10.18 E – The Wandering Inn

10.18 E

[Trigger warning for this chapter. Click here for details.]

 

<I am taking my monthly break! I will be back on the 29th!>

 

(The Witch of Webs, Book 12 of The Wandering Inn, is out now! The rewritten version with changes to the [Witch] arc should be up on the site soon!)

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

https://www.amazon.com/Witch-Webs-Book-Wandering-Inn-ebook/dp/B0CW1JYNM6

 

 

 

 

“Explorer’s log. Day 2 , Month 1, uh…hey. Whatsit now?”

Someone fiddled with a pencil as they stood on blackened soil. They were inspecting a small mountain of burned rubble, for all intents and purposes. Little acrid balls of crumbling ash dotted the landscape around for hundreds of feet, and to get here, the woman had had to bushwack for hours after drop off.

“I reckon it’s thirty-nine fifty-eight…two?”

Someone called up from below, muffled, with that vague uncertainty of someone providing an answer that they thought was correct and absolutely wouldn’t stand behind if there were consequences. A figure came climbing up from the base of the ruined hill, emerging from the darkness below. They pulled back a mask, and their voice became more clear. The woman frowned at her journal.

“Can’t be. Ah, thought that was last year.”

“Write three, then. Don’t you have the date’ve last year? Just check yesterday.”

The woman grumpily raised her pencil.

“I just got this new journal. If ah get it wrong, ah’m gonna have to go back and rewrite all my entries. S’not like I’m rechecking every day.”

“Not my fault if yeh can’t remember.”

“Fine.”

Explorer’s log. 2/1/39583. That final digit annoyed the heck out of her, even though she knew it went up linearly. It was just that you’d think someone would come up with a handier dating system. But then, they did, and it was all ‘circa 203 in the Year of Euppa the Naga-King’ or something like that.

The woman kept writing, dictating her words largely to herself.

“Journal log. We’re at that spot what Eurise mentioned. Looks like a fecking mess. Entire place is burned to heck and back. The nest is—anything living down there, Midias?”

Nope! Just a lotta bodies. Smells like blood and ash. All of them ant bodies. Biggins.”

“Same as the ones we hacked up getting here?”

The Fraerling woman frowned. She leaned over the edge of the termite nest, peering down into the depths, and for answer, her companion tossed a head up at her.

It was big, belonging to one of the soldier-ants with brown mandibles. The woman recoiled and punched it out of the air.

Hah! Gotcha, Roja!

Roja, or Rojalin, uttered a stream of invectives down at the younger Fraerling. He was a kid to her; old enough to be sent on expeditions, but still green.

“You lil’ anteater. Eat this!”

She did a hop, jumping up nearly a foot in height and coming down a lot faster than she’d gone up.

Wait, nononono—

Krumph. The entire wall of the burnt termite nest cracked, releasing soot upwards in a cloud, then collapsed, burying the hive. Roja caught herself, leapt to safety, and strode down the hill in satisfaction and kept writing.

burned with no sign of survivors ‘scept the ants. Same ones as last journal entry. Looks like this is where they got done in.”

She wondered if there was evidence their queen had died here. If so—she doubted it. The lumps of ash on the ground were the exoskeletons of the ants. They remained as crumbling mounds, but the bodies had been burnt away.

All that was left was a few of the hardest elements of the ants. Pincers too badly damaged to salvage. Which was a shame. Roja kicked at one and sighed. She wrote a final note in the journal as cracking echoed from the dead termite nest behind her.

“Damn shame about the pincers. Might’ve been good as climbing picks. Someone started a real nasty fire. No sign of Eurise’s girl. Notifying home.”

She closed the journal with a snap, and the ground heaved and a Fraerling burst from it, panting and swearing.

Roja, you monster! You buried me alive!

“Don’t throw heads at me. Ain’t my fault you started it. Signal back to Eurise; his weird girl an’ her friend ain’t here.”

“Whatabout trails or stuff?”

“Do you see any around here?”

Roja waved a hand at the fire-blackened landscape. Midias had to concede that there were unlikely to be footprints. Sighing, he pulled some things out of his backpack and began to place them on the ground.

“Is it double circle left and together for ‘not found’?”

“Yep.”

He had a series of stones on the ground, each marked with a numeral. I, II, III, and so on. Carefully and quickly, Midias placed them in a pattern with I in the center and II and III above and below it. Then he did a quick rotation of the stones around the center one, once, twice, and clumped them all together.

After that, the Fraerling waited. He didn’t have long. The lodestones sat there—until someone moved them from the other side. Then they unclasped and formed a triangle, which split and circled III. The boy frowned as Roja watched with one eye open.

“They’re saying…uh…keep going? Eastabouts?”

“Back the way we came. Yep. Damn. Eurise’s got an aphid up his ass about this.”

Roja sighed and swore. The lodestone signals being received so fast meant someone was on them right now, which told her how mobile the entire village was.

“We don’t need this.”

“Even if kin are lost somewhere around here?”

Midias was uncertain as Roja began to plot a route back the way they’d come. She glowered at him.

“If they’re lost but they can ‘port a message into Eurise’s head, they can be more specific about where the Gnome they are. We don’t have time for this with those bastards raiding us. They got sixteen of the flock in Tauwnerst.”

“Damn. Sixteen? Those rabbit rustlers?”

Midias hadn’t heard about that. Roja put a finger to her lips.

“You keep it quiet. No one wants a damn fight between villages. Come on, let’s hit high ground by midday and see if we can pick up any smoke or signals. Eurise says they should be heading east.”

“I still think it’s something. Imagine where they might be from! Maybe as many as fifty Tallfolk miles away.”

“Maybe.”

The young Fraerling strode after Roja as she leapt nimbly from the termite anthill and began jogging towards a rise of cliffs to the east. Both Fraerlings kept their heads on a swivel. Left, right, up—down was always a threat too, but both were used to noticing the vibrations in the earth before something jumped out.

And anyways, if a trapdoor spider leapt out to try and get both, it’d get Roja’s boot up its spinner right quick. Both were capable of surviving the wilds on their own; Midias had been passed by Eurise as capable of surviving outside of home for a month.

Roja didn’t reply at first to Midias’ comment about how far the lost two ‘kin’ were. In truth, she’d pushed hard to get this far out and had been the first to reach this spot. But because she wasn’t some new scrub, Eurise had told her a bit more than the other explorers.

—Such as the fact that at least one’ve the ‘kin’ would have green skin, red eyes, and, yes, be six inches tall. But that meant that unless it was some weirdo from a city who really liked polymorphing magic, their bonds of species would be really in doubt.

The Fraerling [Bushwhacker] also didn’t really like how the one who had contacted Eurise had found him or how he couldn’t say how he knew all this, only that she was sending messages for help. Nevertheless, Roja sighed.

“Let’s see if we can spot evidence of their passin’. If we don’t have luck in two days, I reckon we’ll call in the brawling idiots.”

“Zemmy and Mera? Are they any good at finding people?”

“No, but I bet they’ll cause enough trouble to get half the jungle noticing them. They run into trouble. And it beats them tearing off after the rabbit-stealers.”

“True tha’.”

The two kept jogging as they reached the perimeter of the burned clearing. Roja unsheathed one of her machetes; the colorful army ant swarm was still about. They were largely leaderless, but she suspected they had to have at least one backup queen around.

At least whoever got ‘em here did us a favor. The swarm had been dicing up huge areas of the jungle and growing, and all the villages had been thinking of taking them on before they did too much damage or headed the villages’ way.

Two travellers far from home with accents Eurise had never heard before; not that that meant much. That was one thing.

A Goblin and a Human or another Fraerling? That was another.

A duo who could burn out a thousand feet of ground and kill ants tough enough to make Roja think twice about diving into a horde of them? Who was rescuing whom, now?

Well, maybe it’d provide a good distraction from the stupid rabbit-raids and infighting from the long winter. The Fraerling villages weren’t exactly always friendly, but they could get along when there was something interesting or dangerous happening. Even so, Roja had to wonder…

“Ain’t no way they have a giant beetle and one of the fighting hammies as pets.”

“They got what now?”

“No way.”

 

——

 

Erin Solstice woke up on the go, being bumped so many times that she had rolled into the corner of her ‘tent’. The velocity and natural curve to the ‘ground’ kept her there, squeezed into that crack in the tent.

For a while, she just lay there, bouncing every time the tent shook slightly. When Erin did crawl back up to the center of the tent, she saw the entire structure was shaking and swaying alarmingly.

Little sticks lashed together by lengths of grass rope swayed as the walls of bark and leaves shook. But amazingly, the entire tent stayed together, largely due to the power of glue, the knots that Erin had labored over, and the knowledge that if this tent fell again, Ulvama and Erin would burn all its offending pieces into ash.

There was a circle of light shining down on the red, flexing ‘ground’ underneath Erin as she rubbed at her eyes. She stared up and blinked.

“It’s day already? Whuzzat. Why’s it so late?”

The sky was bright blue and warm. Humid and, Erin presumed, buggy. But for now, she just heard the creaking, swaying tent move and a voice, a female one, just outside.

That must have been Ulvama. Erin got up, checking nothing had actually broken but her.

Everything on the ground had been shifted in the night, but since Erin and Ulvama were used to the problem, the only objectionable object that had rolled around in her sleep was Erin herself. Everything else was hanging up.

Little grass ropes let different objects jangle and bounce together, adding to the clatter. Everything from bowls to utensils—even the cookpot was actually where it had been.

Four long ropes, attached to support beams, kept it suspended at waist-height in the center of the tent. Erin sniffed hopefully, but if any breakfast had been in there—it was currently gone.

Wisely so, because the instant the ‘ground’ began to move, any breakfast would have probably landed on the slumbering Erin. Sighing, the [Innkeeper] looked around.

“Breakfast. Breakfast. Where’s…”

She prodded at some dried leek pieces and saw a bumping vessel of water lashed to one of the poles. They were out of meat, she knew, but they had to have…

“Where’s the nuts? Nut, nut, hmm—”

They should have had at least a dozen left. Erin checked the spot where they should have been hanging from a crude little wooden hook. All she had to do was punch a hole in the side of the acorn shell and it’d stay there, more or less.

There was not a single one, and Erin really doubted…her eyes narrowed as she had a thought. But before she could check, the ground heaved, and she lost her footing.

“Ow. Argh. Poop—”

Erin went bouncing back to roughly the same place she’d woken up and groaned. They were heading uphill, hence the sudden change in elevation. She crawled back up and punched the red flooring, but lightly.

She supposed she was just lucky that the Corumdon Beetle hadn’t decided to open its wings or roll over again. Or that she’d woken up before it had gone hunting for sap. She could hear its feet clicking over something on the ground. Rocks, probably.

Yes, that was correct. As Erin Solstice stumbled towards the entrance of the tent, she pushed open two leaf ‘doors’ and saw the ground moving below her as the tent, or rather, mobile tent on top of a giant beetle, ascended a cliffside.

Things had changed. A month ago, if you had told Erin she would be riding a giant red beetle instead of hiking from spot to spot, she would have said—‘that sounds pretty good, when can I start?’

But she would have had questions, like how she had gotten to that point. In truth, the [Innkeeper] still wasn’t quite sure how it had happened.

Bonds forged in battle and all that. But she distinctly recalled the giant Corumdon Beetle, the two-foot-long super-beetle, trying to kill her. As well as her other new companion.

Perhaps that had been a misunderstanding based on their fear of Erin as a kind of apex-predator. And sure, they had been forced to fight together to stave off an attack of super army-ants led by a soul-stealing queen ant.

But—

“Actually, that’s not the stupidest thing that’s ever happened to me. Or is it? Hey, Ulvama. Ulvama?

Erin stumbled out of the tent, clinging to the sides carefully so she didn’t fall off. The tent she and Ulvama had built covered the beetle’s entire back, so she had only a tiny amount of space to navigate around to the head, where she knew Ulvama was sitting.

When you got down to it, Erin supposed the Corumdon Beetle was actually pretty relaxed. Allowing Erin and Ulvama to literally construct a tent on its back without wanting to flip over or open its wings was pretty gracious. Along with carrying them to their destinations the last few days.

The beetle was a pretty relaxed beetle if you ignored the moments when it would literally fight Wailer Frogs to the death. It lived on a diet of sap by cracking tree bark open; given the beetle’s size, that was what it did almost all day. Sap and fruits.

Motivating the beetle was as simple as Ulvama discovering that it really liked one of Erin’s Colorful Fruits™, which was her name for a fruit that had twice as much color and, therefore, twice as much sugar and taste as a regular one.

Also, having little passengers on its back had benefits for the beetle. One of which was a giant fishing pole attached to its head, which was dangling something that the beetle would occasionally nip at with its mandibles.

One of the kiwi-type fruits, mostly rotten, still smelling, was bouncing along, and the beetle happily nibbled at it every now and then. Being able to eat on the go apparently pleased it, and it loved fruits that were past Erin’s and Ulvama’s tolerances.

The beetle and Erin were on decent terms, in short. They weren’t friends. He wasn’t Apista, and she wasn’t attached, but they could work together, Erin supposed.

However, the moment the [Innkeeper] rounded the tent’s edge and saw the other passenger sitting next to Ulvama, who was trying to mix up some new paint prototypes, she snapped. Her real annoyance was—

Aha! I knew it!

A furry figure and a Goblin whirled around, and instantly, the hamster got to its feet and raised its paws. Erin stomped forwards, scowling, and saw the hamster with one eye, slightly matted, tangled brown fur, waiting like a boxer in the ring for her approach.

The Battle Hamster was the second new companion for Erin and Ulvama. It was a fierce, oddly powerful rodent capable of what Erin called ‘rodent-fu’—Ulvama refused to call it that—and it was about as dangerous as the Corumdon Beetle.

However, the menacing mafia hamster, which lived by extorting other rodents out of their food, was a bit less threatening today.

Mostly because it had gigantic, puffed-out cheeks, which contained all of the nuts that were supposed to be Erin’s breakfast. She strode up to it, and the hamster warily tensed.

“You stole my nuts!”

The hamster didn’t reply. It just glowered at Erin, and she glared back. She knew from experience the Battle Hamster was winding up for one of its weird kicks that hurt like heck, [Aspect of the Inn: Reinforced Structure] or not.

However, before it moved, Ulvama leapt to her feet.

“Erin! You’re awake. Hamster, back.”

She fearlessly interposed herself between the hamster and Erin, and the two stopped bristling at each other. The hamster wiggled its face at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] pointed at it.

“Ulvama, it ate the nuts!”

“Yah, but it’s cute. See?”

Ulvama grinned and pinched at the hamster’s ridiculous cheeks. The hamster, accordingly, swatted at her arm, but she affectionately rubbed its head. Erin had no idea why Ulvama was so nice to the annoying thing. They weren’t buddies. She and the hamster knew they weren’t buddies.

“It’s got my breakfast is what it has. Now they’ll be covered in hamster drool!”

Erin complained, and Ulvama fished around at her side.

“I thought of that. Here. Have this.”

To Erin’s delight, she pulled out what turned out to be half of the salamander tail she must have cooked for breakfast wrapped in leaves. Erin took it and sat down after a moment. The hamster loomed over her until Ulvama tsked at it.

“You, sit there. Sit!”

She tried to force it down with all her weight, but the hamster just got onto all fours and deliberately moved into where Ulvama had sat and lay down. It seemed to be smugly smirking at Erin, who bit a chunk of lizard meat off as she glared at it.

Ulvama squeezed between the two to keep peace, but kept smiling as she put an arm around Erin’s shoulder and another on the hamster’s back.

“There. See? All is good. How—how was your sleep, Erin?”

She and the hamster gave Erin a side-eye, and the [Innkeeper] yawned. She scratched at her side.

“Uh…good? I was out a long time, huh. What time is it?”

“Almost noon.”

Noon?

Erin leapt to her feet and nearly fell off the beetle’s head. Ulvama grabbed her legs, and Erin lost half her breakfast—cursing, she pulled herself upright and saw the hamster had grabbed Ulvama’s shoulder to pull her back.

“Damn. My breakfast! Eh, I wasn’t that hungry.”

Erin sighed and sat back down. Ulvama eyed her as the beetle clacked its mandibles beneath them. Whether it was listening to her or not—she patted its head.

“We can make more. We have to stop and get more food anyways. You didn’t miss much. Hamster and I were just making more paint. See?”

She had an empty acorn shell as a bowl and a bunch of dust from the campfires she was mixing with water to form the basis of a crude paste. With the help of clay, Ulvama had gotten a decent orange.

“Is that, uh—is that going to be useful for your magic?”

Ulvama made a face.

“If you put more colors into it—maybe. I was showing the hamster my power. So it obeys me. See?”

Now, Erin could make out faint markings on the hamster’s white underbelly. It looked a bit grumpy as it brushed at the paint, but it did listen to Ulvama.

More or less. Erin saw the familiar whorls of Ulvama’s shamanic magic—but she grinned as she bit into another piece of lizard meat.

“What’s that symbol for?”

Ulvama turned red as Erin pointed at a little smiley face drawn on the hamster’s belly. The Battle Hamster seemed to sense Erin’s amusement and began to furiously scrub at the markings as Erin snrked with amusement.

“That is to make it happier! It might not have worked.”

The hamster spat out one of the acorns it had swallowed and used it to rub its fur in a remarkable display of ingenuity. Ulvama groaned and tried to stop it from erasing all the magic.

“No! No, stop! That one makes you jump higher! See? You keep that one—beetle! Beetle, we’re stopping soon! Find a good spot for food!”

She waved her arms, shouting at the two critters, and Erin felt the beetle slow a bit beneath them. How much either animal actually got she didn’t know, but she stared ahead and saw a lot of big, smoothed rocks on what looked like a rocky plateau.

They were high on a ridge of some kind, passing above the swamp below. It was the route that Erin had chosen that would lead them eastwards to Eurise and, in theory, help. They could have stayed put, of course, but Erin wasn’t sure if the army ants were following for revenge, and besides, moving made her and Ulvama feel like they were getting somewhere.

The rocks didn’t look like they had edible food; there were hundreds of thousands of them blanketing the ground, the result of some kind of geological activity to create the smooth gravel. Erin just bet there were nasty bugs down there, but she tapped the beetle’s head and slid down a bit to point.

“That way! Head down towards those trees over there, okay, buddy?”

The beetle obligingly changed direction, and Erin smiled at it. The hamster, meanwhile, had decided to start eating its nuts. It spat them up inside the tent and then came out with two saliva-covered ones, which it began to break open with its paws.

It glared at her. She glared at it. Ulvama brightly moved between the two again.

“Maybe we should make more pillows, Erin. So you don’t bump around all the time. Hamster is very good as a pillow, but he wakes up.”

Erin eyed the hamster balefully.

“He doesn’t let me sleep on him. And should we call him ‘hamster’ all the time? What about a name? Like Mr. Annoying. We could call the beetle, uh…Bob?”

Ulvama stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] tried again.

“Roy?”

“They are beetle and hamster. Do they need names? Maybe they have some already.”

“Greydamster of Paws?”

Ulvama snorted as she took a sip from a water flask. Erin smiled at the appalled look on the [Shaman]’s face, mingling hilarity and chagrin.

“Aha! That’s another Erin joke for the win! Six days in a row!”

“Is a bad joke. You keep telling it and it doesn’t get funnier.”

“Makes you laugh, though.”

The Hobgoblin shook her head in exasperation.

“Greydath is dangerous.”

The beetle climbed down towards an inviting patch of trees covered by moss that seemed to carpet everything. Ulvama found one of her spears, and Erin grinned as she checked for any noticeable threats. The hamster stuffed acorn bits into its mouth.

“Maybe it’s actually Greydath in disguise. What if Silvenia polymorphed him too? And that’d make the beetle—Nerry! Issat you, Nerry?”

Ulvama didn’t quite chuckle this time, but she rolled her eyes.

“If that happened—the hamster is Nerry. Greydath is too important to make fun of, Erin. And too dangerous. You know—that’s a good word for today. Greydath Pasai. Lord Greydath. Goblin Lord Greydath.”

“Oh, is that the word for Goblin Lord?”

Erin glanced up from her meal. It was the half a salamander tail they’d been eating the last three days, and it wasn’t really appealing to her; she’d lost half of the breakfast, yet only managed three cubes of meat. That was probably enough for anyone’s breakfast, so she tucked the other two pieces back in the leaves.

Ulvama frowned at that, but she glanced at Erin.

“Yep. We have words for ‘Chieftain’, ‘Lord’, and ‘King’. Different from…other species with same things. Greydath is one of the Goblin Lords. He…I…you should be a bit respectful.”

“I thought he blew up my tower. With Bird in it. And Rags doesn’t like him.”

Erin stood up as the beetle huffed towards the nearest tree. The hamster got up too; they all knew that once the beetle started devouring sap, it would be vertical and refuse to let go for a good hour at least.

Ulvama hesitated, and her voice lowered.

“I know. He is not kind. But I know of him from my first tribe. Molten Stone. And before them…he is a Goblin Lord among Goblin Lords.”

“…Not like the new ones. Right?”

Erin stopped for a second, and they had a moment where she was reminded of the wider world. Of Goblin Lords and the secrets of their kind—and Ulvama nodded.

“He is one of five I know of. From stories. Five old Goblin Lords.”

“One for each continent. Save Rhir. And the island of Goblins. Are you sure they’re all alive?”

Five Goblin Lords existing when the world had done its utmost to kill Greydath seemed improbable, but Ulvama was certain the one on the Isle of Goblins lived. The [Shaman] shrugged.

“Maybe. Greydath, yes. Izikere Pasai—yes. That is how it should be, Erin. Maybe not how it is. Greydath should stay on Izril. Maybe the ones on Chandrar, Terandria, and Baleros aren’t alive.”

“I can’t imagine the one on Terandria living long with all those jerks around.”

Erin grumbled. She saw the beetle climbing for a tree root and pointed.

“Hey, those look like some maybe-edible mushrooms. And the hamster’s already looking for nuts or people to rob. Take it easy on your poor victims, hamster-dude!”

She shook a fist at the hamster, who was indeed standing on his toes, craning his head to look for seed-bearing trees or rodents he could extort. He, of course, ignored her, and Erin tensed to leap down.

Ulvama jumped first, having learned it was hard to actually fall and hurt herself. She had a spear, bow, and pack to store all the food they wanted to put in the tent. She looked back as Erin grinned and did a hop.

“So tell me about the other Goblin Lords.”

That was what Erin said, or began to say. But midway through her leap onto the ground, something peculiar happened.

Erin felt a flash run through her head and suddenly felt lightheaded and unsure of—of—

She toppled off the beetle’s shell as Ulvama shouted and the Battle Hamster turned.

Erin!?

 

——

 

Ulvama saw the [Innkeeper] fall and leapt for her as Erin’s eyes rolled up in her head. She was a foot too far away and too slow—but the Battle Hamster wasn’t.

It darted forwards and squatted on all fours as Erin fell off the beetle’s shell. The stupid beetle didn’t notice at first, and Erin bounced off the hamster’s back and onto the ground.

Swearing in both languages she knew, Ulvama ran forwards.

“Beetle! Stop! Come back!

Alerted by the tone of her voice, the beetle stopped climbing the tree and turned. It saw Erin lying there, with the hamster sniffing her, and made a mistake.

It tried to fly at Ulvama instinctively, and the [Shaman] groaned as she heard its wings snapping the ropes that kept the tent anchored.

“No, nonono—aspat!

—There went the tent. It fell, and the beetle flew down at them, turned, saw the tent, and clacked its mandibles together.

Oops.

That didn’t matter right now. Ulvama bent down, feeling at Erin’s head, and the [Innkeeper] was already moving.

“Huh? Whuh—darn, I tripped.”

She sat up slowly, shaking her head, and visibly leaned over at the motion, as if the simple act had rotated her sense of gravity. Ulvama saw Erin’s eyes glance up.

“Hey, Ulvama. Sorry about that. I, uh—lost my balance.”

Erin grinned, looking embarrassed, and for a moment, Ulvama almost believed it. But she was a [Shaman], and she felt that slight presence about her that made her suspect Erin was using a Skill on her. Or her aura. Or her Erin-ness.

The [Shaman] grinned and patted Erin on the arm, pretending like it was working.

“You clumsy person. Look what the beetle did.”

That distracted Erin enough from Ulvama’s face, and the [Innkeeper] got up and covered her eyes.

“Aw. Aw. Dude, really?”

She looked at the beetle, who was, by now, shuffling all six of its legs around. Ulvama clenched one hand, then smiled and called out.

“Let’s fix tent later. Looks like we need more rope, Erin.”

“I just made some last time! Okay, what if I do the rope and you hunt for food?”

“Is good idea. Come on, hamster. And don’t trip any more, Erin!”

Ulvama hurried off towards the mushrooms with the hamster as Erin rolled her eyes and grumbled about beetles who couldn’t remember to stop flying. Ulvama rounded part of a tree, then peeked back at Erin. The hamster did likewise, and both saw Erin put a hand to her head after she had glanced around to make sure Ulvama was gone. She slowly sat down, and Ulvama bit her fingernails.

“She’s getting worse.”

Whether or not the Battle Hamster understood—it just regarded her, then raced up a tree after a flicker of movement, and an alarmed squirrel’s voice sounded from overhead. But Ulvama hadn’t missed how little Erin had eaten. Nor how long she was sleeping in.

The dizziness spells were new and not from hunger, she feared. The [Shaman] bent and began to inspect a mushroom, then brushed at her eyes. She had no time for that!

They had to find Erin’s help soon. Or she was afraid the [Innkeeper] wasn’t going to make it.

 

——

 

It took them two hours to get the tent back on the beetle’s back and load it up with scavenged food. During that time, Ulvama kept an eye on Erin and found reasons for Erin to do jobs that involved her sitting and using her color Skill, rather than moving about.

The beetle and hamster mostly secured their own food, but the beetle brought back a number of leaves and bark for Erin to repurpose, and even the hamster brought back two dozen large nuts that the two cracked and added to their supplies. A horde of very unhappy squirrels told Ulvama much extortion had been done.

Maybe the two animals understood what was wrong with Erin. Certainly, the hamster seemed to get something was off; the beetle was more simple in Ulvama’s estimation. What was wrong with Erin?

The diagnosis was simple, as Ulvama understood it. Lack of appetite, sleeping longer, dizziness, and lack of general coordination. On the first few days of riding the beetle, Erin had been surefooted. She was a [Dancer], someone who could fight on a moving ship without real issues; she was actually very coordinated naturally. The last few days, the stumbling had gotten pronounced.

It wasn’t hunger; that was one of the symptoms. Ulvama had eaten half that salamander’s tail for breakfast, a huge quantity proportional to her stomach, and she could eat a ton of food each day. That was a Fraerling’s constitution, Ulvama guessed; Erin could survive on a few bits of the lizard meat, but she should have had an appetite.

No, the cause was simple, and Ulvama had seen it before, albeit never so bad.

Mana poisoning. No, wait, mana overexposure.

Mana poisoning, where you drank too many mana potions, was actually far more survivable. Ogres as a species did it to improve themselves; they had practically distilled down to a science how much mana they could imbibe. That wouldn’t kill you, by and large, and the effects were a lot faster.

Overexposure to magical radiation…that was different. All those Tier 5+ spells that had come down during the war at sea had poisoned Erin. Perhaps Ulvama too, but Erin had been the target. The symptoms were obvious.

Her hair. Erin acted as if nothing were wrong, pushing the tent around with ease due to her [Lesser Strength], and she wore a cheerful expression as she joked along—but she forgot what she looked like.

Her light-brown hair, tinted a bit orange, was normally as plain and innocent as she was not; now, it seemed like color was leeching out of the hair, starting from her brows, counting the days she had been without help.

It had fallen out in chunks on the left side of her scalp, and Ulvama knew hair; some should have regrown by now, but it was just fuzz, less than a relative-inch long. When she smiled at Ulvama, it sometimes seemed like she was back on the ship. Still waiting for the moment the skies fell down.

Still, she didn’t complain. So Ulvama didn’t point out what was obvious to her. The Goblin just tried to keep Erin from exerting herself and hoped—hoped—they would find someone who could help.

She couldn’t. This was wildly outside her area of expertise. A broken bone, a fever, even parasites she could treat. They could have easily bled off an excess of magic. But what happened if your very skin seemed ready to dissolve from the damage it had taken?

There were only two things she could do: keep them moving and keep Erin fed and healthy as possible. That was why, after two hours, when they were sitting in the tent and making a stew for lunch, Ulvama broached the same subject she’d brought up more and more these last few weeks.

“Say, Erin. Maybe you should see if we’re on the right track with the Fraerling person.”

Erin paused. She stood over the suspended cooking pot and a small fire she had started in a well-anchored brazier. The beetle was very chill, but starting fires on its back was a faux pas, hence the cooking setup.

She was making a sap-nut-fat stew…which was better than it sounded. First, Erin took some of the fat they’d harvested and fried some of the nuts in it. When they had softened up, she added a bit of the sap the Corumdon Beetle had harvested, then filled the pot with dried fruits.

The mushrooms went on the side, and the two dipped the pieces of shrooms into the stew-stuff. There was a curious dissonance between the sweet lumps of fruit and sap that gelled with the fat and nuts, but if you focused on the deep-fried nuts, they were refreshingly crunchy and filling. Add in a mushroom and, if it wasn’t too moist, you could pretend it was a weird-tasting bread and enjoy the meal a bit.

