6.39

There was a feeling Yvlon had now and then. One of comprehension. It wasn’t something she could put into words. But if she had to try, it was of her body, the instinctual part of the back of her mind that took over in fights trying to communicate with the rest of her brain.

It said things like: you can win this, if she were eying a monster before they engaged. Or—don’t get overconfident, if say, she was measuring herself against Embria on the practice courts. Sometimes it was a simple warning, like duck, before someone threw a mug at her head and a brawl started. But sometimes, the subconscious part of Yvlon did appraisals. And she could see someone more clearly than she had a few months ago.

Like her brother, Ylawes. He had always been a [Squire], as long as Yvlon could remember. And then a [Knight]. And always better than her in training, to the point where she couldn’t even judge how skillful he was—only that he was far better than she could dream of being at that moment.

But recently, Yvlon had had the feeling in the back of her mind that she could almost judge him in regards to her own Skills. He had powerful defensive Skills and he was a Gold-rank adventurer, but he wasn’t an enigma. If they fought, she could land a few blows, maybe even surprise him. It was a welcome realization. And yet—sometimes Yvlon’s mind told her nothing about her opponent other than that they were too far beyond her.

She remembered each instance. First had been Skinner and the sheer terror of an army of undead bearing down on her. Next had come the Fire Elemental and not knowing what it could do. After that? The mysterious Human [Mage] who’d dropped by to kick her entire team about with Tier 1 and Tier 0 spells. The last instance had been Regrika Blackpaw, the traitorous Named Adventurer. There had been others, but those had been the only ones Yvlon couldn’t understand.

Bevussa. Jelaqua. Relc. Seborn. Embria. Halrac. Any one you wanted to name, Yvlon understood they were better than her, but she could understand their strength relative to hers. And so she understood that she, and her team were far stronger than the Silver Spears had ever been. The Horns might not be Gold-rank yet…! But they were the best of the Silver-ranks, no question. On the cusp of the next level. It was only a matter of time. So they could be a little bit cocky, value themselves a tiny bit. Right?

Right?

Ksmvr, left!

Yvlon swung with a shout. Her enchanted sword cut the air as she swung two-handed at Grimalkin’s left. He glanced at her as Ksmvr dashed left. The Antinium was moving incredibly fast! The newly-leveled [Skirmisher] ran like a blur thanks to his [Quick Movement] Skill, and when he struck with shortsword, he uttered a Skill.

“[Quick Slash].”

His shortsword lanced out towards Grimalkin from the left as Yvlon struck from the right. And the [Sinew Magus] saw her, Yvlon knew. But he only glanced at the trajectory of her sword.

The three met in a clash that took a second to happen, but far longer for Yvlon to process. As she lay on her back, she recalled what had happened. She’d swung, Grimalkin had stepped left, blocked Ksmvr’s shortsword with one arm and then turned back and hit—

She sat up, and looked down at her chest plate. It had cushioned the blow, but Yvlon still felt bruised. Had he sent her flying? With a punch? She was wearing plate armor!

But that was Grimalkin. Yvlon got up, teeth gritted, and saw him. He was letting Ksmvr attack him from the side, blocking the shortsword with one claw while the other held back loosely at his side in a fist. Ksmvr’s rapid attack with shortsword slowed and Grimalkin punched. Yvlon saw Ksmvr block and heard a sound like thunder. The Forceshield the Antinium held rippled as the magical protection resisted the blow and he skidded back.

“I am unable to harm Grimalkin. Switching to Flamespread Dagger and arrow. Fleeing in cowardice!”

The Antinium shouted as he turned and ran away, sheathing his shortsword. Grimalkin barked a peal of laughter. He turned as Yvlon rushed at him from behind. Two-handed, the [Wounded Warrior] swung, lashing at Grimalkin’s body, going for speed, not strength. He twisted back, his feet moving across the grass, watching her blade and arms.

Casually. He was so relaxed! Not dismissive; he never took his eyes off her as Yvlon cursed and advanced, slashing faster. But that little part in her head was screaming at her. It was telling Yvlon two things.

One. She could understand Grimalkin, a bit. She could judge his strength, even if he was still in a realm above hers. And because she could, she knew how outclassed she was.

Someone as big as he was had no right to move that quick! But he was, and as he leaned out of the way of another slash, he jumped in and gave her a punch to her midsection that sent her stumbling back. Again, her armor caught the blow—

“Weak enchantment. If I hit it too hard, it’ll dent.”

The Drake’s comment made Yvlon pause. She lowered her sword too slow; he kicked her and she went stumbling backwards. And then she realized she was on the edge of the muddy hill.

Down she tumbled. Yvlon rolled, feeling her arms take the force of the fall. Something creaked—but Pisces’ bone reinforcement held. And she couldn’t feel her arms. The rest of her—hurt. But it was humiliation. And as Yvlon charged up the hill, she saw something else. Ice fragments. A shower of ice.

Yvlon held up her gauntlets, covering her helmet. An unlucky splinter could put an eye out! Only when the sound had faded did she look and see Ceria was running from Grimalkin, firing [Ice Spikes] at him. He was blocking them with a barrier spell of some kind; Yvlon could see the distorted air. Ksmvr was firing arrows at the back of Grimalkin’s head and he was ignoring them too.

“Ceria! Let me!”

The Human woman bellowed as she charged Grimalkin again. This time he pointed at her and she, realizing what was coming, tried to run sideways. The ray of frost hit her right shoulder; Yvlon swore as her right side went numb and heavy. But she ran on.

This—

Her swing hit Grimalkin’s barrier and she felt pressure, then her sword cutting through. The magic exploded with a pop of sound and Grimalkin stepped back. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike] at his chest. Ksmvr loosed an arrow from behind.

“Good! [Steel Hide]!

The ice shattered on his front. The arrow snapped on his back. Yvlon looked up, raised her sword, and felt a hand grab the hilt. She struggled, but Grimalkin had both hands in one steely claw. He raised a fist and she braced.

“I’ve seen enough. Byres! Out! Antinium! Out! Alright, [Necromancer], Springwalker, show me what you two can do alone.”

He let go. Yvlon stumbled back and saw Ksmvr lower his bow and walk to one side. As Yvlon lowered her sword, panting, she saw a blur of white. Pisces stepped in, his [Flashstep] spell carrying him towards Grimalkin’s chest. He slashed with his flaming rapier and the Drake blinked. The tip of the blade skidded across Grimalkin’s chest.

Pisces stared at the Drake. He disappeared backwards and then, as Yvlon hurried out of the way, stabbed from the side. This time the [Necromancer] stared at the tip of his blade. It was wedged between a pair of scales on Grimalkin’s hand. The Muscle Mage lowered his blocking hand and regarded Pisces.

“Is that your best? Show me—”

Grimalkin looked up and raised one arm. The Warbear Bone Horror slammed both claws down with a silent roar and Yvlon saw Grimalkin stagger. Pisces stepped backwards as a trio of [Ice Spikes] hit Grimalkin on the tail, back, and shoulder. The young man flicked his fingers and shot a stream of fire from them. Grimalkin was engulfed! Yvlon stirred uneasily.

“Pisces—!”

Powerful or not, Grimalkin was a [Mage], and he didn’t have enchanted robes or armor as far as Yvlon could tell. That had to still hurt! She saw the Bone Horror snapping, straining against Grimalkin as he held it off him, but it was unable to crush him. And then—

“—Strength]

Yvlon caught the last part of the spell. But she saw Grimalkin step back, hit the Bone Horror, and spray half of its head across the hilltop. The audience watching the training session from the windows and outside the inn ducked. Grimalkin exhaled. His scales were smoking, but he looked annoyed more than anything else. Pisces stared and flicked more fire at him.

[Snow Flume].”

A blast of snow extinguished the flames and Pisces blurred out of the way. He stared at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] stared back grimly.

“That’s really your best? Don’t hold back. Where’s your [Fireb—”

An ice spike twice as large as the last two shattered on the back of Grimalkin’s head and he growled. Ceria was peeking around one of her [Ice Walls] as Grimalkin pointed a finger towards her.

“[Fast Fireball]!”

Oh shi—

The explosion was smaller than a regular fireball, but it still cracked the [Ice Walls]. The half-Elf standing behind them was caught in the impact and went flying. Grimalkin shook his head.

“I’ve seen enough from you, Ceria Springwalker. [Necromancer].”

He turned his head and bent backwards. Pisces missed the tip of Grimalkin’s face with his flaming rapier. He pointed with his free hand.

“[Stone Spray]! [Shock Volt]! [Summon Bone Horror—]”

[Gazelle’s Dexterity].

Yvlon saw Grimalkin twist, and his claws blocked the lightning. He punched out with one fist and Pisces blurred left. But Grimalkin leapt forwards and then he and Pisces were dodging, punching, while the [Necromancer] slashed desperately with his rapier, trying to gain distance—but Grimalkin blocked with his claws and he was just as fast! The two went back and forth, flicking across the grass for five seconds, ten—

And then Pisces jumped back and vanished. Grimalkin paused, looked around, and saw the Bone Horror behind him rising. It was reconfiguring into the strange, tall creature with whip arms. Grimalkin snorted.

“[Dispel Magic].”

He pointed and the Bone Horror fell to pieces. Yvlon heard a quiet curse. She held still as Grimalkin peered around. He sighed, folded his arms, and regarded his audience. A wincing Ceria climbed up the hill; Ksmvr and Yvlon stood in front of a crowd of Drakes, Gnolls, and adventurers who’d come out to see Grimalkin testing them. The [Sinew Magus] nodded.

“That was your best spell yet. I’ve cast [See Invisibility] by the way. It’s good to see you’re able to cast incantationless magic. And you are—there.

He pointed straight at Yvlon. She didn’t hear anything, but she could still feel Pisces about. She blushed a bit; everyone was staring at her and she had the distinct feeling that Pisces was trying to hide behind her back.

“Stop hiding.”

Grimalkin folded his arms. Yvlon jumped as Pisces appeared behind her, looking sour. The [Necromancer]’s voice had a note of complaint in it.

“How did you see me? I was quite sure that even with a spell, I would be invisible—”

“I saw the grass move. What do you expect me to do when you turn invisible? You should have used a jumping spell right away or lost me first. Or both.”

Grimalkin pointed down. Yvlon and everyone else stared at the grass around The Wandering Inn. Pisces turned red.

“Oh.”

He stared at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] rubbed the back of his neck where Ceria had hit him, sighing. He folded his arms and regarded the Horns of Hammerad. Somewhat shamefacedly, they looked at him. Yvlon had mud and grass all over her armor, a slight dent around her stomach, and bruises. She wasn’t sure about her arms, but she felt like the skin might be torn and bleeding under her armor.

She looked left and saw Ksmvr was mainly undamaged. Grimalkin hadn’t hit him, but the Antinium’s antennae were twitching with what Yvlon now understood as shame. Pisces was panting a bit, but he looked embarrassed more than anything.

And Ceria? She looked at Yvlon and bit her lip. She was slightly battered and her cheek was swollen. She’d tried to use her [Ice Armor] spell in the first sparring session—right before Grimalkin had punched her.

And Grimalkin was unharmed. He smelled like smoke and he had a bit of wood tangled in his neck spines, but all the Horns had managed to put on him was his irked expression. He looked at them, and Yvlon, flushing, waited for him to saw something cutting. But all he did was nod.

“Good. You’re better than you look. Yvlon Byres, passed. Antinium?”

“I am Ksmvr—”

“Passed. I don’t need to do much to either of you. Ten more levels and or the right gear and you’d both give me trouble.”

“Really?”

Yvlon exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Ksmvr. Grimalkin nodded.

“As [Warriors] go, you’re fine for your levels and equipment. I’ll address that. But my concern is with the [Necromancer]. Pisces, is it?”

He regarded Pisces with an unfriendly look, which Pisces returned. But Grimalkin eventually sighed.

“It’s a single spell. And I’d be satisfied, by and large. There’s always room for improvement, but that’s far better than Erin Solstice had me thinking. And I don’t know necromancy, so there’s that. No…that’s not what I saw.”

Pisces stared. Grimalkin ignored him as he turned his head. He pointed at the last member of their group.

“Yes. You’re the problem, aren’t you?”

Every eye turned to Ceria. She blinked.

Me?

 

—-

 

“There has to be some mistake, Magus Grimalkin.”

Yvlon protested as the Horns gathered around Grimalkin and the audience filed back indoors. The four adventurers stood with the [Mage] just outside The Wandering Inn, talking in privacy.

Well—moderate privacy—the line for the outhouses was still there, although the Antinium had added in two more spaces so five regular people and one Moore-sized guest could go at once, with comfortable space in between. Naturally, all five were standing well upwind and far from the outhouses. Grimalkin sighed as he dug the tip of one claw in an earhole.

“Didn’t you hear me, Miss Byres? I’m not accustomed to repeating myself! I said, your weak link, your poorest team member is your Captain. Ceria Springwalker.”

He raised his voice a few decibels and Yvlon winced. She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf looked stunned. And embarrassed. Yvlon frowned at Grimalkin.

“Magus Grimalkin. Er—that’s how I should be addressing you, correct?”

“As you wish.”

The Drake waved a claw as he stood impatiently on the balls of his feet. Yvlon nodded. Even standing still, Grimalkin managed to convey both energy and impatience.

“I appreciate you agreeing to help train our team—”

He held up a claw.

“Consult. That’s a better word for it. I have no interest in training your team, but Erin Solstice has expressed a desire for me to help you in her roundabout way. So as long as she provides me with the information I want, I will put aside some of my time to help your team out.”

“How generous of you.”

Pisces sneered as he stood furthest away from Grimalkin. He still looked peeved—no, almost competitive as he stared at Grimalkin. Yvlon assumed his ego was hurt after the beating Grimalkin had just given her team. She shot him a glare and he sullenly looked away. She wasn’t happy either, but this was an experienced [Mage]! The best in Pallass if you believed Grimalkin’s words.

“Were you born with that tone of voice, or do you always sound like a sulking child?”

Grimalkin glanced at Pisces and the [Necromancer] turned red. He opened his mouth and Grimalkin spoke over him.

“I’m just referring to your—”

Do you think this is free? Or that I should be less than stingy with my time? How valuable do you think my time is, that I can take a few hours out of my day to train any adventuring team? Did you think, when I referred to myself as the ‘greatest [Mage] in Pallass’, I was being hyperbolic? I would be grateful to Miss Solstice for interceding. I would also shut up if I were you, Necromancer Pisces. Because I tolerate snide comments like I tolerate rats in my home.”

Pisces flushed again, but the reply on the tip of his tongue went unsaid. Grimalkin eyed him and went on.

“Good. Now, Yvlon Byres. I’m giving you my frank and professional opinion as someone who regularly consults with and trains [Mages], the elite units of Pallass’ army, and who’s fought in six wars over the course of his life on the front lines. If you have objections to my credentials or my abilities that you witnessed first-hand, feel free to voice them.”

He looked at Yvlon. She hesitated.

“It’s just that—Ceria’s our weakest link?”

She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf nodded hesitantly.

“I know we can all improve, and I know I’m not the best, but I thought that at my level—”

“You misunderstand me. I am saying that at your level, you are by far the weakest of you four. I’m not evaluating you on the merits of your levels or overall current ability, but your potential at this moment. If I was basing my judgment on pure fighting ability, it would go the [Necromancer], you, Miss Byres, then the Antinium.”

“Ksmvr.”

The said Antinium interjected helpfully. It was now Yvlon’s turn to blush at the frank appraisal. Ceria hesitated.

“But you don’t even know our levels. Unless Erin—she doesn’t know them exactly. So how do you?”

“I don’t need to know them to make correct assumptions. You. [Necromancer]. Level 30 plus. Ceria, [Cryomancer]. Below Level 30. Upper mid-twenties I’ll guess. Yvlon Byres, same level range. [Warrior], most likely generic. Antinium…”

“Ksmvr.”

Grimalkin gave Ksmvr a long and distasteful look.

“[Skirmisher]. Level 20.”

“That is very accurate. How did you know?”

Yvlon nodded, impressed despite herself. That was close! She was a Level 28 [Wounded Warrior], having leveled up once during training with Ksmvr and fighting low-level monsters over the last month. Grimalkin shrugged.

“Your Skills. You fight well, Miss Byres, but you lack any of the powerful moves that one associates with a Level 30 class. That truly is a breakpoint in terms of power; many [Warriors] gain lower-level attack Skills like your footwork Skill, [Lesser Strength], what I assume was a Skill that lightens your armor; you felt lighter when I hit you than you should have been—and was that a cutting Skill?”

“[Keener Edge]. Yes. That’s right—”

Exactly! If you were Level 30, I would expect you to be a specialized class with a very distinct ability. Such as a [Shieldbreaker Axeman], who develops around level…30 to 35, I think, and has a [Shield Destroyer] Skill. Failing that, you would have at least one passive ability of note. The Antinium is easy as well; he has [Quick Movement] and [Quick Slash], but little else. The [Necromancer] has to be above Level 30 if he can summon Bone Horrors, but he’s a lower-level [Mage]. His spell list includes only one Tier 4 spell. And Miss Springwalker knows only a couple of higher-Tier ice spells. It’s all very basic when you’ve seen as many classes as I have.”

Grimalkin looked around at the Horns. They glanced at each other, impressed. Yvlon wiped at her helmet with a cloth, and looked around. She got a begrudging nod from Pisces, an awkward smile from Ceria, and a wave from Ksmvr. She turned back to Grimalkin.

“Okay then. You’re clearly an expert. But why is Ceria so much worse than the rest of us? She could tie both Ksmvr and me up with her [Ice Wall] spell if she needed to, and her [Ice Spikes] are accurate! We have our holes, but we’re close to Gold-rank.”

Grimalkin sighed.

“From a certain point of view? Yes. Magical items make a team and you have two—no, three good ones. That enchanted sword, Miss Byres, already qualifies you. The Forceshield is splendid. The Ring of Jumping that Antinium uses is solid. But your [Mages] need work. Springwalker! Front and center!”

“Me? Why—”

Ceria didn’t get a chance to object. Grimalkin grabbed her and yanked her over to stand in front of him. He spoke in a half-bellow.

“You were the weakest member of your team in that mock battle by far! Even the Antinium managed to aim for my eyes! You relied too much on your spells and hunkering behind your [Ice Walls]! And why? Because you’re out of shape!

He poked her in the stomach. Ceria turned red as Yvlon peered at her stomach.

“I’m not—”

“Your leg muscles are atrophied! You think you can sit on your fattening ass and cast spells? Your [Ice Wall] is weaker than my toilet paper and you have no dexterity on your feet! Move and cast! That’s what my apprentices learn once they pass my basic physical baselines! The rest of your team can move but you hunker down like my grandmother on her death bed and rely on your magic to protect you. That. Is. Naïve!

He shouted in Ceria’s face. The half-Elf blinked up at him and silently wiped spit from her face. Grimalkin poked at her chest.

“You lack firepower! I could have stood in front of you and let you hit me with [Ice Spikes] until my enchantment wore off. What can you do besides raise ice walls and cover yourself in ice? Sneeze at me?”

“I—uh—well, I can cast [Fireball]. With a wand.”

Ceria waved her wand weakly. Grimalkin’s eyes popped.

“Then do it! What are you, too good for fire spells? Or is your [Fireball] as weak as your arms?”

“It’s not the greatest around, but—”

You need stronger magic! Otherwise, you’re filling no role against a stronger enemy other than bait and being a nuisance! Low-level enemies might be stymied by those [Ice Walls], but anything that can smash through them isn’t going to be slowed by an [Ice Spike]! Your team has one [Skirmisher] and he has an enchanted dagger, a Ring of Jumping, and the luxury of being Level 20! What’s your excuse?

“I uh—well, I don’t have the spellbooks just yet—I’ve been looking into them and—”

And? I see rapid weight gain here. Here. And here. You smell like alcohol and I saw you drinking and eating twice what I would have fed my apprentices and its lunch. You’re lazy. How many spells did you learn this month? Last month?”

“W-well…”

Ceria turned beet red. Yvlon looked at her and remembered. Ceria’s usual routine in The Wandering Inn was to eat, read her spellbook while having a drink or a snack, and usually stop reading and socialize with Erin or the team until she staggered up to her room, very drunk. Even Pisces, for all he was bound to his bouts of laziness, went to his room earlier than everyone else and Yvlon suspected he did a lot of [Necromancer] things in there. Ceria wavered.

“Well, not any spells—I did learn [Ice Armor]!”

“From a spellbook?”

“No…but hold on! Pisces hasn’t learned any spells recently! Right?”

Ceria looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] avoided her gaze. Grimalkin snorted.

“He’s probably playing with his undead. [Necromancers] don’t need to learn as many spells. They create monsters. And I don’t have to look twice to see that both Bone Horrors he made were optimized. Disgusting, but improved in economy of motion and bone.”

Pisces looked startled, then embarrassed and pleased.

“You saw that? I have been improving them and my primary Bone Horror is twenty percent more eff—”

“Shut up. You are slothful! Miss Byres and the Antinium Ksmvr thing both show evidence of training. You see her face? A lot less baby fat than yours! [Mages] burn energy like [Warriors]—the fact that you’re gaining a paunch tells me you’re slacking. You need to get your head back in shape, stop stuffing your face, and learn some magic!

When Grimalkin had finished, Ceria finally stopped blocking her ears with the heels of her palms. She was very embarrassed, and as Yvlon unplugged her ears, a guilty silence stole over the Horns. When you put it like that—she couldn’t quite look at her team leader. Grimalkin had hit a nail on the head with all the tact of a hammer. Only Ksmvr looked pleased.

“You remembered my name. I had thought you had trouble remembering.”

Grimalkin glared at him. Then he looked at Ceria and sighed.

“Well then. That’s my reprimand concluded. I hope you take this to heart. I could have been harsher, but you’re not a [Soldier] or one of my apprentices. Now then, shall we discuss how you can improve? Inside the inn, I think. Is the second floor open? I dislike standing outside. Far too humid and it looks like it will rain soon.”

He waved at an errant acid fly glowing and buzzing past him and the cloudy skies. The Horns looked at each other. Yvlon blinked.

“Harsher?”

 

—-

 

It was tough…love. Or just toughness and a good deal of instructorly concern. Because Grimalkin did remind Yvlon of the [Trainer] her father had hired to teach both her and her brother how to fight. He didn’t mince words and upstairs, in Yvlon’s room, he addressed Ceria again, pacing back and forth restlessly, tail swishing on the floorboards behind him.

“With that said, your spells are colder than most [Ice Mages] I’ve met. Or killed. Fast freezing too. Your aim is excellent. Combat-wise, you’re still a cut above most Wistram graduates.”

“Really? Well, we did graduate from Wistram.”

Ceria perked up at that. She was still a bit red around the tips of her pointed ears. Grimalkin paused and looked at her.

“You graduated?”

“That’s right.”

He frowned.

“From what program? Are they allowing students to pay to graduate these days?”

Ceria choked on some tea Yvlon had gotten from below. The [Wounded Warrior] glared at Ceria; she was sitting on Yvlon’s bed! Ceria wiped at her mouth.

“No! Pisces and I both graduated. It’s the truth!”

Grimalkin shook his head.

“Wrong. Wistram doesn’t allow their [Mages] to graduate at your level of spellcraft. You could probably fool non-Wistram [Mages], but it’s obvious to me.”

“We did graduate, Magus Grimalkin. You may cast [Detect Lies] if you wish. But it is true. There were extenuating circumstances, but I trust you’ll take us at our word.”

Pisces frowned at Grimalkin. He’d switched back to politeness as he balanced a teacup on four fingers. Grimalkin frowned at him.

“Really? Fine then, I’ll take you at your word, but my point stands. Most [Mages] Wistram churns out know multiple Tier 4 spells after they graduate. At least three to five. Not always combat spells, but I would expect that from you two. With that said, they’re terrible fighters, so you still pass in terms of experience.”

“Really?”

Ceria and Pisces looked pleased at that. Yvlon just frowned. She began to ask—but Ksmvr was already raising his hand. Grimalkin stared at him.

“Speak.”

“Excuse me, Magus Grimalkin. What makes Wistram’s Mages inferior despite their advanced spellcasting, which is apparently superior to Comrade Pisces and Captain Ceria’s?”

Grimalkin grunted as Pisces and Ceria shot Ksmvr a dirty look.

“Like I said. Experience. Just…experience. And common sense in battle. Oh, they may be fully-accredited [Mages] with over half a decade’s worth of studying, but that amounts to little field experience in most cases. Sometimes when we have to clash with Humans in the north or fight off a Terandrian fleet, I meet Wistram graduates fresh off the boats. They can cast [Grand Fireball] and link spells in practice, but in an actual battle?”

He scratched absently at his chin.

“The ones who don’t freeze up at the sight of having someone having their spine torn out don’t have any awareness. Generally I wait until they try and cast a huge spell and throw a rock at them from the side. Idiots don’t even use encompassing barrier spells. Or if they do, a second rock does it. That always raises tensions when I visit the academy, of course.”

Yvlon gaped at Grimalkin and burnt her tongue on her tea.

“You make it sound so easy.

“Well, it’s easier than fighting a veteran [Mage]. This is just comparing Ceria and Pisces to freshly-graduated Wistram [Mages], which they’re around the age of. You are around sixty, aren’t you, Miss Springwalker? Half-Elf bodies get difficult to place after around a hundred years.”

Grimalkin didn’t bother to wait for an answer. He went on, filling a tea cup and sipping it himself as he spoke.

“Wistram may be the premier academy of mages, but they’ve lost all their true craft and magic to the Golems. They’ve neutered themselves for fresh bed sheets, clean-swept floors, and predictability. I told your Archmages that, but none of them besides Amerys and Viltach gave me the passing time of day.”

Pisces looked delighted at the [Sinew Magus]’s words. Ceria just looked shocked. The [Necromancer] leaned forwards eagerly.

“So you agree that Wistram is a shadow of itself, Magus Grimalkin?”

“Of course! Or haven’t you ever visited another academy of magic? Wistram still leads, but the gap is far, far narrower than it used to be. Take my school of learning. Fissival. Our Walled City may not have the illustrious history of the Isle of Mages, but we never lost our artifacts of old or our spellbooks. We train [Mages] for war or academia and in battle, ours tend to survive longer than most Wistram graduates. Although I will admit that academic [Mages] are common wherever you go. At least Fissival allows for [Scholars] and non-spellcasters. But I wasn’t ever a researcher.”

The Drake trailed off again, sighing. Then he looked around sharply and pointed at Ceria. She jumped and slopped more tea onto Yvlon’s bed.

“So. Why are you so half-done? Your foundation is excellent. But you don’t even know [Icy Spear].  If you graduated from Wistram, why did they let you leave? Or—didn’t you have a master? I’ve heard how brutal the academy is on some students. Don’t tell me they made you take basic courses all six years?”

Ceria swallowed hard and paled. She looked at Pisces and shook her head. Yvlon, knowing what was coming, sat back a bit in her chair.

“No. No, we were expelled. By Wistram’s Council of Mages. But we were allowed to graduate because um, Cognita, the Golem declared us graduates. But…”

She trailed off. Pisces lowered his cup and glanced at Ceria, and then quietly closed his eyes. He looked at Grimalkin and the [Mage] glanced quizzically at him.

“It was my fault. I committed an error in judgment. However, I was always planning on leaving. I was…revealed as a [Necromancer]. But to be brief, the entirety of the tale is this. Ceria’s master was—”

“Illphres. Illphres, the [Ice Mage].”

Ceria breathed the words. And the look in her eyes was sad and cold. Grimalkin frowned. He listened, and so did Yvlon. The tale of the days the two had spent in Wistram was one she’d heard from them once, on the ride back from Celum to Liscor. Hearing the abbreviated version again didn’t make it any last tragic.

An academy managed by Golems. Cognita, the Truestone Golem and the test to reach the higher floors. Pisces, the young, popular talent exposed as a [Necromancer]. Illphres, the expert [Ice Mage] who’d taken Ceria in. The test that had claimed the lives of Illphres and four other senior [Mages]. Pisces animating their corpses to rob the grave of Archmage Nekhret. Death. Judgment. Expulsion.

“Montressa. Beatrice—our friends. And Calvaron. He died there too.”

Ceria shook her head, her expression bleak. It was the past. And yet, Yvlon knew all too well, the past could cut you in the present with a knife as sharp as memory. Grimalkin stared at her and Pisces and his impatient expression flickered.

“You two were the students at the heart of that incident? The one with the Specters?”

Ceria and Pisces looked up.

“You’ve heard of us? Wait—you know about that day? The Council and Archmage Feor told people?”

Grimalkin snorted.

“Know about it? It was the talk of Fissival and the [Mage] community for nearly a year afterwards! An Archmage’s guardian undead, killing twelve students and faculty and leaving fifty three injured? Do you really expect Wistram of all places to be able to keep that secret?”

Ceria bit her lip. Yvlon remembered her talking about the currency of secrets that the academy used.

“Probably not. What did you hear, Mage Grimalkin?”

“Just the basics. I was fascinated—specter-type undead that even the current Archmages struggled against? It was as bad as fighting Ghosts that Az’kerash summoned. Of course, my interest was just theoretical; I wanted to be sure Pallass could stand up against an attack from that kind of threat. But you two were…now I see.”

Grimalkin trailed off. He looked at Ceria’s miserable expression and Pisces’ haunted one. Then he nodded. He sucked in his breath.

TESTICLES!

 

—-

 

Downstairs, Erin heard the shout through the ceiling and jumped. The Shogi piece she was holding went flying and Chaldion winced. The old Drake grumbled as the entire inn looked up.

“That annoying muscle-head is at it again. You set him on that adventuring team, did you? You must either love or hate them, girl.”

Erin winced. She could hear Grimalkin thumping around upstairs and his voice was loud enough to be heard through the floorboards.

“Is he always like this?”

Chaldion gave Erin a long look. He sourly picked up the piece she’d dropped and placed it back on the board.

“Guess.”

 

—-

 

Ceria’s ears were ringing. Grimalkin’s shout had actually made the windows rattle. He strode down the length of Yvlon’s room and then turned back and pointed at her.

Testicles! Gonads! Wait, Human females don’t actually have them, do they? I don’t focus on reproductive organs, just muscle. Anyways. Ceria Springwalker! Your master was one of the few [Mages] to take on the so-called ‘test’ Archmage Zelkyr left behind, wasn’t she? I applaud her. She was brave. Truly brave! But foolish. I wish she hadn’t thrown away her life. If she hadn’t, you’d be twice the [Cryomancer] you are today. And she would be alive. But the testicles she must have had—I wish I’d known her.”

“Wh—but—she wasn’t a fool!”

Ceria felt both pleased and angry at Grimalkin’s comments at once. The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.

“She was. Brave! As brave as any [Mage] I’ve met to take on the test! But she was a poor master.”

“Take that back!”

The half-Elf flushed, in true anger this time, not embarrassment. She’d take Grimalkin insulting her all day—he was right, which was why it hurt so much—but badmouthing Illphres? She stood up, hand and skeletal hand clenched. Grimalkin didn’t bat an eye.

“I won’t. She was a fool. Or else, why would she have left her apprentice behind without so much as a spellbook? Any decent master would have arranged for you to get something, or have someone else teach you. She did neither.”

Ceria turned pale.

“She—I wasn’t her apprentice long. She probably forgot and we were expelled before I could ask about her things. But she was a great master! Illphres was—”

“A fool. And I don’t blame Wistram’s [Mages] for not trying the upper levels, even though I think it’s destroyed their potential.”

Grimalkin sighed and pulled a spare chair up. Ceria clenched her fists, but Pisces spoke up.

“I’d hope that you had more respect for the dead, Magus Grimalkin. Illphres and her comrades were trying to restore true magic to the halls of Wistram. Isn’t that a noble deed?”

Ceria breathed out. She looked at Pisces and saw his eyes were sharp on Grimalkin’s face. Not angry, just—looking. Grimalkin nodded.

“The cause is noble. The attempt is suicidal. Let’s be honest, you two former Wistram graduates. I’ve been to Wistram. I visit it every few years. And I’m familiar with Cognita. Moreover, I took a look at the ‘test’ Archmage Zelkyr left behind. Have you?”

He looked pointedly at Ceria. She hesitated and nodded silently. Her stomach was tearing itself into knots. Yvlon looked over from her seat and carefully rested a hand on Ceria’s shoulder. The half-Elf nodded gratefully at her. Grimalkin nodded as well, and his expression was dark.

“The test of Archmage Zelkyr. Defeat his guardians and pass. Four Golems plus your famous Cognita. The Armor Golem isn’t much, although it is exquisitely made. I could take that one down in theory, with the right preparations and some artifacts. But the magma creation? That thing made of metal? That invisible flesh-monster?”

He shook his head. Ceria started, recalling each in turn. Yvlon and Ksmvr just looked silently at her and Pisces and the [Necromancer] shuddered. Grimalkin kept going.

“I’ve seen advanced Golems fight, like the War Golems the Reinharts still use. Have you seen them? They can shoot beams of light, cast spells—no. You know, I thought about challenging the test myself, when I was younger and I thought it would make me a hero.”

“You did?”

Ceria looked up. Grimalkin nodded, smiling ruefully.

“Doesn’t every [Mage] who hears about it? Of course I did. And no disrespect to your master, but I imagine I have at least a few levels on her. If I did it, I thought, I’d bring the best team. One with the greatest [Mages] the world had to offer. From Fissival as well as Wistram.  But even if I took the best six [Mages] I know, I’d only give us a one in three chance of victory. And that includes Archmage Amerys and Viltach.”

Ceria swallowed hard. Archmage Amerys? She remembered her as well. And Illphres had said Amerys had more levels…she bit her lip, remembering Illphres’ last words. The way she smiled.

“Someone had to try. Someone—it wasn’t in vain.”

The look in Grimalkin’s eyes softened just a bit. He cleared his throat awkwardly.

“No. But as long as that monster guards Wistram, no [Mage] will pass that test. I guarantee it. The other Golems you could handle, at risk, and at cost. But Cognita? She’s stronger than all four of the others put together.”

“You know Cognita, then, Magus Grimalkin?”

Pisces’ voice was quiet. Grimalkin nodded, baring his teeth.

“Why wouldn’t I know her? Cognita, the Truestone Golem. She was made by a Drake. By one of our Archmages, less than three hundred years ago. Archmage Zelkyr was a genius who transformed the world and his creations live on to this day. Historically, Cognita walked Pallass’ walls. She fought against the Five Families—helped crush the foothold they established on our shores and killed two other Archmages in battle herself. You should look up her history. We have libraries, you know.”

He looked at Pisces and Ceria. The half-Elf shook her head. She didn’t want to think of Cognita. Pisces’ eyes were alight with interest.

“I’m aware of her history, Magus Grimalkin. But I also know that many artifacts belong to the Walled Cities, and in the vaults of the current Archmages. Two Archmages and yourself and you wouldn’t try? Ever? Was it just a matter of logistics or the others refusing?”

“No. I decided not to. Because of Cognita. Let me repeat myself. She killed. Two. Archmages. In battle. Back when Zelkyr walked the earth and [Archmage] was a class, not a title. No disrespect to your former master, Miss Springwalker, but I don’t blame any [Mage] for refusing to fight her. If I took every Gold-rank adventurer in your inn and threw them at her, she would probably finish the fight in less than five minutes.”

Fortunately they weren’t in the common room where everyone could hear. Grimalkin ignored the incredulous look Yvlon was giving him.

“Gold-rank’s nowhere near the level you need to be to hurt something like her. Even Saliss of Lights, our Named Adventurer—well, if he prepped, he might actually do her some damage. But once she caught him, he’d be dead too. I’m just surprised Wistram’s [Mages] are so comfortable walking around with a superior being judging their every move and their petty squabbling for the scraps of power she lets them have.”

Pisces’ eyes lit up. Ksmvr leaned forwards too, excitedly.

“Really? Is this Saliss truly that powerful? More so than you, Magus Grimalkin, by comparison?”

The huge Drake paused and for a moment, looked uncomfortable.

“Well, he’s a Named Adventurer for a reason. And he possesses one of the highest, if limited, combat potentials in the world. He is on my list of people who could kill me—if he took me off-guard. In a fair fight, I’d be prepared of course. But he’s still…”

He broke off, grumbling as he folded his arms. Yvlon frowned.

“You have a list of people who can kill you in a fight?”

“Of course I have a list of everyone who can kill me in combat. Any such individual is a threat to the Walled Cities!”

The Horns exchanged a glance. Ceria knew they were way off-topic, but she couldn’t help but ask.

“Who’s on it? Ellia Arcsinger?”

“Hah!”

Grimalkin laughed as he took a tip of tea. Then he frowned.

“Wait, were you serious?”

He eyed Ceria and then shrugged.

“Never mind. We’re missing the point. I see now why you two lack some magical knowledge. Nothing to be done about it. Your master’s dead and you don’t have a master.”

He pointed at Pisces. The [Necromancer] nodded stiffly. Ceria sat up as Grimalkin got up and paced once more.

“As I said, it shows. In Ceria most of all. You lack spells! The rest of your team is solid.”

“I don’t feel solid. I realized how far I have to go. I never touched you in that sparring session! Honestly, aren’t I a big weak link?”

Yvlon shook her head. Grimalkin just laughed.

“You? Miss Byres, if I see a sword enchanted like yours, I avoid it! Moreover, you’re not at Level 30. [Warriors] like you tend to gain a powerful Skill along with a class then—and often in a specific direction. Offensive Skills. Defensive. Or utility, like mobility. Each one has its strengths. Given your fighting style, I’d guess you’ll gain something offensive or mobility-based, but who knows?”

Yvlon blinked as he thrust a claw at her. Ceria looked at her. A Level 30 Skill? She’d been dreaming of what she’d get, but Yvlon? The Muscle Mage went on.

“Either way, if you gained, say, [Hundred-Foot Lunge] or [Whirlwind Cleave], you’d solve your issue of reaching the enemy neatly. Most foes can’t dodge like I can; your sword puts you at Gold-rank, and if you gain a decent Skill at Level 30, I’ll certify you as Gold-rank on the spot. The Antinium needs levels and gear, but for his level he’s the most effective of you. As for you two—”

He pointed at Pisces and Ceria and paused. Reluctantly, frowning, he stared at Pisces.

“Low-level spells. Fast casting with your bare hands. [Fencer]’s footwork and a [Fencer]’s Skills. Your technique…you lack Skills, but [Flashstep] makes up for your agility. Huh.”

He tapped one foot impatiently on the floorboards. Pisces looked somewhat pleased and wary. After a moment, Grimalkin nodded reluctantly.

“[Fireball]. [Lightning Bolt]. [Acid Orb]. [Icy Spear]—well, your half-Elf companion would learn that. What’s the [Necromancer] equivalent? Ah, yes. [Deathbolt]. But that’s a poorer spell. Hm. Fine. [Fireball], [Lightning Bolt], [Acid Orb], and—[Stone Spear]. Take your pick.”

“What?”

Pisces blinked. Ceria sat up on the tea-spattered bed. Grimalkin sighed.

“Take your pick. I’ll give you a scroll with the spell. They’re Tier 3; if you can master [Invisibility], they shouldn’t take more than a few weeks at most for you. And they’re simple enough that I have copies. I’ll charge Miss Solstice’s account.”

What?

The other Horns sat up. Grimalkin nodded reluctantly at Pisces.

“You pass. Your dodging ability is superior to my apprentices, you have a melee weapon, and you’re practicing fast-casting in the modern style. If you weren’t a [Necromancer], I’d bring you back to have my students learn from your style.”

He paused. Pisces looked delighted and Ceria was sure his ego was expanding like a toad. Grimalkin shook his head.

“As it is, you’re a disgusting waste of potential. Your [Necromancer] class is designed for raising armies of undead. These specialized Bone Horrors are useful as walls, but [Necromancers] specialize in overwhelming their opponents with minions. You need to keep…three high-grade mana potions on your person at all times, and triple the amount of bones you have stockpiled. Then you can raise a small army of skeletons for any given battle. Animal bones? Good. I’d have to hit you if they were Drake, Gnoll, or Human.”

He sighed louder.

“You pass. But either upgrade that rapier and learn more duelist spells or stop using it. It won’t cut my scales; good luck fighting a Wyvern or anything with a tough hide.”

Pisces preened. Yvlon rolled her eyes in disgust as he adjusted his robes and sat up, smiling contentedly.

“I’ll keep that in mind. But ah, Magus Grimalkin, you’re referring to Miss Byres as close to Gold-rank—Ksmvr obviously simply has too few levels—but what did you mean about ‘certifying us’? You mean, giving us a Gold-rank status as adventurers? I assumed that was a matter for Adventurer’s Guilds to take on…”

Grimalkin looked affronted.

“Of course I can certify someone as Gold-rank. I recommended two of my apprentices to the Adventurer’s Guild in Pallass when they graduated from my training. One for Gold-rank, the other for Silver. She hit Gold-rank in four months. Human Adventurer’s Guilds don’t take recommendations? Haven’t you gotten one from a Gold-rank team?”

The Horns went uncomfortably silent. Grimalkin smiled.

“They probably agreed with me. Now, onto Ceria Springwalker.”

He pointed at Ceria. And her heart sank. She raised her flesh and skeletal hand, smiling weakly.

“I get it. Stop eating, start learning from my spellbook…I can do that.”

She noticed Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr all looking at her skeptically. Even Ksmvr, which hurt.

“I can! Honestly! It’s just that I don’t have any more ice spells in that spellbook of Warmage Thresk’s. But I taught myself how to use [Frozen Armor] in the Raskghar den, remember? I just need to put my back to the wall and…we can buy a spellbook, right?”

“Hm. I may be able to help with spellbooks. I have a few duplicates. But your issue is that you need to practice magic. The [Necromancer] can fiddle about with bones, but you need to practice magic. And not just aiming spells or quickening your incantation. Your [Ice Walls] need to be strengthened. You need to improve your mastery of frost; that’s what [Elementalists] do. They specialize.”

Grimalkin drummed his claws on one arm absently. Ceria looked at him blankly.

“How am I supposed to do that? Gain more Skills? I already have [Weak Frost Resistance], [Ice Magic Affinity] and [Frozen Quickshape], but…”

She jumped as Grimalkin thumped his thigh. The [Sinew Magus] glared at her.

“Dead gods! Do you think magic is all about Skills? I’m talking about practice! Honest work! You need a regime. Structure! And this is what I specialize in!”

He snapped his fingers and the pop of sound made the Horns jump. Grimalkin got up in one movement and strode over to Ceria. She found herself standing as he nodded, practically vibrating with energy.

“I’m no [Cryomancer]. I know a few dozen spells involving ice magic, but it’s not my specialty. But I do know how they train. We’re going to have you work on your fundamentals, Springwalker! It’ll be intense! Possibly life-threatening! But. That. Is. Why. It. Works!”

He jabbed her in the chest. Ceria rocked back on her feet with each impact and opened her mouth. He couldn’t mean—she turned red again.

“Hold on! I know what my master talked about having me do, but that’s a bit extreme, right? I can’t even…”

She hesitated. Grimalkin paused as he paced over to the door and came back. Pisces and Yvlon looked interestedly at her.

“Do what?”

Ceria hesitated and turned red. She coughed.

“Uh. W-well. She said that when she learned ice magic, she er, went to Terandria and walked in the worst blizzards she could find. Naked.”

Ksmvr stared blankly at Ceria. Pisces on the other hand let out a cackle, and Yvlon covered her face. Grimalkin just looked nonplussed. He shook his head.

“Walking around in a blizzard naked? Why would that help? You’re in your element. No. That’s idiotic. What I have planned is much more efficient. And you can do it without needing inclement weather. I just need one thing…”

He paused. The Horns of Hammerad looked at him expectantly. Grimalkin looked around, frowning, and then he leaned over to Ceria.

“…This inn wouldn’t happen to have a bathtub, would it? I need to borrow it.”

 

—-

 

Aaah! Aaah! It hurts!

Erin Solstice heard Ceria screaming outside. She stared at Chaldion—they were playing Go at this point to break up the Shogi games. He was new to them, but he’d won three games out of eight. Erin was enjoying herself so much she really didn’t want to look. But after four minutes of Ceria screaming she got up and with a sigh, went outside.

She found Ceria standing in the bathtub. Or rather—lying down in it. It was a nice, round, wooden tub, big enough to hold even Relc if he lay down and submerged in it. Not that he’d ever used it. Erin herself didn’t use it much; Liscor’s bathhouses were much nicer. And it was a pain to fill.

But the bathtub was filled now. With water. In fact, boiling water. And Ceria was lying in it. Grimalkin had set up a raging fire around the bottom of the tub, and, heedless of the way it kept on scorching the sides, was stoking it mercilessly. The only thing that was keeping the tub from burning itself was the water Ceria kept splashing over the sides as she thrashed. But Ksmvr was helping to fill the tub with a bucket. Yvlon and Pisces were just watching.

“What on earth? Ceria!

Erin was horrified. The half-Elf was going to cook her brains! At the very least scald her skin off! Already the half-Elf’s arms were red and cooked, but Erin realized the tub was blazing with heat! It wasn’t just scald-yourself hot, it was you’ll-actually-die-it’s-that-hot! She looked at Grimalkin in horror. The [Sinew Magus] looked up cheerfully.

“More heat! Come on, [Necromancer], help me with these flames. We’ll probably need a copper tub if this thing keeps burning. Feel the burn, Springwalker! That’s how you know you’re alive!”

He flexed, raising his arms up and roaring encouragement. Ceria just screamed.

I’m burning alive you monster! It’s too hot! It’s too hot!”

“She’s going to die! Grimalkin, what are you doing!”

Erin had to walk around the fire towards Grimalkin. The Muscle Mage looked at her, beaming.

“Not if she does what she has to! Ah, Erin Solstice, admiring my custom-made course? I told you, I’d deliver! Fancy talking about Parkour? I could try working up something for the [Necromancer], but Miss Springwalker was the one I thought was really—whoops, sorry, it’s getting too cool. Hold on a moment.”

He pointed and shot a bunch of blue flames into the fire. Ceria screamed and Erin panicked.

“Put it out! Why’s she in there? What kind of training needs this?

She looked around and grabbed a spare bucket, but Grimalkin held her back.

Ice magic training, of course! Miss Springwalker’s lowering the heat in the water! Or how else would she be alive? This is training her core! Her magical core!”

He pointed. And Erin saw that he was right! Ceria was flailing about and screaming curses at her team, but she wasn’t looking nearly as bad as the fierce heat suggested. She stared at Grimalkin.

“Wh—really? [Mages] have a core too?”

He hesitated.

“Well, not really. It’s a good analogy, though. She’s really training her ability to freeze things. The faster and more intense she can do it, the stronger her ice spells will be. Especially the higher-level spells. This is a precursor to her learning more advanced ice magics and it’ll strengthen her [Ice Wall] and [Icy Spear] spell—when she learns it. I’m going to have Ferkr check if I have the spell in my collection. You haven’t seen her around, have you?”

Erin stared at Grimalkin. Then she heard Ceria shout from the tub.

“I can’t do it anymore! Put the fire out! Put it out or I’ll die!

“Nonsense! You’ve only been in there…eight minutes! Keep going! And you, Pisces, more heat! You need to work, Springwalker, or you’ll never improve! Push those limits! Look at Miss Solstice here. She fought a Goblin Lord—”

I’m going to kill you!

“If you have the spare magic for that, I’d welcome the attempt!”

Grimalkin waited. Ceria just stared at him through the steam and started uttering profanities. Erin saw Mrsha, who was padding out to look at what all the fuss was about, promptly be pulled back in by a motherly Lyonette. Grimalkin turned to Erin.

“Anyways, we’ll see what Springwalker’s limit is with this test. I have a few others, but this is actually a very good method to force her to improve. She’s acknowledged she’s become complacent, and her team’s very willing to help her improve. I admire that. Team spirit can force people even further past their limits!”

He gestured at Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr. It looked to Erin like they were placing bets on how long Ceria would last as they cursed her. But—Pisces leaned over and said something to Ceria that made her splash boiling water at him. He retreated, howling, but Yvlon was there, and Ksmvr happily waved as he splashed water into Ceria’s tub.

It was madness, but it was their kind of madness. Erin laughed. Then she looked at the tub.

“Huh. Hot tubs.”

She thought about it and then her eyes widened. Erin turned to Grimalkin, who was inspecting the heat and muttering about it being ‘only as hot as a cook fire’.

“Hot tubs! That’s it! Grimalkin, you’re a genius!”

“What?”

The [Sinew Magus] looked up blankly. Erin danced about excitedly.

“Oh my god. Hey Lyonette! Pawn! Belgrade! Get out here! We need hot tubs for the inn! Can we build…”

She rushed back inside before Grimalkin could blink. He straightened, looking at Erin as the door slammed shut. Ceria, boiling, glared at him from her bath. She was still wearing her robes. Grimalkin pointed at the door.

“Is she always like that?”

“I hate you.”

The Muscle Mage met Ceria’s gaze and shrugged.

“Well, keep freezing. You’re clearly out of practice from when your master trained you. Freeze the hot water! Or do you think you’ll be allowed to skip fighting in the summer? [Cryomancer] generate their own cold or they switch to water magic! But we do need to hydrate you. Drink the water in the tub! Or you’ll sweat to death! Come on, Springwalker! This is barely hot enough to boil my tea in. Do you want to improve, or do you want to improve?

A strangled scream was his only reply. But Grimalkin saw Ceria thrust herself deeper into the boiling water and he smiled. She had spirit, that half-Elf. Then Grimalkin saw Ksmvr sidling over. The Antinium splashed Ceria with water and conspiratorially leaned over to Grimalkin.

“Magus Grimalkin, I believe there is one more glaring weakness I possess that I would like you to address if you have the time. It is a crucial flaw in my team’s makeup and I believe it is just as pressing as Captain Ceria’s weakness in magic, if not more so.”

The [Mage] regarded Ksmvr with distrust, but also a bit of interest. He folded his arms.

“Go on…”

Ksmvr took a deep breath. He looked at Ceria boiling in her bathtub, and then at Grimalkin, and then at Ceria, and came out with it in a rush.

“You see, I have a fear of drowning in water…”

“Because you can’t swim?”

Ksmvr nodded repeatedly.

“Yes. Antinium are incapable of swimming. But I was hoping you could help me.”

Grimalkin paused.

“Get over your fear of drowning in water when you’ll die if you enter it.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

Ksmvr waited. Grimalkin stared at him, looked him up and down, and shook his head.

“In your case, I’d stay afraid, Antinium.”

He walked away. Ksmvr stared down at the dregs of water in the bucket he held and nodded. He whispered into the bucket as he solemnly emptied the rest into Ceria’s tub.

I knew it.

 

—-

 

While Ceria practiced her ice magic outside with Grimalkin, Erin’s attempts to convince Lyonette to install a hot spring in the new inn’s plans were derailed when she saw a familiar, quiet figure sitting in her inn. She stared, and then slapped her head and ran over to a Gnoll happily inspecting a flower in a cup at the bar.

Xif the [Alchemist] looked up warily, but after a moment, went over and went to speak with Octavia. Because Erin had asked him to, up front. He coughed as Octavia doodled on the table with one finger; she’d taken if off her hand by undoing the stitching. She looked up blankly as Xif smiled politely.

“Ah, Miss Octavia. Might I have a word? My name is Xif, and Miss Solstice invited me to chat with you. I understand you’ve had some trouble in your shop? I’d be glad to discuss the matter with you for a few minutes.”

Octavia jumped and blinked up at Xif. And then her eyes were round. She blinked, felt at her eyes, pulled one out, and then put it back in and stared at the Gnoll. She stuttered.

“X-x-x-Xif? As in, Xif the [Alchemist], the one who developed the modern cure-all basic antidote formula?”

He smiled kindly at her.

“I wouldn’t go that far. I just improved the formula. It was quite well-received, though. May I sit?”

“Of course! Please! Take my chair! Take his chair too!”

Octavia shot to her feet and began offering Xif every chair in reach. Numbtongue growled as she reached for a chair at his table, but Xif, chuckling, sat down and beckoned her to sit with him. Octavia did, staring at Xif wide-eyed over her empty cup and plate. She hesitated, and then burst out.

“I would love to exchange notes. Formulas? Apprentice myself to you and cook and clean up after you? Please?”

The Gnoll paused only for a moment before shaking his head.

“I’m afraid not, Miss Octavia. You know how we are with secret formulas and recipes. I don’t take apprentices and if I did—it would have to be someone with a Skillset outside of mine. If you do have any unique Skills, I’d be willing to discuss it. Ah—for reference, I’m specialized in plant work. [Poison Immunity] and [Perfect Reduction] would be some of my focused Skills. And you?”

Octavia hesitated. She lost her sudden burst of energy and looked down at the table, flushing behind her dark, stitched skin.

“[M-Magic-Water Solvent]. And…[Mineral Distillation].”

Numbtongue, listening with one ear to the conversation as he ate an entire plate of macaroni and cheese, heard the embarrassment in her voice. Were they bad Skills for an [Alchemist]? He turned his head and saw Xif smile again. Not condescendingly, but with a knowing look that told Numbtongue his guess was right.

“Ah, of course. Celum’s farm. Rocks and magical liquid. It’s a fine start, Miss Cotton, but I’m afraid it’s not worth my time to teach you. There’s no malice; I hope you understand? Erin Solstice herself couldn’t persuade me to take on an apprentice, not even if she sold me half her flowers. If she has two rare ingredients though…”

“No, I understand. I’m sorry, I just—I’d offer anything to study under a master. I…uh, has Erin talked about my matches? I’m also studying this Haste Potion—I could show it to you—”

Octavia’s hands were fumbling nervously under the table. For a second time, Xif smiled apologetically and shook his furry head.

“I did see them. Fascinating. I’m afraid most [Alchemists] will be able to copy them once they arrive in Pallass, Miss Octavia. I’m…going to be quite busy with this flower, so I’ll forget I saw them for a bit. But—and I do apologize—I don’t wish to owe you a favor. A Haste Potion, you said? I have seen Potions of Quickness before. Haste would be…but are you sure of the effects?”

“I—I think I am. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to push—

Octavia’s voice was far meeker than Numbtongue remembered too. But Xif was kindly, even if Numbtongue felt like turning around and kicking him in the back. He’d seen everything the Gnoll had done with Erin. He’d taken her flower! Never mind that he left all that gold there—for the Hobgoblin, theft was theft. If Xif took a single mug from Erin’s inn, he, Numbtongue, would happily beat him to deal with it. And then get a new mug. That was how Goblins did things. You didn’t steal. Okay, Goblins had few possessions, but it was like if Numbtongue had taken Shorthilt’s sword—

The Hobgoblin looked down at the steel sword hanging from his side. He only paid attention to the conversation between the two [Alchemists] when he heard Octavia stuttering.

“I—it was my fault, really. I started it—”

“Ah, that sounds like the Chandrarian way. Throwing potions at each other? Insults in public? I miss that. Do they still have alchemy duels between competing shops in the public and huge feuds? They must!”

Xif was laughing. Then he grew serious.

“But really, Miss Cotton. You might have been improper as far as the law’s concerned, but hiring a gang to vandalize your shop? Extorting money? We [Alchemists] in Pallass have our fights, but they never go to that extreme. I would say this Mister Quelm is receiving his just rewards. And with his absence, the remaining [Alchemists] in Celum have less competition, yes?”

He nodded and Octavia nodded as well. She fiddled with a fork nervously.

“There’s only Mabel now that Jeffil’s out of the game. But…my name’s mud with Celum’s City Watch. And that gang could still be hanging around.”

Xif nodded, his eyes alert, considering. He leaned forwards as Drassi brought over a tray with some drinks.

“Now, as I said, I can’t help your shop with recipes or training, Miss Cotton. I don’t know what Miss Solstice had in mind, but I do take Grimalkin’s position. You know what secrets are to [Alchemists]; we’re always stealing each other’s best products.”

Octavia nodded miserably and Xif held up one furry finger.

However, I’m quite content to talk about how I run my business. And I do remember starting up in a small city—I have travelled abroad and I understand customers. The agony of pricing that accursed stamina potion as well! As humble as it may be, I think I know price points in cities even as far north as Celum—I have a number of [Merchants] who make the journey north of Pallass during the winter. I could recommend your matches to a few, and discuss what I know of the business? If that suits you?”

He looked at Octavia. Numbtongue peeked at her face and saw it turn hopeful.

“I’d—I’d appreciate that very much, Alchemist Xif. Would you mind if I er, took notes?”

“Xif, please. By all means. Let me lend you my quill. It’s magical.”

The two began a heated discussion that Numbtongue stopped following after it began diving into the economics of potions and how much copper you could get away with charging. Lighting? Presentation? The Hobgoblin contented himself with ordering another plate of noodles.

Briefly, yes, briefly, he felt guilty that he wasn’t sharing this with Pyrite. But Numbtongue had a sense that it took…at least eight hours to reuse his Skill to bring Pyrite back. And it was completely different from using Pyrite’s memories too. The other Hobgoblin was there, with his Skills and personality. It was amazing. Incredible.

Painful. Numbtongue resolved that if he could, he’d ‘treat’ Pyrite to at least one meal a day if he could. The Hobgoblin really loved fish; most Goblins did. But Numbtongue was sure he’d love meatloaf. And what might he say to Erin? What might he do? Numbtongue couldn’t wait—but as he was finishing his second plate, he realized Xif had finished with Octavia. And now the [Alchemist] was coming over to his table!

Numbtongue looked up warily. Xif smiled and nodded.

“Er, Numbtongue is it? May I sit?”

Numbtongue thought about it.

“No.”

Xif hesitated. He was halfway sitting, but he stood up after a moment and forced a smile. He looked at Numbtongue and the Hobgoblin remembered the way he’d recoiled from him when they first met. Of course, most people did that. That young woman named Garia had kicked him. Numbtongue was more embarrassed than anything else about that. But Xif…the Hobgoblin waited.

“I’d ah, like to make you an offer, Numbtongue. You are the first Goblin I’ve encountered, let alone Hobgoblin…forgive me, but would you be willing to part with some nail clippings? I notice yours are quite long and I’d be willing to pay for them.”

Xif nodded to Numbtongue’s hands. Reflexively, the Goblin covered his hand and stared.

“What?”

“Your fingernails. I’d like to buy them. Toenails too. I know some of my peers have looked into it, but I thought I’d ask since today seems to be a day of windfalls. Would you consider it?”

Xif smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin thought he looked wary. If he shouted, would Xif run or throw a potion in his face? The Hobgoblin decided to just sit back and fold his arms. Xif sighed.

“I really would like to use them. For potions? It would earn you money as well. How much would you take for them?”

“One million gold pieces.”

Xif blinked. Numbtongue didn’t know if he’d used his Skill or not, but the Gnoll’s face instantly turned rueful. He regarded Numbtongue, and then looked knowingly towards the flowers in the beds on the far wall.

“I see. Well, I would be willing to pay a few gold pieces for your clippings if I could regularly acquire them. Do let me know if you change your mind.”

“Sure”.

Numbtongue sneered. Xif hesitated, but in the end, clearly disappointed, he moved away from the table. He sighed, and then brightened.

“Ah! Now where is that Mrsha child? White fur—is it magical, different from Gnoll fur, or just cosmetic? These are the questions.”

Numbtongue watched him hurry off, head turning. The Hobgoblin glared at his back and stuck out his tongue, as Erin sometimes did. It made Numbtongue feel better. He turned in his seat and realized Octavia was staring at him. The Hobgoblin jumped. She jumped too.

“Numbtongue, right?”

He nodded warily. Octavia gulped. She looked at him. Not afraid—how long had she known him? Since all five Redfangs had been here, that’s how long. Numbtongue felt a pang. The [Alchemist] looked like she had pain of her own. Her hands tightened over a few pages of messy, inky notes.

“I uh—I wanted to say thanks—”

“For what?”

Numbtongue looked blank. Octavia hesitated.

“Saving my shop? Chasing off those [Thugs]?”

“Oh.”

Numbtongue thought about it. Then he hesitated. What were you supposed to say? He remembered at last.

“You’re…welcome.”

He stared at Octavia. She stared back. Numbtongue realized that was the first time someone besides Erin or Lyonette had ever thanked him for anything. The sensation felt…odd. But good. Octavia smiled weakly.

“Hey, come to my shop and I’ll treat you to a few potions. On the house. Not that I have much of a career. Lots of…trouble. But I’ll pull myself up. I’m really grateful to Erin. I—”

She broke off. Numbtongue and Octavia looked around as someone started screaming outside. It sounded like…Ceria? Numbtongue grabbed his sword, but no one else was moving. Some people went to the windows and laughed. On the basis of that, the Hobgoblin relaxed a bit. So did the [Alchemist].

“Always something in Erin’s inn.”

“Mhm.”

Numbtongue nodded absently. He looked at Octavia and then pointed at Xif. The [Alchemist] was bending over, talking to Mrsha.

“Who’s that?”

“Xif? He’s an [Alchemist]. Really high-level. One of the best in…the world? Pallass is known for its alchemy. His potions are leagues beyond anything I could come up with.”

Octavia looked jealously at the Gnoll’s back. Numbtongue grunted.

“I don’t like him.”

He crossed his arms. Octavia glanced at him.

“Why? Because he made Erin sell him a flower? There are a lot nastier ways he could have done it. And he offered you gold for your nails. Why not take it?”

“Because they’re my nails.”

“You know he could get Hobgoblin nails from…”

“Yes.”

Octavia trailed off. She cleared her throat.

“Sorry.”

Numbtongue shrugged.

“For what?”

The [Alchemist] didn’t have anything to say to that. Silently, she and Numbtongue watched as Xif solemnly shook Mrsha’s paw and handed over several gold pieces. Her look was envious. Numbtongue still was fuzzy on the money thing—mainly because he didn’t really care—but he knew that Xif was a lot wealthier than Octavia. More successful. Numbtongue knew how that must feel.

“I should go back to my shop. I won’t get anywhere if I keep running.”

Octavia muttered. She was staring at the notes. Numbtongue nodded. That seemed like a correct statement. He saw the [Alchemist] getting up, staring nervously at the open door to Pallass. Numbtongue had a thought and remembered what she just said. Casually, abandoning the two licked-clean plates, he stood up too. Just in time for Erin to hurry over.

“Hey guys! I’m going to have Pawn and Belgrade build a big hot tub! Want to get in? The water’s fine! Hot, but not as hot as Ceria’s!”

She beamed at them. Numbtongue blinked.

“Hot…tubs?”

Erin nodded. She had to explain the idea to him, then she turned to Octavia.

“What about it? You’re both invited! Bathing suits of course; no skinny dipping! Want to come, Octavia? Numbtongue?”

“No, I—I might go to my room. Upstairs. I’m thinking about visiting my shop later tonight. If that’s not a bother, Erin?”

Octavia mumbled. Erin shook her head.

“Of course not! Just say when—but we’ll have the Horns or someone go with you! Just in case those jerks come back! You’re sure you and Numbtongue don’t want to try…?”

Erin hesitated as she realized who her audience was. Octavia was a Stitch-Girl, made out of fabric which was flammable and probably didn’t like getting wet. Even if it looked like Skin. And Numbtongue was a Hobgoblin and there were a lot of people outside. Erin nodded.

“Okay, we can work it out later. Hey! Xif! You need a bath!”

She wandered off. Numbtongue and Octavia watched her pull the [Alchemist] towards the door, and then Chaldion, who gladly came with a large tumbler of alcohol, and close the door. After a moment, Numbtongue looked at Octavia. She smiled weakly.

“That’s Erin! I um, I’m going upstairs. Nice talking to you?”

She looked at Numbtongue. He blinked and her and then pointed at the magical door.

“Want to go?”

“What—to Celum? No, I wouldn’t want to trouble Erin. And the door has to be switched…”

“It’s not hard. I can do it.”

Numbtongue puffed out his chest proudly. Octavia hesitated. She looked around the busy inn.

“But the Horns are outside and I wouldn’t want to trouble anyone. If the [Thugs] are there—”

“That’s fine. I’ll go.”

Numbtongue poked his chest with a thumb. Octavia blinked.

“You? But—”

She halted as she looked Numbtongue up and down. He had his guitar, strapped to his back, and the steel sword at his side. And that was more than he’d had yesterday by far. After a moment, she nodded.

“Thank you. If you’re okay with it we can ask Lyonette. Uh—or wait for play to end?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Numbtongue shrugged. Inwardly delighted, he shepherded Octavia over to the door. The citizens of Pallass and Liscor stared at Numbtongue and edged back. The Hobgoblin had a huge smile on his face. He looked around—and then reached out and slammed the door. Instantly, there was a roar of protest from the crowd in the inn, and, Numbtongue liked to imagine, an even louder one on Pallas’ side.

“Numbtongue! What’re you doing?”

Lyonette hurried over in alarm. The Hobgoblin scratched under one armpit casually.

“Going to Celum. With her.”

He pointed at Octavia. Lyonette hesitated. Octavia waved weakly, looking at the outraged faces.

“With her? But-”

Whatever Lyonette was about to say was drowned out by the people demanding the door be reopened. She looked around and grimaced.

“Okay! You have your guitar? And sword? I’ll check in five minutes!”

Numbtongue nodded. He adjusted the dial, opened the door, and walked through, head swiveling. Octavia hurried after him, and the door closed after a pause and went dark. Numbtongue stared around Octavia’s shop. It was dark, empty, the boarded-up windows leaking light, but he hadn’t spotted anyone. He sat down as Octavia looked around and breathed out, slowly.

“Thank you.”

“Sure.”

Numbtongue sat down, still looking around the shop. No matter how many times he saw it, the inner Redfang in him wanted to loot the precious potions off the shelves. They were so valuable! Erin had called Octavia’s potions ‘third-rate’, but to a Goblin, they were a priceless treasure. He pulled his guitar off his back and tuned it absently before glancing outside. The street was empty. But come to think of it, yesterday…

Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed. But he saw no one aside from a few pedestrians. Pyrite did have a thought, though, and Numbtongue agreed. He made a little plan, and was so engrossed in it and strumming a tune, he didn’t realize Octavia was doing something until he heard the clink of glassware behind him. The Hobgoblin turned his head.

Octavia paused as she set up some kind of apparatus behind Numbtongue. She smiled guiltily.

“Sorry.”

Numbtongue eyed the glowing jelly, the red-green herbs in liquid, powder, herbs, and all the other stuff she was setting up. He pointed.

“What’re you doing?”

Octavia shrugged self-consciously.

“Just—just making a healing potion. Something low-grade. It’s nothing. Not worth anything compared to what Alchemist Xif makes. Sorry. I’ll go back if you’re bored. Do you think Erin would let me bring some of this into her inn?”

Numbtongue shrugged. But his eyes were locked on Octavia’s equipment. She kept setting up after a moment, but she was clearly conscious of the stare. After a second, she coughed.

“Sorry. I’m not used to guests while I work. I had Erin—but she mainly melted holes in my kitchen pot. I er, you heard what Xif said? About [Alchemists] not sharing recipes?”

Numbtongue nodded. Octavia sighed.

“Cloth moths to that. I know it’s all the thing in most continents, but back home we used to share recipes. I mean, everyone had their secret recipe, but I could at least swap tips. I guess Xif really is the top-[Alchemist] of course. But back home any [Alchemist] would stop by to check out my Haste Potion sample, top-tier or not! I hoped—but I got some tips from him. That’s something. Sorry. Anyways, I’m just going to make the potion. Don’t mind the lights. Or smell.”

She lit a burner with a match. It was some kind of magical burner, although Numbtongue saw it was running on coals—heating them up and igniting them. Octavia grinned weakly.

“Magical burner. I paid for it. Helps with the process. Not necessary; I could make healing potions with a few pots and a kitchen fire.”

“How?”

Numbtongue couldn’t help but ask. Octavia shrugged.

“What? Healing potions? It’s just a small formula. A few Skills. Nothing interesting. I mean—unless you’re actually interested?”

She looked up and blinked. Numbtongue was nodding rapidly. Octavia blinked.

“Really? Most people don’t like [Alchemy]. It stinks and it can be uh, messy. Do Goblins like alchemy? Are there…Goblin [Alchemists]?”

Numbtongue shook his head.

“Goblins don’t make potions. Goblins steal potions. No Goblin knows how to make potions. Not even [Shamans].”

“Really? Do your [Shamans] have special recipes?”

Octavia looked hopeful. Numbtongue considered that.

“Healing paste. You put herbs in mouth and chew. Then spit.”

“Oh. How useful is it?”

“Stops bleeding. Heals a tiny bit.”

Both the Stitch-Girl and Hobgoblin grimaced. Octavia hesitated. She looked thoughtfully at the ingredients.

“Well, I’m just a low-level [Alchemist]. Little better than a [Mixer], really. That’s an apprentice, by the way. Kids get that class. But if you want—”

Hey! Anyone bullying Numbtongue?

The door blasted open as Erin appeared. Numbtongue fell out of his chair and Octavia’s jump nearly sent her ingredients flying. Erin looked around and paused, frying pan in hand.

“Oh. Never mind. Hey Numbtongue, Octavia, you want to come back? Just say when!”

She stared at them. They stared back. Numbtongue slowly shook his head.

“Okay! Cool! Check in thirty minutes?”

Another nod. The door slammed shut. Octavia caught her breath after Erin was gone. She stared at Numbtongue and he met her eyes with his wide ones. Then, suddenly, they both started laughing. And that was a connection. After that, Octavia set up and Numbtongue scooted a stool over and learned how to make a potion.

 

—-

 

“It’s really very simple. A Goblin could definitely make a potion if he had a few containers. Something clean; cleanliness is very important for alchemy. You never know what’ll react, so a bit of soot or dirt could have explosive effects. Especially with some of the more potent ingredients. That’s why you clean everything. With soap, and then you clean the soap out.”

Octavia explained as Numbtongue sat, watching her set up on one of her counters. The Hobgoblin nodded, committing everything to memory. Octavia was a little put off by the Hobgoblin’s intensity, to be honest. She loved alchemy, despite it all. Gold was a second love to the sheer joy you could have, but Goblins? And yet, Numbtongue took this more seriously than she did. He watched as she set up her ingredients and equipment with long experience and pointed.

“What’s that?”

“A beaker. I use it to boil stuff. It’s glass.”

“Why’s it look like a triangle?”

Octavia smiled.

“I used to ask my teacher that every day. You know what he told me? To come up with the answer on my own. It took me two years—you want to know what I eventually figured out?”

The Hobgoblin paused. His eyes flickered, and then widened.

“The…steam comes out less from the small opening.”

Octavia nearly dropped the beaker on the floor.

“How did—”

She saw Numbtongue grinning, pleased at his answer. Octavia had to smile herself.

“I was six! But yeah, that’s the reason. Also, because the wide base allows more heat to affect the mixture, see? You can also balance ingredients in some of the beakers—never mind. Here’s the foundation to any healing potion made in the modern day. Memorize it. Love it. Don’t touch it bare-handed unless you’re me and you can take your hand off.”

She placed something on the counter. Numbtongue peered at the jar full of glowing, orange-yellow gel. It had some fragments caught inside. Seeds, or bits of something. He stared. This time Octavia didn’t have to be prompted. She placed one hand on the jar proudly.

“This is Eir Gel. It’s a primary component of healing potions. Well, I say primary, but you can substitute it for a few other things. But Eir Gel’s very effective. And cheap! Older potions, hah, well, they used all kinds of stuff, but modern formulas work fast based on this stuff. It’s also extremely cost-efficient.”

“What’s that mean? Cost-efficient?”

Numbtongue scratched his head. Octavia frowned. He knew almost every word she said, but stuff like that stumped him.

“It means…you can also make a lot of healing potion with comparatively little. Good for selling. You see, a few islands around Baleros practically supply most of the continent with what they need—and there’s such a surplus since it’s so cost-efficient that you can get it even in Celum. Although it’s a lot more expensive since [Merchants] have to bring it inland—but look!”

She pointed. Numbtongue saw she was dabbing only a little into a jar full of water. Octavia had a measuring spoon and she put in one solid spoonful.

“That’s all?

“For the effect? Yes. I just mix it with water and I have a mixture. We do need to strain to get rid of the kelp and seeds. Poison needles if they’re in there too. But this is the essential stuff. It’s a base.”

“Base.”

Numbtongue savored the word. Octavia nodded.

“Yes. You see? Potion making works like this, at least at low levels. First, you take a substance that has an effect you want. Like Eir Gel. It helps flesh regenerate quickly. But it’s not nearly as strong as a potion, it has to be applied on a wound to take effect, and it makes some people break out into a rash. It takes days for Eir Gel to work, so the key is making it faster, more effective, and less rashy, right?”

“Right.”

Numbtongue watched as Octavia pulled out a fine-meshed strainer and began sieving the liquid. It was thicker, thanks to the jelly mixed with the water, and she carefully removed all the flecks until it was a pure, orange-yellow color. It still glowed, but it was only noticeable because Stitchworks was so dark. Octavia nodded, checking it for impurities.

“The water’s there just to help me remove the non-Gel. We’re not keeping it this way. Now we put it over the burner—”

“But it’s the wrong beaker. See?”

Numbtongue objected. Octavia was using a cylinder-type beaker, not the narrow-mouthed one with the wide base. She grinned.

“Right! But what if I want it to all evaporate fast?”

The Hobgoblin gave Octavia a very wary look. Why?

For an answer, Octavia lit the burner, grabbed a tool of the trade—a glass tube, bent in a very specific arc downwards—and delicately inserted it into a lid which she placed on top of the cylinder. Then, swiftly, she put the other end of the tube into a second cup, as the Eir Gel base began to boil. She explained to a mystified Numbtongue what it was all about.

“We’re distilling it. The base. See the condensation, er, steam, rising? It becomes a gas, which becomes a liquid that goes through the tube and ends up…”

She pointed at the second cup. Sure enough, a drop of very bright liquid, paler yellow than orange now, was dripping into the cup. Numbtongue stared. Octavia went on, tapping the boiling cylinder.

“The gas becomes a liquid. What’s not boiled away—that powdery stuff—is also a component. I don’t use it for healing potions—but you see, we’ve separated two parts.”

She pointed to the first cylinder, which was indeed developing a layer of powder while all the liquid was transferring to the second cup. Octavia watched the mixture boil like a hawk and at the right moment, she took the burner away—before the precious powder could start to burn. Now she had the powder, which she put away for later, and a very distilled version of the base.

“Why burn it?”

“Boil. It’s a process to make the Eir Gel—look, it changes the mixture a bit. Makes it easier to work with. And also you can get sick from Eir Gel as it is. Burning—I mean, boiling substances is often very important. You can cold-mix potions, but those can get tricky. Believe me. Anyways, look at this.”

