10.10 E (Pt. 1) – The Wandering Inn

10.10 E (Pt. 1)

[To celebrate the upcoming audiobook release of Gravesong, the first book of a stand-alone trilogy about Cara O’Sullivan, The Singer of Terandria, on April 30th, we’re holding a launch event on the Wandering Inn Discord server!

Undead, ghosts, and more are to be found within the pages of Gravesong, but who will you find yourself backing as they all face off? Find out by participating in the Emblem Campaign starting on April 9th.

To inspire our artists, Haunting Hues will be kicking off on April 15th.

And don’t forget to keep an eye on Cognita…]

 

 

 

 

Click.

It was the softest sound in the world, but it felt like it echoed for a hundred miles. A great reverberation that ran through her bones. Significance; the very sound of it. Something had just been opened. Something tremendously valuable.

Something dangerous.

The very nature of secrets waiting to come to light. Erin Solstice was not surprised by the sound the key made as she turned it in her chest. Her fingers trembled as they held the tiny key, the Key of Insight, which had been hidden to even her. The tip of it was inserted into a gap in her chest; a keyhole just below her chin, above her breasts.

Nothing moved in the world around her. The thorn bush didn’t rustle. No clamor arose from the insects or jungle around her; even the Goblin, Ulvama, didn’t stir as she slept, curled up next to the embers of a fire.

Erin felt that they should have all reacted to the sound. Therefore, only she had heard it. The sound would have woken anything sentient up.

[The Pavilion of Secrets]. One of her new Skills. Erin’s breath caught as the key kept twisting. Then she sighed.

“I am my inn.”

She repeated the words, finished turning the key, and something groaned inside of her. Not her stomach. A melancholically ancient door, inscribed with the regrets of the three beings who had ever been worthy of it, opened as the key turned the lock. But it warned her, and the [Innkeeper]’s fingers trembled.

For a door, like an inn, had a purpose. A door was meant to be opened. An inn was meant to house people. But this door…had broken at least one of its owners. Erin Solstice recalled the three messages written there:

 

To those that follow after me, I was the last Empress of Harpies. My name was Sheta. This [Garden of Sanctuary] is the last thing I will ever leave. Only the immortal will remember my name, I hope, across these endless ages.

The gardens welcome you, wherever and whenever they are needed. But they are not the only remnants of my legacy. I built them upon the rest. So, if you are worthy, find what came before me.

This door leads to the [Pavilion of Secrets]. If you continue, if you choose to explore onwards, understand this. It is not necessarily a gift, these Skills.

Sanctuary provides. Secrets empower. Fate illuminates.

But remember:

Sanctuary can never shelter enough. Secrets grow vast unspoken. And Fate mocks us all. But I was glad of it. May my key help you protect what matters.

 

The last of the Harpy Empresses, Sheta, who had known Teriarch, the Dragonlord of Flame.

 

I was worthy of Secrets. But what lay beyond I never achieved. I was truly honored; upon Secrets and Sanctuary, we built a House. May it endure proudly forever. Aleieta Reinhart.

 

Aleieta Reinhart. Erin had never known much about her, but the House that she had built? Oh, yes. Erin knew that.

 

Secrets broke me. I gained this, as none of my kind ever have. It was no kindness. Cormelex, the Infernal Court.

 

And last of all, Cormelex of the Lucifen. Another being whose very species Erin had barely known of until recently. A member of the Infernal Court of Rhir, which predated the Blighted Kingdom and Demons.

He, of the three of them, had regretted opening this door. It was warning Erin now; she could see it in her head.

Erin knelt in the center of the little campsite in the thorn bush, a small patch of embers burning beside her casting long shadows, Ulvama sleeping, her magical paint restored, crude tools made of thorns piled around this primitive shelter.

Erin stood in that long hallway, staring at the glowing messages written in the void. There was no door behind her, no [Gardens of Sanctuary]. Only the Pavilion of Secrets with the key in the lock. Waiting.

She was simultaneously in both places. For a moment, she hesitated again. This door was dangerous, and if any object was sentient—it was warning her.

Her [Dangersense] was not going off. But [Dangersense] was a silly thing. Every other instinct Erin had was telling her…she might live to regret opening this door.

Nevertheless, the [Innkeeper] closed her eyes. She had wanted this. Earned it in a way only the creator could articulate. Slowly, Erin finished twisting the key.

Click.

Then—there was a campsite, a sleeping Goblin, a small campfire, but the young woman was gone.

In that long corridor filled by nothing but words and the door, the [Innkeeper] pulled the door open. She turned her head and realized something.

Oh. There’s no sanctuary past this point, is there?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had vanished. Ulvama slept on, restlessly turning every now and then. But every time she’d woken up in a panic, she’d seen Erin and calmed down, checking the glowing paint sigils on her arms and body and relaxing.

It wasn’t exactly time-manipulation. But it was close enough. Ulvama looked like she had before being kidnapped by Roshal; that was to say, she had her own, custom-made shamanic paint applied to her skin.

It looked in most cases like pale, white markings, akin to a [Mage]’s runes, decorating her shoulders, the exposed skin on her legs, cheeks, and even stomach under her shirt with different enchantments. It was what armor was to [Warriors]; with it, she was far safer in this jungle hellhole than before.

Of course, what made her even more secure was having someone here, especially Erin. The Hobgoblin lay there, unaware of the key turning or the [Innkeeper] vanishing. Then her eyes fluttered, and she began to wake—

Ulvama. Ulvama!

Erin shook Ulvama. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] screamed, twisted, and kicked Erin in the stomach.

Gyah!

The reactions of a Goblin who’d had to survive for a month in the wild caught Erin off-guard. She went tumbling and almost hit the flames.

Erin!

Ulvama snapped, eyes wide, breathing heavily. She had a thorn-spear in one hand and was ready to impale Erin before she caught herself. Erin popped up.

“Sorry! Ow.

She felt at her stomach. It had been a real solid kick, and she’d turned off her [Aspect of the Inn: Reinforced Structure]. Ulvama lowered the spear.

“Sorry. What is—?”

She looked around, thinking they were under attack. But Erin just hurried over, lowering her voice. They were not wholly safe from larger predators, even in the thorn bush.

“Ulvama, we’re not under attack. But I think—I think I just found a door back home. I just opened the [Pavilion of Secrets]. Come with me!”

“Whuh.”

The Hobgoblin had just gotten into a proper slumber. It was probably past midnight. She gave Erin a bleary look of confusion, then her crimson eyes widened with hope and surprise.

“Your door?”

“Yeah! It’s not the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It’s the second one—the [Pavilion of Secrets]. I opened the door, and I was gone.

Erin knew it. She’d taken one step through—then come back. Because of Ulvama. She tried to explain as Ulvama stared at her, then the Key of Insight.

“You have a door in your chest? You’re a door?”

“Yes—and no. It’s more like I can channel the Skill through me. I’m not Liska. But it’s definitely a place. I didn’t want to go in without you. Here—let me show you.”

Erin stood back, and Ulvama twitched as she saw a tiny keyhole in Erin’s chest. It was visible through Erin’s torn t-shirt, and the Goblin saw Erin insert the key gingerly. All the [Shaman] did, though, was plant her spear in the ground and rub at her face.

“…Couldn’t this wait till morning?”

Erin gave Ulvama a long, somewhat indignant look.

“If this works right, we could be in our beds in the inn tonight!”

The [Shaman] thought about it.

“You’re right. This is a good idea. Okay, what do I do?”

“Um—first, tell me what you see. I’m just gonna go back to the door and come back. All I have to do is—”

Click.

This time, Ulvama saw the key turn, saw Erin’s face go slack a second—but she heard nothing.

Erin Solstice vanished.

It wasn’t a poof of smoke. It wasn’t even a noticeable ‘blip’ of sound or even seeing Erin vanishing. She was just gone, and it took the mind a moment to even process how subtly she’d slipped from the world. Ulvama’s eyes went round in shock. Then she felt at the air.

“Erin? Erin!

She began to panic. Ulvama paced around, trying to find any trace of where Erin had gone. She looked around, began to tremble and shake—and Erin reappeared, grinning and staring ahead.

“—working! I definitely felt like I wasn’t in two places at once. But maybe I was just standing—Ulvama?”

The Hobgoblin threw her arms around Erin. It had probably only been fifteen seconds, but she seemed terrified.

Don’t do that.

“I just—”

Erin stared at Ulvama, then her face twisted up.

“Sorry. Sorry. Come on, let me take you with me. I can’t see a door back to the inn. But even if I can’t, it’s probably safer than here.”

She eyed the thorn bush. Ulvama shuddered—then grabbed her spear and some of the berries.

“Okay. Is it safe?”

“My [Dangersense] didn’t go off.”

That wasn’t the kind of answer you liked to hear. Ulvama turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] tried to clarify.

“Okay, so there’s that long passageway where the [Gardens of Sanctuary] are supposed to be. You’ve been there, right? You remember?”

“…Lots of doors?”

“Yeah, yeah. But there are no doors. Then there’s the door that leads to the Pavilion of Secrets…I just took a look beyond, and it’s, um. Well, there’s a pavilion. Looks sort of run-down.”

“Is it a garden? Is there food?”

Ulvama was trying to establish how much she should carry; the few devices she’d made to carry objects weren’t great. She took two spears, handing one to Erin, and awkwardly held as much of the berry-slices as she could. Food and weapons; it wasn’t like there was much more valuable.

“Maybe we wait and get all the berries from the bush—no, let’s go. Unless it’s dangerous? How big is the pavilion? Can we forage? Any…living things there?”

The [Innkeeper] was trying to explain, but it was hard.

“Um. No. It’s…it’s easier to show you. Just be prepared for some vertigo. Or something like that. There’s a lot of nothingness out there. There’s a path…it’s big, I think. Or maybe there’s just not much there. It’s nothing, Ulvama. The void. It goes a long, long way, I think. The Pavilion of Secrets is all I saw. A road leading up to it. No garden; no walls or dome. Just blackness. Not even blackness, really. I think that’s just how my mind perceives it.”

A pavilion in the middle of the void? Ulvama hesitated. Her [Shaman] instincts were aligning with her Goblin instincts and her common-sense ones.

That sounds like bad trouble. But compared to this hostile world…she looked at Erin, weighed the odds of finding a way back to the inn, or something valuable, and then just asked herself if she wanted to be alone while Erin explored this place.

“Okay. Take me.”

Ulvama took a deep breath and held out her arm. Erin linked arms with her and, one-handed, turned the key in her chest.

“Got it. Let’s g—”

Click.

Ulvama was braced for disorientation. Danger. A change in scenery. But nothing happened, and again, it took her a beat to realize Erin was gone.

“Oh no. Nonono. Erin—

“—drat!

This time, Erin came back almost instantly. She seemed alarmed and disappointed. Ulvama grabbed her again.

“Only you can go through?”

“Uh oh.”

They both looked at each other, and Ulvama had a sinking sensation in her chest. Then, Erin took Ulvama’s hand.

“Okay, you turn the key, and, uh—I’m gonna will you into coming along. You’re my guest. Wait, we could try the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Huh. I can’t turn off the [Aspect of the Inn] with this key in my chest. Let’s try you turning the key first, huh?”

They began to experiment, and Ulvama thought, in the back of her mind—

This really could have waited for morning.

 

——

 

Analysis. About an hour later, Ulvama and Erin had a lot less sleep than they wanted, a lot more disappointments and worries, and a decision to make.

“Okay. I can’t take you with me.”

Erin was reluctant to admit it, but nothing they’d tried had worked. No combination of holding hands, Ulvama using the key—it didn’t even work for her—or Erin trying to use her [Garden of Sanctuary] let Ulvama come with Erin.

The [Innkeeper] would just vanish, and while she could take objects with her, it turned out even that was limited.

Ulvama’s spear would vanish with Erin if the [Innkeeper] was holding it, but when Erin reached the [Pavilion of Secrets], it would be missing. Similarly, anything in her pockets would vanish, and only when she returned to the exact same place she’d been would the objects reappear.

“Okay, so we can’t use it as an infinite storage room. And, uh…time passes about the same here as there.”

Erin had made short hops back and forth, and a very tired Ulvama was holding her head in her hands.

“You sure there’s no door back to the inn?”

“Nope. I tried calling for a garden’s door, but none appears. I bet it’s because I’m not at my inn. If we were there, I bet I could take you with me.”

It seemed Erin’s [Aspect of the Inn] was letting her access some of her powers—but only for herself. Thus, any exploration of the [Pavilion of Secrets] would have to be done by her.

This checked out. Erin glanced around the campsite.

“Sorry, Ulvama. I didn’t want to alarm you, but I guess there’s no easy way out after all. My [Door of Portals] Skill doesn’t work either…why don’t you get some sleep? I could explore the [Pavilion of Secrets] then use [Twofold Rest] to get enough rest?”

Get some sleep? Now? Ulvama’s eyes were always red, but the bloodshot Goblin’s glare made Erin flinch. Still, Ulvama was exhausted, and she probably could sleep. But the anxious look she gave Erin…

“Maybe you wait until I wake?”

“I could just do it in the night. Unless you think something might come by?”

Ulvama did not. She chewed on her lip.

“If you go, only for half an hour?”

“Sure, sure. I can do it in ten-minute chunks. Shame I don’t have a watch or Ryoka’s smartphone. Wait, she lost that.”

Erin soothed Ulvama, and the Hobgoblin didn’t seem convinced, but she nodded.

“You bring back anything useful. But Erin—if—”

She stopped, and the [Innkeeper] saw that fragile expression appear again.

“What?”

The [Shaman] hesitated, then the words spilled out of her in a rush of terror.

“If—you find a door back to the inn. Don’t take it? Because maybe—maybe you won’t come back here.

Erin hadn’t thought about that. She saw Ulvama’s face screw up with worry at being left alone, and Erin strode forwards and grabbed Ulvama’s hand.

“I won’t. I promise.”

“Swear on Mrsha?”

“Swear on Mrsha.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled. The Hobgoblin seemed unconvinced, possibly by the nature of the oath on unreliable Mrshas, but she did lie down. She kept peeking at Erin as the [Innkeeper] made soothing, go-to-sleep motions and stepped back. In the end, Erin had to turn the key as Ulvama shuffled from side to side.

Click.

 

——

 

You could argue that the experimentation and the many return trips to this place took away from the grandeur or ominous nature of the moment.

You could argue that. But when Erin Solstice pulled back that door and the air billowed around her, she felt her heart skip each and every time.

The air was heavy around her. Filled with dust and time. The air moved as the door opened and pressure changed, but not with an inrush of more air. It whirled like a breeze—and blew past Erin, ruffling her hair and torn clothes. Flashing inwards into the Pavilion of Secrets.

Then there was no more air at all. For the law of basic physics was that oxygen and other molecules of the air loved to go where there was more space.

And the Pavilion of Secrets was a great void. 

The [Innkeeper] realized it was well that she had never managed to take Ulvama with her.

“I’m not breathing.”

She said that and inhaled, but it was more like an idea of doing these things. When she stepped into the Pavilion of Secrets, perhaps it was more like the concept of Erin Solstice herself that crossed that threshold. When she stared ahead, she saw…

Well, what was a pavilion in the end? Erin knew the word, but she’d never bothered to look it up in a dictionary. In her mind, it was something you found in garden-like areas. A structure of sorts. Like a gazebo, but…maybe less pretentious?

Maybe a gazebo was the structure within a pavilion’s auspices. A pavilion was a location; a gazebo was the singular structure.

“Maybe that’s a gazebo.”

The [Innkeeper] paused, one foot through the door on a paved path of faded, ancient stone. Red brick, neatly set into the ground, paving the way through…nothing at all.

The void. Literal emptiness; the black abyss. Where the path slowly led up to the rounded structure a hundred feet away, Erin saw a straightforward incline. When she looked left, right, ahead—nothing at all.

“Like the void of space. But even space has stars. Where is this?”

Her voice didn’t echo; an echo implied there was anything to even bounce off of. It just vanished into the distance, like the air. The [Innkeeper]’s skin, or imagination of skin, prickled as she stepped onto the path, testing her weight. It was firm, solid; when she bent down, it was even coarse, the bricks…brick-like.

When she felt at the void to either side of the path, Erin’s hand dipped into the nothingness. She reached out, hoping there was ground or anything—nothing.

Then she overbalanced and fell off the road.

“Oh sh—

Erin twisted, trying to grab onto the road. She splayed out, cursing—and paused.

She was twisted up in the air, having fallen off the road—and suspended where she fell. Not floating; that once again implied gravity.

Slowly, awkwardly, Erin got up. She stood in the empty void, then gingerly stepped back to the road. Erin walked onto the road, and gravity reasserted itself. She stepped off the road, and gravity vanished.

Up and down became relative. There was no falling sensation or floating; she could step away from the road into that empty landscape. But she did not want to.

“Dead gods.”

How far could she ‘walk’? If she kept going, would she find anything? Erin took off her shoe, perhaps to throw as far as she could and see if it went anywhere.

Voyager III, Erin’s sandal, went flying about one foot from her and just sat in the air.

“Right. No physics. That was a stupid idea. I nearly lost my shoe.”

Erin grabbed it, put it back on, and felt at her heart. It was still beating way too fast from the falling incident. Okay.

She took another look at the actual structure itself standing in the void. Waiting for her. Her own Pavilion of Secrets. Erin squinted, shaded her eyes as if that would help, and stared around.

“No light. But I see it all perfectly. Hm.”

She eyed the steps leading up to the rounded structure—octagonal, she thought, with stairs allowing someone to exit eight different ways. Thin support beams of wood held up a round roof; there were no windows. She saw benches inside along the walls. It was just…a gazebo or something. A place where you could walk in, sit, perhaps chat, in the middle of a garden or park.

Sitting in the void.

This place was filled with secrets. Erin knew that from the Skill’s name. It was not sanctuary; she didn’t know if she could be hurt here, but she knew it was not…protected by the same laws as the other place. And sanctuary could end.

Only three people before Erin had ever been worthy of this place. A Dullahan [General] of ages past had not been; every other owner of the [Garden of Sanctuary] had not been.

Erin eyed the pavilion. She swore she saw a table in the center of it, and she had a feeling she knew what was on it. She hesitated, took a step along the brick road—

She decided to go check on Ulvama.

 

——

 

Ulvama’s experience of Erin’s forays into the [Pavilion of Secrets] was not a pleasant one.

She’d just found someone else, and now Erin was vanishing from reality. Albeit in ten-minute chunks, but the idea that Erin wouldn’t return or run into something…else…was terrifying.

Ulvama kept trying to sleep, but the first time Erin came back, she was literally counting down the seconds, trying to tell herself that ten minutes hadn’t passed—when Erin popped back.

“I don’t think there’s air there. Ulvama, you good? It’s not been ten minutes yet, right?”

The [Shaman] gave up on sleep. She stared at Erin and then made the [Innkeeper] explain…with proper words…what she was seeing. It took Erin a while to explain the concept of the void. Ulvama gave her sage, [Shaman]-level advice, as if Erin were a Goblin Chieftain.

“Don’t go into the void.”

“Right, I was just—”

“Don’t. Go. Into. The. Void. Don’t shout at it. Don’t throw anything—you threw something.”

“Wh—nuh—it didn’t go anywhere.”

The [Shaman] covered her face. After a while, she stopped massaging her eyelids.

“What is this…gazebo? What is a gazebo? Stupid word.”

“I know, right? I hate gazebos. Pavilion—now, that’s a good word. But that? I don’t think I designed that. Because if I did, I have no taste.”

“Erin, explain.”

The [Innkeeper] did, vanishing in chunks of ten minutes. The first time, all she could do was describe how it looked.

“It’s just—a round dome, eight entrances…stairs leading up to it. You sit in there. A waystation, y’know?”

That was such a terrible explanation the [Shaman] stared at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] gave her a shrug.

“What? I was busy seeing about the road. I’ll go back and check—”

“Erin. What color is it? What is it made of? How big is it?”

“Oh. Uh…white? It’s got that painted white wood look to it. I think. I’ll go re-check. And it’s pretty big? I think?”

Thereafter, she vanished, and Ulvama paced around until Erin came back. This time, she was somewhat breathless.

“Okay! Turns out it’s a lot farther than I thought. It’s not a hundred feet away. How long was I?”

“Eight minutes?”

“Damn! I ran there and back! Why do I keep getting put that far away? Maybe next time I’ll ask to be closer. So remember how I said ‘pretty big’? You could probably fit two hundred people inside of it. It’s…it looks small, like it’d fit a dozen people comfortably. That’s a trick. And it’s made of wood. Simple, wood flooring, wood benches around the walls, painted wood—not bad quality, but the bricks? Sorta average. Not Versailles.”