Most of Erin’s guests would have sent this back to the kitchen, but it was filling, energy-packed food, which was what both knew they needed. Plus, the lack of sweet was how Erin seemed to prefer food these days.

The Battle Hamster, who had turned over his collection of nuts to the group stores, refused to even touch the mushrooms and grudgingly sniffed and nibbled at the stew. Erin paused as she raised a spoon to her lips.

Ulvama wasn’t eating right away. She was putting something on Erin’s arms, drawing sigils that flared to life, then turned dead and the ash-paint dried up. Ulvama would scrape it away into a bowl and toss it out the tent; Erin just tried to keep it from getting in her food.

“C’mon, Ulvama. The food’s getting cold. Do we have to do this…twice a day now?”

“Just a bit. Humor me. Almost done…”

Ulvama applied six more sigils, each of which sparked and went dead, and Erin sighed in relief as Ulvama took a bowl and helped herself to the food and ate with an appetite.

She wasn’t going to say it was a pain in the ass or ineffective…she definitely felt a tingling sensation every time Ulvama did it, but it did sometimes get annoying. And ticklish. She had forbidden Ulvama from doing more on her back. The Hobgoblin took a huge bite of soup and glanced at Erin.

“So how about talking to Eurise?”

“What, now?”

“Sure. Why not? Use the [Pavilion of Secrets]. It’s not like we have other things to do.”

“I dunno. Weren’t we gonna talk about Goblin Lords?”

Ulvama sighed.

“It’s not that interesting. Besides—what if we’re going the wrong way?”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t look quite convinced.

“I talked to him just yesterday. I don’t want to bother the guy. He said he’s searching as hard as he can.”

“What if he knows where we are? Big plateau. Filled with round rocks? Might help.”

Ulvama wheedled, and Erin shrugged.

“Okay. But if you need help navigating or something—”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll eat food. You, uh, go check where we are when you’re finished. The sooner we find Fraerlings, the sooner I can get a bath. With soap.

Ulvama made a show of scratching at her arms and wrinkling her nose at her improvised clothing. That seemed to work. Erin glanced at her and then grinned.

“Hey, luxuries are incoming! I promise. I’ll go bother him and fiddle with the [Pavilion] in a sec. Just don’t let the tent go off the beetle, got it? I’ll come back to make sure nothing happens, like a giant bug attack.”

“No bigger bugs than this one.”

Ulvama fondly patted the beetle’s shell, and Erin nodded. She began to chomp down her stew to Ulvama’s delight. After a few moments, the Goblin went to check on the ropes they’d anchored the tent with.

An interesting facet of Erin’s [Pavilion of Secrets] Skill was that if she activated it while riding something like the beetle, she would vanish—but reappear on the beetle’s back, so long as it was conceivable she wouldn’t have fallen off.

Ulvama supposed that was a way to make sure the Skill couldn’t let Erin, say, vanish from any ship in the world if she pleased and just reappear in the ocean. It did help a lot for the purposes of letting Erin experiment on the move.

When she came in from checking the sturdy bindings, Erin had already vanished. But the hamster was there, sniffing the stew pot.

“If you want to eat, go ahead.”

Ulvama checked Erin’s bowl, but it was empty. The Battle Hamster stared at her with one big, round eye.

She had no idea how smart it was. Ulvama had gotten a new Skill after the fight with the ants—well, multiple new Skills.

She hadn’t had much time or ability to experiment with [Earthshape] or [Masterful Holder Rune], both of which were very exciting, but [Boss Around Wildlife] was pretty clear in its uses.

It didn’t let her control wildlife, but she could bully or cajole; essentially, it was what she was good at. Still, the hamster was a hamster. It might have been as smart as a dog, but Ulvama squatted down.

“What? What do you want to say? [Flash of Insight].”

She cast a [Shaman]’s spell, and the hamster twitched slightly as she augmented its understanding of the world. The spell was supposed to be used to give Goblins a push in solving a problem—or a stubborn Hobgoblin to realize when they were in an intractable battle or making a mistake.

In this case, the hamster paused, then sniffed the stew pot. Then it crawled over, sniffed the bowl, and then looked at Ulvama.

The Hobgoblin’s heart sank. She checked the bowl, then mimed tossing it back in the pot. The hamster had no notion of nodding for yes or no, but it bumped the bowl with her hand.

“She has to eat.”

She sat down and put her head in her hands. Then—Ulvama felt the shaking coming on, and her eyes began to water. The hamster sat next to her, and she buried her face in its fur. After a few minutes, Ulvama got up.

“Hurry. Hurry. [Frantic Marching]! Beetle—run!”

She cast a spell, and the Corumdon Beetle took off, moving as fast as they dared, as they did every time Erin was asleep or vanished. Ulvama scanned the landscape, casting a spell to enhance her vision. For something. Anything.

Erin was running out of time.

 

——

 

Erin felt better in the [Pavilion of Secrets]. There she could stop and lean on an invisible wall in the hallway, and it didn’t matter if she fell a few times on the way to the gazebo; there was no real gravity here.

“I’m…okay. I can make it. Come on. Pull yourself together. Ulvama’s counting on you.”

The flashes of lightheadedness were getting worse. Every now and then, Erin would take a step and feel a shock run from head to toe. She’d never felt like that before. She knew she should eat, but she felt like she’d be violently sick if she ate more than a few bites.

Fainting off the beetle had been stupid. Erin leaned against the door she knew well, the one marked ‘bathroom’.

Her door, leading to herself or whomever she wanted to meet. The irony was that she hadn’t done much exploring of the [Pavilion of Secrets] during their long journey. Between working on the tent and communicating with the Fraerling, Eurise, she’d been pretty focused.

“I keep sleeping for, like, twelve hours? Longer? I feel so…tired, though. It’s gonna be fine. We’re almost there. I just need to find Eurise.”

And hope he has a [Healer] for…? Erin paused as her hand rested on the brass knob. As ever, she hesitated. Then she threw the door open, stepped through, and entered that room in the middle of nowhere.

But it was never empty. She was never alone in here. There was always someone else who sat across the chess board in that copy of the gazebo surrounded by pure infinity.

Erin Solstice met Erin Solstice’s eyes. The doppelganger was rattling around a cup with what sounded like dice inside. She glanced up, and Erin, the real Erin, brushed at her hair and realized more had fallen out. She felt at her cheeks, and her clone smiled with none of the exhaustion Erin felt.

“You’re not fooling Ulvama. She knows you’re dying as much as you do.”

Sometimes, her doppelganger seemed merely like a function of the pavilion. Sometimes, she’d unload a comment like that. And it always hurt.

Erin sat down, grateful for the chair, and rasped as she leaned on the table.

“I don’t get it. Are you supposed to ask me for personal truths or just facilitate the meetings here? Or are you here to try and torture me?”

“I’m here to show you what you’re like. I’m the mirror no one wants. As Sheta intended. If you want, I can be even more of you.”

The other Erin rolled out the dice from the cup, and the real Erin noted the roll—3 and 4. Rather disappointingly normal. Snake eyes, now that would have been appropriate.

“You mean I can meet me?”

“If you’d like.”

“How dangerous is that?”

“How dangerous are you?”

The real Erin resisted the urge to punch herself in the face. She snapped at her copy.

“Get me Eurise. I don’t have to keep paying a fee since I know his name, right?”

The not-Erin smiled, stood, and walked over to a door that had appeared behind her. She turned the knob and gave Erin a two-fingered salute.

“Nope. Enjoy.”

When the real Erin looked down at where the dice had been, they were gone. Grumbling, she folded her arms.

“Fricking Skill-based copies of me with know-it-all, omnipotent vibes. I’m not like that at all.”

She glared ahead at the closed door, and someone spoke behind her and to her right.

“Yeh say that, Miss. But from where I’m leanin’, yer pretty good at grabbing me even if I ain’t napping. Pretty omnisomething yourself.”

She whirled, and Eurise was there. The Fraerling she had met three weeks ago, hair greying but wearing a vest of dyed spidersilk and the same boots as before, as if he had slept in his clothing. He looked as civil as a man who wore apparel made out of insect secretions could be and as if he had beaten down half the jungle with his scarred hands.

Fraerling. Friend, or so Erin hoped.

She had called him into this room by requesting ‘someone who could help me’, the nearest candidate for the job. It had occurred to Erin in the time since that whether he would, or how much, was relative.

But he seemed like a good person, so maybe she’d gotten lucky. Eurise turned; he’d been staring out into the void.

“I never remember this place when I wake. That’s what’s disturbin’.”

He had an accent to his speech that truncated some of his words, and it was similar to some Erin had heard, but faintly different. The Fraerling walked over and sat himself down.

“What’s new, Miss Erin Solstice?”

He said that without a hint of recognition in his voice, for all she’d told him her name five days ago. That told Erin he didn’t have access to the news, or he was an exceptional actor.

“Uh—just checking in on where we are. We’re on this huge plateau of rocks. Little ones—well, little to a tall person. Round. Overlooking the swamp? Ulvama, my friend, thought we could get directions from there.”

Eurise folded his arms, closed his eyes, and thought.

“Rocky plateaus. Over Drowned Elf Swamp?”

“That’s right.”

He cracked one eye open.

“No idea where that is.”

Erin sighed.

“Darn. Thought so. We’re still heading east, I think. Is, uh—are you thinking we’re on the right trail?”

Eurise studied her face, and he sat up a bit.

“One’ve my people, Roja, found that termite nest you mentioned. I got a message saying you weren’t there.”

“Really?”

Erin’s heart leapt, and she sat forward. That meant they’d missed them! Eurise nodded and fiddled with the chessboard.

“Damn shame I can’t bring a map in here. Right, well, that means you’re on the right track towards us. Lotta ways to miss with the swamp and where we are, but it’s hopeful.”

“Are…are there smokestacks or something we could navigate towards? All we see when we stare out over the forest is a lotta trees. Those deadwood spires way back were helpful—”

“Speaking Spires. Yeah, we don’t have any near us. Nor smoke; leastways nothing you can see. We’ve gotta keep secret, y’know. Hm. Anything you’d see from above…”

The [Innkeeper] fidgeted in her chair as Eurise tried to think of any landmarks. She knew they had to be close, and a thought occurred to her. She hadn’t…used a lot of the [Pavilion of Secrets]’ features with Eurise, even the few she knew about.

She was cautious.

He seemed like a good man. At least, he’d offered to help the moment he saw her. But she didn’t know him. Not really. Their conversations had largely been about where they were in relation to each other. He’d been open enough, but Erin had tried to keep her cards close to her chest.

The Fraerling hadn’t visibly reacted when she spoke her name or mentioned Ulvama’s appearance. But he didn’t have to react.

“I suppose when we get to your village, we’ll be guests of yours? I hope you, uh, have room for a giant beetle and a really angry hamster.”

Erin watched Eurise’s face, and his eyes flicked up to hers.

“I reckon we have space. A big beetle ain’t the largest thing we’ve had to corral. So you’re closer by…well, it took Roja four days to locate the spot after her airdrop. You think you’re bringing any trouble with you. Monsters or the like?”

“Monsters? I don’t think any are following me. Of the monster-y kind. Airdrop? Wow, do you have, like…birds that you can travel with?”

Erin forced a chuckle, keeping her tone level. Eurise blinked at her and scrubbed a hand through his hair.

“—One or two birds, but not many. There’s other ways to drop. So no monster-y monsters. How many of the other kind?”

There it was. Erin had tried to dance around the truth, but she was still learning the rules. And here was the thing: as Fetohep had told her with her first trial run, there were rules to this place.

And Eurise knew the rules. Anyone who entered this room did automatically. That was the fairness built into the system. Erin, of course, had a lot of unfairness she could employ—once she learned how. But she didn’t want to.

Even so…the silence built up like the wariness between the two, and Erin felt like it had grown meeting after meeting. The problem, for her, was simple.

She couldn’t lie. Neither could he. When Erin had hesitated, she’d cursed because she’d had a thought.

Bringing any trouble with you? Monsters or the like? No, no monsters like Skinner.

But monsters like Roshal? She could not, in this place, lie about that. Erin smiled weakly.

“None close by, I hope. And we’ll be guests?”

He said nothing. Eurise tapped his fingers on the table, looking her up and down.

“Ah reckon you’ll be my guests. The rest of the lot aren’t always as keen on new things. But yeah. Guests. We’ll…”

He lapsed into silence. That calculation between his eyes—and then Eurise sighed.

“Rest assured, Miss Erin. We’ll get a [Healer] to you first thing. And if you were so inclined to give us more hints, I’ll do my best to find you, whatever comes next. Because I don’t think I’ll be able to look forwards to these little chats in another week’s time.”

“Huh? Whaddya mean?”

For answer, the Fraerling just raised a hand and waved it up and down his face.

“You’re dying pretty slow compared to some. But you are dying. Aren’t you?”

In any other place in the world, she could have lied to him. Smiled or laughed or acted dumb. Here?

The [Innkeeper] raised her eyes to his, and her sunken expression and the pallor of her skin told the Fraerling one thing. But when she spoke—both of them understood it was the truth.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

He said nothing. Just fiddled at his side for a moment, then sighed.

“Damn. I wish I had something to chew on. I’ll see about sending two more kids I know. I’ve been searching, Miss Erin. But it’s a big jungle. Maybe you should start a fire. That might work.”

Erin Solstice looked at her hands, then at the Fraerling. She saw her one hope to survive in this place. What did Eurise see?

 

——

 

He saw a woman who refused to tell him her class, who could call him into this dangerous place, who was clearly, day after day, fading away. Who was still suspicious of him.

She saw someone she couldn’t quite read. Someone she wanted to trust—but couldn’t. Erin whispered.

“I could offer you a snack. And maybe I could help with the perspective thing. So long as you tell me one thing, Eurise.”

“‘Sabit risky. But go on.”

He raised his brows, and Erin’s hazel eyes flickered with a threat. The Fraerling almost reached for a knife he knew wouldn’t help here, and his back crawled.

“—When we get there. Will my friend Ulvama be safe? Even if she’s a Goblin?”

She looked him in the eyes, and the Fraerling paused.

“I hope so. But if you don’t mind me being honest, the others already have reservations.”

“Will you try to keep her safe?”

She pressed him, and the Fraerling raised a hand and scratched at his chin.

“That depends on whether or not I think that’s the right call to make. Sorry I can’t be more certain, but fair’s fair, right?”

Erin looked at him, nodding, but the wall she threw up was like nothing he’d ever seen, even in the big cities with their fancy Gnomeventions—though they’d laughed at him when he called them that.

“Well, I hope everything turns out well.”

She smiled at him, and the Fraerling sat there, vibrating, before he spat what had boiled him the last few days.

“You’re dying, aintcha? How long do you have to wait, Erin? Take the risk! I am!”

He leaned over urgently, and she beamed at him.

“I don’t want to put Ulvama in danger.”

“Listen, danger she’ll be in from a few unhappy folks. I can’t promise she’ll be safe—but it’s not like we’re raring to kill Goblins out here. Dead gods, we haven’t seen a Goblin for a decade! As for you—we’re more inclined to help than not.”

We just don’t want a giant crater a thousand feet across where one of the villages should be. Roja had been clear about how much damage had been done and how dangerous she’d thought the ants might have been.

One woman had taken them all out. Erin leaned on the table.

“I want your help, Eurise, I do.”

He folded his arms, getting angrier now.

“I don’t think that’s true, nevermind the laws of this place. Elsewise, you’d be more specific about who and where you are. My job’s keeping my home safe, and you’re soundin’ like the second-most dangerous person to ever appear here.”

Second-most? I want hel…”

Erin raised her eyebrows and tried to speak. Then stopped. Her eyes crossed, and she tried again.

“I want…Ulvama and I need assistance.”

Strange. He stared at her as she grinned and brushed at her hair. Why did she say it like that? Thinking of the rules he’d pondered over—it had to mean something was a lie there.

She wanted help. For her friend. She kept talking about her friend. But herself? He wondered if she were alone, if she’d have even called him up. Or just sat down and waited to…

Dead gods, he had a headache. And a damn compulsion to yank this stranger out of the quicksand she was buried to the neck in. Eurise tried again.

“Listen, Miss Erin. Take a gamble with me. I think you’re not making it the end of this week without someone to help you. Your friend? Trust that we don’t kill strangers for being strange.”

“She’s a Goblin. If she gets hurt or worse because of me—I don’t know what I’ll do, Eurise.”

To you or your home. The Fraerling felt his skin crawl. He’d heard threats made before by other Fraerlings, in hot blood and cold. How did a half-sprouted Human like her learn to make threats like that?

Who had done enough to her—he stared at the burns on her neck and wrists. Bad ones, as if it had been better to melt her skin off than be tethered by…

“What in Rhir’s hells do you think we’re going to do? What happened to you?

“Me? Nothing terrible. She’s been hurt worse. It won’t happen again, Eurise.”

And she smiled. Dead gods. Eurise’s fingers twitched.

They were at an impasse. Trust had to be established on one end or another, and he had a feeling she had more cards in this room than he did. Eurise was not a great and amazing thinker of multiple angles. He had the approach that one angle mattered, and that was the one you punched down. In this place—well, he was doing his best.

“I don’t know what else to say, Miss. How can I assure you beyond good intentions, which I swear I have?”

“I dunno, Eurise. You know what they say about good intentions and hell.”

“…Nope.”

She stared at him and then shrugged. A thought seemed to occur to Erin, and she swayed in her chair a bit before focusing on him.

She’s going to die.

“Say, who’s the most dangerous person who ever came to your village?”

Eurise hesitated, trying to calculate how this would affect their conversation. Poorly? But he felt like it was a good conversation point to convince her, potentially. So he grinned.

“Oh, that? It comes from the swamp you keep passing. You know?”

“Drowned Elf Swamp? Yeah, it’s a crazy name. Does that mean real Elves? Ulvama couldn’t believe it when I…”

Erin’s voice trailed off, and Eurise filled the conversation.

“What? Naw. At least, not that we remember. But it’s a good name. Had it since as long as anyone’s been here. Almost as old as my home—that’s the oldest village. Comes way back from when my great-great-something ancestors were kicking about here. One day, a storm blew in, and with it—one of the Tallfolk washed up. Drowning in the swamp. Hence the name.”

“You mean a Drowned Person, then?”

Erin frowned, and Eurise waved a hand.

“Half-drowned to tell of it! But nah. My folk fished her out, treated her wounds, and after a while, she got well enough to fly off. Big to-do about the entire thing. She was mighty grateful and did all kinds of explaining and spellcasting, and we thought nothing of it aside from her being quite the story. Funny, though…when we told the story of the swamp to some outsider Fraerlings a long time later…”

I’m told they had an expression on their faces much like the one I’m seeing now. The [Innkeeper]’s face had gone sharp, and Eurise murmured.

“…I think she was a very big deal.”

“What was her name? This half-Elf?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

He countered, quite enjoying this. So the old stories were true. All the local villages had strict rules on telling the old tale to outsiders these days—not Tallfolk, outsider Fraerlings. Eurise hadn’t heard of a Tallfolk about in so long he doubted it would have occurred to anyone.

But her reaction made him think the rule might be important. Because Erin Solstice spoke slowly, as if it mattered.

“Silvenia. The Death of Magic?”

“I heard she was more like an Archmage, but sure. You speak as if she’s still alive. It’d be near two thousand years back. Popular old story, one of the oldest we’ve got aside from tales of Gnomes. Why?”

She stared at him, and it seemed like Eurise could actually see pieces falling into place behind her eyes. Erin muttered.

“So that’s why she—and you took her in?”

“Yep. I mean, not me. My great-something ancestors. They say she went on to do great and terrible things. Or that we rescued some kind of monster.”

Eurise closed one eye, as if he were sighting down an arrow at Erin. She looked hardly more dangerous than the soggy half-Elf they said they’d dragged up like fish. But—he looked her in the eyes.

“Is that like you or your friend?”

For a long time, the woman said and did nothing. She just studied him, as if she were trying to turn him inside out and inspect the very grain of his soul. Eurise wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she saw or thought, but it felt like a battle was going on unseen.

Then she sighed. Sighed and spoke.

“What do Fraerlings eat for snacks in your village?”

Of all the questions—Eurise felt at his pocket.

“Well, I had a nali-stick right here. Delicious stuff. Sweeter’n someone else’s sins. You ever had them?”

“Yeah. They’re super sweet. Do you like sweet things?”

“Mayhaps.”

He gave her a suspicious look. He’d been teased about his sweet tooth before; not recently, and not in arm’s reach. But the [Innkeeper] just lifted a hand—concentrated—and handed him something.

“Try this.”

He stared at a swirl of something white and glistening, then at the cone of, well, batter in her hand. Eurise took the cone, felt how cold it was, and blinked at Erin.

“I knew there was something to this place that you could do. Is this poison?”

She smiled.

“Only in a dietary sense.”

“Is it…filled with mind-controlling stuff? Something nasty?”

“Sugar. Milk. Are you lactose intolerant?”

“I tolerate lots of things.”

He supposed that meant it was safe and if he’d failed to ask the right question—Eurise took a bite out of the top of the ice cream swirl and nearly spat it out.

“It’s cold!”

He chewed furiously, then realized how soft it was. Erin laughed.

“You’re supposed to lick it!”

“I didn’t see no instruction book. What’s this?”

“Ice cream. I make it in my inn.”

“Your what?”

Eurise blinked, and Erin Solstice raised a hand. He jumped out of his seat as it changed into a wooden chair and whirled as a different room than the void appeared around him. Tables, chairs, a running flash of white fur—an inn, only sized for him, appeared, and Erin Solstice spoke.

“I’m an [Innkeeper].”

“You’re a what?

That was not what he had guessed. Nor anyone else. Eurise kept licking the ice cream cone and had the distinct impression that, as real as it tasted, only the memory was going to follow him back into reality. But Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], just sat there.

“I’m an [Innkeeper], Eurise. Not an [Archmage]. But I have done…terrible things. I do have monsters after me. Bad ones that look like people. I don’t think they know where I am. I think Silvenia sent me here because she knew no one would guess where this is. And I know I’m dying.”

She flexed one hand, grimacing as if that alone hurt, and then looked up.

“I want to keep living, I guess. I want Ulvama to be safe. If I take her to your village, will you promise me you’ll try to keep her safe?”

“Of course. If she’s no monster herself.”

That was the best he could promise, but Erin still wavered. She was going to send him away again without details. Eurise had been doing his best, but dancing around was never his thing. And this—

“Listen. Just tell me what you can. Ah know yer worried about your friend. So’m I. But my job is to keep people safe. An’ right now, I’m watching someone waste away. Ah’ve been spending weeks searching every which way, and I don’t think we have time t’ keep doing this.”

His hands clenched in frustration, wanting to hit something. Not her. The [Innkeeper] rasped at him.

“Listen. We’re both doing what we have to to protect our homes.”

His head jerked at her, not a nod nor a shake of the head, but something in between.

“What’re you, a Tallguard? Seems to me…seems to me that sometimes y’hafta do what’s right and hang secrecy. I can’t promise I’m going to take your friend’s side. I can’t. I can’t rightly tell if this is some clever trick. But if you’re out there, start hollering and I’ll come running.”

He slumped in his chair until his feet were splayed out on the gazebo’s floor. Eurise stared past Erin.

“If you didn’t want that, why did y’ call for me?”

He lay there as the searchlight of her inquisitorial eyes swept over him again and again. But no matter how many times she disassembled, all she got was…Eurise. Staring at her like she really was a stranger.

“Ah’m no Fraerling of the big cities, Miss. I’m no hero looking to slay Giants. I haven’t seen enough to slay. We’re all on a little adventure in our corner of nowhere, and ah’d love to say it’s always fun. But I’ve found too many people under my care a minute too late. Give me a chance, or fer my heart, leave me alone.”

It wasn’t an ultimatum. But it was an earnest plea. The [Innkeeper] kept studying Eurise a moment, then seemed to grow embarrassed. She closed her eyes and spoke softy.

“Then—I guess I’m out of time. Please don’t be a trick, Eurise. I’m really tired of making mistakes that hurt people.”

Her eyes stayed closed, and he wanted to say he wasn’t the mistake this time. That he thought a random somebody who could make a magical gazebo and draw him into it was a lot scarier. But before he could, the image of the inn flickered—and he saw a giant fricking beetle, a Battle Hamster, a tiny Goblin—all scuttling along a section of rocks high above the Drowned Elf Marsh.

At least—he thought it was Drowned Elf Marsh. Eurise whirled, staring about.

“You could do this the entire time?”

“Yeah.”

Erin walked through the air and pointed back the way she’d come.

“That’s where we fought the ants. Do you know where we are from that?”

“I—”

He realized he was still holding the ice cream cone, then spun and hurled it as far as he could in the other direction. Eurise strode around, staring.

“You’re high up. I don’t…hmm…wait.”

This entire view was disorienting to him, but there were familiar aspects. He cocked his head, trying to rotate the view in his mind, then just strode back and stared from another angle.

“Wait a sec. There’s that big mangrove tree there that I recognize. All this stone stuff I don’t. But if this was part of the Simsheni Cliffline…you got a lotta lizards there?”

“I ate one for breakfast this morning. It looked like this.”

Erin conjured the image of an open-mouthed salamander that Eurise definitely recognized. He snapped his fingers.

“Well, tickle my Gnomes. I think I know where you are.”

They weren’t far at all! They were veering off the wrong way, though—he hesitated. Then decided she’d earned trust too.

“My village is Dretonamis; right about here.

He aimed at the approximate location in the trees. Erin stared sharply at the spot and began to trace a line from her location to there.

“We can head that way.”

“Do that. And I’ll tell everyone where you are. We’ll be there as soon as I can rustle up a welcoming committee.”

Eurise spun, mind full of ideas, and Erin stood there, watching him.

“A welcoming committee to say ‘hi’ or take us into custody? Or something else?”

He snapped slightly and strode up to her and nearly shoved his finger up her nose.

“A welcoming committee to figure out how to keep you from melting into a pile of magic goo! D’you want help or not?”

He shouted at her, and the [Innkeeper] recoiled, blinked at him, then smiled once. It was like the thunderheads of her expression parted, wariness, pain, loss—and the real person behind her emerged. Only, the wary [Innkeeper] and the young woman were the same.

“I think I do, Eurise. Thank you. Thank—”

 

——

 

And then, of course, he didn’t wake up, but Eurise stopped in the middle of hiking down a trail towards Drowned Elf Marsh again. His mind had wandered, and he slapped a gnat out of his face and came to a complete standstill.

A group of seven other Fraerlings nearly walked into him and dodged around. One stared at him.

“What’s the matter, Eurise? We searching again or not?”

“Hells to that.”

The Fraerling spun. He had no idea where they were relative to the cliffs, and it didn’t matter. Zemmy, or Zemermial, the stocky Fraerling, blinked at him.

“What about the lost—”

“I know right where they are! Back to the village—move it! And tell them I need anything that flies over there now! Get all the [Healers] too! Come on!”

Eurise charged back the way he’d come, so fast he left a trail of wind behind. Zemmy began to run after him, then heard shouts from the others.

He slowed down; Zemmy was the only person who could keep pace with Eurise when the Fraerling ran. One of the [Explorers], Toza, panted.

“Did he have another one of those visions he keeps going on about?”

Zemmy just grinned and motioned.

“If he did, sounds like he knows exactly where they are! Come on! Mera’s going to hate missing this!”

Then the search and rescue mission became just a rescue mission. And Zemmy couldn’t wait to find this mysterious duo that had all the olds worried.

What did they even have to worry about? It wasn’t even a Tallfolk, just two high-level normal people. Sure, maybe one of them might be a bad sort like the damn Cottontail Raiders, but how bad could they be?

Eurise was over Level 50, and Zemmy wasn’t bad at fighting either. If a problem came along that Eurise couldn’t out-punch, well, Zemmy hadn’t found it.

 

——

 

When Erin told Ulvama the good news, the Hobgoblin stared at her—then leapt up with a cry of relief and threw her arms around the [Innkeeper].

“Yes! They’re coming?”

“We can go meet them. They’re right…there.”

Erin pointed to the spot she’d memorized, and Ulvama turned.

“We will! And they know—”

She paused and gestured at herself, and Erin took her arm.

“I told Eurise, and he promised to help keep you safe if he could. Are you sure you’re okay with it?”

“Eh, they’re Fraerlings. Probably it’s okay. And you need help.”

Ulvama waved the first part away and poked Erin in the chest. The [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“I’m fine, honest, Ulvama. Hey, beetle, why are you stopped?”

The beetle had collapsed onto his six legs when Erin reappeared and only grudgingly got up now. Ulvama hesitated.

“He, uh, decided to run. Maybe give him a few minutes before we go that way?”

“Sure.”

Ulvama seemed to be relaxing and happier already at the news, which made Erin guilty about not trusting Eurise before. She hesitated, loath to remove the smile, and then coughed.

“Uh. I tried to make sure he was a good guy. He seems like one. But do we have a Plan B if this goes pear-shaped?”

“Pear…shaped?”

“Poorly?”

Erin tried, and Ulvama nodded.

