10.10 E (Pt. 2) – The Wandering Inn

10.10 E (Pt. 2)

(This chapter was divided into two parts! Check to see if you’ve read Pt. 1 first!)



Thus, the King of Khelt awoke. He had never truly slept. But his mind had drifted while attending to the minutiae of his duties.

That was how it felt. As if he had had a dream, even while awake. For how else did undead dream?

The King of Khelt stopped watching through a scrying orb an image of the night’s news. His golden flames dimmed until they were almost extinguished. Then flared to brightness.

He jerked upright. A servant in the throne room sweeping up a trail of insects started.

“Your Majesty?”

Fetohep of Khelt looked around. Then at the woman with a gaze that seemed sorrowful. The servant stared—and for a second, Fetohep just sat there. Then he exhaled with ancient lungs, as if he had remembered being alive.

“Call for Alked Fellbow. Summon Pewerthe. Now.”

“At once!”

The servant ran, and Fetohep sat back upon his throne.

“I must plan once more.”

That was all he said. His head dipped—and he almost slumped. Then his chin rose, and his posture became perfect. He sat upon the throne, for dignity could be attempted even at your lowest.

“Thank you, Erin Solstice.”

The Revenant dipped his head towards an invisible figure. He did not feel better; quite the contrary.

But at least he knew. The last and only King of Khelt slowly bent to gather all he had left to safeguard his treasure and duty. For, as he knew:

There was nothing else left.




And Erin simply wept.



Day 8


Some days were hard ones. When Ulvama woke up, Erin was crying. She wouldn’t say why, and she tried to stop when she noticed the Hobgoblin lying there, staring at her.

“It’s nothing. I can’t do anything about it. Let’s just—go.”

But the tears lingered, and Ulvama knew the [Pavilion of Secrets] had caused this. What, exactly, had happened took a long time to get out of Erin over the course of the day.

It was a difficult day, too, that reminded Ulvama of the hardest days when she had left the Molten Stone tribe and become a frightened Goblin trying to be a [Shaman] in places where Anazurhe and great Goblins did not exist.

Hunger. She hated hunger.

“Not much to eat but bugs. You think that one good to eat?”

Erin stared at a passing termite wordlessly. They were responsible for the deadwood spires filled with holes that jutted up in this area; also why there were a lot less trees, Ulvama expected. She wanted to keep away from the termite mounds.

Eating bugs would be rough; it wasn’t like Ulvama was used to it, but there weren’t many birds or—anything about.

Erin’s aura had chased them away. It was a significant problem as Ulvama realized they needed to find a fruit-bearing bush now or head back the way they’d come and find one.

The trouble was…she stared up at one of the remaining trees that looked like termites had taken a damn good chunk out of it. The wood was eaten away, but this tree had survived so far. Yet it was absent of the kiwi-like fruits.

Also, of termites.

You’d expect to see them about, even if they were inside the bark, but Ulvama had seen only one wandering termite, even though she could see the nest there.

“Just in case we need to—that place is food. I can probably use [Control Insects] to lure a few over. Not starve for a day or two. Come on.”

Erin wiped at her face. Ulvama chivvied her along; she would have stopped to do something. What would help Erin? A hug?

She knew Mrsha better and would have bullied or hugged or done something to the sad girl, like last time. Erin…was different. Tough love, holding her arm—it was hard to say. And they had no time.

For while hunger had set in, if not badly from last night—they were also being hunted.

A buzz overhead made Ulvama yank Erin into the shadow of the tree, regardless of the dangerous termites. They had huge heads and could be nasty biters, but they were still small—even if they were pretty damn large relative to the two.

But that red beetle was a goliath. The two foot-long Corumdon Beetle blasted overhead, wings thrumming so loud Ulvama swore she felt the wind, on the hunt.

“Stupid thing.”

Another consequence of Erin’s actions. Ulvama could sense the thing’s hostility, and Erin had fought it once. She pulled Erin by the hand as the [Innkeeper] stumbled after her.




“Maybe this bush? No? Huh. This is the right bush. I know bushes.”

“Maybe it’s not growing fruits?”

“There were fruits on the last one! See? This one’s stripped. Something ate it. And this, too! This is an onion!”

Ulvama was annoyed; she had a decent herb sense, and she’d found the same kind of berry bush that had fed her so long. But all the purple fruits were gone. Even native insect populations and rodents and birds hadn’t been enough to strip the ones she’d found.

Also, she’d seen a green onion stalk. Great, right? Only, it was literally the stalk. Ulvama crouched down.

“Something dug it up. Bulb and all. Look at the bite marks. Probably termites. Here.”

There was enough to chew on. It had almost no calories, but the two ate, and Ulvama checked on Erin. She was still…

Everyone cried. It was just that Erin didn’t really do that, not that Ulvama had seen. The [Shaman] cried when she needed to, alone. Erin? She rallied a bit after eating the onion.

…Killing the squirrel brought the tears back.




It was a squirrel. Just a squirrel poking its head out of a burrow it had made. Actually, given its size, was it a chipmunk? Some crossbreed of the two?

Ulvama didn’t know and didn’t care. Unlike the other animals who’d run off, this one had hidden, but all things needed to drink water. Ulvama had found a tributary that led to the marsh and, on a hunch, had hunkered down with Erin to see if anything took the bait. It was that or insects—and the sight of a furtive rodent creeping out of its den was all she needed to see.

They had needle spears, Ulvama’s stone dagger, their Skills, and magic. The two crept up on the squirrel’s den. The danger to them was not the issue.

Killing the squirrel was just—hard.

It screamed when they leapt into the den and tried to escape, scurrying left and right, making for an escape route it had dug. Ulvama blocked it off with magic, and then they stabbed at it.

With spears—the squirrel was as big as they were. Erin physically blocked it from leaving as it bit and scratched at her, until she was fighting hand-to-hand. Punching it and cracking its skull as it bled. Blood ran down, and Ulvama stabbed again and again.

It was hard, despite her having killed plenty of animals before. If it could have been a clean death…it took fifteen minutes to bring the squirrel down. Even then, Erin tried to break its skull and give it a mercy kill, but had to slit its throat and let it bleed out.

She should have just cast a flame spell and cooked it. Burned it alive? Ulvama sat, cleaning some light scratches, as Erin, covered in blood, handled the butchery.

When she saw the water leaking from the [Innkeeper]’s eyes, Ulvama got up, took the knife, and told Erin to wash herself. She handled the dissection, hauling out chunks of meat for their fire. Even if she wanted to—she wouldn’t use the den as a campsite.

There was too much blood. Ulvama dragged the meat towards a fire on leaves, wondering why this area was so off. There wasn’t much wildlife at all, and at this point, she was doubting it was only Erin’s Skill.

Something dangerous was here, that was clear. And only the squirrel, who had lived in its barricaded den, and a few other animals were even present. At least the beetle had lost them.

Ulvama suspected that if Erin didn’t use her aura, most animals wouldn’t easily locate her. That was some small mercy. She found Erin by the river, staring at the blood on her arms and legs.

“Erin. Come here.”

The Hobgoblin put down the meat and ended up tossing water on Erin. She used the empty carton of soy sauce as a bucket; the blood ran downstream.

“I’m good at killing things.”

That was what the [Innkeeper] said quietly. Ulvama briskly dumped the cold water over Erin’s face.

“No, you’re not. You’d kill it in a minute if you were. Greydath is good at killing.”

“Then, I’m good at getting people killed.”

To that, Ulvama only paused a moment. She dunked more water on her own arms and legs.

“Squirrels are not people. We have to eat. Next time, we’ll do it better. Fetohep is a king. He chooses.”

“He’s given it all for me.”

“So he chose that. We’ll go help him if we can.”

Ulvama scrubbed at Erin’s hair where blood had dried. Erin looked up at her as Ulvama found a tangle of dead hair coming out in clumps. The [Innkeeper] looked…Ulvama glanced around.

We have to find a [Healer]. 

“Ulvama. He thought I had answers. I don’t have any. I wish I didn’t let people down so much. I’m tired. Am I allowed to be tired?”

Ulvama gently poured water over Erin’s head again.

“Sure you are. Just not when we’re cooking food.”

That made Erin laugh faintly. She looked at her arms and legs.

“My body hurts. My arms and legs throb all the time. The birds barely hurt compared to what’s normal.”

That’s not good at all. Ulvama bit her lip. If she could find just one healing herb she knew—she briskly turned around.

“You wash my hair. Get blood out.”

Erin gingerly splashed the water over Ulvama’s head and picked at her hair. After a while, she muttered.

“I’m sorry, Ulvama. I can’t collapse.”

“Yes, you can. It’s good to collapse, especially if you don’t when it matters. Being sad isn’t bad. The [Pavilion of Secrets]…sounds painful.”

“Yes. It is. I can see how Sheta used it to break her enemies. Turn them against each other. I can see how I could steal secrets from powerful people and hurt them.”

Ulvama shivered, and it wasn’t just the water.

“…Don’t summon the Blighted King, maybe? Even if we were safe, how would you trick him? Fetohep likes you, so he talked. But you can refuse to talk, right?”

It didn’t sound like Erin was allowed to torture those she brought, or threaten them. She could use secrets to bargain, but Ulvama still didn’t see the full utility. When she turned, Erin’s face was weary.

“Oh, I can guess. It’s very easy. The Blighted King might be too dangerous. But does he have any children? If I don’t like you, what if I ask your wife for a secret? What if I tell her something? A little boy doesn’t know better. What do you think you could get out of Mrsha?”

