7.32 D

(Andrea Parsneau will be doing a live-read and AMA for the upcoming Volume 2 Audiobook on Thursday, June 9th, 8 PM EST in the Discord server!)

(A preview of Volume 2 is now up on Soundcloud! Check it out here! The audiobook will be release July 14th!)

 

Selphids. The Bodysnatchers of Baleros. Parasitic, one of the most mysterious races in the world. And one of the most reviled, distrusted—

Well, not as bad as Demons. Not as bad at all. Selphids were still citizens. Just—you couldn’t trust them since they lived in dead bodies. They used to use live ones. Tyrants.

Almost as bad as half-Elves and their empires. Or those damn Minotaurs. And Humans. Don’t forget the Dragonwars and Drakes. Really, when you got down to it, though, Selphids were just unappealing. Of course, the Antinium were worse, but—

But Selphids were universally distrusted. It went beyond a simple interspecies conflict. There was something about Selphids—their malleable forms, the way they used host vessels that clashed with most other species’ sensibilities. Selphids were as alien as Antinium—no. Moreso.

Until now, Geneva Scala had viewed it as a kind of backwards prejudice. Until recently—she had seen Selphids as a people like any other. Full of good and bad.

Now, she thought differently. As a species—Selphids were people. But the [Doctor]’s thesis was this:

The nature of the way they controlled bodies meant that a relationship between host and Selphid was unequal. By the basic distribution of power, there could be no balance. And so—Selphids as a people were not inherently born or spawned evil. But the threat to their species, the way they interacted with their hosts, and their desperation made them poor overlords.

Or good ones. Geneva Scala straightened from another case of Yellow Rivers. She was tired. Her hand rose and wiped at a bead of sweat on her head before it could sting her eyes.

Geneva hadn’t done that. The hand produced some antiseptic; she washed her gloves.

“Water.”

The [Doctor] said it. Not Geneva. It was her voice, her distinct, brusque tone. A Lizardgirl hurried over.

“Water, Doctor Scala?”

“Once I’m out of my gear. I’m dehydrated. Water—a snack—this patient needs…”

Her voice trailed off. And Geneva Scala, who had been musing, feeling her body do all these things, waited another thirty seconds. When she spoke, it was softly.

“More liquids. More hydration; we can’t do more at this moment.”

She felt her head nod. The Lizardgirl bowed, and hurried off to get the electrolyte-solution that Geneva had worked up to replenish the loss of fluids the Yellow River’s fever and oozing discharge caused. Geneva Scala walked into the cleansing area and began to strip down.

“I have more patients to attend to.”

Geneva spoke to herself. She didn’t stop removing her gear—the resin-like armor that covered her from head-to-toe, preventing the spread of disease, or at least, slowing it. She heard a voice in her head.

“I know, Geneva. But remember—we have to take care of you. I’ll eat and drink for you if you want.”

“No thank you, Idis. I can do that myself.”

“Sure! Let me know if I can help, Geneva. Remember: you have to sleep in four hours!”

The Selphid cheerfully spoke up. And Geneva wondered if she’d have snapped at Okasha for doing less. No, certainly she would have. She missed Okasha. She regretted a lot of things. She was a prisoner, with a kindlier warden. But stricter rules. And that was a terrible thing. But worse—

Her patients were dying.

 

—-

 

“What is the Yellow Rivers disease? I’m sorry if the topic of this broadcast becomes distasteful to our audience. If you’re troubled, I encourage you to tune in next time.”

The voice from the scrying orb echoed through The Wandering Inn as Mrsha and Numbtongue ate breakfast. Noass went on, shuffling his notes.

“However, we have to bring this disease to the attention of the public, as is our duty.”

He leaned forwards on one claw, addressing the screen, looking serious. Mrsha patted Numbtongue. The [Goblin Soulbard] nodded.

“Silly Drake.”

We understand now, that there are tens of thousands of—of cases of infected peoples at most ports worldwide. It’s fair to say this disease has spread without warning or understanding across every continent! Its roots are in Baleros, and what we have next may shock you. We encourage children and those faint of heart to not look at the following scenes. This is an image of the disease—

Numbtongue stopped eating. Mrsha’s hair stood up and she leapt off his head. She felt a gagging nausea in her stomach. Noass also should have said ‘people should not eat while watching’.

It was a public service announcement. The second in this world, if you counted the Golden Triangle thing. And Numbtongue was watching through The Wandering Inn’s brand new scrying orb, bought from Hedault at a discount. And regretting it.

“So, Liscor’s got lots of fish in the spring. And it has good cattle and stuff. But not much. So what’s it got?”

“The Shield Spiders reduced the availability of [Shepherds] and [Ranchers], Miss Solstice. The same with farming. I’m sorry to say that the city hasn’t been an agricultural hotspot for…a long time. The destruction of so many nests might change that, but we won’t be exporting for a long time.”

“Well, where do I get my food from, huh? They want food. Who’s got food?”

“I do. How much money are we talking here?”

A satisfied [Farmer]-[Pirate] smirked around. Erin, a Drake, and a flame-haired woman looked at him. The [Innkeeper] turned to Teliv again.

“Okay, Wailant’s got crops, but we need more [Farmers]. All these [Lords] want other stuff too. Ore. Uh…candles. Lots of stuff. Sugar.”

The [Negotiator] smoothed the spines on the back of his neck. Teliv glanced at Maviola, but the [Lady] had been rather quiet. Which relieved him. Erin Solstice looked justifiably confused and concerned; she had a trade deal, but nothing to trade.

Which obviously left the onus of power on the seller. Which was Liscor. Wailant was a complication, but Teliv’s voice grew silky as he began to leverage a Skill.

[First Reasonable Offer].

“Liscor’s Council has authorized me to negotiate on behalf of the city. We’re obviously interested in trade, but given the complexities of supplying Human [Lords], you must understand the prices will be higher, Miss Solstice. Nevertheless, we can do business.”

“And I have lots to sell. Let me just call up some of my [Farmers] and we can do a deal. Better than Liscor.”

Wailant interrupted, pushing the Drake to one side. The [Negotiator] blinked; but Strongheart was strong-arming him. Or attempting to.

“Excuse me, sir. I believe Liscor has a priority on this.”

Wailant blinked as the Drake moved him back. And Wailant was a big man. But you couldn’t just push a good [Negotiator] aside. Or even a mediocre one.

Erin chewed on her lip.

“I just dunno, guys. Getting food to the [Lords] is important. So—so Liscor has food and Celum, or Wailant, has food. If we put it through the inn’s door, that’s easy, right? Everyone makes money. The [Lords] pay for it, and we’re all happy? Right?”

Wailant and Teliv glanced at each other and tried not to smile. Teliv produced a contract he’d been sweating over just an hour ago.

“Actually, Miss Solstice, we could do a very reasonable contract. You’d earn money on each transport, and Liscor would take the burden of managing the shipping and rates.”

“Oh! So, like, I just get paid for people using my door and you set the prices?”

The [Innkeeper] brightened. Wailant opened his mouth—Teliv used his third Skill to silence the man.

Exactly. No bother. Money for all.”

“Great! Let me just see the contract—”

Teliv handed her the quill and contract. Smiling, Erin regarded the contract. She raised the quill. Blinked.

“Oh, no ink. Too bad.”

Let me just get that for—

Wailant growled. Teliv fumbled for the inkpot. Erin smiled as he yanked the cork open.

“Thanks, Teliv.”

She dipped the quill in ink. Then she wrote on the contract. Teliv practically snatched it back. He crowed.

“Thank you, Miss Solstice! You won’t regr—”

He stared at the contract. But instead of the signature, he saw, in large letters, ‘no thanks’ scrawled on the parchment. Erin smiled at him.

“Maviola, you were right. It is easy.”

“Told you.”

The [Lady] looked pleased. She’d been worried when Erin picked up the quill. Now, though, the [Innkeeper] winked at her. She looked at Teliv.

“So I’d get four coppers per shipment? That means you could make one ‘shipment’ as big as you wanted and I get four coppers per each. No weight limit, no time limit. Also—that’s not very fair if it takes all the magic from my door. What if you put diamonds through the door, huh?”

“I—but—Miss Solstice, let me explain.”

Teliv’s good mood turned into sweat in a second. Erin Solstice was looking at him. And suddenly, her eager, somewhat befuddled manner turned sharp. His [Negotiator] senses were telling him…he was in trouble.

“I get it. And Wailant!”

“Yes, Erin? Let me just say that I’ll give you a far better deal on behalf of Celum. Far better.”

The [Farmer] was beaming at Teliv’s expense. Erin turned to him. She put her hands on her hips and looked up at the former-[Pirate].

“I’m sure you will. Why don’t you tell me what you had in mind?”

He opened his mouth and Erin pointed a finger at him.

“—And when you do, I’ll compare it with the deal each [Farmer] would have offered me. After all, I can just move the door to their farms, right? Who put you in charge?”

“Erin! We’re friends, aren’t we? I’m just here to make sure those Drakes don’t run off with the farm! So to speak. My contacts’ll be along shortly. But I’m here to—”

“Get ahead?”

Maviola murmured. Erin saw Wailant’s eyes flicker. She sighed.

“Guys, guys. I don’t want this to be complicated.”

Wailant and Teliv brightened. Erin went on.

“But I do want this to be fair. Equitable! No one overcharges anyone else. Even if the [Lords] are…uh, [Lords], they’re hurting for money. So no one’s doubling their prices and we’re not having huge taxes or anything. Here’s what I had in mind…”

She handed over a folded piece of paper she and Maviola had been working on. Wailant and Teliv jostled to see. They began to raise objections at once. Erin put her hands on her hips.

Another day. In the background, the negotiations were taking place. But that was background. Mrsha tugged Lyonette over, pointing.

“What is it, Mrsha? I’m trying to listen to the trade deal. Oh, pox!

Lyonette recoiled at the images on screen. Numbtongue was making a face and gagging. Lyonette covered her mouth. The view switched back to Noass, who was looking pale. He dabbed at his nose with a handkerchief.

Appalling images, dear viewers. However, [Healers] across the world are attempting to combat this illness. We’re going now to an interview with Pallass’ own top [Healer]. Sir Relz is conducting the interview. Sir Relz?

The image shifted. Now, Sir Relz stood, holding a little speaking stone with one claw. He was half-turned towards a nervous Gnoll. She jumped.

…And we’re ready. Healer Demerra, you are now on broadcast. Can you tell us about your take on this disease? Pallass has reported six cases, but I understand there are over a thousand in Zeres; mainly from ships. It appears the Yellow Rivers illness—I hesitate to call it a plague—isn’t spread solely via, er, intercourse. How can we stop it? Can it be healed?

A hand came down on the scrying orb. Both Mrsha and Numbtongue protested, but the [Princess] glowered as she lifted the orb.

“Dreadful. Mrsha, you shouldn’t watch this.”

Mrsha protested. She was big enough! She just wanted to show Lyonette the nasty yellow disease! Sir Relz was listening to Demerra’s explanation as the Gnoll stared into the scrying orb.

“But Lyonette, it’s important! If Pallass has the disease, Liscor might too! We want to watch! Please?”

The pleading didn’t come from Mrsha. Rather, it came from Drassi, who’d been watching for gossip material as she served drinks. Lyonette hesitated, then sighed.

“Numbtongue, if it gets…if it’s unsuitable, you turn it off. Got it?”

“Mhm.”

The Hobgoblin craned his neck around the orb as Lyonette put it back. Mrsha, Drassi, and Numbtongue crowded around; a few other patrons of the inn were watching as well.

Discount for Octavia? I don’t have to—

Wailant roared from the table where he was negotiating. Erin argued back. Mrsha threw a wadded up cloth napkin at them so they’d shut up. Everyone else leaned closer as the broadcast continued.

—believe I have a cure. I’ve treated cases of this Yellow Rivers disease, and while it may be spreading, my magical crystals have reversed the illness’ effects in my patients.

The Gnoll, Demerra, was brandishing a crystal and explaining the homeopathic effects and benefits. Sir Relz was nodding as she went on.

I believe a crystal will enhance the body’s natural capabilities, preventing or at least decreasing the likelihood of catching this illness. I am selling them, and Salazsar and Fissival both export high-quality crystals. Moreover, my healing beds have also cured three of the sick people and they are completely healthy.

The Drake sighed in relief and adjusted his monocle.

There you have it, folks. That’s our [Healer]’s response. Back to you, Noass.

Thank you, Sir Relz! Now, we’ll be going to interviewing some survivors and getting takes from around the world on the issue. First—

 

—-

 

Geneva Scala nearly smashed the scrying orb. Only Idis stopped her—and Paige.

“Geneva! We spent too much on it! Calm down!”

The [Doctor] stared at her shaking hand. Idis didn’t stop her tongue, though.

Homeopathic crystals? Those don’t stop the disease! They might fight off the bacteria, but it’s airborne. It’s mutated! How many people can afford a bed of those crystals, anyways? What about quarantine? What about the ‘cured’ carriers who could be spreading the disease?”

What made her so furious was that the Gnoll was half-right. In this world healing crystals were real and they worked. But her solution wasn’t scalable. Geneva had been corresponding with other [Healers] who used healing crystals among other solutions and a bed of them would supercharge the immune system like a number of Skills, including Geneva’s own, which would halt the bacteria’s advance and give the body time to recover.

However. So many people were falling sick that unless the price of healing crystals dropped by about 83%, it wouldn’t be feasible to treat people.

“At least they’re talking about it, Geneva. Half the cities you were reaching out to were denying there was even a pandemic.”

Siri sat at the table, appraising the situation. As the [Doctor] cooled down, she still glowered at the images in the orb.

“This is worse, though. People will be buying the crystals, taking away from [Healers] who need them. And—they’ll assume they’re safe! They need to be corrected. Let me talk to—”

Denied!

The voice rang out in Geneva’s head. Idis’ bright, cheerful tone. Geneva’s voice cut off. And she heard and felt her words change.

“—nevermind. It’s too risky.”

Paige blinked. But she nodded, relieved.

“We discussed that, Geneva. The broadcast is going through Wistram.”

Geneva nodded tightly. It was even how she’d have reacted.

“I know. I got overworked. Forget about it.”

She hadn’t said that. Idis spoke into Geneva’s head, a buzzing, tiny voice in her ears.

Sorry, Geneva. Calectus told you, we can’t risk word about you getting out.

She’d overridden Geneva’s vocal chords and play-acted as her. The others, who’d been sitting around the table hadn’t even noticed.

“Geneva, even if these treatments do not…work perfectly. Surely the fact that there are multiple ways to treat the disease is good, right?”

Ken spoke up. The meeting of the United Nations company was here to address this very issue. Geneva rubbed tiredly at her face. Not from physical exhaustion; she’d gotten nine hours of sleep thanks to Idis. As she had for the last week. But she was mentally tired. Stressed out.

“—It is, Ken. The Yellow Rivers disease isn’t as bad as it could be. It’s bacterial, not viral, the mortality rate if treated isn’t high. But it requires supervision; the disease provokes fevers, diarrhea—all killers in places with insufficient access to clean water and medical treatment. The worst problem is how fast it spread and how long it takes to recover from. Take Aiko, for instance.”

The others nodded. Aiko was one of the [Nurses] working under Geneva who’d contracted the disease. Ken looked concerned, but she was in a dedicated wing of the company building now quarantined. And she was…fine.

Well, not fine fine. She was running a fever, but Geneva had three massive citrines sitting around her and the other patients which a [Healer] had sent. They had kept the fever down and Aiko was recovering faster. If Geneva could buy more crystals, she would.

“—Talenqual already has more patients than I can handle, Ken. And the clinic can’t even keep up with the serious cases.”

“Even with the expansion?”

That came from Luan. He had a bandage over his head and a scowl on his face; he’d been attacked when he’d done his last delivery. The bounty on his head was still extant. Geneva shook her head.

“The Selphids, [Nurses], and volunteers…still can’t keep up with an influx of thousands, Luan. Especially when it takes weeks per infected person.”

Now, she had resources. Volunteers had come in from other cities. And The Bodies of Fellden, a small but elite company of Selphids had entered the city for the express purpose of helping Geneva and learning from her.

And safeguarding her to make sure she could help them. But no one knew that. ‘Okasha’ and Geneva had pretended to be pleased with the situation.

“The issue is getting a cure, Luan. If we have that, then we can scale up treatment and speed recovery. Without it—the rate of infection will surpass any attempt at a cure. Already, people are dying for lack of treatment. If I was overseeing a major city, I would order a quarantine while I searched for a cure.”

“…And if you didn’t have it?”

Daly. Geneva looked at him. She shook her head slowly. It was tense between them. Or so the others seemed to believe. But Geneva’s issues with Daly seemed ages ago. If she could have told him about Idis—she would.

“If I didn’t have a cure, Daly, I would hold the quarantine because there is no other option. And I would advise the leaders of the city to expect a 20% mortality rate.”

The table fell silent. Geneva inhaled, exhaled, slowly. She felt too calm. Or rather; Idis was keeping her heart from pounding, her body from flooding with stressful hormones and adrenaline, cortisol, etc.

“Antibiotics.”

“I’m sorry, Geneva. No one’s found anything yet. And we have [Healers] and [Alchemists]—even [Herbalists] and [Explorers] looking for it.”

Ken spoke up apologetically. Geneva shook her head.

“I…know you’re trying, Ken. I appreciate it.”

“I just can’t believe this world doesn’t have a general antibiotic.”

Paige muttered distractedly, turning down the volume on the scrying orb but letting it run. Geneva saw it flickering to a Human, speaking to a [Mage]. She shook her head.

“My theory is that it was never necessary, Paige. The Yellow Rivers disease—or even a magical virus—would never hurt the wealthy significantly. There are healing potions capable of purging even infection. Some can regrow limbs. I’ve talked with [Alchemists] and there are apparently potions that can reverse aging. But they’re rare.”

“Fucking hell.”

Daly muttered. Geneva sighed.

“…In the same way, high-level Skills or that Gnoll [Healer] can cure someone who has enough money. It’s just not a solution for people without money.”

“Supply and demand at its finest. Now here we are, with the world’s best [Doctor] and everyone turning to you when a month ago they didn’t give you the time of day. Geneva, anything we can do…”

Luan trailed off. The [Doctor]’s lips twitched.

“Get me more healing crystals. Beyond that? Keep asking about penicillin-equivalents. Thank you for your time. But there’s nothing more I can do. I cede the floor.”

She sat down. She felt herself relax.

Good job, Geneva. We’re all here to help!

The cheery voice in her head was Idis again. Geneva even felt better. She pinched her arm.

Stop that. Idis stopped releasing whatever she was doing into Geneva’s bloodstream.

“My turn, I guess. I’ve uh, tried to get in contact with Joseph. We sent a coded [Message], but I don’t think he got it. My guess is that he’s gotten a lot of fanmail. And I can’t be more overt since Wistram apparently controls [Messages] too.”

Paige raised her hand and stood. Geneva listened; they knew Joseph, the boy who’d been playing soccer, was from Earth. Or at least, everyone assumed so. Daly grimaced.

“Can’t we hire a Courier or something, Luan?”

The South African man shrugged.

“Sure. How much gold do you have, Daly? We still need to send a [Message] unless you want to hire someone from Baleros. And you don’t have that much money. Plus, if we ask a Courier, people will want to know what’s so secret.”

“Damn.”

Daly leaned back in his chair and nearly went over. Ken smiled around, but looking exasperated.

“It is almost like being secretive is hard.

Everyone laughed at that, which was what he’d intended. Paige fiddled with a pencil she’d made; superior to quills or charcoal sticks for notes.

“Well, I did some digging and I have more people on the list. Rémi Canada, the Singer of Terandria—both safe bets are from Earth.”

“Whoa. I’ve heard of the Singer. Can we get in touch with them?”

The others sat up. Geneva heard a small voice in her head.

Wow.

Unconsciously, Geneva bit her tongue. Hard. But she felt her jaws unclench. And the voice from Idis again.

Don’t be nervous, Geneva! Calectus won’t tell! We’re on your side, remember?

There was a spy in this room. And it was Geneva herself. She wished she could write a message on a piece of paper, or tell the others in a coded fashion somehow. But how did you outwit someone in your body?

A code. Using a cipher, and fake references from home, Geneva had constructed a logical conversation to use with Ken.

‘Hey Ken, remember how Pearl Harbor was the start of the Japan-American alliance?’ And then using that fallacy, mention ‘Okasha’ to tip him off that she wasn’t Okasha. Either that, or waiting for Idis to fall asleep and write a secret note. Or

The problem wasn’t revealing Idis. The problem was that you couldn’t get the Selphids out of Geneva, even if you knew about her. And there were over two hundred Selphids in Talenqual, all powerful. They were better allies than not. So Geneva sat, and listened. And when it was over—she said goodbye to the others. And then Idis went to report to Calectus.

 

—-

 

“Dancing Serpent to Fast Hooves, come in. The Lantern has left the building. Repeat—”

A Lizardgirl stared at the [Doctor] as she walked out of the United Nations headquarters and walked down the street. She whispered urgently into a speaking stone. An aggravated sigh was her response.

“Umina…”

Fast Hooves, come in.

“Umina, I’m not doing that. If our speaking stones are compromised, we’re already identified. Stop calling me nicknames.”

“Marian, come on.”

The Lizardgirl [Strategist]’s voice was disappointed. She heard the clip-clop of hooves as Marian paced back and forth somewhere.

“Where’s she going? Geneva, that is.”

“Um…looks like the same place as last time. The Selphids.”

“Hm. I see.”

Umina followed Geneva at a distance, blending into the crowds of Lizardfolk in Talenqual. Although…there weren’t as many crowds.

They avoided each other, walking in smaller groups. The friendly Lizardfolk didn’t even stop to chat. They were nervous.

The Yellow Rivers disease ran through Talenqual. By this point, even the Flying Brigade had stopped downplaying it. The city was quarantining. But more and more people were sick by the day. Umina, working undercover in Geneva’s clinic, had heard the reports.

“No wonder the Professor wanted us here, Marian. Geneva’s the only person who seems to understand this…bacteria? She’s even got a name for it.”

“Sounds like it. Did you catch the broadcast from Pallass?”

“I did. It goes against everything Geneva’s been saying.”

Umina saw Geneva turn left. She eyed the [Doctor]. Umina was a big fan of listening and understanding before making a move. In the Professor’s class, it had earned her a reputation for timidity. But now, she thought it was entirely appropriate.

“What are Cameral and Kissilt doing, do you know?”

“Training as adventurers in the Bushrangers group. They’re ingratiating themselves with…let me check my notes. Daly?”

“That’s right. I think they’re going about it the wrong way.”

Marian’s voice was conversational as she kept walking somewhere.

“I dunno. Kissilt is rather impressed with their leader. He says Daly has a different understanding of battle than most.”

Marian! Are you talking with Kissilt?”

“Yup. Don’t shout, Umina. We’re sharing information.”

“This is our mission!”

The Lizardgirl howled into the speaking stone. She saw Geneva walking up to the place the Selphids had rented. Now—Umina stopped. There were Selphids guarding the door, and they looked sharp. She saw them wave Geneva in, instantly.

“Lantern has entered the Dead Zone.”

“…So she walked in the front door? I saw it too, Umina. I’m right here.”

Umina jumped. She looked around and saw a Centauress waving at her.

Mariaaaan. We’re supposed to be split up!”

The Lizardgirl complained as the two joined up. Marian sighed.

“Umina, this isn’t cloak-and-dagger stuff. We might as well make Miss Geneva our offer and be done with it. The other companies want her, the Professor wants her. That’s all there is to it.”

“But he sent us because no one’s aware of her full value yet, Marian. And the more I see of her, the more I’m convinced she’s got more to hide than even the Professor knows. Maybe he suspects, but did you think she had ties to the Selphids? The Bodies of Fellden are serious strength!”

Marian scratched at her mane of hair.

“…That’s true. They’re supposed to be a Selphid-only company. If they came to help her, she must be in with them. I wonder why?”

“No clue. I wish Yerra—”

The two broke off. Umina stared at the street. Marian cleared her throat after a second.

“…What else do you notice, Umina?”

The Lizardgirl snuffled. She wiped at her nostrils. Then she looked up.

“She speaks of things no [Healer] does. I asked, and none of them know about bacterias. Or—half the things she talks about. She’s knowledgeable, Marian. But who taught her? Is it a [Doctor] thing?”

The Centaur [Strategist] was nodding. Umina stared at the Selphids on duty.

“And lastly…why is she so fit?

That made Marian snort.

“Umina. I’m fit.”

“Yes. But you exercise. You’re a [Strategist] with [Ranger] levels, Marian.”

The Lizardgirl poked her friend’s side. She looked at the door that Geneva had gone through with narrowed eyes.

“Miss Geneva never exercises that I see her. So why does she have muscles?”

Marian gave Umina a blank look.

“Maybe she exercises outside of the times you see her, Umina? Not everything has a secret explanation.”

Marian…

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon lost a chess game.

To be fair, it was a difficult battle. He was renowned as the best player of the game in the world to most people’s knowledge. And the best player in the world couldn’t be beaten by an amateur, even on his worst day.

His opponent was good. But Perorn Fleethoof, famed [Strategist] in her own right, couldn’t help but feel that it was a weak victory. Not that she hadn’t tried.

But his game had been off. The Titan still applauded her. He smiled, laughed, and wasn’t put out by his defeat.

“Well done, Perorn! I have to admit, that strategy doesn’t work too well in every situation, does it?”

“It was far too aggressive.”

The Centauress nodded. They sat over the chess board. Both were advocates of the game. But Perorn couldn’t help but notice how oddly Niers had played.

“Even for you, that felt like you pushed far too much, Niers. What possessed you?”

“Oh—I was actually copying a style from a game I’d seen. A…tiebreaker match. The winning side used this.”

The Fraerling looked smug, for some reason. Despite his loss. And he hated losing. Perorn raised one eyebrow.

“Your mysterious opponent?”

The Fraerling fumbled one of the tiny pieces on the board. It was a compromise between their heights. The pieces were huge for him—miniscule for Perorn. He glanced up at her, and she snorted.

“Forget about it, Niers. Everyone knows about your ‘mysterious opponent’. I know you two communicate somehow. So, what was it?”

The Titan pursed his lips, but then reclined in his chair.

“A splendid five games, Perorn. Well, I say five, but those were the only wins and losses. It was draws the entire way down. But the final game was this. A tiebreaker.”

“And the winner was…?”

“Let’s just say it was unexpected. S—they pushed in hard, and their opponent was taken aback by the aggressive play. I tried to recreate it here after seeing the copy of the games, but it obviously didn’t work. It was more of a psychological victory than anything else, I’m given to understand. But that’s the indication of a master.”

The tiny [Strategist] indicated the board. Perorn eyed him. The old Fraerling looked happy. And she…

Didn’t like it. The Centauress reset her side after a moment.

“Well, you’re in a good mood about it. I wish you weren’t.”

“Thank you, Perorn? Are my good moods that abhorrent to you?”

The Titan of Baleros frowned up at the Centaur. She was resting on some pillows; he was sitting on the table they were playing on in his rooms. She looked down at him.

“Frankly? Yes. You do better when you’re in a bad mood, Niers. I’ve seen you win battles when you’re spitting fire. When you’re in a good mood, you make mistakes.”

He frowned, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair.

“And the proof of that?”

“I just beat you.”

“That was a one-time thing. I was recreating a style. Let’s play again.”

“As you wish.”

Perorn eyed the Titan. His good mood didn’t abate, despite her words. She sensed it.

Something was up. He’d been humming, praising his students in class—and he was making plans in secret. Foliana, Perorn, Peclir—all of the senior members of the Forgotten Wing Company suspected something. But what…well, she thought she knew.

He had figured out who his mysterious partner was. And that person was—female. She sighed.

“About this business with the Last Light of Baleros.”

Niers jumped. He nearly knocked over a pawn as he moved it. He stared at her, suspiciously.

“Who?”

Niers. You know I’d find out. You sent Kissilt, Cameral, Umina…do you think I wouldn’t have noticed them missing from classes? This wasn’t subtle. So I looked into them. Why is a Selphid company in Talenqual?”

“They are? Wait—damn. I should have reports on that!”

The Titan blinked. He sprang to his feet. Perorn saw him stride over to the cabinet of neatly-filed reports. He found the folder he wanted in a moment, opened it. She heard him swearing.

And she got more nervous.

“Something the matter?”

“I…don’t know why they’re there. Damn. I didn’t notice that, Perorn. I’ve been occupied.”

I know. Why are you recalling six senior [Strategists] from their posts?”

The Titan evaded the question.

“It’s time to see if their replacements can handle the situation. I just need some brainpower. You’ll see. The Bodies of Felldan? That’s not right. Only the Minds would order them anywhere. Why would they…? Damn, damn, damn. I need to do something about that.”

“Obviously.”

The Centaur saw Niers think. He moved a piece forwards and she stole a knight.

The two of them stared at the dead piece. That was just a mistake. Perorn slowly took it off the board. She knew Niers well enough to know from the expression flashing across his face for a microsecond that it hadn’t been some ploy. He’d just not noticed the move.

“Is everything alright, Niers?”

“Fine, Perorn. I just have things to deal with. It’s an off-day for me. Soon, it will be dealt with.”

He waved it off. Perorn looked at him. The Titan’s expression was faraway. Not on the documents. Or on the game. He moved a piece.

“I shall be announcing something soon, Perorn. Something I’ve been meaning to do. It’s…well, you’ll see.”

That was all the Titan said. But it worried her. Because he looked…happy. And the Titan of Baleros was so seldom that. She feared not his happiness; she wanted that for her friend. But she felt like…

He lost two more games after that.

 

—-

 

Selphids and Selphids and Selphids, oh my. Geneva Scala saw them speaking. She felt her lips moving. But she heard nothing.

Idis was giving a report. Or rather, she had given that. Geneva had heard her speaking to Calectus and the other senior Selphids. But their debate Geneva wasn’t part of.

Of course, Idis wasn’t an…[Inner Friend]. Yet. If she had the class, she didn’t have Okasha’s box to put Geneva in. But that hardly mattered.

“—decided, then. Idis will make it so. Geneva Scala?”

The [Doctor] felt Idis cede control to her in an instant. It was like…being able to scratch her nose after feeling it itch for a long time. Only, Idis would scratch Geneva’s nose anyways since they were connected.

Now, the [Doctor] looked at a friend. Or a former friend. Had he ever been a friend?

“Calectus.”

The Selphid [Honor Guard] nodded to her. The other Selphids were leaving the room.

“I apologize for the necessity, Geneva. Some discussions you cannot be privy to at this moment.”

“I see. Will that ever change?”

Calectus’ expression didn’t change. But then, Selphids could control any body perfectly. The experienced ones, at any rate. He dipped his head.

“We hope so, Geneva. But we must be cautious. The fate of Selphids everywhere may hang on our decisions. We are…not trusted as a species.”

“Hmm.”

Geneva resisted the urge to ask if how they dealt with her wasn’t an example of why the distrust existed to begin with. The Selphid, controlling his Dullahan body, turned his head slightly; it was disconnected so it turned nearly one hundred and eighty degrees. He shifted it forwards again, sighing.

“The…situation is somewhat tenuous. We understand there are other people from Earth in other parts of the world.”

“What will you do with them?”

He shook his head.

“Nothing. We are not interested in collecting anyone. If Wistram is—that is a decision for the Minds to address.”

The Minds. A governing body of Selphids, according to Idis. Geneva nodded slowly.

“So. Anything else? What were you discussing?”

“How to help your cause, Geneva Scala.”

She blinked. Calectus went on.

“We are here to help you, as I said. We will contribute funds to research for your cure. And as I said, Idis will help you make contact.”

“Contact? Contact with whom?”

“Other Selphids! You can count on me, Calectus! I’ll get Geneva anything she needs. All I need is a dedicated [Mage]. You know, to send [Message] or [Speak] spells?”

Idis saluted brightly with Geneva’s hand and smiled with her face. Calectus looked at her sharply.

“Idis. Desist.”

The Selphid released her control at once. Calectus frowned.

“Idis, you have strict orders. Do not take over Geneva’s body without her consent.”

“Sorry. I just—”

The Selphid’s eager voice turned meek in an instant. Calectus glanced at Geneva.

“Geneva, do you have any issue with Idis so far? She remarks that she has been enforcing a sleep schedule. Idis will desist.”

“But Calectus—”

Idis. You will be replaced.”

Instantly, the Selphid shut up. Geneva blinked. That was…new.

“Calectus, I assumed Idis insisting on me sleeping regularly was at your behest.”

His eyes didn’t move. But Geneva sensed a flicker of apprehension through Idis.

“It was not. Idis is here to protect you, Geneva. She replaced Okasha, but she is not your keeper. If she is upsetting you, she will be replaced and punished. She was the most suitable for the role of bodyguard. However…”

Oh no. Please don’t!

Idis whispered in Geneva’s ears. The [Doctor] blinked. Interesting. She chose her next words carefully.

“I…wasn’t aware of that. I thought Idis was managing me.”

“If she has been too forceful—”

“…No. She hasn’t. She’s been eager, but I don’t mind her.”

Thank you! I’m so sorry—

Idis was audibly relieved. Calectus stared at Geneva again, and then blinked. He nodded and smiled slightly, but his expression was still stiff.

“If you have any concerns, please ask. I will check regularly. And of course—if Idis misbehaves in any way, she will be removed.”

It was a warning, but not just for Geneva. Idis shuddered; Geneva felt a gentle spasm in her nerves. And she thought of the other Selphid, before Idis.

“How is Okasha doing? May I speak with her?”

Calectus paused.

“…That would not be wise. She is being held.”

“Not punished? Calectus, you know I am a [Doctor]. I’ve sworn not to harm anyone. Or let anyone come to harm. That means your people and Okasha—”

“She is only being held. But since she may have influence over you via Skills, we will not allow you to communicate, Geneva. That is all.”

The [Honor Guard] was firm. Geneva decided to drop it.

“Well then. Thank you, Calectus. I’m doing my best, but diseases are difficult. I need those antibiotics. It will help me and the world. Idis has been helpful, as has your support and the Selphid [Nurses].”

They were [Healers], or younger Selphids who had been given to her to study. No doubt the Selphids wanted more Genevas. Calectus nodded. Geneva went on.

“…But the truth is I’m lacking materials. Things from…my world. Medicines.”

“Whatever we can do, we will do, Geneva. You have but to ask. Idis now has the authority to connect you with other Selphids. We are not as powerful as major nations, but Selphids do have our influence. We hope you will level or gain what you need to overcome this illness. Idis, I leave you to aid Geneva as you know the best role for her. Do not overstep.”

“We really do want you to just level. And then cure us. I’m sorry, Geneva. I’m overeager. Please don’t be mad! This—your body is just so much fun!

Idis whispered in Geneva’s ear. As Calectus bid farewell to her, Geneva was left sitting. The [Doctor]’s eyes flickered to the door. Then she and Idis were alone.

Apparently alone. But she was always with Idis. The [Doctor] thought carefully.

“…I’m aware you’re eager, Idis. It isn’t fun for me, though. I have a job to do. And my experience with Okasha was…troubled.”

I know! And I am sorry about that! But I’m just here to help! Forget sleep! Let’s go all night long! You just ask and I can do it. Just don’t replace me?

“Why were you assigned to me over all the others, Idis?”

Um. Because I’m really good at killing people?

Geneva shuddered. Idis went on, hurriedly.

The Minds were just worried about your safety! Plus, they thought someone with a lot of muscular control like me would be best. [Blademaster], remember? And [Barbarian]. That’s in case you needed to be really strong.

“I see. Well, Idis. You haven’t given me cause to complain. In fact, I’m actually grateful about you making me sleep. That’s a—a fault of mine.”

Really?

And the young Selphid smiled with Geneva’s lips. The [Doctor] nodded. And she went on, carefully.

“I’ll have to rely on you, Idis. What was Calectus saying about contacts?”

Oh, that. That means that we’re spreading word looking for your antibiotic and stuff. The mold? A lot of high-ranking Selphids will get word. All over the world!

“Really? Just like that?”

Geneva blinked. Idis laughed with her voice.

“Of course! Selphids obey the Minds! It’s—we work together, Geneva. We have to. You know how Selphids won’t ever fight each other in battle, even if they’ve been hired? There are too few of us to not be on the same side.”

“I see. You know, there’s so much I don’t know about Selphids, Idis. Oh—and if we’re alone, why don’t you use my voice?”

“Really? Thanks, Geneva! I like having working vocal chords. You wouldn’t believe how rotten dead ones get.”

It was Geneva’s turn to smile.

“I can only imagine. But we’re sharing a body, Idis. If I make you uncomfortable, why don’t you let me know?”

“Sure! But I’m really happy. I mean, I get to taste, do all kinds of fun stuff—everything’s so real in a living body. Even better than the freshest dead ones!”

The Selphid was happy. Geneva nodded.

“So…you’ll be contacting other Selphids about my antibiotics? Is there anything else Calectus has authorized you to do? I mean, us?

She was channeling…Okasha. Only, backwards. Idis had to think and Geneva suspected she was doing the Selphid equivalent of scratching her head; she wiggled about for a moment.

“Um. Um—well, if you wanted a Selphid to do something, I could get it. Like…do you need rubies or something? We could get them from Salazsar, or ask an adventurer-Selphid or a [Miner] to get some. Stuff like that.”

“Really?”

“Yup. It’s a lot of authority, but Calectus really trusts you, you know. We want to be your allies.”

Geneva Scala had an idea.  She leaned back in her chair. The [Doctor] inhaled. And decided to take a risk. Idis knew more than Geneva would have wanted her to know. But if the Selphids were uneasy allies—she might as well use that.

“Interesting. In that case, Idis? Could you do me a favor?”

She spoke. Idis listened. Then she took Geneva’s body, at the [Doctor]’s request, vaulted out of the chair, and ran out of the Selphid’s headquarters.

Idis ran. Geneva felt the Selphid laughing with delight as she raced down the street, using her Skills to move faster than Geneva thought was possible. She blew so fast past Umina and Marian that the two [Strategists] were left in her dust.

Of course, that wasn’t the request. It was just to make Geneva move around faster and give Idis control for a moment, which made the Selphid happy. And while she ran…

The [Doctor] was thinking.

 

—-

 

The interesting thing about Selphids was this: they were always on the same side. Even when they were enemies—they didn’t kill each other.

Mainly because they had to be on the same side when the world hated them. Selphids killing Selphids was rare. In their community, even far from home, a Selphid would aid another Selphid. And there were also ranks, authority by seniority. Secrets shared only among their people.

In practice, it meant that a Selphid was an older…Selphid to others. ‘Older brother’ or ‘older sister’ being the wrong term usually since gender wasn’t applicable to Selphids. Mostly.

Some preferred one body or another. But the body influenced the Selphid, along with species. For instance, Ulinde thought of herself as female today because she was wearing a female Drake’s body. But she would be male when she wore one of the male forms in storage.

And it was looking more important for her to be male more often than not. Because she and Jelaqua were sharing from a pool of corpses and Jelaqua was…female.

An older sister, then. She and Maughin were a couple, and because the Dullahan preferred Jelaqua’s female bodies, the Selphid had started wearing them exclusively. Ulinde, as her junior, tried to make Jelaqua’s life easier.

After all, they were both part of the same team. And Ulinde admired Jelaqua. She was in awe of her heroes, the Halfseekers. She was also, in no small way, terrified of making Jelaqua angry at her again.

Selphids didn’t kill Selphids. But Ulinde had learned that you didn’t have to die to regret crossing another Selphid. Sometimes she still shuddered at the one confrontation they’d had.

“But I deserved that. And now I’m a Halfseeker. Me.”

The Selphid smiled into a mirror. Her lips twitched and spasmed. She sighed, and with her interior body, found a ripped bit of muscle.

“Darn. The muscle’s wearing out.”

She sighed. Corpses always wore down. But this Drake’s body was far from rotten, so she lived with it. She went downstairs after carefully applying some of the preservative gel that prevented body odors from leaking out and active decay.

Good morning, Jelaqua! Morning, Moore, morning, Seborn!

The youngest member of the Halfseekers bounded down the stairs into the inn in Pallass. The other Halfseekers looked up. Jelaqua waved lazily, Seborn grunted, and Moore smiled.

“Hello, Ulinde. How was your sleep?”

“Great, thanks! Jelaqua, what’re we doing today? I’m ready to go adventuring!”

The [Spellslinger] bounced up and down. Jelaqua yawned.

“Eat something first, Ulinde! I’m tired. Seborn, what’s our plan?”

We’re between jobs. Again. Because someone keeps going on dates rather than finding us work.

The [Rogue] snapped. He was grumpy without his morning tea-and-rum. It came via Garuda [Waitress] along with food for the others.

This was not The Wandering Inn. It was simply expedient; easier to be in Pallass rather than having to use Erin’s door. And the inn was nice, even to Selphids. It was run by a Dullahan, who knew and respected Maughin and was familiar with Selphids from Baleros.

“Hey, I looked, Seborn. I didn’t see anything great. We’ll take a mission today. After breakfast. Uh—who wants my breakfast? I ate at Maughin’s.”

Seborn sighed. But Moore accepted Jelaqua’s portion and chowed down on his extra-large plate. Ulinde helped herself to breakfast—or tried to. She noticed Moore staring.

“Ulinde. Your jaw is…”

The Selphid’s jaw was only opening on her right side. Ulinde sighed.

“My jaw muscle’s all deteriorated. Jelaqua, do you know a fix?”

“Let me see. Damn, looks all torn up.”

The older Selphid got up to inspect Ulinde’s body. A bit of her real form reached out through the air and inspected the deteriorated skin. The Garuda [Waitress] shuddered as she brought over a drink.

“Disgusting.”

Ulinde’s smile faded as she heard the word in the air. She didn’t see who it was. Seborn looked around, and Moore’s expression turned clouded.

But none of the Halfseekers said anything. They were used to it. Jelaqua affected not to hear. She slapped Ulinde on the back.

“I think we need a string fix. We can find a small bit, tie those two muscles together. It won’t last long, but I have a spool of thread in my room. We’ll do it after breakfast.”

“Thanks, Jelaqua.”

The [Iron Tempest] winked at Ulinde. It was like having a teacher and big sister who was also your friend. Ulinde helped herself to breakfast—spicy chicken eggs. There was a breed of chickens raised on magical peppers who laid delicious eggs. Selphids loved spice; their taste buds deteriorated too fast in most bodies for the subtleties of taste.

Things had changed a lot for Ulinde. She had gone with Montressa to deliver justice and find people from Earth. Now—she was a member of the team she’d idolized. Isceil was…dead. The team was split up.

Some things remained, though. Ulinde was still a member of Wistram, even if she was now a Halfseeker. She had loyalty to her academy, which was why she hadn’t told Jelaqua all about Montressa’s mission. She’d debated it, but Jelaqua didn’t need to know. The Minds on Baleros on the other hand? Well…wiser Selphids than her would make that choice in Wistram.

But today, as Jelaqua and Ulinde went upstairs and the Selphid used a tiny bit of string to connect the rotten muscle so she could move her jaw properly, her duties were brought up again. Ulinde sat up and raised a finger to her temple.

Incoming [Message]. I—oh. Oh. Oh wow. Jelaqua! Big sis, you want to hear this.”

Jelaqua sat back on her haunches; she was wearing a Gnoll’s body.

“What’s up, Ulinde?”

The [Spellslinger] was trying to process the information being thrown at her. She gasped.

It’s from the Minds. No—their agents!”

Jelaqua’s eyes sharpened. The Minds? They were the authority of Selphids. When they gave an order, any Selphid who was…a proper Selphid obeyed.

“What do they want with us?”

“I—oh wow. Jelaqua. They’ve got someone from Earth.

The word had never been mentioned between Jelaqua and Ulinde. But the other Selphid wasn’t completely surprised to hear it. Jelaqua’s eyes narrowed.

What did you just say?”

 

—-

 

It took some explaining. And admitting about Wistram’s knowledge of Selphids. Jelaqua and Ulinde sat together in a single body.

A Raskghar’s; it was the most spacious. Since they were both adult Selphids, they could both occupy the body. They had to squeeze a bit to fit in this one, but it worked. And their conversation was inaudible, even to Gnoll ears. Selphid secrets were good secrets.

It was hard to imagine for non-Selphids how they spoke. Or interacted. There were…parallels.

“Jelaqua, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you! But I had to be loyal to the academy!”

Ulinde whined. She shied back from Jelaqua, down the spinal column. The other Selphid pursued, although her body and Ulinde’s were meeting across the stomach, spine, down the left hand—she reached out and smacked Ulinde. Well, the Selphid equivalent.

“You idiot! So that’s why you were all there! I should’ve known! You should have told us.

“But Jelaqua…wait, how did you know?”

“We knew about Earth! Or rather…Seborn did. Moore picked up some stuff with Mrsha. We have ears. And Erin’s not exactly a secret person. But tell us everything.”

Ulinde did. Jelaqua contracted on herself in shock.

“No way. Another planet? We thought it was another dimension! A gateway. Erin and the others?”

“That’s right. The Minds must not know, though. Jelaqua, I have orders from an ‘Idis’ to get us in touch with Joseph.”

“That kid with the soccer ball? Why?”

“They know he’s from Earth.”

Jelaqua went still. She was thinking hard.

“…So they have no idea about Erin?”

“None. Should I tell them—?”

“No.”

Jelaqua’s voice echoed throughout the body. Ulinde flinched. She didn’t ‘see’ Jelaqua; Selphids didn’t see without eyes. But she had senses beyond that of a body. And Jelaqua undulated darkly.

“The Minds…don’t need to know about Erin. If they want Joseph—fine. I’ll respect their wishes. But we’re calling Seborn and Moore in here and telling them.”

Ulinde gasped. Again—another parallel. She exuded a tiny bubble of oxygen which both Selphids sensed.

“But Jelaqua, the orders are secret—

Jelaqua poked Ulinde. That was…broadly speaking the same.

“We don’t keep secrets from teammates. That’s how Garen…no. Not even the Mind’s orders. Not about Erin. You’re loyal to our people, Ulinde. But you need to learn about what being loyal to your team means.”

“Yes, Jelaqua.”

 

—-

 

In short order, the other two Halfseekers were brought in. They listened. They debated. Seborn didn’t like it. Moore didn’t like it. But Jelaqua was adamant.

“Lads—you don’t know the Minds. We’re both Selphids; disobeying them is like disobeying your [Captain], Seborn.”

I did that all the time. I abandoned my ship, Jelaqua.

The Drowned Man [Rogue] and former [Pirate] growled. The Selphid hesitated.

“…Okay, not like that. It’s like…betraying your team. There’s no going back for us, boys. And the Minds know about Joseph and Earth.”

She looked around significantly. Moore and Seborn went still. Ulinde went quiet. She shivered, though her body felt no cold. She was in the presence of history. A name unspoken.

Garen Redfang.

“What will you do, Jelaqua? If it puts Erin and Mrsha and the inn in danger, I will not have it. They have been through enough.”

Moore rumbled. Jelaqua nodded at him.

“Nothing like that. I…don’t think the Minds know about Erin. And we’ll keep it that way. I propose we go to the inn. And tell Erin about it.

The other Halfseekers looked at each other. Ulinde held her breath. Jelaqua went on.

“It’s the right thing to do. She’s managing the kids, and Montressa, Beza, and that Palt are all there to watch her. We go there, tell her what’s up, and let her decide. Votes?”

The Halfseekers voted. On big things like this, they would. Moore nodded, relief on his face. Seborn raised his claw hand.

Do it. And if they want us to kidnap Joseph or anyone else, tell them to shove off.

The other three looked at Ulinde. She blinked.

“Me? But I’m new.”

“The Halfseekers don’t care. What do you say, Ulinde?”

Jelaqua smiled at her. The [Spellslinger] felt warm. Connected to her team. She reached out and slowly grasped the wand at her side. She raised it, and sent a bubble of light floating into the air. It floated upwards, reflecting the faces of her team within. Her team. The [Spellslinger] took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I say—I stand with my team. No matter what the Minds want. Let’s find out, shall we?”

They laughed and patted her on the back, clapped her shoulder, or gave her an approving nod. Ulinde smiled. And she knew this was her team. The reason she’d idolized the Halfseekers hadn’t been because they had a Selphid on their team. Well, it hadn’t been the only reason. It was because they were like this.

Good people. Then Ulinde heard another [Message] go ping in her head. She blinked.

Mold? Hang on, there’s one other thing…”

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice frowned. She rubbed at one ear. It was ringing.

“What did you say?”

Jelaqua said it again. She, Ulinde—Seborn and Moore were downstairs, investigating something in Octavia’s shop. Erin Solstice looked at her friends. She had to be tired after arguing with Wailant, Teliv, and doing business stuff all day.

“What?’

“Earth.”

Erin slowly sat down in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had been trying to plant potatoes. She looked at Jelaqua and Ulinde. Then she grinned.

“Well, yeah. I guess I’m from earth. Uh, there’s lot of earth all over. Here, there, everywhere—”

Neither Selphid blinked. Jelaqua looked at [Innkeeper].

“Erin—we know. We’re not idiots. We’ve heard you and Numbtongue when you’re not being quiet enough. And Ulinde’s from Wistram.”

“Oh.”

Erin considered this. She had a trowel in hand, potato in the other. She debated throwing the potato at Jelaqua, running for it and…well, what?

“And someone…knows another person from Earth? This, uh, place I’ve never—”

The Selphids both raised an eyebrow. Erin threw down her potato.

Fine. They know another person from Earth?”

“That’s right, Miss Erin. It’s complicated. The Selphid…authority is trying to get us in touch with Joseph. They know he’s from Earth.”

“How do they know? He just plays soccer! Football!”

Erin snapped. She felt sweat on the back of her neck. Ulinde shrugged.

“Apparently someone from Earth saw him. Erin. They have someone from Earth who wants to speak with him.”

The young woman froze. She looked up.

“Someone else?”

Neither Jelaqua nor Ulinde was prepared for the hungry look in Erin’s eye. The [Innkeeper] rose to her feet.

“Who? I mean—what’s their name? Are they okay? Where are they from?”

Jelaqua gnawed on a lip. Ulinde waved her hands.

“We don’t know! I have specific orders, Erin. They want me to get Joseph to a secret place and then they’ll relay [Message] spells through me. I’m not Palt. I can’t do [Speak] spells and they don’t want Wistram to know. But…they know. Joseph’s from another world. And…so are you. We know that, not them. And we didn’t tell them.”

“Another world. Earth.”

The Gold-rank Captain looked at Erin. Strangely, but with raised brows. It made sense and it didn’t. There stood Erin Solstice. She looked into Jelaqua’s eyes. The [Innkeeper]’s gaze flickered. She bit her lip, scuffed a foot on the dirt she’d cleared for planting.

Then she shrugged.

“Well, yeah. Sorry I didn’t tell you, Jelaqua. It’s this whole thing. I’m from Earth. Another world. It’s not like this one. Keep it secret.”

She looked at Jelaqua. At Ulinde. The three stood together. No one knew quite what to say. Erin glanced at their faces. She threw up her hands.

Psyche! Just kidding! Hah, you fell for that? Hilarious!

The two Selphids blinked at her. Erin lowered her hands. She checked their expressions, scuffed a toe.

“Darn. Okay, let’s think this one out. Come with me.”

 

—-

 

“Miss Geneva. Our Selphid has made contact with Joseph.”

Geneva Scala nearly dropped her basin of wet towels. The clinic was full of noise, the staff checking on patients, groans, even eating, but even so she beckoned the Selphid away.

“What? Already?

The Selphid [Mage] bowed. His skin was pale; he wore a Gnoll’s body, incongruously enough. It was long-rotted, yellowed bones showing through parts of the skin through gaps in the robe. He smelled like mint.

Yes. And we have word on the mold you wanted.”

Really? From whom?”

“A representative contacted the Plain’s Eyes tribe. One of the largest Gnoll tribes in Izril.”

Their specialty is [Shamans]. They trade the most out of any tribe with the Walled Cities and are very respected.

Idis whispered in Geneva’s mind. The Selphid [Mage] went on.

“They’ve agreed to look for this mold. If any group could find it, or has records of a substance like that, they would.”

“Oh. I see.”

Geneva sighed. But that was replaced almost at once by concern.

“Does this—Joseph know about…?”

“All he has been told is that someone from Earth wishes to speak with him secretly. He has been told Wistram is untrustworthy. Our agent will have explained.”

She’s a Gold-rank, as well as a [Mage], Geneva. Ulinde. But she’s trustworthy. I’ll tell you more about her if you like.

Idis spoke helpfully. Geneva bit her lip. She hadn’t expected it to work so fast. But she made up her mind in an instant.

“I need to decontaminate. Let me scrub. Meet me in the United Nations headquarters in twenty minutes. Please get Paige, Kirana, Daly, Luan, Ken—anyone you can find. Tell this Joseph we want to speak with him. No—wait.”

She stopped the [Mage] as he raised a finger to his temple. The Selphid looked inquisitively at Geneva. The [Doctor] closed her eyes and thought.

Don’t tell them about us. Just say—it’s me.”

 

—-

 

Joseph sat in a room with Jelaqua and Ulinde. No Lyonette. Or Numbtongue. Especially no Mrshas. Not because they weren’t trustworthy. But because…this was a conversation between people from Earth.

So, Joseph turned her head towards Ulinde.

“What’re they telling you? Are we talking in person or what? I can get uh…me, if we need to talk.”

Ulinde looked at ‘Joseph’. Erin sat there, nervous, but her face was determined. Jelaqua eyed her; Erin looked more serious than either Selphid usually saw her.

“I think it’s just [Messages], Erin. They’re getting set up. You’re—oh. You’re talking with, um, Geneva Scala. The Last Light of Baleros, apparently.”

“What? Who? That’s a weird name. The last light of what?”

Erin frowned. Ulinde explained.

“I’ve heard of her, actually. She’s this legend on the battlefield! A—a healer. No, wait. What was her class? Oh. They said. She’s a [Doctor].”

A doctor?

Erin sat up. Her eyes widened.

“What’s special about a [Doctor], Erin? I thought they were weirdoes, like [Saw Doctors] who cut people open when there’s no medicine. Selphids make use of them sometimes, but they’re rare.”

The young woman looked at Jelaqua and shook her head.

“No, Jelaqua! What? A [Doctor] is…a [Healer]. But better. They don’t use magic. They use medicine. Science. Is this person really a doctor-doctor?”

“I have no idea. Let me ask. Hold on…”

 

—-

 

“You’ve got Joseph? Really?

Daly panted as he slammed into the small room. He saw a Selphid [Mage], Geneva, and the other leaders of the company turn to him. Siri raised a finger, but there was no need.

“I am sending [Message] spells. Our agent does not know [Speak].”

The [Mage] informed the others. Geneva nodded tightly. The others were looking at her.

“Tell them it’s just me. Geneva Scala. I am a [Doctor]. From Earth.”

“But don’t say it as a class. She’s actually a doctor. A medical one, who was trained. There’s a difference.”

Paige informed the Selphid. Daly hesitated. He mimed at Luan. Is it okay for the Selphids to know? The [Rower] made a face and shrugged. They already knew through Calectus.

The Gnoll-Selphid looked confused.

“How do I say it?”

Geneva grimaced.

“I never finished my certification, Paige. Tell them—”

 

—-

 

“Wait, so she’s actually a real doctor? No way! How old is she?”

Erin gasped. She imagined a real doctor would be a lot older than anyone else she’d met! But of course—why not? What if this Geneva was in her sixties?

“How old is she, Ulinde?”

“Hold on! I need to send! I’m not Palt! I don’t do [Message] spells well!”

The [Spellslinger] was concentrating. Erin waited, bouncing up and down in her seat.

“I need to be careful what I say. I’m Joseph. Football, not soccer. Football, not soccer…”

She closed her eyes. Grew still. Erin leaned forwards.

“Listen, Ulinde. Don’t send what I say. Let me think about each response. And when you do send a [Message]—”

 

—-

 

“—Do it word-for-word. We’ll keep a log of this conversation. Hell, we’ll write down each response.”

Paige told the [Mage]. He nodded. Geneva Scala took a deep breath. Her heart was fluttering. Why was it racing? Idis was confused too.

“Why are you nervous? You know they’re from your world. Isn’t everyone here from Earth?”

“Yes, but—this is different, I—Okasha.”

Daly glanced at Geneva. He wavered, and then nodded.

“They’re on another continent. We should be careful about what we say, everyone.”

“You think we can’t trust them?”

Ken looked at Daly. The Bushranger’s Captain shrugged slowly.

“I say—just be careful.”

And then the conversation began. Paige’s pencil raced across the paper.

In The Wandering Inn, Erin jotted down her notes.

 

—-

 

[Joseph] – Are you really a doctor, doctor? From Earth, I mean? Sorry—how old are you? I know it’s rude to ask…

[Geneva] – I’m twenty five. My name is Geneva. Hello, Joseph. Pleased to meet you.

[Joseph] – Oh! I’m really sorry. Hello! I’m Joseph. Pleased to meet you. You’re the first person from Earth I’ve met.

[Geneva] – Really? I’ve met other people.

[Joseph] – I haven’t. Who have you met? How many others?

 

 

In the company’s headquarters, Paige turned to the others and raised an eyebrow.

“You all believe that?”

The others murmured.

“They could have come alone. We shouldn’t have let on…”

“Trust is important.”

Ken’s voice. He looked at Geneva as the [Mage] waited. The [Diplomat] waited a beat.

“—But it is also important to be safe. Tell them…”

 

[Geneva] – There are others. I came with a group. Some were split apart. Others died. I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific. But there were dozens.

 

Erin Solstice sat back. Ulinde stopped speaking and saw the [Innkeeper]’s face. The young woman was white-faced.

“Dozens?”

And then—

Died?

“Erin. Are you alright? Should we get Lyonette?”

Jelaqua half-rose, concerned at Erin’s expression. The [Innkeeper] didn’t respond at first, so the Selphid opened the door. Ulinde saw Erin’s eyes flick towards her.

 

[Joseph] – From where? Were they all young? I’m from Spain. What about you?

[Geneva] – America.

[Geneva] – Wisconsin, Madison. The others were around my age.

[Joseph] – I see! That makes sense.

 

A pause. Erin cursed. Paige looked around at the others.

 

[Geneva] – How so?

[Joseph] – Was everyone from America?

[Geneva] – No. There were other countries mixed in. Why does everyone being young make sense? How old are you?

 

“Hey Joseph, how old are you?”

What?

How old are—

Erin got up and stormed out the door. Lyonette came hurrying in, demanding answers. Mrsha was clinging to Jelaqua’s shoulders. After a moment, Erin ran back into the room.

 

[Joseph] – Nineteen.

[Geneva] – I see.

 

A pause, then. The United Nations company conferred. Lyonette, Numbtongue, Mrsha, and Bird sat together. Still no one else. Jelaqua listened as they conferred.

“…I lied. Okay? They’re from this Selphid group. The Minds.

“I’ve heard of them. You should be careful, Erin.”

Lyonette shuddered. Jelaqua glanced at her and the [Princess] blushed.

“I’m sorry, Jelaqua. But I heard—”

“…No. You’re right to be wary. The Minds are on our side. No one else’s.”

By ‘our’, she meant Ulinde and herself.

“Be careful.”

Numbtongue murmured to Erin. She nodded. Bird was sitting there, gamely reading the notes along with Mrsha. She was worried too.

The conversation resumed.

 

[Geneva] – Let’s be open, Joseph. I am a [Doctor] working in Talenqual. I am attempting to bring some medical knowledge from home to here. It is difficult. I am currently trying to find a cure for the Yellow Rivers bacteria that is in danger of becoming a full-blown pandemic.

 

Numbtongue and Mrsha started. Lyonette blinked and went to grab the scrying orb.

 

[Joseph] – I’ve heard of that! How bad is it?

[Geneva] – Very bad. The disease is spreading quickly. Where are you?

[Joseph] – In an inn in Liscor. I’m alone.

[Geneva] – I see.

 

Silence. The United Nations company eyed each other.

“If we get a knock at the door in the next few days, we’re in trouble.”

“That’s what Calectus’ company is for. We can at least hope they can deal with Wistram [Mages].”

“Assuming Wistram is the only player.”

They frowned as Geneva dictated another response.

 

[Geneva] – I saw you playing soccer on the scrying orb. How did that happen?

[Joseph] – Coincidence, mainly. I was playing a game and a [Mage] decided to broadcast it.

[Geneva] – The Ullsinoi Faction? The Centaur?

[Joseph] – Yes. He’s a friend. But I’m not affiliated with Wistram. Actually—they’re looking for us. You should be careful.

[Geneva] – Really? Can you elaborate?

[Joseph] – Wistram Academy is finding people from Earth. Earthers. They are sending [Mages] to get us. With or without our consent.

[Geneva] – And they told you this?

[Joseph] – They tried to get me to come with them.

[Geneva] – Did they attempt to force you?

 

Erin took a deep breath. Ulinde waited, nervous. The others looked at her. The [Innkeeper] saw Lyonette clenching her hands.

“Erin…”

“It’s dangerous.”

 

[Joseph] – Yes. They failed because I had friends who protected me. The Centaur struck a deal; I’m under the protection of one of Wistram’s factions.

[Geneva] – I see.

 

Anarchy in the United Nations company.

 

[Geneva] – Please keep my identity secret.

[Joseph] – I will. The Ullsinoi Faction is not as active as the other ones. I believe they are trustworthy. What was it like when you arrived here? Are there more people from Earth or are you the only one? Are you in danger?

[Geneva] – That’s a difficult question to answer. One moment.

 

“Oh no. I think they know I’m lying. Ulinde?”

Erin was sweating. The [Spellslinger] shrugged helplessly.

“There’s no nuance, Erin. I’m just getting the replies and repeating them verbatim.”

“Offer them something, Erin. Tell them about Wistram. Or Magnolia. That’s not a big secret.”

“They’ll want to know about Magnolia, then.”

Erin argued. She was thinking about Ryoka’s iPhone thing. Should she ask…? But Geneva had gone silent. And Erin feared…

Numbtongue’s arms were crossed. He didn’t like this dance of information. To him, it felt like fighting in the dark. All spotting the enemy and quick clashes of blades. Exposing too much was how you died. But it was Bird who spoke up next.

“Erin. You are lying.”

The others looked at him. Bird stared at the notes. Erin bit her lip.

“I am, Bird. But we have to be careful. We don’t know if we can trust them.”

The Worker nodded agreeably.

“This is true. However, if I was them and I was listening to you, Erin, I would not trust you either. Because you are lying. If you are lying, how can you ask to trust someone? This makes no sense.”

Mrsha’s head hurt. But Erin looked up. Lyonette opened her mouth.

“Erin…”

“You think I should tell the truth, Bird?”

The Worker looked up at her.

“Did you lie to Pawn or we when you taught us chess? I do not think so. If you did—we would not have liked you. Lies are like hollow bricks. You cannot build much with them. It all falls apart.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at him. She took a deep breath.

 

[Joseph] – …There are others.

[Geneva] – Can you clarify?

[Joseph] – Sorry, but I wanted to be cautious. There are others. I have met them. And I have received letters. From Wistram. There are others, but I cannot tell you where or how many. I do not know who these Selphids are.

[Geneva] – That is understandable. Thank you for being honest.

[Joseph] – To be more honest—we were found by someone. An individual. We were eventually able to leave, but more people know about us. I was not part of this, but there was a…phone call. Or something.

[Geneva] – I know.

 

Ken raised his iPhone. The others clustered around even more closely. Idis was asking questions. Geneva ignored them.

In the inn, Erin tried to recall what Ryoka had said.

 

[Joseph] – Do you know who ‘Kent Scott’ is?

[Geneva] – No. Do you?

[Joseph] – No. Honesty set to maximum this time. However—I do know there are others. There is a [Singer] in Terandria. I think that a person is in Chandrar.

[Geneva] – Rémi Canada?

[Joseph] – Yes! Did you read his newspaper-thingy?

 

The United Nations company was chuckling. ‘Honesty set to maximum’, ‘newspaper-thingy’—they were relaxing. Geneva herself smiled as she replied.

 

[Geneva] – We get the news. We have a scrying orb.

[Joseph] – Me too! Those are the ones I’m aware of. The group in Rhir, Wistram…and now you.

[Geneva] – And the ones in Izril?

[Joseph] – Yes. They’re safe. As safe as they can be. Are you safe?

 

The mood turned serious again. Daly pushed forwards.

“What does he mean? Ask—”

 

[Geneva] – Please clarify by ‘safe’.

[Joseph] – If something bad happens, will you be able to protect yourself?

[Geneva] – I have security, yes. I operate a clinic. It is secure.

[Joseph] – No. I mean, monsters.

[Geneva] – Can you explain further?

[Joseph] – Yes. Monsters. I have been attacked multiple times since coming to this world by monsters. Not just people. Real…monsters. Not Goblins. They’re not monsters.

 

That came from Numbtongue.

 

[Geneva] – Do you mean undead? I am familiar with them, but Talenqual is a large city with a mercenary company protecting it.

[Joseph] – Mercenaries? That doesn’t matter. Monsters can overrun a city. I have seen a horde of undead nearly destroy a city. There are worse things. Crelers, for instance.

[Geneva] – Have you encountered them yourself, Joseph?

[Joseph] – Yes. I’ve killed monsters. But I am no [Warrior]. One of us was teleported to a Creler nest with friends. She was the only survivor.

 

“Fucking hell. This guy’s fought Crelers?

Daly exclaimed. Siri checked her crossbow.

 

[Geneva] – Do you have warrior classes? How do you protect yourself?

[Joseph] – I don’t fight if I don’t have to. I have friends. Adventurers, from this world. They’ve died fighting monsters. I’m not that strong. The Watch—the law enforcement, friends, adventurers, fight. But a city will not protect you. You need a safe place. You need to prepare.

 

Erin was holding Numbtongue’s hand. He looked at her as she spoke.

 

[Joseph] – There are dungeons full of monsters. Huge ones with magical powers that can terrify you. Flying ones the size of houses. You need to be careful.

[Geneva] – I am. I have protection with me. There are others, as I said. We are relatively safe. Are you safe?

[Joseph] – Yes. Thank you. It was rougher when I first came here. I’ve found a place to stay. Allies.

[Geneva] – When we came here, my group and I were teleported close to a battlefield. Some were from an airport. Melbourne. I was not. But I have been on battlefields. As a [Doctor], I do not fight. Many of the others died, however.

[Joseph] – I see. Armies are different. Monsters, though…it must have been hard.

 

What a simple statement. But the United Nations company sat there for a moment. Because it was true. And they felt…the other side knew it.

 

[Geneva] – It was. We have survived. But this world is dangerous.

[Joseph] – Wonderful and dangerous.

[Geneva] – Yes. It is. We find more of us. Some do not survive. But we are looking.

[Joseph] – That is good. I am looking too. If I find them, I will protect them as best I can. I did not think to talk to anyone outside of Izril, however. Listen: do you need any help?

[Geneva] – Us?

[Joseph] – Anything I can do. I have gold. If you need something, I can try to get it to you. We must be careful. But I can ask the faction in Wistram. If you are in danger, let me know and I can try to get to you somehow.

 

The United Nations company sat there, rereading the [Message]. It was so…confident.

“Him? Help us? With what, football?”

 

[Geneva] – We should be fine, thank you. We are mostly concerned with gathering information. How we all got here, for instance.

[Joseph] – I’ll tell you what I know. Which isn’t much.

[Geneva] – Thank you.

 

A brief exchange. Erin sat back.

“Darn.”

 

[Joseph] – No other clues?

[Geneva] – None. We thought it was a spell.

[Joseph] – The [Mages] from Wistram don’t know anything about that.

[Geneva] – Too bad.

[Joseph] – Mhm. Perhaps there is a way we can meet in the future. You are very far away. But I may be able to buy a ship or something.

[Geneva] – Or something?

[Joseph] – I’ll look into it. Talenqual is far away.

 

Erin was staring at a map.

 

[Joseph] – Like I said, there’s not much I can do for you from here. But I can send gold, or figure out ways to give you things you might need. If you’re a [Doctor], do you need scalpels or surgical instruments? I know an expert [Blacksmith] who can probably create medical-grade equipment. And an [Enchanter]. Transporting it is an issue, but…

[Geneva] – Are you serious?

[Joseph] – Absolutely.

 

The United Nations company exchanged glances.

 

[Geneva] – Out of curiosity, what level are you?

[Joseph] – : ) What about you?

 

The [Mage] had to write that one down. The [Doctor] herself smiled.

 

[Geneva] – I’m decently high-level myself. I wish I was better, though. People are dying. Even with my Skills. : /

[Joseph] – Don’t give up! This world needs [Doctors]! \o/

 

Ulinde snapped.

Stop making me send pictures! It’s too hard!

“Sorry.”

 

[Geneva] – Thank you, again. I’m doing the best I can. Honestly, I have enough resources. But the Yellow Rivers disease is spreading.

[Joseph] – I’ve seen it in the news. It’s not where I am yet, but it looks bad. What can be done?

[Geneva] – We need a cure. But there are no antibiotics in this world that I know of. Do you know any [Alchemists]?

[Joseph] – Yes. I know a high-level one. Antibiotics? Do you mean, like, penicillin?

[Geneva] – Yes! If you have come across any supplements or substances with similar properties, we need it urgently where I am.

[Joseph] – We have penicillin. How much do you need?

[Geneva] – What? Say again?

[Joseph] – We have penicillin. An [Alchemist] I know made it for me. Also, baking soda. And matches. Do you need some for this Yellow Rivers thing?

[Joseph] – …Hello?

[Joseph] – Are you still there?

 

Chaos in the United Nations headquarters. Some of the others knocked on the door to ask what the screaming was about. Daly nearly knocked Dawson flat.

Dawson! We’ve found fucking penicillin!

“What? What?

Shut up! Everyone shut up!

Paige was shouting. Kirana looked around, and then clapped her hands.

The miniature shockwave turned the noise into silence. The [Housekeeper] looked at Geneva. The [Doctor] was pale-faced.

 

[Geneva] – Please confirm. You have penicillin? How?

[Joseph] – I asked one of my [Alchemist] friends to research it months ago. A friend of mine…was sick. It wasn’t ready then. Now, it is. Do you need it?

[Geneva] – Yes. The Yellow Rivers disease is a bacteria. We need as much as possible. It may halt this pandemic. We need it.

[Joseph] – Okay.

 

“How do we get the stuff? It’s in Izril?”

“Ships. How long will that take?”

Siri was conferring with Luan. He was grimacing over a map.

“At least…”

 

[Geneva] – If possible, we need it sent to us at all speed. I know it is difficult, but we are aware it is possible to teleport small items.

[Joseph] – Yes. Okay.

[Geneva] – However, we need as much as possible. And the methods of creating more. Written instructions as well as large a supply to cultivate more. Assuming this is a mold? I am sorry, but if possible, we need a Courier. We will attempt to send as much gold as needed. We are calculating how much we can send you.

[Joseph] – Okay. I will have it sent by Courier today.

[Geneva] – What? Please clarify?

[Joseph] – I will arrange it by Courier. Don’t worry. I can do it. What else do you need?

 

And there was silence. Erin Solstice sat there. Lyonette was pale-faced from the thought of hiring a Courier. But she looked at Erin. Mrsha stared up, peering at Erin’s face. Bird smiled. So did Numbtongue.

Her eyes were focused. She was just sitting there. But the air was charged.

 

[Geneva] – If you can, we need to see how effective this penicillin-substitute is for the Yellow Rivers disease.

[Joseph] – I see. I can arrange that too. What else? They say they’ve found a cure in Pallass, though.

[Geneva] – That is incorrect. The crystals are not a workable solution. This [Healer] has not dealt with enough patients and those ‘cured’ may still be carriers. She has treated six patients and her crystals cannot be bought or produced in enough numbers. This penicillin-substitute is a better option. Are you sure it is penicillin?

 

Erin felt a moment of panic. But Ryoka had gone over it with Octavia.

 

[Joseph] – Fairly sure. It was tested. Okay. Understood.

[Geneva] – Can you send the penicillin?

[Joseph] – I will. Please wait for me to send a response confirming. But I will get it to you as fast as possible. Trust me.

[Geneva] – Thank you.

 

“Thank you.”

The [Doctor] whispered. She felt lightheaded. Idis was panicking at all the mixed feelings running through Geneva. But now Geneva Scala sat there. And she could not see the person on the other side. But the conversation went on. And Erin Solstice sat there, trying to imagine a face.

It was a dialogue between the two of them, then.

 

[Joseph] – Don’t thank me. Thank you. I am not a [Doctor]. I wish I could be. You’re saving lives.

[Geneva] – Not enough. I try.

[Joseph] – That’s all we can do. It’s been difficult.

[Geneva] – Yes. Sometimes it is extremely hard to effect change.

[Joseph] – True. But what other option is there? That’s why we do these things. Don’t give up. It means so much to hear from someone else trying to do the right thing.

[Geneva] – Yes. Here as well.

[Joseph] – Never give up. If I can do anything for you—let me know. I can’t promise anything, but I have friends here. Good people. Let’s keep talking. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the medicine sent. And get you in contact with someone on this end.

[Joseph] – It must have been terrible at the start. But you did it. I did it. Let’s keep working, Geneva.

[Joseph] – We are not alone.

 

The conversation ended with that, and a few more details. Addresses, notes about the disease. Then the [Mage] looked up. Geneva sat back. Her mind was racing.

“This is too good to be true.”

Siri looked at Ken. The [Diplomat] half-nodded. But he just stared at the log of messages.

“Miss Scala? Are you done for the moment? Adventurer Ulinde has promised to send a [Message]. I will let you know when I receive it.”

The Selphid [Mage] was weary. Geneva nodded.

“Thank you. Please, let me know at once. We have to…Couriers. Even if they can’t find one, we should see…”

“Yes. Let us go. Luan?”

“On it.”

The [Mage] and the three went for the door. When the Selphid was gone, and Geneva, Luan, and Ken, had all run for the nearest Runner’s Guild, Paige turned to Kirana, Siri, and Daly.

“I don’t think that was ‘Joseph’, do you?”

“No.”

Kirana was looking at the writing. Daly closed his eyes.

“We don’t know if they’re telling the truth.”

“Why would they lie, Daly?”

“I don’t know. But this…do you think they’re serious? A Courier? Penicillin?”

“We’ll find out.”

Siri murmured. And Kirana looked up. It had been a short conversation, all told. Even so—she was smiling. And Daly recalled, on Geneva’s face, an odd expression. Kirana laughed, and it was a good sound. Daly realized her expression was mirrored on his face. He looked down at the last line and marveled how much it mattered to say.

“We’re not alone.”

 

—-

 

“Lyonette? We’ve got work to do.”

Ulinde was panting, cheeks flushed. Or rather, she was having to inhale more oxygen for her inner body, and the glowing orange in her cheeks and body were a sign the Selphid had exhausted herself. Erin turned to her.

“Ulinde. Thanks so much. I’m going to need your help, but rest. Let Lyonette get you anything you need.”

“Sure, Erin.”

The [Spellslinger] waved weakly. Jelaqua looked at Erin.

“What’re you going to do, Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] smiled.

“I’m going to get a Courier. And other things.”

She turned and left the private room. Then she walked down the corridor. Numbtongue followed her just in time to see Erin pick up the pace. She jogged—and then ran.

Octavia!

The [Innkeeper] slammed into Stitchworks. Octavia nearly dropped the potion she was working on.

“Erin! Don’t do that! What’s the matter? Are monsters attacking?”

The [Alchemist] looked around wildly. Erin shook her head.

“Penicillin! How much do you have?”

The Stitch-Girl brightened.

“You mean, there’s a buyer? I’ve been in talks with some [Healers] over this Yellow Rivers thing, but—”

“Octavia, we need all of it! Get it! The mold, the actual penicillin—start packing it up! It needs airtight containers—except for the mold, it needs to be alive—it’s going across the world! Get all of it! And start growing more! As much as you can!”

“What? Who’s buying it?”

The [Alchemist] was dumbstruck. She stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] threw up her hands.

Do it!

She ran from the shop. Shouts followed her, but Erin was sprinting now.

Madness ran through Erin’s veins. An electric excitement. In this moment, she felt like she could take on Moore in a wrestling competition and win. She floated as she ran, leaping down the corridor.

There was someone else! Geneva! A [Doctor]! Someone who was trying to—

“Drassi! Drassi! I need you, and Ishkr! I need you to go into Liscor and find—”

Everyone was moving too slow. Erin barged into the common room and the staff and guests turned. There was a susurration. Perhaps they saw it on her face.

But there was already a crowd. Why? Perhaps—Erin blinked as she saw Olesm, Belgrade, Pawn, a number of chess aficionados—

And him.

The Dragon sat at the table, arms folded. In front of him was a chessboard, all set.

“Eldavin?”

The Grand Magus looked at her. His mismatched eyes blazed.

“Erin Solstice. I have returned. I want a rematch. That last loss was…unacceptable. We’ll play a game now.”

Erin saw Reynold and a [Maid] hovering behind him, looking worried. And the crowd looked at her. She faltered. Her eyes were drawn to the board.

“Now’s not a good time, Eldavin. Can’t this wait?”

No. Sit down. We’ll bet properly on this game this time.”

His eyes narrowed. Erin paused.

She looked at him. She looked at the chess game. Then, slowly, she went over to the table.

The inn went still. Erin looked at the board, the white side, which Teriarch had given her for that slight edge. His gaze. And Olesm was prepared to annotate the entire game. Every chess player in Liscor was here and someone had sent a [Message] to Chaldion.

Because here they were. The two chess players regarded each other, Teriarch in his comfy chair, Erin hovering in front of the board, torn.

The games of legends. The battle of a century. Two masters from different worlds, at the very peak of the game, whose clashes would redefine chess strategy.

A clash of tita—

Erin put her hands under the table and flipped it. Eldavin ducked just in time. His head popped up and the board sailed past his face as his chair went over backwards.

The board and chess pieces flew across the inn. They bounced off mugs, clattered onto the floor. One landed in an open mouth and someone began to choke.

Erin walked past the table. Calmly. Her blood raced through her veins. She looked around and saw Ishkr staring at her.

Get me Drassi and Hawk. Now.

She ignored Grand Magus Eldavin as Octavia raced into the common room with a huge jar of her filtered penicillin and the mold samples itself. The [Innkeeper] began shouting.

 

—-

 

Maviola saw Erin blazing like the sun. She was speaking fast, shouting at people, ignoring Eldavin. She had a mission.

Penicillin. Octavia had just been informed where she’d be sending the bulk of her supply. She had brought it out from storage, but she was protesting. Not because she was unwilling to sell it, but because she had no idea what she was getting for her hard work.

“How much am I getting? I mean…I’ll make it dirt-cheap. But it is hard work.”

She pleaded with Erin as the [Innkeeper] scribbled down the amounts in rough letters and shoved it at Ulinde. Erin turned to her.

“Keep enough mold to grow, Octavia. This can help with the Yellow Rivers thing. We’re sending it to Baleros.”

Baleros?

Half the listeners exclaimed. Olesm looked sharply at Maviola, but she was taken aback as everyone else. Octavia blinked.

“How much is it going for?”

“Free. We’re sending it via Courier.”

Erin!

“It’s going to help with the Yellow Rivers disease, Octavia.”

The [Innkeeper] snapped. The [Alchemist] opened and closed her mouth.

“But—but—”

But the profits. She looked around. Numbtongue was there. Octavia hesitated—then deflated.

“Okay.”

Erin didn’t notice at first. Numbtongue did. He went over, poked Erin hard. She yelped.

Numbtongue, what—

He whispered in her ear. The [Innkeeper] turned.

“But—oh. Right. Okay—okay. Let me…”

She closed her eyes for a moment, pinched the bridge of her nose and thought. Octavia glanced up. Numbtongue nodded to her. Erin turned.

“Sorry. Listen, Octavia, this stuff is going to go for free. To a [Doctor]. She needs it. I’m sorry, but people—thousands, tens of thousands—need this stuff now.

“That’s fine, Erin. Really.”

The [Innkeeper] shook her head.

“No, listen, Octavia. We’re sending as much as we can to Baleros so they can grow more and use the stuff. But keep…a quarter of your supply? Ulinde, write down Octavia’s name. And Stitchworks. Tell them it’s from her. And Octavia?”

She pointed at the Stitch-Girl. The [Alchemist] glanced up.

“…Put your name on every jar, Octavia. And grow lots more. People are going to want as much as they can get. When they buy it from you, make it cheap. And the [Doctor] is going to tell everyone who made it. I’ll buy your entire supply myself; don’t worry. No matter how much gold…”

“I’ll pay for it.”

A voice. Erin turned. And a [Sinew Magus] rose from the chair where he’d been prepared to take notes. Grimalkin strode forwards.

“This can cure the plague in Zeres?”

His eyes were sharp as he looked at Erin and then the mold and penicillin. Erin glanced up at Grimalkin.

“That’s right.”

“Then Pallass will pay for it. And if the Assembly won’t, I’ll cover it myself. Send the bill to me.”

Octavia felt weak-kneed. Grimalkin glanced at Erin.

“Just so long as some of it reaches Zeres, as well as Baleros.”

“The [Doctor] needs it to make it most effective. But yeah. I’ll talk to you in…thirty minutes. Octavia? You’re getting paid. Is that okay?”

“Sure. I mean…put my name on the jars?”

“In big lettering. Like a logo or something.”

Erin helpfully pointed to the glass jar. Octavia thought about that. Baleros? A cure for…she began muttering.

“Complimentary matches. Aaah! I need to grow more mold! Labels? A logo?

She ran. Erin had penicillin. Grimalkin was asking questions, but she had to get this stuff moving. Delivery would take a longer time. She needed a Courier.

 

—-

 

“So, I need a Courier from the nearest big port. One who can go on the oceans fast. But you need to get it there. Like—by nightfall. Any city will do; anyone with a Courier. I’ll hire them. How about it, Hawk?”

The Rabbit Beastkin looked at Erin. He looked at the table piled with Octavia-brand jars which she was hastily slapping logos on. Mrsha had come up with it. A needle and thread sticking out of a jar. Lyonette had…improved the art with [Flawless Attempt].

Teriarch was harrumphily listening as the two servants tried to placate his bad mood. Selys was trying to keep up. And Hawk?

“No, Erin. Nothing doing.”

He shook his head. Erin blinked.

“What? Why? Hawk, this is essential—

The Courier folded his furry arms.

“Hold on, Erin. I understand this is important, but business is still business. I can’t just run an errand for nothing. Besides, I’m not running any deliveries.”

“I can pay!”

“Yes…at a discount, though? That goes against my principles. But that’s not it either, Erin. Even if I was going to do you a favor, I don’t want to leave the city.”

“Why?”

Erin and Selys chorused that. The Rabbit-man looked pointedly at Selys. He put an arm around her.

“I’m staying here in case there are more riots. I’m not about to leave Selys at the hands of a mob.”

Hawk! Don’t be an idiot! This is medicine! Like potions! I’m fine! The riots never even got into the guild!”

Selys glowered at him. The Rabbit Beastkin blew out his cheeks.

“What are you saying? I should be right here. That’s what a concerned partner does!”

“Not if people’s lives are at risk! You take Erin’s delivery! Don’t be stupid!”

“I’m concerned for you!”

The two began arguing. Erin looked from face to face. She opened her mouth, and decided against it. She didn’t have time to waste.

“Problems with delivery?”

Grand Magus Eldavin inquired silkily from his chair. Erin glanced at him.

“I’m working on it.”

“Perhaps I could—no, then again, halfhearted—”

Erin stormed past him without hearing. The Dragon harrumphed again.

“Change of plans. Get Drassi here, Ishkr.”

“I asked, but she’s nowhere to be found, Erin.”

The Gnoll was panting. He’d gone to her apartment. Erin scowled.

Find her. Drag her here! I need Drassi! Tell her I’ll pay her triple overtime—whatever it takes! But she’ll want to do this. I have to go to Invrisil.”

 

—-

 

The Runner’s Guild in Invrisil was busy as usual. The [Innkeeper] strode up to one [Receptionist]’s counter. She hopped up and down until the City Runner in front of her was done. Then she approached.

“Can I…help you, Miss?”

The [Receptionist] gave Erin a very odd look, but she’d seen worse. The young woman leaned on the counter.

“I want a Courier. I have a delivery I need to get to Baleros. I want a Courier who can get it to the nearest port-city, and then another who can get it across the ocean as fast as possible.”

Heads turned. That kind of request was big. The kind that nobles made, but…this young woman didn’t look exactly rich enough to make it. The [Receptionist] gave her an appraising look and coughed into her hand.

“Miss. I’m afraid only a few Couriers are nearby, even in Invrisil’s Guild.”

“Okay. I want to talk to them.”

The [Receptionist] gave Erin a strained smile.

“Miss…”

“Erin Solstice.”

“Miss Solstice, we can’t just request a Courier without some, um, assurances that you can afford them. By all means, you can post a request with your available funds, and they will review the request at their leisure. However…”

“This is urgent. I want to send medicine! To Baleros! It’s about this Yellow Rivers thing!”

Now more heads popped up. Erin was debating Pallass. But Grimalkin had thought Invrisil was more likely to have a Courier if Hawk couldn’t be persuaded. The [Receptionist] licked her lips. She didn’t like doing this, but…she put on an apologetic face.

“Miss Erin. I know someone might need a…potion. Or poultice. But even so, I’m sure Baleros has its own [Healers]. Couriers may be inclined to read your request and take on a case for charity. But you must wait.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“Nobles wouldn’t have to wait, would they?”

“The nobility…are the nobility, Miss Erin.”

The [Receptionist] was firm. Erin thought of Maviola. Or Grimalkin. Or Chaldion. She could waste time. Or…the [Lady Firestarter]’s words echoed in Erin’s mind.

The [Innkeeper] leaned over the counter. The [Receptionist] leaned back. Erin Solstice pointed at herself.

“Listen. You may not know me, but I’m Erin Solstice. An [Innkeeper] from Liscor.”

“From Liscor? Oh, you’re the one with—”

The magic door.

Erin let that sink in. She looked around the guild. Full of runners. Then went on.

“I’m the [Innkeeper] with a magic door. That connects Liscor to Invrisil to Pallass. I’ve agreed not to send packages through to Invrisil from Liscor because it’ll mess with the Runner’s Guild. It ruined Celum’s Runner’s Guild for a bit. But I’ve agreed to ban that for Invrisil. No…deliveries that would y’know, negate 400 miles of hard work. Because that’s bad for Runners.”

Oh. The Runner’s Guild looked more closely at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at the [Receptionist], who’d begun to sweat. Erin Solstice smiled.

“Don’t make me change my mind. I want to speak with a Courier.”

It was the most aggressive move Erin had ever made, and she’d flipped a table about fifteen minutes ago. The [Receptionist] begged to confer with the Guildmaster. But before she came back, someone applauded. Erin turned—

A short man and a horse stood behind her. The horse was beautiful, a silvery mare. The man was…uh, well, more like one of the horse jockeys than anything else. But he was confident. And grinning.

“Well, you’ve got my attention. Tritel and Ci. I’m a Courier. The Moonlight Rider. What do you want, Miss Erin Solstice?”

 

—-

 

“I see. So this is…meant to cure that Yellow Rivers stuff? Must be worth a lot.”

Tritel eyed the jar of mold in Erin’s inn. Ci had come with him. Ishkr cautiously offered her a tub of water. Iced. The mare delicately drank as she snorted at him.

Even Erin had been forced to do a double-take at the Moonlight Rider’s insistence that his partner go everywhere with him. But Ci was perfectly behaved. She’d walked in, stared at Mrsha, and then looked bemused at Palt. He’d rolled his eyes, but didn’t seem to have a problem with a horse and rider.

“It’s valuable—but I’m not trying to earn money on it. It’s meant to go to a [Doctor]. She’s working on a cure.”

“I see.”

Tritel was smoking. Tobacco. Erin let him do it. The Courier only stopped when Ci blew the smoke back in his face. He grimaced and put it out.

“My horse is a tyrant. Anyways, let’s say I did this. Looks like we need to keep the mold out of bags of holding, right?”

“That’s right. It’s alive. So…no bags of holding. But this you can take.”

Erin gestured to the processed penicillin. Tritel nodded.

“And when we get to a port, say, First Landing, you want this loaded onto a ship or a Courier’s craft. And it’s bound for Talenqual? That’s a port city. Yeah, a sea-Courier could get it there fast. But that’s no cheap offer.”

“I know.”

The [Innkeeper] was waiting. Tritel took a gulp from the blue juice and rum he’d asked for. He glanced at Ci.

“So? How much are we getting paid?”

“Well, I can’t afford to pay you full rates. But I can…”

Erin glanced around for Grimalkin, but he was gone, off securing funds for Octavia. Eldavin calmly watched. Tritel laughed.

“Miss Erin. You can’t ask us to go hundreds of miles at top speed—even from Invrisil—and expect us to do it for nothing!

“It’s going to save lives.”

He nodded amicably.

“I know. In that case, get a City Runner. It’ll be slower by a few days, and a [Captain] will be slower by boat, but they’ll do it affordable.”

“You won’t do it for charity?”

He shrugged. A look crossed Tritel’s face.

“Listen, Miss Erin. I’ve been begged hundreds, thousands of times by wives, asking me to take an antidote to their husbands. Or adventurers who need me to bail them out with a potion. Children who need transport to The Healer of Tenbault or somewhere with a good [Healer]. Sometimes I do it. I used to do it a lot. But if I do it too much, I’ll spend my entire life running without a penny. And I have to feed Ci and myself. I’ve known Couriers who died like that.”

The [Innkeeper] pursed her lips.

“So people dying doesn’t bother you?”

His eyes flashed. Ci glowered at Erin and bent her head to nudge the [Innkeeper]. But Tritel stopped her.

“I never said that. I just said, I need compensation. And if you think I’m heartless—the sea-Courier needs money too. More, really. They need to cross a damn ocean with this cargo. Can you pay us?”

Erin Solstice sat back. She was thinking. Reynold frowned.

“Lady Reinhart would surely…”

He looked at Sacra. She nodded.

“I’ll send a [Message].”

She unrolled a scroll. And Teriarch held up a hand.

“Not just yet.”

The two servants blinked. They looked down at him. The Dragon sat in his chair, watching Erin.

“Grand Magus?”

Reynold wondered if this was Eldavin’s pique showing. But the half-Elf was just watching Erin. He glanced at Reynold.

“If she fails, send a [Message]. But wait.”

The young woman looked around. Lyonette was shaking her head. It would deplete the inn’s funds, even if they could afford to hire both. And Erin didn’t think a [Doctor] had that much money. If she needed to, she’d ask via Ulinde. But…there were ways.

Her eyes alighted on Galina, instructing an older Gnoll woman on the parts of A Doll’s House. Erin looked back at Tritel.

“What about other forms of compensation, Tritel?”