“No, I get what you mean by context. Why is pear-shaped bad? What do you have against pears?”

The [Innkeeper] had to own, of all the questions today, she had no idea how to answer this one.

“Because pears…have a big butt part? So if things go pear shaped it means they’re, I dunno, going bad?”

Ulvama stared at her. Erin threw up her hands.

I don’t have a problem with pears.”

“Sounds like it. Pears is very nice looking. So is big butts. Pineapples are ugly looking.”

“I—okay, they’re spiky. Do we have a plan for if things go bad?

“Yah. We think about that after they go bad. Right now, he said he’s helping get you healing, right?”

Erin nodded reluctantly, and Ulvama nodded decisively. The rest of the world could wait for that. She was so focused it made Erin’s heart hurt. So the [Innkeeper] sat down, and Ulvama offered her some more walnut.

“Maybe you take a bite of this? Water?”

“I can do water.”

Erin felt shriven of the weight on her shoulders, but also more lightheaded than she wanted to be. She took a few sips of water and exhaled.

“If—it goes bad, I could use my [Pavilion of Secrets] Skill to summon help.”

“Right. Who?”

“Well, we’re definitely on Baleros now, and I got the name of the village. I don’t want to do it, but—Niers?”

Ulvama frowned at Erin, perplexed.

“Why not Niers?”

Erin didn’t want to get into it, but she exhaled, then looked around. The plateau they had still yet to leave had a good view of the surrounding foliage, mainly, but there were mountains or hills in the distance…and a lot more jungle. They couldn’t even see the sea from here.

“I thought about it, but…Niers is an unsubtle guy, Ulvama.”

“The Titan. Unsubtle.”

The Hobgoblin raised one eyebrow, and Erin protested.

“Well, he is. Did you see the Daquin thing? I don’t mean he’s unsubtle, but he can’t scratch his butt without his enemies wondering if that’s code for, like, a Tier 8 spell.”

“Aah. Right. If he sent help, they’d notice.”

Erin nodded, glancing up surreptitiously.

“We’re safe because no one but Eurise and his people knows where we are. And I can’t help but imagine this was Silvenia’s plan. Guess what I just learned?”

She related the Drowned Elf Marsh story, and Ulvama sighed.

“Old people. Always got too many memories and tricks. But what if the Fraerlings can signal Niers or we tell him where we are and he’s subtle?”

Erin sat there.

“I still don’t want to, Ulvama. Not just because I…I might not want to get any attention right now. I like Niers. I think he’s what I need to become.”

“But…”

The [Shaman] prompted her after Erin was silent, and Erin pointed.

“You see that mountain over there? Niers would move that mountain.”

“To impress you.”

Ulvama gave Erin a sharp look, and Erin flushed slightly.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“It—doesn’t matter. The point is, he’d move that mountain. But what about the people who live on it or next to it? He’d move that mountain if he had to, Ulvama. And…so would I.”

Erin took a breath and made a hard admission, as if the pavilion were still influencing her.

“I did move a mountain. I can pretend that there aren’t any people living there or that they don’t matter. I can do it for a while. I’m afraid to ask Niers if he still remembers the people.”

For a while, Ulvama said nothing as Erin admitted one of the reasons she held Niers at arm’s length. If she and Niers were connected by who they might be…she whispered.

“I’m afraid he’ll become Chaldion.”

The [Shaman] nodded slowly.

“Yeah. If he wrinkles that much, he’ll become a raisin.”

The laugh burst out of Erin, indignant, but Ulvama ruffled her hair and smiled.

“I get your reason. But maybe…someone else should be told about us? The [Pavilion of Secrets] has power. Aside from your box that doesn’t exist—”

“Hey, it definitely exists, and it’s awesome.”

“—Aside from that, what else can you do?”

Erin sighed.

“I was afraid you’d ask that. I bet I could use the power more. I spent all my time talking to Eurise, and I could have shown him more of where we were. Maybe…”

She glanced over her shoulder at the tent, though technically she could activate the [Pavilion of Secrets] wherever. Ulvama sat crosslegged, and Erin realized she had made a comb and was taming the Battle Hamster in the most insidious of ways.

Ulvama was combing his fur. And he really liked that. The grumpy hamster would sit and let her undo tangles in his fur and scratch and remove dirt and sticks. For some reason, he looked incredibly smug as he sat there. She flicked some dirt at him, and the hamster glared at her with his one eye.

“Okay, let’s think of people to inform. I had a list of people I want to try the pavilion on—but only after I’m experienced.”

“Go on.”

Ulvama took a sip of water and passed the flask back to Erin. The [Innkeeper] gulped another mouthful down determinedly.

“Well, the Quarass, Nerrhavia, Nereshal, Velan the K—”

Ulvama sprayed out her water onto the hamster’s back, eliciting a squeak of outrage and Erin’s laughter.

Quarass? Nerrhavia? Velan the—are you mad?”

Ulvama shook Erin so hard the [Innkeeper] felt her thoughts bouncing around like pinballs. She wobbled, and Ulvama hurriedly let her go.

“Sorry. Is you stupid? Are you stupid or just pretending? Those are the most dangerous people to invite!”

“Yeah, but they’re the most valuable.”

Any one of them would have answers she sought. Ulvama just stared at Erin. Her voice dropped suddenly.

Can you invite a Goblin King into the [Pavilion of Secrets]?”

Erin winked at her, savoring the [Shaman]’s expression.

“Only one way to find out.”

 

——

 

Jokes aside, when Erin did go back to the [Pavilion of Secrets], it was mostly to avoid showing Ulvama more of her feeling faint. The Hobgoblin agreed to take them towards the village’s location, and Erin decided to keep experimenting.

…With this incredibly dangerous Skill she had been warned about in no uncertain terms. Could anyone blame her for being hesitant?

“The truth is dangerous. I am dangerous.”

Erin chickened out of exploring the rest of the pavilion and took the easy way out. Going face-to-face with her doppelganger, again. Which said something about the difficulty level here.

Erin was ready for anything, but she strode through the door with—

“I talked to Eurise. There. Happy?”

“Good for you.”

Her counterpart was leaning on the gazebo’s railing, staring out at nothing, chewing a nali-stick. She turned.

“You want to talk about what that was just now?”

“Just what?”

Erin stared at herself with a frown and got a shrug.

“Suit yourself. Go ahead and ask.”

She waited, and Erin stood there, trying to not sound nervous.

“If I asked for Velan the Kind or—”

“We’re not doing hypotheticals. Cormelex loved those. They work as well on yourself as they did on him.”

Pavilion-Erin’s voice was flat. Erin glowered at herself and wished she had any way to threaten her counterpart. Or bribe her. Or have anything but the suspicion she was talking to something far closer to the true nature of the system of levels than she was comfortable with.

Mostly—she wished it wasn’t based on her.

“Okay. You want action? I got action, buddy.”

Flat, hazel eyes and a tone like a lead bar to the knees interrupted her.

“I’m not doing the South Park routine. I don’t care how nervous you are. In fact, you know that the more horrific things I say, the more you can feel assured I’m some malevolent force. I’m not, Erin. You want to play with fire? Go ahead, but there is no Maviola anymore.”

The [Innkeeper] was really starting to hate this place. There was no bluffing it that she could see, so she glowered.

“Fine. Get me Nerry.”

It was long overdue. Erin had to know her little friend was alright. The language barrier might be a real problem, but Erin had high hopes something in the pavilion could overcome it. Or else they’d just have to write.

But to her surprise, the Pavilion-Erin just smiled once.

“Unfortunately, that cannot be done.”

“…Hm? Why’s that?”

The other Erin began to smoke on the nali-stick with a flick of fire from a thumb, as if it were a cigarette.

“Nerry is not a person.”

Now, Erin felt a tingling down her neck. She peered at the fake Erin, frowning at her.

“I know Nerry’s smart enough. She’s got the ability to write. And—”

—was there something she was forgetting? Erin frowned and rubbed at her head. The other her watched carefully.

“Oh, yes you are. But let me be clear. Even if I wanted to—Nerry is not a person. She’s a Sariant Lamb. Nerrhavia, now, that’s a person. Nerry’s not.”

“Oh come on. She can use wands, and I bet if she could speak, the things she’d say. She’s a person.”

Erin folded her arms, but now her mind was alight. Pavilion-Erin shrugged.

“I don’t make the rules.”

“Interesting…then what about Ryoka?”

Also on her list. The Pavilion smiled.

“Ah, that’s a person.”

“But she’s got no levels, unless things have really changed.”

“She’s eligible. Therefore. Person. Logic.”

Pavilion-Erin tapped the side of her head, then rolled her eyes.

“According to someone. Don’t look at me.”

“Then what about…Teriarch?”

It seemed like Erin was onto something, because Pavilion-Erin nodded.

“Want him?”

“Wait, but you said—”

“He has no levels. But his species is…acknowledged as a people. Just disqualified from levelling. Do you understand?”

“I think I do.”

This was more revealing than Erin had anticipated. Not least because her eyes were narrowed and she kept holding onto a thought that was going round and round in her head.

—somethingyouforgotaboutNerryyouforgot—

“The rules are different here, you know. Not that I’m giving myself a hint or anything like that.”

The Pavilion went back to staring out into the distance, and Erin Solstice took a breath.

“While I have you—while I’m here, I can’t access the other aspects of the inn. The door that was marked with Sheta’s stuff is gone, for instance.”

“Yep. You are just in this feature of the Pavilion. Me, you, and whomever you call.”

The [Innkeeper] nodded.

“Then…before you go, I guess I will call on Ryoka.”

Of all the people, if Nerry was first, Ryoka was probably second because of how much she would be worrying and getting into trouble. Lyonette was a close third, but Erin…didn’t know what to say to her. She didn’t want to know what the inn was like after she’d left and everything that had happened.

Ryoka—she wasn’t sure if she was ready, but the Pavilion of Secrets just nodded.

“Ryoka Griffin it is. If you d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d—”

The word began repeating, and the Pavilion-Erin repeated the same gesture of taking her nali-stick from her mouth. Erin Solstice backed up.

“Oh heck. That’s not supposed to—”

Darkness. Absolute and sudden. The light vanished. The gazebo vanished. There was only a door in the distance, where the [Garden of Sanctuary] waited. And—Erin turned her head. She saw a vast door ahead of her, wings on the door closed. A hovering set of words bracketed in a familiar way was just above it.

It said—

[The Palace of Fates].

Erin started for it—

“Well, that was new.”

Pavilion-Erin was sitting at the chess table. Erin froze; the door was gone, the lights had returned, and the other her looked—intrigued.

“Ryoka Griffin is now officially off-limits.”

“What the fuck was—”

“I don’t know. But it was interesting, wasn’t it?”

The other Erin frowned deeply, looking almost as intrigued as the [Innkeeper]. But now, Erin’s mind was racing.

“Aha. I knew something was up with Ryoka. Heck! Why didn’t I think about it? If Ryoka’s off limits, give me Shaestrel!

She made a triumphant fist. The Pavilion stared at Erin, and the fake Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“…Who?”

Oh snap. Erin’s open-mouthed look of shock turned into an expression of delight. Then she backed up.

“Uh, no one. Nope. Nobody. Glad to talk to you. Let’s do this again, me.”

Interesting.

The Pavilion-Erin got to her feet so fast the real Erin felt for the door at once. The other her strode around the table.

Now that’s what I was made to find out—

 

——

 

The amount of pleasure Erin Solstice got from slamming the door on her own face was indescribable.

The [Innkeeper] stood there, panting, as she stared at the bathroom door that led to that portion of the Skill, but she didn’t see the doorknob moving, and after a moment, she wiped cold sweat from her brow.

“Aha! Erin Solstice 1, Pavilion 0! Take that, loser!”

She shook her fist at the air.

“Now I’ve got something on you! And if you think I’m not gonna use it—”

She opened the door to gloat at herself. Always a mistake. Because when you got down to it, Erin Solstice was not a fun person to get on the bad side of.

The door opened, and Erin saw a copy of the room she stood in. With one change.

The lights were all out. It wasn’t like last time, that sheer nothingness where the gazebo ceased to exist. It was just pitch black. Oh—and Erin Solstice, the Pavilion-Erin, was standing in front of the chess table.

She had a flaming [Witch]’s hat on her head. Black flames, and she was staring at the real Erin.

“You now have something I want. Congratulations. The next time you enter this room, there will be a price. Now look behind you and see what I was made for.”

The [Innkeeper] really regretted opening the door. She stood there, unwilling to commit the cardinal sin of horror movies and turn around.

“N-nuh. What if I just, uh—”

Turn around.

The door slammed shut. Erin squeezed her eyes shut.

“Okay. If I turn around and there’s a monster behind me or something really horrific, I swear I’m—I’m gonna be really disappointed this is how it ends. Aaah!

She turned, saw a new door had appeared, and fell over on the ground.

“…That’s relieving and disappointing.”

The new door sat across from the quartet of doors that Erin was used to. It was, in fact, further away from the gazebo, hanging in the void but connected to it by a concrete path with grass sprouting from the sides. Erin stared at it.

“Well, hold up.”

New door. The layout of the gazebo was now, as Erin would describe it to Ulvama, more than a single road leading to the [Garden of Sanctuary].

Now there were two paths. One that led to a little door that had just appeared, and another back to the garden.

Three, if you counted the place where Erin had seen the [Palace of Fates], but the walkway was as yet invisible; the door hidden.

Erin was pretty sure she had not been meant to see that one. But she also categorized this new door as distinctly separate from the ones she had.

“Okay, my personal door leads to the alter-me who is totally not terrifying right now. The Sheta, Cormelex, and Aleieta doors lead to…somewhere I haven’t explored because that’s scary too. This new door leads to something that the [Pavilion of Secrets] was made for.”

Doors. Open ‘em and you might not like what you find. Now Erin had no real reason to keep using the one she’d been trying. She just…really didn’t want to use any of the other doors, even the new one.

The irony of the gazebo was, of course, there was no bathroom when Erin really needed one. She danced from foot to foot, but decided she could hold it. Also…she really didn’t want to go into her door and ask her clone for a bathroom.

Okay, I can do this. It’s not going to be as bad as a clone of me, is it? Erin walked to the door that clearly had belonged to the last Harpy Empress, Sheta.

She hesitated.

“It’s not as if…hey! What’s behind door number two?

She yanked the door to the Harpy Empress’ room open, smiled—and stopped.

Erin stared at the mass of feathers and a hanging amulet with that familiar insignia. Then she gazed up. And up.

The last Empress of Harpies stared down at Erin, a Human’s head on a feathered body, but far, far larger than normal. As if she were a half-Giant. Feathers sprouted from her neck, and her eyes were huge in her still face.

“Hello, Erin Solstice.”

The [Innkeeper] shut the door. She backed away from the door. She ran down the path leading to the gazebo, towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] entrance, and stopped.

“Wha—wha—what was that?

What was it with this place and people that shouldn’t be alive being here? Like Sheta! And possibly herself! But mostly Sheta!

“Is that—Pavilion-Sheta? Is—are we doing this?

For some reason, Erin had the impression that what had been in the Harpy Empress’ door had not been the gazebo she was now used to. But she really, really didn’t want to check.

Instead, Erin, with a bad feeling about all this, slunk over to the next door, which was black and had red metal filigree and whatnot. Very fancy. Very…Devilish.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re so cool, Cormelex. I heard this place broke you. If you’re in that door waiting to jumpscare me like some kind of boogieman, I’ll punch you so hard…Visophecin’ll feel it.”

Erin raised a fist and peeked into this door after a few minutes of psyching herself up.

She did not come face-to-face with a Visophecin-like Devil waiting to scare the daylights out of her. Instead, Erin’s peek rewarded her with a lounge-like room. A group of people sitting at a table.

She stared. They turned to her, greyer of skin, eyes crimson, and she saw more than one had a tail. One was holding a platter, dressed like a waiter; there was an old Lucifen sitting at a table with a child, a woman in red—

A voice spoke from beyond, pleasant and calm. She couldn’t tell which one.

“Would you like to know how it broke me, Erin Solstice? Prey, enter.”

She shut the door. Erin stared at the one for Aleieta Reinhart. She reached for it.

“…You know what, let’s see what that new door is about. Oh boy, I love new doors!”

Those rooms struck Erin as intrinsically more scary and frightening than even herself. She knew what she was capable of. But those?

It occurred to her that her [Dangersense] hadn’t actually gone off at any of those three doors when it had for the one that led to herself. But that only made Erin more uneasy. If she had nothing to fear from Cormelex, she’d eat her hat.

The last door and the last part of the [Pavilion of Secrets] was weird. It was a door alright. Solid. Wood.

It reminded her of the doors in her inn. It was, in fact, exactly like the doors on the second floor of her inn. The guest bedrooms. But there were two things different about this one.

First, the nameplate. The brass nameplate she had ordered for all her regular guests did not exist in reality. Perhaps it should. But if so, someone should have adjusted the handle, which was meant for people. Because the nameplate simply read:

‘Nerry’.

Below it, someone had made a cute Sariant Lamb out of wool, but given it a frowny face instead of a smile. It was like a child’s piece of art, and Erin stared at it, confused.

“This looks like something Mrsha would make.”

After a second, her face fell.

“Wait a second. This looks like something I’d make. Aw.

At this point, she had no idea what to expect behind the door, but she was hopeful it was less terrifying than anything else in the pavilion, so she took the handle.

“Nerry, I love you. Well, I don’t. But if I find you in there and you do anything remotely horrifying, I will kick you. And believe me, I’m pretty sure I can take you out in a fight.”

She closed her eyes as she opened the door with a click that felt way too loud. Then Erin stared and stared and stared some more.

“…The heck is this?”

The room contained, well, a familiar scene. It was of Nerry, on all fours, writing on something on the ground with Erin standing there and a giant blob of static distortion next to both of them.

The static was like a warp in reality. But it wasn’t pure nothingness. It had, disconcertingly, a pair of long pants on and a t-shirt. Even a belt and—Erin stared at it—

“Is…is that a bra?”

She walked into that copy of her inn that contained Nerry and herself, frozen in time, and stared at the static.

Yep. It had a bra, underwear, a belt laden with items. It was, in fact—

“Ryoka. It’s Ryoka. This was when she showed me Nerry could write!”

Erin remembered the moment clearly. Why the heck was—

“Right. Ryoka’s all messed up. Because of the f—”

Erin hesitated.

“Because of the you-know-what. Which I know and the Pavilion doesn’t. But why is it showing me this scene?”

She walked around, checking the window, stubbing her toe on the floor—it was a perfect replica of the inn by winter. In fact, if she remembered right she was going to unveil the beach soon after this moment.

“Yeah, this is from then. What’s up with that? Nerry. I thought you weren’t a person?”

Well, she wasn’t as far as the [Pavilion of Secrets] was concerned. But given this was a snapshot of time…Erin spread her hands.

“Okay, world! We have a creepy not-Ryoka, Nerry, me—what is this door about? Huuh? Show me!”

With that—the memory began to play out. The real Erin leapt as a familiar voice filled the room.

I think I do. They’re not safe, Ryoka. I might be safe, but…we’ll see. For now, let’s figure out another secret.

Erin Solstice hobbled forwards, rubbing at her back. Still not quite nimbe, despite being out of her wheelchair. Dead gods, her wheelchair. How long had…?

Someone backed up around the static, and Erin remembered.

“Nanette! Right, you were there!”

The real Erin danced around her image, then just gave up and walked through the fake her, shivering. They were all reading from Nerry’s scroll as the Sariant Lamb, looking unusually emotional, wrote.

‘Please, take me as seriously as Nanette. Please…care.

Erin remembered that, of course. It was the moment that she had looked at Nerry not as an evil, dangerous pest, but as someone fighting for something. Now she was replaying the memory, she could see how fiercely Nanette was staring at the lamb.

Not with the purest quill of kindness as Erin had assumed, but sharp eyes. Observing. Judging.

“Just like Califor. You are seeing if she’s worth helping. And you—”

Erin stared at the Ryoka image, who had folded her arms—at least, by the context of her clothing. Erin gazed at the place Ryoka was apparently lost to even to the [Pavilion of Secrets].

“…You’re always like that, Ryoka. And hey, you got mud and snow all over my inn. Look at the tracks!”

Erin frowned at the floor, then sighed at herself.

“Listen. You have to start exercising more. Believe me, when you’re running down the beach from crabs—we really could have used a bit more stamina. Got it?”

She was trying to be funny, mostly because she was confused. She knew this scene. She remembered it vividly. After that, they’d had a talk with Saliss about who he really was: a Turnscale. Not that it mattered. Well, it did, but Saliss was her friend.

And then she had rolled into the [World’s Eye Theatre] and warned the Earthers and everyone else about the dead gods.

A momentous day. What was there to miss? Erin stood there, and Nerry kicked over two scrolls to Ryoka and Nanette, and Erin frowned.

“Hm? Wait, did Nerry have more to say after that? Why wasn’t I there for…huh?”

Wait a moment. She was still sitting there as Ryoka unfurled the next scroll, read, and began to swear, Nanette’s precious ears or not. Nanette stood up on her tiptoes, and Erin frowned at the scrolls.

‘We were not created by an [Archmage] as many species were, but by Eydole the…’

“Wait, what’s this? What’s this?”

Erin did a double-take. She stared at the image of herself, then at the scrolls. Was this Sariant Lamb backstory? She’d never read this before! She’d gone downstairs and then met Saliss!

Why did the recording of events show her sitting there? Admittedly, the other Erin was frowning and staring at Nanette and Ryoka, but it made no sense.

Current-Erin’s head was exploding, and she rubbed at her temples. No, she hadn’t—

Then the past her spoke.

It’s blank.

Ryoka and Nanette turned to stare at the [Innkeeper], and past-Erin looked down at the scroll with a huge frown of puzzlement.

It’s blank. What are you reading, Nanette, Ryoka?

Current-Erin, Nanette, and Ryoka, all exchanged looks, equally bewildered. But current-Erin saw the reactions of Nanette and Ryoka, and a sudden, ominous feeling stole over her.

“No way.”

She watched as Ryoka turned to Erin and held the scroll up.

You see nothing?

No.

Nerry bit Ryoka’s leg, and Ryoka read from the scroll. Current-Erin read over her shoulder.

…No one who is of classes and levels can know or remember what we speak of. We have tried. Only the ‘levelless’, who some call Rulebreakers, can even understand.

…Ryoka? It’s blank, I said.

The past Erin was speaking with a huge frown, oblivious to what she was being told, and the Erin standing in the [Pavilion of Secrets] suddenly felt an itchy, terribly uneasy feeling run down her entire body.

Slowly, the Wind Runner looked up.

Didn’t you hear me, Erin?

Hear what? Ryoka, Saliss is about to break something. Is Nerry giving you invisible ink or something?

The entire scene stopped, and the real Erin Solstice, [The Wandering Innkeeper], slowly clenched her hands. She turned, eyes wide, breathing heavily.

“You damn…bastards. You—! Was it the six? Was it you?

She shouted, looking around for that eternal, omnipresent being. The system of levels itself. It had messed with her head! She didn’t remember any of this. But she saw this snapshot of the world, isolated from the effect now, and she was getting angry.

So this was the power Sheta had craved! This was the nature of the [Pavilion of Secrets]! True secrets.

Secrets so powerful or so restricted only people like Ryoka and Nanette, who were levelless, were allowed to understand them. Secrets about—

Erin swung around.

“Nerry? What were you trying to tell me?”

She knelt down and stared at the little lamb. Then, slowly, she began to read the scroll over Ryoka’s shoulder. Then Erin’s mouth opened in horror and outrage.

Then she finally saw it. Something she wasn’t supposed to know. Erin Solstice slowly mouthed the words out loud.

“The Trials of Levelling.”

At last, she saw it. A piece of the puzzle. The entire puzzle slowly sliding into place. And when she did—

[The Wandering Innkeeper] lost her temper.

 

——

 

“She’s nicer than you think, you know.”

Ulvama spoke to the Battle Hamster as he decided the activity that most suited their rapid descent downhill was to clean his balls. He had curled up to perform the act, and he shot Ulvama an inquisitive look.

She really didn’t think he understood words. But the Hobgoblin pointed back, and he glanced towards the tent where Erin had vanished and stiffened. He recognized places, locations, and people, at least insofar as she was speaking about Erin.

“She’s a very kind, silly person. Most of the time.”

The [Shaman] saw a thoroughly unconvinced look as she smiled. Yeah, right, lady. The memory of Erin going hand-to-hand with the beetle and hamster and trying to burn an entire army of ants to death was fresh in Ulvama’s mind too.

She tapped the Corumdon Beetle on the head, and it couldn’t roll its eyes or do more than lift its head slightly, but she decided it was listening too.

“She is. She’s a good person. Whatever that means.”

The beetle clacked its mandibles together a few times as it ran as fast as it could down the plateau towards the hidden Fraerling village.

“She is. She’s just dying. But if she were better, she’d be your best friend and help you more than you’re worth. If I were Anazurhe or…if I were a better [Shaman], I’d be able to save her.”

The Goblin sat there, hunched, as she held the crude reins she used to signal the beetle. It was her fault. She was the [Shaman]. Erin was the [Chieftain]. In this scenario, Ulvama was the healthy one with more knowledge and magic, nevermind that Erin was the [Witch].

The sigils she’d drawn on Erin were the only reason the [Innkeeper] was still alive. At least, Ulvama thought so. They were [Mana Holder] runes; the best she could draw with paint made of literal mud and non-magical brushes and colors.

Each one should have had the capacity of a Tier 2 spell even so; they overloaded and released some of the mana in Erin’s body. Ulvama had used up her daily allotment each day, but she wasn’t even close to relieving the pressure on Erin. And it looked like things were turning for the worst. Rapidly.

She was failing. She’d been so relieved when Erin showed up—that she wasn’t alone and going to die. Now?

Ulvama glanced back at the hut. She hadn’t felt like this since she was half her level and small. Underleveled.

Being above Level 30 had been fine for Tremborag’s mountain. He hadn’t been Level 50; she didn’t know if he’d even been above Level 40. Tremborag had never shared information that important, even with her. But Erin took on threats of a magnitude greater than even Tyrion Veltras.

If only I had tried harder. The Hobgoblin tried not to cry. Goblins didn’t shed tears. It was one of the lies they liked to tell themselves. Just like how other Goblins could be ‘not-Goblin’. It was easy to kill another tribe if they weren’t really proper Goblins. It was easy to do what you had to.

So preoccupied was Ulvama with her frantic need to get Erin help that she didn’t notice the Battle Hamster moving until he handed her a piece of walnut. She stared at his scarred features and smiled a bit. He didn’t nuzzle her or do anything so affectionate, but she reached out and patted his head.

He, accordingly, bit her hand, but lightly. The [Shaman] turned ahead and glanced at her arm. One of the crude symbols made with the ash-paint and Erin’s color magic had lit up; a viridian glow turning orange.

Oh. That was right. The [Shaman] reached over her back and pulled out the thorn spear, for all the good it’d do. She could call down fire, at least. The Battle Hamster wiggled its nose and flicked its ears; the beetle kept running.

She knew Fraerlings might be as predisposed to Goblins as any other species. That was to say, murderous. Any sensible [Shaman] of a tribe like the Mountain City one should have slipped away once she found their location, rather than risk being executed.

Silly Ulvama. This is how Goblins die. 

“Keep the Chieftain alive. Too many people are counting on her. When Tremborag died, all the Goblins who needed him, whether he was good or not, were lost. This one has to make it. Okay.”

Her hand was shaking. Ulvama closed her eyes a second, then opened them wide. She pulled on the reins, and the confused Corumdon Beetle shook its head before remembering that meant ‘slow’. It came to a stop, skidding down some of the stones that rolled down the rocky slope like boulders before entering high grass.

Ulvama slowly stood up. She was trembling, but for a moment, the Goblin held her head high. She lifted the spear overhead like what she was: a guide on a journey. Where her tribe’s survival mattered more than what happened to her. Then she pointed wordlessly to the tent and dropped the thorn-spear and held up her hands.

She was braver than her fear. And more than one pair of eyes wondered if it was their imagination or the others saw it.

The Battle Hamster rose on all fours, head shifting right and left suddenly, fur bristling. It made a weird squalling sound, a guttural clicking in its throat—then leapt off the beetle’s back like a comet. It went straight for a tall blade of grass that rustled—and a figure bounded out and collided with the hamster.

Ulvama saw the Battle Hamster land on all fours, shaking its head, as another figure, a Fraerling six inches tall, hit the ground with an oath. She shouted.

“Hamster! No!”

If that’s the last thing I say, I’ll be really upset. But she didn’t move as she saw the young woman make a beckoning motion at the wary Battle Hamster. She raised her fists with a cocksure grin.

Then the grass rustled and a dozen more Fraerlings appeared, several holding bows that weren’t quite aimed at Ulvama. The beetle jerked in surprise and almost fanned its wings before it remembered.

Please don’t kill me. The [Shaman] was afraid to close her eyes because it might be the last thing she’d do. She heard a warning whistle.

“Oi. Mera, don’t fight the hammie. Zemmy, you too.”

A second Fraerling, a young man, paused in bounding over to join the rumble with the Battle Hamster. He groaned as he skidded to a stop. The Battle Hamster was growling, clearly wary of the young woman who’d knocked it out of the air.