Ulvama shivered.

“But you don’t have to do what the others did.”

“I can, Ulvama. I’m not a good person. I could rule Khelt. I’d destroy it. Imagine if I waved a flag and I had a kingdom following me? I don’t love them. It would be so much easier to have them die.”

The [Innkeeper]’s fingers were trembling. Ulvama saw Erin was wet, shivering, so the Hobgoblin dragged them to the fire.

“That’s why you told him no. Come on. Make me food. I’m hungry.”

She stretched out on one of the leaves, trying to look haughty as possible. Erin did smile a bit at that. She began poking the meat onto a skewer.

At least they had enough food for a while. The grisly squirrel den the two agreed to leave behind; they’d cook up as much meat as possible, then eat it elsewhere.

They were so hungry that they ate some food on the spot, then used their salt on the rest to help preserve it. They were just packing up when Erin grabbed Ulvama’s arm.

“Something’s coming.”

The two froze. They were near the little stream and the squirrel’s den. Something had noticed the blood and perhaps the smell of cooking meat. What was it? The beetle? Whatever was here?

Whatever it was, if it was a lizard or something—Ulvama could use dinner. The [Shaman] held her spear at the ready, considering casting [Flame Strike], her most dangerous Tier 4 magic. She and Erin crouched behind a rock and saw it wobbling forwards.

It was…Ulvama squinted at it, then inhaled as whatever it was came upwind of her. She gagged.

It was the foulest thing she’d ever smelled. What was—she saw a yellow, bipedal, wobbling thing walking forwards and stared.

It was like someone had taken a piece of jello, or the internals of a clam or whatnot, and colored it yellow. It was covered in filth and about four inches tall, shorter than Ulvama and Erin. The Hobgoblin didn’t underestimate it; it could still be dangerous. But it was also, distressingly, disgusting. Literal poo was smeared on its body by the smell of it, and the moment it saw the campfire, it stopped.

“What the heck is that?”

Erin whispered at Ulvama. The [Shaman] eyed the wobbling thing.

“Whatever it is, it isn’t dinner.”

It was filthy! And also, the moment it appeared, it made a beeline for the squirrel’s den. It entered, and Erin assumed it was some kind of scavenger—but to her surprise, the wobbly-thing exited the den instantly.

“Strange. It’s not hungry? Wait, it’s going after our fire.”

They’d cooked the squirrel over some flames of frustration, the easiest thing to cook with. It had been small, but they’d gotten it up to a decent size. The two wondered if that was what had attracted the thing. But then it did the oddest thing.

The filthwobbler—that was what Ulvama decided it was—wobble-walked around the magical flames on two stumpy ‘legs’. Then it seemed to come to a conclusion. It bent down and ‘grew’ two arms from its body! It used the stumpy limbs to gather up a ball of dirt.

Then—it dumped the dirt on the fire. The orange flames cracked, and steam rose, and the filthwobbler jerked away. Erin and Ulvama looked at each other as it bent, grabbed more dirt, and began tossing it on the fire.

“What the heck? It’s putting out my flames.”

The filthwobbler kept tossing dirt on the flames until they were extinguished. Then, job seemingly done, it cast around and found some of the onion leaves that Erin and Ulvama had added to the squirrel meat. It grabbed a bit up and began to insert it into a mouth.

“Huh. It’s herbivorous.”

They watched the thing munch for a minute, then wobble off. Erin looked at Ulvama, and at least the [Innkeeper] had stopped crying. Ulvama shrugged and patted Erin on the arm.

“Come on. Let’s keep going and make camp.”




They ran into the filthwobbler again that night. Ulvama was trying to take care of Erin, who was still in a fragile state of mind. What she needed was less hiking, more rest.

They were putting up a shelter, or trying to, in the open, since Ulvama didn’t want to get near a termite-infested tree, even if she’d seen few of them. The air was filled with this strange ‘thrumming’ that seemed to come from those huge deadwood spires; another bad place to be, then.

Therefore, Ulvama and Erin gathered up leaves and tried to make a fort with them, just something they could nap under with a bit of cover. They were using a round rock as a base, but the absence of nice sticks meant that Ulvama was having trouble with a support beam.

Stupid leaves!

Erin was cutting one to try and attach them to each other, but they were more fragile than the ones they’d found earlier on. An entire wall collapsed, and Erin got up to help Ulvama rebuild the structure when she stopped.

“Do you smell that?”

Ulvama thought Erin had begun making the cook fire again—until she smelled poop and groaned. She spun, grabbing for her spear—and saw the filthwobbler. And—to her shock and dismay—a rather large snake.

It was slithering past the two’s camp, so silent that Erin hadn’t noticed. Whether it was venomous or not—Ulvama did not like the red body and black-and-white stripes—it was definitely big enough to try and eat them.

The snake hadn’t noticed them, though. It was circling the filthwobbler, who was coming in their vague direction. Erin and Ulvama crouched behind the rock, watching, as the snake did two long rotations around the filthwobbler, which stopped, wobbled in place…and the snake flicked out its tongue and uncoiled and slithered away.

“What the heck? Either it’s poisonous or the snake doesn’t want to eat poo. Actually, that’s a great defense mechanism.”

Erin stared at the thing, and Ulvama muttered.

“If you roll around in the toilet, I will leave you here.”

The giggling from Erin made the filthwobbler notice their presence. It wobbled over, and Ulvama groaned.

“Aw. Go away, gross thing!”

She jabbed at it with her thorn-spear—and it retreated as Ulvama shouted. The Hobgoblin advanced, and it backed away. Erin walked forwards.

“It doesn’t seem hostile, and my [Dangersense] isn’t going off. Get lost.”

She made a fist, and the filthwobbler retreated. It made no sound, and Ulvama glanced at the thorn spears.

“We should use these for the camp. Here, give. If it comes over, punch it.”

“Ew. No. I’ll throw fire at it.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Ulvama went back to setting up the camp, letting Erin chase off the filthwobbler thing. The thorns helped make some supports, but one damn gust of wind blew the entire fort apart again. Cursing, Ulvama shouted.

“Erin! I think we need to sleep in the open. This won’t—whoa!

She jerked as the filthwobbler came around the rock. Erin, who had gone off to find more leaves or sticks, came back at a run.

“Ulvama! I thought I chased it off! Get back—”

She raised a fist—and Ulvama saw the filthwobbler pick up the wall she’d been trying to anchor into the ground and kiss the section where the leaves met rock. It left something wet and sticky there, and Ulvama blocked Erin with one arm.

“What the heck?

The filthwobbler added another section of slimy ‘glue’ to the wall, wobbled over to another section, put it up, and attached it together. In seconds, it had two walls standing, and when the wind gusted—the pieces refused to fly off!

Ulvama and Erin stared at their wall. They stared at the filthwobbler.

They held their noses and backed away. And the strange creature kept building.




“It’s…it’s like a scavenger-helper thing. See? It keeps going after edible stuff. Moss. Lichen.”

“Those are the same thing, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] shushed Ulvama with a finger. The two were following the filthwobbler around at dusk, mostly because their camp had been set up in record time. It was an amalgamation of glue, cut leaves, and their thorn spears and was pretty damn solid.

Something the filthwobbler secreted was a natural adhesive. Erin bet it was a mollusk of some kind and ate an herbivorous diet. It could grow primitive limbs, and as far as they could tell, it was semi-sentient.

But what really made it odd was how it interacted with, well, everything.

Case in point: birds. Shortly after roaming around their campsite, the filthwobbler had gone off and begun eating moss by the nearby stream.

A bird had grabbed it. Thus spelled the end of the filthwobbler; a robin had picked the thing up, borne it to one of the sporadic trees, and Erin and Ulvama had expected to see the filthwobbler die, especially when they heard the chirping of young birds.

Instead—they saw the bird put the filthwobbler down on a branch and the thing wobble around a nest and begin gluing branches and twigs into place. The storm of a few nights ago had done some damage to a nest, and the robin kept flying down as the thing repaired the nest.

“Is…is that normal?”

Erin turned to Ulvama, and the Hobgoblin shook her head.

“I have never seen that in my life. Look! It finished building the nest, and now—”

The robin picked up the filthwobbler and flew it down to the ground. It dropped the thing, and the wobbler wooblied over to some half-eaten mushrooms.

“It’s a symbiote! It helps build things, and nothing eats it! That must be why it’s smeared in—aw, gross. It’s using bird droppings and wiping it all over itself!”

The creature’s behavior became more and more obvious to Ulvama and Erin, even if it was oddly fascinating. It made itself unappetizing and, simultaneously, helpful. Based on how it acted, Erin was almost certain it was edible to at least a few species. But the snake, the bird, and even Erin and Ulvama had decided it wasn’t worth killing to eat. Especially if it built things, repaired nests, and put out fires.

Try as she might, Ulvama couldn’t detect anything poisonous from the secretions of the filthwobbler either. She did insist they sit outside to eat dinner, just in case, but if the bird was happy to use the repair glue on its nest…

“Maybe we should have had it help make a backpack.”

“Ew. That’d stink. Hey! I’m not that bad at making them, am I?”

Erin smiled a bit after dinner. She looked better after the morning, and the two sat there. Ulvama produced something she’d worked on in their sudden spare time.

“Here. You come and sit.”

“What’s that? Aw, Ulvama…”

The Hobgoblin had a comb. She’d noticed how, despite their washing, both their hair was filthy. She made Erin sit there as Ulvama combed her hair.

