10.06 – The Wandering Inn


(Read this blog about important changes to the update schedule of The Wandering Inn. Of all the blog posts, this is the one to read.)



There is a box. A hidden box; one of the hardest places in the world to enter, let alone spy into. Kingdoms could break their magic on the protections surrounding the box long before they reached it.

The box is a room, a tiny space barely a foot across. It is hardly empty, but all of the interesting things surround the box. For instance, inside of it, the walls are layered; one is a lacquered layer of laminate woods. The most interior wall, and thus, the visible one is Chemath marble, one of the most powerful materials for holding magic. But it simply looks like drab stone; therefore, pillows and blankets and more amenities have been added to the room.

The box has multiple layers to each wall. Magicore, for instance, runs between two layers, creating an insulating barrier to magic. Another is a literal void to do the same for temperature and air.

The box is a room. It sits, not in the heart of the city, but high above it, near the top. For the city is a tree, and when the tree was first planted, they made it.

Or rather, they made a room, the most secure, magically isolated place they could find, that could survive a Tier 7 spell, perhaps even Tier 8—just to hold another box inside of it. That was how much they thought the other box, The Last Box—mattered.

Perhaps that was how much Fraerlings feared it. Each city that sprang up around the last gift of the Gnomes made this room differently, each and every one, but with the best protections they had. Safeguards to deny it from anyone’s hands. Even, if need be, methods to purge The Last Box, though no one could break it.

A sacred trust; one of the secrets of species. Like the Minds of Selphids, the knowledge of Lizardfolk, or Dwarves—like hidden Dragons of Drakes, the box and the room itself weren’t things most Fraerlings would even know about.

The Architects—the ruling body of this city, Paeth by the Coast—were the only ones with permanent access to this place. Of course, in regular times, any number of the best [Engineers], [Alchimagi], and countless other classes would be allowed access to this place.

To test their mettle against the puzzle of ages, The Last Box, and unravel a new secret or theorem of magic left by the creators, the Gnomes. Of all legacies, The Last Boxes were one of the most enduring and powerful, and the reason Fraerlings never entered into dark ages of magic. They were teaching mechanisms, puzzles, and annoyances all wrapped into one.

Normal days. That was what Paeth used to look like; you would enter into this secure room and find the real treasure suspended in the air, a thousand rooms and puzzles contained in a strange cube. But today?

The Last Box is gone. It has vanished, leaving behind only an empty room. The charge of Fraerlings is over, and with it, some of the knowledge of the world. More than one of the Architects, like Enchanter Ilekrome, have moments of quiet despair over that fact. Then he wonders, should it be a celebration?

Paeth was saved by the actions of the last Gnome, Zineryr; he teleported the entire Fraerling city into the heart of Talenqual, and the only cost was the ghost of a long-dead species and the box itself. Where it went and what it now contains—not even the Fraerlings could say.

But the lesser box, the room which now had no purpose? That one is now filled again. The Architects are all present, looking down at the interior of the room from an observation room that used to let them watch the teams trying to solve a Gnome puzzle without disturbing them.

A glass window, reinforced a hundred thousand times stronger with magic, lets Judiciary Honst crane his head to stare over Citivican Loust’s shoulder.

Seven Architects, the ruling body of Fraerling Cities, as close to world leaders as Fraerlings have. Each settlement is independent, but Fraerling Cities are a magical and technological peak compared to villages or Tallguard forts.

These ones are all tired. Being an Architect is normally tiring, but in a civic way of managing expectations, fulfilling requests for public interest, backing research projects, politics, figuring out the damn Allotment—the magical cap to avoid being noticed—difficult, unenviable tasks.

But easy if you compare it with being the first Fraerling city in contact with the Tallfolk’s world. Easy compared to having to defend your city from [Mercenaries] trying to tear it down. A thirteen-hour public forum would be easier than deciding whether to let any Tallfolk who want to visit into Talenqual—or informing Sentry Commander Ekrn he has a killzone of eight hundred feet. As in, anything unauthorized that comes eight hundred feet within Paeth’s radius dies.




That was not something Farspeaker Humalepre, an expert in communications spells and negotiation with other Fraerling cities, had ever had to grapple with. Obviously, he asked when Ekrn demanded an actual range on his killzone, ‘what about children or people who enter by mistake?’

Obviously, that would require safeguards, signs, warning spells—dedicated Fraerlings whose sole job it would be to shout at idiots trying to get close and warn them. Even a barrier spell? Maybe a simple Tier 4 one that could literally stop people from getting closer?

That required Tallfolk help given how huge the radius would be: eight hundred feet around the giant redwood tree that was Paeth. It was in progress, and Humalepre would rest easier when it was done.

Then, they could have Fraerlings roaming around a ‘safe zone’ around Paeth. Right now, it was mostly rubble; they had appeared in the center of Talenqual and laid waste to everything in sight. It had been a war, but still—the churned ground and cracked and blackened remains of buildings was no pleasant vista for Paeth’s inhabitants. Not that Fraerlings had often looked outside; they’d been happy with their cities, and outside was often dangerous to city-Fraerlings.

…They were looking outside every day now. One of the things they’d seen were Tallfolk trying to kill them. So Ekrn had demanded a killzone. Cross this line and die unless you’re one of the United Nations company or a rare friend or guest.

Eight hundred feet. Farspeaker Humalepre asked Ekrn point-blank what he would do if a child somehow passed the barrier spells. To which Ekrn responded—

“If they got past a full barrier spell and ignored the warnings, Farspeaker, I would assume someone’s coerced the child or using them as an attack or scouting vector. I would have to assess the situation. My worst case scenario is that the child is loaded with Vortex Bolts or Tallfolk weapons and headed for the city.”

“Yes, but what would you do if you were forced to make a decision?”

To which Sentry Commander Ekrn had stood there before the city-Fraerlings.

“I am asking for limitations on what I cannot do, Architects. I can’t gauge every hypothetical, but I need to know what my rules of engagement are.”

The killzone, incidentally, had been activated three times already. Most Tallfolk took the warnings; some did not. But Ekrn, in the interest of saving lives, had told the United Nations company, who were guarding the radius, it would be kinder to shoot someone with a crossbow bolt in the legs than let them breach the killzone. The one time an idiot had ignored the warnings and run at Paeth, Ekrn had them taken out at 50 feet from the killzone limits with [Homing Fireballs].

Tiny ones, but the Tallfolk wouldn’t stop screaming until they were dragged off. The killzone hadn’t killed a person yet.

It had, however, sniped one Golem, a poor horse, and a dog. Farspeaker Humalepre still remembered the animals.

A horse bolting the wrong way when someone crossed the barrier—well, you couldn’t reason with that animal. But the dog? It was just curious, and no one was there to stop it. The Farspeaker had actually been talking to Ken from one of the communication windows when it had happened.

It was clearly not a disguised [Rogue]…[Saboteur Beastmaster]’s ploy to attack Paeth, but Ekrn had still activated one of Paeth’s ray spells. [Inferno-Lance of the Solar Giant]—a massive spell by Fraerling standards. Small by Tallfolk ones, but it had killed a lot of Tallfolk [Mercenaries] in the past battles.

An orange-white beam of light that made everything else look dark—collecting above Paeth’s wide branches, then shooting down like a precise scalpel of magic.

A dog.

Fraerlings didn’t have dogs, and in fact, normal Tallfolk pets like cats and dogs were exceptionally dangerous to them. Humalepre got the anguish and consternation.

The Tallguard were remarkably unsympathetic. In fact, Humalepre had overheard one remarking that this might ‘send the message’ instead of having to kill the first intruder into the killzone. Which meant Ekrn was anticipating…!

This was why the Architects of a Fraerling city, and Fraerlings of cities in general, didn’t mix with Tallguard that well. Ekrn’s people seemed entirely bloodthirsty—but then, Paeth had been attacked, and the Tallfolk would have killed them all.

—Fraerlings were still forming quorums and having debates on the ethics of it in the city below. In some places. [Thought Healers] were working overtime, and the Architects had elected to institute areas with [Calm] spells as a public service since the Allotment no longer mattered.

Tallguard recruitment had spiked 1207%. Fraerlings requesting cohabitation permits or pregnancy magic had also risen—one in six Fraerlings under the age of thirty were resuming vocational school for magic.

These were the figures that the Architects had to take and make something out of. Paeth by the Coast now had no Allotment. It did have a city to worry about, which meant it now had a…budget.

Fraerling currency was not Tallfolk currency. Paeth had [Mercenaries]—the United Nations company and Gravetender’s Fist—to pay. It had to worry about loyalty, Talenqual’s destroyed economy and civilians, laws for Tallfolk…of course, Paeth could let someone else handle it.

But a city with crime might lead to trouble for them. A weak Tallfolk army meant Paeth was undefended. Paeth had the authority to demand…a lot. A magical, Tier 6 laser was a lot of authority. However, friendship and trust were also essential.

They needed to export goods; they had [Engineers] working with [Enchanters] to make rings of magic for Tallfolk. In fact, they had [Designers], blueprinting specialists working with [Engineers], and gemstone experts not to improve the quality of a magic ring, but to decrease the quality.

You wanted a ring that makes you invisible? Fraerlings could do that. But Paeth could make one ring for a Tallfolk that would take four months of dedicated work by their best [Enchanters]…or they could make forty in a month that had magical interference, needed recharging, and would break if you hit them with a hammer. But Tallfolk would still buy those forty rings because they were better than most.

Economy, local politics, and let’s not even start with all the interviews or catching up with world politics. Everyone ‘knew’ about the Demons of Rhir, even Fraerling cities. But it was one thing to know, vaguely, that Rhir had demons about, and it was another to get an invitation from the Blighted Kingdom to join the Accords of the Creler Wars. The Accords were a contract guaranteeing support to the Blighted Kingdom.

Or, what about having the King of Avel call your city up for a chat and have to deliberate between humoring the man or screening his call?

So, Farspeaker Humalepre was a stressed Fraerling, and he had decided that the next time there were elections, he’d happily step down. If anyone suitable wanted the job. Perhaps Paeth needed him more than ever.

Especially as he looked down from the observation deck at the latest problem to reach Paeth. In this case? Not so much a problem that had come to them as one Paeth had taken on. It was, after all, a sacred obligation. Or as close to one as Fraerlings had.




On Baleros, there is a city on the eastern coast, slightly below the median of the continent. A harbor city called Talenqual, a Lizardfolk-centric settlement.

At the center of the city of Talenqual, there is a tree, which sits in a radius of a thousand feet of destroyed ground.

The tree is called Paeth by the Coast. In the tree of Paeth, just below the canopy of branches, there is a network of magical defences and spells.

At the heart of all that magic, there is a box. A room meant to hold something valuable or dangerous.

In the box, there is a young woman. She sits in a chair, holding her arm out as a Fraerling [Healer] runs a complex magnifying glass over the arm, scanning down the layers of skin, sinew, bone, refracting through each layer with a flick of a finger. Then the [Healer] continues the process, tracing a network of glowing lines throughout the Human’s body.

Seven Architects watch from above. The room has pillows, a bed, even a functioning, portable bathroom, books, a whole pile of letters—a place to live.

What isn’t present are Tallguard, either in the observation deck or in the room itself. They’re not needed; there are Tallguard outside the box itself, but that’s to keep people from entering. The question Sentry Commander Ekrn asked, when the newest occupant of the box had arrived, was whether guards were needed inside.

For…the Architects’ safety? For the safety of the [Healers] and magical experts? For Paeth? Ekrn never said.

It’s not as if the door to this room is even locked. The young woman is free to come and go, within Paeth, as she wishes. Nominally. But she sits in the box.

It fits her. Within the box, she, the [Innkeeper], is safe from any conceivable scrying spell in the world. Even the Death of Magic…probably…can’t see her, or so Enchanter Ilekrome assures the others. Curse magic and killing spells won’t be able to harm her; obviously, she’s rather impressively warded already. But this is the safest point in the entire world, one could argue, for the young woman at this time.

Safer than even Eternal Khelt at the moment. Safer than a Walled City. Certainly safer than her inn. So long as she sits here, she is protected from the rest of the world.

So long as she’s here, the rest of the world is safe from her. 

Enchanter Ilekrome knows that’s just a bit of wordplay, an exaggeration at best. But he leans forwards, almost bumping into Guidance Heish. She mutters a distracted apology and leans aside.

The young woman has a towel on for modesty, obviously, but for this final test, she’s mostly uncovered. The [Healer] checks her arm again, and Ilekrome, an expert of enchanting magic, knows the [Healer] is testing the magical circuits across her body.

Making sure there are no breaks or abnormalities in the flows.

“Recovery’s almost complete. Not really any Galas muscle development. But she’s got stronger magical circuits than she claimed.”

Alchimeer Straesta also knows how to read the outputs of the displays and is running commentary. Enchanter Ilekrome grunts.

“Privation for…how many weeks?…will do that to you. I almost suspect the [Polymorph] spell reset her.”

“Good point. It might have literally undone any Galas if it was full-restructuring. But she’s got enough mana. Probably below-average for a [Mage], but all that magical exposure almost definitely created those circuits.”

Ilekrome shakes his head.

“Bad way to do it. The amount of magic we had to purge from her body would have killed her eventually—being a bit better at casting magic isn’t worth that.”

Guidance Heish has no time for the two talking biology. She turns from expert to expert; her field of mastery isn’t actually technical, like the Alchimeer, Enchanter, or Farspeaker. Even Civitican Loust and Judiciary Honst are experts in their respective fields. Guidance is a job for morality and leadership; Heish was a former Tallguard. A rare Fraerling who left Paeth to see the world. Her eyes linger on the young woman.

“Is this the final test?”

“Oh, it was the final test two days ago, if we needed it. These are follow ups. It’s been a long time since we had a Human in here; eras, if you go by our history. We can’t tell if our diets, the magical treatments that work on us, or anything else is affecting her. Plus, we had to see if her body is affected by our growth spells.”

Straestra replies airily. Guidance Heish gives him an annoyed look.

“The Titan’s getting impatient.”

“The Titan is always impatient to hear Ekrn complain about him. She needs rest. He has no sway in Paeth, Heish.”

Citivican Loust shoots back. His tone is impatient. Heish’s is not.

“He’s also the Titan of Baleros, and we are talking to the Forgotten Wing Company, Loust. She can’t sit here forever.”

“If she wants to, who are we to send her out into the world? With entire nations screaming for her blood?”

Citivican Loust’s job is the welfare of people. He glances around, looking agitated at the thought. He’s never been outside of Paeth, and the idea of anyone ordering someone killed—weighs on him.

Ilekrome thinks of the image of the young woman running a [Prince] through the chest with a knife. His fingers drum on the armrest of his chair in the observation gallery.

“—Paeth can’t shelter her forever.”

Heish inclines her head, and the Architects nod. They mutter to each other. Humalepre keeps glancing down at the young woman, then away.

“She still won’t say why the Gnomes mentioned her.”

Honst glances down, refusing to look away instantly.

“Maybe she doesn’t know? She’s keeping matters hidden. Normally, we would respect that, but Heish is right: we’re caught between powers. Paeth has obligations to the Gnomes. And to the city.”


“Give her time. The girl’s been through a war. Are we still Fraerfolk or rabid cats?”

Straesta shakes her head.

“She’s killed her way through a war. The [Healer]’s almost done with their tests. I say we let her decide. Give her full access to Paeth. She can walk now, and she’s no longer going to melt into a pile of ooze.”

“Was…was that actually a concern?”

Yes, Loust. She has her Tallfolk comrades to be concerned about. If she wants shelter, then we debate.”

Below them, the [Healer] steps back, puts the Lens of Manifold Sights away, and gives the Architects a thumbs-up. They stand there, looking at the young woman. At last, Loust mutters.

“She’s not what I expected. I watched all the recordings of her in her inn. I thought she’d be more funny. She just…she won’t stop staring.

Ilekrome runs a hand down his arm and finds his hairs are standing on end. He mutters faintly.

“Yes. You know, she might be the highest-level person in Paeth. I think the [Healers] have done all they can. She’s not healed, but—there’s nothing they can do.”

The other Architects look at Ilekrome, then down.

In the box, there is a young woman. She has hazel eyes, brown hair—not tied back, but hanging loosely—and sits, flexing a bare arm. She’s Human, or at least, she would be if she were tall enough. As a Fraerling, she’s six inches tall and in good enough shape, especially considering how they found her when she was teleported in.

Gone are the cracks in her skin from both sunburn and magical radiation. The burns have faded, and she can breathe without coughing or needing magical help. Her limbs are strong and healthy, with no trace of damage from her recovery from being frozen—perhaps her rehabilitation worked, or again, perhaps the [Polymorph] spell simply reset her.

What’s curious is that her new levels have not resulted in a transformation, Galas muscle or otherwise. It doesn’t for every class—but perhaps the way she sits, elbows resting on her knees, hunched, is the transformation.

Perhaps that’s just her. The young woman’s eyes are shadowed despite the pleasant light in the room meant for her. She glances upwards, unsmiling. Meeting the Architects’ eyes.

She sits and stares; the first few days, she could barely walk without falling head-over-heels. Clumsy as a newborn lamb from the spell, no doubt, and being stranded at sea, near-immobilized from her wounds.

Even now, her movements are clumsier than she would like, as if she’s getting used to this body. Perhaps given her changed size.

Until she turns her head, she doesn’t look like one of the most infamous people in the world today. Then? She stands and accepts her clothing from the [Healer]. A curtain draws itself for privacy. When she emerges, the clothing of Paeth is upon her, a light forest tunic that ends not with sleeves, but with curious strands of thread that wrap around the arm like a web, and soft leggings made of blue squirrel leather and fur.

Brown boots reinforced with roach shell and four rings, two on each hand. No knife at her side; nor have the Architects armed her—yet. Paeth is a safe place, and the young woman ties her hair back with a headband.

She doesn’t smile. Her feet are slow as she looks around. When she stands there and looks you in the eye, then you might see who she is.

Her gaze makes the Architects of Paeth shudder. Within the depths of her eyes is a grim woman, a weight, though she has said nothing yet, and something is still burning there a month after the battle has ended.

For her, the battle has not ended yet.

Her name is Erin Solstice.




She wasn’t what people expected of her.

Obviously. But it held more true of Erin Solstice today than…ever. Well, what did you expect? If she had come out of weeks at sea after a sea battle, abduction by Roshal, and seeing her friends dying—after the Winter Solstice—and had been a ray of happy-go-lucky sunshine, that might have made her more terrifying.