Octavia swirled the yellow liquid as Numbtongue stared at it. The cup wasn’t that large compared to the cylinder she’d filled, but the liquid was potent. It also had a smell that made Numbtongue wrinkle his nose.

“Stinks a bit like burnt kelp, doesn’t it? You get used it to it. And this is valuable stuff, Numbtongue! This liquid is the base of our healing potion. But to make a proper potion, we need to enhance its effects.”

The Stitch-Girl happily sloshed the liquid a bit and put it down. She grabbed a few ingredients next and began tossing them into a much, much larger vessel. Numbtongue blinked and asked what each one was. Octavia dutifully answered as she worked.

“Those? Minerals. I don’t know my exact list; I keep them sorted. I’ll show you later, but this is my variety. The important stuff is this.”

Numbtongue stared at the golden syrup Octavia was coating the mixture with. He sniffed, then exclaimed.

“Ashfire Bee honey?”

“Counters the allergic reaction. You see? It’s a simple formula. Base effect plus boosting agent, and extras to counter side effects or add more qualities. The trick is knowing what reacts with what.”

“So this—”

Numbtongue waved aimlessly at the second vessel as Octavia mixed the Eir Gel base with it. She nodded.

“Yup. It’s just to keep you from breaking out into itchy bumps. Also, the honey makes it taste better. I used uh, roach shells and some other stuff instead before Erin sold me all the honey. Anyways, I’ve countered the allergic stuff, and added a few tricks that keep the potion lasting longer—they do go bad, you know. Especially if air gets in.”

The Hobgoblin’s brow darkened.

“I know. Very bad.”

Octavia nodded solemnly.

“Well, that’s all preparatory work. You want to know the real magic behind a potion besides the Eir Gel? It’s your booster.”

“Booster. Base.”

Numbtongue looked at Octavia for confirmation. She nodded.

“Booster, Base, Reactor—I don’t use those or anything else on healing potions. Those are simple. Reactors are mixtures you combine with something—to give it a completely new effect. Those are uh, the things that tend to explode. But Eir Gel is so good at healing already, all we need to do is give it more power.”

Ah.

Numbtongue’s sigh was one of comprehension. Octavia wondered if he really did understand. He was sharp. But she’d never heard of a Goblin [Alchemist]. Then again…how many got the chance? She nodded, and a smile played over her lips.

“This is where most [Alchemists] have their own recipe. Eir Gel’s common, you see? But potions, even basic healing potions, are all different. Because everyone has their best recipe. What’s most cost-efficient, what’s cheapest to buy or easiest—or has the best effect. I bet Xif uses only the most powerful boosters, but this—this is what I can afford.”

So saying, she pulled out the jar of water with the red-green herbs in it. Numbtongue peered at the plant floating in the water. He thought he recognized it vaguely, something he’d seen growing somewhere. So did Pyrite. The red-green herb was long, grass-like. And it was glowing—no, the water itself had a faint luminescence! Octavia smiled proudly.

“This booster is low-grade. It’s cheap—you just need a few ingredients. Sage’s Grass, which is just a slightly magical grass some [Farmers] cultivate in huge amounts—a local [Farmer] guy sells a huge harvest to Celum—sugar water, demi-Newt skins dried and powdered, and, er, roach shells. I use roach shells a lot. That’s my formula, at any rate.”

“And what does it do? The mixture.”

The [Bard] pointed at the jar. Octavia blinked.

“Do? Nothing. It just feeds the Sage’s Grass. The Sage’s Grass is magical already, you see? And if I soak it in this water for a week, or a month—”

“The water gets magic.”

Exactly. Sugar feeds the Sage’s Grass in the jar. So do the roach shells. The demi-Newts are slightly magical and don’t contribute much in the way of reaction. So it’s a cheap booster to make. And guess what? This stuff might be cheap today, but there was a time when it would have been worth its weight in sapphires. Even a low-grade healing potion would have been golden.”

Octavia sighed. Numbtongue blinked.

“Really? Why?”

“Oh—back in the day, potions weren’t so easy to make. That’s the thing about alchemy. Even if a…super high-level [Alchemist] dies and no one can make Potions of Great Regeneration anymore, they leave behind notes. Often in code, but more importantly, ingredients. It’s why [Mage] empires collapse and all the artifacts can’t be replicated, but why alchemy’s gotten to the point where cheap potions can close a big wound.”

She swirled the jar of magical water as she brought it over to the mixing station.

“Take Sage’s Grass for instance. It was super-rare, worth more than gemstones, and the most powerful ingredient in the world, say, five thousand years back. I don’t actually know. Ten thousand years back, it didn’t exist. That’s because a [Sage], a really powerful one, bred the plant. Hence the name. He died, and [Alchemists] all over the world rejoiced. Because this is cheap, magical, and no one has to kill a Unicorn or milk a magic cow for it.”

She began pouring the magical water into the vessel. Numbtongue at this point had graduated to assistant, and he carefully stirred the honey, minerals, Eir Gel base, and magical water together, watching it mix and gently glow.

“And that’s it? You mix and…?”

“There’s a bit more. But yes. I have an easier time than you will. Careful—I do need to boil it again to help it all come together. It’s uh, yeah, it’s my recipe. But like I said, everyone has a different one. That’s why no potion looks the same.”

“Is it because no one shares?”

Octavia smiled as she worked, stirring the liquid, checking the heat, making sure it was looking how it was supposed to.

“Not just that. Look…alchemy is a very specific thing. It’s not like being a [Warrior] and hitting things with sticks. For a [Warrior], it’s all about flavor, right? I have [Enhanced Strength]! Or I have [Quick Movement]! Either way, you still hit things in the end. But in alchemy, if you have just one thing missing or one thing extra, the result changes. Take this formula for instance. You probably can’t replicate it even if you copied me. You could get the same result eventually, but not exactly the same.”

Octavia pointed down at the glowing, yellow potion taking shape before Numbtongue’s eyes.

“Skills affect an [Alchemist]’s career greatly. What we have or don’t have allows us to make different potions, creations. That’s why Xif asked if I had Skills he didn’t. Each one can help me out a lot. For instance. This simple potion?”

She paused and raised four fingers.

“[Low-Grade Synthesis], [Cleansing Heat], [Mineral Distillation], and [Magic-Water Solvent]. Those are the Skills that went into this recipe as well as the ingredients. Without any one of them, this wouldn’t work.”

“I see.”

Numbtongue was disappointed. But also, elated that alchemy wasn’t that simple. And you could still learn the end result! His eyes focused on the Eir Gel. Maybe a Goblin couldn’t get their hands on that. But the theory of alchemy? A Goblin could do that. Octavia kept chattering as Numbtongue sat next to her.

“[Alchemists] rely on figuring out specific combinations of ingredients, processes, and Skills more than any other class. We create workarounds—like my Sage’s Grass water. It’s cheap around Celum because this Wailant fellow grows it, but it’s harder to get elsewhere, so [Alchemists] have to invent other types of boosters.”

She paused. Octavia had been smiling, energetic near the end of making the potions. Now, as she looked into the bubbling liquid and slowly turned the burner off, she paused and Numbtongue saw her droop.

“That’s why we spend so much time and money getting new ingredients, tools. Why we need money to invent new things, or find out our way of doing what other people do. So if I always seem like I’m trying to get as much money as possible—”

She paused and rubbed at one eye. Then she turned her head, away from the liquid below. Numbtongue heard her voice catch.

“I—I’m not a good [Alchemist]. Low-level, really. The matches were my big success, and Erin’s baking soda, I guess. Does she even use it? I guess in bread. No [Baker] wanted to try it. I leveled both times, faster than I have in…but I’m not nearly as good as one of the Pallassian [Alchemists]. Let alone Xif.”

She sniffed. Numbtongue saw her brush at her face, and then saw her wipe a bit of liquid. She stepped back before it could foul her potion. Octavia’s voice came out painfully now.

“I just want to be better. To improve. But it’s so hard. Sands and silks, I moved from Chandrar to Izril because I thought there’d be less competition. But here I am. In a city with four [Alchemists]. Well, two now. Jeffil’s arms are broken and Quelm’ll be in jail if he’s lucky. So it’s Mabel the Magnificent and I. I guess that’ll make things easier?”

Her voice was desperate and forlorn. And—lonely. Numbtongue sat on his stool, staring at the glowing liquid. He had no answer for Octavia. He couldn’t relate to most of it. Shops, business. Moving from a continent. But something he could say that was honest, that he understood.

“It’s hard not being strong. And getting stronger is hard. Leveling up is hard. Muscles only get so big.”

He thought of Grimalkin.

“Mostly they stop getting big. But it’s hard. Being weaker.”

“Yeah.”

Octavia sniffed. She plucked out an eye and wiped at the other one furiously. Numbtongue eyed the cloth eye. It was damp with tears. He stared at Octavia. She was very strange. Foreign. If you looked at her wrong, you’d call her a monster.

“Is it…is it good to have rare things? Rocks? Shiny rocks? Glowing rocks? Mana stones?”

He ventured a guess. Octavia laughed as she put her eye back into the socket and it became flesh and blood again.

“Mana stones? Of course! They’re the foundation of powerful potions! It used to be [Alchemists] used only them in potions since it was so hard to find other magical ingredients.”

“So…you used them?”

Numbtongue felt at his side. Octavia shook her head despairingly.

“You think I have the coin to buy mana stones? Well, if I’d kept my control over the matches, maybe.”

“Hm, What about…emeralds? Gold? Ooh, silver.”

Octavia smiled again, not looking at Numbtongue. She checked the healing potion, cutting a tiny part of her wrist and using the potion to heal it.

“Yeah, all of that. I’d rather sell it, but if I had enough money—you can use gold in some potions. Silver—it’s all about reactions. Finding a way to distill ingredients into other forms, mix them. Water, mixed with gold dust is just water and gold dust in the end. But there’s a way to meld the two together. And with that liquid…it doesn’t matter. Too rich for my blood.”

“But you could make a powerful potion.”

“The very best. Or maybe just another weak one. We don’t know. Rare ingredients are rare for that reason. But I’m willing to bet some of them, with the right boosters and combinations? They could make something no one’s seen before.”

Octavia looked longingly at the plain, glowing potion in front of her. With a sigh, she added three drops of coloring and swirled it. The potion became orange and blue, swirling, an enchanted mixture. The Stitch-Girl caught Numbtongue’s eye and smiled weakly.

“For the appeal. I’m a fraud. Honestly, Numbtongue, if you want a good potion, find a way to get it from Xif. Heck, if Erin sells those Faerie Flowers to him, he might cut her an exclusive deal. And then I’m sure I won’t be needed at the inn.”

“Maybe.”

The Hobgoblin thought Octavia was right. Xif was clearly better. And experienced. And many other things. But in that moment, as Numbtongue looked at the potion that Octavia had walked him through step-by-step, he thought of Xif, and the look on the Gnoll’s face when he saw Numbtongue.

And maybe the Gnoll was nice and Numbtongue hadn’t seen his good side. He’d apologized. But Numbtongue also remembered the [Guards] posted on the door to Pallass. He couldn’t walk around the Walled City. He could barely walk around Liscor. As for Celum…

He looked around Octavia’s shop. Her shop, where she had trusted him to protect her if there were [Thugs]. And then he looked at his pouch and the shiny and, to a Goblin, fairly worthless objects inside.

Octavia was pouring the potion into jars, stoppering them up when she heard the clacking. She turned around. And stared.

“What is—where did you get that?

Numbtongue paused as he put down a bit of silver next to some mana stones, an emerald, and other collections from the mountain. Some were his. Others had been mined by Pyrite.

“Shiny rocks.”

Shiny—do you know what those are? How did you find them? Did you take them from—”

Numbtongue shook his head as she glanced up at him, suddenly worried.

“They’re not hard to get. I—another Goblin used to find them all the time. Mining.”

“You can find these? Mining?

“Sure. Here. This one makes a good potion, right?”

Numbtongue found a glowing red stone, with pink-red fire. Octavia’s eyes nearly popped back out of her head. She reached for it with a trembling hand, and then stopped.

“But—but—what do you want in return? Money? Gold? I can’t offer you nearly what this is—”

She trailed off, staring at it. And for a second, Numbtongue saw her eyes flicker to him, calculating, assessing. Octavia opened her mouth, reaching for the stone—and then let her hand go limp.

“I can’t pay you what this is worth. But if I could offer you anything in trade? Anything?”

She looked at him hopefully. Numbtongue considered it. He smacked his lips together thoughtfully and nodded.

“Mm. Potions.”

“How many?”

The Hobgoblin thought. The [Alchemist] was tense.

“Two of those?”

He pointed to the bottled healing potions. Octavia stared. Numbtongue frowned.

“Four?”

He waited.

“…Eight?”

The [Alchemist] shook her head.

“You don’t know how valuable these stones are, do you? And my potions are crap compared to—it’s not fair. You know that. You do know that, right?”

She looked up. And Numbtongue’s smile was knowing. He nodded, shrugging casually. A Goblin’s shrug.

“Sure I do. But I want potions. So. Show me how to make them. And make good ones. From these.”

He tapped the mana stone.

“Ones that explode or do good things. Like invisibility. Those are good potions. And give some to me.”

“But the cost—”

“I don’t use shiny rocks. I just throw them at adventurers. To play fetch.”

Numbtongue laughed. Octavia didn’t get the joke. He went on.

“Only other thing is—I eat stones.”

“Mana stones?”

“Yup. Other Goblin did that too. Tasted good too. But sharp. Potions are better. Probably. I tasted good potion once. Invisibility. So you make them. I drink them. Good deal, right?”

Numbtongue smacked his lips, remembering that. Octavia stared at him. Then her eyes welled up with tears.

“You’re just giving them to me? After all I—do you know how much I’d have to fight or bargain for—giving them to me?

“Mhm.”

The Hobgoblin was prepared for tears. And the shock. But not the hug. Octavia cried, and then she grabbed the stones, talking about finding out what each one did—then she ran around her shop, grabbing potions and offering them to Numbtongue. He couldn’t fit them on his belt, and said so. After a while Erin opened the door and of course, that never made things quiet.

But it was okay. Numbtongue sat in Stitchworks as Octavia calmed down and looked around. It was very quiet here. Not noisy like Erin’s inn was at all hours. And you know—he wanted to try copying what Octavia had done. That wouldn’t end badly, right?

Thoughtfully, the Goblin thought about the [Thugs]. And other things. And then he looked at Octavia, and Erin, who was wondering if you could make an Eir Gel sandwich.

“You know, I’ve been meaning to up my [Wondrous Fare] game. Hey Numbtongue, you really okay with giving Octavia all the shiny stuff?”

He waved a claw at her. He was lost in his own thoughts. His and Pyrite’s. Imagine if Goblins could be [Alchemists]? Imagine if the Redfangs could have made their own potions instead of hoarding the ones they took from adventurers and raids? Imagine what they might have become?

It was true, what he’d said to Octavia. Numbtongue understood their worth, but shiny stones were shiny stones. But potions? He held up one of the fresh healing potions Octavia had made. It glowed in his claws. This was worth everything. If he could learn this…

After a while, he looked up. He had another thought, and Erin was willing to hear it. She was shocked—so was Octavia at first—and protested. But then she agreed. Because Numbtongue was smiling.

And so, that night, as Erin’s customers learned the pleasures of hot-tub drinking and a very irate Ceria stared at her boiled, pruney fingers while eating greens and Erin played more board games with some of Pallass’ [Strategists] and Chaldion, Numbtongue was not there at the inn. He was in fact, a hundred miles north. Sitting in an [Alchemist]’s shop, guitar in hands, strumming, while Octavia snored upstairs.

The Hobgoblin’s crimson eyes glowed in the darkness. And the sparks that shot from his claws as he played earthed themselves well away from any of Octavia’s goods. And he had a bed. A sleeping bag, really, but the Goblin liked it and Erin vouched for sleeping in the kitchen, where it was installed. Breakfast was at her inn, anyways. He was just here as an employee. Being paid and everything.

And outside, it was raining. The clouds obscured the sky, but if someone were to stand outside Octavia’s boarded-up shop, they’d see a new sign, installed there, the paint freshly-dried and varnished. It read this:

 

Stitchworks is under the protection of the Redfang Goblins!*

            *(Bronze-rank team. Attack the Goblin and he’s allowed to hit you. He can also talk, listen, and see. If you throw rocks, he’ll throw them back.)

 

That was all. It wouldn’t stop stones or stares, but Numbtongue was good at catching and throwing and he could stare right back. And there he was. A Hobgoblin in a city. It wasn’t Liscor. But it was pretty good.

And as the Hobgoblin played, quietly, sitting in the dark of the night, the person, or rather, people who were in a position to read the sign crept closer. And one of them, a man, drew a long, curved knife, coated in a dark orange substance. He crept towards the shop, and paused. Just in time to hear the faint music playing. Then there was a flash.

A bolt of lightning shot down from the sky. It landed in the city, blasting a hole in the street, waking up Celum’s residents in fear and panic—until they looked to their windows and saw nothing was burning or collapsed and they relaxed. And their gazes missed the black body lying on the cobblestones.

The strike had flung the [Blackguard] across the street. He lay there, as the [Nightstalker] stared at his body in horror and then turned back to the shop. She saw two crimson eyes blinking at her, then a grin. The Sister of Chell backed away, towards her fallen companion.

Numbtongue was a bit miffed that the [Blackguard] was still breathing. His clothing was smoking, and the amulet on his chest was glowing white-hot—but he was alive. And even conscious enough to scramble to his feet after a moment. He looked around for his knife as the rain pelted him, and then stared towards Numbtongue. He looked at his companion as she halted, her own blades pointed warily towards the shop.

The pair stared towards the boarded-up front and the two flickers of red light. They looked up as thunder rumbled in the sky. A charge was building in the sky.

Goblins did not make threats. The two stared at the shop, and then ran into the night.

One last person disturbed the night and Numbtongue’s vigil. But he wasn’t nearly as bad as the first two. He strolled down the street, his hat slanted against the rain, humming a little tune under his breath.

A children’s song.

The man paused before the shop as the Hobgoblin stopped playing, and the two regarded each other for a moment. And then the man tipped his hat ever-so-politely and went on his way.

Numbtongue smiled. Living in a city wasn’t so hard after all. And when the dawn came, he got up, stretched, went into the inn and called on Pyrite. And here they’d both been ready to fight to the death. A shame.

Breakfast was meatloaf, special. And Numbtongue put the glowing, pink-red mana stone on Octavia’s counter. Then he went back to the kitchen while Octavia was puttering about, muttering about new prices and experiments. Numbtongue sighed, stretched out on the sleeping bag—

And he went to sleep.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

 

6.38

The sun was rising on another peaceful day in Liscor. The birds were singing, the flowers growing. Although, it had to be said, the native population of Ashfire Bees that normally pollinated the entire Floodplains area was trapped in a cavern and thus the reproduction rate of Liscor’s ambient flora might well half itself in the near future with the loss of a keystone species.

And the only reason the birds were alive was because a certain Antinium Worker wasn’t perched in his tower, happily sniping down anything with wings. In that sense, the peaceful day actually lacked the pleasant birdsong followed by the thwap of a bowstring and a terrible squawk for it to be completely regular.

But it was peaceful. And if things were different, well, they were the same in some areas. A single Ashfire Bee greeted the day as she buzzed from flower to flower inside The Wandering Inn, pollinating and getting happily high off the nectar. And there was a Worker on the roof of the inn. He had a hammer, a tin filled with nails, and a purpose.

He was laying down a roof on the rebuilt third floor of the inn. The frame had been created, the floor laid, but the roof had yet to be finished. So this Worker had been assigned to his duties at dawn by Belgrade; he had clambered onto the roof with a large supply of roof tiles, copper nails, and begun hammering them into place.

The Worker had no safety belt, or gloves. Or anyone to spot him. And he was three stories up, balancing on the thin frames while he used all four hands to laboriously bring tiles over from the roofed section of the inn, balance them on a crossbeam, hammer them into place, and not tumble to his death if he so much as took a step backwards.

All things considered, this was one of the safer jobs he could have been asked to do in service of his Hive and the Worker was content. He was no Individual, or even Autonomous, the new class below Individual. He hammered in his last roof tile, carefully overlapping it with the last one so water would flow down unimpeded when it rained, with no chance to leak into the building below. He was working hard, and precisely. Water could not be allowed inside the inn. That was a bad thing. And that was all the Worker thought about.

Aside from the fact that he needed new tiles. The Worker looked up and saw them, in a large basket balanced a dozen feet to the left. He would have to get up, transport more over, and begin hammering again. It was inconvenient and slow, but the Worker was alone and a job was a job. So he got up, balancing carefully so as not to tip over the edge of the roof and die—

And a roof tile soared out of the basket, through the air and landed right on top of the next spot in front of the Worker. He stared at it, and then looked around. The roof tile had flown! And it was right in the next spot where he needed to put the roof tile. Just like that. The Worker stared at the tile. He stared at the basket.

Normal [Builders], or rather, non-Antinium, would have stopped to ask questions. They would have looked for a [Mage], maybe stopped working to check if they had company. At the very least, they would have made a verbal comment. But this Worker wasn’t about to panic or ask questions. He was a [Roofer]. He saw a tile? He hammered nails into it.

The Worker did that. His hand positioned a nail, and his other hand swung while his last two hands steadied himself on the roof and the tile in place. One, two, three—the nail went in. The Worker hammered four more nails in and looked up in time to see another tile flying into place, right above the tile he’d just affixed to the roof. He stared at it. Then he raised his hammer.

More nails, each hammered quickly into place. And this time, the Worker looked up and saw the next tile flying towards him. He edged out of the way and it moved into place. Without missing a beat, he grabbed more nails in his lower-left hand and got to work. Now this was easy!

One tile. Two. Three…they flew into place, just waiting for the nails! The Worker had a rhythm going. Then he saw the tiles flying and the nails with it! It slapped itself into place and the nails drove themselves in. The Worker stared. The next five tiles affixed themselves to the roof as he watched. Whatever magic or…whatever was doing it was far more efficient than the Worker, and as precise as he could ever be. The tiles flew, landed and then, after the tenth one—

Stopped. The Worker stared at his basket. There were still more tiles, and more nails in his tin. But the tiles had stopped moving. The Worker hopefully made his way over to the basket, and picked one up. He tossed it up gently into the air. It obeyed the laws of gravity and he caught it before it landed.

The Worker stared at the tile. His antennae drooped slightly, and he slowly got back to work the slow, mundane way. And below him, Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha stared up at the roof and looked at each other. Erin breathed out as she lowered her hand. Mrsha’s eyes were shining and Lyonette was biting her lip. Erin grinned.

“That’s so cool.

 

—-

 

“[Partial Reconstruction]!”

In the very early morning, in her quiet inn, Erin shouted the word and pointed. Ceria, nursing a hangover, winced. But she watched along with the others as the broken chair, a mess of splinters and wood pieces, quickly rebuilt itself. The wood fused as the half-Elf stared and in less than ten seconds, a completely intact chair sat across from her. The half-Elf whistled softly.

“Now that’s a powerful Skill.”

“It’s amazing! Did you see that? Seborn, hey, Seborn—did you see—”

Erin grinned and looked around. Her inn was quiet and sparsely populated, but only by comparison with the last few days. It did in fact have nearly thirty people in it; the Players of Celum, setting up on stage, the Horns of Hammerad—except for Pisces, who was still asleep—Lyonette, Mrsha, Drassi, Ishkr, three [Barmaids], two [Servers], Apista, Relc, and…the Halfseekers.

Two of them, at least. Seborn and Moore were sitting at a table. The Drowned Man looked up and nodded briefly. He didn’t look happy, but then, he never did. He was largely expressionless by nature and he regarded the chair with less amazement than the others.

I saw. Useful Skill.

“Aw, come on. It’s amazing! Isn’t it?”

Amazing.

The Drowned Man dutifully replied. He sipped from his mug of water and didn’t exactly scowl. Erin pouted, and then looked around.

“What about you, Relc? It’s cool, right?”

“Cool? It’s great! Hey, can I try to break another chair?”

The [Guardsman] excitedly grabbed a chair and Mrsha nodded vigorously. He was here early on a day off, and he’d gotten to witness Erin testing out her new Skill. Erin nodded and he grabbed a second chair.

“Alright! Stand back little Mrsha! Fix—this!

He smashed the chair into the floorboards, and Ceria winced. The wood splinters flew everywhere and the half-Elf raised a hand to block her face. Mrsha, who’d obediently scooted back behind a table, ducked. But a large arm and hand gently protected her from the flying debris. Moore gave Relc a reproachful look as he savored his porridge. The Drake was too excited to notice.

“Alright, fix that, Erin!”

“You got it!”

Erin pointed and the broken chair and floorboards reassembled themselves in moments. Relc crowed as he raised his fists.

“That is so cool! Not even magic can do that!”

“Magic can totally do that. I mean, I could do some of that if I knew [Repair]. And there’s [Reconstruct]. I bet most veteran [Mages] from Wistram could do that.”

Ceria grumbled. Relc ignored her as he turned to Erin, eyes shining.

“What level was that Skill, Erin? Level 30? Are you Level 30 already? It’s gotta be a high-level Skill, right?”

Erin blushed and waved a hand as everyone looked at her.

“Aw, well, you know…it’s really good, isn’t it?”

“It’s fantastic. That’s a proper [Innkeeper] Skill right there. Hey, can I try something bigger? Like a table?”

“Go ahead! I wanna see what I can do! Heck, maybe I’ll rebuild the entire roof!”

The young woman nodded eagerly.

“Hold on, let’s not go overboard.”

Lyonette cautioned the two, but it was too late. Relc raced over to an unoccupied table, and with considerable experience, leapt and gave it a flying elbow. The [Princess] sighed as the table cracked and Mrsha and Erin cheered.

“Awesome! [Partial Reconstruction]! Do another, Relc!”

“Yeah, can I?”

“Go for it!”

The background crash and reassembly got boring after the third break for everyone but Erin and Relc and Mrsha. Lyonette sighed and went to fill drinks. Ceria sipped from a glass of milk and ate a plateful of spaghetti and meatballs. Yvlon, sitting across from her, wrinkled her nose.

“Ceria, don’t you think there’s better things to eat in the morning?”

The half-Elf considered this as she chewed and swallowed.

“Nope. What’s the point of having an inn where I can have any dish I want, fresh, and not having something like this?”

Yvlon opened her mouth to reply, then turned her head and stared left at Ksmvr. He looked up from his plate. He was eating porridge, with acid flies sprinkled into it. Yvlon stared at her teammates, sighed, and shook her head.

“Why is it that I suddenly wish Pisces were here? I must be coming down with something.”

She pushed back her empty bowl just in time for Relc to hurtle past her and body slam a chair. He looked up.

“Yeah?”

Yeah!

Erin pointed at the chair mended its broken back. Relc grabbed two more chairs and jumped on a table. He smashed one on the ground.

Yeah!?

“Yea—oh wait, hold on. I think it’s stopped working.”

Erin said that too late. The crash this time made the Players of Celum look up from across the long room. They stared at Relc as he slowly got up from his pile of splinters where he’d done a flying body slam. Erin stared at the splinters of the table and three chairs on the floor. She pointed hopefully.

“Uh, [Partial Reconstruction]?”

Nothing happened. And in truth, Erin had felt that too. She’d run out of her Skill. Relc hesitated as he got up, brushing bits of wood off his scales.

“Oops.”

Mrsha paused in trying to break a chair leg and innocently hid it behind her back. Lyonette covered her face and groaned. Moore picked a large wooden splinter out of his bowl of porridge. Seborn stared at the chairs, and then went back to his drink. At his table, Ksmvr raised two hands.

“Excuse me, may I have more acid flies in my bowl?”

It was the beginning of another day at The Wandering Inn. The fact that no one even looked surprised was a sign of how far the madness had spread.

 

—-

 

Ten minutes later, a shamefaced Erin, Mrsha, and Relc had swept the wreckage of the furniture into a corner of the inn. Lyonette propped her hands on her hips.

“What have we learned?”

Erin raised a hand.

“So I can do about three tables, uh, ten roof tiles, and five chairs in one go. After that, my Skill stops working.”

“Yup. Pretty awesome. And I can break a table with my stomach.”

Relc scratched his neck, grinning. Mrsha nodded until Lyonette stared at her. The [Princess] sighed. Erin grinned sheepishly.

“Aw, come on, Lyonette. At least we know my Skill has limits! And hey! I’ll fix the table and chairs when my Skill comes back to life!”

Lyonette gave her a reproving glance and gentle head-nod to Mrsha. Don’t encourage her! But she relented with a slight smile in the end.

“It’ll save a lot of money if we just save the broken parts and let you rebuild them later. Not to mention broken windows, mugs—can it do stains too?”

“Maybe? Let’s check after this. But I bet not. It’s reconstruction, not uh, stain-removal.”

“Good to know we still have a job, right?”

Drassi commented as she swept by with a broom, getting the last splinters. Erin laughed. Relc nodded, looking satisfied. Then he glanced at Erin.

“Hey, are you going to open the door to Pallass yet? Grimalkin said he had all those weights you mentioned, and I want to try them out.”

“In a bit. I want a peaceful morning. Which is why the door stays closed! Until around late morning?”

Erin looked at Lyonette for confirmation. The [Princess] nodded.

“We need to replenish our food stocks. Which means you’re cooking, Erin. Mrsha and I will go to the park in Liscor. And the Players of Celum want practice. More importantly, we can’t handle so many people all at once. So the door to Liscor stays closed. No crowds unless they come here on foot. And they’re not allowed into Pallass either—not until the sun’s three quarters of the way up!”

She pointed at Temile on stage with his [Actors] and then at the window. Erin nodded and sighed. She wanted to open the door right now, but Lyonette had a point. Two full days of the door being open to Pallass had made a small fortune for The Wandering Inn, but also a lot of work. Relc looked disappointed, but the day-staff including Ishkr and Drassi looked relieved at Lyonette’s pronouncement.

“You’re the boss, Lyonette. For now.”

Erin tried to look threatening. Mrsha just raced around her. The Gnoll was excited, and signaled as much with her paws.

Pat chest, smile, running motion with closed paws. Then—one arm crossed, two paws folded against head to show napping. Lyonette and Erin interpreted this.

“You like being busy, but…it’s tiring?”

Mrsha nodded happily and made a thumbs-up. Erin laughed with delight.

“I understood that too! I agree, Mrsha. It’s hectic, what with the election in Liscor and Pallass and stuff. But The Wandering Inn’s never been more crowded! Which means we’re making money, right Lyonette?”

The [Princess] had to smile at that.

“We are. And I think we can actually afford some big changes. As well as buying Mrsha some new toys. And maybe some clothes?”

The Gnoll looked excited at the former, annoyed at the latter. Erin regarded Mrsha.

“She is naked, right?”

“Gnolls don’t really care, especially in the wild, but I think Mrsha should learn to wear something. So I’ll buy her some clothes today before we get back. If that’s okay? It shouldn’t be more than a few gold coins at most.”

Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded. Mrsha signed from below that she wasn’t interested in clothes, but the two adults ignored her. Erin ruffled her hair.

“Come on, Mrsha. Clothes are nice! You used to steal bras, remember? And t-shirts. And shoes. Don’t worry, you can get your clothes shopping done and then help out here, okay? We’re doing really well with the inn. But you know what? It can be even better.”

Mrsha and Lyonette both looked up at that. The [Princess] raised one brow and Erin explained with a smile.

“Opening Pallass was just the first step. Now we’re really going to improve things.”

She rubbed her hands together.

“I’ve got plans. Oh yeah. Heh. Heheheheheheh.”

Her chuckle just made Mrsha laugh silently and point at Erin’s face. Lyonette covered a smile and Erin stopped, affronted. Then she sighed.

“I can’t do a scary laugh. You know who’s great at scary laughing? Ryoka—oh. Sorry, Mrsha.”

The Gnoll cub’s face immediately fell. So did Erin’s. Lyonette gave her a reproachful look, and the [Innkeeper] guiltily knelt. She hugged Mrsha and lifted her upright with a small grunt.

“You’re getting heavier. Hey, sorry, Mrsha. But I’m sure Ryoka’s fine. Wherever she is. We’ll find her. Soon, Mrsha. When the Halfseekers get to Invrisil I’ll look into it, I promise. But for today? We’re going to help our friends here. Okay? Just watch a master.”

She smiled, and Mrsha looked up. Her tail began to wag and Lyonette looked at Erin suspiciously.

“I’d prefer to just make more money, Erin. If your next plan has anything like drama in it…”

“No, not like that! I’m just leveraging…assets! When we open the doors, let me know when Grimalkin comes in, okay? Or Xif. Or Rufelt and Lasica or—anyone important, okay?”

Erin’s eyes twinkled. Lyonette sighed, but smiled. Erin Solstice had a plan. And of such things was The Wandering Inn’s reputation built. So the three split up, preparing for another day full of Erin-related shenanigans. And in the inn, sitting at his table, Seborn looked up, drained half his mug of water, and cursed.

She’s late.

“Come on, Seborn. Don’t be so angry.”

The half-Giant carefully smiled at his friend. Seborn just glared ahead as Drassi came by with a pitcher of water.

She’s late. And this is the third day.

“Yes, but…”

Seborn glanced up at Moore. The half-Giant shrugged helplessly.

“It’s not like she doesn’t have a reason.”

I know. But she said—

“It’s love, Seborn.”

It’s infatuation. She’s so busy getting wrapped up with that Dullahan that she’s forgotten about us—

Moore’s brows drew together.

“Why are you mad? You should be happy for our friend. And it’s not like we’re sitting in squalor here. I like this inn. Don’t you?”

We’ve been here for months, Moore. We need to get to work. Or what are we? We’re adventurers and our Captain’s missing.

“But if she likes him—”

The half-Giant’s voice was gentle, sympathetic as was his nature. Seborn on the other hand was clearly impatient as he shook his head.

You and I both know she can’t have that relationship forever. He’s a [Blacksmith] in Pallass. She’s going to be working in the north. At least until we reach Invrisil. And besides which, we’re on missions for weeks away. All she’s doing is having a fling and if she really does like him—I told you. If you two want to have sex so badly, let’s find a port city. There are brothels that cater to any species.

It was the most the Drowned Man had said in one go for a long time, and even then, only among his group. Moore blinked, but then looked slightly affronted.

“You know she actually likes him, Seborn. How long did she say it was since she last met anyone?”

Six years. And that was a Selphid in a port-city bar. I know. I was there and she wouldn’t shut up for three months. So what?

The Drowned Man crossed his arms. Moore hesitated. Seborn had been in the Halfseekers with Jelaqua from the start. And even though the half-Giant had journeyed with them for years, he forgot how long the two had been in a team.

“Well, isn’t it good, then? We should be supporting her.”

And let her get her heart broken?

“Maughin won’t break her heart. He’s the most open-minded Dullahan I’ve met. Haven’t you?”

Seborn hesitated.

Even if he is, so what? They can’t be together.

“Why not?”

Moore gave him a deep look over his bowl. Seborn grumbled under his breath.

It’s a distraction. We should be working.

“We earned a lot of money. Doesn’t Jelaqua deserve happiness? This is the first non-Selphid who’s ever really been serious about her. You know how rare that is. Especially for someone from Baleros! He’s from her home, Seborn. This is special.”

It’s asinine. Every time she gets back here she talks about sex, holding hands in public, or how nice he is. They’re lovebirds. He’s forging her plate armor. It’s disgusting.

“I think it’s beautiful. I…I wish I had that.”

Moore looked dreamy, but the longing tone in his voice rang clear to his friend. Seborn grunted. It was a mark of his friendship with Moore that he bit his tongue on the first six replies. After a moment, he just looked at Moore again.

I keep telling you to visit a brothel. They have Selphids. Or sturdy women. Or Skills. They know what they’re about. You’re not going to hurt anyone.

“I know. You’ve said. But I mean, how many people like me are…”

Moore’s normally open face closed up. The Drowned Man sighed.

They’re used to all sorts of customers. Me. Jelaqua. Even half-Giants. No one’s going to make fun of you. And it’ll stop you moping. Come to think of it, it would’ve stopped Jelaqua from being obsessed with this Dullahan. Just do what you need to do and stop focusing on it.

“It’s not like that. I want to find someone I can like. Or love. I don’t want to pay for that, Seborn.”

The half-Giant [Green Mage] looked reproachfully at his friend. Seborn rolled his eyes.

You wouldn’t say that if you’d actually done it. This is why we need new teammates. You, Jelaqua, Halassia—you were all romantics.

The mention of their old friend made Moore blink. But then he smiled. Sadly, yes, but without the tension there had used to be. He looked at Seborn. They could talk about the past now.  The half-Giant shrugged, a bit defensively.

“So what if we are? Isn’t that why the Halfseekers were founded? We’re chasing a dream, Seborn. Let Jelaqua have her time with Maughin. He’s giving her gifts. They’re walking together. Talking. Maybe they’ll have to split when we go to Invrisil. Or maybe they’ll meet each other. Erin does have her door. And—who knows?”

The half-Giant looked towards the closed door, his eyes gentle. Seborn shook his head. Moore was romantic. Seborn was not. But it seemed to him—he looked up at Moore and thought his friend was hiding his true feelings well. Underneath his support of Jelaqua, there was more than a little envy. Jealousy, even. Seborn leaned across the table and poked Moore.

I know you don’t like the idea. But you’re what, thirty one? I’m not having you sulk on the road if Jelaqua comes back smiling. Why do you keep waiting for someone to fall in love with you? There was that girl in Wales. That woman in Invrisil. That [Mage] from Wistram—just end it already. What’s the matter with buying—

He stopped, because Moore looked truly hurt. The half-Giant shuffled and turned away from Seborn, looking embarrassed and hurt.

“It matters to me, Seborn.”

And that was that. The Drowned Man exhaled slowly and shook his head. He thought of Jelaqua last night, clinging to Maughin like a girl with her first love—which was what this was in some ways. And Moore, too afraid to smile at the women he fell in love with, to take a plunge. The Drowned Man sighed. The Halfseekers. Gold-rank adventurers and veterans in combat, and rookie [Sailors] on the seas of romance. He stood up after a second.

Come on. Let’s walk with that damn wagon for today. The donkeys are still hitched to it, but it’s only a matter of time before a [Thief] or monster sniffs around them.

Moore considered this and he relaxed slightly.

“Okay. Maybe we can find a stable for them. And come back tonight? I do want to have dinner with Mrsha.”

Seborn nodded without comment. The half-Giant doted on the Gnoll child. The Drowned Man walked towards the door, looking for Erin so they could warn her they were about to drain the mana from it. He sighed.

At least we don’t have to listen to Jelaqua or wait for her to come back. I don’t need to hear Jelaqua talking about having sex or sitting on that Dullahan’s lap if they come back.”

Moore chuckled a bit.

“I’ll admit, she is graphic. Uh—Seborn?”

“Yes?”

“Is what she does—is that entirely—normal?”

The half-Giant blushed fiercely. Seborn looked up at him and wished he were miles away. On a boat. Fighting giant squid at sea was easier than this.

“No. Don’t listen to what she talks about. And don’t try it. Ever. Jelaqua’s a Selphid. Bodies are disposable. And this is probably tame for her. You don’t want to know what two Selphids do for fun.

Moore nodded, his face and ears bright red. He and Seborn headed for the door and the Drowned Man sighed. It was longsuffering and for some reason, when Yvlon, sitting at her table, heard it, she felt a strange sense of kinship. Seborn adjusted the door, put his hand on it, and then heard Moore’s voice as the half-Giant leaned down and whispered.

“…So what do they do?”

 

—-

 

Four hundred miles south of the inn, Jelaqua Ivirith was humming as she tried to make breakfast. The large room and kitchen she was working in looked strangely oversized for her, and indeed, the building was one of the more expensive buildings on the ninth floor. But then, the owner needed the space and for the best or second-best [Blacksmith] in Pallass, so it had been customized for him.

The apartment was decorated in the Dullahan’s style, with the typical mix of refined station; showing your rank without being ostentatious about it. And since Maughin was of very high rank in the Dullahan community, and a [Blacksmith] himself—they were prized in Dullahan culture—he could flaunt like no one’s business.

He had two tapestries from Baleros on the walls, one showing the Iron Vanguard in a pitched sea battle, the other of some magnificent view from Baleros. It made Jelaqua ache for home. There was a marble plinth with a carved statuette of Xol of Ingrilt, appropriate given Maughin’s own size, far larger than the average Dullahan but shorter than a typical War Walker, a custom-forged battleaxe, a shelf full of books, made twice as large for him to read, a gloriously artistic platform showcasing the Dullahan’s pottery collection—the apartment was rich.

Jelaqua, looking into the pantries, saw that each one was enchanted with a preservation spell. She whisked together some eggs, poured them into a pan over a stove which had a magical fire spell that Erin would have loved to have, and added some bacon. Her taste buds, still fresh in this particular corpse, watered at the thought of the omelette. But that was only half of what Jelaqua was working on. She was also making a sandwich.

Just a sandwich. The Selphid was well aware of her cooking Skills, but some of the omelette was going to go into there, between some very fine fresh bread, some cheese—uh, what else did you put into sandwiches? She panicked a bit as she tried to remember. Adventurers usually went to sustenance over taste, and Jelaqua often had a body incapable of tasting anything. For a second she thought about going to Erin’s inn for help, but she caught herself.

“No, no. I’ve got this. You put…meat into sandwiches. Meat. Does he have bananas? Bananas are tasty. And hey—if he doesn’t like it—”

She hesitated. Jelaqua looked around Maughin’s apartment and stared at her hands. She was wearing a Drake’s body. And she was…well, she wasn’t not about to go and deliver a lunch to Maughin, who was working at the forge. And maybe stick around with him. And when he finished early, they’d, oh, go to Erin’s inn maybe. Or he’d show her more of Pallass.

“This is a thing, right? This is happening?”

Jelaqua pinched herself. She felt nothing, which meant she wasn’t dreaming. The Selphid looked around, and then craned her neck to see the ruffled bed sheets. She remembered last night and blushed orange.

“This is really happening?”

The Selphid touched her warm cheeks. She was so giddy she didn’t realize the eggs were burning. Then she yelped and began scraping the pan.

A few minutes later, Jelaqua nervously ate her eggs, staring at the vases. She was muttering to herself.

“Vases. He’s got good taste in them. I like pottery. I can like pottery. And we have lots in common. Tons! He’s from Baleros, I’m from Baleros—and we’re both into weapons…he really likes my personality. Aha.”

She laughed and blushed again. Happily, her tail wagging in her Drake’s body, the Selphid went back to preparing a lunch for Maughin. In the distance, she could hear the distant ringing of hammers through an open window. The forges weren’t far from Maughin’s home for convenience, and as the Selphid sighed and leaned on the window, she imagined it was Maughin’s hammer she was hearing.

She was not wrong. In his forge, Maughin was bending steel with his hammer, working faster and harder than his apprentices or fellow [Smiths] had seen him in a long time. To say he was motivated didn’t capture the smile on the Dullahan’s lips, or the way his head hummed as his body worked independent of it. Two of his Dullahan apprentices traded looks as they worked under his supervision.

Of course, it was a scandal in the Dullahan community. A Selphid and a Dullahan? It was only because this was Pallass and not Baleros that this could happen. Normally, a higher-ranking Dullahan would be called in to address the situation with Maughin, and this would all be settled. Or if not, there would be trouble.

But in Pallass, who would call Maughin out? The Dullahan community was small enough as it was, and there were Dullahans who’d had relationships with Gnolls and Drakes and that had been an issue in years past. So no one brought it up. Besides, Jelaqua was a Gold-rank adventurer. That counted for something.

It was still disgusting. Bealt, the [Farrier], two Drake [Smiths], and Pelt all glowered when Jelaqua appeared, practically skipping over to Maughin with a lunch ready and made for him. And the other smiths, glowering in their forges, watched as Maughin stopped work to flirt with the Selphid. Disgusting! Completely inappropriate for this hour.

Even married [Smiths] seldom got a fresh lunch hand-delivered. Let alone had a dreamy-eyed girl—or boy in the case of female [Smiths]—watching and keeping his head company at work.

And that was only the first few hours of the day. The repulsive flirting would go on, but that wasn’t really the point of the day. It was just worth mentioning that not until nine hours later would Jelaqua even recall her teammates. And when she guiltily returned to the inn, she would thank the stars that she had decided to come to the city of Liscor and stayed at The Wandering Inn. Because it had delivered her happiness. Short-lived or long, she was holding onto it.

 

—-

 

And then there was Numbtongue. He got up late for once. Late enough that Lyonette had come back with Mrsha from her morning trip. The Hobgoblin walked downstairs, and to his surprise found the inn had yet to be filled with more than a smattering of guests. He found out why when he poked his head into the kitchen and found Erin hard at work.

“We’re preparing for a rush! Tons of stuff to sell! And I’m going to totally work some magic! In a metaphorical sense. Hey, are the Horns still here?”

Numbtongue checked. He saw Ceria, and Pisces, both of whom looked hung over. Yvlon and Ksmvr were gone. That meant they were between jobs at Liscor or Celum’s guilds and the two [Warriors] were working out while the [Mages] studied magic or, as Numbtongue saw it, lazed about. He nodded.

“Yup.”

“Great.”

Erin grinned what Numbtongue now thought of as her calculating grin. She was tossing a pizza, but she stopped long enough to pull some food out for him.

“What do you want for breakfast, Numbtongue? A steak? Uh—what’s this? Ooh! Is that pickled fish? Um, spaghetti and meatballs?”

Numbtongue’s mouth watered. Part of him wanted to say ‘everything’, but he thought about it and pointed.

“Fish.”

“You like fish, huh?”

The [Bard] nodded. He let Erin serve him some wet slices of fish into a bowl. She wrinkled her nose at the breakfast, but Numbtongue happily began eating with his fingers until Erin slapped at them.

“Get a fork! And eat at a table! Drassi can get you a drink. She’s on bar duty.”

The Hobgoblin nodded and wandered out into the common room. He got a drink himself at the bar, sat down, and began to eat. After a second, he stared at his bowl.

“Yesterday I leveled up.”

He stared at his claws and remembered the events of last night. They hit him again. The [Goblin Soulbard] stared at his claws. He reached for a forearm and made to pinch himself, then closed his hand. Lyonette, lugging in groceries with Mrsha opened the door just in time to see Numbtongue make a fist and wallop himself as hard as he could in the face.

“Numbtongue! What are you doing?”

Mrsha abandoned her bag to dash over. She stared at Numbtongue as he picked himself off the floor. Numbtongue rubbed at his bruised cheek and shrugged.

“Just making sure. Hi, Lyonette. Morning, Mrsha.”

She waved at him. The Hobgoblin nodded and sat back down. Lyonette stared at him, opened her mouth, and then pointed.

“Okay, let’s bring the food to the kitchen! Come on, Mrsha!”

As they went, Numbtongue stared at his claws again. They clenched into fists as he closed his eyes.

[Soulbard]. That was a purpose in itself. But more than that. More, oh so much more. It was—it wasn’t justice. It wasn’t enough for all the dead. But for one Goblin? He thought about his new Skill.

[A Minute, Reborn]. It was a Skill with serious limitations. But the utility! The use! Numbtongue knew he should be running tests to see how many times he could use it per day. Or figure out how best to use it. In the mines, perhaps? Could Pyrite locate more gemstones with his Skills? Could he use Skills?

But in this moment, there was only one thought Numbtongue had. He stared down at the bowl of half-eaten fish as Mrsha reappeared out of the kitchen and padded over to him. It was cold fish, and without any other preparation. But it was good. It was tasty. And right now, all that was in Numbtongue’s heart was this. He closed his eyes.

 

—-

 

Mrsha, who had been padding over to check on Numbtongue and maybe filch some of his breakfast, saw the Hobgoblin change. No one else noticed, but Mrsha had known Numbtongue for a while. And she had keen eyes, a sensitive nose. She saw his posture change, his head snap up and look around. From body language, to the look in his eyes—even his voice was suddenly, strangely, different. The Gnoll froze in alarm as the Hobgoblin looked up, looked at his bowl, and grunted.

“Hrm.”

And then he began to eat. With one clawed hand he picked out a piece of fish and ate it, bones and all. Mrsha heard him casually grinding the bones down, chomping through them without any problem. He grunted in satisfaction as, with his other hand, he fished a pouch by his side. Curiously, not so much afraid as wary, Mrsha crept closer. She had seen Numbtongue do this yesterday. And he had explained it. Even told Erin what, who this was. He’d called the strange Goblin—

Pyrite. And as Mrsha slunk up to the table, one of the Hobgoblin’s eyes swung down towards her. She froze. She’d been using her [Natural Concealment] Skill, which normally fooled even Numbtongue until she was closer! But this Hob saw her at once. He blinked at her, then smiled. With one hand he kept eating. And with the other, he pulled something out of his pouch and placed it on the table.

“Hm. Good fish. Not enough time to go mining. Go later.”

That was all he said. Mrsha, emboldened, leapt onto a chair and stared at the Hob. He nodded at her.

“Mrsha.”

She nodded cautiously and pointed at him. Pyrite nodded amiably. As he ate another piece of fish, he gestured at something on the table. Mrsha stared at the lump he’d placed there. She stared, and then recognized the slightly transparent rock.

“Quartz. Smokey.”

The Hobgoblin nodded. Mrsha did too. It was a lump of quartz, the kind that you could find all over the Floodplains, or near the High Passes. Not too valuable; Mrsha liked the look of the stone with the lattice caught in it that gave it the dark brown look, but she knew it wasn’t worth much. To a low-level jeweler, maybe. But not to [Mages], who valued pure quartz for its magical-holding properties as a weak enchantment material.

The Stone Spears tribe wouldn’t mine this unless they had nothing better. That was Mrsha’s expert opinion as a Gnoll of her tribe. But Pyrite, about twenty seconds into his minute, had other plans. The Hobgoblin put another piece of fish into his mouth and, grunting, with it full, reached for the quartz. He didn’t use a tool, or do anything special; his claws just dug into the rock and began slicing pieces off it as if it were soft butter!

Mrsha’s eyes widened in amazement. Pieces of rock flew and dust drifted down as the Hobgoblin’s claws blurred against the quartz, breaking it down, molding it, then, smoothing the stone, carving it until it was one smooth sphere. In less than thirty seconds, he’d created a sphere. A perfect little marble, showcasing the quartz, transparent brown and grey, a beautiful bauble. Pyrite winked as Mrsha’s eyes went round. He swallowed his mouthful and spoke.

“Good food. Tell Numbtongue thanks. Here.”

He dipped the marble in the cup, and withdrew the gleaming orb of stone. Then, casually, he rolled it towards Mrsha. The Gnoll clasped her paws around the beautiful marble and lifted it up, admiring it. She heard a sigh and looked up. And when she did, Numbtongue was sitting in his chair, blinking at Mrsha, a piece of fish in his claw.

The Gnoll and Hobgoblin looked at each other in silence. Mrsha stared at Numbtongue as he blinked and then burped fishily. Hesitantly, she offered the marble to him. The Hobgoblin hesitated and took it. He stared at the smooth surface and at the crumbs of quartz on the table. He whistled.

“[Rock Polishing]. And [Miner’s Claws].”

He offered it back to Mrsha. The Gnoll took the bauble hesitantly. Numbtongue smiled, and it was bitter, and sad, and happy at the same time.

“He liked the fish.”

Mrsha nodded. The two sat together like that until Lyonette came out of her kitchen, dusting her hands. She eyed the rock dust on the table with a frown as she came over.

“Are you making a mess, Numbtongue? Or is it Mrsha? You know, someone has to clean—what is that?

She blinked as Mrsha rolled the quartz marble on the floor. The [Princess] stared at the shiny little plaything and Numbtongue and Mrsha exchanged a glance. Both looked at Lyonette and shrugged. Numbtongue pointed at the quartz dust on the table.

“Not me. Pyrite did it.”

Who?

And the Hobgoblin’s smile was wide. Because Pyrite was dead. But at least—yes, at least, Numbtongue could still treat him to a meal. And he’d liked meeting Mrsha too.

 

—-

 

A budding relationship. A Goblin with a class. And an [Innkeeper] with a new Skill. Erin rubbed her hands together gleefully, ignorant of some of it, but aware of more than she let on. Relc was happily chatting to her as her staff readied the inn for the influx from Pallass. It was already filling with people from Liscor. Not Krshia, Elirr, Raekea, or any of the Gnolls on the campaign trail, but Selys was here and practically aglow with triumph.

“Your inn’s really making an impact, Erin. Those Pallassian [Senators] are giving Krshia their backing—and not Lism! He still has Pallass’ support, but there are actual Gnolls coming to talk on Krshia’s behalf, and they’re brilliant at speaking! Of course, they have the class. And Krshia can just point to you when Lism tries to rant about Humans and foreigners being bad for Liscor. You did it!”

“Hey, I just got people together. They did the rest. Thank Rufelt and Lasica—they’ll be here to lend some support tonight. And this is good for Pallass’ election too!”

Erin replied modestly, but she felt a surge of pride seeing Selys’ face. Not to mention the people of Liscor who’d come here to talk with people from Pallass, or just see what her inn was doing next. She looked around for Lyonette. And today she was going to make it even better for her other friends!

“Hey Lyonette! Let’s open the door to Pallass already!”

Lyonette looked up. She had been playing a game of rolling a little marble on the ground with Mrsha. The shiny stone caught Erin’s eye and she frowned—where had Mrsha gotten that?—but Lyonette nodded and Erin focused on the door. Time to go to work. She swung it open and a roar of noise enveloped her.

“Hey! Can I get a pizza with cheese in the crusts? And extra salami on top? No one’s copied that yet!”

“Where’s the play? Stop pushing! Is there a new one on? Hey, will those [Actors] come to Pallass?”

“Make way, people! [Senator] coming through!”

“I’m on the list to go to Liscor! Hey! Let me through! I’m on today’s list! I have proof and everything!”

A chorus of voices, angry, happy, expectant, rushed over Selys and Erin. The Drake recoiled. Erin beamed. She saw [Guardsman] Kel holding a crowd back with two other members of Pallass’ Watch as those on the short list to come through trooped through the doorway.

There was even a [Mage] to recharge the door. Two, in fact. Grimalkin strode through the door, bypassing a [Senator] and Xif. Erin waved at him as he entered.

“Grimalkin! Hey! Great to see you! Good morning! Can I get you anything to eat? To drink?”

“Miss Erin.”

The [Sinew Magus] nodded formally at Erin and gazed around the inn. His eyes focused on Relc like a laser beam. The Drake [Guardsman] was already getting up.

“Yo, Grimalkin! Are the weights done?”

Grimalkin grinned with genuine pleasure as he reached out. He and Relc clasped forearms and Selys and Erin, standing back, saw their muscles tense as they exchanged the kind of greeting only two exceptionally muscular people could. Relc laughed and Grimalkin nodded.

“I got the last weights done yesterday. Barbells, weight bar—even the new one Miss Erin mentioned to me.”

“Ooh! The squiggle bar?”

Erin’s eyes widened. Grimalkin nodded and reached for a bag of holding. He produced a shorter bar than the customary bench press bar that Erin was familiar with. But she recognized the EZ-bar from the customary, unique bend in the frame that meant you were holding it at an angle as you lifted. Relc chortled as he examined it.

“That’s weird. I like it! Hey, how many weights do you have?”

“Plenty. Any number of pounds—and I ordered fifty-pound weights made of lead. The [Smiths] should be finishing them any time now—actually, I see them now. Apprentice Ferkr! Don’t lollygag over there!

Grimalkin turned and roared into the doorway to Pallass. He strode back into the crowd and emerged half-carrying a smaller Gnoll. Erin blinked. It was a female Gnoll! She was a bit shorter than Grimalkin, but she seemed a lot smaller because she was nowhere near as muscly. With that said, she probably had twice as much muscle definition as Erin. It was just that even Relc looked less huge next to Grimalkin.

“Sorry about that. Ferkr, the weights?”

Grimalkin deposited the Gnoll on the ground. Ferkr jumped. Nervously, the Gnoll held up a bag of holding. Grimalkin took it, pulled out some huge rounded weights with one hand and tossed them at Relc. The [Guardsman], not to be outdone, caught them and slotted them onto the bar until it was two hundred pounds heavier. Then he began lifting it up and down.

“Oh yeah! This feels different! Hey Erin, these things are great! Tons of fun!”

He tried lifting the bar one-handed, but that was too much even for Relc. Swearing, Relc caught the bar and Erin and Selys decided to step back. Ferkr just stared around at the inn, and then jumped as Grimalkin addressed her.

“Ferkr, are the other apprentices training?”

“Uh, yes Magus Grimalkin! They’re doing six laps, as you ordered.”

Grimalkin grunted in disgust.

“And doing it slow, no doubt. Well, I’ll put them on the weights soon enough. Sergeant Relc! Don’t twist your arms like that! You could injure yourself. That’s two hundred and some pounds you’re swinging around; proper posture is key!”

He turned to Relc, who was trying to swing the entire weights bar like a bat. Relc paused and Erin, eying the weights and Relc, decided to step in.

“Why don’t you two do your weights stuff over there, Grimalkin? And hey! Who’s this? One of your apprentices?”

She looked at Ferkr. The female Gnoll jumped and bowed.

“That’s right, Miss Human. I’m—uh—”

Grimalkin grabbed the EZ-bar from Relc and held it out to Ferkr.

“This is Ferkr, Miss Erin. One of my apprentices. The only Gnoll apprentice I’ve ever had, in fact. She’s attempting to become a [Mage]. Which I commend! But she’s far too nervous. Ferkr, take this. Careful—it’s two hundred pounds.”

He waited until the female Gnoll had a grip on it before letting go. Erin winced, expecting Ferkr to stumble or drop the bar under the weight, but to her amazement, the Gnoll only grunted and the bar dipped a fraction before she held it at a resting position. Grimalkin nodded and Erin stared.

“Wait, that’s way too heavy for her!”

“A hundred pounds too heavy, perhaps. Although with magic she could manage a hundred and fifty. How does it feel, Ferkr?”

“Heavy, sir!”

The Gnoll’s voice was strained, but she was keeping the bar up. Grimalkin nodded. He pulled off fifty pounds off each end.

“Give it a try now. Try—three lifts.”

Slowly, exhaling hard, the younger Gnoll did just that. Erin and Selys’ jaw dropped as they saw her furry forearms strain and then lift. Once, twice—she was struggling on the third one. Grimalkin barked.

Push, Ferkr! I want those arms to come up! Yes, yes—”

The third curl came with a growl from Ferkr as her arms shook. Grimalkin plucked the bar off her and slapped her on the back. She staggered and nearly fell over.

“Excellent! That’s what I want to see! And you can feel the muscles working, can’t you, Ferkr? That’s what Miss Solstice calls a maximum repetition. A few of those push your limit, while working at lower weights is safer and builds the muscle you want. I imagine these bars can support enough weight to test anyone but Sergeant Relc and I.”

“Yeah. That bar’s harder than the straight one.”

Relc grinned as he pointed at the EZ-bar. Erin just gaped at Grimalkin. Then she looked at Ferkr.

“You’re strong! Wow, are all your apprentices like that? Hi, I’m Erin, by the way.”

She held out a hand and Ferkr timidly shook it. Grimalkin just snorted.

“Gnolls are stronger than Humans. No—there’s less gender imbalance for their species when it comes to musculature.  Historically, female Gnolls led hunting packs. And Ferkr is my apprentice—of course she’s stronger than normal! As I said, my first Gnoll [Mage] apprentice. I have expectations of her, but she has to grow some testicles! Perhaps meeting you will help in that regard, Miss Erin.”

He looked sternly at Ferkr and the Gnoll blushed under her fur. Erin smiled sympathetically at the Gnoll girl, but Selys, who’d been listening in to the conversation while waiting for the last of the Gnolls to come in, blinked.

“Wait a second. I thought Gnolls couldn’t be [Mages]. Isn’t that what they say at Wistram?”

“Yeah. Hold on, that’s what I heard too.”

Relc eyed Ferkr, looking confused. Ferkr looked up and her mouth opened, but Grimalkin spoke first.

“Hah! I don’t know how that narrative spread, but it’s completely false. Unfortunately, it’s so widespread that Gnolls don’t become [Mages]! Can you imagine? There are countless precedents in history of Gnoll [Mages]—true, their race tends towards [Shamanism], but that’s just proof they can handle magic! Somehow some idiot started the rumor at Wistram and now Gnolls don’t believe they can become [Mages]—so many don’t! It’s one of those popular narratives that impedes an entire race’s magical potential. Disgraceful!

He barked the word right over Ferkr’s ear and she winced. So did Erin—Grimalkin delivered everything at a shout or roar. She looked over her shoulder at Temile on stage and the [Stage Manager] waved his arms at her in a ‘go away, please’ kind of signal.

“Uh, yeah. About that—why don’t we take this outside? Grimalkin, I love that you’re here and I want to talk with you. But there’s other people coming through. Ooh—Selys! Your guests are all here!”

“I see that. Talk to you later, Erin!”

Selys slipped away and trotted towards the Gnolls ready to help Krshia. Grimalkin looked around and then at Ferkr and Relc. Some of the guests at the nearby tables glared at the muscle [Mage] as they held their hands over their ears. Grimalkin returned the glares with an impervious glance, but he did nod.

“Hm. This is crowded. Let’s take this outside. Sergeant Relc, Ferkr, I want to do some tests so I can see what the right posture is for all of this. I have a bench in my bag of holding and Miss Solstice can show us some grips.”

“Awesome. And hey—good luck Miss Ferkr! I hope you can get that [Mage] class!”

Relc rubbed his claws together as he started for the doors. Grimalkin raised his eyebrows.

“Hope? What do you mean? She’s already a [Mage]. Level 6.”

Relc stopped in his tracks. He stared at Grimalkin, and then at Ferkr. The Gnoll was smiling.

“What? No. Really?

“That’s r—”

“That’s right. A Level 6 [Mage]. I told you it was just a myth. She’s got a long way to go to pass my classes, but she works harder than half my Drake and Dullahan slackers. I have every hope that she’ll head to this Meeting of the Tribes the Gnolls are having and put an end to this nonsense. I could use more Gnoll apprentices. They have a foundation of muscle, and exercise in the plains that many Drakes lack.”

Grimalkin nodded. He strode past Relc, holding the weights bar. The [Guardsman] gaped at Ferkr. She just smiled and followed her master out the door. So went the Muscle Mage of Pallass. And Erin, waving in Xif and Rufelt and Lasica, who’d come early, narrowed her eyes and tried to chuckle evilly. She failed.

 

—-

 

The inn was crowded. People were coming in, including the best [Alchemist] in the city, Xif. Rufelt and Lasica, a power couple, even Watch Captain Venim was hanging around the door on Pallass’ side, keeping order. It was as busy as yesterday! But Erin was content to let the chaos be chaos. She had a purpose and so she headed right back to Grimalkin, who was outdoors. Only one thing stopped her.

Octavia. Erin found the [Alchemist] sitting at a table in the corner, nursing a drink and staring around at the filled inn with wide eyes. Erin stopped at her table, guiltily. She’d forgotten Octavia was here. The [Alchemist] hadn’t come down for breakfast; it had only been a day since Erin had marshaled Grimalkin, Relc, and the others to help her after Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters had beaten down the [Thugs] extorting her. She’d put Octavia up in one of her rooms, but in all the fuss, she’d forgotten the Stitch-Girl existed.

Until now. Erin made her way to Octavia and smiled.

“Hey Octavia—how’s it going? Sorry I didn’t check in on you this morning. You uh, got breakfast?”

The [Alchemist] jumped. She looked up at Erin and smiled as she pushed a dreadlock back. Her dark skin was still pale, and she was…subdued. Normal Octavia was a chatterbox and a sales magnet. This Octavia was just quiet.

“No problem, Erin. I appreciate you putting me up. Really. Your inn’s…full. It’s open to Pallass? That’s amazing!”

“Yup! We’re selling a lot! And there are tons of people! Hey! We could get some of them to check out your shop later! But don’t go around making deals right now!”

Erin laughed. Octavia didn’t. She shook her head.

“I won’t. I learned my lesson already. Don’t worry about me, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper]’s face fell. That really wasn’t normal Octavia at all. She hesitated, and then scanned the room for someone. She spotted Xif, watching a play. Good, he was here and interested in the [Actors]. She’d have had to get him otherwise.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. Look, I feel awful about what happened. We’ll get your shop up and running and see about guarding it or something—just give me a little bit! You sit back and have something to eat and drink! On the house! There’s a play on—I’ll be back soon, okay?”

Octavia just nodded quietly. Erin frowned, worried, and pushed Octavia up her to-help list. But right now she had only one target in mind. And she found him outside, pumping iron and steel.

“Grimalkin!”

The Drake was watching Relc lift the weights bar, having him adjust his hands and comment on how hard it was. To the side, Ferkr was doing curl-ups with the barbells Grimalkin had ordered. Erin saw she was doing it from various postures. She stopped, impressed. Grimalkin looked exactly like a gym instructor, albeit even huger than they were. And while Relc had poor posture—he just seemed to enjoy the fun of weight lifting—Grimalkin and Ferkr both had perfect form.

“Ah, Miss Solstice. You’re here. Good. Can you tell me what the proper technique is for these weights? I think we have the standard down, but any unique positions or lifts would be appreciated. I was interested to see those squats and lunges you showed me. Anything you could add would be appreciated; I’m making a routine. I want to be able to use these weights to train every muscle group possible. Arms, legs, and the core you mentioned.”

Grimalkin turned immediately to Erin, as serious as could be. Erin blinked, but she nodded.

“Sure! I don’t know everything…or much, because I didn’t really work out, but I remember some things. Uh, a lunge—can I use the bar without weights? Thanks. A lunge looks like this, I think. And I saw a dude put a weight on his chest and do sit-ups with it once—”

The muscle [Mage] snapped his claws.

“Of course! Keep going, keep going.”

He watched as Erin clumsily showed him all the lifts she knew, and then took the bar, added some weights, and executed flawless versions of her clumsy demonstrations before letting Relc and Ferkr try.

The [Sinew Magus] seemed to know what muscles each workout affected almost instinctively. Erin supposed that was appropriate given his class, but she was very impressed nonetheless. After nearly half an hour of running through exercises, Erin wiped off sweat from her brow and grinned at Grimalkin.

“Hey! That was a workout! And I was just showing you how to do stuff! This’ll be a great for your classes, huh?”

“My classes, and Pallass’ army if I have my way.”

Grimalkin gave Erin an authoritative nod, which bothered her a tiny bit. She coughed.

“Well, yeah. But you don’t have to do that with the entire army, right? I mean, you’re just going to propose it—”

Ferkr looked up, blinking in surprise as she did a deadlift with Relc watching. Grimalkin’s brows shot up as well.

“Propose it? Miss Erin, I don’t think you understand. I just have to come up with a proper regimen, and put in the proper paperwork. Then the [Soldiers] will be working out with these weights.”

Erin blinked.

“Wait—but isn’t that for like, [Generals] to decide? Or [Strategists]?”

“Perhaps in other cities. But I’ve established myself as the expert in the field of fitness and training. If a Pallassian [General] wants to argue with me, I’ll happily slap sense into their skull. I know my business and I do have a formal rank.”

Grimalkin folded his arms. Erin gaped at him, but Relc chortled.

“What’s the surprise, Erin? Grimalkin’s Pallass’ best [Mage]! Right? I bet he’s fought in the army—they’ve definitely tried to conscript him. If he’s not on bad terms with the army, they’ll give him a rank. Otherwise he has to take orders from every two-copper [Lieutenant]. That’s how Drakes do these things.”

“Exactly.”

The [Sinew Magus] nodded. Erin gulped. Introducing weights to an entire Walled City’s army? Okay, that wasn’t part of the plan, but…she grinned weakly at Grimalkin.

“Well, that’s just great. I uh, I’m glad I could help out!”

“Of course. And I’m delighted for the aid you’ve given me, Miss Erin. Truly. I’ll repay you for all this information—no, for revolutionizing fitness in Pallass!—as soon as I can ascertain how much this is all worth. I will repay my dues. But I’ve taken three days out of my schedule and I think it’s time to get down to the business of trialing these weights on my students. Ferkr, pack up. We’re heading back to Pallass. Sergeant Relc, thank you for your help.”

“Aw, you’re packing up already? And it’s Relc, not Sergeant. I quit the army. Can I keep a barbell at least?”

Relc whined as Ferkr obediently began packing the weights into her bag of holding. Grimalkin smiled.

“I’m afraid not. But I’ll invite you to the first weights…room? Weights arena? Ah, what did you call it, Miss Erin?  Gymnasium. I’ll certainly invite you over. And to give a demonstration of real strength to my apprentices!”

He shook Relc’s hand briskly and tossed one of the heavier weights into his own bag of holding. Erin stared at him in horror.

“You’re going back? Already?”

“That’s right. We’ve gotten the exercises down—unless you’ve recalled some more? I must leave a message at the [Mage]’s Guild. Miss Solstice, if you have any more details on the weights or new techniques, send me a [Message] and I will pay for sending and receiving!”

Grimalkin turned eagerly back to Erin. She hesitated.

“No…but hold on! The day’s just getting started! Why don’t you come in? Have a drink? I have fresh pizza, milkshakes—the play’s on! Your apprentice should really see it!”

Ferkr perked up her ears at all the new and exciting words, but Grimalkin just grimaced.

“I suppose I could look around. What did you say you made? A milk…?”

Erin smiled in relief and rushed back into the inn. She grabbed a milkshake that Ishkr was bringing around on trays and rushed it over to Grimalkin.

And they’re doing Pygmalion on stage! Look! They’re singing and—”

Shh!

A furious crowd shushed her. Erin lowered her voice and meekly stepped to the back of the room. Grimalkin sniffed the milkshake, and tasted it with a forked tongue.

“Sugar and milk. Cold. I can see this being used to build fat if I was emaciated. But otherwise? Don’t drink it Ferkr.”

He shook his head and Ferkr drooped as she sniffed hers. Relc looked delighted.

“Ooh, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it!”

Grimalkin silently passed his drink to Relc and the [Sergeant] took a gulp and savored his. Erin hesitated as well. Grimalkin was staring at the play, listening to the Drake actress, being lectured by a furious Dr. Higgins played by a Gnoll, try to imitate a British accent. That alone was hilarious on a number of levels, but Grimalkin just nodded once.

“I see. I see.”

“Numbtongue’s also going to perform later. And uh, there’s Liscor as well! The Antinium are building the inn—I can get you pizza, drinks—look, Rufelt’s helping with the bar! Come on, take a seat!”

Erin was looking at the door to Pallass. She needed to turn it to Celum for a tiny bit and she was dreading the fight, but getting Grimalkin relaxed came first. But the [Sinew Magus] just kept looking around and then—he shook his head.

“Mhm. Fascinating. Plays. Food. Unhealthy food. Hobgoblin. I can see dismantling organized crime in Celum. That was entertaining. As for the rest—do you have any more weights to show me?”

He turned brusquely to Erin. The [Innkeeper] wavered, caught off-guard. She looked around her inn.

“N-no?”

“Excellent. Then I’m done here. Goodbye.”

Grimalkin strode towards the door, beckoning Ferkr, who was entranced by the display. Erin ran after him, panicked. This wasn’t part of the plan!

“Wait! Wait, wait—you can’t leave! Stay and relax a bit!”

Grimalkin paused, sighed, and turned back to Erin. He wasn’t unfriendly—just as straightforward as ever. He didn’t mince words as he gestured at the door to Pallass.

“It was quite fun to visit your inn these last few days, Miss Erin. I won’t deny that. But I have work to do. You’ve given me the chance to redefine how [Soldiers] and [Warriors] across the Walled Cities—perhaps even the world—will train. I’d prefer to get to that.”

“Argh—okay, but—stay for just half an hour! No, ten minutes! Your apprentice deserves a break, doesn’t she?”

Erin pleaded with Grimalkin. The Drake hesitated and looked at Erin, and then at Ferkr, who looked pleadingly at him and sighed.

“I suppose ten minutes wouldn’t be undue. Ferkr, by all means, enjoy yourself. And we can take one of those…pizzas back with us. A single slice wouldn’t hurt. But that grease!”

He shuddered. Erin breathed out in relief.

“Great. I’ll just—uh, I just remembered I had to do something. In the door. Don’t go anywhere!”

She rushed past Grimalkin. He frowned after her as Erin ran to the door to Pallas and to the watching crowd’s outrage, slammed it and turned it to Celum. She opened the door and shouted.

“Lyonette! Check in ten minutes! I need to go to the Runner’s Guild! Oh, please be there, please be there—”

She rushed out and a moment later, the door opened and a roar of fury from Pallass echoed in the inn. The [Actors] on stage dutifully recreated the scene and all was placid. Grimalkin watched the play with Relc commentating next to him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in the performance—it was just that he had better things to do. Ferkr meanwhile was grabbing as much food and eating it as possible, savoring Erin’s free food.

Ten minutes later, Lyonette checked the door to Celum, prompting another brief intermission and a panting Erin was back. Grimalkin glanced up as Erin and a second Human entered the inn. No—two Humans. A young man and a young woman. The young man was clearly a Runner, and the young woman…Grimalkin’s head turned back.

“Nice muscle definition. Hm. That’s…”

He was half-interested in that, half in the play, and mostly on leaving. Grimalkin was looking for his apprentice, who seemed to have wandered off in hopes of prolonging her stay, when an exclamation from the trio drew his eyes back. The young woman who’d come in with Erin had caught sight of Numbtongue, who was wandering past, eating pizza.

Hobgoblin! [Quick Kick]!”

She reflexively recoiled, and then lashed out with a kick. Grimalkin saw Numbtongue whirl, try to dodge—but the kick was too fast. It caught him on the chest, and knocked him backwards. There was power in that blow! Numbtongue flew backwards, hit a table where a pair of Gnolls were sitting, rolled over it, and landed in a crouch. The inn erupted into shouts as the Goblin made two fists and crouched, but Erin, waving her hands desperately, put herself between the Human and Hobgoblin.

“No! Garia! It’s Numbtongue! Didn’t you know I had Goblins at—have you never seen—does no one read my signs?

Chaos. But quickly dispersed. Erin, panting, quickly explained and Grimalkin saw the young woman called Garia, blushing, introduce herself to the annoyed Hobgoblin along with the other Runner. The [Sinew Mage] watched as Erin slowly placated Numbtongue, and then made a beeline over to him with the Runners.