He laughed dismissively.

“Miss Erin. If I had a copper penny for every time I heard that—”

Erin Solstice slapped the table. Ci backed up in surprise. She leaned forwards and the Moonlight Rider and his horse leaned back.

“Tritel. And Ci. The Players of Celum have a booth in their theater reserved for me. Are you a big fan of plays?”

You? I mean—I’ve seen the other plays, back before they arrived. Ci has to wait, so I’m not a fan of them, though. Decent stuff. What, why?”

Tritel blinked at Erin. She owned the Solstice Booth? The young woman looked at him. She put her cards on the table.

“I will get you and the Courier who delivers it across the sea an exclusive seat in the Solstice Booth and a performance dedicated to you by the Players of Celum, who will dedicate the play to you by name to the entire audience for an entire month as a patron of the arts.”

It was a variation of her Octavia gambit. Tritel’s eyes widened. He took a deep sip of the drink.

“…You can do that?”

“Absolutely. Your name. And Ci’s. And I’ll pay you as much as I can. The sea-Courier too. How about it? Free access to the Solstice booth. For as many plays as you want. We can always share. Plus, you can take friends with you.”

Tritel was thinking about that. That was…very tempting. Erin Solstice sat there. She smiled at him and the Moonlight Rider grinned. He was wavering. Erin looked at him and then at his horse. She grinned.

“This will save lives. It’s the right thing to do. And…I’ll get your horse in the booth as well.”

The [Rider] blinked at Erin. And then he laughed.

Deal. I’ll do it for free if I get that! Now, do you have a sea-Courier? Because if not, I need a [Message] spell to negotiate…”

 

—-

 

On the other side of the world, Geneva Scala was standing in the Runner’s Guild. She didn’t have Erin’s ability to threaten economic competition. But she had Luan, and Ken.

“That’s right. How about Rexielsa? I know her. Let her know it’s Luan the Rower. We’re asking for a delivery. It won’t be at good rates, but let her know The Last Light of Baleros is asking.”

Names had power. Geneva tried to stand straight and look…like a myth of the battlefields. The [Receptionist], a Dullahan, kept glancing at her.

“We can do that, Luan…but they’re busy.”

“It’s a personal favor. They know me.”

“Um—we’ll get in touch as fast as possible. As soon as one gets to the Runner’s Guild.”

“Let them know it’s about the Yellow Rivers disease, please. I am sure even Couriers are concerned. This will keep everyone healthy.”

Ken put in. The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened and she scribbled an addendum. Luan nodded gratefully at Ken. He turned to Geneva.

“It’ll be a while. Why don’t you go back to the headquarters? They know I know you, Geneva. You don’t have to be here.”

“Okay. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

The [Doctor] inhaled. She still felt jumpy. Was this happening?

“Geneva, Geneva!

The Humans spun. Siri raced into the Runner’s Guild. She was panting.

“Geneva! We just got word. The penicillin’s away! A Courier is bringing it to First Landing! There are sea-Couriers there. We just have to get in contact—Joseph says he’s working on it.”

Already?

Luan blinked. Siri nodded.

“And that’s not all. Listen—we need you to get back to headquarters right away! There’s something else.”

Geneva ran. Idis ran, really. But the [Doctor] was back at the United Nations headquarters before the panting Siri. The [Ranger] entered after Geneva, clutching at her side. Geneva was fast.

I wish I had a Selphid.

She commented to Daly. The Australian young man was reading from a piece of paper.

 

[Joseph] – We have the [Alchemist] with the penicillin here. And that [Healer] you saw on the scrying orb.

[Geneva] – Really? How?

[Joseph] – Magic stuff. We’re going to send more penicillin to Zeres, but we want to know how effective it is. Can you outline how to use it and how to treat people?

[Geneva] – Absolutely. Give me one moment.

 

“I need my notes. Can someone get them from my room?”

“On it.”

Paige hurried upstairs. Geneva sat down. She wasn’t even breathing hard. She began to correspond as the others watched. The Selphid [Mage] groaned as Geneva scrawled out paragraphs to send.

 

—-

 

“Who is this [Doctor]?”

Demerra demanded. She was here at Grimalkin’s request, and also to follow her patient, who’d snuck out of her clinic. But Chaldion was reading with as much interest as Grimalkin. He was looking from Erin to the detailed correspondence.

“An expert in treating infections. Or so it seems. How much do you trust this individual, Miss Solstice?”

“A lot, Grimalkin. And this is the medicine. She wants you to test with it, Demerra. Do you have more patients?”

“Two. In a room in the clinic.”

“Who I’m sharing space with. What is this about ‘airborne infection’?”

Chaldion’s brows snapped together. The Gnoll [Healer] blinked.

“We have as many healing crystals as possible, Grand Strategist—”

“That doesn’t stop disease, according to this [Doctor].”

They weren’t reading the exact replies from ‘Joseph’ to Geneva, but an abridged version. Octavia was frowning and trying to figure out how to create the various substances Geneva wanted. Everything from a poultice to an…injection?

“I suggest you begin treatments with these [Doctor]’s orders at once, Healer Demerra. And meanwhile, I shall stay in my home.”

Chaldion came to a quick decision. The Gnoll [Healer] began to protest, but she eyed the figures about infection rates nervously.

“I—I can certainly apply the poultices and such if I deem them safe to use, Grand Strategist. But I can assure you, my crystals—”

“How much of this mold is needed?”

“Lots. If it works, we need lots. Octavia’s growing more on bread and stuff, but we’re going to have to do it outside my inn. Because uh, the [Field of Preservation].”

Erin waved her hands. She was waiting on one last person.

Drassi. The Drake came into the inn, protesting as Ishkr found her at last. Grimalkin nodded.

“Send a sample to Oteslia. If it works—they can grow enough.”

“Sure. But remember, it’s Octavia’s. Here’s a jar with the label.”

The [Sinew Magus] and Chaldion eyed the giant ‘Stitchworks’ logo and Octavia’s name plastered on the jar. The huge Drake sighed.

“…I’ll communicate that. Healer Demerra—treat the patients as the [Doctor] prescribes.”

“But—”

“That’s an order, [Healer].”

The Grand Strategist spoke. And Demerra only hesitated a moment before bowing. Erin glanced around. She waited until Chaldion and Grimalkin were looking the other way before wiggling her fingers. Unnoticed, a Selphid’s head ducked back into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

Erin sighed. Her manic energy was running out. But not just yet. Courier away. [Healer] trialing with Octavia.

“Erin, what’s this about? I have weekends! Even if it isn’t the weekend.”

The [Gossip] was complaining, but only mildly. She sensed something was up. She peered at Grimalkin, Chaldion, and the paper. Erin turned to her.

“Drassi…I have something I want you to do. It’s complex, so let me explain. And you don’t have to do it—”

The Drake opened her mouth. Erin went on.

“—but I bet you’ll want to. And I need your help, Grimalkin. Chaldion.”

The two male Drakes peered at her suspiciously. Grimalkin folded his arms.

“If it’s going to cause havoc to no end, Erin, I’ll decline. But go on.”

She smiled at him.

“On the contrary, [Sinew Magus]. It’s going to do good. Or do you like stupid things? More importantly—it requires testicles.

Grimalkin blinked at Erin. Then he laughed.

“I’m listening.”

 

—-

 

“They’ll trial it. Apparently, it’s worked on their cultures before so I think it might actually be a broad-spectrum antibiotic.”

Geneva sat back, sighing. The others murmured.

“And this Joseph guy…is doing all this?”

“Yeah. That’s what our Selphid says.”

Perhaps only the [Doctor] noted Idis’ worried sound and the Selphid [Mage] blinking. But they kept it quiet. Geneva cleared her throat; she’d been speaking a lot.

“Please send the following: ‘Emphasize the antibiotics need to be taken after recovery is apparent or the disease may not be fully eradicated. It is essential to complete treatment.’”

“Done, [Doctor].”

“Good.”

Geneva sat back. She closed her eyes for a moment. The others waited, milling about.

“If the trial works…that [Alchemist] is gonna be rich.”

“Not if we grow everything ourselves. They sent the fungus.”

“Huh. Well—we can credit it to her. Right? And if we have an antibiotic, we can make a lot of drugs!”

“It’s not a cure-all.”

The Italian woman opened her eyes. She sat up.

“It might not even have the desired effect. We have to see, and make sure we’re fully eradicating the bacteria. There will still be casualties. But yes—if everything goes well, we might be able to scale up production of a cure enough to halt the disease. If that happens, I will ensure this [Alchemist] gets full credit.”

“As well as The Last Light of Baleros?”

Kirana teased. Geneva glanced up.

“I didn’t do much. This [Alchemist] managed to create the antibiotic. As well as…”

She stared at the message. Someone had thought of penicillin as well. And to judge from it—months before Geneva had.

It was humbling. The [Doctor] felt like a fool. If she’d done that from the start, rather than signing up to be a battlefield-surgeon, she would have saved more lives than she ever did with her bare hands.

“Let it work.”

She whispered. Someone patted her on the shoulder. Siri. The Swedish girl smiled.

“It will. Someone over there is our friend.”

“And speaking of which—let’s not crowd Geneva, everyone. We’re probably making it worse if someone’s sick. Let’s go. Anyone free? We’ll do a kick-about with the soccer ball. Who’s up for that?”

Daly raised his voice. A good number of Earthers followed him. Geneva was left sitting there.

Geneva? Are you okay? You’ve got a lot of emotions in you. This is good, right?

“This is good. I’m fine. Thank you—Siri.”

The [Doctor] stood. She felt lighter. She looked around. Hope had taken a mountain off her shoulders. For a moment.

“At least if we get this medicine working, we can debunk these idiots on the scrying orb.”

Paige groused. She pointed at Sir Relz and Noass, who were talking about trade implications. Geneva grimaced.

“Another [Healer] will bring up penicillin. Maybe even this Demerra. There’s no point to touting a cure until we’re certain.

She glowered, nonetheless, at the two Drakes who had a healing crystal gifted to them by Demerra prominently displayed on their desk. They were still broadcasting worldwide.

 

—-

 

—trade with Baleros is thus limited out of practicality for the meantime. I’d take that into account, all you [Merchants] and [Traders] listening and anyone with an eye for overseas products.

“How many people does that make? Most people can’t afford overseas goods. This is the rich bastards all over again, making a show for them. Wistram. I’m going to kill Aaron. Someone turn them off.”

Cara O’Sullivan, [Singer] of Terandria sat on her couch, scowling. She waved and one of the band members reached for the orb.

There had been riots in the city the [Singer] had visited. Thanks to the Drakes. She’d managed to calm the crowds, but the same could not be said for other Terandrian cities.

It was bad business. Cara eyed Noass. If she could drop-kick him at this very moment, she would. The two Drakes had the world’s ear, but they weren’t responsible with it. They were—

 

—-

 

“—idiots! Archmages, this is unacceptable!”

The mob of Earthers in Wistram’s hallway were blocking traffic. The other [Mages] were listening, but Feor had wisely ordered the students and younger [Mages] not in the know kept away from this…protest.

It was as close to a revolt as Wistram had ever seen. Two thirds of the young people from Earth had demanded an audience with the Archmages. Elena, their spokesperson, was arguing with Feor and Viltach. The half-Elf was trying to understand.

“That’s not good journalism. You—it—you can’t just say ‘go buy magic crystals’!”

She was pointing to Noass and Sir Relz, who were the Wistram-sponsored television anchors. Not because they were particularly well-connected. But they’d been the first. Feor had cause to regret that, now.

“Miss Elena. I am trying to understand your objections. What have these two Drakes done wrong? They have faithfully kept to our talking points.”

“Yes, but they also caused riots and they’re spreading misinformation! Healing crystals? If this disease is as bad as it seems, they shouldn’t be saying it’s ‘under control’!”

Elena pointed at Sir Relz, who was adjusting his monocle.

“They didn’t say that.”

Archmage Viltach’s arms were folded. He was less impressed than Feor. Elena scowled. It was Aaron who interjected.

“But they’re downplaying the situation, Archmage Viltach.”

“They’re keeping people from panicking. What’s wrong with that?”

“Well…maybe they should panic. Or be worried. The truth is that not everyone can afford a healing crystal, right? So people aren’t being careful when they should be. I hear it’s really bad in Baleros. If crystals cured the disease, it wouldn’t be that bad.”

The others nodded. Feor stroked his beard. It was true; they’d received a lot of complaints about the riots. Thoughtfully, he glanced at the two Drake [Commentators].

“You have a point, Elena. Noass and Sir Relz have been…calming figures. But not without flaw. We were trialing other [Commentators], but setting up multiple areas of broadcast was deemed needlessly complex.”

“You should hire someone else. Someone from Baleros with good practices. There are standards that news people should be held to. This—this is just making people feel complacent.”

The broadcast droned on. Archmage Viltach consulted the rough numbers of how many people were watching. It was dropping; without drama, less people tended to watch. Still, he didn’t like Elena’s uppity tone.

“Perhaps we want them pacified. They don’t need to know the truth.”

Viltach’s soft murmur had been a bit too loud. The crowd of Earthers quieted, and Elena looked appalled. Feor scowled as he glanced at the Human Archmage.

“We will consider the issue carefully, Miss Elena. You have my word. For now…”

He was about to order them to disperse in a kindly way when something happened. There were voices, arguing. Then—a rattling sound.

Not from the hallway. Feor’s head turned. In the scrying orb, he saw Noass and Sir Relz glance up.

—er, the situation in Ailendamus—erm…

The Drakes stared. Feor heard a voice.

 

—-

 

You can’t come in here! You can’t—

“By order of Grand Strategist Chaldion, move aside.”

Someone thrust an assistant into the frame. A Gnoll stumbled into the view—then fled. Noass rose. Sir Relz blinked.

“I say, what’s this—”

Every head turned. Viltach saw the live-viewers count begin to climb. And there she was.

A smiling Drake, who was vaguely familiar to some viewers thrust her way forwards. There was arguing in the background, but she grabbed the magical ‘microphone’ as the two Drakes recoiled.

“Miss Drassi? We’re not hosting the football game until later this week! Why are you here? We are live—

Noass cried out. Drassi backed up. The camera-Garuda swung the view up towards her. Drassi was terrified. But she smiled desperately. And—she was a [Gossip]. She had lived for this moment.

“Hello! Sorry to break in, but I have an important series of questions to raise! Drassi here, The Liscorian Gazette! I just had to speak to our hosts here about their coverage of the Yellow Rivers plague.”

“What? Our coverage? Give that microphone back, young—”

Noass recoiled as Drassi kicked at him. She spoke up, pointing a finger at them.

“Excuse me, Sir Relz! Noass! But don’t you think it’s misleading to claim healing crystals are a cure for the Yellow Rivers disease when—”

She fumbled for her notes.

“—when even Healer Demerra admits it still takes a week in her healing beds for a full recovery? And that’s with numerous healing crystals! Can one really prevent disease, or is that just a false claim?”

“What? What? We were just—give that—”

The two Drakes were reaching for the microphone, and Sir Relz reached for his side and his self-defense wand. He halted—mainly because of a figure standing just off-screen.

Sinew Magus Grimalkin’s arms were folded. He made no move. He was just watching. But the Drake loomed. He gave the impression that Sir Relz could draw his wand and cast as many spells as he wanted. And after Relz was done, Grimalkin would deal with him. Sir Relz froze.

The news broadcast had turned into an interview. The two Drakes found themselves sitting as Drassi found a seat. The camera moved back as the three began to debate.

“What’s this about, Miss Drassi? One cannot just barge in here and—waste people’s time.”

“If I were wasting people’s time, I wouldn’t be here, Sir Relz. Noass. I’m just here to bring up what I feel is…misinformation. You two have been talking about the Yellow Rivers disease as if it’s not a big problem. But there are tens of thousands of sick people in port cities across the world. Isn’t that cause for alarm?”

Noass shuffled his papers. Sir Relz folded his claws and carefully replied.

“…Of course. That’s why we’re reporting on it. Just what about that is objectionable, young lady?”

Drassi smiled kindly. She waved at the healing crystal on his desk.

“Yes, but—is this good coverage? You put Healer Demerra on. And all fairness to her, she is high-level. But she’s not exactly on the front lines of the problem, is she? There are six infected people in Pallass.”

“And? She has treated them quite efficiently.”

“But it’s six people. How would Demerra handle thousands? Why isn’t a [Healer] from Baleros—or at least Zeres talking? How are they dealing with this? Are they finding crystals effective?”

Noass shifted.

“I—well, of course it’s a concern. But Demerra was presenting an option for people to protect themselves.”

The [Gossip] looked blank.

“With what?”

“Healing crystals.”

“Do they work?”

“—Demerra’s recommended them.”

The two Drakes’ expressions changed as Drassi glanced at the crystal.

“So, they absolutely work at protecting people from the Yellow Rivers disease. You have one of these—which everyone can afford—and we’re safe?”

“You know, it’s not that simple—”

“Then why are you talking about this? I watch your show every day.”

“Well, thank you—”

Drassi raised a hand and Sir Relz stopped smiling.

“I’ve stopped enjoying it as much. After the riots coverage. You know, there was a riot in Liscor?”

“We brought it up ourselves.”

“Yeah. Funny thing. There wasn’t one until you got to Invrisil and broadcast the crowds. Why’d you do that?”

Sir Relz was getting annoyed. He leaned forwards and snapped.

“Miss Drassi. Our job is to report the news. We’re [Commentators]. Our entire class is based around presenting what’s happening and giving our take! That’s our role.

“Sure it is. My class does the same thing. But I don’t say things that might get people hurt. I’m a [Gossip], but I don’t tell lies.”

Oh please—

“Half-truths, then. What did telling people about riots achieve? Did you have to show us how mad everyone was? In the same way—do you think that telling people ‘healing crystals work’ will end the Yellow Rivers problem? I think it’s still ongoing, don’t you?”

“Yes. But…it’s disingenuous to alarm people all the time.”

“More disingenuous than reassuring them when there’s cause for alarm?”

Noass raised a claw.

“Listen, young Drake. And I’d appreciate it if you let us speak.

Drassi nodded tightly. The Drake collected his thoughts.

“The Yellow Rivers disease is one matter. The riots are another. Let’s tackle one at a time. Shouldn’t we report the news as it happens? The King of Destruction, the riots—these events were happening as we spoke. Sir Relz and I went out and placed ourselves in the way of danger to show people what was happening. How—how is that a problem?”

It was the [Gossip]’s turn to pause.

“It seems, Noass, that we’re conflicted on what ‘reporting the news’ means. I think you’re saying when you report on the riots or the King of Destruction that people need to know instantly what’s happening.”

“That’s correct. We’re bringing news to people at a speed unprecedented up till this moment in time. A complete revolution of communication.”

“Yes. But there’s a danger inherent in this. I think you’re not thinking of the way showing people what’s happening is dangerous.”

“Dangerous?”

“Yes. Riots began across the world because people saw your coverage. Wouldn’t you agree there’s a link?”

The two Drakes exchanged a quick glance. Noass carefully sat back.

“We just report the news, Miss Drassi.”

“So there’s no responsibility on your part for how the news is reported?”

Silence. Drassi went on.

“Do healing crystals protect you from the disease? Sir Relz? Yes or no.”

“Healer Demerra has assured us it helps. That’s her prognosis as a [Healer]. Do you know what prognosis means, Miss Drassi?”

“Do I need to? Listen. Healer Demerra can say what she thinks is right. But if she’s wrong and the crystals are waste of money—isn’t that your fault as well? Do they protect you from the Yellow Rivers disease, Sir Relz? Please, answer the question.”

The Drake coughed.

“Traditionally, healing crystals do supplement potions. You see, they have known magical and medicinal properties—”

“Let’s stick to the facts, Sir Relz. Just the facts, please. It’s a yes-or-no question.”

 

—-

 

The three Drakes paused for another agonizing moment on screen. Elena blinked. Aaron smiled.

Joseph?

“That’s our guy.”

He whispered to the others.

 

—-

 

“Who is this Drake? Why do I love her?”

Cara was watching Drassi. Sir Relz was smiling hard.

Miss Drassi, you seem to think our job is to be the font of all truths.

I believe it’s your job to tell the truth, yes. As best as you can. Is that so hard to do?

You’re being rather rude, young lady.

I prefer to think of it as being ‘honest’. How many people who aren’t rich can buy healing crystals to begin with?

 

—-

 

The [Doctor] laughed. She laughed with delight. It wasn’t possible. But—he’d done it.

“Joseph?”

The two [Commentators] were getting tetchy.

I don’t think we need to be talked down to by a young woman half our ages, Noass. Nor do I think the audience needs to see this.

Please, Sir Relz. We need to know the truth! People are dying in port-cities. Those crystals don’t work! We need to do more than just slap a crystal on the problem and say it’s done!

Someone cut the broadcast. Switch to, switch to—

The orb went dark. The United Nations company waited one beat, and then broke into a babble.

“No way. That can’t be Joseph. That just can’t. He didn’t—”

Wow. That’s something.

Idis muttered in Geneva’s head. The [Doctor] looked at the blank orb as it flickered to an advertisement. A Drake [Farmer] mopped at his brow and presented the viewers with a large beet. Pallass-grown.

Things were changing. Geneva felt it. She felt…lighter. She looked at the orb and giggled.

“Geneva?”

The sound unnerved Paige. But the [Doctor] just sat there. She thought about ‘Joseph’. And she leaned back.

“That’s why we do these things.”

She closed her eyes. Exhaled. And recalled something she’d learned in medical school. Geneva Scala sat up.

“Huh. I wonder…there’s no issue, is there?”

“What?”

Paige looked at her. Geneva stood up. She glanced around.

“Kirana, can I borrow the kitchen for a moment?”

The [Housekeeper] looked astonished by the request. Geneva had never cooked a thing since coming to this world. But she agreed readily. Geneva walked into the kitchen.

Something simple. She found some eggs. Noodles…she looked around.

“Do you have any cheese?”

“Right here.”

Paige, Siri, and Daly peeked their heads in on the kitchen, watching as Kirana assisted Geneva. But the [Doctor] did most of the work.

“What’s she making?”

“Noodles?”

Geneva?

The [Doctor] cracked an egg into a bowl with some pork, fat, black pepper, some cheese that was as close to parmesan as she could get…Kirana hovered around her.

“Eggs in the sauce? Not cream?”

“Are you insane?”

Geneva stared at her. She was making a carbonara, not…trash. She mixed the egg base with some pasta water and the pasta, watching cheese melt. She seasoned, tasted, and pronounced it ‘adequate.’

“I had no idea you could cook.”

Paige blinked at Geneva. The [Doctor] smiled.

“I haven’t had time to before.”

“Do you have time now?

Geneva made a plate.

“Not at all. But I have to take some time. Here—try it.”

Paige did. Her brows rose.

“That’s good!”

“Thank you. Can someone help me take it?”

“Where to?”

Daly seized the cooking mitts. Geneva looked at him.

“The clinic.”

The others looked confused. The [Doctor] lead the way.

“Don’t they have to eat that electrolyte water?”

“It’s important, yes. But some of them can hold their meals. They’ve not been eating more than bland food. It—might cheer them up.”

The [Doctor] led the way. She entered the clinic and Selphids, [Nurses], and more turned. Geneva put the carbonara in small bowls or plates and passed them around. The patients brightened up. Those that were well enough ate sparingly. But they had been missing taste.

“I didn’t think of it.”

Geneva Scala sat there, in her office, listening to the patients snack in a good mood and compare their favorite foods.

“Think of what, Geneva?”

Idis asked. Geneva shook her head.

“Bedside manner. I thought it was enough to just be…there’s nothing for them to do. They should have books. Entertainment. The walls are drab. That won’t improve their spirits. At least some plants. Flowers. Letters from family members.”

“Huh. But that’s not your job, is it? You don’t need to do that.”

The Selphid pointed out curiously. She felt Geneva smile.

“There’s more to being a [Doctor] than just cutting people open, Idis.”

She’d forgotten that. Now, the [Doctor] sat there. For just a minute. Then she stood.

Healer Demerra had questions for her. One of the patients was doing poorly. Someone had just broken their leg. She had a thousand and one things to do. So Geneva did them. She ran about, so much that Idis was exhausted. Then Geneva Scala went back to her room and fell asleep. Because she needed that too.

It wasn’t the penicillin. Or even ‘Joseph’ who had led to that. It was just…reassurance. The world needed help. But Geneva Scala did not stand alone.

She wanted to see Okasha and talk to her.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice lay on the floor. She was dead.

“I’m dead.”

A Gnoll leapt on her stomach. Erin shouted and rolled over. Someone pulled Mrsha off her.

“I’m super-dead.”

She was exhausted. She’d run about all day. Drassi confronting Sir Relz and Noass was all over the news. The two Drakes were in hot water. Wistram was considering its options.

“You did all that in a day. You, who needed coaching to sign one trade agreement.”

Maviola looked at Erin with faint admiration. She saw Erin uncurl and look up at her. The [Magical Innkeeper] shrugged.

“Well, yeah. That’s easy. Or rather—that’s what I’m good at. I don’t like contracts and negotiations. I’m better at people.”

“Each to their own, I suppose. Well done.”

“I didn’t do much. It was…the [Doctor]. Octavia. Ryoka, and Drassi. I just nudged them.”

Erin sat up. She was still smiling a bit. Weary though she was, she was satisfied. She looked past Maviola. And the [Lady] saw.

An [Alchemist], taking on more orders. Experiencing a moment in the sun.

A [Gossip], panting and having a long drink—also looking supremely angry.

The half-Elf Grand Mage, swatting at Mrsha as she tried to take his fries. She leapt—and went floating, slowly turning head-over-heels as gravity failed her. She began trying to swim past Bird. He’d fainted again.

That didn’t count. But Erin Solstice sat up and smiled.

“We’ll just have to see what happens next, won’t we? For now…”

She glanced towards the door.

 

—-

 

Selphids had secrets. Selphids looked out for other Selphids. But friends? Also friends. If you met someone who didn’t look at you like a treacherous parasite, you did a lot for them.

Jelaqua patted Ulinde on the shoulders, supporting her. The [Spellslinger] was worn out.

“I’m fine, really. It was just so many [Messages].”

Ulinde had a headache. But her team carried her back through Pallass. They passed by a protest. Some of Pallass’ residents wanted Noass and Sir Relz off the air.

“You did good, Ulinde. We’ll keep contacting Erin if we have to. But let’s take a load off. Have some drinks. Hell of a day, huh? Earth.”

The Halfseekers nodded. Jelaqua kept her voice low. Seborn cracked his neck.

“So…what’s this other world like? We were too busy helping with the mold to ask.”

Jelaqua and Ulinde exchanged looks. After a moment, Jelaqua slapped her forehead.

“I forgot to ask with everything that came up!”

The Drowned Man crossed his arms, thinking.

Huh. Well, if it has Humans it can’t be that weird.

Moore politely tapped Seborn on the shoulder.

“Yes. But Erin comes from there.”

The team of four looked at each other. Jelaqua shook her head.

“We’ll ask another day. Come on, everyone. First round’s on me! Then, I have a date.

Watch out for Yellow Rivers.

“Shut up, Seborn.”

 

—-

 

[Conditions Met: Gossip → Honest Reporter Class!]

[Honest Reporter Class Obtained!]

 

Drassi surged up from the bar where she’d fallen asleep from angry-drinking. She looked around.

Hey! Hey!

Numbtongue glanced up from his usual seat. Drassi waved her claws, trying to get her mind working as the Skills started listing themselves. She fell out of her chair.

Little things.

 

—-

 

Selphids. The two Drake [Commentator]’s coverage of the Yellow Rivers diseases had outraged other cities. More than just Wistram’s own internal Earthers were putting pressure on Noass and Sir Relz.

Zeres had lodged a formal complaint. It was bad in the city. [Healers] had been fighting the illness. And now Zeres’ High Command had ordered any vessel with Yellow Rivers to be refused entrance to the harbor.

It made things even more hectic, and Zeres was a major port city, as large as First Landing. If you wanted to trade with Humans, you went to First Landing, or so it was said. For Drakes and Gnolls, Zeres.

They’d been there a while. Long enough for money to come via the Merchant’s Guild. Long enough for Captain Lasc and the surviving [Storm Sailors] to be compensated royally.

And why not? House Kallinad had money to burn, and for a relic-class artifact, one of the Diamond Swords of Serept? They were willing to buy a fleet of ships.

Well, maybe not a fleet. But accounts were settled. All but…two.

Fetohep of Khelt wanted the other three swords. They were under guard. For the first week, Venaz, Merrik, and Peki had taken turns guarding the chest, never leaving it out of their sight. Well, the curse was also a good deterrent, but there had been…incidents.

It had taken negotiations with Zeres’ High Command to get the chest stored for the near future. When the [Strategists] left the city by sea, they’d come for it.

But not yet. Fetohep wasn’t pleased, but Feshi had to go north for the Meeting of Tribes. She would not be voyaging to Chandrar any time soon. And the others?

“What word?”

Venaz’ fur was uncombed. He sat there, rings around his eyes. Holding the green-diamond greatsword, prepared to use it. People still wanted his blade; the fact that it was bound to him was inconsequential.

Feshi was far more uncomfortable with her dagger, but she wore it out of necessity. Wil? His sword hung in a sheath at his waist.

“No one. The [Healers] are swamped. If the sickness is in the air—and there are none in Zeres.”

“None?”

That came from Merrik. The Dwarf’s good-natured expression was also worn down. The others sat there. Wil entered, with Peki and Feshi, who’d gone with him to look again. He shook his head.

“There are no Selphid-[Healers] in Zeres. The last one died. The others moved away.”

The [Strategists] fell silent. Venaz looked around.

“The [Alchemists] can’t help either?”

“I asked. There’s famous ones in Pallass, but one of them—Xif—claims he doesn’t know poisons. And Saliss of Lights is a combat-[Alchemist].”

“Then what?”

The [Strategists] clustered around. Their room—the one they were in—was silent. Not as silent as the grave, though. Beneath the hum of their voices, in the moments of pained silence—there was a sound.

And one last [Strategist] was with them. Yerranola’s body was gone. Out of necessity; it had been poisoned badly. And there were few…uninfected…bodies in Zeres these days, even if Drakes hadn’t been wary of selling bodies.

But even if they’d had a pristine one, the Selphid couldn’t have used it. She sat on the table.

In a jar. It was glass, but not empty; a fluid held her. Her people had advised Wil on how to make that, at least. The Selphid was held in it. But not at rest. When Venaz’ words failed to elicit a response, they could hear it.

A shrill sound, not like a voice. Bubbling through the solution.

A scream. Wil covered his ears. He hadn’t slept or rested. They’d tried everything.

“We need to find an antidote. Oteslia.”

“We won’t make it. She doesn’t have long left.”

The [Healers] and [Alchemists] had done their best. But the blowfish poison was eating away at their friend, for all she’d been nicked. Selphids were too small. Their bodies—in this jar, Wil saw a shifting mix of colors. An oozing form.

But it was still Yerra. He crouched down. Feshi put a paw on his shoulders.

“We have to try. She can’t die.”

“She will not. If it’s Oteslia—we go. As fast as we can, without—disturbing Yerranola.”

“There’s a bounty on our heads. That Drowned Captain wants the blades.”

Feshi pointed out quietly. Merrik clenched one hand.

“They can try to get it. We’re not done yet. Come on. Let’s make preparations. To Oteslia! Hear that, your Majesty? We’ll leave the swords here if you want. But we’re going. Our friend comes first.”

The [Strategists] turned. And the figure of sand, the king in death, stood there.

Fetohep of Khelt. His deathly gaze swept across the room. Towards Wil, Feshi, Peki, Merrik, Venaz—and then Yerranola.

“That is your will? You will go, despite my demand to return the blades to my personage?”

He inquired politely. It was a…disarmingly soft question. Fetohep was not in a good mood. Trey Atwood had left and he was nowhere to be found. The King of Khelt waited. Wil Kallinad bowed.

“We will arrange transport for the blades if you demand it, King Fetohep. But if it comes to them or the life of our friend—we cannot spare the trip to Chandrar. We must go.”

“I see. Well then.”

Fetohep stepped forwards. Venaz’s hands touched the hilt of his sword. Warily. Fetohep stared back at the Selphid in agony. He looked at the [Strategists] and nodded.

Well said. Take your friend. Time matters little to me anyways. Had you abandoned her—you would not be worthy of the blades.

He waved a hand and vanished. Wil exhaled. The King of Khelt settled back on his throne. Adventures and legends. He sat there, chuckling to himself. Wil looked at the others, and then picked up Yerranola. Gently, but she screamed nevertheless. He held her to his chest, warming the jar.

“Hold on, Yerra. We’re going to save you. Hold on. Please.”

 

 

 

Author’s Note: The theme of this chapter was Selphids. I’m, not sure if that was obvious. However, I hope you enjoyed it. And this was short…er! 22,000 words is respectable, right? Right?

Anyways. It’s another chapter in the day of the life. Where…some big things happened, if we’re honest. Plotlines are meeting. In time…well, we’ll see.

Also, if you didn’t see, there’s a free sample of Volume 2’s audiobook! Check it out at the top!

For now, I’ll leave you with some wonderful art. The-O-Endless has done a horrific pixel-Creler, Anito has done a topical Moore and other art, and Sarina has done a lot of profiles! Give them all lots of appreciation! Have a good night and thanks for reading!

The adventure continues.

https://ko-fi.com/anito

 

Pixel Creler by The-O-Endless!

Creler by The-0-Endless

 

Moore, fae, hot tubs and more by Anito!

 

Portraits by Sarinia!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude – A Meeting of [Druids]

(A preview of Volume 2 is now up on Soundcloud! Check it out here! The audiobook will be release July 14th!)

 

Another day passed. And whatever madness, glories, tragedies or acts of fate had passed, the next day the world remained.

Well…for now. She woke up in the rolling, bumping darkness and realized she was alone. Which was preferable, for now.

Slowly, the City Runner reached into a pouch. And for light, instead of a spell, came a glowing vial. The liquid sloshed around.

Viridian. What a color. Blue and green, ostensibly. What vibrancy. What magic. For a moment, Ryoka Griffin marveled at it. Such a little vial; less than a mouthful, unless you were a baby.

It could change everything. Or…nothing.

“Panacea. Fierre…but what did Teriarch say? What did he mean? What causes Vampires to fall ill?  He knows.

The mumbled questions from Ryoka’s sleepy lips were still tinged with a bit of satisfaction. A bit of happiness, wonder. She had met the Dragon. And he had left the cave. He had given her hope. And this.

A magical potion. And a question. The Dragon might refuse to interfere—but he was fairly bad at this commitment. And even half-hearted replies told Ryoka a lot.

Vampires.

There was a tap; Ryoka jumped and fumbled the vial into her belt. When the coachman opened the sliding window to address her, she was stretching.

“Miss Griffin? We’re nearing Reizmelt. Should be in eight hours if there’s no delays. Nothing bad’s happened yet, huh?”

“Don’t jinx us.”

The lanky young woman stretched out. She was rewarded with a grin—but a nervous one. The [Coachman] chuckled.

“Never thought my only passengers would be a City Runner, eh?”

It was a joke, albeit at her expense. Ryoka took it in good humor.

The driver was nervous. Ryoka hadn’t known the overnight coaches were part of the Merchant’s Guild, but it was obvious in hindsight. They needed a central authority and management, and theirs was an important service, even if Runners did deliveries.

After the Bloodfeast Raiders attack, the Merchant’s Guild had done an inspection to make sure Ryoka hadn’t provoked the attack. She had been carrying valuables, but since it wasn’t on a delivery, they hadn’t banned her from using the coaches.

But it was a close thing. Besides which—word had got out. Bloodfeast Raiders, riots; few people were using the overnights. So somewhat ironically, Ryoka was providing this [Coachman]’s coin for the day. She had tipped handsomely; in fact, in advance.

[Coachmen] were practical people. You gave them money up front and they made your passage more comfortable, rather than after the fact. Neither had seen anything more dangerous than a wild Mothbear, and it had ignored them.

Even so, both she and the driver were nervous. Ryoka smiled at the driver.

“I can’t run from Invrisil to Reizmelt as fast as a coach. Not nearly, even if I drank stamina potions every mile. Not high enough level yet. Sorry.”

He grinned toothily at her.

“‘Sokay, Miss. Your lot is the ones targeted by [Bandits] on the roads. Usually. They know the overnights don’t carry more than people, and not wealthy folk, most off. Let’s just not have trouble, eh?”

“Your wish is my dream, Mister Randal.”

The little sliding hatch shut. Ryoka sat back. Staring blankly at the covered windows. After a moment, she rolled up the shades. Sunlight streamed into the coach. She was headed back to Reizmelt after The Wandering Inn.

She would return. She had promised Mrsha. But she had a job to do. A party the likes of which even the fae would want to visit. Powerful nobles to impress.

The Archmage of Izril waited. Ryoka felt the wind blowing around her, cooling down the horses. She smiled, slightly.

“Better find a [Seamstress], too.”

She had plans that might just involve breaking every bone in her body. So, some things never changed.

 

—-

 

As the coach rumbled forwards, the roads were mostly clear. Riots had happened. Not in smaller towns or cities, but Invrisil had not been the only place struck by them. Terandria, even as far away as Baleros and a very few Chandrarian cities…the synchronicity across the world was frightening.

And even now, the [Coachman] was reading the ‘new papers’ he had gotten from the Mage’s Guild on his 30-minute stop in the last town, detailing the riots. Created by Wistram, distributed to most Mage’s Guilds. He passed the paper to Ryoka when he was done and steered with one hand as he drank a soup-breakfast.

She contented herself with some of Erin’s sandwiches. They held up pretty well in her bag of holding. She just wished Erin made more sandwiches than ‘grilled cheese’, ‘peanut butter and jam’, and ‘ham ‘n egg’.

Erin was weird.

And as it happened, the coach rode past a weary three adventurers, arguing as they headed north. They were covered in blood, and the travellers on the road steered wide of them. The [Coachman], Randal, slowed to stare at the trio. They weren’t [Bandits]; rather, they were adventurers.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t know they exploded.

Falene snapped. Dawil and Ylawes glared at her. The half-Elf was only partly covered in blood. But the [Knight] in his armor and the Dwarf were soaked. They had run into some monsters—part-fungi, part flesh-and-blood—whose defense-tactic was to explode and thus send viscera and spore everywhere.

“Let’s not point fingers and blame Falene now. We all know whose fault it was. The problem is that we’ve lost our horses.”

Dawil growled. He dumped a water flask over his head. Ylawes spat and Falene slowly cast a cleansing spell on her robes rather than her companions. The [Knight] spoke, gagged on mushroom-blood, took a swig, spat, and spoke again.

“We’ve lost our horses. They were galloping for the High Passes, last I saw. If we lose them, we’re only out the cost of the saddles and rental. Let’s ask if a [Hostler] can locate them. Some can whistle them back from miles and miles away. And they’re trained to run back home if they’re in danger.”

“If they’re dead, the stables will give us hell. Damnit. I hate mushrooms. Think we could’ve eaten them?”

The Gold-ranks stared back the way they’d come. All three shuddered. It hadn’t even been a quest; they’d just seen the carnivorous fungi close to the road and decided to do the world a favor and themselves a disservice.

“I miss Durm. We should buy dedicated warhorses. Or at least, I’ll buy one. Falene, please stop cleaning yourself and conjure some water for us?”

The half-Elf [Battlemage] pointed and a jet of water blasted Dawil in the left ear. He roared in fury, but after a brief scuffle, the three Gold-ranks looked at each other. Dawil grimaced, feeling at his belt.

“Let’s talk after we get back. We’re not sitting flush when it comes to coin, Ylawes. Although…that old woman did give us this amulet-thingy. And those other two heirlooms. And the family’s treasured potion of who-knows-what. Might be worth something.”

He named the gifts the last three villages had given them after the Silver Swords had killed monsters, removed a landslide, and recovered a lost and prized magic cow carried off by a pair of Ogres, not in that order. The Silver Swords operated like that. They were as antithetical to Todi’s Elites and even Griffon Hunt as possible.

And there came the overnight coach. Dawil spotted it as Ylawes scrubbed at his armor with a bit of soap, cursing the sticky blood.

“How much further is it to Reizmelt?”

“Eh. Should be a day’s ride. Told you we should have taken a coach. Say—hey! Hey, hold up there! We want a ride!”

Randal slowed the carriage, warily. Adventurers weren’t a preferred passenger. They tended to cause trouble. Even so, after a moment of shouting he slowed.

 

—-

 

Yes, we can pay! Gold!”

Ryoka awoke from a daydream involving disease and Vampires. She realized the coach had slowed. The speaking-slot opened.

“Sorry, Miss Ryoka. We’ve got company. Adventurers. They want a lift. Lost their damn horses, but they seem decent. I know the team. They’re a sight. Take a look.”

The door cracked open. Ryoka blinked at the trio of Gold-ranks. Ylawes raised a hand.

“Ah! Excuse me! We’re getting on the coach. Are you the only rider?”

“That’s right.”

Ryoka peered surruptitiously at the very knightly-looking [Knight]. He was blonde, tall, he looked like a fairy-tale hero. There was a Dwarf, a half-Elf…she had the instant urge to hum a certain theme song. She was tempted to look around for an army of Orcs.

“I’m deeply sorry, Miss. Rest assured, we’ll clean ourselves before entering. We ran into some…unpleasant monsters just before reaching the road.”

“It’s fine by me. You’re adventurers, right?”

The [Knight] blinked and then smiled as the half-Elf waved her staff and a huge orb of water splashed down on the Dwarf’s head. He kicked her.

“Excuse me; we’ve been impolite. My name is Ylawes of House Byres. This is Falene Skystrall, and Dawil Ironbreaker. We’re Gold-rank adventurers, the Silver Swords.”

Ryoka nodded to them and sat back, waiting as the Silver Swords washed themselves as clean as possible. She wished she had her iPhone.

Outside, Ylawes sighed as Falene blew wind around them, drying them off.

“Not far to Reizmelt, now. And our objective.”

“Mhm. We’ll let Erin know when we arrive. Say, lad…”

Dawil tapped Ylawes’ arm. The Human man looked down at him.

“Don’t call me lad. What?”

“Just a thought. I’m all for helping Erin out. Not like we have plans. But er—it occurs to me just now that we only have a name to go on. Have you met this girl we’re supposed to find? What does this ‘Ryoka Griffin’ look like, anyways?”

The half-Elf and Human exchanged a glance. Falene put a finger to her temple.

“…I’ll ask for a description from Ceria. She’s finally mastered [Message].”

“Good idea.”

“I’m sure Pointy-Ears would have come up with it, eventually. She just didn’t want to say to embarrass us. Obviously.

The Dwarf’s smug look earned him a deep glare as he clambered into the coach. He waved at Ryoka, who nodded back; he was the first Dwarf she’d seen up close. The other two piled in and the coach moved on in short order.

They were an interesting bunch. The first thing the Dwarf did was hold out a hand.

“Sorry about the smell. Exploding mushrooms. Appreciate you letting us in.”

“Not at all. Adventurers keep everyone safe. Especially someone like me. Good to meet you all.”

They nodded in a friendly manner at her. The [Knight] glanced at Ryoka; the half-Elf was doing something magical to judge by the way her eyes were flickering.

“May I ask where you’re bound? We’re headed to Reizmelt.”

“Oh really? Me too. I’m a City Runner. I work around there. Sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name’s Ryoka Griffin.”

Ylawes’ hand tightened on Ryoka’s hand. He blinked. Dawil sat up. Falene lowered her hand, [Message] unsent. The [Knight] stared at Ryoka as she saw his face change.

“Really? Well, this is fortunate. We’ve been looking for you, Miss Griffin.”

Ryoka’s face froze. She stared at Ylawes. She couldn’t help notice that Ylawes’ armor—along with his sword—was silver. She hesitated.

“What did you say your name was?”

“Ylawes Byres.”

The [Knight] saw Ryoka start.

“Oh. Do you know Yvlon?

Ylawes blinked.

“She’s my younger sister.”

“Small world. So—you’re looking for me?”

The Silver Swords nodded. They gazed at Ryoka and Falene casually adjusted her staff.

“Someone would like to speak to you, Ryoka Griffin. Please—”

 

—-

 

The City Runner exploded out of the coach. Randal jerked, and the horses reared in alarm as Ryoka Griffin took off running. He turned to stare after the Silver Swords, who poured out of the coach, chasing her.

They’d laugh over it later. Well, probably. Ryoka Griffin might not laugh as much. And after a while, in hindsight…she would blame Erin for all that happened next.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was having a busy day. There were quiet days, when the worst thing that happened was Erin spent all day hunting for a missing chess piece or tried to make a 10-foot pizza for fun.

But busy days came after dark drama, or triumph. So much was happening.

The [Lords] were gone. Lady Bethal was in Invrisil, enjoying a play. But the door was popping with activity.

Maviola El was there. And before the sun had even properly risen, you could hear her haranguing an [Innkeeper].

“—and when you make a contract, you need to have it officiated at least by the Merchant’s Guild. It isn’t that hard, Erin.”

“Leave me alone! Lyonette’s better at this!”

“They’re negotiating with you. You need to learn how to talk to them. It’s not hard. Listen, we’ll practice. Stop running away—”

Thump, thump, thump. Erin ran down the hallway. Maviola El pursued her.

“Stop being childish.”

“I don’t wanna do it!”

“You are impossible. Don’t make me spank you.”

“I’ll punch you! Why do I have to learn all this?”

The two arguing young women were talking about contracts. Sending food, supplies hundreds of miles via magic door. Erin Solstice had struck a deal—at least the beginning of one—and Maviola was determined to make it real. The [Innkeeper] was less than happy, but her protestations grew weaker because Maviola was right. She sighed, turned—

But of course, it wasn’t always about Erin. As the [Innkeeper] reluctantly returned to her room, a little white paw reached up. A white Gnoll hefted a giant rock, still covered with dirt, into a drawer. She tossed it—and never heard the thunk.

A tail wagged. Mrsha peered into the drawer. Then she put a pillow in there. It vanished as soon as she inserted it into the drawer. Mrsha padded off. She came back with hers and Lyonette’s blankets. She stuffed them into the drawer.

From the outside, the single compartment in the chest of drawers should have held some clothes—a few knickknacks. But six rocks, a pillow, blankets, and now a variety of Mrsha’s gifts, including Numbtongue’s silver ball and her horn went sailing into it.

A very excited little face poked over the edge of the drawer. Mrsha rubbed her paws together.

Most excellent. Of course, this was the most important thing happening in the inn. Mrsha vaguely heard Maviola sitting down.

“Okay. This is a sample contract. Note the magical bindings on the side? Magical contracts are essential for agreements you need to enforce with magic. Skills on the other hand can do the same. So never sign anything unless you’re sure…”

Oho! What else can I put in here, then?

Mrsha padded out of her room. After a second, she pushed open another door, came out with Numbtongue’s pillows and blankets. She pushed them into the drawer. Stared inside.

It was mostly full. Mrsha, experimenting with the limits of Erin’s [Compartments of Holding] had discovered that they were far more spacious than your average Bag of Holding. So much so that the upper limit of even the drawers in hers and Lyonette’s room could comfortably hold all this stuff.

She liked it. Erin had woken everyone up in the middle of the night shouting about her new Skill. Mrsha had wanted to experiment, but she’d been so sleepy.

At first, Lyonette hadn’t been too impressed. Numbtongue had decided it was useful for storing more weapons, but had promptly gone back to sleep. But for the Gnoll child—this was amazingly fun.

She could hide all her things wherever she wanted! In a tiny little space! Mrsha’s mind raced with the possibilities. Hide snacks Lyonette would never find! Store all her favorite things!

Lyonette only had boring ideas like ‘let’s store even more food and supplies and facilitate trade with the nobles!’ Erin’s new Skill worked on anything that was a ‘compartment’. Be it drawer, closet, cupboard, or even sacks in the basement, it essentially made the insides larger than what they should be. Multiplied space.

Mrsha reached down into the drawers and pulled out a pillow. She fluffed it experimentally.

So convenient. The Gnoll’s tail wagged. She had another brilliant idea. She stared into the compartment, which had held two blankets, six pillows—Numbtongue liked pillows—rocks, some of her toys…it was full to the brim. But if you removed two more pillows…

There was a nice divot of space in there. Mrsha eyed the open spot. She had been told by Lyonette you should never put living things into a Bag of Holding. But this was a Skill. Slowly, Mrsha looked around and then surreptitiously climbed into—

 

—-

 

The first screaming howl made Erin and Maviola jump from their room. They shot to their feet and looked around. They couldn’t place it at first. But the second howl of pain made them run out of the room.

Mrsha? Where are you?

Erin located Mrsha in Lyonette and Mrsha’s room a beat before she saw a green blur race upstairs. Numbtongue kicked the door open, his new sword drawn.

They found Mrsha in the cupboard. She was compressed along with the blankets, rocks, and other objects in the now ordinary-sized cupboard. Numbtongue tugged at the door, but Mrsha just howled louder. So the Hobgoblin aimed his sword and carefully cut the entire cupboard apart.

Broken bits of wood—the objects had cracked the other drawers when they reverted to real space—pillow feathers, and Mrsha all exploded outwards. The Gnoll was crying. She let Erin scoop her up as Lyonette, panting, raced up the stairs with a sword in her hands.

“What happened?

Sniffling, Mrsha explained to Erin and Numbtongue out what happened.

“Bags of Holding don’t contain people. At least—not alive. Erin’s Skill must not either. It’s a failsafe. Better than what the enchantment does to some people. It’s definitely Erin’s Skill—if Mrsha tried that with a superior holding enchantment, it might have compressed her. Or even let her climb in—without air.”

Maviola wiped at her pale face. The teary-eye Gnoll found herself cuddled and scolded by turns. Only after Erin had made Mrsha promise to never, ever do that again, did she relax.

That was how her day started. Mrsha’s, that was. Twenty minutes later, she was feeling better. Even if Lyonette had been very mad.

But aside from that near-squish experience, Mrsha decided the drawers were alright. She was careful not to put herself in them. But as Numbtongue (now acting as her supervisor until Drassi signed in), remarked, the Skill had benefits for the creative.

“Nice Skill. Pyrite has a good idea. Can’t put people inside, but storage isn’t the only trick. You still hurt?”

Mrsha’s hurts had been healed with a little sip of healing potion. She shook her head bravely and sat by his leg. Cross-legged, the Hobgoblin was sitting with a chair lying on the ground in front of him. He had a knife, one of the inn’s crossbows, and several bolts lying there.

The crossbow was unloaded. And it said something that Erin had asked Numbtongue to take care of Mrsha, believing, rightly, that she would be much safer in his company. Mrsha reached out to touch a crossbow bolt. Numbtongue let her. If she stabbed herself, he wouldn’t offer much sympathy.

His new, Dragonblood-crystal sword on the other hand, he didn’t even let Mrsha near. And when she tried to edge around to see the wonderful scabbard, which had a red fang sewn on it—he looked at her.

“Do you want to lose your paw?”

Mrsha hesitated. The Gnoll child scooted back on her bum and made no more efforts to even touch the sword. She was a good girl. She really was. Her adventures were just…er…adventures. In that sense, Erin, and even Lyonette and Numbtongue were all poor role models. Bird was somehow the most careful and that was a horrible thought.

Well, she was learning things. And one of her favorite, if rarest instructors now appeared. Numbtongue raised a finger. Then his expression changed.

His posture grew more heavyset—out of memory, not reality. He sat back, grunted. Scratched at his belly, and then looked at Mrsha.

“Hello, Mrsha. Good children don’t play with artifacts.”

She respectfully waved back. But the Hobgoblin—the Goldstone Chieftain—Pyrite, did not waste time. He picked up the knife and got to work with the chair leg at once. As he did, he spoke.

“Had a thought. Interesting. Skills of [Innkeepers]. Not very Goblin. Extremely powerful. Wish I had been one. Useful. Idea with compartments. You see?”

He dug the knife into the cheap chair leg. Mrsha frowned. She didn’t. But Pyrite was smart. She watched; he was cutting into the wood. Cutting a block out of the leg.

“Hm. Concealed. Hollow this.”

The Hobgoblin began digging with one claw into the wood, hollowing a cavity. He showed Mrsha. She frowned, then figured out what he was doing. Her eyes went round and the [Chieftain] gave her a slow wink.

“Drawer. Compartment. Now. How powerful is Skill? Is it based on size or always makes everything bigger by same amount?”

The crude drawer was tiny. But as Pyrite slotted the secret compartment into the table leg, Mrsha saw it expand. Pyrite checked the drawer. He grunted.

“Hm. Three times bigger. Rat. Then—”

The time limit expired. Numbtongue blinked. He shook his head, paused a brief moment, and finished Pyrite’s thoughts in his own words.

“—Can’t hide the crossbow in here. Is okay. Can hide it in a slightly bigger spot. Here. Watch.”

The chair he abandoned. This time, the Hobgoblin wandered downstairs and came up with some bits of wood. Quickly, he fashioned together a crude box. It was small—the size of two hands. But when it was sufficiently box-like, it took on Erin’s Skill.

“Aha. See?”

Numbtongue put the hand-sized crossbow and some iron-tipped bolts inside. Then he closed the lid. It appeared to be impossibly small. And if you weren’t careful—unnoticeable. The Hobgoblin winked at Mrsha and she grinned.

“Now, where do we put it?”

They walked downstairs and investigated. Mrsha wanted to install the tiny box under a table, so you could pull out a crossbow and go boom, like those ‘Cow Boys’ that Erin had told her about. But Numbtongue was more practical.

“Everyone sits at tables. Better to put it here.”

He placed it right next to the windowsill, next to one of the flower planters. Erin had moved the Faerie Flowers to her garden to prevent thieves, but she’d liked the flowers so much that she had some lovely scented red ones there. The crude box was innocuous.  Mrsha grinned. She saw Numbtongue lean against the windowsill, check the room, and slowly slide the box open. He grinned at her with his teeth and she gave him the same smile. The Hobgoblin leaned down and muttered in her ear.

“Now just have to hide the acid-jars. Maybe small vials in chair legs? Or just shiv?”

 

—-

 

Mrsha was just done hiding the acid jars in secret spots in the inn with Numbtongue—they’d decided not table legs given how often they got smashed—when they heard Palt calling for Erin.

The Centaur didn’t like stairs. He could do them—but with difficulty. Lyonette was working on a special ramp between floors in the new parts of the inn. But it wasn’t done yet.

“I have a spell from the Silver Swords! It’s urgent! They’ve uh—they say they’ve found Ryoka Griffin?”

What?

Erin came clattering down the stairs. Mrsha’s ears perked up. She saw Erin, with Palt’s help, using the communication spell. Even Mrsha couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, but she heard Erin’s side.

“Ryoka? But why—I—uh oh. Uh oh. Falene…um, no, listen. Listen—wait, you got her? When you say…tied up? What happened? She did w—no! No, she already came back here! Yes! A few days ago! I forgot to tell you! Uh…um…is that Ryoka in the background? Listen—no, I’m so sorry. But listen—”

All was well. Mrsha relaxed. And the guests of the inn started coming in as Erin began apologizing profusely.

The first was the two strangers with hats. A rather stylish Gnoll and a Drake. Mrsha liked them. They were always polite. They tipped their hats to Lyonette, they spoke funny, and the Gnoll gave her some snacks.

“I say, Ratici. That was a bit of a scrap yesterday. I feel somewhat embarrassed to tell the truth. We nearly failed our contract.”

“How were we to know, Wilovan? But we were stuck in Invrisil. Perhaps we should stay here?”

“Some thought on that, Ratici. The Tall Man’s paying well. Too well to pursue our—other activities. I say we devote more effort to this.”

“Agreed, agreed.”

The two sighed. Then the Drake did a double-take as he stared at one of the windows. His eyes narrowed; they flicked to a beam on the ceiling, the kitchen, and then he looked all around. Wilovan patiently cut a pork chop in half.

“Something the matter, Ratici?”

“…The inn’s different. I’m seeing multiple holding areas, Wilovan. Either this [Innkeeper]’s leveled up or an [Enchanter] went insane. And someone’s already created multiple stashes.”

“Anything good inside?”

“Hand crossbow, knife, jars of…something.”

“Sensible precautions. Pass the salt?”

A high-level…something. Mrsha stared at Ratici, suspiciously as the Drake noted all the places she and Numbtongue had just been. She looked around for the Hobgoblin, but he was gone.

“Numbtongue, Numbtongue! They found your secret stuff! The hat-duo!”

Mrsha found him in Octavia’s shop. She waved her hands, using sign language. At first, the Hobgoblin didn’t notice.

“Mhm. Looks like nice paste. Edible?”

“It’s more than that, Numbtongue. And no, don’t eat it. Ryoka calls it penicillin. Or something close. I’m spreading the word, trying to find a buyer among [Healers].”

Octavia was leaning across her counter, showing the Hobgoblin something in a jar. Mrsha waved her paws.

“What? Is that Mrsha? Hey! My shops off-limits, kid! Say, Numbtongue, do you know why all my cupboards are suddenly three times as big on the inside?”

The [Alchemist] frowned. Numbtongue grinned.

“What happened was—what, Mrsha?”

He bent down. With some trouble, Mrsha explained. Numbtongue frowned and his eyes flicked back to the common room. But he didn’t seem too concerned.

“High-level. Smart. I’ll watch them. You go back. No Mrshas allowed in shop. What buyers, Octavia?”

The two went back to smiling over the weird-smelling paste. Mrsha huffily walked back to the door. Some people weren’t grateful for Mrsha the Spy’s information! How dare they!

She was ready to spy on the two dangerous, potential infiltrators when the door opened and brought through a slurry of people from Pallass.

Hello everybody! Did you miss me!

A naked Drake strode into the inn. Ratici choked on his drink. Mrsha’s head turned. Saliss of Lights bounded into the room, smiling, waving—naked. You got used to it.

“I say, sir! There are children here! Put on some pants, please!”

Wilovan rose to his feet. The Drake spun.

“Excuse me? You and what army? Say—”

The two locked eyes across the room. Ratici’s eyes narrowed.

“Named Adventurer.”

Saliss eyed them.

“Hm.”

 

—-

 

Saliss of Lights had not had a good day. Or perhaps that was inaccurate to say. Saliss had been fine.

Yesterday, he’d been largely out of sight during the riots. And even afterwards—he’d just gone around handing out potions to injured people, nakedly posing in front of [Guard] patrols and annoying the heck out of them—that was what Saliss had done.

At the same time, though, a certain female Drake had seen fighting. She’d dragged more than one person out of the protests when the Watch came cracking down on them like a ton of bricks. It did not put either Drake in a good mood.

Saliss didn’t know why he’d come here. Perhaps because he was in a bad mood. He did not want to be in…Pallass at the moment. The curfew and martial law was still in effect.

He narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t read either Wilovan or Ratici’s levels or classes. But that didn’t matter. Saliss recognized talent. And anyone who bought charms that blocked [Appraisal] usually needed such items for a reason.

“Say, fellows. Do I know you?”

The Drake skipped over and put an arm around the Gnoll’s shoulder. For a moment he saw the Gnoll’s body shift. He was quick. But he relaxed and let Saliss do it.

“I am, sir, Wilovan. And this is my partner, Ratici. You must be the infamous Saliss of Lights.”

“Guilty! But don’t arrest me! The jails are already full in Pallass!”

The Drake grinned about them. Wilovan looked down.

“Sir, there’s a young Gnoll child in this very inn. I have to insist you put on something to cover your shortcomings.”

“Hey! They’re not that sh—well, maybe they are. But I’m afraid they’re there to stay.”

The Gnoll coughed. He adjusted his hat.

“Adventurer Saliss. I’m but a poor fellow compared to a personage such as yourself. But I fear I must insist. Good dressing and decorum are the manners of every gentleman.”

That rankled Saliss more today. He grinned, toothily.

“I’m afraid no one puts pants on me.”

Wilovan glanced at Ratici. The Drake raised his brows. But the [Thug] stiffly addressed Saliss.

“Sir. There are women, children, and people I assume who don’t wish to see unmentionables while dining and taking their leisure. I feel I should insist.

All three individuals paused there. Saliss’ smile never wavered. But his eyes narrowed.

“Like I said. You and what army?”

What Wilovan might have said or done next was up for debate. The Gnoll was glancing about, inspecting the inn—not a good place to cause trouble—a little Gnoll child peering at them around a door, and no doubt aware of Saliss himself. He adjusted his tall hat—

And Erin Solstice shouted.

“Hey! Saliss! There you are! I could have used you yesterday! What’s up?”

She waved and the Drake turned. Wilovan hesitated, stepped back, and Ratici relaxed. Saliss of Lights turned. And there was Erin.

“Erin! My favorite Human! I think! How are you?”

He spread his arms, laughing, and posed. Just to annoy the Gnoll. But Erin was hurrying over and she had something in her hands.

A box. Saliss recognized it. He put up his claws.

“Hold on now, that was only for Mrsha’s birthday, Miss Erin.”

“Aw, Saliss. But people like eating here! Come on! I added something to make it better.”

“Added? Erin, as I was just telling this fine fellow, you and what arm—”

Erin showed him the front of the box. Saliss blinked at it—and then burst out laughing. Wilovan and Ratici craned their heads to see. Erin grinned. That was the thing. She got Saliss.

In short order, the Drake strutted around the inn, now with a box on his private parts. It was just a box, but it had one notable addition.

Warning: contains small nuts.

Only her. Chaldion had never tried that. Saliss kept laughing about it and in a fine humor, found Erin sitting him down.

“Hey, how’s it been? Sorry, I can’t stick around long; I have this thing with Maviola. Have you met Maviola?”

“Who? I can’t say I have. Say, I heard you were involved in a riot.”

Saliss’ eyes twinkled. Inside, his good humor over the box faded. Erin’s face fell.

“Yeah. They were everywhere. Hold on, can I get you anything to eat? Or rather—Ishkr!

As the two sat and Saliss ordered breakfast, he talked with Erin about yesterday. Mrsha sat at a table next to them, eagerly bouncing up and down in her seat. She was getting a cheese-and-bacon soufflé.

“It’s all puffy and hot. Soufflés are the only thing that doesn’t keep well. You want one? Or just your salad?”

Erin presented the puffy soufflé-in-a-cup to Mrsha. The Gnoll picked up the spoon and dug into the fluffy breakfast with delight. Erin turned to Saliss.

“Mrsha had a scare this morning. She’s still being punished, but this is also to cheer her up.”

“…What’s the punishment, then?”

The [Alchemist] eyed Mrsha eating the soufflé. Ratici instantly ordered one for his table and Wilovan doubled the request. Erin smiled.

“No cake for dessert.”

“Ah, the worst of things! So you outrioted a riot by beating them all to the ground with your fists?”

The Drake found that amusing. Even if his memory of yesterday made the smile artificial. Erin sighed.

“It was that or let them kill the [Lords]. Who were stupid. But that’s this entire thing. Tell me about Pallass. I heard…the riots weren’t as bad. But um. I heard that’s because Chaldion put down the riots. Hard?”

The Drake toyed with his fork. He felt a hot flash in his chest and smiled at Erin.

“Oh, you know Chaldion. Everything’s a war for him. There were only a few thousand [Guards] and [Soldiers] kicking people’s teeth in. Literally. I sold a few teeth-regrowing potions. Broken bones—I think they beat a few children—excuse me, troublemakers—unconscious. But that’s Chaldion! You should ask him about it.”

Erin’s face went still. She saw Saliss eating the food he didn’t really taste.

“I will. He…ordered that?”

He winked at her.

“Everything to keep law and order, right? Hey, this is great, by the way.”

The Drake gobbled at his food, but the [Innkeeper] wasn’t fooled. In a way, they were too much alike. Erin watched Saliss eat for a second.

“Think I should kick Chaldion in the butt when he comes into the inn? Nah, I’d probably break his tail or something. How about I beat him ten times in a row at chess? I can do it. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, Skills or not.”

The [Alchemist] looked up. He blinked at Erin and then he guffawed. Saliss slapped at his knee as Mrsha began to giggle. He must have laughed for at least a minute because everyone saw him on the ground, rolling around with the box. When Saliss finally got up, he was actually smiling.

Would you? Can you do that?”

The [Innkeeper] just grinned at Saliss and winked back.

“I can probably do twenty. If I really put him off his game. How about this? Um…okay, I can challenge him to speed-chess, which he’s bad at. His [Path to Victory] helps, but he can’t keep using it in game after game. And I can win even if he sees one path. But once I beat him four times, you can like, I dunno, run up behind me and start waving a sign and counting how many times he loses, see…”

He laughed and didn’t know he needed that until he did. Erin sat with Saliss. After the laugher, she asked.

“How bad was it, really?”

Thoughtfully, Saliss looked at her. He had resolved not to complain. But with Erin…the Drake wavered. Still, he shook his head. Onieva was his secret. And he trusted almost no one with it.

“I—didn’t see much of it. I was in my laboratory, making potions. Those faerie flowers are giving me lots of trouble, by the way.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Xif doesn’t have any to experiment on except the one, but…well…he said the same thing. They’re magically potent, but I feel like I’m missing something. Something about their natures. It’s just a hunch, but mind telling me how you got them?”

“Er. Yes?”

Saliss sighed. But he had expected that. He was about to ask Erin about these Humans [Lords] when someone called Erin’s name.

Erin Solstice. You have a lesson to learn! Stop having breakfast and come on!”

Maviola had been waiting in Erin’s room the entire time Erin had gone down to persuade Saliss to box his genitalia. Now, she came downstairs. Erin stood up.

“I’m sorry, Maviola! I forgot! Saliss, I have to go.”

“That’s fine. Just promise me you’ll make Chaldion cr—”

Saliss spotted the fiery-haired young woman. She didn’t notice him; she was haranguing Erin. The Drake [Alchemist] stabbed himself in the mouth with his fork. His eyes bulged.

Maviola?

The fire burnt away day by day. But how beautifully it died.

 

—-

 

Mrsha ate her soufflé. It was fluffy and delicious. She was thus in the best of moods as her minder for the day arrived.

“Sorry I’m late. Visma’s family wanted to walk her to the door. And I forgot it was moved to right next to the Adventurer’s Guild. I mean, it’s closer, but I went the wrong way…here they are! Mrsha! Ekirra and Visma are here!”

Hey! Mrsha threw up her paws and scampered towards her friends. She saw a shy Gnoll and Drake poking around Drassi’s legs. Ekirra went over to Mrsha at once, but both he and Visma were…shy today.

This was not the first time they’d visited The Wandering Inn by far. But today they were reserved, and Mrsha was confused for a good minute until she saw them staring. Then she knew why. They looked at Erin as she made Maviola drag her up the stairs. The silly [Innkeeper] was the same. But the way Mrsha’s two friends looked at her was different. Mrsha saw it in their eyes.

Awe. They were not the only ones. A group of Humans from Earth were breakfasting and looking at Erin surreptitiously. As Drassi tried to herd the children towards the [Garden of Sanctuary], which was their approved play-area, Mrsha heard Troy and Leon talking to the others.

“Dude. We were hiding in a shop the entire time. You said Erin charged them?”

“We all saw it. She went straight into them! She got stabbed, but she had a potion and Bird was shooting people in the legs and they actually broke up one of the crowds! Twice!”

Rose was looking wide-eyed at Erin’s back. It was the same look they’d had after the Rock Crab incident. Only, magnified.

“Miss Erin is cool.”

Ekirra informed Mrsha. Visma just peered at Erin’s back as the [Innkeeper] was finally dragged upstairs with a wail. It was hard to conflate the two Erin’s. But Mrsha had seen both. Rather proudly, she signed at her friends—who could understand her hand-signals—that Erin had always been cool.

The play date in the inn was, for once, without reservation on the parts of Ekirra and Visma’s parents. Erin had found both families during the riots. And more notably—stopped a riot around Visma’s house that had threatened to burn down her home.

“She was invisible. And then she appeared and told the people go away or else. And then she went bang! With the pan and Mr. Goblin. And Miss Minotaur.”

Visma relayed the entire event to Ekirra and Mrsha; she had been there. Mrsha had been in the garden and only heard some of it. Mrsha was nodding proudly. She made a triumphant fist on Erin’s behalf. Then paused; Ekirra was waving a paw for attention.

“My dad says Miss Erin was lucky no one was killed. He says she could have made things worse.”

The Gnoll boy’s comment made Mrsha frown. She folded her paws and then—since she had to use them to communicate—unfolded them.

Erin did good! She saved Visma’s home. And yours!

“No one burned down our homes. My father says people got hurt when Miss Erin stopped the riots. Badly. Some had to go to the [Healers].”

Ekirra’s parroting of his father’s opinion offended Mrsha to the core. She glowered at him as he played with some flowers in the grass where they were sitting. Drassi was lounging, reading a book; she didn’t seem aware of the moralistic debate occurring and assumed they were just playing.

“Erin did nothing wrong. The riots were wrong! She should have hurt them more. Bird should have shot their arms and legs so they hurt no one again.”

The Drake and Gnoll child looked at Mrsha’s furious face. Now Mrsha thought of it—she grew angrier and angrier about the riots. As she had been yesterday.

Visma’s short tail waved uncertainly in the grass. After a second, the Drake girl spoke, her voice tinged with uncertain certainty.

“No. Because that would be wrong. Bad people hurt each other. Erin shouldn’t hurt people.”

“But she saved your house! And what about the Workers?”

Mrsha furiously pointed out. Visma had nothing to say to that. Ekirra waved his paw again.

“My dad says—”

He flinched at Mrsha’s scowl, but went on determinedly.

He says that the Antinium were dangerous too. They marched.”

Not all of them. Workers got hurt!

Some had died. The two children hadn’t known that. They went still as Mrsha got up. She glowered at them and decided it wasn’t their faults. She had to show them.

“Hey, Mrsha, don’t go into the jungle! Remember you got your fur full of burrs when you went in there!”

Drassi lazily shouted at Mrsha as she led the two others over the hill. The Drake yawned and lay back in the sunlight. Meanwhile, Mrsha led the children down the hill to the edges of the dome.

The door was waiting for them. Ekirra and Visma drew back doubtfully.

“We’re not supposed to leave. We’ll get in trouble.”

Visma peeked out through the door. There was a…humming sound. A wooden hallway. Mrsha waved at them, signaling for quiet.

Workers had died during the riot. But Visma and Ekirra hadn’t known. Mrsha doubted their parents had been aware—or cared.

After all, who cared for Worker casualties? No one said it. Olesm’s newspaper had illustrations of the destruction, counts of people injured, hurt, dead, arrested…but the Antinium were only mentioned as ‘The Black Tide’, sweeping through the city in a mass.

No one spoke of the Workers who’d been cut into pieces or smashed and killed and left to die by angry people. Angry people who pretended to be normal the next day.

But some people did not forget.

The place Mrsha led her friends was a new part of the inn. A new wing, off the kitchen-side. It had not been part of Lyonette’s original plans. But it had been funded and paid for by Xrn. And conceived of by Erin and Pawn.

The humming in the air was louder as the children crept forwards. Ekirra’s ears perked up and even Visma heard it as multiple voices. And as they moved towards a room where light spilled from behind two double doors, they saw.

Antinium. They knelt, or stood, in a room designed for them. It was simple, adorned by color. Pictures on the wall. Each one unique. This place was a copy of a room in the Antinium Hive. And in it—standing behind an altar stood a [Priest].

The humming came from him as he swung the censer. It was not a single-minded drone—but nor was it music. It was meaningful, wordless.

Religion.

Now, Pawn bent. In front of him were about a dozen Workers. They were all—wounded. Or they had been. Mrsha saw one Worker had no antennae. Another’s carapace had been cracked in multiple places.

The Workers knelt there, as Pawn put down his censer. Two of his hands were clasped in prayer. Now, the other two offered something with reverence to the first Worker. A bowl.

It did not contain food. Rather, it had small sections. Each one with a different color of paint. The Worker’s hands trembled as he slowly accepted the bowl. Slowly—so slowly, a finger dipped into the paint.

“We pray for the souls of those Workers who have died. Let them rest in Heaven. For the living—we continue on. Despite suffering. To make earth as it is in Heaven. Do not forget. Do not give in. You are not alone.”

Pawn’s voice was quiet as he walked down the line of Workers, offering another bowl. The children heard a sound.

Click. The Painted Antinium standing around the room made the sound. It made Ekirra jump; Visma sucked on her thumb. But it was not a harsh sound. There was something beautiful here. Mysterious.

Yellow Splatters stood at the back of the room, waiting. The others looked to him. One who had been there.

Heaven. Something worth dying for. And more—worth living for. Pawn’s hands were gentle as he blessed the first Worker. His [Benediction of Hope] made the Antinium rise. But more than that, the [Priest] prayed, and the Antinium prayed with him. For the dead.

For better days.

 

—-

 

The children crept away as the Workers painted themselves. Shining with the drying paint, they left the chapel made only for them. A Worker with green pools of blood, as if symbolizing the other Workers. A Worker with a white flag on his chest.

It did not mean pain was gone. The two Gnolls and the Drake saw Pawn splitting from the others as they marched back to the Hive, bearing food with them. He paused, and entered his rooms.

A [Princess] slipped in after him. Mrsha scowled as Ekirra prowled forwards. She was pretty sure they didn’t want to see—

“…wasn’t there for them. I couldn’t bring them back. I tried. But one died. It wasn’t enough.

Pawn and Lyonette sat in the room together. Mrsha heard him speaking, his voice low. Filled with…

The Antinium [Priest] looked older as he sat by Lyonette. She was holding his hand. Crying for him. He held her hand with his own, as if it were the only things keeping him anchored in this world.

Ekirra backed away. Mrsha looked another moment. Then she fled.

These were the things Mrsha saw. And her two friends saw something their parents had never conceived of.

Drassi wondered why Visma burst into tears. She thought Ekirra had been throwing rocks at her or something.

 

—-

 

Not all the Antinium painted themselves. Not all prayed. On the roof of the inn, now with three floors, they built a tower.

It would be tall. It would be fortified. No random Hobgoblin with a sword would destroy it. It…might have a ballista. Lyonette and Erin had sort of vetoed that one.

But the Workers there…worked. Building the tower up.

Slowly, though. Usually, the worked with a determined energy that meant they didn’t race, but didn’t stop until a job was done. Now, though, they worked more…slowly. Taking their time, passing objects to each other.

It was a new concept. There were more than there needed to be. Most of them were actually the Archer Workers.

Archer J3 passed a piece of stone to Archer B23, who had some mortar which the other Worker carefully applied. With one hand, the other [Archer] applied it. And with his two free hands, he slowly, ever-so-gingerly dipped a little bit of fufu into some spicy beef soup.

Fufu was gluten-free, if you made it without…gluten. All of Erin’s agonizing over bread, wheat, and so on, had been solved by Imani in three seconds when she’d heard of the issue. Now, the Antinium ate. And the one responsible for the food on the job, insisted on the slow pace—he was named Bird.

“Why did Workers die, Hunter Bird?”

Archer A11—the third of his designation—asked that question. His unit had seen high combat, but there were enough Autonomous Workers to fill the seventeen archer groups now formed in Liscor’s Hive. Thanks to Anand and Belgrade, the Antinium died less.

But they still died. Every head turned to Bird. He sat above them, in his tower as it was being built around him. The [Bird Hunter] watched the sky. He looked down at them.

“Why do you ask ‘why’?”

The Workers looked up at him. Bird sat there, legs dangling happily. He stared at some birds out of his range. His voice was cheerful.

“Bad things happen. They always happen, like good things. Sometimes people do bad things. Sometimes people do good things. This is so. I have observed it.”

The other Workers thought on this. Another Workers spoke.

“Is there a Heaven, Hunter Bird?”

“I do not know. Ask Pawn. Or Yellow Splatters. He has been there. So probably?”

“Is Heaven nice?”

“I do not know. I do not care.”

The Workers thought on this. They were not ordinary Workers, with no names. But neither were they Painted. They looked up at Bird. And at last, one asked a question they often asked.

“What is good, Bird?”

The Worker thought about this. And each time his answer was different. Mainly because he forgot all the other answers. After a while, he spoke.

“Good is a feeling. Good is not happy. Happy lasts a short time. Good feels good even when happy is gone.”

They thought about this. After a while, one raised a hand.

“What is happy, Bird?”

The Worker sighed. He wondered when they’d stop asking him questions. But this was alright.

 

—-

 

And then the important guest entered the inn. At first, Montressa and Bezale didn’t notice.

The two Wistram [Mages] sat together, having a meal at a table. Beza poked her deflating soufflé with a dubious expression. Montressa was halfway through hers.

“Beza. Have you been thinking what I’ve been thinking?”

“I doubt it, Montressa.”

The [Aegiscaster] sighed. Beza was…difficult. As bad as Ulinde, who wouldn’t sit still for five minutes, or Isceil, who had been rather arrogant and grating, or Palt who enjoyed being difficult, or…[Mages] were hard in general. They tended towards unique personalities.

“Master Hedault has a meeting scheduled with Miss Solstice. Today.”

“And?”

The Minotauress dug into her meal at last. Montressa exhaled.

“…I think she forgot. Even Miss Maviola. What with the riots and all. Neither one’s come down from whatever they’re doing upstairs.”

The [Spellscribe] raised one eyebrow.

“I see. That’s rather unfortunate. Master Hedault is known to be extremely punctual.

“I know. But what if—hear me out, Beza—what if we reminded Erin?”

“…Sensible?”

The Minotauress gave Montressa a blank look. The [Aegiscaster] waved a hand; she’d taken too large a bite.

“Sorry. We reminded her and offered to go in her place? Or—or even got Master Hedault to come here?”

Her companion gave her an odd look. Beza was still a bit sweaty; she’d been working out with Grimalkin’s weights, having developed something of a compulsion in that regard. She rolled her shoulders.

“Why?”

“Because Master Hedault is one of the best [Enchanters] in the region. Because Erin would think more kindly of us if she did.”

“If you’re expecting her to throw Palt under the wagon for us—”

“Not at all. And I’m not asking for help with the Earthers. Beza, think about it. If we flatter Master Hedault, and we can do that—he’ll remember us. Right?”

“…So?”

“Master Hedault. The best [Enchanter]. You’re a [Spellscribe]. Your classes are related.”

“Hmf. True. It would be good to learn from him, but he’d never teach anyone.”

“That’s not the point. Master Hedault will probably want to come to the inn anyways, once he hears Master Pelt is now close enough to have his works enchanted. Right?”

Slowly, Bezale raised one thick eyebrow.

“Aha. And Master Smith Pelt is one of the best [Blacksmiths] in the region.”

“Pallass will certainly want his works, even if he’s not based in the city. Which is convenient because we happen to be close to Pallass.”

The Minotauress flicked a finger and blasted a fly out of the air with a little gust of wind.

“And Invrisil.”

“And Celum.”

“And a number of [Lords] are now seeking Erin for trade rights. You know, Beza. I was a secretbroker back in Wistram.”

“I’m quite aware, Montressa. But I see your point. You had connections.”

The [Aegiscaster] smiled. She sat back in her seat.

“We failed when it came to getting Erin out of her inn. But I think that might be a good thing. Think about it, Beza. This inn has access to two major cities. That’s…a lot of influential people. And both are trade hubs.”

Beza slowly exhaled.

“Hm. You’re proposing…what? The same thing Beatrice and you did?”

“Well…we’re not exactly popular at Wistram. And I do know how it goes. It’s all about making connections. Introducing people to people. And we know the person with the magic door. Why don’t we just nip up to Erin, offer to greet Master Hedault and…?”

The Minotauress hmmed and leaned forwards. They had been largely aimless of late. But this was something she understood. Liked.

Neither one noticed the gaggle of Drakes and Gnolls coming in from Pallass. Many were wide-eyed. But here were…tourists.

One, with a smart cap, adjusted it and looked around, murmuring. Another, a Drake with a leafy staff stared around, blinking. A Gnoll with a bow on his back and travelling gear—a tribal Gnoll on whose fur was stamped a silver crescent—or fang—sniffed the air.

“Excuse me, Miss. Do you know where the owner of this inn, a, ah, ‘Erin Solstice’ is?”

The Gnoll with the cap strode up to the nearest person. That happened to be Lyonette, still a bit red-eyed, but back to work.

“Oh—Erin? I’m sorry, she’s personally occupied. But I can help you. Are you looking for a place to stay? Directions? We can transport you to other cities…”

The Gnoll gave Lyonette an abashed smile. Awkwardly, he fumbled for his belt.

“I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself—oh—”

He dropped the bit of paper and several coins. Lyonette bent to pick it up, but with flustered apologies, the Gnoll scrambled to pick it up. She felt bad for him, as, blushing, he stood upright.

“Sorry, sorry! Let me begin. I’m ah, sent here on behalf of my company. Izril’s Wonders. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of us…?”

Lyonette had to dash his hopeful look. The Gnoll sighed, despondent.

“What is it? Can I get you a drink?”

He was dusty, Lyonette realized. The Gnoll brightened.

“That’d be wonderful, Miss. I’m actually here on behalf of our group with an offer. You see, we’ve heard of this wondrous inn. And we’d love to expand our destinations. I’m forgetting myself again. You see, my company takes people to each Walled City. Shows them the sights.”

“Oh! How delightful! And you want to put Liscor on that list?”

“Well, Invrisil, in point of fact, Miss. We’d love to discuss the matter if we may.”

The [Princess] smiled. Her mind began racing at once.

“I don’t think Erin would have a problem with that. I’ll let her know as soon as possible. It might be a little bit, but she’s sure to be interested. Can I offer you something to eat and drink while you wait? What’s your name?”

The Gnoll slapped his forehead. He took off his cap, abashed.

“I forget myself. I’m no [Negotiator], Miss. I was just closest when I got my orders. I’m just a [Coachman], me. Not sure why they wanted me, but we’re not the biggest company…Ferris, Miss. Ferris Seftpaw. Oh behalf of my company, I’d love to make a deal with Miss Erin Solstice. Even offer her a free trip. We can get you to a Walled City within a week from one to another.”

Really? How?”

“Trade secrets, Miss Lyonette. Well, I say trade secrets, but really, it’s just good wheels, magical horses, and…”

The Gnoll took the drink eagerly as he told Lyonette about the fantastic company. Meanwhile, the Gnoll with the bow on his back had found Ishkr, the first Gnoll on staff.

“Excuse me. I seek Krshia Silverfang. I was told this door leads me to…Liscor. This is Liscor, yes?”

He had an accent, a far more growling tone, with connected words. Ishkr blinked at him.

“Er. Yes. The door connects to Liscor. The same one you came through.”

The Gnoll’s brows crossed. He glanced sidelong at Ishkr, as if believing he was being tricked. Ishkr gestured.

“I can send you to Liscor right now. This way, please. Krshia is probably at City Hall or tending to her shop.”

“City Hall?”

“She’s a Councilwoman of Liscor.”

The Gnoll’s jaw dropped slightly. He quickened his steps, suddenly full of questions. Ishkr sighed, but bothersome customers came with the job.

…Neither one was the important guest. And important was a relative term. Montressa and Beza rose, on their important work.

“Let’s go to Master Hedault now. We can show Erin our initiative.”

It was the kind of thing that would have earned them accolades in Wistram if they pulled it off. Beza was nodding. They hurried out of the inn, towards Invrisil, past the Drake with a leafy staff.

She was….interesting. Her clothing was sparser than most Drakes. Rather than being seductive in any intention though, they gave her the look that she was going to bushwhack or do something that involved dirt. And dirt did cover her clothes; not that she was dirty, but it had been worked into fabric from much exposure.

She’d tied something interesting around the top of her staff. It was, in fact, a delicate lattice of cobwebs. It seemed incongruous, as if a strange spider had woven all around the top of her staff. But if you looked closer, you realized her clothing, the staff—

It was all spider’s silk. Some dyed, but nonetheless. The Drake had been staring around the inn, first in puzzlement, noting the weird Drake with a box, the two [Mages], the crowds—she didn’t seem at home with anything there.

But she had migrated over to the wall, as if drawn. Now, she murmured.

“Oh! What power runs here. What power. Magic. But what is this? This—this is strange. This calls to me. I am a humble traveller. What waits for me here?”

She put a claw out, gingerly. And jerked it back as a door appeared. The Drake stared, wide-eyed at the door. Then she put a claw on the handle and opened it.

The [Garden of Sanctuary] opened for her. The [Druid] hesitated at the opening.

“How magnificent. A sacred place! Here?”

She stared about the inn, marveling. No one really paid any attention. Lyonette was listening to Ferris’ clumsy upsell. Erin was upstairs, listening to lectures on how to negotiate. Numbtongue was making boxes full of hidden weapons.

The Drake hesitated at the opening. She touched at it and recoiled. There was a…barrier. She frowned. Then she stood back and bowed with her staff. Ishkr, passing, gave her a strange look, but he was busy. The Drake spoke to the open doorway.

“I am a humble traveller. I mean no harm. I beg entrance; I am Shassa Weaverweb, granted my name by those who still walk the wild green. May I enter?”

She closed her eyes. After about two minutes where nothing at all happened, she cracked one eyelid open. Shassa gently felt at the opening.

The barrier was gone. The Drake blinked, then smiled, ducked her head, and entered the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Then she gasped and stared.

“Magnificent.”

 

—-

 

Mrsha and Ekirra and Visma were playing, now tearless and chasing around Mrsha’s magic ball. They were laughing and running up and down the hill as Drassi snoozed. At first, they did not see the Drake with the staff.

That was because she walked about the edge of the dome, looking at the mushrooms in the loamy soil, marveling at the pond. A pair of Fortress Beavers backed up warily from her, but the Drake murmured and bowed and they soon were nuzzling her, letting her check their scarred flesh with dismay.

“You poor things! I am sorry. This is not my forte. Web-cousins did this to you? I am sorry. They can be cruel. On their behalf, I will do all I can. How many…oh. So few. But this place is surely safe. Can I do aught for you?”

The Drake bent her head. The Fortress Beavers nibbled on her staff and she gently lifted it.

“I see. But how strange. Someone has…

Her head swung. The Drake frowned.

“Low-level. But…but I see a wild-walker’s touch. Is someone…?”

Mrsha was running over the hill, pursuing the magic ball, when she felt something. She looked around.

Are you here, friend?

Mrsha looked left, at Visma. But the Drake girl, laughing and breathless, hadn’t said that. Mrsha cocked her head. She ventured a tentative…yes?

It was a voice in her head. Mrsha felt the impression of a smile. And then, as she crested the hill, Ekirra came racing back towards her.

“Mrsha! Mrshamrshamrsha! Who is that?

He pointed. Mrsha ran up on all fours and saw—

A Drake with light clothing and a staff of cobwebs. The Drake had been looking in their direction. Her eyes and Mrsha’s met at the same time. The Drake’s eyes widened.

You? You are a child!

Mrsha stared. The voice was in her head. The Drake’s jaw dropped.

“A wild-walker? So young? Ah—but you have no name! You—”

Mrsha backed up. She did not know this Drake. The voice in her head alarmed her. She turned. Ekirra and Visma looked at her, just curious.

“Who is that, Mrsha?”

I don’t know. Stranger.

Mrsha signed. Both glanced down at the Drake again. They looked at Mrsha, suddenly alarmed.

“Hello? Child? Are you she? I apologize for intruding!”

The Drake was waving up at them. Mrsha backed away from her.

She—the Drake was calling out with words and the voice in Mrsha’s head. Mrsha felt, instinctively, that she should trust this Drake. But that just made the other part of Mrsha, which was sensible and Lyonette-like, very worried.

“Let’s go to Miss Drassi.”

Ekirra tugged on Visma’s claws and Mrsha’s. The three backed up. The Drake slowly approached, lifting one hand.

“I’m sorry if I intruded. But I mean you no harm! I swear by the webs!”

Mrsha paused. The voice in her head echoed the Drake’s sentiments. And it was so sincere. It was like she had cast a [Truth Spell]. Slowly, Mrsha stopped.

Mrsha…

Ekirra whined. Mrsha ignored them. Slowly, she walked down the hill.

If it had been anyone else, Mrsha would have hesitated. But this certainty was like gravity itself. In her chest, Mrsha knew…

The Drake smiled. She looked down as Mrsha stared at her.

“Hello, friend.”

Mrsha waved. The Drake’s face was puzzled.

“I am Shassa Weaverweb. May I know your name, keeper of this…garden?”

She waved her staff around. Mrsha pointed at herself and looked around vaguely for her notes. The Drake was puzzled again.

“Can you not speak?”

No. Mrsha sighed. This was a common problem with strangers. She always needed someone to explain…

The Drake’s eyes widened.

“You cannot?”

Mrsha’s head jerked up. The Drake peered at her. Slowly, she touched her breast.

“I heard you nonetheless, small friend. Tell me.”

Mrsha thought her name. Tentatively. She saw Shassa’s mouth curl upwards.

“Ah, Mrsha, right?”

The Gnoll child jumped. Shassa laughed.

“I can hear you! We two are similar. You see?”

Mrsha almost did. She narrowed her eyes. Shassa felt her wariness and hurried to explain.

“I am sorry. But I came here. I was told this was a shortcut around the Bloodfields, but—I was not used to Pallass! Too many people. Too much noise. And then I was here and I felt this.”

She shuddered. Mrsha almost felt her confusion, being lost. The Gnoll nodded. The Drake bent.

“I am…ah, a bit lost. I was told I could go to Invrisil, you see. By magic? But I went through one door and I did not see the other.”

The little Gnoll rolled her eyes. Visitors. They never listened. They were so—

She caught the Drake woman frowning at her.

“I did listen! What? The door goes to Invrisil? Well—that Drake didn’t explain fully!”

It must have been one of the new staff members. Mrsha huffed. Lyonette had hired a new batch and they kept making mistakes. Shassa’s eyes flickered.

“Oh. I see. So the door goes to Invrisil? Six silver?”

She felt at her pouch.

“Hm. Well, I have that. Thank you, little friend. I am in your debt.”

She bowed. Mrsha felt quite pleased at this and nodded. Shassa laughed and the two relaxed. The Drake turned, heading back the way she’d come.

“I am on a mission for my city. Thank you, wild-friend. If time permits, I will call on you. With permission!”

She spoke sidelong to Mrsha. The Gnoll looked up, entranced by this peerless method of communication. She tugged on Shassa’s leg. Wait! Stay a while! No one had ever understood Mrsha like this, not even Urksh or Ryoka! How did Shassa understand? Who was she?

Mrsha felt like she should know. And the Drake’s eyes certainly crinkled up. Then she frowned.

“Dear Mrsha, has no one taught you of your class? How can you not know me?

She listened. The Drake and Gnoll stood there, as voices floated down from the hill and Drassi’s sleepy one replied, then began to wake up. Shassa frowned.

“What’s that? Really? By yourself? How extraordinary! And so young!”

Mrsha nodded proudly and then frowned at the implicit slight. Shassa laughed, and it was a merry sound.