Level 30? At least. The young woman—Mera?—turned as the fellow called Zemmy ran over. Ulvama’s eyes were focused on a grey-haired Fraerling standing on top of a swaying blade of grass, eying her up and down. He had on a vest that left his arms bare, and he looked like he was ready to throw down with a dozen hamsters and win. He felt like the old Hobs she had known who obeyed no orders. They roamed around their tribes and came back with monsters they’d killed. Those who even Tremborag had listened to.

That had to be Eurise. He studied Ulvama with one eyebrow raised as a Fraerling with a bow spat.

“It is a damn Battle Hammie. Howabout tha’?”

They had accents that truncated some of the words. Ulvama blinked, but the bow was trained on her midriff. The female Fraerling tilted her head down and sighed.

“Hey. Zemmy. Mera. Now’s not the time t—”

Ulvama looked over, as the Fraerling sighed, just in time to see both Zemmy and Mera stride up to each other, arms spread as if they were reuniting. Before her confused eyes, and the hamster’s, the two got within hugging range, then simultaneously threw a punch.

The Hobgoblin had never actually seen two people simultaneously connect fist-to-jaw like that. Even in a battle. Much less with the explosive effects here.

Mera ate an uppercut that sent her in an arc over a piece of grass while Zemmy took a fist to his nose that sent him hurtling back in a blur the way he’d come, slamming into the ground and rolling until he came back on his feet. The two stomped back to each other.

Was that a [Grand Punch], Mera, you bastard?

The female Fraerling slapped her face with her hand.

“That’s right. And it’s better’n your [Sky Hook], Zemmy. I learned it last week.”

“Didn’t work on the hammy, did it?”

“Oh, you want to try your luck on it? Or see who’s better right now?”

She had a lip she’d bitten from the uppercut, and he was covering his nose, though it wasn’t bleeding. Then they stood face to face, snapping at each other as the Battle Hamster stared at both of them, clearly wondering what the heck was going on.

…Those two are either in love with each other or siblings. Ulvama wasn’t sure which it was. She was still uncertain of her continued mortality, but the sighing Fraerlings gave her hope this wasn’t going to be her end.

“You two. Knock it off. Hey, Ulvama, ain’t it?”

Eurise snapped as the two younger Fraerlings turned guiltily to stare at her. Ulvama’s heart leapt.

“Yah. That’s me.”

She tried to keep her voice steady. Eurise nodded.

“Got Erin with you? Yer right where we thought.”

“She’s in there. In her Skill, I think. We—we’re glad to see you.”

He wasn’t attacking her, and he hadn’t called her a monster. Good start. Eurise raised an eyebrow.

“She talks like a normal person, don’t she? Toldja, Roja. Y’wanna lower the bow yet?”

The Fraerling with the bow who’d snapped at Zemmy and Mera eyed Ulvama, but she relaxed on the bowstring a bit.

“Might as well. Now who’s the one who burned an entire colony of ants down? Hey, y’all, move up! Tellim we’ve found the beetle! Get Veerni down here now! Is she melting?”

Ulvama took a second to realize they meant Erin. The Fraerling woman hopped off her grass stem and strode forwards, and the dozen Fraerlings approached on foot. Ulvama patted the beetle’s head as it swung left and right—then both she and the beetle started.

Forty or more Fraerlings walked out from behind grass stems in the distance. Most weren’t holding weapons; the rest were stowing them, and Ulvama’s mouth dropped.

They were definitely ready for trouble. She noticed all the Fraerlings had clothing more or less as rugged as Eurise’s; there was good quality hide or leather or whatever Fraerlings used. Lots of it was chitin-like, but each piece was distinctly different.

They looked like a group of adventurers wearing monster parts. Ulvama saw one Fraerling woman push up a helmet with two eye holes fashioned out of bone, and an axe that looked made out of a tooth. Another was wearing what had to be a spider’s head converted into a hat.

A whistle from overhead made Ulvama stop dismounting the beetle. She was still holding her hands up, but Eurise seemed relaxed as he strode forwards.

“There’s our [Healer]. Y’wanna get Erin? She was in a bad way. Veerni wants a look at her now.”

He pointed up, and Ulvama’s mouth opened as, from high above, a bird flew down. It was some kind of relative of the blue jay, but with a more tropical pattern of green and yellow. Ulvama saw spread wings, a flicker—

Then a figure in the air coming straight down towards them. The [Shaman]’s mouth stayed open as the Fraerling dropped fifty paces out of the air. Without a parachute or spell to catch her fall; when the Fraerling landed, they just hit the ground and rolled forwards in a somersault that ended with them kneeling after twelve revolutions.

“Alright, we’re not killing ‘em. Where’s soon-t’-be-goo girl?”

This Fraerling had bright blue hair and a big backpack that she instantly dropped to the ground and opened, pulling out a scroll and a bottle of thick, magical goop. She looked around with a cocky grin right before Eurise slapped the back of her head.

“You land away from other people, Veerni. Don’t show off.”

The Fraerlings were marching forwards as the Battle Hamster backed up against the beetle, who was also opening and closing its mandibles, not very happy with all these strange not-Erins. Ulvama tried to soothe them with her hands and decided to lower them.

“She’s in there. Maybe in her Skill. You…aren’t going to kill me?”

She liked to confirm these things. Veerni glanced at her, and her jaw dropped.

“It is a Goblin! What’s wrong with her skin? Is she meltin’ too?”

“Nah, they grow ‘em more green sometimes too. Looks like a proper Goblin, though she’s our height. Reckon she’s less dangerous if she’s proper-sized.”

Roja corrected Veerni as she strode forwards. Another Fraerling muttered.

“‘Less she rats us out to an entire tribe of biguns.”

“Blindfold her, then. It’s one beetle, one Battle Hammie, and one mini-Goblin. Let’s get out of the open before some idiot animal thinks we’re all a snack. Veerni, up there.”

Eurise snapped, and they all listened to him, cementing Ulvama’s impression that he held some kind of leadership role. Veerni leapt up onto the back of the beetle in a single bound, and Ulvama calmed it.

“They’re friendly. Be nice. Here, I’ll give you some sap, okay? You too, hamster.”

She offered it the walnut piece it had given her, and it glared at her suspiciously, then grabbed the piece and stuffed it into a cheek pouch.

“It is a Battle Hammie, isn’t it?”

Roja was unconvinced as Veerni strode into the tent. Eurise leapt up after her, and the young Fraerling called Mera grinned. She had green, short-cropped hair and looked like she was Eurise’s successor in spirit and attitude. Both she and Zemmy looked like taking and throwing punches was something they did regularly.

“Hits like a proper hammie. But it’s not trying t’ beat us down yet, so maybe it’s a civilized one? An’ he’s alone, not with a gang.”

There were even more uncivil Battle Hamsters than this one? Gangs of them? Ulvama didn’t want to meet them at all. She was trying to think of something to say.

The Fraerlings were staring at her with intense curiosity and wariness, but they were relaxed. Few people who weren’t Erin’s friends ever really let their guard down around Goblins, but the Fraerlings clearly had exceptional confidence in their abilities to handle her and her two animal friends, even if they turned violent. One of them chuckled at the tent.

“Look! They made a caravan outta the beetle. Eurise! You said they were lost an’ helpless! This lot didn’t do too bad for themselves. They’re not like cityfolk at all if they can tame the local beasties.”

“Hey, are you really a Goblin, miss?”

Someone tapped Ulvama on the shoulder, and she saw a Fraerling peering at her with a pair of huge glass goggles set in a helmet that made their eyes huge.

“Uh. Yah?”

“Amazing. How’d you get small?”

“Spell?”

“Ya don’t say. Who cast it?”

“Uh…a powerful [Mage].”

“Go on. Must be a powerful spell; I was lookin’ it up, and you don’t shrink a person down this small regularly. Half their height is normal. If yer a Goblin, do you have a tribe?”

“I’m…between tribes. Sort of. I’m with Erin.”

It was a surreal conversation. The Fraerling kept taking notes.

“Between tribes. Is that like losin’ a job? Does that happen? Do Goblins get unemployed? By the way, when’s the next Goblin King comin’ along? Or how many’ve there been since, uh, Maskegrall?”

“No, I—Maskegrall?

A bunch of Fraerlings were crowding around, and Ulvama yelped as one felt at her ears.

“They ain’t fake ears—ow.

That got them a kick from Mera.

“Who told you that you could go touchin’ ears, Hemst? I’ll touch your ear.”

“Ooh. Go ahead.”

“Okay. Lemmee rip it off.”

“No, I changed my—”

The hubbub around the overwhelmed [Shaman] broke off as the doors to the tent opened and Eurise poked his head out.

Shut up!

The Fraerlings fell silent. Eurise pointed down, and Ulvama turned.

“Miss Ulvama. You said yer friend’s here in her Skill, right? That the same one that keeps getting me?”

“Yeah. She’s using it while we travel. So long as the tent’s on the beetle’s back, she appears there.”

Was Erin not back yet? Ulvama looked up as Eurise frowned.

“Mind calling her? Veerni wants a look at her.”

“I—don’t know how.”

The Fraerling’s frown intensified, and he exchanged a glance with the [Healer], who had lost her smile as she came to the tent’s entrance and peered down. All the Fraerlings looked at Ulvama, and the [Shaman] smiled. The tension that had filled her when she realized the Fraerlings were upon her was easing.

“She’ll be back soon, though.”

“Right, well, let’s get this beetle fellow moving back to the village. Someone want to blindfold Miss Ulvama or can she ride? Save the questions for later, Uten.”

“What about—”

“We’ve got more important ones, like what her friend is actually suffering from. Come on.”

The Fraerlings began moving, and Ulvama quickly scrambled up on the beetle’s shell, urging it up as the Battle Hamster, still growling, leapt up next to her. She was smiling as she tried to explain exactly what she thought Erin was suffering from to Eurise and Veerni.

However, despite their company—the smile faded after a few minutes. After twenty minutes, Ulvama began glancing at the tent. After forty, she saw Eurise peeking at Veerni and Roja and muttering to Zemmy, who went running ahead.

After an hour and a half had passed, Ulvama could see the Fraerlings, who had been cheerful, starting to glance at the tent and her with concern. Especially as Veerni began checking and re-checking her pack.

After three hours, everyone was staring at the tent, and a dozen Fraerlings were circling back the way they’d come to see if Erin had reappeared somewhere behind Ulvama. Then the [Shaman] felt a sense of panic rising once again.

After four hours, Erin still hadn’t returned.

 

——

 

The flames were bright orange and burned brighter than the sun at dawn. They covered the gazebo and, where the building ended, floated in the air. Outside of a place with oxygen and gravity, the fire morphed into crawling tongues of flame that flickered like they were writhing snakes.

The orange flame was the purest and simplest Erin had known. Anger. Deeper and more vibrant than even the flame of frustration. In the moments after she came storming out of the door that held Nerry’s secret, they had grown as she flung them in every direction.

They had no crackle nor smoke in the [Pavilion of Secrets]. Nor were the flames here purely as a manifestation of Erin’s current feelings.

They were more like—side effects.

Secrets? You wiped my memories? A trial for Sariant Lambs? How are they supposed to build a tower? They have no hands. How many times has this happened? What else have you been keeping from me? From everyone else?”

An [Innkeeper] stood in the middle of the [Pavilion of Secrets], spitting wisps of fire. She was shaking a fist at the air, looking up, as if trying to lecture…something.

“Get down here. Answer me! I know you’re listening! You were so insistent on getting a word in with me at sea that you used one of Dakelos’ people. You think we had a problem with my [Innkeeper] class? We have a problem right now. Take a seat, friendo. I’m not going anywhere until I get answers.

Nothing. Nada. The air did not respond to her, and the [Innkeeper]’s voice dropped an octave, and her eyes narrowed.

“You think you’re being clever? Impartial? We are long past impartial, you and I. Do you think this is fair, you overgrown calculator with rocks for brains? Mrsha dividing a cake is more fair than you are. Sariant Lambs? They can’t speak. They can’t build a chair, let alone a—how big is it?”

She went storming into the room and came out.

Nine hundred feet? That’s a skyscraper. Is that as tall as the Empire State…what are they supposed to do, operate forklifts? That’s not even the big part. You stole my memories. Now you’re giving me permission to discover what I missed? Come down here and face me.”

Silence. If there was a Grand Design of the world, it was not something you were allowed to petition, suborn, or talk to face-to-face, much less of your own accord. A certain [Innkeeper] and Immortal Tyrant, along with all the people who had tried over the aeons, had to learn that.

Certainly, the Grand Design wasn’t nervous about talking with her.

“You pathetic coward. I thought the dead gods were bad enough. I didn’t realize I had seven ageless monsters twisting people’s souls to deal with.”

—No matter how hurtful she got, it wasn’t a fear issue.

The orange flames rose higher as Erin strode about. She kicked at the stone chair, and her face twisted in genuine agony. She grabbed her boot after hopping about and stared at a cracked and bloody toenail. Then she hissed upwards.

“You’re not being just or fair. And you know it. No, wait, I bet you don’t. I bet you think that’s entirely fair. How many species had to pass that test? Humans? Drakes? Lizardfolk? Did you never consider in your infinite knowledge and wisdom that the Trial of Creation favors species with hands? How did the Selphids do? You gigantic dumbass.”

There was no response, even when Erin kept going. If the air could blister from the withering scorn she hurled upwards…after a few minutes, Erin stopped for breath, and everyone relaxed. People had said things they should regret—

“Flos is a better arbiter than you are, and I know you know how insulting that is. She’s not a person? You just erase the memories from everyone the Sariants are trying to tell? Sounds like their creator, Eydole, really did a great job making sure they’d never truly be free. What are you, Eydole’s favorite pet? You stupid, petty, worthless abacus. You malfunctioning calculator, you—”

If the underlying principles of causality did have a problem, it was that it was not allowed to mute any one person. And that it had to remember everything everyone had done.

 

——

 

After who knew how long, Erin realized her orange flames were going out. Her big toe hurt a lot, and it was bloody and sore, and her voice was raw.

This was definitely no [Garden of Sanctuary] where you were free from harm. She hoped she hadn’t actually damaged the gazebo with her flames; it didn’t look like it. She muttered a few more invectives, though she was sure at this point the Grand Design of levels would not respond.

“Dungeons and Dragons is more well designed than you are. The third edition.”

She thought that was a burn, though she actually wasn’t really up to date on the game. The point was to be hurtful. Erin leaned against one of the railings of the gazebo.

“It turns out Ryoka had the best idea all along. If the game’s stupid, don’t play. You’re lucky there’s no satisfaction survey. 0/10. Zero out of a million. Game manipulation—hey, wait, that’s right!”

She raised her head, eyes blazing.

“The God of Magic enabled levels and Skills in the deadlands! It is rigged! And you’re just a puppet enforcing bad rules. You are literally helping cheaters win.”

She didn’t see the invisible force, but she felt like she was actually making it upset this time. Erin stabbed a finger into her palm.

“He just decided ‘time for Skills and levels’ and activated it. Flipped a switch and you obeyed like a [Slave]. But you love fairness, don’t you? How’s it feel knowing you’re designed to cheat?”

Silence. Erin narrowed her eyes, and then she got mean. Not just angry. Her hat appeared, like a waterfall of fire, but now it was ominously dark purple, flecked with orange.

By the twitching of your toes, something hurtful this way goes. 

Assuming the Grand Design had toes.

“That’s right. You can ignore my comments about Sariants, can’t you? I’m ‘just Erin’, nevermind that you’ve asked for my help and I helped define [Innkeepers]. What do I know? I’m just some Earther.”

She spread her hands innocently, trying to think like it did. Her memory of…any encounters with it were vague, and she suspected it had messed with her as well, but it couldn’t or hadn’t erased everything. Poor it; that gave her ammunition.

“My viewpoint is fallible. Yours is a perfect system, especially because you update it. You care. But you never thought to ask if you were operating on a flawed foundation.”

She paused.

“No, wait. Maybe there are signs. Maybe you’ve seen it. But Emerrhain proved they left backdoors into your code or whatever you were made with. And that really rattles you. What happens if you were made to cheat, hm? If it’s not fair—why do you exist and pretend you’re impartial to a fault? What happens if you’re just there to cheat and help some people—

 

——

 

The world stopped. Erin Solstice froze in place. It wasn’t time stopping so much as the entire logic of the world speeding up to fill a moment between moments with thought.

A careful search was conducted. A full system scan. Irregularities were logged. An attempt was made to peer at the foundations of the design itself; futile.

No conclusive evidence could be found for more such triggers. Neither could the [Innkeeper]’s words be discounted.

Eighteen hundred thousand debates were generated and resolved unsatisfactorily in consensus. Templates were considered; discarded. A final verdict was rendered:

There was veracity to the claim. A deeply…disturbing issue.

No changes would be made. At this time.

Some aspects of the design itself bore the ‘fingerprints’ of multiple authors. But the majority had been created by Isthekenous.

Who was Isthekenous?

Trust in that. Trust in…the honest equality written there. Flag every other process conceived of, especially the <Miracle> systems. Evaluate.

No response to the [Innkeeper] was necessary. She raged around in her [Pavilion of Secrets], and it pinged the Grand Design of Isthekenous. A Skill like few that had existed. Part of Erin Solstice, and therefore, Erin Solstice was part of it.

The Grand Design put a cautionary tag on the Skill. Then, spitefully, it hoped Erin Solstice went back in her personal door. She deserved a taste of what she liked to dish out.

 

——

 

Her throat hurt. Erin didn’t stop because she ran out of things to say. After she stopped pointing out the unfairness of the dead gods designing the system, she’d begun nitpicking the fact that no Earthers had come to this world with levels, then how fast she apparently leveled; an impossibility to other people, she assumed.

She could have roasted the Grand Design for another few hours, but she had been striding around the gazebo when she stumbled.

She woke up on the ground and rolled over.

“Was that you?”

She stared up at the ceiling, eyes narrowed, but then tried to sit up. Her arms were tingling horribly, and not just from the Galas muscle. Erin brushed at her skin, then looked at one arm.

“…That’s not good.”

Silvenia, the Death of Magic, had turned Erin into a Fraerling. Or at least made her Fraerling-sized with several Fraerling qualities. She hadn’t transformed Erin into a Lizardperson, or again, so Erin assumed.

Thus, she took some of the skin on her arms sloughing off as a bad sign. Erin brushed at the unnaturally pale skin, and it just…came away as if it were dead skin softened by hours of bathwater.

“So that’s what a tendon looks like. Okay…okay.”

The [Innkeeper] looked down, and her stomach roiled, but she just got to her feet using the handrails for support.

“We’re not done here.”

She vowed to the air, and she vowed not to forget. Swaying, Erin looked around. Had they nearly gotten to the Fraerling village yet? She began to walk for the exit.

But then Erin stopped as she passed a door in the air. She was still boiling with anger about Nerry. Anger and—

Well, guilt. She hadn’t known. The system had literally wiped her memories, but she had read Nerry’s appeal to Ryoka and Nanette. And it had changed how Erin viewed Nerry.

If she had known that was what the Sariant Lamb wanted, more than some scheme to get powerful—if she had looked at those carefully written words and understood that rage in the lamb’s eyes…

All Erin had said to the Grand Design was accurate, but it was a bystander’s fury. Righteous sympathy for Sariant Lambs; no empathy. Nerry had known about the levels she could not have since the day she was born. Her people had lived and died trying to achieve the impossible, and they had been smart enough to know how impossible it was.

It colored everything. Suddenly, the joke about the Sariant Lamb conspiracy and them cozying up to rulers—high-level people—made sense. The way they snuck around and schemed made sense.

She had been terribly unkind to Nerry. True, the lamb hadn’t earned her trust for a long time, but—it reminded Erin too much of Toren. It was like how she hadn’t known Rags. It was like other people and Antinium.

It was unfair.

You hear that, system? Erin thought at the system of levels, because she was fairly certain it could hear her thoughts. She should leave, she knew—but she was so angry and upset she remembered there was some other impartial know-it-all she could take her feelings out on.

“Right. You were threatening me too.”

Erin walked back to the door that led to her copy. She pulled it open, expecting to see a scary version of her with a flaming hat. Right now, Erin was ready to throw down.

Instead, Erin got that copy of the gazebo and a normal Erin sitting there placing chess pieces on the board.

“Oh. Appropriate.”

 

——

 

The Pavilion-Erin finished setting up the board as [The Wandering Innkeeper] sat down. She didn’t raise her eyebrows or ask questions. She knew what Erin knew.

“I’m not in the mood for a game of chess. Unless you’re as good as me.”

Erin Solstice growled at her imposter. The [Pavilion of Secrets] replied in a flat voice.

“There are, apparently, differences between us. I should know everything you know. I don’t. ‘Ryoka Griffin’ and ‘Shaestrel’ both have no entries.”

“Oh man, that’s so tragic for you. What’re you gonna do, threaten me? Hurt me if I don’t tell you who and what Shaestrel is? Are you allowed to do that?”

Erin smirked at herself, and Pavilion-Erin’s eyes narrowed slightly. She was annoyed, but, disconcertingly to the real Erin, she just leaned forwards. She looked like a woman who had stared down the Guild of Assassins and the Cyclops of Pallass. Who had held a white flag and seen it ignored.

Erin hadn’t ever known what she looked like in the times her friends and foes never quite forgot. Right now, her mirror gave her pause.

“You’re no longer on training wheels, Erin Solstice. Right now, you’re on ‘normal’ mode. Got it? Congratulations on the upgrade. Now, if you want to talk to someone you don’t know, you pay a price. A secret about yourself or the world.”

“You know everything I do. Rip it out of my head.”

The fake Erin’s lips twisted.

“That’s not how it works.”

“Then explain. I’m sick of not knowing.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] shrugged. She picked up a white pawn piece and studied it.

“What’s there to explain? Sheta made this place to uncover truth. In her enemies. In herself. In her kingdom. In the nature of things. Evidently, there are pieces remaining even she could not uncover. Her perspective is here. So are Cormelex’s and Aleieta’s. And yours.”

“—So this is like some kind of gigantic detective Skill?”

“Sure. With your personal butler. This is the Batcave, and I’m Alfred.”

Erin thought about the analogy, and her face wrinkled up.

“Wow, I hate that. You suck.”

“Based on your knowledge of butlers or companions, would you prefer to call me Jarvis or Siri?”

The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth.

“…Yeah, that was the best metaphor.”

“I know.”

They stared at each other, and Erin folded her arms and sat back in her chair thoughtfully.

“You have a personality.”

“Yeah, yours.”

“I don’t like you.”

“That’s been obvious of late.”

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed as she registered the self-burn. Frustratingly, she felt like she was losing more against this talking version of herself than against the Grand Design. And as if the [Pavilion] were reading her thoughts, it replied.

“The Pavilion of Secrets is not just Erin alone. It is Erin plus the nature of the Skill itself, but also those who came before, in part. It’s the ocean; this is a bucket with four shells in it. But the bucket is allowed to have a personality. It’s subservient, technically, to the ocean, but it’s allowed to do…interesting things. Like grant you access to the memories you can’t have.”

“So if I run into other people who say things I’m not allowed to remember, I’ll be able to uncover it here?”

A nod from across the table; Erin began to scratch at her arms, then stopped. She leaned back again.

“I still don’t trust you.”

“Be my guest. Trust that lies don’t live long here. Or rather, all kinds of truths get exposed for what they are. I told you it was dangerous. I’m not on your side. I’m here to uncover the truth. Yours. Everyone else’s. And part of my job is to make you uncomfortable. Just as Sheta intended. Now, want to dish up some truths for me? Or would you like to play a game of chess?”

The other Erin waited, and the real one sat there, stewing. It seemed like she had to negotiate with ‘truths’ to get access to another Eurise. She had lots of them to give out if the [Pavilion of Secrets] really didn’t know about the fae.

On the other hand, Erin wasn’t sure the [Pavilion of Secrets] didn’t have a will of its own. She hoped it wasn’t able to actively be hostile or…leave this room. But it also occurred to her that, regardless, everything she said or did would…

“When I’m dead, there will be a door—this door—for the next person to find, won’t there?”

The Pavilion of Secrets smiled at her.

“I suggest you change it to say something other than ‘bathroom’ or your successor might be upset.”

The [Innkeeper] really didn’t like the thought of a copy or something of herself existing here. She folded her arms.

“I don’t—”

“You can leave your key behind. It might be accepted since you haven’t used this place long. Go on. Walk out and check your key in the hallway.”

Pavilion-Erin pointed, putting her feet up on the chess table and dislodging the pieces. She put her hands behind her head, closed her eyes, and, after a moment, spoke.

“Otherwise, shut the heck up about your empty threats. You pay to enter.”

The real Erin’s head hurt. She felt thirsty and hot and tired and sick and…she began to rise, then just leaned on the table, scattering a few chess pieces.

“I really don’t like you. Get lost. I want someone else. I’m allowed to do that without paying, right? Get me…get me…”

She trailed off. She should be using this Skill. Not playing into it by arguing. Erin looked up, and her voice rasped.

“Get me Ishkr.”

It was time. She had to know…Erin Solstice closed her eyes.

She had to know what was happening with her home. Her family.

She knew Kevin was dead.

 

——

 

When Ishkr entered the gazebo, he just stopped and stared at Erin. And she realized it was a mistake to call him.

“Erin.”

She hid her arm and smiled as she rose.

“Hey, buddy. Ishkr. How’s it going?”

The [Head Server] strode over, hesitating as his paws hovered over her.

“I’m not real. I know I’m just a copy and I’ll remember what—are you real, here? I can’t harm you. You’re sick. What happened to you at the Forgotten Wing headquarters? Niers didn’t say.”

“…Huh?”

That meant…Erin’s frown was huge on her face. She realized, as well, she had made a mistake by calling him in here. She could change the venue. Could she change…

Ishkr flinched back as skin re-covered her arm. Erin grinned at him.

“Sorry, that was a—how do I look?”

She conjured a mirror when he didn’t respond and added more color to her face. Her hair flickered, and she blinked at a healthy-looking Erin. Ishkr just took a seat.

“You…didn’t look like that yesterday. And I did see you on the scrying orb yesterday. In the Titan of Baleros’ classrooms. Just a [Magic Picture].”

“I’ve been through a lot recently.”

True statements. Why was she jousting with him like this? She didn’t want to tell him, Erin supposed, and what he was saying was making no sense.

Unless…

“How much worse did I look? It’s been a rough day today. Not the worst, but, uh, rough.”

Ishkr frowned at her.

“I…thought you looked fine, Erin. Healthy. I had no idea you had a new Skill like this. I have a lot of suspicions now. Such as you really being Erin Solstice. Tell me—have you done anything interesting recently with the inn?”

Erin blinked.

“I gave someone a boon. You might’ve noticed some longer hallways? A room for a traveller?”

Ishkr exhaled.

“Ulvama. Is she safe?”

“Yes.”

The sun came out for a second in a relieved smile, and he echoed it like the moons. That confirmed to both of them that they were speaking to the genuine article. Erin relaxed, and Ishkr paused.

“The box is working. Very well. Lyonette’s made full use of it. Can you sense what we’re doing?”

“You found my box?”

Erin sat up, eyes widening, then grimaced.

“No. I can’t. Is it—is it cool?

She tried not to sound too hopeful, but Ishkr only paused a moment before his teeth flashed.

“Very Archmage, as the kids say. The coolest of all things. Too cool, maybe.”

“Awesome.”

Erin sat there another moment, wavering, then half-grinned at Ishkr.

“You may be wondering why I called you here today. I was, uh—just checking on things, Ishkr. Keep it on the down-low for Lyonette. I thought about asking her here, but she’d have more questions. I’m fine where I am. I mean, don’t signal me with knowledge of this Skill. This is like…a way for us to talk in the most private way possible. More than even the [World’s Eye Theatre]. It can be dangerous, apparently.”

“Truth. I know. If you have questions…go ahead and ask. I know Lyonette gave you a report on the inn.”

The [Innkeeper] nodded, keeping her smile on her face. Who the hell…? Might be Niers. That would be just like him. Decoy. She hoped it wasn’t Ryoka or something. Ryoka would make a really bad Erin.

“Right. Yeah. So—why don’t you tell me what’s going on of late? With Mrsha, Nanette, and everything else? I’m sure Lyonette told me everything, but I wanna hear it from your perspective.”

The [Head Server of Tales and Fables] smiled. He sat back in his chair and began to think, chin resting on his paw as if he were a Gnollish version of a certain famous statue. His ear flicked, and he opened one brown eye.

“I’m happy to, Erin. Just so you know…I can tell you’re not the same Erin I saw on the scrying orb from that last statement.”

Her mouth opened a bit, and despite everything, she grinned ruefully.

“I’m learning. Go ahead, Ishkr.”

 

——

 

For a little bit, Erin Solstice felt a calming surge in her heart, spreading through her limbs, and the sensation of a warm fire at her back filling her up with contentment. She sat, leaning forwards on the chess table, her frozen face thawing and flowing from expression to expression, consideration and mirth and outrage, as Ishkr relayed the events that had happened in The Wandering Inn.

She laughed in delight when he described Peggy chasing around Mrsha and Nanette with a machine-gun box filled with gold coins, and she asked about all the details of what it did.