“What’s Versailles?”

“Uh, some palace in France.”

Ulvama stared at Erin. Before Erin could launch into an explanation of what France was, and Versailles—and that would be an interesting lecture depending on what Erin actually remembered of her world’s history—Ulvama interrupted.

“Is this gazebo…normal?”

The [Innkeeper] had to think about that. She tried to pace around too, but winced and felt at her legs. Ulvama was worried neither would get good sleep, but in her case, she had at least explored and survived a month.

Erin looked a lot worse than the Goblin did. Erin’s hair had greyed in places, and while she hadn’t gotten a good look at herself in the mirror…she had to know her hair had literally fallen out on parts of her head, right? It was regrowing—but the scars on her wrists and even her pallor looked off.

They needed to get a [Healer]. At least Erin didn’t seem to get tired in the [Pavilion of Secrets]. After a second, the [Innkeeper] frowned.

“Hm. Perfectly normal. Actually, it’s like what I’d…picture a gazebo would look like. Exactly like that. And I think I may have made it or the…the thing that assigns Skills did.”

“Why’s that?”

Ulvama didn’t like how Erin talked about the very nature of the world that gave classes and Skills as if it were a thing, an actual thing or person. She did not like how knowing Erin sounded. Erin glanced at Ulvama.

“Well, because there’s a chess table in the center of it.”

“Ah.”

Erin prepared to head back and actually check out the gazebo, requesting a twenty-minute time slot. Ulvama was yawning, but, sure she’d be incapable of sleep, she asked a favor from Erin.

“Can I use a Skill on you, Erin?”

“Me? Um…sure. Go ahead.”

The [Shaman] nodded. She touched a claw to Erin’s forehead and whispered.

“[Shamanic Memory: Other Peoples].”

Her crimson pupils expanded. A memory flashed into her mind. Erin Solstice stepped back and vanished. And Ulvama…experienced France.

 

——

 

A [Shaman of the Old Ways] had great power. Power that Ulvama had not unlocked or made use of in Erin’s inn. Arguably, here, it was not the best, but it had helped Erin by showing her a vision of her family.

In Ulvama’s case? It let her see through Erin’s people like she could do with Goblins. Memory, not anything as grandiose as what the [World of You and Me] was supposed to be.

It made her unhappy, too. At least insofar as the memory of a bright, safe-ish city of Humans could be. It was still better than a thorn bush in the jungle at Fraerling size.

She also had control over her power; when Erin popped back into reality twenty-three minutes later, Ulvama was grateful for the reprieve.

“Hey. It turns out I have to go there each time. No getting real close…at least not yet. The gazebo’s definitely wood. I knocked on it; I couldn’t break it.”

“…You tried to break your Skill?”

“No! I just punched it a few times. You know? Maybe I could harvest some of the wood, and—it’s impossible. I smashed through one of the pieces of wood, but every time I grabbed some, or looked away, it was just repaired again.”

“Huh.”

“How was Versailles? Did you see through my eyes or something? Or was it like—you were there, eating croissants or baguettes or stuff? I hear Paris isn’t actually that fun for tourists, though.”

Erin waved her hands, trying to grin and be reassuring. Ulvama just folded her arms and grunted.

“Seems nice. Your mother liked it.”

Erin’s mouth opened, and she stood there, genuinely shocked for a second.

“My mother…”

“She was young. Maybe younger than you by a year or two.”

The Goblin took no pleasure in Erin’s expression—okay, maybe a little. It made her a person, not a force of nature. And she was half of both these things at Level 50.

Nevertheless. Erin Solstice exhaled, and her expression revealed that, newfound power or not, she was becoming more aware that she had become less a big fish in a small pond and more someone who had just found the ocean.

“…I might call the exploring done today, Ulvama. Let’s get some sleep; I can’t take anything back from the pavilion, and we’ll need our energy tomorrow.”

That was true. But Ulvama eyed Erin, wondering what the sudden change of heart was about.

“You don’t want to use it? Find secrets? What’s in the pavilion?”

Erin shrugged.

“Nothing. The chess board has no chess pieces. There’s just the structure. Even some grass growing around the support pillars—and no, I can’t take it either. The void. The path leads up there…nowhere else. There’s no plants. No objects. No secrets. But I did find…a door. Another door.”

The [Shaman]’s skin began to prickle again.

“Another door?”

Erin nodded slowly. She walked forward, as if showing Ulvama how it looked.

“You walk into the pavilion. Then you look around, and—the door’s there. In one of the eight ways out. Just…a door. Not like the [Pavilion of Secrets]’ door, mind you. That one’s pretty grand. Stone. Got that harpy emblem on it and everything.”

“I remember it. What’s this other door?”

“…Wood. Beige. It—has a brass handle. Beveling on it. It’s sort of old.”

Something about the way Erin spoke made Ulvama’s neck hairs continue to rise. The [Innkeeper] took a deep breath.

“It, uh…it has a stupid set of letters on it. A sign. It says…‘bathroom’.”

The [Shaman] at this point couldn’t stare harder, even if Erin grew ram’s horns and started dancing.

“…Bathroom?”

“Yeah. My dad put it up because he wanted to make it obvious…it’s the door I went through when I came here, Ulvama.”

The [Innkeeper] looked disconcerted. Now, Ulvama was getting that tingling on her arms and down her spine.

“Did you—”

I was about to.

The [Innkeeper] gave Ulvama a thin smile that revealed her own fear. Fear at least of her Skill. Her eyes flickered, and those hazel depths shivered.

“…But then my [Dangersense] went off.”

 

——

 

Day 1

 

You know what was great? Jungle survival. Sure, you might wake up with four hours of sleep, or in Erin’s case, eight, thanks to her Skill.

True, you had no toothpaste. Yes, breakfast was some dried berries that tasted like mush. Maybe you’d slept on the hard ground with a leaf for a blanket—and they were not that nice.

True, true, the bathroom was a stinking hole in the ground. Yes, there were giant bugs buzzing around overhead, and you were lost with no idea where you were at six inches tall.

But you had a Goblin/Human for a companion, you were high-level, and you were not staring at a door in the middle of a void marked ‘Bathroom’ that was setting off your personal [Dangersense].

Survival. Nothing like it.

By common consensus, Ulvama and Erin decided the [Pavilion of Secrets] could wait. At least, until nightfall.

“Totally. I can’t tell what’s going on, so only when I’m camped. Or, like, about to die. Would it even work if I was in danger?”

The ability to ‘pavilion out’ might be tempting, but Erin disregarded it as an option except as an extreme resort for one main reason: if she was gone, Ulvama was not. And Ulvama was the more fragile of the two of them.

[Aspect of the Inn: Reinforced Structure] meant that Erin was tough. Ulvama refused to believe how tough until Erin had Ulvama try to stab her with one of the thorn-spears the [Shaman] had made. The Hobgoblin incredulously poked Erin harder each time until she was doing a full run-up stab, and Erin only stumbled from the impact.

“Toldja. Let me go first.”

“I’m tough too. See?”

Ulvama flexed her arms, showing off her magical paints. Erin squinted at them as the two kept working over breakfast; they were taking the thorns and cutting them into smaller pieces, and Erin was trying to make crude ropes out of grass.

It was toolmaking day. You see, Ulvama did have a knife. A crude one made out of stone, but she’d geared herself with the basics for survival. The problem was, she had only her hands, and she was a former [Shaman] of the least survival-oriented tribe of Goblins ever: the Mountain City Tribe.

Erin, likewise, wasn’t a master crafter like Pelt or a [Mage] with utility Skills, but she did have [Advanced Crafting], and Ulvama glowered as Erin twisted together some grass-fiber ropes.

“You make that look too easy.”

“Sorry. Here, give me those thorn-pieces. I’m gonna make a pack. Leaf chunk…”

The concept was simple. You made a rectangular frame, lashed together with pieces of tied-off grass rope, and then bored holes in the tough leaves of the bush and tied those into place.

It was far from waterproof, rattled, and would probably snap if you fell wrong, but you could then secure it to your back with two loops of fiber and make a primitive backpack.

It took Erin thirty minutes to make. Ulvama had been trying for a week to get it right. In the [Shaman]’s defense, Erin’s Skill let her instinctively braid the grass fibers and assemble the backpack in her mind, like she was always staring at the blueprints. She also did it far faster than she would have without the Skill.

“Nice collection of materials.”

“Thanks. Give backpack. Hmf. Too small. We need to put berries in there. And they’ll get sticky.”

Erin handed Ulvama a section of leaf.

“Sandwich this between each of the berries so they don’t stick. I hope it doesn’t attract bugs.”

“Eh. We’ll see them.”

“Good point. But if one comes—what are we fighting them off with? I don’t want you getting hurt if a bird attacks us.”

Ulvama held up her painted arms with satisfaction again.

“This makes me a lot stronger than using mud. It was the enchantments I had back at the inn. So…protection, warming—don’t need that—and unobtrusiveness? Not-noticing is what my old master called it.”

She began to scrub at some of the glowing sigils on her arm. Erin, as a [Witch], eyed the foreign magical system with interest.

“I never asked how it all worked.”

The [Shaman] indicated her paint as she pulled up her mended shirt—another boon of Erin’s power—and scraped at a marking on her stomach. Erin looked away.

“What’s to understand? I paint something, something gets enchanted. Easy.”

“Doesn’t it have drawbacks?”

“Yeah. Water. Or idiots who get it messed up.”

Ulvama removed one of the superfluous sigils and grinned at Erin. The [Witch] frowned.

“Seriously? Nothing else?”

“What do you want? Wearing my magic makes you weak to getting kicked in the knee? No, it’s magic. I can’t write in magic gemstones and make permanent magic, but I get to write a spell in paint unlike a stupid [Mage]. They throw [Fireballs]. I…can do something like that. But less direct.”

Ulvama looked insulted, and Erin held up her hands.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just—I guess Ceria can make ice wherever she wants. It’s always amazing to me. Hey, the backpack’s sort of tight. Let me adjust the straps. How’s it feel?”

“Like wearing a rock. It’ll be okay.”

Ulvama didn’t look forwards to having to lug the pack everywhere, but it was light, and the two of them were stronger than a Human was, at least, relative to their size. She frowned at her arms.

“…I wish I had paints. I don’t want to put your colors on my skin, but I’d draw more runes to make myself stronger. And…[Shamans] do have drawbacks. We need a tribe. Rags let me use her tribe’s power. But I’m not as strong as a [Mage] by myself.”

She had learned that the hard way. Erin glanced up, bit her lip, but then grinned and made her voice joking.

“Yeah, well, I was thinking that Larracel could, like, port meals from her inn to her. That would be so great.”

Ulvama’s throat closed up, but she smiled instead and let her voice and body relax.

“Yeah. You’re a bad [Innkeeper].”

“Hey! Can Larracel survive fighting a giant beetle trying to saw her in half?”

“Yeah, probably. She’s a [Wizard], Erin.”

“…Right. Damn. Okay—what do we do about weapons? And we need more tools.”

 

——

 

Tools were going to be a thing. It was one thing to have enough to make a crude backpack for the two of them, but Erin’s t-shirt was a mess, and while her allergy-rashes had faded thanks to Ulvama’s mud-poultice, only the [Shaman] had nice clothing thanks to Erin’s Skill.

“I’m out of power. And I don’t exactly know if it’ll work on me. That was, um. A lot of remorse. We’ll have to settle for what we can make. The problem is…my [Advanced Crafting] can make a basket or another bow like that, but not much more. I don’t know how to make, like…a chair? A bad one, but I can’t woodwork.”

Ulvama had a simple bow she’d made and ‘arrows’ from more thorns, but it was weak, and the arrows were prone to missing. She used it to chase off flying insects, and she added that to a pair of thorn spears—not exactly good gear to fight even an angry squirrel, let alone the Corumdon Beetle.

That was apparently its name. Ulvama knew about the Wailer Frogs, and she knew the beetle, or rather, the species it belonged to. The [Shaman] grunted as she watched Erin using her color magic.

“Makes sense. You never were good at crafting. I never saw you do it at the inn. Even if you have [Advanced Crafting], zero multiplied by zero is still zero.”

“Hey! I can make stuff! I did it when I first came to this world!”

Erin glowered at Ulvama and missed the timing on her Skill. She hit a patch of leaves and cursed; the leaves turned slightly paler, and Erin tossed some dark green aside.

The sun was rising, and morning light was shining down through the bush’s leaves. If they were to get moving, they had better start, but the two were preparing. Erin sighed.

“Don’t distract me, Ulvama. That Skill takes energy. Did you see how little green I got? I can’t use the [Drain Color] Skill on living things at all. Even plants resist it. What’s a Corumdon Beetle?”

“Hmm. That one? It’s a big super-leader of his area. Mean. He eats sap, mostly, but I’ve seen him chase birds off. I just know his name. Some [Shamans] hunt them for pigment. But, uh…they send [Warriors] to do it. One of them can bite your nose off. Happened to a [Shaman] in another tribe, I heard.”

“…Great. Well, he can’t hurt me, so we’ll watch out for that guy. And with this new weapon, we’ll—aha! Got it!

Erin was determined to do this properly. She hadn’t experimented too hard before, but this time…she had Ulvama to protect. So she was determined to make something to help.

A proper piece of metal would have let her cut or whittle wood into good shapes; her woodworking was severely limited without a saw, even if she could shape wood to a limited extent by removing the color and breaking it apart. Since neither she nor Ulvama wanted to take the time to do all that right now, they’d agreed to swing by the beach for another check for either’s bag of holding or materials, then set into the jungle.

They wanted to find a high point, higher than any tree, to see if they could find any signs of civilization. Ulvama had climbed a tree when she’d first landed—and had her traumatic bird experience at the time—and seen nothing.

It might be a long journey, so Erin had thought about how to use color…and the limited things she had.

She had come up with a sword. Ulvama thought it was stupid; even if Erin cut a thorn to make a crude handle, it was more like a rapier, but Erin had given it an edge with Ulvama’s knife. The thorn-sword was probably fragile, and Erin suspected that if she tried to use it against the spear Mantis or another insect, it wouldn’t so much as cut them.

However! That was before she added color. Erin had very few colors to work with, actually.

Leaf green.

Berry purple.

Dirt brown.

Not exactly strong. Even the grey that made the Densecore Rocks and the Splinterwood Bat were, uh…suboptimal. Erin had offered to make the stones for Ulvama, but the [Shaman] had pointed out she could literally cast magic. And if she tried to make a sling, the odds were she’d hit Erin with the projectile.

Therefore, the sword. And the color? Erin reached up and finally caught it.

A slanting beam of morning light flickered, and the warmth bathing her and Ulvama—became stale and ordinary, like artificial light from Erin’s home. Not even as vivid as that. Ulvama’s eyes went round, and she spat out some water she’d been drinking.

“It worked?”

Pale yellow color in Erin’s palm ran down her thorn-sword as she smirked at Ulvama. Even as she raised the sword above her head like a heroine out of a real fantasy, Erin was beaming.

“I present—the Dawn Sword! No, wait, a light sabre!”

She grinned at Ulvama, and the Hobgoblin had actually seen the movie thanks to Erin’s [World’s Eye Theatre].

The Hobgoblin gave the sword a narrow-eyed stare that was skeptical. She held out a hand.

“Okay, fine. Give it to me.”

“What? No, this one’s mine. You said it was stupid.”

Erin teasingly held the sword close to her, and the [Shaman] glared.

“I know how to use a sword. I should use it.”

“Nuh uh. It’s mine because it’s awesome. I made it. Here, watch this!”

Erin lifted the sword, and it was incredibly light. She tossed it up, and it actually hovered in the air. Ulvama stared as Erin gasped, caught the blade, then executed a dramatic swing with it.

Or rather—tried. She made a showy, huge, whirlwind slash around her like a certain video game character.

Hyup! Haaah!

And, mid-swing, the Dawn Sword…

Vaporized.

The quality of light itself was, well, lightness. The light of dawn was lighter than air, gentle, and, uh—weak. Erin felt the sword actually disintegrate on contact with the air, and she finished her swing, stumbled, and stared at a mote of light in her palm.

“Aw. Poo.”

Ulvama snorted and gave Erin a mocking look. Erin stomped over to the fire.

“Okay. Next! Flaming arrows!

 

——

 

The concept was simple. Fire was a universal power. Fire was hot. Erin took the cherry-red of some embers, infused it into the tip of Ulvama’s thorn-arrows, and they tested it on one of the black flies buzzing around eating the purple berries.

Erin did not feel bad about using the flies as target practice. Yes, they were mostly herbivores, but they had tried to take a nasty bite out of her twice before she punched one, and Ulvama said they’d eat anything they could. They weren’t really a threat to her, and Ulvama had gotten a few bites at worst—but both were eager for some payback.

“Take this!”

Ulvama missed two shots, then winged the third fly she saw. Her bow was weak, but it punched the wing of the bug, and Erin saw a flare of flames. The insect fell, and Ulvama loosed arrow after arrow at it.

“It’s working! It’s working! It’s—uh…”

The fire arrows did burst into flame the moment they struck the fly, who recoiled and backed away from the sudden bursts of heat and light. The problem was…the tips of the arrows that Erin had turned red became literal flames.

All well and good, right? The problem was the amount of flame was proportional to how much Erin had turned red.

It was probably like being hit by a matchstick’s worth of flame each time. Maybe it hurt a bit, but it was more alarming than anything else. The flames licked over the fly’s shell—and it seemed to decide Ulvama was less of a threat and more of a nuisance and buzzed at her, mandibles open.

Erin punched it in the abdomen and stomped back to the camp.

 

——

 

“Colors suck.”

Anything Erin turned red with flames became, well, flammable. But fragile. She could turn a piece of leaf red, and it made wonderful kindling; it would literally catch on fire if you broke a piece off, and it was warm.

…It did not make good weaponry. Erin didn’t even bother with a flame sword; it’d just break or burn up, and there wasn’t even that much flame. Ulvama finished cutting up two berries for their packs and critically eyed a crude canteen Erin had tried to make.

“This thing leaks if I tilt it wrong. We need hide or something better.”

Erin was poking at the ground with the last of her red, sulking. The worst part was that she had flames of her own, so there wasn’t even a need to keep an ember around. She just tossed the red down into the dirt.

A patch of cherry-red dirt expanded outwards as Ulvama closed the top of her backpack.

“You done? We need to get moving.”

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe we can find some coins after all. I can make a golden sword.”

“Sounds weak.”

“That’s because you don’t play Minecraft. I’m telling you—”

Erin kicked at the red patch of ground and yelped.

“Oh—Ulvama!

 

——

 

Ulvama blinked, saw Erin kick the patch of red, loose grains of soil at her—and the powder turned into a storm of sparks. Heading straight at Ulvama.

A shouting, spark-covered Hobgoblin and one [Innkeeper] with a bopped head later, and they’d found the first use-case for Erin’s colors: Spark Dust.

“That’s what I’m calling it. See? You take a handful and fuff!

Erin blew, and the cloud of red particles turned into sparks. It was colorful, alarming…and still not that dangerous, but it was definitely distracting.

“Give me that. I’ll take it.”

Ulvama demanded to have a small grass satchel of the stuff. She hadn’t gotten burned…much…from her contact with the sparks, but she was a bit sooty and annoyed. She led the way out of the bush maze, back towards the beach, and they had a use for the sparks almost instantly.

Kzkch.

The buzzing sound of wings and something rubbing its spear-claws together made Erin freeze. She saw a Spear Mantis peering at them through one layer of thorns and branches; it stepped over a low-hanging branch delicately, triangular head fixed on them.

“Uh oh. Ulvama, get back. I’ll handle—”

Ulvama eyed the Spear Mantis, which was a threat to the local wildlife, and tossed the entire bundle of Spark Dust at it.

“Run.”

The shower of red sparks made the mantis recoil and stab at them wildly. It backed away, unnerved by the heat and motion, and Erin and Ulvama dashed in the opposite direction. The mantis hesitated, but declined to give pursuit.

“Hey! I could have taken it!”

Erin protested as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Ulvama eyed their thin thorn-spears.

“Maybe. But what would be the point?”

“Uh…we could use its spear-things instead?”

“Too much work. Why do we fight things if we’re not going to eat and we don’t have to? That makes no sense. The Spark Dust is good for distracting things. Make more next time we start a fire. But even if we kill something—we’ll just attract more animals, right?”

Erin opened her mouth as the two tromped through the bushes, Ulvama poking a fly in the face that got too near them. They had…different approaches to survival, she realized.

 

——

 

Ulvama was all too content to avoid conflict. And she found the way Erin walked around the forest unnerving.

“What are you doing? Walk closer to tree roots!”

“I am!”

“No, you’re not! You’re in the open! Like this! Under the root! Now nothing can see you from above!”

Erin had to stoop to crouch-walk under a root jutting above them, giving them aerial cover. Then Ulvama pointed.

“See that dirt ledge there? Now we look around—and run to it.”

Erin was incredulous.

“Is this how you moved all the time? How’d you get anywhere?”

Safely. How did you get anywhere safely? You didn’t! Come on.”

It took them longer to get to the beach than Erin liked, but even here, Ulvama proved she was more oriented than Erin. She pointed out a stone she’d written a simple rune on.

“See? I put a tiny bit of magic into this. So I know where it is. Ocean’s just ahead.”

“Oh. Smart!

Erin nodded approvingly. Ulvama gave her a long look.

“…You didn’t do that. Did you?”

“Well, I, uh, didn’t have any craft until now—”

“Not even a fragment of power?”

Erin shaded her eyes, staring across the bright, hot sands of the beach.

“Hey, I can’t see any good detritus. Damn. How far do you want to check for stuff?”

The [Shaman] rolled her eyes. Then she began to add more magic into the stone.

“This will last…eh, a few more days. I won’t sense it if we go too far, but until then, we can use it as a direction. You want to put your magic in it?”

Erin doubted she could with the same ease as Ulvama. Witchcraft wasn’t the same as [Shamanic] magic; it had to matter or relate to something Erin was making to work. She eyed something on the stone, though.

“Hey, it’s another word. What’s this say?”

“Hm? Oh. ‘Water’. I wrote it just in case. Do you not mark things?”

Erin ignored that second jab as she stared at the word written in the English alphabet—but an entirely different word.

Shu. Is that ‘water’?”

“Yep.”

Ulvama went hiking along the place where sand met soil. She took a few steps onto the sand with her own sandals, cursed, and hopped back.

“It’s hot. Too hot. Let’s walk and see if we can spot anything. Put that back.”

Erin tossed the stone down and strode along with Ulvama. Now they were actually here, walking along, Erin realized they hadn’t done this.

Oh, they’d had morning dance-exercise, and she’d gotten to know Ulvama. But it wasn’t even like Numbtongue where she’d gone shopping or hung out with him. Ulvama was often around when they had movie night or things were happening at the inn.

But she still wasn’t like—like Lyonette, who Erin could just pull aside and talk to. Or Selys, who would come over for a chat or to complain to, or whom Erin would find whenever she went to Liscor—

Tekshia’s dead.

Erin slowed a step, and her face fell. The pavilion, the survival—it had put those thoughts out of her mind for the first time in a month. Now, she gave Ulvama’s back a guilty glance. The [Shaman]’s words with her were fresh in her mind, and Erin knew it was wrong.

Even so.

[Aspect of the Inn: Garden of Sanctuary]—

It was like a compulsion. Erin walked forwards, and an old Drake leaning on a spear emerged from the forest, her faded, grey-green scales covered in blood. Tekshia Shivertail raised her head. Then shouted.

She’s doing it again, Goblin. You stupid girl.

Ulvama nearly leapt out of her skin, whirled, saw the statue, and stared at Erin. She stormed over as Tekshia vanished, mid-smirk. Erin lifted her hands.

“I was just—”

Ulvama seized Erin’s ear and twisted.

“Ow! Ow, that really hurts—

“Put it back to reinforced structure, stupid! Stop doing that!”

 

——

 

Twenty minutes later, Erin broke the silence.

“Um. So…”

Ulvama hadn’t let Erin out of her sight. She made Erin walk ahead of her, and the two were giving up hope of finding either bag of holding. She grunted.

“Time to go into the forest?”

“Sure. But, uh—so. You know, I never really picked up Goblin. It feels stupid, but when you told me how to say ‘help’—naefoma—I remembered that. Shu means water.”

“Yeah.”

Ulvama peered at Erin. Not exactly hostile—she seemed definitely unhappy about how Erin had used her Skill if her thunderous glare was anything to go by. But she didn’t hate Erin. Or so Erin hoped.

They were the only two people around. If anything, Ulvama seemed concerned and worried about Erin. Which made Erin feel bad because Ulvama was the one who needed help.

They were going to get out of this. Erin gave Ulvama a sidelong glance. In the distance, she could see the sand fleas bouncing around and the tide slowly hitting the beach. It was bright; water flashed with sunlight, and the temperature was bearable. Erin didn’t want to imagine how hot the summer might be if this was still winter.

It would have been lovely if they weren’t so damn small or lost. Erin cleared her throat.

“I, uh—you know, even when the Redfangs were there. Numbtongue, Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Rabbiteater, and Badarrow—”

Her throat tightened. Almost, she went back to her Skill—but no.

Those statues didn’t talk. Erin went on.

“I never asked to learn to speak Goblin. I could have, but I was too busy.”

Ulvama snorted gently.

“You don’t have to learn Goblin. What…because you want to be called ‘Goblinfriend’? Just be a friend. Only Goblins speak Goblin. It’s hard to learn. It’s gestures and language.”

“I know. Body language and stuff. But I—do you think I could?

Ulvama tilted her head.

“Maybe. Why, do you want me to teach you? It won’t help us.”

She glanced challengingly at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] waved her hands.

“I know that. But maybe it’s a good way to pass the time. If, y’know, you want to teach. It wouldn’t hurt, right?”

The [Shaman] was silent for a long time as they continued walking. She exhaled after a while, and Erin wondered if it would be smarter to go along the beaches—or head inland. She suspected inland. The beaches, as predictable as they might be, would eventually have a storm, and one wave dragging them out to sea was instant death. Far, far better to be away from high tide like that.

Ulvama broke the silence at last.

“…If you want to learn, I’ll teach you some words. Speaking Goblin is harder. But sure.”

Erin brightened up. They had their first Goblin lesson as they walked along the beach.

“Okay, what’s my first lesson?”

“Uh…how to say ‘I’? Va. Va is I.”

“Va. Va Erin.”

“Yep. Van is ‘we’. O is ‘you’.”

“Va Erin, o Ulvama?”

“Yup. What else? Eh, numbers?”

“Sure, sure. That’s how we did it in school with Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. Lay it on me. One to ten? Or do you do it different—”

“We do it same. Ti, fa, sif, keta, mien, pru, hast, hax, chur, pir—-pir-i-ti is eleven…pir-i-fa…

“Whoa, whoa, slow down! Let me try! Ti, fa, sif, keta…um…mean?”

Erin was doing her best to memorize the numbers, but Ulvama’s heart wasn’t in it. After correcting Erin, the [Shaman] shook her head.

“This is stupid.”

“Aw, come on, Ulvama. Please?”

“I don’t want to teach you like this. I’ll just…speak Goblin to you or something. Or teach you practical words. Okay?”

That made more sense, admittedly. Erin still insisted on doing the one-to-ten numbering, and then Ulvama pointed out something easier.

Shu is water. Shuli is ocean. The same way shush means ‘wet’ or covered in water.”

“Oh, I get it. What’s the word for…drenched, then?”

“Eh…shush. Smak shush. ‘Very wet’. Or I’d just say ‘shush’ but do like this.”

Ulvama used one hand and made a quick gesture, palm facing towards her, running down her face. She saw Erin’s face and explained.

“That is how to show ‘all over’. So wet all over.”

“So you did the word…and the hand gesture?”

“Yah, it’s very fast. We don’t have a word for drenched. Or…what’s the point? Young Goblin don’t have time to memorize.”

That actually squared with Erin’s understanding of Goblin. It was an adaptive language that depended a lot on context and body motion. It made things easier for her in one sense: a few words would go a long way. In another sense, she had to learn the body language too, or the words became half as useful.

Even so, they began trading words back and forth. Ulvama quickly developed a somewhat tired, somewhat amused attitude, as one might teaching a child a language. But it kept them busy.

“How do you say tree?”

“Kopo.”

“River?”

“Hairó. We should find one for water.”

“Right, right. Um…rock?”

“Kos.”

“Coconut?”

“Uh…we probably just say coconut. Because it isn’t a thing Goblins—wait, what?”

Erin pointed at something off to the right, half-buried in the sand, as Ulvama floundered. The [Shaman]’s head rose, and she stared at a brown object that made Erin begin walking faster. The [Innkeeper] and [Shaman] looked at each other.

“Coconut!”

 

——

 

“Coco-nut. Coco-nut. Coco-nut. What? Don’t look at me like that.”

Imagine, if you will, an [Innkeeper] squatting up and down to the rhythm of her chanting on top of a giant coconut buried in the sand.

Then imagine Ulvama’s expression. Everyone had their different ways of coping with a survival situation. Some, like Halrac, might become incredibly serious.

Erin went the opposite way sometimes. She was trying to make Ulvama laugh. The Goblin glared.

“Go figure out how to open it. You open them, right?”

She didn’t actually know about coconuts as much as Erin, who assured her that it was not only okay to eat, but had water and was a delicacy. Ulvama waited until Erin had her back turned and was energetically trying to stab it with her thorn-spear to turn her head.

Snrk. She was straight-faced when Erin turned back suspiciously.

The battle of the coconut took twenty-seven long minutes to conclude. First, Erin broke her thorn on the coconut. Then Ulvama suggested using [Blazing Hand] to bore through the shell with fire. Then Erin began using [Minotaur Punch].

After that, they tried to hammer a stone through the shell. Erin tried to use [Drain Color], but coconuts were technically alive.

…And hard as hell. Erin knew people had died when coconuts fell on their head, but she hadn’t realized just how damn hard this one was. She almost set it on fire, but they were making progress.

A combination of magic, punches, scraping at a part of the shell, and fire eventually cleared a patch of shell. Erin’s [Drain Color] Skill had less effect on living things, but the seed was enough of a plant for her to ‘bore’ a hole through it. When Erin finally punched a hole into the side and was rewarded with white flesh and liquid, both she and Ulvama cheered.

Then they began to eat.

Coconut was not one of Erin’s favorite dishes, actually. She’d had coconut before and didn’t really see the appeal in having it on rice or on most things.

At this moment? Coconut was her favorite food. It had a decadent taste to it after so long eating sweet berries or honey or just nuts—and it wasn’t the sweet that triggered her memories of the Ashfire Bee honey.

“This would be so good on rice, actually. And the water!”

“Don’t touch it with your stupid hands! We need to save it for drinking!”

Coconut water! The two greedily dipped in their little flasks to drink as much of it as they wanted; and it would be perfect travel rations! The only thing that could drive the two to tears was actually the knowledge they couldn’t haul the entire coconut out with them.

Nevertheless, they ate their fill, and Erin understood again how much energy they were burning; they ate a good chunk of the coconut’s flesh, then stuffed their packs full of more slices and made more leaf-canteens and filled them up with the water.

Then they set out. Erin gave the beach where she’d washed up one last look and waved at a crab inspecting the coconut for morsels.

“We took almost all of it! See you, beach! I hate you, now.”

The crab jerked, stared at Erin, and then sideways-crabbed off into the distance. Ulvama grunted as she stared ahead into the forest.

“We going then?”

“It’s that or sit for rescue. Which one do you think is safer?”

“Sit for rescue.”

Erin nodded amiably.

“Which one will get us out of here in a month’s time?”

For answer, Ulvama sighed, then cast a spell. She looked around, narrow-eyed.

“[See Heat]. Is a big something over there. Follow me. And stop shouting so loud.”

 

——

 

The first day of real travel went smoothly, at first. Mostly because Ulvama, who had at least a working knowledge of this area, steered Erin away from the Wailer Frogs’ swamp and through the bush area.

“The beetle doesn’t patrol this spot. We’ll go through the bushes as long as they’re here—then past that is part of the stream. It’s too long to cross here; there are stones we can use, and it doesn’t get too fast. We go past that—and we’re further than I know.”

“Got it. We’re looking for anyone civilized.”

“Mhm. Unless they’re looking for us. Like Roshal.”

That drew Erin up—metaphorically speaking since they were hiking while talking—and she began to seriously consider survival prospects.

They wouldn’t get far at Fraerling size. They had to move; if they just stayed put, they might have a chance of rescue. If they weren’t so small and hard to spot.

And if Silvenia hadn’t enchanted us to be invisible. 

In fact, Erin felt like the Death of Magic had given them a double-edged gift. They were unbeknownst to the rest of the world, who might assume they were dead, but that meant help was not coming.

“If Nerry’s out there…”

“Maybe Silvenia cast a different spell on her. She is a lamb.”

“Maybe. I’m just thinking.”

They were heading along the thorn bushes, which provided shelter, walking along rocks, chatting, keeping an eye on the bushes for predators—and an eye on the forest for more enemies. If they saw something by sky, they went into the thorns. If they saw something in the bushes, they backed out.

However, Erin and Ulvama did have techniques to avoid conflict. One of them was in fact Erin’s aura and flames. The first time another Spear Mantis came at them, she glared it down and then threw white flames at it.

Bugs and animals in general did not like the unknown. Two arrows from Ulvama made the mantis back off. Once, Erin saw a huge bird land in the bushes and begin to peck at bugs, but she and Ulvama just crouched down and waited for it to be distracted with a meal before hurrying off.

They strategized as they moved.

“I’m just thinking, Ulvama. It’s either Nerry or…the inn. Which one do I alert?”

Ulvama’s head rose.

“What you mean?”

Erin’s eyes glittered as they headed up a stream. She sipped from some coconut water.

“[Boon of the Guest]. I can use it on you, but if Nerry needs it—I think the move is to give it to someone in the inn first. You understand?”

Ulvama’s mouth opened.

—So they know you’re alive!

Erin nodded. Then she frowned.

“—The problem is, I’m not sure it’ll work. Either on Nerry or anyone but you. I don’t know where they are, and I’m not even seeing them in a [Scrying] orb. I tried using it while I was at sea.”

“Really? On who?”

“Oh…Yvlon, Pisces, Colth, Ceria, Rabbiteater—Silvenia—I was trying to help any of them. Or make her come back. I could use it on you. But what if I used it on Lyonette to let her know I was alive?”

This made sense. Ulvama considered it for a while as they began to hopscotch over stones to cross the stream. After a few minutes, she had a question.

“Erin. Do they think you’re dead?”

“Well, probably if they can’t find me. Even if they use the [World’s Eye Theatre]—and I think they are—or my box, they can’t find me. I’d assume I’m dead.”

“Right. But how are they using the [World’s Eye Theatre] if you’re dead?”

Erin opened her mouth. Ulvama stared at her, and after a second, Erin splashed herself in the face with some water. Since it was coconut water, she cleaned her face off with regular water and refilled her canteen.

“Whew! It’s hot out here. Frying my mind, right?”

“Mhm.”

They decided following the stream was a good idea. It might run them into creatures who wanted water, so they crossed over to the treeline as a nice middle ground. By now, it was already early evening, and Erin was opining that the best shelter would be a knothole like her first night had been spent in. Ulvama just stared at the trees as Erin scratched at her head and posited a question.

“…Do you think it’s Baleros?”

“Yah, probably.”

“What if…I booned Jelaqua?”

“Why her?”

“Well, Jelaqua comes from Baleros. So then they’d know which continent.”

“Can you tell them we washed up on a beach or give them directions or something?”

“Uh…who do you associate with the beach?”

Ulvama’s lips moved as she considered it.

“Kevin?”

“Kevin’s dead.”

Erin’s flat tone made the [Shaman] swing around. Ulvama’s eyes widened.

“Oh. I didn’t kn…I forgot. He’s dead.”

The [Innkeeper] gave Ulvama a lost gaze. She almost used her Skill—then stopped and leaned wearily on a replacement thorn-spear.

“Yeah.”

“How? He survived the Solstice, I thought—”

“I don’t know. I only saw his statue, and he told me—I could ask.”

Erin stopped until Ulvama walked over and tugged her along.

“No. Use your boon Skill on someone instead. How will we tell them it’s Baleros?”

After a few minutes, Erin’s head rose.

“What if I did a different boon for each person? And spelled out Baleros? Can we do that? Who starts with a ‘B’ who’s at the inn?”

“…Bezale?”

“Right. A?”

“Ama? Is she alive?”

“She’s alive. Liska. E…E…we could skip that and do Relc, then ‘O’ is, uh…Onieva?”

“Doesn’t really work.”

“Olesm?”

“Is he at the inn?”

“Well, I’m sure he’d tell people. And Selys is easy.”

“Hm. If we’re in Baleros.”

Erin stared at Ulvama from the side.

“I thought you were sure.”

The Hobgoblin hunched her shoulders.

“It might be Drath. Or maybe we’re on Izril or Terandria? Even Chandrar.”

“Terandria doesn’t have…and Chandrar?”

Erin waved her hands around at the jungle. Ulvama eyed Erin.

“What if we’re in the Claiven Earth? Do you know all of Chandrar? It’s not all desert.”

“Oh, come on. If we’re on Chandrar…actually, is that good or bad?”

“Roshal’s in Chandrar.”

Ulvama spoke darkly, and Erin murmured.

“But so is Fetohep. Then again—I think he’s in trouble.”

The two fell silent. After a while, Ulvama stared up.

“You want to sleep in a squirrel’s den?”

“Yeah, why not? It’s got free nuts.”

“What if it’s filled with a squirrel?”

“Eviction. Or dinner.”

“What if it has babies?”

“P-peaceful coexistence?”

They tromped on. After a few minutes, Erin exhaled.

“So who should I boon?”

Ulvama thought about it.

“Spelling Baleros is too much work. Use it on one of them and send a message. Maybe we can’t say where we are. But tell them something important.”

Erin nodded. She closed her eyes and thought—then nearly tripped over a root. By the time it was growing dark and Ulvama pointed out a chipmunk going up to a home, Erin had it.

“[Boon of the Guest: Ulvama]!”

She raised her hand and called out. Ulvama spun—and saw Erin concentrate, then wipe away sweat from her brow.

“It worked?”

“Yeah, sorry I did it so fast. I sensed they were in the inn, and I know exactly where he pops up with his Skill.”

“He? Oh.

Erin had given the Skill to Ishkr. The two nodded at each other. Ishkr was reliable. Then Ulvama gave Erin a serious look.

“Wait. Maybe you should have given it to someone who matters more. Like Mrsha.”

Erin stared at Ulvama. The Hobgoblin folded her arms. Then they laughed for the next fifteen minutes as they climbed the tree.

The chipmunk was very unhappy to find Erin and Ulvama there. It fled, and Erin felt so bad about stealing his home and food that they only ate a third of his nuts and also ate coconut that night with an open fire.

She was about to use her [Pavilion of Secrets] Skill that night, but she was tired from all the color-Skills and sending her boon, and Ulvama looked worried. Plus the chipmunk might come back with friends, so Erin just went to sleep.

 

Day 2

 

The chipmunk was waiting outside its home, staring up from the base of the tree with a haunted look in its eyes the next day when Erin shuffled out on a branch to do her business.

“I didn’t steal all your nuts! Go away! Get lost! Wait, Ceria told me how to speak to animals. Piss off!

It got lost, and Ulvama and Erin munched on more coconut and a few more seeds. They were finding a problem with their food stores.

“That’s…one entire pack plus seeds for a day of food. Maybe we’re overeating, and I used more Skills including my boon, but we’ll need more food soon.”

“We can kill something. Have you tried eating bugs?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. I killed a little minnow with a spear.”

“Nice! Let’s get some fish. I can do fish. And I can cook! Coconut flakes and some nuts for breading…hey, we could fry something up!”

Ulvama licked her lips.

“Why have you never cooked like this before?”

Erin stood on the branch as they prepared to hop down.

“I, uh…used to think it was so boring and so much work for so little gain. I would kill for a good meal right now.”

 

——

 

It was amazing how much food mattered when you might starve, or when you had nothing to eat but one thing for ages. It also, oddly, added to Ulvama’s and Erin’s senses of compassion.

“I feel bad about leaving only half the nuts.”

“Mm. Life is hard.”

They kept peeking over their shoulders. The chipmunk had come back after Erin had chased it away, but it was hesitating rather than climbing the tree. As if it thought more of Erin and Ulvama were gonna jump it if it went back home, or it was afraid they had left it nothing.

“It’ll be okay, right? It’s still winter, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Last month. Is good food all over. Like berries. It probably smells us.”

“Oh, like how you can’t touch baby animals or their parents won’t recognize them? Come on, little dude! At least check out your nut stash! Half’s there! Half!”

They were walking off but keeping the den in sight, and after an hour, the silly chipmunk still hadn’t gone inside. They were rounding a tree, and Erin glanced back hopefully one last time as Ulvama stomped off too hard—her way of ignoring the guilt, maybe.

Then Erin’s face brightened. The chipmunk had found its nuts! It was eating one right now! Erin went to shout at Ulvama.

“Hey, Ulv—wait. No way.

She squinted, then used her [Aspect of the Inn]. A third eye appeared on Erin’s head, and her jaw dropped.

“That dude’s back. Is…is…wait a second. That’s my bat!”

She gobbled there as Ulvama turned. The Hobgoblin strode back.

“What? Erin, did the cute chipmunk find—”

Erin’s head swung towards Ulvama, and her third eye blinked in her forehead. Ulvama screamed. Erin screamed.

A raindrop half as large as Erin’s head smashed down so hard Erin saw the dust rising from the impact. Both Human and Goblin looked up.

Pow.

A water drop hit the ground like artillery fire. Then another. One smacked Erin in the head, and without her [Reinforced Structure] Skill, it hurt.

“Argh! Get to cover!”

It started raining. And Erin remembered Niers complaining about rain for Fraerlings. She hadn’t gotten it before—now she did.

Raindrops keep falling on my head. A lovely, silly song for children. Cranial trauma if you were a Fraerling.

Okay, maybe not that much, but a raindrop that large proportional to you could actually make you stagger or knock you flat. Rain, when it gathered and flowed? It could sweep you away.

More than that, the sound of it coming down was just terrifying. And this was definitely a tropic; the storm came hard and fast, and Erin and Ulvama ran into the forest. Not least because of the rain. Erin shouted.

The stream’s flooding! Run!

The stream they had used as a guide now became a deathtrap. If they were caught by the water running through the forest—they’d be flushed down the stream and into the sea. Erin and Ulvama ran for the foliage, and mercifully, the first pass of the storm didn’t create that much runoff; the leaves and branches above did a great job redirecting the water.

“Okay. Do we climb a tree and hide—or keep moving?”

Erin panted, and Ulvama checked their surroundings.

“If the water keeps rising…let’s go to higher ground.”

If they headed away from the stream, they might have a better shot. They could just climb a branch but that might be dangerous; the wind was picking up. So, marching they went.

As it happened, Erin and Ulvama were doing what all of nature did; Erin recoiled as she saw insects moving with her, but most were not actually dangerous.

“It’s a dung—ew. Hey, dude, roll elsewhere. And a ladybug! And…”

“Centipedes.”

Smaller than the one Erin had met, but an entire colony scuttled past Erin, and she backed away. To be fair, the bugs avoided her, and if the Antinium were here, they’d have seen this as a walking buffet.

In fact, some animals did see just that. Erin saw a lizard darting ahead of them and pulled Ulvama left; Erin glanced up, but any birds were hunkered down.

“Most birds won’t fly in a storm like this, right? Then it’s stuff on the ground we have to worry about.”

“Mhm. I’ll use [See Heat]. Lizards are cold…what are you doing?”

Erin lifted her spear up, and all the bugs around her recoiled. The tip was burning with a white flame that illuminated the area around her.

“Bad idea?”

“Things follow light!”

Ulvama hissed at Erin. The [Innkeeper] sighed, began to douse the flame—

Crackoooom.

A bolt of lightning landed somewhere close to them, and the entire world lit up. The world flashed—then went dark. The rainfall that had been falling down like thunder?

It became an all-consuming downpour. After a few seconds, Ulvama shouted over the noise.

“Erin?”

“Yeah?”

Despite it being morning, the skies were dark, and above them, branches waved like gigantic arms amid the howling wind. Ulvama cleared her throat.

“Keep the light.”

 

——

 

Their march along the forest floor was fast, but not as dangerous as one might think. Water had cut natural channels through the forest, and Ulvama and Erin quickly learned when there were signs the water might come this way; their response was to climb a tree and scale a branch or to use Ulvama’s powers.

“[Path of…Vines]! Hah!”

Ulvama created a narrow bridge of vines, and she and Erin dashed over a stream of fast-moving water. They high-fived, and Ulvama almost severed the spell…but saw some insects following them. She let them cross, then cut the spell; a big lizard had been crawling towards them. Erin shook her fist as the lizard recoiled, eyeing the collapsed bridge and rushing waters.

“That’s right! Back off!”

Aside from these adventures, the travel wasn’t the worst. After a while, Ulvama remembered the chipmunk.

“What did you see that was so surprising?”

“Oh. Right! He found his nest! But something else found him!”

Ulvama closed her eyes as Erin recalled what she’d seen. But to the [Shaman]’s surprise…the [Innkeeper] pointed back.

“Some other rodent—the hamster—was extorting nuts out of him! Just like I said! The chipmunk was rolling them out, and the hamster was cracking them—get this—with my bat!

Ulvama stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] waved her arms.

“I know, right? He must have found it! He was swinging the bat around! Not perfectly, but it was the battle hamster!”

After a second, Ulvama put her clawed hand on Erin’s forehead. The [Innkeeper] swatted it down.

“I’m serious! I told you all about him!”

“Erin. Don’t make things up. Just tell me something ate the chipmunk.”

“I’m not—why’s that so hard to believe?”

“Erin. It’s a hamster. Magical animals aren’t all weird.”

“Wh—there are Waisrabbits, Corusdeer, Sariant Lambs—why are Battle Hamsters, no, Mafia Hamsters so hard to believe?”

Ulvama refused to dignify that with a comment. She just shook her head and marched off. Erin followed her, trying to convince her she’d actually seen the hamster. Then she had a thought.

“…Seriously. How did he find my bat? Do you think he’s following us?”

Ulvama just rolled her eyes.

 

——

 

They didn’t get as far as Erin would have liked, but the downpour did make things hard. They didn’t get that wet either; the tree cover kept them safe, and at least they had water for tonight’s meal.

The meal was coconut soup à la lizard tail.

As in, one of the lizards who’d decided it was time to feast on bugs went for them. It was some variety of giant gecko; after it found out Erin was too strong for it to bite and she punched it hard enough to give it a bloody snout, it abandoned its tail and ran off.

…Lizard meat wasn’t great. But with some bark, after they cut it up and popped it in a pot with coconut and some nuts and a giant thing of rosemary-like herbs that Ulvama had found, it tasted very good.

The first meat dish in a long while. By common consensus, Ulvama and Erin agreed to ration their food more strategically. Erin patted the delicious flakes happily.

“Okay, unless we’re down to rations, the coconut is for flavor. Same with this rosemary stuff. Salt…salt’s hard. Darn, we should have gotten some from the ocean!”

They didn’t camp in another tree den; they couldn’t find one. Instead, they spent several hours dragging leaves around some tree roots and creating an enclosed space. It was far less pleasant, which was probably why Erin had the idea to use her [Pavilion of Secrets] again.

Ulvama wasn’t happy. However, Erin assured her it’d be quick. She was tired and muddy again, and the [Shaman] used her magic to solidify their enclosure…and gave Erin the go-ahead.

 

——

 

Erin walked down the path towards the Pavilion of Secrets. Or some aspect of it? She didn’t feel the mud, or the water, and her full stomach became something of the rest of the world.

“…There it is.”

This time, the door was waiting for her in the center of the gazebo. Instead of the chess board, it just stood there.

Her bathroom door. Erin’s skin crawled as she walked up the steps. She clenched a fist since it was the only weapon she had.

“What would the last Harpy Empress put in here? Not anything too dangerous. This is my place.”

She told herself that, and the Key of Insight was in her grip when she looked down. Yet the door was unlocked already, and when Erin tested the doorknob…her [Dangersense] rang an alarm.

None she had ever heard before. No great tones of doom, no harsh alarm of imminent danger. This one?

It sounded like her alarm clock, and that nostalgia, combined with the door—Erin gritted her teeth and looked around.

“Is this you, you—system of the world? Because it’s not funny if it is. I still don’t know what the box does! If I control this place, if it’s mine, then I want some damn answers! Something to help me and Ulvama! What could threaten me in this place?”

She took a breath, and her heart palpitated.

“What could threaten me in this place?”

Her hand tightened on the doorknob, and it creaked just how she remembered it. Erin turned the handle. She swung the door open—stepped through fast—and then opened her shut eyes.

And stopped.

Erin Solstice stood in the [Pavilion of Secrets]. In the exact same spot she’d been. In the exact same location.

She had passed through the door…into the same room. That void around her. The huge gazebo, smaller now, but the same in nature, now intimate and close.

Only, the door was gone, and a chess table sat right in front of Erin Solstice. No pieces sat on it; it was like chess tables in parks. Bring your own damn pieces.

The exact same…yet the door lay behind her now, still open. And there was one other thing in this [Pavilion of Secrets] summoned by the door.

Another Erin Solstice sat at the chess board, hair turned almost white on the front of her head, falling out and revealing short hair regrowing, like a bad buzz cut on her left side. She had scars on her wrists, and her t-shirt was wet and muddy; it had been partially fixed with lengths of grass, and she had some soup on her cheek.

She was shuffling a deck of cards, the faces glowing, her hands rifling them together in a practiced manner. When she looked up, her hazel eyes glowed despite the lack of light.

Erin Solstice met the eyes of the [Innkeeper] sitting there, face pale with shock. When the other Erin spoke, it was with the real one’s voice.

“The only thing that can harm you here is you yourself. I warn you: this is the place where you will hurt yourself greatly. Take a seat, if you’d like.”

Erin, the real Erin, stared down at the copy of herself. The fake Erin was placing cards face-down in front of her on the chess board. The real Erin’s skin prickled. Her heart pounded. She took a step backwards.

“Nope. Nope.

She grabbed the door as she backed out of the room. The copy of herself—the Erin Solstice sitting there—raised one eyebrow and smirked.

“I’ll see you later.”

Erin slammed the door, locked it with the Key of Insight, and stood there. Then put her ear to the door, listening.

Not a sound from within. No sound of…the other her trying to get out? Breathing? Was she there?

Was she behind Erin? The [Innkeeper] whirled. She looked around, but the [Pavilion of Secrets] was empty. She prowled around it, slowly moving around the gazebo, staring into the void…but there was nothing there.

Yet the door remained. Erin walked back to it.

“Get lost. I’m not doing this.”

She blinked—and it was gone. Erin sat down at the chess table instead—then popped up. She spun.

“Alright, I know it’s secrets. Show them to me. What else am I missing?”

She spun—and then there were four sets of doors spaced around the gazebo. The path back towards the entrance remained, but Erin saw her bathroom door at one entrance.

A jet black door with red hinges and a familiar symbol she remembered from Visophecin’s room. 

A pink door with golden hinges, neatly titled ‘Aleieta Reinhart’, just like her [Garden of Sanctuary].

And last of all, a door with a curious handle, not a doorknob, which Erin realized was adapted so a being without hands might open it. A Harpy’s door, which you landed on and swung horizontally so you could walk on through. So vast it made Erin stare upwards.

Moore could fit through Sheta’s door with ease.

Her skin was still prickling. Erin stared at her door again—then at the other doors. She took a step towards the door of the Harpy Empress—then began to head back to her door, fist clenched. Then she turned.

“Nope. I’m out.”

Erin strode back the way she’d come. She looked back three times.

Just to make sure the doors hadn’t opened without her.

 

 

Day 3

 

It was Ulvama’s professional opinion that Erin had done the right thing. However, she cautioned Erin.

“That thing in the room. Did you think it was you? Or sentient?”

“I—I don’t know. It didn’t feel like—I can feel what’s in my [Gardens of Sanctuary]. For instance, I know Mrsha’s in there right now with Nanette and Ishkr. And, for some reason, a bunch of gold.”

“Really? They’re not looking for us?”

Ulvama was slightly insulted by this, and Erin shrugged.

“I don’t think so. Maybe they hired someone. But, like, it’s a lot of gold. Just a ton of gold.”

“What, a thousand pieces?”

“No…how much gold would you have if you made a pile up to the hill? Like a second hill of gold?”

Ulvama tried to work that out.

“…Your instincts must be wrong. That’s too much gold.”

Erin gave Ulvama a long look.

“I know that’s true. So I knew…there’s nothing in that room, Ulvama.”

“But you said you saw a copy of yourself.”

“I know. It’s me. Or some—it’s not like Skinner or something else. I think. I hope. But those other rooms…I don’t know what’s in there. What does your, uh, [Shaman] wisdom say about that?”

Erin didn’t expect Ulvama to have an answer, but the [Shaman of the Old Ways] had actually slept on it. The two talked as they heated up cold lizard tail soup—not the best. But they had to eat something, and it was still raining.

They were only lucky their roots hadn’t flooded; they’d picked well. The one nasty shock was finding a bunch of pill bugs had crawled into the same spot when Erin went out in the middle of the night to pee. That wasn’t fun.

“There have been Goblins who had bad Skills before. Bad Skills. Crimson ones. Sometimes, they’re invisible in their head. But Goblins who own something—is different. One Goblin owned a powerful Skill. A bridge. The bridge. Like your inn.”

Erin’s head rose.

“An Inheritance Skill?”

Ulvama nodded as she chewed on some meat from her stew.

“Yah. It was a good bridge. A famous one. It had many powers. But it haunted them, sometimes. It never harmed them or anyone directly. That’s important. Skills you own don’t normally do that. But he was guilty.”

“[The Bridge of Lands, Teylas Donethil].”

Erin murmured, and Ulvama blinked.

“How do you—”

“Ghosts I met talked about it. How—how did it haunt this Goblin?”

Ulvama put down her bowl unhappily.

“He was a great [Builder]. It came to him, and he used it to bring Goblins across land and sea. Then—one asked him to use it for war.”

“Ah.”

Ulvama passed a clawed hand over her face.

“He used it, and blood covered the great bridge. It never did anything to him, but when he went to build on it—for it was never finished—the stone he used turned red. The section of the bridge he was so proud of was covered in blood and bones, and he was given bones instead of metal. Blood filled the waters. In the end, the Goblin threw himself in the sea because of the guilt.”

Erin stopped chewing and stared at Ulvama, no longer hungry.

“I—”

The [Shaman] opened her eyes.

“—And he landed on the great bridge. He couldn’t drown himself. He tried many times, then gave up and began to clean it. He made amends and refused to take Goblins to war. In time, he went back to building it with stone. An old Goblin helped build part of it. But it never hurt him.”

Erin blinked. Ulvama stared at her, then went back to eating, and after a moment, Erin found her appetite again.

So that was what a [Shaman] was good for. Erin spat out a tailbone into the fire after a second, where it sizzled and cracked.

“…So you think it’s not going to harm me.”

“I think it told you the truth. You harm yourself when you enter. Be careful. It sounds like there is danger.”

“But only what I can do. Got it. I’ll…try again. Soon. Tonight. Maybe. Want to keep moving?”

 

——

 

A threat emerged from the rains on the third day. An unpleasant one. The first hint over the thunderous downpour and flashes of heart-stopping lightning was the sound.

Riiibooooooooooot. Ribooooooooooooooooooooooooat.

“Great. It’s them again.”

Wailer Frogs were on the hunt. Now, Erin saw how the huge, four-foot plus frogs lived. Not in their little mud puddle; they lived for this.

They were big enough to ignore the rains sweeping animals away, and their hunting tactic was simple: they hopped to a spot with prey, inflated their lungs—and blasted everything with sound.

Birds fell out of trees. Insects were stunned. Animals went deaf. Erin and Ulvama weren’t even in the radius of the frogs at first, and the sound was deafening.

“[Deafen Ears]! Argh! It still hurts!

Even with Ulvama’s spell, the vibrations alone made the two cover their ears. The Wailer Frogs sounded like they were heading through the forest in an organized manner, flushing out food—and there were dozens of them. Erin pointed wildly.

We have to go across the river! Away from them!

What? How?

The little stream had become a raging river—and it had already been too dangerous to just swim across before the downpour. But it was either that or break out of the Wailer Frog hunting grounds another direction that risked running into them.

In the end, it was Ulvama who saved them. Well, Ulvama’s magic and a crazy idea from Erin’s talks with Niers.

The animals not hit by the full force of the Wailer Frogs’ cacophony knew they had to run or die. It became a free-for-all as opportunistic predators and scavengers went for a quick meal while at the same time needing to escape the Wailer Frogs, who would kill anything they could find.

In fact, Erin swore she heard a pig screaming and the frogs ribbiting around it. She saw a tree shake and wondered if it was fighting back—then the squealing disappeared.

“Uh oh. I think they killed a pig. A big one.”

What?

Even the birds were taking flight, risking the rain rather than death by frog. Several went down, wings soaked, and Erin saw the river churning. Fish having their food delivered. But it did give her a desperate idea.

As the Wailer Frogs were closing in, Ulvama and Erin, anchored to a branch, watched as more birds made a break for it. One, a huge, plumed fellow with a bright red crest, leapt from a branch—then swerved as Ulvama planted her thorn-spear down and shouted.

“[Command Animal]!”

The bird slowed, fanning its wings, and Ulvama shouted.

“Land! Land!

The bird didn’t want to. Ulvama could normally command some animals with her magic, but the size imbalance meant the bird hovered near a branch as the croaking below grew louder, landed, then began to fly off—that was where Erin came in.

“[Feather Hop]! [Flutter Run]…aha!”

She jumped, hovered in the air, and threw a loop of grass-rope around the bird’s talons. It snapped shut, and Erin yanked on the loop, and it tightened. The bird tried to peck at the rope, and Erin hung to it, swaying crazily.

Ulvama! Grab on!

The [Shaman] grabbed at the rope, swearing, and the two jerked around as Erin looped the rope around her arm. She was worried it might tear Ulvama’s arm loose if the bird jerked it too hard; her body was tougher, so she grabbed Ulvama and held on.

“Alright! Let’s go—aaaaaaaaa—

It was the most terrifying three minutes of flight in their entire lives. The red-crested bird took off as Ulvama released the magic, and a frog hopped into view. The bird shot into the storm and instantly began to fly for the nearest refuge; the trees across the river.

Water soaked the bird’s feathers, and it flapped desperately. The two hung on for dear life. Falling didn’t scare them; falling into the water? That was death.

They’d gotten lucky, though. This was a magical bird, at least in some respects. It had a beak that could glow and brighten.

A magic-crested, glowing beaked warbler! Or something. It crossed the river, and Erin and Ulvama cheered! They saw the other trees coming up—then saw the bird turn its head and open its beak.

“Nononono, you stupid—”

Ulvama tried to cast a spell as Erin shouted at it, but the bird turned, raised one claw, and snipped the grass rope.

—They landed in the pouring rain, across the river, as water rushed across a muddy bank towards the churning water behind them. Erin got up first; her arm was tangled in the rope. She hauled Ulvama to her feet, and they looked back.

Wailer Frogs were still raising hell from their side of the river. More birds and even insects were fleeing the forest, and as Erin watched, a second boar crashed out of the trees ahead of them and into the river.

“Holy smokes. That thing’s covered in armor. It’s a pig in armor!”

“Stelbore.”

Ulvama saw the fleeing pig being pursued by frogs. Without a word, she and Erin began to hurry towards the trees. Only when they looked back once did Erin squint.

“…Hey. Is that a giant beetle attacking the boar?

A familiar, red flying dot was harassing the Stelbore, which was probably eight feet long and hundreds of pounds. The Wailer Frogs had stopped hopping after it and were returning to the forest. Ulvama and Erin stared at each other.

“…Nah.”

The [Shaman] sneezed. Then spotted something on the ground. She ran forwards, picked it up, and smiled despite their hair-raising escape.

“Erin! Look! Maybe this fixes your shirt, eh?”

Erin brightened up instantly. It was a giant, red feather.  Then she shivered and sneezed again.

 

——

 

The chill of the rain proved to be almost as deadly as the downpour itself. The soaked feather, Erin, and Ulvama all warmed by an emergency fire she conjured; when their shivering had stopped and they had dried off, the two set out, using the trees as additional cover.

That was thankfully the worst of it; Erin once again thanked Maviola for her fire Skill. Without it, they would have been in dire straits.

The two spent the rest of that day lightly hiking away from the river, plucking pieces off the feather and arguing how to best turn it into fabric or something close.

 

 

Day 4

 

On the fourth day, the rain stopped. The air was muggy and humid, and the forest was wet, but it beat the downpour. Erin was in a good mood; she had a new t-shirt.

Okay, it was mostly feather dander, grass strips, and her old t-shirt combined into one, but at least it covered her up, and she didn’t shiver every time the wind blew. In fact, it looked to be a far better morning.

“I bet we got at least a hundred feet from the beach. Whaddya think, Ulvama?”

“Eh. Maybe fifty at least.”

Four days of setting out, and Erin was optimistic. She inhaled as she looked around for food this morning; they’d found a mushroom that Ulvama had deemed edible, and it hadn’t been great, but the coconut had helped.

Today was all about food and maybe finding that high ground! Erin took a deep breath of the forest air. Then sneezed. And sneezed.

“Oh no. Whut’s dat.”

She stared upwards, and Ulvama poked her head out of a leaf tent and stared upwards. She instantly began making a feather bandanna for her face.

“Pollen.”

 

——

 

“Ib blew my face off.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Ulvama turned her head as they hiked up towards a large boulder and changed her mind. She paused…gingerly produced a leaf ‘handkerchief’, and wiped. Then she tossed the handkerchief away, found another, and wiped again.

“I hayt pollen.”

“Is pretty bad.”

Ulvama had to agree to that. Her skin itched. Erin? Erin got the full works. Ulvama had never actually known what ‘blew my face off’ meant in regards to nose blowing, but Erin had managed a few sneezes that had redefined the phrase for Ulvama.

Dehydration was an issue. Erin’s nose was red and raw, and it ran constantly. She was sneezing without end—you’d imagine you’d stop—and she’d drunk three canteens of water.

Ulvama herself was surprised to be suffering herself, albeit far less than Erin. One of the reasons Ulvama had been a good [Shaman] was because she had never had any allergic reaction. But when the Hobgoblin grimaced upwards, she could see pollen literally floating downwards.

Huge globs of it, some as large as their heads. Yellow dandruff from some damn plant shedding in such profusion it was driving them insane. Ulvama eyed what might be hives on her arms and legs and applied more mud as a protective coating.

[Reinforced Structure] or not, Erin was suffering bad. They were hiking despite the pollen falling, though, to try and get out of range of it. Or at least, Ulvama reasoned, they might climb this boulder and see a spot clear of it.

They had more problems too; Ulvama checked her coconut shavings after their second rest stop by the stream to let Erin wash her face.

“There’s pollen in the water. Is my face puffy?”

Ulvama turned, and Erin grimaced at her. Erin’s face was indeed swollen up. The Hobgoblin’s wince made Erin go back to washing her features. Ulvama, meanwhile, chucked some of the coconut flakes into the water.

“Coconut’s gone moldy.”

“Damn. So fast?”

“It was rained on for two days. The backpacks aren’t waterproof.”

Erin blearily stumbled over to the backpacks.

“I can fix it. I just need…tarp stuff. Or better wood frames. See how these shift?”

She rattled the thorn-frames held together only by lengths of rope, which had frayed already from transit. Erin knew, instinctively, that a more solid frame would work. They might even make one if they used Ulvama’s stone dagger and a bit of creative work with flame and whatnot…but she had no nails or anything else.

She knew there had to be something—but a sneezing Erin was not in a good position to figure it out. Ulvama unpacked the rest of the coconut flakes, hoping they’d dried in the sun; she’d spread them out on a rock.

Erin kicked one with a boot.

“That’s bad.”

“How can you tell?”

Ulvama chucked it as Erin sneezed, thankfully avoiding their half-a-pack’s worth of food.

“[Advanced Cooking]. I think.”

She was half-blind as she followed Ulvama onwards, and the sneezing, coughing [Innkeeper] was so miserable this day that Ulvama tried her best to distract Erin.

“We’re almost at the boulder, Erin. You follow me and climb. Um…so. What new Skills do you have besides the box, the [Aspect of the Inn], and the [Pavilion of Secrets]?”

Erin sniffed mightily as she half-crawled up the rocks. Ulvama had to own, she was curious. Erin was a Level 55 [Innkeeper]; she’d gotten more than just a capstone Skill, and powerful as that was, Ulvama wondered what else you got from that many levels.

The [Innkeeper] didn’t reply at first, and Ulvama continued as they saw more of the world around them. She glanced back and frowned.

“…If it’s a secret, it’s okay. Hey, we’re further than you thought.”

“No, I was just doing a reverse Pisces.”

“A wh—gross.”

Ulvama handed Erin another grass handkerchief. Erin wiped her nose, then finally took a look the way they’d come.

“…That’s a lot farther than a hundred feet.”

“Yup.”

The sea was faintly visible on the horizon. Ulvama calculated they’d gone around five miles, if the Fraerling biology wasn’t playing havoc with her instincts. Erin looked cheerful at this, though.

“Hey, at least we’re making progress! It’s not super fast, but…huh. Look at that.”

She pointed in the other direction, and with the advantage of height, the two finally got a good look around them.

If Ulvama had to lay out the general geography, she’d start with the ocean, which met a long, seemingly endless beach. Past that was the jungle, but it wasn’t all treeline. There were areas, like the Wailer Frogs’ mud pond or her thorn bush patch, that broke up the terrain.

However, their road north had taken them mostly along a stream that ran into the Wailer Frog pond. When the rains fell, the stream became an inlet to the sea. They had gone to the right side first, using the trees as cover during the rain, but crossed over onto the other side to avoid the Wailer Frogs.

Now, ahead of them, the tree cover began to, if not subside, then change in nature. The more temperate trees that the two were used to, albeit more densely packed and covered with decent greenery, began to spread out. Huge, wide, wide trees with massive root systems sprawled out along terrain that Ulvama thought was grassy.

Then she realized: they were lily pads. They were staring at a huge damn swamp dead ahead.

“Great! That’s where all the water’s come from. Darn it, is it bad water, then?”

“Maybe not. We boiled it most times.”

Ulvama was dismayed by the swamp. She liked them for ingredients, but only with a bunch of other Goblins to run security, thanks. It seemed to her it was a bad place to go as a Fraerling; the treacherous terrain would also let predators hide.

The only other spot ahead that wasn’t swampy was a clearer patch of forest on the left side. It seemed only natural to head that way; the trees were broken up in a few places by tall deadwood spires. Erin pointed them out.

“Huh. Those are some big trees that died. Let’s head that way?”

“Mm.”

The two picked a path heading away from the marsh, swamp, or whatever the term was and set out. After half a minute of walking down the boulder, Erin spoke.

“They’re not good Skills for exploring or surviving out here.”

Ulvama’s ears perked up. She casually glanced at Erin.

“So they’re…inn Skills?”

“Sorta. I want to keep them secret.”

“Okay.”

“To surprise you.”

Erin glanced at Ulvama and relented after a second.

“Oh—fine. I’ll tell you a few, okay?”

She was a private person, and Ulvama wondered who actually kept more secrets between the two of them. After a few more minutes of walking, Erin muttered.

“—good if we’re actually at a place. I didn’t even get a chance to use ‘em. I think they’re all related to what I did at the Solstice or after.”

Mhm.

Ulvama tried to not look excited. Surely, everyone had gotten new Skills, but Erin’s? What did a Level 50+ [Innkeeper] get?

“…Gotta ‘nother handkerchief? Tank you.”

Erin walked, blew her nose, kicked a pebble, and spoke.

“[Lesser Authority: Buildings].”

Ulvama twisted around. She saw a furry shape duck behind a tree but stared at Erin.

“What does that mean?

Erin did a Pisces.

“Dunno. Definitely doesn’t work here.

She glared balefully around at everything. At least the pollen seemed to be blowing towards the sea. Ulvama hopped up and down on her toes.

“Give—give another.”

“‘Mkay. How about, uh…uh…achoo! I have one for <Quests>!”

“Quests?”

Suddenly, that rang a bell. Ulvama grabbed Erin’s arm.

“Erin! Why didn’t you post a <Quest> telling everyone in the inn where we are and to come get us? Tell them to come find us!”

Erin sniffed.

“Can’t. It doesn’t work if I don’t know where I am. I can’t make it say, and I can’t lie.”

“Well—then—just say to come help us! Rescue us!”

Ulvama was astonished Erin hadn’t posted a <Quest> all the time she’d been drifting at sea. But snotty face or not, red, puffed up skin or not—Erin’s expression hardened.

“I don’t need help. I des—I’ve got you, Ulvama. We’re fine, and we don’t need to draw trouble down on us.”

The [Shaman] blinked.

Let go of Erin.

After a second, they kept going.

 

——

 

After about fifteen minutes, Erin realized she was sneezing less. She’d spent the entire time thinking, though. She broke the silence.

“I can ask for help, I guess.”

“Mm. Might be a good idea.”

Ulvama’s face was neutral. Erin nodded too-carefully. What the [Innkeeper] didn’t say was that she’d post a quest…for Ulvama’s sake.

She deserved this.

Erin went on after a moment, trying to avoid the eyes of a [Shaman].

“So one of my Skills is <Quest>-based.”

That drew Ulvama’s attention. Erin waited a beat.

“Wanna know what it is?”

Ulvama chopped Erin’s forehead with a palm, and Erin saw the Goblin wince. The [Innkeeper] grinned ruefully, drew out the suspense, and said:

“[Quest: Impossible Deed, Impossible Reward].”

This time, Ulvama’s silence was weightier. Erin herself felt the words provoke a memory. Colth going over the railing into the sea with a snarling Iert.

Don’t come back up until he’s dead.

“…What kind of reward…?”

“Dunno. Sounds cool though, right?”

“Yah. How impossible is, uh…impossible? Can you give me a <Quest>?”

That was a fun question, so the two tried to craft a <Quest> as they marched out of the world of pollen. Erin’s voice got scratchy, and they had to stop and boil water twice so she could wash her face and drink—Ulvama kept on the lookout for anything to eat, and they found something in one tree.

“Hey. Is dat a kiwi?”

It was not. It resembled one; it had a fuzzy shell like a kiwi, the only fruit Erin knew of that was like the strange object, but it was larger, mango-sized. Several had fallen, and Ulvama announced most were rotten—but not all. They found a freshly-fallen one barely damaged from the rainstorm and carved past the tough exterior to find food.

The fruit was, again, sweet, and Ulvama claimed it was delicious. Erin, grimacing, sucked up the juice and munched on the fruit after they’d roasted it over a fire; they’d seen worms going for the other fruits, and neither one wanted parasites. Then they set out with new packs full of fruit, though some damn fruit flies kept buzzing around them; Ulvama cast a charm, and they backed off, but hovered ten feet away, buzzing hopefully.

“Okay. How about…<Basic Quest: Get Dinner!>”

“Yah, yah. I can do that. Now make it impossible.”

“Okay. Basic…no. Rare—hrm. Heroic—wait, I think I can do rare?”

Erin struggled with it for a while, then read out a quest before she actually assigned it to Ulvama.

 

<Rare Exclusive Quest – Get Dinner, Ulvama!>

Limits: Only Ulvama!

I’m hungry! Blah blah description here…

 

“Hey! This is my first quest. Make it good.”

Ulvama poked Erin with the butt of her thorn-spear. Erin was about to laugh at her, then realized Ulvama was actually glaring.

Sometimes, Erin forgot that what was still like a game to her—mattered to the people of this world. Even Mrsha had done almost every <Basic Quest>, come to it. Erin tried again.

 

<Rare Exclusive Quest – Get Dinner, Ulvama!>

Limits: Only Ulvama! No bugs.

I’m hungry! Erin Solstice is down for the count because of allergies and stuff. She needs food! Good food! Any food! Not bugs. Get something nice in ingredient form!

Posted Reward: Erin will cook it up! Her undying gratitude! A meal for you, probably!

Quest Reward: Dinner! Experience in <Exploration>, <Hunter>, <Cooking>, applicable to [Shaman] class.

Optional Condition (Impossible): I see a huge bird of prey in the swamps. Kill it by yourself for food within a day’s time.

 

Ulvama stopped. She replayed what Erin had said in her head—and followed the direction of Erin’s gaze.

There, in the swamp still visible from their vantage point, was a bird. No, a duo of birds. They had long beaks, like a pelican, and huge wingspans. They were, somewhat fittingly to the swamp, an uncanny green color, but a vibrant one that was close to turquoise; they’d blend partly in with both greenery and sky.

Their beaks and eyes, though, were highlighted a brighter orange. What made them distinct was that their tail feathers were pale white speckled with yellow. And when one spread their wings, their interior plumage was yellow too.

They were, if Ulvama was right, as big as an albatross. In addition to their massive beak—which could swallow her whole—she saw one roosting in one of the huge trees. The other was swooping down towards something in the marsh.

All well and good. Bird-like things. Any bird could fly or be that big. It would scoop up something to eat with that long beak, like fish; doubtless what it normally ate.

Now, where a magical bird differed from all that was when this particular bird made a curious sound.

“Auurrrrrr-mak!”

The descending aur was followed by the bird twisting, slapping the water with a thunderclap of sound so loud it reached Ulvama and Erin…and then gently ruffling its wings, floating there like a swan, and paddling over to several dead fish that had just floated to the surface.

“…It just sonic killed them. With a wing attack.”

Erin had heard you could kill fish underwater by slamming rocks together. But she was certain no bird from Earth could do that maneuver without breaking a wing.

Ulvama stared at the bird. She stared at Erin.

“Me, kill that? With this?”

She hefted her toothpick spear. Erin shrugged.

“I don’t make the rules.”

“You just did.”

“It’s gotta be ‘impossible’. What part of that don’t you get?”

“Make it a bit more possible!”

“Can’t. I just posted the quest.”

“Well, I’m not killing that bird!”

Ulvama poked a shaking finger at the ‘Aurmak’ bird. Erin sneezed on her and then apologized.

“Sorry. You don’t hafta. Can we keep going?”

She was still suffering from allergies. Ulvama relented and stomped forwards, head on a swivel for dinner of a less deadly kind. The two made good progress and actually reached the marsh by nightfall; they camped once more by some sprawling roots that broke the ground, securing a divot in the ground.

Ulvama reinforced leaf walls that Erin secured with bits of stone and ‘nails’ of pieces of wood she hammered into the bark. It wasn’t the most secure, but it held, and Ulvama ended up dashing over to find some more of those berries she’d lived on for a month for the <Quest>.

The system grudgingly spat out a single packet of salt from one of Liscor’s diners as a reward for Ulvama’s hard work. Since it was salt, the two instantly agreed they should be assigning these quests every night. Even if the ‘impossible’ clause might never get fulfilled.

Oh, and one more thing. The reason the two camped by the marsh and didn’t head into the more inviting-looking forest was for a simple reason.

“Erin? Your [Dangersense] still going off?”

Erin turned as she kept sneezing and wiping her nose. It was actually bloody phlegm by now. She hoped she didn’t choke in her sleep. If she even slept. Ulvama gave her a pat on the back as she hauled in more water and grass for Erin. The [Innkeeper] croaked.

“Yeah. Big drums.”

The two eyed the forest, and Ulvama sighed.

“And the marsh?”

“Little bells.”

“Bleh.”

 

——

 

Erin did not sleep well that night. She ended up hawking and snorting and sneezing so badly that Ulvama barely got any sleep, and after six hours without sleep Erin wound up sitting, curled up and hoping the pollen vanished or they got out of range the next day.

Almost naturally…

She opened the door to the [Pavilion of Secrets], inhaled, and her sneezing was gone. Her face still hurt, but in this place, at least—there was no pollen.

No air.

“Whew. That’s a relief.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets], legacy of the last Harpy Empress, waited for her. But Erin was mainly interested in getting away from that pollen. She walked into the gazebo, sat down, and then lay out on one of the hard benches.

“I wonder if you can sleep here. Maybe Ulvama would let me do it just for a night? Shame there’s no blanket.”

Erin stared up at the roof and, past it, the void itself. Not like the stars at all. After a moment, she cleared her throat.

“Blanket. And falling lights, like the [Garden of Sanctuary].”

Neither appeared.

“Darn.”

Silence. Erin lay there for a while, breathing in and out, or thinking that she did. She was tempted to just while the night away, but that would be impossible for a different reason. Not just upsetting Ulvama. After a second, Erin sat up.

“Alright.”

She looked straight across from her, and there it was.

The door.

This time, it looked like the door to the room she and Visophecin had entered. Outlined by black flames. Waiting.

“So you look like what scares me most, huh? Is it a warning from this place? Or from me? Give me a door that fits.

The [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes. She blinked—and a third door sat there. Perhaps, if someone came to inherit this place, it might scare them more than the other two doors in a way. For the young woman? The door had a brass nameplate. It said:

 

Erin Solstice.

 

It was the door to her room in The Wandering Inn. She exhaled.

“Yeah. Okay. Let’s do this.”

She squared her shoulders. Then—Erin marched over to the door, yanked it open, and called out to the identical place beyond—and the one person who was there, waiting for her.

“You’re not worse than pollen, you know.”

Erin Solstice sat there, shuffling the deck of cards, her feet on the chess table. She was leaning back in a simple wooden chair; she indicated the one across from her.

“You and I both know we are. But you haven’t been told the rules. Sit, Erin. Take a seat.”

Erin sat down. She decided, for her sanity, that this other person was going to be…Pavilion-Erin. Not-Erin?

Her reflection grinned at her as Erin sat down. The [Innkeeper] stared at the feet propped up on the chess table.

“Take them down.”

The other Erin didn’t move.

“Why?”

“It’s disrespectful to the board.”

The chess board. Even if there weren’t any pieces—Erin saw the other Erin cross her worn boots instead.

“No, it’s not. You don’t know this chess board. You don’t even believe it exists. And you don’t think a chessboard or the pieces matter more than the players, even if they’re worth tens of thousands of dollars. Just like that time in Munich when your opponent tried to get you flustered. You were eleven. Bishop checkmate. 67 moves. Stained glass chess pieces.”

The [Innkeeper] stopped. She stared at the Erin of the Pavilion of Secrets and, after a moment, copied her and put her boots up on the table.

“I can’t punch you. That’s correct. How d’you know that?”

“I’m you. You haven’t asked what the rules are, by the way. Cormelex did the moment he walked in. Aleieta Reinhart tried to charm herself for three days before she gave in. Empress Sheta never had to ask.”

The real Erin scowled at her copy.

“Great. You’re the Pavilion of Secrets. It’s just—you. What are you, a Djinni? An aspect of the System of Levels?”

The other Erin kept shuffling the cards.

“That’s a secret, and you don’t have the answer. But I can tell you since it’s about the rules. No, I’m not the all-encompassing power that made this place. I’m just the reflection of the Pavilion of Secrets whose job it is to sit here. Across from you. My function, and I say ‘my’ when I mean yours, is to facilitate meetings. Or talk with myself. Nothing more. Mind you—”

The other Erin chuckled in a way that made the real Erin’s hair stand up. She didn’t sound like that, did she? This—dark? This sardonic? Her eyes were boring holes in her own head, but Erin refused to look away.

“—I think aspects of myself could scare even the Grand Design of Isthekenous. If it’s watching, even here. And you, Erin, believe with all your heart it is.”

Simultaneously, the two looked in opposite directions, as if staring at an invisible camera, searching for the watcher who was always there. Whether or not there was any presence, let alone if they unsettled it…

Erin spread her hands out as she sat forwards, and her clone did likewise.

“Okay. What are the rules? Also, what’s with the act? What’s with the deck of cards, and if you are me, what’s with the Chris Hansen impersonation?”

The other Erin shrugged.

“I’m trying to be ominous in a way I’ll get. So you know this isn’t the [Garden of Sanctuary]. If you mess up, you’ll regret it.”

“I know that.”

“Ah.”

The other Erin held up a finger and wagged it.

“Don’t be an idiot.”

Then she leaned over the table, and Erin Solstice got to meet the Erin Solstice other people knew. A scarred [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes, and her face darkened. She leaned over like Chaldion would when he was at his most serious, with that dead-set expression that Relc, Niers, and others wore when it was time to kill or die.

And her voice rasped.

This is more than ‘sanctuary ends’. Don’t. Be. Stupid. You know yourself. All these games I like to play? Pushing the envelope? Pretending that you forgot to bow? Tweaking the nose of someone you think needs a lesson? This is your first and last warning, Erin Solstice. Try it here and you may regret it till the day you die. You think you’re beyond more suffering? In this room, you can kill Pisces with a single word. You can kill your friends, Ulvama, everyone. Understand?

Erin leaned back. She had to. The words were not only delivered by that intensity—she stared at her face, felt at her hair, wondering how she hadn’t realized how many scars she had—but they were aimed at herself.

She took a shuddering breath, hating that she was losing to, well, herself.

“Okay. I get it.”

“No you don’t.”

The other Erin sat back, calm as could be in a flash. She sighed and went back to shuffling the cards.

“You still think I might be someone other than you. Now, you just think I can read your mind, not that I’m actually you. But you paid attention. The cards came from Sheta, by the way. She thought some kind of divination object or whatnot would make this all less…personal. The others kept it. If you want, they can vanish.”

The cards remained. The [Innkeeper] folded her arms.

“What are the rules?”

The other her responded instantly and with a hint of a smile. She said it how Erin would best understand it, logically and to the point.

“This is the Pavilion of Secrets. The nature of this place is secrecy. If the [Garden of Sanctuary] is, well, sanctuary, think about how secrets work for people.”

“…So I can uncover them here? Or hide them?”

The mirror-Erin shrugged.

“What is a secret? Don’t bother trying to answer that; you don’t have one ready. In this place, you can indeed uncover some, but there’s a cost. You can’t get anything for free. Or rather—”

Her eyes glinted.

“—the more powerful a Skill is, the higher your level. Or the greater the cost. This is ‘only’ a Skill you get at Level 50. So there’s cost and reward. When you say something here, if it’s true, if it’s real—you’ll remember it.”

“Okay? It’s not like I forget what happens in here.”

Real Erin raised her brows. The other her lifted a finger.

“Right. You get all that. But whoever sits right here? If it’s true and real, they’ll remember it too. That’s how it works. In part. A secret for a secret.”

For a second, the other Erin flickered out of existence. Just for a beat, like an image on a monitor flickering. Then, the real [Innkeeper] saw it. The other her gave her a sardonic smile. Erin breathed out as her heart began to beat faster.

“Oh. Is that how it works?”

For a reply, the other her put the deck of cards down on the table, and they vanished. Then she winked at herself.

“This one’s on the house. Presenting—the Harpy Queen.”

And then she was gone, and the last Empress of the Harpies, Sheta, sat across from Erin.

The [Innkeeper] recoiled, falling out of her chair, and stared up. Up—at a real Harpy.

She was eleven feet tall. Her plumage was a royal brown, darkening to black near the tips of her wings—and she had no arms. Just wings. Her talons were huge, a bird of prey’s, yet she had a humanoid torso, a woman’s body, covered in a toga, and Erin saw three rings glinting on her talons.

A crown on her head, each tine a different species holding a torch skywards. Gnoll, Drake, Human…

The Harpy Queen was there in a moment. Her voice was deep. And she was—a memory.

“When I was young and needed somewhere to hide after confronting Dragons, to weep or rage or simply be, a place of solace to call my own, I created the [Garden of Sanctuary].”

“Wh—Empress Sheta?”

The reflection paused, but didn’t reply. It was like a recording. But Erin felt the presence of the vast Harpy across the table from her. If she reached out—

She didn’t dare. She sat on the ground as the Harpy raised one wing and pressed her face to her feathers for a moment. Her voice was nostalgic—and Erin realized she was in her late thirties?

Not as old as…

Did Harpies get that big? Maybe. But the [Garden of Sanctuary], the statue that Teriarch had seen, hadn’t been that large! And at the same time—Erin’s memory flickered.

She had seen great Harpies in the land of the dead. Even the Empress herself. And that Harpy had been even larger.

Then—the one of ‘now’, who had left this message, wasn’t full-grown? She was certainly older than the one who had made the [Garden of Sanctuary]. In a low voice, Sheta continued.

“My [Garden of Sanctuary] was a wondrous delight. It brought together friends, even foes. It was a safe place as well as a place of confidence for many. But it was never large enough.”

“No. It isn’t.”

Erin whispered. Now, the Harpy seemed to meet her eyes, as if she knew who would eventually find this place. She dipped her head and went on.

“When I was older and needed weapons against my enemies—and I have so many—”

She paused and closed her eyes.

“—When I found I had enemies, I made this place. My [Pavilion of Secrets]. A harsh weapon from a ruler, a dangerous, nay, unfair weapon. If my greatest champion and counselor knew of its existence, he would be disappointed with me.”

She looked to the side, and Erin thought she knew who that was. But then that bright-eyed stare came back to Erin. Eyes as green as the Vale Forest, turning winter blue as they narrowed to the pupils, like the snow atop the High Passes, stared down at Erin.

“—But he never shall. You, who have found this place. Know this: when I beseeched the world and the force behind levels and classes and skills for this place, I made it to do what I needed. To create a Skill of great power, you must entertain a cost. The greater the cost, the more powerful a Skill can be.”

“Yeah.”

Then they nodded at each other. The Harpy Queen went on again.

“This one has a dire cost. Too much at times. And others, it is too dangerous. Too—painful. Use it as you will. Soon, I shall reach the next stage of my class, if I live long enough. Then…”

Her eyes grew distant, and Erin knew the name of her final Skill. So this was before she left her message. The Harpy Empress murmured.

“It will be a useless Skill. A valuable one. That has always been the nature of these ones I have made. The last one shall be most of each, I think. If I finish it—”

Her eyes focused on Erin.

“If it is something you desire, you will find it. As for this place, I hope it does not shatter your heart.”

She dipped her head—and then she was gone. Erin let out a breath she had held—and her doppelganger dusted off her pants and sat down at the table.

“That one’s just a memory. I’m here for context; she knew what she was making, but even Sheta needed the rules spelled out. You can call someone, if you want. Go ahead. Name someone. Anyone.

Erin grinned at herself as she shuffled the deck of cards like a gambler.

“Just remember. They’re allowed to refuse to talk to you. A secret for a secret makes the world keep turning. Or something like that. Now, you’re wondering if Wistram was made from this place. Now, you’re wondering about the dead.”

Erin Solstice began to place cards on the table, flipping them face up. One by one. The Jack of Diamonds—Kevin. Halrac, the Ten of Clubs. A King—His-Xe of Khelt.

She met her own eyes.

“Yep. Just remember there’s not many secrets the dead want from you. And anything true—they’ll remember.”

So saying, Erin Solstice sat back, stretched, and stared at her other self standing there. After a long, long silence, she waved.

“Have fun with the pollen. You can always talk to yourself if you want. But be warned: you’re not very nice.”

The door slammed as Erin departed.

 

 

Day 5

 

“I don’t get it.”

Ulvama was trying to understand Erin’s explanation of how the Pavilion of Secrets worked the next day. They were preparing for their entry into the swamp territory.

The first thing both women had to do, each and every day, was boil water, cook breakfast and make repairs to their travel gear, plot out their route, and if they had spare time, wash the dirt and crud off their belongings.

Nightfall was not a good time to do any of that; they were generally tired, and the darkness meant that unless they had a light spell—very dangerous given nocturnal predators—they should have already been inside a shelter.

The amount of time it took setting up camp, getting food, and tending to basic necessities without tools made Erin long for the days she just had to run her inn.

At the moment, she and Ulvama were trying to waterproof their backpacks with the feather material and, well, mud.

They didn’t have any glue or other substitutes; the backpacks had to be light, and Erin kept infusing the mud with the essence of bark’s color. It still made the adhesive fragile, but it might keep whatever was inside from instantly getting swamp water all over it if one or the other fell in the water.

If Erin looked up from their camp today, she could see a narrow series of ‘paths’ leading through the water around the edges of the swamp leading up to some cliffs as the ground rose. The forested terrain to their left would be more of an uphill hike; the swamp would be treacherous, winding, and wet.

However, Erin’s [Dangersense] told her the swamp was safer, Aurmak birds or not. Thus, they went. Ulvama was sighing as she boiled more water for their canteens.

Erin’s allergies from last night had subsided for the most part. She still didn’t feel well, but Erin understood her condition hadn’t been anywhere close to normal since before the Solstice. Talking about the Skills helped.

“So you met yourself and the last Harpy Empress. In that room, you trade secrets…is that it?”

“Y’know, it’s sort of more powerful than just that.”

Erin was slightly offended by how Ulvama framed it. However, the Hobgoblin just scratched her head.

“Maybe. Goblins remember most things, so maybe it’s better to other species? So you can ask for anyone’s secrets?”

“Yeah, but I have to trade.”

“Hm.”

“Whaddya think? I can’t beat up the other ‘me’. And I think they’re all telling the truth. Plus, there’s the other doors to the other pavilions. Those could be, uh—dangerous. What’s my next move?”

Ulvama scratched at several large bites; even without mosquitos, there were, it turned out, other bugs that were relatively small and nimble enough to come at you for a bit of your blood. Her magical paint was wearing already, and she had not, as yet, found an alternative.

“We’ve got to look for good materials in the swamp. Magical mud. Something sticky for crafting.”

“Food for dinner. Hey, want another quest?”

Erin began working on one and, after a moment, gave Ulvama another dinner quest. Ulvama grunted and then looked at Erin.

“I think the only thing you can do is test it out. Carefully.”

“…Sounds about right.”

 

——

 

The first day of swamp-trekking wasn’t actually that bad. The hardest thing was establishing a constant route forwards—and dealing with the issue of the muck.

It turned out the ‘paths’ of solid ground meeting water were inherently treacherous. They turned to shallow water, which became impassable for Fraerling-sized people, and even the portions that remained land were muddy and hard to traverse.

Erin and Ulvama were covered in mud within the first hour and quickly learned they had to rely on staffs to keep moving. The irony was that this was actually the best place they’d found yet—for food, at least.

“Got another one! Sorry, bud.”

Erin had noticed curious creatures in the shallows when they’d had some of the dried berries for lunch. When she’d tossed some berry fragments in, what should come swimming up to take a gulp of it but a minnow? Whatever freshwater fish it was—there were lots of them, and they were so dumb that Erin and Ulvama had given up spear-fishing.

Erin just stuck her arm in the water, waited for one to bite, then Ulvama yanked on a grass rope, and Erin would wrestle it out onto the mud.

Cleaning the little fishies took more work, and Erin, mindful of the fish incident from way back when, insisted on using Ulvama’s knife to do the gutting.

She noticed something funny, despite the annoying mud-trekking and repeated attempts to upgrade their shoes into waterproof boots. Ulvama was almost drooling over the lunch fire.

“You, uh, like fish, Ulvama?”

“…Maybe. What? Fish is good.”

The Hobgoblin grew defensive. Erin had seen Ulvama express a lot of satisfied reactions regarding food, but it seemed like fish really was a craving of Ulvama’s. The first fish meat skewer with salt was so hot that Ulvama burned her tongue on it—and Erin herself almost cried.

Salt! Hey! Do you think we can get some spices for fulfilling the bounty quest tonight? I want spices, you got it?

She shook a fist at the sky. Ulvama nodded rapidly as they munched on their food. The silly minnows kept eating the guts and bones the two tossed back in the swamp. Then all of them scattered as something big moved through the water. Just out of sight.

“…Was that a crocodile?”

Erin stopped eating in alarm. She and Ulvama retreated further to dry ground, and Ulvama glanced again at that inviting forest.

“You sure it’s better here, Erin?”

Erin’s [Dangersense] occasionally rang that smaller bell when she was about to walk through deeper areas of water—or when she spotted something big, like now. The [Innkeeper] exhaled as she eyed the forest.

“Got to trust the Skills. Right? I’ve got to trust them. Just like I’m trusting tonight’s dinner: paprika as a reward! Or something good.”

She gave Ulvama some finger-guns. The Hobgoblin stared at Erin. Then gave her a pair of finger-guns of her own and tried to smile.

She looked so pained Erin stopped doing the finger-guns for a while.

 

——

 

Erin did not use the [Pavilion of Secrets] that night; she was too concerned about their setup. The two camped in the only defensible spot they could think of: along the roots of one of the giant mangroves over the water line. They had to still sleep outdoors, though; there weren’t enough salvageable materials to make a camp.

Erin didn’t like it. Ulvama didn’t like it and breathed a sigh of relief when Erin assured her that she’d stay on watch.

“I’ll crank up my aura a bit.”

Ulvama was still eating fish, happily dipping it in the night’s reward. Which was a cardboard carton of—get this—soy sauce.

Someone was messing with Erin. And by ‘someone’, she knew exactly who it was. But the joke was on them; the container looked like it was Japanese, from home. It even had a product label on the side. It was small, but when emptied of the delicious, salty sauce? It was going to be a perfect little waterproof container.

The two had way too much of their condiment as flavoring that night. Ulvama ate so much she started burping non-stop and glared at Erin when the [Innkeeper] started laughing. She poked Erin repeatedly to get her to shut up. Then she frowned.

“Your aura is still working far from your inn? I can’t sense it.”

“I suppress it most of the time. But I can use it. Just not as well as my inn.”

Erin lay back with a sigh. Then she remembered she had to stay up to watch out for predators. She saw a mosquito buzz past, large as her face, and it flew closer to Ulvama. Erin groaned, and Ulvama quickly decided it was time for bed; she pulled a muddy leaf over her. The mosquito buzzed around several times, landed on Erin’s shoulder, and tried to suck blood.

“Hey, Ulvama?”

The sounds of mosquito death made Ulvama raise her voice slightly.

“Mm?”

“Do you have any favorite foods? I never asked.”

Ulvama thought about it for a long time. When she answered, it was bereft of the [Pavilion of Secrets]. But probably truthful.

“I like crabs.”

“What? Crab?”

“You have a problem with that?”

“No. Nope! Not me. Just—okay, I might have a thing about crabs. Y’know. Rock Crabs.”

“Oh. Not those crabs. I like crab. I used to have them when I was small, before Mountain City. And…rocky, sweet things. Rocks you can eat.”

Ulvama’s voice was far away and sad. Erin stopped and didn’t have to wonder who’d taught her about edible rocks. Ulvama’s voice was nodding off.

“What’s your favorite food, then?”

“Oh, mac-and-cheese, I guess. I’m just not a food person.”

Erin stared at the bones and remains of the fire. She felt at her stomach. Then she lay back.

“…I’d kill for good food. Or a bath.”

“If you find good food bath monster, go kill it for me.”

“You got it, buddy.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“I’m not your buddy, friend?”

“Stop it.”

“I’m not your friend, pal?”

Ulvama threw a fish bone at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] shut up.

 

 

Day 6

 

The next day of the swamps was eventful for three reasons. The two were fishing for breakfast and Erin was talking.

“Okay, fine. It’s seven.”

“What is?”

“Seven [Innkeeper] Skills.”

Ulvama turned her head to Erin. She did some rapid math.

“…Only seven? For six levels?”

“That’s what I said. I think since three are big, I got downgraded. Plus—Level 52 was one of those no-Skill levels!”

Erin slapped her thigh indignantly. Then grimaced and wiped her now-muddy hand on her shirt. Since that only made it worse, she resolved to find a way to boil enough water tonight for a bath. But it was hard to make a container in the swamp…

“How do you know that?”

“Oh, I got levelled up in a list. No Skills at Level 52.”

“Hm. I think at Level 60, or maybe Level 70, you stop having no-Skill levels. Then every level becomes a Skill.”

Erin twisted. The [Shaman] put a clawed hand to her head, trying to remember some of the secrets she’d found in older Goblins’ memories.

“Really? That’d be sweet. Anyways, since you asked, two of my Skills work on my inn. Actually…I wonder if the gang there have noticed.”

Ulvama’s head rose.

Really?

“Yep. They might not. One’s a room…wait. Maybe I have to enable the room and the effects? Hey, presto! Bam. Okay, it’s…next to one of the guest rooms? Eh, maybe it should move around. Like that. And that. And hey, that’d be funny if they just started working, eh?”

Erin waggled her fingers, and Ulvama had to imagine what she was doing to her inn.

“So you can still control it and know who’s inside your place?”

“Vaguely. It’s strongest in my [Garden of Sanctuary]. Wanna play twenty guesses about my Skills?”

“No. Tell me. No, wait, do they work on your [Aspect of the Inn]?”

Erin sighed.

“You’re no fun. One of them I can’t figure out, again. I think it’s because I, uh, haven’t done enough travelling. I’ve been to Invrisil and Pallass, but that wasn’t really going anywhere. It’s a travel-related Skill. Okay, fine, stop poking. [Room of the Traveller].”

“Ooh. Ooh. What’s it—”

“No idea. And the other does work with [Aspect of the Inn]. Wanna see?”

Ulvama did. They checked their surroundings, and Erin deactivated her [Reinforced Structure] aspect. Ulvama sat there eagerly as Erin extended an arm, concentrated, and…

Her arm began to lengthen. It slowly extended, skin stretching, and Ulvama instantly lost her appetite for breakfast.

“Look! I never have to reach for the cookie jar again. Whabububububub—

She waggled her slowly-extending arm at Ulvama, and the Goblin leaned away.

“Stop it. Stop it! It’s gross!

“It can’t make it extend really fast. I can also get taller, but just my legs. Is it a cool Skill?”

“No!”

Erin made her arm go back and sighed.

“Yeah. The inn-version of the Skill isn’t the greatest either. But it’s fun for messing with people if we ever get back.”

Ulvama slowly sidled back and sat there. She eyed Erin.

“…[Inn: Extended Rooms]?”

“Nope.”

“Does it…make your inn bigger?”

“Nope. Both are close. Wrong thing.”

 

——

 

Walking through the swamps, Ulvama tried her seventeenth guess.

“[Inn: Stretched Corridors].”

“Hey, that was your closest yet!”

“Okay, tell me.”

“[Inn: Long Hallways].”

The two looked at each other as they began to wade from one stretch of ground to another. Ulvama pulled a face. Erin sighed.

“I know, right? Hey, how about twenty guesses for the other Sk—”

Then something bit her. Ulvama heard a shout, leapt out of the water onto the mud, and Erin whirled.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It was big—my size? It’s gone.”

Erin stared around the waters disturbed by the splashing. She checked her jeans. There was a gash in them. But she couldn’t see…she strode out of the waters, and Ulvama eyed the forest longingly again. The cliffs had ended, and the ground rose until it met dry land again. If they took a day to cross over to the nearest deadwoods spire…

Well, they didn’t find out what had attacked Erin until the next stretch of water. And when that happened, they’d already run into another problem.

 

——

 

“Wailer Frog.”

Both groaned the moment they heard the huge ribbit in the distance. By now, Wailer Frogs had become one of the more persistent threats in the area. Of course they had a presence in this damn swamp.

They were having trouble finding a way towards a mangrove to camp at night, and both were making increasingly-risky forays into shallows to try to get to some of the roots. Without that dry place to sleep—it would get increasingly risky for them. There were larger amphibians in the swamps who weren’t shy about crawling onto land for a snack.

Erin was grimacing as she waded into the water, and Ulvama held onto their packs. The [Innkeeper] swam out a bit.

“Okay. See that dry ground there? It’s a minute swim. I say we keep our packs above the water or float them, and that leads to solid ground and the root.”

“We have to swim?”

Erin looked right and left.

“No other way unless you want to go all that way over there and see if it’s dryer. Come on, we’re losing daylight. Let’s—whoa!

Something attacked her in the water. Ulvama saw Erin, standing at chest-height in the water, dip and then vanish.

“Erin!”

The Hobgoblin instantly dropped the packs, raised her thorn-spear, and cast a spell.

“[The Tangling Vine]!”

A spectral length of plant matter shot into the water, and Ulvama felt it wrap around something. She grabbed one end of it, heaved—but if it was Erin, she was suddenly heavy!

However, the [Innkeeper] was still protected by [Reinforced Structure]. The water thrashed as Ulvama desperately pulled—then steam billowed up, followed by red flames of resentment. Something was fighting her—multiple somethings.

“Ulvama! They’re all around me!”

Erin was punching, twisting, hitting multiple…what? Ulvama saw the mud, the water, but nothing concrete. She narrowed her eyes, seeing…no, there wasn’t even a shape. There was the twisting outline of falling water running over something. Her vine was wrapped around nothing at all. Yet that ‘nothing’ was wrapped around Erin—

Then the Hobgoblin shouted.

“Erin! They’re invisible!

Erin, swamp water in her eyes, hadn’t realized the truth yet. She blinked, stared at a fistful of something wet, slimy, and felt teeth grating against her face, unable to break her skin. And it was indeed invisible. What was—

Ulvama screamed as something bit her leg. Her magical paint flashed—she turned, kicked whatever it was in the face, then stabbed with her spear, impaling it.

Ulvama! Get to safety!

The [Shaman] was safe. But she instantly began kicking mud around her, revealing the outline of two more…things. They were long, as long as Erin and Ulvama, very wide, and Erin began fighting towards the ground. They couldn’t hurt her—

Ulvama kept stabbing and stabbing, clearly doing a lot of damage to whatever she was hitting. When she backed it off enough, the panting [Shaman] raised a hand.

“I have this! [See Invisibility]—aaah!

Erin had forgotten how many spells of utility Ulvama had. The [Innkeeper] was burning whatever was biting her face with orange flames, and it was letting go and trying to get away. Ulvama stared at the foe, at Erin, blanched, then backed up.

“Erin! It’s—leeches!”

“Aw.”

Invisible leeches. Erin instantly tossed one of the ones trying to suck her blood into the water.

“This has got to be Baleros! I hate this place!”

 

——

 

In the end, Erin and Ulvama ended up casting a very expensive spell to get to the next mangrove root: [Earthen Spire]. It was a Tier 3 attacking spell for a [Shaman]. Moore had [Pillar of Earth]. This was…not the same.

The spell made a piece of stone jut up from the ground; it was dangerous, effective, but hardly as powerful as a [Mage] spell. Most of Ulvama’s spells were designed to help other people, not fight for herself.

She could cast the spell multiple times given her level. To make enough footholds to hopscotch their way safely to the other side of the leech-infested channel?

Ulvama had to cast the spell eleven times. She was so exhausted that Erin was worried she’d fall into the water as they hurried across the magical constructs, and then she was so tired, Erin ended up carrying her on her back the rest of the way.

Magically exhausting Ulvama was not a good idea. And this damn swamp was actively and rapidly becoming less and less fun to stay in. They actually failed Ulvama’s food quest that night too; she curled up as Erin did all the fishing. She caught one fish. Another leech; Erin sat there on guard duty, unable to use her pavilion again. She was muddy, irate; she had been drying their gear out by her fire of resentment.

“Erin.”

A sleepy Ulvama woke to go pee and made a request.

“Can you boil water and wash our clothes?”

“Oh, sure.”

That was a good use of her night. Sighing, Erin lowered their largest canteen into the water on a length of rope; it’d take dozens of haulings of the bucket up to get enough boiled water to douse everything. Then she turned and yelped.

Whoa! Hey!”

She covered her eyes. Ulvama looked up as she stripped her clothes off.

“What?”

You’re naked!

The Hobgoblin eyed Erin.

“Yah. And we’re alone. Here.”

She tossed the muddy clothes at Erin, then wrapped herself up in another leaf. Erin protested.

“But—I mean—”

“Sleepy. Complain later. What you gonna do…wash with clothes on? That’s stupid.”

Ulvama was already drifting off to sleep. Erin stared at her. But—they had been naked on Roshal’s ship, but that was one thing. Forced captivity. Goblins had different modesty standards than…

 

——

 

Ulvama woke at some point during the night for a drink of water. She found Erin pouring boiled water over herself and her clothing on their narrow camp ledge, washing her clothes with them indeed on.

The Hobgoblin stared at Erin. Erin threw Ulvama’s clothes at her; Ulvama was still naked. Since they were wet clothes, Ulvama just gave Erin a long stare.

“Can you dry my clothes, too? You do that with clothing.”

 

 

Day 7

 

The Aurmak birds attacked when both were asleep. One second, Erin was slumbering. The next, her [Dangersense] howled, and she shot up.

“Ulvama! We’re under—”

The Hobgoblin rolled out of her leaf, naked, and nearly went over the edge of the root. Her first sight was of a giant bird swooping down, a struggling Erin—then the Aurmak bird was flying up, up—

With Erin in its beak.

“Erin!”

Ulvama was helpless, and she flinched as a second bird swooped down. A wing struck the root near where she’d been sleeping. Not as hard as the water; the bird recoiled, swerved, and turned for another run at her.

It was like a dancing [Duelist]! The wings of the huge bird could slam down hard—but it was still a bird, so it couldn’t strike too hard and break its hollow bones. This bird was clearly used to preying on fish and mobile targets, and it dropped down in a dive that twisted in the last hundred feet for a wing-slam on…

Nothing? The Aurmak bird aborted its attack and landed on one of the mangrove roots. It tilted its head left, right, staring at where the second small thing had been.

Gone? It took off as its mate called for help. Then the two were in the sky—and Ulvama, still on the root, was trying to find out how to help Erin.

[Natural Camouflage]! Her skin had melded with the root, making her invisible! In fact, only because she was naked did the spell work as ideally as it should; normally, she needed to apply the enchantment with her magical paint to conceal a group of warriors.

She wanted to shout at Erin, but what would that do? Ulvama grabbed the thorn-spear and stared upwards; the birds were high, high overhead. At least a hundred feet.

No spell she had would reach that far—and they were moving so fast Ulvama couldn’t get a lock on them. The most she could think of was to either blind or entangle one if they came down.

All of Ulvama’s magics were size-related. She could make someone taller—but that was relative to a Fraerling! She could command insects, even—one or two given their size. Even if she called a spire of earth or threw fire, it was weak.

That was why she had been so terrified of travelling before Erin got here. Now, Ulvama’s terror was all for Erin; the two birds had her, and she was dead!

Or was she? As Ulvama watched, the circling birds did something curious. The first one, which had gotten Erin in the ambush, kept tossing its head up and snapping at something. Then—it tossed something to the other bird, and it began to bite as well with that giant beak. They began flapping in the air, now, tossing something back and forth, even picking it up in their claws so both could peck at it.

Erin?

Neither one wanted to eat the [Innkeeper]. They tried, twice, and Ulvama saw one visibly gag and spit Erin back out. At the same time, though, they were effortlessly tossing the [Innkeeper] back and forth, trying to peck and claw her to death.

Stalemate? Just like the beetle Erin had described. However—a flare of red fire made one of the birds recoil. It missed catching Erin, and Ulvama thought she saw the tiny [Innkeeper] drop—hundreds of feet away.

By now, Ulvama had her clothes on, and the packs, and she was about to leap into the swamp. But she watched, instead, as the second Aurmak bird twisted, saw the falling figure Ulvama could barely pick out—and went for a killing move.

It came down, wing extended, for an aerial slam. Ulvama feared that would do more damage to Erin than the biting or clawing; the shockwave alone might blow out Erin’s eardrums! The bird dove, locked onto a target in the water—

Ulvama prepared to jump from her ledge. If there were invisible leeches there, well, she couldn’t see them. Something big had surfaced—the ridged exterior of a crocodile—and there was even a furry wet thing swimming through the mud towards her position.

She had to help Erin, though. The [Shaman] began to utter a spell when, in the distance, the world shifted.

Ulvama’s skin burst out into goosebumps. She felt that ripple down her body, that animal instinct that appeared whenever you saw something uncanny. That chill for better or worse—but a dozen times stronger than normal.

Her lungs felt suddenly constricted in her body. Sweat burst from her pores, and Ulvama was reminded of the first time she had seen a Human hunting dog sniffing through the grass. A savage, snarling monster mere feet from her.

Teeth bared. She could practically feel it in front of her, but far larger.

A huge predator, staring at the Hobgoblin with hazel eyes. Blood and flesh still clinging to…her…hands?

The [Shaman of the Old Ways] forced the aura off her. Shook herself—looked up. She couldn’t see Erin from her vantage point, but she knew where the [Innkeeper] was.

She was at the center of that menacing apparition of the mind. A wave of intimidation rolled out from the place the [Innkeeper] had landed—and the effects were immediate.

“Aur! Aur!”

The bird broke out of its dive instantly. It flapped ungainly away, cawing in terror. Its partner was already flying for their nest in a distant tree. Ulvama, on the root of the mangrove tree, blinked—then jumped as the crocodile in the waters burst out of it. The huge reptile crawled onto land ahead of her, and then leapt into the water.

The normally-slow reptile dove down deep, and Ulvama saw fish churning the waters, some literally leaping into other pockets of water. The rest dove and vanished.

In the distance of the forest, birds spiraled up and away, screaming in terror. Ulvama, breathing hard, saw everything vanish. Either running for the hills or hiding. When she looked around in the sudden silence, there was absolutely no one and nothing willing to tangle with the [Innkeeper].

Well, except maybe a red dot that had buzzed up from the forest in the distance. Everything else?

Every creature in a ten-mile radius had just sensed Erin and decided if they wanted to fight her. Ulvama, shakily, grabbed their gear and began to find a way to get to Erin.

 

——

 

It took hours before the two found each other. Not for lack of knowing where the other was; Erin’s aura persisted until they met. Rather, neither one wanted to swim towards the other. By the time Ulvama had charted a route through the swamp, she realized Erin had also found other concerns.

“I’m beginning to think Bird had a point.”

Erin was a bit battered from the bird attack despite her Skill. Not badly; she was amazingly intact despite their attempts to literally eat her. But her clothing was a different matter.

She’d managed to turn the remnants of her t-shirt, already battered, into a very bad toga for her chest, but her pants had been practically shredded. A kind of bad skirt was all she could do, and Erin’s first comment after Ulvama checked on her condition was—

“I need clothing. And I’m sick of the swamp. I say we go to the forest.”

She got little argument from Ulvama. Though the Hobgoblin was amazed that partial nudity was Erin’s problem after the fight with the birds.

“You sure you’re not hurt?”

“The seagull was worse. I was afraid of drowning. I’m fine, Ulvama.”

She’d just nearly been eaten by two gigantic birds. Ulvama had been terrified of one pecking her. That…

That was the level difference, the Hobgoblin realized. She kept looking at Erin sidelong as they marched out of the swamp. It wasn’t hard to get to dry land; in fact, when they stumbled onto the soil and saw the greenery returning, the two looked at each other and wondered why the heck they’d stayed in the marsh so long. Then Erin grimaced.

“Drumbeats. Keep an eye out for threats. But at this point—”

Her aura had faded by now, but Erin’s eyes glinted.

“—I think I’d rather fight than wade through the mud.”

Try as she might, Ulvama couldn’t think of an argument against that.

 

——

 

As it turned out, one of their backpacks had been mostly smashed by the Aurmak bird, and it had done a fine number on the rest of their supplies.

Combined with that, this new area of the forest was, while green, less-than-stellar for foragable supplies. The two ended up trying to fish for dinner, but found Erin had scared away the usual minnows; combined with that, the ground had become a lot less tree-focused. Less nuts…more plants.

More dangerous plants, as it turned out. Erin’s [Dangersense] hadn’t lied; the first time the two spotted a variant of a flycatcher plant, they looked at each other and groaned.

It resembled one of the predatory plants Erin had seen at a garden in her home city. Not the venus fly trap; more like a pitcher plant. She pointed it out to Ulvama.

“See? It’s got that mouth with spines. And that poor sucker over there doesn’t even spot—aw. That’s no good.”

The flytrap plant was more…mobile than the plants of Erin’s world. Instead of an appetizing opening a fly or other insect would fly into then be trapped by the jaws of the plant, or fall into a sticky solution where it would dissolve?

This flytrap plant dipped, snapped up a blue beetle, then sprang back to position. It was like a natural plant-trap. Anything that walked into its killzone triggered the snap-attack, unless it was already eating.

Ulvama stared at Erin as the [Innkeeper] nodded to herself, eying this particular set of flytrap plants…they’d have to avoid the rest.

“And this is in a garden? In your world?”

“What? Oh. Yeah. Just a part of it. The Meijer Gardens. It’s great.”

The Hobgoblin looked so horrified, Erin had to clarify.

“Look, it’s got this greenhouse section, and they’re only in part of it. I think there’s butterflies in another, plants—the real lure is the statue garden. They’ve got a huge bronze horse.”

“…A horse.”

“It’s huge! Forty feet or something! You can stand under one hoof! It’s great. I used to buy a ticket all the time. Anyways, that’s how I know. That plant? Bad news.”

Ulvama stared at the toothy plant swaying there. A bunch of other flytrap heads were packed together in a frond; one plant or all growing together, she couldn’t tell. The Hobgoblin looked at Erin.

“Yeah. I don’t see how you’d figure it out any other way.”

Erin nudged Ulvama as the two scouted for dinner.

“I’m trying to talk about home, and you’re making fun of it.”

“No, keep going. Tell me about your fish ladder again. Which has fish. And a river. I’ve never seen that before.”

The two argued good-naturedly—until they realized they really weren’t finding anything edible. Except insects, which were apparently too stupid to notice Erin’s aura or didn’t care. Erin stared around.

“There have to be berry bushes. C’mon. Let’s…maybe there’s something in the water?”

There was not.

 

——

 

Dinner that night was the last of the berries, probably slightly rotten coconut, and a growling stomach. They both drank lots of water, and Erin lay there.

She hadn’t told Ulvama, but she did hurt a bit. Being thrown around by the birds had hurt—the fall had not, but Erin was tired.

Tired. And noticing that their equipment and clothing was in a worse state than they had been at the start of this journey, and rapidly deteriorating.

I can’t even make a good backpack. That frustration kept Erin awake for a while, tossing and turning. She’d improvised another one with a rope-wood frame, but she knew a better one could be made.

Her [Advanced Crafting] and knowledge just…didn’t allow for it. At least the two had been able to make a grass shelter in the lee of a rock this time. But it was perhaps only natural that Erin’s mind turned to the one thing she could use.

 

——

 

The [Pavilion of Secrets] was waiting for Erin when she entered it. This time, she knew she looked worse. Her jeans had turned to mismatched cutoff shorts shredded in several places and patched with grass. Her shirt barely covered the top of her stomach, and she and Ulvama had tried to weave grass, but they had been looking for dinner for so long they hadn’t had the time.

“I need help.”

“Yep. Glad you finally admitted it.”

Her doppelganger was playing cards again. Well, playing with cards. Shuffling them from hand to hand like a magician. Erin glared at the imposter.

“I can’t do that.”

“Cormelex could. Are you here for me? Or someone else?”

The [Innkeeper] still didn’t understand the rules. Was this a secret given away freely? The ‘her’ sitting there seemed to be waiting, though.

She could have gone through the other owners’ doors. But Erin felt like she had to master this aspect of the pavilion before trying another area. If she didn’t know the rules, she might hurt herself.

She had been warned. The [Innkeeper] had thought about what—or rather, who to talk to. She had to be careful. She stood there, arms folded, eying herself.

“Just so I’m clear. If I asked—and I’m not going to ask yet—if I wanted, say…the Blighted King, could I get him here?”

In reply, the Erin Solstice holding the deck of cards held up the King of Hearts. Othius the Fourth’s face stared at Erin.

Then she fanned out the one card and held a dozen.

“You’ll have to be more specific than that. Which Blighted King? Also—see this?”

She held up one of the cards, and Erin saw the face and name were scratched out, damaged. Not-Erin tossed the card down on the table.

“That one was a ghost.”

“So the Skill’s been damaged along with the lands of the dead.”

The other Erin smiled at the [Innkeeper]. Erin felt a bit better about this, as if learning the [Pavilion of Secrets] had weaknesses like this were a good thing, however much it hurt her. Then—the Erin of the pavilion spoke.

“Correct. But it’s a convenient excuse to need the memories and soul of everyone who dies—ever—isn’t it? For this Skill to work, you’d have to have all that data saved. Even if Hellste itself were to vanish. Even if dead gods ate them—this place needs it. How convenient for someone. I wonder if that lets them break the rules.”

Erin didn’t like the way she smiled at herself. She felt her skin crawling and glared at her reflection. Because, of course—they’d both had that thought.

“Who would you like to speak to?”

The cards played across the deck, and Erin waited, wondering if her copy knew the answer. But the cards just kept shuffling, and eventually, Erin articulated the name she thought was—safe.

Not Othius. Nor…anyone else in Rhir. Not until she knew how this worked better. No one dangerous to her.

You probably could guess, if you considered Erin’s options and her friends, who she might pick. Or narrow it down. Erin took a breath, closed her eyes, and said:

“Fetohep of Khelt.”

Erin opened her eyes and recoiled. The image of her was gone. The cards vanished—but one hovered in the air a second. A king…the very image of a king in repose. A painted portrait that seemed to draw in Erin’s gaze, fill her vision and the very world of that empty pavilion and the gazebo in the middle of nowhere.

—Then he sat there, posture perfect, a cup of ghostly tea wafting pale blue mist in one hand, holding an open book in the other. His head rose, and he closed the book one-handed, placed it on the table, and stood gracefully.

As if he had been waiting for her. He inclined his head, from one ruler to another, and pulled back her chair slightly, inviting her to sit. That magnificently mannered being she knew so well and had never met before.

Not like this. She could actually feel the aura of death and command around him. An urge to kneel. Smell the faintest of perfumes that masked his dead flesh, even the dry scent of the desert about him.

King Fetohep of Khelt, the Eternal King, the 19th Ruler of Khelt, perhaps the last, raised one emaciated brow, his withered, preserved skin turned brown, like that of a mummy, still conveying emotion. His golden gaze burned, and he spoke.

“Seldom have I ever been forced to meet another against my will, Erin Solstice. That I acceded matters not; I am pleased to find you well. Recall, now you walk shoulder-to-shoulder with myself and those who have trod the long road to reach our level that courtesy is an unneeded boon. But know that it makes the difference between the glorious and the wretched.”

He was not surprised to be here. It was as if someone had briefed Fetohep, given him a rundown on the pavilion, such that the eternal void around them, Erin being here, were all things he’d had time to understand and process.

A clone of him? Consciousness transfer? Erin didn’t know. She only felt, with all her heart, that it was him in some terrifying way. Her breath caught. She stood there—stunned—

Then she stepped forwards and, instead of taking a seat, approached the King of Khelt. He was shocked when she threw her arms around him in a hug.

For a second, his arm blurred, instinctively, and he almost threw her, catching her arm—but then he relaxed. Nothing stopped Erin from squeezing Fetohep, his royal robes of purple—she felt tough skin under the softest of fabrics, a thin, impossibly thin frame—

They both staggered, for he was so light. Devoid of flesh, much less fat. It made him frailer in an instant. And somehow, more of a person. She could have picked him up—but instead, Erin just squeezed hard.

Fetohep placed a hand on her head briefly, and when Erin let go, he seemed surprised as she. Erin backed up, red-faced.

“I—I’m sorry, Fetohep. I just had to—you’re here.”

“Of course. You called for me.”

The King of Khelt studied Erin, taking in her attire, her state—then sat himself down abruptly and gestured to her.

“I sit upon my throne in Khelt. I do not dream, but my mind wanders as I watch the scrying orbs and maneuver the mindless undead of my kingdom. I am there. I am here. For a moment, the me who sits upon my throne is ignorant of the one who is here. But the two are simultaneously present. Curious.

Erin’s breath caught. She fumbled her way into a chair, every bit uncoordinated as he was not. Her body still hurt, and she longed for something to drink. Her stomach growled.

“Is that how it works? Wait, you’ll remember what happens if I say true things here, right?”

Once more, the King of Khelt paused, and his golden gaze flickered, as if unseen pupils were looking over Erin again, then regarding the pavilion of secrets.

“It appears I know more of the rules of this place than you, then. Curious. I have never laid eyes upon this vista, yet I know it. It should astound even I to some small modicum, yet when I wake, perhaps I shall forget where we met. Unless that is given to me to remember.”

His head shifted to Erin. She sat there, then blurted out.

“I called you first, Fetohep, because I needed to talk to someone—someone I could trust. Someone smart to see how this place worked.”

“Aha. Then I am the first to set foot within this place. This pleases me.”

Fetohep’s eyes glowed brighter. At this, Erin almost rolled her eyes. Okay, this was the Fetohep she knew. Almost, it was like them talking via her [World’s Eye Theatre], or as if she were a ghost.

But she’d hugged him. That was…Erin wanted to go over and poke Fetohep again. But she was pretty sure he’d get mad.

And, true to her hopes, the King of Khelt was moving faster than Erin. He tapped another finger on the table as he took a sip from his cup of ethereal tea.

“Ah. Refreshing.”

“Wait, that tea’s real? Can I have some?”

He ignored her.

“It seems I may elucidate you on my perspective, Erin Solstice. That which I ‘know’, despite never having been told, are the rules of this place. That which is true matters. It is my choice to reveal aught that I wish. I understand this is no place to do battle in any physical sense. Yet this is a true battleground of wits and trust. I might reveal anything here.”

His voice deepened on this last sentence, and Erin, reminded of the warning she’d been given, exhaled.

“That’s what I was told. So…how does it work? We just talk at each other?”

The King of Khelt looked at [The Wandering Innkeeper] with the knowledge, or at least, an understanding greater than she currently possessed. And he thought to himself that she had indeed chosen well.

Erin Solstice had many friends. But who better for this than the one with the wit of undeath and the largesse of paradise? Others might try, but it was one thing to be a genuine friend and another to be clever enough to show her.

There was a reason she had not chosen Mrsha. Thus, Fetohep lifted a beringed hand, and his voice rose.

“It is my right to tell you anything I wish. Do you think you and I are strangers, Erin? No. Come; let us sit somewhere proper rather than this void of contemptible infinity. Behold what is far more pleasing, however temporary and fragile.”

He waved his hand, and Erin Solstice sat up. What did that mean? Then, the void around the gazebo the two sat in, that nothinglessness—trembled. And Erin felt something.

A wind blew, hot and so moistureless that it felt like a hair dryer on Erin’s body. Sun suddenly baked her skin, and she flinched—until blessed shade covered the young woman’s upper torso. She twitched, looked around—and a bowing man adjusted the umbrella until it covered her entirely.

Erin’s mouth dropped. She turned—and a street filled with bright, perfectly kept flagstones stretched behind her. When she looked ahead—Fetohep sat at a table of simple, white metal and stained glass for a surface. He was reading a menu with one hand, and behind him, a small café bustled with people.

They were in Khelt’s capital city, Koirezune. Sitting at an outdoor café, the like of which Erin had seen in death and in her conversations with Fetohep. When she twisted in her seat, she saw the citizens of Khelt walking down the street, garbed in silk finery and comfortable, colorful cotton, not a frayed tunic or tear in sight. The buildings were works of art, not garish or overly colorful, but drawn from every culture and every part of the world.

Paradise. Erin’s breath caught, for she had seen the dead, seen this place in the [World’s Eye Theatre], but never felt like she was here.

The air smelled like baking bread! It was hot—even with the umbrella, enough sunlight passed through to make Erin’s skin warm! The seat she was sitting in was padded, and—Erin ran a hand over the stained glass table and felt the smooth glass, saw light reflected through it change colors as it ran onto her lap. Then Fetohep spoke to the waiter!

“Peachvine tea for my guest. Fresh kakla bread with plentiful garlic butter. A skewer of meat—hold the spice to an acceptable level for an outsider.”

“At once, sir.”

The man bowed, took the menu, and Fetohep turned to Erin.

“Wha—wha—”

She looked around, almost upending the table. Fetohep steadied it with one hand before Erin could flip it; he was stronger than she was, and his mouth opened, yellowed teeth smiling. His voice needed no tongue, and it was amused.

“I confess, I am no less astounded and gratified, Erin. Yet I cultivate poise.”

Erin gobbled at him. Then she stared, and her eyes bulged as a basket of bread appeared. She snatched the first loaf of hot bread so fast that the waiter recoiled. Fetohep saw Erin cram a piece of bread into her mouth, choke, and then grab the tea.

Even the King of Khelt could look appalled—but Erin was so hungry she scarfed down one and was tearing at the meat.

“Is this real? It can’t be. I don’t care. Give more!”

Fetohep turned his head and crooked a finger.

“Real or not. Napkins. This is a café I sat in upon my youth, Erin Solstice. The owner is dead nigh on five hundred and twenty years. Even this Khelt is one of Queen Xierca’s reign. Observe the lack of foot traffic near her palace. Drevish’s architecture has not yet been added, and few guests wish to visit her royal gardens.”

He raised a hand, indicating the vast palace beyond. Erin stared at the Chemath marble steps—kept chewing as Fetohep paused.

“This was but a thought. Yet I wonder—it seems the rules of this place favor ingenuity and knowledge. I was not told I could do this. Therefore, perhaps—”

He touched his face, and the mummy’s face became a man’s. Erin began choking in earnest, and two waiters had to run forwards and give her a Heimlich maneuver. But Fetohep just felt at his features. Then snapped his fingers.

“Mirror.”

What did he see in its reflection? Erin knew what she saw.

Dark brown skin tanned from years under the sun. A stubborn jaw; he had shaved his head bald except for a strip of hair that ran across his scalp and became a ponytail at the back.

He was, for a second, far larger. Broad-shouldered, wearing a soldier’s uniform, golden armored, a halberd resting by the table. A warrior of Khelt at repose. He had a scar down one arm—

Fetohep picked up the mirror and stared at his visage. He actually recoiled from the man staring back at himself.

“Eugh. How familiarly unfamiliar. Perhaps just taste.”

Then he was the King of Khelt again. The one Erin knew, and she saw the emaciated mummy tapping a finger on the table. When Erin looked, she could see the flesh on his left arm was slightly indented on the inside part where the man’s body had once had a scar. The rest? Dead flesh.

Yet Fetohep seemed more pleased by it.

“This is the more regal of the two forms. The man was fallible. Hot-headed. Unworthy of a crown. The only things he possessed that I envy were the power to level. His comrades. And…”

Fetohep lifted a skewer of meat. Took a gingerly bite. His teeth tore the flesh of the skewered meat away, and it vanished in his mouth. He paused.

“Ah, yes. This.”

He lifted a hand, and the poor imaginary [Waiters] were working overtime.

“Make that three skewers. Do not hold the spice.”

An undead king who had not eaten for over five hundred years pointedly held his manners better than Erin, who had found garlic butter and was dipping bread into it. When Erin had sated her hunger, at least in this place, she looked around and took in their surroundings again.

They were still sitting in the pavilion, Erin realized. Only, the gazebo had become the bounds of the café and tables.

“I don’t get it. This is like my [World’s Eye Theatre]. And my [Garden of Sanctuary], in a way. Nothing here is real.

“Your nature may influence this place. I believe the rest was my own doing.”

The King of Khelt looked rather pleased with himself. He continued to dine, albeit ‘licking’ his fingers by holding them up to his mouth. It seemed even the King of Khelt was allowed to have finger foods. Erin was confused, though.

“But why are we here? Just a fancy table setting? I don’t mind it—but why?”

It was an odd power to have. Yet Fetohep had clearly already come up with the answer. He tapped a finger on the table, indicating it and his magnificent city.

“What is a secret, Erin Solstice? It may be mere words. Or it may be a face—”

Fetohep touched his own familiar features, and they flickered again, then raised his hand to sweep across the entire vista around them.

“For many, the sight of Khelt’s cities are in themselves a secret that I deny most of the world. To you, I grant them without requesting a boon.”

A picture was worth a thousand words. Erin thought of the sight of the room she and Visophecin had sat in. For a second, she thought that if she wanted to…

The air trembled and almost changed to match her vision, but Erin desisted at the last moment. No, this was better.

“I see.”

So he had given this secret to her without being asked. You could do that too. Fetohep lifted a cup.

“How shall we begin, Erin Solstice?”

He studied her. That worn, terribly tired looking young woman? She did not, perhaps, know how much she revealed to Fetohep’s eyes just by her attire. It had not occurred to her to change her appearance.

So the first secret had ever been in how he saw her.

Someone must find a healer for her. Someone must…find her.

The King of Khelt said nothing, though, waiting for this to be concluded. And when he saw her open her eyes, he was gladdened to see her smile. And those eyes twinkled.

The King of Khelt turned—and his cup of tea was replaced by something else. Bemused, he looked down, and the coffee shop in downtown Grand Rapids had a latte with one of those cardboard slips to protect your hand from the heat. Erin picked up a pastry as cars drove by and a bus halted, people getting in and out. Fetohep saw a statue; Rosa Parks Circle, a plaza just past him, and Erin Solstice grinned at him.

“How about we talk and catch up for a second, Fetohep?”

Her world about him. The King of Khelt looked about, then gingerly sipped from the small opening in the plastic cup. He tasted the liquid. Took a bite of a donut. Then he smiled at Erin. The King of Khelt put down the pastry and politely moved the dish away from him.

“Of course. May I view the menu?”

Erin’s face fell. Fetohep turned his head and saw it was written on the sign above the counter.

Most excellent.

 

——

 

Oh, if only it could last. There were moments unasked for but which Erin would not forget for the sheer, little joy of them.

Imaginary moments that weren’t real, but somehow were. Things she had never considered—like how Fetohep, upon being told about the custom of tipping, insisted on giving a King of Khelt’s tip to the poor cashier.

His disdain for donuts. But almost heretical admiration of the art of making stupid images in your coffee with foam. But the first thing they did was talk.

“Hm. My loyal heir apparent, the [Potter], Pewerthe, continues to prove she is ever suited to rule. She often acts as intermediary between myself, my newest guests in the Gnoll tribes, the People of Zair, and even adventurers. There has been some friction, you see.”

They were trying to, well, share secrets. Fetohep began talking about Khelt. He was good at that. Erin did not mention her escapades or day. She was trying to figure out how it worked. It was just—talking that was the uncanny part. It was natural, and therein lay the trap.

“Uh oh. Racism?”

Fetohep shook his head instantly.

“The actions of Gnolls at the Meeting of Tribes and Herdmistress Geraeri have endeared both species enough to my people. Rather, the attitude of Gnolls and Centaurs is to accumulate value and wealth. It is an outsider’s necessity, I know, to buy more than mere favors and sequester tangible goods. Or to take slightly more than is convenient for citizens sharing the same cities as they are. It is a natural instinct of those new to Khelt. The problem arises when my citizens, in turn, treat those new to Khelt as they expect to be treated.”

“Oh. So they’re being meaner to the Gnolls and Centaurs?”

Fetohep didn’t care for Erin’s diction and held up a reproving finger.

Mercantile, say, rather. A pettiness easily undone by time. We have resolved the issues.”

“Hm. What else is going on?”

Fetohep cast about. As one might when searching for easy gossip.

“Hm. The King of Destruction has sent his Earthers to me, and I have made the acquaintances of a handful; I am minded to grant some my hospitality permanently. The most striking of the lot is, at this moment, ‘Elena’, who has gone through greater ordeals than the rest. She has even related meeting the Witch of Webs herself. The Earther who has perished—George—has been laid to rest as his fellows believed was best. I shall ensure that his remains are preserved. If ever our worlds meet.”

The [Innkeeper] looked up at this. Did Fetohep’s gaze waver? She glanced at him. Then took a sip from her drink.

“Go on.”

She said so little, but the King of Khelt was content to talk. This was, after all, a learning experience. For her as much as he. So he baited his hook. Khelt was a sandy island kingdom, but any citizen of it might learn to fish if they wished.

“What else? Ah. The Horns of Hammerad were found, and the report I was reading moments before I appeared here, in this fashion, indicated Pisces Jealnet and Colthei Lacment are still in Jecrass. Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres remain in the Claiven Earth.”

Erin sat up, and her eyes flashed with delight. It felt like a shock ran through her, all the way to the base of her spine. Relief flooded her as well.

“So they’re alive! Thank goodness.”

“Hm.”

Fetohep agreed softly. But Erin was beaming. Suddenly—she knew she’d remember that! Fetohep went on, relating a few nuggets of tales he’d heard of both and concluded with some final thoughts.

“—Minor clashes at my borders. The undead rise and repel any invaders. One particularly stubborn group has been attempting to enter Khelt itself, claiming the right of entry via a single citizen who once resided here.”

Then he splayed his fingers together and sat there.

“Well, Erin Solstice. What do you think of that?”

She was breathing in and out. Erin frowned, then nodded.

“The Horns’ location. I felt something there. I know where they are! No, wait, I know where you think they are. Even so, that’s a secret. When I leave here, I’ll remember that. Did you get anything like that?”

She was almost certain she could remember almost anything that had occurred here. Now, what Fetohep remembered was what Erin was more curious about. The King of Khelt tapped his fingers on the table.

“A pleasant daydream, perhaps. These vistas? I shall remember them; the sensation of taste, the recollections of the café may well become a daydream, however vivid. I know this, you see.”

So he already knew what he’d remember? Daydream didn’t sound too bad. Erin was nodding until Fetohep lifted one finger.

“Of course, that is my mere experience. The conclusions I have drawn while sitting here? You are not in the Titan of Baleros’ presence, are you, Erin Solstice? I shall remember that.

—Huh?

Erin felt a crackle of alertness break the happy moment. A warning—not one of hostility or fear because it was Fetohep. But that sensation.

Here was the danger.

She sat up slightly, keeping her face cool. Thinking.

“Why would you think that, Fetohep?”

He flicked up his fingers.

“Firstly, if you were, you would have known where the Horns of Hammerad were already. Second, your attire and very visage differ from what I expected. Third, you would have referenced my communications with you.”

He paused—and Erin Solstice narrowed her eyes.

“…Why would you expect me to look different? And reference my…does Niers have a body double of me? Is someone impersonating—”

She would remember that too. And then she realized Fetohep had taught her a lesson, confirmed what he’d already gotten from her. The two sat across from each other in silence.

“…So that’s how it works.”

“Indeed. I possess a kind of experience you lack. However, yours shall be greater, in time.”

Now, Erin got it. The knowledge of the Horns—what Fetohep had just implied—they were burning truths, searing insights in her mind.

The meal, the sights of Khelt, were things Erin might remember, but just like a pleasant vacation or an event that occurred when she was stressed—how much would she actually remember?

Lesser truths compared with higher ones. Fetohep seemed content with this lesson, and he clapped his hands together. Their vista dissolved, and they sat in the [Pavilion of Secrets] and the void once more.

“I am mindful time passes here, and it seems I needs must use the knowledge I have gained. Rest assured, I will send whatever aid is tenable to those at your inn and you yourself, Erin. It may be a more odious task at present, but Khelt shall endure any trial. Should I alert the Horns of Hammerad or make discreet efforts myself? Subtlety might be best…a quality many of your associates lack…you may opine, here.”

He was musing, thinking ahead, clearly deciding to act on the information given. Clearly, he’d had his enjoyment, but was determined to help.

…As he always did. The King of Khelt was canny, wise, and he had taught her more than most might in one short meeting. Yet he was not perfect.

He did not realize, perhaps, what Erin heard in his voice. In his casual words. For the [Innkeeper], the new owner of the [Pavilion of Secrets], had the ability to remember what was true. A power he was gifted too.

With that—she also had the understanding of what was not true. What she had noticed…Erin interrupted the King of Khelt as he mused out loud.

“Fetohep. How is Khelt really doing?”

The Revenant stopped. He was good.

“Pardon? Do you require more gossip, Erin Solstice?”

He sounded genuinely amused and vaguely perplexed. But a poker face, even one as good as his…ah. The [Innkeeper] understood, now.

“I know you defended me at sea. I know what’s happened to Khelt. Is something…wrong?”

She didn’t know what he’d done. Only that he’d done it; fragments of Archmage Blackwood shouting. The knowledge of Fetohep himself.

He hadn’t brought it up. The [Innkeeper] looked at the King of Khelt.

“Who’s attacking your border?”

“Pests. A handful of annoyances. Not even a tenth of a formal army. That is the purest truth, Erin Solstice.”

Fetohep dismissed the question, and it was true. They both felt it, but Erin didn’t even look away. They knew how to lie with truths. And then Fetohep of Khelt moved as if to rise and exhaled as he realized something.

Ah.

He couldn’t leave this place. He was trapped.

Of course, he could just cease talking. But the [Innkeeper] was looking at him, and that was an answer in itself, so Fetohep shrugged his shoulders.

“We have countless buried soldiers, Erin Solstice, and the treasures of ages. The Arrows of Razzimir themselves are a suitable deterrent to any immediate reprisals from Roshal or Rhir.”

He refused to answer. They were just words; anyone could speak words. He refused to say it, even though he knew she knew.

But she could compel him to talk. Suddenly, Erin was certain of that. Fetohep would never say it. Not in the real world. But here?

Give and take. Ah, now she saw it. This place was dangerous. The [Innkeeper] took a breath.

“Tell me, Fetohep. Please?”

“There is nothing to say, Erin Solstice. What else would you have me do?”

His head slowly turned to her, and now they both were waiting. To find out how this place worked—the [Innkeeper] closed her eyes. Then she told him a secret.

Something true.

“…Fetohep. I will not be your heir. Even if you disappear, and Pewerthe, I will not be the next Queen of Khelt. If you send the class for me now, on the moment of your death—I will turn it down.”

The words filled the air and swallowed what had come before. A truth she had told him before, or intimated by her deeds. But in this place?

Fetohep of Khelt went still. His golden eye flames flickered. He didn’t question her. He didn’t deny it. He felt the truth in every word and realized—she meant it. She was not lying to him or herself.

Then, his voice was quiet and pained.

“Why? I had always thought you might, if you set foot here. When you had need of Khelt’s might. Pewerthe has been prepared to assist you and wait for that hour, even if she must take the throne.”

[The Wandering Innkeeper] looked at him and shook her head.

“That day won’t come, Fetohep. I do not know them. I do not love your people. I do not want to. I do not want to be Khelt’s Queen, because I would send them to their deaths. Or change them from a paradise. I do not want to be that person.”

He said nothing. She looked him in the eye, and try as he might, he could not pretend that she was lying to him or herself. The King of Khelt sat there, and Erin felt the weight of this room pressing on them now.

This terrible place. Sheta’s weapon against her enemies.

She had given something to him, just like he had to her, but this one had a cost.

—And yet he still said nothing. Or rather, when he spoke, his voice was husky, and the words were true.

“I shall put all the might I am capable of behind your deeds and the promises from the lands of the dead you honor, Erin Solstice. As long as needed.”

—But it was not what she wanted, and the weight remained. So, mercilessly, painfully, she added to it. For he had to know.

There is no plan, Fetohep.

This time, he jerked. The King of Khelt’s head rose.

“…What do you mean?”

Erin looked him in his eyes.

“Just what I meant. I don’t have one to save Khelt. I don’t have a way to restore the lost souls of Khelt. Or restore your kingdom’s power.”

“You are Khelta’s chosen successor. She has acknowledged you.”

He was trying to deny it. But Erin shook her head. And her voice was cuttingly gentle.

“Khelta did everything she could to just return me from the dead. One little ghost. She didn’t give me any way out for Khelt. No secret plans beyond putting souls in the dead bodies. None of the others had a scheme. There aren’t any orders. I haven’t given you any secret instructions or Skills or…because I don’t have any. There isn’t anything.”

Now, the corpse of a man sat there, flames dim in their sockets. Unmoving. His voice was quiet as she rose, putting her hands on the table.

“Surely one did.”

The [Innkeeper] shook her head painfully. She had told him, not in so many words, but told him of the plans for the world. Hopes, dreams, wishes—now she saw what he had told himself she had to have: a plan for his nation.

It was easy to lie. But this place was for secrets. And truth.

“No. All the might of Khelt, the weight of all their souls and deeds—it was enough to protect Chandrar in death. Enough to make a stand. They left it all to you, Fetohep. They know…they knew what they were leaving you with. They were ashamed, I think. I don’t have anything for you from the dead.”

Secrets. She had given him two, so painful and heavy—that they balanced invisible scales. Only Fetohep knew the cost of what she wanted. So. When Erin said that, the King of Khelt went limp a second. Then he sat straight upright and stood. He walked past Erin, down the steps of the gazebo—and into the void.

They became the sands of Zeikhal where they met Khelt’s border. A setting sun bloomed orange and heavy behind him. The King of Khelt stared into the unending desert. Then he turned to her and told her what she wanted to know.

Secrets for secrets.

“…They call themselves the People of Zeikhal. A cult, as many I have seen upon Chandrar. There are more numerous tribes. Raiders exceedingly better-armed and trained. Yet these ones have little fear of Khelt. They throw themselves into battle with my undead soldiers when nations would not. And they have a weapon I have not seen before.”

“Which is?”

“Faith. It would appear it is a natural weapon against the undead.”

Erin’s head bowed. Fetohep lifted a hand, and for a second, behind them, she saw his cities appear. But he did not show them to her. Instead, the King of Khelt stood with his back to the setting sun and spoke, voice ponderously heavy.

“My cities have rats, Erin Solstice. A plague of insects is growing.”

She said nothing. He went on, voice halting.

“I will do all I can. I am not Queen Xierca, let alone Khelta. I have yet great allies. I may deflect the animosity against me from Rhir. Roshal’s reprisals I could match; even Terandria and the Claiven Earth are humbled. But when I stumble when catching rats—I cannot stop the world from seeing that, Erin Solstice.”

He looked at her, and there were tears in her eyes. They ran onto the sand as Fetohep of Khelt raised one hand. The wind blew, and there was a door waiting for him. He regarded it. Then turned back to her and smiled. His voice echoed with the majesty of his kingdom. All the truth he had. He met her eyes and bowed slightly.

…Khelt’s walls are made of crumbling sand. I shall take responsibility for what happens next.

Then he gently opened the door and walked out. And Erin Solstice stood and wept a while.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

For readability, this chapter has been split into two parts. The second part is about half as long as this one, though; this was a natural break point.

Be advised that since this is the only chapter you get per week (and I’m going on vacation midday through next week, but I’ll try to get that chapter out), this is a good spot to stop. Savor.

Listen, if you read the next part and complain it’s too many words or was all a rush, that’s like me warning you not to eat this entire cake in one sitting. I don’t take responsibility for the stomach cramps.

With that said, wish me luck on my trip. I hate flying. Actually, I didn’t check if my flights are Boeing. I guess you’ll find out if anything went wrong on the news. The rest of the chapter awaits! I haven’t been in a coffee shop in ages.

These are the thoughts.

 

 

Ulvama by the Fire, Small Erin, and Erin Swolstice vs Beetle by Brack!

 

Witches by Rocky!

 

Normal Erin by sublimejer!

 

Erin’s Tears by MeadowMellow!

 

Shipwrecked Erin by Oop! All En Passants!

 

Erin by Gridcube!

 

Erin and the Beetle and Erin’s Aspect by Yura!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 

Regret Fire by Yootie!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie

 


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