9.03

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It was time to get back to work. Vacations were never long enough, even, apparently, if you were dead. You just got more homework from ghosts.

In Erin’s case, she equated ‘work’ with stressful activities. The not-a-party had arguably been that, but dodging a bunch of [Strategists]’ pointed questions while staring at a chess board and a life-sized miniature of the Titan of Baleros?

That was work.

However, Erin was arguably the master of the blank stare, the uncomprehending ‘huh’, and the irreverent shrug. Ignorance was a weapon to be used like a club on Pisces-type characters. Erin didn’t think it would be hard to play some chess games, thank the [Strategists] for their help in the Meeting of Tribes war, and figure out the Niers situation later.

That was why she was so surprised when Mrsha took her aside with a big scowl and handed her a note. For multiple reasons, really.

Her poofy little Gnoll girl was sometimes a rascal, other times a mascot or, arguably, a helper, and when it mattered, she could be very sensitive and kind. Right now, Mrsha was extra-furry, most likely due to the fall creeping on—or a lack of combing her own fur.

…But was she bigger than Erin remembered? Yes, it felt like it. Mrsha had been a child you could carry around, hug, and even toss up. At…one point. Now? Erin felt like she might be more prone to hurting her back.

And when had Mrsha gotten so good at walking? In fact, she had put on that patterned kilt today and had, to Erin’s disbelief, clogs. That was to say, a laceless slip-on shoe made of leather. Generously adapted for Gnoll feet.

“Mrsha, what has gotten into you? Hold on—you want a word?”

Mrsha nodded emphatically and since Erin was already sitting, Mrsha joined her in her lap so Erin could read over her shoulder. She began writing, and Erin found herself reading in real-time.

“Good morning, Erin. I hope you are doing well today. I wanted to touch thrones with you vis-à-vis the [Strategist] situation. Before I get ahead of myself, I think breakfast was very good. Although I notice Lyonette has been cutting down on my syrup rations of late. I would like this rectified.”

“Wh…okay?”

Mrsha raised an eyebrow and scribbled harder.

Okay? Is that a yes or a no?

“Uh—yes?”

Instantly, Mrsha’s quill accelerated.

Then you won’t mind if you sign this affidavit that ‘I, Erin Solstice, agree to a 50% increase in syrup for Mrsha each day, this cannot be revoked ever’? Sign here, ______.

Erin stared at Mrsha. Then she delicately crossed out the proposed agreement.

“Nope. Nice try.”

“Rats.”

It struck the [Innkeeper] then, that, aside from the somewhat crinkled bit of parchment Mrsha was using and the rapid skritch-skritch of her quill, Erin was talking to Mrsha.

“Mrsha! You write so fast!”

The Gnoll girl sniffed in a Pisces-approximation.

“I leveled up! Everyone leveled from the Meeting of Tribes! I. Am. A. [Scribbler]!”

She slapped her chest proudly and then added another note.

“I write fast now. Also, I think I deserve a special cake for my new class.”

It turned out Mrsha had gained that class from her friendship with Satar Silverfang more than the actual battle, but her statement went for all the people who had been there. Erin realized she had more catching up to do.

“I’m so glad you can write, Mrsha! C’mere, you! Now we can talk, and you can tell me everything—”

She cuddled Mrsha until the girl squirmed out of her grip.

“I have to go to my dignified house-visit with Visma. Gire is coming too. We are having tea and discussing scandals. Let me go, [Ruffian]!”

Okay, so there was a bit of adultness to her writing-voice, and she had a lot of Lyonette-ism. Yet Mrsha had a message for Erin today.

“Erin, you should be nice to the [Strategists]. You bullied them all yesterday, and that was bad. We should not be mean to other people. Like rats. Or cute Doombearers.”

“Wh—I didn’t bully them per se!”

Mrsha gave Erin a long look and didn’t even bother writing a reply—she just slapped one of the speaking stones, and a pre-programmed voice spoke.

“Yeah, right.”

That was, apparently, one of the sound bites that Mrsha thought she would be using on a day-to-day basis. Which was fair, because it was Mrsha. The girl pointed at the chess tables.

“You beat them in chess all night then fed them a Faerie Flower drink. You are a meanie. Be sad about yourself. I have to go now. Take care. Think about what I said, especially the cake.”

And then she left. Erin sat there, speechless, as Lyonette took Mrsha into the city on her play-date. Mrsha the Morally Upstanding was lecturing her on bullying and being nice to people?

What a way to start the day. However, Mrsha then decided to come back for a second; Lyonette was having the Thronebearers check for danger, and that was apparently a five-minute process.

Things changed. The girl grumped for a moment, and Erin leaned over.

“I’ll think about it, Mrsha. But you know I’m trying not to let on the you-know-what’s about Earth and stuff? The Titan’s like—the Titan. And even if most people know…”

She was keeping her voice down, because while the inn was still banning visitors in the mornings, there were people who didn’t know everything. Like Ishkr and Liska, the Gnolls—who probably heard a lot from Kevin and the others back when they’d been here. Or the Antinium, some of whom were interviewing for a job! Who probably didn’t care, and Ryoka had told Klbkch and Xrn, the most important two. Or—the Goblins like Ulvama and Gothica. Who—

The point was that the [Strategists] and Niers knowing was dangerous. As bad as Chaldion. Erin said as much to Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl nodded understandingly.

“You make a lot of saline points, Erin.”

“Um, I think you meant ‘salient’.”

Mrsha glared and crossed out that word. She looked around the inn, took a breath, and then gazed at Erin seriously.

Niers might know about everything.

Erin didn’t have a glass of water to choke on, so she settled for her own saliva. Mrsha wrote hurriedly.

Even if he didn’t! You should be nice to the [Strategists] even if they don’t know.

“Wh—why?”

Mrsha stared at Erin. Then the [Innkeeper] saw Lyonette sneaking glances at her as she waited at the door. A Goblin with a guitar poked his head out of the kitchen where he was gathering breakfast, and a Bird peered at Erin down the stairs then jerked back. The [Innkeeper] realized she might have been set up.

And guess who’d lost the game of cards and had to break the news? Mrsha the Bad Card Player wrote a note and slid it over the table. Everyone knew Erin could bluff and evade even Grimalkin, and obfuscation worked. It did. However, there was a point to telling someone the truth, and it was this:

“They might find out eventually. Niers is really scary. He also has lots of armies. It would be nice not to get shot or sieged or eaten by monsters.”

Erin’s mouth opened, and Mrsha slipped out of her seat. She pointedly plucked at her white fur and then moved her paw in a circle around the inn.

Just saying.

Then she left. Erin stared at Mrsha’s back and called out as Numbtongue ducked back into the kitchen and Bird pretended he didn’t exist.

I see you doing this! I know! Don’t you think I know? I was dead! I…”

She caught herself as Lyonette led Mrsha out the door, telling her what a wonderful job she’d done. Calanfer’s [Princesses] did approve of a delicate touch and occasional hammer to the fingers, conversationally speaking.

Erin pushed her chair back from the table.

“I’ve been thinking about it. Really, I have. It’s just scary.”

Numbtongue decided to pull in with Bird as the second wave, just as planned. They flanked Erin at the table, and Numbtongue sat down with a huge slice of pizza.

“What’s harder? Telling people and making allies or getting shot? What is so hard?”

He looked challengingly at Erin as she blew out her cheeks. She inhaled, exhaled, sighed, and glanced at the door where she was sure the [Strategists] would soon be coming in. Time to get back to work indeed. And yes, they were right. Yes, she wanted to do it. She had promised.

Even so, she fixed the slightly grinning Hobgoblin with a stare that made his teeth click as he took a bite of pizza. And she revealed she had been thinking of the issue already.

“Time paradoxes.”

Bird scratched at his antennae. He stood back up, patted Numbtongue and Erin on the shoulders, and nodded.

“That is difficult. I withdraw my objections. Goodbye.”

Numbtongue looked at Erin with his mouth open slightly. Kevin raised his head from a table and stared at Erin over breakfast.

Wht trr fkk. We’re going there?”

He swallowed hard. Erin nodded.

“Oh yeah. We’re already in one.”

The [Mechanic] rubbed at his hair. He pinched himself and looked around.

“Dude. You’d think we’d notice.”

 

——

 

Erin wasn’t a dummy. She might have been foolish, idiotic, and stupid at times, but she could remember.

And what she remembered was the future. Or at least—a few words from it. Which made her wonder about the consequences of her actions.

As she’d laid it out, it was simple, and she took Kevin and Numbtongue into the secret Earther rooms in her inn to show them.

The rooms had gone sort of unused during her death since the original group from Magnolia’s place didn’t need them as a repository of knowledge anymore. Numbtongue practiced music there alone, but Erin had repurposed one of the blackboards.

“I have it on good authority that it’s not a big time problem or we’d all be dead or breathing out our fingernails or something. I think.”

“Did you meet yourself?”

“Um…no. And I can’t tell you what happened because it’s probably really super-dangerous and—”

“That’s cool. I don’t really want more secrets or anyone else important breathing down my neck.”

“Me either.”

Kevin and Numbtongue fist-bumped, and Erin realized the two most laid-back members of the inn were the right call to introduce time paradoxes to. She took a breath.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. I might know about my future. Slightly! I did something, and I think I know what I did.”

Goblinfriend of Izril. Kevin nodded.

“Because it was obvious? Or the consequences came back, Terminator-style?”

“What’s that?”

Numbtongue poked Kevin. The young man grinned.

“Awesome movie. Movies. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Ooh. Nice.”

Guys.

Erin waved her hands and showed them her project. She had ‘I become GF’ written on the chalkboard on one side and ‘I am Here’ on the other. Then she’d drawn a line and added a bunch of notes.

“Here’s the big event. It’s in the future, but not so far that I’m not too old.”

Or how else would he recognize her? Erin had written up to ten years, tops. She pointed to the end result.

“I didn’t learn…exactly what did it, and I think it was a lot of things that made me become this. So the question is—should I do it again? Because, uh, it sounded like not everything went well last time.”

“Oh. Man, that’s the time traveller’s paradox. So you’re saying that what you did has huge consequences. Like you killed a kingdom?”

Kevin looked worried, but Erin waved her hands.

“No, no! Actually—I don’t think I did much wrong.”

“Wait, what?”

Unlike most time-traveller stories, Erin didn’t actually think Nereshal’s warning applied to her. It applied to, well, him. And the actions of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world.

Hence her dilemma. Erin pointed at the board.

“I didn’t hear anything that I’d done wrong. I mean—I’m sure a lot of people don’t like what I did, but he—er—the person didn’t tell me I made huge mistakes. And I was alive. So why not do what I did, right?”

Kevin pointed at Erin.

“But you don’t know what you did.”

Numbtongue was rubbing his forehead. His brain already hurt, but Pyrite and Reiss were arguing about the implications. Erin double-pointed at Kevin with finger guns.

“Aha! But I can guess. Because what other-Erin did was something I’d probably do, right? And I actually know what might have gotten me that nickname. Er…”

The Goblinfriend of Izril. Logically, it was something Erin would think of. So she should be able to think of it. Yet Kevin pointed out another problem.

“But you don’t want to do the same thing. You want to…what, warn something? Avert something?”

“Yeah, I can do that. In fact, I’m told I’ll get my chance. However, Kevin. Here’s the thing—since I have that warning, the future will change anyways.”

So there’s no point and this is stupid!

Numbtongue threw up his hands. He went to erase everything, yet Erin stopped him.

“Not quite. If I know the future is uncertain after I change time, I know one thing for sure: what I did worked. And if what I did worked…and if the future is changed, I don’t need to worry about this ever again.”

That’s where she’d been headed after her third straight night of migraines worrying about this. Kevin and Numbtongue exchanged a look.

“…So what’s your point?”

Erin took a breath. She tapped the chalkboard and then drew a second line from her future as the Goblinfriend of Izril to now. Only—this time, she made a little line-break in the center.

“My point is that if I know what I did worked—I’ll do it twice as fast. I’ll do it now. And I’ll think about what I would have done and be where I was faster than the alternate me. Because I was told my future, I’ll figure out what I did faster.

That was how you used a time paradox, right? Erin looked from Kevin to Numbtongue. The young man gave her the gesture of his mind exploding with accompanying sound effects. Numbtongue just stared at the chalkboard.

“You could have just done that without making my head hurt.”

Erin sighed.

“Yeah, try living with that, Numbtongue. I guess…you were right. Mrsha was right.”

He looked up and blinked at her. How did this relate to Mrsha…? Erin wheeled over to the chalkboard and dusted off the formula of confusion. She turned to Kevin and Numbtongue before biting her lip.

“There are…things I don’t want to think about. Or, y’know, do. I made a lot of promises, but some things—aren’t just hard, but listen, guys. Maybe I’m wrong. I mean—I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I don’t want to do something, um, like what Ryoka says she does. Rock the boat. But time travel and allies. So—what do you think?”

Surely if Ryoka Griffin were here, she’d understand Erin’s reluctance to make mistakes. In fact, Erin felt a lot more sympathy for Ryoka’s point of view.

Kevin and Numbtongue exchanged a long glance that Erin didn’t miss. The [Bard] frowned at Erin.

“You just said all that about time travel. Now you don’t want to do…what?”

She raised her hands defensively.

“Listen, Numbtongue. I don’t appreciate the attitude. What I’ve got is big stuff. Like that quest? I don’t want to make more trouble, especially now! After I just un-deaded myself! It’s like—let sleeping lions lie, you know? Let old potatoes…stay in the ground? There’s some kind of phrase, I’m sure!”

They had left the Earther rooms by now and were headed across the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Bird poked his head up from gathering blue fruits to help Ishkr.

“Do you mean…‘let buried Crelers lie’? I have heard this expression before.”

Numbtongue grunted.

“Stupid idea.”

“That’s not what I—Kevin, back me up!”

He shook his head, grinning. Bird walked over, concerned.

“Where are the Crelers, Erin? Why would you let them stay buried? Are there Adult Crelers?”

They rolled back into the common room of the inn, and Bird’s comment made a few figures tense at their table.

“What was that, Bird? Did you just say Adult Crelers?

Yvlon cautiously put down her fork. Ceria sat up sharply, and Ksmvr reached for his swords as Pisces groaned. Erin waved her hands, but Bird answered calmly.

“Erin is letting Crelers stay buried. We are attempting to dissuade her from doing so. Even Jexishe the Friendly Creler should not be buried.”

Pisces’ lips moved soundlessly as he blinked at Bird. The worst part was that he wasn’t even lying yet. Erin threw up her hands.

There are no Crelers! I’m just debating doing something. It might mean people get hurt and—and it’d be my fault! Plus, I don’t know if it’s a problem. We’ve had so much stuff happen…”

Numbtongue poked Erin in the side. She swatted at his finger. But then Bird poked her on the other side. The Goblin-gesture was even copied by Kevin. The Horns looked at each other, and all of them except for Yvlon got up and began poking Erin.

Fine. I get it. Stop it! I’ll bite you!

Red-faced and trying not to laugh, Erin glared around the table. She sighed. Work.

Here was the thing. She didn’t know what other-Erin had done. And the less Erin thought about her alternate-universe selves the better. But there was…well, just as Erin had said, knowing she needed to move meant that there were intelligent conclusions she could come to.

Things to do. And while Erin knew she wasn’t able to do a lot, there was a bit she could logic out. So—reluctantly—she asked for a favor.

“Kevin? I know you have, like, a lot of [Message] scrolls.”

“We can get Bezale to do one for you, Erin. Or me and Pisces can send a public one, just not private.”

Ceria assured Erin, but the [Innkeeper] shook her head. Kevin frowned.

“Yeah, I get a lot of contacts. Why?”

“Do you have…a speaking stone for, um, powerful nations?”

The owner of Solar Cycles scratched at his chin.

“Lots. Khelt, Ailendamus, two Great Companies, uh, Rhir has a funny one, and I’ve forgotten all their passwords—”

“All those nations?”

Pisces’ eyes bulged, but Kevin shook his head.

“Most are just flunkies. I only speak to a few. Like—Fetohep?”

He looked at Erin, and the young woman bit her lip.

“Not yet. W-well, I guess I should [Message] him too. But first? Um. Can you get me one to Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

Yvlon Byres’ head slowly turned, and she put a hand to her side as Kevin exchanged a glance with Numbtongue. The Goblin began gobbling his pizza, then went to poke Ulvama and Gothica and everyone else to watch more Erin madness.

 

——

 

My Fondest Friend Yvlon Byres…

That was how Yisame’s first missive to Yvlon had begun, incidentally. The first of six since Yvlon had returned to Izril. So that was one every two days.

They were largely conversational, if a bit too personal with what Yvlon thought might be state secrets. She had written a reply to each one and gotten another letter—which was at least five pages long, hand-delivered by a City Runner, and vouchsafed as top-security in the Mage’s Guild by the by—within a day, each time.

That had nothing to do with Erin Solstice, of course. Not at all, and Yvlon decided not to mention this association. For now.

Erin’s conversation with the Nerrhavian representative went about as well as could be expected. She was wheeling back and forth with one hand, speaking into the stone in a too-loud voice.

Solstice. No, not the [Knight] order. What [Knight] order? I’m calling from The Wandering Inn—I know this is Kevin’s stone. Kevin, from Solar Cycles. He lives in my inn. Well, I don’t know how to get in contact with—I have an important message for someone in Nerrhavia, and you want to hear it! Hello?”

“Erin, maybe you should, uh, mention your inn posted the quest?”

Erin glanced up as Ceria whispered to her.

“That’s right. I posted a big <Mythical Quest> the other day! That’s me. From the inn. And I’ve got, um, Gold-rank adventurers in my inn. So—hello?”

Yvlon watched as, possibly for the first time in the modern era, someone was put onto hold. Then hung up on. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] bit her lip as Erin cursed and tried to call back, then Kevin.

“Oh, silver and steel.”

“Yv?”

Ceria turned as Yvlon stomped out of the inn. It only took her twenty minutes at a jog to get down to Liscor, to her destination, and back up to the inn. She even beat the speaking stone that Erin had been glaring at suddenly lighting up.

“Hey! Listen, Chaldion of Pallass is a guest at my inn, and I know that’s not much, but—oh. The [Chancellor of Foreign Affairs]? Um. H-hi. Why are you…that’s me.”

Yvlon pretended to blend in with the back of the room, but she didn’t miss the sardonic look her team threw her way. Well, Pisces and Ceria. Ksmvr just looked intrigued by all this.

The conversation had been elevated fast, and no less than a [Chancellor] from the Court of Silk was speaking to Erin. With a certain Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen listening in the back.

On a hunch, and not just because the [Queen] had ordered it. Erin took a breath.

She was really not going to enjoy this. She was certain, positive, that another Erin would not have done this. Not now. Oh, the other Erin might have had the thought in the back of her head—but this one?

There were clues Erin had remembered. Not just from the quests. Not just from her knowledge of [Witches] or the Gnomes’ will. There were clues in the levels she’d gained—and not. So she took a few breaths in the [Chancellor]’s ear.

“Sorry—sorry. It’s just—I’d like to ask a big question. Um. You know Nerrhavia? Nerrhavia as in…the Immortal Tyrant? The person who sorta did horrible things until she was killed?”

You mean, the basis for Chandrar’s largest empire, whose name was so hated her enemies formed a nation after her death? Yvlon could just imagine the response. Erin turned red.

“Well I—okay. So, uh…Nerrhavia’s buried under your kingdom, right? Like, her actual bones?”

Yvlon knew that was a fact. Under the royal palace itself, in fact, Tyrant’s Rest. ‘Step on the grave of tyrants’ wasn’t just an expression in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Erin was nodding.

“Right. I know it’s a Named-rank dungeon. Or used to be, because there are traps and stuff. But you’ve got her bones, and your capital was founded on top. Tyrant’s Rest actually has eighteen levels underneath the ‘basement’ that have the palace and your secret v—no, nevermind! What? You must have misheard me!”

She was sweating. So was whomever was on the other line, probably. Yvlon was listening worriedly, her metal hands clenched together. Next to her, Pisces and Ceria were trying not to suffocate laughing.

“Uh huh. Uh huh. Nooooo. That was just a guess—no one told me. Nope.”

Erin was looking around for her lifeline, and no one was stepping in. By now, the regulars had gathered, and Chaldion would be spitting fire that he had missed this. But hey—his colorful range of expressions was more than made up for by Venaz’s slack jaw and Wil silently screaming with Merrik and Peki.

Now they got to it. Erin glanced around and exhaled. She went for it in one go.

“I’m just calling because, uh, what if, hypothetically speaking here, or, um, not hypothetically—Nerrhavia wasn’t entirely dead?”

Instantly, the stone broke into shouting so loud everyone could hear it. Erin held the stone away from her face and shouted back.

I’m not saying I kn—no, I’m not sugg—I didn’t bring her back! Not that I’d know if she was back or—”

The mad girl. The audacity. An undead rat on a window ledge was having trouble keeping the telepathic link despite the mastery of one of the greatest [Necromancers] to ever exist—mostly because of the screaming voice on its end.

That would be bad enough, oh yes. Even the suggestion. Even the warning. But Erin Solstice wasn’t done. She licked her lips and spoke as whomever was on the other side was elbowed out of the way by a Fox [Sage].

“Listen to me. I don’t know. I really don’t. I have no proof that I could show you…but let’s just say the worst came to pass. You don’t want it. I don’t want it. She sounded like a horrible person, and she’d have all the levels and power she had in life. Worst-case scenario.”

In the worst case, they would be ready. They would make a war on the Immortal Tyrant that would make the Blighted Kingdom’s battle against Demons look like a playground spat. It would unite Chandrar, possibly the world.

And you know, the thing about being even two hundred years old, a Necromancer, say, who’d experienced that happening to him on a smaller scale, was that you knew that might happen.

So if Nerrhavia were to hypothetically still be there, it behooved anyone with sense not to recreate her body and disguise her. And learn to control her first. And do something about the attitude and actually hurtful insults.

Perhaps the [Innkeeper] realized this too, because she went for the kill in a way that the Immortal Tyrant would have respected. If she were still ‘alive’, of course. Erin Solstice looked up and met Yvlon’s eyes for a second, purely by chance. Her eyes flickered with a knowledge that made Yvlon’s skin crawl with excitement and dread as she spoke.

“I have something to tell you. Nerrhavia might have the contracts. She might have her levels or—I dunno what. She wasn’t a [Mage] or a [Warrior], and apparently she didn’t even get dressed by herself. Who does that? But if she ever came back, her power isn’t just in her class. You built a palace on her tomb and reclaimed her city after the war. But I think you might know—her real palace isn’t…on Chandrar. Well, it is, but it isn’t. And it’s still around. No one ever managed to get back to it. So, um. You might wanna get on it. Just in case.”

Erin Solstice listened to the quiet, intense voice on the other end of the stone.

“There’re ways to get to it. Do you have a piece of paper and a quill? You’re going to need armies. I can tell you all I know. But…would you like me to post a quest?”

 

——

 

“That wretched [Innkeeper]. What has she done now?”

There was something wrong with the noble lady’s head, but the Drake was having tea with a cortège of her closest confidants. She jerked a bit, glancing towards the window where the [Butler] had brought in the news.

“Perhaps we should have returned anon to the inn, Wall Lady Seele?”

Another Gnoll noble-woman ventured, who had married into the Walled Family in the way of things. Of course, it had been due to the pressures of the Hectvallian war.

Indeed, Wall Lady Seele…of Liscor…was currently gossiping about the affairs of the city. And she pish-poshed the suggestion.

“We have plenty of time, Egrhe. Business does not wait. We must buy, um, fifteen—thousand—pounds of Dwarfsteel. And sell it in Pallass for twice as much!”

This was met by applause from the small tea circle. One of the other Drake noblewomen looked like she was having trouble with the concept, but Egrhe applauded.

“And we’ll make a fortune. Let’s put the money in today! We shall be three times as rich, but we’ll have to beat the greedy [Merchants]. And Chaldion!”

There were some serious nods from around the table. At last, the newcomer had to raise her claw.

“Er…noblewomen. How are we buying the Dwarfsteel?”

“From…abroad. From the Dwarves.”

Seele frowned at this logistical question. The newcomer hesitated. She turned her head delicately.

“Er—and how are we transporting fifteen thousand pounds of Dwarfsteel?

“By bags of holding, obviously!”

“But no bag of holding could do that much. How much is transport and security, and if we brought that much to Pallass, no [Smith] could work it except maybe Maughin. Are we talking about pre-made goods? We’ll crash the market, and we need to store it and—”

At this point, Lady Seele’s offended huffing turned into a claw poking the hand holding Lady Egrhe in the side. Visma whispered to Mrsha.

“Gire’s not good at this, Mrsha.”

Both turned and stared up at Gire as the tea-party of Liscor’s nobility halted for a second. Visma’s doll collection was being shared among six girls of various ages. Mostly around Visma’s age.

Plus Gire.

The giant [Paragon] was larger than all six other girls combined, and Visma’s mother kept staring every time she left snacks out. She was, indeed, bad at playing with dolls.

She kept adding logic in. Visma made Seele snap open a little fan dramatically.

Lady Eisna, we have the matter well in hand! We will be rich! Do not concern yourself with [Merchant] affairs.”

“I’m so sorry, Lady Seele.”

Gire muttered as Mrsha elbowed her. She manipulated her doll quite well. Visma glanced at the ‘door’ in her little courtroom she’d made out of pillows and bits of painted wood. The other girls stared too.

Seele was not a nice Wall Lady. She was rich and had contributed largely to the Hectvallian war, but she had a dark past. A sordid love affair with ten of the other dolls who made up the doll-society the other girls had.

And…Mrsha glanced towards the door as someone knocked three times. The other ladies fell silent, and Seele rose to her feet.

“Who dares to disturb our most noble, fancy party? We are the only ladies of Liscor!”

The door swung open, and a familiar doll-person appeared. Seele gasped.

“You?”

The last doll was worn and a bit ragged, despite the mostly contained environment she had been in for months. The frozen temperature had not helped, and yet…the most precious doll, the little Gnoll, might not have had Seele’s dress, and she was frayed from much love over the years.

But Lady Herna Vissi of Liscor was back. Seele fell back against the cushions, pale-faced.

“You! I thought you were—”

Dead?

The other ladies backed against the walls as the other girls in Visma’s friend-circle watched. Visma put on the best sessions, and she had promised them the event of the year.

Herna stalked into the room as Visma brought her forwards. Gire watched, glancing at Mrsha’s enraptured expression as she nibbled nervously on a snack.

Gire…didn’t get it. She had expected gossip like talking about cute boys or something city-Drakes and Gnolls would do. She did not expect the dagger in Herna’s hand as she pointed at Seele.

“That’s right, Seele. You had me shot with crossbows and buried in the snow. But guess what?”

You lived?

Seele’s voice was trembling. The girls turned to Herna, and the Gnoll noblewoman laughed.

“I didn’t. I died…and I became undead. Now you will join me!

Then she rushed forwards and began stabbing Seele in the heart. Visma was careful not to damage her dolls too badly, but she inserted the dagger in Seele’s heart and put Herna on the seat, facing the other dolls.

“Now, I believe it’s my turn to bring order to Liscor. What’s this about a war? And step carefully, ladies. Or you might be next.”

“You’ll never get away with this, Herna! You monster! Die!”

Another Drake girl, Yesne, broke in excitedly at this point. Visma scowled and whispered.

“Yesne! That’s not supposed to happen!”

“Lady Meera would never let undead live. Her father fought the Necromancer! Die!”

She grabbed the sharp little sewing needle, and Visma pulled her doll away.

“No, you can’t hurt her! She’s too strong!”

“Yes, I can!”

Instantly, the owners of the dolls began arguing over what should happen next as Visma protected her doll from Yesne, who jabbed angrily. Mrsha, who had borrowed one of Visma’s dolls and was debating getting one of her own, took Visma’s side.

Gire, quite overwhelmed, tried to stop the aggressive poking with two paws.

“Hey, maybe someone should call the Watch instead?”

All of the other girls gave her such a look that Gire wavered. However, then, caught up in the moment, Yesne lunged. Visma protected the head of Herna—and the sewing needle jabbed her hard in the center of her clawed hand.

Mother!

Visma wailed and ran as Yesne hid behind the others. She was bleeding from her claw! The needle was in fairly deep, and Mrsha and Gire tried to calm Visma down.

“It’s okay, Visma! It’s not in deep—just let me pull it out—”

Gire had the bloody needle as Visma’s mother rushed in and saw it.

Visma! Did you take one of my sewing needles? What is this?”

The Drake girl sniffed as the appalled mother stared at the needle and took it away.

“It’s my dagger! No, give it back!”

Visma was in tears as Yesne apologized. Visma’s mother Selena, who was normally painting, scolded Visma as the girl held her claw up, showing her the wound.

“Why were you even playing with this? Your doll is murdering Seele? With a knife? Because she’s undead?

Selena gave Gire a look that said that this was normal…and disturbed her as much as the [Paragon]. Which went to show that adults had poor memories of when they were children.

“Visma, I’m sorry.

Yesne was in tears, and Mrsha patted her on the back with the others as she went to apologize. Visma sniffed.

“I forgive you, Yesne—but not Meera! She’s got to be put to death!”

The other children agreed. They looked to Gire, and the [Paragon] thought she had a handle on this situation now. She put herself into character and nodded, lifting her doll up. She cast one claw down.

“I, Lady Eisna, also move for summary execution. Meera will be, uh, strangled with silken cord at dawn.”

She felt like that was fairly reasonable; none of the children wanted to cut off their dolls’ heads even for the best roleplay. But Visma, Yesne, and Mrsha all looked up at Gire and then whispered amongst each other before shaking their heads.

“That’s so evil. Maybe Herna would forgive Meera after all, Visma.”

“I think so. Lady Eisna is too cruel.”

Too…? But she was trying to…Herna had just stabbed Seele to death! Gire looked at Mrsha, and the little girl sighed. Gire was way too into this. She made things too real.

Before they continued the tea party, though, Visma felt at her claw.

Mother! I need a healing potion! I’m hurt!”

There were no bandages nor anything else needed in a regular household. Just a healing potion. However, Visma’s mother hesitated.

“Oh—Visma. It’s just a little poke in your scales.”

Mommy!

Visma looked outraged, but Selena just sighed.

“Healing potions are twice as expensive as they were a month ago, Visma, and the [Alchemist] told me they might get more costly. No is no. Maybe you’ll learn not to play with needles.”

“Mrsha, lend me your healing potion!”

The Gnoll girl obliged Visma with a drop in secret, but Gire’s ears prickled a bit. Potions were getting more expensive in Liscor? She wondered if the fall of the Plain’s Eye tribe and damage to the other tribes had contributed to that. They didn’t have many [Alchemists], but their people were both [Traders] and supplied herbs.

Then again, to Gire’s knowledge, healing potions were easy to manufacture. But perhaps it was also the demand of adventurers or the new businesses like Liscor Hunted. Or the army gobbling up supplies. And yes, the tea party went back to discussing Liscorian politics and voting in their new member. For Liscor was changing even in the world of dollhouses.

“You want to admit an Antinium and a Goblin into our circle? Are you mad?”

One of the girls parroted one of her dolls. Mrsha wrote furiously, and Visma read out loud.

“They’re both noblewomen! They’ll be—ooh! A female Prognugator who’s Xrn’s distantly-related half-cousin’s sister? And a Goblin Lady?”

“I’m not playing with Goblins!”

A Gnoll girl broke character and folded her arms. Mrsha glared. She was going to buy a Goblin doll—well, she’d have to get it custom-made—and an Antinium one too!

“Bina…”

Visma looked at the Gnoll girl, but the black-furred girl pointed at Mrsha.

“You can’t have a Goblin! Even if you have one in your inn—they’re bad!”

Mrsha bridled, but Visma had an idea.

“Bina, Bina! What if you got a Human doll? And then Mrsha could get her dolls? We’ll let more people in.”

The girls thought about this. One of them, who was fiddling with her worn Drake doll, raised a timid claw.

“C-could I get a new doll too? My birthday is coming up. But I don’t want a Human or Goblin or Antinium. I want…a Garuda.

“Do they even sell Garuda dolls in Liscor?”

Visma was agog with the notion. Surely not! But the girl whispered confidentially to the others.

“They sell them in Pallass. I’ve got a reservation for tomorrow, and I’m going to get one made with real feathers! There’s one of Bevussa.”

“Oh, get one, get one! And I’ll get a Dullahan!”

“No fair! I want one!”

Visma stamped her foot and clapped her claws together loudly. She rallied the group as they turned to her.

“We’ll share! But we need to figure out what their names will be, and what their stories are—and who’s marrying whom! We need more dolls! Who has more?”

“Einne, the daughter of the Carpenter’s Guildmaster, has two dozen.”

“I hate Einne.”

“Let’s invite her. Come on, Yesne. We should get a Garuda, a Dullahan—and they can be the nobles from Pallass. Then they’ll come here, and the Goblin, um…falls in love with a Pallassian [General]!

Everyone oohed at this stroke of brilliance. Another Visma classic. Gire rubbed at her head. She felt—instinctively—that maybe it was time to find Ekhtouch again. Mrsha was a great and wonderful friend. But…Gire decided first she’d finally talk to them and tell them to get a price count in other cities and tribes for healing potions. Then they needed to gather, but they should be establishing ties with other tribes, so she’d send a [Message] to Feshi first…

It wasn’t fun, but it beat playing with damn dolls.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had a hammer, a nail, and a sheet of parchment.

Tekshia Shivertail had a spear.

“Stay away from my guild.”

It was being rebuilt, and Antinium were already working on the foundation—more advanced [Builders] under Hexel himself would finish once a framework was up. That was one of the newer systems in Liscor that allowed work for both groups.

“Aw, come on, Tekshia. I’ll just—I’m not gonna break it twice, and if I do, what’s left to break? Okay—okay! Don’t stab me. How about…the Watch House?”

“How about your inn?”

Erin ignored that. But she never made it to the Watch House, Liscor’s City Hall, or even the Mage’s Guild. A wall of [Guardsmen] blocked her, and a desperate [Mage] threw up a [Forcewall].

“You guys! Aw, man. Do I have to do my inn? I really don’t want to knock down my own walls.”

Even she was apprehensive as she wheeled back to her inn. Lyonette hesitated.

“Erin—if you think it’ll do any damage—don’t post that quest.”

“Fine, fine. I think I can stop it. Geeze, you make one guild fall down and everyone thinks you’ll do it again.”

A crowd followed Erin up the hill. She hadn’t said she was posting another <Quest>, but everyone could tell.

However, did they know what she’d said to Nerrhavia’s Fallen? No. Only the people in the inn knew, and while most were reporting to their friends or allies, you could argue people were still in denial.

As in, they said things like ‘yes, she posted a <Mythical Quest>, but so what? Other [Innkeepers] can do that. She’s an important [Innkeeper], but that’s all.’

The irrefutable proof was when Erin Solstice got a gift from the Titan of Baleros. When you began to add up the events she was involved in, or the rumors about her. Indeed—in the courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and to Yisame herself, the question was rapidly becoming not ‘who is Erin Solstice and why do I care?’, but ‘how can I talk to Erin Solstice?’

For she had something they wanted.

Erin Solstice took a breath, put the piece of parchment up, and watched as Ishkr bailed out a window. He landed in the grass, and Apista crawled out after him.

“Oh, come on, guys—”

Aah! Wait! I must run! I do not want to fall to my death!

Bird panicked in the tower, and Erin blew out her cheeks. She raised the hammer and concentrated. Everyone flinched as the hammer came up, and Erin struck the nail.

Tep.

The sound was so small only the Gnolls heard it, and Erin bent the nail sideways. She tried to recorrect, blinking, and hit her thumb.

Argh! My thumb! Hey! What’s going on?”

Erin took a few more swings at the piece of paper and hammered the parchment into the wall a bit. Then she stared at the parchment. She tugged at it and it tore right off the nail. Erin poked at the ink and then looked up at her guests.

“…Uh oh.”

 

——

 

She didn’t post the quest. In fact, Erin was pretty sure she couldn’t post the quest. Which raised an interesting conundrum.

“What do you mean, you can’t post it?”

“I just can’t, Lyonette. It doesn’t feel like it’ll work. And you saw it. I can’t make it…click. Like, you know, I know all the requirements are there and it’ll work? Just like the <Basic Quests>. But this time, I feel like I could post it. It’s just not time yet.”

Lyonette looked helplessly at Kevin, and the young man scratched at his head.

“…The <Mythical Quest> is on cooldown. She probably can’t post one the day after the last one. That’s how things work in games.”

Oh. But Erin could post a <Basic Quest> every hour!”

Erin was nodding. She sat at the table as the other guests tried not to listen in too obviously.

“Yeah, but that’s <Basic Quest>. I never tried <Rare Quest>, but I bet it’s at least a day. And then there’s <Heroic Quest> and then <Mythical Quest>. So…if that’s the case, how long do I have to wait?”

She felt a sudden sinking sensation in her chest. Because she’d just had a thought.

I have a lot of quests I want to post. She didn’t know if it was wise to post them all at once, and she’d been worried about that. Now, it occurred to Erin that the problem might not be if it was wise to hand out too many secrets or goals—maybe she wouldn’t be able to post them at all.

“How long do you think it would take for the <Mythical Quest> to…recharge?”

Lyonette looked at Kevin, and he had no answers. At this point, Venaz lifted his head up from his notebook.

“Let’s confirm a few details, Miss Solstice. There’s a ranking order, and I have it as Basic-Rare-Heroic-Mythical; is that the highest? Are there deviations within these ranks? How do you know about this palace of the Immortal Tyrant to post a quest for it or did Nerrhavia grant you that ability?”

Erin Solstice’s shoulders hunched, and she turned her head slowly. She’d almost forgotten about them.

Wil Kallinad, Peki of Pomle, Merrik Stoneshield, and Venaz of Hammerad.

“Oh, hey, guys. I didn’t see you come in.”

“Miss Solstice. I hope we’re not disturbing you?”

Wil gave her his most polite smile and bow from his seat. Venaz just stared until Merrik elbowed him.

“Ah—good morning, Miss Solstice. I was hoping to have a rematch of chess and then get your take on historical events of the last year. From your perspective. About these quests? I would be happy to explore any nuances of the phenomenon. I am—that is, we are the Titan’s finest students.”

The Minotaur gave Erin his winning smile, and Erin stared at it.

“…Nah. I’m good. Why don’t we continue this discussion in, um, the garden, guys?”

She looked at Lyonette, and Venaz stood up instantly, distressed.

“Miss Solstice! We are accredited [Strategists] and students of the Titan! He instructed us to help you in any way possible.”

“Great. It’s just—you guys give me real Chaldion vibes. So, um. Thanks, but I’ll let you know.”

“Is that a compliment?”

Peki whispered to Merrik. He rolled his eyes.

“What do you think?”

“No…?”

Erin wanted to roll away, but Lyonette hissed in her ear.

“Erin, that’s Wil Kallinad of House Kallinad of Pheislant! Remember what we said this morning?”

The [Innkeeper] groaned. Before she could make a determination on whether or not she cut the [Strategists] into her learning about <Quests>, the door opened.

The bouncers at the door were still the Thronebearers, but they had been at least augmented by the two former Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, Normen and Alcaz. They were letting in guests and the general public, because Lyonette had decided it was time to start earning money.

There wasn’t the same…rush that Normen vaguely remembered. Oh, there were a lot of lookie-loos who wanted to see what Erin was doing, but they bought snacks and drinks. Which saved Ishkr since the staff wasn’t there, true.

It was actually amazing that the [Head Server] was covering all the tables with Liska and Lyonette’s occasional help plus a few Antinium trainees. Still, that was because the guests were simpler in their desires.

Lyonette was wavering between helping Ishkr and persuading Erin not to flee. The [Strategists] weren’t making it any better—Venaz had pulled over Niers’ chess board and the [Message] scroll.

“The Titan of Baleros is available to talk, Miss Solstice.”

“Mm…okay. But am I?”

The Players of Celum might not be performing, but that was a good floor show, watching Venaz’s reactions. Lyonette found herself serving a Human whom she had never met before.

“Hello! I’m sorry about the slight delay—we’ve just reopened. But I can get your order to you right away. Are you new to Liscor?”

“I just came through that magical door from Invrisil. On holiday. I—oh, interesting. I think I’ll have a ‘blue fruit’ to start with, please. Everyone said that was the unique drink to get. Because it’s poisonous.”

“We make sure it’s not here, sir. And to eat?”

The man looked blankly at the menu.

“Pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, oh, even cake and…”

Lyonette smiled as he ran down the list of new foods—and those weren’t even the complex ones! Yet the finger went down the list of fine foods as well, and he frowned.

“—I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Huh?”

Lyonette did a double-take and wondered if she was looking at…an Earther? Another one? But this man was in his forties, and he looked very comfortable in his [Trader]’s vest and attire. He leaned back and patted his stomach and decided, no, he wasn’t hungry.

“Maybe some of your ‘Fireflake Fries’, then. I’ve eaten most of the new foods at other restaurants.”

“Y-you have?”

The [Princess] gave the Human man an uncomprehending stare, and he offered her a cheery smile.

“There’s pizza on option in almost every restaurant. Some of the dishes aren’t on your menu—wonderful spread. But I was just at The Drunken Gnoll, which is one of the eateries.”

Lyonette realized the problem instantly. Imani cooked for Timbor. And she, since The Wandering Inn was closed, had developed a name for herself as the food provider in the much more accessible, safe inn.

Worse? All of Erin’s foods had long since been stolen. The man saw Lyonette’s expression and hastened to reassure her—or try to.

“I had to come to The Wandering Inn and see where all the foods started. The Players of Celum, the foods—it’s a fine establishment. Entertaining. Vintage. Classic.”

That last word sounded like the doom of establishments to Lyonette. She bit her lip, but then put on a big smile and got the food. And then the significant guest walked into the inn.

Venaz was trying to get Erin to play a game of chess in vain—she was giving him a smile about as genuine as his when someone interrupted them.

“Erin Solstice. Might I trouble you for some time?”

Erin glanced up and then blinked.

“Oh! Kiish!

And there she was. [Strategist] Kiish of Desonis, the right-hand of Earl Altestiel, glanced at the students of the Titan of Baleros as they turned and sized her up. Venaz blinked.

“Strategist Kiish?”

He met her gaze, and the woman fiddled with her glasses.

“What a surprise to meet the famous students of the Titan of Baleros. It’s lovely to see new faces in our class. Erin, do you have time?”

She ignored the students as Erin turned.

“Of course, Kiish! I thought you were leaving…?”

“Presently. My work is done, but the Earl wondered if you might spare some time to talk? I have a speaking stone, and I believe he’s free this afternoon.”

Erin blinked. Time for the [Earl] who’d helped bring her back to life? She didn’t see Wil groan and Venaz writing a note to the Titan.

“Of course. Hey, would you like a game of chess?”

Kiish smiled.

“I believe the Earl would like one first if possible.”

“Hey, let’s pull up a board!”

Kiish nodded and then glanced around. She met Merrik’s eye for a moment and then seemed to spot the chess board coincidentally placed on a nearby table. She pulled a speaking stone from her pouch and cued it up as she began setting the board. She picked up the Titan of Baleros and put his chess piece in the ‘king’ spot.

“Earl Altestiel, Miss Solstice is here. Would you like to play a game?”

Her eyes glittered. Erin missed it as she greeted Altestiel, but Venaz had stopped writing abruptly. The Minotaur suddenly wondered if The Wandering Inn was scrying-proof. Probably not. And if it were—he was fairly sure informants and other methods could give you a clear view into the inn.

Peki was the one who summed it up best. She looked from Niers’ gift to Erin having its inaugural game with the Earl of Rains, to Kiish, to Erin, and whispered to Merrik.

“Ooh. Nice cross-counter.”

 

——

 

“So…how’re things, Altestiel?”

“Desonis is technically at war, Erin. Although our forces have not advanced on Ailendamus. We’re watching the borders.”

“Oh, right. The Ailendamus stuff. It looked pretty tough the…last time I heard about it. You know, I really have to thank you.”

“There’s no need, Erin. I only hope that you can visit Desonis sometime. I would offer to travel, but I doubt that will happen so long as the possibility of war remains.”

“I—don’t know if that’s likely.”

Erin Solstice fiddled with a pawn, then moved it forwards two spaces. Oh, it felt like last time they’d met. Dancing on uncertainty.

However, the Earl was entirely understanding. Lyonette was less so. She pinched Erin’s arm and leaned over.

“Earl Altestiel, I pray that you will allow me to visit your estates someday soon. Once I return to Terandria, I will surely call on you if that is acceptable.”

“I would gladly accept, Miss Lyonette.”

Erin looked up, and Lyonette’s face was sad. But she glanced at the Thronebearers and then at Erin. They didn’t have forever.

The young woman sighed. She put her head on the table and stared at the board where her game with Altestiel had begun. Then she saw Kiish, playing a ‘casual’ game with Wil as Venaz watched.

“—Lord of the Dance is also exceptionally glad you made a recovery, Erin. And as I said, if you need any help, Kiish is present to effect it until she leaves.”

“Hm? Oh—I don’t need—Lyonette, pinch me one more time and I will do something.

Erin snapped and heard a laugh from Altestiel. She blushed, then looked down at the pieces they were playing with. She stared at the Earl’s speaking stone.

“Alright, alright. I get it. Lyonette? Grab something for me. One second, Altestiel?”

“Of course. Let me just ponder my move…”

He didn’t know what was going on, so the clacking sounds didn’t make sense to him, nor the scritch or muttering as Erin made Lyonette set the table up. Altestiel had to confer with Kiish, who looked over her shoulder and wrote a very fast reply.

A second chess board had appeared, and the magical pieces looked very familiar. Also—Erin was writing in a [Message] scroll.

 

Hey, is this thing working?

 

Oh snap. The dolls-playdate with Visma and her friends had ended at The Wandering Inn—so Mrsha could contribute some snacks and money to the new doll fund. Visma looked up from sipping from her cup of blue juice and stared at something far more fascinating than the life and times of the Wall Ladies of Liscor.

“Ah, Erin?”

“Oh, don’t mind me, Altestiel. Still your move.”

Erin pushed forwards a knight and wondered if she wouldn’t get a response. But then a piece moved against it, and she grinned. A line appeared on the [Message] scroll.

 

Hello, Erin. 

 

She froze only for a moment as Kiish glanced at the speaking stone and then at Erin’s quill.

 

Is this my mysterious chess opponent?

None other.

Erin: It’s me, I guess you knew that. Are you Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros? Your students said you were, but I’m just checking.

Niers: That would be me, yes.

 

Erin’s only reaction was a slight outtake of breath. Then she moved a piece against Altestiel.

“Sorry, Altestiel. I’m just playing a second game here. What were you saying about the Lord of the Dance?”

“Who? I—oh, well—he’s an old friend. Famous, in his way. As I said, Desonis is doing quite well. I heard about your <Mythical Quests>. Is that new?”

“Yep. I’m trying to figure it out myself. I’ve got a lot of people who want to know everything, but guess what?”

“Er, what?”

“Turns out <Mythical Quests> have cooldowns, can you believe that? I’m worried it might be weeks or months before I can post another one. But hey—”

Erin reached for a cup of water, took a sip, and then looked around the inn. She stared at Venaz as he went to take a long drink and waited until the mug was halfway up.

“—I’ve got <Heroic Quests> for some stuff. And <Legendary Quests>.”

He began drowning on land. Erin winked at Lyonette. Is this what you wanted? Then she went back to writing.

 

Niers: I hope you didn’t find my gift too troublesome. I was at your inn, actually. I wanted to drop by unannounced, but I ran into some troubles of my own making.

Erin: I heard. Wars and, uh, a coup? No, wait, just a war because it was another Great Company, right?

Niers: A former one. It’s not resolved, but the crisis is over. I believe I have your people to thank, actually. I levelled up in the nick of time to gain an advantage. As for the rest—I’m sorry I wasn’t there when it mattered.

Erin: You did a lot. Really, I can’t believe it. Thank you. Is everything resolved?

Niers: There are a lot of dead bodies, and my commander, Foliana, is wounded. Perorn’s in Izril, but she’s resourceful, and I hope you’ll call on her if you need any help. But I’m pulling on threads, and I’ll have it under control soon.

Erin: Foliana…is she Three-Color Stalker? The giant Squirrel-woman?

Niers: Haha, yes. She’s hurt.

Erin: Badly?

Niers: No, she’ll live. Just completely laid up. Hazards of work; she’s been cursed. But she’ll heal naturally, and it’s just a few cuts.

 

At this point, a huge finger poked the Fraerling in the back as a magical eye glared out of a body with a ‘few cuts’ that included a chunk that was missing from her side. But Erin couldn’t know that.

 

Niers: I’m just sorry we couldn’t meet. I hope Mrsha and Numbtongue and Bird are well, along with Gna and the Fellowship of the Inn?

Erin: Did they really call themselves that?

Niers: I heard it once or twice. Say, are we playing chess? You really are the most difficult opponent I’ve found.

Erin: Thanks.

 

She was, in fact, moving chess pieces across Altestiel’s board as well as Niers’, and so she had almost constant time to be moving one piece or another on her side of the board. Altestiel was trying to keep up with the conversation on his end.

“—tribes that left with the King of Destruction might face a hard time on Chandrar.”

“I don’t know about Chandrar, Altestiel, but I hope that they’ll be safe. Didn’t Fetohep take some in? They’ll be safe in Khelt if anywhere’s safe.”

“Ah, yes. Khelt. I heard a few strange rumors from there when you were—incapacitated, Erin. Do you know Fetohep of Khelt, by any chance?”

Erin stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and her lips moved.

“We’ve talked. But never met face-to-face. I mean, maybe my dead body, but that doesn’t count, right?”

“I see. About these <Quests>. I suppose I should tell you my [Queen] and the leading [Strategist] of Desonis would also want to know about them, so I’d need to report—we can do <Heroic Quests>, you know.”

“Really? Get out! What’s the quest?”

“Er—it is to slay a nest of Hydras that we know has cropped up in some aquatic ruins. Highly dangerous; Gold-ranks would need to go in at least. The crown put gold into the [Innkeeper]’s hands to effect the quest, and multiple teams are going to try and complete it. I’ll say one thing about <Quests>—for now, the incentive is there. If only we could keep that enthusiasm going for quests to kill sewer rats.”

“Ew. I guess you’ll get a few takers, but I’m interested to know what the extra rewards are for the <Heroic Quest>. Will you let me know?”

“Absolutely. And you’re sure there will be extra rewards? As in—ones not promised? I noted in your <Heroic Quest> you offered a Skill. Our [Innkeeper] couldn’t, but he did add ‘experience in <Combat> classes or <Beast Management> professions’. As if those were categories. Do you know anything about that?

“Mm. Only guesses. It’s sort of like instinct, Altestiel. I didn’t know I could do that until I was posting it—it’s sort of like the extra rewards. I wish I could say for certain.”

“I really should have stayed in Liscor a few more months. There’s no chance that magic door has been upgraded anywhere near First Landing, is there? The seas are still completely upset, but perhaps Kiish could help you with any issues? Desonis does have the resources as well, and aside from this war nonsense, it’s quite free for time. The ‘Bedtime Queen’ proves that.”

Erin moved a piece across Niers’ board and took a bishop. She was writing and speaking, albeit slower on both ends.

She’s playing them against each other.

Venaz whispered loudly in Wil’s ear as he took a game off Kiish. She might be a higher-level and more senior [Strategist], but there was no fiercer competition than in the academy. Wil grimaced.

“You think she’s pulling the same trick the Professor did?”

“Why not? It’s a cunning move.”

It would be, wouldn’t it? Erin turned her head and stuck out her tongue at Venaz.

“Rude! Hey, you, Minotaur guy.”

Altestiel and Niers replied at once.

“Minotaur? You mean Calruz?”

The Earl of Rains was a bit too innocent. As for Niers…

 

Niers: What is that idiot doing this time? 

Erin: I don’t recall writing anything about Venaz.

Niers: I may have an ear or two around.

Erin: You and everyone else.

Niers: I don’t make a habit of spying on my chess opponents. This is a rare case. The Earl of Rains is someone I’m acquainted with, actually. I hope I haven’t offended you.

Erin: Nah.

 

Venaz looked at Erin as she pointed a finger at him.

“Listen, Venaz. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. You’re some big student from the Titan’s academy, right?”

“I am a [Strategist] of Minos studying in Elvallian, so you’re broadly correct. I trust I’m not offending you, Miss Solstice. I can be—abrasive, or so I’m told. I’m simply stating my mind. Feel free to correct me; mistakes are the foundation of learning.”

Venaz folded his arms cautiously. Erin gave him a blank look as she twisted in her seat.

“What am I, a teacher? I’m not your mom, either. I’m not playing either Altestiel or Niers against each other. Why would I do that?”

“Because you’d be certain of drawing or winning against at least one? It’s a clever move that some [Strategists] have even used in war.”

The Minotaur had an instant response ready. Erin just blinked at him.

“Yeah. But why would I do that? It doesn’t sound like fun. It’s just to make people look silly or teach them a lesson. Come over here if you want to watch, and you can see. I’m playing no one against each other. I’m beating both of them.”

She cracked her fingers as Venaz strode over. Both Altestiel and Niers were silent for a moment. Erin twisted her neck and winced as it popped.

“Whoo. Nothing like a good game of chess to get your mind moving. Check, Altestiel. Your move, Niers.”

The thing was that if she were writing and speaking at the same time—her opponents were arguably more distracted than she. And they had forgotten that when it came to chess, Erin was better than both of them.

The silence followed by the clacking of pieces was broken presently by Erin herself. She sighed.

“Yeah. I do owe you a big favor.”

Who was she addressing? All eyes swung to the stone and [Message] scroll as Erin covered her writing. She wrote something to Niers and spoke something completely different to Altestiel out loud.

“Altestiel, does Desonis need anything right now?”

He paused.

“Aside from more arable land, protection from monsters large and small, a talented generation, and three dozen enchanted, self-repairing fortresses? We have done fairly well as nations go, Erin. I’m not up-to-date on the minutiae, but we have no glaring issues at this time.”

Erin heard some chuckles from around the room at his response. She smiled and stared down at what she’d written:

 

Erin: I’ll definitely find a way to repay you.

Niers: There’s no need. As I said, I’m only sorry we couldn’t meet and that I didn’t do more. I hope we will be able to speak in person.

Erin: Sure thing. I’d like that too, but I have just one question I was hoping you could answer.

Niers: Go ahead. If you have any questions, incidentally, or would like to test any <Quest> theories, let me know. I have some resources in Baleros, and the answers are worth most effort in and of themselves.

Erin: Thanks. How do you feel about Goblins? I was told you teleported a Goblin tribe to Baleros. What’s going to happen to them?

Niers: Give me a second to think about my answer.

 

Back to Nereshal’s warning and clues from the future. It was conceivable that Erin could have been known just as that [Innkeeper] who kept Goblins safe and treated them well. However…would some important [Mage]—no, arguably the most important [Mage] in all of the Blighted Kingdom know her at first sight from just that?

Erin thought she knew what she’d do. So she spoke out loud to Altestiel.

“Hey, Earl Altestiel. How cool is your [Queen]?”

Now there was a loaded question. The Earl hesitated.

“She can be completely asinine, which is not an expression of disloyalty, just personal preference. And she keeps entirely too many pets ar—hydras!

It sounded like someone had just tossed a pet at him from the clatter and swearing. Then—Lyonette began sweating because it occurred to her that two major powers were probably listening into the casual chess games. She’d told Erin to make allies, make friends.

But even so—the [Innkeeper]’s eyes glinted as she stared out the window at the High Passes. It was a busy day today. Liscor was changing. And somewhere up in those mountains was Goblinhome. A place that at least Chaldion knew about, and which had kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault.

“So she’s sorta cool. Do you think she’d ever consider signing a petition or agreement around…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. I owe you a big debt for Kiish helping me. She’s great.”

Erin smiled at Kiish, and the [Strategist] looked gratified and surprised as she dipped her head. Erin turned back to the speaking stone.

“You said Desonis doesn’t lack for anything except for, like, a dozen magical fortresses. And stuff. I dunno about a dozen. But what about one? Might be sorta wet, though.”

“…What?”

“A magical fortress.”

“You mean the palace of—er—no, a magical fortress?

“Yup. Not belonging to any [Tyrants]. Completely unrelated. I think. Would you like to have one?”

The [Innkeeper] was watching a very long paragraph being written on the scroll when Lyonette seized her arm. Venaz was waving a clear blue truth stone in the others’ faces and shouting in whispers.

Erin!”

“Aw, come on, Lyonette. I’m doing what you wanted!”

Erin gave Lyonette a rare, genuine scowl. But the [Princess] drew her back, whispering urgently.

“Erin! You don’t give fortresses to [Earls]! It’s—historically—very dangerous!”

The young woman gave Lyonette a blank look.

“Okay, then I’ll tell Kiish. She can report to her [Queen] first, and Desonis can use it. But it’d be a load off my mind. And who else do I know in Terandria who needs, like, an entire fortress?”

The [Princess] hesitated and retorted.

“C-Calanfer?”

“Psh, you’re not going back to Calanfer.”

Erin waved that off. The Thronebearers in the room looked at Lyonette, and before she could respond, Visma broke in. The little Drake ran up.

“Miss Erin, do you know where a fortress is?”

Everyone waited on the response. Erin Solstice picked up Niers’ scroll and read what he’d written.

 

Niers: Chieftain Shaik of the Ghostly Hand tribe and most of her people are well. That was a strategic move, and as I think Numbtongue could tell you, I have a different perspective on Goblins. I’m aware they are intelligent, loyal, resourceful, and more. 

My company used to employ them in numbers, and I knew Velan the Kind. So if you’re asking if I’ll trust or harbor them—I cannot. Not again, and not without proof what happened then won’t repeat itself.

Of the many mistakes I’ve ever made, the level of death and carnage he caused is perhaps the greatest. With that said, I’m willing to listen to what you might have to say. Do you know why Goblin Kings rampage against the world?

 

To that, she wrote a simple reply as he held his breath.

 

Erin: Not yet.

 

She looked up when Venaz burst out.

“Miss Solstice, are you actually implying you are intending to give away a fortress? Or that you know the location of one?”

The [Innkeeper] frowned at him.

“I’m just doing my thing, Venaz. I sorta get why Niers has this exasperated vibe with you. You know what your problem is? You’re not adaptable. You need to take lessons from him. Go with the flow more.”

She pointed at Kevin, and Venaz’s head cricked around. Erin clarified.

“I can’t just…give stuff away. But I wonder what kind of <Quest> it is. I don’t think it’s <Mythical>. So yes, I know things. Some of the stuff I know is out there sounds really cool, but we’re fine here, right guys?”

Erin looked around for agreement. Mrsha the Explorer of Fortresses looked up at Erin Solstice with the pain of someone too young to be responsibly allowed to explore for hidden treasure. As for Erin, she nodded to Lyonette.

“There’s not that many hidden fortresses in the ocean or whatever. And I agree, we need to be careful. But a thank-you?”

Her eyes twinkled as she turned back to the speaking stone.

“I’ll send you a letter via Courier, Altestiel. If you want one.”

“I—er—yes? That would be fairly—where?”

“Lemme write it down. Actually, I need a Courier, damn—”

“I know there’s Hawk in the city! I’ll get him.”

“No, me!”

Every guest in the inn was suddenly a Street Runner. Erin turned from the hesitating Altestiel to Kiish. She pointed to the [Garden of Sanctuary] and winked.

I’ll tell you later. Erin mouthed, and the [Strategist] blinked at the sly wink. Erin hoped Hawk might refuse this one. She didn’t think he wanted to be the one carrying a blank letter and dodging everyone across the continent.

Erin Solstice had two edges on the competition right now that no one else knew she had. The first? Her new class, which she had not explored but she knew.

[Witch]. Erin’s eyes flickered as she glanced at Mrsha, and the little Gnoll’s eyes went round. She realized what Erin was going to do.

Cooldown or not—you could make a <Quest> personal. You didn’t have to nail it to an inn at all. You only did that if you wanted attention. Erin winked at the Gnoll girl. Then she spoke to the inn.

“Alright, good chess games. I need some privacy to write that letter. Kiish, maybe you can tell me how I address it? In the garden. As for after that, no more chess, I’m afraid. I’ve got to do some cooking.”

“Cooking, you?”

Lyonette had to sit down as Erin rolled on past with a suddenly very helpful Mrsha pushing the chair. Erin nodded.

“I might, um, be out of gifts in a <Quest> sense. So I’ll send Niers some baked goods. I feel like that’s a nice gesture. Although…darn, I guess I can’t send it unless it’s by Courier, and that’ll take—”

I’m fairly certain he’ll pay to have it teleported from Invrisil.

Wil interrupted, and Erin blinked at him.

“That’s a lot of money. You sure?”

“I think—he’ll take it.”

Kiish stared at Erin, and between Altestiel and Niers, she couldn’t tell who’d won. Then she amended that thought.

Almost definitely—Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

It was rare to see a line of people in a place like this. A shadow slipped out of the crowd and stood, almost identical to the next passing man or woman.

You couldn’t have said, upon reflection, how tall this person was, if they were male, female, or what they were wearing aside from a trench-coat and pants.

They moved through the world as an observer, neither combatant nor defender, sympathizer nor antagonist.

They were here to watch and report. And they were…

“Excuse me. Is this the right spot?”

The next person to walk out of the crowd was a Drake—right up until she pulled the mask off and revealed a slightly sweaty Human woman’s face beneath. The first observer nearly leapt out of his skin.

“What? I’m not anyone you know. I must have taken the wrong—”

“Yep, you’re in line. [Informant]? [Spy]? [Observer]?”

The formerly-masked woman got into line as the generic watcher hesitated.

“[Infiltrator], actually. Not my specialty.”

“Oh, nice. Do you make your own masks?”

“Yep. Want to try this one on? It adjusts to your face.”

Lovely.

The door opened. The group of waiting people heard a voice as a figure flitted out, as quiet as a shadow under moonlight.

“Next?”

For a moment, the [Clandestine Observer] saw the enchanted steel door reveal a big shape. A Golem—steel.

“That’s big security for a new-timer.”

The [Infiltrator] muttered. The person ahead of the two who’d just arrived replied absently.

“She’s already nearly been killed once, apparently. And if she’s got the premium on information—she’ll have a target on her back.”

The [Clandestine Observer] felt at this point like the mystique and subterfuge of his class was being spoiled by standing in line and waiting for the door to open. He cleared his throat.

“I…was told this was the most reliable source. Do you know how long we must wait? I have clients demanding answers—now.”

“Don’t worry, the door’s opening every five to ten minutes at most. What’s your class?”

“I prefer not to say.”

The [Spy] or whomever it was ahead of the [Observer] rolled his eyes exasperatedly.

“Suit yourself. But you know, the blank-man routine gets you killed where I’m from. It stands out.”

Chuckles up and down the line as the [Observer] turned red. The others looked at him with transplanted magical eyes, artifacts, and in one case, a sniff that revealed everything a glance wouldn’t. A Dullahan woman with scars around a glowing bright, blue eye eyed the [Observer]. Her gaze saw everything.

“Red silk underpants? Classy.

 

——

 

Fierre wondered what the laughter was about. But she didn’t have time to waste.

The [Chameleon Agent] who’d entered her shop didn’t like the Golem or being in line, and he was already blending in a bit with her floorboards as he stared at the desk.

It was covered with paper, and Fierre was sorting through it—a mountain of notes, missives slipped under her door, and correspondences. Even if she’d only been away a few months, she’d been sorting for nearly a week.

“Excuse me. Are you—”

“Opener, information broker—I don’t do fence work. I assume you’re here for the same thing as the rest?”

One eyebrow rose—Fierre tried not to roll her eyes.

Spooks like the people waiting for her help were all the same. Runners were pretentious sometimes, often in a hurry and impatient with it, but the covert groups who wanted information loved the cloak-and-dagger mystique.

“And what are the others here to learn about, if that’s free information?”

Fierre grabbed for a toppling stack of papers and glared at the person standing before her.

“The [Innkeeper]. And if you want information on her, you can get a copy in an hour when someone shares what I’ve got. But I bet you’re in a hurry, and so am I, so if you’ll drop the word-games, we can both get back to work.”

“Oh. Sorry. I—what do you have?”

An embarrassed cough sounded, and Fierre mollified her tone.

“Sorry—it’s been a long day. Here are the facts—yes, that was the Titan of Baleros and Altestiel, the Earl of Rains. Yes, she just talked with someone in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

“You have confirmation? Are you certain—

The [Agent] was excited but cautious, and understandably so, because a false report would be his reputation on the line. Fierre grabbed something on her desk. A big folder of paper, even illustrations.

“Third page, all reports from people who saw the Earl of Rains here. Watch Captain’s report from Liscor and other cities of his presence. The [Strategists] are the Titan’s students, as you know. I have Mage’s Guild testimonies on the Nerrhavia’s Fallen one from both sides—only Erin Solstice calling in, then a redirect to Tyrant’s Rest. If you’re not comfortable putting that on your authority, I recommend just reporting those facts.”

The [Agent] spent a few seconds paging through the files and reading quickly. Fierre went on, filing more reports away.

“No, she can’t spit blood. Yes, someone stole her body. Note the table of contents and each rumor around her. There’s a ‘true’, ‘false’, or ‘complicated’ and page numbers. Oh—and I’ve included the recent reports on <Quests>. Legendary exists. There’s a cooldown and a hierarchy.”

“This is—exceptionally well done. I can practically send it on as it is.”

The [Agent] was muttering in relief. Fierre smiled and wiped at her arm. It had been worth the bad sunburn and the gold to rush the packet to a [Scribe] for copying. The [Agent] glanced up.

“How much for the entire thing?”

“Six gold. If you don’t like that—”

Six gold pieces appeared on the table, and Fierre swept them into a drawer that jangled happily. Oh yes, she was making a killing.

Information brokering was the Vampire girl’s specialty, even if she’d taken a road-trip across southern Izril and fought in a war. It felt like a bit of a dream to Fierre, but this was reality.

Profitable reality. The trick with hot information that everyone would know was this: unlike a super-secret, which you might sell once and at cost, speed was key to flipping something like Erin’s secrets.

The contents of her information was probably already being disseminated and reprinted right now. However, the other information brokers in Liscor, Pallass, Invrisil, or anywhere else were wasting minutes if not an hour having to re-check and re-print the folders Fierre had.

That meant that in the precious time they had nothing—she had everything. And there were so many high-level agents that needed to answer to their employers now that handing them a folder like this was making her literal gold on coppers.

It did something else for Fierre too, and that was the appreciative look the [Agent] gave her. He hadn’t looked twice around the room, only to check for weapons and eye the Golem. Now, he took a moment.

“What’s the name of this…place?”

He didn’t ask hers, so Fierre gave it anyways.

“I’m Fierre. No name but the ‘steel door’, but I’m going to use the alias of Bloody Secrets. You can find me via the right channels.”

The man nodded and tucked the folder under one arm.

“I’ll remember it and reference you if I need anything. Much appreciated, Miss.”

He left, and Fierre called the next client in. She was running down the same spiel when a letter addressed to her caught her eye.

She hadn’t been in contact aside from [Message] spells, and those were costly, so all this information that she’d had in her office was probably out-of-date and/or only good for someone who wanted all the past information.

But this—this was just addressed to her, so Fierre cracked it open with one finger and cursed. The nervous [Spy] jumped, but Fierre waved a hand.

“I’m sorry—personal information. Oh no. I’m going to be in trouble.”

“Bad news? Something that I should be concerned about?”

The worried Gnoll sniffed, but Fierre shook her head.

“Worse. Family.

She checked the sun outside, but if it wasn’t too late—there was no way in heck she was turning down this much gold! She groaned and decided she’d make it up to them with something good to eat. Or fresh blood or something.

After all. It wouldn’t be hard to visit anymore.

 

——

 

Bird sat in his tower, humming. He was back to the basics. Shoot birds, eat birds, and probably poo birds at a later date, but even he didn’t see the resemblance anymore.

“I am Bird. And my life is back to normal now. There is nothing to be worried about. Cow.”

He sang, and the [Liar] realized he had truly advanced his class.

Because now he was lying to himself. Bird the Hunter aimed his bow at some dino-birds out of range and looked around the Floodplains.

“There are a lot of wagons. Much more than before. And less spiders. And I am so happy.”

“Bird.”

“The wind, it is so nice on my shell.”

Bird, come down here.

“I cannot hear anything but the sunshine on grass.”

Someone threw a rock at him. Bird ducked and peered out of his tower. He stared down at Klbkch, and the Slayer pointed.

“You are summoned to the Free Hive. The Queen is waiting. Xrn is waiting. I am waiting.

Bird, who could form a Unitasis Network, the foundation of True Antinium, stared down at Klbkch. The Centenium could have leapt up there and grabbed Bird. Or hustled him down through the secret tunnels.

However, Bird had screamed the last time he’d done it, and Klbkch was wary of the wrath of Erin Solstice.

And all the spies watching him. Bird looked down at Klbkch.

“The Free Queen said if I ever returned I would be killed.”

“She has rescinded that order. Come down, Bird.”

“I have quit the Free Antinium. I am a free bird. You do not rule me.”

Klbkch twitched an antennae irritably.

“You cannot quit the Antinium, Bird.”

“Ksmvr did.”

“Ksmvr was exiled. There is a distinction.”

“Then I exile myself. La, la, I am Bird. I am going to play in the grass. And if you don’t like it, Miss Erin will be mean. Therefore, Klbkch, as Kevin says—”

Bird turned around and awkwardly bent forwards.

“Kiss my ass.”

He waited, then looked over his shoulder and dove down the stairs just before Klbkch threw a rock and cracked part of his tower. Bird popped back up and shot an arrow, but Klbkch could now catch them.

This is why I need a ballista!

 

——

 

The two Antinium fighting was a sight to see, even by the standards of Liscor. For outsiders? It was like a nightmare turning into a sock-puppet performance. Simultaneously hilarious, confusing, and terrifying.

“Mother. Am I sick or are those two Antinium throwing rocks at each other?”

Perhaps it was a touch of the vapors. It was entirely conceivable, especially because the entire family was garbed from head-to-toe in thick black wool, despite the daylight, and multiple layers at that.

However, the pale-skinned woman who stared at the distant inn felt at her son’s forehead, and the icy chill made her sure he had no fever.

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle looked around for Fierre for the umpteenth time, but even after seventeen letters, she had not deigned to respond once, nor meet them at the end of their long journey.

Longer still, because there was no way to use the portal door to teleport the six loaded wagons, each pulled by a pair of horses or donkeys, and the herd of sheep and all the other animals heading over another of the Floodplains.

A curse behind her made Colfa look back.

Colfa, the wagon’s stuck again. We need a hand.”

Bamer was glaring at the wheels dug into the grass from all the weight in the wagon. They were off the road, which would have prevented this kind of thing, but almost at their destination. Colfa sighed, but walked downhill.

“You’re getting old, Bamer.”

“It’s heavy. One, two—”

The woman reached down with one hand and Bamer with both of his. The horses, who’d decided to take a break, stared as the wagon, thousands of pounds, lifted slightly and cleared the rut. The two Vampires looked at each other and lowered the wagon to the ground.

“We’ll have to be more careful near a city.”

“No one was watching.”

Rivel, the youngest of the four, assured the rest. He slid down the hill, and the other five wagons caught up. The driver of one of them raised his head and adjusted the thick scarf around his neck.

“Colfa, what did you see?”

“Antinium. Fighting. We could keep going, Himilt.”

“And head to fully Drake lands, past the Bloodfields? No, I don’t think vagrant Humans would be any more welcome than Gnolls were. Here, at least, the land is guaranteed. Or it will be. Bamer, the contracts?”

The old man rubbed at his back, but it was more pretense than anything. He produced a sheaf of magically-stamped documents with a resigned air.

“As good as the last hundred times you checked, Himilt. And this…is it.”

They stared around, and the other riders on the wagons slipped off and gathered on the hilltop. One produced an umbrella; another stooped under the shade of the wagons.

They all had red eyes, pale skin, and elongated canines. Well, pale for whatever skin they’d had originally; one did have dark brown skin, but she appeared to be permanently paler, as if the blood had rushed from her body.

“This is the spot?”

“Look, there’s even a marker.”

All of them gathered around a little sign posted into the ground. It was written in the Drake script, but there was a Human version beneath.

 

Village Founding Site #14, Property of Liscor.

Now claimed by ‘val Lischelle-Drakle’. Welcome to Liscor! Please visit our city at your earliest convenience for help settling in.

—Councilmember Lism, Liscor’s Council.

 

And that was all. If Himilt looked around and stood on the top of his wagon, he could just about see other sites that had been recently colonized—or had a sign indicating a lot.

All of them were the highest hills above the flooding mark, and he’d done his research on the spring rains. Apparently, there had been more structures in the past, but the Antinium Wars had destroyed them.

Now…[Farmers] were coming back. Especially because the Shield Spiders were dead—they saw the grasslands, and for all their slopes and valleys, they saw fertile land. Still, it was a commitment to try and set up new roots here.

But for a Vampire, all Himilt cared about was that Liscor was no Human city. He nodded to the others.

Not just the four members of his family minus Fierre. There were others of his kind who’d joined this long journey. And what a journey it had been.

They had set out from their ancestral estates, and it had sold a month into their trip. Four months of heading south across Izril was a fast pace if you weren’t a Courier. Of course, they hadn’t worried about [Bandits] and monsters as much.

They had sold their home. Sold the home Himilt’s great grand-parents had lived in, and they had been Vampires, so the place was old.

But it was poisoned, and for all every [Farmer], [Herder], and [Shepherd] within a hundred miles had said it was a tragedy and tried to talk them out of it—they had no idea the real reason the Lischelle-Drakle family had left.

The wells were bad. The water was bad. If they stayed—they died.

Here, in Liscor, was the first place Vampires were even considering moving to. And it might be they’d have to go further than that, maybe even leave the continent.

“…But here, there’s a chance. Let’s set up. Someone might notice us and come to greet everyone, so be normal. Bamer, you and I will go to Liscor and check on things.”

The others looked up as Himilt gave orders. He glanced at Colfa and felt a tightness in his stomach.

“…Don’t unpack too much.”

Bamer came with Himilt as they left the hilltop and headed back down to the road and to Liscor. They walked fast, but ‘normally’, and kept their conversation light.

Even so, both were worried. Not just because heading to Liscor would be an answer to whether they stayed.

“I’m told Fierre’s been seen in Invrisil. I think she just forgot to write you, Himilt. It turns out she hadn’t even been there, but in the south.”

“South? We’ll ask after her as soon as night falls. I’m not worried.”

Himilt lied. Bamer shook his head and coughed into his sleeve. It was a bad cough, too deep and loud by far, and he wiped at his mouth. His eyes glinted, and he looked up at Himilt.

“Don’t be. She’s true and free. More than anyone will ever be.”

That was all that could be safely said in the open. But it made them quicken their steps and head to Liscor’s gates. They avoided the inn, for now. The Antinium made Himilt’s skin prickle.

They were as foreign to Izril as Vampires had once been. Yet—he knew some of his people had marched south under Reinhart’s banner despite the risks. If they had come north, the Black Tide would have run into fang and claw and shadows in the night.

He wondered what they tasted like. But there was little desire to act on it there. That was just a habit.

His people had fought the Goblin King, too. When Terandrians made war on Izril, during the battle at the Bloodfields, sometimes, they fought.

They were part of Izril too, even if Izril had long since forgotten they remained. But the north was poisoned to them.

All because of one family. One house. Centuries, thousands of years of work turning Izril into a final trap, an execution by generations.

House Byres.

Himilt forced the emotions down as he walked and waited at the gates. A younger man…a younger Vampire would have had a different reaction to that news. A younger Himilt had far less to lose. Right now, he only craved getting his people out of a place where they’d continue to add poison into their veins.

Liscor…might be that place.

Himilt and Bamer were surprised by the efficiency of the [Guards] at the gates. He was worried for a second they’d ask him to remove his clothes, but they only asked for him and Bamer to remove their caps and scarfs, and unlike Fierre, they wouldn’t burn in the few seconds the Drake took to scan their faces against wanted lists.

“Are you already feeling the chill? Sick? I’d hope you go to a [Healer]’s rather than pass it around.”

“We just dress like this, sir. We’re [Farmers] from far north. About Reizmelt—we’ve come to Liscor to settle.”

That did get the Drake’s attention. He signaled to a Gnoll, who trotted off, and Himilt felt a warning prickle on his spine. But he kept his face smooth as the Drake nodded.

“More [Farmers]? That’s excellent. Well, you are free to enter. We do have rules about goods coming in and out, but the Merchant’s Guild has a list. Do you need directions anywhere?”

“Is there no Farmer’s Guild?”

Bamer frowned, and the Drake almost laughed, then caught himself.

“There hasn’t been enough [Farmers] in Liscor for a guild in ages. There are [Farmers], but they go through the Merchant’s Guild. They’ll have a list. It’s right past Shivertail’s Plaza. Head down this street, and you won’t miss the signs.”

“Thank you, sir. One more question—is the Adventurer’s Guild that way too?”

“Absolutely. Have you seen monsters…? Our Watch can take care of Rock Crabs and mark Shield Spider nests for destruction.”

“Not yet, sir. We find it’s best to know where the adventurers are.”

Bamer reassured the Drake, and the two headed into the city. All things considered, Himilt thought the Watch looked sharper than average. Gnolls and Drakes…

“I feel like I stick out even more here, Himilt.”

“Think of it like this, Bamer. Humans look more alike to non-Humans.”

“True. Ah…”

The slight exclamation was of surprise, because one of the first things the Vampires saw were a trio of huge Gnolls.

Gnolls were already tall, and Himilt was tall for a Human, so he was roughly equal to their height at six-foot-something. But these Gnolls were glossy-furred and giants among their own kind.

Even the other Gnolls turned to stare at the female Gnoll talking to the other two.

“…prices are that high in Zeres? Why?”

“We don’t know, Chieftain.”

“Don’t call me—then buy, um, two hundred.”

Two hundred?

“As much as you can afford with our people. Per city, and don’t go above three gold pieces per bottle.”

“Chieftain, the cost—”

“Do it. I’m your Chieftain—if prices are rising, we’ll bet they rise higher and add to the demand. If not? We’ll hold onto the potions and make a profit either way.”

“How?”

“The new frontier needs potions. Armies need potions. Just—buy them and stop arguing!”

Gireulashia snapped as Bamer and Himilt listened with their enhanced ears, which were almost as good as a Gnoll’s. Bamer nudged Himilt.

“I told you they looked higher. But we don’t need them as much…I wonder why? Mana potions were the same.”

“Probably a shipping shortage at sea. Step left. The strong metal.”

Both instantly moved across the street as a group of Gnolls passed by. They were polite and wouldn’t have crowded the two men, but even the proximity made Himilt’s skin crawl and Bamer sneeze.

“Damn. They were wearing pure silver. Are you sure this is wise?”

Himilt just shook his head. He was getting more and more reservations, but they had one sure check.

“Excuse me. Is this the Adventurer’s…Guild?”

For some reason, the entire guild was a bunch of rubble swarming with Antinium clearing it out and laying a foundation. A Drake behind a counter in the building next to them waved both over.

“Hello! My name is Maviss, how can I help you today? I’m sorry about the mess—our guild is being reconstructed. Do you have an urgent issue?”

“No, Miss. We were actually…wondering if we could inquire after a famous team? A Gold-rank one.”

The Drake sighed, but quietly, and looked around at the copious notes that had been salvaged from the last guild office.

“We can help you. Is this a complaint or…?”

“We were hoping to hire them. If they’re in the area.”

Bamer lied. That was the best way to inquire, they’d found. The Drake brightened slightly; hiring a team by name was always a bit of coin in the guild coffers.

“Which one? We actually have a number of Gold-rank teams in the city…”

“The Silver Swords.”

“The Silver…oh, they’re not here. I’m sorry, they left ages ago.”

“Is that so?”

Himilt and Bamer knew that, of course. You kept track of your enemies, and that lot had gone to Wistram a while back. Bamer looked disappointed and cleared his throat.

“Do you know—if they’ll be back any time soon? We have a long-term contract. A kind of—finding our ancestors’ homes and searching for treasure. Do they often come to Liscor?”

He was wording himself very carefully, because truth spells existed. Nothing he said implied that he was going to hire the Silver Swords, and they did in fact know where older generations of Vampires might have buried something.

The [Receptionist] fussed with her notes, then snapped her claws.

“Why am I looking for that? I can just tell you—the first time the Silver Swords came to Liscor was earlier this year. They’re not common around here, although I know they’re more famous in the north.”

Himilt’s heart didn’t know whether to rise or sink at this. So they weren’t here regularly, which meant the wells might be clean. But if they’d been here once—

Well, they could rely on the groundwater and the rivers. Given the Floodplains’ yearly flooding, it was probably far safer. But Liscor’s wells would inform a lot of their animals and food, even healing potions.

“Do you know if they…”

Bamer began, but Himilt stopped him. They couldn’t just ask about well seeding. The [Receptionist] waited, quill raised.

“Can I send them a [Message] you’re here and might be interested in a request, gentlemen? It’s a small fee, but we lump such messages together for Gold-rank teams, and while they might not see it…”

“No, thank you, Miss. It’s—if they’re only here once, would they be likely to return?”

“Maybe. I think they have ties to the inn. I’m sorry, The Wandering Inn. But aside from that or the dungeon, I don’t know how likely it is. Between you and me—they didn’t exactly come at a good time. They were trapped in the city for a siege, and I heard their Captain got arrested once.”

Maviss whispered confidentially. Himilt blinked. The upstanding [Knight] got arrested?

“For doing what? Starting fights with the Antinium?”

That was Bamer’s guess. Maviss wrinkled her snout.

“I…don’t know. Maybe someone else does. Hey. Selys! Why did that Ylawes Byres get arrested that one time, remember?”

A female Drake speaking to an older Drake, possibly the Guildmistress. The way she held the spear made Himilt’s back prickle with wariness. Selys sighed and came over.

“Hello! Ylawes? He didn’t get arrested, Maviss. You’re exaggerating. He was only put in a cell for about fifteen minutes so Zevara could prove she was serious.”

“Why?”

Selys scratched her tail idly and stared at the makeshift temporary Guild. A few adventurers were watching the two [Farmers] idly—‘ancestors’ and ‘treasure’ had a way of doing that to an adventurer. However, no one came forward to ask if they could take on the request.

Especially not the day-drunk [Swashbuckler] with her head on the table. Jewel looked at Himilt and Bamer and stayed put. She’d learned her lesson.

“Ylawes? Oh—he and the snooty half-Elf, Falene, got arrested for trying to dump alchemical stuff in the wells. Actually, he asked me how many wells Liscor had and started grumbling about not having enough for some weird Human tradition. Watch Captain Zevara told him not to do it.”

Himilt and Bamer listened with bated breath. Did that mean…?

Drakes were very peculiar about public security, and from the sounds of it—the two thanked the pair of Drakes and declined to leave a [Message].

“None or little of the bright stuff in the wells. Flooding—and I’ll be tanning in the summer if I didn’t see some beautiful grass that made the sheep perk up. They’re not huge on herds or farms either, Himilt. We might make some money here.”

The Vampire agreed quietly. He was almost ready to give Liscor a chance. Everything was uncertain, but he was tired of the road, and this was as good a place as any aside from the new world, and there was no telling what dangers waited there.

Vampires could die to monsters just like anyone else. They were tougher, stronger—a lot stronger—but they had no levels. Apart from Fierre, they were not true Vampires.

But one thing was bothering him. And it was the feeling he was being watched. It was the worry that they had given up one threat in the north for another.

Some people still hated their kind, and there were intelligent members of every species. The Antinium were here, and so Himilt sensed the people headed their way before Bamer did.

“Bamer…”

Himilt glanced around, but the street was crowded, and then—they were right on top of the Vampires.

“Hello, is this Himilt val Lischelle—er—[Farmer] Himilt? I heard you were in the city, and I was dying to meet you. Councilmember Lism and Councilmember Raekea.”

Himilt turned around, and a Drake with purple scales accosted him. Himilt blinked as Lism seized his gloved hand and shook it once, and a Gnoll nodded.

“Hello?”

Councilmember Lism of Liscor had appeared himself to greet Himilt—and meet the newest [Farmers] to hopefully supply Liscor with produce. Nothing would do but for him to take them to the nearest restaurant for a meal on the city and tell them about the wonderful opportunities they would have here.

Himilt glanced at Bamer out of the corner of his eye as he was offered a…pizza slice. Bamer tried to drink the tomato sauce and found to his disappointment it was just sauce, but the Vampires didn’t mind free food.

It was certainly a friendly enough city. Even if the Councilmember was pushy. Himilt was just on the fence as Lism gave them a quick tour of the things that no other city had, from the Players of Liscor to the Players of Liscor and mostly the Players of Liscor, because Liscor was not that amazing, when his head turned and he pointed to an odd building next to one of the [Healer]’s.

“What is that?”

Lism glanced over his shoulder.

“Oh, a ‘blood bank’. Damndest idea. It’s sort of an add-on to our [Healers], but we don’t have much use for it right now. Potions still beat it, but some adventurers pay for stale blood to use as bait in traps, so at least it has a point there. Pay it no mind.”

 

——

 

An old age thought long lost was coming again. Or was it a new age?

Both, perhaps. The bones of the old world had never truly been lost, but it had taken the sacrifice of thousands to reach this point.

The Waning World ends, and The Wandering Inn changes, leaving memories that become legend and flame. Flame fades, and even memory is old and dust when the next age rekindles the spark.

Erin Solstice was cooking again. Numbtongue sat like an old man next to the kitchen door. He had no beard, but he stroked Mrsha’s head as she rubbed her furry chin and told the others of the bygone era when Erin Solstice would actually put in effort and do her job.

Shut up, you guys!

Vexed, Erin threw a muffin out the kitchen, and it bounced off the dark contempt for the world that was Gothica’s aura. The [Innkeeper] turned her back and took a few more deep breaths.

“Okay. Thank-you gift. I can do this. It’s gotta be magical, and I’m ready.”

Her eyes narrowed, and then it occurred to Erin—she had no idea what she was going to make. Mrsha slapped her face, and Ulvama, watching with the rest of the audience, poked Numbtongue.

“Why this matter?”

“She makes good food. Sometimes. Magic food.”

“Heh.”

The [Shaman] gave Numbtongue a look of frank disbelief and walked off. However, the rest of the new guests to the inn, the ordinaries, were watching eagerly, like the [Trader], and Lyonette was calling for more snacks. This was the specialty of the inn, and she hoped Erin would live up to expectations.

The problem was, as Numbtongue hurried over to give Erin a pep-talk—Erin was poking a muffin she’d pulled out as inspiration.

“All I know is that Niers and Foliana like muffins. Or maybe she does? He’s, um, small.”

“A Fraerling.”

“Right, so should I make super-small…?

Wil interrupted.

“The Titan can eat more than he weighs in food, Miss Erin. Tailor whatever you want to a normal person.”

Erin jumped and nodded. Kiish spoke loudly as well, elbowing Wil out of the way. She tried it on Peki and got a side-chop to the liver. Amazingly, Kiish still got the words out while holding her side.

“I’m sure…Earl Altestiel…wouldn’t mind anything you were going to make, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] sighed. As if she didn’t have enough pressure on her back.

“Erin. Just put in effort.”

Numbtongue’s advice got the [Bard] a genuinely irritated glare, and he decided to tag in Imani instead. The [Chef] had hurried up to the inn the moment she’d heard, and Palt was trotting in with Bezale.

“Is it happening? We just galloped up here and…oh, hello. The [Strategists]. Cigar? I have some very fine stuff if you’re partial to…”

More watchers. And for once, Imani wasn’t the person Erin wanted to see. The [Chef] briskly looked around.

“Alright, Erin. Are you making more magical food? Let’s not make sludge. Do you actually know what you’re going to make?”

“I’m fine, Imani. I’ll just…feel it out.”

“That’s what you never do, Erin. You always have an idea of what you’re going to make, or a recipe.”

Exasperated, Imani looked at Erin, and she eyed the muffins.

“Let’s make some muffins. You can think of how to add your magic in. We’ll just start with…”

“Nope. Imani, I know you’re a great [Chef]. But I need backup, not, uh, direction. Because I’ve been doing training. While I was dead. And what I’ve learned is that my cooking style does work.”

Imani stopped and traded a glance of unease with Numbtongue, the [Strategists], who began to fear for their leader’s life, and Mrsha, who was now trying to take herself off the taste-tester list. Imani blew out her cheeks with exasperation and threw up her hands.

“Erin—who cooks blindly and just tosses things into a recipe—”

[Witches], Imani. Haven’t you seen their cauldrons?”

And there it was. Imani stopped, and Ulvama, napping as she balanced a drink and a straw on her chest while leaning back in a chair, cracked one eye open. Erin pulled something out and showed it to Imani.

This is what I’m putting into what I’m making. I don’t know what it is—the form matters, but I know what’s going into it. This.

It was her pot filled with emotions after the outside barbecue. Imani eyed it, because the lid was…vibrating slightly. She gulped.

“How do you cook with magic?”

Erin’s eyes twinkled.

“Don’t worry. I’ve had lessons from the best. You just help me figure out how to make something appetizing—I’ll handle the magic.”

She was rolling up her sleeves when it vaguely occurred to her that not once had the greatest coven of [Witches] in the world ever, remotely, in their timeless lessons of how to practice a [Witch]’s craft…ever suggested that what they made was tasty.

 

——

 

Magical cooking was still fascinating to the guests, so much so that Palt was mildly amplifying Erin’s voice as Lyonette and Ishkr struggled to keep up with demand.

Those two, because the few Workers had to be shown the ropes and Liska was…well, about Safry or Maran-level. However, everyone, even Lyonette, had a keen ear trained to Erin’s kitchen.

Before, she had used [Wondrous Fare] to make food, but it was clear Erin had no idea how it worked and was, rather like a mad scientist, tossing in magical foods and creating, with much trial and error, something that had a beneficial effect.

This time? She sounded like she knew what she was doing, and everyone was curious how you actually put magic into food. Even Octavia drooped into the inn, looking like she hadn’t slept in days.

“We’re making thank-you gifts, Imani. That’s important to keep in mind. Nothing for Altestiel, which I feel sorta bad about, but you can’t split targets.”

“Why not? Just make twice as much if it works…”

“No, no. That’s logical with food. Think magic. See this pot?”

Erin waved around the covered pot.

This is in limited supply, and it’s like, um, Wyvern steak. We can’t waste it. Also, that’s why it’s a thank-you gift. Because this fits the theme.”

The pot was filled with all the emotions from that gathering. Imani was struggling to make sense of it, but she was taking mental notes, and Palt was pulling a Grimalkin as well. Both had the thought that maybe Erin was teaching them where their class might go if they continued levelling.

And if so, they were going to do a better job when it was their turn. So Imani nodded.

“Thank-you gift. It fits with…the emotion? Do you have to do that?”

Erin thought about the question and shook her head.

“I could turn it into something else. Something nasty, even. But that’d be a waste.”

“Why?”

Ulvama had come back, and the [Shaman] stared challengingly at Erin. The [Innkeeper] frowned at the Hob she didn’t really know and replied slowly.

“Because it’s contentment. Happiness. Relief…well, it’s not all nice. Some of it’s bitter or—it’s like a soup stock. It wants to be one thing. And I could turn it into something completely opposite like wrath because it is power, but I’d lose like…two-thirds since I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Oh. The [Mages] got it. Bezale murmured to Palt.

“Sounds like elemental magicore.”

The Centaur shuddered.

“Dead gods, I hope not. She’d kill all of us if it’s anywhere near that toxic.”

Ulvama, on the other hand, just gave Erin a nod, as if she’d passed some basic test. Erin was trying to put it into simpler terms for Mrsha.

“Okay, let’s say you have vegetable soup stock. You could make something super meaty out of it like you would with beef broth, but why would you when it clearly goes well as vegetable soup stock? It takes more effort, and in this case, you’ll get less soup.”

Numbtongue raised a hand.

“Is soup like magic?”

“It is for [Witches]. Doesn’t it make sense?”

It seemed a bit too simple, so Imani pushed Erin slightly.

“Okay, Erin. What are we making?”

“Um…something that can be made in a pan. Like this. I could transfer it, but I don’t really want to try. What’s nice to eat? Any ideas?”

The [Bard] lifted one eyebrow.

“Soup?”

He was kicked out of the kitchen. A thank-you gift was not soup, and soup was very hard to magically transport. Mrsha leapt around excitedly and held up a card.

Sugar! Sweet things!

“Ooh, good idea, Mrsha! Imani, now it’s your turn. What sugary things do you make in a pot?”

The [Chef] was having some novel cogitation here, because Erin was demanding something that was adjacent to cooking—but not quite. It was like playing a game of Scrabble rather than writing an essay; Imani had to run down a list of pot-based sweets.

“Er…melted sugar? As in, sugar glass? I was going to do some of that. Or a sauce or jam, but—”

Erin waved excitedly at Imani.

“Oh! Oh! That’s a great idea! Candy, or a lollipop! But I hate those, so maybe just a candy. Like…gemstones, yeah. Only edible. And I could fill them up with something tasty. You know what I’m talking about?”

All the Earthers had an image of the quintessential candy treat. Numbtongue just imagined eating sweet gemstones and hoped his teeth could handle it.

“Well, I can help you with that. Let’s get the ingredients out.”

Relieved at some direction, Imani began the basics for sugar glass. She didn’t know how to make the exact candies Erin wanted, but she’d done sugar glass for fun before. It was actually very simple, although they had no corn syrup or cream of tartar. Happily, Imani had a few Skills to make up for that.

“[Ingredients Stabilization]. Once we get it into liquid form, that will stop the sugar from becoming crystals. But it won’t have much beyond sugar, water, and whatever flavoring you want—Erin!

They were making a bowl of sugar, water, and what Imani thought could substitute for cream of tartar—lemon juice. Erin had the pot heating on the stove under a mild flame, but she refused to open it to let ‘the good stuff’ out until they were ready to dump the ingredients in.

However, she had already begun to deviate from normal as she chopped up a piece of Sage’s Grass. Innocently, Erin sprinkled it in along with some sweet blue juice.

“What? Come on, Imani. This won’t hurt it.”

“Just—warn me before you throw something in! Once we make the sugar glass, what’s the plan?”

“A…muffin.”

Imani raised the spoon she was using to stir the mixture with dangerously. Erin waved her hands.

“No, listen! A sugar glass muffin! And then we fill it with batter or something nice. Doesn’t that sound cool?”

“It sounds like you’ll cut your mouth to pieces eating a hard shell and then a weird, underbaked interior.”

“Okay. Maybe lollipops or just regular candies. This is why you’re here, Imani.”