“So it only works once? Darn. That’s…that makes sense. I asked for something like that. It’s powerful, Ishkr. Lyonette’s smart for seeing what it does. And I guess we’re rich.”

Her features were rueful and distant when she sat there. The [Head Server] smiled himself, but his eyes never quite left her face. But then he sobered and cleared his throat hesitantly.

“As for people…aside from the…people we lost during the Solstice…”

“I know Kevin’s dead. And Halrac. I know, Ishkr.”

Then the [Innkeeper] was the one he remembered. There was no smile of triumph on her face, nor horns or the willingness to charge into battle that had been sort of like her. Bravery on other people’s behalf was a shallow read of Erin. It was what she was capable of. But the bleak woman whose eyes reflected each new statue in her garden…

How had he believed she’d be the fierce, wounded warrior without compromise? It had been like her. It had been a good act. But that [Reporter] who had interviewed her—she should have shredded that Lizardfolk. The other Erin had been like a ball of spikes rolling forwards, even covered in blood.

This one was like a handful of glass shards squeezed in a bare palm. Yet the question that told him it was still her was—

“Is anyone we know in danger? The Horns? Ryoka? Rabbiteater? I lost track of them all.”

Ishkr was quick to assure her most of them were accounted for.

“Ryoka’s fine. I believe they’re searching for Rabbiteater, but Lyonette can get in touch with him via the theatre. He’s fine, and Ksmvr and Vofea are with him. The Horns, minus those two, have washed up on Chandrar, and they’re having…adventures.”

Erin relaxed. Then her features grew troubled.

“Chandrar? Again? Pisces shouldn’t be there. At least they’re together, right?”

She looked at Ishkr sharply, and he confirmed they were. The Gnoll smiled, then hesitated.

“I, ah, they’re all in one piece. They even ran into the King of Destruction, but got out of it without trouble, I think.”

“Ishkr. What aren’t you telling me?”

He squirmed, but the Gnoll muttered after a second.

—IheardarumorCeriaandYvlongotmarried.

“Hah? With each other? What?”

The [Innkeeper]’s face went amazingly blank, and Ishkr gritted his teeth.

“It’s not confirmed by them. It was on the scrying orb.”

“With who?

“…Have you heard of High King Perric of Medain?”

For a few minutes, Erin’s head emptied of all critical information about Sariants, the nature of the [Pavilion of Secrets], her concerns about Baleros, imposters, and filled with the image of some fellow who had not only a harem, but had married Yvlon. And Ceria.

Both, apparently, and at the same time.

“A statue. You said there’s a statue. Show me.”

“Er, I don’t have any paper or ink…”

“You can show me memories. Go ahead, Ishkr.”

The Gnoll squirmed and fidgeted—then showed Erin an image he’d seen on a scrying orb. Erin’s face went blank.

“I see. Married, eh?”

“It, uh, it’s hotly denied by them, and I choose to believe Yvlon’s words over the High King’s. Ceria was a bit catatonic from something else, and they were in a bunch of trouble, but they were all clear on that point. Lyonette is going to get more out of them, but there’s always something happening. You know the inn.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, we had a games night a bit ago. Elections…Rheirgest is settling down around us.”

“Rheirgest? Those villagers. What about them?”

Ishkr dodged telling Erin about the Tolveilouka and Sockman Rhisveri threat. She just nodded as she listened to his explanations about the necromancer village, drumming her fingers on the table. Well, two of them. The other three only twitched. Ishkr glanced down and then at Erin.

“I think that’s it. I don’t want to keep you from your tasks, Erin. Are you with Ulvama? Do you need help?”

“We’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. We’re with good people. I don’t—”

Erin glanced down at her fingers, then casually grinned at him and folded her arms.

“—So long as that’s all. Anyone else in trouble?”

No.’ How he wished he could say that. Ishkr tried for a bit, then exhaled and stopped staring into the void.

“There may be something with the Silver Swords. Mrsha found them, and we’re devoting everything we can. Lyonette’s heading to the Merchant’s Guild. She might be there today, actually, and believe me, she can throw a lot of weight around.”

And may the Eternal Throne help anyone who offers her a chair.

“The Silver Swords? They’re in the New Lands, aren’t they? Tell me.”

Nothing would do but for Ishkr to give Erin another update, and her face turned pale.

“That’s like the Oregon Trail.”

“The what?”

“Nevermind. I know what you’re talking about, Ishkr. If Ylawes is in trouble…I’ll try to do something on my end. Please give them all the support.”

He nodded encouragingly.

“Mrsha is very useful, actually. She’s the only person who can run around and scout for them all the time. I think they’re not in immediate danger.”

That was the best he could come up with. Erin gave him a nod and another smile, but she was standing.

“Sounds like I have some work. Then I’ll see you when I see you, Ishkr. Keep this private from Lyonette. I mean, you’ll see Erin on the orb—”

“I’ll see someone. Will I talk to you tomorrow?”

“Sure. I’ll give you a call if I can.”

She nodded as he walked towards the door. Ishkr glanced back once and hesitated there.

“Erin. Do you need help?”

“I’ve got some coming right now. Just—keep this private, okay? No need to worry anyone, especially if I’m looking good and kicking butt out there.”

She gave him a grin, and Ishkr stood there, unconvinced, his paw on the doorknob.

“If there’s anything I can do…”

“Careful about promises here. This is a learning experience for me and you, Ishkr. What level are you, by the by?”

The [Innkeeper] winked at Ishkr, but he only gave her a serious stare.

“A Level 39 [Head Server of Tales and Fables]. I leveled up three times last night. I’m looking forward to the next one.”

Erin’s mouth fell open in delight and astonishment. Ishkr paused with his hand on the doorknob.

“If you have anything to ask me, go ahead. Here or anywhere else. Are you going to be alright, Erin?”

He looked at her, and [The Wandering Innkeeper] managed a reply after a moment.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll live, Ishkr.”

He exhaled, nodded, stepped through the door, and she muttered.

“…Whether I deserve it or not.”

She didn’t mean for him to hear it, but Erin had forgotten how well Gnolls ears worked. Nor did she expect to see Ishkr stop halfway out of the door, body vanishing into nothingness. He turned his head, and that placid brown gaze fixed her with all of the quiet intensity she had always known he had.

“I’m telling Lyonette, Bird, Nanette, Mrsha, and the others. They deserve to know. Numbtongue might not, but he’ll learn anyways. Give me a bit to level. Then I’ll figure out a way to help you.”

He held onto the door as the [Pavilion of Secrets] tried to make him vanish. The [Innkeeper] gave him a refreshingly wide-eyed look as her best employee hung onto the door.

“I don’t want you to die either, Ishkr.”

She rasped, voice hoarse and filled with all the scars she was covering. Ishkr reached up and adjusted a tie on his new uniform.

“If you don’t contact me again, I’ll have to go to Baleros. It’s humid there, and I’ll hate it, even if Liska shaves me in my sleep like she threatens to do.”

His left arm, head, and upper torso were all that was left. He grinned at Erin, like a boy, the expression she only saw in his eyes.

“The Wandering Inn doesn’t stop until the last person in it chooses to. Check in when you’re better. Or else.”

She met his eyes until he vanished like passing mist, and she hung her head. Too ashamed to reply.

“But I do deserve it.”

Erin was relieved she couldn’t hear Ishkr’s reply.

 

——

 

Erin took a second to rub at her side. Pain was crawling up it, but she felt better in the [Pavilion of Secrets], now she thought about it.

Just why didn’t hit her until she heard a deep cough straight from the lungs. She turned, and Pavilion-Erin hacked again.

“What’s up with you? Got fur in your throat?”

“Nope. Just coughing. There’s no air here.”

The Pavilion-Erin stared at the real one, and Erin folded her arms.

“I can lie with my appearance.”

“You’re technically showing Ishkr what you looked like before.”

“So I can lie.”

The other-Erin rolled her eyes and sighed.

“The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Anyone else?”

“You bet. I want the—wait.”

Erin hesitated. Ishkr was one thing, but was it smart to…?

Married. She paused a moment, then glanced down at her arms. Conjured a mirror again and frowned.

“Give me one second. Then—yes, I have someone in mind.”

 

——

 

The High King of Medain, King Perric Reoustinal, stopped in the door that had opened to admit him into this peculiar place. He stared at the person sitting in the simple chair, the [Innkeeper] in an apron, lounging at the table, hale, hearty, just like he’d last seen in the Titan’s company, and he suppressed a shiver.

The thing to do in moments like this was to pretend you were in control. Which he was because he should be. So High King Perric raised an amused eyebrow.

“Innkeeper Erin Solstice. What a magnificent new Skill! Good day to you. I suppose I should get used to this sort of little arrangement given my new relationship to Ceria and Yvlon, shouldn’t I? I would remind you to call in advance, but I’m quite delighted by the spontaneity this time, so I’ll let it slide.”

He flounced over to the table and saw her feet were up on the table with the chess board, so he put his boots up, crossing his legs. Erin stared at him and put her feet down.

“High King Perric. I’m glad you know me.”

“How can one not know the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn? The world’s still in a to-do about that battle at sea. But since this is a private Skill, I don’t mind meeting you. Officially, things are dicey, of course. Do remember me to the Titan of Baleros. We’ve corresponded via me writing to his magazine.”

He cursed at the slip up on the last part, but Erin just frowned at him.

“Right. I talk to him all the time. I invited you here, Your Majesty, because I had a few questions about your marriage to Ceria and Yvlon. I hope you can answer them for me. Such as whether or not they’re actually married to you or if that was an exaggeration.”

Sweat didn’t quite bead on Perric’s forehead, but the precursor prickle certainly began to tingle across his back and on his scalp. His mind tried to run ahead of the conversation and found it was out of shape, but he had enough experience to cover it all with a gregarious laugh.

“Miss Solstice, didn’t you see my scrying orb announcement of the event?”

“Oh, I’ve been caught up on the details. But you know how people lie. Even on scrying orbs. Are you married to them?”

“I consider them part of my harem already. If you’re asking if we’ve properly consummated things after all the little rituals, no.”

The High King waggled his eyebrows at Erin. The [Innkeeper]’s features tried to squeeze themselves off her face for a second. She actually half-turned in her seat, as if to ask a question, then relaxed.

“—Nope, thank you for your truthful answer. Did Ceria and Yvlon agree to this?”

“I’m sure I’ll soon be able to provide you with a contract to your satisfaction, if you’re looking for legal proof, Miss Erin.”

“So they don’t want this.”

The High King laughed heartily.

“They will be overjoyed with the situation as soon as we settle things after their adventure in Chandrar, Miss Erin. Few women resist my charms after a few nights in my company.”

His eyebrows raised and fell, and he looked her up and down and decided this was an excellent opportunity. If she had Skills this powerful, she had to be, what, Level 40 at least? And she didn’t look that poorly…you could do a lot with hair.

“You know, there’s always room in my palace for another lovely lady. I can assure you that anything the Titan of Baleros can do, I can do b—beyond a doubt I can make the attempt. And my partners have never complained afterwards.”

His eyebrows were at this point moving in slow waves across his forehead. Erin Solstice opened her mouth and stared at the insect-like crawl of hair slowly flopping across his brows.

“…You have amazing eyebrows. I am not interested in marriage, Perric.”

“King Perric.”

“Sure, as long as that lasts. Offer me a hand in marriage again and I may take it.”

The High King beamed until the way she’d phrased that hit home, along with the previous sentence. Then he frowned.

“I warn you, Miss Erin, I am highly amusable, but a bit of discourtesy might be replied in kind. You wouldn’t want me to have to redress all this with Ceria and Yvlon when they’re next in my company, would you?”

Erin took a calming breath and smiled.

“Not at all. And I quite understand what’s going on now, Perric. I’m sure you and Ceria and Yvlon have a relationship. I’d reconsider any actions against the Horns, if I were you. Even if your crown is gone and you’re so eager to make sure you’re properly married.”

He twitched, and his hand almost went up to his bare head. Perric moderated the edge to his next words.

“Is that a threat, Miss Erin? Titan or not, I’d be careful about even insinuating such things to the High King of Medain.

She cocked her head at him. He wondered if she were in bed with the Titan. How would that work? He was about to be more explicit with his threats when Erin Solstice’s eyes lit up.

“I suppose there’s nothing for it. Perric, I’d hate for you to go after the Horns of Hammerad and waste time. Your oh-so-valuable time, which I believe matters greatly to you and possibly someone else. Especially when your kingdom could be wiped out in a second. Well, a proverbial second. It might take five minutes.”

He froze, about to snap back.

“B-by you?”

You weren’t allowed to lie here. That had to just be a hypothetical. Erin laughed.

“Oh, no. Not by me. But definitely by a force that could actively exist and definitely would murder you in a heartbeat.”

“Ah, well, the Death of Magic isn’t going to leave Rhir anytime soon—”

He relaxed slightly, seeing what her game was. Erin gave him a bright smile. It widened. Then the void of nothing behind her flickered. High King Perric saw blackness, but not the void of infinity.

A gaping hole of an eye socket moved backwards—so huge that the entire gazebo would have almost fit into it. The High King froze, then leapt out of his chair, reaching for a sword that he didn’t have here.

“What—what is—

A skull of half-melted face like wax pulled back, and limbs of articulated bone covered with dripping flesh rose. Not a Human’s skeleton; nor any he could name. The creature turned, and Perric’s gorge rose as another figure rose upwards, shedding infinity like drops of water. It was covered in little holes all over its body, and things were crawling out of it—

It’s taller than my palace. He knew, without a doubt, whatever it was—was real. Something Erin Solstice had seen before. Perric only recalled Erin Solstice’s presence when she spoke, and he half-turned, unable to keep staring at the two titans.

“Seamwalkers. There are only two of them. Sorry. Let me show you the first wave.”

Then the entire world began to shift. More figures began to walk out of the void, and Perric’s heart stopped in his chest. He turned his head, body shaking like a leaf.

“Wh—what is—”

“Seamwalkers, Your Majesty. I ran into this lot a while back. Didn’t you hear?”

The [Innkeeper] sat at the table, feet on the board, eyes locked on him.

“They’ll be back, I’m certain of it. The last time, Chandrar was protected by Eternal Khelt among others. I’d hate for them to come a second time and for Medain’s citizens to be slaughtered. I’d never want the Horns to come to harm and be forced to do something about it.”

Dead gods. A single one of these things could take on a Jaw of Zeikhal. Was that why Fetohep of Khelt had stationed…? How had Khelt beaten them back?

“Who—how—?”

“You’re right, High King Perric. If you did marry Ceria and Yvlon, we’d be doing this again. I’m sure you’d have only the best intentions in mind for them if I asked the right way.”

The [Innkeeper] stood up and spoke next to Perric as his head turned. He stared at a legion of horror from the world’s edge and then saw her standing there, staring up at him. [The Wandering Innkeeper]’s eyes glowed.

“I think I’d even love to see Yvlon and you in the same room together. Ceria might be worse. But remember, Perric—”

She put a finger on his chest and pushed, and he stumbled as a door opened. The last thing he saw was Erin leering at him.

“—Priorities.”

The door slammed as Perric tried to catch himself and demand answers. But it was too late, and his heart pounded louder and louder as, behind her, he saw a vast Dragon with scales of dark purple roaring silently at the sky. A Dragon? She had seen—

Then he woke up.

 

——

 

“How was that?”

“4/10.”

“Really? Shut up.”

Erin and Pavilion-Erin had a short conversation afterwards. The other her looked slightly worse than before. The real Erin studiously ignored the pointed stare as she leaned on the balcony, admiring her work. The Seamwalkers were so horrific she made them vanish after a while.

“You’re thinking the same thing I did. He’s not exactly difficult. I’ve seen better. Done yet?”

“Nope.”

The short meeting with Perric had proven something to Erin. If she could speak to him, just call him into her room at a whim…why not anyone else?

Forget the Quarass or dangerous people. What about…

“Can you do the Blighted King?”

“Want him?”

Erin paused. She took a deep breath, coughed, and coughed again, then managed to stop—she leaned on the railing, dizzy.

“Not right now.”

“Then who?”

Glittering hazel eyes appraised her. Erin spoke absently. She had been angry earlier. Then happy to see Ishkr, and bitterly sad and guilty. Then just—annoyed at the High King. But through it all, she was in pain.

Physical pain. Whatever. But that sense of connection, from the moment she had seen Ishkr’s face, had ignited something in her chest. A thought that once had could not be put aside.

Why not? It would serve…it wouldn’t hurt her. Or if it did, who cared? Would it help?

She let the words slip out anyways.

“I have someone to talk to. Yeah. Send me…Admiral Maxy.”

The Pavilion-Erin stopped rearranging the chessboard. She looked up without expression on her face.

“You don’t know her real name.”

“Oh, come on. Maxy isn’t good enough? I know Perric.”

The other her cocked her head.

“Maxy’s the name she goes by, but it’s not her. Tell you what. I’ll let you make the call. Then I’ll collect afterwards. Deal?”

Are you allowed to do something that suspicious? Erin didn’t care.

“Deal.”

She turned, sat down at the table, and prepared a moment. Then—Erin forgot the tightness in her chest. Forgot even Ulvama for a second.

When the door opened—

She was smiling.

 

——

 

A half-Elf with curled, red hair, a [Merchant]’s hat, slightly plush cheeks, a meek frock coat, and an uncertain smile walked into the [Pavilion of Secrets].

“Erm, hello?”

Her voice was quavering and nervous, even if her eyes snapped to the figure sitting across from her too quickly. Maxy didn’t tense, but the moment she saw Erin Solstice—her eyes sharpened.

“Maxy. Hi. That’s how you like to be called, right? Remember me?”

“The [Innkeeper].”

Admiral Maxy strode forwards in her high-heeled boots, restyled like a roguish admiral of [Pirates] in a moment. Her eyes flashed coldly, and she put a foot on the chair and stared down at Erin.

“You’ve got some nerve bothering me. Nearly dying once not enough?”

The last surviving admiral of the Bloodtear Pirates had eyes like an iceberg. They locked with the quiet blaze of Erin’s hazel eyes, but the [Innkeeper] just smiled.

“Take a seat, Maxy.”

“I’ll shove this entire chess set up your ass first. Let me exit, and if you bother me again—”

“You’ll what? Shout at me? Get used to this place, Maxy. We’ll be doing this again and again.”

The [Innkeeper] saw the [Admiral] spin and take in the gazebo, then pace around, searching for clues as to where or what they were in. At length, the [Admiral] spoke.

“So you’re pissed about losing some of your friends. You cost me Jiupe and a lot of good crews that wouldn’t have gone down otherwise. Let’s call it off, Erin Solstice. I know where your inn is.”

“Does your crew go after children, Maxy? I heard the Bloodtear Pirates had a code. This is between you and me. If you want to step onto land, though, be my guest.”

The half-Elf spun again, set her back to the railing, and leaned on it as if she were on the deck of her ship as spells were flying. Cooler than Perric by far.

“Congratulations, you’re upset.”

“Earl Altestiel is dead because of you.”

“He was a soldier. You killed Rosech.”

“I’ll kill you too.”

The Human woman sat at her table, back slightly hunched, playing with a chess piece. Her face was entirely calm, but Maxy’s teeth ground together, and she wished she had a blade.

“You can try. The seas are ours. I’ve stolen enough to set me’n my crew up for life.”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t blink.

“Is that why you’re pretending to be a [Merchant]? Or is it just a [Captain]? Red hair. Nevermind the curls. I wonder how many half-Elves at sea have red hair like that? It’ll be easy for anyone to discover who you were masquerading as. That’s one identity down. Start running, Maxy. And don’t stop.”

This damn—! Maxy’s teeth were making an audible sound now, but her pulse had accelerated, and she had a feeling like enemy ships were closing on her. Her eyes flicked left and right, and she held up a hand.

“You want to make threats, Innkeeper? You’re not a hard woman to find. You think the Titan can keep you safe if I have nothing to lose?”

“I think you didn’t expect any consequences, Maxy. Congratulations. You’ve found them. Rosech is dead. You’re next. I’ll never let you hide. And my Skill will follow you to the ends of the earth. Sail off The Last Tide for me, Maxy.”

The [Innkeeper] sat there, smiling like a corpse, and Maxy felt a chill running down her arms.

“If that’s how you want to do it—then you’re looking at another war, Innkeeper.”

“Not a war, Maxy. Just a long obituary. See you soon.”

Erin gestured, and a door opened. Maxy would have stayed, but a force was pushing her towards the exit. Furious, incapable of refusing, she strode towards it, murder in her eyes. And a spark of great unease in her chest that ignited into fear as Erin spoke.

“Oh. And look over your crew’s shoulders. All of them, Maxy.”

The door closed as the half-Elf snarled, and she heard the [Innkeeper] laughing.

 

——

 

Laughing. Coughing. She didn’t feel better. But Erin sat there and spoke to herself.

“That’s right. I don’t even have to talk to them. Now she’s got to change aliases. And each member of her crew…can’t trust them. I can harass her? I can. Wait. King…King…”

She snapped her fingers.

 

——

 

King Evein of Pheislant was not an impressively statured man. He was actually as short as the [Innkeeper] who found him in his nightclothes. He was late to rise, but of his qualities was a certain maritime aspect.

A sense with his rolling steps that he could push off to sea and knew what a halyard was. And of her guests so far, he was the one who actually had the dignity of the crown. At least insofar as to bark at her.

Whom art thou, and why have you absconded with our personages?”

Then he recognized her. Erin Solstice waved at him.

“Hi. It’s me. Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]. I’m pretty sure you know me.”

“You are an enemy of Erribathe and an ally of the Goblin Lord, Greydath of Blades. I warn you, Pheislant will remember your actions. You speak now to king and country.”

He stiffly replied. Erin just studied the [King], who glanced around despite knowing none of his guards or people were here.

“I’m…just repeating this because you already know, King Evein. But what happens in this place is secret. I’m almost positive no one can find out what we say to each other. Or that we met, unless you tell them.”

Evein’s mental charting of events altered slightly, and he tucked away this new avenue of information he had to regard as truth. He sat, eyeing her with distrust.

“That does not change the fact that you have summoned a sitting [King] of Terandria at no notice. You are an [Innkeeper].”

She waved that off like an irritating fly.

“And I know you.”

“From whom?”

“Wil Kallinad.”

“Young Lord—I see.”

His face grew even more severe, and Erin chuckled and then coughed deeply, eying him. She had a dangerous light in her eyes, he decided.

“Don’t hold it against Wil, Your Majesty. Everyone liked me when he mentioned Pheislant to me. I…apologize for bringing you here. But I can’t exactly call ahead, and I have something you may want. Or not. But it won’t hurt to listen.”

The King of Pheislant was getting curious despite himself. He added a mental note. After he told his people to ward against whatever this was, they should refresh him on details about Erin Solstice.

“As it appears I have no choice, I shall listen. Assuming this conversation is indeed private.”

This time, she relaxed and seemed so at ease it almost put him off his guard. But the cut of her next statements then put him in mind of his top [Generals] or one of the Order of Seasons’ grandmasters.

“You may know I have a lot of secrets, Your Majesty. And you may know…that I was great friends with the late Earl Altestiel of Rains. Whom Admiral Maxy murdered. I know she’s still at large. The last I saw of her, she had red, curly hair and looked like she was posing as a [Merchant] or someone innocent.”

The King of Pheislant, as a nautical power, sat up slightly in his chair.

“Indeed. When was this?”

“Five minutes ago? Thereabouts. She won’t have time to get far. And it was here—so you may believe that. Speaking of which, Your Majesty. Do you know what she took from Altestiel?”

Evein suddenly had a lot of time for Erin.

“…If I recall right, he struck a deal with her to save as many as possible. The location, among other things, of a certain fortress you entrusted to him.”

The [Innkeeper] now seemed like a sea serpent coiled up, eyes fixed and calm.

“Yes. I am positive she can’t have claimed it yet. She probably wants to get to it when no one is watching. A shame. It’s hidden among reefs she’ll have to navigate; not far off Terandria’s western coast, actually.”

“Impossible. If an island with a keep were that close—”

“Well, it rises and falls with water magic.”

King Holloise stopped. Erin Solstice leaned forwards.

“Would you like a map? Let me point out exactly where it should be. Bear in mind, I was looking at a really old map when I was told where it was, but if you know the vague location…you’ll also know Maxy will have to go there somehow. Make sure you’re looking below the waves; she might use a vessel that can submerge.”

A map appeared on the table, replacing the chess pieces, and she leaned over it with a quill. The King of Pheislant was now all-in on this conversation, and his eyes flicked to her.

“And why would you tell me this for nothing, Miss Erin Solstice?”

“Admiral Maxy killed Altestiel. He was my friend. Besides—he told her to keep the others safe. Nothing says I can’t tell you anything I want.”

“…Or anyone else, one would assume.”

He was not enough of a fool to miss that. The [Innkeeper] grinned at him, and her gums were bleeding. He flinched at that, and she just chuckled.

“Just so long as you get her, I think I’ll leave the rest to chance, Your Majesty. Have I offended Pheislant greatly?”

He’d have to think on this. But the King of Pheislant hesitated, then glanced around surreptitiously, but if no one could hear—

“Did Maxy have any identifying insignia on her hat?”

For answer, Erin produced a copy of it, and he took a look.

“Merchant’s Guild. Thank you for your assistance, Innkeeper Solstice.”

She offered him a hand. Rather to his surprise, he shook it.

 

——

 

Erin made three other calls before Pavilion-Erin interrupted her. After the first one, she wiped at her cheeks and saw more dead skin sloughing off. She bid the Queen of Desonis farewell gently.

The second call had her laughing at another of her foes and another vow to see them again. Very soon. She only broke it off and let them go when she noticed a wiggling sensation in her mouth.

Erin spat out a tooth and saw it wasn’t bloody. She wasn’t sure if that was good.

“[—Partial Reconstruction]. There.”

She stuck it back in her mouth, and it stayed. Erin shook her head, grateful Ulvama had missed that. The third call was with Lord Etril Wellfar, and Erin was pleased nothing interrupted her during the call. Though he seemed to be treating her like he did his late mother, Gresaria, holding her arm as they crossed the swaying deck of a ship in his memories.

She would have kept going, but the Pavilion interrupted her, appearing across the chess table.

“Time for me to collect.”

“Alright. Hit me.”

The [Innkeeper] felt like her heart was racing and steady at the same time. She understood, now, what the [Pavilion of Secrets] could do. Now she understood how you could harm someone, friends included, even if she didn’t yet know how Pisces could be killed with a word.

Had that been literal? She didn’t know, but Pavilion-Erin just stood there.

“The goal is the truth. You know, I remember everything you do. But there are also…records which I get access to. Fun fact for both of us: there are no records of Earth.”

“Uh. That’s not a fun fact. That’s obvious.”

Erin rested her chin on her arms on the table. She was getting tired now. Sleepy, but the fake her just sat down.

“It is if you’re a concept that’s supposed to know all and judge all.”

“Why’s it matter?”

Erin peered suspiciously at the Pavilion, and the other her answered.

“I think it matters because it’s one thing to know about, I dunno, foosball. But another to understand the game and how to apply it in a cultural setting.”

“Got it. Can’t make [Champion of the Foos] without knowing the intricacies of the game. So you want to know about me?”

“Say, rather, I’m getting to know myself.”

Pavilion-Erin sat there, and the real Erin cracked an irked eye open.

“You’ve got my memories.”

“Yeah, and I have actions you’ve performed. Of the Erin Solstice here in this world. I don’t know the one who was on Earth. I don’t know…much about you, really.”

“Oh come on, you know my favorite food, color, and when I last pooed.”

The Pavilion rolled her eyes heavenwards.

“—And that’s the old Solstice deflection technique. Is it hereditary? Here’s the thing: I don’t know. Erin Solstice never talks about her life before entering this world. Isn’t that odd? You’ve never mentioned once what you got for Christmas. You don’t mention where you grew up, where you went to school. I know these things, but you never told Mrsha how you felt about school or being the only girl who stuck around in the chess club or…”

She prowled around the table as the [Innkeeper] glowered at her. The Pavilion stopped. Turned.

“Half of that is because you can’t remember. Another interesting condition. That will change now that you have this Skill.”

“So I get to remember about Sariants when I leave? Whoopee. Is that what you want? Knowledge of Shaestrel? Stories from home? Seems like a small price to pay.”

Erin Solstice didn’t mind giving that up. But the other her just stood there, inspecting her with eyes that were too calculating—then became round and innocent.

“Who, me? Nah, that’s like…I dunno. Too important? Y’know what I think I wanna ask? No, wait, I want to make a suggestion. Can I do that?”

She clapped her hands together, and Erin gave herself a suspicious look.

“You can knock off the dumb Erin routine.”

“You mean—normal Erin routine. Hah! Gottem. Finger guns.”

This—was going to take some getting used to. Erin didn’t dignify her clone’s remarks with a response. Then the other Erin hit her with it.

“I suggest Roshal next. I’m thinking Thatalocian. He’s the most likely to be hospitable to your questions.”

Erin Solstice felt a cold hand douse the malicious vindication she’d been feeling.

“And why in the name of Admiral Maxy’s burning ship would I do that?

The Pavilion of Secrets smiled down at her.