“Hey Grimalkin! Sorry about the fuss—”

“I wasn’t part of it. It was a splendid kick, though. Excellent form. But I really should be going, Miss Solstice.”

The Drake replied calmly. He saw the young woman behind Erin blush. Out of politeness and curiosity, Grimalkin turned to her and the Runner. He held out a claw.

“How do you do. Grimalkin, [Sinew Magus]. You have an impressive display of muscles, young lady. Compressed, though. Clearly the work of a Skill. Also the bearing of…someone who’s lost weight. Your balance is slightly off, but that’s a [Martial Artist]’s kick if ever I saw one. Nice to see some have become Runners at last. It’s a compatible profession.”

The young woman blinked at him.

“I—thank you! I’m Garia. Garia  Strongheart. Are you a [Martial Artist] by any chance?”

She grasped Grimalkin’s claw and shook it. He grunted. [Enhanced Strength]? She was strong! What a treasure! At her age, she had the potential to be a real [Mage]. He was about to say so when Erin slid into the conversation.

“Grimalkin’s not a [Martial Artist], Garia. But he’s a [Sinew Magus]! He does magic—with his muscles! Or something like that. Hey! Do you know martial arts, Grimalkin? Oh—this is Fals, by the way. He’s a Runner too. They’re both from Celum.”

She indicated the young man. He grinned weakly up at Grimalkin, staring at a bicep.

“A pleasure, Mister Grimalkin? I run with Fals. You’re from Pallass? The Pallass?”

He looked dumbstruck as he stared around the inn. Grimalkin nodded.

“I’ve dabbled in martial arts. Not my forte. But I’ve travelled the world. Visited [Knights] training in Terandria, bald-headed Humans with fists like iron, Drathians, Chandrar’s population in Pomle—you should see Selphid [Martial Artists], absolutely deadly. I didn’t know there were any in Izril.”

“I wasn’t taught by one. At least—I don’t think Ryoka was very high level. But I’m dying to learn more techniques and Ryoka’s in the far north! I’ve been leveling up like crazy—I want to see how strong I can be!”

The young woman flexed a thin arm and Grimalkin narrowed his eyes. She’d definitely changed her body structure recently. He could almost extrapolate how she’d looked before now. But it was Garia’s words that lit a fire in his heart. He spoke carefully, trying not to shout.

“Young woman. You would be wasting your talents if you were just a [Martial Artist]. No—I will admit, they’re a fearsome class. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to become a [Mage]. Like me! You clearly have a powerful foundation. [Enhanced Strength], am I right? And I assume—[Weight Control]?”

Fals and Erin blinked, but Garia’s eyes widened. She hesitated and almost reflexively covered her stomach.

“How did you know?”

“It’s obvious to me. But please—hear me out. I’d be delighted to talk about [Martial Artist] techniques with you, but you must join one of my classes and see my curriculum. I’ve studied strength, and there’s more to a powerful swing than just the muscle in your arm. If you’ll allow me, I’d like you to listen. [Martial Artist] or [Mage], you owe it to yourself to rebuild your body.”

Grimalkin held his breath. Normally here was where most people started edging away, but he had a good feeling about Garia. And the way the young woman’s eyes lit up was everything he wanted to see. Garia looked at Fals and Erin before nodding.

“I do. Tell me everything, please! About martial arts and…”

The [Sinew Magus] exhaled. It was moments like these he lived for. He smiled and tried to come up with the most concise summary of his life’s work possible. And Erin Solstice had given him the terminology as well.

“Ah! Well, let me tell you, it’s all about the…core. Yes, the core. And I’ve made it my life’s work to develop a regimen that creates a strong body in as short as time possible. Now, you may stop excreting during the first few weeks of training, and I have had it compared to torture, but the results are so immediate that the elite regiments of Pallass’ soldiers come to me for a basic fitness regimen…”

 

—-

 

Grimalkin and Garia stood in a corner of Erin’s inn, discussing everything muscle-related with such avidness that Erin couldn’t keep up. But that didn’t matter. Her job was done.

The two were so engrossed that they didn’t notice as Erin and Fals drew back. Erin was smiling, but Fals, for some reason, was not. He shook his head as he looked back at Grimalkin and Garia, and a worried frown creased his brow.

“She’s changed, Erin. I don’t know if I know Garia anymore. Remember the old Garia? She was timid. Very kind, but—now she’s ten times as bold. And our best Runner! Frankly, I’m worried she’ll surpass me soon, if she hasn’t already. It’s amazing how much this place has changed too.”

Fals smiled tiredly at Erin. She grinned at him.

“I know! I couldn’t believe it was Garia at first! Hey—thanks for coming to the inn. I appreciate it.”

Fals chortled. He gestured around the room, his brows raised.

“And miss all this? This is incredible! I was meaning to pay a visit, but I’ve been busy. Not that it’s exciting around here since the Goblin Lord business. Dead gods, Erin! The Players of Celum, people from Pallass? Can you tell me what’s happened?”

“Of course!”

Erin beamed and led Fals off into a wonderland of fast food, acting, and talking about all that had changed. But she kept an eye on Grimalkin and Garia. They took nearly half an hour to speak, and Garia looked like she was taking notes. Erin had Fals happily conversing with a Drake when she spotted the two breaking up. Quickly, Erin slid back towards Grimalkin.

“I’ll be waiting for your visit. Martial arts, magic—contact me!”

The Drake called out to Garia. She was nodding eagerly as she went over to Fals, clearly delighted. Erin rubbed her hands together, but stopped when Grimalkin turned to her. The Drake was shaking his head.

“Amazing. That might be one of my finest pupils yet. A [Farmer] background and a [Martial Artist] class? Although she has compunctions about gaining too much muscle—well, I suppose that’s a Runner’s concern. Ah, Miss Solstice. What a fantastic meeting!”

The [Sinew Magus] was clearly delighted. Erin beamed as well.

“Wasn’t it? Aren’t you glad you stayed? Say, while you’re here, why don’t you wait a bit longer? You could show Garia some moves, maybe! I know she’d love that. And you know, I have two friends who are [Mages]. Can you do that display of magic again, maybe? What about in Celum? Maybe you could show Pisces and Ceria a trick or two?”

For a second she thought the Drake hadn’t heard her. Grimalkin was still staring at Garia, his brows raised. He smiled, clearly impressed—and then did a double-take and stared back at Erin. His eyes narrowed as he registered their conversation.

“Show them—wait a second.”

He looked at Garia. He stared at the door, now open to Pallass, and then at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated as Grimalkin’s brows snapped together. She didn’t like the way his expression changed. Slowly, the [Sinew Magus] pointed at Garia.

“You did that on purpose. Do it again.”

“What?”

Erin’s grinned, and a butterfly appeared in her confident stomach. Grimalkin folded his arms.

“Not forty minutes ago, I was prepared to leave. Then you convinced me to stay, and ran to get that Runner. Coincidentally, she ran into a Hobgoblin and kicked him. I suppose that was chance, but you led her straight to me. You know she wanted to learn about martial arts. Or was it magic? You set that up.”

“No…what makes you say that?”

The inn was already hot, but Erin began to sweat. Grimalkin eyed her.

“What was it you just asked? You wanted me to show magic to—ah! That adventuring team. The one that wanted me to teach them [Lion’s Strength]. And I was about to acquiesce!”

“No, hold on, that was all coincidence! I mean, it was sort of me knowing what Garia was like, but—”

Erin began to panic. She didn’t know why—it was all aboveboard! It was just people meeting people! But having the trick exposed felt risky. Grimalkin’s narrowed eyes confirmed that.

“I noticed the same thing with Maughin and my visit to Liscor. Coincidences turn into beneficial meetings for you. Pallass intercedes in Liscor’s election. I just happen to draw a crowd with a demonstration that helps your inn. This was calculated, wasn’t it?”

“No….okay, maybe. But hey! I—look, Grimalkin, I’m not saying you have to help Ceria and Pisces. But it’d be nice if you did? Maybe?”

Erin’s heart sank in her chest. Grimalkin was just staring at her. And there was a keen analysis running there that not many people gave Erin. She gave him her most wide-eyed look. And it didn’t work. He shook his head slowly.

“Incredible. And I didn’t notice it—or I paid it little mind until now. That’s not a Skill…or is it? You remind me of a [Senator], only highly effective at low-level dealings. Or one of the people who like to play shadow games, only on a smaller scale. Archmage Feor. Terandrian monarchs. I haven’t met Magnolia Reinhart, but she’s an apt comparison on Izril.”

That stung. Erin sucked in her breath.

“Um, thank you?”

“It’s not a compliment. I suppose it’s obvious in hindsight. Rufelt and Lasica do the same thing. But they’re experts at making money and being liked by all. And their manipulation is up-front. Honest. I see. Well, I congratulate you on the trick. Do it again.”

Grimalkin stared at Erin. She hesitated.

“Uh—what?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Unless I’m wrong, the entire purpose of me arriving here was to teach Miss Strongheart martial arts. Or was she bait? Let’s say that she was. Were you hoping to persuade me to teach your two [Mage] friends magic?”

“M-maybe?”

Erin looked to one side, flushing a bit. Her plan had been a bit more nebulous than that. But…Grimalkin frowned, then nodded.

“Very well. I’ll do it.”

Really?

Relieved, smiling, Erin looked up. Only to see Grimalkin extend a claw and flex it slightly.

“So do it again. Show me something I want.”

“Wait, what?”

The young woman frowned. Grimalkin eclipsed her frown with his own.

“I’m not in the habit of lending my abilities or expertise out for free, Miss Solstice. I realize that’s what friends do, but I consider you an acquaintance. So. You showed me a potential student. And you’ve delivered me a bunch of fascinating, unique training methods. Weights. What else do you have to offer me?”

“Hey! I gave you that all out of good will! I was being helpful!”

Erin spluttered red in the face. Grimalkin nodded.

“I’m quite aware. And it helped you a bit. I’m not accusing you of lying to me, Miss Solstice. If anything, I owe you a great deal. But let’s just say I’m open to the possibility that you’re holding something back that I might like. So. Do it again.

He pointed at Garia. Erin wavered. She held up a finger. Opened her mouth to protest—and Grimalkin stared at her. The two locked gazes, unblinking.

Erin buckled first. She hesitated, and then scuffed at the floorboards, scowling. She’d meant to use this as a prod anyways. But subtly.

“Okay. Okay, there was this one thing…I saw this guy using like this rubber—er, elastic band. Like…two cords like this, see? And he stretches it across his chest, or pulls while rotating like this—”

She began describing a resistance band to Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus]’ eyes widened.

“Fascinating. Using elasticity as…you know, I saw String-People doing something like that when I looked into how they built themselves. Of course! And that’s far more portable than—”

He caught himself and narrowed his eyes again.

“And you just recalled that. Just now.”

Erin grinned sheepishly at Grimalkin and shrugged. He eyed her, and then smiled.

“A pleasure doing business with you, Miss Solstice. A training session it is! One. For those two [Mages]? I’ll gladly teach Miss Strongheart some techniques free of charge. She cannot be allowed to go to waste.”

He gestured at the Horns and Garia with one claw. Erin spluttered.

One? But Ceria said she’d have to learn from you for at least a week to learn a Tier 4 or Tier 5 spell—”

“Who said anything about spells? I’ll check on their fitness, their aptitude, recommend how they should progress—it’s actually quite effective. I am an expert [Mage], after all. If those two have any holes, I will fix them. [Necromancer] or [Cryomancer]. Of course, teaching them spells will require more time, and if they have any significant flaws, I’ll need to remedy them.”

“But you said one training session—”

“Well, until you come up with another splendid idea for me to work on. I’ll take them in advance. Resistance bands, indeed. Any more training techniques? Other weights?”

Grimalkin peered down at Erin. She could only splutter in reply. After a second he nodded.

“Well then, one session it is. More to come, on condition of course. And if you have any more requests, feel free to seek me out with appropriate payment. I take ideas, artifacts, chance encounters, or whatever else you can manufacture.”

He waited. Erin stared at him, and then, flustered, looked around.

“L-Lyonette? Get me the Faerie Flowers and a mug of ale!”

The [Princess] came over as Erin rushed over to the windowsill. Xif, watching the end of Pygmalion, looked up with interest as the two fussed over a mug and came back to Grimalkin. He watched, arms folded, never taking his eyes off Erin. She offered him the mug, grinning weakly.

“Uh, want a Faerie Flower drink?”

“What’s it do?”

The Drake eyed the mug. Erin bit her lip and looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] had caught wind of what had gone down and was looking amused. Erin weakly shrugged.

“If you have a horrible trauma, it might help? It’s uh, one-of-a-kind, I think. Sorta.”

Grimalkin considered the mug.

“No thanks. My traumas aren’t that significant. Anything else?”

“Nothing I can think of.”

Erin locked gazes with Grimalkin. After a second, the Drake nodded. He smiled at her.

“Well, then, one session it is. I’ll do my best of course. I’d love to jog your memory.”

He nodded at Lyonette and strode through the crowd, avoiding touching everyone with ease. Erin bit her lip and Lyonette laughed.

“Someone actually figured out you were manipulating them behind the scenes, Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] shrugged ruefully. She wasn’t so much upset at being found out as embarrassed. Grimalkin had treated her like some kind of calculating manipulator! Which she wasn’t. Okay, sort of, but—

“He’s smart. Damn. And he wants me to give him more ideas and stuff—or introduce him to people or he won’t train Ceria and Pisces! I really wasn’t going to manipulate him into helping them—”

“Sure, Erin.”

“I wasn’t! I was just, you know, going to make them all get along? He was interested in Yvlon’s arms and I thought—gah! Never mind! Now he wants me to pay him!”

Erin waved her arms, still red in the face. Lyonette stopped smirking long enough to look interested.

Do you have anything to bribe him with.”

Erin covered her face with one hand, thinking.

“I dunno, treadmills I guess? Gravity weight training? I saw that in an anime. Uh…I really didn’t have much else. No, parkour-ish stuff. Yoga? Oh! Yoga! Maybe. If I remember any of my yoga class. Now I have to think! Why was he the one who saw through me?”

She stared at Grimalkin’s back, and then, to her surprise, saw the Drake’s form waver and vanish. Ishkr, carrying a tray past him, nearly dropped it in alarm. And a voice spoke right next to Erin and Lyonette.

“I work out my brain as well as everything else, Miss Erin. What’s this about treadmills? I’m familiar with gravity training, by the way. Parkour and yoga. Are they martial arts forms? No? Fascinating.”

The two young women spun around. Grimalkin was standing behind them, arms folded. He nodded as Erin pointed at the place where his illusion had been and at him, jaw working furiously. He raised both brows.

“Have you never met anyone properly high-level before, Miss Solstice? You shouldn’t underestimate Pallass. Or didn’t you notice that we have as many talents as you?”

He nodded past her. Erin, spun again and saw Xif was peering at the bed of Faerie Flowers. He was sniffing the air and eying the small yellow blossoms in their bed. She could hear him muttering out loud in a break as the [Actors] on stage changed plays.

“Hmm, hm. Fascinating. Blue fruits? Shield Spider materials. And this flower…”

Damnit!

Erin cursed. Or was this an opportunity. She looked back and Grimalkin nodded to her. His smile wasn’t smug, but it was superior.

“You’re among equals, Miss Solstice. Well, at the very least. I’ll be on with that lesson now. Please be as specific as you can when you tell me about these treadmills and so on. Tread. Mills. Huh. Actually, I think I understood that one without need for help. Well, I’ll wait for your actual explanation. As I said, I’m happy to spend time training these adventurers. A pleasure to be manipulated by you.”

He nodded at Erin and walked past her. Erin opened her mouth, then for once, closed it. She turned bright red and said not a word for a whole minute. Lyonette stared at Grimalkin in awe. He winked at her as he strolled over to the Horns of Hammerad.

 

—-

 

Xif the [Alchemist] still smelled of nose-searingly strong chemicals and ingredients when Erin found him looking over her box of Faerie Flowers. The bright, small yellow flowers were much like short dandelions, although the flower petals were much more exotic. And Erin had quite a number of boxes of them! With Mrsha’s help and daily watering, the few flowers she’d had now filled eight planter boxes.

Honestly, Erin hadn’t made use of them for a long time—the Faerie Flower drink was powerful, but she’d been worried after seeing its effect on Halrac and Ilvriss. And her [Wondrous Fare] Skill wasn’t something Erin had really needed or wanted to focus on. Magical dishes were cool, but with all the turns and twists in her life, they weren’t something she could devote time for.

And yet, someone was focusing very hard on her flowers, and it wasn’t Apista for once. The Ashfire Bee was lazily clinging to a ceiling, but Xif was peering very hard at each flower, sniffing hard and even going so far as to try and taste the nectar—that was when Erin caught him.

“Xif! Hi! Don’t lick the nectar or eat the flowers. They do uh, weird things to your head. Hey! Can I introduce you to a friend? Octavia? She’s a bit down—did you hear about the Celum stuff yesterday?”

Erin smiled desperately as the [Alchemist] paused, with one claw extended towards his tongue. Xif blinked at her, and his usually befuddled, look focused as he blinked two brown eyes at her.

“Octavia? Hm. Oh yes, the young [Alchemist]. I was there for that. But ah—perhaps in a moment. I’m truly more interested in these flowers, Miss Solstice. I caught you making—was that a drink?”

“Oh, that? The Faerie Flower drink! Good for making you think about what ails you! I’m working on the tagline. Uh, yeah, I’m thinking about selling it, but it’s sort of strong! The flowers are strong too, really. Actually, they have a few uses! But I wouldn’t want you to get hurt or something.”

Erin shuddered as she recalled trying the nectar and having her Alice in Wonderland freak-out. Xif raised his brows.

“Really? Multiple uses? Well, I’d love to experience each one. Unless it makes your fur fall out? Hah! But that’d be an improvement in my case, wouldn’t it?”

He grinned and Erin smiled despite herself. Still, she couldn’t help but feel slightly possessive over the flowers. They had been a reward, of sorts, for her Frost Faerie banquet. That had been real magic. Her magic.

Of course, Lyonette had urged Erin to sell the flowers to Xif if he wanted them. The [Princess] had gold coins for eyes these days. Erin sighed.

“They don’t make your fur fall out. They do do weird things to you, like uh, make you see things or go to sleep—then again—the Faerie Flower drink might be my thing. I have a Skill.”

She frowned at the flowers. That was a good point. Had she ever let anyone else try making the Faerie Flower drink? Erin had [Wondrous Fare]. What would happen if Lyonette copied her? Would it be like Octavia? Now she had questions. So did Xif. His eyes lit up as Erin described the flowers.

“Really? Multiple effects without combining with a magical base or other ingredients? You just added that into the alcohol—these flowers are fairly powerfully magical then! I thought so! Amazing! What species are they? Where did you get them from? I’ve never seen the like! Has Miss Octavia tried using them?”

“No, I—they’re from far away. Gifts! They were a gift. And I haven’t let Octavia try to use them.”

Guiltily, Erin realized that was something the [Alchemist] could have used. But—these were special flowers. Not even of this world. Xif frowned.

“I see. They’re special. Hmm. But with what you’ve said—Miss Solstice, I must buy them from you. New, highly magical ingredients? I’d shave off all my fur and walk around naked like Saliss before I turned up an opportunity like this! Come to it, he’d put on clothes for a month for these! How much for one planter box?”

He eagerly pointed to one of the boxes of flowers. Erin hesitated, and saw Lyonette’s head whip around. The [Princess] hurried over.

“If you want a box, we have plenty! We could sell maybe—”

“No.”

Erin brought Lyonette up short. The [Princess] opened her mouth, but Erin overrode her and Xif. She smiled at the Gnoll [Alchemist], but firmly shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Xif, but these aren’t for sale. They were a very important gift and—well, I’m not selling them.”

Lyonette stared at Erin, horrified. Xif looked appalled too.

“Miss Solstice, these could be a wonderful boon to [Alchemists] everywhere. A powerful antidote, a life-saving reagent in a potion—they could be the Eir Gel of alchemical discoveries!”

“Exactly! And we don’t use many now the Ashfire Bees are gone. Let alone your drinks…Erin, can I speak with you for one second?”

Lyonette tugged on Erin’s arm, frowning hard. But Erin was unmoved. She thought of Grimalkin and his announcement that Pallass’ army would be using weights. That was one thing. But this? She hesitated. Life-changing medicine? But some selfish part of her, childish, made her shake her head again.

“No. I’m sorry, but no. Lyonette, that’s final.”

She put her foot down. It was hers. Her magic, however small. Xif looked crestfallen. Lyonette looked like she was going to have a heart attack. Erin relented a touch.

“What if I sold you the petals and nectar and stuff? I’d be okay with that.”

Xif frowned and scratched the hair on his chin, but the Gnoll shook his head. He bent down and eyed a flower sprouting from a bulb and then shook his head.

“As tempting as it would be—I think I would rather have the flower, Miss Solstice. An entire flower, rather. You see, it’s not just about the ingredients. Call it the [Alchemist] in me, but these are too…how long have you grown these flowers?”

Erin shrugged.

“A few months. Since winter.”

“I see. And these have germinated like this?”

Xif indicated the short flowers. Erin nodded proudly.

“That’s right! We replanted them as they kept growing. I only had a handful, but they multiplied and Mrsha looked after them with Lyonette…why?”

The Gnoll mumbled to himself. He peered at each flower, and then nodded slowly.

“They’re all the same.”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, they don’t have any characteristics of full-grown plants. No reproductive elements.”

He looked up at Lyonette and Erin’s blank faces.

“Haven’t you seen dandelions turn into the white fuzzy seedpods? Or witnessed grass growing seeds? These are to grass and dandelions. Short, unmatured. That they can still reproduce is no surprise; many plants can do that. But they’re not fully developed. And if it’s been months, there may be another trigger.”

So saying, he straightened and tapped the planter box in front of him. Xif looked seriously at Erin.

“I don’t believe they’re fully grown, Miss Solstice. In fact, I’d stake my best potions on that. I’d like to ship these to a friend in Oteslia. Their [Gardeners] are the best in the world. If anyone could ascertain the exact nature of this plant, it would be them. Your price?”

Erin’s jaw dropped. Not fully grown? She looked at the flowers, but—come to think of it, Xif was right. Erin did know what he was talking about. The Faerie Flowers could just be flowers but they were just stalks with blooms on the end. They had no flowers. No seeds.

Xif was right. And yet, Erin still hesitated.

“Maybe. But I want to keep my flowers, thanks.”

She didn’t know why it mattered so much to her. In fact, she was beginning to regret her stubbornness, except for the idea in her head. She could try growing the flowers herself. And when she found out if they evolved or something, sell them to Xif. Octavia could corner the market! She’d give some to Octavia to make up for ignoring her.

Xif frowned, as if reading Erin’s thoughts. He sighed, looking at the flowers, and then looked sternly at Erin.

“I understand your desire to keep what’s yours, Miss Solstice. Drakes are very much like that. But you realize, these flowers are invaluable as a new discovery to me. And if they are as valuable as I think, I’m afraid I’ll have to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Erin felt a chill down her spine. She took a step back from Xif as Lyonette stiffened. Erin’s hand instantly went for her belt.

“You’re threatening me?”

She couldn’t believe it! And neither could Xif! He looked horrified as she placed a hand on the kitchen knife Pelt had made.

“What? Threatening you? I’m no [Thug] of an [Alchemist]! I just said I’d use a Skill.”

“Oh, a Skill!”

Lyonette looked relieved. Erin just looked blank. Xif tutted.

“Dear me, the expressions you Humans come up with. I put my tail in my mouth all the time, though. Better just to do it now.  Miss Solstice, I invoke [The Avid Collector]. Name your price for a single flower.”

Erin blinked. He was pointing at a flower. She wasn’t going to—

“Twenty—two hundred and twenty gold pieces for a flower.

The words popped out of her mouth before Erin realized she was speaking. Lyonette’s eyes popped. Xif just smiled.

“Done!”

He reached out and offered Erin a paw. She shook it, realized what she was doing, and pulled her hand back.

“Damn!”

“Too late!”

Xif smiled happily and ruefully at Erin. And as surely as she knew her inn, Erin realized that one of the flowers in the box belonged to him. And two hundred and twenty gold pieces belonged to her. Lyonette looked like she was going to swallow her tongue as Xif pulled out his bag of holding and began setting gold coins on a table. He had them in stacks of ten. Erin just stared at Xif for a moment.

“You can’t—that wasn’t—that’s not fair!

But it was at the same time. She had felt the deal go through as she shook his paw. Erin looked around, Xif was smiling apologetically at her. But she wanted—

Venim!

The Watch Captain winced as he stood on Pallass’ side of the door. Erin stomped through the door and confronted him, ignoring the upset crowd who wanted to watch the play. The Drake wearily looked at Erin.

“Yes Miss Solstice?”

“Xif just used a Skill on me! He made me sell one of my flowers to him!”

“Really?”

The Watch Captain’s eyes sharpened as Erin relayed the transaction to him. But when she came to him using his Skill, his eyes brightened.

“He bought a flower for how much?

A large number of heads turned and Erin hesitated.

“Well—that’s not important! But he made me sell the flowers and I can’t take it back! You have to force him to stop it!”

She felt embarrassed saying it, really. It was way more gold than the flowers were worth! And yet, she was outraged because she’d been forced to make the deal. But Venim only chewed his lip for one second before shaking his head.

“It’s legal. You can’t name a price you won’t sell for. He just forced a sale. Pallassian law accepts that, Miss Solstice.”

Venim looked delighted to be able to say that.  Erin stared at his face. Behind her, Kel the [Guardsman] grinned triumphantly. Venim’s lips were twitching too. Erin glared around.

“How is that fair? What if he wanted me to sell a precious heirloom or something?”

Venim shrugged.

“The fact is, he did not, Miss Solstice. He forced you into a deal you were willing to take. It’s not always pleasant, but Skill-based sales are acknowledged as a legal tool across the world. If it was unethical, you could appeal it—like how I hear [Slave Traders] can force someone to sell themselves into slavery. But I doubt it’ll win given your supply of plants.”

He looked pointedly back into Erin’s inn. She looked back glumly and saw Xif was going from flower to flower, followed by Lyonette, who had helpfully dug out a spoon and cup to transport the precious bloom in. The Gnoll hummed happily as he picked his small flower out of the box and carefully replanted it in a mug.

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to, Miss Solstice. But I’m afraid you must abide by it. Unless you have a better Skill.”

Venim smiled politely and triumphantly at Erin. She stared at him.

“Maybe I do.”

Without another word, she hurried back into her inn and found a Drake in the crowd. Selys had heard the commotion of course, and when Erin explained what had happened, the newly-made [Heiress] gladly accompanied her over to Xif. Erin smiled sweetly at the [Alchemist], who coughed politely.

“I’m sorry about that, Miss Solstice. But it is one flower. And I meant what I said; it could save lives. At the very least, it could make a profit. And I’m nothing if not eager for that. In either case, you stand to gain greatly.”

Erin smiled sweetly at Xif.

“I know. And I know you’re being nice, but I don’t like being made to do anything. So…hey Xif! This is my friend Selys.”

The Drake shook Xif’s hand. She peered at Xif and the flower he had chosen that Lyonette was carefully excavating. It did have roots, small ones, but it was a plant.

“[The Avid Collector], huh? That’s a Skill that probably lets you complete your inventory as an [Alchemist]. Neat trick. I can do that too. [Everything Has A Price]. Hey Xif, how much for Erin’s plant?”

The nearby Drakes and Gnolls oohed. They were of course, listening in. Erin was entertainment, even if it was in this case, unwilling. Xif blinked and raised his brows. He stared at Selys. And then smiled.

“Mm. Two thousand gold pieces, yes?”

The Drake’s jaw dropped. So did Erin’s. Xif chortled at their expressions. He patted Selys gently on the shoulder with a toothy smile.

“If I only have one chance to take a flower like this, I’m hardly likely to sell it for less than what I bought it for, yes? Nice try, Miss Selys. But I’m good at appraising goods. And I deal with rich [Merchant] on occasion. Still, you have a wonderfully useful Skill, young lady. Much better than mine.”

Selys flushed, and Erin looked at Xif and realized she’d lost. He smiled apologetically at her and she began to get angry. Then she looked at the pile of gold coins and just felt defeated.

 

—-

 

Lasica! Xif is bullying me!”

Erin slumped on the counter next to the [Chef]. Lasica paused in drinking from a bubbling concoction her husband had just served her from behind the bar. She eyed Xif, looked at Erin, and smiled.

“I heard. He forced you to sell those pretty flowers, didn’t he?”

“I mean…yes? And it’s a lot of gold! But he made me do it! And Grimalkin—”

Erin turned red as she remembered that exchange. Lasica raised one brow and Erin couldn’t help it.

“He saw through my clever ploy! Grimalkin, I mean.”

“What, by figuring out you were luring him here along with everyone else? Please, Erin. Rufelt, Xif, and I—even love-struck Maughin probably figured it out. Not that anyone’s complaining.”

“Wait, you knew I set all this up?”

Lasica laughed at the look on Erin’s face. She reached over and tapped Erin on the nose.

“Not at first. But it was obvious soon enough. Like Rufelt said—you’re a special type of [Innkeeper]. But did you really think we couldn’t tell we were being led to go along with your flow? What’s your Skill you’re using? [Crowd Control]? Something on top of that? Your inn just lights up with energy when you want it to.”

Erin bit her lip and flushed a bit. Lasica and Rufelt knew too? The Drake laughed again, but gently.

“I guess I was using some Skills unconsciously. But—I wasn’t trying to trick you all. It’s just that I knew if you came here, and Krshia and people from Liscor met you—it wasn’t a big plan! Sort of. I just wanted my friends to be happy.”

She mumbled into the counter. Lasica laughed and patted Erin affectionately on the head.

“I know. And I think Grimalkin knows. And he must like you—he doesn’t listen to anyone he doesn’t like. Much less teach students besides his own? Erin! That’s a huge honor! Grimalkin’s students are among the best the Walled Cities have to offer!”

“Really?”

Erin perked up a bit. Grimalkin had disappeared outside with the Horns a bit ago. Lasica nodded seriously.

“Oh yes. They might get teased because the ‘Muscle Mage’ of Pallass was their teacher, but not to their face. A graduate of Grimalkin’s is considered a rank above your average Wistram graduate. Not least because he teaches his students how to fight. They could be promoted the equivalent of [Captain] in most Drake armies just by having his graduation certificate.”

“Wow. Well—look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m not trying to be sneaky about it. And you’re all friends to me! You and Rufelt were really nice, Lasica. Really.”

Now Erin wanted Lasica to be sure Erin wasn’t a jerk. She looked seriously at the Drake.

“You two were really nice to help me out. And after you let me come to your bar all those times! I have to repay you. Let’s go to the kitchen when you have a moment. I want to teach you all my recipes. Because we’re friends. Not just because you’re helping me, okay?”

The [Chef] waved an idle claw.

“Oh, that’s fine, Erin. Don’t worry about it. I already know all of them.”

“…Huh?”

Nonplussed, Erin stared at Lasica. The [Chef] twirled a claw in her drink and licked it.

“I saw all your food as it was coming out. It’s not very complex to create, any of it. And there are similar foods from across the world. You have some interesting ones, I’ll grant you! But it’s nothing on magical cooking or dishes made with monster parts, like Wyvern meat or slimes.”

She gestured to Ishkr, passing with ketchup and mayonnaise and a lot of fries. Erin spluttered.

“But—what—even the mayonnaise?”

Lasica gave her a reproving look.

“I am a [Chef]. Eggs, vinegar, salt, and oil, processed for a long time? I’d add some lemon maybe, or even a bit of mustard. But that’s my taste.”

Erin stared at Lasica. Then she slowly covered her face with her hands.

“I give up! I’m outmatched!”

Lasica chortled again. She patted Erin on the back.

“Don’t worry about it. We came here because we liked you and want to help a young [Innkeeper] succeed. Let Rufelt make you a drink. Do you need help in the kitchen? Rufelt, come over and help poor Erin out. And maybe you can teach her some of your drinks. You really need better alcohol, Erin.”

Grinning, she waved her husband over and he did make her a drink that took most of the embarrassment out of Erin’s chest. Most, but not all. As husband and wife surrounded Erin and Xif came over to apologize again, she felt it in the air. A small message from Pallass’ finest to her.

Gently, teasingly, and yes, kindly, they were telling her that she might have been getting arrogant. When she realized that, Erin put down her head on the bar and turned so red that Mrsha put an ice cube on her ear to watch it melt.

 

—-

 

One last encounter found Erin in her inn. She’d lost most of her motivation to rush around playing chance encounter matchmaker. In fact, she was sitting at a table, playing chess with herself—the magical chessboard was silent today, her opponent must be busy from their usual semi-daily games—when Watch Captain Venim found her. He was leading another, elderly Drake, and he cleared his throat meaningfully.

“Miss Solstice. May we have a word?”

“No.”

The Watch Captain frowned. Erin looked up briefly as she rearranged her pieces.

“I’m not doing whatever you want. It’s ‘take-Erin-down-a-peg day’ today. I know what’s up. I’m just gonna play chess here. Don’t bother me. I’m sulking.”

She went back to her chess game. Venim looked askance and nervously checked the old Drake at his side. The Drake had very grey scales, with only a hint of yellow in them.

“Miss Solstice, my guest—”

“Shush, young Drake. If the girl wants to sulk, let her sulk. Get me a snack, would you? Some of those ‘cookies’ look good. And some rum! Rufelt knows what I like.”

The old Drake hobbled past Venim and pulled a chair out opposite Erin. He sat down without being invited. Affronted, Erin looked up.  The Drake peered at the chessboard and poked a piece.

“Hm. White or black?”

“Wh—black.”

The response came out of Erin before she caught herself. She frowned as the old Drake began putting the rest of the white pieces in order.

“Hold on, I’m not in the mood to play, Mister…?”

“Chaldion.”

The old Drake inspected the pieces, then, without hesitation, moved his knight to F3. Erin glared, annoyed, but her chess instincts took over. She moved a pawn to D5 without hesitation.

“Hm. Good. Most of Pallass’s young [Strategists] ponder for minutes over their next moves. At least this time I won’t be bored.”

Chaldion smiled. He was missing some teeth, but they were very white. With one claw he picked up a pawn and moved it to C4. Erin blinked. She stared at the board and then slowly moved her pawn to E6. The old Drake considered it, nodded, and moved his pawn to D4, taking her pawn there. Erin blinked.

Réti Opening to Queen’s Gambit Declined. They were fancy names, but it was really just a short back and forth. But there was a confidence in the Drake’s placement that made part of her sit up.

“Sir!”

Venim was back with a handful of cookies and a large glass of rum mixed with blue fruit juice. Chaldion accepted both happily.

“What’s this, what’s this? Some new drink Rufelt’s made?”

“I told him your regular sir. If you don’t like it—”

“That’s for me to decide! Hands off! And if Rufelt made it, I’ll like it. Don’t bother me. I’m playing. And keep those pesky [Tacticians] and [Strategist] brats out of my spines for a bit!”

Chaldion grumpily shooed Venim away. Erin looked up as Venim hesitated, then saluted and beat a hasty retreat. Then she looked at Chaldion. Really looked at him.

The old Drake was nearly completely grey, as old as anyone Erin had ever met in this world. As old as Tekshia, but like her, he looked like steel, tough inside. Unlike her, he had an eye patch over his right eye and several scars on his face. He grinned at her when she looked up.

“Finally looking at me, young woman? Your move.”

He pointed and Erin realized he’d moved a piece. This time she considered it. Pawn to D5. He’d taken her pawn. She thought, and moved her pawn from D2 to D4 up. Chaldion nodded patiently and moved his piece.

“Who’re you? I thought Watch Captain Venim was important.”

“Watch Captains are. But age is a rank of its own. And Pallass has multiple Watch Captains. At least one per floor. Anyways, I outrank them. Wonderful like, that. I’d love to meet that young [Strategist], but apparently he’s not welcome in this inn, is that it? Well, I’m just here for food and a game.”

Chaldion chuckled. Erin frowned as she took one of his pieces. He was playing…well. She narrowed her eyes.

“So who’re you? I’m Erin. An [Innkeeper]. This is my inn.”

Chaldion took a tip from his glass and brightened.

“Sweet! Just the thing for brain food. Wonderful sweets you have here. Who am I? Chaldion. A humble old Drake too stubborn to retire.”

He grinned mockingly at Erin. She just raised a brow.

“Really?”

“Ah, you’re no fun. My history’s boring. I’m just a [Veteran Strategist] from Pallass, here to play a game of chess. Are you playing or not?”

He tapped the board. Nettled, Erin began to move and realized he’d set a trap four moves ahead. She moved out of the way and took another piece. He laughed.

“And one assumes you’re the person that Olesm Swifttail has been sourcing for those excellent chess games, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.”

Erin folded her arms. The game was going quickly in the opening, but they were slowing down as the complexity ramped up. She already had a feel for Chaldion. He was good. Not as good as her mystery chess opponent maybe, but second-best. Better than anyone else Erin had played.

Suddenly, Erin realized this was the fourth of the trials sent to humble her. Probably. Maybe. But in chess? She gritted her teeth. Not in chess. This was her game. She began playing her best. Chaldion frowned and drank deeper from his glass.

“You are good.”

In silence, the two traded blows, moving their pieces, aiming at each other’s weak spots. To Erin, it felt like a tipping point around twenty minutes into this game. And move twenty. Both she and Chaldion had slowed down a lot.

If Erin was a lower-level chess player, or playing another sort of game, like teaching Mrsha or against a weaker opponent, she could see a much longer game taking place. But against her mystery chess opponent—no, against anyone who knew the game—a chess game took only a certain number of moves before a winner was obvious.

You could play it out, but most games between professionals ended with an agreed draw—or one side conceding. She didn’t know if Chaldion would insist on playing to the end, but she felt the tipping point coming. And she had the upper hand.

He knew it too. The [Strategist] paused as he eyed the board and Erin’s advantage in pieces and position. Then he reached up and one claw grasped his teal eye patch. Erin stared as Chaldion flipped it up and she saw that there was another eye there. But it wasn’t like a regular eye. The old Drake had lost his and replaced it with a sapphire—

A bright, blue light flashed from the carved eyeball. Erin recoiled, but Chaldion flipped the eye patch down. He took a nibble from a cookie and nodded.

“[Truesight]. You’re not using a trick. This is just skill, isn’t it?”

“Wh—yeah. Hey! You thought I was cheating?

Erin was outraged. Chaldion just smiled.

“I wanted to see if you were using magic or a Skill. Neither, it seems. Well, time to get serious. Shall we?”

And suddenly his eyes sharpened. Erin didn’t know why, but the next move Chaldion made was quick and decisive. She saw him take a pawn, far away from his threatened bishop and hesitated. What was…?

The next six moves were disastrous. Erin took a bishop, a pawn—and lost her queen. It was a split attack she hadn’t seen coming that opened her up. And it was so graceful that when she realized her position, it was too late. Chaldion took the queen and regarded the board.

“Mine, I believe. Unless you want to play it out?”

“No. I lost. How’d you—that was perfect.

Erin stared at the board. It was beyond perfect. Computers could play perfect games, but Chaldion had tricked her into that loss. She looked up and saw him smiling. The Drake slowly tapped his chessboard.

“[Path to Victory]. It’s simpler with easy games. You wouldn’t happen to be able to show me this ‘Go’ game, or ‘Shogi’, would you?”

Erin stared. And then shot out from her seat.

“You cheated?

Chaldion shrugged.

“I used a Skill to win. It’s a strategic decision. What? Haven’t you had someone use a Skill on you while playing?”

He offered her a gap-toothed grin. Erin inhaled in outrage—and then she stared at the board.  Ruefully, she sat back down.

“Only once.”

“Really? Maybe young Swifttail doesn’t have any to use. He does come here, doesn’t he? Well, I play games like I fight wars. Everything goes. Too bad you don’t have a few Skills to use on me; that’d make for a fun match.”

Chaldion grinned. Erin sniffed.

“Yeah. All I can do is poison your cookies.”

He choked, and then began to laugh. Erin pulled the chessboard out of the spray, and then found herself laughing too. She looked at Chaldion and then at her board. She’d lost. And he’d done it so elegantly too, Skill or not. He’d handed her a defeat, right in her inn, face-to-face. For once, she had underestimated him and not the other way around.

No one had done that in this world until that moment. She smiled, and the genuine joy in it was reflected in the Drake’s eyes. He chortled as Erin looked around and shouted.

Ishkr? Get me that Shogi set!”

And as Ishkr came over and Erin and Chaldion began discussing Shogi rules, Rufelt and Lasica watched from their bar. Rufelt eyed Venim and a few Drakes and a Gnoll who’d come through and were staring intently at the board.

“Chaldion himself? That’s something you don’t see every day. He doesn’t even visit Tails and Scales that often. Erin really is special, isn’t she, love?”

Lasica smiled.

“She’s not bad.”

The two of them looked over. Lyonette was sitting at the bar as Mrsha sipped from a goat’s milk drink on her lap. The [Princess] looked at them, a bit wide-eyed.

“You’re treating her like, well, another person. Erin.

Rufelt chuckled and Lasica rolled her eyes. She sipped from her drink and munched on a few bar nuts they’d brought from their establishment.

“Of course. We’re a Walled City. Did you think she was completely unique? She’s special, I’ll grant you, but we have at least a few dozen people as strange as her. I think it’s a good experience, to be honest. She’s a bright young girl, but she’s been ‘special’ for too long. That’s what I think. Rufelt?”

The [Barkeep] nodded. He looked at Erin and with the expertise of someone who could tell what drink someone needed, and if they needed words, silence, or to be knocked into oblivion by alcohol, nodded.

“I think she needs to be a girl without the weight of the world on her shoulders for a little bit. So let’s let Chaldion kick her around for a bit.”

“You think she can’t beat him more than he beats her? Chaldion may be ruthless and crafty, but as a fellow female, I have to say Erin will surprise him. Or don’t you agree, my dear?”

Lasica raised her brows. Rufelt grinned.

“Well, if we’re taking bets on it—”

He looked down the bar. And Relc, Maughin and Jelaqua, a disgruntled Seborn, Bevussa, Selys, and all the other friends and guests dug in their money pouches. After all, it was entertainment.

 

—-

 

That was Erin’s tale. But while she was being humbled and being normal, a second story, or rather, an anecdote played just outside her inn. But because it was Grimalkin, it was upgraded into a full narrative of his own. The Drake stretched his arms out as the Horns of Hammerad faced him.

“You’re really going to teach us magic?”

“That’s what I said. Should I repeat myself?”

Grimalkin sighed. He looked at the Horns. Ceria and Pisces exchanged a glance.

“Why?”

“Miss Solstice offered me her assistance. So I’ll correct any bad habits Wistram’s drummed into you. If you have flaws in your combat style, I will fix them, and teach you a few spells. If Miss Solstice comes through on her end. For now, I want to see what your capabilities are.”

“How generous.

Pisces sneered back at Grimalkin. He’d gone back to contempt after their first encounter. The [Necromancer] flicked a hand and bones began to flow out of his bag of holding, arranging themselves into a Bone Horror.

“While I appreciate your superior magical abilities for now, Magus Grimalkin, what makes you think we’re not capable of teaching ourselves? Ceria and I have both made considerable progress in our personal studies.”

“Yeah. Considerable.”

Ceria flushed. Pisces had, with his ever-improving Bone Golems and late nights recreating them into deadlier forms. She…usually drank and relaxed with a bit of spellbook reading after a mission from the Adventurer’s Guild. Grimalkin didn’t look impressed as he eyed the Bone Golem, however. It was turning into the classic double-headed war bear. He pointed at it and spoke.

“If that’s supposed to impress me, it’s failing. I’ve seen [Necromancers] and you’re far from Az’kerash, Pisces. That may work for Silver-rank threats, but any decent [Mage] will just say ‘[Dispel Magic]’.”

The Bone Horror, which had been building upwards, fell to pieces. Pisces and Ceria gaped at the bones lying on the ground. Yvlon and Ksmvr looked up. The [Wounded Warrior] bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

“Pisces?”

“That was—I was in the middle of animating that! You wouldn’t be able to do that if I finished the spell!”

Pisces spluttered, face red. Grimalkin raised his brows.

“Which is why I cast it before you finished. Your animation time is slow. Do you really think an opponent would give you that space in battle? Or was that meant to be intimidating? I told you two. Show me your magic.

He gestured at Ceria and Pisces. The two looked at each other. Yvlon and Ksmvr watched as the two put their heads together. Yvlon casually unsheathed her sword.

“Are we fighting too?”

“If you like. This is just appraisal. But I might as well study your teamwork. Use the sword, by all means.”

“It’s got a fairly powerful enchantment of [Weight] on it.”

Yvlon warned Grimalkin. Ksmvr had armed himself with his shortsword and Forceshield. Grimalkin nodded, absently watching Pisces pulling the bones back into his bag of holding. Ceria had drawn her wand and was swishing it back and forth with her skeletal hand.

“A sword’s only good if it touches me. Which it won’t.”

Yvlon sucked in her breath. Grimalkin fixed her with one eye.

“I’m no adventurer. But I am Pallass’ greatest [Mage]. I’ll defend that title to anyone who challenges me—I don’t see the rest of the [Mages] lining up to try. Miss Byres, right? Swing as hard as you want. I’ll praise your gonads at least.”

There was no response to that. Yvlon just pulled out her helmet and fastened it to her armor grimly. Pisces and Ceria were also gearing up. The [Necromancer] flexed one hand as Ceria lined up.

“Standard formation, guys. I’ll do my thing—Ksmvr, flank while Yvlon attacks. But give Pisces enough time to summon his Bone Horror and we’ll all go in.”

The other two nodded. Grimalkin sighed. He looked at Pisces.

“You’re not summoning your undead ahead of time?”

“If this were an ambush, I would have plenty of faith in the speed of my animation.”

Pisces sniffed. Grimalkin just studied the sky. He eventually looked back down when Ceria coughed.

“What? Begin when you’re ready.”

With that, he kept looking up. Ceria looked at Yvlon and Pisces. He glowered and Yvlon nodded. Ceria nodded back and then raised her wand and shouted.

[Ice Wall]!

A thick wall of ice shot upwards, blocking him from the Horns. It was wide, and tall—Ceria gritted her teeth as the wall came up, thickening, growing from one foot to two feet. Pisces instantly pointed and bones flowed out of his bag.

Those who have died, heed my call, rise twice to bring to my enemies—

It was a chant, hastening the speed at which the bones assembled into the Bone Horror, three times as fast as before. Grimalkin stared as Yvlon set herself and Ksmvr readied his shield. Ceria grinned. The wall was three feet thick now, solid ice! She’d practice with that spell. She called out to Grimalkin.

“See? Buying time. It’s our basic strategy. Not bad, right? It can at least contain most enemies. In fact, we killed a bunch of Crelers, baby ones, using this—”

She was ready for him to try to jump over the wall, or go around. If he did, Ceria would freeze him in midair or create another wall and stymie him. That was the trick Pisces had come up with. When he made the first move, the Horns would scatter, use mobility against him as Yvlon took him on. He was strong, but ice spells were perfect in group fights.

But Grimalkin didn’t dash or jump or even take a step. He just regarded Ceria’s wall as it grew thicker and thicker. Then he sighed, lifted one arm, and made a fist.

A terrible foreboding crossed Ceria’s mind. And her [Dangersense] went off. As well as a certain memory. She watched as Grimalkin took a single stride forwards and raised a fist. Time slowed, and Ceria saw the fist plunge towards her. Exactly like—she looked left and saw Pisces’ eyes go round. Grimalkin reached out—

And he punched straight through the four-foot thick wall. The thick ice exploded outwards and Grimalkin’s fist knocked Yvlon off her feet down the hill. With the same motion he flicked his wrist and swatted Ceria off her feet. The explosion of ice made Ksmvr shield himself from the larger chunks with his Forceshield. He lowered, it, ready to attack—and then looked around and realized he was the last person on his feet.

Ksmvr looked to one side at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was doubled over. A piece of ice half the size of his torso had hit him in the groin. The Antinium looked up as Grimalkin withdrew his fist and looked down at him through the gaping hole in the ice wall.

The [Sinew Magus] walked through the hole in the wall and looked down at Ksmvr as Yvlon, swearing, and shouting, finally crashed down at the bottom on the hill and Ceria, unconscious, rolled on top of her. Grimalkin looked down at Ksmvr. The Antinium stared up at him and regarded his shortsword.

Ksmvr considered his options and then slowly raised his free hand.

“Um. Is this war?”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.37 E

Day 56 – Beniar

 

This was how they came. A woman and a girl rode down towards the village in the distance. The woman was tall, thin, and her hat and dress were black. Properly so. Not midnight black or as black as sin, just black. She rode a horse. It wasn’t a racer, or a brilliant stallion. It was in fact, a mare, and perfect for travel. Her voice was slightly snappish, but efficiently so.

“Keep up, Nanette. And sit properly; you’re riding the horse, not letting it bear you to market. Don’t make a poor impression. First ones are the only ones you get.”

“Yes, Miss Califor.”

The meek response didn’t suit the woman. She glanced to one side and eyed her companion.

“Remember your manners. It goes without saying that this is important business, or else we would not be here. Some of the others will expect proper courtesy.”

“I know, Miss Califor. I’ll do my best not to embarrass you.”

The woman pursed her lips.

“Embarrassment lasts as long as I care to remember it, Nanette. That isn’t what you should be concerned about. Some of the others are older. Which means proper courtesy is required. Eloise would consider it mannerly. And the others would be offended without.”

“L-like who?”

The chatter in the young voice made the woman named Califor pause. The fear wasn’t born of nothing, nor was the seriousness with which she gave the matter thought. Her mare plodded forwards as the woman thought, then nodded to herself and replied sharply.

“Mavika, above all others. The rest wouldn’t stand on it, but Mavika would. Mavika and…be polite to her, Nanette.”

The girl nodded rapidly and her pony, snorting, decided its rider wasn’t in control. It stopped to nibble at a weed growing by the road. Miss Califor, noticing the pause, glared at the pony. The pony looked up, noticed the glare, and quickly trotted forwards so the two were side-by-side again. The girl blushed and gripped the reins more tightly; Miss Califor just sighed again.

“Don’t be worried, Nanette. You are accompanying me. Just remember your manners.”

She waited for the nod from the girl at her side. And the slight smile the older woman gave reassured the girl. If she minded her manners, all would be well. That was all Nanette had to do; and all Miss Califor had to do was be…Miss Califor.

So the two rode. The landscape was lush, fed on rainwater, and full of growth. Wild grass and wheat escaped from farms bordered by forestland not yet cleared by Humans. The woman and girl watched as they rode, seeing how far some of the tree lines stretched. You could still find places like this out here. Riverfarm was rural, but there were parts of the continent yet desolate, where Humans—or people of any kind—had yet to leave any memory of their passing.

The woman’s back was straight, her posture correct. The girl tried to emulate her, but she was young. The girl also had a hat. But it was dark blue, fresh while the woman’s was worn. And she was timid where the woman was—not so much bold, but decisive. She decided what was done, and that was that.

It was thus something of a surprise when the [Bandits] poured out of a forest not fifteen miles from Riverfarm and surrounded the two. They were a rough lot, desperados as hungry as they were greedy. Their leader had an axe and a large horse and he pointed it at the two, bellowing as they stopped at the unexpected hitch near the end of their journey.

Don’t move! You move and you’re dead! Get out your coin and jewelry! Now!

The woman looked affronted; the girl squeaked in horror, and scrabbled for a wand at her side. She’d just managed to raise it when the woman slapped her arm down.

“Don’t point your wand if you don’t intend to use it, Nanette.”

“Smart.”

The [Bandit Leader] growled. He’d tensed with the others when the wand came out, never mind that it was held by a girl. He held out one hand.

“Let’s make this quick, alright? Hand over your money pouches and don’t delay! And off the horses or you’ll be two corpses.”

He might have actually been more civilized compared to the [Bandits] whom Ryoka had seen killing travellers outright on the road. Then again, the close proximity to Riverfarm and the now-infamous Darksky Riders had the [Bandits] sweating. But there was money to be made if you were quick! They spread out around the woman and girl.

The older woman with the black hat pursed her lips, looking more annoyed than anything. She glanced around at the group of armed men and women, then up for a second, and her frown intensified. The others watched her warily but confidently; she might be a [Mage], but they had the drop on her and if she so much as twitched her hands or uttered the beginning of a spell, they’d cut her to pieces. They’d killed [Mages] before.

Slowly, Miss Califor got off her horse and shoved past a rough man with a sword. He blinked and the [Bandit Leader] looked down at her as she stood on his left. The woman turned her head and called at her ward.

“Don’t get off that horse Nanette. This doesn’t require any great spell. Just consideration. Now, you. Just what do you think you’re doing? I advise you to leave us be.”

So saying, she pointed a finger up at the [Bandit Leader]. He blinked at the tone in the woman’s voice.

“What? Give us the money old woman or die. One second. Otherwise I swing.”

The woman folded her arms and adjusted her hat, not looking impressed. One of the [Bandits], looking to his right at her, was impressed. She wasn’t flinching and the axe was ready to fall. He shuffled left and the woman did likewise.

“Don’t move!”

The [Bandit Leader] looked left. The group tensed—was this woman about to fight? You never knew—but the woman just shook her head.

“I don’t intend to fight, and I don’t intend to be robbed. Move your horse, young man, or you will suffer the consequences.”

This didn’t gel with the [Bandit Leader]’s disposition at all. He raised his axe and the [Bandits] tensed. The woman surely saw the imminent death as he growled at her.

“You want to die? Money and horse. The girl too. Or I’ll cut you down and take it myself. Think I won’t?”

Miss Califor sighed. She looked up at the [Bandit Leader] and shook her head.

“I think you will. More’s the pity. If you must swing, boy, swing hard. Or else—”

The axe buried itself in her skull. She jerked and the [Bandit Leader] roared as he yanked the bloody axe blade away. It came up, dripping with blood and brains. He roared at the [Bandits] on his right.

“Fucking woman! Get the girl—”

And then he paused. And the [Bandits] stared in horror. Because it wasn’t an old woman’s body lying on the ground, her head and hat cleaved in two. It was one of their own. The [Bandit] the woman had bumped into, who’d been on the [Bandit Leader]’s left—

Silently, the big man with the axe stared at the corpse. A woman with a bow lowered it, looking in horror at her leader.

“Jek! You killed Tobil!”

“I didn’t mean—I was aiming at the woman!”

“She was on your right! You were looking right at her! But you swung at Tobil!”

“No! I—”

The [Bandit Leader] stared around at his group. Then his head snapped up. The woman with the black hat stared at him from horseback. She addressed the pale-faced girl next to her.

“You see, Nanette? A small spell works better than obvious magic. What we see and show is more important. You are not a [Mage]. Remember that.”

“Yes, Miss Califor.”

The girl replied, a touch breathlessly. Jek, the [Bandit Leader], stared at them as the woman nodded.

“Good. Now—ride.

The two on horseback wavered, and then vanished. Jek and the [Bandits] spun. They saw two distance figures on horseback racing towards Riverfarm in the distance, and only now heard the hoof beats. Jek pointed, trembling with fury.

“Get them!”

The [Bandits] stormed after the pair, those without horses running to catch up. Ahead of them, Miss Califor considered their lead and the approaching village with narrowed eyes. Her apprentice, Nanette, clutched her horse’s reins, white-faced.

“Miss Califor, they’re catching up!”

“Patience, Nanette—a [Witch] is always calm—”

Miss Califor!

The [Bandit Leader], Jek, had a Skill. He was riding twice as fast at the two [Witches]. And his bloody axe was raised. Miss Califor turned in her saddle. She eyed Jek balefully, and looked ahead. And up. As he drew level with her, the man raised his axe. And she said only this:

“I warned you.”

Jek hesitated. And that was enough. He looked up and spotted the armored figure riding towards him from the side too late. He turned and swung. And to be fair, he hit the armored rider. But his steel axe bounced off the armor. And the [Cataphract] swung his sword and cut across Jek’s face.

The [Bandits] halted. They saw Beniar ride past Jek, and the man fall. Then they heard the shouts. The Darksky Riders charged, riding down on the [Bandits] with roars of fury. The [Bandits] scattered, screaming.

“The Darksky Riders!”

“That’s right! You bastards thought you could hide this close to Riverfarm!?”

Beniar roared as he galloped after another [Bandit], sword drawn. Nanette, shaking, let her horse slow, and Miss Califor, her lips pursed, regarded the [Bandits] and [Riders].

“What an inconvenience. But it is a lesson. Take note of it, Nanette.”

“Y-yes Miss Califor?”

The girl was pale beneath her hat. She looked at the woman, the [Witch]. Califor shook her head briskly.

“Don’t tremble so, Nanette. We were never in any danger.”

“But what if they’d seen through your illusion? Miss Califor? Or if the adventurers hadn’t caught up—or if—”

“Breathe, Nanette.”

The [Witch] sighed. She adjusted her hat and looked up sternly.

“We were never in any danger. Perhaps we might have been, but a good [Witch] does not show fear. She makes what preparations she may. And—what is my eighth rule, Nanette?”

The girl gulped. She hesitated, and then, as her lips moved, she recalled it.

“She looks up—”

She looked up at last. And then, overhead, she saw her. Alevica, her broom parked high overhead, swooped down. Nanette nearly fell out of her saddle. The younger [Witch] tipped her hat to Califor, and the older [Witch] grudgingly inclined hers an inch.

“Wotcha, Nanette! And Califor! There’s [Bandits] all about today!”

The young woman grinned at the suddenly star-struck Nanette. Califor just sniffed.

“Evidently. Thank you for your assistance, Witch Alevica, although I would have preferred a more helpful approach.”

“You were fine. And that patrol was nearby. I won’t waste more crossbow bolts or potions. Anyways, we’re all fine. Am I late?”

Califor considered the question as Alevica hopped onto the ground and the broom returned to the laws of gravity. Alevica tossed it over her shoulder. She looked at Nanette, who was still staring, wide-eyed.

“Didn’t see me, Nanette? How long’s it been? Two years? Three?”

“Three. Nanette, your manners.”

The girl started, and her still-round cheeks went red again.

“Oh! I—I greet you, Witch Alevica! I tip my hat—”

She fumbled, and Alevica laughed. The young woman strode next to Califor’s horse and Nanette’s mare and waved a lazy hand.

“You don’t have to do that with me, Nanette. I don’t stand on the old ways. Do that to Mavika. Sorry about the scare!”

Califor sniffed.

“Nanette should remember her manners, Alevica. As should you.”

The rebuke made Alevica stop and sigh. The younger woman pursed her lips, but uncharacteristically, especially from what Nanette knew and had heard of her, she did stop and tip her hat grudgingly to Califor and then Nanette.

“I tip my hat to you, and I apologize, Miss Califor. And to you, Nanette. No harm done though, eh?”

Miss Califor sighed and inclined her head and tipped her hat gently.

“I tip my hat to you, Alevica. And I suppose not. And I do thank you for the aid. Shall we complete our actual task?

“After you.”

Alevica bowed, only a hint mockingly. And the smile she gave Nanette was very real. Nanette, who of course knew Alevica by name if not face, and reputation, hurriedly tipped her hat and bowed in the saddle. Alevica tipped hers with a grin that made the girl blush, and Califor clicked her tongue. Her mare walked forwards.

In the distance, Beniar turned, and his Darksky Riders began to ride back. He, of course, had a lot of questions, but the [Witches] walked on, three abreast. And as they walked into Riverfarm, a cry and hue went up. Alevica looked interested; Miss Califor only waited. When she was ready, she would decide if the commotion was worth dealing with. In the meantime, she turned her head and addressed the [Witch] walking beside her.

“How was your journey, Witch Alevica?”

“Well…”

They headed into Riverfarm, down the main street. Beniar, chasing after them, drew up when he realized they had no intention of waiting for him. He returned to the Darksky Riders, who were checking the [Bandits]. One of the [Riders] looked up.

“What’s with the flying woman, Beniar? The two travellers safe?”

The young man grunted sourly.

“I think so. I’ll head back once we’re sure we got all the [Bandits]. Do a sweep nearby; I’ll take four that way. Then I’ll ask about those three. Some people have no manners.”

 

 

Day 56 – Prost

 

Mister Prost was not a happy man. He was a [Steward], a class which was, by and large, not generally happy. He accepted that. And Prost had found he was often content if not happy. But right now he was neither content nor happy. He stood in the middle of a square, in front of a pair of stocks. There was a man in said stocks.

Master Elmmet. The man didn’t look as pompous as he normally did, strutting about and sneering at Riverfarm’s people. But, incredibly, he still managed to look down on Prost with both hands and head sticking out of the stocks and his ass facing the world. And quite a lot of world was watching.

“This is a sham, Mister Prost. I’m innocent. Framed! I may have been caught by that adventurer, Beniar, but only as I was attempting to catch the [Thief] myself! This is an indignity!”

Elmmet shouted at the crowd of people who’d gathered around the stocks to listen to the trial. At his words there was a chorus of boos and shouts of outrage, but the people of Lancrel shouted at the villagers and non-Lancrel folk. Prost stared down at Elmmet and tried to contain his temper. The man in the stocks had the gall to return his look with an outraged one of his own.

“I don’t have time for lies, Master Elmmet. I’m only asking you one question. With all to see. Are you the [Thief] who’s been stealing from Riverfarm all this time?

“I’d love to give you a straight answer, but I’m afraid to be denounced by that false truth stone you’re holding.”

The man sneered back, and with one hand he pointed at the white quartz in Prost’s hand. The [Steward] grimaced as the stone flickered, from red to blue too rapidly for anyone to see. It was a truth stone, but a cheap one. And it had two settings: red for false, blue for truth. The problem was getting Master Elmmet to speak something that wasn’t a half-lie. If he didn’t say anything that could be a ‘yes or no answer’, the truth stone wouldn’t work entirely properly, and both he and Prost knew it.

“This is a genuine truth stone, Mister Elmmet. Anyone who wants can test it out and we have.”

“Such things can be faked! People of Lancrel, listen to me! I was framed! Do I look like a young man, or the woman that people were calling a [Thief] in the street? I was set up as I pursued that very [Thief], and Mister Prost—along with his hired adventurers—decided to frame me!”

Elmmet protested, wide-eyed and innocent to the crowd. Even Prost had to admit, he didn’t look like either description. Elmmet had white hair, and he was hardly spry. But Prost knew Beniar was telling the truth.

“Any [Thief] can gain a Skill which allows him to change his face. Apparently, there’s one called [Master of Faces]. Do you have that Skill?”

The stone flickered from red to mostly blue as Prost held it closer to Elmmet. The man was sweating, for all his bravado. He licked his lips and replied hoarsely.

“If I were to answer, I believe the stone would lie.”

Red, and then a flicker of blue. The stone couldn’t process the statement. Elmmet sighed and Prost ground his teeth. he raised his voice, speaking to the crowd.

“You see your man, Elmmet. He refuses to answer one question! Is he the [Thief]? He could free himself from the stocks this moment if he answered. If he continues to refuse, I will find him guilty for the dozens of thefts that have plagued Riverfarm. All of them.”

Lancrel’s folk stared back uncertainty. Many looked at Elmmet with distrust, and Prost was relieved to see some were clear thinkers. But too many listened to the [Thief] as he hoarsely shouted.

“Don’t believe this man! This is a conspiracy! He can control the truth stone! I demand a proper trial! An impartial judge!”

I am the [Steward] of Riverfarm. This is your one trial, Elmmet!

Prost lost his temper and bellowed at the man. The [Thief] flinched, but he still had that desperate confidence in his eyes. As if he thought he was really going to get out of this. Prost had already decided he was not. No matter what anyone said—if Prost couldn’t get the man to admit his crimes, it didn’t matter. He was a [Thief] and Prost would make sure he was jailed. Laken could deal with him. Prost was sure driving out Elmmet would just see him reappear as the [Thief] and cause more trouble, and as for anything else—

“Mister Prost, I have to object on my Councilman’s behalf. Can we be sure that this truth stone is really as valid as you claim? Is there no possibility that Elmmet was wrongly accused?”

A polite voice called out behind Prost. The former-[Farmer] gritted his teeth as he turned. If he could, he would have thrown the smiling woman addressing him into the stocks next to Elmmet.

“Councilwoman Beatica. This truth stone is accurate. Or are you claiming that this is all a conspiracy, as Mister Elmmet says? I warn you, that is a lie I will not have repeated. Beniar has sworn on a truth stone his account is accurate, and his report is backed up by Durene, the Darksky Riders, and a dozen other witnesses. Are you suggesting everyone who claims to have seen Master Elmmet is lying?”

If she was, she was claiming there was no real authority that could be trusted in Riverfarm except her own. Prost held the woman’s gaze and saw Beatica hesitate. She smiled and spread her arms, turning to address the crowd of city folk behind her. Not the villagers.

“Of course not! I believe everyone present saw exactly what they claimed. But magic—Skills—they can fake a man’s face, can’t they? What if the [Thief] used his [Master of Faces] Skill to impersonate Elmmet? Mister Prost, can we be certain beyond any shadow of doubt that this is our [Thief] and not a wrongly accused man?”

The Lancrel crowd nodded. And Prost stared at Beatica’s smile, and then noticed the flickering truth stone in his hand. And he realized that if he answered her, the stone might turn red.

“No one can be certain of anything, Councilwoman. Which is why your question has no answer.”

Beatica’s lips pursed for a second and Prost sensed her disappointment in not luring him into her trap. She kept going, though. She probably didn’t even care for Elmmet, Prost suspected, but if the damn [Thief] was found guilty, it would throw her authority into question. Beatica spoke like a [Town Crier], and with the eloquence of a [Bard], gently persuading those undecided in the crowd.

“But doesn’t that mean that the same logic applies to Councilman Elmmet’s situation? If we cannot be certain of his guilt—”

“Are you mad, woman?”

A barking voice interrupted Beatica at last. Prost had been trying, but the woman’s [Uninterrupted Monologue] Skill had been silencing him. Not Mister Helm, though. The [Blacksmith] roared behind Beatica, slamming one fist into his palm.

“Don’t you dare try to spin it like that bastard’s innocent! He’s been weaseling out of an honest reply and there’s only one answer to why that is! Why deliberate? Why bother to ask? He’s only told lies—but me and everyone else saw him stealing with my own two eyes! We saw him get nabbed, and there wasn’t any conspiracy or someone switching faces! Isn’t that good enough? If you want the truth, use that stone on me!”

He pointed at Prost’s stone, which had stayed mostly blue during Helm’s speech. The crowd murmured agreement and Beatica’s eyes flashed. But that damn smile—

“Mister Helm, I realize you’re upset, but eyes can be tricked—”

Shut up!

The [Blacksmith] bellowed straight at Beatica. The [Councilwoman] froze, unprepared for that. Prost grinned. She might be a [Politician], but she wasn’t used to someone like Helm, who was used to saying what needed saying over the roar of a forge. The man strode forwards, pointing a finger.

“Stop twisting your words, woman! That man’s a [Thief] and he deserves exile, a noose, or just a few broken bones! He’s guilty and you Lancrel lot are just protecting him because he’s your big [Councilman]! As corrupt as all of you city-dwelling—”

A roar of outrage swallowed the rest of what Helm was shouting as the crowd, most of whom were city people or townsfolk, shouted at Helm. The villagers present bellowed back, and Prost’s heart sank. He saw Beatica stumbling back, looking wounded—and noticed the sly, foxlike smile too late. Of course, she wanted this. He shouted, and then used a Skill.

Silence!

[Crowd Control]. Prost had to push to force everyone silent, but they fell quiet. Beatica looked uncertain as she noticed Prost using the Skill; the [Steward] was breathing hard with the effort. He looked around, and wished Laken were here. But he was trusting Prost, so the man straightened his back and did what he could.

“Master Elmmet. Swear on this truth stone you aren’t the [Thief]. Or I will consider you as such. If you believe the truth stone to be a lie, say it anyways and we’ll test this stone for all to see. But swear on it!

He thrust the stone at the man’s face. Elmmet’s eyes darted left and right as he opened his mouth. There was silence, and into it he croaked.

“I—I—ask my wife and daughter! They’ll vouch that I’m no [Thief]! Ask them!”

Prost made a sound of disgust and lowered the stone. But Elmmet’s words provoked more shouting, and a woman and daughter were thrust forwards. The woman, Elmmet’s wife, looked as untrustworthy as he did. And the girl? Terrified as she stared at the crowd. And her father.

Prost had seen families like that before. Maybe the wife deserved each other, but what daughter stared at her father like that? He looked over his shoulder and saw Elmmet smiling desperately. Prost ached to bash the man’s teeth in. But one wrong move and Lancrel’s people might turn on him. Where was Rie? Then again, what could she do? Prost turned, thinking desperately. If he passed judgment now—

Councilwoman Beatica was drawing breath for another plea to her masses. Helm was about to make things worse, and Prost saw someone, a city person or villager he wasn’t sure—draw back a fist. In that moment he saw the future and the future was a fight where the situation would be muddled, explode with all the wrong things, and engulf Elmmet’s actual crime with too much to make sentencing him easily.

It was a trap. But before it was sprung, a woman pushed her way through the crowd, and her voice boomed like a falling tree.

What’s all this fuss about? If the man’s guilty, let’s find out the easiest way!

Her voice cut off Beatica’s speech. It interrupted the fight. It drew every eye, including Prost’s. He stared at the woman, and he was sure he’d never seen her before. You’d remember a woman like this.

Long ago, Humans had been hardier folk. Before they’d built cities, they lived in villages, hunted, provided for themselves with tools and technique and sinew rather than buying it with gold. The early Humans, men and women, had been strong, tough enough to face monsters on the edge of civilization.

It was from their cloth this woman had been cut, and what cloth! She was a giant of a figure, her hair full and brown, her arms as thick as Helm’s. She was tall, bold—and she had a voice that would have made her a star among opera singers in another world. But in this one, she was dressed in travelling clothes, stained, but clean. And her wide, brown hat was perfect for travelling.

She also had a presence, different from Prost or Beatica’s. She stepped forwards, and Prost only now realized she carried an axe. Was she a new arrival? One of the [Woodcutters]?

No. The woman gestured around at the crowd, and her voice reached every ear. There was no Skill in it, just volume.

“I see a lot of bother over a simple matter! You say this man’s a [Thief]? You want to know what crime he deserves? Well, I say, call on a [Guardsman]! Or failing that, call on me! I’ve seen the bad sort and good long enough. And I’ve a Skill to put all answers to rest.”

So saying, she strode forwards. Beatica opened her mouth, but Prost beat her to it.

“This trial needs to be just. If you have a Skill, can you swear it’ll bring justice? And who are you, Miss?”

The huge woman smiled down at Prost. She adjusted her hat and the axe propped carefully on one shoulder. It was iron, huge, and nicked, not exactly a woodcutter’s axe. She grabbed Prost’s arm and raised it for all to see.

“They call me Hedag, Mister [Steward]! And I solve problems of this sort! You can rest assured; my Skill only reveals the truth of criminals.”

The stone turned blue as she held it up. Incredibly, it didn’t flicker red once, even with an unintentional lie. Miss Hedag let go of Prost; he stared at her. She had a grip like Helm’s!

“What say you, Steward? Shall I use it? We’ll see this man’s crimes, right enough. If he’s innocent, he’s little to fear. Then again, I’ve yet to meet an innocent man!”

She pointed down at Elmmet, who’d broken into a colder sweat than before. The crowd murmured. Hedag’s words had persuaded them. Beatica broke in nervously.

“Hold on, Steward Prost. You’re not seriously considering letting an outsider—”

“Shut up!”

Helm shouted in Beatica’s ear, silencing and deafening her. He stared past her, at Hedag. And his eyes narrowed.

“Hedag. I’ve heard the name.”

So had Prost, but he couldn’t recall it for some reason. It was an old name, or one he’d heard…he realized the woman was looking at him and came to a quick decision.

“If you’ll show us the truth, I see no reason to object, Miss Hedag. But you have to understand, we must see the truth of it for ourselves.”

“A right answer! That’s the way we’ve always done it, in villages and lonely places! We have to see to believe! And so the truth you’ll see! All will see!”

Hedag laughed merrily. Without further ado, she reached out and grasped Elmmet’s head in the stocks. The man shouted, but Hedag held him for only a second. She bellowed across the crowd.

[Revelation of Sin]!

And then she pulled something out of Elmmet. Prost recoiled as Hedag yanked out something black, a shadowy thing, and hurled it on the ground. The crowd leapt back uncertainly, but Hedag just stepped back.

“What did you—”

“Watch.”

Hedag’s one word caught Prost’s eye and turned them on the shadow. Everyone stared as, slowly, the black thing she’d pulled out of Elmmet rose upwards. A black mass rose, and formed…into a man. Elmmet. Prost stared at the man in the stocks, and then at the shadow.

It had no contrast. It was one color. But the shadow was, unmistakably, undeniably, Elmmet. You could see his face, even his smirking expression. The shadow turned, and with a careless jaunt, strolled ahead.

Prost stared. Another shadow appeared, and Prost saw a woman standing with her back to Elmmet. Real—he could see the lines in her face as she turned—and yet a shadow. The shadow-Elmmet strolled up to her and without hesitation, reached out and plucked the money pouch from her hip. Then he strolled past her, smiling, without a care in the world.

“Ah.”

The strangled noise Prost made was the only sound in the world. Elmmet, white-faced, stared at his shadow as the shadowy-him turned a corner. Now his face was different. A woman’s face, the very one he’d stolen from. He snuck up to another man, yanked his purse away, and as the man turned and shouted, soundlessly, bounded away. The crowd backed up as the Elmmet disguised as the woman ran at them.

Only when he was far away did Elmmet’s face change back to normal. And it was a gleeful face as he poured shadowy coins into one palm and pocketed them. Prost stared. But then the man was changing faces, this time to deceive a fellow and rob him as he slept—

“Lies. That’s—this is lies. A false magic.”

From his stocks, Elmmet croaked weakly. Prost and some others looked at him, but the rest were focused on the shadow. It was…undeniable. Perhaps it was the Skill, or just the woman, Hedag, but Prost believed that Elmmet had done the very crimes he was reenacting. Stealing from a sleeping man, breaking into a house, and then the image blurred and he was slapping his wife, drunk, snarling. Prost turned his head. Elmmet’s wife had gone pale.

“Miss Hedag. What is this?”

Prost spoke quietly, into the silence. The woman adjusted her hat and spoke loudly, watching the shadows shift from crime to crime.

“Why, it’s the man’s sins, Mister Steward. All laid out for us to see. Everything he’s done. From back to front. It marks him as [Thief] and wife beater. And more, I’ll wager. Can’t you feel the truth of it? Will anyone say it’s not so? I dare you, for my Skill tells all truths and it cannot be swayed by magic nor lies!”

She looked around, spreading her arms. Behind her, Beatica choked, but even she couldn’t figure out a way to use words. Hedag had pulled truth out from Elmmet, and the hypnotized crowd watched him. Stealing from a [Merchant]. Stealing from a traveller. Changing faces. And then—

“All crimes?”

Prost heard a whisper. He looked down and saw Elmmet had suddenly gone white. The [Steward] looked up sharply and saw the shadows Elmmet and his new victim had changed. A girl shrank down, screaming silently, and the man reached out with an open hand. The man was Elmmet. And the girl—

Every head turned to the girl standing by Elmmet’s wife. The child stared with wide eyes at herself as the shadows told a story. A snarling figure reached out and beat at a shadow of a girl. And on the real girl, if you looked closely, you could see, around her neck and shoulder—

“How long ago was this?”

Prost’s hands were itching. He didn’t look at Elmmet. Hedag did. She shook her head.

“Every crime, Steward. Each one in order. Incredibly, this man has done more sinning in a day than some manage in a year. This might’ve been a week ago. Or but a few days. But the truth of it is there to see.”

She pointed. The shadowy man was still hitting the girl, curled up. Prost thought of Chimmy, and he had to force himself to hold still. Elmmet was very still as the men and women—and children—looked at him. And they had seen truth.

Into that silence, Hedag spoke. And her voice was jovial, booming. And as cold as stone.

“A poor man steals from honest folk. Poorer still beats his own child. Yet poorest of all is the wife who knows and says not a thing.”

She pointed at Elmmet’s wife. The woman started and her face went as pale as her husband’s. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Hedag nodded.

“A woman like that’s no woman but a monster who pretends to love and care. But what of the one who raised the hand and downed the blow?”

“Death.”

Someone muttered that behind Prost. A hard line, and it came from Beycalt, a [Forewoman] who stared at the [Thief] with disgust. Elmmet’s head jerked up, and some of Lancrel’s folk paled. Hedag only sighed.

“Some’d say so, Miss. But it’s harder to say. The old laws change from village to village. Some would string up a man who beat his daughter half as hard. Others look the other way. But a [Thief]? There’s a penalty for a [Thief], sure enough. And it’s this.”

She strolled over to Elmmet in the stocks. And Prost saw her lift the axe. Everyone saw it. And they knew, with the clairvoyance everyone shared, what she was about to do. But the stupid parts of their minds, the parts that lied and thought reality should be a certain way, convinced them it wasn’t going to happen. She wasn’t really going to—

The axe came down and flashed past the wooden stocks with a thunk of sound. Prost stared down at the hand as it landed on the ground. A long-fingered hand, with no hair on it. Good for a [Thief]. But not so much severed. Elmmet stared at his stump of a hand in shock. Blood pooled, and then ran from the stump, dribbling down the stock. The man stared at the stump, pulled it out of the stock, put it back in. Only then did he scream.

Potion! Get a potion!

Prost shouted as the crowd erupted into screams. More than half of the city folk were panicking. And even the villagers, used to beheading chickens and killing animals, stared. The violence was so sudden, so quick. But Hedag just swung her axe up and bellowed.

Quiet!

And it was. The woman with the hat and terrible axe reached down and grabbed the stump of Elmmet’s arm. The man flailed, screaming as tendons appeared in his neck. Hedag squeezed and suddenly, the bleeding stopped. That didn’t stop the screaming, though. A blow from one hammer of a hand did that.

Elmmet’s head lolled back in the stocks and his entire body jerked. Prost sucked in his breath; he’d felt that punch! The crowd flinched, but Hedag just let the man’s arm drop.

“So that’s for a child beaten. The hand’s for a [Thief].”

“You can’t do that!”

The scream came from Beatica. The [Councilwoman] pointed a shaking finger at Hedag, and there was genuine fear and hysteria in her voice.

“You—cut off his hand!”

“And? It’s a punishment as old as time. Drakes do it in their cities. And in some cities around here it’s done. A hand for a [Thief]. A blow for a child-beater.”

Hedag replied as calmly as could be. Beatica just screamed at her.

“He was a [Councilman]! You cannot do that! You had no right! You’re no [Watchman]! There are laws—”

Right? I have every right!”

Hedag’s voice cut Beatica’s shriek off. The woman turned, and raised her brown hat. The axe dripped blood onto her shoulder as she raised it. The crowd, horrified and silent, watched as Hedag turned. And she was in charge. The woman spoke to Beatica, to Prost, to Elmmet, and to everyone.

“This is no city, for all you folk have come here. This is a village, and what wrong’s been done is plain to see. No one appointed me, Miss Councilwoman, it’s true. But there are times, bad times, when no one’ll do what’s needed. When folk have need of me and the truth I bring. A harsh truth, and with laws far older than I am. But it is justice, as just as any law you could name. And I will not be stopped, by you or anyone else. You called for proper justice, and here it is. The oldest kind.”

She swung her axe down and some blood struck the ground, Prost’s leg, and the stocks. Prost stared at Hedag. And then he saw her head turn.

“And what’s been said and done is only part of it yet. Look.”

She pointed. The crowd turned. The shadowy Elmmet wasn’t done. Not by far. He had been a poor man, Elmmet. Prost had suspected it of him. But now, for all to see, his sins revealed themselves, one at a time. And they were worse than just striking a helpless child, incredible as that was. Oh, far worse.

“Every sin comes to life. Every misdeed, small or large. It’s a harsh thing. And I judge with such mercy as I might. But I do judge.”

Hedag’s voice was quiet in the silence as she stared at the shadows. They were enacting something far worse now. The beginning of it, at least. Prost looked around, at the women, the men—the children should not see this. Least of all the girl he saw reflected twice.

Prost tried to look away, but the truth burned him, forced him to see. Perhaps that was the nature of the Skill. The crowd tried to move, to avoid it, but it was a revelation. Inescapable. Only Hedag stared with an unmoving gaze. She looked down at Elmmet. The man was struggling, weeping, trying to say something, as his sins played out.

“If I were you, Mister Elmmet, I’d hope that this were the worst of it. The worst by far. But I don’t think a man like you deserves hope. Show me what you’ve done.”

And he did. Prost felt his stomach roil and the shadows danced. Someone in the crowd made a terrible, groaning sound and a man gagged, vomited. It was appropriate. Hedag watched as Prost turned away. She watched, with eyes as old as she was, but made older by what she’d seen. And Prost remembered her name at last. A woman who travelled the further villages, who performed that oldest task where there was no jail, no watchman, no law in sight but her.

Hedag the [Executioner]. And the woman nodded at last, as the shadows stopped for one moment. She spoke two words.

“I see.”

The axe swung down, gleaming dully in the midmorning light.

 

 

Day 56 – Lady Rie

 

Lady Rie took a long time dressing, as was her wont. In fact, it was one of her only wants, and her only vices. In Riverfarm, few amenities were available to her, and the comforts of fashion were a luxury Rie couldn’t do without.

And even then, it was a concession. She didn’t have half as many of her cosmetics, and many of her dresses and fine clothing had been carefully, discretely sold to finance Riverfarm’s needs. Most of her jewelry had gone that way, and Rie feared her current wardrobe would be worn, not to mention outdated in less than a month.

“And yet, it is necessary.”

The woman sighed to herself. She stared in the hand-mirror she carried and carefully applied a lipstick. Red, traditionally so, to fit her mood. She was not looking forwards to this morning. She suspected Prost’s trial with Master Elmmet would not be as smooth as she wanted, and she would gladly have given up all her dresses to see that man and Beatica and half of Lancrel’s elite banished for good.

“We should not have allowed things to reach this point.”

Rie sighed as she inspected her face for flaws her makeup had missed. But what could they have done? She had to admit it; Beatica might have been a poor leader in the sense of keeping her city free from Goblin attacks, but she was a magnificent manipulator. She’d turned Lancrel’s people against Riverfarm, exacerbated the already-deep rifts between urban and rural peoples. And the tensions of refugees fleeing their city and coming to live in, admittedly close to poverty.

“And yet, Riverfarm is more than that fool of a woman can understand. Riverfarm is a jewel, uncut. Or—a potato. Made of gold. Growing in the earth.”

Rie sighed. Even her metaphors were becoming farmer-like. Which was appropriate. Perhaps, if she stayed here long enough, she’d even be fine with her less-than-perfect appearance. And what did it matter? The man she wanted to impress couldn’t see her face. He could see any number of things, but physical appearance was beyond him. It was just one of the reasons why Laken Godart fascinated and attracted Rie.

And frustrated her. She had no idea what the young [Emperor] was thinking. Oh, she could guess, but the Goblins? Madness? Lord Yilton and Lord Gralton being in his company? Masterful. Durene? Incomprehensible to Rie at first. Prost? Incredibly sound despite Rie’s misgivings.

It felt like half of Laken’s achievements were down to luck or the impetuousness of youth, and the other half a product of deep thought. Either way, Rie had recognized Riverfarm and his presence for what it was: an opportunity that only came once in a lifetime. Riverfarm could be great. Unique, in fact, in Izril’s history. Or it could implode. And right now, Rie feared greatly the latter would come to pass.

“Hold the village together. Easier said than done!”

She swept out of her small house, and a man who’d been leaning against the wall silently joined her. Geram, the [Fistfighter] and former captain of her personal guard, nodded at his [Lady] and she greeted him. Manners were important, no matter how she felt. Rie smoothed her sensible, comfortable red clothing and silently wished she had a bevy of [Assassins] to kill her enemies with.

But she was a poor [Lady], monetarily that was. She had power, but it was subtle. Geram was her strongest physical asset and while the man was loyal and capable, he wasn’t exactly a Gold-rank adventurer. Although he was good.

“Where to, Lady Rie?”

“Oh, where else? The trial, Geram. When’s it starting?”

“Midday, Lady Rie. You have time.”

The bald man nodded at the sun. Rie pursed her lips. So she did. But that wasn’t a problem. She swept forwards, and within fourteen steps she had work.

“Lady Rie! Good morning to you! Can I bring you breakfast?”

“Lady Rie, will you eat with us? Our small circle is quite eager to talk with you—we represent some of Lancrel’s interests—”

“Lady Rie, a pot’s got a hole, and the [Chef]’s said he needs a new one. Only, Mister Helm’s not warmed his forge yet. Should we—”

A dozen people surrounded Rie in a moment, clamoring for her attention. Geram, a practiced [Bouncer], kept them back and Rie, sighing internally and smiling externally, sorted them out one by one. The key to good leadership was delegation. And failing that, not getting bogged down in any one complaint.

Requests for dining were easy to sort out. Rie could easily say she’d taken breakfast alone—which she had—and soothe any ruffled feathers from the women who fancied themselves fit to dine with a [Lady]. Rie wouldn’t have foisted them on Durene, who was in fact, a very careful eater. Pots just needed replacing.

As for the rest…Rie walked, speaking to the flood of people who gravitated towards her. And this at least wasn’t unusual. The volume was taxing, but Rie had been a [Lady], and thus, a leader for all her life. This was more personal than when she ruled her estates, but it could be done.

The problem was that Riverfarm lacked its heart and soul. Laken. Without him, the people who usually could manage and think independently grew dependent on Rie. She hated to admit it, but the [Emperor], who was surely lower-level than she was could inspire his people where she could not.

That hurt Rie’s pride, but again, she swallowed the feelings and only let a polite, kind, caring exterior show. She had to be beloved. The people of Riverfarm had to trust her, and not see her as another impartial [Lady], aloof and unconnected. Until Laken came back, their loyalty and trust had to be in her.

Riverfarm was a village, for all it now held enough people to be called a town. It was poor, despite its potential. Rie knew it. Her estates were far richer than Riverfarm, many times over. They were only a day’s ride away, and yes, they were small. The Valerund fortunes had declined over the last decade with the death of the family save for Rie. But even with her home town decimated by the Goblins…

Rie’s stomach clenched at the memory and all the faces she’d never see. She forced it down as she smiled at a girl offering her a flower.

“Very pretty. I thank you, Miss…Agathy, is it?”

“Yes, Lady Rie! Do you like it?”

“I’m so sorry, Lady Rie. She wanted to give you a flower ever so much. I don’t want to be a bother…”

The beaming girl’s mother apologized profusely, which was far more tiring than the flower. Rie put it behind her ear, a move that instantly won her the adoration of everyone watching. She smiled at Agathy, and that was genuine.

“I’m delighted, Agathy, and it’s no bother at all. But why not give a flower to more people than me? I’m sure they’d be delighted as well.”

Even with her home town gone, Riverfarm was poorer than Rie’s mansion. But Rie was willing to sell what was in the mansion to back Laken Godart. Purely because he was an [Emperor] and because Riverfarm was growing so fast. He could be great. He already had ideas and poise beyond his age. And his Skills were no less impressive. The simple bed Rie was using was as luxurious as the custom-built one she’d had in her mansion.

But he still had to come back. Rie’s teeth gritted as Agathy and her mother bade her farewell. Automatically, Rie went from dining hall to the river outside the village, checking on people at their tasks. There was always something to do, some minor problem to solve. It was all so trivial.

What Riverfarm needed was a grand plan, more than just housing everyone! Prost could take care of that. The man was solid, a capable steward, Rie fully acknowledged. But he could only enforce Laken’s’ ideals. He needed to be here! Durene was right, drat the girl. They needed Laken, and not just his mysterious ‘help’, whatever that was. They needed him now! What if she sent Beniar to find him—no, that was too dangerous—

“Excuse me, milady. But you’re looking rather taxed. Would you care to have a seat with us?”

A voice interrupted Rie’s flurry of thoughts. It was old, warm, and as Rie turned, the owner smiled up at her.

An old woman was sitting at a table on the side of the street. A wooden table—one of the very ones that usually lay inside the identical houses. But that wasn’t what stopped Rie. It was the scene.

An old woman gently lifted a tea pot and filled a worn, thin, but terribly beautiful cup of porcelain. A travelling cup perhaps, but an heirloom of one, sitting on a small saucer. The tea was a light green color, as clear and inviting. Steam rose from the pot and the cup—and the ones held by the three other women sitting at the table next to the old woman.

They were sitting in wooden chairs, the dining chairs that the [Carpenters] worked so hard on for all the houses. Just sitting in the shade of a house in the street, drinking tea with the morning. It was a scene you’d see in a café or restaurant in a city, but it was the first time Rie had seen the like in Riverfarm. Everyone was too busy. But this old woman, who had a grey travelling hat, festooned with fresh flowers, smiled and waved a hand gently at Rie.

“Some tea, young woman? I’m new in town, but I’ve made a delightful cup and I’d love to sit and chat with a lovely young lady like yourself. Join us?”

“I—”

Bemused, Rie stared at the three women sitting around the table. One of them blinked; Rie recognized her as one of said [Carpenters]. Another was a woman—one of the hated Lancrel [Councilwomen]. The third was a mother from one of the towns. All three blinked up at her, bemused, but they sipped from their tea cups as if them being together was the most natural thing in the world.

Rie realized she was staring. Her eyes fell on the old woman, who was holding a cup up with one hand. Rie started and took it reflexively, then inhaled the aroma. A delicate green tea’s scent. An exquisite blend; Rie would have bet all her dresses. And brewed just right! And hot—how long had it been since she’d had a cup like this? Not since her mansion. She nearly sipped and then caught herself a second time. She smiled down at the old woman.

“Excuse me. I apologize, but have we met, Miss?”

The woman smiled and patted an open chair next to her.

“Not at all. I’ve just arrived in Riverfarm. This morning, in fact. And I happened to have met these lovely young women by chance. Well, there was nothing for it but to put some tea on, and the people here were most obliging. I’m told they all have work, but I wanted to chat for a moment. You look quite busy yourself, young miss. Why don’t you sit for a spell? I have some biscuits here, and they are quite fresh.”

The wooden table was bare of tablecloth or decorations, and the chair, well-made though it was, was still simple. But it called to Rie. So did the sweet-smelling biscuits that appeared out of the woman’s travelling backpack. The other women blinked and then reached for one. Rie sipped from her cup and the tea made her smile.

“I—really shouldn’t. I am busy—my apologies. My name is Rie Valerund. I am a [Lady] in service to his Majesty, Emperor Laken. And you are?”

The woman’s brows raised and she peered up at Rie when she heard the woman’s class. But then she smiled, and Rie was reminded of her own grandmother. There had been a kind woman, and this one was every bit her match.

“My! A [Lady], here? My apologies, my dear. Let me greet you properly.”

“Oh no, you don’t need to—”

Rie began, but the woman got up and curtseyed quite formally, bending her knees and moving with surprising agility for someone as old as she looked. Rie smiled and returned the courtesy. The old woman sat and nodded, patting the seat again.

“My name is Eloise. I’m a travelling trader of sorts. I specialize in teas, flowers, herbs. I heard there was an opportunity in Riverfarm, and so I made the trip. Sit, please, young lady.”

It was odd to be called ‘young lady’, but Eloise was certainly old enough to call it to all four women. Rie blinked with some concern at Eloise.

“All on your own? That’s a perilous journey of late, Miss Eloise.”

“I was just saying, Lady Rie. There are [Bandits] about. And an old woman isn’t immune to monsters, even if [Bandits] have some decency.”

The [Carpenter] leaned one strong forearm on the table as she sipped from her cup. She seemed pleased, although the bitter, refreshing tea wasn’t for everyone. Rie nodded along with the mother and [Councilwoman]. Eloise just laughed, and her laughter was as refreshing as the tea.

“An old woman can’t be afraid of monsters or men, ladies! I’ve seen enough of both over my years; don’t you worry. And it’s moving about that keeps me alive!”

The [Councilwoman] from Lancrel took a bite of a biscuit and patted her lips with a handkerchief. The [Carpenter] just used her hand. Normally that would cause some tutting on the Lancrel woman’s side, and prompt an eye roll from the [Carpenter], but at the moment the two seemed so peaceful together. Friendly, even. The Lancrel woman glanced around, smiling slightly, and looked at Eloise with concern.

“Yes, but surely there is a time to settle down, Miss Eloise? You say you’re a travelling seller. But shouldn’t your family take care of you? Your relatives? I don’t mean to be rude, but even staying in a village where you can have some help…”

Eloise chuckled.

“I have a village of my own, Miss Safey. No children or relatives who’d care to look after me, I’m sure, but my village is enough. As I said, I’m travelling here for a spell. Young man, why don’t you sit? You look like you could use a biscuit yourself. Don’t let your [Lady] here take them all.”

She waved at Geram. Rie turned her head and stared up at the [Fistfighter]. Then she realized half the tea was gone from her cup, she had a half-eaten biscuit in her saucer, and she was sitting down. She stared at Eloise, and then turned to Geram.

“These are wonderful biscuits, Geram. Try one, at least.”

The other women murmured agreement. Geram hesitated. He looked uneasy at being the only man present, but he eventually took a biscuit. He refused a teacup, though. Rie regarded hers as Eloise went around with the kettle. The tea was still steaming! And Rie couldn’t help but fill her cup and keep chatting. During a small break, she had to comment on the tea itself.

“This is a marvelous blend of tea, Miss Eloise. And your cups are finer than the ones in my estate. I don’t know if there’s much call for tea in Riverfarm—then again, for yours I’d happily discuss buying whatever stocks you have. But you must stay here. We can arrange a place for you to sleep, and have you escorted when you choose to leave.”

The other women nodded. The mother gestured to the house behind her.

“My family and I would love to offer you a bed, Miss Eloise. There are the barns, but that’s no place for someone your age.”

“You’re too kind. But I wouldn’t want to put you out of a bed, with two little ones and another on the way. I’m quite happy to sleep where I may, and a barn is fine enough. Come, let’s not talk about me. Tell me more about Riverfarm and this [Emperor] of yours.”

Eloise smiled and laughed again. Rie hesitated as the others at the table nodded. She glanced up at the blue sky and with effort, stood.

“I’d love to partake in this conversation, Miss Eloise. But I’m afraid I truly am busy. Your tea and biscuits were lovely, and I’m sure I will find you again. But with apologies—”

The older woman sighed, but nodded.

“There should be time for tea every day. But I quite understand. I should be delighted, Lady Rie. But take another biscuit before you go? You look like you could use one.”

Rie shook her head. But she was smiling as she stood and bade farewell to the impromptu tea circle. The [Carpenter], the [Councilwoman], and mother seemed content to sit and talk about what had brought them to Riverfarm with Eloise, and Rie couldn’t bear to order them back to work. She stepped away from the table before she was sucked back in.

She resumed her walk, blinking as she noticed a good fifteen minutes must have passed. The sun had moved noticeably in the sky! She shook her head, bemused.

“What a lovely woman, Geram.”

Geram, chewing his biscuit, choked on his reply. Rie shook her head. She even felt better after that little break. She wasn’t so flustered or worried. A few Skills, it had to be. Or just really good tea. Either way, Eloise was a name to remember.

Now there was someone Rie was glad to have in Riverfarm, never mind her age. Then again…too many old folk would be a problem. But were they going to turn away people who came to Riverfarm based on their qualifications? As Rie walked on, she shook her head, trying to get herself back in the proper state of mind, which was anxious.

In the end, she had to trust Laken wasn’t making a mistake. But he had better get here now, and those Goblins had better be worth the delay. Or else Rie did fear for the future.

Magnolia Reinhart would not sit idly forever. This trade war was only the smallest of things in her arsenal. She might be a beneficent ruler today, but Rie had seen what the Reinharts could do. And they would drag the bodies of their foes through the streets and feed them to the dogs before yielding in anything.

She’d lost time talking to Eloise. Not just fifteen minutes either. Thirty? Rie didn’t know, but somehow she’d completely missed an event around the main gates of Riverfarm. Like everything else, they were a work in progress, not least because they had to keep being rebuilt further and further out. But the village or town or even city would need walls, and the blood-stained [Riders] trotting back down the street proved just that.

Beniar!

Rie’s pulse quickened in alarm as she saw the blood, but the [Cataphract] and former adventurer rode up to her with a smile on his face. He saluted her and dismounted in one move. Rie stared at the Darksky Riders, who were tending to their horses, and then the three women with hats, one old, one young, and one still a child who were looking around the village, oblivious to the crowd, the riders, or Rie.

“What happened?”

Beniar chuckled as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“What happened? Lady Rie, we got that [Bandit] group we thought was waylaying people nearby! At least one of them. They were waylaying travellers on the road—those two on horses. We wouldn’t have known or gotten to them in time, but that other one—she flew to Riverfarm and told us what was happening! On a broom!”

“A broom?”

Rie stared at the young woman that Beniar was pointing to. That jogged her memory, but before she could fix on that, the three were striding towards her. The old woman, who was wearing all black adjusted her pointed hat and looked around.

“Are you the woman in charge around here?”

The question took Rie aback. It suggested that the answer was ‘no’, and that the woman asking it was in fact in charge, but she was asking for formality’s sake. Frowning, Rie regarded her and the young girl following close behind.

“I am Lady Rie Valerund, in service to his Majesty, Laken Godart. I understand you were attacked on the road, Miss. I hope you haven’t come to any harm?”

The woman blinked at ‘his Majesty’ and frowned, but only slightly. She turned to look at Beniar, who gave her a charming grin.

“Pleasure to be of service, Miss.”

“Hm. Yes, thank you. It was an adequately quick response. Better than many estates might manage. But it was a poor thing that these [Riders] were needed to begin with, wouldn’t you agree?”

Her reply took the wind right out of Beniar’s sails. Rie blinked, but the woman was addressing her next.

“You may call me Califor. Lady Rie, is it? Where can I find your [Emperor]?”

Affronted, Rie frowned at Miss Califor.

“What? Emperor Godart is absent. And if he was here—if you have business in Riverfarm, I suggest you present it to me. May I ask who your companions are?”

Instead of being embarrassed at the rebuke, Miss Califor only raised her eyebrow and put her hands on her hips.

“If my business should involve you, I will let you know of it. This is Nanette, my student. And this is Alevica.”

“Nice to meet you!”

The young woman next to Califor waved a lazy hand. She looked friendly, but she was far too informal! The girl named Nanette started, stared at Lady Rie with proper awe, and began to curtsey. Right up until Miss Califor stopped her with one hand.

“Don’t bother, Nanette. Save it for Mavika.”

The tone and casual dismissal of Lady Rie was managing to reverse all the goodwill and calm of her encounter with Eloise. Rie’s eyes flashed and she drew herself up, glaring at Califor as Beniar sneaked past Geram.

“Excuse me, Miss Califor. I remind you that I am a [Lady] and you are in my presence.”

“So you’ve informed me. And this means I should change myself to suit you how, exactly?”

Miss Califor looked flatly at Rie. And the [Lady] was so stunned that she couldn’t reply for a moment. So the woman walked past her without a second word and flapped a hand at the girl.

“Come along, Nanette. Let’s find a place for the horses and the others. There are at least two more here. One yet to come.”

“What? How dare—come back here!”

Rie spluttered as the two walked past her with the horses, but even Nanette didn’t turn, but hurried after Miss Califor. She stared at their backs until the last of the new arrivals, the young woman named Alevica, coughed.

“Hey, is there a pub around here? Or a Runner’s Guild?”

Rie, Geram, and Beniar stared at her. Alevica looked around, her smile not bothering at all to hide her amusement.

“No? I’ll be on my way then. See you in a bit.”

“Hold on.”

At last, Rie caught herself and looked at Geram. The man moved to block Alevica’s path and the young woman stopped. Not warily, just with a frown. And her pale pink eyes narrowed as they flicked from Geram to Rie.

“Something you want?”

“Just introductions. Did Beniar say you flew into Riverfarm? You wouldn’t happen to be Alevica, the Witch Runner?”

Beniar started at the name. Alevica just grimaced.

“I prefer, ‘the only damn Runner who can fly north of Pallass.’ But sure. That’s me. I warned your militia here that there were [Bandits] attacking Miss Califor and her apprentice. No need to thank me.”

With that, she began to walk around Geram. He tried to block her a second time, but when Alevica paused, she put a hand on a knife in her belt.

“I don’t appreciate being stopped, bald man.”

Rie paused. She’d heard about Alevica, and she dearly wished she was near a city where she could pay for information about her to refresh her memory. Geram looked down warily at Alevica and stepped back after glancing at Rie for confirmation. The [Lady] chose her words carefully.

“That is Geram. My bodyguard. I apologize for his insistence, but I would greatly like to speak with you, Miss Alevica.”

Laken could use a good Runner, even one with her reputation. But Alevica just grinned.

“I’m sure. But you have to wait. Don’t worry, we’ll see each other. Soon, I think.”

Her eyes flicked down the way Califor had gone, and then she turned her head over her shoulder. Rie stared. Alevica turned back to look at her, and then nodded.

“See ya.”

She strolled off past Geram. The [Fist Fighter] hesitated and walked over to Rie.

“Lady Rie, should I stop…?”

“No. No, let her go.”

Rie quietly fumed as she watched Alevica strolling down the street, a hand in one pocket, scratching at windblown hair. Now she understood some of the tales about Alevica. The Witch Runner indeed. And that Califor! Rie turned balefully to Beniar, but he was already back with his Darksky Riders, regaling the crowd with exploits of what had just happened.

“I’m rather peeved at the moment, Geram. But I think I’d better find Prost and make sure the trial is going well.”

After a moment, Rie decided that was her only course of action. Geram nodded, and Rie swept down the street. Just in time to hear the screaming begin. She paused, stared down the street towards the public square and stocks, and broke into a run. Behind her, Geram swore and pounded past her.

“Lady Valerund! Let me—”

He shouted, but Rie didn’t stop. If something had gone wrong, if a riot had broken out, they’d need Beniar and his [Riders]. What had happened? Had Elmmet tricked the truth stone somehow? That shouldn’t be possible at his level. Or had that Beatica managed to stir up the crowd—

A rush of people came down the street, mainly Lancrel’s people but villagers and townsfolk as well. Most of the ones in front were women, mothers, holding white-faced children. But families, single men, townsfolk, all of them were pouring away from the square in a rush. Rie halted, and Geram moved to block the crowd.

Stop! What is going on?”

Rie shouted at the crowd, but she didn’t have a Skill to halt a crowd. And she hadn’t learned an aura Skill. She had other Skills, but for situations like this, all she had was her presence. And it wasn’t enough to halt the crush of people fighting to get away from—something.

Geram was, though. The big man halted those closest to him with his body alone, and when they noticed Rie through their panic, she was instantly surrounded by frightened people, screaming children.

“What is going on? Is someone hurt?”

Rie looked around, bewildered. There weren’t any marks of violence, but then a woman from Lancrel screamed out.

He’s dead! Master Elmmet’s dead!”

Rie’s blood froze. Elmmet? Dead? Prost hadn’t lost his temper, had he? Or—what if he’d been lynched? But the crowd would have turned. These ones just looked horrified.

“How? What happened?”

“She just murdered a man in the street! Cut off his head just like that! With children to see!”

A man shouted his face white. Rie recoiled. A public execution? She hadn’t ever seen one. But—

“Who? A woman? Not Prost?”

The crowd nodded. One of them pointed shakily.

“She called herself Hedag! And she had an axe! And she used a Skill—”

“It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.”

One of the women who looked like she was from Lancrel murmured through pale lips. Another man just shook his head. He looked like he’d been sick.

“It was real. Dead gods, but it was. He deserved a hundred times worse.”

Many of the people nodded. But the woman shook her head repeatedly, and her eyes were wide, wild.

“No! I knew him! He can’t have—it was a lie. It cannot be true! Cannot! It was murder all the same!”

“What we saw—”

A man began, and then there was silence. A child started screaming. Someone had to sit down, shaking. Rie realized that no one was going to make sense in the hubbub. She looked at Geram.

“I need Prost. Clear me a path. Please! Let me through!”

Geram nodded and with Rie’s calling, he forced a path through the crowd of people all rushing away from the square. Rie stepped quickly, ignoring the people trying to get her attention.

To her relief, she found Prost at the back of the crowd, shouting and restoring order. The man had a grim look in his eyes, but he wasn’t harmed either. He was shouting at the crowd, ordering them not to shove—he turned as Rie rushed towards him.

Prost! What happened?”

The [Steward] turned to Lady Rie, and he paused. His face was pale, sweaty, but not nearly as bad as the city folk, some of whom looked like they were close to fainting.

“Elmmet’s dead, Rie.”

How?

Prost inhaled slowly, grimacing. Rie stared at him, her heart beating wildly, but the [Steward] was slow to reply. Prost spoke quietly, half-turning back towards the square.

“It was a woman. Hedag the [Executioner]. She appeared in the trial when Beatica and Elmmet were stirring up trouble, claiming the truth stone was false. She—she used a Skill. Revealed Elmmet’s crimes. Then she cut off his head.”

“She murdered him?”

Rie was horrified. The [Steward] shook his head.

“That wasn’t murder. That was justice.”

He spat twice to get rid of the taste in his mouth. Rie stared at him uncomprehendingly. Her eyes shifted to the blood on Prost’s pant leg, and then past him towards the square. She couldn’t see the body, which was just as well; Prost knew the axe flashing down would haunt his dreams for weeks to come.

“Tell me what happened. From the start.”

Prost nodded. He and Rie turned, and with Geram’s help, they managed to calm the crowd, who really had just wanted to get away from the grisly sight. Everyone was shocked, and the children? Sick or incoherent with panic.

Again, it was the difference between city folk and villagers; the children who’d seen a butchering or lived on a farm had seen that kind of blood. Just not on a Human body.

“An [Executioner]? They’re exceptionally rare! Even most cities prefer to hire someone to do it. It hardly requires someone for that one job! And she just turned up? You’re sure she wasn’t planted by Beatica?”

Prost shook his head.

“She most definitely was not. And her Skill—”

“You’re sure it revealed Elmmet’s crimes?”

“I saw the shadow-him doing all of it. It was him. I’m certain. And even Beatica would say it was the truth. What that man did deserved the axe. It was just that Hedag did it then and there, after the hand.”

The [Steward] was shaking as he remembered what he had seen. Rie stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Where is she now? Did you arrest her?”

“Arrest her? For what?”

“Killing a man in—”

The [Lady] had to stop and take a breath. Prost was clearly shaken himself. He shook his head.

“The crowd bolted and I had to keep them from trampling each other. I’ve no idea where she is. I think she might be in the square still.”

“In that case, we need to arrest her.”

“For what? Show me a man or woman there who’ll say it was wrong. His wife won’t. His daughter?”

Prost spat again.

“If Hedag hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have left that square alive after what I saw.”

“That’s not the point. People are panicking, and rumors will spread. Beatica will twist this, no matter what the people there saw. There must be a proper inquiry, and an announcement—Geram, find Beniar.”

“I can arrest this woman myself.”

The [Fist Fighter] looked back down the street. Rie shook her head.

“Absolutely not. She has an axe; get Beniar and some of his [Riders] to back you up. Bring her to—to the throne room. And then we’ll call an assembly of everyone we can and—”

She was fumbling, looking around, trying to figure out what they’d do exactly when the second shriek split the air. Prost’s head jerked up. He and Rie looked at each other. This time neither one wasted time asking questions. They just ran in the direction of the sound.

This was how they gathered. Staring at the cauldron of ruined soup on the ground. With a murder of crows spiraling in the air. With a woman, Rehanna, lying on the ground, clutching her ruined hand as Nesor tried to heal her. Rie and Prost burst out of the crowd, which had doubled in size and took in the moment at once. They looked at Durene, Wiskeria, Rehanna, and then up.

A…woman perched on the neatly thatched roof of the house. She had to be a woman. She had the right figure. The correct face, thin and angular, but still with its own beauty. And dark skin.

She perched like a raven. Or one of the crows circling the street overhead. And she just smiled as she looked down at Rehanna. The woman was screaming and clutching at her hand. Lady Rie looked at the bleeding, charred mess of her hand and then at the doorknob with blackened flesh hanging on the knob. Her stomach turned, but she kept control of it.

It was a curse! She did it!

One of the women pointed unsteadily up at the woman on the roof. The crowd, already uneasy, turned to panic as news of what had happened in the trial spread. And then the panic turned to fear. Hostility. Rie felt it gathering around her. She stared up at the woman and stepped forwards.

Enough!

Rie’s shout calmed everyone for a second. They looked at her, Riverfarm folk, Lancrel’s refugees, Prost, Durene, Wiskeria, and the woman on the rooftop. Rehanna had mercifully fainted as the potion healed her hand. And in the silence, Rie pointed a finger.

“Who are you? How dare you attack one of Riverfarm’s people? This village is under the protection of Emperor Laken Godart—”

I know.

The woman stared down at Lady Rie. Rie hesitated.

“Why did you attack Rehanna?”

“‘Twas a rudeness done. An ill for goodwill. I just repaid her in kind.”

The woman answered as naturally as if Rie had asked why the sky was blue. She leapt down onto the street, landing lightly, and the crowd backed up. But it was to Wiskeria the woman turned. She nodded and reached up to her hat.

“Wiskeria. I greet thee.”

“Mavika. Why are you here? I told you, I wasn’t coming.”

Wiskeria stared at Mavika, her face pale. Rie turned to stare at her.

“You know her? Wiskeria?”

“She’s a [Witch].”

The word repeated itself through the crowd, from person to person. [Witch]? [Witch]!

Witch. And Rie focused on the pointed hat on both women’s heads. And then she had a terrible premonition. A thought. But it was nothing to the look on Wiskeria’s face. Slowly, the young woman looked around. She met Durene’s gaze, then Mavika’s, and then looked around.

“Mavika. Did the coven come with you? This is my ground. You weren’t invited! Why are you here?

The bird-like [Witch] smiled. Bitterly, knowingly. With a crow’s mocking laughter hidden in her eyes. And a raven flew down among the crows and landed on her arm. Mavika reached up to stroke its head. And she said only this:

“It is not our coven, Wiskeria. There are six. The seventh is coming.”

She pointed. And every head turned. Silently, the folk of Riverfarm looked down the streets, towards the gates. And the last [Witch] arrived silently, and without fuss. And she was the most terrifying of them all.

 

 

Day 56 – Ryoka

 

After three days of running, Ryoka was relieved to see Riverfarm in the distance. She assumed it was the same village; it looked nothing like she remembered. Far too large and…but it was the right place, she was sure.

It had been a taxing run. So Ryoka smiled as she saw the village. Charlay was even more ecstatic. The Centauress let out a whoop of pleasure as she pointed at Riverfarm in the distance!

“Hah! We made it at last! I’ll race you to the gates! Last one there’s a stinky Selphid!”

She took off, racing ahead at full-speed. Ryoka blinked at her and then cursed.

“Hey! Charlay, damn it, wait—

She charged after Charlay, but the Centauress was a horse. Ryoka couldn’t catch up with her! The City Runner slowed. She wasn’t going to charge into the village huffing and panting. She needed a plan.

She’d come here to help Laken. And to find out what he’d done with Riverfarm, who he was since she’d left. Apparently he was a ways from the village, but Ryoka had to deliver the potions to a ‘Lady Rie’. Who was a real noble, apparently. Failing that, a Mister Prost. Ryoka remembered Prost’s name, but a [Lady]? She had to tread carefully. Figure out how she could introduce herself and help. If help was what she should do.

“I have to play it cool. Charlay will help with that. I’m just a Runner—unless they’re expecting me. What did Laken tell them?”

Ryoka murmured as she ran past a forest encroaching towards a road. She hadn’t thought this through enough. She couldn’t be old Ryoka. Then again, what was new Ryoka’s game? What could she do?

Suddenly, Ryoka stopped in the road. She didn’t know why. Only that the wind at her back had gone still. It had been blowing gently behind her. But all of a sudden it died. And the young woman felt a cold chill run down her spine.

There was no reason for it. One moment she was running, the next, her legs had stopped on her. Ryoka reached for the wind, but it was gone. Not rebellious, not refusing to listen to her.

Gone.

And the Runner girl realized she was no longer alone. It was a prickling of her thumbs, a tingling on the back of her neck. And as she turned, she saw them.

Dead bodies. Lying in the shadows of the trees. Men and women, hacked to pieces. Blood had run and dried, but the ground was still wet in places. And the forest held them.

It was a lovely, blue, clear, dry day. Ryoka stared at the dead bodies. A dozen had died, at least. She took a step back. She’d missed them, but there they lay. Bandits? Travellers? She looked around and felt it again.

Something was out there. The young woman reached for her belt and stopped. Her head turned. The dirt road was blank. Riverfarm seemed very far away in the distance. There was no one here.

But there was. The shadows seemed longer across the ground. The forest grew in the distance, and the branches of nearby trees reached for Ryoka. She looked around, and her skin crawled and the hairs on her body rose. Something was watching her.

Her missing fingers ached. Slowly, carefully, Ryoka let go of her belt knife and reached for something in her bag of holding. Her fingers came out holding a caltrop. Pure, cold iron. Ryoka tossed it to her other hand and reached back into her bag of holding. She came out with a cross, the tip sharpened like a stake.

It didn’t make her feel better. Something was out there, and Ryoka felt terribly, terribly cold. Too late, she remembered the run on the winter solstice. Not when she’d come to Riverfarm, but when she’d left it.

She had been in a forest then. Ryoka’s head slowly turned. The dead faces lying amongst the trees stared at her. She backed away, her heart pounding. She shouldn’t have come here. It was a trap.

Ryoka turned to run. And then she saw her. She was standing on the road in front of Ryoka, not a dozen paces away. She was so obvious that Ryoka didn’t know how she had missed her.

A tall woman straightened from one of the bodies. She wore dark clothing. Blue, no, black. Long and draping, a robe with ornamentation. But black colors upon darkness. Her hair was long. And her hat was wide enough to cast her entire body into shade. Its wide brim was ungainly but for how she wore it. And it was pointed.

The woman turned and Ryoka took a step back. Her hands were shaking. This was no specter or dream. This woman was real. But Ryoka felt it. The same feeling she sometimes got from Ivolethe. The feeling of the solstice. From Teriarch. Her fingers hurt.

The woman had seen her. She walked beneath the shade, abandoning the stain of red. Her stride was slow, unhurried. As she approached, Ryoka saw her face beneath the hat.

There was no expression on the woman’s face. Neither surprise, nor curiosity. Nor anger, not sadness. Just a blank stare. And her eyes—her eyes! Ryoka stared into them. They weren’t a normal person’s eyes.

The woman’s pupils were all wrong. She had not one, but multiple irises, each one smaller and smaller, disappearing into the center of her eyes. And in each iris, the color of her eyes was orange. A pumpkin’s color, the color of fire, carrots. Tiger’s stripes, rust. Black rings, dividing her eyes into ever-smaller irises.

Orange, glowing beneath the hat with more light than the sun had to offer.

Ryoka felt her breath coming in quick bursts. The caltrop was digging into her hand, the points drawing blood. The stake was slippery in her other hand. The woman stopped in front of her, and Ryoka realized she was taller than her. Not thin, not wide. But she seemed to block out the sun. She stared down at Ryoka. And then she inclined her head.

“Hello. A good day to you, City Runner.”

Her voice was deep. Quiet. And they had a reverberation, a subtle echo to them. But the words were normal. Ryoka started. She felt sweat running down her back. The woman stared down at her. After a moment, she looked up and gestured at the sky. She wore black gloves. No—black wrappings, a thin cloth wrapped around each finger and hand. Only the skin on her face was visible. The woman went on, staring up at the sky.

“A good day to travel upon any road. Dry. Although it should be raining. Thundering. But the skies are clear. It bodes ill.”

She looked down at Ryoka. Her tone was trying to be conversational. But there was nothing normal about her. Behind her, the bodies lay in death. The shadows seemed to slowly be moving. The woman stared at Ryoka. She glanced once at the caltrop and stake-cross. And then at Ryoka’s face as if they didn’t exist.

“I appear to be lost. May I ask directions? I seek Riverfarm.”

At last, Ryoka jerked. She stared at the woman, and the question snapped her out of her paralysis. Uncertainly, she lowered her hands. She let go of neither weapon, though. The woman was asking—? She stared past the woman at the dead people on the road.

“The bodies—”

The woman blinked slowly. Then her head turned. Ryoka saw her hair was black. She regarded the bodies as if she’d forgotten they existed. She turned back and nodded.

“They died where I found them. Recently, I think.”

Her tone was completely disinterested. As if the dead were leaves or branches. Ryoka stared up at the woman. She nodded.

“You just got here?”

“Yes. I am seeking Riverfarm. Do you know where it lies?”

The woman looked at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated.

“It’s behind you. Down the road.”

The woman’s head turned again. She regarded the village in the distance.

“I see. It was not here the last time I visited.”

That was all she said. There was no embarrassment, no pointing out it was in plain view. The woman turned to Ryoka.

“I thank you for your help, City Runner. I must continue my journey. I am late. A fair morning to you. A pleasure to meet someone on the road.”

Normal words. But those eyes. The feeling in her bones—Ryoka shuddered. The woman was just staring at her after saying her goodbyes. And Ryoka was sure she was something beyond just Human. Something like—Az’kerash?

Part of her wanted to run. But the rest had to ask. Ryoka took a shaky breath.

“I—uh—no problem. I’m—my name is—Ryoka Griffin. What’s yours?”

She wondered if that was a mistake. But the woman didn’t react to Ryoka’s name. She just waited and then replied.

“I am called Belavierr.”

“Nice to meet you.”

A pause.

“A fair day’s greetings, yes.”

The two regarded each other. Ryoka warily, Belavierr as if…Ryoka was a perplexing obstacle. She didn’t seem to need to blink except when she chose. Ryoka took another breath.

“I uh—you have business in Riverfarm? Would you like to travel together, Mis—Belavierr?”

“I do not believe that would be wise. My mount does not tolerate strangers.”

“Mount?”

Ryoka stared at Belavierr. The woman nodded once.

“I rode here of course.”

She turned and gestured. Only then did Ryoka notice the horse. It was standing in the forest, pawing the ground and snorting quietly. It was a giant of an animal. Ryoka stared. How had she missed it? Belavierr turned and walked towards it. The animal had no saddle, but she hoisted herself up without missing a beat.

The stallion was black and huge, a beast of an animal that could put a warhorse to shame for sheer size. But the woman was tall enough herself and with that hat, she cut a dramatic figure riding on it.

“I thank you for your help, City Runner.”

Belavierr looked flatly at Ryoka and repeated the line word for word, without emotion or inflection. So saying, she turned, and the horse began to walk ahead, down the road towards Riverfarm. Ryoka thought that was it. But the woman remained turned in her seat.

Staring at Ryoka. Her ringed eyes never left Ryoka’s face. And the young woman was held by the gaze. The horse walked forwards, but Belavierr kept staring. For a minute, three, seven—until she was a distant shape heading towards Riverfarm. Only then, far, far in the distance, did she turn.

Ryoka felt the moment the woman’s eyes left her. She shuddered, and only then did the wind return, blowing against her back. She heard a buzzing sound, dodged backwards reflexively, and saw a large insect with too many legs flying towards the bodies. She smelled the scent of iron in the air, and death. Ryoka gagged, and then stared down the road.

A distant horse and rider were heading towards the village. Ryoka stared at Belavierr’s back. At the dead people. Then she looked down the road. She could run. She could leave. But—Charlay was in Riverfarm. She’d taken the request. And Belavierr wasn’t the three strangers in the forest. She wasn’t Az’kerash. Or Teriarch. Or Ivolethe.

But she was something. And Ryoka didn’t know what. But she had a guess. She stared down at her hands. Blood ran from where the caltrop had dug into her hand.

‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.’ Fuck. Laken, what have you done?”

Then she ran towards Riverfarm. When she arrived, it was in time to see Belavierr walking down the main street. And as Ryoka drew closer, she felt the same presence. The same feeling that the shadows were moving around her.

Rehanna, lying on the ground, her burnt flesh on the doorknob. The blood of Emmett running down the main square of Riverfarm. A crowd, staring at the overturned cauldron. Prost, Rie, Durene, and Wiskeria, confronting the woman as crows circled overhead. This was the tableau. Only, it wasn’t a quiet stage. The people were beginning to scream at the [Witch], Mavika. Some were calling for Beniar, and he was riding forwards, escorting a giant of a woman. Multiple events, coming into confluence.

But it was Mavika’s pointing finger who drew the attention to her. The lone figure on horseback. She walked down the street calmly, sedately. But her presence drew all that had followed before her into silence.

Clop. Clip. Clop. She rode into the center of Riverfarm, down the street in the center of all of it. Belavierr rode straight for the crowd, and the people parted nervously. But the woman, against expectations, stopped. She dismounted from her horse and patted it. With everyone watching, the woman whispered in the horse’s ear and it trotted back the way it had come, to graze on some grass outside the village. Then, she turned and looked around.

Her eyes glowed beneath the hat. The people shuddered. But Belavierr took no notice. She stared through them, and her gaze focused on only one person.

Wiskeria. The young woman stood in the crowd, and Wiskeria’s face went pale. She turned away from Mavika. Durene, standing next to her, heard her whisper.

“It can’t be. Why is she here?”

“Who?”

Durene, bewildered, looked at Wiskeria. But the [Witch] didn’t answer. Mavika however, did.

“At last.”

She walked past Wiskeria, past Rie and Prost and the crowd. They sprang away from her as the crows flew low, following their mistress. Belavierr paused. And then another person stepped out of the frozen world. Hedag walked past Beniar and Geram. A young woman strolled down the street. She joined the three, making them four.

A pair followed them. An older woman and a child, who raised her pointed hat to Mavika and received the same. And lastly, an old woman, who greeted the other six with a smile. Then, all of them looked back down the street. And when they walked, it was together.

A young woman—no, a girl who might have been fifteen, wearing a dark blue hat with a wrinkle near the tip. Leading her, a stern-faced woman, her hat properly black, but a lighter shade of it, as were her robes, made for riding and travel, walking forwards without regard to whomever was in the way.

The short, smiling, elderly woman who’d been sipping at tea. Her hat appeared on her grey locks, decorated with still-fresh sunflower heats, a friendly grey hat betokened with color. She strolled along, her face wrinkled, pleasant, her gait quicker to keep up with the others.

The hunched figure who’d cast a curse. A flock of black birds circled overhead as she walked. Her hat was black as shade, bearing a crow which cawed as it fluttered its wings, dislodging a feather.

A young woman with pale, pink eyes strode forwards. She wore a purple, professionally-tailored hat, narrower and sloped, to prevent it leaving her head at speed. She carried a broom on one shoulder, and her steps were light.

Next to her strode a giant of a woman, nearly as tall as Durene and with arms heavy with muscle. Her smile like sunshine, warm and glowing, but with harsh brilliance hidden beneath. Her hat was brown and worn, a travelling companion. Stained with dark liquid in places.

And in the middle of them, the woman who did not belong. Who made the shadows twitch. Her hat was wide, blue as the depths of the ocean, so unfathomably dark as to be close to black, and old as she was. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes never left Wiskeria’s.

Seven of them. They walked down the street, small and tall, old and young, smiling and silent. Shoulder-to-shoulder.  And their pointed hats marked them.

Witches.

They stopped in the street, ignoring the folk of Riverfarm, Rie, Prost, even Durene. It was Wiskeria who they looked at. And each [Witch] stepped forwards, one after another from…youngest to oldest? The girl was first.

Nanette. She trembled, aware of the eyes on her as she raised her hat and bowed at the same time.

“W-witch Wiskeria? I tip my hat to thee.”

Alevica winked, and simply raised her hat an inch, grinning with amusement at Wiskeria.

“Heya Wis, I tip my hat to you.”

Next, Miss Califor, whose delivery was as smooth and precise as Nanette’s had been stuttering.

“Witch Wiskeria, I tip my hat to thee.”

After her, Hedag. The woman boomed as she swept her hat off, revealing her hair.

“Young Wiskeria! I tip my hat.”

Eloise was next. The old woman bowed as she tipped her hat, her voice kind.

“Wiskeria, a pleasure. I tip my hat to you, child.”

Second-last was Mavika. And her gaze was familiar, and she raised her hat silently, dislodging the crow.

“Wiskeria, to thee my hat I tip.”

Then it was Belavierr’s turn. She stepped forwards and all but Wiskeria stepped back. Her face was expressionless. It had not changed one whit this entire time, not in greeting the others, or before. But Ryoka, panting, standing next to Charlay in the back, saw something happen as Belavierr raised her hat. Her features changed ever so slightly. She—smiled.

“Daughter, I tip my hat to thee.”

Ryoka thought it was a smile. It was awkward on her face, and gone in a flash. But she had seen it. So had Wiskeria. The [Witch] faced the seven as Belavierr stepped back. And she hesitated. Her hand rose to her hat. Then it stopped.

“What are you all doing here?”

The [Witches] paused. Mavika frowned darkly and Eloise looked rueful. Hedag just shook her head. Miss Califor’s disapproval was written on hers. Nanette looked terrified. Alevica just grinned wider. Wiskeria looked from face to face. Belavierr’s was the last she focused on.

“This is not your ground, mother. And this isn’t your coven! This is my land! I refused to join my coven! Mavika! Why are you here? To drag me to my coven? Let alone Witch Eloise and Hedag! How far did you come?”

She stared at the two women on her left. Hedag laughed.

“Far enough that I should have brought a horse!”

Eloise just smiled and shook her head.

“We came by invitation, Wiskeria.”

“Whose? Not mine! Did the coven invite you? Why is only Mavika here? She attacked a member of Riverfarm! And Hedag—! Where’s Thallisa? Why would she allow this?”

Wiskeria turned red. She raised her voice to the point of shouting, glaring at each [Witch] in turn. Eloise exchanged a glance with Mavika, and the bird-[Witch]’s expression was dark. It was Miss Califor who tsked, looking annoyed.

“Mind your tongue, Witch Wiskeria. We have travelled far and at inconvenience to be here. I would have expected a proper greeting from you. But if you insist—Witch Thallisa will not be coming. Nor will any of your coven save Mavika. That is half of why we are here.”

“What? Why?”

For answer, all the [Witches] present looked to Belavierr. And Alevica’s grin faded. Hedag lowered the axe on her shoulder to the ground and leaned on it. Eloise lowered her hat’s brim.

And Belavierr? She lifted something up. She had not been holding it a second before, but now her hands were full. And what she held was a hat.

It was pointed. Green, forest green. A smaller hat than the one she wore, classically pointed, tied with a yellow ribbon around the base. Wiskeria’s eyes widened when she saw it.

“That’s—Mamie’s—”

She looked up, her face suddenly pale. Belavierr met her daughter’s eyes. Slowly, she turned the hat. And Wiskeria saw the hole around the brim of the hat. The faded, dried blood.

The street was still. Ryoka, staring at the hat in Belavierr’s hands, understood what it meant. Everyone did. A [Witch]’s hat. Wiskeria took it as her mother offered it to her, her hands shaking. She stared at the hole, and then at Mavika.

“How—why wasn’t I told? When did it happen? Who did this?

Her voice broke on the last words. The bird-[Witch] didn’t reply. Slowly, Mavika looked up. And a crow swooped down. And dropped something into her hands.

The second hat fell slowly. And it was small. A red hat, for a smaller head than an adult would have. Red, fancy. Torn across the tip twice. Mavika caught it and held it out. Wiskeria stared at it, face now completely bloodless.

“Tillica?”

She jerked as Hedag, reached to the pack she carried and brought something out. A yellow hat, or at least, it had been, stained by many years and time. And at the end, blood. By her side, Alevica reached into her bag of holding and brought out another hat. Eloise, Califor, even Nanette, her hands shaking. And it wasn’t just one. Belavierr lifted a second hat. And then a third. She placed them on the ground; Wiskeria was frozen.

Hat after hat. Pointed, rounded, old and new. Twenty of them in the end. They sat on the ground, torn, broken, bloody. Some were in pieces, barely recognizable. Others could have been store-bought. Ryoka stared at the line of hats, neatly lined up. And her skin crawled.

“What happened?”

Wiskeria’s lips were bloodless. Mavika was the one she turned to first, and then, slowly, to Belavierr. Her mother’s face hadn’t changed as the hats were placed on the ground, and hers had been the only one. Alevica had bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood, and Califor had drawn a shaking Nanette to her. The other [Witches] waited as Belavierr spoke.

“A fortnight past, the Marshlands Coven was called upon by strangers. Without Witch Mavika, Witch Thallisa, and Witch Wiskeria they met and were made an offer. They refused. And they died. Witch Mavika found those responsible and delivered vengeance on those who bloodied their blades. Not the ones who made the offer. That is not the business we are here for today, daughter.”

She turned her head, regarding the [Witches] on her right and left. Wiskeria stared up at Belavierr, and her mother nodded once. She turned and looked around, and her gaze found every face in the crowd.

“We call upon Witch Wiskeria to join us in a coven. And we claim the rights of travellers to stay in Riverfarm. We claim sanctuary. We shall remain here until his Majesty, Emperor Laken, may meet with us. We have matters of importance to discuss. An offer. A bargain to be made. While we wait, we shall offer our services.”

She raised one hand and a needle appeared. It was made of bone, polished and worn and Ryoka shuddered to see it. The other [Witches] nodded. Hedag with her axe, Mavika holding a bird on one arm. Miss Califor and Nanette standing together. Eloise sighing and adjusting her hat filled with flowers. Alevica winked at Ryoka in the crowd.

And Wiskeria, holding the hat, looked around, lost, and then at her mother. Ryoka saw a familiar look on Wiskeria’s face too, though she had never met the [Witch] before. But she understood the look on the daughter’s face as she gazed up at her mother.

Belavierr paused as she gazed around. She seemed uncertain for a moment. And everyone waited for something else to leave her lips. She eventually nodded, awkwardly.

“…Good morning to you all.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.36 E

(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)

 

Day 55 – Durene

 

Help was on the way. That was the thought that Durene held in her head when she woke in her cottage. It propelled her out of bed, and had her rummaging through the pack of food that Prost had provided her with last night. It made eggs, fresh from Riverfarm’s chickens, fried new potatoes grown from Riverfarm’s fields and uh, got water from the creek that fed Riverfarm’s river.

Okay, it was just a good mood. But Durene welcomed it. She had spoken to Laken. Not face-to-face, and he was yet far away, doing things with Goblin prisoners and she was not happy about that. But she’d missed him. It felt like now, she knew that he remembered her. Was thinking of her.

It mattered a lot. Durene dumped a bucket of water in what was supposed to be her pig’s trough. It was her bucket, so it filled the trough halfway and woke the new occupant of her cottage’s fenced-in perimeter. Bismarck yawned, exposing rows of yellowed teeth, and padded over to the trough for a drink. Durene eyed him, and the Mossbear sniffed the air. He tried to proceed towards the cottage for breakfast—Durene caught him.

“No. That’s my breakfast, Bismarck. You can have these potatoes.”

She dumped a small pile on the ground, and the bear sniffed them. Then he sniffed the air and decided fried potatoes and eggs sounded a lot better. He padded towards the cottage—this time Durene wrapped her arms around his midsection.

“I said, no.

The Mossbear, affronted and surprised, looked back at Durene. He made a gaoing sound and pulled. Durene, her feet slipping in the wet soil, pulled back. And both she and Bismarck had an unpleasant surprise.

He was strong! Durene had met few things in this world that could really bother her. Wagons, trees, even Hobgoblins had felt weaker than her. But Bismarck was a Mossbear, bigger than regular bears. And heDurene slipped across the ground, and then pulled back, harder.

The bear was surprised too. He wasn’t used to anything being able to hold him in place, or get in his way, come to that. He strained to go forwards, and Durene hauled him back.

Stay. Bad Bismarck! Stay—

That was when it began to rain. Again. Both the Mossbear and half-Troll girl looked up as the clouds opened up. A downpour instantly soaked both, and the potatoes. Bismarck eyed Durene and the cottage, and then the pile of wet potatoes on the ground. Durene bared her teeth. The Mossbear considered his chances of getting into the hut, then dejectedly padded over to his potatoes, and began wolfing them down. Durene sighed.

It was the beginning of another day.

 

—-

 

Another day. But a better one. As Durene dried herself, she remembered yesterday and smiled. By the time Wiskeria entered the cottage, dripping with water, Frostwing was eating his raw meat and Durene had food.

“Morning, Wiskeria.”

“Hello, Durene. It’s another rainy day.”

The [Witch] sighed as she shook water from her clothes and hat onto the floor. Durene was about to ask if she needed a towel, and then she noticed Wiskeria wasn’t actually wet. The water slid from her garments leaving a dry, if hungry, [Witch] behind.

“Wow. Is that magic? Here. Want some eggs and potatoes?”

Wiskeria sat down at the table, smiling slightly. She accepted the food and ate ravenously; Durene joined her a moment later with a much larger plate of her own food. Frostwing pecked at her bowl of meat and balefully eyed the egg-eaters.

“It’s magic. Not magic robes; just a little charm against water. Good thing I put it on the tent or I’d have been soaked this morning. I think it’s wearing off, though; I got a few drips.”

Wiskeria pointed out Durene’s window. The half-Troll [Farmer] glanced outside.

“Huh. Charms? Is that like regular spells? I don’t know much about magic.”

“It’s small magic. Spells are quick to cast and last…hours at best, usually. Charms require a bit more work. For a charm against water, I sprinkle some dust over the tent and make it deflect water. It lasts for a few days, so if I forget to apply it, I get soaked. Same for the hat and clothes.”

“That’s so handy.”

Not powerful, though. Just handy. Durene could be as happily dry as Wiskeria with a towel and a minute of work. The [Witch] nodded, eating fast.

“Small magics. I have a lot of them. It’s not as good as casting [Barrier of Air] or something like a [Mage], but it’s pretty good. That’s how my class does magic, anyways. We get other things in return.”

“You mean, like bringing dead crow heads back to life?”

Durene stared across the table. Wiskeria paused with some potato stuffed into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, and slowly looked outside.

“Uh…yes. If we want to. [Witches] learn a lot of disciplines. General magic, alchemy, hexes, charms, beast taming, even fighting skills—”

“Necromancy.”

“I don’t know any spells to raise the dead.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I really don’t. Look, [Witches] aren’t all the same, Durene. We’re—it’s a wide class.”

Flustered, Wiskeria adjusted the hat on her head. She never took it off, even indoors. She wiped her spectacles on her robes and Durene let the matter drop.

“So what’re you going to do today? Prost and Rie say they’re going to make an announcement this morning. In the village. Want to come?”

The [Witch] hesitated, and her good mood palpably faded a bit. Durene just stared at her. Wiskeria mumbled as she finished her plate.

“Maybe. I could…come by.”

“Laken asked you to.”

Another pause.

“Yes, he did. I’ll think about it.”

And there was another thing. Yesterday, Wiskeria’s answer would have been a flat rejection, Durene was sure. But she’d been in the room with Durene and heard Laken’s [Message]. He’d asked her to help, and the [Witch] looked bothered as she glanced out Durene’s window again. Because, as different as she was from Durene, with her quick wits, magic, and now, deep guilt, she and Durene shared the same thing that bound them together in unlikely ways.

Loyalty. Durene had been glad to see it yesterday—surprised that she saw it in Rie’s face—and relieved herself. Something, someone was coming that would make things better. But just as importantly, Durene had realized what she needed to do while Laken was away. Keep Riverfarm safe. And with that in mind, she felt energized today. Durene got up and put both plates away. She looked at Wiskeria.

“If you’re coming, do it soon. I’m going into the village. With Frostwing. If she behaves herself.”

She reached for the bird and Frostwing squawked, but slowly hopped onto Durene’s arm. The bird pecked at a loose thread on Durene’s clothing, but didn’t scream or protest this time as Durene picked up an oiled cloak and held it over the bird. She walked over to the door.

“See you later?”

“Yeah.”

Wiskeria smiled as Durene left the cottage. She watched as the door closed, and the sudden shower of rain began to let up a tiny bit. The [Witch] stared around the cottage, sighed, then stood up as well.

 

—-

 

This morning, the people of Riverfarm broke from their routine for a gathering in the one building large enough to hold them. The village’s center, the meeting hall that doubled as the throne room of sorts. The carved throne that sat on a small dais on the other end of the room was unoccupied. And it had been for nearly two months.

Even so, the people who came to listen to Prost speak stared at it with the same expectant stare they had on day one. They were Riverfarm’s original folk, Windrest’s, the people of the villages who’d first come here. Not all of them; there were six hundred ‘original’ people. Loyal to their [Emperor].

Many had duties that called them away even before this early hour, but it still felt good to Durene to see them there. She stood next to the throne, listening to Prost speak. The [Steward] was a simple public speaker, but an efficient one; he wasted no one’s time.

“His majesty is but two weeks away. Maybe a bit more, maybe less—he’s still got all the [Engineer] teams with him. We just have to wait for him. He is being escorted by two [Lords] after all.”

The people in the meeting hall nodded reluctantly. They’d been hopeful, but not exactly unpleasantly surprised by the [Message] from Laken. Durene gathered that this update on his progress wasn’t new by now. Prost let the murmurs die down before turning to Durene.

“One last thing. Our Durene’s awake and fully recovered from her injury. You may have seen her on her feet these last few days—she can be hard to miss. She’ll be helping around Riverfarm as she might—and it’ll be a help, you can be sure! Yesterday, she and Beniar caught the [Thief] who’d been stealing for the last few weeks!”

That garnered a lot more interest. Everyone turned to Durene and she blushed as a small cheer rose from the crowd. But then a man shouted from the crowd. It was Mister Ram, the [Rancher].

“We finally caught that bastard! When’re we giving him a beating, Prost? Or is it just exile? He deserves more than that if you ask me!”

There was a swell of agreement from the crowd. Prost grimaced as he raised a hand. Rie wasn’t here; Durene guessed she was tending to the rest of the village.

“There’s no beating being done, Mister Ram. Or exile—yet. We know who the [Thief] was, and he’s high-level, but figuring out the exact punishment will take a bit. He’s being confined in his house under watch, so I don’t want anyone doing anything until Lady Rie and I pass formal judgment. What’s important is that the thefts will stop, at least, from him.”

That didn’t sit well with the crowd. There was a lot of frowning, and then a woman called out.

“Why not? That man stole from our [Traders]—stole money we made for the village!”

“There’s complications, Miss Prise, the man’s from Lancrel—”

“So? They came to Riverfarm, they have to obey the laws, same as everyone else! What makes this [Thief] so different?”

Durene, watching, saw most of the villagers nodding. She nodded as well; there was only one recourse for a [Thief]. Either you taught them a lesson so they stopped for good, or they had to leave the village. In a small community, you couldn’t have people like that. Prost just grimaced.

“It’s not that simple. The [Thief] that Durene helped catch? It’s Master Elmmet.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then a roar of outrage from the crowd. Durene blinked as fury swept over the familiar faces. Ram shouted out, his face red.

“That snooty [Councilman]? And the Lancrel lot said the [Thief] wouldn’t ever be one of theirs! Just goes to show! Let’s tar and feather the bastard and run him out today! I’ll get the tar myself! Who’s with me?”

Half the men and women in the room shouted, and some seemed ready to do it right this instant. On the dais, Prost shouted for silence, then gave up. He put two fingers in his mouth and issued a piercing whistle. Everyone, Durene included, clapped their hands to their ears. Frostwing, who’d been content to perch on Durene’s shoulder, shrieked happily in accord.

“No one’s punishing Elmmet for anything, so get that out of your heads. Especially you, Ram. He’s under guard.”

“Put him in the stocks and let us throw some rocks! Under guard in his home? You’re not treating him special on account of him being from the city, are you, Prost?”

Ram’s glare bounced off Prost. The [Steward] frowned, and Ram, realizing he might have gone too far, hesitated. Prost’s voice shut down every murmur as he replied with iron in his tone.

“Not at all. But Lancrel’s folk are insisting their [Councilman] did nothing wrong. Never mind that he was caught by Beniar. They insist it was a setup—”

Another roar of outrage. Prost shouted over them.

“I know, I know! Shut up all of you! We’ve got work to do—stop acting like wet-bottomed babes before I spank the lot of you!”

The affronted crowd shut up. Prost, breathing heavily, glared at them.

“That’s what Lancrel’s lot says. But they’re not in charge and justice will be done, I promise you. What we’re doing is—we’re setting up a trial. With a truth stone. Lady Rie sent for one from her estates, and it’ll be here by the end of today. Tomorrow, we’ll be having a public trial for Master Elmmet to show everyone he was the [Thief]. His sentence will be handled then.”

The angry crowd quieted a bit. A woman shouted out as she lifted a girl up to see Prost from the back.

“What if Lancrel’s folk don’t want him punished? There’s more’ve them than us, Prost. Them and the other villagers who came here. They’ve been saying they deserve the best houses and more consideration—as if we weren’t here first!”

Durene saw more aggrieved nods. Prost sighed.

“They can say what they want. But justice will be done tomorrow. I’ll be handling the trial myself. You’re all free to watch. With that said—we have jobs to do! There might be rain, but I want more fields being plowed and sown! And we’re putting up more houses for our crafts folk! That means more of you all will be doing your primary class’s job soon enough! Think of that and don’t let me catch any of you starting a fight with Lancrel’s folk! They’ll be here right after you, and they’ll hear exactly what you said.”

“Us? Start fights?”

Ram looked innocently around. Prost glared.

“That’s all for now. Anyone who’s got a complaint? Find me when I’m checking in on you! Get to work!”

Grumbling, but good-naturedly, the villagers dispersed. Durene watched the back of the crowd begin to troop out of the room with no more than a few complaints. They were hardy folk, the [Farmers] and [Woodcutters] and so on. And more than a few stopped to greet Durene. The first was a bald man with huge arms and an apron.

“Durene! Dead gods, girl, it’s good to see you.”

He spread his arms and gave Durene a hug. She grinned and hugged him back.

“Mister Helm!”

The [Blacksmith] beamed as he stepped back. He was one of the leaders of Windrest, a respected man and the highest-level [Blacksmith] in Riverfarm at the moment. He shook his head as a small crowd gathered around Durene.

“I didn’t think anything could keep you down more than a day, girl. When I heard your wound got infected—it’s a terrible thing. But you’re back and in a day, you caught that damn [Thief]! And that slimy Elmmet no less! He’d have never been able to get away with it for so long if his Majesty were here.”

Durene nodded soberly. Laken would have sensed Elmmet stealing right off. Helm sighed, but then he adjusted his belt.

“Not long now until he gets back, though. I’m looking forwards to it—he can restore order. Not that Prost and Lady Rie don’t do a good enough job, but Emperor Laken—he’s the one who can get things moving. There’s always more houses that need putting up, I’d like half a dozen more hands helping me churn out what Riverfarm needs—get us ore instead of having us having to smelt or buy the damn stuff ourselves—”

Someone elbowed Helm in the side and forced him back. Another woman stepped up, scowling at the [Blacksmith].

“Don’t monopolize Durene with your complaints, Helm! How are you, Miss Durene? Ignore Helm. He hasn’t changed from Windrest. When Emperor Laken comes back, kicking Helm into shape’ll be his hardest task, I have no doubt.”

“How dare you, Mallie! You think I haven’t been working from dawn till dusk?”

Helm spluttered at the [Washerwoman] as she shook Durene’s hand with two of her own, smiling. More of the villagers crowded around and Durene, surprised and touched by the affection, shook hands and exchanged hugs, trying not to blush.

She failed. Durene liked Windrest’s folk. They didn’t have any baggage with her past, and they’d known her and Laken for months before the battle at Lancrel. She didn’t know them all of course, and some of the villagers in this meeting were here just to meet Durene.

“I…saw you, didn’t I? When the army of his—er, Emperor Godart—sent them to fight the Goblins harassing our village. You were with them. I’m Miss Baker. A pleasure. Miss Durene?”

A small woman peered up at Durene, looking cautious, but managing a smile. Durene nodded.

“I’m a [Paladin], Miss Baker. I uh, I fought with the army. I might be doing that again, but today I’ll be helping out.”

“Oh! A [Paladin]? I’ve never heard of that class. What is it about, please?”

The woman’s eyes widened respectfully. Durene felt a surge of pride and a smile flashed around those in the know. Durene used the easiest explanation she knew.

“A [Paladin] is a special a kind of [Knight] that serves [Emperors], Miss Baker. A bit more than that, but you could think of them as…a [Knight] among [Knights].”

“Amazing. And you’re…I mean, will we have [Knights] when his Majesty returns? There’s that dashing [Cataphract], and he’s as good as any [Knight]. Adventurer Beniar.”

Miss Baker’s eyes were shining at the prospect. Durene felt a flutter in her chest at the thought. Hadn’t Laken thought about that? No, wait—he’d complained that he’d given most of his titles, including knighthoods, to the Frost Faeries.

“I imagine Laken could knight a few people, Miss Baker. If they were deserving.”

“Amazing.”

The woman shook her head. The others nodded proudly or with the same amazement. [Steward], [Paladin]—no, they even had a [Lady] among them! It was more than any of them would dream of in their normal lives.

Durene was smiling and introducing herself to the last of the people as the crowd slowly filed out of the meeting hall when there was a pause, and then a susurration through those still in the building. The people at the doors paused and a space cleared. And walking through them came a young woman with a familiar blue hat.

Wiskeria. Durene looked up and a silence fell over the room. The [Witch]’s face was pale, but she looked around the room as she walked into the center of it. Prost, talking to Helm and a few of the villagers with authority, looked over and his eyes widened. Wiskeria gulped and spoke.

“Hello everyone.”

“Wiskeria.”

Durene breathed her name, and she wasn’t the only one. Every eye focused on the [Witch], and Durene, looking across the crowd, saw a mix of emotions. Surprise, sadness, a flash of anger on a few faces—but generally, just uncertainty. The [Witch] tugged on her hat, and then, slowly, took it off. She looked around the room as her dark hair fell slightly.

“I’m sorry for—I’m sorry I haven’t been more active of late. I’d like to change that, help where I may. I’m not reforming the army. Beniar will be handling things with his Darksky Riders until Emperor Laken returns. But I do want to help.”

Silence greeted her statement. Durene held her breath, looking around the room. To her, Wiskeria had nothing to apologize for. Nothing—but then Durene remembered the cemetery. And she couldn’t bring herself to be the first one to speak.

Nor could Prost, apparently. He hesitated, and opened his mouth uncertainly. But before he could speak, someone else pushed her way through the crowd.

A girl. She was young, a village child from her trousers and general appearance. She marched right up to Wiskeria as the [Witch] put on her hat and stared up at her. Wiskeria stared back, uncertainly. The girl looked Wiskeria up and down and then asked in a loud, carrying voice, as only a child could do.

“What’re you, Miss?”

Wiskeria blinked. The question wasn’t exactly rude, but it was a bit out of place.

“I’m a [Witch]. A [Witch] and a [General]. But mostly a [Witch]. My name is Wiskeria. What’s yours?”

The girl considered this.

“Agathy. Are you a bad [Witch], Miss? Mother says you’re not. But my brother, Randil, he followed you to kill the Goblins. And he never came back.”

And there it was. Durene paused, and in the crowd around her, the folk at the doors, the good mood was swept away and replaced by silence. Outside, the rain blew in, drenching those at the doors. But they held still, looking back at Wiskeria. The [Witch] hesitated. She tugged her pointed hat lower over her brow and knelt, bending down towards Agathy.

“I’d…like to think I’m not a bad [Witch], Agathy. But I don’t think I’m a very good one. I let your brother down.”

“Ma says it weren’t your fault. Nor his Majesty’s. She said—but who’s to blame? Them Goblins?”

Agathy stared at Wiskeria. Her voice was loud, strident even. Bordering on accusatory. Wiskeria hesitated.

“I was the [General] in charge of the army. We were fighting Goblins, but I should have led better. I’m sorry.”

The little girl nodded. Durene was…surprised to see her not crying. But it had been fifty-five days since then. It felt like yesterday to Durene. She closed her eyes. Then Agathy looked up uncertainly.

“Was he brave?”

A tremble entered her bold tone. A quaver. And the room waited on Wiskeria’s response. The [Witch] looked up. Perhaps some of those in the room had fought on that battlefield. Durene recognized some faces. She had been there. But she didn’t remember Agathy’s brother’s face. She didn’t even recognize his name. Wiskeria paused, and then she closed her eyes. Then she smiled down at Agathy.

“Oh yes. The bravest. I promise you that.”

“He was a hero.”

The statement was no question, but it begged for an answer. The little girl stared up at the [Witch]. And Wiskeria nodded. Agathy went on, her large eyes filled with no tears. But the words poured out, in a rush.

“He had a spear. A-and he practiced every day. He was a Level 14 [Warrior]. He killed a lot of Goblins, right?”