“It’s good to do. Don’t you do this?”

“What, comb each other’s hair and have sleepovers? Nah. Not since I was a kid. I never liked that sort of thing.”

“…It’s not a child’s thing. Sometimes, you do things together. Don’t you and Lyonette do this?”

Erin cracked one eye open.

“Well, we talk. Sometimes. But we don’t braid each other’s hair and stuff.”

“You should. Talking to someone helps. Is there anyone you talk to regularly?”

“…Well, I have Ishkr—”

“Not for work, stupid.”


“Niers is different. Someone else.”

Erin stared up at Ulvama’s face.

“We do the morning dance thing. That’s pretty good.”

Ulvama sighed. She tried not to show Erin how much hair the [Innkeeper] was losing with some of the crude comb’s passes. For such a…social class, Erin really was private.

As the two sat there, they realized the filthwobbler had gone off into the distance. Neither one wished it ill, for once. And when Ulvama looked up, she realized night had truly fallen. Their glowing fire was mercy, this time, bright—and it attracted something with the night.

“What’s that?”

Erin reached for Ulvama’s stone knife, and the two heard a buzzing sound. They froze—and then a light blossomed.

A firefly, big, abdomen glowing bright yellow, buzzed around their fire. It landed, and Erin recoiled.

“Aw, gross. Get lost. Hey, do they eat meat?”

If they did, the firefly wasn’t about to take on Erin and Ulvama, who were bigger than it was. It nosed up to the fire, sensed that it wasn’t another mate, and buzzed up. Then Erin saw more lights appearing.

“Wow. Fireflies.”

It seemed not all species were dead here. Ulvama saw dozens, then hundreds of lights in the air around them, congregating together, their own intricate mating rituals flashing through the night. And of course they’d honed in on one of the light sources: Erin’s fire.

Several landed and tried to eat some of the remaining pieces of squirrel meat; Erin had to shove a few back as Ulvama hid the food inside the tent. When she came outside, she saw Erin was staring at her hands.

“You didn’t kill…?”

“Nah. One tried to bite me, and I gave him a punch to the abdomen. He’s fine.”

A bug squirming on its back then flying away rapidly indicated the veracity of that statement. But Ulvama saw Erin was dusting off her palms. Then—she saw Erin’s hands were glowing.

“Firefly dust. Look at that.”

It was a faint glow, but it was echoed around them hundreds of times, and more fireflies landed, seeking a potential mate. Male or female, Erin and Ulvama couldn’t tell, but they were actually somewhat friendly. Ulvama ran her hands over their wings and shells and got more dust on her hands when she poked at their underbellies.

“Well, well. The first insects we’ve met who aren’t a threat. Unless this is the moment they swarm us and try to eat us.”

Erin smiled, but the fireflies really were more interested in each other. Ulvama sat there, staring at the yellow lights flickering around her.

She’d seen far better magic; she’d made far better illusions herself. But the entertainment, simple as it was, made her heart ache for home.

The inn. Strange how that was what Ulvama thought of instead of the Mountain City Tribe. But there was something simple about the inn. Mountain City always had danger to it, within, from other Goblins, and without.

Erin Solstice sat there, cross-legged, staring up at the fireflies. Then she rubbed her hands. Stared down at them.

“That’s something beautiful, at least.”

“Yeah. Not all bad.”

They watched until the fireflies gave up glowing, and after a while, Erin picked something up. She brushed at her hands—then reached out and plucked at Ulvama’s. The Hobgoblin looked down and, after a few seconds, saw a yellow glow illuminate the darkness.


Erin tossed a small pebble up and down. It was glowing a gentle, yellow color. The same as the firefly dust. She handed it to Ulvama, and the Hobgoblin smiled as she felt at it.

“This is nice.”

“Yeah. That’s the kind of thing I can get behind making. Far better than the Densecore stones and weapons.”

Erin smiled as she held the stone up. For a moment, her features softened and she looked genuinely happy with something she had made.




The [Shaman] watched. Ulvama saw Erin inspecting the glowing stone, which had no great magic in it, but was simply delightful. She was at her strongest she had been all day. Simultaneously, her most fragile.

Ulvama was a Goblin [Shaman]. She had done cruel things with people, Goblins. Found moments like these to chisel at them and create sharp edges, or break them. Sometimes, she had picked them up when they were bleeding, patched them up, and sent them to die for the tribe.

She knew she had not changed. She was still Ulvama; if she replaced little Goblin children for white Gnolls, she was doing the same thing.

Tribe and home. And…

Chieftain. The Goblin’s eyes lingered on Erin’s face. The [Innkeeper] had found her. Ulvama had followed her. Until those moments, Ulvama hadn’t known if either one would go that far. Truly, they were a [Shaman] and a Chieftain in the end. Let it be a better duo than the last one.

That was how Ulvama thought of the two of them. Or else it grew too confusing. All she needed to know was that Erin needed good words, and if Ulvama pretended she were a Goblin…it made her believe she could say something.

So she scooted over.

“Erin. Do you want to talk about what you said to Fetohep now?”

She broke Erin out of her reverie and felt guilty, but the [Innkeeper] blinked, took a shuddering breath, and there was enough resolve for her to face whatever was in her head.

Because they had to do something, they watched the fading lights of the fireflies, then looked up. The stars were out. It felt like a while had passed since they’d had the time to stare at them, and they were vivid.

“I don’t know why I started crying, Ulvama. I knew his kingdom was in trouble. Telling him, hearing it from him—seeing that place and knowing I wasn’t going to do anything, and forcing Fetohep to realize I wouldn’t be Khelt’s Queen no matter what? It hurt.”

The woman who could be queen sat there, and Ulvama couldn’t take her eyes off Erin. That was it, she realized vaguely.

Of all the Chieftains and leaders she’d served, and she had known plenty, Erin Solstice was one of two people that Ulvama had ever met who didn’t crave more power, at least not in the way Ulvama normally saw it understood.

Erin was an [Innkeeper]. She could be a [Queen]. But like that silent, rock-eating fool, she had a different view of the world. One Ulvama sometimes didn’t understand.

This is why I keep watching.

“Tell me. Please. When…if we go back to your inn, you will do everything you can to help Khelt. I know you.”

Erin turned bleak eyes to Ulvama.

“I will not be their ruler. I think that was it, Ulvama. I was lying, even to myself. There was a part of me, a small part, that always entertained the idea. It’d be…cool. I know that’s trivializing it. I mean—”

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Ulvama saw it.

She who would be [Queen]. 

Erin Solstice, the 20th Sovereign of Eternal Khelt, sat there, and Ulvama could see her sitting upon a throne, shifting around, doing silly, inconsequential things. Dancing around to the dismay of her people. Then drawing a line in the sand and daring nations to cross it.

—Then it was gone, and Erin looked at Ulvama, tears in her eyes. But not falling.

“I guess I had to make a choice. I realized it was hurting him and me. Am I a bad person for wanting it, even though I know I wouldn’t do it and that it would be for the worse?”

“…No. You did hard things. That’s what a Chieftain does.”

Erin dashed at the tears in her eyes with one hand.

“I never wanted to be a Chieftain. But I won’t run from that. Maybe it would be for the good of all if I did become Queen of Khelt and went there. I didn’t. The smart thing was always to go back home and leave Rabbiteater. Ulvama, when we were at sea, I said I would sacrifice the war with the gods and all the ghosts’ promises just to kill as many [Pirates] as I could. Everything between me and Rabbiteater. That’s selfish.”

The [Shaman] put her clawed hand on Erin’s knee and patted it.

“Maybe. But it’s the kind of selfish I like from a Chieftain, sometimes. It’s bad for the tribe if they go after one Goblin, no matter how they suffer. What about the warriors who die? What if we start a war and bring too many Humans after us?”

Erin nodded, and Ulvama went on.

“—But that one Goblin was once me. Tremborag was not the great Chieftain I ever wanted, but he was selfish. The best ones are. You will never be Ruler of Khelt. But you know what?”


The Hobgoblin smiled and looked at the stars, then at Erin’s face, illuminated by the Firefly Stone.

“…Rulers of great nations don’t make silly magic stones like that. They don’t have your hat. There were nineteen rulers of Khelt. There will be others. There is only one [Innkeeper] like you.”

A surprised laugh burst out from Erin’s chest. She looked at Ulvama—then hugged her, one-armed. The Hobgoblin grinned, and Erin chuckled.

“Oh man. If Fetohep ever heard that—just between you and me? I think you’re right. Thanks, Ulvama.”

They sat like that a while until Erin dropped her arm, as if unsure how long you gave someone a hug. After a bit, Ulvama asked another more selfish, but still important question.

“If he knows you’re not with the Titan—do you think he’ll send help?”

Erin’s face grew troubled. Ulvama gave her a sidelong look, and the [Innkeeper] exhaled.

“I bet he will. I could even ask, but—it sounds like there’s a fake me playing decoy out there. Smart. I wonder if Silvenia did that?”

Ulvama shrugged.

“Maybe the Titan? He’s smart.”

“Yeah. But even if Fetohep knows we’re gone…no scrying spells. And he didn’t recognize where I was from our descriptions. Wailer Frogs are apparently in multiple continents. We need a landmark or something to even tell him which continent we’re on. Once we have that—I’ll signal someone we can trust.”

That made Ulvama feel a lot better. They had a way out; all they needed was that crucial element. She patted Erin’s knee, grateful, and Erin grinned back.