“I apologize, Mrsha! You are no doubt quite talented. I should explain—I will explain! You see, you have entered with a pact. You are a Tribal Gnoll, aren’t you? They are granted the honors far more than City Gnolls. But you must have met with a sign. Some great event of nature.”

The Frost Faeries. The Goblin Lord. Shassa’s face froze. Her head dipped with shock, then sorrow.

“Oh. Little one. You have seen such terrible things. But this class—listen to me. You are one of us. I go now to meet a great keeper. In Invrisil. But upon my return, I promise you—”

Mrsha! Who is that?

A voice rang out from the top of the hill. Mrsha and Shassa spun. Drassi, bleary-eyed and followed by Ekirra and Visma, stared down at Shassa. She of course, knew everyone allowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary], like Mrsha. She did not know Shassa.

“Hey! You! Get away from Mrsha!”

The clear alarm and fear in Drassi’s tone caused the older Drake to back up. Shassa held up her staff and free hand.

“I am sorry! I wasn’t aware—”

“Mrsha, get back! Where’s Numbtongue? Erin, Erin!

Drassi began shouting. Alarmed, Shassa fled towards the door. Mrsha wavered. She tried to wave her arms, explain, but Drassi couldn’t read her thoughts.

Shassa fled into the inn. Drassi’s shouting followed her. Mrsha ran through the doorway as the Drake sprinted down the hill.

Lyonette! Numbtongue! Help! She was in the garden!

Heads turned in the common room of the inn. Shassa looked around.

“No—I was just lost! I—”

Too late. Drassi, meaning well, sprinted into the inn after the Drake. Mrsha tried to grab her arm, but the [Gossip] shouted as Lyonette turned.

Intruder in the inn! Alarm!

This time the effect was immediate. Shassa opened her mouth and saw Lyonette go for her sword. A pair of Antinium Soldiers sitting at the bar surged to their feet. She backed up.

“No, please—”

Erin Solstice and Maviola surged down the stairs. Numbtongue leapt over them and landed with his sword drawn. The newcomers to the inn screamed. In the chaos, Shassa ran from the Hobgoblin, the Antinium, and the angry [Princess] with a sword.

That was understandable. Mrsha ran too. She weaved between the legs as all the inn’s defenders tangled up with the panicked crowds. Drassi was shouting an explanation, Lyonette was looking for Mrsha and telling Shassa to stop. Erin was demanding to know what was happening.

Help me! Oh, Ancestors, they’re going to kill me!

Like a beacon, Mrsha heard a thought, full of panic. The Gnoll dove through the crowds, dodging feet. She found Shassa. The Drake looked at her. Mrsha pointed.

To the door! Erin would probably punch Shassa’s brains out of her head and Numbtongue might actually kill her! The Drake fled as Mrsha dragged the hallway door open.

“Enough!”

A bellow from behind Mrsha. She felt Erin’s aura freeze the entire crowd. Shassa stumbled; Mrsha dragged her towards the door. She needed to set it to Invrisil!

“How? How—”

The Drake picked up Mrsha. The Gnoll swiveled the dial. At that moment, Numbtongue came charging through the door and saw Shassa holding Mrsha.

Stop! Put her down!

The Hobgoblin charged them with his sword. Shassa turned white. Mrsha yanked open the door. The Drake ran. Numbtongue hesitated, sword drawn, afraid of hitting Mrsha.

I’m sorry!

The Drake fled. The Hobgoblin pursued her into a room full of Humans. Half of them saw the Redfang Warrior with the blade and reacted like Humans did. Numbtongue cursed, but Shassa was out the door and running. And by the time he got free—she was in the crowds. He saw the Humans pointing and screaming and cursed.

After about five minutes, Shassa’s frantic fright slowed. Only then did she stop and gasp to catch her breath. And then, the Gnoll child she’d been holding under her arm finally got her attention.

“Oh no.”

The Drake stared down at Mrsha. The Gnoll child stared solemnly up at the Drake. They shared a thought.

They were dead. Mrsha had already had one bad incident with the drawers this morning. Shassa…she pictured Numbtongue lopping off her head.

The Drake turned pale under her scales.

“I didn’t mean it! Let’s explain! No—I’ll bring you back!”

That was a very sensible thing to do. Mrsha wavered. But she knew that Erin was about to destroy all of Invrisil to find her. She nodded solemnly. Shassa took a breath.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think—of course it was a sacred place! I will apologize. Just—don’t let them kill me, please?”

They stood together. People stared at the outlandish Drake talking to the Gnoll child who never made a response back. A few began looking around for the Watch themselves. But Mrsha pointed the way they’d come, where someone was indeed yelling at the top of her lungs.

They began to move back. Shassa caught her breath, muttering explanations—or at least trying to think up things that wouldn’t get her killed in an instant. Mrsha nervously tried to think of how to explain how she’d known Shassa was nice.

Was it all coincidence? Of course not. There were other important events taking place. Other confluences which were fateful, or just mere chance that melded together. But Shassa had not met Mrsha by accident. They were two of a kind.

And so—perhaps inevitably, as both walked back, full of trepidation, they turned down a street. The Drake and Gnoll’s heads rose. They glanced at each other. And then they stared at a crowd, shouting ahead of them.

The people of Invrisil surrounded something. There was screaming, shouts for the Watch. Mrsha and Shassa pushed forwards. Mrsha felt something. Blinding rage. She heard someone begging for someone else to stop, a thud.

And then she saw a man. His beard was wild, his robes covered with nature, poo, and other things. It was ratty, and he himself smelled like…nature. He had a staff—not decorated like Shassa’s.

Well, unless you counted blood. The man was standing over a figure on the ground. Another woman—a young wife or lover—was trying to pull him back.

The young man on the other hand wasn’t moving. He’d been beaten bloody, and the man was kicking him. A horse was standing to one side, blood on the fur. Mrsha saw spurs on the young man’s boots.

Stop! Someone call the Watch!

The man ignored him. Quite deliberately, Nalthaliarstrelous, keeper of Magnolia Reinhart’s gardens, raised his staff and began to beat the nearly-unconscious young man. People tried to pull him off and he began to lay about him with his staff.

Shassa Weaverweb and Mrsha du Marquin stared at Nalthaliarstrelous. The man was hurling curses, roaring like an animal as the crowd backed up. He was preparing to swing again when his head turned.

“What…?”

He looked up and met their eyes. And Mrsha felt the same shock of recognition as the first time she’d seen him. Now she understood. Nalthaliarstrelous lowered his staff. He looked at Shassa. And she bowed. Mrsha saw the man look at her. And she finally, finally got it as she heard his voice in her mind.

Well met again, little friend.

The man bowed.  He, Shassa, Mrsha—

They were all [Druids].

 

—-

 

[Druids] were rude. Not just individually; as a class. There was something about [Druids] that clashed with most other sensibilities. Of course, they were focused around nature, like [Shamans], but where [Shamans] could be said to work and respect the natural world, [Druids] lived with it. They cared.

So…rude. The kind of rude that ranged from petting your cat since the cat was okay with it, to rummaging about in your gardens and making alterations without your consent, to causing a sinkhole to swallow a [Lord]’s mansion when he refused to stop overhunting.

That kind of rude. They were perfectly respectful of course; their definition of whom to respect just differed from most people. And anyways, there were other groups far, far ruder than [Druids].

One of the last of them stood now in Magnolia Reinhart’s estates. Yawning, he pointed. And a magical carriage, garishly pink, turned into a crimson red coach, highlighted by black and gold on the trim. It looked fast.

“Grand Mage Eldavin! Lady Reinhart was most insistent about the color scheme!”

A man protested. Reynold, the [Butler], was holding a tray of drinks and snacks as he followed Teriarch about. The Dragon ignored him.

“Pink affronts my eyes. She wants me to repair it? She can paint it later. Let’s see. What’s wrong with this thing? Hm. Hm…ah, a failing conversion spell for these stupid mana crystals.”

The ‘Grand Mage’ poked around dismissively, sighing and grumbling. He didn’t like working with enchantments. And he was less than motivated. To amuse himself, he kept snacking, casually emblazoning a few sigils of long-distant empires on the newly-painted coach. Reynold glanced up and protested weakly again.

“Grand Magus—perhaps you would consider relenting?”

“About what?”

Meow. A loud yowl of complaint came from above. Eldavin glanced up. So did Reynold, with a pained look.

Magnolia Reinhart owned cats. How many had never been ascertained until now, but she tolerated them about as much as they tolerated her. It was now clear—and Reynold would bet on this—that all eighteen in the large mansion were now stuck on the roof. They were hissing at the Dragon.

He ignored them. Teriarch kicked around the carriage.

“…Well, I bridged it. But the entire enchantment’s old. Someone needs to just recast the magic. Tell Reinhart that.”

“Er—recast, Grand Magus?”

“That’s right. The wood is what’s decaying. Build a new carriage, port the enchantment over. I’m not doing it. What else did that brat want?”

The Dragon yawned a fifth time. Reynold felt sweat beading down his back as he followed the half-Elf around. Of course, Reynold knew.

What exactly he knew was up for debate, but he wasn’t an idiot. Still, he had exact instructions and this thankless job was mostly humoring Teriarch.

“I er—believe Lady Reinhart would appreciate a few discreet…scrying spells…on some individuals. [Assassins], mainly.”

“No.”

“No, Grand Magus?”

“Too much work. Too much interference. I’m doing this…half-hearted. I’ll have some of that good wine now. And those annoying pests may come down.”

Teriarch pointed a finger. The cats, about to set up for another chorus of yowls, found themselves on top of the magical carriage. They leapt down, hissing or flipping their butts at Teriarch. He ignored them. Reynold stared.

Instantaneous teleportation. A high-level [Mage] could in theory perform [Lesser Teleport] sub-vocally, even teleport a group like that. But a bunch of cats spread out on a rooftop to another point in a moment without proximity himself? That would be a…high-level, dedicated teleportation expert.

But he had also seen Teriarch physically reconstruct the destroyed Steel Golem, literally reshaping the metal and reanimating it while pocketing all the latest books in Magnolia Reinhart’s library. Now, the Dragon wanted popcorn.

“With…yeast. Yes, that’s what that [Innkeeper] served me. Salt, butter, yeast. And where did I put that infernal device? Summon. I mean, er—[Summon Object].”

The laptop popped into Teriarch’s hands after he cast the spell. Reynold hurried into the kitchen. He needed a sit down.

Magnolia Reinhart was out. She had not been in a good mood and was wise enough not to butt heads with Teriarch. He had been exceedingly amused by the news about the [Lords] and Erin Solstice, conveyed through her informant networks. The Dragon even chuckled about it as he played Solitaire on the computer.

“Hah. As if you’re the only one who can conduct trade deals, you little brat! That was so amusing. Ah, well…where’s my popcorn? The inn was faster than this!

He shouted as a [Chef] in Magnolia’s kitchen labored over a stove. Teriarch was a menace.

But not unkind. Since he had been here, Reynold couldn’t help but notice that Bekia, the Gnoll [Maid] who had been sick ever since their clash with the [Assassins] had suddenly stopped puking. She’d taken many poisoned daggers, such that even their best healing potions and Magnolia’s [Healers] hadn’t done more than slow the toxins in her systems. Magnolia herself had been arranging a visit to the Healer of Tenbault.

But she’d had a word with Teriarch—er—Eldavin. And the Gnoll had looked better the next day. Reynold hurried back with a heaping bowl of popcorn. Teriarch took one bite, and pointed a horrified finger.

The entire bowl caught on fire. Reynold saw the Dragon spit and gag.

What was that?

“Yeast, sir!”

“That’s not yeast! The other yeast, you fool!

Anyways. Between the [Butler] running about, he nearly slammed into Sacra. The [Maid], who was one of their best disguise-experts, was heading in from Invrisil. She was dressed in the regular maid-uniform and looked exasperated.

“Reynold! What are you doing?”

“I need yeast! Edible yeast, apparently!”

The [Maid] gave the [Butler] a look that suggested he’d taken leave of his senses. She opened her mouth—

Pop.

Both staggered. They were back in the large parlor. Teriarch waved a hand without looking up from the computer.

“I changed my mind. I shall have just the wine. And a good cheese to go with it. Make it one of the magical varieties.”

Reynold ran for it. Sacra just stared. She checked herself. She should not have been teleported. Not without a line of sight or…had he just grabbed her?

The Dragon looked up after a second.

“What are you doing here?”

He stared at Sacra. The [Maid] bowed slowly.

“Master Eldavin?”

“Who? Oh…yes? What is it? I’m not in the mood to entertain more of Reinhart’s requests. I’ve already done enough!”

The Dragon snorted. He stretched out in the comfy chair, playing with one hand and grumbling about uppity young [Ladies].

It was a funny thing. In The Wandering Inn, the Dragon had been like thunder and lightning. Kindly, but there you were. Here, he was more retiring. This wasn’t his first visit. Although Sacra had been a girl when she first remembered the ‘Grand Magus’ visiting.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Grand Magus? Reynold is procuring your desired items.”

The [Maid] waited, hands folded behind her back. Teriarch glanced up. For a second, his eyes sharpened.

“Do I…know you? The butler’s new. But your aura—were you a new employee?”

Reynold had been serving for a long time. Sacra chose her words carefully.

“I was a girl in the Reinhart employ, Master Eldavin. Perhaps you recall me from an earlier visit.”

“Yes. Perhaps.”

The Dragon’s expression grew uncomfortable. Abruptly, he made the laptop disappear. He sat back.

“Where’s Reinhart? Off, trying to stop this trade deal, I’ll warrant? If she’s so busy, I won’t trouble her.”

Sacra began to panic at once. Her top order—all of their priorities were to keep Teriarch entertained and here. Magnolia would kill them if he disappeared.

“No—that is to say, she’s only out for the day, Lord T—Magus Eldavin! I’m sure she didn’t want to bother you!”

“Well, I’ve already been here three days. If Reinhart’s busy, so am I. I still have to figure out how to construct a ‘mice’ for this…this game Ryoka Griffin showed me. And deal with all these [Messages]. Shoo!”

He waved at something in the air. Much like a cat. Sacra held her breath.

“I—perhaps we could offer you entertainment, Magus Eldavin? We have a quite splendid number of [Musicians] or [Bards] we could summon from Invrisil. There are even—yes, the Players of Celum! We could arrange a private play—”

“I’ve seen them. Not interested. Maybe I’ll go back and call a later time.”

The Dragon snorted. He began to rise and Sacra panicked. Later meant…far too long. The last time he had been here had been over eight years ago.

“Lord Teriarch…perhaps you could aid us? There’s a small issue in Invrisil!”

Desperately, she spoke. The Dragon looked up.

“What’s this? What issue?”

The [Maid] froze. But she’d said it. So she went on in a rush before he could draw a magic circle in the rug.

“Er—I was just in Invrisil. An urgent issue was sent for Lady Reinhart. One of the staff—Nalthaliarstrelous has gotten into an incident. Assault.”

“That [Druid]? Someone jumped him? What, a Level 50 [Thug]? I swear I saw a high-level one about last time, but who attacks [Druids]? They carry moss, not gold!”

The Dragon raised his eyebrow incredulously. Sacra wiped at her brow as Reynold ran back in with twenty plus cheeses and as many vintages as his bag of holding could carry.

“No, Lord Teriarch. Actually… Nalthaliarstrelous has apparently, er, beaten a young man half to death.”

Reynold winced. He was familiar with this. The Dragon just stared.

“…Why?”

“Apparently, the young man spurred his horse to the point it was injured. Nalthaliarstrelous has…a history of attacking pet owners for abuse.”

“Of course. [Druids] don’t stand for that sort of thing. I’ll wager that young man got what he deserved. Time was, a [Druid] would shoot a [Poacher] with the arrows they left in animals.”

The Dragon leaned back. But he looked interested. Sacra nodded as Reynold set up hurriedly.

“Yes, Lord Teriarch. But…Invrisil has laws. Lady Reinhart will reimburse the injured party, of course, but the Watch and the [Mayor] are objecting. Strenuously. Nalthaliarstrelous’ actions are somewhat problematic.”

“I suppose they are. Huh. Well, well. He’s quite respectful. Perhaps…yes. Perhaps that would be an interesting conversation. Not that I don’t approve of it, but I can speak with him. I’ll do that.”

The half-Elf stood up. Reynold and Sacra looked at each other.

“Grand Magus? We can find Nalthaliarstrelous. There’s no need to—”

“Nonsense. I don’t need help. I’ll find him myself. One good scrying spell—no. I’m not spelling that name out. I’ll just track his magical trail. I’ll be back.”

Grand Magus, wait—

Too late. Pop went the half-Elf. He vanished. Reynold stood with a plate full of exotic cheeses. Sacra’s mouth opened in horror. They looked at each other and ran.

 

—-

 

[Druids] in the inn. They stood in the center of a gathering of onlookers. From afar, though. Guests sat at the tables, absorbing…

The ambiance. It took a particular guest of culture, to appreciate The Wandering Inn’s unique ambiance.

But picture the scene. A Centaur was smoking near an open window, taking his leisure. The drinks were ready at hand. A Dwarf was having just a light ale—he had work later. The air was filled with the smells of good food from the kitchen. An [Actor] was striding the stage.

The sound of clattering dishes, muted voices—shouting from the place with the three [Druids]. Classy. Well, a certain level of class. A cold drink with ice cubes in claw, and in the background, a Hobgoblin strumming on a guitar.

Ambiance. And as you sipped, you could listen.

“—kidnapped Mrsha! And why do you people keep walking into my Garden!? It’s not supposed to be open to other people! And who are you? You’re that guy!

An [Innkeeper] was screaming. The other guests peered at the three [Druids].

One was a very nervous Drake with her webbed staff. Another, a little Gnoll who was really in trouble. And the third, a Human man with a wild beard polishing the staff which had been covered in drying blood. He didn’t seem affected by the shouting.

“I am so sorry. It’s just that I was lost and I was looking for someone. And the door was open—I didn’t mean to kidnap her!”

Shassa pointed at Mrsha. The Gnoll was trying to explain. She held up her deposition and Lyonette snatched it. She read it, and glared at Mrsha.

“That’s no excuse, young Miss! What did I tell you about strangers?

“Yeah! Stranger danger! Look at him! He’s like—the exact person you don’t go with!”

Erin pointed at Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] gave her an affronted look.

“Innkeeper. That child is one of us. We are [Druids]. We know each other.”

So much for subtlety. Some of the guests sat up. A Gnoll tipped his hat at his fellow and they took notes. A muscular Drake was hunched in a corner, coming up with a second theory.

But it was that kind of mood. After Erin and Lyonette tried not to throttle the [Druid]—some kind of order reasserted itself.

There were a few things to be mad about. And so, Erin made a list of priorities. She didn’t even have time for Ferris—the Gnoll was politely shuffled off to a corner. She stalked past the line of people jostling for her attention. She pointed at the first culprit.

“You. You know you don’t go with strangers. And there was the cupboards incident this morning. You’re in big trouble, buddy.”

The Gnoll child, Mrsha, gave Erin her most soulful, pleading, tearful look. Erin poked at Mrsha.

“Oh no. You’re not getting out of it. You’re in trouble. You just wait!”

“Excuse me. What is the meaning of—”

Hold it, #4!

Erin whirled and shouted at the orange-haired man. Montressa turned white.

“Erin—”

Shush! Now, you.”

Erin moved to her next person on the list. Shassa shrank.

“I can’t apologize enough, Miss Solstice! I didn’t mean any of it. I just saw—”

She waved at Numbtongue, who had nearly beheaded her. Erin thought about this. She folded her arms.

“…I’ll grant you it was a mess. But! You can’t just grab Gnolls and run off. I’m uh—mad. At you too! How do you just walk into my garden? It’s private! It’s supposed to be safe!”

She pointed at #2. Nalthaliarstrelous blinked at her.

“It is. What’s the problem?”

Erin stared at him.

“It’s a [Garden of Sanctuary]. No one can get in but the people I allow! Even Grimalkin can’t get in! If it’s not safe…”

“It is safe. It is a sacred place. Bound by powerful law. An army would fail to enter.”

The [Druid] leaned on his staff. Erin narrowed her eyes.

“You say that, buddy, but I saw you just waltz in there when you and Magnolia came.”

“Erin, this is H—”

Shut up, #5!

Erin spun back to Nalthaliarstrelous. She poked at his chest; he swatted her finger away.

“How did you get in?”

“I am a [Druid].”

“Oh, so anyone can just walk in if they have the right class?”

Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa exchanged a glance. The Drake raised a timid claw and Erin nodded at her.

“No. Only us, Miss Solstice. We are…allowed access. That is the nature of our class. No place of nature is barred from us in general, so long as we obey the rules.”

“Hmm. I dunno. That seems awfully convenient.

Erin stalked in a circle around Shassa. The Drake stared at her as Erin peered at her from different angles. She looked at Mrsha—the Gnoll shrugged. Erin was crazy. Sometimes.

“We could no more harm someone in the garden than anyone else. Should we break such sacred laws, we would lose our very class.

The Drake [Druid] explained. Erin rubbed at her chin. At this point, a horrified [Lady] staring at #4, spoke up.

“Erin. I really think you should—”

“#7, don’t push me. Ow!”

Maviola smacked the back of Erin’s head. Hedault glanced at Maviola as Erin punched at her. The [Princess] decided to hurry this along. Lyonette faced Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa.

“The fact remains that you two still entered the garden illegally. Why? Don’t you have any respect for boundaries? Even [Druids] should!”

She looked down her nose at them, with proper disdain for troublemakers. The ‘homeless vagrants’ stared at Lyonette. Nalthaliarstrelous just sneered.

“What, respect? For what, exactly? Laws of the land? Of course not. You put a flag here and say ‘this is mine’. Why would anyone acknowledge that, any more than a piece of metal on your head? We respected the one law that mattered: do no harm. Come in peace. No other one was made apparent.”

“But it was private property!

Lyonette’s eyes flashed. Shassa and Nalthaliarstrelous looked at each other. Both raised a hand.

“How were we supposed to know? We thought it was part of the inn.”

That was a good point. Erin exchanged a quick glance with Lyonette. The [Innkeeper] faltered.

“Well—well, it obviously wasn’t accessible to just anyone!”

Nalthaliarstrelous snorted in contempt.

“No one indicated that to me. Why wasn’t there a sign? I would have obeyed it.”

The question did so much damage to Erin’s psyche that she had to walk away for a second just to deal. She came back with an actual sign, and showed it to the line of suspects. Problems 1-7 read the sign. Problem #8 (Ferris was still not included), walked through the door, muttering to himself. He stopped as Erin shoved the sign in the other’s faces.

“See this? See this? ‘No Killing Goblins!’ I’ve got signs! No one reads them! Who here read this, huh? Huh?

Every person in line raised their hands, slowly. Mrsha, Shassa, Nalthaliarstrelous, Hedault, Montressa, Beza, and Maviola. From his point in the audience, Teriarch tapped Ishkr on the shoulder.

“Popcorn. With yeast.”

The [Innkeeper] stared. Nalthaliarstrelous folded his arms.

“I read signs. Who would not?”

The guests of the inn looked at each other uncomfortably. Erin turned to the [Druid]. He looked like the least law-abiding person in the inn. She had heard about the beating of the young man.

“You. You read signs?”

“I make signs.”

“No way. Get out!”

The [Druid] glowered.

“I write many signs for Invrisil. Warnings, just like that one. There’s one outside this very inn. I was putting more up when I saw that man mistreating that poor horse.”

Everyone looked at him. Nalthaliarstrelous pointed. Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha all poked their heads out of The Player’s Retreat. And indeed, in neat lettering, one of the [Druid]’s signs was clearly visible, on a billboard with pieces of news and other public-service announcements with large type font. The sign read as follows:

 

‘If you kick your dog, you will never walk again.’

 

Back in the inn, Erin decided she needed to tackle #3 on this point. She pointed at him. Again, the [Druid] swatted her finger down.

“Why’d you beat that guy up? They had to take him to a [Healer]’s! There was blood!”

“So?”

The [Innkeeper] drew back. Nalthaliarstrelous—whom she was quickly abbreviating to Nalth in her head, was completely unrepentant.

“Look, Nalth, buddy. No one likes mistreatment of animals. If I saw a dude kicking a dog, I’d kick him! Or her! But you broke his skull.”

“And?”

Mrsha peeked up at Nalthaliarstrelous’s blank face. He seemed to sense Erin’s complete lack of understanding and explained.

“He spurred his horse until it bled. Until it screamed for mercy. No one stopped him but me.”

The guests in the inn rumbled. That was poor treatment of any animal. Even so—Erin looked at him.

“You were close to killing him.”

“And if I did—would the world be any poorer?”

The [Druid] leaned on his staff. It was the [Princess]’ turn. She smiled at Nalthaliarstrelous.

“But sir. The Watch would have fined the man. Or arrested them. You did not need to resort to violence. There are laws—”

She broke off. Nalthaliarstrelous was blowing his nose on the sleeve of his robe. He looked at her with clear disdain. He sneered at her.

Law? Laws say many things. ‘Do not hurt that man’. Make him pay money for torturing his wards. He will not learn. When I break his legs for spurring a horse when it screamed and bled—he will remember.”

“But you could stop him without hurting him! Or at least—not that much!”

Erin protested. The [Druid] looked around the inn. He spotted Teriarch, half-bowed in acknowledgement. Eyes swung to Teriarch as he chewed on some popcorn. Much better than the mansion.

Nalthaliarstrelous replied to Erin curtly.

“Let me ask you something, Innkeeper. When you see a man yanking on a dog’s leash, mistreating it, would you say something? Stop him?”

“Yes.”

Erin didn’t blink. The [Druid] eyed her. He seemed approving of that. Shassa and Mrsha both nodded. But he went on.

“Good. But would you take the dog from that man? If he mistreats it once, he will again. Will you, on the spot, take the dog so it will suffer not a second longer? What if he is an important man? The [Mayor] of the city?”

Erin hesitated.

“Well…it depends.”

The [Druid] nodded, almost understandably.

“Yes. It does to you. You have laws. The dog is that man’s property. You cannot take his property. So for laws, for words, you allow the dog to suffer. And that is the difference between you and me. I do not wait.”

Mrsha and Shassa stared at Nalthaliarstrelous in silence. They felt his rage—the willingness to kill the man a second time if he did not change. The Drake leaned over and whispered to Mrsha.

“…That’s his perspective. We’re not all alike.”

A thoughtful silence ensued. Nalthaliarstrelous wasn’t entirely losing his audience. Although the perspicacious among them could still note blood on the tip of his staff. Even so—he was a character. More people began to order popcorn, or snacks to go along with their drinks.

“I get that. I even respect that. Sort of. Don’t look at me like that, Lyonette. But you’re like—that went too far.”

Erin argued with the Human [Druid], but her temper had subsided somewhat. Shassa waved an urgent claw.

“Again, we’re not all like him. I don’t break the law! Excuse me, I’m so sorry about this. Again! But I was just coming through to Invrisil. To meet with Druid Nalthaliarstrelous, actually! I’m from Oteslia!”

Ferris’ head snapped up. Teriarch, Grimalkin—the inn turned to Shassa. Erin blinked.

“You are? Wow, that’s far!”

“Yes—but we have an urgent appeal for Nalthaliarstrelous. If—if we could just talk, I will remove myself forthwith.”

“I mean…”

Erin looked around. She counted. Problems 1-3 looked at her expectantly and Lyonette blew out her cheeks. Erin nodded at last.

“Okay. I guess that’s okay. #1. You’re not done.”

She pointed two fingers at her eyes and then at Mrsha. The Gnoll child gulped. Shassa exhaled in relief. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded.

“Good. Then we shall confer among ourselves.”

He beckoned. Shassa and Mrsha walked off after him. Erin blocked them.

“Hold it. Mrsha’s staying here.”

The two adult [Druids] looked at her.

“But she is one of us.”

“Oh no.”

Lyonette scooped up Mrsha. The Gnoll fought her, squirming to get free. Nalthaliarstrelous looked at Erin.

“She is of our class. But she does not know our role. She must come with us. I thought she had a teacher. She does not.”

“Yeah, but…how about no? You two can talk. Mrsha, stay here.”

The [Innkeeper] blocked Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid]’s eyes flicked to Mrsha. She was squirming to get free. She wanted to know what they had to say! Lyonette threatened her.

“Mrsha…”

“Let her go.”

The [Druid] slowly raised his staff. Erin raised a fist. Teriarch raised a hand.

“[Druids] do not break their word lightly. Let them walk in the garden with the child. She will not come to harm among her peers.”

Erin blinked. She turned.

Eldavin? When did you get here?”

The Dragon sat at his leisure. He nodded at Nalthaliarstrelous. The [Druid] bowed deeply. Shassa blinked, frowned at Teriarch, uncomprehending, and then hurried to copy the other [Druid]. Mrsha saw Lyonette waver.

“Excuse me, sir. But Mrsha is my child.”

“Good. Appropriate. Let her go.”

Teriarch waved a hand. Mrsha slipped out of Lyonette’s hands like grease. She landed on the floor. Lyonette spluttered.

Excuse me!

“Buddy, you just became #8.”

Erin warned Teriarch. He narrowed his eyes.

“I am not a number.”

“Don’t make me make you #9. Lyonette…maybe we should let Mrsha talk with these two? In the garden. They’re not going to run off. Right?”

Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa nodded. The [Druid] murmured as Mrsha hid behind him.

“I wouldn’t need to run, anyways.”

The [Princess] glared daggers. But Mrsha scampered into the garden and the two [Druids] followed.

“Hold on! I’m not done!”

The [Princess] followed. Erin let her go. She had a feeling…Nalthaliarstrelous was hard to deal with. Momentarily lost, she had to lean on a table.

“…I’m tired. Where was I?”

A man cleared his throat.

“I believe I am next. Number 4.”

Erin looked up. She blinked at Hedault.

“Who’re you?”

The [Enchanter] nodded at Erin. Hedault, precise, hair slightly thinning on top, but pale orange. Pale-skinned from being indoors. He tapped a finger on his wrist.

“I am Hedault. [Enchanter]. We had an appointment this morning. I was approached by these two [Mages] who informed me the meeting would take place at this inn. I have little time, but I understand this is in connection with the Horns of Hammerad, as well as the House of El. So I am willing to make concessions.”

His little speech made Grimalkin reach for a second sheaf of notes. Erin just blinked.

“…Are you Ceria’s fiancé?”

Hedault looked at her. He closed his eyes. Montressa covered her face.

“No.”

“Okay. Um. Sure. #5, #6, what’s this about?”

Montressa and Beza looked at each other. Hedault’s eyes slowly turned to them and they gulped. The guests at the inn nodded approvingly. This is what they came for.

Ambiance.

 

—-

 

Explanations ensued. Hedault did not look pleased, upon learning that Erin had not set up an appointment and had indeed forgotten all about the meeting. If anything kept him from storming out, it was familiarity with the Horns of Hammerad, and the fact that he’d vaguely approved of Erin’s numeric system of dealing with issues.

Even so, he retired as Erin waved her arms in a panic and turned to Maviola, who had also forgotten.

“Ridiculous. My debt only goes so far. First that obnoxious [Necromancer]—now this.”

Only the Antinium had been pleasant to work with. And wasn’t that an insane statement? But Ksmvr had been very straightforward, direct, and orderly. The half-Elf? Fiancé?

Hedault was about to just leave and blacklist the entire inn when someone walked over to him.

“Hedault, right? I was meaning to talk to you.”

“I do not make unscheduled appointments.”

The [Enchanter] snapped, irritably. He turned—and saw a Dwarf sipping from his chilled ale. Pelt burped.

“I don’t care. Pelt. I was going to speak to you. Pallass. We talked now and then. You did that enchantment on a few blades of mine two years back.”

Hedault’s eyes focused on Pelt’s face. He opened his mouth. After a few seconds of thinking, he chose the most economical response.

“—How?”

“The magic door. Didn’t you hear? Connects Pallass to Liscor to Invrisil.”

“I did hear. I didn’t credit it, though.”

Hedault had inspected the magic door before the crowd had swept him into the inn. Now, he was compelled to stride down the hallway. Grumbling, Pelt followed. And a few others.

“Remarkable. This is indeed the work of Warmage Thresk. Of Albez. And someone’s performed a very crude alteration to his enchantment trap. Any regular mage would be hard-pressed to notice the teleportation trap!”

The [Enchanter], now that he had the leisure to look at the magic door, was agog. Pelt peered at the door.

“Good wood. Deceptive iron bands, see? It’s actually pure metal.”

“To hold the enchantment. It would not last this long otherwise.”

The Dwarf grunted.

“I don’t see how that’s possible. Not that I’m an enchantment expert, but who enchants damn wood doors?

Hedault tapped at his wrist, somewhat annoyed by the question. He replied snappily, ignoring the argument coming from the inn. Lyonette was trying to remove Mrsha and the two [Druids] were arguing again.

“This wood is exceedingly precise in the ah, cutting. Not only is this door all cut from the same tree’s wood, but to maintain the perfection of the enchantment, the grain is uniform. One has to imagine even finding the correct tree took countless fellings. All to create this innocuous door.”

“But why a door? And who is this ‘Warmage Thresk’? I do not know of him.”

A slightly supercilious voice. Hedault did not look about; he was eying the enchantment and the splicing of the elegant spell into this…aberration.

“Warmage Thresk of Albez is a [Mage] I have studied from various artifacts unearthed. His personal, and quite secret quarters were recently looted by adventurers, but his creations have long been uncovered from the ruins. As to the reason the door appears so plain—I gather this was a trap. The final trap of his apartments was, apparently, to lure unwary robbers into touching the door whereupon it teleported the intruders into a room filled with [Insanity] spells from every side. I would imagine the effect reached Tier 6 with so many overlapping spells.”

A murmur. A huge figure folded his arms.

“Not a bad trap. Too paranoid by half, though.”

“[Warmages] of the Albez City-State were exceedingly paranoid about competition. This is a disgusting alteration to the door. It bleeds efficacy.”

“Doesn’t it, though? I noticed it myself. Amateur work. But inspired.”

Crunch, crunch. Someone was eating something. Hedault found that annoying. In disgust, he rose and withdrew something.

A treasure. The wand looked plain at first. But the wood that had made it was ironwood. And the core? Heads turned. The Dwarf, Pelt, murmured.

“Now that’s good wood. Ironwood, right?”

“Correct.”

Hedault drew the wand down the door’s length. Ah, what a perfect spell. Barely faded with time. He smiled as the wand allowed him to feel the enchantment buried in the wood. He was no expert in earth-magics, but the wand boosted his connection, even focus. He sighed.

“I would take months to even try to alter this enchantment. Fixing this…basic teleportation network I could do. But I’m disinclined to work in this inn. Too many Skills; casting a spell in the common room would be dangerous. This has been a waste of time.”

“Not if we talk about enchanting my products.”

Pelt sipped from his mug. Hedault looked at him, annoyed by the Dwarf’s manner. Of course, he knew Pelt. And his image of the Dwarf’s craft—such wonderful purity of his metals, and delicate hammer work!—was rapidly being dashed by the rude fellow.

“I will make an appointment, Master Smith, to consult. I do not have a surplus of time.”

“Bah. I don’t have time for appointments.”

“And I am exceedingly busy!”

This place was stressful enough. Hedault turned and reached for the door. As he did, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me. I was actually hoping to consult with an enchantment on some weights. Grimalkin of Pallass.”

Hedault turned. He stared at a muscle-bound [Mage] in some amazement for a second. It seemed inconceivable that the body had that many muscles. Hedault blinked.

“…of Pallass? I can make an appointment, Master…Drake, but—”

There was a roar from the common room. Hedault winced at the unorganized sound. He wanted to go. But a third figure was there. He was a tall half-Elf. Hedault glanced at him as he stroked his beard.

“Interesting. Warmage Thresk…Warmage…it still doesn’t ring a bell. But it’s not bad. I take it back. Insanity room traps are entertaining. I wish I could have seen it. Are there more Albez artifacts? I should like to see them.”

“Excuse me, I don’t have time to speak about the entire history of Albez! Whomever you are. I apologize, but I must go.”

Hedault snapped. Teriarch fixed him with a single eye and the [Enchanter] slowed. The Dragon slowly popped a kernel into his mouth. Chewed. Then, he spoke.

“As you wish. But tell me one thing before you go. Is that a genuine Living Wand? I thought no one made them anymore. How old is it?”

The [Enchanter] wavered. He looked at the wand. Grimalkin’s eyebrows rose. Pelt scratched his head. Master Hedault…decided to stay.

 

—-

 

Later, the [Druids] walked around the garden with Mrsha. Lyonette didn’t like it, but they had pointed out, quite reasonably, that Mrsha did not know her class. And while Nalthaliarstrelous was arguably a public menace, Teriarch had supported him.

Lyonette was nothing if not practical at some points. Even so, she was sitting on the hill, glaring daggers down at them as they circled the periphery.

As they talked, Hedault found himself having a drink in the inn. The table was full, and onlookers hovered in the background.

Palt, Montressa, Beza—and even Guildmistress Alonna, and other [Mages] who knew what was what. They ran errands, listened in silence, and seldom dared to ask questions.

But the real table was only a few people. Hedault. Pelt the Dwarf. Grimalkin. Teriarch. Or Grand Mage Eldavin.

“Another round, sirs.”

Reynold brought the drinks. He was well aware someone’s head would roll after this, but the put-upon [Butler] was helping serve the table, much to Ishkr’s bemusement. The [Mages] barely noticed.

“Yes, well. Enchantment is not what it was. One remembers rather grand enchantments that could be transcribed on a coin, say. So, one would offer a competitor [Mage] a triple-bound [Fireball] on a silver coin and watch their heads explode. Not that I ever did so myself, but it seems to me that the compression of spells is what’s lacking.”

Eldavin was waving a hand airily as he spoke. It was Grimalkin who objected.

“Politely, Grand Magus, I’d say the complexity of spells has also gone down. Wistram Academy isn’t the only institution that lacks for advanced spellcraft these days. The competency of magic has decreased worldwide.”

“Nonsense. The advancement of magic ebbs and flows. True, as a whole, the power of magic dwindles, but Archmage Zelkyr is not to blame for all of it. How long has it been since a true, worldwide disaster struck?”

“…You mean, the King of Destruction? Or the Demons?”

Hedault was tapping on his wrist, listening intently. Eldavin’s brow wrinkled.

“The…oh. No, I mean, a disaster. Like the Creler Wars. That level of adversity.”

Those sitting around the table exchanged glances.

“…Not within the last thousand years. I can name some events, but that’s a high bar to set, Grand Magus.”

The Dragon snorted.

“There you are then. When such an event strikes—it will change the next thousands of years. You see—those who level up to such high levels may pass away within mere centuries. But their artifacts remain. And the next generation is thus of a higher level. Now, we’re all at a low point in history, but the long view is where you see it at. But that’s not about enchantments. In truth, I think it’s a shortage of compression theory. And I know I’m right. Compression theory leads to higher-level enchantments.”

“Why, Grand Magus?”

Everyone leaned forwards. The Dragon tapped at the side of his nose, enjoying the moment.

“Enchantment is a series of building blocks. One can create a monumental enchantment on something the size of a mountain. But the purity and scale required is too great. Because modern-day enchantments are not compressed, the difficulty is scaled up exponentially on all levels. Compress the amount of runework needed by a factor of even two, and the benefits. It’s about dimensions. Modern enchantments only seem to use two, or three at most for some reason…”

At that point Montressa had to ask.

“But Grand Magus. What other dimensions are there?”

The Dragon’s eyes twinkled. And he refused to talk. He felt quite happy with the attention and he believed that he was managing to just drop the most nebulous of hints.

He was, of course, wrong. The problem wasn’t that Teriarch was speaking in abstracts without dropping any concrete magical examples to his audience about how spellcraft had waned and could be discovered. Nor was it that he was avoiding any specifics.

The problem was that he was absolutely correct about the vague flaws he pointed out. And the students of magic, from nosing about aimlessly in the maze of spell theory, had just scented the cheese.

Such delicious moments. Such informative talks. Such notes. But that wasn’t the point. As Teriarch stretched back, he heard a sound amid the talk, the eager questions, Grimalkin’s quill skritching.

Click.

It was the sound of wood on wood. A delightful little noise. The Dragon looked around. And he heard a curse.

“Aha! Victory!”

Erin, in a very unsportswomanly like display of conduct, checkmated Maviola’s king. The [Lady] glared.

“How are you doing that?”

Pure skill! This is vengeance! Hey, Saliss, want to get in on this?”

“I don’t play chess.”

The [Alchemist] was in the group watching Teriarch, for different reasons. The Dragon leaned back, craning his neck to and fro.

“What’s that over there?”

Someone take me on! Where’s Belgrade? Pawn? It’s been a stressful day!”

Erin Solstice was slapping down her opponents. Maviola had lost eight games in a row; Erin was feeling unusually uncharitable. She was warming up for a Chaldion match, and her regular chess game wasn’t until later tonight. She looked around.

No one met her eyes. Olesm might have, but he was in Liscor. None of the Antinium were her chess veterans. The staff hid. Even Numbtongue carefully and deliberately walked out the door and went into the outhouse.

Into that opening came a Dragon. The table of [Mages] fell silent. Erin Solstice slowly looked up as the half-Elf walked over to her. And the inn…

Fell…

Silent.

Grand Mage Eldavin. He sat down as the regulars of the inn turned in their chairs. They knew. They looked at each other. Someone ran for the doors and sent a Street Runner for every chess lover in Liscor.

“Hey there.”

Erin Solstice cautiously looked at Eldavin. She knew something. Reynold and Sacra looked at each other. Eldavin sat down slowly.

“Good evening, Erin Solstice. How curious. You know this game?”

“Of course. I mean…I only learned it two years ago.”

Erin’s eyes flickered. Across the room, Grimalkin snorted.

“Sure.”

The Dragon’s eyes narrowed. He recalled something Ryoka had told him.

“Only naturally. I myself learned the game two years ago as well.”

Sacra and Reynold exchanged a glance. Sacra recalled—quite vividly—seeing this game before. Teriarch had taught Magnolia how to play.

“Cool. Do you play chess? You’re uh—a friend of Magnolia’s. I didn’t know that.”

The young woman looked carefully at Eldavin. He gave her a half-smile, mysterious, a bit superior.

“One cultivates acquaintances over time. It is an inevitability of age. Would you object to me challenging you to a game?”

“Chess? Not at all. I’m actually a huge fan.”

Erin smiled. The Grand Magus glanced at Maviola. At the crowd suddenly pulling up tables, chairs. Palt produced a ledger.

Bets.

“You…appear more than confident, Miss Solstice. ”

“No, I’m not that good—”

Erin began, blushing. In other areas, she could maintain a big head. But a good chess player wasn’t overconfident. Neither were they humble. But the Dragon cut her off.

“That’s rather fortunate. I don’t play chess for lack of suitable opponents. I myself am something of a…master.”

The [Innkeeper] paused. Slowly, her eyes lifted and she met his.

“Oh, really?”

Eldavin polished his nails on his robes.

“I can’t remember losing a game in recent memory.”

“Huh. Well, I’m decent at the game myself. Perhaps I could give you a good match.”

Something in the air. Maviola blinked. Erin Solstice was terrible at using her aura. But the [Innkeeper] leaned over the table.

“Would you like to play a game?”

The Dragon offered her an arrogant smile.

“I suppose I could pass the time.”

His tone suggested that winning a game or two might be enjoyable. No hint that he would ever lose. Palt glanced at Montressa. Numbtongue poked his head out of the door.

By the time Olesm burst through the door, panting and clutching at his side, the two were sitting.

“I prefer playing black. But if you have a preference…”

Erin politely switched the board around. The Grand Magus waved a lazy hand.

“I’m quite fine with either side. Rather—to make this interesting, why don’t I spot you a move?”

The young woman’s eyes narrowed.

“…Really?”

“I am most adept.”

“Cool. That’s really generous. How about this, though. I could spot you a move.”

The Dragon hesitated. He sat up slightly. His eyes narrowed. Erin gave him a big, friendly smile.

“I’m adept too.”

Somewhere in Pallass, Chaldion was fighting with his [Healer], demanding to see. Erin Solstice cracked her fingers. Winced. She didn’t even notice the rings of people watching. Belgrade, Olesm, Garry, Pawn…Montressa, Bezale, Pelt, Palt…Hedault…

Saliss of Lights casually walked down the hallway. He leaned on the magic door and switched it away from Pallass. Then he dusted his claws and walked back, smiling.

Two voices spoke in the silence.

“I’m serious about spotting you a move.”

“You seriously believe you have a chance, Miss Solstice?”

“Yup. But hey—I do like a nice, fair game. Equal. I’d even bet on it. Like…a few gold coins?”

“I wouldn’t like to take money from you. Why don’t we simply play?”

“As you like.”

The Dragon slowly moved a pawn to E4. The [Innkeeper] looked up at him. She smiled.

 

—-

 

…Of course, that wasn’t important. In the [Garden of Sanctuary], oblivious to the sounds coming from the common room, three [Druids] walked. Two upright, one on all fours.

Nalthaliarstrelous, when not beating animal-abusers with his staff, was much different to the person Lyonette and Erin mistrusted so much. The first thing he did was see to Mrsha’s Fortress Beaver colony.

“Oh, you poor things.”

Mrsha saw him gently coaxing the Fortress Beavers out of their dam. Then, the [Druid] held them. He gently inspected their scarred flesh. And to Mrsha’s amazement, produced little balms, rubbed them into the flesh. And the scar tissue began to fade.

Even Shassa, the other [Druid], was amazed. But Mrsha felt it. If Shassa was a sapling, Nalthaliarstrelous was a tree. And his power ran deep.

“Healing is one of our talents. Few spells heal outright, but our class can cast [Regeneration] at the utmost highest levels. Which I am not. But I can still remove scar tissue.”

The [Druid] explained to Mrsha. His fingers were gentle, and the Fortress Beaver nuzzled him before she waddled off. The animals trusted the [Druid] instinctively. And he knew his work. He inspected the stool of the beavers—which Mrsha had to toss out every day as part of her responsibilities. He kicked one fresh leaving apart and hmmed.

“The wood isn’t as good for their diets. There are better trees. And they will want different food by season.”

Mrsha looked up at him. She was impressed. This smelly Human was smart.

Shassa laughed, appalled. Nalthaliarstrelous just guffawed. The Drake bent down and addressed Mrsha.

“You mustn’t mock him. Nalthaliarstrelous is among the best of us.”

“I am just a man. Our little landfriend has the right of it.”

The older [Druid] snapped. Shassa jumped, blushed under her scales and ducked her head.

“Forgive me, Nalthaliarstrelous. As I said. Oteslia craves your aid. He is the best of us at terraforming, you see, Mrsha.”

And combat and shapeshifting. The Drake’s thought ran parallel to her words. Mrsha peered up at Nalthaliarstrelous. She nudged him.

Show me. The [Druid] understood her without words. He shook his head.

“This garden is a sacred place. I will not casually move earth. It is just magic anyways. Any [Earth Mage] could do the same, or [Geomancer].”

His tone made it clear what he thought of them. Mrsha wrinkled her nose. She had walked with the [Druids]. But she didn’t understand what made them…unique.

Shassa and Nalthaliarstrelous both smiled at that.

“The answer, Mrsha, is that we are more than just ‘protectors of nature’ like many call us. Your—your mother for one.”

She pointed up at Lyonette, who scowled at them from her hilltop. A bee was buzzing around her, lazily feeding on flowers. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded.

“You saw me dealing justice.”

Smacking bad mens with a club. Mrsha felt that was less…impressive than she had hoped from her class. The [Druids] chuckled.

“Not always. I do not attack [Woodcutters]. Despite what your parent thinks. You may chop down trees. You may hunt for food, or coin, or need. These things are what all people do. But when you destroy, waste lives—that is when I break your legs. My Skills and spells empower me to do that.”

The [Druid] tapped his hand with his staff for emphasis. His palm turned into a valley of thorns. Shassa shook her head.

“Nalthaliarstrelous—his role is more punitive, Mrsha. He deals with people. Myself, I deal with animals. Plants. Animals can be cruel as well. Sometimes they need to be disciplined. A rabid bear must be calmed and healed—or put down. In the same way, plants need water, but sometimes they must also be pruned. This is my role.”

Gently, she uprooted a thistle plant that had migrated into the [Garden of Sanctuary], perhaps borne on someone’s boots. Without malice. Mrsha was puzzled. Wasn’t the thistle a plant? Well—Mrsha would have yanked it up too.

“It doesn’t need to be here. It can serve another purpose as food if boiled, or in other ways. Again, we’re not all like him. I don’t break the law! And while I’m part of Oteslia, I am not under anyone’s command. Nalthaliarstrelous…the Circle of Oteslia is concerned about your involvement in the Antinium affair. We want to talk to you about that as well.”

She pointed at the Human [Druid]. Cautiously. The man ignored the implicit criticism. He addressed both Mrsha and Shassa.

“Sometimes, we must seek the authority of cityfolk to do greater good. Such as that woman. What she gives is more than is asked for. I deem it well enough. And my work is my own law; I am the only [Druid] around Invrisil.”

He meant Magnolia Reinhart. But his thoughts also indicated that [Druids] were rare. A Circle of them—rarer still.

Chastened, Shassa nodded.

“We acknowledge that, Nalthaliarstrelous. But—”

She broke off for a second. Mrsha heard a buzzing. All three [Druids] looked up.

Apista flew upside down past the three [Druids], ignoring the stares. Mrsha distinctly got an impression that if the bee could speak, Apista would be saying—‘whee…look at me, I’m flying!

“What’s wrong with her?”

The Drake [Druid] looked concerned. Mrsha explained. Flowers. Apista got silly when she drank their nectar. Nalthaliarstrelous shook his head, frowning.

“Those flowers. Just as well they’re not fully matured. Terrible and beautiful. Where did they come from?”

Mrsha wasn’t sure she should explain. The two [Druids] frowned. But they did not press her.

It was funny. For all Lyonette called them ‘lawless rulebreakers’, it was clear that they regarded this as Mrsha’s domain. They were respectful to her, listened when she wanted to say something, and treated her like an equal. Mrsha liked it.

“What you must know of us, Mrsha, is that we occupy many roles. It is not just people and pets that concern us. In fact, it is seldom them for most of us. Nalthaliarstrelous is an exception. We must battle monsters, disease, starvation, fire, even animal species themselves.”

Shassa went on with the explanation. She lifted her staff, and showed Mrsha the tip. To Mrsha’s horror, she saw it actually had a small nest of tiny purple spiders. They scurried out as Mrsha backed away. Shassa laughed.

“Don’t worry, they’re friendly! Nor would I let them infest this place.”

She lifted her staff and they disappeared into the web. The [Druid] gestured about.

“Our job is balance. Not protection. For instance, I am a [Spiderweb Druid]. But when Shield Spiders bred over their limits and began eating everything in the Kask region—I exterminated them with my fellow [Druids], adventurers, and military. Because it was necessary. In the same way, unnatural things, like undead, some monsters, are also our enemies.”

“Crelers. We exterminate them.”

Nalthaliarstrelous was blunt. The Drake shuddered. So did Mrsha. But it was an important distinction to make so the Human took over.

“Few things we loathe, Mrsha. The Bloodfields are a type of nature. However changed. Not nature I would allow to persist outside of its zone, but nature nonetheless. Crelers destroy everything. Even rabbits would destroy Creler eggs rather than let them exist. What [Druids] deem enemies, we battle. We are warriors.”

Shassa touched her chest.

“Caretakers.”

Arbiters.

The Human [Druid] bent down. He touched the ground.

“You and Shassa wonder why I worked with Magnolia Reinhart? The Antinium are our enemies, little one. When they came, they eradicated everything around their Hives. We fought them.”

His eyes flickered. Mrsha felt his cold resolve. He had fought them. Buried them, drowned them, torn them apart during both wars…

Indignantly, the Gnoll [Druid] stood up on her two legs. No! The two [Druids] recoiled. Mrsha punched Nalthaliarstrelous’s leg. Not Pawn! Not Garry! Not Belgrade or anyone here! She’d beat them up first, she’d—

Nalthaliarstrelous picked her up. Lyonette jumped to her feet.

Hey!

The [Druid] ignored her. He let Mrsha swing wildly in the air.

“Stop that. Explain. The Antinium have always been one Hive. Explain, little one.”

Mrsha hesitated. She thought—and both [Druid]’s eyes widened. Mrsha imagined Garry, feeding her scraps, Belgrade, learning to play chess—

Pawn, praying for the dead. Was that evil?

“…No.”

Slowly, Nalthaliarstrelous lowered Mrsha to the ground. He blinked. Shassa turned pale.

“I cannot believe it. The Antinium are one thing.”

“Clearly not. Listen to the young [Druid], Shassa.”

“But she’s a ch—”

Smack. Nalthaliarstrelous bopped the Drake so fast Mrsha didn’t see it. The Drake clutched at her head and squatted down. Lyonette hesitated as Mrsha excitedly nodded. Nalthaliarstrelous scowled at Shassa.

“Do you deny the truth? Look! Listen! If she says the Antinium are not one thing, they are not!”

He turned to Mrsha.

“If they are not all the same, we will treat them as such. But this is a revelation. The other wild walkers must know. Now I regret helping Reinhart.”

His face was troubled. But as he bent low to look at her, the man’s face broke into a huge smile behind his beard.

“It must be fate, that the wilds make you a [Druid] so young! You have battled Raskghar, monsters! Little landfriend—you now bring us important knowledge! If the Antinium are not our enemies, we should not fight them as we assumed in the Third Antinium War.”

“Nalthaliarstrelous!”

Shassa cried out, horrified. The [Druid] spun, staff raised. But this time the garden’s law made him hesitate. Apparently educational bops counted—not beatings with sticks.

“We will debate it. You see, Mrsha—there are only two large Circles. One, in the Vale forest under the aegis of House Veltras. The other in Oteslia. There are [Druids] in other places, but two gatherings in Izril. In every continent we roam, but two there. And we are not all united.”

Shassa edged away from Nalthaliarstrelous as he pointed at her. Mrsha began to see. The Drake felt very peaceful compared to Nalthaliarstrelous’ wild impulses. A warrior and caretaker, indeed.

“Yes. Perhaps let’s leave it at that. For now—Mrsha, you should come to Oteslia with me. Or at the very least—wait until Nalthaliarstrelous returns to learn from one of us.”

Even him. The Drake rubbed her head as she looked up at Lyonette. She saw Mrsha tug at her leg. Why? Mrsha was happy to learn, but she’d leveled up well enough.

“To understand what it is to be kind. One can be cruel by being kind. Or make mistakes. You were close to losing your class. And you have hurt these children, haven’t you?”

Nalthaliarstrelous bent down. Mrsha went still. Her face fell.

The rats. Gravely, the [Druids] nodded. They felt her guilt.

“Just so. And the Fortress Beavers fought the Shield Spiders because you did not separate them. You must learn some lessons to help, not hinder. We will teach you. But later. It may be difficult if that one objects.”

Nalthaliarstrelous waved at Lyonette. Mrsha nodded slowly. The [Druid] bent down.

“For now, just know that your class is not just nature-mage. Magic is a side-effect of our class, not the goal. We do not crave power. We are not all one people. But we share ideas in common.”

He tapped his chest.

“Here is mine, and what I believe: to hurt those who cannot defend themselves is a poor thing. To waste is a poor thing.”

His voice was gentle, but like steel, vines rooted in the earth. Shassa raised her staff, and nodded.

“To destroy without leaving something behind is to be worthless. That is what the [Druids] of Oteslia believe.”

Cowards. Nalthaliarstrelous glanced at Mrsha. She began to suspect part of Oteslia’s project involved combat of some kind. But as the [Druids] walked on, they explained a tiny bit more.

“You will not master magic as well as [Mages]. But nor will you be as unfit to survive without magic. But the true root of our power is in our connection with nature. Plants—animals—we are shape-changers. You have one Skill. We have many.”

The Drake touched her chest.

“For instance, I am spider-friend. If I will it, I can spin silk. Climb even the tallest trees.”

Nalthaliarstrelous’s already-hairy arm covered with fur. He grinned at Mrsha with bear-teeth, only cooler than Erin.

I am bear-friend. Wolf-brother. Many things in one. You have one ally: beavers.”

“Beavers.”

Shassa giggled. Mrsha and Nalthaliarstrelous both glared at her. He raised his staff and she raised her claws.

“I’m sorry! But that’s just rare!”

Nalthaliarstrelous nodded. He—twitched—blinked. Mrsha saw him look around, feel at the back of his neck. What had that been? But the [Druid] didn’t know himself. She felt his curiosity.

“True. But all of us have our paths. You might be a fine grower, or more magically inclined. The point is that nature is supported where you find it. It may be a garden, like I tend. Or Oteslia’s produce.”

Druids could sell plants? Wasn’t that bad? Shassa shrugged.

“Everyone has to earn money. And we put it into sanctuaries for animals. You see, some of us are less active than others. Because of [Druids], the Pegasi populations did not dwindle like Unicorns! They now live in Oteslia, even if their numbers are still small.”

“As slaves.”

Companions! They’re well-cared for, Nalthaliarstrelous!”

“Mhm. As slaves. They are not free to fly.”

“Don’t start, please! The Circle of Oteslia decided centuries ago—”

“The north never agreed to it.”

“How many Pegasi are in the north, then? Huh? Answer me that?”

“They died free.

“Well, don’t hit me for speaking the truth—”

The two began to quarrel. Mrsha listened, hearing insults both verbal and mental begin to fly. Her takeaway was that [Druids] were a bit high-strung.

But she liked her class. She didn’t know if she wanted to just be a [Druid], though. Mrsha rather liked the idea of being a [Druid]-[Adventurer]. A real adventurer. And maybe a [Wizard] too!

Both Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa stared at the Gnoll child in consternation. It seemed to occur to them only now that Mrsha might not be as invested as they were in their class. Nalthaliarstrelous opened his mouth—

And twitched. His head spun around. Mrsha and Shassa looked at him. The [Druid] stared about. Then up.

What is that?

 

—-

 

Twang. On his roof, Bird happily hummed and shot another arrow. Another bird fell out of the skies.

Two birds, three birds, all in the pot. Or if I leave them out, they will rot.

Bird happily sing. He ignored the roar from below. An outraged Dragon overturned a chess board. An [Innkeeper] danced. Chaldion pounded on the door as Saliss leaned on it.

Spectacle. But Bird didn’t care. He aimed his bow at another frantic, diving shape. He sighted, calculating velocity, wind, drew back and—

“Nalthaliarstrelous, stop!

The Antinium froze. He had heard nothing. Seen nothing. Up until that moment—slowly he turned his head.

A vast bear stood behind him. No—not a bear. It had climbed the tower in three moves. Long claws had torn the wood. But this creature was bipedal. It opened its mouth and dark venom dripped between huge fangs. It rippled with muscle—Bird swung his bow around.

What are you doing?

The thing spoke. The Worker hesitated. He saw a Drake and Gnoll race onto the roof, alarmed. The other Workers scrambled for weapons, but Nalthaliarstrelous paid no attention. Bird hesitated.

“Hunting Birds?”

The [Druid] waited. Bird stared up at him. Slowly, Nalthaliarstrelous looked at Bird.

Tell me. How many do you kill? How many do you eat? How many do you leave to rot, or strip only for feathers and trophies?

He had exceptionally long claws, Bird noted. Venom bite—it was like someone had engineered parts of bear, wolf, and something with venom for combat. The Antinium reflected he might die unless he jumped from the roof. But someone would die either way. Still—since Mrsha was behind the [Druid] and frantically trying to pull him back, the Worker replied. Honestly.

“I will kill as many birds as I see. Yes, as many as fly past me. I eat them all. I leave some to rot so they get squishy. And I like their feathers very muchly. Will you kill me?”

He drew back the arrow, aiming for Nalthaliarstrelous’s open jaws. The [Druid] stared at him. The Workers froze. And then—Nalthaliarstrelous laughed.

 

—-

 

A naked [Druid] stood on the roof of the inn, putting on his robes. Mrsha learned something interesting about him. About [Druids].

Nalthaliarstrelous didn’t care. Or rather—he had thought Bird was just shooting the birds and leaving them to die for fun. When he heard that Bird would eat each and every one, his wrath had abated.

“All things die. I object to waste.

He explained to Mrsha. On the other hand, Shassa had been horrified to learn about Bird’s one-bow crusade against all that flew. She was explaining to Bird about conservation of species, nests, and so on. Nalthaliarstrelous’ mental thoughts were dismissive. He sat with Mrsha on the roof, listening to the cheers as Teriarch bellowed for a rematch. Foul! He hadn’t been trying!

The [Druids] ignored the silliness. Nalthaliarstrelous nodded to Bird.

“Shassa is wrong. That Antinium cannot kill every bird in the Floodplains. The smart ones already fear him. I sensed that and assumed he only cared for sport. They will learn to avoid him.”

Mrsha didn’t know if she agreed with that. But Nalthaliarstrelous was, in fact, a proponent of hunting.

“Animals kill each other to eat. Only those of us like Shassa want people to eat leaves all day. And she is a Drake.

He grinned at Mrsha. Lyonette huffed onto the roof after extricating herself from the mess in the inn. She saw the Human [Druid]—now thankfully clothed or there would have been trouble—peering around the Floodplains.

“This is not my place, little landfriend. But if I had to solve one issue of this land…no [Druids] reside around Liscor.”

“Gee. I wonder why. Excuse me, but Mrsha can’t stay with you fine [Druids] forever!”

The [Princess] stomped over to them. Nalthaliarstrelous glanced up at her.

“This place would be better for our kind. Now I look at it—perhaps we should have come earlier. Now I see.”

His eyes flashed across the Floodplains. Mrsha saw lush grass, butterflies, flowers—not many trees, but a nice place to run about if you didn’t mind Shield Spiders and Rock Crabs. She sighed.

She was banned from going out. Stinky Lyonette and Erin said—

Tap. Nalthaliarstrelous’s staff touched Mrsha’s head. Lyonette made a sound. But the [Druid] just looked at Mrsha.

“Just as well. There are threats here to children, even [Druids]. You lack judgment. Even we follow rules.”

She was tough! Mrsha made a fist. Nalthaliarstrelous raised his staff. She…lowered the fist. Lyonette lowered her fist. The [Druid] paid no attention to her. Nalthaliarstrelous’s head turned once more.

“How problematic.”

What was? Her? Mrsha poked at him. The [Druid] didn’t respond for a second. Shassa came stomping across the roof.

“What a monster! He doesn’t see how many birds he’s killing!”

“He eats them. Maggots and all. You could learn from them.”

Lyonette made a sound. She stood up.

Bird? What did I tell you about—

The [Hunter] fled. Shassa blanched. But Nalthaliarstrelous was just frowning. He had sensed something. And Mrsha waited. At last, the Human [Druid] rose.

“Shassa Weaverweb. Mrsha of the Stone Spears Tribe. I am minded to call together a circle to debate a grave issue I see.”

The Gnoll blinked. She hadn’t expected that. What grave issue? Shassa was just as taken aback. Her gaze swung to Mrsha.

“A circle? But there are just three of us!”

“Three is enough.”

“But she’s not even recognized. She’s only—”

The Drake saw Nalthaliarstrelous’ eyes flash.

“She is a [Druid].”

“She is too young.”

The female [Druid] protested. Nalthaliarstrelous shook his head.

“This is her place. Would you exclude her?”

Shassa bit her tongue. Mrsha glowered. Yeah! Exclude from…what?

“A decision. Something grave affects this land. Worse than the dungeon.”

Nalthaliarstrelous stared across the Floodplains. He touched at his eyes. Mrsha saw them flicker. She sensed…something. Shassa bit her lip. And the [Druid] turned.

“To me…this place seems much worse than it has ever been. Mrsha du Marquin. Look and see.

He turned to her. His brown, plain eyes deepened. Mrsha’s gaze was drawn into the black pupils. Something was in there. A…picture. She blinked—

And she was standing in the same place. Mrsha looked away from Nalthaliarstrelous. And froze.

She saw the Floodplains as they had been. The mountains were the same. But—the land was different.

Gone was Liscor! There was no tall walls! No city of stone! Just—water. Mrsha’s jaws dropped. She saw Nalthaliarstrelous pointing. Only he, Shassa, and she were left. Even the roof of the inn was gone.

“See through my eyes. What must have been here once.”

The [Druid] pointed. Through his Skill, Mrsha saw.

First—a vast lake. Oh! The Gnoll saw, in a flash, how this basin, the rains—it had been a lake! Of course! Only, at some point someone had pulled the plug and the waters drained. But before—she saw water everywhere, only a few points of shallow land. Vast things swam in the waters. Mrsha saw something far larger than a Lurkersnatch fish moving in the deeps. And then—

Then it was a swamp. Mushy, overgrown. But beautiful. Nalthaliarstrelous’ eyes reflected in their very depths a buzzing place full of wild creatures, large predators who lived in water and on the sparse areas of land. Lots of trees, growing wild. Not a fun place to live for people. But so full of life!

Mrsha saw Razorbeaks in the trees, amphibious reptiles—snapping, fighting with snakes—mammals were rare. She looked at Nalthaliarstrelous. Shassa was wide-eyed.

“[Memory of the Earth]. Nalthaliarstrelous, why—”

“And then came Drakes.”

The [Druid]’s voice was calm. Mrsha saw trees disappearing, the murky waters clearing. Someone was removing the trees! Harvesting them—to build settlements of wood. And the effect of the clearing was pronounced.

The waters drained. The marsh system turned into something familiar. Mud flats and a temporary lake by spring. And at other times—

No more trees were left. But that was not a bad thing. Just something new. Mrsha blinked, ran over a field of flowers.

What was this?

The Floodplains were dry. They filled and drained, but in the summers, they bloomed verdant. Mrsha saw Corusdeer herds, vast plains full of moles, rabbits, and other grazing animals like cows and sheep! Not all native to Liscor. It was a vast pastoral land! Albeit not flat.

Of course, predators roamed this place too. Foxes, wolves—Carn Wolves too, hunting, larger species such as Rock Crabs at the top of the hierarchy. But it was filled with wildlife. Mrsha smiled. She raced after a rabbit—

Nalthaliarstrelous caught her from going over the edge of the roof. Mrsha blinked. Suddenly, she was back in reality. The Floodplains looked almost like her vision. But something was wrong.

Where had all the animals gone? Mrsha blinked. The Floodplains now had butterflies, ordinary bees, birds, flying well clear of the inn—a few rodents. But not the abundance of before. Even the [Shepherds] and their herds were gone. Liscor was back, but…

“Oh. No, Nalthaliarstrelous—”

Shassa breathed. Mrsha glanced at her and then the Human [Druid]’s face. He looked…weary. Concerned.

“Do you see?”

He asked Mrsha. She did. Sort of.

Something strange was happening here. The [Druid]’s eyes glittered and he waited for Mrsha to solve it. She thought. She had seen life in abundance in three stages. First, fishies in the lake. Second, marsh-stuff. Third—plains animals.

This was the plains now, largely unchanged. But why were there no animals? The young [Druid] thought. And she had it.

The spiders.

They were all over the Floodplains. Not visible, but Mrsha knew from experience that their camouflaged nests were all over the place. You stepped on them and you went into a nest full of hungry Shield Spiders. That was why you had to stick to the road. And why…the animals were gone.

“They are not native to Izril, you know. They came from Baleros. Only one species. And while not as terrible as others, they breed in great numbers.”

The [Druid] sat heavily on the roof. Shassa was breathing hard. She looked at the man as he spoke to Mrsha.

“Few things can live where one species dominates. Now I have shown you what I see. Tell me— Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe. Think of the Shield Spiders of these Floodplains. You, who have seen them more than I or Shassa. Do they spread beyond number? Do they choke other life? I say it so.”

He held up a hand before Shassa could reply.

“I say they will multiply until all else dies here. I say—the Floodplains may lack for trees. It has changed, by the actions of Drakes. But what it could be now is still less than it is. Think carefully before you respond, Mrsha. But this is your land. What do you say?”

What did she say? Mrsha looked at Shassa. The [Spiderweb Druid] was a friend of the Shield Spiders. But even she…the Drake looked across the Floodplains. She bowed her head.

“I say it is so. Ancestors, but the webfolk are too hungry. They eat everything. There are hundreds of thousands. And those don’t even count the young, the unborn…”

She could sense them. For a moment, Mrsha saw as she did. She saw the nests. Thousands of them. Some close to the inn. Spiders milled about—Mrsha felt her fur standing on end.

Nalthaliarstrelous nodded. It was two votes now, a clear majority. But that wasn’t how it worked. They waited for Mrsha.

Below, in the inn, a Dragon blasted a chess board and sent everyone running for cover as he vented his fury. Above, a small Gnoll thought gravely. And at last…

She nodded. Nalthaliarstrelous bowed his head.

“So then.”

Shassa’s eyes filled with tears. Mrsha looked at them. She did not understand. Yet.

She had one last lesson to learn about [Druids].

 

—-

 

Xrn hiked up towards The Wandering Inn. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about and why Belgrade and Garry had both run out of the Hive. She pushed open the door to the inn.

Just in time to hear the cheering. The crowd barely noticed her.

Erin Solstice was shaking hands. Teriarch—Grand Magus Eldavin had stormed off.

Contrary to the mood, it wasn’t the sweeping victory you might expect. To the chess aficionados, it was clear that it was very close.

Erin and Teriarch, as master-players, had played to a draw eight games. Between master-classes, that was usual. But Teriarch had lost the first game due to his overconfidence.  By the time he’d taken the game seriously, Erin had smoked him.

He’s actually won the next game, and the fourth. But Erin had won the eighth after four draws, and the Dragon had lost his temper.

“Poor sportsmanship. Just, just tragic.”

Olesm was remarking to Belgrade. The [Tactician] nodded. It was clear Erin and Teriarch needed to settle this. One last win took all. But the Grand Magus had flipped the chess board after the first loss, and then proceeded to blast a table out of existence so thoroughly that even [Partial Reconstruction] wouldn’t salvage it. People were…concerned about a third loss.

But Erin was on fire. Almost literally. Her competitive spirit had been turned up by the only other player in this world who could match her. Teriarch was good. He didn’t play like her mysterious opponent; he was far more aggressive. She’d tried out-speeding him, but he’d taken her down effortlessly. He could process faster than even she could. But he grew overconfident. And that meant…

One more game takes all. But we’re betting on this one. I won’t lose again!”

A roar came from across the room. Erin saw the half-Elf stalking back down the room. He wanted to put it all on the line. He passed through the crowd.

“Erin—maybe a bet’s a bad idea.”

“I dunno, Olesm. I’ve played for money before. What do you want to bet, Eldavin?”

The Dragon looked at her, snarling. He was tempted to say one million gold coins and be done with it! Reynold and Sacra were trying to drag him back, remind him to keep his cover. But he was too incensed. The Dragon’s head turned as he looked for things to bet.

The magic door? He had magic doors! Gold? She couldn’t match his bet! A magic sword? Hm. His eyes alit on Numbtongue’s sword. Bah, but it wasn’t valuable. He looked around.

And there was Xrn. The Centenium stared at the Dragon. Her interested yellow-and-rose eyes turned bright yellow. Orange. Shock. Alarm. The Dragon’s eyes widened.

He recoiled.

You? What are—”

The Dragon’s anger turned to hostility at once. Grimalkin and Chaldion looked around. Saliss of Lights reached for his bag of holding. Xrn’s hand tightened on her staff. She looked around, unafraid of anyone. Wary of Saliss and Eldavin.

“Ratici. I think we might be earning our pay.”

Wilovan adjusted his cap, looking worried. He saw the Centenium shifting. And his [Dangersense] began going off.

Erin Solstice didn’t notice the ringing in her head at first. She was reaching into her pocket. He wanted a bet? She didn’t know if it was a good idea. But she had something to bet. Pelt was watching her.

The world was ready to change. But if you understood this moment, you know—it wasn’t about chess. Or Dragons. Or even Antinium.

It was about [Druids].

The first rolling drumbeat came from the roof of the inn. Soft. Then louder. Everyone in the inn looked up.

“What the…?”

Erin rose from her seat. She heard a thunderous beat. It shook through the entire inn. Everyone, the crowd, the guests—even the Dragon looked up.

Slowly, they came out of the inn. The sound was louder now. On the walls of Liscor, someone was shouting the Solstice-alarm. The Watch stared towards the inn. Towards the source of the sound.

Nalthaliarstrelous was banging his staff on the roof. Mrsha, standing next to Shassa and Lyonette and Bird, felt like the entire world was shaking.

What’s happening? What is he doing?

Lyonette was screaming at Shassa. The [Druid] shouted something back. But no one heard a thing.

What?

Lyonette screamed. Bird shouted.

What?

The Drake [Druid] screamed loud enough, even as the pounding grew louder.

Challenging them!

And then it was silent. Mrsha saw the [Druid] halt, his staff raised. She heard shouting from below, confused voices.

“#2, don’t make me come up there! We’re playing ch—”

Erin Solstice froze mid-shout. She saw, behind her inn, across the Floodplains—

The grass moved. The fake nests collapsed. Black shapes boiled out of the holes. Not hundreds. Not thousands. Not tens of thousands.

Shield Spiders. The [Innkeeper] turned white as the innocent Floodplains, green and lush, turned into a sea of spiders. They popped out of the ground where they had been hidden, an infestation out of sight. The holes in the grassy hills and valleys were like gaping wounds in green skin, divulging the foul nests.

On the walls, Watch Captain Zevara saw a flood of Shield Spiders even greater than the one in the dungeon coming at the walls. Her mouth went dry. She croaked.

“Sound—sound the—”

The Shield Spiders rolled across the plains in a fury. Some were as large as cars. Few were the size of those in the dungeon, but they were everywhere.

Inside the inn! Get in the garden—now!

Erin was the first to break the shocked silence. She screamed and pointed. People ran. The [Mages] and warriors stayed.

“That damned [Druid]! I’ll kill him! Erin—inside! We need barriers, Montressa! We’ll have to blast them! Grand Magus!”

Bezale roared. The other [Mages] were running, shouting at each other to erect walls, cast [Fireball] spells—

Teriarch didn’t move. He looked up at the roof. Then at Xrn. The Centenium had raised her staff. But she was waiting on Teriarch. The two locked gazes.

“Leave him. This is his duty.”

That was all the half-Elf said. He turned back and walked into the inn. Erin stared at his back. Leave him? Who—

From the roof of the inn, Nalthaliarstrelous leapt. Impossibly far, soaring through the air like Grimalkin had done when the Wyverns attacked. He landed on a distant hill and strode forwards, robes fluttering. And the Shield Spiders converged on him.

They ignored the inn. They ignored the [Mages], the walls of Liscor where horns were blaring. They cared only for one person.

The [Druid].

He waited until the first wave was nearly on him and then struck the ground with his staff. Erin saw him raise his arms.

The Shield Spiders racing up a valley between two hills had one second of warning. Then the two distant hills rolled towards each other. The dirt and soil merged—and the Shield Spiders were buried.

“What?”

The [Innkeeper] saw Nalthaliarstrelous stride forwards onto the bare land. Shield Spiders came at him. He struck the ground again—and it turned to mud. The spiders sank into the mud, suffocating, struggling. The [Druid] spun his staff. The earth opened and a rift sucked thousands more into it. It snapped closed. The soil crushed the Shield Spiders, smashing them to bits.

“Dead gods. What level is that [Druid]?”

Zevara snapped, command scrolls in her claws. She saw the [Druid] whirl. This time earthen spires shot out of the ground, impaling the Shield Spiders in a huge radius around him.

“He’s funneling all of them at him. It’s all area-spells.”

Grimalkin had leapt onto the roof. A [Siege Fireball] burned in one claw. He saw Nalthaliarstrelous spin. He ran down the hill and the entire hill turned into an earthen avalanche that buried another wave.

“Geomancer. He’s not bad. I could still beat him. But this is the best of their kind. Watch him. This is who you will fight.”

Xrn remarked to Belgrade. The [Tactician] turned to her, shaking.

Nalthaliarstrelous made a hole in the world. Spiders poured into it. The sinkhole opened deeper, deeper as he stood on a small ledge, a small pillar. And then the soil moved back together.

“He’s taken magic from the inn. But he’s running out. Those are too many spells.”

Hedault felt his wand vibrating in his hand. He saw Nalthaliarstrelous drop to one knee, panting. The Shield Spiders flooded at him, greatly reduced.

“Why are they attacking him? Even insects should retreat.”

Chaldion ignored the look Yellow Splatters gave him. He turned to Teriarch for confirmation. The half-Elf shrugged.

“[Druids].”

“[Challenge of the Wilds]. He wants to erase their foothold on the Floodplains.”

Shassa breathed. Mrsha saw Nalthaliarstrelous on his knee. He was panting wildly. She could feel his exhaustion. But the spiders—

“Do something!”

Lyonette shouted in horror. Grimalkin pointed. The [Siege Fireball] blew a section of them apart. The other [Mages] rained spells at a distance at the black wave. But Nalthaliarstrelous was their target.

As they came for him, the [Druid]’s body grew. Mrsha saw brown fur race over his body. His form changed—

Dead gods.

Erin heard someone breathe. The Dire Bear form rose. It crushed the largest spider with a roar, claws tearing through even the thick armor with contemptuous ease. Nalthaliarstrelous brought his arms down, smashing the body.

The spiders swarmed him. Erin lost track of the [Druid]; the hill poured with spiders. But something was thrashing about as they tried to bite through his fur and flesh. Crushing them. Tearing them apart. Eating some of them, or spitting out fragments from his jaws.

From The Wandering Inn and Liscor’s walls came spells. Grimalkin grimly blasted pockets of spiders with his spells. So did Montressa and Palt; others shot arrows, like Bird. But it was all from afar.

Nalthaliarstrelous held the hill. He must have used potions; Mrsha twice saw-felt the [Druid] flagging, and then a surge of fury and vitality. He cut and tore across the spiders and they refused to stop attacking him.

Until…it ended. There was no signal. One moment the hill was boiling—the next, the Shield Spiders were fleeing. They fled over thousands of their dead, across the soil where buried, crushed spiders lay. A fraction of the army that had assailed him.

Mrsha tried to run, then. But Lyonette and Shassa both held her back. It was Grimalkin, along with Numbtongue and a few others who approached the hill.

Nalthaliarstrelous lay naked amid the destruction. His body was covered with blood, bites. He didn’t move as the party extricated him.

But he was alive.

 

—-

 

“It was just spiders. Saliss could do it. Or…Magus Grimalkin. At some point—spiders can’t hurt you. Keldrass could probably survive with the Heartflame Breastplate.”

The shaky opinion came from one of the guests. Later, in the inn, they analyzed it.

It was just spiders. They had been crawling all over one another to get to Nalthaliarstrelous. No wonder his spells had been so effective. The [Druid] had challenged them and he was an earth-specialist with Erin’s inn to back him up.

No wonder he’d won. Absolutely. Plus, the others had helped! [Siege Fireballs] had come from Magus Grimalkin. It was…was…

Olesm didn’t add to the appraisal of Nalthaliarstrelous’s abilities. He just sat there, trying to imagine a conventional army fighting that. Or even if the Shield Spiders had attacked Liscor’s walls.

“One. Two. Three. Four? No…three. Four if you give him that artifact.”

Maviola was counting. Olesm looked at her.

“Four what?”

She smiled at him. Then she pointed.

Xrn. Saliss. Eldavin. And then Grimalkin.

“Those are the ones who could do that. I’m not sure about Eldavin, but the other three—yes. Grimalkin might need the Heartflame Breastplate, though.”

Olesm looked at the [Sinew Magus]. Grimalkin’s face was unreadable, but his jaw was clenched. The [Lady] kissed Olesm lightly and he looked up at her. She smiled, less shaken than the others.

“That is what power looks like, Olesm. It was a good lesson.”

The Drake’s jaw worked.

“For who?”

 

—-

 

The Antinium watched the [Druid]. They looked at Xrn’s calm expression. She was appraising the [Druid].

For his part, all Nalthaliarstrelous did was weep. Mrsha hadn’t realized it. But the [Druid] was crying. So was Shassa. But Nalthaliarstrelous cried longer.

Tears ran down into his beard. But all he said to Erin, Lyonette—the others who now treated him with respect—and wariness, was this.

“They have died. They must be hunted. The city must do this. But the nests can be destroyed. And if they are—the Floodplains will be bountiful again.”

“I…remember Tekshia saying that once, there were all kinds of [Shepherds] here. And you could walk up and down the Floodplains.”

Selys mumbled. Nalthaliarstrelous’s tears dripped into his beard. He was sad. Mrsha touched his leg. Then, why had he done it?

“Because it had to be done. We are [Druids]. Not all would do it. But little landfriend—they would have eaten the world in their hunger.”

That was what he told her. And when he rose, the [Druid] leaned on his staff, looking worn and wan. But that was the lesson.

“Some of us are warriors of great destruction. We burn forests that new life might live. We do battle that balance might be restored. In old ages, we fought the tree-folk when they tried to exterminate villages. Then we were their allies when the small villages became cities that threatened to destroy the great forests.”

He touched his chest. Closed his eyes.

“We failed. Now, most of us are guardians of small places. Connections to the wilds that speak with law. I am the largest of the small.”

Erin Solstice looked at him. How dare he say that after that display? But the [Druid] turned away. He looked at Shassa—the other [Druid] bowed to him.

“I will consult with Oteslia. When I am able. I have duties here, but I will come.”

“Of course. Walk well, wild keeper.”

They nodded to each other. Shassa bid farewell to Mrsha as well.

“If fate allows it—we shall meet again, little one.”

Solemnly, Mrsha shook the Drake’s claw. She would not forget this. And she had seen what it was to be a [Druid]. Now…she wondered if [Wizards] were recruiting.

Well, only half-seriously. The Drake’s eyes crinkled up. So did Nalthaliarstrelous’. He also paused to say goodbye.

“Small or large. Each thing matters. I entrust you with the bees. I have no more strength for a fortnight, save at great need. If you are no more a [Druid] than you are this day—that is well. But remember what we are: neither good nor evil.”

She nodded solemnly. The [Druid] ruffled her hair.

“If you lack a teacher, landfriend, wild child, I will teach you at a later date.”

He stood, and slowly walked past Erin and Lyonette. They bade him farewell. Erin stared at the [Druid]’s back. Lyonette waved, calling out polite thanks. When he was gone, she turned to Erin.

“We are never letting him back into the inn.”

It was hard to argue with that. Then again—Erin wanted to know how Lyonette was going to stop him.

Anyways. It was just a day in the inn. The day turned to night. Ryoka Griffin glared at the Silver Swords in Mad Madain’s inn.

Mrsha leveled up. But just a tiny bit.

That night, someone hammered a nail into a door. Now, the [Garden of Sanctuary] had a sign. It read as follows:

 

Private garden; no [Druids] allowed.

 

Mrsha took it down the next day.

 

 

 

After Chapter Thoughts: Well, we’re over my projected chapter length by…10,000 words. And again, this is a suitable interlude where NOTHING AT ALL…

You know what; I just wanted to call it ‘A Meeting of [Druids]’. That’s a cool interlude title. I hope you enjoyed the craziness. And while not as restful as I would have liked, I enjoyed it a lot. I wish I could have added a few more scenes, but I pushed the limits as-is.

For now, I’ll just say that my break allows me to write like this! And there is much to thank from these wonderful artists!

I’m featuring two artists this time. Firstly, Plushie. Who has made a bunch of Mrsha-emotes! We’re already using them in the Discord server, but they’re so cute on their own! Also, there’s an amazing picture of Bird the Hunter and more!

The second artist is Eris, who has done a sprite of Ryoka Griffin! It would be great in a videogame…give thanks to both of them! Have a good night and thanks for reading!

https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Mrshas, Bird, Me…?, and more by Plushie!

 

Pixel-Ryoka by Eris!

Ryoka by Eris

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.31

(Warning: Last chapter for Patreons was cut by about 5,000 words. Check the ending so you’re not confused about this one!)

 

Mrsha had failed. The Fortress Beavers—the last remnants of the Defenders of the Cave—now occupied The Wandering Inn. The [Garden of Sanctuary] was their home.

Lyonette had objected; Erin had overruled. The [Princess] had made many reasonable arguments. Like—giant rodents who lived to eat wood weren’t the best guests for a garden with minimal foliage compared to your average forest. Also—they could be dangerous.

A regular beaver could take chunks out of you; a Fortress Beaver could take off body parts with some biting. Yet, Erin had pointed out they could import wood; Mrsha could communicate the priorities of not eating the garden’s trees to the beavers. They were cute. And—

They were her responsibility. Mrsha had let them down. In days of yore, she had brought beavers and spiders together with the Healing Slime to fight Crelers. But that alliance had fallen apart because…they were different species.

It could have worked. If Mrsha had stayed. If—for some reason—the Healing Slime hadn’t vanished. If she had just visited once a week, something in Mrsha told her they would have been fine.

She was a [Druid]. What that meant Mrsha didn’t entirely know. Lyonette described them as ‘homeless vagrants’ who got into fights with [Woodcutters] in Calanfer. Nuisances who prized animal and plant life as much as any others. This had been before she learned Mrsha was a [Druid]. Now she described them as wonderfully powerful nature [Mages], if sometimes misguided.

She wanted Mrsha to be something else. Not even Erin knew that Lyonette was teaching Mrsha more etiquette, hinting about how nice [Courtiers] and [Princesses] had it. Mrsha took the lessons in stride and happily forgot everything until next time.

She had seen the Frost Faeries bringing winter to the bad Goblins. She had seen the Wind Runner. She was a Stone Spears child as much as Lyonette’s. And the magic of plants had saved her life.

It made sense to her. But Mrsha had forgotten her duties. Now—she strongly felt that these beavers were her responsibility. They could not die. So she combed the little kit’s fur and made sure the adults were healing—she’d even used her allowance on extra tonics for their healed wounds. She’d even slept with them at night; Lyonette had been very unhappy to find beavers in her bed.

A microcosm of responsibility. When one of the beavers got a splinter from the jungle biome, Mrsha pulled it out. She didn’t baby them. But they were hers.

And now—

The Fortress Beavers hid in the pond’s dam. The pond wasn’t that deep or vast. But you’d have hard trouble breaking into the dam from above. Sediment, plant matter, and of course, wood, some of it bought from [Carpenters] in Celum—had been turned into a rough dome.

The kits and few adults were sheltering in one of the main chambers. Mrsha anxiously stared into the pond and saw one emerge from the underwater entrance. A large Fortress Beaver—bigger than her—surfaced. It stared at her.

Stay. Bad things outside.

The beaver solemnly looked at Mrsha. It was…eerie in the way the beaver didn’t nod, or show any other signs it had heard Mrsha. She knew it understood because it looked around, baring it’s large incisors.

But it was not Human. Not even part-Human, like Apista. The bee was part-Lyonette after all, but the beaver had no Skills affecting it. It just understood—‘ally’, ‘enemy’, ‘danger’—and so on.

Mrsha padded towards the garden’s door. She heard loud voices, arguing. To her surprise—the beaver came with her. It didn’t like the noise, but it was protecting—her.

She tried to shove it towards the pond. The she-beaver refused to go. She, having determined that there was some danger to Mrsha, had decided to accompany the Gnoll child. Mrsha couldn’t overpower her without Lyonette’s blessing, so she gave up.

The two peeked into The Wandering Inn’s main room—Mrsha’s living room—and found her family and guests in conference.

“It’s a riot, Lady Walchaís. The local [Lords] have whipped the people into a frenzy. They’re marching on Lady Reinhart’s mansion—and smashing streets up as they go. The Mage’s guild, the Merchant’s Guild, even the Adventurer’s Guild—are all under attack.”

“But why?”

Erin Solstice stood there, with a young woman who sometimes felt very old to Mrsha—Maviola El. And with her was a [Lady] like flowers. Beautiful, but prickly. She stood with her husband, a tall man that had a rapier like Pisces, only, he wasn’t as stylish. Mrsha stared at them as the [Lady]—Bethal—turned to the pink [Knight]. He had cool armor too.

“One assumes they’re holding the Guilds to account for the Golden Triangle debacle. This is what it’s about, isn’t it, Kerrig?”

“As far as I could ascertain, milady. Many of those who have lost money are taking Lady Reinhart to account for failing to shield them or warn them. They want…her to reimburse them.”

A snort. That came from Maviola. The [Lady] shook her head.

“Give money to them? They lost it. Granted, it wasn’t their fault—but have you ever heard of a Reinhart giving away gifts?”

“Magnolia’s unlikely to do that. She doesn’t believe in charity. But which idiots decided they could storm her mansion? Are they mad?”

Bethal murmured. She looked around the room. Lyonette, hovering unobtrusively at the back, glanced around.

“Mrsha? Oh, good. Stay in the garden, dear. It’s…just a riot. I told you about them.”

 

In Calanfer, riots happened when the monarchy made mean decisions or some aristocrat did something stupid. Sometimes because something bad happened just by chance, but that was rare. In such times, you should hide with your treasure until people got tired and then send your [Knights] out. No sense in spilling blood; that just engendered bad will.

If they came for you—make sure you had a bolt hole, a few choke points, and loyal defenders. [Peasants] couldn’t kill [Knights]…mostly. Which was why you had good relations with adventurers and [Warriors].

            –Lyonette du Marquin’s Lessons From Home, Lesson 13, on public disturbance.

 

Mrsha didn’t know whether Lyonette’s lessons applied here, but there were nobles, [Knights], and a riot, so she guessed Lyonette did know what she was talking about. Nervously, she peeked around. Erin was worried. Even Numbtongue was worried. The Hobgoblin was sitting at the bar, listening in to the conversation while eying the pink [Knights] warily.

But he hadn’t sipped from his drink in minutes, which wasn’t something Goblins did. That meant he was prepared to throw the drink in someone’s face and then stab them with the fork next to his empty cup before actually resorting to his sword or guitar.

 

Everything was a potential weapon. Rocks, grass, dirt—but it was better to have actual weapons. Hence, Numbtongue’s refusal to go anywhere without a sword or guitar nearby. He’d helped show Mrsha how to quick-release her wand for a fight. Also—how to make a garrote out of long reeds of grass. Garrotes were always nice. You could use them for sneak attacks, repurpose them as tripwires, snares, or to carry snacks.

            –Numbtongue’s Combat Training, Series 2: Improvisational Combat

 

“We have to do something. They’ll get smushed if they go to Magnolia’s mansion. I’ve seen it! It has giant steel golems and magical walls and stuff!”

Erin was worried. She looked around, but didn’t get much support for the idea. The Players of Celum had entered The Wandering Inn. Jasi, Wesle, Grev, Emme, Kilkran with his excellent bald head—Mrsha liked his wigs, very adaptable—and all the others. Tonight’s play was cancelled.

“Do something? My dear Miss Erin, there’s nothing to do. I quite understand your reservations, but Magnolia isn’t a—an old-fashioned member of her family. She won’t even bother entertaining the rioters, let alone put them down Terland-style.”

Terland-style? Maviola grimaced. Lyonette did too. She whispered when Mrsha poked her leg.

War Golems. They crush rioters hard.”

Bethal wasn’t worried about that anyways. The [Lady] waved a hand. She—like Rose and Galina—thought Mrsha was cute. Also—like a dog. Mrsha hadn’t smacked her, but only because she was a guest.

Drakes and Humans both have issues with our species. Many other species—no. We do not have enough contact with them. If we have allies, they are the Beastkin of Baleros, yes? They are traditional allies and some of them visit—like Hawk’s parents. But they are a minority.

 

If we hate Drakes, it is because we clash. They and we are very different. And too similar! Ah, but Humans…Humans can be as bad as Drakes, Mrsha. Worse, sometimes. If Drakes call us savage beasts, well, Humans do not as often. But see how they pat you on the head? To them—we are still animals. And animals are less than people. Yes, I’m talking to you cats. Shoo!

            –Elirr’s General Lessons on Species, Anecdote #4.

 

Lady Bethal went on, her voice calm despite the tension in the room.

“Magnolia’s mansion is impregnable. If she’s even home—the rioters won’t get in. The gates are spelled.

“Oh.”

Erin relaxed a bit. She looked around; the magical door was gone. Lyonette had ordered it put back in the hallway, but it was still open—to the Player’s Retreat. And from that inn, Mrsha could faintly hear the sounds of many people and loud voices. But Redit had the door and the other [Bouncers] were locking down the fancy inn.

“Still. Can’t we do something? We should. Riots aren’t good. I’m pretty sure of that.”

The others looked at Erin blankly.

“Why? Let them tire themselves out. This isn’t Liscor, Erin. It’s Invrisil.”

“But—what if someone gets hurt?”

“It’s not our job to stop that. Let the Watch deal with it. Erin. Don’t go out that door.

The [Princess] scowled at Erin. And her words were accompanied by nods all around. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then she relaxed.

“Okay? So what do we do?”

“Nothing.”

“But—”

It went against everything Erin was. Mrsha thought Erin was like Apista and flowers. If there was a new one, Apista had to investigate. In the same way, if there was trouble, Erin wanted to go there and be Erin.

Mrsha wanted Erin to be safe. Riots…Gnoll tribes didn’t have riots. They had bad fights. The Stone Spears had once fought another tribe—not all of them, but Urksh had been very angry and there had been many talks. Two Gnolls had died from the skirmishes.

This was far bigger. So—Mrsha crept through the crowd. The Fortress Beaver helped her push people out of the way.

“Hey, what the—”

Rat! Giant—

The guests jumped away as Mrsha rode the Fortress Beaver forwards. She spotted a familiar duo, heard two voices.

“…Archmages didn’t predict this. Beza, have you heard from your faction? The Revivalists haven’t sent me new orders in a while. I’m worried Beatrice might know I—aaah!

Montressa shrieked as Mrsha climbed up her robes. The Minotauress jerked and stared as Mrsha looked at her.

“Is that Mrsha?”

Getheroff!

“Here. What are you doing, child?”

The Minotauress [Spellscribe] pulled Mrsha off Montressa. The Gnoll found herself gently held in front of Bezale—at arm’s length. The Minotauress didn’t seem to know what to do with her.

“Where’s Lyonette?”

Mrsha tapped the Minotauress’ thick arm. Then she pointed. Beza and Montressa looked around.

“Erin, for you.”

The [Innkeeper] turned as Mrsha was brought over. She stared at the little Gnoll.

“Mrsha? What are you doing? I said go in the garden—well, I guess it’s safe. Is that…one of the beavers? We should give them names.”

They should not. But Mrsha just let Beza drop her into Erin’s arms. Then she hugged Erin. The [Innkeeper] held her.

“I’m not going anywhere, Mrsha. I just thought—the riots—oof! Stop hugging me! Maybe we can stop them?”

“You don’t try to firefight an inferno, Erin Solstice. You cut off its air and keep it from spreading. Even you, I, and Bethal couldn’t stop it with our auras.”

Maviola’s arms were folded. Bethal sighed.

“Again with the fire analogies…I quite agree. Thomast, dear, I think we had better stay here. Or at least in the Player’s Retreat. Ser Kerrig and my Knights of the Petal shall guard the inn.”

“Absolutely, Lady Walchaís. Innkeeper Veeid, with your permission we will keep the order around your inn.”

The nervous man with the chubby belly mopped at his forehead and brightened.

“Sir Knight, that would be a most welcome—of course! My permission and thanks! May I offer you a room, Lady Walchaís? On the house! Or—will you be staying here?”

He glanced around The Wandering Inn. Mrsha had to admit that Veeid’s inn was very comfy. She had peeked through the door a few times and even visited once or twice. It had sofas where you sat about them and ate. And—and big rooms!

“Hm. We may stay here. What do you think, Thomast?”

The [Chevalier] spoke up for the first time so far. Calmly, he looked around.

“The [Knights] will guard Master Veeid’s inn, dear. I think we should stay on the same side of the door, at least when resting.”

“Oh—very well.”

Bethal puffed out her cheeks, but sighed. Then she looked around.

“In the meantime, I suppose there is a silver lining! Do my eyes mistake me, or are the redoubtable Players of Celum here? I’ve tickets for tomorrow—I hope the show isn’t cancelled!”

The [Actors] started, and then Wesle swept a low bow. He had a charming smile and a presence. Mrsha still remembered the silly [Guard] that Erin called ‘Fuzzylips’. But it was harder to remember.

“Lady Walchaís, we are indeed the poor [Actors] of Celum! At your service! I regret that today’s play is cancelled—tomorrow’s as well, perhaps.”

“Depends on how badly they smash up the Solstice Theatre.”

Emme muttered. A few of the women accompanying Bethal made sounds of dismay. The [Lady] on the other hand waved that away.

“Understandable. But we are all trapped here—and better in Liscor than Invrisil one feels, yes? Would you oblige us by a small performance? I see what appears to be a stage yonder—and [Actors]!”

She pointed. Every head turned. And Maviola and Erin both looked at Bethal. The [Lady] smiled, and her eyes shone with real excitement.

“If it isn’t too bold—I should pay for a performance and consider it better than a public spectacle.”

“Of course! We’re all here, aren’t we? Let’s put on a show for Erin—you haven’t seen Elisial, yet, have you? Why, we could invite crowds from Liscor in!”

Jasi leaned out of the crowd and spoke, her voice melodious and measured. Her scales glimmered and Mrsha longed to touch them. She looked less like the weary [Washer] and more like a—star on the stage. The others cheered up, especially Emme.

“We could charge tickets. Why not? Dead gods, that magical door is a blessing!”

“But about the riots—”

Erin looked back at the door, but everyone else was happily following Bethal’s suggestion. Mrsha turned to stare at Bethal from the [Innkeeper]’s arms; she had Erin-energy. Mrsha liked her already.

“Oof, Mrsha. You’re getting heavy. Did you grow again?”

Erin had to put Mrsha down. The Gnoll child sighed, but she was relieved. The others were in a buzz, taking Bethal’s suggestion. A play! And Lyonette was hurrying to get people seated. The Wandering Inn itself had learned to create a moment even without the [Innkeeper].

She kept staring towards the door to Invrisil. But Ishkr walked over and changed it to Liscor and Mrsha poked Erin in the leg and begged for Erin to teach her chess.

 

Pawn to E3. That’s called the Van’t Kruijs Opening, you see. It’s an irregular opening and it’s not that aggressive, but you can transition into a reversed King’s Pawn—Mrsha, are you paying attention? You see, the idea is to control the center and blah blah, I’m boring and stuff when I play chess.

            –A Symposium on Chess Opening, by Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper].

 

“Oh, alright. Let’s sit down. Hey, Maviola. You gonna throw more poo or teach me stuff?”

“I could. I should find Olesm, but what’s this about chess? I’ve been meaning to play you. Olesm says you’re the best player in the entire continent. Perhaps anywhere.”

Maviola’s eyes glittered. Mrsha saw Erin smile and Bethal turn her head.

Chess? Why, I play that too. Thomast dear, this is wonderful! Don’t make that face. I won’t make you play chess.”

The Wandering Inn bustled and hummed, and Mrsha successfully distracted Erin. Which was her job, and everyone else helped her distract Erin from going out there and somehow turning the riot into a mega-ultra riot or something. After all—it wasn’t something that mattered to them. And what could you do about riots, anyways?

 

—-

 

Riots.

In a way, it was like Erin. What could you do about her? Well—a lot of things came to mind. Kill her, incapacitate her, drug her, imprison her on numerous and justified legal grounds.

The problem, to Magus Grimalkin, known as ‘Grimalkin the Fist’, or the Muscle Mage of Pallass—all monikers he had accepted because they disclosed the underlying truth about him—wasn’t in execution.

He could snap Erin Solstice’s neck in a moment. Unless she was prepared, the [Innkeeper] was very defenseless. He wouldn’t ever do that of course, but Grimalkin had lists of people who could kill him. He had thus, empirically, and logically analyzed everyone he had ever met to see if he could kill them.

No, you didn’t kill Erin Solstice. Like the damned riots; the [Sinew Magus] strode along Pallass’s 8th floor and heard the shouting. The Watch Captains had their claws full.

“Not riots yet, at any rate. But Wistram has done us little favors. And it will just take a spark. Riots…”

There was one in Invrisil. Grimalkin was keeping abreast and ahead of the news, mainly because Sir Relz and Noass were in Pallass. And they had just gotten word about the riots and were having a viewer-mage go there to suss it out. They’d tentatively cancelled his hour-long special report on weights for that.

The Drake was annoyed. But not just by that. He’d just received another complaint about Erin and this one—well—the [Senators] wanted her head on a platter.

And he wouldn’t be the one to pull it off. Indeed, the problem with Erin and riots was that killing people solved nothing. You could disperse a mob with a [Siege Fireball]. But where did that leave you? With dead bodies. Loss of citizens of Pallass. Lingering fury—a bad stench—

In the same way, Erin Solstice was an asset. Look what she had wrought. You couldn’t kill someone like that. Not unless you were certain she wasn’t on your side.

“And therein lies the question. Whose side? Liscor’s? The Antinium? No—before you can change her allegiance, I must know where she comes from. And that question…”

That question he was so close to unearthing. Grimalkin had all the pieces. He’d taken her innocuous statements, her little hints, the knowledge that shouldn’t be there, the ignorance—and put it together. In the way of a true Fissivilian [Mage], he had logically compiled it into a visual format. He had an entire room in his studio devoted to analyzing her.

But his conclusion was…extreme. Even for him. The Drake shifted uncomfortably as he walked and a passing Gnoll paused to stare at Grimalkin’s entire body ripple as muscles all moved together.

His conclusion was extreme. But the evidence supported it and there was no other…alternative. Grimalkin didn’t know if it was the truth. But if it was—

No one could kill Erin Solstice. And indeed, the truth might drive the Walled Cities to their knees. However—it assumes I am correct.

Either way. The Drake shook his head. He quickened his pace. It still didn’t excuse Erin Solstice’s actions. Regardless of her origins, she was still someone who meddled in Pallass’ affairs. Who had cost the city—helped it—and caused trouble. Today, she had dealt Pallass a major blow. But Grimalkin had spoken out in her defense against the Council and Pallass’ high command. Because of his suppositions. If it was true—they needed Erin.

He just needed to be sure. Sure…the [Sinew Magus] had to lean on a wall as he approached the magical door and checkpoint. When he saw the waiting room inside, he did have to sit for a second, in one of the chairs. He stared at the newspaper, the vase of flowers, and the drawings on the wall. His eyes narrowed.

It had to be true. Grimalkin the Fist Mage waited until the door opened. He knew what Erin was.

“Dead gods. Ancestor’s bones give me strength.”

He whispered. The [Guards] shifted; they couldn’t square Grimalkin with the nervous Drake that sat there. And when the door did open—Erin Solstice herself stood there.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m checking, Lyonette! I—oh. Grimalkin! Hey!”

The huge Drake stared at her. At the brass ring on her finger. At the young woman’s clothing—casual. Even bright. But he had observed the others, with their strange clothing. Outlandish designs. He had heard their whispers, looking at him. Calling him a ‘bodybuilder’. Also, a ‘narcissist’, but that wasn’t the point.

“Erin Solstice. If you have—no. There is a situation that requires your presence.”

The [Mage] stood up. Erin blinked.

“Uh—is this about this morning? I can put this stuff away. I don’t want to cause Venim trouble.”

“This morning?”

Grimalkin glanced around. He shook his head, distractedly.

“This is a minor inconvenience compared to—the Assembly of Crafts is in uproar, Miss Solstice. You will have to come with me. Now.”

“Uh oh. I didn’t do it! I think!”

Erin began to panic. Grimalkin saw another woman appear behind Erin. Who was this? No, wait, he recognized her.

“What is it, Erin?”

“Nothing, Maviola! I mean—what did I not do, Grimalkin?”

The Drake folded his arms. He spoke one word and saw Erin’s face change.

“Pelt.”

“Oh. That…might be me. What’s happening?”

“He’s leaving.”

Maviola gasped. Her eyes went wide. Erin? Grimalkin saw her half-smile and then cover it. Her face turned into innocent shock.

“Oh wow! I mean—that’s not my fault! But good for him, right? He’s not happy here, anyways.”

She peeked at him. The Drake said nothing, but his eyes narrowed slightly.

“The situation demands your presence. Now, Erin.”

“Fine, I’m coming. Maviola—”

“I’m coming too. This is exactly what I was trying to teach you about, Erin.”

The [Lady] looked excited. Grimalkin sighed but took it in stride. He stepped aside.

“Let’s go. 9th Floor. We may make it in time.”

“Okay. Lyonette! I’m going to Pallass for a bit! It’s not my fault!

Erin shut the door. The two Human women began walking. Grimalkin followed them. Looking sideways at Erin.

“You don’t seem that remorseful.”

“I didn’t do it. M-mostly.”

She avoided looking at him. Grimalkin thought about the things he could do. The things the [Senators] wanted to do to her involved at least a public quartering. But they needed her. Dead gods, how would he convince even Chaldion of his hypothesis?

But it was true. Grimalkin was not an idiot. He exercised his mind like every other body part. He had noticed Erin’s inconsistencies. And over time, methodically come to the one logical explanation. He tried not to stare at her back, tried to make his silence feel like anger rather than—shock. Awe.

“How much trouble am I in, Grimalkin? Um…asking for a friend.”

He didn’t reply. The [Sinew Magus] followed Erin. Staring at her back. Yes. There was only one thing she could be. He had considered everything.

That she was the daughter of a Wall Lord of Salazsar. That she was a [Princess]. An adventurer. A Drathian—the disciple of Niers Astoragon?

A member of the King of Destruction’s court? A child of Rhir? Related to one of the Archmages—no—a descendant of a real [Archmage]? Nothing had been off the table.

But the truth was that there was no trace of Erin. Nor did she know enough about…anything. She knew too much, and too little. She had taught him about protein shakes. But she wouldn’t explain what a ‘protein’ was. He had no doubt she knew.

So—the Drake would learn. For now, he contained his awe. He worked on validating his theory. He looked at the back of the…time traveller. The girl from another era. It only made sense. The question he had to ask was simply: before, or after now?

It would make all the difference.

 

—-

 

Grimalkin was rather quiet as he marched them towards the 9th floor. Maviola was staring about, playing it cool. But this was her first time in the Walled City and she seemed—antsy.

“Something wrong, Maviola?”

The young woman jumped. She smiled at Erin.

“No—er. It’s just that this is something I never thought I’d see. My family hasn’t been to a Walled City…ever.”

Oh. Of course. She was Maviola El. This was probably the last place she wanted to be known. Erin had a crazy urge to mention her name to Grimalkin just to see his eyes pop.

But the Drake was already in a bad mood and that seemed like a stupid thing to do. Erin was tempted nonetheless.

“So…Grimalkin. Buddy.”

“Keep walking, Miss Solstice. This is a matter of high priority.”

Erin gulped. Grimalkin stared down at her.

“How mad were people…?”

“There will be a number of [Senators] present. I believe they were attempting to convince Master Pelt to remain. They also voted to censure your inn or even eradicate the doorway to block the move. The vote failed.”

“That’s a rel—”

“By six votes.”

“Ah. Um. Er…I’m sorry.”

Rather to her surprise, the Drake didn’t lecture her about responsibility, the consequences of her actions and so on. He just folded his arms as he walked.

“…I rather imagine you have no idea how close a vote like that is in the Assembly of Crafts since you did not grow up around Pallass, Miss Solstice. A democracy such as this…it was a close vote.”

“No, I know. I mean—I didn’t know about the Walled Cities.”

“Until you came here.”

The Drake glanced sideways at Erin. She shrugged, self-consciously.

“Uh—no. Not at all.”

His head drooped.

“Hm. Troublesome. One would have assumed the Walled Cities were a household name. When–wherever you were.”

Erin bit her lip.

“Well, I’m used to big cities. Buildings just as tall.”

“Oh? Well, names can change. But this kind of architecture isn’t unfamiliar?”

The Drake brightened up. Erin drew out her words slowly.

“No…er, but hey! I like Pallass! How’s the weight training going?”

“Oh, that? I have a lot of new apprentices. Most washed out, but there’s a lot of talent…enough about that. So, when you say buildings of similar architecture—”

The Drake cut off as they ascended the 9th floor. Maviola gasped.

“Craftsman’s hammers. So these are the forges of Pallass!”

Erin and Grimalkin both looked at her in some surprise. Of course. The 9th floor with its endless forges wasn’t anything new to them. But then they saw Maviola’s shining eyes. The wonder in her expression. And they looked again.

The pride of Pallass. Massive forges for working steel—and steel was what Pallass made. Enough industry to supply the entire Walled City and other Drake armies with Pallassian steel!

“There is no one place with equivalent industry. It’s a marvel. Why, if we had this in the north, we wouldn’t have to hire out to damn—”

Maviola El looked around. Grimalkin straightened in pride.

“Yes, well, Miss Maviola, isn’t it? Pallass is known for its metallurgy. We do not specialize in magical goods, but our steel is second only to Dwarf-craft. A fact Miss Solstice knows full well.”

She turned her head and pretended to whistle as he fixed her with a meaningful eye. Maviola broke out of her stupor and glanced about.

“That’s right. You had Pelt. W—er, I heard the Five Families tried to buy him.”

“Wait, you know Pelt too, Maviola? Small world!”

The [Lady] rolled her eyes along with Grimalkin. She turned to face Erin, exasperated.

“Erin. Everyone who wants to hire the best knows Master Pelt’s name. He is one of the best [Smiths] in the world. Or—was. There was a time when he was one of the Dwarf-masters of Terandria. His name was one you memorized if you wanted the best. Well, along with Cinadel of the Lapis Anvil, Doon of Invinctel, Forgemaster Taxus, and so on…”

“Uh huh. Okay. Pelt was a big deal.”

Was. And now is again. Thanks to someone. Which also makes this moment even more inauspicious.”

Grimalkin pointed. And Erin saw—across the usually-busy 9th—every forge had gone dark. The hammers had stopped pounding. Only the smelters continued—burning, but unmanned.

There was a gathering around one forge Erin knew very well. She saw Drakes, a few Gnolls, Dullahans—a familiar giant of a [Blacksmith]. And some people in robes. [Senators]. But as Erin walked forwards, she saw a shorter figure than the rest, standing there, arguing with the ones in robes. Speaking with others. She felt it in the air, even over the angry chanting coming from the lower floors.

“Pelt.”

Erin breathed his name. One of her…special projects? Her allies? No—

Her friend. Someone she’d reached out to. The proud, broken Dwarf [Blacksmith]. He walked across the 9th floor. Past lines of [Smiths], ignoring the [Senators] and people trying to get him to stay. They approached, and now heard his voice, a roar that could have been heard over the sound of hammers hitting metal.

Enough! I’m done with Pallas! I’ve been here over a decade; I repaid my debts. This is my choice! Shove off before I split your hands with a hammer!

Maviola and Erin saw the Dwarf shrug off a pleading hand, reply with a rude comment that caused the speaker to recoil. He looked ahead—and his eyes met Erin’s for a second. The instigator. Then he wheeled, answering sharply to someone else.

This wasn’t the drunk Dwarf that Erin remembered. This one had fire. He was still sort of a jerk. But he walked between the [Smiths] and they made way for him.

“Look at him. You lit his fire.”

The [Lady] turned to the [Innkeeper]. Erin saw. She saw what Maviola meant. To her it was different, though. She shook her head absently.

“No. I didn’t. I just found the real Pelt and woke him up.”

Maviola’s warm hand gripped Erin’s arm. Her smile was wide.

“That is what you and I do. You see?”

Erin did. Now, they were closer, on the edge of the out lookers. Pelt walked past the ranks of silent [Smiths] until he stopped. He looked up at a kneeling giant.

Maughin the [Armorer]. The Dwarf looked up at him. Said something. The Dullahan, holding his head, smiled. But uncertainly.

The [Smiths] looked like they were afraid of what was happening. Of Pelt—leaving. But Pelt’s reply made Maughin stiffen, then nod. The giant Dullahan [Blacksmith] put his head on his shoulders, then extended his hand.

Pelt shook his hand. He smiled, one of the few times anyone in Pallass could remember the expression on his face. Then he turned away.

His voice was louder now. Erin caught a fragment of it.

“You’d never level with me anyways, Maughin. Not chasing my shadow. I was not the greatest smith of Deríthal-vel. Nor will I ever be. Even of those of us that left—I was only the second. Find a better way of forging and surpass me. If you don’t—I’ll put you out of business.”

He walked on, never looking back. Erin Solstice saw three apprentices follow the Dwarf. One of them was Emessa. The Drake apprentice didn’t hesitate as she left her home behind. She followed her master. And he had lit a spark in her soul. She walked taller now.

Erin hadn’t done that. It had been Pelt. Maviola saw flames igniting each other. Erin just saw—connections. Pieces on a board. But also her friends.

And then he was walking towards them. The Dwarf looked at Erin, and she was conscious of every head swinging towards her. The [Senators] hissed or growled or fluttered their wings at her. The Dullahans just stared.

“Uh. Hi, Pelt. What’s up?”

He grinned. The Dwarf’s teeth flashed in the sunlight.

“Heard that damn Golden Triangle thing caused protests. Decided it’d be a good day myself. I’m leaving Pallass.”

“He can’t. We hired him! We paid your asking price! Master Pelt—don’t listen to this—this lowly [Innkeeper]!”

Senator Errif howled. He chased after Pelt. Erin saw everyone following; to avoid being caught by the angry ones, she and Maviola stepped after Pelt and the apprentices following him.

“Who’s the other Human? Smells like fire. Keep away from my forge.”

Pelt grunted at Maviola. She bowed.

“Master Pelt? My name is Maviola—”

“Like that old crone who tried to hire me for the House of El? Gah. I already don’t like you.”

The Dwarf snorted. Maviola’s mouth slowly closed. She raised a fist and then punched Pelt in the back. He stumbled, swearing.

“Gah! What’s your problem?”

“That’s my—namesake!”

Grimalkin glanced sharply at Maviola and his claws twitched towards his belt and a quill. Erin saw Pelt snort at her. Something came out his nose.

“So? You can tell her what I said. Word for word. You another fire freak like she was? Feels like it. First you—then you—I almost joined El over Pallass since it was closer, but I got tired with her fire-talk after the first minute.”

Maviola turned pale. Erin had to actually hold her back from kicking Pelt down the stairs. He strode on.

There were protests. The entire fifth floor downwards was filled with angry people. Erin saw the Watch keeping them back, though. Pelt snorted.

“Just another reason to get out of here. At least in a smaller city I’ll have less idiots bothering me at my forge. Incidentally—”

He pointed at Erin.

“—That’s the reason I left. Not because of you.

“Sure, Pelt. So—I guess people are angry about it?”

The second crowd chasing them seemed to be a good indication of this. But the [Senators] weren’t as fast on their feet and their robes slowed them down so that even Pelt could outdistance them. He jogged towards the door on the 8th floor, puffing.

Don’t let them leave! [Guards]! Close the checkpoint!

Sergeant Kel had a bad day. But Grimalkin put one claw out.

“Belay that order. Master Pelt is authorized to travel to Liscor.”

“Hey Kel. Tell Venim this wasn’t my fault either, okay? It was Pelt’s decision, right?”

Erin nudged Pelt weakly. The [Sergeant] stared at the master [Blacksmith] and then at Erin. Pelt strode through the gates. But the Assembly of Crafts put out one last desperate attempt.

“Master Pelt. We’d hesitate to stop you by force. You are a lawful citizen—”

“And you couldn’t stop me. I know my rights in your damned Walled Cities. You hold me a day and Dwarfhome will cease all trade with Pallass. And you lot still need our knowledge!”

The Dwarf glared. The [Senator], Errif, hesitated.

“—That aside. Master Pelt, we are all too willing to d—triple whatever Liscor is paying you.  Consider it a signing fee for another—five years?”

Erin inhaled. Pelt only thought for a second then shook his head. The door swung open and Erin heard a commotion on the other side.

He’s coming? Is it the Dwarf? Everyone line up! I can’t wait to see the looks on Pallass’ stupid faces—ahem.”

The Council of Liscor was on the other side. Pelt glanced up at them and then rounded on the crowd. He pitched his voice so they could all hear.

“You want to know why I’m going to another city? Easy. They made a better offer. Also, I don’t feel like having my work stolen by a thousand damn spies. I want to forge in peace and quiet. It was too much work to move before; this time it’s easy. Out of the way.”

He kicked a Drake [Senator] as he strode through the door. Erin covered a smile with her hand.

And Liscor’s Council was waiting there. They jumped as they heard Pelt’s words. But Lism bustled forwards, full of self-importance. Raekea and Alonna practically sprinted from the inn. Erin heard Raekea panting to Alonna.

“We have to get them to finish the woodwork! He didn’t tell us he was coming—where’s Master Hexel!?”

Inside the inn, everything was sunshine and gloating expressions.

“Of course. Master Pelt, your forge awaits. Free of charge, of course. Rent-free! And we’ll work out the particulars of your stay…”

Lism was rubbing his claws together, trying to bow and shake Pelt’s hands—both of which the Dwarf ignored.

The Dwarf looked at the Drake. And looked through him. At Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw him push through the Council. And the short man looked up at her. He paused a second there, contemplatively looking around Erin’s inn. Then Pelt grunted.

“Well, this is your fault. I told everyone that.”

“Um. Thanks.”

He grinned. But he was alive. Burning as Maviola saw it. But Erin just saw him put his hands under his apron and scratch at his stomach.

“Thing is. I always liked Scales and Tails. But you promised me drinks. And Lasica’s cooking isn’t that good. I drink my meals, so if you can replace Rufelt’s fancy stuff with a keg…think it’s a good idea? You told me to try.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at all the angry people. But that was a byproduct of almost everything she did. She looked at Pelt and saw the smile on his face. So she smiled too.

“Yeah. I think so. So—you’re coming here?”

“Hm. Let’s see.”

The Dwarf looked around. He narrowed his eyes.

“Too much damn wood. Flammable. But there’s magic here. Even if it’s channeled. Good ore comes from Liscor when it’s winter. Drake cities—there’s worse places to be. Nice security. I hate water, but it’s better than having Human gangs running the place.”

Everyone held their breaths. The Dwarf touched the hammer at his belt.

“I could make a masterpiece. With privacy. With proper apprentices, equipment—I’ll have to forge the tools myself, source the ingredients. But if no one steals my work, I could make proper blades.

He spoke to shake Pallass and Liscor, as if everything before now, even the Grasgil axe, all his begrudging art had been just trash made in his sleep. The Dwarf inhaled.

“Yeah. A forge here…what do you think, Emessa?”

He turned to his apprentice. The Drake’s eyes were shining.

“We could make a proper forge, master. To your specifications. Even here…

She gestured around the inn. Erin’s breath caught. The Dwarf nodded. Liscor’s Council looked at each other. The [Senators] looked like they were having strokes. Pelt looked around.

“Liscor. Hm.”

He walked down the hallway. Senator Errif ran after Pelt, through the magic door. The others fought to get through and it turned off, leaving only a handful with Maviola and Grimalkin.

“Master Pelt! Let’s talk about this! We can offer twice the space Liscor has! And far better accommodations—”

“Excuse me! This fine Dwarf has made his decision!”

Lism jostled with the Gnoll as the [Senators] and Councilmembers fought to get Pelt’s attention. Threats were exchanged—fighting broke out. Erin just followed Pelt.

The Dwarf walked back and stopped at the magical door again. It was open to Liscor. He looked back at Erin.

“Miss Solstice. I still owe you one favor. Despite the damn mithril thing. Not sure…”

He passed his hand over his face and his expression went perfectly blank for a moment. Then he shook his head. And then he smiled. For a moment, he looked at the magical door. Krshia had set it to Liscor. And he looked like a grandfather, many decades older than Erin, a young man remembering his passion, a [Smith] regaining his fire. He reached out—

And slapped the door shut. Erin jumped. Maviola blinked. The fighting Council and [Senators] stared as Pelt reached up. He was too short.

“Apprentice! Change the door!”

Emessa hurried forwards. She adjusted the dial. Everyone stared. Erin’s mouth opened.

“Wait a second. That’s—”

The door opened. Pelt strode forwards.

“Aha. I’m expected, am I? Is my forge ready?”

And the Human man on the other end bowed.

“Master Pelt—it is. We’re honored to have you.”

The Drakes, the Gnolls, stared. They looked in horror as Pelt walked forwards, through the door. He had been stolen. By—

Humans?

Lism whispered in horror. Errif’s jaw dropped.

“Invrisil?”

And Erin’s smile vanished. She shouted.

Magnolia Reinhart?

She looked at Pelt, her eyes bulging. Betrayed. The Dwarf looked back. And he laughed in her face. He laughed his ass off. He laughed—and Erin realized—she was wrong.

“Wait.”

The door had opened onto a street. Not an inn. And even if it had been moved—this was the wrong street. Her eyes narrowed. Then widened as she realized the trick Pelt had played on them. On them all.

It wasn’t Invrisil. It was—

Esthelm.

The small Human city of [Miners] situated north of Liscor was turned out to see the Dwarven [Smith]. Pelt walked past their Watch Captain and head of the militia, a man she’d met before—

Umbral. The man who had taken over the city’s security. He had helped Erin with a coup this one time. He was bowing to Pelt.

“Master Pelt, we’re delighted to have you. We have your quarters for your apprentices. And your forge. We even have a small celebration in your honor…”

“Good to hear it. But I want to make sure my forge is ready first. Save your celebration. Maybe cheer these idiots up with it.”

Pelt jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the speechless crowds. He smiled, in the best of moods and walked forwards.

Esthelm cheered him. The people turned out of the stone houses built into the city that lay in the middle of the High Passes and the road heading north from Liscor. The mining folk—who had suffered the Goblin Lord’s assault—were shouting Pelt’s name. And why not? Here was a master [Smith]. In their city.

Not Liscor. Not Pallass. Not Celum or Invrisil. It left the others speechless. But despite herself—Erin found a huge smile on her face. Maviola was crestfallen. But she didn’t get it.

Look at him. Pelt looked so happy.

“But why Esthelm? It doesn’t have anything!”

Lism spluttered. The [Senators] were just as appalled. It was Pelt who snorted.

“Doesn’t have anything? Esthelm provides all the damn ore in the region! They offered me iron for copper.

And that was what mattered to a [Smith]. More than drinks. More than a Walled City. Erin marveled. Of course, someone like Pelt wanted those things. So it was a good thing he had a magical door.

“You brilliant jerk.”

Erin whispered. Then she was through the door like a shot. She hugged the annoyed Dwarf, but he didn’t brush her off for a good six seconds. Erin laughed until he shoved her off, growling curses.

They left behind the angry people in Liscor’s inn. Esthelm’s ruling body of Master Crafters—who had replaced the military leader that Erin had helped get rid of—cheerfully body-checked the [Shopkeepers] and [Senators]. Esthelm’s legislative body was made up of [Miners], [Shepherds], and tough people; in the war of knocking each other down, they were Gold-ranks.

“I hear there’s some good lots in Esthelm. Umbral, was it? [Sigilists]. [Gemcutters]. I want to talk with all of ‘em. Some of the magical metals take tricky things. You give me what I want—I’ll pay for it. No one spies on me but my apprentices. And I’ll cut Esthelm in their share of my sales.”

“Of course, Master Pelt. They’re all waiting to meet you.”

“They are, are they?”

That pleased him. Pelt walked past cheering faces, affecting not to notice them. But Erin saw him glancing at children waving little hammers, people who knew his name. His reputation. He smiled, and hid the expression in his beard.

“Grandfathers, but I never get peace and quiet anywhere. The price of being too good at my trade, I suppose.”

Erin snorted. Umbral gave her a mystified look as he nodded. Maviola, fuming, stomped back to the inn.

Someone else trotted after them. Erin turned her head. She saw Montressa—Beza—and—her face broke into an excited grin.

“Psst. Pelt. Pelt. I want to introduce you to some friends. [Mages] from Wistram.”

“Hm? Oh, fine. This parade’s for me, but ruin my day, will you? I suppose knowing a few decent [Mages] is important. Although I was going to work with Hedault of Invrisil. Who’s this lot?”

The Dwarf turned around. All three [Mages] bowed. Montressa lifted her staff.

“Master Pelt? I am Montressa du Valeross, an [Aegiscaster] of Wistram. This is Bezale, a [Spellscribe], and—”

Erin nearly shoved her aside. She grinned eagerly as she indicated the Centaur with two hands.

“Pelt. I want you to meet…Palt. Hah!”

The young woman looked around excitedly. She laughed, slapped her thighs—and realized no one was laughing.

Pelt blinked at Palt’s name, but the Centaur just bowed.

“Master Smith. It’s an honor. I’m an [Illusionist]. I realize our classes aren’t that complimentary, but we wanted to introduce ourselves to such an important [Smith]. All our factions would love to speak with you.”

The Dwarf looked at Erin, still waiting for someone to laugh with her. He opened his mouth to shout something insulting—then caught himself. He nodded at the Centaur after a moment.

“I’m sure they would. But I’m getting set up. Come by later, I suppose, Emessa will make an appointment. You want more of that thing, huh? Something’s odd about the insides. Crystal magic? Fine. But later.”

He pointed. Montressa jumped. Everyone turned to stare at the brass shock orb hovering behind her. Palt bowed. And the Dwarf went on.

“I don’t like Wistram. But a [Spellscribe]’s useful. You—Minotauress—we’ll talk. You’re staying at The Wandering Inn, right? Anyone who can put up with her deserves some sympathy.”

He jerked a thumb at Erin. She looked indignant.

“Hey! Is no one going to talk about the names? Pelt? Palt? Huh? Huh?”

The others looked at her. Umbral, Pelt, Palt, Montressa, Beza…the Centaur slowly puffed away on his cigar. He offered Pelt one; the Dwarf refused it.

“I pity you bastards. Alright, Umbral, show me my forge. And do me a favor?”

“Anything, Master Pelt.”

The man bowed. And the other leaders of Esthelm and craftspeople were coming forwards. Pelt jerked a thumb at Erin.

“Get rid of her. She’s bothersome to my work.”

Erin saw every head turn to her. She wavered.

“Hey now. Pelt, that was a joke, right? We’re best buds! Hey—don’t shove—Pelt, say someth—Pelt, you traitor! Traitor!

 

—-

 

Pelt of Deríthal-Vel heard Erin’s voice growing softer in the distance. He had travelled far from his home. But he would always be from there.

The Dwarf was old. Old—and young. A lad, really. They called him a master. But he had seen masters. If he had stayed—

Perhaps it was better he’d left. As he had told Maughin, greatness came from challenging, not copying. If only he had known that and left with his head held high. Rather than disgrace.

The Dwarf’s eyes grew dark. He nearly stumbled and fell—in front of all the Humans. But though that blasted girl had—knocked the rust off him, he couldn’t confront the last.

This was enough. Pride in metal. Pride in your craft. Pride in yourself. What good is the quality of the steel if there was no heart in the hand the held the hammer? Damn that Dullahan.

Maughin would be a master in his own time. For now—Pelt murmured something as Umbral led him to the forge.

“You don’t have to kick her out of the city. That was a joke. Didn’t you say you owed her countless favors?”

“Of course, Master Pelt. But you said—apologies.”

The man bowed, flustered. The Dwarf saw him hurry off. And he sighed as he beheld his forge.

Ah. That is what I wanted.”

The others stared. Some dismayed. Liscor’s Council, other [Smiths]—the aghast [Senators] made no effort to hide their disdain.

But the [Mages] were smarter than that. Out of the corner of his eye, Pelt saw the fiery-haired Maviola—much like the old woman he’d refused to serve—inspecting the forge.

“Hm. Interesting.

The forge was—primitive. Not like Pallass’ grand forges ready to shape steel, or even Liscor’s new one meant for him. At first glance it seemed crude.

Oh, the people of Esthelm had worked hard. The stone and mortar made a large, large building. Three times larger than any other forge. And they’d built it carefully, leaving no flaws.

It just lacked pomp. Expensive wood, color—who needed that? It had more. Pelt stomped into his forge as his apprentices stifled their dismay.

“Living quarters. Good. Don’t care. Put my stuff in a room.”

He shouted at the apprentices. Then he turned to regard the forge. He found the smart ones already there. Palt, the Centaur, nodded to him as he trotted around an anvil placed in a magical circle.

“Sub-compartmentalized rooms. Each one blast-enchanted?”

“Good eyes, Baleros brat. You’ve seen smithies before?”

“Not like this.”

Beza murmured. The Minotauress eyed the multiple anvils. One was made out of stone. Another in the magical circle—and there were multiple forges. Mostly shells; Pelt would have to customize them.

“What is this, Master Smith? I have been in the House of Minos’ forges, but never seen this.”

“Bah. That’s because your lot doesn’t forge magic. This is magic. I’ll need to hire someone to make sure the forges can get hot enough. Stone melts, damn the stuff. You’ve never seen Wistram’s smithing halls?”

“Few smiths come to Wistram with the talent anymore.”

Montressa emerged from another room, brushing frost off her robes. Grasgil would be made there. Pelt grunted; he didn’t mind them looking. Wistram had stolen forge designs; they wouldn’t get his metals, though.

“What a waste. Alright. You lot clear out! It looks decent. But where’s the standard anvils?”

“Here. Master Pelt—”

There were mundane ones. Pelt chose casually; they were all alike.

“Get it out there. In the open. Huh. That one’s got a fucking crack. Get rid of it!”

He kicked the offending anvil. There was a flurry and other hands dragged his chosen anvil out.

The crowds were still there. Pelt strode past the annoying flies—people from Liscor and Pallass. He looked around.

“Apprentice! Emessa, damn it. Get your tail out here!”

The Drake appeared and Esthelm’s people murmured. But the Antinium had rebuilt their walls and she carried a hammer. She was familiar to them because of that.

An angry [Innkeeper] was dancing about in the street. But she’d brought a Gnoll and one of Terandria’s [Princesses] to see him. Pelt recognized the hair color. Also, the way Lyonette carried herself.

He didn’t care. The Dwarf looked at Emessa.

“Set up the outdoor forge. I’m not hammering hot; steel temperature. And get me the crystal.”

Her eyes widened. The others stirred. Maviola glanced at Pelt.

“You’re going to do some hammering?”

The Dwarf didn’t reply. He glanced at Maviola, and then narrowed his eyes. Grandfathers, it was her. The same flame! You couldn’t copy that. He shuddered. Magic potions and immortals. He was just a smith. He didn’t say a word though; he had kept far greater secrets than hers faithfully.

He only knew one thing. The Dwarf saw the [Innkeeper] approach. He made no sign he saw her. She had a big enough head already.

“Say. Centaur. Palt’s the name, right?”

The [Illusionist] jumped. He took the cigar out of his mouth.

“That’s right, Master Smith—”

“Enough with that. I don’t care. Nor do I care about Wistram. Or petty Walled Cities or anything else. I just move metal. I was happy enough to drink myself to death. Or so I thought. That damn Human. Just—tell me something. In her inn. She has a Hobgoblin, right?”

The [Mages] exchanged a worried glance. Maviola just narrowed her eyes and looked around. Palt nodded slowly.

“One. Numbtongue.”

“Right. I saw that bugger a few times. Uses a sword, right? Longsword? Decent steel but someone’s notched it a thousand times.”

“Yes…”

The Dwarf nodded. He’d known that before. He didn’t bother asking if it was the preferred weapon; odds were the Centaur didn’t know and Goblins used whatever they could grab.

Where’s my crystal and fire, apprentice?

He roared. The crowd jumped. Emessa, though, was used to it.

“Heating up, master! Any pick on steel?”

She had billets ready for him. Pre-made. Pelt knew the steel on each was perfect, but he still chose carefully, examining micro-fragments. The minutiae of the alloy material in the steel itself. He selected one, grunted.

“It’ll do. Heat it up. Now—I’m ready.”

There he stood. The crowd was murmuring. At last, one of them called out. She was a [Smith]. A Human woman, talented for her brief time. That was the thing. Smiths leveled faster the shorter their lifespans.

Ah, but true skill took decades. Centuries, even. That was the unfairness. Pelt felt for these young children. He had been born with an advantage—and he hadn’t squandered it. Every day of his youth he’d swung a hammer. And he had longer than them left to live, even with diluted blood running in his veins.

But don’t scorn them. The Dwarf inhaled. And then he bellowed.

That’s right, Mistress Smith! Have you not heard of the tradition of every Master Smith who has mastered at least five of the great metals beyond steel?

The crowd blinked up at him and shook their heads. From Pallass, the [Smiths], including Maughin raised their heads. Pelt kept one eye on the steel in the fire. He drew a hammer and looked for Erin again.

There she was. The Dwarf’s voice was no less loud, but more conversational as his apprentices laid out tools for him.

“Well, it’s simple. The custom is that a true master should—nay—must, upon moving to a new place, a new land, prove his worth. For great masters move seldom! They travel—ah, but when they move, they should demonstrate their craft. By forging in public some blade or work of art. Large or small. It’s no grand tradition like Terandrian kingdoms have. Just respect for the metal.”

“You never did that when you came to Pallass!”

A voice. Pelt threw his hammer. Senator Errif ducked as the hammer cracked the very flagstones of the street and then flew back towards Pelt. The Dwarf roared back.

“Well, I didn’t feel like it. I do now. Apprentice! Where’s my crystal?”

“Here, Master!”

And there it was. The Dwarf sighed as he drew something out. Everyone saw a long, long sliver of…red-gold crystal? Mrsha climbed onto Erin’s head and then leapt onto Maughin’s shoulder for a better look. The Dullahan tried to make sure she wouldn’t fall as he called out.

“Master Pelt! What is that?

Crystal. That’s all, Maughin. The kind that cuts sharp and hurts whomever it touches.”

The red was mixed with gold. Truegold—a ghost-killer’s blade. But the crystal could cut mere steel. And it would not break easily. Nevertheless, it was too costly; all he had was a tiny amount, stretched long.

An edge. The crowd murmured. Maughin stared at the beautiful, thin crystal. The Dwarf was taking care not to even lay the edge down on the anvil, lest it cut into the iron.

“Does it have a name, Master? It must.”

The Dwarf glanced up, irritated. But perhaps that was the act. He replied curtly.

“Everything has many names in smithing, you Dullahan pest! Some call this crystal Cridel. The deadly blood of Baleros! Others knew it of old as a different thing: Dragonblood Crystal.

Silence. Someone laughed, disbelievingly. The Dwarf shrugged.

“The edge is good. I have little of it. But this would make a fine blade, even with steel to hold it. Steel and iron. So look, people of Esthelm. I am Pelt of Deríthal-Vel! And look, you annoying [Innkeeper]! You insane wretch of a girl!

He bellowed as he raised his hammer and pointed it. Erin jumped. She saw the Dwarf raising his hammer high, as he grabbed the steel out of the forge at the perfect temperature. He bellowed.

This is my art! ‘Let the world remember only what I have made!’”

Fine words, uttered by his friend. The Dwarf’s hammer fell. It struck the metal, bounced up, and came down again.

First, it was a single beat. Then—a ringing in the air. Then drumming.

Faster. Faster. Until each blow rang in the air and the watchers thought the anvil itself jumped with each blow. The steel moved like water under the hammer, but not without function. Shifting, changing.

Folding. Lengthening. Erin had seen the Dwarf do it once before. For her knife. He was using the same technique; folding the metal to create a sandwich. And there, a glittering edge waited.

But the difficulty of it was different. When the smith placed the glittering edge in his waiting sword—his thunderous hammering became as quiet as butterflies landing on the anvil. He refused to strike the crystal, melded the steel around the edge so gently that it seemed like each individual tap did nothing. But slowly, the metal engulfed the glittering edge.

A master’s work. He couldn’t have been at his work longer than an hour. Just one hour, to forge a sword. Insultingly short for anyone else. But before the hour was done, Pelt was removing scaling with a single motion, adding a design into the edge of the blade, fitting it to a hilt.

And when he was done? The sword had only one edge. The steel was polished, and it gleamed like a grey mirror. Beautiful with oil and polish.

But the red and gold shone like the very edge of the blade dripped with the blood of some magical beast.

Dragonblood Crystal. And Truegold. It was attached to a simple handle with a guard for the hand. And the smith regarded it thoughtfully.

“A simple piece. I had not the materials for anything greater yet. The edge—the rest of the blade is expendable. But the edge can be fitted again and again. And if treated with care, it shall last a year of war. A decade without. A century if only worn about and carried like a damn heirloom. While it lasts, it will cut down anything it touches. Like so.”

He turned the blade and brought it down. Erin saw something fall from the anvil.

The horn. The Dwarf sliced again, and another chunk came loose. The crowd gasped; the blade was beyond a razor’s edge. Pelt held the blade and Erin saw him smile.

“It will be long before I forge a blade worthy of legends such as I have seen. But for now—this suffices. So. Take it.”

He stepped out from behind the anvil. Erin saw him walking towards her. She looked around and stepped out of the way. But Pelt followed her. He held the blade in a cloth grip.

“Don’t touch the edges, girl. If you lose a finger, I won’t take responsibility for it. Don’t trip either.”

She blinked. Lyonette gasped and Mrsha stared. From where she stood, Maviola’s eyes blazed. The [Mages], the other [Smiths] were silent. Erin looked down at Pelt.

“Wait. Me?

“Give it to that damn Goblin with the disgusting piece of metal he calls a sword. Yes, for you. Or did you think we were quits? I don’t forget my debts. This is better than the Grasgil.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at him. At a loss for words. She looked at the beautiful sword.

“Um. How much is it? I can pay—”

Someone laughed. It was Pelt. He laughed and threw his head back. He looked at Erin, shook his head, and laughed again.

The [Innkeeper] stared at him. Then she heard a giggle. Lyonette and Mrsha were laughing, the Gnoll silently, Lyonette trying to stifle the noise. Then Erin smiled. She saw the silly humor too. She laughed as well, and hugged Pelt, keeping away from the blade. She kissed his cheek and whispered.

“Thank you. Don’t stay away from the inn.”

“You can give me as much free drinks as you want, then.”

She hugged her silly, grumpy, friend. And he gently hugged her too.

The [Innkeeper] took the beautiful blade in a sheath back to the inn. A Hobgoblin got a new sword.

Just in time for the riots to get markedly worse.

 

—-

 

In Invrisil, a mob was marching on Magnolia’s estates. It had taken the [Lords] some doing—to get the crowds to move out of Invrisil and actually march to Magnolia’s mansion. Because it was several miles outside of the city, perhaps for that exact reason. Travelling salespeople, thieves, and mobs all had to walk and were conspicuously exposed on the approach.

But they’d done it. People were angry. Their money was gone. Lost to ‘The Golden Triangle’, which had turned out to be nothing but an idea. Words that stole your money and gave back promises.

What made them so angry was that the fraud had been exposed—but no one was held to blame. Wistram had ended the illusion. But they hadn’t cleaned up the mess. Now—people wanted to blame someone.

And why not Magnolia Reinhart? Lord Andel, Lord Ranga, and the other [Lords] had convinced thousands to move out of the city. Now they were marching on Magnolia’s mansion.

Chanting.

“Give us our money back!”

“Hold the Merchant’s Guild responsible!”

And so on. It wasn’t one idea. Some wanted the Mage’s Guild to be held to account since their [Messages] had been so instrumental to the scam working. Others blamed the [Merchants], who should have known about all this. Or the Adventurer’s Guild, because of the fake adventuring teams they’d been sold on. And many wanted Magnolia herself to pay them back. She was, after all, rich, and the [Lady] of Invrisil.

Anger ran in the streets. Desperation. It wasn’t just young men, but mothers, fathers—people who had nothing left because they’d put everything into this grand new thing.

Pain. Well, the Hobgoblin understood that fairly well. Numbtongue sat in the hallway, listening to the crowds passing by The Player’s Retreat outside. He knew Erin and the others were in Esthelm; he wasn’t keen on returning, even to watch the Dwarf.

The memories were too painful there. So the Hobgoblin listened to the riot. It sounded like pain to him. The angry voices were angry because they’d been hurt.

Not physically. But money mattered to Humans and other species like blood mattered to Goblins. Numbtongue understood. And didn’t at the same time. He understood from living here that if you lacked money, you could die. Suffer. Money mattered.

At the same time—they were alive. They had their health. They were angry that something bad had happened. And they expected someone to do something about it.

That was what made the [Bard] cynically amused. Darkly furious. What arrogance. He strummed harder on the guitar. If you could be helped by begging, Goblins wouldn’t die.

But that was a very Redfang thought to have. A very Goblin complaint. Numbtongue still felt bad for them, the sad and raging people. That was an Erin-thought. And in between the two emotions he just felt concerned.

“Thousands of people. Could probably kill everyone in that inn.”

He commented to Drassi. The Drake glanced at him as she checked the door for travellers from other cities. Veeid, the [Innkeeper], turned pale before the door flickered to a view of Liscor.

“That’s pretty dark, Numbtongue.”

“Just saying. No reinforcements on the windows, not enough [Bouncers]. Bad-bad. Needs good hallway like this.”

“Should we be concerned? Listen—there’s protests in Liscor.”

Drassi pointed. The door was set to Liscor now and both heard angry chanting. But not on the level of the riot. Numbtongue had seen people in Invrisil armed with rocks, sword—even bows. Even city folk had weapons on the level of daggers. Liscor’s crowds were, as yet, unarmed.

Dismissively, the Hobgoblin adjusted the guitar’s chords.

“No problem. Even if Invrisil crowds attack us, they have to get through the other inn. Same with Liscor. Then they’re here. Nice hallway. Could probably hold it forever.”

He approvingly looked around Belgrade’s trapped hallway. If someone held the doors they could take even a thousand people to bits. Their only fear was running out of acid jars and crossbow bolts to shoot through the arrow slits. And Numbtongue had helpfully ordered two thousand more bolts with the inn’s funds.

The Drake [Gossip] didn’t seem to understand Numbtongue’s satisfaction with a good kill zone. She gave Numbtongue a sidelong look as she switched to Celum.

“Why will they attack the inn, Numbtongue? They’re mad at other people.”

“Sure. But this is just in case. Right?”

“Uh…right?”

The Hobgoblin went back to playing his guitar. He didn’t like mobs of Humans. If you were caught outside, now—even a hundred Redfangs would eventually die to thousands of angry Humans. Riots were scary things. No one seemed to get that; everyone was behaving normally, as if the riot in Invrisil wasn’t bad. But he was concerned, which is why he was sitting here. A few lightning bolts would really help if the mob came calling.

Or a few [Deathbolts]. Why won’t you take my hand?

Reiss sat there. Numbtongue glanced up.

“I don’t like you.”

“That’s hurtful, Numbtongue.”

“Not you, Drassi.”

“Oh. Excellent.”

It was more that he was nervous. Numbtongue adjusted his guitar again. Pyrite, now—Pyrite was part of him. Which meant that Numbtongue had all his memories. He could think about thinking—he was a better fighter. And he had an inordinate amount of knowledge about rocks thanks to the memories of the Goldstone Chieftain. That was…fine. Pyrite had been a great Goblin.

But Reiss? Numbtongue feared what his memories, his personalities would do to him. Nevertheless, he hadn’t banished Reiss. The dead Goblin Lord was like a cursed blade. If Numbtongue needed him to defend the inn, he’d take Reiss’ offer. Until then—the Goblin Lord sat patiently.

Waiting.

They will never take Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. My master, Az’kerash, told me about her. The Reinharts have a vast treasury of artifacts hoarded over millennia. She could crush them a hundred times. She also has an alliance with that Dragon.

“Mhm. Reinhart scary. Pink knights? Think I could kill one?”

Numbtongue glanced towards the common room. He hadn’t missed that Lady Bethal, the dangerous Thomast, and those [Knights] kept eying him. Reiss replied thoughtfully.

Enchanted warriors. You’d suffer. Their armor is top-class. Their Skills and levels—less so. I could. I have. But that [Chevalier] will kill you fast-dead.

Pyrite’s memories nudged Numbtongue. The [Knights] and Lady Bethal fighting Rags’ tribe in the forest. The [Bard] bared his teeth. He also remembered Pyrite’s conversations with that Ser Kerrig. However, he was disinclined to speak with them himself. Why were they here?

“Don’t attack the guests, please, Numbtongue. Lyonette and Erin will have my tail. Hey, anyone coming from Celum? Last call!”

A Human walked through. He started as he saw the Hobgoblin; Drassi reassured him.

“That’s Numbtongue. Read the sign, thank you!”

She pointed to the ‘No Killing Goblins’ sign. The Human stared at Numbtongue. He waved.

“Hi.”

“Er…hello?”

The man shuffled off quickly. Numbtongue went back to playing. Drassi sighed.

“I wish this could be automated, Numbtongue. I mean—it’s not hard, but every fifteen minutes? Okay, Wailant’s farm. Anyone here? No? Good! Now, Pallass…and then you can go back to watching riots.”

She switched the dial to the yellow gemstone, and the door shifted. The two saw the waiting room, now spruced up with decorations from this morning. And sitting in two of the chairs were—

Sir Relz and Noass. Numbtongue glanced up as the two Drakes jumped. They stared at Numbtongue. But then they focused on Drassi.

“Dead gods! At last! We’ve been waiting!”

Noass practically shoved his way through the door. Drassi backed up as Sir Relz and a Gnoll assistant holding a scrying mirror hurried through.

“Noass? Sir Relz?”

“Hm? Is that our sports-person? Drassi, is it? Excellent! Transport to Invrisil at once! We can pay. What’s it—eighteen silver for three? Here. Keep the change.”

Noass fumbled a gold piece into Drassi’s claws. She blinked.

“I—uh—I can do that. But what’s going on? Invrisil has riots, Mister Noass. I have to warn you—”

“My dear young Drake. That’s precisely why we’re going. We just got word. And we’re broadcasting this live!

Sir Relz adjusted his monocle. Noass was rubbing his claws together.

“We’re broadcasting live the moment we go through. Scrying mirror set? How’s things on Wistram’s end?”

“Good, Noass. Wistram is preparing to broadcast.”

A voice from the other end. Numbtongue peered around the Gnoll holding the mirror and saw a [Mage] in a room filled with mirrors. The Dullahan jumped.

“Is that a Goblin?

“What? Oh—yes. Numbtongues or whatever. Just part of the inn, Miss Beatrice. Miss Drassi, Invrisil?”

“I—okay. I guess I can let you through. Are you sure, though? There’s a lot of angry Humans.”

The [Gossip] hesitated. Both Drakes nodded, impatiently. Numbtongue on the other hand—eyed the mirror.

“I wouldn’t. Bad idea. You’ll get eaten.”

Sir Relz and Noass paused. It was, perhaps, the first time the Hobgoblin had ever spoken to them. Or they had acknowledge his presence beyond stares.

“Excuse me?”

Sir Relz peered at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin had a feeling he was being appraised. He stared up at them from his cross-legged seat.

“Riots are bad. You’ll get hurt. Or make them worse.”

He glanced pointedly at the scrying mirror. Noass huffed.

“Thank you for the warning, Sir Goblin. I think we know what we’re doing, don’t you?”

“Nope.”

There was nothing to say to that. The two Drakes glanced at each other, then deliberately turned their heads and pretended Numbtongue didn’t exist.

“The door is open. But maybe Erin should—”

Drassi glanced at Numbtongue, but the two Drakes pushed through and their Gnoll camerawoman followed them after a moment. Numbtongue sighed. He heard Noass talking rapidly.

Are we live? We’re live! Hello, this is Noass coming to you from Invrisil! We’ve just received word there’s a riot happening about The Golden Triangle fraud and Sir Relz and I are giving you the premium, exclusive coverage as-it-happens—

“Idiots.”

The Hobgoblin called through the door. He was rewarded with a spluttering sound and his voice was broadcast, for a moment, worldwide. Drassi covered her mouth in horror.

“Numbtongue!”

But then the two Drakes were gone. Numbtongue sighed. He expected them to come back in pieces as he sat there, listening to the riots. But in that way, the [Bard] was wrong. He let Drassi go back to waiting tables and kept playing music. The shouting in the distance didn’t change as Sir Relz and Noass left the inn.

Meanwhile, the pink Rose Knights and Veeid were fortifying the inn—perhaps due to Numbtongue’s words. Boarding up windows, blocking the back door, and so on. The Hobgoblin watched with one eye, playing song after song to pass the minutes by.

But he heard the riots moving away from Invrisil. Towards Magnolia’s mansion. He supposed he was wrong; only one [Lady] was in trouble, and if Reiss was correct, not in much trouble at all. He got up, deciding that if it was all-clear, he’d go play on Kevin’s laptop or mine something.

That was when he heard a worried voice.

Numbtongue?

The Hobgoblin looked up. He saw Drassi peeking through the door at him. The Hobgoblin tensed.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think—you were right. Numbtongue, the riots—”

The Hobgoblin stood up. He checked the sword at his side—glanced through the door and shut it. Then he realized something.

The shouting didn’t stop. Slowly, he turned his head. The shouting was coming from the other door. The one leading outside. He stared at Drassi.

“Liscor.”

She slowly nodded and pointed. Numbtongue followed her. Into the common room. There he saw Lady Bethal, Thomast, and some of the guests staring into a scrying mirror the [Lady] held.

We’re—we’re seeing the crowds marching on Lady Reinhart’s mansion! There’s fury in the air, right, Sir Relz?

“That’s right! People are incensed! And—and rightly so! The devastation this Golden Triangle fraud has brought about is unconscionable! People need to hold someone to account! The question is—stop pushing—is it Magnolia Reinhart?”

The mirror was showing Sir Relz and Noass in the middle of the riot. People were shouting. Screaming. Some—were fighting to shout into the mirror. Numbtongue saw a mass of angry faces. He felt a prickling down his spine.

The air was electric. Even just seeing the mob had an effect. On Numbtongue—it was the prelude to a fight. But that was because he was a Goblin, he had no stake in this matter. In the inn—it was different.

“They’re right. Those bastards at the Mage’s Guild did this!”

Menolit pounded the table with one fist. The [Veteran] was simmering. And his mood was being echoed and amplified by the scrying orb.

“They’re broadcasting the riots. I hope Magnolia doesn’t deal with them too harshly.”

Bethal was calm. Unconcerned even by the people moving on the distant mansion. But Thomast had another take. He glanced at the scrying orb, around the room. He noticed Numbtongue, but then looked at the orb.

“They shouldn’t be broadcasting this.”

“Whyever not, Thomast? It’s topical.”

The [Chevalier] glanced at Menolit’s face. The Drake had lost money to the Golden Triangle. And there was more simmering in the room.

“They’re making this worse.”

 

—-

 

Riots were like wildfire. To use a Maviola-expression, the anger spread from person to person. But until now, riots were still contained to a city, a region, a nation at worst. What no one had predicted until now was the effect of something like…the world’s most popular and only news show broadcasting that kind of fury to other disgruntled cities.

In Liscor, people watched Invrisil’s protests. And the fury there amplified. Spread. If the Humans were rioting, well, why in Rhir’s hell shouldn’t we? The fury that had been suppressed by the Watch bubbled up again. And this time it ran hotter.

Pallass too. Chaldion emerged from the [Healer]’s clinic on a crutch, snapping orders.

“Stop those broadcasts! Someone go to Invrisil now and get those two idiots to stop! Send a [Message] to Wistram!”

Too late. Pallass’ protests on the 5th floor turned ugly so fast Chaldion saw the relatively peaceful crowds turn on the Watch. The [Guards] holding back the crowd from the Merchant’s Guild were hit by something. Chaldion saw an explosion, heard screaming—

Flashpowder Orb. Someone had tossed an alchemical weapon. The [Guards] reached for their weapons. Which was a mistake. The instant one of them drew a sword, covering his wounded friends, the crowd reached for their weapons. Chaldion pointed.

“[Long-Range Command]. [Rapid Retreat]. By my order as Grand Strategist, do not engage the crowd you idiots—

Too late again. Someone leapt forwards. A hothead Garuda with a dagger, brandishing it. Chaldion saw, with his one good eye, a Drake whirling. The Garuda youth was fast, but the [Guard] was quicker. The sword came up—the Garuda blinked. Everyone stared at the sword buried in his gut.

In the silence, the Grand Strategist cursed. And then—Pallass erupted.

 

—-

 

By the time Erin returned with the sword—things were very bad. An hour, or even a minute could change a lot. And the noise from the city—Liscor—had taken on a bad tone.

“Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh.”

From his tower, Bird saw bad things. He heard bad things. He felt bad things.

Liscor was on fire. He counted seventeen separate sources of smoke. And he heard very many angry people.

The Antinium Worker saw no birds. That was always a sign. You had to watch the Birds. He always told Mrsha this.

 

Look up. There are probably birds.

            –Bird’s Observation on Birds

 

Usually, they flew around the Floodplains, even if they kept out of his range. But right now—everything was hiding. Animals sensed moods. And accordingly—so did Bird.

It was like an entire Hive of angry people. Bird listened.

“—they’re fighting with the Watch! Erin, what’s that sword—”

From his tower, he heard Drassi’s voice. Bird was always in his tower. That did not mean he saw or heard nothing. In fact, he often saw and heard more than everyone else. Just from a different perspective.

“Bad, bad. Uh oh. You stay here.”

The Workers who had been helping make his tower looked at Bird. The [Bird Hunter] waved at them.

“No going to the Hive. It’s bad-bad in the city.”

“Bad, Hunter Bird?”

One of the Workers looked at Bird. The communication between them was—odd. Workers didn’t usually ask questions. But these ones had been at Erin’s inn. They had experienced luxuries like time off, snacks, and so on. Bird nodded.

Bad. Stay here.”

“We may use the secret passages, Hunter Bird.”

The same Worker pointed out, speaking for the others. Bird looked at him. The [Hunter] shook his head.

“No. Silly Worker. Be sh—be quiet. That is not the point.”

They looked at him. Bird glanced around, counting.

“You stay. So we can fight. If needed.”

The Workers went still. Bird remembered other Workers. An inn under siege. Right now—he felt the same tension in the air. But instead of undead—it was Drakes and Gnolls. All of them turned towards the city. Bird whispered.

Can you feel it?

They looked at him. Bird’s antennae were waving rapidly. He turned his head. He could hear Erin below, demanding answers of Drassi. Other people—Lyonette telling Mrsha to go into the garden again. But his senses reached beyond sight, smell, hearing. He looked towards Liscor.

“Bad things are happening. To us.”

 

—-

 

What did people in Liscor have to be angry about? So many things.

Monster attacks. The Golden Triangle. The damn sewer stench. But that was just backdrop. There was more.

The Antinium. The Humans coming into their city. Goblins. Some people didn’t care. But Liscor’s election had been fraught. And of late—the Human population had swelled. The Antinium’s true numbers in their Hive had been exposed and Lism had run on a campaign of distrust.

It just took angry people. People who had lost gold. People who really didn’t like Antinium.

There had been mobs on the day The Golden Triangle fell apart. But the Watch had suppressed them fairly effectively. Now, though—they looked at the images of Invrisil and when they took to the streets this time, the people were armed.

Disperse back to your homes! This is an unlawful gathering!

Watch Captain Zevara bellowed as a line of [Guards] advanced. It wasn’t martial law—yet. But the armed crowd had converged on the Mage’s Guild and the Council had ordered her to protect the building.

A hundred [Guards] blocked the streets. More were surrounding the Merchant’s Guild, other sources of fury. The crowd shouted; some people threw rocks, bricks; there was a surplus of ammunition with the new district under construction.

“Hold ranks! No one is to return fire!”

Zevara shouted at the Watch hiding behind shields and barricades. She wasn’t about to risk a clash. And indeed—the crowd wasn’t about to charge a line of [Guards]. Zevara saw people milling about. Her eyes narrowed.

“What are they doing? Are they pulling back…?”

That was when she saw the first smokestack rising. And she realized—

No crowd of people attacked a line of [Guards]. They weren’t mad. They were furious. And since the Watch was guarding this street—the riot just moved to the next street.

Market Street began to burn. Zevara’s head snapped up as the first report came in.

“Watch Captain! They’re torching buildings!”

“What? Why?”

“Residential apartments! Places where members of The Golden Triangle were!”

The Watch Captain cursed.

“Get me a squad of high-level [Guards]. We’re taking everyone who was part of The Golden Triangle under protective custody! Move!”

Then she had a thought. Relc. Zevara turned her head. She left her line of [Guards] behind. Took a squad of forty into the city.

The first thing she saw was Humans on the street. Refugees from Celum—fleeing. They’d been evicted from their homes. Then Zevara passed by a burned shop front.

“A member of The Golden Triangle. Find them.”

Jeiss took a second squad. The Councilmember had left the rest of the Council in City Hall. Zevara ordered her [Guards] to speed up.

They came upon the first mob attacking another target. The Drakes and Gnolls saw Zevara’s squad coming around the street and fled. She saw a shape lying on the ground. The Watch Captain pointed.

Guards! Arrest that group!

The [Guards] pursued—but the mob was too fast. They just ran. And Zevara saw the shape on the ground huddled into a ball. She approached. And saw blood. But not red.

Green ichor. The Worker lay on the ground. He had tried to protect himself, but without fighting back. He’d managed to shield his face, body—from the worst of the kicks and blows. But his antennae were torn off.

Healer!

Zevara shouted. She approached the Worker.

“Worker. Hello. Are you—”

The Antinium jerked away from her. The Worker scuttled away, running. Zevara turned. Her view of the mob changed again.

“They’re going after the Humans and Antinium. As well as members of The Golden Triangle.”

“Watch Captain? We lost the mob. What order, Watch Captain?”

A [Guard] panted, coming back from chasing the crowd. Zevara hesitated. Her instinct was to tell them to fan out, secure any Workers and escort them back to the Hive now along with the Humans. But then she heard a roar.

No more outsiders! No more lies!

A distant shout. Magnified hundreds of times. Zevara and her small squad looked about. They saw torches, armed Drakes and Gnolls. They filled the street, some hurling objects. Others were taking advantage of the confusion to loot shops.

Here they came. The squad of forty saw a flood of angry people coming at them. Zevara didn’t even pause to think.

Back to the Mage’s Guild! Move!

The Watch retreated. The mob spotted them and broke into a run. There was no individual person there—who might respect the Watch, know a few [Guards] personally. It was just angry people whose every grudge was out in the open. The Watch retreated. The injured Worker hid in an alley.

Bird felt the Worker’s fear.

So too did the Free Queen. And Xrn. In the Hive, Yellow Splatters looked up as the first Workers began to flee into the Hive. Pawn ran for them and saw the blood.

 

—-

 

Erin had thought it was bad before. Now—it was worse.

Pelt’s sword was almost an afterthought as she returned to The Wandering Inn and found that things had escalated without her knowing. The Invrisil broadcast had lit sparks. For once, Maviola’s analogies were appropriate.

“They’re kicking out Humans. Attacking Workers. But they’re mostly after members of The Golden Triangle. I should have stopped Noass and Sir Relz! I just thought they were going to report what was happening! But people saw the riots in Invrisil and—it got bad, Erin.”

Drassi was panting. She’d gone into Liscor but fled after only a few minutes. Ishkr was missing. He’d been allowed to go home early.

But that was a bad thing, now. Numbtongue was inspecting his new sword. He grunted.

“Inn’s safe. No one else. Don’t go into hallway.”

He sat by the door to the common room. Ironically, the magic door had been moved to the common room. The danger wasn’t something coming through there—it was a mob converging on the inn. Erin looked around.

“What’s Zevara doing?”

“Holding parts of the city. Economic districts, the Watch House—only a few streets. There aren’t enough [Guards].”

Drassi answered for Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked askance.

“What about the rest of the city? She has to protect the Workers! People are attacking them?

“Yes.”

Bird had come down from his tower. He had brought his bow. He was, Erin realized, handing out crossbows to the other Workers. She saw Numbtongue nodding.

“No. What are you two doing?”

Both Worker and Goblin looked at Erin.

“Preparing.”

“For a riot? No. We’re not killing people. We can still do something. Maviola. You have your aura! I have [Crowd Control].”

“Don’t be an idiot. You can’t control a riot. Even a [Queen] hides when the mob marches on her palace!”

Maviola snapped. Erin shook her head. She looked around.

Palt! Get over here! And my lanterns! Where are they?”

She had an idea. The [Innkeeper] marched into the kitchen. When she came back—she was holding something.

The cold-fire lantern. Maviola eyed it.

“What is that?

“Depressing fire. Palt—come with me. Montressa, Beza, do you know any spells like Palt?”

The Centaur [Illusionist] looked up. So did Montressa and Bezale. They blinked to be addressed by Erin.

“Us? Well—sure. But why?”

“We’re going into Liscor. To stop the riots. Palt, you know [Calm], right. Can’t you cast it on…?”

Erin waved her hand at the door. The Centaur frowned worriedly.

“I have a lot of spells, Erin. But mass mind-control spells aren’t a good idea.”

“I don’t want you to control them. I just want you to stop them from attacking people. I’ll use this.”

Erin opened the shutter of her lantern. Maviola shaded her eyes as the depressing, cold flame washed over her. Montressa shuddered.

“Hey, that’s—wait, you’re going into Liscor?”

“Yeah. And you’re coming too.”

“Erin. This is not a good idea.”

Lyonette began. But the [Innkeeper] whirled.

“I should’ve tried this on Invrisil’s riots. Palt, Montressa, Beza—Maviola? Uh—Lady Bethal?”

The [Lady] looked up blankly from where she sat with Thomast. Maviola just shook her head.

“No. Absolutely not. Erin, your Skills aren’t going to work like you think.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Stay here!”

Half the inn chorused. Palt shook his head as he trotted over.

“Erin. Even the Elusive Lot would have trouble with this. I don’t think—”

He halted as Erin turned to face him.

“Palt. I need your help. Please help me. Montressa—Beza. Please.”

The Wistram Mages looked at each other. Doubt was written across their faces. But after a second, Beza nodded.

“Better than sitting around.”

“Beza!”

Montressa looked worried, but Erin took that. She yanked the door open.

“Let’s go!”

“Erin! This isn’t a good—”

Lyonette didn’t reach Erin in time. Something slowed her on the way to the door. Maviola cursed; of all the times for Erin to learn—

Beza strode after Erin and then Palt and Montressa followed. Erin found herself in the streets, suddenly surrounded by noise. She looked around.

“Okay. Okay—let’s do this.”

“Erin. This really isn’t going to w—”

The [Aegiscaster] was cut off by Palt. He blocked her with one hand. Erin wasn’t listening. She had to do this. She’d caused crowds to appear. She could force them to stop, right?

It wasn’t hard to find the mob. Erin just had to follow the shouting.

She found them outside of City Hall. A group of Drakes was surrounding the lines of [Guards], throwing things at the building. A few had made primitive firebombs out of alcohol or alchemical items. Or just oil.

Stay back!

Senior Guardswoman Beilmark was leading the [Guards] holding the doors. They weren’t advancing and the crowd wasn’t getting closer. They were chanting, Erin heard.

No Lizards! No Lizards!

Give us the Minotaur!

Erin’s blood ran cold when she heard that. She counted; there were hundreds filling the square. The [Mages] looked worriedly at each other.

“That’s a lot of—”

Palt raised a finger to his lips. He pulled out a black cigar, but didn’t light it. Montressa du Valeross watched as Erin Solstice surveyed the crowds.

Montressa liked Erin. Despite it all. The [Innkeeper] was extraordinary, besides her nature as someone from Earth. She was the most accomplished, highest-level Earthworlder that Montressa knew of. She was also—insane.

Not just about this. She made friends with Goblins, liked the Antinium—but she had the same kind of mad genius that some of Wistram’s best [Mages] had. Montressa could respect that. But in this—Erin was over her head.

“Okay. Cast [Calm] and spells when I start talking. Got it?”

“It’s not going to work.”

Montressa’s voice went unheard. Erin didn’t understand! The [Mage] looked at Palt; he should know more than anyone!

Mass-control spells existed. [Mass Calm], for instance—Montressa knew it. But her lessons in illusion magic told her this was not the crowd to try it on.

Then again—this was Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] strode forwards. The Crazy Human of Liscor raised her lantern.

Hey!

Her voice was louder than the crowd’s. They turned. They saw the blue flame. The young woman concentrated.

“What are you all doing? Who’s killing Calruz? Who’s attacking Workers?”

The Drakes and Gnolls turned. They saw her. Erin Solstice. The flames washed over them and they faltered. Montressa heard the chanting falter.

“The flame.”

She breathed. She remembered it. What a dirty trick! But she remembered Erin’s instructions.

“[Mass Calm].”

“[Calm]. [Calm].”

Beza was casting the spell on individuals. Montressa saw a group of twenty lower their weapons. She grimaced. This was not her forte. Then she heard Palt murmur.

“[Calming Winds].”

The Tier 4 spell conjured a breeze. Montressa felt her own heart beating slower as the wind blew. For a moment—before her natural spell resistance took over—she felt herself draining of the worry, the fear and anxiety—

And Erin was speaking. She waved the lantern. The saddening fire burned bright.

“Hey! Listen. Who’s attacking Hexel? He’s my guest! And Calruz? This isn’t right. I know you all! You know me! Who’s angry at Humans? The Antinium aren’t bad! Let’s all just put down our rocks and stuff, okay? I know you’re mad. But…why don’t we go to my inn? Free drinks! Free cookies!”

The crowd stared at her. The [Mages] kept casting; Montressa saw faces slackening. Staring at Erin. She saw Erin smiling.

“Let’s play some football! Hey—hey, Palt. We’ll get Joseph and Kevin to set it up. A few tactical sports games and everyone will forget about this.”

She turned her head. The Centaur glanced past her. He had the black cigar in his mouth.

“Maybe. But Erin—”

Hey everyone! Let’s play some soccer instead of smashing things, huh?

The [Innkeeper] turned back and shouted at the crowd. Her cheerful voice rang out. And Montressa felt something snap.

“Soccer?”

A Drake near Erin blinked. He passed a claw over his face. And Montressa saw—Beza’s [Calm] spell fading from him. He looked at Erin. She smiled.

“Sure. Free drinks, soccer—what about it?”

The bronze-scaled Drake looked at Erin. Just—uncomprehendingly. He stared around. And then his brows crossed.

“Will soccer pay for my rent? I have no more money. What am I supposed to do? I won’t have a home in a week.”

Erin’s smile faltered.

“But—that’s bad. But breaking things doesn’t solve anything. Let’s all calm down.”

The Drake was breathing heavily. Montressa pointed at him.

“[Calm].”

But it didn’t work. Illusions spells lost their potency the more you used them in rapid succession. The Drake’s eyes flickered. Then he stared at the flame. In Erin’s lantern.

He was quicker on the draw. And Erin was being far less subtle about it than when she’d used it on Montressa and Beza.

“What are you doing? That fire—what’s that? You—you think everything’s going to be better if I have a drink and eat a cookie? And kick a stupid damn ball around?”

The other Gnolls and Drakes started. Montressa felt sweat running down her back. She heard Palt muttering.

“[Fog of Apathy]—”

This time mists began to coalesce. Dampening emotion. And it worked—but more and more people were beginning to notice. They pinched each other, gritted their teeth.

And the air became electric. A Gnoll stared at the fire. And then at Erin. He focused on Palt and spoke.

“They’re using spells on us.”

Erin’s face froze. The murmur was muted. People blinked. And then—they all realized it at once. Erin Solstice raised her lantern.

Listen to me—

The blue flame went out. The [Innkeeper] stared at it in horror. Palt’s fog tore to wisps and dissipated. Montressa felt her spells fizzling out. She couldn’t even cast [Calm]. In a moment, the air grew hot.

Beilmark cursed as she saw the crowd swing around. Erin Solstice stood there. She focused. Trying to make the others calm. She concentrated—

The dam burst. The Drake screamed in fury. He ran at Erin, a fist raised. Erin dropped the lantern. She was faster. She decked him.

[Minotaur Punch]. The Drake went sprawling. The crowd stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked around. Montressa was backing up.

“I think—”

Kill them.

The roar came from dozens of voices. And the mob rushed forwards. If they had been angry before—the calming spells had doubled their fury. Now they tore forwards at Erin—and City Hall.

Guards! Hold them back! Clubs only! No blades!

Beilmark snarled. The [Guards] had a chokepoint. But Erin and the [Mages] were on the streets.

They ran. Erin just stared for a second in horror as her plan backfired. The first rank of the mob came for her, reaching, cursing—

They smashed into a barrier in the air. Montressa raised her staff.

“That won’t hold them for long! Run!

“Damn, damn—”

Beza grabbed Erin. The [Innkeeper] turned and ran. Palt was already pointing.

Back to the inn!

All three [Mages] ran. They had ten seconds before Montressa’s [Forcewall] failed and the crowd streamed after them. It could have blocked multiple [Fireballs], but the sea of people pounding on it was just as effective. Erin had dropped her lantern. She ran—but Gnolls and Drakes were in the crowd. Only Palt was faster than them.

Dead gods—

Montressa saw someone leaping at her. She raised her staff; a wall of stone knocked the Drake flat. The others just boiled around them. They had bows! Erin saw Beza stagger as something hit her. A brick!

Stop! I said—

“It’s not going to work. Get behind me.”

Palt turned. The three passed him. Erin turned.

Palt!

The Centaur stared at the mob. Slowly, he lit the black cigar. Black smoke rose from it. He inhaled so hard nearly half of it ashed in a moment. Then he exhaled.

[Volcanic Smokescreen].

Black smoke rushed forwards. The entire street was consumed in an instant. Erin heard panicked voices, screams as people collided. She slowed—Palt turned.

Run!

He galloped past her. Erin didn’t understand why at first. Then—she saw the first high-level member of the mob racing out of the smoke.

A furious Drake with a block of wood in one claw. She didn’t know his class until he tossed the log of wood. Then she realized.

He was a [Thrower]—

Montressa’s barrier blocked the block of wood before it hit Erin’s face. The piece of wood exploded. The sound was like a thunderclap. The Drake cursed, picked up a stone.

“[Stone Dart]. Run!

Beza pointed. The stone bullet hit the Drake in the chest and he vanished into the cloud. But more people were coming out of the smoke.

This time all of them ran. They went for the door. Erin was gasping, clutching at her side and Beza was shouting for Montressa to run faster. The [Aegiscaster] gasped.

“[Haste]—”

She sped up. Erin ran for the open door. She saw Palt urging them through.

“Hurry! Get through! Get—”

His eyes widened. He pointed.

“[Air Sh—]”

The brick hit him in the chest. Erin saw the Centaur hit the ground. She turned around.

The mob was on them in a second. Someone yanked Erin off her feet. She punched a snarling face, heard Montressa shouting.

Palt! [Five-Fold—]”

Her voice ended in a strangled noise as something hit her. Beza rose. Of them all, the Minotauress was fastest.

[Iron Skin]. [Haste]—she laid about her, knocking people off her feet. She grabbed Montressa and was covering Palt as he struggled to rise. Erin was surrounded. She felt someone yanking at her hair.

Stop!

She hit someone else. [Minotaur Punch]. Then Erin’s hand was on her kitchen knife.

A claw raked her down the side of her face. The [Innkeeper] felt the burning pain. She closed her eyes.

No, please no.

She drew the deadly blade. Erin felt the air grow hot. Then—the person holding her burst into flames.

She heard screams. The air turned to fire. Erin froze, blade ready to stab. She saw people stumbling back. Then she heard something else

“[Fast Fireball].”

A [Lady] pointed. From her finger a [Fireball] spun up, a bolt of fire. It detonated just over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked. Maviola pointed.

Burn.

Her aura reached out and a Drake was covered in flames. Shouting, screaming in alarm, the crowd backed up. They grabbed for Erin—still enraged. Someone seized her—

“[Power Strike].”

Pyrite kicked the Gnoll into the air. He grabbed Erin, grunted.

“Bad idea. Let’s go.”

He towed Erin back. She saw a blur—another [Lady] stood at the door. Bethal and Thomast, his sword drawn. Palt, Montressa, Beza—Maviola was last. She slammed the door shut as her fire winked out.

“Change the dial.”

Lyonette swiveled the dial and the sound cut off. Erin lay in the hallway, panting. The other [Mages] collapsed. Numbtongue blinked as Pyrite vanished. Maviola stood there. Her dress wasn’t even singed by the fire she’d called forth. She looked around, counting, and then stared at Erin.

That. Is how you use an aura. You cannot stop a riot with just spells.”

“Not at our level. It was worth a shot. I’m bleeding.”

Palt groaned. Erin rose.

“Palt? Are you…?”

The Centaur looked up at Erin. His chest was torn open. Lyonette bent.

“A potion. You’re bleeding. Erin—your face.”

The [Innkeeper] had been raked across her face. She let Numbtongue apply a bit of potion. Then she stood there.

“I’m sorry. I thought—”

Her confidence was gone. She’d thought she could stop them. She knew Liscor’s people. But that had been—Erin looked around. Montressa wouldn’t meet her eyes. Beza shook her head.

“Never in the House of Minos. Madness.”

“I thought that might happen. But it was worth a shot. A lesson.”

Palt shakily got to his hooves. He looked around. Maviola nodded at Erin.

“Your plan was flawed. I told you, Erin.”

Her gaze was accusatory. Erin wilted.

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“It was a good effort. Wuvren might have done it, with help. She can charm a crowd. I have seen it done. My mother once halted a riot.”

Lady Bethal spoke distantly. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] inhaled.

“I guess I can’t. Okay. Okay…Numbtongue? Thank you. Maviola, thank you. Palt—I’m so sorry.”

“What are allies for? Let alone friends? My Master would be disappointed in me. I should have prepared [Invisibility], but that’s hard to cast in quick succession.”

The [Illusionist] grinned weakly. Erin stood there. She rubbed at her face.

“I understand now. I guess…Lyonette? Is Mrsha in the garden?”

“Along with the beavers and Apista. Should we go there too?”

Erin Solstice looked at the [Princess]. Blankly. Then she shook her head.

“Not yet. How many people are in the inn, Lyonette?”

“I don’t know?”

“Feels like…eighty. The Players of Celum…the [Knights]? Lady Bethal, right?”

“That’s correct. They’re in Invrisil.”

The [Lady] was watching Erin. Not without sympathy. The [Innkeeper] had blood on her face. Erin looked around. She rubbed at her face.

“Palt. Beza. Montressa. I owe you one. But I might need another favor. We should—pass out those crossbows. Loaded.”

Maviola stirred. Lyonette slowly looked at Numbtongue.

“Already done. Bird’s in his tower.”

“I doubt the mob will come for the inn. It’s too far, Erin. They might, but your inn’s sturdy. They’ll turn their anger elsewhere.”

Palt panted. Erin blinked at him.

“Maybe. Either way—can we get the [Knights] in here, Bethal?”

The [Lady] blinked.

“I could—order a handful here. But Invrisil is also enduring a riot, even if most are headed towards Magnolia’s estate.”

“Please?”

The [Lady] exchanged a glance with the [Chevalier]. She nodded slowly, looking faintly…disappointed.

“Only naturally. I shall give the order.”

“Good. Numbtongue, Beza—is Pallass bad too?”

“Yes. But Chaldion’s declared martial law. We opened the door to check.”

Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] set her jaw.

“Maybe…okay. Numbtongue, Beza—Palt, Montressa—I’d be grateful if you helped.”

“Absolutely, but Erin, your inn is secure.

The others looked at the [Innkeeper]. She was going overboard. Erin looked around.

“I know that. But I need those [Knights]. How many. Six? Plus Numbtongue, Beza, me, Palt, Montressa—Maviola?”

“Erin Solstice. What are you doing?”

The [Innkeeper] turned.

“Ishkr’s in that mess. So is Ekirra, Visma—the Workers. What about Selys? She’s at the Adventurer’s Guild.”

The others looked at her. Lyonette opened her mouth furiously.

Erin!

“We’ll grab the door and move it. And check. Or should we leave them?”

“You’ll be torn apart! Didn’t that teach you anything?”

The [Innkeeper] gave Lyonette a flat look. The [Princess] wavered. Slowly, Erin walked over to her emergency box. Saliss had given her many potions. And she’d bought more from Octavia. Erin picked up a bag of Tripvines and checked it.

“Absolutely. Palt?”

“Yes, Erin?”

The Centaur looked at Erin. Not with the exasperation written on Maviola’s face, but a calm look. Even expectantly. Erin glanced at him.

“How many people can you cast [Invisibility] on at once?”

Numbtongue glanced at Erin. The Hobgoblin’s eyes lit up. And Palt smiled.

“Let’s find out.”

 

—-

 

It was all reaching a critical point. Yellow Splatters stared at the Workers flooding into the Hive. Many were hurt. They’d been attacked by the mobs on the streets. Those that had been closest to the Hive had fled.

Some hadn’t made it. Some were alive. Xrn calmly stared upwards.

“They are hurt. Some will die.”

“Some have died.”

Pawn whispered. He knelt over a Worker, clasped his hands. The Worker’s torn antennae stumps healed. But the missing appendages did not. The Worker stopped shaking—reached up. Pawn clasped his hands with two of his.

“I am so sorry.”

“It is not your fault.”

Xrn’s eyes were black. She looked above. Yellow Splatters clenched and unclenched his hands.

“They have turned on the Antinium.”

“Yes. What did you expect?

The Antinium didn’t know what to say. The Free Queen however, remembered.

It has happened again. So once, when we first settled in Liscor. Now again. Abide.

Her command came through their mental link. The Antinium—shuddered. Yellow Splatters disagreed. He looked at Xrn.

“Prognugator. Those Workers are innocent.”

The Small Queen heard the anger in his voice. She looked around at the silent Painted Antinium, bearing witness. Xrn smiled. Fury and light in her eyes.

“Yes. So what will you do?

 

—-

 

The riot had reached Magnolia’s mansion thirty minutes ago. Now—the mansion was under siege. Lord Alman saw people trying to scale the walls. Break down the flimsy-looking metal bars on the gates.

Unfortunately—of all the riots occurring in the world, this was the least successful. Those two wretched Drakes were reporting on it.

“—hearing reports of riots from Pallass! Ancestors! Should we go back, Sir Relz?”

“I think so, Noass. The protests here have hit a standstill. As you can see—the people cannot even get into the mansion. And from what we understand—Lady Magnolia Reinhart doesn’t even appear to be in residence! Something of an embarrassment, yes?”

Lord Alman glowered at them. Drakes. But they were right. He saw someone trying to climb over the walls of Magnolia’s mansion. The man got to the top of the low-flung wall—and the air shimmered. He was casually knocked off the wall and into the crowd below.

“Ensorcelled walls. Even the damn gates.”

Lord Ranga was cursing, his face pale. A team of people were hauling on the gates, having attached ropes to them. But a team of two hundred couldn’t so much as make them budge.

Magic. The high-quality kind. The [Lords] sat together, feeling foolish. The mob was growing restless. They had gamely tried to draw Magnolia out. But a [Maid] had appeared and told them she wasn’t even here.

Worse—the people weren’t trying that hard to enter anymore. Mainly because they had spotted something that made even the angriest rioter pause.

A sixteen foot tall Steel Golem. It was armed with sword and shield. And it was just—standing at the gates. Not just one, either.

The tall War Golems weren’t the same as the ancient ones Magnolia had used on the Goblin Lord. But that was like saying a Gold-rank adventurer wasn’t as bad as a Named-rank. Lord Alman started sweating just imagining trying to fight one without an army.

“Ranga. I think it’s clear that this is a disaster. We should go.”

Alman spoke intensely. Ranga hesitated. He clenched his fists on his reins as his horse danced nervously.

“We’re so close! This is on the scrying orb!”

One of the other [Lords] was actually giving an interview to the two Drakes, talking about the unfair [Trade War]. But Alman was more and more convinced this wasn’t a good look for his House. He shook his head.

“I’m minded to leave myself, Ranga.”

“Alman! We’re in this together!”

“I apologize. But frankly, I don’t see the point of—”

The [Lords] heard a roar. They spun, hands on weapons. And then they saw it.

At last. A pink carriage shooting down the road. The crowd stared. Then they surged forwards. The [Lords] wavered. Then they spurred their horses.

Magnolia Reinhart!

The roar was fury. Noass and Sir Relz spun, and the camera-Gnoll raised her device.

There she was. The pink carriage raced towards the mansion as if the driver wasn’t even aware of the crowd. They were spreading out, angry people with ropes, weapons. Ready to slow the carriage—

When it slowed. But it didn’t slow. The carriage moved faster than any horse in the world. Everyone knew its reputation. A bandit-killing vehicle on the road. But Magnolia Reinhart wasn’t crazy. She could see—

It didn’t slow down. The angry sea of people wavered. They began to turn. Now trying to get out of the way. Just in case—

The carriage raced at them. People screamed. Lord Alman’s blood turned cold. She wasn’t going to—

“Dead gods! Noass! Are you getting this? She’s going to ram—

At the last moment, the carriage’s wheels glowed. It rose upwards, and shot over the heads of the crowd screaming in horror. Everyone fell silent.

They stared at the flying magical pink carriage as it casually flew over the gates of the mansion, the mob, and landed on the other side. Lord Alman’s jaw dropped. Ranga turned pale.

“It can fly?

“—Er. Of course, anyone familiar with the specifications of the carriage would recall that—but it appears Magnolia Reinhart is there herself!”

Sir Relz recovered. He pointed.

And there she was. Magnolia Reinhart. The doors opened—

And a grumpy half-Elf emerged. Everyone stared at Teriarch, or Grand Mage Eldavin, as he kicked his way out of the carriage.

“Infernal magical devices. This one feels slower than it used to be. I’m going to rest.”

The Dragon grumpily walked out of the carriage, addressing the person inside. Magnolia Reinhart herself. He hadn’t noticed the crowd. Indeed, it was only as he was walking across the grounds when he heard their roars of fury.