“Yes. And he helped the rest of us get away.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Agathy nodded. She stared up at Wiskeria. And then she looked lost.

“How did he—how did—”

She broke off and rubbed at one eye. At last, a woman came through the crowd. She had been wiping at her eyes. She pulled Agathy back. The girl protested, but quietly. The woman bowed to Wiskeria, hesitantly. The [Witch] looked down, then forced herself to meet the woman’s eyes.

“I’m Agelica. Agathy’s mother. And Randil’s. Please forgive Agathy.”

“No, it’s perfectly…I’m sorry Miss Agelica.”

The woman shook her head, her eyes bright.

“We know you did your best, General. And you had the wrong orders. Emperor Laken didn’t order that charge. It was someone else. A traitor, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.”

The word came from Prost. He stood on the dais, looking down at Wiskeria. He met the eyes of every person as he slowly turned around the room.

“Emperor Laken didn’t order the attack. Someone did. Knocked out Nesor. Wiskeria did the best with the information she had. But we’ll find that traitor. Wiskeria, it’s good to see you.”

She nodded to him. But when she turned to Miss Agelica, the [Witch] could only bow, to her and her daughter.

“I’m sorry. Your son was a hero. If he hadn’t fought, more of us wouldn’t have escaped.”

Agelica nodded. With dignity, holding Agathy’s hand, she turned to go. Durene let out the sigh she’d been holding. Too quickly. Frostwing fluttered in alarm as someone stormed past her. Another woman, wearing a dress, pointed a finger at Wiskeria.

“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t bring back the dead!”

“Miss Rehanna.”

Prost called out sharply. Durene recognized her, although it took a second. She had been one of the villagers who’d refused to accept Laken’s rule when she’d came to Riverfarm. Durene had disliked the woman’s ingratitude then. And she hadn’t changed. The woman stormed up to Wiskeria as the [Witch] turned.

“You have some nerve, showing your face here after what you did. You were the [General]. You should have won! Or—or retreated sooner! Instead, there were thousands dead! From Riverfarm and every village, city, and town that your [Emperor] levied troops from! How dare you come in here and—”

She flinched as Durene put a hand on her shoulder. The half-Troll girl glared down at her. Durene’s voice boomed around the hall.

“Wiskeria saved as many lives as she could, Miss. It wasn’t her fault someone lied to her. She fought the Goblins! You weren’t there—”

“Durene.”

Wiskeria looked at her warningly. Rehanna spun, her eyes flaring with hatred. Hatred and disgust.

“So what if I wasn’t? I can say what we’re all thinking. If it weren’t for her, our people might not have died at Lancrel! And for what? A bunch of city-folk who come here and steal our food while complaining all the while? If we’d had a proper leader in charge instead of this—”

The woman cut off as Durene clenched a fist. Durene made no other move, but it was a big fist. Rehanna backed up. Durene glared at her.

“Don’t you dare insult her. You weren’t fighting. You weren’t there! How can you insult Wiskeria?”

“Durene. Enough.”

Someone pulled at Durene’s shoulder. Prost. He couldn’t move her, but he interposed himself between her and Rehanna. He glanced up at Durene and shook his head.

“Wiskeria isn’t to blame, that’s right enough, Durene. But Miss Rehanna’s entitled to her grief. Her husband was among those that fought at Lancrel.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly, Durene’s righteous anger burnt out in her chest. She stared at Rehanna. The woman’s face was red as she glared at Durene. She pointed a shaking finger at Wiskeria.

“My husband followed that bitch into battle. For your [Emperor]. I warned him. I told him what would happen, but he didn’t listen. And he died.”

Without another word she turned and stormed out of the room. No one spoke for a long while after that. At last, Wiskeria bowed her head.

“I’m sorry. I can’t make up for what happened. I did what I could. I know that’s not enough, but let me help if you can accept it.”

Prost nodded tiredly. He looked about, and clapped his hands.

“Everyone, back to work. We’ve wasted enough time as it is. Tell everyone who’s working in the village on the second shift to come by when the sun’s overhead.”

He marched towards the door, ordering the first wave of people to the fields and the early-morning work. But, tellingly, he didn’t stop a small crowd who lingered around Wiskeria. A man stepped towards the [Witch], taking off his wide farmer’s hat.

“I don’t know if you’ll remember her, Miss Wiskeria. But if you’ve a moment—do you remember my girl? Iglief? She was an [Archer]. Caught an arrow or so I heard. I…I’d like to know if that’s what happened.”

“Of course.”

Wiskeria turned and bowed to him. She looked up once, at Durene. And the half-Troll girl silently stepped away. Wiskeria turned to the [Farmer] and the moment of hesitation was so quick that only Durene noticed it.

“Iglief? I remember her. She had—blonde hair, right?”

She looked at the man. He ran a hand through his dark blonde hair and nodded, looking relieved.

“That’s her. As fair as wheat. And a clear shot with a bow. She could kill a rat at a hundred paces with it.”

Wiskeria closed her eyes.

“Of course. She would’ve been with our archers. The Goblins overran the right. Before Lord Pellmia came, they had to fight and hold them back as we were retreating. Your daughter—”

She looked at the [Farmer]. Durene, walking towards the door with Frostwing, saw the man bow his head. Wiskeria reached out and he took Wiskeria’s hand. Shook it. When he moved away, it was slowly, but he put on his hat and headed past Durene towards the doors, and there was a firmness in his step. The next person, an old woman, stepped up and urgently grabbed at the hem of Wiskeria’s robe. The [Witch] turned to her.

There she stood, surrounded by people who’d lost someone. All asking, wanting to know how the dead had fallen. And the [Witch] gave one answer. Heroically.

It was a lie and it was the truth. It was the only answer any decent person could give. And Wiskeria, as she adjusted her spectacles, tugged on her hat, bowed, and lied and told the truth, looked both relieved and in more pain than Durene could ever remember seeing someone. But she had stopped running. So Durene left her to it.

 

—-

The rest of the day, Durene worked. Not in bits or pieces, lending a hand here or catching a [Thief], but actually got down and worked. It wasn’t hard. There was no end of tasks to do, and Durene might be a [Paladin], but she was a [Farmer] too. Prost didn’t put her in any working group, so Durene did what she knew she could do best. Lift things.

She was in the farms first. Or rather, the group clearing new land for fields. The [Woodcutters] had cleared a huge amount of land, but in their hurry to acquire lumber for the new houses going up, they’d neglected to remove the stumps and roots.

That meant the grumbling [Farmers] not assigned to sowing or tilling had to handle it. Durene had the chance to chat with some of them. They were all cut from the same cloth; [Farmers] who worked in the small villages weren’t high-level by and large, but they all dreamed of getting that rare Skill, or having a few big harvests that helped them level up.

Many wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but they had more classes than just [Farmer]. You’d be a [Farmer] who specialized in a bit of [Blacksmithing] on the side for coin and to repair your tools, or one with a [Rancher] class, or perhaps a [Farmer] and a [Hunter].

They were hardy and their grumbling was largely good-natured as they worked in the rain, uprooting stones and roots and hauling them off to wagons. The wood could be dried and used as firewood or bits for the [Carvers] and the stones were good for laying foundations or a cobblestone street, maybe. Durene knew it was a good sign that they were working with a will even in the rain.

“It ain’t nothing hard. In fact, I’d say I’m happier here then at my old farm, for all I miss it dearly. It’s a small place up north—but I’ll admit, it does my heart good seeing all those shoots coming up. I wish I had that Skill, but I’ll be content helping out until I level up.”

One old [Farmer], Rickmeld, chatted as Durene carefully dug around a large stump in the ground. He pulled some dirt back with a hoe, and Durene nodded.

“You like it here, Mister Rickmeld?”

“Compared to being ate by a Goblin for lunch? Yes I do! But there’s more’n that. I just need to work and I don’t have to worry about food. I wasn’t a married man, but now instead of having to cook, I get someone with [Advanced Cooking] making my meals. And my bed! Feels like the softest cotton when I lie down. That’s spoiling me; I don’t know that I’d return, even if my farm magically rebuilt itself. If it weren’t for all these upstuck city folk, I’d be happy as my pigs. I can’t wait to meet this [Emperor] everyone’s telling me about.”

The [Farmer] sighed as he and Durene finally got under the stump. Durene nodded.

“Lancrel folk, huh? What’re they like?”

Rickmeld eyed Durene and sucked his teeth thoughtfully. He might have been wondering if she were a spy for Prost—Durene was not—but he answered anyways, with a [Farmer]’s bluntness.

“Upstuck. Like I said. Can’t handle rain, complain about sleeping in the big storage rooms and barns—as if we didn’t all do that! Worst is the rich folks, or the ones who were rich. They keep demanding to get houses first, and saying that there should be privileges. What’re they offering? Some of ‘em are decent, but the worst are the [Mayors].”

“[Mayors]?”

He nodded.

“[Mayors], [Aides], [Councilwomen]—you know the sort. We didn’t have a [Mayor] in our village, just a [Headwoman] and she was alright. But a lot of the places that fled the Goblins had people whose class was in leadership. People of importance.

He spat. Durene, about to bend over, eyed the spit on the stump and sighed. Rickmeld looked apologetic.

“Rain’ll get that. Anyways, they’ve banded together. Formed a ‘governing body’, only, we’ve got that in Prost and Lady Rie. Prost is all we need if you ask me. He’s a right sort. Good [Farmer], knows his stuff. And Lady Rie! Why’d you need anyone to tell a [Lady] how to manage things?”

Durene thought about Lady Rie and grunted.

“This other group wants to, though?”

“They have suggestions. And they have a lot of folk who respect them or who’re displeased. I say let them leave, but I suppose it ain’t possible. Lancrel’s lot sticks together and listens to this body. And there’s a lot of them…”

Durene nodded. She saw the issue. There were two thousand people in Riverfarm and more stragglers incoming by the day. If there were more people like Rickmeld and Riverfarm’s own, they could tell the other groups where to shove it. But the group from Lancrel outnumbered the villagers two-to-one, never mind that the rural folk had started all this.

“Well, Laken will sort it out when he arrives. Until then, Rie can handle it. And Prost. And Beniar.”

“What about you? I hear you’re his Majesty’s er, consort. What’s a [Paladin] do all day?”

Durene shrugged, embarrassed.

“Help out. But I’m nothing special, Mister Rickmeld.”

So saying, she crouched, put her hand under the base of the stump, and heaved. The [Farmer] shielded his face as the roots of the tree ripped up out of the dirt in a shower. He gaped as Durene lifted the stump and roots up with one hand and wiped some dirt from her face with a grimace.

“I…see. Nothing special?”

His voice was faint. Durene shrugged.

“I’m a [Farmer]. The [Paladin] bit I’m working on, but I don’t quite know what to do. Hey, should I dump this on the wagon?”

She waved the stump at the other farmers as Frostwing flapped her wings and issued a complaint over the dirt covering her brilliant plumage. That was the morning. After a wet opening, the rain poured so hard the [Farmers] decided to take a break. Durene trooped into the village with them for a hot, warming meal inside one of the buildings the [Cooks] used to make and serve food. The [Farmers] went back out when the storm began to die down to a drizzle, and Durene decided she’d pulled up most of the big stumps. So she went to find the [Builders].

One team was being led by Beycalt, the [Forewoman] whom Durene had met the other day. She was only too glad to have Durene help unload the heavy, wet wagons. It gave her a chance to address some of the grumbling [Builders] in her crew.

“Working in the rain? Building in it? We should all be indoors!”

One man was simply unable to handle the light rain. He was protesting to Beycalt, and the woman was having none of it. She pointed as Durene trooped past her with some freshly-cut boards.

“It’s just rain. It doesn’t affect houses. And we can put a temporary shelter up when we start adding floorboards. I don’t know how you did it in Lancrel, but you can raise a building in storm or sun, Mister Felp. Stop complaining and help unload those wagons. We can throw up this house in the hour with Durene’s help if you’d all stop whining and do half of her work.”

She pointed and Durene paused, on her way back to the wagon. The man, Mister Felp, paused and stared up at her. He hesitated, and his face paled.

“Uh—uh, the Troll? She’s going to help with everything?”

Beycalt frowned. Durene just smiled and held out a hand.

“Half-Troll, sir. [Paladin]. I’m here to help defend Riverfarm in case it’s attacked.”

Felp stared at her, and Durene had the sinking feeling he was surprised she could speak. His handshake was timid and limp and quick—Durene already didn’t like him, or most of the other Lancrel people who were working in Beycalt’s group. They were all unused to the rain and quicker to complain than the rural folk.

Still, some of them worked with a will, and as Durene helped them set up the frame, she got a chance to talk. A woman nodded at her, spitting nails into her gloved hand one by one and driving each one into the wood with a practiced swing. It was a neat Skill.

“Don’t mind Felp, Miss, uh, Durene. He’s just not used to the wet. I’d be concerned if we were leaving this wood out, but we can raise a house in hours. Amazingly quick. Not to say it isn’t hard…”

“Something wrong with Riverfarm, Miss [Builder]?”

Durene looked at the woman as she lifted the frame up, one-handed. The woman hesitated.

“It’s just hard, moving from a city to here. We’re grateful, of course. Those damn Goblins that attacked the city and there were few places to turn—”

“If they could’ve gotten our city back, I’d have been happier.”

One of the men working on Durene’s left groused, and then looked away when she stared at him. The female [Builder] snorted and nearly ate one of her nails.

“Return to that place? It’s more ruin than not. I’m just saying that—look, it’s not simple. I er, listened to your [Steward] at lunch. That man Prost. He was saying…”

She trailed off. The other Lancrel [Builders] looked up and around warily. After a moment, the female [Builder] moved over and whispered to Durene while Beycalt was busy helping unload roof tiles.

“Elmmet. He’s a good [Councilman]. You didn’t really catch him stealing…people are saying there might have been a mix-up. The [Thief] could change faces. What if he set up Master Elmmet?”

“I saw him change his face. It wasn’t anyone else. Frostwing found him too—he was looking like a woman right until she started attacking him. It’s him. Beniar caught him and no one got a chance to slip away.”

Durene frowned as she informed the group. The Lancrel folk looked at each other, frowning hard. One of the men shook his head.

“If that’s so, he’s been stealing all along. Hey, we did have a bad [Thief] problem in Lancrel. If it was Elmmet all this time…”

“Don’t say that. Dead gods! How’d our Watch Captain not deal with him?”

“Maybe—”

“Nothing’s proven yet. We’ll see tomorrow. It’ll all be settled under truth spell, right?”

One of the other men interrupted. Uneasily, the Lancrel folk nodded. Durene looked at the silent group as they got back to work and felt a twinge of her own uneasiness. She helped for another hour, and left when the framework and everything heavy had been set up.

For the rest of the day, Durene just carried things. She was faster than the wagons that were getting stuck in the muddy streets, and she could lift a lot with just her two hands. A paved street was one of the things everyone she met agreed that Riverfarm needed next. It was just that laying paving stones was an arduous task and there were more important things to do first, like making sure that Riverfarm wouldn’t starve.

“Even so, we could subdivide. Set er, forty men on the task and I guarantee they’ll make good progress each day. All we need is a few experienced [Builders], a [Digger] or two perhaps—it’d be an efficient use of time, wouldn’t it?”

A man wearing a fine cotton coat was taking a break with some other city folk under the eaves of a roof as Durene trotted past with a huge tub of water for the [Cooks]. Durene slowed down to listen as the man went on.

“It’s not hard. Why not spare some men? The answer is that Mister Prost and Lady Rie don’t think it’s necessary. But why not? They’re always rushing about so why not appoint a supervisor to deal with the roads? Come to that, why not organize the village with more officials? There’s no hierarchy here, just those two.”

“There’s more than that. They have [Foremen] and people in charge of each area.”

One of the women wiped some rain from her cloak. The man with the nice coat paused.

“Ye-es… but I’m talking people with authority. People used to managing—there are a few, but they’re all from the villages. What about us?”

“They were here first, Rodivek. We’re newcomers.”

“But we have the classes they don’t. What’s a [Headman] know of managing a few thousand people? I was a [Mayor] of my town. And Beatica was a [Councilwoman] for over two decades! Don’t you think it’s slightly unfair that so many of us have no say in how this place we’re building is developed?”

Durene watched as the crowd shifted. Some people didn’t look convinced by Rodivek’s little speech, but more than half were nodding uncertainly. She walked away quickly.

Rodivek and Beatica. Those were two names she’d heard more than once on the tongues of people who identified as city folk. She didn’t like the man. As for the woman—Durene met her that night, as she took her dinner in one of the mess halls.

 

—-

 

“Frostwing, shush!”

Durene was tending to the bird as people ate their dinners or collected them for eating elsewhere at the queues in the cookhouses. Her bird had been much better behaved after a few days around Durene, but Frostwing was still somewhat feral. And when she was hungry, the bird was hard to control. She kept trying to peck at other people who hurried past, guarding their food. Durene eventually had to grip the bird against her chest and, ignoring Frostwing’s furious pecking, collect some meat and her dinner.

“Screech and you don’t get any meat, understand? Just sit here and be quiet.

The half-Troll girl knew that Frostwing could understand her. And after a glare, the bird meekly hopped onto Durene’s arm and began to gobble food. Durene sighed, and tore into the hot, toasted bun filled with bits of fruit and some goat’s cheese. To her delight, there were bits of meat in her meal as well! It tasted like…game. Rabbit maybe, or some other small animal. It was hot, filling, and Durene realized her portion wasn’t nearly enough. With the bowl of onion soup it might be for most folks, but Durene’s stomach was still growling.

“I need two more portions.”

A bit ashamed, Durene went back to the [Cook]. The man opened his mouth to protest, looked Durene up and down, and silently gave her two more sandwiches and filled her bowl. The half-Troll girl blushed at the looks from some of the other people around her, but was too hungry to complain. She was sitting at one of the tables in the building, letting Frostwing peck at one sandwich, when she heard a woman’s voice.

“I simply cannot understand why you won’t accept our modest proposals, Lady Rie. Nobility is one thing, but I would like to remind you that we are speaking for all of Lancrel. A city has a voice, you know.”

Durene looked up. She spotted Lady Rie at once. The woman had for once decided not to wear a completely formal dress, but her clothing was still very elegant. A [Lady]’s riding dress perhaps, although white and yellow, as if that wouldn’t smudge instantly. She’d kept herself clean, though, and dry. She was also frowning, her colored yellow lips pursed as she faced a small group of women…Durene frowned as she spotted the woman in front.

Beatica was a woman in her early forties, but she certainly didn’t lack when it came to beauty herself. Her hair was styled, her clothes practical, but more expensive than anything anyone in Riverfarm would own. She had no jewelry save for a large and clearly expensive ring on one finger—oh, and she practically radiated confidence. Durene looked at Beatica and when the woman smiled, she felt like standing up and following her.

At least, a part of Durene did. It was instantly quashed by another part of Durene, which stared at the woman and felt an uneasy sense of familiarity. Her presence, the way the people around her hung on her every word—it all reminded Durene of one person.

Laken. Only, if he was a beacon of inspiration, Beatica was a torch. It was still effective, and Durene felt her attention immediately going to the woman, fixing on her argument with Rie. Moreover, most of the people in the room turned to listen as well. Beatica flashed them all a smile, and then focused on Rie.

“We’re proposing to help Riverfarm. We have come here and worked these lasts weeks, haven’t we? Don’t we deserve a chance to use our classes to their fullest extent? Give us a chance! I am a former [Councilwoman]—there are [Mayors] such as Rodivek from Hewlat—we can take over some of the tasks that have clearly left you and Mister Prost running ragged. Let us manage a few small groups. We are familiar with our citizens—we can take care of pressing issues, like paving the ground.”

She gestured outside to the muddy streets. Lady Rie did something like a smile with her face, but her voice was somewhat icy as she replied.

“While I understand your enthusiasm, Miss Beatica—”

“Councilwoman, please, Lady Rie. I didn’t give up my class when I left my city. And I consider myself in charge of my people, even though we have lost our home.”

The woman interrupted Rie smoothly, gesturing to the crowd behind her. But that wasn’t what made Durene sit up in amazement. The half-Troll girl saw Rie’s mouth open and close while she spoke, but no words had come out. Beatica had used a Skill! Lady Rie made a sound and then glared at Beatica.

“I would appreciate you not using your Skills on me, Miss Beatica. And while I appreciate your…zeal in taking care of your people, I remind you that you came here. And this is Emperor Laken’s domain. Not Lancrel. He may appoint leaders among Lancrel’s population when he returns. Until then, I believe Riverfarm is adequately handled between Prost and I and the people we have chosen.”

A murmur of agreement rose from some of the rural crowd in the room. Beatica pursed her lips. She clearly didn’t like Rie’s response, so she turned and appealed to the people from Lancrel and the towns.

“You say that, Lady Rie, but you’ve been saying that for nearly two months now! This talent is going to waste lying unused! Don’t we have [Tailors] without work, [Secretaries] whose Skills could be used setting up businesses—”

“We have no need for business at this moment, Miss Beatica. The money Riverfarm earns goes to build Riverfarm. Private ventures can wait until everyone has a roof over their heads, don’t you agree?”

It was Rie’s turn to sweetly interrupt Beatica. The woman narrowed her eyes.

“How will we earn a living then, Lady Rie? So far we have generously donated to Riverfarm’s construction, but many of us would like to earn money, would we not?”

That got a round of nods, mostly from the city dwellers again. Rie looked around and raised her voice.

“This is not a city. I remind you that this is the sovereign territory of [Emperor] Laken. His majesty has allowed any number of Lancrel’s folk to come to his city, provided shelter and food despite having no obligation to—he even fought for Lancrel, when the city’s own militia abandoned it, didn’t they?”

She looked pointedly at Beatica. The woman colored.

“The army failed to liberate Lancrel—”

She hesitated, and her eyes flicked around the room. Many of the villagers had folded their arms. Beatica switched sentences so fast Durene blinked.

“—and we appreciate their sacrifice of course! But there is such a thing as democracy, surely? Don’t we, as citizens of his Majesty Godart’s ah, empire¸ deserve a voice? Or is his will the only one we are permitted to follow?”

Uneasiness followed her words. Rie’s brow twitched.

“Of course you will have a voice. But I invite you to wait for his Majesty to return, Miss Beatica. This is all quite forward of you. In fact, the fourth day in a row you’ve made this a public subject. I was discouraged to learn that you spent little time helping in your assigned task. One would almost imagine that you regarded the effort of washing clothes beneath you.”

All eyes swung back to Beatica. The woman hesitated, and flushed.

“Not at all. I’m simply concerned with the wellbeing of—”

“Lancrel. Indeed. I would suggest you help clothe them, then. One cannot work with sullied garments. All of Riverfarm is working, Miss Beatica. Which reminds me, I must get back to my job. Enjoy your break.”

With that, Rie swept past the [Councilwoman]. Durene felt oddly pleased to see Beatica’s eyes flashing furiously as Rie and her bodyguard, the [Fistfighter] Geram, swept out of the mess hall.

“Wow. There are people even Rie has trouble with.”

Durene murmured to Frostwing. She was glad Rie had won, though, and fairly convincingly so if the nods from the people around her were anything to judge. Even so, there was a murmur among Lancrel’s lot as she left and Beatica instantly turned to her crowd and addressed them, looking apologetic and slightly outraged. Durene didn’t listen to what was being said—she grabbed Frostwing and hurried towards the door, hoping to catch Rie.

On the way, Durene passed Beatica and the crowd of well-dressed folk. Durene did nothing but stride past them, but as the first heads turned and noticed her, a woman recoiled and cried out. The shrill shriek was echoed by exclamations from the crowd. Durene paused and turned.

“Something wrong?”

The Lancrel city folk stared up at Durene, faces pale. Councilwoman Beatica smiled, but she visibly placed her hands beneath her back as everyone but her stepped back.

“Nothing at all. You’re Miss Durene, aren’t you? I apologize—my people have never met someone ah, as notable as you.”

“You mean, a half-Troll.”

“Ah. Of course.”

The woman hesitated. Durene turned to her.

“I’m a [Paladin]. One of Riverfarm’s protectors. I was at Lancrel fighting the Goblins. I’m glad to see so many people made it out alive. We paid a heavy price that day. How do you do?”

She held out a hand. The people behind Beatica murmured and looked at her. The woman hesitated. She looked at Durene’s hand and held out her own. When she shook Durene’s hand, it was very, very quickly, and her touch was so light—the woman withdrew her hand and gave Durene a charming smile. Durene wasn’t fooled. She’d felt the sweat on the palm.

“We are all grateful of course. And I hope to meet his Majesty, Laken Godart and convey my personal thanks. Ah—I notice you have a companion. What a radiant fellow.”

She indicated Frostwing. Durene looked at the bird and Frostwing fluttered her wings. Some in the crowd admired the bird’s brilliant blue plumage.

“It’s a she.”

“How magnificent. I’ve never seen the species.”

Beatica reached out for Frostwing.

“I wouldn’t. She pecks.”

Frostwing lashed out, and Beatica withdrew her hand just in time. She eyed the bird and winced as Frostwing screeched.

“I—see. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Durene. Do I understand that you’re um, deeply acquainted with his Majesty?”

She looked Durene up and down. The half-Troll girl flushed.

“He and I are in a relationship.”

The murmur from the Humans behind Beatica this time went quiet as Durene looked at them. Beatica smiled thinly.

“How incredible. I do hope you’ll introduce me to his Majesty. Until then?”

Durene nodded. Without a word, she turned and Beatica stepped back. Durene felt the woman’s eyes on her all the way to the door and out of it. And she began understanding just how worried Prost and Rie were.

Beatica reminded Durene of a weasel, and Lancrel’s folk like anxious chickens who’d convinced themselves she was one of them. Frightened chickens, gathering together en masse. Only, if you’d ever seen chickens pecking one of their own to death, you understood why that was a problem.

 

—-

 

That night, Durene met Wiskeria at the cottage. She hadn’t seen the [Witch] all day, but Wiskeria’s exhausted face told her the [Witch] had been working hard in her own way. Durene made them tea as Frostwing huffily settled herself in her nest. Outside, Bismarck groaned at the door until Durene threw out some freshly grown produce to shut him up.

“How was your day?”

Wiskeria sipped from her drink and shrugged.

“It wasn’t great. Wasn’t bad either. I mainly—talked. With families. And survivors. There are a lot of us.”

“Are you—”

“No. No army.”

The [Witch] put down her cup with a grimace. She looked at Durene.

“I saw you for a bit. You pushed over a tree.”

“It was a small one. And it’s faster than cutting.”

Embarrassed, Durene felt at her hair. Wiskeria shook her head. She stared into her mug and then spoke, pensively.

“You know what most of the [Soldiers] called me? The ones who fought? ‘General’ Wiskeria. As if I deserve the name.”

“You have the class.”

“I don’t deserve it. You remember what that woman, Rehanna, said to me?”

“She was just angry. She wasn’t right—”

Wiskeria shook her head. She adjusted the hat and looked down.

“I’m no [General]. That’s just something Laken gave me. It’s not my true nature. I was playing at being a [General]. When push came to shove—I collapsed. I should never have accepted his offer.”

Durene hesitated.

“But you gained the class. You led an army. You led me, Wiskeria. Or didn’t fighting all those Goblins mean anything?”

The [Witch] shook her head.

“It’s not the same as a real battle. I could do some things, but when I found a real enemy to fight—strategy, tactics, leadership—I could make a lot of people move in one direction, feed them, set a few traps with a few hundred. But in that battle I was swallowed, Durene. I couldn’t lead, and that’s part of the reason we lost. There’s no other reason.”

Silently, Durene put down her cup. She looked at Wiskeria and took a slow breath.

“I’m a [Paladin], Wiskeria. Laken gave me that class.”

The [Witch] nodded.

“And I’m a [General]. Do I look like one to you?”

She touched her hat. Durene inhaled to protest, and then she looked down at her hands. Her grey skin. She looked around at her cottage, hand-built, out her window at the garden that Bismarck had torn up looking for food, and then at Wiskeria. The young woman looked back.

A witch and a farmer girl. They held each other’s gazes a moment and then burst out laughing. They laughed as if it were the funniest joke in the world. The saddest. In the end, Durene caught herself before a laugh could turn into a sob. They sat together then, as the light faded and a candle Durene lit flickered low on the table. It was dark. Frostwing tucked her head under one wing.

“I want to be a [Paladin], Wiskeria.”

“I know. And I think you can do it, Durene, I really do. But I don’t want to be a [General]. I can’t do that again. I can’t be responsible for all those lives.”

Durene nodded. Wiskeria was looking down at the table. At last, the [Witch] looked up.

“What is a [Paladin], by the way? I never asked. It’s like a [Knight], but…is it some rare class variant, like Beniar’s [Cataphract]?”

Durene shook her head. She played with her empty cup as she recalled asking Laken just that.

“Laken says they used to be just trusted military leaders in service to some [Emperor]. But apparently the word changed. It began to mean…well, a [Knight], but one dedicated to heroism and chivalry. Someone who does good deeds.”

“Isn’t that what knights are supposed to do?”

Durene smiled. She quoted Laken.

“A [Knight] is a retainer. A warrior pledged to a cause. A [Paladin] is someone who crusades. Who goes out and…helps people. Apparently, it’s perfect for me. I just want to help people. But I haven’t leveled for a while. I think I’m missing something.”

Wiskeria nodded. She stared at Durene, and then took her hat off and looked at it.

“I’m a [Witch]. Do you…know much about my kind?”

“No. I hear stories, um…but Riverfarm never had a [Witch]. Other villages do.”

Durene bit her tongue before she went on. From the stories she’d been told before meeting Wiskeria, [Witches] weren’t to be trusted. They could make potions and do some magic. But they were shifty, dangerous even. Wiskeria smiled bitterly.

“I’m sure you’ve heard stories. And like I said this morning, [Witches] are complex. We do magic, but we have a wide variety of abilities. Alchemy, magic—even beast taming and gardening and more. But we’re not specialists, like say, a [Beast Master].”

The half-Troll girl nodded, then she had a thought.

“Hey, Wiskeria. Can you make potions? I heard a [Witch] can make potions like an [Alchemist]. Mister Prost was saying that if we could get a good [Alchemist] here, we’d be able to heal all sorts of things without needing to buy potions. What if you made them? I’m sure everyone’d appreciate that!”

She looked at the [Witch] hopefully. Durene had always wanted to know how potions were made! That was real magic, as powerful as any spell. But Wiskeria shook her head.

“No, that’s a myth. Or an exaggeration of the truth, really. I made poison when Laken asked me to. Enough of it to poison the Goblin army. Healing…I can’t do potions. [Alchemists] do complicated reactions in bottles and I don’t have the equipment or the knowledge.”

“Oh.”

Durene felt a bit let down by that confession. She had an image of a [Witch] hunched over a cauldron full of magic. Wiskeria hesitated. She touched her hat and thought for a second, then looked up.

“I can’t do potions. I can do a brew, though.”

 

 

Day 55 – Ryoka

 

Running was fun. Running was good for the body. Running relaxed Ryoka. It could also be boring, though. That was why, surprisingly, it was fun to have Charlay running with her as Ryoka headed south, down the increasingly less-populated main roads towards Riverfarm.

She had a delivery. And she had a lot of money waiting for her when she got there. And a possible crisis. But unlike her run to Walta, Ryoka wasn’t pushing it. Nor could she, really; the wind had been unhappy yesterday and it was upset today. Not that it mattered; Ryoka had run for eight hours yesterday, and for nearly eight more today, with a few breaks and she was still far from her destination.

It wasn’t one day’s journey, or even two. Ryoka thought they’d reach Riverfarm in another day at their pace. It was good enough for her; Laken had said he needed her there soon, but he wasn’t paying for a lightning-fast delivery. Charlay couldn’t resist complaining, though.

“I’m tired. When do we get another break?”

“When we find an inn, or another village. Why? I thought you were the fastest runner in Walta.”

Ryoka teased the Centauress as they ran side-by-side down a deserted road. Riverfarm was far from a populated hub, so sometimes they could find themselves running with few to no travellers for hours at a time. Charlay glared at Ryoka as she folded her arms, trotting to keep up. She had sweat on her brow and she looked displeased.

“I said fastest! I don’t normally trot everywhere, you know.”

Charlay was tired after eight hours. To be fair, Ryoka was too, but she’d only used one stamina potion on top of her breaks. Charlay had used two and might need a third, which was slightly dangerous. But she was genuinely tired, not just complaining.

She had the endurance of a horse, which meant that she could run much faster than Ryoka on flat terrain, but she tired faster too. And since she had to chain herself to Ryoka’s pace, it was ironically Charlay who struggled more.

“If I was doing my deliveries, I wouldn’t have to run at your slow pace. All my Skills are devoted to galloping fast or doing tricks, not long-distance! I wish I had [Lesser Endurance]. Or [Greater Endurance]. Or [Second Wind] or something. Hey, what Skills do you want to get? You never told me what level you were.”

Charlay’s complaints instantly switched back to chatter. Ryoka sighed.

“Sorry, trade secret.”

She ducked as Charlay tried to shove her with one arm. The Centauress galloped further to the side, away from Ryoka, looking affronted.

“What? I thought we could share Skills! Well, fine. I won’t tell you my class or my Skills either, then!”

She tossed her head, as she always did, but Ryoka saw she was genuinely hurt this time. Charlay was…Ryoka could best describe her as dramatic, like a caricature of a girl who took everything personally and never said what she was really feeling. But apparently it was typical of Centaurs, who were all about appearance.

Ryoka had figured that out, and Charlay was really actually fairly sensitive underneath her bluster. The young woman sighed as she tried to figure out a possible excuse—or make up a bunch of Skills, when she spotted something on the road ahead of her.

“Hold up. Charlay, you see that?”

The Centauress was pouting, but she looked up at the tone in Ryoka’s voice. She slowed from her trot, and Ryoka went from a fast jog to a walk. She stared at the building up ahead of her. Or rather, what was left of it.

“Dead g—shit.”

A blackened ruin of a building lay just off to the side of the road. A farmstead, destroyed and abandoned. The two Runners looked at each other and ran closer, but hesitantly. Ryoka felt at her bag of holding and Charlay pawed the ground with one hoof, uneasily.

“[Raiders], do you think?”

“Maybe. Do we check for people?”

Ryoka eyed the buildings. They looked long abandoned, and she was reluctant to investigate. You never knew what might be lurking in places like that. Said [Raiders] or monsters. Charlay shook her head.

“If it was still smoking, maybe. But look—the field was burnt over there, see? It’s already started to regrow in places. This is abandoned.”

Ryoka noticed the field beyond the farmstead and nodded. Someone had set flame to the field beyond, but the blackened soil was already showing bits of green.

“Let’s go, then. Keep an eye out?”

Charlay nodded silently, her tiff with Ryoka forgotten. The two Runners moved on, now cautiously scanning the landscape. But they soon found that whatever had afflicted this one farm wasn’t a singular occurrence.

“Oats. What happened to this place?”

Charlay stared at the eighth ruin they passed by. Ryoka just shook her head. This road they were taking south wasn’t the only one, but it painted a horrible picture. Every single place they’d come to was like this. Lonely houses, even a village, all lying in ruin. Something had swept down this way, leaving only destruction in its wake.

Burned farmlands. Houses pillaged by fire. Ryoka didn’t know if it was [Bandits] or…she eyed a ruined mill and wondered how many [Bandits] could do this much damage. Surely villages and towns had militias. Or what about local cities? Adventurers would hunt [Bandits] just like monsters. What had caused this?

“This is Laken’s home? What the hell happened here?”

She muttered to herself as she ran. Charlay turned her head to stare down at Ryoka.

“Laken. That’s your client, right? The [Emperor]? Is he really an [Emperor]? And how does he know you?”

The young woman paused.

“It’s uh, a long story. I was hired by him in Invrisil.”

“And is he really an [Emperor]?”

“…Maybe? How do you know about him?”

Charlay snorted and stamped a hoof. She ran ahead of Ryoka so she could twist at the waist and glare down at the young woman.

“Informants of course! I can buy information just like everyone else. And everyone’s heard the rumors. An [Emperor] was with Tyrion Veltras—he’s claimed the lands around Riverfarm—but it’s in the middle of nowhere! An [Emperor] should have a huge amount of land! And a, you know, empire?

“Well, he’s got one village. And he hired me because I met him once.”

“Really? To deliver a bunch of low-grade potions to a [Lady]?”

Charlay eyed Ryoka, arms folded. The Runner girl shrugged.

“Yup.”

“You’re lying.”

“Maybe I am. But you’re coming with me, so you can see what I’m doing.”

“You’re not going to tell me why you know this [Emperor] or he wants you? We’re friends, Ryoka.”

“And friends don’t pry into each other’s secrets, Charlay. You’ll find out soon enough. Don’t kick dirt at me or I’ll hit you.”

“You deserve it! I’m going with you out of the goodness of my heart and you won’t even tell me why—”

Bickering, the two were climbing a slight rise when Ryoka saw movement below them. She took one look down the shapes below them and held out a hand. Charlay nearly ran her over and reared.

“Don’t do that! I could have hurt—”

She shut up as Ryoka whirled.

“Get back!”

Charlay wheeled and Ryoka sprinted back down the hill. The Centauress crouched, although she was still far bigger, and Ryoka turned her head, her heart suddenly racing.

“What? What’d you see?”

“Let me check again. Stay there.”

Ryoka flattened herself to the earth and crawled back up the slope. Charlay ran a bit down the rise and Ryoka peeked over the edge. She came crawling back and then ran at a crouch to Charlay.

“Oh shit. [Bandits].”

The Centauress froze.

“You’re sure?”

Ryoka nodded. Down the hill was a straightaway and what looked like marshland up ahead. They’d have to cross through the edge of it, but what had caught Ryoka’s eye was a bunch of distant riders. Normally Ryoka would have assumed it was a caravan, an adventuring group—but she’d seen the corpse on the ground before Charlay.

“I only saw a few people on horseback. You’re sure it was [Bandits]?”

“Either that person on the ground is napping, or they just killed a traveller.”

Ryoka snapped back, checking her belt. She’d counted sixteen, and half of them mounted. Some local group? A wandering band, using the marshes as a base? Charlay pranced nervously.

“One of them might have been injured—”

“He was napping in blood, Charlay.”

“Oh.”

The two City Runners looked at each other. Ryoka felt at her belt. Her hands were shaking a bit. She’d run into [Bandits] on runs before, but this was the first time she’d seen them before they saw her. And this was a larger group than most.

“We can try going off the road and sneaking around them. Or going back and taking another route.”

“Maybe. They won’t stay there for long, though. They’ll hide and then we won’t know where they are.”

Charlay looked uneasily at the group up ahead. Ryoka nodded.

“So what do we do? Try and break through? They’re on horses. If I could use the wind, I could try blinding them. Or using caltrops, but it’s risky—”

The Centauress looked shocked.

What? I was saying let’s go way around them! Miles away! Are you crazy? I’m not tangling with a [Bandit] group if I can help it.”

“Oh.”

Ryoka blushed. She looked at Charlay.

“But you do have some Skills, right? If they attack us, can’t you whip out a bow and fight them off?”

“I don’t use a bow! Do you think all Centaurs use a bow? That’s racist!”

“Excuse me. How do you fight back, then?”

“I…have my hooves? And two wands. And this!”

Charlay pulled out a dagger and waved it uncertainly at Ryoka. The young woman stared at it. Charlay turned red.

“It works! I outrun people, mostly. And I can knock someone off a horse with my wands. That’s usually all I need. And I can make a dust cloud.”

“Right. Dustrider Charlay.”

Ryoka sighed. She supposed that was all Charlay needed. She stared at the rise and shook her head.

“I’m no good without the wind. And I agree; I’m not fighting [Bandits]. We’ll have to go back, find a really long way around. Damn.”

“Better than having them chase us. Let’s go before they finish and come this way.”

Charlay pointed back down the road. Ryoka nodded. She felt…guilty, leaving the [Bandits] there. And the person on the ground—were they alive? Ryoka bit her lip. She couldn’t dwell on it. She was no hero. And neither was she a killer. Sixteen [Bandits]?

She and Charlay might be able to break through if Ryoka was certain the wind would come to her. If she conjured a dust storm she’d be pretty confident they could get away. But that still was only for getting away. City Runners didn’t take unnecessary risks, and running ten miles around that group was preferable to risking any kind of fighting.

Slowly, Ryoka began to jog down the road after Charlay. The Centaur was trying to trot as quietly as she could, which was not that quiet at all. She beckoned to Ryoka, and then froze, pointed. Ryoka inhaled sharply.

Someone was coming down the road. The figure was far distant, and moving at a brisk walk, but they were definitely headed this way. Ryoka and Charlay exchanged a glance.

“One of—”

“No. Just a traveller. Let’s warn them. Come on!”

Ryoka was instantly worried. Not for them, but for the traveller. She and Charlay were going to run to get out of the [Bandit]’s line of sight, but whomever this was might not be able to get away. And if the [Bandits] came over the rise and saw them—

Ryoka and Charlay raced towards the distance figure, a few hundred feet away. As they neared, Charlay called out.

“Hey! Hey you! Stop! There’s [Bandits] up—”

She halted in her tracks, staring. Ryoka, catching up, halted as well and stared in astonishment. Alevica tipped up her purple hat and regarded Ryoka and Charlay with a blink of surprise. Her bright pink eyes flicked from Ryoka’s face to Charlay’s.

“You two again. What a surprise.”

She smiled, a flick of sardonic amusement. The young woman, still older than both Ryoka and Charlay, looked at the two and then past them.

“What’s your rush?”

“Uh—”

Charlay backed away from Alevica, looking frightened. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder and spoke tersely.

“[Bandits]. They’re on the road ahead, just before the marsh.”

Alevica’s brows rose, but that was it.

“Really? You’re sure?”

“I think they killed someone. We’re heading back. You should too. There are sixteen of them.”

“Really now.”

The other City Runner put her hands on her hips and smiled slightly, looking at Ryoka. She shook her head.

“You’re running from the [Bandits]? I thought the Wind Runner was tougher than that. I’d expect this from Charlay, but you?”

The amusement hit a button marked ‘Anger’ in Ryoka’s chest. She gritted her teeth.

“I’m just being practical. There’s at least eight on horseback and some could be [Mages]. I have no idea what level they are.”

Alevica looked around the deserted landscape.

“If this is where they’re hiding, I’d say it’s low. You can hide, but I’m heading this way. I’ve done my delivery and I don’t feel like wasting time.”

So saying, she reached into the pouch at her side and began rummaging around in it. A bag of holding. Ryoka stared at that and then Alevica.

“Wait, you’re going to fight?”

“Sure am, Miss Wind Runner. You’re free to join me. Charlay, you can hide over there. There might be a bush large enough to hide you.”

Alevica pulled out something from the bag and shook it out. Ryoka stared as she fastened it around her head. And then with a start she recognized what they were.

Goggles. Crude, compared to the modern, streamlined kind. Glass lenses set into leather. But goggles nonetheless. Alevica secured them, and then reached into her bag of holding a second time.

“How about it, Ryoka? I’m sure you like [Bandits] as much as I do. Want to show me how good Reizmelt’s top runner is?”

“I—”

Ryoka looked at Charlay. The Centauress was shaking her head, her eyes wide. Ryoka looked at Alevica. The young woman paused. Then she pulled out a broom from her pouch. Ryoka’s eyes went wide.

“Well?”

Alevica tossed the broom on the ground. It was a broom, but it wasn’t at the same time. Ryoka was familiar with brooms, sweeping brooms, plastic-handled, with wide, flat bottoms from her world. This one wasn’t. The handle was wooden, long, and the end was thrush, tied together in a way that didn’t look at all appropriate for sweeping. But it did look like—

Ryoka looked up and met Alevica’s eyes. And in her mind, something exploded. It couldn’t be—

“Well? Last chance.”

Alevica grinned as she put one foot on the handle of her broom as it lay on the dust. Ryoka hesitated. She looked at Charlay and took a bit too long in replying. Alevica sighed.

“Too bad. I really expected more from you. I’ll do it myself, then. Up!

So saying, the [Witch] placed her other foot on the broom’s handle. And it rose from the ground. Ryoka stumbled back, staring. Alevica, standing on the broom as if it were a skateboard, as if it were solid, winked down at Ryoka. She put one hand on her hat. And she flew.

The broom shot forwards like an arrow, carrying Alevica with it over the rise in the hill. As she flew, Alevica laughed, a wild, free sound. She shot over the hill, faster than Ryoka could sprint. Ryoka’s jaw stayed open. Charlay danced over to her.

“Ryoka! We have to go! The [Bandits] are going to—”

She halted as Ryoka whirled to her and pointed. The Human girl shouted, forgetting about the [Bandit].

“She can fly!?”

“She’s a [Witch]! What did you think she could do, lay eggs?

“But—”

Ryoka stared at the air where Alevica had been. Yes! She knew Alevica was—but they could actually—Charlay was tugging at Ryoka.

“We have to go.

“She just went right towards the [Bandits]!”

Ryoka protested. Charlay shook her head.

“It doesn’t matter! She’s fast on that broom! She could outrun them! But what if she sets them on us?”

“She wouldn’t do that? Would she?”

The two stared at each other. Charlay’s eyes were wide and frightened. Ryoka felt a lurch in her stomach.

That was when the screaming started. The two Runners jerked as a shrill scream split the air. Charlay bolted—Ryoka whirled, grabbing a handful of caltrops from her bag of holding. She called for the wind, but it only blew into her face.

“Ryoka!”

Charlay beckoned. But Ryoka, listening, heard a second scream split the air. It was a man’s voice. The first had been a woman’s. Neither sounded like Alevica. She looked back at Charlay.

“I have to see.”

“No—”

The Centauress’ eyes widened as Ryoka ran for the rise, caltrops in hand. She hesitated, and then ran after Ryoka, pulling out a wand from her bag of holding. Ryoka was first to the top of the incline. She stared down as Charlay appeared next to her. The Centauress stared down.

What—

Her breath caught in her chest. Below them, on the road where the marshy forest began, the two saw the group of [Bandits]. They were scattering, running, horses galloping left and right. Some were shouting, waving swords or trying to take aim. But the rest were running. Dying.

A [Witch] on a broomstick was swooping down on the [Bandits], holding something. Ryoka saw a flicker, and one of the [Bandits] fell, screaming. Alevica’s broom swerved as a [Mage] aimed and shot a bolt of lightning at her. The lightning crackled through the air where she’d been and the [Witch] threw something. Ryoka saw the vial break and a plume of smoke and a small explosion—the [Mage] disappeared in it, but she heard his voice, screaming.

“Dead gods. She’s fighting all of them?”

Charlay breathed. Ryoka stared down the hill. The [Bandits] were fleeing this way, trying to regroup. Alevica dodged down, avoiding an arrow, and, laughing, shot something back at a woman who dove to avoid it. The [Witch] was still standing on her broom, circling, diving, turning at a pace the [Bandits] couldn’t follow. Like a bird in the sky. A hunter.

But it was one against over a dozen. Or—was it? Ryoka looked down the hill at the [Bandits]. Something was wrong. They were turning, fighting something besides just Alevica. The ones with bows and magic were futilely shooting at her, but the rest—

“Look! Dead gods, Ryoka, look! Undead!

Charlay saw them before Ryoka could make out the distant shapes. Ryoka saw a pair of skeletons slashing at the [Bandits] from the side, advancing with iron swords. And more were appearing, thrusting their way out of the earth.

A trio of skeletons were dragging one man down into the ground they’d emerged from, pulling him into the earth, tearing at his face with their fingers. The man was screaming, trying to fight them off as they tried to pull him into the ground. His friends fought the undead, but Alevica refused to let them save him. She dove lower, and pointed something at a man trying to pull his friend up.

Thunk.

Ryoka and Charlay both recoiled at the distinctive sound and noise. The man stumbled back, and a feathered shaft of wood appeared in his chest, going straight through his leather armor. Alevica had fired it from point-blank—her broom accelerated, carrying her past the other [Bandits], who chased her before she took into the air again. Ryoka stared at what the [Witch] was holding.

A crossbow. And her other hand was reaching for her bag of holding. Alevica flew up, high, high overhead angling her broom up. Her feet slid down the handle until she stopped, forty feet overhead. There she calmly reloaded the crossbow.

Kill her!

The roar from below came from a woman on horseback. She had a spear, but Alevica was far out of range. Two [Bandits] fired, and one pointed a wand. Alevica glanced down, and her broom casually carried her forwards. The arrows and ray of light missed. Alevica turned, sat side-saddle down on her broom and pulled the other thing out of her bag of holding. Ryoka saw a glint of glass. And she saw the small smile.

The broom dove. Alevica shot down as the [Bandits] scattered. The woman with the spear, the [Bandit Leader], refused to move, though. She aimed and as Alevica dove, threw her spear with a roar.

It was a good cast. Alevica blinked as the spear flew at her. Ryoka saw it happen in a moment. The [Witch] turned, flying around the spear, but the spear turned to catch her. Alevica’s eyes widened—

And then the broom twisted. Alevica, sitting upright, rotated underneath the spear and flashed back up as it passed her. The spear tried to twist again, but it had lost momentum. It struck the ground. And Alevica flew at the [Bandit Leader]. She fired and the horse the woman was riding screamed. The woman grabbed at her reins. Alevica flashed past her. Her other hand lashed out and she threw something in the woman’s face.

A vial. It broke and Ryoka saw a flash of fire. The [Bandit Leader] screamed, clutching at her face as the fire erupted along her face, her arms and shoulders. She writhed on the ground, rolling, but the flames wouldn’t go out. Alevica laughed, mockingly, and the rest of the [Bandits] fled. One threw down her weapons. Alevica flew towards her and Ryoka saw her lash out. The shortsword slashed through part of the [Bandit]’s neck and she collapsed.

The rest, seeing the fate of the one who’d thrown down their weapons, turned. They fought and died.

The last man disappeared as the skeletons surrounded him, hacking with bloody weapons. They looked up as Alevica flew past them and stopped, their bones and blades red. She made a sign and they collapsed, turning to…dust.

It was silent after that. The [Witch] landed, and investigated the bodies. She went from each one, checking them, rolling them over. Taking something from each. She spent only a few minutes there, and then the broom flew over to her. With one foot, she stepped up, and turned the broom. She aimed towards the marsh ahead of her, the road, and began to fly forwards. At the last moment, she stopped and looked back up towards the slight hill, and the two figures who’d watched her the entire time.

She was too far away, then, for Ryoka to see. But she knew Alevica was grinning.

 

—-

 

Silence. After Alevica had gone, it took Ryoka and Charlay a long time to go down the hill. It wasn’t for fear of Alevica returning. It was just frightening in another way.

The [Bandits], and they were [Bandits], had died hard. Several had fallen to Alevica’s crossbow bolts, two to the vials she’d thrown. The [Mage], whose corpse was still emitting smoke, made Ryoka and Charlay keep a wide distance. The [Bandit Leader] had stopped burning, but her upper body was charred.

Ryoka stared around at the dead sixteen. Some had died to skeletons. The last few Alevica had chopped down herself, with the shortsword. She stared at the woman who’d thrown down her sword and noticed something else.

“Money pouches.”

“What?”

Charlay was breathing hard, her face white. She looked over as Ryoka pointed down.

“She took their money pouches. Potions too, I think.”

“O-oh. Well, that’s normal.”

“It is?”

Ryoka glanced up. Charlay nodded.

“If you kill [Bandits], you might as well sell their stuff, right? Adventurers do it. So why not…I don’t know any City Runners who kill [Bandits], but I heard…”

She broke off. Stared around at the bodies. Ryoka stared at the Centauress.

“You knew Alevica could fly?”

“Everyone knows. She can’t do it forever. That’s why she takes the carriage. But everyone knows she’s a [Witch]. She can do witchy things. No one messes with her, even though she’s got a bad reputation. But I’ve never seen…”

Charlay stared at the burnt corpse and shuddered. Ryoka stared down the road, at where Alevica had gone. Part of her wanted to be impressed. Alevica had taken out a [Bandit] group. Low-level perhaps, but one had known a lightning spell, and she’d beaten sixteen of them by herself! But Ryoka couldn’t be impressed. Alevica had cut the rest down mercilessly, even when they’d tried to surrender, to run. It was—cruel.

But she had flown. The wind stirred. Ryoka touched her chest and felt her heart racing. She had flown. She looked at Charlay and after a beat, pointed.

“Come on. We’ve got to report this.”

The Centauress started and nodded uncertainly. Someone had to know this [Bandit] group was dead. They’d report it at the next Runner’s Guild they came to. Ryoka doubted Alevica would even mention it.

It was very quiet as the two ran on. Very, very quiet. They never caught up to Alevica, and that night both stopped at the town they’d come to. They made a short report at the Runner’s Guild. And it turned out Alevica had reported the encounter. She’d asked about a bounty on the [Bandits]. There had been none.

Ryoka left the guild as the [Receptionist] confirmed her report. She and Charlay ate quietly, and went to bed in the only inn without saying much. And Ryoka thought of her.

The Witch Runner, Alevica.

And she wondered what Ivolethe would have made of her. Alevica’s laughter haunted Ryoka’s mind. But it wasn’t a cackle. And in a way, Alevica was everything Ryoka had wanted to be. That thought kept Ryoka up late into the night.

The next day, she arrived in Riverfarm with Charlay.

 

 

Day 56 – Durene

 

Durene and Wiskeria ate breakfast together in her cottage. They did not go into Riverfarm right away. Instead, after eating the bread and tossing the crusts out and watching Bismarck trying to catch them, they grabbed a basket each and headed into the forest. It was just the day for it, too.

The morning was amazingly, refreshingly, dry. The sky was clear, with not a cloud to be seen. And the sun’s warmth was welcome after so much drizzling. In fact, it had warmed the forest floor enough that neither Wiskeria nor Durene needed boots to walk about. The two walked, talking lightly, chatting, as Wiskeria led them into the forest on a hunt.

Frostwing flew from branch to branch, sometimes shrieking and diving after something in the forest. The rest of the time she was restless, but she did stay in the general area around Durene and Wiskeria. Bismarck was more placid. He just ambled along next to the two, snuffling around for anything edible.

“I think she’s smarter than he is by a bit. Frostwing misses Laken, I can tell. And she’s smart enough to know where I keep food and she can follow orders. Even if she never wants to. Bismarck is simpler. He’s just a stomach with legs.”

Durene had brought both this morning. Frostwing was obvious, but to her surprise, Bismarck had come with as well. He currently had a basket strapped to his back with a bit of twine, and he didn’t seem at all bothered by it. When he heard his name he looked up hopefully, as if expecting food.

“Gaurgih.”

Wiskeria smiled. She walked ahead of Durene, scouting the forest path they were using.

“You’re sure you said I could find everything I said I needed? Especially the Sage’s Grass?”

Durene nodded.

“I think so. The forest’s got a lot of good stuff growing in it. And I’ve seen er—what did you call it?”

“Sage’s Grass. It’s slightly magical, and it’s a great ingredient that’s easy to grow. It’s slightly red and green, and it grows so long—”

Wiskeria indicated and Durene nodded.

“Yes, I’ve seen that! It grows in clumps in the forest. Meadows usually. It’s worth something, isn’t it? One of our [Farmers] tried to grow it to sell at one of the other towns. He had a great big field of it. Only, that didn’t go so well.”

“Ah, I’d have warned him if I heard about that. It’s not good to try and grow if you’re not prepared.”

Wiskeria smiled and tugged on her hat. Durene nodded.

“Well, it was going well at the start. He bought a lot of expensive seed and got it to sprout, but he was having to pour lots of soil on it, fertilizer and such. And water. And when it did begin to grow…”

“I think I know what happened. A monster?”

Durene shook her head, then hesitated.

“Well, sort of. It was a pack of huge rats. Each one as big as a dog. They just appeared and ate everything in the field. And everywhere else as well! We had to burn the field, and send for as many dogs as we could to hunt them down. But I still found two trying to eat my piglets the week after.”

She shuddered at the memory. Wiskeria shook her head, but she didn’t look surprised.

“It’s a risky business. I’m surprised that [Farmer] got the grass to grow at all. He must have had a Skill or gotten lucky; Sage’s Grass feeds on mana. It produces it too, but there’s the problem. Magic attracts monsters. And farms, let alone ones with Sage’s Grass, are a magnet for anything hungry. [Alchemists] love the stuff, though.”

“Does anyone grow it? I can’t think of anyone around here who would. Not after the rats.”

Durene was curious as a [Farmer]. Wiskeria pondered the question, her head on a swivel for said grass or anything else on her list.

“I think a lot of Sage Grass comes from some farms up north, around…Reizmelt? There’s a swampland there. Oh, and some from Celum in the south. Apparently some [Farmer] specializes in growing them. It makes him rich. A double handful is enough for us, though. It’s not the most magical thing, but I can make do.”

“And you’re sure this’ll work? With mushrooms and some magical grass and stuff?”

“Yes. And there are no mushrooms necessary, Durene. Although if you find some edible ones, we can toss them in there. For variety and taste.”

The half-Troll girl frowned. But Bismarck was the one who interrupted the two. Wiskeria stepped aside as the bear lumbered forwards, suddenly snuffling.

“What is it?”

The Mossbear instantly headed off the path, into several large trees. He wove around them and Wiskeria and Durene, following, saw him rooting at something. It was a large stand of—Durene and Wiskeria identified it at the same time.

“Barley grass.”

The Mossbear was happily tearing up the grass and consuming it. Wiskeria bent and took out the sickle she carried. Bismarck gaughed as she swept some up. Durene pushed his head back as he tried to nibble at Wiskeria’s bundle.

“Back off, Bismarck. We need that, right Wiskeria.”

“It’s a component. I’ll need to extract the juices, but yes. If we can find more and prevent Bismarck from eating it—”

Wiskeria tossed it into the basket on his back. The Mossbear immediately tried to get it, but Durene grabbed his head.

“No, Bismarck. Help us find more of what Wiskeria wants and you get a potato. Understand? Potato.

She bribed the bear with one, and he bit the ripe potato and licked her hand. Durene wiped it on his fur with a sigh. It had been a good idea to bring the Mossbear; his senses were better than hers or Wiskeria’s. It was just hard to control him.

“What else do we need?”

“Sage’s Grass. Barley grass…Tindleflowers, maybe dandelions or Americ if they’re budding…we’re going to be here for a few hours. Don’t worry, though. It’s not an exact recipe. The basis is really Sage’s Grass plus some extras. And I have dried herbs.”

Wiskeria patted her pouches. Durene nodded and they coaxed Bismarck back to the path and let him snuffle onwards. Frostwing screeched overhead; she’d caught a baby bunny. Durene sighed.

They were making a brew. That was what Wiskeria had decided to do last night. As she’d told Durene, potions were out of her expertise. But [Witches] had a unique set of talents of their own.

“It’s between cooking and alchemy. Closer to alchemy, really, but I’ve met a few [Witches] who could make magical dishes. But mostly, it is just stuff in cauldrons. It’s easier with water and heat. That’s where that image of [Witches] comes from, you know?”

Wiskeria led Durene through the forest. The half-Troll girl grunted as she peeled off some bark from a tree. You could actually eat the bark and Bismarck was trying too, but Wiskeria didn’t want much. She was investigating patches of plants, picking them up, comparing what she had in her pouches and basket, and tossing some, keeping others. The [Witch] was so business-like about that Durene didn’t feel like they were doing magic, just preparing a forest soup. Which was close, apparently.

“[Alchemists] buy all kinds of expensive and highly magical ingredients to make their potions so powerful. [Witches] don’t often have that kind of money, so we make natural recipes. This is just a healthy, restorative brew. It doesn’t need to follow an exact recipe like a Stoneskin Potion or something.”

“And where do wild strawberries figure into it?”

Durene peeked at a few red fruits in the basket Wiskeria held. The [Witch] smiled.

“They’re tasty? Seriously, though, strawberries feature in some recipes I know. Not this one; there aren’t enough and they’d ruin the taste. Don’t worry, Durene. I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m not worried. It just doesn’t feel like magic.

The [Farmer] girl complained as she yanked the basket off Bismarck’s back. It was full after three hours of scavenging and he was trying to take it off and couldn’t be bribed. She walked back to the cottage with Wiskeria. The [Witch] needed her biggest cauldron.

“Will mine do? It generally just holds spare vegetables.”

Durene anxiously washed it out and plopped the heavy iron pot down outside. Wiskeria frowned as she ground up some of what she’d brought, including the bark.

“It should. Okay, we need to fill this cauldron with about half water—and we need some milk.”

“Fresh?”

“Preferably. Oh, and some broth. I know there’s some in Riverfarm. Can you get it?”

Durene looked dubious.

“What kind of broth?”

“Uh—chicken? Beef would do, or pork, but I think chicken’s simplest. It’ll have to be enough to fill the rest of the cauldron so high.”

Durene stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] stared back, hands busy grinding. She looked over—Bismarck went for her bowl and she slapped him across the face. The Mossbear groaned and retreated.

“Hurry up, will you? I can’t keep Bismarck busy for long. Hey! Fetch this potato! Oh, we’ll need more potatoes, Durene. And carrots. Actually, I have a list here—”

The half-Troll girl hesitated, but she was too far in it to back out now. She took the list, did a double-take, and frowned at Wiskeria. But then Durene tromped down into the village. It was abuzz with activity. More than one person had abandoned their job; Durene found out why as she caught hold of Miss Yesel and Chimmy helping pass out food. Miss Yesel blinked at the list, but she had Chimmy help source the ingredients willingly enough.

“What’s going on, Miss Yesel?”

The woman frowned as Chimmy helped fill a handcart for Durene to go back.

“The trial’s what’s going on, Durene. My Prost’s going to show everyone that so-called Master Elmmet’s nothing more than a [Thief]! But the Lancrel folk aren’t happy. They’re already saying he’s innocent—whereas everyone with sense wants him out of Riverfarm or flogged! Or both! But there was already a fight when Prost tried to put the [Thief] in the stocks!”

She glared. By ‘everyone’, she’d meant all of the villagers. Durene nodded, glancing out the window as Chimmy put a closed-lid pail on the handcart with a grunt.

“I think we need at least two more pails, Chimmy.”

“Goodness, what’s all this for?”

“Magic, I think. I’ll be back soon, Miss Yesel. Wiskeria’s making something, but I’ll come to Riverfarm before the trial. What’s it in, an hour?”

Yesel nodded, looking relieved.

“I don’t expect any trouble, but it’d be good to have you about, Durene. Just in case. Everyone’ll see that Elmmet’s a monster, but just in case. That everything Wiskeria wants?”

Durene nodded and scowled at her list. She had a deep suspicion—she stomped back up the way to her cottage, pushing the handcart and taking care not to spill anything. Wiskeria was mixing the ingredients in the cauldron when Durene came back, and she’d started a fire.

Durene smelled a few acrid hints from the pot, but the rest looked just like edible stuff. And the Sage’s Grass. She had to admit, the red-green herbs swirling around in the pot with their slight glow that illuminated the water made the soup look more properly magical.

Wiskeria didn’t look the part, though. Oh, she had a hat and robes, but she was stirring the pot with a long-handled spoon. And when Durene set down the cart, the [Witch] brightened.

“Oh good, you’re here. I was worried I’d boil this all too long. Okay, we’re going to dice the potatoes and carrots and toss them in here. Along with the broth. Did you get the spices?”

“I did.”

Durene eyed the pot and folded her arms. Wiskeria nodded.

“We don’t have to peel the potatoes. Just wash them. We’ll bring the brew to a boil, let it simmer for about twenty minutes, then add the cream. And then—”

Wiskeria!

The [Witch] jumped as Durene stamped her foot. Bismarck, sneaking up with his mouth open to the handcart, backed off hurriedly. The half-Troll girl glared at the [Witch]. Wiskeria looked at Durene warily.

“What?”

“This isn’t a brew! This is potato soup!

The half-Troll girl howled in outrage. There was nothing magical in the soup besides some edible plants and the Sage’s Grass! She’d made soup like this a hundred times! Wiskeria turned red.

“No, it’s a brew. It just looks like potato soup to you. And it’ll taste a bit like it. The milk’s what I normally add—”

“You’re just making food! That’s not magical! How am I supposed to believe it’ll do anything besides fill my stomach?”

“You haven’t seen the final step. Besides, we added Sage’s Grass. That’s important.”

Wiskeria weakly protested. Durene glared.

“If I’m not impressed, I’m going to dump the entire pot over you. This had better be magic, Wiskeria. People need magic. Not food.”

The [Witch] opened her mouth to protest, and then her gaze grew distant. She tugged her hat lower and adjusted her spectacles.

“Food’s important. But this will be magic, Durene. I swear it by my fingers. If I lie, you can feed them to Bismarck. I swear it by the dead. It may look like fun and games, but I swear there’s magic here, by a [Witch]’s name.”

And when she said that, and looked at Durene, her eyes were suddenly, scarily serious. Durene hesitated.

“You don’t have to do that. I mean, I like a good soup…”

She smiled lamely, suddenly disconcerted by Wiskeria’s change of mood. After a second the [Witch] smiled and everything was normal.

“That’s part of it. Good food is good magic, or so one of the [Witches] who taught me used to say. But there’s more to witchcraft than everyone thinks. It’s not the kind of magic [Mages] understand…let’s put in that broth. Do you have a spare cutting knife? I hate using my dagger.”

It was a potato soup. From the way the two diced the carrots and potatoes—Wiskeria had forgotten celery—to adding in spices and letting the soup simmer and thicken. Wiskeria even offered Durene a taste and the girl had to admit it was good. Not magical, though.

But the magic was coming. Wiskeria’s solemn oath was first. As the soup was boiling and she had Durene stirring in the creamy milk from the cows, the [Witch] walked around the cauldron. Six times clockwise, three times counterclockwise. She traced a perfect circle each time, her steps all the same width.

Durene, busy tasting the soup for consistency as she added milk, barely noticed at first. But then she noticed that with each circle, the flames of the fire at the bottom of the cauldron were jumping slightly. Higher and higher with each of Wiskeria’s circuits. Durene nearly dropped the ladle.

“Wait, are you doing magic? Am I in the way?”

Wiskeria didn’t answer at first. She completed the third circle counterclockwise and then turned to Durene. The Troll girl stared. She had never thought of it, but Wiskeria’s eyes were a faint, yellowish green, weren’t they? Only, they looked more yellow than green. And they seemed to have the faintest luminescence in the morning.

Morning. Durene looked around her cottage. Trees all about, and the road leading down to Riverfarm was normal. It was just that there were a few more shadows. As if it were evening all of a sudden. But the sun was rising in the sky when she looked. Bright…except when you looked down.

“Wiskeria? Is this the magic bit? Are you going to cast a spell?”

Durene tried to chuckle. And to her relief, Wiskeria laughed lightly and smiled.

“Just a bit of preparatory stuff. It’s just a ritual, Durene. [Witch] magic is more like rituals. We cast a few spells like my [Fox Fire] spell, but that’s [Mage] magic. This is about patterns.”

“Potato soup.”

Neither one laughed at that this time. Wiskeria just smiled. She glanced at the simmering pot. The soup was turning an appetizing creamy color, spotted with the spices and bits of herbs and carrots Durene had tossed in. The smell made Durene’s stomach rumble.

“It’s about intent. Intent, bits of magic—but mostly…will.”

“Will?”

“Oh yes. Good will, bad will…I’m sorry, I can’t explain. What’s left?”

“Uh—nothing much. It’s pretty close to done. Hey, this is a good soup. But it’d be better for some bacon or something. You know, for taste? I could run down and get some—”

“No. No meat. No dead flesh.”

Wiskeria’s head snapped up. She stared at Durene. The half-Troll girl froze.

“Okay.”

“That’s not the intention here. This pot is made with goodwill. To heal. For regrowth. Meat would spoil it. And I can’t do it twice. Give me a second.”

Wiskeria knelt and began adding wood to the fire. Durene felt like the soup was hot enough; any hotter and they’d burn it. But she only watched as the fire grew and the brew began to bubble.

“You couldn’t make it twice? Why not? There’s enough ingredients in the forest and in Riverfarm to make a hundred soups like this, I wager.”

Wiskeria glanced up. She stood up slowly, and the fire ate up the wood, greedily rising.

“I can’t make a second brew or soup. Just like I can’t cast a hex the same way twice. The emotions are wrong. The history makes the magic. The wrongs I’ve done are going into this brew.”

She pointed down into the pot. Durene peered in and chuckled nervously. She looked around. Were there shadows in the cottage? She glanced up at the sun for reassurance, but it felt paler.

“I didn’t see you throwing anything bad in there.”

“It’s not just about what goes into it. It’s what’s done. Where’s the knife?”

Durene paused. Wiskeria found it and nodded. She reached up and without hesitating, cut a lock from her hair. Not much. She went back to the pot with it.

“Aw, Wiskeria—”

The [Witch] tossed the hair onto the fire. Durene closed her mouth and the flames ate the hair greedily. The stench of burning hair filled the air—and then it vanished. Durene blinked. She felt at her nose. Suddenly, the smell of the soup was there, but not the hair smell. And it smelled better than before.

“Um. Wiskeria? Is this more magic?”

“Yes.”

The [Witch] turned back. Her eyes were glowing. She took a few breaths and blew over the pot’s surface. And the liquid inside moved as if she were stirring it.

“Nearly done. The magic’s there. The stew’s good. All that’s left is the incantation.”

The [Witch] murmured to herself. Durene hesitated. She wasn’t sure she liked this anymore. The shadows were longer, she was certain. And—suddenly, Durene realized she hadn’t seen Bismarck. The greedy Mossbear would love this soup. So why wasn’t he…?

She looked around. Bismarck was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, Durene looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was walking around the pot, doing that perfect circle again. Murmuring under her breath.

Goosebumps raced up Durene’s arm. Quickly—just to make sure he wasn’t going interfere—she went around the cottage. She found Bismarck huddled in his den. He stared at her as she paused in relief.

“There you are. You’re uh, not going to eat the soup, right? It’s important you don’t.”

The Mossbear stared up at Durene. He didn’t look bored or hungry like he always did. Rather, he looked—wary. She reached for him after a second.

“You want to eat some scraps?”

Bismarck resisted Durene’s pull. He growled and then snapped as she tried to pull him out with more force. She let go at once. The Mossbear huddled in his den.

“Okay then. I’ll leave you.”

Disconcerted, Durene backed away. The fire was hot at the cauldron. And the smell of the soup filled the air. There was another feeling too, a sense of tension. Almost like the feeling before a storm, but different. Wiskeria was bent over the cauldron. Durene couldn’t see her face. The half-Troll girl looked around. She didn’t like this anymore.

“Frostwing?”

The bird was inside Durene’s cottage, but hiding in her nest. Her head was under her wing and when Durene tried to bring her outside she flew back. She didn’t scream, that was the thing. She was silent, but she fought Durene coming out. At last, Durene walked outside and saw Wiskeria standing there.

Watching her. Durene halted. The [Witch] stood in front of the cauldron, and her eyes were glowing. Orange mixed with green. Wiskeria spoke slowly.

“Remember what I said about [Witches] being different, Durene?”

“Yes?”

Durene quavered. Then she straightened. This wasn’t something to be afraid of! It was just—Wiskeria had told her she wasn’t above Level 30 in her [Witch] class. It was just a spell. If Durene kicked over the cauldron—her eyes flicked to the pot.

Kicked over the cauldron? She didn’t want to do that. That felt like a…bad idea. But Durene was unnerved.

“This isn’t like regular magic, Wiskeria.”

The [Witch] smiled slightly. She breathed in and out—she was sweating hard, Durene realized.

“No. This isn’t like a regular spell. It’s the best I can do. I need to finish it now. Don’t worry; it feels…bad. I know. But the worst thing I could do is stop. There’s a lot of guilt in the air. Guilt and regret.”

Durene nodded. She stared around the cottage. Wiskeria breathed in and out, rhythmically.

“I gathered it. That’s a thing [Witches] do. That’s what’s making this brew powerful. Now I need to perform the incantation. Durene, this is the most important part. You can listen. But don’t speak.”

Durene opened her mouth for a flippant remark and closed it. Wiskeria nodded. She turned back to the cauldron. And this time, she walked around it. Not in the perfect circle, but urgently, bending, investigating the liquid inside. The soup swirled, as if following Wiskeria. And then she spoke.

 

“For a drink to warm the heart and body both,

I offer this harvest, by [Witch]’s ways and humble host

Sage’s Grass, gathered without cold iron’s sting,

Mushrooms, plucked from a faerie’s ring

Herbs grown in garden plot and nature’s walk,

Eleven dried things from [Merchants] bought

To bind it all, a liquid draught of ritual wrought

Come together now, to cure from this humble pot.”

 

It was a slow chant. Rhythmic. And with each step, the fire beneath the cauldron flared up a bit. Durene watched, breathless. It felt like the shadows were gathering around Wiskeria and the pot. And the smell was beautiful, enticing. Durene felt her stomach gurgle. But what was the unease in the air. Wiskeria pointed.

A red glow sprang from the soup. Durene jumped until she realized. The Sage’s Grass. It was glowing in the pot. The [Witch] stepped closer, and Durene saw she had a knife. The half-Troll girl’s stomach clenched in unconscious anticipation and she opened her mouth before she caught herself. Wiskeria murmured.

“And grief. And regret. And despair and death. And hatred, I add all of thee. Be swallowed and changed by goodwill. For a [Witch]’s repentance. Mercy.

She flicked and something flew into the pot. Durene saw it go, or did she feel it. The hum in the air intensified. Now she saw it. Wiskeria was struggling with something, pushing the shadows into the pot. Her face twisted with guilt, anguish, like Durene had seen in the meeting hall when she’d spoken to the families of the dead. She raised the knife in her left hand.

“And for power. A sacrifice for blood lost. Come now, come hither! Mend wounds and give life, for those who died in winter’s frost!”

The knife flashed down. Durene saw it slash across Wiskeria’s wrist. She stared in horror as blood splattered the cauldron, the sides—none fell into the soup. It ran down and into the fire. The fire flared up, roaring for a moment, engulfing the cauldron. Wiskeria stumbled.

Wiskeria!

Durene rushed forwards. She couldn’t hold it in anymore. Only the [Witch]’s hand stopped her. Wiskeria put one hand on the cauldron to steady herself and Durene saw and heard her hand hiss on the metal. The [Witch]’s face turned with pain, but she looked up at Durene, panting.

“I’m fine. It’s not done. Hold on.”

The fire had died down. The boiling soup was still. Durene, hesitating, realized the shadows in the cottage had returned to normal. But there was still something left. Wiskeria reached for the stirring spoon. With her good hand, the one not burned and cut, she lifted some of the broth to her lips.