“I don’t want credit for this. Literally, don’t reference me in any part of the finished product.”

Erin sighed, but she opened the lid of the pot and quickly dumped in the sugary water. She closed the lid as the pot began to warm the sugar glass mixture, and Imani objected again.

“Erin! It’ll boil way too fast with the lid on! You’ll burn it—you need to be stirring and watching the sugar glass constantly!”

The [Innkeeper] cursed.

“Darn, you sure? The good stuff needs to be in there! It’ll get out! Stay, stay—

She spoke to the pot like it was a dog or something was inside and opened it to stir rapidly, then closed the lid. Imani closed her eyes.

“I—guess you could keep the lid closed, but keep checking! It needs to not heat up fast or it will caramelize. But it does need to get to—I don’t know the temperature. [Burn Protection]!

She pointed at the pot, and Erin raised a hand.

“Alright! [Chef] and [Innkeeper] powers combined!”

She never got an answering high-five. Imani grabbed the spoon.

“Keep stirring. Are you going to taste-test it?”

“You have all these great ideas, Imani. Although…it’s a [Witch]’s brew.”

“So they don’t taste-test what they make?”

“Eh…it’s sorta risky. But hey, that’s what we have volunteers for, right, Numbtongue? Numbtongue?”

 

——

 

It was still fun to watch. Lyonette kept dashing into the kitchen to pull out plates because the guests had flipped on having a dinner.

“I’m so sorry we’re delayed, sir—”

Even with pre-made food, she was having trouble, but the [Trader] waved it off. He looked at Ishkr, balancing eight plates and scolding Liska as he took half the room. Lyonette was the one falling behind. She, like Erin, had no Skills in the field.

“Not at all. Is that a [Preservation] that makes the food so fresh?”

“Yes, exactly! A Wandering Inn specialty! We—I’m sorry, I have to go!”

The man watched as Lyonette sped off. There was no one at the bar, which meant people were waiting for drinks. A Drake leaned on the counter.

“I’ll have a Frost Dragon shot, no bones.”

“A…I’m sorry, one second. A what?”

Drassi was supposed to be the [Bartender], but she’d moved on to bigger and better things. Lyonette, flustered, began to call Ser Sest over, but the Thronebearers and Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were occupied.

 

——

 

“Excuse me, Miss Erin.”

Ser Sest appeared at the kitchen window and nearly scared Imani and Erin to death. They were watching the sugar, which had come to a boil, cool. It was a very simple thing, making sugar glass.

Erin just made it so darn complicated. Imani leapt and grabbed for Erin—but the apologetic [Knight] simply grabbed a piece of air and began towing it away.

“You may wish to close the shutters.”

The air was yelping and turned into a shadowy figure with a mask on. Erin stared at Ser Sest.

“Wow, those Thronebearers are good.”

Wil Kallinad nodded appreciatively. There was a thump and a brief scream as Normen kicked someone trying to come through the second-story window. The rest of the clandestines decided infiltration was a bad idea.

And they couldn’t come through the front door, either, because Dame Ushar had some kind of ability that meant that the people waiting to get in she mostly admitted—except for every covert operative whom she would politely direct away.

The [Lord] of Pheislant murmured to the others.

“Never challenge a Thronebearer in court. Find him on the battlefield and beat him to death. I think that’s a saying I heard growing up from the Order of Seasons.”

Erin chortled and went back to checking her glass. It looked like it was cooling, but Imani was right.

“Let’s get a taste-test. We can cool down a little spoonful—it should just taste like sugar. Any volunteers?”

She inserted a spoon quickly and removed some syrupy liquid that was deep, clear blue. Apprehensively, everyone drew back, and a little girl writhed in pain.

Even Visma was afraid, but Mrsha looked at the spoon and saw free sugar. Free magic sugar. She weighed this against a burnt tongue or eating something bad and raised a paw. She closed her eyes as Erin let Palt blow cold air over the spoon, then Erin popped it into her mouth.

“Mrsha?”

 

——

 

In a moment like this, everyone stared at the little Gnoll, or the [Innkeeper], or the pot. Which was why, in Shriekblade’s experience, that was when you should drop from the ceiling and behead everyone.

Since that wasn’t what she wanted to do, she looked for anyone about to do that. The Named-rank Adventurer heard a commotion below her, but she was looking out for…well.

The people not even the Thronebearers or the Brothers could find. They were good bodyguards, and Tessa was no specialist. She was a [Rogue], but even the specialized Thronebearers could run into someone much higher-level than them.

If there was someone like that in the inn, that was whom Tessa hunted and killed.

She didn’t think there was, at least, not anyone she’d not already marked. Anyone around her level knew she was in the inn since she wasn’t trying to hide her presence that much. If they tried coming through the second floor window like an idiot, they knew they were risking their lives.

Still, she was trying to prove how valuable she was to the [Princess], so when Lyonette, panting, drew Ser Dalimont aside for a checkup on security, Tessa joined them.

“Only spies, Dalimont? No one high-level?”

“Not that we could find.”

“Me either.”

The Thronebearer nearly drew his sword, and Lyonette muffled a scream as Tessa appeared. As if they’d forgotten her. Well, she hadn’t moved for two days from her hiding spot. Just enjoyed being free of that nagging cloud in her head.

“Tessa! Adventurer Tessa—you’ve been watching? No one’s…come in?”

Lyonette had an eye on Ishkr and the bar. People were waiting for drinks, and Liska was messing them all up. She groaned, and Tessa shook her head.

“High-levels are easy for me to spot.”

“But if they have concealment—”

“I’m high-level. It’s easy for me. Saliss is obvious. He moves too well.”

Dalimont politely nodded, still watching Tessa. She shook her head.

“There’s a lot of Level 30’s in this inn. But I’m certain only three people are above Level 40, including me.”

“That’s a relief.”

Lyonette sighed and then frowned as she had a thought.

“Over Level 40? Is Saliss here?”

“No.”

“Chaldion? Grimalkin, Pelt?”

“Nope.”

“Then who…”

Erin Solstice was one. So was Tessa herself. Lyonette’s first thought was that one of the Horns or another adventurer had reached that lofty goal, or Kiish or the [Strategists], but Tessa thought that they were hovering below that capstone. There were other members of the inn’s family that were pushing Level 30.

She eyed Ser Dalimont.

“He’s sitting in the common room. He’s not hostile. You let him in.”

Dalimont paled.

“That’s impossible. Ushar would notice a [Spy], even Level 50, if they walked up to her—”

“Well. He’s not a spy.”

Lyonette spun towards the common room just in time to see someone stand up and move across the room. Tessa’s claw pointed out the [Trader] as he stepped over to the bar where the angry queue was haranguing Liska.

“No, a Frost Dragon shot. No bones! That means—”

Liska was about to snap back and tell the Human with his worn vest he couldn’t be behind the bar when he removed his vest in one go. It vanished into a bag of holding, and she blinked at the long, white sleeves, deep maroon overcoat, and oddly trim look to his attire. He took the bottle she was trying to measure into a shot, and his hands blurred.

Tessa could stab a man eighteen times before he blinked. She saw the newcomer’s hands move about as fast—only his result wasn’t a dead body but a shot glass, which slid into the angry Drake’s claw.

“Frost Dragon shot. Firebreath Whiskey, one half, Cenidau Frostsip. No bones; no ice. Apologies for the wait. Here is your drink, your drink, your drink—and there appears to be no bourbon in stock.”

Three orders appeared, and the man moved past the bar as the startled customers paid up or sipped at the drinks. Lyonette started across the room.

“Who is that—

She heard an exclamation and then saw him reappear with two dozen orders. This time, the rest of the guests had noticed him, and Numbtongue put a hand on his sword. He stared at the stranger as a floating plate zoomed across the room onto a table.

The ‘[Trader]’ winked at Lyonette and then stepped back as Ser Dalimont charged at him. He side-stepped the [Knight], and as Ser Dalimont turned, a table moved of its own volition and blocked the [Knight]. Ser Dalimont slammed into it, and the newcomer raised his hands.

“Forgive me if I’m disturbing things. I just saw the inn was understaffed and decided to lend a hand. I’ll remove myself if I’m unwanted, but at least let me see what she’s going to make.”

His eyes twinkled, and he stood taller as Lyonette pointed at him. Tessa was still relaxed. Lyonette grabbed her arm, and Shriekblade nearly stabbed her.

“Who is that?

Tessa removed Lyonette’s arm fast and shrugged.

“I thought you knew? He’s not dangerous. The Gold-ranks are more threatening. He’d be annoying to fight since this is an inn, but he’s just an [Innkeeper]. Definitely over Level 40.”

Lyonette looked up and saw eyes like twinkling stars. As if the pupils had a shine. That innocuous man turned, and he had the air like one of the Players of Celum. A pause about him, and then she saw his uniform and that wink. He strode forwards with another wink as the table and chairs moved out of Ser Dalimont’s path.

“Do you need a hand, Miss? The innkeeper’s floor is a battleground, but a [Princess] is outmatched in our territory.”

“Are you…?”

There was one stop along her journey south that the [Princess] Lyonette had wanted to make, but she had been wary of being spotted. Yet it was a famous inn, the most famous in the continent. She looked at the [Innkeeper] and realized—

The competition had come to scope out Erin Solstice.

 

——

 

Erin didn’t notice the commotion at first. She was staring at the pot as it cooled. She was a bit disappointed.

It wasn’t as magical as she was hoping. Oh, it was made well, but she glanced sideways at Imani and felt a bit…annoyed.

Imani was making the cooking good. But good was not magic. It was like a tug-of-war, and Erin felt like she’d lost something.

It’d still do something. And judging from Mrsha’s reaction, it was the best darn sugar glass she’d ever had. She was rolling around, waving her paws at the others.

“Is it good or did she burn her tongue?”

Mrsha was smiling hugely, but she leapt about, doing jump-kicks. She was feeling amazing! It was like a happy rush had filled her from toes to her ears. No, not happy—she felt like she had at the barbecue, but concentrated.

“It’s not one thing yet. See, it’s all kinds of emotions, so I think Mrsha’s getting it unfiltered. I’ll need to change it up.”

Erin sighed as she stared at the pot. It was still trying to remove the lid, and the steam was making it rattle slightly. Imani frowned at the pot and then at Mrsha.

“Is it—are we just making magical drugs, Erin?”

“I’ll try the next—”

Palt backed off as Imani glared at him. Erin shook her head.

“No, that’s not how it works. Think back to the picnic, Imani. How did you feel? It was a relief, wasn’t it? A bit healing? That’s what I’m trying to put into the glass.”

“Oh. Well…I suppose that’s better. So Mrsha’s just getting that?”

The little Gnoll’s antics were beginning to concern the audience. She had gone from grinning excitedly and a sugar-high to suddenly running about and rolling on the inn’s floor. She squirmed, and Erin frowned.

“Hm. Maybe there’s not enough sugar?”

Not enough—

“I mean…that’s a small pot. I needed a cauldron, and it’s not much sugar glass. Maybe it’s too concentrated.”

That was a lot of emotion packed into a little amount of liquid. Mrsha was rolling about, panting. Erin glanced at the pot and hesitated.

Was it vibrating? The heat was off, and the sugar glass should have mostly been solid. But the lid was rattling. Erin put one hand on it to keep it shut…and then she developed a worried look on her face.

“Wait a second. Can you be too full of contentment and happiness?”

The others looked blankly at Erin. She elaborated, feeling something building in the pot. Erin gazed at Mrsha, hugging Ulvama’s leg and kicking at the ground, as if trying to subdue the feeling bursting in her, out of control. Pinch me! I’m too happy!

“Like you want to roll around and cry because you’re so happy and everything is so nice? Like you could burst with…?”

One spoonful had done that to Mrsha. And an entire pot of it was sitting on the stove. Erin felt the pressure rising, and Imani’s eyes slowly drifted down to the very small pot, now trying to contain…she looked at the [Innkeeper] and realized her mistake.

She shouldn’t have been here. She and Palt shouldn’t have come to the inn. Imani had been trying to avert another culinary disaster. Instead?

She was standing right next to ground-zero. Erin lifted the pot, and her eyes went wide. She grabbed it to her chest with both hands and squeezed the lid shut.

There was no steam to release, or gases like from baking soda or carbonation, but the lid was shaking, and the pot was making ominous sounds. Erin looked around and then shouted.

“Oh no! Run for it! It’s gonna explode!”

The observers around the doorway broke apart, leaping for safety as Erin Solstice charged out of the inn. The strange [Innkeeper], Lyonette, the guests, saw Erin rolling forwards, holding the lid shut.

Out of the way! It’s gonna go boom! Push me outside, someone! Hurry!

One brave soul—Venaz—grabbed Erin’s wheelchair and ran her past the guests as everyone leapt from their tables. Erin was halfway out the door when she saw the people waiting to come in, the Thronebearers, and saw her mistake.

 

——

 

Consider the psychology of some [Spies] or operatives ordered to watch the inn. You were already jumpy because Shriekblade was on the prowl, and there were a lot of people in your line of work, and you’d been blocked from entering the inn, which already made you feel outclassed.

Then the [Innkeeper] you were supposed to watch came rolling out the door, holding a pot. She held it up and screamed.

No, take me back in! It’ll kill everyone out here! The [Garden]! Get me to—

A stampede began outside as the door slammed shut. The [Guards] on the wall watched, called in the alarm, and took bets on whether this would escalate. Most veterans didn’t even flinch, to the rookies’ amazement.

This wasn’t even noteworthy unless the top of the inn blew off. Then they’d pay attention.

 

——

 

There was only one place devoid of people that Erin could get to. She made Venaz turn, and the door to the [Garden] opened. Erin prayed that Bird wasn’t in there and threw the pot. It had begun to jerk, and she swore she felt the metal deforming as the pressure reached a critical point.

Too late she realized something. Her concoction of not-quite-finished magical cooking?

She’d just hurled it into the most magically charged room in the inn. Straight at the hill filled with Sage’s Grass. The door slammed shut, and Erin turned her head and screamed.

Take c—

 

——

 

Numbtongue hadn’t really expected much from the pot. It might blow its lid in, what, a cloud of deadly happiness? But he thought Erin was overexaggerating as she tossed the pot.

Then the inn shook. A rumble went through the walls and his feet. He almost staggered, and the guests cried out in alarm. The Hobgoblin decided to draw his sword again.

“What was that? What was—Himilt, a Goblin—

A man was ducked under the table next to another one. Both had faintly red eyes, and Numbtongue thought they were fairly handsome. Nice teeth. They stared at him with a bunch of red jars on the table as the Hobgoblin rushed forwards with everyone else. Erin Solstice had her hand on the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She opened it with a trembling hand as the mysterious [Innkeeper] and the other guests crowded around.

Erin looked into the garden and gasped. Mrsha, recovered from her contentment-overload via the application of mortal terror, peeked around Erin’s wheelchair and gasped as well.

The garden was not a shredded wasteland from the pot exploding. The top of the pot had blown off as the contents were released, free from Erin’s grip at last.

The pot’s lid was still in the air. Bird had seen it shoot out of the roof of the inn and was staring up at it as it soared into the distance.

Pot birds? Why did no one tell me—

But the contents of the pot hadn’t gotten that far. They’d showered up, and now—

They were drifting down. Erin looked up at the failed sugar glass, which had always been too sensible by half. The nearly-cooled mixture hadn’t been able to take that much emotion after all. It had exploded upwards like shrapnel. And that—that was what was drifting down, defying the laws of gravity.

It looked like splinters of glass, some light blue, others flecked with brilliant flakes of currant or rose-red. Shards of semi-transparent sugar, warped like a fragment of wood from the incredible stresses only an explosion could create.

“Sugar daggers.”

Shriekblade gazed up as the magical pieces of glass spun as they fell to earth. Venaz reached out and almost took one, but hesitated. Erin caught one in her hand, and the edges were sharp and nearly cut her skin.

“Wow. Now that’s something.”

“Erin…”

Lyonette was lost for words. Even the foreign [Innkeeper] looked startled as Erin held up her odd creation to the light. What were you supposed to do with this? There was no making regular confections out of this.

Erin had a feeling that the explosion had changed the sugar glass in other ways, too. But she held the piece of deadly, beautiful sugar up to the light, and that was when her instincts twinged.

[Wondrous Fare]. She hadn’t had a plan other than ‘thank-you’ going into this. And as Imani said, that was always a bad idea. Now? Something she’d been told mixed with an idea in her head.

“I know how to salvage this. Hey—grab the pieces of glass! And don’t nibble it! It’s not done!”

Her guests looked at her and then scrambled into the garden to grab the rest before they fell. Pisces pointed and whisked the pieces out of the air around him.

Erin rolled past Imani, back to the kitchen.

“Sorry, Imani. I’m gonna ask you to sit this one out, okay? I’ll ask if I need help with how to make something. Is that okay?”

“Perfectly.”

The [Chef] answered faintly. Erin was looking around, frowning.

“We’ve got strawberries and raspberries, and I guess that’s what jam is. Tomatoes…nah. But what about those glowing red things?”

“Sweetberries? I have some in our kitchen.”

Palt started. Erin pointed at him.

“Get them! I need red! But not just red. It’s—darn. You can’t squeeze a steak. That’s gross, and it’s not good enough. Unless there’s, like, a super-rare on—what’s that?”

She stopped on her way across the inn and peered at something. A pair of men stared back.

“Hello. Do I know you?”

“No, Miss [Innkeeper]. That is—we’re new to Liscor, and we just stopped by—”

Fierre had the worst recommendations. Himilt tensed as Erin pointed to the jars they’d bought.

“What’s that?”

“Er—just—”

Bamer was sweating, but Erin peered at the jars.

“They’re blood. Hey, this is from the blood bank!”

“We’re using it as pest deterrents. To bait monsters and—”

“Can I have a jar? I’ll pay you back.”

The two Vampires, tensed and wary, looked at each other. Imani covered her mouth.

Erin! You can’t be—

Erin plucked a jar of blood up and gazed at it. Her eyes flickered, and she lifted a finger to her mouth.

“Imani, I appreciate it, but we’re not cooking in your world anymore. We’re doing witchcraft.”

Her eyes began to sparkle. She dipped the shard of glass in the jar of blood, and then it really did look like a dagger made of crystal, stained crimson. Say what you will—half the inn was horrified.

The other half? Gothica, Numbtongue, the Vampires, Shriekblade, and certain people with a predilection for the macabre?

They loved the aesthetic.

You should definitely make sure your blood wasn’t nasty. Bring it to a light boil, and yes, it probably ruined the blood-qualities for transfusion, especially if you mixed it with glowing sweetberries and a raspberry paste.

But that wasn’t the point. Erin added some purified water next and let the mixture boil down. Then she had to think.

A pile of super-sharp pieces of magical sugar glass was resting in a bowl. Her sweet blood sauce was closer to savory, but even if she packaged both, something was missing.

You’d bleed for a bite of this. If the sharp sugar didn’t get you, dipping it in the sauce meant blood would be spilled either way. But that wasn’t the theme of this dish. Pain was not. Erin had called upon all the power of that night outside, and it was still there.

What was it? Past the sharp bite of pain, unleashed in the explosion of magic…Erin smiled as she found it.

Some of the pieces of blown glass were hollow. They’d expanded in the explosion and had trapped air inside.

“I need a needle. Or something very fine.”

Apista offered her stinger. Numbtongue offered his sword. Erin decided not to use Pelt’s kitchen knife.

In the end, Erin put on a glove and used an ordinary, super-hot needle to poke a hole in the glass. Then she filled it up with a funnel and dropper from Stitchworks and sealed the hole by melting the glass together.

“Erin—it’s not even my best work—it’s probably stale!”

Octavia wrung her hands anxiously, but Erin insisted. The amount of healing potion was minute, anyways.

“That doesn’t matter, Octavia. The point is that the healing potion was used. And it saved your life, didn’t it, Numbtongue?”

“Got stabbed right here. Good stuff.”

He had given her the half-opened bottle he’d kept from the Meeting of Tribes. Erin barely used more than half of the remaining liquid, and then she looked at what she’d made.

The final thing was a two-fold package. Delicately wrapped splinters of exploded glass, light blue, sometimes so faint it was only visible as you held it up to the mirror, flecked with bits of ruby Sage’s Grass. Some were filled with glowing liquid, light orange or yellow speckled with bits of violet. Healing potion.

But you dipped and drizzled it with a crimson sauce that added to the glow, because it was slightly luminescent. A blood-sauce.

And all of it was sugary, it tasted good, but it was a confusing gift. Nevertheless, Erin sent it off with Wil, and the impatient Titan of Baleros had set it up so that he got it within twenty minutes from Erin finishing the product.

All the [Lord] had to do was get to the Mage’s Guild and let them teleport it. The [Mages] had been ready for the last half-hour; as he’d said, money was no object.

 

——

 

Numbtongue would have paid a lot to see Niers’ face when he received this thank-you present, as would all of his students.

Foliana didn’t have to pay as she saw the basket and jar of sauce, neatly tied together with a ribbon and a card, delivered into the Titan’s room. Niers blinked at the basket and then grabbed for the note.

“What’s…I, ah, it’s very interesting.”

Niers tried not to act like he knew what it was. He had tried not to peek, but he already knew what Erin had sent him. Even so—up close, he stared at a shard of glass as long as he was, and his lips moved when he read the instructions.

“…blood sauce? Does she think we eat people in Baleros?”

“Mm. Maybe it’s because you’re a warlord.”

“Shut it, Foliana. It’s—well, it’s unique. And I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like it before. Yes—extraordinary. And made with magic. I’ll need to cut pieces off. I don’t think I can actually eat it unless I want a mouthful of this sugar glass each time. But I’ll, um…”

The Fraerling paced around the basket, still reading from the card. He was trying to talk it up, Foliana could tell.

She was enjoying this, despite the hole in her stomach. The bandages were bloody again, and she was just glad she wasn’t stuck in the casket. She thought it was a stupid gift if it was intended to be romantic or even much of a thank-you gift.

That was, until she saw the Titan freeze, mid-step, and glance her way. Foliana’s nose twitched.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Give me the card.”

Niers tried to shield it, but Foliana reached over, felt some of her healing wounds tear, grimaced—and snatched the card. It was worth the pain. She stared at the writing, and then the most evil, diabolical smile appeared as she lowered it.

“It’s for me.

Suddenly, it made sense. Niers blustered as Foliana reached for the gift.

“I’m sure Erin got it confused. She probably thought that since you’re technically my superior—Foliana, don’t you dare. It was addressed to—Foliana!

She picked up the first bit of sugar and felt a prickle on her fingers. It cut into her fur even holding it gently. She dipped it into the blood.

“Mm. I eat blood sometimes. Favorite foods. You don’t.”

“I’ve bathed in the blood of my enemies. I’ll eat raw meat if I have to. Give me one.”

Foliana ignored him. She tasted the blood sauce and found it was savory. Then she nibbled at the piece of sugar glass. Then—took a big bite.

For all his bluster, even Niers winced at the first bite Three-Color Stalker took. Because even if she was a Named Adventurer and had been a [Gourmand]—she sliced up her mouth on the glass.

It hurt. But it was only faint cuts, not a sharp pain. Foliana chewed with a faint grimace, then felt something else tingling on her tongue.

The potion inside. It soothed the cuts, and the pain she’d braced herself for faded. It didn’t make the experience of chewing glass any less painful, but the entire treat was symbolic.

The pain was no fun, but it was what came after that made Foliana’s eyes widen and stop. Niers had a moment of panic, because he’d never seen that expression on Foliana’s face.

The gift had been watched from the moment it left Erin’s inn to now. There was no way it was poison or dangerous—unless Erin wanted them dead. But she wouldn’t…

Complacency. He had fallen for a trap, because he’d been blind once before. Niers croaked.

[Healer]. [H—

A paw gently shot out and stopped him from calling for help. The Titan breathed again as Foliana blinked. Then she swallowed.

“What was that? Foliana? What did it taste like?”

For answer, she showed him the card. At the bottom, Erin Solstice had written the name of her new treat. Her invention.

It wasn’t something she’d make much of. It was a very special, accidental bit of magical cooking. Frankly, not even sugar-loving Mrsha would enjoy hurting herself to complete the experience.

But what was the sensation you had when the potion kicked in? What…could Erin distill from that long picnic?

The emotions around her death, the quiet contemplation of all that had been done and sacrificed? She could have drawn many emotions from there. Contentment. Happiness. Grief, even uncertainty or satisfaction.

But what she’d pulled out of the explosion, what she’d decided to make for the wounded commander of the Forgotten Wing Company was something simple. It was written right there in the name:

 

Shards of Relief, from The Wandering Inn.

PS. Get well soon, Foliana! I’ve never met you, but you seem nice.

 

The Squirrel Beastkin reached for another piece of the snack and dipped it in the sauce before taking a bite. Niers stared up at her and, despite himself, couldn’t feel petty about that. He watched Foliana grimace as she ate the sharp treat.

“I know you like weird food, Foliana, but maybe save it for later? There’s no healing potion while you’re cursed.”

He saw her eyes flicker down to him. Foliana stuck out her tongue at Niers.

“Bleh. You can’t have one.”

“I wasn’t saying—just one would—hm?”

Foliana’s tongue was red. Probably from the sauce. But Niers frowned as he saw a distinct lack of the microcuts he was sure were in her mouth. And then his eyes narrowed as she tore open a second crystal and sipped from the nectar inside. Foliana sighed—and then her eyes sharpened. She stuck her tongue out another time, and he saw no cuts.

“Wait a second. Foliana…you’re cursed.”

She’d left a lot of blood, and the [Assassin] she’d failed to kill had kept her from healing from her wounds with curse magic. There was no way a healing potion, especially a low-grade one, would bypass those Skills or the hexes.

Yet Foliana stretched slightly and this time failed to tear open her stomach wound. In fact…she smacked her lips and turned her head to the door.

“Get me a big healing potion. Now.”

A servant ran as Niers gazed at Foliana. Three-Color Stalker took another bite of the Shards of Relief.

“…How?”

That was all he could think to say. He was stunned. The Commander of the Forgotten Wing company, one of the greatest [Rogues] in the world, savored each bite of the sharp thank-you present. And she decided that it was one of the best she’d ever gotten. Amused, she gazed down at Niers.

“Nothing like a [Witch] for breaking curses. There must have been a lot of magic in these things.”

All the magic of a Level 46 [Innkeeper] and her closest guests. Niers Astoragon whistled softly. And the apprehension—exasperation, fine—and a bit of pique he’d been feeling faded into…something else.

He reached for the smallest Shard of Relief, and Foliana flicked him off the table.

“Mine.”

“Foliana!”

 

——

 

Imani knew that nothing would ever be the same. Not because Erin had worked wonders there.

Or rather, not just because she’d done something crazy, dangerous, and magical.

The Wandering Inn would change, because, after Erin sent off the Shards of Relief, after she changed the world in her way, she wheeled herself back into the kitchen and went back to cooking.

“Okay, this time, let’s make them a lot softer. Less sharpness, more…candy. Can we do jello stuff? I think it should be blue. Blue fruits are our specialty! We need, like…what’s jello made of?”

“Gelatin? We actually have some, Erin. You would not believe how we got a source, actually.”

Imani watched as Erin poured a new base into a pot. She’d lost all her witchy-magic, so she was back to [Wondrous Fare].

That was enough. Erin poured a mana potion into the pot in lieu of water. Far less sugar, a bit of gelatin…she hummed as the guests calmed down outside.

“~~ Sugar glass, sugar glass. Put a bit of mana in it and it’ll be done in a flash! And taste like—”

Mrsha and Bird waited for her to finish her song, but Erin hesitated. Numbtongue tried to say what rhymed with flash, but Lyonette covered his mouth.

Unfortunately, Mrsha figured it out. She was still rolling about and giggling silently as Erin tried to work the quickly cooling sugary ‘glass’ into what she needed. This time, it was a lot less sharp. But she was trying to pour the cooling mixture into something other than a pan.

“I need—perfect circles! Spheres! But hollow! Is there a mold I could use or something? Tiny spheres! I’m making candy!”

Kevin raised one hand.

“Take two half-circles and put them together. There’s gotta be something circular in the inn. Maybe just use shot glasses if you have to and, like, cut then glue them together. Any [Carpenter] can make a tray.”

Erin pointed at him.

“Kevin, you’re a genius.”

“Um. No, it’s sorta basic shapes. But thanks.”

It took Erin nearly an hour in the kitchen. In truth, she took that long because the first batch wasn’t enough, and she made copious mistakes. But small ones, like overheating her mix, then figuring out how to extract the hardened, resinous candy without breaking them or the shot glasses into pieces.

Erin decided she needed to order custom molds like Kevin said, but got the second batch to work with a bit of oil coating the glass so she could pop it out when the mix was done.

Then she had two semi-transparent light cyan semi-spheres which she could glue together, carefully, carefully. Erin muttered as she put the last of barely ten candies on the table.

“Okay, I need to put them together, seal them—with a bit of heat—and then bore a hole and fill them up. Each. Wow, this is too much work. I quit! I’m out!”

Exasperated, she tried to wheel away, but Mrsha tugged her back. Erin grumbled.

“…Fine. How about some blueberries? Also, I need Sage’s Grass and, um…what else is magical? You know what, blue juice and Sage’s Grass might do. It’s not going to be the biggest thing ever, right? Get me more mana potion and…you know, it needs something else.”

“Dreamleaf extract? I’ve got—”

“Palt, I will stab you! How about some honey?”

Even then, the filled circular candies were missing something. A bit of the razzle-dazzle. Erin thought they were fairly magical, but even if they were far less involved than the Shards of Relief…she pursed her lips.

“It’s not magic-y enough. Octavia? How do you make something super-magical? Pisces? Ceria?”

Three of her friends looked up, and each replied with a different answer.

“Kill something even more magical and use its parts. Or soak it in magical bases for months.”

“Uh—put it in the center of a magical leyline of some kind? Or a small focusing ritual?”

“Bury it in a graveyard for a century?”

Erin looked at the three and pointed a finger.

“…Ceria. Ceria’s our person. Pisces too, sort of. Even Octavia.”

“Yay, me.”

The [Innkeeper] pointed at her [Garden of Sanctuary].

“What we’ll do is—we’ll bury these in a little jar. They’ll stay good, especially if it’s airtight. We just bury it around the Sage’s Grass and pull it out after a few days or a week or more. And tada, more magic! But these will probably do as prototypes. Wanna taste?”

She offered them around, and since they looked decent and nothing had gone boom this time, her guests all took one and thoughtfully chewed or bit it in half.

They were sweet pieces of sugar glass that had a bit more give than pure glass thanks to the gelatin. And if you decided you didn’t want to wait for them to dissolve, you’d get a burst of honey and blue juice in the center.

Delightfully sweet. Ceria put three in her mouth and got the ire of everyone else because that meant only seven were left. Mrsha sucked on hers happily. Yep, this was pretty good! Then she frowned and produced her wand. She made a big ball of [Light] appear.

“Mrsha! That’s wonderful! Did Gire teach you that?”

Mrsha nodded absently. She felt her hair lifting on end and then glanced at Erin. The [Innkeeper] waited.

“Well? Do you feel mana-full?”

“It’s like…a weak, weak, weak mana potion.”

Octavia chewed on hers thoughtfully. Erin beamed and clapped her hands together.

“Yes, exactly! I call it—mana balls! No, mana orbs! Orbs of mana! Mana…magic…”

“Mana Candies?”

Palt removed one from his mouth and decided this was the best mana potion he’d ever eaten. The regular mana potions? Sometimes he did think if he kicked up a ball of dirt and added it to the mana potion it would taste better.

Erin agreed. She explained to her test group the theory behind her Mana Candies.

“So what you do is you eat it. And it’ll slowly release mana, hence the shell. And inside is, like, more mana concentrated. I think kids’ll love it and [Mages] too. Best of all, it’s not the hardest thing to make, and I don’t need to gather stuff like for the Shards of Relief. What do you think, Bezale?”

Erin tried to include the Minotauress into the discussion since Montressa was gone and Bezale looked left out. That turned out to be a mistake. The [Spellscribe] folded her arms.

“…So it works exactly like a mana potion? Except it’s less potent, you have to wait a bit for them to fill you, and they’ll go bad unlike mana potions, which last a long time if the bottles are sealed.”

The reproachful look Erin gave Bezale made the Minotauress relent a bit.

“…But they taste sweet.”

“Yep. Not like that’s cool or anything. Not like I just made some lovely candies that anyone can eat. I don’t see anyone else selling candy. See if I make you a candy cane come Christmas. I could even do cool shapes, but too bad it’s only slightly magical.”

Erin sulked as Mrsha patted her on the hand and glared at Bezale. The Minotauress closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry I don’t enjoy sweet things that much. Will they have more effects if you bury them in the ground for a while?”

The [Innkeeper] sighed.

“Nah, probably not. They’ll just restore more mana. They’re really just treats and stuff. I think it’ll sell? It’s a Wandering Inn-exclusive, though! Imani can’t make these without [Wondrous Fare].”

“Oh no, whatever will we do, dear? She’s running us out of business.”

Palt hugged Imani dramatically and planted a kiss on her head. Erin rolled her eyes, but everyone was chuckling in relief. Erin nodded as she noted the recipe down.

“Just ordinary mana candy restoratives. But you probably don’t get mana burn from these.”

Ceria slowly stopped chewing on her huge mouthful of candy. She narrowed her eyes. What, as in the conundrum of all [Mages] when you drank so many mana potions you were incapable of replenishing your magic without poisoning yourself? Bezale froze and turned back to Erin.

“…go on.”

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn was filled with cheers when Erin Solstice came out with the mana candies. Lyonette went around the tables, telling everyone that they’d be a regular on the menu in a week—and they’d keep for another week!

Maybe they wouldn’t be an adventurer’s new standby, especially since they would grow stale, but they were useful and the first of new magical foods. The Wandering Inn was back!

Erin Solstice was back, and people were marking her name down. Not in the same category as the Titan of Baleros, but if there was a map for people, not places, hers was on it. And The Wandering Inn got its own spot on regular maps.

Individuals in Izril and elsewhere that had never bothered to look into a few coincidences sat up and marked her name. They looked into her background and began factoring her into their plans. As an obstacle or ally. She could be either, and if she were an enemy—well, at least it was proven that she had a weakness to being shot.

Which, to be fair, was most people’s. However, the proof of this was in none other than the man who greeted Erin Solstice in front of all the tables he’d helped serve with Ishkr. He looked like a performer, an [Actor], and a [Waiter] all crossed together.

“Erin…this is…”

The [Innkeeper] had been cooking all day, so she’d barely left the kitchen. She blinked as the man offered her a bow.

“No way. Are you an [Innkeeper]? Like Timbor? You’re…high-level.

“Miss Erin Solstice, my name is Barnethei, and I must apologize for the subterfuge earlier. I came to Liscor last week and did a tour of the city. My inn is The Adventurer’s Haven in the north. I wonder if Liscor has heard of it?”

Erin’s brows shot together. The Adventurer’s Haven? It sounded so…

“Erin, that’s the most famous inn in Izril! It’s up north, close to First Landing! This is—”

The highest-level [Innkeeper] in Izril. Or was he? Erin felt a similar level of—intensity from him. She felt he could do amazing things, and certainly, he could make dishes levitate, and she suspected that was only a drop in the bucket of his talents.

Yet he wasn’t more than her. In fact, Barnethei gave Erin a deep bow.

“I’m afraid your [Princess] is mistaken, Innkeeper Solstice.”

Lyonette started and looked around hurriedly.

“I’m not a—”

Mrsha, Numbtongue, and half the guests rolled their eyes. Yes, yes. Skip that part, would you?

The other [Innkeeper] nodded to Erin.

“I should be clear. I am a Level 41 [Vice Innkeeper]. I was sent here to see The Wandering Inn, and I am glad I did. It may be slightly understaffed—but I can see how it earned its reputation. I will report back to my boss.”

“Your boss?”

His eyes shone, and the [Innkeeper] nodded.

“I am her second-in-command. The Adventurer’s Haven is a large establishment. The highest-level [Innkeeper] on Izril is over Level 50. She was an adventurer of some acclaim back in the day. I was sent here to see Liscor’s finest. She will see you soon, Erin Solstice.”

He took a bow, and Erin Solstice saw him smile like a challenge. Competition? Lyonette looked at Ishkr and Numbtongue and Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl folded her arms.

Well then. Bring it on. Erin Solstice stopped Mrsha from offering Barnethei fisticuffs. She smiled uncomprehendingly.

“I’d—like to meet her. Is she going on vacation or something? We’re sort of far from First Landing, even by magic door.”

For answer, the [Vice Innkeeper] just smiled widely.

“Not to worry. We’ll come to you soon enough. It’s been a long time since The Adventurer’s Haven has gone far—but our inn moves.”

He saluted her and stepped out the door as Erin Solstice’s jaw dropped.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I hope you found this chapter salutary. I feel a bit—discombobulated. Which, I know, is not encouraging for the start of my writing month.

But in fairness, I just finished a 46,000 chapter for The Last Tide Pt. 2. And that was a fight. I actually took my break to recharge since it was so hard and I realized it wasn’t just burnout or fatigue—sometimes chapters are hard to write.

I had to go back to my roots, and outline heavily. Plan ahead—I think I had at least 7,000 words in my outline or more. I think it wasn’t bad what I got out, but big chapters are hard.

This one was more spontaneous, but I have been planning ahead for Volume 9, and so parts are ‘pre-written’. I know the scene. For instance, in this chapter I had actual parts of dialogue written around Erin making the Shards of Relief and mana candies. I knew that the Vampires were coming to Liscor, so I added that with no pre-written notes.

Planning is hard. Keeping secrets is hard. But you know what isn’t hard? Joining the sweepstakes for free merchandise. If you didn’t see the huge…obvious…picture at the top of the page, what were you doing? Hit the link, take a look, and join in! I’ll let you know more, but I’m excited to announce it.

That’s all from me for now. Thanks for reading, check out the giveaway, and vote in the Patreon poll! It should be up right with this chapter. See you next time! Hopefully no chipmunks. Did I tell you it came back? Pro tip for rodents: don’t hide in the dryer. It was…sad. That particular chipmunk will not be coming back.

 

 

Giveaway, Defenders of the Cave, Troll, and more by BoboPlushie!

 

Shh Erin, Gire and Mrsha, and Pie Relc by pkay!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/peekay

 

Tok by LeChatDemon!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – Singing Ships

(I am on break until the 28th for Patrons! I’ll post one more chapter of Volume 9 then, and the side story poll. Don’t let me forget the poll.)

 

Lamont was not a superstitious man. He was Scottish, but he was not Christian, though he’d been to church quite a lot growing up. He was ‘old’ and ‘experienced’ in that he’d not only reached the age of twenty-three, but managed to find work on fishing vessels as a deckhand.

That was the kind of tough work that ranged from delightful days to ones where you worked twenty-four hours without sleep before passing out in a bunk as the waves rocked the boat up and down and sent everything not tied down flying. A young person’s job, and Lamont had been doing it since he was sixteen, albeit not always deckhand work.

He knew the sea, which was probably why he’d become a [Sailor] and actually gained sixteen levels before Wistram found him. Although, Lamont would happily compare his experience on this world’s ships to modern vessels all day. Not always drawbacks!

Oh, the mundane ones sucked. They were smaller, far slower, and, given this world’s dodgy relationship with the sciences, sometimes lacked for hygiene or basic nutrition. The [Captains] sometimes knew about scurvy or good diets—sometimes they had a Skill. That was why it was so inconsistent, and Lamont had learned after a short voyage on a rat and lice-infested ship to check out the captain and crew.

His first five months in this world before being found had been a wild, fun ride, as terrifying and desperate as some moments had been, like realizing he had no way back. The magic had made up for it. His first ride in a real, magical ship where the food was preserved—the [Cook] could make a dish that tasted like your favorite food from home, and he got to see a Treant—those were the best times in Lamont’s life.

Wistram—had not been as fun. At first it had been a magical experience, but Lamont had realized they were trapped sooner than most. He had fallen into boredom until he took to reading, practicing magic, and sailing around Wistram’s bubble of calm.

Thus, he fit into the ‘old’, ‘experienced’, ‘high-level’, and ‘non-religious’ camps of Wistram’s Earthers. If you had to give him a label, those were some of his. And, oh, Wistram loved sorting the Earthers. Lamont at 23 was older than average for most Earthers, and he’d gained more than ten levels in a single class.

That was something of an anomaly. A lot of Earthers had been grabbed very quick, so the ‘first wave’, which Lamont may have been part of, or the second one, had either leveled up or…died. The point was, he had been considered a valuable asset, and some of his time in Wistram had been just talking ships and modern nautical experiences with the [Mages].

Few had spent a lot of time with Lamont. Most wanted to know more about grander technology. Some of the smart ones in Lamont’s opinion were keenly interested in the advances of shipbuilding and sea exploration, but most wanted to either work on Saif’s gun, build an airplane or the internet, or see if they could create crème brûlée. They got really disappointed when they figured out it was just burnt custard.

That was why Lamont was glad he’d escaped Wistram. They’d lost a lot of Earthers, yes, and he was shaken by Troy being the King of Destruction’s servant. Not that he knew the guy, but Troy had been from London, and he’d seemed quite nice—they’d swapped a few hours of talk.

However, despite it all, Lamont was now on a seafaring vessel, Sorecue, and Shadeward Doroumata, one of the most respected Drowned Folk [Mages], was their new guardian. The other Earthers were apprehensive—Lamont was as well, but he felt free.

He felt that tingle in his fingers and the shiver in his spine as he stood on the deck of Sorecue. That alone earned him approving looks from the crew. A lot of Earthers didn’t dare do it, even three weeks into their voyage. In fact, they had been so noisy—by Drowned Folk standards—that Doroumata had ordered them to sail just below the surface of the waves, like ‘landfolk’ vessels.

Drowned Folk law. Lamont hadn’t crewed with them before going to Wistram, and few of their own went to the Academy of [Mages], but he knew more than most. They only took their own kind on board their vessels. Not just because they were discriminating—they sailed in the depths, below the water, with magical shields, and visited Drowned Folk settlements. Even Storm Sailors might not see one in their lifetime.

Drowned Folk vessels sailed for Drowned Folk. Some were [Pirates], but they protected their own. The landfolk could be enemies or friends, but they were different.

In the deep, the Drowned Vessels belonged only to those who had taken the Gift of the Sea—trading half their body to become part fish. If the magical barriers surrounding Sorecue failed, the water barely a dozen feet from Lamont’s face, pressing against the pale green barrier, would implode, and Lamont was fairly certain he’d be dead if Doroumata didn’t do something.

Only a Drowned Person could survive that. Although…Lamont had heard that when Drowned Ship shields imploded deep underwater, the survival ratio was virtually nil either way.

Anyways. That was where he was. But what…Lamont looked around. What did he see? And why did he clasp his hands together, like his father had shown him how to do, and the old words of a prayer spring to his lips?

If they could have prayed, perhaps the [Depth Sailors] might have too. They stood on the deck, looking out into a light green world. Far below, the waters turned dark and murky.

Everywhere Lamont looked, back, forwards, the waters surrounded him. A terror—even for an experienced [Sailor] like him—seized a part of Lamont’s heart.

The water had no end. He could see perfectly through it until the world just turned…black. They sailed through the sea, and so the ‘ceiling’ was the watery sky, which separated them from the air, the real sky. But the deep abyss below them had no end to it that Lamont could see.

Down, down, down…when they had first escaped Wistram, they had dove so deep that the light of the water began to vanish. Then—they had been sailing through an absolute black world pierced only by faint movement, strange witch-light, and the illumination spells Doroumata cast.

They’d had to surface when Sidney and a number of the Earther guests had begun freaking out. Like every Drowned Ship, Sorecue operated in almost complete silence. It was their laws:

 

Make no sound about the watch. 

Maintain the bubble.

Listen not to the whispers.

Douse every light.

 

…Among others. The crew was used to it, but the Earthers couldn’t handle it. Swimming through a sea of blackness without light or speaking?

Depth Magus Doroumata had cloaked their vessel in silence spells, so the danger was less about talking than the Earthers’ health. She’d ordered the [Captain], the silent Toriegh, to rise until they could see the surface.

That helped. Now, Lamont could admire the wonderland of the ocean around him. He’d see schools of fish swimming around the ship, sometimes caught in drifting nets put out for supplies, or seaweed, but the real sights were when it was a storm and he saw water lashing around the magical bubble. Or when the light from the sky turned the water orange or yellow, or when some creatures passed by—a trio of sharks with algae for teeth or seahorses curiously trying to probe the magical barrier.

All of it was beautiful, and Lamont had quite enjoyed gaining the Drowned Crew’s grudging respect and friendship. They were bored out of their minds from months of sitting and waiting for Doroumata to conclude their business at Wistram, so they were talkative off-duty. Still, Lamont had begun to chafe, and the other Earthers had long since passed into impatience by this point.

Until the day when Fetohep of Khelt stormed across Chandrar and took Izril by storm. Until the days when every great nation called the alarm, and Sorecue, the Earthers, Doroumata, and the crew bore witness to strange happenings in the deep.

[Messages] from every Drowned city, raising the alarm. Doroumata had begun to steer them into the deeps, but then waited—waited and prepared the crew for battle with Seamwalkers, the horrors that [Sailors] whispered of—or worse.

She had waited for armageddon, and it had never come. But other things…had.

Ghost ships passing through the waters. A Drowned Woman’s ghost stepping onto the ship as Doroumata hesitated, then knelt. Lamont’s blood chilled with delight and terror at the memories.

“Revelation.”

A Drowned Boy [Deckhand], swabbing the decks with an actual mop, glanced up at Lamont. He had no context for Lamont’s use of the word. Religion was…not something this world really had.

It felt like that to Lamont. Revelation. The end of everything. Ghosts coming back, the great war between Drakes and Gnolls? He’d seen it on the scrying orb. But the greatest event—

Ah. Lamont recalled the moment when the water had split. Just a hairline fracture across the water itself, then a shockwave. Then the earthquake that perhaps had been felt as far as Baleros and Chandrar.

The greatest ghosts of Gnolls had split Izril. Split Izril—then, as Lamont felt and saw the earth torn in twain, raised new lands. Lamont had borne witness to the earth rising, undersea mountains breaking the surf and rising in the distance.

Izril had grown. The south of the continent had changed, and an entirely new land had been created. If that were not the stuff of fantasy and legend—Lamont had no words for the rest.

Wonders. Horrors. Premonitions. This world had changed, and Lamont knew it would never be the same. So he stood on the deck with the Drowned Crew and watched. It was [Depth Captain] Toriegh who broke the silence at last. In the bright emerald waters that had cleared of silt and dust at last, they looked…into the changed world.

“Dead gods. Kraken’s Pass is gone.”

The Drowned Folk looked at each other uneasily. Lamont shivered as he looked down into one of the death areas of the sea—where Krakens infested the huge valley that ships had to cross or skirt for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. It ran from Izril’s south across much of the ocean.

Now—it had collapsed. No—the stone and rock had shifted such that the ‘pass’ was no longer a single, connected cut in the earth. It had closed, the wound in the ground sealed in this place.

“The sea is changed forever. Kraken’s Pass has been closed. Across the world, other ships report the same. They…the Gnolls have altered the currents. Igawiz’s Jet is confirmed to have vanished or changed where it was. Tides are altered.”

Depth Magus Doroumata was, as ever, shrouded in veils of darkness. The old half-starfish woman sat surrounded by her identical daughters, each with the same face, all as pale as the moonlight. All surrounded by darkness magic, which protected the Drowned Folk in the deeps.

Her hand was shriveled, but her eyes gleamed deep violet with power as she spoke. Captain Toriegh started and looked away to bow briefly.

“As they would be, aye. A new land changes all. But the Krakens have lost their home. I beg leave to keep moving, Depth Magus. They’ve surely stirred, and Sorecue could not handle even a new spawn.”

The [Depth Magus] nodded slowly, and one of her daughters whispered as the crew shuddered.

“Fear not, Sorecue’s own. Even Krakens cannot see us so easily. We had to see. Each ship in two thousand miles is in danger. The Krakens might abandon their home or fight. Surely they wake and move.”

Toriegh spat. Not onto his deck, but off the prow of the ship. It passed through the magical bubble and vanished into the water. Lamont watched with fascination as the [Captain] looked around.

“Direr and direr still, aye. [First Mate], take us forwards as the Shadeward bid. On her course—slowly. All eyes, watchful.”

The crew dispersed, but many stayed on the railings, looking about and peering into the darkness. Lamont saw one of Doroumata’s daughters conferring with the [First Mate], a half-eel Drowned Man.

It was Doroumata who Lamont watched, though. She seemed…concerned. As one might after the end of the world had not happened—or might have, and they had all survived. Fetohep of Khelt had gone home and told everyone that the Seamwalker threat was reduced. That Khelt had managed to hold back the end, but he had refused to elaborate.

He was in consultation with many, many powers, and five days after the events at Izril had ended and everyone had gone home, people were figuring out what to do next. What did it mean? What had they been told?

As for Lamont, it seemed the question was now this: what would happen to the Earthers in the Drowned Folk’s care? He saw Doroumata slowly swing around to him as she turned, and her eyes seemed to glitter from beneath a face in darkness.

He shuddered. If only she didn’t look so creepy, he could believe this was purely a good thing. But did it beat Wistram? For now—for him—yes.

It was better than the Drakes, of whom Lamont had a low opinion. It beat Wistram now that Eldavin was dead. It probably beat sailing off with the King of Destruction and going to Chandrar, especially if the horror stories he’d heard from Sidney applied to everywhere there. But not all Earthers felt that way.

 

——

 

“Lamont! What did they say?”

Belowdecks of the Sorecue was completely different from above. The decks of a Drowned Folk vessel were dark. They had a lot of similarities to landfolk ships—deck, railings, even masts and sails for when they needed to sail above the waters.

However, Drowned Folk decks were austere; you only went above to keep the watch, fight for your ship, or disembark. They were thus dark most of the time, since they wanted to attract no notice when diving amidst monsters, and as silent as the grave.

Belowdecks, Drowned Folk had more vibrant, if hushed, lives. All the padding and finery was here, and each ship had some rooms devoted to entertainment along with the regular ones for rest and necessary business and so on.

The Earthers had been granted access to one such area just for them to gather and speak in. Sorecue was vast enough that it had several, and the crew were a bit unhappy to cede one, but it was for the best.

Especially because the Earthers had played havoc in the gardens. Drowned Folk apparently loved bonsai and other such plants, so each crewmember had a berth where they could grow anything they wanted. Plucking fruits off the delicate masterpieces and removing a few leaves had been…bad.

The card lounge was likewise too important for the crew’s happiness to give up; although, they had turned over two magical card decks.

Which was why the Earthers relaxing in their scrying orb lounge and pub were also playing cards. It was fairly funny to see Sidney, a fourteen year-old girl, playing serious cards with a stack of silver and bronze coins against Haley. Three weeks had made cardsharps out of everyone.

Lamont sat down and was dealt into a variant of poker of this world. Someone offered him a glass of scented water, and he took it.

“They were still checking out Kraken’s Pass. Amazing stuff—the entire landscape’s been pressed in, like someone just pushed the earth together. Apparently there’s all kinds of geological changes, right? So we’re moving on now, and I guess we’re sticking to the plan. Whatever it is. You should go up and take a look. It’s absolutely amazing.”

“Um. No. No…I don’t think so.”

Haley looked up from her cards and turned slightly green at the suggestion. She was one of the Earthers who’d had a violently claustrophobic reaction to being trapped in a giant bubble surrounded by water. The [Squire] put down her cards as Sidney pushed six silver coins into the center.

“Six silver. Double decks?”

“Pass.”

“Pass.”

“Hell no.”

Malia glared at one of the players, who rolled their eyes. Sidney wasn’t affected by the foul language. Lamont glanced around the room and saw most of the Earthers were present.

Of the Earthers who’d been ‘rescued’ from Wistram, the most notable were possibly Sidney; the young girl who’d lost her family; Malia, the [Thought Healer] who’d stuck with her; Sang-min, the Terandrian [Mercenary] who’d actually had a successful career; Lamont, the [Sailor]; Caroline, the [Romance Writer]; and Haley, the [Squire].

There were a lot more Earthers, but many didn’t stand out in a huge way. Especially not like Troy Atwood did in hindsight, or Flynn or Elena. On the whole, though? It was certainly a huge victory for the Drowned Folk by certain metrics. They had gone from zero Earthers to three dozen. All accounts said that the Drakes had gotten away with similar numbers.

Whether or not that mattered was up for debate. The Earthers’ knowledge of their world was varied but inconsistent, and it wasn’t always helpful. Then again, the Drowned Folk might have completely different perspectives than Wistram had on what mattered.

“Are we going to go to a Drowned City? Or just keep sailing around until we grow gills? Are they going to make us Drowned Folk?”

The Earther who’d sworn was Caroline, and she was noticeably stressed. She had already had a rough go of it, like Sidney, and Lamont understood she was from Baleros. She’d survived a battlefield, kidnapping, and later rescue by Wistram. But all the Earthers nodded as they frowned at Lamont, as if he were defending the Drowned Folk.

Which he was, a bit. Lamont sighed gustily as he placed a magic card down. Instantly, it switched with one of Sidney’s, and he brightened up. Oho, three-of-a-kind.

Lamooont!

She complained and tossed her cards down. Lamont tossed in two more silver coins, smiling. Magical cards were a lot more fun than regular ones.

“Listen, we were on course to get to Shadeward Doroumata’s vessel, the, um, Nombernaught, right? It stands to reason that we got distracted by the disasters around the world. We’re close. I can’t say how much, but we don’t want to sail into a Kraken with the world jumbled up.”

“Fair, but what are we going to do there? End up as prisoners a second time? I don’t want to trade Wistram for…underwater life.”

Haley complained, fidgeting with the sword she’d kept from Terandria. She would have been, like Elena, Lamont, and a few others, the ‘restless’ group who had not wanted to be stuck in Wistram at all. She had been training as a [Knight] until Wistram had found and yanked her.

Lamont shrugged as he showed his cards then collected the silver.

“Can’t say. But Doroumata hasn’t said we’re going to be prisoners, has she? She said we’d be freer.”

One of the Earthers not playing cards looked up from reading a book. He put a finger between the pages and spoke with a slightly accented tone.

“Said. Hasn’t proven. And Wistram said a lot of things too.”

Everyone turned to Sang-min, the [Mercenary]. He looked at Lamont, and the [Sailor] put up his hands.

“Got me there, Sang-min. You’re right. But I’m saying…we are out of Wistram, right? Just like Elena wanted?”

“Sure. And where’s she? I think this was all that bastard Troy’s plan.”

Another Earther drawled with his feet up on a table. He raised a mug grumpily.

“We got out, but I think we’re just split up. At least Wistram had magic and more space than a ship. So we get to see the sea. Hurrah. Here’s to the new captors. Same as the old ones. How d’you say that in Latin? I think that’s an expression.”

The room fell silent again, and Lamont saw Sidney’s face fall as she shuffled the deck. He saw a few Earthers look up from the scrying orb and then down again.

“Come on, now.”

That was all he could say. Sidney’s lip was trembling dangerously, and she looked around the generous lounge…that they’d been stuck in for three weeks. No windows—no light that could travel to the outside. A box in the sea. Lamont hoped she wouldn’t start crying. Not for him, but because someone might snap back at her, and then he’d have to slap a head or two.

Thankfully, no one did, and the mood in the room returned to the strained amiability Lamont was used to.

In truth, he got it. The others didn’t know what was happening. But what was more worrisome was that Doroumata, who had gone toe-to-toe with Eldavin and was clearly some kind of super-mage from the Drowned Folk—even she didn’t know what was going on.

The crew was nervous. This wasn’t a no-name ship. Sorecue had been poised to surface and go to Khelt’s aid if they’d needed it. They’d been preparing to fight what Lamont understood were giant, horrific monsters if they appeared near a Drowned city.

Yet here they were. Here the world was. The worst had happened, and they were here. An…ending had come, and they had missed it. A great war was over, and Lamont thought that he had only seen part of it at Ailendamus and the Great Plains.

What happened next?

 

——

 

The answer was, in part, the question.

What had happened to Izril? From the Walled Cities to the remaining Gnoll tribes to other nations, everyone had seen the ghosts appear. Maybe they hadn’t witnessed all of it, but they’d seen Izril crack then increase in size. So…exactly how much land had just appeared?

The answer was unexpectedly hard to get. For one thing—scrying spells could show a vast amount of land, especially if you anchored them high.

“It turns out we cannot—cannot anchor them high enough. And our coordinate-based system seems to, ah, have completely failed in this case, Sir Relz. So this is a very exciting time.”

The broadcast that Lamont and the Earthers were half-watching was going over the events in the Gnoll Plains for the umpteenth time. What was more interesting was that Sir Relz was right now interviewing a Drake [Mage] patiently explaining the problem.

“I’m hearing you right, Tobeis? Can’t you just, ah, shift the [Scrying] spell left a bit?”

“Um…no, Sir Relz.”

The Drake gave Sir Relz the same kind of look and tone as a [Farmer] might when asked if he could just move his field left slightly. He clarified after a second.

“That’s theoretically possible, Sir Relz, but it requires a rather complete understanding of the—the geography and, er, world itself. Part of coordinate-based divination is that we can’t just throw scrying spells into the earth. If that were so, we’d just locate every dungeon below us in a straight line and do that—it’s not practical.”

“I see. I see. So you’re, er, more like tossing a dart at random. You need to know what you’re aiming at.”

The Drake seemed gratified by the explanation.

“Exactly! And let me tell you, there’s a lot more places that don’t exist than there are that exist. We’re surrounded by nothingness—coordinate-wise.”

“Um. We are?”

The existential dread of being a single mote in a void of oblivion was glossed over with a wave of the Drake’s claw.

“So, um, the point is we can anchor the scrying spells fairly high up, but it’s just not an option.”

“So what are we doing to explore this new land?”

For answer, the Drake just pointed, and the scrying orb switched to show a Drake Oldblood flying high above.

“We are mapping this new area with eyes in the sky. It seems to be—amazingly vast. That we cannot even guess as to how much land has arisen suggests the Great Plains may have…doubled. Or tripled in size.”

Sir Relz leaned forwards slowly.

Did you just say ‘tripled’ the Great Plains?

“Only speculation, Sir Relz.”

“Ah, but I like it. You heard it here first, people! The Great Plains have tripled in size! Now, I see a ship’s deck behind you. What’s this about?”

The [Mage], Tobeis, seemed to be regretting his words. He tried to choose them more carefully.

“…In accordance with the need for fliers, we need [Cartographers] and, well, everything. But the Walled Cities have sent scouting fleets around the exterior of this landmass, as that is the most practical way to do so quickly. I understand land-based expeditions are being prepared, but we believe it may be safest to maneuver via the coast for now.”

“Safest? How dangerous are you suggesting this new land might be?”

Tobeis hesitated.

“There could be anything, Sir Relz. These were underwater lands, so we are cautiously suggesting this may be the sunken sixth continent in part. Unearthed dungeons? It could be anything, so I’m not saying—

“The Sixth Continent? You heard it here first, people. If you’re just tuning in, it might not be the 6th Continent—what was it called? But it could be—

At this point, Sang-min tossed a coaster at the scrying orb, and it bounced off the enchanted glass.

“What a fool. He is lying.”

Sidney had flinched at the sudden movement, and Sang-min gave her a concerned look as Malia patted the girl’s hand. Haley rolled her eyes and nodded, glaring at the Drakes.

“No journalism…standards. You know? They’re not even saying the obvious; I bet they want to claim the land first. Drakes.”

She said that without having met more than a portion at Wistram—but everyone was beginning to get what that meant. Lamont nodded, but thoughtfully.

“I just bet there are other nations doing the same, though. Not just Izril. I mean…it’s new land. Wouldn’t everyone want that?”

He scowled around the table, and Depth Magus Doroumata nodded.

Yes. Chandrar is mobilizing fleets too. Terandria, Baleros—every nation will be interested. Who arrives is different. This is a game of time. But tell me…why does that Drake upset you? What is ‘journalism’? Not writing in a journal?”

Lamont stared into a face full of less wrinkles than he thought, and half of her gaze was rough and her flesh turned to more like spikes—a starfish’s ridged exterior. He leapt out of his seat, tripped, and Sidney screamed.

Doroumata saved Lamont from slamming into the wooden floor with a finger that halted his fall. He got up, and Sidney’s shriek turned to a whisper as the [Depth Mage] captured the sound.

A teardrop of quivering liquid hung on her finger, eating the oaths and exclamations from around the room. She let it fall, and then the room went silent.

“I apologize, children.”

“How did you—? I didn’t see you—!”

Caroline nearly fell out of her seat. Doroumata simply smiled.

“I move around my ship where I please. It is a valuable Skill for old bones. I intended to speak with you all. What is ‘journalism’?”

Lamont got up shakily as Haley took her hand off her sword. Then, and only then, did two of Doroumata’s daughters walk into the room along with the [Captain]. They stopped, nodded around, and offered refreshments—the fish cake snacks that Drowned Folk made to preserve catches.

No one wanted any, and so Lamont found himself sitting as Sidney, Haley, Caroline, and Sang-min joined him at the table. Sidney’s fairly justified fear of many things actually dissipated a bit around Doroumata. The old woman made the girl sit next to her, and despite Malia’s worries, Sidney looked reassured.

“You sleep better, child? I told you—no creatures of the deep, even Krakens, will find me. Rats are banished aboard Sorecue.”

“Yes, Shadeward.”

Doroumata smiled. She patted Sidney’s hand, and in that sense, she looked like Lamont’s own grandmother.

His hypothetical grandmother who could blow a hole in an aircraft carrier if he made her angry. If he’d had Doroumata as a grandmother, Lamont bet he’d have gotten into fewer scraps as a boy.

At any rate, Doroumata was curious, so the Earthers found themselves doing what they had gotten used to—explaining Earth things. The old Drowned Woman frowned at Sir Relz, muted on the scrying orb.

“So he lacks for a principle of…ethics.”

Caroline nodded vigorously.

“A code. A standard. I mean, he’s just over exaggerating, but it’s—that?”

She was chewing on some dried seaweed, much to Sang-min’s amusement. Only Caroline had developed a taste for dried seaweed.

“One doesn’t need another world to know that Drake’s as crooked as two [Harbormasters] on the take.”

Captain Toriegh opined. Doroumata just tapped one lip.

“These are things I wish to know. I and countless Drowned Folk. If only I had taken one of the…documents I knew Wistram was making, it would simplify things. We must begin again, it seems. I hope you will speak long. It will help the Drowned People greatly.”

She and the other Drowned People watched the Earthers. A few months ago, Lamont thought everyone would have shown cautious willingness, but now they traded uncertain looks.

Elena had always been one of the most vocal against sharing Earth tech. Lamont had seen why, but he’d thought that Wistram had a point that they had magic—sharing some of Earth’s knowledge wouldn’t help.

Then Eldavin went and made super flying soldiers with magic armor. It might have been something he could do, but everyone knew they were Aaron’s designs.

Moreover…they were just tired of doing this. It was Haley who raised a wary hand.

“Er, Depth Magus? Can we ask what will happen to us? Are we going to be…guests of the Drowned Folk forever?”

Captain Toriegh exchanged a quick glance with one of the daughters, but Doroumata just sat back, eyes steady.

“No. We are not Wistram. That we need your knowledge is certain. But I have spoken to the late Grand Magus Eldavin. I have seen Wistram’s faults and strengths. I am one leader among many, and I am simply Shadeward of Nombernaught. Yet I will speak that you will have freedom. I require aid and knowledge for my people. You desire freedom and choice. These ideas do not necessarily fight each other.”

From the way Lamont saw Toriegh react, he didn’t think Doroumata was ‘simply’ anything. The woman’s words certainly made him and the others excited.

“Hold on—how would that work? Don’t you need us?”

Doroumata paused and gestured as she swallowed. Instantly, a drink was placed into her hand, and she took a sip of some dark, dark, dark tea. Her daughter spoke for her in that uncanny way—picking up her exact words like they were…the same person.

“Surely so, Earther Obi. Yet we will do what is fair on the sea or under it. Coin for deed. We will…pay you to tell us what you know. You will be free to seek your own path within a week, and we may arrange transport to any port in the world. But we will reward information fairly.”

Ah. Lamont got it at the same time as the rest. So they’d be free…but being paid for their knowledge was much more of an incentive than Wistram. And by the same token…

Lamont wondered if Obi, or most of the others, knew how hard it was to make a living outside of Wistram. How dangerous it could be. Himself, he would take any gold Doroumata wanted to give out.

They had well and truly left Wistram, so it began to sink in for the other Earthers. They might be free, but now they were, um, free. And their safety net had vanished. Did they miss Wistram?

Well, it was too late. Unless they went back. They were free to do whatever, but it would be very nice to have their new start in this world with a pocket full of gold.

Doroumata watched their expressions. Her offer was certainly taken fairly well, but after some prodding, Haley expressed what the others were feeling.

“It’s just that—I don’t know if we can live on a Drowned Ship, or even multiple Drowned Ships, Shadeward. We’re not used to being quiet or…being so far underwater. No offense, but it’s been hard for three weeks, even surfacing to get some air.”

The old woman’s eyes glinted, and she raised her other hand. It was, Lamont realized, a long starfish’s ‘arm’. It was wrapped around a staff, and she used it to lever herself out of her chair. Two of her daughters instantly supported her, and the [Depth Mage] nodded slowly.

“Understandable. We have taken this into account.”

Haley waited for elaboration, but Doroumata just turned.

“Oh, good. Um…so what are we going to do?”

“We will reach Nombernaught by nightfall. You shall see then. Captain Toriegh. Send a [Message] to Nombernaught. Tell them to weigh Nom’s Anchor. It is time.”

Lamont watched the Drowned Captain shoot to his feet, do a double-take, then hurry around Doroumata, whispering frantically. He looked at the other Earthers.

What did that mean? Well, they would find out by nightfall. Lamont saw one of Doroumata’s daughters turn back. They were all ages, from their forties down to younger than twenty. One winked at him.

“Lamont, I think she likes you.”

Caroline whispered in Lamont’s ear with delight as the Drowned Folk left the Earthers alone. Lamont rolled his eyes. The world’s first and hopefully only shipper grinned at the [Sailor] who had no respect for her version of ‘ships’.

“What ever gave you that idea, Caroline?”

“The wink? The look? Although she might be the same person…so that’s weird. I’m just saying—

Lamont politely pushed his glass of water back, muffling a sigh.

“That’s not flirting. That’s a wink.”

“It could be.”

“No, it’s not. Asking if I want to go for a drink after her shift, is. Suggesting she’s got an empty bunk that night is definitely flirting. Asking if I want to walk a round of watch belowdecks is flirting.”

“Right…”

Caroline looked put out as Lamont got up. She frowned at him.

“Where are you going?”

With a straight face, the [Sailor] adjusted his clothing.

“To go fishing with her. You should try it. You get to see them thinking about going for the bait, and Drowned Folk use little fish.”

He stood up with a wink at Sidney. Caroline nearly fell out of her seat.

“Wait—details!

Lamont rolled his eyes. Of all the Earthers to escape with…he was just glad it wasn’t Leon. Or George. George. He hated both of them.

Anyways, Lamont whistled a sailor’s tune from Earth as he went above decks. Caroline made everything dramatic. Sometimes you were just fascinated. Fascinated by a different world. And at least one of Doroumata’s daughter-apprentices was curious too.

“Tell me what song you’re singing.”

She smiled at him behind a veil, and Lamont looked into the beautiful sea. He smiled and took a fishing rod and a little fish.

“Only if you teach me one of your songs in return. Fair’s fair.”

Curiously, for a response, Dorace only laughed, a quiet laugh like a whisper as the ship journeyed on.

“You’ll hear one tonight. Stay up late, landman, Scotsman. It will be a night to make you love us if any does.”

 

——

 

And as light faded from the deck of Sorecue, the green water turned orange and then faded to a deep blue as one of the two moons in the night’s sky shone bright and full. The deep waters revealed something else on the horizon.

The shores of Izril. But new shores, on a tip of a peninsula never seen. Instead of the slow gradient of land—vast cliffs of earth rose upwards, ending abruptly at a lip of stone quickly turning into a beach.

Archmage Kishkeria had sent a wave of green magic, turning much of the soil to blooming grass, but the plant-life in the deep ocean had merged with the memory of plants that had once grown in this soil.

A wild world awaited, and not all flat. Mountains had risen, and in the distance, a broken city was visible on the horizon.

And that—that was only what could be seen whenever Sorecue surfaced. Yellow grass sprouting amid what might become a beach in decades to come if this entire cliff face didn’t slide into the sea. Strange ruins, a mountain colored blue, not yet frosted at the tip.

The corpse of a giant shellfish with too many legs, rotting in the distance. It had been killed as it rose into the unforgiving sun, and strange birds were already descending upon it.

Rot, that broken city—and beyond both, a horizon never seen in this age. Only the High Passes far, far away were even recognizable.

Up, across that shoreline Sorecue sailed, not yet surfacing again. Not yet.

For there were other vessels in the water. In fact…the very same Drake expeditionary fleet was navigating south around the continent from Zeres, using wind and water spells to boost their voyage.

This was a race to see what could be seen, especially anything valuable. The other nations knew it well. However, most vessels had been at port due to Fetohep’s warnings. Many Drowned Folk ships had been too, but where they docked was…closer than other continents to Izril.

Thus, more than one Drowned Ship was currently hovering around the new Izril. One, in particular, was close enough to spot Sorecue. The vessel had dropped its cloaking, and if you knew what to look at or had the right Skills, another submerged ship was as obvious as a beacon.

“Drowned Ship bearing 136 degrees.”

“One thirty-six, confirmed. No hostile colors. Captain, orders?”

A Drowned Captain aboard his own ship was using a telescope to see through the dark waters. He grunted.

“Signal them. Lantern speak.”

“Lantern speak, aye.” 

The crew got to work. They took lanterns and opened and closed the colored shutters. Ships above and below the seas used this as communications, although Drowned Folk had a few more. If they were in the deeps and wary of using light to attract…something…they’d get closer. But if they were both still wary, they’d send messages by literally shooting them into each other’s bubbles.

In this case, the [Captain] was almost certain the other ship was friendly, and that was confirmed a moment later.

“It’s…Sorecue. Crewed by no less than Shadeward Doroumata herself!”

The Drowned Folk crew all looked up. They might have heard she was at Wistram, but even so. The [Captain] tugged at his beard with a rubbery ‘hand’. He was part eel, a fairly common merging in Drowned Folk, but he had a beard despite being split across fish and man.

It took a bit of work on his eel side with its rubbery skin, but added to the cap he wore; when he was annoyed or just for the show of it, one eye would spark with lightning. It was an effect he was most certainly aware of, and the cut of his clothing also contrived to make him look like he was a drowned [Lord] of Terandria. Old, thick brass on worn velvet.

Drowned Folk fashion sometimes consisted of making them look like they’d just been blown out of a story. This Drowned Man was suited to the clash of swords and daring battles at sea. Quite appropriately—he was one of the most famous Drowned Captains in the world. He murmured as he scratched at his beard.

“Now there’s a strange encounter any other day. How many years has it been since she’s left Nombernaught?”

He paced down the deck as he watched the other ship slow and the exchange continue via lanterns. His own ship was actually quite a bit larger than Sorecue, which had a reputation as a bodyguard, slightly squat and barrel-chested, but filled with a quite decent spread of amenities and a shield-focused ward that had stopped blows from Krakens.

By contrast, his craft was a long, sleek hunter, specialized in running down enemy vessels and delivering devastating broadsides before boarding for the kill and hauling away as much loot as possible. The decks were stained dark blue and gold, adding to the camouflage effect and also that sense of faded style the [Captain] liked.

Sorecue’s own reaction to learning this ship’s name was to give an immediate hail and cautiously turn so it faced the vessel. Neither were going to kill each other today, but facing head on, neither ship had a good shot at the other’s side.

Such was the reputation of this vessel that it put a smile on the Drowned Man’s face.

The Passing Shadow. And there stood none other than the famous [Depth Captain] himself, Therrium Sailwinds. As feared as any famous [Pirate]. He had notably been involved in the battles at sea with the Titan’s students and the fighting for the Diamond Swords of Serept, but he’d failed to acquire the treasure.

It still rankled Therrium, but that was the life of someone in his position. You won and you lost, and if you kept losing…well, then your crew might have something to say about it. But he had never had that problem.

“Raise the sails and rise. We’re breaking waters. Ask Sorecue if the esteemed Shadeward will join our ship. And their [Captain] and company if they so please.”

He doubted it. They didn’t have time, but there was always later. As for now…Therrium grinned as water ran from the top of their magical barriers.

He was going to enjoy this, at least.

 

——

 

The Passing Shadow breached the waves like a whale rising, shedding water in a magnificent display as its hull appeared suddenly in the night. It scared the hell out of the Drakes approaching from the east.

Drowned Ship rising! To arms! Alert the [Admiral]!

The Passing Shadow! Sighting confirmed—Grade 8 threat! Orders?”

A babble of voices broke out from around the [Admiral] crewing the expeditionary force. His blood chilled at the sight of the famous pirates, but he hailed from Zeres, and there were eighteen ships in his fleet. Nevermind that most were still clustered around Zeres in case Khelt came back…and trying to pull out that giant halberd from one of the towers. The [Admiral] roared, coming to an instant decision.

“We have an armada! All about and battle stations! Alert the Admiralty we are preparing to engage! Get me mage targets for full long-range bombardments! I want barrier spells now and—”

If he were calmer, the Drake might have noticed some oddities. The Passing Shadow had come up far, far out of range of the Drake vessels. Nor had it raised any colors for battle.

 

——

 

On his ship, Therrium rolled his eyes as the Drakes prepared for combat. If he’d wanted them dead he’d have shredded one of their galleons from below before they saw him and surfaced in their midst. He spat to one of his officers.

“Drakes. They just fought the Gnolls and saw a continent split in twain and they’re already raring to spill more blood? Even the Bloodtear Pirates would get sick of so much fighting.”

“They must want to claim all this land. Want me to loose a few arrows? Bet I could poison a [Captain].”

A Drowned Woman with a quillfish’s spines on one shoulder and a bow grinned. Therrium waved her down.

“Not now. We have orders. No one open fire, even if they loose a few spells.”

It was rare for Therrium to take marching orders from anyone, but the crew nodded. They watched the Drakes turning, spreading out to flank The Passing Shadow.

They had to realize something was off, so they approached slowly. But it seemed the Drakes wouldn’t turn down an enemy like Therrium, no matter what. The Drowned Man yawned as he idly watched Sorecue rising out of the waters to his left.

He grinned as the Drakes reacted to the second vessel appearing. Then his grin slipped a bit as the dark night brightened and another craft shed its camouflage.

Kraken’s tits! Submerged ship was hiding—it’s her! That maniac!

There was only one person the crow’s nest could mean. Therrium swung around, and the Drake armada began breaking up in alarm as that by now world-famous glow, like a lighthouse in its own right, shone from the decks of the smaller ship whose translucent, glowing hull was as bright as the eye of its captain.

The Illuminary shot upwards as the Drake fleet retreated back in alarm. Now, three Drowned Ships were facing eighteen. But again, neither was on an attack heading. The fastest [Pirate] in the world joined Therrium, and she had the gall to wave from the railing as they passed close enough for Therrium to throw his spyglass like a hatchet.

Rasea Zecrew caught it and tossed it back with a laugh.

“Therrium! Why so hostile? No hard feelings?”

“Rasea Zecrew. Your ship is everywhere, it seems. Cause trouble here and I’ll personally gut you this time. What are you doing here?”

He pointed at her, and the [Pirate Captain] held up her hands in mocking surrender.

“My ship was repairing from the fight at the Great Plains and checking out the new land. I heard what was up, and I claim the right to bear witness by this.”

She tapped the anglerfish part of her body and then sombered.

“I wouldn’t miss this for all the gold in Khelt. We’ll pull back if we’re not welcome, but we thought we’d give the Drakes a show.”

“Hmph. Fine.”

The Illuminary had landfolk and Drowned Folk in equal measure, but Rasea did have a claim. Therrium didn’t have it in his heart to chase her off.

Not today. If anything, he wished he had a scrying orb and Wistram’s eyes on him, but perhaps…perhaps this moment was too good to be sullied as cheap entertainment.

You had to be here. This was the kind of thing [Sailors], whether they be [Storm Sailors], [Depth Sailors], or [Pirates], would brag about for years to come.

In the distance, the Drakes were clearly weighing the odds of taking on three vessels of fame with their fleet. And it seemed the others had grown tired of the charade or wanted to make it clear that…this was not the Drakes’ finest hour.

“More craft surfacing, Captain.”

Both Rasea and Therrium looked around. Sorecue was flickering welcomes at the others, but the two piratical vessels stayed together as more ships began rising. They broke the waters, and Therrium and Rasea named each one.

“Tom’s Wake. Fortiseid. Shell Bazaar?”

One had been a Terandrian freighter before it was converted into a Drowned Folk supership, nearly doubling it in size, but they’d left the standard galleon design. Fortiseid was a massive ship that was never designed for open sea maneuvering; like the Krakenbane Destroyers of the Iron Vanguard, it was circular and moved as fast as a snail unless it kept to currents, but had half again the mass of The Passing Shadow and the Illuminary combined.

Shell Bazaar, that colorful train of ships, was not just one vessel, but many chained together in a flotilla and pulled by the giant lobster, Renny, himself. It was considered ill luck not to contribute something to his snack. Not to mention you’d get no deals from the wonders and countless vendors who purchased berths for its constant voyages. The flotilla was as colorful as Fortiseid was not.

Those were the first three. Then came Geib’s Foot, Vixadem, The Ourth Hour, and those were just the famous vessels.

Smaller crafts, barely more than skippers, were surfacing or rising in the distance. Therrium guessed every ship within two hundred miles had been making for this place for the last five days.

It made sense there were so many. Rasea caught her breath from laughing as the Drake ‘fleet’ turned tail and ran, all sails to the wind.

“Ah, now here’s a sight! Why’s Shell Bazaar here, though? Not that I’d begrudge anyone a chance to see.”

“Drowned Folk [Captain].”

“Right, new management. Who got the last [Captain]? Wasn’t us. I liked her.”

The light conversation was taking place as the Drowned Folk gathered. Therrium was noting enemies and friends or just famous names, and he noticed a group of Humans on the decks of Sorecue.

Humans? Well—if Doroumata wanted them there, she had the most right of anyone to invite landfolk. And still…Therrium saw the Drowned Folk rising.

The Drake scouting fleet was in the distance already, fleeing back to their City of Waves. However, even if Zeres disgorged its entire armada, they would hesitate to sail into this storm. For it was not dozens, but nearly a hundred and forty ships gathered here.

A hundred and forty. And these were the ships who had been able to attend. It was something Therrium knew existed below, but he had never seen so many Drowned Folk on land.

They were a sparse people, closer to Selphids or half-Elves in population density. They had to be; they could not live in the water unaided, even with their gifts. Their homes were few in number, but now…

Now they walked from water to see.

Drowned Folk. They emerged from the water, heads breaking through the waves, water running off their clothing, eyes gleaming under the moonlight. Therrium saw the glowing, yellow-red eye of a half-shark Drowned Man breach the water, a fin running along his back.

He was a poorer fellow, for he wore no grand uniform, but he walked next to a mage of the sea, her body semi-translucent, running with magic blood as she clenched a book in one delicate hand, her skin showing her organs beneath.

They rose out of the waves side-by side, the saltwater dripping off them. But these were not a horde of monsters, like an army of sea-zombies wandering onto land after walking the ocean’s floor. These were proud people, the light of intelligence in their eyes. They stepped onto the new land of Izril like that.

Walking out of the surf. Rising from the waves, striding seemingly across the top of the water onto land. It was just a trick. They stood on submerged vessels that slowly rose around them, but they were stepping onto the ground by…the thousands.

“Captain, do we take ourselves to shore?”

The crew looked longingly at that sight, and Therrium ached in his bones to join them. But he shook his head.

“Some ships must stay just in case of attack. We do not have the right. We are pirates and raiders of the sea. Let them go first.”

He had killed men and women ever since he was six and old enough to lift the hand-crossbows at his side. This was not his time, nor Rasea’s, nor the other Drowned Folk who watched at the edges.

Even so, Therrium’s eyes stung. He raised one hand, and his Human hand touched his cheek. The wind was blowing salt along the night’s waves, but that didn’t explain the line of water running from one eye.

“Ah. Why am I crying? What a disgrace.”

Therrium was embarrassed to weep in front of his crew. But then he heard a loud hiccup. The [Depth Captain] turned and saw snot and tears running from both Rasea’s eyes and her nose.

“Zecrew?”

She was wiping at her face with a handkerchief, in full waterworks.

I said I wasn’t gonna cry until it happened, but then you started crying and I started—

The two [Captains] looked at each other. Therrium noticed the Humans on board Doroumata’s ship were watching the gathering with awe, but clearly had no idea what was going on. That they did…

“Ahoy.”

Another vessel drew alongside theirs, heading for shore. A Drowned Woman raised her hat, saluting the two famous [Captains] and their crew. Then she hesitated.

“…Are you two crying?”

Both Rasea and Therrium chorused at once.

No.

 

——

 

The Drowned People lined their railings. Light flashed from some eyes, and they stood, crossed between sea and land. Fish-people. No…that was the wrong folk, for they were not merfolk. They were half and half, but they were split vertically rather than horizontally.

Why did they weep? Lamont didn’t know. All he did know—the thing the Earthers felt as they gathered in hushed awe—was that the strange happenings and miracles that had begun the day Fetohep rode from his palace had not ended.

Perhaps they would never end. Perhaps this was the way the world was.

For there stood Doroumata, and the old [Depth Mage] and her daughters looked into the waters as the Drowned Folk stood on Izril’s new shores. They turned to face her, and Lamont felt that chill on his skin intensify.

The Shadeward looked across the gathering and straightened her back. She looked as emotional as the rest, but she said not a word. She was simply…there.

Waiting. Waiting for something that was coming.

Lamont could not have said who broke that silence. It was hardly quiet; the creaking of countless ships, the sound of his own breath in his lungs, the wind blowing was all noise. But it was background, the sounds you heard at all times on the sea.

When he did hear a voice…it was a quiet man’s voice. Some tenor, sung from a young sailor among the Drowned. Then more joined in. Each Drowned Person aboard their ship, Drowned Men and Women, the youngest deckhands, added their voice to a song that was a thousand strong in an instant.

They began to sing.

 

“I slipped off the deck, and there I drowned

Now I will never leave her

We left land to be born at sea

And we’ll never truly leave her.”

 

It was such…a melancholy song. Or was there a note in triumph there? He thought there was. It was one of those old songs that anyone could pick up. But this…

This was a Drowned Folk song.

 

I gave one eye into the deep

And I will never leave her

I breathe water in my sleep

So I will never leave her.

 

Smiles divided in half as they sang, poorly or beautifully—the people who’d taken the gift of the sea. They could look like monsters to some, people afflicted by a curse. But every [Sailor] that Lamont had ever met had talked about the gift like a second chance. Drowning at sea was a terrible thing, but if you were lucky…you’d live again.

Yet there was a price. As the song went on, they came to a verse where the massed voices suddenly went quiet. Bare hundreds amidst the thousand sang on, standing out from the rest of their kin.

 

“My family wept upon the land

I wish that I could leave her

I left half my heart on sand

Yet I will never leave her.”

 

People who had become Drowned Folk, not been born to it. That was who they had to be. Gnolls, fur dripping wet with water, Garuda who might never fly again. Even Stitch-folk and, rarest of all—a Centaur, standing upon two hooves and a pair of stilted claws on her other side.

This verse was only for them, and it could not capture a fraction of the loss and regret some had. Others simply sang the words with a smile. They had chosen to live.

It was not a long song, but it had a thousand verses, as such songs did. Yet the song had a completely different cadence from a drinking song in this moment. There were so many people.

The swell of voices filled the night sky, the greatest chorus that Lamont had ever witnessed. Echoing voices, the rush of the tide, and the creaking ships all the background of a true song of the sea.

He looked around and saw Sidney with eyes wide, holding Malia’s hand. Sang-min was leaning over the railing, quietly studying the gathering. Haley was trying to record it all with a phone. And Lamont?

He was wondering what they were all looking towards. Doroumata, singing quietly with her daughters, the Drowned Folk—they’d turned from her and looked out from the land they’d come to…what? Settle? Claim?

They were looking out to the sea; Lamont couldn’t understand why. This was a goodbye song, a farewell song like [Sailors] would sing when they left a ship for good. But he saw no signs of tools or supplies to settle this land.

What were they looking at? The dark sea? A final ship? Then Lamont traced the angle of their gazes and realized what they were waiting for. As the song ran on, which Drowned Folk called Land’s Farewell, something curious happened. The milling voices lowered in volume, but the song still felt as loud as ever. If anything…louder.

The [Sailor] heard…a reverberation. A haunting thrum, as if the ocean itself were taking part in this song. Then, as Lamont looked around wildly, he saw the Drowned Folk looking down. Down, into the waters of the distance. And Lamont realized what was happening.

It was not his imagination, nor was it some Skill or trick of magic. The waters were singing. But it was not the water itself that sang…it was the people far underwater singing so loudly that it reached the surface.

Look down. There, you’ll see them. Lights, in the distant sea, as if the dawn were rising a second time. So far down they hadn’t been visible. They hadn’t ever moved. But it had taken them nearly a day to rise, even buoyed up as fast as they could go.

There they were. Illuminated by distant, tiny little lights. Standing and looking up at the sky, eyes wide with fear and uncertainty. Lamont looked upon Doroumata’s ship at last.

Nombernaught. And he realized why it mattered—for it was no ship that the Shadeward crewed. The other vessels floating on the water were toys on the sand compared to this. They were houses, vessels for a single crew.

There…there was a Drowned Folk City.

Nombernaught, the Port of Eellen, rose out of the darkness. The oldest relic that had kept them in the deeps, Nom’s Anchor, had been removed. That was why the vessels had come. For this. For the decision of the Shadeward, who had told all that there would be no more protection of the deep.

The Drowned People sang as a city rose, floating up from the depths of the ocean. One final verse lingered as Lamont looked down at the home intended for the Earthers.

 

“My soul never shall surface from below

I shall never leave her.

As I walk on land, half sinks below

And I shall never leave her.”

 

Pale spires of worn pearl. Roads not made of heavy stone like granite, but far lighter materials. Wood and bright colors that looked too vivid to be natural, but they were. Bright coral, without hard edges, entire trees of pink and towers of magenta red.

Coral? Had they grown entire, living parts of the city? Yes, they had. And while some parts had died and been melded with stone and metal, others grew free. The base of Nombernaught swam with fish, hatcheries growing up in the protective bubble of the city. As it became larger and larger, and the water it displaced began to move the ships back, Lamont saw more and more details.

Little shapes scurrying along, ignoring the Drowned Folk, or tied to leashes. Pets of the deep. Crabs trained to clean up the streets. And the streets were not all stone!

Was that an…elevator of water? No, a loop which carried those fearless of drowning around the city. A river that moved vertically as well as horizontally; free transportation.

Like Venice, that city on the waters. But Nombernaught was surrounded by the waters, and like Drowned Folk, the exterior was bleak, a camouflaged heart that grew more vibrant the further in you entered. Protected by a magical shield to rival any Walled City’s protections.

And the people—oh, the people. Lamont laid his first eyes on young Drowned Folk. Scared Drowned children staring with huge eyes up at the terrifying, alien sky and Sidney herself as the girl peered down at them. The citizens looked resolved and worried, gazing upwards, but it was done.

At last, as the strains of voices died down, Lamont watched the city rising from the ocean. Pale spires shooting upwards and upwards until his neck was craning back, floors of people rising over even the tallest ships.

Nombernaught kept rising. A city drifting towards land. It was only then that Doroumata spoke. She raised her voice and magnified it as the citizens and ships that voyaged here and away turned to her.

“Two thousand years Nombernaught has sat in the depths above the Cauzn Strait. No longer. The ocean changes, and there is danger in the deep. In any other time, we would batten the sails and watch for foes. But the world…is different. A new land has appeared, and the dead speak. So I call for Nombernaught to rise. Once more, a Drowned City shall rest between sky and sea. We lay claim to this land, and we shall trade and war and love the land as much as sea. Izril will be our home.”

The Drowned Folk did not cheer, but they did sigh, like the wind and waves themselves. With regret, with apprehension—with understanding. The currents were disrupted. Krakens and other creatures stirred.

Most importantly…they looked at land unclaimed and saw what Doroumata surely did. A chance for something more.

Would it break them or change them from who they were? No one could answer, but before anyone could cheer or do something as silly as applaud, Doroumata held up one hand.

Her head turned, and her eyes fixed on something at sea. The Drowned Folk stirred, and many pointed. Even the citizens of Nombernaught, some breathing air for the first time, or looking to step onto land with shaky legs—looked around.

“There.”

Lamont turned and saw something else upon the waves. He gasped, and Haley choked.

“Half-Elves?”

Ships grown out of wood, with sails of leaves, looking more as if they had grown into being then been carved, slowed, caught in the gazes of an entire city of people. They had not expected this any more than the Drakes.

From whence did they hail? Chandrar? Terandria? Not all the ships were alike, but the pointed ears of the passengers and their half-immortal strain was obvious.

They sailed across the waters, silently meeting the gazes of the Drowned Folk and Drakes. Only a handful; a dozen ships at most, a paltry amount compared to this great gathering of the Drowned. Yet they were armed and bore settlers.

“A first wave. Settlers of their kind.”

Someone whispered next to Lamont. He nodded slowly, and one of the half-Elves leading the ships bowed slightly. Doroumata lifted a hand. Then she turned, and Nombernaught finished rising. Then—yes, then, Lamont saw the city anchor itself at the coast. The Drowned Folk sighed, for they had their first city on maps that all folk would know.

But their eyes followed the half-Elves, and their cheering, when it came, was subdued. The Drowned Folk looked at this strange new home uncertainly, and the Earthers, and realized something along with much of the world.

As the Drakes had realized as they fled back to their homes. As the Gnolls stirred from their mourning and loss to realize how many people were setting foot on lands meant for them. Each species, each nation, and each part of the world had been visited by ghosts. They had been warned in vaguery or harsh certainties what would come, what might come, and what must be done.

The end had been averted, and the world was changed. This was their hour, now.

But that was the thing about such days.

Every species thought it was their hour and age to shine.

 

——

 

The Drowned Folk’s city rising surprised the half-Elves almost as much as their ships surprised the seafolk. It almost caused several ships to turn right back around and head home.

“They have settled an entire region in one fell swoop. This was surely folly; it will take decades for the first forests to begin growing. By that time, the Drakes will be founding their cities too fast for us to keep up. I do not relish fighting from behind saplings, brothers and sisters.”

Only a half-Elf could refer to Drakes building cities as ‘fast’. It spoke to a certain attitude, of a species that thought they had forever.

And no, it did not fly for all those present. The venerable [Lady of the Woods], a class that was quasi-noble, and unique to forest-dwellers, came from no less than Gaiil-Drome’s representatives.

Trust even the non-Humans of Terandria to have noble-sounding classes. But she had a point in that the Drowned Folk had just stolen a march on every species. However, a number of other representatives around the grown-wood table in their largest colony ship, in and of itself a relic, talked the agitated Terandrians out of heading home.

“We have made our choice, sister. To turn back before we even see the possibilities is surely as rash as walking Zeikhal barefoot.”

The veiled half-Elf’s soothing platitude passed over the [Lady of the Wood]’s head, and she gave the Claiven Earth’s leader a blank look then an ingenuous smile.

“I’m sure we would not want that. I take your point, but I must insist we re-reroute our landing. North of the Drowned Folk. They are a brigand’s lot, so I have understood from my learnings of the world.”

“But they might be staunch allies. If we were to make an entreaty—”

“I shall not move on this, brother. We must insist. Safety is paramount, especially if our kin follow.”

And that was that. Much to the disbelief of Kanid’s Leaf’s [Jungle Warden], he found the entire fleet turning north, because, after eight hours, the [Lady of the Woods] and her group did not back down.

“Eight hours of arguing. They really are timeless in Terandria. How did they ever make it to the rally point so swiftly?”

The Balerosian half-Elf had to admit, he had been a tiny bit prejudiced toward his cousins from Terandria. They were always, always the superior lot. They lived in villages that had not changed for tens of thousands of years and were the originals.

Not like, say, a half-Elven colony that had founded itself in previous ages and claimed their place among other species, winning respect by the weight of their deeds until they created entire forests and became nations in their own right.

Oh, no, that didn’t count. You were always second-best to the smallest village, where eating bugs was a part of life and which had grass older than most royal bloodlines.

It was one of the lizard-Elves who talked the surly [Warden] down—mostly by offering him a nali-stick and letting him vent.

Lizard-Elves, not in that they were more Elf than the other half-Elves, but because they had grown up in Lizardfolk villages. That was why Kanid’s Leaf had boomed in population, in part; the prolific and friendly Lizardfolk that had welcomed and clashed with their kind over the centuries always bore half-Elf children no matter the parents.

It also meant that some of their children took on distinctly…Lizardfolk attributes. Like a propensity to chatter and, this was funny, the ability to actually swing around a forest like some Humans thought half-Elves could do.

The [Lady of the Woods] had been astonishingly offended to learn that Iturtexi, one of the half-Elves who’d grown up among Lizardfolk, could actually swing from vines like the monkeys and apes she’d befriended. Then, of course, do a double back-flip and shoot an arrow through a venomous snake’s head.

She was not typical of the half-Elven representatives, but the [Warden], who was named Jespeire, thanks to the Dullahan roots in his family line, was sure that she was one of the half-Elves who was needed for this new world.

And it would be a new world, if a half-Elven colony were founded. Young half-Elves crewed many of the ancient colony-ships he saw, or the more modern vessels purchased with pooled gold for this expedition.

In truth, for all his grumblings, he was humbled at how many folk from home had come when the call had gone out. Terandrians, Chandrarians, Balerosians, and, yes, even a small, small group from Rhir had all mustered together to create a new land.

Whether or not they would succeed depended on their enemies or allies, and it just seemed like the Drowned Folk would make good neighbors. But then—Baleros and Chandrar dealt more with Drowned Folk.

“I suppose some separation is wise. But we have no idea what threats may emerge.”

Iturtexi rolled her eyes as she hung on the railings of the ship…backwards, so she was hanging upside-down over the side.

“We’ve got food for ages, Jespeire. So many chests of holding. As long as we’re not fighting, we’re okay, and there are high-level half-Elves everywhere.”

Also true. Although neither the Herald of Forests nor the Mage of Rivers were present. They would have been welcome allies, but Jespeire supposed they were bound to the Claiven Earth. Besides, with Khelt ascendant, they might well be needed.

He had mixed feelings on the politics of the other nations as well. Gaiil-Drome’s half-Elves were mixed in with some who had come from Ailendamus, and tensions had already necessitated both moving to separate ships. He wondered if some of his people might be working for other powers?

Almost definitely. So Jespeire’s mind was awhirl with risks, as well as a surge of elation.

Another great forest. A land not filled with leeches. A place to make a name for myself. 

For all these reasons and more, he had volunteered to come, and short of true calamity, he would not return home. However, Jespeire was not ignorant of the dangers, either.

“Warden Jespeire. I admire your restraint in the discussions. It takes a true brother of the trees, no matter which forest, to listen instead of making rash decisions.”

…And here was the [Lady of the Woods] again, to spoil his mood. Jespeire’s fiery red hair turned, and Iturtexi elected to drop into the water by ‘accident’ and swim to another ship rather than join the discussion.

He glared at the traitor as he bowed.

“Lady Ruveden, I was simply glad we could come to an agreement. We are all in this together.”

“Yes, indeed.”

She carried herself like how people told stories of half-Elves, as if you were supposed to glide across the ground and walk through forest pathways of leaves without disturbing a single one. They were all timeless half-immortals, but she wore that and the knowledge of her ancestry like a shawl to be flaunted.

Then again, Jespeire supposed she deserved some of that air of superiority. After all—her feet didn’t touch the ground of the ship’s deck. She drifted along as they spoke.

“Forgive me if I am direct, but your hair…”

It was not natural to see a half-Elf with red hair or more than faint orange, given their common ancestry, but Jespeire only indicated his tanned skin.

“I believe it was a fluke, Lady Ruveden.”

“Oh, of course. I trust it did not make you stand out too much? Forgive me, I was simply—intrigued.”

Absolutely no offense was taken, he assured her. Especially because that was a bald-faced lie, and Jespeire had dyed his hair and never looked back.

But he wasn’t going to be lectured by her and risk snapping back. So Lady Ruveden moved on rather quickly.

“This expedition…I hope you do not take my words as bald-faced cowardice, treebrother.”

Jespeire nearly tripped off the ship as he heard that. Treebrother? Nagas preserve them, this was going to take some doing not laughing at the names they used. He nodded, composing his face still further.

“Not at all. I’m well aware of the dangers, and despite my comrades’…my tree-people’s frivolity, they are fine warriors and explorers.”

Tree-people? He saw Ruveden mouth the word, then smile politely, and for a second, both half-Elves realized they were trying to humor the other.

Then they laughed, and that was genuine. Jespeire relaxed, and Ruveden looked to Izril. Her smile faded.

“You saw that Drake fleet? I believe they might be our truer enemies. The Drakes will not take kindly to anyone settling ‘their’ land.”

“And what do the Gnolls think?”

She sighed.

“In my experience, Drakes would not ask, but I am glad we have approached the tribes for the possibility of alliance. What does hearten me is that we may not be alone. Even if this new part of Izril is wilderness—do you know when our kin on Izril will meet us?”

Jespeire frowned, trying to recall the messages.

“Soon. They will be slower than us since most are headed by land, but a few are sailing around the High Passes. Apparently, the old currents have died, making their headway slow.”

“I see, I see. Who is leading that group at sea? Forgive me—our scrying and [Message] artifacts were damaged in the—unpleasantness with our cousins from the north. And I am obviously no academical [Mage].”

That Ailendamus squabble must have been even bigger than he’d heard. And not an academic mage? Well, they would have plenty of time to learn more, so Jespeire turned with Ruveden to inquire.

“Excuse me. But is there any [Mage] who can recall our communications with the Izrilian half-Elves…?”

The Balerosian half-Elves were sharing space with another Terandrian group who had provided this colony ship, one of three in the fleet along with one from the Claiven Earth and another from Terandria. A [Mage] bowed to Ruveden and Jespeire.

“I am from the Village of the Spring. It is my pleasure to meet…”

“Gaiil-Drome. Welcome, treebrother.”

“Kanid’s Leaf. Greetings as well.”

Even small villages had sent a number of people, although this half-Elf looked practically windswept and overwhelmed. He had to be from one of the timeless villages. Jespeire hoped he’d do well. But he had magic and so pulled the requested information for them.

“…It appears that they are mostly half-Elves of the cities. Some from Vail Forest, but I understand there are few villages remaining on Izril. Almost none in the south; what few will meet us independently. A Zedalien marshals them.”

“What a strange name. Didn’t he…have ties to the House of El?”

“Formerly, I believe.”

Even distant members of their people were making the journey. Ruveden nodded in relief.

“We shall call upon every brother and sister on Izril. I know there are not many, but I have asked a Falene Skystrall to join us if possible. She may even bring her Gold-rank team to bear; she and I hail from the same nation, and we know each other, you see.”

“That would be welcome. Are there any other half-Elven adventurers of note on Izril?”

“Ah, there is. Elia Arcsinger herself is in the north. She would be a boon.”

The Village of the Spring [Mage] perked up at that famous Named Adventurer, but it was surprisingly Ruveden’s turn to hesitate.

“Yes…yes indeed. Someone should reach out to her. Or not. Soon, all will know that we are planting roots here. Now, with that said, will you not join us, Warden Jespeire, magus of the Village of the Spring? Forgive me, I do not know your name. I have in mind a lengthy repast for fine conversation this evening…”

Jespeire groaned internally as he smiled and accepted, but only one more day—or two—and he’d get a chance to get on land. He was just glad they’d survived the sea voyage with the colony ship’s magic. The seas were unpredictable and dangerous. The only other peoples who had made it from continent to continent were Couriers charting the new waters, the bravest of [Captains] and [Merchants], the Drowned Folk—

And, for some reason, the Dwarves. But they’d headed for the north.

He wondered why.

 

——

 

It was an uncertain thing, finding a landing point on the new lands that didn’t look incredibly dangerous. No one had any idea about soil composition, what might lie beneath the ground, proximity to monsters, dangerous magic, animals—or angry sea-life still alive, and whatnot.

Heck, you might even pitch camp on solid ground that turned out to be a sinkhole. There was no telling. But every nation and species saw opportunity in those new lands.

Which was why it was so curious as to why a Dwarven ship made landfall not in the south, but by sailing into First Landing’s harbor.

It caused a stir among the noble families and the largest Human city on Izril. Dwarves were not unheard of in Izril, obviously, their trade-goods famous across the world for quality.

But an entire ship of Dwarves? Well, that was enough to even get young Terlands and Wellfars jockeying with El and the rare Reinhart or Veltras scions for a good look.

Mostly children. The nobility concealed their unseemly curiosity behind a flurry of invitations or casually-parked carriages or balcony parties as the Dwarven ship unloaded.

And what a sight it was.

If the half-Elves had ancient vessels that looked like someone had grown parts of the sails and hull to create sleek, seamless ships that cut the water with incredible speed—they also looked like they’d snap if you sneezed on them.

Drowned Ships, by contrast, were often unusually tall, eschewing the aerodynamics of ships that sailed on top of the waves for something that could maneuver in three dimensions. Their magical shields meant you often saw them without sails, and they even had designs that allowed them to prepare for aquatic events like fighting foes beneath or straight above them.

The Dwarven ships, by contrast to each, were new, heavy in the water, and squat. They had three huge masts on this vessel, but since wind and sea currents were all locked up, they’d made it to Izril by sheer Dwarven grit.

Namely, oars and what even resembled water wheels—only they helped push the ship through the water rather than harnessing the power of the waves. Nothing had stopped Graniteoath on her voyage here either; the prow was armed in the famed Dwarfsteel, and she had solved the issue of an angry sea serpent by ramming into the monster until it fled.

She was disembarking now, and the tough ship had a lot of cargo. Chests of holding were disgorging fortunes in metal, but unlike usual, the cargo of the ship wasn’t goods, but people.

Dwarves, to be precise. They marched off their ship and immediately began hugging the ground, much to the amusement of the onlookers.

Dead gods and grandfathers, I’ll never get on a boat again! The damned thing bumped up and down like we were being shaken all day and night!

One of the deep, booming voices from the Dwarves raised in complaint. The Wellfars, the ship-nobles, winced as they understood.

The turbulence from the new part of Izril rising must have turned the seas choppy. Unlike a high-prowed vessel, Graniteoath must have bobbed up and down hard.

“What a silly design. Mother, why’d anyone build a ship like that?”

A Wellfar girl whispered up to her mother. The [Lady] and her family were out for a day in First Landing, and she had one of those trendy hats that Magnolia Reinhart had started—with the new style from Baleros. Namely a peacock-sized feather in the brim, after that Titan of Baleros.

A rakish look all over a more sea-themed coloration than the eye-searing pink of Magnolia. The noble lady could then fit in with trend-settings in any part of Izril. Except for, and this was a small alteration to the dress, a cutoff on her left shoulder exposing a rather interesting tattoo that ran down her arm. She also had anchor earrings.

Noble sailors. She watched the complaining Dwarves while answering out of the corner of her mouth.

“Do not point; it’s unseemly. Dwarven ships toss and turn, but their cargo is meant to be metal and goods, not people. Warships will crack before that one so much as groans.”

However, it seemed like the Dwarves were still not happy with their voyage, and so they were disembarking fast. From the chaos came order, with astonishing speed to the Humans. It only took a few minutes before an entire column of Dwarves was marching down the ramps.

And oh, but they were a sight.

Dwarves! Taller than you thought, some as tall as five-foot-five, others shorter, but squatter, tougher than most Humans. And, yes—they had beards.

Some had chosen to shave, but it turned out the first Dwarf complaining about the ride had been female. She was wiping salt out of her beard as she began strapping armor and a pack onto her shoulders.

Armor, yes. And what were probably enchanted packs of holding. The Dwarves—and surely they hailed from Deríthal-Vel, the one home of Dwarves—tended towards heavy armor. Chainmail at the lightest, and many had plate.

Not all; some just wore work-clothes, but they had come prepared for some trouble. There were even ones with magical items, students of magic. [Runecrafters].

“‘Tis a veritable army of Dwarves. Why now?”

One watcher wondered aloud, and the people of First Landing eyed what had to be at least two thousand Dwarves coming off one of their principle trade ships. Well, it was a sight to gossip about, and it was only two thousand.

More might be alarming, and well the Dwarves knew that. So one of the [Stoneguard] assigned to this trip was quietly checking in for the leader of the expedition.

“…Looks like the other ships made it. Fifteen, all confirmed in their ports of origin. They’re heading back for the rest.”

“Tell them to wait for a break in the storms.”

The slightly-green expedition commander advised. There was no sign of the other Dwarves, obviously. They had indeed disembarked far to the south and west and even along the more rarely-used eastern ports. You could not see them, but they were there. That was Dwarf-tactics for you. They could be organized without needing line-of-sight.

Of course, the smart ones saw the ships as one unit, and so in both the north and south, various leaders sat up and took notice. But the Dwarves did not come into First Landing as raiders.

If anything, they put on a bit of a show as they marched through the streets. Not all might have armor, but all of them had steel-toed boots, and they marched in good order.

Hello! Look at all the Dwarves!

The beaming Wellfar [Lady] called out, and the Dwarves looked up and saw civilians, nobles, merchants, and more watching them pass.

Unlike the half-Elves, who sailed in silence and grace, and the Drowned Folk’s nightly gathering, the Dwarves glanced at each other, and the leader developed a twinkle in his eye. He called out down the line.

“Hoi there! Boys and girls of Deríthal, march in proper step! Let’s give the folk of First Landing a memory for the day, eh? This street’s full of good, enchanted stone. We’re not going to break anything. One, two, three, four—”

And then, to the delight of the Humans and onlookers, the Dwarves broke into song. They slowed down a fraction, and their boots came down as one.

Thum. Thum. Thum. The sound of metal and weight coming down as one was brisk and not solemn or the beat of war. The Dwarves divided up into two columns, male and female, and they came marching with tools on one shoulder, winking at the children.

Their voices rose as one, and they sang.

 

“We marched from Deríthal to where hammers call

On the anvil or ‘gainst our foes, swinging as we laugh

The tall folk only want one thing: Dwarven steel and craft!”

 

Half the contingent raised gleaming crossbows and axes, faces full of mirth. The male side of the Dwarven group winked at the awestruck children.

 

We’ll humor them with quartz and mithril spall

For I know not pyrite’s shine from Grasgil’s pall!

Still I’ll march and laugh for all my days

But when Grandfather calls I’ll march once more

And go back home to stone forevermore.

 

It was a marching song, one with a hundred verses. Right on cue, a chorus of female voices took up their part with a laugh. Their heads looked back at Graniteoath, and they might not see it again. So there was a note of farewell there, even sadness. But they had said their goodbyes; like the half-Elves, like the others, they had come for the opportunity.

And this was a song that their people had sung when leaving home for as long as anyone could remember.

 

My grandfather forged a shawl for me to wear

It was made of gems and sixteen span

Ne’er a uglier sight on sea nor land!

 

Laughter from their counterparts and people who knew this story. The female Dwarves sung on.

 

It would not break and it would not tear

I gave it to a traveller for them to bear.

Two centuries later I saw it one last time

A Human [Queen] wore it as a shawl

And I laughed all the way out her halls!

 

They marched through First Landing, singing their way through the Humans’ good graces. None of the ones disembarking had any time to go to a noble’s party; they had a schedule to keep.

A long way to go. It was an [Expedition Leader] who led the way, following one of the trade routes south. He intended to be one of the first to his destination, but how he wished for a magic door!

Well, time would tell what he got to see. And if the plan went off according to how everyone hoped, he’d be changing his class upwards.

Apparently, all that could be given to him was [Expedition Leader], but his success—and the others’—would allow for proper classes of governance like back home.

That was the promise, and Deríthal-Vel had their backs. Supplies, personnel, all within reason were theirs so long as they could turn a profit within two years. It wasn’t unreasonable to expect gold to begin coming in within three months, in which case they’d be ready to pay off their debts to home.

For the first time in an age, like half-Elves, the Dwarves were going to create a new city. But—and here was where they differed from the idealistic half-Elves—the Dwarves had adopted a far more concrete plan.

They already had a place waiting for them. And they knew it would work for their kind and be spacious and have everything they needed.

With a bit of cleaning to get the Goblin blood out of it. But the Humans had already cleared Dwarfhalls Rest, and that old mountain had forges—or should.

“From Dwarfhalls Rest will flow Dwarfsteel and more. There’s even that Adamantium vein those greedy Drakes in Salazsar found. Demas Metal, Adamantium, and a new frontier—we could pay off the loans in the first year.”

That was what kept their spirits high, and after they had done a few verses of song, the Dwarves adopted a faster pace and stopped stamping and singing for the Humans.

They could actually crack the cobblestones of poorer cities if they did that trick there, but there was nothing like a jolly singing Dwarf to smooth the way. They talked with good humor; silent marching was for Drakes.

The [Expedition Leader] refused to be drawn into hypotheticals about all the coin they’d make. He just scratched at his short beard and nodded to one of the [Stoneguard].

“Just make sure our first [Scouts] confirm there’s no Goblins there. Or monsters. Or undead. Once we get set up, we can begin seeing where the markets lie. Trade with Salazsar’ll be tricky—but less so if Reinhart builds her new route or that magic door lets us ship to the south. Worst comes to worst, we just send caravans past the Bloodfields.”

Yes, now was the time to think of trade. And more. Whether it was arms or material, the Dwarves had decided they had to come to Izril.

Not just for the opportunity. The [Expedition Leader] fell silent, and one of the [Veteran Stoneguard] glanced at him.

“Strange days lie behind us. I’ve only heard the hammers of Deríthal fall silent like that once before. And that was—”

“Hushen up that talk and put some lead in your boots.”

The [Expedition Leader] snapped back, glancing around. That was not a topic you wanted to jinx this project with. The [Veteran] fell silent, but her glare said that he should remember it too; they were both over eighty years old.

Dwarves were between Humans and half-Elves for longevity, which didn’t mean much. In practice—eighty years was a lot of time, no matter which species, if you were in the living world. So they were definitely among the oldest that would be joining the expedition, but both had held jobs in forging and fighting for a long time, and their expertise was invaluable.

They were also old enough to remember the other time Deríthal had gone silent. After a moment, the [Expedition Leader] grunted into his beard and motioned his best warrior over.

“Aye, that’s on the list of things to do, but keep it quiet. There’s no guarantee he’ll work for us or that he’s still at Esthelm. If we run into comrades like Dawil the [Axemaster], he’ll know more. Always good to know a Gold-ranker in the area. But not a word of it until Master Pelt agrees to join us in Dwarfhalls and it’s all settled.”

The female Dwarf nodded seriously.

“‘Course we know that. Not a word. But he won’t join. He was told never to lift a hammer in Dwarfhome again—”

“Ah, but it’s not Dwarfhome, is it?”

That was the reasoning, but whether or not one of the greatest [Smiths] to ever leave Deríthal-Vel agreed—well. They could but ask.

Either way, Dwarves would be coming to Izril in numbers not seen since they had left. And that had been when the Walled City of Shields was shattered and their last allies in the north fell. So long ago only a few would even know the events.

And yet…it was time. Even now, the Dwarves could all remember that day when Khelt had, apparently, saved the world.

When the dead had risen. The [Stoneguard] chewed on her beard, as most Dwarves did as a bad habit.

“Would that I’d seen some of what they said happened in other kingdoms with the Humans. I heard a ghost strode into Cenidau’s Frost Courts and nigh on melted the place with wrath. Put half the warriors down before it vanished.”

The [Expedition Leader], Afnild, had heard much the same, but he listened with the keen interest, even the obsessive fascination of someone who knew such tales might be real.

After all—ghosts had come to Deríthal-Vel too. Only a few, but they had shaken Dwarfhome. And gone away empty-handed. What they sought had been…not there.

Or sleeping? It was a thought that the [Expedition Leader] didn’t dare voice even with the leaders back home. The only person he’d consider talking to about it would be someone who knew. And that was part—a small part, but part—of the reason why he had come to Izril.

To speak to what might be three, five? Or only one Dwarf left who could even speculate, since you’d have an easier time grinding down diamonds back home. The only Dwarves who could get those answers, wake anything up or knew the truth, would be—

The [Hammer of a Hundred Metals], Master Pelt himself.

Or Taxus, who might well be dead, who no one had seen since he was cast out.

The only two Dwarves to ever be acclaimed as true smiths of Deríthal-Vel in the last seven hundred years.

So, the Dwarves put their burdens on their shoulders and marched forwards, looking for that promised mountain. They hummed and sang and waited, filling Izril once more with more species than there had been in a long, long time.

 

——

 

And so it went. Three species touched down on Izril within a day of each other. They were but the first, and their advent would captivate the peoples who already belonged to the continent. And a certain [Innkeeper] who knew all the stories and almost all the secrets.

A new land upon Izril meant the unexpected. It meant strife, but it also meant no one knew what would come of all the things unearthed. Not just there; the High Passes, the sea and lands had shaken. Everything was just…different.

[Cartographers] found their services in highest demand as they rewrote the world, from the land that people could see to the very currents and ocean’s bed itself. Adventurers looked uncertainly to untested grounds.

But it was the old classes who stirred themselves, and it was the first of them who heard that voice in their head, telling them who they were.

[Adventurers]. [Explorers]. They set forth by land and sea and air to explore, abandoning their homes for something truly new. In either world, Earth or this one—they had never thought this day would come. There were pockets and places that had seen so few people, but this was something different. And that was how the first maps were drawn.

First, they marked upon that map the first of Izril’s new cities: Nombernaught, the first trading port of the Drowned Folk in an age. The rest? It was waiting to be filled in.

A new land waited to be explored, filled with mysteries long lost, treasures unearthed, and the rest of Izril awoke as dungeons and old buried secrets were uncovered. Look up and seek the secrets in the sky. Look down and search for the Kingdom of Gnolls.

Look to the broken gateways, the Skills being recovered, and the lands even further still. And smile, for this was the promise of a new era:

Adventure awaits.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: I’m a bit tired. Which makes me think this Volume 8 month-long break could have been longer. However, I have my week off coming up and I’ll use that and this update to finish The Last Tide Pt. 2.

This is, as Patrons may notice, my teaser for Volume 9 that I wrote early with about 5k added on with Dwarves and half-Elves respectively. It’s shorter…and honestly, if it wasn’t because I’m working on another project, I would not in good conscience post this.

So odd. In good conscience I can’t post 15,000 words. Yes, I heard myself. There was a time I could barely do 8,000. But I think it’s about form—I write a chapter knowing I have possibly 30,000 words so if I write like normal, a chapter half the length will feel incomplete. In some senses, the shorter chapter is harder because of the detail you need to cram into every paragraph.

Either way, though, it takes a lot of energy and I’ve noticed I ran out a bit even during this short beginning. I blame rewriting Volume 1; it’s mentally taxing to edit. I’ve put it at about 2-3 times more energy than writing for the same amount of words.

Also, I had a stealth chipmunk invade my house and I got little sleep in the two days it was running about before I found it and tossed it out. Between that and resuming physical therapy, I think I’m just below full strength. So, let’s see how about 5 days off improves me. Being a writer is about monitoring your writing condition…and probably health. Don’t push too hard, don’t take a decade to write a book. It’s not impossible to do either.

Anyways, that’s all from me. I will be back on the 28th with the secret chapter written for the comic which will take a while to produce especially since Rebecca Brewer will help edit it. But I’ll have one more Volume 9 chapter before the month ends and the side story poll! We’ll get to the other secret projects later.

Sigh. I need clones.

 

Ryoka, Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha by jamcubi!

 

Chaos by Brack!

 

Pisces by Curry, commissioned by pop [#1 Pisces Simp] (and yes, that’s their name on Discord.)

 


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9.02

It said a lot that her first friend was Mrsha.

Not about Gireulashia’s judgment of character or Mrsha herself. Rather, that it took her fifteen years to make a friend, and that her first friend was half her age and less than half her height. Less than a third if Mrsha ran around on all fours.

It was hard to make friends in Ekhtouch. It…had been hard for Gire. Because she was the best. When two Gnoll cubs of around equal talent in one field grew up, they were often partnered together to compete. No one could beat Gire except adults, so she made all her friends amongst the older Gnolls. And those weren’t friendships, more like mentorships.

Mrsha would have been instantly disqualified in other times because she would drag Gire down by association; she was not superlatively gifted in any one attribute—except for her ability to cast magic and get into trouble—even her nose was weaker than Ekhtouch children who were set to be [Trackers] or [Hunters].

And yet, Mrsha made Gire smile. Mrsha had done things, seen things that even the best of Ekhtouch couldn’t say they’d done.

She had amazing friends. And so, when Gire woke up in the temporary housing that Ekhtouch’s Gnolls had been given by Liscor’s Council for a month, gratis, she thought of Mrsha.

Gire had terrible dreams. They persisted when she woke. Even with dawn’s light breaking on the horizon, the High Passes left Liscor dark longer than other cities. In the faintest light, Gire looked around the spartan room, and her eyes could pick out rough imperfections on the ‘smooth’ wall left by a less-than-perfect trowel. Most people wouldn’t be able to see them; Gire could.

She could smell the two Gnolls outside her room, sitting there, smell what they’d eaten for breakfast—slightly stale jam tarts, probably from a [Baker] yesterday, since it was far too early to buy them fresh.

She could hear them breathing, though her door was closed. Hear the light snores of a Gnoll next door and the buzzing of a fly passing her window and every sound in a thousand feet—but she had learned to filter the sensory overload.

The dark room with creeping shadows did not bother her in and of itself; her night-vision was amazing. Yet it seemed, to Gire, there was the faintest tinge of orange or red, despite this being impossible. She looked around the room and saw, for a second, Firrelle’s head, staring at her from the center of her bed. A bloody stump where Gire had cut it from the Chieftain’s shoulders, a slightly surprised, melancholy look on her face.

Gire fled the illusion. She did not stay in her room. She did not like being by herself.

The [Paragon]’s exit from her room was fast. She was out the door and vaulting the third-story railing of the apartment complex so fast the two Ekhtouch Gnolls were still rising as she leapt. One called out.

“Chieftain—”

He turned and saw Gire land and speed across the courtyard. She was so fast that she was three dozen feet away before the Gnolls could put one leg over the railing to copy her jump.

They’d never catch her, and they knew it. So they gave up; they knew where she was going, anyways.

Gireulashia ran, and she left a trail of wind in her wake. She blew past the young Gnoll girl practicing a spear routine with eleven others, and Hickery stared after Gire, mouth agape. Vok had sneezed and missed the [Paragon].

The apartment complex was actually fairly similar to Cellidel’s, and since it was in the new quarter, it smelled of fresh bricks and mortar, paint and stone dust from all the construction. Soon, the [Builder] teams would be hard at work laying more streets; if you walked past the temporary walls, you’d see a new area in progress.

Hexel was a trained Balerosian [Architect]. He didn’t ‘finish’ a district without putting some kind of wall up, and the Watch was diligent in making sure this weak spot in Liscor’s defenses was patrolled.

They did have a heavier presence in the new district, the western part of the city, but as any Cellidel Gnoll would tell you, it was a pleasant change to have Gnolls who’d greet you and smile rather than suspicious Drakes who only came to arrest someone.

It was strange to Gire, and she knew she alarmed the Watch when she ran full-tilt, so she slowed a bit. Even so, a [Guardswoman] on patrol, a Drake with a nasty scar across her forearms, still whirled before she realized it was Gire.

“—it’s that giant Gnoll girl—”

Gire was sure they had a file on her. She had always been told Drake cities were like that; no one could be private. Everyone was watched, and if you stepped out of line, you were removed, unlike a tribe where everyone was supposed to be together.

Or was that something else that she’d been lied to about, like Xherw and Doombringers? The [Paragon]’s brow furrowed.

Nothing is the same. Firrelle is dead, the old ways are suspect…and magic is back.

She pushed away the words the other Ekhtouch Gnolls had spoken to her. She didn’t want to think of it. Instead, Gire hesitated and then broke off her beeline to The Wandering Inn.

She could get there in five minutes at a run, even without alarming the Watch unduly, but she instead slowed and came to the main Watch barracks and heard the sound of voices and even the clack-clack of wood hitting wood in the morning.

Recruits, I want to see those practice weapons moving! Anyone who cannot keep up will not make [Guard] within the month! You think a [Thug] will give you an opening before she puts a blade between your ribs? Will a Raskghar? Push yourselves and level!

That sounded like Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who had returned to duty. Sure enough, Gire peeked over the wall of the practice courts and saw a Gnoll shouting at Gnolls and Humans and Drakes; new candidates for the Watch.

They needed to expand, but Zevara demanded a level of efficiency, and Gire saw a double-line of trainees battering at each other.

Interesting. A lot were using batons, not spears or swords. The Watch might know how to kill monsters, but they didn’t use that on civilians.

At least, not in this city. Chieftain Werri of Woven Bladegrass had stories…but Gire wasn’t interested in the trainees so much as a duo sparring in the furthest court.

“Oh. That’s…Sir Relz? No. Relc?”

They had too-similar names, so even Gire’s memory took a second. But she saw the brawny Drake whirling his spear into a lancing series of thrusts and a swift parry to a silver blade, and stopped—

For she recognized masters when she saw them. Like everything, Ekhtouch aspired to create experts in any weapon, but even so—it was rare to see a [Spearmaster] and [Swordmaster] sparring, let alone in the Watch.

Perhaps those weren’t their exact classes. Gire wondered what the Antinium gliding into attacks with his silver blades had as his class. Something unique to his kind? There was a mesmerizing pattern to the blades, and the Drake was cursing loudly.

Stop shining light into my eyes, Klb!

“It is a valid tactic. Stop being distracted.”

“Oh yeah? Stop—[Tail Attack]!

The Drake broke off his display of spear mastery and whirled around and tried to hit the Antinium with a slap from his tail. In response, Klbkch raised one blade.

“[Tail Stab].”

Argh! You bastard!

Gire giggled as she peeked over the wall. That Relc was just as funny as Mrsha said! He punched and kicked, but the Antinium was very good.

Relc was less so. He was tough and fast, but the other one…Klbkch the Slayer was more refined. There was what her Ekhtouch sword-trainer, Yeith, would have called a roughness to Relc’s style.

It befitted Relc in battle, and Gire knew he’d beaten no less than Lulv the Battle Wolf, one of Manus’ [Spearmasters]. Anyways, Gire had observed that battles were quite different from duels or sparring.

Time was passing, though, so Gire glanced across the practice yard. She could go through the front of the Watch house, of course, but that defeated the purpose. The side door was right there, but there were so many eyes…she needed just three seconds.

She got it when Relc launched himself into a [Relc Kick], and even the trainees turned to stare as Klbkch dodged away. Beilmark glanced over, rolling her eyes.

“Don’t emulate those two! When you get your mastery, you can be idiots. Back to training! Swap attack and defense!

She looked over and frowned. Had someone left the back door ajar?

Three seconds. Gire’s [Perfect Basic Action: Stealth Roll] carried her into the Watch House unnoticed. Of course, that was one of her favorite tricks.

She had more, now. For instance, when Gire slipped in and realized that there were a number of eyes of casual [Guards] looking around the Watch House, she clapped two paws together.

Ancestors!

A [Guard] whirled at the thunderclap of sound. Everyone turned, and Gire zoomed left, around the turning Drake, and did a second [Stealth Roll] past the other guards and people in the barracks.

She could do two in a row, now. Passing Level 20 as a [Paragon] seemed to have done it. But even a stealth Skill wouldn’t save a nine-foot tall Gnoll girl rolling around from a room full of decent [Guards].

[Unnoticed by One, Invisible to All]. Gire poked her head up as she crouched by the day-sergeant’s file cabinet, staring at folders. Until one person really saw her, she benefited from being passed over, like a [Thief] or [Rogue].

She’d gotten that from her battle against the Drakes with Tkrn. The rest of her Skills—well. Gireulashia had leveled up vastly during the final battle at the Meeting of Tribes.

Everyone had. Gire could not think of one person who wouldn’t have leveled up in some way. One of her new Skills, for instance, was [Lesser Speed].

She was already fast. Now, as a [Paragon]—she was even faster. Gire knew she had bare seconds before people looked around, so she was scanning the drawer for a file on Ekhtouch or her or…

E? Ekirra, Eldavin, Elirr, Eqour…are they criminal records or just notes? She knew Ekirra was Mrsha’s friend, so perhaps the Watch had him on file.

Erin’s was huge, but Ekhtouch had none. G? No Gireulashia…frowning, the Ekhtouch Gnoll plucked a file and stood up.

“What was that sound?”

Beilmark opened the door, and Gireulashia casually re-entered the Watch House, glancing around as if she was coming in for the first time. Someone looked up as the [Paragon] pretended to close the front door, paging through the folder and reading quickly, but everyone was trying to find the origin of the loud sound. Gire seemed like she’d just come in and read while smiling to herself.

Mrsha had a file. Lacking one on her—which sort of proved she wasn’t on their watch list, or if she was, it was something only the Watch Captain had—Gire had elected to see what they thought of her friend.

Which was nothing, really. They had notes about her Doombringer status, a hefty number of references to ‘Erin Solstice’ or the ‘Solstice files’ or ‘Solstice contingencies’, but aside from a few misdemeanors like poisoning another child with super-hot peppers, it was mostly about the things she’d survived.

Gire was contemplating a break-in to Zevara’s office once she replaced the files with another distraction. It was funny, really.

Everyone thought that a giant Gnoll was easy to spot sneaking around, but it was all about sightlines. If you weren’t looking in her direction, and she took into account peripheral vision, Gire was invisible. Manipulating a room full of people to stare where you wanted and exploiting that with basic [Rogue] Skills was easy. After all, Gire was a [Paragon]. She was…

“Ahem. Young lady, what are you doing in my Watch House?”

The claw that went to pinch Gire’s ear missed because the Gnoll dodged, but Zevara’s [Freeze, Criminal] Skill made Gire’s flight impossible. And the glare the Drake gave her was followed by an amused Relc and Klbkch in the doorway.

“I told you I saw something.”

Klbkch nudged Relc. The Drake just grinned.

“I had my back turned. Isn’t that, um, Gireumlashina?”

“Gireulashia of Ekhtouch. Who has apparently stolen a file in the middle of a Watch House without anyone noticing except you two.”

Zevara plucked the file from Gire’s paws as the [Paragon] stared at the Watch Captain and Senior Guard duo. Zevara gave her a long look as Gire wilted.

 

——

 

Okay, it turned out a Watch Captain who’d survived Raskghar and every menace that had been thrown at Liscor was good enough to detect Gire in her own building.

Gire didn’t receive a fine, just a fifteen minute scolding and a warning. The Watch Sergeant got chewed out far more. Gire slunk out with her head hung low.

Embarrassing. She hadn’t really thought she’d find super-valuable information on her here; that would have been in City Hall or Zevara’s office, after all. But she’d done this because she thought she could without anyone catching her.

The surprises. That was why she liked Mrsha. That was why she liked The Wandering Inn. Well, at any rate…if she didn’t have a file before, Zevara had given her a happy smile and told Gire she had a file now.

 

——

 

“Gire! My friend! Good morning! I am happy!”

Mrsha’s voice was a series of pre-programmed lines she triggered via runes. They were, funnily enough, in Gire’s own voice, but Gire had made it higher-pitched to sound like Mrsha.

The Gnoll girl leapt off her table, and Gire caught her and swung her around.

“Settle down, you two. Hello…Gire. Would you like breakfast? Erin is coming down in a bit. Today is pancakes. Ser Sest? The Archmage’s Well breakfast special, I think.”

Lyonette’s greeting was more reserved, and she eyed the giant Gnoll like she had the last ten days, but she’d learned enough about Gire’s incredible appetite to order the super-breakfast, including the stack of pancakes hollowed out so a well of syrup and butter could be poured in.

“The Archmage’s Well?”

Gire looked delighted and confused and Mrsha rolled her eyes. She wrote the answer back.

“Duh. From the Archmage of Syrup! The greatest Archmage to ever live!”

That was a crime against food, but not to Gire. Mrsha sat next to her on a high seat, wagging her tail as she banged her fork and knife on the table.

“Mrsha! Have you forgotten your manners while I’ve been away?”

Lyonette scolded, but gently. Mrsha couldn’t help but tap another rune.

“Yes!”

She and Gire giggled over Lyonette’s long sigh—despite only being three years older than Gire, she was the adult. Gire was a child.

She wanted to be a child. Children didn’t have to be Chieftains. A child didn’t kill her Chieftain.

 

——

 

Dark thoughts. They were running from things they’d done, some of them. Everyone was back—well, many people—but they’d changed. Gireulashia was not the only person who woke up with nightmares.

You just didn’t hear Pisces shouting because he was smart enough to [Silence] his rooms. She would have noticed anyways, but she didn’t have to.

A [Witch] could tell. Vaguely—but she was an [Innkeeper] too, and the classes were linked across some talents. Erin Solstice slowed as she wheeled through the [Garden of Sanctuary].

It was like a dark cloud over Gire—but it passed like the sun blooming as Mrsha offered her a bite of the decorative fruits on top of the Archmage of Syrup’s damned creation. That was good. They really did like each other.

Still, after the wonderful campfire and talks, Erin felt like today was a day for something. She brought the pot she’d filled last night and put it on the breakfast table. Mrsha reached for the top, and Erin stopped her.

“Not so fast, Mrsha. You’ll let it out!”

“Your…magic? I have breakfast, unless you want something else, Erin?”

Lyonette carefully reappeared, holding a more normal-sized pancake and egg and bacon breakfast.

“The good old American stuff is fine with me, Lyonette! Just like Mom used to make. Well, aside from the lack of blueberries. And, actually, it was my dad who made this breakfast. So exactly not like my mom used to make.”

Lyonette blinked at the references, but Erin just smiled, and she very deliberately thought—Shauna Solstice. Gregori Solstice.

She remembered them, and not just the fake memories of waking up. It was…hard to focus on them, like a name you kept forgetting. But because she knew why it was hard, Erin could pull the names and the memories out.

“Is this what you ate every day, Erin? No wonder you cook like, um…”

“If anyone brings up roasted corn today, I’m gonna shove this piece of bacon up…an ear.”

Erin waved a fork around dangerously. Gire and Mrsha were nudging each other, clearly daring one another to do it, and Ser Sest reappeared with a drink.

“Miss Solstice.”

“Thanks, Sest.”

The inn was weird. Thronebearers, all four of them, practically helped Lyonette into her seat and provided her with a more elegant meal of crepes. Which Mrsha instantly stole half of. And then the Horns came down to their table—well, all but Ceria. She was still snoring apparently.

The inn began to fill up with a few more guests. No Relc nor Klbkch, and Kevin had apparently gone back to Solar Cycles and never returned.

“Joseph?”

“Already out the door. He has to train Pallass’ football team.”

“I-Imani?”

“Timbor’s.”

“Uh—Hexel?”

“I think he didn’t sleep here. Maybe he was working late after he left the fire?”

Mrsha rolled her eyes as Lyonette answered Erin’s questions. But neither young woman noticed it. Erin gazed around the fairly empty inn just in time for Numbtongue to appear.

He was carrying a dead body. No—wait. It was just Octavia. The [Alchemist] only stirred from her zombie-like state when Numbtongue waved a bowl of porridge in front of her face.

“Numbtongue! And Bird! What are you doing with Octavia, Numbtongue?”

The Antinium wandered down in pursuit of breakfast as Numbtongue nodded at Erin. The [Bard] shrugged.

“Found her in her shop. She forgets to eat.

“I do not! I just…delay my meals sometimes.”

“For days.”

The Hobgoblin eyed Gireulashia’s huge breakfast with respect and rubbed his claws together as another standard plate was put in front of him. He reached for a fork, and Ulvama snatched the plate.

“Yum.”

She walked off, and Numbtongue began to rise.

“Another plate for Numbtongue. Miss Ulvama! You can’t do that!”

Lyonette rose with a huge frown, but the [Shaman] turned. Archly, Ulvama stared at the [Princess].

“My food, now.”

“Yes, but that was his—”

The [Shaman] put a thumb on her chest then pointed at Mrsha.

“I save silly little girl.”

“Yes, but—”

“Good, good. Goodbye.”

And with that, the Hobgoblin walked off and went to the lounge to watch the scrying mirror over breakfast. Lyonette and Erin looked at each other. Erin leaned over to Mrsha.

“Is that normal?”

Numbtongue, scowling, was torn between going after Ulvama and starting a fight and decided to sit as another plate came out of the kitchen. Mrsha sighed and wrote on a notecard.

“That’s Ulvama. Very rude. And has big butt.”

Erin stared at the hallway and decided not to ask for elaboration. Lyonette puffed out her cheeks.

“Well—the nerve of her! We’ll put a stop to that once the inn opens. And speaking of which—I think today’s the day, don’t you, Erin?”

“Hm? Absolutely! I mean, uh, I’m still a bit slow with the wheelchair, but—”

Lyonette smiled at Erin and began to tie her hair back.

“Don’t you worry, Erin, I have it covered. You just…add in anything that’s helpful. But The Wandering Inn is back in business! We have to be, since we didn’t charge anyone for last night.”

“Ah. But it wasn’t much more than corn, and it was friends of the inn…”

The [Princess] sighed.

“Yes, yes, I know, Erin. But that’s why we need regulars. So! I’m going to make sure we’re all stocked up, and let’s say—open at lunch?”

“Yep, that’ll work. I’ll help. Mrsha, what are you going to do today?”

“Mrsha and I were hoping we could play in the [Garden of Sanctuary] again? And she’s going to show me some magic. Then, after that, we’re visiting Selys.”

“I—suppose that’s all very good. Just so long as you stay in the inn! And we’ll let Selys pick you up and send Dame Ushar with you.”

Lyonette approved the plans, and the two Gnoll girls ran off at once. Erin blinked at the Archmage’s We—

“Where did it go? She ate that?”

“Amazing.”

Numbtongue agreed, staring at the plate where only syrup remained. Lyonette closed her eyes a moment.

“…We have to open the inn soon.”

 

——

 

Money was not an issue for The Wandering Inn, but it was going to be. Not just because Gire ate like eight Mrshas—because she ate like that and didn’t pay for what she ate.

No one currently visiting The Wandering Inn did. Some, like the Horns, were long-standing guests, and it just hadn’t been brought up because it had been part of their tabs, which they repaid weekly.

Other guests? They didn’t have money.

Gothica, for instance, who’d come in this morning from who-knew-where, was happily eating a load of black eggs. Not Noelictus-eggs—she’d just asked for someone to add a bit of charcoal or something to make them look dark.

The same for Infinitypear, Ulvama, and even the Thronebearers. Lyonette knew it was tough, but she had to bring it up.

“Um. Erin. We have to charge them for their food.”

“What?”

Erin broke off from staring at the pot and frowned at Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned back.

“Not immediately and not for everything so far! But I am saying—we have to charge them for food. Or how long do you intend to keep feeding them?”

“It’s only a few meals each day.”

“Across how many people? All of the Fellowship? The [Crusaders]? That’s over a hundred Antinium each day at—”

“Okay, okay! Fine! But I’m not charging them today. Or tomorrow. Or…”

Lyonette was prepared for this. She had done some thinking and gave Erin an easy alternative. In fact, she even volunteered to make the announcement as Squad 5 filed in for breakfast—they were still on leave.

“Excuse me, everyone! I have something a tiny bit difficult to say. I must tell you all that The Wandering Inn will begin charging you for food and rooms!”

Gothica looked up, concerned, as Rasktooth and Infinitypear stopped chowing down and glanced at each other worriedly. Squad 5 didn’t look worried, but they had money.

“Charge us for food? I saved—”

Ulvama appeared in the hallway, and Lyonette glared at her. She spoke over the Hobgoblin.

“For one month, everything is free. That means twenty—nineteen more days, to be exact. After that, we will regretfully begin charging you for food and accommodations. We hope you can understand.”

The request didn’t go over as well as the [Princess] had hoped. Pisces Jealnet frowned at her and then rose to his feet with a sniff.

“Excuse me, Miss Lyonette. But I must point out that, despite the braggadocious nature of the statements, we did abandon our causes and fight for our very lives in a war for the inn or the people within. Surely there is some…egregious nature to charging us for simple food and drink after a mere thirty days? I hope you can see how odd that sounds.”

Yvlon glared at him, but Lyonette took a huge breath.

“I understand, but Pisces—we cannot afford to do more than a month. Frankly, we may serve up to a hundred guests free of charge. Not every day, hopefully, but…there is not enough gold in our coffers, understand?”

She flushed a bit, and Pisces hesitated. His supercilious expression faded, and he coughed.

“Well, I, ah—I understand fiscally this all makes sense. And I, personally, have to say that the Horns could and always intended to pay for our food, without needing for a month’s reprieve. We are Gold-rank adventurers after all.”

He backpedaled so fast that he was sitting down and applauding her choices as Lyonette sighed. Erin waved a hand urgently.

“I know it’s tough, but I’ll make it up to everyone in other ways. Lyonette’s just pointing out that we can’t give away food forever, and one month is sorta fair? The Wandering Inn isn’t that poor! We’ve got money! I think.”

Laughter from the tables, and everyone relaxed. Lyonette was relieved the message went over well, although she knew she’d have to repeat it for other guests. But most, she thought privately, would pay anyways.

Saliss, Grimalkin, and a number of guests did not exactly hurt for coin. It was harder on the Goblins and Antinium, but Gothica looked very pleased at learning she had nineteen more days of guaranteed food and ordered a bloody piece of pork to go along with said eggs.

“We can even afford the quest bounties that Erin put out without asking me quite easily. So don’t worry—we’ll manage a month once the inn opens. Which is today! I just need to make sure we’re good on food and we have the Players. Oh, and the staff!”

Lyonette was joking in relief with everyone else. An aged voice spoke up as Tekshia Shivertail cleared her throat.

“Wonderful news. Then I suppose you won’t mind me leaving this bill here? I’ll take payment in full by the end of the day.”

Uh oh. Erin Solstice froze as Tekshia walked forwards. The old [Spearmaster] was smiling, and the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild had a piece of paper in her claw.

“Uh—Tekshia! I’m so glad you’re here! I—please don’t stab anyone.”

Tekshia didn’t have her spear, but with bags of holding, you never knew. However, the old Drake just sighed as Erin rolled forwards.

“I’m not going to hurt you. So put your Hobgoblin away.”

She nodded at Numbtongue, who sat down with a grin. He liked old, tough people of any species. Tekshia handed Erin the slip of paper with a long stare.

“I am glad you seem well enough to cause trouble again. And in light of everything, I’m even willing to give you a pass for destroying my old Guild. It was in need of repairs anyways; the damned city was willing to move it around, but not give it a redesign, which it needed.”

She glanced around Erin’s inn.

“…Is this all Antinium work? I think I’ll be quite happy if Liscor’s Council advances some gold like they promised. Cheap building, and that [Architect] knows what a proper Guild should look like. Three or four floors, twice as large—completely redone. So just pay what the old one cost and I will happily let you in again. Destroy the second one and I’ll stab you.”

Erin smiled weakly, but all things considered, this was the most reasonable response, and from Tekshia, no less!

“I can do that, Tekshia. And believe me—I didn’t know it’d knock down the guild. So, um, how much is—yikes!

Lyonette du Marquin did not like the sound of that. She peeked over Erin’s shoulder and blanched.

Two thousand gold pieces?

At Pisces’ table, all three Horns winced. For a Gold-rank adventurer, it wasn’t the worst price tag. You’d pay that for an expendable Wand of [Fireballs]. But then again…that was the cost of a wand that shot explosive balls of fire.

A Silver-rank team would scream at such a price. And an inn?

“That’s so much! Are you sure this is right?”

Erin was protesting to Tekshia, but the Drake just gave her a long look.

“It’s the price I came to for rebuilding a guild. Not a house. The average house in Liscor can cost a hundred gold coins, Erin.”

“A hundred? That’s so much!”

Erin understood that the average person could earn around a gold coin a week in Liscor. Tekshia shrugged.

“Once again, that is to build from the ground up. I imagine that Hexel can do it for a fraction, and it would cost more depending on where it is. Wood, for instance, is far too expensive here. But that is a house. My guild is in pieces. You caused it.”

“But doesn’t Liscor have, um, insurance? And the Council is going to help, right?”

Tekshia stared at Erin.

“What’s insurance? You mean rebuilding spells? No, we do not have that, and yes, Liscor’s Council has assigned me funds for rebuilding. Which I will use along with the money you owe me. If anything, I am not charging you as much as I could ask. Can you pay it now? If not, I will give you time…and add another thousand gold.”

She waited, eyes glinting. Erin was shaking her head, but Lyonette grabbed her arm.

“One second, Miss Tekshia?”

The Drake nodded, and Lyonette dragged Erin back to whisper to her.

“Erin.”

“I’m sorry, Lyonette! What are we—”

“Erin, we can pay that.”

The [Innkeeper] stopped.

“…We can?”

Lyonette was grimacing. But she glanced towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] where Mrsha and Gire were playing in blissful oblivion of adult fiscal responsibility.

“We have money in our safe. Exactly three thousand one hundred and twenty-four gold coins. Ninety-six silver, and four hundred and two copper coins, unless Ishkr took some out for use.”

She knew exactly how much money they had in the vaults. Erin blinked at her.

“How do you—do you count the money?”

“Erin. Why would I not know how much money is in our coffers?”

“Um…”

They could pay the hefty price tag for Erin’s quest, but it punched a hole in their reserves, and Lyonette knew a thousand gold coins was a ‘lot’ for non-adventurers and non-nobility, and they’d eat into it replenishing their food supplies, rehiring everyone…but they’d begin making it back.

Grimacing, the two came back to Tekshia and agreed to pay her up front rather than take a year’s extension at a thousand coin addition. Tekshia did have to wait while they filled up her bag of holding from the safe—but she was generous enough not to count.

“I’m sure you’re as good as your words. I’ll take this to the Merchant’s Guild now. I’m very pleased we can settle this. I didn’t even have to fetch my spear. Feel free to visit any time. Liscor’s new Adventurer’s Guild should be constructed within the week. Hexel has made it a priority.”

She smiled, got two painful faces of bared teeth in reply, and was gone. Erin didn’t meet Lyonette’s gaze as she rolled back to the table.

“So, um…let’s open tonight. I think we can really—really make a profit if we get coffee sales in. And the Minotaur’s Punch sells well at good margins, you said?”

Lyonette kept a straight face.

“Absolutely. I’ll get the Players to stop in. Imani for cooking, Ishkr’s agreed to rehire, and the Players for entertainment. Would you like to help me? That would take a load off my shoulders.”

Erin took a huge breath and sighed.

“Yes.”

 

——

 

Complications arose.

The story of Lyonette’s life, really. The first people she went to talk to were obviously the Players of Liscor and the Players of Celum. Imani was already the [Chef], and the staff were important, but the Players had to set up.

“…so we’d be exceptionally pleased if you could see about letting the Players of Liscor or Players of Celum perform, Temile. I know it’s an imposition to ask, and I don’t expect the Players of Celum to do so! But…”

Lyonette felt odd, finding Temile. Because he was no longer the former [Actor] from the startup troupe who performed out of an inn, but the [Producer] of the Players of Liscor. And yes, they were not the continent-famous Players of Celum still going north and apparently performing at noble estates, but the Players of Celum had a theatre in Invrisil, multiple teams, and they did not leave their cousin-groups out to dry.

Temile wore bright, eye-catching clothing like he were an [Actor] himself, a cascade of yellow and blue tastefully put over a black surcoat that made him look like a cross between some [Lord] and, well, a [Troubadour], but bridged the gap into maintaining both dignity and entertainment.

No less than a Level 40 [Seamstress] had worked on it, Invrisil’s finest, and the Players of Liscor were no longer in need of housing at The Wandering Inn.

They had received funding from the Players of Celum—indeed, to help the Players of Pallass start up as well—and there was a certain largesse that Lyonette noticed in the back rooms. Far more complicated makeup, magical artifacts to aid in their illusions or getting ready, and even the chairs were plush, costing no little amount of gold per embroidered seat.

And yet, despite all this, Temile instantly nodded.

“We’ll have a group playing in your inn tonight, Lyonette! You have my word. Maybe not our best team because they are booked for the theater here, but I’ll arrange it so our best group from the Players of Liscor performs, with maybe the Players of Celum performing every month at least once?”

“That is so generous. Thank you, Temile!”

Lyonette exhaled and then took a look around.

“But what about your theatre here?”

They were standing in a new building in the developing western district of Liscor. Temile waved it off.

“We can fill it. But The Wandering Inn is where we began—well, the Frenzied Hare, but you know what I mean—and The Wandering Inn is where we’ll perform. Until the next time it shuts down. Er, do let us know if the monsters are going to attack.”

He laughed, and Lyonette noticed his missing thumb and laughed too, but weakly. Still—the Players of Liscor were exceptionally generous.

“I will let you know, Temile. We need to make sure the staff can accommodate a crowd—can I send a runner to confirm?”

“Absolutely. We’d like to set up in…two hours at the latest?”

“I will let you know by then, thank you.”

Lyonette hurried away from the guild, resolved to make sure she had staff. But that was when she ran into the complications, because when she went to see how Ishkr was doing, she found Erin Solstice talking with Imani in front of Timbor’s inn.

The [Innkeeper] was there too, and Erin waved Lyonette over.

“I, um, really appreciate it, Imani. But are you sure it’s okay?”

Oh no. Erin’s generous nature was getting the better of her. Lyonette cursed as she hurried forwards, Dalimont and Lormel behind her. And a shadowy Drake too, but Lyonette couldn’t even deal with that.

“Absolutely, Erin. Timbor has agreed to let me change jobs, and—it’s the least I can do.”

Imani was smiling, but both turned to look at Timbor. He had a long history with Erin, but the man mustered a smile. He didn’t look…happy, but who would want to let go of a star [Chef] like Imani?

“It’s quite all right, Miss Erin. Miss Imani started in your inn, and I—I would have hoped for her to leave my inn a month ago.”

“That’s very kind. But you’re sure, Imani?”

“Erin, is there a problem with Imani cooking at The Wandering Inn?”

Lyonette hadn’t heard the beginning of this conversation, but she understood the moment Imani’s gaze slid sideways.

“It’s…not too great an issue, Lyonette. I just need to discuss my hours. I can try to work ahead of time, but your guests eat a lot of food. I think Palt will just have to manage the kitchen here by himself until I work out a way to divide my time.”

“What kitchen? Oh—”

And then Lyonette realized she’d been out-of-touch with Liscor almost as much as Erin, because she turned and there it was.

Barehoof Kitchens, [Chef] Imani and [Illusionist] Palt.

The sign hung over the building next to Timbor’s Drunken Gnoll with an odd logo—that of a hoof upon a dinner plate. It was certainly something. The artwork was very well-done, and Lyonette knew it had to be Palt who’d done all of it, including the painted lettering.

“You…have a kitchen, Imani?”

The [Chef] tried to appear modest, but it was clear she’d been dying to tell Erin all about it.

“It began with my cooking classes. You remember that, Erin? Well, I was leasing kitchens but at such prices that Palt began grumbling how it would be easier to buy a new building since they were going up. We looked into it, and it cost a bit more than that, but we’ve more than made up for it with the classes. In fact…we provide for more than Timbor’s inn. The classes are just part of what we do. I come up with new recipes from home…”

She looked meaningfully at Erin.

“…or my take on it. And I’m creating new dishes, of course!”

Erin groaned.

“Good luck. They’ll steal your recipes instantly, those jerks!”

“Not if they pay Imani to teach them how to make it. That’s a Wistram sales-model. Coin for knowledge. Coin for secrets. My unshod darling, are we going to rescue The Wandering Inn’s dire cuisine once more?”

Palt trotted forwards, and Imani took his hand as he smiled at Erin. The young woman eyed the growing beard on the Centaur’s face.

“Yuck.”

“Yuck? Imani didn’t protest!”

Palt looked wounded as he covered his beard. Imani sighed.

“I didn’t not protest. He can always hide it with illusion spells. Palt, I need to work at The Wandering Inn. You get to run the kitchen.”

“I—suppose that works. We can hire some of our assistants full-time, I think, and devote one to the inn?”

“No, no, I’ll work there for the day. Let’s ask if Meritss can work full-time. If not…”

The two began conferring, and Lyonette glanced at Erin, who was standing with Ser Sest and a bored Numbtongue, who was placated eating Imani’s attempt at a spicy fried bean tofu and rating it on a placard Palt had designed.

She felt it too, no matter how hard she wanted to ignore it.

Could they do this? Lyonette smiled weakly.

“Er—how good is business, Imani?”

“Booming! There are so many new places opening up with all the Gnolls and Humans—and I’m getting people from Invrisil, Pallass, and beyond! The Wandering Inn will be good advertisement, I guess. Especially if the Players are performing. They are, aren’t they?”

“Temile promised his best group would perform regularly.”

Timbor whistled with envy.

“That will fill the inn alone. I offered him to keep every ticket sale and a margin on what I make from the common room, but he had his theatre, and I can’t compete with that.”

Lyonette and Erin exchanged a glance. Imani was taking an apron when Erin cleared her throat as Lyonette sighed and gave her a slow nod.

“Imani…maybe we can find someone else after all. Um. How good are your assistant chefs?”

 

——

 

It was not fair. Yes, the Players of Celum owed everything to Erin Solstice, and they had not forgotten it.

However, Lyonette heard an echo of the argument she’d used on Erin to justify only offering a month of food for people fighting in a literal war for the inn.

Could they ask Temile and Imani to give up their business for The Wandering Inn? Well, obviously, yes. But was that fair?

It was fairer to…ask Barehoofs to send some of their food to The Wandering Inn, not demand their [Chef]. It was fairer to tell Temile that his second-team could perform at The Wandering Inn and cut him at least a portion of the profits.

It just wasn’t easy. Erin and Lyonette went back to the inn, discussing the problem.

“Okay, so Temile will send his junior [Actors] some nights. That’s great! We don’t have to always have chaos. We just need a new [Cook].”

“[Chef]. Erin, competition is going to be more difficult. We need a [Chef].”

“Bah, I can cook a bit. Just let me get out of my wheelchair and…”

The [Princess] halted Erin with a look. Ser Sest kept pushing her despite that.

“Erin, you have never liked cooking as much as you need to. Besides…you might have [Advanced Cooking], but that’s the only Skill you have. And that’s not as great as it was anymore.”

Erin puffed out her cheeks indignantly.

“What? I’ll have you know that Ilvriss was super surprised I had it! It’s not common in Liscor—”

“It wasn’t common earlier. Now? Erin, I think most [Chefs]—and they are [Chefs]—have that and a dozen Skills you don’t. Imani has [Expert Cooking].”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated and gulped. There it was. Erin Solstice had, despite herself, raised the bar with cookies, ice cream, and, yes, actually interesting ideas that Liscor hadn’t tried. So now she was looking up at the bar. And she was in a wheelchair.

“Fine. [Chef]. We still have our magical foods.”

“No one’s eating your blue paste.”

“It’s magical. I’ll make something good! I have tons of new ideas. For the food, for the inn—and my pot! Let’s just open up today and play it by ear.”

The two entered the inn, nodding to each other, and found Ishkr reporting for duty with Liska and a whole lot of empty space next to him. The [Head Server] gave Erin an embarrassed look as the [Princess] and [Innkeeper] came to a stop. Lyonette groaned.

“Oh no.”

 

——

 

Ishkr had tried. He really had. He went around to every former employee except for Silveran, and they had all refused to work at The Wandering Inn.

“Why not Silveran?”

“Because he runs a company that can pull in more money in one day than we can pay him in a month, Erin.”

“Oh. Right. Continue.”

Ishkr looked embarrassed as he played with his apron pockets.

“I, er…asked the other former employees, Erin. Cisca? She already had good, steady work. Thoss joined the army. And the rest either had jobs that paid as much as we did or they didn’t want to come here.”

“Why not? Because they were working?”

Ishkr coughed into one paw.

“That and—”

And they really didn’t want to die. The Wandering Inn was famous for being attacked. It had been overrun by Crelers, stalked by Raskghar, and blown up three times. So when Ishkr had gone to headhunt individuals, over half had heard The Wandering Inn and refused flat out.

“The other problem is that I did go to many, many pubs, inns, and taverns. Even Invrisil!”

He’d spent six hours today rushing around, and yesterday too. Lyonette looked at him.

“Not one employee volunteered?”

“No. I had as many as sixty I interviewed. Not one was suitable.”

And here it got interesting. Erin peered at Ishkr, and Lyonette frowned.

“We could have interviewed them, Ishkr. What do you mean, not suitable?”

The Gnoll began ticking off points on his fingers.

“I do have a Skill or two, Miss Lyonette, Miss Erin. As [Head Waiter], yes? I could tell some were simply criminals. Petty [Thieves], untrustworthy. Those were easy to sort out. However, I took the liberty of—testing them.”

“By…?”

“Asking if they’d serve a Goblin or Antinium food. And then, if they did, I would ask them to take a fried bee out to Bird. Then pour acid in the outhouses to clean them. Finally, I asked them to throw a seed core at a Rock Crab.”

It was a basic litmus test, and Lyonette gave Ishkr an approving look. Frankly—it wasn’t even the most onerous stuff a staff member might be expected to do. However, the results?

Bird had gone hungry. Most people hadn’t even gotten to the Rock Crab before deciding they could get just as good pay somewhere else. And that was fair.

Erin Solstice was already sitting down, but Lyonette had to find a seat. The trio looked at each other as Liska poured herself a drink behind the bar.

“Wait a second, Erin. Wait…Ishkr? How many employees—ever—has The Wandering Inn retained?”

“Including you, Miss Lyonette?”

“Not including me.”

Ishkr hesitated. He glanced at his sister.

“Long-term? One.”

And that was him. Now, many establishments like an inn had low employee-retention rates. That was just a reality in the service industry in any world. But The Wandering Inn might have had the worst retention-rate of any inn in Liscor or a thousand miles.

To be fair, it wasn’t even that the inn was so bad they all quit! Look at Drassi! Look at Imani, for that matter! They had quit because they had found something even more successful. Even Kevin and Joseph had upgraded.

It didn’t solve the problem, but it made Lyonette and Erin feel a bit better when Ser Dalimont pointed this out. Then the [Princess]’ face fell.

“…But that means it may be even harder to hold onto any good employees we do get. They’ll leave because Erin turns them into a [Sword Fire Slaying Saint Rockstar] or something.”

“Hey! I wouldn’t do that! Unless I could, because that sounds sort of cool.”

Numbtongue nodded vigorously from one table. Lyonette stared at her hands.

“I think the problem is that we need…workers who are capable. Trustworthy, who can serve Goblins and Antinium well. Who are good at combat or can at least survive a dangerous situation.”

She began ticking off points on her hands, and Ishkr and Erin nodded. Lyonette looked around.

“We need a [Bartender], a [Chef], servers, security—”

She glanced at the Thronebearers, but they wouldn’t be here forever, hopefully, and they weren’t hers.

“—and even a stable handler, cleaners, and so on.”

“A stable? Aw. Wait—don’t we have one?‘

Erin peered out the window vaguely. Lyonette nodded.

“Yes, we do. And Erin, if someone wants to have their horse staying here overnight—can you make sure it’s bedded down and fed? Do you know how to undo a saddle?”

Erin squinted suspiciously at Lyonette.

“I bet there are belts and buckles and stuff. I could figure it out.”

Lyonette ignored that. She was drumming her fingers on the table, trying to figure out where you got people like that. And once again, Ser Dalimont spoke up with a slight smile.

“You have aptly described a group of employees, Pr—Miss Lyonette. I fear they may refuse your offers, but they do exist.”

“I have? Who?”

The Thronebearer bowed slightly.

“Lady Magnolia’s staff meets all such descriptions to a tee.”

The face Erin made said her opinion on hiring Magnolia’s staff. Lyonette shook her head. She sat there.

“Aside from the fact that we cannot hire them, Ser Dalimont—no. I think we have to make do. I’ll tell Temile we can open. You four will simply have to serve the tables.”

She glanced at the Thronebearers. Erin brightened up. That wasn’t a bad idea! They were certainly elegant, and the Thronebearers knew their way around all manner of tasks including cooking.

That was why it was so disappointing when all four Thronebearers instantly refused.

“I fear we cannot, Miss Lyonette. Despite any orders you may make—we will serve you and those with you without hesitation, but to work a busy inn would compromise our duty as bodyguards.”

“Not even…? Well, then—we have to hire someone else! Ulvama, Numbtongue! That’s it—Gothica and the Fellowship!”

Erin snapped her fingers and came to a realization. Of course! The Fellowship of the Inn!

They had nowhere to go with the exception of Sergeant Gna and Salkis. But this would solve that! She turned to them, and Gothica raised one finger.

“No one makes me work.”

Erin’s face fell. Numbtongue glanced up with a huge frown.

“I don’t want to work either.”

“Nope.”

Ulvama had just wandered in to get a bowl of ice cream. She walked away so fast Erin was left spluttering.

“But Numbtongue—we’d pay you!”

The [Bard] gave Erin a long look. Slowly, he reached into one belt pouch and produced an uncut emerald. He put that on the table.

“Oh, your hobby. But th—”

He put a nugget of gold there next, then silver, then a citrine. Erin waved her hands, scowling.

“Gothica?”

“Nope.”

The [Goth] did not want to wait tables. Which was fair. Erin put her head down, and Lyonette realized they might not be able to actually open the inn today after all.

“I guess we have to reconsider our options. Maybe if we raised prices…but the cost is already…Ishkr, we need to calculate how much we can raise the pay to. Do you remember…? Erin? Where are you going?”

She turned, and the [Innkeeper] looked around guiltily as she wheeled towards an inviting door in the wall.

“Um—lunch break! Let’s think about it later.”

 

——

 

Gireulashia didn’t want to ever stop playing with Mrsha. It wasn’t always fun.

In fact, it wasn’t often fun after ten days. It was hard for the two to play a lot of games together. Tag? Gire won. Hide-and-seek? Gire won. Triumphs? Gire won so badly Mrsha sulked for ten minutes.

They were different in ages; Mrsha still didn’t like walking on two legs. Gire could do a triple backflip from a standing position.

And yet, they managed. For one thing, practicing magic was something where Mrsha was ahead, and Gire’s look of wonder hadn’t faded from just casting [Light].

“Mrsha, you’re so smart.”

“I know, I know.”

Mrsha modestly tucked Pisces’ wand into its holster as she produced a patch of grass. She peered at Gire as the [Grow Grass] spell failed for Gire again.

“All I can do is a single blade of grass. I’m going to keep practicing! I’ve already figured out how to cast [Flame Arrow], but it’s so weak. I’ll cast a hundred—a thousand times per day of [Grow Grass] as well.”

Mrsha hesitated. She scribbled on her notepad.

Hold up, you cast that spell how many times?

Gire scratched her head.

“I can’t do a thousand. But I did a hundred mini [Flame Arrows]. With mana potions. I stopped when I felt like I was getting one of those giant headaches or mana burn, but I won’t learn unless I practice, right? How much do you cast your spells?”

Mrsha hesitated.

All the time. Every day. Every hour, really. I can’t not think when I don’t practice.

“Mhm. Me too. I’ll catch up soon!”

Ekhtouch had a different attitude towards training. However, play was more important. And Mrsha was the master of play. Also, because they had shared all secrets, Gire was someone whom Mrsha could share everything with.

“Mrsha, what is this? Is this…a super-phone?”

Gire’s eyes went round as Mrsha presented Kevin’s laptop. The two sat down and began playing Numbtongue’s favorite video game. Mrsha showed Gire how it worked as she proudly erased Numbtongue’s save files.

“How does it work? You—aah!

Gire jumped as Mrsha demonstrated her amazing [Gamer] skills on the easiest difficulty. She had to use the touchpad, and it was hard using Gnollish finger pads. Bam, bam! Look how good I am!

“Amazing! Mrsha, I want to try! And you do—look out!”

Boom. Mrsha sighed. Another death. But she, Mrsha the Space Warrior, could show Gire a new level of combat! She graciously handed the laptop to Gire and hopped into the [Paragon]’s lap to watch her fumble around.

…Yes, even Apista could tell what was going to happen next. Gire finished the first level without dying once. She might have done so on a harder difficulty, but Mrsha snatched the computer back and set it to the hardest mode instantly.

Legendary. Gire played for six minutes without dying as Mrsha’s mouth opened wider in outrage.

She was good at the game! But she did die at last because she didn’t know where the enemies were coming from and the game was genuinely hard; Gire could only move as fast as the character in the game. Mrsha sighed—then looked up at Gire’s face.

It was shining with excitement.

“Mrsha, I lost! It’s hard! Did you see? Let me try again!”

Mrsha blinked up at Gire and saw not a trace of the smug, stupid Hobgoblin’s grin and the condescending pat on the head that Numbtongue gave her. Gire…was having fun.

So Mrsha sat up and began guiding Gire on advanced tactics, like knowing where the enemy was coming from. They were just high-fiving a victory that had ended with Gire dying spectacularly when Erin’s voice came from behind them.

Damn you gravity! I’ll fight you!”

Both Gnolls turned around and saw a young woman trying to get up the hill with her wheelchair. It was not going well. Gire stood up, and she and Mrsha pushed Erin up the hill.

“Thanks, guys. Whatcha doing? Oh! Video games! What are you playing, Minesweeper? Oh, Halo.

Erin pshed, much to the indignation of Mrsha and Gire.

“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? You think you’re great? How good are you, huh, huh?”

Erin pushed Mrsha’s face out of hers.

“Mrsha, it’s just not fun on a touchpad. You really need a mouse. I’ve played that game! You need a multiplayer thing. So both of you can play.”

Mrsha and Gire locked onto Erin’s words. Mrsha instantly sat on Erin’s lap and gave her a sweet smile.

Tell me more, wise and generous person.

Erin laughed and looked at Gire. The [Paragon] ducked her head.

“Hello, Miss Erin. Thank you for letting Mrsha play with me. I have lots of fun with her.”

“You’re here every day, right? Does your tribe want you? I mean, I’m glad you can come. Come every day! I’m just curious.”

Erin saw Gire hesitate and her face close off.

“I—they want me to go back. Most of them are still at the Meeting of Tribes, but Chieftain Feshi is there, and we’re…we’re reduced. I don’t know if Ekhtouch can rebuild. Fir—our Chieftain is gone. It’s too much to do. We should probably join Gaarh Marsh or Weatherfur or Wild Wastes. Plain’s Eye is gone, and a lot of tribes will probably ally or join together.”

Mrsha looked at Gire, and the big girl twiddled her thumbs.

“My tribe wants me to help, but I’m too young. I can’t—I just want to learn magic. I’m too young. Like Mrsha.”

She picked up Mrsha and put her on one shoulder. Erin stared up at the giant Gnoll.

“Well, yeah. That’s true. You’re really young, right? Even though you’re so tall.”

Had Gire ever told Erin that? The [Paragon] looked delighted that Erin had noticed.

“How can you tell?”

Erin laughed.

“Easy! Mrsha isn’t friends with old people. Even Relc—she doesn’t play with them like you.”

Mrsha nodded proudly from Gire’s shoulder. Old people got tired too fast!

Gireulashia was relieved that Erin wasn’t pressing her, however gently like Krshia or the others did. She sat down and began trying to figure out if they could play together on the same computer. Meanwhile, Erin watched, glancing towards where Lyonette and Ishkr were planning.

“I totally get it. I’m not good at planning for the future. It’s too much work. What can I do? It’s…that’s how I’ve felt.”

Gire nodded rapidly. Her paws danced over the keyboard, and she focused on it, but talked absently. The words slipped out of her mouth.

“It’s too much—what if I got things wrong?”

Erin scowled in agreement. She still had the pot from last night, but she looked at it and gave voice to a feeling she’d had. A familiar one.

“Yeah! Why do we have to get only one chance? Only one…and then it’s gone forever. Even if you can try again, it’s not the same. If you screw up…”

She looked at the pot and shook her head, troubled.

“It’s a lot of work. The world’s okay in some parts. I mean, it’s not okay, but Krshia’s smart, and the inn’s okay. If it continues, that’s good, right?”

Mrsha and Gire nodded. Gire liked this game. Even though it was about killing, she looked at it like a dream. When you died, everything was back to the way it was. There were no consequences, aside from Mrsha deleting Numbtongue’s save data.

This…was fine, wasn’t it?

 

——

 

Erin Solstice heard an echo of her words from the Mrsha-Gire childhood alliance. This was how she’d felt. It was good to hear them agreeing with her, getting it.

Except that one was an actual child, and the other was a giant [Paragon] pretending to be Mrsha’s age.

Except…Erin felt at her chest. She shook her head, troubled. Then she eyed the unearthed safe now depleted of much of its gold.

“Drat. I guess we do have to make money, but we made money anyways. I’ll just…Mrsha, help me bury this again?”

One second! Gire, left, left!

Mrsha grabbed Gire’s arm, and the [Paragon] yelped.

“I can’t hear you, Mrsha. Don’t—blue exploding thing!

Both Gnolls dove off the hill away from the laptop. They got up, giggling, and Mrsha began to roll towards Erin and then slowed.

She realized Erin was staring down into the safe. Erin had found something. She had it in her hand, and Mrsha saw a beautiful flash, beyond silver, like what you imagined starlight smithed would be.

A little round coin, too big for any modern coinage. The Gnoll slowed, not because that was unusual.

It was the look on Erin’s face.

Perhaps the coin had been in Erin’s room, but it was entirely conceivable in the chaos that Ishkr had found it and put it into the safe. Certainly, if Erin had seen it before that—

She held the mithril coin with Tamaroth’s name on it up to the light. Gire stared at Erin, perplexed.

“What a strange coin? What word is that missing?”

She couldn’t think of it, and the [Paragon]’s brow wrinkled up. Erin just stared at that coin. And if ever there were a reminder—she looked around slowly. Something’s words echoed to her, in another world.

“Headscratcher says goodbye.”

“Erin?”

Mrsha tapped the rune stone, but the [Innkeeper] didn’t turn. She just held the coin up, and her eyes were suddenly distant. She looked it over, playing with it in her hands, and it almost looked like she might smile.

But she never did, and the coin gleamed as if a second brightness fell upon it. Was it growing…more beautiful? Mrsha began to walk forwards, but Gire stopped her. The [Paragon] squinted at Erin’s hand. Then she pulled Mrsha back.

“Don’t touch. Miss Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t respond. She held up the coin to the light, and it looked…odd. A bit squatter than it had before. Mrsha blinked at it. The faint writing, the engravings, did they look—

Melted?

Was the coin drooping in Erin’s hand? Yes—yes it was. That pure glow of hard mithril had changed, and it looked…luminescent.

Wet. Then Mrsha realized the metal was melting. Mithril was—

“Her hand. Mrsha, what is that fire?”

Gire pointed, and Mrsha stared at Erin’s hand. She only saw the empty air or a faint shimmer of…every hair stood up on her body.

Invisible fire. The [Innkeeper]’s flame of hatred did not engulf her, but it burned that coin. Burnt and burned—until she noticed the Gnolls looking at her.

The coin stopped melting. It began cooling, and Erin hurriedly tossed it from her hand.

“Uh oh—it’s probably—”

She aimed it at the pond, and it was very, very lucky that no fish or Fortress Beavers lived there anymore.

Because the explosion of steam and water blasted into the ceiling of the dome. Lyonette ran in with the Thronebearers.

“Erin! What did you do?

“Um. Sorry.”

It was raining in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin rolled over to the edge of the pond and stared down as Lyonette waved her arms. She saw a little glimmer down there.

“I’ll grab it, Miss Erin.”

“Don’t touch it.”

Erin stopped Gireulashia from diving in. Mrsha backed up too—her fur had gone up on end as she reached into the very depleted pond for it. Erin demanded a long-handled scooper and had to fumble for five minutes to pick it up herself, but she let no one else handle it.

It was a mangled, melted bit of mithril, dirty and nowhere near as fine as the coin. Just a lump of twisted metal. Lyonette stared at it as Erin made Mrsha promise never to touch it.

“Why not? Is it still hot?”

“Nope. Just warm. It’s just cursed. Or you could use it in a curse.”

The [Witch] said it so lightly. She put the bit of twisted metal away in one pocket as Lyonette threw up her hands, and Mrsha looked uncertainly at Erin. But the [Innkeeper] suddenly looked tired, and she gazed at Gire. Then into her reflection in the pond.

“…Yeah. I think I need a video game too. Mrsha, grab the laptop before the rain destroys it. Gire? Do you want to play a game of chess?”

Mrsha’s head turned, and Lyonette blinked as the [Paragon] innocently put her paws behind her back.

“Chess? I’m not very good at it.”

She lied to Erin’s face, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.

“That’s okay.”

 

——

 

Erin didn’t explain to the others what the explosion had been about, and it was a sign of The Wandering Inn’s state that no one who was a regular even really asked.

It did mean the four prospective candidates from Liscor who’d come in instantly told Ishkr they didn’t see themselves working out here, but at this point, Lyonette was already in happy despair.

As for Gireulashia, she was thinking.

She knew Erin was very, very good. So Mrsha had said, and if what Mrsha had implied was to be believed…

But Gire had also beaten Venaz in around half their games of chess. If anything, Gireulashia’s attitude towards the game was unlike Eldavin, Venaz, or Niers.

She was excited to lose. She only hoped Erin could deliver. The [Paragon] bounced in her seat as Erin brought out one of the many cheap chessboards, and they began to play.

“I think it’s lunch. Can I get a…food?”

Erin waved vaguely at the kitchen, and Lyonette sighed, but obliged her. The [Innkeeper] played Gire, and the [Paragon] began a calculated game, trying to feel Erin out.

She hadn’t made a habit of studying chess moves, but as Venaz had learned, Gire simply was able to think ahead and see obvious weaknesses. She was, as ever, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch.

And she lost that first game soundly. Mrsha proudly sat up next to Erin as Gire smiled.

“Good game! Do you want to play again?”

“Yes, please!”

The second game was quicker than the first. Erin played with one eye on the board, but she was eating, and her limbs were prone to getting tired with even that simple task. And she was reviewing their finances with Ishkr.

“No…I dunno how much we earn per night. We had a hundred and twenty guests back in the day, and if you sell them all a blue juice drink—”

“But Erin, we have our overhead. Food prices—you cannot offer them the same prices you offered Safry and Marian.”

“I know that. Let me think on who we could ask for [Chefs]. Um…how about Esthelm?”

“We tried. Ishkr’s interviewing them now, but we need many people on staff. If it’s anything like Celum and Invrisil—”

“But they know Antinium and Goblins.”

“So do Liscor’s citizens. And how many of them are working here?”

Gire could multitask too, but she was concentrating on the game. Erin was…good. It came out in the way she placed her pieces. Sometimes she thought, but she would place a piece for reasons Gire couldn’t understand until four moves proved how it really had been the best play.

Experience. Both Erin and Gire were playing fast, and that made it enjoyable for Mrsha, who hated the games where both players sat with serious faces and got really mad if Mrsha made a loud sound behind them. The [Paragon] played her absolute best and was very interested.

[Superiority Made Manifest] wasn’t working. Perhaps Erin wasn’t using any Skills? Gire was only too happy to make this a battle of wits and even happier that Erin was pressing her so hard. Then she took the second game.

“Hey, a win and a loss! That’s great! Normally you draw at a higher level.”

Erin smiled. Gire looked up, and Erin frowned.

“Guess I’ve got to try harder. Another game or are you bored?”

“It just took eight minutes. Mrsha, I’ll play with you later, okay?”

Mrsha sighed, but Numbtongue’s outraged voice rose.

Who deleted my—

Gottago! Mrsha ran off. The third game between Erin and Gire was fast; the [Innkeeper] upped her tempo to Gire’s fast play, without growing visibly upset or worried. It was a draw, and Gire smiled…and felt an odd sensation.

Hm? What’s this?

“Another game? Sorry, I won’t stop playing unless I have something to do. It’s fun for me.”

“Sure. Is everything okay, Miss Erin?”

“Oh, you know…I have to think about the future. What do I want The Wandering Inn to be? Can I hire people? I mean, that’s what we’re doing now, but I’ve thought about it. What do I want to do? I kept the inn running like normal because that’s all I wanted to do. All I could do back when he was first here. Those were crazy days. Back then, you had five naked Hobgoblins creeping around at night.”

Numbtongue slowed as Erin jerked a thumb at him. She grinned and kept playing as Gire felt the odd sensation again.

“So—is that a problem, Miss Erin?”

“Keeping the inn running? Check? Nope. Aw, you got me. I forfeit. Another game?”

The [Innkeeper] saw she’d made a critical misplay and scowled. Gire blinked at her, but reset the board. She was doing worse than against Venaz statistically, but what was that odd sensation she was feeling? It took her another two rapid games to figure out, and Erin was speaking the entire while.

“It’s a tricky thing. If you can do something, I mean. If you can’t, you just do your best. But if you have all the freedom in the world—what would The Wandering Inn do? Assuming you could make a difference.”

She glanced up, and Gireulashia remembered the sound the [Innkeeper] had made when she hammered a Mythical Quest into the walls of the guild. It was at odds with the casual player sitting here in front of her.

Casual? Yes, that was it. Erin was playing lightly, relaxed, chatting to Gire with one hand holding a fork. She was getting distracted, telling Numbtongue not to hold Mrsha upside-down and threaten to dunk her head in the pond. Erin Solstice stared at the board as they drew—and Gire had been fighting for that draw—and smiled.

“Another game?”

Now Gire was sure. The [Paragon] stared at Erin as the [Innkeeper] played. Erin mused out loud.

“What would you do if you had all the power in the world to change something? What should it all look like? What’s realistic to do? I get it. I did nothing. And look what happened. Something crept up on me. But you’re fifteen. Is it…difficult?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know, Miss Erin.”

Gire avoided the question, but she couldn’t avoid the board game. She looked up as Erin won a second game. She was very good, but Erin was complimenting Gire.

“You play so well. Bird should play you, or Belgrade if he isn’t in the army again. The army. I don’t know. Anyways, another?”

“I…no.”

Gire pushed the board back. She looked at Erin, and that odd feeling became a reality. She stared at Erin with a deep frown.

“Miss Erin. Are you—not playing your hardest?”

The [Innkeeper] looked up at Gire and blinked once. Those innocent hazel eyes fixed on Gire’s face, and Erin shrugged.

“No. You said you weren’t good at chess. That’s okay. If you want, I can spot you a piece. Have you ever played a game like that?”

Gire’s mouth opened, and it hit her. Erin Solstice was…patronizing her! Taking it easy on her!

She, Gire, had never had anyone take anything easy on her. She was the best in any game, even if she was defeated. But someone deliberately playing worse?

She didn’t like that. She didn’t like that at all. With a huge frown, the giant Ekhtouch girl sat forwards just in time for two of her people to win past Ser Sest after a long, long argument.

“I would like you to play me at your utmost, Erin Solstice.”

The two Ekhtouch Gnolls entered the common room of the inn as Pisces got his bucket of popcorn ready. He looked around vaguely for the rest of the chessheads and wondered if it behooved him to call for Belgrade, Chaldion, and so on. Ceria had just woken up—it was possibly 1 PM.

Yvlon, exasperated, was reading a book with one eye on Erin as Pisces crunched and shared his popcorn with Ksmvr. Mrsha had reappeared with the vengeance of a wet Gnoll just in time for everyone to hear Erin speak to Gire.

“Play you at my best, you mean?”

“That’s right. I’m a [Paragon] of Ekhtouch. I can beat you in chess. We could bet on it.”

The [Innkeeper] chewed on the proposal. She looked Gire in the eye and shook her head.

“You can’t play me at my best.”

Mrsha slowed, and the Ekhtouch Gnolls, Gire included, looked at Erin at a loss for words. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes were sharp as she stared at her chessboard, the two Gnolls, and Gire.

“I can. Try me.”

“I know you can’t. I can only play at my best if I have someone to play against. And you’re not there yet. Sorry. I’m sounding mean. I try not to ever say that because that’s what people told me when I was playing. Mostly when they were worse than me. But I can tell. I’ve played this game every day of my life for years. I’ve played actual Grandmasters back home and here, I think. You’re a talented amateur. But you don’t know this game.”

“Then play me as hard as you can.”

Gire challenged Erin. The [Innkeeper] sighed.

“If you want me to. I’ll try.”

The next game was far slower as Gire played as best she could, thinking over every move. Erin still beat her. Annoyed, Gire decided to speed up and press Erin by moving a piece within five seconds of it being her turn.

“There’s no timer. But okay, I’ll pretend it’s speed chess.”

Erin failed to take the first lightning-round of chess, but she drew. Then she drew the next game. Then she drew a third game. Then she won. Then she drew the game. Then she drew…then she won again. The entire time, she watched Gire’s increasingly frustrated face. Because, while the [Paragon] could tell Erin was concentrating, the [Innkeeper] bore her words out in the games.

Gire couldn’t match her. It was like playing a brick wall. Sometimes Gire drew—sometimes the brick wall reached out and punched her.

“What’s it like succeeding at everything?”

Erin wanted to know. Gire snapped back as the two Ekhtouch Gnolls watched them play.

“I’m not the best at everything. I can tell. You can tell.”

“No, I mean…being good at everything? You’ve probably never practiced chess except lightly. Almost no one can just…sit down and do this. I saw you playing that game with Mrsha. You’ve never played it before, but you did it as good as Numbtongue, and he has no life when he gets obsessed.”

“Hey.”

Gire glanced up at Erin. She shrugged self-consciously and retorted.

“I only know what it’s like to be me. It’s as confusing for me to look at everyone else who can’t…just do things.”

Erin nodded. Her eyes were locked on the chess board, but every now and then she looked at the pot, sitting there.

“Yeah. That’s fair. And you’re not the best at everything. I can imagine it would be really scary if some weirdos were chasing you around and asking you to be a [Chieftain] or something. It’s a lot of pressure for someone. I wouldn’t want to do it and I’m old.”

So said the twenty-one year old girl, and the Ekhtouch Gnolls stirred. Gireulashia didn’t know what to say to that, so Erin went on.

“It’s fair. My answer isn’t yours because you’re a kid. Don’t expect to beat me or play me at my best, because you and I have years of difference in this game.”

“But I’m not a child.”

Gire’s voice sounded sulky, and she heard it. Erin glanced up at her.

“Kids get to be silly. Adults get to face consequences. No…both do. But it’s only the fault of the old ones. I thought everything was fine when it wasn’t. Then, one day, I ran into a bunch of people with crossbows.”

Her friends were looking at her and listening to her words more than the game. Gire was listening too, despite herself. Erin sighed. She looked at Gire, then at Numbtongue.

“I think I stopped deciding to change because everything was good enough. But that’s not how it worked. A while ago, I did a lot of big things because I thought these five strange guys needed help. And it caused a lot of trouble. But it was for the best. Before I died, I think I didn’t want to rock the boat because it was good enough. Even though so many things were going wrong. That’s the difference.”

She looked up, and Gire’s paws trembled as she placed the chess pieces, refusing to meet Erin’s eyes. The [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“It’s…not easy. And it’s not fair. But if you want something different, I guess the saying’s true. Do it yourself. And there are things I want to do, but I can’t. There’s someone I need to find. Her name is—Nanette. But I don’t know where she is right now. She could have moved.”

Lyonette frowned at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] looked up sharply. A Hobgoblin had just begun choking on her food, but Erin put it down to Ulvama trying to eat a double-strawberry cake in one bite.

“But could I protect her here? And that’s just one thing I need to do. I have more quests to post.”

Everyone listening stirred at that, and someone called out.

“Post ‘em already! I’ll take at least one! Just let me find the City of Stars, first!”

Jelaqua Ivirith had arrived with the entire team of Halfseekers. Moore, Ulinde, Seborn, and Jelaqua. Mrsha ran over in delight, but slowed. The half-Giant raised a hand, and she didn’t leap into his lap. His face looked shadowed.

Erin half-rose, but she had a game, and…Jelaqua’s broad smile flickered as Erin looked her up and down.

Searchingly. The Selphid had the Demas Metal flail she’d found in the fighting. Ulinde was still appraising the gear they’d…found…off Wall Lord Dragial’s corpse.

Moore looked scarier than ever, and Seborn had the light of faith in his eyes. They had leveled from their experiences. And yet Erin just smiled, took a gulp of water, and replied clearly into the silence.

“You’re not ready yet.”

The Halfseekers sat up. The Gold-rank team looked at Erin, and her gaze circled the inn. Ceria blinked as Erin gazed at her team.

“No one I know is. Not even Saliss. I can’t post something if it can’t be done. There are things I want to do, not just quests. Things I want to make. They can’t be made. So I guess I’ll wait. But not for long. Not forever. If I want it done, I need to do something first, right? And this inn…it isn’t even functional.”

She waved at Ishkr, hurrying around with Lyonette and the Thronebearers. Erin Solstice looked around the inn and asked the real question.

“What’s The Wandering Inn going to look like? What comes next for us? Good, happy things. If you want, Gire, you can stay here forever.”

She patted the big girl’s paw, but then Erin turned. She gazed into the empty kitchen, at the tables so few were willing to wait, and nodded.

Calmly, Erin checkmated Gire’s king and stood up. She managed to stand long enough to stretch, then collapsed into her chair with a sigh. The Gnoll looked down at the least fun game she’d ever played, then at Erin as the [Innkeeper] rolled her shoulders.

“Man, I’m stiff. You know what I want? A bathtub.”

“We have one, Erin.”

“Well, I want a bigger one. A real hot tub. No, no. A hot springs. With a slide and…a rubber duckie.”

She was speaking madness. The [Innkeeper] looked around the inn.

“And that jerk was right, there are things we could add. We have all the space in the world, but you know what? It’s not super safe. Someday…no. We really do need better security. And my door. But the staff should be nervous. So yeah, Bird’s no good in his tower by himself.”

“Gasp. I am hurt. Am I out of a job?”

Bird raised his head, and Erin waved a hand at him.

“No, silly. We just need to get you support. Why not…yeah. Why not a ballista?”

Lyonette nearly slipped carrying a tray out.

“Erin, you cannot be serious.”

She looked up, and Erin gave her a long, exasperated look.

“Why not? Has Bird ever hit anyone, anyone, with an arrow that he didn’t want to? What is he going to do besides shoot a Wyvern that would probably eat us anyways?”

Bird was nodding so fast he was vibrating.

“These facts are shaking me to my core. I am shook. Mrsha, stop shaking me. We will all have a turn with the promised ballista.”

“Are you actually serious about putting a ballista on the inn, Miss Solstice?”

Dame Ushar spoke slowly, as if trying to drip reason back into Erin’s head. The [Innkeeper] looked at her.

“Yes. That isn’t crazy. Crazy is some of the stuff I want to do. Anyways, I guess I figured it out. Lyonette, send a [Message].”

“To whom? I’m not going to if it’s insane.”

The [Princess] balled up her hands in her apron with anxiety. Erin gave her a blank look and shrugged.

“We can talk it over, but I just figured it out. It’s past time. I’ve solved our worker crisis. Send a [Message] to…Rags.”

Numbtongue’s mouth opened wide in delight, and Erin glanced sideways.

“And Silveran or Pawn. But Rags first. Ask her if we can have that cool guy with all the pepper. Calescent. And if she has Goblins who want to work at the inn. I’ll hire as many Workers and Soldiers as I need to if the Goblins won’t come.”

Waxworks. The Thronebearers were horrified to the point where at least one had stopped breathing. Lyonette gasped. She looked at Ulvama and Numbtongue.

“More—but they’re welcome—but as workers?”

“They’re already welcome in the inn. Who knows how to fight and doesn’t get worried when they see Goblins or Antinium? See, this is where you use your brain.”

Erin Solstice smiled. She tapped her head and heard that word echoing again. She frowned, because it was a dangerous one. But surely it had started like this, even if it had taken her longer the other time.

The Goblinfriend of Izril looked out her window to Liscor and then around.

“They’ll be here and never leave. Not so long as I’m here. And why not? Are…Normen and Alcaz here? The two hat guys?”

The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings looked up and raised their caps from where they’d been drinking with Pivr. Erin turned to them.

“I know you have your organization to get back to.”

“Soon, Miss Solstice. We were…considered replaced already, as it were. Without rancor; we’ll be welcome back, but our fellows were entirely understanding about the entire incident. Complimentary, in fact.”

Normen spoke carefully. Erin smiled at him.

“Well, and this is just an offer, but would you like to work here as security?”

“After last time, Miss?”

Alcaz sat up in his seat. Erin flapped a hand at him.

“I believe…in second chances.”

Why she laughed like that, no one knew, but they understood. Erin looked at Normen and Alcaz, then meaningfully at the Thronebearers.

“This time, we’ll get you proper training and equipment. As my employees, not someone else’s. I don’t know if you can quit your jobs, but we have a steady wage. We might need to fill the roster, but we could pay the rest of you. I know you don’t want to wait tables, but what about it?”

She looked at Gothica, Ulvama, Infinitypear, Rasktooth, Dirtmouth, and more. Some of the Goblins grinned. The Antinium looked at each other and then at Bird, the luckiest Antinium in the world.

Not all would stay, but Erin’s mind was made up. The Wandering Inn wouldn’t reopen today, but when it did—the staffing would be different. And if they grew and leveled, well, that was fine for them. Erin had a feeling there might always be more.

Mrsha clapped her hands as Gireulashia watched the young woman make up her mind. Then the [Paragon] looked at the Ekhtouch Gnolls waiting for her.

“Isn’t there anyone else?”

She whined, but softly. One of the [Warriors] looked at Gire strangely.

“There are many, Chieftain. But you claimed Firrelle’s role. If you refuse it, we will find someone else. But we are waiting.”

Maybe that was why…Gire looked at her little friend, Mrsha, and sighed. She kicked at the ground and muttered.

“…If I do become Chieftain, we’ll move north. Past Liscor. But near the door.”

Wham. That was the sound of Chaldion walking into the common room’s door on his way to see a [Paragon] playing chess. Erin sighed. Then she looked at the Horns and the other teams.

“Well, that’s what I’m doing today. What’s happening next?”

It was time to change, it seemed. Ceria began to wake up slightly, and the Halfseekers looked at each other, considering that question. Then all eyes went to the map that Lyonette had bought from the Mage’s Guild, a rough sketch of Izril and a tentative new spot. Ksmvr tilted his head.

“It still looks like a buttocks after all. I cannot unsee it.”

 

——

 

It was the small things that made the difference. The little things that pushed the envelope until you wondered why you were tumbling down a cliff.

It was not that Erin Solstice had Goblins in her inn that people were talking about in Liscor, it was that she might have an all-Antinium and Goblin staff. Which—wasn’t a problem with the Antinium. Although, was the food going to be clean and bug-free?

And like that, they never noticed that the issue had shifted away from having a Goblin, singular, in the inn. Which meant that, in some way, at least here, Erin had won. But rather than wait there, as any good [Strategist] could tell you, that just meant you pressed the attack.

In the same way, you had to consider the ramifications of one of the [Innkeeper]’s requests: transport an Antinium to Liscor.

Yes, it had been done before, in the early days of the war, often in secrecy by military convoys to interrogate and learn from the Antinium. But this wasn’t a prisoner of war. Erin was asking someone to escort an Antinium like a person.

It would be done. That was the crazy thing. Already, the Gnolls had guaranteed the escort.

“It’s, um…the Pride of Kelia. Silver-ranks, good with bows. They’ve got horses and a buncha Silverfangs and even some ‘Ekhtouch’ are going to Liscor. So we’re riding with an escort of around 10-30. It’s not clear, but they’ll keep up, and it’s heavy security.

“For anything except a full attack. Every city will take a swing at that Ant.”

“Not against Gnolls…well, not now, surely? And even Pallass and Salazsar have already put out the word that it’d be really, really bad to kill an Ant.”

“Would it be war?”

Soft chuckles at that. But the room of people discussing the issue didn’t laugh too loudly. They were a bit—nervous. Mostly because at the end of this banter, someone would be on the hook.

You see, there was one more group beside the Drake cities, Gnoll tribes, and Antinium that had a real stake in this undertaking. Yes, the Gnolls were providing a lot of the muscle, but they couldn’t spare that many, and they were probably only taking the Antinium for the…quest.

A quest. Eighty gold coins. That wouldn’t go far split up, although a two-gold coin bounty for a long ride was not something you turned your nose up at.

Yet they had been called upon because they were needed. They were always needed. This group was, arguably, the most important guild in all of Izril. The Assassin’s Guild? Forget about it. The Merchant’s Guild was nothing without them, nor even the [Alchemists] or other professions. Even the Runner’s Guild knew that, for all their ‘fast deliveries’—it was the Driver’s Guild of Izril that took the real products where you wanted to go.

“Looks like they’re asking for speed Skills and an option on secrecy. The Gnolls, that is. So…who wants to go?”

The [Wagon Drivers], [Carters], [Caravan Leaders], and plain [Riders] who made up the Driver’s Guild in one of the larger waystation cities had all gathered for a conference on the issue. They were mostly Drakes and Gnolls since this was south of Izril, but here you’d find more Humans than almost anywhere else, even a Mage’s Guild.

A [Wagon Driver] could go anywhere, after all, and while it was rare for someone to go past the Bloodfields, if someone did go through in the winter, a lucrative if nerve-wracking trip, they were stuck till next year.

Why did you need a Guild for drivers as opposed to the Merchant’s Guild? Well, because [Merchants] were the rich bastards who weren’t looking out for you. Because you needed a way for all the people on the road to let each other know about Bloodfeast Raiders, wars, monster nests, and so on.

There was a lot of respect between the races here. The motto was, ‘you left your tail and fur on the ground’. Which was how non-Humans said it.

However, there was still a pecking order, and north-vs-south relations meant that a lot of the Humans were currently jocular and not leading the conversation. Well, the same went for the Drakes not bringing up any unpleasantness in the Gnoll Plains. But one of the veteran [Drivers] raised a claw.

“It might be best if a non-Drake wagon were to take the lead. Seems like they could use one or two big wagons. Someone with fast Skills. We’ll sit this one out.”

All the Drakes nodded instantly and got glares from everyone else. It was obvious what they were doing. The other [Drivers] instantly began objecting.

“Well, I can’t do it. I don’t have anything nearly big enough for an Antinium.”

“Psh. You’ve got a Farmer-class wagon.”

Barely. It’s not rated for a lot of weight. And they’ll have gear, supplies—I just can’t do it. What about you, Eithe? You were a Plains Gnoll.”

Eithe instantly demurred.

“I’m not quick enough. This—look, we all know it’s going to get attacked. I’m not doing it.”

She just went out and said it. The [Drivers] looked at each other, but the men and women in travelling vests, often with caps or cloaks, just…didn’t want this assignment.

It was a bad one. But the Driver’s Guild had to accept. It looked really bad if they didn’t; this was a Quest, and everyone wanted to know if it would succeed. The Gnoll tribes almost certainly lacked for specialists in the art of driving a wagon.

And it was an art. You could have a fancy [Rider] who could blaze a hundred miles on a horse, but could said [Rider] also haul two thousand pounds of weight without a bag of holding? Wagons carried a lot of cargo.

It might have gotten ugly at this point where one unlucky, younger [Driver] was cajoled and bullied into the job, but then one of the Drakes perked up.

“Hold on. Hold on—I’m checking our maps, and I’ve got our driver. He’s nearby.”

The rest of the Guild looked up. The way the Drake said it was an indication already. There was a certain cadence, like when you said ‘Named Adventurer’.

“Who?”

The Drake had found a name on a ledger of one [Driver] that surely everyone knew about. Marked with a star, no less. He tapped it proudly.

“Let’s call for him. Termin the Omnipresent.

Everyone looked at each other and instantly agreed. Of course. Termin.

There could be no other option.

 

——

 

The man on the wagon rolled into the city of Illuice later that day, grumbling as he had to stop for one of the Drake [Guards] searching his wagon.

Admittedly, they did it fast and accepted his passport, because the Driver’s Guild was a known quantity, but he was in a bad mood. So much so that he snapped at everyone, except for Erma and Fox, his two ponies.

Termin’s old wagon rolled through the streets, a slow progress to let foot-traffic pass, but he knew the route to the Driver’s Guild by heart; it was usually close to the gates. Now, he didn’t drive a Farmer-class wagon, which referred to the extra-wide, reinforced wagons that could carry the most produce aside from a Caravan-class vehicle.

He had a Traveller-class wagon, which meant it could only haul, unaided by magic or Skills, a bunch of people, not an entire mine’s worth of ore, for instance. Without Skills, that was.

With Skills, Termin could and did run trips for some farms, but he didn’t make it his line of work. Some drivers were completely supply-run types, but that was boring. Nor was Termin a driver that always chose somewhat dangerous routes. He did, sometimes, but he didn’t roll around with a bow in the driver’s seat. Nor did he have two braying stallions; Erma and Fox were somewhat elderly ponies who often slowed as Termin nagged them.

And yet, as the two wagons parked in Illuice’s Driver’s Guild and a young [Stablehand] went to unload the goods for local pickup—and tend to the ponies—Termin’s presence was not only expected but slightly noteworthy.

“Are you Termin the…”

“Shh! And yes, I am. Are they expecting me?”

The glare from the man made the Drake boy quail, but he got an instant claw pointing him to the humble guild. Termin jumped off his wagon and stomped around to put feeling into his legs.

He had a long travelling cloak, plain brown pants, and a somewhat dirty frock coat of the same color, although he hadn’t pulled out a scarf yet.

It was becoming fall, and felt the chill far more than young man he had been, who had ridden through rainstorms without getting a cold. And again, he was in a bad mood, so he snapped at the boy.

“I’ve got a bunch of Prelons. Have them ready for a [Merchant] Gwe or whatever her name is—carefully. Don’t even unload them; I’ve seen idiots bruise dozens.”

“Yes, Mister Termin. What about the ponies?”

“Leave ‘em. He’ll rub them down.”

Termin jerked a thumb, and the Drake boy turned. He blinked as a second figure swung down from a second wagon. He had assumed that this was another [Driver] coming in and a second stablehand had been coming out, but it appeared they were together.

“Who’s that?”

“My apprentice.”

And then Termin stomped into the guild, and the two stablehands took the measure of the newcomer.

“Termin the Omnipresent doesn’t have an apprentice, does he?”

One of the Drakes looked blankly at the young man offering a snack to Erma and Fox, then the pair of donkeys who were pulling his wagon. He heard them and turned.

He was a Human, and like Termin, he had a long traveller’s coat and hat on to beat the sun, but he hadn’t gone for the cloak. He blinked around the Driver’s Guild in a way that told the [Stablehands] he was new to the driving game; most [Drivers] had been to every city. Illuice was clearly new to this fellow.

His skin was black, which was interesting, because the two Drakes mostly saw pale-skinned Humans unless they came from other continents. He also looked up when they mentioned Termin’s nickname.

“What did you call him? Termin the…what?

He smiled, but the two Drake [Stablehands]’ serious expressions made him blink.

“You don’t know? Everyone knows Termin. Termin the Omnipresent. He’s a famous [Driver]. Word is they’re making him do the Antinium-delivery. Are you going with him? You might be in danger.”

The young man fetched a brush out and unhitched the ponies as the stablehands gave him some help. The two ponies slobbered over his treats, and Fox tried to eat his hat, but the Human seemed to have their affection, if not respect.

“There is no way that’s Termin’s nickname. He’s never said it to me.”

“Well…what’s your name? Are you actually his apprentice?”

“Yes…I have been for three months now. I’m a [Wagon Driver]. Level…above Level 10. Rhaldon.”

He held out a hand and thus acquainted himself with the stablehands and younger [Drivers] who came out to meet the famous Termin’s protégé. And all throughout, there was the faintest smile of disbelief on Rhaldon’s face.

Termin was famous?

 

——

 

He got proof of that sooner than he expected, because after about twenty minutes of talking outside, the guild doors opened and Termin walked out. He was not stomping—but only because he was talking genially with a few [Drivers].

However, from the way Erma relieved herself right then and there, it was clear Termin was not happy and his animals sensed it. He was smiling in a way that suggested he’d just kicked a post with his big toe and was trying to walk it off without shouting.

“I’ll get on the road, then. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.”

“Termin, Termin—don’t be like that. We’ll all buy you a round when you get back. But you know that only you can roll there fast enough.”

“…Don’t you have [Racer’s Wheels] on your wagon, Ummlt?”

“—But I don’t have your abilities, Termin! And you have two wagons now that you have an apprentice; plenty of room for supplies!”

The hearty laugh from the other man was accompanied by a slap on the back. Termin’s returning glare was interrupted by the others approaching Rhaldon.

“Who’s this?”

“Rhaldon. He’s working with me. Sensible—doesn’t get the wagon into jams, and we’ve been doing bigger deliveries together. He got started in the business three months ago. First just managing the seat, then I got him a wagon. He shot past ten levels in three months. If that’s not talent…”

Now that was interesting. The first ten levels were quick, but that was very fast. So the young man got a second look from all present.

He was rather silent, which you could take as respect, but it was more of a personality thing since he wasn’t bursting to say something. But he did seem to be taking in everything. He was armed with a cheap shortsword at his hip, but that was practically standard. Termin himself had a long club in his seat.

“Really? You just took on an apprentice like that, Termin? Not even a junior [Driver]?”

One of the Gnolls hmmed, and Termin hesitated, but context was needed, so he leaned over.

“Actually, it was purely coincidence. I found him lying by the road, bleeding to death. A big hole in his shoulder. Rhaldon had no idea where he was—bit of the forgetfulness. Probably hit by [Bandits], right, Rhaldon?”

“That’s right, Mister Termin. He saved my life. Rhaldon. Pleased to meet you all.”

And the young assistant was quite charming once he smiled and his reserve vanished for a moment. The other [Drivers] instantly began talking about Bloodfeast Raiders, damned [Bandits] and lazy Watches up north, and wasn’t it a good thing that Rhaldon had met Termin?

“Well, we don’t want to keep you. It’s already been a day and a half, and you’ll want to get to the Meeting of Tribes or wherever they meet you. Best of luck, Termin!”

“Thank you. I’ll hold you to that drink.”

Termin was still annoyed as he got in the wagon, and the two ponies protested having to get on the road again, but Termin bought them off with feed bags and oats sweetened with sugar. It took twenty minutes to leave the city, mostly because of the exit check at the gates and the slow progress of getting through the streets.

But once you were out of the city, you just got on the road, and aside from rude City Runners or some idiot, you just kept on the right side of the road and drove forwards. Naturally, you had an eye on traffic, for bumps or things that could injure your wagon or animals, and threats, but there was a lot, a lot of time most drivers spent sitting there.

You could read a book, talk, admire the sights—it was a personality that dictated the [Driver] class.

Or a lack of any other option. However, Rhaldon was silent until they were a good six minutes from the city. Only then did he begin speaking up, and his reserve turned into a quite chatty discussion with Termin.

“Termin the Omnipresent?”

The man was eating one of the bruised Prelons they’d gotten from the Drake city of Cellidel, which had not been doing too well. Two cities and both times he couldn’t even stay for the night. He was grumpy, but not at his assistant, so he moderated his tone.

“That’s just their stupid nickname. Everyone who’s someone gets it in the Driver’s Guild. You know, Named Adventurer names? We just do it like that. It’s fun to exaggerate.”

“But you are high-level compared to them.”

It wasn’t a question. Termin jerked a thumb over his shoulder and snorted. Fox passed gas rudely, and Rhaldon was glad he wasn’t behind Termin.

“That lot? Highest-level is Level 30, and that’s only Ummlt, the Drake with the scar on his lip. Don’t let him fool you. He’s got a fast [Wagon], but that’s about it. And he got that scar opening a bottle of wine with a knife. Slashed his lip right open.”

The young man snorted. Rhaldon glanced sideways at Termin, and the [Wagon Driver] looked back.

“Not as nervous around the Watch this time? We could have stayed in the city except for this stupid job.”

Rhaldon rolled his shoulders.

“…No. Cellidel was different.”

Termin had already produced a pipe; he’d gotten some very nice Dreamleaf from the Strongheart farm, and it lasted him months. He normally put only a bit in the pipe, but he was in a bad mood, so he filled it up.

“Yes, it was. I chewed your ear off, but you were right. Turns out they had riots; that was on me wanting a rest. You’ve got good instincts. It’ll take you far. Especially if you keep leveling up like you’re fighting Crelers.”

“Thanks.”

The two wagons rolling side-by-side were overtaken by one of the fancy carriages running down the middle of the trade roads—Izril’s Wonders. The [Driver] in charge might have been in the Driver’s Guild, but he was probably a freelancer who thought himself too good for the low-down wagon drivers like Termin and Rhaldon.

His superior look certainly indicated that as the Drake passed by. Termin frowned at him and then waved at a few Drake children who were pointing at the Humans. Rhaldon eyed him again.

“So about Termin the Omnipresent…”

“Shut it. It’s just a few Skills. I’m not that high-level.”

But he was, in a way. Embarrassed though he might be, Rhaldon had figured that much out from the first week of Termin saving his life. Yes, his wagon was plain and he didn’t have any magical gear.

Then again, that was probably why most [Bandits] didn’t look twice at Termin. He was literally not worth robbing unless it seemed like he really had something valuable. And if they tried, well—

It was hard to catch Termin. He had a knack.

Termin had been to the Strongheart’s farm. He had also been to Reizmelt, First Landing, and as far south as Zeres. He got around.

In fact, going from where he’d found Rhaldon to the west of Invrisil along the Vail Forest, down to here in Illuice, around the western edge of the Gnoll Plains, was no small feat in three months, let alone because the Bloodfields were active, and Termin was doing deliveries the entire way.

How did he do it? Well…Rhaldon saw very little changing as he and Termin chatted, mostly about the other [Drivers]; the road rolled onwards, and the Drakes had done a good job paving it, unlike some of the muddy, untended roads you could find in the unsettled parts of the north.

They had time to call out to other drivers, exchange words with the friendlier travellers, and Termin even talked with a jogging City Runner coming their way who was only too happy to ride with them for twenty minutes and jaw about gossip.

The life of a [Wagon Driver] didn’t have to be fast-moving action. It almost never was. And yet, despite the sedate pace of Erma and Fox—including them actually veering off the road to relieve themselves again, despite Termin cursing them—it seemed to Rhaldon that they were making good time.

It was subtle clues, like the distance markers that the trade roads had. And…at one point, a fancy carriage with a brilliant trim of blue across the grey sides raced past that said Izril’s Wonders. The Drake [Driver] who was very familiar scoffed at the two wagon-drivers…then he stared at Termin and Rhaldon’s faces and nearly crashed the coach.

“I’m pretty sure that was just being petty, Termin.”

Rhaldon commented as Termin cackled at the rearing horses and swearing oncoming traffic berating the Drake. The old man winked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Rhaldon. Say—you don’t mind the Antinium, do you?”

“Never met them. Bugs?”

“The Black Tide, aye. You must be from Baleros or Terandria or Chandrar if you hadn’t met Gnolls or Drakes. Anything jogging your memory?”

Not at all for someone from a world with only Humans. But of course, Rhaldon didn’t say that. He just shook his head and demurred.

And he was sure Termin knew he was lying. But he didn’t press Rhaldon, and as the young man had observed—Termin had secrets of his own.

Rhaldon had surreptitiously fished out the book he’d bought with his first payday, but he kept talking to Termin, trying to get more out of him. There were interesting facts about Termin. Again, he did not have magical artifacts. Rhaldon had seen him surrender his cargo to the [Bandits] who’d held them up, and he and Termin had let the Watch know and not done anything as stupid as trying to fight.

And yet, here was an interesting fact for you: Rhaldon had learned that Erma and Fox, the too-intelligent ponies who could pull the quite heavy wagon along, were old friends of Termin’s. They had little discipline, could be fussy, but were quite affectionate and fairly hard-working despite their clear age—both were grey like the way Termin’s hair was going, despite him buying hair dyes from [Alchemists].

They were also both forty-six years old. Termin had bought them when he started his career, and he had never changed animals.

Horses lived for about thirty years on average. Ponies had a longer lifespan by about a decade. Rhaldon was not actually a huge expert on livestock, but he’d read that fact one time, and it had stuck out to him.

Of course, since magical animals existed, he’d struck up a conversation with a [Hostler] at the next town and been assured that was not normal for two ponies in a [Wagon Driver]’s care, especially ones that weren’t magical breeds.

Every fact Rhaldon knew was suspect, so he made a habit of cross-referencing them with this world’s facts. Sometimes what he was told was suspect, but—anyways.

The second thing was that Termin went places. But again—he didn’t zoom about. He just…appeared.

He was very cagey about his Skill, and Rhaldon was still new to the idea, but he had three months, and this time he knew the nickname Termin had never uttered once around him. At last, the exasperated [Driver] let it slip as they took a lunch break.

“All right, all right! Yes, it is a Skill. Happy? I can’t make Erma and Fox cross a hundred miles in a day. That makes you stand out.”

And standing out got you killed because aforementioned [Bandits] thought you had something important. Rhaldon nodded, chewing on some soft jerky. Fox still tried for a bite.

“Right, so how does it work?”

Termin glanced around.

“I…tend to meet people. Sometimes I think—‘I should go down this road’. And then I run across a familiar face or someone I want to meet. Does that make sense? It’s sometimes hairy. Remember the story I told you about running into those damn screaming frogs?”

“I remember. Is it profitable?”

Termin smiled.

“Sometimes. I’ve met some pretty important people in my time. Very interesting stories. Come to that—most of my Skills are for avoiding trouble. That stupid nickname is just jealous idiots.”

Termin the Omnipresent. It certainly fit his Skills. And Termin’s glance at Rhaldon…well. No one could be more grateful than Rhaldon. He wasn’t a medical…expert, but he was pretty sure he’d been shot through an artery when the [Wagon Driver] had poured a potion on him and saved his life.

“How’d you get so many levels, then, Termin?”

If Rhaldon was right, Termin was a Level 40+ [Wagon Driver], which made him one of the best on the continent. The man grumbled, but looked pleased at telling stories. He had seemed bored, which might have been why Rhaldon had made it as his assistant.

“I kept getting into scrapes. That’s the trick. Reasonably risking my life now and then. Not in a big way. I never tried bashing an Adult Creler’s head in, but I’ve carried folk away from a Creler infestation. I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen some terrible things happen and couldn’t do a thing. But I’ve transported adventurers, [Ladies] and [Lords], even [Knights] and whatnot in this wagon. Even saw the Goblin Lord’s army or part of it. Damndest thing. I leveled up from that—although it might have been me meeting Grand Magus Eldavin before he revealed himself.”

He looked proud about that. And that was probably why all the [Drivers] gave him that nickname; when it came to telling stories, you couldn’t beat Termin.

“So who’re the other famous drivers? There has to be at least one with a name like that.”

Rhaldon teased Termin, and the man sighed.

“Let’s get ‘em moving. I can feel the road calling. We might skip all the way into the Great Plains, but I don’t know…maybe it’s a new meeting. Be very respectful; that’s the ticket. You never know who’ll become famous.”

Rhaldon scrambled to stomp out the fire and get things moving. He did stuff like that, like unloading or arranging the night’s rooms as the apprentice. Termin looked glad not to, and only when they were on the road again did he speak.

“…Nicknames. Nicknames? Ah, got one. You haven’t met her, and you’d better be on your best behavior around her. No weird questions. Not around Karsy.”

“Karsy?”

Termin nodded.

“Her nickname’s…Karsaeu the Unmarked. She rolls the Unmarked Coach, and you don’t ever trouble her or her passengers. Who else has a stupid name? Oh—Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man.”

Rhaldon snorted, but Termin gave him a serious look.

“That’s the actual nicknames we get given. So ‘Termin the Omnipresent’ is better than some.”

Rhaldon supposed that when you were a bored [Wagon Driver], nicknaming yourselves in the most grandiose way possible was a way of coping. He badgered Termin for six more names, then, as usual, they fell into a peaceful silence. Termin hummed as they left the road, following a trail only he knew, and they rolled onto the grasslands. It was hard for Rhaldon, and the donkeys had to struggle despite his smaller wagon; Termin’s rolled across the grass as if it were perfectly maintained stone.

“Watch for soft spots. I don’t want you stuck. Follow me exactly; I’ll maneuver us.”

Even then, Rhaldon could still steer very easily since the donkeys could follow the wagon in front of them. He spent his time reading.

Baleros, Chandrar, adventurers and wars. And we’re going to the spot where the Gnolls were nearly all murdered by Drakes. This is history—and none of this is for me. I can’t do much unless…

Rhaldon pulled out his money pouch and stared at the singular gold coin and silver he had. He had spent most of his earnings, and Termin had bought the donkeys and wagon, so it was quite fair how much Rhaldon got, or so he understood.

Not nearly enough to make any purchases, and since Plain’s Eye is gone, I don’t think Gaarh Marsh will be selling anyways.

Maybe after they did this trip. Termin glanced over his shoulder.

“You still looking to buy some fancy glassware and such?”

“And other things.”

“Wait ‘till Liscor, then. They’ve got this fancy magic door that connects to Pallass and Invrisil. You’ll do all your shopping then, and by the sounds of it, we’ll both get at least a few gold.”

That did seem good. Rhaldon relaxed and nodded. Termin was smiling again.

“Did I say that I know the [Innkeeper]? Even transported her magic door with those Gold-rank adventurers.”

“Yes, Termin. You’ve mentioned it.”

“She came back from the dead, even. ‘Course, that’s how it is for me. I told you about that [Farmer] that I took from his farm, right? Eldertuin the Fortress?”

“Him too. And the Wind Runner. And the Horns, yes. And Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers…”

“I once had Elia Arcsinger herself in here, you know. Just a ride to Dwarfhalls Rest, since her team was tired.”

Rhaldon sighed. The one problem with Termin was—

He did like to brag. But Rhaldon was quite grateful. He just—

He was not going to be a [Wagon Driver] all his life. Hopefully. That was not what he was good at. And yet, how else were you going to make enough money to get all the things he needed? Adventuring? No shot. He had no experience with any weapons, and even if he had a gun, he’d heard Termin talking about Crelers.

Acting as a [Merchant]—maybe. Rhaldon had a very good head for numbers, but starting that required capital. He had really toyed with the idea of apprenticing himself in his chosen profession, but he might have years of a regular apprenticeship, and all his expertise would not jive well with this world’s understanding of his field.

Better, far better to work with Termin, especially because it paid far more than regular [Wagon Drivers] earned. Once he had a few gold coins, maybe Rhaldon would see about his first foray into the world he knew.

But then again—from all he’d heard, alchemy was an explosive, mad-science approach to creating potions and whatnot. He had worked in chemical labs where an explosion never occurred.

Rhaldon hummed with Termin as they slowly came over a hill and saw a ruined battlefield and a bunch of Gnollish huts. Termin’s eyes focused on a single Antinium Soldier drawing pictures on the ground, surrounded by Gnolls as they spotted the two wagons. The Earther gazed at the foreign bug-man that the world hated so much.

It certainly wasn’t ever boring with Termin.

 

——

 

Unfortunately, Termin was a boring fellow. At least on first blush. So while Chieftain Feshi herself met with him to make sure he understood his task, she left the escorting duty to Nailren of Kelia’s Pride, the Silverfangs, and the Ekhtouch warriors.

Termin was not famous enough to warrant Rose meeting him. And even if she had—no. But Antherr would be going to Liscor, possibly a bit faster than usual.

Erin Solstice was happy to learn that Antherr had a ride, though, and she did a double-take at the name listed.

Termin? Wow, he gets around, doesn’t he? Why’s he down south?”

“I don’t know. Is he that [Wagon Driver] that’s helped you out, Erin?”

Lyonette vaguely remembered the name, but Erin nodded with a huge smile.

“That guy’s cool. I mean—I’ve met him a few times, and so has Ryoka. Weird. He gets around.”

That was all she thought about Termin the Omnipresent. It would take him a while to arrive, and Erin was simply glad of the news.

However, there was a bit of unhappiness in today’s employment decisions. And that person came by the inn to protest in person.

“I am sad.”

A Worker with silver antennae announced his grief. He poured a cup of water over his head.

Erin stared at him. Water dripped off the Antinium’s head. He drooped.

“Have I failed? I have levelled up. Is my cleaning no good?”

“Silveran? Wh—what’s wrong? Why are you sad?”

“You do not want me.”

“What? Silveran!”

Erin had to make him bend down so she could hug him. She didn’t get why the [Cleaner] was so upset until he sat down.

“You wish to hire [Cleaners] from me. And the Free Hive. But not me. I am no longer needed? I cleaned my best, but Ishkr said the inn was closed. Did I clean the wrong stores? I will stop now.”

He was trembling, he was so upset. And as Erin looked at the water dripping from his mandibles, she realized he had learned to cry.

“Silveran, that’s the exact opposite reason! You’re…too good at cleaning!”

The Worker stopped crying and stared at Erin. Too good at cleaning? Was such a thing possible? He opened and closed his mandibles.

“But I was told I could not be employed at The Wandering Inn any longer.”

“By who?”

For answer, Silveran pointed an indignant Erin to the culprit.

Lyonette?

“That’s not what I said! I would never—I said Silveran is too successful!”

The Antinium did not understand the difference. Lyonette hurried over, flushing, and defended herself as Erin realized the miscommunication.

“Silveran runs Silveran’s Cleaners, Erin. He employs dozens of Antinium! I told you we couldn’t match his prices.”

“I will work for free. I earn enough money so I will work for free, please. Or I can pay you…”

Silveran was calculating his income, and Erin started chuckling. She put a hand on Silveran’s.

“I get it. Silveran—Lyonette is saying you’re doing so well it would be wrong of us to make you work here for a fraction of the pay. It’s not fair.”

“But I wish to work here.”

The Worker was still upset. Had he cleaned his way out of his dream job? He succeeded into failure! Erin urgently patted his hands and called for a bracing bowl of acid flies.

“Silveran, that’s not it. Now you can send us some of your good Workers and even Soldiers if they can clean stuff. Listen—I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s better if you keep Silveran’s Cleaners running. Doesn’t it really help?”

It did, and many [Shopkeepers] told Silveran his prices and quality couldn’t be beat. It also meant Workers got to have a paying job and far better conditions than the Hive.

And yet…Silveran closed his mandibles sharply.

“I do not want to help. I want to work here.”

He knew that was wrong, but it seemed to him that by helping everyone, he had thusly made himself less happy. He wanted to be…here.

He looked around The Wandering Inn, and the [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then a big smile crossed her face, and she poked one of his ‘cheeks’ since there was nothing to pinch.

“You silly Silveran, you! Don’t you get it? You might not be able to work here as a [Cleaner] all day—but that just means you can come here whenever you want. And hang out with me!”

“I can?”

The Antinium gave Erin a blank look. She rubbed his head.

“Yes, you can. And you don’t have to clean, so you and I can hang out and play chess.”

“I do not enjoy chess. But this sounds enjoyable.”

“…Huh?”

The betrayal. The drama. But Silveran looked at Erin, and his overwhelming distress faded into…well, he still wanted to work here. But maybe he could pay to sweep the floors? And if he was a paying customer, could he not, in fact, eat all the acid flies he had ever wanted but been too afraid to ask for?

“Erin. If I can pay for food—may I ask for two bowls of acid flies?”

The gluttony. Erin looked at Silveran and began laughing. Then she personally brought him a bowl, and Silveran began to appreciate money in ways he had never thought of before.

“Do you and the Workers actually spend money, Silveran?”

Fascinated, Erin rested her chin on her hands as she sat with him. Silveran replied absently, gobbling acid flies.

“We pay for food. And pillows.”

“And…?”

“And paint? Garry has a bakery which offers food for coins. We often spend money there.”

“Nothing else, Silveran?”

The Worker hesitated. Now that he was a [Cleaning Manager], he did understand money. He had kept trying to offer some services for free, but he got paid, and so he had divided much of his profits to his Workers—but he had needed to keep money for supplies and such.

He understood the myriad things that people spent money on, but he, as a Worker…Silveran glanced at Erin, and in many ways, he was as much of a stranger to Antinium as Yellow Splatters, Pawn, or even Crusader 57.

It was just that Silveran was to economics what Pawn was to faith. He had brought pets to the Free Antinium. Now, he had the most devious of thoughts.

“…I do not spend coins, Erin. But I could. Could I pay you for a…room in your inn?”

Erin blinked at Silveran and glanced at Lyonette.

“Absolutely! Why, we’d let you stay for—Lyonette! Lyonette!

The [Princess] had devised a new method for dealing with Erin while she was wheelchair-bound. Which was to roll Erin away from Silveran and sit down. Silveran put down a payment on a room and then was told he could move in now.

He walked upstairs, peered into his room of choice, and decided that he didn’t want Bird for a neighbor, so he took one down the hall that he liked. It wasn’t that Bird was noisy—he just left rotting birds around his room, and Silveran objected to his lifestyle.

The inn had its first new (paying) guest. Despite her being slightly annoyed at Lyonette, Erin was glad of it and smiled.

“Now we just need Workers and Goblins. Hey—I guess we might need more rooms, Lyonette. Especially if we’re putting them all up here.”

“In that case, we need to talk to Hexel. But let’s talk to Rags first.”

Erin nodded instantly and frowned.

“Speaking of which—she’s at Goblinhome, right? Maybe I can go there. I’d like to see it.”

Erin wistfully looked around. The person she owed speaking to most was arguably Rags. There were others, of course, like Fetohep and such—but Rags?

Yet it seemed like the little Chieftain had left and not come back, and Erin didn’t know why. The only people who would know how to get to her would be Numbtongue and Ulvama.

And Kevin, for some reason. Erin found Numbtongue first. He was playing cards with Gothica, Octavia, and Liska over lunch.

“Psst, Numbtongue.”

“I’m working! I just sat down because they asked!”

Liska abandoned the table in a flurry, and Lyonette frowned after her as Numbtongue blinked at Erin.

“What?”

“We’re going to hire Rags’ Goblins if any want to work here. I think they will, right?”

Numbtongue stared at Erin’s face and around the famous inn and at what might be the only [Natural Ally] of Goblins.

“…Yes.”

“Great, great! Well, I haven’t seen her either, and I bet Goblinhome is hard to get to. Especially for, y’know.”

Erin gestured at her wheelchair. She leaned forwards.

“So I was thinking—why don’t we ask if Rags can put a teleportation stone in Goblinhome? Once we get the magic door back, obviously.”

Numbtongue heard a snort from Gothica. He himself kept a blank face as he took Liska’s cards and reshuffled them into the deck.

“Nope.”

“Huh? Why not? I don’t really want to ride a Wyvern or something. It looks really uncomfortable even if I could get up there.”

The [Bard] gave Erin a long ‘are-you-serious’ look, and when she didn’t blink, he sighed.

“Think about it.”

The [Innkeeper] frowned at him, but it took her only a minute before she sighed.

Oh. Not a good idea?”

Nope. Lots of people hate Goblins.”

“Okay, then we’ll just send a [Message]. Can you tell me who to send it to? Lyonette needs to know.”

“Nope.”

Numbtongue scowled as Gothica took the hand. He pushed two coins forwards, and Ulvama sauntered over to the table. She was dealt in as Erin waited.

“…Why not?”

“What she want to do, send [Message] to Rags?”

Numbtongue rolled his eyes and nodded. Ulvama laughed.

“Nope!”

Erin looked from Goblin to Goblin and then folded her arms.

“I get it, I get it. It’ll reveal them. Fine. Then we’ll send a messenger or something. Er—how do we do that? Maybe we have to hire someone to hike up there?”

“Into the High Passes?”

Octavia had to interject at this point, and Erin scowled as she heard what she sounded like.

“Well—how are we supposed to talk to Rags? Wait until she comes down?”

“She might not come down. Tenbault’s [Healer] is making a huge fuss. If she comes down by Wyvern, they follow the Wyvern back.”

“Or shoot it for bounty.”

Ulvama agreed. Erin looked from Ulvama to Numbtongue with an increasing frown.

“Then—if she goes on foot or with those wolves? And disguises her trail?”

Both Hobgoblins considered the idea as Gothica tried to peer at Octavia’s cards surreptitiously and got a glare from the [Alchemist]. Someone whispered in Erin’s ear.

Can’t do that. They’re watching the inn.”

Erin jumped. She turned, and a Drake with scars all over her face stared at her with huge, piercing eyes.

“Who—Tessa?”

Numbtongue and Ulvama nearly shot out of their seats with Octavia, but the Named Adventurer just stared at them and then pointed out the window.

“They’re watching the Goblins. And you. And the [Princess].”

Erin rolled over to the window and stared blankly out at the grasslands. She didn’t see much, just a lovely orange sheen on some of the grass. She could see the Blue Fruit grove from here, a Dinobird flying well out of Bird’s range, and one of the new villages under construction.

“Who’s watching? Or is that a general thing?”

The Named Adventurer pointed. Erin squinted.

“…Nope. I don’t see anything.”

“One second.”

Shriekblade popped the window open and clambered out. Erin saw her race across the ground and draw two daggers in her claws as she ran low, eyes fixed on—

“Aaaaaah!”

Erin jumped as someone wearing a camouflaging cloak that looked just like the grass leapt up and ran screaming. She caught sight of a spyglass, a terrified face—and then Tessa was walking back. She crawled through the window.

“Want me to stab everyone I see? I could kill them or just…stab them.”

“No. Thanks.”

Erin turned back to Ulvama and Numbtongue and saw both nodding appreciatively. She frowned; she hadn’t sensed the people outside, but they were well away from her inn. She turned back to the others.

“Wait a second, is that why Rags left so fast? She was afraid of being tailed?”

“Probably. You said she was smart.”

Ulvama poked Numbtongue, and he grouchily poked her back. Erin looked out the window at the High Passes looming beyond.

“But hold on—how will she come back? How will I speak to her?”

No one had an answer for that, and Erin looked around. The mission changed from being…recruit Goblins to something else.

Find a safe way to Goblinhome. Erin rubbed at her head.

“Why is everything so hard? I just want to send Rags one message without it being difficult. Numbtongue, could you get there if you were, like, invisible and we made sure no one was tailing you?”

The [Bard] considered this.

“Yes…but I don’t want to climb the High Passes alone. Sounds like a good way to get Eaten-Death.”

Erin’s face fell. She looked at Ulvama, and the [Shaman] stared back. Does it look like I’m going to go hiking, ever?

Erin gazed around, and someone waved a claw in her face.

“Me? I could go. No one finds me.”

Tessa stood to attention, and Erin blinked at the strange Named Adventurer. She hadn’t really said much more than she was here to guard Lyonette. Had Ilvriss sent her or…?

“You’d do that, Tessa? We can’t really pay—are we paying you?”

“Nope. But I’ll work for free. Just keep giving me Faerie Flowers. I can go now. It’ll only take two days if it’s not too high up.”

Erin looked back at Numbtongue. He eyed Tessa. Send a Named Adventurer to Goblinhome? Erin sighed.

“Yeah, don’t give me that look. I get it, I get it. Bad idea. Darn. Damn, even.”

Erin was rolling around in frustration, trying to come up with a good way of doing things. Goblinhome…that was another problem for the future, and unfortunately, even the wisest ghosts hadn’t had much input on Goblins.

Except for Zineryr. Well—Erin wasn’t out of options yet. She rolled back to the table with the pot, and Ulvama looked up from her card game as Erin tapped the pot.

Did it vibrate slightly? Even Tessa stared at the pot; it was faintly magical, but this was not spellcraft like most understood.

“I could try to send something to Rags. I don’t know how to do, um, sendings. Or—what would it be? Not a hex, but maybe a physical vessel? I might have to do one of those messenger spells, but I don’t know how.”

Or rather, she needed a teacher and practice. Erin thought to herself.

“What if…I made like a flying soufflé that homes in on Rags? I probably have enough power here to do that.”

Octavia looked at Gothica, and the Cave Goblin shook her head. Clearly insane, fold. Ulvama spoke up as Erin frowned at her pot.

“Waste of power. Don’t waste that, stupid.”

She pointed indignantly at the valuable well of power. Erin jumped.

“It’s just a thought! Hey, you’re a [Shaman], right?”

“Maybe.”

Ulvama gave Erin a suspicious look. Erin waved her hands.

“Can’t you—tell Rags something secretly?”

Ulvama, the [Shaman] of the Flooded Waters tribe, thought about it.

“Yes.”

Numbtongue put down his cards and glared at her. Erin lowered her hands.

“Wh—you can? Then what am I doing asking for help? Can you send something to Rags, please?”

“Hm. Fine.

Ulvama yawned, looking very reluctant to bestir herself over this trivial issue. She snapped her fingers and looked around.

“Give. Give.”

“What? This?”

They were keeping score on a piece of parchment. Octavia handed Ulvama a quill and a scrap to write on. Ulvama lazily scrawled on it then folded it up, flicked open her claw twice over it in a vaguely magical way, and handed it to Erin solemnly.

“Here. Use to contact Rags.”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated, because…she could tell Ulvama had not cast any magic. But perhaps it was some kind of trick. She opened the piece of folded parchment and read what Ulvama had written.

Go talk to Kevin.

The [Shaman] smirked as Erin lowered the parchment and gave her a narrow-eyed look.

 

——

 

“Talk to Rags? Sure! I’ve got the private speaking stone right here. It’s not live, so you send a message and she gets it. Do you want me to leave her something? Erin? Erin?”

Kevin looked around for the rogue-type speaking stone that Rags had been given by her ‘contacts’ in the underworld, and Erin kept smacking her head into his desk.

“Ulvama didn’t tell me—she just let me—”

“She’s sort of like that. I think she’s testing you. Okay, let me record a message. ‘Hey, Rags, it’s me, Kevin. Erin wants to know when you can meet secretly because of all the watchers. And, uh, she’d like to hire Calescent to cook in her inn, and other Goblins. Peace. Let’s hang soon. Kevin out.’ Sound good?”

It was the most Kevin message ever, which Erin supposed was a type of cipher in itself. She thanked Kevin and rolled back to the inn with Numbtongue pushing her.

She glared at Ulvama, and the [Shaman] looked up from her game of cards.

“Shamanic wisdom. Pay me later.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed, but she missed the way Lyonette glanced sharply at Ulvama. The Hobgoblin was a guest with everyone else for helping save Mrsha and bring Erin back. But there might be a reckoning sooner rather than later. Oh, yes…

But perhaps it was simply time to have those conversations being put off. Erin’s heart thumped hard at the idea of speaking to Rags. She’d heard some of what the Goblin had done.

Kidnapping a [Healer]? Attacking a city? That wasn’t good—and yet she had come to Liscor leading a tribe of Goblins.

How had she changed? What would Erin say? And…the [Innkeeper] slowed as Numbtongue came to a stop and looked towards the card table.

“Erin, you want to go anywhere now?”

She hesitated, but someone spoke up.

“I could push her, Numbtongue. If she wants to go anywhere. Erin. Do you want to speak now?”

The [Innkeeper] looked to her left, and Ceria Springwalker walked forwards. Erin’s expression changed slightly as Numbtongue stepped back.

“Ah. Ceria. I…is now a good time?”

Ceria had her hands in her pockets. She looked at Erin apprehensively, but nodded slowly.

“Now’s as good a time as any. Should we go for a walk in the [Garden of Sanctuary] or…?”

Mrsha was playing with Gire inside, and they had ears like a hawk. Or ears like a hawk had eyes. Erin glanced out the window.

“Why don’t we go outside? Assuming there are no spies everywhere.”

“I can keep them away.”

Tessa offered. Lyonette looked up in alarm.

“Why don’t I send, uh, Ser Dalimont and—”

“No. I’ll take Erin. We’ll be safe together. Does that sound good, Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] looked at Ceria as Lyonette began to protest. But the [Cryomancer] just took Erin’s chair as the [Innkeeper] nodded, and the two headed outside.

Erin didn’t see any obvious watchers as Ceria wheeled her into the sun, but she thought she felt some eyes on her. Ceria looked around and pointed the way Erin had seen before.

“Most of the Shield Spider nests are gone, I hear. What if we did a big loop around there? It’s mostly flat. All we have to do is get down the hill without you crashing. And without anyone watching us via spell.”

“I should have anti-spying gear thanks to Saliss.”

The half-Elf nodded. Ceria gestured, and Erin dug her feet into the ground, ready to help slow the descent down the fairly steep hill. But to her surprise, she felt herself sliding—

“Oh no! Ceria—whoooooaa!”

That was because instead of going down the hill and wiping out again, Erin felt herself rolling down a slick ramp of ice. It wasn’t nearly as steep as the hill, and she looked back as she flailed and saw Ceria skating behind her.

“Ceria! That’s amazing! It’s a rollercoaster!”

The half-Elf laughed.

“I have no idea what that is. Here we go.”

She came to a stop and began pushing Erin across flatter ground. The ice ramp melted behind her, and Erin looked at Ceria. It was so—effortless. She had seen Ceria learning to cast [Ice Wall], but this?

“That’s amazing, Ceria. Is this all magic you learned in Chandrar or the Village of the Dead raid? I never said…thank you properly for everything. I’m sorry for jumping you with the stuff about Gerial yesterday. It’s just—”

“One second, Erin. We’re out of magical surveillance, but I think we should be in private, don’t you? No watchers?”

Ceria looked to one side, and Erin hesitated. The half-Elf’s pale gaze was focused, and her voice was cold as she stared at a patch of air.

Something rippled as another watcher fled. Ceria kept staring as Erin blinked at her.

“No watchers. And no second warnings, understood?”

Erin blinked at Ceria and looked around. Nothing seemed to move that she could see, and she wondered how many invisible or unseen observers there could be. Ceria pushed Erin onward four steps. Then she pointed a finger.

“[Ice Pillar].”

Erin heard a short scream. Then she saw a pillar of ice punch a hitherto invisible figure up into the air. Erin’s head tracked the figure going up and landing. It did not sound like a good landing.

“We—we could go back to the inn, Ceria. It’s private, and the garden’s secure. I could ask Mrsha and Gire—”

“You have to warn them at some point, Erin. Looks like they’re clearing out.”

Indeed, it looked like one of the observers was even tending to the one who’d gotten their ribs broken. Erin looked at Ceria, and one of the masked watchers raised two hands and backed up. The half-Elf nodded, and they recovered the wounded person.

She’s changed. That didn’t seem like a Ceria-move. Insulting poor beavers with foul language? Yes. This? Maybe Ksmvr’s talk about displaying dominance was rubbing off on Ceria.

Yet, when the half-Elf looked down, her rueful smile was completely familiar.

“Dead gods, Erin. You just can’t come back from the dead quietly, can you? The world will never be the same. Yvlon nearly swallowed a chair when she saw the Quest.”

“I, uh—well. I did it to help Antherr. And it’s not like anyone didn’t want to find the City of Stars.”

Erin spluttered, but she smiled in relief. Ceria shook her head.

“If it exists, you mean. Now we know it exists and—you came back from the dead, and I thought surviving the Village of the Dead and teleporting to Chandrar was going to be the big story. Now I’ll be lucky if anyone buys me a drink.”

“Hey! That’s huge! I can’t believe you did that.”

“Neither can I. We went—sort of crazy. When you died, I mean. In hindsight, that was a really, really stupid thing to do. Attack a death-zone with Gold-ranks and two Named-ranks? We should have died, but we got bailed out by a real adventurer. Do you know what happened?”

“I—only the clips.”

“Clips?”

Erin tried to explain.

“The video recordings of the scrying orb.”

“Oh, I see. Clips. That’s another word from your home, right?”

Ceria glanced at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] nodded. It was amazing how many secrets lay between them. Yet…Ceria just moved on, and Erin stared down at the lovely orange grass they were moving on.

“—You did that for me. People died. Seborn nearly got killed, I heard. And some people. There were deaths.”

The half-Elf nodded. Her voice was level. But not emotionless. She took a deep breath and spoke in a sigh, looking sad.

“There always are, Erin. Don’t blame yourself. Do you think all the teams that went there went for you? They went because we told them there was a shot. Adventurers go in and go out. You remember how we went into Liscor’s crypt. We knew we might be underlevelled, but we prepared as much as we could. We do risky things. The Village of the Dead was stupid.”

“Not stupid. Not that I—”

Ceria stopped Erin.

“It was stupid. It was a calculated risk, but going into a death-zone? Going into a dungeon even with all the precautions in the world? That’s what adventuring is. Whatever you want to call it—if I could go back in time knowing what I do, Erin? I’d try the raid again. Only, I’d get more Named-rank adventurers, prepare a bit longer.”

“Really? Even knowing what happened with that crazy sword-guy?”

Erin looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf smiled crookedly.

“He wasn’t the worst thing there. But believe me, Erin. What we got from that raid was more than worth what we, the Horns, put in. I can’t speak for everyone. And what happened in Chandrar doesn’t count. Myself? I’d take it all, but I’m not—Pisces.”

Erin looked up and nodded slowly. Her smile faded, and she bowed her head.

“No. I need to talk to him. Do you know what…?”

“No. He won’t talk to me, Yvlon, or even Ksmvr about the specifics. We left some of his friends behind.”

“For me. Again. Ceria—”

The half-Elf waited as Erin struggled for words. The [Innkeeper] burst out at last.

“If you’d died, I’d never have forgiven myself. I’m glad you made it—but I wish you hadn’t done that! What would have happened if you died?”

Ceria thought about it. She was walking at a sedate pace. After a moment, she flicked Erin’s forehead gently with a finger.

“I think you would act just like we did after you died, Erin. We weren’t thinking straight.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t know a bunch of Drakes were lying outside the inn with crossbows. Erin. I’m not blaming you for anything we did. The Horns of Hammerad are big boys and girls, except for Ksmvr. We went into everything with eyes open, just like Halrac and Jelaqua’s teams, and everyone else. We will settle our dues. Tree rot, they still have that Helm of Fire, and they’ve been negotiating for it for months.

Ceria sighed, and Erin stirred.

“Oh, the artifacts? Wait, they still haven’t distributed the loot?”

Ceria shrugged.

“Adventurers and the biggest raid in decades? Nope. We complicated it too, by being alive instead of dead. Personally, I think the teams are waiting to see what we have before claiming some of it. That’s going to be—a problem.”

She scratched at her head.

“…They’re not getting our stuff. I think we’ll have to sort it out, but that’s our problem.”

Erin didn’t envy Ceria that, but this wasn’t the core of what they needed to say. They were circling.

“How was Savere, Ceria? It sounds like a really nasty place.”

The half-Elf shrugged.

“It isn’t so bad. There are some truly unpleasant characters, like this half-Elf I met, but I got through it by being cool-headed.”

She winked, and Erin groaned at the pun. Ceria went on after a moment of thought.

“…It’s very different from Izril or Terandria in many ways. Chandrar, that is. But the people were still people. I bet you can understand that.”

“Yep. So—Fetohep of Khelt really helped you out? Or did he take you away from what you needed to do?”

Erin squirmed in her chair. Ceria chewed that over.

“He helped me. I didn’t lose too much. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces, they all had things to do. But me? I made one huge change in Chandrar, and all my challenges were simpler on my side, I think. I feel like coming back to Izril is where things will…matter.”

She was speaking very casually about everything. There was something off about Ceria that Erin couldn’t explain, but then she heard the half-Elf curse.

“Tree rot, I’m going to explode if I don’t bring it up. Erin! Tell me what Gerial said.”

She slowed, and Erin saw Ceria walk around to face her. Then she saw the half-Elf’s face and the barely suppressed nervousness in Ceria’s eyes.

The fear.

It was there, and Erin relaxed because that was the half-Elf she knew. Ceria raked at her hair.

“I ran away when you brought it up. I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, Ceria. I shouldn’t have said it like that. And I had no proof. But…”

Erin’s mouth had gone dry. She spread her hands.

“…Believe me. I met ghosts. I…believe me?”

Ceria sat down cross-legged. She picked up some grass, put it into her mouth, and spat it out.

“I believe you. I believed you the moment you said that.”

“Wh—you did? Then why did you…?”

Why’d you run off when you were about to hear the words of your dead friend? Numbtongue was right. Erin did have stupid ideas.

Ceria was scratching at one cheek, and she kept glancing at Erin. Her face was trying to smile, but she was rubbing her fingers together on her skeletal hand and making a faint rasping sound.

“I…I think I’m ready, now, Erin? What was he like? What was it—no. You go ahead. I’ll just listen. I’ll shut up. I’m…ready.”

She fell silent, and Erin’s own heart beat painfully in her chest. The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth, croaked, felt a lump, swallowed it, and felt her eyes stinging.

“He…Gerial was great. Just like he was. You know? They all were. It wasn’t bad. He—he saved me before I came back to life, you know. He was the bravest.”

“Gerial? He got to be a hero?”

Ceria’s look of apprehension faded, and she smiled slightly. Erin nodded, and Ceria exhaled.

“Good for him. He always wanted to be in the storybook.”

That one line was all it took. Erin began blinking hard. Ceria waved at her.

“Don’t you dare! Or I’ll start crying! Don’t you—what did he say?”

The two laughed, and Erin pinched herself.

“I’m trying. He…we talked for a while. But you know—you know—you know? He said the words right before I left.”

Tears spilled from Erin’s eyes. She sniffed, and Ceria looked at Erin blankly. Then she rose; Ceria couldn’t help herself.

“He said it? Death before dishonor? That…twice?

The way she said it—Erin had started crying, but then she started giggling and put her hands over her mouth. Ceria looked torn between a laugh and a sob.

“He couldn’t think of something better?

Then that was it. They began laughing. Erin tried not to fall out of her chair, and Ceria’s eyes were wet with tears. It was the meanest thing she could have said. And it proved how much she had cared for him.

When the laughter faded enough for her to speak, Erin was able to talk again.

“He had a message for you and Calruz too, Ceria. Well…part of it is private. He said—he said he had no regrets. He wanted to be a hero, but he was just glad you survived.”

Ceria had stopped laughing and smiling, but it returned as Erin spoke. This time, though, it wasn’t wild humor, but the smile of someone like Ceria. Like Erin, in a way.

It was sixty years old, and it had seen friends go. It was old, but she looked like she had when she sat with the Horns, the originals, as Erin told her what Gerial had said. Then she whispered in Ceria’s ears, and the half-Elf laughed sadly.

“Yeah. That sounds like Gerial. As much of an idiot as Calruz in his way. He only pretended to be sensible.”

That last part was only for the half-Elf. Ceria wiped at her face, then she grabbed a handful of grass and blew her nose with it.

“Ew, Ceria!”

The half-Elf looked rattled. She took several deep breaths in and out, then brushed some grass from her nose. She wiped her face and then looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] had a handkerchief. Another deep breath, and Ceria set herself. Erin blinked at her as the half-Elf squared her shoulders.

“Okay. Okay. That one hurt. But I…I’m really glad you told me. I’m glad—”

She trailed off, then closed her eyes. Ceria took a few more breaths, faster now, and opened her eyes and clenched her jaw.

“I’m ready. Who’s next?”

“Huh?”

Erin looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf frowned at her.

“Who’s next? Hunt? Marian—my—just let me know.”

Then Erin understood why Ceria was so afraid. There was a look of fear in the half-Elf’s eyes, circlet or not. The kind of knowledge that had come from not only believing Erin, but thinking.

Only, she was wrong. She was waiting to hear their words. Just like Gerial.

All of them. Everyone she had ever known, and she was a half-Elf. Even if she wasn’t old…Erin understood why Ceria had run away. She raised her hands.

“I don’t…I don’t have anyone else, Ceria. I didn’t meet them all. There was fighting—it was only Gerial.”

“Oh.”

It was like Ceria was waiting for a blow, but she untensed and then Erin hit her. Because there were no words. None from her…

None from her grandmother. None from her teammates. None from Calvaron or…she blinked and passed a hand over her face.

“Oh. I see. Silly me.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you thought—”

“No. I mean, yes. I’m relieved? I’m…”

The half-Elf looked at Erin.

“Just Gerial?”

“Just Gerial. There were millions, but I met so few of them. And there were terrible things there.”

Erin bowed her head. Ceria looked at her.

“Will we have to fight these things?”

The [Innkeeper] stared down at the grass and a little ladybug or something similar wending its way forwards. She looked up once and scared the half-Elf again.

“Someday. Yes.”

Ceria looked at Erin and then stood up. She wiped at her face again, but her tears were dry.

“I’ll have to…I’m going to have a lot of drinks tonight. But thank you, Erin. Thank you. Gerial did it, didn’t he?”

“I’m only here because he bought me time.”

Erin answered truthfully. Ceria turned.

“Good. You need to tell Calruz. I…thanks. We’ll sort out the rest as it comes. But I did hear you back in the inn this morning. Did you mean what you said about us not being able to do it?”

Erin squirmed in her chair, but Ceria just waited, and Erin nodded.

“Yep. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’re being honest. I think I get why. I was at the Great Plains, and I saw those ghosts crack Izril. And they still lost. So. When the time comes, hopefully we’ll be ready.”

Ceria turned, and for a second, Erin thought she saw—but then the half-Elf smiled at her. She scratched at her head.

“I guess it’s time to get back to work. New lands await. Let me know if you find those Crossroads of Izril or get your magic door to go four thousand miles instead of four hundred. It’d be nice not to waste time travelling.”

Erin flapped her hands at Ceria.

“I’m not part of the new lands, Ceria. I have my hands full here.”

An exasperated look filled Ceria’s gaze. She rolled her eyes.

“Sure, whatever you say, Erin.”

“I mean it! I have nothing to do with the new lands! I don’t even know how you’d get there aside from that quest. Even the Gnolls I don’t have much to do with.”

“Mhm. And it’s a quiet inn life for you now as well?”

Erin flapped a hand at Ceria.

“Don’t be mean. I’m serious.

“Yep. Say, look over there, Erin?”

Erin turned her head, and the Human and half-Elf stared at a quartet of people who’d begun walking their way from the city. They had either missed Ceria’s warning or didn’t care. Ceria raised one eyebrow as Erin hesitated.

“C—no.”

It was a Minotaur, but not Calruz. He had two arms and a greatsword made of green diamond on his back. The second was a [Lord], peering at Erin and Ceria. The third, a Dwarf with a hammer on his shoulder and gesturing at a Garuda flying overhead to come down and be polite. Ceria glanced at Erin.

“What about him?

She didn’t mean any of the three male [Strategists] here. Erin Solstice bit her lip.

“…I’m working on it. I don’t know what to say, really. But—he’s not as crazy as they say, right? Mrsha exaggerates a lot of stuff, and Bird told me he’s a [Liar].”

For answer, the half-Elf just looked at her friend and started guffawing until a ladybug flew into her mouth. Then she swallowed it.

The four [Strategists] walked forwards hesitantly. They were supposed to be a group of six. But Feshi would never go back to the academy. The adventure they’d gone on—

It had led them here. And whilst they’d seen a lot of what happened, they were newcomers to a strange story.

But every piece had their role to play. However unwillingly. Venaz the Minotaur looked more apprehensive than he ever had in his life.

Partly because there was an Antinium aiming a bow at him. And at least two Hobs glaring at him out the window. The Minotaur ignored the [Knights], but the [Strategists] got the same message the spies did.

Back off.

However, they had—orders. And an overwhelming desire to meet her. Wil hesitated. The [Innkeeper] was talking with the Gold-rank adventurer and waving them over.

“Does this mean we don’t get shot if we walk over? I think we do—Peki, stop that.

She was embarrassing her friends. The [Martial Artists] kept flying through the air, rotating left, dipping down, and Merrik was hissing at her to behave.

“We’re all nervous, Peki, but this is not helping! Remember your diplomacy class!”

She’d nearly failed that. However, the Garuda wasn’t doing it on purpose. She squawked back.

“I can’t…dodge…it.”

Venaz looked at Wil and then focused on the Antinium in the tower. Peki looked uncomfortable. Merrik squinted up at the figure.

“He’s got a bead on you? He can see you.”

“He’ll hit me. There.”

Peki landed in the only safe spot she could find. Behind Venaz. Then she began fidgeting again.

“Here, too? I’ll catch the arrow. Let’s go.”

It was already off to a bad start. No, this plan of engagement was fundamentally flawed to begin with. Wil hadn’t understood his lessons on why sometimes even great [Strategists] and [Generals] lost wars. He knew sometimes you got bad orders, but he’d always argued that, no, when it came down to the wire, he’d stand up and say ‘absolutely not’.

And yet here he was. Walking into a bloodbath. And he wasn’t even the [Marked Target]. They’d gone five rounds of Lizcards, and Venaz had lost.

“Merrik, break my legs. I can’t do it.”

The Minotaur whispered to the other three as they marched forwards to the half-Elf and [Innkeeper]. The Dwarf retorted.

“Not on your life. Just get it over with.”

There she was, the young woman who employed a [Princess]. Or were they working together? The girl who came back from the dead and who had been possessed by the ghost of the greatest [General] of the Drakes in a hundred years.

Erin Solstice. And oh, if only Wil could have come at any other time. But she was smiling warily as they approached.

“Hello! You’re the, um, [Strategist]-students, aren’t you? The ones with the shiny swords?”

That was one way to put it. The four stopped as Ceria raised a hand. She glanced at Venaz’s greatsword and Wil’s shortsword. Most people did, but there wasn’t the starstruck effect that sometimes came over people.

That was to be expected. The young woman stared at Venaz the most, then Merrik. The [Strategists] tried to feel out the [Innkeeper] as they introduced themselves.

“Wil Kallinad, Innkeeper Solstice. House Kallinad of Pheislant, but I am a student of the Forgotten Wing company in Baleros. Honored to make your acquaintance.”

She didn’t hold out a hand, but she did smile. She blinked at Merrik and visibly hesitated as he introduced himself.

“Merrik Hostone, of Deríthal-Vel, Miss Solstice. Nominally from Deríthal—I’ve done mercenary work across the nations thereabouts. [Stoneshorn War Leader].”

Everyone looked at Merrik at that. He’d actually used his real, full class? He was trying to make a real impression. Erin blinked and then smiled.

“Wow! Another Dwarf from the same place! I guess that’s really the home of all Dwarves, eh?”

“Most of us, Miss. Although—no, most.”

Merrik blushed as he stumbled over his words. Erin smiled and then hesitated. She looked sideways at Ceria, and the half-Elf nudged her.

“Erin…”

“Oh, come on. Merrik, do you know, um, Dawil of the Silver Swords? Or Pelt?”

Ceria sighed, Merrik blinked.

“Er—yes. A Gold-rank adventurer and Master Smith Pelt? Former…yes, I do.”

“See, it’s just them.

“It’s still weird, Erin. It’s like asking if he knows…”

“Calruz of Hammerad?”

Venaz interrupted the whisperers, and Ceria jumped. He gave Erin a brisk clasp of a fist across one shoulder. Erin’s head snapped up.

“I am Venaz, likewise of Hammerad. A [Strategist] in training in the Forgotten Wing Company. I hail from the House of Minos. I hope to speak with you on the judgment of Calruz of the Beriad, Innkeeper Solstice, and you, Captain Ceria, as acquaintances of his.”

He kept his face very formal, and he definitely had their attention. Ceria nodded, and Wil felt a prickle as she focused on Venaz. She had a disconcerting aura—the [Lord] felt cold looking at her.

A Gold-rank adventurer indeed. It was all going well, and even Peki offered Erin a clasped fist.

“Peki of Pomle. [Drop Strike Lieutenant].”

“Ooh. Pomle! That’s…hm. Why do I know that? I think someone’ll want to talk to you, right, Ceria?”

“Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. I’m Ceria, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. [Cryomancer].”

Wil saw Ceria nudge Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blinked and smiled.

“And I’m Erin! But you knew that, I think. The crazy Human of Liscor! Er—[Innkeeper]. Pleased to meet you!”

Swimmingly, swimmingly. Wil would have thought this was a splendid, if somewhat awkward meeting, because the [Strategists] were gazing at Erin like—like—

Like the only chess player who could best Niers Astoragon. No, that wasn’t right. Even Cameral had taken a game off Niers in the game of Go. But—this was someone who beat him more than she lost.

This was his mysterious opponent. Oh, Wil had a thousand questions, but he felt sweat sliding down the back of his neck.

They had to do it. They had to, but Wil would have rather not. He tasted defeat, but they had orders.

I should have stayed with Feshi and Yerra. All three of the students were looking at Venaz. He was biting his tongue, but he slowly looked at Erin as the [Innkeeper] was motioning to the inn.

“Let’s go inside. I think that’s best for this, and I owe you some drinks. You helped save my friends—aren’t you a long way from home? I saw you guys on those ships. Ceria, I might need some help with that hill.”

The Minotaur fished in his belt pouch.

“Before that, Miss Solstice. I have an…I have an obligation…you must know our teacher, the Professor, as we call him. That is to say, the Titan of Baleros.”

Erin Solstice slowed her roll. She looked over her shoulder, and Merrik, Peki, and Wil jockeyed to hide behind Venaz. The Minotaur saw Erin turn.

“Yes…he’s an interesting guy, or so I’ve heard. He was here, wasn’t he? Likes to play chess? Sorta…short?”

She looked as wary as Venaz, suddenly. Ceria glanced at the Minotaur’s tight fist, and suddenly she was all smiles. She stepped back and watched as Venaz nodded like a puppet.

“Absolutely, yes. In substance, Miss Solstice. The Titan of Baleros was here, and I believe he missed you due to your—”

“Me being dead?”

“Yes. And you may know he quite enjoys games of chess. Therefore he has sent—”

—Via very expensive magical transmission and a letter that brooked no argument. Wil squeezed his eyes shut.

The thing about the Titan of Baleros was that he was an amazing [Strategist]. He adapted, he could be ruthless, but he remembered why morality existed. He had his flaws, like overconfidence.

He was arguably—bad—at romance. And in his debriefing of what had gone down in Izril, he had identified the weakness of hesitation. He had missed his opportunity, thanks in part to the Witch of Webs. So he was determined not to make the same mistake.

But as he’d once told Wil, making another mistake to cover your old one didn’t make it better. Hence, Venaz’s stilted language. He slowly opened his palm, and Ceria crammed a fist into her mouth to stifle the sounds.

They really should have done this inside. Because far as it was, there were still eyes on them. But they had wanted to get it over with. And—and it was not as bad as the now-famous story of Tyrion Veltras.

But a continent away, Lord Pellmia Quellae could feel a terrible tingling in the back of his mind. For the Minotaur proffered a little…figurine to Erin.

It was a six-inch tall man, carved of stone and painted to exact likeness. He stood on a little dais, and he was part of a matching set in the chessboard that Merrik lifted. Foliana was the Queen, incidentally.

Erin stared at the Niers chess-piece as Venaz forced the next words out through the war-wound of embarrassment.

“The Titan of Baleros apologizes for missing you, Miss Erin. He hopes you will continue your regular games and offers you this as a gift. There is also a letter.”

He produced a stamped letter with the crest of the Forgotten Wing company and offered the entire set to Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] stared down at the chess set in Venaz’s hands.

It was the piece. The Professor was standing there with one foot on a little rock, holding his ludicrous hat with the feather in one hand, smiling jauntily up at Erin. Wil glanced at Peki and saw she had put both wing-hands over her face.

“Is it done yet?”

The [Innkeeper] had developed a smile much like the one Venaz and Wil were wearing. Ceria was lying on the ground, dying from lack of air. The young woman reached for the chessboard, and Wil thought at least they could get over this and talk the Professor up, and then it happened.

The instant Erin’s hands touched the chessboard, there was a slight flash of magic. Ceria sat up, and Venaz jerked, but it was too late. It was just a simple spell probably hardwired to some element of Erin touching it, but Niers’ voice emerged.

“—and may I congratulate you, Miss Solstice, on your fine recovery and victory. I hope to speak with you soon. Venaz has a [Message] scroll keyed to me for discussion on chess and whatnot. Please give my best to Bird and Mrsha and the rest.”

And he did it. He did it. Wil closed his eyes and wondered if Lord Tyrion Veltras could have topped that.

The chess board was superfluous after the first one, which was okay—everyone liked a unique chess board, even one so pointed.

The life-sized figurine was bad. The hand-delivered missive was another thing. Niers had overcorrected from doing nothing.

They could even survive the automated message. But—Erin stared at the tiny figurine of Niers. It had only shifted a bit with the magical spell. Yet instead of holding his hat, the little Niers had—

A rose.

Erin Solstice slowly looked up at Venaz. The Minotaur was sweating as he gazed back. The pain in his eyes…everyone waited.

Message received. Totally, completely, you cannot ignore this. Earl Altestiel of Desonis was surely taking notes on how to be more explicit in his advances. Pellmia could feel a dark power calling him back home.

As for Erin? She stared at the chessboard and, without a word, slowly turned her wheelchair around and began maneuvering it back towards the inn. The four students saw her receding back as Erin rolled away. Then—very faintly—Wil heard her begin to chuckle.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: You may hate it. Some people said, ‘we will surely never achieve more cringe than Lord Tyrion Veltras’. And you were wrong.

You may deny it. But tell me you don’t believe that Niers Astoragon would do this. With Foliana watching, encouraging, egging him on. This. This is what happens when you lose your Perorn.

Anyways. With that said, I feel like I’ve lost my Perorn. In a vague sense.

It’s always the same when I take my week off. You wouldn’t think it, but I feel like I lose a tiny bit of my focus and I have to work to get it back. In the same way, these three chapters are fine, fine…

But the ending of Volume 8 had me at my most intense. So I’m trying to regain that but I need to outline, plan, and I think I’m still recovering a bit. But I want to improve and write more amazing chapters.

Including the opening to Volume 1. I told you I’d be devoting at least one update per month to it—I plan to take the next update to rewriting. I’ll definitely show you what I’ve got, but I’m nervous.

Writing is hard, sometimes. Rewriting is harder. Can I do it? We’ll find out. It might not be new—but I hope you’ll like it. See you next update at the very start.

 

9.02 Sketch, Shopping, Breezy, and Honored Berr by Artsynada!

 

Pebblesnatch by amartamon!

 

Goblin by tobinkusuma!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.01

Now you believe. Of course, when the evidence is irrefutable, like a voice in your head, a destroyed Adventurer’s Guild, and a quest felt across a continent, most people tend to believe.

Most of these reasonable people would then say, ‘yes, you have my attention. What can we do (within reason and convenience for me at little personal risk) in this situation?’ And they thus demonstrate why they will never be called upon.

Because if you well and truly believed before that it had to be proven concretely, you were already there. If it mattered, you had been there. What came next was not for you either, probably. No matter how much you wanted it.

All this to say that when Erin Solstice tried to return to her inn, everyone wanted to talk to her. Especially Guildmistress Tekshia, but even she was willing to waive her considerable grievances for a few hints. Maybe a quest or two. Or just a few answers to the thousands of burning questions in their minds.

The [Innkeeper] refused to answer anything. For once, she let the four Thronebearers surround her, and you had to say this for them: they might not be the greatest combatants on a battlefield, but they knew how to keep the onlookers back.

“Back, good people! [By Appointment Only]!

Ser Lormel checked a Drake trying to get to Erin with a plated arm, and Erin realized that Calanfer’s [Knights] were probably masterclasses in keeping their wards from interacting with the public.

As for Erin—well, she shouted a lot of things, but very little of it made sense.

“Sorry about the guild, Tekshia! I’ll, um…I have to go to my inn! I didn’t know it would do that, honest! Good thing I didn’t do a bigger one, huh? I can’t talk about it right now! Watch Captain, please don’t arrest me—where’s Mrsha?”

The press of bodies and shouting made it hard for onlookers to see what happened next, but there was a moment of panic where the [Princess] whirled—and then a giant Gnoll picked up a little white Gnoll girl and put her on her shoulders. Mrsha thusly secured, the Hobgoblin, Antinium, and the adventurers cleared a path towards the inn.

By the time Erin Solstice got to her inn, people were trying to climb through windows, but they found them all locked, and the inn was a fortress. The front door was a lovely chokepoint for Dame Ushar to block off, and, ironically, the lack of the magic door was the most beneficial of all.

For, oh, you knew who was coming next. It was all the old hits, and that too was nostalgic.

Magus Grimalkin, storming up the hill, followed by Chaldion of Pallass, Saliss, and even a number of [Senators] and some of the military officers in the city. This was a Level 11 Erin Solstice event, even for her.

However, they had to tangle with the Thronebearers at the entrance to the inn, rather than getting to Erin the regular way. That was new. Indeed, Sir Relz, Noass, and Drassi all came with a camera crew moments after Chaldion.

They got even less than the onlookers did; Wistram News Network had really dropped the soccer ball here. Even if the [Spies], [Informants], and [Watchers] couldn’t get into the inn, the smart ones had a recording of most of what had gone down, starting with Erin Solstice rolling into the Adventurer’s Guild.

The really perspicacious ones had seen her emerge from The Wandering Inn. It was thusly safe to say that every [Spy] who’d decided Erin Solstice wasn’t that interesting was fired within the hour.

The same for any [Spymasters] who’d pulled surveillance early. All in all, Erin Solstice’s stunt destroyed Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild and also cost over thirty-eight jobs, but you couldn’t blame her for the latter part.

 

——

 

Fetohep of Khelt, for his part, had seen it all. He did not brook incompetence, and a professional [Observer] did not shirk their duty for lack of interest. He watched Erin Solstice disappear into the inn and marked all who followed after.

Some he recognized based on first-hand encounters or pen pal correspondence. Others, by virtue of their names.

The Horns of Hammerad, Mrsha, Gireulashia, Krshia Silverfang, Bird the Hunter, Klbkch the Slayer, naturally. The Thronebearers were a known entity, Lyonette du Marquin of Calanfer was known to him on a political level—but even he hadn’t been entirely aware of the Goblin component of the inn.

“She mentioned that one. Numbtongue, I believe. Flag the Goblin’s face and details for the file.”

Fetohep spoke briefly, and one of Khelt’s servants hurried to note down the moment in the video. The ruler’s fingers drummed on the armrest of his throne. He turned his head slightly, and one of the servants paused the recording as Fetohep gestured.

“Who is the Drowned Man?”

“Seborn Sailwinds.”

“Sailwinds…a relation to Therrium Sailwinds? The Drowned Captain [Pirate]?”

“Y-yes, Your Majesty. A member of the Halfseekers.”

“Ah.”

It was one of those coincidences that entangled Erin Solstice further with events far from Liscor. Was it coincidence? Only if you lacked a sense for the grand scheme of things.

Fetohep calmly noted who was allowed into the inn, but he didn’t direct the [Observer] to try to gain entry. Shriekblade and the Thronebearers were among the inn’s defenses, and they would deter almost any covert infiltration until the inn opened.

Besides—he’d seen enough. The King of Khelt was one of the most sedate and laid back personalities watching the events in Liscor unfold. Because, of course, he understood.

Not all of it. He had been as surprised as everyone else by the quests, but he knew from whence they came. Nor did Fetohep send a [Message] to Erin Solstice.

Not yet. He was now sure she remembered. How much was still up for debate. But it was enough.

“I weary of the recording. Leave me. Inform me only if a significant development occurs. I am not to be disturbed.”

The King of Khelt lifted a hand, and the servants bowed and hurried out of the throne room. They left him alone, glancing back over their shoulders in wonder.

There sat Fetohep, who, two weeks ago, had been the center of the world’s attention. The Revenant who had blazed across Chandrar, humbled a Walled City, and single-handedly held off five Walled Cities before rescuing the Gnolls and reshaping Izril by summoning the ghosts of ancient Gnolls.

Oh, and he’d fought an army of Seamwalkers and possibly averted the end of the world when no one was watching.

That was how his people described the events, anyways. It was also fairly notable that despite all the fallout of the war in the Great Plains, few people had contested that interpretation of things.

Indeed, Fetohep’s return to Chandrar had been amazingly smooth. After whisking the King of Destruction and some Gnoll tribes away, Fetohep had returned home. The Drakes had declined to give pursuit or attempt to block his progress, and the same went for Medain, the Claiven Earth, or any nation between him and Khelt.

He had ridden Sand at Sea back with magical tailwinds across the sea and taken a slower, if constant ride back at speeds only undead could sustain on land. Fetohep had also done a lot of dropping people off.

The half-Elves, including the Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, in the Claiven Earth.

King Raelt and Jecaina in Jecrass.

Orthenon, the King of Destruction, Gazi, and Amerys in Reim. Trey Atwood as well, and some of the Earthers. A few had come to Khelt when the offer had been made.

The Quarass to Germina, the Hero of Zethe, Doubte, to a spot a good thirty miles from his home for anonymity reasons—a horse had been provided.

Frieke of Khelt, Alked Fellbow, and Herdmistress Geraeri had returned to the capital, and Fetohep had let the Gnoll tribes disembark where they pleased. Many had indeed gone to Reim to join their kin; others had asked to be dropped in the north or along the Zeikhal, and he had obligingly tasked Sand at Sea with placing tribes who wanted to be away from it all where they wanted.

Interestingly, Fetohep had actually offered three entire Gnoll tribes citizenship of Khelt. All three had accepted. Such an influx would normally stun Khelt and be the topic of huge interest, but his nation was still processing everything else. When Fetohep had returned to his palace, the procession had provoked such silence they’d only begun cheering twenty minutes in.

…They were still cheering. Fetohep had not but sat down when news came about the quest being posted in Liscor.

So, now he was back and alone. The Revenant considered the frozen recording, and a few thoughts occurred to him. He was far from the only one to make the same observations Chaldion had about the potential of Quests.

The undead ruler murmured, though his mouth never moved. His glowing eyes flickered behind a worn body turned to dried flesh hanging off yellow bone only visible in places. He still wore the armor of battered gold, stained with salt and blood from another continent, over his royal robes writ with countless names.

In time, he would remove the armor, order his robes repaired of the slightest damage, and ensure any damage to his body in combat was repaired as best it could be. A ruler had to be impeccable at all times, after all.

In time, Fetohep knew, he would do a painstaking overview of his entire kingdom. From the undead buried in Khelt to their dispositions abroad and any damage caused by the Jaws of Zeikhal rising and so on. It might take a thousand hours, but he would not rest, so he would ensure every aspect of Khelt was returned to where it should be.

He would also make such appearances to reassure his people and communicate with his allies. Then, perhaps chase down Vizir Hecrelunn’s location, although Fetohep doubted his ability to control Hecrelunn now. Now that…

Khelt’s rulers were dead.

Fetohep paused and considered that. Oh. Yes, that. Once he got back to normal, everything would return to how it had been.

Except that no ghosts would ever speak to him again. Except that the lands of the dead lay empty. Except that glorious Khelta, Xierca, his Queen, Heroes, His-Xe, Serept…

Except that they were all gone. Yes. That.

“[Innkeepers].”

Fetohep returned to his other projects. He would have to dismantle the ritual they’d used to let ghosts inhabit the bodies of undead as Revenants. It was now a liability, but his [Mages] might learn much from the process, and even he would not lightly discard the materials that had been spent.

“…Settle the Gnolls temporarily. It may be simplest to construct multiple settlements. A city, perhaps, bordering one of the wider flatlands? One city, a township, and two villages. I may also issue a permit for them to form a number of nomadic camps as the People of Zair do.”

Yes, all those sounded like the most pressing projects. Take a look at his [Innkeepers], ensure the Gnolls were adapting to Khelt well, and wait for the living to pester him as they surely would. In many ways, Fetohep’s existence was simpler than many monarchs across the world. His role was maintenance; his ambitions were only for his people, and he worried little about the opinion of a court or treachery or his death.

Then again…Fetohep’s golden flames flickered. When he died, he would not guide his successor. When he died, only oblivion or worse awaited.

Khelta was gone.

The mundanity of his work could only keep the truth away for so long. Fetohep had felt it on the journey back, but that had not been the time, with enemies and allies watching him.

However…the Revenant was all practicality. He had been doing what needed to be done. Only now, as he sat on the throne, did he fidget. An uncharacteristic tightening of ancient muscle. He stared down at a fist on his throne.

It trembled. He had no need to move, but he did. Fetohep stood. He did not ask for Khelta, to check if she was there.

He knew. And so the King of Khelt looked around. At his empty throne room; that had never bothered him.

“Gone. So Khelt is—

His voice rose, and there was a sound in it, a warble of emotion. Fetohep broke off instantly and turned.

“Your Majesty summoned us?”

A servant appeared at the doorway. Fetohep’s golden gaze pinned the scared young man, but he was doing his job. The job many citizens of Khelt volunteered for.

“…No.”

The Revenant saw the servant hurriedly bow and withdraw, murmuring deepest apologies. He was forgiven; despite Fetohep’s injunction not to be disturbed, when a monarch spoke, someone had to attend.

He was reminded that the few servants working this week were still in the palace. They did not expect Fetohep to speak unless he had an audience or was conducting business.

There was no door to close to the throne room; what need had a Revenant for privacy in death? So Fetohep stood, silent. Then he sat down and stared at his hands on his armrest.

He sat perfectly straight, and you could have used his back to measure one of Drevish’s walls. He put both arms on his armrest and was thus the model of a king, staring ahead, chin elevated the barest hint, not like Terandrians to stare down so openly, just as a king should.

…After two and a half minutes of perfect posing, Fetohep leaned on his left side, adjusted his legs to be crossed, and touched the tip of his chin with two skeletal fingers. The ruler in contemplation; the repose of a monarch passing judgment or thinking long upon empire and state.

Then he performed the Nerrhavian Recline, which was to scoot forwards to the edge of the throne, gripping the armrests, and lean back, as if bored of it all, looking down with the sheer contempt of tyrants.

The posing did not help. Fetohep considered calling for Trey Atwood or Teresa. But he had not demanded either accompany him to Khelt. Unlike before, the issue was not boredom or the desire for their company.

Fetohep knew what the issue was. He stared down at his hands as he returned to his first pose. He could begin inspecting Khelt. Or summon the first [Innkeeper]. Or so many things that could be done.

But first? He looked down at his shaking hands and stood slowly. Then he left his throne room.

The servants in the palace mostly cleaned up dust or checked on matters of state, people requesting an audience, [Messages] for Fetohep, etc. They were largely preoccupied with denying requests for a conversation from anyone not on Fetohep’s list, and since that was a very short one, they were occupied.

None noticed Fetohep leaving the palace. He was far more knowledgeable of its passages than they were, and it was a vast, empty place.

Emptier, perhaps, than it had ever felt before, but the servants put that down to the activity and drama of earlier. If there was something that perplexed them, it was…well, not even Khelt could control the earth completely.

Still, it seemed like the earthquake had run through the palace for almost thirty minutes now. A trembling in the very foundations. They were quite relieved when it stopped abruptly. But then—if there were anything to fear, Fetohep would have surely told them.

 

——

 

Erin felt a lot better after posting her quest.

The babble of voices shut off as Lyonette slammed the inner door to the common room. Panting, the [Princess] gave orders like a [Sergeant].

“I want everyone to double-check that all the windows are locked. Second floor, too. Ishkr! Drinks, food for our guests. Ser Sest, help Ushar. No one comes in unless I say so or Erin does.”

The Thronebearers were already securing the windows. Ser Dalimont closed the shutters on a staring Gnoll with his face pressed against the glass. Erin saw him shouting something, but then she turned.

“I hope the guild isn’t, um, too expensive to replace. Maybe I should see about—”

“I’m sure the Council will quote us a bill. Tekshia will definitely do that—but I’ll talk to Pawn or someone later about getting the Antinium to rebuild. We can have it done cheaply with Hexel helping, and it’s reasonable to point out that having a Mythical Quest in Liscor will make it more popular. Besides, they owe you for four months of using your door, so we might not even get that bill, just a reduction in how much we’re paid. You just sit there and think of what you’re going to say!”

Lyonette pointed at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] felt it again. Competence. A disturbing authority coming from Lyonette.

How things had changed. Lyonette had begun being the manager, but she had the inn scurrying around before Erin could give an order. That wasn’t the most significant shift in personality, but then Erin saw some of the people who’d come into the inn with her helping out.

Watch Sergeant Relc! Back it up—back it up! No pushing or you’ll crush some poor idiots out there! I’m off-duty, but I’ll make you stand back if I have to!”

“Was…was that Relc doing something responsible?”

Erin rubbed at one ear. Then she saw something else terrifying.

Mrsha. The little Gnoll had raced down with the others upon hearing Erin had begun to post the quest. Now, the little rascal, always at the heart of trouble, was looking at Erin Solstice after seeing a Mythical Quest being posted about the lost City of Stars.

And she was currently writing something down in a little book next to Gireulashia, without racing around like a maniac or badgering Erin to tell her everything. She looked up as Erin stared at her, and the [Innkeeper] saw Mrsha heave a huge sigh. The little Gnoll shook her head at Erin and busily dipped her quill into an inkpot, writing with a frown as she dealt with Erin’s outbursts of chaos.

Erin had to roll over, and she saw what Mrsha was writing. She was working on a note:

 

Suxhel, please convey my strongest urgings to Lehra that she should take her team and visit The Wandering Inn to entreat my [Innkeeper] about this issue, as I believe she can well agree. I can only regret the impromptu and frankly irresponsible timing, but it is sadly irreversible. Please also copy the contents of this update to one Feshi Weatherfur, Shaman Theikha, and other interested parties…

 

And the next note, which was not a [Message] but a little card.

 

Dear Visma,

Please accept my most heartfelt condolences, as I fear we must postpone our tea date to another time at your best convenience. I have been embroiled in something of a ‘to-do’ as I am sure will be apparent once you receive this missive.

I can only apologize once again, as needs must when The Wandering Inn comes to chaos. Rest assured, I will attempt to find time in my schedule perhaps tomorrow to catch you up with all the hullabaloo and nonsense…

 

The writing was the same. The attitude? Erin gazed down at Mrsha as Gire giggled and greedily scarfed down a pawful of fries that Ishkr was already passing around.

And Seborn was still laughing. The Drowned Man chortled as he sat at a table, and Erin turned, glad to see something hadn’t changed!

“Seborn, Jelaqua! Hi! Look, before anyone says anything, I didn’t know the guild was going to fall down. It’s not my fault! It probably had termites. I, um…”

She looked around, and the stares were familiar. Exasperation, surprise, confusion, and mirth. This was The Wandering Inn’s classic.

“Erin, you’ve been back from the dead ten days, and this is the first thing you do? C’mere! I thought you were too fragile to hug, but I’m going to do it again!”

Jelaqua bounded over and, wearing the body of a Gnoll woman, rubbed her cheek against Erin’s. It was rather like being embraced by a dead, hairy fish, but Erin grinned and protested.

“Jelaqua! Aw, come on. Save that for Maughin.”

That just made the Selphid laugh. Seborn stopped chuckling at last as the Gold-rank Captain looked around and grinned.

“Maughin himself might come here if only to be part of the moment! Unless he’s working on his mistress, that is.”

“His what?

Jelaqua blinked as Erin wondered if a lot had changed. The Selphid laughed.

“Oh—I meant his stupid Adamantium ingot. Sorry. That’s what I call it.”

“Thank goodness. Also, I’m glad you two are here! And that you found all that hilarious, Seborn.”

“Immensely. I have had enough of gloom these last months. Maybe Moore will start smiling again. If he can make it through that lot. You are feeling better?”

Seborn walked over, and Erin grinned weakly.

“Good enough to knock down a guild, at least. I’m, um…I’m back. So I don’t want anyone coddling me anymore!”

Jelaqua saluted with a glint in her eyes.

“Perish the thought. We just held back because we thought you needed time. But if you’re feeling up for it, we’ll start taking meals here again. That’s wonderful. And we do have a lot to catch up on.”

The faint orange glint behind the dead body’s pupils found Erin, and the [Innkeeper] sombered for a moment. That was completely true. Erin looked around and saw her Quest had worked; everyone else was seeing her in a different light.

“Well, Erin. I should have known you wouldn’t give us a month before causing a mess. Grandmother is going to kill you. As for me?”

Selys put her claws on her hips, but she couldn’t hide the faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“…I’m just glad you’re still surprising us all. What is that new power? A Mythical Quest?

“Exactly! How did you do it, Erin?”

Lyonette was back from checking the windows, and she turned to Erin as the Horns came over. Ceria was giving Erin a long look, and Pisces was rubbing at his hair, as astonished as Yvlon. Ksmvr? Ksmvr was hiding behind Yvlon as Klbkch stared at him, and Relc came stomping back into the common room.

“Um…it’s complicated. But when I say…things…I mean them. I just—I need to prove it.”

Erin spoke to the group, but Ceria in particular. The half-Elf gazed at Erin and looked away, but everyone goggled at Erin with a mix of confusion and awe.

“But I thought quests could only be posted if you had the reward and you knew…do you have the key to the Armory of Stars or whatever that was?”

Yvlon was bewildered. Klbkch just studied Erin from head to toe. Jelaqua shook her head instantly.

“There is no way Erin just had that in her back pocket all this time. Is there?”

“Wanna bet?”

Erin waved her hands.

“No, I don’t have it! I just—I knew the City of Stars existed. And I sort of knew I could post the Quest because, um, well, if you got to the city wherever it is, the key’s not too hard to find, right? I didn’t add that to the quest rewards, but I guess it qualified? That’s my theory. All I offered was the location. And the free lunch, but that’s posted rewards, so I don’t have to honor it.”

Pisces’ eyes flickered as he opened his mouth. Lyonette put a hand over her head, looking ready to swoon in exasperation. Klbkch slowly lifted a finger.

“Interpreting that statement, Erin. Can I assume then that you know details about a lost Walled City, know the location of the key to their armory of what sounds like artifacts and powerful weapons—all of which are legends which I have understood have no basis in any kind of fact outside of Wall Lord Dragial’s infamous search, which many considered lunacy—and that you may not feed the finder lunch?”

Erin hesitated.

“N—y—well, I just said I don’t have to feed them lunch. That’s the difference between posted rewards and quest rewards. One’s guaranteed. I’d totally make lunch! Great lunch! Amazing lunch! The best lunch you’d ever see in your life for someone who found Mershi!”

She looked around indignantly. Let no one say Erin Solstice didn’t provide free lunch for people who found Walled Cities! Klbkch just looked at Relc. The Drake raised a claw.

“So you know where a lost Walled City is.”

“Yes.”

Selys gaped at her. Pisces lifted a finger.

“And the Crossroads of Izril, a place I have never heard of in modern parlance.”

“Eh, maybe they forgot? It was totally something people knew about. I mean…it was. Yeah, totally. I bet you a [Historian] would know about it.”

Erin couldn’t believe that part. How did you forget about a crossroads? She scratched at her head, but Ksmvr waved a hand urgently.

“And you are also capable of posting Mythical-rank quests?”

“That’s about right. Legendary t—”

Erin Solstice’s mouth ran ahead of her mind, and she bit back the words too late. Erin saw and heard Gire begin choking on her fries at the table. Selys’ jaw dropped, and Lyonette covered her eyes as Pisces’ eyes bulged with the implications. Yvlon just fainted.

The thud of Yvlon going over made everyone gather around her, but Relc scratched at his head slightly.

“Wait, is that really impressive? I get it looked cool, but what’s ‘Mythical Quest’ even mean?”

Selys was exasperated as she bent over Yvlon. Ksmvr helpfully dumped a pitcher of water over the [Armsmistress]’ face.

“Relc! I was told Peslas, a Level 30+ [Innkeeper], can only post Rare Quests. I know there are Heroic Quests and Mythical only because a Level 55 [Innkeeper] confirmed they could post them! And they’re a former Named Adventurer! Now think what Legendary means.”

“Oh. Ohhh. Ancestors! Erin can—and she just—

Relc threw up his claws, and Erin heard more laughter. Not from Seborn; he was grabbing Jelaqua in shock as Yvlon stirred. Erin looked around, and Bird and Numbtongue were laughing now, leaning on each other.

“See? She is as silly as she was before. Erin is better now. This is very good. I am happy. And I am Bird, and I know silly.”

Bird clacked his mandibles as Numbtongue grinned at Erin. Flushed a bit, she waved back and did a little bow in her wheelchair. Klbkch glanced at Bird, then turned to Selys.

“A Level 55 [Innkeeper] is capable of posting Mythical Quests? Intriguing; I have heard one on Baleros cannot post Mythical quests, and they are also above Level 50.”

“That is interesting. So maybe there’s other requirements. Which means…”

Both turned to Erin, and the young woman lifted her hands.

“Listen. I know you have questions. All I can say is—Mrsha, don’t eat Gire!

Everyone whirled except for Seborn and Klbkch. Erin Solstice wheeled rapidly towards the Garden of Sanctuary.

Gotcha, suckers! I’m back! Chaos! Classic me! You’ll never get answers, only confusion!”

She was enjoying herself, and yes, playing it up a bit. However, she’d miscalculated how hard it was to make a getaway on wheels. Erin saw Klbkch walk forwards to grab her wheelchair as she gunned it for the door.

The open Garden of Sanctuary was filled with green, sunlight—and the shouting from outside, echoing distantly through the hole in the roof. Erin raced towards it, shouting with glee.

Then she slammed into the shins of the female Hobgoblin wandering out the door. Ulvama screamed. Erin screamed.

Ulvama screamed louder, holding her legs as Erin jerked to a stop. She rolled around as Erin stared down at the—

Who the heck is—

“Ulvama? You okay?”

Numbtongue stopped laughing long enough to check on the cursing [Shaman]. Ulvama glared up and saw the [Innkeeper] staring down at her.

“What? You—look where you’re going! Stupid!

She got up, kicked Erin’s wheelchair, which provoked a gasp of outrage, and hobbled over to a chair to cradle at her shins. Erin stared, mouth open wide as she looked at the female Hobgoblin.

She was pretty sure she had never met Ulvama in her life. Heck, Erin couldn’t even remember many female Hobgoblins that she’d talked to aside from the brief time the Redfang tribe had come to her inn!

“Who is—who is this? Numbtongue? A friend of yours?”

Numbtongue turned, and a dumbfounded expression crossed his face. Then he recalled with everyone else.

“Ulvama? You’d never have met…oh.”

Lyonette gasped. She herself only had a passing acquaintance with Ulvama, having left to go to Oteslia, but she had at least known Ulvama existed. But Erin?

“When did we get another Goblin? And why haven’t I seen her in the last ten days?”

Erin demanded, bewildered. Ulvama just snorted as she eyed Erin up and down. She winced, rubbed at her shins, and produced a healing potion and applied it liberally. Then she poked Numbtongue, who was searching for words.

“This icy girl? Looks better than corpse. What happen? Everyone started shouting. Ruined my nap.”

She pointed to the Garden of Sanctuary. Which she could apparently enter and leave at will. Erin waggled her hands at Numbtongue, demanding an answer. He tried to start from the beginning.

“Erin, this is Ulvama. She helped bring you back. Sort of. She was…the Mountain City tribe’s [Shaman]. Now she’s…some [Shaman]. She came from somewhere else and helped us find Mrsha. She can cast good magic. And she knows Pebblesnatch! Pebblesnatch is okay.”

“Sh—what? Pebblesnatch? What? WHAT?

Erin’s scream of delight made Ulvama clap her hands over her ears. She threw a cup at Erin, and Klbkch smacked it out of the air.

“Shut up! I already liked you better as dead girl! I was with Rags. Stupid Rags.”

She folded her arms huffily. Erin recalled that Rags had retreated after their first two days of meetings—possibly out of self-preservation for the Goblins as Chaldion and a number of people who didn’t know or respect the score had been occupying the inn. Rags had promised to come back when it was quieter and Erin was better.

That explained where Ulvama had been, and if her scowl were any indication, Numbtongue guessed she hadn’t been able to secure a spot in Goblinhome.

Or perhaps she had come back for the free food. Erin was at a loss for words.

It was strange and a little rude to have someone just walk out of your inner sanctum and treat your inn like her home. Ulvama was already ordering food from Ishkr, and she went over and poked Mrsha after a moment and got a swat from a paw. The Hobgoblin stared at Gire as the [Paragon] stared back.

“Ooh. You tall. Good girl.”

She had to hop up on a chair to pat Gire on the head. Then she sat down and began to chomp on fries.

Okay. Okay, so apparently there was a somewhat rude [Shaman] at the inn now. Erin decided that was okay. She thought she remembered an Ulvama helping Mrsha, and if she was a friend of Rags, she was a friend of Erin’s!

Erin was already getting some things wrong about Ulvama, but then more people were arriving, and she had to deal with the effects of her quest. She was, at least, prepared for that.

“Lyonette, unleash the hordes! But only the, um, ones I know, I guess. I’ll take them here? Form a line!

Her guests sighed but filed into a line as Grimalkin came bursting through the doors. He’d almost strong-armed his way past the Thronebearers, their Skills or not, but he had less luck here.

Erin Solstice. I need a w—

Grimalkin halted, because it was that or run into Klbkch’s sword, one of Seborn’s daggers, and a cupcake held by Bird. The Sinew Magus saw the line of eight glaring at him.

“Back of the line, Sinew Magus. We all want a word with Erin.”

Jelaqua cheerfully jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Grimalkin growled.

“Pallass is—”

“—content to wait. Sinew Magus, don’t make a scene. Hold our place. Miss Solstice, I’m glad to see you well.”

“Chaldion!”

Erin beamed past Klbkch as the Grand Strategist walked in with a bodyguard of five Drakes, who stared at Erin like she had antennae growing out of her head. Then a naked Drake walked in.

“Erin, please. If you love me, don’t let Chaldion have a word all day. If you hate me…do it for the hilarity. I saw your work at the guild. Beautiful.

Saliss blew a kiss from his claws, and Erin laughed. Her eyes lit up, and she waved at Saliss. He winked around the room, saw Klbkch, and grinned with all his teeth.

“Looks like the inn’s back in business. Do you mind letting Rufelt and Lasica in? They want to come through, but the shiny pots won’t budge. And I am on my best behavior, so I didn’t turn them invisible.”

“Oh! Rufelt and Lasica—I forgot to add them to the list. Erin, I need to be at the door. Who am I letting in besides people we know?”

Lyonette cursed and hurried forwards. Erin hesitated.

“Is Ilvriss in Pallass or something?”

“Nope.”

Lyonette chorused with a few others. Erin hesitated as Lyonette wavered by the door.

“Then—just people we know! I guess Lism if he wants. And, uh—Antinium, obviously! Any of them. And Goblins! And…”

“Wistram News Network?”

“No! Well, maybe Drassi.”

Chaldion calmly added from his seat.

“In a non-reporter role.”

Lyonette waited for Erin’s nod before hurrying into the hallway. Erin was smiling as she looked at Klbkch. And this was familiar too.

“So. Erin. I am pleased you seem recovered enough to post quests. May I ask how you gained this ability?”

Klbkch glanced over his shoulder, and everyone in line pretended not to be listening intently, except for Bird and Grimalkin. Erin smiled. She felt a flutter in her heart, but…she had known from the start.

“I guess I have to explain. I don’t know—”

She hesitated and wished for a moment she’d talked to…to Fetohep?

Yes, Fetohep! Erin’s eyes widened. How could she forget? Fetohep and—

Khelta. Califor. Her face fell, and Klbkch watched as the [Innkeeper] went from surprised to melancholy, then determined, angry, and wary in a heartbeat. In anyone else, he would have been wondering about insanity. In Erin…she took a deep breath.

“I…was dead.”

“No kidding? Dead? Ancestors preserve me, I thought you were asleep!”

Saliss clutched at his chest from a table. Chaldion threw a fork at him, and Ulvama laughed in delight. Erin glanced over.

“Hey! Quiet in the peanut gallery! I was dead, and I got, um, some special powers. Some information. But it’s sort of hazy, and I, uh, just know a few things. Because I may have talked to ghosts?”

She looked around with an uncertain smile on her face. That was what she’d decided to say. It would be common knowledge anyways. She just didn’t add who she’d talked to.

Erin was prepared for disbelief, shock, incredulity, and mockery. However, the guests just looked at each other. Grimalkin muttered one name that pretty much summed it up:

“Khelt. The pieces fit.”

She wasn’t prepared for the lack of incredulity. However, to say there was no reaction was wrong. Jelaqua stopped grinning and focused on Erin. Pisces’ eyebrows were melding with his hair, and again, Ceria…

Ceria met Erin’s eyes and nodded slightly. Erin gulped.

“I have some things to tell you all. There’s a lot to catch up on. I want to hear it all. For now, just know that I have a few more quests I can post. Not all as cool as finding a lost city, but—well, that’s for later.”

Klbkch studied Erin.

“I see. I assume you will not furnish us with information about Mershi?”

“Are you…taking the quest?”

The Antinium considered the question.

“Let us say I am. The Antinium would not be averse to finding the City of Stars.”

Chaldion’s head rose slightly, and Saliss stopped chortling. Grimalkin’s eyes bored into the back of Klbkch’s head, and the Antinium looked around.

He just said it. Everyone was thinking it, and he just said it. That’s my partner! Stupid as a rock!”

Relc beamed as he sat at a table. Klbkch visibly hesitated in front of Erin, then he turned and gave Relc a thumbs-up. Erin, Relc, and Klbkch stared at the gesture, and Klbkch lowered the hand. He turned back to Erin as if nothing had happened.

“I am…readjusting to Liscor. I may not be able to stay, Erin, but I hope I can call on you in quieter times? With less observation.”

He stared right at Chaldion as he said that. Erin nodded.

“Sure. Um…I can’t tell you about Mershi, Klbkch. I mean, I can totally tell you about it and stuff, but I don’t know where it is.”

“Ah, hence the quest.”

“Yep. Especially because all the ghosts of Mershi who were actually there got got.”

“Got got?”

Klbkch blanked at the slang. Erin elaborated.

“They got, uh, poofed. Not by the s—I mean, no one ever saw their ghosts when Mershi vanished. So no one knows exactly what happened, but I do know where all the searches ended up. The Crossroads of Izril. Which is why I posted that quest. If you want to know about Mershi, I know tons of stuff. Tons of stuff. You know, they have Starpuffs? That’s this cool filled pastry. But yeah. Not about where it is.”

“You know this from conversations with dead people.”

“Y-yes?”

Klbkch stared at Erin. She met his gaze honestly, eyes round and wide. Klbkch nodded. He lifted a finger as someone burst through the doors.

TELL ME EVERYTHING!

Fierre shouted, then was shushed and pointed at the line. She joined it, fishing out a notepad. Garia entered more sedately, but flushed with excitement. Klbkch went on after a meaningful pause.

“One last question, Erin. In your time amongst the dead. Did you speak to any Antinium?”

If there had been a pause at his first question about searching for Mershi, this one provoked the kind of silence that you could serve for lunch. Erin met his gaze and shook her head slowly.

“No…but if they died on Rhir, I wouldn’t have met them anyways.”

Chaldion’s head swung from Klbkch to Erin as he nodded grimly.

“That is what I would assume upon thought. Thank you. I will be back shortly. I will have a bowl of spaghetti with blue fruit juice.”

He stood up and walked out of the common room. Erin heard Selys let out a breath and then gasp for air.

And that was her first guest in line.

 

——

 

By the time Lyonette came back, the crowds outside the inn had been removed from pressing at the windows. They were, in fact, reluctantly gathered around the base of the hill. No one was allowed higher unless they passed one of the Thronebearers.

Not that four [Knights] alone were holding off the mob of people who absolutely had something they wanted from Erin Solstice or just wanted to get inside the inn and eat some pizza. The Watch had been mobilized along with Pallass’ soldiers.

Yes, their soldiers. Chaldion had ordered twenty through the door to keep a cordon around the inn, having anticipated their need.

It was causing a bit of friction, especially since Pallass’ army was not Liscor’s Watch. They did not react well to a bunch of heavily armed Antinium marching towards the inn.

“Halt!”

One of the Drakes put up a claw and hesitated. He reached for a speaking stone to talk to Chaldion.

The Antinium did not halt. Pallass’ [Soldiers] bristled and then did a headcount. There were twenty Watch [Guards] who were watching the Antinium marching forwards without reaching for their weapons. Twenty of Pallass’ finest, a Walled City’s standing forces, finest of the fine!

…And the Antinium were Pawn and Belgrade, Yellow Splatters and Painted Antinium. And the ones who had fought against Hectval and pushed back Manus’ strike force.

[Crusaders].

Pawn had, in fact, stopped when asked, but a squad of ten kept walking, as did a group of nearly twenty Soldiers, each one holding a big, big weapon. In fact, one of the smaller Antinium, a Worker with a giant two-handed sword, a zweihander, stomped straight at the [Lieutenant].

“Halt! Grand Strategist, there are at least sixty Antinium—”

The [Lieutenant] jumped backwards as Chaldion gave the order to let them pass just in time. He swore, moved out of the way of Crusader 57, and nearly got kicked in the shins as the Worker lashed out with an armored boot.

“Move, idiot.”

Squad 5 of Battalion 1 marched past the Pallassian [Soldiers], much to the chagrin of Drakes and even the other Antinium. Crusader 57, a known quantity within his Hive, the Aberration, the Worker, the rude Antinium, didn’t leave it there either.

As the outraged Drakes watched, he kept one hand on the zweihander to keep it balanced on his shoulder. He devoted the other three hands to giving them middle fingers as he turned and passed.

“…Is that—a new type of Antinium?”

One of the [Soldiers] whispered as they watched Crusader 57 stomp up the hill. The soldiers watched as Pawn hurried after them and they entered the inn. Then they saw more hopefuls trying to enter.

“Ah, if the Antinium are entering—one side! Wistram News Network is on the—hey!”

Noass tried to push forwards as Drassi was finally admitted past the Thronebearers, without any scrying devices. The [Soldiers] blocked him, and the Drake frowned. He looked at Sir Relz, and the other [Commentator] gave him an encouraging nod. Noass squared his shoulders, kicked the [Lieutenant] in the shins, and raised a middle finger.

“Move, fool—”

 

——

 

“Did anyone hear that?”

Erin Solstice’s second person in line was Seborn. He actually got up to look through a window and started laughing again.

“What’s going on?”

The young woman craned her neck as everyone went to a window. Grimalkin just shook his head; Ulvama began cackling, and Numbtongue guffawed. The two Hobgoblins doubled over as Seborn relayed what was going on.

“The Drake, Noass, is getting shock spelled. This is what I came here for.”

He went back and sat down, and Erin eyed that smile.

“You seem different, Seborn. Did you fall in love or something?”

The Drowned Man took a huge gulp of water.

“Not me, or I’d be carving poems into a clamshell or something inane like Jelaqua.”

“Hey!”

He looked at Erin and calmed down a bit, but the smile still lingered. One eye in Seborn’s face glowed slightly, and half his body was a lobster, but it was amazing how…well, how normal that was. How much Erin had missed it.

“I’m just tired. Like I said. Tired of not having this. It’s good you’re back.”

“I—thank you.”

The Drowned Man nodded as Erin searched for something to say to that. He looked at her.

“So, you know where a bunch of treasure is. Stories of ghosts. Got any sunken treasure chests for me to dig up? I could give you half.”

“Um. No…no, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Plus, they probably moved with the currents.”

The Drowned [Rogue]’s smile grew wider. Grimalkin made a footnote in his journal, and Selys sat up slightly.

“Sure.”

Erin was sweating slightly as she floundered.

“I’m, uh, it’s a lot, and I have to think—”

“I get it. I’m not an idiot like that lot. I’d rather open oysters with my bare fingers than try to get something out of you right now.”

Jerking a thumb at the people in line, Seborn sat back. The smile still played around his lips, but he looked at Erin.

“Just promise me one thing.”

“What?”

Seborn glanced towards the door.

“…When you get a chance, talk to Moore? He needs it, I think. The rest can wait. The tide’s flowing backwards and it’s all sweetwater and that’s fine. But give him a day.”

“Of course.”

And with that, the Drowned Man got up and nodded to Erin.

“Good to have you back. If there is any buried treasure or something to do with the sea, you owe me a chance.”

“Sure. Good to see you, Seborn! I, um—next?”

Erin had the briefest moment of hesitation there. She didn’t have anything for Seborn specifically, but she wondered if he were up-to-date on how to catch invisible squid.

There was so much to do. But it occurred to Erin that Seborn was right. This was not the time. Even if she decided to embark on the highest priority things like finding a dungeon—Erin glanced at Grimalkin and Chaldion.

“…Nah.”

She was beckoning for the third person, who was in fact Pisces, when the doors opened and Antinium marched in. Erin turned, and her mouth opened.

“Whoa.”

A crusade entered the inn, and Pisces looked at the heavily armed, heavily armored Antinium who marched through the doors, formed into ranks, stopped, and stared.

At Erin. She stared back, eyes wide, and what did they see?

She saw Antinium she only vaguely, vaguely remembered from when she’d woken up, part of the hullabaloo. Antinium with no colors, but not regular, faceless Antinium either. Soldiers.

They?

They saw a Human woman, riding across the battlefield as they were thrown into war. They saw General Sserys of Liscor.

They saw a frozen bier and the cause that had led them to fight Hectval in the war. They saw the sky of the Free Antinium and the person who had begun it all.

Crusader 57 spoke into that silence as Crusader 53 touched the Dragonbone mace at his side, looking at her in awe, and Crusader 55 shook like a leaf.

“Where’s our food? I was promised food.”

Erin blinked, and the spell wore off before it had even finished casting. Four Antinium nudged Crusader 57, but in a resigned way. Erin tried to rise, realized she couldn’t, and turned.

“Pisces, sorry—who are these Antinium? I mean—welcome! That Worker has a giant sword!

She pointed at Crusader 57’s weapon. Pisces stepped back as Erin wheeled forwards, smiling.

“Hello! Welcome! I’m—I’m Erin Solstice.”

How they twitched at that. Their antennae, poking through the holes in their helmets, twitched, and Erin saw them lock onto her. Even the Worker with the giant sword.

She wanted to stand, take their hands, or hug them, but more Antinium were coming through. Erin looked around and gestured to the tables.

“Sit, come in! Food’ll be here in a second—Ishkr, Lyonette! Who…I’m Erin. I said that. We have to talk. Just sit down for now and, um, maybe put your weapons at the door? Do we have a weapon rack or something? At least the sword.”

The zweihander and the big weapons that another group of Antinium with horns on their helmets were carrying were going to be hazards, even if they leaned them against the table. Forget tripping over an umbrella or bag; you’d cut yourself if you ran into that big blade.

Erin pointed vaguely to a corner, and Crusader 57 glanced at it. His response was instantaneous and, unfortunately, predictable.

“fUcK yoU. No one takes my sword.”

Erin’s mouth unlatched itself once more. Mrsha turned in her chair like the student meeting the wise master of profanity. Lyonette clapped a hand over her mouth and then tried to cover Mrsha’s ears, and Seborn began clutching at his sides again.

Instantly, all of Squad 5 slapped Crusader 57 on the shoulder and back, and he slapped back. Erin Solstice looked at him, at a loss for words.

“Um. Who are you?”

The question had an odd effect on the group, because they came to attention, and even the amazing Worker responded.

“Crusader 57, Squad 5, Battalion 1 under Commander Dekass. Liscor’s Army. Acid Jar Battalion.”

He offered her a sarcastic salute, and Erin Solstice stared at him.

What battalion?”

The question threw Squad 5 harder than appearing in the middle of the Great Plains in a war. They looked at Erin and saw the lack of knowledge behind her eyes. They beheld the sky…and the sky had no idea who they were.

Erin knew there had been a war against Hectval, but no one had told her everything. She looked at the [Crusaders], then the Beriad as they formed a line. Then Pawn and the other Antinium coming in and around the room.

Lyonette might have known, but she wasn’t at Liscor. Same for the Horns, and even if they had been in the area, like Grimalkin or Selys, this hadn’t been their war. It was something Erin had to be told; not her fault for not knowing.

She’d been dead. But as Erin looked at Squad 5, she felt a tremor in her heart. A deep uncertainty which only grew as the door opened and a grinning Cave Goblin clinging to an Antinium Worker’s back came in.

Rasktooth and Infinitypear. Erin didn’t know either one, but she realized the piggybacking Goblin wasn’t doing it just for fun as the Worker helped put him into a chair. She glanced around as Squad 5 introduced themselves.

“Crusader Toni. Crusader 52-3. Crusader 53, the original. Crusader 54-6, Crusader 55. Crusader 56-2. Crusader 57-7 is me, but I’m just Crusader 57 because it’s my name. Crusader 58-4, Crusader 59-2, and Crusader 60.”

What a strange kind of name. They had no formal names, just that number.

Just like…Antherr had. Erin listened to the way they said it, and something came together in her mind.

“What does—what does the number after the first one mean? Crusader 57…7?”

The Worker looked at Erin blankly and then explained slowly.

“It means six Crusader 57’s died before me. You didn’t know that either.”

Erin looked at him and then around the inn. Chaldion peered at the [Crusaders], his gemstone eye flashing. Relc just sighed and raised a mug for Squad 5, who waved at him. They seemed cheery, gazing around wonderingly, except for Crusader 57.

He might have got it first. Erin sat there and decided it was time to ask.

“I know there was a…war with Hectval. Didn’t Pawn say—what’s this about a crusade?”

She looked up as the [Priest] himself entered the inn and stopped. Pawn’s smile found Erin’s disturbed face, and his mandibles closed a bit and drooped. Pisces exhaled and decided to find a seat.

The ghosts of the dead were all gone. All gone, and there was nothing in the afterlife anymore. But still, somehow, they entered the inn. Erin had known there was a cost. She saw it unspoken behind some eyes, but Gire went still at her table, and Mrsha gazed sadly at the Antinium. Erin tried to count as she was offered a dozen explanations, but the number was too high.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had already been grieving ten days, in part. She knew Khelta was gone and all the others. She was aware that good people had died to bring her back.

She remembered how she had felt after the Siege of Liscor and how it had crushed her for weeks.

This was not the same. The dead probably deserved it, but Erin was ashamed that she wasn’t catatonic with grief. She’d had too long to process it. She was…too grateful to be alive.

Even now, it was hard to believe it.

“The Antinium went to war to…for revenge.”

She looked around at the Antinium sitting with her, and Yellow Splatters nodded.

“For you.”

Pawn quickly interjected, looking at Yellow Splatters and then the other Antinium in the room.

“Not just for you, Erin. It was necessary. Hectval had to be stopped. Each [Crusader] volunteered. Ah, not [Crusaders]…special soldiers.”

They were glancing at the Drakes listening into the conversation, but that word had been dropped enough times for Grimalkin’s quill to not even bother noting it down. Erin gulped.

“And how many…?”

“I believe an exact count would not be productive.”

To Erin’s surprise, it was Belgrade who said that. The Worker seemed—different. For one thing, he’d brought some of the only non-Antinium guests that weren’t friends of Erin’s into the inn. He nodded at the wide-eyed Drakes and Gnolls currently begging autographs from some of the Gold-rank adventurers or looking around the inn.

“All of Liscor fought, Erin. My command squad is here as well, and I believe they would like to meet you. It was not just the Antinium.”

“So Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and Antinium died.”

“They had to. It was a war. Hectval continued to launch attacks on Liscor. We are still at a state of war, but I believe it has been limited to skirmishes. At least, Yolden has joined us, and the alliance has fallen back to around their cities.”

The other Antinium nodded, and Belgrade clacked his mandibles.

“Commander Olesm is in the field, but I hope I can relieve him so he may return.”

“Commander Olesm. What’s Yolden? Another city?”

Selys broke in.

“I told you about it, Erin. Remember?”

“Yeah, but—”

Belgrade politely raised a finger and interrupted Selys.

“Actually, I believe [Strategos] Olesm is the more appropriate term, but we say ‘Commander’ as a catchall.”

“Huh? Huh? Huh?”

It was definitely too much to take in, but what Erin got from the introductions were…well, the important parts to her. She knew, despite Pawn’s attempts to downplay. Especially when she met the Beriad, who had fought against Zeres.

Antherr’s company, which had been a group of a hundred Antinium.

There were seventeen of them here, and many had limbs still in the process of being regrown. Or simply scars. Then Erin noticed the Goblins.

Ulvama was here, and she acted like she’d always been here and Erin was the new guest. Which was one thing. But Erin sensed there were more…Goblins in the inn than just that.

“Rasktooth?”

The Goblin waved as Erin came to his table. Infinitypear looked at the other Antinium, but oddly—he was not as familiar with them, and they nodded at him much like a stranger. Awkwardly.

Which was an interesting dynamic, and Erin recalled that he must have been part of the Mrsha-rescue alliance. Rasktooth cackled as he took Erin’s hand.

“Frozen [Innkeeper] all better. Good! Little bee, too.”

Apista crawled off his head and onto the table. Erin had never seen Apista so friendly, but Rasktooth and she were instantly given a cup of sweet blue juice. Rasktooth looked around his chair, but didn’t get up. There was a big scar on his stomach and back, and Erin gazed at him and then looked for Numbtongue and Bird. The Hobgoblin [Bard] met Erin’s gaze calmly and nodded. Numbtongue’s gaze was sad. And proud.

Not all of the Fellowship of the Inn had made it. But most had, and Erin hesitated as she gazed around, at the ceiling, at a wall…

“…Is there a Goblin in my basement?”

Everyone glanced at the floorboards, and when Ishkr went to check, he came back as a Goblin dressed all in black with eyeliner, a sharp umbrella, and even lipstick appeared. Gothica the [Goth] grinned at Rasktooth and waved at Erin as the [Innkeeper] silently pointed.

“Um.”

“Don’t ask me. I didn’t do it. But yeah, she’s a [Goth]. Not even a Visigoth. You think that’s weird? Wait until you meet Fightipilota.”

Kevin muttered as he scanned around for Goblins he knew. Gothica, for her part, stared at Erin with interest, but she’d been having fun in the basement.

There were tons of dead bodies down there for the Selphids, and she’d been pretending to be one then scaring the daylights out of Ishkr at random. She’d been doing it the last week as a hobby. And levelling.

It was all far, far too much for Erin to figure out. She turned back to Squad 5 and decided to do the only thing she could do.

“You’re super-welcome to my inn, everyone. Help yourself to anything on the menu and whatever you want to drink. I have people I need to talk to, but I’m gonna talk to you all. That’s a promise. I hope you enjoy The Wandering Inn!”

Squad 5 did cheer up at that, and they all nodded eagerly. They were reading the menu, which had its own Antinium-section for foods they could eat. Erin was almost breathing out when Crusader 57 spoke up again.

Crusader 57, the myth, the legend. It was safe to say most of the Free Antinium had heard of him already, although he hadn’t returned to the Hive more than twice since becoming a [Crusader]. However, word spread about the not-Aberration Worker with a foul mouth who’d told Klbkch to go perform intercourse on himself and was part of the famous Squad 5.

Not all of what was rumored about him was good. He was as famous as Silveran, but he occupied the negative space in public opinion, which made him a rarity. Only the horrible Furfur could compete, or Klbkch himself. He was rude, mean, and he hurt people’s feelings.

In this case, he didn’t even say anything that negative; he just spoke up where most Antinium were silent.

“So this is the inn that’s so special. Everyone talks about how wonderful it is. We’ll see.”

If ever there were a comment to make Erin sweat…she focused on Squad 5, who had hurled themselves into war for her, and turned.

“Um—I-Ishkr? Let’s start with some blue fruit juice and acid flies. For appetizers! Then they can order what they want.”

A bowl of acid flies for each [Crusader], and because Ishkr had been harvesting them for four months with few customers, he had enough for all the Antinium guests to fill their bowls and then some. Nevertheless, it was accompanied by blue fruit squeezed fresh into a glass, and Imani had arrived with Palt to reinforce the inn’s culinary staff. Lasica had already begun making backup dishes.

Erin watched Squad 5 eat with relish as they crunched down the big, black flies, which had the faintest taste of, yes, acid. It was not a sight for the faint-of-heart, and new guests to the inn, like Gire, seemed nauseous as they glimpsed a few innards gushing from cracked flies. The Antinium also experienced the joys of sugar as the blue fruit drinks were served.

This is good.

One of the Beriad signaled with the Antinium’s developing language. He was carefully, painstakingly weighing his options between a Cheesicore Omelette—an omelette filled with cheese, Corusdeer venison or other meat, and local veggies, or the Antinium-version of a Grainbite Trout, which meant instead of crumbs and spices stuffed inside, it was acid flies and spices.

It was possibly the hardest choice he would ever make in his life, and if Antinium could sweat, he would have. One of his comrades came to his aid in this dire hour to suggest he get the trout, which meant they could split the dish.

That was the kind of tactical thinking you got from being a [Soldier] in Calruz’s squad. It didn’t occur to the Beriad that they could order more than one dish apiece.

In a way, the Antinium lacked for some of the inn’s wonderfulness because they didn’t realize ordering a dish and having it appear literally less than five minutes later, steaming hot, was a luxury. However, they certainly appreciated actual food, seats and utensils designed for them, and the ambiance of the inn.

There was the sky herself, and even if she didn’t create a manifestation of Heaven just by being near them, some people were climbing onto the stage, the Hobgoblin was tuning his guitar, and the inn felt…cosy. Even if Klbkch had returned, the inn was inviting to them like no place they had ever been, except the Painted Antinium’s barracks. And there was the little fluffy white Gnoll they’d heard about!

Like [Tourists], they looked from thing to thing they’d heard about in the stories. The [Innkeeper] looked relieved that they were pleased, and even Crusader 57 could readily admit that the food was good and the inn was nice.

But that was just it. He leaned forwards as Erin wheeled over to the table.

“How’s that, guys? Squad 5? Enjoying yourselves?”

All of Squad 5 tried to cover Crusader 57’s mouth, but he just bit at their fingers.

“The food is good. It’s a nice inn. Not worth dying for. You’re okay too.”

Pawn and Belgrade froze at their table and stared at Crusader 57’s back. Bird calmly tossed a Garry-gluten roll at Crusader 57’s head. It bounced off his helmet, and Erin shook her fist.

“Bird! I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were fighting. I would have said…”

Crusader 57 stared at Erin blankly.

“It’s not your fault. We were going to die in the Hive anyways. Fighting Hectval is better. And easier, even with Manus. It’s just not worth it for the inn.”

He glanced around defiantly as the other Antinium glared at him. Crusader 57 was rapidly plummeting to the depths only Klbkch, Furfur, and Ksmvr had ever enjoyed in the Antinium popularity poll.

But the thing was…Erin studied him. She could recognize an Aberration’s voice, and he didn’t have that shaking dissonance in his words. But he was still a very angry Worker. And he wasn’t wrong. Slowly, Crusader 57 got up.

“They talk about the statues too. Can we see them? That would be good.”

The statues. Pawn, Numbtongue…everyone looked up. Erin instantly nodded, but then she had another thought. Her face fell.

“Oh no. I mean—yes, obviously. But—”

But when they went up that hill, into the mists where the statues waited for all those who knew them, Squad 5 halted. For they saw nothing but a bench and the statues of other people. Antinium, Goblins, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, yes. People who mattered.

Yet Crusader 51 was not there. Yet none of the others were there because Erin Solstice didn’t know them. She had never met them and never would. Crusader 57 nodded slowly.

“Yep. I knew it was just okay.”

He turned, and Erin flinched slightly, but the Worker walked calmly past her and went back to eat more food. Because he hadn’t expected anything. That was worse. It sank into Erin as she looked at Squad 5, at the Beriad, who watched as Pawn, Belgrade, and Bird stood in their circle.

They were dead, and she hadn’t known them. But then Erin gazed around her [Garden of Sanctuary] and realized…there was no Califor. No Khelta.

It sank over her again, just like all the other times. Then Erin looked up and wondered where Krshia was. Surely she’d be here, or the Silverfangs.

The answer was that they might, but probably not today. After all—the tribes were still in mourning.

 

——

 

They were still burning the dead in the Great Plains, but it was also true that a species was in mourning. Not just the Gnolls, of course; there were reasons to mourn across the world.

The city of Paeth had appeared in Talenqual, but so many Fraerlings had died they had to weigh that with the sheer need to protect their vulnerable city.

The Forgotten Wing company had won a terribly bloody battle at their capital. But they were [Soldiers]. Mercenaries who kept moving.

Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat had fallen back to count their losses, but the war was still going on. They were still mourning Great General Dionamella, but the immortals of Ailendamus also counted Fithea, the last Dryad, amongst their losses.

However, the greatest death toll had come from the Great Plains and the Gnoll people. So yes, ten days was not enough time to mourn. Ten days was enough for the shock to wear off, to actually try and begin honoring the dead.

Silverfang was not in the mood to join the inn or even pay attention to the Mythical Quest. So how did a species mourn? Someone watched. He gazed through eyes of magic, not as a voyeur, but someone who cared.

Who had woken up. Who was counting the costs of his slumber. He knew mourning. Teriarch, the last Dragonlord of Flame, observed the Silverfang tribe among many others.

Each city or tribe was different. Of course. But species figured out different ways to process grief through their long existence and history. For instance, in Pallass, Salazsar, and Oteslia, but most of all in Fissival, Zeres, and Manus, where they had taken the most casualties, the Drakes mourned in private ceremonies. They buried the dead who had been retrieved, but the public mourning was the military parades.

They were going on in all six Walled Cities. Lines of armored [Soldiers] marched down the widest streets as civilians cheered them. To the sensibilities of other species, the Dragon understood how it could look.

See, we have tried to slaughter a people and now we celebrate. They were throwing these parades in honor of the fallen, the courage of combat, and the cheering filled the air. The Walled Cities were perhaps lucky Erin Solstice had chosen today to post her quest; otherwise, this might have been the coverage of the day.

That was one read on what the Drakes were doing. The Dragon heard and saw something else. The cheering of the Drakes in the crowds was a roar of exuberant voices. Raw. His eyes could pick out some people wearing white for death screaming their lungs out, tears in their eyes.

It mattered. The parade meant that the dead soldiers had been heroes. They had to be heroes. If they weren’t…the celebration had a desperate tinge to it in parts. Cheering so loud it drowned out tears a moment. Then, the Dragon knew, the living would attend the funerals for the deceased, often cremation. Richer or more important Drakes would occupy the very contested graveyards, but a memorial would be put up.

After the burial, sometimes literally minutes afterwards, the families and loved ones would attend the wills being read out and possessions of the dead being divided up. It was customary.

 

——

 

“What? They’re fighting over inheritance minutes after they bury their own?”

Erin heard an indignant voice as she returned from the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She found Maughin had arrived at the inn, but he was late.

He had been attending a funeral, and apparently, he had been named as a beneficiary of one of the Pallassian [Soldiers] who had perished in the Meeting of Tribes. It was a topic of outrage from Lyonette, who had bristled at learning Pallass was throwing a huge parade—that all the Walled Cities were.

Erin slowly wheeled forward as the [Smith] awkwardly took off his head and bowed to her, then let Jelaqua sit his head next to her. He replied gravely.

“It is customary, I understand, Pr—Miss Lyonette. Dullahans are more reserved, but each people to their own.”

“Yes, I understand, but a will minutes after…?”

“It’s customary.”

Selys didn’t quite meet Lyonette’s gaze, but the angry young woman was rarely undiplomatic. She glared around.

“That should be at least—at least a day removed. Why do it that way?”

Because, Lyonette, it means they cared.”

“Excuse me?”

If Selys was unwilling to get into Drake customs in light of recent events, Lasica was more than willing, and she emerged from the kitchen with a deep frown for the [Princess]. The [Chef] spoke sharply.

“It means they cared. Almost all Drakes have a will when they’re sixteen or older. Nothing fancy, but [Soldiers] especially list things out. You often don’t get much if you’re not close, close family, but even distant friends get a trinket.”

She nodded at Maughin, who had received a fine whetstone. Lasica went on, not taking her eyes from Lyonette, who had begun to look a bit uneasy.

“It means they were thinking about you, and you have something to remember them by. I don’t know how Humans do it, but it matters to us. With that said, I don’t expect the Gnolls to be sympathetic, but I will thank you not to insult the Drakes who fought for the tribes.”

It was a Drake idea; a very material way to let someone know you mattered, like how Selys had gotten Zel’s Heartflame Breastplate by accident. Or, alternatively, one last way to tell someone they were getting nothing from you and you always hated their guts.

It sort of made sense to Erin. She turned to Gireulashia and Mrsha, the only two Plains Gnolls in the inn thus far.

“What…what about Silverfang, Gire? What’s happening with the tribes?”

Gire started guiltily and responded slowly.

“If it’s Silverfang, they might do something else…but I think they’re probably—feeding the animals.”

“Hm? What does that mean?”

 

——

 

Gnoll tribes had vast flocks of animals. It was a matter of practicality to them that even in the depths of grief, you could not abandon them.

So, instead, one of the days of mourning was devoted to sitting down with flocks of sheep, dogs, or other livestock, and giving them as much as you could to eat. A rare treat, assuming the situation wasn’t dire. Then combing them, pampering the sheepdogs, as a community.

Gnolls would stop moving and eat and drink foods devoted to these hours, but the main thing they did was…tell stories.

For each person you knew had passed, you told a story. One day, you told a silly story about them. The next, you told those listening a tale you might never have shared in life, that had made you angry. A tale of failure. The third day, you told their triumphs or how they died.

Krshia Silverfang had been telling stories in between the mandatory meetings with the Council from sunup to sundown.

There were too many Gnolls she knew who had died. Too many, and even in her immediate family—

Shaman Cetrule was dead. In the Great Plains, apparently Satar Silverfang was going around, writing down every story she could, and many came to the young [Historian] such that she was constantly working. It was for the best, Krshia thought. It helped her to have something to do.

When she had talked with her sister in the scrying orb, she had seen the difference in Cers. He, by contrast, just clung to Akrisa’s paw as she went from place to place. Silent as a ghost.

Krshia should have stayed there. None of the Silverfangs who had come to Liscor had gone to the inn.

Silverfangs did something else unique to their tribe. Many Gnoll tribes would be honoring their dead, and when they met, Silverfang would surely honor Ekhtouch, Weatherfur, Gaarh Marsh, even Steelfur’s warriors in their way and tell more stories.

But Silverfangs were making something, carefully pouring wax into molds, and delicately, delicately writing or even drawing on the candles with silver paint.

They would make a candle in honor of those they knew and light it on the final day. When it burnt low, they would return to work.

There was not enough wax in Liscor for everyone. So, yes. Krshia did not begrudge Erin returning to excitement. She was glad for Erin and even the distraction the Mythical Quest had caused for a moment. But she still had to mourn. And how were you supposed to do it? Krshia’s paws faltered as she wrote Cetrule’s name on a candle. She gazed at a line of candles she had already made, not with the stories and even words from everyone on each candle, such that they were a temporary work of art.

Twenty-eight candles sat there. It was too much, even for their customs. How was she supposed to mourn…?

 

——

 

How and where? The scope was beyond imagining—at least in this age. The Dragon had seen worse. There was no comparison in his mind, but he had seen worse.

Even so, he didn’t know himself, so he watched them for answers. Teriarch let the scrying spells lapse to silence. He closed his eyes, but forced himself to watch one last person.

He could not sleep. Not anymore. So, with all the delicacy in the world, he focused the spells on a final person, despite the considerable wards and privacy that was surely deserved. But Teriarch needed to know. So he searched for Fetohep of Khelt.

 

——

 

It was not the palace of Khelt, nor the great city of Koirezune, the capital, where the undead stood. He had left his glorious palace of countless floors and wonders silently, and his servants never noticed his passage.

It was not far from the capital that you could find empty land, if you took a steed that feared neither exhaustion nor injury. Here, the sands were scattered with bits of ivory and rock, often blown in from distant lands. For Khelt did border Zeikhal, and was still very much a desert in places.

Only water, time, and the ceaseless work of undead kept it from becoming a wasteland once more. That was why Khelta the First had founded her nation here; no one would want this land.

Here, oblivion stretched from the bright sand onwards to the horizon, where the Great Desert lay. The wind blew lightly, and the sun still shone down and made everything painfully bright.

There, a man stood. No, a corpse. Both? He looked like he had died here, arms outstretched, the wind blowing at his robes and dirty armor hanging off a withered frame. His dark brown skin, almost calcified with age and rot, was paper-thin, but the mummified corpse held himself there.

His head was turned up to the sky, bright blue, and two golden flames burned in the eye sockets. In that way you knew he was alive and a powerful undead, but the figure did not move.

He had not moved for a few hours. He could have been a scarecrow, albeit the most richly decorated scarecrow in the world. The one thing that was unlike Fetohep, that would have struck anyone who saw him thusly, was this:

The yellowed teeth of his jaw shone faintly under the light. His mouth was open, exposing long-decayed insides to the world. A jaw fully agape, open, and that was something…Fetohep did not eat. He did not move his jaw, even to speak, for he had no lungs nor need of a tongue.

Yet the mouth was open, and if you looked down at him, what did you see?

An undead soul screaming to the heavens. That open mouth, howling in silence. Like the winds blowing across Zeikhal, agony frozen in a single expression even a corpse could convey.

Yet not a word, not a sound could be heard save for the winds. For even far, far from his capital, even with no chance of anyone overhearing—

A ruler did not scream. A king could wail and gnash his teeth. But they would not find him here, screaming to the skies. So the undead figure stood there as the sun burned across the sky. That voiceless howl went on and on.

Khelt had died.

That they were ghosts hadn’t mattered. Khelt had died, and the last person besides Erin Solstice who could mourn them stood there and knew how empty these lands were.

 

——

 

Teriarch watched Fetohep of Khelt as long as he was able. Which was not long. He closed the scrying spell and lay there in his cave.

No young Dragoness was present, nor the [Maid]. They had both returned to their homes—for now. Like Fetohep, like Erin Solstice, the Dragon knew he had deeds before him.

But first—he had a question. And it was this:

How did you mourn a people?

He did not know. And he had watched each species as if hoping to find a clue, but he hadn’t been able to find his answer. Fetohep of Khelt’s expression had been too close. For if he knew every great ruler and ghost of Khelt was gone…

Every Dragon had also gone as well. They had already been dead, but that was the thing. He had made his peace with each one.

He had not thought to see them and see them all perish at once. To know there would never be a reunion. Worse, worse…he had not expected to be given his charge.

Worst of all, Teriarch had not looked for the glory he saw. The Dragonlords fighting an impossible foe. Burning across the skies with pride and defiance.

“What am I supposed to do?”

He had no idea. The Brass Dragon knew every manner of burial and mourning. He had attended more funerals than any other being in existence that he knew of.

Dragons had mourned their kind in many different ways over the ages. At first, they had created memorials for the greatest of their kind—and watched the mortals tear them down or their edifices break and wear, even the most beautiful.

So then they had decided another thing, which was to take an item they loved out of their hoards—and Dragons were greedy and possessive, by and large—and gift it. To mortals who had known the Dragons, to others of their kind. That was the origin of Drake wills, if he remembered right. The gift mattered as a way of remembrance.

“…There are none left who remember half the Dragons who died, even the greatest. I would empty my hoard. To whom?”

He laughed at the idea and looked around blankly at things he only half-remembered acquiring. There was little here that…mattered. No. Some things greatly, but not that either.

“In the last ages of our kind, when a Dragon passed, we would reveal ourselves to the nearest mortals and speak to them of who had died. Impart a brief, fleeting memory for a single lifetime, no matter how short. Let their names be heard once more before silence.”

He toyed with the idea of that, appearing before one of the adventuring teams in the High Passes, or a [Shepherd], and telling them of the arrogance of Muzarre, the Dragonlord of Earth. Or perhaps the contradictory nature of the last Knight-Dragon, Yderigrisel, full of honor and bravado at times. Better than most Dragons for the causes he championed, and damned in Teriarch’s eyes for the victory he claimed at the end.

But he had no time for all the stories, and it would not be fair to tell just one. Perhaps that inn would be suitable.

And yet—Teriarch shuddered. He did not remember that young woman, Erin Solstice. He did not know her. But they had met. And that knowledge, the contradiction of certainty and a gap in his self, was most terrifying of all.

All too tempting to curl up and sleep until the moment was long behind him. With every instinct, Teriarch had to fight that urge.

“Not again. Nevermore.”

Slowly, he slunk from his cave. Or waddled. His body felt leaden. His wings flapped, ungainly, and he peered around, blinking irritably in the sunlight.

“Why me? Why not the first Dragonlord of Gems, Saracandre, or haughty Xarkouth. Why not…why not a Djinni, damn it? I may be one of the oldest, but…”

It had all been planned out. He understood that. They had waited for him, scolded him and laughed at him, and sent him back with an impossible mission like he was a copper-a-dozen [Hero] trying to take down a Kraken with a shiny rock.

Perhaps it was simply who had resurrected him. As the Dragonlords died, the spell might have well failed on them, and it was too great a risk to take. Teriarch wondered if it were also that only one name would have really mattered to the person they had to convince.

“Why me? Who are you? What were you, to me?”

All he knew was a name. And though he could guess, there was nothing there. No flicker of emotion, no spark of even the faintest memory.

“Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia Reinhart…”

Nothing. The Dragon shook his head. Then he spread his wings and flew. He did not have the words to mourn so many, nor the time. He had not the elegance—not anymore, nor even did his vast wealth suit the occasion.

What were you supposed to do in these times? When you grieved, but you had grieved before? When even a garden would not showcase your loss? The Dragonlord climbed higher, searching.

And an [Innkeeper] looked around.

 

——

 

Erin had let Crusader 57 down. She knew it. Him and others. The Wandering Inn had food coming out of the kitchens, but contrary to Mrsha-belief, food did not equate to everything.

Her garden didn’t have the statues. And she herself was…well. Erin wanted to hug Crusader 57, stand up, and…

What could she do? That was the question. Erin thought about it, and this was still only an hour after she’d just posted a Mythical Quest.

Everyone still wanted to talk about that.

“Miss Solstice. As I was saying, Pallass is willing to offer…”

“Yeah, yeah, Grimalkin. Shush. Did you actually think I’d go for it?”

“At first offer? No. But I am prepared to offer you—”

Erin looked up at the Drake and frowned.

“Are you going to threaten me if bribing me doesn’t work?”

The [Sinew Magus] closed his mouth, and Erin folded her arms. He slowly glanced over his shoulder, and Erin traced his gaze back to Chaldion.

“…I am representing Pallass, Erin. You understand it’s my—duty—to do all I can in that regard.”

Something was odd about the way he said ‘duty’. Erin studied Grimalkin, and her distraction turned to a moment of curiosity.

Even he seemed different. But she couldn’t chase down that momentary flicker. It was not the time.

“…Can we skip the threats? Let’s say you try again…in two days?”

Grimalkin eyed Erin, then made a note on his pad.

“Very well. It would appear that’s for the best. Especially since I gather you are distracted…I will not waste our time. Thank you, Erin.”

Erin blinked, but he rose and left the table without a word. Chaldion glared, and the two began arguing as he sat back down. He was right, though. Erin kept staring at the [Crusaders]. And Rasktooth. And Gothica.

She had no way to thank them, and she couldn’t tell the others about Khelta and…not with what it would do.

But she had to do…something, right?

Perhaps, though, everyone else felt it too, because Grimalkin was not the only person who decided to leave things for later. Pisces had abandoned what he was going to say when he saw the Antinium come in, and even Seborn and Klbkch had all known the score.

This was the hour of the Solstice Effect™ after all. What would come next? The [Innkeeper] seemed frustrated as she wheeled around in her chair, so, after a moment’s hesitation, someone stood up and sidled over.

“Psst. Erin. Do you need…this?”

The young woman glanced around and saw…Kevin. He had something he was shielding with his back. It was…his laptop.

“Huh? Kevin? What for?”

The [Mechanic] gave her a huge wink. He had a program open on the computer.

“I’ve got a bunch of songs loaded up. Not all your style, but maybe take a look and find something you want? Or the movies! I bet Palt could put one up on the big screen.”

“For what?”

The young man scratched at his head as Mrsha sat up in her chair, interested.

“For…something? Party? Movie-night? I’m just saying—give the word.”

“The word. For the laptop. Okay.”

Erin’s brows scrunched together. She saw what Kevin was getting at. He was expecting something. So was Ishkr.

He had already, with the help of his sister, Liska, begun pulling up kegs from the basement and was counting mugs. He had a wand to start little flames, a bunch of coins for spare change, and some Faerie Flowers, pre-dried, lying in his work kit.

Erin stared at Ishkr, then at Lyonette as she came over.

“Erin, I’d like a heads-up whenever anything begins.”

“When what begins, Lyonette? I’m not—”

The [Princess] held up an overly patient hand and gave Erin a smile as Ser Sest stood behind her.

“I’m sure you’re not. But when—if it begins, I’d just like to know what it’s going to be. Let me handle pricing, and I think we can agree that maybe it should be outside? Or at least Mrsha and the Goblins and Antinium should be separated from the huge crowds. For safety.”

“Absolutely. But what am I doing?”

Lyonette du Marquin gave Erin a long look.

“You tell me.”

The inn was so ready you could feel it. Mrsha was writing down a brief explanation to Gire about what was going on, and even Seborn was drinking very lightly so he didn’t miss anything happening next. Relc rubbed his claws together as Klbkch returned—with Embria in tow.

“Did I miss anything, Relc?”

“Nah, just those Antinium coming through. And Noass getting electrified.”

“Pity.”

Embria nodded. She glanced at Squad 5, then sat down.

“Dad.”

“Hey, kid! Did you see Vok or any of the Gnolls from Cellidel in the crowd? They might not be able to come up. Maybe I’ll get them—oh! Oh, wait, she’s moving!”

Everyone stared at Erin as she slowly wheeled across the inn. She glanced around, and they pretended not to be watching. Erin scratched at her arm.

I’m going to the bathroom, okay?

They watched her leave the inn, and Jelaqua immediately put money down against Saliss on whether or not Erin was actually going to the bathroom.

 

——

 

Erin went to the bathroom, but she mainly did it to think. This was her fault. She’d done this too many times. She’d even told them there was a party at the inn! And she could see where Kevin was coming from.

It wasn’t hard. Wave your hands around twice, boot up Shrek, and you had the makings of something already. Or you did something like, uh…getting a stick, a few flat rocks, and having Ceria freeze over the baseball field and invent hockey.

“Actually, what about Hedault? I haven’t seen him in a while, but I bet he still likes skateboarding. And Kevin has got to have, like, eight skateboards. Could Ceria or Grimalkin and Moore make, like, a skate park? Can you skateboard on ice?”

Erin could just imagine Gireulashia doing some kind of ridiculous backwards wavefront triple-axel spin-kick somersault on a skateboard. Yep, and then you’d have a competition and—

Oh! Skateboarding? That means—I, um, uh—”

Erin nearly jumped out of the outhouse as a loud voice in the stall next to hers rang out. Someone quickly burst out the door and fled. Erin shouted back.

I know that was you, Drassi!

Everyone wanted a party, and if Erin didn’t act fast, it was going to start without her. In fact, she thought it made sense. After all that had happened, a Wandering Inn classic was just what you needed for a palette cleanser, right? It wouldn’t solve the world’s ills, but—that was something she could eminently do, and so she owed it to people.

Right?

Just do it. Wait, wait…do I invent a shoe company? Nah. But give them what they want, right? Skateboarding…movie…quest? Do those things work together? 

The thing was, Erin didn’t think it was the right thing to do. It was the easy thing to do, and it had worked every single time before, more or less. Maybe a party would make Crusader 57 say this inn had something cool. But Erin thought she’d let him down.

Back when the Antinium had nothing, a plate of spaghetti meant the world to them. These days, Crusader 57 got camp food, and that was sometimes better than what Erin could cook. She had been very useful to Goblins and Antinium at the start with very little, but that was because they had had nothing at all.

These days, if she offered Bird a fried egg, he’d ask her to put salt on it first and would it kill her to add some ketchup in the form of a bird on top? Erin was afraid that if she did her party, it would be what they wanted, and it wouldn’t be worth it at all.

I had no time to really talk to Klbkch. He has something he wants to talk to me about. And so does Seborn. Moore? Even Grimalkin the Pushy, Grimalkin, left me alone.

Because…they knew they weren’t going to get anything out of Erin today. She just caused a scene, vamoosed, and then she’d do something cool and they’d hear what mattered in five days. Even Tekshia and Zevara had let her go.

And Erin couldn’t tell them about the ghosts. At least not the way she wanted. The Gnolls were dead.

So Erin pushed open the door to the outhouse and spent five minutes getting into her wheelchair. And she knew that it wasn’t the same as she slowly began to wheel back to the inn.

However, the people gathered below the inn all pointed to her, and someone actually shouted up.

“Hey! When is it starting? Do something already! I have the night shift in five hours!”

Erin sighed louder. She wheeled back to the inn, glumly thinking about just posting a Legendary Quest. Then at least she’d buy time rebuilding the inn.

She had her hand on the door and was thinking how to start it off. She wanted to answer their needs, she really did. Then, later, maybe she’d find a way to securely talk to Fetohep. And say…sorry. And talk to Krshia, though that wasn’t her fault. And ask Crusader 57 to tell her everything.

Erin realized she was still pressing on the door and stared at it.

“It opens outwards? When did that happen?”

The world was topsy-turvy. Erin rolled back a bit and realized the issue with wheelchairs and doors that opened into said wheelchairs. She rolled back a bit more, extended her arm to reach out, and gave up. She looked over her shoulder at the crowd and then at the inn. Then Erin Solstice slowly wheeled her chair forwards, past the door, and came to a stop after a minute.

She was still sitting there when Ishkr found her. He opened the door with the intuition of someone realizing that Erin might be having trouble getting into her wheelchair or into the inn, but saw that the outhouses were open. So he studied the crowd and saw them all staring ‘behind’ the inn.

The Gnoll found Erin Solstice sitting on the edge of the grass hill, under the sun. It was fall, but some days were warm enough, and she was gazing down at the Floodplains.

“Look at all those colors, Ishkr. Did you know that the grass changed to orange and red and yellow like this?”

Purple too. Erin was seeing the Floodplains change color for the winter. Ishkr hesitated.

“I’ve lived here for most of my life, Erin. Yes.”

“Gotcha, gotcha.”

The [Head Server] waited, but Erin didn’t say anything else. She glanced up after a moment and added.

“I mean, I saw it last year, but I guess I forgot. Anyways, it looks cool.”

“Indeed?”

It was pretty, but Ishkr was more worried about Erin’s face. She didn’t seem like a woman with a plan, nor did she have the too-bland look she got when she was actually about to unleash havoc. She was just…staring out across the Floodplains. Most of the crowd was on the other side, watching the front of the inn, although some were sidling around to stare at her. Some had scrying orbs, others had Grimalkin-style notepads.

Erin ignored them all.

“I wish we had the magic door. Then I could slip out somewhere else. I guess that’s on the list of things to do.”

“I am sure Miss Lyonette has it on her list. Can I wheel you inside, Erin? Or do you need anything?”

If she had said, ‘Ishkr, get me two mops, a jar of magicore, and a banana peel’, he would have done so at once. But the [Innkeeper] just sat there.

“I don’t think so, Ishkr. They’re all ready for a party, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Erin.”

“Okay.”

She didn’t move. Ishkr was even sure that if Erin really wanted to, she could have used the [Garden of Sanctuary] to get into the inn. Yet she didn’t go anywhere, and after a minute of him standing there uncomfortably, she glanced up.

“Why don’t you take a seat, Ishkr? I’d offer you mine, but this thing doesn’t have brakes. Sort of a design flaw. I might go rolling down and kill someone.”

A few Gnolls at the base of the hill decided not to stand right below her. Erin smiled a bit, and Ishkr awkwardly sat down.

“Can I get you anything, Miss Erin?”

“Erin’s okay. You’ve been here super long. As long as Lyonette, that was when we hired you. Man, that was a weird time. Remember that?”

“Vividly.”

Awkwardly, the Gnoll adjusted his apron and sat cross-legged. He didn’t know what kind of devious plan this was…but the grass was quite lovely, and they’d cleared the damn bear traps someone had left here once. He’d been terrified of walking around here for ages. Erin noticed his hesitation.

“What’s wrong?”

“Ah—nothing. It’s just that there were bear traps around here at one point. Not any longer—”

What.

Ishkr explained briefly, and Erin looked around.

“Whoa, that’s bad. I did that? Those Raskghar got in my head. Don’t worry—I can sort of tell what’s around my inn. We’re safe. And you still decided to work at my inn?”

“The pay is good.”

That said nothing, and both of them knew it. Erin laughed.

“Why did you work here? To begin with?”

Ishkr pondered the question and shifted, embarrassed.

“Honestly, Erin? Krshia told me to. She wanted someone to let her know what was going on now and then and make sure you had good help.”

“That Krshia! Well—why did you stay?

Ishkr smiled.

“Because it was interesting. Besides which, there are worse jobs for a [Server]. You do not shout at me, even when I make mistakes, and you do pay better than some places. The plays helped, and I liked it here.”

“Wow. But you survived, like, Creler attacks and Raskghar. And the moths. And you kept the inn running when I was dead, and I guess you survived this Stitch Witch? And…are we paying you enough?”

Erin was counting on her fingers, and she turned to Ishkr. He politely folded his hands in his apron and saw the people pointing up at him and Erin. It was a bit disconcerting, so he focused on the [Innkeeper].

“You could pay me more.”

She grinned.

“Let’s do that. How—how was it when I was, y’know, dead?”

Ishkr didn’t know why she was asking all this, but he could only answer honestly.

“Quiet. Very quiet. Aside from the beginning when the [Witch] came and the Titan was in the inn…it was quiet. Nothing happened some days. The others could tell you about the, ah, exciting moments.”

“No, go on. Tell me what happened when things weren’t blowing up.”

He shrugged awkwardly. This was the longest they’d talked that he could remember. She’d ask him how his day was, but always in a busy inn. This?

“I—would sweep up, make sure there was food for the guests, and then I’d have days when no one came in. Sometimes I’d poke my head into the garden to make sure everything was the same, but it was quiet. I…just read books.”

“Really?”

“A few. But I think I just took naps or sat there. Thinking. I just kept the inn from getting dusty. It was hardly as heroic as anything anyone else did.”

Erin nodded.

“But someone had to. I appreciate it. I really do. And your sister’s working here now, so I guess this really is sort of like home, right? Your parents…”

She coughed, and Ishkr made a face.

“My sister is, ah, a good worker. Sometimes. She gets into trouble with the Watch, but they’re reasonable about it. Most of the time.”

“Really? Why?”

“She picks fights with them. Her and her…nevermind. It is complicated. And my parents haven’t been able to talk to her. So she comes to me with her problems.”

“That’s a problem. What’s—”

Erin coughed again, and there was a wheeze in her voice. Ishkr saw her face go red, and he stood up.

“Do you need a drink?”

Erin nodded. She saw Ishkr half-rise, then a smile crossed his face. He looked at her.

“Do you have an order?”

Her throat was super-dry, or there was pollen or something. Erin wheezed.

“Anything. Just a drink—”

She coughed, and when she raised her head, Ishkr had a clear cup of deep violet juice. Erin blinked, but took the cup and tasted sour juice. Yet with a dash of sweet; even so, she puckered her lips and took a gulp and felt the urge to cough vanish.

“Waitasecond. Is this the watermelon juice from Wailant’s spitting watermelons?”

“Yes, Miss Solstice.”

“How’d you—do you just have watermelon juice in a bag of holding?”

Erin looked, but Ishkr didn’t even have a bag of holding. He smiled, pleased with himself.

“[Menu: Instantaneous Order]. I believe I gained it after the Titan visited the inn.”

“That’s so cool! Thanks, Ishkr!”

Erin sipped from the cup in relief. She’d all but forgotten they served the juice. Ishkr sat back down, and Erin sighed. She saw him watching her, and after a second, Ishkr spoke.

“…There isn’t a party you had in mind, is there, Erin?”

“Nope. I mean, I could do it like that.”

Erin snapped her fingers and looked at the inn.

“Just crack a window open and I shout ‘movie night’ and we’re good. But I can’t. I…can’t. Listen, it’s okay. I’ll take the heat. Can you get an order for yourself?”

“Not for another…twenty minutes.”

“Whoa, that’s a fast cooldown, isn’t it?”

“Not when it’s rush hour, but it is a helpful thing. If you would like, I can get a straw or ice. It would only take me six seconds.”

“Ooh! You can do the [Garden of Sanctuary] trick too?”

The most adept inn-goers had learned they could maneuver around the inn by entering the garden and moving the door to where they wanted at amazing speed. But their conversation broke off when someone shouted from below.

Hey! Stop drinking juice! I have a bet on the party!

It was the same Drake from before. Erin grimaced, and Ishkr half-rose, but Erin waved him down.

“Nah, nah. I have something for this. Lyonette made me take all kinds of artifacts. Here’s the one for not getting shot again…here’s the anti-scrying one Saliss gave me, and the appraisal—aha!

She slapped a little bit of gemstone on the third ring, and Ishkr’s ears popped as a bubble of silence enveloped them. Erin winked at him.

“Eavesdropping measures. But it probably won’t work on Grimalkin or even Saliss. Or Pisces—he reads lips. So I couldn’t talk about the big stuff.”

So there was big stuff. But then, Ishkr and even Mrsha knew that. He waited for Erin to suggest they go in, but she kept sipping drinks.

“I know they want us, Ishkr. But let’s keep sitting. Is it okay if I ask about Liska? She seems sort of, um, Ryoka-ish? Does she just go around punching people and that’s why she’s in trouble? You don’t have to tell me.”

Indeed, Ishkr did not, and he had never, ever brought it up. Because it might mean trouble, and Ishkr didn’t invite that sort of thing, despite working at The Wandering Inn. So he hesitated.

But it was also Erin Solstice, and she had a habit of defending Goblins, Antinium, and Doombringers. So he leaned over and whispered.

“She…has a female companion. Which is not as much of a problem as it would be in some cities, but it is still Liscor. She does not like people trying to stop her either, so she starts fights.”

“A female c—oh. I get it. A girlfriend.”

“Yes.”

Erin blinked a few times.

“Huh. Thanks for telling me. I mean, I won’t tell anyone. But I thought she did something really bad like breaking windows.”

Ishkr heaved a heavy sigh.

“She does that too, sometimes. Do you know Sellme?”

“Mrsha’s friend?”

“What? No, the [Magical Painter]…the one who causes trouble. They’re an influence on Liska and…”

Ishkr hesitated, because he had a sudden suspicion. So did Erin, and she leaned on her chin.

“Huh. Well, I guess we’re gonna have to watch our windows if Mrsha’s friends come over. Then again—ours are pretty tough to break. But that’s hard, being the older brother. Do you, like, need anything?”

The Gnoll [Server] shook his head instantly.

“Actually, since the Watch comes to the inn, it has helped more. Senior Guardsman Beilmark, Councilmember Jeiss, and Senior Guardsman Relc have all stepped in rather than arresting her.”

“That’s good. But let me know if you need help, okay? And I guess we’ll hire Liska. Keeps her out of trouble, and we need the crew back. Even if Silveran can’t come.”

“…Thank you.”

Ishkr looked up, and Erin smiled. Then her stomach growled, and she poked it.

“You traitor. I was just having a good time! Wait, I never had lunch, and it’s…”

She stared out, and it was definitely getting into the first hours of evening. The sun was still warm, but Ishkr rose. Instead of asking if she wanted to go inside, he gestured at a door at the back of the inn.

“Could I get you anything?”

“Um…I need our menus. I’m not in the mood for fries, y’know? Can you get…”

Erin didn’t really want a snacky food like onion rings, and something more filling like a full steak was also not really a ‘sit outside’ meal.

“I can check for anything?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just a fruit or vegetable thing. Maybe some bread?”

Ishkr vanished, and Erin sat there a moment, kicking her legs. Because of the bubble of silence, she felt the wind blowing on her, the sun warming her chair, but she didn’t hear anything until someone walked through the magical barrier and spoke.

“—rin! Whoa, was that a spell? What’s going on? Everyone’s wondering if you have stomach problems or if you’re getting something really big ready. They’re sort of antsy.”

Kevin came through the bubble of silence, and Erin jumped.

“Kevin?”

A few people had gone to check on Erin, but it was Kevin who’d peeked around the back of the inn first. He focused on the drink and how relaxed Erin was and hesitated.

“I, uh, got the laptop ready. Mrsha wants to show Gire a movie.”

“She hasn’t already?”

“No, I think they were all too busy. Do I boot it up or do you have plans for something else?”

He waited, and Erin considered the question. She took another sip from her drink.

“…I’m not doing a party. I don’t want to, Kevin.”

“Oh.”

Well, what did that mean? Kevin hesitated and then saw a door open. Ishkr had returned with a basket of different foods and a harried look.

“They’re asking where you are, Erin. Should I…? Oh. Mister Kevin.”

“Hey, Ishkr. I was just telling Kevin the party’s off. I guess we should let them know. Kevin, did you know Ishkr can do an instant order?”

“Cool.”

Kevin gave Ishkr a vague thumbs-up, and the Gnoll nodded. They both stood there for a second, then Ishkr sat down, so Kevin copied him.

Okay, so today was going to be one of those sad days. Get the tissues and keep Joseph out of the drinks. That was Kevin’s other take on the day’s progress—until he saw Erin’s face.

She didn’t seem depressed or blank. She just seemed tired, but she perked up as she investigated Ishkr’s haul.

“What is this stuff, Ishkr?”

“Lasica and Imani were interrogating me in their kitchen. I apologize—”

Ishkr had a mismatch of bread, fruits, and what he’d thought was a baguette. It turned out he’d grabbed a block of wood for the ovens in his haste. Erin tapped it against the wall of her inn, amused.

“Unless one of the Fortress Beavers gets here, I don’t think anyone’s eating this. What else is there? Tomatoes, ooh, corn! Is that a squash? Where did we get all this?”

“Oteslia sent a huge basket for Miss Lyonette.”

“Aha. Say, where are the beavers? Are they…?”

Erin’s face fell, and Kevin broke in, hurrying to reassure her.

“They’re at Selys’, Erin. I think they’re sort of her guard…beavers.”

“What?”

Erin turned from Ishkr to Kevin as if they were pulling her leg, but both nodded.

“Some thief broke in, and apparently they broke his legs and sat on him. Selys decided to build them a pool and everything.”

“Beavers. They are big…but beavers? Guard-beavers? I mean, okay. Kevin, what would you eat? A raw tomato?”

She waved it at him vaguely. It was at this point Kevin realized that Erin didn’t want to go back into her inn. He didn’t exactly blame her. Cross-legged, Kevin vaguely inspected a squash.

“I bet you’d have to cut that up and…roast it.”

“I have my super-knife, but I don’t do well with cutting boards, and I’m not slicing off my hands. Corn?”

“Corn’s edible raw.”

And it was still fresh from whenever it had been brought into the inn thanks to the power of the inn’s [Field of Preservation]. Erin knew you could eat corn raw, but she gave Kevin a disturbed look.

“You want me to eat cold corn? Not hot? You boil corn, Kevin. Then you put salt and butter on it…Ishkr, you might have to fight past Lasica and Imani again.”

He groaned, but Kevin protested mildly.

“That’s not the old kind of corn, Erin. You can also grill it.”

“Grilled corn? I’ve sort of heard of that…but what kind of monster grills corn?”

Erin turned to Ishkr, then caught the most offended look she’d ever seen coming from Kevin, no less.

“You’ve never had grilled corn?”

“Nope. Boiled is how you eat corn. What, do you just stick it in a fire or on a grill?”

“Yep. You can do more like add parmesan cheese or other toppings, but…”

Erin made a gagging sound, and Kevin twitched. He was deeply offended, especially as someone who had been a connoisseur of street-vendor grilled corn, which came in many delightful flavors.

“Get me a fire and I’ll make you one right now. I’ll do it in the fireplace!”

“Pssh. Who needs a fireplace? I’m Erin, the crazy Human with fire, remember? Watch this!”

Erin put out her hand and frowned at it. Then she looked up.

“Hey Ishkr, say something annoying. I think I need hot fire, so I need irritation.”

“Lyonette wants to go over the inn’s finances again?”

“Ooh, good shot! No, it’s not working.”

The idea of grilling corn with magical irritation-fire seemed like a recipe for disaster to Kevin. Exasperated, he stood up.

“I’ll just get a coal from the fireplace. Give me one minute—”

“There you are.”

A shadow crossed the world. Everyone fell into darkness, and Erin peered up at the tower of muscle that was Grimalkin. He had found them, and Erin sighed gustily.

“Look who’s here. The fun police got us, Ishkr, Kevin. We’re going away for a long time. I guess everyone wants us back?”

The Drake crossed his arms.

“Strategist Chaldion is wondering. I simply want to investigate. What are you doing?”

“We were making a fire. A regular one, but if you want to go back to talking about Pallass…”

Erin pulled a face. Grimalkin looked at her and then pointed at the block of wood she’d tossed down. It burst into flames, and Kevin blinked as the Sinew Magus sat down in one movement.

“…That was part of my job as Magus of Pallass. I didn’t expect you to reply. Nor will Chaldion push today. But you know they will not let up. This isn’t even knowing information about the Antinium, Erin. You have been marked a person of interest by all the Walled Cities.”

Erin eyed Grimalkin. That was unusually…no, he was always honest, but there was a difference to how he sat and stared at the block of burning wood. Ishkr uneasily eyed the grass, but Kevin grabbed the husk of corn. Erin and Grimalkin stared at it as he searched around for something to attach it to.

“There’s not much of a fire here. Just a block of wood. I need…kindling. Dried wood.”

“There is firewood around back. Let me get some.”

Ishkr trotted off and came back with a pair of logs. Grimalkin saw Kevin try to place the burning block of wood in between the other two in some logical way to create embers. The art of building a proper fire…

Grimalkin got up, came back with five more logs, and arranged them with Ishkr. Then he pointed down and poked a finger through the largest one.

Erin felt a rush of heat, and when Grimalkin withdrew his claw, the wood was already a smoking ember from within, and flames began to rise across the rest of it. He waved his finger, and Kevin gave him a look of respect.

“That’s cool magic.”

“Physical augmentations. My specialty, after all. What is this for?”

For answer, Kevin chose his spot carefully and laid the husk of the corn between two logs. Then he frowned.

“I don’t want it to touch the fire. I need a poker or something.”

“I can find one.”

Ishkr left, and Grimalkin raised one eyebrow. Erin folded her arms.

“Roasted corn. Or grilled or whatever. Can you believe this guy? I mean, I guess it’s a new food, so everyone’ll be excited.”

Grimalkin eyed Erin.

“…Roasting corn is not a new invention, culinarily speaking, Erin Solstice. I have eaten roasted corn hundreds of times before.”

“Oh. Well, I haven’t.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

Kevin joked, and Grimalkin’s lips actually twitched. He glanced at Erin, then down at the crowd blanketed by the silence spell. People were pointing up at Erin in confusion and craning their necks.

“Are you not going to do something…interesting, Miss Solstice?”

“I don’t think I can. Not what people want. I just wanted a snack—oh, thanks, Ishkr. Okay, Kevin. Show me this so-called vaunted grilled corn of yours.”

“All I need is a bit of butter…”

“Why’s it in the husk? Don’t you peel it first?”

Grimalkin looked at Kevin, and the Earther decided just to keep at browning the corn. Who had [Basic Cooking] here again? Well, no one needed it, and it wasn’t going to be the best thing ever. But there was already a faintly pleasant smell in the air, and the fire might be warming, but a faint chill of fall was making the heat enjoyable.

“Grimalkin, did you have to get me or something?”

The Sinew Magus was like a boulder as he sat next to Kevin. He replied slowly. Almost…bitterly?

“My duties to Pallass mean I must do quite a lot, Erin. Not this. Contrary to what you may believe, I am not wholly Pallass’ instrument. Pallass and I do not align on all matters. I realized that recently.”

Erin saw Kevin glance up and then go back to his roasting. Ishkr decided to get some butter, and Erin turned to Grimalkin.

“…You mean Ferkr?”

She knew what had happened at the Meeting of Tribes. Grimalkin didn’t answer. Which was an answer in itself, because he was normally very talkative about all matters. He prodded Kevin.

“The corn appears to be roasted.”

“You sure? Gah!

Kevin snatched his fingers back from the steaming corn, which had indeed begun to smoke very heavily. Grimalkin was about to rescue Kevin from the frailties of skin when a gnarled hand reached out and a voice snorted.

“Weak as a Human. Can’t handle a hot plant? You’ll never forge Adamantium. There. Eugh. What’s this?”

Pelt the [Master Smith] husked the corn and stared at the crisped kernels with some lovely browning. Erin blinked.

“Pelt! When did you get here?”

“When I heard some idiot had posted a quest to the City of Stars. I expected to find the inn burning and all the Drakes dancing naked in the streets. It’s quiet. You going to eat this?”

“Yep. Hey!

The ‘hey’ was because Pelt instantly snapped the corn in half. He put half on a plate that Ishkr had brought and grabbed the bowl of soft butter. He dipped the other half of the roasted corn into it and took a huge bite, then did another dip.

“Good. You can share. What’s this thing? Too crunchy on the inside, but the yellow things are good. I’m hungry. Haven’t taken a break from smithing all day.”

He had eaten the corn and the cob in one huge bite. Which, yes, was technically edible, but…Erin protested as she put some butter on her portion.

“Pelt! That’s my corn! Don’t you know what corn is?”

“This is corn? You’re joking. This isn’t corn.”

Pelt nearly dropped the piece of corn. He pointed at it, aghast.

“Corn’s dark. It looks the same, but it has black leaves, and it’s pale as snow.”

“No…what kind of corn do you eat?”

Grimalkin snapped his claws.

“Snowcorn, from Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade. They are Terandria’s breadbasket—they provide most crops. Deríthal-Vel would import it.”

“Right. Are you telling me corn’s not white and black? Damnit. Those undead-kissing freaks. It’s the same as bread all over again.”

Grumbling, Pelt sat down, and Kevin’s stomach rumbled. He looked at Ishkr.

“Do you, um, have more corn, Ishkr? We could fry more. Or—how about bread? Hey, we’ve got some.”

“I’ll check.”

As he did, Kevin simply tore some of the fresh loaf of bread and began trying to roast that over the fire.

He set fire to the bread. Erin laughed as Kevin blew frantically, then she gingerly picked up the grilled corn and inspected it. It certainly smelled good, and she was hungry. She frowned as she took a few bites.

“Now that you mention it—maybe I have eaten this before? At fairs and stuff. Weird. Is this how people eat corn elsewhere?”

“They do it in Michigan too.”

“Nah, nah. Boiling is how it’s supposed to be. This is like an alternative way.”

“Erin, you’re making me mad. I’ll push your chair down this hill.”

Pelt’s loud crunching interrupted the squabble. He’d just eaten the entire corn cob. He licked his fingers—which were sooty—and nodded.

“That’s not bad.”

“Pelt! You don’t eat the entire cob!”

Pelt and Grimalkin challenged Erin instantly.

“Why not?”

“Indeed, it is far more beneficial to consume the entire product. Baby corn is edible in its entirety; I observe [Farmers] feeding the cob to goats.”

“Yeah, and they’re goats. I’m a person.”

Pelt snorted.

“Do you peel your apples first and not eat all of it? Humans.

“Hey! What, you eat the core too? And the seeds? That can kill you!”

“What? That’s stupid. Is a [Druid] going to make them explode in my stomach? You hear this, Sinew Magus? I bet she cuts the crusts off bread too. Like an infant.”

The squabble was interrupted by a loud crunch. Everyone turned and saw Kevin biting into toasted…toast. He winced at a shell of charcoal on his failed first attempt, but then brightened up.

“Ishkr, you’re a genius.”

The Gnoll had come back with all the corn he could liberate, a chunk of parmesan, a grater, a bowl, and another jar of honey. Kevin slathered some honey over his bread, but when he announced he would now create roasted corn with parmesan, that was the step too far.

“There is no way that will taste appetizing.”

Grimalkin refused to hear of it. Pelt was all for it and tossed the corn husks on the fire without fear of flame. Erin just smirked at him.

“You started us down this dark road, Grimalkin. You’re gonna eat it! I’ll have a bite too. Pelt, what’s up?”

“You mean, besides you coming back to life? The Gnolls nearly getting wiped out by the damn Drakes? Izril cracking like a bad egg?”

Erin hesitated.

“Um…yeah?”

“Nothing. Aside from someone ‘inventing’ Demas Metal. Gah, I suppose he has a right to it. If he’s even alive after the damned Drakes tried to send Gnolls the way of Halflings and Harpies.”

He looked up from arranging the corn expertly—of course a [Smith] knew how to grill anything to the heat he wanted. He met Grimalkin’s eyes.

“Sorry, I guess.”

Erin, Kevin, and Ishkr turned to the Sinew Magus, but Grimalkin just sat there a moment before glancing up.

“…You haven’t said anything that a reasonable observer couldn’t claim. I don’t believe this is the moment to defend the Walled Cities. Nor was it defense that motivated five Walled Cities to bear arms against the Gnolls. Excuse me—three. As Oteslia and Salazsar were clearly acting in defense of the tribes.”

Erin bit her lip, and Kevin exhaled slowly. This was the kind of thing that she hadn’t talked about. Erin had gotten several accounts of the Meeting of Tribes, and she had even been there, albeit as Sserys. But they’d talked about it in the manner of recalling it. Normally, they’d drop it there, but…Erin looked around and realized there was no need.

She wasn’t going back into the inn, and the corn was grilling once more. Ishkr reached and pulled out a butterspice tea for Grimalkin and a mead of some kind for Kevin and Pelt.

“…Grimalkin. I bet you don’t know or you can’t say, but you trained in Fissival, right? Is it true that the Drakes were stealing magic from the Gnolls?”

“Yes.”

Everyone stirred. Grimalkin looked up. His face was shrouded despite all the light.

“I cannot prove it. And before you ask, no, I didn’t know about it. But the facts line up. To what end is a mystery, but they did.”

“So the Drakes stole Gnollish magic to weaken them. Then—when the tribes found out, they marched into the Meeting of Tribes to…kill them?”

Pelt spat sideways off the hill.

“Classic.”

Erin shook her head.

“Why?”

“The Walled Cities occupy a certain mindset. They regard any foe as an inevitable clash—it only matters when. They thought, clearly, that they could win an advantage by striking first. It almost succeeded, but for Khelt, one could argue.”

Grimalkin’s voice was flat. Erin watched him, and Kevin spoke up.

“It seemed like hell, Grimalkin, man. I know Pallass didn’t fight the Gnolls, but I was watching it happen. I don’t know if I could ever look at Manus, Zeres, or Fissival the same way.”

The [Sinew Magus] sat there. He didn’t meet Kevin’s eyes, and Erin held her breath.

“No. I don’t believe many people could, Kevin.”

Kevin hesitated, then spoke quickly, raising one hand as Pelt flipped a piece of corn.

“But it isn’t your fault. You were far from the Meeting of Tribes, and I know you’re….I’m just saying the other Walled Cities.”

Grimalkin didn’t say anything at first, and Erin replied slowly for him.

“…But he could have been. He didn’t do anything, but the Walled Cities still did this, and Pallass didn’t really stop them. And Ferkr was there. Is she okay?”

The Sinew Magus glanced up.

“Ferkr? She is my finest apprentice, though I barely trained her as much as some of the others. She is well. Nothing you’ve said today is wrong. I have been reflecting on much the same.”

There it was. Erin Solstice raised her cup to sip, and it was empty. She handed the cup to Ishkr with a pleading look.

“Can I get another? With a straw?”

“Of course.”

Erin turned back to Grimalkin.

“What could you do, though, Grimalkin? I mean…I get it. If I was—alive—when it happened—”

Everyone smiled a bit, and Erin went on.

“—I’d have tried to do something. But you…what could you do? I mean, it’s done. So what?”

“…Quit Pallass.”

Kevin’s mouth fell open, and Pelt sat up. He flipped husks of corn onto a plate as Erin looked sharply at Grimalkin.

“You don’t mean that, do you?”

His eyes were very calm as he met her gaze.

“My options are simple, Erin. At their very core—there is a binary. Everything I do falls within those two outcomes. I consider everything. And as I learned, it is not impossible to quit a Walled City.”

He looked pointedly at Pelt, and the Dwarf grunted. He unwrapped one piece of roasted corn and began to lather it up with butter as Kevin did likewise. The Dwarf slapped away the bowl of parmesan.

“Pallass is just another city to me, Drake. I left my real home. No, I was exiled. There was nothing for me anywhere. Now…with my pride, I chose Esthelm, but think carefully. You can never go back again.”

He met Grimalkin’s gaze, and the Drake wavered. Erin held her breath. Then she took a piece of corn with cheese on it and stared dubiously at the concoction.

You got the powdered cheese to hold onto the corn with butter. Or mayonnaise, which sounded even more heinous. Erin took a bite and then chewed thoughtfully.

“Hey, this is pretty good! It sounds disgusting, but…Grimalkin, have one. You too, Pelt!”

“No.”

“Put that in my face, Kevin, and I will feed you a coal.”

Ishkr! Come and have—

The Gnoll reluctantly put down his tray of drinks, but when he took a bite of the corn and instantly spat it back out, that made Pelt ironically try it. The Dwarf found he enjoyed it, as did Grimalkin. Ishkr growled.

“I hate cheese. Sorry.”

“What? You hate cheese? All cheese?

“Yes. It’s not even that I hate it—I get very sick. I even get puffy. And er—other things.”

“Wait, like bad poo? How long have you—I don’t really recall you hating pizza.”

Ishkr shook his head.

“I’ve had a slice or two and it was good, but I just—cannot have cheese. Butter is fine, actually. But no milk, no cheese.”

“Wait a second. That’s lactose intolerance.”

Kevin spoke up, and Grimalkin looked at him. Ishkr hesitated as Pelt decided to toast some bread.

“What does that mean?”

Erin wavered, then shrugged helplessly.

“…He’s allergic to milk. Intolerant? One of the two.”

That bombshell of information—fizzled out on the ground as Ishkr growled thoughtfully and then nodded along with Grimalkin and Pelt.

“That—makes sense. I guess I just never said it like that. You can be allergic to milk?

“Sure, Antinium are allergic to wheat and stuff. Gluten. Wait a second…didn’t they fix that?”

Grimalkin raised a claw.

“They did. My reports indicate that Antinium are non-lethally and non-significantly intolerant to wheat-based products, or, as you say, ‘gluten’. I had to research the matter because some idiotic [Tactician] in the Walled Cities considered dumping flour on them in battle. I also found that at least a few members like their Centenium were resistant.”

And Ksmvr eats the stuff. All the time. Because of his amulet of food poisoning or something—waitasecond.

Erin snapped her fingers excitedly and looked at Kevin.

“Kevin, no way. Do you think instead of a food poisoning amulet it’s an—”

“Anti-allergy amulet? No way.”

Kevin looked from Grimalkin to Pelt. The Dwarf held up his hands.

“Get Hedault. I’m no [Enchanter]. Maybe it’s the same thing.”

Grimalkin instantly shook his head.

“It isn’t. But perhaps that enchantment is more sophisticated than we thought. Where did it come from?”

“Uh. Albez? Maaaaybe…”

The Drake tapped one claw on the ground meaningfully as Ishkr took a big bite of regular roasted corn and happily chewed.

“Are you saying that you think those adventurers found a regular anti-food poisoning amulet from Albez in, if I recall correctly, Warmage Thresk’s personal stash?”

Erin and Kevin opened their mouths. Erin replied weakly.

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds stupid. No way. Anti-allergy…”

Kevin leapt to his feet, shouting.

Shrimp! Damn shrimp!

Everyone peered at him. Kevin slapped his chest.

“I’m allergic to shrimp! Nothing else—but do you know how tough that makes eating seafood in—in where I live? I need that amulet!”

“Let me try it too!”

“Just get the spell.”

Grimalkin called after Kevin. And Erin felt a tingling on the back of her neck. She gaped at Grimalkin.

“Did…did we just solve allergies?”

He snorted.

“Hardly. Spells like this surely exist already. If you had enough coin, I imagine an [Alchemist] could create a nullifier for you. Even if we isolate this enchantment, unless it is mass-producible—and even if it is—it will end up being a widespread allergy cure for the middle class at most in twenty years’ time.”

“That sounds pretty good.”

“It would be. But it isn’t a cure. It would only save lives at a [Healer]’s if they had a charm like that to prevent such deaths and end up as a net positive for society. I’ll look into it.”

And there it was. Erin looked at Pelt, and he snorted.

“I’m not allergic to anything. Hey, are we going to eat this corn all day or do we go inside the inn?”

“D’you want to?”

The Dwarf considered this as he brushed kernels out of his beard. He scratched at his chin and glanced around. The sun was still high in the sky, the grass was soft, and the act of grilling food was fun enough that Erin wanted to do a sausage or two.

“…Nah.”

Erin smiled and focused back at the fire. She glanced up after a minute and brought up something she had wanted to ask.

“Are the Walled Cities going to attack the tribes, do you think, Grimalkin?”

He was about to answer, but was cut off. Kevin was hurrying back with Ksmvr and Yvlon, and the two stopped when they saw the fire.

“Erin! This is where you were? Everyone’s expecting you to summon a Frostmarrow Behemoth or something! They’re getting imp—are you grilling corn?”

Yvlon walked over, and Erin motioned them down as Grimalkin replied.

“Candidly, Erin? I think the answer is ‘no’. But you would have to ask Chaldion. I could support my reasoning with facts, but he knows the answer.”

Erin frowned. She turned to Ishkr, and the tingling grew into a certainty.

“Ishkr? Can you get him? Oh, and bring back some sausages. No one’s invented marshmallows yet—can you toast sugarcubes?”

 

——

 

By the time Grand Strategist Chaldion appeared through the [Garden of Sanctuary], Ksmvr, Yvlon, Grimalkin, Pelt, and Kevin were all passing around food that Ishkr had snuck out of the kitchen.

“What is this?”

“We’re just sitting around. Chaldion, are the Walled Cities gonna attack the Gnoll tribes after this? If you’re not going to answer, I’ll make you go sit in the inn.”

Erin waved at him, and the Drake—hesitated. But the [Innkeeper]’s eyes were gleaming, and she was sitting up a bit.

But no, she wasn’t running around, and this was not the legendary party. The excited Erin that the naive guests of the inn were still expecting to come bursting through the door—or a wall—wasn’t there.

Yet neither was the depression and magical flame. This was just…a regular fire. However, it was exactly for that reason that Erin was smiling.

“I could discuss that with you later along with your quests—”

“How about now, with everyone?”

The old Drake hesitated. And there it was. Erin had no time in the inn. At least, not with everyone in a line. Here, though? She’d just heard something from Grimalkin that had clearly been bubbling within him. There was no time in a party to ask the long questions.

But they had a lot of time while corn roasted. Well…long enough. Especially because the fire was only large enough to do a few husks at a time, and so Kevin was already making more for Yvlon and Ksmvr.

“The Walled Cities have no interest in fighting the tribes. I believe most are safe from any attacks until the scope of the new lands are explored. The Walled Cities do not want to make greater enemies than they have. They took losses fighting at the Great Plains. They are wary of the Antinium and other forces that may seek Izril.”

Chaldion sat down in the end. Erin frowned at him.

“Are they worried the tribes’ll fight back? Get revenge?”

“Possibly. But I believe that is not a concern, the tribes sieging a Walled City. Not in their current state.”

“…Which implies that the other cities that aren’t Walled Cities may suffer as a result.”

Grimalkin spoke, and Chaldion glanced at him. The Drake nodded once. He turned to Erin and was rewarded with a huge smile.

“Well, we’ll see what happens. I just asked, Chaldion, because if they try that again while I’m awake, I’ll nail my next quest to Pallass’ walls.”

The Grand Strategist actually hesitated a moment before nodding blandly.

“Your point is well taken. Many mistakes were made during those events. In hindsight…”

He trailed off, and everyone looked at him. Because no one interrupted him, Chaldion finished his thought.

“…in hindsight, I believe I would have had that idiot, Dragial, buried in an unmarked grave. Fissival expelled him because they had to, but they never abandoned him. He would be attacking your inn within the month if he were alive and heard you post that quest.”

“Huh. What did he do? Wait—he was the one who led Fissival’s army, right? Who killed him?”

“Us. I knew it. I knew she was up to something.”

Jelaqua Ivirith strode around the corner of the inn and pointed accusatorily at Erin. And then Seborn, Maughin, and Jelaqua joined the group.

“Aren’t we going inside? Where’s the excitement, Erin?”

“There’s no excitement, Jelaqua. We’re grilling corn. And Kevin puts cheese on his. Pull up a seat, and Ishkr can get drinks. Actually, he should take a break. Maybe someone can help…?”

The Gnoll stood up.

“I’m fine, Erin. It’s just drinks.”

“Wh—no party?”

The Selphid seemed crestfallen, but Seborn had already sat down. Erin smiled.

“No party. Just…a picnic. Or is it a campfire cookout?”

Jelaqua didn’t seem to get the difference until she sat down and felt it. It was the tempo. The amount of guests could vary, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Erin had a moment, and in that moment, she had to ask.

“So…you killed Dragial?”

“He was going after Lehra and her team—that’s the Stargnoll. She owns the Blade of Mershi.”

Erin nearly sprayed her watermelon juice over Maughin.

W—someone found one already? Well then, I guess that quest’s like a quarter done! I thought that would be the hard part! Hey, does it speak to her? I mean, uh…nevermind.”

“Speak to her? I don’t know, but that Wall Lord wanted her dead. He hired her to find it; it’s a famous tale. I guess you never knew it because you were in Liscor, but Lehra’s been famous for, what, two years? There was a huge argument because Dragial always said she stole the artifact. I thought she was sort of a thief—until I met her.”

Chaldion lifted a finger.

“Technically, as he was employing the Ruinstrider tribe when the relic was found, it was his. However, when he saw the relic in her possession, my understanding is he tried to put the Stargnoll and her people to death, forfeiting his claim. He argued otherwise, but his pursuit of Lehra endangered countless lives and ruined cities.”

“And you killed him?”

Jelaqua sat there as Maughin stared at his lover, and her eyes were steady.

“We did. Lehra’s team is new, but that Drake brought an army to try and end her. We learned our lesson with Garen. And we knew it even before that. We might not be welcome in Fissival, but I hope it’s not a problem here?”

She glanced around, and Chaldion and Grimalkin shook their heads. Grimalkin picked up a sausage and frowned at it.

“…Pork. No, Wall Lord Dragial was a talented [Mage], but even when I was in Fissival, he was single-minded. You acceded to his will or he ruined your career or reputation.”

Chaldion merely nodded.

“No objections here, either. Would you like a medal on behalf of Pallass? I can arrange that.”

“Are you…actually serious?”

“Entirely. It would be political and send a message. Salazsar is already formally at war with Fissival, and the mood is against the City of Magic. Moreover, for the Gnolls…yes. Would Beithday work? I could convene a ceremony in the late afternoon.”

“Wait, what was that about a war between the Walled Cities?”

Erin urgently waved a hand as Maughin and Jelaqua whispered. Everyone gave her that look that said it was common news she didn’t know. Since it was clear Jelaqua was getting a medal so Maughin could brag, Erin turned to Ksmvr and Yvlon.

“How are you two doing?”

“Good.”

That was the bland-salad answer, so Erin rolled over and lifted an experimental, melty, half-browned sugarcube up from the metal tray. She offered it on a spoon to Yvlon.

The look the [Armsmistress] gave her was an answer, but Ksmvr tried it.

“Ooh. Hot! But sweet! Hot! Hot!

He delicately inserted another piece of what was essentially burnt sugar and ash into his mouth, and that was too much. Imani and Lasica came stalking around the corner of the inn.

“I knew it. So that’s where you’ve been taking all the food. Ishkr!”

Imani pointed at the Gnoll, and he jumped guiltily. Erin groaned with the others; it had become sort of a game trying to hide what was happening from the people in the inn. Lasica, on the other hand, just took one look at Erin’s ‘sugar-mellows’ and rounded on the [Innkeeper].

“You are a menace to the world of cooking, Erin. I cannot understand how you ever achieved [Advanced Cooking].”

“Hey! Caramelized sugar is a thing! Pull up a seat, Imani. We’re doing a fire-thing. Grilling corn and stuff.”

“Without a grill?”

The [Chefs] didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, Palt and Rufelt joined them and were sent to get a pan, a metal grille, and more cookery ingredients. Soon, Lasica was telling Erin that, yes, grilled corn was a thing, and real enjoyers put pepper flakes on them instead of cheese.

“Mild, but hot enough that you feel like you’re really getting a mouthful. Look at the colors.”

She sprinkled expertly and handed Erin a piece of corn to sample. The [Innkeeper] blew on it appreciatively and took a bite.

“Yum. Hey, now I feel bad about leaving everyone in the inn. Do you think we should tell them there’s no party?”

Rufelt was grumbling as he put down a host of spices he’d taken from the kitchen, but the [Bartender] still found time to produce a mug with a perfect head of foam. He handed it to Lasica, who took a long gulp, before nodding over his shoulder.

“Frankly, Erin, I think you don’t have to worry about that.”

 

——

 

The occupants of The Wandering Inn were getting restless, waiting for Erin to come back. At first, they didn’t notice the slowly diminishing headcount of guests and mostly just asked anyone who came back in whether Erin was ‘up to something’.

“What? Oh—definitely. She’s scheming. Er, she’s just, ah, getting Grimalkin and Kevin to help her with something.”

“They’re making sure she isn’t too crazy, right?”

Lyonette interrogated Jelaqua as the Selphid came back in. The adventurer nodded, biting her lips hard. She winked at some of the Antinium, and they looked puzzled, but Lyonette didn’t notice.

“Hey. Where’s Erin?”

Numbtongue stopped Ishkr next and got a different response.

“Er, the outhouse, still.”

“Oh. Bad poo? Orange? Red?”

“I—did not inquire.”

It was a game, and the longer you stayed in the common room of the inn, the more you lost. Now, some people who might have picked up on the commotion outside were hampered by the inn’s thick walls and closed windows, which let in no sound nor sight of the picnic outside.

They were also getting false information, but mostly, they were expecting Erin to come back inside like a storm. A few went out to see if she needed help and mostly figured it out, but the ones not in the know waited with growing impatience and anticipation.

The Gnolls figured it out very quickly. Mrsha and Gire began sniffing the air and nudging each other. Gire whispered to Mrsha.

“Are you sure? I can smell it…but why corn? Popcorn? I smell cheese, too. Should we…?”

They slipped out via the garden and never came back. Next was Relc and Klbkch. Relc was putting his feet up on a chair, and he turned his head slightly.

“Klbkch, my guy. I’m not super good at the Watch stuff where we interrogate people. I just do the hitting part. But it seems to me that those stories don’t match up. Erin’s in the outhouse, working with Grimalkin, and Kevin ‘didn’t see her’.”

Klbkch raised one finger as he whispered back.

“In fact, all statements have been false.”

“You knew that?”

“Yes, of course. Shall we investigate?”

“Damn right. Embria, let’s go take a look.”

Their departure meant that a number of Antinium relaxed when Klbkch was gone, but Pawn, anxiously waiting for Erin’s return, realized something was up soon after that.

“Yellow Splatters, let us all go and take a look outside. I believe we are, to use an expression, being punked upon.”

“How do you know that?”

The Antinium regarded Pawn, and the Worker pointed. A smirking little white face disappeared, but it was too late.

“Mrsha gloats. And she does not like me.”

The Antinium began to get up, and even Lyonette couldn’t miss that.

“Don’t go! I’m sure Erin will be right back—Ser Sest, go find her. Let me get you another round.”

She was so busy trying to placate the Antinium she never noticed Pisces and Ceria looking up from their table and following the drift of the inn.

“Hey, Pisces, Yvlon and Ksmvr never came back from searching for Erin.”

“Indeed, Ceria? I note a certain diminishing of the inn’s population.”

The two [Mages] exchanged a glance, and their finely honed Wistram instincts from their days as students told them something.

“Something interesting is going on, and we’re being pranked. Let’s move. Watch out for buckets of dust overhead or something.”

“Erin wouldn’t do that.”

“Good point. Watch out for jars of acid, I guess.”

By now, it was just embarrassing for whomever was left. Numbtongue stopped tuning his guitar as a sly claw poked him. Gothica jerked one claw towards the door, and the Hob narrowed his eyes as she whispered to him.

“Lots of shadows where? Hrm.”

He reached over, poked Ulvama, and the poking went round to Rasktooth and then Bird. All of them filed out of the inn, and at last, Lyonette looked around, bewildered.

“Where’s everyone going?”

Saliss of Lights had been napping in a chair. He sprang up, looked around, and groaned.

“Oh no—no—I’ve been Xifed! No!

He dashed out of the inn, and Lyonette followed with the remainder of the guests. They charged out of the front door, just in time to see Numbtongue disappear around the side of the inn. The crowd outside was mostly gone, and all the sound and noise was coming from—

Saliss is one of the last ones? Who bet on that?

Laughter and voices and the smell of frying food greeted the guests, and Saliss threw up his claws.

I was asleep! You—you—”

He pointed a finger at Erin as Lyonette put her hands on her hips. The [Innkeeper] just waved a piece of corn on a stick at Saliss.

“Hey, Saliss, grab one of Kevin’s disgusting pieces of corn. It’s really tasty!”

“Erin, this is your big plan?”

Lyonette demanded, flushing at the merry laughter coming her way. Erin’s smile didn’t dance or sparkle or twinkle like usual. She just leaned back in her chair and shook her head.

“Nope. We’re just sitting here. No party, no host of guests, and no money, sorry. But we could use some ice cubes and maybe some more firewood.”

Lyonette began to puff up like an exploding mushroom, but then she saw what was going on and deflated. Without a word, she flopped into the grass, provoking a scandalized look from Dame Ushar, but Mrsha hopped in her lap, and then?

And then the conversations continued. They were far, far richer than the loud chaos. Because although there were private subtopics and whispers and, yes, some confusion when someone raised their voice or someone accidentally put their tail into the fire, they could hear each other speak.

This is what they said:

 

——

 

“So Erin…what was it like, being dead? You talked to…ghosts?”

The question at the top of everyone’s mind fell out as Ceria tried her hand at cooking something on the fire. She watched the pieces of popcorn she’d attached to a metal poker slowly ignite one by one. Pisces rolled his eyes as he tried to toast a banana, and Yvlon gave both [Mages] the look of someone regretting being associated with them.

“Yes.”

Erin was sipping from a beer. She made a face and handed it off to her left.

“Too bitter.”

“You have bad taste.”

Numbtongue grumbled as he took it and sipped appreciatively. He took Ishkr’s tray and passed it to Octavia and Garia. Salkis wasn’t here, nor were a number of other people who could have claimed a seat.

No Gna, for instance, or Zevara, Olesm, Krshia and the Gnolls…or Moore. Erin was counting the people she knew and were absent, but there was still a crowd of crowds.

Everyone was looking at her. The sun was coming down in the sky, but it was still plenty bright, and the crowd outside the inn had realized there would be no party.

So they’d decided to copy Erin and make their own fires. Erin stared at the way the flames played across the embers, that hypnotizing dance you could stare at forever.

The world of the dead had nothing so beautiful or real. It had no heat, and it was made of memories. Even the most glorious ones tarnished and grew old.

“Yes, I saw them. I talked to some.”

“What happened?”

The [Innkeeper] saw Mrsha was leaning back against Lyonette, who had her arms folded around the Gnoll. A Thronebearer, Dalimont, was watching Bird aim a bow at a distant sparrow with distinct wariness. The Antinium were all gathering around a second fire being built, clearly relishing the challenge of starting it without magical help.

“Blow, blow! You don’t have enough kindling! Double it!”

Relc was hopping from one foot to another as a tiny ember tried to ignite kindling. The sight of a bunch of Antinium trying to blow on the fire was very funny, but they eventually got a spark to catch and began shaking each other’s hands instantly.

Then they turned back to Erin as she went on.

“It was a war.”

Gireulashia stopped greedily pretending to ‘toast’ a slice of cake she and Mrsha were going to ‘share’. She looked up, and Chaldion stared at Erin. Everyone did.

“A war? What kind of war?”

The [Innkeeper] gazed into the fire with that half-smile no one had ever really seen on her face. A complete mystery raised her eyes and regarded everyone.

“…It doesn’t matter. I don’t remember all of it. All I can say is that it was a big war. A terrible one. Just like every one.”

She looked to her right, and Relc nodded. So did Chaldion, Grimalkin, the [Crusaders]…too many people knew exactly what Erin meant. Garia raised one hand, tentatively licking her lips.

“Did we win? No—who was we? Were there sides?”

“Just one. Everyone was on one side and…I don’t know.”

“That’s how you know it was a war.”

Saliss commented, eyes darting to Erin’s face. He saw a trio of pokers tied together move past him, holding a single piece of corn on one end. The entire contraption threatened to break at any moment as the pokers were joined by a piece of twine, but it was the only way for a sulking Fierre and Gothica to roast anything from their seats in the shadows of the inn’s roof.

They believed her. That was the amazing thing to Erin. But the living had seen too much to deny it. And yet, they hung on her every word because she had been there. What did they imagine?

Seamwalkers? They would have been right, that was the thing, but then Pawn raised one trembling hand.

“Erin. Then you were amidst ghosts. Tell me. Were they there? Did you see—Heaven?”

The [Innkeeper] looked up and met the [Priest]’s eyes. He was aglow with faith, but some of the Antinium seemed terrified of the answer. Yellow Splatters clenched his fists as the [Innkeeper] gazed at Pawn, and the [Priest]’s ardor faded.

“No, Pawn. I never saw a single Antinium. Or Goblin.”

She glanced at Ulvama, and the Hob didn’t seem surprised. Numbtongue stopped chewing on his corn, but Ulvama just laughed.

“Dead lands don’t let Goblins in either. Same, same.”

Klbkch said nothing, but Relc nudged him and offered him one of the sausage links. The Antinium gazed at it and took it without a word as Embria glanced at her father and his partner. Perhaps only she saw the way Klbkch’s fingers trembled.

“I—I see. They weren’t there?”

Pawn’s voice shook a bit, but Erin’s distant look returned to normal in a second. She turned as an entire people’s faith wavered suddenly in a cold breeze. The dying fire grew as Grimalkin inserted another log of split wood into it, and she smiled.

“No, that’s a good thing, Pawn.”

“Why, Erin?”

The young woman watched him.

“—Because wherever I was, whatever it was supposed to be or had been—it wasn’t heaven.”

The [Priest]’s mandibles opened slightly, and his antennae went still. The Antinium gazed at him, and Pawn spoke one word.

“Oh.”

These casual words were shaking Chaldion’s clawed hand more than any party. He reached for a cup of tea and nearly knocked it over.

A slender hand grabbed the cup, and Saliss actually caught the liquid about to spray outwards with a flick of his claw. He put it down—on Chaldion’s snout, and the Grand Strategist almost snarled, but then he took a sip of tea.

“You should try that coffee stuff that Lyonette brought back, old man. That’s better.”

“What? You found coffee?”

Erin was distracted a moment, and Lyonette spluttered at the non-sequitur.

“Yes, but—go back to the other part!”

“Nah, nah. Coffee? That’s great! I was going to post a quest for someone to find some, but I guess I won’t. First chocolate, now coffee. That’s the real quality stuff. What else has ‘c’ in the name that we need?”

“Cotton candy?”

Joseph spoke up, and Selys jabbed him in the shoulder with a glare. Completely unabashed, Kevin raised a hand.

“Corn. Grilled corn.”

Kevin!

Erin shook a fist at him, but she smiled and looked around before growing serious.

“It’s all over, now. There’s…nothing left. So that’s what happened. There was a war, and a lot of people died again. They told me a few important things, and I—I wish I’d been able to help. But I have some things I need to tell you.”

She regarded Ceria again, and every head turned to the half-Elf. But then Erin glanced at Pisces, and he turned white.

In that moment, suddenly—everyone was terrified of Erin’s gaze. Numbtongue, Chaldion, Saliss—Mrsha switched from Lyonette to her bigger protector, and hid her head in Gire’s arms, but the big Gnoll girl looked away from Erin too.

That was terrifying. Not a single one of them…Erin felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I’ll wait until you ask. I shouldn’t have tried to spring it on anyone.”

“But that means there is a life after death. It means the [Witches] are right. I mean, ghosts…but there’s organization. There’s something. Right? Will there be more crossovers of the dead and living?”

Fierre spoke up, trying to make sense of it all. She looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] saw right through her. The Vampire felt a prick of fear as Erin spoke.

“No. Not anymore.”

And like that, they all learned the greatest, most frightening truth that Erin Solstice had carried back into the lands of the living. Mrsha just closed her eyes as she leaned against Gire, but Chaldion’s claws tightened around his cup until Saliss began tapping him on his opposite shoulder and pretending it was Maughin who was doing it.

Each to their own reaction. Erin saw what effect her words were having, so she shook her head.

“Let’s talk about something else. Something…all these bad things have happened. We did our best. All of us.”

She looked about and got countless nods. Grimalkin couldn’t meet her eyes, but Erin whispered as the conversations halted and then began again, around her words.

“There has to have been a point to all of it, right? It meant something. But what?”

 

——

 

The answer was surely obvious. He knew it. He had always known it. Each ruler of Khelt had said it from the day they accepted their heavy burdens.

They would lay their lives across the bridge of time and wear themselves thin, so thin even their souls ached and their bodies fell to pieces, that a kingdom might be radiant, even glorious. But most of all—that it would be safe and the people happy.

That was the point. And if that were the point, then the rulers of Khelt had done just that. It was not the bright bloody glory of battle, but the legacy that led countless statues and tributes to bear their names. It was the richness of culture and children who feared no monsters nor the darkness of night.

But still, even though Fetohep knew it, he grieved. He feared the coming days and years as he had feared no foe.

When he returned to his palace, he found his servants in a mild panic.

“Your Majesty! We know you were not to be disturbed, but—”

“Be at peace. What is the issue?”

Fetohep felt the aegis of duty fall back upon his shoulders and was almost glad of it. To work, then. Who would be first?

“The Quarass of Germina requests your presence along the border of Khelt and Ger, sire.”

“The Quarass?”

That was interesting. She had scarce returned as well, but she would naturally want explanations. Fetohep had been sparse with explanations, but if anyone deserved answers, it was surely her.

“I shall grace her with my presence. Need she transport to Khelt?”

The servant hesitated, for here was the tricky part.

“The Quarass of Ger, with all due deference, has humbly requested Your Majesty visit her location. She has endeavored to make it as close as possible.”

It was only a four hour ride to the edge of Germina with the right Skills and undead horses. Fetohep sighed.

“Prepare me a horse.”

“And an escort?”

Fetohep hesitated. The odds were remote the Quarass would try to assassinate him, and—

“…No. I shall go alone.”

Thusly, he spent the next four hours riding across Khelt, wondering what the Quarass wanted. It took closer to five hours as he did slow to reassure his people he was not embarking on another world-ending tour, and because many towns emptied themselves to cheer his passing.

There were things for Fetohep to do whilst riding, like rebury some of the undead and send out [Messages] telling various officials to report to him in person in the coming weeks. He also received a notice that Erin Solstice was apparently eating corn while sitting outside of her inn.

“Aptly like her.”

By the time he reached the location the Quarass was to meet him in, Fetohep was curious. She was a savvy diplomat, the world’s finest, if cruel, mind. Some Quarasses had an excess of pride or their current form influenced their genius, but this one seemed cunning and relatively honorable.

Fetohep didn’t really consider murdering an Archmage and infiltrating Wistram that dishonorable. He knew the Quarass had killed Archmage Nailihuaile; she had the Serkonian Lance after all, and only she would have been that capable, or Gazi or Amerys.

The Quarasses had done far, far worse in the name of protecting Ger. That this one kept her word was fairly good. But he was curious, then, why she summoned him. He was infamously touchy about protocol most times, and why this location?

It turned out to be a somewhat salutary building on the border of Ger, one of those waystations by the looks of it—albeit surrounded by what was probably the Quarass’ escort. Too many horses for the stables and a decent contingent of travellers besides.

Some of them were people seeking entry to Khelt. Fetohep remembered many in times of war near Khelt, but he was surprised by how many looked up and pointed at him and screamed, sometimes in awe.

Interesting. Khelt’s reputation had certainly changed. But why this place? Security? If that were so, Khelt’s palace was nigh-impossible to eavesdrop upon. Perhaps the Quarass felt associating with Khelt was dangerous? This didn’t feel that covert with people pointing to him.

An assassination after all? Khelt’s power might alarm the Quarass, but she had to know his replacement would seek vengeance. Perhaps she had convened a ceremony to name Khelt a Shield Kingdom.

That would be just like her. There were duties Shield Kingdoms had to each other, and while Khelt had petitioned for the honor before—Fetohep would have to refuse her if that were the case.

Fetohep wondered if he should have brought Alked Fellbow and Frieke just in case. Too late now—and he was tired. Bone-weary, so he was perhaps too reckless as he strode towards the doors of the waystation.

“Your Majesty, the Quarass is—”

A shadowy figure materialized. One of the top bodyguards, no doubt. Fetohep did not turn his head.

“—expecting me. I am here.”

To their credit, the bodyguards he sensed visibly or invisibly did not try to stop him. The door swung open, and Fetohep of Khelt strode through, ready for anything. He saw a somewhat full room of travellers, a few stunned citizens of Ger, including bodyguards, and there was a short girl dressed in the rich thread of her office, young, her brown skin and black hair unremarkable in a sea of children.

Only the eyes showed an age beyond ages, and the way she held herself as she turned with…a pair of tankards in hand…and beamed at him.

Welcome! We’ll be with you in one one moment. Please have a seat. A drink for His Majesty.

“What.”

The Quarass of Germina put two mugs of Yellat Ale down on a table and beamed at a hooded [Assassin] of Ger.

“Can I get you anything else, Miss?”

“No, your—no—I—this—”

The trained killer was stuttering as she stared at the mug. The Quarass’ wide smile never wavered as she nodded.

“Please, don’t be shy to order more. I recommend you try our lamb kebap—we don’t have any Sariant, which the original calls for, but it is very good. A Jecrassian special, I promise. Don’t forget to save room for dessert!”

Then she swung back towards a terrified [Server] and accepted another plate and drink and whisked it to a second table. Fetohep stared at the Quarass. Then he saw someone gesturing him to a table.

An undead Revenant sat down at a table in the makeshift inn, and he felt like the normal one in some surreal dream. The Quarass had a big smile on her face as she bent over to ask a boy practically her age what he’d like to eat.

The guests were giving the Quarass much the same look as Fetohep. It seemed the waystation was occupied by half her personal guard and people of Ger, the other half travellers.

“Quarass of Germina. What are you doing?”

“Give me six minutes, Fetohep. Would you care for a non-magical drink?”

“No. I have holes in my stomach.”

Literal holes in his body, which meant that going to an inn was an entirely pointless endeavor unless it served the undead-only concoctions. But once again, the Quarass surprised him.

“We do have a Deathbeil Draught on tap. One for His Majesty!”

“You have a Deathbeil Draught on tap. In an enchanted keg with a pewter-bone cup.”

One appeared as a black keg glowing with preservative runes was wheeled out and a cup was poured by the world’s most terrified [Barmaid]. The Quarass winked at Fetohep.

“I anticipated my guest. Have as many as you want. Excuse me—do you need the outhouse? It’s just—”

He knew what she was doing by the time the Quarass sat back down. Fetohep of Khelt lowered his cup.

“An [Innkeeper]? Truly?”

For answer, the Quarass of Ger lost her ‘work-smile’, which was in its way scarier than Fetohep’s corpse grin, and gave him a cold-eyed look of exasperation.

“The Quarass of Ger takes whatever class she must, Fetohep. I will admit—not once in my entire existence have I sought out the [Innkeeper] class if I did not already have it. But I have been an [Innkeeper] before. Twice.”

“Of course you have. Is it purely for Quests?”

The Quarass seemed amused.

“You say that as if you do not know the potential. Finding the City of Stars is a quest. If these quests are unlocked by knowledge alone—I will benefit. I simply must continue this for a day in earnest. Which means I have a few hours before my night shift. Do you wish anything else?”

“I have been sufficiently amused, thank you. Why else did you summon me?”

Fetohep had to admit that the sight of the Quarass waiting tables had made him feel like Erin Solstice were still dead. But that gloom settled over him once more.

For a reply, the Quarass signaled, and someone brought her a mug. She glared at the [Barmaid], who fled into the kitchen. She peered into the mug darkly and eyed her bodyguards, who decided to leave a vast tip and leave the inn.

“Lemon water.”

“Wine would surely not be appropriate for your age.”

“Nor will it be for a decade. Bah. You there. Claiven Wine, one of the tree vintages. I will have it in a clean cup or vessel. It need not be a large cup, but I will drink it with the King of Khelt. Now. Or the next drink you imbibe will be more memorable still.”

The little girl turned in her seat, and a [Server] froze. Fetohep raised one brow, and the Quarass turned as the drink she wanted appeared in front of her within seconds.

“A drastic threat.”

“Betimes one masks them. For every idle boast and claim I make, for all the wisdom I have sometimes doled out, I have in every lifetime backed my words with steel and magic. They forget so quickly. Sometimes examples are made.”

“So speaketh the tyrant of Ger or the wise woman?”

The Quarass didn’t rise to the bait as Fetohep lifted his pewter goblet.

“Both would tell you that proof is necessary. Or have you learned to trade and rule on naught but words? If I recall correctly, Khelt’s words were toothless in Medain and the Claiven Earth until you marched an army north.”

In other times, the ruler of Khelt quite enjoyed a proper dialogue with someone like the Quarass. Now, he had no mood for it and simply nodded.

“Your point is well made, Quarass. Why have you requested my presence?”

For answer, she swished the wine around in her cup. It was not made to hold one of the tree-vintages of a half-Elven nation, which might have been stored in casks hollowed out of a living tree, the wine made of grapes flowering upon vines centuries old at the least.

A rich vintage, for an important moment, just like the Deathbeil Draught. Nevermind the arguably poor [Innkeeper] experience; Fetohep was sure his presence alone would help qualify her for at least one level in the class.

No, the Quarass lost the slightest edge of amusement all of this had put in her voice. She took a small sip of the wine and sighed. Despite her words, she was fairly cautious about her lifespan and body. But she lifted the cup and admired the way the light played across the faintest yellow tint of the wine as she glanced out the window towards the setting sun.

“Would you believe, Fetohep of Khelt, that not twenty feet from where we sit, I first met Khelta when she staked this land out for a kingdom?”

Fetohep’s hand froze with the mug raised. He focused on the Quarass, and she splayed one hand across the table and got a splinter. Frowning, she glared at it and went on.

“I believe I mocked her, at the time. You must understand, I was a rather jaded man, I think. Too tired of watching Shield Kingdoms forget their calling within my lifetime to believe a Necrocracy would ever stand. I was far humbler the second time, but I think no less than six of my incarnations met Khelta. She lived long, and though her corpse never ruled—I learned to respect her will. We all did, the rulers of her age. In the first days, we thought Khelt was something to be pushed around, an expendable army of undead led by a single powerful [Necromancer]. Then she won the admiration of countless nations, until even marauding Giants knew better than to tread across her lands lest a giant of bone rise and do battle.”

Fetohep didn’t say anything at first. He saw the brown eyes flit up a second, focus on him, as if she could read even a corpse’s face, and then the Quarass flicked the splinter away.

She knew. But all the Quarass did was take another sip.

“She was rather impertinent, though. If you were her enemy or put yourself against her, she would remember it and spend no little time humiliating you in the years to come. I have often thought Khelt’s rulers modeled themselves after that in some ways.”

“She—she was imperious. But not among the most strident of—Khelt’s rulers.”

The Quarass smiled. She closed her eyes and thought, and Fetohep understood now. He gazed around the emptying room, save for the two of them—for who else could be part of this but the two oldest? Those who knew. And he was a mayfly to her years.

“No, that would be Queen Emrist and her Scourgeriders. Or His-Xe. Or—and I say this not lightly at all—Hecrelunn, who was practically a ruler in his own right. Intriguing, is it not, that the most passionate of Khelt’s rulers left Revenants?”

“You knew them all, then?”

Of course she did. The Quarass nodded. She looked at Fetohep, and he gazed around the simple waystation. A poor place for either one to be in, but the palace wouldn’t have suited after all, would it?

After all—this was a wake. So Fetohep lifted his cup.

“Tell me of them, then. I knew only their ghosts, and only recently. If I thought of them before, they were beneficial presences. If I remembered…Xierca. She was my Queen.”

“Yes. And a good one, in her way. But too fond of strange plants.”

Fetohep almost jumped.

“The—those damned orchids? You recall them, the garden?”

The Quarass snorted.

“The most heinous of arrangements? Xierca always styled herself as something of a visionary when it came to horticulture.”

“I had to—regrettably—destroy many of them and relocate the rest these last months.”

She actually laughed at that. Then the Quarass began a story about Xierca’s youthful follies, both as a living woman and as the dead ruler. And Fetohep listened. The keg of ghostly liquor and mundane wine emptied a bit as the Quarass and Fetohep sat there. Talking about the dead. And he took heart, when he looked at her.

For when he was gone—even if he couldn’t watch over Khelt—she would remember him too. And then Fetohep knew that she was the most lonely of all. That great, tyrannical, cunning, kind, aged ruler of Germina.

An undead king and a ruler made of a thousand lifetimes drank deep into that night, celebrating the dead, and a Dragon flew. He alone, that Lord of Flame, had no one else to mourn with that knew their names. Not even the Quarass. But though the night was long, he followed his heart.

Despite what might come next, despite not knowing whom he was flying to, despite the wrongs he had committed, he flew, bearing a few things, to meet someone he knew only by name. And he was a Dragon, so he flew fast, but the journey was far. Nevertheless, Teriarch went onwards.

To what would be in this world, at least, perhaps the last true gathering of Dragon and Wyrm.

 

——

 

They hadn’t moved from the hill outside The Wandering Inn, although the sky was growing dark. In contrast, the fire glowed brighter, and it was like a magnet. Though people got up to stretch their legs or go to the bathroom, they returned and sat back down.

And talked. Not all of it was as dramatic as Erin’s words. In fact, it got entirely silly at times. However, these were conversations that you might never hear the people here speaking about, held over a bit of corn or sausage or a roasted banana.

“It’s happiness, isn’t it? Isn’t that the point of it all? To be happy? I mean, there’s other stuff in life when you boil it down to the roots. When I was a little squirming Selphie, I thought I’d be a grand adventurer and then make some new Selphids and tell stories in my later years. What else is there to do?”

Jelaqua was speaking next to Maughin, going after Erin’s question from earlier. So—so it was a philosophical discussion.

What was the meaning of life? Or, alternatively, what was happiness? It was like the fire setting dragged the question out of those present.

“Is happiness the meaning of life? Are you sure?”

The question came from Garia, whose head rose, frowning from a handful of yeasted popcorn with butter she was eating with Numbtongue. The question stumped Jelaqua.

“Isn’t it? Don’t you want to be happy in life? I mean, you earn a job and coins to buy things you want like food, a roof over your head—but if you had all the gold in the world, you might not work. So what else do you do but things that make you happy? Kids, adventuring, leveling—it’s all for happiness, isn’t it?”

“Maybe. It just—seems kind of basic.”

You’re basic.”

At this, Maughin nudged Jelaqua and murmured.

“Dear.”

“Sorry, Garia.”

The City Runner lifted a hand, and the Selphid relaxed slightly. Garia looked around, a bit embarrassed.

“What do you all think?”

The people sitting around the fire with Erin looked at each other. Erin was dozing a bit, but she saw Grimalkin lift a claw and begin to pontificate.

“I believe the question is inherently misleading, with all due respect to Adventurer Jelaqua. You see, happiness is conflated with purpose. One cannot be happy without fulfillment of some kind. [Mages] used to run emotional detection spells in Walled Cities to understand various policies, the effects of classes, distribution, etc. and they found excessive wealth did not indicate higher levels of happiness. The opposite, usually. The most happy individuals had a certain degree of wealth and levels and purpose.”

The brief lecture made Relc yawn.

“[Mages]. But you need money.”

“I said certain degrees of wealth. Happiness is linked to fulfillment. That is my answer in brief.”

Grimalkin folded his arms. He was instantly countered by Selys, who disagreed in a major way.

“I don’t think you need to work to be happy, though, Grimalkin. Not once have I said at my jobs, ‘gee, I wish I could keep doing this for the rest of my life’. Retired folks are plenty happy not to do anything, some of them.”

“Anecdotal, Miss Shivertail. A completely aimless life is often a void into which vices are piled without restraint.”

Grimalkin shot back, and Rufelt raised a paw next to Lasica.

“I can attest to that. Drowning in your cups is not a good way to go.”

“But I’m not saying that—I’m just saying you don’t need a job. Someone back me up.”

Selys looked about, and the gray-furred paw that raised belonged to Elirr. He and Hexel were sitting together, and he had brought some pets, having arrived late to the gathering. Hexel was scratching a purring tomcat’s stomach much like he couldn’t do for Elirr with everyone watching.

“I will take Selys’ side. My cats do nothing but eat, play, and sleep, and I have often envied them.”

His aforementioned cats gave the crowd a smug look, and those present considered the happiness and point of life vis-à-vis the cat theory. However, Seborn decided to weigh in.

“That’s all very well, but I’d die of boredom. If I wasn’t an adventurer, I’d drink myself into oblivion. Even if it means risking my life, I want to do this.”

“The Drowned bastard’s right. I may have quit the life of sea, but I didn’t enjoy peace and quiet until I went through some misery. Besides, there’s always going to be a monster or day when something bad happens. Happiness isn’t the point of living because you’re not always happy.”

Wailant added with a big nod. Selys protested.

“You…could be. Couldn’t you have a great house, do your favorite things all the time, assuming you didn’t get bored and found something new to do regularly, visited friends, pet cats—or dogs—or beavers—”

The former [Pirate] snorted.

“Issat a euphemism? I agree! Got to pet beavers and whatnot. Don’t throw things at me! But no week’s guaranteed happiness. Let me tell you—all you have to do is step on a rake and there goes your happy day.”

He was just lucky his comment passed over the little Gnoll’s head. Mrsha was napping a bit as Gire kept eating, but she woke up a bit to this interesting debate. She began scribbling and tugged at Lyonette’s arm and made her read her response.

“Mrsha says—I’m reading it, dear. Mrsha says, ‘being happy isn’t one day. It’s a long, loooong time. Even if you have days where you step in poop.’ Mrsha! Language!”

The Gnoll gave Lyonette a long, narrow-eyed look as she was scolded for her writing. She took the card back, crossed out poop, and wrote ‘shit’ instead. Pisces chortled alongside Ceria, but people took Mrsha seriously.

“She is correct. Lives can be cut short in moments. You may not agree with the practices of all Walled Cities, but the lifespans of citizens within are longer than average than those outside. Happiness…grief…better to have both than have it all cut short.”

Chaldion spoke quietly, staring into the fire. He’d removed his gemstone eye, and he seemed almost as ready to sleep as Mrsha.

“Then what’s happiness, Grand Strategist? Living a long time?”

Jelaqua challenged Chaldion, frowning, and got another nervous nudge from Maughin, but the leader of Pallass’ military just took his time sipping from the drink named after him before replying. His voice was hoarse when he did speak, and each word seemed dragged out of him.

“Happiness? Happiness is—ignorance. It is not for everyone. Happiness for a city or a people is something the few sacrifice so the many may achieve. It is the luxury of safety. Of victory. It has a high cost.”

“Spoken like a tyrant.”

Saliss snapped back, sitting up from where he’d been lying on his back. Chaldion said nothing; he didn’t even turn to Saliss. Lyonette closed her mouth—she had been nodding slightly. Gireulashia cut off another Saliss-Chaldion argument.

“That sounds like something Xherw would have said. Or Ulcreziek.”

That was a conversation-killer. Right up until Bird raised a hand.

“No, silly, big Gnoll whose name I do not know. That sounds like Niers.”

Everyone studied him. Bird hesitated.

“Niers…Nierseffson…Jealnet. Nierseffson Jealnet, whom I do not know. And is not the Titan of Baleros.”

He folded his arms and smiled. Lie achieved. Pisces looked at Bird and choked a bit, but Saliss bit back what he was going to say and turned to Bird.

“What’s happiness to an Antinium, then?”

That was an objectively fascinating question, and Bird took his time responding. Numbtongue muttered to Wailant.

“Five gold he says ‘happiness is a bird’.”

The [Pirate] began choking with laughter, and Viceria covered her mouth. Bird looked over at Numbtongue and opened his mandibles wide.

“Happiness? I am not that much happier when I shoot a bird, Numbtongue, or eat one.”

What?

Everyone chorused. Erin sat up just in time to hear Bird correct himself.

“I mean, I am not much happier because I am a happy Bird. That was not a lie. Yet. I know I should be dead. I was a Worker, and I never saw the sky. I was meant to die fighting something horrible and never eat acid flies. I should be dead, and I am not. Every day I am not dead and know this. If I forgot, I would be a very silly Bird. So happiness is me winning over death itself.”

He folded his hands together over his belly and rocked back, satisfied. Since the ground they were sitting on was the hill and his back-shell was rounded, Bird went over in a somersault. In silence, everyone watched him tumble down the hill like a pillbug.

“Uh oh. Ouch. Watch out below. Whee—”

That was so entertaining that Mrsha and Gire rolled out of the conversation. Wailant put out his hand, and Numbtongue spat into it. It was Joseph who decided to break the silence.

“Antinium are depressing.”

Drassi raised both brows.

“That’s news? I’m not reporting it.”

The laughter went around the people sitting there, but the question lingered. So, Ksmvr turned and brightly looked at his mentor.

“Yvlon, what is happiness to you?”

The [Armsmistress] stuttered and turned red as everyone glanced at her.

“I, uh—happiness? Well, I—it’s—I think it’s not—uh—”

She was lost, and like a friend, Pisces lifted his hand.

“I believe happiness, or the point of existence, is more than just emotion, as Magus Grimalkin says. There are spells that provoke happiness and insanity. If you cast such spells on yourself, are you happy? My answer is no, so it follows that happiness is a lasting accomplishment or…deed that provides it.”

“What, does everyone have to go on a quest to be happy, then?”

Selys shot back instantly, but Pisces just sniffed at her.

“Hardly. That’s a simplistic read on my statement, Miss Shivertail. Happiness can be a child, as Jelaqua indicated, or yes, fame and glory, or a home. I just maintain it has to be linked to something.”

“I can buy that.”

The Drake [Heiress] admitted grudgingly. Pelt tossed another stick into the fire with a snort.

“Spoken like a Human and Drake. Everything has to be something you can touch.”

“Says the master-smith.”

Palt raised his brows, and Imani squeaked as Pelt tossed a bit of ash at them. The Centaur blew it away with a spell, and Pelt glowered back.

“Everything breaks. Even the greatest metals. Craft is invisible, and you may never hold what you make. The deed doesn’t have to be there.”

“Is that happiness, Pelt?”

Erin wanted to know. The Dwarf looked up at her and then away.

“…How should I know? I’ll tell you if I ever find it. You don’t need it to live.”

They were teetering on the edge of other conversations, but Yvlon had apparently found her answer. She stood up as if she were giving a speech, and her voice was slightly tremulous.

“I, um, have my answer. Happiness is a lack of something. In other words, I mean—it’s not being in pain. It’s not being hungry or wanting for anything. If you have nothing holding you back, you’ll probably be happy. You should be.”

Fierre tilted her head left and right. She was sitting as far away from the silver-armed woman as possible. She whispered to Octavia, with her brows raised.

“Isn’t that backwards?”

No. It was just a revealing answer. And for a moment, Erin wished that she had been able to meet Ysara and this Qwera. But then Ksmvr was nodding.

“That is not my answer, but I will write this down in case the question comes up again, Yvlon. I have a good answer. I have it here.”

He rose, and everyone saw what he was holding. The black cat went meow in Ksmvr’s hands. He supported it, stroking its fur gently.

“Happiness is a cat.”

He showed it around, and the purring animal let him scratch behind its ears. Everyone waited for Ksmvr to say something else, but he just sat back down happily.

 

——

 

“Gottem.”

Kevin grinned from where he’d gotten up to refill his drink. The conversation was resuming, and it looked like it was Viceria who was giving her take on the nature of happiness. Ksmvr stepped back, still holding his cat, and Kevin heard another group of people that were listening into the central conversation talking.

“They are discussing happiness. And we’re eating roasted foods around a fire. This feels like when we are on campaign. It’s not very exciting. I was told she sometimes made the inn explode.”

Kevin looked around, and there was Crusader 57. He did seem like he enjoyed complaining, because the rest of Squad 5 elbowed him and, despite his comments, the Worker had eaten eight pieces of corn.

Some of the Fellowship of the Inn and soldiers were sharing another fire, and before Kevin could Kevin his way in—which was a surprisingly familiar thing given that Kevin2 and Kevin3…and Kevin were all parts of the army—someone else spoke up.

“Excitement, sir? That’s not always the best.”

“No?”

Crusader 57 challenged the fellow with a cap on his head. Normen gave a cautious tug of the cap as he, Alcaz, and Pivr all toasted pieces of bread to dip in a bowl of honey. A little bee indignantly stared at them plundering all this honey with their flesh-proboscises as she lay in the little sling Lyonette had fashioned for her across the [Princess]’ front.

Normen shook his head. He had a rather splendid cigar that the Centaur had given him, and he was taking delicate puffs and enjoying himself. He elucidated his point for the [Crusaders] very simply.

“The thing about excitement, sir, is that sometimes, all you remember is the excitement. Which is good enough. But this? You’ll remember this in detail on a cold night and think back to just how it tasted.”

He tapped the slice of bread, which he’d added a bit of cheese and honey to. The [Crusaders] nodded slowly. Kevin sat down.

“Exactly. I mean, it’s great for me too. Hi, I’m Kevin.”

“Oh, another one.”

Crusader 57 twitched his antennae as Kevin gave him a blank look. But the young man was smiling. He looked down, and his face went slack for a moment, then he laughed ruefully.

“What is so funny? Inform me, strange Human whom I vaguely recall. Then we shall be chummy. Friend.”

Pivr fanned his wings gently. Kevin tried to explain what was so ironic.

“A cold one on a porch—or the back of the inn, I guess, around a fire with a snack? It’s just—I’m turning into my dad.

He glanced down ruefully, and no one got the joke except maybe Normen and Alcaz, who smiled briefly. Kevin took a sip from his mug and changed his tune.

“…I guess he had a point.”

A few more people drifted away from the central fire, mostly because someone had passed really, really bad gas. Ksmvr walked away, chasing a cat who’d fled the stink bomb, and realized Pivr was here when the cat hissed at the Flying Antinium.

“Oh, Pivr. You are here. Many Antinium are here, I note.”

The Flying Antinium nodded cautiously. There were Antinium from the army, from the Free Hive, and the Fellowship. In fact, Klbkch was returning from washing his hands to where Relc was laughing with Embria and some of the Watch and [Soldiers]. He stopped.

“Ksmvr.”

Ksmvr jumped, and all the Antinium fell silent.

“Oh. K-Kblkch. Hello. Good to see you.”

The two faced each other, former Prognugator and Revalantor. Klbkch stared at Ksmvr’s regrown hand.

“You and I have not spoken since your return from Chandrar. I note that Xrn authorized the regrowth of your hand.”

“Yes…and I am thankful for your well-wishes. My team is doing very well. Is the Hive well? Our formalities are concluded, goodbye—”

Ksmvr edged back, but Klbkch folded his arms. He looked Ksmvr up and down.

“I am also pleased to note your new sword school. My sword school. My Skills.”

“Oh. I, um. I’m very grateful for their usage?”

The [Skirmisher] would be sweating if he could. Klbkch was rapidly advancing his [Loomer] class, and his voice was amazingly flat.

“I note you did not inquire as to my preference when inheriting my Skills and abilities that I worked for.”

Ksmvr could have run, but the cat suddenly decided it wanted more petting, so he picked it up. He looked defiantly at Klbkch and spoke.

“I noticed you were not using them, so I decided someone should, Klbkch.”

Oh snap. Kevin’s mouth moved slowly as Klbkch’s antennae went still. Ksmvr wasn’t taking everything lying down—and it was probably a combination of Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon that was adding to his retorts.

Before anything else could happen, though, another shape came bounding forwards, and there was a gentle woof. A little puppy ran towards the [Crusaders], who all stared at it. Then, before it could beg for treats, a hand reached out and picked it up.

The little dog whined, and there he was. All the Antinium turned as a figure appeared with a dustpan. The dread Antinium. The most hated being in the Free Hives.

Furfur. The animal caretaker was helping shepherd some of the Free Antinium’s pets and Elirr’s cats, and he stopped as he noticed the gathering. What might have happened next was anyone’s guess, but then one last figure appeared.

“What is this? What is this? So many familiar faces. There is Pivr. Where have you gone? We could have used you during the war. We still can.”

Prognugator Dekass walked forwards, carrying an entire lasagna tray in two arms and a pair of drinks—both for him—with his other two. He still had his armor on, the repaired damage from battle shining on his breastplate, and he had a slight limp, but he seemed as happy as could be.

And then—the [Crusaders], the Free Antinium, they realized they were all here. The six legends. The myths of the Free Hive.

Furfur, Klbkch, Ksmvr, Dekass, Pivr, and Crusader 57. The six most hated Antinium in one spot for various reasons.

Ksmvr, who had once nearly gotten Liscor overrun in his brief tenure as Prognugator and who had hurt Pawn.

Dekass, who had been completely objectionable for most of his stay at the inn.

Pivr, doubly objectionable.

Klbkch the Slayer, executioner of Antinium, feared for his cold attitude towards others.

Crusader 57, who could be mean and hurt people’s feelings.

And Furfur, who made animals go take naps.

Clearly, this was a vortex of evil Antinium, and the only question in each Antinium’s mind was—who was in the top five? Did they have to update the rankings?

Of course, even the Antinium knew that it wasn’t that serious of a ranking. It was mostly just…fun. But it seemed at least one of the Antinium was self-aware, because Ksmvr turned to Furfur.

“They call you Furfur. Your name is known to me as a dread Antinium of ill repute.”

The [Pet Trainer] stopped in confusion as the dog barked quietly. Ksmvr met his gaze, and if sparks could fly…slowly, he lifted the cat in his hands as Klbkch stared at him in confusion.

“Furfur, I respect your class and abilities. But I fear—my time in Chandrar has given me insights you cannot dream of. I have been friends with the Empress of Beasts, and she has taught me many things. So—observe the forbidden technique. [Fourfold Petting].”

With that, he began demonstrating a 100% increase in the techniques of ear scratching, tummy-rubbing, and cat-pampering. The cat practically writhed with delight in Ksmvr’s hands as Klbkch stared at him.

“Unbelievable.”

He stalked past Ksmvr, and Dekass wandered away since he had been told the cats were not part of the food being served. Furfur watched in silence as Ksmvr amazed the onlookers with his talents. The little dog stared at the cat as Furfur put him down, and he raced over to get a scrap from Crusader 53.

What would be his response? Furfur was very still as he fished in a belt pouch. Then…he produced a short-toothed comb and brush.

Instantly, the cat abandoned Ksmvr and leapt into Furfur’s hands. He began to comb and brush the cat’s fur as Ksmvr’s mandibles fell open. Furfur nodded to Ksmvr and picked up the dog; it was getting late, and they needed to sleep.

 

——

 

“Ksmvr, where did you go?”

The Antinium came back to the central fire as Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon showed him the cake slice they’d safeguarded for him. The Antinium didn’t touch it. He sat there and looked at his comrades.

“My team, I have been bested, humiliated, and defeated. It is a strange feeling, to be so roundly thrashed. I may never recover. And yet—I must train harder.”

He clenched one fist. Yvlon turned to Ceria, uncertain whether or not they should get up and avenge Ksmvr or not.

And the night went on.

 

——

 

In the end, there were a lot of theories about happiness and the meaning of life, if you’d even thought about it in a grand sense.

“The meaning of life? Uh—”

Joseph completely blanked when he was asked. He glanced around and stuttered.

“Well, they say lots of things, right? Like, um, to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.’”

Kevin began choking on his drink with laughter as Erin’s head swiveled, and she gave Joseph an outraged look. But the people sitting around Joseph took him at face value. Numbtongue gave Joseph a long, long look and a frown.

“…And then what?”

“Huh?”

“What do you do after that?”

The Hobgoblin gave Joseph a very distrustful look, and Seborn broke in.

“Pillage and plunder, obviously. And worse. That’s your meaning of life?”

He gave Joseph a deeply disturbed look, and the young man raised his hands hurriedly. Imani was horrified. She might have been from Earth, but she had no idea what he’d been quoting.

That’s what you want to do, Joseph?”

“No!”

“It’s clearly what he meant from the context. What are you, some kind of Bloodtear Pirate or those insane raiders?”

A Drake twitched at her spot around the fire, but Joseph was the one trying to defend himself.

“It’s not me—it’s just a quote, guys. It’s just one theory, right? I mean, no one knows the answer—”

Pawn raised one hand politely. He had been creating some bread for extra food, and he turned to Joseph.

“I have seen my enemy driven before me many times. I have also crushed their heads with a mace. It is not best in life to me, but I respect your attitude towards the game of football. No wonder you are a [Coach].”

It was getting dark, and the laughter from the fire where Joseph’s name was being dragged through the mud almost woke a sleepy little Gnoll in Lyonette’s arms as she carried Mrsha to their rooms. But most people were sitting around the glowing embers in the darkness.

When they rose, they’d have to go home or beg a room for the night and face consequences like how much they’d just eaten or the work they had tomorrow or just—life.

But this night had been quiet and enjoyable. Not mind-blowingly fun or crazy. Just—good. In fact, that was why even the Silverfangs had arrived near sunset.

They did not feast, exactly, but they had eaten and listened and talked. They would not have come for a great party, but this—this was close enough to their ceremonies.

Krshia Silverfang sat with a cup in her paw as she spoke, a nigh-invisible shadow with a glinting necklace of silver in the darkness.

“This talk of happiness, of life—I wish I had but an answer.”

She looked around, and Erin Solstice heard her growl in the darkness.

“We cried all our tears a while back, but it wasn’t enough. I should have stayed to bury the dead but I couldn’t face it. Cetrule…Torishi…Silverfangs left one dead Gnoll for every six that lived. I cannot smile for new lands or a glorious age. It comes at too high a cost.”

There it was again, and no one ran from it. The distant laughter faded, as if they heard, but someone did reply to Krshia.

It was Kevin. He spoke, thoughtfully, into the silence.

“In another world, there really wouldn’t be any point.”

Everyone looked at him, Grimalkin, Pisces, Erin, Krshia, Selys, Saliss, and Numbtongue—those were the people in the central spot. Kevin surely knew he was being listened to, but he didn’t care. He went on.

“At least we level up, here. At least that’s not forgotten. Sometimes I see things that have no meaning, and I…I don’t get why it happened. At least here I can say—maybe I’ll be able to do something in time. I couldn’t, even if I tried, even if I was there. Before. That’s something, right?”

Erin felt like he was looking at her. She knew he was speaking to her. It was something she’d said, and Ryoka.

So that was where he was. They were all changing, and Kevin’s words hung in the air. Until Erin interrupted him.

This night, this evening with the fire, was good. She pushed herself up with her elbows in her chair and shook her head.

“No. Even if it were a place without levels or rewards or quests or magic…”

The others focused on her, and she sensed each one here, though they were a bunch of people as still as statues, shadows in the night. But she knew their faces and…Erin inhaled, and the air was smoky, making her cough. Oh, but it was real. So she had to tell them—tell Kevin he was a bit wrong.

“We are bound together by the things we lose and the things we’ve done. I’ll never forget that. I never did, even when I died.”

Pisces looked at Erin, but it was something only she could say. Erin turned to Krshia, and the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] studied the Human. They had met when Erin first visited Liscor, and Krshia was one of Erin’s first friends.

“I know what the Gnolls did, Krshia. They helped Mrsha. They did many things.”

“Some selfish. If it is a debt…”

“It’s not just a debt, Krshia. I know what they did. What they went through. I won’t forget what happened, and I wasn’t even there. I didn’t see it all, but I don’t think Lyonette will ever forget. Or anyone else. I’ve said this before. For Goblins. But today and every day afterwards—no Gnoll of the Plains will ever go away hungry if they come here or have to sleep on the ground. Or Antinium. They’ll always be friends. Hopefully, if there’s one thing we can keep, it’s that.”

It wasn’t much, but it was all they had left. Erin looked around and felt Krshia’s grief. She felt the contentment of some, Grimalkin’s conflict of duty and purpose. Chaldion’s bone-weary despair and fear.

Hidden emotions in some, words still left to say. Ceria was staring at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] felt something bubbling in her chest. It was something you could feel and maybe even forget, but Erin had learned many times that these moments mattered.

She jumped as a claw touched her side. Saliss poked Erin with one huge eye open.

“Free food and shelter? How about Drakes?”

“Pass.”

Erin swatted his claw down, and Numbtongue lifted a hand.

“Goblins?”

“I think the Goblins generally feed themselves.”

Erin stared pointedly at Ulvama, eating half a cake, and Numbtongue laughed. Her gaze roamed the gathering of people, and she heard little conversations. People she didn’t know, speaking.

 

——

 

Like that Cave Goblin, Rasktooth. He’d been merry enough, eating and drinking and chattering to the Worker, but he could not walk.

And unlike Erin, no [Healer] had told him he would again. He looked around and smiled hugely.

“Good night. Good day. If I die, I am happy.”

He looked at the Worker sitting next to him, and Infinitypear seemed shocked.

“Why will Rasktooth die?”

The Cave Goblin tapped his legs with an expression like it were obvious.

“Useless Goblins die. So I die.”

To his surprise, Infinitypear shook his head vehemently. The Worker picked up the Cave Goblin and put him on his shoulders.

“No. I am your legs.”

“Not always. Don’t be silly.”

Rasktooth poked him in the head. In response, Infinitypear poked him back.

“I will never put you down. You will not die. Not without me.”

It was such a stupid…it was such a thing to say that the Cave Goblin laughed. He raised a hand to punch the Antinium, but then patted him on his head. And all he said was this as he rubbed at his eyes.

“Brother, brother.”

Infinitypear smiled as he carried Rasktooth away from the fire. He agreed.

“Brother. And friend.”

 

——

 

Erin had heard all of it. She needed something to blow her nose with, so she used the hem of Pisces’ robe.

Erin.

But he didn’t stop her, just grimaced. Erin wiped her face.

“Sorry. But that’s what they need to say. We need time. It’s too much. We have to say it slowly. Even though…”

They also had so much to do. Pisces looked at her as the people began rising, breaking up for sleep. But that moment…his eyes fixed on her.

“I—do have something to say to you, Erin. But I—I cannot—now is—”

He glanced around the fire, and Ceria, Ksmvr, and Yvlon were there. But Pisces couldn’t say it. Not with people. Maybe not even alone. He looked at Erin’s shadow, and he didn’t see how her eyes fixed sadly on him. But Erin didn’t say the things that would ruin this moment. She just patted his hand.

“We have time. I’ll get it out of you when you’re ready.”

The [Necromancer]’s head bowed.

“…Time? It’s been ten days. More. I left…”

He was about to shout it, say it, but Erin just tightened her hand on his.

“For another day, rest. Just one day.”

He nodded, and Erin wheeled herself away from the fire. She had something to do too, and she heard the quiet voices speaking in the night.

 

——

 

They were not all good conversations. There were fights and even stupid questions. Like…

“Was it worth it? Do you regret anything?”

It might have been a random guest who asked that, or even a friend of the inn. It was a stupid question, whether it was Rasktooth or anyone else who was asked.

Of course you regretted not dodging. Of course it hurt, and of course you regretted the pain and what might never come back.

How could you ask a person that? Let alone a tribe, even, especially in hindsight? It was the kind of question that deserved a stinger in the eye on general principle.

The little bee fanned one wing as Lyonette put her on the windowsill. She had a bowl of honey water waiting for her, but she’d been stuck in the sling all night. She would have loved to fly…but she wouldn’t. Never again.

She would have crawled around on the ground outside, but it was too dangerous for her, and she understood that. She could not fly, and Apista regretted that.

She had no answer, but the little white girl was sleeping in bed and the [Princess] smiled so much she almost cried. Apista felt it. As Lyonette went to sleep, Apista limped to the slightly open window and lit a bit of one of Palt’s cigars with some flame she produced.

A drink and a smoke on a moonlit night. Worth it…she fanned her stub of a wing and dragged herself forwards with her good legs. She didn’t know about worth. But this?

Yeah. That felt nice.

 

——

 

It was dark now, and the last moments of this gathering were breaking up. But all it had meant, all the powerful feelings that had been shed here, even in part, still lingered. What was it? Could you name it?

The [Innkeeper] didn’t know, but she went around, wheeling her chair into shins, apologizing, and bidding people goodnight. But she had a problem.

“Excuse me. Do you know where Alcaz and Normen went? Pivr? I saw he had…they’re already in Liscor? Darn. Hey. Um. Do you have a hat? Ceria? Yvlon? Helmet? Grimalkin? Relc, buddy?”

“A hat?”

The sleepy people looked at Erin, and she realized none of them had a hat. This was a hatless crowd. Aside from the Brothers—they were anti-hat.

“What’s with you guys? Not one of yous has a hat? Not you, Ser Sest? Give your helmet! …Where’s your helmet?”

“Why do you need a hat, Erin? You don’t wear hats!”

An exasperated Selys snapped back. Erin rolled around with increasing urgency.

“Lasica! You’re a [Chef]. Poofy hat? Bah, what kind of [Chef] are you? Pebblesnatch would have my back. Did Garry…? Argh!”

She rolled forward, and the door to the Garden of Sanctuary appeared. Erin rolled through room after room, disrupting the occupants, but she had no hat. At last, in desperation, she rolled into the kitchen.

“This…okay…”

Her guests followed her. Bemused, but that air of happy charm, of…something, lingered. In fact, it more than lingered.

It was here. The pleasant conclusion of the evening. Fading, but lingering around…

“Erin?”

Selys stared at Erin, and a sleepy Lyonette came downstairs because she’d felt it too. Not an aura, but something…close.

Her friends saw Erin Solstice pull something from a cupboard, inspect it, and bite her lip.

“I hope this’ll do. It’s not how I was taught, but—I’m an [Innkeeper]. Okay, here goes.”

With that, she raised a pot and put it over her head, the handle facing backwards because that was cool.

Erin stared at her friends with a pot on her head. Pisces began laughing, a slow laugh, and Ceria snorted, and Yvlon rubbed at her eyes.

“Erin, what…?”

“Just wait. Okay, I tip it like that and…gotcha!

Her shout was triumphant, and then Erin snatched the pot from her head. She glanced around, decided she was not wearing that all day and night, and slammed a lid over it. She stared at the covered pot along with everyone else.

“Erin—what did you just do?”

The [Innkeeper] winked at her friends, and they gave her looks of great suspicion. For there it was. The crazy Human of Liscor, Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], the girl whom Nereshal called the Goblinfriend in times to come…she was many things they knew.

And something they didn’t. Pisces’ eyes widened, and Ceria gasped as the circlet helped her mind jump to a conclusion. Grimalkin just checked off a box and went to bed, smiling, without telling the weary Chaldion.

And Erin? The [Witch] winked at her guests.

“I’ll show you later. Have a good night, everyone. Just…ask yourselves one thing when you go to bed, and for the future.”

They focused on her, and Erin took a breath. She put the pot on her lap and folded her hands together.

“Do you have…a wish?”

“A wish?”

Lyonette blinked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] smiled.

“Yes. Ask yourselves that. A wish. Something you’ve always wanted, deep down. Or something you realized you wanted.”

She looked around, and the little pot vibrated with something.

“Not a dream or something you really want. A wish. It might not be possible, but maybe it is. Something you want to do. In the days to come—I want to see what we can do. I want…I think we should get a pet. Make this inn worth even more than it is. Is Crusader 57 here?”

“Yep.”

Joseph jumped as one of the figures raised a hand. Erin laughed in the darkness.

“I hope this inn was okay, at least. But not perfect. You wanted more, didn’t you?”

The Worker considered the question for a long time. All the guests of the inn waited, and Squad 5 poked him vigorously, but he would say his piece no matter what, and when he replied…

It was with a shrug, and even perhaps, a slight raising of the mandibles.

“No. But you helped the Free Antinium do everything that came afterwards. So it’s good enough. You’re good enough.”

He looked around in the silence and scowled.

“What? That’s what I meant.

Erin laughed. Then she wheeled forwards and took one of his hands.

“Next time, Crusader 57—okay, maybe not next time if it’s tomorrow. But next time you come here—there will be something for you. I promise. And for everyone else, something great. Something that matters.”

Someone sighed into the darkness. Not because they denied it, but because they believed her. Ser Dalimont. He looked past Erin, as if he had seen just that.

“A triumph of a lifetime. What comes next? Do we just live the rest of our lives satisfied or give up?”

She shook her head.

“No, you continue on, and everything’s even better thereafter. Have a good night.”

So, the [Innkeeper] closed a door as she bid the last guests farewell and put the pot full of promises next to her bed. She took a while to go to sleep, but when she did—perhaps the world was a bit better.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Before you say anything, in the comments, some chapters are inevitable. We all need time to process things and that’s what I think some stories lack or don’t show enough of.

Sometimes…we need to sit around a fire and isn’t it strange how Erin has never done this before? At least in this way.

With that said, I may not come back to you on Saturday with a chapter in Volume 9. I need to write Volume 1, The Last Tide Pt. 2, and so I’m devoting writing days to that. I will be up-front if it’s something in secret; if not I’ll post whatever I write and link you to it.

However, this is our pace. Not the slowest, hopefully, for slice-of-life shouldn’t be nothing at all, in my opinion. But neither is it Volume 8’s straight run.

PS: I was going to write this but again, I have trouble with lyrics since I don’t think in rhythm or verse. But it was going to be a Roald Dahl nod. Just a little moment when people are figuring out what’s happening outside. Since it’ll never be used, here it is:

 

——

 

Inside The Wandering Inn, there were three people. Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue.

 

Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue. 

Lyonette, Bird, and Numbtongue. 

One royal, one silly, one green.

This trio of friends, sat in the inn

Waiting for Erin to come back again.

 

They were mostly good people. But they were somewhat silly too. Lyonette was so busy ordering the Thronebearers around that she never noticed the inn’s occupants sneaking out the garden’s door or going to the bathroom and not coming back.

 

——

 

That’s all from me. See you later. Roast some bananas for me.

 

[Anchoring Stab] and Successor by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Healing Slime by Vescar!

 

Erin by Sedeto for AxelTerizaki’s Birthday!

Sedeto: https://sedeto.carrd.co/

AxelTerizaki: https://twitter.com/AxelTerizaki

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

9.00

They called it the Waning World, the era of decline where magic was somehow less magical and legends were only sort of inspiring. When the world’s greatest foe, the King of Destruction, was a conquering [King] rather than the world-ending horde of Crelers, for instance.

These were the days when Dragons might be around. When Giants were agreed to be the last. The Demon Kingdom still existed, but the world was just that.

Waning.

That was the age of less than ten days ago. The facts had not changed: Dragons were still not something anyone expected to see. The old species were still dead.

However, this world was not the same. Ghosts had appeared in numbers never glimpsed since the oldest days of myth and legend. They had brought Skills and knowledge, dire warnings, and something terrible had occurred.

In Ailendamus, at Talenqual, and upon the Great Plains, the world had changed in dramatic ways. The Archmage of Chandrar was free.

This was now the Journey of the Living, a new era named by the ghost of Archmage Kishkeria, a Gnoll who had split Izril in twain with two other ghosts—then raised new lands.

If you’d been there, you would remember any one of those events forever. The day the truth of Doombearers was revealed. The sight of a thousand ghostly [Kings] taking to the field.

A Fraerling City appearing for the first time in eight thousand years. Well…an intact Fraerling city.

And yes, the price for such moments was beyond high. The world might never know the sacrifice of the dead. However, the bodies of the living could be counted.

Gnolls had died by the tens of thousands. Fraerlings—likewise. The Dyed Lands were overrun, and entire cities had vanished. Despite many officers surviving behind the front, the Drake armies had hurled their soldiers into the fire.

…Those were just numbers. People, people you knew, with an entire future ahead of them, had died. Tribes had been wiped out or shattered.

A terrible cost paid to reveal and bring down a tribe led by a monster hoarding luck. A sacrifice to stop the Walled Cities from wiping out the foes they saw in the Gnolls.

Armies, fighting ghosts, countless people, and even nations working together to bring back one person:

Erin Solstice.

It may not be what the world focused on. It might not ‘matter’ in the grand scheme of things. Yet. But was it worth it?

 

——

 

Nine days after the events at the Great Plains of Izril. Nine days after the end of the Waning World and the event that some [Historians] were already calling the Days of Return—after the ghosts, since calling it ‘the treachery of those Drakes’ or ‘the Gnolls’ new lands’ was already in debate.

Nine days later, the dead were still being put to rest.

The Great Plains were filling with undead. They rose from the ground, the water that had covered them and the mud they’d sunk into now revealing foul, rotted corpses buzzing with acid flies and stinking of battle.

Drakes, Gnolls…but mostly Gnolls. The Walled Cities had recovered many of their dead and disposed of the bodies in ways that would not allow death magic to gather.

However, in the aftermath of the war, the armies that could have put down the dead and dealt with the issues of burial—left.

Khelt and Chandrar’s armies had to fall back or be encircled by hostile Drakes. Likewise—the Drakes had fled the wrath of the Gnolls’ ancestors. Which left the tribes with a battlefield filled with death.

It was not something anyone had considered at the time, obviously. But even when the undead began to spawn, the Drakes didn’t offer any help.

Doubly ironically, the one nation that could have dealt with all these issues and even used the undead that rose—Khelt—was already on Chandrar. So it was amidst the mud and ruined ground caused by the split in Izril as well as Zeres’ First Tide—and the mass-attack spells that had torn up the ground, and the fire that had rained down as Plain’s Eye cast their spells—that the Gnolls of the plains had to behold as they tended to their home.

There might be an undead army if they were left unchecked. So, weary Gnolls loosed arrows while warriors kept back the faster, more dangerous undead like Ghouls. Emerging Crypt Lords and more powerful undead were simply blasted where they stood by adventurers and Gnoll [Shamans].

Or [Mages]. A few Gnolls held staves, wands, and tossed weak [Flame Arrow] spells at the undead. They glimmered with magic reclaimed.

Some Gnolls had brown fur, others black, or red, or…white. A few had white fur. Ironically, most of these were still despised and worked alone, but for different reasons this time.

A filthy, broken piece of land scattered with ruined tents, people scavenging for valuable armor or weapons amidst rotting bodies where the Meeting of Tribes had been just two weeks ago. None would be held here in the future; the death aside, the landscape was ruined. If you stood in the center of it, in the corpse-filled bog, the buzzing flies, groans of undead, and smell of gasses bloating and changing them…

That was a hell. If you had seen the slaughter, senseless, as the Witch of Webs killed with a laugh for mortality, you might ask what the point of even fighting had been. Had you even made a difference?

Still, he smiled. Though he could smell the rot. Though the pain in his back and legs hadn’t stopped, only become a burning haze that sometimes disappeared when he fell unconscious. Though they were dead.

He smiled, for he had done it. He had been there and looked at the sea. The white froth as it surged against the ground, rushing so cool and terrifyingly powerful against his armored legs. A vast world of water without end—and he could not swim.

He saw it still. As he held the warhammer in his four arms, an army of scales, mostly green or blue, coming towards him, the neck-spines protruding behind the angled helmets. Zeres, the City of Waves, surging towards the little white Gnoll he’d heard so much about. And Erin Solstice, the sky herself.

All he heard, then and now, was the roar in his head, louder than the battlefield. Louder than his heart. He felt the thud as the Beriad of the Antinium stomped, singing with pride. It burned in him like nothing had ever before.

Honor and pride. This mattered. That was what Calruz the Minotaur had given him—all of them. A hundred Antinium made their stand in the waters that turned green and red with blood. And a Minotaur had stood with them, holding a green blade of diamonds, and the Beriad had seen The Crimson Soldier and then…

They had felt the other minds and known they were not alone. A Unitasis Network. He had felt the minds of the Queens, bigger than he could have guessed, wearier and more afraid than he had ever known—and more familiar than he expected.

For a glorious few minutes, it had been like that. Then Zeres had overwhelmed their position. But for a minute, perhaps two, the Beriad had held back the City of Waves. That was glory. That was duty, and it was that he clung to in his grave. Even if he had not been killed, only wounded, and his issued healing potion smashed, he couldn’t move, and the undead were rising around him.

But he’d done it. He’d made a difference. So he smiled. Through the pain, through his fear of death and grief. And never once did the Soldier realize that if he had stood in front of Calruz or Venaz or any warrior with a heart, that smile would have been familiar. It would have marked him as something else. The new kind of Antinium that Klbkch and the Free Queen had once dreamed of. The same kind of warrior that had lived and breathed since the world was created.

Nothing would ever be the same again. The Soldier might not have known that, but he had seen the Sky and the white Gnoll, and thus he considered he had been among the most fortunate of Antinium who had ever lived.

He had also heard the Minotaur, and he considered that was the most important person of all. To him. He couldn’t speak for the rest of the Crusade, but the Minotaur had been…

Not kind. Not gentle. In many ways, far more than Klbkch, but what a standard, eh? No, what he had been was certain. He had told the Beriad what honor was. And honor was meaning. He had given them a reason to fight and not fear they had no meaning. For this Soldier, Crusader 221-3, the third replacement, he considered it had all gone far better than he could have hoped.

It just hurt. It hurt, and not even his levels stopped the pain. He had a bunch of nifty Skills…that didn’t help. His legs wouldn’t move. His shell was broken; he felt the pieces digging into his flesh, but he’d stopped bleeding. His arms were pinned, and not even his strength could shift the weight pressing down on him.

He was buried alive, and that he hadn’t suffocated was because the bodies on him were letting some air in. He might drown if it rained.

All these things being equal, Crusader 221-3 was just…waiting. Waiting, and between sleep and pain, reliving that moment of glory. He’d been there. He’d felt their minds. He’d—

“…Down there, I’m certain.”

A voice? The Soldier stirred, but aside from the groans or sounds of undead moving, he hadn’t heard anything aside from the wind or insects. This voice was faint, but it grew louder, and there was another one, with that delightful growl in some words.

“You’re sure, yes? It looks like a pile of bodies. It could be a…a fox?”

“No, it’s far too big. I’m certain. There’s another survivor.”

“Well, if they’re down there, they’ve been trapped for nearly ten days. I need…there are too many zombies, and more might be in that pile. I need thirty, now. Where’s…”

The voices receded a second, and Crusader 221-3 didn’t know what to make of this situation. Was it good or bad? He could detect Gnoll voices, but his understanding was that if it wasn’t a Liscorian army—he was still dead. However, then the first voice came back.

“Hey! We know you’re down there! We’re going to come back, okay? Just hang on a little while longer!

What a friendly voice. Two Gnolls, then. Crusader 221-3 spent the next amount of time guessing what they’d be like. Tall? Short? Um…extra furry?

He was ready for whatever came next. He just hoped that if he was going to die, he could do an honor-duel to the death. Calruz had explained that it wasn’t honorable to kill someone in a duel, unless it was clearly a matter in which death resolved a lack of honor, but the act of honor-duels was, in itself, honorable if honorable. Otherwise, it was stupid, and the King of Minos (who was actually female, but who cared?) had outlawed it.

It was that kind of lesson that the Beriad had spent a lot of cognitive power figuring out. So far, Crusader 221-3 understood that the most honorable way to go out was in battle like he had, holding the line against overwhelming odds to do something important like save lives. Or live a fulfilling life filled with charitable and good acts of intent and die surrounded by your loved ones and children. Given the options, Crusader 221-3 had understood he had one choice.

…The Gnolls came back at some point. The Soldier realized he was somewhat delusional, because he hadn’t noticed them return and start removing bodies and killing undead. His thoughts were…addled.

He hoped they understood that he’d done his best to fight to the end. He didn’t want anyone to tell Calruz…

The Beriad had all fought without running or flinching. He’d just failed to die when the Drake had cut him down and woken up later. He hoped they understood as well.

Nine days was a long time to go without food or water. Some of the First Tide that Zeres had conjured had left muddy runoff that Crusader 221-3 had ingested. But really…he had gotten hungry.

And the dead Drake on top of him still tasted better than paste in the Free Hive. A lot better, actually.

Crusader 221-3 had no direction on the honor of eating the dead, a surprising oversight from Calruz. So when the rescue crew got to him, they were dismayed to find a bit less of the corpse than they’d thought.

Eugh. What happened to—are the undead eating each other?

“Better hope not. I heard that some undead cannibalize each other. Or living people. They’re dangerous. Like…super Ghouls.”

“That’s all we need. If there’s a Drake down here, I swear I’ll—”

“Enough. Shaman Theikha’s declared a peace. Better to get gold anyways.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I think…aah! Oh, it’s just a dead Antinium.”

Daylight. Crusader 221-3 didn’t blink or react much, because he didn’t have a nose or eyelids, but he was still blinded. With daylight came fresh air, a sprinkling of dirt, and…

A furry pair of faces. One male, one female, pulling back the Drake’s corpse with a grimace. Behind them, weary Gnolls were covering the dead bodies with arrows and tossing the rest on what looked like a pyre.

“One of the Ants? Looks like it took down all the Drakes with it.”

Only nine. They had fought together, back-to-back, seeing through each other’s eyes. With the knowledge and Skills of the other Antinium crowding their heads. He had felt his comrades dying. But he had smiled—because not all of them had.

The Soldier decided at this point it was time to prevent the Gnolls from being surprised. So he clicked his mandibles very gently as the two Gnolls hauled the Drake body back.

The effect was actually underwhelming. One of the Gnolls, the male one, blinked.

“Did you see…?”

The female Gnoll glanced around and saw Crusader 221-3 trying to move his head. He could wiggle a bit, but it hurt, so he stopped. He clicked his mandibles and waved one good antenna. She stared down at him.

“Um.”

The two Gnolls looked at each other and slowly, sloooowly, stepped back from the pit. They put the Drake body down. Crusader 221-3 saw them vanish out of sight—then a furry head pop back and stare at him.

Click, click.

“Yep, it’s definitely a living Antinium.”

The Gnoll turned, looked around, and to Crusader 221-3’s vague disappointment, didn’t scream ‘Antinium’. Like Crusader 221-3, the Gnoll had seen too much at this point. What he did do was raise his voice.

[Shaman]! We found your survivor! We’ve got…Antinium! What do we do?

There was a moment’s pause. Then someone irate and clearly wiping at one muddy ear shouted back.

“You have…what did you say?

So this was it. Crusader 221-3 waited for the arrow or spear. He was under no illusions. No Antinium survived a battlefield if they didn’t make it back to their side.

Hectval had taken no prisoners that he knew of. He’d survived a good while. But this wasn’t Liscor. This was Izril, and Antinium, the Black Tide, were the enemies of Drakes, Gnolls, Humans…

That was how it was, and even the young Soldier knew his history and the basic politics well enough to get that. But Crusader 221-3 made one mistake, and it was this:

The world was changing. So, when the Gnolls returned, they did have bows and spears and a [Shaman] with a glowing staff, but they merely trained the weapons on the Soldier while six Gnolls dug down and ended up pulling him out with ropes. Crusader 221-3 felt a lot of pain, and one of them stopped and shouted.

“It’s bleeding—um, green! Are there any healing potions? Looks like the Antinium’s legs are all busted up.”

So they stopped and poured some on him, and he felt great about that. Crusader 221-3 wiggled his limbs and found three out of the six worked, which was pretty good. He stared up as the Gnolls surrounded him and he didn’t die.

Instead, the [Shaman] who wore a mix of dyed paints, a Weatherfur [Shaman], stared into Crusader 221-3’s eyes. He clicked helpfully, and the [Shaman] recoiled. Then the female Gnoll turned.

“This is too much for me. Find Strateg…Chieftain Feshi. Make sure the camp knows no one is to harm the Antinium.”

The Gnolls didn’t even really argue, just debate how best to carry Crusader 221-3 back to their camp. Carry, as if they couldn’t drag him on his shell.

Crusader 221-3 stared up at the blue sky and smelled all the aforementioned rot and destruction. But he also tasted something else on his mandibles.

Perhaps it was regret. Guilt for leaving his comrades behind. But Calruz had told him to continue on. So the Antinium stared up at the sky, then the curious, sad face of a [Strategist] who everyone called ‘Chieftain Feshi’.

“A live Antinium. If it were a few months ago, the Professor would tell us…what? A security risk? You can’t gain anything from Soldiers or Workers—aside from Roshal’s damned bounties. Today?”

Feshi Weatherfur, standing among the Weatherfur tribe and the Gnolls still inhabiting the Great Plains, looked at Crusader 221-3 as he sat, chewing on some honeycomb with his mandibles and clicking now and then. She looked around as his head rose, and though he had no pupils…there was something in that gaze. The Gnoll shivered, but not with fear.

“What orders, Chieftain?”

Feshi almost snapped at the person who asked, but she was the [Strategist] who’d taken command after Chieftain Torishi…died. Somehow, no one had ever relieved her of that duty. She held the hilt of the black diamond dagger of Serept as she thought a second. Crusader 221-3 looked at her, and the Gnoll nodded once.

“Keep a light guard. Find one of the cages we have for the Drake [Soldiers], but give the…this Antinium blankets. Food. But before that, I need a [Message] spell. Send it to Liscor. Send it to—what was it called?”

She snapped her furry fingers a few times before she had it. Crusader 221-3 was waving his hand, but he remembered he didn’t have a voice, and he hadn’t figured out how to ‘speak’ like The Crimson Soldier. He wished he’d spent the last nine days practicing, but he really thought he was going to die.

Well, that was honey on his face. Crusader 221-3 wiped some off and tasted it as Feshi came up with the name.

“Send a message to The Wandering Inn. Tell them we have an Antinium here.”

 

——

 

The city of Liscor didn’t smell like death today. What it did smell like was baking.

Baking soda and rising dough, from a lot of bakeries working overtime. Not just in general; Liscor was full of more people than it had ever been. The army—the civilian army—had returned and dumped a lot of off-duty soldiers as they maneuvered back to the war front.

Also, there were Gnolls, survivors from the Great Plains battles as well as…Silverfangs.

But Silverfang Silverfangs, if that made sense. Not your average Gnoll who kept up with the community but was a City Gnoll with that last name, but the Plains Gnoll who strode about with silver earrings and a hunting bow on her back and would shoot you a hare for eight copper coins in a heartbeat.

They were about as perplexed by Liscor as the citizens were by them. More so, in fact; the Silverfangs had spent a lot of time at the latest attractions. If only to distract themselves.

Plays, ice cream, stall food like hamburgers, and the door. More Gnolls had visited Invrisil in the last nine days than had ever occurred in the history of the city.

Pallass, was, for some reason, not a popular tourist destination for said Gnolls at the moment.

At any rate, it smelled of baking. Bread coming out golden and fluffy from the ovens, not flat like the little Gnoll could still remember eating. Of course, flatbread was wonderful too, and you could really chew it down with a lovely stew and dip your bread in the bowl, and if you were lucky, there was some butter or Sweetberry jam.

But this was good too. The little white Gnoll girl, sitting outside the inn on the hill, could actually smell the almonds baked into one piece of bread. And another was filled with spiced ground meat…

That was the level of Gnoll noses. With every good gust of air, she got happier. If you thought the world was just bread, it was indeed simple.

A younger, less mature girl of a few months ago might have run down into the city with some coins and gotten herself into a scrape like the scamp she was. However, this Gnoll girl knew that if she did leave this hill, she would not only alarm the caretaker watching her with one eye as she cleaned the tables, but get into trouble.

If she wanted to go into the city, she had to request authorization from the overlady, and that red-haired tyrant would make her go into the city with a guardian.

Which could be good, right? Wrong. The guardian might be, in and of themselves, a fun fellow with a guitar or a bird-obsessed maniac—but one you loved—or even a shockingly competent and boring [Head Waiter]. However, that wasn’t the problem.

The problem was…the chores. There would be no easy bread run. There was always, ‘Mrsha, dear, would you get some yogurt?’ or, ‘Mrsha, can you just send this to Krshia while you’re there’?

As if she were made of time. The Gnoll girl huffed to herself as she folded her arms. And while she grumbled, she was…if not happy, content.

Overwhelmingly content that this was something she could grumble about. Because it beat everything else that had been. So she sat and smelled bread and thought—how wonderful it is that I can do this.

It didn’t feel real, and she pinched herself now and then. And glanced up towards a certain window three from the left of where she sat.

That window…well, the occupant wasn’t up yet. But she was there. And that was strange, too. In fact, The Wandering Inn, even nine days later, felt a bit hushed. A bit shocked, as if there was still some uncertainty.

Had these days returned? Was this reality? 

If so, it was the good stuff. And though tragedy still made the little girl cry at times…one good thing had happened. One amazing, unbelievable thing.

Then there it was again. Uncertainty. The girl hesitated and stared at the window. It would be the work of a moment to climb up the stairs and open the door a crack. But, of course, the occupant needed her sleep. Or she could use the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] and take a peek, but she—and everyone else—had been scolded for doing that, and the owner of this inn got grumpy.

But was she really…? A doubt crept over Mrsha du Marquin once more. Though it had been nine days and probably nine hundred peeks and moments where she reminded herself, she wasn’t certain.

Then something struck her from above. A revelation. It blossomed in her head, words, not just words, but meaning, a kind of certainty that wrote itself in her mind. So neatly that the girl gasped and her eyes went wide. It was more than a thought, and it wasn’t hers. It was…

 

<Basic Quest – A Bucket of Water!>

Limits: Mrsha, 10 Minutes

Dear Mrsha, will you fetch a bucket of water? It’s important because I’m pretty sure we’re out. Please give it to Ishkr or put it in the cauldron! We should really get a pump or something, but I dunno. Thanks!

Posted Reward: Erin Solstice’s huge gratitude, love you, Mrsha! Plus, um, pancake breakfast?

Quest Reward: 2 Copper Coins, experience in <Housekeeping> classes.

 

The little girl’s eyes flickered as the information was presented into her mind, but she took a few seconds to process it. It was there if she wanted to access it, but understanding the quest wasn’t instantaneous.

The moment of wonder and surprise turned to…a hefty sigh as she felt the quest waiting for her to accept or refuse. Ten minutes? A bucket of water and two copper coins.

Now, if this were the Mrsha of nine days ago, if she got a quest, she would flip out, grab her wand, and do whatever was required. But that Mrsha was a fool, a peon with no understanding.

This Mrsha had completed thirty-one quests. Over the latter five days, since the first four had mostly been sleeping, recovering from the fighting, and processing it for everyone.

Thirty-one quests. Clean the Tables! Fetch Me a Cup of Milk! Give Bird a Big Hug!

She was getting sick of it. Especially since the rewards were just trash. Two copper coins? Mrsha might have lost her bag of holding, but if she poked Selys, she could get some allowance that would make up for all the quests she’d done and more.

And yet…and yet…it proved the quest-giver was alive. And awake. And apparently desirous of water. Mrsha folded her arms and grumped for a minute. Then she got up and, sighing, walked over eight feet and stared at a well.

She tossed a bucket into it, waited for the splash, and began to haul on the rope, grumbling to herself. Bucket this. Bucket that. Now, if it were the stream, she’d be fighting for her life against those biting, jumping fish. But this?

She had a bit of fun with it at the end by leaping up and hauling the bucket up by using her own weight to pull the rope down. Then she nearly fell into the well and decided to haul it up responsibly.

Bucket acquired! It wasn’t much water, and it slopped around a bit as Mrsha pulled it up, filled the second bucket, and began to carry it into the inn.

She didn’t actually resent the quest that much. It was just—when you thought about it, it was clearly just a way to have fun. Because Mrsha’s single bucket wouldn’t do much, would it? Now, Ishkr could take like four buckets to the inn. In terms of water-hauling, Mrsha would freely admit she was a poor choice for optimization.

But someone loved posting quests—at least for Mrsha. So the Gnoll was fumbling with the door handle, cursing the tyranny of tall people and doorknobs and wishing she were an Antinium with four arms, when someone opened the door and bowed.

Now, it was important to understand that at this point, Mrsha wasn’t actually that upset. She was more grumbling for the fun of it, and the quests hadn’t lost their allure entirely such that she was upset. She was enjoying being put-upon and rather glad that she’d gotten the quest.

However, the moment the door opened and the shining figure in gold armor bowed, one hand across his chest, the other moving back—she got an actual scowl on her face.

“Lady Mrsha? May I assist you w—”

Sir Sest backed away as she swung the bucket dangerously. Mrsha slapped something on her hand as he reached for the bucket, and a little, dangling stone chirped a sound.

“No.”

She fumbled with it, and another pre-programmed response played.

“I’m busy. Go away.”

Sir Sest ran a finger along the thin, perfectly plucked mustache running across his upper lip. Mrsha thought it looked like a black centipede. His hair was perfectly combed. and his armor gleamed, a vivid gold that was brighter than the actual thing.

The motifs of Calanfer, the Eternal Throne, shone on the Thronebearer’s armor as he bowed.

“I see. It must be a grand quest, Lady Mrsha. Then allow me to humbly assist you upon your task!”

And he proceeded to hold the door open as Mrsha glared at him. Yes, it made her life easier, but the Thronebearer followed her as she walked into the inn on two feet, and then he bowed to the harried [Princess] cleaning tables.

“Mrsha? Oh, is it water? Thank you. It’s a quest, isn’t it?”

Yup. And I’ve got a leech.

Mrsha gave Lyonette du Marquin a glare and jerked a thumb at the Thronebearer. Lyonette sighed, but she didn’t reprimand Ser Sest. If anything, the Thronebearer got what Lyonette probably thought was a covert nod of approval.

Mrsha’s glare intensified. Yes, the inn was back, but things were different. And…

Well. Lyonette was here. Her mother was scrubbing tables, and even if a horrified Ser Lormel was doing likewise with Ishkr to spare her the work—even if Ser Sest was almost always lurking around, or Dame Ushar or Ser Dalimont—

Mrsha would take it over the bad times of before any day. It was just annoying. So, sighing, she walked into the kitchen.

Breakfast isn’t ready. I told you, Palt. Timbor has to w—oh, Mrsha?”

A harried [Chef] with her hair tied back was snapping before she saw Mrsha. Imani pointed Mrsha at the water cauldron, which was running low.

“Thank you, Mrsha! Have you seen Palt?”

Mrsha had not, and Imani was whipping together breakfast anyways. True, she could just reheat some pre-made food, but fresh, hot food was still something good. It looked like today was a sweet yogurt and salads.

So that’s where it went. Well, Mrsha brightened up as she saw a bowl that looked very tasty. Chock full of sweet fruits and even a glowing Sweetberry. Imani noticed the look.

“It’ll be six minutes or less, Mrsha. Can you put the water there? Is Erin…?”

She’s awake. Mrsha nodded, and Imani glanced towards the door.

“I have to finish up and run to the Drunken Gnoll. Just put the water there, please.”

Mrsha was already tipping the bucket into the cauldron. She checked the glowing crystal half-submerged in the clear water just in case; it glowed a pure blue.

No contaminants. It was one of the things Imani had brought to the kitchen. Apparently most [Chefs] invested in such things, especially for water.

The quest was done. Mrsha the Water Fetcher closed her eyes, and even in her rush, Imani slowed a moment.

For here it came. The water being deposited into the cauldron was something only Mrsha, Imani, and Ser Sest saw. It was conceivable that the quest-poster might have sensed the water being poured, just as she had noticed the water running low, but she didn’t need to be actively monitoring the situation.

Something else was watching, and Mrsha felt a vague thrill even for the thirty-second time as she heard that voice in her head announce…

 

<Basic Quest – A Bucket of Water completed!>

 

Nothing other than that, at least in words. But the feeling of completion was instantaneously followed by a small sound and a glow of light. Imani looked up, and Mrsha opened her paws.

Even now, she stared up in awe at something…new. Something unheard of, that everyone was speculating about. The new power of [Innkeepers]—all [Innkeepers] apparently, and even some people working in related professions.

But especially this one. Mrsha saw the glow of gentle light turn from bright white into…two copper coins.

They fell out of the air and into her paws, and she stared at them. Just two copper coins, one slightly notched in the side, worn from use. They had Pallass’ logo on them; they must have been minted in the Walled City, and the Merchant’s Guild had ratified them.

Ordinary copper coins. Which had just appeared the instant she finished her quest.

That was magic. That was…well, frankly unbelievable.

Quests? Were they living in a fairy tale or Numbtongue’s video games? Mrsha flipped a copper coin up and down and felt it. Then she noticed something else.

Hold up. Hold up. Mrsha’s eyes went round, and Ser Sest murmured.

“Eternal Throne.”

Something else floated down from the air. Imani blinked as a third flash of light produced…Mrsha grabbed for the falling object in astonishment. It had happened again! She held up the huge, bright blue feather and heard the voice speaking.

 

<Quest Reward: 2 Copper Coins awarded. Bonus Item: Arctic Corabird Feather awarded.>

 

A bonus item. Mrsha knew that had not been on the quest description. It had not been guaranteed. It was…a bonus.

But where had it come from? Nowhere? Somewhere? Bird’s stash? Mrsha stared at the feather and knew, knew that Bird didn’t have a feather this nice. It was a brilliant cobalt-blue, but it had this wonderful white striation near the base. Faint white lines like snow across the sky.

It was probably worth more than two copper coins. Possibly as much as eight, if you sold it to a [Fletcher]. Then again, a certain feather-maniac would give Mrsha gold coins without a second’s hesitation for this.

Did the voice know that? Or was it just a random reward? Was this bird native to Izril, or was it truly just coincidence that Mrsha got a feather? Then again, she’d also been awarded with a bit of quartz, an extra copper coin, and a tomato in the last ten quests.

Not even a good tomato, and no, she hadn’t been allowed to eat it. Imani didn’t freak out like everyone had the first time it had happened, but she still gasped and stopped working.

“It happened again! A feather this time? Good job, Mrsha!”

She smiled, and Mrsha did too, for the sheer wonder of it. She put the feather behind her ear and turned…and Ser Sest spoiled her mood by applauding loudly.

“Well done, Lady Mrsha! Another feather in your cap, eh? A splendid job!”

Mrsha and Imani gave him a long look, but the Thronebearer had [Total Immunity: Shame], apparently. Mrsha sighed, walked past him, and handed him the copper coins.

“Er, Lady Mrsha…?”

She kept the feather.

 

——

 

This was The Wandering Inn. And if you thought it was quiet, well, that was only because the regulars weren’t allowed in until actual morning. Or you’d have people camping out just to come in.

It was also quiet because a lot of the new guests or people who’d come to Liscor were giving the inn some space. It was quiet because…of her.

The crazy Human. The [Innkeeper]. The girl who lived…then died…then lived again. Not General Sserys, but she had been. The friend of Goblins and Antinium.

Erin Solstice, who had nothing to do with the war in Ailendamus. Or the battle with the Gnolls—or Khelt. Certainly nothing to do with any ghosts. A humble [Innkeeper], and don’t let anyone catch you spying on her or your legs will be broken.

…It was safe to say there were eyes on the inn. But from a distance, because a few inquiring minds had found that you couldn’t spy on the inn that easily. The Thronebearers, for all their glitter, were very good as bodyguards, and there were incredibly powerful [Mages], Gnolls, and other people who would evict anyone causing trouble.

There would be no trouble. Or crossbows. Not again. Never again. Erin Solstice had returned, and as she woke up, she came downstairs via the [Garden of Sanctuary].

The door opened, spilling in light, a garden’s scents, and a female voice, laughing and light, coughing a bit as she spoke. Mrsha whirled, and the few people in the inn looked up. It was time to open. She was awake, and that voice was already calling out.

“Numbtongue, stop it! Go back and play your video games! I’m fine! Come for breakfast! Did Mrsha do her big quest? Good morning, everyone!”

Erin Solstice appeared through the door to the garden as Ser Lormel stepped over and went to hold open the door—not that it was necessary, since it opened by itself. Smiling, the [Innkeeper]’s face appeared as Mrsha’s heart fluttered.

Though it had been nine days, there was still a moment of uncertainty. A thought that Mrsha could be dreaming. But then she saw the hazel eyes, the brown hair. A voice that could be silly or serious as the need arose, and two bright eyes that were only scary when she was angry. More than anything? It was that smile that made Mrsha smile and brighten up and scamper over, but respectfully.

Erin Solstice slowly wheeled the chair through the door, waving to Mrsha. The [Innkeeper] snagged the wheels as she came off the grass, but she pushed and got onto the hardwood floors before Ser Lormel could help her. Mrsha raced up next to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] swatted at the [Knight]’s hands.

“Shall I escort you to a table, Miss Solstice?”

“No! Shoo! I can push myself. Mrsha, you want to do it? Oh—fine. But I don’t want to go racing around, got it?”

Mrsha kicked at Ser Lormel and the Thronebearer retreated. Carefully, she got up and pushed at the two handlebars of the chair and moved Erin gently towards a table. It was not the same as a wheelchair from Earth, incidentally.

Mrsha had seen the mockups Kevin had made, and she understood that there were apparently better ones. This was just a padded chair that Hedault had helped to enchant with some alterations like the wheels. It had been an odd concept and project since these things didn’t really exist in the common mindset.

Palt had brought up floating chairs, which some of the nobility used, and other methods, but Erin wanted to maneuver around herself. Besides—this wouldn’t be forever, so she didn’t want to waste energy on it.

There were still things that needed to be done, so the table that Mrsha pushed Erin to was lower. The [Innkeeper] smiled over her shoulder.

“Didja do my quest, Mrsha? It’s two whole coppers.”

Mrsha gave Erin a polite smile and waved the feather.

“Ooh! Is that a bonus reward? That’s amazing! See? This is why you do quests! Next time we’ll get you washing dishes! All the dishes!”

Dead gods, please no. Mrsha shook her head, but Erin’s eyes were twinkling.

“I bet you I can make a super basic quest. I mean, I haven’t done anything else beyond, um, ‘fetch quests’, Kevin called it? But I’ll figure out some big one and see what kind of reward I can post. It’s too bad I have to pay for it. How about a thousand dishes? And if you break one, you fail! But I bet you’d get, like, [Dishwasher] guaranteed! No? How about doing the trash for…”

Erin was getting excited and speaking faster. Then she began to cough. Mrsha heard the wheezing, deep cough as the young woman had to stop a second. Imani, coming out of the kitchen, paused as Erin panted for air. Coughing.

Mrsha stared at her anxiously, but Erin regained her breath. There was only a slight wheeze as she looked at Mrsha then around.

She was no fool. But she smiled.

“Just…catching my breath. Okay, fine. Maybe not a thousand dishes. Is it time for breakfast? I’m hungry!”

And there it was. Lyonette never missed a beat as she walked over, and Mrsha climbed into a seat. A Hobgoblin poked his head through the garden, and Bird came down the stairs. They were the first, but the rest of the guests seemed to pop up as if by magic.

Or, as if they’d been waiting for her to wake. But they didn’t crowd her. Nor…nor did they bring the same level of drama into the inn, at least not by intention. Erin Solstice noticed it all, but she waved in her wheelchair and called out to people as they came down the stairs. They were cautious of her, that was all.

She was the same young woman that Mrsha remembered. But perhaps older. Something had changed Erin Solstice when she’d been dead. Not just her body, but she seemed…

Well, she hadn’t said much yet. Just asked what had happened to the others. Demanded to see the events that had been captured on scrying orb. Hugged everyone, including Mrsha.

Erin Solstice was back. But she couldn’t walk, and she had trouble breathing sometimes. She had been dead. It was a miracle to see her, and nothing was the same. For now, Mrsha sat next to Erin, close enough to feel the young woman moving as she raised a hand.

This was good enough. More than enough.

 

——

 

The Horns of Hammerad had been watching for the moment Erin appeared. They came down the stairs, trying to look like they hadn’t all been waiting there.

It was a bad act. Not only was Yvlon a poor actor—Pisces was infamous for usually sleeping in. However, they were changed from Chandrar and, well, it didn’t matter.

“Pisces! You’re up early!”

Erin made the same joke she’d made for the last four days straight. The [Necromancer] rolled his eyes, but didn’t sniff.

“Early is a relative term, Erin. I could point out that most inns are up at the crack of d—”

Ceria kicked him in the ankle so hard tears sprang to his eyes. Erin Solstice’s smile slipped only a second.

“Yeah, well, Lyonette’s taking over, and I’m a bit tired for now. So…don’t compete about sleep with me, buddy! Or I’ll give you a quest to wake up at, um, 3 AM! Every day!”

“I believe I would refuse that. Is there not a law…governing trivial quest posting?”

“Nope. I can be as trivial as I want. I’m the ultimate trivial quest-poster. I just made Mrsha fetch water!”

The little white Gnoll sighed loudly at the table as Ceria grinned. Ksmvr waved with all four hands as he stepped towards the table with Yvlon.

“Hello, Miss Erin. Hello, Mrsha. Hello, Princess Lyonette…”

“It’s just Lyonette, Ksmvr.”

The inn wasn’t open for the public, but Lyonette still looked around. Yvlon gave Lyonette a half-bow that only added to the agony on the [Princess]’ face, but she was eying the Thronebearers. Ser Sest himself was carrying over the yogurt breakfast.

“How can you hide it, Lyonette? With…”

Ceria gave a nod to Sest, and Lyonette sighed.

“I’ll…figure something out.”

She said that out of the corner of her mouth as the two Thronebearers politely pretended not to hear anything. Yet there it was. The Thronebearers had found their [Princess].

What might happen next? For that matter…the Horns glanced at each other, and then Ceria finally identified the prickling on the back of her neck. She couldn’t see anything or anyone, but her new magical abilities allowed her to sense relative heat.

Even then, she couldn’t detect the unseen watcher, but her circlet helped her pick out a whiff of magic in the room. Pisces kept glancing around, and Yvlon scowled because she knew that the watcher was there.

The clue was the Thronebearers glancing every now and then towards one of the beams across the ceiling of the tall common room. Erin Solstice was the other clue; she just stared straight up at the Named Adventurer.

“Um. Do you want to come down for breakfast…Tessa?”

There was a muffled sound, and Ceria saw a flicker of movement, then a figure leapt towards the hallway. Tessa, Shriekblade, paused a second with what looked like a looted steak from the kitchen and vanished.

“Huh. You know, I think she gets mad that I can sense her.”

Erin grinned around the table, as if being able to spot a Named Adventurer trying to hide were normal. But that—that was Erin.

Ceria was just sitting down at the table when more guests began to appear. Not all stayed at The Wandering Inn. Few did, in fact. Once they had learned of Erin’s condition, many had voluntarily removed themselves.

There was also the issue of staffing, if not rooms, so the first visitors to win admission past Ser Sest were the friends of the inn.

Friends, not acquaintances. Nor even comrades in arms. They would surely come later—if Lyonette didn’t block them first. Not everyone could make it every day, but one person came like clockwork. And she was tall.

“Mrsha! Is that yogurt I smell? Mrsha, I learned a new spell!”

Gireulashia, the [Paragon] of Ekhtouch, bounded into the inn, and Pisces had a hand on his rapier. The sight of a nine-foot-tall Gnoll entering like a storm of red and brown fur—well, that could scare you.

“Gire, be careful—”

Lyonette heard a warning voice but it was too late. Gire grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll girl performed a flying leap from her table into her friend’s arms. The [Paragon] swung Mrsha around in a dizzying arc and sat down in a chair next to Mrsha, all in one move.

“Gire! Be careful! Erin’s…”

The admonition faded as someone else hurried into the inn after Gire. A scolding Drake, Selys Shivertail, caught herself and waved a claw as she adjusted her light dress. Erin Solstice frowned—at Selys.

“Selys, it’s okay! Hi, Gire!”

“Hullo, Miss Erin.”

Gire ducked her head abashedly, but Erin just smiled hugely.

“Gire can have all the fun she wants, right, Mrsha? I’m not made of glass!”

She looked around challengingly, and no one exactly met her eyes. Ksmvr replied brightly.

“No, you are not a Golem. Although, I would say that in light of your condition, if you wanted to replace your legs, I have observed that a housecat has benefited very well from…”

Another kick, this time from Pisces and Yvlon each, shut him up. Ksmvr then made it worse by covering his mandibles with all four hands.

Four hands. Not three. His last hand was a bit stumpy since the digits were regrowing, but the Antinium could apparently regrow limbs with their gel. It didn’t work on Goblins or anyone else. They had asked, again, for Erin.

The [Innkeeper] bore it all in stride as they began to eat their colorful breakfast of fruit. Numbtongue hadn’t said much this morning, only patted Mrsha on the head. He looked a bit sleepy, but he never missed breakfast.

No one would. Even Bird had come down. Of course, he and Numbtongue glumly stared at their meatless, birdless dish, but they began to eat up as Imani narrowed her eyes at them.

“I have to run. Erin, I’ll see you later.”

“Oh, thanks, Imani. Um, do we have food for today? I could…”

“You’re all set. No need to cook.”

“Right, right. Gotcha. Thanks for breakfast!”

Imani vanished out the door with a smile. Not the magic door…it wasn’t at the inn. The regular door. Erin dug a spoon into her bowl just in time for a vibrating Bird to break the silence.

“Mrsha. Where did you get that feather? Have you been hunting without me? Is there a blue bird around Liscor? I. Demand. Answers.”

He slapped the table hard enough to make the bowls jump. Gire watched with a look of delighted fascination as Mrsha waved the feather in Bird’s face.

“Bird, do not be crude. It’s Mrsha’s quest reward.”

Lyonette scolded Bird. Instantly, he sat up.

“You can get feathers as rewards for Erin’s useless quests? Then they are not so useless.”

“Hey! They’re great! It’s the random rewards. It’s so amazing. Whaddya mean, useless?”

Erin protested. Everyone coughed or looked away. The [Innkeeper] was hurt.

“I’m putting down good money for easy quests!”

“I am Bird. I do not wash dishes.”

Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Ceria nodded emphatically.

“Guys. Listen. Quest posting isn’t easy. I’m still figuring it out. I can’t post just any quest. Believe me, I tried.”

“Oh, really? Pray, would there be anything to drink with this repast? Ser Knight, I shall have an orange juice, perhaps. Or some other refreshing beverage. Tea, if nothing else.”

Pisces flagged down Ser Sest, who gave him an affronted look. It was Selys and Yvlon’s turn to try and kick Pisces, but he had lifted his feet, so they just kicked Ceria instead. Mrsha and Gire giggled in delight and put in their order for goat’s milk, and since Lyonette asked for tea, Ser Sest obliged them all.

There were not, as yet, the Halfseekers. Or Joseph, Kevin, the [Strategists], Krshia or the other Gnolls, or even Tkrn or Inkar. Or Salkis, Gna, Rags, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Infinitypear…the list went on.

However, the gathering was small today. Actually, that was for the best. The first few days after Erin woke up, everyone was here—which meant nothing got done all day. People just sat there and tried to convince themselves she was alive.

In fact—Erin jumped halfway through her bowl and scowled.

“Numbtongue, stop that!”

He had poked her in the side. The Hobgoblin withdrew a finger. Mrsha prodded Erin’s arm, and the young woman slapped her hands around.

“Stop that! We’re not doing this again!”

She was alive. Just checking. The conversation at the table was light as Erin groused.

“You people think it’s easy posting quests? It’s super hard. I have to figure everything out, and I can’t post it without having the reward in my hands. Plus, I can’t post more than one Basic Quest per hour.”

“And you waste it on hauling water?”

Pisces jerked back from the napkin Erin threw at him so fast his chair went crashing backwards. He was on his feet, and Erin lowered her hand, blinking. Yvlon stared as Pisces caught himself, and his hand was on the hilt of his sword…

He relaxed, but that was—something. Another something which no one said anything about as Pisces sat back down. Erin hesitated, then went on as if nothing had happened.

“I—uh—yeah. Because I can’t do other quests, see? I had this idea to try and post a quest to kill a Rock Crab, right? But then I thought—is that animal cruelty?”

“No.”

Selys instantly replied. Erin waved a hand.

“Yeah, but I felt bad. So then I said—Shield Spiders. There are still some, even if Nathalimoo…Nathalristretoseto…lous…wiped out most of them. So I was gonna post a quest: wipe out a nest!”

“And?”

Ceria was watching Pisces. His breathing was calm after a moment, and his face was blank. But…no, not the time. They hadn’t discussed it, but if you looked, you could see scarred, rough flesh around his neck.

They didn’t talk about it. Nor did anyone see much different with Ceria. She looked like normal: pale blue eyes, blonde hair, a skeletal hand.

And a circlet on her head. But no one saw it. Ceria’s fingers drummed idly as Erin gesticulated.

“I couldn’t post it! I kept trying—I was gonna do a Wyvern, right? No dice. I tried Rock Crabs, Eater Goats, and it didn’t work. But then I figured out the problem. I can’t post a quest if I don’t know the target…thing…exists!”

The table exchanged glances. Bird raised a hand.

“Rock Crabs do not exist? Then…what have I been seeing all this time?

His mandibles opened in horror. Mrsha immediately began giggling with Gire. Erin waved a hand.

“No, I mean—I don’t know there’s a Rock Crab around so it doesn’t work, Bird. Rock Crabs exist.”

“Oh, good.”

“So you need to know they’re present? That’s oddly specific, Miss Erin. Then you can’t post a quest like the Adventurer’s Guild to exterminate a number of pests. It seems odd. Aren’t quests supposed to be what we adventurers do?”

Yvlon frowned, chewing as she thought. Erin corrected her.

“Aha! But I’d be able to post the quest if I knew there was a problem. I’m pretty sure. I just can’t say—I ‘think’ there’s like a bajillion Shield Spiders out there. Go stomp ‘em. In fact, I don’t think I can ask for a bajillion Shield Spiders on my quests.”

“Because that is not a number, correct.”

Pisces saw Erin lift her hand, but she caught herself and waggled a finger at him.

“Listen, buddy. Don’t use facts against me. I’m saying that I can feel it wouldn’t work. I cannot post a Basic Quest to kill more than…a nest or two of Shield Spiders. A thousand is way too much. For now? Huh. But I could post a Rare Quest to destroy a thousand Shield Spiders. However, I…I know I can’t ask you to do it for cheap. I could offer two copper coins to destroy a Shield Spider nest as a Basic Quest. I can’t do the same for a Rare Quest.”

Everyone tried to work that out. Gireulashia had emptied three bowls of yogurt.

“So you’re saying there are minimum requirements per quest.”

“Yes! Hey, that’s a great way of putting it.”

Mrsha patted Gire’s arm proudly. Bird took her feather, and Mrsha snatched for it, but he stopped her with one hand.

“I have the feather. It is mine by right of force and—”

Gire snatched it back so fast Bird was left staring at his hand. He gazed up at the [Paragon], who put it behind Mrsha’s ear.

“Oho. I have been challenged. Is it war?”

“Oh, dead gods. Bird—stop that!”

He raised all four arms and tried to grab for the feather, but Gire slapped the hands down in a blur, still eating with her other hand. Numbtongue looked quite amused…and somewhat intimidated by the fifteen-year-old [Paragon]. He joined Bird, and the blur of hands and Mrsha flailing her fists made Lyonette try to break up the fight.

“Stop that! We are having breakfast! Be civil, you two! This is not some—some backwater court!”

“No, it’s an inn. Shoo, shoo.”

Numbtongue retorted. Lyonette tried to stop them, but all the combatants were having fun. Then Bird picked up a cup.

Aha! Water attack!

He splashed at Gire, and the [Paragon] evaded the attack, rolling with Mrsha up in her arms. Numbtongue was less graceful, and Ceria also went ducking with a curse and smacked her head on the table.

“Whoa! Hold—argh!

Then it happened. The dishes went bumping around, and Pisces and Yvlon rescued their side of the table with Ksmvr. Selys had already backed up from the child fight, but the jostling and dodging people knocked Erin Solstice over. Her chair—not perfectly designed—rotated at the wheels, and she hit the floor.

Instantly, the commotion stopped. Mrsha leapt down as Erin pushed herself up.

“Ow, you guys! Bird, you’re not a Pokemon. Don’t…”

Everyone surrounded Erin, and she looked up into the hush. Slowly, Erin began to push herself up but her arms trembled. Numbtongue instantly lifted Erin, and Pisces bent down on the other side.

“Guys, I’m fine. Guys…”

Erin was back in her wheelchair in a few seconds, but the mood had lost its playfulness. Mrsha hugged Erin, and Bird put the cup behind his back.

“I am sorry, Erin. It was all…Selys’ fault. She made me do it.”

The [Liar] pointed to Selys, and the Drake slapped his shoulder. Erin smiled, but weakly.

“I’m not hurt. It’s lots of fun, right?”

“Right.”

Everyone agreed. Super fun. No one was hurt.

The silence remained. Erin Solstice looked around and blew out her cheeks.

“I’m fine. Really.”

She’d just been dead. The [Innkeeper] stared around at all her loving friends and family and their uncertain looks behind the smiles. She took a huge breath and coughed. And coughed.

Coming back from the dead wasn’t easy. And before anyone could say anything else or get back on track, the first person broke into the inn.

“Excuse me—excuse me, Erin!”

Someone had gotten past Ser Lormel on door-duty. Garia Strongheart jogged into the inn, and everyone turned in relief. Garia was waving a slip of parchment with a [Message] on it.

“I have a missive from Feshi Weatherfur! There’s an Antinium they found in the Great Plains!”

Instantly, everyone became alert. Ceria glanced at Bird and Ksmvr, and both Antinium looked at each other. Numbtongue cursed and closed his eyes, and Gire’s smile flickered. Lyonette turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper]…hesitated.

“…Who?”

 

——

 

While Crusader 221-3 was in the Great Plains, he learned a few things. One of which was that he would walk again.

It turned out that the wounds he’d taken were bad; he’d shattered the lower back half of his shell, had a hand severed, and been practically hamstrung by the blade that had slashed his abdomen and taken him down, but no wounds had been of the limb-dismembering kind, aside from his hand.

“It is only a surprise the healing potion did not kill him…it. You should not have used it on the wounded.”

The [Healer] admonished the Gnolls who’d found Crusader 221-3. Abashed, they ducked their heads, but Crusader 221-3 would have happily referred them to the Antinium’s very low attrition rate due to infection as a defense. He had been engineered to survive worse.

Now, if that were all, and he was checked up on—they gave him enough pillows and blankets to construct the legendary Fortress of Fluff of which Crusader 221-3 had heard so much about—and given good food, he would have considered himself the luckiest of Antinium.

However, he was in his ‘prison’ all of three hours. That was as long as it took to get a [Message] back from Liscor, and apparently his situation was the cause of concern, so Chieftain Feshi was organizing something.

But Crusader 221-3 was let out of his prison the moment an old Gnoll with grey fur walked over to his cell and demanded he be let out.

“But Shaman—”

Then the old Gnoll glared, and the guards instantly let Crusader 221-3 out. Thus, he met Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh.

Crusader 221-3 had no idea who the old Gnoll was or that she was the oldest, arguably highest-level, and certainly most respected Gnoll [Shaman] living among all Gnolls. Then again—he didn’t need to be told.

He felt it. He saw it. He…heard it.

Whomever Shaman Theikha had been before the Meeting of Tribes was not the Gnoll that Crusader 221-3 met. Oh, the body was the same. He imagined that, before, the Gnoll would have looked smaller. A bit shrunken, which happened to old people—not Antinium—but the Drakes and Gnolls he’d seen in Liscor on patrols. She would have probably had a very kind smile and the manner that made children and adults who acted like children rethink causing trouble.

She would have been fairly nimble, but…faded. A glorious candle with enough energy for one last deed. One last Meeting of Tribes. Before she faded away or burnt out in a blaze.

She had done just that. In the last great battle, Shaman Theikha’s heart had stopped. Then, the Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, had given her one last gift. Theikha’s heart continued to beat.

And, oh, Crusader 221-3 heard it.

Thum…Thum…Thum.

It was slow, unhurried, and so audible that he heard it, possibly even felt it through his feet. Shaman Theikha’s heart was now so loud any Gnoll within ten feet of her could hear her when she was calm.

The old [Shaman] was still old. But it seemed like a vitality had sprung up behind her eyes. As if…those ancient brown eyes had a layer of green beneath, as pure and vibrant as spring. As if the withered oak shell of a dying tree had been filled with new growth from within.

Was it all Theikha, or something more? All Crusader 221-3 knew was that the Gnoll who stared down at him as he stood up—he wasn’t shackled—was not so much terrifying as impressive. He didn’t feel endangered by her, but he felt like he had when Erin Solstice met his eyes.

“Do you have a name, Soldier of the Antinium? I am Shaman Theikha. Forgive me if I err. I hope I do not misjudge you either. It is a strange time. A terrible moment for Gnolls. But if we do not learn and grow—then we are fools twice.”

Theikha let Crusader 221-3 out of his cell, and he didn’t know what to say. He nodded…then raised his fingers. He had three hands, so he put them together. Happily, he had digits lower than ‘5’ in his name, so he could show her.

“Two. Another two. A one…and then a three? You are…two two one three? Or are you, ah, eight?”

Theikha’s brows came together, and Crusader 221-3 nodded helpfully. She got it with a bit of help.

“You are 221-3. But the three is separate from 221. I see.”

He nodded. She was clearly the wisest of Gnolls; she’d figured out what Liscor’s [Soldiers] had to be told outright. Theikha regarded Crusader 221-3 for a moment.

“Are you in pain, 221-3? Do you require more food? Anything else?”

He shook his head twice and waved his hands. What else could you want? Besides…honor.

Perhaps Theikha realized that a rich internal life and monologue was going on behind Crusader 221-3’s eyes. She certainly seemed to guess that he had something to say.

“Will you walk with me, 221-3?”

“But [Shaman], Chieftain Feshi is arranging a way for him to go to Liscor and…”

“And he is Antinium? A threat?”

Theikha turned, and the Weatherfur [Guard]—who hadn’t actually lifted the axe he carried—hesitated. He shook his head quickly, adjusting the hide armor he wore.

“Not to you, Shaman. I just—wonder if we cannot do whatever needs to be done?”

The answer pleased Theikha. She smiled briefly.

“There are many things that need to be done, but learning…this is an Antinium in our midst, and I think that if we had time, all Chieftains would be here to talk and learn. The Meeting of Tribes has ended, but this is still vital. Since we are all busy and some are at Liscor—ask when Gireulashia will return. I will accompany 221-3 for now.”

“Yes, Shaman Theikha.”

Thus, the Soldier found himself leaving the cells for prisoners of war, and he saw the new circumstances of the Plains Gnolls. He passed by cages where sullen Drakes sat and flinched from him and Theikha. He walked into a camp much like the Meeting of Tribes.

Only, with less tribes and a lot of soldiers rotating in from killing undead or keeping an eye out for Drakes. They looked—dispirited. They looked like they were grieving. Crusader 221-3 heard some howls, but he mostly just saw exhaustion.

Exhaustion, crossed with hope when they saw Theikha. Strangely, even when they saw him. Great tribes had perished, like Az’muzarre, or were forever broken like Steelfur, which had no more Iraz to give them their famous fur.

However, they had survived, so what propelled every Gnoll on their feet was a kind of exhausted daring. Like someone throwing out their hands and baring their chest and daring the world to throw just one more thing at them.

And it was Theikha who promised them that there would be that future. Her beating heart. No…not just that.

From ash, there would be some new life. All Crusader 221-3 had to do to believe that was to look out and see…

A new land. It ran through the Great Plains, but it stretched into the distance. Like a crack, a splinter driven into Izril, it was not so much a ‘chunk’ as a wedge, and that new land had been yanked from the bottom of the ocean, blanketed in magic. It had changed the landscape, forcing the great river that Khelt had sailed up to pool into a lake caused by the fighting before diverting and rejoining its old course.

The new lands had forced Zeres away, creating a huge divide between Drake cities across the southwest of Izril. And while Crusader 221-3 could not see far into that strange landscape…he saw where it began.

At the Meeting of Tribes, where the grand tent still stood, scorched but a semi-permanent headquarters. It stood next to a fortress of dirt and wood where the Doombearers’ allies had fought. To mark this place would be this battlefield, this great camp of Gnolls.

And the hill that had been Khoteizetrough, blooming with so many flowers that it dazzled the Antinium’s eyes. A small swamp had already formed around it.

“You fought for our side, did you not, 221-3? This is the folly of Gnolls in part. It will not be our end. Even now, my people set foot on Chandrar, and while the tribes have been badly decimated, our kin from cities and elsewhere on Izril make for us here. We have you to thank, yes?”

Crusader 221-3 modestly waved his antennae. He didn’t know about that. One moment he’d been rushing to where Company 3 had vanished, the next Erin Solstice told him to hold the line. So he did.

He was very modest about himself. Not the Beriad. They were the heroes beyond heroes, and each one would never be forgotten. They had died with honor, and he would write their names on the walls of the Painted Antinium if he were allowed. They might not have been Painted Antinium—not all the crusade had been—

But they had been something new. Beyond [Crusader].

And Theikha saw it. She looked at Crusader 221-3 with wisdom and kindness and gratitude, and she spoke.

“I have many questions to ask you, but I realize it is difficult for you to answer, 221-3. If we had but asked…no. We did try, and no Antinium had any answers to give, even your Centenium, only war. Perhaps now is the only time to ask. Will you allow me to do what I think is wise in two ways? I promise, it should not hurt or harm.”

He nodded. Crusader 221-3 had never been asked his opinion on anything, so he felt good about agreeing. Unless he should have refused? However, Calruz did say that an honorable warrior underwent any trials for the benefit of all.

Thus, Shaman Theikha led Crusader 221-3 up towards the biggest tent. On the way, she called for an artifact. When one was found that matched her requirements, she eyed the monocle with great reservation, then put it to her eye.

“There are some magics, you see, 221-3, that do not come to [Shamans]. That will change now that we have regained magic, but slowly. I can do what [Mages] cannot in many ways. But this…ah. So your name was Crusader 221-3! I apologize.”

He froze and nearly fell over in surprise, but Theikha just studied him and murmured.

“Strange. I would imagine you had more classes and a higher level. You are called ‘Crusader 221-3’, yet you bear not that class.”

Odd. Crusader 221-3 realized she was appraising him! Which was wise! Yet it seemed Theikha suffered the same problem as Strategos Olesm; his [Crusader] class and certain Skills didn’t show up.

However, Theikha did see his other class. And that was enough to make her eyebrows lift straight up. She brushed some lichen off her fur—her shaman’s dress looked like it had been grown out of the wild—and murmured.

“[Honorable Immortal].”

[Immortal]. Crusader 221-3 puffed out his chest. He knew it didn’t mean immortal immortal, but it was probably the reason he’d survived nine days after being cut two dozen times.

“You have many powerful Skills. As one who survived such a battle should. Forgive me for peeking, but it is a question among some whether Antinium even have levels. The Soldiers and Workers, at least.”

Crusader 221-3 waved it off. He didn’t care. Among the Skills he’d gained, some were:

[Body: Staunched Bleeding]. Which was probably how he hadn’t bled out despite the huge gashes on his body.

[Greater Endurance]. He was very proud of that—he was a Level 11 [Immortal], and he assumed it was his Level 10 capstone Skill.

[Ironshell]. The voice in his head had wavered between [Ironhide] and [Ironscales] before figuring it out.

And [Honor’s Shield – Single Use]. Which he was completely in the dark about.

Once again, Shaman Theikha seemed to read his mind.

“You may not know what all these Skills do, yes?”

Crusader 221-3 shook his head obediently, and Theikha chuckled.

“A problem for many. Not all Skills make sense. One would have thought there was an instruction manual! I may not know all, and you have secrets, but I am old enough to show you one. Here. Let me show you how your [Honor’s Shield] works. Turn around.”

Obediently, the Crusader did. Several Gnolls watching the Antinium curiously saw Theikha raise her staff. She briskly smacked it over the back of Crusader 221-3’s head.

Shaman!

The horrified shout came from no less than…Rose. The young woman ran forwards as she and a metal Gnoll reached the scene just in time to see the assassination attempt on Crusader 221-3…fail.

Theikha’s staff bounced off a glowing disc of light, rather like a buckler. It disappeared as Crusader 221-3 looked around.

“Hold still.”

He hesitated, but Theikha tapped him on the back of the head, just enough that he felt it. She smiled as Adetr slowed and Rose came to a stop. Adetr, catching up, stared at the first Antinium he’d ever met outside a battle.

“You see? Once. A very handy trick for an honorable person, yes?”

Crusader 221-3 could only agree. He turned, and Rose pointed at him.

“It’s an Antinium Soldier! Not a Painted Antinium after all, like I thought.”

“A live one. What will we do, Shaman? Send it back?”

The metal Gnoll rumbled, and Adetr Steelfur, the only Gnoll to still have a body of metal, looked at Theikha. She nodded as Rose gobbled for words.

“That is for Chieftain Feshi to decide. I am simply…speaking with Crusader 221-3. Thank you for coming, Rose. You know Antinium; I hope you can help.”

“I do! But, um—I only know Pawn. Hello! I’m, uh, Rose. I know Pawn! And Bird! And…Belgrade?”

Rose was actually more nervous than Theikha and hesitated before putting her hand out. Since he couldn’t speak, Crusader 221-3 put his hand out, but his digits were more for making fists or shovel-hands. He shook her grip, and Rose hesitated.

“He’s a Soldier. They don’t speak. I mean…Yellow Splatters does, but. Um. Hi! We’ll get you back to your Hive! I’m Rose!”

“You said that. I am Adetr Steelfur. Chieftain…temporary Chieftain of Steelfur. Antinium, you will cause no harm.”

It wasn’t really a question, but Crusader 221-3 shook his head anyways. Rose was hesitating.

“What will you do? Can you…give him a pencil, Theikha? Translate his words like Mrsha?”

“I do not know [Greater Translation], Rose. Nor do I think Crusader 221-3 could manage to write.”

Nor had he been taught. Crusader 221-3 shook his head helpfully. He couldn’t even read! He did know the Crusade’s sign-language adopted from Mrsha’s paw-signs, but no one here was fluent, at least in their dialect.

However, as he had observed, you didn’t become the Great Shaman of the Tribes without having some really good ideas in your head. Or just…common sense? Possibly both, which made Theikha very rare. Because she continued walking them all up to their destination.

The big tent where the Chieftains had met. Rose was confused for a minute, then she understood. Adetr just gave Theikha a look of wild surprise then a deep bow.

“You are very wise, Shaman. I have…much to learn. I hope Gaarh Marsh will not return to their homes yet. Steelfur—what remains of it—needs you. If we are to continue at all.”

“Hrm. No, I am not. I simply thought about what I could do. Do not think I have something you do not have, Adetr. It is a difficult thing to lead, but not entirely unknown.”

Crusader 221-3 saw the metal Gnoll nod. He was an impressive warrior, not as tall as some Gnolls, but he looked as heavy as two Crusader 221-3’s put together, and his body was metal. Even his eyes had more grey than brown. He could have held still and been mistaken for a statue.

Yet he seemed smaller. Diminished. Worn down by enough loss to extinguish even his desire for battle. As for Rose…she seemed like a nice Human. Well-scrubbed, wearing some bright clothing, and a bit uncertain among all the Gnolls. But it seemed to Crusader 221-3 that if a strong wind blew it wouldn’t touch Theikha, but it would knock Adetr over. Rose was helping prop him up a bit. Although, if he did fall over, he’d squish her.

Now, as to their destination—that did make Adetr look up with that desperate hope Gnolls had. Indeed, the tent had some Gnolls in it already. Not just Chieftains or [Shamans], but regular Gnolls, some of whom looked disbelieving or shocked. They parted for Theikha, and when they saw Crusader 221-3’s destination, they gave her the same looks as Adetr and Rose.

Admiration for a common-sense idea. Which was this: Crusader 221-3 stared down at [The World of You and Me], the bound Skill which swirled in the center of the Chieftain’s Tent.

A simulation of Earth. A gateway to another world. And he…stepped into the barrier after Theikha asked if he was willing to try.

Before she even finished asking. The first Antinium walked into Earth. And nothing was ever the same.

 

——

 

Getting Erin Solstice out of the inn was harder than it used to be. Legs weren’t the only factor here.

Mrsha was going with Erin, of course, to the Mage’s Guild to see about this Antinium who’d been found. However, she was on the periphery of the work.

And it was work, for multiple reasons. Erin Solstice clearly wanted to just roll out the inn through her magic door and into the Mage’s Guild and do something.

Well, her magic door was still in Liscor. It was sending people across the continent, and bringing it back to the inn would have required re-doing the schedule last week. So they hadn’t. Plus, the traffic would have meant less security, and everyone agreed that Erin should be resting.

Everyone but Erin had agreed with that. However, even going into Liscor was harder, because Erin got halfway down the hallway before Lyonette insisted they stop.

“I need Dame Ushar and Ser Dalimont to join us, Erin. And are you sure you’re ready?”

“I don’t have to pee.”

Erin was mildly outraged, but Lyonette was looking her up and down. Numbtongue prodded Erin.

“Rings. Rings!”

“Erin, you forgot your rings!”

“What? Aw…”

Mrsha saw Erin’s face adopt a rather familiar look of annoyance; Mrsha had seen it in the mirror many times. But then Lyonette sent Mrsha herself scampering into Erin’s room to bring back a pair of rings.

“You should have them on all the time. Hedault even got you rings because you didn’t like the amulet.”

“Yeah, but I’m not a ring-person. I already have…had Ilvriss’ ring.”

Erin put them on, grumbling, and then saw two more Thronebearers appear.

“No. We’re gonna go in with them? Come on. Guys?”

No one had her back, not even Bird, who was pushing her. The Horns strolled ahead, but Erin had to have people with her. Lyonette did as a matter of course, but the Thronebearers had Erin under guard too.

“Miss Solstice, we will try to be as unobtrusive as possible.”

Ser Dalimont bowed with a look that said he knew how stupid a statement it was. Erin waggled her hands at them.

“Lyonette…”

“Erin, it’s not that difficult.”

“Not that…they’re like giant lightbulbs. They’re shiny! I don’t want to go around with them. That’s so lame!”

The Thronebearers looked a bit hurt. Erin caught herself.

“Sorry, guys. That’s rude.”

“Not at all, Miss Solstice.”

Dame Ushar bowed. Erin corrected herself with a glint in her eyes.

“You’re just not as useful as Numbtongue would be. Or Bird.”

Got ‘em. She grinned around…but Mrsha just gave her a sad sigh and patted Erin’s arm. She scribbled as Erin’s face fell.

You uncouth fool. The difference between a bodyguard and warrior exceeds the scope of my patience to inform you. Forsooth.

“Whuh…”

She had a lot to learn, and the lessons of old were ingrained in everyone else. Erin was so flabbergasted by Mrsha’s retort that they got down the hill without much fuss. It was a straight shot from the inn to the gates, anyways.

“Hello! Any business today?”

The [Guard] knew Erin, of course, and they seemed relaxed. Lyonette assured one on duty all was well.

“We are simply headed to the, um, Mage’s Guild. Perhaps Liscor’s Council, even? There’s a situation in the Great Plains.”

She was a bit worried because they all sensed it. Mrsha was antsy.

This could be bad. An Antinium? He wasn’t harmed, apparently, but he was an Antinium far from home. Erin looked resolved, but to everyone’s surprise, the [Guard] just nodded.

“Liscor’s Council has already moved on the issue. We had orders to let Miss Solstice know they’re prepared for a brief meeting at her convenience. I believe Strategists Venaz and Wil also visited the guild, and, um, Strategos Olesm had a brief communication with Magus Grimalkin.”

“Huh? Wh…they did?”

The rest of the guard on the gates was watching Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was more surprised than anyone. In fact—as the party moved into the city, to Mrsha’s keen ears, one of the [Guards] could be heard whispering.

Is that the Human? She’s not nearly as scary as everyone said. She’s shorter than I thought, too.

Erin twitched a bit and frowned, but the [Guard] gave them no more trouble. Indeed…although citizens of Liscor noticed Erin, it was almost the procession that attracted more attention.

Four Thronebearers, a Doombearer, Gire the [Paragon], and a Gold-ranked team. All surrounding Erin. And when they reached the Mage’s Guild where Garia had been sent from with a copy of the [Message]…

Well, everything was sorted.

 

——

 

“Wait, what you do mean, sorted?”

“We’ll handle it. We’re requesting transport for the Antinium; the trick will be getting an escort or the Drake cities to hold off…doing anything. It’s very tricky, but I wish to be clear—we do not need Goblins…or Antinium…or anyone else sallying out there. In fact, I was going to ask if the Horns of Hammerad would accept a discounted escort request.”

Councilmember Lism steepled his claws and looked over the table as Erin Solstice stared around Liscor’s Council. Mrsha waved at Krshia and Elirr and got nods from them and Raekea. Erin Solstice opened her mouth, but Ceria got there first.

“Pass. That’s a long way to go there and back.

“Understandable. The Tribes are also willing to discuss the issue. What we don’t need, Miss Solstice, is Antinium…disruption. Senior Guardsman Klbkch was very understanding on the issue. Pallass has also agreed to move their door to allow the Antinium to skip the Bloodfields trip, provided he makes it there. So. We’ll look into the trip back. It may be a matter of funding, but Strategos Olesm has expressed a desire to use any funds for a soldier of Liscor’s 2nd Army. And the Antinium have agreed to also fund any escort…”

It was all very relaxed. Stinky Lism didn’t even sneer, although Mrsha still didn’t like him. They had a plan, and they’d put it into action.

To help the Antinium Soldier get back. Erin hesitated.

“Yeah, but…what if he gets hurt? What if someone goes after him?”

“We will endeavor not to let that happen. Believe me, Miss Solstice, no one wants more bloodshed.”

Councilmember Jeiss replied. And it was true, but still Erin hesitated.

“But if we could be sure…”

“Miss Solstice. The most dangerous thing would be for a…Goblin riding a Wyvern to suddenly appear in the Great Plains. Wouldn’t you agree? We’re aware there’s a risk of kidnapping given the value of—”

Today was the day of kicks. Mrsha noticed these things because she was lower to the ground, so she saw Krshia stomp on Lism’s tail. He shut up, and Erin nodded rapidly.

“So there is a risk! I’ll, um…”

She looked at the Horns and around the room, and the Council rose to their feet.

“Miss Solstice, there’s no need. We will send you daily updates. On the hour, if need be, and I will let you know how the transport is arranged, and…we’ll put one of our [Clerks] on it. But please, I trust you’re recovering well?”

Lism spoke rapidly, and Erin hesitated.

“Um…I just need to do some muscle strengthening. You know, rest up the body. I can’t keep trying to regenerate with a potion. I got stabbed, apparently, and someone dropped me two hundred feet onto the ground. Sort of sucks.”

“Indeed. Well, I hope you will recover very soon. If we can help at all.”

“But about the Antinium—”

“Leave it to us, leave it to us. Best wishes, Miss Solstice, get well soon, and may I personally thank you on behalf of the Council for your valuable time—”

And before they knew it, they were standing in the hallway, and Erin had the most mystified look on her face. She opened her mouth and almost went to wheel herself back into the room, but then she gave up.

“Lyonette. They’re actually competent! What do I do?”

“Maybe…let them do their jobs, Erin? Isn’t it for the best?”

“Yeah, but…”

Erin Solstice looked around. Numbtongue leaned down and whispered to her.

“Don’t worry. If the Council is stupid, the Fellowship will go get him. We’ll take horses. Very smart.”

“I…the Fellowship will?”

“Or Strategist Perorn. The students of the Forgotten Wing Company will also ensure it. Chieftain Feshi is one of them.”

Gireulashia murmured. Erin Solstice hesitated, and Bird nodded importantly.

“They will make sure he gets back even if they must send an army. I will ensure it, Erin, do not worry. I have carried Niers in my hat and beaten him in chess. Therefore, I believe I occupy a rank somewhere under Commander Perorn. I will make the order if no one else does.”

“Um.”

And there it was. Mrsha didn’t even have to write her own note to her friends in the Meeting of Tribes. It was done and dusted. Erin had nothing to worry about. So please, please…Mrsha saw the Council peeking at them from the windows as they left City Hall, and she suspected a few [Guards] and onlookers were observing.

Please don’t do anything silly.

In a sense, the world didn’t need Erin Solstice as much as it used to. More people liked Antinium. More Antinium had voices and power. There were groups that were capable of making reasonable decisions without needing someone to push them. They had organization and competence.

What a frightening change to Liscor. It seemed even Erin realized that her best efforts might not be…helpful.

“I was just going to, like, ask if anyone wanted to escort him to Liscor. Some adventurers.”

“I’m sure that’s the first thing the Council asked, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] was trying to think.

“Okay…then—then we’d ask for someone nearby that we knew to help. Like—who lives near there?”

“Weatherfur’s tribe? Any Gnoll tribe, Erin. The Forgotten Wing has a Centaur force; the Soldier will be safe along the Great Plains. Past that, he’ll need an escort.”

“So if we asked someone to—”

“Erin, I’m sure Liscor will take care of it.”

Mrsha glanced at Erin as the little Gnoll let Gireulashia carry her and saw Erin’s mystified look. Almost frustrated. Lyonette was cajoling her in that tone that was meant to be motherly and soothing and grated like only mollycoddling could.

“Why don’t we go to the [Healer] instead, Erin? We have to anyways, and we can always go early. Or…should we tour the new part of the city?”

Erin relented with a frown and sigh.

“Let’s go to the [Healer]. Not that everyone has to come with.”

They all did. At least, long enough to see Erin helped out of her chair and stretching her legs, working on her arm and leg muscles.

The issue was not, apparently, that General Sserys had done irreparable harm to Erin’s body when he’d possessed it. He had done a lot of harm and stupid things like getting an arm cut off, but the Potion of Regeneration was as powerful as could be.

The problem was more that he had made Erin’s body do things a Level 50+ [General] was capable of, forcing her to regrow limbs and fight a war after just being unfrozen. Erin was suffering the effects of that now.

She had been dead, so being as weak as a kitten was partly inevitable; her body had suffered from freezing and refreezing on a cellular level. Her muscles were shot, and her lungs were recovering. Part of her rehabilitation the [Healer] had come up with after much consultation with Grimalkin was to make Erin do simple leg lifts—or try.

“Mrsha, stop that!”

Mrsha was doing sit ups next to Erin as the young woman struggled, red-faced, to use a rope to haul herself up and down. Erin half-laughed as Mrsha stopped that and began practicing magic with Gireulashia.

Gnolls practicing magic in the open. Gire had a nose in a book, and the Silverfangs were debating how best to use the spellbook that Teriarch had given them. Speaking of which…

There were other people whom Erin had to meet or reconnect with. She was panting after an hour of exercise, but at last, the [Healer] said they were done for the day.

“I’m bushed!”

Erin let Lyonette push her out of the clinic, and Mrsha, who’d been napping on one of the tables, leapt up and sniffed the air. She raced outside as Erin wiped at her forehead, and then Mrsha pointed.

“Mrsha, don’t run off—oh! Look who it is!”

Lyonette’s warning turned into an exclamation of glad surprise. The two figures approaching were hardly rare sights, in Liscor historically but…Erin sat up in her wheelchair when she saw a duo on patrol. A Drake sauntering forwards next to a graceful Antinium.

A classic duo.

Relc! Klbkch!

A smile burst across Erin’s face as she waved, and the two picked up their pace a moment. Everyone else might be cautious around her, but Mrsha saw Relc bound over and give her a one-armed hug.

“There’s my favorite Human! Wait, is that racist? It’s true, anyways! And here’s my…one, two, eight…ninth favorite Gnoll! Hey, kiddo!”

Mrsha punched his claw, and Relc grinned. She beamed up at him, and the Drake twirled his spear. This—this was familiar, and even Lyonette relaxed as Klbkch approached. The Thronebearers did not and surrounded Lyonette as Klbkch ignored Bird and Ksmvr.

“Erin. I informed Relc that you would be at the [Healer]’s for another hour. You have clearly moved up your schedule and thus I am not an ‘idiot who cannot tell the time’. Kindly inform Relc that rescheduling meetings is a practical and normal thing for people to do.”

“Not in the army! Klbkch is just mad he’s wrong. And that he’s not the only Antinium on duty, so everyone likes the new Antinium better.”

Klbkch paused, and Mrsha admired his new body. It looked…scary. Even Gire was a bit wary of him, but the Horns were at ease, arguing about whether or not Ksmvr needed the skin cream he’d been talked into buying and if they needed to demand a refund.

“Be nice, Relc!”

“Nice? I’m super nice! I’m just saying—Klbkch needs to be friendlier. He’s a decent guard—nothing on a [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch] of course, but his interpersonal skills? Let’s just say those new Workers and Soldiers get more smiles because they have paint and names. They’re adorable. Klbkch?”

The other Antinium folded his arms.

“I am an exemplar of my species—the only member of the Watch for a decade. My reputation is without question, Relc.”

“Yeah. Yeah. And Old Miss Tisheff gave that Antinium Worker her cookies and not you. That’s the real difference.”

“She did not. Did she? A [Guard] should not take presents anyways. But she always offers me…”

Relc patted Klbkch on the back. Mrsha patted him on the leg. The Antinium looked at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] laughed.

For once, she didn’t cough, and Relc and Klbkch smiled as they revealed how popular some of the new Antinium were.

“But Klbkch, I thought you had more duties! Not that I’ve been able to talk with anyone…is it such a big deal?”

Erin teased him. The Antinium Revalantor folded his arms harder and seemed to withdraw into himself.

“It is not at all. Why would you have that impression, Erin? I am a Senior Guardsman, and that is a rank that no Antinium can match.”

“Yet.”

Relc’s huge grin could have been a mirror of Mrsha’s. Klbkch twitched—then he unsheathed one sword and swung it at Relc’s side.

It was so fast Mrsha recoiled only after she saw Relc had casually blocked it. The two [Guardsmen] stood there as Gire froze, an arm raised, and the Thronebearers and Horns whirled. But—Relc and Klbkch were grinning, one with teeth, the other with mandibles raised. Relc twirled his spear as Klbkch sheathed his sword.

“Ancestors, it is not fun practicing with you in the mornings, Klb.”

“It is not? Aside from Jeiss, I believe you are the only partner I can practice with. And vice versa.”

“But I have to work! True…it’s getting me back in shape.”

The [Spearmaster] and [Swordslayer] had a different relationship since both had come back to Liscor. If anything…it seemed better than before. Almost like they’d changed traits.

Relc was a bit more responsible. A bit. And he actually knew the law sometimes. Klbkch? He seemed…well. More ready to smile.

It was good to see, and while it might alarm everyone else not used to the two, Erin Solstice was beaming. A few Humans looked very disconcerted; it wasn’t everyday you saw two true masters of weapons on a Watch patrol.

But then, this was Liscor. And it seemed like they were about to get into it, that familiarity, when it happened again. Mrsha, beaming, heard Erin scolding the two.

“Don’t you two fight when I’m, like, a foot away! You could have cut my head off, Klbkch! And you, Relc! When did you get a spear?”

The pause in the air was interrupted by Relc’s laugh.

“You mean my new spear? It’s the same one, Erin! I gave the other one I took from that [Spearmaster], uh…what’s his name from Manus, to the Antinium. Hey, maybe I could sell it?”

He showed Erin his anti-magic spear, and she blinked at him.

“No. I don’t remember that. You don’t use a spear, Relc! You punch people! What’s this new Relc I’m seeing? Did you learn that at Cellidel too?”

The silence that fell next made Mrsha’s heart sink into her stomach. Everyone turned to Erin.

“Relc’s always had his spear, Erin. From the day we met. Do you mean his magical spear?”

Klbkch looked from Erin to Relc, and the [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“No way. I don’t remember that at all. He’s always used his fists, remember? Like when he fought…Skinner? And Pisces. And when he cut—no. But he probably used a knife or…? But he doesn’t use a spear!”

“He taught Embria how to use a spear.”

Klbkch reminded Erin again, and the [Innkeeper]’s brows drew together.

“He did. But he doesn’t have—wait. That makes no—but I don’t remember. You have a spear, Relc?”

She looked up, and Mrsha saw the most uncertain look on Relc’s face. He covered it with a grin and a laugh.

“Who knows, Erin? I have all kinds of stuff I forget. Like—underwear!”

“Gross.”

Erin laughed, but Mrsha saw it. There was, for a moment, a brief look of fear on Relc’s face. She couldn’t read Klbkch the same way, but Erin looked around and—

There it was again. Erin kept talking.

“I don’t remember it. I really don’t. Not once. A spear? I don’t…”

She put a hand to her head, and Mrsha saw her eyes flicker. Something was gone. It seemed one way to the living, but that memory wasn’t just lost somewhere.

Something had eaten it in the lands of the dead. But Erin looked at Relc, and that strained smile reappeared.

“I guess I forgot a few things. So…you look pretty good with that spear.”

Relc traded a glance with Klbkch and nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”

 

——

 

She didn’t seem like the person who had been possessed by General Sserys. Nor someone that Khelt held in such high regard that Fetohep of Khelt knew her name. Nor someone whom Wall Lord Ilvriss had bought and sent a Potion of Regeneration for.

That she was damaged by her ordeal was clear, but the…watchers…didn’t see anything to alarm their employers overmuch.

Oh, friendship with the Antinium and Goblins? Maybe, but they were well past that. There were new lands, prophecies from ghosts, and far more to worry upon.

For instance, the Antinium Soldier was a topic of discussion. No matter how Liscor’s Council had downplayed it to Erin, the truth was that the discovery of a survivor had planted a thought in many concerned powers.

It was common knowledge that Antinium did not break under torture or questioning. There was no point. But those were the Antinium of the past with no levels or anything to learn from.

This was one of the ones that General Sserys had apparently called from the front, the ones that had fought Hectval, and this was a Free Antinium. Acquiring one might be worth the effort.

There were other things to do like investigate the new lands, but the world was actually somewhat silent at the moment.

No one was doing much more than preparing. The worst had happened. Now, people checked the walls and counted soldiers and thought of what came next, and everyone was uncertain, but it meant that the Antinium’s fate was a flashpoint.

The Gnolls had him in custody, and he may well be a guest. But there were a lot of miles between there and Pallass, let alone Liscor. Then again, he had no voice. How valuable was he? They debated and left the [Innkeeper] alone. No matter her level now, she was not General Sserys. She had been inhabited by fire and wrath and the spirits of the dead.

Now?

Now she was just some [Innkeeper]. The truly interesting person was the Soldier. Especially because he was changing. The wisdom of Shaman Theikha had done what even an Antinium Queen would struggle to do.

She had given him…a voice.

 

——

 

This was the story of a man named…Edmund.

Edmund worked for a company in a big building where he was Employee #17. Perhaps they didn’t have numbers, but he’d counted.

Employee #17’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in Cubicle 3E and pushed buttons on a keyboard.

Presumably, he would do that all day and follow each order he was given, receiving recompense for it, but Edmund did not do that this day. One day, Edmund sat up at his desk, looked at the computer screen, and freaked out.

The first thing he did was scream. Then realize he had two hands. Then his coworkers came over. Then Edmund realized he had a voice.

Of course, ‘Edmund’ was Crusader 221-3. And he lost his job, mostly because screaming incoherently while fending off half the office with a clipboard was grounds for termination. But that was for the best, because when security threw him out of the building, Edmund was on Earth. And he realized what a beautiful Skill it was.

Perhaps for one species to see another in an unbiased way. Perhaps to show technology or foster relations between worlds.

But for an Antinium? Crusader 221-3 looked around in a world where no one wanted to kill him, no one was angry at him—unless he began to take off his clothes or walk in front of cars—and where he could do things he had always dreamed of.

Like walk up to a person in an apron, hand over a bunch of bills, then insert them into the jar of ‘tips’ and get a huge smile, and eat an éclair and have a coffee. Of course, people looked at him askance for the way he ate it—inserting the entire éclair into his mouth and nearly choking to death—but no one killed him for it.

Then Crusader 221-3 stumbled into the street and stared up at the skyscraper. He chased after pigeons. And he learned what laughing and crying was.

This is the story of Crusader 221-3. And when Satar Silverfang, Adetr, Rose, and Theikha found him—mostly by following the disturbances in the simulation—they found a man on a swing being given the side-eye by some concerned parents, just staring up at the city in the park with a lot of chocolate around his mouth.

And when he did speak, Crusader 221-3 said this:

“I…I would like a name.”

The Gnolls and Human looked at him in shock and awe, and in time he did choose one.

It was not Edmund.

 

——-

 

Erin Solstice dreamt that night. She dreamt of a game of chess against a woman with three faces. She dreamt of a sad [Necromancer], a burning [Lady], and a land of sand and pride. She dreamt of horror and faces, thousands, who whispered to her their stories.

She dreamt of friends and a great cause and a smiling little man. And in that dream, she was helpless but also resolved.

…And then she woke up. Erin Solstice woke in the middle of the night, gasping, crying out, in pain—

Because she’d forgotten to breathe, again. Because her lungs hadn’t been working for months and the soul inside this body had forgotten that you needed to breathe to live.

Choking, gasping for air, Erin tried to stand up, but her body hurt. It felt…as weak as a feather and pulled, like someone had taken elastic and stretched it until it would never recover.

That was one thing. The worst? The worst was that as she caught her breath, she saw a pair of glowing eyes staring at her from a dark garden’s door cracked open against one wall. She looked up and saw two red eyes—terrifying to some, but to her, just Numbtongue, peeking in next to Lyonette. The shirtless Goblin stood next to the anxious [Princess], and when they jerked back and Erin turned her head, she saw Pisces peering at her from her window.

I’m not dead!

Erin shouted at them, and they fled. But could she blame them? Erin felt at her chest and coughed again.

No. Not really. It was just…frustrating. Erin Solstice lay on her back in the inn. And nothing was the same.

She knew how protective everyone was of her. Erin wasn’t stupid…and she had the distinct memory of someone with a pointed hat disagreeing. But the memory was half-there. Half…

“C-Califor?”

Tears sprang to Erin’s eyes, and she rubbed at them weakly. She was as weak as a mouse. Mrsha could beat her in wrestling, and she had—until she looked so uneasy that she backed away and apologized.

With words. She had a speaking…stone thing. She had always been able to write, but now she had speech! And a friend! The giant Gireulashia was Mrsha’s best friend, and Mrsha had been declared a Doombearer.

A luck-Gnoll. Of course, Erin knew that Doombearers were the inheritors of fate and luck. Gnolls who lost their tribes sometimes received a blessing or curse, but the power of Doombearers was traditional among the Gnoll tribes.

Everyone knew that…didn’t they? Or had someone told Erin that?

“Kishkeria?”

That was the Archmage who had appeared amongst the dead and split Izril. Erin Solstice felt like she knew the name very well, but she’d probably heard it when they caught her up on the news. Why did it feel like she knew more than that?

She had been dead, and she had met people there. It was not all clear; she was still processing it, like someone trying to sieve an ocean through a small funnel. It would come, but it was so frustrating.

Her body was…ruined.

“Thanks, Sserys. Couldn’t you have not…gotten my arm cut off or something? Or, like, left me with super-abs? I thought you were a great [General].”

Erin tossed and turned in bed, but even that made her tired. She knew she should try and work out her arms and legs, but it was so much effort. She had never known how hard it was just to…raise one leg.

It was scary. But the scariest part had been that morning when she saw Relc’s face. When she realized she’d…forgotten he had a spear. She was utterly convinced he never had one, but everyone else thought differently.

Reality is not real. Why did that put a chill down her spine? Erin tossed around in her bed until she realized what she was doing.

It took her nearly twelve minutes to get to her wheelchair next to her bed and pull herself over to the table, but she sat at it and moved a glowing piece in the night. It was dark, and she thought she wouldn’t get a response—so she was setting up another board when the piece moved.

Without a second’s hesitation, Erin began to play. Quickly, running through familiar tactics, pressing her opponent hard. He—and it was a he—had tried to write something on the Go board, but Erin just set that up and began to play.

She went after her ‘mysterious opponent’ like a fireball. He wasn’t prepared for the onslaught and gave her a game, but rallied to a draw in the second one. Since he didn’t know Go as well as she did, she took another win there.

Three games became five, then six. Then Erin realized she’d been playing for two hours and called it a night. Her opponent signed off with a ‘gt wll sn.’

She didn’t know what to say back to him. She just wrote ‘tnks’ on the chessboard. That was familiar, but it wasn’t what reassured her.

I lost one game. It was hard. I’m not…trapped.

Erin Solstice breathed out again and was reassured. She vaguely remembered why. She remembered an ominous presence, a conversation…and yes, a name.

But she refused to speak it. The young woman wheeled herself back to her bed and lay down once more.

She forgot nothing. The scope of what she had seen and done might be too much for a mortal mind, but the quests burned in her head. The promises.

The sacrifice.

If she thought of it, she would weep. If she thought of it, she burned to stand up, and—Erin gritted her teeth.

“I promise.”

She tried to get up. She tried to summon a sword or an umbrella and prop herself up. She clung to the memories of glorious ghosts and pushed herself out of her bed.

Stand—

It was Lyonette who found Erin crawling on the floor, trying to push herself up. The [Princess] saw the [Innkeeper] staring up at her.

“Erin? Ushar, Ushar—

They got her back to bed. Erin didn’t explain. She didn’t think she needed to. She knew her frustration had to be on her face. She just wished they weren’t so…hesitant.

All my fault. I never should have gone for a walk.

Erin remembered dying. She remembered the surprise, the fear…she shuddered and remembered their faces.

Never again. But that went double for everything. She had woken up, but she was not the same Erin Solstice who had gone to sleep. She couldn’t…

She couldn’t do this. Not anymore. Erin Solstice lay there.

“I just woke up, and I’m already tired. But I have to…”

She tried to move limbs of lead and growled. The inn groaned uneasily in the night, and Erin Solstice whispered.

“I promised.”

 

——

 

In the morning, it was no better. Oh, Erin had things to distract herself with, but she…

She couldn’t talk to them.

Not Mrsha, nor Lyonette, nor Ceria. Erin hadn’t even tried at first, just hugged them and listened to all that had passed since she had died. She hadn’t even heard the whole story, she knew. Pisces hadn’t told her much, but somehow…

Somehow she knew his story. And a name appeared in her mind.

Cawe. Igheriz.

She knew their faces. Yet nine days had passed, and at first, Erin had slept most of the days, as if she had the sleeping sickness, mono. That was her recovering from fighting a war, and it went double for everyone else. Now…

Well, the poor Soldier who needed to get to Liscor was one thing, and Erin knew it wouldn’t be easy. She wanted to help—but Lyonette was right that Erin wasn’t the most organized.

She was wrong in that Erin could do nothing anyone else could. Erin could now post quests, and she was figuring that out. But she knew something else.

Or did she? Because the [Innkeeper] was doubting it, in part. She felt—well, like the opposite of déjà-vu constantly. As if, when Mrsha told her with Gire and Krshia’s help, the truth of Doombearers and Plains Eye’s treachery—as if she had already known that.

Which was silly. Or was it? Why did Erin know…

The quests. She knew. But she was having trouble convincing anyone else. Erin experienced it that very morning over a quiet breakfast.

Mrsha had gone to eat with Gire at the Drunken Gnoll. That was where Imani was working; she’d come back to help fill The Wandering Inn with food, but she had another job, and Erin didn’t know if she’d come to work here again.

For that matter—Ishkr was handling the light traffic and he’d pulled his sister back to work, but even Silveran wasn’t back yet.

“Where’s Silveran? Is he…okay?”

Erin was afraid of the answer, but Lyonette just gave her a strange look and slapped her forehead.

“He’s running Silveran’s Cleaners. I don’t think he can work, Erin. Nor can we pay him enough.”

“Uh. What?

That was the experience Erin had. Every two seconds, every single person was somewhere else. Changed, doing something. For instance, when she asked about good old Menolit, who surely wouldn’t change, Ishkr told her about Liscor Hunted, the popular tourist trap…literally, if you fell into a Shield Spider nest.

She’d thought he was pulling her leg and refused to believe him until he showed her a t-shirt that said ‘I Survived Liscor Hunted’. And combining that with her Relc spear moment…well, it was that kind of thing that made Erin doubt reality.

And the morning’s incident didn’t help either. Erin was eating with Ceria; she’d woken up late after her nocturnal antics, so the sleepy half-Elf was munching on a plate of fries.

Fries for breakfast. Covered with relish and sour cream.

Some things didn’t change. Well, the food did and it was horrifying, but that was Ceria for you. Erin poked her friend in the arm.

“Is, um, your breakfast good?”

“Yep.”

Erin nodded a few times and took a bite of cereal. She hesitated and glanced at the missive she’d gotten from Liscor’s Council. They had updated her, as promised, and they were going to escort the Soldier back to Liscor.

Crusader 221-3 was his designation according to Strategos Olesm. But Shaman Theikha, through Chieftain Feshi, had listed a different name:

Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus. And that…that was a name. Gnollish, Antinium—because if you could have a middle name, that was 50% more name, and one based on the history of Earth and Persia.

Not that Erin knew that last part. It was a cool name, but she was worried about him. Yet something tugged at her heart, her very mind, and she had to say it. Erin glanced around the inn, still absent of regular visitors, and spoke.

“Ceria. Do you…can we talk about Gerial?”

The half-Elf stopped eating abruptly and looked up. She gazed at Erin with a pained, even afraid expression.

“Gerial? My teammate?”

“Yes, of course. I remember him.”

“I—good. What—what about Gerial? Do you mean his family? Or…?”

“No.”

Erin was regretting bringing it up already, yet something in her was telling her to.

“His last words.”

“I remember them.”

Ceria spoke flatly, but her grip was tight on a fry. She looked at Erin.

“I—what about him?”

“No, not those last words. I mean…I know…what he would have said to you, Ceria. I remember his last words.”

Erin blinked with almost as much astonishment as her friend as they came out. Yet she was certain.

Yet when she looked up, Ceria was shaking her head. Her features were wan, and there was pain in her gaze as she pushed her plate back.

“Erin, you weren’t there. He died in the crypt, remember? I was there. I heard him. He talked to you at the inn.”

“No, Ceria, I talked to him. He had a message for you and Calruz.”

The half-Elf hesitated. She stood up.

“He—I’m sure he did. But you weren’t there when he died, Erin. Sorry, can we discuss this later? I actually do have to go and…”

“I—yes. But it’s not that, Ceria. I met him.”

The half-Elf was already backing away. Erin had seen Ceria unruffled in far more trying circumstances, but she seemed pained and nervous. Afraid Erin was forgetting what happened. What mattered. Erin tried to push herself up.

“Ceria—”

“I know what you think, Erin. But just give me a moment. I’ll hear you out later.”

Ceria. I saw him in the lands of the dead.

The half-Elf froze on her way towards the door. She looked back at Erin, and the young woman sagged on the table, panting just trying to keep herself upright. Ishkr froze as he swept behind a table, and a [Knight], Ser Dalimont, paused on his walk around the inn. All three looked at Erin, but Ceria just hesitated. Her pale eyes lingered on Erin’s face and looked her up and down.

She had known Erin the longest among all of the [Innkeeper]’s friends. And yet—even the half-Elf hesitated. Was she afraid of it being true or…?

“I’m…not doubting you, Erin. But can you prove that? Because if you can’t—no offense, but I don’t—I don’t want to hear it. Sorry.”

She backed up and almost ran from the inn. Erin collapsed into her chair, panting. And there it was.

She believed. But like the most vivid of dreams, like Relc’s spear…how could she prove it? Erin clenched a fist and wanted to run after Ceria and apologize.

It had slipped out. A terrible compulsion. Like how she wanted to shout and find a—a—

“Nanette? And—and—find—a map…”

The needs and things she had to do pressed on her again. Erin put her hands to her head. But how could she prove…?

“Miss Solstice, is everything well?”

Ser Dalimont approached with a cool glass of water. Erin looked up at a man…whom she had never really met. One of Lyonette’s [Knights]. And he was going to be a problem, but no one wanted to talk with Erin about it.

Lyonette would ‘deal with it’. Erin needed to rest. They had it covered.

But that was the last thing the [Innkeeper] wanted. Erin squinted at Ser Dalimont as she sipped the water.

“Sorry. I—that was the wrong way to do it.”

“Perhaps, Miss Solstice.”

This particular Thronebearer was refreshing in that he didn’t lie. Erin blinked, but then smiled a bit. She invited Dalimont to sit.

“I—I’m not sure what’s real. You heard that?”

“Yes, Miss Solstice. Did the dead speak to you?”

She squinted at him, but the man didn’t smile or smirk.

“Do you believe that?”

Ser Dalimont rubbed at his chin.

“Shall we say, Miss Solstice, that I don’t doubt the dead can do anything? I have seen ghosts.”

“Everyone has, apparently.”

“Mm. Before the incident at the Great Plains as well.”

“Wh—really?

Erin was fascinated, and Ser Dalimont hesitated longer.

“It is not my tale to tell, but I may say that it concerns Calanfer, another [Princess], and the Kingdom of Shade, Noelictus. That ghosts can walk amongst the living is a fact. If you were dead and they spoke to you—that does not beggar belief.”

“No. But Ceria’s right. If I can’t prove it…”

“Can you prove it, Miss Solstice?”

Ser Dalimont was watching her. The [Innkeeper] sat there, thinking for a moment. And her eyes flickered. When she looked up, the [Knight] was surprised not by the doubt, but the uncertainty. Instead of questioning herself, Erin looked at Dalimont and scared him greatly.

“If I can prove it, Ser Dalimont…should I?

She didn’t wait for a response. Erin Solstice wheeled herself back from the table. She looked at Dalimont and then around at the inn.

“They won’t believe me, otherwise. And I didn’t come back to sit around.”

She began to roll towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] that opened for her. Dalimont didn’t know what to say, but the generic Gnoll sweeping behind a table called out anxiously.

Ishkr. He met Erin’s gaze, stolid, unnoticed at times, an ordinary [Head Server] in the craziest inn. Which made him unordinary in the extreme.

“Just for two weeks, Miss Solstice? It’s only been ten days.”

[Thought-Provoking Statement]. A Skill for a [Hero] of common sense. For a reply, Erin just turned. She smiled at Ishkr and looked around the inn.

“…It’s so quiet. And no one will tell me what they really went through. They treat me like glass, and I gotta admit I’m in a wheelchair. But I need to hear them. And they need to listen to me. It’s been how long, Ishkr?”

“Around four months, Miss Solstice.”

The Gnoll calmly swabbed a table with a dustrag as Dalimont looked from Ishkr to Erin. Dalimont had a prickling feeling, as if he were listening to a [General] addressing a veteran officer in the moments before the battle joined.

“Four months.”

Erin sighed. She looked at herself and at the quiet inn. Then she stuck out her tongue.

“Bleh. Was it boring?”

Ishkr looked up, and Erin Solstice looked at him. And the Gnoll…bared his teeth slightly.

“Exceedingly, Miss Erin.”

She nodded and smiled ruefully.

“That’s what I get for being dead. Better check the pantries for plates and food and stuff, Ishkr. Oh…and don’t tell Lyonette I’m going outside.”

“Miss Solstice—”

Dalimont strode forwards, but Erin was already zooming through the Garden of Sanctuary’s door, and he lost her for that crucial second. Dalimont turned and heard a laugh from the hallway where the front door was. He looked back as Ishkr chuckled, and he saw the Gnoll smiling.

Lyonette du Marquin had briefed Dalimont on Erin and what they might expect as he was the most sensible [Knight] in the inn. But even she hadn’t expected this. They thought Erin Solstice would come back from the grave a changed woman, and certainly she was. But what they failed to realize was that she’d had four months of inactivity. Of being a guest to terrible and great deeds.

Four months of rest. She had no time, no time at all to waste.

Prove it? Erin thoughtfully wheeled out the door as Ser Dalimont ran after her. She closed it, and he slammed into the door. Despite her not locking it, he was unable to open the door.

“Miss Solstice—”

“[Innkeepers] can control their inn. I think that Drevish, the Architect, told me that. But what do I know? I guess we’ll find out in a sec. Don’t worry. I’ve got the stupid rings on. I’ll be back in a moment.”

He was lost for words. Erin Solstice slowly wheeled herself across the grass, cursing the increased friction. But she didn’t have to go far, and she sighed as she stared at the city of Liscor.

Prove it. Everything that happened after this would depend on that, wouldn’t it? Because she had something to ask of them. More than any one person should. Ceria wasn’t wrong.

Prove. It.

Slowly, Erin Solstice pushed herself to the lip of the hill, where the incline began. She hesitated—and then wheeled herself down the hill. Slowly, the wheelchair began to speed up, and Erin realized she’d made a mistake.

“Uh oh. Someone always helped me d—waitasecondI’mgoingtoofast! Argh!”

She couldn’t grab the spinning wheels. That was how the Watch saw a screaming [Innkeeper] going down the hill towards the eastern gates. Bird stared down from his tower at Erin as she blurred down the hill and then hit a bump.

“Ooh. Ah. Ouch.”

He looked down at the sprawled figure on the grass as a [Guard] ran over to her. But Bird felt it. Slowly, carefully, he inserted an egg between his mandibles and crunched on it.

“Erin is back. Yay, yay. I wonder what will explode first?”

 

——

 

The [Guardsman] on duty was a Drake on the force, five years experience, no Senior Guardsman, but he’d seen all the big action.

His name was Vamolt, and he knew.

They all knew. The eastern wall had seen the [Innkeeper] leaving her inn, unattended. True, she could have been going for a little roll, but everyone was super protective of her. That she then went down the hill and wiped out?

They knew. But like men and women staring down at the pebbles of dirt careening down the slope, they thought it might not be an avalanche.

The little clod of dirt spun and bounced. The [Innkeeper] was swearing as she levered herself up.

“Miss Solstice? Can I help…?”

That was scary! Who does that for fun? Actually…I could do that again. But not if I crash! Hey, thanks, who are you?”

“Guardsman Vamolt, Miss Solstice. Can I help you back to your inn?”

Vamolt saw Erin Solstice smile as he helped her into her chair and brushed grass and dirt off her arms. She shook her head.

“Nah, I’m just…going into the city for a bit. The Adventurer’s Guild. I’ll pop in and out, don’t worry.”

She gave him a quick grin, and he gave her a sickly salute and smile. She wheeled past him, muttering about getting a wheelchair with brakes. And he knew.

“Vamolt. Vamolt.

The [Guards] on the eastern wall had watched her wheel past. They waved him over, and he almost ran towards his coworkers. A Gnoll hissed at him. A pair of Humans were staring at Erin, looking amused and uncomprehending. New hires. Oh, they were from Celum and a village respectively, but they didn’t know.

“Did you see that smile? Your Ancestors, it’s happening.”

“I know. Did the Watch Sergeant see?”

One of the two Humans looked at the Gnoll and Drake whispering.

“Uh, Vamolt, Senior Guardsman Derra, what’s wrong? That’s the [Innkeeper], right? She didn’t cause trouble yesterday.”

“Yeah. But she’s smiling. Watch Sergeant—”

The Watch Sergeant on the walls came hurrying down.

“I saw it. I’ve sent a [Message] to Watch Captain Zevara already. Are you two sure? I’m sure.

The two Humans looked from the Drakes and Gnolls with growing apprehension. Vamolt shuddered.

“It’s the smile. No chance yesterday with the [Princess] and the escort.”

“The [Princess]?

“Shush, newbies. Catch up on common knowledge. This is crucial. We’re all in agreement, then?”

The [Guards] nodded. The Watch Sergeant closed her eyes and then nodded.

“Alright. I’m confirming with Zevara, and I’ll send a copy of the [Message] to the Council. The betting pool wins—ten days! Did she say where she was going?”

“Um…Adventurer’s Guild. A ‘little errand’.”

“Dead gods have mercy on them.”

 

——

 

Erin Solstice didn’t really notice the quiet movement in the streets as she wheeled around. She was worriedly looking for Lyonette or another snitch, so she missed the actual people stalking her.

Patrol 1 is in place, Watch Captain. Solstice Contingency active.

Watch Captain Zevara didn’t see Erin, but she was already striding to the location.

“She’s on track to the Adventurer’s Guild?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Advise them to clear out now. Anyone who wants to stay—can. Where are Guardsmen Klbkch and Relc?”

“Relc’s asleep. We’re getting him out of his apartment, and Guardsman Klbkch said that he’ll be on the surface in five.”

“Good, good. [Message] to Lyonette du Marquin?”

“She’s on her way.”

Watch Captain Zevara nodded to herself. You could play this multiple ways. Lyonette du Marquin might be able to defuse the situation, but in Zevara’s experience, Lyonette couldn’t always trump Erin.

There had been some discussion internally about the issue, and Jeiss had suggested they do something stupid like try and stop the next event. Which was foolish; it was like trying to cover a bursting dam. If you stopped her in one spot, she just caused havoc somewhere else. You contained the event.

Now, any other Watch Captain would have probably laughed their tail off at Zevara or called this some kind of satire. They would keep laughing until they realized that Zevara was not exaggerating. She was taking the relaxed approach, trusting Erin.

That was the mistake [Spies] made. They said ‘yes, she is probably a Level 40+ [Innkeeper]. She is almost definitely responsible for many of the tales coming out of Liscor, and General Sserys may have possessed her. It stands to reason that half the rumors about her are true’.

And that was their error. They thought it was half. Now, Zevara knew that Erin Solstice could not always work miracles. She had seen Erin die, after all, and knew she was not infallible.

However…Erin Solstice had come back from the dead. She had somehow, somehow been part of the greatest events in world history, and now she was heading into Liscor with all the hallmarks of a Solstice Event™. Even in Zevara’s most optimistic opinion—

She didn’t think this was going to be small at all. And to be honest? The Watch Captain was all here for it, although she would deny that to her dying day.

But what would this one be? The Watch had bets, and that was the thing. They knew she could do it. Not what…but Erin Solstice had come back from the lands of the dead.

It was interesting. So interesting that Watch Captain Zevara had to intercede herself before Erin got to the Adventurer’s Guild.

“Miss Solstice. Good morning.”

I didn’t do anything y—oh, hi, Watch Captain Zevara.”

The young woman jumped guiltily in her wheelchair and looked back at Zevara with a terrible fake smile. Or was she as cunning as Mister Soot had been?

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Miss Solstice. I just wanted to greet you. I hope you’re feeling better after…everything?”

Zevara met Erin’s eyes and looked the young woman up and down. She did see the wheelchair, with two of Solar Cycles’ wheels, and the way Erin was already tired from this trip. She looked frailer, but she smiled as she drew in some air, coughed, and nodded.

“I’m—good. I mean, I was dead. But I’m gonna get better with time. I’m just…going to the Adventurer’s Guild to put up a q—a notice.

“Of course. Good day to you.”

Zevara gave Erin a crisp salute and saw those hazel eyes glance at her. Erin Solstice turned to go, and Zevara was sure.

What a strange thing. Lyonette had come to her office just the other day for their get-togethers, which had resumed once the [Princess] came back to the city, and she’d talked Zevara’s earholes off about how difficult it was and how frail Erin looked.

Which was true. Zevara had seen [Guards] laid up after wounds that had Erin’s pallor. But those eyes.

She’d brought something back from the lands of the dead after all. Zevara hadn’t missed the rolls of parchment Erin was trying to hide on her lap. And Erin?

She glanced back mischievously, and the Watch Captain realized she might have lost that exchange. Because the [Innkeeper] winked as she rolled away.

“Innocent until I do something bad, right?”

Uh oh. Zevara kept her polite smile, and her claw waved urgently at the [Guard] patrol with her. This might be bigger than she thought.

 

——

 

Watch Captain Zevara was sure. Everyone else was less so.

In fact, Timbor Parithad, the owner of The Drunken Gnoll, a new inn in Liscor that did some really fine business with the Human and Gnoll populations now overturning the huge Drake majority—he was certain that Erin Solstice was made of glass.

At least, that was how the people in his inn talked about her. The Wandering Inn was, as mentioned, empty. Even Erin’s friends treated it like a sanctuary for the wounded [Innkeeper].

Which meant they came to his inn while they kept away. It was inevitable; Imani was working here, so Palt and his acquaintances would prefer it over another inn. Timbor liked to think he ran a nice inn, with fast food on your table and always a clean seat, even in the rush hours. But the truth was that Imani was now a huge lure because she was an excellent [Chef].

He was worried he’d lose her, because she was from The Wandering Inn, and Timbor was making his peace with that and planning for the future. However, in the interim, he had the dubious pleasure of hosting Erin’s regulars.

And they were weird.

For instance, not only did Timbor have Goblins in his inn, he had a number of adventurers and even celebrities like Joseph who wandered in and out. In fact, they spent an inordinate amount of time here.

Staying away from Erin. Timbor happened to overhear them as he put some baked potatoes down as snacks.

“…Did she fall out of bed as well as stop breathing?”

“No, that was something else. I don’t know, man. She’s going to get better, right?”

Kevin and Joseph barely looked up as the [Innkeeper] surreptitiously cleaned a table. They did go for the food, mainly because if they didn’t it would soon vanish. They lost a loaded baked potato anyways—a shadowy hand grabbed it, and two red eyes glowed beneath a canopy of darkness.

Gothica sat with Kevin, Joseph, and a somewhat perplexed Inkar at the table. The [Goth] had a parasol that seemed to make everything under it darker. Combined with charcoal eyeliner and a black dress, she was turning heads whenever someone unfamiliar with her walked into the room.

Goblins. Timbor had no sign that said ‘No Killing Goblins’. They weren’t allowed in the city…but there were a number of Goblins that came and went. Unlike Erin, he had a method, which was that a [Server] at the door would grab anyone about to scream for the Watch and give them the rundown. Then about sixty percent of the customers would sit down and stare at the Goblin, and that was free business.

Timbor had calculated that the optimal ratio of non-Goblins to Goblins was about 9:1. Any more Goblins or Hobs and people were more likely to back away.

At any rate, this was an encounter of people who knew Erin, if only by name, but weren’t at The Wandering Inn. Why? Well…

Joseph hesitated as he dug a fork into his potato.

“We could go up and check.”

Kevin hesitated.

“I dunno. Lyonette gave me a death-glare last time I was talking about Solar Cycles. I have a, um…well, I want to talk with her about a lot. Rags is still around, or maybe she’s going back from here to G…to her place. But yeah. There’s so much I want to say, but that’s a lot to put on her.”

“Like what?”

Kevin shrugged self-consciously. He lowered his voice, but Timbor had ears like a hawk when it came to gossip.

“Well, there’s this thing with the Goblins after they kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault. And, uh, now we’re a bike shop, everything’s great, but I had Grimalkin walk in two weeks ago with a list telling me there would be five hundred and fifty-six deaths in Pallass each year unless I stopped selling skateboards. Because of the ramps and people hitting each other. So I was just going to ask what Erin thought of that. What do you think, Joseph?”

The [World-Renowned Coach] of Pallass and Liscor’s soccer teams, who was embroiled in an inter-city rivalry himself and trying to weigh the ethics and challenges of establishing a soccer league without too much bias…hesitated.

“Fuck, I don’t know.”

Timbor slipped on his table. What did Kevin just say? They were the ones who…? Kevin nodded and looked around.

“What about you, Inkar?”

The young woman jumped and looked for Tkrn, but he’d gone to the lavatory and hadn’t come back. She spoke nervously.

“I haven’t truly met Erin. I would like to. I…don’t know about football. Or Goblins.”

And that was a perfectly reasonable response. When most people, Timbor included, were asked what their opinions were on the ethics of skateboarding, they might give their opinion, but not if they were going to be held responsible for anything that came next, thank-you-very-much. That was a terrifying thing.

As for Kevin’s other issue, it was also a rare person who made a habit of looking up at Sinew Magus Grimalkin and telling six feet and hundreds of pounds of pure muscle ‘no’ as a hobby.

Gothica kept eating as she listened to the Humans talk. She hadn’t met Erin either—not as Gothica. And she wanted to. But it was hard to get time with Erin, and these were not easy things to talk about.

Like the Horns of Hammerad, who’d decided to base themselves in Timbor’s inn. Ceria had found Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon having a sedate conversation about the new lands of Izril.

“So, some people are suggesting as much as a third of Izril has been added. But in a wedge, so it’s shifted Zeres here. If we’re redrawing the maps based on what the [Cartographers] think…”

Yvlon was trying to work out what had happened to the world with Pisces and Ksmvr. The [Necromancer] objected instantly.

“Yvlon. Yvlon, surely that also implies the northern section swung up?”

“What, the entire continent? Don’t be ridiculous, Pisces. The crack is here, and there’s this landmass here…”

Yvlon was doodling on a piece of parchment with some charcoal, trying to figure out what the continent might look like. Pisces tried to redraw the north.

“Why not? The ghosts split a continent—they might have well shifted everything up or even changed Izril’s angle. We can agree that there is land roughly here and here.”

He made two ovals demarcating where people were assuming the furthest reaches of the ‘new lands’ were. Images were actually scarce, but people had seen the cliffs of this new part of Izril from sea and Chandrar. Yvlon growled at him as he erased her markings. Ksmvr stared down at the map.

“The new part of Izril looks much like a buttocks.”

Ceria’s drink came out her nose as she broke her silence. Pisces and Yvlon stared down at the map, and Pisces erased the outlines.

“Surely not.”

“How would you know, Comrade Pisces? A buttocks is a reasonable image of comparison. It is a natural image. I observe you have one, and Yvlon, and Captain Ceria.”

The [Silversteel Armsmistress] pinched the bridge of her nose.

“…Izril does not have a buttocks now, Ksmvr. I refuse to…my continent does not—it’s a sketch. But we do know that Zeres is off from its original location. Silver and steel, there’s so much to explore!”

Pisces sniffed.

“Only a bit of a continent.”

Yvlon looked outraged. She stabbed a metal finger into the table, and Timbor winced as he saw her gouge a divot out of the wood. The Horns instantly tried to play it cool, and he pretended not to see.

He’d add it to their tab. Yvlon went on irately.

Only a bit of a continent? That’s thousands of miles! New land never seen! And also—the Dyed Lands are completely changed. They’ve overwhelmed their old area, and they’re expanding. I can’t even imagine what the adventurers in the area are doing.”

“Forget them. Armies are forming a containment zone.”

Ceria pointed out—the Dyed Lands were a Baleros problem, but they were as captivating as everything else. A piece of Baleros had sped up centuries, and unfortunately, it had been the most magically charged area. Yvlon shook her head again.

“Ah, but it’ll be adventurers who go in, Ceria. It…I wonder how much that’s worth? Some people said they found a dungeon from the people who lived there, but it’s mostly just the Dyed Lands itself. Is that worth risking your life for?”

She glanced at Ceria, and the half-Elf chewed over the thought.

“Depends on the reagents. I remember when I was a child, I heard something about a rare alchemical reagent being found and adventurers hunting the animal for its hair. Some kind of elk? There has to be at least one valuable monster or thing in the Dyed Lands. You can make a fortune if you bring back the next Sage’s Grass.”

The adventurers nodded. It wasn’t a relic-class item, but that was another kind of way you became a legendary success. Ksmvr clicked his mandibles, making notes of all this, and then looked up brightly.

“So, are we to go to the new lands of Izril or the Dyed Lands? It seems this would be the moment to go as everyone else is in the same horrible boat on water to use an expression. This is a competition to explore.”

The Horn’s light chat cut off. Pisces shifted, and his eyes, fixed on the map, suddenly rose, troubled. Ceria chewed on a bit of potato, scratching at her head, but she was mainly looking at…

Pisces. And Yvlon herself looked troubled. Ksmvr gazed at Izril’s map and then further down at the tip of Chandrar outlined there.

What the Horns did talk about was what most people were talking about in Timbor’s inn. The new world, the events of the Gnoll tribes. What they didn’t say was so heavy that Timbor sometimes walked into it, like a cloud.

They too were waiting for a word. And if anyone deserved a word with Erin Solstice, it was surely them. But they were letting her rest. Timbor went back to work, but he felt a tingling on the back of his neck. He felt like something was up today, but he couldn’t say why. Not yet.

 

——

 

They were all being considerate of her. Which Erin Solstice respected. They thought she was tired, and they were all probably exhausted by what they’d done for her.

She bore that in mind. She’d been thinking hard. About this Crusader 221-3 or…Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus. She wanted to meet him.

But what could she, Erin, do? She didn’t know any adventurers in the Great Plains personally, and people were going to arrange transport and protection.

Lyonette made a good point that Erin was not herself more organized or capable of helping than Liscor’s Council, the Gnolls, or the Forgotten Wing company.

She had been the [Innkeeper] like that. The [Innkeeper] with friends, and her reach was her friends, some of whom were very important. But that was all. Erin had thought that was all she needed.

“Well, I guess I’m wrong. That’s egg on my face and crossbow bolts in my chest, right?”

The young woman wheeled into the Adventurer’s Guild clutching a few rolls of parchment in one hand. Was she nervous? Yes…especially if this didn’t work. Because she’d look silly.

But she was pretty certain it would work. Was she concerned about the…the consequences? Of course.

Did it have to be done? Erin took a few breaths and looked around Liscor’s guild for comfort.

It was the same slightly-homey place that she remembered. Oh, it had been expanded to make room for actual Gold-rank teams coming for the dungeon and actually physically relocated, but this was the same place she had once walked into. Nostalgic. They’d pulled the counters, worn tables filled with nicks and stains, and even most of the walls so someone could build a newer building in the old spot. So it was the same guild to Erin, down to the floorboards. Why, this was where she’d met Selys back in the day.

And…well, where a few things had happened.

“Hello, Miss! Do you need a hand getting to the [Receptionist]’s desk?”

At first, Erin thought she was being teased, but the adventurer looked genuinely interested in her chair and seemed to want to do that thing where people pushed you around. Erin had not been in a wheelchair long, but she already resented someone pushing her without asking.

“No, thanks. I’m just…going to look around. Hello!”

“Hello, yourself, Miss! Are you making a request of the guild? The [Receptionist]’s desk is over there.”

The speaker was a friendly woman, in fact, a Gold-rank adventurer. Jewel of Glitterblade, a small team, was new to Liscor. She had been here a few times and even participated in some of the incidents, but four months and a dead [Innkeeper] had been obscured by everything else that had happened. The quiet girl in the wheelchair was not the same girl who had led the Antinium into Invrisil.

She thusly didn’t recognize Erin. Nor had she taken the [Guardsman] seriously when he advised those within the guild to perhaps leave.

She was being friendly to the clearly injured young woman, but she let go of the wheelchair’s handlebars as Erin looked around for Selys. She didn’t see Selys or the grumpy Tekshia, and she didn’t recognize any receptionists by name.

“Um…excuse me? Sorry, I’m Erin.”

What a familiar name. Jewel thought she knew it, but where had she…? She put on a big smile as she nodded.

“Adventurer Jewel, Miss. What are you looking for, exactly?”

“Where’s your, uh, job board? That place where you put up requests?”

Jewel instantly pointed to a cork board at one side of the guild where a few adventurers were perusing the assignments on display. Kill a certain monster in the dungeon and harvest its parts, eradicate pests or dangers to the villages—those were stock standard. Some people put bounties on pests in their homes or something more interesting, but Jewel was used to not actually accepting many requests.

Frankly, killing monsters and getting their bounties in the dungeon was more profitable, or hoping you found a treasure room. Not that she’d been doing either; her team had come back from a semi-profitable Wyvern hunting expedition for that huge bounty. Two Wyverns was four thousand gold pieces. Not bad for a week of jumping at every shadow in the High Passes and waiting for a Wyvern to take the bait.

Yes, the bounty was still being claimed because there was still money in the Adventurer’s Guild vaults. Until it ran out…well, Liscor was the place to be in Jewel’s mind. It had access to two major cities, and she’d heard so much about it.

Not enough, apparently, to recognize Erin’s name. The young woman thanked her and began wheeling over to the board. She had two pieces of parchment, and she’d even brought her own hammer and a nail.

“Oh—excuse me, Miss Erin. You can’t do that.”

Jewel intercepted the young woman and saved her from making a mistake. Erin frowned at Jewel.

“What? Why? I’m just going to put this up…”

“I’m afraid only registered requests can go up there. You’ll need to run it by a [Receptionist]. Just over there, see?”

Plus, who hammered nails into a cork board? Erin Solstice opened her mouth and hesitated.

“But I have an, uh, an actual quest type thing. I know Selys, one of the [Receptionists]. I’ll just…”

She tried to wheel around Jewel, but the Gold-rank adventurer was insistent.

“You can’t do that, Miss. That’s a board for Gold-rank requests, anyways.”

Erin was trying to get to a sparsely-occupied board. It wasn’t the backrooms of Invrisil’s Adventurer’s Guild with its pecking order, but there were still a few Gold-rank teams in Liscor, and Jewel blocked Erin. She was treated to a kindly, if exasperated smile.

“I know, excuse me. I’ll talk to the Guildmistress or anyone. I’m just going to…”

“Let me just get a [Receptionist] for you, Miss. Gold-rank requests are very expensive, and you have to put down gold first to prove you can back it. I’m sure it’s vital—excuse me! Can we get a [Receptionist] for…?”

And then Jewel turned Erin around in her chair and began rolling her towards the counter. It was all very well-intentioned, if pushy, but it was a continuation of Erin’s treatment for the last ten days.

By a stranger. Now, at this point the real question was: what would come next? Also, why had no one stopped Jewel?

Surely someone in the guild knew her. Of course they did. But half the [Receptionists] had already slipped out the back doors and were staring through the windows. As for the other Gold-rank teams or veterans?

“Hey. Hey. Anith. Look what that Gold-adventurer’s doing.”

Insill whispered in horror as he watched the entire event unfold. Anith looked up from his book as Vuliel Drae watched Jewel first meet Erin. Anith hesitated.

“We should stop her.”

He knew Erin Solstice, but before the Jackal Beastkin could move, someone else grabbed his arm.

“No. Don’t.”

A deep voice echoed from where Seborn was sitting, taking his ease. He hadn’t greeted Erin. Anith stared at the Drowned Man’s serious gaze. Like the other Halfseekers, Seborn had ‘given Erin her space’ after returning to Liscor. Or rather, he’d followed Jelaqua’s lead.

“Why not, Seborn?”

He was treated to a serious look from the [Rogue]-[Faith Seeker]. Seborn’s face was grave as he whispered back.

“Because it will be the funniest thing I’ve seen in months.”

And like that, Jewel was left alone to her fate by the other adventurers. She pushed the protesting Erin forwards until the young woman stopped her with her feet.

“Miss Erin…”

“Let go of my chair, please. I’m going to do my thing. Get a [Receptionist] if you want, but they know me at this guild.”

Erin looked annoyed at this point, and Jewel hesitated. At this point, she thought she should just let this young woman be admonished.

Incidentally, she was younger than Erin, but as a Gold-rank adventurer, Jewel was trying to be the responsible party. She watched Erin wheel up to the Gold-rank request board and then realized the same thing Erin did.

…The [Innkeeper] was too short to reach the board properly in her chair. Erin tried to get up twice, then gave up. She scowled at the bottom of the request-board.

“You think this makes you better than me? I don’t need you anyways!”

She waved a hammer at the board, and Jewel began wondering if Erin were actually just crazy. She got her answer a second later as Erin, grumbling, unrolled one piece of parchment and put a nail in place.

She was going to hammer it into the wall!

“Miss! Miss—”

Jewel hurried over. Erin ignored her until she felt herself being pulled back again. This time—Erin turned her head once.

“Let. Go.”

Jewel’s hands leapt from the wheelchair’s handlebars, and she jerked back. It was like a shock, as if the handlebars had been charged.

An aura? She stared at Erin in surprise. But then she reached for Erin.

“I can’t let you—”

Erin calmly let Jewel grab one arm—it was a gentle grip, if strong. So it was a gentle flame that covered Jewel’s arm.

Aaah! What the—

The Gold-rank [Swashbuckler] leapt back, waving away a bright orange flame. Even Seborn stirred at this point, because he had never seen that before. The grumpy flame of irritation covered Jewel’s hands, scorching her lightly before she could remove it. She had to stomp on it; it refused to go out.

“Huh. New fire. And it’s lame.”

Erin peered at the ground then shrugged. Jewel looked at Erin and then around the room. Now…as her other two teammates half-rose and gazed at their captain, Jewel realized she was being watched.

Situational awareness. A real veteran would have noted they were walking into a trap already, but Jewel was new to her rank. She hesitated and looked at Erin.

Was this some kind of advanced hazing prank? She could walk off, but she had embarrassed herself already. She was in too deep.

But what was the move? The young woman was clearly high-level in something, so Jewel was wrong in that she had no right to do whatever she was doing. Pulling her away would cause a scene, and she was ignoring Jewel.

So, the right thing to do that the [Swashbuckler] came up with was to approach, somewhat humbly, rubbing her burnt hand and smiling. Erin glanced over with resignation.

“You came back. Are you really going to do this a third time? Because it’s gonna be bad.”

Jewel hesitated. She could hear some titters in the background from the peanut gallery, but she put the best smile on her face and swept Erin a slight bow.

“Miss Erin. I, um—I’m sorry for bothering you. Let me make it up to you. I’m Jewel, Captain of Glitterblade. A Gold-rank team. As an apology, I’d be happy to accept any request you’re putting up.”

That was her way out. A bit of the old Moribus Oblige—adventurer’s responsibility in the old language. It might have even worked on someone else.

Erin Solstice stopped with the hammer raised. Jewel noticed that the cheap parchment that the young woman was writing on had…glittering lettering. Some fancy [Alchemist]’s ink? Erin gave Jewel a long look that made the [Swashbuckler] feel as if she were looking straight through her. Then Erin smiled.

“Yeah. That’s a kind offer. But I don’t think it’ll really work. Your team might be under-level for this one. No offense.”

The sheer audacity of that statement left Jewel at a loss for words. The laugher that ran around the room made Jewel flush. So she grabbed the request.

 

——

 

“She’s killing herself. I’m going in!”

Insill stood up, but half a dozen hands from other adventurers pulled him back. They were watching all of it like a wagon heading towards an adamantium wall. Jewel was making a lot of mistakes, but again, to be fair—she was something of a prodigy.

A Gold-rank adventurer at her age? She had over 30 levels in [Swashbuckler], and her team had killed fearsome monsters, if not Adult Crelers. Being told she was underleveled for Erin’s request had to sting—and Erin was in her antagonistic mode.

Grabbing the parchment was still the wrong move, though. Erin’s eyes flashed as Jewel snapped to everyone present.

“I’ll be the judge of that, Miss. My team will do it free if it’s—”

And then someone came to spoil this wonderful moment. Lyonette du Marquin charged into the guild with all four Thronebearers behind her. She spotted Erin and pointed.

No! Selys—get in here!

Here came the cavalry. Selys Shivertail ran into the guild followed by a second group. No less than Todi’s Elites and Todi himself. All of them, [Knights], adventurers, [Princess], and [Heiress] ran at Erin.

“No, you don’t, Erin! What are you doing?”

Lyonette advanced on the [Innkeeper] as Erin groaned. Erin put her hands up.

“Lyonette, I have to—”

“You’ve just recovered! Do you have to make a scene?”

“It’s really important. No one believes me. Dalimont, tell her! I was dead! And I had this—”

“You didn’t tell me. What are you doing? Give me that, Miss.”

Lyonette grabbed for the parchment, and Jewel held on, staring at Todi. Selys was looking around.

“Todi, grab that. Erin, do you have your rings on?”

“Stop babying me! And if one of you Thronebearers puts a hand on my wheelchair, I’ll set you on fire! Back, back!”

Erin produced a knife, and because it was Pelt’s, everyone backed up as she waved it around. Lyonette was sweating, and Selys saw the parchment in Jewel’s hand. Both [Princess] and adventurer were fighting for it, and the funny thing was—

They thought they could stop this. Seborn was chortling so loudly that Todi noticed him. The Gold-rank veteran hesitated, but Selys snapped.

“Todi, get the parchment.”

Todi? What are you—let go! I’m going to accept—who is this?”

“Give me that, Jewel. What are you, a Bronze-rank rookie?”

Todi snapped and tried to grab the parchment, but Jewel was hanging onto it like the last shreds of sanity. The piece of parchment stretched between all three hands as they fought for it, and then Lyonette, Jewel, and Todi realized something.

Erin had used foolscap parchment, cheap, frayed, and practically tearing itself to write down her little request. It already had a few breaks, but despite all three practically leaning on it, it wasn’t so much as fraying.

And then they noticed that lettering…shining. Selys Shivertail looked at the words, and one stood out to her. Slowly, she looked at Erin, who was watching the altercation with exasperation and amusement.

“Erin. What is that?”

Everyone turned to the [Innkeeper] as Jewel finally let go, and Lyonette and Todi went stumbling. Erin smiled. It was that wide, too-innocent smile of someone who knew exactly what they were doing.

“Todi, right? Give me that.”

He had it in his hands. Selys and Lyonette held out their hands, but Erin beckoned.

“Give. I can always make a new one, I think.”

“I, er…”

Give.

The Gold-rank Captain looked from the [Princess] of Calanfer to Selys, his employer and [Heiress] and owner of the Heartflame Breastplate. Then at Erin Solstice. He performed a quick calculation and handed the parchment over.

“Todi!”

Selys and Lyonette began to argue, but Erin was already turning back to the wall. Todi stepped back, checked his wand and sword, and elbowed Jewel hard. She jumped and looked at him.

“That’s how a Gold-rank adventurer does it, amateur.”

Never let it be said that Todi couldn’t read the room. He watched Selys and Lyonette trying to dissuade Erin Solstice. Jewel stared at Erin, and so did Todi. Because they, like Selys, had seen something of what that parchment said. Erin raised the hammer and nail as Tekshia Shivertail woke up from her nap in her office upstairs and wondered what all the damn shouting was about.

 

——

 

On the topic of Quests. The announcement that had rung through the ears of every [Innkeeper] in the world ten days ago was one of the many things that had happened.

To inquiring minds, it was very significant. As much as new lands rising? Well…in some ways, yes.

For instance, Timbor Parithad had heard the announcement in his head like this:

 

<Class: Innkeeper> [Quests unlocked.]

[Post: Basic Quest obtained!]

[Post: Rare Quest obtained!]

 

Very respectable for a Level 30+ [Innkeeper] like him. He, like every other [Innkeeper], had panicked a bit, made sure everyone else had heard it, and done some experimentation.

The benefits were already becoming apparent—if figures of authority even knew this had happened.

Chaldion of Pallass, for instance, knew. Because he was Chaldion, and the owner of The Noble’s Fancy, the fanciest inn in Pallass, had let him know what was going on via way of Rufelt.

That had incidentally gotten one of the junior [Strategists] assigned to sifting through reports reprimanded severely, because she hadn’t forwarded the information to Chaldion, considering it not worth his time given all that was going on.

Right now, he was standing with the Drake in the aristocratic halls of the inn, which was more like a mansion and catered to the richest clients. If you wanted to feel like Terandrian royalty—this was the place.

“So you can post [Rare Quests], but nothing more?”

“No, Grand Strategist.”

“What is your level at this moment, Innkeeper Adalton?”

The Drake hesitated. He was wearing a suit rather reminiscent of a butler, but he’d added some flared inner cloth that shone bright yellow with Pallass’ colors when he moved to the somber exterior. He had a lot of respect for Chaldion, but he was still a private person.

“Er…”

“Let me rephrase that. Are you over Level 40?”

Rufelt coughed, because he knew the answer to this one. The Drake hemmed and hawed, and Chaldion sighed.

“No, then. I could assume Level 40 is the cutoff for…whatever comes next. Hrm. If that’s the case…”

He had one fake, gemstone eye that stared ahead, this one glowing bright blue, but his real one flickered to the doors. Rufelt had the same thought that Chaldion did.

“I may confirm it later. Although my source is—recovering. This can’t be a coincidence. Ten days ago exactly?

“Yes, Grand Strategist. And I might add—I can post a [Basic Quest] on the hour.”

“Killing rats, hauling grain. And the rewards are sometimes…random?”

Extra rewards, yes, Grand Strategist. Why, I had my neighbor’s son clean the gutters—a huge project for a lad like him, but I promised him thirteen silvers for it. When he got the silver it was the instant he finished cleaning up—and he did a better job than regular for the quest to finish! Then he got the silvers…and a football. One of the good ones.”

“A football.”

Chaldion’s voice was flat. The [Innkeeper] nodded rapidly.

Exactly the same as the one on display he’d been saving up for. Only, I did think it might have been taken or something, and the [Shopkeeper] swore his inventory was still there, but he thought it was a replica! Oh, and the boy got the [Cleaner] class after sleeping. He’s less happy about that.”

“That’s…”

Chaldion didn’t say impossible because that was an objectively stupid thing to say when presented with fact. However, he might have said ‘concerning’. Or more.

As a [Strategist], the news set the Drake’s mind racing. For instance—if you could get more value than what a Quest posted was worth…what kind of rewards could you get if you could get a football?

What would a [Rare Quest] look like? Did you really advance a class from doing a quest? And how in the name of Dragons had this occurred?

Well, he suspected many of his answers lay in another inn. Respite or not, he would have them. Chaldion also knew that this matter would be surfacing across the world, and he was determined to have an edge on the competition.

No matter what it took. He was thanking Adalton absently and pressing him for any more salient details while trying to plan out his attack.

He’d have to use [Path to Victory], but his opponent had beaten it before. Chaldion needed to assemble his forces carefully. Grimalkin was good, but sometimes a negative impact. He’d have to call in…Saliss too, but he might be sabotaged from within. Rufelt and Lasica, definitely.

Someone had to run interference with the [Princess]—and did they need a bribe? Chaldion could almost envision the battle ahead, and it would be a tough one to drag anything helpful out of the jaws of the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn, but he had a Walled City’s resources to call upon. It might just work.

Chaldion was just about to muster the troops to sally forth when it happened. Adalton was about to speculate on a [Rare Quest] if Chaldion would help him figure out how to get the conditions right, and they were a bit tricky.

In Liscor, Lyonette was reaching for Erin’s shoulder, and a much more sensible Selys was fetching a broomstick to prod Erin with. The stubborn [Innkeeper], watched through the windows by the adventurers and Zevara and her Watch, raised the hammer and placed the nail on the piece of parchment.

She brought the hammer down and struck the nail slightly, tapping it into the wood of the Adventurer’s Guild wall.

Toc.

“What was that, Grand Strategist?”

Adalton turned as Chaldion began to walk away. The Grand Strategist looked back.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, my mistake.”

Toc. Toc.

The Drake looked around, frowning. The [Innkeeper] glanced around The Noble’s Fancy, wondering if one of the brats of his…esteemed guests had found a hammer.

“Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Rufelt, Chaldion, and his escort looked back. Adalton rubbed at one earhole.

“Nothing. But I could swear—huh?

TOC. This time the sound was louder. And the Drake felt it in his scales, like a vibration. He flinched, and Chaldion’s magical eye fixed on him.

“What?”

“That sound! Can you hear—hey! Who’s—it’s not in my inn. My head!”

Adalton grabbed his head and looked around. The sound changed. The sound of a hammer hitting a nail had grown louder, but it couldn’t be called that now.

Thum. It echoed. Adalton gazed around wildly, then his head turned and fixed in a strange direction.

What in the name of flying squirrels is that?

Chaldion held up a claw, and one of the [Soldiers] escorting him hesitated, a claw on his sword. The [Strategist] eyed Adalton’s head and looked at the wall.

“What direction is that?”

“Grand Strategist? Er…”

“North?”

“North.”

Rufelt confirmed quietly. Both Chaldion and the [Barkeeper] looked at each other and knew at once. Chaldion wavered between here and the door. He decided to stay and watch, but turned to one of his escort.

“Get me Grimalkin. Send him into Liscor now. Signal Manus, and tell them to find an [Innkeeper]. High priority.”

Adalton flinched again. The sound was growing louder. And his inn—Chaldion looked up as, finally, the other people heard it and saw it.

The walls vibrated. And if they were moving here—the sound in Adalton’s head grew louder. He clapped his claws over his earholes.

And in Liscor?

 

——

 

What is going on in my Guild?

Tekshia Shivertail came down the stairs with spear in hand, screaming. When she saw Erin Solstice, she stopped.

“You!”

She would have gone for Erin, but then it happened again. The [Innkeeper] raised that hammer in slow motion…everything felt like it was slow. The [Spearmaster] wondered if it were a time dilation Skill. She started forwards, and then the [Innkeeper] struck the nail again, hammering the piece of parchment into the wall.

Toc.

The entire Adventurer’s Guild shook. Tekshia raised her spear, but what was she going to do? Instead, she looked around.

“Get—get out of the guild! Now!

No one needed to be told twice. Todi was already running Selys out. Lyonette hesitated.

“Erin!”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t seem to hear her, she was so focused. Lyonette looked around.

“Stay with her!”

She ordered the Thronebearers forwards and ran for it. Tekshia hesitated, but this was more than just worry about the sound. Erin brought the hammer down one more time, and Tekshia saw and felt her guild—

Crack. A splinter cracked the old, sturdy masonry on one wall. Tekshia stared at it in horror; it was like the earthquakes she’d seen! The crack ran up to the ceiling in a flash. Then part of the ceiling collapsed.

“My guild!”

The [Spearmaster] howled. And then that hammer drew back again, and she saw the words glowing on the parchment. Tekshia froze.

The hammer fell once more. Outside, the audience saw a wall fall down and the guild begin to collapse. Watch Captain Zevara had her head in her hands.

She had not expected this.

 

——

 

Timbor Parithad was shouting. Everyone in his inn was staring as the [Innkeeper] stumbled around.

“What’s going on, Timbor?”

Imani came out of her kitchen, and Timbor stumbled past her. The Horns were on their feet. They had the same thought as most.

“The Wandering Inn. Get to—”

They ran, but in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Timbor found something. He grabbed a piece of paper he used for noting orders and a quill.

The sound in his head was so loud, but there was something else that seized his mind. He did not have to—but he wanted to write it down. Just to show them. To prove he wasn’t mad.

The same sound, the same words, surely—they must echo in the [Innkeepers]’ minds in Celum, from Agnes to Ulia, and even as far away as Pallass.

How far could they hear this?

The answer was simple. Every [Innkeeper] in Izril heard it. Even ones on Terandria’s southern shores or Chandrar’s northeast. Ones further still felt…something. The highest-level even heard words.

The second-highest level [Innkeeper] on the continent hammered the nail into the wood and sat back. As she did, Timbor wrote, transcribing the words she’d scrawled on that simple piece of parchment down verbatim. He could have slept and done anything else and he would remember it. It was in his head, waiting for him to speak it.

It was…a Quest.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice rolled back from the wall a bit and exhaled. Only then did her intense focus slacken enough for her to look around. She felt drained, but she had done it.

Then she jumped and nearly fell out of her chair.

What the—where’d the guild go?

Erin Solstice looked left and saw not the tables and chairs and walls of the guild. She looked past a dusty, wide-eyed Ser Dalimont with a shield raised overhead at the bright, shining sun and collapsed…rubble…

And the crowd, staring at what remained of Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild. Erin Solstice goggled at them and saw Watch Captain Zevara, Relc, standing on his tiptoes and laughing next to Seborn, who was almost doubled-over, the other staring adventurers…

Then she looked around and realized there was no guild. Not behind her, certainly not above…in fact, the only thing that remained of the guild was the wall she’d been hammering into.

It was still there. Sort of. It had broken to pieces around the piece of parchment now fluttering in the breeze. Erin slowly wheeled past it and gulped. Behind the wall, she saw Tekshia Shivertail standing there and staring at the four-foot high piece of wood and stone that was all that remained of her guild.

“Oh. H-hi, Tekshia. Fancy meeting you here.”

The Guildmistress had a spear in her hand, but she was at a loss for words. Erin looked around, and the only person in this moment with anything beyond shock, awe, fear, or curiosity was Jewel.

Who felt a bit of schadenfreude that she had been right after all. But what was the quest? Before Tekshia began screaming and trying to stab Erin, before the commotion and shouting, everyone had to read what it said.

It burned across the continent in a moment. [Messages] lit up from city to city, asking whether this was a hoax. Was this real? Erin Solstice held up her hands and refused to explain anything, even when Tekshia shook her.

She knew what she was doing. And what she was doing was a trick Erin had learned long ago. When a poor Antinium Soldier was in danger of being kidnapped by interested powers, what was the right move? Arrange proper transport, responsible guards, and take logical countermeasures? Sure, sure.

Or you could set fire to the High Passes and distract everyone with that. Erin Solstice’s quest, and it was Erin Solstice’s quest, appeared in every inn and guild in the world within a day. It read thusly:

 

<Mythical Quest – Find the Lost City of Stars!>

Limits: No armies, max of twenty adventurers per group for reasons. Big reasons.

The City of Stars is called Mershi! It’s one of those lost Walled Cities, but it’s totally out there. Find it. Search for the Blades of Mershi, and the keys will lead you home.

The Walled City is waiting, but there’s a lot of danger. Like, Named-rank+ danger.*** To get to it, you need more than just the keys. You need to find the ways back, and all the ones in regular Izril are shattered. 

Does the City of Stars need to come back? Maybe not. They did a lot of bad things, but they were still a Walled City, and their legacy is lost. No one deserves to go out the way they did. The world might need what they have in the days to come, and it’s all there. 

The Crossroads of Izril (Isssryssil?) are your first key. Please see the Heroic Quest or come to The Wandering Inn to inquire for details. Free lunch to whomever finds the City of Stars.

Posted Reward: Free lunch at The Wandering Inn. Lots of glory? I’ll shake your hand.

Quest Reward: Renowned legend class of <Drakes>, the key to the Armory of Stars.

*** (Too hard for Jewel or her team!)

 

There were also two more quests that Erin Solstice posted…lower down on the piece of broken wall. One was attached to that first quest.

 

<Heroic Quest – Connect the Crossroads of Izril!>

Limits: None.

The Crossroads of Izril are totally a thing that exists. It’s like this…crossroads…that people went on. But it was a cool place that let you travel to other places that were more magical!

I don’t know how to get there aside from waystones. And it’s apparently not a fun place anymore. But it’s pretty darn important, and the old Walled Cities might have a way in or something. Oh, and you can get to other places from there.

They were never meant to be closed off. Find a way to open at least one gate that everyone can use, and everyone will benefit. But, um, make sure to lock the door before someone gets security around it. There might be things there.

Posted Reward: None, see Quest Rewards. And 10 gold pieces. (Imlerith was the City of Crossroads, btw. You need the passphrase to go to all the cool places).

Quest Reward: The Passphrase of Imlerith, experience in <Explorer> classes. Access to the [Crossroads of Izril] Skill.

 

Two quests beyond the scope of most [Innkeepers] to even contemplate posting. They hadn’t even known they existed.

The real question was how she could do it. As every [Innkeeper] would come to realize—as Erin Solstice herself had, the quests were not an Adventurer’s Guild’s fare.

They shouldn’t even have been posted in an Adventurer’s Guild. They belonged to inns. Because you could not post a quest without knowing the truth.

Without guaranteeing the Quest Reward. And she could. The [Innkeeper] wheeled herself back from posting the second quest, panting a bit. She looked at Lyonette, and the [Princess]’ eyes were wide.

“How, Erin?”

“Just something I picked up. I guess I’ll leave it at that. Oh—well, there’s this one, but I don’t have enough wall.”

Erin decided to hammer it into the side of the broken wall instead. This one didn’t echo in anyone’s minds but the [Innkeepers] of Liscor. Yet it was the last one which also mattered.

 

<Rare Quest – Bring Him Home!>

Limits: Not a jerk to Antinium. Has a vehicle or something.

His name is Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus or Crusader 221-3. He’s a Soldier, and he’s in the Great Plains of Izril, camp of Weatherfur. Please see Chieftain Feshi Weatherfur for exact location.

Transport him safely back to Liscor! If he dies or is hurt, the quest is off. Keep him safe from bad people like Walled Cities or [Bounty Hunters]. Oh, and keep him fed and happy.

Posted Reward: Free food for a week! Within reason.

Quest Reward: 80 gold pieces, experience in <Escort>, <Guard> classes.

 

Erin Solstice smiled and looked around as she regarded her three posted quests. Then she stretched and turned to her audience.

By now, they were all there. The Horns, Mrsha, Goblins, citizens of Liscor, and even Apista, buzzing on top of Rasktooth’s head. Erin Solstice inhaled—then began hacking because there was dust everywhere.

She caught her breath and looked at everyone. Erin rubbed at her face and smiled.

“I’m back, guys. And I brought something with me. I have…messages for some of you.”

She looked at Ceria Springwalker, and the half-Elf flinched slightly, but she was caught by Erin. The [Innkeeper] swept her gaze over them, and they realized what she meant. She had brought something back.

From the lands of the dead. For them. Erin Solstice stared at Octavia, then a naked Drake jogging up. And the secrets of alchemy whispered in her mind, waiting to be posted as quests. She looked at Numbtongue, and the Hobgoblin felt an electric thrill run up his spine as Erin fixed her gaze on his sword.

What she said was this. With a smile, with weariness, but also, leaning forwards on her wheelchair, speaking earnestly.

“I’m a bit tired. I know you’ve all done so much, and I have to do things differently. We all do. But I’m back, and I won’t be still forever. I want to talk to you. So talk to me. And…and I think we need to do more good things.”

She looked around.

“I want to have more fun. I want to experience great moments with you all and help you with anything you want to do. And fall in…”

She trailed off. Erin Solstice looked back and met their gazes. Then she coughed again.

“Sorry about the guild. I guess I’ll post the other quests later. Party at The Wandering Inn!”

Slowly, she pushed herself forwards, and one of the Thronebearers helped her over the rocky ground. Erin rolled forwards until the silence became voices. Then cheering as Numbtongue and Jelaqua and the others lifted her chair overhead. She left behind a broken Adventurer’s Guild and chaos.

And The Wandering Inn? It was back in business. The first Mythical Quest was posted again on the walls later that day. It would not be the last.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: …And we’re back. Volume 9 has begun and I’m tired. Time for another break!

I’m kidding. Or am I? In truth, I think I actually spent the first fourteen days of rest just recovering. Only after that period did I feel like a person, and I ran into some severe exhaustion, but I think a lot of it’s cleared up.

I definitely needed the month off and, as promised, I’m back. But also as promised—I’m trying to take it easy.

With a 28,000 word chapter to bring us into Volume 9. It could be 38,000. It could be 48,000. It’ll be a work in progress, filled with false promises I’m sure, but we’re going to try and take it easy.

And work on Volume 1’s rewrite! And maybe other stuff! I will keep you posted and no, the schedule I showed Patreons will not be the set plan. I’m going to play it by ear this month and get back into writing. Also, no side story poll! Sorry, but for the first few chapters it’d be weird if you voted on the first few chapters.

Hopefully you liked our first chapter back. I feel rusty, ironically, but I think I’ll get back into the best flow soon enough. Thanks for reading and tell your friends! Tell your enemies! Tell the bees—The Wandering Inn is back.

And so is Erin Solstice.

 

 

Waking Up and Let’s Go Mrsha by BoboPlushie!

 

Ceria by laavente, commissioned by Finn_Ryan!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laaventer

 

Erin by slaetus!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Epilogue

And then she woke up.

The young woman opened her eyes. Erin Solstice sat up in her bed and thought for a moment it was a dream. Then she realized it wasn’t.

It was her inn. Her bed. Her room.

But the panoply of people who stood around her weren’t ghosts. The Horns of Hammerad, Mrsha, held by Lyonette, who hadn’t put her down for six hours and never would again, Selys, sobbing into an armored Olesm’s shoulder, Antinium [Crusaders] jostling with Klbkch and staring up at a huge Gnoll that Erin had never met before.

She didn’t know them. Not all of them. Erin Solstice looked at the Fellowship of the Inn, grinning Cave Goblins, a white Gnoll with a staff, Inkar, Palt…

And so many others. Ishkr himself was watching the creaking floorboards in alarm, but if the inn exploded—well, they’d gone through worse.

“What happened?”

The exhalation when Erin said that was one of a hundred people each with a story to tell. But Erin didn’t mean that.

She’d thought she was on…a battlefield? The [Innkeeper] looked around as Mrsha tackled her and the room broke into a babble. And tears.

She was alive. What Erin didn’t know…couldn’t know was that when she’d been restored to her body, she hadn’t gotten up and walked around instantly. She’d just been possessed by the greatest Drake [General] of Izril. And he had not only gotten her arm chopped off at least once, but fought using her body.

And she’d been dead. The mysterious Gnoll who’d helped complete the ritual—Teriarch—had pronounced her alive. He had been one of the people who offered to teleport anyone who wanted to go back to Liscor.

Erin had missed…the end of the war at the Meeting of Tribes. She had missed the surrender of a number of armies. Fissival had stood down; Zeres and Manus had fallen back on their leaders’ orders.

The worst carnage since the Second Antinium wars had resulted in the death of tribes. If not every Gnoll—then their leaders. Plain’s Eye was no more, and Izril was filled with white Gnolls who had nothing to cling to, not their beliefs, not their tribe.

Izril would not be the same. Not even the land was the same. An entirely new chunk of the continent had risen, adding to the southern half, and already people were arguing over who it belonged to.

The Gnolls had gone through their reckoning but…what came next? Ghosts had stepped across the world, and their words lingered in the lands of the living.

The Dyed Lands and parts of Baleros had been sped up in time. The Titan had returned. Ailendamus was reeling from a disaster at its palace, and the Dawn Concordat had fallen back, but no one had ended the war.

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt was alive…but what would become of her? Or the Terras faction? Erin Solstice didn’t get even a fraction of this information, of course.

What she got were hugs and tears. She looked at Pisces, leaning against the doorframe and trying to sniff and pretend it wasn’t due to tears.

“Pisces? Ceria! Ksmvr, Yvlon?”

The Horns of Hammerad were here. They stood in The Wandering Inn, and there was still sand in Pisces’ robes from another continent. They had come back.

Through the power of the King of Khelt in this desperate hour, and Pisces looked around as if still searching for the people he had left behind. But in that moment—he stepped forwards and grabbed Erin in a fierce hug that surprised everyone. She returned it with all the strength in her shaking arms.

Mrsha was hugging all of them, sobbing and snotting onto everything. She looked at her mother, Lyonette, and the [Princess] sobbed until one of the Thronebearers handed her a tissue. The golden-ish [Knights] of Calanfer looked on the [Innkeeper] and this gathering with awe.

And a bit of wariness for all the strange folk. Not least because Shriekblade, Adventurer Tessa, offered Lyonette her own handkerchief. She had abandoned Salazsar and stood in the inn, looking at Erin with curiosity.

 

——

 

“Sounds like she woke up.”

Outside The Wandering Inn, more people were gathered on the hill, looking up towards the sounds coming through the window. Not just by choice; there was no room inside for so many people to stand.

So, many of the [Crusaders] knelt or stood as the Antinium prayed around them. Pivr, flexing a broken wing, was doffing his hat to everyone in sight next to Normen and Alcaz. Normen had his arm in a sling, but for once…the Brothers had come back.

Even some of the Antinium had survived. The Beriad of 6th Battalion stood, all seventeen of them. Seventeen, where a hundred had been that morning.

A Minotaur with one arm stood next to them. His head was bowed so far it seemed it should have crushed him down.

But honor and pride in them refused to let Calruz kneel. For once—the Minotaur looked up and saw he was not alone. The son of Hammerad looked at the souls of Minos in seventeen Antinium.

And even Bezale and Venaz saw it too. The Minotaur [Strategist] had left Perorn behind in the Great Plains to come here. But now was not a time of judgement. He stood with Wil Kallinad, Yerranola, Merrik, and Peki, gazing up at the window.

Feshi Weatherfur was not with them. The Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe could not leave at this moment.

Her adventure had ended here. She would never go back to the academy. Venaz looked up, and he saw less glory and far too much heartbreak on this adventure than he had seen when he first left Baleros with Wil.

But what he had found was…something else. He looked at Calruz of Hammerad and wondered where the traitor and monster was hiding. Because he couldn’t see it. He looked at the Antinium, and his world could never look the same.

 

——

 

Their wounds would never heal. A little bee crawled onto Lyonette’s shoulder, clumsily holding onto the cloth with one set of legs. Her good wing fanned as Gireulashia stared down at the bee.

Was it worth it? Rasktooth grinned as Infinitypear carried him on his shoulders. He patted the Worker’s head, and Fierre hugged Garia as Ulvama wiped her face on Octavia’s hair. But after so long…

They were here again. Someone else joined the chaos threatening to break Erin’s bed, and Numbtongue, Badarrow, and Bird bent down as Erin looked up at them. Then she looked past them and gasped.

“Relc?”

The Drake was leaning on Embria’s shoulder and Klbkch’s. He kept looking at her and then away.

“Klb, pinch me again.”

“I have pinched you ninety one times. She is there.”

“Pinch me, buddy.”

A hundred times a hundred people wanted to meet Erin. The inn had a line stretching all the way to the gates, but that didn’t matter.

It was a public holiday, after all. The Council had declared it in memorial of the battle of the Great Plains, a celebration honoring Strategos Olesm and Liscor’s army, and when pressed, Councilmember Lism had also added the return of Councilmembers Krshia and Beilmark. It was a commemoration of General Sserys’ ghost.

There were no other reasons at all. Nor did he appear at the inn. Neither did Watch Captain Zevara. She just calmly looked at the chaos on that hill and reset her little calendar marking the days since a ‘Solstice event’ back to zero.

She wasn’t smiling as she poured herself a little cup. The Watch Captain had to be at her desk. She’d go there—after clocking out.

 

——

 

Time. It had been a long time. The chaos would certainly return, and the Watch were already preparing briefings for the new recruits.

In time, they’d surely start complaining about that stupid, crazy Human. Tomorrow. But this hour was for meetings.

Some people had waited a long time to meet Erin Solstice. They could wait and watch a second longer. A minute…savoring this moment.

When Rags got tired of savoring the moment, she kicked everyone in the shins, and Erin Solstice looked up from the swearing. Her eyes met a little Goblin’s, and an [Innkeeper] in her inn stared at a familiar, awkward smile.

“Rags…?”

She was taller and older, but then Erin was being helped up, and there they were.

A Drake and an Antinium probably wasting Watch hours when they should be on duty.

A strange Human girl from far away, on a long journey.

A sniffing [Necromancer], pretending he was aloof to it all.

And a little Goblin, who hesitated, all the words she’d practiced flying out of her head.

“Rags!”

“H-hello, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at her in shock.

“You can talk?”

Rags rolled her eyes. But then she smiled, and Erin was laughing. She looked around, and her mind whirled.

They were all here. It was glorious. It was a miracle. Erin looked from face to face and realized—Ryoka Griffin wasn’t here. Nor was…

Was…

For a second, the vision of the living wavered, and Erin thought she saw another company. Of supercilious rulers. Strange legends. Bossy [Witches]. Her smile wavered, and her friends and guests saw the [Innkeeper] look about.

Erin gazed around and felt, suddenly, a terrible fear sweeping over her.

She had returned from the land of the dead. But a war had been lost. A screaming dead god still fell into the wound of the world. Seamwalkers had been destroyed.

Yet the ones who lived stared up from their nest in the grave of gods and other continents and now knew there was a world above. A’ctelios had gone silent, as had Rhir, but for how long?

The gods walked this mortal land. Four out of the six had been vanquished, but forever? One god was screaming in a box. Two more flew through space as the last ghost and Agelum fought them.

A Dragon lived. But how much of him? Teriarch spoke to Manus and Rafaema, but his eyes flickered to the [Maid] standing there and watching him. Not a trace of recognition was in his eyes.

For, like Erin…his memory of what he had been told was changed. But that was not the only reason.

 

——

 

He was still walking. A half-Elf trailed across the ground, bleeding magic. The armies had fled his death. But he was still dying.

“I don’t want to die.”

Eldavin whispered. He was alone. The Simulacrum was untethered forever from the Dragon. He stumbled and fell.

No more magic. No hope of salvation himself. His heart was empty. He lay there until a pair of figures found him.

Were they even there? The half-Elf looked up.

“Who are you?”

It would be a question that echoed around the world in time. It was a herald, but the two just smiled at him. The first, an old woman with eyes like death, bent down. A mother, a young woman, next to a warrior. Both of them reached down. They whispered to him. An offer.

Do you want to live, Eldavin? Take my hand.

The piece of magic and a Dragon’s memories looked up. He reached out.

He wanted to live.

 

——

 

The last foe of the tribes had also survived the battle. She always did.

She had never died. The Spider, the immortal Witch of Webs, always survived. Even the greatest [Witches] of old had gone to their deaths, but Belavierr had defied fate itself.

Why then did she scream? A shriek without ending, which had begun since the [Witches] bound her with truth and magic? They had let her live, for a [Witch], even one who wrought such terrible craft as Belavierr, was a Witch.

But they burned her. And they bound her with something more terrible than any spell she could worm her way out of.

They whispered truth to her and set her the charge of ages. Belavierr tried to resist as she stood on Izril’s shores.

She felt her class trembling. Her very craft threatened to break. A promise older than Belavierr impelled her. She was the Temptress, the Threadbreaker…

A conscript in a struggle against a foe to make Seamwalkers seem small. The last great coven of Witches was not kind. They spared Belavierr her due death to weigh a heavier task on her head.

So, screaming, the [Witch] walked into the sea. Her eyes stared, one orange and ringed, one pale and weeping with the memory of Gnolls. They writhed and danced with outrage, with fury over being compelled. Over being—tricked.

But there was no one to blame. No one to curse. She refused! She would not…the [Witch] struggled. Those eyes stared into the dark waters, and the rings of orange light wavered. The lines of black immortality tried to crawl out of her eye. A spider made of string pulled itself out of one eye, and the other revealed the soul within, bulging with helpless fury.

The woman walked deeper into the waves, for she had no other choice. Her dress spread out like a spill of oil, and her limbs contorted in ways that bones and flesh should not do. In the deep, Krakens stirred and began to suffer nightmares.

Still Belavierr screamed. Her shriek continued, even as the dark waters of the surf raced around her chin. Into her mouth—until her eyes stared up through dark waters. The tip of her hat vanished into the water, and her daughters felt her leave Izril.

On a long, deep journey.

 

——

 

Each nation, each power and group in this world had just witnessed something they couldn’t explain. Khelt had fought…and had it won?

The King of Khelt sailed away from Izril without even bothering to wait for Erin Solstice to wake. He would speak to her again, and besides…the King of Destruction might have been beheaded if Fetohep waited a moment longer.

The presence of Antinium, undead, and Flos Reimarch himself were all threats that the Walled Cities would have done their utmost to eradicate. However—the [Soldiers] had seen their continent split in two. They looked upon the white Gnolls of Plain’s Eye and wavered.

Despite what each city might order, Wall Lord Ilvriss, Dragonspeaker Luciva, First Gardener Shaerrha, and Admiral Asale all refused to lead their armies into battle on the Drakes’ side. Each one for their own reason. Luciva herself listened to the ‘white Gnoll’ with mismatched eyes, and she had found Rafaema.

Moreover, they faced Khelt and the united tribes of Izril. The Drakes still tried to deal with the Goblins and Antinium on the field, but they disappeared beneath the earth or flew away on the backs of Wyverns led by a mysterious [Great Chieftain]. Rags. The rest just vanished, returning home via the power of the Dragonlord of Flame. He had no enemies in any one species, and Fetohep of Khelt swore his vengeance upon any force who drew more blood this day.

In this moment, at this time—when the Walled Cities protested, the world backed Khelt. Their gratitude might wane in time, but when Fetohep spoke, the Four Great Companies of Baleros, the Blighted Kingdom of Rhir, the monarchs of Terandria, and great nations of Chandrar told the Drakes there would be war if they did not heed his words.

So, for once, the Drakes abandoned their vengeance, if not their grudges. They looked forwards and back, counting the cost of this disaster. The wise ones listened to the warnings they’d been given. Perhaps they might change.

As for Chandrar, the warships that had come to Izril had left the bones of countless dead in their wake. The Great Plains were shaped by the magics unleashed there, but the holds of the warships were packed. Not just with the half-Elves or his new subjects, but Gnolls.

They abandoned Izril for a different land that might not be filled with so many petty enemies. Or at least, not Drakes. The King of Destruction was returned to health, but even he looked shaken by what he had witnessed.

King Raelt was free. He and Queen Jecaina, both rulers of their nation, looked at each other and across the sea as Rasea Zecrew took off, chasing her own adventures.

However, the Vizir Hecrelunn did not sail with Fetohep. He had felt Khelta die, and he and the half-Giants of Serept had looked back at their kingdom and found no home there. Hecrelunn flew away from Izril, screaming curses and weeping for his beloved [Queens].

 

——

 

A single Revenant continued the battle after it ended. Though it took him nearly a day, the [Champion of War], Salui, climbed the walls of Zeres. He had no axe. The spells consumed his body, struck his bones—

But he cared not. His-Xe was dead. Salui stood on Zeres’ walls as the magic obliterated him, crying out and looking for his great [King]. Yet he would never find him.

 

——

 

The lands of the dead were no more. A single goddess strode the void, and every soul which perished would belong to her.

In time, she would be too powerful. But the Gnome dangling his legs over the edge of the abyss of nothing, still staring up towards where Xarkouth and Razia had fled, thought that Kasigna would not win so easily.

“You know, they will fight you. Even your daughter, Cauwine. Tamaroth, Norechl, if they ever return. Laedonius may be dead, and Emerrhain’s in a box, but the blood of gods may fuel them. Even the ones who have lost everything. Or interlopers from afar. Who knows?”

Kasigna had begun her great work. In the oblivion, she would remake this place. Better. With some advice. She paused a moment, for the task wearied even her. But she had longer than seven days to do it.

“Little Zineryr. Do you seek to pit me against them? I am aware of every danger, and you will play no more tricks.”

“But it seems I have the honor of being your last ghost. Aside from the Agelum and Void Dragon. Not very complete of you. Don’t you think you’d better wait on remaking the afterlife until Norechl and Tamaroth are gone? You’ll never get it perfect if Norechl stains something. And that beard hair…”

The Goddess of Death glared at Zineryr as he pretended to shudder. She spoke softly.

“This is the end. The ghosts did more than I thought possible, but they are all gone. So, Gnome. So, Zineryr…tell your last joke. Play your last prank. Then take my hand.”

She waited, and the merry look faded on Zineryr’s face. He looked at her and then stood, brushing down the spacesuit he wore. He turned to Kasigna, and when he replied, he looked as young as the days when they had both lived.

“Kasigna. I have always loved you.”

She waited for the joke at her expense, the prank on the divine. But Zineryr went on.

“Of all the gods, I did love you. Because you, for all the arrogance of the others, for all the cunning—even intelligence of some, the bravery of others, I knew that when I died, you would take my hand, and I would have meaning in the afterlife. Even if it was what you thought. I loved you all, but you had a vision for this world I could not countenance. I did weep when I chose to take arms against you. I did hesitate. But I loved you.”

He looked in her eyes, and the Goddess stood there. Zineryr went on.

“When you returned…perhaps the ghosts and I wondered if you had changed. All this strife. This destruction. Even you all wept for what came to pass. An eternity of death, yet you clung to existence. And after so long—you did not change. After all your mistakes? You did what you had done before.”

He hung his head.

“Perhaps…even we hoped you might become something different. Yet even Cauwine only changes slightly. Were the gods we loved so static? Will all of what passed, that even you call a time of legends, be wasted if nothing changes?

The Goddess of Death had nothing to say. Zineryr shrugged his shoulders wearily.

“I am Zineryr, the first Gnome to fly into the stars. I am the last ghost of the Second-Furthest Travelers. I slew my gods, and I watched the ghosts of the world fight until their end. They fought with a glory and courage that has never faded from the days when I lived and breathed.”

He turned, and his eyes encompassed the entire war in this blackness. The Gnome sighed.

“Yet they did end. And here I stand, the last ghost of all. The Goddess of Death whom I loved and still…still a part of me loves, asks me for a final joke.”

The Gnome looked up at Kasigna, and she gazed down at him. Her head lowered slightly, and Zineryr whispered.

The joke is this: the gods did defeat the dead. They ate every last ghost. Two gods fell, and two more were carried away, all by ghosts. A single [Innkeeper] escaped the gods, and the Faerie King drew his odd designs across fate itself. Then…then Kasigna said: we will surely win this time.

He turned and smiled. Up, up at the goddess, and the three-in-one did not smile. Zineryr did, and he chuckled. Then he reached out—

And was gone.

Kasigna stood there a while, his words echoing in her ears. Then she bent her head once more to her great task. After all…they had time.

 

——

 

Time. Erin Solstice looked around in a lull between all the furious voices—she wasn’t hearing much anyways, just getting hugs. Her body was so…weak.

She felt dizzy. She felt despairing and hopeful and…

They had time. But she had a mission. She knew that. Erin Solstice closed her eyes. She…

She had met…?

“Who was he? Who were they? Why can’t I remember?”

Tears sprang to her eyes, and she collapsed backwards. This changing world moved around her, and when she had the strength to get up, there was everything to do.

But Erin was sure…sure she had not just been sleeping. Fetohep of Khelt had known her. Pisces told her he’d heard her horn.

Yet it was all a haze. The memories—too many memories—jumbled in Erin’s mind, and she couldn’t hold onto them. The experiences of a ghost tried to make sense to the living girl, and she began crying.

She had friends. They had been there. She knew it. But the names and faces escaped her. The stories…everything she had been through.

It was too much for one mortal mind. Erin sobbed as she lay in bed. She was so weak.

Her eyes fluttered after she wept, and exhaustion dragged her down. Erin heard a familiar voice as she slept. She supposed being dead really did mean you didn’t hear it. But now…

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 46!]

[Skill…

 

Then a long, long pause. As if something that wasn’t quite sentient, wasn’t quite…alive, but still had methods and ways, a system, was taking its time and figuring something out.

Then Erin heard an uncertain voice.

 

[Queen of Undeath Level 6!]

[Skill Command Undead: Lesser obt—

<Khelta, [Queen of the Eternal Necrocracy]> [Not found. Canceling.]

[Sage’s Apprentice Level 2!]

[Sk—

<Velzi, [Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets> [Not found. Canceling.]

[Dragonfriend Level 41!]

<Yderigrisel, Dragon> [Not found. Canceling.]

<Xarkouth, Dragon> [Not found. Canceling.]

<Rhiveile Zessoprical, Wyrm> [Not found. Canceling.]

 

On and on it went. Trying to award her…

 

[Rebel Level 11!]

<Elucina, [Hero of String]> [Not found. Canceling.]

 

Erin listened, trying to hold onto the names. Listening to the classes fading out. Only a few tried to stick to her.

 

[Slaver Class obtained!]

[Slaver Leve—

[Level Ups Cancelled.]

 

[Servant of Nerrhavia Class Obtained!]

[Serv—

[Level Ups Cancelled]

 

And then…and then the voice in her head was silent again. As if mulling over things it could not explain. But Erin knew why…and the voice, seemingly put out by all the mysteries, gave up and went back to the start.

 

[Witch Class Obtained!]

[Conditions Met: Witch → Witch of Second Chances Class!]

[Witch of Second Chances Level 12!]

[Skill – School: Witchcraft (Undetermined) obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Brewing obtained!]

[Spell—

 

She was still crying. Erin didn’t push away the levels. She longed for all of them, except the—the bad ones. She would have been any of them.

The [Queen], the [Hero], a [Sage], a [Rebel]…she would have taken each and every class, even [Pickpocket] like…like who had shown her?

She owed it to them. To those glorious souls. She would have been a [Necromancer] if she could remember what they had told her and given her. But all she had was one class from some intelligent women with hats who knew enough to teach her how to be what they were instead of giving her something.

It almost sounded like the voice in her head knew it too. The apologetic tone listed off the Skills and spells as Erin sobbed into the quiet room. Then it tremulously added one more thing.

 

…[Magical Innkeeper Level 46!]

[Skill – Immunity: Crossbow Bolts obtained!]

 

Erin Solstice lay there, and she would have traded everything for just one face. One name. She…

She would never forget them. Never! The [Innkeeper] tried to get up. She had a purpose. She had to…

She had to do more than just things for herself. More than just warn the world or get ready.

They had told her their stories and she could not forget. The [Innkeeper] clenched her fists. She had spit in the face of ___s, or tried to.

“I’ll never forget them! Never! I swore—I swore to break every chain! I promised to tell Pisces—

Her breath caught. Erin fought to remember that name. The faces. No—she refused to forget anything. Even if her head exploded. She screamed, and people came running, but they found Erin collapsed in bed as she fainted.

I will never forget what I owe them. Any one of them. 

The [Innkeeper] could not be them. She had nothing left of them. But stories. But the memory…

In the silence of The Wandering Inn, Erin Solstice felt a flicker in her mind.

There they were. Velzi, Elucina, Xarkouth, Gerial, Califor…the names flickered across the mortal girl’s memory, and she had met the ghosts of every continent. Heard their stories in a place where time had no meaning.

No wonder she couldn’t encompass it. Perhaps—perhaps she didn’t have to. A door opened in the [Innkeeper]’s mind, and Erin Solstice gasped. She heard a triumphant voice speak and bring meaning to everything.

Aha.

 

<Class: Innkeeper> [Quests unlocked.]

[Post: Basic Quest obtained!]

[Post: Rare Quest obtained!]

[Post: Heroic Quest obtained!]

[Post: Mythical Quest obtained!]

[Post: Legendary Quest obtained!]

 

Erin Solstice opened her eyes wide, and there it was. Each face. Each story and each unfulfilled wish.

Cawe’s last words. 

“Tell Pisces…”

Velzimri’s regrets and all his secret potions and the most important man who had regretted being alone. The Djinni’s tears. The folly of Dragons and the glory of small ghosts. Earthers from home and their final words.

The [Innkeeper] lay there a second. And when she opened her eyes—

She remembered.

 

End of Volume 8.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: 

It’s 5 AM, and I have finished writing Volume 8. I know I will be revising it, but I feel…dehydrated. Exhausted. My body’s cramped, and I don’t think this ergonomic chair is working right.

I’ve written so many words this month that I’m not sure how I did it without snapping a tendon. I have never written this much before, I think, and I know it’s not perfect. But at last, Volume 8 is done.

A few things. I’ve left a note at the top of the chapter…one part of it to check out Casualfarmer’s books. Or buy Book 6 on Audible? I say these housekeeping things because I am not going to be around for a month.

I’ve turned off Patreon for a month and I don’t intend to write here until at least a month has passed. A month is a long time…but I don’t know if it’s long enough.

Frankly, these last few days, no this month, this year as I tried to bring Volume 8 to a close, I worked so hard I could feel myself burning out. To explain what that is because everyone has their definition, I stopped smiling even when I knew a good chapter was done. After I finished writing, on days like these, I would sit for four more hours, playing games, watching Youtube videos and zone out.

Even on my weeks off each month, I didn’t have the energy to start a book or new television show. I called it literally being out of thoughts; I did not have the power to conceptually get into a new television show. Even a new anime or something seemed far too taxing.

Because I spend everything on The Wandering Inn. I try to think of what will happen, write dialogue…and I enjoy it. But I did notice at one point that it was all I was. I used to write a chapter twice a week over one day.

Oh, I’d outline, but I’d do other things and just spend one entire day from dawn till dusk writing. Now? Now I write over three days per chapter, and I spent at least two days with 6-9 hours at the keyboard. I get one full day off and when I take my week off each month, I feel normal by the end of it and go back to writing.

I think, for Volume 9, I will make the chapters shorter. Not as a joke; they have to be. I think a 30,000 word chapter can sometimes be good, but when I do it too much I’m reducing the quality of the chapter as a whole. Of course, it’s a trade. Some writers hone each chapter but they take a year to write 100,000 words of pure quality.

But what we all trade is time. Some writers trade a lot of time for a lot of quality, but I’ve traded some of that quality just to…write. Write 9 million words at this point. And I know it’s a tradeoff, but that is also what a web serial is. Consistency. I don’t miss my days off. In a real sense, I am writing novels of content each month because it’s enjoyable—I assume—to read that instead of waiting multiple years for each book.

I do like it, but I myself have come to my final end of the rope for Volume 8. I took one month to end the most ambitious project ever and, in hindsight, I would do it differently. All the dramatic reveals and conclusions I might space out. I would definitely have considered doing multiple volumes…but I wanted Erin back as much as you by the end of Volume 8.

I have made great mistakes and yet there are chapters I am proud of now. But what I find is that I’m so tired. My arms and shoulders may need physical therapy, and I am exhausted from working, emotionally, from the stress…and that makes me realize I love writing more.

If I may digress: one of my favorite authors ever, Terry Pratchett, once claimed to love the act of writing as much as the finished work itself. I thought he was insane. I hated writing. I liked the finished chapter because that was great, but writing isn’t fun. It’s work.

I begin to see his point and it only took me eight million words. Writing is fulfilling. But if I keep up like this—well, I doubt I’ll kill myself, but there might not be much writer left, and no one can tell stories if there’s nothing inside them. I don’t talk about myself, and I think the author doesn’t need to be talked about.

To be precise, I don’t mean the writer is dead or some fanciful way of describing my relationship with the work. I just think the author is less important than the words. The author is distracting, and frankly? Most of us are boring. It’s a rare author who’s half as interesting as the works they put out. Plus, something about social media and attention here.

But I will tell you this: there have been weeks while I wrote that I looked up and said…oh. I haven’t spoken for more than ten minutes all week. That’s about personality. I am the writer in the cabin. But I think I should do more than just write. It’s been five years? Six years? Feels like eight. I think I started in 2016, which would mean six years where I’ve thrown everything I can at The Wandering Inn.

Because it’s the first great story that’s been a success. Because I enjoy it. I am certain that I will want to be back to writing in a month—but I’ll try to strike a different balance in my life. Go out. Smell roses. Kick roses. I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to conventions or get sick with a deadly plague. I mean, a new one, not the one we have.

But I will try. I’ll almost certainly backpedal on my promises and write too much, but it’s a long journey and we have gotten to a point in the road. I cannot say how much more there is. I am bad at thinking in dates and time.

I don’t imagine that way. When I think of something, I can see…well, let’s take the Beriad of the Antinium as an example. I can picture that scene when I write them. I know their names, some of them, the emotion they feel, why they’re here. What comes next. I know why it matters…

But I don’t see them. Oh, I picture them vaguely, but I don’t imagine in pictures. Nor words. My scenes often lack for detail or even sound or smell, and that’s what I have to work to add in. I can’t picture a mile because I haven’t seen it enough, I guess. The same for how long a chapter is.

So when people ask me how long The Wandering Inn is going to be, I get a bit exasperated and assure them there is an ending because there is, or else I’d be blind. But I don’t know how long from here to there.

But I do know the waypoints. If this is a road, I see the huge streetlights. If it’s a sea, I see buoys or something. Lighthouses I’m steering towards.

This is one of them. I think I can say that we are ‘somewhere’ in the story’s arc of being one third done. Or one half of the way there. Or two thirds.

I know that’s vague. The story could be one of those three options, or in between them. And that would change how it flows. But I know we have reached one of those points. Whether it continues depends on whether I can bring justice to the story. Whether people want to read it I guess…and the unexpected.

But here ends Volume 8. It has been the longest volume, the biggest journey so far. We will return to the inn. The world of the dead is over. This world has new lands. This is the age of adventure and old and new things coming out.

Nothing will be the same, but nothing ever is. And that is okay. I hope you’ll be there when I start Volume 9. For now—thanks for reading. See you in a bit. This strange story has certainly changed my life.

 

–pirateaba

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.85

Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur fell through the earth.

She didn’t know how long. Minutes? How far down? Her voice howled Belavierr’s name. She only knew the tumbling through air, the despair.

Then she landed.

Eleven minutes of free-fall. What should have ground her bones to dust—didn’t. The hole that Belavierr had opened was a portal. Though it took her eleven minutes to fall to wherever the [Witch] had sent her, the Gnoll only fell a shorter distance.

Even so—she landed far, far down. She felt the searing pain as she landed on her side.

Her arm broke.

Torishi’s howl of pain was one of a dozen. Her bodyguards? Torishi dragged herself up, holding her axe one-handed.

“Where are we? Who is here?”

Voices called out. Eight. One Gnoll was dead, neck snapped. The others stood in darkness.

“Light. Where is…?”

Torishi looked around, but the beam of light that had always accompanied her, the Skill—wasn’t working. How far down were they?

Where were they? A Gnoll produced a magic torch at last and lit it. The Gnolls gazed around. At first, they looked straight up at that cavernous ceiling. The dirt tomb they were trapped in. Then…the light played, flickering down the walls of stone. The faded, dirty letters. Torishi’s heart fluttered.

“No. It was here all along?”

She looked up, and one Gnoll fell to their knees. For there were the steps that led up into a dark citadel. Here were statues broken, but enough words to show them what had stood here. A face lying amidst stone and rubble.

Eleven minutes below the Great Plains…just as the legends said. Torishi’s lips moved.

…and the only Kingdom of Gnolls fell into the earth.

She gazed at the shattered face of a statue. A broken throne, meant to greet visitors. Then Torishi realized where Belavierr had sent her.

Where she had sent…

Them.

Someone laughed in the darkness. A growling, hysterical laugh of triumph. It came from a figure as the Gnoll bearing the torch moved. Torishi’s fur stood on end.

“The Raskghar. Form a circle.”

She and the Gnolls of the Weatherfur tribe formed a circle in the darkness, staring into the night. Their eyes were adjusted to shadow—but the Raskghar lived in this place. Underground.

Torishi heard…sounds. She looked around and knew.

“Nokha.”

Mrsha’s nightmare was giggling. Again—again and again she lived. She was immortal! But that was not what made the Raskghar laugh and howl. It was their prey. Eight Gnolls. And…Torishi sniffed the air. Slowly, she exhaled as a Gnoll moaned.

“So. This is the doom of our kingdom.”

Behind the Raskghar from the Meeting of Tribes crept a thousand shadows. Curious noses sniffed the air. Growls. The new Raskghar turned as the occupants of the Kingdom of Gnolls stalked forwards.

The torch flickered. Torishi felt a dread creeping over her. She looked upwards.

No light. No way back. Was the Stitch Witch here? Was she laughing and watching? Surely…

Torishi spoke.

“Fight, Weatherfur. We will not see our tribe again. But fight them. Raskghar! Your treachery failed long ago!

All she heard was silence and rustling. The Gnoll warriors tried to watch every shadow…but they were surrounded.

In the silence, deep underground—Torishi Weatherfur met her end. First one Gnoll vanished, the torch falling as she struck, howling. Then silence. The Raskghar leapt and tackled another Gnoll. Torishi brought her axe down—she cleaved one head in two and then lost her grip as she buried the axe in a second arm. She looked around and saw three Gnolls.

She drew her dagger and howled. The Raskghar of this old place watched as the newcomers struck again. Then one Gnoll, turning to Torishi. Reaching out as she howled.

Then…

Torishi stood in the darkness. Someone doused the torch. Slyly. With a cunning beyond the others. She stood there, one arm burning with pain.

“Come, Nokha. I know your name.”

I am hungry. Hungry for you.”

Torishi’s head turned in the pitch black silence. One little monster who had stalked Mrsha across a continent. Who had escaped even down here. She waited, as, around her, that Raskghar stalked, the others waiting.

Monsters playing with their food. Torishi panted in the darkness. Feshi…the sky was so far away.

When the Raskghar grabbed her, she struggled, but the grip was so strong—Nokha stabbed her and tossed her away as Torishi’s dagger glanced off stolen armor. The Gnoll landed, scrambling for a weapon. She felt a hand seize her throat, felt the hot breath.

“I win again.”

The Weatherfur’s Chieftain smiled. Here she died, and they would never find her unless they came looking, entombed beneath the earth.

But—she called upon her Skill. Called upon her tribe. She grabbed Nokha’s hand, strangling her one-handed.

No longer, Raskghar.

At least let this nightmare plaguing the girl die.

The dark Kingdom of Gnolls had been lost to light over a thousand years. The predators who stalked this grave had never seen light, not as bright as the torch.

In this dark place…a brighter light burned down from the ceiling. A ray of blazing sun.

It illuminated Nokha as the Raskghar looked up and screamed, blinded. She let go of Torishi—but the Weatherfur’s Chieftain had gripped her. Nokha tried to break Torishi’s grip as the Gnoll grabbed one shoulder, but she couldn’t.

She was a monster who had been granted thought and used it to kill. Torishi was a [Chieftain] of her tribe. Nokha’s arm cracked as Torishi’s paws dug into her flesh.

“Let go. Let go!

The Raskghar howled. She bit at Torishi, but the Gnoll kept gripping. Kept tearing into the Raskghar’s arm with her claws. Nokha began screaming for the other Raskghar to help her. But they slunk away from that burning light.

It was so hot. Brighter than even sunlight. The air…her fur was smoking. Nokha began howling, and Torishi’s grip burrowed through her rancid fur. It tore flesh, ripped tendon, and then the Weatherfur Chieftain ripped Nokha’s arm off.

Screaming, the Raskghar retreated, only to see a blazing Gnoll’s paw shoot out. Torishi’s fingers dug into Nokha’s throat, and the panicked howling stopped. The Raskghar struck her, pleading, trying to bite, flee—but Torishi put every fiber of strength into her claws.

A warrior, a mother, a leader, a shaman…the Gnoll pulled at Nokha’s head.

One less horror in this world. One less nightmare before I go. She cried out into the darkness as the Raskghar flinched from this burning thing that was no easy prey.

Belavierr! Stitch Witch! If this is my end—then grant me one last request. I will pay you nothing. But if you have any soul left—

She tore the throat from the Raskghar and felt the blood spray her fur. Torishi dug her claws into the dying Nokha’s body and then tore the head from the corpse. The blank eyes of the Raskghar stared at Torishi as the [Chieftain] raised the head.

“Tell them I was here. And tell that child her nightmare is over.”

She stood, the head staring blankly at her. Nokha’s last look was wordless confusion. She never understood the Gnolls. Not even at the end. Torishi was about to toss the head down when someone reached out and took it. She jerked—looked around—

But the Stitch Witch was gone. Torishi smiled bitterly. Did even the [Witch] have a soul? If so…

Slowly, the Gnoll gazed around, and her broken arm burned again. She was exhausted, and the burning light faded slightly. Torishi searched around and found a sword buried in a Raskghar’s chest. She drew it out of the body and gazed around.

“There you are. Stories. Horrors at the beginning that will not leave. I am damned by the [Witch] of ages.”

Torishi looked around as the shadows drew in. She pointed up, grinning amidst the blood and faded dyes on her fur. The sun, her friend in the darkest days, warmed her fur.

Down here, you could forget there had ever been light. She looked at the Raskghar and saw them flinch away from the memory of something they had turned their backs on.

Sanity. Love, and even hope. They were the wretched cousins of Gnolls. But even they were not doomed. Torishi looked up, and above her, Weatherfur’s people fell to their knees. She had to tell them.

Deep in the depths of the earth, the [Chieftain] of Weatherfur drew in a breath through damaged lungs, past broken bone and with her blood dripping from her veins. Then she howled.

Miles below them, too far for any ear to hear—they still heard her. She howled in the marrow of their bones, and they raised their heads and called back. A voice from beneath the earth. The death of nightmares.

A ray of sun shone down past the [Witch] who looked at it uneasily and into the earth. A Gnoll stood under its light and howled upwards as the Raskghar flinched and beheld her.

I was here.

The Kingdom of Gnolls still rang as the first of its children looked around into that darkness. Torishi panted for breath, and she smiled like that distant sun.

“My tribe will not have me for the trials ahead. But someday, they will return here. They will find this place and know: I was here. I will have you remember that until my people find me once more.”

Snarls answered her, and they gathered in a throng, but they flinched from her stare. Torishi lifted her axe overhead and called down to them.

Look at me, Raskghar. Look at the thing you called Nokha and choose to change again! For I am proof you shall not devour us in darkness. Your teeth will never find the heart of Gnolls.”

She left the dais of stone, and the light shone down into the Kingdom of Gnolls from the world above. The promise on Torishi’s lips. She fought under sunlight. Until the light faded.

 

——

 

High above, the Witch of Webs lifted a bloody head into the air. She regarded it silently, and the Weatherfur tribe howled and wept. Mrsha looked up at Nokha’s face as Vetn carried her and wept.

Torishi Weatherfur was dead. And at last…so was Nokha. The [Witch] tossed the head down. Belavierr looked around.

“I answered the great [Chieftain] of Weatherfur not for payment. Not for any honor of her deeds or life. But as a mother.”

She looked so self-indulgent, so proud of her gesture in that moment that Mrsha howled at her. The Stitch-Witch smiled to herself, pretending not to notice the Gnoll girl. She only ceased when someone spoke to her.

“You have no right to call yourself a mother. I have seen what you do, Belavierr. You have no morality save for that which benefits you. It was a mistake to seek your aid. Your children deserve better parenthood.”

She turned and saw a Gnoll standing there. He was a warrior, a great undead champion of old. But the voice who spoke through him was that of Az’kerash.

“Watch your words, Necromancer.”

She hissed at him through the magic link. But Az’kerash just replied coldly.

“I have your ‘daughter’. She is safe. You will not see her again. Begone, Belavierr. I am ashamed to call you a fellow spellcaster.”

“You dare to threaten me? My daughter? I will haunt your remains, Necromancer.

Belavierr’s eyes blazed with a sudden rage that went far beyond any emotion this day. For reply, Kerash lifted his blade and struck her. She staggered, and blood ran down her arm.

You have killed more good souls than I can stomach. You—you truly are without any good to this world, aren’t you?

She tore the blade from the Draugr’s hand and threw him back. Now, Belavierr whirled. She howled, her joy forgotten.

“Necrom—”

A blade pierced her side, and she grunted. Saliss of Lights clung to Belavierr, stabbing—but he had no great magic. She knocked the Named Adventurer away. Snapped her fingers. A veil of threads went to tear him to pieces.

No!

Lehra Ruinstrider leapt, and the Blade of Mershi struck Belavierr. The Stitch Witch seized the Gnoll and dragged the Blade of Mershi from Lehra’s grasp. She lifted it, and the soul trapped within screamed at her as the gauntlet glowed. Belavierr threw the relic away.

I am the Witch of Webs! I am the last great [Witch], and I will shatter any foe who defies me! Adventurer, [Mage], or child! Hear me, children of Izril! The N—

Belavierr was still speaking when she turned her head. She threw up a hand, and the pink carriage hit her. Like a car crash victim, she slammed into the hood, bounced off the roof as Reynold stared into the [Witch]’s ringed gaze for one heart-stopping moment—then landed on the ground.

The pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart did a U-turn and ran Belavierr over as she tried to get up. Reynold didn’t hear or feel the crunch of bones he was for once hoping to sense going through the carriage. He backed up just in time to see a hat rise and two glowing eyes.

That was unwise, servant of—

Moore seized Belavierr. She looked up, and he slammed her head-first into the carriage with one thorn-covered hand. He hammered her into the magical vehicle with enough force to rock the enchanted carriage. Then he raised a thorn-covered fist and hit her so hard she cracked a glass window.

Belavierr gazed at Moore and grabbed his arm. She threw him across the ground. Then she turned for Reynold. The [Butler] was already taking the carriage away. He rocketed across the battlefield, heading for a racing figure still dodging enemies.

What the—

Vetn yelped as Reynold kicked a door open. Magnolia’s pink carriage careened to a stop, and the [Butler] shouted.

Get in!

The Thief of Clouds hesitated, but Mrsha leapt into the pink carriage just in time for the earth to explode. Vetn leapt into the interior as a spike of earth nearly hit the carriage. Reynold zig-zagged away as Ulcreziek howled and Xherw pointed.

Kill them! Kill them already!

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] was drawing on every scrap of magic left to him. His tribe was in tatters. Xherw was out of his mind, attacking Silverfang’s tribe. Killing the ones he thought were responsible for everything.

“Chieftain Akrisa, run.”

Shaman Cetrule lifted his staff as Xherw and his bodyguard charged at them. Krshia, Akrisa, and Satar looked at the mad [Chieftain]. Ulcreziek snarled, pointing at Mrsha.

Enough. He had had enough of this. And so…the [Shaman] saw a glowing light growing brighter out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and the Illuminary surged across the land. The glowing [Pirate]’s ship rode a wave that engulfed screaming Gnoll [Shamans] of the Plain’s Eye tribe. It bore down straight at Ulcreziek.

“Hah! Got him!”

Rasea Zecrew laughed as the Gnoll disappeared beneath the prow of the ship. Flos Reimarch grunted as he stood at the railings, ready to leap into the fighting below. Then…the ship listed. Everyone, the Horns, King Raelt, the half-Elves, the [Knights]…

Hesitated.

What was that? Why is my ship stopped?

Rasea hesitated. Then she felt the Illuminary move backwards. She raced to the prow and saw the wave break around her. Then…she looked down at the drenched Gnoll with one glowing eye staring up at her, one paw holding her ship back.

“Oh sh—”

The Illuminary rocked as a precipice of stone slammed into it. It fell sideways—and the crew and passengers stumbled. They spilled out onto the ground. Rasea was first to roll to her feet.

“My ship!”

The Plain’s Eye tribe surrounded the [Pirate]’s vessel. They waited for any fools to get up and be slaughtered. The first thing they saw was a bandaged man slowly getting up. His green eyes glittered behind a bunch of bandages.

“Another undead? Some kind of bandaged one? Kill it.”

A [Shamanic Warrior] barked. Then he saw a man with a crown striding out of the mud and dust. He was a Human with a rapier in one hand, a parrying dagger in the other. A little golden bell chimed as Raelt of Jecrass stood next to the King of Destruction.

“Jecaina?”

The Arbiter Queen emerged, coughing, and, from out of the darkness, Alked Fellbow shot an arrow that lanced through six Gnolls. The Plain’s Eye tribe looked up as the King of Destruction pointed.

The Steward, Orthenon, rode out of the chaos. Gazi Pathseeker joined him, and then a woman glowing with lightning smiled and floated off the deck.

A girl holding the Serkonian Lance brushed at her clothing and fixed Belavierr with a cold stare almost as old as the Witch of Webs. Half-Giant Revenants, a trembling [Champion of War], and Vizir Hecrelunn passed by Frieke of Khelt and her Seahawk. Centaurs, some heartily sick, clattered off the grounded ship as half-Elves and [Knights] stood next to angry [Pirates].

Slowly, the King of Destruction lifted a finger. The Gnolls backed up from the strangest gathering in the world. Flos Reimarch’s eyes were burning as his bandaged mouth opened. The sands of Chandrar whipped around the warriors from a different continent. The legends of Chandrar looked upon the Meeting of Tribes, and the King of Destruction raised his voice.

Char—

“Chandrar, charge!”

The [Hero] of Zethe roared. Doubte came storming from the ship, and the Horns of Hammerad followed, screaming for psychological effect. The Herald of the Forests raised her horn, and the King of Destruction looked around and then followed the others into fighting, shouting curses.

“The Steward of Destruction! Gazi Pathseeker! The Archmage of Chandrar!”

Screams. Gnolls and Drakes recognized the three legendary figures of Reim. Raelt leapt past the others, sword flickering as he and Jecaina raced into the fighting. Khelt’s undead were surging around Zeres.

Protect the Gnolls. Slay the [Witch]. Save the child—

 

——

 

Each one had a different goal. The sky was crackling as Archamge Valeterisa panted. Fissival was hurling spell after spell at her location, even the Magic Throwers. She was reconsidering her participation in this war as Wyverns flew with the best [Mages], trading spells of their own behind magical barriers.

As [Mages] fought. Right until the sky flashed, and a woman danced into sight.

Valeterisa. Do you need a hand?”

“Archmage…Amerys?”

Valeterisa took a second to check her eyes were working and this wasn’t an illusion. Amerys’ grey hair whipped about her as her eyes glowed with the storm. Valeterisa lifted a weak hand.

“That would be very welcome. I, ah—are you free now? Query: Wistram. Is Amerys supposed to be…?”

Amerys laughed, and the sky turned into burning lightning as Fissival’s [Mages] screamed. Valeterisa looked at Amerys and, for once, canceled the [Message] spell.

No one was going to cage her again.

Two Archmages of Wistram criss-crossed the skies with magic as Wyverns battled with flying Pegasi. Oteslia’s [Pegasus Riders] struck Fissival from behind.

 

——

 

What? What Archmages? Just—kill them and Oteslia’s riders!

Wall Lord Dragial was shouting into a [Communication] spell on the ground. Salazsar’s charge into Fissival had ended up in a melee—and that was the worst scenario for the magical army of Fissival. Gnolls on one side—

And here came Wall Lord Ilvriss. Dragial scrambled away as the Wall Lord of Salazsar rode at him. He teleported across the battlefield as Ilvriss cursed.

Dragial!

The Drake scrambled away. That was when he saw the Blade of Mershi land on the ground as the Witch of Webs tore the relic from Lehra’s grasp.

“The Blade of Mershi. At last!

Wall Lord Dragial ran for the gauntlet. It had landed in the fighting, and he thrust a wand forwards. Drakes—his own forces and Gnolls and Salazsar’s forces went flying as a ripple of force knocked them aside.

Where was it? The Drake hunted around in the mud, falling to his knees to wrench up…a helmet. He looked around for that glint of ancient magic. His [Detect Magic] spell was all but useless—it was cloaked. The key to the City of Stars!

Where…? Then he saw her. That damn Gnoll, running through the fighting with her team.

Lehra!

She had to be sensing it! The Stargnoll was wounded, but she still ran for the relic. Dragial ran at her, wand raised. He lunged as he saw something glinting in the mud.

The Blade of Mershi rose in Dragial’s grip. He laughed as Lehra skidded to a halt.

“No. Dragial!

“It’s mine! It’s mine at last! In the name—of the City of Stars!

The Wall Lord shoved the gauntlet onto one arm and raised it upwards. Just like Lehra had done. He looked up, his face radiant. The world dropped away from him, and he stood in space.

Space! A room with no walls or floor. Just the shining void. Surely this…

This was the magic of the Walled City, Mershi. The Drake wept as the magic interfaced with his being. He saw someone standing there.

A Drake, wearing the armor of stars. She held a sword, and Dragial fell to his knees.

“You’re the one who will lead me to the City of Stars.”

Perhaps.

The owner of the Blade of Mershi, Saturniel Cometscale, whispered. She looked into Dragial’s eyes. Into his soul.

“If you want the power of Mershi—answer me one question.”

The Wall Lord drew himself up. He had waited for this trial forever. He whispered.

“Name it.”

The Drake wavered as her spirit focused on Dragial.

“Who…are our enemies?”

The Wall Lord felt a power compelling him to answer with all his soul. But he didn’t have to think—he only worried it was a singular answer.

“The…Humans of Izril. Or the Gnoll tribes. The Antinium—the Nagas—”

He was going to go on, but the Drake lifted one claw. Dragial waited, heart beating—and Saturniel rolled her eyes.

“Wrong.”

Dragial’s glorious vision of the stars began to fade. He screamed desperately.

“Wait—wait! Tell me what the answer is!”

The Drake closed her eyes and looked away. The enemy of so many species looked at the bearer of the Blade of Mershi. The answer was the one the Stargnoll had once given:

No one. No mortal enemies in an entire species. The Wall Lord was not worthy.

Then the image of Saturniel vanished, and Dragial was left standing on the battlefield. He looked around, staring at the dead Blade of Mershi. Then Lehra kicked him.

Dragial went tumbling down as the Stargnoll raised the Blade of Mershi. Stargazer’s Promise spread out around her as Dragial rose to his feet.

“What…what did you do?”

He looked at Lehra as the armored Gnoll gazed down at him. The Wall Lord looked about, and the soldiers of Fissival turned at his scream.

You’ve corrupted the Blade of Mershi. Kill—kill her!

Stargazer’s Promise closed ranks as Lehra panted, drawing a sword and shield out of the air. Elgrinna, Suxhel, and Emper looked to Lehra.

“He’s getting away. What do we do? Go after him?”

The Stargnoll hesitated, then shook her head. Dragial was scrambling away, calling for Fissival’s troops to kill her.

“He’s not important. We—we have to get out of here. The Stitch Witch is still killing everyone, and Mrsha—”

Then the adventurers realized they were in danger. Fissival’s entire army was turning towards them and the Relic that Dragial had wanted for so long. The young adventurers looked around, and even stolid Emper wilted slightly.

“How are we supposed to fight…?”

Suxhel was counting, her mana almost exhausted, and Elgrinna didn’t seem to know which way to turn. Lehra herself, a Named Adventurer, looked at a sea of Drakes, and that expression of confidence wavered. The four adventurers backed up as spears lowered into walls and Drakes marched towards them and raised their wands.

Then the Selphid leapt into the first spear, and the tip of one pierced her stomach. But the whirling [Steel Tempest] didn’t care. She was holding a flail of Demas Metal, each blade dripping with blood, water, or poison.

She whirled the weapon around, and Drakes broke apart, screaming in terror. Lehra saw a rank vanish, [Soldiers] falling or fleeing as the Gold-rank Captain of the Halfseekers turned.

“Rookies! What are you doing getting cornered? Keep moving if you want to live! Moore! Open a hole!”

Moore? Wh—

A half-Giant ran through another group of Drakes, and a Selphid wearing a Drake’s body webbed down the soldiers on either side. The Named Adventurer and her team saw the half-Giant pick up a [Mage] and throw the Drake into the distance.

You’re—the Halfseekers?

Lehra vaguely recognized them. Jelaqua Ivirith was covered in wounds, but the Selphid had changed her body four times already. They had been pursuing Mrsha when they saw the younger team in trouble.

Now there were two teams against all those Drakes.

“What do we do?”

Jelaqua stepped into the opening she’d cleared, trembling as she Rampaged. She snapped back, eyes glowing faintly orange, veins pulsing with her true body.

When an army’s surrounding you? You fight so damn hard they back away and run. Where’s that Wall Lord?”

She turned, and Lehra saw Dragial, still retreating, but glaring at her with hatred in his eyes.

“There. But he’s lost and—”

Jelaqua grabbed Lehra’s face with one bloody hand. The Selphid stared down at Lehra.

“You don’t leave your enemies alive, rookie.”

The young Gnoll who had been a Bronze-rank adventurer less than two years ago looked into the eyes of a Selphid over forty years an adventurer. Her reply was automatic. The reason why she was chosen.

“I have no enemies in any species.”

She got back a corpse’s smile. The Selphid’s head rotated slowly, and she looked at the Drake who had led a Walled City into the Meeting of Tribes.

“Maybe not. But I see a person who would walk on the corpses of everyone to get his way. Even his own kind. The Halfseekers know evil. Adventurers.

She pointed one hand at Dragial, and the Wall Lord paled, despite a thousand Drakes between him and the Selphid. He had fought Lehra for two years and escaped and triumphed and vowed revenge.

“—He does not live another minute.”

Then she whirled her flail up and sprinted towards him. Moore, Ulinde, and Stargazer’s Promise followed, and the Drakes and their formations looked at a Named-Adventurer and two Gold-rank teams.

Hold them back! Kill the adventurers!

Dragial was already looking for a safe place. He raised his wand and pointed. There!

“[Teleportation]!”

He was midway through the spell when the [Rogue] stepped out of his shadow and calmly ran a dagger into Dragial’s back. The Wall Lord had enchanted armor, and his amulets were some of the best protection in the world. So Seborn kept stabbing until he felt the first prick of his blade against the enchanted cloth. Even that didn’t draw blood, but the Drowned Man just smiled and whispered.

“[Anchoring Stab].”

The teleportation spell fizzled out. Dragial turned, but Seborn just dodged the spray of acid that struck the Drakes behind him. He tried to finish the Wall Lord, but the Drakes nearly ran him through from behind. The Drowned Man leapt backwards, enchanted blades flashing.

Damn you! All of you! Kill them!

The Gnolls fighting with Fissival were howling behind Jelaqua. For all her words—the Selphid tore left and right, shredding limbs. Moore’s charge left only blood and bodies in his wake. Ulinde’s spells left dozens dead with each cast, and the terrified infantry hesitated.

But then spells began to strike the Gold-rank teams. Lehra blocked a glowing comet with a shield only to scream as acid rained down. Moore howled, and a hundred lesser spells cut the air.

Burning [Arrows of Flame] rained down on the Gnoll tribe trying to strike Fissival’s heart from the side. The Woven Bladegrass tribe led by Chieftain Werri were encircled like the Halfseekers and Stargazer’s Promise.

These Gnolls died to the last. Dragial pointed at them, unleashing a [Deathbolt]. The furious Chieftain refused to fall, even as it splashed through her body. She howled as she tried to fight towards the Wall Lord, but [Mage-General] Qeuse stood behind walls of magic.

Chieftain Werri’s warriors threw themselves against the barriers as jets of flame and acid shot from the mouths of Oldblood Drakes. There weren’t just warriors in her tribe. Everyone, young and old, was trapped, but the army of Drakes didn’t care. Werri lifted her head, looking around wildly for a way out.

What she saw were—Centaurs.

 

——

 

“Forgotten Wing! Fall upon them!”

Perorn Fleethoof saw the deathtrap and led her forces straight into Fissival’s flank. But she knew it was a desperation play.

A third of her people had fallen to the Witch of Webs and during the fighting. The Drakes turned as her forces cut in fast, and the Centaurs’ charge faltered as armored spearwalls turned on them.

The officer. Perorn pointed at Dragial and Qeuse.

Officer sniping!

She loosed an arrow at the [Mage-General] as her people fired, but the arrows cracked uselessly against the barriers surrounding Fissival’s general. Perorn looked to the Woven Bladegrass tribe and adventurers.

“Break towards us!”

They were trying, but there just weren’t enough Centaurs to pierce the thousands upon thousands of Drakes. Perorn’s weak leg slipped. She stumbled, and then an arm caught her.

“Sister. Get up. Cover my charge.”

The Centauress looked up into an older face, a woman with a pale lower torso. A Centaur? But not one of Perorn’s warriors, wearing armor. This was a nomad, wearing decorated cloth and charms woven into the colorful tale of her tribe.

As different from Centaurs of Baleros as…Perorn blinked incredulously. She had not looked for Centaurs on Izril.

Herdmistress Geraeri of the People of Zair lifted a quarterstaff as the Forgotten Wing Company saw a second line of Centaurs streaking through their ranks. Only a few dozen—but they followed Geraeri forwards, and Perorn felt her weak legs strengthen.

She felt refreshed, as if she could run another hundred miles. The herd of Jecrass’ Centaurs crashed into Fissival’s spears as if they were made of stone. Steel snapped on their bodies, and Geraeri raced forwards, urging Perorn to her side.

It wasn’t just her. Perorn’s head whirled, and she saw a stream of faded green hair flying beneath a helmet. The Herald of Forests, Ierwyn, rode like a whisper through the trees. She and her half-Elves passed through the Drakes’ lines, and she halted in front of Chieftain Werri.

The myth who had rode Chandrar’s battlefields four hundred years ago lifted her sword as she looked down at the tired Gnolls. Her eyes met Werri’s.

Kin of the plains! I am the Herald of Claiven Earth! Will you ride with me? Fables of the Forest—arise! [A Fraction of My Experience]!”

The Gnolls of the young tribe stared up as the half-Elf called to them, and they felt the experience of centuries sink into their bones. Werri parried a blade and riposted, feeling her exhaustion fade. She howled.

Follow that half-Elf!

Ierwyn was already plunging towards the first wall of magic barriers. She lanced through them in a heartbeat, shattering the magic as she cut a path out of the Woven Bladegrass tribe’s encirclement.

“Officer on the field. Marking them for bombardments! Get—get the Wall Lord to safety.”

The [Mage-General] of Fissival was trying to reform his lines. General Qeuse pivoted as he saw Perorn and Geraeri riding at him.

“[Battlefield: Cascade Shields of Fissival]!”

He reinforced the magic around him as the Centaurs charged. The Drake’s confidence lasted for six seconds. Then an arrow fell like a shooting star and pierced the magic, breaking each barrier in front of him like a bubble.

The [General] deflected the arrow wildly with a swipe of the scepter and shield he held. The Drake whirled, and Alked Fellbow lifted his head as he lowered his bow, turning to the next target. The [General] of Fissival shouted desperately.

Defend the camps—

 

——

 

Wall Lord Dragial was watching the Gnolls led by the half-Elf in stupefaction when the Centaurs overran Qeuse’s position.

“This isn’t right. We are the City of Magic!

And they were. But there charged the Fables of the Forest, a company of old half-Elves and Gnolls blazing with Ierwyn’s fury. Geraeri, the Herdmistress of Zair, and Perorn met the [Mage-General] in combat. He deflected Perorn’s lancing stab, staggered as his armor took a blow from Geraeri’s quarterstaff, and saw both Centaurs gallop past him.

The Drake was trying to recast his barrier spells when the trail of rope that Geraeri had tossed wrapped around one of his legs like a snake and tightened into a knot. A simple rope trick. A [Nomad]’s Skill. The [General] was torn off his feet, and the Herdmistress raced out of the fighting, dragging the Drake behind her. She dragged the screaming [General] across the ground, racing away as Centaurs trampled the body, loosing arrows down until that scream stopped.

“Barbarians.”

Dragial tried to back away. Then he whirled as he saw the Woven Bladegrass tribe cutting their way out of his army on one side. The Centaurs turning for another charge. And the adventurers…

Reached him. 

The Wall Lord saw the Halfseekers charging him. He backed away, raising his wand. A shield deflected Jelaqua’s flail, and he spoke.

“[Ray of Entropy]—”

Lehra deflected the spell. She stabbed forwards and rammed the blade into his shoulder. The Wall Lord tore away, and one of his amulets trapped Jelaqua and Lehra in a field of stasis. Cursing, Emper struck Dragial, and the Drake staggered as the staff deactivated his magic.

The Blade is mine! The City of Magic will never fall! You will all be hunted down and—

Moore picked up the Wall Lord. The bloody thorns on his hand cut into Dragial’s face as he squeezed tight. Lehra looked up in silence as the [Stasis Field] deactivated. She waited for something…a last contingency. A body-double.

All she saw was Dragial’s body jerk once and blood run down from Moore’s grip. A terrible grinding crunch and…and then he was gone. The enemy who had plagued her for two years twitched one last time, and his magic vanished. The half-Giant tossed the Drake’s body down, and Ulinde leapt from his back.

“Looting. Twenty seconds.”

The bloody Halfseekers saw Stargazer’s Promise recoil. Jelaqua Ivirith just turned. The adventurers looked at Fissival’s stunned army. The Woven Bladegrass tribe scythed through them behind the Herald, turning their demise into an unstoppable charge that began to tear the Drake army in twain.

Wall Lord Dragial was dead. The Stargnoll had finally brought down her foe. The Halfseekers had made an enemy of Fissival, and…

Lehra looked around. She had already known it, but now she stared down at the ruined face, the battlefield spanning miles, the army of the dead. Now that she thought it, it was obvious.

Izril would never be the same again.

 

——

 

Fetohep rode through the battlefield, halberd whirling as the undead poured forwards. Zeres faced them, holding the line despite the massive number of undead. They had levels; the dead soldiers had no limit.

Madness. The King of Khelt was raging. How many years’ worth of accumulated mana had the Walled Cities wasted? All their preparations since the last Antinium Wars to loose spells meant for the direst battle?

Five years?

All to wipe out one of their enemies. The worst part was…they succeeded.

And how many dead was Khelt spending to activate and keep the Graven Passage open? Even he couldn’t count the cost, but it was necessary.

Fetohep saw a single tribe of Gnolls fighting Manus in the vanguard of both forces. They were the fiercest warriors of their generation. A famous tribe, led by one Gnoll who had given them their name.

Steelfur. A thorn in the side of the Walled Cities. Fetohep watched as the warriors, fighting with light to no armor, suddenly faltered. A Gnoll stared down at her light brown fur, not the grey of a moment ago. Then a sword cut her down.

There was only one reason for that. Fetohep’s head turned, and he saw Iraz Steelfur die. The despairing Chieftain was holding onto a Drake with brilliant, sky-blue scales, who buried a crackling glaive in his chest. His fur smoked with lightning, and a Gnoll screamed his [Chieftain]’s name.

Adetr Steelfur was the only Gnoll who remained metal after Iraz fell. The only one with a class of his own.

“So ends a great tribe.”

Fetohep’s head turned right, and he saw another [Chieftain] fall. This time to Zeres. A triumphant Drake with scars across his body raised a serrated spear, covered in his blood and his opponent’s. The Sharkcaptain of Zeres was armed with weapons as old and as powerful as the Gnolls who had fought him. And he was the one who rose, not Chieftain Reizet.

Az’muzarre. Steelfur. They had stood against the truth and Doombearers. But two great tribes were falling to pieces. Being cut down.

“Khelt. Upon me!”

Fetohep’s howl made the Admiral of the Land, Horsthe, bring the veterans of Zeres against him. Fetohep’s undead ran into the Drakes. Then they climbed over the dead and living alike. They buried the first rank of Drakes in a sea of bones and armor. The undead ruler rode forwards.

“Fetohep. The ritual. I cannot feel Khelt. Xierca is…dying. Chandrar is lost.”

Khelta was whispering in his ears. Fetohep’s head turned.

“Xierca?”

A shudder ran through the undead. They felt it just as he. A void was being torn open in Fetohep’s heart. Khelt’s rulers were dying.

So the undead monarch rode with eyes of blazing gold, and the living fell away before him and his army that began to shriek wrath. Fetohep looked to Zeres, to Fissival, to Manus, to the tribes of Plain’s Eye and all the fools.

Whom did he slaughter? Which army did he wipe from the earth and leave nothing for even carrion to feed upon? Who died? They trembled as his army kept pouring from the gates.

Then Fetohep saw it. The golden fury in his face wavered…and he pointed.

There! Khelt, to me!

Ten thousand soldiers poured after him, and another ten thousand, heedless of being flanked, the danger, forcing Drakes and Gnolls to flee. Fetohep came to a halt and looked down. His halberd pointed at the ground—not at the figures in front of him.

Gnolls. Tribes fleeing the fighting, surrounded by Drakes on every side, under attack. Which group was this? Silverfang? Plain’s Eye?

Fetohep saw children, parents, families, Gnolls holding bows or simple spears. Looking up at him with horror, and he gazed about and saw more tribes fleeing.

“Here. Warriors of Khelt, protect these Gnolls until your destruction. Not one dies. To me, Khelt!

He plunged into the fighting, as the undead of Khelt encircled this group, carrying them to safety. Fetohep looked around for his queen, Khelta, and saw a smiling face. He grinned back and then looked around.

He had found his glory upon the battlefield and his place. At the despair of their nation—Fetohep did what every ruler before him had ever chosen.

Living over the dead. But his head turned, looking for that last child. He could not save them all.

But he would always try.

 

——

 

The Golden Gnoll of Pallass was no hero and never tried to be. She had hidden every day of her life who she was.

Out of fear. Just like all the others. Now, Qwera stood, and her fur shone white and gold next to Wer, and the air filled with colors as Tesy drew arrows and brick walls next to her.

She loosed arrows down at the Plain’s Eye tribe, and two Doombearers stood in the open, with the tribes of Izril at their back.

Qwera would have traded all the gold she had ever earned for this moment. And all of the gold she’d ever earn that this would never happen.

She couldn’t describe the sensation of triumph and loss. The Gnolls dying and the truth she could finally cling to. The knowledge it wasn’t her.

They were not doom. It had always been misfortune, deeds by good people and monsters. It wasn’t her.

They just had to—struggle. Qwera saw Tesy fall, shrieking with an arrow in his leg. He was bleeding so quickly she dropped the bow and grabbed a potion.

Qwera! Get back!

Ysara backed up, blade parrying a strike from an incredulous Gnoll. The [Merchant] fought with the talent that had been called a prodigy’s.

Once. But she had traded it all for the future she wanted, her own path. She went sprawling as she locked blades with a Gnoll and a Skill tossed her off her feet. Qwera looked up as a Gnoll tackled a huge [Shamanic Warrior] coming up the hill like a bull.

Yelroan, the [Mathematician], looked up as the Plain’s Eye warrior howled.

“Traitor.”

He blocked Yelroan and hammered the Gnoll down. The lines bowed inwards as Wer turned. He tried to get to them as Qwera drew a knife and slashed at the [Shamanic Warrior]’s fur, but it was like armor.

Ysara looked up, searching for her sword, dazed, as a second warrior raised a spear. The Silver Trader cried out as a spear pinned her to the ground through the shoulder. The Gnoll raised his spear, snarling, to stab her through the head. Then he turned, a silver hand on his shoulder.

He looked back, back, and Qwera recoiled from the arm that stretched…five feet? Silver flesh. A furious, blue-eyed stare.

Then Yvlon pulled herself forwards, and her second fist sent a spray of teeth and blood into the air. Ysara looked up as her younger sister whirled.

Yvl—

The second Gnoll whirled, dropping Yelroan, and Yvlon, bare-handed, pointed a finger at him. The Gnoll jerked and stared down at the spike of metal running through his chest. Yvlon’s finger turned into a piercing blade, then withdrew.

Horns of Hammerad! To me!

The Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs raised her head, and Ysara and the struggling Gnolls saw…a behemoth rise.

Frost and ice crackled as Pisces and Ceria balanced on the back of their signature creature. It raised one paw, and the Plain’s Eye tribe fled screaming as the Horns of Hammerad charged their position.

Ksmvr landed next to Yvlon and cut an arrow out of the sky. The [Skirmisher] lifted his blades. Yvlon whirled.

“You must watch your back more, Yvlon.”

She looked at him, and his third hand patted her on the shoulder. Yvlon turned to her dumbstruck sister.

“Sorry, Ksmvr. Ysara—we’re here. Where’s Erin?”

“Wh—Yvlon?

Ysara stuttered as Ksmvr looked past Pisces and Ceria. The half-Elf tossed herself from the back of the behemoth, and Pisces [Flash Stepped] into the air.

Damnit! That’s the second—

The giant undead exploded as a needle twice as long as Qwera went through its head. The Horns of Hammerad landed, and—there they were. Even the Gnolls fighting for their lives turned as that famous team appeared.

“Is this your sister, Ysara? Hello, I am a landowner from your estates. I own two trees—”

Ksmvr offered a hand, and Yvlon pointed.

There’s Mrsha! Get to her! Ysara—stay here! Ceria, walls!”

“On it, on it—let’s go! Yvlon, get behind Ksmvr, that’s an order! He’s better at deflecting than you are! Horns of Hammerad, go!

A wall of ice rose, guarding the endangered position. Ceria pointed down the slope, and a floor of ice covered the ground. The enemy warriors slipped and went sprawling, but the Horns just leapt down—and went crashing down the slope as Pisces ran into Yvlon and they tripped over Ksmvr.

The Horns got up and kept going. Chasing the pink carriage, Mrsha—a thread of chaos amidst the fighting. Ysara stared at her sister with incredulity and delight. Qwera looked for Vetn, heart beating with surprise. And—hope.

 

——

 

The pink carriage was racing across the battlefield as Mrsha looked around for her friends. Vetn was with her, but Reynold was trying to take them to safety. And Mrsha…Mrsha was hoping no one else tried to rescue her.

Because it seemed as though her rescuers attracted almost as much attention as Mrsha.

The carriage! Magnolia Reinhart’s vehicle! High-priority—[Mark Target]! [Focused Fire]! Bring it down!

Manus saw the carriage, and the vehicle shook as spells began to blast the windows and doors. Mrsha hid under a seat as Reynold swerved right and left.

Then the Oldblood Drakes began dive-bombing the carriage.

You scale-eyed bastards! There is a child in—

The [Combat Butler] ran one through with his sword as Drakes clung to the carriage, stabbing into it, looking for Magnolia Reinhart or just trying to erase her famous carriage. Vetn stole one’s sword, and the cursing Drake was thrown off as Reynold did a complete circle, knocking them off. But more kept coming—the [Butler] felt a sting of pain as one shot a crossbow at him and the bolt hammered him into the driver’s seat.

He parried a sword thrust to his neck, and three Drakes on the speeding carriage fell off, headless. Reynold jerked in surprise—and a pair of silver swords descended over a third Drake.

“Keep driving. Where is Mrsha? Inside?

Reynold stared in horror at Klbkch the Slayer as the Antinium balanced on the carriage. It picked up speed again, and the blademaster of the Antinium leaned out of the way of a spell. His swords cut down a volley of arrows, and he glanced around.

“Ah. Troubles—”

“Mrsha!”

Only a few beings in the world could hope to catch up with the pink carriage. One of them was Mivifa, the Oldblood of Feathers. She dove, and Klbkch ducked the lance. He slashed back, but the Named Adventurer was already cutting left out of range. Both she and the Antinium lashed at each other as Reynold howled at them to get away.

Then someone else hit his carriage, and he saw Drake [Riders] flanking him with nets, trying to drag the carriage to a stop.

Get Mrsha out of here! This is a deathtrap!

Vetn screamed at Reynold, and the [Butler] had to agree. He swerved left as Klbkch and Mivifa broke off fighting.

Manus! Enough!

The Named Adventurer knocked a trio of Drakes from their horses with her lance as her pegasus snapped her wings out and slammed another rider off their mount. Klbkch was more direct. He leapt off the carriage, slashed through half a dozen [Riders], and jumped back on in a blur. Reynold broke out of the press of riders, and Vetn leapt, Mrsha in his arms, onto the ground. Reynold was turning to cover them when he felt a prickle on the back of his neck.

He realized Mrsha had been the one saving him. For as long as she rode in his carriage…Reynold looked around and far, far across the battlefield, but like a beacon of malice…

The Stitch Witch pointed at Reynold. Her eyes were vengeful as she flicked a finger.

“[Your Mortal Doom, Returned], servant.”

Reynold whirled the carriage, but he saw it again. String. Wire—he howled as he ran into the same trap that—

The pink carriage flipped and crashed across the battlefield. The second and last of Magnolia’s famed carriages lay there, wheels spinning as the [Butler] lay in the wreckage. Then he was clambering out.

Where was that girl?

 

——

 

Vetn ran. It seemed like every force in the world was after him. Drakes, Gnolls—Antinium—fighting each other, fighting for Mrsha.

Saliss of Lights blurred out of the fighting, one arm cut down to the bone. He left a trail of explosions in his wake as Manus turned on Vetn. Now, the Thief of Clouds heard them.

Capture the target alive! Get the Doombearer—

They wanted Mrsha. Vetn heard Saliss shouting at him.

You idiot! Get her to safety!

“I’m trying! I’m—”

The Walled City of War was used to fast targets. Vetn and Saliss saw a wall of Drakes appearing, so Vetn looked left. And saw…more Drakes. And right? More Drakes.

A perfect box formation swung into place. Saliss lifted two potions in his claws.

“Get out of my way or I will disintegrate you all.”

The Named Adventurer roared, and the [Soldiers] flinched. But then General Milka, one of the supreme [Generals] of Manus, strode forwards.

“[Unit: Elemental Barrier]. Stand down, Saliss. Put the child down and surrender or—”

She looked up, raised her shield, and Wrymvr dropped on her. No acid. No scythes or biting maw. He just slammed into her so hard the ground shook.

Saliss, Vetn, and Mrsha saw the winged creature modeled after Dragons and Crelers rise. Mouths moved along the pinhole eyes and ever-evolving body.

Important Drakes die.

“Kids? Get out of here.”

Saliss calmly pushed Vetn and Mrsha aside. He walked forwards, and Wrymvr turned. Saliss reached for a bottle in his final arsenal. Wrymvr the Deathless howled as the Named Adventurer lifted a vial and threw it, and the explosion sucked part of Wrymvr into a vortex.

Vetn turned to go as Klbkch and Mivifa appeared, and the Drakes and Antinium began to fight. He looked around, and a second Gnoll appeared by his side in a flash.

“General Milka is dead?”

Who—

Lulv stabbed Vetn in the shoulder and buried a knife in the [Thief]’s arm. Then he grabbed Mrsha.

“Target captured. Two Prognugators. Get me reinforcements.

Mrsha bit one armored hand and nearly broke her teeth. Lulv grimaced and looked around. Then the [Spearmaster] saw a panting [Butler] skid to a halt.

“Put her down or die.”

The [Spearmaster] lifted his spear one-handed, transferring Mrsha to the other arm. His look of confidence never wavered—until he felt that prickle on the back of his neck.

“Mrsha?”

“The girl?”

“White thing?”

“You stupid bastard. Now I’m going to kill you too.”

Klbkch, Mivifa, Wrymvr, and Saliss all turned from their fighting, and the [Spearmaster] decided to drop Mrsha after all. She ran over to Vetn, fumbling for a potion.

Friends and foes surrounding her. Vetn groaned as Mrsha poured the potion onto him. Then…someone picked her up.

Stop it! Stop it! Mrsha began to bite whomever it was, reaching for a knife. Then she looked up.

It wasn’t Klbkch or Lulv. Or even someone like Reynold or one of Magnolia’s maids or…

Her protectors whirled as a young man, face as white as a sheet, picked Mrsha up and began running. A galloping [Rider] passed him by in an instant, and he did not move at the speed of light.

Fals ran with Mrsha under one arm like a priority delivery. He ran straight through the Drakes, screaming as Mrsha looked up at him.

You? The City Runner was running—but to where? Fals carried Mrsha through the fighting, arrows flying around him, Drakes and Gnolls fighting. Straight towards…

Mrsha saw him stagger and cry out as someone shot an arrow through his leg. He kept going, and then Mrsha saw the line of Antinium. Fals fell down, and Mrsha tumbled forwards. But the Antinium saw her, and the Gnoll trying to kill Fals fell. Then…the Antinium crusade stood there, and a [Templar] reached down.

[Heal Mundane Wounds].

The City Runner looked up, panting, and Mrsha saw someone grab her.

We’ve got her. Fals? Fals?

Garia picked up Mrsha, and the Fellowship, the Antinium, and the Gnolls closed ranks. The City Runner’s finest delivery looked down at the young man and then back through the battlefield.

He was something after all. Mrsha clung to Garia and saw Numbtongue running at her with Bird. No more rescues. She looked around.

Here they stood and lived or died. The [Crusaders] of 1st Battalion faced Manus as the City of War focused on their foe. The Fellowship and Gnolls of the tribes turned as the Walled City charged them.

Manus, again. Only this time they weren’t hiding behind Hectval. This was their best. 1st Battalion held their ground, a hundred Antinium fighting with Goblins and Gnolls.

Manus’ damned elites plunged forwards, following their [Spearmaster], and Liscor’s army ran into them. The Antinium, Mrsha, and the Fellowship saw a screaming young woman pointing her sword straight at Lulv’s finest. The [Spearmaster], who had escaped the Antinium and Saliss, turned.

Who—

“Erin?”

Numbtongue and Mrsha stared at the young woman. Mrsha’s eyes went round. It was her! Numbtongue cried out, but Fierre and Ulvama dragged him back.

Not her! What is that?

Ulvama stared at ‘Erin’ in alarm. And Mrsha saw that terrible smile of war on the young woman’s face.

General Sserys charged Manus, and Liscor followed him. He was bound for…

Dragonspeaker Luciva. The Drake looked around, surrounded by her bodyguard. Sserys went for her. He lost his horse as Lulv speared the poor animal. Then he was up. He was the [Spear of the Drakes]—he cut through one incredulous veteran. Parried a spear and stabbed through a throat.

But he was fighting Manus—

“[Blademasters]! Halt Liscor!

A Drake drew her blade as Sserys whirled in the melee. She didn’t see Sserys—just a Human. And the [General] was a fraction too slow.

The [Blademaster] cut off Erin’s arm. Sserys grunted as the Drake pivoted. He ran the [Blademaster] through and dragged his sword up.

“Erin!”

Her friends screamed in horror, but the young woman just whirled and put something to her lips. Sserys was—laughing? Then the blood gushing from that stump stopped. Just like when he had fallen out of the sky—

The Drake took a gulp of the Potion of Regeneration. And the arm began regrowing. It reappeared, and the naked arm reached out and cracked a Drake’s jaw.

“Where was this when I needed it? Charge! Charge, you slugs!”

Liscor’s army ran around him. Sserys threw himself forwards, and a disbelieving Gnoll ran through the young woman’s stomach. He stared at that bloody grin, and Lulv found a second sword in his stomach.

Want to trade, boy? I can do this all day.

The [General] laughed at the [Spearmaster] as Lulv stumbled back. The Gnoll lifted his spear. If she could heal, then he’d destroy that damn head—

A claw grabbed Lulv’s spear, and the [Spearmaster] jerked. He looked left. Who had—

The Gecko of Liscor stood there, eyes fixed on Lulv.

“Spearmaster Lulv.”

Lulv didn’t think. The name was on his lips in a moment. They knew each other; their class always did.

“Gecko. Let go of me—”

“I hear you tore up Liscor at Hectval. And my kid. Which is why I’m going to hit you now.”

The two [Spearmasters] wrestled for Lulv’s spear. The Gnoll looked at the Gecko as Sserys whirled.

Keep that idiot off me! Luciva—

He tore forwards. Then a Human checked Sserys to the ground with one arm. The young woman fell as Lulv and Relc looked sideways. A living ball of bandages knocked Sserys flat, and the Drake cursed.

“Who the hell—hey! Give that—”

The Potion of Regeneration splashed over a face, and the King of Destruction crowed as Orthenon and Gazi stormed through Manus’ ranks. Sserys backed up, cursing.

“Damn. Nevermind—”

“I have returned!”

The King of Destruction tore the bandages from his face, and no one paid attention to him. A Drake and Gnoll locked gazes, and Lulv drew a dagger. He stabbed, and Relc had to let go. The Gecko bounded back, and two [Spearmasters] faced each other.

They had never fought. Spearmaster Lulv was the son of Manus; Relc a veteran of Liscor. Completely different in their roles. Lulv could lead entire forces and fought alone, a champion. Relc ran into the enemy and took them out, but he wasn’t Lulv’s level.

—But he was a specialist. [Officer Headhunter Mode]. Lulv ignored the bodies of the dead clawing at his feet, but he shifted his stance, keeping back. His [Spear Arts] could destroy enemy formations.

Relc’s—

[Triple Thrust]. The Drake struck three times, and Lulv took a hit. It was almost impossible to dodge and block three simultaneous strikes. Even so—

[Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf]!

The Gnoll tore up the earth, going for a leg and Relc’s shoulder. The Drake leapt, striking the ground with his spear and launching himself up. A [Spearmaster]’s contempt for the ground.

Got you. Lulv broke off the Spear Art and aimed up.

[Hurricane Stabs]! [Impact Spear]!

Relc blocked a flurry, but the sheer force of the blows knocked him backwards, and Lulv kept up the attack as Relc landed, hammering him, striking his armor, his body.

The adamantium-tipped spear tore open Relc’s scales, but the Gecko had a body like steel! And Relc—

He knew he was underleveled. A [Whirlwind Dodge] nearly got him killed as Lulv hit him mid-dodge, but Relc was activating his Spear Dance. Lulv dodged away, countering with a dance of his own.

He saw Relc stepping towards him, spear tracing an arc like a leaping fish while the Gnoll countered with a far more direct dance. What Lulv didn’t expect was for Relc to drop his spear mid-dance. His claws flashed up—

And he grabbed Lulv’s spear mid-thrust. The other [Spearmaster] jerked, but they were fighting for Lulv’s spear again. The Gnoll cursed, but he didn’t dare let go of the spear to grab another weapon. He tried to toss Relc back and saw the Drake pull back his head.

The headbutt made Lulv’s head ring. The Gnoll began to bite, roaring—and the Gecko tore one fist free. In response, Lulv grabbed a second dagger and put it in Relc’s shoulder.

The Gecko slammed his fist into Lulv’s face. Once, twice—and Lulv realized his mistake. He wasn’t engaging in a masterful dance of the spear with the Gecko. Tekshia Shivertail was arguably better than Relc, if no longer as strong. But he was—

Brawling with the Gecko of Liscor. And the [Sergeant] promptly kneed Lulv in the groin, gave him another headbutt, and broke Lulv’s nose. The snarling Gnoll could keep fighting for his spear or—

Relc’s spear. He thrust Relc back, let go of his spear, and leapt for the anti-magic spear. Just in time to see it flash past him.

“[Recall Weapon]. Now I have two spears.”

The Gecko of Liscor grinned as Lulv turned. The [Spearmaster] saw Relc put them together awkwardly, like a single oversized spear.

“Damn. This is weird. Come on, Lulv. Let’s…”

Relc saw the Gnoll back up and run. The Gecko shouted after him.

Get back here, you coward!

Then he checked himself. That was what he would do and…grab a spear and ambush Lulv. The Gecko halted in his run. He looked around for Sserys and cursed. Then he raised Lulv’s spear. He had an idea.

“Hey, you! Catch!”

The Gecko threw Lulv’s spear like a javelin and nearly ran through Infinitypear’s foot. The Worker carrying Rasktooth jerked back, and Relc pointed.

Don’t let anyone take that.

Lulv might come back—but he lost his fancy spear. Relc charged after Sserys.

 

——

 

Lulv had, in fact, done what any good [Soldier] did. Instead of fighting Relc, he had retreated to Luciva’s side. He arrived just in time to see that young woman, who was supposed to be an [Innkeeper], storming her bodyguard.

Protect the Dragonspeaker!

Liscor’s own fought with Manus’ bodyguard, and the entire army was surging towards them—but Luciva motioned Lulv back. She faced the young woman, eyes narrowed.

“Who ar—”

The grinning swordswoman lunged at her so fast that Parentkiller, the glaive of Manus, barely had time to block it. Luciva blocked, knowing that she was slower with the long glaive. And the Human was an expert!

Who was she? This wasn’t Erin Solstice. Luciva saw a glowing ring flashing on the young woman’s hand as she abandoned her two-handed grip. She grabbed the glaive, and then they were face-to-face. Struggling as Luciva caught the sword.

You…I know you.

She stared into what should have been slitted eyes. And that familiar presence…Sserys hissed at Luciva.

“You really haven’t changed, Luciva. But you’re not much smarter than the last Dragonspeaker. Look at Manus. You should have stayed a [General].”

That voice. That…condescension? Luciva wavered.

“Who—”

The Necromancer is alive, you idiot.

In the middle of the battlefield, Sserys watched the glowing ring he’d taken from Chaldion and saw Luciva’s face waver. She almost let him stab her—but the two kept wrestling as Sserys spoke.

“I am General Sserys from the grave, and I came here to tell you everything. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, not the Goblin Lord. I will have you avenge him.”

Spearmaster Lulv was about to leap in, but Luciva whirled. She began to call out, then realized what Sserys’ ring was doing. She lifted a hand, and Sserys did not run her through. She made a quick gesture, and the Gnoll’s eyes went wide. The fighting drew back as the two continued to ‘fight’.

Sserys?

The Drake faced the [Spear of the Drakes] as Sserys looked around.

“We don’t have much time. Deploy a [Time Slow] Skill or spell on me now if you have one. We need a chat.”

He had a date with every leader or Drake who mattered he could find. So far, he’d met two, and the Admiralty of Zeres were next. Sserys had seriously considered killing this Wall Lord Dragial, but someone had done it for him.

He broke out of Manus’ ranks as Dragonspeaker Luciva wavered with the revelations Sserys had spilled as fast as he could. Whether she believed him—whatever came next—

She knew who needed to be avenged. Even if enemies were trying to spy on Luciva and him, Sserys doubted anyone could maintain the spell during a battle with so much magic flying about. But he didn’t bet on one Drake.

There you are.

Sserys had no more Potion of Regeneration. That damn Human—Sserys felt Erin’s body struggling to keep up with him. But he made it leap nearly ten feet up so he could drop on the purple-scaled Drake.

Erin—

Ilvriss hesitated, and Sserys took him off his horse with one arm snapping around the neck. The two crashed to the ground, and the [Spear of the Drakes] laughed.

You’re not bad.

Someone had trained this Wall Lord in the sword or he had seen a battlefield. But he hesitated. He knew Erin Solstice. That was his undoing. Sserys stepped around him, striking out, and Ilvriss parried the blow—but missed the stomp on his tail until it was too late. He went down as Sserys pinned the tail and knocked him flat with another kick.

Liscor’s underhanded fighting beat even experts in the blade. The Drake tried to get up.

Who are—

Sserys had heard that question from a dozen mouths all day long. Just like with the other officers he’d found, he activated the ring. Then he straddled the Drake’s breastplate, pinning the arms.

A young woman bent down.

Listen up, idiot. I’m General Sserys. Shut up and listen. The Necromancer is alive.

He activated his skill as the Supreme General of the Walled Cities, his technical rank, forced the Drakes around him to back away. Ilvriss stared into Sserys’ eyes.

“The—?”

“The Necromancer. Is. Alive. Keep it a damn secret. His minions are everywhere. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, and I will have you—”

Sserys’ greatest desire, vengeance, was warring with his need to…leave something behind. They were not ready for anything that was coming, and even he didn’t know all of it. The six…he had been hiding in Izril, not learning what Erin Solstice knew.

Nor was he prepared for Ilvriss’ eyes to go wide and for him to hiss back.

I know.

Sserys blinked, and the orders he’d been about to give next—which went along the lines of slapping every idiotic mistake into each Walled City’s head—halted on his tongue.

“Really? And are you…hm.”

He looked at Wall Lord Ilvriss. The [Spear of the Drakes] grinned. The leader of every Drake’s eyes lit up.

Oh yes. You’re one of Izril’s kids, alright. Not a minion. You figured it out? No…are you that ponce that Zel told me about?”

“Zel? General Sserys?”

“Wonderful.”

The Human began to laugh, then she patted Ilvriss on the chin as Nerul tried to stride forwards and found himself locked into place. He watched, eyes flickering with confusion as she leaned down to whisper like…a lover? Or like a [General] imparting secrets. But rumors just saw Erin Solstice sitting on Ilvriss’ chest in the middle of a battlefield.

They didn’t hear the Drake’s voice as she whispered in Ilvriss’ earhole. In perfect secrecy, or as much as he could gain, the [Spear of the Drakes] spoke to only the Wall Lord of Salazsar.

“Zel told me you had potential, which is more than I can say for many idiots he met. I was hoping to meet you. So listen up: I’m going to tell you something I won’t tell even Luciva and Chaldion. Especially not the Cyclops or the finest war-idiot from Manus. I have walked the lands of the dead. I have talked to the ghosts of great Drakes. I know where the Walled Cities are.”

Ilvriss’ eyes went wide. Sserys winked.

“Not all of them have what you need—but there are enough. Listen closely and find a map. Maybe write this down because I won’t be around after this. Get some shovels.

 

——

 

The secrets of Izril. A last mission from the [Spear of the Drakes]. A future, a warning from General Sserys of Liscor.

That was what he left behind. But the Gnoll left only death.

Chieftain Xherw was still alive. Despite the death, despite tribes abandoning him or falling—he was still empowered by luck.

He was killing Silverfangs now. No one could stand against him. Not Wer, who retreated, covered in wounds, not Torishi, sent to her end by Belavierr.

No one. Luck ran through him without end. And Belavierr was standing, gloating as she looked at the pink carriage. The two only looked about when they saw the Antinium appearing.

Belavierr stopped laughing and edged behind the Plain’s Eye Gnolls when she saw the warriors of faith. But she was bound to fight until her life was in danger. She was still the Stitch Witch. Oldest of all!

Then…she felt someone’s gaze upon her. The [Witch] turned, and someone cut through the battlefield straight at her. A man with tired eyes and plain clothing. Yet…done so delicately that she might almost call it a fine garment.

Slowly, the [Witch] felt a moment of unease creeping up her back. She looked at the sword that Doubte held. Then she recognized him.

Not his face, for they had never met. Nor his legend, for it was far too small and far too young. But Belavierr locked eyes with Doubte of Zethe and backed up a step.

“Oh. Oh. A [Hero]. How troublesome.”

The [Hero] of Zethe looked up at her.

“[Witch]. We stand at calamity’s door, and you kill while laughing. For you—I will take up arms once more.”

Belavierr’s uncertainty turned into an expression of mocking disdain. She flicked her hand and lifted it, an enchanted razor held between each finger.

I have heard that boast from a thousand [Heroes] before you. Your bones will be the foundation of my magic, boy.”

“Not this time, Belavierr Donamia. You have drunk too deeply of immortality at any cost. Even I despise you and call you a traitor to your class. Traitor to the woman who traded her soul to be called the Witch of Webs.”

Slowly, the Stitch Witch shifted her gaze left. She saw someone she recognized, for once. Those eyes never changed. The face always did, but the soul of the Quarass of Ger…

“Quarass. Is that the Serkonian Lance? Do you aim spells at me again? I will take that staff from your bones and hold your ghost in a prison of heartstring.

The Quarass came to a halt on Belavierr’s other side, and now the [Witch] turned warily to face the Quarass as Doubte nodded to her. Two foes, then. The others had realized the futility of their struggle. Belavierr’s lips drew back, no longer confident, and a final voice spoke.

Foul little hat-woman. This [Vizir] Hecrelunn mocks your false arrogance. Khelt shall humble you.

A Revenant floated down out of the skies, and Belavierr looked from [Hero] to Quarass to [Vizir]. She cursed in one of the old languages, and the words stained the air.

Come, then, broken [Hero]! Bones of a mere servant! Quarass in a child’s body!

She raised her arms and grew until she was taller than Moore, an immortal who drew a sword of her own and blocked Doubte’s slash, who shrieked in fury as Hecrelunn conjured fire from the skies to burn her, who matched the Quarass spell for spell.

 

——

 

Three-on-one, and Belavierr refused to fall to them. She was still the greatest legend.

But she was pressed, and Xherw no longer had her shadow. He didn’t care. He advanced, and his eyes were locked on one of the Gnolls he blamed for everything.

“Satar! Get back!”

Chieftain Akrisa cried out as the young Gnoll turned. Silverfang turned as Plain’s Eye drove into their heart. Beilmark, fighting alongside Krshia, even Rose shooting wildly with a wand.

The [Storyteller] looked up as Xherw charged her, two hatchets glowing. She flung up her arm with a cry, and Cetrule swung his staff forwards.

The [Shaman of Purity] struc