Even so, she had a kind of weight about her that seemed to crush smalltalk. An unapproachability about certain matters. No one could go up to her and ask whether or not she thought her socks made of wooly aphid fluff fit well. It seemed clear that if they didn’t fit perfectly, she was not going to raise a fuss about them at this point in time.

Part of it was the stare, which, yes, was intense. But the rest of it was more palpably like an impatience or pressure about her. The question in her eyes or stance of, ‘does this matter?

No, not at all like the Erin Solstice they expected. When the Architects met her just outside her living quarters of the last week and a half, Ilekrome himself, an older Fraerling with grey hair, a slightly harried smile, and very trippable robes, gave her the bill of health himself.

“You are quite well, Miss Solstice. The tonic and spells from yesterday had no adverse effects on your body. And I can state that while you may have lost any developing Galas muscle due to the Death of Magic, your magical capacity has increased substantively. Put it down to your [Witch] class, I believe. Or all that magical exposure. Galas muscle will return in time.”

She nodded. Ilekrome paused at this juncture, perhaps hoping for an elaboration on her exact [Witch] levels.

He couldn’t tell, you see. Ilekrome could cast [Intensive Appraisal]—but Erin Solstice was warded. Not just by the rings on her fingers; those were a gift he’d personally whipped up. Ilekrome coughed and went on after a moment.

“I can also assure you that you’re completely scry-proof within Paeth, so the run of the city is open to you. But I imagine even if you leave Paeth, you’ll be relatively safe from regular [Scrying]. Your, ah, gear was almost completely trashed, but even without our artifacts, the Death of Magic, Silvenia, has done a remarkable job shielding you from spells.”

“Doubtless, that saved you from being sniped at sea.”

Alchimeer Straesta put in drily. She seemed somewhat envious, as did Farspeaker Humalepre. The Farspeaker peered at Erin with his enchanted spectacles.

“Yes, she truly is the last [Archmage]. I did try, just as a matter of interest, to [Appraise] you, Miss Solstice. Impossible. I daresay the [Polymorph] spell was part of that. Changing your species to Fraerling made you difficult to locate in multiple senses. But then—the fact that we can likely restore you to a proper height speaks to her genius!”

He nodded at the other Architects, and Heish shifted from foot to foot. Erin’s brows rose; hearing anyone speak of the Death of Magic in complimentary tones should be unthinkable—but this was Paeth.

Farspeaker Humalepre knew of Silvenia, the Death of Magic, but had little baggage attached to her, remote as Paeth had been.

“A genius. You see, I’m no transmutation specialist, but—what did you say the spell was? [Fantastic Polymorph]? I wondered—haha—about that, pardon the pun, but then it hit me when we were working on your height issue. Seamless transition from small to large. None of the need for Signim; we can just cast [Enlarge] or [Giantification]—if we had the latter spell—and you wouldn’t burst every muscle from your body lifting something. Which is what happened in the old experiments back in the day. Horrific stuff.”

Alchimeer Straesta blanched; she had access to those medical files. Ilekrome sighed.

“Too much, Humalepre. But it would be amazing—if we had a chance of copying that magic. It might allow for Tallguard to essentially become as tall as, well, Tallfolk. Semi-permanently!”

Imagine! And all of this unlocked with a spell that only a true [Archmage] of old would know. Heish had been trying to interrupt and cleared her throat meaningfully.

“I’m sure that’s a project for all our [Wizards] and [Librarians] to work on—later.”

“[Wizards]? Hah! What are they going to do? Wave a wand at the problem?”

Humalepre grumbled, but he desisted. Heish turned and bowed slightly to Erin.

“We’re done poking and prodding at you, Miss Erin. We’re now delighted to offer you access to all of Paeth, not just the top floors. I apologize for the restrictions, but we were worried you might catch something or that our different food and magic would be harmful.”

The Architects nodded, trying to look distinguished, and Heish went on.

“Paeth may officially welcome you, and you have any number of people who would like to meet you. Of course, if you have other priorities, we will accommodate you as best we can. There are many Tallfolk—excuse me—many of your people wishing for a word, as I’m sure you could guess. However, no one will bother you in Paeth as long as you stay here. What comes next is up to you.”

With that, she waited for a response. Erin Solstice stood there. The first guest of Paeth in ages, a true guest here in her very flesh. [Innkeeper]. Public enemy number one to Erribathe and numerous nations.

Goblinfriend of Izril. To the Fraerlings, that too was abstract, but it made Ilekrome shiver. He eyed Erin, wondering what she might say or do. She’d hit Level 50; he was almost sure of that, though she hadn’t confirmed it. Frankly, if she hadn’t hit a capstone after that battle…

Erin Solstice looked from face to face, then around the room that had been her home for the last week and a half. It was larger on the inside; dimensional magic made most of Paeth quite spacious for the countless Fraerlings within.

The first thing she said was this:

“I owe the Death of Magic a favor. I owe…many people a debt. Including Paeth. I doubt I can repay them all, but I will remember each one. However. Paeth will be in danger if it takes my side.”

She paused, then smiled crookedly. A cynical turning of the lips.

“I put a lot of people in danger just for being friends with me. If you’d like me to leave, I can go today. This is more than I could ask for.”

The Architects exchanged glances. After a second, Ilekrome coughed into a fist.

“With respect to Sentry Commander Ekrn—the Architects of Paeth are in no hurry to expel you, Miss Erin. You are a friend of the Gnomes. Of Zineryr the Stellar Explorer. I met him. Briefly, but I’m sure it was him. If there’s anything to help him—or you—it is a debt we have to repay as well.”

He flushed at this little speech, but he still remembered the Gnome standing in the ritual spell—of course they’d looked up who he had been. The other Architects nodded, more or less hesitantly, but they did not disagree with Ilekrome’s statement.

Erin exhaled slowly. Ilekrome hoped she’d say something about Zineryr, something inspiring, or reveal his great mission for her. But all she said was…

“Just be sure you know how big a debt you’re taking on, Enchanter Ilekrome. I know how large mine are.”

His face fell at this, but the Enchanter raised his chin and nodded slowly.

“I do. Paeth may not—we are the Architects, and Paeth is our responsibility, and I’m sure the Gnomes would approve of that. But speaking for myself, I take on that debt willingly.”

So. The [Innkeeper] met his eyes and offered him another bleak smile.

“Good. I like that.”




In the end, they decided they should let Heish and Ilekrome take Erin Solstice around Paeth and show her their city. Seven Architects was a crowd, and if they were more honest—Erin Solstice wasn’t the most fun Tallfolk they’d ever had in here.

The other Tallfolk were vastly entertaining, and they’d done this routine before, so the novelty had actually worn off a bit.

First, of course, had been Luan. Then they’d shown Ken, Paige, Kirana—a lot of the Earthers who were to be trusted above all else. After some debate, even Marian and Umina had been admitted as they were members of the Forgotten Wing Company who’d helped save Paeth.

Kissilt, as a Drake, had been ‘overlooked’ mostly because their analysis said he’d almost definitely tell everything he saw to the Walled Cities.

Showing Tallfolk around Paeth was fun. Of course, what you had to do was enchant an eyeball or use a spell to let them ‘puppet’ something, like a corpse or other object, so they could see around the city.

Erin, as a legitimately Fraerling-sized person, could walk around, but she was in something of a mood. Nevertheless, Ilekrome and Heish did their best. Speaking of walking, actually—they were relieved Erin was moving around at a good clip.

“You’re not having more issues, Miss Solstice? Your post-recovery shock after we teleported you to Paeth was—well, rough. You were crawling around on hands and knees and barely able to speak. Unintelligible, really.”

Heish elbowed Ilekrome hard, but Erin didn’t seem to mind. The [Innkeeper] looked a lot better than she had been.

“I had to adjust. I had time while I was floating, but…I was badly hurt.”

Exposure, magical damage, oh, and all the trauma of everything else. Ilekrome had read a rundown of Erin’s injuries, and he nodded hurriedly as they walked. At first, he was poised to catch her if she fell, but she seemed fine. So Heish led the way at a gentle pace out of the Architects’ offices.

“—First stop! The galift tubes! Your people call them ‘elevators’, which, I grant you, has something decent wordplay-wise…our city is quite comparable to yours in some ways. Futuristic, I’m told, in others.”

Ilekrome was just a bit keen to show off, and Erin stepped onto the platform that shot down from the Architects’ top floors so fast that her feet left the ground. She floated—then hit the ground hard enough to fall down when the lift stopped.

“Sorry about that, they’re overtuned.”

“I’m fine. It didn’t hurt?”

Erin felt at herself, and Heish chuckled.

“Fraerling physics, Miss Erin. You could leap off a cliff and you wouldn’t get hurt unless you fell onto something sharp—or your head. I forget Tallfolk are always worried about falling.”

“It is a concern. I’ve worried about tumbling down the stairs a lot.”

Erin muttered. Ilekrome shook his head.

“Imagine. Stairs.”

Fraerlings were light enough that most falls and accidents of a similar nature weren’t the worst for them. Now, a Tallfolk door could mash their bones, but Fraerlings were proportionally very strong for their size. Being half a foot sucked when most of the world considered you edible or squishable, but it helped in other ways.

They were also more magically and technologically advanced than other species. For proof, the moment Erin looked around the 7th floor galift pad, her eyes widened.

“Ah. My people don’t…ah…fly. At least, not like that. We have planes. Giant metal birds.”

Ilekrome nodded.

“So your people keep telling me. I think this is more fun, personally.”

Fraerlings were flying through the air. In fact, a group stepping out of a lift tube realized they’d gotten off at the wrong floor. With a sigh, one walked over the edge of the pad and swan-dived down to the sixth floor, pulling up at the last moment.

“Not everyone flies. You can get airsick. But go ahead and try! Just hop off and—”

Ilekrome did just that and hovered in the air. He could zoom around rather quickly, and Erin saw a lot of people were content to walk. Heish explained.

“Flying actually promotes laziness, since it doesn’t burn your energy. You exercise some in the air—but we only turned it on given all the work around Paeth. Also, there’s a cap on how fast you can fly or we have too many street-races.”

“Just hop into the air?”

Erin, as someone who did not fly, looked incredibly dubious, but both Architects nodded. Erin hesitated…then took two steps forwards, hopped over the side of the galift—

And plummeted.


Heish had to dive after her and catch Erin. By the time she had pulled an Erin clinging to her arm back up to the 7th floor, Ilekrome had figured it out and snapped his fingers.

“Ah, you’re not technically a Fraerling. Or part of Paeth, I suspect. Maybe you are a Fraerling—or Human—but the [Polymorph] spell…I’d just have to add you to the list. No flying. Terribly sorry about that.”

He’d forgotten, again, the part about death from falling. Erin did not look happy as she rested on all fours, panting.

“I’ll walk.”

Even that seemed to freak her out a bit—probably because Fraerlings loved skybridges. Paeth was very vertical, so they had built—between skyscrapers or blocks of the city—huge suspension bridges. They had railings, but again, because of the lack of danger from falling most of the time, Fraerlings would literally hop or skip around.

Erin, as a person trained to know falling from great heights meant death, looked queasy at a straight view to the bottom floor from what must have felt to her like a skyscraper’s height magnified two or three times over. However, the city itself still drew her attention.

“Is that…”

She began to ask ‘is that a giant squirrel’? Then decided the answer was obvious. A huge, furry rodent was crawling up the wall of Paeth, hauling up an entire crew of Fraerlings with goggles and helmets.

“Ah, [Beast Tamers] love taming animals like that. That fellow’s helping rebuild one of the districts lost in the attack.”

Erin was about to ask why the crew didn’t just fly to their destination when she saw the squirrel heading towards what she’d assumed was glass. It was actually a bubble; a rounded dome let in sunlight but no sound from outside of Paeth. The squirrel climbed through the bubble, and then Erin noticed the damage.

“Something punched through your walls?”

There were massive holes in Paeth still, even with magic and reconstruction. And while the city from above looked gorgeous—a tower they were striding over was ringed by square walkways each floor down, which spread out and connected to other buildings, forming a metropolis here, leading to what looked like residential districts to the north and literal slides down to a glowing city that Erin guessed was for commerce or fun—

There were also telltale signs of devastation. Destroyed buildings had been cleared, leaving conspicuous gaps. There were three holes in Paeth, two largely patched, and the city had a purposeful air in many parts.

Rebuilding. Erin saw any number of Fraerlings staring at her; they must have known who she was even though she looked quite normal.

Then again, many Fraerlings had dyed hair or more magical or interesting clothing, so Erin might have stood out a bit from her lack of flying or casual ease with this city. She stared at a fuzzy aphid walking past her on a leash, at the security forces armed with paralysis batons, and at everything else until her eyes hurt.

—But she recognized the suffering. Paeth by the Coast had looked better before it met Tallfolk, not after. In fact, many of the Fraerlings that Erin saw lining up on lower floors had what was unheard of in Paeth—but she recognized at once.

“I thought you said no one carries weapons here.”

She pointed down, and Ilekrome sighed, and Heish’s face fell as she murmured a response.

“Those are Tallguard. We’re stationing the Tallguard of Feiland here, Miss Erin. Normally, no one has a weapon here. Ekrn brought a sword in one time and caused such a fuss—Paeth is normally safe.”

The Tallguard were lining up for deployment at one of the galifts. Unlike City Fraerlings, Tallguard were armed to the teeth; they were used to fighting things larger than themselves and served outside of Fraerling Cities so that trouble might never reach places like Paeth.

“Can they protect Paeth? They have…Signim, right? Which makes them grow until they’re large as Humans?”

Ilekrome winced mildly.

“That’s a secret to most non-Fraerlings, but yes, Miss Erin. It’s an expensive tool we can’t produce much of. Mostly, Fraerlings have to fight as they are. You can see why, in many cases, we prefer not to meet Tallfolk at all.”

Erin nodded.

“Which company attacked Paeth again?”

“Nominally, the Featherfolk Brigade. But the true masterminds were the Jungle Tails company. We have mostly destroyed the Featherfolk Brigade, but Jungle Tails is still active, despite fighting with the Forgotten Wing company. That’s continental politics for you, though. Paeth is one aspect of the war, and we have the Forgotten Wing Company’s protection, of sorts. And our own.”

Heish tiredly leaned on the balcony, brought back to reality. As Erin seemed never to have left it, she looked around Paeth and smiled tightly.

“It’s a beautiful city. Please, show me around, Enchanter Ilekrome, Guidance Heish.”

I don’t belong here. Every implicit line of her said that. The two Architects exchanged a glance.

They couldn’t help but agree.




It would have been nice to show Erin Solstice around Paeth and have her wonder at the strange things a people with too much free time had invented. The more they gave her a tour, the more Ilekrome wished that he had met the Erin Solstice who would have liked the tour.

“—And this is our room that lets you dive and even harpoon fish. No risk of drowning.”

He showed her a vast pool that stretched out and down with glass walls such that you could dive down into an underwater world and fish or just swim as you pleased. An entire ecosystem they’d made since swimming in a real pond or the sea would have been dangerous.

“Do you want to take a dive?”

He turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] peered into the water and shook her head.

“I’ll pass. Large bodies of water make me nervous. I’m not that good a swimmer.”

“Huh. Well—”

They’d been showing her around for forty minutes and gotten through a lot of the city’s highlights—mostly because Erin hadn’t wanted to stop for karaoke or sample some honey or check out the Fraerlings’ recreation of the Adventure Rooms.

She was content to just see things and move on. Not as if they weren’t objectively fascinating; this was Paeth. But it was even more Paeth right now, if that made sense. Because of the reconstruction.

Everyone back a bit! Fliers out of the air! We’re bringing in a building—[Valmira’s Personal Spacing]!”

The two Architects and Erin both had to stop as they walked through one of the entertainment sections of Paeth. A Fraerling in bright, luminescent green was shouting and blowing a whistle, and then a [Mage] cast a unique barrier spell that pushed everyone back to clear a huge radius around a cordoned off building.

“Oh look, they’re replacing one of the destroyed towers. You’ll want to see this, Miss Solstice!”




Heish pointed. Erin saw what had clearly been a mostly-stripped building cleared down almost to the foundations by Fraerlings with mundane tools like pickaxes, shovels, and so on. But where it got…Paeth…was how they shoveled the rubble into bags of holding or literally teleported smaller grit and stones away.

Then they had fussy [Engineers] checking the site, sweeping it until it was clean of even dust with what looked like wind spells. They gave an all-clear to the Fraerling shouting orders, and he bellowed.

Alright! Clear the area!

The spell that had already kept the onlookers and fliers back expanded slightly as Fraerlings hopped out of it. Erin watched as a teenage Fraerling smacked into the bubble, rubbed their head as people laughed, and fled skywards.

Then…Ilekrome, watching, saw the Fraerling reach for a speaking stone. He’d wondered how they were going to replace the building.

Modular blocks with bags of holding was one way. You just ported premade sections there and joined them up. Or they’d considered asking a Tallfolk to simply haul over stones and whatever they needed to Paeth, but given the location of the building in this busy district, Ilekrome remembered an approval he’d written last week.

He was glad he hadn’t missed this; even he watched with interest as the Fraerling’s voice was clipped.

“Teleportation, we have a clear space.”

Roger, Ground! Give us two more seconds! We’re just draining the last Tallfolk mana potions for energy…alright, we’re set. In ten! Nine! Eight. Seven…six…five…”

The count went down, and Erin, staring at the cleared foundation, narrowed her eyes—then jerked back.

“Dead gods!”

The teleportation spell was slow this time. At first, only the outline of what was coming was visible, then it slowly seemed to phase into reality. And what was appearing?

A tower, sixteen stories high, topped by a literal glass dome and with three different retracted walkways for entry at different points, was appearing in the middle of the street. It was sleek, nearly built, and Fraerlings oohed in appreciation of the magic.

This was big, even for them. Ilekrome ran commentary for Erin as she stared at him.

“This is going to be our new scrying center; routing the spells from Wistram and other places is difficult, and Fraerlings want to talk to Tallfolk outside. We worked up a system like we heard they have in Wistram; we’ll be able to connect Fraerlings inside Paeth with the outside. Input, output. Very simple.”

“…You’re teleporting a gigantic building in?”

Ilekrome and Heish tried not to look too pleased at Erin’s staring.

“Well, it was finished in the Engineering district, and we just moved it—barely a dozen feet by your standards, really. You can’t do this kind of thing on the fly unless you’re Level 60 yourself, but this is just coordinates. I fancy that Archmage Valeterisa could do it; she’s got a head for numbers. Plus, we have a lot of magic. A single Tallfolk potion fuels a lot of spells.”