The Dragon stopped. Perplexed, he looked around. Rubbed at one ear.

Then he saw them.

He stood there and saw the angry mob approaching the gates. The Dragon heard their furious shouts.

Magnolia Reinhart! Come out!

Give us our money!

The [Lord]’s voices were mixed with that of the protest as they tried to ride through the throngs of people who weren’t willing to part for them. The Dragon blinked. He stared at the furious faces and then at the [Lady] emerging from the carriage with Ressa.

“What is this, then?”

“Mm. It appears to be an angry mob.”

Magnolia Reinhart herself hadn’t known about the riot until recently. She’d had difficulty extricating herself from Lady Edere’s company at the Sanito House. Now—she wished she’d never left. She stood there, looking at the angry crowds.

“Ah. Ressa, how disappointing. Do you see? So that is where Lord Alman was.”

“Yes. And several [Lords] of the realm.”

The [Head Maid] surveyed the crowd without fear. More people were trying to climb the gates, or bring them down. Without success; they could hit the barriers all day.

The two women were calm. Even if Magnolia was annoyed. She tapped her lips, just surveying the crowd.

How disappointing. And I suppose—ah, yes. I even see those two Drakes. So that is why half the cities in Izril are suddenly rioting.”

She’d been perplexed by the reports. Now it made sense. Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. But the effect on Teriarch was far more immediate.

The Dragon turned to look at the mob. Magnolia saw his face harden. Turn bitter. She glanced at Ressa, worriedly. Then she saw the Dragon’s shoulders slump. He looked at the gates, at the people pounding on it, demanding Magnolia to come out.

“As I understand it. You did nothing about this Golden Triangle nonsense, Magnolia?”

“No, Teriarch. I rather think this mob has been persuaded to call on me to demand their money back. By the [Lords].”

The Dragon nodded. He bowed his head. Magnolia clenched her fists. Of all the times! He had been perfectly happy this morning. But now—she saw a shadow cross his face.

“Your subjects, Reinhart. See how quickly they turn to drag you down? That is the nature of people. Devouring. Thoughtless. How will you deal with them?”

He judged them harshly. With weary cynicism. How many protests had he lived through? Magnolia’s lips thinned.

The shouted insults and jeers didn’t affect her as much as the Dragon. She spoke, crisply.

“I should usually let them bang on the gates until they go home. But since this crowd would have never come here but for those [Lords]—I rather think I should grant them the audience they desire. Ressa?”

“As milady wishes.”

The [Maid] smiled. Or her lips did something equivalent. Teriarch looked at them. He snorted once. Turned away.

“Do as you will. I find myself too tired to deal with this. I will watch.”

He walked over to the mansion, the spring out of his step suddenly. Exhausted. Magnolia looked at him and then turned to the gates. Her eyes narrowed. Oh yes. Someone was going to pay.

This was how she greeted them. The [Lady] swept forwards in her shockingly, affrontingly pink dress. The crowd grew louder as Magnolia approached the gates. Like a beehive sensing the intruder.

Magnolia Reinhart waved an elegant hand as the [Lords] and [Commentators] fought forwards. She spoke, brightly.

“Good evening, ladies and g—”

Someone threw a rock. Well, a lot of people threw things as she came into range. They bounced off the shimmering force field in the air. Magnolia sighed.

“Excuse me? I say, might I have a—”

We want our money back! Stop this [Trade War]!

Voices roared at her. Magnolia waved a hand, but the noise was overwhelming. She shrugged. And brought her foot down.

Silence.

A shockwave rippled through the crowd. Noise stopped. Teriarch sighed; the only sound in the sudden hush. Magnolia Reinhart stood there, calmly looking from face to face.

“That’s better. Now, good evening to you all. What, may I ask, has brought you all here?”

Lips moved. But something was holding the shouts of fury down. Some of the higher-leveled members of the crowd could speak, though. Magnolia heard a voice.

“The Golden Triangle. We want reimbursement!”

She stared at a face in bemusement. It was a Gold-ranked adventurer. She blinked at him.

“You, my good man? Aren’t you an adventurer? Tobi the Turbulent, or something.”

Todi, the leader of Todi’s Elites, hesitated as every eye fell on him. But he shouted, clenching his teeth against her Skill.

“I lost almost everything on The Golden Triangle! Same as everyone here! You’re the [Lady] of Invrisil—shouldn’t we be paid something back?”

Yes, exactly. Todi wasn’t the ideal mouthpiece—but the crowd managed a swell of voices. Magnolia waved them down. She looked calmly around.

“Ah, I see. This terrible business with The Golden Triangle. You’d all like your money back, would you?”

Yes! The [Lady] paused to let the noise fall.

“And why is it my fault? Did I tell you to spend the money? Did I end the Golden Triangle? Why not petition Wistram? They rather crudely brought the scheme down. But at what point did I assume responsibility for your decisions?”

Silence. Then someone shouted.

“But it wasn’t our faults! We were tricked!”

“Indeed you were. And that is quite tragic.”

Magnolia Reinhart smiled. Only, it wasn’t a smile. She looked at the shouter.

“I still do not understand why it is my responsibility to fix your mistakes. You all invested money of your own will. Perhaps it was too much. Perhaps it was tricked and you lack for everything. But why must I amend your faults?”

“Because you’re Invrisil’s [Lady]!”

Todi bellowed back. The crowd echoed him. Magnolia sighed.

“And that means I should hold your hands? Cover your every ill? I am quite happy to end a plague, or reimburse damages from a storm. But this was no storm. This was your choice. Should I then replace a baked loaf of bread you let grow stale and moldy? If you lame a horse by your poor care and riding, should I buy you another?”

The stinging words were not endearing her to anyone. And Sir Relz and Noass were capturing it all. Todi blustered, pointing a finger at Magnolia.

“So that’s it? What’re you going to do?”

Nothing.

Magnolia’s calm reply made the Gold-ranked Captain freeze. She looked at him and he quailed. Magnolia Reinhart glanced around.

“I do not owe you money. I rather believe you have been misled to protest here. Ladies and gentlemen—I am a great fan of charity. I do not believe in covering for other’s mistakes. You may demand as much gold from me as you wish. And you are welcome to protest. But you may not enter my mansion. You may try, of course. That is your choice. As it has always been.”

The crowd waited. But Magnolia Reinhart was done. She pointed.

“Now, if you will excuse me. I believe the fine men who prompted you to waste your time here would like a word. Milords? You may enter. No one else.”

The gates swung open. The crowd backed up. Some tried for the opening. A few could make it past Magnolia’s aura. They moved forwards—

And the Steel Golems swung down their swords. Todi—a handful of others backed up. Magnolia Reinhart gestured.

“Come, [Lords]. You wanted an audience? You shall have it. Now.”

Lord Alman, Lord Ranga, the other dozen [Lords] and their retinues hesitated. But she gestured and they came. Riding through the silent crowd. Lord Alman was sweating.

The gates closed. The crowd waited outside. But now—now—it was too quiet. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t move as the [Lords] dismounted slowly. Ressa stood with her. Teriarch got up for a better look. Some stared at the tall half-Elf. Others looked warily at the giant golems.

A bright clap made all of them jump. Magnolia smiled, sweet as sugar.

“Well, gentlemen! This is an unexpected house call. I would have set out tea, and refreshments if I had received a missive. Since I did not and you have brought so many guests here, do understand if I refrain from niceties. Here you are. You have your audience with me. I hope you will have cause to regret it.”

They shifted. Magnolia ran her eyes down their ranks. Few were high-ranking [Lords]. She focused on two, and her smile deepened.

“Ah, Lord Ranga. Lord Alman—I just spoke with your wife. How terribly disappointing to see you here. I shall have to tender my regrets to Edere regarding our talk.”

Lord Alman started. Eyes swung towards him, accusatorially. He paled.

“You spoke to Edere?”

“Just this morning. But that feels like ages ago. Tell me, Lord Alman. [Lords] of Izril. Why are you here?”

They hesitated. Lord Ranga thrust past his son.

“To put an end to this damned [Trade War], Reinhart! It’s gone on too long! And it’s crippling our economies! We’ll have an end to it. This unfair business—”

Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. Her lips thinned. Her hand came down against the side of her carriage with a slap that made all the [Lords] start. Magnolia rubbed her hand with a wince.

“Unfair. What an…extraordinary word to come from you, Lord Ranga. This crowd, which had come here at your direction has more claim to that word than you. This Golden Triangle fraud was unfair. Had I been able to see and prevent it, I would have. But your complaint? My [Trade War] is unfair? Need I remind you that this all began when you sent me the black rose of shame? An insult to my name and honor?”

Outside, the crowd stirred. Sir Relz pantomimed exaggerated shock for the viewers. And the [Lords] shifted. Teriarch’s eyes burned.

“That was—”

Lord Ranga saw Magnolia snap her hand closed. His jaw clicked shut. Outraged, he tried to speak. Magnolia Reinhart ignored him. She looked around at the gathering of [Lords], noting their arms and armor with clear disdain.

“Tell me, my noble [Lords] and members of the realm—if I had the audacity to slap you in the face with a glove and call you a coward, would you not seek to reply? Or are you saying that I was not at the Sacrifice of Roses? That I did not march against Velan the Kind? Say so, now, if any of you believe that.”

None did. Lord Alman flushed, and then saw one of the other [Lords] move. A man with white hair and a trick leg advanced with a limp. He had a sword-cane, and while his clothes were magnificent—they were also old. Heirlooms, the enchantments weakened, the fabric fraying despite best efforts to keep them maintained. He addressed Magnolia curtly.

“I would never deny your presence at the Sacrifice of Roses, Magnolia Reinhart. But that is not the issue. When Lord Tyrion was poised to take Liscor, deceptive as his actions were, you stopped him. Rightly or wrongly—war with the Drakes isn’t something I yearned for. But the way you did it was to threaten his children. You held their lives—and other innocent lives to achieve your ends.”

His voice was steady. Teriarch turned to stare at Magnolia. She waited, her face expressionless. The [Lord] went on, his eyes never wavering from hers.

“That is a coward’s act. So I believe, Lady Reinhart. I stand by the rose I sent myself. And I was not there that day. I would never deny the truth of your bravery. Then. Now—I question your honor.”

Some of the other [Lords] murmured support, including Alman. Magnolia’s stare was flinty. But after a moment, she nodded. Not without respect.

“Lord Toldos. Well spoken. It seems, then, we came at odds with one another.”

“So it appears. Now, this [Trade War] threatens my people. They suffer for it. I will have it ended.”

The old Lord Toldos looked at her. Magnolia looked at him.

“Why?”

“Because it is unfair—

Again, Lord Ranga was transfixed, this time by Magnolia’s stare. She looked at him, and then spread her hands delicately with a sigh.

“Gentlemen. Here we are again with that word. Unfair. Iniquitous. I am attacking your pockets, your gold reserves with my ‘underhanded’ ability to apply economic pressure. Would you prefer if I challenged you to a joust and ran you through?”

She didn’t wait for their reply. Magnolia raised a finger.

“Whilst you studied swordplay, I studied ledgers. This is how I fight my battles and you are simply weaker. Would you dare complain if I were a [Warrior Lady] who had just thrashed you on the field of battle?”

“Probably.”

Ressa muttered. She smiled politely as half a dozen glares turned on her. Teriarch just waited. He had heard all of this before. Perhaps Lord Toldos would have replied then, or Alman, who was working up to a reasonable argument.

But Lord Mel, son of Lord Ranga, pushed forwards. He was bristling with fury, on his father’s behalf as much as anyone else. He pointed at Magnolia, face red with emotion.

“We demand you stop your Skill! We outnumber you! And there are over a dozen noble houses—and dozens more who will have our backs if it comes to a conflict!”

Lord Alman’s head snapped up. He heard Ranga hiss between his teeth.

“Mel! Don’t be a fool!”

The [Lady] looked amused and annoyed at the interruption. She turned to face Lord Mel.

“Young man, you have a very simple view of the world. But since that seems to be on the level of most of the [Lords] here, I’m willing to entertain it. If you would like to persuade me with violence, go right ahead. Ressa, don’t touch the lad. You too, T—Eldavin.”

The [Lordling] hesitated. His father was hissing at him, but Magnolia gestured at him.

“Go ahead. It should prove interesting for both of us. How will you force me to change my mind?”

“By any means necessary. I shouldn’t want to, because you are a [Lady], but I don’t respect your title.”

The young man hotly strode over. Magnolia raised one eyebrow.

“Oh yes. And I am much aquiver in my shoes. Lord Mel, I would advise you to shut up. Your father is not a good example in that regard, but one can always dig deeper, I suppose. What can you do to me? End my [Trade War]? Threaten me? Or will you run me through with your sword?”

“Lady Reinhart, don’t tempt me.”

Mel was breathing hard. His hands were clenched. Magnolia sighed.

“Young man, I am not impressed by heavy breathing. Let alone empty threats. Nor can you—”

He slapped her across the face. It was a fast blow, open-handed.

Magnolia blinked. The [Lords] susurrated. Lord Alman closed his eyes. Ranga snapped.

Mel!

The [Lady] rubbed at her cheek. Lord Mel opened his mouth. Teriarch stirred—Magnolia raised a hand.

She slapped him back. And Lord Alman felt that slap. He saw a figure fly back, twisting. Lord Mel spun around and hit the ground so fast Alman swore he heard something crunch.

Everyone stared at the motionless Mel. Magnolia rubbed her cheek again. Then she shook out her hand. Calmly, she looked around.

“[Insult to Injury]. Would any of you like to try stabbing me? Ressa, block them if they try that.”

Lord Ranga knelt by his son. So did Alman. Mel’s eyes were rolled up in his head.

“I don’t think he’s more than unconscious. Ah—his fingers.”

Alman winced. Lord Ranga rose to his feet, white-faced.

“Magnolia Reinhart. You will answer for that.”

“I rather think I did, Ranga. Your son may well be able to force his future wife to agree, but not me. Not with the threat of violence. I hope he recalls that on his wedding night.”

Magnolia’s eyes glittered. She looked around, one of her cheeks glowing red.

“Let us end this pointless argument. If you would like to attack me, [Lords] of Izril, go ahead. I will, regretfully, order my people to break as few bones as possible. If you would like to mobilize an army against me, again, you are welcome to try. But do not dare assume that you have a right to order me to do anything. You have insulted my honor and I have no obligation to do anything. Indeed, I am rather less inclined at this moment than I was this morning.”

“Reinhart. My people are suffering.”

Toldos spoke up. Magnolia looked at him.

“One feels you should have considered that along with my impugned honor, Toldos. If they dislike it so much, I will offer them an incentive to move to my lands.”

He paled in fury. Magnolia turned, and waved a tired hand.

“That is all. This was exceedingly stupid, my [Lords]. Begone from my estates, please.”

The [Lords] felt her pushing. They held their ground.

“This isn’t over, Reinhart! Don’t force us to take this to a more severe step!”

“Bring your armies, Lord Villmen. And we shall see how well that goes. Or you might try an apology. Diplomacy!”

Magnolia whirled around and pointed at him. He stumbled back. Towards the open gates. The [Lords] looked at each other. And then they realized.

The crowd was still there. They had listened to the entire debate. And now—they were looking at the [Lords]. Who had made this about a [Trade War]. Something…Invrisil’s people didn’t care about.

They were very quiet. Lord Alman realized. The mob was staring at them. Alman felt his feet moving. He tried to get his legs to stop taking him out of the gates—but this was Magnolia’s ground.

“Reinhart! Be reasonable!”

Ranga was supporting his son on the horseback. He looked back. Lord Toldos was pale. His retainers clustered around him.

But Lady Reinhart had lost her temper. Alman saw that too late. From the beginning she had been incensed. He could not have known why. But he should have remembered what a Reinhart’s wrath looked like.

Slowly, Magnolia raised her hand. The gates swung closed. And her last words rang in the [Lord]’s ears.

“You provoked a riot in my city, gentlemen. I think it’s only fair to hold you accountable for that.”

 

—-

 

They ran. Magnolia watched them go. The [Lords] fled. Not that she had doubted it. Even lower-level, they had money. Artifacts. She was poised—but she only needed to use [Deft Hand] once to trip someone up before they seized Lord Mel.

The crowd charged after the [Lords], converging on Invrisil.

“Well, that was a mess.”

Magnolia muttered after they were gone. She had noted that the two Drake [Commentators] had fled ahead of the [Lords]. They weren’t complete fools.

“Who thought it was a good idea to broadcast a riot? Wistram and two Drakes from Pallass. Of course. The masters of societal understanding.”

The [Lady] rubbed at her cheek. She felt a soothing bit of liquid; Ressa dabbed at her swollen cheek.

“That stupid boy. I didn’t think he’d actually slap me. I thought even Ranga’s son had more sense.”

“You did provoke him.”

The [Head Maid] wasn’t exactly sympathetic. Magnolia sighed.

“I did. Well, let that be a lesson.”

She turned. And nearly ran into Teriarch.

There the Dragon stood, arms folded. He looked at her, mismatched eyes—not disapproving. But not complimentary either. Magnolia hesitated. And in front of the Dragon she felt younger.

“What, old man? I’m not in the mood for a lecture.”

“Neither am I. What did that [Lord] say? You held children hostage?”

“Oh. That. I shall explain the entire business, Teriarch. It was a bluff. I knew Tyrion wouldn’t risk his sons. To prevent a Drake city from being taken—”

The Dragon listened. Magnolia felt the swelling in her cheek grow down. She sighed.

“And so, you see—I play the villain nicely. Which leads to this debacle. But at least there is a chance for negotiation with Oteslia.”

“In the meantime, the [Lords] and this crowd are your enemies.”

She smiled thinly.

“One must give to get. I realize that isn’t a Reinhart tradition, but we tend to just steal. And make no friends at all. Teriarch, what would you have done to that crowd?”

The Dragon gazed at the gates; the mob was gone. He remembered countless riots. Protests over lack of food, deranged figures—hatred of him—

In his mind, he saw an [Empress] flying down to address tens of thousands of her subjects. Fearless. He blinked—and saw a dead [Prince] who had tried the same. A [Lady] savaged for trust—

He set them to flame and they ran, screaming. Ranks of armored [Knights] put down the insurrection with force.

The Dragon looked at Magnolia and shrugged.

“I have seen every answer. None is perfect. There have been [Orators] who quelled a riot with words alone. It did not mean they were right or the problem was solved. What would I have done? Better not to have the riots to begin with.”

“Spare me the philosophy, old man. If you have a suggestion, I will listen. At least those damn Drakes have left. I—agh—Ressa, handkerchief.”

The [Head Maid] was a beat too slow to get it to Magnolia. The [Lady]’s nose began to bleed profusely. Teriarch started.

“What? The feedback?”

Magnolia pressed the linen to her nose as Ressa pinched the bridge.

“Too many people to hold still. At least I put on a good face. Now—the riots. They’ll be centered in Invrisil. Reynold—”

Magnolia waved her free hand. The [Butler] appeared.

“Milady?”

“Send the Golems.”

Magnolia’s eyes glittered. Teriarch waited.

“To put down the riots?”

His tone was neutral. His eyes though—Magnolia rolled hers.

“I’m not a [Tyrant] yet, Teriarch. Reynold, deploy them around the Mage’s Guild. Merchant’s Guild. Any hotspots. The Watch will keep order as it can. But let’s not let the rioters destroy Invrisil. The Golems are not to fight back unless provoked. Minimum damage.”

“By your will, Lady Reinhart.”

Teriarch saw the Golems marching out the gates.

Minimal force is something only a higher Golem knows the nuance of.”

“And I should then let them torch a building full of [Mages]? Should I have coddled the [Lords]? Better to be feared than loved after all. Or do you disagree?”

Magnolia held the bloody cloth to her nose. Teriarch looked at her and shook his head.

“That is certainly how Dragons ruled. And a soft hand usually invites rebellion. I am not condemning that.”

“But you have a point.”

They stood together. The Dragon looked at the [Lady]. And he saw how much had changed. And how little. But he wondered if the girl of sixteen years would have acted like the [Lady]. He couldn’t imagine her sending Golems into a riot, even to protect. But that did not mean she was wrong.

“Tell me, Magnolia. As I understand it—this entire affair with the [Lords] was you declaring a [Trade War] over their insult to you.”

She sniffed and regretted it.

“Argh. Yes. They put themselves as my foes over the outcome of Tyrion’s gambit. They could have chosen not to. Wherein lies my flaw in replying to the insult? They impugned my honor, Teriarch. Would you have let that go?”

For a long while, the simulacra was silent. Teriarch watched the Golems disappearing towards the city. He smelled smoke. He still heard the distant din. After a while, he looked at Magnolia.

“No. If someone insulted me, I would reply just as you did. Because I am a Dragon. You need not be one, though.”

He turned and walked back towards the mansion. Magnolia watched his back. Then she turned with a curse.

“Ressa, make sure none of those idiot [Lords] die. If you can.”

 

—-

 

The Watch of Invrisil was about as efficacious as Liscor’s Watch. They pulled back, guarding important streets to them and let the riots move through the streets. The [Lords] were in flight, but they found themselves driven into the city, unable to escape streets of angry people who wanted their blood.

Meanwhile—Steel Golems marched into Invrisil. They stopped around the Mage’s Guild. The crowds attacked them. Once. The Golems threw down the crowd in seconds. So parts of Invrisil were madness. Parts contained. And that meant the city burned all the brighter in the areas where no one was halting the madness.

Parts were also safeguarded by individuals. The Adventurer’s Guild was untouched. About two-dozen adventurers, Silver and Gold-rank, loitered casually outside. And even members of the riots like Todi weren’t about to clash with fellow adventurers.

That was Invrisil. In Pallass—Chaldion declared martial law. The Walled City was as large as Invrisil, but in Pallass, the riots ended fast.

1st Army and 3rd Army as well as 4th Army sent [Soldiers] to break up the fighting. Even the hottest of flames were quenched by hundreds of armed [Soldiers] willing to apply force. The [Strategist] hunted down pockets of violence like he was fighting an insurgence against a guerilla force. He stomped the embers into ash and an uneasy peace reigned in the Walled City.

That was a fact Noass and Sir Relz would have gleefully pointed out—if they had made it back to Pallass. Unfortunately, they were hiding in Invrisil’s sewers, having also been turned on. When the riot struck Invrisil—minorities like Revi’s friend in the Stitchfolk districts hid. So too did Garuda and Dullahan populations in Pallass, by and large.

In Liscor though—the Antinium Workers had been caught out. And the Humans ran in terror. The Watch was doing its best, but the thing about the law was that it was always outnumbered.

Watch Captain Zevara found Relc Grasstongue. He was sitting outside his apartment. She looked at him.

“Relc…?”

He was covered in soot. His apartment was gone. Torched. The Drake glanced up at her.

“Oh, hey, Captain Z. My home burned down. Sorta sucks.”

“Are you alright? Someone get the [Healer]—”

The Drake shrugged away Zevara’s claws.

“I’m fine. Just a bit singed. Had to get my puzzles. Most of them got out. Guess it helps with packing, huh?”

He looked up at her. Grinned weakly. Zevara looked around.

“Where’s Wing Commander Embria?”

“She’s got one district locked down. But 4th Company can’t hold more than a few streets. Only a hundred. You need a tail?”

The Watch Captain looked at Relc’s soot-covered smile. She hesitated, then reached down.

“That’s right, Senior Guardsman. Gear up.”

He rose, stiffly, shedding layers of ash, and saluted briskly.

“Aye, aye, Watch Captain.”

They were marching back towards the Watch House when Zevara heard the sound of screaming. She turned.

Get ready to pull back or fight!

The Watch braced for a fight with the mob. They’d clashed a few times already with larger groups. If it came to it, they’d run rather than fight.

They saw a wave of people coming at them. Hundreds. Zevara didn’t even bother to count.

Fall back! Down Turnip Street!

She pointed. But Relc grabbed her arm.

“Captain! Look!”

The Drake whirled. And then Zevara saw something strange. The crowd was running at the Watch. But not like a ravening horde. She heard screams. They were fleeing.

Then she heard the drumming. It sounded like a thunderous beat. The Watch Captain halted, confused. She frowned.

“What is that sound?”

Footsteps. Marching. The crowd fled, splitting up in every direction. The two Drakes and the [Guards] heard the second group behind the first. Then they saw. And Zevara felt her scales turn to ice.

“Antinium.”

They marched down the street in formation. Soldiers, Workers. Painted Antinium and regular. Even the other varieties. The people of Liscor fled, screaming.

The Black Tide marched. And leading them was a blue Antinium. Xrn. And beside her—Yellow Splatters. Pawn.

“What are they doing?”

A [Guard] turned pale at the sight. Zevara just counted.

“…Three hundred. Or I’m a Lizard.”

“What, Watch Captain?”

Relc glanced at her. Zevara looked at him.

“Three hundred. They’ve deployed the Hive’s garrison. They’re securing the streets.”

Indeed, the Antinium were clearing street after street. No one was fighting them. The individual rioters took one look at the Antinium and ran. Meanwhile, they were finding Workers.

It still chilled Zevara to see them. The Watch moved to one side. She saw Yellow Splatters break off as the Antinium marched in thunderous silence down another street.

“Yellow Splatters! What is the meaning of this?”

“We are restoring order. And locating members of the Hive. I have ordered this as Prognugator of the Free Antinium.”

The [Sergeant] replied calmly. Zevara’s mouth opened. Her eyes flicked to Relc. And she had a moment where she decided…to do the only thing that was logical.

“—Very well. The Watch requests the Antinium to cooperate! We need to lock down streets where the riots are burning parts of the city! I can show you—”

“It will be done.”

The Antinium marched. And the riots ended where they moved. But those who saw them felt mixed relief at best.

 

—-

 

The fire was going out. Maviola saw the riots quelling, order reasserting itself. She still waited. Waited for the crowds to turn on The Wandering Inn.

And it came close. But the sight of Bird and dozens of Workers standing on the roof of the inn—perhaps the distance outside the city, the knowledge of the inn’s sturdy walls—saved it. At the very least, no large mob converged on The Wandering Inn.

If they could have gone through the magic door, that would have been another matter. But the crowds found the magic door missing. And indeed—they saw very little of The Wandering Inn after Erin’s first mistake.

Ekirra’s family was sheltering in their apartment. They hadn’t joined the fury—even though they’d lost gold. The protests, yes. Afterwards? No. Ekirra’s father and mother and his siblings all sat together, talking, playing little games with wooden tops. The little Gnoll was worried. Also upset—he wasn’t allowed to kick the ball inside. Everyone had snapped at him when he tried to kick it off the wall and practice what Mister Kevin had showed him.

When the angry people passed by their streets, everyone went silent. The last crowd had been mostly Drakes, but they’d been looking for things to steal, not to burn homes. Ekirra had heard them.

Now, he nibbled on the fur on his arm, a nervous tic he wasn’t supposed to do anymore. No one stopped him though.

When the knocking came on the door, Ekirra’s parents stiffened. The room went silent; there wasn’t any light in the room. They were quiet.

Make no sound.

Ekirra’s mother whispered. The knocking came again. Ekirra’s father stood up. He reached for a belt-dagger and his family stared at him. Then—a voice came.

“Ekirra! Hey—is anyone in here? It’s me!”

The others jumped. That was Erin! Ekirra’s tail began to wag. He finally sniffed her scent over the smell of burning.

“Miss Solstice?”

The father whispered. He went to the door, peered through the spy hole.

“I don’t see you.”

“I’m invisible. Hey, Numbtongue—hold that door steady! Palt, can you re-visable me for a sec?”

The door opened. Someone entered the room. Erin reappeared. The Gnoll family gasped. Erin waved at them.

“Hey! Glad to see you’re okay. Do you want to come with me?”

“What? I don’t understand. Miss Erin, how did you get here? There was a crowd—it’s not safe. Come in!”

The Gnoll protested. But Erin pointed.

“I was invisible. We’re going around, making sure people are okay! We’ve checked on Selys, Visma, Ishkr’s good, but he’s looking for his sister.”

She waved towards something. Ekirra, peeking around his father’s legs, saw the magic door. It was being held up by…he sniffed. Mister Numbtongue and Miss Minotaur?

“If you want to stay here, that’s fine. But we can let you come to the inn. It’s safe. There’s the Garden and no one’s come to bother us.”

Erin was telling Ekirra’s family. The parents wavered only a second. Then they nodded.

Hey! Anyone else who wants to come to the inn! Come on through!

The young woman was aware of the power of Gnoll hearing. More than one apartment opened and disgorged the largely Gnoll residents. She herded them through the door. Then she turned.

“Okay, Palt. Invisibility time.”

She vanished and Numbtongue, Beza, and Erin all hurried down the street. When a crowd came by—they put the door down. No one noticed.

“I think that’s nearly everyone. Let’s get this door close to the Watch House or the Adventurer’s Guild.”

Erin panted. Numbtongue growled an affirmative. Erin walked forwards—right into Bezale.

“Ow. Sorry, Beza. Let me just—oh, that’s you, Numbtongue. Sorry, sorry.”

Swearing, the three got the door down another street. They found 4th Company locking down the area around the Watch House. Here they ran into trouble.

“Captain! I’m sensing something! Invisibles on approach!”

The [Mage] attached to the blockade of Captain Wikir’s squad couldn’t see them, but even low-level [Mages] had their ways. Erin, Numbtongue, and Palt saw the [Soldiers] curse.

Halt!”

Wikir roared. The [Mage] pointed his wand.

“[Dust Wind]!

Erin coughed as the dust suddenly covered her invisible body. She waved her arms as the [Soldiers] aimed weapons at them. Unlike the [Guards], 4th Company stuck to their blades.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! It’s me! Erin!”

The [Soldiers] lowered their weapons. Erin staggered forwards, coughing, as Palt dropped his spell.

“We’ve got a lot of people in the inn! We’re taking the magic door to the Watch House. We can do that, right?”

“Hm. Granted. Send a runner to Wing Commander Embria and the Watch Captain.”

The Gnoll [Captain] eyed Numbtongue and Beza’s silhouettes, but he waved them through. Gratefully, Erin staggered down the street. Then she turned.

“I think we did it. Okay, everyone! We’re in the clear! Anyone got water? I’ve got dust all on me.”

Inside the inn was packed. Even the [Grand Theatre] was stretched to accommodate everyone. The Knights of the Rose and Lady Bethal were standing around with Maviola, Mrsha—who was greeting Ekirra with Visma and urging him and his sibling into the [Garden of Sanctuary] to meet the beavers—Lyonette, reassuring people, and everyone else.

“I’ll admit. This is a better plan than your last one.”

Maviola herself brought over some water. Erin washed her face as Numbtongue grumpily reappeared, sneezing. Beza trotted into the inn.

“Thanks, Maviola. It’s not everything. But you’re right.”

Erin had seen the riots. Looting shops. Harrying Humans and Workers. Apart from one instance, she hadn’t confronted them. When she had, though…well, Numbtongue had skinned his knuckles.

Lady Bethal eyed Erin as the young woman splashed more water on herself and yelped because it was cold.

“You’re a young woman after my heart, Miss Erin. You don’t believe in sitting around, do you?”

“What good does that do? Hey, thanks for lending me the [Knights].”

They bowed. Kerrig, Nil, Welca—there were six in all. But you didn’t need more than six. Maviola glanced at them.

“You’re not going to go anywhere else?”

“…No. Not unless it gets bad. But it sounds like the Antinium are helping to keep order. Apparently there are hundreds of them stopping the riots. That’s good.”

Lady Bethal and Maviola both glanced up at that. Thomast nudged his wife, and Maviola just nodded slowly.

“Yes. ‘Good.’”

Erin ignored that. She turned to Drassi, who was monitoring the news and the door.

“Anything else, Drassi? How’re the other cities?”

“Good. Sir Relz and Noass aren’t on-screen. It’s this Garuda.”

A Garuda was filling in for the two absent Drakes. Erin nodded.

“How’s Esthelm? Celum?”

Drassi shook her head.

“Calm. Celum’s too banged up from the raid to really explode. I checked; Fals said it’s fine.”

“And Esthelm?”

A wry smile. This came from Palt. He was passing around something—Erin nearly objected until she saw it was just little sweets. Mints. Not everything was an edible edible.

“Peaceful. Even besides Master Pelt showing up, I don’t think Esthelm was a huge target of The Golden Triangle. They’re not as connected and they didn’t have as much money to spend.”

“That’s a relief. Selys is at the Adventurer’s Guild and Keldrass’ team is there. So is Hawk and Tekshia. So Selys is safe. I talked to a [Guard]—Jeiss—who says they found Relc and Olesm’s helping from City Hall. So…I guess that’s it.”

Erin leaned back with a sigh. She was tired. But she’d done something. She looked at Maviola.

“How’d I do?”

“Aside from trying to stop a mob with your aura alone? Well. Besides—we just saw Magnolia doing the same.”

The [Innkeeper] sat up with a frown.

“Really? Aw, so that means I’m too low-level.”

“To a point. The riots are contained in most cities, but she seems happy to let them run in Invrisil. I suppose that’s in contrast to Pallass. Grand Strategist Chaldion put the riots down hard.

The [Innkeeper]’s heart sank.

“Chaldion did…? How hard is—hard? What about Saliss? I bet he didn’t do anything like that.”

“He is a Named Adventurer. Not the law.”

Maviola didn’t reply to Erin’s first question, which was telling. The [Innkeeper] looked around. Then she saw Visma’s mother hurrying over.

“Miss Solstice. Is Liscor safe? We’d like to check on our homes if it is.”

“Not yet. But soon. The Watch is outside—I’ll get people to check on it, okay? You just sit tight. Have something to eat. On the house.”

Erin soothed her. The many people in the room were nervous, but the Players were putting on comedy bits, and Lyonette was passing out free snacks and drinks. Erin sighed, sat back—

And Ishkr was there. The Gnoll hovered at Erin’s side.

“Erin. Miss Erin, have you heard about my sister? Liska?”

Erin sat up.

“Oh—Ishkr. I didn’t. I’ve asked, but she’s not at your apartment and no one else saw her…”

The Gnoll [Waiter] growled under his breath. Erin began to stand up.

“We can go look for her. Numbtongue, Beza—”

They glanced up. But the Gnoll shook his head. He hesitated, bent down.

“She—she may be with the rioters, Miss Erin. It would be like her.”

“Oh. Then should I…?”

“I’ll go look for her.”

The Gnoll wanted to go through the door, but everyone blocked him.

“My dear young…Gnoll. If your sister is with a mob, there’s nothing to do. Sit down, please. Ser Kerrig, perhaps you could go look. Even a mob is unlikely to stop you. Is there a description for this young Gnoll…woman?”

The Rose Knight nodded, donning his helmet. But Ishkr shook his head again.

“No. No. Thank you. I will wait. She’s probably with—it’s fine.”

He was glancing at Visma’s mother and around the room. Clearly nervous. Erin hesitated, but Ishkr strode off.

“I will help wait tables. Please let me know if you hear from her.”

“Of course. I’ll get Drassi to check.”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. She saw Drassi raise her head and glance at Ishkr. Then the Drake [Gossip] slid over to Erin.

“Um. Erin. I think Ishkr’s really worried. Liska might actually be with a riot. That’s like her. I can go through. I’ll stick to the safe zones.”

“You sure, Drassi? What’s Liska like? You know her? I’ve never even met her.”

Drassi rolled her eyes, indignant for a second.

“Erin, I know everyone. Yeah. Ishkr’s sister is two years younger. She’s uh…difficult.”

And that came from Drassi, who had few bad words about anyone. Erin frowned. They headed into the kitchen, where even Gnoll ears would have trouble if they whispered. Lyonette glanced at them as she pulled more pizzas out of the oven and distributed them for the guests.

“What’s wrong with Liska?”

“Oh—that’s why Ishkr doesn’t want anyone to find her but him or maybe you. She’s uh—well—I happen to know this, but you shouldn’t tell anyone. I haven’t! Obviously! Ishkr asked me not to. But she gets in trouble because she’s often with…female friends.”

Erin stared blankly at Drassi as the Drake [Gossip] looked uncomfortable.

“Okay. What kind of female friends? [Thieves]?”

“No, Erin. Female…friends.

“Uh huh.”

The [Gossip] gave up. She leaned over.

Turnscales, Erin.

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes slowly narrowed. She…knew that word. But the meaning was…

“Why’s that bad?”

“She’s gotten arrested before. Look—it’s not my secret. Just—just don’t announce it. That’s why Ishkr doesn’t want her found in front of everyone.

Drassi hurried off. Before Erin could process that revelation, she heard a sound.

—them—

A roar of fury. Everyone in the inn froze. Erin barreled out of the kitchen.

“What was that!?”

She looked around. Numbtongue recoiled from the magic door.

“Invrisil! It’s still in the middle of the riots!”

“Maybe let’s put the magic door back in the hallway, huh, Numbtongue?”

The Goblin nodded. Embarrassed, he dragged it down the hallway. Ishkr and Erin went to help.

The [Innkeeper] stared at the door after it was placed back in its usual spot. She glanced at Ishkr, but said nothing. The sudden surge of sound had worried her.

“I’m going to open the door. Just to see how Veeid’s doing, okay?”

Numbtongue nodded. Ishkr backed up.

“Miss Erin, maybe we should—”

Erin yanked the door open for a second, ready to slam it shut. She heard another wave of sound. People were shouting! But the inn was safe.

Boarded up. Veeid spun as he saw Erin appear.

“Miss Solstice! Dead gods! Please, let us have those [Knights] back!”

“Veeid! What’s wrong? Sorry, we were in Liscor with the riots—”

The portly [Innkeeper] was pale. The [Bouncers] were watching the doors, looking very nervous. The staff were hiding in the kitchen.

“We—the crowd went to Lady Reinhart’s mansion, but they came back even more furious! They’ve been tearing up parts of the city! They didn’t break in here, but they tried—twice! They’re hunting some people. I’d take it as a kindness, Miss Solstice if you’d let us shelter at your inn. Just for a moment!”

Erin nodded instantly.

“Of course. Come on through! But who’re they after, Veeid?”

The man practically jumped through the doorway. He looked back as the other staff flooded after him, even the [Bouncers].

“[Lords]. They’re going to be torn to shreds if they don’t get out of the city. Nothing to do with us, though. They started this. I hope they get what’s coming to them.”

Veeid’s tone was vindictive. Erin looked at him as the others came through the door. Her eyes flickered.

“Yeah. What’s coming to them. Getting beaten up.”

“Or lynched. Either way—where’s Lady Walchaís? My inn!”

The man ran down the corridor. Erin looked at Numbtongue. She recalled quite clearly—her first reaction to hearing about the riots in Invrisil.

“I wanted to go out there and stop them. The riots, I mean. Good thing I didn’t try then with the lantern, huh, Numbtongue?”

“Mm.”

The [Bard] watched as Redit, the [Cook], and two [Barmaids] hurried through the doors. They stared at the Goblin’s face. But they knew the score. Anywhere else—and he would have been in trouble.

Erin knew that. What protected Numbtongue was her. Even with his ‘honorary citizenship’ thing that Liscor had given him, he couldn’t just walk into Liscor. In fact, the only two times had been during riots when something worse than a ‘Goblin’ was striking the city.

“Why did you want to stop the riots?”

The [Bard] was looking at Erin. She shrugged.

“I just—don’t like how it felt. You know, Maviola shows me auras. And they felt so angry. And sad. Upset. It wasn’t their fault.”

The Hobgoblin shrugged, a metaphysical commentary on the nature of injustice in the world. Erin looked at him.

“I couldn’t magically make them feel better. I thought I could. You know, with sports. But it doesn’t always work. Guess I got a big head.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

She smiled for a second. The Hobgoblin unslung his guitar. And Reiss kicked him. The ghost pointed, even though Numbtongue didn’t feel the blow.

Watch her.

Numbtongue saw Erin looking out the door. He heard the shouting. He saw something on Erin’s finger glitter.

“The thing is, Numbtongue. It’s a bad thing. Riots hurt everyone. Even if you just burn down houses. Let alone kill people.”

“True.”

The [Bard] stood up, told something by Pyrite’s intuition. His own mind. Reiss’ whispers. He saw Erin smile.

“Numbtongue.”

The Hobgoblin reached for her arm, then tightened his grip. He was her protector. And that meant doing things to protect Erin. Even if she didn’t like it. She looked down at his steely grip.

“Hm. Everyone’s through. I’ll let the [Knights] go through. You should go back to the inn.”

The Hobgoblin blocked the door casually with his body. Erin looked at him.

“Numbtongue…”

Her eyes flickered. Then she backed up. The Goblin tensed—but Erin just smiled, raised her arms.

“Good point. You can’t be stupid, right?”

“Right. Stupid gets you killed.”

“Right. Totally understood. I learned my lesson.”

The [Innkeeper] backed up. Numbtongue didn’t move from his spot. He saw Erin smile.

“I really did, Numbtongue.”

She walked back into the common room. The Hobgoblin sighed. He sat down. This time he kept his eyes on the two secret side doors. He closed the door, set it to Liscor and put his back against it.

Even the garden wouldn’t get past him. The Hobgoblin began to play. He listened to a song from another world and closed his eyes. He kept playing for a minute, then two.

When he heard the soft footfall, he didn’t open his eyes or stop playing.

“Go away.”

She didn’t leave. The young woman stood there. She had brought something with her. Well, more than one thing. But one thing mattered.

“Numbtongue…”

“No. I’ll get Lyonette.”

“Numbtongue. I learned a lot. And—I never forget. You know that.”

He opened his eyes. And saw what Erin was carrying. The Hobgoblin’s fingers slipped on his guitar. He tried to stop her. But really—he had never been able to.

On Erin Solstice’s finger, her ring began to shine gold.

 

—-

 

The pursuit ended when the horses threw their riders. They had carried Lord Alman faithfully along with his two bodyguards. But the noise, the screaming, the rocks—drove the horses insane. They did what people would have done long ago and reared.

Lord Alman hit the ground. He struggled to his feet as another of his [Bodyguards] was dismounted. The other—an [Archer], kept control of his mount.

“Lord Alman! The crowds!”

The [Lord] ran on foot, then. And the crowds followed, screaming in fury. Magnolia had turned them on him.

On them all. And even she underestimated the danger. Lord Alman ran past the Mage’s Guild, clutching a stitch in his side. He hoped that would slow them—

The crowd brought down the Steel Golem. It knocked them back, but the magical instructions kept it from splattering them. They swarmed it, tossed grappling hooks and dragged it to the street. Then they smashed it with sledgehammers, hacked at it until the magic failed.

That only made the [Lord] run faster. He saw Lord Ranga, his face torn by an arrow, shouting.

Alman! Alman! Over here!

The man rode at him, sword drawn. Bloody; but he’d been fleeing. The young [Lord], Mel, was still half out of it. Alman and his two bodyguards ran after Ranga.

They found more [Lords], those who hadn’t managed to escape the city. Lord Toldos was on foot as well. The old man had lost half his bodyguard.

“Where are they?”

“Dead. They ran right over us.”

The old [Lord]’s face was white. He limped after other [Lords] as they tried to find a way out.

“We could fight through…”

Another [Lord] opined. Toldos looked at him.

“And kill hundreds of civilians?”

“Besides which. They’d kill us first. Even with our artifacts.”

Lord Alman’s voice was low. He panted. The street was clear for a second. A group of [Maids] and [Butlers] had ridden wagons in front of the last crowd, blocking them. But even Magnolia’s servants—if that had been them—were fleeing the fury.

“Magnolia has to help us. If we die like dogs—our Houses will declare a blood feud!”

Lord Ranga struck his horse’s saddle. The stallion reared and he nearly fell off. The other [Lords] nodded. But—Toldos limped behind the others, his face gray.

“She’s miscalculated. Magnolia likes tidy plans. She doesn’t know riots. She might send her golems in after us, but I think she’s lost control.”

The others looked at him. That was an unwelcome assessment. Before they could suggest anything though—the riots found them.

 

—-

 

Let us in!

Lord Ranga pounded on a door as the crowds advanced. The [Shopkeeper] refused to open up. Alman grabbed Ranga—someone had shot his horse.

“Ranga, we have to move! Grab Mel and follow us!”

The [Lords] picked up Mel. No more arrows flew. The crowd was advancing…slowly.

Were they wary of the [Lord] and their bodyguard’s blades? The two dozen men were outnumbered hundreds to one. Slowly, they backed up, hurrying down the street.

Another crowd came down it. This time the [Lords] were trapped. From her rooftop, Ressa cursed. She crouched. She’d been trying to steer them, but Invrisil had been boiling like a rat’s nest and the [Lords] had kept going in circles.

“Magnolia. They’re cornered.”

“Ressa. They must not die. Teriarch. Can you teleport them out?”

“If you know each of their names, yes. Otherwise, I can fly over there and lift them to safety. But that would be obvious. And Wistram is already pestering Grand Mage Eldavin. I won’t get tangled up in politics.”

The Dragon’s voice was testy from the other end of the speaking stone. Magnolia cursed at him.

“Ressa. Do not let them die.”

“What do you want me to do? I have stunning vials. I can drop one crowd. But if they charge in, I’ll have to go down myself.”

Ressa had the poisoned blade that Regis Reinhart had given her. If she went down—people died. Magnolia fell silent. Teriarch was listening. Ressa waited. The voice, when it came, was distant.

“Do not let them die, Ressa.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Reinhart! That would be a sl—alright, I’m going. Where are they? Wait, I’ll scry Ressa and teleport to—”

Sounds from the other end of the stone. Ressa put it away distantly. Teriarch might not make it. She focused down on the crowd. Either way—

The [Maid] had changed clothes. At least she looked like an [Assassin] now. She drew the blade. And waited.

 

—-

 

Below. The crowd was more like a predator. It rolled forwards slowly as the [Lords] backed up. They were offering threats, demanding passage. It was ignored.

Kill them. Vengeance!”

Vengeance!

The crowd echoed it. For what? Well—something to do with the Golden Triangle. Being sent against Magnolia Reinhart.

“We’re tired of noble’s tricks! They killed some of us!”

Bodyguards dead. They had killed one [Lord]. Magnolia hadn’t reached him in time. The silent advance from both sides forced the [Lords] into a ring.

These were the consequences. Of what? Well—just consequences.

No Wistram broadcast here. Sir Relz and Noass had fled the violence. This—this crowd was ready for blood.

Stay back! We are [Lords] of Izril. By right, we rule you! We settled these lands!

Lord Ranga bellowed. It was an amazingly stupid thing to say. Someone laughed.

“First you, then your Rhir-taken house!

The [Lord] paled. There was a cheer from the crowd.

Yes!

“Justice!”

“Woo! That’s right! Kill them! Start with the women and children! And babies too!”

The vindictive rage—faltered. The crowd hesitated. They were behind a lot of things, but that was a bit too on-the-nose. But the shouter continued.

Let’s kill them all! And then kill all the villagers! Especially the babies! And the cows! And uh—rats! Kill all the rats and sheep! Kill ‘em all!”

Someone was disrupting the flow of this moment. Like cold water down the back. It was unpleasant. Going against what was right. Righteous anger snarled—turned.

Who’s shouting that?

People turned. And they saw her standing there.

It was a…young woman. Wearing trousers, a light shirt. She had something in her hands. The crowd focused on that. On her.

“Who are you?”

Erin Solstice smiled. This time—there were even more people. And they were armed. They looked like bad news. She carried no lantern. And the only Skill she used was [Loud Voice].

Listen up. You can’t kill those people.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. Lord Alman stared at the young woman in the street. Holding…what was that? He peered past her as Lord Toldos—Ranga—the others stared at her. She was alone. The street was full of closed doors. Frightened people. He saw some of them poking their heads out. A furry face withdrew quickly.

“Back off.”

A man with a sword warned Erin. She looked at the sword, dismissed it. She called out to the crowds.

“Listen. I don’t know who they are. Really. I don’t.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. Lord Alman’s heart sank. Erin looked about.

“But you can’t kill them.”

Who was she to set rules? People swung around. Someone threw a stone. The rock soared at Erin’s face.

It exploded in midair. Three things hit it; an arrow, a bolt of light, and a shimmering force field. Erin recoiled—and a trio of people looked out through a magical door.

Bird. Palt. Montressa. They walked out. A Centaur, an Antinium, and a [Mage].

Not the people to calm a mob. Four versus hundreds. Even so—they weren’t alone. Erin turned. She planted something on the ground.

“I know you’re angry. Something terrible has happened. I can’t fix that. Or give you your money back. You should be angry! You deserve justice!”

She pointed at them. The people standing there hesitated.

Six men and women in armor stepped out of the doorway. [Knights]. And then—a Hobgoblin. They formed a line behind her. The young woman went on, spellbinding the crowd. Not with a Skill, but just the strangeness.

“It sucks. Sometimes life is terrible. And I can’t help you. I can’t stop you from rioting. Or change your minds. But there’s just one thing. You can’t kill them. That’s not right.”

She pointed at the [Lords]. At this, there was jeering. The door opened. A [Chevalier] stepped into place. Antinium joined the others. A giant with yellow paint on his body. A muscular Drake and then another that put even him to shame. The Humans eyed the muscular Drake. But he was still one and they had brought down a Golem.

“You can’t stop us. Get lost.”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t argue. She looked at the hundreds. Then turned her head. It was about twenty people. She shook her head. The door opened. A Drake in armor strode through. The Heartflame Breastplate.

A half-Giant ducked his head to exit. The people looked up. But he was shorter than a Golem.

The young woman called out. As the crowds were hesitating.

“Listen, everybody. I can see we’re not going to resolve this with words. And that’s fine. I didn’t really think it would work. But look.”

She planted the thing she was carrying on the ground, in the street. And the bundle of white cloth unrolled. The crowd looked—saw only a white bit of cloth.

A flag. White. The Hobgoblin stared at it. Erin looked at the murderous riot. She shook her head.

“This isn’t justice. You don’t know what fighting for something important is. So I’m sorry for this.”

For what? The young woman raised the flag. She hefted it higher, taking a two-handed grip on it. The people of Invrisil—the riot—uncomprehending, saw the young woman look behind her.

The Hobgoblin tensed. The Antinium with the bow plucked an arrow out of a quiver. He drew—loosed.

The arrow went through a woman’s knee. She went down with a scream. Erin Solstice ran forwards. The crowd saw a second arrow flash forwards and hit a second knee. They stared. What was she—

Charge!

The [Innkeeper] shouted. The word reverberated down the street. The people flinched. And they saw that strange group charge. The Rose Knights surged past Erin and rammed into the crowd. Bereft of weapons, they punched with gauntleted fists, ignoring the panicked blows on their armor. The Hobgoblin thrust Erin back and knocked a huge man flying.

A Centaur galloped to the side and began to unload spells on the crowd. Arrows of light. A Minotauress punched through on another side, her skin like iron.

Montressa du Valeross calmly pointed. A barrier rose around the [Lords]. Disbelieving, Lord Alman saw an Antinium fighting side-by-side with the huge Drake. Grimalkin grimaced as he swatted a man down and then pointed.

“[Delain’s Fist].”

The spell sent a group of Humans flying. With some relish, Relc grabbed a spear—a knife tied to a length of wood and snapped it. He decked the man holding it.

“She’s mad!

Lord Ranga exclaimed. The young woman was charging. The half-Giant, the Hobgoblin—they all followed her, trying to keep her back. But she screamed and charged, holding the flag like a [Banner General].

Erin had seen battle. She ran forwards, the [Barkskin] potion warding off a stone that grazed her cheek. She blocked a club with the haft of her flag and kicked someone in the stomach. Out their lunch came. She bellowed.

Forwards, you cowards! Let’s go!

She charged past a disbelieving Grimalkin. Ser Kerrig spun, blood on his gauntleted fists. Erin ran as if there was an army at her back.

And there was. The mob fractured. It was just angry people. Erin had all the sympathy in the world for them. But not to murder.

Like Liscor—the answer was simple. To stop them burning down a home—or killing anyone—Erin charged.

One arrow, two arrows, three arrows…three legs go ouch…

Bird hummed as he shot more people through the legs. The [Mages] were knocking people back. Palt blew a cloud of smoke that rendered those inside it breathless. They staggered away, choking.

Erin ran. She drew Keldrass in her wake, blocking weapons with the burning armor. Her friends streamed after her, but Erin didn’t slow down. She swung her flag, and people ran from it as if it was a sword. Numbtongue hadn’t drawn his. He just punched people flat.

Her ring was glowing. The golden shine made Grimalkin’s eyes widen. He turned. Words were spelling themselves out.

“Impossible.”

 

SALAZSAR.

 

—-

 

Inside the Walled City of Salazsar, a voice began to scream an alarm. A Daughter of the Walls called for aid. Wall Lady Navine heard the siren as well as her ring lit up. Her eyes went round.

“No way. Invrisil? What—

 

—-

 

Erin didn’t notice. Nor was this the place.

She charged past a Gnoll with a top hat. He blocked a knife thrust meant for her and his club blurred. A Drake cursed as he kicked someone’s legs out and then struck a head. They took their eyes off her for one second and—

“Split them in half! Come on!

Erin shouted. The people parted in front of her. She saw a ring of steel, a shimmering barrier. Lord Alman stared at Erin Solstice as she broke through the crowd. The people hammering on Montressa’s shield on the other side gaped at the young woman.

This way! Follow me!

She pointed. The [Lords] needed no further urging. Insane or not—the young woman was life and behind them lay death.

They ran. The crowd made one effort for them. Right up until the half-Giant got tired of people trying to stab him and punched a hole through the crowd. A huge Selphid wearing a Raskghar’s body thrashed the ones on the ground. A Dwarf, unconcerned with the niceties of this attack, broke someone’s leg with a swing of a hammer.

They were all here. As many as she could call. Erin Solstice ran back towards the inn. And the crowd broke. They ran, rather than fight the invincible Rose Knights, or clash with the Hobgoblin—the Drake [Mage].

Quality over quantity. Ressa stared from the rooftops. She was so amazed she forgot to sheathe her blade. The young woman had chosen a small army of everyone who didn’t take wounds easily and punched through the lower-level mob.

“Ressa? What’s happening? Ressa? Did Teriarch make it?”

The [Maid] glanced up. A puffing Dragon flew through the air. Well, a half-Elf, his robes fluttering wildly.

“Where’s the riot? Where’s—”

He stared down at the chaos below. Erin Solstice herded the [Lords] through the door. The Rose Knights fought a rearguard as Montressa’s barrier collapsed and the crowd charged them. They moved through the door—and it swung closed.

Teriarch stared down, and then met Ressa’s eyes. She expected his fury—or annoyance at the very least. But instead, the Dragon sat down and laughed. He looked at the closed door the mob was smashing to pieces. His eyes crinkled up with mirth.

“I’ve only seen that before twice.

 

—-

 

Maviola El looked at the [Innkeeper] in the silence afterwards.

Erin had a cut down her face. Two more spots of blood on her clothing from where she’d been stabbed. But Saliss’ potions had taken the blows.

Not many people were hurt bad. Moore had taken a knife wound nearly through his foot—that was when he’d lost his temper. Numbtongue had torn a nail clean off and was annoyed.

“What was—who are—”

One of the [Lords] was stammering. He looked around, so shocked he didn’t register the high non-Human presence at first. But when he saw Numbtongue, he reached for his sword.

Goblin!

It was a classic response and the other [Lords] jerked upright. Numbtongue eyed the sword the man was waving at him. He calmly walked behind Lady Bethal.

“Oh, put it away, Ranga. This young lady has just saved your lives. In stunning fashion too.”

Bethal Walchaís’ presence made some of the [Lords] gawp. But most had eyes only for Erin. She was walking around.

“Everyone okay? Pelt? Moore? How’s the foot? Grimalkin?”

“Fine.”

The [Sinew Magus] stared at Erin’s ring. But it was dull. His mind was racing. If she had activated that in Pallass, let alone Liscor—Ancestors!

“You actually did it. You attacked them.

Erin turned as Maviola approached her. The [Lady Firestarter] looked strangely at Erin. The [Innkeeper] exhaled. She poked an injury on her side and winced.

“Healing potion…there. Yeah. It was the only way. You were right. I can’t control a mob. So I beat them up.”

She popped a cork and drank. The [Lady] just looked at Erin.

“That was your solution?”

“Only if they attacked people. I had to save Visma’s apartment that way. Well—that was easier. I just needed the [Knights]. Hey—Ser Kerrig? Thanks!”

“Milady Solstice, my pleasure.”

The [Knight] bowed to her. The [Lords] turned back to Erin Solstice.

There she stood, wiping blood from her cheeks and asking for a towel. The flag was only a bit covered with dirt and blood. It had looked far worse.

“She charged them under the flag of truce. Who is that young woman who saved us, Bethal?”

The voice came from Lord Toldos. He looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] turned. She offered him a weary smile.

“Hi. I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. I heard you were all in trouble. So I went to find you. Guess I made it just in time, huh? Who’re you?”

The [Lords] looked at her. It was inconceivable to some that they should be saved by someone by chance. Lord Toldos bowed after a second.

“I am Lord Toldos of House Everight. I am in your debt—Lady Solstice?”

He glanced at Ser Kerrig. Erin laughed.

“Oh, I’m not a [Lady]. I’m just an [Innkeeper].”

Again they gaped. But the truth was undeniable. Erin stood there, panting, wiping her brow.

“Hey Lyonette! Got any water? And more healing potions. That guy doesn’t look good.”

Lord Mel was indeed still out of it. Even healing potions didn’t do for concussions well. And as the [Lords] relaxed, coming to grips with their rescue, they finally noticed the people in the inn.

Drakes. Gnolls. The Human [Lords], some of whom had never been surrounded by non-Humans in their entire life and only seen them when they clashed at the Bloodfields, checked their arms nervously. But Erin walked around.

“Thanks for coming at the drop of a hat, Jelaqua.”

“Well, Moore was already insisting we see if Mrsha was alright. And my man was in Esthelm so we were right there. Right, Grimalkin?”

The Selphid threw an arm around Grimalkin’s shoulder. The [Sinew Magus] deliberately folded his arms and ignored the now-copper ring. He wondered how many had seen it. How many knew.

“I consider it a small debt, Miss Solstice. I will have you oblige me with some…help with my training regimen. Later. I understood the necessity.”

“Thank you. And you, Pelt.”

“Hah. I got to break a few legs. Felt like the old days with Terandrian snots. Just give me free drinks for a month.”

The Dwarf trooped over to the door. Erin rolled her eyes and gave him a hug from behind until he grumped off. She went on, talking to the others, speaking to Yellow Splatters, thanking Keldrass, who shrugged, somewhat pleased at being able to punch Humans.

A mixed group. Some close friends. Others—acquaintances. Maviola watched too. Erin had splendidly called them to her. An [Innkeeper]’s power. Someone who cultivated friendship like Magnolia and the others cultivated sheer power, force of arms.

But it disturbed her, slightly, to see Erin use it like that. Maviola was no stranger to war. She could see the necessity of putting down a riot. But Erin Solstice had made the jump from trying to calm a riot with no violence at all to the most expedient route: beating them down with a group of elites.

“What a dangerous girl. She has both flower and sword in either hand.”

Maviola shook her head. She had misjudged Erin slightly.

“Excuse me. But where’s Lord Eick?”

“Dead. They killed him.”

Alman answered curtly. He was shaking. Now he came to grips with it—Magnolia Reinhart. He closed his eyes. When all was said and done—his grudge to her was deepened this day.

“Where are we, father? Are we safe? Can we go home?”

Lord Mel was dizzy. Lord Ranga knelt by his side, worried, checking his head.

“I—we are safe, Mel. Lady Bethal, where are we? Might we go home?”

“You’re in Liscor, Lord Ranga. Home is far away. Fortunately, Erin has a magical door connecting to Invrisil. Or—she did. I rather fear it’s broken for the moment.”

The exclamations drew Erin over. She blinked, then smiled at the worried looks—not just on the [Lord]’s faces. The Players of Celum and Veeid and the other Invrisil citizens were alarmed. She waved a hand, laughing.

“Don’t worry. I used a spare mana stone on that door. The door to Veeid’s inn is there. See?”

She opened the door. Everyone relaxed. Then they marveled.

“A magic door! Dead gods! So this is that inn that Reinhart travelled to? And we’re in Liscor? A damn Dr—”

One of the [Lords] caught himself. He saw Relc grinning at him. The Drake blew on his knuckles.

“Say. I can punch anyone I want since I’m getting kicked out…”

He eyed the man. Erin just laughed.

“It’s fine. Liscor is nice to Humans.”

She faltered.

“…Usually. It’s been a kind of sucky day for everyone.”

No one disagreed with that. Well—Pelt might have, but he was gone. Montressa just looked at the [Lords]. She counted minor houses, but some, like Lord Toldos, were known to Wistram. In Erin’s inn.

She wasn’t one to miss the opportunity. Nor—it seemed—was Palt. He was going around, shaking hands, casting [Calm] spells.

“Palt, sir. Pleasure to help. Of course, I couldn’t refuse when I heard—from Wistram. Yes, Ullsinoi. I don’t know if you heard…a steadying smoke? Something stronger? Please, allow me…”

Montressa began doing the same. After a bit, Erin wandered over to the [Lords]. The first person she met was a tall fellow. Almost too skinny.

“Innkeeper Solstice? My name is Lord Alman of House Sanito. I am in your debt. As are we all.”

“Oh. It’s my pleasure. Like I said. I heard you were in trouble. And I had to do something.”

The [Lord] peered at Erin.

“…It’s a rare young woman who would charge a crowd that murderous.”

She laughed as if he’d said a joke.

“Well, that’s just me. We can’t let people be murdered, right?”

“…Surely. May I ask—what this place is? I assume your inn?”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. She smiled broadly.

“Of course! This is The Wandering Inn! Welcome! I forgot to say that! It’s safe here. We have drinks, food—hey Lyonette! Bring over some blue fruit juice and a pizza! That’s good for the nerves, Alman. Can I call you Alman?”

“Er…yes?”

Taken aback, Lord Alman saw a lovely young woman hurry over to him. He was presented with a bow, quite formal, and a cup of blue…liquid…and a triangle of what he was assured was food. He found himself sitting down.

“Is this…what is this, may I ask?”

“Um. Blue fruit juice. It’s sweet. Go on!”

Erin urged the man. Somewhat apprehensive, and hoping this was, in fact, blueberry juice, the man took a sip. His eyes widened.

“How sweet! And this—”

He nibbled at the pizza. The hot food was comforting. Erin beamed.

“Good, right? Here—this is for you.”

She took more drinks from a relieved Gnoll who had found his sister, gave them to Lord Ranga and Mel. The young man just stared at his cup for a while. Lord Ranga blinked and took a sip.

“I—it is sweet! What is this? It’s not blueberry…”

“This is the Amentus fruit.”

Lord Toldos stared into his cup. The old man blinked at the drink. The other [Lords] nearly spat out the drink.

“Amentus wine? Dead gods, that’s expensive!

“What? No, this isn’t alcoholic…wine?”

Erin looked surprised. Lord Toldos peered at the drink.

“Does this come from a blue…fruit with a toxic center, Miss? I know it germinates in southern Izril. It comes so dear up north.”

“Oh, that’s blue fruits alright. We’ve got an orchard, don’t worry. Here, have some. On the house. Everyone feels better after blue fruit juice and pizza. Don’t look at me like that, Grimalkin. It’s comfort food.”

The [Innkeeper] offered more pizza. The old [Lord] nibbled at it. Alman had finished his slice without even knowing. He chewed on the crust, reached for another since they were on offer.

A little white paw grabbed his slice. The [Lord] peered under the table and saw a white…dog? No, a Gnoll! He nearly jumped out of his seat. Mrsha scurried away and shared her pizza with Visma and Ekirra.

What an inn. What a place! His head was spinning. But he had to ask.

“Is that…is that Hobgoblin er…t—safe?”

He almost said ‘tame’, but he was catching up. Numbtongue glanced up.

“Usually. If people attack me, not very.”

He answered for Erin. Then he went back to strumming on his guitar. The [Lords] checked their drinks to make sure it wasn’t wine.

Erin Solstice laughed. It was an infectious sound. It didn’t change the world. Bring back the dead, or stop a riot. But Maviola thought it was as compelling as Magnolia’s charms. Perhaps more so. She laughed, leaned on a table, and sat down.

“Whoof. I’m dizzy. My legs are shaking. That was crazy. That was…I’m so glad.”

She looked around, smiling at the others. And Lord Alman was compelled to put aside his drink.

“Miss—Miss Erin. I should like to say that House Sanito owes you a debt, once again. If we can repay you in any way…”

He hesitated. Now, he was thinking of his house. That damn [Trade War] wasn’t going to end anytime soon. But there was that and this.

“…I should like to oblige you. I would be dead but for your intervention.”

The young woman looked up at him. Her eyes opened wide.

“Really? Well—there is something. But…hey. You don’t have to do anything for me. I just did what any person would do.”

The ridiculousness of that statement made Alman smile. He saw the young woman lean back, sighing.

“So what happened? I just heard Magnolia kicked the riot back into Invrisil. That was…bad of her. I don’t like her, but I didn’t think she was evil.

The [Lords] exchange a glance. Uncomfortably, they saw Bethal—and the young [Lady] with the fiery hair looking at them. Lord Ranga cleared his throat.

“We—were trying to force Reinhart to end her [Trade War].”

“Wow. That was never going to work.”

Erin commented. The [Lord] narrowed his eyes; gratitude only went so far. Lord Toldos sat there.

“It was a fool’s errand, I suppose. Still—if we hadn’t angered her…the riots were our fault. She would have listened to reason if…”

He trailed off. And Erin looked at him. Really…looked at him. Her easy smile vanished.

“…What did you just say?”

 

—-

 

In the news, the riots were said to have ended after law reasserted itself. A rather shaken Noass and Sir Relz reported that. They’d missed the fighting, having hidden in the sewers.

They looked more aware of their roles now, and culpability they shared. But the [Commentators] still made a point of showing the living [Lords], safely ensconced in the inn.

“…We’re returning to Pallass now. And once again—I think this is a learning experience. The—the synchronization of these riots leaves us all with some soul-searching, however just the reasons, right Sir Relz?”

“Absolutely. We have to condemn violence such as this in unequivocal terms. I’m only glad that good Samaritans like this young [Innkeeper] exist.”

Sir Relz gestured at Erin, who was folding her arms and glowering at the [Lords]. But they left it at that.

To most people—it was just the ending to some drama. They wouldn’t even glance twice at Erin’s face, except to maybe comment how lucky she was or venture that she was the [Innkeeper] with the magic door. Someone to remember, maybe.

For Archmage Nailihuaile, Erin Solstice’s name and face was burned into her retinas. The Lamia Archmage sat in front of her personal scrying orb.

“An ordinary [Innkeeper]. With a magic door. Hm. Beatrice? What did Montressa’s last report say about this Erin Solstice?”

The Lamia brightly turned to a Dullahan. She’d taken Beatrice under her wing. The Dullahan bowed.

“She reported that after investigation, Erin Solstice was not from Earth. Her original reports were in error, due to Erin Solstice meeting those from Earth and learning recipes. She is sheltering this ‘Joseph’ in her inn, but Montressa has been unable to make contact due to the Ullsinoi faction’s influence and complications in Liscor.”

“Complications in Liscor…? Ah, that fight with those adventurers she was after. She didn’t get them either, did she?”

Beatrice’s grip closed on the notes.

“…No, Archmage.”

Nailihuaile affected not to notice. She was good at that, especially around Viltach and Feor. She looked at Erin Solstice.

“Well, well. You know something, Beatrice?”

“No, Archmage Nailihuaile. What is it?”

The Lamia sighed. Beatrice was no fun. She was very competent—but not fun. Montressa could be fun.

“Beza’s report says the same thing. The Scriptels shared it with me. And you know—I think Montressa is lying. Lying through her teeth. About this ‘Pisces’ fellow that we expelled. About Erin. I think she’s become a bit traitorous.”

She smiled brightly. Beatrice’s expression was thunderous. She stared as Sir Relz and Noass returned to Pallass.

“What will you do, Archmage Nailihuaile?”

“Call me Naili, I keep telling you, Beatrice!”

The Lamia laughed lightly. She slithered over to the orb and disconnected it. Then she turned.

“I think I should make sure. With someone other than Bezale or dear Mons. And before Viltach and Feor wise up—if they haven’t already. And when I do—if Montressa has been lying to me?”

Her smile was very happy. But Beatrice saw the gleam in the Lamia’s eyes. Like a serpent.

“…Montressa may just have to be expelled from Wistram too. Beatrice, let’s find out. I hope she’s been honest. She is your friend, after all.”

The Dullahan woman looked at the dead orb. She shook her head.

“She was, Archmage.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was angry. She was indignant. She was many things. But at the end of it all—she wasn’t going to kick the [Lords] out of her inn.

Not just yet. She sat in her inn, arms folded. The [Lords] looked at her.

They did not like being judged. Magnolia had judged them and they had hated her for it. Somehow, this young woman was worse. Magnolia had contempt. Erin had disappointment.

“Over a [Trade War]? People died.

“People…are dying, Miss Solstice. Perhaps not directly. But our lands cry out for want of resources. Invrisil is a trading hub. We have given Reinhart offense. But I hoped she would relent.”

Lord Toldos inclined his head at her. She narrowed her eyes.

“Couldn’t you have just apologized? That was what she wanted, right?”

“Apologize?”

It was as if they were speaking different languages. The [Lords] looked aghast. Lord Toldos hesitated.

“I stand by my insult, Miss Erin. What Magnolia Reinhart did was, to me, an affront. Perhaps I should have made reparations. I would have if this failed. Now? I fear apologies will be the least of what she requires.”

The other [Lords] went still. Gloomily, they nodded. They had the air of a defeated squad, to Embria, who had come to check on her father. Relc was in a good mood, despite losing his entire apartment. Or perhaps it was an act. But he was rubbing Mrsha’s head and smiling. For now.

“What’s going to happen?”

Erin looked at Maviola. The [Lady], whose hair was almost a match for Embria’s scales in places, made a face.

“If I know Magnolia, it will be…costly reparations, Erin. Magnolia Reinhart will likely keep up the [Trade War] at least another week or two. Perhaps a month. And then lower it for a number of concessions. Political or otherwise.”

The [Lords] flinched. But they were beaten. Perhaps they might rally in time, but the near-death experience had humbled them. Erin looked at them and then at Maviola and Bethal.

“But that’s just bullying.”

“Magnolia does that. Only, not on the battlefield like Tyrion, but with gold. At least she doesn’t kill her enemies. Usually.”

Bethal looked unconcerned. Even unsympathetic; she was on the side of the rioters in large. The [Lords] had caused a mess and this was just deserts.

Erin understood that too. But she wished that no one had died. Liscor was a mess. Pallass was okay, but Chaldion…and now Invrisil. She sat down at the table.

“I get that. It just sort of sucks.”

“We were insulted first. You cannot know how severe of an insult it was, Miss Erin. Given the circumstances, I would normally seek vengeance. But one [Lord] has died already and Thomast is, unfortunately, disinclined to add to that number. I might not be.”

Bethal’s eyes glittered. All the [Lords] stared at the [Chevalier]. And they looked around.

When you came down to it, Liscor was the city over this entire affair. Liscor would have fallen but for Lord Tyrion being held hostage by Magnolia. And so they had insulted her, only to be saved at the last moment by…a Human girl from Liscor.

There was something odd about that. Ironic, even. But for now, the men just looked at each other.

“Lady Walchaís. We are not rich in lands like your House. If I may be candid—we are at Invrisil’s mercy. May I assure you the black flower pertained only to your actions around the siege? Not the Sacrifice of Roses?”

“You may. I hold a grudge, Alman.”

The [Lady]’s retort made the weary Lord of House Sanito flinch. Erin felt compelled at this point to show some mercy.

“Look—I guess you could say Magnolia did do wrong things. But no one’s in the right here.”

“What a brilliant way of distilling every political dispute.”

Lyonette muttered sourly from the back. Maviola stifled a laugh. The [Lords] stilled.

“There is little more recourse. I shall ride back after purchasing a horse. My house is in your debt, Miss Erin. I—I wonder if there is a way to avoid going through Invrisil? I should return, but not directly.”

Lord Toldos rose to his feet. He looked tired. Erin hesitated.

“You don’t have to go yet. I didn’t mean all those things I shouted. Well, I did—but I was angry. Stay the night. I can move the door so in the morning you’re outside of Invrisil. Where’s your home? If it’s far, we can’t move the door more than a couple of miles, but we can at least get you away from people who want to kill you.”

Toldos and the other [Lords] blinked.

“Move…the door? You said you sacrificed one.”

Alman carefully reached for another pizza slice. Mrsha snatched it again and raced off over to Relc. She liked the garlic-sprinkled ones.

“Oh, I can move the door. Not much further than Invrisil, but it has a huge radius. I just put it at Invrisil because it’s convenient, see? But if you’re south of Invrisil I might even be able to get it to your home.”

“My estates are south of Invrisil.”

Lord Ranga raised his hand. Erin nodded.

“Cool! If it’s too far west or east—same problem. But what if I…darn. Who can I get to move the door? What if we paid Hawk—he’s this Courier—but he might want to be with Selys…”

“Any City Runner could take the door south. Or anyone with a wagon, Erin.”

Maviola remarked softly. She was glancing at Erin. And she had a thought. Some of the other [Lords] had it too. Toldos was checking his cup of blue fruit juice, nearly empty.

“You only need the stone anyways. The doors can be set up.”

“And, pray…is there a limit? To what can be sent?”

“Yup. Used to be I could send two people over and door goes dead.”

The [Lords] deflated. Erin went on.

But…I’ve improved the door with the help of this [Farmer] I know. Wailant. He planted Sage’s Grass and now it can do like, fourteen, and recharges quick. And you can use a [Mage] to recharge it faster. Don’t worry! We can get you all to Lord Ranga’s place.”

She was oblivious to the mood moving through the inn. Lyonette was looking at Maviola, gesticulating, and the [Lords] were coughing, glancing at each other. Lady Bethal was the last to catch on. Her jaw dropped and she sat up.

“Wait a minute. Could you then transport goods through the door?”

Erin looked blankly at her.

“Nah. I mean—I could. But the Merchant’s Guild got really mad at me the last time, so I stopped. Anyways, the door has a mana limit! That’s for people!”

“But perhaps—if someone were to pay for the…access. One could in theory, transport some goods through the door?”

Lord Alman remarked carefully. Erin’s brows creased. Finally—finally—she looked around.

“Well…yes. I suppose they could. But Magnolia wouldn’t like…it…”

A thoughtful silence fell around the room. Everyone exchanged a meeting of the eyes. A nudge. Mrsha gave Lord Toldos a tap on the nose. He blinked at her. Numbtongue grinned from behind the bar and toasted Relc. The Drake raised a thumb-claw and grinned.

Magnolia Reinhart wouldn’t like it indeed. But of those who cared in this place? Perhaps it was only Lady Bethal. Slowly, the [Lords] turned to Erin Solstice. Lord Toldos was the one to say it.

“Miss Erin. We have debts to pay, it seems. We have erred gravely. Had our [Ladies] spoken to us—or been with us still—”

His face twisted. He went on.

“—We would have known better. Age makes fools of better men than I. But I hope you will at least listen to our request. Would you…care to discuss a business offer that might solve our woes? It stands to benefit you as well.”

Erin Solstice stood there. She looked at the [Lords] who started a riot. Silly men. But not evil men. Just desperate. Sometimes stupid. Rather like rioters. And with very real reasons for anger, sometimes.

Just misdirected. Could she forgive that? Well, the answer stood in Montressa, Beza, Palt. Friends like Relc.

So she thought for a moment. And then she smiled. They were not perfect men. But she saw people. And people changed.

Pieces on a board. So she moved one and spoke.

Her reply would make Magnolia Reinhart well and truly lose her temper. Yet there she danced. A young woman, laughing and tap-dancing on a flaming stage. Aided and abetted by Maviola. Bringing the best-laid plans to destruction.

Chaos. A kindly [Innkeeper]. The owner of The Wandering Inn.

Erin Solstice.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 44!]

[Skill – Inn: Compartments of Holding obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Warrior → Bannerlady Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]

[Bannerlady Class obt—

 

“Nope. But yes to [Innkeeper]. Ooh. Oooh! Numbtongue, guess what!?

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: And we’re done! Wow. This chapter kicked my butt.

But not as much as the last one. I erased about 5,000 words from the last chapter because it sucked. Also, I didn’t have enough snacks and it clouded my judgment.

This is what the shape of what I envisioned looked like. It might not be as good as I wanted, even now. But it makes me feel better than last time. At least I’m not writing that I feel poorly about it.

Hope you liked it! I’m going to leave you with something special: a picture by Enyavar. It’s a map…of Liscor. I’m talking everything. Streets, buildings—our [Cartographer] made it from scratch! Take a look and compliment him! The full-size version has details! Also, I’m sharing only one of pkay’s new pictures becaus it…fits. General Solstice. Just amazing.

Enjoy, let me know what you thought, and thanks for reading!

https://ko-fi.com/peekay

 

Liscor by Enyavar the [Cartographer]!

(Full-size Version)

 

Liscor by Enyavar

 

General Solstice by pkay!

General Solstice by pkay

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.30

It started with decorations.

As with every city, the Watch had places where the [Guards] liked to be posted. Places where you got less trouble, free food, or just a breath of fresh air. In every city, there were the good streets and bad streets. Good positions awarded to a [Guard] in need of an unofficial vacation or a veteran of many years—

And the bad streets. Punishment duty. And again, it varied. Sometimes there were cities where ‘bad’ meant Gnoll residential districts. And there the Watch made it clear what they thought of the Gnoll minorities.

In Pallass, it wasn’t that dichotomy between species. Pallass was, after all, home to four species in abundance: Dullahans, Garuda, Gnolls, and Drakes. So the bad spots were 1st floor work, 9th floor shenanigans, 3rd and 4th floor troubles…and recently, the 8th.

The others were completely understandable—if you were a resident of Pallass. And a [Guard]. Who wanted to police the 1st floor’s bazaar, with all the incoming profits and trade goods? You were on your feet constantly, checking goods, stopping petty theft…no thank you.

9th floor was just as bad. It wasn’t as common to get trouble up there, but there was always at least one [Alchemist] having a bad experiment, or some [Smiths] getting into it. And [Blacksmiths] were strong and always armed with hammers.

The 3rd and 4th floors were the poorer, most populated residential districts. You didn’t want to deal with that. No, Dullahan strife where they just clammed up or noisy Garuda arguments where the perpetrators might just try to fly off? Those were all bad areas.

Far better to be on the 6th, a wealthy district. Or—or a baking area on the 7th, say. That was free food. Tails and Scales especially. If you were lucky and walked slow when Lasica was baking, you might get a snack of one of her new dishes, or one of Rufelt’s drinks on the house.

That was the way it had been, with bonus undesirability points for prison-duty, anti-Turnscale duty, or wherever Saliss of Lights was being nude. [Guards] would trade duties, negotiate to not have to take such stressful positions, or curry favor by biting the arrowhead and just suffering through it. However, now a new post had become synonymous with suffering.

The 8th Floor. Normally the place of the middle to upper-middle class, nice, in the sunlight—it was a good spot with only a few smaller markets and shopping areas. More in-development since it was the second-newest floor with space to build.

However, if you were posted on the 8th these days by Captain Venim, Qissa, good old Desdal, or that snot-tailed new Igesti, you had better pray you were in the Watch Captain’s good books. Or else you’d be posted…at the door.

The door. And then you’d be under Sergeant Kel’s command. That poor Drake needed more breaks. He’d give you a speech and you’d laugh and ask if it was really that serious? One Human? And he’d look at you like you were being sent to Rhir’s hell and say, ‘yes’.

The Crazy Human of Liscor would make your life a living hell.

 

—-

 

The Pallassian [Guards] on duty had to check new visitors into Liscor. They had to receive new lists of people entering Pallass, conduct spot checks, and worse—they’d been warned that monsters could, at any moment, attack the checkpoint. That made the portcullis and fortifications less fun for them.

But all that would have been made okay by the fact that they got to sit about and watch a door all day. You could love that, despite the danger. Bring some snacks and get a good crew and you’d talk the entire day away.

What made it awful was the improvisation. She came by. Not every day, but at least once a week something would happen. And if you didn’t improvise—a dreaded word among the Watch—just right, and make the exact right call, your tail, or ass, or feathers would be hung out to dry by the Watch Captains, Grand Strategist Chaldion, and the [Senators].

The door opened. It wasn’t the morning commute, so the [Guards] groaned. They reached for their weapons, ready for everything. Ready for her.

And there she was. A young woman peeked through the door. She eyed the many faces staring at her through the balistraria—arrow slits. She heard the audible sigh, but paid no mind.

“’Scuse me. Just gotta…I’ll just be a second!”

That damn Human. That agent of chaos, the daughter of disarray, etc, etc. She edged into the narrow room meant to hold a potential enemy for entering Pallass. Like…the Antinium. She was holding a bundle of…scrolls?

No, rolled up posters. A voice came from the walls.

“Miss Human, no entry is authorized into Pallass at this moment! Please return to your inn.”

“Issat you, Kel? Hey!”

Erin Solstice turned around and waved. The surly voice paused.

“We have orders not to let anyone into Pallass.”

“You say that, but Grimalkin and Chaldion get to come through whenever they want. Why can’t I? I’m not entering Pallass. Technically, this is neutral ground.”

A pause. Watch-Sergeant Kel ground his teeth as the rest of the unlucky [Guards] on patrol looked at him.

“…I have orders, Miss Solstice. What are you doing?

The others eyed Erin nervously. She was inspecting the wall.

“Um…putting up stuff. Won’t be long. Darn, this is stone, isn’t it? Can’t hammer a nail into that. Or can you? Well, that’s why I have this sticky stuff…hey, is this head-height, or is it too low for Gnolls?”

The Watch just stared. Erin began to plaster one poster-sized piece of parchment on the walls. Sergeant Kel’s eyes bulged.

“What. Are. You. Doing?”

“Making this place homey. What do you think?”

Erin gave him a mock-outraged look. She plastered the first poster on the walls. Then another. She stepped back, eyed her work, and then disappeared into the door. After a second, she dragged a potted plant into the checkpoint. The dark, stone room was illuminated by a lantern on a table. Erin Solstice put a few chairs along one side. Then a copy of the Liscorian Gazette on the table. She turned around.

“Whatcha think? I like the posters, but…”

She stepped back to survey the military-style checkpoint. Which, in a few seconds, she had converted into a waiting room.

The Watch heard a sound. It was the sound of their sinking hearts, knowing they were going to be chewed out for this. Guardsman Kel spoke slowly.

“What…is this?”

“Decorations. See, I think the first poster is good. It has the rules up like this. That’s the first thing you see. Then, you get into the room and you see the chairs, the copy of the newspaper—ooh, I’d better get at least four copies—and the other stuff.”

Erin Solstice pointed. All of the [Guards], Dullahans, Gnolls, a single Garuda, and Drakes, stared. They were equipped with crossbows, magical wands, and had access to four spells which would turn this room into a deathtrap. Even an army would be choked off if it tried to invade here. Like the Antinium, for example.

Now, they saw a big, smiling Goblin’s head, drawn in a crude but cute cartoon style. Above it was written, in big font:

No Killing Goblins.

That was the first poster you’d see. Another was of a smiling bunch of Gnolls—well—you assumed they were. The drawer had been very clumsy, but she’d done her best drawing a mountain, a forest, some tents—and what you assumed were either Gnolls, or blobby stick-people with fuzzy heads.

“What are you doing?”

Sergeant Kel’s head hurt. He looked at Erin. She pointed.

“…Just putting up some decorations. Don’t worry; I’ll get someone to water the flowers.”

She was placing a flower pot full of some lovely red flowers on the waiting table. Kel stared at her.

“You know what I mean. Miss Erin Solstice, kindly remove your…your…unauthorized objects from this room. This is a checkpoint.

“Well, it can also be nice. I’ve had complaints from people waiting. They have to stand around and the door only gets checked every ten minutes. So I decided let’s spruce it up.”

“‘Spruce it up?’ Just—just what is that?”

Erin looked as the Drake pointed at the poster.

“What? The posters? It’s just a little thing.”

“We have rules. Nothing is allowed in here without the Watch Captain’s express consent!”

Erin blew out her cheeks.

“Kel, we’ve been friends for months.”

“We aren’t friends.

She ignored that. The young woman waved at Kel.

“Can’t you make an exception?”

“No.”

She scowled as the Drake glared back at her through the small speaking slit.

Why?

“Reasons of security.”

“For flowers? You can get them yourself if you want to! And this is just a bit of art! See, Mrsha made this one!”

“And that poster?”

The Drake pointed at the smiling Goblin. Erin’s face lowered into a deep scowl.

“…I drew that. See? It says ‘No Killing Goblins’. Important rule. No one really reads it.”

The Watch stared at the smiling Goblin. They looked at Erin Solstice. Guardsman Kel had a headache.

“Miss Erin Solstice. We are not allowed to make changes to this room—”

“Fine, fine. So get Watch Captain Venim to approve it. Or Chaldion. Or Grimalkin.”

The wretched Human female rolled her eyes. As if the Grand Strategist of all of Pallass had time to authorize this minutiae. Or as if they wouldn’t be chewed to pieces and spat over the walls for bothering him! The Watch on duty shifted.

“Please take it down.”

Sergeant Kel’s tone was of a man hanging onto a crumbling cliff’s edge, begging gravity not to work. Erin Solstice shrugged.

“Hey. I don’t make the rules.”

They waited. One of the [Guards] coughed.

“Yes. Exactly. So…”

“So get someone to tell me to take it down. Until then—”

Erin wandered off through the doorway. The Watch looked at each other. Someone would have to tell the Watch Captain on their floor. They would…not be happy. Sergeant Kel rubbed at his face.

And then Erin Solstice came back through the door. She spread four more magazines onto the table, arranging them just so. And then she reached back into the door.

“That’s great, Ishkr. Thanks. Okay—here you go, Kel. Do I put this in front of the portcullis? I can shove it through your arrow-thingies.”

She had a tray of something. One of the Gnolls sniffed the air. The others stared at the hot, round…thingies on her tray. They were practically steaming. Fresh out of the oven. They smelled like sugar and baking.

The Watch knew what those were. Cookies. Lasica was selling them, but only a few of Pallass’ [Bakers] had mastered the recipe. But the inventor from Liscor had a hot, piping tray of fresh ones.

“These have white chocolate on them. I mean—it’s not really chocolate. But we’re rationing the actual stuff, so Lasica and Rose helped me make them. Another third is oatmeal, and the last bunch is just raisin. I mean—someone has to eat raisins. Stands to reason.”

The young woman confessed as she waved the sprinkled cookies at the [Guards]. They stared at the cookies. Then they saw another tray being passed through.

“Ooh, thanks, Ishkr. Put them down there? Hey, Kel. Where do I…?”

A second tray of salsa and chips was brought in by Ishkr. The Gnoll blinked around the room, put down the tray on a table, and Erin thanked him. The [Guards] hesitated. This was a new crew. They eyed Kel. The [Sergeant] paused.

“…We’ll collect the food.”

“Great! You need drinks?”

“We’re not allowed to drink on duty, Miss Solstice.”

“Right. Blue fruit juice?”

“We’re…fine. Thank you, Miss Solstice. About the posters—”

“Can’t hear you, Kel! Gotta go, bye!”

Erin Solstice shut the door. After a moment, the portcullis slowly rose a few feet. One of the [Guards] stared at the two trays of food. Fresh…food.

“Is this safe, Sergeant Kel?”

The Drake sat back in his armchair. Which, the patrol of [Guards] who’d been dreading their assignment to the 8th floor now realized—looked mighty comfy. The Drake sighed. And looked around.

“Send a Street Runner to Watch Captain Quissa. About the decorations. In…ten minutes.”

“Not now?”

One of the Dullahans was slow on the uptake. Sergeant Kel nodded to the two trays of cookies and chips and dip.

“We have to take care of this first. Ten minutes gives us twenty for the Watch Captain to come over. What’s that note say?”

It was attached to the chips and salsa. It read—‘Experimenting with my salsa recipe! Let me know if it’s too spicy or not enough! The first bowl is mild, the second is spicy!’

The [Guards] stared at Kel. He helped himself to a cookie. The Garuda looked at his companions. He coughed.

“Sergeant Kel. Do you…often get these sort of interruptions?”

“Hm? Well, she tends to put stuff through the door when she inconveniences us. Let’s get rid of this. Can’t allow contraband through the door.”

The squad looked at each other. And then it clicked. A Dullahan reached for a white-chocolate cookie. A Gnoll sniffed at the salsa. And they realized why so many ‘unhappy [Guards]’ talked up the 8th floor duty as being the worst. Then subsequently volunteered to take it for a few favors. Kel looked around as he reached for some chips.

“I really hate her. Be sure to file your complaints.”

 

—-

 

That was their experience. But there was always trouble. Erin Solstice sighed as she closed the door.

“Give it like, twenty minutes, Ishkr. Warn me when an angry Watch Captain wants me?”

“Yes, Miss Erin.”

The Gnoll ducked his head as he adjusted the dial and set the magical door to Esthelm. Erin smiled. And she looked at the Gnoll for a second. Ishkr was being extra-respectful today, calling her ‘Miss Erin’. He was one of two of her longest current employees and she’d heard him call her ‘Erin’ more than once.

She encouraged it, really. Lyonette was the one who set boundaries. But perhaps—it was because he felt awkward or embarrassed or grateful. After all, he’d asked for his week’s pay in advance.

Something to do with family. Which went to show you that even someone like Ishkr had secrets. He had one, Erin was sure. He never talked about it, but he sometimes had to leave early. Or get money for…something.

No one ever raised an eyebrow. Not even Lyonette; Ishkr was a model employee. He didn’t cause trouble, he did his job and got paid. In some ways, he was the dream of any establishment—someone whose goal was to earn a living without seeking advancement, needing someone to hold his paw, or anything else.

Still. He had a secret. One. Thoughtfully, Erin walked down the hallway as Ishkr greeted some day-workers bound for Liscor.

“Good morning, yes? Anyone bound for Liscor? Wait here, please—anyone bound for Celum, please wait on the far wall for visitors to enter before exiting…”

The new visitors eyed a happy slime on the wall surrounded by friendly Shield Spiders and beavers—Mrsha’s work. It was largely impressionistic to anyone who hadn’t been explained what it was supposed to be. But Erin had introduced paw-painting into Mrsha’s lessons. And it had been a wild hit.

Painting wasn’t something children did unless they wanted the class. So Ekirra, Visma, and Mrsha had produced some masterpieces—in their parent’s opinions—and they had been hung around The Wandering Inn by Erin. She was just a bit proud of that.

But Ishkr. Erin paused at the doorway and looked at him. He had a secret.

Ishkr wasn’t married; Erin would know. He was also fairly young. Nineteen? He was very adult, but Krshia had never mentioned it and she would. On the other hand, Erin knew he lived largely alone. He was from the Silverfang tribe, having been born around the time some came to Liscor. He had one sister he talked about—grumbled, really—and two parents he never talked about. She had the impression…they had died.

So, that meant something was up. Erin peeked through one of the hallway’s spy-holes as the Gnoll opened the door to Liscor and let more people out and let people in. She ignored the crossbow Belgrade had installed in a little holster to quickly fire at any intruders and studied Ishkr.

He was responsible. You never had to ask him to account for spills or mistakes; he did it himself. Someone like that…didn’t strike Erin as wasting money. So why did he need the money?

She didn’t know. But she was fairly sure it had to do with his sister. That seemed to coincide with Ishkr having to leave early or asking for an advance. A person—usually a Gnoll or Drake in their late teens or a young adult—would find Ishkr and whisper to him. And he’d sigh or growl curses and…

“What’s your secret?”

The Gnoll scratched at the back of his neck. Erin studied him for a moment. She could, of course, just ask. Or find out. She had ways. They involved everything from getting Drassi to find out to shadowing Ishkr to manufacturing an incident with cheese and Mrsha.

But she didn’t. Erin Solstice had decided all was going well. She had not caused a massive incident in a while. Not—not hugely important, at any rate. The Wyvern attack was still fresh in Erin’s memory, even if she hadn’t been responsible for it. But Bird? The fallout from that? Grimalkin’s weights?

Sometimes, Erin felt like she was walking around a room filled with balloons. She kept popping them. Just by accident sometimes. But—other times, intentionally.

But Ryoka Griffin had come. The Horns, Griffon Hunt, had gone. Magnolia had…done her thing. And things were peaceful for the moment. The [Innkeeper] wondered if it was alright to not want to rock the boat.

She was tempted. And when she looked at the way Ishkr’s ears were flat even as he pretended to smile—and the way he was tensed, weighed down by whatever had caused him to ask for an advance—she wanted to help. The problem was, Erin Solstice felt like she made things worse. Not always, but sometimes. She had to be careful.

So she let him be. Anyways, even the small things Erin did caused a fuss.

 

—-

 

“Miss Solstice. You cannot alter the checkpoint without express permission. It is sovereign Pallassian territory.”

“Yeah. But it’s my inn, right? What’s the problem with flowers and magazines in the waiting room, anyways?”

Watch Captain Venim was having a bad day. That tended to correlate with his meetings with Erin.

“The issue isn’t decorations, Miss Solstice. It’s in getting permission first. We have systems for doing things. I’d appreciate it if you—obeyed the rules.”

“But it’s flowers. Why do I have to wait to put flowers there? Have a cookie. White chocolate.”

“It’s—”

The Drake was lost for a second in Erin’s reasonable insanity. He eyed the cookie Erin proffered. He nearly took it, and then sighed.

“Miss Solstice. I can file the requisite paperwork. But I am here to ask you not to make changes without permission.”

“But I’m going to get permission because you’re filing paperwork, right? So why do I have to? It’s all worked out well.”

Erin was lightly pleased with herself. The Watch Captain gave her a narced expression. He rubbed at his forehead tiredly. But Erin knew she’d won.

She hadn’t fed Kel and the [Guards] on duty for nothing. She had curried goodwill—sometimes with actual curry. Venim now—he was more like Zevara. He didn’t take the cookies she was waving towards him. But they’d had interactions like this before.

“Come on, Venim. What’s the problem? What if Kel just told you about my decoration and you sorted it out without making it—”

Erin waved her hands to indicate the hurdles of legality and the process of bureaucracy. It made sense to her. Erin liked the law—but the law sometimes did stupid things.

Venim looked at Erin. And she, confident she was right, waited for his response. He put her slightly smug mood into a dumpster and set it on fire with one reply:

“The problem, Miss Erin Solstice, is that whenever you cause trouble, I’m the one who has to speak with you. I was on my vacation. With my daughter.”

He sat there, arms folded. Erin’s smile wavered.

“Uh. What?”

The Drake rubbed at his tired face.

“I’m your appointed liaison. As is Sergeant Kel. Have you not wondered why I’m assigned to the 8th floor every day? And why Sergeant Kel hasn’t changed duties, despite multiple requests?”

“I—no—did you say your daughter? Um. Time off?”

“I get two days per week. This would be my one day with my daughter; her mother has the other day. She’s with my sister due to the emergency involving you.”

The Drake stared at Erin. His voice was very polite. But he was telling Erin—her face fell.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Well, I will do the paperwork. But I would appreciate notice in advance. All things being equal, Miss Solstice, I would have preferred to get the request tomorrow, through Sergeant Kel. I would have processed it and granted you the rights by the end of the day. Tomorrow. Is that entirely reasonable?”

“…Yes.”

Erin stared at Venim. She hadn’t known he was married. Or—previously married and divorced. Of course, it made sense. Lots of people were married. Erin just didn’t ask.

She had been focused on Ishkr of late, puzzling him out. Getting Octavia situated—reuniting with Ryoka. When Erin knew someone, she thought she knew someone. But it disconcerted her to know how little she understood of people she was acquainted with.

“Sorry. Um. Do you want some cookies? For your daughter? On the house?”

Erin offered the cookies weakly to Venim. He hesitated.

“…Do these have grapes? My daughter’s allergic to grapes.”

“Let me find you some non-grape ones. But I baked them together…er…”

Erin ended up giving Venim a bag of little white chocolate squares instead of possibly tainted cookies. He left, and she sat there.

“Oh.”

That was all she said for a while. Erin bowed her head, as she sometimes had cause to do. The inn, not bustling but lively, moved around her. The Players of Liscor were running through a new play with Galina. Kevin and Joseph were outside, teaching kids and adults to play soccer. Leon and Troy? She hoped they weren’t causing trouble.

Mrsha was building a dam with the beavers. Lyonette was running the inn. Bird was overseeing the construction of his final tower on the newly-built third floor. Palt was flipping burgers for fun.

It was Numbtongue who wandered by Erin with a fresh hamburger. He saw Erin, head bowed. The [Bard] hesitated, put his hamburger down on a table, and began to chow while he waited.

“…So that’s why he didn’t want a cookie when he heard they were raisin. Just in case.”

The [Innkeeper] muttered to herself. Numbtongue eyed her. He looked at the cooling cookies and took one. After he noshed for a while, Erin looked up.

“Numbtongue?”

“Bad day?”

The Hobgoblin offered a cookie. Erin smiled and declined. Numbtongue shrugged. It was a social, Human, or rather, non-Goblin question.

‘Bad day’? As if days that didn’t involve you dying or being shot with arrows weren’t anything but good days. And yet—he had come to understand that there really were bad days. Of course, if you compared it to people trying to kill you, every day was a good day. But…there was badness besides arrows and monsters. It was a novel thing.

Someday, he’d wander into the new Stitchworks and find Octavia nearly in tears over a failed experiment she could not get right. Or—or—Bird was curled into a ball in his room because he’d been punished for doing things like offering Mrsha maggot-infested dead birds. Or Erin would be like this. And these were sad and important moments. Not like someone dying—but important.

It scared Numbtongue how much he had begun to care about whether Mrsha hurt her paw. Not that he had been uncaring when he was a Redfang warrior—but it had been different. Then, if, say, Bugear had torn open his arm by accident while skinning an Eater Goat, Numbtongue would have just laughed and mocked him with the others.

If Bugear had dared to cry or whinge about it, he’d have been mocked. And even when a comrade died, like Grunter and the heroes at Esthelm—Numbtongue moved for wars. He—had been a warrior. A soldier under Garen Redfang who would fight and die when the time came.

But now, the Hobgoblin was a [Bard]. A member of The Wandering Inn. Now—if Mrsha broke her paw, he might cry. That scared him. But it didn’t mean he was soft. Rather—he had something to fight for. And he wished Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, Rabbiteater—had all been able to experience this.

Worrying about Erin’s grieved expression. After a moment, Numbtongue poked Erin. She jumped slightly.

“What happened?”

“Oh—there was just this thing with Venim. I was putting up posters and making the waiting room in Pallass livable, Numbtongue. But I think I made a mistake…”

Erin gave Numbtongue an abbreviated version of the events. He didn’t see the problem. So one Drake had an issue since he couldn’t see his daughter all day. So what?

And yet, he saw it the other way too. The [Bard] scowled as Erin sighed.

“I feel bad. I should do something nice for Venim.”

“You don’t have to.”

There was a pause as Erin blinked and then looked over. The [Innkeeper] gave Numbtongue a blank look.

“Of course not. But I should, right?”

“…Mm.”

He nodded. That was what Numbtongue loved about Erin. ‘Should’ and ‘must’ were sometimes the same for her. The Hobgoblin looked around.

“Good cookies. Got any acid-fly ones?”

“For you, Numbtongue? I can’t believe you eat them!”

Erin smiled, looking amused. The Hobgoblin shook his head.

“For Yellow Splatters.”

“Oh! No—I’m going to make a special batch. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of cookies.”

The Hobgoblin nodded, content with that. He sat back, eating a third cookie as Erin looked ahead.

“Well, I guess that’s that. Hey—are you eating all my cookies?”

“Can’t I?”

“No! They’re for Lyonette! Argh! How many did you eat?”

Eight. Well, five were already in Numbtongue’s belt pouch for later. Dismayed, Erin stared at her plundered cookie tray. She narrowed her eyes and poked the Goblin back.

“You’re going to get fat, Numbtongue.”

“Good.”

That sufficiently stumped Erin enough for Numbtongue to liberate two more cookies. Mrsha-treats. She rescued her cookie tray and returned to the common room in time to see Numbtongue fetching something from behind the bar. He carried it out of the common room and down the hallway. Into one of the private rooms. Erin followed him. She peeked into the open doorway and saw what the Hobgoblin had retrieved.

A laptop. The Hobgoblin opened the lid, saw the computer was in ‘sleep’ mode, and casually waited for it to boot up. He entered Kevin’s password, and began to use the touchpad to click around the screen. Erin stared.

Numbtongue began playing an FPS game—Halo CE. The computer began emitting sounds of combat and battle and he did fairly well for someone playing on a touchpad and computer keys. Erin kept staring.

“Um. Numbtongue.”

“Hm?”

The adaptability of Goblins knew no limits. In a few days, Numbtongue had mastered the computer enough to alt-tab out of the game and look at Erin. She pointed weakly at the computer.

“Uh—uh—Kevin showed you how to use the computer, huh?”

“Mhm. Fun. Want to watch a movie?”

Kevin had only a few more movies left unwatched and movie night was a huge thing. Everyone in the inner group of the inn would drop anything to watch a movie—even if the Earthworlders had seen the movie a thousand times before. But the laptop had more value for those not from Earth.

For instance—Numbtongue was now obsessed with the video game that even Galina and Imani had beaten three times. Each. The electronics Ryoka had brought back to the inn had been used for months by the seven Earthers—to the point where Rose could lip-sync every rap song and Leon had beaten Solitaire a hundred times. They had explored the limits of the laptop, tablets, and iPhones.

But the others? Erin had already initiated a one-hour limit for Mrsha to play with the electronics. Numbtongue had no such restrictions. And with Palt, Montressa, and Beza all able to cast [Repair], battery life was only an issue if Numbtongue wanted to recharge the laptop after a late-night gaming session.

“You really like this, huh?”

“Mhm.”

Numbtongue went back to playing. Erin saw a flash as something exploded. She wasn’t a fan of video games. Well—she played Minecraft and stuff. But she wasn’t into the complex action game stuff.

“Say…mind scooting over?”

Erin sat down and watched as Numbtongue played through a level—mainly by killing a lot of very ugly potato-people. With tendrils and stuff. They looked…well, dangerous, but sort of tame.

“I bet you could kill that one.”

“Maybe. Not with guns.”

Erin eyed the ugly potato attacking Numbtongue as he threw a grenade.

“You like playing fighting games? Isn’t it like—too real? For a warrior like you?”

The Hobgoblin glanced at Erin.

“…No. It’s fun. Games.”

“Ah, right, right. Hey, watch out for the one on the left—”

“Mhm.”

The [Bard] went back to playing. Erin watched until he died. Then she poked him.

“My turn. I want to use the computer.”

“…One more life?”

“You play it all night. Give.”

She poked him again. That was a very Goblin/Gnoll thing, so the Hobgoblin, grumbling, gave the laptop over. Erin knew Mrsha was trying to play too and she just worried about the effects of video games on Mrsha’s psyche. Then again—when she was playing outside she led crusades against Shield Spiders. So maybe this was okay.

“Okay. Let’s see. Where’re the comics?”

“Here.”

Kevin’s laptop was a goldmine of data. It didn’t look like it, but Kevin’s attitude towards data had been one of acquisition. His laptop was filled with movies, games he liked, pictures—and most crucially—pirated comics and other media. Erin eagerly clicked on a folder.

“Aha! This is the stuff!”

Numbtongue stared with the kind of detached pain that arose from seeing someone misuse their computer-time as Erin double-clicked on a picture icon. A big…picture…popped up on the screen.

Well, it was really three pictures, each separated by black bar. Each one held a little character, with some kind of extreme deformity in their body shape emitting balloons with words. Erin stared at the first one, and then laughed.

Hah! Classic!”

She began to giggle. Not really laugh, but smile as she stared at the little boxes and figures. Numbtongue peeked over her shoulder. He stared at a round-headed person and pointed.

“What’s that?”

Erin blinked at him and then grinned.

“Oh—sorry. You’ve never seen a comic, right, Numbtongue? This—this is Peanuts. Kevin’s got some of the classics! See? This is Charlie Brown.”

Erin pointed at a person with anatomical problems. The Hobgoblin narrowed his eyes.

“He has puff-head badness? Going to explode?”

The Human girl looked at him. She opened and closed her mouth a few times.

“…No.”

“Oh. Why does he look like that?”

Erin tried to explain.

“It’s just—how they’re drawn. It’s just—it’s like a mini-story. That’s what a comic is. Words and pictures. See? He’s going to kick this football and…”

Numbtongue stared. He didn’t get it. Well, the arbitrary act of cruelty on the part of the young girl made him smile.

“See, he tries to kick the football but he never does. Except that time he was invisible. It’s like a metaphor, but it’s also funny.”

Erin ruminated on the deep levels of Human cruelty and hopeless aspiration for a second. Numbtongue just snorted.

“Silly.”

“Isn’t it? But it’s great. I respect Kevin for having this on his computer. Aside from the you-know-what.

Erin scowled deeply. She had found the porn that Kevin had faithfully reinstalled onto his computer. And deleted it. Numbtongue rolled his eyes.

“Yes, yes. Bad sexy Humans.”

He had rather enjoyed it. And Kevin had a backup, but Numbtongue decided this was the stuff that Erin didn’t need to know. The young woman went on, pointing obliviously at the comic.

“This is great.”

“Sure.”

“No, really. It’s a classic. Art!”

“Mhm. Heads look funny.”

Erin puffed out her cheeks in exasperation.

“It’s a caricature, Numbtongue. This is funny! To me! I watched it all the time when I was a kid. And it’s…oh. Look at that.”

Her face fell as she flipped through the pages of the comic. Numbtongue saw Erin grow silent again. After a moment, the [Innkeeper] looked up. And her expression was—thoughtful.

“I just wonder, Numbtongue. If I’m…a jerk. You know? Or if I’ve changed a bit. Here. She’s probably in here. No—no—no—that’s Linus. He’s cool. Um—no—here.”

Erin pointed to a character on the screen. Numbtongue stared. All Humans looked fairly similar unless you got to know them, and this girl wasn’t that distinguished.

“Who’s that?”

“Peppermint Patty.”

Erin sighed. She looked at Numbtongue.

“I think I might be her.”

“Explain?”

The Hobgoblin saw Erin sitting there. After a moment, she smiled.

“The thing is—this is a story, Numbtongue. None of the characters are real. But they were popular. Millions of people loved them. There was even a television show.”

“Like the Ogre?”

Numbtongue grew excited. He liked that one. Something about a green-skinned protagonist really spoke to him. He had watched that with the secret Dragon, Ryoka, Mrsha, and Erin. And loved it. The music, the action—

The only person who hadn’t liked it upon a repeat viewing was Lyonette. Something about a [Princess] being turned into an Ogress spoke to her in negative ways. Eldavin had nearly incinerated the entire hill when the donkey married the Dragon.

But Erin shook her head.

“No, television, Numbtongue. Not movies. That’s like—a mini-movie. It’s still good. Peanuts had lots. It also had movies. Actually—I think a new movie came out. I wish I’d seen it before…”

She trailed off. And Erin stared for a second at the comic on screen. Then she closed her eyes and remembered. The words came more slowly, but with heavy nostalgia.

“The point is that I liked the movies. My parents did too. They still do—they let me watch all the movies. Even the shows. Not many of my friends knew there was a TV show along with the movies. But I watched them all. Even the weird ones.”

She had a point she was going towards. The Hobgoblin waited for it all to make sense. Erin pointed at the peppermint-girl.

“My favorite characters in the shows and movies were Snoopy, Linus—and Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Marceline. And those two? I liked them the most in a way. See—the second episode of the Peanuts specials is actually really interesting. Patty’s learning to skate, you see. And she’s working really hard. And that’s weird because she never really works hard; she sleeps in school and she’s really passionate…”

Numbtongue decided he needed a drink. Erin followed him, explaining the show he had no reference for. But which he understood because she was explaining it.

“And she’s trying hard. And it’s a fun episode. Episode 2! The adults even have voices instead of going ‘blah, blah, blah’. But the thing is—Patty asks Marcie for help. She wants Marcie to make a dress for her skating competition. And Marcie can’t really sew. So…”

Numbtongue took a long drink of ale as Erin explained a basic plotline involving a dog teaching skating, the girl winning the skating competition, and failure with garments.

“…The point is that Patty’s always like that. She always makes Marcie do things that Marcie doesn’t want to do. But Marcie tried. She couldn’t sew, but she tried. She tried to help her friend. She cared about Patty. And I…”

The [Innkeeper] sat there, nostalgic as Numbtongue drank at the bar. Her eyes were far away. But she focused on Numbtongue.

“I always liked them so much. Marcie especially. I wanted to be her, you know. Since I played chess and she liked books and had glasses…I wanted to be a good friend to someone like Patty. But I never met someone like that. It was just me. Which was alright. But I liked them the most. Do you understand?”

The Goblin looked up and met Erin’s eyes. That?

“Yes.”

The young woman smiled at him. She looked back towards the place where she and Venim had been sitting and took a deep breath.

“The thing is—I think sometimes I’m Patty, Numbtongue. Thoughtless. I always get my way, because I can make it happen. But that’s not who I used to be. I used to be…different. But I had to be like this because I’d have died. Still, I wonder—”

She lapsed into silence. The Goblin looked at her. And he thought Erin had said something important. But he couldn’t decode the layers of understanding—perhaps only another Erin could have done that. Yet he knew what to do. He reached over and patted Erin on the shoulder. She looked at him and the [Bard] gave her another pat.

“You did good things. I know that.”

She looked at him, greatly surprised. Then she laughed and hugged him. The [Bard] smiled to himself. He had a way with words. After that, Erin just sighed. And Numbtongue offered to show her how to play Kevin’s videogames.

Erin managed to kill herself in the first ten seconds. But the kind, silly [Innkeeper] and the Hobgoblin sat together. Laughing for a while.

 

—-

 

It began with a reprimand.

The protests were still continuing outside the Watch Barracks. Not that the protestors and cityfolk had any real reason to be upset at the Watch. But those who had lost almost everything to The Golden Triangle had no one to blame; after the broadcast, the members of The Golden Triangle had fled, and the inner organization had disappeared.

But poverty remained. Desperation. Fury—they were demonstrating outside of City Hall.

It wasn’t her fault. Part of Watch Captain Zevara resented the idiots who’d given all their money to this fraud. Still, if the perpetrators of this scheme had been in front of her, she would have arrested them at once.

…There was no face of this fake scheme. No one to blame. Wistram had ended The Golden Triangle and in so doing, wrecked the lives of tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps. Poor people who now lacked gold or silver they needed to live.

We want our money back!

Justice for us!

We did nothing wrong!

The shouts from outside Zevara’s window made the Drake’s scales itch. She saw the [Guards] blocking the protestors from entering the Watch House. The Watch Captain stared a moment. And then turned back to her desk. She sat down, heavily.

“This is a disaster, Senior Guardsman Relc.”

“Yes, Watch Captain.”

The Drake stood in front of her desk. Zevara looked at the huge, still-healing Drake. She had given him off as much time as she could. But things in the city had reached a peak. She shuffled her papers.

“Senior Guardsman Relc. The city is in uproar over this—Golden Triangle business.”

“Yep, Watch Captain. I’ve noticed.”

Relc’s claws were folded behind his back. He stared over her shoulder, a familiar look. Zevara paused, then went on. She noted his uniform was smirched—people had thrown things at him as he came into work this morning.

“…I assume you’re healed from your ambush, Guardsman Relc?”

“Yes, Watch Captain.”

“…We owe you a debt of gratitude for dispatching the likes of Bearclaw’s gang. We had no proof—but Soot is dead. And we will find Bearclaw. I’ve posted a thousand-gold bounty on her head. She will not be safe in any Drake city, I promise you.”

The [Spearmaster]’s eyes twitched towards her. He nodded slightly.

“Thanks, Watch Captain.”

Zevara cleared her throat. She was dancing around the real subject, and both of them knew it. Relc waited, at parade-rest, like he was in the military. The Watch Captain cleared her throat a second time, and coughed. But nothing could stop her from doing her duty. Not even her own reluctance.

“About the Golden Triangle…I understand you were not aware of the fraud. That is not in question. Senior Guardsman Relc. But you understand that people are rightly upset? You signed over eight hundred people into The Golden Triangle.”

“…Yes, Watch Captain.”

Relc’s eyes glittered as he stared over Zevara’s shoulder. Eight hundred people, all of whom were out of gold—or silver. Zevara went on.

“I understand you gave back as much gold as you could. I take that into account. However—the mood is against you. I have…no less than fifty petitions for me to strip you of your Senior Guardsman rank. Some call for your imprisonment.”

“I understand that, Watch Captain.”

For a moment, the two Drakes just waited. Zevara, sitting at her desk. How many times had she done this? Called in Relc to yell at him at being an idiot, causing trouble for the Watch?

This time was different. Both of them felt it. Even Relc was—changed. Normally, he would be offering excuses, dodging the blame or pinning it on Klbkch.

…Klbkch was gone. Zevara looked up.

“Senior Guardsman Relc. Do you have anything to say in your defense? That you were unaware of The Golden Triangle’s fraudulent nature I appreciate. But what do you—do you have a defense?”

The [Spearmaster] looked ahead. Zevara waited, ready to latch onto anything. Any excuse. From Relc, it was a surety. But the Drake just stared at her. Then he slowly shook his head.

“Watch Captain. I take full responsibility for my actions. I was a Senior Guardsman. I shouldn’t have led people to invest their money. I…made a terrible mistake.”

The Watch Captain’s mouth opened slightly. She blinked.

“You—do?”

Relc nodded. Then he stared over her shoulder. Zevara had never heard anything like that from Relc. Even being hit over the head in Bearclaw’s ambush—repeatedly—didn’t explain it.

But it made her duties all the more clear. All the harder. The Watch Captain of Liscor stood up.

“Senior Guardsman Relc, I appreciate your candor. Moreover—I do not accept your apology. I am aware you tried to warn as many people as possible and return their coin.”

Relc looked up. Zevara met his gaze. She looked straight into Relc’s surprised eyes.

“A Senior Guardsman should do nothing less. Be that as it may, public trust in you has been eroded. So—as is my duty as Watch Captain, I strip you of your Senior Guardsman rank.”

He only flinched a bit at that. But the worst was yet to come. Zevara inhaled.

“—Furthermore. I believe it is untenable for you to remain in Liscor for this moment. Too much ill will is set against you. So—Guardsman Relc—I have applied for your transfer to another Drake City in need of capable [Guards].”

The Drake’s head snapped up. He looked at Zevara.

“Me? But—Watch Captain—”

The female Drake silenced Relc.

“This is my decision as Watch Captain, Guardsman Relc. If you disagree—you have only but to object.”

He didn’t. The Drake hesitated, and then bowed his head.

“…I get it. Where am I going?”

“Cellidel. The city is in need of high-level [Guards]. I…was negotiating with their Watch Captain for an exchange of [Guards] already in return for material aid. This incident expedites the process. You will serve there for a number of months to be decided. Until this incident is behind you.”

Relc’s head lowered further. Zevara went on, in a strained voice.

“You may object, Sen—Guardsman Relc. It is your right.”

“…No objections, Watch Captain. Maybe it’s for the best. It’s that or resign, right?”

The Watch Captain was surprised a second time. She looked at Relc. Something about him looked—older. As he bowed to her and saluted, she was struck. He was older than her. It was just the first time he’d acted like it in their entire relationship.

“Well then, Senior Guardsman Relc. I regret to inform you that your tenure here will be over by the week’s end. You will have a few days to rest and further recuperate; I will put you on unpaid leave. You may…tender your resignation if you decide a new posting is inappropriate.”

That was hard to say. And she’d had to demote, reprimand, even fire friends. But Relc? His eyes flickered. He hesitated as he held his salute.

“—It’s just regular Guardsman Relc now, isn’t it, Watch Captain?”

Zevara smiled. Wearily. Sadly. She looked at Relc, whom she had relied on for so long without thinking about him. Her annoying, but invincible Senior Guardsman. Like Klbkch. Only—now both were gone. She shook her head.

“Senior Guardsman Relc. You are no longer a member of Liscor’s Watch. But as it happens—your rank would make you a Senior Guardsman of Cellidel. If you choose to go. The choice is yours, but I’d hate to lose a Senior Guardsman. Especially since you’d return as one.”

The Drake’s jaw opened. Zevara saluted him as she stood. Then she held out a claw.

“Good luck, Senior Guardsman. I hope you will take your new posting. It won’t be forever. It was—the best I could do.”

He hesitated. And the Drake slowly extended his claw and shook Zevara’s hand.

“I’m sorry for the trouble, Watch Captain. I’ll let you know tonight.”

“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault. For once.”

He almost smiled at that. And then the Drake saluted. Zevara saw him turn. And the whisper ran through the Watch House. Through Liscor. The Gecko was leaving, one way or the other. She sat down and put her head in her claws.

Everything was changing.

 

—-

 

It started with a conversation over breakfast. A lesson, really.

A blue-scaled Drake munched on some exceptionally crispy bacon. Also—bread—also toasted with a bit of cheese. Even the cheese seemed burnt.

But that was a motif. A calling card. And Maviola El wasn’t actually that good at cooking. She’d never really bothered to learn. That she was trying now was a sign of…something.

Affection, probably. She was eating the same and the two were crowded around a little table.

“Donkeys.”

“Donkeys?”

She nodded. They were going over a complex logistical paper, breaking down expenses. Maviola tapped the paper and her notes.

“In your theory, you’ve got an army you’re marching. You need donkeys. All you’ve accounted for is—potions, salaries, ammunition, equipment upkeep—not donkeys.”

“Why do I need to account for that?”

Olesm stared warily at the parchment. Maviola sighed.

“Donkeys are better for labor. They’re pack animals. Or do you want to grab a bunch of horses which might not be suited for pulling wagons? Mules are also good.”

“I…I’m sure I’d account for it in the moment.”

The Drake defended himself. He was a [Strategist], Maviola, a [Lady]. But she was lecturing him.

“Well, if you didn’t you’d be scrambling. Which is why we’re going over it now. This is the ideal ratio of wagons-to-soldiers. And these are good numbers to hold by for how much you should be willing to spend to buy new supplies on the march.”

She pulled up a second chart, listing everything from the prices of oil to healing potions. Olesm’s eyes bulged.

“Wait. Our instruction at Manus never accounted for that—”

“Because ­Manus expects you to defend a city. I’m giving you a fuller education. These are the kind of numbers a [General] or [Strategist] leading an actual army needs to know. Pay attention.”

“I am, I am! Hold on. Does that say ‘birth control’?”

Maviola rolled her eyes as she speared a bit of burnt bacon. She’d done her best with a skillet, but she had a tendency to overheat the cooking fire.

“Mixed-gender armies always run into the issue. Especially new [Soldiers]. They have sex—they get pregnant. Have at least a few potions to deal with complications.”

“I never—is this really a problem I’m going to run into? Maviola, please. I’m Liscor’s [Strategist]. Having to deal with a pregnant [Soldier] isn’t something I’m going to run into.”

The Human [Lady] nodded agreeably.

“True. As Liscor’s [Strategist] you might not. But are you going to be a [Strategist] forever?”

“Well, I—”

“And if you have a pregnant [Soldier] barging into your tent at midnight, do you want to have a solution for the problem or be completely blindsided?”

The blue Drake opened and closed his mouth.

“…Have a solution?”

“There you are, then. Eat your eggs. Here.”

She put the eggs on a fork. Olesm sniffed.

“I can eat them—”

“Open your mouth.”

He did, to object, and she poked the fork into his mouth. Maviola laughed at Olesm’s outraged expression.

“Sorry; force of habit. I had to feed too many annoying little children when I was growing up. Products of people who don’t account for accidental babies.”

The Drake chewed and swallowed.

“How many children did you grow up with?

“More than you’d be happy to know about. None myself, incidentally. I never had time for it. I regret that.”

Wistfully, Maviola glanced out the window. The city was waking up. The protests about The Golden Triangle had woken both of them up in bed. But—however alien a Drake city might have been, she was surprised how much at home the little apartment felt.

Olesm looked at Maviola as he shoveled more burnt breakfast into his mouth. He thoughtfully eyed the young woman. And forbade asking why twenty-something was too late for children.

Maviola was—different. And even an idiot would have picked up on the little clues she kept dropping. Olesm didn’t know the entire thing, but he suspected something.

At last, the [Lady] looked at him. And when she smiled—the Drake felt as though she were smiling just for him. Maviola was Lady Firestarter. Flame and passion. Her power—her appeal was that when she looked at you, you felt like you were the only thing in the world. She was brilliant; she was teaching him any number of new tactics as well as logistics and things even his lessons in Manus had never covered.

And also, a mystery. Maviola sighed as she looked out the window.

“…Nearly two weeks now. It’s passed so quickly.”

“I’m glad to have you. I mean—I’m very grateful for your help. And the rest. I think this has been great. The best time in my life.”

The Drake interjected quickly. Maviola smiled. Her eyes flicked to his face and she shook her head. Her black-and-orange hair moved in the dawn’s light.

“Olesm. I told you. I love you, as much as I’ve loved anyone. But it won’t last. I have to leave soon.”

“Don’t say that.”

The Drake reached out. Maviola hesitated, but she let him grasp her hand. The Drake held on tight.

“You’re—the best thing that’s happened to me all year. In the last decade. Don’t say you have to go.

“The truth is the truth.”

Her voice was calm. And when she looked at him again—he felt like a child speaking to an adult. And he hadn’t felt like that way in years. But Maviola was old. Her eyes flickered like fire. But old fire, raging one last time before the darkness closed in. Gently, she put her other hand on his, clasping his claw.

“Olesm. I mean to give you fire. Me meeting you was fate. I want to believe I was sent here to help you learn to…burn. You were a faded ember when I found you. All I did was light your fire.”

“You did that. First the Council and the newspaper—it’s a huge success! Drassi actually got scouted to work for Pallass! And the money coming in from the newspaper is big. Why then—do you have to go?

Her eyes were sad.

“Sometimes that is just the way it is. I wish I had met you long ago. I wish I hadn’t waited. I wish…”

She trailed off. Olesm tightened his grip and Maviola looked at him. The Drake took a shuddering breath. He hadn’t planned on it today. But she sounded like—

“Listen. It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t care how sick you are. I’m—I’m resourceful. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but Erin’s my friend. If we need to get you to the Healer of Tenbault or—Saliss of Lights visits Erin’s inn. However ill you are, we can fight it.”

Maviola’s eyes widened. Then she put her head back and laughed. Olesm paused. He had been so sure he was right. But Maviola just laughed until she cried, and wiped the tears from her eyes.

“You’re too beautiful, Olesm Swifttail.”

That was all she said. And she kissed him on the cheek. Then Maviola shook her head and stood.

“I won’t go today. Or tomorrow. But soon. Let’s just make the most of today, alright?”

“Okay. But please don’t go.”

The Drake stood up, feeling helpless. He saw the young woman turn her head to the open window. And for a moment, she hesitated. Then fire laughed and embraced him.

I have so much to do. So much I want to do, now. I’ll try. But I make no promises.

She whispered. Then the young [Lady] took Olesm’s arm and spun him around. Her laughter filled the apartment.

“Come on. You have so much left to learn! Combat—[Mages]—let’s study for a few hours. Then you have to go to work.”

“And you? Are you going to work with Hexel…?”

Olesm looked at Maviola, whom he had hired to help him with his duties. She had been helping manage the [Architect] Lamia, but Maviola shook her head.

“Your Councilman—Elirr?—is far better at it than I. He and Hexel get along better, always.”

“Really?”

“Believe me. I know how people work. I can see it. Today, I think it’s time I met Erin Solstice. I have something to teach her as well.”

The [Strategist] caught his breath.

“What’s that? I mean—Erin? Why her?”

Maviola winked.

“She has a lot of potential. Just like you. I see that too.”

And she looked at him like he was the sun. The Drake held onto Maviola. He didn’t want to let her go.

 

—-

 

It started with an upset [Lady]. And weak tea.

Magnolia Reinhart sipped from the weak cup of tea. It was bitter—lacking sugar. She made a polite face. Anyone who knew Magnolia Reinhart knew that she drank tea with more sugar than water. But sugar was in short supply, and even the demands of etiquette hadn’t conjured sugar out of the sky.

But then—that was also the fault of the mousey-haired [Lady] who was sitting opposite Magnolia. The [Lady] Reinhart coughed.

“Ressa, perhaps a bit of sweetener from the coach…?”

Her words were almost preempted by the sugar cubes dumped unceremoniously into her cup. Ressa, the [Maid] waiting attendance on the two was far more polite with Lady Edere Sanito’s cup.

“Milady?”

“Oh, yes please.”

The Lady Sanito was all too eager for Ressa to lace the sugar cube in her cup with a sugar tong—Ressa even stirred the cup with a silver spoon. Magnolia did her cup herself. She briskly stirred and sipped the much sweeter liquid with a sigh.

“That’s better.”

“I’m—I’m so dreadfully sorry, Lady—um, Magnolia. But sugar has been so dreadfully dear of late–”

“Hence the reason I’m here. Not to worry, Edere. And let us use first names! We’re both [Ladies], after all.”

Magnolia reached out and placed her hand on Sanito’s leg. The woman jumped, but flushed with the compliment. It was a cozy setting and Magnolia was being uncharacteristically familiar and intimate. Welcoming, even.

The Sanito House was not rich. It wasn’t as destitute as House Byres, say, at the mercy of [Merchants], but its funds were limited, unlike Magnolia Reinhart, who had a personal contract with Stormlord Seagrass to get her sugar on time.

Of late, it had suffered. House Sanito had sent reinforcements to Lord Tyrion Veltras—not without cost—and it had been affected by another economic event.

A [Trade War]. Even now, Sanito’s household was conspicuously devoid of certain number of goods. Iron for the forges wasn’t coming down the trade roads. Good preservatives like salt, oranges from past Walchaís lands—and sugar were also out of stock.

Not that it meant the lands were starving. But the pinch was widely felt. So widely in fact—that Magnolia Reinhart was here, sipping tea in a quiet little conference with Lady Edere without Lord Alman Sanito’s knowledge.

She had received the black flower of shame from House Sanito a few months ago. An occasion that the nobles had had cause to regret.

“I—it’s good to taste a bit of sweet, Magnolia. And this dreadful [Trade War] hurts both houses, doesn’t it?”

Lady Sanito was incapable of conjuring sugar out of the air at a wave of her hand. She had mousey hair. She was not ugly by any means. Far from it; she had charmed Lord Sanito with her beauty and he had married her, a commoner, and made her a [Lady].

Of course, Edere hadn’t been exactly a [Farmhand] but a [Merchant]’s daughter. And the marriage had been good for House Sanito. But she was just a bit too low-level. Lacking in ambition, say. Magnolia tapped a finger against her teacup.

She was also less than subtle. All well and good. She smiled.

“The [Trade War] is a bit of a nuisance. But I haven’t found myself unduly discomforted, Lady Edere. Ah, but Invrisil is fed from all roads. Ressa, more sugar.”

She thrust her cup out. The [Maid] gave her a glare, but she dutifully put more cubes of sugar in the teacup. Lady Edere stared as the [Lady] happily drank the sugar-slurry. Magnolia was overdoing it, but then again—it was working.

“I—I—quite, Magnolia. But it’s such a dreadful thing—can’t we put this unpleasantness behind us?”

“Mm. Perhaps. But being called a coward, even if it is in flower-language, does grate, doesn’t it?”

Magnolia’s eyes sparkled as she drained her cup. Edere paled.

“Alman was advised to do that, Magnolia. It wasn’t his idea—”

She broke off as Magnolia raised one finger. The [Lady], in her shocking pink dress, smiled with an edge.

“I’m sure he was. But that doesn’t change the fact that he knew what he was sending me. Edere, I’m quite aware you wouldn’t have countenanced such an insult. Much less that you hadn’t been at the Sacrifice of Roses. But I was there, you see. And Alman—excuse me, Lord Alman—was not. Perfectly understandable; he was far from First Landing so it wasn’t an act of cowardice. But it grates, you see?”

“I do, Magnolia. But—”

But House Sanito is tired of bleeding gold over a petty insult and a political argument we were never too invested in.

Magnolia read the unspoken language in the [Lady]’s posture and nodded. She glanced out the window.

A tall half-Elf with inhuman—indeed, quite inhuman—features was grumpily feeding a dog scraps as Reynold stood at attention. Teriarch was bored, but he had come along with her. She had better hurry this up. Magnolia sighed.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, Edere. An insult was made. And my [Trade War] affects dozens of noble houses. Sanito has been hard-hit. I am aware. But I will not lift my [Trade War] for another month. The other noble houses may lose countless thousands of gold in profits, but that is the cost of war with me.”

Edere paled. Already the [Blacksmiths], [Bakers]—any number of professions were screaming for salt, sugar, ore, and all the other things Magnolia’s Skill was making twice or three times as expensive. Another month of that?

“Can’t we—come to some arrangement, Magnolia?”

“Well—that would be acceptable.”

Magnolia cast a glance out the window. Teriarch was making the dog stand up on two legs to get a treat. He seemed to be trying to teach it to bow, next. Or genuflect. She rolled her eyes. Dragons. Everyone had to bow to them. It was probably why they didn’t get along with cats. She glanced up and put a big smile on her face.

“Edere, I think we can come to an arrangement. However, I would have some…requirements.”

The other [Lady] licked her lips.

“Of course. But…what?”

She needn’t have been worried. Magnolia smiled and steepled her fingers as Ressa took her cup and refilled it with the dreadful tea.

“Oh, just a public renouncement of the insult, Edere. A few strong words made publically—and of course, maybe a cordial gesture or two. Nothing strenuous.”

Edere almost collapsed with relief. Magnolia could have pressed her hard. But all she wanted was a chink in the armor of offended nobles unwilling to renounce their insult. House Sanito was a good weak point. Lord Alman wasn’t the most stubborn idiot about; the House didn’t have deep coffers. And Edere was no high-level [Lady] with a backbone of steel. Most importantly though—she and Lord Alman were genuinely affectionate towards each other. When one spoke, the other listened.

It was all just levers to Magnolia. She waited as she laid out her very minimal requirements. A public refutation, a gesture of overt good will towards House Reinhart that would pull the other noble houses into refuting their insult for a cessation of the [Trade War].

“…And I’m sure that within a day, House Sanito will find more than a dozen [Merchants] lined up to sell reasonably-priced goods. They do have a nose for such things.”

And I’ll incentivize them to give you good deals. Lady Edere nibbled at her lip as she thought. She was already half-nodding, but she wasn’t a complete idiot. The [Lady] glanced up at Magnolia with a hint of suspicion.

“I—I can certainly get Alman to do that, Magnolia. But—I can’t help but notice you mentioned ‘a few other cordial favors’. Might I ask….what that is?”

Magnolia sighed. She’d forgotten that Edere was a [Coin Lady]. Not exactly a high-level class, but she had [Merchant] roots. She’d notice a little thing like that in any deal, even verbal ones. She smiled though, with genuine good humor. Because the truth was easy.

“Nothing arduous, Edere. To you or Alman. I’d just like you two to attend…a little party this summer. Around the solstice? I plan to attend myself and I’d consider it a personal favor.”

Ressa made a face behind Edere as the [Lady] blinked and then her face lit up.

“Oh, is that all? Of course! If that’s all…”

“Just a little gathering. I’m hesitant to say where since the location has yet to be fully decided. But it is a personal favor—not my party, you understand? Favors for other friends…”

Magnolia looked out the window. Teriarch, who was listening in, glanced up at her. She casually stuck out her tongue behind her teacup. The things she did for the old man. But he had asked and since he was out of his cave, she was minded to grant him his odd requests.

Damn that Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia felt jealous of her, even as she and Edere came to a [Lady]’s gentle accord. She smiled, shook Edere’s hand, and tried to leave as fast as possible so she could get Teriarch to some entertainment. The plays, perhaps. The longer he stayed awake and out in the sun—even as a simulacra—the better. But there were little ceremonies to do, the new baby of Edere’s to coo over, getting Teriarch to stop teleporting cats into trees—

Magnolia Reinhart was busy. But she was happy.

 

 

—-

 

Erin was giggling over Numbtongue playing Minesweeper when Maviola El entered the inn. The Hobgoblin took the game like literal life-and-death when the concept of landmines had been explained to him. He was actually sweating as he eyed a ‘4’ square. The inn was…lively.

That was what the [Firestarter Lady] noticed. She had not lied to Olesm, before she had sent him off to do his job. She could read people.

There was some saying about having a hammer and seeing the world as a nail. Maviola had never thought it was a bad thing to look at the world through the lens of what you were good at. She was fire. She gained a unique Skill based on fire and in her prime, the entire continent of Izril had known her for her flames.

So she understood the inn as fire. A collection of souls, each one with a different level of fire. Passion. Some were burnt embers, like the Drake [Veteran]; a wounded soul. She ached for him. But Maviola had seen many of his kind. Her concern was with the brightest glows.

Olesm Swifttail had been one such, for all he had been muted by shame, his broken ego, self-doubt. Maviola had just unearthed the spark. She had done it to turn the Drake into what she believed he could be. Liscor was a place that all of Izril—maybe the world—would turn on. She felt that. So if she could change the future in a significant way…

But look. This inn was filled with those bright sparks. They were the kind of people that the matriarch of House El had learned to spot. Those who would go on to change the world if only they lived and were brought to life.

Maviola looked around. And she saw them.

See. A [Princess] swept the floor with a broom, demonstrating the flawless version of sweeping, and then handed it to a new recruit, and a Gnoll girl timidly copied her. Maviola smiled and Lyonette turned and lit up.

Maviola!

“Lyonette.”

“Are you and Olesm here? I don’t see him—”

The [Princess] hurried over. Maviola laughed.

“Just me, today. Am I welcome in your place, Miss Marquin?”

Lyonette halted and the two shared a knowing look. Lyonette carefully bowed and Maviola inclined her head.

“Always, Maviola. And I’d be delighted to sit with you. In a few moments? I have more questions…especially about, um, inter-House dealings.”

Politics. Maviola’s eyes twinkled. Lyonette knew who she was. Or had guessed. The [Princess] probably saw noble titles and ranks in the same way that Maviola looked at souls.

“Of course. It would be my delight. But perhaps tonight? I have someone else to speak to.”

“That’s fine! Can I get you a drink?”

“…A blue fruit juice?”

Maviola smiled as Lyonette served her the drink herself. She liked Lyonette. And relating stories from her youth as if they were things she’d heard was easy enough. The [Princess] benefitted from her surfeit of knowledge; Maviola liked Lyonette as someone like her.

But she was not here for Lyonette. Maviola’s eyes followed the [Princess]. Yes, there was a spark. She was high-level for her age. Especially as a [Princess]. Maviola El had met many as the leader of House El, mostly from Terandria. And most had been sad creatures, barely above Level 16, even when they were twice as old. But Lyonette shone. The [Princess] walked across the floor, passing by a white Gnoll riding a beaver…

Maviola, Lyonette, and half the patrons of the inn turned to stare at that. Even Lady Firestarter had to take a moment to admire Mrsha the White Rider as she rode a large Fortress Beaver across the inn’s floor. She waved her wand and held a stick with an apple in her other paw.

The Fortress Beaver—who would make most ordinary large dogs small by comparison—shuffled across the floor, good-naturedly playing Mrsha’s game. The adults all backed up; the beaver could possibly snap a leg bone if it was so inclined.

“Mrsha! What are you doing? Stop that—”

Lyonette scolded, but the White Rider saw the pursuing [Princess] and kicked her trusty steed. The Fortress Beaver lumbered forwards towards a wall. The door to the Garden of Sanctuary opened and the two fled through. Lyonette hurried after them and smacked into a wall.

Mrsha—

She chased after them. Maviola nearly laughed herself off her chair. Beavers! When had that happened? She looked around as Lyonette cursed and chased the door to the garden—which had opened on the far wall. Mrsha was better at using it than Lyonette—or Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary] prioritized her will.

“Now, where is Erin Solstice…?”

She looked around, but all she saw was…another spark? Maviola turned her head and saw a girl on the stage.

 

—-

 

“Okay, the plot is of a married woman who’s just—just had enough. It’s a classic play, and I really think we shouldn’t cast Jasi for it. You understand?”

Galina stood on stage with Emme, the [Manager], Andel, a [Writer] for the Players of Celum, and Temile, the [Producer] of the Players of Liscor.

“Wait, I don’t understand. Jasi’s our best female lead. Why wouldn’t we make her the lead?”

Emme’s arms were folded. The Dwarf woman, who had come from Invrisil this morning just to hear Galina with Andel (and get the extra-fluffy soufflés), looked skeptically at Galina. The young woman sighed.

“But it’s not always about casting the best actor. Don’t you see, Emme? Jasi’s great. She’s just—amazing. But she can’t do everything. This is A Doll’s House—it’s about a married woman unhappy with her life. Who’s been married for a while. You look at Jasi—does she look old to you?”

The three troupe members looked at each other. Temile coughed.

“She doesn’t look like that, I’ll grant you. But she could play the part—”

“But why does she have to be the only star? She’s already in every big performance; this would give her time off. And you want to treat your [Lead Actors] right…right?”

“She has a point. Wesle and Jasi both say they’re suffering from vocal strain, even with potions. We could trial this…but who’s our lead?”

“An older woman. Someone…someone who can really speak to married women who are unhappy. She shouldn’t be radiant. She should be a mother. A wife!”

Galina was more excited than she’d been since coming to this world. She looked around as Emme bit her lip.

“…We don’t have many. But come to think of it, I heard Yaina was married, didn’t you, Andel? Divorced—she’s our candidate for mothers. Good, solid acting in Shakespearian roles.”

The young woman from Earth rolled her eyes. As if Shakespeare was the be-all-end-all of the stage!

“Well, can you get her to run through the script? I’ve—it’s hard for me to write it out. I don’t have Erin’s memory, so it’s rough. I was hoping you could help me get it to the professional level…”

Andel studied the script he’d been given.

“It can definitely be updated. But the core conceit? I like it. Emme, we should put this on.”

“But let’s trial it in the inn. The Players of Liscor can put it on and if it’s suitable for Invrisil…?”

Temile and Emme put their heads together. Galina’s fingers gripped each other behind her back. Emme looked up, still looking dubious, but nodding.

“Erin vouches for you, Miss Galina. So I suppose we had better try it. I’m just not sure married life is as…as grand as our other plays.”

And that was the problem. The Players of Celum had been given bombastic dramas by Erin. They had wrongly understood what theatre was. Galina was about to jumpstart their education into the stage. If she could get in with them. The young woman held her breath.

“Then—you’ll hire me?”

Emme blinked. Andel snorted as he ruffled through the tidy, painstakingly-written links in ink. Temile laughed. As Galina looked at them, Emme smiled and laughed too.

“Hire you? Miss Galina—that was never in doubt. How many more plays do you know?

And the stage claimed another soul. But then—Galina had been doomed from the beginning. She screamed with delight and hugged the others. She liked her friends from Earth—but they were all different. This was where Galina belonged. They were splitting up. And that was—okay.

 

—-

 

“Alright! Who’s here for baseball? Kids, over here!”

Rose waved her arms and a bunch of little Gnolls and Drakes queued up with bats and gloves in hand. Outside, Joseph raised his hand.

“Anyone playing football—?”

A huge roar answered him. The largest crowd of kids and adults marched on Joseph and he looked around. Even a Councilmember, Jeiss, wanted his attention.

“Joseph! Joseph! The first intercity game with Pallass is in three days! Can our team win? You saw the game…”

“I did. If we practice, we’ll smoke them.”

Joseph reassured Jeiss. The Drake was a huge fan of the game already. He was grinning.

“Poor shots, right?”

“And worse teamwork. Are you in the team?”

“I hope so! I uh, took time off from the Council for this. Who’re you picking for the final team?”

“I’ll let you know. One second. Kids—follow Kevin!”

“Hey! Ekirra, my man! High five! Low five!”

Kevin slapped Ekirra’s paws and then moved them over to one of the newly-flattened field areas. It was temporary; the spring rains would play havoc with the landscape, but Hexel had great plans. Kevin grabbed one of the balls and addressed his audience.

Rows of little Drakes, Gnolls, and even some Humans stared solemnly up at him. They were taking this—seriously. Each one was a [Kicker], or—a new class—[Dribbler]. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded to the worried parents and Kevin had explained it was actually a good class.

“We’ll practice kicking today! And maybe if we have time, we’ll play some real football, yeah?”

He grinned as Joseph turned around to glare.

“You mean, rugby.

“Whatever you say, Joseph! You’re Mr. Soccer!”

The Spanish young man flipped Kevin off and he laughed. Kevin produced the odd, American Football ball and showed it to Ekirra. The Gnoll blinked at it.

“How do you play that, Mister Kevin?”

Some of the other adults were staring curiously too. Kevin winked at the little Gnoll.

“We’ll see after practice. It’s another fun game! Okay, make pairs! We’re practicing passing—remember, kick with the inside of the foot! Drakes especially—we don’t want any more deflated balls…”

More excitement and drama. Another sport? Kevin and Joseph hadn’t cleared it with Erin; they didn’t understand the value of tactically applied sports moments. But all eyes were on Joseph as he kicked the ball.

 

—-

 

“Miss Imani, what’s that?”

“Um. Fufu.”

Palt the Centaur stared at the round…doughy…ball that seemed ready for the oven. But it was on a plate. And apparently, done?

“Er…what is it?”

Imani ducked her head. She was nervous, but not in the same way as she usually was. You could reduce Imani to tears if you screamed loudly in her ear at night. Which was due to her understandable fear of monsters. But this was more nerves as one fan of cuisine to another.

“It’s—a starch. See? It’s cassava—well, it should be. But I found a root that’s almost as good. And flour with water…”

Well, plantain flour. Which wasn’t wheat…but Imani had been experimenting. Octavia had actually helped with that. Palt eyed the food.

He was making rice. More saffron rice that he was going to add a lovely stir-fry to. Erin didn’t know how to cook vegetables and the Centaur liked cooking.

So, apparently, did Imani. And after a few incidents where she’d run screaming away from the Centaur, she could even speak to him.

“So how do you eat it?”

“Oh…with this soup. See?”

It was a beefy side dish. Palt stared at the fufu, and the beef in the thick broth. You’d mix the two. He sniffed.

“…Peanuts?”

“Mhm. Erin asked me to make some. See?”

Imani tore off a small ball of the doughy substance and dipped it in the soup. She popped it into her mouth and ate with apparent relish.

“Mind if I have some?”

Palt waited for the nod and took a helping. He wasn’t a meat-person, but he brightened as he ate it.

“That’s rather good! Will you teach me the recipe?”

“Sure. I—”

Imani saw the furry faces staring at her as she turned, dropped the plate of fufu, and screamed. Mrsha, and the beavers fled as the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] exposed the food-thieves. Palt pointed—the dish and fufu stopped before it could land on the floor. He caught his breath and Imani covered her face.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

Mrsha!

Palt shouted. He saw Lyonette march into the kitchen and Mrsha the Very Much in Trouble fled with her beavers into a damn dam. Which Erin had bought wood for. Imani looked at Palt and he smiled.

“It was just—”

“Totally understood. Why don’t we put this outside? And maybe if Mrsha’s good she can have a bite. Then again—”

The Fortress Beavers were fighting Lyonette as she attacked them with a broom, mainly swatting at their behinds. Mrsha the Even More In Trouble barreled into Lyonette from behind and the [Princess] went splash into the pond. Palt closed the door over Lyonette’s outraged laughter and shrieking.

“…I think she might be getting bread and water today.”

Imani smiled gratefully as Palt took her arm. She never noticed him whispering the [Remove Fear] spell. After all. An [Illusionist] should be able to do that much unnoticed. Or what was the point?

 

—-

 

And last and perhaps least…two young men had neither job nor passion. No—that wasn’t correct. It was just that they hadn’t found their passion.

“Sucks that we don’t have something. Joseph’s got football, Galina’s in love with those [Actors]. What do we get, Leon?”

“I dunno.”

The two were in Invrisil, though. And today, Troy, much discontented, was walking with his hands in pockets. Looking at the shops, the sights—all the things he couldn’t buy.

“I’ve got five silver. How much do you have?”

“Uh—two silver.”

The two young men looked at each other. Neither one complained…at least not aloud. They were given free room and board and they were being paid by the hour for help. It was just that they were earning an actual paycheck per hour, not…free money. They made as much as Ishkr and Drassi did. A bit less, actually, given their inexperience and if they wanted lots of spending money, they needed to work for hours.

Everyone else had better jobs. But Leon and Troy had not been blessed with…with…anything. Joseph, now, he’d gotten lucky. So had Galina. They just happened to have the right talents. But what did Leon and Troy get?

“Nothing. I don’t feel like lifting boxes all day. Maybe we should beg, like Kevin.”

“Kevin’s Kevin. He’d survive anywhere. Imani gets special treatment.”

That was true…but both felt guilty for pointing that out. Nevertheless, the two walked on. Leon groused.

“It’s not like we don’t have skills!”

“Yeah!”

“If this was a videogame, we’d be the best at it. But magic doesn’t’ work like that.”

“Think we can get Erin to give us money for a spellbook?”

“Uh…no.”

“Well—what are we good at? Joseph and Galina have skills. And you were taking courses in engineering, right Troy?”

The young man from Greece shook his head.

“No—no—uh—I was going to. After high school. I was into…and you were really into tabletop games…”

“Yeah.”

Miniatures. Leon was a big tabletop fan, which wasn’t the biggest of things in Poland. And Troy was also a gamer. Video games. The two looked at each other.

“What if we made a tabletop game?”

“Right! So…how are we casting and designing the miniatures? I mean, I know what they look like. But how do we put that into an actual figurine?”

“Uh…well, maybe cards?”

“Can you draw?”

“…Can you?”

They walked on, talking of ideas. Cards, now—Leon also liked Magic the Gathering. They counted their silver and then paused to duck out of the way as a crowd of people protesting The Golden Triangle marched through Invrisil. The sad, the desperate—the two young man walked past them, heads bowed as the furious, hurt people screamed for someone to do something. But what could you do?

The money was gone.

 

—-

 

After a while, Numbtongue got bored of minesweeper. He began to listen to music. Erin sat with him for a while. But it was just a distraction. After a while—in between songs, she had to ask.

“Numbtongue. Am I a jerk?”

He looked at her.

“Sometimes.”

He patted her on the shoulder again. Erin stared at him.

“Thank you for your honesty.”

“Welcome. Be shush.”

The Goblin went back to listening to the song. He was trying to come up with a guitar cover. Erin stood up. Sighing, she went to the door and opened it.

“Don’t play on the computer too long.”

She warned him. The Hobgoblin looked back at her.

“Why not?”

Erin opened and closed her mouth.

“…I think my mom told me that once. I dunno, maybe your head explodes. Okaygottago!

She closed the door. And nearly ran into a young woman with fire in her hair.

“Oh! Excuse me!”

Erin smiled. So did the young woman.

“Pardon me. I was actually just looking around.”

“For the bathroom? It’s outside. Or if you wanted Octavia’s shop—it’s down the other hallway. Door at the end.”

Erin pointed. Octavia was now part of the inn and she was happy with it. Actually—she was more focused on her apprenticeship with Saliss to care. Erin was happy for her, even if Numbtongue grumbled that Octavia was too busy these days to go mining with him.

“Thank you, but I was actually looking for you, Miss Erin Solstice.”

The raven-and-ember-haired girl grinned. Her eyes were vibrant orange, Erin couldn’t help but notice. And she felt like she’d met her…

“Me? Uh. Do I know you? Wait—wait—aren’t you—?”

“Maviola. Pleased to meet you. Olesm and I have been stopping here regularly.”

“Oh. You’re Olesm’s girlfr—

Erin bit her tongue. Olesm’s girlfriend? She had heard about it, but she hadn’t believed it. She gaped at Maviola.

“Are you?”

“I’m she. And you’re Erin Solstice. Do you have a moment?”

“I—uh—y—sure—hey! You were the one who threw alcohol all over me! Ceria’s noble friend! Wait, you’re a [Lady]!

Erin remembered at last. Maviola’s teeth flashed. She bowed slightly, and it was elegant and charming.

“As I am charged, so guilty! I think our meeting has been long overdue, Erin. May I call you that?”

“Sure? But wait…why are we meeting? I mean…”

Erin found Maviola tugging her into another of the smaller private rooms. There was something about the young woman that was compelling. Erin found Maviola pulling out a chair. She smiled as she sat down. Erin frowned. Something…

“I’ve been wanting to talk with you. After all—you and I are similar. Have you noticed?”

“That we’re similar? Nah. I mean—you’re taller. And you have cool hair. Uh—we’re both Humans? I…is something…are you doing something to me?”

The [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t look away from Maviola. The fiery girl leaned on the table.

“Of course. The question is: what?”

Erin tried to look away. But her eyes were drawn to Maviola. Much like a moth was to light. Or eyes to a…fire. She felt it.

“Stop that. You—you’re using your aura-thing!”

“I am.”

Stop that. You—you’re a [Lady]!”

Erin finally recognized the signs. It felt like Magnolia, Pryde, and Wuvren. Only—different. She had the impression she was sitting across from a bonfire. Maviola’s eyes locked on Erin’s.

“Make me.”

Erin struggled. She hadn’t been prepared for a fight, even a mental one. She bit her lip, tried to remember Lyonette’s lessons. Focus. Gather your will like—Erin pushed. She felt something pushing back, encircling her. She glowered.

“Stop. Doing. That!

She shot up and flipped the table on Maviola. Or tried to. The table was too big. But Erin felt the force locking her down break. Maviola slipped back as Erin raised a fist.

“Get out of my inn! You [Ladies] are like—rats! Shoo!”

She punched. Maviola dodged backwards.

“I’m trying to help you. Don’t you see how much you need it? I could have persuaded you to walk out of your inn before you started fighting back.”

“That’s a crummy way of helping! I don’t want you here. Shoo! Get lost! Get—”

Maviola caught Erin’s punch. Since it wasn’t a [Minotaur Punch], it wasn’t that strong. She grabbed Erin’s other wrist.

“Calm down, Erin. We’re alike.”

“Like heck we are. Let go.”

“Make—”

Erin head-butted her. Maviola wasn’t expecting that. The [Innkeeper] had the satisfaction of watching Maviola sit down hard on the floor. The [Lady] blinked up at her.

“Well. You’re more like Magnolia than I thought.”

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed. Maviola was rapidly getting on her nerves.

“I don’t know why you came here. But I don’t like you already. Stop bothering me.”

She turned, to get someone to kick Maviola out. But the [Lady] stood up, and grabbed Erin’s shoulder.

“I said—stop.

Erin whirled. She raised a fist. And saw fire.

Maviola burst into flames. Her hair caught fire, her eyes blazed. Her hand holding Erin’s shoulder was wreathed in brilliant, white-red flames.

With a shout of panic, Erin tore away from her. But the door caught fire. She backed away as Maviola stood there. The fire was spreading! White-hot flames were covering the floor, the door—she was going to burn everything in the room! She was—

The fire was familiar. Erin stared at it. It looked—gentle.

White-red fire, yes. So brilliant it hurt the eyes at first. But the longer you looked, the less harsh the flames seemed. They had a gentleness to them. Erin felt it instinctively. It looked like—

Kindness made fire. She stared into Maviola’s burning eyes and saw—

A woman bending down, laughing at her brother’s rueful expression as a toddler crawled out of his arms towards her. She had never been married. But she was delighted. Teasing. She lifted the boy up and he laughed and caught at the flames and sparks around her. Maviola looked at her brother, Fulviolo El, leader of the House of El as he—

The flames flickered. They went out. The door stopped burning; the wood untouched. Maviola rubbed at her forehead. Flicked a bit of white fire off her shoulder.

It had burned nothing. Perhaps it could have. Kindness could be a terribly painful flame to those it hurt. But not to Erin. The [Innkeeper] stood there. She had seen the fire. She recognized it.

“Memory fire? But that’s….”

Impossible, she almost said. But Erin remembered. [Like Fire, Memory]. It wasn’t her Skill. [Immortal Moment] had been different. If Erin had to describe it—it had felt green—which meant it was unique, as far as she understood it. But [Like Fire, Memory]…someone had earned the Skill first.

That someone—smiled.

“Let me try again. I’m too used to getting my way. I thought I could barge in your place and give you a lesson. Impress you. Oh, well. I’m a hothead.”

She chuckled at that. Erin just kept staring. Maviola sat back down.

“I’m sorry, Erin Solstice. When I said we were similar—I meant it literally. You have the same fire as me. The same Skill. My Skill.”

She touched her breast, lightly. Erin stared. She had seen—a much older woman.

“Who—who are you?”

The [Lady] sighed. She leaned on her arms and smiled.

“Sit down, please. I can explain. I came here to help. Olesm told me you were full of surprises. But he didn’t mention how fast you were.”

“I have a quick head. Uh—who was—”

“Me. I didn’t realize you could see the memory in my fire. But I’ve never met anyone like you. Sit, please.”

Erin sat. Maviola sighed. They regarded each other a second time. Erin was shaken. Shook. But she was thinking.

“You’re a [Lady].”

“I am.”

“You have—[Like Fire, Memory]. Don’t you?”

“I was the first.”

Maviola’s eyes glittered with amusement as Erin’s jaw dropped.

“No way. But then—when you threw alcohol on me—and why didn’t you say anything?”

“It wasn’t a good time. I was impressed, to be honest. You’ve learned to call at least two different fires, haven’t you?”

“Four. Well—well, I can do three. The last one is hardest. It’s purple…”

Maviola laughed in delight and clapped her hands together.

“Purple? You mean—love?”

Erin jumped and blushed.

Love? No, it’s happiness!”

“What? Love is purple.”

“No it’s not. I’ve never had love fire. I have glory-fire, which is pink—”

“That’s gold for me.”

The two stared at each other. Lady Firestarter blinked, and then she started giggling.

“So it’s different colors! Of course! I’ve always seen glory as gold. But you must see it as—pink! Pink!

“Hey! Pink is a good color!”

Erin defended herself. Maviola was nodding and laughing.

“Of course! And hatred is invisible—how brilliant! I have no invisible fire. Hatred is black for me. I wonder if I could change the color? I’ve never tried.”

“But you have the Skill? Who—who are you? I heard you and Olesm were dating…”

“We’re not dating.”

Maviola’s laughter turned into an amused look. Erin blinked.

“But Drassi said—”

“We’re not—‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. We’ve been intimate. But I don’t have much time left.”

The young woman—no—Maviola’s amused look made the two terms seem juvenile. Erin’s eyes popped.

“You and Olesm? But—wh—”

The woman shook her head.

“That’s something else. Let’s talk more about the fire.”

“No it’s not. Go back. Explain. Why—”

“Erin. Look at me.”

The [Lady] spread her arms. And Erin saw her eyes shimmer. Fire raced up her arm. But this time—it wasn’t one color.

Her hand burned with white flame. But further up, green fire, calm and cool, the fire of contentment, burned. Then red, passion, rage.

Black hatred. Maviola El stared down at the Goblin King as the Flowers of Izril began to sortie. She pointed, and the [Archers] launched a fiery volley that exploded among the ranks of the Goblins. But there were too many—

Sorrowful blue. Fulviolo El was dead. His son lay sick in bed, just a boy, as Maviola received the news. She stood there, as everyone turned to her. But she could not believe. Her brother was dead. Dead—he was—

Gold glory. She rode through a forest fire, her army marching through the fire that burned only their enemies. The Drakes were in retreat; even their Oldbloods fled this fire. Lady Firestarter charged—

Purple, deep love. Erin saw Maviola kissing Olesm—a woman dancing with a laughing man—

Like a rainbow of color, the flames raced up Maviola’s arm. But more colors than even a rainbow held. Each one was beautiful. Deep. Erin felt tears springing to her eyes. She stared at Maviola. And she saw a young woman. But in the memory, she saw Maviola aging. Her memories of her body betraying her. Yet the fire remained. And now—

The two sat there. Erin blinked. And then she looked at the [Lady] sitting across from her. And her objections faded. She saw an old woman smiling gently. Her face lined, bound by a chair. Her form withered. For a moment. But she had always been the young woman who lounged in the chair. Even as time changed her.

“Oh. So that’s who you are.”

That was all the [Innkeeper] said. Maviola almost—flinched. In a moment, Erin had seen more than perhaps even the [Lady] intended. She shook her head.

“I’ve never done that before, you know.”

“Really? It was beautiful.”

“Yes. But it’s also intimate. As you well know.”

Erin smiled ruefully.

“Yeah. That was. Wow. I’m—sorry for head butting you. Uh—are you okay?”

The [Lady]’s eyes widened. She started laughing again and plucked at her arm.

“What? Oh—this isn’t an illusion. I’m fine. I’ve taken worse blows before.”

“Phew. Thank goodness.”

Erin shook her head. She kept staring at Maviola. After a second, Erin opened her mouth.

“—You’re a [Lady]. A Lady.

She meant it in another sense. She had seen Maviola in a ballroom, greeting [Kings], even having royalty treat her like an equal. Leading armies. But she wanted Maviola to say it. The [Lady] inclined her head. She took a breath.

“True enough. Let me say it, then. My name is Maviola El. And I hope you will let me teach you in the time I have left, my successor of fire.”

Erin’s breath caught. El. Even she knew the Five Families. But she had known the instant she stared into the fire.

“You mean…?”

“I was…once…the matriarch of the House of El. Lady Firestarter, my nickname. Maviola and Fulviolo El. My brother was always the responsible one. But he had to die and I had to take charge. That was over a decade ago. Before that? I was a wild girl. I fought in a few wars. I had quite a fun time. I never managed to find someone to settle down with. But there were enough children in my life. That is me. And you?”

The [Lady] looked at Erin. Her soul bared. The fire had been the most intimate exposure of her past that Erin had seen. By contrast, the words just reaffirmed that truth. Erin’s hand shook.

“But you look—”

“A Potion of Youth. Wonderful things. Your [Alchemist] friend made them. Saliss of Lights can restore even someone as old as me into a young body. For a while.”

Maviola laughed at Erin’s expression. Erin sat back, holding her head.

“No way. But you were old. I mean—sorry—but you were!”

“Dreadfully old! I was bound in my wheelchair. See?”

Maviola flicked a finger. A dusty, grey flame appeared. Erin saw Maviola sitting in her wheelchair. Experienced it. She felt bound, too weary, incapable of rising. Her very bones ached, despite the tinctures and potions. Erin felt the aged frustration even as she jerked her eyes away.

“No—stop it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s awful.

The woman’s lips quirked.

“It gets better. Your body betrays you. The worst part is remembering what it’s like to run about. And half-Elves getting to live far longer. I was so jealous.”

“But how—

“Magic. Alchemy. Surely you’ve heard of magical spells?”

“But that’s—”

Erin had seen [Fireballs]. Powerful spells. Even undead. But this seemed grander than the rest. Maviola nodded.

“That’s mundane. Saliss of Lights is one of the world’s greatest [Alchemists]. He stands at the cusp of rediscovering true wonders. The kind that reversed aging. Potions that could allegedly bring back the dead, give the drinker wings. Transform them from one species into another. That is true alchemy.”

“Wow.”

The [Innkeeper] sat back. She was taking it all in. But Maviola was looking at her.

“You’re so surprised. But you’ve seen so much yourself. I saw it, in your fire. Will you…show me?”

Erin jerked. Her heart pounded at the simple request. Still, Maviola had shown her so much. Shyly, Erin raised a hand.

“I can’t do it like you.”

“That’s quite alright. If you could, I wouldn’t be here. What can you do?”

“Um—happiness is hardest.”

“It is.”

“This is—easy. Depression fire. See?”

A blue flame appeared in Erin’s cupped palms. Maviola’s smile faded. She stared into Erin’s fire. And saw—

Erin knelt over a pile of dust, searching for Toren. Calling his name.

She held Headscratcher, trying to hear his last words.

Klbkch was dead.

Scenes flickered through the fire. Not any one thing. Maviola brushed at her eyes.

“You’ve seen too much.”

“Maybe. But you—”

“I’m old. I should have sadness enough for a lifetime. But you? You’re a girl. You shouldn’t be able to call so many memories out. That’s why I’m here.

Maviola reached out and touched Erin’s hand. Erin jerked, but it was too late. Maviola touched the fire—both blinked—

 

—-

 

The Worker walked towards Erin. She raised the frying pan and he stopped. The Worker raised all four arms.

“Please. I mean you no harm.”

The words were familiar. The way of speaking was familiar. Erin hesitated. She stared at him. She knew him. But she asked anyways.

“…Pawn?”

“I am not Pawn.”

The Worker shook his head. But he was not Ksmvr either. He knelt before Erin suddenly, and she nearly tossed the jar of acid. But the Worker made no move. He spoke to her, voice loud in the silence. And she knew his name before he spoke it.

“I am Knight.”

Erin stopped. And walked out of herself. She stared around as time froze.

“What’s happening?”

Her voice was a ghost in the memory as she saw herself staring at [Knight]. Someone else appeared.

“I don’t know. This has never happened before. We’re in your memory.”

Maviola stared around. She reached for Knight. Touched at the Antinium.

“What is this?”

Erin knew.

“An [Immortal Moment].”

She stared around. The two Skills had merged. Erin would never forget this moment. And in her fire was the memory. Maviola touched at her chest.

“It hurts. I feel—you.”

Erin’s panic, her confusion and fear. Erin felt it too. But she had lived it. For Maviola—her eyes glittered. She clenched her teeth.

“Where…is it?”

She looked around. And both of them saw.

A figure crawling up a hill. Crimson eyes made of ruby. Pure terror.

Erin’s heart clenched, but she refused to retreat. Maviola turned pale and backed away.

“Dead gods. What is that?

“Skinner.”

The past resumed. More Antinium stepped forwards. Naming themselves.

Milner-Barry. Garry. Bird. Calabrian. So many—and Erin had never forgotten them. Maviola walked among them. Erin was in two places, recreating the memory and watching as well, a spectator.

“Look at them. They are nothing like the Antinium I know.”

Erin blinked. The Antinium were gone. The fire flickered. In the private room, the fire changed to red. The two women’s hands were linked. Erin felt—

Rage. Maviola stood with Fulviolo, Petra and Ulva Terland, Lord Dallien Veltras—only Wellfar had refused to send aid to House Reinhart.

And there was Magnolia Reinhart. A girl. But she rode, garbed in armor and protective equipment at the head of an army.

The Antinium surrounded Liscor. Maviola spat. Erin felt the bile in her mouth.

“What vile things. We were right to come, Fulviolo.”

“The Drakes are not our allies.”

Petra snapped. But the other house heads were equally disturbed by the vast horde. The Black Tide was reforming. Fulviolo hesitated. Maviola looked up at her older brother and he, his face lined but no less the brother she had known, nodded.

“Allies or not. This army threatens all of Izril. House Reinhart was right. We cannot allow this plague to continue. Lord Dallien. Will you lead the charge?”

The [Lord] of the Veltras family nodded.

“Ride with me, Fulviolo.”

“It would be my honor. Maviola—”

“I’m coming with you.”

The [Lady] insisted. Fulviolo pulled her aside.

“Stay with the [Archers]. This isn’t the Sedfast war. I won’t lose you or let you rush into them. Besides—the Antinium tunnel. Guard our flanks.”

Maviola bit her lip. But she acquiesced. The air burst into fire around her. Erin saw her pointing.

“[Archers], take my fire!”

Prepare to charge! Raise the banners!

Lord Dallien shouted. Magnolia Reinhart joined the [Lords] preparing to charge, despite the objections of the others. Her face was white with fear. But what a brave girl.

“She’s a lot younger.”

Erin remarked. The world froze over. Maviola turned her head, stepped out of her body. She blinked.

“We broke the backs of the Antinium this day. The first Antinium war. I thought they were but monsters until I came here. I still did—but your memory—can we go to it?”

Erin raised her hands. Concentrated.

Flicker. The flame turned blue again.

They looked down at Skinner. Maviola stared about her at the Antinium, fighting the undead.

“Where are you?”

“Inside. Playing chess.”

Chess?

“It was an [Immortal Moment]. So—so I could get over my fear of Skinner.”

“I see. Look at that monster.”

Maviola spat. The spit flickered out of existence. She narrowed her eyes, shook her head.

“They all died.”

“Four lived.”

Erin looked at Knight. The dying chess club. She reached out. But she hadn’t touched him, so her hand passed through this memory. She shook her head.

“Stop. I want to stop.”

“Yes. This is—too much.”

The fire grew dimmer. Maviola let go of Erin’s hands.

The memory vanished. The immortal moment ended. Erin sat in the inn, across from Maviola as the woman withdrew her hands. Erin blinked. Her face was wet. With tears?

She touched her face. Maviola blinked at her, wide-eyed. Whatever the two had expected—it was not this. They looked at each other, having seen through each other’s eyes. Erin touched the wetness on her cheeks. She stared at Maviola.

“…Did you just spit on me?”

“Oops.”

 

—-

 

“You’re not from here. I didn’t think you were Izrilian or Terandrian. But that proves it. I saw into your mind, Erin.”

“Uh oh. Please don’t tell anyone.”

Erin sat with Maviola after a handkerchief and water had been applied. Maviola looked at her.

“Don’t worry. I don’t have long left.”

Erin had seen that too. She stared as Maviola produced a viridian vial.

“Two more weeks to go.”

“That’s terrible. Can’t you get more?”

“Do you have tens of thousands of gold pieces? And does Saliss have the ability to produce a Potion of Youth each week?”

Maviola smiled at Erin and shrugged.

“It’s fine.”

“No, it’s not. You shouldn’t die! You’re just going to live for two more weeks and then fall over dead?”

The young woman was horrified. In that way—she understood Maviola’s feelings. How not when she had seen her memories? But she was not Maviola and the idea was anathema.

Maviola was sanguine.

“It’s a beautiful ending. Fire should burn out fast, not die as an ember. I’ve made my peace with it. And as I said—I have something to do. Teach you.”

She pointed at Erin’s chest. The [Innkeeper] blinked.

“Teach me what?”

Fire! And offer you bits of advice. You’re like me. A firekeeper. We tend to people. We try to make the world better. That’s the role of the nobility. Or it was. Magnolia, Tyrion—all these hotheads are better suited to war. But you? Look what you’ve made!

She spread her arms to indicate the entire inn. Erin blushed.

“Nah, it wasn’t…”

The lie was too hard to utter. Maviola pointed sternly at Erin.

“Don’t be modest. I hate false modesty. You know what you’ve done. All I want to do is give you more power. If I had met you when you were younger—you could have burned Skinner out of existence yourself. I could have, at any rate.”

She smiled, conjuring a little ball of fire in one hand. Erin stared at it.

“…Is that magic? I can’t do magic.”

“No. The power of my aura. I’m fire. I don’t know what you are, but we can find out. Erin. Will you let me teach you?”

The [Innkeeper] sat there. Then she stood up. She looked at Maviola. Here she was. Someone with Erin’s very Skills. Someone who was a master. Erin looked at Maviola.

“…Sure. But also—do you want to go to a party? Can you make it that long? No, you have to.”

Maviola blinked.

“A party?”

The two began to talk. Animatedly. Arms were waved. But Erin found herself sitting across from…a friend. Odd, but she knew Maviola better than perhaps the [Lady] had intended.

[Like Fire, Memory]. But also—[Immortal Moments]. A Skill Maviola hadn’t accounted for. And that was the thing. The moments might pass. But they were still immortal.

 

—-

 

The fire was wondrous. Golden. It blazed like gold in Maviola’s hands. She stood in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and Erin marveled at it. So did Mrsha. The Gnoll girl sat, staring at the two as they stood on the hill. Lyonette and Numbtongue peeked through the door.

“This is my glory. Yours is different. But with time—practice—you can make it stronger. Each one has vast utility. I cannot believe you gained your Skill barely a month ago!”

Maviola’s voice was almost indignant. Erin shrugged helplessly.

“It’s a great Skill. And I did get it at Level 40.”

“Yes, but—with this Skill? What kind of class do you have? Wait. I know this one. [Magical Innkeeper]. I suppose it’s a rare class. Still—I’m a [Lady]. Your Skills match mine.”

Maviola made an unhappy face. Erin rubbed at her head. Maviola’s memories were bouncing around in her skull too.

“It’s weird. But I’m also from…Earth.”

Lyonette slapped her face. Numbtongue copied her. Maviola just nodded.

“What a strange place. But I know it. Together, your flame and mine is too—too intimate. I saw too much thanks to your [Immortal Moments]. Just as well I didn’t conjure a flame with me and Olesm, hm?”

She grinned as Erin turned red. Mrsha rolled down the side of the hill in disgust.

“No thank you. Can you just show me the fire, please?”

“Certainly. Watch.”

Maviola concentrated and the golden flame turned into a ball of fire. She drew her arm back and threw it.

Golden flames arced through the air. Erin yelped.

“No! Don’t set my garden on fire—”

The flames landed, burned. But consumed nothing. Erin stopped. Maviola looked at her.

“Glory burns nothing. It’s fleeting.”

Your glory doesn’t burn anything. But mine does!”

The [Lady] frowned, crossing her arms in vexation.

“Hm. This is harder than I thought. Our fires are clearly different. But at least—I can show you a few things. You can throw your fire. Also—do this.”

She set herself on fire. White flames burst from her body and Mrsha scrambled backwards. Then she crawled up the hill and tried to touch Maviola.

“No, Mrsha. Don’t. Shoo! Shoo! Go play with the beavers.”

Erin tried to urge Mrsha away. The Gnoll looked up at her. But this was more fun! Maviola smiled.

“Here.”

She offered a bit of the white fire of kindness to Mrsha. The Gnoll gleefully took it and watched as it licked over her paw. Erin protested.

“Hey! That’s—”

“It won’t burn her. See?”

Mrsha tried to wipe the fire onto the grass. It burned very slowly and went out after a few seconds. Maviola looked at Erin.

“I’ve never thought to make lanterns out of my fire. But you’ve seen me give [Archers] fire. You can even coat weapons in the fire if you want. That’s due to your Skill. But auras? They’re a bit different. Watch.”

She pointed. A patch of innocent grass burst into flame. Real fire. Erin and Mrsha jumped.

Stop setting stuff on fire!

Erin ran over to stomp on it with her shoes. Maviola shrugged.

“It’s my aura. You may have noticed a motif with me.”

“Yeah! You’re pretty hot stuff!”

Erin stomped and Mrsha waved her wand; the grass regrew. Both glared at Maviola. Lady Firestarter smirked.

“My nature is flame. I have yet to figure out yours. But you need to work on your aura, Erin. I was able to manipulate you for a few moments. We’ll practice using both flame and aura.”

“I…sure. I’ve learned from Lyonette, but it’s just not something I can figure out. Do you think you can teach me?”

Erin scratched her head. Lyonette whispered indignantly to Numbtongue.

“I was teaching her!”

The [Lady] cast an amused glance towards the doorway.

“I’m sure Lyonette’s done her best. But she’s a [Princess]. I doubt she had much training at her age; normally she’d be much older by the time she developed her powers. She’s a prodigy.”

Lyonette blushed as Maviola waved at her. Numbtongue nudged her. Erin blinked.

“She is?”

“Oh yes. Monarchs don’t need to hone their auras. This is a Skill of—well, [Ladies] and [Knights] primarily. Only [Ladies] need to train. And the Flowers of Izril developed their abilities more than anyone else. In antiquity, the Order of Seasons actually learned from our class.”

Maviola motioned Erin to sit down as Mrsha began to scribble notes on her drawing-paper. She was copying Grimalkin.

“You see—[Kings] are rather good at being forceful themselves. You’ve seen the King of Destruction?”

“That jerk? Yeah, once or twice.”

Erin waved a hand. Maviola laughed.

“He’s more intimidating in real life. I met him when he was a boy—before the world called him the ‘King of Destruction’. Back when people still invited him to gatherings and thought they could use him in political games. He was forceful of will enough then to resist even the most cunning of [Lords] and [Ladies]. And all untrained! That’s what I mean. He has no fine control, but when he says ‘kneel’, he can force an army to bend their knees.”

“That sounds…bad.”

Erin glanced at Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded. Definitely sounded bad. Although Rufelt liked Flos. So did Mrsha. He was nice to Gnolls. Even white Gnolls. Maviola shrugged.

“It’s an example. Lyonette, by her class, is stronger than both of us naturally. No wonder she’s a poor teacher.”

“Hey!”

Both ignored that. Maviola gestured.

“It’s not just about concentration. There’s elegance in how you use your aura. See? I manifest fire.”

She made a ball of real, hot fire appear in her hands. Mrsha oohed and applauded. Maviola tossed it at her. Mrsha ran away, squealing, but the fire vanished before it touched her.

“Stop bullying Mrsha.”

Erin scowled at Maviola. The grandmother of a [Lady] laughed.

“Children should be careful. I hear this one’s unruly. Aren’t you?”

She stared at Mrsha, peeking around Erin’s back. Mrsha made a face. Maviola pointed.

“Sit down and be good, child.”

Mrsha hesitated, and then scooted over and sat. Erin narrowed her eyes.

“You used your aura on her.”

“Say I did.”

“That’s mean.”

The [Lady] sighed.

“Perhaps it is. But you do it too. Or do you think all of those spontaneous parties just ‘happened’? You’re using your aura without thinking of it. My goal is to train that.”

How? Lyonette’s taught—”

Maviola rolled her eyes.

“Like this.”

She reached out and grabbed Erin’s hands. The [Innkeeper] started and Maviola closed her eyes.

“I’m going to shove you. This is a high-level technique. [Ladies] use with their Skills. [Deft Hand], usually. You should concentrate to stop me.”

“Concentrate? Stop wh—”

Erin felt a push. She tried to bl—

Mrsha saw Erin backflip off the hill and go flying as if someone’s invisible hand had swatted her. She and Maviola stared as Erin went flying and rolling down the hill. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Maviola winked at her.

“That’s proper training.”

Aaah! You jerk!

Erin came charging up the hill. Maviola raised a hand.

“[Deft Hand]—”

“Oh no. St—”

Erin went flying again. Mrsha stared as she tumbled back down the hill. She got up and waved at Maviola. Do me, do me! The [Lady] laughed.

Lyonette went stomping up the hill to stop Mrsha-swatting. She looked huffily at Maviola.

“Maviola, I don’t know if this is the best way to train Erin—”

“I think it’s the way she learns. See?”

Erin went charging up the hill. She pointed.

“Aha! Gravity!”

Maviola and Lyonette staggered. The air pushed down on them. Maviola gritted her teeth.

“Cute. But I told you to block—”

This time Erin went stumbling backwards. Lyonette did too, but less far. Maviola glanced at her.

“You’re already more powerful than I, Lyonette. At least in station. Don’t worry. I’m here to help. Truly.”

“It’s very sudden. Erin shouldn’t have told you about her…home. I trust you’ll keep it secret?”

Lyonette pursed her lips. She liked Maviola. But Erin had given away far too much. Lyonette knew Maviola was another runaway from her house, but she was a [Lady] of Izril. Maviola smiled deeper.

“To my very grave. Lyonette du Marquin.”

The [Princess] hesitated.

“I’d like to believe that. But I don’t know who you are. There’s only one Maviola and that’s from the House of El. But she’s old; the House’s matriarch.”

“And retired. I stepped down two weeks ago.”

Lyonette blinked. Then her eyes went round. She looked at Maviola.

“No. That’s—”

The [Lady] swatted with her hand. Lyonette and Erin went somersaulting down the hill past Mrsha. The old [Lady] saw Mrsha peeking up at her with more respect as curses echoed from behind her. She winked at Mrsha.

Behave. Now, what’s your little secret, you brave firefly?”

Mrsha scooted closer on her bum and showed Maviola her wand. Erin lay on the grass as Lyonette’s head of red hair slowly rose. Both glared up at the top of the hill.

That was lesson one.

 

—-

 

“You did well. In time, no [Lady] will be able to force you to bow within twenty levels. They can still shove, but it’s just a matter of being aware of it. Three-versus-one? Well, Magnolia would still probably have pushed past you even in your inn. But the trick with auras is to force them to break their rules.”

A while later, Maviola was lecturing the tousle-haired younger women. Both glowered at her, nursing bruises from being tossed down the hill.

“How? Magnolia even bullied Xrn! And Klbkch!”

“Only because they weren’t willing to attack. [Ladies] are unmatched in society. That’s why we’re [Ladies]. I’m suited for combat, but even I can’t stand with [Warriors]. If the Antinium had attacked—at least one of them would have died. Why do you think Wuvren was last to retreat? They would have broken the etiquette of the moment and all their little tricks would have ended.”

“So if Magnolia tries to influence me…”

“Kick her. Or head-butt her. That usually works. But watch out for Ressa. She was trained as an [Assassin]. Now, let’s move onto more lessons. I’m tired. I’ll keep teaching you to use your aura for a few more days. Practice makes perfect.”

Maviola yawned delicately, as if she hadn’t just flicked both girls off the hill. They’d managed to avoid being thrown in the last ten minutes of the hour-long practice, but only just. Mrsha was sitting on Maviola’s lap, having her hair combed. The [Lady] enjoyed it so much she’d groomed three beavers who were napping around her.

Erin decided she didn’t like Maviola that much. She was sort of pushy! But then—the woman smiled and Erin was reminded of the life she’d lived.

“Okay. What next?”

The [Lady] clapped her hands. Mrsha and the beavers started into wakefulness.

Logistics!

“Say what now?”

Erin’s face fell. Maviola grabbed her arm.

“You’re a beautifully talented young woman. But I’ve noticed you’re about as good at tackling numbers and matters of the like as this young Gnoll here. Have you even budgeted your inn? Do you know how much you’ll owe in taxes?”

“Well—we have a [Tax Collector]. He’s sort of a jerk, but he did them. And Lyonette calculates our income! Why do I have to do it? Delegation, that’s important too!”

Erin protested. Maviola stared at her.

“So you didn’t double-check the [Tax Collector]’s numbers? You have no one overseeing Lyonette’s work? Have you even tried to get better deals on say, food?”

“No. We go through Krshia—”

“Where’s your budget sheets? Your incomes and expenses?”

“Um. Lyonette?”

The [Princess] looked worried as Maviola ushered them into the inn. In short order, she produced sheets of paper. But they were just Lyonette’s notes. They weren’t dated. They had no organizational system tracking each day of the month in neat rows, like food expenses—just a total sum Lyonette roughly calculated. Maviola gave Erin a look.

“In your world, is there no such thing as bookkeeping?

Erin blushed. Maviola looked at Lyonette.

“At least Miss Lyonette has the excuse of never having to manage a budget. [Princesses] don’t. But you’re an [Innkeeper].”

“But I never was good at math—

“Then learn. Give me a quill. Little Mrsha, come here. You can learn this too. This is how you calculate your income.”

In short order, Maviola had drawn up a spreadsheet with neat columns and rows. Each date would have an entry and the expenses would go down on this side, and the incomes…Erin and Lyonette looked at each other.

“That’s so easy!”

“I can’t believe you don’t know how to do this. Well, I have practice. This way you can track more than just expenses. Do you know how to haggle?”

“Uh…maybe?”

“Who provides your milk? Have you shopped around for a better deal?”

“There’s this [Rancher] Gnoll…but look, we have a good relationship with him! I don’t think we need to be mean.

Maviola rolled her eyes.

“And if he’s taking advantage of you?”

“Well, I don’t think he is. Anyways, a good deal is where everyone wins, right?”

“Hah! Wait, are you serious? Okay. How much did you pay for milk last week?”

 

—-

 

Lesson two sucked. But it did point out a few things to Erin. Namely that she could save money and that doing basic budgets wasn’t hard. It was just entering stuff into a spreadsheet. Even so—she didn’t like it.

“Money is important. My House survives on being able to balance our budget. You may have money coming in, but you can always save more. It’s quite clear to me that you’re overpaying for any number of vegetables. You buy from Liscor’s markets.”

“Yeah. So?”

“Buy from Celum. They have larger farms. Liscor is agriculturally poor, hence the price increase. On the other hand, milk is cheaper than Celum’s markets. Thank you, Drassi, was it?”

“Yes, Miss Maviola.”

The panting Drake had run into Celum to get tallies on the market prices, as well as Esthelm and Invrisil’s prices. Maviola snapped her fingers.

“Quill.”

Mrsha handed one to her. The [Lady] showed Erin a tally.

However—these are the prices from Pallass. Produce is just as cheap. That’s because of Oteslia. I’d encourage you to still buy from Celum because you have [Farmers] like this Wailant you can make relationships with. Plus, transport from Pallass takes mana from your door. But do that and you’ll save gold per week.”

“Wow.”

Lyonette’s eyes were shining. She was staring at Maviola like a hero of the fiscal report. The woman tapped her fingers on the table.

“Well…you don’t need to worry that much about money. It’s refreshing not to see so much debt.”

“Does House El have money problems?”

Erin saw both Lyonette and Maviola wince. The [Lady] blushed as she twiddled the quill in her fingers.

“I’ve done my best. But we’re historically bad at managing our money. We have large projects; the last one put us more into debt. Money goes in, money goes out. I’m good at saving money, not spending it. Which is why I won’t tell you how to spend your gold. But I will tell you that you have enough to spend. So—what projects do you have in mind?”

Erin and Lyonette looked at each other.

“Projects?”

Maviola looked sternly at them.

“Money is meant to be used. You have to grow it, not keep it locked away under your bed.”

“I knew that. That’s why it’s buried in the garden.”

The [Innkeeper] was pleased to see Maviola close her eyes for a second in actual pain. To be fair—she’d done that on purpose. Not that she didn’t appreciate Maviola’s help. But she was being bossy. Sort of like—Lyonette. Or Erin herself.

“Please tell me you have plans for the inn? Renovating it is good! But do you have any other designs?”

“Bird wants a ballista.”

Lyonette and Maviola looked at Erin. She shrugged.

“Well, he does. But that’s not on my list. I guess…enchantments? But we never got around to it. It was too expensive and then we couldn’t find an [Enchanter]. Uh—this was back before the magic door.”

“I see. And you want enchantments?”

Maviola saw Erin and Lyonette exchange a glance and then they began speaking over each other.

“Okay, the stone ovens are great, but I hear you can make them magic. I’d love not to have to light them each time—”

“I want a tracking spell on Mrsha—”

“—someone to look at the door—”

“—light spells at night—”

“—something nice instead of the poo smell in the outhouses—”

“—noise-cancelling spells in the bedrooms. Just for privacy’s sake—”

The [Lady] leaned back in the face of the eager voices. She stared at them.

“Then hire an [Enchanter].”

“From where?”

Both looked at her. Maviola opened and closed her mouth.

“Invrisil? Pallass? Set up an appointment and hire them.”

“How?”

Erin’s mystified look made Maviola snap. She stood up.

“Follow me. Do you just not know how to schedule appointments? We’re going to Invrisil. No, not you. Or you. I don’t have time for trouble and you two would both bring it.”

She poked Mrsha and Numbtongue as the two followed. Both looked hurt. Lyonette stood up, flustered.

“I’ll stay with Mrsha, Erin. Are you going to go now?

“It will take fifteen minutes. Come on.”

“Wait! But—wh—I’m not ready!”

Erin found her arm in Maviola’s. The [Lady] dragged her towards the magic door. Erin fought to get free, but Maviola just linked her arm tighter.

“Come on. You have to learn some basic skills.”

“Okay, stop pulling me!”

Blushing, Erin pulled away from Maviola. The [Lady] eyed her.

“Don’t be so formal. Incidentally, you need to fall in love sometime. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

“Excuse me! That’s personal!”

Maviola sighed.

“Youth is wasted on you. Do you not like Drakes or Gnolls? Or perhaps…”

“I’m fine! Geez! Everyone’s so personal!”

In a huff, Erin stalked past Maviola. And then they were in Invrisil. The [Lady] followed. It took her a bit of will to resist paying the silver tax, but Magnolia wasn’t the only [Lady] with authority. Besides, Maviola didn’t have that much coin anymore.

“I couldn’t help but notice that in your memories, you never seem interested in all the fine fellows around you. Especially that young [Necromancer].”

“Pisces? Ew.

“What about the Courier?”

Hawk? He has a fluffy tail, but that’s it.”

“Hm. The Goblin? No, you weren’t attached to him either. But I know I recalled…”

“Stop it! Where are we going?”

The two arguing young women stopped as they left the inn and abruptly—heard a lot of noise. Both halted in the street in time to see the protest.

People were marching and shouting, angry faces lighting up the street. Erin backed up into Maviola. The [Lady] stared.

“What is this?

They turned to the [Bouncer] at the door. Redit was standing there; hand on his club, but trying to be unobtrusive as possible.

“The Golden Triangle, Misses. They’re protesting. Demanding the Mage’s Guild and [Mayor] give them their money back. Haven’t you heard of the protests?”

Erin looked at Maviola.

“There was a riot two days ago. It’s still going on?”

“In Liscor it’s protests too. How bad was it?”

Maviola had been with Olesm the night the news broke. Several buildings had been half-burned. Redit grimaced.

“Nothing bad happened around here, Misses. We took care of trouble. But the Mage’s Guild was under siege until the Watch broke it up. Lots of fighting. They’re still angry.”

“That’s terrible. Those poor people. I told Relc he was an idiot…”

Erin’s face fell. Maviola was nodding, but she glanced at Erin.

“Relc? Your friend was in The Golden Triangle? Come on, we’ll walk past the protest.”

“That’s not wise—”

Redit objected, but Maviola walked through the crowd. So did Erin. The crowd was chanting, angry people ready for a fight. Redit tensed to go after them—but to his surprise, he saw people walking around Maviola and Erin as if they weren’t there.

[Crowd Control]. Maviola looked at Erin.

“You’re using your aura.”

“I know. I just didn’t realize it until now.”

Erin frowned. It was both her Skill and her aura. She felt like she could feel the—flow of the crowd. It would be hard—almost impossible to make them calm. On the other hand, it would be terrifyingly easy to get them to turn into another riot. Maviola glanced at her.

“Lots of smoldering embers here. You feel it too? That’s another use of your aura. Igniting them.”

“I have a Skill that does that.”

“Well, you can make it stronger. But let’s not experiment with this lot. What was the problem with this Relc? Have I met him?”

“Maybe? He’s the big Drake with the spear.”

“Ah, him. So what did he do…?”

As they walked through the streets of Invrisil, leaving the protest behind, Erin explained Relc’s objectionable behavior to Maviola. Even now she grew angry thinking about it.

“He didn’t even get what he was doing was wrong! Until Ryoka and I explained it.”

Maviola gave her a strange look.

“Of course not. Why would he? No one knew. Only someone from your world would have. Why are you so angry at him for not seeing through a cunning trick?”

“I—but he was wrong.”

“But he didn’t know.”

Erin bit her lip and fell silent. Maviola shook her head.

“You’re rather stubborn. And opinionated, Erin Solstice. Rather like me. It’s a disturbing parallel. I wish you weren’t so much my clone. Well—we vary in some ways.”

“I’m your clone? Waitaminute. Hey! I’m not that stubborn! I just have convictions!”

Erin protested and hurried after Maviola. They arrived at their destination after some light bickering. Maviola pushed into the busy guild, which had a double line of Human [Guards], arguing with Erin.

“All I’m saying is that giving is part of negotiations. You refuse to compromise at times. I saw that.”

“I’m flexible!”

“Yes…of course you are…excuse me! A message to Master Hedault, please! He’s still working in Invrisil, isn’t he?”

The [Scribe] at the front desk glanced up at Maviola. He wasn’t having a good day and his tone was rather brusque.

“Yes, Miss. He is. But I’d advise you to go to the Runner’s Guild for any messages.”

“But he is a member of the Mage’s Guild, isn’t he? You have a direct way to contact him. Street Runner messages tend to get lumped together or ignored depending on how important the client is, Erin.”

Maviola half-spoke to Erin. The [Scribe] sighed.

“We do not just deliver messages for our members, Miss…?”

“El. Lady El.”

The [Scribe] dropped his quill. Heads turned across the Mage’s Guild. Maviola stood there, in her casual clothing as the [Scribe] blinked at her.

“L-Lady El? Of the…”

“That’s right. Of the House of El. Need you a truth spell or will you take me at my word?”

Maviola drew herself up. Erin narrowed her eyes. A touch of her aura. But it was mostly the way she held herself. The [Lady] looked at the [Scribe] as he stammered.

“Of course not, Lady El—how can I serve you? Deepest apologies. Did you say Master Hedault?”

“Yes. Inform Master Hedault that I would like my friend to use his services. Miss Erin Solstice of The Wandering Inn. She has a connection as well through the Horns of Hammerad, isn’t that right, Erin?”

“Uh, yes. Hi. I’m Erin.”

The young woman waved at the [Scribe]. He wrote frantically.

“Very good, Lady El. I will have it delivered forthwith. Master Hedault may not reply—he is a peculiar personage—”

“He will for me. House El is acquainted with him and he knows that. Moreover, Miss Solstice owns the magical door. I’m sure you’ve heard of it? Master Hedault will see Miss Solstice soon—have the message sent to Liscor’s Mage’s Guild and then to The Wandering Inn. They will know where it is.”

“Absolutely, Lady El.”

“Good. For your time.”

Maviola put several silvers on the counter. The [Scribe] bowed and she swept out. Erin nearly forgot to follow her.

“Whoa! That was—”

That was like her! But Erin didn’t say that. Maviola had done it in a different way; Erin would have just dropped names. Maviola glanced at Erin.

“You always have to use names to get ahead or you’d be waiting forever, Erin. And that’s how you schedule an appointment. By the end of the week, you’ll get to see Master Hedault. Sooner, I should think. Don’t worry about the payment; if there is any, it will go to House El. They owe me that much. Although—do you have a gold coin?”

“Um. Yes. Do I give it to the [Scribe]?”

Erin dug one out. Maviola blinked at her.

“Scribe? No, I tipped him. This is for me. Tuition fee and for the tip I gave.”

She took the gold coin. Erin blinked at it.

“But you gave him five silver.”

“Mhm. And?”

The two walked on. The [Scribe] frantically worked away as the others murmured. House El. But they weren’t surprised to see a [Lady] here. After all, this was Invrisil. That she was without bodyguards? Well, the young nobles did that too.

But the [Scribe] did notice something as he took the tip and did not charge House El for the minor message. A little note, sent to the Mage’s Guilds. They were looking for…his head jerked up. He stared at Maviola’s black and orange hair. Slowly, his hands froze on the message.

“Setil? What’s wrong? Is she not of House El?”

One of the other [Scribe Mages] whispered to him. Setil jumped. The [Scribe] looked at his co-worker. He shook his head.

“No. Get a City Runner to deliver it to Master Hedault. Mark it as priority from the House of El. I—I need to send a [Message].”

“To whom?”

“The House of El. That’s their runaway. They have a bounty for sightings of her.”

 

—-

 

Maviola and Erin walked through Invrisil, but they weren’t the only people moving through the city. Nor even the only important people on business here.

They were coming. The [Guards] on the gates let the procession of [Riders] through without checking any of them. They stood to attention as nearly three-dozen [Lords] and retainers rode through the city. Each was a local noble. House Terr, House Phi’Deran, House Sanito…

Lord Alman Sanito was riding stiffly with the other [Lords]. Lord Ranga of House Owe was riding with his son. The [Lord] snapped as his son checked his sword.

“Sword away, Mel!”

The young [Lordling], seventeen years of age and hot-blooded, flushed.

“But father—”

“We are not barbarians. Apologies, Lord Alman, you were saying?”

“Are you certain this is wise, Ranga? I still have reservations.”

Lord Alman was nervous. He hadn’t told his wife about this; he had excused it as a ride to settle his nerves. But the other [Lord] just nodded.

“This intolerable [Trade War] has lasted too long, Alman. We’ll all be out of gold in another two weeks. Reinhart must relent.”

Neither man referenced the fact that this was due to the black flowers they’d sent her. They’d had cause to regret that. It had been politically expedient at the time. But…Alman shifted in his saddle.

“We’re like to run into her security.”

“And will they attack us? I don’t think so. Reinhart may be…a Reinhart…but even she’s not that mad. We’ll demand an audience.”

Lord Alman glanced about at the other [Lords]. Some looked as nervous as him, but a few were more hotheaded than he would have cared to see.

“And if we don’t get it?”

“We insist.”

Lord Ranga’s son checked his blade again. It was an…ill-conceived plan. Lord Alman reflected on Magnolia Reinhart. She had been tempered by time, but everyone knew how she’d come to power. Moreover, she might not rule the Assassin’s Guild at this moment, but in the past her family had been known to make their opponents disappear. Or be found in gruesome ways.

Still—they were desperate. And the [Lords] considered this the best option. They were wrong for a few reasons.

Firstly—Magnolia Reinhart’s security tended to be varied. Some had quite a lot of restraint and respect for nobility. Others—did not.

Second—Magnolia Reinhart was unlikely to be impressed even by this group of nobles.

And third? She wasn’t even at her mansion. She was excusing herself from her meeting with Lady Edere at this moment.

But none of that mattered because the [Lords] were set. And as they rode through the city, one of them saw the protests. They halted as the crowds of protesters saw the [Lords].

Justice! Give us back our money!

One of them screamed at the [Lords]. A son unsheathed his sword—but the retainers looked nervously at the thousands of very upset people.

“I say, what’s this all about?”

A tall man shouted uncertainly. One of his retainers muttered in his ear.

“Milord, the Golden Triangle—”

Several of the [Lords], including Alman, blanched with fury. They’d lost gold to that too. Another blow they couldn’t handle with their depleted treasuries. The [Lords] muttered.

“We have our issues with the Golden Triangle! Make way! The Lords of Izril have a complaint to settle with Magnolia Reinhart regarding this [Trade War]!”

Lord Ranga bellowed. The angry mob didn’t really budge. He hesitated. Then Lord Ranga’s expression lit up. He turned to Alman.

“I have a better idea to force Magnolia’s hand. Lord Alman—listen—”

“Ranga—”

The other man began uneasily, but it was too late. Ranga shouted.

Utter your grievances to Lady Reinhart! She is your [Lady]! She should have protected you! Demand your money from her, people of Invrisil!

The crowd listened. They began to boil. Some people nodded; the other [Lords] lent their voices and even Skills to Ranga.

“Justice from Reinhart! March with us!”

The crowd’s energy began to pick up. Lord Alman gulped. Indeed, as Erin had noted—

It just took one spark. Unfortunately, as bad ideas went—

This one wasn’t much better.

 

—-

 

Erin and Maviola noticed the shouting as they were headed back to The Wandering Inn but neither took notice of it at first. They were talking.

“So—so what do I do with this Hedault guy?”

“You tell him what you want and he tells you how much it costs. Try to be polite. There’s nothing to it, Erin. Have you never hired a contractor? A [Mercenary]?”

“Um. No. My parents hired the plumber and painter and stuff.”

Maviola sighed.

“Children. It’s very simple. Why are you so reluctant to do these things?”

“I dunno. I try not to rock the boat. See, it’s been peaceful of late.”

“Not everything you do will turn out into some huge event.”

“Aha, see—you don’t know me that well. I could make a cup of water explode. Probably.”

“So could I. I think you’re just lazy, Erin.”

Lazy? Hey now—that’s fair, but—”

The two were enjoying each other’s company. In a way. Erin felt too close to Maviola after staring into her memory flames if that made sense. She barely knew the woman and even Maviola seemed uneasy by the shared memories.

“You saw Fulviolo. My brother.”

“…Yeah. He died, right?”

“To Goblins. And I killed Antinium. To me, they were The Black Tide. You must understand—I’ve looked at them like that all my life. This is new to me.”

“You should talk to Numbtongue. He’s a swell guy.”

Maviola half-smiled.

“I may. But I don’t know if I’ll stay in Liscor much longer. Long enough to teach you and Olesm, Erin. But I want my ending to be bright. I may ride upon the Antinium Hives. To see them.”

Erin halted in the street.

“Don’t talk about dying.”

“Why not? I’ve lived over ninety years, Erin. You see me now bright and glowing. But I made my peace. Life isn’t meant to be forever. I—still believe that.”

Maviola’s eyes grew troubled for a second. She shivered. Erin bit her tongue.

“But what about Olesm? You’ll break his heart. Why did you like him, anyways?”

“There was much to love. He needed me. And in a way—I needed him. Can’t I fall in love?”

The [Lady] laughed as she looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was troubled.

“How…how do you do that? Fall in love? It’s so hard for me.”

“Ah.”

Maviola halted in the street. She looked back at Erin. Sympathetically. The admission had come out of Erin by accident. She blushed.

“I just meant—”

“You poor burning child. Come here.”

Maviola hugged Erin. It was embarrassing. Erin tried to pull away, but Maviola tried to hug her. People were staring. Erin flushed; it was hard to remember Maviola was so old if you looked at her. Young, radiant, beautiful—Erin envied her confidence.

The two jostled on the street, Maviola laughing, Erin ducking away. And Invrisil was abuzz. A crowd was marching through the streets, now turned against Magnolia Reinhart. At the same time—

Lady Macbeth is being performed tonight! Tomorrow—Elisial featuring Jasi and Wesle of The Players of Celum!

A boy-[Crier] distracted Erin and Maviola. The [Lady] looked up, sighed.

“Dead gods. But that’s something else you made, isn’t it?”

The two looked at a huge poster of Jasi, with some of the cast, drawn in noble poses on a wall as the [Crier] sold tickets. To a show three weeks later, actually.

“Tickets are sold out for tomorrow, Miss! And three weeks on! You’ll want these, though! They’re going up in price! You can resell ‘em too! Some of the profits to go to rebuilding Celum!”

The [Crier] addressed Erin and Maviola, trying to make another sale. Both were amused and he didn’t know why. He watched them trail away as they regarded the posters.

“You know, I have a private booth. Jasi keeps telling me I should go, but I don’t want the attention.”

“Can I go? I’d love to see a play. I saw them perform once. But this is so new.”

Maviola’s voice was wistful. Erin looked at her.

“Why not? I’ll ask ‘em!”

“See, they are an asset. And you don’t really leverage them? Ask for a cut of their profits? I would argue they owe you some.”

“But—but that’s so mean…

“Mean? Erin, you have to think about money like…”

The two were arguing again. They passed by a bunch of women riding horses. And Maviola heard a voice.

“There, you see? I told you that this was the newest thing. Magnolia told me all about it. I didn’t get a chance to watch last time. But we have tickets for tomorrow’s play.”

“Milady Bethal, why tomorrow?”

A group of women was riding with the [Lady] and her escort of shockingly pink [Knights]. Bethal Walchaís laughed.

“I hear the Drake is the best [Actor]. We’ll stay the night. Magnolia might put us up. Do you think so, Thomast?”

The man riding next to her sighed.

“We are dropping in unannounced. With company.”

“Bah. It’s only a few of my friends.”

Bethal turned to the other women riding with them. They were to Bethal what a [King]’s court was—just smaller. Riding friends, commoners or the very fringes of nobility. Bethal turned her head.

“Now, onto the [Seamstress]! I want to see what those styles of clothing Magnolia had were. We’ll take the north by storm!”

The others clapped their hands and laughed. The Knights of the Petal and Thomast patiently accompanied the procession on their outing. And Maviola stared at Bethal’s back.

“Maviola? Maviola, what’s wrong?”

Erin prodded her. Lady Firestarter jumped.

“Oh—I just thought of something to do. Will you excuse me for a second, Erin?”

“For what?”

“Just a second…”

Maviola strode off. Erin saw her march to the nearest building. A shop. She began speaking with the owner. Erin stared at the [Lady] riding horseback. Did Erin know her?

…No. But she looked rather fun, urging her stoic husband into the conversation, laughing—Erin smiled. She turned as Maviola reappeared, panting, with a bucket in her hands. Erin sniffed, recoiled.

“What is that?

“Animal waste. That was a [Beast Tamer]’s shop. Rather lucky, right?”

“Lucky…? Hey, what are you doing with—”

Erin saw Maviola hurry off, clearing a way with the stench from the liquid bucket alone. Bethal Walchaís didn’t notice. And Erin realized—too late that Maviola and her were rather alike.

Different in some ways. For instance—Lady Firestarter had been known in her youth to be rather vindictive. Maviola stopped behind Bethal as one of the Rose Knights blocked her path.

“Excuse me, young woman—”

Sir Kerrig began and gagged at the stench. Maviola smiled at him.

Ignition.

The air ignited. Ser Kerrig reached for his battleaxe as his horse reared, spooked by the fire Maviola conjured around her. The [Lady] stepped forwards as Bethal and the others turned, alarmed by the sudden heat.

She tossed the bucket.

Erin saw the bucket and filthy brown contents go flying. She saw a blur—Thomast, the [Chevalier] blocked Bethal, leaping from his horse. Nevertheless—he was fast, but not fast enough in his surprise. Most of the bucket hit him square in the chest. But a few spatters of…well…stuff hit his wife. Bethal Walchaís blinked down at the stinking excrement on her dress. Her escort shouted in horror. Maviola waved at Bethal.

“Thank you, Bethal Walchaís!”

She blew a kiss. Bethal stared at Maviola.

“Maviola El?”

The young lady ran for it. The [Knights] were cursing, hesitating as they looked at their [Lady]. Bethal touched some of the brown filth, recoiled. She looked at her covered husband. Her dress.

“Thomast?”

“Yes?”

He wiped filth from his face. Bethal smiled and pointed at Maviola’s back.

Kill. Her.

Erin stared as Maviola ran at her. She was so horrified the [Lady]’s shouts didn’t register at first. Then she heard—

Run, you idiot!

Maviola, laughing, raced past Erin as the Rose Knights charged after her, leaping from their saddles. Thomast himself stayed with Bethal despite her shouting bloody murder. Erin ran.

“You maniac! Why did you do that?”

Vengeance!

Maviola retorted. They scrambled through the street as the [Knights] shouted. Erin ran—but the Rose Knights were fast. Trained warriors, they barreled down the street.

Stop. By order of Lady Walchaís!

“This wasn’t my fault this time! It wasn’t my fault this time!

Erin shouted. Maviola was just laughing. She raced between two people on horseback, startling the horses. Erin ducked left. She saw Ser Kerrig running at her, turned—

[Minotaur Punch]!

She threw a punch. Ser Kerrig’s eyes widened. He halted—and blocked her punch with a grunt.

Ow!

Erin’s fist hit his gauntlet. Both recoiled at the impact. The [Knight] stared at her. Erin threw up her hands. She turned around and ran screaming.

Aaaaah! Aaaaaaaah! Maviola, I hate you!

The [Lady] was laughing. She conjured fire and threw it at the [Knights]. Nothing dangerous; but enough to make them and the onlookers scatter. Erin made it five more steps before someone grabbed her shoulder.

“Miss—”

She whirled and booted Ser Kerrig in the groin. All that happened was that Erin’s foot hurt; his enchanted codpiece refused to budge. Even so, the [Knight] winced from the mere act.

“Excuse me, Miss—”

He expertly pulled her arm up and Erin yelped. She tried to stomp on his foot, then backwards head-butt him. The [Knight] ignored all of it, blocking her head with a hand. Erin struggled, but ahead of her she saw Maviola running for the inn.

She never made it. Lady Bethal herself rode down on Maviola and Erin heard an impact. As she was hauled forwards, she saw Maviola lying on the ground. Bethal had knocked her flat. Not hard, but enough to leave the [Lady] breathless.

“I have the other one, Lady Walchaís.”

“Maviola El. We meet again. Thomast, give me your rapier.”

“No, Bethal.”

The furious [Lady of Thorns] stood over Maviola as the [Lady Firestarter] looked up. Maviola gasped after regaining her breath.

“You—deserved it. You petty [Thief].”

“You stole from me first! Thomast—go get more filth. I’ll make Maviola eat it. Her and her—who’s this?”

Bethal looked blankly at Erin. Ser Kerrig shrugged.

“An accomplice, Lady Bethal? I don’t believe she participated.”

“I’m innocent! Hey! That hurts!”

Bethal cast a dismissive glance at Erin.

“Let her go then. Thomast—make it a huge bucket.”

“No, Bethal.”

“Thomast—”

The arguing couple and Maviola being restrained by two [Knights] was interrupted by Erin. Free of Ser Kerrig’s hold, she did the only expedient thing: she ran into the Player’s Retreat, the inn, and disappeared. Bethal glanced at Maviola.

“Much loyalty you inspire.”

“She’s a friend. Hello, Bethal.”

“I have a mind to make you eat the leavings of my horse, Maviola. I was content with pranking you, but this—and poor Thomast? We will have a reckoning.”

Bethal’s eyes flashed as she pointed down at Maviola. Thomast sighed.

“Bethal, leave it alone. Lady El surely deserves her payback. You inconvenienced her for several days.”

Thomast! You should be on my side! You’re covered in—in—excrement!”

The [Lady] stomped a foot as she dismounted. One of her attendants was calling for a cleansing charm. Thomast shrugged as someone waved a wand over his clothes and most of the filth just—fell away. It still stank, though.

“It washes off, dear.”

“Nonsense. I demand—”

The door to the inn swung back open. Bethal, the Knights of the Petal, and Thomast turned and saw—a small army in the doorway.

Erin had made Redit drag the magical door so it overlapped with the actual doorway. So what the [Lady] and her attendants saw was about two dozen guests of the inn and staff aiming the emergency crossbows at them. Erin had a frying pan and a knife in the other hand. She pointed the knife at them.

Stick ‘em up! Let go of Maviola!

The street froze. The Rose Knights reached for their weapons, putting themselves between the inn and Bethal at once. Thomast drew his rapier so fast Erin didn’t see it.

Maviola began to laugh. Bethal glanced at the inn in shock—then at Maviola. Slowly, she stepped back, and the [Knights] holding Maviola let go. Maviola turned.

“I believe I’ll leave it at that, Bethal.”

Smugly, she walked through the doorway. Erin stared at Maviola as the [Lady] winked at her.

“Well done, Erin. Thank you for—”

Erin donked her on the head with the pan. Hard. That was roughly the sound the pan made. Maviola staggered. Bethal blinked.

“You jerk!”

“That hurt!

Maviola glowered. Erin put her knife away—and Maviola kicked her back. Erin got up, outraged.

“You threw poo! You’re a maniac!”

“That was justice! How dare you—”

“Leg hook!”

Erin pulled Maviola’s left leg up. The [Lady]’s eyes went wide and she fell over. Erin pointed.

Mrsha! Get her!

The Gnoll leapt on Maviola, hirsute, her fur making her look like some miniature white mammoth. Maviola shouted, trying not to hurt Mrsha as she pummeled Erin. The [Innkeeper] folded her arms—until she heard the laughter.

Lady Bethal Walchaís was laughing. Behind her [Knights], who were watching the comedy with eyes on the crossbows, the [Lady] was laughing. She guffawed at Maviola as the [Lady Firestarter] finally tossed Mrsha off her.

Bethal doubled over and then looked at Thomast as crossbows were lowered and everyone relaxed. Lyonette looked appalled. Ser Kerrig and the other [Knights] looked extremely wary. Thomast just blinked. Bethal looked at Erin and then at Thomast.

“I like you! I say, do you have anything to wash a dress with?”

Erin looked at Bethal. She glanced at Maviola. Then she fell down as Maviola kicked her legs in.

 

—-

 

The [Lady] was in a good mood. After a quick change from her saddlebags, she sat in The Wandering Inn. And all was forgiven.

Between her and Erin, at least. The [Knights] were not happy. But the crossbows hadn’t even been loaded, a fact Thomast had pointed out. Now, they stood around in the inn.

And Bethal Walchaís had met the legendary [Innkeeper] with the magic door. She clapped her hands with delight as Mrsha offered her a towel.

“What a wonderful Gnoll-child! Hello! What’s your name?”

“She’s Mrsha. She can’t talk. Say hi to the nice [Lady], Mrsha.”

Mrsha signaled ‘hi, nice to meet you.’ Bethal’s eyes widened at the sign language.

“Hello? Was that hello? How terrible! Was it an accident?”

“No, Mrsha was always like this. She said—‘hi, nice to meet you.’ See—she makes words with her hands.”

“Ingenious. Thomast—look!”

“I see her, Bethal. Hello, Miss Mrsha.”

The [Chevalier] bowed slightly. Mrsha sniffed at him. The man looked around.

“We came through the door! During the game of soccer. But I had no idea you owned it. Maviola, you’re staying here?”

“Not here.”

Maviola was glowering at Erin. The two had kept kicking each other until Lyonette had separated them. Erin shook a fist around Mrsha. Maviola was crazy! Nothing like her. Who threw poo? Well, Bird. But he didn’t count.

“Amazing. And this is actually the origin of the Players of Celum?”

“Yup. We actually have another theatre group. See?”

Erin pointed down the [Grand Theatre]. The Players of Liscor were rehearsing A Doll’s House, completely inoculated to the madness of the inn. Lady Bethal looked around, eyes shining.

“What a splendid inn. An inn at a crossroads, thanks to the magical door! And we’re actually at Liscor? That’s hundreds of miles!”

“Well, it is a magic door. It’s nothing special.”

Erin puffed out her chest, slightly proud of the [Lady]’s wonder. Maviola whispered in Erin’s ear.

“So a magical door that teleports you four hundred miles is nothing special, but Potions of Youth don’t exist, hm?”

The [Innkeeper] scowled at Maviola’s good point. She saw Bethal Walchaís staring around.

“Sorry. For the crossbows. They were unloaded. I just wanted to scare you. I thought you were gonna beat Maviola up.”

“I probably would have settled for tossing a bunch of excrement over her.”

Bethal muttered. Thomast sighed. He bowed to Erin.

“My name is Thomast Veniral. Lady Bethal’s husband. I apologize for the misunderstanding, Miss Solstice.”

“Oh! That’s alright. I’m uh, sorry for kicking and punching that guy.”

Erin pointed at Ser Kerrig. The [Knight] was staring at Numbtongue. He jumped, distracted.

“What? Ah, no damage done, Miss Solstice. Indeed not. Lady Walchaís…”

“I see it, Kerrig. Hm.”

Bethal’s eyes locked on Numbtongue. She glanced at Erin.

“I understand Magnolia came here and made quite a fuss. She warned me to stay away from this inn. Something to do with unpleasantness?”

“Oh. Yeah. She’s banned. And so are her jerk friends.”

Erin folded her arms, scowling darkly. Bethal hesitated.

“…Would that include me? I count myself as Magnolia’s great friend. But I don’t bear you any ill-will, Miss Solstice.”

The young woman faltered. She looked at Bethal’s earnest entreaty. And thought of Ryoka.

“Um. Er…well now…Maviola did poo you.”

“I did what?”

Maviola made an outraged noise. Bethal laughed again and stood up.

“Indeed! Won’t you let me look around at least? Or even stay the night? Thomast, imagine it! We could visit this Liscor or even Pallass and be in Invrisil tomorrow for the play!”

“Perhaps, dear. If the inn has room.”

Erin looked at the large group following Bethal, but Lyonette pushed forwards.

“We do! And the third floor has the larger suites, Lady Walchaís! We’d be honored by a stay!”

“There we are then. Someone cancel our reservation at the other inn.”

Bethal clapped her hands. Erin and Lyonette blinked. But Bethal was so spontaneous. She rose, looking at Maviola.

“And are we square, Maviola?”

The two [Ladies] regarded each other challengingly. Erin felt them clashing—but invisibly. Maviola inhaled, but sighed.

“I suppose so. Quits, Bethal Walchaís?”

“Quits.”

They shook hands, smiling with their teeth. But at that moment one of the Fortress Beavers with a bunch of the kits wandered out of the kitchen. And Bethal Walchaís nearly fell out of her chair laughing again.

It was one of those days. Erin Solstice was looking at Maviola. And she asked, with very little guile—

“So is Walchaís like—a big family? I mean, I know Magnolia is from the Reinhart House and Maviola…”

She was counting two plus one Bethal. That was almost Ryoka’s goal! And here Erin hadn’t been sure if she could help! Wait till Ryoka heard about this! Bethal looked amused and pained. Lyonette and Maviola were quietly horrified.

“I’m the last of my line, actually. My entire family perished during the Second Antinium Wars.”

I’m so sorry. Do you want a cookie?”

Madness. And at that moment, from the street outside, there was a shout. Maviola, Bethal, and Erin all turned to stare a moment before the voice. And the saw the riot.

Magnolia Reinhart!

Lord Ranga rode down the street, leading a furious crowd of people. The Wandering Inn saw him pointing as men and women—mostly Humans—marched. The magical door in the common room reflected the street filled with hundreds of people following one [Lord].

And he was far from the only one. The entire inn went silent. And Maviola’s adventures with Erin, her existing petty quarrel with Bethal—all of it—was replaced by this.

“What’s happening?”

Lyonette looked for Mrsha. The Gnoll was already standing by the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door as loud, angry voices filled the inn. She held a beaver kit in her paws as the others fled through it. Lady Bethal rose.

“What is happening?”

Everyone saw the crowd moving through the street. Grabbing weapons, torches, and  beginning to march as one angry unit. Not just a protest, but a single emotion. And Erin felt her stomach sink as Maviola echoed what she already knew:

“That’s a riot.”

 

 

 

Update: I’ve cut the ending bit because I really didn’t like it. I may add in the scene in a different way or just cut it, but my conclusion was that it was too poor. If you’ve already read it…uh…forget? But editing is important! This is why we do these web serial things!

Author’s Note: Hm. I don’t know if I like this chapter. I did my best! But first-chapters back are always weird. And best laid plans all that. We went off-script but not necessarily for the world. I’m a biased perspective after finishing a chapter. I’ll let you tell me how much you enjoyed it. And of course, the second chapter makes it all different!

Hi! My break did me some good! As you can tell. I wrote more than I planned. Possibly too much. But we’re back. The story continues.

This monthly week-off seems to work. I may want to do a longer break every 3 months, though. Or…I dunno. The point is that I find myself needing more time off. I’ve gotten weaker.

But I do like writing too. And Erin’s interaction with Maviola, the changing inn—it’s Liscor for now. But what will the next chapters hold? More madness, probably.

For this chapter, I’m featuring…rats. Rats by JohnDoe and Brack and Tomeo, all of whom gave the horrible scene from Wistram’s chapter life!  You’ll know what I mean. Warning–it is sad!

Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!

https://ko-fi.com/brack

https://ko-fi.com/johndoe020

 

[Witches], Light, Blessings, [Ladies] and more by Tomeo!

 

Rats, Ryoka and Fierre, Me?, Rock Crabs, and more by Brack!

 

Amerys, Rats, Geneva?, Inky, and more by JohnDoe!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.29 B

(The Last Tide graphic novel will be coming out in August! More details in the Author’s Note below and on the page here. Also, the author is on break until June 23rd for Patreons, the 27th for Public readers!)

 

Wistram Academy had endured since time immemorial. It had been occupied, knelt to foreign kingdoms, put under siege—but still, the academy remained. And it was now known as an independent power.

The isolated, but not unconnected home of [Mages] the world over. Some said the premier school of magic and while there were dissenters—Wistram was the name you thought of.

At the moment, it was also considered a shadow of its former glory—at least, to those who could remember what that glory had been. And there were few left.

Wistram was still the largest mage-school in the world. Which spoke, perhaps, to the decline of magic everywhere. After all, as Wistram waned, so too did [Mages]. Because Wistram’s graduates became the teachers, protectors, soldiers, and professionals across the world.

That was the fault of Archmage Zelkyr, who had created his ‘test’. The Golems he had left still served Wistram faithfully. And it had only been about two hundred years since the decline. Plenty of time to recoup.

In fact—that was happening. Wistram Academy had a secret. It had many secrets; the [Mages] traded in them like a second currency. But the largest one, the thing that was changing the academy at this moment was this:

There was a second world. Earth. A land of technology and no magic. An entire planet, filled with knowledge and ideas and nations. All Humans, apparently.

It was Wistram’s grand secret. They had collected the children of Earth, who had been sent to their world. They were trying to keep it secret; even now, [Mages] were receiving orders or polite ‘requests’ to return home. Half of Wistram’s Archmages didn’t even know the secret or if they did—it had not come from within the academy.

The Earthers, as they were known—were gathered in Wistram. Found, or uncovered and brought here to be safe. After all—they possessed important knowledge. And the academy thought of itself as an appropriate gatekeeper for said knowledge.

Even now, the greatest minds gathered, to learn Earth’s mysteries. Wise men and women of each species listened and discussed these seeds of new understanding, that they might create something the likes of which neither world had ever seen.

…Well. That is what they said. The truth looked a bit different to Aaron.

 

—-

 

Space. The final frontier. The backdrop was made of black canvas dotted with stars. Also—an image of the Earth, drawn into a solar system with the ellipses illustrating the orbit of planets around the sun. A solar system.

It was currently lying on the floor. The carefully-painted canvas was dented where the young woman had tossed it. The [Mages] slowly got up; they’d dodged the diagram as she’d thrown it at them.

“The world is round. All of you can go to hell. It’s round and I can prove it!”

Elena snapped. She raised the pointing stick like the wrath of science and a few of the audience near the front backed up as she swished it.

“Miss Elena—please. We’re all for academic—er—knowledge, but let’s stick to the facts, please. Not conjecture.”

A [Mage] called out from the front. He had a huge, brown, bushy beard and liked to stroke it. But he wasn’t old or distinguished enough to make it work and it rather looked like he had an aggressively fat brown raccoon stuck under his chin that he was stroking.

Elena pointed the stick at him.

“Shut up. The world is round. That’s not a question for debate. It’s science. Fact! We’ve been to space!”

The [Mages] muttered amongst themselves. A few of them glanced at the diagram of space dismissively. And a young man slowly raised his head.

Aaron Vanwell, known to many as ‘Blackmage’, wasn’t learning anything new here. Or rather—he was learning Elena had a strong throwing arm and a temper almost as bad as Cara’s. But he’d agreed to sit in on the lectures as a—mediator.

“Excuse me! Silence in the audience until Miss Elena is finished her presentation. Miss Elena—please continue.”

An authoritative voice rang out. A half-Elf [Mage], a member of Wistram’s Council and a powerful [Mage] in her own right, Teura, a member of the Centrists under Archmage Feor, glared about until the [Mages] were quiet.

There were about sixty in the room. And they had all fought for the honor to be here, despite their disparaging sniffs and muttering. Not all [Mages] could attend these Earth-lectures; students were absolutely banned. But those trusted few—largely Centrists, but Revivalists and other factions as well—were listening as Elena pointed at another diagram.

“This is Earth.”

They squinted at the round planet, showing several sides; Elena had not just drawn one aspect, but the globe from multiple angles. And created a modern map, showing the world in full.

It was well done and Aaron could see she’d worked hard on it the entire week with the help of an [Artist]. But Elena was close to throwing it again and a [Mage] in the front muttered a shield spell.

“Why is it a circle? It makes no sense! That has to be wrong, Miss. Look! You’d fall off the bottom.”

One of the [Mages] looked affronted as she peered at the picture. She had oddly large eyes, and she was a Drake. She wore spectacles to keep her eyes nearsighted; she was a [Scrier], from the Scriptel faction. Bookworms, essentially. Elena sighed.

“It is what the Earth would look like from afar, Miss [Mage]. You see—as I’ve been explaining, the earth is round. And so is your planet.”

More dissent. Her eyebrow switched.

“No, no, shut up. Its round and I can prove it. This is the full scale of the planet. We can’t see it because for our intents and purposes, everything looks flat. It’s about perspective. Can’t you understand that? Even a bird can’t understand what a mountain looks like.”

“Excuse me, I resent that!”

A Garuda huffily folded his wing-arms. Elena stared at him and sighed.

“Sorry. Let me go from the beginning. There are multiple proofs for the world being round. Here is the first one. It’s the theory of light and shadows. These are illustrations of the moons from your world. Both of them. See how the light is moving across them?”

She produced another canvas and knocked the other one out of the way. The [Mages] stared at the phases of both of this world’s moons. Aaron nodded approvingly; he’d suggested that. Elena looked at him as if to say ‘it’s your fault I have to deal with these flat-earthers’, and went on.

“See how the shadows move across the moons? In a curve. That indicates the moons aren’t flat discs in the sky, but that the sun is moving across a rounded body, hence the curve. Now, I know you could say that the moons are high up in the sky and we can’t prove that. But if you’ll allow me?”

She produced an orange. Every eye fell on it as Elena raised a magical wand.

“[Light].”

Her command of the magic was weak since she’d begun learning only recently, but the spell was elementary. The ball of light shone brightly, and the Drake with spectacles shaded her eyes. But everyone saw the shadow on the orange.

“Curved.”

One of the [Mages] muttered reluctantly. Aaron turned and saw a Minotaur, rather slim and unfit by his race’ standards, which meant that he was still huge, writing down notes. A few others nodded.

“But that’s an orange. Miss, the moons aren’t so similar. We can’t assume they’re rounded. We just see them from afar.”

Mage Rievan of the Libertarians pointed out with a slight sneer. Elena glared at him.

“I have more proof. Look. The world is round, but so vast that we cannot see from our perspective how round it is. And yet—there are more examples of how it is round. Consider this—a shadow should be the same length everywhere, yes?”

The [Mages] looked at each other. Some shrugged; they had never given the idea much thought. Elena went on.

“If the world were flat, we could assume that shadows would remain constant. However, this is not the case. Here are two shadows, measured at the academy and another at a Mage’s Guild in Baleros. Both measure the same object; a two-meter tall stick. That’s…about six feet. But see how they differ? The [Mages] retook the measurements multiple times, and yet no shadow is the same length.

She had two numbers on the board and more figures from other spots around the world. Elena turned to her audience. After a moment, the bearded man raised a hand.

“…So what? They’re just shadows. That doesn’t prove anything. This is all circumstantial, Miss Elena.”

The other [Mages] nodded. Aaron closed his eyes and Elena grabbed the canvas to throw it. They were unconvinced. A few [Mages] just blinked at the numbers and then left the room to see the presentation on cooking, or do something else. Elena’s brow furrowed deeper.

And yet, it was Teura who clapped her hands briskly.

“Archmage Feor was quite impressed with the results, Magus Telim. There is a factual understanding behind the shadow-theory.”

“And yet, not one we can see with our eyes. High Mage Teura, I respectfully submit that we cannot believe—a—an innocent tale like this! I’m sure the people of Earth believe that their world is round. But there is a fundamental flaw in Miss Elena’s presentation.”

The man clasped his hands over his belly. He pointed at the first diagram of the solar system.

“Miss Elena, you claim our world revolves around the sun, along with other celestial bodies. But—that cannot be. For, under your theory, the earth is constantly rotating—like some child’s spinning top.”

Here he chuckled, and a few of other [Mages] joined in. Elena turned red.

“We are!”

Telim waved this away. He was middle-aged, in his late fifties at least. His brown beard was a symbol of his good hair—it might have been dyed.

“Yes, yes, and tilting so that each axis is exposed to the sun and thus creating seasons. In your world, this theory makes sense. But why in our world does winter come to all continents at once? By rights, we should enjoy winter in Terandria while Baleros is hot. But that is not so. Cold is brought by the Winter Sprites, not some event of sunlight so forth.”

That stumped Elena for a moment. She hadn’t thought of that, and nor had Aaron. The young man watched Elena thinking for a moment. She slowly replied.

“I…don’t know that. That might be a—magical effect. But I can prove the earth is round. Listen—I have a third proof. It’s about height.”

The [Mages] saw Elena drag another canvas up onto the easel and point to it.

“If you stand on a cliff, you can see farther than you can on the ground into the distance.”

“Yes, because you’re standing on a cliff.”

A Selphid snorted. The others tittered and Elena glared. They fell silent as she tried to explain.

“No! If the world were flat, it wouldn’t work like that. You’d be able to see the same distance because without curvature…”

“Nonsense! That’s not how it works! Height is height. That’s why we see further. Your logic is all wrong!”

A Garuda called out, his feathers ruffled. Elena pointed at him.

“Shut up! Didn’t you hear me talk about gravity? You know that part is correct!”

“She’s right there. Gravity comes from all objects. Mass is gravity.”

A Centaur frowned thoughtfully. The Garuda glared at him.,

“Maybe about that. But how does this Human explain the end of the world?

“By saying it’s not the end of the world!”

Elena shot back. The Garuda just shook his head and turned around.

“You have not looked upon the abyss that lies at the end of the sea, Miss Elena. Nor seen The Last Tide, rushing into oblivion. That is the end of all things. So long as that exists, I could never believe the earth is round.”

“Maybe it’s just a deep hole? Look, you can’t have a flat earth. Or else we’d all—how would gravity work? Surely we’d be able to tunnel into the other side and fall! None of those things exist. Listen—”

Elena wavered. But she had lost her audience. Most left the room set up for her lecture, shaking their heads. A few remained, asking pointed and interested questions.

A few believed. The Centaur who knew about gravity, a Lizardgirl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen but who was definitely an accredited [Mage], a frowning group of half-Elves who were part of the Centrists—all asked about more proofs of Elena’s world.

“We have satellites orbiting our world. They hang in space. Space is devoid of gravity—or rather, we are outside of the Earth’s pull and atmosphere so the effect is barely noticeable. It is possible to leave this world and we would see it as round. However, the ability to do that is…difficult.”

“Exceedingly so. Even a [Flight] spell sees the [Mages] fall out of the sky, suffocate, or simply find themselves unable to fly higher.”

“Ah! That’s because of atmosphere. You see, it thins?”

Elena brightened up as Aaron fidgeted. The remaining [Mages], less than a dozen, quizzed the young woman.

“But why is the [Flight] spell unable to go higher? It is magical, not limited by atmosphere.”

“I…don’t know. Maybe magic only works in the atmosphere? Or the flight spell needs air?”

The [Mages] muttered. Three more left, shaking their heads. Elena kept talking to the others. But her lecture only lasted twelve more minutes.

Aaron was helping himself to some beef wellington, or Wistram’s version of it, which was an appetizer if you could believe it or not. There were also chips and dip, any number of cheeses—

Wistram did not mess about when it came to food. Aaron felt certain he’d gained weight. But casting spells also helped him shed calories like no one’s business so it evened out. He saw Elena stalking towards him, her presentation done.

“Oh my god. I want to kill them all.”

She muttered at Aaron and grabbed an entire bowl of guacamole and fried chips. He glanced sideways at her as Elena ate savagely.

“I thought it was good—”

“Hah. I didn’t even get to the math! They don’t want to listen! If they can’t see it, they think it doesn’t exist! Like electricity—all the [Aeromancers] and other [Mages] were convinced you couldn’t make electricity or store it without magic. But then you invented a battery and they fell over themselves saying they knew it all along.”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, I didn’t know how to make one until George and Eun helped me make it.”

The young woman shook her head. Aaron couldn’t help but keep glancing sideways at her.

Elena was stunning. And in a world where anyone could use an illusion spell, that mattered. She was…a [Beautician].

A job from her world, but her class in this one. Elena had graduated from a university in Greece in a two-year program. She was older than Aaron by nearly half a decade. And she was a member of the Centrists faction.

Or rather, an asset. Teura cleared her throat as she approached Elena stuffing her mouth.

“Miss Elena, the presentation is over. Allow us to escort you back to your area.”

She glanced at Aaron, extremely displeased. He winced; Teura still held a grudge from when he’d been under her authority and gave her the slip. He was a member, or again, an asset of the Revivalists. And the Centrist and Revivalists often clashed.

“I’ll go after I see the other projects, Teura. Is that alright?”

Elena turned her head and gave the half-Elf a smile. Teura hesitated—but she was under orders.

“Of course.”

She tried to smile and incline her head. Elena was one of seven young people from Earth in the Centrist faction’s grasp. And while they could limit their interaction with other factions—there was only so far the Earthers would be pushed. Elena was especially stubborn and the [Mages] were being cooperative rather than pushy.

Too—Elena was also a lot better at subtly influencing people than Aaron. She glanced at him as Teura stepped back, hovering about awkwardly.

“I spent one week working on this presentation. I doubt I’ll do it again if all I get is skepticism.”

She didn’t raise her voice, but out of the corner of his eye, Aaron saw Teura wince. She pursed her lips and he saw Elena wink at him. By now, they were accustomed to speaking while knowing they were being listened to.

“Let’s check on the other projects. I think Saif is doing his battle-games.”

She nodded and took another fistful of chips. As she did, Aaron saw her check her pocket.

“Damn. I’m low on gold. Spot me a tip?”

“For who?”

She gave him a look.

“The Golems. Obviously.”

Aaron hesitated. But then he dug in one pocket and produced a gold coin. Elena grabbed it.

“Thanks. I’ll pay you back.”

She had as much of the refreshments as she wanted. But money was in short supply. Elena had been—and would be—paid for putting on this lecture. Not much since most of the [Mages] hadn’t enjoyed it as much.

But she’d still have fistfuls of gold and an allowance of magical trinkets, low-level scrolls or lessons from her faction. Which she could turn into secrets.

Wistram Academy rewarded the Earthers for their efforts in that way. Aaron had no concept of gold—but he gathered they were being paid lavishly. Or scraps, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, secrets were worth more in Wistram and the Earthers had quickly learned they could amass small fortunes to pursue their activities.

They were captive. But they weren’t prisoners. That was a good way of describing them. Now, Aaron saw Elena trot over to a waiting shape.

A clay man. Or rather—porcelain. He had been fired and his form created to be a nondescript figure, his clothes and features given color by delicate brushes. But that had been centuries ago; his paint was flaking and faded in places.

“Here. A tip. Thank you for setting up and cleaning up. You can get rid of the paintings.”

Elena offered the servant-Golem the gold coin. It just looked at it. Slowly, it took the coin. And then bowed.

“Miss Elena, you do not need to tip the golems. They clean and perform tasks as necessary.”

Teura was distressed as well as aghast by Elena’s insistence on tipping. The young woman looked at her.

“I know I don’t have to.”

“Then—the Golems are not like us, Miss Elena. They do not have personalities. They do not level.”

The half-Elf [Mage] said it as if that decided everything. The Golem began moving chairs to one side, to sweep and clean the classroom. Not swiftly, but not slowly either, and it would continue at that pace until all the work was done. Blackmage, Aaron, edged out of its path.

Elena smiled at Teura.

“They don’t think like we do. And they don’t level. That’s true, Miss Teura. But they might one day. Or did you miss Aaron’s presentation on Artificial Intelligence?

The half-Elf gulped. She fell silent and paled; the remaining [Mages] in the room eyed the golem and then Aaron. He looked at Elena as she spoke.

“I believe in being kind either way, Miss Teura. Besides. As I understand it, the Golems of Archmage Zelkyr rule Wistram. Not [Mages]. When that changes, I’ll stop tipping.”

She smiled at the gaping half-Elf. And then took her plate and walked out of the room. Aaron whistled softly.

Damn. Elena had no chill. But then—she was one of many people from Earth. And if Wistram thought they would all dance to their tune, they’d been sorely mistaken.

This was Wistram Academy. And if the academy held Earthers and learned from them—well, the young people were learning too.

 

—-

 

The air was hot with smoke. He crouched in amid the fumes, trying not to cough. And the enemy—was everywhere.

Flashes of light lit up the battleground. People cried out in pain, shouting instructions.

They were coming for him. The young man checked his weapon. The gun was light in his hands. He took a breath, and then twisted the ring on his finger. He left his cover and ran.

I see someone! Invisible! The smoke! There—

Click, click, click. With each shot, he heard a snap, a sound—impacts. Cries of pain.

Ow!

“Hit, hit!

Spells flashed after him. Saif dove. He’d already known where his cover would be. The attack spells missed him, eating into the dirt. And he was already crawling.

“Let’s get him.”

“No, you—I’m out.”

“My shield’s on. Cast homing missiles!”

The spells hit the earth as the group of [Mages] debated hotly. But Saif wasn’t there. He was crawling. Ahead of him lay a huge structure with multiple areas for cover. He leapt up, grabbed the edge as he let the gun rest in the holster on his back. Pulled himself up, and then crouched.

He deactivated the invisibility ring. The [Mages] were looking around, trying to figure out if he was still in cover.

“Hey! If you’re hit you have to announce it!”

One of the younger [Mages] shouted. She aimed her wand at the place Saif had been and launched another volley of homing arrows. He rolled his eyes. He knew that. He was no cheater.

But this was his game, not theirs. One of the [Mages] announced.

“I see no magic aura. I think he ran.”

The others murmured. Saif grinned. They had no idea. They were trusting to him using the [Invisibility] spell. But why did you need a spell when you could just hide?

He crouched behind the small window, peeking out as the [Mages] advanced. They had forwards-facing shields of magic and were moving in a group, overlapping their shields. Idiots.

One of them was at least intelligent enough to be scouting around more. He raised his wand—he was a Dwarf of all things. A [Wizard], to judge by his reliance on his magical artifacts.

“Let me see if he’s ahead. [Heat Vision]—oh no—

He turned his head and saw Saif too late. The young man leaned out of the window. His gun rumbled as his rifle, on full-auto, discharged a magazine.

Ow! Ow! Gaah—

The [Mages] screamed as the projectiles hit them. They did not fall to the ground, but one clutched at his back.

“Hit! Hit! How did he get behind us—!?”

They saw Saif leaping out the window. He was already repositioning. More [Mages] were coming to check on the shouting. They had magical shields, wands at the ready—and spells. One even leapt forwards using [Haste].

They were slaughtered. Saif shot, clinging to shadows, outmaneuvering them with the rings that allowed him to jump, turn temporarily invisible, or just sprint at superhuman speed. He had all of the ring’s powers memorized and had practiced with them extensively. And his gun—their wands were quick. But he had a gun. And each time it barked, they died.

…Of course, not actually died. It was just an airsoft gun.

 

—-

 

“Damn. They’re getting slaughtered.”

Aaron whistled as he joined the spectators in the enchanted glass viewing area where they could watch the [Mages] fighting in the massive battleground Saif had set up for his ‘project’. Like a science fair’s project, only with nigh-unlimited budgets—

If you could demonstrate to your faction why they should fund you. In this case—Saif had an airsoft gun from his world. He was a good player—close to professional, a veteran of many war-games. The young man from France had claimed that with a smaller team he could wipe out any number of Wistram’s vaunted [Battlemages] or combat-[Mages].

And so far, he’d ‘killed’ over twenty. They emerged from the smokey area, which was set up with actual trees grown by [Green Mages], artificial buildings, even a sewer system and lakes—all in one of Wistram’s rooms.

“Those damn pellets hurt! One nearly put out my eye!”

A [Mage] was complaining loudly as he rubbed at his back. Aaron felt for him; he’d been in an airsoft game with the guns just once, and you could draw blood with them. And if you were hit in the eye?

Well, part of the problem was that Saif’s airsoft pellets weren’t cheap plastic but copies, made of metal, clay, resin or other substitutes. They still fired since Saif’s gun wasn’t a gun at all, but an air-powered version that propelled the ammunition with the power of compressed air. But even his gun was—

Crack, crack, crack! Elena pointed.

“That’s Saif! He’s on the run!”

Bright flashes of light illuminated the smoke. Saif’s team had deployed countless smoke spells to give them the benefit of cover. Now, Saif was visible for a second as arrows of light, beams of magic—even a giant orb which floated and detonated, spraying the entire area with light—chased him into the sewers.

“How was he not hit?

“He’s anticipating the attacks! Spells are slower, ladies and gentlemen! And as you can see—even this fake ‘gun’ is enhanced with our magic!”

Crack. Saif’s gun sounded and someone began swearing and screaming as he nailed a [Battlemage] in the ass from behind. Saif was moving fast thanks to the rings he’d been given. And his rifle might not be using gunpowder—

“I think you cranked up the gas in those enchanted canisters too much, Aaron. Holy fuck, this is fun.”

Someone exclaimed from a seat with a bucket of popcorn. Aaron and Elena turned and saw George and Eun laughing and watching the carnage.

“Hey guys. How long has this been going on?”

“One hour. They keep replaying. The [Mages] are salty. Look—Saif’s about to ambush them—ooh!

The rifle unloaded another magazine. [Mages] clutched at their back and Saif hit one of them six times on the legs. Aaron winced.

“They’re working? The enchanted canisters?”

Airsoft guns ran on compressed gas. Until recently, Aaron hadn’t cared to know how they were made. But they were made of green gas, a type of propane, which was used to propel the projectiles. It had been a pain to figure out a way to copy it, especially since Saif had only had two magazines left and been running low on gas when he’d been teleported out of his airsoft game and into another world.

But Nailihuaile herself had worked with an [Aeromancer] to compress air into the gun. And then she’d had to enchant the rifle to prevent it from actually exploding from the increased pressure. That, plus the tiny pellets they’d commissioned and figured out how to load meant.

Dead gods! It’s in my skin! It hurts! Ow—ow—

A moaning [Mage] was actually carried off the field. His leg was a mess of blood. Some of the Wistram [Mages] in the audience looked faint. But Saif kept hunting the other [Mages].

They got him in the end, but only after he’d taken down nearly three dozen. The trick was that Saif dodged and hid and ran away the instant he thought he might actually be in danger of being struck by a single spell; the [Mages] did not. They weren’t nearly as athletic, or as used to the idea of being shot despite their shields.

But they were just as competitive.

“Another round! If we could use full-body shield spells, we’d have him!”

A Drake [Mage] slammed his fist into his palm as he argued with a Dullahan. Beatrice, of the Revivalists, folded her arms.

“We cannot allow that, Mage Cekis. If we were able to make a spell that drops the shield after, say, three shots, we could allow it. Archmage Nailihuaile and our other [Enchanters] are working on—game artifacts—but until then…”

“Three shots? But his little gun-thing can spit dozens per second! That’s not fair!”

The Drake shouted, outraged. Beatrice was unmoved.

“A real ‘gun’ can do the same, sir. And a high-level from Terandria’s Hunter’s Guild can do the same. An [Archer] only needs one [Piercing Shot]. Or is that not true?”

The [Mage] hesitated. Some of the other [Mages] muttered.

“That damn speed. I was sure I hit him.”

“You don’t weave around enough, Battlemage Decul. Your spells work well—but you’re too stationary. I’ll just run away if I think I’m going to be hit. Never attack if you’re worried about being counterattacked.”

Saif laughed. He had a few scorch marks on the enchanted leather armor he wore; some of the [Mages] cast actual [Light Arrow] spells. But he was in great form. The French [Gun Scout] checked his rifle, examining all the parts with practiced ease. Aaron saw him touch-counting the ammunition on his belt.

“I’m nearly out of ammunition. I can do one more round. Any takers?”

The ones who’d been playing hesitated, but there was no shortage of younger [Mages] eager to take Saif on. Unlike Elena’s lecture, which had been classified as experienced [Mages] only, this was open to all students. They didn’t know what Saif’s weapon was, but they were all too keen to prove they were as good as any ‘adventurer’. Which is what they thought he was.

Saif took them to bits. Elena offered the guac around and Eun declined while George took some. The young Korean man shook his head.

“They are overconfident, yeah?”

He nudged George, his best friend and the classmate he’d been transferred to this world with, out of a Freshman introductory college course. George, the amiable South Carolinian, nodded.

“That’s right, Eun. Overconfident.”

The [Mages] hadn’t ever been in a life-and-death scenario. Most didn’t even try to dodge. They just put up shield spells and went on the attack, blasting away enthusiastically at the other teams. Meanwhile, Saif, while not a soldier or any kind of law enforcement from Earth—still knew how combat was supposed to work.

This time Saif ran out of ammunition and switched to the wand he’d been given. He and his team actually won, despite being half the size of the other teams.

“It’d be different if we could use [Fireball] spells! Mage Rievan, that’s not fair!

A young man from Terandria, Charles de Trevalier, complained loudly. He was white-faced, having needed a healing potion. Saif had nailed him in the jaw eight times after the noble had refused to quit after his first shot. Aaron grinned, but furtively. He didn’t like Charles.

“I have to protest, Mage Beatrice. This little—diversion isn’t a fair representation of Wistram Academy’s abilities.”

Mage Rievan of the Libertarians scowled at Beatrice. The Dullahan was unmoved; he was her superior in age and influence in Wistram, but she was a secretbroker. And also, a member of the Revivalists.

“This is a simulation, Mage Rievan. It is meant to teach [Mages] the limitations of their ability in battle. We don’t simulate the smoke and flames [Fireball] spells could cause. And if Mage Charles had cast a [Fireball] in that corridor, the back blast would have killed him.”

“Then I’d cast [Lightning Bolt]! This damn game is pointless! Timbor, with me!”

Charles snapped. He and a group of Libertarians stomped out of the simulation, covered in welts. They were the mostly-Human faction led by Archmage Viltach who were mostly concerned with Terandrian affairs.

“Asses. I can’t believe they like you, Eun.”

Elena glared after them. She glanced at Eun. The South Korean [Student] shrugged, awkwardly.

“They are…polite. They like me. Because I am Human.”

“I guess that matters more than the fact that Eun’s from Korea. Nice to see.”

George quipped amiably. He wasn’t part of Eun’s faction. Both had been rescued from the [Pirate] ship where they’d been captured after a raid on the harbor where they’d been working as [Scribes]. The Wistram team had followed them and rescued both, but the factions in Wistram had fought and the Libertarians had claimed Eun—the Sedoli group, George.

“How’re you two being treated? Any issues?”

Eun shook his head, but George hesitated.

“I am very good, thank you, Elena.”

“George?”

Aaron and Elena looked at him. They were both more influential—Aaron because he was the first Earther, Elena because she was from Cara’s group. She had travelled with the [Popstar] of Terandria. George shuffled his feet.

“I—the Sedolis are great, really. But they’re a bit…creepy?”

He lowered his voice. Most of the [Mages] were watching the clean up or asking Saif if his gun was really that deadly in actual combat—whether he wanted to join their faction, or just have a more private demonstration with some of their combat-mages, etc. The other Earthers crowded around George.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re just so—you know? Obsessed with Golems? Half of the students—they ask whether I think their Golems look natural. They’re nude. And the other half move about or just—stand there. Watching me.”

George shuddered. He, like Aaron, was from America. Different states, but the two had a strong connection nevertheless. The Sedoli faction had him, though. And they were—

Golem-makers. The same group that Archmage Zelkyr had once been part of. They were in decline, but still a strong group. They maintained and made new Golems, often selling their work.

They were indeed creepy. The hallways of the academy where they’d staked their claim were often littered with unfinished parts of Golems. If you walked into some of their storage rooms where finished projects from masters or journeymen were kept—you’d see dozens of mannequin-like figures. Who of course, followed you and stared at you.

The worst ones asked questions at night. Aaron had nearly shat himself the first time he wandered into Sedoli territory and the wall had asked if he was lost.

“One of the new apprentices made a spider-Golem the other week. It was huge.

The young man muttered, holding his knees and turning pale. Eun patted him on the back.

“Maybe we can switch? Alice wants to change factions.”

“That’s because she’s a loudmouthed idiot who can’t handle Selphids. Let her switch with you, George. If you ask your faction head, he’ll probably agree.”

Elena advised George. The [Magical Student] looked up.

“Old man Tiktal? But he’s been such a great guy to me. It’s not his fault…”

His throat worked. He could remember every person in the Sedoli faction. And any number of facts from his world, from dates to events and so on. George hadn’t been the best student, but the [Student] class had given him a near-perfect recall. Just like Saif was a nightmare with his airsoft gun.

“Ask. If you’re not okay with it, you should ask. Tell him—its trauma. He’ll believe that. You can join some of the therapy sessions and pretend, okay, George? Alice can trade with you.”

“Thanks, Elena. I might. I don’t want to give Alice to them.”

“They’ll just make nude Golems out of her. The Sedolis are weird.

No one argued with that. Wistram had many factions, and many kinds of [Mages]. It said something that the Sedolis were only ‘weird’. But there were far creepier. George relaxed and helped himself to more chips. The four sat about, and Elena griped about her failed lecture. After a while, Saif came over. He was sweaty.

“Whew! That was fun. Aaron, thanks for fixing the gun. I think I’m popular, right?”

He had a delighted grin on his face. He’d been feeling useless for the last four weeks he’d been here, so Aaron had worked hard to get his airsoft gun working. Now, Saif was on fire.

“Glad it worked. Just don’t answer any questions about actual firearms.”

Elena cautioned Saif. He rolled his eyes.

“I’m not an idiot, Elena. I couldn’t make one if I tried. I think. George and Eun, they’re the ones who know how, right?”

He nudged the two. They’d recalled how batteries worked. Aaron had been experimenting, but he’d forgotten the basic steps. They’d filled his basic gaps in knowledge; he could take apart a smartphone and put it back together again and do programming, but he’d never had to make a…battery. He was a [Magictech Engineer], not an [Inventor]!

Eun looked startled and shook his head. George just looked pale.

He was one of the anti-gun Earthers. Which was good, because George was one of the few with a working knowledge of how guns worked. But he claimed to have seen enough gun-related deaths for one world.

“Lips sealed, Elena. Promise.”

She patted George’s arm. The African-American man shivered and she nodded. Elena was from Greece. Reassuringly, she whispered to him.

“Don’t worry. Archmage Nailihuaile is against guns too.”

“Only because she thinks it’ll put her out of a job.”

Aaron muttered back. Elena elbowed him. She patted George on the shoulder. Then she turned to Saif.

“Does Aaron get any of your funding?”

“Yeah. Sure! I have to pay him to upgrade my rifle, right? I’ll give you a third of what I get for my presentation, Blackmage.”

Saif nodded. He grinned as Aaron shifted uncomfortably. To many, in the academy, or even from Earth, his nickname was his user-handle. Blackmage.

“Just give me enough to fund my projects, Saif. Speaking of which…I’ve gotta work on Lamont’s project tonight.”

“Need any help with the batteries?”

George offered, as much to get out of his Golem-infested hallways as anything. Aaron grimaced.

“Can’t. Different factions. Join the Centrists with Elena, George, and then they’ll let you.”

“Oh. Right…”

The Earthers were allowed to mingle under supervision, but each faction guarded their ‘assets’ to greater or lesser degrees. As Elena described it—they were a single community split up, and they had to find ways to communicate and avoid being brainwashed. Some factions did work together—the Centrists would loan Elena to the Revivalists if they needed to collaborate on something that would enrich both groups. But other groups…

“Anyone seen Sidney?”

“Not since the last week.”

“We’ll see her in therapy. Her faction has to let her join. I’ll ask how she’s doing and if she’s not okay—I’ll petition Feor to do something.”

Elena nodded as if that settled that. The others nodded. Elena was a force. And that fit her in a way—

She had been friends with Cara, the [Popstar] of Terandria. The Earthers that Cara had found had sent Elena when Wistram had made contact. No one else, so far. Wistram was trying to persuade them through Aaron and Elena, but…Aaron suspected she’d sent some kind of covert message because the [Popstar] of Terandria was staying independent.

“I’m going to bathe. This was really fun, yeah. I think I can buy some magical items. I must have earned at least ten thousand gold from the first game alone! And they’ll pay me to show them more!”

Saif broke the silence, grinning. He was excited and he’d probably level up in his new class, [Gun Scout]. He could run faster, the projectiles from his gun behaved like actual bullets when he wanted them to, and his aim and eyesight were improved.

He looked at this world like a game. Mainly because his first interaction with this world had been wandering into the nearest Mage’s Guild and asking if they had a map. They’d taken him to Wistram at once.

George and Eun were more subdued. So was Elena. She just shook her head.

“Remember, Saif. It’s not as fun outside of Wistram.”

“I know that. I’ve seen the therapy stuff. Tell the others ‘hi’ for me. If they want to hang out—we’re partying with a bunch of 3rd years. Probably more. It’s a huge party, down past the fountains…?”

“I know it. I’ll let them know.”

Elena promised. Saif waved and trotted off, to keep talking and then secure his rifle away from grabby hands. A group of cleaning-Golems trooped into the battleground to pick up debris and clear it.

Of course, the battlegrounds was massive, but Wistram’s citadel was far larger than it appeared on the outside. The door to this massive room with a second floor looking down onto the practice arena was only a set of three doors sitting next to each other in the hallway. One led to the top floor, the other two, the ground floor.

Magic. Aaron was used to it, but Eun just shook his head. He was half-convinced this was just virtual reality or some trick. George believed—and so did Elena. They had seen things.

As for Blackmage?

To him, this world was amazing. Wonderful. Wistram? Less so. He knew he was a permanent guest and he resented that. But he had to admit—he had gotten lucky.

Some of the visitors from Earth had been less so. And for all Wistram may have snatched some people away and refused to give them back even if they wanted to leave…they had saved more than their fair share too.

 

—-

 

It was wrong to call them cruel. Some were. Beatrice had told Aaron stories of Charles de Trevalier and some of the others. So had Montressa—before she’d left with the experimental shock-orb to hunt a traitorous [Necromancer] and search for more Earthers.

There were bad [Mages]. But most, Aaron was learning, were just…people. Archmage Nailihuaile, for instance, could be random and silly. Engaging, and far younger than her actual age. But she was also calculating and she could be cold. Feor was scarier, though.

But the thing was—they weren’t bad people. At least, that was what Aaron struggled with. He didn’t like Teura and a number of other [Mages].

But still. This room was soft. The sun shone down; it came through layers of Wistram’s walls. The magic let those sitting in the inn feel as though they stood in a glass box.

It was a beach. Soft, white sand. Even water, animals. Wistram Academy had been made of so many [Mages] over the years, each with their own goals or desires…

This was a relaxation room. Similar to the rooms with literal fields that [Green Mages] tended to and provided some of Wistram’s food, especially in times of siege. This room—about sixty feet wide by forty feet—was just a beach.

Hawaii. Or rather, Aaron imagined it was like that. It looked like something out of the commercials.

“Just no cockroaches.”

Malia whispered to him as she passed around lemonade. Well—lemonade flavored with other fruits. The yellow was blended with something blue. Aaron asked the Hawaiian girl what it was.

“Amentus fruits. Elena paid for some from the last [Merchant].”

Both turned to look at Elena. She was welcoming people into the room. This hadn’t been her idea; it was Malia’s. But Elena had dedicated herself to helping with the regular sessions.

“Hey, everyone. Take a seat. How are you? Basil, Duha, hi—uh—uh—marhabaan? Obi, thank you for coming—Sidney!”

She embraced a young woman from Canada as more people filed in. Wistram had found dozens and dozens of Earthers. Of that number, about…a tenth were here.

They sat on the beach, or took drinks, talked about their days…this wasn’t Aaron’s crowd. He was just looking in. To—see how they were.

They had come a few months after he’d been at Wistram. At first a handful. Then, more and more as Wistram realized how many people from Earth there were scattered across the world.

But unlike the others, who were either partying with the younger [Mages]—working on their own projects, learning about this world, studying magic—something unified all of these people.

Many were shivering. Some had come in pairs, or small groups. Two—brothers of fifteen compared to the older people from Earth—refused to let anyone touch them.

Sidney kept to the light. She refused to go anywhere without a [Light] spell. She was…fourteen. The youngest age bracket of people who had come from Earth. And Elena was especially kind to her.

“Have a drink. Sit, Sidney. Let’s sit on the beach. Look—there’s even the tide. You can swim, if you want. I’m glad you’re here. Are you okay?”

She put Sidney on a blanket, fussing over her. Handing her one of the drinks. No alcohol was served here. Malia went around with some food.

Not a grand spread like at the lectures. This was funded—with the approval of the Archmages, but still independently—by Malia, Elena, and a few of the Earthers. Most of the [Mage] factions didn’t see the point. Blackmage had put money into this as well.

This was…therapy. And after nine sessions—there was a flow. Aaron stood by the door, sipping from his drink.

Basil spoke for the first time. He was Bulgarian. And his proficiency in English was low. But enough.

“They were heroes.”

He looked around. The others listened. Elena held Sidney’s shoulder. Basil looked past them.

“Heroes…”

“What did they do, Basil? Can you tell us? It’s okay if you can’t.”

The young woman, Malia, spoke encouragingly. She had no degree in therapy. All she knew was watching pop cultural examples. Even so—her class was [Healer]. [Thought Healer]. Basil shuddered.

Goblins.

The word made one of the young women hide her face in her hands. The others shifted. Basil looked around.

“They—it—it was чудовище. They—”

 

They came up out of the caves. He had been working as a [Smelter], using his knowledge of metallurgy from his world to improve the crude forges in the village.

The Goblins had been there for a long time. But the village had walls, and two Level 20+ [Warriors].

It hadn’t been enough. The Goblins, an entire tribe of them over three hundred strong, had overrun the village in minutes. They put the warriors to death. Tried to capture women. When they realized the villagers and Basil had sealed themselves in the stone building that was the village’s meeting hall, they had laid siege to it.

For six days and nights, the Goblins assailed the walls, trying to crack the stone. Twice, they had tunneled in. The villagers and Basil fought, hearing screams from outside. In Chandrar, this arid area was lacking in food and water. Only the mineral deposits made it worthwhile.

The Goblins had begun eating the villagers. Living or dead. On the sixth day, they had been close to breaking through despite the best efforts of the Human and Stitchfolk community.

Then, the Silver-rank team had come. They had received the [Message] spell. The Contempt of Zeikhal had not known how many Goblins there were.

Three hundred. Not a vast horde, but far more than a team of eight should have handled. But the adventures had seen the siege. They had counted the Goblins.

They had charged.

The villagers and Basil had heard them dying as they tried to unblock the door. Three of the eight fell within the first ten minutes, overwhelmed. The last put their backs to the wall and fought.

Three hundred Goblins had assailed the village. Some had died in the attack. But still—when the villagers emerged, ready to fight and die rather than be overwhelmed in a corner, they had found only a handful left.

A [Blade Dancer]. A [Bard]. The brave [Archer] who called out to them, and the [Sand Mage], the last to fall. They had killed at least two hundred Goblins, drinking healing potions and fighting in between barriers, choking their numbers.

Until the last adventurer fell. The remaining Goblins had fled, led by their foul Hobgoblin Chieftain back into the caves. The second team of Gold-ranks had purged them. But the adventurers had died. The village had been putting statues up of them when Basil had been found.

 

“They saved us.”

At this point, Basil could go on no more. He wiped at the tears on his face. He had killed eight Goblins during the siege. But the nightmares of their laughter and the villagers being slowly eaten had stayed with him for the last three months.

“Thank you, Basil.”

That was all Malia said. She hugged him fiercely and the others murmured as well. Basil sat in the sand, staring at the beautiful, emerald waters as if they were coated in pollution and filth. After a moment, someone else asked to speak.

Aaron stood in the doorway, silent and pale. Basil had a chunk missing from one arm, where his skin had healed awkwardly. A Goblin’s bite. Some of the others had scars too.

This was the reality of the world. For every Earther who had been lucky, like Saif, or rescued like George and Eun, another had been in some mortal peril. Been forced to barter all they had away, starved, been lost—

And those were the ones Wistram found. Aaron looked at Basil. No wonder his faction—Scriptels again—complained that he hadn’t been able to transcribe many stories or knowledge from his world beyond the alphabet. He bowed his head—

The door opened.

“I say, is Miss Elena here? I had more questions about this space business. I promise I won’t laugh—I—oh.”

Aaron turned. The [Mage] with the bushy brown raccoon-beard paused as he saw the Earthers. They all stared at him.

“I’ve got this, Elena—”

Aaron grabbed the [Mage]. To his surprise, the man didn’t have any protective spells. He was rather heavy, but only protested verbally as Aaron pulled him outside.

“I say! What’s this about? I wanted to speak to Miss Elena—I’ll compensate her for the time, I know how this goes.”

“She’s busy. This is a—private time.”

Aaron barred the door. The [Mage]—was he a ‘High Mage’? Snorted.

“I’m well aware you—you Earth-people need your time. But this is a matter of magic. I was speaking to a [Gravitationist] and he was claiming there’s a lot of basis to make this round earth thing go. We were going to make a model based on that soul-system—”

“I’m sure Elena would love to help you, uh, High Mage Telim. But—”

“I’m a busy man, young, er, Blackmage. And I won’t be manhandled!”

The [Mage] squirmed as the two jostled for place in the hallway. A Golem, made of stone and pushing a cart full of books walked past them, and some students stared. Telim’s face turned red. Then he muttered a spell.

“You made me do it. [Paralys—]”

Aaron locked up. He felt the spell go through him and tried to block it. But he was still only around a 3rd or 4th year student’s prowess at best, despite his studying from more advanced [Mages].

And [High Mage] Telim was a powerful [Mage]. Or at least, good enough to cast a single spell. He adjusted his robes over his stomach and pushed the door open. He glanced at Aaron irritably as a voice floated towards them.

“What is so urgent, anyways?”

Aaron made his lips move despite the magic locking down every part of his body.

“Therapy.”

Inside, on the beach, Sidney was speaking for the first time. She held the ball of [Light] and shivered. Shivered uncontrollably. Telim paused in the open door leading to the stone hallway. He heard the girl’s voice.

“It was so dark. There were four of us. Mamy—told us to hide. It was dark, and I was crying. She put me in the hole while the others ran. And there were lots of them. She said not to move.”

And what came out of the cavern tunnels they had been transported to? What vile monsters?

Rats. Just…rats. Not even the largest ones. But so many. A flood. And they chased the children. Mamy, Sidney’s older sister, had no levels. No weapons, even. Her brothers ran and were overtaken.

Sidney had found a hole. She had hid there, the only person able to fit. But the rats were even smaller than she. So what had her sister done?

“She told me to stay there.”

“And what did she do? Sidney?”

Elena’s face was pale. They were all listening. Aaron saw the girl look up. A [Survivor].

“She sat down.”

She began to cry. That was all. Her sister sat down and didn’t move. And whilst the rats had scurried about, after the girl had fainted after screaming and crying—she had gained the ability to make light. And chased away the rats and ran and ran until the kindly [Farmers] found her.

Sidney was sobbing as Elena held her. But she was afraid—afraid to even bury her face in the young woman’s clothes. The light—she never went without it.

Aaron sat on the ground. At some point, the spell had ended. He saw a figure in the doorway as he looked up. And he rose. He didn’t have the experimental electrical weapons. But if that man interrupted, Aaron would jump—

High Mage Telim backed out of the doorway. He turned and Aaron saw his sick, horrified face for a second. Then the man ran. He got a dozen paces before he vomited in the hallway. Aaron stared at his back. The man had tears in his eyes.

 

—-

 

“I had no notion. I heard there was—trouble in some of their recoveries. But are they all…all like that?”

A few minutes later, Telim stared into the beach room. People were comforting Sidney as best they could. High Mage Telim’s face was very pale.

Even the stories had horrified the man. Aaron hadn’t expected that. But Telim was not a [Battlemage]. Or even used to combat. He shuddered as Aaron nodded.

“This is why I don’t leave the academy. Ever. Dead gods. Rats?

He wiped at his mouth. He had puke in his beard, but it dried up and fell out as he waved a hand over his front, doing the same to his clothes.

“That poor girl. That poor…and her sister. Her brothers?”

He passed a hand over his face. And tears—Aaron saw them trickling down the man’s pudgy face. Telim looked into the room.

“Therapy. I thought—my colleagues called your world soft. But that would be a nightmare for any soul. That poor girl. Is—is she well? She was taken by then Orenaius faction. [Light Mages]. No wonder.”

“She comes to therapy every time. It helps. It would be better if she could be around Elena, or Malia more, High Mage Telim.”

Aaron explained. The man looked at him.

“Of course! Dead gods, but the girl needs…what is she drinking?”

“Um. Lemonade? I can get you some.”

Aaron didn’t want the man to interrupt. Not that it seemed Telim would. He blinked, rubbed at his face.

“Dead gods, I need a drink. What’s ‘lemonade’…made of lemons?”

“And sugar. And some Amentus fruit?”

“Sweet. No alcohol? Nothing else?”

“No. Mage Telim, if you need a drink—”

I don’t need one. That poor girl needs one. Every damn child in that room needs one. Come with me.”

The [High Mage] snapped his fingers. He swung the door closed and marched off. Aaron blinked and followed him.

Telim was a good spellcaster; he cast [Haste] to make up for his ambling pace. So even at a slow walk, Aaron had to jog to keep up.

“Where are we going?”

“My faction. I know an [Alchemist]—no, on second thought, there’s an [Apothecary] who owes me a favor.”

The difference was, apparently, that one did more medicinal brews. Telim navigated Wistram’s twisting, sometimes changing corridors with ease, cursing when he realized the route had changed and easily circumnavigating the area. He knew dozens of people who called out to him.

“Not now, Sa’la. It’s this terrible thing—I don’t have time to teach anyone spells! Begone! Shoo! No drinking! You—students! Out of the way!”

The fat man bulled past a group of 4th years. He was a Libertarian, Aaron remembered. Part of Viltach’s Human-centric faction. But the Selphid, Sa’la, fell into step with Telim.

“What’s the matter, Telim? I haven’t seen you moving like this since you heard about chocolate. Hello, Blackmage.”

“I’m looking for Vhedel, Sa’la. Any idea where he is…?”

“Hmm…his rooms?”

Telim cursed at her. The Selphid grinned; she was wearing a dead woman’s face. But Selphids were always changing.

“Vhedel! Vhedel, get your hemp ass out here you waste of space! Or I’ll confiscate all your damn dreamleaf from the gardens, see if I don’t!

Telim shouted. What he wanted from the grumpy Hemp Stitch-[Mage] was in fact, an entire armful of vials. Vhedel protested, and Telim nearly shoved his finger up the Stitch-Man’s nose.

“I’ll pay you back. It’s not even as if it’s that expensive.”

“It’s a shipment—”

“It’s for the Earthlings. Clear it with Viltach. Now, Sa’la, give me a hand with these.”

“Use your bag of holding. Oh, wait—you stuffed it to the brim with food, didn’t you? Fine. Mister Aaron?”

The Selphid woman sighed. She and Aaron followed Telim back the way they’d come. The man was sorting through the vials. As they reached the beach door, Aaron finally caught his breath—he’d been moving without any speed-spells so his sides hurt—and asked.

“What’s all this, Mage Telim?”

The man gave him an incredulous look. He bulled into the beach.

“Excuse me! This is private—”

Elena shot to her feet with Malia. Some of the other Earthers looked frightened. But Telim just approached Sidney.

“Hello, young woman. I—I couldn’t help but hear your story. On behalf of Wistram, I am terribly sorry for your loss. But you are safe here. Stick to your faction’s hallways and you shall never come to harm.”

She tried to hide behind Elena. The [Beautician] scowled at Telim.

“I’m sure she appreciates that. But she really doesn’t need—”

“On the contrary. I’d take it as a kindness if you added this to your drinks, Miss Elena.”

The [Mage] pulled Elena aside. He showed her one of the vials, and the blue glass’ label. Elena frowned at it. Then her eyes widened.

“A Calming Tonic?

“Of course. Did none of you think to use one?”

Aaron slapped his forehead. Sa’la looked around, startled.

“No—there are calming potions?

“There are potions for everyone. These are decent. Put a few drops in each glass. More if need be. Adventurers and former [Soldiers] use them all the time. You can even mix them—the [Apothecary] I got them from is careful to make his medicines complimentary—with sleeping draughts. For someone small, one drop puts them right out, in warm liquid. No milk. Never milk. I use three drops myself, but I’m a bigger sort and a [Mage]…”

He shoved the vials into Elena and Malia’s arms. Startled, Elena looked at Telim.

“I—thank you.”

“It’s nothing.”

The [High Mage] looked at Sidney with misty eyes. Instantly, Malia opened one of the vials.

“Sidney? Try a drop of this. It’s just a potion. Magic.

The others were wary as she went around. But they had seen Harry Potter. And Elena had told Sidney this was like Hogwarts. So—as the girl who had been weeping drank the lemonade, her sobbing calmed. Some of the others looked at their mugs. And relief passed across their faces. Basil, rings under his eyes, asked for something different. Malia put two drops of the sleeping draught in his drink.

The young man from Bulgaria downed his cup. He massaged at the circles under his eyes—then he lay back in the sand and fell asleep.

 

—-

 

“That should do for now. Ask for Vhedel; he can supply the rest. Your faction leaders should provide once they understand the need.

A few minutes later, Telim was speaking to Elena and Aaron outside the room. Sa’la was listening and swearing as someone else recounted their tale.

But—Elena just looked at him. A frown crossed her face.

“Are there any side effects, High Mage? I’m grateful, but—will the others grow addicted to the drinks?”

“Addicted? Only in the sense that it helps. They might need higher dosages if they keep imbibing; tolerances. But why would I give them something addictive?”

Telim looked deeply offended by the suggestion. Elena blinked.

“I—no, I was just asking. Thank you, again.”

“It was…purely necessary. I had no idea, Miss Elena. I will speak to you at another time?”

The [High Mage] shook his head and cast one glance into the beach room as Elena nodded. Then he turned to Aaron.

“My sympathies, young man. Our world is not always kind. I forget that.”

He patted Aaron on the shoulder, leaving a bit of dried puke, and walked off. Aaron stared after Telim’s back.

“I thought that was a plot.”

Elena muttered. She looked at Aaron. He just shook his head.

“He was crying. And he threw up.”

“No. From hearing Sidney’s story?”

“Yep. Over there.”

It was still on the floor. A Golem was sweeping it up. Elena shook her head.

“I’m an idiot for not thinking of potions. I guess you just think there’s only healing potions and mana potions—those were the only real ones I used when I was back with Cara…”

She broke off, looking at Aaron. He hesitated. Elena was tight-lipped about her time with the [Popstar] of Terandria even with the other Earthers. She didn’t…trust him entirely.

Which was fair. Aaron shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn’t like mage’s robes, no matter how cool they looked. He kept tripping.

“Cara’s refused to send more of the Earthers. The Archmages keep trying to get me to get her to send them. They’re talking about sending—help.”

Elena pursed her lips.

“She’s not going to like that. Don’t get me wrong, Aaron. Blackmage. Cara was grateful for all the help you gave her.”

He had noticed the Singer of Terandria when her songs first began spreading. They had talked, using the magical phone connection. But Cara, like batman, and the mysterious ‘L’ had always been cagey about revealing her location or identity. The others had been found, brought here.

“I’m trying to help.”

Elena’s face softened at Aaron’s hurt look.

“I know. But you’re not the one Cara’s worried about. It’s…”

She waved her arms around to mean everything. Wistram Academy. Aaron frowned.

“They haven’t let us go. But they’re not evil, Elena. They rescued Sidney and the others, didn’t they?”

She chuckled mirthlessly.

“They found us, you mean? Most of us weren’t ‘saved’. You heard Basil. Adventurers saved him. Wistram just found him after everything was done. Do you think—nah. You couldn’t know what people think of Wistram.”

That stung. Aaron glared at her. The [Magictech Engineer] thought of his shock-glove and the orb.

“I think they can make a lot of good items. Or don’t you think one of my shock-gloves would have helped against those rats? Or Goblins?”

“Your Iron Man glove? Sure, it’s useful. But who says you’re going to get to use it, Aaron? They’ll never let us leave here.”

She sneered at him. Aaron hesitated.

“But they’re not…”

She poked at his chest.

“Believe me. They might be nice to use while we’re useful, Aaron. But we are not in control. Cara warned me it might be like that and I volunteered. Get it? She didn’t send me because I was useless. I’m her friend. And I’ve seen what magic—what power does to people.”

The [Beautician] took a deep, shuddering breath. And something like the look in Basil’s—Sidney’s eyes surfaced in her own.

“Cara found me. She saved me. You think rats and Goblins are the worst thing in the world, Aaron? At least you could kill those. If Saif had a real gun, he could kill them. But there are things worse than them.”

The young woman’s hand rose to her neck and fell away. Elena shuddered.

“I marched with Cara on a village out of hell. Ruled by an immortal [Witch]. I saw evil, Aaron. This? This is what Cara was afraid of. Powerful people, ruling the world and deciding how other people live or die.”

She turned away, shaking her head.

“For all we know, High Mage Telim is just playing us.”

“I don’t think so. I think he’s—he’s not a bad man. Not a good man either. He’s just a man. The [Mages] are just people, Elena.”

That was what Aaron believed. Telim had proven that. He wasn’t evil. Elena had seen evil, though. She looked doubtful.

“There are factions in Wistram, Aaron. Some seem better than the others and there are good people. But are any of them actually…good? How would we know? This place is made of secrets. Of the three Archmages in Wistram, I don’t like any of them. Feor and Naili both have their good sides. And bad sides.”

“I know. But at least we get food, potions.”

Aaron nodded. He stood with Elena, as Sa’la left the room, shaking her head and looking troubled. Then Blackmage had a thought.

“Four.”

“What?”

She looked at him. The young man took a breath.

“There are four Archmages in Wistram right now, actually. But the last one’s…nasty.”

 

—-

 

Therapy ended late in the night. The Earthers were escorted back by their guardians—or some were allowed more autonomy.

Wistram’s factions were indeed each unique. Some were large, comprised of thousands of members in the academy and across the world, like the Revivalists, Centrists, and Libertarians. The big three, as Aaron understood them. They had the most voting power in the Council, the most active Archmages…and they were thus more akin to a political party.

Even after leaving Wistram, a [Mage] might have ties to their party. But the smaller ones were…interesting. And some had different goals which were at odds with the lofty goals of the rest of Wistram.

The Aquais faction was one of the few factions that needed no introduction. Water-[Mages]. [Hydromancers], sea-specialists. But also—wind-mages. And they didn’t limit themselves to just those disciplines. The group invited anyone with a certain bent to their magic. Heck, they’d even take a [Pyromancer]—if they created art.

In My Dreams. Someone was singing a Broadway hit as Aaron stumbled through their corridors by chance. Artwork hung on the walls, arranged by theme, there were expensive rugs and carpets on the ground, some hand-sewn, and if you wandered around long enough, someone would be singing, or talking about poetry. A book they’d read.

At the moment, though—they were listening. A young man from Earth was singing Anastasia’s lines. His voice was a beautiful tenor. And though the line belonged to a female singer—he fit the part.

A group of [Mages] were dabbing at their eyes. They were everything from [Magic Painters] to [Battlemages], but ones who appreciated art. And small they might be, but they’d fought to have their one Earther.

It was funny. As Aaron paused in the open amphitheatre that the Aquais faction liked to use, he listened to the young man sing. Erik had been a stage hand. On Earth. Not blessed with a singing voice; he claimed to have had asthma and the wrong pitch for the stage. But with a few classes and [Expanded Lungs], look at him now.

Elena had helped with his stage makeup. The [Mages] burst into a murmur as the song finished.

“Exquisite. This kind of performance is what we need. Just like the Players of Celum. I told you all! One of my associates in Invrisil broadcast their performance. Very surreptitiously—but it’s the same thing. And you say you know…how many plays?”

“Dozens. At least. But I don’t know all the lines…”

Erik replied. The [Mages] sighed.

“Dead gods. If only…but we must put on a performance! The world deserves to see this! Let’s put it on the television.”

The leader of the faction, a [Pyromancer] with a flair for the dramatic rose to his feet. He cast out an arm as if envisioning himself on stage. The others nodded.

“The Archmages have a ban on putting…things from the academy, though.”

Another [Mage] opined. The [Pyromancer] caught himself—scowled.

“Damn them. What’s the point of keeping a secret? This deserves to be seen!”

The rest of his tiny faction nodded. They insisted Erik keep singing more songs, proffering tonics and potion for his throat. Erik basked in the limelight he’d waited for all his life. Aaron felt bad about interrupting him, but he had to.

“Erik. Sorry to interrupt you, Magus Idevin, but we need to borrow Erik. He promised to meet with us? Tonight?”

“What? Nonsense! It’s not—oh.”

The [Pyromancer] realized it was late. He blushed. He swept a hand across his head. He was, incidentally, Human. Not that it needed to be said in any case, but with Wistram [Mages], they were any species except Gnolls.

“We must have been listening for hours! We have work to do! We’ll reconvene tomorrow! Erik, do you need an escort? There were those dratted slimes that got loose…”

“I’ll be fine, Magus Idevin.”

If you’re sure…”

Wistram wasn’t entirely safe. Magical experiments, things from other floors or previously-forgotten rooms sometimes crept out. But it was considered practice for most [Mages] and the Golems did their bit in exterminating most runaway experiments. So long as you stuck to the main corridors, the odds of you dying were one in a million. Most of the time.

“Nice singing.”

“Thank you. Um—is there any trouble?”

Erik was flushed with excitement. He too had taken to this world and he wasn’t a member of the therapy circles. He just loved it here. Aaron wished he could be as happy as Erik, or Saif. But Elena colored his opinion of Wistram.

“No. It’s just a meeting. Bring your tablet, will you?”

“Sure. Just let me get it…”

As Erik hurried off, Aaron fended off more of the Aquais faction who wanted him to sing for them, recite poetry from his world, or describe movies. Not that he didn’t like them. Blackmage thought they had the right idea. Why not bring entertainment to this world? Well, some things were dangerous. But…movies?

“Excuse me! Excuse me, Idevin! Can I get a quick word?”

A Lizardgirl hopped past the [Mages] and plucked at the [Pyromancer]’s sleeve. The faction-head of the Aquais [Mages] looked around amiably—and then recoiled.

Taxiela! You pest! Get away!”

He swatted at the Lizardgirl, who looked very young. She scurried back, tears in her eyes.

“But Magus Idevin! I just wanted—”

“Shoo! Shoo! The Ullsinoi are not welcome here after your last prank! You stole dozens of our artworks! And sold them!”

“I never did! I’m just an apprentice—sir!”

The Human man was raising his stave to bash Taxiela over the head. He realized it was a bad scene; those not in the know saw him menacing the Lizardgirl. He hesitated, coughed, lowered the stave.

“Your faction owes us gold. Heartbreak, Taxiela! And stop using that—that illusion!”

He was somewhat hesitant about calling her out. Taxiela—or the Centaur, Galei, were thought to be the same person. But they might be two different entities. Either way—he glared suspiciously at Taxiela.

“Everyone! Ullsinoi has come to call. Cast [See Invisibility] spells and watch out for illusions!”

The other [Mages] groaned and scattered. The higher-level ones began casting anti-Illusion spells and pinching each other, asking questions only the other would know.

It was something, to have a reputation like that. Even Aaron checked his pockets; the Ullsinoi faction wasn’t familiar to him. They had no Earthers—in Wistram, at least. They’d caused a stir with the soccer game. And they were known to cause mischief, sometimes on grand scales. It was rumored the incident with Ailendamus’ fleet had been caused by them.

That of course, meant that they also got into trouble quite a lot. Taxiela was not welcome here and half a dozen [Mages] were watching her, aiming wands or other artifacts at her. She looked terrified.

For about a second. Then she sneezed

And Galei, a huge Centaur leaned on Idevin’s shoulder. The [Pyromancer] recoiled. But the Centaur laughed, friendly as you like.

“Idevin! Let’s let bygones be bygones. I apologize about the thefts, but that wasn’t my group. You know students. We punished them, but you have to admit, it was a great prank.”

“They stole artwork! Get off me, Galei! I don’t have time for your nonsense. If even so much as a hairpin goes missing from our rooms tonight, I’ll have the Council exile your entire faction! Viltach already wants your head.”

Idevin thrust the Centaur’s hands away. Galei trotted after him, spreading his arms.

“Idevin! Friend. I was just going to ask about that. He’s all up in arms over a few ships sinking. But did you agree with the naval blockade? It was blocking freedom of expression.”

“And your smuggling. Let’s not pretend the Elusive Lot wanted anything than keeping their criminal friends happy.”

The [Mage] snapped back. Galei shrugged.

“The point is that there’s this business with Viltach trying to get the Council to lean on us. The Aqauis have friends…we don’t have anyone in the Council.”

“Not openly.”

Idevin snapped, but he was listening. He frowned, glancing at Galei and then Aaron, who was still waiting for Erik.

“We have a few seats. But we’re not going up against the Libertarians for no reason.”

“What if I could promise I’d have a majority opposing old Viltach? You just need to vote with the others.”

The other [Mage] thought for half a moment and then shook his fiery hair.

“Forget it. You lot have been causing too much trouble. The last thing your faction did was steal from us. We owe you nothing. If you’ll excuse me—”

He walked off, and three [Mages] blocked Galei. The Centaur put a hand out, calling after Idevin. Then—he took a breath. And Aaron saw his eyes twinkle.

Turn, hellhound! Turn!

The [Illusionist]’s voice roared across the hallway. Idevin whirled. The Centaur walked through the three [Mages]. And suddenly, a figure stood in the hallway.

A Human man. He was tall, dressed in Victorian-era clothes, colorful, a rapier at his side. Erik, hurrying out of his rooms with his tablet and Aaron both stared.

Macbeth, or rather, the [Mage] playing him, was wounded across the shoulder, bloody in two spots. But his eyes gleamed with madness. He drew his sword, and a second figure appeared across from him.

Galei, now adorned in battle-gear, held a sword and shield. He was playing Macduff. Yerzhen, another of the Elusive Lot, pointed his sword at Galei and intoned with weary resignation.

 

Of all men else I have avoided thee.

But get thee back. My soul is too much charged

With blood of thine already.

 

Galei scowled, and his voice was rough as he lifted his sword. He stared at Macbeth with all the hatred in the world.

 

“I have no words.

My voice is in my sword. Thou bloodier villain

Than terms can give thee out!”

 

The two charged at each other, attacking, parrying, and the other [Mages] scattered in alarm.

“What’s going on? Galei, stop this at once!”

Idevin cried out in horror. But the two were locked in mortal combat. Still—it was an act. They were flourishing, the Centaur pressing the Human man back with vicious cuts. Idevin raised his glowing staff, frowning darkly.

“I said stop—

He was about to blast both with fire, but Erik grabbed his arm.

“Magus Idevin! It’s a play! Macbeth!

“What? But I thought you didn’t remember—”

The [Mages] stared. Then the Aquais faction turned. The two [Illusionists] locked in mortal combat froze.

The air darkened. And a third figure stepped out of the air. Taxiela again. Had this been one [Mage]? Or three? The Lizardgirl bowed, adorned in a mimicry of the same dress as the two men. She swept a cap from her head and bowed as Aaron stared.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Aquais faction! Prithee, how did we camest to this sad tale of two men locked in mortal combat? The answer lies at the start of our play, of dark prophecy and ambition!

Her eyes twinkled. Taxiela straightened from her bow.

“The Ullsinoi factions presents: Macbeth. A play from Earth, transcribed in full by our own lovely people from Earth! A full play, one of over a dozen.

More of the Ullsinoi Faction appeared out of the air. Not [Invisible]; they’d been hiding behind plinths, in rooms. Younger [Mages], bedecked in costume and the Elusive Lot. The Aquais faction jumped, caught off-guard by this ambush.

“What is—”

One of the [Mages] began before she was handed a neatly-bound script. She stared at the embossed title.

Macbeth.

Of course, the entire play. The half-Elf slowly began paging through it, staring at the lines and stage directions. As set down by Erin Solstice for the Players of Celum and then given to Palt. But no one here knew that. Galei’s eyes twinkled as he trotted backwards. Taxiela appeared beside Idevin.

“I heard you were having trouble recreating some plays, Idevin. What sort of friends would we be if we didn’t help out? Consider this play on the house. We’ve been practicing, actually. Places!

The Ullsinoi faction spread out for the play, and one of the [Illusionists] conjured a dark curtain. The Aquais-mages were magnetically drawn into their seats.

“You have an entire play? But Erik couldn’t remember…we were going to ask for help with recollection spells, but how did you—

“Ah, well, he’s an aspiring [Actor], isn’t he? Whereas we have someone with a delightful memory Skill.”

Taxiela’s tail swished merrily. She waved her hand and a number of bound sheafs of paper danced out of her bag of holding.

“Feast your eyes on this, Idevin.”

Hamlet, Othello, My Fair Lady—all of the plays hung in the air around the stunned [Pyromancer]. He stared at them as the play began. And Taxiela winked at Aaron. She turned to the head of the Aquais faction.

“Now, we’ve been friends for ages, Idevin. And obviously…we owe you a debt about the theft thing. So why don’t we have a chat about that little vote? Oh, and if you like this—we actually have an in with the Players of Celum. We could have their costume designer make copies for you…? Have you read this play, by any chance?”

The Aquais faction never stood a chance. As Aaron hurried away with Erik, he heard one of the Aquais [Mages] ask plaintively—

“Is this from that Joseph boy?”

And that question weighed on Aaron Vanwell’s mind as well. Whatever the case—information was power. And the Ullsinoi faction was using their Earther for all he was worth.

 

—-

 

“When I left—it was 2018. When Cara left, it was 2017. Eun swears it was the end of 2016, but he and I both arrived barely a week apart. Erik. Show everyone your tablet.”

In a private room, hidden from even the watchful eyes of [Mages], Elena sat at a small table with half a dozen other Earthers. Erik hesitantly showed his tablet around. The others stared at the screen and then swore or exclaimed.

“That can’t be right!”

Jacques shot to his feet. He grabbed at his hair.

“That’s a lie. You’re not serious.”

“I am. I was singing from Anastasia. The Broadway show. Haven’t any of you heard of it?”

One of them had. Haley, a girl from Connecticut, raised her hand. The [Squire], who had been found training in one of Terandria’s knight-orders looked around.

“Sure did. It came out in my state. But that was 2016. That proves nothing.”

Erik looked at her.

“Yes. But it came to Germany, Stuttgart, in 2018. That was where I watched it.”

The others fell silent. Aaron leaned on the table.

“It’s 2016. That was when I left.”

“We’re all coming from different times. The question is—why is time different? Late, late 2016 is Aaron. Everyone else comes from later in time. That means whatever began grabbing us started in 2016. Listen everyone, we don’t have long until our factions come looking for us. We have to accept that it’s now around 2019 in our world. Earth.

Elena raised her voice over the other’s voices. Aaron heard panic, and felt it too. Time was passing.

“Prove it! At least—prove it, Erik! You can say you were in 2018, but do you have any proof?”

The young man from Germany nodded. He looked at Elena.

“I—I don’t know a lot of politics. Or world events. There were big things happening. But this is my best proof. You all listen to pop, yeah?”

“Eh.”

Some of the others shook their heads. A few looked disgusted, but most had listened to popular songs. Erik nodded. He tapped on his tablet.

“This song came out in 2019. It was very popular. If you were around then—you would have heard it. Listen—”

The song began to play. Aaron heard a guitar strumming. A voice singing. He started.

Old Town Road. And he was certain, certain he hadn’t heard that song before. Why? Because he liked this music and he would have had it on his iPhone if it had existed. This was a new song.

Of course, that wasn’t proof. The others demanded to hear new songs. Erik’s playlist was incomplete; he only had songs he liked. But he played another one that someone recognized. Another new song. Then Taylor Swift’s new music came from Haley’s iPhone.

“I still don’t believe it. Do you have anything from Imagine Dragons? Really? Play it!”

Julian demanded. At some point it just became the other Earthers sharing their favorite songs. More than one began demanding a copy of the new songs.

“Anyone got a dongle?”

“A what? Hey, who has a computer?”

“I think George has one. I’ll borrow it and sync everything up.”

The others were talking when Aaron raised his wand. The tip flashed brightly and everyone looked at him.

“Let’s copy music later, everyone. The point is that time is fucked. But that’s not all. Elena?”

“Yeah. We’ve discovered a number of things about this world.”

The young woman inhaled. She was saving the worst for last. This meeting in privacy, in this blank, off-green room was secret from every faction. Aaron had…found it. Or rather, he’d known it was here and told no one. Not even Nailihuaile. Even the tracking spells would fail to follow them here.

It was where he’d hidden a number of artifacts. The floor pulled up. But even Elena didn’t know that. Aaron shifted, deliberately not looking at the place where the invisible latch it had taken him six hours to find was. It was the size of your pinkie and he’d never found it otherwise. Even magic couldn’t detect it.

But he’d been told it was there.

“Listen up. This world is strange. I’ve been working with Andrea and George and a few others. And the [Mages] might not believe—but their world defies normal physics. For one thing, we’ve measured as best we can and we think this world is three times as large as Earth.

More murmurs. But this was a sharing of information. Elena waved a hand as she produced a map. The ends of the world were clearly marked and she scowled at it.

“Something is wrong with this world. Gravity should be crushing us if this world really is larger than Earth. Or just the people from Earth. But it doesn’t. That means…gravity is being affected by magic? This world isn’t larger than Earth?”

“It’s hollow. Think sci-fi.”

That came from Jacques. Another person raised his hand.

“劳驾—”

“Sorry, Shun.”

One of the others translated as the young man from China asked questions. He and Xiang had arrived with a group of Chinese students and he was their representative. Fortunately, a number of the people were bilingual or had taken language classes.

“One continent is the size of Eurasia. According to the maps. Shun, this big. This is China.”

Elena drew on the map to show Shun and he recoiled, shaking his head. She nodded.

“It’s a fact. There are hundreds of maps and unless we’re being lied to—all the measurements are in damn miles, though. This is in kilometers.”

She’d done the calculations by hand. A girl from Russia snapped.

Why. Do. They. Measure. In. MILES!?

She had been an [Archer]. The others muttered in vexation. America accounted for a good number of Earthers, but the rest of the world was…the rest of the world.

However, that actually made Elena cool down a bit. The [Beautician] raised her hand. And she looked around, meeting everyone’s eyes.

“That’s easy. Someone came here before us. Someone from a country using the imperial system. Chess existed before we came here. We’re not the first.”

“How sure are you, Elena?”

Haley leaned on the table. Elena shrugged.

“How else can you explain everything? People speak English. But they also know Latin—some of the [Mages] think its magical language. They use miles. Who’d come up with that exact measurement? They even have expressions from our world. At some point, there was crossover. I don’t know how or in what way—but I think that’s a safe explanation.”

The others looked at each other. There was so much they couldn’t confirm. Shun checked his watch. He spoke in broken English.

“We are here for—twenty minutes. Time to go?”

“My faction’s going to be looking for me. I have to go, Elena. Are you sure this place is safe?

“Once we use the door, we’ll appear elsewhere. Right, Aaron?”

The young man nodded.

“This is secret. Tell no one. We have two things left. Elena will start with the first.”

Elena took a deep breath. She was visibly upset now, and the others fell silent, sensing it. Elena glanced at Erik and he clenched his hands.

“Yeah. You’re not going to like this. We shouldn’t tell the others, especially the kids. But—Erik? What was the news in 2019, when you left?”

The German [Actor] hesitated. He bit his lip.

“There were…it is in the news. All over. Many things have happened on Earth. But this? It started small. But people think it’s a conspiracy. There was nearly a war…”

“What?”

Haley demanded. For answer, Erik looked at Elena. He didn’t want to say it. She took a deep breath.

“There are…missing people posters. All over. People noticed kids were going missing. It’s just rumors at this point. But there are cases of people going missing in airports.”

“There’s a video in Melbourne. Security footage. One second everyone’s there—the next—dozens are missing. And more. There are names…I saw lists. Many families looking for their children. People think it’s a government. Or aliens.”

“Or the Rapture.”

Elena snorted. But Erik was pale-faced. This was the truth. The others looked at each other in horror.

“Oh god. It’s been two years. My parents!”

A girl spoke up. Her face was white. She turned to Erik.

“My family is Walczak. From Warsaw? Did you see them? Are they—?”

The young man backed up as the room was filled with everyone asking questions about their family. He raised his hands.

“I’m sorry! I don’t know! I’m sorry! It’s just lists. It’s just a conspiracy—

“Don’t they know we’re missing? What kind of idiots are in the government that they can’t see the pattern?”

“They probably think it’s another world power. Or damn aliens. Who suspects magic?”

“They should be able to detect it! Isn’t anyone looking? The FBI—”

“Two thousand people go missing every day.”

On security footage? Bullshit! Shut up, I’ll kill you—

Silence!

Aaron shouted. Elena looked at him. The others calmed down. Aaron wished Telim had given him some more calming potions. He needed them.

“That’s all Erik knows. Don’t bother him. And don’t tell the others. There’s nothing we can do. Unless we get access to a way to communicate with Earth—we can do nothing.”

“But we have to tell them we’re here. Alive.”

Haley whispered. The others nodded. They looked at Aaron.

“Blackmage. Can you hack the phones? We’ve got computers. Other electronics.”

Aaron Vanwell felt the pressure of so many expectations. He shook his head, his shoulders slumping.

“I’ve tried. All I can do is create a fake network. There’s a resonance between phones. I hijacked that to talk to everyone the first time. I can do it again—Wistram is trying to boost the signal. But there’s nothing from home.”

Because they were in another world. You could expand the signal to go thousands of miles. But how could you make it cross dimensions? Or whatever separated them? Aaron had to believe—the answer lay at a higher level.

“We’re trying. For now, we’ll meet up again. Remember, keep it secret. Don’t tell anyone with loose lips. No [Mages] know about this. We’re in this together. We’re not in different factions. We’re from Earth.

Elena went around the room, and the others nodded. Some were doubtful; perhaps the word would get out. But they had to try.

“Aaron, you said you had one last thing to bring up. What is that?”

Jacques looked at Aaron. The [Engineer] took a deep breath.

“I’m—there might be one ally in Wistram. At least, someone we can trust. He helped me find this room. I’ve been asking around, but I can’t find a trace of him. If any of you sees him—let me know.”

“Who is it? A [Mage]?”

“No. I think he’s a ghost. Of an Archmage.”

The others fell silent. Elena’s eyes narrowed slowly.

“You didn’t tell me that, Aaron. When did you meet him?”

“During the winter.”

A few of the others looked up slowly. Haley leaned forwards.

“I haven’t seen ghosts. And I’ve seen a lot of weird things. But no talking paintings or ghosts. Yet. [Necromancers] are banned in Wistram, or so I hear.”

“Yeah. That might be why he’s hiding. But if you meet him—you’ll know.”

A few raised eyebrows. Shun raised one hand.

“What’s his name?”

Blackmage glanced up. He spoke the name.

“Emerrhain.”

The others looked blank. They promised to look out for him. Or check the history books. But that was the funny thing. Aaron was aware that even Wistram’s history books didn’t go back beyond the tens of thousands of years at most. But he’d searched for all this time. And he’d never seen the man’s name before. But he’d known about the secret study and this place.

So what else could he be? Elena stared at Aaron’s face as the others began to leave the room. And she shivered.

 

—-

 

Those were the things Earthers did. Plot in secret, have fun, work on their projects, and study magic or their passions. What else were they to do?

In a way, they were doing what all [Mages] did at Wistram. And if they weren’t allowed to leave—they were treated well. Elena wanted to leave.

But she was a minority. The others would love to leave, to see the wondrous sights or have an adventure—but only for a while. Wistram, as a place to live, was rather fine.

Telim explained it to Aaron the next day. He was having a rather large breakfast. Elena was speaking to a [Gravitationist], a [Mage] interested in testing her solar theories.

“Rather wonderful, these. What do you call them?”

Nasi goreng. That’s the rice stuff. And the—uh—quesadilla stuff is aloo paratha.

The man glanced down at what Aaron described as ‘quesadillas’. Which nearly made the Punjabi [Cook] throw down with him at that very second. It was actually a flatbread stuffed with a spicy potato interior, served with pickle, butter, yogurt—

“Mmf. It is tasty. Very…Chandrarian, one feels. They like these flatbreads.”

Telim was stuffing himself. He ate well; the buffets served to the [Mages] had no limits and Wistram Academy paid for the best foodstuffs. Aaron himself felt full.

“Uh, High Mage Telim, so as I was saying—you really haven’t left Wistram? Ever?”

The big [Mage] waved one hand lazily. He floated some more of the rice over and arranged it on his plate. A spoon rose and he let it feed him while talking.

“I visited First Landing and a few other cities over the years. But I’ve been a Wistram-[Mage] all my life. I was from Baleros, you know. My family sent me here and, well, once I graduated, I spent a year working at a Mage’s Guild on a port city in Terandria. Hated it. I came back here and never left again.”

“Why? Didn’t you want to explore?”

The man nearly sprayed rice over Aaron.

“Explore? My dear Blackmage, the world is a dangerous place! As if young Sidney didn’t know that…how is she, by the way?”

“Good. The sleeping tonic really helped. And the calming one. She actually didn’t take her light wand with her this morning.”

Although then she’d panicked and ran back to get it. But Telim’s smile was enough to justify the white lie.

“Good. That’s good. And as to answer your question, young man—I had dreams, of course! I wanted to be an adventurer. But—I was mugged while working at the Mage’s Guild. Jumped. I didn’t have a protection spell on and someone cracked me over the head and left me for dead. And my bed was never as comfortable as it was here. I also earned far less money since I had to spend on food, lodging, travel…”

He heaved a huge sigh.

“No, it wasn’t for me. Now, tourism I can get behind. But Wistram is much safer than the outside world. Food is practically free, and I can earn a comfortable living without needing to constantly work or send [Message] spells all day like some kind of cast-mule.”

He shuddered. Aaron looked at him curiously.

To his understanding, Telim was essentially the equivalent of a…college professor with tenure, to use an example from the American school system. He was an established [Mage] with a lot of connections and a place on Wistram’s Council. He was active politically, but Aaron didn’t see how he was allowed to stay here.

“Does Wistram allow any [Mage] to just…stay, High Mage Telim?”

“Goodness no! We’re rather strict about it, to be honest. I had to work hard to earn my place. But now I’ve done that…I can coast, if I’m honest. I’m a [High Mage]—that’s a generalist, to you—and I do some enchanting work. The academy is happy if I produce five Speak-Quills per month. See?”

He proffered the magical quill he made and gave to Wistram to earn his keep. Aaron glanced at it.

“What does it do?”

“Place it on the table—here. And see.”

Telim’s eyes twinkled. Aaron did that. He saw the quill balance, perfectly upright on the table. Sa’la moved her plates out of the way with a sigh.

“Um, High Mage Telim, I don’t see—”

Um, High Mage Telim, I don’t see—the quill instantly copied down Aaron’s words in a neat scrawl. He blinked.

“That’s amazing!”

“It’s just a bit of magic. The stupid thing needs to be reset each line, but they do sell well. Last about a year—or four months if you’re using it every day. My own design on the enchantment. You see? And like that, I earned my place here.”

Telim plucked the quill up as it copied Blackmage’s words. He put the quill away dismissively. And Aaron understood.

Telim was a [Mage]. He studied, and made artifacts. But what he really was was…a resident of Wistram. He didn’t want to leave.

He was the exact opposite of someone like Archmage Nailihuaile. She had grand ambitions for Earth’s technology. She wanted to amass more power, to make Wistram more powerful. She had connections abroad.

But the sedentary Telim was actually the largest faction in Wistram, spread across the other factions. The [Mages] who thought everything was pretty good and enjoyed their life as it was. And why not? Wistram Academy ran on secrets because it didn’t lack for food, or other resources.

Loafers. Idlers. People content to live and influence the world without rocking the boat. There was something almost addictive about the idea to Aaron.

Right up until Elena leaned over.

“So, you don’t feel that there’s any need to help, say, people in a family, high Mage?”

The man turned to look at her. He raised both brows.

“Miss Elena, Wistram sends its agents to do good the world over. I myself don’t participate, but I’ve voted to intercede in any number of issues. We oppose the King of Destruction, warmongers, and all their ilk.”

“But surely this good can be spread around.”

Elena gestured at the buffet. Telim gave her a blank look.

“And it will be. But do we need to starve while that happens?”

“That’s not what I—”

Sa’la waved a fork as she ate breakfast. The Selphid smiled at Elena and gestured around the vast dining hall.

“Miss Elena, we are an academy. Our job is to study and create magic that benefits the world. We are not a nation. We don’t take sides, except against those who would just destroy. Like Flos Reimarch. But Wistram is an international institution. We can’t be biased in favor of one nation. That’s how the Council works; we come from all walks of life and only by communal vote do we act. Take Ailendamus versus the Dawn Concordat for instance…”

She went on. Wistram was international. A place without ties to any one nation. Looked at another way, ‘international’ meant that you didn’t stand for anything except yourself.

That was sometimes how Aaron felt with some of the mages. But at that moment—Beatrice, the Dullahan [Runemistress] appeared at the table.

“High Mage Telim. Aaron’s presence is requested by Archmage Nailihuaile.”

“Oh? Well, I supposed you’d better go. Give Naili my best.”

Telim waved Aaron off. The young man got up.

“What does Naili want? I’m still working on the boat…”

“Not that. She wants you immediately. It’s private.

Beatrice never smiled. She was an important member of the Revivalists, and a secret-broker, someone who bought and sold valuable secrets. She and Montressa du Valeross had run their business when Aaron had first come here.

However. Beatrice had lost a…lover. Calvaron. Aaron didn’t know the story; Montressa hadn’t ever told him the entire thing. But the long and short was that the Dullahan hated [Necromancers] with a passion. And she was even more foul-tempered of late. She had called Montressa a traitor.

“Uh—Beatrice, where are we going?”

“The Archmage’s Wing.”

She looked at him. Aaron gulped.

 

—-

 

The Archmage’s Wing was a name for a section of Wistram taken over by the Archmages. It was meant for their projects, not their living spaces.

In the past, it would have been on the higher floors. But the higher levels were sealed. To go higher, one had to pass Cognita’s ‘test’.

And the Truestone Golem had killed every [Mage] ever to attempt to challenge her.

She was, in fact, waiting at the door. Beatrice and Aaron froze as the giant, stone woman looked at them.

Cognita’s mouth moved. Her eyes fixed on Aaron. She was made of stone, but even her dress moved as she walked. Truestone, a relic of Archmage Zelkyr’s power. No [Mage] was truly ever comfortable about her; as Elena had said, Golems could be said to rule Wistram while Cognita guarded the higher floors.

“Aaron Vanwell. Your presence is requested.”

“Cognita. I am bringing him to Archmage Nailihuaile—”

Beatrice actually backed up as Cognita stepped forwards. The golem towered over both Dullahan and Human; she was eight feet tall. And her face seldom changed.

“Another Archmage requests his presence.”

“Who? Archmage Viltach and Archmage Feor both—”

Beatrice knew who Cognita must be talking about and froze. Cognita looked at her.

“Archmage Amerys has not been formally stripped of her position by Wistram’s Council. In accordance with Wistram law, I will convey her requests. Even if she is currently being held in captivity.”

The Dullahan [Runemistress] gulped. So did Aaron. He didn’t like Amerys. But she had summoned him and Cognita had borne her request. Beatrice raised one finger.

“Amerys is a traitor to the academy—”

She is an Archmage of Wistram until the gathered [Mages] strip her of that honor. Your opinion does not change the truth.

Cognita’s voice did not rise. Nor did her face change. But she spoke in such a way that Beatrice’s words were run over, smashed flat, and ignored. The Dullahan backed up. Cognita looked at Aaron.

“I have conveyed her message. Be about your business, Aaron Vanwell.”

She nodded and walked off. Aaron saw Beatrice glaring at Cognita’s back. The Dullahan was holding onto the wand at her side under her robes. But Cognita hadn’t cared.

“…Follow me.”

Beatrice muttered after a second. Aaron followed her.

The doors to the Archmage’s Wing were sealed unless you had a magical key. Even Cognita didn’t have one—but somehow, Blackmage thought that if she really wanted in, the doors wouldn’t stop her.

But Beatrice let Aaron into a silent part of Wistram. Only a few [Mages] were allowed in here. And most were gathered in a dark room.

Large pictures were hung on the walls. On canvases, hanging or hovering in the air for the audience to inspect.

They were in theory paintings, but they were more like pictures. Magic had copied the images, and a [Paint Mage] had replicated them with spells. Aaron took one look at them and recoiled.

They were of Antinium. Huge, massive insectile forms sat in their Hives, surrounded by drones and soldier-ants. Queens. Each shot showcased the innards of the Hive, or something interesting. An Azure Antinium, a giant winged one speaking up to a broken Queen—a little Worker trundling a huge cart of food to another Queen—

“Ah, Aaron! You’re here. Thank you, Beatrice.”

Archmage Nailihuaile turned and smiled brightly. Beatrice bowed stiffly, holding her head in her hands.

“Archmage Naili, Cognita was waiting outside the wing. Amerys has summoned Aaron Vanwell.”

The Star Lamia froze for a second. Her magical staff—an artifact of her people, tapped on the ground.

Other figures in the audience turned. Archmage Feor, his hair white, frowned. The half-Elf was among the oldest of Wistram’s members by far. Naili hesitated, her slitted, lizard-like eyelids flickering.

“Cognita said that? Darn. I guess Aaron will have to go. Later. It’s better than getting into an argument with Cognita. You know how she is. You’ll take him, Beatrice. I’ll send word.”

“Yes, Archmage.”

“Come here, Aaron. How are you doing? Thanks for helping with the presentations the other day, by the way. I loved Elena throwing the canvasses. And Saif made everyone so upset. I got all kinds of complaints, but if he won, he won, right? Did you have a good breakfast?”

Archmage Nailihuaile was a social being. Like many Lizardfolk, really. She chattered. Aaron answered her distractedly as he made his way to an inner circle of three.

“Yes, Archmage Naili. Uh—Saif says he’d like to keep running the simulations, but he needs more ammunition.”

“Well, we’re having it made and we can always enchant more of those canisters. Let’s do it. And it’s good practice for the idiots who think they can walk around on a battlefield!”

Naili grinned. She’d been one of the first people to test Saif’s skills and he hadn’t ever managed to hit her. The Archmage had seen actual combat.

“The question is whether these ‘battles’ would mimic reality in any meaningful way. [Mages] don’t need to dodge. Our [Barrier] spells would block bullets.”

Archmage Viltach snorted impatiently. Naili rolled her eyes as Feor made room for Blackmage. Aaron stood among three Archmages of Wistram. He was the first Earther. And as such—they often summoned him and him alone.

“Viltach, if any of the stories from Earth are true, that’s the smallest weapon they have. And most of our idiots don’t even make all-encompassing shields.”

“It wastes mana and weakens the field.”

“Well, don’t say ‘our shields can block bullets’ when Saif shoots your Libertarians in the ass.”

The Lamia smiled smugly at Viltach’s dark expression. Before he could respond, Feor cleared his throat.

“Simulations of higher-grade weapons are unavailable as well, Viltach, Nailihuaile. Let us just take this as a lesson that our [Battlemages] need more practice on the actual battlefield. These…simulations provide entertainment, if nothing else.”

“In that we are agreed. Lend Saif to my faction, Nailihuaile.”

“Bite me, Viltach. Give us Eun for two days and I’ll give you Saif for one game.”

“That is not equitable—”

“Saif’s got his games. What have your Earthers come up with?”

“Archmages.”

The two bickering Archmages fell silent as Feor’s eyes flashed. The half-Elf’s presence was stronger than both Viltach and Naili’s. Even Aaron could tell that. Although Naili had her staff, which equalized any matchup.

And the Archmages did fight. Not often, but it had happened. Aaron had heard that when the three confronted Amerys she had called down a storm of lightning bolts across Wistram’s exterior. And that had just been the opening salvo.

But the three were united, at least in this. Feor gestured at the paintings.

“Aaron Vanwell. Good morning. Do you know what these pictures are?”

Aaron stared up at the images of the Antinium.

“…The interiors of the Hives?”

The Human Archmage folded his arms in distaste. He shook his head, repulsed by the image of the gigantic Queens.

“Yes. All six of them. They are viewing the Wistram…television.”

He pronounced the words awkwardly. Naili smiled.

“WNN. Wistram News Network!”

“I thought we agreed to call it World Wide News.”

“The point is that our…access…runs two ways. We have limited our observation. Rumors are already spreading. But we have obtained these images of the interiors of the Antinium Hives. As well as other valuable information.”

The Archmages nodded at each other. Aaron shifted. But for this, he might have dismissed Elena’s fears out of hand. But this—essentially—was everything conspiracy theories were made of in his world.

Wistram watched through the scrying orbs. Blackmage hadn’t suggested this. He’d objected—hard, in fact. But the [Mages] had been delighted by the idea.

“It seems Niers Astoragon, the heads of the Four Great Companies, among others, have found out. And word is spreading from ruler to ruler. We are denying allegations of course, but this is costing us politically. I’ve been smoothing feathers in Terandria. Those damn [Illusionists] did not help.”

Viltach informed the others. The two nodded absently.

“I consider it worth the cost considering we got this. But let’s scale back the observation, shall we? The Seer of Steel has already lodged a formal complaint. We don’t need him making it public…”

“We will be more covert. However, this…Aaron Vanwell. Tell us more about the ability of your devices. The camera functions.”

The three Archmages turned to Aaron. And there it was. He gulped.

“Um—what about them? I’ve showed you the video and camera functions.”

“If…we were to teleport a device into a room. Like the Grand Queen’s Hive—how covert would it be?”

Viltach studied Aaron. And Blackmage was sure they were casting [Detect Lies]. He didn’t need to lie, though. The truth was the truth.

“I…don’t know how you’d see the screen.”

“We can’t send the information back here?”

“Maybe with a call? But you’d have to access the phone. And keep it charged on the other end.”

“Could we…set it to record, send it over, and see what it picks up?”

The young man shrugged.

“Maybe with audio? I guess that works.”

The three Archmages conferred.

“…Not much better than an eavesdropping spell.”

“But they won’t pick it up with magic. That Azure Antinium was onto us, I’m convinced. Xrn the Small Queen.”

Feor stared long at the image of Xrn. Where Naili was interested and antagonistic and Viltach just disgusted, Feor looked…interested.

“…Yes. An accomplished spellcaster. But the point remains. Can the Antinium pick up this…device, Aaron Vanwell?”

“I don’t know. If the screen is on it’d be obvious. Aside from that, it’ll be just…quiet. Unless someone calls it or there’s an alarm on it.”

Naili tapped her staff on the ground, thinking.

“Seems risky. I don’t like it. Let’s not tip our claws, boys.”

The other two looked at her.

“It is possible the Antinium could sense the electricity in the device. I cast my vote against as well, Viltach.”

“It’s worth the risk! If the other three Archmages were here—”

“Once we get them here. They’re missing all the fun with Earth.”

Naili’s eyes glittered. Viltach nodded curtly. He looked back at the images of the Antinium and cursed.

“Well—what do we do with these?”

“Give them to the Drakes. They are still the best images of what the Hives look like by far. And some of the information we have recorded…is intriguing.”

Feor stroked at his white beard. He stared at Garry, with the poofy hat on his head, frowning with obvious confusion. Viltach just shook his head.

“That damned Reinhart. She’s depreciated the value of this information considerably with her stunt.”

“We have estimates of the other Hives. But I agree; this isn’t the landmark thing we wanted. And the Drakes will ask if we’ve been watching them. Which we have. I vote not to send.”

“Me as well. Let’s observe until we have something worth more. If the information leaks, the Antinium will stop using the orbs, Feor. And the Drakes have loose lips.”

The half-Elf Archmage sighed, but he had been overruled in this new vote. The three turned away from the painting and their followers backed up.

“Very well. Onto more pressing matters, then. This issue of the Golden Triangle.”

The three Archmages paused. Naili sighed.

“The Elusive Lot have been up to their tricks. I hear word’s spreading from Pallass. Grand Strategist Chaldion is crying the alarm. We can’t pretend ignorance. It’s time to act.”

“Who?”

Viltach just looked blank. He sighed.

“A high-ranking Drake? It would have been easier to let the Golden Triangle bleed some of the more objectionable idiots dry.”

“It’s going to destabilize the economy, Viltach. I was hoping the King of Destruction would get onto it—but I think the Ullsinoi objected.”

“Those idiots. We need to put a leash on them.”

He looked around for support, but Feor waved an ambivalent hand. Naili shook her head.

“You do it with the Council’s vote. I’m not having them causing actual trouble. We need to jump on this, Viltach. Feor?”

“Agreed. It’s caused enough trouble.”

The two Archmages turned to Blackmage as Viltach gritted his teeth. Two non-Humans versus one Human. He had been talking about summoning the other Archmages—probably to win more of these votes, Aaron guessed.

But Feor was now fixing Aaron with a silvery gaze and the young man gulped. Feor had not been pleased by his defection. Still, his voice was level.

“Aaron Vanwell. Are you sure this is a fraud attempt by a fellow Earther? Our agents have investigated, and there is no evidence these adventurer teams exist. Ullsinoi is sure, but we must be absolutely sure when we speak as Wistram Academy.”

“I’m—I’m sure, Archmage Feor. Elena, all the others agree. It’s a pyramid scheme. It’s one of us doing it. Probably. I’d put money on it.”

“Better that than this scheme. You heard him, Feor. Today?”

The half-Elf passed a hand over his face. He sighed, wearily.

“Today. Let us contact…Sir Relz and Noass.”

“Noass. Heh.”

The two Archmages looked at Nailihuaile. And like that, they were done with Aaron. Beatrice took him away as they turned to discussing Jecrass.

“King Raelt will fall. The question is: do we rescue him or let him fight to the last? Does Chandrar need martyrs?”

“Flos has killed hundreds of martyrs. I vote we try to help…”

 

—-

 

The Archmages were like that. Schemers. Even if it was cheerfully like Naili—they made decisions that impacted the world. The very definition of the Illuminati, really. Aaron wanted to believe they weren’t evil people.

But that wasn’t the point, was it? What Elena hated was the idea of anyone having that kind of power.

This world was made of levels and classes, though. One person having more power was how this world worked. You had to remember that. And if you had no power?

The Fourth Archmage of Wistram sat in a cell. Her arms and legs were bound in a type of magical straightjacket. Chains had been attached to her legs and body, and the bars on her cell were almost unnecessary.

But they were still there, and the two [Mages] guarding Archmage Amerys at every moment were not happy to let Aaron talk with her.

“Cognita insists.”

Beatrice told them, and that was that. They had orders not to let anyone but an Archmage see Amerys. Her captivity was a secret in Wistram. Some of the highest-ranking [Mages] knew, but the public did not.

She sat there, eyes burning, gagged as well. That was new.

“Why’s she gagged?”

“She bit the fingers off one of the [Mages] serving her food. You want to speak to her? You have to remove the gag. She’s tied up even more now. But watch out.”

The half-Elf grimaced. Aaron stared at her.

Then, with great trepidation, he approached Amerys. She stared up at him. Her mouth was bound, but he thought she was smiling.

“Archmage? I’m going to remove your gag. Please don’t bite me.”

She made no move. Slowly, Blackmage untied the gag around her mouth. He saw the Archmage move—

Amerys’ teeth snapped together and the young man fell onto his back, scrambling away with a shout. The two [Mages] raised their staffs, but the lightning-mage just laughed. And then coughed.

She hadn’t really gone for his fingers. But as Blackmage had observed—Archmage Amerys was sort of a jerk.

“Talk to me, boy.”

That was all she said. The Archmage of Chandrar coughed as Aaron slowly approached. One of the [Mages] motioned.

“She can have water. But don’t let her drink out of anything but this.”

A wood straw in a wood cup. Aaron eyed Amerys. She grinned at him.

“Lightning runs in my body. I would have killed Viltach if this room wasn’t shockproof. I spat water at him.”

He shuddered. Amerys was dangerous. Unlike Viltach, or Feor, who were more academics, Amerys had gained her levels from war. Even Nailihuaile didn’t compare. He slowly offered her the cup.

“Please don’t spit.”

She drank from the straw, coughed again.

“Don’t worry, boy. I’m not interested in your life. I wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to, anyways. Cognita lets me summon you. Not the others.”

“I think the Archmages wouldn’t like that.”

Elena would love to talk to Amerys, but Feor would flip. Amerys nodded, grinning. Her skin was dark; she was native Chandrarian, and her eyes seemed to sparkle even in her magical cuffs.

“I know. But what does Cognita want, hm? That’s the only question that matters.”

The two [Mages] and Beatrice all shifted uncomfortably. Aaron looked at Amerys.

“Are you…doing well?”

She sighed. And some of the edge faded from her tone. She sat back, more comfortably, and spoke to Aaron as he served her some of the food. It wasn’t dried bread and nothing else; it was this morning’s rice. Wistram wasn’t monstrous. The bindings were mostly because Amerys kept attacking her captors.

“I haven’t gone crazy yet, bratling. And I could leave here at any time. If I renounce my lord, turn my back on Reim, and swear in blood to serve only the academy.”

Her tone made it clear she’d rather go crazy first. Aaron sat there.

“My name’s Aaron Vanwell.”

“Sure.”

She stared at him. The young man felt annoyed. He’d told her every visit and she refused to even remember it.

“I don’t have to come here. Is politeness dead on Chandrar?”

The lightning mage laughed at him. Her eyes focused on him, and the pupils were unnervingly intense.

“You want me to remember your name, boy? Earn that right. You’re a child who hasn’t seen war. You don’t know what the world outside of Wistram is. Tell me—have your comrades told you what they endured to get here? Feor tells me there are more, every week now.”

Aaron hesitated. The memory of Basil, Sidney’s stories flashed across his face. And Amerys saw.

“That’s right. They know what death and glory look like. You’re just a child.”

“I don’t have to take this.”

Blackmage stood up hotly. Amerys laughed as he stormed towards the cell’s opening.

“I’m the only Archmage in Wistram who tells you the truth! Run away if you’re craven! But you’ll be back!”

She was right. They made him go back to put her gag back on. Aaron stomped into the cell and glared at her.

“You could make these chats more pleasant, you know.”

She shrugged awkwardly. Amerys’ voice became contemplative.

“I could try. But even before I was a captive, no one ever called me ‘kind’. My lord said that I oft reminded him of a cactus that spat needles. Have you ever seen one?”

“No. It sounds horrible.”

“I rather liked the compliment.”

Her voice was wistful. She shook her head slightly.

“Anyways, I often clashed with Orthenon. He is as stubborn as a goat. Or Gazi. Mars I got on fine with. Drevish I liked. Ah, but to be with the Seven. Or however many remain. I hear Drevish was killed.”

She spoke of the King’s Seven. Of Chandrar. And she often asked him for news. Aaron sat with Amerys as she rambled.

“I hear he rides against Jecrass, my [King] of war. He needs me, you know.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. Parasol Stroll marches with them and he has stolen a [Grand Mage] of Belchan. All well and good, but I am his hammer of magecraft. Without me, his armies suffer. I am the most destructive of the Seven in combat. The most fragile as well. But we are all needed. Without Drevish, no grand cities shall be built, no walls to break his foes. Without Tottenval, how will Reim feed its armies? And Queravia…her genius would have felled Jecrass two weeks hence!”

She sighed. And stared at Aaron.

Will you set me free?

The woman mouthed that. Aaron stared at her. He half-shook his head.

She asked. Of course she asked. And he was certain that Feor, Naili, Beatrice and everyone else watched him like a hawk. Even if he had his shock-glove, he doubted he could have freed her anyways. The magical bindings were beyond powerful. You couldn’t sever them with power tools.

“I’m sorry, Archmage Amerys. I…thank you for helping me with the batteries.”

“It was my pleasure. I am bored to death, here. Do your lightning-machines run on it?”

“I’m actually trying. But I…uh…destroyed an iPhone.”

Even trying to convert the raw power of the magicore batteries Amerys had helped him make had overloaded the iPhone. Now Aaron had a lot of parts—and a very unhappy Earther. He’d been working on the sailboat by way of recompense.

“Lamont’s boat is coming along. It’ll be a magical sailboat.

Amerys smiled. Blackmage and Naili had been working on the project for the [Sailor], who had crewed a ship before being found. He wanted a small sailboat to sail around Wistram’s safe harbors—but with a twist. Magical wind would blow into the sail forever. Normally you’d need an [Aeromancer] to do that, but Naili had created a spell to do it.

The only issue was powering the spell. You needed magic. So Blackmage had installed a magicore battery—the same one that powered the Shock Orb he’d given Montressa.

“A children’s toy.”

“You could go pretty far with it.”

But not cross an ocean. Aaron had seen the waves outside of Wistram Academy and they’d crush this boat if it came to a storm. Amerys nodded.

A ship enchanted with this would work. In fact, such ships existed. Many [Captains] used wind-magic like this. Blackmage wasn’t inventing the wheel…or sail as the case may be. He was just making the magical technology available for all with his battery.

A ship was out of the question. It was too hard to work on a secret project of that magnitude. Aaron had spirited away a few of the batteries, made a copy of the shock-glove that could emit a lot of electricity. Yet—he couldn’t envision a scenario where he defeated an Archmage.

“Let’s talk about news. Uh—there was this thing in therapy…”

He told her the story of High Mage Telim. That did make Amerys smile.

“That fat buffoon? He has a kind heart. He’s like you.”

Aaron didn’t appreciate the comparison.

“Is he…he’s a [High Mage], though, right?”

“A generalist. He’s not bad. But lazy. He is a genius when it comes to the minutiae of spells. Making the speech-quills was his great achievement. Some exist, but he reinvented them. Imagine how difficult that is. Each word you speak is transcribed. Each letter. That is his genius, in those small things. Not in casting lightning bolts.”

Blackmage nodded slowly. He saw Amerys trying to scratch at something on her chin. Then she gave up.

“Ah. Another crop of students comes for the summer. Months pass and I am slowly going insane. I may bite my tongue of frustration.”

She sat there, seething, but helpless. Aaron looked at her.

“You’ll never accept Naili’s offer? Or the others?”

The Archmage of Lightning laughed. Kindly, this time. She shook her head at him.

“Have you—no, boy. You’ve never met someone you really respect, have you? Someone worth dying for? That is my [King]. I will wait. And should it take him razing Wistram stone by stone to free me, he will do so. Or die. And if he dies—I will be Wistram’s pet. But those are the only options for me.”

She looked somberly at Aaron, ignoring the uncomfortable [Mages] listening in. He nodded.

“But it might take years.”

“It might. And I might crack in half before he arrives. But I do not think so. Live or die—Flos Reimarch, my King of Reim is coming. I am a poor damsel in distress, boy. But I can wait. And do you know why?”

Blackmage shook his head. Amerys leaned forwards and her eyes glittered.

“I take heart and cling to sanity in my cell because my king shares one trait with me. He is not a patient man.”

She laughed, softly. Then Amerys told Aaron how to convert electricity into a weaker form, to bind it. And bid him go until next time. He left, a bit worried that of all the Archmages…he might like her the most. She was always honest with him.

And she was also a bit of a jerk. Next time he’d borrow a laptop and show her a movie.

 

—-

 

Later that day, Aaron Vanwell wrote a letter to Joseph. It took him six tries. Not because he was particularly bad or fussy over the letter. It was just that he wasn’t the one fussing.

Dear Joseph—

“Do you think maybe that’s too formal? What about ‘Hey Joseph!’.”

The young man slowly crossed out the top line and wrote again.

Hey, Joseph—”

“Wait, no, that was just a suggestion. I’m just tossing them out there. Don’t take all of mine at once!”

Nailihuaile saw Aaron look up with a pained expression. She hesitated.

“…Let me get you a magical quill.”

But even with dictation she fussed over his letter to Joseph. Aaron would’ve just said ‘hey Joseph, I’m from Wistram. You’re clearly from Earth. Come on over; there’s free food. Bring your soccer ball.’

That worked for him, but Nailihuaile wanted a crafted letter to convince Joseph to leave the Ullsinoi faction—whom she was convinced were sheltering him at Liscor—and come to the Revivalists.

“Okay, that’ll do. We need multiple letters! Everyone from our faction is sending one! I bet Viltach and Feor are doing the same! But Montressa can deliver these herself! Thanks, Aaron! Are you sure we have enough soccer-talk?”

“I like baseball more.”

Aaron grumbled as Naili slithered out of his room with the letters. He sighed. Politics. But the soccer game…

Why couldn’t life be fun? He pulled out his armor-project, which was him trying to make a suit of armor that would encase a magicore battery. In theory, a [Mage] could run around with all the power of plate armor but none of the limitations.

That was to say—it was damn hard to cast spells in armor. It messed with your magical field. However, if you had two discharge stations on, say, the gloves, you could focus lightning bolts while drawing on your internal mana and the battery.

It wouldn’t be perfect, and if the enemy was made of rubber you’d be in trouble. But it was an idea.

Still, Aaron wasn’t in the mood for it. After a few minutes of tinkering, he gave up. Here he was, trying to make something that would…would…

Protect people. Make them more deadly in combat. But who was he making it for? He wasn’t going to be able to take it outside of Wistram any time soon.

A while ago, Aaron had been helping find Earthers. He’d felt good about that, locating them, bringing them here. He’d even helped the others. Not ‘batman’, but Cara—he’d send her artifacts that had helped her rise to her status as Singer of Terandria. Heck, he’d convinced Nailihuaile to design the song-crystals! Where were his royalties on that?

…The truth was that Aaron wanted to do more. More, than just sit here. He liked inventing things. But his inventions had to be put to good use. After listening to the stories of the outside, he was almost okay with not putting his neck on the line.

And still.

 

—-

 

High Mage Telim was sitting in front of the scrying orb with a number of other [Mages]. There were several viewing stations set up across the academy. They might produce the WNN—Wistram News Network, but it was still a fascination to them.

They were watching soccer. Aaron felt his spirits rise as he saw the game being played.

“Is this a rerun?”

“Not at all. This is a ‘match’ between…I think it’s Pallass and another local city? Not Liscor. See? They’ve already made these teams. I say! Look at that Drake go!”

A flying Drake dove out of the skies and gave the soccer ball a tremendous kick. A group of Drakes went running after it and a female Drake was commentating.

Big shot from Xess! But I think—I think it’s out of bounds! Yes! Aerial tactics aren’t good if you can’t kick the ball!

The crowd booed as a penalty shot was set up. Aaron watched as Drassi, the newly-minted sports reporter kept shouting into her speaking stone. She’d replaced Sir Relz and Noass and apparently been hired for this moment.

Aim! I’m taking a break from my day-job to watch a good game, not some idiots kicking the ball sideways! I know a Gnoll kid who can kick the ball straight! Speaking of which, I hear Selisel is complaining about so many fliers on Pallass’ team.”

She pointed. Three Drakes and two Garuda were in the air compared to the one from the other, smaller Drake city. Drassi went on.

“We have a kick—oh, and the fliers are going after it! Honestly, I don’t think flying makes you better per se. If the ball is on the ground, a flier has to land. And they still have to aim! Now, if they juggle the ball in the air, that’s different. Maybe make a rule saying only two aerial passes? Anyways—oh! Great shot down the middle, but it’s blocked and coming back our way—duck!

The soccer ball shot towards the stands. The crowd ducked, but the ball bounced off a magical shield. Drassi crawled back up.

Penalty! Hey Pallass! Learn to control the ball! Yeah, you heard me! Want me to get Ekirra to show you how to kick? He’s 7!

Blackmage grinned as Drassi waved and shouted at one of the fliers, who was taking objection to this commentary. He saw the other [Mages] laughing too, but they were focused on the game.

“Fifty gold and a small secret says Pallass takes it. Any takers?”

Sa’la looked around. Instantly, another Drake snorted.

“That Drake is right. Those fliers don’t have their wings. If it was an all-Garuda team, they’d have more control. But Drakes don’t learn flight from birth. Believe me. I’ll take your wager.”

“How about two middling secrets on Pallass?”

“I’ll take that bet.”

The [Mages] were putting down money, whatever they had in their pockets—Aaron saw one bet consisting of twelve gold pieces, a magic ring, and a slightly-stale quiche. He turned to Telim.

“Are you all betting on the game?”

“Only naturally. It’s fun to watch. How are you today, young Aaron? The Archmages not keeping you running about?”

The [High Mage] was taking his ease—as he had been the entire day. Aaron shrugged.

“A bit. Are you…not working?”

“What on?”

“The magic quills—”

“Oh, those. I can make five in five days. Don’t tell the academy.”

Telim waved that off. Blackmage stared at him. Then he abruptly sat down.

“You don’t think you could make more?”

The bearded man snorted.

“You sound like Miss Elena. I could, but I don’t sell the quills. And even if I did—I’d ruin [Scribes]. The quills are useful for the rich, but let’s not ruin an entire class, hm?”

Aaron thought about typewriters, and the proliferation of the written word. A [Scribe] could copy a book, but what about a printing press?

“Don’t you think it would be more convenient to…make something?”

Telim tapped the side of his nose.

“Ah, but what? A [Scribe] at high levels can write faster than my quills, young Aaron. Your world’s technology can make things more efficient, I grant you, but at higher levels we surpass your world. Your…little gadgets are something that make things convenient for all.”

That was true. Aaron nodded. Telim went on.

“However…the academy is not interested in making things convenient. If we can do it already, why waste time and money working on the same? I regret to say that’s why your submission for your project involving these…bicycles was turned down. We have magic carpets.”

“But if we had a car or other means of transport…”

Aaron raised his voice in protest. Part of the problem was that without funding, you couldn’t get anything done. With it? Nailihuaile or a high-level [Mage] would enchant whatever you needed. You’d get funding, supplies—Aaron had been drowning in magicore and different metals when he made the first battery and shock orb. But it dried up for projects like the boat. He’d had to beg Naili for even that wind spell.

Telim just patted Aaron on the back.

“Lack of interest, young man. We’re not interested in reinventing the wheel when we can fly. I admire the cause, but let me give you some advice: if you want to make something that will earn you funding, make something that appeals to us.

He gestured at the other lazy [Mages]. And the [High Mage] lowered his voice conspiratorially.

“And then, take twice as long on the project and ask for double, triple what you need. That’s how you fund your little side-projects.”

He winked at Aaron. The young man felt like he was learning a terrible life lesson. But he took it to heart and looked at the soccer game. He had a sudden idea and his eyes lit up.

“You know, in Earth, there’s a betting system. Across the world! What if we made one—”

“Too late.”

Telim snapped his fingers, jovially. Aaron looked at him.

“What?”

“We have a system of betting. [Bookkeepers] around the world are using [Message] spells to place bets. I put eighty gold on Pallass to win at good odds. And they are letting me down!”

He roared at the screen. Aaron sighed.

“What about making a…a federation of soccer teams?”

“Isn’t that what we’re seeing?”

Telim gave Aaron a blank look. Blackmage frowned.

“…Football. I’ve got it! I’ll bring football to this world!”

“I thought that was this game.”

Sa’la leaned over. Aaron shot to his feet.

“No! American football! It’s this game with this—different ball. And you carry it—”

He was excited. Take the funding, make his other projects! Telim listened for five seconds, and then raised a hand.

“Ah. Young Basil is doing that. You mean, rugby. And someone is doing a ‘basket-ball’ game too. And hockey.”

The young [Engineer] faltered.

“They are?”

The problem with being from Earth in Wistram was that he wasn’t alone anymore. It turned out that after seeing the soccer game—every other Earther in Wistram had promptly recalled other sports. They were bringing in rugby, hockey, baseball (not knowing Liscor already had that game), ping pong from Shun’s group…curling had been suggested, but none of the factions had been interested in funding the project.

Aaron saw all his funding ideas dry up. He sat back down as Telim explained that Wistram would be disseminating the games, trial-running them in the academy and then seeding the ideas in other parts of the world.

“A noble effort, Aaron. But you have to be fast on the ball to secure funding in this academy.”

He smiled at Blackmage, not unkindly. Aaron sat there. It was just stealing from Earth, anyways. He wouldn’t have been proud of that.

“…Maybe I’ll just try copying Saif’s airsoft gun again. Then we could have matches.”

He muttered. Telim looked interested.

“That would be entertaining. You could probably get some funding for that—but you wouldn’t be able to fudge the numbers. Recreating an object is hard to lie about.”

“Darn.”

“Have some of this lovely avocado. Avocado. I thought we called them Getal fruits, Sa’la?”

“That’s what we call them in Baleros, Telim.”

“Hm. Oh well.”

Telim chewed on the avocado, lightly seasoned and warm. Delicious when spread, really. He spoke to Aaron conversationally.

“You could always approach a single magus for funding, Aaron. I’m sure some of the seafarers would like your magical boat-thing. A Drownedfolk [Mage], perhaps. I could introduce you. But I myself wouldn’t fund it. And I could put money into a project. One accumulates wealth as they rise in Wistram’s ranks over time. But I’m not much for being shot in the groin by that gun-thing.”

That was fair. Aaron sighed.

“I just want a copy. It could be fun. Or—a wand-gun. But that’s just a wand strapped to a frame.”

“…Not exactly technologically advanced. What is the problem with a good old-fashioned wand? I grant you, it’s not as quick as that pistol-thing, but…”

Telim flicked his wand out and shot a spell. It hit a Dullahan in the back and knocked her head clean off her body. Her head landed on the floor and she shouted.

Ow! Who did that?

The [High Mage] hurriedly hid the wand. Aaron hid a smile as Telim pointed to a student who had just run off and the Dullahan raced off in a fury. Aaron looked at the raccoon-bearded man.

“I don’t want a gun to kill people. That’s why I refused to upgrade Saif’s gun. Not that I could. I don’t know how to make gunpowder.”

And George was refusing to let on that he knew. Aaron went on as Telim nodded with one ear, the rest focused on the losing Pallass team.

“But it’d be—fun, you know? To try to be a…a hero with a wand.”

Didn’t everyone dream of fighting undead with a wand, or blasting spells at their enemies? Shooting guns at aliens was the basis of a lot of the first videogames. Telim looked at Aaron and his eyes lit up.

“Young man, that is exactly how I felt decades ago. And then I got mugged. But I understand completely. I’d love to try my spells on some vast beast…”

He flicked the wand out and then looked for the Dullahan [Mage] and hurriedly put it away. Aaron smiled.

“I wish an adventure could be…safe. Oh—wait! There is something like that from Earth.”

He stood up. Telim blinked as Aaron hurried off. Then he went back to watching the game.

 

—-

 

Pallass lost. Much to the dismay of the Walled City, which should not lose because it was a Walled City, y’know? Telim was grumbling about wasted gold when Blackmage came back with a laptop.

“High Mage, look at this.”

He had a videogame on it. Just a basic one. Halo CE. Aaron wasn’t the best gamer, but Telim, Sa’la, and a bunch of [Mages] crowded around as he ran through one of the levels.

“Good gracious! What colors!”

Duck! Duck!

“Is that like Saif’s rifle? What horrible monsters!”

The [Mages] were greatly entertained. Some had seen video games, though, and Telim had even watched a few movies—the Earther’s tech wasn’t restricted. Attempts to copy the laptops had all failed, though.

“A fascinating game. Yes, I could just wish to teleport into that game and see those beasts dodge a [Fireball]!”

He waved his wand and everyone around him leaned back. But then Telim caught himself.

“—Yet my aim is shoddy and I know I’d die, Aaron, even with precautions. Real combat is never so polite. I know my limits. My goodness, even Archmage Feor once took a punch from this rather muscular Drake in an actual duel. And he stands at the top of magical talent. I think he broke a rib. Imagine what would happen if I’d taken the same?”

He looked a bit sad as he said that. He understood Aaron’s dream. But he was practical—in some ways, more realistic than Aaron.

Blackmage nodded. He closed the laptop, sighing. And then—well—had a thought.

The young man looked at Telim, wistfully flipping up the writing-quills he’d developed himself. And then, he spotted Galei, who was whistling as he walked off to tempt some other [Mages] with some tickets for The Players of Celum. He looked at his laptop and thought of Saif.

And he had it.

Mage Galei! Excuse me! Mage Galei!

Aaron went running after the Centaur. He nearly ran into the Centaur—and collided with a young Lizardgirl.

Taxiela fell to the ground with a squeak. Aaron stumbled, extended a hand. He wasn’t sure if it was Taxiela; he could have run into an illusion; good [Illusionists] could make a fake rock wall into almost the real thing.

“I’m sorry—uh—Taxiela?”

“Hello, Aaron Vanwell! How are you doing?”

The Lizardgirl vanished. Galei trotted around Aaron and grinned at him. Even Aaron, used to [Mages], had to recollect himself.

“I uh—I was hoping to chat, Mage Galei—”

“Yes, about Joseph? Property of the Ullsinoi, I’m afraid. But if you’d like to talk, I can do that. But it’s give and take. Tell Naili that, if she sent you.”

The [Illusionist], Palt’s master, chuckled. Aaron shook his head.

“Actually, Mage Galei—I was hoping you’d be interested in funding one of my projects.”

The Centaur blinked. The Ullsinoi faction hadn’t funded any Earther projects so far. Nor had they been awarded any Earthers. They had power, but it wasn’t in the Council or politically. They were the dark sheep of Wistram, with the understanding that said sheep sometimes stole all the underwear of all the [Mages] in Wistram and tossed it into the sea. Because it was funny.

“Interesting. What makes you think the Ullsinoi faction would back your projects? All the other factions have money to burn. But we tend to want things we can use. No little ‘skirmishes’ with Saif. No prototypes. The real thing.”

The Centaur and Blackmage stood in a black room. Enclosed in all sides. A privacy box. Aaron looked around, blinking. Then he replied to the Centaur standing there, watching him with amused eyes.

“That’s true, Mage Galei. Most of what we do isn’t worth much. And I don’t want to mass-produce Saif’s guns. Or even the shock orbs.”

“No taste for warfare? I can respect that. But then—what?”

The Centaur trotted around Aaron, nodding. And the young man spread his arms.

“Fun, Mage Galei. Shouldn’t life have a bit of fun?”

He heard laughter. The Centaur threw back his head and laughed.

“Well said, young man! What is life if not to be enjoyed? But we have all kinds of entertainment. Soccer, plays…what could you add?”

“Combat. Adventure. Action.

The Centaur vanished. A Lizardgirl sat on a tree branch. Aaron turned. The [Illusionist] winked at him.

“Gladiator arenas. Pit fights. You’re saying nothing new, young man.”

“Those still hurt people. And I can’t take part in them. I’m talking…about something else, Mage Galei. Your world might have it. But I don’t think you have my world’s vision.”

Blackmage took a breath. He was no hero. He was no one’s guy, the one they turned to. But he could change the world. Because…he did have passions.

“I’m talking about videogames. Virtual reality. Holograms. Mage Galei. Have you ever tried to create an illusion you could fight?”

The mage’s eyes glinted.

“Of course. [Mages] train like that all the time. I’ve used illusions as a distraction. What’s new about that?”

Aaron smiled. He spread his arms wide.

“Only a few things. I hear Mage Telim is an expert at programming minute details into spells. Have you ever imagined…a scenario? One where you get to fight and live out a dream without ever being in danger? Mage Taxiela, would you pay for that? And if you would—how many people would pay for it as well?”

The [Illusionist] paused on her perch on the tree. And then she laughed. Aaron felt a clawed hand on his shoulder. He turned—and a Garuda woman leaned forwards. Her feathers were black, save for white on her wingtips. Her eyes were a dusky yellow. She winked at him.

“Tell me more.

 

—-

 

The hallway was dark. Quiet. The stone floor covered with moss was slippery underfoot, and Blackmage steadied himself as he raised his glowing wand. He could not slip here.

Ahead of him, he heard chattering bones. Skeletal figures moved down the hallway, peeking at him with glowing eyes. He turned, hearing more movement. They were flanking him. Blackmage raised his wand—

Telim attacked the darkness.

[Lightning Bolt]! Oho!

He shot a blast of crackling lightning past Aaron’s shoulder. The young man dove.

Holy fuck!

The blast of lighting knocked a group of skeletons to pieces. The impact and searing ozone left a stench in the air as Aaron scrambled to his feet.

“To arms! The undead are attacking!”

Telim shot [Light Arrows] at the zombies and skeletons racing at them. Aaron turned, pointed his glove, and focused.

Unleash—

The entire battery discharged as his metal glove rose. The lightning arced forwards as he willed it and hit the undead horde.

The spell was real. The monsters illusory. There was a momentary flicker as the spell tried to keep up, and then the undead exploded.

“I say! That’s a great spell! Just, er, don’t hit me with it! From the left!”

Telim, puffing, aimed his wand left. More undead coming down the corridor. Leaping Ghouls. His [Fireball] blew them to bits. Aaron laughed with adrenaline. He turned, wand ready—

A skeletal thing dropped off the ceiling. It landed on Aaron and he got one chance to scream. Telim whirled, as the thing reached down and bit—

Out! Aaron’s dead!

The illusion froze for a moment. Aaron, flailing wildly, looked around and saw Saif, Galei in his Centaur form, and Mage Yerzhen and two more of the Elusive Lot waving at him. Shamefaced, he crawled away as Telim puffed.

“Do I—do I go after it resumes?”

“Yup! Starting in five, four, three…”

The illusion resumed. Telim blasted the bone-thing away and whirled. He did pretty well. As the audience watched from the viewing platforms, the [High Mage] proceeded to blast undead around. Of course, they were illusions, but programmed with a bit of weight behind them. Spells passed through, but they were programmed to simulate the hits.

Telim had done that. He really did have the minutiae down. The Elusive Lot had come up with the spells.

“We’ll have to work on permanent versions. Old Telim’s really letting them have it. I didn’t know he knew that many combat spells.”

Galei chortled as he ate popcorn and watched. Yerzhen nodded. He grinned.

“Uh oh! There comes the Bone Giant! And the Ghouls. He doesn’t see them. I think—out!

The Ghouls got Telim as he tried to blast the Bone Giant in the boss room. The [Mage] was sweating liberally and panting, but he looked ecstatic.

“What a scenario! I say! Can we go again?”

As the illusions faded, Aaron eyed the skirmish room. Telim’s spells had blasted around the room.

“…I think we need to talk about protective gear to avoid friendly fire, High Mage. And reinforcing the walls?”

The man looked abashed. But he was as excited as Saif and Blackmage.

“Hey, can we make my gun work on the simulation?”

“Shouldn’t be too hard. The illusions are just registering hits. If we tweak the spell—it’s like hit points, Saif. Only they take into account the intensity. But we can probably make a ‘fake version’ and give people wands that simulate spells.”

“And the real adventurers can even fight monsters. Imagine it! Practice fighting Crelers! Or—or live out a dungeon experience! Dead gods, but the nobility will pay for these entertainments!”

Telim mopped at his brow. The Elusive Lot were nodding.

“I see money in this.”

Galei rubbed his hands together, grinning. Aaron looked around. The virtual reality games he’d proposed had their early backers. And he had no doubt that the other factions would get behind it.

“It’s not the biggest thing. But it’ll do.”

The young man muttered to himself. And they needed him. Even the Elusive Lot, who could do the illusions, and Telim didn’t have the idea of making reality into games. But Blackmage had played tabletop games, video games. Heck, his nickname came from a comic.

He looked around. It was a fantasy in a fantasy world. But that was alright. He looked at Telim.

“Can we talk funding then, [Mages]? I’ll try not to overcharge you, but the development might be expensive…for other factions.”

The [High Mage] laughed. Blackmage, Aaron Vanwell, made a friend. And that night…

 

—-

 

That night, the usual broadcast from Wistram Academy changed. A [Message] spell on high-alert was sent to all of Izril and Terandria, where the issue was greatest. People tuned in to see Archmage Feor, Nailihuaile, and Viltach standing on-screen.

“Good evening.”

Feor spoke, his brows furrowed. He did not waste time. The Archmage lifted a hand and something appeared in it.

A golden triangle. The symbol floated in the air and the half-Elf made it hover. He looked at it with distaste. Naili continued.

“This is an emergency broadcast from Wistram Academy. I regret to inform you all that the academy has just uncovered a troubling event currently taking place in Izril and Terandria. Recently, in every city, people have been approached regarding investing money in an organization known as ‘The Golden Triangle’. However, under no circumstances should anyone invest money in this scheme. It is a trick. Fraud. This is the largest fraud ever to appear…ever. Archmage Viltach?”

Viltach gestured. And a carefully-designed graphic floated over and appeared behind the Archmages.

“The Golden Triangle appears at first to be the concept of investing in Gold-rank companies and [Mages]. However, these individuals and groups do not exist. The money is instead given to other members. Our [Mages] at Wistram have analyzed the way this fraudulent scheme works, and this is the method. First…”

They began to break down the Golden Triangle piece by piece, explaining to a stunned audience that their money wasn’t real. They were just taking money from the next group of investors, and so on and so forth. The scheme would—it had to collapse.

And it did, at this very moment. [Lords] found the gold they had invested gone. People sending thousands of [Messages] to the Golden Triangle’s organization found that—there had only been a skeleton crew. And the bewildered members of the Golden Triangle found themselves arrested, questioned. But no one knew where all the money had gone.

The trail vanished near the top. And the gold was gone. Leaving tens, hundreds of thousands out a little or a lot of coin. Hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. In another month, it might have been millions.

 

—-

 

Chaos reigned. More than one person realized they’d lost everything. Watch Captain Zevara sat at her desk as panic set in across her city. She listened to the Archmages speak.

“Damn them.”

They had no idea what this was causing. Announcing it like this? Watch Captains all over the world were scrambling. Her Watch was in the streets, quelling a beginning riot.

But Wistram had unveiled the plot. They’d get credit for that. And if Zevara ever met the Archmages, she would stab them. In the meantime, Watch Captain Zevara just sat there and listened to the pyramid scheme come crashing down.

[Mages]. They never wondered who was on the ground from their lofty citadel. The pieces were landing on people.

Or perhaps they knew. Perhaps it was all some great plan. Wistram Academy stood alone. And in the meantime—Watch Captain Zevara closed her eyes. She stood up, and called out amid the shouting.

“Someone please summon Senior Guardsman Relc. At once. I need to speak with him.”

 

—-

 

One last thing. A little note in between the different stories. Inconsequential? Hardly, but a small thing.

Palt found Joseph listening to the reports coming from Liscor. Erin had closed her magic door; The Wandering Inn was in lockdown and no one unfriendly was going to get through the trapped hallway. Pallass and Liscor were both heaving.

“Joseph.”

The young man started. He looked up as the Centaur, smoking something, bent down.

“What is it…Palt?”

“I have something for you. From my faction. This. And this. Don’t worry; I’ll get reimbursed. But they wanted this to you straight off.”

The Centaur bent down and offered Joseph three things. The first was a wand.

“It casts [Stun Spear]. Powerful. Tier 3. Kicks anyone on their back. Sixty charges. I’ll show you how to use it. And this…”

A bag of gold. Joseph stared wide-eyed at it. He looked up.

“But—but what? Who is this from?”

“Read the letter.”

Palt had written it, but he’d copied the letter his master had told him to write word-for-word. Joseph read.

 

The Singer of Terandria is not part of Wistram. I think there are more of us in Baleros. A girl called Caroline says she was with them. Don’t come to Wistram unless you don’t want to leave. Ignore the letters. I’ll send what I can. Sincerely—

–Blackmage, aka Aaron Vanwell.

 

Joseph read, and then looked up. Palt winked as he trotted towards the door. It was true that Aaron wasn’t a hero. He was an [Engineer], a programmer, a nerd, self-proclaimed. He wasn’t a hero.

But he could still do something.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am on break until June 23rd. Later for public readers. I know I’m taking a week off per month, but I need it. To work on other stuff too, like getting Volume 3 ready for e-books…resting…I think it helps the writing, or I wouldn’t do it. Sorry for the delay, but it won’t be too long.

Now, listen. The Audiobook for Volume 2 will be released July 14th. The Last Tide comes out in August.

Part 1, that is. It will be digitally available, and a physical version with the full story will come out. There is also a chapter, written by me which will be made available at some point, which this entire big thing is based on.

But look. Words become pictures. And these pictures? Gorgeous. You may read, speculate, and impatiently wait for the comic book—but not for much longer. And here are some pages from the comic-book. Look at it. LOOK AT IT. (Also, I’m releasing more art to Patreons, so check there for more art that won’t be made public.)

That’s all for now! See you in 2 updates! Thanks for reading!

(Full-size Version)

 

The_Last_Tide_01-02_Corte

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

7.28

[Spearmaster Level 36!]

[Skill – Recall Weapon: Spear obtained!]

 

[Guardsman Level 17!]

[Skill – Eyes In The Back obtained!]

 

The Drake opened his eyes as the sun hit his head. Sometimes the announcement came in the mornings. If he fell asleep and it didn’t wake him up, it lingered in his mind. Like words seared onto the inside of his brain. He blinked a few times.

Then made a fist and punched it up in victory.

“Ooh. Noice.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Well, actually…”

Relc rolled over and Ryoka blinked at him. She was there too of course. And while level-ups had never troubled her, the Drake was only happy to explain.

“I leveled up. Twice, actually. In two classes.”

“Oh—congratulations.”

“Thanks. And uh—”

They stared at each other. Ryoka was in the same bed as Relc. Of course, he had known that. He hadn’t drunk enough to forget last night either. A good thing, despite how his day had gone.

Sunlight was streaming through an unfamiliar window. Relc blinked around at the nice room. It wasn’t his. It was, in fact, Ryoka’s. True to form, he hadn’t woken up in his apartment. This room was better, anyways. The sun was rising and he’d slept through his dawn routine for once.

Probably because he’d been stabbed multiple times. And for other reasons. The Drake was explaining his new level—he already felt like he had a vague sense of what was behind him. Just a wall, and the sunlight. Not like ‘eyes’ but—better than intuition.

“Yeah, that’s me. I’m going to be even harder to jump. Nice Skill—although Klbkch always had my back.”

“Right. You said.”

Ryoka sat up. Relc stared at her. She blinked a few times. And blushed. A bit embarrassed by the stare more than anything else.

“So uh…nice room.”

“Yup. Erin’s giving it to me rent-free.”

Both of them latched onto the trite conversation. But after a second of looking around, Relc decided it was a good topic.

“Really nice. Good bed, more spacious than my apartment—do you know how much she charges?”

Ryoka paused as she looked around for clothes. She found her bag of holding. There was a skittering sound from outside the window.

“Er…ask Lyonette. But ask Erin if you want a deal. I’m sure she’d give it to you cheap.”

“Yeah. Yeah…I might like living here. Y’know, if Erin has room. I’d help out! Kick Rock Crabs and stuff. But it’d be nice. You could swing a spear around in here.”

Ryoka glanced around. Relc frowned. Instantly, he began to panic.

“…Where’s my spear?”

“I think your daughter has it.”

“Oh. Right. Right.”

The Drake relaxed. Normally, he wasn’t out of reach of his spear at any time. He thought about his other new Skill. Should he…?

Nah. It’d probably try to come to him if he wasn’t out of range. And you didn’t want to get in between a recalling spear and the target. He lay back. Then sat up.

“I should go. Really cool and all—”

Ryoka glanced at him. The Drake stared around vaguely for his clothes. But propriety demanded he soon exit. To his surprise—Ryoka hadn’t suggested it already.

“I’m good.”

“Oh? Really?”

“Mhm.”

“Cool, cool. I uh—can jump out the window—”

“Or walk down the steps. Do you often do this?”

“…Sometimes?”

The Drake had run the gamut from every kind of morning after. Good, bad—this was already shaping up to be a good one. Bad ones were where the angry lover hit you in the middle of your sleep.

The two looked at each other. Ryoka—who had thought this was all a great idea yesterday—was mostly perturbed by her brain. What did you say? She was out of practice—and she actually knew Relc. She was clearing her throat—when the skittering grew louder.

Both heads turned. Ryoka heard something like a squirrel—but the fattest squirrel in the world—creeping around the window outside her room. Then she heard a sniff. A growl.

Premonition was a terrible thing. Because it only told you what was going to happen, not how to stop it. Ryoka cursed. She turned to Relc.

“I think—”

Like the furry face of wrath, a little Gnoll’s head popped into the window from the outside.

Ancestors!

Relc fell out of bed as Mrsha stared through the window. Her eyes locked on Ryoka’s, accusingly. The City Runner winced.

“Mrsha—”

She raised her finger warningly. The Gnoll was not happy. Thunderclouds practically filled her face as she looked at Relc and Ryoka, who she both loved. Both of whom had done bad things. Like Pawn and Lyonette! Was that all adults did?

“Mrsha, listen to me—”

Too late. The Gnoll stuck out her tongue. Then—she disappeared.

“Oh, good. That was Mrsha. I thought it was a monster for a second. Good thing I didn’t have my spear.”

Relc looked around. He was relaxed—unashamed—which Ryoka wasn’t! Ashamed, that was! But he didn’t seem to register the gravity of Mrsha’s wrath.

Ryoka eyed the empty window. She had another premonition.

“I think we should split.”

“Aha! I was ready for that. Give me one second to find my belt…”

“No, it’s just that Mrsha gets mad. I think—she might—”

A sound came from Ryoka’s left. She whirled.

“—and I was just like—y’know, deciding what we could put in the garden. I mean, we can put living things in here. We have fish. So—what about crabs?

“Crabs live in the sea, Erin.”

“I know. But can we make a saltwater pond? Huh? Huh? Krshia says they’ll make a huge pool in the city. So how deep does the [Garden of Sanctuary] run? Hey, Lyonette. Hand me a shovel.”

“Erin, you can’t dig…”

Lyonette du Marquin paused as she reached for a shovel to hand Erin. The [Innkeeper] paused.

She was standing in her garden. Next to Lyonette, in the early morning. She was marking out a possible spot for creating a saltwater pond—a terrible idea because it would leech salt into the soil. Ryoka could have told her that.

In fact, she could. Because the magic door to the inn was connected to her room. Someone—and that little someone was a white Gnoll sitting with arms folded and a vicious smile behind Lyonette—had opened the doorway into Ryoka’s room.

“Hey, Ryoka. Do you know where my belt is—oh.”

Relc paused as he swung around. Erin’s features, which had been one of shock—locked onto his body. Relc was almost nude, but for his underpants. Which was a good thing. But the [Innkeeper], however oblivious, couldn’t deny this. She stared at Ryoka. Ryoka stared at Mrsha.

Lyonette stared up, her cheeks red. Mrsha stuck her tongue out.

“Ryoka? Relc? Why are you two—what is—oh my—what is happening?

Erin’s scream ran through the entire inn. It almost made the person outside Ryoka’s door hesitate. But she pushed open the door anyways.

“Dad? I brought your spear back. We didn’t get Bearclaw, but we found Soot. Are you here? The little Gnoll—Mrsha—pointed me to—”

Ryoka swung around. Wing Commander Embria stared at Ryoka. She nearly dropped Relc’s spear. The Drake cursed. Both of them looked around—Mrsha was racing off. Ryoka stared as she recalled—now, more clearly than ever—that Relc was a father. Embria looked at Relc. Erin’s eyes bulged.

In that moment—there was a lot of accusation in the air. A lot of shock. Judgment. Ryoka looked over and met Lyonette’s eyes. The [Princess] was trying not to smile as she gave Ryoka a covert nod.

But Erin was shocked. Even outraged. And that went double for Embria. Relc was embarrassed, looking around for pants that were missing when needed most.

“Hey. Uh—I told you I should have gone out the window. Stuff like this happens all the time.

The City Runner looked at him. And then she looked around. At the judgment. Shock, turning to outrage. She thought of the ways she might react. Run away, deny…

Instead, she started laughing. The young Human woman clutched at her bare stomach as she chuckled. And then just laughed. For surely Ivolethe would have been laughing too. The others started as Ryoka laughed. And Relc laughed too. They leaned on each other, laughing, as the shouting started. Let someone else be angry or ashamed.

But it looked like it was going to be an interesting day.

 

—-

 

Honestly, it made sense with Mrsha. She regarded Lyonette as her mother. And it was rightfully earned, by love. Ryoka—their relationship was different. But Ryoka was a guardian, if a faulty one.

Her jealousy and sense of betrayal made sense, even if it was a bit childish. Embria—well—Relc had watched her stalk off in a huff. But she was an adult.

What didn’t make sense was Erin. Later, Ryoka sat a table across from the [Innkeeper]. And of all the people with a stake in this, she seemed to be the most…indignant.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Erin…”

“Why? Why?

“Hey, what can I say? No one can resist the Relc—

Ryoka and Erin looked at the Drake. He hesitated, and then shuffled off to another table.

“I’m gonna sit here.”

The [Innkeeper] stared at him, and then at Ryoka, bug-eyed.

“You two.”

The City Runner did not blush. She met Erin’s eyes. A bit uncomfortably.

“Yes.”

“Last night.”

“…Unless you think we’ve done this multiple times, yes.”

Have you?

“No! Erin, why is it a big deal?”

The young woman just kept staring. It was starting to weird Ryoka out.

“You. And Relc. You two…”

Slept together. Erin mouthed the words. She didn’t even say it outright, as if it was a curse. Ryoka Griffin did blush then. Mainly because Erin was making it weird.

“Yes! Alright! It was one time. What is the problem?

Everything! How? Why? When—no, wait. Don’t answer…Ryoka!”

Ryoka grabbed at her hair. She had indeed slept with Relc Grasstongue, the burly Drake whistling and ignoring Mrsha, who was punching one leg. His scars were still fresh. And he looked—well, down and up.

Down from the bad hand he’d been dealt yesterday. An ambush, finding out The Golden Triangle was a big scam—and up for one reason alone.

Ryoka had helped with that. Sex, in other words. Bumping uglies, uh…she ran out of metaphors, but there were a lot. Had it been sudden? Yes. Was it a mistake? Well, now…a day later she was overthinking it—and Erin wasn’t helping.

“I just—it was spur-of-the-moment, okay? I felt bad for him—”

“So it was pity you-know-what?”

The Drake [Guardsman] drooped. But not by much. Ryoka shook her head at once.

“No! I mean, a bit of it was but—look, Erin! Have you looked at Relc? He’s pretty built!

Erin blushed. She stared at Relc, who was preening since he was listening in. Ryoka turned red herself. She looked at Erin.

Yes, it had happened. She hadn’t been expecting to make a big thing out of it, but here they were. Ryoka sat back, feeling at her ears. She was sure her entire face was hot. She took a few breaths as Mrsha began to attack Relc’s tail. She grappled it—and he lifted her off the tail.

Strong muscles. Ryoka knew that. She turned to Erin, and saw the [Innkeeper] was no less embarrassed.

“What’s wrong with…something casual? I mean, I had this same conversation Erin, with F—well, that’s different. This?”

They didn’t know each other as well. That was what Erin objected to, but it was why it had happened, in Ryoka’s opinion. She had felt good about it, actually. It had been…good.

At this point Relc unhelpfully leaned over. Or—helpfully.

“Yeah. It’s just s—”

Erin slapped a hand over his mouth. But really—Mrsha was the only other person privy to this conversation. And the Gnoll knew full well the occurrence. She gave Ryoka a betrayed look. Ryoka tried to beckon her over—Mrsha just walked off in a huff.

“But why?”

The [Innkeeper] repeated. She didn’t seem to get it. Ryoka looked at her.

“Erin, do I have to have a reason beyond ‘I want to’? It wasn’t a bad thing. Relc’s not complaining.”

She looked at the Drake. He smiled.

“I mean, no one complains afterwards!”

He puffed out his chest, hesitated.

“…Most of the time. Uh—it was good. Yeah.”

He gave Ryoka an awkward grin. She colored as Erin’s jaw dropped. But Ryoka was past the days of never seeing the person she spent a night with. She half-smiled and replied.

“You’re not half-bad yourself.”

The two started laughing. Erin looked at them, aghast. Perhaps it was because they were both friends of hers. Ryoka turned to Erin. She lowered her voice as Mrsha came back with a pot and slapped it down on Relc’s tail. He yelped and got up to chase her.

“Why wouldn’t you like him? Is he that bad?”

She didn’t know Relc much—well, she knew more after a night in his company, and that included the morning thereafter. Erin hesitated. She looked at Relc, who had scooped Mrsha and was tickling her as she punched and giggled silently.

“…No. He’s a good guy. But I just can’t see myself…”

“Huh. Not ever?”

Ryoka blinked. There were a lot of people whom she’d never see anything with. But not even imagining it? Maybe Erin just didn’t…like…non-Humans. An odd thought, but they had never discussed this. Erin squirmed uncomfortably.

“Not like that. I just don’t—I mean, look, Ryoka. I’m not judging…it’s just not for me.”

Oh, how the lie emerged in that one. Ryoka gave Erin a steady look.

“That’s fine too. But as long as no one hurts each other’s feelings, or there’s no…pregnancy or STI’s or stuff, that’s fine, right?”

She was making a point. Erin hesitated and bit her lip. She was wrestling with the news.

“I guess?”

Ryoka Griffin peered at her. Was Erin Solstice, Erin who welcomed Goblins into her inn and Antinium, uncomfortable with sex? Was this like drugs? It was so…odd for someone like her. And yet, it also made sense. Erin was against a lot of things. She hadn’t handled Relc’s being part of the Golden Triangle well yesterday. Maybe…

Something was wrong. Erin looked so unhappy about it. Ryoka wanted to ask why. She stared at Erin closely until the [Innkeeper] looked away, turning red.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t judge.”

“…Nah. I get it.”

The City Runner replied softly. Erin looked at her.

“If it was just this—thing. Because Relc was upset…I mean, one time and all…”

“Erin. I don’t do pity-sex. I liked Relc. Look at him.

He was an ugly Drake. Or so people said. Something about the tail? And face? Ryoka couldn’t tell. What she saw was, well…

She liked musculature. Hawk, Calruz—Ryoka had a type, aside from immortals. And Relc was close to peak physicality as they went. Grimalkin was a few strides over that line. But Relc? She’d seen narcissistic bodybuilders who looked poor compared to him.

Erin squinted at Relc. She shook her head after a few seconds, looking bothered. Ryoka sighed.

“Anyways, it wasn’t the first time I had sex since coming to this world, Erin. More like the third. I think.”

“What? Wait, what?

Why was she so shocked about this? Ryoka looked as strangely at Erin as the young woman was looking at her. But more of Erin’s history was revealing itself to Ryoka.

Erin was someone who might believe—or have been taught—that sex was only for when you were married. Ryoka winced. Well, that was an opinion in the world. Not hers.

“I guess…it’s all okay. But it was just sudden. That’s all.”

That Ryoka could understand. It had been sudden. But it had taken a long night, and…extraordinary events. She had been the one to find Relc, lying amid the bodies. She’d called for the Watch. And she’d been the one to get him to come to the inn.

Why had it happened? It was more than just a spur-of-the-moment. The moment wasn’t the moment but a long night where she kept Relc company, even when Erin and Embria and the others surrounded him. Talking about…well, running. Shared experiences like how they knew Erin.

He told her about being a [Soldier]. She—she talked about the Goblin Lord because it was personal and he was hurting. And it was intimate. He talked about Embria. Endlessly, really. How he’d tried to raise her, how she ran off and was disappointed in him…

It was odd, talking to a regretful father because Ryoka disliked her parents intensely. But then—her parents didn’t care. Relc cared, but he was clumsy. He’d made mistakes. And that was something she completely understood. And after that?

At one point Relc had successfully struck himself out with six different females of different species with his atrocious pickup lines—and he had sympathy scars! But Ryoka had laughed herself off her seat and then—

Well, they’d worked on her when she’d encouraged him to keep going. Ryoka had felt a strong connection with Relc over doing the right thing, however hard. Rather like her and Lupp, really. But different. Relc laughed a lot more. He was, in his way, rather considerate. Kind.

Kindness was attractive to Ryoka Griffin. She discovered that about herself. She had never realized that.

“Uh—uh—who were the other two?”

At this point Ryoka decided she’d shared enough details. She got up.

“I’ll tell you later. Erin, I have to run soon. Let me just talk to Relc—I think he’s going to need to go to the Watch barracks.”

He had been summoned to discuss the Bearclaw incident. But for now, Relc was swinging Mrsha off of one arm and she was laughing hard enough to have forgiven him.

Maybe not Ryoka. Mrsha turned her head, but Relc gently lifted her up.

“Hey. I’m cool. She’s cool. What’s the problem?”

The little Gnoll considered this. She grudgingly gave Ryoka a nuzzle. Ryoka held Mrsha and then let her wiggle off to the ground and pad off. She and Relc stood there. After a moment, Relc cleared his throat.

“Hey. Just wanted to say thanks. Y’know. For…stuff. And it’s totally cool if it was just this one time. It—helped me out. We don’t need to mention it. We can just wave at each other or something…”

That was the funny thing. Ryoka looked at Relc. He did think about these things. Even if he had little tact. She nodded at him.

“You’re not a bad guy, Relc. Why don’t you wait to see me again and we’ll catch up? No promises.”

He looked at her. From the way his jaw dropped, she was fairly certain that wasn’t an offer he got very much. He hesitated, and then blustered.

“Hey, sure…open minded. That’s me! That’s Relc-style.”

She gave him a look. He dropped the bluster and looked embarrassed. Ryoka couldn’t help it. She laughed and Relc started laughing too. The secret of Relc was that he didn’t take himself that seriously.

The secret was that he was deeper than what you took him for. Like everyone else.

“I don’t regret it. Just so you know. And it was my decision, bad lines and all.”

Ryoka punched Relc in the shoulder. The Drake grinned.

“Hey, you know, once you use the best lines on the ladies, they can’t resist—”

He caught her expression.

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright. We’re adults. And this—is fine. We don’t need to defend it.”

Ryoka said it half for Erin, who turned red at the unspoken reprimand in the City Runner’s voice. And half for Mrsha. The little Gnoll probably should be scolded for her prank. She sat under a table, ready for one.

But the City Runner just scooped her up in a hug. She swung Mrsha back and forth.

“You little prankster. Don’t do it to anyone else, got it?”

She meant Pawn and Lyonette. Mrsha hesitated. Ryoka hugged her.

“It’s not a bad thing. It just means two people—like each other, Mrsha. I’d never stop loving you. You understand? I might be a bad person. But I’m not that bad.

The little Gnoll looked up. And then she hugged Ryoka, fiercely. She sniffed. Perhaps more of her prank had been part of her emotions.

“Hey. It’s totally cool. You can hit me. I’m an idiot, Mrsha. Go ahead. Punch me. I can take it!”

Relc was alarmed by Mrsha’s sudden grief. He came over. Mrsha punched at him, weakly. But that wasn’t it.

“It’s not you, Relc. I…just have to go. I should have stayed with Mrsha. She knows I have to leave today.”

Ryoka felt guilty, now. She had focused on Relc, gone after him because she knew how he must have been feeling. But Mrsha clung to Ryoka.

“Does it have to be today?”

Erin spoke up. She looked a bit ashamed as well. Ryoka was glad—she hadn’t flared up at Erin. Not today. She met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes.

“I’m sure. I have to, Erin. There’s so much to do. I have to beg an audience with Magnolia—well, T—Eldavin is going to do that. But I need to find more. Two more, at least.”

“To bring back Ivolethe.”

“To meet her again.”

The young woman nodded. Erin hesitated. Bit her lip.

“But it’s just once. Why is it…?”

So important? Ryoka knew Erin had questions. Doubts. Of course she did. To meet Ivolethe one more time, Ryoka had to do the impossible. Create a party to summon the fae, invite three grand nobles of Izril.

Why was it worth it just to see her friend again? Perhaps—because she and Ivolethe were friends. Ryoka couldn’t explain it better any other way. She had so few friends. Erin, Ivolethe, Fierre, Lupp—maybe Alber, Relc, Ceria, Calruz and a few others counted.

But so few in this world. For any one of them, Ryoka would run through the Bloodfields in the summer. To save their lives? She’d risk her life. Ivolethe had died for he