They sat there a while longer, lingering. Then a yawn burst from Erin’s lips. She got up, walked into the little leaf fort, and put the stone down.

It kept glowing through the night as the two went to sleep, for once with bellies full and with a good sight for the night, not an ill one. Ulvama listened to Erin sleep and nodded to herself.

Still, even now, marooned on a distant place—

She was still fascinated. Then Ulvama closed her eyes and went to sleep.

At some point, the filthwobbler came by and tossed dirt on the dying flames of mercy until they were out. Then it wobbled off.



Day 9


The one reprieve of the night made Ulvama feel better when she woke. She ate meat for breakfast, tied the glowing rock Erin had made to her pack, and the two grinned at each other.

“Feeling better, Erin?”

“Yep. Thanks.”

The two high-fived over breakfast. Ulvama took another big bite of salted squirrel. She had the idea they might either check out the deadwood spires for height and to see what that strange thrumming sound was, or keep heading ‘north’, the way they were going.

She looked up—

And the hamster was there.

He had only one eye, and he stood on two legs. Which any hamster could do. But most hamsters didn’t have a wooden bat. Or if they did, they didn’t hold it like they understood what a bat was.

Nor did they usually look ready to fight. This one had battered, tawny fur, and just stood there.


Yes, menacingly. Ulvama stopped eating, and for some reason, she felt a shock run down her body. Erin stopped drinking water and looked up.

“My [Dangersense] is going off. Unbelievable.”

“The hamster is real? It followed us?”

“Yeah. Like the beetle.”

Both cast their glances skyward, but the Corumdon Beetle was nowhere to be seen. Erin got up, slowly, as Ulvama warily put down the meat.

Then eyed the hamster. It was staring at them. Ulvama remembered the squirrel.

“Erin…do you think it knows we killed the squirrel?”

The [Innkeeper] glanced down. She blinked—then eyed the hamster. It was very still…no, wait. Was it doing the same thing she’d seen when they met last time?

Bouncing up and down on its tiny paws? She cracked her neck.

“Maybe. Let me deal with it. Hey, you! Get lost! We had a nice night—we don’t need more food.”

She began walking towards the hamster, and Ulvama grew unaccountably worried. She stood up.

“Erin, be careful.”

Ulvama grabbed their packs. But Erin was using the language of the forest. That was to say, Ceria-speak.

“My friend taught me how to talk to animals. Get lost! Shoo! I’ll hit you!

She was only a dozen paces away from the hamster, and it didn’t move. It was watching Erin, though. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. She turned her head to Ulvama.

“I can’t tell if it’s scared or wh--umpf!

The hamster moved as Erin turned her head. It swiveled—and then hit her in the stomach with the bat.

Like someone swinging a home run in baseball. It was so coordinated Ulvama’s jaw dropped. Erin staggered.

“—Nevermind. Okay b—”

The hamster brought down the bat two-handed on Erin’s head, and she fell over. Ulvama rubbed at her eyes. Then she pinched a cheek.

“Am I dreaming?”

The hamster waited as Erin got up slowly. Erin rubbed at her head.

“Didn’t hurt. Got the message, little guy?”

She raised a fist—and the hamster slapped Erin across the face with the bat she’d made. This time, Erin reacted. She twisted, threw a punch—and the hamster hopped back. Erin rubbed at her face.

“You okay, Erin?”

“Yeah, it’s not that strong. Pretty strong for a hamster, though. You stay back.”

Erin walked forward, took two swings—and the hamster hit her on the shoulder, then side, and Erin didn’t even flinch. She threw three jabs—it hopped back each time. It was fast.

Reminded of Erin’s story about it hitting the Wailer Frog, Ulvama called out.

“Maybe don’t provoke it, Erin?”

“I’m just chasing it off. One sec—that’s my bat, buster. You want to hit me with it? Go ahead—hah!

Erin blocked the next bat strike to her face with one arm. The hamster hopped back instantly, but then it stared at the grey fire of mercy on the bat. Erin had ignited it.

Instantly, the hamster dropped the bat. It scurried to the side on all fours. It stared at the bat, now on fire, and then Erin. The [Innkeeper] flicked grey flames at the hamster, and the battle rodent leapt back.

“That’s right. Human have scary fire. Get lost unless you want a [Mini-Minotaur Punch].”

For good measure, she flipped the hamster off and then began to back away. Erin backed up a few steps. They were two dozen paces away, now, but she didn’t lower her guard.

“Ulvama, get the packs. Let’s lose this hamster once—”

The hamster did a little hop, kicked off the ground with one foot, and blurred. Ulvama blinked.




Erin landed on her back, staring up at the sky. She’d flown—


The hamster popped her across her face as she stood up. Erin’s head jerked back—she felt a tiny fist strike her hard and threw a counter. The hamster dodged.

“Okay, it’s f—”




Ulvama had a better vantage point of what was happening. The hamster was zipping across the ground with each attack. It launched itself incredibly far and fast, slamming into Erin like a cannonball.

It could use its fists and feet! It hit Erin twice in the chest; she staggered and swiped back, faster now. She looked actually annoyed.

“What the he—”

Punch to the jaw. The [Innkeeper] didn’t even stumble. The hamster paused, then did a huge hop back as Erin kicked.

They both stared at each other. Ulvama let out a breath; even dangerous as it was, the battle hamster had about as much luck as everything else fighting a Level 50 [Innkeeper]. Erin lowered her hands.

“Hey, little buddy. Don’t do that again. Why don’t you take a hint, huh?”

She smiled. Spread her arms—

The battle hamster punched her in the guts. Erin grabbed for its arm and tore loose a bit of fur. Instantly, the hamster jerked away. Erin blew the fur into the air.

“You can’t hurt me. Leave before I get mad. Or I use one of my new Skills on you.”

She stared at the hamster, and a wave of intimidation rolled off her. Aura. Only—this time, the hamster just vibrated in place. It didn’t move.

Incredulously, Ulvama watched as Erin upped her aura. The robin burst from its nest, screaming in terror, but the hamster just bounced up and down, up and down.

As if sussing Erin out. Then it went for another punch.

Erin’s feet actually left the ground this time. But it didn’t hurt—and when the hamster tried to follow it up with a flying kick, it twisted—then frantically began to squeak.

A spectral vine was wrapped around its foot. As Ulvama kept casting, it snared the hamster’s limbs. The battle hamster became a blur of frantic motion as it tore at the spell. Erin glanced at Ulvama and began to stride over to it—

“Erin. It’s just a hamster.”

And they had food for at least till dinner. The [Innkeeper] stopped.

“Yeah, I know.”

The hamster had already freed itself. It leapt away, landing on all fours and staring at them with its good eye. When it turned its head, Ulvama had the uncanniest feeling it was appraising her. Then it bounded off.

Don’t come back, pal!

Erin shouted after it. Then, shaking her head, she went with Ulvama to grab their packs. She jerked her thumb at the place the hamster had been.

“What was that?”

First filthwobblers, now this. Ulvama scratched her head.

“…Maybe he’s Greydath and Silvenia polymorphed him into a hamster?”

The two of them looked at each other. They started laughing and set out on their merry way. They kept shouting at the landscape, asking if ‘Greydamster’ wanted to join them and telling hamster-related Goblin Lord jokes.

—That was until they found what was left of the snake.




Snake. Snake? Snake! 

It took Erin a moment to remember the snake from yesterday. It had just been a moment—but she remembered it not killing the filthwobbler. All well and good, right? It had been maybe…she wanted to say four to five feet long? Big, dangerous, probably venomous, and a threat if it had gone after Ulvama. But it had slithered off, and that was that.


“…What killed it?”

They found the snake. Or at least, part of it. Something had stripped the flesh off it, leaving only part of its head.

And bones. It looked like there had been a fight around here, too; the ground was churned up a bit. Erin bent down, but whatever tracks were there just looked like a bunch of tiny dots.


“Maybe the hamster.”

Both ideas were ludicrous. Well, maybe not the hamster, but Erin refused to believe it could eat that much meat. Still…she was reminded of the [Dangersense] drums she’d heard when approaching this place.

They’d gone silent when she entered this area, probably because she’d ignored them, but, conscious of them, Erin glanced at Ulvama.

“Let’s not go near the deadwood spires, huh? Maybe a good vantage point?”

Ulvama nodded. They looked around; they were approaching a nice, wooden section near one of those spires again. A huge termite mound was visible in a cleared area of reddish dirt. The insects could kill off a lot of vegetation, and Erin wondered if they were a natural check against the jungle itself.

“Let’s avoid the termites. Maybe they did it.”

“Yah. Only…”

Ulvama shaded her eyes. They were walking past the snake now, and she kept glancing at the hive.


“I don’t see any termites. I haven’t since yesterday. Not in the trees, nor ground. Is that normal?”

“Maybe termites are nocturnal?”


Ulvama was unconvinced, and the odd…solitude of this place was making Erin oddly tense. She kept looking around for the battle hamster. It hadn’t run from her aura, and she had the distinct impression her aura was attracting it. Was it just a fight-maniac hamster? Well, there were fighting fish, weren’t there?

They were just crossing the bare stretch of ground towards the wooded part of the forest when they heard a sound from the marsh in the distance. A familiar one.


“Oh. Great. Them again.”

Wailer Frogs. Erin paid them no mind…they were noisy, and that was all. That was, until the sound echoed louder.


The Goblin and Human exchanged a glance.

“Hunting group?”

“Just our luck. Come on, let’s just outrun them this time. They can’t be headed that far inland. Unless I scared off all the food in the marsh.”

The two picked up the pace. But the ribbiting grew louder, and because they had no desire to be deafened, the two cut a closer path to the termite nest across the bare ground.

“Strange…I don’t see any termites.”

Ulvama was panting. She looked down at the ground and stared at a piece of spiked mandibles. Or rather, half of one. Erin blinked. There were pieces of shell everywhere. Insect chitin. They looked at each other as the ribbiting echoed again—

The Corumdon Beetle burst out of the side of the termite nest, and Erin shouted.

“You again!”

It snapped the mandibles closed, and Erin ducked under them. Ulvama screamed.


“Get back, Ulvama! I’ve got this! Give me a flame attack! Hey, you! You’re going to suffer this time!”

Erin spread her arms, trying to make herself bigger and attract the beetle’s attention. It bit at her, and she ducked and gave it an uppercut.

It’s way too big! Snap-snap went the mandibles, and it seized one of Erin’s arms and tossed her. She landed, rolling upwards.

“You can’t harm me. You know that.”

The beetled pawed the ground and charged. Erin actually grabbed the mandibles, but they heaved her off her feet. Stalemate. But she was only distracting it—the beetle was trying to dig its mandibles down to crush her when Ulvama shouted.

“[Flame Strike]!”

A pillar of flames shot down and blasted the beetle’s top shell. It felt that. The Corumdon Beetle instantly turned, and Erin realized it was way tougher than she thought. Ulvama faltered.

“Wait, it doesn’t burn—”

“Ulvama, dodge!”

Erin grabbed for one leg, and the [Shaman] screamed and fled a second before the beetle slammed into the side of the termite nest. Had it killed the entire nest? Erin stared inside the open ruins of the nest, but it was empty—

Hey, beetle!

Her aura flared, and the beetle stopped snapping at Ulvama and whirled. [The Wandering Innkeeper] didn’t kill things she didn’t have to. But seeing the beetle almost take a bite out of Ulvama, who didn’t have Erin’s Skills?

She was done playing around. The beetle charged as Erin’s aura expanded.

“Last chance before I kill you. No? You asked for it.

Erin set herself like a football player, waiting for the charge. The Corumdon beetle obliged. It surged at her, snapped its mandibles shut on her body—and recoiled.

Black flames covered its mandibles. Ulvama, panting, looked down from the termite’s nest and gasped.


The [Innkeeper] had set herself aflame. She dusted the fire off as the Corumdon Beetle instantly tried to bury the flames, wipe them off its mandibles before they burned its chitin.

“I have a Skill that’ll hurt way worse. Ulvama, can you shock it?”

“Yeah! One second—[Volt Orb]…”

Ulvama pointed a claw down at the beetle as Erin strode forwards. The [Innkeeper] balled up her fists at the frantic beetle trying to get rid of the flames.

“[Minotaur Punch]!”

She hit it with a one-two across its reinforced head, and it recoiled. Ulvama pointed a claw down. The first orb of electricity made the beetle jerk. Its legs spasmed, and Erin took another two punches at the beetle’s face. Then she paused. Looked around.

“No way. Wait—Ulvama! Behind you!

Huh? Ulvama turned, and a hamster was standing behind her. She raised the thorn spear—





Erin saw the [Shaman] go flying as the hamster kicked her into the air. The [Shaman] landed two feet away, and Erin stared up at the battle hamster.

“Okay. You’re dead too.”

Both beetle and hamster? What was this, some kind of stupid jungle tag-team match? The beetle had finished removing the flames from its mandibles. It looked up at the hamster and made a grinding-crashing sound with its mandibles.

The two recognized each other! The hamster darted down the slope and kicked the beetle in the side. It snapped at the hamster—then both dodged a ball of black flames.

You two are dead.

Erin snapped. She expected them to go for her, but after a second, the Corumdon Beetle juked left from another ball of fire and went after the Goblin getting up and holding her side.

Ulvama! Run!

Erin shouted, and the Hobgoblin went sprinting away as the beetle charged. Erin went after both. She saw the hamster leap forward and bar her way.

Out of the way!

Erin had no time for it. Neither animal could hurt her! She balled a fist to swing—and she saw the battle hamster do a little hop. It vibrated, spun—

Then threw a punch like a corkscrew into Erin’s chest. The [Innkeeper]’s feet didn’t leave the ground. She even kept her forwards momentum, but the shockwave ran through her.

Her ribs jolted, and her heart fluttered. Erin stumbled.

“What th—”

The hamster had hopped back and was staring at her. Erin put a hand to her chest. That—hurt? How the—

“Erin! Help!

Ulvama! Erin jerked up. She saw the beetle flying, dodging an orb of electricity.

“I’m coming, Ulv—”

This time, the battle hamster dodged under her fist and hit her in the stomach. The second time, Erin saw it do…something.

It twisted up using its furry rodent body and spun as it punched her. Like a top releasing energy. When it hit her, she felt like it punched straight through her. Erin staggered back, stared down at her torn clothing and stomach.

It hurts! What kind of punch was that? She looked up, side-stepped—and the hamster’s kick tore up the ground.

“Greydath? Is that you?”

The battle hamster spun, kicked Erin, and she went skidding. She stared at it.

“This hamster knows martial arts. Or something stupid.”

It was fast. She ducked a kick, tried to grab the furry thing, and it punched and bit her on the neck—that didn’t hurt. But every time it wound up and used that strange twister-punch, it hurt.

Every time she tried to take a step, it would cannonball into her or she’d have to block the slower-moving super punches. And Ulvama was—

Running for her life. The Corumdon Beetle had gone after the other threat, but it hadn’t expected Ulvama to have tricks up her sleeve. She leapt off an [Earthen Spire] a second before it smashed through the outcropping, and she landed on the beetle’s back. It tried to roll over, and the Hobgoblin kept running. Magical vines tried to ensnare the beetle, but it was too strong and snapped them.

“Erin! Help!

The [Innkeeper] was coming. The battle hamster was studying her between blows, doing that stupid hop-hop-hop thing. As if taunting her. She swore it was smirking at her.

“You’re no Bloodtear Admiral. I warned you.”

Erin kept her guard up and waited for the next punch. When it came—she felt her stomach rumble and felt like puking. The hamster swayed under her hook, leapt over a kick, and Erin exhaled.

Orange flames bloomed through the air and engulfed the hamster. It squeaked and tried to dodge in the air—then it was a rolling ball of flames.

Erin had exhaled her magical flames. The [Innkeeper]’s breath hurt in her lungs. She wiped at the flames.

[Body: Firebreath]. Then she was running.

The beetle whirled as Erin charged at it. Ulvama was using the termite nest for cover as it tore chunks of the hardened soil away.

“Ulvama! Stay in cover!”

The [Innkeeper] exhaled again, and a cloud of black flames made the beetle fly away in alarm. Ulvama’s eyes went round. The [Innkeeper] whirled, then gasped for air.

“Drake problems. Erin! You’re running out of air!”

Erin was lightheaded. Just like the damn seagull—Erin stumbled, then saw a shape tearing for Ulvama.

“Watch out! The damn—”

A burned hamster was racing at Ulvama. It was alive! How—Erin realized its fur was scorched black—but it was mostly bare.

Had it just yanked off its fur to avoid the flames of resentment burning it? This time, though, Ulvama was ready.

“[The Tangling Vine]! [Volt Orb]!”

The hamster dodged away from her spot, avoiding both the orb of lightning and vine. But it was going after Ulvama. Erin began running—turned her head, and the beetle was on her.


The [Innkeeper] caught the mandibles as they clacked around her body. The Corumdon Beetle was trying to grind her to a paste! She didn’t care about that—Ulvama! The beetle was charging, pushing Erin away from the [Shaman], and the damn hamster was punching holes in the termite nest.

Erin’s lungs were burning. If she breathed fire again, she might pass out.


Her arms and legs hurt. They were screaming in agony as she tried to slow herself, her feet tearing into the ground. She had to move! The Corumdon Beetle kept plowing ahead like a rhinoceros, and Erin’s legs—began to ache.




The beetle had one strategy it knew: rip and bite and tear until the enemy was dead. Retreat was not an option against something so terrifying. It would have charged until they ran into a rock or tree and tried to grind the [Innkeeper] into paste.

Its six legs churned the soil, but the beetle realized something: it was moving slower. Then…it was straining for each step. It had a limited eyesight, but it wasn’t caught on anything. The only thing slowing it down was…

The terrifying thing? It was pressing its legs into the ground, and it was far, far smaller than the Corumdon Beetle. But something strange was happening.

It felt a lot—lot—stronger suddenly.

The beetle stopped. It tried to force itself slower, and it heard a growling roar from the [Innkeeper]. Then she pushed, and her aching legs exploded.




It was like a second wind, but for her limbs. Her legs—her arms—her entire body suddenly felt like a second set of muscles were expanding! Erin didn’t know what was happening, but she was running now, and the beetle was going backwards, digging its spiny legs into the ground—

The battle hamster stopped attacking Ulvama and whirled. It spotted the beetle moving in reverse and then a tiny figure running at—


The beetle’s distraction had taken the focus off Ulvama for a second. The hamster spun back around—and a big Hobgoblin, eight inches tall, emerged from her hiding spot. The hamster threw a punch; Ulvama caught it.

[Lion’s Strength]. [Bloodfury]. She tossed the hamster across the ground, and it spun. Then it ducked a punch from Erin. The second one hit it straight in the belly.

Erin actually caught up with the hamster despite knocking it back a foot. Her second punch and third hit it in the body as it tried to get away—then her legs quit on her.

She collapsed, skidding onto the ground as whatever extra go-juice ran out. Then she felt as weak as a wet noodle.

“Erin! [Lion’s Strength]! Are you okay?”

Ulvama yanked her up, and Erin panted.

“I’m okay. Trap one for me, and I’ll burn them to death.”

The flames of hatred were in her lungs, ready to loose. Ulvama stared at Erin—and the battle hamster got up, holding one paw awkwardly. It had blocked one of her punches with that. The beetle was shaking itself. It rolled upright, and Erin wondered why they didn’t run.

The beetle buzzed its wings, opening its mandibles like a miniature Godzilla bug. The hamster began hopping, ready to fight—

And a Wailer Frog ate the Corumdon Beetle in a single move.


Erin turned and muttered softly.

“Oh, come on.”

Four of them were right there! They inflated their throats, and Erin threw something at one. Ulvama pointed.

“[Frost Ray]!”

The Densecore stone from Ulvama’s packs blew a hole in the first frog’s throat, and it made a huge noise of squelching pain. The second choked as its throat froze—the third began to inhale, and the battle hamster kicked it in the throat.

The last? The last was going cross-eyed. It hesitantly tried to ribbit. Erin pulled out more Densecore stones. She looked up.

“Ulvama. The birds!”


The [Shaman]’s face fell a second before a wing slammed the ground in front of them. The two scattered, and Erin threw a second stone. This time, she hit the Aurmak bird in the chest, and red blood exploded from the feathers. It shrieked and took off, and Erin spun.

Two left—the battle hamster dodged the deadly projectile. The stones worked—but the Wailer Frogs and Aurmak birds were too big to kill without hitting them in the head. Mind you, the one Erin had perforated was making a whistling sound as it tried to inflate its throat-sac.

“Now the birds are after us?”

“They’re after you!

Ulvama shrieked as the two ran back towards the termite hive. The birds were attacking everything, actually. One tried to bite the battle hamster—another was savaging a Wailer Frog with its claws.

It was a damn free for all! Four sides! Hamster, birds, Erin and Ulvama, Wailer Fr—

The fourth frog, who hadn’t been moving since it ate the Corumdon beetle, had been growing increasingly worried and ribbiting the entire while in soft sounds. It did a little hop—then its stomach exploded, and a blood-covered beetle dug its way out of the frog’s chest, scaring the hell out of the Aurmak bird nearest it.

Erin was swearing; she threw the final Densecore stone, knocking the beetle flat on its back, and one of the birds tried to peck its stomach open. She didn’t understand. Why were the top predators of each area coming after her?

Ulvama got it too late. It was because it was her.

Fight or flight. When a monstrous animal sensed a dangerous competitor, it could run or flee. And Erin’s aura? It had alerted everything around her. Animals that loved magic or needed it to survive might well seek her out because of what they sensed.

Fight me. I am your death.

The [Innkeeper] was broadcasting her intent to kill them, like she was still at sea, knife in hand. She was an expert in auras.

Not a master. A master like Magnolia Reinhart would make a subtle distinction between ‘don’t mess with me’ and ‘I will murder you’. Even Niers Astoragon, self-professed amateur, knew the distinction between that.

With one, you had a choice to run away. With the other, you fought or were hunted down. Mind you—Erin paused as she stood at the entrance to the termite hive.

“My [Dangersense] is going off. Big drums. Get ready.”

Ready for what? The filthwobbler? How much worse can it get?

Ulvama shrieked at her. Erin’s head rotated.

Mind you—some things didn’t care how tough you were. They just came when they heard there was a fight.

That meant food.




One of the Wailer Frogs trying to inhale and deafen everything in earshot saw the movement from the forests first. It turned, and its bulbous eyes registered the threat. It began to croak—changed its mind—and began to hop away as fast as it could.

They caught it after the sixth hop and it bit, frantically, then tried to inhale, but they were all over it. In its mouth, ignoring it biting and swallowing them, in its eyes—hundreds. Thousands of large, brightly red, colored—


“Army ants. Oh no.”

Erin spoke. Ulvama was just staring in horror at the first Wailer Frog who vanished under a cloud of ants. The mysterious threat of the jungle unveiled itself in a rushing wave, more terrifying than water. They covered the Wailer Frog, and it died in ten seconds. The Aurmak birds, the Wailer Frogs, the beetle, and the battle hamster whirled.

Then they ran for it. Or rather, tried to.

The frogs didn’t have a chance. One began wailing, but the ants just crawled over the frog, silencing it. The ants were so fast—Erin swallowed. Yet she was not afraid as she could be. For Ulvama?

Oh, yes.

“Magical army ants. Oh my—stars.”

They could accelerate. And jump. One of the Aurmak birds trying to get off the ground was a second too slow; ants leapt from a ledge onto the bird, covering it. Its mate dove, slamming its wings into the ground, but the first bird stopped flying, fell, covered in ants, and the other one flew, shaking off ants biting it.


The beetle and hamster tried to race away, but from the termite’s nest, Erin saw the ground moving like a vast, sentient ocean. She realized—the ants already had them half encircled.

“The trees are moving. Are these ants? Ants?

Ulvama was petrified. She had never seen army ants. Erin? Erin had watched enough natural history channels to know just how dead they were.

“Up! Up! Don’t let them swarm you or you’re dead! They can strip a cow in sixty seconds!”

How do you know that? They’re everywhere!”

Ulvama shrieked at her. Erin was too busy looking for somewhere safe. The termite nest…no wonder they hadn’t seen any!

This army ant colony had slaughtered them all. Even as Erin watched, the beetle broke away from flying towards the forest—Erin saw a bunch of purple things leaping from a tree.

“Oh, that’s not fair.”

When she looked down, she saw a wave of purple overtaking the red. Here came the magic ones. They sped up, bodies glowing in bursts, with gigantic heads.

Army ants were all head. Giant mandibles; they were like dogs to Erin and Ulvama. The fast ones shot at Erin. They could jump, too—one leapt, and she threw a punch.

Her fist crunched through its head, and goo splashed up her arm. Erin felt the first body slam into her—then pinchers bite.


She kicked one off, crushed another into the ground, and punched through another. They were a lot more fragile than the magical monsters or even a squirrel! Problem—

They covered her in a second. The ants became a biting, writhing mass a second before Ulvama blew fire over them. Then the ants were running in every direction, flaming until they collapsed.

“We’re going to die.”

“No, we’re not. Can you make a wall spell? We have to find somewhere they can’t swarm us.”

Ulvama looked around wildly. The only place she could imagine safety existed was the marsh. Or…

“Inside the hive! Until they dig in—they have to come through the tunnel!

She and Erin ran for the only natural cover: the walls where termite remains crunched under foot. The first wave of purple ants was fast, but the rest came on, and Erin could swear she heard the thrumming of so many moving.

When she heard skittering behind her, Erin stopped.

“Ulvama! Keep running!”

The Hobgoblin turned, but Erin halted and began punching and kicking the ants who tried to bring her down. They covered her, and she nearly fell over by the weight of them, but black flames began burning them, and her hands ripped mandibles off, punched through their weak carapaces—

Nothing like the Antinium. She was panting, trying to literally create a pile of corpses, when Erin heard a buzzing sound. She looked up—and an ant with a green carapace and brown mandibles did something weird.

Its mandibles buzzed, then it bit Erin and drew blood.


It hurt! Erin tossed it away, and another green one buzzed—she dodged. It jumped, and the mandibles blew a chunk out of the termite hive.

Could they bite through wood with that? If they could harm her—Erin saw more green ones coming. She ran.

The termite hive was vast, and the tunnels were big. Given the state of them, Erin thought they had been enlarged by the army ants destroying this nest. Ulvama stopped in the one place she could find: the nest of what had probably been the termite queen.

She had blockaded one entrance by ripping pieces of the nest apart when Erin ran into the chambers. The hive was thrumming, and Ulvama whirled.


The [Innkeeper] was bleeding from her cheek and right leg. She panted.

“The green ones buzz. They’re dangerous. They’re—”

Right behind her. She whirled, and Ulvama screamed as the ants tried to flood her nearly-barricaded tunnel. They burst through the wood, and Erin leapt for her.


A huge, red beetle smashed all the army ants in front of it to paste. It charged through the tunnel and Ulvama’s barricade, and shook ants off it. It whirled—Erin reflexively raised her fists. Then she noticed another shape behind her.

Something was fighting through a swarm of ants behind her. Erin stared—and a badly-bitten hamster kicked a buzzing green ant’s head off its body and leapt into the only chamber not covered in ants.

When it spotted Erin, it almost attacked her, and the Corumdon beetle clacked its mandibles. Erin inhaled—and the other two creatures tensed—and Ulvama smashed her thorn spear down.

[Shaman’s Orders]! Stop fighting! You idiots—work together or die!”

Erin stopped mid-inhale. She didn’t know if the beetle got it, or the hamster, but the press of angry ants coming at them probably decided the two, Ulvama or not.

Kill each other now or later—they were all going to die if these things swarmed them. Ulvama, at the rear, planted her thorn-staff on the ground.

“Erin—[Bloodfury]! Hamster—[Lion’s Strength]! Beetle—[Stone Shell]! [Lava Orb]!”