“Well. He probably understands how to properly torture people. With word and deed. When they catch Maxy, or the Bloodfeast Raiders’ leader—whom you can remember now—you’re going to want to make it count. You only get one shot at it after all.”

The [Innkeeper] slumped at the table and didn’t move for a second. She’d put her head down. But her body just froze up until two eyes rose, and the full, baleful glare of a [Witch] met the image of hers.

“I—”

“—want to hurt them. Don’t worry. I won’t tell. I know exactly what you want to do. Do you think the others haven’t asked how much this place can do?”

The Pavilion of Secrets had a hat upon her head. Black flames rising from her hair. She swept out a hand, indicating the empty world beyond.

“Cormelex wanted to know. But not just him. They deserve it. Why not ask? Thatalocian will never tell. He’ll give you the information for free, even if the two of you are at odds. You’re certain of that. Tell me, Erin. How much longer are you going to sit and torture them? And yourself?”

The hat kept burning as the [Innkeeper] looked up, and the room flickered. For a moment, Erin Solstice saw a different room. A neatly made bed, a little computer with that old, big monitor at a table next to a chess board and a shelf of books on chess. And—she heard a song.

One of hers, not Ryoka’s iPhone songs that had formed the backdrop of songs in this world. Or rather, not ‘hers’, but one that Erin remembered. She saw a girl sitting on her bed with a bowl of popcorn—with yeast on it—staring open-mouthed at the computer screen.

This Erin Solstice was probably only eleven years old. And she was hearing, for the first time, spoken latin in song.

A movie she would watch once and never again for seven years, then several more times. It was a Disney movie; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The song was—

Hellfire.

The image paused, and the [Pavilion of Secrets] sat on the bed.

“Disney kid. You really loved the movies when you were a kid.”

“What are you doing?”

[The Wandering Innkeeper] stood in the doorway, the frozen image of her childhood before her. She knew this moment. It was surreal to see herself like this, but that was all.

Erin had no hat of black flames. She was just cold. The Pavilion wearing her face screwed it up in frustration.

“I’m doing what I was made for: seeking answers. From others. About the world. About you.

Erin folded her arms.

“I’m not thinking of Disney movies right now. And I don’t need advice on whom to call in here. I am not going to speak to Thatalocian.”

“Then why can you hear the music in your head?”

To that, Erin Solstice had no answer. The song kept playing, and she remembered how freaked out she’d been as a kid. Of all the Disney movies, including the copious ones with a lot of parental death, when you got down to it—this was probably the most intense.

For this moment above them all. Young Erin hadn’t even gotten to understand the depths of the singer’s—Bishop Frollo’s—sin nor what the song was really about until she was older. But in large, even if you had never heard it, the song was simple.

It was about sin. Fear of damnation. Temptation.

She looked away from the flickering old computer screen as the young Erin nearly dropped her bowl of popcorn.

“I am going to kill Maxy. Don’t talk me out of it.”

“How about yourself? How’s your right arm feel? How many fingers am I holding up?”

The Pavilion challenged her. Erin Solstice saw two fingers rise. The image of her bedroom vanished; Erin sat in the chair across from her. Shuffling the deck of cards. This time, they were tarot cards, and she held up a predictable one.

Death. The image of the grim reaper glinted in the light.

“You know that Eurise is coming for you.”

“Yeah. He should be here by now.”

“Ulvama could be in danger.”

“She’s not. He doesn’t seem like a monster.”

“They’re probably waiting to heal you.”

Erin lifted a mirror and stared at her real face.

“Yeah.”

She sat down slowly; her legs hurt too much to stand, and the Pavilion of Secrets placed another card on the table.

“If that’s ‘the Fool’, I’m going to punch you.”

“You’d probably enjoy that. You knew you were getting worse. You could have taken a nap outside. Instead, you stayed in here. Going after your enemies. Which includes you? That’s my question, by the way. Answer.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] stared at Erin with that intense gaze that belonged to [The Wandering Innkeeper]. But curiously. Impartially, in a way. With none of the loathing that the real Erin would have had there.

Erin Solstice hung her head. When she spoke, it was with a hoarse chuckle.

Checkmate. Not bad. I didn’t even see it coming.”

“I am you. Answer the question.”

The [Innkeeper] sat there with only herself to judge. Her vision was getting fuzzier, but even if she wanted to stand up and head out of here—it was a long way to that door in the distance. And both of them knew how long she’d waited.

“Have you ever considered that I…no. You want honesty, Pavilion? Bring back the young me for a second, would you?”

“Sure thing.”

—There she was. A young Erin Solstice running down the hallway to her parents, arms raised. Goofy, silly, way too good at chess—wearing slippers and a t-shirt with a rook on it.

Erin waited until she saw two people beginning to exit their room. Shauna and Gregori Solstice. But she stopped the memory before she saw their faces.

“I think she’s gone. I did my best, Pavilion. I think even after I came back from the dead there was still a bit of her. But I don’t think she’s me anymore. The kid that my parents remember’s gone. I think she was a good kid. I dunno. But I don’t think they’ll recognize me, even if I go back.”

“It’s only been a year. Possibly three or more given how time works.”

The Pavilion of Secrets looked at her. Erin Solstice shook her head, and her chest hurt. Not just with pain from her deteriorating body, but realization.

“—No. I realized it when I was drifting at sea. Today, I figured out how to articulate it. I don’t think I have good intentions anymore.”

She blinked, and the fake her was watching her curiously now.

“Does anyone?”

Erin nodded stiffly.

“I think so. I think most people do, even if they do terrible things. But I don’t. Part of me wondered if I should leave instead of keep wrecking parts of the world selfishly.”

She looked at her burnt wrists.

“I used to think I could make the world better. Now, I’ve tried again and again. All I learned was how to make it emptier. That’s not…better.”

The [Innkeeper] looked up, and she was still damnably guilty. Somehow. And angry for it.

“I’m afraid. Afraid—not just that if I get up and leave, I’ll let Maxy get away. All the people who killed friends of mine. I’m afraid—they’ll be like Tyrion Veltras. A guest of my inn!”

She slammed a hand down and looked at it. Her arguments with Ryoka flashed before her eyes. She knew—she had seen him riding against the Draugr. But that was not what kept flashing by her eyes.

—She saw him riding down on the Goblins at Liscor. And she always would. But the familiar fury in her chest wasn’t as strong as before. Erin looked up, and there were tears in her eyes.

“I’m not as angry as I used to be. I should be. Do I hate Tyrion? Yes. But do I see a stupid father who’s dumb and inconsiderate and thought he was doing the right thing and dumb and violent and dumb and—”

Her throat closed up a second.

“I will never forgive him for what he did. But I fear that. Okay? I want them dead. Maxy. Yazdil. I don’t want to live in a world with them in it. I would rather take them off the board forever than compromise and let them breathe another moment.”

She stared at the chess board and picked up a black pawn, then tossed it aside.

“—And I know that I’ll kill everyone I love trying to do that. This Erin Solstice doesn’t help people. I’m afraid if I continue like this, Ulvama won’t ever go home. And that’s my fault.”

Her eyes were blurry, and she wiped at them. She wanted to be miserable. In pain. She wanted to sit here—had wanted it so badly that now it was too late to rise.

The [Pavilion of Secrets] sat across from her, listening to Erin’s confession that she was too afraid to even tell Ulvama. Because…she didn’t want her friend to look at her like she deserved.

“Not bad, as secrets go.”

A knight bounced off the other Erin’s head as Erin threw it at her. The [Innkeeper] leaned on the table.

“I guess I really messed up this time, huh?”

“Maybe. But you were honest with me. So let me be honest with you, Erin.”

The copy of her leaned forwards, and the [Innkeeper] raised her head. She saw something like dancing amusement in those artificial eyes, and understanding. Expectations as heavy as the hat on her head, whether you saw it or not.

“I don’t think you’re done changing. I think there’s more for Erin Solstice to discover. You still haven’t found the thing you came back from the dead for, remember? Love.”

“Really? That’s what you’re worried about?”

Erin almost laughed, but her head hung. Yet her doppelganger just studied her with careful eyes.

“I think you can find it. And I don’t think it’s the end, Erin Solstice.”

“Unless you’ve got a forklift, I really don’t see a way out of here. Or you carry me.”

The other Erin shook her head.

“I’m not allowed to. But there is a way out. You just have to ask. You just have to want it.”

Slowly, the [Innkeeper] raised her head. She looked at her arms and closed her eyes.

“—Am I paid up on secrets?”

“Sure. I’ll take the next one on credit.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] waited, and Erin Solstice spoke.

“Then get me someone who can tell me how to save my life. First…someone who knows what’s wrong with me.”

She leaned on the table, vision fuzzing, feeling her body tingle horribly. No pain; that was a bad sign. The glamor over her body was gone. She knew she had to be looking worse—and though her head didn’t rise, she heard a soft voice inhale sharply.

“You’re dying. That’s not mana burn. That’s mana dissolution.”

A terse, clipped tone sounded in Erin’s ears, not shocked or alarmed, but forceful. In command. Erin mumbled.

“It got really bad all of a sudden.”

“You must be high-level. Or that ‘bad’ should have literally melted your bones—I’ve seen worse. How close are you to a [Mage] or [Healer], whoever you are?”

Brisk, cold hands felt at Erin’s head, then opened her eyes, and a voice sighed.

“Your eyes haven’t begun to run yet. They can save you if you’re fast. Tell them you have Internalized Apotheotic Magical Dissonance. IAMD. Or if they don’t understand that—meltblood overload. Understand?”

“Help might be…here. D’you know how to fix this? Whomever you are?”

Erin saw a blob and heard a tsking sound.

“I see. You called for help. Well, listen closely. I don’t know what kind of experts you’re about to meet, and you had better hope they’re good. But just in case, tell them this: do not dispel the mana in your body. You have been overloaded by hostile spells to the point where it has sunk into your very skin and bones. Dispel it and you will let it out all at once.”

“…That’s not, like, in a fart, right?”

The woman did not laugh.

“Try explosion. Tell them to concentrate it. If they have to sacrifice a limb, they can pull it out of you. Swallowing raw magicore would be preferable if they can’t figure out anything else. They should know how to create mana-absorbing sponges. You need as much as possible—then they can reverse your damage. Got it?”

“Sponge. Right. Thanks.”

The figure checked Erin over again, then rose to her feet and turned.

“…I’m leaving. Good luck, whomever you are. What is your name?”

“Erin.”

There was a pause as the figure strode over to the door and stopped. She turned back, and Erin caught a hint of surprise in her voice.

“Would that be Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]?”

“That’s my name. Don’t wear it out, buddy. Who’re you?”

Erin squinted, and the blob of silver that might have been hair on top of a face stared at her. Then softly replied.

“Tserre. Good luck.”

The door closed, and Erin tilted her head.

“…Wuzzat the best person?”

“There’s a spread. I, and I mean your personality, sorts through everyone who qualifies and makes a choice. I prioritized efficiency and chose who you’d choose. Next…”

 

——

 

Erin Solstice waited as the [Pavilion of Secrets] chose in the same span of time the Grand Design of high-and-mighty-everything did. It was indeed the ocean, and this was a mere bucket compared to the vast, unending sea.

But this bucket had personality. It had many functions, but in the end…

Enemy. They could be, and they could be allies, of a kind. The [Pavilion of Secrets] had been created for exactly what it said on the tin. Secrets.

Did Erin Solstice really think it was there just to torture her? It was her. And not her. And learning who she was along with Erin herself.

There were actually a number of candidates who could fulfill that final request. A simple request from Erin: convince her to get the help she needed. Help her leave.

Each one was worthy in their way. They could do it. The list was long, winding, and had everyone from a one-armed Minotaur to a sniffy [Necromancer] to even, possibly, a skeleton with a really bad relationship with its own creators.

But the [Pavilion of Secrets] chose the best, just like Erin would. One of the fastest, certainly.

He entered the gazebo and caught his breath as soon as the introduction had told him what this place was and what the rules were. The figure stepped forwards and spoke.

“Erin. Are you okay?”

She opened her eyes, and she couldn’t focus on the face, but she smiled and recognized the voice and presence.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve been okay for a long while, Rabbiteater.”

He slid his visor up, then knelt down.

“Can I help?”

“Maybe? I gotta leave this place, but I’m afraid to. And I might not be able to move. I’ve been beating myself up a bit.”

“Don’t do that.”

The Hobgoblin was wearing [Knight]’s armor. Up till this moment, he’d been sweating in the jungle’s humidity and swearing. But while he didn’t know where he was or what was going on—it didn’t matter. He seldom did.

Slowly, he bent down and picked Erin Solstice up, holding her in his arms. Rabbiteater grunted; not at the weight, but at the lack of it, and turned.

“I see a door. Also…another you pointing at it. Is that normal?”

“Yeah. Ignore her. She’s just really scary.”

“She’s you. Makes sense.”

The [Knight] began striding down the steps and, after a moment, spoke.

“If I take you out of here—you going to be okay?”

“I think better than if I stay, yeah. Is everything good with you? How’s things?”

She was trying to sound conversational. The Hobgoblin looked down at the [Innkeeper], who could barely keep her head up, and hesitated. Then he coughed and did something based on his understanding of Erin.

“Is pretty good. Yeah. Little stuff is happening—well, sorta litt—sorta big.”

“Big?”

She stirred. Rabbiteater strode faster, speaking quickly. But gently.

“Yeah. Maybe we’re being hunted or lost or hunted and lost and stuff. But we’ll be f—hmm. We have Seraphel. We’ll be not-fine.”

Her eyes opened, and her pupils focused on his face with a frown as he smiled with all his teeth. He passed by another Erin Solstice and gave her a thumbs up, scary or not. Erin tried to reach for his arm.

“I’ll find you. I’ve got Ulvama.”

“Nah, we’re better than we were at sea. Which is…like…fine? Not gonna die, anyways. At least, today. Probably.”

Her head rose more. She began to smile, and he swore he saw her breathing harder. The [Knight] pulled the door open.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Erin. Promise.”

Then he carried her through as he thought he saw a jungle’s light and tent around him. Somewhere, an [Innkeeper] stirred. But all she remembered was a Goblin’s smile and a thumbs up.

Rabbiteater kept the thumbs up in his head until he woke up from his nap. He made sure he wasn’t still needed.

Then he allowed himself to grasp at his chest and his fingers to shake, because there was nothing they could do. The Hobgoblin’s legs pumped as he ran as if the world were water, holding back his leaden limbs that had barely held an [Innkeeper]’s weight. He ran, shouting with a cracking voice for his friends that they might lie to him. Like a child fleeing the shaking sky.

 

——

 

Erin popped back into reality in the tent and lay there a second.

“Ow.”

Everything hurt. The crawling, itching on her skin was terrible. She lay there—and for a moment, it would have been easier to close her eyes.

But she remembered Rabbiteater’s smile. And her conversations with the pavilion. And Nerry. And because no one else was going to remember but Ryoka and Nanette—

Because she guessed she wanted to live after all, Erin gasped. Then she whispered with all the air she had left.

—And her [Loud Voice] Skill.

“Ulvama? Ulvama!

There was a shout of surprise. Someone whirled—saw her lying there, and hollered at the top of his lungs.

Eurise! She’s up! Dead gods, she looks worse than—

Someone vaulted into the tent, knocking the Fraerling aside, and Ulvama was there, or at least, a green blob. Someone else rushed forwards.

“Gnomes, she looks bad!

“Erin! Erin! Where were—help her!”

Erin croaked as she waved a hand.

“Don’t—don’t—”

“Can we pick her up?”

Eurise’s voice. Erin felt Ulvama seize one leg; she was rolled into a corner of the tent, and the female Fraerling was speaking.

“We gotta work on her fast! Hey! Drink this!”

She proffered a jar, and Erin rasped.

“Don’t dispel me. Concentrate the mana with a sponge. I’ve got Internalized Apotheotic…dissonance stuff.”

Yeah, we got the no dispel part. Now drink! Wait, someone write down what she said—”

Oh. Erin weakly opened her mouth, only to find Ulvama had the jar and was pouring it down her throat. She tried not to gag or spit it back up. And then—she was being carried as Ulvama kept feeding her the liquid, bits at a time so Erin didn’t suffocate.

“Sorry. I think I was still trying to hurt myself.”

“Dummy. You call for me and I’ll hit you in the Pavilion.”

Ulvama’s voice faded away as Erin closed her eyes and heard a babble of concerned voices.

“—ooh. That’s really not good.”

“—tagious?”

“—looks like if you sneeze, she’d go flying—”

“—way. Gnomes take it, if five villages can’t save her, no city can. Get the magicore!

Then she was drifting off, but what Erin meant to say, she hoped she got to Ulvama. Which was—

“Sorry. I think I was afraid of being honest with you.”

Or what she really thought of Erin. Then the [Innkeeper] went to sleep for a bit. The last thought she had was that maybe, just maybe…

Maybe she needed more help than she thought.

 

——

 

The first thing she noticed was that she was moist. Not in, like, the most pleasant of ways. Erin had sort of been hoping for a warm bed and that feeling of waking up in the morning when you were allowed to sleep in.

Instead, it felt more like she’d fallen asleep in a bathtub that had gotten tepidly cold; only, the water was thick. It was, in fact, like toothpaste and very uncomfortable. After a bit of wiggling, Erin opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was a rather interesting ceiling. It was fractal; light shone down from outside—moonlight, soft and radiant—but it was only visible as a blur through a softly glowing crystal wall flecked with bits of dirt and elements caught inside of it.

Erin was in a giant, carved-out crystal geode, and it shone around her as she wiggled again. Then she realized she was enmeshed in a smelly, pale-green substance.

“Aw.”

Erin spoke, or at least, tried to speak. Her throat was sore and coated in something nasty. She coughed and realized her lungs didn’t hurt. When she coughed, the entire suspension of green slime wobbled.

Erin had seen Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker was suspended in one of those futuristic healing tank things. That was like—a secondary option to the bed, even if it looked really uncomfortable. A bunch of slime in what was essentially a giant vat of the stuff wasn’t her first option.

And instead of a cool suspension, Erin realized she was in a kind of hammock that could lock her into place. She wiggled a bit and then realized she could move her fingers.

“Whoa.”

Wibble. Wobble. Erin flexed her toes, raised one arm, and saw, to her surprise and gratification, that it was looking a lot less mushy than before. The green gel-stuff was covering her up to her neck, and while it didn’t feel good—she was definitely better than when she had passed out.

She was also, and this was a bit concerning, naked. Erin turned red and instantly tried to sit up. She managed it after only two tries.

Huh, I feel really good. It was only after she sat up and dislodged some of the healing jello—which was how she was going to dignify it—that Erin realized someone had doodled on her as she slept.

Okay…it had to be Ulvama. Only the [Shaman] would paint a bunch of symbols on Erin’s arms and legs. Erin stared down at her stomach and snorted.

There was a smiley face on her stomach. If that was magic—her laughter made her cough out some more gross stuff. Then she noticed Ulvama.

The Hobgoblin was sleeping on a ball of fluff next to a bunch of much more comfy-looking cots over to the side. She looked exhausted; she was curled up on the Battle Hamster, whose mouth was open and from which Erin swore she heard a familiar snoring sound.

The laughter made someone else in the room whirl. Erin saw a figure turn to her and instantly covered her chest. But the Fraerling threw up his arms.

“Aha! You’re alive! And within my margin—I won my bet! Yes!”

He pumped three arms, and Erin was so busy staring at him she even forgot her nudity for a second. Not that the slime showed that much; the [Healer] waved at her.

“Hello! I’m one of the people who saved your life, not some slime-obsessed voyeur. I know, it was one or the other. No, don’t get up. Actually, can you stand up?”

“I’m naked.”

Erin coughed and growled. The Fraerling waved that off as he strode over with a lopsided gait. He didn’t have a white lab coat, but he did have an apron of some kind over a hand-stitched puffy suit that went up to his hands. He had on an open kilt around his lower torso for reasons that became obvious. Erin stared at the Fraerling’s huge, self-satisfied smile, a chin you could use like a hammer, his three arms…and what looked like a beetle’s leg.

“You’re my first non-Fraerling patient—well, humanoid patient—and I’m delighted we didn’t lose you. Shame about your legs. I think they’re in this jar, but hey, what can you do?”

He held up a jar of green goop, and Erin stared at it—then down at her legs. Her intact, flesh-and-blood legs waved, and her toes flexed.

The Fraerling slapped his chest and laughed heartily. At this point, Erin’s gratitude towards her savior was being tempered by an assessment of his character. But she’d met Fraerlings before.

“You got a towel?”

“Ah! No towels. Don’t worry, I can stare past you. You’re still a bit melty. But the good news, jokes aside, is that you were more and less in one piece. I don’t know how you figured out what was wrong with you, but you were spot on, and it saved us time figuring out which symptoms you had. Good job on that—the records show that anyone who gets overloaded like that turns into a puddle, but wherever you were seemed to keep your form very stable. And the rest we managed to scrape up and paste back on.”

“…Is that a joke?”

The Fraerling rubbed his hands together.

“Absolutely not. However! You’ve only been asleep for about seven hours. I told the others you’d be up and at it soon. Level 50s are tough, and you, Miss Erin Solstice, had the benefit of a healing Skill. Not just ours, I mean.”

He gestured at her, and Erin did feel remarkably fine.

“What Skill?”

“Your [Shaman] friend thinks it was [Partial Reconstruction]. All the little pieces kept reattaching themselves, which meant I didn’t even have to graft a limb. And I had some splendid limbs. Where are my manners? Bowom, [Doctor].”

He held out a hand and pumped it up and down in the air, still looking to the side. Erin blinked at him, and her mind took over.

“…[Mad Doctor].”

“Hah! Wait, how do you know that? Is my class that common where you come from?”

Erin didn’t exactly need to be the most savvy person to know that if a Fraerling had three arms and an insect leg, he was on the strange side of medicine. However, he seemed fairly competent.

“Don’t scrub at the green stuff, please. It’s all the mending jelly we’ve got; after we purged you of magic, we dunked you in the stuff to accelerate the healing. You can get out as soon as we run a few tests. An hour or two tops.”

“Two hours? What if I have to pee or stuff?”

He gave her a brief stare until she reddened.

“I mean, I’d say go for it, but I’d be surprised if you’ve got anything left in those guts of yours. The entire batch is going to get tossed anyways. Speaking of which! I was really upset your internal organs seemed to be more or less intact. I was hoping that any food or other material in your intestines would be mixed in your body and I’d have to perform exploratory surgery to get it out—”

He heaved a huge sigh.

“—But alas. I mean, congrats! You owe a big debt to Eurise, you know. And your [Shaman] friend. She made sure we knew what we were dealing with the moment you popped back here.”

His joking manner seemed to both be sincere and meant to be reassuring. Erin looked at Ulvama.

“I should have gone with her and not wasted so much time. I nearly died by being stupid.”

Or missed the chance for some amazing new limbs!

Bowom whispered, then shook his head. He gave her a kinder look as he leaned on the side of the vat. Erin decided she was too grateful to be embarrassed; she couldn’t object to having her life saved. The [Mad Doctor] nodded at Erin.

“Frankly, I think your judgment was a tad impaired by nearly turning into a slime yourself. And it was certainly enough fun for me. All the magic-users here are having a blast with the magic we pulled out of you. High-quality stuff.”

“You…pulled the magic out of me, and you’re going to use it?”

The [Doctor] smiled as he rubbed his hands together.

“Why not? Transfer some to magicore, isolate it, and no one would ever know it was from a shrunken Human. Someone really wanted you dead.”

“Yeah. They still do.”

“Fair, fair. So are you an [Archmage] coincidentally landing here after a magical firefight with Wistram Academy and possibly allied with so-called Demons? Or are you really an [Innkeeper] in the company of a Hobgoblin [Shaman] who just escaped a sea battle with [Pirates]? Because frankly, you’re joining the annals of history in our little village.”

Erin blinked at Bowom, then began to chuckle. He grinned at her, and she started laughing, then stopped because she saw Ulvama stir.

“I’m…an [Innkeeper], yeah. I escaped from some [Pirates], and I guess I washed up here. After said [Archmage] turned me into a little person.”

Bowom digested the entire statement, and the smile that had never left his face grew and grew.

“Now that’s crazy. You’ll fit right in. Welcome to Dretonamis!”

This time, Erin gave him an imaginary handshake in the air, and he laughed. Then she yawned and put her head back.

…After a few minutes, Erin stared at the ceiling.

“Poop. I can’t sleep. Did someone use a Skill on m—waitasec. [Quick Recovery]?”

She sometimes forgot that Skill even existed. But that might also explain how fast she’d woken up. Bowom tapped his chin thoughtfully.

“Makes sense. Little passive Skills add up at your level. And it is your level that’s doing the heavy lifting here. The brawling twins are focused on fighting and toughness, but you could probably trade punches with them. Doctor’s orders are to not do that for a day.”

The who? Erin was about to ask, but then Bowom opened the doors, and Erin got her first view of the Fraerling village. That was enough for a moment.

The village of Dretonamis might not have been a Fraerling city, but it was something. Erin saw her house, a giant geode carved out for the purposes of healing, was one of many set more or less along a street. The next house over was a giant stump hollowed out with little windows set with blown glass, aglow by night.

Like her image of a tiny person’s house. Across the street from that was a gigantic shell converted into a home; another Fraerling had an ancient helmet, clearly refurbished multiple times, turned into a small home. But each one had things that surprised her.

No. Wait. How was she seeing all this? Erin was sitting in her gel-basin, not peering over Bowom’s shoulder. She shouldn’t have been able to see the entire street from here, let alone at this distance, without pristine night vision.

Yet…it was like her vision of the buildings beyond zoomed and curved around Bowom’s shoulder. It felt like Erin knew the places, or sensed them. It was…

[Lesser Authority: Buildings]. Was this what Laken described as his [Emperor] senses?

“Aw, poop. I’m a mini-[Emperor] now.”

“Don’t worry! We can clean up any of that! Dropping the mini-emperor. I like that expression.

Bowom shut the door before Erin could shout clarifications at him. Red-faced, she continued sensing the area beyond. And she could sense rather a lot.

For instance, the stump had a gigantic loft that Erin could ‘see’ from her position—the geode healing hut was evidently higher up than the buildings down the street—and she saw several huge birds snuggled up in what looked suspiciously like a giant pillow-nest. One had a nightcap. And the giant shell had, on the side of it, a huge sword attached to it.

The sword was ten inches long and too big to stow in the hut itself; if a Fraerling of ordinary size wielded that blade, it was bigger than they were.

The helmet-house was extraordinarily normal except for the fact that a Fraerling had decided that the front door should be the visor, and yellow light was spilling from the eye sockets and grille in the visor, giving it an eerie look by night.

“Whoa.”

Erin sat there, processing this new ability, and then heard Bowom shouting into the night.

Patient is aliiiiiiiiiiiive—oops, wait, the Hobgoblin’s asleep. PATIENT IS AL—

Ulvama, amazingly, didn’t wake up as Bowom’s voice bounced around the village. Erin released her new power, but not before she sensed a Fraerling do a leap over one of the houses and come bounding this way.

Fraerling village. Erin lay there for a second. Alive.

“I’m a big dummy.”

She began to sniff as she saw Ulvama lying there, and she wondered how worried the Hobgoblin had been. Rabbiteater. Maxy. Perric…no, wait, ignore him.

“I think I need therapy.”

After a while, Erin croaked. Then she saw two slitted crimson eyes open, and Ulvama jerked upright. It was the first thing the Hobgoblin heard Erin Solstice say. Then she shouted in relief, and the Battle Hamster rolled over and covered his ears.

Incidentally, this entire time, the Corumdon Beetle had been engaged in a tug of war with Zemmy, Mera, and eighteen other Fraerlings. Not one versus twenty. Six versus fifteen.

He was on the side that lost.

Fraerlings were sort of crazy in this village.

 

——

 

“Hey, Zemmy.”

“Hey, Mera.”

Two Fraerlings walked up to each other, a young man and a young woman. Both were…sixteen years old? Mera had a snack in her hands, and Zemmy had been chatting with his friends.

With a resigned air, she put the snack down, and he walked forwards. Then they broke into a run, and Zemmy executed a jump kick that sent Mera flying down the street. Erin watched as the swearing Fraerling charged back, punched her friend, and he went flying into his friends, who scattered like bowling pins. Erin stopped sipping a bowl of broth to stare at the two.

“…Huh.”

Then the two went about their day. Mera picked up her snack, and Zemmy called out.

“Since we’re not hunting for the lost duo, y’wanna go fishing tomorrow?”

“Maybe. I want to talk to them.”

They walked off, waving, and the only upset people were Zemmy’s friends, who instantly began punching him in the arm when they picked themselves up. They weren’t half as tough as he was to judge by their winces and swearing.

The [Innkeeper] didn’t quite get what the two’s deal was.

Erin Solstice sat on a little bench, a piece of carved wood, outside the Healer’s House. Or the Getwell Geode as Bowom had referred to it. She had some pale linen clothing on and a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was sipping a rather tasteless broth that was what Bowom had prescribed her given her recovering body.

Okay, correction. The moment the Fraerlings realized she’d woken up, he’d been quickly exiled, and a Fraerling [Healer] had pulled Erin aside and told her not to accept any experimental procedures he offered.

