturday and take an update off…

I lied.

But I decided to post this chapter early and rush to get it done because I understand it’s hard as a reader to wait, especially given the events of last chapter. Speed and timing of a release is something a good author considers.

There is suspense, and there is agony. A reader should not wait long in the latter, even if that is part of how web serials work, even more than novels.

This chapter has a thousand and one flaws from a technical standpoint. I am at the very ends of my energy reserves, so there are more generic phrases, and I had to adjust a lot of typos. It is shorter, and the quality of the prose is doubtless lacking.

It is, to me, a stronger chapter than all the other Solstice chapters before. I hope it is for you. This is probably the hardest chapter I have written…ever…in some ways. And I did not delve as far as I could.

Enough. I have a plan and this is it: I will take Saturday off because I need the time. I may simply rest—regardless, my plan is to post Tuesday with the second-to-last arc-chapter.

The Horns of Hammerad.

Then I will take my week off. I know it is barely the start of December, and I do actually want to take Christmas off for the first time in ages, so I hope you’ll let me have that one too. But after that week, I will bring the Solstice to a close.

We have not failed yet. Thank you for reading and I hope this makes the wait easier.




Erin’s Dance by Artsynada.

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(Art has nudity. Click here.)


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