She threw a ball of lava that splashed across one of the entrances, and ants running into the lava splayed out in agony as they melted. The beetle snapped, killing dozens of army ants with each sweep of its mandibles, ramming forwards and crushing them to pieces. Erin and the battle hamster punched and crushed the ants—

But there were way too many. One of the green ones buried its vibrating mandibles in the beetle’s back, cracking the shell that even Erin had failed to mar. Ulvama shrieked as an ant took a chunk out of her leg. The battle hamster was a bloody mess, and Erin?

The fifth green ant to strike her tore flesh off from her arm. She looked around as Ulvama hid behind the beetle, which had retreated to a corner of the room and was now snapping defensively, ants pressing in from all sides. The hamster was on its back, kicking and punching off ants crawling up it.

And Erin? Erin looked around and wondered if this was how she died. Surrounded by army ants. A Level 55 [Innkeeper]—her eyes roamed the anthill.

“I get it. I get it. There’s nothing here. Even the green ones…they’re not Antinium. It’s just you. Just you. I know where you are. I’ll kill you—I kill everything.”

Black flames were beginning to burn across the floor around her. Even the ants throwing themselves at the others in a rush began to back away as their friends burned.

Erin, we have to go!

Ulvama screamed at her. She was trying to escape. Erin turned.

“Run, Ulvama. I’ll kill her.”

Who? The Goblin shouted, but Erin was walking now, tilting her head. She was bleeding—but now she saw it.

“You were following me this entire time. Now I see you.”

The [Innkeeper] stumbled forwards. Laughing and staring at—something. Muttering a dark spell that made the flames burn higher. Black and filled with her hate.

By the twitching of my eyes, so shall you die.




“—There! Right there! Do it!”

Ulvama was pointing at a wall, shouting at the battle hamster and beetle. The beetle was making a final stand, attacking left and right in a blur as she cast [Speed] on it. The hamster? The hamster was winding up.

“[Lion’s Strength]. [Bloodfury]—now!

The hamster jumped, twisted its body up like a corkscrew—and kicked. The section of the termite nest that Ulvama had pointed to exploded as the spot she’d weakened with flame and ice spells received the kick.

With me! Run! Erin! Erin?

The Corumdon beetle turned, and Ulvama and the hamster clung to its back. She tried to make it turn—but there were black flames everywhere behind her, and Erin—

The beetle buzzed out into the night as, below it, the entire area was covered in writhing army ants. Ulvama shouted.


The beetle was juking left and right, dodging ants who actually climbed up into the trees to leap at it; it was trying to find a safe spot, but circled the cleared ground around the termite’s nest. Ulvama stared down at the anthill in horror. Then she, the hamster, and beetle saw a flickering flame.

“It’s on fire.”

Black flames had engulfed the entire nest. Even the army ants were fleeing the blaze. Ulvama saw more light—a dark one that seemed to be both vibrant and darker than the growing night—flaring in front of the termite nest.

“Erin. There—there!

Ulvama pointed, and the beetle buzzed down. The [Innkeeper] was heading towards something on the ground. When Ulvama cast [Eagle’s Eyes], she gasped in horror.

Erin was covered in blood. She was limping as ants, green ants, tried to bite her in half. But she kept throwing her fire of hatred at them. She was cutting a path through the sea of insects. Was she—


She was hunting something down. Ulvama saw a mound of ants ahead of Erin, protectively grouped up. A third kind of ant, with ominous white heads, three times as large as the others, were guarding something trying to crawl away from Erin.

The queen of this colony. The [Innkeeper] was making her way towards it. And now, as Ulvama flew lower, she heard Erin screaming.

Come on! You want me? I’ll kill you. I’ll kill the gods—just like I killed the [Slavers]. Everything and anything in this world. Do you think I’m afraid?

She ripped an ant’s mandibles off its face. Erin exhaled, and the white ants charging her became a wave of immolating bodies. She staggered, gasped for air.

—A wave of ants poured down on her, exposing the largest ant of them all. A gigantic, bloated queen, surrounded by her unborn eggs, literally carried by the other ants. Erin pointed at her.

“I am going to kill you. I swear—”

She staggered. Tore off a green ant who had buried its mandibles in her flesh. A white ant knocked her down—then curled up and began to burn as black flames overtook it. When Erin got up—she looked up, then down at her hands.

“My heart has a crack in it.”

The fury in the [Innkeeper] vanished a second. She looked sick—then she began swaying. The queen of this colony of magical army ants watched, unmoving save for the twitching antennae, as ants tried to pour over the burning [Innkeeper].

There was a crack across Erin’s face. The most hairline of fractures. Thinner than any cut—for a second, Erin felt at her face and recoiled.

Mandibles? Her eyes—they blinked, and she held up her hands.

“Get away. That’s mine. That’s my…”

She inhaled again, to breathe more hatred into the world, and fell onto one knee. A pair of white ants grabbed her—but rather than bite—they began dragging her towards the queen ant.

The large magical ant began to crawl towards Erin, over the bodies of her subjects. Ignoring the danger of the fire—hungrily—the entire colony of army ants thrummed, their magical heads glowing. As if something important might happen.

The [Innkeeper] was struggling to resist—and the queen ant reached out an exploratory feeler. Erin was bleeding, injured, in pain from her former wounds and exhaustion. There were feelers growing from her head, and the ant queen was doing something to her.

—But then she began to rise. And the army ants recoiled, and the queen of the ants froze. Blood was spilling from Erin’s mouth. Blood turned black with flames. Her eyes were filling with blood, and when she smiled—

“You can’t kill me. I’ll win each time. No matter what it costs.”

She was rising as army ants tried to drag her back. Erin’s body was jerking. There was a hum in the air; her feet began to trace over the ground as if she was dancing. Flames burning on her body like a profane sacrifice. Erin reached out—

And Ulvama screamed.

“[Flame Strike]!”

A pillar of fire bathed the army ants’ queen in flames. Ordinary, magical flame, struck the earth, knocking Erin off her feet. She landed on her back, stunned, and the mad stare turned to one of shock.


Above! The Goblin was in the skies! Another jet of flames shot downwards, hitting the army ant queen and engulfing her in a vortex of light.

The ants around the queen buzzed in agony, trying to protect their leader. Her bodyguards threw themselves in front of the flames as the queen recoiled in agony. The army of angry ants buzzed—

—And the Corumdon Beetle landed. The queen of the army ants beheld a furious pair of mandibles. Then Ulvama heard a crackling sound.

The beetle snipped the army ant queen’s head off her body, and the [Shaman] felt all the ants around Erin convulse in agony. They began going insane. Ulvama planted her staff, drew on her magic, and threw out a hand.

“[Berserk Wave]! Erin!

She charged over, grabbed Erin, hoisted the [Innkeeper] onto her back, and ran. The beetle and hamster were fighting, but confused; every ant around them had suddenly turned on each other in a killing frenzy.

“Fly! Fly, you stupid beetle!”

Ulvama dragged herself on board the beetle’s back, and then they were airborne. It flew, no longer in danger of the ants leaping from the trees; they were engaged in a massive civil war.


Erin was covered in soot and blood, but as Ulvama frantically poured water on her, it revealed that most of it was ant blood, not her own. She was still choking for air—Ulvama had seen Drakes like that.

“Breathe. In. Out. We’re getting you to safety. We killed the queen.”

You did?”

The [Innkeeper] seemed incredulous. Ulvama stared at Erin. Soot had left black trails down her face. Tears?

She held Erin tightly.

“Yes. You’re safe. Stop—stop fighting. Okay?”

[The Wandering Innkeeper] panted. She closed her eyes and went limp. Below and behind them, Ulvama saw the black flames spreading over the ground, engulfing the remains of the termite anthill dying out. She turned her head—the buzzing beetle was letting them sit on its head as it flew. But it was a dangerous, precarious ride. Ulvama realized it wasn’t just the beetle’s flight; it was actually a fairly steady flier.

It was the shaking. Erin looked up, and the battle hamster was as far away on the small amount of ground as could be. It was doing that hopping motion on its feet, even now. And she realized—

“It’s shaking. Is it scared? Of me?”

She looked up blankly. For answer, Ulvama just wiped at Erin’s face and tried to bind some of the bites. The Hobgoblin looked back. The only thing she could think to ask was—

“What was the ant queen doing? Your face—”

Erin passed a hand over her features. The crack was gone. But she whispered, her voice croaking.

“I think it was after my soul. There’s a crack in it.”

Then she passed out.



Day 10


When Erin woke up, she found Ulvama bandaging the hamster’s arm. Every time the [Shaman] moved the injured arm, the hamster would bite at her.

“Stop. Bad. I am helping you.”

Ulvama would stop, scold the hamster, and keep making the sling. It was such a strange sight that Erin watched for a while, lying in a leaf bed. Then she saw something big and red move.

The Corumdon beetle was snacking on a tree. Tearing strips of bark away—when it noticed Erin, it backed away from her. But Ulvama just patted it on the head.


She turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] gave her a stupid look. Which was preferable to her expression of yesterday. Ulvama jerked her thumb at her chest.

“I tamed them.”


The [Shaman] slapped her chest.

“I tamed them! See? You. Give those acorns.”

She pointed at the battle hamster and a pile of acorns ‘liberated’ from a nearby rodent. The hamster ignored Ulvama. After a few seconds, Ulvama went and picked up an acorn. The hamster tried to bite her—she and it slapped at each other for a few seconds, and she yanked the acorn away and brought it over to Erin, panting.

“See? Tamed.”

It looked more like a weird truce than anything, or just a cessation of hostilities. Both beetle and hamster hid behind Ulvama when Erin got up, or tried to. However, they didn’t seem to want to fight.

“Be nice to them. Don’t be scary.”

“I’m not scary. Are the ants…”

“Dead. Or making a new queen. We’re safe. You just rest, okay? I will get food. You—more nuts. You—firewood.”

The beetle went back to eating the tree. The hamster went back to cracking nuts. After a while, Ulvama gathered the fallen bark and acorns and gave Erin a proud look.

Was this what being a [Shaman] was? If so, she was shamaning well. Erin lay there. She didn’t say anything for a while.

“I think I went crazy back there, Ulvama.”

“You ‘think’?”

Ulvama gently put some wet leaves on Erin’s forehead. She looked at Erin, and without a word, Erin explained.

“It was my aura. It alerted all of the animals, didn’t it?”

“Mhm. Big scary thing comes, and some fight. Even team up. Sort of.”

Erin tried to nod, and it hurt too bad, but Ulvama was gently wiping at her injuries. She’d bandaged all the bites, and Erin had been hurt—but again, not as badly as one might expect. Even the green ants hadn’t done enough to slow her down. A colony of army ants was no match for her. But what she had nearly done…Erin rasped.

“The ants were different. That ant queen—I think she sensed what was wrong with me. There’s a…a line in my soul. Visophecin left it, Ulvama.”

The [Shaman] inhaled, looking worried.

“I didn’t see. In your soul? That’s big magic. Bad. Very bad.”

Erin recalled the mandibles and antennae and touched her face—but realized whatever changes had undone themselves already. She let her arms fall limp.

“I know. I almost—she wanted to do something to me. So I joined her. Or she became a bit of me. I went a bit crazy when I tried to kill her.”

“Just a bit.”

Erin’s hands trembled as she tried to stare at them. She had almost…

She’d known she’d win. If she sacrificed enough. Her flesh. Her health. An arm. She’d known she’d win, but she hadn’t counted the cost.

Ulvama had. The [Shaman] had saved her. Now, Ulvama looked down at Erin.

“Don’t do that again. Even if you’re stronger than me—I was frightened when I was alone, Erin. When you appeared, I was so happy. I want to go home.”

The Hobgoblin touched Erin’s nose with one finger.

“I want to be safe. I’m terrified of this stupid jungle. But I want to escape it with a person. Not with a wild monster protecting me. Understand?”

Erin could barely nod. Ulvama patted her on the head. After a moment, Erin whispered.

“Thank you, Ulvama. I’m sorry.”

The [Shaman] was humming. She didn’t look at Erin’s face as the young woman began to shake. Gently, softly, humming a tune Erin didn’t know, Ulvama wiped at her face.

“For what? You’re still bleeding. There, there. It’s going to be okay.”

The [Innkeeper]’s throat hurt. Her eyes stung. She began trembling harder. Her voice broke, and she whispered.

“I don’t—Ulvama? I don’t think I’m well. I don’t think I’ve been okay for a while. I think I’m still fighting on the ships.”

Ulvama sat next to Erin, gently patting Erin’s arm and looking down at her. At last, the [Shaman] smiled.

“Maybe. But you’ll get better. I promise. That’s why I’m here.”

“I’m still ablaze with flames. I’m trying to keep you safe.”

“I know. It’s going to be okay, Erin. We’re alive.”

Erin reached out, and Ulvama took her hand. The [Innkeeper] squeezed, weak as a mouse. She whispered.

“Thanks, Ulvama.”




When Erin woke up again, she could at least get up to pee and eat more roasted nuts. The battle hamster sat up when it saw Erin. The beetle and Ulvama were competing for ‘biggest snore’. Well, the beetle might just have been flapping its wings as it slept.

Erin sat there, the hamster eying her, and looked at her hands. She couldn’t spot the flames of hatred. But the invisible flames…when she looked at the hamster, it was staring at her, as if trying to see where its enemy had gone.

“Was it just me? Did I cause all my problems?”

It curled up and lay there, and Erin realized since it had lost most of its fur, Ulvama had made another leaf-blanket for it. In silence, Erin sat there and thought. Then she reached for the only thing she had.




“Well, well. You look terrible.”

Erin stared at herself, and her mirror showed her that her hair was now black with soot, despite Ulvama’s best efforts. Her clothing was scorched; she looked like what she had always been. It was just that her appearance was finally catching up with what was inside.

“I don’t think…I’m well, Pavilion of Secrets.”

The other Erin rattled some dice around in a cup.

“No. Took you long enough.”

Erin sat down heavily.

“Are you here to help me?”

“You’re here to help yourself. Or harm yourself. What shall it be?”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] waited. Erin thought about names. And people. And secrets.

She had an idea. It was crazy, stupid, but she could try. She might not have a day ago. But now? She was tired. She needed help. Not just ‘they’, as in her and Ulvama.

She. So, after a while, Erin’s lips moved, and she rasped.

“Can you…can you find someone for me? I don’t know their name.”

Erin Solstice sat up slightly, and the dice stopped rattling.

“Go on. You know the price, don’t you?”

There was always a cost. In this case? It was from her to her, so Erin had to be honest. The [Innkeeper] looked at the empty void. Her lips moved.

“Ulvama. I have to take care of her. If it was me, I’d say I deserve all of this. If it was me—but it’s not.”

She looked at herself, and the other Erin stared back without mercy, just waiting. She knew what the [Innkeeper] would say. But Erin had to still articulate it.

“I’ve been punishing myself. You know it. I know it.”

No response. The other her just waited, and [The Wandering Innkeeper] knew she had to say it all.

“—And I didn’t want anyone to find me. I didn’t want to go back and start it all again. I thought I was…wasn’t fine, but at least strong enough to protect Ulvama. I’m not. I’m not okay. I need help.”

Was it blood or a tear that ran from one eye? Her reflection looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] finished, leaning on the chess board.

“So. Please. Can you find someone? I don’t know their name. I don’t know their location. I don’t know who they are. Find me—the closest person to me besides Ulvama who can help. Please.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Erin was afraid to look. But when she opened her gaze—she swore she saw herself smiling. Then? A rather bewildered-looking man with a battered, dirty vest of silk or something, muddied by nature, exposing weathered, muscled shoulders and callused knuckles was sitting there.

“…Ye called for me? What the heck is wrong with your everything, miss?”

He gave Erin a dubious look, as if annoyed at being summoned. Then he took in her face. He stared at the tear running down her cheek, leaned forwards, and his face grew intent.

“Someone messing you around? You need a hand? I’m good at beating up problems. Just say who’re what. Long as it’s somewhere I can run to.”

She stared at him until he reached out and brushed at her wet cheeks. When he offered her his callused grip. And at last, Erin Solstice smiled.

“Well, first off. I’m lost.”

His eyebrows rose.

“You don’t say.”




That morning, an [Innkeeper] went back to eating nuts and sitting by a fire. And a ways away—someone taking a nap in a hammock he’d set up along the top of a wooden wall jerked—fell out of his post, and shot to his feet.

He looked around, felt at his dirty spider silk vest, raised his fists—spun—then whistled. He stopped, rubbed at his eyes, then leapt from the top of the wall. He fell, a dozen times his height, and landed without fear of the ground.

He was, of course—a Fraerling. And he whistled.

Hey! Rally everyone up! We’ve got some lost people around here! Somewhere down past the coast n’ Drowned Elf Marsh!

Somewhere far, in the distance, an [Innkeeper] exhaled and closed her eyes in relief.



[Shaman of the Old Ways Level 38!]

[Skill – Boss Around Wildlife obtained!]

[Skill – Masterful Holder Rune (1) obtained!]

[Spell – Earthshape learned!]




Author’s Note:

This was a triumph.

I’m making a note here: ‘huge success’.

It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.

pirateaba writing: ‘We do what we can, because we feel like it’.

For the good of the story and the readers and me (except if I die).

But there’s no sense crying over dead abas.

You just keep trying until you run out of words.


This is a Portal reference.

I wrote a lot. I know what I said. Shush. 30k per week. But hear me out: I wrote one monumental chapter. Not two.

Consider how this would have worked if I had done this on my usual schedule. I would have written a titanic chapter and either had to take off an update, or finished writing and posting this one and started writing the next day.

Instead, let me break down my week. I had a day to plan out this chapter—and I did. I pre-wrote some scenes, and I streamed on two days. I even had one more extra, but as it happened, I had to edit all of Book 13 for typos so Podium could record it and.

And instead of doing that on a writing work day, I took a day to do that, and it was great. Now, obviously, this was still probably more work than I want to do; the reason is that I’m adjusting to my new schedule, but also, it was a big Erin chapter. I had a lot of fun writing most of it. Some parts I got tired, but my hope is this isn’t the norm.

Over the next few weeks and months my plan is to take this time to do mandatory other work like fixing The Last Tide 2, which has languished too long, regain energy, and work on side projects or just improve the writing.

Either way—I’m not unhappy about this new schedule. This is a triumph.


Cara bella, cara mia scivere!

Mia bambina, oh mano!

Ch’ella stima!

Ch’ella stima!

O cara mano mia, addio!


(This is another Portal reference. See you next chapter. The sillier I get the better. Probably.)



Stream Art: The Pavilion of Secrets Erin by ArtsyNada!

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