It was a thick, creamy soup that Durene saw Wiskeria sipping from. But it looked deeper, more complex, better than any soup Durene could remember eating. Ever. Wiskeria gulped down the soup hungrily, and then looked at her right hand, the cut and burn there. And Durene gasped.

The wounds were closing! Slowly, so slowly. But Durene could see the flesh knitting, the blood stopping. The burn disappeared as Wiskeria and Durene stared at it. And when the [Witch] lowered her hand, her eyes were green and yellow, sparkling, and her cheeks flushed with pride. Pride and life. She looked at Durene and smiled, tired, jubilant.

“It’s done. Want a taste?”

Durene stared at Wiskeria, then the soup. She stared at the offered ladle, felt her stomach rumble, and threw her hands up in the air.

“What was that?

 

—-

 

“Old ways.”

That was all Wiskeria said when Durene had calmed down. She was grimacing, trying to figure out how to load the cauldron onto a handcart to transport it to Riverfarm. It wasn’t going to be easy; the cauldron was full, but neither she nor Durene could countenance wasting a drop of it. And it needed to be eaten from the cauldron, apparently.

“It’s the vessel it was made in. You can’t just bottle it, Durene. Well, you could, but it’ll be weaker. And it’ll lose its power after the first day, most of it. People need to eat this fresh!”

“And it’ll cure them? What did you do? I’ve never heard someone chant like that. No [Mage] could do that! What was with the shadows? The fire?”

Wiskeria shrugged.

“It’s [Witch] stuff.”

She hesitated as Durene made a fist. Wiskeria sighed.

“I can’t tell you everything, Durene. Like I said, this is old ways. Witchcraft is all about ritual. Using power that’s not our own, you understand. We’re not walking mana batteries like [Mages] or able to mix…Unicorn hair and Kraken teeth like [Alchemists]. We have to get our power from other things.”

“Like what?”

The [Witch] paused for a moment.

“Emotions, for one. That’s what the shadows were about. I was gathering all the regrets I had. Some of the ill will, the pain from people who lost their families.”

“Oh. But why was it so—”

“Sinister? It wasn’t so bad. I just built up there. If I’d let it all out, it could have been nasty. But good will, bad—it’s all power. I burnt it up, don’t worry.”

“With your hair? And blood?

Wiskeria shrugged, smiling a bit. She touched her healed hand and made a face.

“Everything requires a sacrifice. And because of what I offered, you helping me, I think this will be a good stew. It’ll heal wounds, energize people—make them feel better about what happened.”

“All that in this?”

Durene stared at the cauldron. She’d had a mouthful, and she didn’t feel different. Okay, she felt good, and like she could plough a field with one hand—but stamina potions did the same. Only, this felt better than the burst of frantic energy a stamina potion gave her. Wiskeria nodded when Durene said that.

“It’s magic, Durene. A magic soup. It’ll do a lot of things. It’s what I’m good at. Soups, alchemy. That’s my specialty as a [Witch]—I’m not great, but I can do a bit. Poison doesn’t require as much. That’s just vapors and steam. But this is magic. Not as good as potions I guess. But it’ll do.”

“It tastes better than any potion. I’d use this every day if I could.”

Wiskeria nodded. She pushed Bismarck’s head out of the way as the Mossbear went for the pot for the twelfth time. He and Frostwing had come out of hiding once the ceremony, ritual—Durene wasn’t sure what to call it—was done. And now he really wanted what was in the pot. Wiskeria ticked off points on her long fingers with a sigh.

“It is good, but it won’t last, you can’t transport it so easily, and potions are faster. Easier to make too, I guess. It’s too bad; there was a time when [Witches] were very valuable. Because [Alchemists] weren’t so good at what they did. We could earn a living this way. Now it’s only good for rare occasions.”

“That’s too bad.”

Durene mumbled. She felt humbled, at peace after seeing the ritual, despite the blood Wiskeria had shed. It felt a bit like forgiveness, if you could make that into a spell. Wiskeria nodded. She looked relaxed too.

“You think? You should hear the old [Witches] in my coven complain about it. They’re all too young to remember, but they know all the stories and they moan about the good old days—do you think you can carry it?”

“I do. Just watch the front so it doesn’t spill out?”

Durene lifted the handcart with a grunt. It was well-built, but the cauldron was heavy. She and Wiskeria watched the cart anxiously, but it felt sturdy, so after a moment, Wiskeria nodded and Durene proceeded carefully.

“I think I want to meet more [Witches] after this. Well, not that Mavika one. The crows were scary.”

“She’s not so bad. But she is a part of my coven. One of the senior members.”

“Really? But your coven—it’s full of good [Witches], right? Like you?”

Wiskeria smiled slightly and shook her head as they walked. The sky was beautiful and dry. Durene was smiling, despite managing the wagon. A black bird flew overhead, and even it sounded welcoming.

“It’s full of [Witches], Durene. Good, bad, we band together. Mine’s one of a few on Izril. I don’t think there’s many covens in the world, but we’re most numerous in Izril and Terandria. Few, if any, live in Chandrar or Baleros.”

“Why? People don’t like [Witches]?”

“No…I just think few want to live in the desert or fighting off snakes. And not all species take to [Witches]. I hear Humans make up most [Witch] covens. It’s a very specific class. We have a history.”

“Huh. So what’s your coven do anyways? Why haven’t I heard of them?”

Wiskeria smiled.

“We’re spread out. Covens can be very large—mine’s all the [Witches] in about, oh, three hundred miles. Like I said, there are only a few—mine’s the Marshlands Coven.”

“Marshlands? But there’s only a small one up north. Are there more far from here?”

“No. I think there was a lot more marsh in the past, though. My coven’s old, Durene. Members come in and out, but we’ve been here on Izril since Humans first came. Before that, maybe. [Witches] are—”

The two broke off from their chat as they entered Riverfarm. Durene saw a crowd of people walking down the street, many heading to—she looked up.

“Oh! Perfect! It’s lunch!”

Wiskeria looked up. It had taken all morning to make the cauldron of enchanted soup! She smiled and Durene called out. The half-Troll girl’s voice echoed down the street, attracting attention.

“Hey! Everyone! Come over here! Wiskeria brewed a magic soup for you to try! Come on! It’s fantastic!

Heads turned. Durene saw to her pleasure that it was mostly villagers, Riverfarm folk about here. She waved at them and spotted a girl skipping towards them. Chimmy. The girl gathered with Ram, Miss Yesel, and some of the other villagers, including an entire host of [Wood Cutters]. They stared at the cauldron as Durene carefully placed it on the ground. They were just outside one of the cookhouses, but even the [Cook] came outside when they smelled the pot.

It smelled marvelous. And magical; you couldn’t deny that magic was a scent when you inhaled the magical potato soup. It felt like there was more than just the ingredients inside, and as Durene proudly shouted, more and more people stopped.

“This is a magical soup, General—I mean, Miss Wiskeria?”

Ram looked into the cauldron, half-warily, but licking his lips. Wiskeria nodded. She addressed the curious crowd.

“It’s a brew. More like a soup than actual potions. It’ll accelerate healing in the body. Scratches, small cuts—they’ll disappear overnight or in hours of drinking. Even bigger injuries. Plus, there’s some stamina-ingredients too. You can eat it with breakfast and it’ll work all day. But this will go bad in two days, three at most.”

“What’s it for?”

Miss Yesel pushed back Chimmy as the girl tried to peer inside the pot. She looked interested too, but wary. Wiskeria was a [Witch]. Durene hurried out with some bowls and spoons as Wiskeria tugged on her hat’s brim.

“Goodwill, Miss Yesel. Call it goodwill, and an apology. A bit of magic to help everyone today. That’s all.”

“I see.”

Miss Yesel looked dubious, but Chimmy, her eyes shining, reached for a bowl.

“It smells even better than your soup, Ma! Let me try?”

“Hush!”

Yesel looked scandalized, but that provoked a laugh from the crowd. More people drew over as Durene took the bowls and handed them around. Wiskeria smiled as she explained more to Ram and the others.

“It’s nothing much. But it is tiring to make. I can’t mass-produce anything like an [Alchemist] can.”

“And it’s safe? It’s just helpful?”

Ram hesitated as he took a bowl. Durene nodded.

“It’s good! I had some, don’t worry, Mister Ram! Your only complaint will be there’s not enough after you try it! Here, who wants to be first? Anyone want some?”

“Me, me!

Chimmy waved her arm excitedly. Yesel stopped her, looking apologetic.

“Maybe if someone else tries it first?”

“Of course. I can have some, or Durene. But if anyone else wants to try…”

Wiskeria looked around. The street was crowded, but no one was moving. A crow alighted on the building opposite; a dog wandered forwards, sniffing. But no Humans. Durene impatiently eyed the crowd for volunteers and nudged Ram repeatedly. Once one person tried it—the villagers hesitated. Then a quavering voice spoke up.

“I’ll—uh—I’ll have some, if you wouldn’t mind. That smells like a wonderful soup. And clearly magical. Not magic I know, though.”

Durene saw Nesor, the timid [Mage] appear in the crowd. He walked forwards and looked awkwardly at Wiskeria. He hesitated. Wiskeria bit her lip.

“Nesor. I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I uh—avoided you. Wiskeria. I’m sorry about—you know, it was me who was sending [Messages] so I’m sorry…”

The [Mage]’s stutter hadn’t improved. He hesitated, and looked around, then shrank a bit as he lowered his head.

“I’m sorry about that.”

A moment of silence followed his words. Wiskeria nodded tiredly.

“I am too.”

The two looked at each other, until Ram cleared his throat.

“It wasn’t your fault, Miss Wiskeria. Nor his Majesty’s. It was them Goblins. And whoever knocked out poor Nesor.”

Everyone nodded at that, to Durene’s relief. Nesor nodded to. He couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. Instead, he eyed the magical soup with a [Mage]’s interest.

“I’d gladly try the first bowl, Miss Wiskeria. I’ve always heard [Witches] make powerful concoctions, but I haven’t ever tried…would you allow me the honor?”

“Of course.”

Wiskeria smiled and Durene offered her a ladle. She poured the soup into a bowl, and Nesor took it. He sniffed the soup, and smiled timidly. Then he took a spoon and without hesitation, took a bite.

His face changed at once. It grew peaceful, content, and his eyes brightened. No one needed to know what the soup tasted like, but the crowd waited anyways as Nesor finished the bowl, eating quickly and hungrily. He looked up, realized everyone was staring, and blushed. But then he pointed at the cauldron.

“This is the finest soup I’ve ever had. And—powerful! I feel reinvigorated, as good as any [Alchemist]’s concoction. I urge you all to try it! Please!”

He waved a hand and the crowd moved forwards. Durene, smiling and laughing, reached for the ladle, and Wiskeria’s smile was no less wide than Nesor’s. Chimmy hopped into place, bouncing for a bowl. Durene reached for the ladle and the shout behind her nearly deafened her.

You bitch!

Rehanna ran forwards. The woman hiked up her dress, and before anyone could stop her, as Durene and Wiskeria were turning, she kicked at the cauldron. With a cry, Durene turned, but it was too late. The iron pot overbalanced with Rehanna’s enraged kick. And it was a good kick; the heavy pot tipped over and gravity did the rest.

The liquid in the cauldron poured onto the street, mixing with the wet earth. The pleasant aroma in the air faded, and turned sour. Wiskeria leapt back as the magical soup stained her feet. And the pleasant liquid was suddenly brown, mixed with the soil unpleasantly. Rehanna, panting, eyes alight with hatred, pointed in triumph at it.

“See? It was a trick! It wasn’t good at all! Poison, it looks like!”

Rehanna!

Mister Ram roared in fury. He threw his bowl down as the convivial, pleasant atmosphere turned just as hostile. Wiskeria was in shock, but the [Rancher] advanced on Rehanna furiously.

“You just kicked over enough food to feed everyone here! And the best smelling soup I’ve ever had! How dare you! Prost will put you in the stocks! You should be thrown out of Riverfarm on your ear for that! After Miss Wiskeria—”

“Don’t you fall for her lies! She’s a [Witch]! She was trying to buy you all with her fake magic! You think she can make you a stew and beg your forgiveness? Did you forget what she did?

Rehanna bellowed back, her face red with fury. There were tears in her eyes. Ram recoiled, and Rehanna pointed at the foul-smelling liquid now staining the ground.

“You see that? Can’t you smell it? I knew it was a trick! The same trick that made everyone think she was a [General]! It’s just black magic!”

“It wasn’t bad magic.”

Nesor mumbled.

“How would you know, you half-rate [Mage]?”

Rehanna spun on him and he flinched. But he raised his voice, gritting his teeth.

“I know just as certainly as I knew any magic from Wistram. Miss Rehanna. That was no poor spell. It was a [Witch]’s brew, not alchemical, but there was good magic there. I’m afraid you ruined it.”

He pointed at Rehanna. The woman’s face turned even deeper crimson, and there was a rumble from the villagers. She pointed at Wiskeria, and her voice was a screech of fury.

“Say what you will, but I know who killed my husband! It was her! Her and your mad [Emperor]! And if you had half the sense I do—that Lancrel’s people do come to it—you’d see the truth.”

“You’re drunk, Rehanna. And you’ve been listening to those idiots from Lancrel’s Council.”

Miss Yesel looked disgusted. Durene realized not all of Rehanna’s flush was from anger. The half-Troll girl clenched her fists. How dare she?

And yet, more than one person was eying Wiskeria’s spoiled soup uneasily. The smell was foul. They looked at Wiskeria. She was standing, feet still in the wet soup, head bowed. The rest of the crowd rumbled ominously. Rehanna had insulted Laken too. But the woman just looked around with a sneer.

“You think I’m wrong? She’s a [Witch]! You know what they do! How would you ever trust a bloody [Witch]? A witch!

No one replied. Disgusted Ram turned and spat.

“Someone help me. We’re hauling you to Prost. He can deal with you—he’s taking care of that [Thief] right now. Or Lady Rie. Where is she?”

He reached for Rehanna. She tore herself away, stumbling back. She retreated as Ram and a few other men and women reached for her.

“Don’t touch me! I want Councilwoman Beatica! She’s smart enough to see through that bitch’s lies. And she knows what’s right about everything else! Don’t touch me! Riverfarm’s going to have proper laws. Proper laws and—”

She was backing away towards the cookhouse door. Rehanna reached for it, probably intending to barricade herself inside. Ram, growling, reached for her, but the woman seized the doorknob—and shrieked.

The sound split the air. It wasn’t like her scream of fury earlier. It wasn’t a Human sound, but animalistic. Pain. Pure pain. Rehanna’s shriek froze Ram and the others in their tracks. Durene saw the woman flail back from the door, clutching at her right hand, the one that had touched the knob. And then she held it up.

Red, burnt flesh and blood trickling down her hand. Scorched skin, part of her hand torn away—

The crowd stared in horror. Rehanna opened her mouth to say something, but another shriek tore its way out. She could only wave her hand and scream, looking around, begging them to do something. But everyone was frozen. Durene’s mind was locked up. What had just—

“I didn’t do it! I didn’t touch her!”

Ram was shaken, white-faced. He stared at Rehanna’s hand. Then someone behind him uttered a strangled oath.

“Ram! The door—”

The man looked and froze. Durene saw a bright light. She stared at the doorknob. It was ordinary brass. But something was wrong. The door knob was burning white with heat! Somehow, it had grown hot as metal in forge’s fire. And it had burned Rehanna’s hand when she’d put it on the doorknob.

Some of it was still there. Parts of her palm sizzled and cooked on the doorknob. Durene smelled the scent of cooked meat, but her stomach roiled as she saw Rehanna holding her mutilated hand. Someone behind her gagged—it was Miss Yesel.

“What on earth—how did this happen?”

Ram stared at Rehanna, and then he turned.

“Healing potion. We need a—”

Half the people felt at their belts. The rest stared in horror. But it was Nesor, face white, who ran for one. As Rehanna collapsed to her knees unable to speak for agony, in the silence, heads turned.

“Who did this? Why?”

Ram whispered. Then he turned. He looked. He couldn’t help it. Neither could Durene. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was frozen in the street. She looked around, started.

“It wasn’t me. I didn’t—”

The shock on her face was apparent to everyone. But still, the eyes searched the street, then went back to her. If not her, who? Rehanna made another sound, a groaning, weeping scream. Miss Yesel clutched at Chimmy, who was white with fear.

“Miss Wiskeria?”

“I didn’t do it. That was not my spell.”

“Was it a spell?”

Ram looked at Wiskeria, and then past her at Nesor, who’d rushed out of a building with three vials in his hand. Wiskeria hesitated.

“I—the magic—”

“It was not Wiskeria who cast that spell.”

Durene breathed in and out, trying to clear the smell from the door. The knob was turning red, cooling. But the damage was still done. Ram looked around, clearly disconcerted.

“If not Wiskeria, then who? Who—

Me.

The voice came from above from behind. Durene spun. Ram, Yesel, Chimmy, Wiskeria, everyone, looked up. And there they saw her.

A woman perched on the roof of the house opposite the cookhouse. At least, she looked vaguely like a woman. Her arms were thin, her posture hunched. She was dressed in grey rags, and she had a dark grey hat. Pointed, and bespectacled with feathers. But the woman’s frame looked—wrong. Too long. And as she hunched there, in a crouch, Durene saw she was not alone.

A flock of crows were sitting next to the woman, silent as could be. Durene hadn’t even noticed them arrive. Now they turned their heads, their beady eyes staring down at the crowd. More than one person shuddered. Not just for the crows. But for the woman. She looked like they did. And her eyes, when they stared down, were piercing. And the irises were nearly back.

“I cast that spell, Master Ram. If you seek a [Witch] to blame, here I am. But such is consequence for rudeness done. That woman’s pain was justly won.”

“What—who are—”

Ram stuttered as he pointed up at the woman. Wiskeria had gone white. She looked up and the woman—no, the [Witch] stood up. The villagers backed away as the crows took flight, circling the air, cawing. And the woman’s voice was loud, as Rehanna screamed on the ground.

Remember this well, people of Riverfarm: Those who scorn a [Witch]’s gift must pay the toll. Discourtesy shall be matched with discourtesy, and ill for ill. In equal measure do we reap kindness or misery each. Such is humanity’s will.”

The words came out like a chant, like a spell. The woman who was as much bird as person leapt down, and the murder of crows flew low overhead, cawing, and the people ducked or shouted. They backed away. But Wiskeria held still. She stared at the woman with the hat. The [Witch]. And she said one word.

“Mavika.”

The [Witch] bowed slightly. And a smile crossed her lips. Yellow teeth—Durene shuddered. Mavika looked at Wiskeria. And she looked around and said only this:

“I am the first.”

The rest followed soon after.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.35

(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)

 

Day 54 – Ryoka

 

When the Wind Runner of Reizmelt woke up, she knew it would be another rainy day. Honestly, she was sick of them, but they were symptomatic of Izril in the spring. Wet.

And it was still better than Liscor, whose spring rain season was the thing of nightmares. Even so, as spring waned and became summer, the rains persisted. And yes, they were good for crops and all that. Ryoka was still tired of being wet.

She knew it would be a rainy day as soon as she woke to the drumming of rain on the roof above her room. But as Ryoka got up, she realized a few more things.

Firstly, she wasn’t in Reizmelt. She knew that because it was past dawn and Madain hadn’t been banging about, swearing and shouting for everyone to wake up!! Funny, but Ryoka almost missed that. And because her bed was freshly made, smelled of flowers, and the sheets had been washed by someone other than Ryoka.

She was in Walta, staying at the Rose’s Retreat, a very nice inn with a female [Innkeeper] who was accommodating and strict. Miss Iglesias Theroben had expressed a firm desire to Ryoka that her rooms not be sullied by impropriety, or any untoward advances towards her guests.

She obviously hadn’t been suspecting Ryoka of the latter, given how it seemed like most people in this world’s society didn’t acknowledge or even know about sexual orientations beyond male and female, but Ryoka was amused to know that the upstanding Miss Iglesias thought of Lady Bethal Walchaís as a paragon of virtue. She’d been too grateful for somewhere to sleep and for Miss Iglesias’ welcoming, if strictly proper inn, to shatter the woman’s beliefs.

That wasn’t her. And as Ryoka got up and dressed with the speed and efficiency that comes to people who live in a hurry, she realized one last thing: it was going to be a bad day to run. She could still do it, but it would be a bad day.

Not a bad bad day, to be clear. Ryoka felt good. A few days of rest had cleared the minor potion-sickness out of her veins and stomach and rejuvenated her after her now-famous run from Reizmelt to Walta, capital city of Lady Bethal’s lands. She felt good, today, in fact. Hungry. It was just that as soon as Ryoka had sensed, felt the wind outside howling in the rain, she’d known it was going to be a bad day.

Downstairs, the Rose’s Retreat was already bustling when the sleepy young woman exited her ground-floor room. Unlike other inns, the layout of this in more closely resembled one of the cheap motels Ryoka had ‘run away ’ to when she was sick of fighting with her father or trying to get her mother to agree to…anything. And like a good motel experience, breakfast was a buffet.

A very nice buffet. Ryoka saw the goat’s cheese being spread onto a bun first then she smelled some cooked sausage and saw a delicate spread of garden-grown vegetables, fresh from Miss Iglesias’ own soil. Her stomach rumbled but when she saw the somewhat portly, very gracious host, Ryoka stopped to greet her. There were such things as manners and Ryoka wanted to mind hers.

“Ah, Miss Ryoka Griffin. A fair morning to you! I trust you weren’t awoken unduly early? The blessed rain woke me up earlier than I would have liked, but you Runners do keep early hours.”

The woman sighed as she turned to greet Ryoka, goat-cheese and bun in hand. Ryoka eyed the bread and decided she was having that first, with some of the roasted meat. Miss Iglesias’ inn might not have had the random excitement that was an attraction or a deterrent in Erin’s inn, or the dirt-cheap prices and unique…personality that was Madain’s inn. But it was arguably better than both.

Ryoka knew that was an insult to Erin, but did she have a dedicated [Cook] with [Advanced Cooking] and a host of other Skills like [Rising Dough] or [Two Hour Warmth]. Maybe her inn had changed, but Ryoka saw a [Maid]—not a [Barmaid], just a [Maid]—delicately arranging a gentle-smelling bouquet next to the dishes of warm, delicious food. Still warm, thanks to that Skill and fresh as…

Ryoka’s mouth watered. Say what you will, and Erin did make a good pizza, but this was home-cooking and as much as you wanted of it.

Fresh and organic too, if that was your fancy. Ryoka would settle for delicious. She nodded politely to the smiling Miss Iglesias.

“Good morning to you too, Miss Iglesias. I’m not so sure it’ll be a fair one, though. The rain might clear up but you shouldn’t count on hanging anything out; the wind will be blowing hard all day.”

“Really? My [Gardener] friend swore her [Weathersense] told her it would be only rainy tomorrow, but perfect for gardening later on if I wore boots. But if anyone would know, it would be you, wouldn’t it?”

Miss Iglesias glanced out of one of her glass windows with a frown. Ryoka grimaced.

“I’m not an expert Miss Iglesias, so don’t quote me on it. If I’m wrong, I’d be delighted. But…uh, this breakfast looks lovely.”

“Oh! I’m terribly sorry. Go on and enjoy yourself by all means. I imagine you’ll want to be up and about. Will you be staying another day?”

The woman stepped aside so Ryoka could fill a plate and chat at the same time. Biting into her first cheese-and–sausage roll—Miss Iglesias stood on no customs aside from the bit about hanky and panky and horrifically graphic displays of sex—she swallowed and then replied

“I doubt it, Miss Iglesias. I have all my gear in my bag of holding here—I’m paid up, aren’t I?”

She patted the bag at her side. Miss Iglesias nodded.

“You’re free to leave, but I will keep your room open until tonight. If you wish to stay you need only return. You have been a good guest.”

“Thank you.”

Ryoka smiled gratefully. Miss Iglesias was used to travellers, being one of the more popular inns for travellers to stop by. She had any number of rooms available, but her keeping Ryoka’s open for a day was still generous.

Ryoka helped herself to a big breakfast—she might be eating rations on the road if she took the offer she’d gotten yesterday. She might have lingered to talk with Miss Iglesias, but a howl of wind against the windows made her, the innkeeper, and a few guests enjoying the early breakfast look up.

“What a storm. My garden will need no end of work after this.”

Exasperated, Miss Iglesias went to the window and peered outside. Ryoka grimaced, trying to imagine running in that but—her internal sense told her the wind was upset. But that didn’t correlate to the rain. Indeed, it was just a light sprinkle now. Ryoka brightened; she could handle that. And the noise made her realize something else.

“Ah, Miss Iglesias, I might be taking off now. I’m very grateful for your hospitality…

The woman turned and realized Ryoka was edging towards the door. She opened her mouth and then realized why Ryoka was in a hurry. So she smiled understandingly and reached out to shake Ryoka’s hand gently.

“Well, as I said, you’ve been very easy to look after. No messes, no blood or muck for my girls to tidy up—if you stop by Walta in the future, stay here by all means! I know you Runners, and I have no doubt I’ll see you again.”

Ryoka ducked her head, smiling.

“Thank you, Miss Iglesias. I’m normally around Reizmelt, but if I’m ever in the region for a delivery…”

She began to walk towards the door. But, too late, as Ryoka put one hand on the brass knob, she heard the sound she’d wanted to avoid. Clip-clop, clip-clop.

Ryoka cursed. Miss Iglesias sighed, as she turned to greet another guest. Ryoka opened the door; there was still time to get away before—

“Good morning, Miss Iglesias! Ryoka! Hey, Ryoka, wait!”

A Centauress walked into the room. That wasn’t a euphemism. She trotted in, her shod hooves clattering on the floorboards as she navigated her way through the cozy inn. A Centaur.

Perhaps, if you had never met one, the idea of the half-human, half-horse species would be exotic. Fascinating. And while that was certainly all true of the female Centaur, something else had to be pointed out. A Centaur was half-horse. And as such, the first consideration anyone in the nearby vicinity of a Centaur did was—

Both Ryoka and Miss Iglesias stepped hurriedly out of the way as the Centauress clattered forwards. Her hooves touched the floor lightly, but the Centauress was still over seven feet in height and she had to weigh…Ryoka thought about horses from her world. A ton?

At least. And this Centauress wasn’t even a big example of her species. Her horse parts didn’t resemble the huge draft horses, but rather a lighter riding horse. She had tan fur with a few large, brown spots, pale brown skin, and blonde-gray hair, cut short, but styled—the Centauress trotted closer and Ryoka leapt back again. She was bare foot and she had no intention of having her foot broken by a stray hoof!

“Charlay, watch the hooves!”

The Centauress caught herself and checked her hoof placement. She tossed her head dismissively.

“What? I’m nowhere near your feet. Stop being such a foal, Ryoka. Hey, good thing I woke up, right? I nearly missed you. But for the rain and I would have slept in!”

She gestured outside at the clouds, which had decided to dump one last time before giving up. Ryoka eyed the Centauress. She had a light shirt on her upper half, concealing the place where her waist met the horse parts. Her lower half was bare today, although Ryoka had seen Charlay wearing a half-skirt or full dress that covered her horse bits. She eyed the street, but it was too late. Charlay smiled at the [Innkeeper], who gave her a polite smile of her own.

“Fair day to you as well, Charlay. How was your sleep?”

“Good. Thanks for the extra pillows. My legs were hurting from the ground yesterday. Ooh! Food’s already out?”

She eagerly trotted over to the buffet and inspected it.

“Just what I wanted. Ryoka, stick around. I want to eat first.”

The Asian girl groaned. Charlay never woke up this early. Both times before she’d been up in the late morning. But after a second of staring out of the inn, she closed the door and walked back to the buffet. Miss Iglesias gave Ryoka a sympathetic smile.

“Hey, Charlay. Good to see you. I’m probably leaving today—”

“That’s fine. I’ll run with you to the Guild. Hey, you want this?”

The Centauress waved a bowl and Ryoka saw what she was eating for breakfast. It was a bowl of boiled, steaming…

Oats. As bland as licking wheat seasoned with white rice on top of unsalted porridge with a bit of whole-grain bread for that rare contrast in flavor. Ryoka and Miss Iglesias watched as Charley happily filled a bowl with the stuff and added some grains of brown sugar and bits of pepper flakes.

Ryoka resigned herself to another helping and took about four times what Charley had to add to a lovely browned sausage with some eggs. She liked the flavor and the pepper wasn’t so much hot as sweet to her palate. But Charlay blew out her cheeks halfway through her bowl.

Hot! This is spicy stuff, Miss Iglesias! You should warn people or they might get indigestion!”

The Human woman raised her eyebrows, but only nodded and took Charlay’s suggestion ‘under advisement’. Ryoka waited as Charlay ate one bowl, then another, and coughed.

“I need to be going—”

“What’s the hurry? I’m done, I guess. Good food, Miss Iglesias. Thanks for putting it out for me.”

The Centauress craned her upper body to speak to the woman while her horse half shuffled around towards the door. Miss Iglesias pulled a chair out of the way; Ryoka just stood back. Charlay was bigger than Calruz, both in height and body. And in a building built for Humans, she was like an elephant. Or a horse.

“Not a problem my dear. Will you want supper? Or lunch?”

Charlay shook her head impatiently.

“I’m done. And I’ve paid my room; I don’t know if I’ll be back, but I’m packed up. Let’s go, Ryoka.”

She trotted towards the door without even saying goodbye. Ryoka went back to Miss Iglesias and shook her hand again.

“Thank you again, Miss Iglesias.”

“Best of luck, Ryoka dear. And you too, Charlay.”

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks!”

The Centauress turned her upper half, nearly out of the door. Ryoka sighed and followed her. She found the Centauress outside, stretching.

“Good food, right? I like staying at the Rose’s Retreat. It doesn’t have stairs and Miss Charlay gets oats just for me. You liked it?”

“Yup. It was great.”

“Awesome. Stay away from me. I don’t need you throwing up on me again.”

Ryoka paused as she stretched out her own legs. The Centauress smirked at her. She worked in the region around Walta as a well-known City Runner. And she was good at her job; so good that Ryoka had given up trying to lose her. Now the Centauress pointed in the direction of the Runner’s Guild.

“Come on, let’s run to the Guild. The streets aren’t that wet and the rain’s stopped. Last one there is a mule!”

So saying, she took off. Ryoka watched her go and kept stretching; after three dozen feet, the Centauress noticed Ryoka wasn’t following and galloped back. She scowled at the young woman.

“Slowpoke. Afraid to race me?”

“I’m stretching. And I’m not racing.”

“Afraid I’ll beat you again?”

Ryoka sighed.

“You’re a Centaur. I don’t race things with four legs.”

“That’s not what you said last time. Or the time before that. Come on, afraid I’ll beat you a third time?”

The young woman refused to rise to the bait. She took off running with a slow, contained pace, and after a moment, Charlay followed her. Then at least, Ryoka had some peace. She ran down the streets of Walta, still slick with rain and deserted for the moment. The rains had kept everyone indoors, and so the two female Runners proceeded down the street at a quick jog by Ryoka’s standards.

As they ran, Ryoka admired the city of Walta where she had been staying. She would be sorry to say goodbye to it. The streets were smoothed, and one in three buildings that Ryoka passed had glass instead of shutters. The city was lovely, like Amsterdam, but minus the canals and water. It was one of the most modern cities Ryoka had visited, aside from Invrisil, and the reason behind that was because Walta was about twice or three times as rich as Reizmelt.

“You’re so slow.”

Charlay complained as her hooves clattered across the stones. Ryoka sighed. She couldn’t even admire the city in peace. Not that she was one for admiration anyways; two more seconds and she’d have gotten bored. She looked at Charlay as her arms pumped at her sides; the Centauress was folding her arms and eying Ryoka as her legs easily kept pace.

That was another thing Ryoka had learned about Centaurs recently; because they could run and do things independently with their horse and human halves, they loved to chat while running. It was harder for Ryoka who was running with her entire body, but she could still respond.

“I just ate. You’re a horse.”

Centauress. Don’t be rude.”

“Sorry, my mistake. You’re so different.”

Charlay bared her teeth, much like an angry horse would.

“We are! We’re intelligent, leveling creatures. Not like animals at all! Are you a monkey?”

“Fairly close. I’ll acknowledge the link and resemblance. You’re even closer. Half your body is horse. It’s pretty much the same thing.”

The Centauress turned scarlet. Ryoka grinned to herself—their relationship was already well established by this point too. Charlay was easy to annoy. The Centauress snorted angrily as she ran ahead of Ryoka.

“It is not the same thing. Do you think I’m like one of those things?”

She pointed down the street. Ryoka saw the rider and shifted left. Charlay made room and the rider rode down the right side of the street. He was riding a roan, a quite energetic one. It whickered as the two Runners ran past; Charlay flipped it off. The rider looked affronted, so Charlay cupped her hands and shouted back at him.

“Not you, the horse!”

“What was that about?”

Ryoka stared at Charlay. The Centauress folded her arms.

“He was checking me out. Damn animals.”

“You understood that horse? And you’re seriously saying you’re that different from them?”

Charlay looked blank.

“Obviously I can understand them. They’re animals. It’s not hard. You can’t understand monkeys? That’s your problem. I’m pretty sure they can understand me.”

“I—haven’t actually met that many monkeys.”

“Huh. I guess Izril doesn’t have that many. I saw them all the time in parts of Baleros. Hey! What’re you looking at?”

The female Centaur snapped at another rider’s horse passing by. Ryoka just shook her head. The streets were filling, and a good number of riders were filling it. More than average; Walta was a horse-city, catering towards treatment of the animals, saddles, stables, training, breeding, and more. The horses Walta produced were of a superior stock than most; if you wanted to get a proper warhorse or even a good riding horse, you’d look for a Walta horse or come to the city itself.

Horses. In a world where automobiles and mass-transport were wagons, they were incredibly valuable. They’d made Walta and Lady Bethal rich. These were her lands after all, and Ryoka had stayed in the city after making Bethal’s emergency delivery alerting her people of the rift between her and a number of factions in Izril. She was at war—in a political and to some degree, real sense—but the city was peaceful still.

“Charlay, you know I work around Reizmelt normally. I might be going back there today.”

Ryoka decided to broach the subject at last. The Centauress snorted.

“You might. Or, you might take that very lucrative delivery down south. Where was it again?”

“I thought personal deliveries were supposed to be personal. So what if I do? It’s none of your business. Why have you been dogging me for three days? Do you like me that much?”

Hah! Don’t make me laugh. I’m just scoping out my competition. Everyone’s making a fuss about your little run from Reizmelt to Walta; I’m not impressed. You might have a few unique Skills, but let’s remember who the better Runner is here.”

“Me?”

Me! Don’t get overconfident, Ryoka. I’m a well-known City Runner around here. I have a nickname! Dustrider Charlay. I earned it after running in this area for two years.”

“I have a nickname too—”

The Centauress glared at Ryoka as they turned left down a street.

“Shut up! See, that’s your problem, Ryoka. You’re infringing on my turf. And my theme.”

“Your theme.”

“That’s right. I was doing this first, so I have dibs on the dust theme. I don’t mind you being the Wind Runner, but if people call you Duststorm Ryoka—just because you can make a bigger cloud, doesn’t mean you get to take my nickname! I’m the Dustrider! Dustrider Charlay!”

For emphasis, Charlay slapped her chest. Ryoka just stared at her. She could have sworn Charlay was her age, maybe a bit younger. But the way she acted…Ryoka thought about being the adult, but it was too tempting.

“I hear they call you Dusty Charlie.”

The Centauress’ face went scarlet. Ryoka had to laugh. She saw Charlay stiffen, then gallop ahead. If she had a horse’s ears, Ryoka was sure they would have been flat. Charlay widened the gap between her and Ryoka until she was right in front of the girl and Ryoka wondered if she’d take off to the guild or just do that the entire rest of the way. Instead, the Centauress shouted.

[Spray Hoof]!

“No, don’t you d—”

Ryoka shouted in outrage, but it was too late. One of Charlay’s hooves kicked backwards, striking a handy clump of exposed earth on the street where a cobblestone had been uprooted. Normally she’d kick up a cloud of dust, hence her name. This time though, the result was a huge splatter of mud and water.

“Gah! Damn it, Charlay!

The young Human woman stopped as the mud splattered her front and face. She wiped at it and Charlay trotted back, looking smug.

“Don’t insult me, Pukey. You threw up on me, remember? As far as I’m concerned, this is the least you deserve.”

Ryoka gritted her teeth. Then her eyes widened. She pointed.

“Oh shit. Is that a snake on the ground?”

“Gyaaaaah!”

The Centauress jumped and ran screaming from what was, in fact, a line of horse crap. She turned to Ryoka, shaking.

“Don’t joke about that! Snakes aren’t funny!

Ryoka chuckled as she wiped the worst of the muck off her face. Charlay glared and Ryoka stepped back in case she tried to bite. The two regarded each other in the damp street. Ryoka sighed.

“Now I’m dirty. Truce?”

“Fine. Truce. Here.”

Charlay tossed something at Ryoka. The young woman blinked.

“What is it?”

“Drying stone. Use it on the mud. It’ll probably get all of it. Don’t worry if it runs out; they’re cheap.”

“Thanks.”

Ryoka did just that. The stone didn’t break or disintegrate, and she handed it back. The two ran on. Charlay huffed as she ran next to Ryoka.

“I can’t believe you’re so mean to me. All the time! And I was nice to you even though you were so rude at the start.”

“I’m an awful person. You should know that by now.”

Charlay hesitated.

“Well, you’re better than a lot of other Humans. No one else’ll talk to me, much less talk back. Half of you lot are too scared to talk! The other half just act like I’m an idiot, or…weird.”

“I don’t think there are many Centaurs on Izril.”

“There aren’t. But it’s not like I’m rare. There are just too many Humans! We’re all over the place in Baleros, especially the middle. The south’s mostly Lizardfolk and Gazers in the jungles. And Humans. You lot get everywhere. And the north is too cold for anyone but Dullahans.”

“But not many on Izril, right?”

“Nope. And it’s a shame. Izril has these lovely flat places, especially in the north. If it wasn’t for the need to cross the ocean on boats, I think there would be tens of thousands of us here.”

The Centauress shuddered. Ryoka regarded her thoughtfully. Three days had taught Ryoka a lot about Charlay, if only because the Centauress had stuck to her like glue. She had a horse’s palate for bland foods; she couldn’t handle spices and she went absolutely nuts for salty, savory stuff. She was afraid of snakes, had a temper, got seasick just staring at a bathtub—

Oh, and she held grudges.

“You know, if you didn’t keep insulting how fast I ran and calling me the ‘Puke Runner’, or ‘Pukey’, or ‘Ryoka the Vomitter’, I’d be nicer to you.”

Charlay turned her head and glared.

“You threw up. On me. Where’s my apology?”

“Lying somewhere on the road with the last fourteen apologies I gave you. Will you give it a rest? Why are you really following me? It’s not for the fun. Don’t you have a job to do? You haven’t made one delivery since I got here.”

“I don’t have to take jobs all the time. I’m a successful City Runner. What, do you spend all your coin after each delivery in the taverns?

“No…”

“Then what’s the problem? Jeeze, why are you so rude? You’re the rudest Human I’ve met, you know. And that includes a lot of my clients!”

Ryoka sighed. Walta’s Runner’s Guild appeared on the edge of the city at last. It was sprawling, and had a stable attached—a lot of the local Runners used horses. It wasn’t economical for a lot of Runners, but the city was good for horses and there was a lot of flatland around. Charlay trotted in first, and didn’t hold the door open for Ryoka. To be fair, it would’ve been hard with her body shape, but she was at the [Receptionist]’s desk, pawing the floorboards when Ryoka walked over.

“We’re here! Hey Jilta! Ryoka’s here to take that personal request!”

Charlay called out loudly. Ryoka sighed as some of the Runners in the Guild looked up. She’d met a lot of them the last two days and some waved at her in a friendly way. She waved and smiled back and was grateful for Charlay’s presence for the first time; but for her and the others might have come over to talk to her.

It was true that Ryoka’s run had been noted, if not by the entire world than by the local Runners and those interested in such things. Her run hadn’t been the fastest, but it had been for a [Lady] of renown and Ryoka had beaten a number of groups aiming to intercept her. It hadn’t been easy; Ryoka had paid a price for using so many potions and calling on the wind. But she’d done it and the fruits of her rewards was the attention she gathered. And Charlay following her.

The [Receptionist] at the desk sighed as Ryoka stepped up. She gave Charlay a sharp look that the Centauress innocently returned.

“Charlay! You can’t announce things like that on Ryoka’s behalf, much less publicly! There are rules, you know!”

“I could do it in Baleros. They didn’t care there. Besides, everyone knows you can get information for free from the [Brokers].”

“Not in this Guild. If you’re not in line, step back. Runners get privacy.”

“What? But I—”

Back, Charlay.”

The [Receptionist] pointed. Grumbling, Charlay did retreat until she probably couldn’t hear what was being said at the desk. The [Receptionist] watched her sharply and the Centauress innocently turned her head. The woman at the counter had dealt with the Centauress before, that was clear from the long-suffering sigh she let out. She looked at Ryoka apologetically.

“I’m sorry, Miss Griffin. Is she still following you about?”

“It’s fine.”

The [Receptionist], Jilta, the same woman who’d helped Ryoka on the first day by making her puke the potions that were poisoning her and getting the Knights of the Rose, gave Ryoka a rueful smile.

“She’ll get bored in time. She just…fixates on other City Runners, especially female ones around her age and level. She’s very competitive. Now, can I help you? Are you going to take the request from yesterday? The sender is ah, waiting on a reply.”

Jilta said it delicately, but Ryoka knew she was very interested. As interested as Charlay had been; the Centauress had bugged Ryoka all about it yesterday. A personal request? With money backed by two [Lords]? Asking Ryoka to deliver a handful of potions to Riverfarm?

It made no sense. But Ryoka, who knew who the real sender was, had thought it over hard last night. Laken Godart had asked her for help, and after thinking it over, there was only one real answer she could give. She slowly nodded.

“I…think I will.”

She had a lot to say to Laken and he had a lot to explain, but visiting Riverfarm was essential in either case. Jilta nodded sharply, and reached under the counter.

“Very well. It’s a priority delivery although there’s no time frame on it; I have er, six healing potions and three stamina potions here.”

She offered Ryoka a satchel. The Runner pulled out her bag of holding.

“I’ve got a bag.”

“Ah, well, place them inside—you’ll need to deliver them straight to Lady Rie Valerund. They’re…just generic potions we bought from the local [Alchemist]. The request did say to do that, but…”

Jilta looked at Ryoka, and only her professionalism kept her from asking the obvious. Who paid that much gold to get a bunch of potions you could get anywhere? The answer had to be that it was either something that had to be delivered personally—a message or secret item with the potions—or the Runner herself. Ryoka smiled and didn’t explain.

“I’ll get it there as fast as I can. Can I see a map?”

“Of course.”

The [Receptionist] pulled one out. Ryoka studied the route to Riverfarm; it was south of Walta and Bethal’s lands, southwest of Invrisil, a bit of land in the shadow of a small mountain not claimed by any noble house. The Valerund family, whose [Lady] was apparently at Riverfarm, had a small area of influence, but they were a day’s journey away from Riverfarm.

“Looks straight enough. I’ll be going through this marsh—I hate marshes. But aside from that, it’s straight. Thanks, I’ll head out right away.”

Ryoka nodded at Jilta. The [Receptionist] smiled.

“Of course. If you want to come back this way, I can do the confirmation. But of course, any large Runner’s Guild can handle it. Even so, we’d be happy to see you here again, Miss Griffin. You’ve been the talk of the Guild since your dramatic delivery.”

Ryoka felt her face heat up. Jilta was in her late twenties, a former Runner herself. Ryoka didn’t recall much of what had happened when she’d staggered into the Guild—she recalled throwing up on Charlay, and the Centauress reminded her of that every few seconds—but she also remembered Jilta helping her puke onto the floor. Ryoka cleared her throat.

“I’m really grateful for all the help. I was an imposition, with the wind, the sand…”

Jilta waved that away.

“It was a request from Lady Walchaís. And this is my job. As I said, you’re welcome back here. And you’re easier to deal with than…”

She nodded at Charlay. Ryoka grinned and ducked her head.

“Thanks again.”

She turned to go and jumped. Someone else was waiting in line with Charlay. Only, this woman wasn’t a Runner. A woman in bright pink armor with a shock of grey in her black hair nodded to Ryoka as she tucked her helmet under one arm. Ryoka stared at the Knight of the Petal as Charlay blinked and stepped out of the way. The Runners in the Guild and Jilta looked up. There was a flurry of bows as the [Knight] strode forwards. The woman halted in front of Ryoka and offered her a slight formal bow.

“Miss Griffin. Good morning to you.”

“Dame Truvia. Uh—how can I help you?”

Ryoka recognized one of the senior Knights of the Petal, one of the protectors of Walta. Dame Truvia was a Knight of the Petal, like the others that Ryoka had met. Lady Bethal’s personal order of [Knights]. They garnered a lot of respect from Walta’s citizens, but also in general; the Knights of the Petal were a fairly powerful order of [Knights] for their size, or so Ryoka gathered. Her presence certainly had an effect on the rest of the guild. Jilta bowed again.

“Dame Truvia! I’m terribly sorry to keep you waiting. We’re just opening—how can I help you?”

She was poised, ready to attend to any of the [Knight]’s needs at once. Truvia smiled, her stern face warming slightly.

“I have no need of your assistance, Miss Griffin. Nor do I need to place an order, Miss Receptionist. I am simply here to check up on Miss Ryoka’s condition.”

“With me?”

Ryoka blinked. Charlay was staring behind her. Truvia nodded.

“Lady Bethal was most impressed with your run, especially the…spectacle of it. She ordered me to check up on you before you left.”

“That’s kind of her. Er, Lady Bethal was very generous. If she has any other requests, I would be happy to take them.”

Ryoka bowed awkwardly. Sending a [Knight] just to see if she was well was strange. But Bethal Walchaís defined the word. Ryoka distinctly recalled the woman. Passionate and strange barely described her. Truvia nodded, looking Ryoka up and down.

“I’m sure Lady Bethal will remember you. It is just a formality. Forgive me for imposing.”

She bowed to Ryoka and Jilta. There was something so graceful about her humility. Impressive too; the woman was almost everything Ryoka wanted to be at her age of around…forty? Fifty? Except for the pink.

“Not at all, Dame Truvia. It’s an honor to have you in the Guild. Can I offer you refreshments? Anything else…?”

Jilta was fussing over the woman, looking star-struck as if Truvia were a minor celebrity. Which…she was. Ryoka stepped back, and Charlay trotted forwards. Breathless, the Centauress held out a hand.

“Dame Truvia? Dustrider Charley, at your service. I’m the best Runner in Walta, and if you have any needs, any at all—”

Truvia turned politely to Charlay, barely blinking over the Centauress. Ryoka saw Jilta’s face color and the [Receptionist] chased Charlay away. Charlay trotted back, looking hurt.

“I’m just making an impression. Sheesh! No one else in this Guild does it, but why not?”

“I think that’s another thing they do in Baleros but not here.”

“Hah. Baleros is more open. Here’s too much about etiquette. I could talk to a Named Adventurer or famous leader of a Company in Baleros. Okay, maybe not Marian if I saw her, but that’s different.”

Charlay huffed as she watched Truvia speaking with Jilta and a few Runners who’d decided to follow Charlay forwards. She stared at the Rose Knight’s armor, clearly impressed. Then she bumped Ryoka with her hindquarters.

“One of Lady Bethal’s personal [Knights], here just to make sure you didn’t sprain an ankle. And you got to do a delivery for her! You got lucky. If I was there, I’d have done the run in half the time and without half as much puke!”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re not that much faster.”

Ryoka glared at Charlay. She hated to admit it, but the Centauress really was faster than her. Charlay refused to be placated though. She tossed her head again and stamped a hoof.

“Not that much faster? I’m twice as fast as you. Just check the rankings! Any [Broker] could tell you how good you are, if you’re important. I am. I suppose you are now. But I’m still better. You barely qualify for Courier rank and you were out for two days recovering after that! I’m well faster.”

“I know the rankings.”

Ryoka folded her arms. She hadn’t known they’d existed until Fierre told her about them. And she’d seen the ones Jilta kept as a [Receptionist].

“It says your endurance needs work. And you have a lower combat ranking than me.”

“That’s just—”

The two were pleasantly bickering as Ryoka walked towards the door. Then the door opened and let another Runner in. At least, Ryoka assumed it was a Runner. A young woman with a shock of light blue hair walked into the Guild. That caught Ryoka’s eye first. The hair color. Then she took in the entire young woman and blinked.

The woman was in her late-twenties, had blue hair, a hat, and robes. Her hat was slightly pointed, but angled, swooping off to a point behind her. And both her robes and hat were that of a [Mage]. But her body, the way she walked, all spoke to Ryoka of someone who was athletic. Her corneas were a bright, pale pink.

She was striking. But there was one other reason Ryoka stared. She felt a strange tugging at her chest, almost like the sense that told her the wind wouldn’t obey any of her commands today unless Ryoka really pushed. It was odd, unfamiliar—

The young woman walked into the guild and noticed Ryoka and Charlay in her way. Rather than walk past them she stopped and stared. There was nothing apologetic or furtive about the way she did it, she just stopped and looked both up and down.

“So you’re the Wind Runner, huh? Interesting. And here’s Charlay, already following you about. Hi, horse-girl. Anything interesting about?”

The introduction caught Ryoka off-guard. She winced, expecting Charlay to have a snappy response, but the Centauress froze.

“A—Alevica! I—I wasn’t doing anything. I was just talking with Ryoka.”

The strange new Runner eyed Charlay as the Centauress backed up and tried to hide behind Ryoka. She had a piercing stare and when she smiled—Charlay grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder and Ryoka felt the Centauress’ hands shaking slightly.

“Fine. Hey, you are the Wind Runner, right? You feel like the wind.”

Surprised, Ryoka turned back to the stranger. She’d assumed her face was known, but perhaps not.

“That’s me.”

“The name’s Alevica. City Runner, like you. I hear you’re good. Slow, but you conjured a storm. I saw it. Let’s get along.”

The hand was slim, but strong when Ryoka grasped it. And Alevica’s smile seemed genuine. Although there was a reserve there…she wasn’t challenging or anything. Ryoka almost thought she’d like Alevica’s boldness and the clear way she gave no care to how others saw her. Charlay trembling behind Ryoka gave her pause.

“Of course. I’m on a job, but if I see you around, I’d love to talk.”

“Sure. Something like that.”

Alevica nodded. Then she looked at Charlay, grinned, tugged on her hat, and walked past the two.

“I’ll see both of you around. It’s a small continent.”

She strode up to the counter, past Truvia and the other Runners, all of whom drew back at the sight of her. Jilta looked up sharply and Ryoka noted her wary expression as well. She pointed at Alevica’s back.

“Who’s that, Charlay?”

“Alevica. Don’t point! And don’t say anything bad about her!”

“Why? Is she some hotshot Runner?”

Ryoka didn’t see it. Alevica looked fit, but her calves didn’t speak of a runner to her. But she did have good ears. She turned her head and grinned as Jilta fumbled with something at the desk. Charlay whispered as she tried to pull Ryoka further back.

“She’s really good. Really good.”

“Better than you, the best City Runner in Walta?”

At the desk, Alevica burst out laughing. It was loud and mocking. The other Runners looked uneasy. Charlay paled. She whispered in Ryoka’s ear.

“Don’t quote me! That was a boast! Are you stupid? She’s faster than you or me in short distance travel. And she has the levels and Skills to be a Courier. But there’s more to passing the Runner’s Guild tests than just speed. Obviously.”

Even scared, Charlay still managed to find a way to be insulting. Ryoka blinked. That good? And if Charlay said so—why was she so afraid? She whispered to the Centauress.

“What’s holding her back?”

Charlay stared at Ryoka.

“The fact that it’s Alevica? You really haven’t heard of her? She’s famous around all the local Guilds! Reizmelt has to know of her!”

“I don’t keep up on other Runners.”

“Well, remember her! Alevica’s one of the least-trusted Runners, even though she’s a good one. She opens mail, threatens other Runners—and she’ll throw away important packages rather than deliver them if the client insults her! She could be a low-tier Courier, but you have to be sponsored to become a Courier and no Courier or any of the local Guildmasters will vouch for her.”

Ryoka whistled. That was exactly the kind of Runner she didn’t want to be. The ones with the lowest-reputations almost never got personal requests, or if they did, they were shady and dangerous. On the other hand, you could make good money doing what Alevica apparently did—if you didn’t mind attracting the wrath of your clientele. But from the way Alevica turned and grinned at Charlay, she didn’t mind the rumors about her.

At the desk, Jilta was fumbling with a paper. She didn’t look happy, but she eventually nodded and pulled something out. Ryoka blinked as she recognized a metal box, sealed with a magical lock. Jilta looked at Alevica.

“We do have one Steel-box delivery. It’s worth eighteen gold coins and seven silver if you manage it. The penalty is double, but—”

“I’ll take it.”

Alevica interrupted Jilta and casually reached into a pouch. She pulled out gold coins and began counting them onto the counter, carelessly. Ryoka and Charlay stared.

“A Steel-box delivery?”

“I didn’t know we had one. I’m glad though; I’m not paying that price! It must be a dangerous request!”

Ryoka nodded slowly. Steel-box deliveries were a form of request she’d been introduced to in the north. Sometimes someone wanted something delivered, but the cost of it being intercepted was too high and they might be wary about Runners risking their wrath. So what any citizen could do was post a high price on a delivery, but require a Runner to put their own gold on the line by way of insurance. If Alevica failed this delivery, she’d have to pay double the fee for success.

Naturally, this was a high-stakes delivery and the Runner’s Guilds usually demanded to know what was worth the risk. Steel-box deliveries weren’t often picked up and usually only confident or desperate City Runners or Couriers would take them. Alevica was clearly the former; she grabbed the box and headed for the door before Jilta had explained more than the destination.

“Wait, Alevica! The danger’s—”

“Don’t know, don’t care. Just have my gold when I get back.”

The City Runner tipped her hat and flashed Jilta a mocking smile. The [Receptionist] stopped, frowning, but she let Alevica go. Ryoka was impressed. She didn’t like the risk aspect of Steel-box deliveries. You put not only your reputation, but your own money on the line. And any delivery from a Steel-box delivery was guaranteed to have some peril on it.

As if she could read Ryoka’s mind, Alevica stopped and looked at the City Runner. She tapped the metal box with one hand.

“If you’ve the guts, try taking on one of these. The pay’s good, and sometimes it’s worth more not to deliver. We’ll see with this, won’t we?”

“Runner Alevica! You’re obligated to obey the Runner’s Guild rules—”

Jilta’s voice fell on deaf ears. Alevica strode out the door with the box under one arm. Charlay stared from behind Ryoka until she was gone, and then exhaled slowly.

“Wow. She’s the one person I didn’t want to meet today. Let’s get going before she decides to come back and cast a spell on us all or something.”

“Cast a spell…? Hold on, I’m going on my delivery. Sorry, Charlay, but this is where we part. It’ll take me days to get to my destination, and if I’m back in the area, we can meet again…”

Ryoka blinked, and tried to walk towards the door. But the Centauress, suddenly bold and bothersome again, just snorted.

“What? No. I’m bored, so I’m coming with you. I’ll keep you company. Two Runners are better than one, right?”

She trotted towards the door to the Guild. Ryoka stared at her.

“You want to follow me?”

“Yup. I want to see you actually run. Come on, where’re we going? And for who? You can tell me when we’re on the way if Jilta—”

Charlay winced as the [Receptionist] strode around her desk. Jilta waved a finger as the Centauress danced backwards.

“Miss Charlay, you cannot follow another Runner on her request, especially not a personal delivery!”

“But Jilta—”

“You’ve bothered Ryoka Griffin enough. Your behavior reflects on Walta’s Guild, and if you follow her, I’ll issue you a penalty—”

“It’s fine.”

Ryoka’s voice made both Centaur and Human turn. Jilta blinked at Ryoka.

“Miss Griffin, you don’t have to accommodate Charlay. I don’t care how Baleros does things, but here—”

“No, it’s fine, Jilta. I don’t think my client will mind. And I’ll take some company for the road.”

Ryoka looked at Charlay. The Centauress looked delighted, and then instantly tilted her head up and looked superior.

“I’m only doing it because I want to see how good you are, Ryoka. And to prove that I can outrun you any day of the week.”

“I’m sure.”

The tone needled Ryoka, but she’d caught the look on Charlay’s face. So had Jilta. The [Receptionist] pursed her lips, but slowly nodded.

“If you’re fine with it, Miss Ryoka. But I’m warning you, Charley. If Miss Ryoka complains or claims you interfered with her in any way—”

“I’m just running with her! It’ll be fine.”

The Centauress rolled her eyes. She trotted towards Ryoka and the Runner nodded. They were heading towards the doors at last when a last person stopped them. Dame Truvia. She approached the two and put her helmet on.

“You’re leaving on a delivery, Miss Griffin? Allow me to accompany you.”

Charlay’s jaw dropped. Ryoka blinked up at the pink [Knight].

“Me? But why?”

The older [Knight] smiled as she raised the visor to her helmet.

“Lady Bethal also bade me to ride with you. She would not wish you to suffer injury on her lands.”

“But I—”

Ryoka stared at Truvia, thought of Bethal, and then gave up. This was overkill, but Ryoka didn’t want to waste any more time. Charlay trotted out and the two saw that Truvia’s horse was already being led out of the stables. The horse had pink armor, like the rider. Charlay shook her head.

“You are so lucky. I’ve been trying to get a request from Lady Walchaís myself! Apparently she tips really well—and now you get an escort?”

“Will you be riding with us all the way, Dame Truvia?”

Ryoka called to the [Knight]. Dame Truvia mounted up in one motion and nodded down at Ryoka. Her voice was slightly muffled, but entirely distinct.

“As far as the outskirts of Walchaís lands, or if an incident takes me. I am on patrol. Don’t trouble yourself however; set whatever pace you please. I’ll keep up.”

The nonchalant air of the [Knight] as she sat on her horse in full armor made Ryoka raise her brows and Charlay snort. The Centaur and Human Runners looked at each other. A [Knight] was one thing, but this? This was their job. They grinned at each other.

“Nice and slow them, right Charlay?”

“Sure. Hey, can you use your wind-thing? You can conjure a breeze, right?”

Ryoka hesitated. She looked up. The wind was still blowing hard. The rain had stopped, but Ryoka still felt it. It was angry, wild—why? Ryoka reached for it, and finally understood.

Ah, that was it. Out there, somewhere, someone was trying to control the wind. And it was pissed.

“Nope. Feels like a [Weather Mage] or someone’s doing something to the wind. It’s out of my control today. Or rather, I wouldn’t risk it.”

She’d tried it once on a day like today. The wind had thrown her into a wagon. Charlay shrugged, her hair blowing in the strong gusts.

“Maybe it’s Alevica. She’s got a lot of weird abilities. Fine. Your legs still work without your wind?”

“All the time. We’re heading south. Dame Truvia, you can keep up?”

“After you.”

The [Knight] watched as Ryoka lowered herself into a Runner’s starting position. Charlay just tensed. The two took off like a shot, racing down the street, startling Truvia’s horse. She calmed it, and laughed as the two Runner’s raced out of the city. Then she dug her heels into her horse’s side and it raced after the two.

—-

 

Ryoka ran out of Walta with Charlay by her side. She raced across the outskirts, the suburbs that had sprung out around the city, and across wide, flat land devoted to farmland, or pastures for the horses.

Walta, no, the lands of Lady Bethal Walchaís, were rich. It reminded Ryoka of a true medieval world, only with less poverty and more Arthurian romance. A world, a time that had never truly existed in her world as far as Ryoka knew. But it existed here.

[Farmers] tending fields as prosperous as, if not as scrumptious as the corn fields tended to by Farmer Lupp, looked up as Ryoka and Charlay raced down the road. They waved at the Runners, amused by the competition and Charlay heckling Ryoka as she maintained a horse’s length of lead on the Human girl. Then they bowed or cheered the Knight of the Petal, Dame Truvia as she calmly followed the two Runners.

She was fast! Dame Truvia had a Skill that allowed her to keep pace with Charlay and Ryoka despite the armor. Or her horse was magical. Or simply a superior breed. Ryoka was the slowest of the three, and she slowed the breakneck run as soon as it became clear that she wasn’t about to lose Truvia. Charlay slipped into an even run beside Ryoka and they just enjoyed running. It was what they did.

The lands of House Walchaís passed Ryoka by, green and verdant, growing from the spring rains. Ryoka saw people looking up and waving at her—not just at Charlay and Truvia. They recognized her.

“That’s the Wind Runner! Hey you! Don’t blow any more dirt into my fields! And do something about this wind, will you?”

A [Farmer] raised her hoe as Ryoka passed by. The young woman raised a hand, slightly embarrassed, and Charlay waved with both arms as well. Ryoka had passed down this same road on her way to Walta—through a few fields too. At the time, she’d been so tired she hadn’t noticed, but she’d dragged a dust storm through any number of farms and down roads—even through a village! Part of the last few days had been coming out here and apologizing for the destruction, even offering payment.

She’d expected the people to be furious, and they were. But one line saved Ryoka from a lynch mob. It was for Lady Bethal. Suddenly, the people were all too happy to take Ryoka’s coin, even congratulate her on the run. It was incredible, but the [Lady] was beloved. As one furious [Shepherd] had said whilst his dusty herd of sheep had to be bathed and their wool, combed, that changed things.

“If it’s Lady Walchaís, then it’s fine. House Walchaís has always been good to us folk. They paid for medicine with the Redvein Plague two decades back, fought for us during the Sacrifice of Roses—any bastards who’d smirch Lady Bethal’s name I’ll personally put an arrow through. Just let them try to attack her lands!”

And he’d meant it. The Knights of the Petal had gone to war for their [Lady]’s honor and the people of Lady Bethal’s lands had immediately refused to do business with anyone who’d sent Bethal a rose. It was incredible actually, for Ryoka to see that much loyalty. But Bethal was beloved, for her flights of fancy as much as how she treated her folk.

Speaking of which…Ryoka and Charlay paused as they ran towards a more populated stretch of road. They didn’t need to run on the road, but Dame Truvia was clearing a path for them. Pedestrians and travellers moved over to let the [Knight] race after the Runners, unimpeded.

Walchaís lands lay at one of the natural routes going north, towards First Landing. If Reizmelt was a local hub, one of the crossroads near Walta was a major one, and the wide road had hundreds of people and wagons moving up it. Ryoka stared at the huge flow of traffic, but Charlay just pointed.

“We’ll cut across there and run south. Just don’t block anyone. It’s easy, see?”

There were five City Runners running up the road that Ryoka could see, one of whom turned towards Walta at the crossroads. Ryoka nodded—and then spotted something else.

A [Knight] in a golden suit of armor painted with silver was slowly riding up the highway. He’d stopped once to address a family in a wagon, and he had a shield and mace strapped to his side. Ryoka blinked and pointed out the armored man to Charlay.

“What’s that?”

“Just a patrolling [Knight]. What, are there none around Reizmelt?”

“I’m from further south. Celum.”

“Oh, right. Well, you see them around here. They help get rid of [Thieves], patrol roads…they’re great if you get into trouble, unless the trouble gets them.

Charlay shrugged. Ryoka hesitated. So they were like roaming police officers? This world’s version of a patrol car? She opened her mouth to ask another question and heard a voice from behind her.

“Ryoka Griffin.”

Ryoka turned. Dame Truvia was frowning at the [Knight] in gold. She lowered her visor and her pink-clad horse pawed the ground. Truvia reached for a holstered lance and nodded to Ryoka.

“Ah. I fear this is as far as I take you, Runner Ryoka. I bid you a safe journey, but I cannot accompany you to the edge of Walchaís lands. That is a [Knight] in service to House Averin. I recognize the colors. I must address him.”

“Address…?”

Ryoka stared blankly at Truvia, and then she remembered. One of the black flowers had come from—

Truvia rode past Ryoka, picking up speed. Charlay chortled and trotted back to watch; Truvia rode straight at the [Knight] and the traffic on the road parted to give her a wide space. People leaned out of their wagons, or stopped on the road, sensing what was about to happen.

[Knight] of House Averin! Hold your ground!

Dame Truvia roared across the highway. The gold-armored [Knight] looked up and raised a hand. He called back towards Truvia.

“What seems to be the matter, Lady Knight?”

His voice was conversational, friendly, even. Ryoka winced. Like the Clairei Knights, this one hadn’t gotten the message about the flowers, or he hadn’t understood the import. Truvia’s voice was loud enough for everyone in a hundred paces to hear clearly.

“Your order has insulted and cast false accusations against the name of House Walchaís and Lady Bethal, whom I serve! This insult cannot stand! The Knights of the Petal ride to their lady’s honor, and until our grievance is met, House Averin is our sworn enemy!”

She pointed her lance with one hand at the startled [Knight]’s chest.

“Sir, I challenge you! Put up your shield, or retreat!”

With that, she kicked her horse into a trot, and then a gallop, picking up steam and surging behind her shield. Ryoka could see the Averin [Knight] do a double-take. He swung his horse around, and raised a hand as he fumbled for his own equipment.

“Wait—what did you—wait, wait!

Charlay danced in front of Ryoka and the Runner swore.

“Charlay, I can’t see!”

She shoved at the Centaur, but Charlay was, again, over a thousand pounds and all Ryoka managed to do was push herself back. She stepped around the Centaur and heard Truvia hit the Averin [Knight] along with a roar from the spectators.

Ryoka heard a crash, a horse’s scream, and finally got around Charlay, who was dancing with excitement. She saw the Averin [Knight] lying on the ground as Dame Truvia strode towards him.

Dead gods, are you mad? We’re both [Knights]! I have no quarrel with you!”

He screamed up at her. Dame Truvia grabbed her weapon; she didn’t carry a sword or shield, but a spear to go with the lance.

There is no excuse for dishonor! Draw your sword, ser!

She charged, and the Averin [Knight] swore and grabbed his mace. Ryoka decided that was enough and started running, watching the battle as the two warriors, one dressed in gold and silver, the other pink, began dueling along the highway. Ryoka ran south, past the traffic jam and people calling out to ask what had happened up ahead. The clash echoing behind the two Runners made Ryoka wince. The Centauress just smiled.

“I like the people living around here. It reminds me of home.”

“It’s certainly…fun.”

Ryoka had to smile as they ran ahead. The two Runners passed further down the road, calling out to the people shouting warily to know if there was danger ahead what was going down. The wagons couldn’t move off the road, but any number of people hopped down or walked or rode ahead to see. The fight between the [Knights] was certainly something Ryoka wanted to see, but she had a job to do.

And Riverfarm and Laken—Ryoka’s mood grew less exuberant. Yes, she had a debt to pay, but to whom and how, she had no idea. She just wanted to see the trouble Laken had hinted about. After that—

Ryoka!

Ahead of her, Charlay suddenly drew up, nearly rearing in alarm. Ryoka halted at once, and her hand went to her bag of holding. Then she saw what Charlay had seen and blinked.

“Are you serious?”

A familiar face was poking out of a carriage rolling past them. The vehicle wasn’t going that fast due to the traffic, but the amused face that met Ryoka’s eyes was familiar. Ryoka had just seen her.

Alevica, the strange City Runner that scared Charlay, was sitting in the carriage. She had hired it, along with three other bored passengers. She was riding one of the travel-carriages that went from city to city. It was an expensive option, but quick and comfortable.

“Alevica?”

Ryoka stared. Charlay just froze. The young woman with the blue hair and hat nodded to Ryoka and to Charlay.

“You’re heading this way too. Fancy that.”

“I—yeah. Are you taking the carriage?”

Alevica smiled.

“It’s safe, secure, and pretty quick. Why? Want a ride?”

She patted the seat next to her. Ryoka just shook her head. Alevica was a bad Runner. She wasn’t running, first of all. Ryoka supposed the payment for the carriage wasn’t much given how much she stood to earn, but she was putting everyone in that carriage at risk!

If someone wanted the Steel-box delivery she had, they’d attack the carriage. Ryoka opened her mouth to say so, and saw Alevica looking at her. Just…looking. As if she knew exactly what Ryoka was going to say, and just wanted to know if she’d say it.

Slowly, Ryoka closed her mouth. Alevica nodded to herself and her smile grew a bit deeper.

“It’s not a bad way to travel. I’ll go my own way if I need to. But it really does save energy. You’re running barefoot? It’s a long journey for me. You too, I suspect. Why not ride with me? It’ll be free.”

She offered carelessly, ignoring the looks the other passengers and the driver gave her. Ryoka hesitated and she looked at Charlay.

“Charlay won’t fit.”

“I didn’t offer her. If she wants, she can run alongside the carriage. She’s a Centaur. She could keep up.”

Alevica’s eyes didn’t change once as she turned to regard Charlay. The Centauress shuddered.

“I’ll—I’m—”

She looked at Ryoka. The Runner girl didn’t have to think twice.

“Thanks, but we like running, Alevica. Maybe some other time.”

The young woman shrugged.

“As you please. You’ll make better time than we will. Looks like that [Knight] duel is stopping us. See you around, Wind Runner, Charlay.”

She waved at the two and Ryoka slowly kept on running. Charlay gratefully followed her. The two were silent as they ran further, and then Ryoka turned to Charlay.

“Okay, what is Alevica? A [Mage] with a temper? Some kind of criminal class? What?”

The Centauress shook her head and warily cast a glance back down the road at the stopped carriage. As she ran she leaned down and whisper-shouted to Ryoka.

“She’s a [Witch]! We don’t have them on Baleros. Not really. We have different classes. But Ryoka—I’m glad you didn’t ride with her, but if she ever tells you to do something—do it. She’s powerful and dangerous.

Ryoka nodded. Alevica gave her that impression. She was no Persua, who was a mean girl taken to the extreme of pushing someone into a wagon. Alevica looked like the kind of person you made enemies with and then tried to kill before she killed you. She gave Ryoka goose bumps. Then Ryoka latched onto what Charlay had said and her skin and that sense inside her tingled.

“A [Witch]? Are you serious?”

She turned her head. Alevica was out of sight, but that dress, the hat—yes! It wasn’t classic Harry Potter, but it all fit. Ryoka was just so used to [Mages] that she hadn’t noticed. Charlay nodded. She slowed to a trot, and Ryoka saw her breathing hard.

“What makes you so scared of her, Charlay?”

The Centauress hesitated. She looked back and Ryoka saw her shudder again. This time, when she spoke there was no bravado, only fear.

“I just heard rumors. And one time I…I was in the guild and she cut in line. So I said some things and later on the road, she passed me. I think she cast a spell because the next thing I know, my tail caught on fire.”

She gestured at her tail with a shaking hand. Ryoka stared at the pale hair. It looked alright to her, but there was something…she looked at the Centauress. There were tears in her eyes.

“I couldn’t put it out. I had to use four healing potions until the fire stopped and my fur…”

Ryoka looked closer. Charlay pulled away, but Ryoka had seen the faint imprint around Charlay’s hindquarters and tail. Traces of a burn scar. She looked back sharply at Alevica’s carriage.

“Maybe I’ll go back. I don’t feel like running anymore.”

Charlay slowly pawed at the ground with one hoof, her upper body drooping. She looked unhappy. And Ryoka, looking at her, was struck by a thought. Charlay had followed her for the last three days, bickering, insulting, but always waiting for Ryoka. Talking with her, running at her pace. It might be her personality, but she hadn’t been unpleasant all the time. And not once had Ryoka ever seen one of Charlay’s friends looking for the Centaur.

Slowly, the young woman looked at Charlay.

“If you want to go back to Walta, no one’s stopping you. But…hey, I could really use someone to run with. Want to check out Riverfarm? That’s where I’m headed. You could do some deliveries on the way. And I wouldn’t mind the company, really.”

Charlay paused. She looked at Ryoka, and her miserable expression vanished. She perked up, visibly. Then she hesitated. Ryoka saw the head toss coming, and recognized it as what it was. Bravado.

“Well, I suppose if you insist. I don’t like you, Ryoka. You’re rude, slow, and you took my theme. But I suppose I could keep you company.”

She hesitated, and peeked at Ryoka out of the corner of one eye. Ryoka folded her arms.

“Is that how you really think?”

“Yes. No. Okay, fine! I would like to come, happy?”

The Centauress stamped one hoof. She glared at Ryoka.

“Don’t take it personally! I know I made fun of you a bit. But I do that all the time with my Centaur friends. In…Baleros. I guess it’s different here.”

She hesitated. And Ryoka realized that Centaurs really were different. Like any other culture, really. She wondered if anyone else had realized that. Slowly, Ryoka smiled and shook her head, pretending not to notice Charlay’s anxious look.

“Hey, I don’t mind. Just don’t do it all the time. You know how thin-skinned we Humans are.”

“Yeah, and touchy. But insulting each other is what friends do. We are friends, aren’t we?”

Charlay’s question took Ryoka off guard. But then Ryoka nodded. And Charlay’s smile provoked one of Ryoka’s as well. Without a word, the Centauress trotted forwards and then into a run.

“Well, that was obvious. Why did you need to spell it out? Come on, Ryoka! Let’s go!”

She beckoned and Ryoka followed. The young woman stared at Charlay’s back as the Centaur laughed, running with all four legs and shook her head, mystified, happy—she looked up towards the sky.

“It’s so easy, Erin. Why didn’t you tell me that? Why didn’t I listen?”

And then she ran off, south. With a new friend. And as they ran towards Riverfarm, Charlay’s voice echoed back towards her.

“…Hey! Do you know if we’re going the right way?”

 

Interlude – Numbtongue (Pt.2)

(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)

 

Later, at lunch time, The Wandering Inn was faced with an unusual sight. And that was by the standards of the inn, which meant it was very unusual. Even unexpected. The crowd of Pallassians and Liscorian citizens couldn’t help but stare. One of the many tables in Erin’s common room, enlarged by the [Grand Theatre] Skill was occupied. That wasn’t the unusual bit. The unusual bit was who sat there, still smelling of mud and Shield Spider fluids.

An Antinium Soldier and a Hobgoblin. They sat casually at the table, next to each other, rather than across from each other. It was odd, perhaps, but the distance would have been stranger. And the two could watch more of each other’s body language like this. They spoke in bursts, in a private world in the public inn. The Soldier, Yellow Splatters, nodded as he glanced around the inn at the staring faces. Those he locked eyes with looked away quickly, but the rest just stared. He nodded.

“They do look. I knew it before, but now I see them more often.”

“Stare and stare some more. But if we stare, they run off.”

Numbtongue bared his teeth. Yellow Splatters looked about and met eyes with a Drake. Said Drake flinched. The Painted Soldier calmly held the gaze until the Drake looked away.

“Yes. This is true.”

Numbtongue nodded and shrugged. He looked down at the bowl in front of him and smiled. He’d just been served, as had Yellow Splatters. He showed the Soldier what was in his bowl and offered him his spoon.

“Have this. This is my best—no, favorite—food.”

The Painted Soldier stared into the bowl curiously. It was very…orange. He detected small, squiggly noodles in what looked like some kind of sauce. The Soldier took the spoon, which Numbtongue had been licking, and dipped it into the bowl. He sampled a spoonful.

“What is it?”

“Mac and cheese. Which is…noodles and cheese. Erin says it’s from her home. It’s good for the stomach. Lots of energy.”

Numbtongue patted his. Then he frowned.

“Wait. Can you eat noodles?”

Yellow Splatters paused.

“Yes.”

The Goblin frowned.

“Erin said…”

He broke off, clearly trying to recall that pertinent bit of information. Yellow Splatters shrugged.

“My Soldiers and I can eat wheat. It is just…uncomfortable. Later. This is good. The cheese is good. Try mine.”

He slid his bowl to Numbtongue. The Goblin frowned at the black dots with wings.

“Acid flies.”

He shrugged and took his spoon back from Yellow Splatters. The Antinium had been using his fingers. Numbtongue loaded his spoon and took a bite. He crunched for a second with a sound that made the nearby diners gag. Excepting the other Painted Soldiers of course. Forty-nine of them were enjoying their own bowls of acid flies at nearby tables. Numbtongue chewed and swallowed.

“Hm. Crunchy.”

“You do not like it.”

Yellow Splatters looked at Numbtongue. The Hob shook his head.

“Okay. Good for travel. Not enough taste.”

“I see.”

The two stared at each other. Then, silently, Numbtongue offered his bowl to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier tipped the bowl up and spooned the cheesy sauce out over the acid flies. He handed the bowl back and Numbtongue ladled some of the cheesy acid flies into his bowl of noodles. The two began to eat.

“Hm.”

“Good. Crunchy.”

“Yes. Flavorful.”

The two smiled. Mrsha, staring over the edge of the table, gagged. Numbtongue grinned at her.

“This is Mrsha. You know her?”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Painted Soldier stared at Mrsha. She stared back. He stared at her paws and remembered. The [Sergeant] nodded abruptly.

“We have met. Hello. I am Yellow Splatters. Do you remember me?”

The Gnoll cub sniffed at Yellow Splatters and frowned. But she looked at the pattern on his carapace and then nodded. Yellow Splatters hesitated and Numbtongue nudged him. The slight nod the Hobgoblin gave was enough. The [Sergeant] held out his hand. Mrsha sniffed it, then, carefully, held out her own paw.

She cautiously shook the offered hand. She nodded at Yellow Splatters, took another look at his bowl, and hopped off the table. The [Sergeant] watched her go. He stared at his hand.

“Soft.”

Numbtongue nodded after a moment. He eyed Yellow Splatters as he shoveled down more of his combination food. After a moment, Yellow Splatters returned to his meal. The Goblin considered the Antinium sitting next to him.

He didn’t understand the Soldiers’ reverence for everything. But he did connect with their love of good food. And more—he looked around and spotted a Gnoll passing by, holding a bowl.

“Ishkr.”

The Gnoll [Waiter] stopped. Numbtongue reached for the bowl he was carrying. The Gnoll sighed, but let him have it. The Hobgoblin placed the large bowl in front of Yellow Splatters.

“Try this.”

The Painted Soldier did. His mandibles clicked softly with the first bite.

“Soft. Cold. Wet. And sweet. What is it?”

“Ice cream.”

“It is cold!”

“Yes. Good, right?”

Numbtongue grinned at Yellow Splatters. And he was rewarded by an Antinium smile, mandibles raised and opening. The Hob was pleased—until he heard a voice snap at him.

Numbtongue! Did you take the entire bowl? Ceria just helped us make that!”

Lyonette had noticed the purloining. The Hob hunched, but she strode over, hands on her hips. He pointed at the bowl as the [Princess] glared down at him.

“Sorry. Can I have some?”

“You already did. You mean for Yellow Splatters? Fine.”

The young woman sighed. Numbtongue brightened.

“Okay. Yellow Splatters. Now try this.”

He scooped the ice cream into the [Sergeant]’s bowl, covered it with acid flies, and held it out to Yellow Splatters. Lyonette looked queasy, but Yellow Splatters took the spoon and began to eat. His mandibles raised.

“Good! Cold and good.”

“Right?”

The Hobgoblin looked so pleased Lyonette didn’t have the heart to voice her own opinion on the matter. She turned, and saw another young woman making her away across the room. Erin did a double-take at the sight of Goblin and Antinium, and then at the ice cream.

“Ooh! That’s like chocolate chip ice cream! Hey Lyonette, how’d you make—oh. Ew. Those ain’t raisins.”

She paused at the table. Numbtongue looked up. He stared at the young woman. Erin stared down at him and blinked at Yellow Splatters.

“Hi Yellow Splatters. And…Numbtongue? You alright?”

“Yup.”

The Hobgoblin looked up, barely remembering why Erin would ask. She eyed his muddy, sweaty brow, the scratches on his right arm, and then Yellow Splatters. She opened her mouth and then frowned.

“Is that our ice cream?”

“All of it, yes.”

“And you just turned it into fly cream. Or—no, wait, that’s even worse. Iced flies? Ice fly cream. Ice cream with flies.”

Erin looked at Numbtongue, mockingly severe. He hunched his shoulders.

“…Yes? But it’s good.”

To prove it, he took a spoonful of the ice cream and dipped it in the flies. Erin closed her eyes rather than watch the rest. When she opened them, she looked at Numbtongue.

“Well. If you like it, fine. But don’t expect us to eat the crazy stuff you and Yellow Splatters eat. You two are so crazy—”

“We need the rest.”

Lyonette interjected. Numbtongue frowned. Yellow Splatters looked up. He gazed silently at his Painted Soldiers, who had noticed the strange dessert. Erin blinked at him, and then saw Numbtongue silently looking at her. There was a pleading look Erin hadn’t ever seen before. She met his eyes, nodded, and then turned to Lyonette.

“Give it to the Painted Soldiers, Lyonette. Let the Pallass group eat cake. Rufelt and Lasica know how to make ice cream anyways.”

“What? Erin!”

Lyonette protested. She met Erin’s look, saw the jerk of the head, and looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked up at her. Lyonette blew out her cheeks.

“I—oh, fine! We’ll make more.”

“Sorry.”

Numbtongue hesitated, because Lyonette did look peeved. The [Princess] shook her head.

“Sorry, Numbtongue. It’s fine, really. And hello, um, Yellow Splatters.”

She waved at the [Sergeant] awkwardly. Erin smiled at the two and followed Lyonette. The Hobgoblin and Soldier clearly heard Erin whispering to Lyonette as they moved backwards.

“It’s just ice cream.”

“Worth six gold! We only have a narrow window to make money—they’re already copying the recipe in Pallass!”

“So? The Antinium can have it. Numbtongue just invented their favorite dessert! Don’t be mean. He’s made a friend!”

Erin glanced back at Numbtongue and Lyonette relented. Numbtongue, sitting at his table, blinked. A friend? He looked to his side and at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium carefully spooned more ice cream covered in flies into his mandibles.

“My visual and auditory senses were improved by my Queen for my new role. However, it usually does not matter. Others seem to forget the Antinium are capable of hearing.”

“Or Goblins.”

Numbtongue nodded.  He stared at Yellow Splatters. Again. He’d been sneaking glances all throughout their conversation. No, before that, even. While they’d cleared the Shield Spider nests. Marching to the inn…he’d just been watching Yellow Splatters. And Numbtongue was sure the [Sergeant] was doing the same.

It was hard to tell; the Antinium had eyes like bugs, so all he had to do was turn his head. But they were watching each other, this Goblin and Antinium.

They had exchanged few words since their conversation on the hill. Oh, talk, they’d talked like which nest to destroy next. And this chatter about favorite food, it had come up just before they’d come to the inn. That was the thing that threw Numbtongue every few seconds.

They were chatting. Just chatting, about nonsensical things. Favorite food? Numbtongue hadn’t had a favorite food before a month or two ago. His favorite food was the one he could eat without throwing up later. Any food when he was starving. But now…

He was chatting. Again, the Goblin felt an odd sense of imbalance, as if he’d spun around repeatedly and the world was spinning. Because this was not something that Goblins did. Not something he did.

Look at Mrsha. The Gnoll was experimentally sniffing one of the bowls covered in acid fly ice cream. Numbtongue offered her his spoon and she licked at the ice cream, avoiding the bug bits. He didn’t talk to her. Numbtongue liked Mrsha. And he was oh, so very grateful that she was willing to talk to him. Goblins had killed her tribe. But he couldn’t talk to her.

“Mrsha, don’t lick that! Numbtongue, don’t encourage her. She gets one dessert, and if she spoils herself, she doesn’t get anything else.”

Lyonette scolded both Goblin and Gnoll as she passed by, serving the precious ice cream to the Painted Soldiers. Both Hob and Gnoll child winced in their table and Mrsha, making low, insulting growling sounds, made a sign with her paws that made Numbtongue laugh. Lyonette looked back sharply and Mrsha disappeared as Numbtongue schooled his face to sobriety.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He didn’t chat with Lyonette either. He talked with her, although the [Princess] was very busy. But he did talk with her—Numbtongue had the impression Lyonette was still a bit wary of him. Well, he was of her. But they respected each other. And she was one of two people he ever conversed with. The other was—

“No ice cream! Sorry, we’re making more! Give us uh, five, ten minutes!”

What?

Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue looked to the side. Erin was informing Pallass’ crowd of the delay. They were outraged, as were some of the Liscorites. Liscorians? They were giving the Antinium and Numbtongue the stink-eye. Numbtongue didn’t care. His eyes were on Erin. She was shaking her finger at an angry Garuda visible through the magic door.

The portal hurt Numbtongue’s eyes; if you walked to the side, it became two-dimensional, until it nearly disappeared. And from the back, the door was just…a door. Standing up with a crowd gathered around it. Weird. The portal only activated from the front.

Numbtongue shook his head. Erin. She was moving around the inn, talking to the odd Gnoll that smelled like a dozen potions, Grimalkin, Jelaqua and the huge armored…Dullahan named Maughin. She was the person that Numbtongue spoke with most often.

No matter what, if she was busy or he was out of the inn all day, Erin always tried to find at least ten minutes, an hour, to talk with Numbtongue. Even if it was only having dinner in the same room like she’d offered tonight. She was kind. But Numbtongue couldn’t chat with Erin.

He talked with her. She was that kind of person. She’d listen to Numbtongue’s adventures seriously, his worries, and what he wanted. And when he told her, Numbtongue was sure that Erin was listening. If he had told her about his struggles, about being unhappy in her inn, he was sure Erin would have made resolving his problems a priority of hers. His world became hers. But Numbtongue didn’t want that. He was afraid of Erin’s kindness, as much as the hatred of others. He loved to talk with her. But it was talk.

And yet—Numbtongue’s eyes went back to Yellow Splatters. He jumped, and realized the Soldier was staring at him. Had been for a while. The Painted Soldier put down his bowl and pushed it forwards. It was cleaned of all flies and melted ice cream, completely. Which was impressive; Yellow Splatters couldn’t lick his bowl clean like Numbtongue. The [Sergeant] nodded again.

“They truly do not notice that we listen.”

“Who?”

Numbtongue frowned for a moment before he recalled what Erin had said. He looked around at her and Lyonette, rushing back and forth.

“Oh. Friends.”

The [Sergeant] nodded. He delicately reached for a cup with one hand. Two of his other hands were resting on the table; the last was flicking a bit of food from his mandibles. Numbtongue watched, fascinated.

“I have much respect for Erin Solstice. She is…important to Pawn. And to the Painted Antinium. And me. But I believe she is wrong in this regard. We are not friends.”

He paused. Numbtongue blinked at him. The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Goblins don’t have friends.”

The Antinium nodded.

“Indeed. The concept is foreign to Antinium. It is not a relationship that exists in the Hive.”

“Mhm. Same with Goblins. Goblins have a tribe. Or Goblins are in another tribe. Either way, Goblins are all Goblins. We don’t have friends.”

This time both Goblin and Antinium nodded. They were on the same wavelength. Goblins didn’t have friends. They were all Goblins. Sometimes you attacked another tribe, but you were all Goblins when you got down to it, you were on the same side. Goblins had too many enemies to make distinctions. And your tribe…Numbtongue thought of his fellow Redfangs and swallowed, though he had nothing to eat. You were friends with everyone in your tribe, or no one.

Yellow Splatters was still nodding.

“We are not friends. We have not established any grounds for friendship as I understand the concept. Nor have we formally declared it. I am also unprepared for such a relationship. I have not studied the subject from Revalantor Klbkch. Thus, we cannot be friends. I apologize if this offends you, Numbtongue.”

The Goblin considered this for only a moment before waving a claw idly.

“I don’t care. I don’t have friends. Except for Erin?”

He and the Antinium considered the [Innkeeper]. Yellow Splatters frowned, which in the Antinium’s face was represented by his antennae drooping and mandibles drawing together and lowering.

“Would she qualify as a friend? By that standard, then, all of the Painted Soldiers….”

“Maybe? Maybe she’s not a ‘friend’. Maybe…Lyonette? No. She’s not my friend. Mrsha?”

The two looked around for the Gnoll. Yellow Splatters scratched at one antennae gently.

“I was informed by Revalantor Klbkch that making friends with members of the Antinium not considered fully grown was something of a social fault.”

“Hm. Maybe?”

Yellow Splatters leaned over the table.

“How does one become a friend, anyways? I have heard they exchange blood.”

“Um…Redfangs do that.”

“Really? Are you all friends, then?”

“…No. Wait. Let me think.”

The Hobgoblin sat back, thinking. And there it was again. He was chatting with Yellow Splatters. Not talking about something huge and momentous, or deeply personal like with Erin. Just…talking about mundane things. Unimportant things, like friendship or favorite foods. It was so novel.

Of course, Numbtongue had done the same with Headscratcher, with Badarrow and Rabbiteater and Shorthilt and the others. But they hadn’t done this. They’d been a team; they didn’t often waste time talking when they could read each other so well. That was why this was so novel.

“Redfangs aren’t friends. Garen would have said so. We’re brothers. Comrades. Warriors. F-family?”

Numbtongue pronounced the word awkwardly. It was one of the first times he’d used it. But Erin had taught him the meaning and it was true of his old tribe. He looked down into his mug. Yellow Splatters looked at him and Numbtongue waited. But all the Antinium did was nod and drink from his own mug.

“Friends. Family. What…refreshing words.”

Numbtongue looked up sharply.

“Yes. They are.”

The two regarded each other a second time. And there it was. Numbtongue had waited for Yellow Splatters to ask a question. Any question. About the Redfangs. About Numbtongue’s past. About what he was…feeling. And he hadn’t. He didn’t need to ask. What was amazing, what was special, was the way the two knew each other. More than just acquaintances who’d met once before.

They’d fought on the same battlefield. And more—their lives mirrored each other. They understood something Numbtongue could never have explained to Erin or Lyonette. That mattered.

“I have thanked you for saving Falling Snow. I feel I should do so again, and for accompanying me while fulfilling my duties. And for sharing your food.”

Yellow Splatters was getting up from his table. Numbtongue felt a pang. He looked up as the Painted Soldiers noticed and immediately stood with their [Sergeant].

“You’re going?”

“I have no reason to stay. And my presence will allow a Painted Soldier to take my place. They will rotate into the inn so that all may enjoy the experience.”

“Oh.”

The Hobgoblin stared at the [Sergeant]. Yellow Splatters visibly hesitated and looked around the inn. Back at Numbtongue.

“I could sit longer. I…would not wish to deprive another Soldier of their time above. But…”

He hesitated and looked over. The forty-nine other Soldiers looked back and Numbtongue saw them communicating, invisibly, as the Redfangs might. As any Goblins would. He envied them and hurt at the same time. Yellow Splatters turned back to Numbtongue after a moment.

“I will stay. To acquire more information. If you would agree to keep me company?”

He looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin smiled. And as Yellow Splatters sat back down and leaned over the table, Numbtongue realized something. He wasn’t feeling unhappy. It still hurt, but he wasn’t dissatisfied. He was…he lifted his mug and sipped it, then noticed it was empty. Numbtongue absently waved at Drassi for a refill. For him and Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] accepted a mug with a free hand and then looked at Numbtongue.

“So. What have you been doing since the battle against the Goblin Lord? I was dead.”

 

—-

 

At first, it was just a continuation to the thirty minutes they’d sat and talked. Then an hour. And then two. By two and a half hours, Numbtongue had to pee. He got up, wandered out of The Wandering Inn, and joined the queue for the outhouses. There were five now; apparently two had just been dug. Even so, Gnolls and Drakes were standing in line and Numbtongue was grateful for the distance between each outhouses. It made the sounds a bit less…pronounced.

One of the outhouses had been built to accommodate a half-Giant. It was that one Numbtongue was in line for; he liked the space. The door opened and Maughin stepped out. Or rather, his body did. His head was still chatting to Jelaqua in the inn.

Numbtongue and the Drakes and Gnolls stepped out of the way, but the Dullahan’s body had some kind of instinctual awareness because he walked calmly back to the inn without any uncertainty.

“Ancestors, that’s creepy.”

One of the Drakes in line muttered. A Gnoll in front of him nodded and sniffed, then made a face.

“Ergh. That was a mistake.”

“You Gnolls have it rough around here, huh?”

The Drake looked sympathetic. The Gnoll just grimaced.

“Well, we grow up smelling everything. This is hardly worse. But whatever that Dullahan ate—”

“Don’t talk to me about it. I just had lunch. I’ll tell you one thing though, those forges Pallass has. If those Dullahans can work steel everyday like I saw them doing this morning—makes you think.”

“That Lism’s right? Or Krshia?”

“I don’t know! It just makes you think.”

The Drake grimaced. He looked across another line at a nodding Drake and then turned his head.

“It’s weird. I know it’s because it’s the crazy Human doing it, but she is our crazy Human. What do you th—”

He stared at Numbtongue and froze. He must not have seen the Hobgoblin, or mistaken green skin for scales. The Gnoll jumped when he spotted Numbtongue as well. The [Bard] looked at them as they edged closer to the big outhouse and closed his mouth. He said nothing and the line moved a lot faster. And no one got into line behind Numbtongue until he was done with his business and walking back to the inn.

That soured Numbtongue’s mood. It was still the same. So, when he sat down across from Yellow Splatters, he didn’t immediately speak. Which was fine; the Antinium was waxing eloquent after two hours of speaking.

“There you are. I was waiting for your return. Do you know that Erin Solstice is considering selling the Hive’s supply of Rxlvn?

“What?”

“Our alcohol. It is…potent. I believe it is technically classified as a poison, but Miss Solstice has expressed interested in it. I was saying that I believed it would leave an impact.”

Numbtongue nodded restlessly.

“Maybe.”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] was in a good mood, but Numbtongue was suddenly miserable again. Restlessly, the Goblin carved into the table with his claws, scratching the softer wood. He could feel eyes on him again. Of course, they’d been staring all this time. But his visit to the bathroom had refocused them on him and Yellow Splatters. The Antinium was getting looks of course, but it was on Numbtongue, the Goblin, that they were harshest.

Some of the Drakes by the door to Pallass had seen Numbtongue pass by on his way in and out. They were speaking to the people on the other side, explaining. Justifying. Numbtongue could catch fragments of the conversation.

“…well, yes, but—you know, about the battle…?”

“—not saying that I would personally—not allowed in the city, of course not! There was an incident—”

“Never in Pallass. Well, it’s just one. There were others, an entire damn tribe. Thankfully—”

The Hobgoblin’s grip tightened on the table. Yellow Splatters noticed and stopped talking. He looked up as Numbtongue turned. Both stared at the door, and the speakers there. They shut up.

Drakes and Gnolls stared across the inn at the duo. Some were just talking, enjoying themselves, watching the play. But too many went silent and still as they noticed the Goblin and Antinium looking. And silence was a plague. It spread.

As she circulated the room, Erin heard the sound die down. She looked around and saw the source. She might not have known what had caused Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters to look around, but she could see the tenseness. She began to push her way through the crowd. Too slowly; a Drake, made uncomfortable by the staring Hobgoblin, decided to make his voice heard. He stood up, a touch unsteadily and the alcohol slurred his tongue a bit.

“Hey! What’re you looking at, Goblin? And you—Antinium!”

The rest of the room fell silent. Temile, on stage with his cast, paused, and every head turned to the source of the shout. Numbtongue shrugged, a Goblin’s catch-all answer.

“Just looking.”

“Oh yeah? Look somewhere else. I can’t enjoy my drinks with a Goblin watching me.”

The Drake glared and tried to make a rude gesture. Erin pushed her way past a group of Gnolls.

“Hey! If you have a problem with Numbtongue, you can get out! Other people can take your place!”

“I’m not killing him. I read the sign. Just because I’m tolerating his presence, doesn’t mean I have to put up with him staring. See? He’s still doing it!”

The Drake pointed angrily at Numbtongue. And to be fair, the Hobgoblin was glaring. Erin hesitated. She looked at the Drake. He was drunk and he had faded green scales, mixed a bit with blue.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t say mean things. I bet that’s why he’s glaring.”

“Mean things? What, like the fact that it’s good that Goblins are banned from the city? Good. Pallass doesn’t let Goblins in. Why should Liscor? I’m fine with Dullahans and those bird-people, but Goblins? No. Never.”

The Drake took another drink, ignoring Erin’s glare. Worse, his words had a lot of silent support. Numbtongue looked around. He was tense. Erin just got mad. She thrust a finger at the Drake’s snout and he recoiled.

“Hey, I’m drinking here!”

“Hey yourself, buddy! You say that one more time, and you’re out! In fact, I should kick you out! Numbtongue fought for Liscor! His friends died because he helped stop the Goblin Lord! Goblins attacked Liscor and—”

Shut up!

The Drake hurled his glass onto the ground. It smashed, and Erin leapt back. She opened her mouth furiously, and at another table, Relc stood up with a groan. He abandoned Grimalkin and Embria and stepped forwards at the same time as Ishkr and a Drake.

“Alright, buddy. You’re drunk. Why don’t you pay up for the cup and liquid and leave?”

He raised his claws placatingly. The drunk Drake wavered. He might have gone without more than a fuss, but Erin was eying the broken glass and looking back at Numbtongue. She turned back and raised her voice.

“Yeah! Get out! We don’t need racist jerks here. Goblins aren’t all bad you know!”

The Drake stopped as he fumbled for his coin pouch, swearing. Slowly, he looked up at Erin. And his drunk anger faded and became something soberer. Darker. He pointed at Erin as Relc barred his way.

Not all bad? Goblins killed my sister.”

The room went silent. Erin’s furious mouth closed slowly. Relc hesitated. The Drake looked around.

“I’m being unreasonable? Me? I’m sitting in the same inn as that thing because I wanted to talk to my brother.”

He pointed unsteadily through the door.

“I didn’t come here to cause a fight. But that thing’s here. Staring at me. You know what Goblins did, Miss Human? They killed my sister. My best friend. They were just travelling from our village to the city. It was a two hour walk! You could see them from the walls. But a bunch of Goblins killed them. Stabbed them to death and tried to eat them. You monsters.

He directed that last at Numbtongue, spitting in his general direction. And all eyes fastened on the Goblin. Erin’s eyes went uncertainly to Numbtongue. Relc, looking around, made a judgment call.

“Alright, pal. We get it. That’s terrible. Really. But you’re drunk—”

Get your claws off me!

The Drake shoved at Relc, but failed to make the [Guardsman] fall back. He swore as Relc manhandled him towards the door.

“You didn’t save her! The City Watch saw everything and they didn’t stop it!”

“We can’t be everywhere. Keep walking.”

“Are Goblins supposed to be safe? Huh? I’m letting this one stay! Aren’t I the reasonable one? I’m not seeking vengeance. But why do I have to pretend that this thing isn’t dangerous? Goblins killed my sister! What do you have to say to that, Hob, huh?”

“Don’t answer that.”

Relc snapped at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin ignored him. He stared at the struggling Drake and around at the silent room. The judging looks. Slowly, Numbtongue stood up. He called across the room at the Drake.

“Humans killed my parents.”

The Drake paused. Relc, swore under his breath. Now the conversation had two sides. The drunk Drake shouted at Numbtongue.

“Oh yeah? Join the club! I’m not a Human, though. So if you think that—”

“Drakes killed my tribe.”

Numbtongue interrupted the Drake. He slowly pointed at Relc. The [Guardsman] paused.

“That one killed my Chieftain. That one killed thousands of my people. Because you didn’t open the gates after we stopped the Goblin Lord.”

Numbtongue’s finger pointed right, towards Embria. She looked up. And unlike Relc, there was little guilt in her eyes. Numbtongue looked around the room and then back at the angry Drake.

“I didn’t kill your…sister. Or friend. I didn’t know the Goblins who did. I’m not them. And your—people—killed more Goblins. Why should I tolerate you?

He folded his arms, almost triumphantly. Daring the Drake to come up with a response. He couldn’t, Numbtongue was sure. But that surety—after a second of hesitation, a sneer crossed the Drake’s face.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re monsters. You can pretend you’re not. You can even speak. But everyone knows what Goblin Kings and Goblin Lords do. A few of you can be tamed. But that’s all.”

Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He took a step forwards and Erin blocked his way. She glared at the Drake and then around uneasily.

“Alright! That’s it! Relc, toss this guy out!”

“I need the magic door. He’ll just roll down the hill and come back up.”

Relc pointed to the open door as he restrained the struggling Drake. Erin nodded as Lyonette rushed over to change the setting. Relc didn’t budge as the Drake tried to elbow him and stomp on one foot. He had the drunk in a headlock. But the Drake could still shout. He cast one eye at Numbtongue.

“Go on! Kick me out! But everyone knows I’m right! Maybe Goblins can be safe! One or two. But no one’ll ever let a tribe stay around Liscor in peace! You know why? Because of the Goblin King! And it doesn’t matter how many of you die. Because Goblins—Goblins are animals. Get it? We’re Drakes. And Gnolls. And even damned Humans. We’re not animals, so we count. You don’t. Get it?”

Numbtongue opened his mouth. But he didn’t know what to say. He clenched his fists and Erin grabbed him. The Drake just laughed at the Hobgoblin’s expression.

“I’m right! See? It can’t even respond. See? I—”

Relc adjusted his hold and the Drake’s supply of wind cut off abruptly. He choked, and Lyonette raised her head as the portal in the magic door changed.

“Door’s open!”

“Finally.”

Relc grunted and heaved. The Drake flew through the door, scattering a crowd of potential guests. They stared into the inn as Relc looked over his shoulder. Numbtongue was shaking. His mouth was still open, but he didn’t know what to say. He’d never had to argue like that before. And he’d—

“It’s just a drunk guy. I guess Goblins did kill his family. But he’s wrong.”

Erin looked around in the silence. She met everyone’s eye, but few were looking straight at her. A Gnoll from Liscor murmured as Lyonette silently let people into the inn.

“He might be. But he came to the inn peacefully, Miss Solstice. Didn’t do more than complain. Which he has a right to, no? He lost his sister and friend. That he came here, knowing a Goblin was present, shows he was on your side. And Krshia’s.”

“So he has the right to say that to Numbtongue?”

Erin snapped back. The Gnoll didn’t reply. He looked away from her. And he didn’t leave, but the silence in the room grew more pronounced. Numbtongue looked around. He stared at the faces, some calm, some judging. Others, like Grimalkin, weighing him on some imaginary scale. And he hated it. Most of all though, he hated the ones standing at the back, in a group of their own.

Bevussa, Keldrass,  Earlia of Gemhammer and Nailren of Kelia’s Pride. More—the Horns of Hammerad. A few other Silver-rank teams. Adventurers. They said nothing. But their looks told Numbtongue what they thought. Here was a ‘safe’ Goblin. One they wouldn’t kill.

One, and only one.

It was the same as yesterday. The same as the one time he’d gone to Liscor. Numbtongue clenched his fists, aware of every person who drew back when they saw that and his bared teeth. He searched for the right words. But he didn’t have them. And he wished he could tell that Drake how wrong he was. Of the Goblins he called animals. Numbtongue wished he could show him. But the others were dead and gone. And he…

The Hobgoblin moved. People jumped out of his way as Numbtongue stormed towards the stairs. Up them, towards his room. Erin ran after him, but no one else moved. They watched as he disappeared upstairs. And then Erin. And then the big Soldier got up and followed both. And after a few more moments, someone told a joke, the inn laughed, and it got back to normal.

The Goblin was gone. But upstairs, the Goblin was always there. And he was always a Goblin.

 

—-

 

Yellow Splatters stood behind Erin, listening. Just listening to Numbtongue and her talk. She was standing in the hallway outside his room. Numbtongue was standing in the doorway, Yellow Splatters closer to the stairs. The sounds of the merry common room drifted up. But above, the air was colder. More painful.

Numbtongue looked upset as he stood in the doorway. He had just stood there when Erin and Yellow Splatters found him. He hadn’t slammed the door or hid in his room. That was a thing for Human children. A door couldn’t stop an adventurer with a crossbow, or a spell. You had to stand and fight or run far away. And he had lost that fight. Yellow Splatters had seen his face.

Intriguing. The Soldier had never considered a fight could be won with words. But these ones had left invisible wounds. Erin was trying to mend them now, but it wasn’t working.

“It was just one Drake, Numbtongue. He won’t come back. I’ll make sure of it.”

“They all think that way.”

“Not all. Relc’s trying. You didn’t have to…I know what he did. But I think he’d even apologize if—”

“For Garen? He can say sorry to Garen, not me. If sorry brings back dead Goblins.”

Numbtongue sneered, his fists clenched. Erin fell silent. She looked at him, helplessly, angry and upset for him. Yellow Splatters saw that too. That was what drove the Antinium to Erin. The fact that she would be angry or sad or happy with them. For them. But now it wasn’t helping.

“You don’t have to—no. I mean—I know it’s hard. If there’s anything I can…what can I do to help, Numbtongue?”

“Let me go to Liscor.”

The Goblin looked up with burning eyes. Erin wavered.

“You can’t. I’m sorry. I talked it over with Zevara, Numbtongue. You’ll be in danger.”

“Don’t care.”

“You can’t fight them. Any one of them could hit you with a stone, or cast a spell, or stab you—”

“I don’t care. I want to go.”

Why? What’s Liscor got? I can get you anything, Numbtongue! What do you want?”

“I don’t know. I want to go there and find out.”

The Goblin turned his head and stared out his window at the city in the distance. Erin bit her lip hard. She didn’t know what to say. Numbtongue stared past her at Yellow Splatters. The Soldier raised a hand.

“If I am intruding, I will remove myself.”

Erin jumped. She hadn’t realized he was here. Numbtongue just laughed. He stared at Yellow Splatters, and a flicker of envy entered his eyes.

“You can go into Liscor. Do they stare at you there? Do they say things? Like…”

He gestured to the stairs. The Painted Soldier paused, his arms folded.

“They stare. But they stare everywhere. I have not been addressed like you are. I understand that you are banned from Liscor.”

“Yes. They close the gates before I can get in.”

The Hobgoblin clenched his fists, staring blackly ahead. Erin’s face fell.

“You went again? Why does it matter?”

“They died for Liscor. I can’t go in.”

Numbtongue’s claws dug into his flesh. Erin opened her mouth, but it was Yellow Splatters who tilted his head. The Soldier had been enjoying his conversation with Numbtongue. He felt a kinship to the Goblin. But this line of thought confused him.

“Why does it matter? Is the worth of Goblins—and their deaths—truly linked to your right to be in Liscor? Is that what they all died for?”

Erin gasped. Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed and he tensed. But then he looked at Yellow Splatters and, slowly, relaxed. For anyone else, the question might have stung. But Yellow Splatters returned the gaze calmly. And after a moment, Numbtongue blinked. The Hobgoblin exhaled and shook his head.

“It’s not about Liscor. We—the Redfangs, the Flooded Waters tribe didn’t fight for Liscor. We fought because the Goblin Lord was bad. Bad Goblin. And for you.”

He looked at Erin. And her face went pale. Numbtongue turned from her to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier nodded.

“We fought and died for Erin Solstice as well. As Pawn requested. This is a fact, and what I understood of Goblins. So why does access to Liscor matter?”

The young woman looked from Goblin to Antinium. And suddenly she was unsteady on her feet. Numbtongue shook his head. He pointed at Liscor.

“So they do not forget. So they cannot forget.”

And the pieces clicked. For Yellow Splatter, they fit together in a moment. It took Erin longer.

“Oh.”

She softly uttered the word. Numbtongue looked at her.

“They say Drakes saved the city. Or…they fought off the Humans. They forget. But I am here. We were here! They stop talking about Goblins! About the Redfangs, the Flooded Waters tribe. They forget. The ones in the city, who never come here. They forget. Why can I not remind them? Why can I not go there, when we all died—”

His voice trailed off. That was it. It wasn’t that he needed to be there. He probably didn’t even want to go. But it was that he couldn’t. To Yellow Splatters, it was like knowing there was sky. And never going above again.

The [Sergeant] considered the Hobgoblin standing across from him. He didn’t know what to say. Numbtongue’s pain wasn’t his own. His cause wasn’t Yellow Splatter’s. He did not matter to the Free Antinium. And still—the Soldier slowly uncrossed his arms.

“The Antinium fought the Goblin Lord for Liscor. So did the Goblins. To not say that is a lie. We died. And we were there.”

He touched his chest with one hand and pointed two. At Numbtongue, and at Erin. Her face was white. But the Goblin only nodded. He met Yellow Splatter’s gaze.

“They died. All of them. You. And me. My Chieftain. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. Spiderslicer. Noears. Reiss. Pyrite.”

“Glorious Sun. Grassleaves. Six and Five. Red and White Flowers. Cold Blue.”

Yellow Splatters nodded. The Soldier’s colors, their symbols flashed in his mind. Numbtongue looked at him. And the Hobgoblin’s wide eyes conveyed a message without words.

You were there. You understand. You remember. Yellow Splatters nodded. He reached out and Numbtongue clasped his hand gently. Both of them heard a small sound and turned.

Erin was crying. She wiped at her eyes as water flowed from them. It was another strange sight. Yellow Splatters stared at Erin’s face. And—strangely—he felt uncomfortable. Pained. As if the tears were hurting him. It was like looking at a wounded Soldier or Worker. He touched his chest, averted his gaze. But the pain in his chest didn’t clear. And Erin kept crying.

“I’m sorry. I know I asked you, but I—I thought—I’m sorry—

She hiccupped, and then began crying and hiccupping. Numbtongue looked at her, helplessly. He shook his head as Erin turned to him.

“That’s not—”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium saw his mouth working and the words came into his mind first. He looked at Erin.

“It is not grief we seek, Erin Solstice. The cost was paid. Antinium and Goblins died. But if we were faced with the same choice, we would do it again. We won.

Numbtongue closed his mouth and looked at Yellow Splatters. A flicker of something—a smile—tugged at his expression. He nodded. Erin shook her head. She was still crying.

“I—no. No. It was—”

She broke off and kept sobbing. But the tears didn’t last. Numbtongue awkwardly patted Erin on the back. She hugged him. Yellow Splatters looked at the Goblin’s face and gently copied Numbtongue, patting her on the back. And he met Numbtongue’s eyes.

That was what they couldn’t explain to Erin. The tears matched. But he and Numbtongue had something she didn’t understand. Pride. The dead had not died in vain. And all of what followed—Yellow Splatter’s resolve, Numbtongue’s desire for the dead to be remembered, to enter Liscor—stemmed from that.

They had not died in vain.

Yellow Splatters kept patting Erin until she let go of Numbtongue. The young woman dried her face. She looked helplessly at them and sniffed.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Numbtongue. I wasn’t thinking of how you felt.”

“It’s fine. Go lie down. Sleep.”

Numbtongue pointed to Erin’s room across from him. She wavered.

“No. I should get downstairs. Although—”

She noticed her wet apron and shirt. Numbtongue eyed her.

“Lyonette will be upset if you go down. Mrsha will howl.”

“Probably. And I guess everyone else will want to—maybe I’ll lie down. You’re sure you don’t want to talk?”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin smiled. Erin wavered, but he ushered her gently and insistently into the room. She eventually went, promising she’d be out in a little bit. The door closed and Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters looked at each other. And again, they felt at ease. Yellow Splatters stepped into Numbtongue’s room and the Goblin closed the door so they wouldn’t bother Erin.

“They can’t forget. Ever.”

He meant Liscor in the distance. It was different from Yellow Splatters. He shook his head.

“Memory matters little to the Antinium. We desire the expansion of our Hive. Revalantor Klbkch has a plan and I am helping to carry that out. I deem it worthy. But that is not what concerns me. The Painted Soldiers. My unit. We were weak. We are weak, still. But I was given a chance to strive again. So I will—I must become stronger.”

He held Numbtongue’s gaze. The Hobgoblin clenched a fist, understanding at once.

“Strong enough not for all to die next time?”

Yellow Splatters nodded.

“Yes. That is it exactly. I have more to protect. My…people need me to be strong. So I must be strong.”

The Goblin [Bard] smiled for a second. A trace of bitterness flickered in his eyes.

“Good plan. Doesn’t work for me. Mine are dead. Or gone.”

“Then why do you stay? What keeps you moving? What reason do you have to be alive?”

The question had no rancor; it was just a question from one warrior to another. Numbtongue smiled. He pointed at the door.

“Someone has to stay. To protect…”

“Ah.”

And that was the beauty. He didn’t have to explain why Erin had to live. Why her life could justify the countless dead. Yellow Splatters understood. He reached out and made a fist. Numbtongue stared at it, gently perplexed. The Soldier spoke calmly.

“It is good you remain here. You are strong. I have a strong body, gifted to me by the Free Queen. Thus, I am stronger than when I died. But I must level. That is what I intend to do. I lost all but six levels when I died. I have regained five already; I intend to reach Level 20 within the month.”

“To be strong. To be the strongest.”

Another nod. The Soldier kept his fist extended, towards Numbtongue’s chest.

“I must be the strongest of them all. And make them stronger. But do it with…kindness. I failed once before. It will not happen again.”

“Good. Be strong.”

Numbtongue reached out. His own fist extended and Yellow Splatters nodded. They bumped fists gently. Yellow Splatters regarded Numbtongue, his head tilting slightly back and forth.

“I understand now, why you are here. But what will you do? Train? Level? If you wish it, it would be possible for you to fight against local threats and patrol with the Painted Antinium. Your company would be enjoyable.”

Numbtongue wavered. He was pleased at the offer, but he shook his head in the end.

“No good.”

“Why?”

Yellow Splatters was honestly confused. Numbtongue struggled to explain. The best he could was by talking about the images in his head. The inferiority he felt when he picked up a sword.

“I know a strong Goblin. The strongest. He fought the…Human. Lord Tyrion. He stopped him. He was stronger than me. And he died. How can I be that strong? I am a [Bard].”

Pyrite. Shorthilt. Headscratcher. Each had been stronger than Numbtongue. And each was dead. He wasn’t as gifted as they had been in combat. And his class…Numbtongue closed his eyes and shook his head. Yellow Splatters regarded him.

“But they are dead. You could surpass their levels in time. Does a [Bard] not become strong?”

“Not like a [Sergeant]. Or…[Warrior].”

“Really. What does your class do?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Lightning from the skies. But mostly—makes music. It helps a bit. Makes animals not bite. But it isn’t like…[Warmaster]. [Chieftain]. Or even [Savage Warrior]. Those are strong classes.”

“Really. They are not ones I am familiar with. But I do not know many classes.”

That surprised Numbtongue. He shook his head.

“I know lots. What do you have? [Sergeant]? Not a Goblin class. But could have…[Spear Soldier]. [First Sergeant]. [Captain]. At…Level 20? If you can upgrade. But [Warrior] classes are good. Sometimes better. [Sergeant] is officer. Good for leading, but sometimes weaker. Sometimes strong.”

“You know a lot about classes.”

“We had many. I was just a [Warrior]. But Garen knew many classes and there were many in my tribe. The Redfangs wer—are strong.”

“Stronger than the Antinium. At least, individually.”

Another nod. It came from both sides. Yellow Splatters was under no illusions. He sat on Numbtongue’s chair while the Hobgoblin sat on the bed, cross-legged.

“The power of the Antinium lies in our numbers. We die by the hundreds to kill a single high-level foe. This tactic…works. But it is not acceptable. The Painted Antinium—no, all Antinium must live. And yet, how do we overcome this difficulty? The Antinium have no [Mages]. No capacity for fighting at range. At least, the Free Antinium do not. I envy your levels, Numbtongue. The Antinium are too low-level, too focused in one area. We have [Archers] now. But magic is…if we fight the Goblin Lord a second time, we will die by the hundreds or thousands to bring him down.”

That was the [Sergeant]’s nightmare. Even if they tunneled, the Goblin Lord might collapse their tunnels, use the same spells to blast apart their ranks. It terrified him. The Hobgoblin sat on his bed quietly, listening to Yellow Splatter’s fears. At last, he shrugged slightly. Not out of indifference, though. He looked at Yellow Splatters.

“Do you have sneaky Antinium?”

“Sneaky Antinium?”

The [Bard] nodded.

“It’s how the Redfangs fought. We lost our [Shaman]. So we just used traps. Gold-rank Adventurers love teams with [Mages]. So we learn to attack them from one side. Ambush them—use big rocks or artifacts or sneaky Goblins to break their barriers. Then it’s easy. One arrow and—”

He mimed being struck in the chest. Yellow Splatters paused.

“I understand the Silent Antinium are a…Hive specializing in sneak attacks. But their forces are not part of the Free Antinium, or so Klbkch has explained to me. But you use traps? Belgrade makes traps. Tell me more. You are much more experienced than I.”

“Oh?”

Numbtongue looked surprised. And then pleased. He shrugged again, and then looked around. Then he went over to his desk. Erin had given him any number of things to occupy himself with. Snacks, a jar of cookies, parchment, ink, quills, a nail file—he grabbed the parchment and a quill and ink and brought it over. It was largely unused, although Yellow Splatters saw some lyrics on one sheet. Numbtongue unrolled the parchment and dipped his quill in the inkpot.

“Hm. This is how Redfangs attack [Mages]. Very easy? See? Pit trap here, archers here with cover, boulders here with slope, oh. Poison arrows. And Carn Wolf [Riders] here—and sometimes angry beehives. Or exploding things like Tripvine bags. Simple. Anyone can do. What do you want to know?”

Yellow Splatters stared at the trap. He hesitated, and then he raised three hands.

“Please explain everything.”

 

—-

 

Life had its ups and downs. You didn’t win every fight. And sometimes you cried. But the trick was to keep moving. To pick yourself up again. That was why after about forty minutes, Erin Solstice was able to leave her room and go downstairs with a smile on her face and reassure her friends. She’d had a few more tears, a handkerchief to blow her nose, and a nap. And really, it wasn’t her that she was worried about. It was Numbtongue.

She’d expected the Hobgoblin to be somewhere else. But to her surprise, he was in his room. He hadn’t even gone downstairs. Erin cautiously poked her head into the room, holding a tray with two mugs of tea.

Heeeey guys. How’s it going? Um—everyone okay? Sorry for going off like that. Anyone want a drink?”

Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters looked up. Erin blinked as she saw them sitting on his bed and chair. They’d dragged the table over and they were gathered around it. The young woman smiled.

“Oh wow! You two are really getting along!”

“Hi.”

Numbtongue gave Erin a smile and accepted the tea. He seemed to be over his earlier frustration, and he’d clearly been absorbed by some kind of discussion with Yellow Splatters. Erin peered at the parchment as Yellow Splatters took a mug.

“Whatcha working on? Ooh, are those maps?”

“Tactics.”

Numbtongue tugged at one bit of parchment, looking slightly put upon as Erin peered around the table. She was clearly intruding. Erin made out a list of what looked like classes and Skills. And then she identified some of the drawings. Numbtongue wasn’t exactly an [Artist] and he was no [Tactician], so his picture of a Goblin stabbing an adventurer in the back was crude. But it got the point across.

Erin’s face fell a bit. She glanced up at the Goblin an Antinium.

“…You’re discussing fighting? Really? Nothing else?”

They looked at her blankly. What else would they talk about? Erin sighed, but she smiled.

“I’m glad. Hey, you could go downstairs. If you want! Or I can get you a snack.”

“I ate.”

“And I have imbibed adequate sustenance.”

“Right. Okay! Well, glad to see you two are making friends. Don’t let me bother you!”

Erin stepped back. Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters turned to look at her. After a second, Numbtongue coughed. Erin blinked.

“Oh my god. I’m my mom.”

“What?”

“I have to go. Sorry. I’m cramping your style! Oh no…I’m a mom. Wait, does that mean Lyonette’s the dad? Or the bossy older sister? Am I the dad?”

Erin groaned and slapped her forehead. Completely lost, Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue exchanged a glance. But they were relieved when she was gone. It wasn’t that Erin wasn’t welcome—it was just that both were well aware of how distracting she could be. And this was serious business. They leaned over the table again. Yellow Splatters nodded.

“Back to our discussion. Survival rates among the Soldiers is typically low when encountering powerful monsters. Belgrade’s traps do work well—I will suggest the ones you use to him. We also have magical items, but I am certain Revalantor Klbkch will not allow their use.”

Numbtongue nodded.

“Can make slings, though. Slings are good.”

“Indeed. I am not sure if a Worker can swing four slings at once, but that is a viable experiment.”

Numbtongue laughed, trying to imagine that. Yellow Splatters politely smiled. They’d been discussing how to fight, and to Numbtongue’s surprise, it was actually…fun. Talking about Redfang tactics and survival strategies with someone who appreciated it. Right up until you realized they might all die in one of the scenarios they were laying out.

The Painted Antinium were certainly unlike any tribe Numbtongue had met. They could overwhelm a foe just like Goblins, but their Workers and Soldiers were all a lot stronger than the average Goblin. By the same token though, they didn’t have strong Hobs or Chieftains, with the exception of Yellow Splatters. That complicated things, especially if your goal was to keep as many alive as possible.

Something occurred to Numbtongue as he looked at Yellow Splatter’s description of the Painted Antinium’s forces. Bow unit, low-level [Soldiers]…he looked up sharply, realizing there was an obvious discrepancy besides a lack of magic users and more sneaky and ranged types.

“You know what you need?”

“What?”

Yellow Splatters leaned forwards again. He was more decisive than the Workers, but when he listened to Numbtongue, he was a very attentive student. Who asked a lot of questions. Numbtongue grinned and tapped his belt. Next to the small satchel holding his mined treasures was a vial. He pulled it out and showed Yellow Splatters.

Potions. Potions are good. All your Soldiers should have potions. Redfangs use potions.”

“I am intrigued. Tell me more.”

Numbtongue gave him a blank look.

“Potions. You use them. You heal. Or get effects. Like…spitting fire. Potions are good.”

Yellow Splatters hesitated.

“The Antinium do not use potions. Ever.”

“Really? What if you get hurt?”

“We have a healing gel. That we seldom use. Soldiers have a recovery area. There they live or die.”

Numbtongue shook his head. That sounded like a poor Goblin tribe.

“Potions heal everything fast.

“So I understand. And the Hive has a supply. A very…large supply, in fact. But Revalantor Klbkch has designated such stores off-limits except in case of war, or emergency.”

“Okay. So get more.”

“How?”

“Steal? Kill adventurers? Or…buy?”

Buy?

The Hobgoblin nodded uncertainly. He wasn’t completely in on this concept either. But since the first two options weren’t viable around Liscor—

“Potions cost money. You have money, right?”

“I have a stipend allocated to me by Klbkch, yes.”

“Can you buy a potion with it?”

Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles slowly.

“…I have never purchased anything except for food from Miss Erin. Have you?”

“No…”

They stared at each other. Antinium and Goblins didn’t buy anything. But the thought was beguiling. And Numbtongue had seen Lyonette coming in with food that she’d bought with the shiny coins Erin gave to him. And Yellow Splatters had seen the same while marching through the city.

“You have coins.”

“Yup. See?”

Numbtongue found some silver and two gold coins stuffed in his desk. Erin had paid him for guarding the inn along with the other Redfangs. They’d been keepsakes. Useless. Until now. Yellow Splatters produced his own money pouch. He poured the coins onto the table. Numbtongue stared at the bronze, silver, and gold. Yellow Splatters stared at the pile and him.

“…Is that enough for a potion?”

“Maybe? Maybe one.”

The Hobgoblin had no idea. He thought about asking Erin. Did she know how much a potion was worth? Maybe Ceria? Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles and clicked, clearing his throat.

“I could…attempt to look at some in Liscor. However, I do not know if the [Alchemists] there would allow me into their stores. Obtaining potions…that would be very useful. Very.”

Numbtongue nodded. Potions were every Goblin’s dream. You could save your life with one. Even the Redfangs, who were rich, had coveted every bottle they found. Speaking of which…Numbtongue frowned at his belt. He had two healing potions. And another stashed under his pillow.  Erin had given them to him, but she’d gotten hers from—his eyes widened.

“Want to look at some? I know a place.”

“In Liscor? You are banned from the city.”

Numbtongue scowled and then suppressed it.

“No. But I think—we can go there. Follow me.”

Casually, he left his room and went downstairs. Yellow Splatters swept his and Numbtongue’s money into his pouch and followed. Erin was downstairs, serving guests. They looked at Numbtongue when he came down, but no one caused a scene this time.

“Erin. Can we go somewhere? With the door?”

Numbtongue innocently walked over to Erin. She looked around suspiciously, but when she heard what he wanted, she nodded after a moment.

“Sure. I mean, if you’re just visiting her. Don’t let her rip you off! Tell you what—the Pallass crowd’ll riot if I don’t keep the door open there. But I can let you two through and…check on you in ten minutes? Just tell Octavia that if she scams you, I’ll rip off her arm or something. Got it?”

Numbtongue nodded eagerly. He beckoned to Yellow Splatters and Erin pushed her way towards the magic door. Lyonette looked anxious as Erin changed the door, let the Hobgoblin and Antinium through, and then came back.

“You’re sure that’s fine, Erin? Shouldn’t one of us go with them? Or at least, one of the Horns?”

“It’s fine. It’s just Octavia. Numbtongue promised to stay in her shop. And I’ll head over as soon as I finish setting up the fondue. Relc’s gonna love this. Hey, Relc!”

Erin waved and turned. It was just five minutes. Ten or fifteen at most. She’d be over as soon as she finished melting the cheese in the big pot. Pisces was providing the flame and Erin had already equipped Mrsha, Ceria, and Yvlon and Ksmvr with some long forks to dip sausage into the cheesy goodness. Relc was beaming as he rushed over with Embria following, and Erin was smiling too. She’d introduce the wonders of fondue to the inn, then pop over to Stitchworks and…deal with Octavia for a bit.

It never occurred to her to worry. Right up until her [Dangersense] started going off, that was.

 

—-

 

It was past lunch in Celum. And Stitchworks, the [Alchemist]’s shop owned by Octavia Cotton was not open. It was still closed, despite the [Alchemist] being awake. She sat in her shop, and for once, she was too tired to make a sale.

She knew she had to. The day’s payment had been twelve silver. More than half a gold coin! For an [Alchemist], it was doable. But Octavia had to sell, and sell well to get ahead of that. Let alone make money.

“But what’s the point? I might as well pack up rather than keep on here.”

Dully, Octavia stared at her racks of potions. The magical glow they gave off was usually enough to cheer her up. But today the colors just looked pale. Fake. Octavia was an [Alchemist]. She could see the low quality of her own potions.

She used to think she made up for quality with quantity, an affordable margin for both her customers and herself. She’d liked to imagine she was making her mark in Izril, despite the competition. Today? She wished she’d never left Chandrar.

Octavia stared at her potions. Then she stared out the boarded-up window of her shop. There were slits between the imperfect covering, but the pane of glass in her door also gave her a view of the street. She could see them, out there. They were watching her.

The [Alchemist]’s eyes flicked to her shelves. To the door. Then to another door, set in the back of her shop. It was a magic door. Or at least, the mana stone glittering in the doorframe was. But if Octavia opened the door, it would just reveal a wall. It wasn’t connected to Liscor at the moment. So she couldn’t just run through with all her gold and potions.

And even if she could, then what? Octavia shook her head. Assume she could get her gold, her equipment, and all her ingredients and wares through. She was still out the cost of her shop. Not to mention she’d have to set up in Liscor. If they even accepted String People. And would Erin let Octavia stay? Or—if Octavia opened the door and asked, begged for help…

No. Octavia shook her head and slowly got up. She went over to her shop sign and slowly changed it. Erin wasn’t going to come to her rescue. She, Octavia, had given up on the thought. Why ask? Octavia hadn’t gotten anyone she knew to slow down and hear her out. Bad pitches, bad timing…it didn’t matter. She knew all the Gold-rank teams had left Erin’s inn anyways. And who would answer her call if she did ask? Erin? That small Gnoll, Mrsha? Lyonette? The Horns?

“Say they did take care of…”

Octavia peeked out her door again and counted. Then she shook her head. And even if they got all of them, Quelm had, what, four times that many lurking about. He’d gone mad. And it was Octavia’s fault. Well, he’d started it by stealing her designs. But…

“Can’t wriggle out of it this time, Octavia Cotton. It was a bad deal and you knew it. You should have just let it lie. Now you’ve got to pay up. It’s just twelve silver. Twice a week.”

Octavia stared blankly at her shop.

“I have to move. To Remendia. Ocre. Or Esthelm. Yeah. They don’t have an [Alchemist], right? Or if they do, how good can they be? City gets sacked by the Goblin Lord—there’s bound to be plenty of business opportunities! I hold on, make a few preparations…Quelm’s not watching the gates, right?”

Her eyes flicked to the window, and then to the magic door again. If only—

“Erin. Ten gold? I could manage that.”

It was all her savings. But if Erin swung it for her…Octavia hesitated. Ten gold wouldn’t buy enough Silver-rank teams for a fight with that many thugs. Not to mention the City Watch wasn’t getting involved. They were bought-off. Or something. Quelm had Octavia’s gold. And his sales from the matches. And…

She was sitting behind her counter. Octavia buried her head in her hands.

“I thought she liked me. A bit? I know I’m a bit pushy. But I thought Krshia—or the Horns—we have a business relationship. I’m still selling to Krshia. Surely—”

She stared down at her counter it was swimming a bit.

“Did they all hate me that much?”

Nothing in her shop answered her. After a moment though, Octavia heard a jingle. She looked up. At least she had this. She put a smile on her face.

“Welcome to Stitchworks, friend! How can I interest you in my potions? Four silver off any first purchase and—ulp!”

She stared at the rough figure that had pushed open the door. Octavia slowly closed her mouth and sat down. The [Thug] grinned at her. He was rough-shaven and smelled of sweat.

“Morning, Miss Octavia.”

“Ah. H-hello. How’re things? Checking in on the shop? I paid yesterday, you know. Promptly and on time! There’s no need for…”

Octavia could normally out-talk anyone she met. But the words dried up as the man looked around her shop. She could see the long knife at his belt. But that wasn’t what terrified her. String People didn’t fear knives. It was fire she feared. Fire and those who caused it.

“Looks like you haven’t got much business. Alchemist Quelm’s concerned.”

“Is—is he? Well, you can assure him that I’ll get him his money.”

Esthelm. She could move tonight if she found a good [Wagon Driver]. And if they weren’t watching her shop. The [Thug] looked around and shrugged.

“So you say. But he’s concerned. And since he’s so worried, he sent me and some of the guys around to help you sell.”

For a second Octavia was confused. Was Quelm mad? Did he think this would be a good [Shop Assistant]? She stared as the [Thug] went over to one of her shelves of potions.

“Help me sell? He really doesn’t need to—hey! Wait! What are you doing?”

The [Thug] was grabbing bottles off the shelf. Octavia rushed around her counter.

“No! Those are mine! Here, you want next payment? I can make it! Tell Quelm—”

She grabbed at her money drawer and realized it was locked. The [Thug] just shook his head. He grinned at her, exposing bright, well-kept teeth. Octavia felt they should have been rotten or replaced by gold.

Alchemist Quelm has decided there’s a new deal. You’ll be selling your potions through his store. You’ll get your cut—but everything goes through him, got it?”

He grabbed an armful of bottles. Octavia couldn’t take it.

“No! That’s my merchandise! If he takes that—”

Her income was liquid. Literally; more money was in the potions waiting to be sold than anywhere in her shop, even her safe. The [Thug] raised a fist as Octavia grabbed at him and she flinched.

“Don’t. We’re taking all of these today. Damn, we’ll need a wheelbarrow or something. I’m not carrying them. You’ll get two thirds—Alchemist Quelm gets a third. And he won’t even charge you a weekly fee anymore. Isn’t that fair?”

“He—that—”

Octavia gulped for air. The world was swimming. If Quelm did that, she’d lose far more than twelve silver every three days. A third of her profits? He’d be the only [Alchemist] selling in the city and she’d be unable to run. And both she and Quelm and the [Thug] knew it. He gave her another pearly smile.

“You can’t do this. This is too far. Quelm—I know we had our grudges, but this is robbery. I’ll go to the City Watch if you take my potions. I’ll testify under truth spell! I have friends in Liscor too. I go through that door—”

Octavia’s voice shook. The [Thug] turned to her. His eyes narrowed. Suddenly, deliberately, he dropped his armful of potions.

No—

Too late. Octavia grabbed one bottle, but the rest smashed on the floor. Horrified, she stared as four stamina potions and three healing potions mixed on the floor. That was—at least three gold’s worth of—she looked up as a boot smashed the glass shards flat. The [Thug] drew his knife with a snarl.

“And what? You tell the Watch or you go through that door, and your store won’t last till morning. Neither will you. We’re in charge now, not some [Guardsmen]. Or didn’t you hear what happened to Jeffil?”

Octavia froze, the last potion in her hands. She backed up.

“I heard. But—but—”

The [Thug] grinned unpleasantly.

“Too bad String People can just replace their arms, right? Don’t make us make an example of you. Be smart. Mabel the ‘Magnificent’ is smart. She’s working for Alchemist Quelm. You’ve got one chance to make the right move. Either you agree right now, or—

He broke off. Octavia heard a sudden roar of sound and jumped. A familiar voice rang out in her shop!

“Okay! Ten minutes! Remember, stay inside!”

The [Thug] swore and ducked back. Octavia turned. The door to Erin’s inn was open! Her heart leapt, but the warning growl behind her made her tense up. And the door was closing as soon as it opened. Octavia opened her mouth—and then choked when she saw who was coming through the door. A Hobgoblin, and—

“What the hell is that?

The [Thug] hissed at Octavia. Frozen, the [Alchemist] stared at Yellow Splatters and then looked around.

“An Antinium Soldier. And that’s…Numbtongue.”

“That’s a Hob! A flipping Hobgoblin!”

The man looked afraid, which pleased Octavia. She hesitated, looking at Numbtongue. He glanced at her and waved.

“We want to look at things.”

“Uh, okay! I mean, great! Pleased to have you here! And your friend! I’ll be over in a second!”

Octavia smiled nervously. Her eyes flicked to the [Thug]. He glared at her. Slowly, he edged back to her door and caught himself. He leaned over to Octavia and hissed.

“We’ll finish this later. Get them to go away.”

The Stitch-Girl hesitated. The [Thug] caught her arm, squeezing it tight.

“Say anything and we’ve got fourteen people outside your shop. Don’t be stupid. I’ll be right here.”

He bared his teeth. Octavia’s heart sank. She saw him go to the door and wave his hand urgently. Damn. If there weren’t more—she hurried over to Numbtongue.

“Hey, Numbtongue, right? Good to see you!”

The Hobgoblin eyed the [Alchemist]’s smile warily. He sniffed the air and frowned. Then he leaned around her and spotted the puddle of potions. His eyes widened. Octavia glanced at him and then the [Thug].

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it. Minor spill. What can I do you for? Is uh, Erin—”

“In her inn. She’ll come later. We want to buy a potion. We have…money.”

Numbtongue waved vaguely at the Antinium Soldier. Octavia backed up a step as she saw the Soldier towering over her. Was it her or was this fellow big even for an Antinium?

“Uh—well, uh—a Soldier? I’m happy to sell to all customers, but how do I know what he wants? What you want? Does he have a name?”

Too late, Octavia remembered. You weren’t supposed to ask Antinium their names! She froze, but the Soldier nodded and opened his mandibles.

“Yellow Splatters. I was reborn and given a voice. I am looking to purchase as many potions as possible for this amount of money.”

He opened his money pouch. Octavia’s jaw dropped at the gold and silver glittering there. She could sell—her eyes darted to the [Thug].

“Great! I mean, wonderful! I—I can definitely sell you whatever you need. And, hey did you say Erin’s coming through?”

“In a bit. What’s this?”

Numbtongue replied absently. Octavia glanced at the potion he was indicating.

“Pepperspray Potion. Uh—listen, Numbtongue—”

“Miss Octavia! You’re gonna close up shop soon, right?”

The [Thug] called out from where he was standing. Octavia’s heart sank. He was eying her as he pretended to browse the shelves. And fingering the dagger on his belt. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin had a frown on his face as he looked at the [Thug]. Octavia inhaled.

She could tell him. But what if he said no? If it was Ceria, or Pisces, or Yvlon—not Ksmvr—she might have risked it. But she could see more people slowly advancing down the street. And Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin? Weakly, Octavia realized that the [Thug] was going to make her chase out Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. And Erin too.

Erin. Oh no. If she came by and started a fight, he’d knife her. This wasn’t any tough. They’d crippled Jeffil. And they were going to take her potions. How many did he say there were? Fifteen? Octavia looked at Numbtongue. The Soldier. Then she thought of Erin. If Erin got into a fight and they drew their weapons—

The sigh that escaped the [Alchemist]’s mouth was slow and long. And she wiped her eyes across her stained sleeve once. That was all. Then she gave Numbtongue a big smile.

“Actually, you came here just in time, Numbtongue. I’m doing a clearance sale. Reorganizing my stock. Whatever you want—it’s half-off. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it to you.”

The Hobgoblin did a double-take. So did the Soldier. He looked at her suspiciously.

Really? Is this a…trick?”

Octavia had to admit that she’d never done a sale like that without some kind of trick. But today she just spread her hands wide.

“Nope! Let me get you your potions. I think Erin’ll have to wait on coming through; let’s do business before she gets here. Okay?”

“Are you sure?”

The Hobgoblin’s response was so normal, that Octavia wavered. She looked over her shoulder. And she tried to think of a code, something he could relay to Erin. But she was sure that the [Thug] would pick up on anything obvious like that.

“Just grand, Numbtongue. Just grand. What can I do for you?”

The Hobgoblin exchanged a glance with the Soldier. And Octavia could have sworn she saw the Soldier’s antennae do some weird twitching. But it didn’t matter. She’d sell them everything she could just to spite Quelm. And then let the gang take her goods. And then leave Celum or…she looked at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. They looked strong. Stronger than the [Thug]. But there were a lot of thugs outside.

And she didn’t have anything to offer them. Even if she could warn them. It wasn’t a good deal for them. So Octavia bit her lip and smiled.

“Come on. Time’s money. What do you want?”

 

—-

 

There was someone else watching Stitchworks. The [Enforcer]. The [Nightstalker], and her [Blackguard] escort. They sat in the little bakery café. It had been a few hours, but they’d bought enough snacks and drinks to keep the [Baker]’s assistant quite happy to let them stay as long as they walked.

They’d been good for gossip too. The polite, well-mannered man with the hat who’d tipped well had asked any number of questions about Liscor and the magic door that the [Baker] in training had been only too happy to talk about.

Now they were watching the door as she reluctantly helped her master, who was actually a mistress, prepare dough in the kitchen. And at the table, the [Nightstalker], who’d been sitting and slowly drinking the hours by while gnashing her teeth, suddenly swore and sat up.

“Fucking rotted Ghoul dicks. What the hell is that?

Even surprised, she was too professional to point at the [Alchemist]’s shop. Nor did she need to. The [Enforcer] and the [Blackguard] had seen the same thing. The [Blackguard] checked his blades. The [Enforcer] just tipped up his cap and sat up.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day.”

“It’s fucking insanity. What the hell’s going on in Liscor? No—where does that damn door lead?

The [Enforcer] winced at the [Nightstalker]’s language. But he didn’t take his eyes off the strange pair who’d entered the [Alchemist]’s shop. He stared at the green Goblin and the insect-man as they wandered about the shop.

“I believe it’s a Hobgoblin. And that other one is…an Antinium Soldier.”

The [Nightstalker] settled back in her chair, but only slightly. She was gripping the stilettos concealed in her dress.

“They came at the wrong time. That [Thug] was just about to wrap up that shop with his gang.”

The [Enforcer] nodded quietly. It hadn’t been too interesting to see. Predictably, this Alchemist Quelm had sent a gang in to make sure his competition didn’t fly the coop as it were. Taking their goods and selling them through his store was a classic move that hadn’t impressed him or the [Nightstalker]. But now a wrinkle had entered the plan. A very big wrinkle with four arms and another one with green skin and glowing eyes.

“Hobs. Fucking Hobs walking about in daylight.”

“I heard there were some in Liscor.”

That didn’t come from the [Enforcer]. It was the first words the [Blackguard] had spoken. The man must have been rattled to break his silence. The [Nightstalker] glanced at the man and glared.

“It doesn’t change things. But maybe they’re our marks. Who knows? You see anything?”

She was clearly expecting the answer to be ‘no’. But the [Blackguard] leaned forwards.

“Yes. I do.”

What?

The woman sat forwards. And now her eyes were fixed on the two. She glanced at the [Enforcer] and leaned over to the [Blackguard]. He whispered urgently to her and her eyes widened. She kept her voice low, shielding her mouth, but the [Enforcer] wasn’t looking at her. He was adjusting his cap and sniffing the air. A foul odor drifted towards him.

“Well, this is a right mess.”

He muttered to himself, and reached for something concealed at his side. A bit of leather and lead, that was all. And inside the shop, the Hob and Soldier were wandering about, peering at bottles. The [Enforcer] could see them through the door and the boarded up window, moving about. The [Nightstalker] narrowed her eyes. She had a better vision Skill than he did; she could clearly see through the boards of wood.

“That idiot [Thug]’s still there with the Stitch-Girl [Alchemist].”

“Probably to make sure she doesn’t run. Not that she’d abandon her shop. That’s her livelihood.”

The [Enforcer] commented. The [Nightstalker] nodded, her enmity with him forgotten. Her painted nails drummed on the table. She glanced down the street. More people were moving towards the shop. The [Enforcer] grimaced; he saw the gang he’d met that morning drifting towards Stitchworks, as subtle as a cow walking through a brothel. The [Nightstalker] bared her teeth.

“Look. The Hob’s noticed the gang outside. See the way he’s looking over the shelves? So’s that bug. What’re they going to do?”

“Interfere?”

The [Enforcer] frowned. He could see the [Alchemist] tagging along besides the Hob, clearly offering him a potion. Was she trying to get rid of him? From the way the [Thug] was glaring, he’d made a threat. Get rid of them so we can take your inventory. The [Enforcer] shook his head. Classless. Embarrassingly rude. Unconscionable, even. He itched to intervene. But he had a job and that was to watch.

The [Nightstalker] snorted. She was eying the dozen plus men and women now loitering about Stitchworks. They were clearing the street; the passersby could smell trouble. They’d probably already seen Quelm’s thugs shaking down the [Alchemist] before.

“It’s not their fight. Two versus fifteen? And I saw a second gang close by. Looks like that Quelm has people looking for us after I stabbed that idiot. Would you take those odds?”

The [Enforcer] didn’t reply. But he knew even the [Nightstalker] and her [Blackguard] bodyguard would have hesitated if the fifteen had showed some teeth in the alleyway this morning. They might be low-level, but numbers were enough in a fight. A knife between the ribs was all it took, if you didn’t have the right Skills or magical equipment.

“They might have numbers, but it looks like they’re spooked by the Antinium and Hobgoblin.”

“Amateurs.”

The [Nightstalker] sneered. The gang was right outside the shop, giving the nervous [Thug] inside visible support. He looked relieved and began haranguing the [Alchemist] inside the shop. She stepped back to argue with him, pointing at the Hob and Soldier. The [Enforcer] cursed and craned his head to see.

The odd duo were talking, staring at a potion and occasionally looking at the [Thug] and at the gang outside. They were clearly aware of something, but how much the [Enforcer] couldn’t say. He’d known…well, Goblins were unpredictable sometime. And he’d never met Antinium. The sight of that Soldier made his skin crawl. But then the [Enforcer] saw the [Thug] reach his breaking point.

Inside the shop, the [Alchemist] was arguing with the man. He, impatient with her, nervous of the two strange creatures, did what came naturally to a man with her. As Octavia Cotton pointed at the magic door he lost his temper and struck her across the face. It was a light blow, but Octavia went stumbling back, clutching at her cheek.

The Hobgoblin and Soldier looked up. For a second, everyone, the gang outside, the [Thug], the [Enforcer] and the [Nightstalker] and [Blackguard] tensed. The Hob looked at Octavia, blinked, and then pointed at the bottle in his claws. The Soldier nodded and they went back to talking. They didn’t move and Octavia raised two placating hands as the [Thug] shouted something at her.

The [Nightstalker] snorted.

“They’re smart at least. Do we really have to watch this no-name [Alchemist] get shaken down or can we—”

The [Nightstalker] broke off, eying the [Enforcer]’s face. The [Blackguard] turned in his chair to eye the Brother as well. The [Enforcer] slowly tugged the hat lower on his head.

“I’m going to stroll closer.”

He stood up. He’d already paid for his food, so he left the table and the Sister of Chell behind. Slowly, the [Enforcer] strolled down the street. Inside the shop, Octavia was placating the [Thug]. And it seemed the Hobgoblin and Soldier had made their decision. He was showing a glowing, green and blue bottle to her and she was nodding.

The [Thug] stepped back, practically trembling with adrenaline as the Hob walked past her to the counter with the [Alchemist]. The Soldier stayed where he was, next to the door. The Hobgoblin turned as he passed the [Thug] and pointed to the bottle. The [Thug] recoiled and snapped something.

The [Enforcer] slowed as he saw the Hobgoblin raise the bottle and smile. It was a toothy, big smile that exposed his teeth. And his crimson eyes widened. He turned back to the counter as the [Thug] backed up. Then he whirled and smashed the glass bottle into the [Thug]’s face.

The sound of the glass breaking was audible from inside the shop. The [Thug] stumbled back, clawing at his face as the potion ran into his cut face. The Hob inspected the man’s face. Then he grabbed the man by the collar.

The [Enforcer] saw a blur of motion. He cursed and accelerated, casually walking towards the group of low-level criminals outside. They were staring into the shop, looking at each other. The [Enforcer] heard a shout from inside.

Numbtongue, wait—”

The next thing the [Enforcer] saw was the body of the [Thug] flying through the boarded up window. He landed on the ground in a shower of wood and splinters, face bleeding. His friends recoiled. The door to Stitchworks slowly opened and the Hobgoblin walked out. He strode over to the [Thug], who was lying on the paving stones. The man tried to get up, gasping, his lungs and chest malfunctioning.  The Hob regarded him. Then he waved at someone in the shop.

“You stay there.”

He turned and stomped on the man’s chest. The [Thug] screamed. His friends grabbed their weapons. And the Hobgoblin turned around. Fourteen Humans surrounded him. They had knives, clubs, a spiked mace, even a sword. He had his bare hands, two potions at his belt, and a small sack at his waist. No weapons. The [Enforcer] sniffed the air and smelled for death. He saw the Hobgoblin grin. And after a second, so did the man.

 

—-

 

There was no point to this fight. No benefit. Numbtongue raised his fists as the shouting Humans surrounded him. They were screaming, asking questions, making threats. As if they hadn’t seen him just throw their friend out Octavia’s window. They were clearly amateurs. When you saw an enemy, you didn’t shout at him. Numbtongue spun.

Instead, you did this. He lunged at the nearest Human, a man, and grabbed his arm. The fellow had a club and recoiled. He tried to yank away, but Numbtongue had his club arm. He raised his other hand to punch. Numbtongue was faster. He hit the man across the nose and heard something crunch. He stumbled back, screaming and Numbtongue took careful aim with his knee.

The crunch was the sound of Numbtongue’s knee hitting the man’s groin. Perhaps the man had had some kind of protective leather cup there. Either way, it was now part of his genitalia. Numbtongue let go of him and the man dropped, clutching at his privates.

Dead gods! He got Blaikil!”

“Get him! It’s one Hob!”

The Humans were screaming at each other. Numbtongue swung around and saw the first one move. He dodged backwards as a knife swung at his stomach and grabbed the arm attached. His claws dug into the skin and whoever was holding the knife screamed and dropped it. That was sloppy. Numbtongue belted the Human woman in the stomach and jumped back as she threw up. He looked for the knife—

And someone slammed into him from the side. The Hobgoblin went tumbling as a huge man stuck him a blow across the face and kicked at him. Numbtongue rolled, sprang to his feet, and grabbed the leg as it hit him in the chest. He growled, and twisted the leg until he heard something go pop.

The scream this time was rewarding. The man fell, clutching his leg. But another swung and Numbtongue felt a spiked club tear across his chest. A tearing pain made him back up, shielding his face. The spikes tore at his arm, and the [Bandit] hollered.

“I’ve got him! Stab the monster! Stab him—”

His friends charged Numbtongue. Six on one. The Hobgoblin fell back, cursing. It wasn’t a good fight. They might be unprepared. They might be lower-level. But there were so many. Why take this fight? Why do it at all?

Octavia had nothing to offer Numbtongue. Nothing he couldn’t buy at another shop. And the trouble of saving her wasn’t worth it. Not to the [Alchemist]. Or the [Enforcer], or [Nightstalker] or gang. It didn’t make sense to them. But it did to Numbtongue.

Sometimes it wasn’t about what someone had to offer. Or about how useful a person was. It wasn’t about value, or cost. If you thought like that, people became numbers. And if you gave people value, what value had Goblins? If that were so, Erin Solstice would never have given a Goblin food. Or asked a Worker’s name.

As the gang swarmed Numbtongue, the door to Stitchworks opened a second time. The men and women closest to the door looked up as it opened a second time. They stared and screamed. The rest turned as a huge shape barreled out of the door.

It had taken Yellow Splatters eight seconds to walk around shop without bumping into anything. Now the Antinium charged. His fist took the man with the spiked club in the face. The man spun—the other three fists lashed out, pummeling the Human. Yellow Splatters turned and his hands grabbed a Human [Thief]. He lifted the screaming man overhead and threw him on the ground.

The gang stared at their friend as he fell. They listened to the sound he made as he landed. He didn’t move. Yellow Splatters looked around and his mandibles opened wide. His deep voice boomed as Numbtongue set himself behind the Antinium.

Flee. Or stand and suffer.

The Humans wavered. They looked up at him. A giant, a black-brown insect from the nightmares of Rhir. A Soldier. And behind him, a monster with glowing red eyes that grinned.

Goblins and Antinium really didn’t count cost. Erin had never counted the cost of kindness. You did what you did. And that usually involved hitting things.

Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters charged with a roar that shook the street. Two against thirteen. The Hobgoblin leapt and kicked a man in the chest, ignoring the sword that slashed at his side. His blood hit the street as he and the man fell. The Human reached for the sword—Numbtongue kicked him in the face as hard as he could. The man’s head snapped back and made a gurgling sound. But it wasn’t enough to kill. Numbtongue saw a confusion of legs as he rolled.

Up. He had to get—someone rammed into him from the side, a knife stabbing. Numbtongue felt it hit his gut twice. He sucked in, but the pain wasn’t even registering. And to the woman’s horror, he caught the bloody knife with one claw, ignoring the way it cut his palm. He tightened his grip as she tried to pull away.

“Dull.”

Numbtongue informed her before he put a thumb in her eye. Screaming, the woman let go and Numbtongue tossed the knife aside. Any blade he could grab that hard without losing his fingers was dull. It had still gotten his stomach. The Hobgoblin reached for his belt and saw someone swinging at his chest. He raised an arm and felt the impact as a [Highwayman] hit him with a cudgel. The man gaped and Numbtongue kicked him in the groin as he grabbed a potion. It was a winning tactic.

The Hobgoblin didn’t bother to uncork the vial. He tossed it into his mouth and chomped. Shards of glass splintered, cutting his mouth, but the cuts began to heal as the potion flowed down his mouth. Carefully, looking around, Numbtongue held the shards with his tongue and spat them in the face of the next Human he saw.

This was a fight. This was a fight!  The Humans were everywhere. And though they outnumbered Numbtongue, he was not alone. Behind him, Yellow Splatters had his back to Octavia’s shop. He looked around as six Humans came at him at once. A man stabbed at him with a long-handled knife and the blade sunk into the [Sergeant]’s carapace. A few inches. Then the poor metal snapped.

Casually, Yellow Splatters backhanded the man with one of his four arms. Then he turned as another man charged him with a yell. The Soldier swung left with two arms into a man’s chest and stomach, and then left, hitting a woman across her scarred face and belly. Both Human’s bodies made dull, heavy sounds and their feet left the ground. When they landed they crumpled into heaps.

“[Power Strike]!”

Someone struck Yellow Splatters from behind. This time the Soldier’s carapace cracked as a fellow with brass knuckles delivered two powerful blows into his back. But aside from a green trickle that began to run from the cracked spots, the Soldier barely staggered. The [Brawler] paled as Yellow Splatters turned.

“Five Families save—”

All four of Yellow Splatter’s arms shot out. Two grabbed the [Brawler]’s fists. The other two began battering the man in the face and chest. After five seconds, Yellow Splatters let go. He turned around and the other Humans backed up.

Antinium.

Someone whispered it. The Soldier nodded. He looked at the weapons the street gang held. They were deadly in Celum. A club with spikes, a sword, a few daggers—they were good against Humans. Drakes. Gnolls and Goblins even. But the Antinium had been built for war.

“Come or flee. It makes no difference to me.”

He raised his fists and advanced. The others pulled back. Numbtongue, seeing Yellow Splatters advance slowly, shouted a warning.

Dodge!

The Soldier glanced at him. Then he twisted. Too late—the vial exploded and half of Yellow Splatter’s body was aflame! The Soldier made no sound, but instantly dropped and rolled. But the vial had been sticky oil. The flames refused to go out and the Humans swarmed the Antinium, kicking and beating at him.

Off!

Numbtongue leapt at the nearest one. The man turned and screamed as Numbtongue grabbed his arm, ready to break it. The Hobgoblin twisted and then felt an arm descend around his throat. He twisted—but too late. The man tightened his arm in a chokehold. Numbtongue gasped, staggering forwards and the man shouted.

“I’ve got it! Stab it—stab—”

He shrieked, clutching at arm and letting go of the choke hold. His friends stared at the huge chunk of flesh missing, gushing blood. Numbtongue spat the flesh and grinned with bloody teeth. He turned, head butted the man and heard a nose break again. Then he punched.

One rib. Three. The man gurgled and fell down. Numbtongue looked around as he grabbed Yellow Splatters and hauled him to his feet. The Soldier came up, wiping at the liquid. He clicked and Numbtongue grabbed for his other potion.

“Drink!”

The Antinium grabbed at the vial. Numbtongue whirled. There were…seven Humans left. They backed away as he bared his bloody teeth at them. They had wide eyes and they were panting, despite only having fought for—what, a minute? Less?

They could do this. Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue. Despite the numbers. The Humans weren’t ready for this fight! They might have killed once or twice, but they hadn’t fought in the battles Numbtongue had. They weren’t prepared for his ferocity or his willingness to do anything to win. Or Yellow Splatters’ strength for that matter.

But they did outnumber the two. Only six or seven now, maybe, but Numbtongue knew how this fight worked—he’d been on the other side of it countless times before. One high-level adventurer versus dozens of Goblins. He might cut them down, but if one managed to land a blow, or if he fell, he was dead. He raised his fists, looking around. If they could retreat into Octavia’s shop—grab some more potions—

Then ten more masked Humans ran around the street corner. And they were holding bared blades and clubs. One stopped when he saw Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, but the man who’d run to grab them screamed.

“That’s them! Get them! Backup’s on the way!”

Seventeen Humans advanced. Nervously, but in concert. Numbtongue growled and Yellow Splatters, the flames still burning, looked about.

“The alchemist’s fire—”

“Back. Backs to the shop.”

The Hobgoblin and Soldier backed up. The Humans chased them. Only two had what looked like throwing weapons. Numbtongue ducked and Yellow Splatters blocked a throwing knife with one arm. It glanced off his armor, and another Human heaved a brick. It shattered on the Antinium’s other arm.

No more alchemist weapons. But some of the Humans were tending to their friends with potions! Numbtongue cursed.

Them!

He pointed. Yellow Splatters didn’t ask questions. The two charged, scattering the Humans before they could revive their friends. Numbtongue grabbed at a potion, twisted an arm out of its socket. Took a fist to the face. He snarled, kicked out, and hit a Human in the groin. It was a woman so she didn’t fall down from that alone. A second kick to the same spot dislocated her hip.

Numbtongue whirled, dodging another knife. He grabbed the arm and swung his elbow as hard as he could into the face that followed when he yanked. He cursed as he looked for Yellow Splatters, twisting out of the way of another Human and throwing him into his friends. This wasn’t how Redfangs fought! They outnumbered their enemies! And Numbtongue hadn’t brought his sword or his guitar.

He felt two—three pairs of hands grab him from behind. Cursing, the Hobgoblin struck backwards, but they were holding him still. And in front of him, a Human with a crossbow was aiming it. Real weapons. Numbtongue struggled as the man sighted, ignoring the peril to his comrades. He aimed at Numbtongue’s stomach—and a Human man standing next to him lifted the bolt out of the bow. The [Crossbowman] gaped—and the [Enforcer] stabbed the tip of the bolt into his chest and twisted.

The hands holding Numbtongue slackened for a moment in surprise. Numbtongue twisted, saw the first Human and leaned over and bit. The screaming woman clutched at her shoulder. The other Humans started back too late. Numbtongue yanked a head down into his knee and turned around. The man who’d stabbed the [Crossbowman] stepped past the downed archer; the crossbow was busted, having been slammed into the man’s chest until both bones and frame broke. He tipped his cap to Numbtongue and smiled.

“Pardon me, sirs. Saw you were in a bit of a scrap. And I’m afraid my fellows wouldn’t forgive me letting this rude lot go.”

So saying, he drew the object at his side and turned. An outraged [Footpad] with a garroting wire staggered back and Numbtongue saw his nose was broken. The [Enforcer] adjusted his cap, and then stepped forwards smartly.

He was quick. And as ruthless as any Goblin. The man stomped, broke the screaming [Footpad]’s foot, and knocked him flat with a blow from the leather sap he carried. Numbtongue stared as he turned around.

“Back.”

Numbtongue whirled, and his elbow caught a woman across the head. She went down in a moment. Absently, the Hob grabbed a man and put him in a choke-hold, keeping him in front of the man’s buddies while he watched the mysterious Human set to the people around him. What was he carrying?

A sap. It was a bit of leather filled with something heavy, extending the [Enforcer]’s reach by only a hand’s length. It wasn’t a tool any Goblin would use. But here? On these streets? The [Enforcer]’s hands were almost too quick to see! He was striking people with the sap, multiple times each second, elbow, arm, fingers, jaw—he stepped back as a burly man swung past him with a cleaver. The Brother raised his sap and stepped into the man with the cleaver’s guard.

“[Shatter Blows].”

His sap struck the helpless [Rogue] across the chest, the arm, the face. Numbtongue could hear bones breaking with each strike. The [Rogue] fell down. Numbtongue realized the Human he was holding was unconscious. He let go, ducked a swing, grabbed a leg, yanked up. It was easy to kick the Human on the ground.

Someone came at Numbtongue from behind, but they disappeared. Numbtongue whirled. And Yellow Splatters tossed the Human aside. Numbtongue looked up at the Soldier. And he saw Yellow Splatters turn.

“Cover me.”

And Numbtongue did. The moments blurred together. He stood with his back to Yellow Splatters, shouting.

“Redfang!”

And then it was like how he remembered fighting. The Humans were everywhere. But his friend was at his back. Numbtongue spun, kicking, grabbing for a weapon. A club—he swung it and the wooden club locked with a sword trying to take his chest.

More Humans! Numbtongue didn’t know where they’d come from. Suddenly, there were twenty around him! Yellow Splatters guarded with two arms, swinging with blows that lifted men and women off their feet and put them on the ground. But he was too big a target. Someone threw a bag and vines showered him and Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin fought clear and a mace caught him on the side of the head.

Reeling, he nearly tipped over. The [Brigand] tried to finish him off and a potion exploded in his face. He clutched at his eyes as a Pepperspray potion detonated. More Humans scrambled clear. But there were more of them as Numbtongue got up. Yellow Splatters moved back, guarding the shop as Octavia hurled potions out of her window. Numbtongue swung his club and hit something.

But they were losing? No. Yes. The [Enforcer] spun past him, dodging four people at once, his hat clean. But he’d taken a knife to the side. Numbtongue looked around.

So many Humans. Where did they keep coming from? He looked down at the club in his hands and realized he was bleeding. He felt at his side. An arrow stood out.

“Ow.”

The [Bard] grinned weakly. He looked around. And the Humans were closing in. He looked back at the shop.

Numbtongue!

Yellow Splatters roared as he threw another Human. But he was cornered, his carapace bleeding. Three versus twenty had been done. Three versus thirty was possible. But forty?

Numbtongue looked around. He was surrounded. A [Warrior] with a sword advanced, and Numbtongue saw four more Humans closing around from each side. The Redfang Warrior bared his teeth.

“It’s just one Hob. Kill it.”

Shakily, one of the Humans breathed. Numbtongue looked at him. But it was true. Numbtongue was just a Hob. Not Headscratcher. Not Shorthilt. If he’d had this club—Numbtongue blocked a slash from the [Warrior]. He staggered, slipping. Someone jumped in, stabbed Numbtongue along the shoulder, darted out. The Hobgoblin twisted his head, took a punch from a pair of brass knuckles.

If only I was Headscratcher.  If only he were Pyrite. The other Goblin’s memories surged in his head. He’d fought Eater of Spears. He’d hurt Reiss! He’d stopped Tyrion Veltras. He could have won this fight. With fat. With strength. With skill. He would have seen them coming. The sword flashed at Numbtongue’s face.

Pyrite would have ducked forwards.

Numbtongue knew it. He ducked forwards and the blade flashed over his head. But because he was moving the Human [Warrior] actually ran into him. He tried to bring the sword down, but Numbtongue was under his arms. The Hobgoblin rose, staring at the sword.

Good sword. Pyrite would have taken it. How? Oh—

Another bite. This time down to the bone. Numbtongue felt a wrench as the [Warrior] yanked his arm free, screaming. But he’d loosened his grip on his sword. Numbtongue seized it. He eyed the blade.

Iron. Not too sharp. But decent. What would Pyrite say? Not good. But okay. The [Warrior] grabbed at a dagger. Someone charged Numbtongue. A dagger for his back. And Pyrite—

In the street, a Goblin turned. With one hand, he swung the iron sword in an arc. He brought it down and the hand stabbing towards his back fell on the ground. The Human holding it stared at his stump. Then he clutched at his arm and screamed.

In a dream, Numbtongue stared with interest at the Human. He looked at the sword, impressed. That was a good cut. As good as any Shorthilt could have made. He didn’t know how to do that.

And yet—he did. The Hobgoblin turned, and both of his claws grasped the sword’s hilt. He took a stance. A proper one, not like the self-taught [Warrior]’s fighting style he’d learned as a Redfang. The [Warrior] with the dagger backed up too slow. The Hob slashed his chest, leapt back, twisted, and cut. A second Human lost her hand, this time at the elbow.

The street—slowed. The gang of Humans backed up. Yellow Splatters, shielding his face, bleeding from a dozen injuries as Octavia tried to heal him, saw a Goblin turn. Numbtongue’s face was dreamy. But his sword swung in patterns and arcs, measured, warding his back and sides. And fingers flew. Hands cut down to the bone. Iron sheared through arm. Until the Humans were running.

Numbtongue cast aside the ruined iron blade. The edge was deformed from the last sword strike. A final Human charged him, not realizing her friends were running. She had blood in her eyes—literally. But his memories, both his and Pyrite’s, told him she was a high-level [Fighter]. Her brass knuckles had spikes on them—she’d gotten the [Enforcer]. The Hobgoblin looked down at his torn left arm, exposing sinew. And him.

The [Bard] might have hesitated, grabbed at the sword. But part of him said look. Numbtongue looked. He saw the woman’s muscles moving along her arm, and saw where she’d punch. Numbtongue stepped back, and the tips of the knuckles struck the side of his face. Then he stepped in.

His punch went through the gap in the woman’s guard. She stumbled back and Numbtongue followed it with a left hook. Stumbling, the woman retreated. He advanced, swinging, kicking.

Don’t give her a second! Left hook, kick, elbow, punch, head butt, kick to the chest, punch, punch, punchhe swung a fist and missed. The Human was lying on the ground, her eyes rolled up in her head.

Dead gods.

Someone breathed it behind him. Numbtongue turned. The street was filled with bodies. The [Ruffian] dropped his shiv as Numbtongue looked at him. The Hobgoblin’s eyes burned. The man screamed and ran. Numbtongue caught him halfway across the streets.

“Let me go! Let me go!”

The man was screaming, calling at his friends. Numbtongue turned the man to face him. The man grabbed at his side for something—he stopped when Numbtongue made a fist.

“Who sent them?”

He pointed down the street. The last of the gang was running as the [Enforcer] drank a potion. The [Ruffian]’s eyes were wide, the unkempt man’s face was white.

“You can speak?

Numbtongue shook the man so hard his bones rattled. The Hobgoblin spoke again, impatiently.

“Who. Sent. You?”

“A-Alchemist Quelm! He sent us! He hired us! Go after him!”

“No.”

The [Ruffian] blinked, uncertain. Numbtongue made a fist.

“Tell him if he tries again, we will hurt him. That is a Goblin threat. Understand? See this?”

He waved the fist under the [Ruffian]’s nose. The man was nodding, relieved.

“I’ll tell him. I’ll t—”

Numbtongue aimed at the man’s jaw. He punched the man in the teeth and felt them cut into his fist—and felt six of them break. He shook out his clawed hand, grimacing. Then he picked up the man screaming into what remained of his teeth.

“Goblins don’t make threats. Run.

He let go and the man ran. Numbtongue looked around the street. Amazingly, no Humans had died in the fight. Some were dying, thanks to the blood leaving their body from the stumps of their arms and hands, but no one was dead. Yet. There was a remarkable amount of screaming. Numbtongue wandered back to the shop. Yellow Splatters looked up at Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin walked over.

“Potion.”

“Who—oh, dead gods!

Octavia poked her head out of the shop. She ran back inside and grabbed a bottle, threw it at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin caught it, opened it vaguely, and drank.

“Thanks.”

He looked down and saw a dozen injuries on his body closing. It occurred to him he might have been close to dying of blood-loss. Looking at Yellow Splatters, the Hobgoblin saw the Soldier was in better shape. Well, sort of. Yellow Splatters had been burned and it looked like something had melted through his right shoulder’s armor. He was healing too; the cuts hadn’t gone through his carapace and it was mostly cracked. The Soldier looked at Numbtongue.

“I called you back to the shop. You did not hear me.”

“Sorry. I got a sword.”

The Hobgoblin pointed vaguely at the iron sword laying in the street. The Soldier nodded.

“So I saw. You were impressive with it. A [Bard] is dangerous.”

“Not me. It was—”

The Hobgoblin wavered. He turned his head. Belatedly, nearly fifteen minutes after the fight had begun, he heard a shrill whistle and the marching of boots. Dozens of [Guardsmen] flooded the street, covered in chainmail and leather armor, shields raised, clearly apprehensive. They stopped in horror when they saw the bodies and the Antinium and Hobgoblin.

“Dead gods, it’s a massacre!”

One of the women cried out in horror. A flurry of [Guardsmen] aimed at Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue.

Don’t move!

One of the men with a plumed helmet screamed at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. The Antinium and Goblin looked at each other. Neither one moved.

It didn’t seem to reassure the [Guards]. They advanced slowly, screaming at the two. One of them took a look at some of the Humans lying on the ground clutching at their limbs and called for healing potions.

“A-arrest the two of them—”

The [Guardsman] with the helmet began uncertainly. Another one stared at Numbtongue and swore.

“Hell to that! Shoot them!”

The arrows tensed as the bowstrings drew back. The Watch Captain inhaled, and Numbtongue, seeing Yellow Splatters tense, reached for his belt. He said one word.

“Stop.”

No one did. They never did. The arrows aimed at Numbtongue and the Watch Captain roared.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! There’s an Antinium and by the Five Families, if there’s war—”

He froze as Numbtongue pulled a scroll out of his belt pouch. The Goblin unfurled it, muttering to himself, and tossed it at the Watch Captain. A bow twanged; an arrow flew and Numbtongue ducked under it. He straightened, and the [Archer] went white as the Hobgoblin glared at him. Then Numbtongue turned to the Watch Captain.

“Read it.”

He waited, arms folded as the Watch Captain shakily picked up the parchment and read it, keeping one eye on Numbtongue. Then he blinked, did a double-take, and began to read again. He looked up.

“That’s impossible.”

The Hobgoblin grinned toothily at him. He raised his voice so all the Humans on the street could hear.

“My name is Numbtongue. A member of the Redfang Goblins. I am a Bronze-rank adventurer. The Humans threatened me and attacked. I defended myself.”

The Humans stared at Numbtongue for a long second. Someone breathed out.

Bullshit.

Numbtongue shrugged.

“They hit my friend. In there.”

He pointed into Octavia’s shop vaguely. All eyes turned to Yellow Splatters. Octavia, breathless, poked her head out the window.

“Oh, stitches. Now you show up?”

The Watch Captain blinked around at her and the Humans on the ground, most of whom had passed out.

“I—this is—”

Quelm did this! He sent his gang to attack the shop! Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, er, defended me!”

“Defended? That monster killed—there are limbs everywhere!”

“Only six.”

Numbtongue blinked at the [Guardswoman]. She gaped at him and pointed a trembling finger.

“Watch Captain! That thing speaks! It’s a Hobgoblin—a Goblin monster! Just shoot it and—”

Her eyes went to Yellow Splatters and her throat worked soundlessly. The Watch Captain was made of sterner stuff though, if only just. He pointed at Numbtongue.

“You—Goblin. You’re a monster. In our city.”

Numbtongue folded his arms.

“I have a paper proving I’m a person. Where’s yours?”

The Watch Captain hesitated. He stared down at the scroll and hesitated.

“Wall Lord…Guildmistress…Gold-rank…Pisces?

He looked at Numbtongue. Then, nervously, at Yellow Splatters.

“That thing’s an Antinium Soldier, though. It’s—this is war! Isn’t it? It’s under arrest.”

The [Guards] around the Watch Captain looked uneasy. One of them sidled over and whispered.

“Can we do that?”

“How’ll we cuff it?”

Yellow Splatters didn’t give them time to try it. He copied Numbtongue and folded all four arms.

“I am the Prognugator of the Free Antinium’s Hive. Will you try to arrest me?”

He loomed over the Watch Captain. And that was Yellow Splatter’s skill, or Skill. He was able to loom in multiple dimensions, not just vertically, but horizontally as well. The Human [Guards] edged back as they stared up at him. The Watch Captain went white.

Another Prognugator…?”

He looked from Numbtongue to Yellow Splatters. Octavia had disappeared inside her shop. The Watch Captain hesitated, then looked at the bloody street. His expression firmed at last.

“You two. I don’t care if you’re Antinium Prognugators or backed by every Walled City in the world! You just attacked dozens of Celum’s citizens. You are under arrest. Come with us quietly or…we’ll be forced to take you down.”

The City Watch raised their weapons behind him. Numbtongue bared his teeth. He knew they’d die if they fought. Human criminals were one thing, but these ones had proper weapons, even if they looked like half of them would run away screaming. He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium looked at him. Slowly, the [Sergeant] uncrossed his arms and made four fists.

“You may try.”

Celum’s City Watch shuddered. But that was the thing about bluffs, even great ones. Sometimes they didn’t work. The Captain of the City Watch inhaled, his face going dead white. The arrows nocked on the strings—and Erin Solstice walked out of Stitchworks, in front of a very nervous Octavia.

“Hey Numbtongue! I’m here! Sorry it took so oh my god, what happened?

She stopped in the doorway. She looked at the blood on the cobblestones. The severed hand lying at Numbtongue’s feet. The City Watch, whose bows were now aimed at her chest. Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters moved to block them. The Captain of the Watch pointed at her.

“You—that Goblin—and the Antinium and Octavia Cotton are all under arrest.”

“Numbtongue. What happened?”

Erin ignored the man. She looked at Numbtongue, and then narrowed her eyes. The Hobgoblin tried to look innocent. But while his injuries were healed, Erin could hardly miss the blood staining his clothing, or the tears in said clothing. Erin inhaled and then bellowed.

“Alright! Who’s bullying Numbtongue?

She glared around the Hobgoblin at the Captain. He bellowed back, face crimson.

“Your Goblin just killed two dozen of Celum’s citizens!”

At that, Octavia danced around Erin nervously. She shouted at the [Guardsmen]—and the people watching from down the street and the windows.

“They were thugs! Sent to destroy my shop by Quelm! A bunch of criminals! And the Watch didn’t do a thing to stop them!”

“What? No—we didn’t—be quiet!”

The Captain of the Guard roared at Octavia, his face turning from red to pale pink with horror. The [Alchemist] pointed a trembling finger at him.

“He’s taking money from Quelm! The City Watch is being bought out! They didn’t do a thing when those [Rogues] set fire to part of my shop! Or extorted me for money!”

“Be quiet! You’re under arrest! And you’re under arrest! You’re all under arrest!

The Captain of the City Watch pointed from Numbtongue to Yellow Splatters to Octavia. He pointed a fourth time, looking for Erin. But she was missing. The Captain stared around, and then heard Erin’s voice from the inn.

“Hey Relc? Grimalkin? Uh—Maughin and Jelaqua? How do you feel about [Thugs]? Someone mind giving me some backup? I’ll take you too, Keldrass. Not you, Moore. There are a lot of arrows out there. But you’ll do, Senator Errif! Come on!”

The Captain of the Guard might not have known who most of those names were. But he knew trouble when he heard it. He quailed and Numbtongue, looking at Yellow Splatters, saw Octavia sag in relief. The Hobgoblin looked around at the wounded Humans, the staring city, and grinned. It wasn’t Liscor. But it was a city. He looked back over his shoulder as Erin, protective mother with an army of friends, stomped back through the door. And the rest was her story.

 

 

—-

 

Celum was in turmoil. The City Watch was under fire. Erin Solstice, Grimalkin, a [Senator] from Pallass—it was enough to drag Celum’s own [Mayor] out of his bed. And while he would have loved to order his Captain of the Watch to arrest everyone present, especially since a Goblin and Antinium had incapacitated nearly twenty of Celum’s people, there were complications to giving that order.

Firstly, it was apparent that all those injured were some variety of [Thug], [Thief], [Brigand], or so on. Celum’s criminal underbelly, although it hadn’t had much of one until recently. Unfortunately, it had grown substantially bigger thanks to a certain [Alchemist] Quelm, who had, in fact, been threatening his rivals and using the gang to extort money from them.

That was bad. But what was worse was the fact that Celum’s own City Watch had clearly been ignoring or unaware of the gang’s activities, both of which did not look good. And there was no chance of sweeping this under the rug, because a very vocal [Alchemist] was shouting it from the rooftop of her shop.

And the last thing stopping the [Mayor] from arresting everyone was a [Innkeeper] who was leading Pallass’ most important [Blacksmith], a Drake [Mage] capable of wiping out Celum’s entire City Watch, a [Senator] from Pallass, a Gold-rank adventurer, and one of Liscor’s own [Guardsman]. The [Mayor] and Erin were having a screaming match in the street.

“You can’t bring Drake [Guardsmen] and adventurers into this city and start arresting our citizens!”

“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Watch me! Your City Watch let these guys threaten Octavia, steal money—hey Relc, if you find all that gang and this Quelm guy, I’ll give you free food for a week!”

“Awesome!”

The [Mayor] clutched at his hair.

“You can’t do this! There will be consequences!”

I am the consequences!

The rule of law in Celum was breaking down. But that was another story. For the Goblin and the Antinium Soldier relaxing in the street outside of Stitchworks, their role had ended. Numbtongue was checking himself for more injuries as Yellow Splatter pulled broken bits of metal out of his carapace.

“I will most likely level from this. But this encounter proves how weak I am.”

“Yeah?”

Numbtongue looked up. By his count, Yellow Splatters had downed at least twelve of the Humans here and injured a score more. The Soldier nodded.

“We were overwhelmed by low-level Humans. It is proof we are weak. We are all weak. I am told even Revalantor Klbkch died when fighting a score of small Goblins.”

Numbtongue shrugged. A knife in the belly was a knife in the belly.

“Not enough armor. Too slow. Redscar or Garen could beat all of the Humans. Or maybe Headscratcher with his enchanted axe. Actually, even Headscratcher would probably die alone. Fighting lots of anything is hard.”

“Yes. But we must improve.”

“You’ll level up.”

The Hobgoblin winced as he pulled a bit of wood out of his side. His flesh had healed around the splinter.  He looked up as the [Mayor] stormed off, having lost the shouting match with Erin. Yellow Splatters looked too.

“It appears that Erin Solstice is attempting to resolve the situation on our behalf. That is very convenient.”

“She’s…family.”

The [Bard] looked at Erin. He shook his head. There would be consequences. There always were. But for a moment, with Erin shouting, she could turn a city on its head. He looked at Yellow Splatters after a moment.

“Are you really the Prognugator? Of the…Hive?”

The Soldier paused.

“That was a convenient fact.”

The [Bard] smiled.

“A lie.”

“Perhaps.”

They waited as Erin stomped back towards the shop. Octavia clambered down from her roof to look at the young woman. Erin looked angry, upset—and frightened. She’d looked at Numbtongue when he’d been covered in blood with real fear. Now she rounded on Octavia.

“Thugs? This Quelm dude threatening you? Octavia, why didn’t you tell me this was happening?”

The Stitch-Girl looked down at her hands. She tugged at a string and muttered.

“I—well, I tried, Erin. Remember when I tried to talk to you? But you were busy and I thought the City Watch might handle it, but it all got out of hand too fast. I went to you, Lyonette, Krshia, Ceria, at the start, but no one would listen. And after Ksmvr said no, one of those Humans came by and said that if I went through to your inn again or I tried to inform the Watch again, they’d burn down the shop. With me inside.”

“Oh.”

Erin stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] grinned weakly.

“Don’t worry. I knew you’d do something if you found out, but those guys—they’re dangerous. There was another [Alchemist] who didn’t listen. Jeffil. They…broke his arms. Stabbed the [Watchman] he hired. I thought if I went to you and they got you…it all worked out, right?”

“Sure. I mean—yeah. I’ll make this right, Octavia. Those guys and this Quelm dude are going to pay. Relc’s on the case! He can beat them all up. I think Embria’s followed him. And Grimalkin.”

Erin waved at the street vaguely. Numbtongue exchanged a glance with Yellow Splatters. One against thirty? The Soldier whispered.

Weak.

Numbtongue just looked at Erin. She was talking to Octavia, looking frustrated, angry—but there was another emotion running underneath it all. It was guilt. She turned to him after a moment.

“Hey Numbtongue, I’m going to fix this. You stay here, okay?”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin nodded. The [Innkeeper] smiled at him and then turned and stomped back towards the [Mayor] for round two. He watched her for a second, and then stood up. Yellow Splatters was already on his feet.

“Hey. That’s the Human.”

Numbtongue pointed. Yellow Splatters turned his head and the Soldier started.

“Ah. The ally.”

The Goblin and Soldier walked over to the man standing down the street. He had cleaned the blood from the place he’d been stabbed and he seemed in better condition than Numbtongue or Yellow Splatters. The [Enforcer], who to Numbtongue was just another Human with a hat, tipped his cap as they approached.

“Good scrap, sirs. Pardon the abrupt introduction. I hope I was of some help? I can’t abide by uncivilized sorts. That young lady in the shop doing well?”

He nodded towards Stitchworks. Numbtongue stared blankly at him.

“Octavia? Fine.”

He noticed the [Enforcer] didn’t bat an eye at the way Numbtongue spoke. His eyes did widen a bit when Yellow Splatters turned to him.

“You rendered us assistance during the conflict. For that you have my gratitude. I am Yellow Splatters. Who are you?”

The man shook Yellow Splatter’s hand without a second’s thought. He tipped his hat to Numbtongue, who didn’t hold his hand out to shake. The [Enforcer]’s smile was genial. And reserved.

“You can call me a serendipitous friend. We don’t do in names, us that work in this line of business.”

“What line?”

“The same as those poor fools you and I scrapped with.”

The man nodded to the street. Some of the Humans were still there, although the City Watch had put them in cuffs. For some it was a cuff too many; their limbs had healed, but the severed digits and hands were gone. A consequence of using a potion too early. Numbtongue frowned at the man.

“You’re a criminal.”

“A criminal?”

Yellow Splatters instantly loomed over the [Enforcer]. His fists clenched. The man looked up to him and his hat twitched on his head.

“I’ve committed no crimes in Celum, sir, and none that come with any bothersome bounties or crimes you’d know of, such as it were. I’m just a visitor to the city, like you good gents. In fact, I came here looking for answers to a spot of bother some of my associates had the other month.”

“…I do not understand.”

Yellow Splatters frowned, stepping back from the [Enforcer]. The twisted language made little sense to Numbtongue as well, but he understood vaguely what the man was hinting at.

“You’re looking for more friends. Who are also thieves.”

“Not for my…acquaintances, sir. I believe I know what became of them. Rather, I would like to know how they ended up that way. And I think you might be just the fellow I’m looking for.”

The [Enforcer] tipped his hat to Numbtongue politely. The action was…familiar. In a way that bothered the Goblin a lot. He frowned at the [Enforcer]. The sap was hidden as well, but that too triggered a memory now that Numbtongue was out of the battle.

“Why me? Who are you friends?”

“I don’t know that they gave names. But did you by any chance run into a…unpleasant meeting with some people oh, a while back? During that business with the siege of Liscor. Before the Goblin Lord. Some men. Three. Humans. Like me. All with caps, unless the business truly got nasty in the end.”

Numbtongue paused. He’d met lots of Humans. But now he was certain. The [Enforcer] stared at him. And the slight smile on his face…

“Perhaps this might jog your memory.”

He began to hum. And from his lips, Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters heard a faint tune. A quiet, rhyme. A children’s song.

 

“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,

But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset

The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,

The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”

 

And Numbtongue remembered. The man with the cudgel. The thieves who’d taken Erin’s door. The [Enforcer] winked.

“Jog a memory, perchance?”

“I…”

The Hobgoblin hesitated. This was something else unfamiliar to him. He looked for Erin, but she was still hollering in the middle of the street. And when he looked back, the [Enforcer] had stepped close. Too close.

“I’ve just a question. Sir. How’d it happen that you should cross paths with my brothers? And what terrible twist led you to kill them?”

“Numbtongue?”

Yellow Splatters was staring at the [Enforcer] cautiously. But he was behind the man and Numbtongue—the Hob’s hairs all stood up on end. Pyrite’s memories that had melded with his during the battle were screaming at him.

That sap can break all of your bones in a moment. His [Shatter Blows] Skill is probably recharged. The sap and his hands are so quick he’ll kill me in a moment. It’s something Humans developed for cities. On a battlefield you could kill him. Here—do you lie or tell the truth?

Maybe the [Enforcer] sensed what was on Numbtongue’s mind. One hand tipped the cap. The other hovered on the hilt of the sap.

“In case you were wondering why I’m so insistent…I’ve a Skill. [Grudgescent Terrier], sir. I can see the deaths of my associates on you. So I’ve a question. No unpleasantness for now. Truth is its own reward. Do not lie. Please.”

Numbtongue wavered for only a moment. Then he nodded.

“I killed them…”

The [Enforcer] listened to the short description of the fight. His eyes flickered when Numbtongue talked about the last name’s salute and the nursery rhyme. But all he did when Numbtongue was done was sigh.

“So you had no idea this group was coming your way. You simply saw the boats—and the door that you knew they’d no right to—and made your call. Simply done, sir. Simply done. But it brings up more questions for me, sad to say.”

He stepped back, pondering, and Yellow Splatters moved next to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin saw two more figures approaching them down the street. A woman and…no, was it just her? She was beautiful as Humans went he supposed, and the scar was very pretty. Any female Redfang would want that. But her eyes struck him as predatory. Dangerous. And she had two blades in her sleeves.

“So this is the one.”

“The gent says he ran into our groups on the way out of the Floodplains. He recognized the door, but how our teams ran into him and apparently an entire tribe of battle-ready Goblins is the real question.”

The [Enforcer] informed the [Nightstalker]. She bared her teeth.

“A Hob and some Goblins killed an entire group and your three?”

“Apparently he’s better in a scrap when he’s armed. And there were…a few hundred of his lot. Now, why weren’t our groups warned that some very expert Goblins were in the area, hm? I think that’s the real question.”

The [Enforcer] smiled, but when he lifted his hat, his eyes were bleak. Numbtongue looked at the [Nightstalker]. The woman eyed him and spat.

“Are you from one of the gangs, Hob?”

“Gangs?”

“He’s a tribe Goblin.”

The [Enforcer] replied drily. Numbtongue looked at him and the [Nightstalker] growled.

“I wasn’t asking you. Step off.”

She made a dangerous motion. The [Enforcer] eyed her, but stepped back. The Sister of Chell advanced.

“You, Goblin. Answer my questions or you’re dead. Got it?”

Yellow Splatters lowered one of his hands. The Sister of Chell stopped and her stilettos flicked into her hands. Numbtongue saw a man—he blinked, frowning. There was someone else here. He narrowed his eyes at…Yellow Splatters was also turning his head, but he addressed the woman succinctly.

“Attack this Goblin and you will die.”

“Really?”

The [Nightstalker] glared up at the Soldier, but warily. She looked at Numbtongue and then jabbed a finger at him past Yellow Splatters.

“Who hired you to take out the Sisters of Chell? Was it the Plague Mage? Someone else? Who told you about the heist?”

“Who? What’s a heist? I just saw Humans stealing the door. So I killed them.”

Numbtongue was regretting it a bit now. It was impulsive, but when he’d seen Liscor on alert and the Humans running off with Erin’s door, he was sure they’d been up to no good. The [Nightstalker] glared at him. She looked at the [Enforcer] and he spread his hands.

“The story checks out. The Hobgoblin’s innocent, Miss. As far as I’m concerned. The question is whether this was bad intelligence, or deliberate.”

“It doesn’t matter either way. Someone’s paying for this. And that includes him.

The stiletto jabbed at Numbtongue. Yellow Splatters had had enough. He grabbed the hand—

And suddenly the other stiletto was sticking out his chest. Numbtongue began to shout, but the [Enforcer] leapt forwards. He caught the black shadow of a man before he swept the shortsword towards Numbtongue’s head. The [Nightstalker] recoiled as another of Yellow Splatter’s hands gripped her throat. She stared at the Antinium as the [Blackguard] held very still. He and the [Enforcer] had locked eyes and Numbtongue was crouched, ready to attack.

“Easy, gentlemen. Lady. Let’s all back off. Slowly. The good folk aren’t more than a few dozen feet away. And I don’t think I’d like to outrun a Gold-rank adventurer and whomever else is in that group. Would you?”

The [Enforcer] addressed the [Nightstalker]. She hesitated. Yellow Splatter’s hand was around her throat, but it could have been a scarf for all she cared. What really seemed to bother her was that the Antinium kept the hand there after ten more seconds had passed. Her eyes swiveled to Yellow Splatters. With one of his free hands, the Antinium slowly pulled the stiletto out of his chest.

“Poison is useless against the Antinium.”

The woman’s eyes widened. She looked at the [Enforcer] and nodded slowly.

“Fine. Let go of me and him and we’ll go. For now.”

The [Enforcer] considered the offer. Then he looked at Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue.

“Best you’re going to get I’m afraid, lads. And if you were thinking of making this unpleasant…the Sisters won’t look kindly on having one of their own die on investigation. Whatsoever the cause.”

Yellow Splatters considered this. He slowly let go and the [Enforcer] did likewise. The woman and man stepped back and Numbtongue narrowed his eyes as the man vanished from Numbtongue’s immediate perception of the area. But the Goblin was now marking his general location.

“This isn’t over.”

The [Nightstalker] warned Numbtongue and the [Enforcer]. The Human man sighed, as if disappointed.

“And after you gave your word? That’s hardly polite. I say, wait until you know more of the picture. Time to visit Liscor and ask about. There’s a scene there, even if it’s foreign. As for you, sir…”

He turned to Numbtongue and regarded him.

“I’d like to believe it was all chance on your end. In which case, the Brothers won’t hold much of a grudge. But there’s always debts to be settled, sir. I’ll make my report fair as I can.”

“Thanks?”

Numbtongue had no idea what was going on. He looked at the woman as she grabbed her other stiletto and walked backwards. She was easier to understand. She was going to try and kill him. She confirmed this by pointing at Numbtongue’s chest.

“The Sisters of Chell don’t play games of chivalry. You are marked.”

“The Antinium protect him. Remember that.”

Yellow Splatters raised all four arms. Numbtongue saw the black man warily stepping between him and the Sister of Chell. The two retreated, never taking their eyes off Numbtongue. The [Enforcer] just sighed.

“Time was it was easier to deal with situations. No Goblins, just good, old-fashioned backstabbing. Not that I blame you, sir. You answered me truthfully, or my Skills would have told me so.”

“You know Goblins. You said I’m a tribal Goblin. Are there Goblins in cities?”

Numbtongue couldn’t believe it. Goblins lived in cities? Garen had said he was the only one! The [Enforcer] hesitated.

“My…association doesn’t work with Goblins or non-Humans as a rule. But I’ve heard and seen it done.”

“There are Goblins? Working with you?

Numbtongue said it again. The [Enforcer]’s smile was wide and secretive. He tapped his nose and then tugged his cap.

“There’s a world unseen, gents. In the cities of the north, there’s places no upstanding citizen knows of. And while we ain’t quite as dangerous as the Antinium or a Goblin Lord…well, we’ll be about. Some of our folk died and we want to know why. Simple as that. You’re the one who killed them, sir. But it seems they were set up, or they ran into you by chance. And I’m not sure I believe in chances.”

He nodded at Numbtongue. The Goblin nodded. Yellow Splatters stared at the [Enforcer].

“Who are you?”

“A serendipitous sort. A friend of the quiet folk. Never you mind, Antinium Soldier sir. It’s not the sort of thing a fine sort like you’d ever run across. At least, so I thought until now. If we met again, let’s all have a drink. I’d hate to meet in less happy ways.”

The [Enforcer] tipped his hat. He stepped back, and walked towards the crowd of people. Numbtongue followed him with his eyes as the man slipped into the milling Humans.

And like that, they were gone. And though Celum was overturned by any number of significant events, largely involving an [Innkeeper] upsetting the rule of law, the two, no, three individuals that Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters had met were nowhere to be seen.

 

—-

 

That night, Erin gathered Numbtongue, Lyonette, and Mrsha to discuss what had happened. The common room of The Wandering Inn was still packed and the magic door was connected to Pallass via portal. No one would stand to have it connected to Celum at the moment, which was why Octavia was standing with the four, looking nervous and withdrawn. Tired. She wasn’t as chatty as she had been, and Erin was being…kind to the [Alchemist].

“Celum’s hopping mad, guys. Mostly at the City Watch, but I guess sort of at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. At least, the City Watch is. But he’s an adventurer and those were bad guys he uh, dismembered.”

“You mean, disarmed.”

Lyonette frowned. Numbtongue snorted into his cup and Mrsha looked from Erin’s suddenly blank face to Numbtongue’s and Lyonette’s. There was a pause, and then Octavia burst out laughing, which made everyone else but Mrsha laugh as well.

“Lyonette! That’s terrible!”

“Sorry. I just thought—”

The [Princess] laughed and Numbtongue, snorting out ale through his nose, coughed. When he had wiped it with a handkerchief, Erin signaled them all towards seriousness. Mrsha folded her arms, not amused at the adult’s hilarity.

“Seriously, though. Octavia’s shop is sort of um…damaged. I mean, it already was, which was sort of my fault—but the thugs took money from her and did all sorts of stuff. And she used a lot of potions by throwing it at them during the fight. We need to pay her back.”

Erin nodded at Octavia. The Stitch-Girl looked up at the word ‘pay’, but she shook her head when Erin finished.

“It’s okay. I had it coming. I did start it with Quelm. And I’ve learned my lesson. I’m…I guess goodwill’s more important than gold. If it wasn’t for Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, I’d have lost everything.”

She smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin peered at her and looked at Erin. This was not the fast-talking [Alchemist] he remembered. She looked deflated. Erin met his eyes and nodded, concerned.

“Everybody’s at fault. Maybe us more than anyone because we didn’t listen. Then again…Ceria says she’d have been in trouble with the Horns if they fought forty guys. How’d you survive that, Numbtongue?”

“Potions. Yellow Splatter. Good memories.”

And an [Enforcer]. But Numbtongue didn’t say that out loud. Erin nodded.

“We’ll make it right, Octavia. I promise. We’ve…I’ve been bad to you. Even if you do try to sell a lot. To make it up, Ksmvr’s volunteered to stand guard in the shop tonight with the door open. If anyone comes to make trouble from that old gang, he’ll call us. And you’ll sleep in the inn. Okay? Our third floor’s rebuilt.”

She pointed upstairs. Everyone else looked up. Numbtongue blinked.

“It is?”

“Yup! So Octavia, sit down. Have a drink. Have you met Xif? He’s a cool cat. I mean, Gnoll.”

Erin gently ushered Octavia to a seat. The [Alchemist] girl sat, and soon Erin had the old Gnoll who smelled like weird stuff talking to her. Lyonette, Mrsha, and Numbtongue watched.

“I feel awful. Octavia didn’t deserve that. Or rather, most of it. I think they really did threaten her. Maybe with fire. Stitch-People are terrified of burning.”

Lyonette confided in Numbtongue. He nodded, his eyes on the [Alchemist]. He understood the gang wanting to steal from her, at least. Her shop was so valuable. The potions Octavia had made had saved him and Yellow Splatters. He thought about how hard it was for a Goblin to get even a single potion.

And then Numbtongue heard a voice in the milling crowd. Mainly because it mentioned his name. He looked around and saw Keldrass, one of the Drakes, speaking to the adventurers around him. The Pallassian adventurer looked disgruntled as he argued with Bevussa, Jelaqua, and some of the others.

“I’m not saying it was wrong to destroy a gang. But how can Celum—or any city, Liscor or Celum or Pallass—allow a single Human to throw laws out the window as it pleases her?”

“You’re telling me you object to Erin storming in there and helping arrest that crooked [Alchemist], Keldrass? Really? It’s idiots like him that create monopolies on potions and make adventurers like us pay twice or three times what we have to along with everyone else! Or have you not been to any city besides Pallass?”

Jelaqua was arguing with Keldrass in a Raskghar’s body, much to the displeasure of most of the Gnolls in the room. She folded her arms below her breasts and looked down at Keldrass, much to his displeasure. The Drake hissed in frustration, his tail lashing.

“I’m not saying that. I’m saying the way she went about it was wrong. Or don’t you think she did that just to protect her pet Goblin and Antinium Soldier?”

Numbtongue’s eyed locked on Keldrass. The Drake glared around. Jelaqua opened her mouth to respond, and Bevussa saw Numbtongue incoming. The Hobgoblin walked towards the adventurers and the Garuda groaned.

“Oh, Ancestors.”

The Hobgoblin strode towards Keldrass and the adventurers went quiet. And in accordance with silence-theory, so did a good portion of the inn. Erin turned around from Octavia and Xif, and swore. She stood up, but Numbtongue was already confronting the Drake.

As before, now again. Keldrass shifted, one claw moving to his side and Numbtongue saw the mace hanging there. Keldrass was wearing the armor one of the Raskghar had been using—a powerful magical set. And he could breathe fire. But it was words he spat at Numbtongue, sharp and cruel.

“What, Goblin? I’m speaking the truth. You walked into a sovereign city, a Human one, true, and massacred two dozen Humans with an Antinium Soldier. Explain to me why that’s acceptable.”

“I didn’t kill any of them. And they were criminals. If adventurers did it—”

Keldrass snorted a plume of fire.

“If adventurers did it, my team or a Human one, we’d be arrested! You were only spared thanks to one Human. Her. I’m not saying destroying organized crime was wrong. But I am against one Human subverting the rule of law! That is not how government works!”

He pointed angrily at Erin. She stuck her tongue out at him as she joined the standoff. Numbtongue clenched his fists, searching for the right words. It was hard! He didn’t know what to say. He was barely six years old. He was a warrior; he didn’t know how to talk to Keldrass, or even understand the nuance of the Drake’s arguments for all he understood the words!

But perhaps someone did. In his head, Numbtongue reached for a second voice, as he had in battle. It was not him. But it was. And the memories had been given for him to use. And while he feared, resented, and was confused by them, a dead Goblin’s memories—he could do what Numbtongue could not.

Maybe only Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha noticed the change. And Yellow Splatters. It was slight. A shift of posture. The difference in the intonation of voice. Numbtongue had always been erudite, if reluctant to show it. And he was no less so. But the inflection was off. Still, you had to know him to recognize the difference. The [Bard] rumbled in his chest.

“Hm. And it works very well already? You have [Thugs]. Gangs. It’s good to have them because the law is there? Better to have laws than justice?”

Keldrass blinked, and then flushed. Jelaqua looked delighted and gave Numbtongue a thumbs-up.

“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying that Erin—she rescued you because you were connected to her! She cannot interfere and command other people above her rank just because of personal…attachments!”

Numbtongue folded his arms. He set himself with a wider stance, as if he’d suddenly gained weight and needed to brace himself.

“I see. Like the Gnolls and Raskghar? Terrible for her to interfere.”

A ripple of motion ran around the room. Bevussa smiled. Keldrass’ scales turned even redder.

“Don’t twist my words. That was monsters!”

Numbtongue nodded heavily. He grunted.

“And those Humans were monsters. Your point?”

Erin looked up at the [Bard] in awe. Keldrass opened his mouth, saw Bevussa shaking her head at him, and turned around.

“I refuse to argue with a Goblin. I’m stating my opinion. I’m trying to support the system that keeps Drake society running!”

He appealed to his fellow Drakes, who nodded. Numbtongue eyed the room and waggled an ear. His cadence became even more broken up.

“Don’t want to argue with Goblins. Mm. Because Goblins are stupid? Smelly? Monsters? Animals? Or because you’ll lose?”

Keldrass whirled around. He took a deep breath and noticed Erin staring at him. Erin, who sold acid jars. And who controlled the door that connected his home city to hers. And Lasica and Rufelt, the famed duo who ran the very popular inn he might want to visit with his team. And Xif, the best [Alchemist] who sold potions in the city. And Maughin. He hesitated and everyone could see him choosing his words carefully.

“Some Goblins are…friendly. I’ll grant you that. Even intelligent. But that Drake earlier wasn’t wrong. Goblins killed his family. Why shouldn’t he be wary? Goblins as a whole can’t be reasoned with. The Goblin King—I’ll grant you that you’re safe. Beneficial even. Yes, you were right to defend an [Alchemist]. Happy?”

He exhaled hard, his eye twitching as he glared at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin just shook his head.

“I’m fine.”

“That’s right. I said you’re not a threat to people. What more do you want?”

Numbtongue fixed Keldrass with an old look. A deep one.

“To be treated like a person. Not an animal.”

The Drake opened his mouth. Numbtongue rolled on, his voice deeper, contemplative. With the words of a Goblin who used them seldom. But had thought over this argument the many years he’d been alive.

“You. Keldrass. You say this Goblin is good. This Goblin is safe. Because Erin Solstice…tamed him? Because this Goblin learned? But other Goblins, wild Goblins, you can’t trust them. You have to find good ones. Train them. Like animals. Like a pet.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Not directly. But you said it to my face. So did the last Drake. What makes you a person and me an animal? Red eyes? Teeth?”

Numbtongue smiled. And his teeth were sharp, pointed. But Keldrass’ scowl hid teeth no less sharp. Numbtongue looked around the inn. He turned. And a dead Goblin’s words came to life.

“What makes a Goblin a monster? That they kill? Gnolls kill Drakes. Drakes kill Gnolls. Humans kill both. That we make war? Drakes make war. That our King destroys? The King of Destruction destroys. What is the thing that makes Goblins monsters?”

“The fact that you have no civility. No laws! No order! You build nothing—you copy and destroy! That’s all Goblins have ever done! All they do!”

Keldrass snapped at Numbtongue. Pyrite looked at him and the Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. There was a look in the crimson depths. Slowly, Pyrite reached into the satchel by his side. He felt around in it, speaking as he did.

“You say we are not civil. I say, good evening. Good night. Hello, Adventurer Keldrass. I am Pyr—Numbtongue. How do you do? By sword and bell, I raise my blade. By the walls, I salute you! On this grass I walk, I offer peace-bound friendship!”

Behind the Goblin, Pisces sat up in his chair. The Drakes from Pallass looked up, and jaws dropped. The Plains Gnolls’ eyes bulged. And the Hob went on. The bag clinked as he found what he was looking for and smiled.

“Goblins have no laws? We have the ones that matter. The Chieftain leads. Goblins should not kill Goblins. We have no books. And we have no [Guards]. We guard ourselves. Perhaps that is silly. But it works. We have order. It goes like this. One Goblin leads, and the others follow. As [Kings] rule, Goblins do too. But no one watches Goblins, so how would you know? And as for building…”

He paused and looked around. The inn was silent, watching, unsure. Pyrite shrugged.

“I do not build. But I find. I mine. Once, there was a Goblin who loved treasures. And he taught himself to find them in the mountain. For fun.”

Slowly, he withdrew the object he’d grasped. Keldrass gasped along with everyone around him. A gold nugget rested in Pyrite’s palm. He regarded it idly, and looked around. The glitter of the metal caught every eye. Gold. But Pyrite tossed it up and down. Jelaqua’s voice was strangled.

“Hold on. Numbtongue, where’d you get—”

“He—I—found it. Mined it from a mountain. From Rockmites and stone. Do you like it?”

“Um…yes?”

The Goblin smiled.

“Want it?”

He held the nugget out. Keldrass stared and his claws twitched. So did Jelaqua; Pyrite had held it out between her, Bevussa, and the Drake. All three adventurers reached for it at once, and Pyrite pulled the nugget back. He spoke again, tossing the heavy orb up and down. Hypnotizing the crowd.

“Once. There was a Goblin. He liked shiny things. Gold. Gems. Mana stones. They glittered and he found a way to mine them. They were his. He went into caves with monsters and got them. He mined them. If he was a Drake, they would say ‘that is his treasure’. But adventurers did not think so. They saw he had treasure and they tried to kill him for it.”

He looked around.

“Was that fair? They did not mine it. They did not earn it. They tried to kill him for it. And they killed his tribe. They hunted him. They built nothing. They only destroyed. That was all they ever did.”

“That’s—different. They—we’re adventurers. We hunt monsters. If you had a hoard, they would target you.”

Keldrass sounded as though he wasn’t certain of himself. He stared at the gold as Pyrite tossed it up and down. The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“And if I was a person, I would call them [Thieves]. But a Goblin is a Goblin. A Goblin is a monster. An animal. It can be tamed. But it is still an animal. Right?”

He looked around the room. Some didn’t meet his eyes. Others did. Like Erin. She mouthed at Numbtongue.

Who are you?

And the Goblin winked at her. Just for a moment. Then he offered the nugget again to Keldrass. The gold glinted in the fading light.

“Want it?”

The Drake hesitated. He looked around the room, warring with himself. But the gold was gold. And Drakes were the children of Dragons.

“Yes. Why? Is it a bribe? A gift? Proof you’re a person?”

His expression said he might say anything to have it, and to be out of the spotlight. Pyrite just grinned a Goblin’s grin.

“Nothing. It’s yours. If you pick it up.”

He tossed the nugget on the floor. It was a decent toss; the nugget rolled a bit, but it was so heavy it actually dented the floorboards. Keldrass started. He looked at Pyrite and then around. Everyone watched him. The Drake considered how much it would cost his image to bend over and pick up the nugget. Then he stiffly walked over. Pyrite waited until the Drake was moving. And then, as Keldrass bent, he spoke one word.

“Fetch.”

The Drake—froze. And so did the room.  Slowly, Keldrass turned. His face was flushed under his scales. He glared at Pyrite, but with a hint of triumph.

“Never.”

The Hobgoblin eyed him silently, then he smiled and shrugged. He looked around the room.

“It’s just gold. Worthless to a Goblin. But anyone who wants it may fetch.”

And with that he walked away. He sat down with a grunt and a sigh, and reached for a hamburger. He lifted it to his lips, and bit once. He smiled with satisfaction—

And then Numbtongue was there. The [Bard] chewed, swallowed, and looked around the room. He indicated the nugget, as Pyrite had done. And there was only silence.

No one moved. The adventurers were frozen. Keldrass, his arms folded, was flushed. He was deliberately not looking at the nugget of gold. Most people weren’t.

Of course, no one else was going to ‘fetch’ it. Pick it up and prove the Goblin’s point? Hah! Okay, he’d mined it. But he was giving it away. And if you thought about what he’d said about thieves…no. No, this was just about the gold. Every eye darted to it. It was definitely gold. If you knew anything about how heavy gold was, and if you’d seen the real stuff…gold. But no one would pick it up. That was out of the question.

Maybe, if no one was looking, someone might stroll over to it and by pure accident, nudge it with a shoe. And why not pick it up then? That damn Goblin wasn’t ordering them. It was just money, and who didn’t like that? If no one was watching. But Numbtongue was staring at all of them, with a sneer for a smile. Pieces would have been hard to outdo him at this moment.

Slowly, everyone turned back to what they were doing. Ignoring the gold on the ground. The Goblin was still there. Still watching. But so what? He’d give up and go away. In a few minutes. When he saw no one was going to pick it up. In an hour, even. They could wait hours to prove him wrong. They were people. And he was just…a talented miner. That was a useful skill, wasn’t it? Did he have a class? Did he have more gold in that bag of his? No, no. That would be theft. From a monster?

He’d go away. And when he did…‘accidents’ could happen and no one would have to own up to it. Everyone was sure on that point. Completely sure. They’d just sit there and talk…one of the Drakes looked over at his companion, a Dullahan.

“So…how’s that pizza?”

The Dullahan quickly turned his head on his shoulders.

“Fine. It is good pizza.”

“Right, right.”

The inn murmured agreement. No one was watching the nugget. They were talking about proper people-things. And the Goblin was going to get bored. They relaxed, realizing everyone was on the same wavelength. And then everyone saw it.

A complication. She was small, furry, and white. She was also a Gnoll. Mrsha was padding along the edge of the room, having born witness to Pyrite’s speech and his offer of free gold nuggets to anyone who picked it up. She was the one person moving in the tableau of a room. And suddenly, everyone was staring at her.

They all stared at Mrsha. The white Gnoll was innocently slinking from table to person to chair, towards the lovely, shiny, and most of all, round nugget lying on the floor. She had an innocent look on her face that fooled no one, not even Pawn, Yellow Splatters, and Ksmvr. Mrsha had a target. She was a Gnoll of the Stone Spears tribe and she knew the worth of a good mineral.

The future was open to the crowded room. They could all see it, as if they’d all become Gazers. If no one acted, Mrsha was going to grab the gold nugget and run off. And it would be hers. And well…what a waste.

“That’s solid gold. Pure too, if I’m any guess. Might be worth ten gold pieces. More?”

The person to break the thoughtful silence was a Human. Earlia, captain of Gemhammer. She was a former [Miner] and she knew gold. She eyed the nugget and everyone considered that number. It wasn’t a small amount. Okay, some in the room were rich. Others were not. Adventurers could always use more money. So could poor, hardworking [Senators]. And [Shopkeepers]. And a [Bartender] could buy a nice stool with ten gold pieces.

The gold had a luster of its own. The adventurer nodded slowly.

“It’d be a shame not to pick it up. Hey. Blaik, you go for it.”

Earlia turned to one of her team. The brawny Human adventurer hesitated.

“What, me? I’m not a pet.”

“No, you’re my subordinate. Go pick it up.”

“Why don’t you, Captain?”

“Well…”

Earlia hesitated. Some people in the inn were clearly less preoccupied with Numbtongue’s taunt than, say, the attraction of free gold. Pisces for one. He was slowly sliding towards the gold at roughly Mrsha’s pace. But now Earlia and the others saw the problem. Well, if they went for it, then the others would too. She casually took a sip from her empty mug.

“Maybe I might.”

Errif, not to be confused with Elirr, who was having a drink at the bar, gulped. The Head of Pallass’ [Merchant]’s guild spoke slowly.

“You know, I would wager that’s eight gold pieces’ worth of pure gold in that nugget…fourteen if you find a [Mage] or [Alchemist] in need of gold as a component. Just so we’re clear, yes?”

He looked around the room. Speculative eyes stared at the nugget. Mrsha, who’d been creeping up on it all this time, noticed the stares. She looked up, hesitated, and with uncanny intuition and restraint, decided this was not, in fact, worth it. She slunk back to Erin. The [Innkeeper], laughing quietly, scooped her up. Erin looked around and then shouted.

My precious!

Fourteen Gnolls, half the Drakes in the room, Pisces, Ceria, Relc, and Lyonette all went for the nugget. The scramble was so intense that Erin ducked back as tables and chairs went flying. She hollered as she carried Mrsha to safety.

“I’m gonna have to test my new Skill now! Hey! No magic! I said, no magic!

In the end it was Earlia who emerged, panting, from the mess. She’d been fastest, and she sat down at a table, nursing a swollen lip and two bruises. She plonked the nugget on the table in front of the other adventurers. Jelaqua, who’d been too busy sitting with Maughin and Bevussa, who wasn’t that desperate, looked up. The former [Miner] grinned.

“Woof.”

She sat down with the Gold-ranks. Across the inn, Numbtongue was happily sitting with Yellow Splatters and Mrsha and Erin and Octavia, his back straight and proud. He might not be allowed in Liscor, or Celum, but he’d won something and all the adventurers sensed it. Keldrass stomped over to the table and sat down. No one said a word. Earlia tapped the gold nugget with a spoon and listened to the sound it made. Then she looked up.

“Have you ever heard of it? The Golden Goblin?”

“What?”

The Pallassian adventurers sitting around the table gave her a blank look.  Jelaqua on the other hand frowned. Earlia nodded to her.

“Maybe it’s only in the north. Come to think of it…well, just listen. It was an old urban legend around the Adventurer’s Guilds where I came from. North of Celum a ways, but all over, really. One of those myths adventurers tell, like seeing a Unicorn, you know? Or finding a Dragon’s scale? Anyways. There was a saying that there was a Goblin whose tribe was insanely rich somewhere around the High Passes. People thought the Goblin had uncovered a treasure hoard or maybe looted a bunch of caravans. Either way, that Numbtongue Goblin made me think of it.”

“The Golden Goblin?”

Keldrass snorted dismissively, but every eye flicked towards Numbtongue. Earlia nodded, resting her hand on her chin.

“Yeah. I thought it was a load too. But then…I’m a [Miner], or I was until my group ran into monsters in our shaft. We decided killing monsters was actually safer and more fun than mining. You can run into some nasty stuff down there. But with that said, we only mined in safe spots. Near towns. I hear that if you wander the High Passes, you can find hundreds, thousands of veins as rich as anything in Salazsar.”

“So you’re saying a Goblin could mine? And this Golden Goblin—why didn’t anyone catch him? It? If it had so much wealth.”

Earlia smiled around the table.

“Well, there’s the thing. All the teams who swore they’d met the Golden Goblin said they ‘nearly’ got him. They’d find him mining, or catch his tribe’s trail. But here’s where it becomes a legend, right? Each time they’d nearly catch him, but the Goblin and his tribe would always get away. Rumor was he was loaded with treasure, so a lot of adventurers went after his tribe. But that stopped when they kept dying.”

“How?”

The other teams frowned around the table. Earlia shook her head. She tossed the nugget up and down, as Pyrite had done, eying it thoughtfully.

“He’d always drop some treasure and run off. And the adventurers would scramble to get it and miss the Goblin and his tribe. Sometimes it would be gemstones. Or rare ores, like gold. Always polished, right? And I mean, who wants to tangle with a Hob when you could pick up a gem? Sometimes, though, that would lead to adventurers fighting over the treasure. Even killing each other. Other times it led into traps.”

“Like what?”

Bevussa looked at Numbtongue. Earlia shrugged.

“One time I heard they found a bunch of treasure right below a cliff. It looked like a Goblin had fallen and dropped a ton of gemstones and gold nuggets. The two teams rushed to grab it. And guess what happened?”

“Avalanche?”

“Avalanche, pitfalls, even a bunch of diamonds at the bottom of a Creler’s nest. And it’s not like it happened often enough for people to say it was definitely one Goblin, or even that it wasn’t just a team making up rumors. The Golden Goblin tale would pop up sixty miles north of Celum one day, and then two hundred miles west in nine months. Eventually, the Golden Goblin rumors died out. Plenty of tribes get wiped each year. But no one ever found a hoard.”

The adventurers were silent. Earlia looked around and smiled. Her eyes locked on Numbtongue’s back. The Goblin was explaining something to Erin, who looked amazed. And sad. And Mrsha wondering.

“I’m just repeating a rumor. Anyways, this is good gold. Wonder where he found it. If our team had been this good at mining, we’d never have become adventurers.”

“It’s nothing special. He probably stole it from a monster’s nest.”

Keldrass muttered, slumped in his seat. Bevussa reached out and smacked his shoulder with one wing. She shook her wing arm, grimacing as the magical enchantment on the armor flared to life.

“Oh really? You want to fight Rockmites, Keldrass? Have a thousand of them crawling down your beak? Wander in caves looking for veins? Even with [Dangersense] and [Rock Scent], or some other Skill, that’s a brave Goblin.”

“It changes nothing.”

The Drake sulkily reached for his mug. Jelaqua sighed at last and raised her voice. The oldest adventurer present fixed Keldrass with one eye as all the adventurers looked at her. And remembered who one of the Halfseekers had been.

“Keldrass. Whatever may have passed or not, you just met a Hobgoblin and had a conversation with him. In an inn, with dozens of people watching. Doesn’t that strike you as the least bit odd?”

The Drake hesitated. In the end he said nothing. But it didn’t matter. The story wasn’t about him. As the night wore on, Numbtongue, who’d been smiling and looking happier than anyone could remember seeing him in a long time, stood up. He wandered to the stage in the back of the inn, where the Players of Celum, exhausted after repeat performances, had vacated it. There he pulled up a chair and sat. And the inn watched as the [Bard] got his guitar out and slowly began to tune it.

Numbtongue sat on the stage and looked down at his crowd. They weren’t here for him. Some glared at him. Others shouted for him to get off until Erin threw stuff at them.

It was an unwilling audience. One that hated him, that looked out of morbid curiosity or fear. But so what? He wasn’t going anywhere. The Hobgoblin sat on the stage and looked for the right tune. The right words. And they came to him. Despite him not liking singing, the urge rose.

So he began to play.

 

Have you heard of the greatest Goblin warriors, the Redfang Tribe,

Who lived in the High Passes and ate Eater Goats and Gargoyles just to survive?

 

Across the inn, guests looked up. That was the thing about music. Like it, hate it, it was hard to ignore. Numbtongue strummed, and raised his voice.

 

Our leader was Garen of the Redfang blade,

Who was an adventurer and his team betrayed

He made us and saved us and taught us how to fight,

A traitor maybe, but he did things that were right.

 

Sitting at their table, Moore and Seborn looked up. Jelaqua drank from her mug and looked up. Numbtongue went on, improvising, putting words together.

 

“This is the story of thirteen Redfangs he chose,

Who walked and travelled on no Goblin’s road

He sent us thirteen to kill an innkeeper,

But lost and confused, we didn’t know where to seek her!”

 

Erin spat out her drink onto Mrsha’s head. She looked up. Numbtongue stared off into the distance.

 

“This is the tale of the Goblins who roamed

The Goblins who fought and died until they found home.”

 

It was a ballad of rhymes. Rhymes were easy. Numbtongue barely had to think. All he had to do was remember. At first there had been Esthelm. Quietly, he told the story of a chance encounter. A fight with the Silver Swords. And a girl. A skeleton.

 

“A [Florist] who was more Human than monster (who had impeccable taste)!

And so as not to let her sacrifice go to waste,

Thirteen Goblins fought at Esthelm that day

And only six walked away.”

 

No one knew that story here. No one had heard it told. But they had to hear it. Someone—anyone had to listen. Numbtongue recounted it, the deaths, the names. Grunter, Bitefly, Leftstep…

And on. Of Liscor. Of Bugear, who’d died before meeting Erin, but had died fighting for his brothers. Of the battles there. Face-Eater Moths. Raskghar. Face Stealer. And then the end. Not everyone was listening. But that one [Innkeeper] was, a few Drakes, a Gnoll child—and more listening with one ears, frowning, denying—it didn’t matter. They were listening.

Numbtongue shouted the last refrain.

“They are gone, but I remain!

And he stood up. He didn’t expect applause. And he got it, scattered, a few hand claps. That was all. But that wasn’t the point. The point was the story. Their story. He sat down next to Erin and she wiped her eyes. Pisces, who had been listening, cracked one eye open and looked at Ceria and Yvlon. The two female adventurers were quiet, introspective. He coughed.

“You couldn’t make a play about that.”

“Be quiet.”

Yvlon kicked him hard. He went silent. At their table, Erin turned to Numbtongue.

“What will you call it?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Needs work.”

And it did. But he had a title already in his head. A song.

The Ballad of the Redfangs.

Erin blew her nose.

“It’s good. But you know…”

“Yes?”

“You don’t have to surrender the stage after one song, Numbtongue. They can’t chase you off. And you don’t have to go. What if you played a song for us? Something we can sing to?”

The Hobgoblin looked at Erin. She smiled at him. And he looked over at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium had been staring at the [Bard]. The [Sergeant] spoke softly.

“The Antinium have no music. Bird sings. But that is all. If you have a song, I would like to hear it. And…sing?”

And Numbtongue’s heart leapt. He stood up and walked back to the stage. Some of the audience groaned. Others shouted that they didn’t want to hear it. And a few looked at Numbtongue and turned their bodies and heads to listen. Only a few. The Goblin had never expected it to be easy.

But he’d remembered why he wanted to be a [Bard]. So he played. At first a song Erin knew and could teach everyone the words to. Then a song he’d created. A riff, with lightning and thunderous chords. And then another song. And another.

And soon it wasn’t that a Goblin was singing a Goblin’s song, but just that he was there. A Goblin [Bard], reminding everyone of the past. Pyrite was in Numbtongue’s head. Not forgotten. And Headscratcher, Shorthilt, all the others, lived on in Numbtongue’s music. They wouldn’t be forgotten. Not yet.

They died. They left us. And we are alone. But we are not gone. Here we are. The guitar sang as Numbtongue stood alone, alone in front of a crowd. But he refused to run. He refused to hide. Here I am. Here we are. We made it. We remain. And we will never let you forget. Here we are. Look at us. See us.

Here we are.

 

—-

 

And then it was done. Numbtongue sat in his room. Dozing off with the sun. His claws hurt, and his throat was sore. But he wasn’t unhappy. He was tired. Oh, so tired. And the sun, usually a good incentive, couldn’t keep him awake. The Goblin nodded as he slowly put his guitar away, and then lay down on his bed. He’d probably wake up after nine hours. Six? Four if he needed to.

It might be hard when he woke up. Hard and unforgiving. But Numbtongue had something now. A friend. A reason to keep going, to stay at the inn. Memories. Today they had helped him. Given him words he couldn’t have come up with himself. The skill to fight—they’d saved his life.

He would have traded all of it to have the Goblin who they belonged to sitting across from him, grunting and chewing on something as he always did. Numbtongue knew Pyrite now, though they had never spoken. He wished Pyrite had been alive to see him on that stage. To meet Erin. Him, Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and all the others. Numbtongue wished, and that was all. But he wasn’t unhappy. Just tired.

He closed his eyes.

 

[Bard Level 30!]

[Conditions Met: Bard → Goblin Soulbard Class!]

[Memory – Pyrite, Flooded Waters Tribe obtained!]

[Skill – A Minute, Reborn obtained!]

[Skill – Ballad of Bravery obtained!]

 

Slowly, Numbtongue opened his eyes.

 

—-

 

A minute later, a Goblin sat in Numbtongue’s room. He felt tired. Physically, his body, at any rate. Intellectually his mind was racing. And fresh! The Goblin looked around experimentally, blinking, and then felt at his body. He knew the body’s name. It’s owner. That was Numbtongue. But he? He was different.

‘Pyrite’ scratched his stomach. He stopped, poked it experimentally, and wondered if a flat stomach and nimble body was better than fat in combat. Then he thought of who he was.

He could remember everything. He was Pyrite. And he was Numbtongue. The gaps between their personalities had disappeared, but also reformed. This wasn’t the confused jumble that Numbtongue had been forced to sort through when Pyrite had died.

This was different. Pyrite felt like himself, although that might be an illusion. More importantly, Pyrite could remember Numbtongue’s memories, but he was sure, in this moment, he was Pyrite. Only, one inclined to help Numbtongue. Well, that was fine. He would have done it anyways.

Wasn’t this confusing? Pyrite frowned and blew out his cheeks. He knew he didn’t have time to waste on puzzling out who was who, though. The Skill’s name had sounded explicit. [A Minute, Reborn]. Well that was a time limit. And an inconvenient one, too.

One minute, so now probably thirty seconds. Pyrite hesitated, and then decided he needed notes. He bent and with Numbtongue’s finger scribbled fast on the floorboards, cutting into it with his nail. Numbtongue didn’t know how to write because he’d never bothered, but he could read this note in case he forgot. There were so many thoughts bouncing around in Pyrite’s head, but he jotted down the most pressing ones as he spoke aloud.

“This class. Is it only for [Bards]? Why did you get it? Because of memory? Was that because so many Goblins died or because I tried? Is this memory here to stay, or does it fade?”

He paused, not too concerned by that. This was fascinating. Experimentally, he flexed one clawed hand and went back to writing.

“Do I remember this or does Numbtongue remembering take over and I am new Pyrite with Numbtongue’s memories any time? Will I make him level up? Can I level up?”

Probably not. But Pyrite wrote it down just in case. He frowned. So many questions!

“Hm. Hmm. Greydath would know. Do I have Skills when I am reborn? Is it possible to make this longer? An hour? A day? Test me in the mountains or elsewhere. I have [Power Strike]—can’t use here. Lastly…”

Ten seconds. Pyrite could feel something tugging him. Yes. His time was coming to a close. And perhaps he could leave if need be. But he could also be called. When he was needed…his mind flashed from thought to thought, and then Pyrite’s eyes widened. With the last seconds, he wrote, scratching deep into the wooden floorboards.

And then he was gone. One second he was there, and then Numbtongue was staring down at his old thumb. He could sense what Pyrite had wanted to write, so he finished it. Then…Pyrite’s perspective, his intentions, faded away in Numbtongue’s mind like an old dream. The Hobgoblin shook. He could remember what Pyrite had done, even the vague intentions, but the exact reasoning and…personality was beyond him.

But the writing was clear. Numbtongue stared at it. Particularly the last lines. They burned so hot in him that his exhaustion disappeared in a moment. He stared down and read slowly, his voice shaking.

“The class is not new. The class is meant for you. Goblins have always had this power. When did we lose it? How?”

We have had this class. It is ours. [Goblin Soulbard]. Goblin. If Goblins have a class, do Humans? Do Drakes? What does it mean? Is it just memories? Is it a thing of [Chieftains]?

Those were Pyrite’s thoughts. But the words below them struck a chord deeper. They rocked Numbtongue to his core. Because they changed his purpose. The reason he was here. Trembling, he touched the scratches in the wood.

“Find the others if they remain. Find our King.”

He looked up. The inn was silent above him as a new day dawned. And the Goblin sat by himself. But he was no longer alone.

Slowly, the pieces of the world began to fall closer into place.

 


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