The teleportation spell finished not with a bang, but with a pop that made everyone rub at their ears. Less impressive, but then Fraerlings were flying up, inspecting the building, then connecting the walkways, and the safety barrier collapsed.

“The Scrying Tower is open for business! Someone update the address, would you? And let’s get the magical equipment in—”

The lead [Engineer] was very pleased with himself as he shook hands with his team. He was turning away when he spotted the Architects and Erin. The Fraerling cupped his hands to his face.

“Hey, Enchanter Ilekrome, approve my project request for a hot springs outside Paeth!

“—And that’s our cue to go.”

Ilekrome groaned. Heish laughed and fended off the team, who all had projects. Erin walked after them.

“Hot springs?”

“Everyone thinks that since we’re now filled with space they can build whatever they want outside of Paeth. Which…maybe? But I am not approving a three-story hot springs resort with a gigantic beach! This is your fault, by the way.

Ilekrome was sick and tired of Fraerlings on the engineering teams pestering him about it. Erin was largely guiltless, but Heish hesitated.

“I didn’t see those requests.”

“They go through me, first, or Civitican Loust.”

“Well, a resort like that would be good for morale, Ilekrome.”

The Enchanter gave Heish a sinister look.

“How about a hotel for couples or parties of sensuous delights? With over two hundred spells—not to mention over a hundred items for the engineering department to work on—as well? Does that sound like a good use of Fraerling time right now?”

Heish thought about it as Erin stared at Ilekrome and then at the [Engineers].

“Which one of them asked for that?

“The one waving her hat. Don’t make eye contact.”

“She put her name on the project? I say…let them have fun, Ilekrome. If not right now while we’re rebuilding, put it in front of the council.”

That was Guidance Heish for you. Ilekrome closed his eyes a second. Then brightened up. Well, if she was going to back it, he didn’t have to take responsibility. Some of those ideas were really interesting. Perverse, but interesting…




The tour continued, and while nothing was as dramatic as the tower, Fraerlings were both operating completely untouched businesses and repairing their city. They had [Repair] spells, so it was mostly reconstruction or, as Erin noticed, reinforcement of buildings.

“I keep seeing the slimes in Talenqual. We might get them in our sewers, so I’m recommending an anti-slime policy, or we start recruiting adventurers along with earthquake proofing…”

A bunch of Fraerlings were standing over an open sewer grate; there was no foul smell keeping Fraerlings away. A simple scent charm did for that, and Erin remarked on the Fraerlings’ magic.

“You really are the most magically advanced species in the world. Can you really make me into a Human—a Tallfolk again so easily?”

“With an [Enlarge Person] spell? No problem. Your form takes it remarkably well thanks to being polymorphed. Our trial last time proves it works; we’ll give you a draught, but it won’t be hard changing you from tall to small. Brewing enough of it for you as a Tallfolk is actually the only prohibitor as a cost.”

They were striding past a museum of Fraerling history that Ilekrome wistfully observed Erin didn’t even seem inclined to stop for. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes glinted.

“Really? Well, let’s see how I do when you make me a Tallfolk, but I have a request for you when that moment comes…”

Ilekrome blinked, and Erin just kept walking faster. Heish waved at a very sad [Museum Curator] in apologies. For all of Paeth’s sights—Erin was quite literally speed walking through most of the city.

It wasn’t that she was dismissive of Paeth; Erin’s head didn’t stop turning. It was more like she had priorities. What they were, Ilekrome didn’t understand at first, and he was beginning to get a bit hurt on behalf of his city. That was until Erin ran into some of Paeth’s citizens.

They were all about, mostly just staring at her, but again, with less of the…intimidation, awe, hatred, or any other emotion than, say, a citizen of Pallass or Liscor or even another species of Baleros might view her with.

She was a Tallfolk more than she was the Goblinfriend of Izril. So, really, many Fraerlings came over to shake her hand.

“Miss. What’s it like being tall?”

“…Normal? I think.”

Erin gave a child a blank look as they stopped by a huge shop run by a [Confectioner] of all people. The boy stared at Erin.

“Don’t you fall over your feet being so tall up?”

“I try not to.”

She went back to watching the proprietor at work. A single piece of sugarcane made a lot of sugar, and so a Fraerling running the shop was currently making taffy that was, to Erin’s view, longer than she was. He kept stretching it out, and when the children queuing up for it with huge eyes finally got the hot taffy—bright yellow—the [Confectioner], with a wink to Ilekrome, began dicing the taffy up into little cubes.

Then he added some powdered sugar so they wouldn’t stick together, put them in a bag, and there you had a lovely snack. Ilekrome got a bag, and so did Heish. The man leaned over the counter at his next, small client.


“Yes, please! Here’s my sweets allotment! It’s my first time having one.”

Fraerlings didn’t generally have many worries about food beyond tooth rot, but one still couldn’t ask for the most expensive dish all the time. So there were tickets for special treats one could get per week. The [Confectioner] gravely inspected the ticket, and the boy danced from foot to foot, waiting for a bag of taffy.

“Very well then. Here you go.”

The [Confectioner] slowly measured the taffy out, then cut what looked like a foot of it—relative to Fraerlings—off and passed it over the counter. The little Fraerling boy’s eyes nearly popped out of his sockets.

“…That’s a lot of candy.”

Erin saw the other children go wild with delight, and Ilekrome munched on his much smaller, bite-sized pieces.

“Ah, to be young again. Don’t eat it all at once! I’d ask for it in a few pieces or share it with your family.”

He called off to the boy, who was holding the egregious amounts of taffy as if he didn’t know what to actually do with it.

“Can I offer you a huge piece or more bite-sized ones? The huge piece is actually hard to eat; the children love it, though.”

The candy-maker addressed Erin as he divested himself of most of his recently-made taffy. He had bright green twists on the ends of a huge mustache, and with his outfit, he seemed like the spirit of candy himself.

“A small bag of…I’ll take the taffy. And some of those honey orbs. Why not?”

He obligingly packed them up, and Erin began to chew on one of the pieces of honey with a liquid interior. You would have thought she’d grow tired of honey, but sweetness was eternal.

“I hope it’s the best taffy you’ve ever had in your life.”

“I think you could say that. I can’t really say how much taffy I’ve had in my life, though.”

“Good enough for me!”

The [Confectioner] knew she was the Tallfolk, but they chatted at his counter as Erin asked the obvious questions.

“So you don’t get paid, but you run this shop.”

“Money’s not the same with Tallfolk as it is with us. I enjoy my work. I had to work hard to level up—that’s a reward in itself. I thought about changing jobs, but Architect Ilekrome actually talked me into reopening after the war. Everyone needs sweet things.”

Ilekrome was a regular here and waved a hand as he and Heish murmured about next locations. They had an eye on Erin and saw her politely resting her arms on the counter, not quite smiling, but looking—amiable?

She was supposed to be an [Innkeeper], though. Ilekrome expected Erin to have the same kind of charisma as a [Bard] at that level, but he didn’t sense it. The [Confectioner] was all too hospitable, though, and let Erin see how he worked and talked over the craft of making a lot of sweets.

“—Cake, now, we had variants of before we heard about the Tallfolk craze. But we have a lot of the goods—I think your inn made some of it? Cookies? I’m no [Baker], so I just supply some of the sugar to associates. I specialize in taffy, spun sugar, and the like. Do you have any recipes you could teach me?”

Erin hesitated as he turned to her.

“I could…there were a few in my inn. I don’t know if we have the time for me to do more than describe. And I have a cooking Skill, so I don’t know if it’s replicable.”

“That works.”

She began to describe a few items on her menu, but midway through stopped. Erin peered at the confectioner’s bright shop, then out his windows. She seemed to lose interest, again, in all the sugar and delights of a Fraerling city that had seldom known scarcity. Erin stopped chewing on the honey orbs she’d been relishing and looked at the [Confectioner]. She hesitated—then cleared her throat.

“So. How rough was it?”

The Fraerling taking notes stopped. Ilekrome and Heish’s heads rose from the table they’d found, and the [Confectioner] turned to Erin.

He had been—politely fascinated by his visitor, keen to show off. But their conversation had been light. Now—like someone throwing a bowling ball onto a piece of stretched-out cloth—it grew heavy.

“—I’ve certainly never lived through anything like it.”

That was what the man managed after a while. He felt at his mustache’s frosted tips and laughed. Hoarsely.

“The first thing I thought, before I knew how bad it was, was how annoying it was that I couldn’t get my hair dyed because of the curfew. I like the look, you see. Then I heard the Tallguard were dying—this was before anyone found Paeth. When we were under siege, I don’t think I washed my face for days. Funny what stops mattering.”

His head went to a window. The man pointed aimlessly.

“When I saw a hole appear in the walls and someone poke their head through…a gigantic face covered in blood. That was the kind of thing you hear about in horror stories. The kind of nightmare you have, but it was real. Compared to that?”

He looked around.

“This is a pleasant dream. I’m still wondering if I’ll wake up. It makes me feel wrong, making taffy like before.”

Ilekrome was inhaling and exhaling at his table. He hadn’t brought it up with—everyone in Paeth had a story like that. Guidance Heish was half-turned, as if ready to get up—but the young woman resting at the counter just nodded.

“What’s your name?”


She offered him the faintest of smiles, but it faded away as the [Innkeeper] leaned there. After a while, she spoke.

“So they broke into the city?”

Booste’s smile didn’t quite vanish, but it was as if he saw something else through the window besides the sunlight.

“Oh, yes. Everyone was getting ready to evacuate, but—well, I gave up my ticket. Then they were right at the entrance there. Swinging a sword around. Tallguard flying about, and I thought the next thing I’d see was the entire city wall going down. But it didn’t happen. And then we teleported—ever since the cleanup, it’s felt more like a dream.”

He paused and looked at Erin.

“I suppose it’s strange to hear us talk about this kind of thing. You…you’ve lived through a lot of disasters, haven’t you? They were playing them on one of the big screens in the main plaza. All the times you’ve nearly died. For us, there was only ever this time.”

Erin half-shook her head.

“I don’t count how many times I nearly die. If you say it was the worst moment of your life or any other—it was. Comparing it is pointless, isn’t it?”

“True. True.”

Booste took a breath. Then he looked at her. A few more people had come in for treats, but they’d stopped when they heard the conversation at the counter.

“—How do you get through it?”

The question came out suddenly, but Erin Solstice didn’t flinch. She turned and rested with her back to the counter, staring at that hole in the city. As if imagining a giant with a sword there. Face covered with blood, a snarl on the Lizardman’s lips as he slashed, trying to kill everything. Fear and madness—

Ilekrome remembered that. Erin could only imagine, but the young woman seemed to know. Booste asked her one of those impossible questions. Asked her to…make some sense of it. A job for a [Thought Healer] or [Philosopher].

Or maybe an [Innkeeper].

She took a long look at the walls being rebuilt, at where Tallguard were mustering, at the city—which was being redeveloped to keep population centers further from the walls, which would be reinforced. What Erin said was this:

“It’s not my place to talk about…defences. Or the Tallguard’s tactics or equipment. I’m sure your Architects have made contingency plans. More escape routes. Even bases to evacuate to.”

Ilekrome twitched, and he and Heish looked away innocently as they sat at their table. Booste and the other Fraerlings glanced at Erin. The [Innkeeper] paused.

“Next time, I hope Paeth is prepared.”

The [Confectioner] paused in cleaning off his work stations.

“Next time?”

Erin nodded.

“Because there will be a next time. That’s what I’d say. Next time—no one will be ready. But if you were to do anything in this pleasant dream, prepare for next time, Mister Booste.”

She turned her head, and he paused, a spatula for cutting taffy in one hand. Erin’s eyes had that same look as before. Ilekrome began to rise, but Heish tugged him down. So he listened.

“If you’re lucky, you’ll die of old age before the ‘next time’ occurs. But if you want to do anything? Learn to fight. Plan an escape route; prepare yourself. Whatever you feel is best. That’s what you can do.”

It was Confectioner Booste’s turn to lean on his counter. He paused, and his voice was low.

“By that logic, it seems we should all join the Tallguard, Miss.”

“Maybe. If next time comes, everyone being in your Tallguard would be better, wouldn’t it? But that’s your choice. When you’re satisfied with whatever you’ve done—learned to use a sword, bought a crossbow—I’d go back to work here. The sweets are good. Great.”

Erin took a bite of taffy, and Booste looked at her.

“What purpose does that serve, Miss? Because we have to work? You lived through multiple…and you went back to running an inn?”

He seemed to be trying to parse through this logical inconsistency. For a reply, Erin paused, stared at the ceiling, and spoke slowly.

“Well, this time, I’m not going back to my inn in a hurry. But in general? You can learn to fight. Or—be the one who takes care of the soldiers, the adventurers, the heroes. Someone has to. Feed them as well.”

Again, the Fraerling man paused to stare at Erin. The [Innkeeper] flexed one hand, opening and closing it, and staring at her fingers. She turned to Booste.

“That’s what I do. It’s a choice. You? You may only live through one horror, if you’re lucky, Booste. I’m the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. I will see all of theirs. Do you envy me?”

She gave him a searching look, and he laughed hoarsely.

“Not at all. But I think I see…”

His voice trailed off, and Erin nodded. She sat back again, and her eyes roamed the shop, found Ilekrome’s eyes. She gave him a thin smile.

“Caring about people is hard work. It’s easier when I don’t have to.”

In the silence, Enchanter Ilekrome finished chewing on his taffy, and it was sweeter because for a second he thought he’d tasted a world without it. He swallowed, and Heish leaned over.

“Ah. There’s a dark charm to her.”


Ilekrome agreed.




That was her appeal. Perhaps the [Innkeeper] had…lost something during the Winter Solstice and the sea battle. She certainly seemed changed.

But she still captivated Fraerlings who realized what she had. And that was—honesty. She was like the torn-off veil. The wound without a scab. Raw, even ugly, truth.

There was something comforting about that in a painful way. Of course, it meant that some people wanted even less to do with her than before.

And conversely, some people got her, even if it meant they wanted her out of their city twice as fast.

Sentry Commander Ekrn gave Erin a nod as she returned to the upper floors for a break. She was in the Architects’ suites, which were very office-like, and he found her staring out one of the windows at the city below.

“Just so you know, the United Nations company would like to speak with you, Miss Erin.”

She paused and nodded.

“All of them? Which ones?”

“—Since Geneva Scala isn’t present, that would be Daly, Ken, Luan, Paige, Kirana—their leadership. But I do suspect all of them. We can prep the [Enlarge Person] spell if you’d like, and provide guards, but even their headquarters in Talenqual is less secure. We’ve reinforced it, but the moment you leave Paeth, you’ll be in more danger.”

“I’m ready.”

That was all she said, and Ekrn nodded. He paused, offered her a cup of something.

“Coffee? We found some of the damn bean things you Tallfolk can’t shut up about.”


Erin took a sip, and Ekrn drank more of his.

“So do you command ‘Feiland’? Do I have your rank right, Sentry Commander?”

The Fraerling rolled his shoulders.

“Sentry Leader was my original title. A lot of the leadership perished when we lost another city—I’m technically a stand-in, but functionally, yes. My duty is keeping Paeth safe, which you can imagine is much harder with your presence and its current location.”

Erin nodded.

“I half expected you to all kick me out.”

“We owe you a debt for the Gnomes. Apparently. What that debt consists of…would you mind sharing that or is it classified?”

Erin considered the question.

“As far as I understand it—it’s both. I don’t know the full problem, let alone how to fix it. And classified. For your own good.”

The Sentry Commander was rapidly losing his enjoyment of the coffee. He set his cup down.

“You do sound like the Titan. My recommendation to the Architects was to transfer you to his custody, like he wants. But even I would feel bad about it.”

That caught Erin’s attention.

“Not a fan of the Titan of Baleros?”

You play chess with him. I would have thought you’d get who he is by now. Maybe it doesn’t come across on a board.”

Erin exhaled.

“Ah. Chess. Not a priority right now for me. What am I missing about the Titan of Baleros?”

“How dangerous he is. You seem to be like most of the Architects. You know he’s a threat. You’re from Izril; you must not realize how many bodies he’s piled up to get here. Just remember, when you meet him, that he crushed an entire Great Company to get where he is. Nevermind that they’re trying to come back. He’s fought bloodier battles than the one at sea.”

Erin just sipped from her cup. Ekrn went on; he was tall, white-haired, with a dark tan from years outside, and restless.

“Do I have a grudge against him? Maybe. But I have met him. He’s got Fraerling support because our interests align, but remember this: up till now, he had Fraerling cities under his protection. But no Fraerling settlement claims him.”

“…The difference being? Wait, I see. His home city exiled him?”

Erin frowned, and Ekrn paused.

“No. They never had the chance. His home city’s gone.”

The [Innkeeper] looked up sharply.

“He destroyed it?”

Ekrn grew uncomfortable here and averted his gaze as he looked out the window.

“Not…intentionally. It’s a long story. Have him tell you it. He had enemies; the Forgotten Wing company took a long time to get where it was. His city didn’t always back him, but it did enough times.”

“Familiar story.”

The [Sentry Commander] glanced at Erin and, to her vague surprise, blushed.

“I’m not insinuating you and he are the same there. I apologize for that.”

“No, it’s fair.”

Erin put her own cup down on the windowsill and leaned on it. She looked at Ekrn sharply.

“Your job is to defend Paeth. I’ll go. I was mostly wondering if they could actually make me bigger again. Being stuck as a Fraerling would be inconvenient. Dangerous.”

The Sentry Commander warmed for the first time to Erin and chuckled.

“Thank you.”


“For not beating around the briar patch and saying being a tiny Fraerling would make you a lot weaker. We all know it.”

Erin smiled faintly.

“Oh, I’d never lie about something like that. Being small has its advantages. And drawbacks. Being able to switch between the two?”

“…There are a lot of dangers at our height. But yes. That’s an advantage. Before you go, we should at least give you access to an armory. The Architects hate weapons. Do you actually know how to use a sword?”

Erin shrugged.

“I’m too clumsy for my own good. I’ll take a crossbow and a wand. I like crossbows.”

Ekrn briskly turned and touched a speaking stone at his wrist. He looked back to Erin.

“Good. Most of it’s not Signim-capable, so it’ll just be for when you’re Fraerling-sized. But you can ask Paige for a bigger one. Planning on fighting more, are you?”

The [Innkeeper] leaned against the wall. She closed her eyes a second.

“I’m planning on being hated.”




“The [Innkeeper] will be with you shortly.”

Funny how that made the hairs on the back of Luan’s neck stand up. He glanced down as a tiny Fraerling gave him a salute. Luan was still dripping from the harbor, a fact he knew Kirana wouldn’t appreciate, but he’d come running—er, rowing—when he’d gotten the call.

“Noa, does that mean as a Fraerling or…”

His contact, who’d sent him the message to get here, was six inches tall. And beaming. She waved energetically as she descended from the ramp that led up into what looked like a tunnel running the length of the room. Her own way in.

“Hey, Luan! Long time no see!”

“It’s been three days.”

Long time no see. Hey, Daly! Long time no see!”

“I saw you yesterday.”

The little Fraerling looked around with a frown.

“—Well, I haven’t seen Ken in a while. And I haven’t seen Kirana in two days. Anyways, Erin Solstice is arriving in an hour.”

Luan almost slipped as he sat down. The private room in the United Nation’s headquarters was really just a remodeled apartment room—but it was spacious, air conditioned, and frankly, nice given the amounts of Fraerling magic in it. He gave Daly a single nod, and the leader of the Bushrangers gave him a grimace of a smile. But there was no time to get into it. Luan focused his attention on Noa, who was easily distractible.

“She’s coming out of Paeth. As a Fraerling?”

“Nope. That means as a tall…big person. They’re just figuring out, uh, a blanket or cloaking spell.”

“For what?”

“Clothing. Well, they’re figuring out if they can enchant hers to grow with her. It’s harder than it looks!”

The tiny Tallguard marched on a table in the United Nations headquarters, and Daly stopped massaging his fake, prosthetic leg and sat up.

“I thought she’d take her time—and what’s this about being huge? She got turned into a Fraerling!”

Noa sighed dramatically. The little Tallguard was critically inspecting the revamped headquarters of Talenqual’s head mercenary company.

“We were going to have a meet-and-greet more safely if she was small, but since she’s condescending to be big, I guess this place is safe. Ekrn’s going to have a team sweep this place. You might want to tidy up this room a bit. There’s a sock under that couch.”

She pointed, and there was indeed a sock under a couch where Talenqual’s defenses and even governance was planned out. Luan still didn’t quite believe it.

No-name company of a few Humans—now in charge of an entire city. Nominally; of course, they had the former Gravetender’s Fist company, and most of their power came from their allies in Paeth, but here they were.

Here he was, too. A Courier, Luan the Olympian. Of course, he’d been that for seven months now. But Erin Solstice?

It felt like he was about to meet a celebrity, and he, Luan, had some experience with that already.

He still could see her on that ship. Daly, though, was more concerned with the practical. He began reattaching his leg with a series of clicks as he frowned at Noa.

“Explain how she can just change sizes.”

“Sure thing. Uh. Uh—Resk?

Noa called into a speaking stone, and Alchimagus Resk sighed noisily—then ran through the Fraerways built into the company’s headquarters. The building was not that large, but for a Fraerling, it was still a mile run, especially if you came from the other side of the building where Paige had her workshop, ceramic tiles and all—and blast doors. Luan didn’t like going in there these days, even with a protection charm. Paige’s own personality didn’t help much, either.

Resk, though, was only happy to kick about, especially if it meant free food from Kirana. He was one of Talenqual’s liaison Fraerlings and was panting when he arrived, pink beard and robes akimbo.

“This place is a workout! Phew! I was just finishing enchanting one of Paige’s doodads…yes, we figured out her size is quite mutable! It’s the most advanced spell we’ve ever seen outside of The Last Box itself; and we can’t even tell what spells those are made of! In theory, if it was cast on a Fraerling, I could be tall as you, Luan, all day!”

Luan whistled. Signim gave Fraerlings five minutes.

“If it’s so powerful, can’t you copy it?”

“Nope! It’s a tier or two above the best thing I could hope to cast! But it’s probably deliberate. This way she’s not bound to Tallfolk or Fraerling sizes. It makes her downright unique. Every Fraerling city will want to talk to Miss Erin Solstice, if only to see if they can copy her enchantment. Much less to ask about the—”

Noa coughed noisily, and Resk broke off.

“—The other thing. Which we can’t discuss at this time—and wouldn’t matter if we could because it doesn’t! Matter.”

Luan eyed Resk as the Alchimagus put his hands behind his back and gave the [Rower] an innocent smile. It made Luan hide a smile of his own, but he felt a bit sad.

My little friends have secrets. And he quite appreciated he couldn’t have access to all of Paeth’s goings-on, but it made everything feel less like a fun adventure and more like…life.

Then again, it had been life, gritty and hard, from the moment they’d all met Quallet Marshhand. Fraerlings had been a return to the fantasy for a time. Erin Solstice?

Daly gave the two Fraerlings a longer, more narrow-eyed look than Luan, but he only paused a moment to nod and stand up. He walked over to the door, kicked it open with his fake leg—another action that would get him in trouble with the ruler of this place—and bellowed down the hallway.

“Hey, Dawson, spread the word—no, wait. Get Paige, Kirana, Ken, Siri, and tell them Erin Solstice is coming. But don’t shout it all over!”

Daly shouted at Dawson, and the other Bushranger shouted up with a groan.

“Fucking hell, Daly. Are you going to do a secret meeting with her? Can’t we just all say hi, get a drink, and slap each other on the back?”

“Sure, if you want to try, be my guest. But I bet she’s either a completely insane person, like they say she is, or she’s going to be like Geneva—except an [Innkeeper]. She might be something.

So saying, Daly checked himself, reflexively, and Luan saw him touch a crossbow hanging at his side. A hand-sized crossbow—and one of the most dangerous weapons in Talenqual, at least, owned by a Tallfolk. It could kill someone at eight hundred paces, shot regular crossbow bolts like they were flung from a weapon many times its size, and had a scope, heat vision, night vision, and…

The same weapon Daly had carried since the battle for Talenqual. He grasped it absently—turned when he saw Luan looking at him with a frown, and let go. Daly raised his hands and, again, grimace-smiled. Luan said nothing as Noa looked between the two.

“She’s, uh—she’s pretty intense. Ekrn said that. So a party would be nice.”

Noa’s voice was nervous and distracted the two. Daly relaxed—his hand sprang away from his crossbow again, and Luan nodded with a smile.

She might want something, and with respect to them all being Earthers, Luan had just seen a pretty good example of what happened to Erin Solstice’s friends…and enemies. He wanted to meet her, but the [Rower] would not deny that Daly’s precautions were the least the United Nations company should take.

Here comes trouble. The two nodded at each other, and Dawson stomped off, shaking his head. Daly went back to checking his leg.

He had a new one, now, and it looked…well, like if you took a prosthetic leg on the bleeding edge of Earth’s technology and replicated it with wood and magic rather than metal and circuitry. Not the iconic running blades that Luan knew, either; a fully functional replacement that looked close to an actual leg. Daly had lost his original leg fighting Fezimet during the battle for Talenqual.

His new leg was strong, adaptive, and arguably an improvement over the old one, but Daly would fiddle with it constantly. He gave Luan a grin and indicated his leg.

“I reckon we can use this as a conversation piece if we have an awkward spot. I guess it’s just as well the other one—Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner—isn’t here. Any idea where she is?”

“Forgotten Wing company, I think. Erin’s friends are landing all over. They still haven’t found some of them. Like the…Goblin [Shaman]. And the other ship’s gone. The one with the Goblin Slayer.

Daly rubbed at his head.

“…And they still want to kill lots of them, yeah? What a mess. What are the odds she’s just waiting to get on a ship to go home?”

Luan hesitated. The leg didn’t make him feel better than Daly’s crossbow. Especially because he was pretty sure Daly could kill someone just by kicking them. Before they could begin another crossfire of words—Luan wouldn’t survive any other kind with Daly—the door opened.

Paige walked into the room, wearing a soot- and oil-stained jumpsuit, like a mechanic’s. She was followed by Kirana, who wore a sari—an outfit from her home country of India. Patterned fabric, which Dawson had uncharitably described as a rug you wore. They were certainly that complex in pattern, and the weather was warming enough to go back to them. Especially since a lot of people around Talenqual were copying Kirana’s style.

The two had completely different reactions to seeing the other two members of the United Nations company here. Kirana checked Luan over, eyed his sweaty and drenched appearance getting water and mud on her carpet—and clicked her tongue.

“[Traveller’s Welcome]. I told you to find me first, Luan. Here.

She handed him a lassi drink, sweet yogurt, as Luan felt all the water on him evaporate and the mud and grime—vanish. The [Rower] gave the [Housekeeper] a shamefaced grin.

“I ran here when I thought I’d be late. Sorry, Kirana.”

[Rower] and [Housekeeper] were the classes Luan and Kirana gave out when someone asked what theirs were. They did not—accurately represent their current classes. By the same token, they’d call Daly a [Mercenary] and Paige an [Engineer].

Speaking of which—Paige’s first reaction was to snap at Daly.

Stop fiddling with that in here. You know how dangerous it is.”

“Chill, Paige.”

“Hands off the leg. I helped them design it. I know exactly what it does. Resk, you left the door open to the workshop.”

Daly lifted his hands from his leg in an exaggerated motion, and Alchimagus Resk sighed.

“Oops. Sorry, Paige.”

He flopped himself down as Paige checked herself, went back out into the hallway to see if her door was locked, then sat down away from Daly. Kirana gave Luan a slight widening of the eyes, and he grimaced.

(How bad’s she been?)

(Like you wouldn’t believe. But she won’t go on vacation either.)

Paige noticed them using Kirana’s [Meaningful Look] Skill and glowered at the two of them. Luan gave her an apologetic smile, and she relaxed. Kirana inspected Daly critically.

“I knew I heard Dawson around. You didn’t say you’d come back. [Traveller’s Welcome]. At least we have your rooms ready.”

“Sorry, Kirana. You know how it is.”

Daly accepted a snack; he must have been hungry, and the room settled back down again. At this point, Paige looked around.

“What was the question, Daly?”

“What are the odds Erin wants to go home right away?”

Paige raised her eyebrows as Kirana produced something and sat on the couch. She was rolling a link of beads around in her hand, starting at the top, rubbing it with her thumb and then moving to the next one as she listened to the others talk. She wasn’t saying anything, but Luan eyed her a second before returning to the conversation. He liked Kirana, and it was unobtrusive, but every time she prayed near him, it made his skin prickle.

Paige went back to Daly’s question.

“Odds of Erin wanting to go home to her people? High. But I think the better question is: what are the odds she’ll get on a ship to go back home?”

Daly glanced towards the harbor.

“Well, the seas are a bit of a mess, and she’s got a bounty—”

Luan interrupted.

“Yes, but people want to talk to her here, Daly. Not just Paeth. The Titan and, I heard, the Iron Vanguard wants to meet her. She’s not like us.”

Paige and Kirana glanced at Luan. He meant all of them, except maybe Geneva, who was now part of the Forgotten Wing company. Bigger than this place by far.

Resk chuckled out loud, but the United Nations company leaders didn’t get what was so funny. Luan went on.

“Erin’s someone who matters to big players. I think we should learn as much as we can from her—but keep some secrets close to us. I’m not sure what we actually have that’s so secret, but be careful.”

Paige nodded instantly as Kirana hesitated, and Daly closed his eyes until someone new spoke up.

“Sorry we’re late. I kept saying hello to people—is she here yet?”

Ken entered the room with an audible clacking sound. He was wearing a suit of armor…but Luan would have rather taken the Bushrangers’ leather gear over the lacquered, brightly-painted wood. Added to that, Ken had two necklaces, one made of glass beads, which clacked over the armor, and another with a hanging set of talons around his neck.

The [Diplomat] of the United Nations company looked exhausted—probably because of the Dullahan armor. But he bowed to Kirana, then sat down as she performed the same [Traveller’s Welcome] for him and then frowned around the room.

Siri! You scared me to death.”

Paige nearly shot off the couch, and Daly glanced up as Luan nearly leapt out of his seat. The last member of the United Nations company leadership had arrived without anyone seeing her—except maybe the Fraerlings.

“Sorry. Force of habit.”

Siri sat perfectly still, like an owl, legs drawn up on one of the chairs. Like Daly, she wore the armor of the Bushrangers, tailored to be easy to wear for long missions in the jungle. Unlike Daly—she had no magical legs. Two of her fingers were ceramic, though, but painted black.

Siri did have a pair of strange-looking goggles attached to her helmet, and like Daly, she went armed. But her crossbow was long, had no visible limbs, and Siri didn’t bother lying about her class. Rather than [Ranger]…


It was rare to get all six members of the United Nations leaders in one place, these days. Of course, they now had a lot of people who’d stepped up to various leadership roles, but they had never quite expanded the inner group beyond their original members. If anything, Aiko had deliberately chosen to step away from wanting to know and do everything.

She was happier with colors and ink on her hands. Instead of a crossbow like the old days. Similarly, Ken seemed to have put on a bit of weight. Whether that was muscle from having to lug around the armor or just weight from too many guest dinners, Luan couldn’t say.

“You can take off the armor inside, Ken. You sound like a bunch of firecrackers.”

Paige jumped and glared at Daly about the analogy, but Ken just sat back with a sigh.

“I have to get used to it. You’re not supposed to take off the armor…ever, Daly. It’s a huge honor.”

“It’s a pain in the ass, and it looks like shit.”

The [Diplomat] was unfazed by Daly’s comments; he seldom was. He gave Daly a smile that made the Bushrangers’ leader relax.

“I think it’s meant to be. The Dullahans have no time for someone who wants to pretend to be like them. I could go to them in regular clothes, but I want to be accepted. The Centaurs are actually harder.”

He indicated the glass beads.

“This doesn’t mean anything if I can’t keep up with them on horseback.”

Luan grimaced, imagining the saddle sores Ken had to endure to keep up with Centaurs, literally born to run. Definitely muscle, then. Kirana tried to produce a liniment or something for Ken, but gave up and had to fetch one manually rather than use her Skill.

“What’s with the necklace of claws? Lizardfolk or did you actually get in with the Gazers or Selphids?”

Siri was curious, and Ken laughed. He held up the last necklace, which was new, and showed them three long claws. It looked more like a trophy necklace from a hunter than a diplomatic gift, but Ken explained.

“Oh, this? Some of the Lizardfolk I was talking to realized their species doesn’t have a signifier like the other two. So one of them ended up gifting me a part of her claw. The others liked the idea so much they keep giving me a claw if I do them a favor. They think it’s a good idea.”

“…That’s Lizardfolk for you. What the fuck’s up with Jungle Tails? I haven’t run into their forces, but the entire jungle’s hopping with them clashing with Forgotten Wing. They took another city on the western coast, yeah?”

Daly shook his head, and Ken’s eyebrows snapped together.

“They’re rallying across the jungle. Every Lizardfolk around here is more loyal to Forgotten Wing—or so they say. But they always hesitate before declaring Jungle Tails as completely…wrong. It’s fascinating. They’re willing to admit that the attack on Paeth was inconceivable. And they’ll badmouth everything Jungle Tails does, but they won’t condemn the ‘Nagas’ in general. I think it’s historical. Something about their Great Company has this loyalty even in the most outlying—”

Siri cleared her throat, interrupting the chatting.

“Boys. We’ve got Erin Solstice coming if Dawson’s right. Leave the discussion for later.”

Luan had been about to add in his own observations from his sea trips, but sat back, nodding.

“She’s arriving, and we should put on a good show. But—carefully.”

“How carefully does that mean? Restrict access to my workshop, obviously. But are we not going to welcome her in?”

Paige wanted to know. Ken tapped his fingers together.

“Being overtly friendly with her…would put us against multiple nations, Paige. The Blighted Kingdom, Erribathe—”

“Do we not welcome her in or make a statement or something that she’s not explicitly our ally?”

Daly put his head back, and Ken shook his head instantly.

“No, no! Just greet her as if there’s nothing wrong with her meeting us. That’s the smartest thing to do: play innocent. Some nations won’t appreciate it, but so long as it’s just meeting her, that’s fine. And the ones who understand—are the ones to watch. Like the Blighted Kingdom.”

His eyes glinted, and Luan sat up.

“Oh. So they’re the ones who’d have Earthers and get it.”

Ken nodded, pleased the others had cottoned on.

“As for Erin, being careful what we tell her is something only we have to worry about. And only when it comes to Paige, perhaps, or committing to anything.”

The others hesitated before nodding, and Daly put his legs up on the couch and groaned.

“Right. Agreed. Fuck me. I never thought I’d have to meet someone from home I couldn’t trust.”

Paige murmured.

“I’d like to trust her. I don’t get the Goblin thing…Baleros doesn’t have that many Goblins. I’d like to hear her out first. Carefully.”

Everyone else nodded. Ken raised a hand, nodding to everyone in turn.

“Obviously hear her out. But Luan is right. Miss Erin Solstice is…someone to watch. As a friend and if she were a foe. Let’s talk to her honestly and openly and be good hosts. About everything except the gunpowder.”

Every eye swung towards Paige, and they could all nod about that. Paige began nibbling on a thumbnail again. Kirana broke the silence, voice bright.

“Then we should prepare a big welcome for her! I’ll see what we can cook!”

She paused to stow the string of prayer beads and strode for the door, and Siri got up too.

“Yes. I wonder what she’s like. She’s the first person we’ve ever met who’s…been here but lived somewhere else.”

All the Earthers in the room stopped at the thought. It was true. Erin had survived on another continent. What was she actually going to be like?




They had already run a growth test on Erin Solstice before. So they knew they could do it. This wasn’t Tallfolk mad alchemy where you tossed a brew down and hoped like hell it only gave you horns by accident.

The biggest problem was actually more mundane.

“Okay, privacy spells up. Clothing?”


Guidance Heish watched as Fraerlings marched Erin outside of Paeth and towards an area they’d set up where she could grow to appropriate size and dress. They could issue her Signim-capable clothing, but it wasn’t the same effect.

They also had female Fraerlings working as technicians just in case of mishaps, and the Architects were mostly there as a formality. And maybe in case something hilarious or tragic happened.

Ilekrome had a more…interested stake in Erin’s first journey into the world of the tall. Of course, he made the mistake of saying that out loud in front of Alchimeer Straesta, and the Fraerling gave him a very serious look.

“If you think there’s a chance you’re going to see a giant nipple or something, Enchanter Ilekrome—”

Not the interesting thing I meant!

Ilekrome snapped and turned red as the other Architects and magical experts gave him a suspicious look. He edged over to the more sympathetic Farspeaker Humalepre.

Just so you know, and you, Honst—I see you giving me the side-eye—it’s a request from Miss Erin Solstice. Not anything untoward.”

The Judiciary cleared his throat as Humalepre went ‘oh’.

“I never thought otherwise, Enchanter Ilekrome. Though you do hear things like your favorite hotel project—you know we’d have to have only the older [Engineers] working on the uh—uh—props, right? Apprentices should not be doing that kind of work.”

“Not. My. Project. I’ll forward you a copy for your desk. Then you can see how many people ask you about it.”

Ilekrome ground out. He pointed at the huge [Blackout] spell that was shielding Erin and the more mundane…curtain of cloth that Fraerlings had installed as a backup. Just in case.

“As it so happens, Erin asked me for a small adjustment she had in mind. Rather smart, too, really. Completely within spec; I ran it past all the official channels.”

“For her clothing? Or you mean—this?”

The Fraerlings were calling out ‘test successful’, which probably meant that Erin had drunk the potion and was growing at a steady pace. Nothing as fast as Signim; she’d be in the middle of a towel so there wasn’t even that much risk of tasteful nudity the entire time.

Yet Ilekrome’s smile was earning him more suspicious looks from his fellow Architects. The Enchanter leaned over as more all-clears were called, and while they waited for the [Innkeeper] to emerge and a representative of the United Nations company was called over to escort Erin towards Talenqual proper, Ilekrome whispered.

“She asked me to alter one thing. Which if you think about it—if we’re making her a Tallfolk again, there’s one factor you can eminently change since her ‘real’ form is currently polymorphed into a Fraerling.”

“…Which is?”

Honst didn’t have much imagination for magic, but Alchimeer Straeta’s eyes lit up. She whirled as someone rustled the curtains, and the Fraerlings, safe behind barrier spells, looked up. There she was. Pushing out of the curtains, the same intense stare—only magnified by a giant.

There went a Tallfolk. Erin Solstice, and she paused just once to nod at a tiny Enchanter Ilekrome, who gave her a thumbs up.

Guidance Heish was striding back to Ilekrome, a puzzled frown on her face. The thing was—Heish couldn’t articulate what had happened instantly, because Heish was Fraerling sized, but she still could detect something was off. But Ilekrome just smiled smugly.

You didn’t mess around with people’s bodies much. If Erin had asked, say, for longer hair, different colored hair, or another finger, he would have respectively referred her to an [Alchemist] for hair tonics, a [Hairstylist] for a good dye, or a [Thought Healer] to ask if Erin really needed another finger.

Especially with a damn [Polymorph] spell of that magnitude; Ilekrome doubted the Fraerlings could even alter Erin that much except in height, something the Death of Magic had clearly accounted for.

But sometimes…he gave a nod to Erin and cast [Measure Distance]. Perfect. Erin Solstice strode towards the person who’d come to pick her up, and Dawson blinked and gave Erin a second look.

However, he didn’t quite figure out what was off either because he’d never met her. He’d seen Erin in the scrying orb multiple times, but what was so different now only Ilekrome and Erin could say.

To be simple…they’d restored her to her height and just…kept going for a tiny bit. Erin was actually a slightly above-average Fraerling in height. As a Human woman? Well, Ilekrome understood in general she was shorter.

The Fraerlings had made her six feet tall. It suited her stare, and she had a long-legged stride, a half-smile as she went to shake Dawson’s hand and…

Ilekrome’s smile faded, and he winced. Alchimeer Straestra gasped.

Ooh! That’s a bad fall. Maybe we should have let her try her new size? Eh. She’s fine. Wait, she’s not a Fraerling. She’s probably fine. Someone get her a healing p—wait, how much Eir Gel do we have left…? She’s fine.”




The United Nations company of Talenqual gathered that evening for a celebration.

Give them this. For however much they had changed since their initial, ideal founding and grown apart and closer together, the United Nations company had endured war and struggles to get to this point.

Even if they were closer to their actual namesake than anyone would have wanted, they were, at the end of the day, a bunch of Earthers from various continents.

Australia and India actually had the largest headcount of any nation. Many were solo members from their respective places, though they kept finding new members. Sometimes, too often, in memoriam.

They kept a list, they sent the Bushrangers down to hunt plausible leads, but mostly what they did was grow and expand. When the woman of the hour actually appeared, the Gravetender’s Fist—the regular [Mercenaries] who weren’t explicitly the Bushrangers, the elite division of Earthers and their closest allies—locked down six streets.

And the actual party took place along six interconnected buildings down their headquarters’ way. Almost everyone was present; everyone who could attend.

“Dead gods, look at the Tallfolk. Keep our people off the streets. They can stick to the Fraerways, but if any of them get trampled trying to get a snack, I’ll have them booted back to guard duty in Paeth.”

Ekrn still didn’t like the city. He stood on a rooftop in camouflage gear, providing the Fraerlings’ security as he watched annoyed [Mercenaries] shoving back and catching curious Lizardfolk, always a hazard when anything interesting was going on.

If he stared down, he could see nigh on a hundred Earthers down there. Eighty? He forgot the exact number, but reading their levels and classes was enough for him.

Some, like Ken, Kirana, or the top leaders of the company, had learned to disguise their classes or been helped by Paeth, but most were too low-level to bother doing that to. Then again…low-level meant something different here.

Ekrn’s eyes kept roaming the streets, checking for unusual faces among the throng, but he had dozens of Tallguard deployed for just that job, so he paid less attention to surveillance. The Architects needed to know as much about the Tallfolk as they could. Especially the one being practically besieged in the center of everything.

Erin Solstice looked oddly clumsy in her Tallfolk form. She’d tripped twice on the way here, though you could argue being enlarged to the size of a giant did that to one. Fraerlings had Signim training for this very purpose; she had a drink in hand and kept speaking to people jostling for her attention as music—Earther music—played.

It was a loud party, and Ekrn had put in earplugs to filter sounds so he could hone in on conversations. The [Innkeeper] didn’t look that overwhelmed by all the people—but her not-quite-glare hadn’t left her.

At least she’s consistent across species. Ekrn tapped his earplugs, filtering across conversations.


—so glad I called off work today! Hey, what’s she like?

Intense, Anders! Like Geneva!

Really? Maybe I don’t need to talk to her—has she got any scars?


Most of the Earthers were actually eating, drinking, or catching up with each other. That conversation was…Ekrn glanced down, and his synced goggles identified the speakers.

Ah, right. Anders. Finland, wherever that was. Talking to…Blake. New Zealand. Ekrn was more familiar with the latter as Blake worked at Geneva’s former clinic, taken over by Fraerlings and the United Nations people she’d helped train.

Blake was working with Fraerling [Doctors] and [Healers] to migrate techniques and methodology across species; he even kept in touch with Geneva herself. Former nurse…

Level 21 [Medical Liaison]. Principle capstone Skill: [Crossworlds Utility (Medical Equipment)]. It meant that he could actually use and adapt Fraerling technology for a variety of species so long as they gave him a version of the stuff large enough for him.

He was speaking to Anders, who was a Level 18…[Organized Harborworker]. Both were technically low-level, but if you considered each had had a single year to get to this point? Besides, Anders had an interesting capstone himself.

[Automated Hauler Lift]. Ekrn listened a second to their conversation as Blake grabbed another plate of food.


“Where have you been, Anders? Still working at the docks? I thought you hated it.”

“Yeah, well, I was going to quit. But remember when Talenqual was a mess? Half the dockworkers fled, and the old [Harbormaster] was Featherfolk Brigade. Things were a mess, and it paid well—then I realized Lizardfolk didn’t organize how they loaded and unloaded. You know, with cargo docks and teams?”

“Right, right. Wait, are you the reason they have those painted loading places?”

“Sure am. You know the Naga who’s taken over? Quatalis? She says she wants to keep promoting me, but I don’t know if I can stand the hours. Still—it pays pretty nice.”

“Sounds like a big job.”

“Yeah, well, there’s this other [Sailor] who keeps coming into port, so I’m mainly sticking around for her—”

“Ah. Wait, what species?”

“Human. She runs on the Keelhauled Spriggan. You know, the two-masted schooner?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. What color is the ship?”


The conversation turned banal, and Ekrn, accordingly, switched off of it. But that was the thing; for every Earther he could spot below Level 10, who hadn’t done much with themselves, he could find someone who’d passed Level 20. Of course, that still put them as ‘low’ by Fraerling standards or some of their peers, but how quickly they rose.

Talenqual had certainly benefited from the unique perspectives shaping it. There wasn’t enough magic to go around, of course, but Resk had begun teaching prospective students spells like how to cleanse areas for sanitation, cast cooling spells more efficiently, or just do runecraft, something you had to apparently go to an academy for.

The only issue was the students kept leaving with the magic they’d learned, but the Architects had to balance that problem. Ekrn was more concerned with security.

Speaking of which—someone waved at him, and he jumped—Siri and a group of the Bushrangers had spotted him. They were relaxing in their own group, like a permanent eddy in a sea of moving people.

Even the regular Earthers had a distinction between civilians and soldiers—the Bushrangers, like the Tallguard—sat apart.

“I think Siri’s trying to make all of us that she can see, Commander. She’s spotted eleven of us so far.”

One of Ekrn’s subordinates spoke dryly into his earpiece.

“If a Tallfolk can spot you, you’re not in position. Keep alert, Captain Cotm.”

“Yes, sir. But we taught her how to do our job.”

Ekrn decided not to respond. Yes, they’d armed the Bushrangers. Given them weapons on par with Tallguard gear, and the Bushrangers had already established themselves as both Gold-rank adventurers—and dangerous [Mercenaries]. Baleros often let the two classes intersect, and while the Bushrangers didn’t often take contracts to hunt down other people—Ekrn knew it was causing a rift within the United Nations group.

Certainly, Daly, their [Mercenary Commander] and the leader of both Gravetender’s Fist and the Bushrangers, stood apart from most of the other Earthers. It was…well, it was like Erin Solstice. Ekrn supposed it was like himself.

Small talk got hard, sometimes, when you’d just had to cut your way out of a snake’s intestines and then butcher it for meat while giant bugs landed around you.

Ekrn listened in on Erin Solstice’s conversations and found them—illuminating. In a sense. After a moment, he coughed.


I’m not eating anything! I was offered a plate—

“Go pass out food to the sentries not on overwatch. Make my dish extra spicy.”





“This is good food. What is this?”

“Uh—that’s a paneer, those are—what’s gulab jamun in English? Fried milk cakes. That’s ondatami—a kind of fried muskrat that’s Lizardfolk. And I think that’s nalihecca. Coconut, nali-sticks, and, uh—I think that’s actually mostly it.”

Erin kept eating as one of the Earthers around her, Priya, energetically listed the foods. She was eating as she stood in the evening, the sun setting over a much balmier ‘winter’ night than she’d expected.

Someone was playing loud pop music in a language that definitely wasn’t the one she knew, and there were Earthers everywhere. Erin?

Erin was mostly chomping down on her plate of food. The Fraerlings had fed her, of course, but they’d regulated her diet to make sure she wouldn’t get sick. The United Nations company? No such compunctions.

Priya was actually fairly impressed; Erin had begun at a spice that half the Earthers refused to eat regularly and went up from there. She was sweating profusely, but for every spicy bite, she took one of something sweet.

“Do you want another lassi?”

“Please. And water?”

She seemed to be enjoying the suffering of spices, which, of course, was how you best enjoyed this kind of thing. Erin even said as much when Priya handed her a drink.

“I love spices like this. Thank you. And you eat like this all the time?”

“Thanks to Kirana. She’s a [Housekeeper]—or rather, that was her first class when we got here. It’s a lot higher. She’s nearing Level 40.”

Priya whispered conspiratorially, and Erin glanced over at Kirana, who was currently hauling off by their neck-frills a Lizardperson who’d gotten into the party.

“She’s one of your leaders?”

“Yep. Head of finances, housekeeping, cooking—don’t get on her bad side unless you want to sleep in a tiny room. Some new people try to give her lip because she’s not as shit-your-pants scary as Siri or like Ken. Asher here, North Dakota. What’s up? Americans from home!”

Priya rolled her eyes as a new Earther tried to enter the small group around Erin. But once again, Erin Solstice glanced over at one of the few Americans to reach the United Nations company—and smiled.


Then she turned back to Priya.

“So you were here from the start?”

Almost. We weren’t there for…Gravetender’s Fist. That was horrible. Someone can tell you about it. Like Dawson…no, he’s drunk. Daly could, or Ken. Or Luan. They’re all leaders, and they were there from the start.”

Priya tried to point each one out to Erin, and the [Innkeeper]’s gaze flitted from person to person. She nodded, drinking deeply.

“What are their classes?”


Priya began to list out the classes of each leader as Asher tried to re-enter the conversation.

“So—Erin, right? I’ve heard of you!

She gave him a blank look, and Asher floundered, flush, and clarified.

“I mean from home! You’re on the list! The Spirited Generation!”

Erin took a longer drink from her cup. She frowned—and Asher glanced at Priya.

“Doesn’t she know? Has no one said—”

“I’ve met other Earthers, but none of them are from…when did you get here?”


It was how a lot of them talked. They would come up, tell Erin where they were from, but like how people in this world sometimes appended levels and classes to their names, they were defined by the time they had arrived—and their nation.

Blake. 2019. New Zealand.

Priya, 2017. India.

Stuff like that. In Asher’s case, Erin paused, and Priya read her expression.

“The year is apparently at least 2023. Maybe later since it’s the new year for us. I know it’s strange since you arrived…”

“…Way before that.”

Erin’s voice was a murmur. Priya stared at her, and Erin blinked, shook herself, and frowned at Asher.

“So we’re on a list? How many of us?”

“Right—I thought you knew! Maybe all the others weren’t—it’s the Spirited Generation stuff!”

Asher began to explain the conspiracy theories, list of missing Earthers, and all that Erin had missed. She listened, intent, as he waved his hands.

“Right, so then an actual fucking war began. After everyone was sick and refusing to wear those fucking masks, much less get a shot—which is the most crazy thing because the government was lying to us about what they knew—Russia invaded Ukraine! They said it was to investigate all the missing abductions and because of, like, Nazis, but that’s crazy, right?”

He looked to Priya for confirmation, and she nodded, a bit dubious though. The problem with having Earthers from other countries was that they lacked specific information about countries beside their own a lot of the time…unless something horrific had happened.

Luan was at least lucky—a young woman pushed forwards. She had black skin and introduced herself to Erin; she was panting, but not just from the heat.

“I just got here—hello! I’m Ezelda. Are you—are you Erin? Hello! Sorry, I was getting back from work with Ken. South Africa! 2023!”

“You’re from…Luan’s country, right? Hello.”

Erin shook hands with Ezelda, and one of the newest people to reach the United Nations company, who had given Luan news of his home, if not all he craved.

“Yes! I’m a former law student—well, I was studying for the bar exam. Now I’m a [Contract Scribe]—I suppose that’s the closest word for it. I do documents in magic for the United Nations company.”

Asher was once again left behind as Erin blinked and began to ask Ezelda about what that entailed. Not every Earther who’d come here was bereft of applicable talents, even if they had to land on their feet.

“So—Erin. Whaddya miss most about home? Cars? I keep asking the Fraerling people to help make us a car. I could do transport and stuff if we had one. Having a working phone? I guess speaking stones work, but they’re not that handy. Got any questions about things that have happened in the good old US of A? Lay them on me!”

Asher broke into the conversation again, and Erin paused. She looked at him, not entirely flatly or visibly impatient, but he hesitated as Erin…studied him. She looked Asher of North Dakota up and down as other Earthers listened into the conversation.

Including Ken. He’d come over and hadn’t joined the conversation itself, but had been trying to get a feel for Erin, and he’d noticed something.

Most people had been introducing themselves to Erin. She’d done very little talking herself. The fact they were Earthers, from home, had trumped even the fact that she had just been at sea fighting the Bloodtear Pirates.

Now? He wondered if Erin would blast poor Asher into the ground, lose her temper, or just ignore him. Dealing with other species and their idiosyncrasies—Dullahans would ignore you, Centaurs would dress you down and humiliate you, and Lizardfolk would push you out of a group to generalize—made Ken wonder. In Erin’s case—who was she?

Ken had no idea what an [Innkeeper] had for Skills or what Erin’s other classes even were. He’d paid for information that said she was almost definitely a [Witch], and he imagined she had social Skills beyond his. But if she were using them?

Well. Asher didn’t exactly flinch, but the glower he got from Priya and some of the others had made him aware he was pushing his luck. Perhaps he hadn’t seen Erin Solstice covered in blood knifing Prince Iradoren.

—He jumped slightly as Erin reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder, and Ken hoped she wasn’t about to hit him. But the [Innkeeper] just adjusted her hold on her plate and…

“Tell me. How rough was it? For you?”

The young man looked at her—young. Nineteen. He might have only been two years away from Erin, but suddenly, they looked completely different. The older woman looked at Asher, and though she had no visible scars, Ken thought he heard one in her voice.

“F-for me?”

Asher’s voice stuttered, and Erin met his eyes, unblinking. Then she looked at Ezelda, Priya, and at the others.

“Yes. What did you leave behind? What did you lose? How did you get here? What was home like? For you?”

She disarmed Asher’s tongue and the conversations around him so much that they left a pocket of silence despite the music around them. Asher stared at Erin. Then—when he remembered to breathe—his indrawn breath was shuddering.

“I—you know. I got lucky landing where I did. I was just in this city, and Ken actually found me really quick. I sold off this watch I had, and I was scraping by for only two weeks. I, uh—I was going back from college. Driving, actually. I guess my parents figured out I never made it. Right?”

Ken flinched at that. It reminded him of how he’d been taken—at an airport. Asher had stepped out of a gas station and vanished. How long would it take for someone to realize he wasn’t coming back? Would they realize what had happened?

Would his family…?

“Where were you coming from? And going to?”

It was hard to describe her voice. Erin Solstice’s tone wasn’t unkind. But nor was it exactly kind. It was…searching. Intent, perhaps. She listened as Asher listed places that no one else here had ever been.

His voice was breaking down within a minute. When Erin let go of his shoulder, it looked as though she’d literally pulled some of the life out of him. Or maybe unearthed it. Because he swiped at his eyes and had to step back—

Kirana caught him. She murmured something, and some of Asher’s shaking halted. Ken saw the [Housekeeper]’s eyes light up with a force he didn’t understand.


Erin noticed it too. She swiveled and nodded to Kirana.

“I know an Antinium like you. So. You pray.”

“Not to any one god. Even if they are alive.”

Kirana’s voice provoked another silence, and Ken rolled his shoulders uneasily. Erin’s eyes flickered, and Kirana showed her the beads.

“I pray to anyone friendly. Anything willing to help—without a cost or catch. Some of us disagree. I know what you said—do you think I should stop?”

The [Innkeeper] paused, and she glanced at the beads and Kirana’s set face. When Erin glanced down at the food on her plate, she indicated it.

“Did you put some of your faith in this? It tastes better than anything I can remember eating. The best cooking I’ve had.”

“Maybe a bit.”

Kirana admitted with a quick smile, and Erin slowly nodded.

“Be careful what you pray to. Pawn, the Antinium I know, is one of my dearest guests and friends. If I let him be himself, I won’t lecture you. The rest? Kas…the ones I’m against are my business. Do what you have to do to survive.”

Ken let out his breath. It was a complex answer. Not a meaningless one. Kirana relaxed slightly, and she offered a hand to shake. Erin took it.

“Kirana, right? Where are you from?”

“India, but specifically Nagpur.”

“Will you—tell me about where you came from?”

Kirana drew in a breath and looked at Priya. Then she motioned.

“There are couches inside. I would be delighted to. You know, only Luan can remember home all the time. He has a tattoo for it…”

Erin glanced at Kirana and smiled as she followed them inside.

“Really? I suppose it’s easier for everyone else to forget.”

“I wish we didn’t have to. But if you can remember all the time—”

Erin shrugged slightly.

“I have too much to do in this world. But tonight—I’d like to know what it was like for you. Home.”

That word lingered. Home. Ken watched as Erin went inside and sat, and more people milled about and went to speak with her. And that was what they did, he realized. She spoke, asked questions—but she listened.

By the time it came to introduce himself to her, Ken knew little more about Erin than when the party had started. Except perhaps this:

Every instinct he had as a [Diplomat] was that if she was a prospective client or another party at the table, her guard was raised. She was wary. Alert.

He wished he could have said that she didn’t have to be, here.




When she met the United Nations company’s leaders, she found them—split. Like branches of a tree, each one had diverged a while ago and become distinct.

Fully-fledged people and classes, not a hodgepodge of similar people working to the same goal. That was how she could define it.

She’d spent two hours listening to Earthers talk and eating. Not so much dancing or playing games on the various devices the Earthers had—socializing.

When Siri had appeared and asked if Erin had a moment to speak with a smaller group, the [Innkeeper] had gotten to her feet and climbed the stairs.

Their private meeting room looked like many others: there was a sock underneath a sofa, and the six members of the United Nations company were there.

Ken, Daly, Siri, Paige, Luan, and Kirana. Ken was standing before she sat and introduced himself again; Daly smiled as he fiddled with his leg until Siri punched his shoulder. Paige gave Erin a wary smile and Luan a genuine hug. Erin glanced at the golden tattoo on his arm, and the [Rower] held it up.

“My family. So I don’t forget.”


That was all she said at first. The [Innkeeper] took a seat, and they sat in silence for a beat, but Ken broke the silence easily.

“Miss Erin, we’d like to welcome you to our small company. We were unable to visit in Paeth, but everyone wished to meet you. If I may, I will introduce you to Paige, our [Engineer]. Daly, our [Commander]—both are from Australia. To their left is Siri, from Sweden, also in the Bushrangers, our military force. You know Kirana from India, who keeps everything running, and there is Luan from South Africa, who is our Courier. I am Ken, Kenjiro, a [Diplomat]. We represent the United Nations company. Geneva is no longer a part of us, but we are the same group you talked to a long while ago.”

Only a few months, really, but it felt like ages. Reminded of this, Daly sat up a bit.

“Hey. Good to meet you, Erin. We already owe you a great debt for the Yellow Rivers thing. If there were any Earther we wanted to meet and help out if we could—it’s you. If Geneva were here, I’m sure she’d be hugging you.”

“If she hugged anyone.”

Paige muttered, and Siri nudged her with a foot. Erin glanced at Paige and smiled faintly at Daly. But that air of reserve didn’t really lessen.

“I’m glad anyone thinks of me that way after the events of the Solstice. Thanks, Daly. Where’s…Geneva now? Has anything changed, rather?”

The United Nations company leaders looked at each other.

“Nothing from us—you might not know this, but she’s with the Titan of Baleros.”


“Right. And he’s one of the people looking out for you. But that’s one of the big things that we have to discuss—uh—”

Daly massaged his temples. They had too much to talk about, actually. It would have been easier to just talk about home. Where to begin?

Well, to start with, here was someone who’d just killed a dude that had been described to Daly as ‘the [Prince of Men]’, which sounded like a class you either really liked or raised alarm bells. Certainly, no Lizardfolk had been mourning him in the streets.

She’d also defended a Goblin Lord—another problem for people other than Daly. He hadn’t ever met a Goblin and knew them only as one of the monsters an adventurer could run up against. But he’d never seen one while hunting, a fact he was grateful for given Erin was here.

She was also the [Innkeeper] who’d been on the news constantly, had some kind of insane battle in Liscor, and had connected everyone via group chat to warn them about the gods themselves.

And she’d once sent the cure for the Yellow Rivers across the world.

So they owed her, and she was an extraordinarily complex character. In person? She didn’t seem like some goliath of danger—but then again, she was pretty intense.

Erin rested her arms on her knees as she regarded them all. Ken took over for Daly.

“I suppose beyond welcoming you, the first thing to ask is if we can get you anything? Get you in touch with anyone or…do you have any questions?”

His smile was friendly and relaxing, and he was their [Diplomat] supreme. Erin did seem to relax at the question.

“Paeth’s forwarded me a lot of [Messages] from people. I haven’t been able to respond right away. Aside from Geneva’s whereabouts…I was more curious how you managed to end up here. We’re all from home, and any one Earther landing in the middle of nowhere sounds difficult to survive. How did you all gather like this? I heard some of it, but few people were there from the start.”

Luan chuckled, and they realized she didn’t actually know the full story. Paige motioned for Daly, who turned to Ken and Luan, who he regarded as having the best version of events. Luan met Erin’s eyes.

“It’s never easy for anyone. Ours—I guess it is a big tale. I’d love to know how you made it by yourself, though. We had each other. You were just by yourself, weren’t you?”

Erin paused.

“Yeah. But I almost feel like my story’s more public news. At least, the interesting bits everyone saw. Sorry, I know you have a lot of questions. If it takes too much time—”

“No, we can give you a cut down version. You were talking to Priya, right? She’d know everything after the company formed. How do we describe the rest in a short way? Ken?”

They had some practice. Ken gave Erin a cut-down version of their story, just the highlights, which was still fascinating—and interjected another part.

“Ah—when Geneva was first starting her clinic, that was when we had the Yellow Rivers epidemic. Thank you for sending the cure with Courier Seve-Alrelious. You felt like the one person we could—trust.”

Trust. The word hung in the air, and Erin Solstice stopped again. Luan was dying to know how her inn had begun.

“Right. How did you get in contact with a Courier like that? And—sorry, I guess you can start where you want. How’d you get to be an [Innkeeper] to begin with?”

Erin Solstice sat back on the couch again, and her legs were folded. She glanced at Luan—and then stared ahead for a second. Her lips moved…and then she whispered.

“Ah. Right. Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, is dead.”

It was like a stone smashing through the fragile glasswork of their conversation. The [Innkeeper] stared ahead, suddenly miles away. Luan saw Ken bite his lip and tried to speak.

“We’re—sorry about that. Really.”

“It was my fault. It’s another debt I owe.”

Erin broke out of her trance and shook herself. She looked at him, then checked her pocket. Something crinkled there.

“—His friends might still be alive. Erek and…”

She trailed off, then looked around.

“You’re taking a great risk even meeting with me on friendly terms. You know that, don’t you?”

It wasn’t really a question. She met Ken’s eyes, and the [Diplomat] only hesitated a millisecond before nodding gravely.

“We felt like we owed you at least hospitality, Erin. To greet you and welcome you and—perhaps ask why you did all that. We don’t want to judge. As far as we’re concerned, you’re one of the Earthers we can trust. And we cannot say that about—everyone. Even the ones on the first call. You know about that, right?”

Erin half-nodded and rubbed at her face.

“…During the fight at sea. I think—one of the people I saw—no, I killed. Were Earthers. They said they were from home.”

Daly’s hand twitched, and the United Nations company leaders fell silent. They had not been expecting that admission.

“Wh—when was this?”

Paige breathed, staring at Erin. The [Innkeeper] closed her eyes, trying to think.

“Rhir. They came aboard the ship during one of the firefights. I’m almost positive it was…they nearly killed Ceria. She went overboard. They were going after the Horns, and I…killed one of them. The rest retreated.”

She was recalling it, but her voice was dispassionate. When she opened her eyes, Erin Solstice’s gaze didn’t have the regret he searched for.

“Rhir. The Americans. They went after you? But they had to have known…”

“Maybe they had orders.”

Siri put in quietly. Daly spat.

“Orders. And you killed them because they were going after your friends.”

“I do that. I’m sorry—I don’t think I even realized it until afterwards. But that is…who I am. I’ve made an enemy of nations, and they are hunting me. I appreciate Paeth’s help saving my life, just like I’m glad you don’t see me as an enemy. But honestly—I almost wish you’d decided to keep your distance. I can’t stay and endanger you all.”

Erin almost began to rise, then sat back. She looked around, and Ken exhaled. So that was what it was. Paige frowned, biting at her worn-down thumbnail.

“Endanger us? Do you think they’ll send assassins after us just for associating with you?”

“Maybe not for tonight. But if I stayed under your roofs for more than a day, how do you think it would go?”

The question threw the others. Daly gave Luan a half-nod, and the Courier felt goosebumps on his skin. He recalled mercenary companies breaking every law to win a battle to the point of madness. He could believe it.

“So you never intended to stick around Talenqual? Is that what I understand you’re saying, Erin?”

“I intend to go and find my friends and make any amends I can. But mostly—I intend to survive whatever retribution is coming. Because it is coming. Find the survivors. Settle my debts.”

It was the most concrete and the most nebulous plan. Luan stirred, looking at Erin, then at Ken. And his first thought was actually something of a relief.

Oh. Then we can’t have her here, can we?

He was under no illusions about how well the United Nations company would do against hired killers. Paeth was another matter, but the thing Luan got most strongly from Erin was—trouble.

She sat there like she was expecting to die, and her intensity and the wall her responses put up were not what Luan expected. Not what he wanted.

It reminded him all too much of Geneva. Even so, Luan felt compelled to reach out again and try for a branch, be it olive or any other kind.

“Can you tell us anything else you could—either give us, as information goes, or we could help you with, Erin? We’re not without means entirely.”

Paige gave Luan a warning look, but the [Rower] hadn’t meant her explicitly. Erin blinked at Luan and sat back. Again, she stared at the ceiling, as if running down a huge, complicated list in her head.

“Let’s see. Let’s begin with what matters most to…me. We beat the woman at the Solstice.”

“You did? How? You really did?”

Luan jerked and sat forwards. He remembered her among the others, and Erin lifted a hand.

“Speaking her name—”

“I know. And I know…there are six. Kirana’s careful. We all are. It seems like that Blackmage guy in Wistram’s on their side or something. But if you beat one, can all six be beaten?”

Erin spoke cautiously.

“As I saw it—she’s not really dead. I was kidnapped right after that by Roshal.”

Paige cursed as more pieces fell into place.

“Fucking slavers. Of all the things to have in this world—did we have to have that?”

The others listened as Erin ticked off points on her fingers.

“Yes, we could win. We beat her—but it required miracles I don’t fully understand. Ryoka would be able to say more. Her friends…it cost too much. We beat her. She ‘died’, but it sounds like she’ll come back.”

“Fucking hell, man.”

Daly felt at his crossbow, and Erin glanced at it. She nodded.

“Then I was kidnapped by Roshal. The less said about it, the better. So if you’re making a list, Roshal knows about us. Put them on there. And the six.”

“Then you went to sea. Why?”

“One of my guests was there. I couldn’t let him die.”

She said it so matter-of-factly. A battle at sea between the world’s deadliest [Pirates] and a Terandrian fleet. She had to go—so she went. Erin took a heavy breath.

“It was all too much of a cost. But I paid it. I saved who I could. Rabbiteater—Ser Solstice is his fake name—is alive. Yes, I think Goblins aren’t monsters. The same for Antinium. Throw Sariant Lambs on the list of my allies. That’s who I am. As you see me now, I am paying for my choices. But I did choose, I think, almost each step of the way. Here I am.”

She unclasped her hands and looked around.

“Any questions?”




Of course, they had questions and clarifications. So did Erin. One of her questions was when she pointed at Daly’s belt.

“Do you know where I can get one of those? I think I might need one.”

He’d held up his crossbow and let her inspect it, unloaded, warning her about how powerful it was. Erin had looked the crossbow over.

“I lost my knife. I could use one for when I’m one of the tall people—excuse me, normal.”

In response, they’d looked at each other, and Paige had shown Erin to one of her workshops. Not the one down the hall behind a huge metal door; she’d avoided mentioning what was inside.

“Here are the crossbows Resk works on. We keep only a few that are tuned up as dangerous as Daly’s. His might be better, but if you take this to them, Paeth might be able to re-enchant—”

She handed Erin a hand crossbow, and the [Innkeeper] checked it. Then she inspected a bunch of steel-tipped bolts and touched one.


She felt at one tip and winced. Paige hesitated.

“I get it, you know. You think you’ll get us killed, and believe me, I respect you not wanting to endanger us. I…I wish I could get you something better. But I don’t really want to at the same time.”

Erin looked up as she found a holster and began to tie it to a belt.

“I might need to practice with this thing. Don’t worry about anything—else. Unless you think it’ll really help me, I don’t want to endanger your company.”

“Yeah, well, putting a target on us is a bad idea. Crossbows it is. Do you want two?”

“I asked for a wand. Crossbow and wand will do.”

Really? I thought you were a knife-girl. You got that [Prince] pretty good, even with armor—sorry.”

Paige saw Erin grimace-smile at her.

“That was a masterwork knife by Pelt, a famous Dwarf [Smith]. I lost it at sea.”

“Oh. Sorry. A Dwarf? I’ve never met one. What’s he like?”

Erin thought about the question as she checked the little quiver and the weapons at her side. She did look like Daly now; she was seeing how fast she could pull the hand crossbow and wand out.

“…He drinks a lot.”

It was an entirely unsatisfactory answer, but it completely fit her character so far. She was so—grim. In fact, Erin was even more Geneva than Geneva had been in a way that made Paige, who’d been unwilling to talk about her black powder experiments or anything, draw Erin aside.

“Listen—you can ask for help. I know we said we’re grateful for you not wanting to endanger us, but what kind of people would we be if we met an Earther, someone who helped cure the Yellow Rivers disease and who looks like a good person, and just—left her to wander off and die? Can we help?”

She looked Erin in the eyes, and the [Innkeeper] paused. Erin glanced at Paige, around her workshop, and her lips moved.

“Daly and Siri are your two [Warriors], right? The Bushrangers are your elite adventurers?”

“[Mercenaries]. It’s all [Mercenaries] here. Daly’s—he’s a good guy, but he’s changed. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep the rest of us safe.”

Including bombing the Featherfolk Brigade to bits. It had won the battle, but Paige still couldn’t look at Daly like before. As for Siri—she was also someone who wouldn’t hesitate to pull a trigger.

“Every group needs someone willing to fight. If they’re willing to help me, I won’t turn down some backup.”

Erin glanced out the door, then turned to Paige.

“…But if they want to help, I can’t promise them anything but an early grave. Level or die. All the enemies I’ve made at sea are not stopping, Paige. From the moment I reached Paeth, I knew they’d be after me, and the Fraerlings are…”

She hesitated.

“…The one group I don’t want to endanger. Small folk. Good folk.”

Her eyes softened one second.

“No, they don’t deserve it. I do. I’ll let them hate me as much as they want, and if they get me—”

Her eyes glinted with something like satisfaction.

“—I’ll win if I leave them with scars.”

As they said in this world—dead gods. Paige just stared at Erin, lost for words. She had never actually seen someone give a speech of the damned before, let alone with a straight face, meaning every word.

It made Paige feel like Daly and Siri weren’t so hopeless after all.

“What—what are you going to do?”

Erin was fiddling with the crossbow’s safety and glancing around for a target range—which certainly wouldn’t be here.

“Practice. Ask for more enchantments or artifacts, maybe. Then—I know Ryoka’s around. I’ll find her, then Rabbiteater and anyone else who’s washed up on Baleros. Once I find them all and get as many to safety as I can, I’ll think about leaving Baleros.”

Another solid, concrete set of objectives. Though someone else agreed that Erin Solstice was currently winning the award for ‘most intense person of the year’ award. And that included himself.

“A fine plan, Miss Solstice. Does that include meeting with the Forgotten Wing company? The Titan of Baleros is one of the groups demanding—loudly—that he get to talk with you. Paeth’s been denying him, but he’s louder than the other Great Companies.”

Sentry Leader Ekrn appeared in the Fraerways, and Erin twitched. He nodded as she lowered the crossbow.

“So long as we’re about, you won’t need that. But our authority ends past Talenqual, and I’m not minded to assign any Tallguard to you.”

“I don’t want to endanger your people, Sentry Commander Ekrn. I respect them more than that. Your city’s seen enough. Besides…Enchanter Ilekrome thought I might be the highest-levelled person in the city. You don’t have the people I need.”

The [Innkeeper]’s response made Ekrn twitch. Fraerling levels were higher on average than Tallfolk, but anyone over Level 50—and Erin had to be saying she was over Level 50—were still rare.

“Well, the Titan will be the highest-level Fraerling you can hope to meet. Should I respond that you’ll have a word with him?”


Ekrn jerked his head in a nod.

“If you want to shoot those things, you won’t have any luck in Talenqual.”

“Do you have anywhere I could use these? Just outside?”

Ekrn grunted.

“It’s late. If you really want to walk outside the walls…you’ll need to give us thirty minutes to clear a zone. You are not safe. The Death of Magic may have warded you from spells, and we’ve tried to keep it secret you’re here, but that won’t stop the naked eye. Do you know how many spells we’ve had to deflect searching for you? And how many were actually friendly?

The [Innkeeper] just shrugged.

“Hence why I’m trying to leave.”

Ekrn couldn’t argue with that. He sighed and snapped into a speaking stone.

“Captain Cotm. Find somewhere with foliage. Not the burnt forest; secure a zone. Have the Bushrangers help us in case there are some big damn cats or something. The [Innkeeper] wants to try out her precious crossbow. Thirty minutes.”

He turned to Erin, folding his arms.

“It’ll be good practice for the Bushrangers to work with us which is why I’m agreeing. And so you know, we likely do have one or two people over Level 50 in the city. Just not combat classes.”

“Over Level 60?”

Ekrn was silent. Erin shrugged.

“There we go, then. The Titan and Three-Color Stalker are that high-level.”


The Sentry Commander allowed grumpily. That was the level of the most dangerous and influential people in this world. Mars the Illusionist, the Titan of Baleros—Erin Solstice nodded.

“I suspect at least a few people in Erribathe and the Blighted Kingdom who want me dead are close to or around that level. Roshal as well. I am counting on it. So this?”

She loaded the hand crossbow, but kept the safety on.

“—I’d better be ready because this is the least of what I’m going to need.”

Even Ekrn could grudgingly appreciate that kind of resolve. He sighed and muttered.

“I’ll get you a set of gear for when you’re Fraerling-sized. And frankly, I’d advise you to be Fraerling-sized when possible. If you’re out among Tallfolk, it will be worse, but anywhere there are Fraerways like the Titan’s own citadel, you’ll be safer with my people.”

Erin nodded and began to ask Paige about the features on her crossbow and anything else the Bushrangers had that she might use. In the end, she took some of their climbing gear, and Paige went looking to see if they had a backup set of leather armor. And what she thought was—

If that was an [Innkeeper], Izril had more wars than Baleros had ever dreamed of.




[Almanac Captain] Cotm missed Kessice. Even after months, he kept thinking about what they could have done…differently.

What could have been done right? Or at least better? Obviously, the entire situation had been a disaster that no one could have anticipated at Feiland. But if you, or rather, he, let it happen again, he was a failure.

He was sure Ekrn thought the same way. It was harder to say for Noa. She was just a kid and attached to the Tallfolk. For all the trouble it had brought, she saw Luan and the United Nations company as an unabashedly good group.

Sometimes, Cotm envied her confidence. But Erin Solstice was different.

The Gnomes had interceded in Paeth’s last moments for her. That made it an obligation to help her. Not all the way; but Cotm had seen her sailing into a firestorm of spells sent by nations trying to kill one Human. Kill her for the crime of aiding a Goblin and killing a [Prince] of only one species, and maybe, specifically, just one gender.

He couldn’t say he had no sympathy for someone with the world out to get her, so he did his job to the utmost; not that he would have slacked off even if he’d hated her.

[Almanac Captain] sounded like a stupid class, but there was no such thing as a bad class, just bad usage, at least, in Cotm’s books. And it was books he called for.

“Alright, people. [By the Book: Hanging Cat Overwatch]. Anything moves, I want it tagged and dead before it closes a hundred feet.”

A forest was not the best place to run sentry duty, but the Bushrangers had spread out and were keeping the larger animals at bay. Cotm opened the Tallguard of Feiland’s strategy manual, and Fraerlings moved into position smoothly and set up a perfect formation.

Hanging Cat Overwatch was a tactic wherein you had bait or an object in the center of a formation you were sure was going to draw trouble. Fraerlings nestled in the curve of leaves or peeked over branches, covering each sight line.

That wasn’t Cotm’s only contribution, either. He flipped to another book that was practically vibrating with how many bookmarks and spells were in it.

[Spell Storage: Book]. Cotm ran his eye down the list of enchantments on Erin Solstice or just the area around him. He touched his earpiece.

“Captain Cotm here. [Dimensional Lock] just shot down another two entry attempts into the area, Sentry Commander.”

“Damn. Who the hell keeps trying to get to her? That’s Tier 5 magic. Rare Tier 5 magic. Tallfolk shouldn’t have access to it. Wistram? Are you sure it’s not Fraerlings?”

Cotm stared at the two black spell tags disintegrating in his personal book.

“…Nope, it fried both locks, Sentry Commander. It’s a Tallfolk trying to portal in somehow. [Teleport] can’t even get in, unless it’s a Tallfolk somehow boosting past the lock.”

“Keep me posted and have Enchanter Resk reapply both spells at once.”

“Got it. Looks like they’re trying a third time, Sentry Commander.”

I’m recasting, I’m recasting!

Resk shouted, but there was no hurry. After all…there were four locks on Erin at any one time. No one was getting to her with Fraerlings around.

Making some Tallfolk’s day unpleasant wasn’t the worst use of Cotm’s time. He ran through the list of other spells, which included a bug repeller as well as more mundane spells, then closed his book. Below him, he heard a soft thunk and the sound of something hitting the tree he was sitting on.

The impact was heavy enough for Cotm to decide to use his magical grappling hooks to move elsewhere. As he leapt into the air, he saw the shooter; Erin Solstice was practicing with her crossbow and wand.

All this effort to let her get some target practice. Then again…Cotm looked down.

“Huh. She’s a pretty bad shot.”

The glowering [Innkeeper] was adjusting her aim as she tried to hit the broadside of a tree, or more accurately, a target she’d tacked up.

“Beware friendly fire, folks. That [Innkeeper]’s got a powered crossbow, and she’s going wide.”

One of the Tallguard half-joked into the speaking stone. Erin must have heard that, because she paused in shooting. As it happened—someone was giving her tips.

“No, no! Hold your arm out straight. Don’t bend it—like that. Hey, Cotm, how’s her form?”

Tallguard Noa was egging Erin on as the [Innkeeper] tried to shoot two-handed rather than use a wand and crossbow in both hands. Cotm sighed when he saw her.

“That’s correct. If you had a larger crossbow, you’d be braced and sighting, but if you’re going to shoot from the hip—steady that hand.”

“I have practice. I used to be better—there. How about a wand in my other hand?”

Erin tried to use the two akimbo, and her hand crossbow began to automatically reload for her. Cotm eyed Erin’s ‘style’.

“…It’d probably keep you safe from most monsters if you shoot fast enough. Don’t you have magical fire and a bunch of [Innkeeper] Skills? That might be more…powerful?”

He hinted to her, and Erin frowned at him.

“[Innkeeper] Skills generally require an inn. I can rely on these weapons since my knife is missing. Actually, I think I need a knife, too.”

Cotm sighed, but he thought the [Smiths] in Paeth would relish a challenge to make anything even approaching Master Smith Pelt’s work. At least Paeth didn’t have to send Tallguard out to mine iron deposits and haul them back to the city, one gram at a time.

“Just as long as you know a Level 50 anyone can probably beat someone at Level 20 if they have an applicable Skill. Crossbows or not, if you did reach Level 50…”

I’d really love to see what your new Skill does. All the Tallguard probably did, including Noa, who nodded rapidly, but Erin just stopped a second, then shook her head.

“Skills are a good thing to keep hidden, Tallguard…Cotm, isn’t it? Even if I could use any of my Skills or witchcraft abroad.”

Her eyes glinted, and Cotm sighed.

“Fair enough.”

He settled back on his haunches to watch and, after a moment, pulled out his book.

“Resk? Two more blocking spells.”

Argh. Really? Hold on, I’ll get Ilekrome to help. I’m running out of mana! I’m going to have to skinny dip in one of the inferior Tallfolk mana potions if this keeps up.”

Resk grumped as Cotm grinned. People really wanted to get at Erin Solstice. And that was his and Ekrn’s mistake, in a way. The Fraerlings’ mistake.

They got it. Or they thought they did.

People hated Erin Solstice. Join the club. Take a number. Then wait for a tiny boot to kick you in the ass. They were treating this like Erin was just some ordinary war criminal or enemy of nations.

Not…the [Innkeeper]. Not the Goblinfriend of Izril. Not the person who’d fought a being at the Winter Solstice and who had called Eternal Khelt to action.

Not a woman who claimed to have met the greatest of ghosts. She didn’t attract just the standard ‘blood runs out of your body’ spell—which, yes, kept being applied every hour by a hopeful Blighted Kingdom, but the [Warlocks] there didn’t even have a target to aim at. They were low-grade.

The woman who stood in the buzzing, chirping, and occasionally heckling forest of Baleros knew some of what was coming for her. She was resolved. Even, perhaps, happy that the chance had come for her to do what must be done.

But not even she quite understood who Erin Solstice was to the rest of the world. For, as Cotm was about to call another tip down to her, someone spoke.


Cotm’s head snapped around, and the Tallguard fell silent. The Bushrangers muttered into the communication spell.

“Daly here. We see nothing.”

Commander Ekrn’s voice was low and tense.

“Tallguard Locks. We have sightlines on nothing.”

The Tallguard who’d spoken whispered into his speaking stone, and Cotm’s headgear said he’d activated a [Muffle] and [Camouflage] spell.

“Something’s moving. I barely saw it—the ground rippled, and I swore I saw something, but it’s camouflaged or invisible.”

“Eyes up. Deploy [See Invisibility] spells, Tallguard Locks.”

“It was already on, Commander.”

Silence. Cotm checked his headgear, and someone else spoke breathily in his ear.

“I have, uh—[Eyes of Clarity]. Enchanter Resk here. And I believe Sentry Commander Ekrn might have—”

“I do. Apply your spell and keep your eyes up. Innkeeper, do you hear that?”

Cotm glanced down and saw, to his gratification, Erin Solstice had put her back to a tree. She was braced, wand and crossbow at the ready.

“We have her.”

“Prepare to teleport out. Captain Cotm, your team is Signim free.”

Ekrn wasn’t playing games. Cotm swung his crossbow up, sighting ahead of him, but all he saw were Tallguard indicators, the forest…nothing. Then he heard another snap.

Contact! I see something moving! It’s gone! Tallfolk!

Tallguard Lisonte. Ekrn snapped as Tallguard around her called no sightings.

“What was it?”

“I barely saw it, Commander. It was fast.

“Assume Level 40 or higher. Teleport on my mark.”

Ekrn’s voice was deceptively calm. Erin spoke out loud.

“It’s coming for me. Do you want it haunting Paeth? Let it get closer. I have ward spells on me.”

Ekrn paused.

“Enchanter Resk, double any ward spells you have on the innkeeper. Tallguard, do not open fire until you establish what’s coming your way.”

Now all was quiet—except for the insects that buzzed in the distance. Cotm breathed in and out as he listened, and he heard voices.

“Contact. Lost it.”

“—Faster than I could see! Behind that tree—”

Spotted me. Commander, my position’s made.”

Whatever it was, it was tagging Tallguard positions? The hairs on Cotm’s neck rose. Ekrn breathed.

“Fall back if you’ve been made. Identity?”

“Slitted eyes, Commander. I think it’s a Lizardfolk. But it’s fast.

Well…that wasn’t good. Then it penetrated the lines of the Bushrangers, and there was an oath.

It grabbed me! Fuck—where did it go? It got right behind me!”

“Dawson! Are you okay?”

“I’m okay! I’m—it’s fucking fast, Daly.”

Dawson’s voice was unnerved, and whatever it was began slipping forwards. Now, more Tallguard were seeing it.

“Commander, that’s a Lizardfolk. Faster than anything I’ve seen.”

“It’s darting from tree to tree. I swear it just saw me—”

Commander Ekrn lost his patience for this game of hide-and-seek. He roared.

“Hold fire. Intruder, you are within the aegis of Paeth on the Coast! Halt or we will consider you hostile and attack!

Cotm, at last, saw something pause at the very edge of his sight line through the forest. A slim, thin shape halted, and Ekrn saw it was indeed a long, tall figure. Cotm squinted, magnifying his vision with a spell. Was that…

A Lizardfolk?

Yes. It was just—a Lizardfolk. Unmistakably; thin, neck frills a bit ragged, and peeking around a tree at them. It stood there, then hopped forwards a bit.

Tallguard. Prepare to fire!

Ekrn roared, and Cotm aimed his crossbow ahead. At this, the figure recoiled almost comically. It waved its hands in a pantomime of fear. Then hopped forwards a step.


Bushrangers moved forwards, crackling through bushes in some cases, and the figure recoiled again—but not in real surprise. It shuffled forwards, hands raised now, and Erin spoke.

“Let it get closer. Who are you? Friend? Foe?”

The figure tilted its head left and right. It took another cautious step forwards, and its destination was unmistakable: Erin Solstice. Cotm was hesitating. They should attack—but it was fast, and if this was some ploy to get closer to Erin—

Well, it was working. Ekrn wasn’t about to take that risk.

“[Illumination] spells on it! Warning shot, Bushranger Tofte!”

The Earther took the shot, and a crossbow bolt thunked into the ground in front of the Lizardperson. They leapt back—before the crossbow bolt had even landed, Cotm thought, and then shielded their face as a sudden beam of light illuminated them.

Now that everyone could see, they saw, well, a Lizardperson. But possibly the most unkempt Lizardperson that Cotm had ever seen in his life.

It was a female Lizardfolk, that much was clear from far away. She—had on ragged clothing, and her scales and body were a mess. Grimy; she had tattered neck-frills, the colorful skin around her neck that could expand or contract was torn, and she looked distinctly battered.

A survivor of some kind? Or had she been fighting already to get here? Something was…odd about her, Cotm realized. She stood a bit lopsided, and when she faced Erin, there was a glassy look in her eyes.

“Commander, I have an option on a [Slave], possession, or maybe another controlling spell. Drugs? Or we’re staring at a Selphid. Or an undead.”

Her scales weren’t quite pale enough to make Cotm decide the latter, but something was off, and he rattled his concerns into Ekrn’s ear.

“I hear it. If she gets any closer, go weapons free. Intruder. Identify yourself!

The bellow, once again, made the Lizardfolk flinch and clap two claws to her earholes. Which put paid to Cotm’s undead theory. She reacted like Ekrn’s operatic voice was loud and tilted her head. Then she waved her hands at Erin. She beckoned with both hands.

Come, come.

Every eye swung to the [Innkeeper], and Ekrn hissed.

“Erin, don’t move—”

“Who are you?”

Erin called out, taking a step forwards. She had her crossbow trained on the stranger as well, so it was clear she didn’t know who it was. But she was brave enough. Cotm saw the figure sway back. Then tilt its head at her.

Slowly, left and right. The figure bent forwards, swayed back when another crossbow bolt landed in the ground, and beckoned.

“What do you want?”

Again, Erin spoke, and this time, the Lizardwoman paused. She put her claw to her earhole and tilted her head, and Cotm noticed her eyes staring blankly ahead rather than shifting to follow Erin. But the gesture was unmistakable.

“What. Do. You. Want? I am Erin Solstice. I’m right here. Are you a friend or enemy?”

Erin spoke louder, enunciating each word. And the figure heard. Yet she tilted her head and, to Cotm’s surprise, began hitting herself on the head. The Lizardwoman hopped from foot to foot, annoyed, as she lightly banged on her skull. Then she put her claw to her ear and shook her head.

“Sentry Commander, do we have a [Silence] spell on the intruder?”

Cotm hazarded a guess. Resk answered for Ekrn.

“No magic…at least, not a spell from us. There’s something awfully odd about that Lizardfolk. Lots of subtle magic. I’m barely seeing it myself.”

Resk was one of the best Alchimagi in all of Paeth. The figure beckoned again, and when Erin failed to move, it sighed. Then—to everyone’s shock, it spoke.

“Kru o naefoma?”

The stranger put two claws to its mouth and called out in a soft voice, higher-pitched than Cotm expected. Almost playfully. Certainly with interest. But the words—made no sense.

“What was that?”

Daly spoke up, and Siri muttered.

“Must be Drathian or some dialect. Doesn’t—sound like it. Someone get Ken.”

“That’s not Drathian.”

That came from Cotm himself. He knew Drathian, or enough of it to instantly place that it wasn’t that. The words, though…tickled his brain, and the [Captain] lowered his crossbow to feel for his personal library in his bag of holding.

“What did you say?”

Kru o naefoma?

Again, the Lizardwoman repeated the words, louder, sounding hopeful, but when Erin stared blankly at her, she sighed.


That wasn’t a word Cotm recognized either. But his flipping through the book was the only sound among the confused Fraerlings and Tallfolk.

The figure seemed as nonplussed as the rest. A third time she beckoned, and when it was clear Erin Solstice wasn’t moving, the Lizardwoman glanced over her shoulder. Then she shrugged as if to say, ‘oh well’.

So saying, she reached up slowly, and as Cotm began to suspect who, or rather, what she was—

The Lizardwoman pulled off her face. 

Her features stretched and distorted—and then her glassy eyes, her dead eyes, Cotm realized, pulled off her head, twisting as the Tallguard and Bushrangers shouted in horror. No one fired—but every weapon rose and trained on the figure who stood there.

Lizardfolk body. But suddenly—emerging from the fake head—no, the costume—the ‘Lizardfolk’ suddenly had a Goblin’s head.

A dark green face, closer to black. Pointed ears. Red eyes. Braided black hair, and—the Goblin cackled with laughter as she pointed at Erin. Then she slowly and casually began to pull off the thing she was wearing.

A costume. A Lizardfolk. And—the reason why Cotm’s crossbow had locked onto her—

“Commander, that Goblin’s wearing a dead Lizardfolk as a costume.”

Now Cotm understood what was so off. The glassy eyes, the slightly off-kilter way the Lizardfolk had moved…from a distance, it was a perfect replica.

The Goblin adjusted her disguise until a bit more of her face was showing, and the Lizardfolk’s form became baggy around her legs. She pointed at some of the Tallguard.

Seh! Fraershi an. To Ihumina an.

They stirred. That first part of the word was definitely their name, however oddly said. Now, Cotm was feverishly checking his books.

“Commander, give me a second—”

His voice was lost in the clamor of shocked voices.

“It’s a Goblin. It’s a fucking Goblin. I thought they were killed on sight.”

Dawson’s incredulous voice. Ekrn’s—

“Do not lower your guard! It’s highly dangerous. Resk, translation spell?”

“That only works on writing! Verbal translation is a lot harder and there are no actual translations of Goblin for—”

I have something! Just give me a second—

The figure was getting antsy. It hopped a bit closer, froze when a dozen fingers twitched on their triggers, but not with exactly enough fear as one would like. And again, it pointed at Erin.

“O he elame Mirake an? Se o kava cha.”

“I…don’t know what you’re saying. I’m Erin Solstice. Are you looking for…another Goblin? Ulvama? Someone else?”

None of that registered. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed slightly. She seemed frustrated and stamped her foot.

“Mirake! Elame?”

She pointed at herself, then Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw everyone looking towards her, but she shook her head.

“Great. The Goblinfriend of Izril doesn’t know Goblin. Miss Solstice, we have a problem. Goblins are monsters to all of Baleros. I’ve seldom run into them, though—they’re executed on sight by most mercenary companies. Bringing one into Talenqual now isn’t a good idea—this is one is as dangerous as any Tallfolk I’ve ever met. And it doesn’t seem to know the common language.”

Ekrn growled. Erin agreed.

“I know. But it—she is here for me. She wants me to go with her.”

“Your funeral. And by that, I mean denied.

Erin was hesitating, but Cotm was tossing books down, and they were landing on Noa, who was on a lower branch.

“Ow, fuck, ow—Cotm, what are you doing?

“Hold on, just hold on! Sentry Commander, I have an idea! Let me just find the right book—”

The [Almanac Captain] didn’t know Goblin either. No one exactly wrote books on it, even in Fraerling cities, but he did know one thing. And it wasn’t in the books he used for his job; the book-loving Fraerling finally found what he wanted as Ekrn growled in his ear.

“If you have an idea, act on it fast, Cotm. The Goblin’s getting antsy.”

Sure enough, the Goblin was hopping closer, and Siri launched a crossbow bolt at her feet to keep her skipping back. She kept looking over her shoulder and motioning Erin to ‘come with’. Was something following her?

However, Cotm had found it. He rifled through something he’d bought a long, long time ago. A rare translation of a proscribed text. Even in the Fraerling settlements, they’d almost all been burned, but he found it at last.

“There’s a book, Sentry Commander. A book written by—the Titan of Baleros! It has something you’re supposed to say to Goblins.”

Noa’s head rose, and even Erin looked around. Ekrn’s voice, already stressed, grew irate.

“You have that book?”

Goblin [Mercenaries]. Leading Goblins and being led by Goblins, by Niers Astoragon. One of the most uninspiring titles ever titled for a book that was considered more contentious than other books written by actual [Warlords] and, in Cotm’s opinion, espousing far more heinous things.

A fascinating, if depressing, read about one of the few examples of Goblins interacting with the rest of the world in a non-violent manner.

Velan the Kind’s company. Back in the brief window when he had been a respected, nay, the respected Goblin. It had a lot of stories about Goblins being…well, odd people. Negotiations. History. Some tactics and commentary, because the Titan was the Titan.

But there was one section right at the start Cotm wanted. Even the strange Goblin had noticed him as he thumbed through it, a light spell illuminating just one page.

‘—if you should ever…the various tribes of Goblin around the world are each unique and blaah blah’…yes, yes! Right here! Listen! ‘If you should ever meet a Goblin of Baleros, consider uttering the following before engaging in combat or flight!’

He looked up. The Goblin gave him a blank stare; she had gotten none of that. Erin, however, had.

“It’s a phrase in Goblin, isn’t it? Read it.”

“Will do!”

He was lucky there was a phonetic guide to the words. Cotm began speaking, and the Goblin’s head instantly snapped up with recognition. Her crimson pupils went wide, then constricted as Cotm said with an unsteady voice:

“Um…van he elame zelmalaile Velan an.

What he’d said, he couldn’t actually tell, but the Goblin’s head recoiled so fast that some of the Tallguard actually fired. She hissed—then stared straight at Cotm.

“Alchimagus Resk here with an observation, Captain Cotm. You said the wrong thing.”

Resk hissed as the Goblin stamped her feet. She seemed ready to charge now, but drew herself back as she saw Erin watching her warily. At last, she choked back a reply to Cotm that dripped with emotion.

“Velan Fasna he arek!”


The glower he received made Cotm decide not to repeat whatever he’d said. However, strangely, this seemed to convince the other Goblin that whatever was going on from her perspective—these people, Erin included, had no idea what she was talking about. She sighed, kicked at the ground, and stood there.

She had a blank look on her face, which Cotm, as a Fraerling who’d survived Tallguard training, knew exactly. It said ‘what the hell do I do now?’

As it so happened, where Fraerlings faltered, Siri broke in.

“Captain Daly, Commander Ekrn, permission to approach and try to communicate with her? I think we should begin with sign language. Anyone have a paper to draw on?”

The Swedish member of the Bushrangers understood communication blocks. In fact, the United Nations company as a whole did. One of them was already fumbling for a piece of paper.

“If you want to risk it, Siri—someone get Ken. He’s got a translation Skill. Maybe it’d work?”

Siri was about to approach when Erin called out.

“Give me the paper. I’m willing to try to talk with her.”

Ekrn hissed back.

“Absolutely not. You’re what she wants, and she is trying to get you to go with her. I wouldn’t put it past that Goblin to grab you and run.”

“Fine. Then let Siri—”

The Goblin was inspecting the Bushrangers and Tallguard with a raised eyebrow, but she was still looking over her shoulder. Then, suddenly, she groaned, sighed, and Cotm realized something.

In this strange, surreal standoff, his attention had been drawn to the strange Goblin. Everyone had been whispering, or whisper-shouting in Ekrn’s case, but it wasn’t as if it had been quiet. It was Baleros, and with the end of winter, there had been insects buzzing and even the distant sounds of Talenqual by night filling the air.

Except…for the moment when suddenly every insect had gone quiet. All the animal noises suddenly ceased, and something rustled through the forest.

Something big. The Goblin glanced over her shoulder apprehensively, but didn’t run.

“Weapons up. Something—”

Ekrn’s voice was tensed, but it was too late. They had just a second to hear the rustling, see a tree sway, and realize everything had gone quiet.

And then—it was there.

A Goblin appeared behind the first Goblin, far more imposing and dangerous—every ounce of Cotm screamed danger—standing with a clawed hand resting on a tree. The other was lightly gripping the ‘hood’ of the first Goblin’s costume.

Taller than Daly and Siri put together. Hunched—but only because of the gigantic contraption on its back. Black metal, muffled and bound by ropes, the same that secured a vast bell to the Goblin’s back.

Oddly ceremonial looking clothes, black, almost like the Goblin’s darker skin, one crimson eye—the other was missing—and a vast scar over one side of a huge face.

Ah! Awhhh! Ahoro he pach! S’ho va tizan viti Mirak-Elame na. Masku tok is naefoma?

The shorter Goblin shrieked, but the larger one was silent. The Bushrangers and Tallguard stared up at it, and Cotm said something in a trembling voice he had no proof for, but knew to be true.

“G-Goblin Lord.”

Goblin Lord? Siri’s crossbow was frozen, aimed at the giant Goblin’s chest. Did Baleros even have a Goblin Lord?

The Goblin Lords on Baleros would be…Velan the Kind, or maybe one of the others who’d gone with him to Izril, like Tallis the Stormbreaker. All of them were supposed to be dead, and no one had reported even a strong Goblin Chieftain so this couldn’t be a Goblin Lord.

Yet Cotm had the strong belief that if they started firing on the Goblin in front of them, they would quickly be dead.


Ekrn breathed in their ears. They could hear the smaller Goblin swinging from a claw, now, kicking, protesting in a rapid spatter of Goblin to the Goblin Lord as it began to drag her back the way they’d come.

How had they gotten here with no one noticing? How did you hide a thirteen-foot Goblin carrying a gigantic bell? Then again—the real question was what they were saying.

Pexa! Is he elame Mirake an! Uro faira o tizan elame Gredathe Pasai, Kanadith Pasai?

The shrieking Goblin protested, and the Goblin Lord looked back once. Erin Solstice stood there, crossbow half lowered, staring into the eye of the Goblin Lord. It looked her up and down, slowly, then snorted and said something in a booming voice:

“Uro is Elame-Mirak. Stan is zan aimaste.”

The smaller Goblin had been trying to climb up the arm and yank her hood free, but her mouth fell open at this, and she gawked at Erin. She pointed at Erin, at the Goblin Lord—then started laughing. With a sigh, the giant Goblin dropped the small one, nudged her with one foot, and pointed.

The little one scrambled up and, with something resolved or revealed, gave Erin another look. Then the same searching stare as the first. She shrugged her shoulders.

Then waved a hand. The taller Goblin was already marching back through the trees, slower, now, and Ekrn didn’t seem minded to stop them.

“What the fuck is going on?”

Dawson really wanted to know. So did Cotm and everyone else. But the other Goblin just pulled her hood back on, and a Lizardwoman grinned glassily at Erin. She shrugged, pointed at the giant Goblin Lord as if to say, ‘what can you do’, and then pointed at Erin.

“I am the Goblinfriend of Izril. Do you…want something from me?”

That was all the [Innkeeper] said. Her eyes fixed on the Goblin Lord’s back as they vanished, on the grinning Goblin disguised as a Lizardperson, and though the two couldn’t understand each other, the Goblin paused. She put a claw to her mouth, thinking, then glanced over her shoulder and raised a claw to her mouth and whispered.

“Sku o he elame, Mirak-Elame kufa, te mota. Sku o he kiskai, tere tarek o zifu. Aho razivin Naga an si—”

Her eyes twinkled, looked alarmed, and she made a hop to the side—and the Goblin Lord reappeared, grabbed her by the back of the head, and dragged her away through the forest. The heavy tread of the footfalls were all anyone heard for a few seconds. Then…silence.

“Tallguard—find out which way they went. Do not get close or aggravate either.”

Ekrn snapped, and the spell broke after a moment. Cotm saw Tallguard flit into the trees as the Bushrangers advanced—but within moments, they responded.

“We’ve lost them, Sentry Commander. [Detect Life] spells, nothing, [Heat Vision] spells, nothing, [See Invisibility] spells—”

“They can’t have gotten away that fast! Did you see that thing? It was massive!

Dawson exploded, but as the Bushrangers began spreading out, both Goblins were gone. Leaving only a mystery, some very puzzled Fraerlings, and—once again at the heart of it—

Erin Solstice. And the one comment she made as she lowered her crossbow was…

“I really wish I’d studied Goblin.”




The altercation with the Goblins was not discussed within the United Nations company that night. Nor was it mentioned to most Fraerlings of Paeth when Erin went back to the city to sleep.

Of course, Ken, Luan, Paige, and Kirana all got the full story, and the next morning, Ken got the same information that the Fraerlings had told Ekrn. Ken was speaking with someone else over breakfast at a table just outside one of the United Nations buildings. The [Diplomat] listened as he was told the same thing Resk had said last night.

“No one speaks Goblin. At least, there’s no [Translation] spell or anyone who claims to be an actual expert. The only living experts forswore all their research, and they were all affiliated with one company. Guess which one?”

Ken shook his head. This was a problem for this world; if they had translation spells on Earth, every nation would have invested into it. As for the company, he didn’t have to guess.

“Forgotten Wing. Can’t we translate it ourselves?”

Ken had wished he’d been there, or at least that someone had had the foresight to record everything said. But it had stunned the Fraerlings, who had never run into a linguistic barrier before. Much less…a Goblin Lord?

If true, that made Erin’s situation all the worse because one Goblin Lord had nearly gotten her killed already. If people thought she was in cahoots with another Goblin Lord…

Ken didn’t even know which one this was. They were almost all supposed to have been dead or confirmed killed in the last big war with Velan. The only one who’d even been possibly alive because they hadn’t found his body and seen his exact death was Greydath of Blades.

So either this was a new Goblin Lord…or one had faked their death…or an old Goblin Lord. Either way, Ken had resolved to put his team on it. Historical research was harder given the lack of an internet and the lack of good libraries and books being in limited print circulation, but he could try.

Ken nodded at the person sitting across from him.

“Your job is to find a translation text if one exists and look into Goblin Lords. Appearances will do; they weren’t all that tall.”

“Oh. Great. What about looking into the Jungle Tails company?”

Ken gave his subordinate a friendly smile.

“Do both. You’ll have to travel. What is new about Jungle Tails? Forgotten Wing is moving a lot of troops around.”

He was having breakfast while they waited for Erin to come out of Paeth again if she wanted to visit. His companion at the table was Asher, who was hungover and a bit shamefaced.

“Is it because I messed up with Erin? She completely wiped me out, Ken. I legitimately cried, man.”

“Don’t worry about it. None of us got much from her anyways. Just find out what’s going on while you travel and keep your head out of Lizardfolk politics. They bite.”

Ken was wondering if he should offer to introduce Erin around; she had no limit of people wanting to talk to her. But if mystery Goblins were popping out of the forest right next to Talenqual, he doubted Commander Ekrn wanted to let her go anywhere else.

And it was Paeth that was protecting Erin. Or perhaps, Fraerling cities in general. Ken had heard that on the grapevine by letting Noa chat. Fraerlings, in general, were interested in Erin besides her height, and not even Luan had an access pass to other cities.

He could envy Erin, pity her, or…do so many other things in reaction to her personality and deeds. But mostly what Kenjiro Murata did was wonder what her goals were. Her stated goals were genuine, he would bet, but she had left a lot unsaid, especially about her.


Ken was about to get up and find Siri and ask if she was serious about wanting to go with Erin, for a time, or quiz Captain Eldima about how she thought the Iron Vanguard regarded Erin after the sea battle when he heard it.

Another unexpected thing. Or highly expected, if you thought about it. Ken’s head rose as he heard a trill of sound breaking the hustle and bustle of Talenqual.

“What was that?”

Asher looked around and stopped in the middle of the street. The sound rang out again, and this time, Ken recognized it.

A drum?

Ken had heard it coming from the northwest, in the direction of the road. Rather than run to the gates, like every Lizardfolk was surely doing, he walked into the United Nations building and strode upstairs to the roof.

He could barely see past the walls, but Talenqual was no Drake city. And what Ken saw was enough to stop him there. He glanced towards the tallest ‘building’ in the city of Talenqual. Paeth. If he had a partial view, the Fraerling City had probably seen this group coming.

Or…not seen them coming? Ken stared at the horizon, heart suddenly pounding. How did you hide the flashing column of steel on the horizon? How did you hide a figure so large they were visible beyond the walls, albeit small?

“War Walker.”

He had no doubt; the armor and size could only be a half-Giant or one of the Dullahans who grew to incredible size. And that column…

Someone began ringing a bell at the gates, but the notes faltered off after a few chimes. Nevertheless, Paige slammed out of her workshop.

What’s that? Are we under attack?

“No…I don’t think so.”

Ken called down, and Paige stormed upstairs.

“You don’t think so? What—what’s that coming this way? An army?”

The column was growing larger, slowly, and Ken, with his speaking stone tuned to the Fraerlings’ chatter coming from Paeth, as well as the United Nations channels, heard a flurry of voices.

There are fifteen, counting, fifteen regiments on the move across the entire region. The cities of Ranxel, Yoill, and Oftered are all opening their gates—

“General Gloriam and General Diomedes, the Cyclops, are both on the trade road from Elvallian—”

Someone answer the speaking stone! Get an Architect! Commander Eirnos is on the line!”

Paige halted as Ken let her listen to the flurry of voices from the speaking stone. She squinted, and Ken reached for a [Message] scroll. The [Diplomat] had a better understanding of what he was seeing.

Ranxel, Yoill, and Oftered were all cities further inland of Talenqual. If what he thought was happening was right…the Forgotten Wing company was marching its troops across the continent. Turning them out of garrisons in their controlled cities and forming a line. If you drew on a map, you might make a lovely little line across the main trade routes straight from Talenqual to…


Ken wasn’t a [Strategist], but he bet it was less obvious if soldiers moved around Forgotten Wing territory. This was the very obvious column of Forgotten Wing company soldiers.

“I think the Titan wants to meet Erin Solstice.”

Ken commented to Paige. She gave him a goggle-eyed look, and he counted.

“That’s four War Walkers. I’m pretty sure those are Centaurs, not [Riders].”

Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Selphids, and sometimes Humans and other species. Ken glanced at Paeth, the Fraerling City. Too dangerous and magically capable for even lesser mercenary companies to take a shot at them. He eyed the War Walkers slowly advancing on Talenqual.

“The Titan doesn’t, uh—doesn’t go for diplomacy much, does he?”

Paige gave Ken a pale-faced attempt at a smile. In response, Kenjiro suppressed the flutter in his stomach and gave Paige a serious look.

“I’m pretty sure this is his diplomacy. And I think Erin Solstice has somewhere to be.”

“What do you think happens if she tells him no?”

Paige looked over Talenqual’s walls, and Kenjiro couldn’t resist a smile.

“I’d love to see it. In someone else’s city.”

He and Paige listened a while until the [Engineer] flinched and sighed.

“Oh, great. They’re blowing horns.”





Author’s Note:

Did you read Blog #10? You didn’t, did you. Statistically, 10% of the readership reads the blog. Read the blog.

I’m putting out one chapter per week, starting in April. 

The reason is listed in the blog, again. I cannot explain it a second time, or better, anywhere but there.

So anyways, with that huge thing coming up in April aside, I haven’t posted Book 12’s edits to the site yet.

I’ll get to it. It’s done, and I survived! Also, I grew older recently!

I didn’t level up. Let’s see what else…

Oh yeah, Erin’s back. But she’s not the Erin you remember, is she? Something something Gandalf quote here. Is this the chapter you wanted? I do read comments, and people rightly want to know what’s going on.

This chapter may leave them with more questions, but I promise, you’ll be able to look back and see everything going on with Erin clearly. I have a plan, and I have thought long and hard about Volume 10 and her story. I am thinking the second Erin chapter should be next, but you tell me. Maybe we need to get back to the adventures of Garmenstalandiel, the rolling rat that Ksmvr found in the Crossroads of Izril. If he’s even alive.

Big stuff is happening. The story continues, and I hope you’re looking forward to an interesting March. What is the Ides of March? I read it in The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and I never knew what they were. Huh. Google says it’s just a religious observances time and for settling debts. Oh, and when they stabbed Julius Caesar, so I guess there’s no real significance to us these d—


Time to get back to work. See you next chapter.



Yvlon Dreaming by butts, comissioned by pirateaba! (This feels weird.)

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts


General Erin by Yura!


General Erin by Yura, colorized by Relia, and Riverfarm also by Relia!

Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/reliaofdreams


V10 Erin and Hats by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe


Lyonette, sketched by Ser Dalimont, uh, sourced by pkay!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/peekay


Erin and Warpaint Erin by dube!


Erin and Spaghetti by deepsikk!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Deepsikk

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/deepsikk_/


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments