10.07 – The Wandering Inn

10.07

(Book 12, The Witch of Webs, is now up for pre-order on Kindle and Amazon! I worked hard on it, so expect me to put up the rewrites when I’m less busy! Soon!)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Witch-Webs-Wandering-Inn-Book/dp/B0CXF6DBJQ/

Audible: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Witch-of-Webs-Audiobook/B0CXFCNFKZ

 

 

 

 

They were once a group of Named-rank Adventurers, an internationally recognized team named World’s Founding. As the late Archmage Tritosech wrote in an analysis of the team at the time, their name was almost as pretentious as the core members themselves. But World’s Founding had kept the title, because how else would you describe a multi-species team with the only Fraerling adventurer in the world and one of the few Beastkin adventurers ever to hit Named-rank?

They had been the largest adventuring team of their time. Second only to famous groups like Balsame’s Legion, notable for having hundreds of adventurers in days of yore. World’s Founding had been political.

They had entered into conflicts between nations and altered the course of wars, deflecting a Terandrian incursion war in their first famous battle against another nation. Then—taking a visible stance against Jungle Tails, one of the four Great Companies of Baleros, seeking to gain even more power.

The entire story of Niers Astoragon was famous enough for multiple tales, from his involvement with other characters like the King of Destruction to the Lightning Thief’s adventures. The highlights everyone knew were how his company started:

The World’s Founding team had been cornered along with an army of disorganized forces from every species on Baleros by Jungle Tails’ army. World’s Founding vanished after two months of protracted, deadly hunting and were declared dead after they failed to resurface for months.

Then, the mysterious army that would become known as the Forgotten Wing company emerged from the Labyrinth of Souls, a Named-rank dungeon, and began to win battle after battle. Six adventurers, including Niers Astoragon and Foliana, began earning their reputations.

World’s Founding vanished in that dungeon. The group of dozens of adventurers, from Silver to Named-rank, and an army of disparate soldiers were reduced to six surviving adventurers and four hundred veterans.

When asked, the few survivors of that mysterious point in history seldom spoke of what they had seen or done; the Labyrinth of Souls was later claimed by the Forgotten Wing company and sealed. No other team ever reached the dungeon’s heart, despite two Named-rank teams entering.

Twenty years later, a retiring Selphid [Vanguard] made comments to an aspiring [Author] seeking an alternate take on the retelling of the Forgotten Wing company’s rise to glory. The book sold eighty-eight copies and was not remarked on. Among other aspects during the interview, the Selphid refused to mention specific details of what they’d seen in the dungeon but provided the [Author] with a few quotes. The passage read:

 

“Niers Astoragon kept us alive down there. It was Jungle Tails behind us or the dungeon ahead. Parts of the army were pursuing us—that’s what no one ever mentions, I suppose. We were exploring the dungeon because they were slaughtering us from the rear. Ahead or behind. Death either way. So yes, that tiny little [Strategist] was the one who pushed until we reached the final point in the Labyrinth of Souls. He saved us.”

At this point, our intrepid investigator pauses for a sip of tea, and I keep my voice level, not letting an inflection of disappointment into my tone as I reply, “So it seems. Which squares entirely with established accounts. Why would this be so controversial?”

Jaucton sits with his new Human body in good repose, smoking on a puffer as he weighs his next words like a Minotaur laboriously lifting a slab of stone. The silence is palpable before he replies.

“Well, because he saved us. And killed us. We could have surrendered, and some of us would have made it. I doubt World’s Founding would have; Jungle Tails wanted their heads. He drove us until we saw the end. A brilliant [Strategist]; that’s what he was even back then. A lot younger, and he swore more back then, but they were all sort of like that. Foliana was always sneaking up on people and scaring the shit out of [Soldiers]—sometimes as we took a shit. But it’s the ones you don’t think of, you know? Melsaiid the Draconid. Anyone remember him? Haspeta Springwalker? Named-ranks. Even when we ran into Old Ones…Niers was right there and just pointed straight ahead. We could have fled.”

Then, Jaucton pauses, dear readers, and I see his Selphid body flinch within his form, and he clamps his lips shut as if he’s said something too much. Instantly, I press him about this ‘Old One’, a hefty claim, but he refuses to speak on the dungeon. All he will say, after nearly twenty minutes of silence or shaking of his head, is this:

“If we’d surrendered or fled, maybe the Forgotten Wing company wouldn’t have been made, and it’s to be named a Great Company any day now, I hear. Maybe it’s bigger than all of us, and he’s the Titan of Baleros. He did it, that’s all I wanted to say. We could have run away, and Jungle Tails would still be in power, and nothing would have changed. But we didn’t.”

 

The book never reached popular acclaim, possibly due to the [Author]’s insistence upon styling themself after the famous Krsysl Wordsmith’s by inserting himself as a protagonist into even objective historical accounts.

Despite this, the account was one of the few honest interviews ever put to public word about any other survivor’s feelings on the Forgotten Wing’s dark period of history.

The moral of the story was probably that Krsysl Wordsmith negatively influenced an entire generation of [Historians] by discrediting their style and the class in the eyes of the world.

 

——

 

Iuncuta Eirnos grudgingly had to admit that the Forgotten Wing company exceeded the military might of any one, or probably any dozen, Fraerling city, including Tallguard fortresses.

Not just in sheer numbers; despite their size, Fraerlings could field large numbers of their kind. Forgotten Wing certainly looked primitive, with literal unenchanted weapons in their standing forces. Every single Tallguard had an enchanted blade, and Tallfolk couldn’t fly, teleport at will, or rely on higher-grade munitions like Fraerlings could. For Tallfolk, Vortex bolts were considered a commander-grade relic used only at great expense, for instance.

However, Forgotten Wing was one of the Great Companies of Baleros, and as much as she hated to admit it, Iuncuta Eirnos sometimes just forgot what that meant.

A regiment, a measure of a few thousand soldiers, was something Tallguard tended to operate at—at maximum force. A thousand Tallguard were considered overkill for most problems short of a new monster hive or actual war. A hundred Crelerbane armor units could kill anything you wanted, and if they couldn’t…well, you were in trouble.

Eirnos had led that level of force. The Iuncuta, a commander and arbiter of Fraerling justice, could force multiple cities to heed her orders. She was as close to Fraerlings got to a public figure of renown, stratified as they were among their hidden settlements.

She’d come to the Forgotten Wing headquarters on two missions. Firstly, to reclaim the lost Fraerling settlements in the Dyed Lands and push back the hordes of monsters still savaging Baleros, locked in combat with three Great Companies and every city around them.

And also to liberate a Fraerling city taken hostage by Jungle Tails and punish the former Great Company for its destruction of Oierdressql and near-destruction of Paeth. Niers had welcomed her into his forces, given her the respect of her position, and Eirnos had been surprised that the famous Titan wasn’t more pushy.

So she forgot, sometimes, and it felt like he was deliberately reminding her with the war against the Minds or now—

Perspective. Scale. He commanded Tallfolk, not Fraerlings. Eirnos’ one good eye flitted to the scrying orb, and she stared at the map of units moving on the table. Flashing blue icons indicated the presence of each military unit, and little titles and flags showed which one was which.

For instance, one read ‘Gnrl. Diomedes, Eyewatchers Army’. It was slowly moving down the main trade-road.

Here was what Eirnos failed to remember. She glanced at the library of books set around the Titan’s war room, collecting herself. The Titan himself wasn’t present. He often gave orders and just expected them to be acted upon by competent people. What he was thinking here…she wanted to ask. But she had to be collected when she did.

Regiments. Groups of a thousand. The Forgotten Wing company’s table didn’t measure regiments. Eirnos had thought they did, but when she’d seen the blue dots moving, forming a huge line down one trade route as dozens more pushed southwest, meeting the red line of units of Jungle Tails?

When she stared at the purple icons of the Iron Vanguard or yellow, fast-moving icons of the Howling Maelstrom company or icons of independent companies? Some were small, and Eirnos had asked what the standard unit size was. Not regiments.

The smallest visible force usually present on the map was a division. Six thousand units minimum. Smaller brigades or tiny units were often marked as slivers since they were harder to confirm.

Big forces were corps or full armies. Twenty thousand to hundreds of thousands of marching soldiers. Two armies were locked in combat, marked by flashing lines on the path towards the Dyed Lands to the west. Fighting monsters.

And dozens of divisions were fighting Jungle Tails to the south. The Forgotten Wing had divisions and corps scattered across the holdings of south and central Baleros. Now, sixteen blue units slowly blinked their way across the map, securing a single road.

All for one Human. Eirnos wondered what it…looked like. She had to talk to Paeth, who wanted to keep their Human safe. All well and good; Eirnos had requests from other Fraerling cities to meet with her. She had a suggestion to tell Niers that the Fraerlings were in charge of Erin’s safety, not him.

How was she supposed to tell Paeth…the Titan was friendly. He was also the Titan. He’d let Paeth keep Erin Solstice for a week. Then, without talking to Eirnos, without pausing to do more than review the costs of moving that many soldiers and the effects of marching tens of thousands of people with a single order—he’d sent them to secure a line across the continent.

He’d sent a Cyclops to march on Talenqual. You couldn’t even see the tiny mercenary force occupying Talenqual on the map. A junior [Tactician] had been forced to insert a manual magical pin with the title of both mercenary companies, the United Nations and Gravetender’s Fist.

Focus. The Titan couldn’t be allowed to see Eirnos looking nervous. The Fraerling tore herself away from the war room and prepared her best shouting voice. To take him to task. She paused one last time to eye his bookshelves.

With respect to the war room, any books were clearly ambiance; no seasoned [Strategist] or [General] was going to crack open a book on the shelves. They either knew the contents by heart, had written said books, or had their own damn copies. So she got that it was just there to add to the grandeur of the place. But she’d been counting to steady herself and…

Who had eighty-seven copies of Interviews: The Founding of the Forgotten Wing Company from a New Perspective by Volov the [Historian]? Eirnos shook her head. She supposed the Titan had to support small [Authors] sometimes.

 

——

 

The eighty-eighth copy of Interviews had a bookmark in it. It was faded, the cheap leather binding worn, and sat on a desk. Since it was too large to open, normally, the Titan used it as a paperweight until he wanted to read it, after which he sometimes had to remove a stack of damn books.

Niers Astoragon sometimes went back to the interview, because it was honest. Pedantic, poorly written drivel, the rest of it, but the interview was honest in a way nothing else was. Frankly, Niers doubted even Tulm, one of his best students, would have found the book, much less understood everything from it.

But the Titan of Baleros didn’t win by giving people clues or even the chance to win. Today, he was staring at the book, like he sometimes looked at the other possessions in his room.

Foliana kept her own trophies and mementos in her giant tree room. Her nest. She didn’t hoard in her room, though; the Forgotten Wing was her hoarding, and she helped herself to everything in her domain. That was the trick about her. She was a Squirrel Beastkin, and, yes, yes, it was a huge insult to refer to a Beastkin species by the traits that defined their pre-Beastkin forms.

You didn’t make jokes about Rabbit Beastkin reproducing fast or Squirrel Beastkin obsessively saving objects. But they did have a bit of it in their ancestry, so you had to understand how Foliana operated. If she was not like other Beastkin in obvious ways—the question was why and how she’d taken her own route to sometimes get to the same destination. Most Beastkin never left their home tribes in the north, and if they did, they were either wanderers, those pushed out of their tribe, or on a mission.

Guess which one Foliana had been? In the same vein, Niers did hoard. A bit. Sometimes, he’d stop working when he was tired or stressed and stare at something hanging on the walls. A bow neatly patched, but still broken, made of manawood, yew, from some stupid forest in Erribathe.

A notched sword and shield. A framed map, still dirty and smudged from use. A banner from a memorable battle. And so on.

Boring trophies. The kind you’d find in any half-baked [Warlord]’s tent, really. Niers bet the King of Destruction had had many before they’d been sold off. The thing was…he stared at the bow, sometimes.

And for him, it was more than an old Gold-ranker’s piece of gear. He remembered a stare, a cracked voice, two eyes lifting upwards, and two pointed ears wilting as he pointed. A friend staring at the faces of great ancestors and hesitating—

Then he could, without a spell, go back in time and stand in the center of the Labyrinth of Souls and, for free, remember the faces of Elves. And get a topping of guilt and introspection for good measure.

“…I hate it when [Vanguards] quit.”

Niers went back to reviewing his work. He was aware his Forgotten Wing company was moving towards Talenqual. But because Niers also knew how fast soldiers marched, even on a trade road, he knew that there was no point obsessing over the war room map. He had work to do. A lot of it these days.

It kept him busy. Niers stared at one of the things a [Commander] hated: resignations.

It happened. People had lives. A [Soldier] fought through a battle with 30% attrition rates and decided to take their pay and retire. You had to deal with it, but sometimes you had mass resignations.

When one soldier quit, their buddies did. That was why you allowed relationships in the ranks, sometimes, or held back pay or did everything you could so that they said ‘one more tour’, ‘one more campaign’, or wanted that extra bit of gold that’d really pad out their retirement.

“Let’s see. Yep. Mauler’s Shorthands. Division here, battalion here. Oh, they’re not even pretending, they’re all quitting here…”

Niers was collating a bunch of different armies and sighing as he did what he did best: find a pattern. He made a note on a piece of paper.

Copy without exact numbers or locations. 40 200 copies. For class.

He still had class, though he couldn’t take much time to teach. With Perorn gone and more of the instructors needed, doubtless class quality was dropping a bit, but then again, the students were getting a first-hand look at a Great Company actually mobilizing. He’d have the students look at the data to see if they noticed the pattern he did.

Good test of their instincts. Wil would get it. Was he back yet?

Sometimes, Niers was the Professor, the one who taught students. The snarky, impatient, and, yes, sometimes unkind one…but the best of the bunch. Other times, he was the [Strategist], who did what was best for Forgotten Wing and dealt with his pesky boss, Foliana, and worked long hours.

And sometimes, he was the Titan, and the Titan gave an order and told armies to march on Paeth and collect someone he wanted to meet and thought nothing of it.

“Lord Astoragon, Iuncuta Eirnos to see you in five.”

A voice spoke from a speaking stone. A Fraerling assigned to secretary duties. Poor fellow. Niers tapped the stone.

“No.”

A pause.

“Lord Astoragon? The Iuncuta—”

“I said no. Eirnos may speak with General…Gloriam if she wishes. Set up a secure line. I will have time later today.”

Gloriam was good with that sort of thing. Niers didn’t look up as the speaking stone fell silent. The door to the Fraerways that led into his room wasn’t locked. It was stupid to try to lock out Fraerlings in any case. Nor did Niers have the exact security you might want; Eirnos’ people were far higher level and had secured his Fraerways.

“Lord Astorag—”

Niers looked up briefly.

“Seneschal Atmodeca.”

The door opened after thirty-two seconds, and a Tallfolk walked in. She was slower than you might want; Peclir had always been there in under ten seconds, even if he had to run. But hopefully Atmodeca wasn’t a traitor. You had to weigh pluses and minuses like that.

Atmodeca was new, so she also had her quirks that Niers had to adjust to.

“I am still not a [Seneschal], Lord Astoragon. I remain [Wild Keeper].”

“I speak like the job you occupy. Mentality, Seneschal. Keep Eirnos from bothering me. I have a request here—and get me [Vanguard] Hoisq.”

A huge, clawed hand plucked a few times before it could pick up the piece of paper. Atmodeca instantly handed the paper off to one of her helpers and repeated the instructions.

“Keep Eirnos from bothering you. Fulfill request on paper. Get Vanguard Hoisq.”

That was definitely sort of annoying, but she walked away at a quick pace…for her…and she hadn’t betrayed Niers and left him to die yet, so he considered this all stress testing of the job. Besides, while Fraerlings didn’t normally acknowledge Tallfolk for being imposing aside from being, well, giants…even they were a bit respectful of Niers’ new seneschal.

A seven-foot-tall Beastkin with huge scales, wide-set eyes on both sides of her face, and a long snout filled with teeth made anyone hesitate. Niers hadn’t seen a Crocodile Beastkin in ages. He wondered how Foliana had gotten Peclir’s replacement.

What Atmodeca lacked in the right Skills or perhaps training for acting as a [Seneschal] in the Forgotten Wing company she made up for in adaptability and understanding what the job was, rather than what her class was.

Niers went back to work.

Eirnos did not bother him.

Resignations. Where was Niers? Part of him was thinking how he should dress when Erin got here. A stupid part, who wondered if he should have let her go to Izril if that was what she really wanted. Or find her friends. But he could help with that, and he didn’t want to know if she had time for him.

You poor, old, deluded fool. Niers was also back in the Labyrinth of Souls, ordering friends forwards.

“There was never a way back, Haspeta. Springwalker. They make good adventurers. I wonder if their village is special or if it’s just really miserable in Erribathe.”

Maybe he could recruit them. But how much work would it be getting a handful of half-Elves? Another Haspeta would be worth the effort. Or a Ceria.

Had the half-Elves ever believed him when he told them how she died? They hadn’t wanted the bow. They might still be mourning her; her parents were alive and lived in another time. It had only been a few decades. Nothing at all for half-Elves.

Hydra. A Hydra had killed Haspeta, he’d said. All true. A Hydra in the dungeon. True…and not the whole story. A Hydra like no other. A damn dungeon. Me.

The last part of Niers just read the report and decided he couldn’t stop it. He looked up when Hoisq walked in.

The Selphid had been at the door for a few minutes before he knocked. Probably nervous. When he entered, Niers saw the Selphid was resolved to die.

“Hoisq. Get in here, you old dog. Grab a drink. Seneschal Atmodeca, get him whatever he wants.”

She materialized at the door and nodded.

“Get him whatever he wants. Drinks?”

“Water. Thank you.”

The Selphid was no ordinary [Soldier]. He was a [Vanguard Captain] in principle class. His true class was [Terror of the Infantry, Vanguard-Captain of Selphidkind].

A good class. Somewhat generic, actually, for a Level 44 [Vanguard], but Hoisq wasn’t actually that imaginative a Selphid.

Don’t get that wrong! He was an amazing [Vanguard]. He wasn’t the kind of person who would make [Commander], who’d look at a bad situation and say ‘we’re breaking out, form on me’.

He was the kind of Selphid—when he was a he—who would keep advancing, even if he had to change bodies six times in a battle. In the last battle against Jungle Tails, he’d killed over sixty Lizardfolk himself, held his section of the walls, and followed Niers into battle despite multiple injuries. He was one of Niers’ elite.

The Titan’s literal vanguard.

The Forgotten Wing company employed Selphids en-masse, unlike Howling Maelstorm and the Iron Vanguard, and most of the major companies of Baleros. Dullahans, Lizardfolk, Nagas, and Centaurs all had a thing about Selphids, so their enlistment position was usually as the lowest-rung [Mercenaries].

Niers had taken one look at a species who could switch bodies in a fight and who feared no normal injuries, and seen the greatest shock troops he could ask for. They’d won wars for him, and Hoisq had been with Niers for fifteen years.

Fifteen years. He wasn’t going to quit being a soldier. He couldn’t. He had enough gold from being such a high-level Selphid to retire many times over, but he couldn’t. It was in his blood.

Hoisq accepted a cup of water and sat as Niers put his papers aside. The Fraerling himself took a drink of mango juice or something and grimaced.

“You don’t want this, uh…delightful mango purée shit?”

“Is that the stuff with the grass in it?”

“It’s healthy. According to the Last Light.”

The Selphid hesitated.

“Maybe a small cup. My taste buds aren’t so good these days.”

“Really? You need a new body?”

“Eh, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I’d rather have one I’m used to than keep switching…young Selphids are all about new experiences. How healthy is this?”

“Well, I’m supposed to approve it as a cure for scurvy, even as field rations. It’s got fruit in it, the right herbs and vegetables to replenish nutrients, and it doesn’t trigger allergies or any one species’ digestive problems. What do you think?”

Hoisq took a cup, and on his and Niers’ thoughts rested an entire initiative. Niers knew that there were orchards, an aspiring [Brewmaster], [Merchants], and thousands of jobs resting on this one stupid drink that might become standard in rations in…he thought he’d do a coastal army and see if the [Healers] and reports indicated anything different after a four-month trial period.

Imagine it. You drank a cup of this, no big deal. But what if the army had a hundred and twenty thousand members and each one had to get a cup on the regular for a trial? All resting on Hoisq’s pause as he sipped.

“I mean, it’s okay.”

“Right? It’s okay. For a fruit drink, I’d hope I’d be happier with it.”

“Is it that healthy?”

Niers sighed and wrote down a note to give it the go-ahead.

“We’ll see. It’s probably not noticeable in an actual, tangible way in battles. But I’ll trial it. Be glad I’m not making everyone here drink it.”

“Or trial the enemy’s stuff like those stupid salt shakers?”

Niers laughed at the old memory.

“I swore that they were made that way for some clever reason. Good times, good times…wait, were you even with us, back then? The King of Destruction was ages ago.”

Hoisq ducked his head.

“No, but the salt shaker was in the main barracks. Remember when you were copying what he was doing, including using the stuff he made?”

Niers closed his eyes.

“Those damn salt shakers he had his entire kingdom make and use. Yes…wait, that was years later. Why was it still there? Oh no…”

Hoisq grinned, as Niers sat up and groaned.

“No one knew you wanted to stop or they forgot. It really was bad; it would shoot out pepper inside like a stream if you weren’t careful. All the new recruits would dump all the pepper into their food—”

The pepper allowance! Dead gods damnit!”

Niers covered his eyes, and Hoisq looked up. Niers searched around.

“I’ve seen a higher-than-average usage of salt and pepper on the books for twenty-six years. I always thought the [Cook] liked to use too much, and we never got that many complaints about their cooking—even when they changed, I put it down to someone passing on a secret recipe.”

“So for twenty-six years…”

Niers laughed to himself, and Hoisq covered his eyes. How much gold was that? And how many poor recruits had been forced to eat a salt or pepper covered meal? That was the kind of thing that happened in a huge group like this.

“I should go down to the mess hall and eat more. When did I stop?”

Niers sighed. Hoisq shrugged.

“You do regularly enough after the big battles. You were down there just after we spanked Jungle Tails, remember? But no one would give you the bad salt shaker.”

“Dead gods, it’s practically an antique. Tell you what—someone grab it and see if the King of Destruction wants to pay for it, or some [Curator] of trinkets. It’s an original from Reim itself. You never know, it might end up with a hundred gold coins in someone’s pocket.”

“Really?”

Hoisq had never lost his instincts as a [Mercenary] for free gold, and Niers bet the salt shaker would be gone by the end of the day. The Titan grinned.

“Absolutely. You take those kinds of gambles. Could be it’s worth nothing, but it’s got my name, and it was the King of Destruction’s creation back when he used one of his Skills to replicate them across Chandrar. Some idiot will shell out for it. Could be a nice little golden egg in your pocket when you quit. Along with all the other Selphids in my command.”

He caught Hoisq as the Selphid was relaxing and joking around. That was the thing. Hoisq knew what was coming. He knew Niers, and he still got got. He was a good soldier. Less good in a room like this, and Niers knew it, which was why he’d ordered Hoisq to come here.

Tactics. They were as close to friends as Niers got with the [Soldiers]. Hoisq had saved his life many times. The Titan. Did he feel bad as the Selphid went still and sat up straight?

He wished he did. That was almost as good as the real thing. And it was all Niers had.

“Sir, I can only speak for myself and the Selphids in the primary vanguard—”

“Let’s not waste time, Hoisq. Don’t tell me who gave you the order. Don’t lie to me. Let’s be respectful to the years we’ve known each other and fought side-by-side. Selphids are quitting. I noticed it last month. Do you think I’m holding a grudge for the Minds incident?”

Hoisq was silent. Nervous. He was sitting at his desk, sipping that stupid drink from a cup with a wooden straw, just sitting. He had good posture and one of those colorful, stuffy military uniforms you got if you dressed up like a Terandrian [General], but reminded people of his rank.

He’d definitely have to change for Erin. The Titan liked to think he looked relaxed, but Hoisq knew him. Fear was not something Hoisq gave into, but his salute was crisp, and his body was tense.

Seneschal Atmodeca was lurking around the corner of one of the adjoining rooms. Niers could tell, though she was completely silent. He had to tell her later that he’d signal her if he thought he was in danger. Hoisq wasn’t going to attack.

“…Sir, I only know what I was told. It’s not personal.”

“Of course it’s not. I’m not planning to go to war with the Selphids. Are they aware of that?”

“I don’t know—it’s not about Forgotten Wing. Exactly, sir. It’s about the situation with the dead Minds.”

“Ah. So you’re forming another company? Joining The Bodies of Fellden? Don’t beat around the bush, Hoisq. I have too many reports of Selphids quitting.”

Not all of them, of course. Not all Selphids were motivated by loyalty to home, but too many were quitting.

I’m losing my vanguard. Because of the Minds that he’d killed. Because of Geneva Scala? Or was it inevitable this moment would come? Niers was searching Hoisq to see if there was any give, but if there had been…Hoisq would have probably sought Niers out.

The [Strategist] was thinking up how to replace this loss in his forces. The Titan was waiting.

“…All I know is that we’re not going on a picnic, sir. It was very clear we should leave with the best of feelings with Forgotten Wing if we could. I—we—didn’t know how to say it.”

“General Gloriam isn’t leaving.”

“Gloriam refused, sir. I heard that as a rumor. It made some of us hesitate but—”

Hoisq was torn, and Niers’ last hope of saving some of the Selphids was dashed. Hoisq must not have known Gloriam was sick with the Wasting and dying, but that meant he really was resolved.

“I—I’m going to speak freely, Niers?”

“Go ahead. I value that, Hoisq.”

The [Vanguard] took a long drink and spoke.

“I wasn’t there at the Gathering Citadel in Ibedo. I understood why you did that, afterwards, especially when we got details they’d breached the Minacien Wall. I don’t have ill will about it. If what the Minds were doing was bad enough to make an Old One…”

Rumors had gotten out. Rumors Niers had allowed about what they’d seen. Soldiers talked, and it was good for people to know part of what had been done there, if not all of it. The Titan listened as Hoisq’s eyes roamed the room and went back to him.

“—But with the Minds gone, there’s less of them now. I suppose I got to thinking. With Jungle Tails on the rise…they’ve never liked us. Maybe we earned what happened there. But some of the Minds are calling for help, and my people might need a bigger company than the Bodies of Fellden.”

“Ah. Do you think I’d let them sit by and be attacked, Hoisq? Where do you think you matter most?”

Again, the [Vanguard Captain] hesitated, but when he touched his hand to his brow, he looked ready.

“I can’t say, Lord Astoragon. But I’ve tendered my resignation, and I have to stand by it. Not all of the crew’s going.”

And that was that. A Level 40 [Vanguard] sat in front of Niers, and while he could be replaced by others, he was one of too many going.

The Forgotten Wing company wouldn’t die for the lack of Selphids. Niers could use another vanguard force just as good. The holes in other armies could be patched. It was far from a deathblow or even a huge wound. But Niers felt it.

He wondered if the Duck had an opinion on this. The smallest Mind claimed it didn’t know anything about the ‘big Minds doing sometimes stupid things’. For all Niers knew, it wasn’t even the Minds but regular Selphids who’d called for the mass exodus.

Other Great Companies are going to see more Selphid desertions than us. It’ll actually affect their frontlines. They don’t realize how tough Selphids are—or how little loyalty they have when no one respects them. At least they’d all suffer, except damn Jungle Tails.

That was the calculation of the [Strategist]. The Titan just sat back and exhaled.

“Hoisq. If that’s how it has to be, I can’t change your mind. But you know I’m trying to put down Jungle Tails. You know what they’ll do. They’re after the Eyes of Baleros again. And they just want their old position back.”

Hoisq twitched at this, and Niers stared blankly into the distance. The Eyes of Baleros. If Thivian Stormless had managed to hide both…damn, Niers had thought he’d bought the world time. At least until his death, to not have to worry about the Nagas and their stupid temples.

Maybe it was fitting Erin had arrived on Baleros when it was all going to shit. A year ago, he’d be marching out to meet her. Today? He was glad she wasn’t here.

He didn’t know what face he’d have if he met her today. Hoisq didn’t swallow or sweat; a Selphid had too good control of their bodies to give in to such useless reactions.

“Lord Astoragon, I know. For what it’s worth, we want to be on the same side. The…other representatives of our people are proof of that.”

So he did know what the Duck was. Even most Selphids didn’t. Niers raised one eyebrow.

“Someone’s been promoted.”

Hoisq looked embarrassed at that, and Niers wondered if he should let Hoisq’s new employers know that the [Vanguard Captain] really was better as a follower than a leader. Then again? Maybe Hoisq had asked, and maybe he’d rise to the occasion.

The Titan exhaled.

“I have conditions.”

Hoisq stirred. The Titan of Baleros sat over his desk, resting one arm on the top.

“I cannot have my best Selphids just up and walk off. Your resignation, I accept. But I require your services before I can let you go. I’m not going to bother with a stupid contract, Hoisq. My word is good enough. You know that. So. Three battles.”

He raised three fingers, and the Selphid sat there, very still. Niers waited for any reaction.

“Over how long?”

“We’ll be done within two weeks. Three separate battles. I won’t make your group fight three separate times. Three battles across the Selphids wanting to quit. That’s my condition. Or this new Selphid force and Forgotten Wing have a grudge.”

Niers met Hoisq’s eyes across the table and left the rest of the words unsaid. Unthought, really. He didn’t need a threat beyond that. The [Vanguard]’s eyes were flickering.

“I can’t speak for—”

“It’s not a negotiation, Hoisq. Just tell them what I said, and it’s in their court. Prepare your people to move out. I have your battle waiting.”

The closest engagement would probably be in…three days? Niers had already begun moving other Selphid units closer to there. He’d need Gloriam to do the job. Unpleasant, but the [General] would keep his people alive, and Niers just had to move the enemy forces into the right conditions.

Jungle Tails and their Nagas. Hoisq sat there, and at last, the [Vanguard] exhaled.

“I warned them that you’d ask for something like this. One battle for us, sir? That’s good odds.”

He stood, saluted, and tried to give Niers a smile. The Titan didn’t bother trying. He just nodded to Hoisq with as much genuine warmth as he had.

“Good luck, Hoisq. I’ll write you a recommendation if you ever want one afterwards. Give Jungle Tails one last greeting for me.”

One battle. The [Vanguard Captain] nodded, then walked out of the room. Niers saw him relax as he turned to leave. A brave Selphid, Hoisq. He’d been prepared for this from the moment he walked in. Now it had come, and Niers doubted he’d run.

The Titan sat back in his chair, massaging the bridge of his nose for a while before he gave the necessary orders. Oh, yes. He wondered if Geneva Scala would put together the pieces of all this. He hoped she wouldn’t. It wasn’t her fault some stupid Minds had kidnapped her.

I could send them to an easier battle. Have them stomp another force for me. Niers stared blankly at the bow on the wall.

We could run, Niers.

A half-Elf was speaking to him moments before they cracked the door. Foliana had blood running down her face. Niers’ skin was crawling. An Old One was laughing as it feasted on their people and Jungle Tails alike, and he looked at her, like Hoisq, like he stared at a mirror and the bow.

“No. No…”

The Titan whispered back then and now. He began shuffling the forces around in his head. Not his people, but Jungle Tails. The city of Ramok? He’d have to check a map, but he knew the one. Fortified—and yes, if he swung left on that group and crushed them, they’d probably hold it hard…

“Ramok. They’ll need battering rams and siege ladders. Gloriam to bring surpluses of arrows and extra shields. No need for healing potions.”

What few they had, at any rate. Battles were getting bloodier, and even Jungle Tails was getting hesitant. The Great Companies were electing to retreat rather than lose their people. It was rare you risked a huge amount of high-level officers, anyways.

Collect as many Naga as he could in that city. They’d probably have a relief force marching the moment he shattered their westward forces to break the siege.

So Niers wrote down a simple order to Gloriam, listing the broad overview of what he wanted.

“Ramok. Siege battle. Bring rams and siege ladders, arrows and shields. Selphids under Hoisq to take walls within two days. No surrender or retreat, regardless of casualties. Keep your army back, and smash the relief force after taking the walls.”

Niers double-checked his plans. Then, wearily, he signaled Atmodeca for the note. The Titan was tired…so Niers decided he’d see if Erin was coming his way.

He’d like to talk. He’d like to be Niers Astoragon for a while, or Lord Astoragon.

When times were peaceful, when he wasn’t stressed, Niers never looked at the bow. When his eyes found it, time and again, he knew the decisions mattered. The Fraerling looked at his chessboard, then remembered something. He shrugged.

“Atmodeca. Send Eirnos to me. I’ll see her now.”

 

——

 

They said when a Great Company marched, the world moved around them. And it was true.

The cities along the trade roads to Elvallian were used to seeing companies on the move, but even for them, it was rare to see this many [Soldiers] moving at once. Much less some of the more famous members of the Forgotten Wing company.

One of the Titan’s Chess Towers was slowly crossing down the trade roads. Hundreds of Lizardfolk were lifting the tower itself, which was shaped like a giant bishop piece, as more waved from the top, and Lizardfolk flocked around it, staring up at one of the moving forts the Titan deployed.

Two were being moved across the trade roads. They joined columns of [Soldiers], who were waving to cheering people flocking the roads. Not just admirers of the Forgotten Wing company, though there were more than a few of them.

This was Forgotten Wing territory, and they kept the roads safe and even administered the cities. However, the Titan had sent more than just his troops.

He had sent fruits and goods from a harbor from where one division of Lizardfolk infantry was marching, and some of it was being handed out to people forming pushing queues. Another group of Naga were slithering forwards as they stopped at a town with the latest thing from Wistram—an ‘Adventure Room’ ready to be set up.

Each time a division of the Forgotten Wing company moved, it brought people wanting to travel, goods, news, and gifts where it went. And today?

Today, a War Walker’s footsteps shook the ground. A sixth War Walker had marched past the city of Yoill, visible above the ten-foot-high walls.

Yoill wasn’t a small city by any means; it was a metropolis, but the sudden advent of so many [Soldiers] marching into their city had begun a sudden parade. However, that wasn’t the true purpose of Forgotten Wing’s [Soldiers].

One of their [Strategists], assigned to every major force in Forgotten Wing, was leading nearly a thousand armed [Soldiers], a mismash of Lizardfolk, Dullahans, and Humans, down one of the less-popular streets in Yoill. They didn’t get raucous cheering, nor were they handing out gifts.

However, they did have a delegation waiting for them. A pair of Lizardfolk with heavy scarring around their hands were adjusting some hastily-thrown-on formalwear, and they were joined by a Dullahan—minus the head.

The Lizardfolk duo and Dullahan glared daggers at each other as their flunkies, literal [Flunkies], [Thugs], and [Criminals] of various classes, nervously eyed the Forgotten Wing company, who came to a halt.

The two rival gangs did not tolerate each other, but the Steelclaws and Armorbreakers had been summoned, and the Dullahan, at least, had done this before.

The two Lizardfolk had ‘inherited’ their gang from the previous leader and debated being here.

“This is wrong. If we scatter—”

“Shut up!”

They were arguing fiercely, and the Dullahan gave them a sardonic thumbs up. The scrying orb she’d attached to her body like the Seer of Steel spoke.

I would be glad to watch that happen, Oills, Adroxia. Watching the Forgotten Wing company crush a gang would go well with my wine, today.

The two Lizardfolk’s hands twitched towards their blades, but one look at the Forgotten Wing soldiers made them hesitate.

They were just…standing there. Not even menacingly, but cheerfully eying down the two gangs. All the levels of back alley fights, bloody [Thugs] who’d crushed people’s jaws underfoot—the ruthless reputation of both gangs?

A rank of [Soldiers] securing the street, shields held in position, not tense, but at the ready, suggested that the regiment of soldiers was ready. Confident. If either gang wanted to try them, they could.

“Good evening! I am Strategist Mella of Forgotten Wing! May we approach peacefully!”

The [Strategist] was a Human woman who cheerfully waved and, when she got a slow nod, advanced with a small guard around her. She had…a clipboard.

The two Lizardfolk leaders and the Dullahan had bags of gold and jewels. The Lizardfolk duo stared as a [Soldier] lugged over a chest of holding.

No one liked paying taxes. But it felt especially egregious to do it when you were a [Knifemaster Gang Leader]. Worse, Strategist Mella didn’t just take the gold and go.

“Please wait for our [Accountant] to make sure that’s an accurate sum and do the counting. Gemstone prices fluctuate, and he’ll have to check the gold coins…you know how it is. Pardon the rush folks; we have a schedule to keep.”

She gave them a polite, distracted smile, and the three leaders stared at the War Walker pausing by the walls. For a drink of water. Even the Dullahan, Fonlec, sounded somewhat off-put.

“It seems Forgotten Wing is on the move. Has the war with Jungle Tails heated up that much, Strategist?”

“I can’t say, Miss Fonlec. Confidential. But while we’re here, we of course wanted to conduct our meeting…my commander is interviewing the [Mayor] of the city as we speak. As leaders of Yoill’s underworld, I am delighted to meet you, Oills, Adroxia. I’m very pleased the shakeup with the Steelclaws didn’t result in any infractions upon civilian life, or we’d have to be having words right about now.”

“Charmed.”

Oills managed; Adroxia was just staring at one of the [Strategist]’s [Soldiers], who was eying her and her [Bodyguards] and everyone else. She’d never seen a Centaur [Swordmaster] before, and her scales were itching.

“We’ve obeyed all Forgotten Wing’s laws.

Adroxia shot back. Forgotten Wing didn’t rule the underworld, but it had a few requirements. The Titan understood gangs and crime were a thing even his company couldn’t stamp out entirely. So he issued a few general requirements to avoid attacking civilians, to pay a small tax…and to cooperate with his people within reason.

It wasn’t that arduous. In fact, it was downright doable. The reason the gangs actually did it, of course, was that when a gang decided they didn’t have to pay the Forgotten Wing any lip service, they vanished.

Not ‘vanished’ as in poof, overnight, without a trace. They publicly vanished, sometimes with trials and imprisonment, sometimes from the realms of the living. Very quickly, too. Or sometimes they did just vanish and someone mentioned seeing Three-Color Stalker having a meal at a bar the night before…

“Wonderful! It looks like we don’t need to recalculate. You were within our margin of error.”

Strategist Mella ticked a box on her clipboard, and Adroxia jumped. She glowered at the [Strategist], but this wasn’t over. Now, the Human woman was running down her list.

“While we have you…we’d like to ask if anything concerning has happened with either of your gangs. Unusual persons, competing gangs, anything worth mentioning. Even if you think it’s inconsequential, I have time to listen. Oh, and if you’ve run into any [Killers], know of any egregious crimes, or have anyone you’d like to bring to our attention, now would be the time.”

“Which [Killers]?”

Adroxia scoffed as she half-turned, about to say all of Steelclaw could count. But then she looked up and saw Strategist Mella eying her.

Wasn’t that name familiar? Oh…had she been one of the Titan’s students? Not the current generation, but a previous one. Maybe she had been, because she had slightly red-brown hair, a scar across her nose and right cheek, and some kind of wand-holster on her wrist.

Whomever she was, the [Strategist] didn’t blink.

“Not that sort of killer, Miss Adroxia. [Murderers]. Oh—I do have someone on this list. Harl the Hacker is apparently in this city, according to our reports.”

Harl the Hacker? That psychopath wasn’t part of any gang. The Steelclaws and Armorbreakers eyed each other as Fonlec began to disavow any knowledge of them. But the [Strategist] just smiled.

“No need to worry, Miss Fonlec, we don’t need information. Just a name. I think we have him cornered—”

Her speaking stone chirped, and the [Strategist] raised it instantly.

“Mella.”

“The [Serial Killer]’s dead.”

A gravelly voice whispered out of her speaking stone. The three gang leaders stared at the [Strategist]. The Hacker was dead? He’d killed thirty people over a dozen cities! He’d minced two Steelclaws who’d gotten on his bad side and—

Mella gave the gang leaders a bright smile, as if they were listening in on something confidential. Then her tone grew a bit harried.

“General Gloriam, I thought we agreed to let the kill team take care of it. For their levels?”

“I spotted their aura. The Titan’s got more work for us. Wrap up and kill whomever you have to. I’m out of the city in ten minutes.”

The Selphid, the General Gloriam, hung up, and Mella turned to the [Gang Leaders] with an apologetic, and now rushed, smile.

“That’s not about you, you understand. So! If you have anything to talk to us about…I’ll write down my name and a contact if you want to pass any [Messages] to the Forgotten Wing company. Anything? Anything at all? I can always catch up to the good [General] on the road.”

She waited, clipboard in hand, smiling, as Forgotten Wing [Soldiers] waited. And marched. The city of Yoill had very few incidents to speak of; nothing with the gangs. A [Murderer] was brought to justice.

When the Forgotten Wing company entered other cities, they made inquiries or brought gifts and reckonings. But that was just the business of travel.

As they neared Talenqual and Paeth, they broke out drums and horns. After all, for that city, they’d been told to look good.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice stood just inside Talenqual’s walls as the city panicked. Two cities panicked.

Earthers were pointing at the incoming [Soldiers] with considerable anxiety and, in some cases, trauma from the last time they’d seen that many mercenaries marching.

For Paeth? It had to be worse and better, because at least they knew this was the Forgotten Wing and thus a Fraerling-led company.

Or maybe that made it just worse. Erin had been due to tour Talenqual a bit. Maybe speak with some people from Earth now that she was fully cleared.

All her plans had gone out the window the moment Paeth had noticed an army coming down the road. Call it bad intelligence on Paeth’s part; they were used to scanning for threats around them, but they hadn’t been part of Baleros and hadn’t been monitoring the movement of armies.

They’d spotted the War Walkers and the army, though. And whether they could have done anything about it—that was in doubt.

“Jesus fucking Christ. That’s four War Walkers.”

Daly was on the roof of the tallest building in the United Nations headquarters using a Fraerling-made spyglass to zoom in on the approaching soldiers. He would have used the scope of his crossbow, which had just as good magnification, but he didn’t want to…alarm…the Forgotten Wing company if they saw him aiming it at them.

“Three.”

Siri corrected Daly. She was squinting without using any magnification spells. Daly gave her an incredulous look. He counted four huge figures, light glinting off their armor, marching with the beat of the drums.

Horns were blowing, a song, militaristic yet oddly cheerful, carrying to them on the breeze. Daly pointed.

“You blind, Siri?”

“One of them’s not a Dullahan. That’s a Cyclops.”

“You—what?

Daly surveyed the four War Walkers, and when he realized one of them wasn’t an armored behemoth, but more humanoid—less hunched and massive, but striding along, a giant axe resting on one shoulder and shield in one hand—his mouth dropped open. Then his spyglass shifted up, and he saw a giant, green, slitted pupil staring at him.

Green pupil, orange-black sclera, and a strange ring that ran around the center of the eye, but vanished at the top and bottom of the slanted pupil, forming a strange design—this iris was bright yellow.

The Cyclops’ eye was also staring at him. At Daly. The Bushrangers’ leader dropped the spyglass, and he fumbled for it.

“Shit, god damn—”

He nearly grabbed it, and it slipped from his hands as things did when you were trying to catch them. It bounced off Daly’s hands, off Siri’s head as she swore; he fumbled it again—then it went rolling down the roof.

Hey, someone grab—

The spyglass rolled off as Daly nearly went off the roof, and it brained Dawson, who’d been climbing up for a look.

Fuck, Daly!

“Sorry! Toss it back up!”

The little slapstick show didn’t mean much around the street where everyone was either flocking to the walls or watching Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper]’s arms were folded, and she was just watching Forgotten Wing coming at them as Fraerlings shouted into speaking stones around her. She seemed incredibly poised, or she had an amazing poker face.

Whereas Daly felt fumble-fingered and very nervous. But the stupid antics had one result; as he grabbed for the spyglass as it flew up—and he missed—and it flew back down and hit someone else, Siri made a comment.

“I think the Cyclops saw that, Daly. That must be General Diomedes. One of the Forgotten Wing’s big [Generals]. Like, their top brass.”

Even Daly knew that. The Titan hadn’t sent just anyone here. Flushing, he finally caught the spyglass and went back to staring.

“How’d you reckon that?”

“He’s laughing.”

Indeed, the Cyclops’ head was thrown back and revealed some gigantic molars—he was pointing at Daly and talking to one of the Dullahan War Walkers.

“Great. They’re blokes with a sense of humor.”

“That War Walker’s female.”

Goddamnit, Siri, I don’t care. Let’s get down to Erin and figure out what we’re going to do!”

Or rather what she was going to do. Daly looked down and saw, to his mild disbelief…no, it was entirely appropriate with the Erin Solstice he was getting to know. The [Innkeeper] was watching the Forgotten Wing company moving towards the city.

She tilted her head back, listening to that cheerful melody trumpeting across from her. It sounded like a parade before a war to Daly. A military parade. A show of force. He looked at the War Walkers, here to send a message to Paeth.

The Titan of Baleros reminding people who he was and getting his way. In his way…as much like Jungle Tails as anything else. It left a sour taste in Daly’s mouth—fear—when he thought they’d earned a break.

All for her. What did the [Innkeeper] do when she saw all this?

She was laughing too. Grinning. Daly stared down at Erin and muttered darkly to Siri.

“I think they deserve each other.”

The Swedish girl eyed Erin.

“We don’t know anything about either one. Just what we saw on television. Which one’s actually worse? I sort of want to find out.”

 

——

 

The Titan had kindly requested the presence of Erin Solstice. Paeth’s Architects didn’t quite know what to say.

“Yes. Or no. What happens if we say ‘no’?”

Citivican Loust was speculating. Heish responded.

“Then…he comes in and grabs her? He could literally have a War Walker step over the walls.”

“Okay, let’s think. What if she was in Paeth?”

Heish’s eyes were locked on the projection of the oncoming forces. Thirty thousand soldiers marching with the Cyclops and three War Walkers. Not a full army. A small one, for a [General]. But if she counted up the other divisions securing the roads…she absently turned to the others.

“Then I think he marches his troops up to Paeth’s walls and asks her…politely…to come out. I doubt he’ll actually threaten or attack Paeth, but I bet they have orders not to leave.”

Judiciary Honst frowned.

“What about the killzone in that scenario?”

Enchanter Ilekrome replied faintly.

“I think…for the good of all, the killzone is not active as the Forgotten Wing marches up. And I think Guidance Heish understands the dilemma. If Erin Solstice wishes to stay, that is one thing, and I suggest we hear out her request carefully.”

Suddenly, it had become less of ‘the Titan can want what he wants, but she’s our guest’ and more ‘let’s see what Erin decides.’

That was what Heish had decided to call politics. Not ‘real world politics’ or ‘Tallfolk politics’, because both terms implied something else. Just politics. It was simply something Paeth didn’t do internally or were used to. The Titan was a Fraerling among Tallfolk, though.

Honst looked appalled by everything he was seeing.

“So this is what happens when you live outside a city so long. Was he like this when you met him, Heish? This—arbitrarily authoritarian?”

“I only met Commander Foliana and the rest of his company, not the Titan himself since he was absent. When he arrived in Baleros, he won a major battle then executed every officer he took captive. This is about in line with that. Even reasonable.”

The other Architects, unused to even the Tallguard, blanched. Heish just turned her attention back to the link they had to Erin.

What would she do? She hadn’t said a word yet, but as the Titan approached, all of Baleros definitely knew where Erin Solstice was, even if the [Diviners] were shooting down scrying spells like there was no tomorrow. In fact, Sentry Commander Ekrn had apparently decided it was time. His voice crackled through the speaking spells.

“Someone tell our [Mages] to stop burning mana. Focus on attack spells only or hostile [Scrying] spells. Most can’t even locate her. If anyone tries shooting a curse, cancel it, give them a warning, and flag it for Enchanter Ilekrome. The [Innkeeper] is in the open. Tallguard, ready.”

Poor woman. Heish saw Erin Solstice glance up, having heard Ekrn’s voice. Heish hoped Erin had rested enough, because once again—

More eyes than just the Cyclops’ were staring at her.

 

——

 

Too much was happening at once. The Forgotten Wing company was approaching Paeth, and a Centaur had just ridden to the gates to request entry. Horns were blaring. The tread of approaching War Walkers was a beat in the soil, echoed by the drums.

Her heart was pounding. She was afraid and exhilarated and as ready as she could be. Resolved. Grim?

Oh, yes.

Grim was a good word. Like Halrac the Grim. Poor, brave, glorious man.

Erin Solstice was ready. Or she hoped she was. No time to prepare or regret now; and now it was all happening.

People were busy preparing for the Forgotten Wing. She had a choice to make. So it was entirely appropriate that now, at this very second

Lyonette du Marquin appeared. She didn’t appear right in front of Erin, at first, but rather, in the air.

“—Paeth if you can’t find Daly Sullivan! Okay, it worked! The Fraerlings really did let down the [Scrying] spells. Mrsha, tell—whoa! Erin!”

Lyonette whirled in delight—then leapt back as Erin twisted and aimed a crossbow at her. The [Innkeeper]’s finger squeezed on the trigger, and she fired a crossbow bolt through Lyonette’s chest as the [Princess] shrieked.

Stand down! It’s the damn scrying spell!

Ekrn roared; two Tallguard shot through Lyonette as well, and another, Noa, aborted a flying charge. She sailed through Lyonette and above the head of a gaping little Gnoll who stared up, open-mouthed. Noa’s mouth was also open as she stared down at Mrsha—then she slammed into the window of a house.

“Ow.”

“Dead gods! Erin? Erin!

Lyonette flinched, put a hand to her chest, and then her image turned to Erin. She was there! Transparent, image shivering and glitching a bit, perhaps as the Fraerlings turned off their protections, but there.

Erin Solstice looked into the eyes of her friend, at Mrsha, who stared up at Erin, searching her face, sniffing, as if she wished she could inspect Erin all over, and the [Innkeeper] paused.

“You look healthy, Lyonette. Good. Do you know where Ryoka is? Rabbiteater? I heard about the Horns washing up on Chandrar.”

“Wh—Erin! You shot at me! Through me! Is that a crossbow? The Forgotten Wing company is marching towards you! It’s on the news!

Erin glanced up at the sky. She nodded, half to herself.

“The Fraerlings have been complaining about how many [Scrying] spells they’ve been shooting down all day. I’m warded, but people can get my general location. Don’t worry; I’m under protection. Hello, Mrsha. Is Nanette with you? Tell her I’m fine, would you?”

Mrsha began writing a response, but Erin didn’t miss a beat. She gestured to one side at a Fraerling hanging from a grappling hook lashed to his belt.

“This is Sentry Commander Ekrn of Paeth. Ekrn, this is Lyonette du Marquin, from my inn. A [Princess], though she pretends that’s a secret. This is Mrsha, a Doombearer and ward of my inn. Family. I assume everyone else is okay over there, Lyonette? I know who’s died from your letters.”

The [Princess] was trying to get a word in edgewise. She was—staring at Erin. Like she’d seen a stranger.

“Dead gods, Erin. You look—you don’t have the scars I was expecting. Wait, are you taller or is it just me? You’re way taller! And how did you get back your original size, and—er, hello, Sentry Commander!”

Lyonette was so flustered she forgot to greet Ekrn, a rarity for a Calanferian-trained [Princess]. She looked Erin up and down, and the other woman gave her a ghost of a smile.

“Turns out I can alter my size with Fraerling help. I asked for a bit of height. Did anyone else get hurt?”

“Wh—no. I haven’t seen Numbtongue in a bit, but he’s fine, and Bird is due to come back today. Erin! We have—there’s—in your inn—”

The [Innkeeper] raised her brows as Ekrn, listening, glanced at Erin sharply. Lyonette paused, took a breath, and offered Erin a sweet smile.

“…Things have changed.”

“Yes. I imagine they have.”

Erin’s face was so straight that even the attention of dozens of Fraerlings bounced off. Nanette ran into the image, panting.

“Erin!”

Erin! Ishkr, Liska, Apista, and the inn’s staff peeked into frame before being chased off by Dame Ushar. Nanette’s delighted face turned into worry as she saw Erin’s half-smile.

That was it. A half-smile. It grew a bit wider at seeing Nanette’s face, and Mrsha held up a card.

Greetings, Erin! You look amazingly healthy for someone who got blasted with magic! We can see Rabbiteater on a ship, and Ryoka was in the company of the Forgotten Wing fellows. I, personally, have to tell you I have located the Horns of Hammerad and ensured they are well and written strongly worded letters to the rulers of each nation that has them, though Fetohep is in a spot of bother. You may ask how I am doing, and you see—

Erin glanced at the card, then spoke.

“I have to go soon. I’m glad you’re well, Mrsha. I can’t help anyone where I am; I’ll go after everyone on Baleros. Don’t message me or use the scrying spell often. Cut ties with me if you can—people want me dead. Keep the inn safe, got it?”

Mrsha stopped holding up her card. Lyonette’s mouth opened wider into an ‘o’ of shock. Nanette peeked at Erin as she bowed to Ekrn. Even the Sentry Commander seemed surprised. Because with that said, Erin turned and began walking towards Daly.

“Daly—I’m going to meet the Forgotten Wing company and go with them. It’s up to you if you want to join me. I won’t say no to Tallguard or your people. Siri mentioned it to me. But I have to thank you for your help. I won’t forget it, but it seems like things are moving fast.”

“What? Uh—great. Who the f—is that your Skill?”

Daly was focused on Lyonette and the others. Erin nodded, eyes flicking backwards as the Earthers ran over.

“Yes. My Skill. If you want to say hello, go ahead.”

“Erin! Are you mad? When are you coming…are you alright?

Lyonette ran over to catch up to Erin. She windmilled her arms as she nearly ran over the dais’ edge and passed through Ken, who dodged out of her way with a shout of alarm. Suddenly, the Earthers were staring at the projection from the [World’s Eye Theatre], and Mrsha looked up, round-eyed, at Ken.

Earthers! They were unmistakable—and there were Fraerlings! Nanette was bowing.

“H-hello. I tip my hat to thee. Thank you on behalf of the Witches of Izril for saving Erin.”

Ekrn was growling into a speaking stone.

“—leaving, Architects. If you give me permission to put a team together, we can decide on the scope of—what?”

He looked at Nanette and hesitated.

“Oh. A [Witch]? Greetings. I’m Commander Ekrn…one second. [Air Platform].”

He hesitated, then hopped off the grappling hook and onto a platform in the air. The misty creation supported his weight as he gave Nanette a slight bow.

“Hello! I’m Lyonette—”

“A [Princess]? It’s the [Princess]!

Earthers rushed over, and Priya looked delighted as Lyonette turned red and tried to protest. Suddenly, the inn’s people were mobbed as Earthers ran up—but they wanted a word with Erin! Including a young woman.

“Erin! It’s me! It’s me! Lyonette, you didn’t even mention! It’s me! Rose!”

Rose!? Daly’s head snapped around, and Ken spun like a top at the familiar name! Another famous Earther from the group call! Erin slowed, turned, and gave Rose a blank look.

“Oh. Hey.”

“Rose is back, Erin!”

“Right. Take care of her too, Lyonette. And Joseph and Imani…Kevin’s gone. Who’s the last guy? Right, Leon.”

Her voice wasn’t flat. It was—businesslike. Busy. Nanette broke away from trying to shake a finger with Noa in the air and stared at Erin. Nanette’s voice was low as Lyonette blinked and Rose hesitated.

I wish I could see her emotions. She must be…

“Is that all?”

The [Princess] looked Erin in the eyes. The [Innkeeper] stood there, and Lyonette saw that Erin had armor on. Bushrangers’ armor altered for her. A crossbow at her side, and a wand at the other. A shortsword as well, and the [Innkeeper] was taller and unsmiling.

She looked so foreign that the things Lyonette had wanted to say were lost with concern. Disbelief. Erin hesitated, and she glanced at Lyonette, Nanette, and cleared her throat. She closed her eyes. Then spoke.

“Lyonette. You saw everything? You know most of what happened?”

“I did. I didn’t ask about…Roshal.”

Erin’s eyes flickered.

“Don’t. If there are any changes in the—inn? Sort them out yourself, would you? Do whatever you feel is right. I don’t think we can speak of it here, or at all, safely.”

She glanced around. Then looked in Lyonette’s eyes.

“I’m paying for it. I have to go and keep moving, or I’ll bring even more trouble with me. Give me time; once I’m in the Forgotten Wing headquarters, we can speak longer, if you want.”

Mrsha had raced over and was staring at Erin, aghast. However, at this, Lyonette gave Erin a long, level look and let out a breath as if she’d found something she half-expected. Half-appreciated, for all it shocked her.

“You’ve become the consequences.”

“I guess so. Or they’ve found me. I’ll be in touch.”

Erin began walking, and Nanette shouted.

“Erin! I can’t find Nerry! Or Ulvama or—some of the others are missing!”

Erin half-turned, and the little witch made Ekrn jerk as she rushed through Ken after Erin. But the [Innkeeper] just frowned.

“Don’t worry, Nanette. I’ll find them. I swear. Take care of the other lambs for me, would you? They might send a replacement over.”

She met Nanette’s eyes. The [Witch] hesitated and nodded, eyes suddenly intent. Erin turned. Then she lifted a clenched fist.

“Tell Bird I said I’m happy he lived. I have to go.”

Then she walked off.

 

——

 

In the absence of the [Innkeeper], the others did the meeting and exclaiming without Erin, but in a kind of abbreviated way. Erin’s absence had actually pre-empted a lot of the ‘what the heck is this’ from both sides.

So Lyonette ended up bowing to Ken, who, to her delight, gave her a very good Calanferian bow!

“Your Highness, I am Kenjiro Murata of the United Nations company, a [Diplomat] with the honor of addressing you.”

“Oh my, a [Diplomat]? That’s wonderful! What a practiced bow. And are you all, ah—from the same place as Erin?”

“The same locale.”

His eyes twinkled, and Mrsha danced in place. Everyone was an Earther?

“Aw, she’s so cute!

For a second, Mrsha’s face fell as someone cooed, but it turned out to be Nicoletta bending over and waving.

“Hello! I’m Nicoletta! Are you Mrsha? It’s so cool to meet a Gnoll!”

Mrsha decided on puffing out her chest, though this was a distinctly Rose-like welcome. However, Rose was almost dancing in place as she spoke to Daly, Paige, and a panting Luan, who’d run over.

“Yes! That was absolutely me! Oh my god. Oh my—wait, we don’t say that. Fuck! Which ones were you? Did you know Ryoka was ‘batman’?”

Luan nearly tripped, trying to get a look at Mrsha and Nanette—and Calescent, who had edged into frame and was trying to look cool while showing off his bag of spices. Fraerlings were everywhere, despite Ekrn shouting for them to cover Erin. Multiple conversations were happening at once. Paige was speaking with Rose and looked aghast.

“What? Ryoka was ‘batman’? Get out. What’s she like?”

“Super cool. She sort of flies, but she’s standoffish…actually, she’s exactly like the Batman. The hero, not the persona. She was warning off that poor guy—”

“We figured that out. Fucking [Slavers], right?”

Rose tried to high-five Paige.

Thank you. They got Erin at the inn after the battle! I wasn’t there for that, but—is she really okay?”

Paige hesitated as Rose stared at Erin, who was heading towards the gates, arguing with Ekrn.

“She’s sort of intense, and we only got to talk to her yesterday.”

“What? She’s super nice! Normally. Sometimes, she murders things with a frying pan. Has she done any cooking? Done any [Innkeeper] shenanigans? I bet she hit you with an [Immortal Moment].”

Luan’s ears perked up.

“What’s that? That sounds amazing. No…she just talked.”

“Wow. She must be hurt.”

That was all Rose said. She stared at Erin with genuine concern.

“She has all kinds of [Innkeeper] and [Witch] Skills. She’s great, really. She saved me and Kevin—”

Her eyes began to water, and the other Earthers stared at her. But Paige just nodded.

“We heard one of your people died. Is he the guy who ran Solar Cycles? We’ve lost people too. How many survived on your side?”

How many survived? What a question. Rose stared at Paige in disbelief, but before she could answer, Lyonette passed by Rose.

“Lips sealed on Skills, Rose. All Skills. Sorry, but we have an audience.”

She gave Rose a significant glance. Paige half-turned. There were indeed people watching them as well as Forgotten Wing, but Paige lifted a hand.

“Don’t worry, I’m almost positive the Fraerlings have warded us. We’re reasonably safe.”

Lyonette hesitated, but she didn’t rescind the order. And a Fraerling did call out.

“That’s correct! Alchimagus Resk to the rescue! Hello, you darling child! And to you, Miss Witch! I met a Fraerling [Witch] once. We have a few.”

He waved at Mrsha and Nanette. Mrsha was trying not to look delighted as she stared at Resk with his pink beard, standing in the air with Noa, but she was annoyed by the comments about her being cute and adorable.

—That was until Resk gave her a serious look.

“We saw some of the Meeting of Tribes stuff. Horrible. You are a very brave, very lucky young girl. If you weren’t so well-guarded, we’d be sending over a ring of power, or something like that, to keep you safe!”

Mrsha decided she liked Resk after all.

No, no. One can always use another ring of power! What kind did you have in mind?

Unfortunately for her ambitions, she wasn’t the only fascinating person here. Because Noa burst out.

Are you a Hobgoblin? Hi! I’m a Fraerling!”

“Oh. Hey.”

Calescent pulled a fairly good Numbtongue, pretending to just notice the stares and brushing a hand across his [Chef]’s hat. But he practically leapt over.

“Calescent. I cook.”

“Get out of here! No, not literally. I love eating food. Kirana, look! It’s one of Erin’s Goblin friends! He cooks!

“With spices.”

Calescent felt the need to clarify this important fact, and Kirana brushed off pursuing Erin for a second to approach.

“I’m Kirana, the [Housekeeper] of the United Nations company. Hello! Would you care for an [Honest Gift Exchange]? I can only do it once a month. Unless there’s someone better, I would love to do it with you.”

Calescent’s, Mrsha’s, and Nanette’s eyes went round. Aiko, trying to quick-sketch Mrsha’s good side, looked up.

“What that?”

The Hobgoblin looked wary, but Kirana explained.

“It’s where you and I get something from each other. It’s not like we teleport each other’s items; that would be too useful. It’s what each of us would give the other as a gift. I was going to do it to a Naga living in the far north, but they can wait.”

“Oooh. Ooooh. I would give you my special, signature death spices. Very spicy. Great for cooking.”

No, me, me!

“I could do that, Miss Kirana! Hello!”

Mrsha and Nanette instantly began vying for the Skill. But they were distracted—or at least, Nanette was—by Luan. She ran over.

“Are you Courier Luan? Hello! I’m Nanette! I’m a huge fan of yours!”

And your abs! Luan took a knee, grinning.

“I’m a huge fan of your inn! Hello! Courier Hawk, Courier Mihaela Godfrey, Courier Ryoka, and Courier Salamani—you’ve got legends over with you, Miss Nanette, right? Do you think I could meet Joseph or Imani if they have the time?”

“Absolutely! I can get them now! C-could I get an autograph? Not here, because we can’t touch each other—”

Luan winked.

“Of course. Say, is Kirana doing her gift exchange? What about Lyonette—”

Nanette spun and squeaked. Too late! Kirana blinked and nearly dropped a wicker basket, and Calescent held a bundle of cloth wrapped with a sari! The Hobgoblin peered inside.

“Baleros food! And spices and recipes!”

It smells great! No fair, no fair! I deserve some!

Mrsha was outraged, and she hopped around then spun as Kirana gasped.

“Amazing! Look at this! It’s—”

Dawson hurried over, and she showed bags of Calescent’s spices. Each marked with flames to indicate where they lay on his personal death-scale. All of the Earthers who’d been complaining about ‘weak sauce spices’ and the ‘pathetic’ spice tolerances of Lizardfolk and their fellow Earthers brightened up. Dawson took a pinch from one of the bags.

“What’s death spice taste like? Huh. T—fucking hell! Bloody Spear Spider legs, it’s in my mouth! I’m gonna die! Shit—

He began swearing as Calescent gave him a delighted thumbs up. Ushar tried to cover Mrsha’s ears, but she raced over to her favorite new person.

Use the power of yogurt! Don’t use water! Scrape it off your tongue before you swallow—oh, wait, you did. It comes out the other end too.

Dawson ran for yogurt. Calescent was pulling out a hand-made crossbow—unenchanted, but Paige-quality—and he had a delighted smile on his face.

Meanwhile, Kirana, inspecting the spices with considerably more care, realized why she’d almost dropped the basket. It tipped—and gold pieces fell out of it onto the ground. All the Earthers stopped and stared at a small pile of gold.

“Wh—is that your gift?

Paige whirled, and Lyonette closed her eyes. She shot Calescent a glare, and the Hobgoblin shuffled his feet.

“What? Is good gift. I would have done same thing. Skill knows me.”

Luan started laughing. Noa was already giggling with delight before pointing at the Antinium. Of course, the Fraerlings had met the inn in a sense before, since they’d been in contact, but what a feeling it was!

Chaotic, delightful, and surprising. Ken just started nudging Luan, who was trying to talk to Lyonette and earnestly form a connection. However, Daly had drawn her aside for a serious talk, and the bastard was hogging the [Princess].

—However, Ken was pointing something out to the Olympian-candidate of Earth. The fastest Earther in the world on the water. Probably one of the fittest, if not the most fit, Earthers in any world—

And Luan’s true nature.

The nerd, anime-lover, and self-proclaimed weeaboo blinked as he saw someone peeking into the gathering. His eyes locked onto a pale face, a delighted smile, blood-red lips, and sharp teeth, and he remembered a scandal he’d heard coming out of Izril.

He and Ken began nudging each other in delight as Paige stared at them. Then they practically ran over to introduce themselves to Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle.

Just because she looked sorta cool.

 

——

 

The United Nations company and inn meeting was like the interlude between two acts of the play. Unimportant, perhaps.

Or the most important, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, Erin Solstice did not stand around and wait for it. She walked to the gates of Talenqual as if she were being pursued and stood just before them, waiting for the Forgotten Wing to reach the city.

What did she do while she waited?

Well.

She had a staring contest with the Cyclops.

Cyclops. A rare, monstrous species like Ogres that the rest of the world didn’t know much about beyond that they were semi-intelligent monsters. Cyclopes were even rarer because they, like Giants, had mostly gone extinct.

They were also a species defined by their eyes, like Gazers. But Cyclopes were the originals, accept no substitutes. They had one eye, rather than multiple, and powers associated with said eye along with the brawn and size only a half-Giant could even hope to match.

General Diomedes towered over Talenqual and even the other War Walkers; he was actually thirty-one feet tall, and thus Zamea of the Nomads of Zair would have been almost of a height with him. However, Diomedes had no class or levels.

Yet he was the Forgotten Wing’s General. He did not wait for the diplomats riding ahead towards the city or for the welcome or negotiations. When he spoke, his voice rumbled across Talenqual, silencing the Earthers, the Fraerlings—

Not a deep, booming voice. Okay, deep, yes, and booming enough, but not like the solemn…pronouncements…of the great and mighty Cyclops of stories. Who spoke. Like. This, and gave each word the grave intonation of the mighty.

He spoke like a regular person. There was a weight to his words, yet his voice lifted slightly with humor.

“Long has it been since anyone tried to stare me down. So the Titan’s [Innkeeper] is enough to rouse me from my long duty watching Gazers. Where Jungle Tails itself would not move me, for romance, I walk.”

“Appropriate.”

“Predictable.”

“Embarrassing.”

Three voices, one female, two male, spoke at similar volumes. The War Walkers. They seemed accustomed to Diomedes’ presence, and as he neared, people could see the General wasn’t covered in heavy armor, either. He looked almost like his namesake; he had sandals and, due to his size, a length of cloth had been draped like a toga.

Perhaps he might have well fit a Grecian quorum of Earth—if they had all been Cyclopes—and Diomedes had a helmet on, altered to give his eye room but guard the rest of his face. So essentially open-face. It had a visor he didn’t move, and his axe was a huge, long thing; his shield was circular, engraved with an odd relief of a Cyclops—but he’d put the shield on his back, and the axe was at ease.

Now, he swung it down and leaned on it as the people on Talenqual’s walls flinched. This was not like seeing the War Walker who had fought for Talenqual, the deceased Bastiom.

In fact, the Gravetender’s Fist company had a War Walker still. That War Walker was eleven feet tall.

The ones around General Diomedes were all fourteen to sixteen feet. Commander Fezimet had slain Bastiom during the battle for Talenqual. But Diomedes was twice the other’s size, and as he halted and the horns began to play again, he held up a hand.

“We needn’t trouble the Fraerfolk with our tread, Captains three. It seems the [Innkeeper]’s come to meet us. Magpies descend on Talenqual.”

By ‘magpies’, he turned his head, and the army of outsiders, some holding scrying artifacts, froze up and backed away. Diomedes’ eye roamed upwards. And his iris did something odd.

The ring of yellow glowed—and remained there as the pupil and the rest of the eye slid downwards. The iris fixed in the air, glowing, then slid down to join the pupil. Now that was uncanny; Diomedes’ eye, iris and pupil, seemed capable of moving independently of each other!

“Look how Talenqual shakes at our coming. As if they had not seen our kind before. I feel like an invader or Giant of old. How does that saying go? Fe…

“Fi.”

“Fo.”

“I hope they’ve got rum.”

The two War Walkers echoed Diomedes, but the third, the female one, interrupted the flow. The other two turned to her, and Diomedes’s head shifted slightly, but his eye met Erin Solstice’s.

Greetings to Talenqual and Paeth by the Coast! I am General Diomedes, who walks in peace! With me, I name Calequin of Hammat, Loute of Elvallian, and Manma of Elvallian!

Diomedes bellowed suddenly, and the people in the city—both cities—flinched at the address. The Cyclops indicated the War Walkers, and they spoke, again, one on top of the other.

“Hail to the Lizardfolk of Talenqual!”

“Hail to the Fraerlings who endure!”

“Hail to my mother, who may be watching on the scrying orb!”

Daly, who’d turned to the gates, heard the War Walkers speak, only this time it was Calequin of Hammat who spoke last—and the other two turned to stare at him. One reached out an elbow and nudged Calequin, who stood straight-faced.

Again, Diomedes paused, and Daly heard a snrk from the side. He turned, and Siri, his cool-eyed [Sniper], was red-faced. The United Nations company and Fraerlings had assembled along with Talenqual’s leadership to greet the Cyclops, but Siri was trying not to laugh.

“We do not come for war but to escort Erin Solstice to Elvallian. I say it again: we come as allies of Fraerlings, in peace and dignity. We shall not disturb this city with our steps. We are emissaries of peace.”

Diomedes continued, his face somber. He had no hair that Daly could see; no hint of a beard, but his skin was bronze, and his teeth were oddly flat. Was he…closer to an herbivore than Human omnivores? It looked so from his teeth. And again, the War Walkers chimed in.

“Peace and protection.”

“Escort and duty.”

“Good boots and attractive ladies.”

One of the War Walkers kicked the third speaker; again, the third, and again, a different jokester than the last. Daly saw Loute of Elvallian take the blow, and the slight ringing of armor died down, and he clarified.

“And men.”

Something strange happened. Siri began snorting. The deadpan humor was doing something odd to her—but Daly had to admit, all of it was throwing him off. He realized what it was.

“They’re doing fucking slapstick. What’s that old show?”

Rose blinked.

“The three stooges?”

Yes, that was it! The War Walkers were doing a deadpan bit where the third time one of them said something funny. And they were Dullahans, so it was even more off-putting than regular! In fact…Daly heard titters from Lizardfolk on the walls.

The excitable, easily amused, most plentiful species of Baleros had been apprehensive, no doubt remembering the last time a War Walker had come to Talenqual. But now they stared up at the War Walkers—and Daly saw the Cyclops’ mouth twitch.

He smiled.

—And with a sudden move, he stopped standing to attention and crouched! He was so huge that he was still visible, but everyone recoiled, and shrieks rose—but Diomedes didn’t raise his axe. Rather, he spread both arms, and his voice lowered and became, again, not doleful or booming, but operatic.

“That’s right. It is I, General Diomedes, whom you may have heard of. The Pillar of Elvallian! The General who slew ten Ogre Chieftains in battle!”

“Defender of Invictel!”

“Plainsfriend of the Centaurs!”

“The Cyclops who owes me ten gold!”

Diomedes’ eye twinkled. He continued, walking down the walls, nodding at smallfolk below.

“I was there when the King of Destruction’s servant was bested. I am Diomedes, who threw back Terandrians to their silly kingdoms. General of the Forgotten Wing company! We come bearing gifts from Elvallian! Tribute to the smallest folk with hearts like fire! Soon, my shorter Dullahan friends and I will walk against Jungle Tails. But look at me and know, for I so swear: you will find no wretched foe here. The last Cyclops General has arrived! Take note! Remember this day! But don’t shake my hand, and watch our steps! My short Captains have been known to trip.”

His smile was quick, and he moved faster than someone his size had any right to. It made Daly simultaneously laugh—and feel that if Diomedes had to, he could move that gigantic body as fast as Daly in a fight.

But it worked. A cheer arose, and the Dullahans behind Diomedes rumbled.

“Short? I object!”

“We never trip but walk in a dignified stride.”

“Is there a restroom nearby? Preferably one that locks. I can’t hold it. What about behind that tree?”

A finger pointed at Paeth, and Daly did chuckle then. General Diomedes walked around Talenqual, waving a hand and putting people into shadow as he reached over the walls. He spun, nimbly as could be, and bent to one knee as he reached the gates.

“Now, fearsome [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice be thy name. I greet thee; I am General Diomedes, of some acclaim.”

And he lowered a hand to a woman who strode forwards, and Daly let out a breath. He swore even Erin hesitated. But she offered Diomedes a smile of genuine delight, and Daly heard her voice, far smaller.

“It seems I’m to meet two Titans today.”

Diomedes’ one eyebrow rose.

Today? I can’t make it to Elvallian today. Tomorrow, likely. Until that moment, I request the pleasure of your company and whomever you wish to bring. Is it your will to truly come with us? I was prepared to negotiate in good faith; I wouldn’t have Fraerfolk angry at me.”

He modulated his tone, so it wasn’t audible throughout the entire city, but Erin replied as Diomedes listened.

“I have things to do, and Niers is one of the people who can help me. I will go with you, General Diomedes, and it is a pleasure to meet you.”

Diomedes offered a pinkie finger for Erin to shake.

“Ah, I can see why the Titan’s smitten. I, myself, often find myself walking to help the people the Titan promises aid. But for you, brave [Innkeeper], at this moment I don’t begrudge my stride. As an aside—how about a game of chess? If I beat you first, I’ll rub it in the Titan’s face till the day he dies.”

A broad smile on Diomedes’ face. He was witty, and he had a kind of gravitas to him, like a born actor—or a Cyclops from an actual story. Daly looked around, started, and remembered his role in this. But all Erin did was raise an eyebrow.

“Do you actually like chess?”

General Diomedes threw his head back and slapped his chest with one hand.

“I hate it! But Niers won’t shut up about it. The rank and file knocked me out in the first game each time when you put your chess tournament on the news. Damn Lizardfolk [Soldiers]. Ah, well. Let’s introduce ourselves to our Fraerling friends. Hello, Fraerlings of Paeth!”

Diomedes bent towards the tiniest folk in the world. His pupil constricted hugely as he bent over people nigh-on-invisible to him, and he whispered in a voice that halted the United Nations company dead in their tracks.

“What’s the weather like down there?”

 

——

 

A Cyclops and Fraerling talking was actually harder than it looked, short and tall jokes aside. And wow, did they trade a few.

“Do you get tired of seeing above the trees and using them to wipe your ass?”

“Not bad in the forests where they get taller than me. Do you get tired of dodging leaves?”

Diomedes had the advantage; he’d met Fraerlings before. He had a huge scrying orb—still tiny for him—that he stared into and that let him see and talk to the Fraerlings without deafening or blowing them off his hand with his breath.

Alchimagus Resk hesitated as he tried to think up a comeback.

“I have it on good authority from [Historians] that your mother…was so allegedly tall that she bonked her head on the moon.”

“Your mother was so short I hear Foliana mistook her for a spoon.”

Siri was choking to death on a scarf as Diomedes walked along. Behind him, a train of [Soldiers] was jogging to keep up; Daly could have ridden one of the carts moving at a fast clip, but the Bushrangers that he’d ordered to go with Erin were jogging. Dawson was still red-faced from the spices, but they had all volunteered to come.

Guard-duty aside, like Resk and Ekrn’s squad—not Ekrn himself—they just had to talk to Diomedes for a while. Daly, Siri, Tofte, Dawson—and eight more Bushrangers along with Tallguard Cotm and Resk were all there to ‘guard’ Erin.

In truth, with Diomedes there, it was more a chance to see Elvallian and meet Geneva again. The War Walkers oohed and laughed with good nature as Resk paused. The tiny Alchimagus grinned in delight.

“You know, technically my mother was smaller than a spoon the average Tallfolk would use.”

Diomedes sighed and rolled his eye.

“I know. Smallfolk jokes are harder than they look. And there are fewer good tall jokes that I hear.”

“What do they say to you?”

Diomedes glanced at his War Walker captains. As one, they chorused.

You’re so tall!

“That’s literally it. The sky is blue. I am tall. Your mother made out with two dozen Selphids in a stall. That’s all.”

General Diomedes was unrelentingly, well, personable. Resk stopped laughing long enough to speak.

“I am actually an incredible fan of yours, General Diomedes. I never thought I’d meet the Cyclops who swam to Chandrar! You were fighting Terandrians before you joined up with Niers.”

“Yes—you know, he was just an up-and-coming adventurer back in the day. Of course, we had to meet, and I hit him with the best joke of my life. Took out every Named-rank adventurer; Foliana was unable to even stand up.”

Really?

Diomedes’ iris glowed a second, almost like a wink or glint of literal amusement. Resk was awestruck and rushed on.

“So was it an exaggeration that you swam to Chandrar?”

“Oh, no. I did that. You actually wade most of the time; swimming in the deeps gets you killed by Krakens. There’s actually a way to walk from Chandrar to Baleros; sunken land and all that. You know, there was once a bridge that connected all the continents.”

“I’ve heard of it! Dwarf-made—so you met the King of Destruction.”

“Of course! He met me. I think he was keen on offering me a position, perhaps in his Seven. I like to imagine that wasn’t a lie. If nothing else, I’d have made it to his top vassals. But I didn’t care for him.”

“Get out.”

“That’s what his [Steward] said when I turned him down! Those half-Giants wanted to take vengeance; one of them broke my arm, and I had to fight my way back to Baleros. Swimming one-handed is not what I’d recommend. But I never cared for Flos Reimarch even as a boy. He already had one expert of eyes, anyways.”

Diomedes’ recounts of his exploits sounded like literal tall tales, but the Cyclops was apparently a hundred and forty years old. He didn’t look a day over, er…forty? Nor was he completely as arrogant as one might imagine. Diomedes’ head turned as Daly panted, realizing why all of his forces were in such damn good shape. A single stride, even slowly, forced all the people on foot to jog and keep up.

And the Dullahans are doing it in armor, straight-faced! A column of twenty Dullahans in what Daly swore was mithril armor were attentively glancing at the Fraerlings and Diomedes. So it seemed like they were as much interested in the Fraerlings as the Fraerlings were in the Forgotten Wing company.

“Erin Solstice, I hope we didn’t move too fast for you. Then again, you’re right to say kingdoms want you dead. The Blighted Kingdom won’t say as much to our faces, but Niers warned me I might have a few comets fall on my head. As for Erribathe, they make no pretenses; I will let the Tallguard work their wards, but I have a bodyguard of short people to add to the tiny people protecting you tonight. If there’s a fight, I hope you’ll stay behind me.”

“That’s fine. Will you carry me to Elvallian?”

The [Innkeeper] was sitting on General Diomedes’ shoulder on an actual chair attached to a shoulderguard. Diomedes sighed gustily.

“I would that I could. Seeing the Titan greeting you would be a sight enough—but I will pass you to General Gloriam after tonight. The Selphid; Gloriam the Invincible. Aura master and insufferable egoist in one. He won’t linger long in your company either, lucky for you. We’re merely here to keep the roads safe. Our true goal lies south.”

“So you’re going to war? Excuse me. Sorry to break in—is that why you’re here?”

Daly broke in, panting. He couldn’t get near Diomedes; for safety, no one was near the giant Dullahans or Cyclops, but Daly had a speaking stone tied to the conversation. Diomedes’ head turned.

“Ah! Daly Sullivan. Another one I wish I had time to speak with. Yes, we’re bound for a southern campaign. Gloriam and I will take the fight to Jungle Tails.”

“Not the Dyed Lands? Excuse me, Resk again—I heard that was another war front.”

Diomedes grimaced.

“It is, but the Titan and his Fraerling allies have that area to themselves. More’s the pity; I’d rather slay those monsters there than kill Nagas, but the Lizardfolk love to stare. And someone must remind them their eyes are third-best of Baleros.”

He tapped under his own massive eye, and his shoulders set slightly before he smiled at Erin.

“You’ve come to Baleros in a busy time. Any other year, I would call it one of the most peaceful times in my life. Alas, with the Eyes of Baleros always comes strife.”

“How is Jungle Tails doing, General Diomedes? Does Niers have time to spend on me?”

Erin’s voice was curious, if slightly tense. She might not have liked heights that much, but she was playing it cool for General Diomedes. Again, the Cyclops sighed.

“Niers never does things to one end. We’ve reassured many cities by our simple walk. Reminding Paeth’s foes of our presence is another reason for me to march. Whether the Titan aids you further is anyone’s guess, but he told me to swim after you if you got on a ship!”

He grinned, and Daly was about to—he realized that might not have been a joke.

“I’m not leaving before meeting him. Don’t worry. I’ve come too far to hide away now. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. For both of us.”

Erin assured the Cyclops, and he gave her a steady look.

“Ah, you’re not like yourself on the scrying orb I saw, Erin Solstice. Not quite the woman sailing to her demise. But not the nice innkeeper either.”

“Call me the Goblinfriend of Izril if you want. Or Erin Solstice. Or the [Innkeeper]. Any one you choose.”

The young woman’s voice wobbled slightly as Diomedes took a larger step than usual. The General of the Forgotten Wing company rumbled.

“I know more names than that. Friend of the Antinium? Grandmaster of Scales? Queen of Khelt, so they say, or Crazy Human of Izril to read my reports. And who would you rather be if any?”

Erin paused.

“…It doesn’t matter. Here I am. But could you do me a favor and put me down? I think I might be sick.”

Diomedes obligingly stopped, lowered Erin’s chair, and she hopped off at the last moment, landed on all fours, and threw up. It turned out riding a Cyclops’ shoulder made you extremely motion-sick.

“Ah, perhaps the wagon after all. Apologies, Erin Solstice. And doubly sorry I am too, because the vultures have us. Begone. Shoo. If you displease me, I will kick you.

Diomedes turned, and he raised a foot—and instantly, the horde of civilians, people begging for an autograph, just to listen in, and the huge number of ‘[Reporters]’ seeking an interview with Erin for Wistram News Network backed off.

The pace of Diomedes’ forces was such that most could barely keep up, but Erin Solstice attracted too much attention. A Centaur galloped around Diomedes’ foot—and ran straight into a [Tripvine] spell.

“Back! Back or we’ll open fire!”

Cotm shouted, trying to keep the Tallfolk back, but he had no practice in actual crowd control, and a Fraerling wasn’t that terrifying unless you knew what they could do. However, Diomedes’ forces were more practiced—if not at crowd control, certainly at maneuvering.

A rank of those mithril-coated Dullahans surrounded Erin in an instant, and one of the War Walkers unlimbered an axe. She swung it at torso-level as she strode forwards, and the bulk of the citizens froze in terror.

“Games and jokes we like—but remember this is Forgotten Wing. Cross this line and I swing.”

That stopped everyone cold. The War Walker wasn’t joking, either, Daly felt. Diomedes hadn’t drawn his axe, but his eye was flicking through the crowd and above, iris and pupil moving independently of each other.

“No [Assassins] yet. I owe another five gold pieces to you, Loute. Most idiots think I’m too slow to guard someone. Or too big to see. You there. Halt.”

He pointed, and Lizardfolk, the Centaur, and Dullahans drew back fast. But a Lizardfolk kept walking forwards slowly.

“If you kill me, does that say something about how the Forgotten Wing treats questions, General Diomedes? I’m not crossing the line, but I am going to shout.”

The Cyclops sighed as a Lizardman raised his voice.

“Miss Erin Solstice! People have a lot of questions for you! You’re live on the Chandrar International—the news network by [Journalist] Rémi Canada! Do you have anything to say to people? Any regrets? Any message for Terandrian nations, your allies, or the dead?”

“[Journalists]. More backbone than I thought.”

Diomedes snorted and turned away. One of his Captains shielded Erin, and the Cyclops knelt.

“You needn’t answer them. Faster we go, and I will have them stopped here.”

Erin wiped at her mouth as she got up.

“No. I’ll speak to them.”

“If you wish it, I won’t stop you. But I would advise caution.”

The gigantic eye blinked once, but Erin strode towards the Lizardman, who eyed the axe warily, but raised his scrying mirror. He didn’t have a team like Wistram News Network, but more of Diomedes’ soldiers backed the others off.

“Wait a second! Wait a second! We’re Wistram News Network! Let us interview—unhand me!

The Cyclops boomed overhead.

“Break their scrying artifacts if they don’t move back. If the [Innkeeper] wills it, let whomever she wills speak.”

Erin half-turned her head and addressed the Lizardman and Diomedes.

“This one is fine. So you’re a new news channel?”

She eyed the Lizardman, who gave her a polite, and yes, nervous grin, but courage had already gotten him trading words with General Diomedes. He was angling the scrying mirror, checking on what it was reflecting.

“The Chandrar International isn’t actually new. But people are paying attention to it these days. Thank you for letting me interview you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Reporter Salex. You may look up my past reporting for my history, though I don’t run opinion-pieces like Wistram News Network. I’m a [Reporter], not a [Commentator]; I cover Baleros’ east coast. Miss Solstice, I have no doubt people are tuning in just to hear you speak or to see you are alive. And remarkably unharmed! It’s been about a month since your dramatic battle at sea and escape. I have a list of questions to ask, but if I only have the chance for one or two—firstly, do you have any comments on your actions against Erribathe? Terandrian Kingdoms in general? I suppose your alliance with a Goblin Lord, the Greydath of Blades, an infamous mass-murderer, also ties into that.”

Erin Solstice had a bemused look, as if she’d never actually been interviewed on the spot like this before. And perhaps she hadn’t, not like this.

“A comment. You mean why I did it?”

“Yes…or if you have regrets. I’m getting a [Memo] from our producers, one second…”

The Lizardman closed his eyes and repeated, seemingly verbatim.

Is there anything you would say to those who lost someone during that battle? Any reason. Any…I’m being told not to say ‘excuse’ or ‘justification’. Reason it is.”

They waited. Daly, panting for breath, was wondering if Erin should back out now. Fair play to Rémi Canada: he seemed like a brave dude who’d gotten munched by fucking undead of all things. But this was aggressive, far more than Daly would have liked.

Good journalism? Probably. Daly liked the crack against the commentator-opinion types like Sir Relz and Noass, who were defined by their personalities.

But Erin? Maybe Rémi was trying to give her an out, something to say to the many, many nations she’d offended. The [Innkeeper] thought.

“…I guess I still don’t understand the full question. Which dead am I apologizing or explaining myself to? The Terandrians? The Iron Vanguard? Or the Bloodtear Pirates?”

Then a silence fell, and the Lizardman—he had a series of black speckles on his green-red scales, like exclamation marks near his brows and cheeks—checked his mirror. General Diomedes watched, no longer smiling, but eye aglow with interest.

“I suppose it’s implicitly ‘Terandrians’, or the world at large, but thank you for referencing the Iron Vanguard’s losses. The disaster at sea was framed primarily as Terandrian casualties by Wistram in my sole opinion. Few people are mourning the passing of the Bloodtear Pirates, some of which are still at large. Do you regard this as a tragedy equally shared?”

The scrying mirror advanced a bit, and Erin stood there. And again, her eyes flickered, and Daly saw her face was set. Grim, grim…then he noticed something change. Her eyes lit up, and that set expression changed to recollection. Then a cynical smile.

“No. I think the Bloodtear Pirates got what they wanted. I don’t have anything to say to them. Except maybe to ask if it was worth it. The Iron Vanguard entered the battle because of Archmage Verdan Blackwood dying. It was their choice as a whole. He died protecting me. I won’t forget it.”

“And the Terandrians? Erribathe is still mourning Prince Iradoren, whom you killed on live television. For our viewers, this moment came after Prince Iradoren attacked Ser Solstice of Izril, the Goblin Slayer, for reasons unknown. Erribathe had been clashing with Calanfer’s own forces and Hundredlord Cortese of Kaaz, but his fatal wound came from you, Miss Erin.”

Daly could remember that scene himself. The sudden cut to Iradoren for reasons unknown, seeing him attacking his own people—then watching the [Innkeeper] stride over the deck and thinking she was going to do something else. Something less…watching that bright blade run the [Prince of Men] right through the back.

Even Daly, from afar, had felt a tiny something at seeing Iradoren die. He’d questioned it, but even on its own…Salex went on.

“—However, we have no factual reporting of the events as they played out. Only the observations of the recording from above via [Scrying] spell. Would you like to clarify anything? Erribathe has sworn to avenge Prince Iradoren’s death. Was your action justified in your eyes?”

The Lizardman, Salex, was tense, like someone ready to jump or twist in response to something coming his way. Erin? Erin stood there, and a complex knot of emotions was behind her eyes. Thoughts unspoken. But that smile, which had faded, came back.

Uh oh. Daly felt himself tense, as if to move, but Erin’s words were faster than he could do anything. In hindsight, it might have been a better idea to just shoot her in the legs. The Forgotten Wing company could probably heal that. The words wouldn’t come back.

“To Terandrians and Erribathe? To the Blighted Kingdom and everyone who feared the Goblin Lord whose hand I took? I am a friend to Goblins. To Antinium, too. If you have a grudge…I’m right here. Come and get me.”

The [Innkeeper] spread her arms slightly and gestured to herself. Above her, Diomedes smiled, coldly now, like the true legend of a Cyclops.

“Oh fuck.”

That was Dawson, quietly, in the background. Daly saw Salex actually begin to lower his mirror.

“That sounds like an invitation, Miss Erin. Are you sure that’s wise? We have a five minute delay…”

“No. I’m sure.”

Erin’s eyes were level. Salex hesitated, then raised a claw to his temple.

“So—are you taking responsibility for your actions? You have no excuse?”

“Would it matter?”

The [Innkeeper] shot back. She stared into the mirror, and there was no guilt in her eyes. Just that blaring intensity.

“I killed him. I did it because he was threatening one of my friends. Erribathe doesn’t care about why I did it. Iradoren’s parents, if they’re alive, won’t care. His subjects won’t care. Do you think the Blighted Kingdom cares why I took Greydath’s hand? They tried to murder me. It doesn’t matter.”

“I see. So, no apology to the other Terandrian nations?”

Salex’s voice was mostly steady. Erin glanced at him.

“They chose to attack me. Verdan Blackwood defended me, and the Iron Vanguard attacked the Terandrians for killing their own. Everything was a choice. Do I wish the battle had gone differently? Yes. Are you asking if I feel personally guilty for being fired upon?”

Her eyes glittered.

“No.”

Now, the [Reporter] was nodding cautiously, glancing at the restless Forgotten Wing company. A [Magic Strategist] was whisper-screaming to General Diomedes, possibly with orders to halt this now. But Salex had to know this was the scoop of a lifetime.

“Thank you, again, for clarifying, Miss Solstice. Most people would, I think, apologize, even if they felt like the way events happened was not under their control.”

Erin didn’t even pause to think this time. She stepped back, stared upwards, as if remembering something, and spoke with a faraway voice.

“Do you know what I said, Salex? After I rescued my friends? After I killed Admiral Rosech and I was sailing away with all the wrath of the world coming down on me?”

“No. The scrying spells didn’t record that.”

The Lizardman’s eyes gleamed. Daly held his own breath; there was a fascination here that drew his attention and forced him to listen, like Diomedes’ voice. That was it, he realized. He and Erin had stories to tell. Ones that were true, unbelievable, and…the [Innkeeper]’s voice was low.

“I said ‘I have run out of regrets’. I have no more. Not for anyone or anything I did. Saving a Goblin’s life? Betraying one side? Killing [Slavers]? It doesn’t matter what it is. Listen to me.”

She looked into the scrying mirror.

“I have nothing to say to excuse myself. No reasons to give. If you want some, search for answers. But if you want to kill me—come to Baleros. Come after me. I’m right here. But be ready.

“Ready for what? Another Bloodtear battle?”

Salex prompted Erin, and she smiled then. Daly was staring at her, and he kept thinking—

Well, damn. She does belong on Baleros. 

The [Innkeeper] looked Salex in the eye, then straight in the scrying mirror.

“Be ready to sacrifice everything for it. Prince Iradoren wasn’t prepared. He tried to kill one of my friends. That he was a [Prince of Men], that his country was Erribathe, that he had this reason or that? It doesn’t matter. Here I am. If you’re coming after me—”

She glanced up at the skies, mercifully clear, but perhaps that was because General Diomedes’ magical iris was pointed up, glowing, as if suppressing something. Erin finished her sentence as she turned.

“—I hope you’re ready for the cost.”

 

——

 

“What. The. Fuck. Was. That. Daly?”

That night, Paige punctuated each screamed word with a slam on the table as she called Daly. The Bushrangers’ leader had no explanation.

“That was Erin. How’s Ken, uh, doing?”

Ken just tossed out all his plans to approach Erribathe. Out the literal window. He’s calmer than me, somehow. He just says there’s no point.”

Erin Solstice was the consequences. Lyonette had said that, and now Daly sort of got what was meant. She’d warned him Erin would do things that were unpredictable.

You can either help her or get in her way, and believe me, she’ll make things difficult if you’re in her way. She’s the most stubborn person you’ll ever meet.

As a Geneva Scala enjoyer, Daly had thought that was a bit hyperbolic but had taken the meaning. Now, as an Erin Solstice observer, he had to reconsider. Say what you would about Geneva’s own legendary obstinacy—she was a pacifist.

General Diomedes himself seemed rather impressed by Erin’s taunting of at least one major power. Though his take was it was ‘Niers’ problem how much we care. We might like you more, though, Miss Solstice.’

He meant his entire company. Even the hard-as-nails Dullahans with mithril armor, who turned out to be Diomedes’ personal vanguard, were giving Erin Solstice nods at dinner.

What Daly was sure of was that this wasn’t an accident, and he said so to Paige.

“Look, this is probably why she ducked out of Talenqual so fast, Paige. You don’t say badass lines like that and not know what you’re doing. She’s provoking them. Whether or not that’s smart, you tell me.”

Smart? Listen, Daly, I don’t think you realize how dangerous Erribathe is. They could literally carpet bomb her! They’re one of the old nations with old tech—and she killed their [Prince] and just said he deserved it!”

“Yeah, well…maybe she’s trying to keep her inn safe. Maybe there’s another angle, but I bet whoever’s angry at her is more angry at her than the Goblin Slayer dude.”

Daly had been thinking—okay, Tofte had been thinking—and he’d speculated that no one had really asked why Iradoren had gone after the Rabbiteater dude. Obviously, the United Nations company wasn’t as invested in the whys and wherefores, but in hindsight, it was sort of odd.

Was he an Earther? Or maybe…Daly wasn’t about to repeat his ideas, even on the secure line, but Paige fell silent.

“Well…go with her and see how Geneva’s doing. Oh! And Marian and Umina. They’re back in class. And Kissilt and Cameral, I guess.”

“Come on, I like those two.”

“Okay. Okay, all four. But be careful, Daly. Erin doesn’t seem to notice who she might hurt right now.”

Paige pleaded with him, and Daly chuckled.

“I think she’s plenty aware of who she’s planning on getting hurt. But we’ll see. It’s not like she needs help tonight. If this General Gloriam is anything like General Diomedes—”

He glanced up at the Cyclops, who was sitting back, axe on his knees, for the night. His eye swept the camp like a spotlight; it could even project a beam of light, which he’d shown off as evening fell.

“—I don’t think we’re needed. Yet.”

That final word hung in the air, and Daly turned off the speaking stone. In truth, he thought when they met the Titan…that was when it would be time to talk. An alliance with the Forgotten Wing sounded ludicrous now, seeing what Niers Astoragon had. But the United Nations company did have some things on their side. Paeth aside…Daly just wanted to meet the guy and see if he was a monster, a genius strategist, or both.

He wasn’t sure where Erin landed, but he did think to himself as he prepared to sleep—whatever she was, she was brave as shit. Or just suicidal.

 

——

 

That night, sixteen death-spells came after Erin, though again, due to Silvenia’s magics warding her identity and location, they were all imprecise. Now they knew where she was, they were sending area-attack spells, the Forgotten Wing was playing defense with the Fraerlings.

And it was defense.

Cotm and Resk had been assigned to the job. Not Noa; she was Luan’s partner in a sense. Ekrn had told Cotm it would be a rough job; meeting the Titan wasn’t easy.

The [Almanac Captain] felt underleveled and undergeared, for once, and even Cotm was profoundly grateful for the Forgotten Wing company.

“Dead gods. I think General Diomedes just killed an [Assassin].”

Resk looked up from a bowl of noodles he’d been slurping.

“What?”

Cotm was listening to the Forgotten Wing’s chatter. He glanced up and saw Diomedes shifting a bit, but it just looked like he was yawning. His eye had opened slightly—Cotm listened.

“He squished them! Now he’s wiping his hand…there aren’t many [Assassins] actually going after Erin in person. Several clandestines, but they might just be observing her. They ran away or surrendered when Forgotten Wing jumped them.”

Resk stared at the Cyclops.

“Gee. I wonder why. You know, I wonder why anyone goes for [Assassin]. Obviously maybe they’re desperate, but it really has a high attrition rate as a job.”

“I know, right? Even Three-Color Stalker’s a [Rogue]. I’d rather be multi-purpose. Oh, looks like that last one was just a nosy [Snooper]. They’re begging not to be killed. Dead gods, I think Forgotten Wing has some secret agent types.”

“Makes sense. Foliana has to train some of her people too. I really want to meet her.”

Resk was remarkably upbeat about meeting all his legends, not the stress of the job. They were sleeping in hammocks, and Cotm sighed. At least he could trade off command with Resk in four more hours, and it seemed like Forgotten Wing was a splendid first defensive line.

However…the fact that Erin was now ‘visible’ meant that everyone was after her. And after only two seconds, Cotm yanked his spellbook open while Resk snapped an eye open and fell out of his hammock.

“Did you—”

“My spell’s gone off! Forgotten Wing! Did you catch that?”

This is [Sentrymaster] Loul. No spells activated.”

Cotm was already out of the door, and Tallguard were moving rapidly. Resk bellowed into the speaking stone.

“Get to Erin’s tent! Now! Someone just opened a [Gateway] spell within a hundred feet of her! Not merely Tier 5; it was cloaked! That’s Tier 6 magic!”

[Stalkers] moving. General Diomedes is awake.

Now that was reassuring and terrifying. The Cyclops’ eye opened a fraction as Resk poked his head out the tent. However, Tier 6 magic? He could barely cast Tier 6 magic when linked, and he was one of the best Alchimagi among modern Fraerlings.

What—or who—had Erin made as enemies? Resk waited for screaming, explosions, or something. But all he heard was silence. Resk breathed into his speaking stone.

Cotm?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice sat in her tent. She felt things were going well, all things considered. The interview had been partly spontaneous, but she’d known what she was going to say.

She wasn’t…calm. She was afraid. She was tense. And she was resolved.

Tomorrow, she might meet the Titan; the day after at the most. She was due to meet General Gloriam. In a sense, she regretted not having more to say to General Diomedes, but he was preoccupied with a literal damn war.

Erin…wondered if Gloriam could help with her aura or train her. Maybe it would be better to just focus on Niers, though. She flexed a hand open and closed, and wondered, exactly, what Lyonette had seen and couldn’t say.

Or done.

Well, there would be time to talk and explain and figure things out when she was in an actually secure area, without putting the Fraerlings in danger. Erin was not blind. She knew she might die before reaching Elvallian. That was the thing; you could forget that any day might be your last.

Erin never would. She knew death could be any day for her. Ever since she’d woken up a month ago and realized she’d survived…

“I’m ready. I can do this.”

She was trying to get some sleep rather than wear herself out thinking about how to talk to Niers, or Foliana, when she heard a sound outside her tent. She raised her crossbow, but didn’t fire instantly.

“Hauspec?”

“Reindeer.”

Erin relaxed and didn’t fire. But she kept the crossbow raised—despite Cotm’s word about trigger discipline to keep her crossbow aimed at the floor. And in fact, it was Captain Cotm who entered with, of all things, a Lizardwoman.

This one wasn’t a fake Goblin, but a shadow, from her features to her eyes, which were inverted, white in color. She blended amazingly well, even in Erin’s lit tent.

“Erin, we have an intruder.”

“Assassins?”

“No, one of those is dead…we’ve been guarding you all night. That is. Forgotten Wing did, but it was mostly rabble. One [Assassin].”

One. Was that a lot or a little? Erin frowned. Cotm looked cautious, and the shadowy figure, a [Stalker], spoke. Their voice was as nondescript as their body.

“This intruder used a Tier 6 spell. They were apprehended instead of killed and surrendered.”

“Really? Too high-level to kill?”

Cotm scratched his head as he and the [Stalker] exchanged glances.

“More like…well, maybe too important, but just too weird. They’re not an [Assassin]. Or if they are, they suck.”

“Not a visible ruse. Tallguard and our people agree; she has nothing hidden on her.”

“Except an illusion spell, but no killing spells. High-quality gear. She wants to speak with you. She says you ‘owe her’. Ringing any bells?”

Erin frowned. She definitely had to be careful here. Of course, the question was…

“That could mean a lot of people. Do you have a name?”

Cotm nodded with a grimace.

“It’s ‘Andomexalitne’. Which I am almost certain is a fake name. Listen, she looks like she’s nineteen, and she claims to know you. That you owe her group a debt. For the battle at sea?”

Now, Erin’s hair stood up. Wait a second. If that was referring to who she thought it was…she paused as the [Stalker] spoke.

“The option is yours, Miss Solstice. We’re here to keep you safe. We can arrange imprisonment till we get to Elvallian, but we were threatened that others would come after her. We can dispose of her, but that may lead to entanglements. Your call.”

“I’ll speak to her, if you think it’s completely safe.”

The [Stalker] paused.

“I seldom do. This is an acceptable risk, however.”

The two spoke into their speaking stones, and Erin looked around. The tent they had given her was magical and actually very spacious on the inside; there was a large, queen-sized bed, a vanity, a chest to store goods—all kinds of stuff that would vanish into the tent when it was turned into its portable form. The ‘door’ was a literal one, and this was called, rather fittingly, a Traveller’s Home.

When they brought in the young woman who looked disheveled with a dried nosebleed, her black clothing a mess from being literally slammed flat by a [Stalker], red eyes flashing, Erin Solstice stared blankly at the young woman.

She was positive she’d never met the young woman in her life. But she hesitated as she narrowed her eyes and noticed an odd similarity in dress. Memory flared, and she had, instantly, a pretty good idea of who this was.

“Intruder’s present. We’re staying put.”

Cotm folded his arms as Resk and several Tallguard took up positions around the room. The [Stalkers] just vanished, which was more unsettling. Cotm glowered down at the young woman.

“Identify yourself.”

“Andromexia—”

“Actually, it’s Andomexalitne. Want to try again? You’re two seconds from getting a crossbow bolt through the head, and believe me, we have small ones and large ones. Your pick.”

Cotm’s bad [Guardsman] routine was supposed to be supplemented by Resk’s good [Guardsman]. Unfortunately, Resk went too far.

“Someone get a handkerchief for the young woman? We don’t have to be savages.

After a moment of silence, a handkerchief appeared out of the air and landed on her face. The young woman spat in frustration.

“I’m here to talk to her. Don’t get in my way. Kill me and—”

Her eyes flickered.

“You’ll regret it.”

The Forgotten Wing had left the interrogation up to Erin—who was silent, thinking, eyes locked on the young woman’s face—and the Fraerlings. Which was sort of a mistake, because Resk jabbed a finger at the stranger.

“Big words for someone who’s being held captive. You’d better watch out, young woman, because if we didn’t have a policy against killing captives—which is strictly against Paeth’s rules of engagement—we might actually do something!”

Cotm and the other Tallguard glanced at Resk, and the [Enchanter] looked around.

“What? Too mean for the good [Guardsman]?”

The young woman shot a glower at Erin, which didn’t hide the fact that her legs were trembling. She had black hair, red irises, and perhaps slightly greyer skin than normal? She was dressed in expensive clothing, even if it was subtle and messed up, and she had a noblewoman’s inflection.

At this point, one of the [Stalkers], the Lizardwoman, reappeared.

“The Forgotten Wing company does not allow anyone to encroach on our lands, especially when we are guarding a valuable target. Your death is acceptable to any reasonable nation. Even the Kingdom of Glass and Glory.”

The girl jumped and went pale suddenly, then tried to play it cool. But the [Stalker] went on.

“Even a member of House Shoel can be executed for rash actions. Lady Paxere.”

Oh snap. Cotm’s and Resk’s mouths dropped open. It turned out that Forgotten Wing counterintelligence was very good. Especially if they had a face and other clues to go on, like Resk tracing the [Gateway] spell.

Paxere of House Shoel stared at Erin, then burst out.

“I want to talk to the [Innkeeper] alone.”

Resk leaned over and whispered loudly.

“Uh. Is this the part where I point out she’s the captive?”

But Paxere’s eyes were burning.

“She knows why. I didn’t come to kill her. Even if—she owes me.

Erin glanced at Paxere and remembered. Viscount Visophecin. Nobles fighting and dying and…so it was Ailendamus. House Shoel?

She had names and places to add to what she knew. And Paxere…Erin saw the Lizardwoman flicker to her and whisper.

“I would advise against this, Erin Solstice. She may have come with intention to kill. Her parents are both listed as missing. Not loudly announced by Ailendamus, but they were declared dead. After the Winter Solstice’s events.”

In other words…Paxere’s parents had been killed at the battle at sea. Erin’s eyes flickered.

She remembered a woman vanishing into a ring of flames beneath her. So that was how they died. Visophecin turning away with his comrades, covered in blood.

Erin Solstice sat there, and if she had been afraid of death, she would have balked. But since she had to know—her eyes flicked to the Fraerlings and Forgotten Wing company agents.

“I’ll speak to her alone.”

They didn’t like it, but they cleared out after Resk demanded to know on a truth spell if Paxere was planning something untoward.

She failed the untoward question, but could swear she meant Erin no direct harm, spell or otherwise. Erin insisted; the Tallguard hesitated. The [Stalker] did not.

Paxere instantly pulled out a healing potion and took a sip, wiping at crusted blood, glaring at Erin, as the [Innkeeper] checked her doors. Erin expected there were listening spells everywhere, but Paxere began speaking a complicated list of things.

“[Voice of Isolation]. I’m here. I’m with the [Innkeeper]—what? I’m fine, Vultapheles. They…yes, they got me, but I talked my way out of it. They know where I’m from, and that I’m from the House. No, I—I’m with her right now. Would you simply double-check no one’s here?”

She flushed slightly and waited. Then she raised her eyes and looked at Erin.

“There are no spells or observers.”

“A bold claim for someone who was detected by Fraerlings.”

Erin looked around and went to sit on her bed. Paxere’s eyes narrowed.

“My associates and I can tell. I wasn’t prepared for Fraerlings to be able to detect my magic, but they’re not ahead of us. As for Skills—only Three-Color Stalker could hide perfectly from us, and then, only maybe.”

“That sounds like a boast. Let’s assume someone’s listening to you and rolling their eyes. I trust the Titan, to a point, but are you completely sure?”

Erin sat back and saw the young woman bite her lip slightly.

“—I’m not going to get a better chance between now and Elvallian. [Purge Room]. [Prison of Word and Thought].”

A bubble seemed to grow from her and envelop them both before popping, dispelling harmful magics, and then glowing bars of light appeared around the room, sealing it off. Instantly, someone kicked the door in.

Hey! That was a spell—oh, it’s just a ward spell. You okay?”

Resk balanced on a [Stalker]’s shoulder, aiming two wands around. He couldn’t hear Erin or Paxere, and the [Stalker] pressed at the entrance to the spell. Paxere had to dispel it, and Erin had to repeat to both that she was fine.

“Let her cast a spell, please.”

“Okay, but she’s cutting you off from the outside. I have an advanced solution to mitigate the risks and let you signal if you’re in danger. Alright? You sit with your back to the door and then…”

Resk had the [Stalker] hand Erin a length of rope, which he ran out the door and had someone hold. Then Paxere recast the spell. If Erin tugged, the rope would alert someone, but the room was soundproofed.

“I hate Fraerlings. I always thought their tales of magical acumen were exaggerations. You know he might be able to hear through the vibrations in the rope?”

Paxere was red-cheeked, embarrassed, but self-possessed enough. Erin put the rope on the ground, near a foot.

“Enchant it with something, then. There’s no guarantees in life.”

“It would be easier if it were any other species or not a Great Company. One second…[Mysterious Bubble]. There.”

Paxere muttered another spell, and Erin observed her. Her magic was definitely not normal. None of theirs were; she could tell just by the types of spells cast. Let alone [Gateway].

When they were alone, Paxere seemed like she didn’t know where to begin. She stared at Erin, not with animosity. Not exactly. At first, it was curiosity. Anger too, embarrassment. But a silent, wary curiosity. As if she was searching for something in Erin or identifying her.

Her parents were dead. Which ones were they? Had Erin seen them die? Had they said anything important to her? The [Innkeeper] wondered. For a girl who had lost her parents, Paxere was collected.

But still young.

“You know why I’m here.”

“No.”

That threw the girl. She hesitated, glaring, and Erin clarified.

“I have a good idea. But why don’t you state your case. There are multiple reasons why you would want me. Dead or for other reasons.”

It was her strategy to figure out what people wanted of her, to get a complete view of the picture, before showing anything she had or making a decision. In this case? Paxere lifted her chin.

“Don’t play stupid.”

“I’m not. I likely know why you’re here. But I imagine your leader, Visophecin, losing half of his people wasn’t in the plan. Is this now vengeance or what? Where is he?”

Paxere hesitated. She brushed a hand across her face, then her features went cold. Smooth.

“No, you don’t have to worry about that…assuming the talks go well. As for Viscount Visophecin, for his blunders, he has been removed from his position. You are speaking to the new representative of the Lucifen. I may not have his role, but I can represent the others for this.

Erin Solstice raised her brows. Paxere’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Don’t underestimate me just because I’m younger in appearance than Visophecin. My words carry the entire weight of the others behind me. We had a bargain. It—may have been annulled, but the cost is still extant as far as we’re concerned. I have been sent to collect.”

The [Innkeeper] sat back on her bed. She nodded, staring at the ceiling.

“Understandable. That’s how all bargains work, according to my understanding of them too. If you annul a contract, you have every right to demand everything you think you’re entitled to.”

Paxere turned redder with actual shame, Erin thought.

“That—! It was an unf—the clauses were agreed to and fairly executed on both sides. Viscount Visophecin made the pact, it is true, and improperly weighed the terms. You are not in any way obligated to fulfill your side of the bargain.”

She said the words as if being stabbed by needles, but with a commendable accuracy towards fairness, Erin had to say. The [Innkeeper] gave Paxere a small, cruel smile.

“Thank you for reminding me of what I know. Have a splendid night.”

Paxere shot to her feet fast, alarmed and infuriated.

“I have come to negotiate a second deal! You may not be obligated to take it, but we have a relationship. And the losses we incurred with no gain are part of that relationship. You may be free from the terms of breaking the deal, but if we do not come to another one, that relationship is all that stands between us.”

“Ah, so you’re threatening me.”

“I am not. I am explaining the situation.”

“The situation is a threat.”

I am—

Paxere’s flush stopped, and again, she looked around, found a seat, and pulled the chair over, as if her temper had suddenly gone ice cold. No, Erin realized. As if her response to anger was actually to go colder, not hotter. When she leaned forward, her eyes were serious.

“It is in the nature of every person to consider past wrongs and, yes, favors in the relationship with each other, Erin Solstice. To threaten you for a contract we voided is inappropriate. I am here to offer you a second contract because we believe we both stand to benefit. To threaten you for failing to take the contract is also not my intent. You are in danger. Not from the Lucifen, but from your circumstances. Hear me out or turn me away. But if I depart empty-handed, that shall be the last of it.”

Her eyes glittered ruby-red in the moonlight coming from one window.

“The failure to reach a deal can also be harmful, even if the effects of failing to take an option are not immediately felt. Everything, even inaction, is a threat to someone. If we are done with the idle philosophy, shall we begin? This is a poor venue for our chat, anyways.”

She snapped her fingers, and time stopped. Erin jerked in her chair and looked around. She couldn’t articulate how she knew, but time froze in a way and she felt it. Maybe it was the movement of air freezing. The sense of a being that lived in time that it had halted.

A door opened. Not the one Paxere had been dragged in by. A red door leading to a room with a single table and two chairs. Paxere stood up and half-bowed as she indicated the room. Her eyes glittered with delight, wonder, and danger.

She hadn’t, honestly, known if the door would come without the right ritual. However, the door had been opened once. Paxere had guessed it would reopen for a second negotiation…especially if the right person opened it from the inside.

She saw the faintest flicker of movement, but the being inside vanished without a word. For a second, Viscount Visophecin had looked warningly at her through the crack in the door; Erin had not spotted him. He had seemed troubled, as if confused by what he sensed. Paxere dismissed him with a stare and nodded to Erin. He was only here becasue of the broken contract. This was her moment.

As well as…the Lucifen put her hand on the door and gestured.

“Shall we?”

Erin Solstice met Paxere’s eyes, and her pulse quickened. Alright. She sat there for a long moment, weighing her choices, then she stood up.

“After you.”

 

——

 

The room was not barren. Shadows seemed to play in the darkness. Oh, yes, it had only the table. The chairs. Yet it felt like things unseen were hanging just out of sight. Ready to be glimpsed if you turned your head.

But of course, you never could see it. If there was something or someone there…Paxere had to admit, she hesitated before entering.

Because part of her wanted to die.

The moment she saw the darkness of the room, a yearning emerged in Paxere’s soul, the same little voice that spoke when you stood over a cliff and told you to hurl yourself down. The urge to jump. To touch fire.

Walk into the darkness. Don’t sit down at the table. Don’t cling to the light. Walk into that void.

The room, the visible room, was small. Yet the Lucifen felt that if she abandoned the room, abandoned Erin and the contract, she would walk into that nothingness and let it take her. Perhaps Lucifen had.

What would she find there? What might she become? She jerked backwards, hand steadying herself on the doorframe, and pain lanced up it. Paxere took her hand away from the door and realized the wood of it was…splintered. Ancient, but fragmented, sharp as sin.

The red frame had the crimson of her blood on it. And now, the room seemed to groan and wake up.

Ah, visitors. The light above the table—flickered, and Paxere’s heart thundered in her chest. The darkness of the room was not from lack of light. Shadows seemed to twist around her.

Welcome.

A voice whispered in her mind.

Welcome home, dear one.

Thus, the Devil tarried at the entrance to the room a while, inspecting it while it inspected her. She hesitated.

Erin Solstice did not. She sat down at the table, sat upright in her chair, and waited. In some theories of negotiating warfare, the last to sit was the principle party, who could force the other to wait. Like how someone who came to a meeting later was implicitly the more valuable one because they had spent the other’s time.

That was…armchair negotiation from people who’d never done it. House Shoel did understand negotiations, and they weren’t about any one hard and set rule.

It was about style.

A young woman sat at the table drenched in crimson, sitting on a chair blacker than night. A spotlight shone down from above, harshly vibrant, but adding more shadows somehow. Her hazel eyes glittered, and she rested one arm on the table. Waiting without fear. Only expectation. Curiosity.

The Lucifen walked forwards and briskly sat down. She was angry, stressed. So she was cold, and the icy thrill of anger in her veins accelerated her thinking and also tamped down on her emotions, a mortal’s penchant to wild outbursts.

It was a rare trait that Lucifen shared with only one other major species in the world: ironically, Lizardfolk. Most of them went hot as well, but when you got a Lizardfolk truly, truly angry, they sometimes just went silent and still.

Paxere had never had a negotiation of this level before. Her assumptions about how easy this would be had been dashed. She saw that now; she had underestimated Erin Solstice in spite, blaming her for incompetence and killing so many senior Lucifen.

Now, Paxere reckoned with the truth.

It had been deliberate. It made her all the more determined. She could not fail. No—another trap.

She could fail or exit the negotiations. The least viable position would be to enter into another bargain like Visophecin’s. That would spell disaster for the Lucifen.

Paxere tried to cast a mental boost spell, but she realized the room had blocked off all spells…and she hoped it included Skills as well. They were doubtless secure from all intrusion; she doubted another Lucifen could listen in here.

There were rules. Unless a Lucifen had been hiding in this room since the last time it had been used before Erin and Visophecin. Unless the room itself was sentient…the darkness held nothing living.

Neither woman was quite relaxed as the room roiled around them, twisting ink. Erin’s eyes slowly took in the room, perhaps with the leisure to inspect it properly this time. Paxere tried not to visibly do the same.

“Welcome to the Verum Pactum, Erin Solstice. Or should I say, welcome again. Would you care for anything to drink? Eat? Do not concern yourself with eavesdroppers or time. This room is apart from all of it.”

“More languages I don’t know.”

Paxere smiled tightly as Erin looked irritated. It was old language, and a [Mage] might have known this one—the ‘Truthful Covenant’ was the rough translation of the room’s name.

So she wasn’t perfect. Still—Erin Solstice regarded her hands, looked up at that invisible light source, then lowered her gaze, and Paxere’s pulse accelerated.

Visophecin had lost in his deal here, even if he had stated it was due to his own complacency. Paxere was younger, inexperienced, qualities she had often thought she could make up for with effort and, frankly, talent.

Azemith and Igolze were dead. Paxere was expendable, hence her insistence on this attempt. There was some joy in it; her eyes narrowed slightly. Erin Solstice finished looking around and focused on Paxere. Her lips quirked.

“Nothing for me to drink or eat. Here I am again. How much do you know about the terms of the first agreement I made?”

She was probing. Paxere had not, in fact, had the chance to quiz Visophecin about the entire nature of the deal. He claimed it had been private and he was not allowed to show her more than the outcome. She had, of course, reviewed the final contract and seen plainly how the broad wording was a basic error.

The Lucifen had all but forgotten the use of this room themselves. Ever since the Infernal Court of Rhir, they had lost access to this place. Visophecin’s forebearers, who themselves had been dangerous, capable of accessing the rare Warform that only a few Agelum and Lucifen had mastered—hadn’t been able to gain entry to this place.

However. One person had summoned the Lucifen. So a way remained to regain access to power they had thought lost or locked behind inaccessible places, like Rhir or, perhaps, Roshal.

Roshal had refused to reactivate the contracts if they knew how. Erin Solstice had made that bargain and surprised even them. Maybe she didn’t know how extraordinary it was, so Paxere tried to speak and ran into a problem.

“…I am quite aware of the circumstances of your contract on board Roshal’s ship. I consider the matter fairly adjudicated by this room, despite the urgency of the moment. This is a place out of time. Fairness is sacrosanct.”

She could not lie. Not that Paxere really liked or wanted to lie; it was a useful tool, but her training as an aspiring arbiter of Ailendamus’ law made her averse to the idea. Things should be fair—and it seemed this room enforced that idea to the extreme.

Even the idea of lying was like trying to lift a mountain with your tongue. Erin doubtless had the same issue and spoke slowly.

“I’m not implying it wasn’t. Fairness, you said? Fairness to whom?”

“Fairness to the idea of a deal. Not to one party or another. You benefitted from that fairness yourself. If there is any justice in this room, it is that both of us know what we are agreeing to. Nothing more. Nothing less. Trickery is inherent to a negotiation. Inequity as well.”

Paxere’s eyes were glowing faintly at the table. The power in this place made her bones shudder. It was like she had spoken every day of her life and not realized she had used half the alphabet until now.

I feel alive. She craved that power. She felt like she might understand something of the Lucifen’s lost authority just by being here, but having had a taste, she wanted more.

Still. Erin Solstice made her wary. She was half-smiling now, despite Paxere’s explicit warning.

Two women sat in this room. It was unclear if either one was properly…Human. Paxere’s back crawled as Erin Solstice looked around.

“The first deal Visophecin made went poorly. You nearly died to reach me and make a second one. Why should I hear you out? I’m free to leave at any time, aren’t I?”

“Yes. We will not offer you that deal again. I am prepared to offer you a different deal from the first. The contract was invalidated by our side. Enforcing it would be—”

It felt like the room was pressing down on her at the very thought. Paxere half-glanced up, expecting to see a proverbial axe hanging over her head. Then she realized Erin was looking up too and stopped.

Ah. The accounts of past deals didn’t mention that. 

Both women stared upwards at the object hanging in the air as it slowly, slowly lifted back into the ceiling. Erin spoke after a second.

“Fascinating chains. That’s a very sharp-looking blade.”

“This room was made to make deals with everyone. Choose your words carefully. Let’s begin from the start. We would like to negotiate a new contract along similar lines as the last one. We would like a piece of you. Not me, specifically. A shared trust with the Lucifen. As well as knowledge of how you contacted us to begin with. In return, we will provide you with a fair price. Protection from your enemies, for one.”

Erin Solstice sat back, looking amused.

“I have the Fraerlings and Forgotten Wing company on my side. They seem quite good at their jobs of protecting me. They bested you quite easily.”

Paxere chuckled honestly.

“You must be joking.”

Erin paused and frowned.

“Are you claiming House Shoel of Ailendamus can do better than they can? Or are you speaking for the entire Kingdom of Glass and Glory?”

Another incisive comment. Paxere grimaced.

“I cannot…promise anything beyond House Shoel’s authority in Ailendamus, but we are well connected.”

“So I imagine. So one noble house?”

One noble house in the heart of Terandria. We have access to Erribathe and the means, via magic and force and word, that the Forgotten Wing does not. You may be safe on Baleros, but what of Izril? What of the Blighted Kingdom? What of your inn?”

Erin fell silent rather than respond. Paxere went on, trying to keep her tone lighter and pace more fluid. She had practiced her skills in debate in the Court of Masks and met many species and studied even more. For instance, old books said sentient undead—not Revenants, but literal undead—were only able to be swayed by sustained logical rhetoric or the most extreme, basic emotions.

…No one had ever written a book on [Innkeepers], though.

“That’s a nebulous offer. Last time…”

Erin hesitated. She seemed unwilling to say exactly what had happened, so she switched topics.

“Dangling friendship in front of my face, or an ‘alliance’, is banal.”

It was, and Paxere had truly been hoping Erin was more desperate and that she would be able to rely on guilt or her own magic as bargaining chips.

“The previous contract was very generous. Visophecin liberated you and committed forty of House Shoel’s own to a battle at sea. All for a fragment of your soul.”

Your soul. What a strange thing to ask for. Paxere didn’t understand it herself. But she felt it. Erin had something in her the Lucifen wanted, perhaps even lacked.

They had died for her, fighting insane odds. Yet if there was guilt in her, part of Paxere had to admire the woman sitting across from her, because Erin Solstice demonstrated a quality that was purely Lucifen.

She raised her brows, sat back in her chair, and shrugged.

“As you said. The deal was struck. It was generous, in your opinion, but your side broke the terms. Now you’re back for another contract. Offer me something valuable and tangible. After all. Logic dictates that if I am to negotiate the contract for the same price, or more, I should get more than I was given last time.”

Ah. Paxere really hadn’t come into this place with an advantage. She refused to waver, though; Azemith had talked herself out of worse opening positions.

“State your position, then.”

“You came to me.”

“The Lucifen are prepared to safeguard your life in quantitative means. Fraerlings and the Titan of Baleros may desert you due to your choices. We will be bound to honoring the deal and not renege for any reason. If the terms are right.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed fractionally.

“I don’t trust you. Even with this room, I trust you like a Merchant’s Guild contract. By the letter, not the spirit. I clearly have something you want. My…soul.”

She touched her chest and paused a second.

“If I even considered a deal with you, I would want something that incentivizes you to value my life, not just the terms of the contract. Something worth the cost to me.”

Paxere was thinking rapidly, assessing what she could and could not offer on behalf of House Shoel, especially given last time. But as Erin spoke, Paxere heard a clicking sound, and both women froze.

The axe? They looked up, wondering if one of them had broken an implicit rule. But what descended this time was no hanging blade.

Instead, something far, far larger appeared. So vast it dwarfed the two, but appeared further away in the air, so they could look up and see…Paxere’s throat went dry.

“The Infernal Scales.”

They looked like a simple set of [Merchant]’s scales where you measured two weights. Only, these were literal scales from the hide of a long-dead Dragon, twisted red chains.

Appropriately, reddish scales. But not red. They were marred, even with a tacky resin, as if liquid had dripped upon the scales for ages, turning what had originally been some orange or brighter color darker. Even now, though, Paxere could see a huge scar across the back of one of the scales.

The chains were links of metal she recognized; Adamantium, each link smooth, without seam, but spiked, a superfluous edge added to each link. Laborious work from a [Smith]. A symbol? Or something else?

The scales were vast, and it felt like if one side were to fall entirely and unbalance the entire contraption, something terrible might happen. The room itself shivered at their appearance. As if it were waking up. And the smell that filled the room was of rust and iron and blood.

The Infernal Scales hung in the air, and the ancient clicks seemed to dislodge time itself.

Click. Click. Click. The scales were moving down on one side towards Erin. The [Innkeeper] glanced at Paxere, suspicious.

“What’s going on?”

So this didn’t happen last time? Paxere licked her lips.

“You just stated terms for me to fulfill. I must balance the scales.”

In fact, she understood what Erin wanted now. The scales seemed to press down on the very room, tilting it towards Erin.

 

Something to make certain the Lucifen had a vested, genuine interest in Erin’s wellbeing.

Something for her personally.

 

Fascinating requirements. Paxere would have thought Erin’s inn. Perhaps the [Innkeeper] had erred…could you err like that in this room?

Erin Solstice’s head rose as if studying the requirements herself. But instead of removing one or the other stipulations, her voice rasped.

“Ah. That’s right. If I did make a deal for something of me…I need that. No, I want it. Power. To never be helpless again.”

Click.

The scales dipped lower towards Erin. The reverberations of those chains ran through Paxere’s very being, and then she was smiling.

A prospective client had just stated something honestly. Whether intentional or not, Paxere had something to latch onto. And she…saw how to balance the scales. The room was not on her side, but facilitating this deal was half instinct, half understanding.

Lucifen had made this place to grant any wish. To make any deal. Of course they had built in ways to satisfy the most esoteric of demands.

The shadows were whispering in her ears.

“What we desire most of all is a piece of you, Erin Solstice. Believe me, we are not like anything like the poor myths you may have found. Strike a deal with me for a piece of you. So long as you live, I benefit from that fragment. Few things could be as important to the Lucifen as that.”

The scales clicked up a fraction as Paxere assured Erin of her first clause. The [Innkeeper]’s head tilted, eyes narrowed.

“You’ll take my power? Feed on me?”

“Oh, no, no. It’s entirely…symbiotic. There are more punitive methods that favor me. What I propose is an exchange. You give me a piece of your soul. We link. Power runs two ways. If you die, I lose the benefits. While the pact remains and I live, you gain some of my authority. Do you remember what you did last time?”

“What happens when I die? Does my soul vanish or return to me? The lands of the dead are empty.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed. Paxere coughed.

“The soul would revert to me, I trust—”

CLICK.

The scales slammed down back on Erin’s side, and Paxere froze. The [Innkeeper] gave Paxere a mirthless smile.

“That sounds like exactly what I thought would happen. Wouldn’t you hope for me to die in that case? Then you wouldn’t have to share.”

“—Then, naturally, upon your death, any claims on your immortal soul would be yours without any Lucifen interference. I can swear that on behalf of House Shoel, should we accept.”

Paxere gritted each word out through her teeth, reluctantly, like running a hand through a pile of broken glass. She wanted not to say it, but until she did…the scales moved back up two notches.

“Interesting. You do look like you’re being honest. For a given value of honesty.”

The [Innkeeper] was treating this like a game! She studied the scales, then Paxere.

“Go on. What about my other two requirements?”

They were one and the same, really. She seemed curious how Paxere could satisfy ‘personal power’. The Lucifen had some ideas, but she tried to prevaricate.

“Would you like to add another clause? House Shoel wishes to know how you summoned us—Viscount Visophecin. A full, replicable explanation of how to do so is my requirement.”

They looked up and saw nothing happen. Erin raised her brows as Paxere wondered if she had to fulfill Erin’s portion of the bargain first. Then she heard a sound from behind her.

Click.

Slowly, Paxere’s head turned, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. A separate set of scales…different from the first. She didn’t know the name of this one. And they were different in other ways.

Those scales aren’t made of Dragon parts.

“Interesting. That sounds like a separate deal.”

“We can surely fulfill both. Information on how to summon the Lucifen. I can offer you [Knights] of Ailendamus to guard your inn. To the death. Protective spells on all of your friends. Even assistance locating and transporting them. Do you want to return to Izril? I can do that too.”

That had to be tempting. Erin Solstice hesitated, and it certainly seemed to move her. A free way back to Izril…

“No Lucifen?”

Her smile was teasing, and Paxere’s was icy.

“No. Believe me, the protectors we can commit are far more adept at their roles than we. I am prepared to offer nine uses of [Gateway]—to any spot in the world. Personal wards for seven individuals. Even the martial assistance of Ailendamus’ standard forces—on top of location and delivery within ten miles of each one of your friends lost on Baleros.”

She had to word that narrowly. No possibility of entanglement in battle. Even that much magical assistance wasn’t the worst, and she thought Erin would jump at it. But the [Innkeeper] kept glancing up at the scales.

“I can’t do that.”

She said it almost dreamily. Regret etched in her words. Paxere leaned forwards urgently.

“Would you like more [Knights]? If you want to claim an artifact or—”

“I can’t do it. No. The ways to summon more of you are off the table.”

When Erin Solstice looked down, her eyes glinted. Paxere hissed. The scales above her rumbled.

But—

CLICK.

The new set of scales returned to their original position and began to lift upwards. It vanished, and Erin Solstice shook her head now, eyes set.

“You’re not getting what you want. We’re not doing two deals, Paxere. Not here. Not now.”

Damnation. She must have understood what that meant to the Lucifen. Or she knew some of their old stories. Or perhaps…she couldn’t deliver.

Paxere drummed her sharp, painted fingernails on the table, then relaxed and tried to smile.

We can obtain that by other means. Or at least, make it a priority for him.

Knowledge of what they sought existing was enough. What the Lucifen wanted, nay, needed, was the time and understanding of what they were craving. The Agelum claimed to be feeling better these days, though in Paxere’s experience, kissing a puppy made Lord Uziel feel better. The weakness affecting the two peoples was not hewn of the same material.

“Let’s go back to our initial offer then, Miss Erin. The terms are simple. In exchange for your soul—to be shared, not manipulated, coerced, or influenced in any way—we would link. I gain that on behalf of the Lucifen.”

“What do you do with souls? Explain that.”

Paxere hesitated. Because she herself was uncertain. Erin’s suspicious look made Paxere answer as honestly as she could.

“…As I understand it, the very nature of a mortal soul influences us in some way. It is not like food. Not exactly. It is the foundation of the power of the Lucifen. Authority. Authority to us is not like it is to you. It is not a title or a class or even the ability to swing a sword harder. Authority is a quantitative force…and this is the only valuable unit of measure.”

“And you have none, do you? Just you? Or all of the Lucifen?”

Again, Erin Solstice demonstrated too much insight. Paxere flushed and looked away, and Erin leaned over the table. Grinning.

“Very well. I see that the request about my worth has been fulfilled. So long as I remain, I might be the only person you have access to. That was why he was so desperate, wasn’t he? But how could you possibly grant me anything more? Magic. [Knights] to fight and die for me. All of that isn’t yours or mine. It’s as fake as other forms of authority to the Lucifen, and you and I know it. You might as well be a…a…”

She thought and came up with an analogy, and her lips twisted.

“A Sariant Lamb cozying up to a [King].”

The insult rankled Paxere more than Erin probably knew. The idea of being put on the same level as Saranthine was so insulting Paxere decided to spend some of her stipend on anti-Sariant Lamb propaganda next month. Maybe a statue of one being eaten by birds.

“I have more to offer than deferred power. You are in the heart of the Lucifen’s might. The Verum Pactum itself is the arbiter of this contract.”

“Then say something interesting. Because we have all the time in the world, and I’m still running out of patience.”

Erin snapped back. She was in control of this situation, like a [Diplomat], not just throwing manipulation or jabs, but pressing, aggressive, and throwing Paxere off.

The Lucifen went hot—then cold. Her mind frosted over, and clarity overcame her ire.

Wait a second, what a fool I have been.

Erin had no real intention of taking the deal at this moment. Why would she? Paxere looked up…and the Infernal Scales hung in the air. Judging her.

It was as if she were a child again, making a mistake like insulting or harming a servant, and the older Lucifen were looking down at her as she explained it was her nature. Trying to justify a crime that she knew was wrong.

What a naïve child. Here she sat in the greatness of the Lucifen’s glory, and she had not even tempted Erin. Of course the [Innkeeper] had the advantage. Of course Paxere was flustered.

Am I predator to this [Innkeeper]? Mighty scion of immortal power and the authority of House Shoel?

Or am I what Ryoka said we had failed to be? What Lucifen have always been?

I am a servant of mortality, in my way. I judge. My role here is to give Erin Solstice what she desires. To offer it.

Ah.

Paxere’s eyes opened, and it felt like someone had punctured a hole in a huge vat of her ego and arrogance. It drained out of her. Bit by bit. Until she was shriven and, if not humble, at peace. She looked at Erin suddenly, and it felt like the scales, rather than imposing on her, were now a reminder.

Fairness. This is a room of miracles. For her and me. Paxere looked up and bowed her head slightly to the scales. She let the illusion on her lapse, and Erin jerked as a grey-skinned Devil, short, pointed, horns jutting from her head, looked at Erin Solstice and smiled.

“I apologize, Miss Solstice. I’ve been quite unprofessional. Let me begin again. You have a request. I have yet to balance my scales. You ask for power. I?”

Paxere stared at her hands.

“I have little to give. Would I teach you a spell? Give you mana potions to increase your potential? Assign you bodyguards? Work to give you a noble title?”

Her tone oozed disdain for these suggestions.

“Even placing the lives of a Lucifen—even one as mighty as, say, Visophecin—under your control is the work of [Slavers]. That is not power. You desire what I do.”

“I…asked for it.”

Erin Solstice was growing increasingly cautious. She was glancing at the door, but Paxere’s smile kept drawing Erin’s head back to her. As the [Innkeeper] tried to rise…as her instincts told her to go…

She had to hear it. Curiosity. Paxere drew upon this place and waited. Waited…and listened to the beating of her heart.

The voice of this room was not that of a sentient thing, but the weight of history and knowledge pressing down on her. She had not the time or, frankly, the authority to parse the deeper meanings. She was a neophyte to her own nature.

But Paxere had heard enough. The room did not even need to tell her the answer: it was so simple she should have divined it by herself. But she had not had the humility to do so.

When she looked up, Paxere of House Shoel smiled.

Her sires were dead. The woman of their end sat across from her.

Yet Paxere offered something fair, for her loss, her emotions, were petty, worthless things. This was a transaction.

She was Lucifen. What did she have to offer?

Slowly, Paxere raised a clawed hand to her chest and dug the claws into her flesh. Her blood did not run. It hurt terribly, but her hand passed through the grey skin and bones. She delved deeper, past her heart, as Erin stared at her and, with agony—with a smile—pulled something invisible out.

Invisible…but there. Lighter than a feather. Heavy enough to place on those scales above. And they—

Clicked. Until what was being offered on both sides was equal. Paxere, panting, looked Erin in the eyes.

“What else can I offer you for power, Erin Solstice? The answer is simple: a part of me. You want something beyond your mere classes? Take my hand.”

She reached over the table drenched with the ichor of countless species. In Erin’s eyes, Paxere now saw it.

I must lose something for this. I will gain something for this.

This deal will make the both of us greater than before. 

Her clawed hand opened, and Erin Solstice beheld Paxere’s true features. Horns. Sharp teeth meant to eat only flesh. A predator’s smile. Enough of the mortal form to trick them and beguile—but the strength to kill. The intelligence to judge.

Whether the Lucifen were worthy of that duty, they had never asked. The best of them had striven for that honor, though. Paxere understood all of this—just as she understood one more thing.

Ah, I feel proud of myself, Azemith. Mother. Igolze, Father, I am ready to be a Lucifen in my fullness, now.

Next time, I shall be better at this.

No part of Paxere expected Erin to actually agree. For guilt, Paxere had speculated she might sway Erin to give up something. In its lack? Even with the scales so magnificently balanced, Paxere knew Erin Solstice.

She’d read the reports from [Spies], first hand accounts. This was the woman who had opposed everything and everyone. One of the most infamously stubborn beings among mortals that Paxere had ever met. She had resisted the Cyclops of Pallass, another very impressively amoral being by Lucifen standards, for a year. Erin Solstice had, when she had been given the option to run or hide, faced down a being at her inn and dared an army of the dead. She had waved a white flag before Tyrion Veltras and the Goblin Lord.

The [Innkeeper] sat there, unblemished in body, but scarred in ways Paxere knew were there. Her eyes had the same intensity that so many had witnessed, but now…they held uncertainty. She stared at Paxere’s hand as the Lucifen panted.

A part of her was sitting on those scales. She felt naked, exposed. Like a bit of her was missing. She was afraid of what might happen if Erin took her hand. As Paxere waited for Erin to draw back—

The woman threw back her head and began to laugh.

The laughter was high. Mocking. Like no laughter Paxere had ever heard from Erin Solstice in any recording of her. It was not the giggling or joyous sound of wonder. It was amused and spiteful. Not even a cackle in defiance of the gods.

Paxere’s hand withdrew. A snarl crossed the Lucifen’s face, despite her newfound equanimity.

“A ‘no’ would have sufficed. I apologize for my conduct, but I have offered a deal I consider fair.”

She spoke, voice frozen over. Erin Solstice kept laughing, practically guffawing now, at Paxere across the table. She was close to falling out of her chair. How many words could you use to describe laughter?

Howling? Chuckling? Hysterics? Hooting? The sound fit none of them. Erin’s cachinnations were truly uncontrollable. The well of mirth they drew from was unknown to Paxere, but it made a joke of this room, of her, and of Erin herself. It was self-reflective, bitter, and yes, oddly happy

And amused, oh, a world of it. When Erin finally managed to stop an eternity later—and this room was in a time out of time, but Paxere felt like it had gone on for ages—she finally wiped at her eyes.

“Oh. Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed like that in my entire life. Today was worth it—just for that.”

“I’m delighted you found my offer so amusing. Shall we conclude? Was it that insulting to be offered…”

Paxere’s cheeks were enflamed, and her eyes darted to her very soul. A piece of a Lucifen, one of the proudest of peoples, offered in equal balance for Erin’s soul.

The woman sitting across from Paxere felt so much older than Paxere, for all Paxere was thirty-eight. But like how half-Elf ages were different…these two species had aged far differently. Erin looked at Paxere, shaking her head.

“I think it’s hilarious how much you believe my soul is worth.”

Paxere twitched. Even now, it felt like she was trying to offer an olive branch only for Erin to throw a punch. The [Innkeeper] continued.

“Anyone. You could have made this deal with anyone. But you came for me.”

We couldn’t have done this with anyone. Rather than say that, Paxere lied with the truth.

“We don’t like losing.”

Truer words were never spoken. But Erin Solstice arched her brows and almost burst out in laughter again. She shook her head and then gave Paxere a genuine smile across the table.

“You’re sitting in this room with me, Paxere. You’ve already lost a war.”

Alright. Paxere offered Erin a polite smile and made a show of standing up and adjusting her clothing. Time to leave with what little remained of her dignity. She half-bowed, hoping it was sardonic.

“I regret that we could not come to terms, Erin Solstice. Rest assured, I entered into these negotiations in good faith. I wish you the best with your pursuits.”

She paused.

“I mean that genuinely. Strange.”

With that said, Paxere walked towards the door. So this was how you kept your head high after negotiations you’d put your all into failed. What a splendid lesson. She sighed; telling Vultapheles about all this would be a chore. She had her hand on the doorknob when Erin spoke.

“I never said I refused, did I?”

Paxere’s hand twisted on nothing at all. She stood still for a second, eyes wide—then turned slowly.

“…Did you have questions? I assumed your amusement indicated denial.”

Erin Solstice sat there, arms folded, smiling.

“I don’t understand what I’m giving up. A soul. What a strange thing. Do you?”

“Not entirely. I only know that I want what you have. And mine…aches.”

Paxere’s eyes went to the soul resting on the scales. She felt terribly, terribly vulnerable. If they had been in the real world, she would have been frightened something might happen. What, she couldn’t say. The room whispered to her, but she was too young, too inexperienced to hear all of what it was telling her.

“Yet the deal is fair.”

“The fairest I’ve ever given. Perhaps a grave mistake. If it is—it is mine and mine alone.”

Paxere smiled at that with great satisfaction. Erin raised her eyebrows and looked up at the scales.

“So neither of us know what we are giving up. If I take your hand, we will change.”

“Most assuredly.”

There was no proper explanation Paxere could give, and she was waiting for the door to return. Erin closed her eyes as she sat, the light shining down on her from above. She was taller. Different. When her eyes opened, her face was composed.

She stood up, and Paxere indicated where the door had been. But the woman just walked over and placed one hand on Paxere’s shoulder.

Instinct told Paxere that this might be the moment when Erin punched her; she’d once famously ambushed people in her inn with a pot of boiling curry. The Lucifen flinched—but Erin just stared down into Paxere’s eyes.

“You’ll regret it. But I will not.”

Erin’s hand rose. Paxere froze. She stared down at the hand, suddenly worried. Wait—

“You’re certain?”

The Devil looked up into those eyes, and they sparkled with amusement. But they never wavered once. Erin Solstice whispered as Paxere’s hand slowly rose, flinched, and the scales groaned. A contract was waiting. Quill poised.

The room itself listened as the [Innkeeper] spoke.

“Oh, yes. I have no regrets now or then. I ran out of them longer ago than anyone thinks.”

Slowly, the Devil studied the woman standing before her. That strange being she didn’t understand. Her fingers twitched—then they grasped another hand. The room sighed, soft as a whisper and louder than a hurricane.

When she lowered her hand, the Devil stared down at a piece of herself, and it was a reflection across both eyes.

One and the same. Then two disparate beings with a piece of each in the other. The women looked at each other.

And both smiled.

 

——

 

The traveller departed moments after she’d come. Which was highly suspicious, but her identity and capabilities had been noted.

Someone actually tried to send down a homing killer spell, and not only did the Fraerlings and countermagic agents have to dispel it, but the senders needed blasting.

In a literal and figurative sense; not only did Alchimagus Resk manage to send a spark or something back down the connection and scorch the [Hex Mage] slightly, but an embassy in Calanfer got a visit from a [Diplomat] of the Forgotten Wing company in the middle of the night.

Say what you would about soft power, but with Skills, it became a pretty damn hard power when you’d just nearly attacked a general of the Forgotten Wing company.

[Proof of Crime] was a lovely Skill. You could show someone a misdeed—if you’d caught the evidence of it. Of course, Niers knew that Erribathe wouldn’t be that ashamed of being caught trying to murder Erin Solstice.

She’d done in their [Prince].

Hiring a [Hex Mage]? Now that was dirty by Terandrian standards. Niers made arrangements to have the [Hex Mage] impounded and questioned; if he was lucky, said [Mage] might fess up to having had Erribathe as a former client; at the very least, said [Mage] had other noble contacts.

The Kingdom of Myths would implicate a lot of powerful people by its deeds if it wasn’t careful. [Hex Mages] might be rare in Terandria, but Niers would have experts make sure a curse didn’t do in this one for revealing their secrets.

As Queen Ielane would say, it was a [Soldier]’s approach to diplomacy. Straightforwards. But effective and, frankly, Erribathe was probably worse at the dance than he was.

Kingdom of Myths. For one of the Sleeping Three, no one had run up and nailed it in the coinsack in a long time, and now Erribathe was learning that being an isolated superpower meant it had lost a step. Also, that a Great Company of Baleros knew how to slap nations around.

Not that I’d want to take them in a straight fight if I had to. Them coming to Baleros would be my turf already, though. 

The thought of the Kingdom of Myths trying to conquer the Forgotten Wing Company by themselves from another continent was pretty amusing, and Niers had a good chuckle over that as he reviewed the other attempts on Erin’s life.

Niers would have called it ‘uneventful’ as nights went, given her speech yesterday. He was still replaying it come morning. But the visitor did bother him…he knew it was probably just about Viscount Visophecin, who had joined Erin for the battle at sea.

But why? What secrets is Ailendamus hiding? First the Great General turns out to actually be the most deadly [General] I’ve seen in my life. Now House Shoel…

He had to investigate them. Niers never had enough time. Especially because Erin was only a day away now. If all went well, she’d be passing General Gloriam, who would be launching a Selphid attack come evening, and if she rushed, she’d get to Elvallian. If not, tomorrow morning at the latest.

I could fly out to see her, perhaps? Gloriam might rub her the wrong way, but he’ll keep her safe. I don’t know if I want him fouling a first engagement—er—meeting. Obviously, we’ve met before, but choose the right terrain. The worst thing would be if he runs interference. Or worse, tries to help. A Lord Pellmia he is not…and I think he fancies he is.

Niers was preoccupied with his thoughts at breakfast, he was eating, writing notes to his forces with one hand, and re-reading the night report from Foliana’s people with the other. Erin was just emerging from her tent in the scrying spell, and General Diomedes was stretching as he got up.

It was only when he looked up that he realized his regular breakfast partner was staring at him.

Foliana was eating mac and cheese. Which looked frankly disgusting; it was like a buttered noodle, which Niers respected. Only, instead of butter, it was cheese, bread crumbs, and bacon.

“What? If you have problems with that much cheese, I’m not getting anywhere near you all day. Did she lie about her favorite dish? Get over it.”

The Titan snapped at Foliana. She just kept staring, mouth slightly open and fork raised as Seneschal Atmodeca oversaw the food coming in via [Servants].

“Don’t fly out to meet her. Mm. No, wait. Do.”

“…What?”

Niers wondered if he’d been speaking aloud. He only did that sometimes to make people think he had the habit. But no, it turned out Foliana didn’t need to read his mind.

“I am using reverse psychology on you. Go fly out to meet with her. It will be extremely funny if you do.”

The Titan put down his report and snatched a newspaper sized for him. All the Fraerlings wanted a copy of one, and so he had a [Scribe] whose job it was to take regular newspapers and resize them. Niers read the headlines. Oh, it had Erin on the front page of the Chandrar International. Nothing on Terandria or Wistram’s newspapers…or Pallass’ or…

Rémi Canada knew what was actually going to sell and had dignified her with a front page spread. Foliana plucked the newspaper out of Niers’ grip.

“Frame this.”

She handed it to Atmodeca. Niers glowered as the Crocodile Beastkin took the tiny newspaper.

“I was reading that. I don’t need a newspaper of her framed. What am I, a child?”

Foliana lifted something in her paws. It was a complex object in the shape of a mask, but with multiple ‘lenses’. Niers knew what it was. An object to cast [Magic Picture].

One of the things Earth did a thousand times better than this world. Foliana began fiddling with it as she put it on.

“Hold still.”

“Why are you taking a picture of me?”

The commander of the Forgotten Wing company, Niers’ technical boss, and the most dangerous [Rogue], Three-Color Stalker, handed the mask to a [Servant].

“Print the picture. Two copies. Mm. Write one…‘the day before his happiest day’. The other, ‘before sadness’.”

She looked entirely too pleased with herself as she wiggled her bushy tail. Niers put down his paper.

“I can see the jokes have begun. Classic. Some things never change. What’s the betting pool among the higher-ranked officers?”

“We don’t have one.”

“Foliana, we bet on whether or not you’ll have diarrhea any given week. Come on, what are the bets?”

Niers was doing his best to not give in to her antics. The [Rogue] put a paw over her chest.

“We don’t have one. I swear on someone else’s mother. No one wanted to bet. It was too depressing.”

“…I have that much support after so long?”

That was sort of embarrassing. Foliana peered at Niers.

“No. The odds on you succeeding are too long.”

He threw a breakfast roll at her.

“Eat shit. So finish your plate.”

“Everyone wants to see you happy. The sympathy pool was too full. Everyone put money down for you being happy then sad. Diomedes closed the betting. Don’t go fly out to meet her.”

“Foliana, the moment I take advice from you in romance is the moment I give up on romance!”

Niers snapped at her. Foliana sat there and slowly took a bite of her meal. Niers shuddered—then remember that it was Erin’s favorite dish.

I don’t need to micromanage the [Chefs]. Original food has its own appeal, and a meal’s just a meal. A note to them wouldn’t hurt. No, wait, this is micromanaging. Forget about the meals. Focus on the big picture. 

He’d better make sure he knew where Rabbiteater was. Did he drop the information that he knew Rabbiteater was a Goblin now or later? Wait, wait, wait.

Condolences. Right. People emotions. She’d be worried about her friends. In that sense, they were on a time attack. Maybe it did make sense to fly out there with a carpet and demonstrate he knew what priorities mattered?

Niers was poking at his food when someone spoke.

“Niers? Is that you?”

He jumped.

“Perorn? How’s the leg? We’re not due for a checkup today—anything up?”

He sat up as a Centaur’s face appeared in a scrying mirror…held by Foliana. Niers instantly scowled, and Perorn, looking like she was actually on the move, spoke, peering at Niers as the image of her kept jostling as she ran.

“Don’t fly out to meet Erin Solstice.”

Cat giants take it! I am not—what has Foliana been telling you?”

Niers roared. Unfortunately, his top officers were unmoved by war, calamity, or the Titan’s shouting, or they wouldn’t be his top officers. Perorn spoke drily.

“She didn’t. If she said the same thing, she and I know you too well. Did you buy flowers?”

“…That’s gauche. She just survived a war, and she’s finally left Paeth and had that speech on the television. She’s concerned for her friends.”

“You’re romantically interested in her, Niers. Show her you mean it. Don’t do flowers; do something. Let me give you some advice: don’t put on a huge show. Make it a moderate show.”

Niers hesitated.

“I would have thought you would say to be more casual than that.”

Perorn scoffed.

“She might not want it, but some acknowledgement of the fact that you two have missed each other and done massive favors for each other for nearly a year is fitting. She’s your famous chess partner. Play a game of chess. But don’t throw her a parade throughout Elvallian. She’ll hate it. Do expect her to have priorities, but make her feel welcome.”

“I know all that, Perorn.”

The Titan’s tone was acerbic, and he swept his dishes aside and pointedly glanced at the timekeeping clock on the wall. Then he half-turned back to her as if he’d had a minor thought.

“So—favorite dishes from the [Chefs]? Too much? Not moderate enough?”

Perorn’s sigh was mirrored by Foliana’s huge smirk.

“I’ll take over the event. Send me your itinerary, and I’ll run it through…who’s replaced Peclir? Some Crocodile Beastkin?”

“Seneschal Atmodeca. Wave, Seneschal.”

“Greetings, Strategist Fleethoof.”

Perorn grimaced when she saw Atmodeca.

“Ah. Combat specialist?”

“Actually, she’s good at managing things. Lots of Skills related to ambush or keeping a small group safe in the wilds.”

“Fair enough. I’ll just name the head classes if there have been personnel changes, Atmodeca. They can handle it.”

“You don’t have to plan out tomorrow or later today, Perorn. If you have that much time, remotely teach a class. Your students miss you.”

Perorn didn’t dignify that with a response.

“Don’t send her a message on the road, Niers.”

“I’m not going to. Though some acknowledgement I know she’s on her way is fine.”

“Don’t. Send. Her. A. Message. Because I know you, and you won’t be fine with a [Message] spell. You’ve already sent a speaking stone to someone, and you’re thinking of chatting her up and asking if she needs you to get started on finding her friends. Wait till you meet.”

Niers hesitated as Foliana peered at him.

“Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not something I’d have to do. Diomedes has [Mages] who can set up the spell.”

“I bet the speaking stone’s attached to a chessboard that some poor [Soldier]’s had to carry all the way there. Are you watching her right now? That’s creepy. Atmodeca, turn off the scrying orb.”

“Wh—I am not going to be given orders like I’m a teenager. Seneschal, put that down.”

Atmodeca, unfortunately, understood who was in charge in a given scenario. Worse? So did Niers. He listened, face a thunderhead, as Perorn continued.

“Go teach your classes and deal with finding Erin’s friends and getting all the answers she’ll want. Don’t pay attention to her. Don’t look at a [Scrying] spell of her. If it’s important, someone will tell you. If she does something amazing or hilarious, watch it tonight or after you meet her. I’ll have a list of notes when you two are about to meet.”

“Am I an [Actor]? You’ll have me second-guessing myself.”

“Better than you putting on the act you think she’ll like. If you only second-guess, I’ll buy every Centaur in my command a bottle of Firebreath Whiskey.”

A raucous cheer rose from behind Perorn, and voices shouted.

You have this, Lord Astoragon!

“Fast hooves and faster tongue be with you!”

Ask her if she wants to go for a ride, then—

Perorn’s glower silenced the voices. She gave Niers a long look.

“Just…try to focus on your job, would you?”

He glowered as he sat there, red-faced, and Foliana took another picture. He resolved to have her rooms burned down. At length, the Titan muttered.

“I suppose I should thank you for helping me not be myself around her. It might give me a shot, eh?”

Strategist Perorn Sadiluc’s eyes softened. When she spoke, it was kindly.

“Niers, that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

His head rose, and Perorn continued.

“She’ll see that soon no matter what. I’m just trying to make the ride down into the briar patch gentle.”

She hung up, and Niers sat there for a moment and reflected that, sometimes, he preferred annoying encouragement to honesty.

Just…every now and then. And it relaxed him, perhaps as that overgrown Centaur brat knew it would. Niers the Professor was going to make mistakes. Niers the [Strategist] was going to make mistakes. Niers the Fraerling would, too, but it would be fine, probably.

 

Niers the Titan, though, could wait to meet the [Innkeeper] as long as possible.

 

——

 

“Attention, class.”

When Niers strode into his classroom, it felt like the old days. They jumped and stared, and he looked over them, eyes lingering on faces.

They were back. He hadn’t known if they’d all make it, but there they were. His students in his special class had actually expanded to include Perorn’s best students and the new ones. But it was some of them that Niers focused on.

Wil, Umina, Marian, Venaz, Merrik, Peki, Yerranola, Kissilt, Cameral…

And no Feshi.

So he supposed one hadn’t returned, but she wasn’t dead. That was a victory. They were definitely changed, though.

Venaz sat with a huge, green, diamond greatsword prominently jutting from behind his back. He looked smug, having no doubt shown it off to the envious others like Jekilt and Kissilt, and some of the other students looked older.

Marian had aged like Yerranola, years in pain. Her prosthetic leg looked good; Perorn had had a word with Marian about recovering and processing grief. Umina looked sharper, as if she’d seen her genius run up against a real war.

Cameral—well, he’d actually been interning with Niers and gave the Titan a more confident nod. Kissilt had more authority, if not humility…it was hard to say if Venaz had humility, but the Minotaur looked more world-wise than before, which was to say he might have had his ego checked a few times.

Wil, Yerranola, Venaz, Merrik, and Peki had all been in Niers’ company in Izril, so they were more immediately familiar. Of the lot, Wil almost seemed more uncertain of himself than before, but he’d been through adventures. He and Yerranola sat together, and Merrik and Peki had graduated to this special class.

Merrik…didn’t seem to have changed as much. Dwarves seldom did. Something to do with their unique home, upbringing, and perspective. Peki looked troubled. Probably by news of home. When they saw him, Niers looked at his students and thought, as he often did, that this class had some of the most promising students that he’d ever seen.

He knew, by the end of next year, many more would not be sitting in front of him. Whether it was death…or graduation, he didn’t know.

“It’s going to be an interesting year, people. I hope you had a fine winter break. Nothing to report, eh? Good, good. Now today, I thought we’d review some supply sheets to see if you remember how to supply a company—I’ll want the reports done by the end of the week. We’ll run through some battles we just fought as well and see if you can do better than my commanders in the field.”

They burst into smiles, and the newer ones, like that [Princess], stared at Niers as he attempted a jocular tone and strode onto his podium. The students looked at each other, and Niers grinned—right up until someone raised a hand.

The Fraerling stopped, closed his eyes, and put a hand over his face.

“Venaz. Are you going to start this school year off right? Let’s find out.”

He pointed, and the Minotaur, to laughter from students new and old, who knew of his contentious relationship with the Professor, stood up.

“It’s good to be back, Professor! I hope I’ve learned enough to impress you.”

“Brown-nosing is not an upgrade. Is that all?”

Venaz was unmoved by the jab, which showed some growth.

“No, Professor! We were wondering if it was appropriate for you to be here given the fact that Innkeeper Solstice is about to be present. We’d quite understand if you left this to a substitute. Perhaps Iuncuta Eirnos or a Fraerling Tallguard would be a fascinating substitute! Sir!”

The class tittered, and Niers’ head slowly turned. It had been a long time since he’d felt his authority in the classroom itself challenged…he met Venaz’s gaze.

“The day I accept advice on romance, or even interpersonal relationships, from you, Venaz, is the day I drown myself in a cup of coffee.”

He got a few laughs, but the Minotaur was unmoved.

“With respect, sir, I didn’t mean that purely in a romantic sense, though it’s good you clarified it for the betting pool.”

Fallen straight into a trap. Niers debated punishments while the Minotaur went on, a touch smug.

“—I meant you may wish to gird yourself for meeting Erin Solstice. She is not what you expect, in my experience, sir. She may surprise you. In fact, I am sure she will.”

The class fell silent, and everyone stared at Wil, Peki, and Merrik, who nodded. Niers stopped inventing ways to humiliate Venaz and raised his brows.

“I don’t think I underestimate my foes, Venaz. I’m glad you’ve stopped.”

“Yes, Professor. But she’ll still surprise you.”

The Titan stood there a second, brows raised, as Venaz gave him a confident stare. After a second, Niers threw up his hands.

“Alright! Put down the reports! You don’t win credit for being too fast to do what I tell you, Princess Angelica.”

He snapped, and Princess Angelica of Morein jumped, dropped her paper, and turned red. The new students regarded her, and Niers waved a hand.

“Welcome to the new ones. Yes, look worried; I’ll bully you, and if staring makes you freeze up, you’re not going to survive this class. Get working on your introductions because I’m going to have you all make one to the class—and you’re selling yourself as if you’re a new [Strategist] the King of Destruction’s meeting. So make it as interesting as you think that means.

His eyes twinkled, and he spun on a heel, pointing.

But first! Venaz, report! Wil, Peki, Merrik, Yerranola, I suppose there’s no help for it. Everyone’s seen a certain Fraerling got up to mischief on his vacation—this is why I don’t take them. I want a full account of how it was from you five and what you did wrong and right.”

He stopped, glanced right dramatically, and nodded.

“You four as well. Marian’s got her first scars, and I have to commend her, Umina, Kissilt, and Cameral on the defense of Paeth, both as a Fraerling and as a teacher. Anything to say right away?”

“Glad to be alive, Professor! I hate fighting Lizardfolk!”

Kissilt shouted, and Niers smiled.

“But you did it and survived, and that’s a passing grade. Stop flashing that ring you got. We’ll talk logistics of that hairy mess in a second. And yes, I heard about what you got up to in the north, Jekilt. I want presentations, people! Your best and worst for a class of inquiring minds! Teach me something. Then, if we speed through our three hours, you can give me tips on dating, and we can envision a scenario where you’re about to meet a Level 50 [Innkeeper]. And what kind of Skills that kind of person has.

The class sat up, and Niers knew he had them. Not just that he’d gotten their attention and motivated them, but that they’d drop the stupid romance thing until the end of class.

Dead gods, I’m good at my job. The Titan stood there, smiling, right up until someone waved a hand.

“Sir! Clarification before we dive into it?”

Merrik rose to his feet as his group prepared to give their exciting tales of adventure and woe—Niers didn’t want to tell them he’d booked a [Writer] to record their adventures at sea down for the next issue until the class was over.

“Go on, Merrik?”

The Dwarf paused.

“…I think she’s not a huge fan of Drathian dishes from what I saw, but she does appreciate a good ‘mac and cheese’, whatever that is. She never eats that, though, so I think the smart money is on a familiar dish from home. I was thinking a Shepherd’s Pie—no rats or similar meat—and you can bet my beard on it, sir.”

He sat down, and Niers stared at his class. He turned, picked up a piece of chalk, then hurled it at Merrik.

 

——

 

Fending off students’ well-meaning advice for three hours was tiring work. Having well-meaning [Servants] catch him and ask about this or that for the upcoming event was hard work. Meeting Fraerlings in the halls who had advice, like Commander Rozcal, was insufferable.

Knowing that it was Hoisq’s day to go into combat under General Gloriam’s command…that was actually difficult.

Was he ashamed that sometimes he focused more on meeting Erin than the deaths of people he knew or were under his command? Yes, yes, of course.

Sometimes, he was too busy to care. And other times, he didn’t know the people who suffered and died and could look at it objectively, like a [Strategist].

And sometimes, Niers Astoragon learned how to stop and let his heart beat normally, fill, and stand on a platform that led onto Elvallian’s palace and look up.

The sky was lightening, the winter fleeing. The air was still chilly, but Fraerlings were tough, and Foliana never got cold except in the north. She herself was there, visible for once, nibbling on a piece of dried macaroni. Looking up.

Getting the top two leaders of the Forgotten Wing company in one spot was something that royalty couldn’t always achieve. But that was because most royalty were boring. For the King of Destruction, Foliana and Niers would have been there, with Signim no less. Niers in front, Foliana behind Flos.

Niers had dressed up for today. Not for Erin, since her reaching Elvallian today was in doubt. For this, he’d thrown on a sky-blue coat and worked around it; he kept the iconic red hat with the counterbalanced feather that had become part of his look. He was smiling as he rubbed at his chin.

All of the annoyance, the nerves, and yes, the irascibility his students and colleagues had observed in him when Erin was brought up was replaced by a simpler joy. Some of his best students, who’d been allowed to join him, saw the Titan’s eyes glittering.

A pair of young women staring upwards glanced at Niers, then continued whispering—well, arguing—together. It reminded Niers a bit of himself and Foliana. He wasn’t sure who was who.

“Be nice, Geneva.”

“I will be. I want to check her condition.”

Nice, I said. Do you even know what that is?”

“I’m able to be nice, Beth.”

“You say that, but I’m getting a blank stare like a sociopath from you. Okasha, back me up.”

“Geneva can’t be nice.”

Thank you.

“You two are being ridiculous. I’m getting a reputation like the Titan thanks to you two. Half the people I meet seem to think I’m incapable of smiling.”

“Oh, really? Then go ahead and smile. No help from Okasha.”

Two, no, three people were standing there. Only two were visible. Geneva Scala, Okasha, and Beth, the Selphid-version of Geneva, were arguing. Niers turned his head slightly and saw the taller of the two—Beth was a Lizardfolk today—pull a smile.

Eugh.

Geneva turned and saw Niers staring at her ‘smile’ with a faintly appalled look. Commander Rozcal leaned over on the dais the Fraerlings were using to see and began laughing his ass off. Geneva’s scowl was natural, practiced, an amazing one. Sheer, natural talent.

Beth gave Geneva a smug smile. Then she walked over and peered at Foliana’s snack. Foliana edged away from Beth.

“Go. Away.”

“I’m not going to take it from you. I was just checking.”

“I’ll throw you off this balcony.”

It was actually a sight; many of the students had heard rumors, but they’d never seen someone other than Niers, and rarely him, getting on Foliana’s nerves. Beth walked back to Geneva, and Niers laughed.

It was a natural, genuine laugh. He shaded his eyes and wondered what she saw.

He had to own, she knew how to make an entrance. She must have been flying for days now. After getting her bearings on the coast, and healing up, she’d caught the wind to get here. And it was always on her side.

A figure was flying towards Elvallian’s palace on a curious rectangle in the skies. A hang glider. The Fraerlings were hugely approving of this suicidal-looking stunt; only a single bar connected the young woman with the device. She didn’t even have a safety-harness.

Not these days. She looked properly mad and unique, as a Courier should. The Titan felt the breeze on his face as the Wind Runner came in for a descent. And before she’d even landed, he’d hopped onto Foliana’s shoulder.

He watched as the Wind Runner touched down easily, the wind slowing her as she literally touched down, let go of her glider, and rolled her shoulders. Even the Fraerlings looked impressed as Ryoka Griffin raised some goggles and looked around.

Foliana immediately turned invisible as people hurried forwards, and the young woman straightened, took in the crowd, and seemed ready to hop back into the air.

“Oh, fuck me.”

Ryoka Griffin audibly muttered, then she put a smile almost as good as Geneva’s onto her face and walked forwards. Foliana could make Niers invisible, and he sighed as Three-Color Stalker prowled up onto the platform, and someone spoke.

“I am Seneschal Atmodeca. Welcome to the Forgotten Wing company’s headquarters, Courier Griffin. Somewhere is Commander Foliana and Lord Astoragon. I have the pleasure of welcoming you as an honored guest.”

Ryoka’s mouth opened as she stared up at Atmodeca, and the seven-foot Crocodile Beastkin opened her mouth in an attempt at a smile.

Atmodeca actually won the contest for ‘worst greeting visage’, and Niers decided he’d tell her she didn’t have to bother with humanoid facial expressions.

“H-hi. I’m delighted to be here and honored.”

Ryoka did well; Atmodeca was legitimately unnerving, even to Lizardfolk. The Courier’s eyes swiveled the platforms, and she nodded to Venaz and the students. When she saw Geneva, her eyes went round, and the [Doctor] started uncertainly. Then Ryoka turned and glanced past Foliana, who was almost right on top of her, rifling through Ryoka’s belt pouch.

Foliana, dead gods damn it, stop looting her!

Living people are easier than corpses. Ooh. Nice. Smells like feet.

Niers and Foliana could also communicate silently when she did this. Foliana inspected Ryoka’s footwraps and wrinkled her nose. Then she pulled out an autographed card, and Ryoka’s eyes flickered back over Foliana with a frown.

“Is he here? Is Erin? Sorry, I know I came on short notice—”

She addressed Atmodeca, and her eyes kept flickering around. Ryoka spotted the Fraerlings, whistled silently, glanced at Atmodeca, who was explaining Niers and Foliana were ‘about’, and then, a third time, stared past Foliana—

Then straight at her. 

Niers, about to kick Foliana in the ear, stopped. No way. No way in cats—

Foliana had been reaching for Ryoka’s potions. Instantly, and reflexively, Ryoka slapped Foliana’s paw down.

“What the f—

She sprang back. Foliana jerked back with actual alarm. The entire audience froze as Three-Color Stalker appeared. Niers blinked as Foliana stared at her paw, Ryoka—the Wind Runner was wide-eyed.

“Oh, sorry. I’m honored to meet—”

She bowed toward Niers and Foliana—and Foliana kicked the Wind Runner off the balcony. That was almost definitely reflexive.

Aaaaaaaa—

Niers peered over the balcony and saw a blast of wind catch Ryoka by her windsuit before she hit the ground. He peered at Foliana, who blinked her own unique eyes and met his gaze for a second. When she saw his smug smirk—she tossed him off the platform as well.

 

——

 

Ryoka felt like bad first impressions were her specialty. At least she caught the Titan. Getting kicked like that hurt like hell, though; the wind had yanked her back, but Ryoka had gone flying.

“Apologies for the kick. You scared the hell out of Foliana. Back up we go—gently—gently—everyone, stand down. Foliana, back off. Just reach your hand out there, Miss Griffin. Thank you. Never squeeze a Fraerling even if you’re catching us. Good instincts.”

When they got back up, Ryoka gingerly extended her hand, and Niers hopped onto a platform that kept him more or less at eye-level. Everyone was staring.

Foliana, visible, not the shimmering veil drawn over her that Ryoka had spotted, was standing with a bunch of wary people relaxing and taking their hands off their blades. If Ryoka needed another reminder she was in [Mercenary] territory—

Actually, the kick was all she needed.

Wow, that hurt. However, the Titan was shouting everyone down.

“Alright, students, don’t push forwards. Atmodeca, toss Umina off the balcony if she tries to sneak in. You’re still students, and this is Forgotten Wing business. You can try to listen in if you want, but this is our guest. Foliana, no more kicks.”

“No promises.”

Three-Color Stalker dodged Atmodeca’s grab for her. She was peering at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner wished she’d played dumb.

Oh shit, my perspective trick is going to get me in serious trouble here. Outing herself as being able to see the world’s greatest rogue was bad news. However, Niers was speaking, and he seemed to dominate the attention space, even as small as he was.

Niers Astoragon was smiling.

“Ryoka Griffin, welcome to Elvallian! And may I add, thank you for taking Foliana down a peg. Does someone have a recording of the moment? No? Damn, we’ll have to commission a painting.”

Foliana didn’t respond, but she nudged the platform on which Niers was standing on, and someone swore.

“Watch it, Stalker!”

A one-eyed Fraerling caught herself, gave Ryoka a second look, and nodded. Niers stumbled but kept beaming.

“Ryoka, may I introduce you to Iuncuta Eirnos, Doctor Geneva Scala, Healer Beth, a rabid tree squirrel, Commander Rozcal…”

He made introductions rapidly, and one of the Fraerlings in armor, huge for his size but amazingly small, boomed in an incredible voice.

“Hah! And here I thought the [Innkeeper] was the only interesting Tallfolk I’d meet this week! Put it there, Courier!”

He shook a finger as Ryoka’s mouth opened. The Wind Runner’s eyes jerked to Geneva, then she bowed to Niers.

“I’m honored, again, to be here, Lord Astoragon.”

His eyes glinted.

“You can skip that, Ryoka. A friend of Erin’s is a friend of mine—and we are both honored associates of Mrsha the Great and Terrible, aren’t we?”

Oh. Yeah! He knew Mrsha! Ryoka relaxed, but the Titan was still—whoa. He was right there, and for all he was a tiny guy she’d literally caught and cradled in her hands, he had the ability to maneuver in both a physical and verbal space like he was a lot bigger. He walked forwards onto the air as his boots glowed, leaving a misty trail behind him.

“We don’t really shake hands as Fraerlings, so I’ll take my hat off to you.”

He waved the hat and the giant feather, and Ryoka half-bowed. She looked him up and down.

“No, really, thank you for letting me fly in and helping, Lord Astoragon. Your people were great. Especially when I kept flying from spot to spot and Lizardfolk kept trying to net me.”

He sighed.

“I’d like to believe they were just after a bounty I put to help you or even spot you—but the odds are Jungle Tails or someone else wanted a word with you. I’m just glad my forces knew how to talk to you.”

Ryoka nodded. Instead of trying to capture her, they’d taken the novel—and smart—approach of shouting who they were and, when she was unconvinced they weren’t also out to grab her, tossing a bunch of maps into the air until she got to a bigger city.

The Titan, it seemed, knew something about paranoia. And perhaps he knew how Ryoka felt at this moment, because he moderated his tone, which was clearly an attempt to be welcoming.

“—I blame Foliana for the kick. You’re in good company if you can spot her once, though. Elvallian is meant for extraordinary people, and you’ll fit in nicely. Fraerlings, officers, and students—we’ll back off a step. I believe Ryoka Griffin should start with someone more at home with her.”

He gave a nod to Geneva Scala, and for some reason, the other one, clearly a Selphid, walked forwards. And there was a duck perched on a railing.

“Quack!”

Ryoka stared at the duck. It was definitely a duck. She narrowed her eyes. Yes, it was a duck. It kept telling her it was a duck.

…It was a duck? Niers eyed Ryoka’s face as the definitely-a-duck quacked again. He raised his brows, smiled.

“Someone feed the damn duck and get it out of the way.”

Quack, quack!

The duck flapped its wings as a [Servant] picked it up. Now there was a damn duck—but Geneva Scala was staring at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner gave her a nod. Then she turned back to Niers.

“Thank you for the consideration, Lord Astoragon. I’m fine, really. If Erin’s out there, I could fly to her or answer any questions—”

“Don’t fly out to her, Ryoka.”

Niers chuckled. He shook his head at her and rubbed at his goatee. He was a pretty handsome guy, even if he’d definitely entered into his later years. Foliana was greyer than Ryoka had thought too.

An older Fraerling—but wow, he was intimidating.

“We have plenty of time, and I daresay it makes sense for us to chat before Erin Solstice gets here. You’re not overwhelmed? Well, someone will get you something for your stomach and refreshments. Flying that high up makes you damn cold and thirsty, if I remember right.”

Ryoka blinked and waved her hands as she nodded her head.

“Oh, I don’t need a potion—but I could use something hot to drink. You’re right.”

Niers nodded at a servant.

“One of the nice parlors. Don’t worry; we’re not so excessive we’d use a healing potion on you. No offense, Miss Ryoka. We have a low-level healing balm one of our [Healers] makes up. Not great, and it spoils, but it beats nothing these days. Or getting sewn up. We get thirsty when we fly. Why is that? It’s cold, and you’d imagine the lack of movement saves water.”

“Uh…atmosphere? It’s probably drier, and our bodies are working harder?”

Ryoka had to speculate. Someone cut in—Geneva Scala.

“If it’s flying back home, it’s the lower humidity in a controlled environment. For you two, I imagine it’s the air and your bodies working harder in an unfamiliar environment. I’d like to check Ryoka over, first. She had a [Healer], but she survived a significant incident at sea.”

Geneva Scala strode forwards and nodded to Ryoka. Someone actually stopped Geneva—Niers and the young Selphid called Beth.

“One second, Doctor Geneva. I’m sure Miss Griffin has time for a checkup—later. She’s not visibly dying, and this world has run well enough before you did a routine checkup of everyone in it.”

The Titan’s words stopped Geneva, and the [Doctor] began to scowl—before the Selphid, Beth, put a hand on her shoulder.

“And I think you meant ‘hello, Ryoka. It’s great to see you.’”

“Yes. I…”

The [Doctor] stopped and took a breath. She had spectacles, piercing light brown eyes, brown hair, olive skin, and something close to a lab coat on, in white. Her voice was rapid, like it was used to speaking fast. Ryoka tried a smile and held out a hand.

“Nice to meet you at last, Geneva.”

The [Doctor] focused on Ryoka’s right hand and the three fingers. She took Ryoka’s hand slowly, glancing down to the stubs, then at Ryoka.

“You’ll be safe here, Ryoka. I’m relieved to meet you.”

Beth rolled her eyes as she held out a hand with a friendlier smile, and Ryoka shook it while staring at Geneva and thinking—

Wow, she’s almost as not okay as me. Judging from the way the [Doctor] was performing a visual scan of Ryoka, from her bare feet to her windsuit, and noting the visible scars, the two were having a ‘this woman is in need of my help’…contest. And they both thought the other was winning.

But Niers just cleared his throat gently.

“I can see it was a good idea to invite you here. If you’ll let me, I’ll intrude on a good cup of tea in a parlor. No, Rozcal, you aren’t invited. Ignore him. He just wants to learn how to fly in armor. Adamantium. He has a vision of being a flying Fraerling in indestructible armor.”

The Wind Runner turned to the beaming Fraerling, who rubbed a hand across the back of his head as if to say ‘aw, shucks’. Ryoka was tickled pink and dipped her head to Niers.

“I’d like that.”

“Foliana—ah, damn. She’s gone.”

Ryoka’s eyes slid sideways, and Niers burst out laughing. A furry finger flicked his dais, and he swore.

“I love this. Okay, let’s make it four of us. You, me, Geneva, Beth. Tea? Coffee? Atmodeca, just get snacks. All of them.”

“Get snacks. Tea. Coffee?”

The Wind Runner brightened up, then grew confused.

“Oh, I could use some coffee. Wait, you have that?”

Niers winked at Ryoka.

“Of course we do. Scouring the jungles for the berries and making up a cup isn’t hard; growing the lot is. Do you need to send any [Messages] before we do that? Tell anyone you’re alive?”

“Uh—Tyrion knows, and Mrsha found me the day after the battle, so I’ve been in contact. Coffee’s great. Thank you. Oh, shit—”

“I know, I know. A [Lord] of House Veltras is coming, unsubtly, towards Baleros. I can’t stop him, and the Iron Vanguard is too busy to, but he’ll be in trouble the moment he lands, if only because from what I understand of the man, he’s denser than Venaz. Let’s solve the issue after we get on the same page.”

Niers forestalled Ryoka’s comment, preempted her clarifications, and they were being pointed to a parlor so fast she felt dizzy. Ryoka glanced at him.

Okay. He’s definitely one of the world’s greatest [Strategists]. Chaldion was like that, but I never got to know him as well as Erin, and he was old.

This guy didn’t feel old. He did give off a sense of danger and, yes, incredible competency. Ryoka searched Niers up and down and also realized he dressed amazingly well. This dude had apparently invented chess—oh, and he ruled a Great Company, and she’d heard he’d minced Gold-ranks as a Fraerling.

But Ryoka’s inspection of Niers resulted in something odd. She slowed as Niers perched on Atmodeca’s shoulder, and put a hand over her chest. Yeah. He really was a snappy dresser. The goatee looked great on him, and even his voice was far larger than his body, commanding and soothing.

Ryoka felt at her chest. Then she wiped at her brow.

“Whew!”

Whew? Niers gave Ryoka a sideways glance. The Wind Runner looked unaccountably relieved.

“Worried about Tyrion Veltras?”

“No, er—I was just sort of worried about—nothing. Nevermind.”

It was just a random thought, but Ryoka was really glad it hadn’t happened. Because that was the last thing she needed. Niers gave Ryoka a blank look for about a dozen steps—then his eyes screwed up, and he began chuckling.

“Is that—forgive me. Is that a common problem?”

Ryoka reddened.

“I am so sorry. It’s presumptive, but the last two times I was in a new place—”

Niers began chuckling, then he put his hand over his chest, and his eyes widened.

“Wait, House Veltras and Ailendamus? And it was reciprocal? Ha! Hahahahahaha—”

Ryoka waved her hands, denying the reciprocal part—at least in Ailendamus, but the Titan roared with laughter. Then he pointed a finger at Ryoka.

“Flying Humans are very charming. Flying Garuda? Passe.”

A Garuda trying to follow the conversation and join in gave Niers a wounded look.

“Hey, Professor.”

Away, Peki! Shoo! No one likes someone who can do what everyone else can do. I can see it. You know, I think it’s also about your unique perspective.”

Earth. But Niers blazed on so fast, eyes twinkling, anyone could have taken anything from it. As if telling Ryoka to keep up.

“—You’re going to disarm a lot of people who think they’ve seen everything. Even more if you’re genuine where they’re used to a dissembler.”

“Oh shit, that’s sort of true. I mean, it’s also that I meet some people and—”

“—you’re chatting with them because you’re a Courier or on a task, and they haven’t spoken to anyone besides themselves for years? It happens. When I was young, there was this Archmage who married a City Runner who just delivered packages for him. Whether or not it was a good matchup…we’re all people at the end of the day. And now you’ve got one following you from Izril. You can tell him ‘no’, you know. Or I can. That’s where having General Diomedes—Cyclops—comes in handy. Even thickheads get it.”

Ryoka was speaking faster as Geneva, Beth, and the people being swatted back by the servants tried to get a word in or just listened.

“No, I—”

“Oh, so it’s fine? Perish the thought. Toss it in a bag, drown it in the ocean. Then it’s your problem.”

Ryoka blushed. Niers gave her a serious look.

“Just know that at some point Tyrion Veltras is going to be Tyrion Veltras, not Tyrion or however you know him. If it hasn’t happened already.”

She ducked her head and was so impressed with the Titan that she almost missed it. But a Squirrel woman rematerialized and whispered as the Titan grinned at Ryoka.

“Mm. So says the Fraerling who can’t even visit an [Innkeeper] without getting marooned in the High Passes for months.”

Niers twisted, reached towards his belt for something to hurl at Foliana as she danced away, and hesitated. He glanced at Ryoka, and his poise was suddenly shattered.

“Er—well, that’s another matter. Erin’s coming by, and I suppose you’re aware that I made my intentions clear. But rescuing her friends and helping her is clearly divided from personal affairs. So you know. Speaking of which, she’ll be glad to see you! Do you have anything you’d like to eat when you meet?”

Ah. Now that was almost a relief. Like Achilles suddenly getting kicked in the heel, the Titan suddenly floundered. And that incisive cut to his commentary turned duller.

Whew. So this was the guy who liked Erin? Ryoka could instantly see why. She was smiling as they turned to the parlor. Niers recovered himself as he looked around with a hunted look that Ryoka thought you got when you had an invisible, annoying person you’d lived with for decades.

“Ignore Foliana. Actually, point her out to me at every chance you get. She’s like the lead weight tied around my neck—if she seeks you out, you can always shout for help, and I’ll chase her off. Everyone wants to speak to you, you’ll find. It comes with being a Courier.”

“I’d love to meet everyone, and talk to…”

Ryoka glanced at Geneva and was uncertain about why Beth was here. A Selphid? Was she a commander if Niers was letting her in on what Ryoka took to be an important conversation? Beth was nudging Geneva, who was giving Beth a pained look. As if Ryoka wasn’t in on…

“Beth’s appropriate for this conversation, and we are taking it by importance.”

Niers seemed to be waiting for Ryoka to figure something out, and Ryoka stared at Beth. Not an illusion. But she was a Selphid. So she knew…but why…?

She had a crazy thought, and Ryoka hesitated. Was that even possible!? Niers gave her an approving look, and then Ryoka couldn’t wait to talk. But the Titan held out a hand, stopping Ryoka.

“I want you to know that for multiple reasons, Geneva aside, your talents and unique perspective aside, and even friendship with Erin aside, it’s my intention to treat you like an ally and, frankly, asset if you’re willing to be, Ryoka. I have a war—two wars to win. The Dyed Lands and Jungle Tails, and I won’t pretend I have all the time, but I’ll make it to discuss matters with you.”

“Thank you, Lord Astoragon. That’s a high honor.”

Niers nodded. Then he paused.

“Well, you, Erin, and Geneva, feelings aside, warrant it. For instance, you seem to have an object Geneva tells me you got from the House of El. And I told Geneva you definitely didn’t. May I see the infamous Windsword?”

Ryoka blinked, and her heart leapt in her chest. She got a bit nervous. Now she thought of it…this was the guy a younger, more innocent Ryoka had always feared meeting. Not Magnolia Reinhart. The Titan.

But the Windsword was innocent enough—she activated it, aiming it far away from her, and Atmodeca shivered.

“Dangerous.”

“Magnificent. That’s not the House of El.”

Niers’ eyes fixed on the technology of the future and instantly called it out. Geneva Scala turned to Ryoka, and the pink glow revealed horror in her eyes. Beth?

“Damn. A lightsaber. Geneva, don’t look so appalled. Imagine a laser scalpel.

Ryoka jerked and stared at Beth. She deactivated the Faeblade, realized she couldn’t give it to Niers, and let him feel the hilt.

“It’s, uh, a gift.”

“It had better be. Or Geneva’s been lying to me. Ryoka, would you let my people inspect it? That means Forgotten Wing and Fraerlings. I see you, Eirnos. No, your people aren’t allowed in our first meeting, but you can take a look at this.”

Niers glanced up, and Ryoka saw a bunch of Fraerlings gathered in a walkway high above behind a glass observation window. Instantly, she jerked the Faeblade back.

“Sorry, Lord Astoragon. But that’s, uh—I really respect the Fraerlings from what I know of them. But I don’t know them.”

The Fraerlings sighed; Commander Rozcal had to restrain one of the Fraerlings who looked ready to divebomb Ryoka for the sword. Niers just gave Ryoka a raised pair of brows.

“It’s not enchanted, is it?”

“What? Not fully—”

Hedault had tried to do a bit, but Ryoka had flown off, leaving the Dryad wand and a lot of her obligations behind. She had to go back, but here mattered more right now, especially after what Erin had said.

Her friend needed Ryoka. Maybe someone else would be better, but Ryoka would give Erin a hug and help her, even if it meant having to fly Erin back to Izril herself. Ryoka was glad she hadn’t shown the Titan the obol or Hedault’s experimental enchantments. Or the footwr—

She turned and snatched her footwraps back from Foliana. Okay, paranoia Ryoka was back in business, baby. The Titan clearly saw that he’d put Ryoka’s guard up, because he smiled guiltily.

“I want to respect your privacy, but that is a weapon. I saw you carving up undead with it, and I have to own, I’d want to inspect it myself. We can get Fraerling [Enchanters] on your blade. Asking where it’s from or the rest of your story would be top of my list.”

“I’ll share as much as I can, but I’m, uh, going to keep this on me. Sorry, Lord Astoragon.”

Ryoka was nervous as she bowed, and Geneva shot Ryoka an approving look. But the Titan didn’t seem as wrathful as, say, Rhisveri might have been. Nor was he as stupid as Rhisveri, who had passed up the Faeblade until he’d seen what it could do.

The Titan nodded at Ryoka, eyes lighting up.

“I respect that, Ryoka. And you. You’re a woman of beliefs, and I believe you did earn Courier-rank by your own deeds. Which is all the more amazing given your origins.”

“Oh, thanks…”

That was so embarrassing to hear. Ryoka flushed, and the Titan smiled at her.

“That’s why I’m not going to insult you by pretending to be something I’m not.”

Ryoka stared at him until the paw yanked the Faeblade off of her belt. She spun.

“Hey! Stop—”

Foliana had the Faeblade, and she danced back three steps. Then she tossed it up—it bounced off the Fraerling ways.

“Oops. Where do I put it?”

“Let Eirnos’ people take a shot at it. Don’t break it, Eirnos, or you might get a hurricane blasting down your city. Inspect! And be damn careful with it! You could damage it just by looking.”

“Wh—stop!

Ryoka ran after Foliana, but the Squirrel Beastkin hopped down the corridor—dodged Ryoka’s jump—and someone picked Ryoka up.

“Excuse me, Courier. Your room is that way.”

Seneschal Atmodeca caught Ryoka by one arm, and Foliana vanished. Ryoka spun.

“What are—”

The Titan stood in the air as Geneva Scala gave him a stare and Beth exhaled. He didn’t flinch from Ryoka’s horrified gaze. He looked less pleased with himself now, but his nod was direct.

“No one in the entire world would see an object like that and let it just walk away. I am sorry. That’s a good way to start our conversation. Guard up. Eh?”

“You stole it. You—no one’s done that!”

Rhisveri had, but he’d given it back. Niers looked genuinely shocked, then he shook his head.

“Really? Not even Chaldion? Not Deilan El? Let me amend that statement, Ryoka: you’ve met half-rates and ‘nice men’ so far. Or disinterested women in Magnolia Reinhart’s case. Not [Strategists].”

Now, his tone was different, and his face was like a distant thunderhead. Like a storm speaking through him.

“I am the genuine article. Top of my game, not an heir or in decline. Let’s be friends with all that entails. If not—allies.”

He gestured towards the room as Ryoka glanced at Geneva Scala and saw the [Doctor]’s long stare and Beth’s considering one. The Wind Runner finally met the Titan of Baleros as Niers checked the sun.

“I wonder what meeting Erin Solstice will be like.”

Then, Ryoka Griffin hoped, for the first time, that the two of them would really meet. Because she felt like he might deserve it.

 

——

 

It took Paxere all day to get back home, and Vultapheles was so tired they didn’t even lecture Paxere on the deal or convene a meeting of the Lucifen; they just went to rest.

She, herself, was feeling energized by what had been done but refused to gossip as Lucifen and nosy Agelum located her and demanded to know what had happened. Paxere felt…different.

Every now and then, she’d turn her head and look back southwest, across the ocean, at a being she now knew to be alive.

Whom she was linked to, for better or worse. No—better.

Paxere shook her head as she felt the odd…soul, a well of power, in her chest. A piece of her.

More than that, as if it were a color, influencing part of Paxere as well. Power. Authority. And a connection. Perhaps not the earthshaking power Paxere had hoped for. Maybe it was the bargain’s nature or just Paxere being younger.

But she felt like she would be able to access more powers of the Lucifen and share the power…if not the soul. A success all around. Except—Paxere paused.

“So. She’s mortal after all.”

Erin was indeed mortal. Paxere couldn’t read Erin’s mind, but some emotions, yes. And what the Lucifen had found, to her surprise, was one emotion above all else in Erin. Buried deep, defining the woman.

Rage. So much of it that it was scorching even to the Lucifen. Erin Solstice was filled with a burning fury that was righteous, vengeful, petty, and more from the core of her soul. Who knew the [Innkeeper] was like that? Well…Paxere turned. And wondered what Erin Solstice felt.

She wondered what the [Innkeeper] would do next.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I am tired. And you know what? A beta-reader just reminded me that I wrote, for this chapter, 37,000 words over two days. And I went ‘oh yeah, that’s a lot of work even by my standards’.

Hello, I’m pirateaba, and I have a problem. The problem isn’t my audience or my job, though.

Strange. Only one update has passed since my announcement about writing less come April, but it seems like a week or two has passed, for me. I can’t say why.

The response has been tremendously amazing. Thank you all for being so supportive, and I think it’s the perspective that’s made things feel so different.

Here’s my example: for this chapter, I worked hard. I was pulling out tea and coffee for the first part of this chapter, despite having kicked the caffeine habit and ordering sushi for motivation. I was struggling. I got it done, and I think I actually had some good moments while writing, but I had a moment there, when I said ‘huh’.

This is a lot of work. I slowed down and went, ‘wow, I do this every week? How long have I been doing that…?’

Eight years if I’d kept it up till August, I think. Of course, the word count increased substantively later on, but the point is I’ve done this amount for years. People have been telling me to slow down, to take more breaks, that I’m working too hard, from editors to readers to everyone else.

But I was in the thick of it, believing I had to keep putting out the same output, so I didn’t let myself notice how intense it was. Now I’m allowed to relax, I think it’s hitting me harder.

Now, here’s the interesting part (this should probably be a blog post but I’m too tired to make a separate post):

 

Nothing about this is unique. In fact, this lesson I’m describing is probably one of the most mundane and universal takes every person, online and off, will relate or learn at some point in their lives. Most people will come to this realization, I think, especially in some jobs and parts of our culture.

If anything, the lesson is in how mundane and universal this realization I came to is. I have already been told and observed the things I’m now telling you I figured out. Yet I didn’t understand it until this very moment, if that makes sense.

 

Perhaps, if anything, it shows how what we take for granted or ‘know’ can turn out to be different than what we expect. The sense of reality, of what we believe, is different from the truth.

It’s like reaching out to touch something that doesn’t exist, or, if you want to go to a negative example, being told something and finding out it’s different—the definition of gaslighting. Yet the ability to question what we hold as a truth or reality or see things from another angle is important.

We must look for these things…but I digress. Sorry, I’m being philosophical. And grateful. I am going to keep up the momentum this month, though I cannot deliver a third Erin chapter in a row next update.

I’ll have 1 day to write, and one to revise, so it’s an interlude for me. Not sure which one I’ll do. There are plenty. But I do think I want to get back to this arc by Saturday.

 

Lastly, for this extended Author’s Note, I would once again like to remind you dear readers supporting me and everything I say implicitly of why I hate J.R.R Tolkien. A monster who has disserviced writers by being one of the most annoyingly skilled polymaths who translated Norse myths, helped write the Oxford English Dictionary, survived a war, and could write songs, poetry, and another stupid language.

It’s hard to match the breadth of his worldbuilding. For instance, I didn’t even know that the Elvish, the language he made, as well as other languages like Klingon, are actually defined as ‘conlangs’, or constructed languages.

That’s apparently a thing. And it’s hard work and a pain in the ass to even imagine writing one of them. I barely remember what a preposition is—I skipped through one of my English years in High School and, I swear, that was the year they taught all the grammar terminology (or I just didn’t ever pay attention).

Doing a conlang might be impossible even if I was on my easier time schedule. Which is why I ask for help because I’m not JRR Tolkein. Or Shakespeare, as one of my readers (Litwickee, it’s Litwickee of the typo squad), keeps reminding me.

I still can’t do the translation that well even with all my notes and the translation examples, but hey. You can translate all kinds of stuff with this handy example sheet I have. I’ll show it to you later, but I’ve got to get the grammar stuff right.

 

That’s all from me. Small things, boring chapters, and sushi. Tempura sushi. I don’t think I want any with crab meat or shrimp. They’re bugs. I didn’t like sushi for years, actually; refused to even touch the stuff. Now I have an appreciation for it. Things change.

I refuse to eat shrimp. See you next chapter!

 

 

Garsine Wallbreaker by butts, commissioned by pirateaba!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord
Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts

 

Erin’s First Morning in Innworld, by Hellcat!

 

Empress Erin by Tombtender!

 

Nanette and Awakening by Rocky!

 

Frieren Crossover by LeChatDemon!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lechatdemon/

 

ErinXNiers by Lime!

Bluesky: https://bsky.app/profile/arcticlime.bsky.social

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/recapturedlime

 

Erin by OnionLittle!

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/littleonion

Twitter: https://twitter.com/littleonion_art

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/littleonion.art/

 

Gazer Fashion by Stargazing Selphid!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/megawint/

 

Bird and Niers by KiffaB!

 

Goblinfriend by Yootie!

 

Erin’s Pact by Yura!

 


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