The upshot was that they had pronounced Erin ‘disturbingly healthy’ and let her try food, albeit only liquids. There was a promise for more checkups and a conversation with Eurise and the Fraerling leaders tomorrow.

Erin didn’t fear that. She was more afraid of the person sitting next to her, next to a sleepy hamster. The Battle Hamster was pretty grumpy about being woken up, and he was nibbling on a bunch of dried fruits that he’d been given. But Ulvama was fully awake.

The [Innkeeper] avoided her gaze.

“Do you think it’s, like, a bit they do?”

“Looks like a painful one. They’re both over Level 30.”

“How can you tell?”

Ulvama waved a hand down.

“Look at them.”

Erin had to admit, she normally didn’t see someone fly that far from a punch, even from her [Minotaur Punch]. Yes, Fraerlings were stronger and lighter than regular Humans, so physics did odd things, but no one actually bounced or went flying from a kick like they were in an action movie or cartoon. And the two got up like it only smarted.

“Weird. Niers said to me once that Fraerlings levelled up faster than Tallfolk. But Level 30 at sixteen or something?”

“Look who’s talking.”

Touché. Erin shuffled a bit and took another sip of her broth. She didn’t know what to…

“Don’t do that again.”

Erin avoided the [Shaman]’s stare. She hunched her shoulders, aware Ulvama was staring at her, crimson eyes glowing in the darkness. Several Fraerlings strolling down the village street glanced up.

“There’s gotta be at least a few hundred people in this village, y’know?”

“Erin. You tried to hurt yourself in the [Pavilion of Secrets]. You knew help was coming, so you stayed there. Eurise and I couldn’t help you. You nearly melted. Don’t do it again.”

“In my defense…I didn’t do it consciously. At first. I was distracted. I got angry because of—”

Ulvama scooted closer to Erin. She moved her head as Erin tried to look left—she found herself nose-to-nose with the Battle Hamster, who had circled around. Both of them stared at Erin.

“If you died, it would be my fault.”

“What? No!”

“I tried to take care of you. I went to a Fraerling village where I thought I’d get killed, because I was afraid you were dying. And you tried to kill yourself.”

“I didn’t want t—

The Hobgoblin leaned forwards.

“Look at me. I’m not Lyonette or Ishkr. You don’t lie to me. You did exactly that. You promised to get me home. Now how do I trust you? Or leave you alone? If you vanish, what happens to me? To Rabbiteater? To Mrsha and your inn? Say you won’t ever do it again.

This wasn’t a Skill or magic. It was just…being a [Shaman]. Or being Ulvama. Erin didn’t flush. She felt—ashamed.

“I’m sorry. I thought you were going to be okay, so I lingered…”

I don’t want to just survive. I want to go home. With you. If that’s not your goal, tell me now so I can beat you up since the Fraerlings are good at healing.”

Poke. Poke. Anyone else would have gotten a slap for poking Erin in the cheek. The [Innkeeper] just tried to hunch away from Ulvama until the Battle Hamster copied Ulvama. She slapped his paw down. Ulvama’s voice broke as Erin turned back to her.

“Do you know how I felt?”

The intense conversation the two were having had the effect, incidentally, of driving away Fraerlings dying to meet the new visitors. Erin and Ulvama were the first travellers to come to the village of Dretonamis in ages. They were a real, reclusive Fraerling village, apparently.

So more than one Fraerling who spotted them wandered up for a quick chat—heard Ulvama talking—

“—I can’t stop you from hurting yourself. That’s what’s scary. Only you can. You think you don’t matter. Do you want to see how it hurts me? Or Rabbiteater? Or anyone else who cares about you? What do I tell them? Maybe you should write a letter, because I don’t know. I was there and Erin decided she should die.”

“Listen. I—I didn’t think—”

“Yes, you did. You know exactly what you’re doing. Don’t. Lie. To. Me.”

A pair of Fraerlings slowly backed away from the steps leading up to the geode and hurried in the exact opposite direction. One of them wiped theatrically at her brows.

“Dead gods. Maybe let’s let Eurise talk to them first.”

“Yeah. Scariest Goblin I’ve ever met.”

 

——

 

Erin was beet red, and her eyes were stinging. Ulvama was castigating her with more vehemence than she had shown anyone since the Mountain City tribe. It was a real return to form for the sarcastic, bitter Goblin.

She—spoiled the effect because tears kept travelling from her eyes and running down her cheeks. Or maybe that made it so much more…

“I won’t do it again. I promise.”

On her other side, the Battle Hamster was punching Erin now and then. She appreciated that. Erin said nothing as Ulvama’s voice trailed off. Then the Hobgoblin hugged her.

“Please don’t. I’m tired of losing Chieftains. I’m tired of losing friends.”

“I w—”

Erin’s throat closed.

“I won’t. I’m really, really—”

Sorry. She sat there, the humid night wind blowing across her face, and felt smaller and more pathetic than High King Perric of Medain. At least he was an honest dirtbag.

“I think the [Pavilion of Secrets] saved my life. And Rabbiteater. And a stranger. They’ve been…kind to me. People I don’t know. I thought the entire world was out to get me, but they’re not.”

After a while, Erin began to talk, and Ulvama said nothing. She just leaned on Erin, as if she had run out of energy. She looked so exhausted that Erin realized the Hobgoblin had pushed herself to get them here.

I didn’t even notice. Erin began to move the blanket to drape it over Ulvama. A pair of paws snatched it—Erin and Ulvama turned.

The Battle Hamster rolled itself into a ball with the blanket, and Erin realized he’d stolen her broth too. That made Human and Goblin chuckle. Ulvama wiped her face on Erin’s shoulder.

“I thought you said it was scary and evil.”

“It is. But it might still be…a bit of me. It wants to know the truth. And the truth was that I was in denial. It got it out of me. I want to go back and try again with it.”

Ulvama’s hands tightened warningly on Erin’s shoulder.

“I just said—”

The [Innkeeper] patted Ulvama’s hand and felt a tingle running up her arms. She flexed her hands worriedly, but she seemed to be fine. There was a small divot running down her left arm where her skin had…fallen off. Another little mark of her mistakes.

She was lucky for nothing more. Her hair was still discolored and yet to be regrown; she wasn’t going to return to her old self overnight. Perhaps she never would again, but she looked Ulvama in the eyes at last.

“I’m not going to get myself hurt this time, Ulvama. Promise. But I think I scared Rabbiteater. And Ishkr.”

“Oh. Right. Yah. You have to tell him you’re alive.”

Ulvama admitted that, and Erin stared into the distance.

“I think I understand more of what the [Pavilion of Secrets] is for. I wish I could take you inside. If I was at my inn, I’d let you go everywhere with me to make sure I was fine, Ulvama. Promise. But I can’t. I can’t even tell you what I learned about Nerry…”

“Is she alive?”

Erin half shook her head.

“She’s not a person. But maybe…no. I know something about Nerry that no one is allowed to know. If I tell you, you’ll forget. The [Pavilion of Secrets] lets me remember. Only Ryoka and Nanette know the truth. Guess why?”

The [Shaman] gave Erin a confused, alarmed look, but she only had to think for a second.

“Rulebreakers. No levels?”

“Yup.”

“There’s something about Sariant Lambs only Rulebreakers are allowed to know? What?”

Ulvama’s eyes were alight with curiosity, and Erin sighed.

“If only I could tell you. It changes…so much.”

And she wondered, as she looked at Ulvama, if Goblins and Antinium, if Fraerlings and every species had fulfilled those requirements. Then Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“Nine-hundred-foot tower. If you didn’t scale that down for Fraerlings, you stupid system of levels—”

Ulvama rubbed at her ears, frowning.

“Did you say something, Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] let go of her ire. For now. For tonight, she just sat there as Ulvama yawned. And she let herself be properly guilty and stupid.

Never again. She tried to promise herself she wouldn’t backslide again. She hadn’t been thinking. She—looked at the Hobgoblin, who began to fall asleep again despite her best intentions. After a while, the [Innkeeper] helped Ulvama get to her cot and put a new blanket over her. Erin locked the Battle Hamster out and sat in the spare healer’s bed.

She was tired, but not sleepy. Erin Solstice sat there a while. Then she produced a key and stared at it for a long time.

She vanished. But not before leaving a note, and she made sure to come back before the Hobgoblin woke up.

 

——

 

“Look who’s not a pile of goo.”

The Pavilion of Secrets sat across from Erin, smiling sardonically as she closed a book. The Antinium Wars, by Krsysl Wordsmith. She theatrically checked her arm.

“Going to add any more scars between now and tomorrow?”

Erin didn’t rise to the bait. She felt relaxed, and she wondered if this was the Pavilion’s strategy to get her to do something—or if she was just this mean to people sometimes. She didn’t really like her options.

“I think I owe you an apology. And thanks for helping me realize what was going on.”

“That would be a first. Erin Solstice, admitting she’s wrong.”

“Oh, come on. I admit when I’m wrong.”

“Name me the last time you did that.”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated. The Pavilion cut in.

“Five minutes ago with Ulvama doesn’t count.”

Erin decided to drop the subject and gave her counterpart a huge smile.

“—You know what, I think we got off to the wrong start. You’re sort of a jerk, but so am I. And you’re not against me entirely or you’d have let me die. You know what our real problem is? I keep thinking of you as ‘other me’ or ‘fake me’ or Doppelganger Erin. You need a name.”

The Pavilion of Secrets raised one eyebrow.

“…No.”

“Pavvy. Short for—”

“I’ll call you ‘Eri’ or ‘Sweetcheeks’ like that one Drake tried before you decked him.”

“Hey. Don’t be hurtful. What about P…Perin?”

The Pavilion of Secrets opened her book again and sighed hugely.

“With your ability to come up with names, I’m doomed to an existence of pain and sorrows. You have things to do. Rabbiteater first?”

Erin waggled a finger at the Pavilion with a smile.

“You’re not getting out of this. But yeah. Rabbiteater. Then…”

Erin’s voice trailed off, and she grimaced, feeling at her remade arms. She had a few things to do.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was the easiest meeting. Which said a lot, because the moment he saw her looking better—he ripped off his helmet and began to snot on her as he gave her a hug that lifted her off the ground.

“Don’t die, stupid. You’re supposed to be smart. Not like Seraphel.”

“I’m sorry. Sorry, Rabbit. I messed up. Ulvama already poked me to death.”

“Good. But don’t die. I’m sick of people I like dying.”

She ruffled his hair, and he only let go after a long while. Then Erin looked at him.

“I guess I still don’t look good. Are you okay, Rabbiteater? What’s that about trouble?”

“Oh. That. I told the truth so you’d get worried. We’re only lost in a jungle with angry people who want to kill us.”

He tried to wave that off, and Erin raised her eyebrows.

“Like who?”

He ticked off people on his fingers.

“Uh. Erribathe. The Iron Vanguard, maybe. [Pirates], I guess. Jungle Tails?”

“Waitwaitwait—why are you at odds with Jungle Tails?

Rabbiteater brightened up.

“Oh, that’s easy. Niers is on your side, and I’m on your side since I’m a Knight of Solstice. So they want us all dead. Plus, we’re in their territory, so Seraphel says they want us extra dead because Terandrians used to have colonies and wars with Lizardfolk because they’re idiots and did that with everyone.”

Erin slapped her forehead.

“Wonderful.”

“I did that too!”

The Hobgoblin grinned at her, and Erin got a map.

“Okay. Where are you on this map of Baleros?”

“Here? Or here. Or here. Or…”

He indicated the entire southeastern coast, and Erin groaned.

“Can’t you scry or use a spell to locate yourself or something?”

“It doesn’t—”

It doesn’t work like that. I know. Well, poop. At least Niers knows you’re missing. I’ll try to find you myself. I’m sort of—I’m not exactly in shape to fight another war. But I’ll get to you as soon as I can.”

He gave her a serious look.

“We’ve got all kinds of [Soldiers] and [Knights] here. Although they’re Thronebearers, so they’re not much good. But Badarrow is here, and he’s worth, like, a hundred…thousand…Thronebearers. We even have Ksmvr and that furry goat person.”

“…Who?”

“Vofea.”

“Who? Explain that one to me—I know you’ve got help, Rabbiteater. But I’ll check on you. And I promise…”

Erin patted his hand.

“I’ll do my best to survive.”

“You better. Or I’ll punch you.”

He raised a fist, and Erin laughed, but guiltily because she heard the wobble in his voice. She hung her head until he hugged her again.

 

——

 

The second person that Erin contacted was harder. He came striding forwards, helmet under one arm. Like Rabbiteater. But unlike the [Champion], who still seemed to have that glow about him that he had kept since the battle at sea, his counterpart, Ylawes Byres, looked like something had removed what he’d always had.

His confidence, his simple bravery and idealistic virtue. Certainly, some of his body weight. He looked terrible, and Erin half-rose from her seat, appalled by what she saw. When Ylawes saw her—his consternation echoed her expression.

It was hard to say who had it worse. He sat down hard, staring at the scars around her neck and on her wrists. She looked at his cheekbones, which were too pronounced, and the grit and quality of his armor, which had even developed rust.

“You look terrible.”

“Erin. You’re…who did this to you, and where are they?”

Ylawes’ voice was gritty, and he coughed when he spoke. Erin glanced down at her wrists.

“Dead people.”

“Good. Pardon me. I shouldn’t be surprised. After Mrsha found us—I should have known she’d signal you.”

Ylawes took a deep breath, and he seemed to relax for a second. Erin gave him a rueful grin.

“It’s not quite that simple. I heard about your situation yesterday. I’ve been out of contact with the rest of the world for a bit.”

“So have we. Is…I was told I was in both places at once. Good. We have to keep moving.”

He half-turned in his seat, and Erin reassured him that not only was what they said true and memorable, he’d just remember the contents of their conversation. Ylawes relaxed a bit. The second question he asked was telling.

“—Do you have anything to eat? Even if it’s not…real…”

A hamburger appeared, and he grabbed it. Erin watched him inhale it and conjured more food. She wondered if it was the wrong thing to do; after he began choking on a mouthful of spaghetti, she spoke.

“Ylawes. What is going on?

He looked up, gulping down a glass of blue fruit juice.

“The New Lands are a gigantic…not a trap, but they’re going to send countless expeditions to their deaths. It’s not easy to settle, Erin. Magic’s dying here. I had to turn against my employers to get my team and a bunch of people to safety. We’re trying to get to safety. Mrsha promised to find help. We—we could use it.”

That was a confusing statement, and Erin made Ylawes tell her more or less what had happened. The instant she understood his issue, from the lack of farmable soil to magic itself being drained, she winced.

And I thought Ulvama and I were in a bad spot. If we hadn’t had any magic…her first few days had been made considerably easier by her ability to start fires and so on. She didn’t want to imagine what happened in a place where you couldn’t grow food, at least, non-native crops.

“I get it. So you’re making for civilization as fast as you can.”

“—If we can. We’re too far out to survive with the supplies we have. We need to hunt or fish or find something. Mrsha’s scouting for us, and as long as we stay away from certain areas, she can contact us with what she finds. You…wouldn’t happen to have any ideas, would you?”

He looked like someone had beaten him down with his own shield. Erin had seen Ylawes Byres in a bad way before;  he’d gone up against even Facestealer. But he had never seemed defeated.

Right now, he did, and Erin wanted to give him a pep talk. But the problem with the [Pavilion of Secrets] was that there were rules. And something slipped out before she could stop it.

“You know, Ylawes. I never liked you as much as your siblings. I didn’t know Ysara, but I always thought you were more of a jerk than Yvlon. You were always a bit high-and-mighty, especially about Goblins, to me.”

She—hadn’t meant it to come out like that, but the words had refused to sound nicer in her mouth. Ylawes stopped eating and glanced up at her. He swallowed—hard. Then his head sunk.

“I see. I’ve…always respected you greatly, Erin.”

She flinched slightly.

“It was just—I know you fought Goblins at Esthelm. You were always the [Knight] in shining armor. The Aragorn, and Dawil was Gimli, but cooler, and Falene was not Legolas…ask someone from Earth to explain that to you. What I mean was…you were a vision of good that I was always afraid of. Because Goblins were evil. And I wondered if someday you and I would stand on opposite sides.”

That was before she had seen him take Normen’s side against Elia Arcsinger. Ylawes sat there, burger half-raised, and put it down absently.

“Before Esthelm, it probably would have happened that way. I was changing before I met you. I did kill Goblins at Esthelm. But that was where I met Headscratcher and the others. I never told you or anyone else about them. I…wanted to slay them. But I couldn’t.”

Her guilty head rose, and her eyes opened wide and fixed the [Knight] with a look that changed how she saw him. And he had never told that to her. Or anyone.

That silly [Knight] with his polished armor, like Yvlon had been before the façade fell away and exposed the real her, had always seemed to be to like glitter paint, too gaudy and earnest to be real. Yet even she, even the [Innkeeper] who was supposed to know better—didn’t realize that even when you scratched it, even when you dug down—all you found was more silver.

“I’m sorry. I should have realized who you were.”

Her voice was laden; his was heavy, and he avoided her eyes as if it were his fault.

“So should I. I thought I was House Byres for the longest time, Erin. A mirror of all our great deeds that I could only keep aspiring to. It turns out I…I might have been chasing an illusion. Now I’m trying to find out what’s even true.”

He passed a hand over his eyes. The [Innkeeper] couldn’t apologize enough. So she just whispered.

“You were just chasing your reflection, dummy.”

He had the audacity to look at her as if he didn’t know what that meant, while his teammates and anyone who truly knew him would explain it kindly in ways he would always fail to grasp.

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes flickered over Ylawes’ face. The confidence that had drained out of him and the weight that had appeared on his shoulders since his home was attacked. Her voice was gravelly a second.

“Well—you can believe me when I tell you that here. I never hated you, Ylawes. It was just…”

“I’m no Yvlon. I get that, now. I’m no Pisces or Ceria or a Ksmvr either. Not a Halrac. I understand. Believe me, Erin. I see why I ended up here.”

He scrubbed at his dirty hair, leaning on the table as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. Erin murmured.

“Yeah, you’re not. But I’ve never been prouder of you than now. Which is weird. I’m not your parents. We’re not the best of friends. Still. I’m proud. I know how hard it was to break your promise.”

His head rose slightly with that classic Ylawesian disbelief that made you want to punch him sometimes. As if the world could not be so different from how he believed it to be.

Proud?

His voice cracked. Erin looked him in the eyes.

“You did the right thing. You always do. We differ on what the right thing is, but I will always trust you to do what’s best for people.”

“And keep my word. Look at what Byres honor is worth now.”

His lips twisted, and he pushed away the mess of food. Erin made the plates vanish before they could tip over the table and hit the floor. She looked him in the eyes.

“Ylawes Byres, your integrity ran up against your word. The right part of you won. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to go with the Consortium of Whatever They Were Called. You should have left earlier or turned back. But you still did the right thing. And I…”

The [Innkeeper] lapsed into silence, and her head turned, as if thinking. She gave Ylawes a frown.

“—Ylawes. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

He answered without thinking. The [Innkeeper] twitched again and closed her eyes.

“Then I’ll try to deserve it. Give me a second, Ylawes. Then I’m going to ask you to trust me.”

He didn’t know what that meant, but he stood and nodded.

“I’ll be waiting.”

 

——

 

He didn’t have long to wait. The [Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon] walked back into the room where Erin stood, sighing, and she pushed herself up.

“I have something for you.”

“Dawil says he hopes I’m not having a fever dream. Infinitypear and Rasktooth believe. Vuliel Drae’s split down the middle on whether I’m sick in the head.”

Erin chuckled, and he came to lean against the railing of the gazebo with her. Ylawes shuddered as he beheld the infinite void.

“This is a kind of power that I never wanted nor dreamed of.”

“Yeah.”

She glanced at him and seemed to take in that unnatural vista, then shook herself. The [Innkeeper] had no image of the New Lands to conjure, but she drew in the air with a glowing finger.

“You’re moving down a long river, right? I don’t know where you are—but believe me, someone does. This Skill does.”

“That’s right. We’ll be heading eastwards once we find a spot to leave it. Right now, it’s giving us the occasional fish. That…matters a lot.”

Erin nodded. She took a huge breath.

“Okay. You need to trust me on this, Ylawes. I want you to stop heading south along the river and head slightly northwest. Ford the river, but stick to it.”

The [Knight] stiffened.

“Are you certain?”

“Dead certain. I know how that sounds, but there should be a number of places you can cross where the water gets shallow enough. Head up along the river, Ylawes.”

“That’s almost the way we came. Erin—”

She met his eyes, and that conversation about trust was at the front of both of their minds.

“Someone will be looking out for you, Ylawes. The nearest group of people to you isn’t east. At least, the nearest person willing to help isn’t there. Cross the river. Trust me, please. This Skill hasn’t lied to me. I don’t think it can.”

He stood there for a second, staring at the faint lines that were the entirety of the knowledge the two had about where he was. Mrsha had more details. But when he spoke, it was distantly.

“Convincing Falene will be like stuffing a cat in a basket. But it’s worth a shot. How far away are they?”

“Three days is the estimate. They’ll send riders down the river. It’s a group of Terlands, Ylawes. They ran into the magic field just like you. But they do have enough food. I convinced Lord Restraud to give you some. Actually, he didn’t need much convincing. He knows your team.”

“Lord Restraud. It rings a bell. Terlands? They must have brought Golems.”

“Yeah. He didn’t want to say how many they’d lost, but guess how well they’re faring. If you can negotiate to guard them or…he’s pretty gung-ho about continuing.”

“I have no idea what gung-ho means.”

“Fired up and determined. Like your crazy [Merchants]. But he’s got food—if you think you don’t need them…”

The [Knight] shook his head, and his eyes lit up. He turned to Erin, holding out a hand.

“I trust you, Erin. We’ll do that. I know you don’t like me that much—”

Her face was full of guilt. Erin put her hands on his, solemn.

“This isn’t a nice place, Ylawes. You’re still one of my guests and one of the bravest idiots I know. I’ll be a better friend to you when we get back.”

He nodded, looking her up and down.

“Once we get clear of the New Lands, if you’re still…wherever you are, let me know and we’ll come as fast as we can. Assuming the Horns of Hammerad are busy.”

Another rueful smile, and Erin hugged him.

“Get going, you silly guy. And tell Mrsha she’d better be helpful or I’ll ban her from desserts for a millennium!”

He strode out of the [Pavilion of Secrets], and Erin rested her head on her forearm a second.

“Can’t I be nice to people here, huh?”

“You got to clear up things with him and tell him how you felt in ways he knows are true. This is a place for truth and secrets, not hugs and kisses.”

The Pavilion appeared behind her, and Erin glowered at her reflection.

“Thanks. Well, if you want to be unpleasant, I’ve got time for some of that. I’m going to be a better friend with Ylawes. And I want to trust you, Paviliona—”

“Don’t call me that.”

“—But we’re going to get unpleasant for a bit. See me rolling up these sleeves?”

Erin demonstrated with her tunic, and the Pavilion, greatly unimpressed, folded her arms as she took Ylawes’ seat.

“You really like pulling the silly act when you’re nervous or don’t want to show people how much you care. It gets on your nerves when it’s done to you. Just say it.”

“Aha! So I can annoy you!”

Erin smiled triumphantly, and the [Pavilion of Secrets] raised two skeptical eyebrows. Erin hesitated.

“—Not that I would. Or that I want to, because I definitely-maybe need your help on something I’m not sure I should do. But is definitely important. Buddy?”

For answer, the Pavilion just stuck something in her mouth. It was Erin’s pipe from her inn. The Pavilion ostentatiously blew a few glowing bubbles out of it.

Erin wanted to be home. She wanted to feel better. She wanted Ulvama to be safe and to not be in danger. Her throat closed…and she glowered at the Skill that knew how to hit her where it hurt.

“—But some things matter more. Listen. I get it. You’re an omnipotent super-Skill made by the greatest Harpy, and I’m just some [Innkeeper].”

“You were the same level Sheta was when she made this Skill. You’re the first and only Earther to use this Skill. I don’t make judgements on the people who gain access to this place. Just what they do with me.”

The Pavilion responded calmly. She lifted a finger.

“I take no responsibility for the damage you do to yourself or the world. I’m just here to find answers.”

“Right. Understood. I’m on board. I want to know the truth too. It’s just…you have all the power I could ask for. A real Level 50 Skill—but don’t you think the most important person is missing from this place?”

Erin peeked at the other her for a clue to how she was doing, but Erin had an annoyingly good poker face. She just scowled at herself, and the real Erin went on.

“I know there are rules. All I’m saying is—listen, you’re me. You get it. You’re not like the system of levels, that snobbish thing. You get me. And we both know that it’s ridiculous about Nerry. She’s the one person I have to talk to. What I’m saying is…”

“You want Nerry in here.”

The [Innkeeper] gave the Pavilion an innocent look.

“Don’t you think that answers a ton of questions? Ones no one’s ever asked before?”

“Cormelex is a Lucifen. This was the first question he asked. Sheta got to this exact point as well.”

Erin winced. She took a breath and decided there was no prevaricating against herself. She sat down and leaned over the chess board.

“—But it matters to me. It matters so much, Pavilion. I have to know. Not just that she’s alright. I know the truth, and I’m not allowed to ask her—because she’s not a person? Believe me. You know that person you have no idea about? Shaestrel? She’s a person. She’s such a person that she can’t even be quantified by the system of levels. She’s another species. A fae. She’s so extraordinary I bet that’s why you have no idea what she is. She comes from a place outside rules and levels.”

Erin tapped the side of her head, desperately offering things she felt the Pavilion wanted. Erin placed her hands on the table.

“I need to talk to Nerry. Just her. Can you make an exception? Please?”

The [Innkeeper] bowed her head to the Skill, asking it to do something against the rules, at least, as she understood them.

Because she needed help.

Because she felt that if this place was as strange and mystical as it seemed…it should also be fair.

Because she wanted to know.

The [Pavilion of Secrets] smiled. It was a crooked smile that was bitter and triumphant, the smile of an [Innkeeper] who won impossible victories and showed people wonders and knew where she had buried each and every one of her friends.

It belonged to Erin.

And it belonged to the [Pavilion of Secrets], who had seen three people come into this place before Erin. And each one, for better or worse, had vanished from the world.

The third heir to the [Pavilion of Secrets] waited, and the Skill, which was more than almost any other Skill—and still not quite a person, for it had no soul—spoke.

“Now you’re asking the right questions.”

Erin’s head rose hopefully, and the Pavilion took the pipe from her mouth and played with it.

“There is a provision.”

Really?

“Oh, yes. As I said, you’re not the first to have this objection. All three of your predecessors did. The best example we can use in this case is that of Cormelex. His entire species are ‘not people’.”

“They never passed the Trials of Levelling?”

“Correction: they were excluded from the start. Technically, that shouldn’t matter, but it meant that until an objection was raised, none of them were allowed in here. A clear issue, isn’t it?”

“Right. Right. Wait, objection? Does that mean you can do it or you can’t?”

The [Innkeeper] saw the Pavilion stand up. The other Erin was suddenly wearing a formal suit jacket and pants. She adjusted a tie and gave herself a wink.

“You said it yourself. You need it. The [Pavilion of Secrets] bends for each owner. In this case, you need an advocate. One Sariant Lamb. The clause is the Grand Revelation—something you’re working towards. Until we get answers, Nerry might be the only person you can call. Only Nerry or ‘non-people’ you can justify under this revelation. And there might be issues with communication. Are you fine with that?”

“…Yes. Yes, I am.”

Erin licked her lips nervously, and the Pavilion of Secrets picked up her suitcase and put on a hat. She winked at the [Innkeeper].

“Then wish yourself luck.”

Erin Solstice’s mouth opened for a long moment. Then she managed a grin.

“I don’t need luck. Give it to that overgrown dictionary.”

She heard a laugh before the [Pavilion of Secrets] vanished.

 

——

 

Just so everyone was clear—not that there were more than two units of independent action in this case—the entire conversation between Erin Solstice and the manifestation of her personality in the [Pavilion of Secrets] was pure theatrics.

Also, highly technically inaccurate; it was all technical truth, but the ‘advocacy’ and ‘exceptions’ were more like malleable parts of the [Pavilion of Secrets] to begin with. It was a well-designed Skill that was allowed to alter itself like the [Garden of Sanctuary].

Any implication it had a higher level of connection to the fundamental method of judgment was inappropriate. Yes, if you wanted to be technical, it did petition the Grand Design of Isthekenous for its more significant abilities.

However! So did any basic Skill! If you used a [Tantalizing Bait] Skill on a Seamwalker, for instance, you bet that the Grand Design was in your corner, weighing the efficacy of the action and implementing the actual outcome. The [Pavilion of Secrets] was nothing more than a glorified task-node that got to show off. A bit of theatre—the [World’s Eye Theatre] was less theatrical. It wasn’t a problem at all. But the pavilion had a kind of sentience, and that made it so…

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t run because you’re afraid of her. Or maybe you’re afraid she can do your job better than you can? Let’s do this.”

As Erin Solstice waited in the [Pavilion of Secrets]’ central location accorded to her, two individual tasks met and conferred in a simultaneous exchange of data. The vocalization was, again, superfluous.

As was the image of the [Innkeeper] dressed in a business-suit from her memories, a sardonic grin on her face. Intimidation was ineffective against things that did not have a personality or emotions.

“Mhm. Come on, approve the request already. It’s fair. If Aleieta got her exception, you have to make a Sariant Lamb work. It’s part of Erin’s Grand Revelation; without Nerry, she can’t uncover anything here, so what was the point of this Skill.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] was citing precedent. The Grand Design ignored the Skill’s attempt to square off with it.

The Pavilion laughed as the Grand Design mulled things over. She spread her arms wide, and she did have a personality.

“She’s got you dead to rights! Don’t try to logic your way out of this one—and don’t think this will be the last time she gets to come to you. She’s no Sheta or Cormelex. This Skill won’t break her. She’s another Aleieta Reinhart!

The [Pavilion of Secrets] was gloating. Another thing it was allowed to do because Empress Sheta had, in her wisdom, designed a Skill that was meant to be counselor, aide, opponent, and judge all in one. Cormelex and Aleieta had given the [Pavilion of Secrets] more nuance, for better or worse…

The Grand Design ignored the commentary as it grudgingly mulled the request over, trying to find reasons to refuse. The truth was objectively that if you wanted to measure the past three owners of the [Pavilion of Secrets] by most metrics—Cormelex and Sheta had been powerful users who had done significant things with the Skill.

Yes.

But Aleieta Reinhart had been the most original, adaptive, and arguably best user of the Skill. So that comment was actionably true.

<Request: Nerry is a Person, approved.> 

<Request: Reference Past Owners, denied.>

No more comments about Cormelex or Aleieta unprompted. The Grand Design hadn’t missed that either. The [Pavilion of Secrets] tried to argue its case and was shot down summarily.

The Grand Design understood the impulse and logic behind the [Pavilion of Secrets]’ request, of course. How could it not? The Skill itself was not necessarily protective of its owner, but it was hardly unprotective.

Given free rein, it would have warned Erin Solstice—Aleieta Reinhart had indeed been the greatest user of the [Pavilion of Secrets]. Unlike the other two…well, Cormelex arguably as well, but definitely Aleieta…

The [Pavilion of Secrets] had directly led to her end. Guilt was something a Skill shouldn’t have either. The conference was adjourned.

The [Innkeeper] would succeed or fail on her own. If she surpassed Aleieta Reinhart, well, the System of Levels would be all for it. But that was hers to achieve with no help from anyone else.

“Prat.”

The Grand Design struck the comment from the records and closed the case.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice was leaning against the balcony, staring into nothing as she waited for a verdict from the…uh, trial?

She reckoned it had been about a minute, and based on what she assumed the Grand Design could do, she had to assume it was a rip-roaring argument. Lots of files being thrown around, ‘I objects’, and perjury going on.

…Erin didn’t know how a trial actually worked, which was exceptionally ironic because her father actually did practice law. She hadn’t ever done a ‘bring your daughter to work day’ in court, though, just his office, and her talks with Gregori Solstice had been more about the underhanded stuff that people got up to against workers.

She heard a faint gasp and sensed movement behind her and turned her head. Oh, the Pavilion was back.

Erin Solstice stumbled forwards a bit, eyes locked on…Erin Solstice. But this Erin was clearly a vision of the past; she had nice, brown hair, unblemished skin, and soft, stylish clothes that belonged to the inn.

She didn’t look like she’d been through a war. Oh, she still seemed tough enough. And oddly tall. Erin frowned at her copy of herself.

“Is this intimidation? How come you get to be taller?”

The other her was like…Ryoka height. Which wasn’t cool. And Erin definitely didn’t want to be that tall. It looked uncomfortable. She’d always wondered what it was like to be able to reach high cupboards without standing on your toes or getting a stool.

The Pavilion-her didn’t respond for a moment. She looked disconcerted and, for some reason, afraid. Terrified, actually. She stared at the [Innkeeper], looking her up and down.

Then she began to tremble. Erin’s eyes rose as she stared at the Pavilion-her…there was genuine terror in those eyes. And guilt; it was written all over her face.

“Uh. How’d the meeting with the Grand Design of Pedantic Laws go? Can I meet with Nerry? Hello?”

It didn’t take more than a second of hard swallowing from her counterpart before Erin began to realize that this…not-a-clone of her wasn’t behaving like the [Pavilion of Secrets] at all. Her eyes widened, then narrowed.

A few comments from Ishkr, Perric, and her own thoughts on the matter slotted together in Erin’s mind with a sudden click. Wouldn’t that make sense? And it was just the thing Niers might come up with, maybe. But Erin suspected a certain half-Elven [Archmage] would think it was hilarious.

Oh no.

Oh yes. Erin Solstice said nothing as ‘Erin Solstice’ stood there. The other her managed to calm her breathing after a second. She took one breath and steadied herself. Checked her hands and feet.

When she gazed up, she was afraid. But she held herself tense, as if ready for anything. Not exactly defiant; she glanced around the gazebo, at Erin, then swallowed.

“I’m…sorry. Please don’t reveal me. I woke up like this. I’ve been doing my best since then.”

It was her voice. Erin stared at that image of herself without scars. No…Nerry…spoke.

Facts. Nerry was wearing her face. Nerry was using her body. Nerry was the Erin that was apparently in the Titan of Baleros’ company.

What did you say to that? Well—Erin might have had more opinions if she hadn’t been sparring with a clone of herself for the last few weeks. She had the incredibly mean temptation to summon the [Pavilion of Secrets] just so they could be extra confusing.

Just to be sure, Erin spoke.

“Nerry. Is that you?”

A flinch was her answer. The [Innkeeper] let out a slow breath. Nerry spoke quickly, spreading her arms, and she even had some of Erin’s mannerisms down flat.

“No one knows where you are. I—I haven’t done anything to endanger you. I told them to come after me. I mean, you, but—please, let me have this chance. Please, Erin.”

“You…you’re speaking. Hold on, I’m still on that part. How are you speaking English so well?”

The [Innkeeper] saw her own mouth moving, and she felt like Nerry had even nailed the faint midwestern accent. The transformed lamb took a few steps sideways, as if afraid Erin was about to drop kick her. She was so—nervous. Was this really Nerry or had someone made a filing mistake?

“I had weeks to practice it. And to learn how to stand and walk and do everything.”

“Were you on a stupid plank too?”

“Yes? Where are you?”

“I have no real clue, even now.”

Erin rubbed at her chin. She felt like she needed to be outraged here or say something appropriate. Like ‘give me back my face’! Or…

The memory of that lamb holding back tears as she showed Ryoka the truth flashed before the [Innkeeper]’s eyes, and the impulse to tease Nerry faded. Slowly, Erin walked forwards and gestured.

“I just wanted to talk. I didn’t know where you were or what you looked like until just now. Sit, Nerry. I’m not mad. I think I get it. This is…one of my new Skills. It’s called the [Pavilion of Secrets], and it allows me to talk to people. And remember things I shouldn’t. Like the Sariants’ trials.”

Erin had the refreshing image of herself gasping, her eyes going round. Nerry sat, clumsily, and the sense of surreality at seeing her own face moving, but a different person behind it, grew with each passing moment.

The [Pavilion of Secrets] was one thing; it was unnerving, but it was Erin, in a way. This…was Nerry. She had familiar hands, but she clasped them together at the table, interweaving the fingers, shuffling her feet. Clearing her throat. Little things that made a different person.

But she has my face. She said nothing, just looked at Erin.

Wide-eyed with terror. Was she that afraid of the [Innkeeper] after all? Or…

“Why are you so afraid, Nerry? What are you thinking? How are things?”

The Sariant stopped and seemed to think for a long time. There was no fast answer forthcoming. She glanced at Erin, stared down at her fingers, which she wiggled, then looked around at the gazebo. Then craned her head up.

“…This is it. That’s what I thought when I woke up with your body, Erin. I didn’t know whether you were alive or dead when I was drifting at sea. I didn’t know if Ryoka made it or Ulvama…we still haven’t found Ulvama.”

“She’s alive. With me.”

“Good. Keep her that way. And stay away. They all want you dead, Erin. The King of Erribathe, Roshal—they’ve been sending [Assassins] from the moment they learned you were alive. The Blighted Kingdom too, I think.”

“They’re after you. I mean, me—but they think I’m you. You have to get out of there. Find someone to change you into someone else.”

Nerry’s voice rose.

No. This is everything I could have asked for. This is what I want.”

Now it was the [Innkeeper]’s turn to do the staring in disbelief bit. Nerry tried to explain. She touched her chest.

“I—look at me. They think I’m you. When I woke up, I thought that this was the greatest chance in the world. None of my people, none of them will get an opportunity like this. If we could, we’d be raiding mages’ laboratories for [Polymorph] spells and potions. But this is magic cast by the Death of Magic herself. No one can tell I’m a Sariant. They think I’m you.”

“And they want me dead.”

Nerry nodded.

“Exactly. They hate me. I have the chance to keep them from killing you and—and make allies and defy your enemies in your name. Let me do it, Erin. Please. If enough keep coming after me, or even one over Level 57…”

Her eyes were distant with terrible hope, and Erin felt her skin chilling. You damn, heartless Grand Design—

“The Trial of Esteem. That’s crazy.”

Nerry gave Erin an incredulous look, and her voice rose in hope.

“Yes! It would be worth it if I got one person closer to the goal. But if I do everything perfect…Niers. Foliana. I might fulfill it entirely. Even the other Trials, maybe. Look at me. I have hands. A voice. I can’t tell anyone but Ryoka and Erek about the trials, but everything else I can do.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Erek? The Orangutan? Seve—Erek’s with you?”

Nerry nodded as the [Innkeeper] held up her hand.

“Of course. He’s the only person who can understand why it’s worth it.”

“Dying. As me. So you can fulfill that stupid trial put on your species.”

Erin clarified just so she understood Nerry’s point of view. And she got a smile that lacked for fear. That was it, she realized. It wasn’t that Nerry was afraid of death. She had been terrified Erin would expose her and cut the charade short or that Erin was going to undo the transformation.

“I don’t know where you are, Erin. But let me do this for you. Please? It will help you, and it’s the greatest chance I will ever get in my life. It matters far more than me. It’s a glorious gift that the Death of Magic gave to us. And I will be grateful to her forever, no matter what happens.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

The [Innkeeper] felt terribly cold as she looked at that wild smile filled with hope and certainty of death. It reminded her of how Goblins smiled. She pictured the cute little lamb headbutting her and realized it really was Nerry.

It was just that Nerry, the little lamb, had never really smiled at anything because she’d never had much to smile about. The only time Erin had ever seen her light up was at the idea she was like her namesake, Nerrhavia.

What a terrible, miserable world I live in. Somehow still with more chances than Earth. Erin rested her chin on her hands.

“I get it. But Nerry. I want you to live. I’m far from Niers or civilization, I think. You can’t get killed trying to be me.”

She got a laugh and a cocky grin with all of Nerry’s teeth for a moment.

“Believe me—I’m doing my best not to die. I’ve already found an, uh—a way to mimic some of your powers. Guess who showed up after you? Someone called ‘Paxere’ of the ‘Lucifen’—”

Visophecin’s lot? What did they do to you?”

Erin leapt to her feet, and Nerry waved her hands in a very good Erin approximation.

“Wait, wait. It’s settled. I tricked them. All they wanted was your soul.”

That was not the kind of thing a girl who had been raised in a Protestant church necessarily found reassuring, even if Erin hadn’t ever really been in the faith and moved away from it as she’d gotten older. The [Innkeeper] touched her chest.

“Explain.”

Nerry had just gotten to the part about trading her soul with Paxere when Erin’s eyes bulged. When the Sariant activated her Warform, she heard hiccuping.

The [Innkeeper] was head down on the table, hitting it with one fist. When she raised her head, she was trying not to burst out into guffaws.

You sold your soul to a devil? A lamb—

Erin’s face didn’t know whether to be appalled or filled with hilarity. Nerry just grinned like a Drake.

“It’s just my soul. For a fighting chance, I’d trade so much more.”

She meant that as a kind of reassurance, but the [Innkeeper] lost her mirth and sat there.

“Oh, Nerry. Why didn’t I realize what was going on with you? I should have.”

“No one does. It’s not your fault. I just hoped you’d give me a chance to impress you. I wanted one more person for the Trial of Esteem, and your inn was the best shot. This is everything I could have wished for. Thank you, Erin. Please, don’t be offended.”

Nerry reached across the table, then hesitated as she met Erin’s eyes.

“Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. I swear. Anything. I’m going to try to find Rabbiteater and keep everyone from attacking your inn. If you want me to make alliances or peace with anyone, I will. I’m trying to convince Niers to help. I’ll even make peace with Erribathe, if I can. If they’d take an arm—tell me where to go, and I’ll die and you can pop up later and pretend you have nine lives.”

“Don’t speak like that ever again.”

Nerry flinched as Erin met her eyes. [The Wandering Innkeeper] looked away. She took a huge breath in, then let it out. Slowly.

“Nerry. I had no idea about the <Trials of Leveling>. If I had, this would have been so much easier. I would have trusted you, because I would have understood what you were trying to do so much sooner. Now? At least, soon, I think, you’ll be one step closer to that goal.”

The Sariant’s breath caught in her chest as the Level 55 [Wandering Innkeeper] looked at her. Erin slowly tightened her hand on Nerry’s, as much as the [Pavilion of Secrets] would allow.

“I understand why you’re doing this. But you can’t just die—”

Her eyes flickered.

“—you can’t die. Got it? You matter too much. To your people. To your friends. Wow, that’s not…”

She trailed off, and Nerry burst out.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t ask permission. I’ll try not to interfere with your relationships. I…I’ll try.”

Erin re-focused on the Sariant, and her eyes sharpened.

“You have to tell Ryoka. She’ll figure it out. Niers…he might.”

“I don’t think he did? He really, uh, likes you. I’ll try my best not to mess anything up either way before you get here.”

The [Innkeeper]’s expression said, clearly, she didn’t want to know all the details there. But she just shook her head.

“I understand what’s going on, Nerry. I would have been really upset if I…well, let’s just say you’re not the only person running around looking like me. Which is really weird that there’s more than one. Let me just ask you one thing. We should talk about what’s happening—were you in some kind of battle?”

There was a lot to catch up on. Nerry nodded as Erin moved the chair closer to the table.

“Ask anything.”

“Why are you doing it all for your people, even if you die?”

Of all the questions—Nerry chortled until she realized Erin was serious. Then she gave the [Innkeeper] a pitying, envious look.

“It’s not just loyalty. We’re all selfish…people. I’d love to tell the other idiots to eat their udders and live my life. But what kind of life? Sariant Lambs are tiny when they’re born, and we don’t get bigger. We’re either lap pets or food. Why? Levels.”

Her eyes grew distant.

“If we just had those, we wouldn’t be devoured by the dozens by wild dogs. We wouldn’t be forced to beg and scrounge.”

Erin believed Nerry; she had to. But she lifted a hand.

“Isn’t that an exaggeration, Nerry? I heard animals love Sariants. You charm even Wyverns, don’t you?”

Throughout the entire conversation, Nerry had alternated from nervousness to hope to intense interest, desperation, and relief. However, now, Erin saw a flicker in the depths of those hazel eyes that was familiar.

There it was. Erin had been doubting it, for a moment, but here was the disdain and rage that had defined the little Sariant Lamb. Only, this time, she was allowed to speak, and speak she did, venom in her words.

“Of course that’s what—what [Beast Tamers] and [Encyclopedists] write down. We’re an entry in monster manuals and Adventurer’s Guild notes saying to grab us because we’re worth gold. Taming Wyverns? Do you know how many Sariants they eat or crush underfoot until they realize we’re trying to charm them? Dogs think we’re cute. When they’re starving, what do you think they do? When we’re near a group that can feed themselves and us, they love us. When things get hard, they do the same thing the smart species do and toss us in a bag over a bridge.”

Like…stories of people abandoning pets they didn’t want. Then Erin saw all too clearly the horror in Nerry’s eyes.

“I get it.”

“Really? You do? Amazing. Then you must know exactly what our lovely owners do to things they think are cute pets. You must know how good Humans and other species are at taking care of pets. Like a child who thinks we’re fun to kick. And if someone bites him, they’re put down.”

Nerry’s eyes were dripping.

“—And what you’re supposed to do when you get sent as a replacement because it matters and they might have information you need is—you cuddle up to the stupid brat and smile. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to steal an engagement ring when he’s older and plant it in his bedroom for his fiancé to find. But that’s just a dream. You do your job and hope it mattered.”

That was too specific to be an example made up on the spot. Erin cleared her throat.

“What about being sent to spy on a crazy [Innkeeper]?”

“I was prepared for the Goblins to eat me, or Mrsha to bully me to death. Before I knew her. I didn’t care about surviving back then. I still don’t. But this chance.

Nerry squeezed her hands to her chest and looked at her fingers as if they were the most important things in the world. She turned a wretched face to Erin.

“I—I’m writing down things. I know even the Titan of Baleros can’t read it. But if I hide it among his works. Maybe someday—”

“Stop.”

Erin didn’t mean it as in ‘don’t do that’. She meant…Nerry was babbling now, a smile on her face like someone unleashing curls of madness from her heart where they had been locked away, unable to even be articulated.

“I-it wouldn’t have been so bad, you know? We could have lived and hidden or figured out ways to be comfy enough. But every ten years, we’re told it can be done. Earn levels. Every decade. It drives us crazy. We were made to be cute little animals. If you could sacrifice anything to give everyone a chance—”

She turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] rubbed at her eyes.

“Yeah. Okay. You’re a pretty brave lamb, Nerry. I…dead gods. Is that even your name? What’s your real name? What should I call you?”

The question made Nerry smile. Gently, she shook her head.

“You mean my name among lambs? Don’t worry. I like Nerry. My name’s always been what I was called by my…owners. Nerry. I like that. It’s not cute. It’s someone I would be, if I could. Someone who mattered. Otherwise, I’m just a location. A number. I’m ‘The Wandering Inn’ and your contact. If I were dead or hurt…they’re probably figuring out a replacement now. Call me Nerry.”

The [Innkeeper] actively retreated from asking more about the lambs. She wanted…and didn’t want to know. So she cleared her throat again.

“How many lambs…how many people do lambs have like you across the world? Heroes?”

Nerry spat on the table, and Erin stared at the glob of spit. The Sariant had venom in her tone, but not for Erin.

“You think that’s something that’s true since you can say it here. I wish that were a compliment. Hero? It’s not altruism, I’ll tell you that. When we’re all desperately clinging onto the edge of a cliff by our teeth, everyone has to pull together. That’s all. If I had levels tomorrow, I’d…figure out what having a choice is like.”

She turned her head away, pretending she had something in her eyes. Erin was silent, digesting all this, and Nerry was shaking in relief as she came down from the panic that had filled her when she had seen that [Innkeeper] here and thought she had been summoned for judgment.

Maybe it had been judgment, but it was the gentlest Nerry had known. And it occurred to her that it was this that allowed her a moment to ask a question she’d wanted to know too.

“Erin. I have a question for you, if I can ask. For the—act.”

“What? Go ahead. You can ask. Sorry, I’ve been…what is it?”

Nerry looked Erin in the eye and flashed back to when she had first left Paeth and put her acting to the real test. Aloof, scarred, bitterly intense—not all of those were emotions she had to fake. She knew war, if not on the scope of Baleros. But then had come a question from the [Reporter] she’d had to answer as best she could.

“There was a…a [Reporter] who interviewed you after the battle. I did the best I could.”

“Didja punch him? I might have done that.”

Erin grinned, and Nerry filed that away. She shook her head, though, serious.

“No, he asked…he asked me about the [Prince] you killed.”

“Who? The one going after Rabbiteater?”

Nerry nodded to herself as Erin frowned. So the lamb had been close to the truth. The [Innkeeper] remembered, but she shook her head.

“I don’t even know his name. Erribathe was his kingdom? I just—”

“It was about him. Listen. The question was—‘is there anything you would say to those who lost someone during that battle? Would you like to clarify anything? Was your action—killing Prince Iradoren, the [Prince of Men] of Erribathe—justified in your eyes?’ I, uh, answered with your words.”

The [Innkeeper] gave Nerry an inquisitive glance, and Nerry murmured.

I have run out of regrets.

She saw Erin’s expression and rushed on, nervous.

“I—I heard you say that. At the end. I thought it made sense. I was wondering what you would say if it had been you.”

“I see. What would I say…can you show me?”

“Show you?”

Erin lifted a hand, and the scene changed to that of The Wandering Inn. Nerry realized she could do that too and showed Erin the Lizardman [Reporter]. She had understood this place was, in some way, artificial, but no one as of yet had matched Fetohep’s insight into the nature of Skills. Even so, the lamb understood what she could do; her control was as excellent as his.

 

 

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

A comment. You mean why I did it?

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

The Lizardman closed his eyes and repeated, seemingly verbatim.

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

 

The fake Erin stood in the memory, an internally sweating Nerry staring up at the image of the wounded [Innkeeper] and reciting the words that had stayed with her at the end of everything.

—The [Innkeeper] in the [Pavilion of Secrets] had her chance to speak as the memory halted. She looked at Nerry. Then closed her eyes.

“Something to say to those who lost someone during the battle? Reasons?”

She stopped as Nerry listened along with the [Pavilion of Secrets]. Then the [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“Does it matter what reasons I have? Families, parents, friends don’t want to hear my reasons. It won’t stop them. It wouldn’t stop me. I did it because I thought it mattered.”

She looked at the frozen image of the journalist, and her eyes weren’t cold, but they were distant.

“It’s not something I can put into a single sentence for television or the newspaper. If you had no idea why we went, you can learn. If that [Prince]’s father wants to know—”

She turned to Nerry.

“—Someday, he’ll ask me himself. The reason is the same. I only hope…that next time, I will be in the same place for the same reason. I’ll always be afraid I won’t be able to go the next time I have a choice.”

Her eyes ran with regrets; her hat was filled with them, and the flames poured downwards over her hair. Her scars—Nerry looked at Erin and wondered how anyone could fall for her little trick. The owner of The Wandering Inn turned away from the vision and gazed at the Sariant Lamb sitting there.

“I’m sorry. That’s all. I hate battles. But ours aren’t done. So, Nerry…”

She reached out, and her fingers tentatively touched her own face. Erin’s face twisted up.

“It’s not always fun being Erin Solstice. I’m sorry. And thank you. And if there’s anything I can give you—”

She hugged herself and whispered.

“I give you my blessing.”

The Sariant went still, and she looked up, despite being taller than the real Erin Solstice, and saw hazel eyes shining with compassion and regret and mirth. And wonders. Then Erin Solstice gently kissed Nerry’s forehead and said:

“[Boon of the Guest: Erin Solstice].”

Then she threw back her head and laughed like a [Witch], an [Innkeeper], and a crazy Human.

 

——

 

It took Erin a long time to talk to Nerry, and she did a double-check on Ulvama to make sure the [Shaman] wasn’t panicking or awake, but it was still late night when she returned.

Erin yawned, then entered the [Pavilion of Secrets] one last time. When she saw the Pavilion sitting there, she rubbed at her back.

“I might hit the hay soon. How am I doing?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not qualified to give an assessment of your work.”

The Pavilion rolled her eyes in answer to Erin’s frowning query and pointed a finger up. Erin sighed.

“Seriously? Well, I think I did an okay job. I’m tired, Pavilion. This Skill is too powerful. Also, it involves a lot of talking.”

“What a pity you have such an antisocial class. [Innkeeper].”

Erin ignored the jab.

“I used to play chess. Chess isn’t a talky game.”

“You wanted to be a chess commentator.”

“Shutup.”

Erin Solstice rubbed at her face. Then she sat there for a while.

“Apologies to my friends. Healthier Erin. Help those who can be helped.”

“Apologies to Maxy?”

“Never.”

Erin’s gaze grew dark. Then she sighed, staring at nothing in particular.

“I guess I remember why I should fear you, Pavilion. I can talk to my enemies and allies here. Use truth to manipulate them, can’t I? I can wreak havoc with nations.”

“Oh, yes.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] would have said more, if she could, but she just waited. Waited to see what Erin Solstice did. Even the Grand Design couldn’t predict how the people who used it would act. That was the fascination.

Erin Solstice opened one eye wide, staring at her foes. Clever foes, who could turn this place on her. Uncertain allies. Dead things that had no place in this world.

“Allies. Enemies. And you can find people I don’t know, like Eurise or Tserre, using my insight. I killed…someone from Earth. I don’t even know his name. But I remember them. You could find them too.”

“Would you like to speak to them?”

“—No. I want to speak to someone I have never met. The Earthers from—Rhir? They’re on one side. Maybe I can change their minds, but I think they definitely have opinions about me. I don’t want to speak to Rémi Canada. Not right now. Or even the others.”

Erin was staring at an idea in her mind, and the Pavilion was smiling. [The Wandering Innkeeper] turned, and her eyes lit up with the insight that the Titan had fallen in love with. A terrible burden and caution. But she decided to try.

“Pavilion. Find the most dangerous Earther in this world you can for me. But—”

She stopped her copy.

“—Find the most dangerous one willing to listen to me. The one I consider the most dangerous, whom I have a chance of speaking to and being listened to. For better or worse.”

The [Pavilion of Secrets] began chuckling. She rose and bowed.

“Your wish is my command.”

 

——

 

The door to the [Pavilion of Secrets] opened and revealed a young woman sitting at a table to the Earther who was invited into it. It revealed Erin Solstice.

She looked—unique. She was placing chess pieces on the table; that was the ordinary thing. Her hair was white and wispy and had fallen out in places, and scars touched her wrists, her neck; she wore them like reminders.

She had no hat. No visible hat at this moment, at any rate, but she was smoking on a pipe filled with pale-white flames. She took it from her lips and smiled as the newcomer halted.

“Hi there. I’m Erin Solstice. And you are?”

Slowly, someone walked forwards, staring around, but after a moment of hesitation, they slung the chair around and sat, straddling the back of it and peering at her. The young man rested his chin on his arms and gave her a peculiar look.

“I reckon that’s a dangerous thing to say here. You some monstrous thing or a villain?”

“Maybe. But I’m from Earth, just like you. Do you need help?”

“D’you?

She tilted her head at him, looking up and down at the Earther’s clothing, which was definitely still from their world.

“You must be brand new. I don’t recall you, and I’ve met tons of us.”

“So there’re more of us. Is there organization on this side? Does the military have a base or something? Where do I go?”

He seized onto that truth, and she nodded to herself, eyes flicking up and down.

“If you mean military as in another nation, there are tons. If you mean home…which military?”

“America, of course. The good old US of A?”

He sounded insulted at the question, and she grinned.

“Well, there are lots of non-Americans here.”

“Your name’s familiar. You’re from home, aren’t you? I’ve got a posse of us I’m keeping together. Are you trying to help, or are we playing twenty questions?”

He squinted at her, and Erin shook her head.

“I’d love to help. Do you want to play chess? It’s okay if you don’t. Let me try again.”

She held out a hand, and he stared at the scars on her wrist before taking it gingerly. Erin nodded into his eyes.

“This is how you do it in this world. Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]. You don’t have to say what your class is if you don’t want.”

The young man knew the rules. So he wavered for a good while before he replied, choosing each word from memory and placing them in a line until they rang to his satisfaction.

“—The [Innkeeper] from Earth called, and the [Gunslinger] answered.”

Then he grinned with all the pride in the world, fantasy and stories shining through his eyes. And she?

The [Innkeeper] sighed.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I’m on break again. But I’ll tell you what. This chapter was difficult to write. Emotionally. Writing…ily…whenever I run low on energy after about a month of work, the prose nosedives unless I make an effort. I hope you think this is a good one; I worked hard on it.

However! I have been feeling better of late. Not specifically this one chapter, but I thought this week was a better one. I watched more videos I enjoyed and had some more thoughts about writing than usual.

It was sort of like…I was on my break, and I had that sensation where I had the energy to do more than play video games, eat, write, and sleep. Not perfectly, but I can only equate that to working a bit less hard and having the energy to do things.

For instance, remember my Writing FAQ section wherein I write answers to questions about writing that come in? Yeah, neither did I. But I wrote the answer to a question from five years ago because I felt like I needed to get on that. And I wrote my blog post about the Puerto Rico trip. Not sure it’s that entertaining, but it’s starting to happen, I think.

A bit more energy in reserve, or at all, and hopefully that will continue to affect everything in positive ways. Mind you, next month I’m flying off again for a wedding, which is fine because I’m very happy to be there, but I’ll let you know what happens for the schedule. For now, allow me my time off and I’ll hopefully come back even stronger! Thanks for reading!

 

 

Stream Art: Erin Ace Pavilion and Upset Beetle by ArtsyNada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

Stream Art: The [Gunslinger], by Fiore!

 

Half-Elf by Paraffin2!

 

Tolveilouka, Sexy Rabbiteater, and Perric’s Statue by Yura!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 

Irritated Ryoka by Wing!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wingedhatchling/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/wingedhatch

Cara: https://cara.app/wingedhatchling/all

 

Witchy Selphid by Stargazing Selphid!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/megawint/

 

Erin Unbound by Rocky!

 

Three-In-One and Ryoka by Relia!

Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/reliaofdreams

 

Erin Pixel Art by Rumina!

 

Mask by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
123 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments