8.02

The Great Plains of Izril, as they were called, were central to the southern half of Izril. A vast, wide, rolling landscape suitable for grazing flocks, fed by rivers—lush, in short. A plentiful land if you knew how to live in it.

Harsh for those who did not. The lack of fruitful forests and vegetation en-masse would repel Lizardfolk, who had long used all the wonders of Baleros’ forests to be tools, medicine, building material, and more.

By the same token, nomads of Chandrar used to Zeikhal, the Great Desert (there was a pattern in naming conventions), would see an abundance of potential, in the water alone.

Drakes hated it. They built cities, defensible strongholds, out of stone and wood if they had to. It was one reason why they had not colonized this vast area.

The second reason was that it was not theirs. The second name for this stretch of lands was the Gnoll Plains. Because the many tribes of Izril refused to give up this last place that was entirely theirs.

Many tribes moved across Izril of course. They mingled with the Drake cities, made their livings in places where the land was not fully claimed by the walls of their sometimes-enemies. But they had slowly been forced out of many places they used to call home. In the past—they had known more plains, in north and south. No longer. Humans claimed that now.

And here was the truth many people forgot: the Plains Gnolls and City Gnolls that divided their species up broadly into two categories was a lie. Or a falsehood that had slowly become the new truth.

Once, there had been more. Gnolls of the forest. Gnolls who lived in the mountains. Gnolls of sea and yes—even those who were more at home underground. But their homeland had dwindled to a fifth of its size with the Human occupation of the north and Drake cities.

Small wonder some Gnolls called this the Waning World, the era of decay. And yet—five times a century, every twenty years, the tribes gathered.

The Meeting of the Tribes. While everything faded, they still came together. From as far as it took. To remember the past.

They were not gone yet.

 

—-

 

Hundreds of tribes had made their journey into the heart of the Gnoll plains. Small—only a hundred at most—or large, passing a hundred thousand or even more, coming together in full strength at last.

Not all Gnolls; some sent representatives, not their full number. But here was Gnoll strength. The Az’muzarre tribe guarded the Meeting of Tribes, their descendants bearing Dragon-arms. And more tribes of similar power, old and new, were gathering.

Steelfur, who had created the Steelcloth armors so prized, superior to chainmail for their lightness and flexibility.

Gaarh Marsh, whose great protector, the Earth Elemental, had destroyed the walls of Drake cities.

Ekhtouch, paragons of their kind, known for their superior displays of physical ability…and superior attitudes.

Plain’s Eye tribe, one of the vastest, with many smaller or related clans, who trained the [Shamans] that held the magic of Gnoll-kind.

Weatherfur, who produced mighty leaders, a [General] of Pallass, and commanded the rains themselves.

The Ruinstrider Tribe, who had been a small, scavenging tribe until one of their own acquired a Relic-class artifact, and became a Named Adventurer.

Woven Bladegrass, who had engaged in multiple victorious campaigns against the Drakes.

And more. They were all gathering, meeting, exchanging ideas and of course—gifts. For the Meeting of Tribes would see each Gnoll tribe present something to be shared by all. During this time as summer ended, they would all benefit, and a tribe’s status would fall or rise depending on their actions here.

A small tribe might ally with a large one, or make beneficial marriages, acquire gifts or insights—or a large one be humbled as other tribes passed judgment.

This was the event that had begun four days ago. Let all Gnolls who remembered tribe and tradition gather! They had all arrived by the Summer Solstice, the countless Gnolls moving by foot or vehicle or mount.

…Except for the band of Gnolls riding quickly into the Great Plains. They were a group of about five dozen Gnolls, two thirds mounted, the rest jogging along the riders and pack horses.

They were late. Late! Their leader, a female Gnoll, was kicking herself—and the others. Mostly with verbal tongue-lashings. The Gnolls set a dogged pace, but without movement Skills they’d only now arrived, and they had further to go to get to the Meeting of Tribes in the center of the plains!

“We must be the only group of Gnolls so slow! Move up!”

Krshia Silverfang shouted at the group of five-dozen. It wasn’t even a large group. She had thought to take as many as three hundred, but decided there was no need for that amount of cost. Smaller moved faster, anyways, and they were rejoining their tribe. The Silverfang Tribe, known for wealth as they were canny [Traders] and, well, silver from mines of old.

However, this group from Liscor, where part of their tribe had gone to settle and work ten years ago? Laaaate.

They had been delayed on the road. They had been making perfect time to arrive by the Summer Solstice or even before. But something had halted their progress on the road.

News from their home—Liscor. They were not Plains Gnolls, not really, anymore. They were used to the city. And from their city had come terrible tidings.

Erin Solstice. They had stopped a day—then another—to learn what had happened. To mourn—even debate going back. Eventually, after conferring, Krshia had decided to go on.

She could not help Erin Solstice in Liscor. But perhaps at the Meeting of Tribes…

It still slowed their steps. It made what should have been a joyous, excited group yearning to see their kin again after a decade’s absence silent, depressed. Clearly, it was all Erin’s fault for getting killed.

Or…not killed? A Gnoll panting after having jogged for three miles mounted the horse he’d been letting relax. He sat in the saddle, drooping, as the animal harrumphed at the new weight on its back. Tkrn leaned against it.

He didn’t know exactly what had happened. It was hard for the Gnolls to even explain. Krshia had tried—Erin was in a kind of stasis? Not dead, but unable to be revived and healed. Frozen?

Why would that stop her from dying? Tkrn didn’t know. It sounded…stupid. Even if someone had explained it to him fully, the idea of cryogenics was not something Tkrn would have accepted at face value.

To him—Erin was gone, barring some great miracle. And he sniffed into the horse’s mane.

They were all much the same. Krshia, for all she snapped, didn’t push the Gnolls of Liscor. Tkrn looked ahead at the front of the group.

There was Raekea and her husband, Jekss, a Drake. There was Beilmark, sans family, riding with a grim expression. She was Senior Guardswoman—and ahead of her Krshia herself, talking with one of the best [Potters] in Liscor, Heriml.

Many of the Gnolls riding in this group could be called that. Best [Smith], Raekea. Best [Guardswoman]—Beilmark, and another Senior Guardsman Gnoll. Krshia, the unofficial leader of the Silverfangs and Gnolls in Liscor and Councilwoman of Liscor…and so on.

And then there was Tkrn. [Guardsman]—not Senior Guardsman. And unofficially, that Gnoll who had nearly been fired for letting a group of Drakes and Gnolls nearly kill a prisoner, Calruz, and looked the other way while they tortured him.

…Fitting? Tkrn sat in his saddle. Erin aside, he didn’t feel like he belonged. Of course, he knew he was security—a good half of the non-important Gnolls were [Warriors], [Archers], [Hunters]—those who could escort the group the long ways here from [Bandit] and monster attacks.

But why me?

It seemed to the young Gnoll that he was undeserving of the honor of representing the Silverfangs of Liscor. He had a black mark. In fact, he had a black page in terms of how close he’d come to disgrace.

Zevara had been on the edge of firing him for his conduct. Everyone else had been released from their duty as a member of Liscor’s watch, without bonus or pension or so on. Tkrn had been allowed to stay…

But he’d been demoted back to a rookie guard’s status, forced to work with the rookie patrols, and given unenvious assignments. He’d debated quitting with all the hostility towards him—but he’d stayed.

What else would he do? He already had the class and…it was what he knew. Fortunately, some of the Watch had at least talked to him, like the rookies. Jerci for instance—a new Gnoll [Guard].

She was riding with the group too, mainly because she had relatives in the Silverfang tribe and her mother, a high-level [Scribe], wanted her to meet them.

But Tkrn…he urged his destrier forwards as the group slowed to cross a bridge moving over a long river. The ancient stone path funneled the group—but he managed to slide ahead of the others.

“Aunt. May I have a word?”

Tkrn saw Krshia’s head turn. She looked…well, the same as ever. Tall—Gnolls were tall, male and female, with no difference in heights, brown fur thick, her eyes sharp. She was an expert [Shopkeeper], a former Plains Gnoll who had come to the city to work, and now a [Councilwoman] of Liscor.

The younger [Guard] had always known his aunt—twice removed—to be a leader of the Gnolls, ever since he was small. He barely remembered being a Plains Gnoll—he’d left when he could barely walk on two legs to go to the city of Liscor with his family.

But he did know that Krshia had been important in the Silverfang tribe. Her sister was the [Chieftain].

“Tkrn, what is it? Trouble?”

Krshia looked at him, brown eyes glinting behind her frown. Tkrn shook his head as his horse stopped alongside hers.

“No. Aunt—a word if you’re not busy?”

She hrmed, but nodded. They rode at the head of the group, as some Gnoll [Hunters] scouted ahead.

“What is it, Tkrn?”

“I—I’m just wondering what will happen when we reach the Gnollmoot, Aunt.”

She looked blankly at him.

“The what?”

“The Gnollmoot. Er…the Meeting of Tribes, yes?”

Tkrn corrected himself. Krshia gave him an odd look.

“Who would call it a Gnoll…moot? Who told you that nonsense, nephew?”

“Erin.”

Krshia’s ears drooped. Some of the Gnolls listening glanced up. It was hard to have a confidential conversation; normally Gnolls didn’t try to listen in, that was respectful. But every Gnoll knew that if you wanted to talk secretly, you dug a hole, cast a [Silence] spell, and then hoped no one was listening.

“Ah. I forgot she called it that. Silly…hrmph. The Meeting of Tribes will be a grand event, Tkrn. With plenty to do! Not that I do not expect you to keep watch and obey! There will be time for that and festivities. I hope you have money saved.”

“I do.”

Tkrn dully patted his coin pouch. It was the last thing on his mind. Who wanted to have fun? If he wanted to have fun, he’d have stayed in Liscor and hung out at Erin’s inn for five minutes.

His aunt seemed to understand that and sighed.

“It is hard, Tkrn. But we will do business on behalf of the tribe and thus deliver our gift and enrich all. That is important. We can do little in Liscor right now and may do good here.”

“There’s a war going on between us and Hectval. I should be there. The Watch will be fighting.”

Tkrn mumbled. He heard a snort from behind him.

Beilmark. The Senior Guardswoman, paired with Jeiss, the best [Swordsman] in all of Liscor, shook her head. Tkrn had never known what she was known for; maybe just being reliable and good and high-level.

“We should not have gone to war, no! At least, not without an army. Liscor’s Watch is not large enough and we don’t train our [Guards] to fight in wars! In streets, in units, yes! We nearly lost a huge number of civilians. What is happening? We should be there—at least to represent on the Council.”

She looked pointedly at Krshia and Raekea at that. The two Gnolls frowned.

“Elirr is there.”

“He is only one. That’s an all-Drake Council.”

“Alonna and Jeiss are to be trusted, Beilmark. Even Lism, yes?”

“Hrm. If you say so, Krshia. Two months ago you would have cursed me saying his name. How things change, eh?”

Beilmark gave Krshia a long look. Raekea the same. The female [Shopkeeper] fidgeted slightly—but Tkrn had no idea why.

“What did you want to say, nephew? You will see the Meeting of Tribes soon enough. Which reminds me, we should explain to the young ones what to expect, Beilmark.”

Krshia coughed into her paw, changing the subject. Tkrn saw her look at him. He hesitated, but came out with it.

“Aunt. Why did you choose me to come with you? Of all the Gnolls in the city?”

The older Gnoll frowned mildly. She was in her early forties, but still yet to show real signs of age; grey fur and so on.

“You are a [Guardsman], Tkrn.”

“You know what I mean, Aunt. There are more Gnoll [Guards] than just me. Jerci I can understand more than me. You know I’m…in disgrace.”

Tkrn’s ears drooped. If his tail had been wagging, it would have done the same. But you couldn’t get more depressed, even thinking on his mistakes.

Krshia exchanged a glance with some of the other Gnolls. They slowed a bit and she and Tkrn rode ahead.

“Tkrn…”

“Everyone knows what I did, Aunt. Or failed to do.”

When the group of [Guards] and civilians had begun…punishing Calruz for his actions in the dungeons and with the hateful Raskghar, Tkrn had turned a blind eye. He had been angry. But he had also known that the Minotaur was a prisoner.

He had wavered, but not told anyone. Not stopped it. Not even done more than talk—until Mrsha had been in danger. Then, and only then he’d drawn his sword with the Watch Captain.

But not enough. Tkrn felt as though his fur was painted…red with shame. As though everyone were always thinking of what he’d done when they looked at him. They probably were.

Krshia knew this too. She eyed him, pursing her lips, as if to say something. But as she glanced ahead, across the incredibly flat landscape, her lips quirked.

She almost smiled. It was not a super-happy smile, but it was still…Tkrn saw her reach for her side and pull something out.

“Ah, it is much to say, Tkrn. But saying…here.”

She handed him something. He stared as she proffered…a belt knife?

It was hers, made of good steel by Raekea’s forges. Worn—probably years old. There was even a notch in the handle, worn smooth but made by some cut or accident long ago. Tkrn blinked as he took it.

“What, Aunt? What is this?”

“Your answer.”

And with that she kicked her horse lightly and it shot forwards. She left Tkrn with the belt knife. He stared at it.

“Something wrong? Krshia, let me—

Beilmark shouted after Krshia, riding after her. She paused as she saw Tkrn with the object.

“What’s that, Tkrn?”

“I asked Aunt—I asked Krshia why she took me after what I did, Beilmark. And she gave me this.”

The Senior Guardswoman eyed the knife. She blinked, wrinkled her brow, then groaned.

“Oh, the knife. Bite my fur, she’s doing that? Well, do your best.”

She shook her head. Almost amused, she rode after Krshia. Tkrn stared at her back. Another Gnoll passed.

“It was a bit of armor for me. Ah, this brings back memories!”

Chuckling, he rode with Beilmark after their leader. The Gnolls passing Tkrn as he slowed chuckled, or shook their heads. They seemed to know what it meant, the older ones. Jerci just gave Tkrn a blank look. But that gesture somehow made the Gnolls look ahead, straighten slightly, even in their grief.

They were heading into the plains. For them…home.

They were coming home. Tkrn stared at the belt knife. He looked around.

“But I hate riddles.”

His plaintive voice was ignored by all.

 

—-

 

Later that day, Krshia looked up as the others were having a brunch on the road. Tkrn had patted his horse down and given it a bit of stamina potion and they were just about to go.

“Ah, nephew. Do you have my belt knife yet? Or have you not understood?”

She smiled as he squatted down around the small fire and boiling tea. He hesitated—Beilmark, Raekea, and some of the older Gnolls were sitting there. They looked up and he flushed under his fur—but he nodded.

“I think I do, Aunt.”

He proffered her the knife. Krshia regarded it, but didn’t take it. Tkrn had thought for about two hours as he rode; there wasn’t much else to do. The Gnoll Plains, love ‘em or hate them—got sort of similar after you stared across the flat, flat landscape for a while.

“It’s a lesson. You want me to understand it. You gave me the knife because…of this.”

The Gnoll indicated the one obvious thing on the knife. Raekea didn’t stamp her blades; she trusted the quality to will out. The tool was old, but still sharp as a razor—he’d cut his finger while playing with it. Yet that notch on the handle was noticeable.

“It’s damaged. A bit. You should really fix the gap.”

“I’ve been meaning to replace the handle for years. But I never get around to it. Your point, nephew?”

Tkrn took a breath. He thought he was right; it was obvious and there was no other answer he could think of.

“Well, the knife is me, isn’t it? I’ve made a mistake. But I can still fight and…and do what’s needed. That’s why you took me, right?”

He waited, as the small group of Gnolls looked at each other. Their faces were unreadable, but then Krshia stirred. She took the belt knife, carefully put it in her belt, and patted the notched handle.

“Hm. Hrm. Well now. I like that answer. I think I’ll take it. What do you all think?”

Tkrn blinked. He saw the other Gnolls grin toothily. Beilmark slapped one knee as a laugh burst from her throat.

“I like it too! Good answer, Tkrn! Although, if it were a notch on the blade I’d disagree! I wondered if he’d come up with something.”

She chuckled. The others did too. Tkrn looked at his aunt.

“Wait. Was that the answer?”

She shrugged.

“I have no idea. It sounds good, though.”

His jaw dropped.

“But I thought—you gave me that knife because—why did you give me that knife?”

“To see what you said.”

She winked at him. The young Gnoll’s eyes bulged. The other, older Gnolls laughed harder because of it. Raekea pulled herself upright and fondly patted Tkrn’s leg. She offered him a fresh cup of tea, chuckling.

“Sit, Tkrn. Don’t be too mad. My mother did the same to me when I was your age and ruined one of her crucibles. It’s a time-honored tradition…although among Plains Gnolls. Krshia, is that what inspired you?”

The [Shopkeeper] ducked her head modestly.

“I thought it was appropriate. I wondered if Tkrn’s parents had done it to him, but he was always dutiful.”

Tkrn turned redder as the others chuckled.

“You mean, you didn’t know what I’d say and you didn’t have a lesson?”

“Mm. Pass the tea, Raekea. What’s this flavor? Mint? Eugh. I hate mint.”

Krshia sipped from the cup as she sighed.

“It’s a good answer, Tkrn. It has bones in why I did take you. You are my nephew—more than that? I thought it would be good for you to see the Meeting of Tribes. But that is a Gnoll way of teaching. Every Gnoll of the Tribes learns that lesson. It helps us understand how you think. Sometimes the answer is very good. Sometimes, not. Right, Beilmark?”

How, he thought? Tkrn blinked. He turned to the Senior Guardswoman. Embarrassed, Beilmark scratched behind one ear.

“Ah, well, many are younger than you when we are given something. I spent two days with the dagger my father gave me after I lost a horse. I wanted to know, ‘why do you put up with me even though I make such bad mistakes’? Came up with many stupid suggestions he refused to take. In the end…I got him to take it back.”

“What was your answer?”

Grinning, and very amused, Raekea’s husband leaned forwards. The Drake was treating this as a holiday; he was the best [Smith] for tools and weapons, Raekea the best [Armorer]. Beilmark chuckled ruefully.

“I think I said, ‘because I can carry things for you’. He laughed and decided that was good enough.”

The others guffawed. Another Gnoll, a [Tracker], raised a paw.

“I bought my mother a new bow after she gave me hers. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Saved up for two months. She laughed herself sick and took the bow.”

More laughter. Tkrn began to feel a bit better. Although he was still flushed as she sipped at the hot mint tea.

“Children travel a lot and get very impatient, you see, Tkrn. We have to think up ways to keep them silent on the move—and hopefully actually grow!”

Krshia reached over and ruffled the fur on Tkrn’s head. He sighed and sniffed.

“Very well, Aunt. But really—am I supposed to just learn and enjoy myself?”

She became more contemplative at the serious tone in his voice. The others looked at Tkrn and he felt that unpleasant feeling. But at last—Krshia shook her head.

“No, Tkrn. I did take you because I thought it would be good. But I could have taken many Gnolls, yes? I took you because we are related, because I know you, because you are a decent level—and because you did do the right thing in the end.”

“Only at the last moment, Aunt.”

He hung his head. Krshia nodded.

“Yes. Only then. Not enough—but at least, nephew, I know you will do the right thing then. Next time, do it sooner.”

It was a painful relief to hear. Tkrn looked up and she smiled at him. Then she sipped at her mint tea and gagged.

“Enough wasting time! We are close to the Meeting of Tribes! I want to be there sooner! Sooner! Tea break ends in five minutes!”

“You mint-tea hating tyrant.”

Beilmark huffed as she sipped at her cup, and then produced a canteen for more on the road. That was Tkrn’s first introduction to Plains Gnoll tradition. It would be far from the last. And as midday came, the rolling plains began to rise slightly. They crested a hill—and saw the first smoke trails rising in the distance. Hundreds of them, thousands. A vast encampment in the distance. The Gnolls pointed and shouted—

There was the Meeting of Tribes. And the Silverfang Tribe, their kin, were waiting to greet them.

 

—-

 

She heard and smelled them before she laid eyes on the Gnolls.

To be a Gnoll was to experience the world in ways that Humans and Drakes could only understand a fraction of. Their sense of smell and hearing was so poor! Then again, they could happily walk through places that had rank odors and barely complain about it.

And as Krshia had observed, keeping secrets was hard around a people who smelled and heard everything.

Still—the wind. She sniffed the air and smelled the odor of thousands of fires, albeit terribly far away. Smoke, cooking scents, even blood—oils and steels in countless profusion. And the natural scent of the Great Plains.

To her, it was home. But she heard the howls from behind and in front of her as well. Gnolls stood in their saddles and howled greetings from afar. And the answering ones?

There was a timbre and pitch unique to a tribe. The Silverfang’s were long, loud, with a curious warble thrown in. Krshia bared her teeth. Raekea exclaimed with a laugh.

“They’re waiting for us!”

“Of course!”

The Gnolls picked up the pace, their maudlin mood forgotten for a moment. Krshia smelled a new scent coming directly at them as the wind sent it downwind.

Silver and spice. Not necessarily each Gnoll having one or the other, but there was that mix of both scents on the natural odor of Gnolls and so on.

Silverfangs were great [Traders], and they also had claimed old silver mines and worked them. Moreover—as the new Gnolls came into sight, loping across the ground from where they’d been camped, outside the central profusion of tribes—Krshia saw decorations on their fur.

Plains Gnolls. Less clothed then their City Gnoll kin, except for the warriors. Also, bearing earrings, armbands, and of course, dyed fur.

Silver streaks in their fur, rather. Tkrn blinked as he saw the curious pattern on one of the Gnoll warrior’s fur along the mane of her neck. Krshia recognized it.

Warrior’s markings. In the past, they were more than symbolic. You decorated the neck and down your back and even your arms with a special silver dust dye. To ward away ghosts and…bad things.

Krshia remembered wearing the same dye proudly herself. She had been a [Hunter], apprenticed to the [Shaman] for a year or two…her heart swelled with nostalgia and memory. In this moment though, it was more good than not.

Kindred!

The howl came from afar. Two of the Gnolls were riding back towards the Meeting of Tribes. Krshia slowed her gallop and laughed as she raised her hand.

“Silverfang kin! Do you recognize us at sight alone?”

It was a group of a dozen, minus the two heading away. They slowed, waving up at her as she slowed. Huge, toothy grins. They were half-warriors, half other Gnolls, wearing the traditional silver ornaments. Silver and ivory, silver and jewel—the Silverfangs had a motif and they let people know they embraced it.

“Is that Honored Krshia of Liscor? Councilwoman Krshia, or so we have heard! Greetings, Aunt! We were told to sit here and not return until you arrived! We are glad you did; we want to join the Meeting of Tribes!”

The female Gnoll with silver dye running in stripes down her mane and back spread her arms. Krshia dismounted. The two embraced there and then, and Krshia sniffed the younger Gnoll politely as she did the same.

“We were delayed unavoidably. We are sorry, yes? I shall tell my sister—the Chieftain the same! Is Chieftain Akrisa close?”

Akrisa, her sister. Long had it been since they’d seen each other. The younger Gnoll beamed—then turned her head and sneezed.

“Well met, Aunt Krshia! Yes—she camped the way you would be coming. And two of us rode to get her. She’ll be here soon—how many are there? Sixty?”

“Just under.”

“I—achoo! We were ready for ten times that number if need be! But that is well. Honored elders, greetings!”

She bowed, very politely to the older Gnolls in front in turn. That included Tkrn, which amused Krshia. Until she realized it was her mistake.

“Tkrn, move back. You’re not Honored yet.”

Beilmark laughed as she nudged Tkrn. The other Gnolls were dismounting to pat the Silverfang Plains Gnolls, hug—they were more intimate physically than Drakes might be, or Humans with formal handshakes and whatnot.

Some of the Silverfang Plains Gnolls began sneezing, and apologizing. Krshia raised her eyebrows.

“Allergies? I forget—I have not asked your name.”

“No, Honored Krshia! Forgive me! I am Dekava! [Hunter-Warrior] of four full years since my markings. It’s just—you smell of the city! Oil and dust and Drakes all over you!”

Krshia blinked. They did? She hardly noticed, but if Dekava insisted, it must be so. She self-consciously sniffed herself, then smiled.

“Not that bad, surely!”

“No! Just different! Apologies! Will you introduce us?”

Krshia nodded. Ah, yes. This was back home alright. The request was more than just formality—she pointed, singling out the six Gnolls.

“This is Honored Beilmark, Senior Guardswoman of Liscor. Honored Raekea, [Armorer] and Councilwoman of Liscor…”

The eight Plains Gnolls bowed slightly to each in turn. Memorizing the names of the six Honored Gnolls. Of course, Tkrn and the others knew them as the same, but Krshia noticed Tkrn blink as Dekava bowed to Beilmark, placing her paws together as she bowed.

“A warrior of the cities! Honored Beilmark, it is good to meet you! We would love to see how they fight there later. And an [Armorer]! We knew you were coming, Honored Raekea! Our smiths will wish to exchange knowledge.”

“And I will be glad to do so. Well met, Dekava. And you are…?”

They made a point of saying ‘Honored’ each time. Which was much like City Gnolls. Except…Tkrn coughed.

“Beilmark. Do you want the guards to spread out or…?”

Beilmark half-turned.

“I think we’re fine, yes, Tkrn? The Az’muzarre tribe patrols. Just keep them nearby.”

Dekava’s ears perked up. She turned to Tkrn.

“Ah, you must be Honored Beilmark’s son?”

“No.”

The other Plains Gnolls blinked.

“Her…nephew?”

“No.”

Husband?

They eyed Beilmark. She snorted with laughter. Tkrn shook his head.

“I’m Tkrn. [Guardsman]. Regular Guardsman of Liscor.”

Dekava’s look of confusion turned to one of understanding. She smiled and seized his paws. She shook his hands vigorously with hers.

“Ah, I see! Pleased to meet you, Tkrn! They’re [Guards]. The same group.”

Ah. The others nodded. Krshia coughed, but only half in amusement. She was going to have to remind the others to always say Honored Beilmark and so on. She’d forgotten how seriously…

Ten years. Her head turned as she heard another howl in the distance. Massed voices—she looked around and stopped.

There came the true Silverfang Tribe. Nearly a thousand Gnolls loping across the ground, and leading them, a familiar form and voice. She howled again and Krshia answered her.

Akrisa Silverfang was, in fact, shorter than Krshia. But far more athletic. She did not stand behind a counter all day. She raced across the grass, her tribe racing past her.

“Wow.”

Tkrn stared. He had scarcely seen so many Gnolls at once! No—that wasn’t correct. He saw countless Gnolls every day in Liscor. But here was a mass of furry bodies, fur ranging from blonde to black—and not a scaly tail to be seen among them.

A Gnoll tribe. They bounded forwards and, abruptly, stopped. Krshia and the sixty or so Gnolls from Liscor were on foot, hurrying forwards.

“Sister! It is good to see you, yes!”

Krshia called out joyfully. She saw her sister raise a paw, smiling. But she had abruptly stopped. And the thousand or so Gnolls she’d brought abruptly halted behind her, leaving her in front. They raised their heads—

And Krshia halted. She had been going to run and embrace her sister as much as Dekava. But the sudden halt in the mad rush of exhilaration at seeing her kin was jarring. She eyed them—

“Er, form up behind me.”

The other Liscorian Gnolls blinked. But they formed a rough wall behind Krshia and advanced, slower.

Who comes before the Silverfang tribe?

A voice shouted before Krshia could close the fifty or so feet between them. Krshia stopped again, blinking. That was ritualistic—she answered reflexively after a pause to search her memory.

Kin from afar! Seeking to meet those with our blood and will!

The Gnolls ahead of her paused. One shouted—not Akrisa. A Gnoll next to her. Krshia recognized a [Shaman]’s markings and blinked again.

We greet our kin from Liscor! What do you bring, kin who have been gone so long?

Krshia frowned, hesitating. She hadn’t meant to do this in front of all.

We bring ourselves, and our knowledge from a city far away! To join Silverfang to Silverfang once more!

She replied. The [Shaman] standing next to Akrisa paused. She saw him whisper to her sister. And Akrisa shook her head slightly.

What else do our kin bring?

A murmur of surprise ran through both sides. Krshia hesitated. She turned, and whispered.

“Tkrn. Go with Jerci and the others. Grab the book.”

“The book, aunt?”

“Yes. Now. Hurry.”

Tkrn and a few younger Gnolls hurried back to a horse with only one burden in the center of the caravan. Even now—a group of eight Gnolls stood around it, as they had the entire way here.

Of course, it looked just like a covered bundle in a blanket. But as Tkrn and the others fussed around it, unstrapping it and lifting it—although even Mrsha could have dragged it, light as it was—it was revealed to be a vast square of something.

A tome. They brought it over and the Silverfang tribe stirred expectantly. Krshia was staring at Akrisa. But her sister refused to look at her. She was staring at the sky as the [Shaman] called out.

What does our kin bring from the city where they have been gone for so long?

We bring knowledge! A gift for the Meeting of Tribes!

Krshia called back. She was getting…not angry, but perplexed. She recognized the forms. She motioned the three Gnolls supporting the tome. As they passed her, she stopped them…then removed the blanket.

The giant magical book shone in the light. The writing on the tome, bound in some magical leather she had no way of identifying, was as pristine as if it had been printed a second ago. Not a sign of age—

The pages were brilliant, beautiful, without imperfection. Far from common parchment. The book, to even Krshia’s limited [Shaman] knowledge, glittered with power. Even for Tkrn, who had no knowledge of magic whatsoever, he felt a presence. His fur stood on end.

The Silverfang tribe sighed as they saw it appear. The [Shaman] himself made a sound.

“That—is that what the Silverfangs of Liscor bring?

“Yes. And this one presents herself before Chieftain and tribe. Are we welcome, kin?”

Krshia approached as the book was brought halfway forwards. She spread her paws, looking at her sister. Uncertainly, Tkrn and Jerci and the third Gnoll tilted the book so all could see.

Then—and only then—did Akrisa look down. Krshia saw her sister’s face.

Older. Older by two years. Not that much—and yet it was when you grew up together. Still young. A younger Chieftain now, compared to their mother. Silver beads hung in her mane; she had a single earring on the left, a miniature silver fang, the tip marked by ruby. Their mother had worn that.

A variation on the warrior’s patterns on her mane. Like Plains Gnolls, she only wore a type of breast band and loincloth in the hot summer air. Both patterned fabrics, comfortable and beautiful.

She carried a spear—the Silverfang Chieftain’s spear. Appropriately, an enchanted spear, closer to a glaive since it was curved.

She met Krshia’s gaze now, brown eyes deep, and her voice was softer than Krshia’s, but calm as she nodded.

“You are welcome, kin. Present yourself.”

Again, Krshia hesitated. This was not what she had imagined. But she approached, and then, knowing she should, knelt in the grass. She looked at Akrisa—the [Chieftain] was already moving. She touched Krshia’s arm, and gently bade her to rise. Then, she embraced Krshia.

“Kin. You are welcome, my sister. You and the Gnolls of Liscor! And you bring a great gift with you! A gift worthy of the greatest of tribes! Let it be said!”

Her voice rose and she turned with Krshia’s arm in hers, thrusting it up into the air. Then—the Silverfangs with her howled and shouted, throwing themselves forwards to cluster around the magical tome, grabbing the surprised Tkrn, Jerci, hugging them—

All as it should be. But why the ceremony? Krshia turned to Akrisa, and the two shared a look. What should have been them embracing and laughing turned into a single moment of…

“Honored Krshia! Honored Krshia-aunt!

A shape hit Krshia in the leg. She staggered—and saw a little Gnoll racing around her. His fur was darker—a mix of her and Akrisa’s brown and black. He had two black spots around his eyes, such that he looked almost like he had a mask on.

“Cers!”

Akrisa’s pause turned into a note of exasperation. The little Gnoll clung to Krshia’s leg. Then he let go, running about the two.

Mother, this is Honored Aunt Krshia, yes, yes? And that’s a magic book! Are there more! Can I see it? Mother—they smell! Mother—

Cers Silverfang, enough.

The [Chieftain] of the tribe was exasperated as she spoke to her…son? Krshia stared. But she had received news of it. It was just—he was nearly Mrsha’s age! A bit younger, and so full of life and chatter it reminded her of, well, Ekirra. And if memory served—

“Satar. I told you to watch your brother.”

Exasperated, Akrisa turned. And there a blonde Gnoll with the [Shaman]’s staff trotted forwards, looking hugely embarrassed.

“I tried, M—Chieftain. But he escaped me. Because he bit my arm.”

She glowered at Cers. He flattened his ears.

“I did not.”

Satar Silverfang and Cers. Krshia knew one and had heard of the other, though he had not been born last time she visited. Satar had been just a child, and shyly greeted Krshia with an embrace.

“Honored Aunt Krshia.”

“Satar. It is good to see you. And this must be Cers, yes? I am your aunt.”

“Hello! I am Cers!”

He laughed, purely full of energy and excitement. Unrestricted and untamable—like many Gnoll children his age. In fact—possibly worse than a City Gnoll because the second thing he did was dash at the horses.

“Wait, that’s dangerous k—”

Beilmark called out. But the young Gnoll leapt onto the back of one of the horses, swinging himself onto it. Bareback, he rode the surprised animal forwards.

“Mother! Horses!”

Cers, enough!

His ears flattened and he dismounted as his mother looked at him. It was an adult-look, the kind that told a child this was the last straw. Krshia was busy inspecting Satar.

She looked like her father. Krshia wondered if she’d meet him. Cers on the other hand? He was…clearly…not Satar’s fur type. Nor was he from the same father.

The [Shaman] had black fur, and a speckled pattern of russet-red on his tail and ends of his legs and arms. Cers hadn’t inherited that, but Krshia greeted him.

“Shaman Cetrule, it is a great thing to meet you once more.”

“Indeed, Honored Krshia.”

They exchanged a more formal hug, sniffing each other. Krshia was still taken aback at how she’d met her sister. She looked at Akrisa.

“Sister—”

“Chieftain.”

The one word stunned Krshia into silence. Akrisa looked at her warningly, then raised her voice.

“Silverfangs! Back to the camp! Quickly! Put that blanket on the artifact. Shaman Cetrule—can you mask its magic? Even I can feel it upon my fur.”

“I will try, Chieftain. Honored Krshia, did you bring anything to mask it with?”

“We used a blanket…”

“Some mud, then. We did prepare. The mud-blanket!”

Krshia blinked. Suddenly, the Silverfangs were moving. The Plains Gnolls brought something she half-recognized.

It was a ‘mud blanket’, a word for a rather peculiar Gnollish invention. It was, well…mud encased in a holding material. It was usually fabric, woven such that the mud didn’t escape.

Why did you need a blanket of mud? Well, to keep the heat in! It was an insulator that they used in some yurt-type housing that needed to resist super-cold situations or the opposite, heat. You could create steam-baths with it since it really helped keep the moisture in.

However, this was a special one. Krshia saw-smelled silver mixed liberally in with the mud. The heavy fabric was draped over the tome. Instantly—the magical aura faded.

Impressed, Krshia blinked. She turned to Cetrule.

“You came up with that?”

“At the Chieftain’s request. We will use that to hide it. Bring it to my tent. I will safeguard it, until the Chieftain desires it presented.”

Krshia opened her mouth again—then saw her sister look at her. She closed her mouth.

“To the camp, then. We return in celebration! Our kin have returned and our great gift is here!”

The Gnolls cheered. They helped the Gnolls from Liscor mount and return, whooping and howling—before being admonished to keep it a secret. Still, the mood was celebratory.

Only Krshia was confused at how she had been welcomed.

 

—-

 

The Silverfang camp was on the edge of the gathering of the Meeting of Tribes. And Tkrn, swept up by the chaos of it all, saw the Meeting of Tribes at first as a vast, sprawling network of lights.

He understood more as he approached. It was not, at first glance, the largest sprawl of tents and Gnolls imaginable, a chaos of people. It was in fact organized. For a given value of organization.

Each tribe had their own area. Each one with tents, eating, cooking spaces, and so on. Not all were one tribe; some were mixed.

But between each tribe was a generous amount of space. A kind of neutral ground in which other things were set up. Places for smiths to sell goods, activities, communal eating grounds—

Private and public was a good way of looking at it. Obviously as well, there were good places; the areas near the river where the Meeting of Tribes was taking place was already filled with countless tribes—not right at the border, but close enough to make gathering water simple.

Most tribes wanted to be in the center of it, such that the center of this sprawling area was filled and there were only gaps on the outer rim where the latest tribes to arrive were placed. Thus, the worst place to be was the one where you had to walk to both river and to get to the center area.

…Which was where the Silverfang were. In fact, they hadn’t even properly camped.

A thousand Silverfangs had come to greet Krshia and the others and Tkrn had naively assumed that was all there were. He was wrong.

Nearly ten times that number or more were spread out, a vast conglomerate of tents and Gnolls. They looked up as the ones who had greeted him came racing back, howling the good news.

“We will establish our position at last! Now we know our kin are here! Inform the Plain’s Eye and Az’muzarre tribes!”

The [Chieftain]—Akrisa—was shouting. His Chieftain? It was an odd thought. Tkrn was so caught up as he, Jerci, and the other younger Gnolls stared at the kin they had never met or known, that he nearly missed Krshia turning.

“Tell the Plain’s Eye and Az’muzarre tribes?”

“Az’muzarre has organized this, Honored Krshia.”

Chieftain Akrisa spoke—a bit stiffly for sisters, Tkrn thought. He saw Krshia hesitated.

“Of course. But Plain’s Eye?”

“They are forming a map of all the tribes. They would want to know. In fact, I have not yet met with their Chieftain. I was holding off until you arrived. They will want to meet us.”

“I see…”

There was a second layer running to the camp that Tkrn did not quite understand. He did not, but Beilmark looked up and blinked.

“Plain’s Eye must be even more powerful if we’re presenting ourselves to them. Ah, we’re back not a minute and it’s like we never left, huh, Raekea?”

She sighed. Tkrn turned to her.

“What do you mean, Beilmark?”

He saw the Senior Guardswoman frown.

“It’s Honored Beilmark, Tkrn. We should have remembered—but it has been nearly a decade. Call me that unless we’re around friends. Raekea too.”

“Do I have to do that, dear?”

Her husband wondered aloud. Raekea laughed.

“They make an exception for outsiders, Jekss. But—it’s tribe matters. We should have explained—”

“What’s there to explain? Just be polite. We’re ‘City Gnolls’ these days. Did you hear that introduction? Kin from afar.

One of the older Gnolls sighed. The Gnolls of Liscor murmured, but quietly. Tkrn blinked. He began to understand that greeting was more than mere tradition.

 

—-

 

“What was that, Akrisa? We have been sisters for four decades and you did not acknowledge me until I presented our gift?”

The Chieftain of the Silverfang tribe lived in a tent far bigger than Krshia’s apartment. Contrary to what many might think—you could build some fantastic ‘temporary’ structures with bags of holding. Krshia could have fit three apartments of hers into this space and had room to spare.

A vast, domed ceiling, thick walls with the mud blanket insulators that kept sound out—all enchanted of course. She recognized a [Shaman]’s markings against insects on the walls, one against prying, and one more for cooling.

Three marks—an extravagant use of power for all but a [Chieftain]. Each one took a toll on the [Shaman] to upkeep, however slight. Well, Silverfang was plenty large enough to support the spell easily and perhaps it was one of the other [Shamans] who had cast it.

Thirty minutes had passed since the welcome. The other Gnolls were in camp, getting settled, being welcomed.

Krshia was in Akrisa’s tent. She would sleep here—the Gnoll families did. In fact, there were rooms within the huge tent, formed by walls of cloth.

Luxury beyond Krshia’s apartment. But she was too upset to appreciate it. She turned to Akrisa—the [Chieftain] had put down her spear and was sitting.

Silkap. I have some. You must be hungry. Silkap and bread?”

Akrisa looked past Krshia. The Gnoll’s furious glare did nothing. Krshia folded her arms.

“Yes. Please. We only had brunch.”

“There’s a jar there. I’ll get some bread.”

The [Chieftain] rose—rather—she got someone else to get some freshly baked flatbread. Krshia had already undone the jar and put a huge amount of the Gnollish spread in a bowl. She was glaring as Akrisa reappeared. Krshia grabbed the bread, tore a piece off, and held it up sarcastically.

This kin from afar thanks the Chieftain for the food. We share it as Silverfang alike.

She pasted some silkap onto it and bit. The fact that it tasted really good after her long trip didn’t help. Hot bread, silkap tasting of meat, some chive, strong with lard like their mother made it—mm. She masticated furiously.

Rather than rise to the bait like she normally would, Akrisa just helped herself.

“That’s quite good. You should say that tonight when we eat in public.”

The City Gnoll stopped mid-chew. Her eyes narrowed.

“What? Akrisa, you are tempting my patience.”

“I am, yes? Well, that is terrible, no? For kin—much less sisters—I should have given you an embrace. A kiss and welcomed you without ceremony or gift! How could I?”

The [Chieftain] murmured softly. Krshia nodded furious agreement.

“You humiliated me in front of my people.”

“Hrm. Your Gnoll-people. Your Liscor-Gnolls. Your…City Gnolls.”

“We are of Liscor, now! But we are still Silverfang! What has gotten into you to make you so distant! What’s wrong with you? You should be rejoicing! I have brought a great gift! I—”

Krshia was snatching another piece of bread when Akrisa’s paw moved. She reached out and, before Krshia could dodge, snagged Krshia’s ear.

Between two fingers. Krshia yelped.

“What are you—”

Her older sister twisted her ear.

“You little brat. You were always like this. Why are you so mean, Akrisa? Why do you not hug me? What happened to the dozens of spellbooks we sent money for you to buy, hrm? What about the [Fireball] you told me blew up our gift? Why are you three days late?

“Ow! Let go of—”

Akrisa twisted her younger sister’s ear harder. Krshia yelped. And she had forgotten.

Firstly, that her sister had never been less temperamental than she herself could be. Second? She was an older sister. And some things never changed.

“You come here late, and you think I can just run over on all fours and lick your cheek? Twist my tail, Krshia! I am a [Chieftain] now! I have to establish you are returning and make you follow some traditions or let half the tribe accuse you of being favored! Which you are! You are mad that I made you show everyone the gift our tribe has labored for ten years to bring after you said it was exploded?

“I told you we got a new one!”

“And there were weeks of the entire tribe fearing we had lost all! For that matter—you act like there is nothing wrong? What happened to the warriors I sent to you, hm, Krshia? What happened…to Brunkr?

Abruptly, the fingers let go. Krshia leaned away—but suddenly her anger was gone.

“Oh.”

Oh?

Akrisa looked at her, almost disbelieving. Krshia hung her head.

“I—”

“If you say you forgot, your cousin will kill you. And she will have to find a way to turn you into a zombie, because I will kill you first.”

Akrisa’s eyes flashed. Krshia raised her paws.

“I did not forget, sister. I would never. It is just—another important person was lost to us recently. That is why we were delayed. We were grieving.”

The older Gnoll’s face flickered. Abruptly, her ire went out and she sat down.

“More death? Another Gnoll…? No? Either way—that city seems to bring death. So many. Not that the plains are ever safer. But Brunkr…Menoa mourns. I made her stay. But she will want to speak with you.”

“I brought his ashes and belongings.”

“Good.”

They sat once more. This time, Krshia didn’t take the silkap. She had…forgotten. Somehow, Erin had wiped the memory of it.

“Warriors to aid you—killed by Gazi Pathseeker before she rejoined the King of Destruction. Brunkr—lost to a Named Adventurer who turned out to be false. Regrika Blackpaw. Our kin, eaten by our foe thought lost to time, lost in battle with monsters from the dungeon. This is what I hear, Krshia. I have feared for you for the last year.”

Akrisa spoke now, directly to Krshia. The younger Gnoll hung her head.

“I sent word each time. But—it must have been harder to hear it.”

“It was. Time and again? Six times, the tribe asked whether your going was a mistake. Whether it would be best to travel to Liscor to bring you all back, rather than to leave you in what seemed to us to be death and danger. What is happening there?”

“Much. A dungeon, a…there was an inn. I cannot explain it, Akrisa. It is a longer story. And a sadder one. The Human I wanted to bring? She is…gone.”

Akrisa’s gaze darkened.

“More sadness. Krshia—”

She reached out. Krshia guarded her ear, but this time Akrisa just drew her into a one-armed embrace.

“I am sorry, Krshia. I am. We have much to say. It is just that I could not welcome you with open arms. Not after what was lost. You had to present yourself, and even then, I did not make you ask or wait upon my judgment. Some wanted that. If only to preserve my power.”

“What? Preserve it? Are that many trying to unseat you as Chieftain?”

Krshia blinked. Akrisa let go of Krshia and gave her a crooked smile.

“Aside from the usual malcontents, you mean, yes? Only one. And she sits across from me.”

Krshia’s mouth fell open in denial. Akrisa waved at it as she took some silkap and bread.

“You have done too well. A year before? I could have welcomed you, the loss and accidents aside. Now? Councilwoman Krshia, who sits on a Drake city’s Council comes here. Some wonder if you are a Chieftain of the Liscor Tribe instead of a sister to the [Chieftain].”

“I would never—”

“I know. But they said it. That should have quieted them down. Just do say something before we eat.”

Krshia stared at her sister. She saw Akrisa sigh. Then look up. Unbidden, but in unison, the two began to chuckle.

“I’ve been gone too long from the tribes. Not a day back and it is all the same.”

Akrisa’s chuckle was more rueful.

“A bit. Some things have changed, but I did not upset the old ways of the tribe. Ah, Krshia. It has been too long. Sit. Tell me what needs telling before Cers scampers in. He will want to know all the stories—but some things must be told only to me, mustn’t they? Well, perhaps tonight with Cetrule.”

Krshia relaxed. Now—now she felt like she was back. The uncomfortable welcome began to make sense. And her own guilt? She remembered it.

Brunkr. It felt too long for how shortly ago it had been. She ducked her head—but more silkap was offered—and Akrisa got up.

“Some cheese! I have goat’s…unless Cers took it to snack on. Aha! There it is.”

She produced some crumbling cheese—and then a brie for contrast. And some baked yellat, and some wine. It was hardly the most expensive spread, but it was filling and tasty. The two properly broke bread now.

“There’s too much to say, Akrisa. Erin—I can tell you all her story. For it is a good one. But enough to let me say that I am a Councilwoman thanks to her. And that Liscor is a city with its own troubles. Vast ones. The Antinium…”

“Madness. The thought of you living with them under you? I still shudder.”

Akrisa shook her head. Krshia sniffed.

“They are quite nice. In fact—they have names. They are a people now, a proper one. Perhaps even allies.”

“You must be joking, no?”

“Not at all. But that is for you and Cetrule—even Honored Gnolls to hear. Let me think. For us two? Well…I am a bit mixed on how I feel, but I am a [Royal Shopkeeper] now. Level 33. And I have some interesting Skills there. A Level 11 [Councilwoman]—oh, and I leveled up in [Shaman] after all these years.”

Akrisa’s eyes widened.

Royal? How did that come about?”

“Part of the story. I met a [Princess]—there is one living in Liscor. I did not write to you of that. But it is my hope we meet her, when we summon Mrsha.”

“The Doombringer? You wrote of that, Krshia. The [Longstrider Scout] I sent—Vvrow? He thought you were mad.”

She had sent Vvrow to coordinate things. He had been impressed by Krshia’s class—but perhaps that was one of the reasons Akrisa had had trouble. Krshia sniffed.

“White Gnoll-child. Not a Doombringer. I intend to prove that to the tribes.”

“Good luck. I cannot believe it myself—but I will listen! Do not give me that glower, Krshia.”

Akrisa took another sip of wine. Krshia sighed.

“She is a good child. A [Mage]! She learned magic from the book, Akrisa. It can be done!”

The Gnoll [Chieftain] coughed.

“Stop telling me things while I drink, Krshia. It is going to come out my nose. So many developments in one year! Because of that Human?”

Krshia’s face fell. Still—she waited as Akrisa took a longer draft of wine.

“I’m also sleeping with that Drake I wrote to you of, Lism. On the Council.”

Akrisa sprayed wine onto the floor and her fur. Krshia laughed so hard she fell over. Her older sister threw the empty cup at her.

“You little—you are mad! Mad and—Lism? I thought you wanted him dead!”

“Things change. Oh—and by the way. If you want me to get you better wine, give me a barrel and I’ll give it back to you after a month or two. [Appreciating in Value] is my Level 30 consolidation Skill. I have some gifts from Liscor that have increased in value in my care.”

Akrisa’s jaw dropped.

“What? You must be joking with me.”

“Not at all. Here, let me just…”

Krshia went to her bag of holding and belongings. She reached in and fished out the first of the gifts she had brought from Liscor. She handed something to Akrisa. It was a bottle of wine.

“I bought this for barely a few silver on bargain. I didn’t taste this one, but I had a second bottle of the same and it was the cheapest, foulest wine I could think of. It’s been in my care since I got the Skill, about four months now.”

Her sister eyed the label and cheap glass.

“It looks like it’s not worth the cost of the bottle.”

“Well? Let’s have a try.”

The Chieftain of the Silverfang tribe gave Krshia a long look.

“I’m reminded you were a trickster, Krshia. If this is one of those pranks like the time you covered our old [Shaman]’s tail in sap…”

“You wound me, Akrisa. I’m dignified in Liscor. People respect me.”

“I’ll bet. Well—”

They poured a cup. Akrisa sniffed suspiciously and Krshia held her breath. She hadn’t opened the bottle, and the uncorking made her heart flutter. But the first sniff made both Gnolls do a double-take.

“That can’t be right. It smells like—”

Akrisa dipped her tongue into the cup. She did a little taste and her eyes went round. Krshia inhaled a proper bouquet. She took a sip and gasped.

“Oh, that is good.

“Marvelous. But it’s—”

The two looked at each other. Then they both began to laugh. Krshia chortled and Akrisa took a huge draft and smacked her lips. Then she began to guffaw.

Cers! Cers, where are you? Come here and have a drink of your aunt’s ‘wine’!

She laughed as she poured a cup of the finest grape juice Krshia had ever had into a cup. It tasted like it was made of excellent grapes, but—Krshia was laughing as the tent flaps opened and a Gnoll raced through.

“Grape juice? Where? It smells so good!

The little Gnoll could detect the quality even more than they. Krshia scratched at her head, bemused.

“It must have been closer to grape juice than wine! Either that or…? I don’t know how my Skill works!”

“Have you tested it? Sip, Cers! We’ll share this at dinner with the others. It’s the product of your aunt’s hard work!”

“It’s so goooood! Do they have this in Liscor all the time? It’s so tasty! My tongue feels like it’s sparkling!”

Cers took a sip, and then rolled about on the floor happily. It was such an innocent thing Krshia laughed and felt her heart gladdening for the sight. She talked as the boy raced out with the cup to show his friends.

“I have tested it! Kept it secret, mainly—but the key is that it takes time. A week is barely enough time to notice much! Mind you—I have tested it.”

“And?”

“It works on two objects at most. There is a…a limit to the expense I think it can reach. And as of yet, it does not work on magical objects.”

“Ah, these limits make sense. And you are only Level 30.”

Krshia nodded. She was an odd Gnoll, she would admit herself. She had reached Level 30 by consolidating her [Trader] class—but she had still achieved it in ten years of coming to Liscor. And she was a [Huntress], a [Shaman], and a [Councilwoman] now. All parts of her life.

“So we cannot give you magical weapons to keep. What about quantity?”

The Gnoll winked.

“Well, I had tested it on smaller objects since people ask questions—it has to be where I sleep, you see? In my actual care, not my shop. But if you would like to roll a barrel of something into my tent…”

“People will think City Gnolls drink wine like water! I will have it done. Then what did you try it on, besides this juice?”

Akrisa chuckled. Krshia shrugged.

“Since I had this maturing for four months, only one thing at a time. I experimented. I put some grit in butter—in a week, it was all gone. Two weeks and it was good butter. Then I tried it with a rock.”

“And?”

“Nothing. It was a rock. I think it has to have actual value. I gave that up, and then I did water.”

Water?

Akrisa snorted. Krshia held up a paw.

“Listen. It was fresh after three weeks. I could swear it was like a minor stamina potion, yes? Excellent water. I could make money from doing nothing! Although…it’s not much.”

“Amazing. And you got this Skill because a [Princess] helped you? Here I work for my Skills and I feel mine is suddenly less worthwhile than yours! I can protect us from monsters with [Tribe: Warding of Safety]—all but the worst! But yours is so fun.

The [Chieftain] huffed. Krshia gave her a little smile.

“I suppose it is in our natures. You became Chieftain, after all. It is not a ‘fun’ job. And I…”

She stopped, the cup halfway to her lips. Akrisa sighed.

“You had to leave. Well—you have done well, Krshia.”

She smiled, and so did Krshia. Ten years ago, Krshia, [Trader] for the Silverfangs, had proposed the idea to the new Chieftain of the Silverfang Tribe, Akrisa. She had been granted the Gnolls and funds to go to Liscor and try this great venture. Because her mother, the old Chieftain, had refused her. And because…Krshia did not fit into the tribe. Because, she had told her sister then, she needed something else.

Because being a Plains Gnoll was not for me. Krshia sipped quietly, savoring the taste. Soon, Cers would race back in, with his sister, and she would greet Akrisa’s new partner. Say her apologies to Brunkr’s mother. Mourn and bear her burdens and respectfully show deference to her sister.

She was willing to do all of it. She was glad to be here, now. But it reminded Krshia—

This was not her home. There were reasons she’d left the tribes. She would always be a Silverfang. But not all that Plains Gnolls did was right. So she felt. But for now, she drank grape juice and looked at her sister’s family. Ah—

She was just a bit jealous.

 

—-

 

Tkrn did not know what he had been led to expect since he had no expectations. So he couldn’t really complain about the Silverfang tribe.

Not that he would. But if he did—

It was just a bit weird. That was all.

The introduction to the Silverfang tribe hadn’t been that odd to Tkrn, although he’d noticed the older Gnolls eying each other during the ritual greetings. But soon they were in camp and Tkrn had a real welcome.

Gnolls were not afraid to put paws on each other and one practically dragged Tkrn off to give him a celebratory drink. And again! No complaints!

Tkrn felt odd drinking by day since a [Guard] was always sober on duty, but the Velrusk Claw was a fine, more savory mead. Also, purple. But he liked it and it wasn’t as astringent, which Gnoll palates shied from in large. Drakes loved Firebreath Whiskey for the same reason. Tkrn could only stand oozing from every pore for so long after each shot.

“You’re from the city, yes? What’s it like? Do those Drakes give you a hard time? You brought the magic book—tell us about that—no, this dungeon first!”

“Is Liscor like Oteslia? Smaller? Did Honored Krshia bring anything else back besides the magic tome? What happened to the other spellbooks?”

“Guardsman. So do you get [Warrior]’s Skills or is there some difference in class? Show me your best one!”

It was like being at a family reunion, only, he was the center of attention rather than the cousin expected to greet everyone and not get in the way of the adults. Tkrn rather enjoyed that.

He also enjoyed meeting Krshia’s family—he didn’t know there were two children of Chieftain Akrisa! Tkrn memorized names dutifully.

There was the [Shaman], Cetrule, who had…not married [Chieftain] Akrisa. But they were a couple so it was a technicality? Let’s see. Satar was a half-sister to Cers, the little Mrsha-age cub who kept running around offering grape juice to everyone.

Satar was a [Shaman] in training, or a new one. Cers was clearly beloved—if rascally as most Gnolls his age. Everyone seemed to respect Akrisa, which was good.

No problems! The only issues were when Krshia brought out an urn of ashes and the objects of…Tkrn saw her approach an older Gnoll. The Gnoll took the urn, the belongings, heard Krshia out, and then punched her.

Brunkr’s mother. Also one of Krshia’s cousins. Half the tribe stirred and Akrisa held up a paw. Some of the [Warriors] began to move, but Menoa was already walking away.

“Whew. If they had to drag her off, it would have been worse.”

Raekea breathed. Her husband, Jekss, was coughing out his drink.

“That wasn’t bad enough? She nearly broke Krshia’s jaw in front of everyone!”

“Her son was killed while under Krshia’s care. Shouldn’t she be angry?”

The Drake blinked. One of the Plains Gnolls sniffed at him. They regarded Jekss much like the Gnolls from Liscor.

Outsiders. Curious and in the case of the other Silverfangs, beloved, but strange. Tkrn saw Krshia rub at her jaw. She didn’t immediately heal it either, although it was gone by dinner.

That was uh, interesting. But the real interesting stuff? It came after dinner.

 

—-

 

Dinner was a huge affair. It took place over hours since not all the tribe would eat at once. Tkrn listened to Akrisa’s speech—and Krshia thanked her as kin once more, which seemed to be approved by everyone.

Silverfang food wasn’t as outlandish as anything Tkrn might have expected—again, if he’d done that. Because, obviously, Silverfangs comprised most of the Gnolls in Liscor and they had brought their cooking with them!

There was more of an emphasis on dried foods, however. A bit more dried meats rather than fresh cut you could buy at markets, and not so many vegetables that couldn’t be easily acquired. The Silverfang tribe transported their food, so they didn’t have the luxury of warehouses with preservation spells.

“Our [Shamans] can delay the food rot, but we don’t sit and grow food. Only the Greenpaw tribe and a few others stay in one place.”

Dekava laughed in amusement. She was eating with Tkrn, Beilmark, and some of the others; the Gnolls of Liscor were spread out, to socialize with their kindred. Dekava had attached herself to Tkrn, Beilmark, and Jerci and her parents. Not out of sheer politeness or the Chieftain’s command, either. She was clearly interested in Tkrn and Beilmark and Jerci as [Guards]—it was she who had pestered them to show their Skills off.

Tkrn was uh, politely, average for his level and age. Which meant he was a Level 16 [Guard]. Not exactly impressive. His best Skill?

[Fast Leg Sweep]. A variation on the traditional [Leg Sweep] Skill he’d gotten at Level 10. It meant he performed the Skill…fast.

He could take down even a Senior Guard if they weren’t careful and it was definitely useful in a scuffle! However, it wasn’t uh, the ability to strike three times simultaneously or a [Blade Art].

Dekava had given Tkrn a polite smile before demonstrating her [Hunter-Warrior]’s ability—[Pinpoint Strike]. She could place any arrow or blade wherever she wanted once. It was considered similar to [Unerring Throw] or Skills like that, but superior in accuracy, if limited in uses.

She wasn’t that higher-level than he was. Only…Level 19. Soon to be Level 20. And she was a year younger. Tkrn was at least glad Beilmark had agreed to show off one of her Skills.

“Well, how do you get your food then? You can’t buy all of it.”

The Gnoll [Warrior] bared her teeth in a grin—then realized he was serious.

“We raise herds! Most Gnoll tribes do. The plains have lots of food. Just not for us. Sheep for clothing, goats for milk—cows if you can stand herding them—horses to travel, pigs for meat—all of it for meat in the end.”

Indeed, it was meat and dairy as much was vegetables. Tkrn chewed appreciatively; Gnolls were not meant to live on legumes alone.

By the same token though—fruits were a delicacy. Which was why Krshia’s grape juice gift was so welcome. Tkrn wondered how much she’d paid for it. He hadn’t gotten any since they had brought it, but it smelled heavenly.

“We do get fruits now and then. From Oteslia. We trade with the cities or other tribes for things we don’t have. But we stick to our lands. Where the silver mines are. We can’t leave them anymore; we left two thirds of the tribe there.”

“Two thirds?

Tkrn looked around at the vast sea of Gnolls. But then he remembered; Liscor was far larger than the Silverfang tribe these days, even with their full numbers. It was just that they were all in one place!

“It’s rare for them too, Tkrn.”

Jerci’s father leaned over as he snagged another piece of gristle, his favorite. He chewed happily and spoke while chewing.

“Normally, Gnolls work and carry out their tasks and don’t see the entire tribe except for special occasions like this. I grew up in a smaller camp and only saw all the Silverfangs once or twice a year. Some tribes send younger Gnolls to work in cities, and so on.”

“Hmm. Those days were nice. Sleeping wherever you wanted, always seeing something new, hunting…that was how we met!”

Jerci’s mother snuggled closer to her father. The rookie [Guard] looked horrified.

“I never should have come here. Gah!”

She stood up to get a drink. Tkrn laughed and saw Dekava nearly falling over. They looked at each other. The Plains Gnolls really weren’t that different from City Gnolls!

“Honored Beilmark! Will you show us your Skills?”

Before Tkrn could say something, Dekava leapt up. Beilmark groaned.

“I just ate. But I suppose since we’ve all settled in…one time.”

Some of the younger Gnolls looked around excitedly. They clustered around and from the Chieftain’s fire, Akrisa and Krshia glanced their way. They watched as Beilmark massaged her back.

“I can put on armor if you like, Honored Beilmark! What shall we do? Spar? Or will you demonstrate if it’s dangerous?”

“I’m not putting on armor after days of riding in it. You can use your spear or dagger or attack me with bare hands if you want, Dekava. I’ll show you my Skill.”

Beilmark sighed. She wasn’t reaching for her weapon though, and Tkrn knew she could use a number at will. Dekava noticed it too. Her eyes narrowed slightly.

“Won’t you draw a weapon, Honored Beilmark?”

“Nope.”

The Gnoll woman smiled slightly. Tkrn saw Dekava’s ears flatten slightly.

“I am a full warrior, Honored Beilmark. I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I was told [Guards] of Liscor were only half as prone to combat as a [Warrior].”

There was a murmur and ooh of laughter from the watching Gnolls. Tkrn frowned—but Beilmark just smiled.

“That’s certainly true, Dekava. My job is to keep the peace, not fight all the time. Although I do both. I can tell if you’re guilty, and stop you if you steal something. But I wouldn’t want you to take me lightly. Go on.”

She spread her paws. The younger Gnoll frowned as her friends and onlookers laughed. She hesitated—and then grabbed for her spear on the ground. She whirled it up and thrust at Beilmark.

Tkrn made a sound, but it was butt-first, not spearhead. It was still the kind of blow that could crack a rib if—

Beilmark knocked the tip wide with one arm and stepped in. Which wasn’t necessarily good because Dekava was already moving her spear up to clip Beilmark’s j—

The Senior Guardswoman touched Dekava and the Plains Gnoll was suddenly lying on the ground. She blinked up at the fading sky as everyone gasped.

“Wh—what—”

Beilmark knelt on her chest as Dekava struggled to rise.

“And you are under arrest. This would be where I take away your weapon and restrain you. Guardsman Tkrn, see to the criminal.”

Tkrn stood up, grinning, as Dekava struggled—but Beilmark had her pinned. The older Gnoll let go and grinned as the others demanded to know what she’d done!

“[Immobilizing Touch]. Locks up someone for just a few seconds depending on their level. Relc barely stops. But if you want to end a [Thief]-chase…”

She walked back to her seat. Jerci’s parents were applauding her and laughing. Dekava got up, flushing.

“But that’s not a [Warrior]’s skill you use in battle!”

“It got you.”

Beilmark was unruffled. Dekava was spitting mad, but Tkrn was delighted by the rebuttal from one of the Watch’s best [Guards].

Skills and perspectives. It was going well, and Dekava was pestering Beilmark for a rematch with a group of the new [Warriors] of the Silverfang tribe when Krshia stood up.

“Kin! We are honored to be here. And it is my honor to return to my tribe. By the Chieftain’s will—”

She nodded to Akrisa, and her older sister inclined her head with a slight smile.

“—we bring more than the great gift for the Meeting of Tribes! We also have smaller tokens from our city. We will share them now.”

“Oh, the gifts! Jerci, get ours.”

Her mother called out. Tkrn brightened up and Dekava’s head swiveled. The Gnolls of Liscor had brought gifts—tons of them, in fact! They’d packed their saddlebags and bags of holding with things from home.

Things the Silverfang tribe needed or personal tokens of affection. Apparently, they should share them now, so Tkrn dug out some of his.

He’d been given some money by Krshia and bought items the other Gnolls had said would please. Tkrn hadn’t been sure…but after their brief chat, he understood the value of his gifts more now.

Whetstones! Good ones, too!”

“Straight from Esthelm. I know it’s nothing fancy, but they’ll put an edge on any steel you have.”

Beilmark was passing hers out to the other [Warriors]. Dekava crowed at the high-quality equipment—better than what Tkrn owned. He grinned.

“Will you take a gift from me, Dekava?”

She spun, and then looked at him quizzically.

“What is this?

He gingerly—very gingerly—proffered one of his gifts.

“Please don’t drop it. And don’t open it either! It’s…a weapon.”

She stared at the glowing green liquid in the glass jar. A little black fleck floated in it—a dead fly.

“What is…this? Not a potion.”

She dubiously inspected the glass jar as the others clustered around, admiring the glow.

“It’s acid. Don’t drop it! You throw it at a monster and they uh, melt.”

Dekava nearly dropped it and everyone dove back as she stared at the acid jar.

“This is a powerful weapon! This is your gift?”

She looked at him admiringly. Tkrn coughed. He felt he needed to be honest.

“You can actually buy them cheaper than you think. I also have some oil for blades, and um…”

Besides the other acid jars he’d bought from The Wandering Inn, he had oil for maintaining steel weapons, and the last thing he was sure the Silverfangs didn’t have. Dekava practically grabbed the long, flat box and sniffed it—then sneezed again.

“Another [Alchemist] thing? What is this?”

“Matches. You take them out, strike them and—you have fire! I thought it would be useful for someone without flint or tinder.”

“I should have thought of that myself. I’d forgotten they were cheap. Good work, Tkrn.”

Beilmark gave him an approving look as Dekava experimentally tried out a match. She struck it too slow the first time, but the second time it lit on the red stuff on the box’s side. She nearly dropped it into the match box, but then waved it about!

“It’s so fast! Faster than a flint and tinder and—hot! What is this? From Pallass? It’s new!”

“Don’t let it burn your fur! No, an [Alchemist] in Liscor made it! It was all the rage a while ago.”

Tkrn puffed out his chest, delighted at the reaction. Then he saw the other Gnolls storming over.

“Tkrn! Friend Tkrn, may I have a box?”

“No, me! I have to scout out and I’m sick of trying to start a fire when it’s wet and raining!”

“I want an acid jar! Great friend Tkrn—”

Amused, he was passing out his collection of goods when Dekava and the other younger Gnolls squabbling over his awesome gifts abruptly fell silent.

“Those are useful tools, both. Our cousins bring back much of use, Dekava. Perhaps it is so useful you would consider letting the older [Hunters] and [Warriors] inspect them?”

Tkrn’s head turned. He saw one of the older Gnolls, a senior [Warrior] by his dye and well, age, step forwards. He expected Dekava to argue. Her face twisted—but after only a second, she proffered both acid jar and matches.

“I would be delighted, Great Warrior.”

The other Gnolls who had fought so avidly over both acid jars and matches turned. Instantly, they offered their gifts to the other senior [Hunters] and [Warriors].

Tkrn’s mouth opened but he felt an elbow hit him in the ribs at once. Beilmark. He closed his mouth as he saw something peculiar take place.

The older Gnolls liked his gifts as much as the younger ones. So much so that they instantly put them in their bags of holding if they had them, or took a match box, remarking how handy it was if you didn’t have a [Shaman]. The younger [Warriors] looked longingly, but then they began to fight over the whetstones and blade oil—those that were left.

What was that? Tkrn looked at Beilmark. She beckoned him aside and whispered very quietly.

“More honored Gnolls get preference. Dekava gave up her gifts for the tribe. It’s customary. Don’t worry—she got something in return.”

What, exactly? But Tkrn already saw the Gnoll whom Dekava had given her items to, advising her on how not to wear down the whetstone and her smiling.

“Status. Now that brings me back.”

Jerci’s father had stopped smiling as much. He chewed on the same bit of gristle as he watched the younger ones fight over what was left. Tkrn looked at him.

“Mister Orrl…is that normal?”

“In the tribes, lad? You see that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I left.”

The Gnoll spoke more like a city person than one of the Plains Gnolls. And Tkrn remembered—he made axles. Not a useless occupation here, but more of a city thing. The Gnoll stretched out.

“Let’s say you’re a [Hunter] and you find a dead adventurer’s scabbard or something. Enchanted. Well—if you were in Liscor, I’d say that’s your luck. Here? The right thing to do is to show it to the Chieftain or [Shaman] or a senior, Honored Gnoll. Maybe they let you keep it if you’re lucky, but chances are you give it to the best Gnoll who needs it.”

“Or most senior.”

His wife murmured just as quietly. Orrl nodded.

“But you’ll be credited for it! Your status in the tribe goes up, especially if you give something good. And someday you’ll be in that spot so…that’s the tribe for you. Tribe first, Gnoll second.”

Tkrn blinked. His first thought was: well, that sucks. But he wisely kept it to himself.

 

—-

 

The second peculiarity of Gnollish culture came moments thereafter. Gnolls were drinking now, and a second wave assailing the cooking fires and eating merrily—and talking about the gifts!

“A blacksmith’s puzzle? You shouldn’t have.”

“Oh, it’s just this little thing. You can experiment with how to solve it…”

“Really, you shouldn’t have. How much did this cost compared to those matches, say? Or that lovely cookbook? Thank you so much…”

The point was that most people were happy with their gifts. Also, that Tkrn’s second-cousin Zekoon couldn’t pick out presents.

Another Gnoll waved something at Orrl.

“Er—Orrl. What is this? A cheap club? Couldn’t you even add metal to it? And what are these? I can’t use them in my sling and they’re not much better than our balls. Even our young have some enchanted ones. As for these…gloves…”

Orrl grinned as he threw an arm around the perturbed Gnoll.

“My friend, you will enjoy this. Have no fear! Have you ever heard of…?”

Tkrn was grinning as he saw Orrl begin to explain. Then his face fell as he remembered why the Gnoll knew of that game at all. And then his ears perked up as he saw the first drinkers begin talking loudly around one of the fires.

“I’m glad our cousins enjoy Liscor enough to live there for a decade. But I’ve been to Drake cities too. And you know what my experience is? It’s being called ‘dog’.”

Tkrn’s head turned as a Gnoll groused to the others. Some of the City Gnolls were blinking.

“Dog?”

“It’s Drakes. Not only do they go to you first if someone’s stolen something, they’re always saying it. The bad ones don’t even lower their voices. ‘Smells like a dog’, or ‘untamed savage’. You know, I once worked under a [Foreman] and after a day of hard work, he actually said ‘good dog’ to me. That’s what it’s like living in a Drake city.”

The [Guardsman] actually laughed at that. The listeners turned to him as he trotted over.

“Wait, are you serious? That can’t be true.”

The Gnoll complaining had slightly ragged fur, and looked rather upset. He must have had a bad day; burrs were still tangled in his fur.

“You think I’m joking?

It was a large group around the fire, and their heads turned to Tkrn and the speaker. The [Guardsman] raised his paws.

“No! I mean—it sounds incredible.”

“That’s never happened to you in Liscor? Not once? Your fellow [Guards] don’t talk behind your back?”

“Nope.”

Tkrn couldn’t even imagine it. The other Gnoll scoffed, but Tkrn scoffed at the idea. Zevara would string that person out to dry!

“No shopkeepers or people on the street?”

“Not a one. They’ve done stupid stuff before. There are plenty of Drakes who’ve had issues with us—well, before the Humans came along. Now they mostly hate them. But we don’t stand for it.”

“How do you mean, don’t stand for it?”

A curious question from Dekava. Tkrn shrugged.

“We just boycott the shop or business. There was a problem with Wishdrinks not letting in as many Gnoll groups. So we all stopped going and they changed their minds. Well, the new manager did. I’ve never had what you describe, mister…?”

“It’s Serral. And you must be exaggerating. I know what other cities are like. Ever heard of Paworkers?

Tkrn had, but only recently. He spread his paws out.

“That’s some cities. It’s not what living in Liscor is like. Believe me, it’s fine.”

He told the other Gnolls, trying to inject some reality into the rant. He didn’t mean to offend Serral—but realized that was what he was doing.

The other Gnoll bristled.

“Oh, so Liscor is perfect, then? Tell me, until recently how many Gnolls were on your Council?”

“Well…”

“And how many Watch Captains were Gnolls? Has there ever been a Gnoll Watch Captain?”

“No, but we have a good one. So no one’s lining up for the job…”

“And if they did, would they get chosen, or would a Drake be chosen first? For that matter, if your precious city is so good, why haven’t I heard of other Gnolls having wonderful experiences in theirs? Who here has been to Drake cities and had that kind of experience?”

The Gnoll looked around angrily. No one raised their paws, although some of Liscor’s Gnolls looked uncomfortable.

“Maybe it’s one city where you think everything’s fine. But is it really? Or do you just not see what’s wrong?”

He challenged Tkrn. The [Guardsman] hesitated.

“No, I admit there’s things that are wrong. It’s just—not all cities are bad—”

“And you have been to more than me, yes?”

“Well, I’ve been to Human cities—”

“Where there are tons of Gnolls, yes?”

Something was happening. The group around the fire, including Dekava, was growing, and Gnolls were nodding or talking to each other as Serral spoke. Tkrn had invoked something by accident. Not knowing the rules, he tried to reply.

“Look, Liscor is really nice, Serral. The Drakes are kind, nice. Some other cities might be bad, I don’t know.”

“You speak kindly, Tkrn. But you are naïve. Young.”

Serral scoffed back. He turned, and he was addressing the listening crowd around the fire as much as Tkrn. He took a swallow from his drink and went on.

“Maybe the only reason Liscor is so good is that there are enough Gnolls to force the Drakes to treat us civilly. Maybe if there were not so many Silverfangs and so organized with Honored Krshia, we would see exactly how ‘nice’ the Liscorian Drakes are. What I experience is tolerance at best, and incivility and insults and suspicion most of all. But why trust my opinion, no? I’ve lived and travelled to more cities than young Tkrn here…but that’s all.

More agreement. Tkrn felt himself shrinking as he struggled for a response and found his tongue wasn’t quick enough, especially with the food and drink in him.

Someone came to his rescue before Serral could go on. Tkrn jumped as he felt a paw on his shoulder. He looked left—

And there was Krshia. She cut off Serral.

“You say that despite not having been to Liscor, Serral. It seems there is a lack of knowledge on both sides, yes? And I have been to more cities than both of you combined. And am older than both! What if I told you that Liscor truly was good?”

The angry Gnoll turned. There was a murmur and Tkrn felt Krshia nudge him back. Suddenly—it was Serral and Krshia. They were…

Debating. Tkrn saw the crowd’s heads swing back and forth, listening. Now hundreds of Gnolls were listening from afar as Serral scoffed.

“And was Liscor so wonderful as Tkrn described, Honored Krshia? Or was it just as I said, and Gnolls had to fight for their rights?”

“No. It was not always so nice.”

Krshia held Serral’s gaze as she dipped her head. He smiled—but she undercut him with her next sentence.

“However, Tkrn is not wrong. He speaks from his only viewpoint, which is just as honest as he says. Liscor was uncomfortable with us when we first came. But it was not force that made the citizens warm to us, but that we were there and they grew used to us. Just as they grew used to Antinium. Because both species mixed and mingled. Perhaps the problem with other cities is that they only know Gnolls who come and go, not settle in numbers.”

A second murmur, of intrigue. Serral frowned.

“And why should we, if they treat us so?”

“Perhaps because Gnolls of the plains sometimes come to Drake cities with as much disdain for them as they do for us, Serral. Or do you show up to your job smiling?”

Polite laughter. Krshia waved a paw as he began to growl.

“I am not saying that you are wrong, Serral. Only that you call all Drake cities one thing. When I say it depends on how well they know us. There are good cities with good people—perhaps many cities, only some ruled by hostile Drakes or not used to us. And I say Liscor is one such. That is all.”

He hesitated. But after a moment’s thought, the inebriation seemed to be too much for him to tack on a coordinated response. Defeated, Serral just growled.

“Would that every city were Liscor, then.”

He stomped off to get another drink. Krshia looked around and so did Tkrn. He heard murmurs of agreement, some sharing their own experiences. Then Krshia turned to him.

“Your first day in camp and you must start a debate, hrm, nephew?”

She pinched his ear roughly. He yelped.

“Aunt! I hate when you do that! What did I do?”

“You participated in a debate, Tkrn. Do you not know one when you see it? And you very nearly made yourself and Liscor look like fools, yes?”

Krshia indicated the crowd. Tkrn, wincing, pulled his ear to safety.

“I don’t understand. Did you win the debate? Serral just stormed off.”

She gave him a long look.

“So? I persuaded the ones who matter and thus I won.”

She indicated the listeners. Tkrn saw they were nodding at her, and even the Chieftain looked approving.

“I don’t understand.”

One of the Plains Gnolls chuckled. It was Cetrule. The [Shaman] nodded to Krshia, who smiled.

“It is a custom of tribes, young Tkrn. When Gnolls argue, others listen. Whomever is judged most right ‘wins’, even if the two never reconcile. The goal is to persuade those who listen of your correctness, not to simply talk. And the one who wins often sees the other side come around if all agree.”

Serral hadn’t, but he was having a longer drink then going back to the conversations, which were indeed skewing positive. Tkrn shook his head.

“I can’t imagine trying that in Liscor. Some of my fellow [Guards] would never admit they’re wrong.”

“Well, they are Drakes. We are Gnolls.”

Cetrule laughed. Tkrn hesitated. He’d meant his coworkers in general, which now included Humans. Jerci was incredibly stubborn.

“It is good you had Honored Krshia with you. She is quite renowned and her tongue has not lost its skill, I see. Silvertongue Krshia was your nickname, wasn’t it?”

Cetrule addressed Krshia. She rolled her eyes.

“Silvermouth they called me, since I picked too many arguments. Well, you will hear more such debates, Tkrn. Larger ones, between tribes. Then—the audience is [Chieftains] and [Shamans] and the outcome matters. Try not to cause any more trouble tonight though, yes?”

Chastised, Tkrn nodded. He slunk back to his tent—which was a rounded dome shape, small though, and he was sharing it with two more male Gnolls. But it was protected from the wind and he had drunk and eaten well. The Silverfang tribe was welcoming.

It was just a tiny bit different. That was all.

 

—-

 

To Inkar, the Gnolls had never been that different from her culture. At least, they had many overlaps.

Magic sheep? Magic sheep were different. And so was this.

She knew horse fairs. She knew cities. But the Meeting of Tribes was a wondrous event, such that the young woman was glad to have come to this world.

Despite the heartache. Despite the loss. Despite danger and death.

She still felt sad when she thought of the crashed airplane. But enough time had passed that she had stopped mourning and come out of her shock. More importantly—this was the time when she might find her answers.

The Meeting of Tribes. She was practically bouncing to see all the things here. You could trade for valuable goods! Pay to learn secrets, have fun seeing each tribe’s wares and antics, and of course, play games.

However, it had been four days since the Summer Solstice begun and the Longstalker’s Fang tribe had arrived and she had yet to go out and see everything.

The first day they’d just arrived and setting up and finding a space with Eska negotiating for room for their herds had taken all day. Inkar didn’t begrudge that.

Or the next day, when they had to build some temporary fences. After all—thieving and poaching existed in the tribes and the rare animals of their tribe were valuable. Inkar had hoped to go into the main Meeting of Tribes, which was already bustling that night, but she’d been asked to keep Deskie, the [Magic Spinner] who was so important and Inkar’s friend, company.

Sometimes Deskie needed help since she was older. And Inkar’s clothing was proof of their great friendship. Deskie had woven the fabric of Waisrabbits into the lining of Inkar’s clothing.

So two days had passed. And on the third day, there were all kinds of activities to be done! Water needed to be hauled, the sheep fed—you could spend an entire day just doing tasks for the tribe and apparently they were shorthanded so Inkar had no choice, even though some Gnolls who should have been helping if they had all this work were already coming back talking about what they’d seen.

“There’s Lehra Ruinstrider in the camps! People are surrounding her tribe’s camp and asking to meet her!”

“I met one of the Steelfur clan! They have…steel fur! He let me touch it! It’s not painful—not much, but it’s spiky!”

She wanted to join in, but Eska said there was an emergency with the Greenpaw tribe’s [Cook] and they just needed Inkar to help make some of her lovely dishes. So Inkar made some of her dishes from Kazakhstan.

…On the fourth day she figured out what they were doing.

“Inkar, I know you must be anxious, but could you help us build a new spinner? We can’t quite figure out how all the pieces work.”

One of the [Spinners] looked at Inkar a bit too innocently. And Inkar knew that the entire weaving group could put together the spinners by hand, and carve the pieces themselves if need be.

She went to find Eska.

“Why am I not allowed to enter the Meeting of Tribes?”

The [Chieftain] was talking with some of the Honored Gnolls from the Greenpaw Tribe and the Longstalker’s. Inkar knew it was a breach of etiquette, but she was too angry and hurt to care.

Eska looked up and made an excuse to the others. She sighed and took Inkar away to her Chieftain’s yurt to talk.

“Inkar, the Meeting of Tribes is for Gnolls. I would let you join in if I could, but we must make sure you are…allowed to participate. Few outsiders of your species are allowed to go to more than the periphery.”

“Then can I at least go there?”

Inkar pleaded. Eska sighed.

“I fear you may get into trouble or stand out, Inkar. And you are something of a secret that I hope the Chieftains will discuss. But it will be celebrations and politics will not come for a while.”

“I must wait until then? It is not fair! Please, Eska?”

The [Chieftain] hemmed and hawed, but she would have been blind and heartless not to see how cooped up Inkar felt.

“Very well. Tomorrow, though. I will ask the…Plain’s Eye tribe to make a statement to the other Chieftains about outsiders this Meeting of Tribes. I have been trying, Inkar, but they are busy meeting with the other great tribes. But tomorrow, even if I cannot secure their agreement, I will send someone with you.”

Inkar was content with that. She spent the rest of the day brushing the Shockwoolies—her clothing allowed her to do it without those nasty static shocks—and cuddling the friendly animals. Although, part of Inkar remembered that the ‘friendly sheepies’ could and would cluster together and stop someone’s heart if they detected a threat.

Well, good for them. They liked her, and she liked the animals. But she was restless all night, waiting for her chance to explore the meeting of tribes!

 

—-

 

The next day, Eska yawned as she rose bright and early. She sighed. Another day of waiting to meet the more important tribes. Skies willing, her tribe’s fortunes would change after this year…

“Oor. What are you doing loafing around? Is Inkarr not up yet?”

She spotted a male Gnoll taking his ease at one fire, having, well, a meat sandwich. More meat than sandwich, really. He was toasting the bread. He looked up.

“Inkarr, Chieftain? No, she woke an hour ago. Practically bouncing to see the Meeting of Tribes.”

“And you’re letting her wait?”

The [Chieftain of Herds] frowned. Oor had befriended Inkar, along with Orreh—not surprising since they were from the same family. But since the [Stalker Hunter] was busy making eyes with one of the Ekhtouch tribe’s [Warriors], Eska had picked him.

The Gnoll gave Eska a blank look.

“Why would I make her wait, Chieftain? She went into the Meeting of Tribes already. Barely stopped to appreciate good food.”

The [Chieftain] looked at him.

“…And you are not with her.”

Oor nibbled his sandwich delicately, savoring the crisp bread, the juicy meats mixing flavors.

“I will catch up, Chieftain. You did say I should show her around. Just as soon as—”

Eska nearly kicked him into the fire.

I told you to escort her! That does not mean let her wander off, you idiot, you! Go find her! If she gets into trouble—”

Oor scrambled to his feet. He ran past Deskie as the old [Magic Spinner] tsked. But then she smiled.

“Do not worry, Eska. Inkarr is a good child. She would not cause mischief. Worry more about our other Gnolls than her. We have many of our tribe exploring out there. She is not alone.”

“I do. But I do not worry about what Inkarr will do. I worry about what other Gnolls will do to her!”

 

—-

 

Eska was right to be worried. Because despite Oor assuring her it was fine and that he’d catch up in ‘five minutes, just as soon as I prepare a proper breakfast, yes?’ He did not. And an hour later?

She was lost.

Not metaphorically lost. Not spiritually lost, or morally lost. Just lost. Physically, among the countless tents and places of the Meeting of Tribes.

In theory she wasn’t. As Tkrn had observed, Inkar had seen the same; each tribe had their own grounds. The areas between the camped tribes was neutral space where everyone could walk.

The problem was—there were no signs. And she couldn’t just walk up to random Gnolls. Well—she could—but she was suddenly shy. Everyone was staring at the lone Human in the crowd! Inkar tugged the hood over her face. Like that, she was just a short Gnoll.

She wandered through the Meeting of Tribes, staring, smelling the delicious roasting meats, seeing a Gnoll breathing fire—and then run around shouting as he accidentally caught the hair on his face on fire.

Gnolls of every type were here. Artisans like Deskie, [Warriors], [Shamans]—

No, that wasn’t right. All kinds of Plains Gnoll were here. Few of the cities. Some came, but they were almost as much outsiders as Inkar. Twice, she saw Gnolls laughing at an ‘overdressed’ Gnoll who had a suit of all things, or a dress!

It was a culture unto itself, as fiercely proud of being nomadic as Inkar had known from home. City versus countryside. Old versus new.

She was content to wandering until Oor found her. But Inkar was lost. And getting more lost by the minute. The problem was mainly that…she didn’t have a good nose.

 

—-

 

Tkrn understood how the Meeting of Tribes was laid out. Similarly, while he’d have a chance to wander, Krshia impressed on him and the other younger Gnolls not to get lost.

“Remember the scents of the camps around ours. We are setting up our boundaries now, but if you get lost—try to find a similar scent.”

That was how they did it. Scent! No signposts—and why would they be needed among Gnolls? Each tribe was marking their area. Tkrn eyed the [Shamans] and Gnolls assigned to the task.

“Er, Aunt. I mean, Honored Krshia? How will we mark our area? By…peeing on the ground?”

Krshia’s head slowly rotated. Jerci stared at him. Dekava, who was tasked with helping guide the City Gnolls, laughed so hard she nearly threw up her breakfast.

“Bite my fur, Tkrn. Are you insane?”

Beilmark slapped the back of his head. She pointed.

“We’re using scents. What are we, animals?”

Indeed, the Silverfang clan was burning some incense in bags along the border of their camp. Spice and silver. That was their scent. It would be easy for Gnolls to pick it out from afar, even with all the other thousands of scents.

Tkrn rubbed the back of his head as the others made fun of him until they were released. Dekava was still laughing.

“Shall we explore the Meeting of Tribes together, Tkrn? Or would you like to help mark our territory first?”

She teased him. Tkrn glumly knew everyone in the tribe would hear of his idiocy by nightfall. He shook his head. Think of the fun stuff!

“I would like that, Dekava. Er—exploring the Meeting of Tribes! Not the other part.”

She laughed. He felt like he had two left feet around her. Why, oh why did he turn into a fool? Especially because he thought—

Tkrn was reminded of another ‘date’ he’d gone on, at his aunt’s insistence. With a young Human woman who’d come to the city just a month or two ago…

His heart sank again. Erin was like a shadow over everything. Sometimes he forgot for a moment. But it was still fresh.

Dekava noticed the sudden slump but clearly pretended she didn’t.

“There’s so much to do. I want to see the Steelfur tribe and how much they sell their Steelcloth for. I don’t have much gold…does being a [Guard] pay much?”

“I wish. I haven’t been saving up so I can spend like…a gold piece, at most.”

That was his entire savings, not including some money Krshia had given him for the event. Dekava shook her head at him.

We’ve been saving for years for this day! What were you doing?”

She meant the other Silverfangs. Tkrn hunched his shoulders defensively.

“I didn’t know I’d be coming! I thought—well, there’s still a lot to see, right? Can we meet some of the Named Adventurers, do you think? I’ve always wanted to meet one. I mean—I have. But a Gnoll one. Like Gamur the Axe. I had a toy of him when I was small. He’s here, right?”

“Is he a true Gnoll? Of course he is! But I don’t know if we’ll be able to meet him. I want to meet them too, and all the Chieftains.”

Dekava sighed. Tkrn looked blankly at her.

“Why not? This is the Meeting of Tribes. If they’re here…”

She frowned.

“Tkrn, did you not hear your Honored Aunt?”

“Er…I was thinking about peeing on doors.”

She rolled her eyes.

“We can’t just walk into another tribe’s camp! Only the free ground. And I’ll just bet the important Gnolls won’t let us in. Unless we’re invited by a member of the tribe or we’re given dispensation…”

Tkrn realized each tribe would have guards at the entrances. The areas outside of each camp were free game, which was why Gnolls were setting up there. But his dream of meeting his childhood hero—he drooped.

“Oh. Fine.”

“Come on. Someone had better make sure you remember all the rules. What’s this about peeing on doors?”

“I thought it was something you did! We did it as kids all the time—”

“So you’re saying you did this recently? As an adult?

Tkrn had a terrible feeling Dekava was laughing at him, not with him. They entered the Meeting of Tribes as he wondered if he could bribe her not to tell.

 

—-

 

Inkar had no special nose. Special hearing thanks to her gift of friendship as a [Worldly Traveller]—yes. But not the nose of a Gnoll, which was what she needed here.

She wasn’t helpless, though.

“One, please.”

She handed over some coppers for a stick of meat. It was very cheap, but good. The Gnoll minding the rotisserie where he was slicing off bits of meat and putting them on sticks gave her an odd look, but he took her money.

She savored the hot bite. Of course, she could have eaten in the camp, but there was something to this. Buying food, walking around, eating it…

It was so exciting! Look! There were Gnolls showing off weapons to each other. They carried everything from wood and ivory to iron and steel and enchanted weapons! Inkar was no warrior, but she found it fascinating, like the warriors of old in her world.

Some were competing—others just talking, catching up with friends from afar. And they were old and young!

A little Gnoll ran up, sniffing.

What’s that? Where did you get it?

She was on all fours. Inkar smiled at the child as an exasperated parent pushed after her.

“Right there.”

“Do you have to pay for it? Can I have a bite of yours?”

Vrers! Enough! I am sorry, Miss—”

The mother snatched up her daughter, and then did a double-take.

“A Human? Here?

“Oh. I’m sorry—”

“Who let you in? This is the inner area, not—”

Inkar ducked back as heads turned. She saw the mother stare at her, then look around. Inkar turned quickly, pushed past some Gnolls, and vanished.

Where was Oor? She was going to give him a hard time! Maybe she needed to find her way back to the Longstalker’s camp, or failing that, maybe move out of the inner area. Inkar looked around.

The problem was that there were very few easily-accessible high spots. The plains were flat. And Gnolls did not build up, but out. She frowned.

Then—she saw something peculiar as she scanned the sky. Was that…a bird?

It was not the Roc, the gigantic bird that could be ridden by multiple Gnolls, even before fully grown. But neither was it a proper bird. It was too large for that. Was that a bird…person?

Yes! The figure was flapping in the distance, circling, then descending. Inkar stared.

Garuda? She knew only one species in the world were native fliers—besides the Oldblood Drakes. One of them was here?

Oor forgotten, she headed in that direction. She had to meet one! She passed down the street, avoiding a tribe’s camp. The [Guards] were armed with some shiny metal—but a Gnoll was shouting.

Demas Metal Tribe! We are accepting orders! Our Chieftain will talk to yours about the metal! No peeking!

Inkar half-turned—but the guards in front of the tribe were frowning at her and she certainly couldn’t afford a commission.

Human. So she hurried on, and found the edge of the inner camp.

Perhaps it was wrong of Eska to have camped in the inner area. But her tribe was next to Ekhtouch and Greenpaw’s smaller contingent. A place of honor thanks to the Ekhtouch and it would have been wrong to abandon Greenpaw, who were really too small on their own.

Still, the inner camp was not for outsiders. Inkar saw some Gnolls with a distinctive ‘eye’ dyed onto their fur or armbands manning a kind of checkpoint. She gulped as she realized she was on the wrong side of one.

She didn’t know how they’d react. She knew they were Plain’s Eye—Deskie called them powerful traditionalists. And she didn’t want to cause trouble for her tribe and Chieftain. So…Inkar edged forwards. She strode towards the Gnolls idly waiting at the checkpoint and sipping tea—they really weren’t doing anything other than turning away outsiders. Before they noticed her coming up from behind she called upon the magic and—

Pop.

Inkar appeared past the checkpoint and a tent. A Gnoll jumped as she saw Inkar appear.

Holy not-my-Ancestors!

She exclaimed as Inkar appeared. The Waisrabbit cloth—expensive, highly prized—whispered in Inkar’s clothing. She’d used up the magic charge to hop a tiny bit forwards.

“Sorry!”

Inkar apologized. She rounded the tent as she backed away from the Gnoll and her companions. The Gnoll adjusted her spectacles, staring.

“That was so cool. Did you see that?”

She turned to her companions. Adventurers? The Gnoll was wearing spectacles, and there was a Human man next to her. Inkar blinked. Another Human! Then she did a double-take and stared.

Wait a second. His skin was dark—a bit darker than hers, and he had a different clothing style—a type of robe made of one piece of cloth looped around his body.

But he was…not Human. Not unless they looked like that movie with the monster made out of parts in it. His arms, his neck, his ears all had little stitch marks in them!

“Emper, did you see that? She just appeared!”

“I saw. Good morning, miss.”

The Stitchman replied. He half-bowed to her. Inkar caught herself bowing back.

“Stop being so impressed, Lehr—Lenna. It’s a minor teleport spell.”

That came from someone standing next to the Gnoll with spectacles. Inkar’s head turned. She saw a five-foot high…

If she had stared at Emper, the String Man in surprise, her eyes nearly popped out of her head at the second person standing there. And her gaze was answered by five eyes.

The…the person was short. And she had five eyes. Had Inkar mentioned that already?

Three central ones. Top, left, right. Like a triangle, occupying most of her face. Nose? She had two nose holes, much like a Drake’s. But she was not…similar to Gnolls, Humans, String Folk, or Drakes, who all alternated on the basic humanoid shape.

For one thing, this person had oddly-segmented arms, fingers, and though Inkar could not see them, feet. An odd curl to her ‘fingers’ on each hand—and she only had four of each.

She was squat. Her neck, if she had one, was not one that allowed her to crane her head. That didn’t imply she wasn’t flexible; it was only that her head wasn’t the flexible part. Her lower body seemed to have far more articulation.

Her skin was a dark orange, neither fur nor skin as Inkar knew it. Call it a hide, then. But it transformed to a kind of green the lower it went down her body, in a striating pattern. Oh, there was more to add to her—she was as alien as Inkar had ever known. But the main thing were the two…tendril eyestalks looking Inkar up and down.

“Waisrabbit fur in her clothing. Very lovely stitching.”

The Gazer announced. The Gnoll snapped her fingers.

“So that’s what it is. I should buy some! Imagine me teleporting like that! Bam!”

“Grandfathers spare me from the thought, Lerh—Lenma. Whatever your name is.”

A short woman added. Inkar saw a Dwarf—practically the least interesting member of all four. Aside from the Gnoll, who wore a shining armband and…spectacles?

They were all wearing spectacles, Inkar noticed. The Gnoll adjusted hers and then nudged the Gazer.

“Suxhel. You’re staring.”

“Don’t touch me, please, Lemm. You know how much I hate it.”

The Gazer swiveled an eye-stalk without turning around. Her voice was mild. She did something odd—her eyestalks dipped rather than head nod or bow or anything else.

“Greetings, Miss Human. Apologies for staring.”

“No—I—I—I am pleased to meet you? I am sorry, I have never met…any of your people!”

They smiled at that. Inkar saw Emper turn to Suxhel.

“And she does not scream or run. I told you your fears were unfounded, Suxhel.”

“That is statistically one Human out of thirty eight, Emper. They have a poor track record.”

Emper, Suxhel, and the Dwarf woman held out a hand.

“Another Human at the Meeting of Tribes? I’m Elgrinna Geostrand. Pleased to meet you.”

“Inkar. I—are you a Dwarf?”

“Ah! Yes I am.”

The woman grinned. Meanwhile, the Gazer had discussed ‘how many good meetings’ she had observed versus poor with the Stitchman. The Gnoll was bouncing about.

“Do they sell Waisrabbit fur stuff? I want to buy some!”

She addressed Inkar. And her name was…Lemm? Lenna? Lenma? Inkar blinked and shook her head.

“No, this was stitched by the best [Weaver] of the Longstalker’s tribe…”

“Really? We should visit them, guys! Magic clothing for all! It’d help us get away from Niila and Lord Dragial every—”

All three of the Gnoll’s companions shushed her. Lemm fell silent guiltily and they all adjusted their spectacles.

…Which had no glass, Inkar noticed. They might have been magical, but she didn’t see any magnification in the places where the lenses should be.

“Where are they?”

“Inner camp, I think. Sorry guys—you can’t go in just yet. Chieftain’s talking about it—”

“Well, we can check later. And you’re not spending our gold on teleportation gear, Lemmy. You’d just teleport yourself into a Creler’s stomach. Nice meeting you, Miss.”

They nodded to Inkar and strode off. The Gnoll was protesting.

“Name one time I’ve make a mistake like—”

“This morning. You kicked over an entire barrel of fresh fish.

“Ah. But on the other paw—we have fresh fish for dinner. There are no unhappy mistakes, right, Emper? You believe in goodwill and stuff, right?”

“There are. I’m a [Monk], not a [Saint], Leena.”

Inkar stared after them. The Gazer had to stride to keep up with the others. And Inkar was relieved to see other people doing double-takes as well as her.

There were more species than just Gnoll in the outer areas of the Meeting of Tribes. Gnolls still predominated by far, but there were Humans and Drakes and other species trying to capitalize on the event.

Inkar felt more at home here anyways. She’d see about getting back to the Longstalker’s tribe later. For now? She strode past the checkpoint, smiling. It didn’t occur to her that her brief appearance where even a team of adventurers couldn’t go might have raised a few eyebrows.

And Gnolls had exceptionally thick eyebrows.

 

—-

 

Tkrn lost Dekava. It wasn’t his fault! One second they’d been talking, the next?

Poof. She’d run off the instant someone shouted that the Woven Bladegrass was holding a sparring tournament. Winning warrior got an enchanted weapon of their choice!

“Dekava! Dekava! Where did…?”

Tkrn gave up after ten minutes of searching. He hadn’t seen where she’d run off to with the other [Warriors]. Nor…secretly…did he want to watch a fighting tournament, at least right now.

Crossbows. They’d shot Erin with crossbows. Tkrn found some benches installed and sat down on one glumly. He was still processing that.

He wished Dekava well, but this Meeting of Tribes mattered more to her than him by far.

“I might be able to join another tribe, Tkrn! If a Chieftain sees me and likes me, she might offer me a position in her tribe!”

“Do you want to leave Silverfang?”

“Yes! No. It’s just—I want to be important, and it will take a long time here. I can make my fortune during this event. Anything can happen. That’s how Satar, the Chieftain’s first daughter, came to be, you know. Last Meeting of Tribes, the Ekhtouch and Silverfangs made an agreement for children.”

Children. So Satar was a child of a union between this Ekhtouch and Silverfang—and that was one of the agreements that could be reached here. A Gnoll could be headhunted by other Chieftains. Tribes could buy vast supplies of armor, or a powerful artifact…

Tkrn realized he didn’t know what Krshia or Akrisa hoped to gain from this event. He wondered if the magical tome would be the most important thing on display. Surely so.

Anyways, the seat was nice. It was a shame he couldn’t find Dekava—

Fighting tournament on the fourth day of the Meeting of Tribes! There have been four winners! Everyone who wants to participate, this way! Gnolls only!

—Not a chance of finding her. Tkrn watched the Gnolls march past excitedly. He wished her the best of luck. Wherever she was.

He was going to see if he could find wherever his idol Named Adventurer was, or check out the sights. Tkrn had seen a Garuda flying above just a minute ago, and he was smelling good food…he was still a bit depressed and sort of at a loss, really, though.

Erin was dead. He wished she were here. She’d be running around, shouting something and Krshia would be exasperated, but she belonged at an event like this. She was the event. She was Liscor. If she had been there last night, he wouldn’t have needed to explain there were good people who thought kindly of other species.

She’d be dashing past him shouting something like—

Are those flying pigs? Pigs can fly? I mean, of course they can! Did you see that?

An excited voice. Higher-pitched, more…Tkrn’s head spun. He shot to his feet.

“Er—”

A little figure hopped through the crowd. Tkrn saw a Lizardman, using a stick like, well, a jumping rod. He hopped with amazing distance, bracing his one good foot on the stick. The other was missing—so he jumped rather than walked.

For all that, he was fast. And an exasperated person was trying to follow him through the crowd. A big Gnoll with paint on his fur—Tkrn heard him calling out.

“Viri! Come back!”

“Merish! Merish look at that! Flying pigs!

Where? Tkrn was distracted by both things. He heard a squeal and a shout. A…pig with wings flew past him, loose of its tether.

Tkrn stared at it. Yes, it was a pig. Yes, it had wings. But those two things conjured a much different image than the flesh-colored wings on the pig’s back, not feather but a kind of horrible membrane reminiscent of bat’s wings…he shuddered.

Some things should not be allowed to exist.

“Careful! It bites! It’s carnivorous! Someone grab my pig!”

And flying pigs were only one thing to see out of all of it. But—and this was perhaps a problem only for him—there was such a thing as too much to do. Everywhere Tkrn looked there was an activity. Something he should spend all of his time looking at since he might not see it for twenty more years.

And what he really wanted to do was go to an inn far, far away, and visit an [Innkeeper]. Or just sit and process it still. Pee on Hectval’s walls. Pee on their damned Council.

So, then—when Tkrn heard the sound, his head turned. He stood up—and smiled for the first time that day. He went back the way he’d come. Because that sound made even the people clustered in the Meeting of Tribes’ outer grounds look around.

It was a crisp sound. Meant for summer. It reminded Tkrn of where it had come from. An idea—and a gift from a city. He remembered an inn. And a glorious day.

 

—-

 

Crack. Inkar’s head turned when she heard the sound in the distance.

It could have been nothing. One sound among many. But she had the gift of Gnoll hearing. And that sound was…distinctive.

It was not the most important thing in the world to her. But she had heard it enough that it lodged in the memory. A bit of familiarity. She nearly went back to admiring the Gnollish pieces—they did wonderful tapestries and she wished her smartphone were working so she could show Deskie. Well, maybe the older Gnoll would want to visit? Inkar was marking the place in her memory and trying to create a map of the Meeting of Tribes when she heard it again.

Crack. More Gnolls looked around. And that keen sound made Inkar remember it. She walked the way it was coming from.

It could not be. It was probably only something similar. And yet—and yet. She did not truly believe she’d see it, but as she passed by camps, towards the edge of the Meeting of Tribes closest to her, she saw a familiar gathering. She heard that sound and saw the bat swing.

Crack. The baseball bat met the ball and it went flying. The Gnolls stared at the ball soaring through the air and someone ran in a mad pelt to grab it.

Inkar stopped, eyes wide.

“It cannot be!”

But it was. One of the Gnolls pointed as the ball was thrown a bit clumsily back.

“And what did you call this? Wait—I’ve seen it on the television the Drakes broadcast. It’s called…”

“Based ball. One of my kin from the cities gave us a set of the playing tools. We’re playing a game.”

“That sounds like fun. Entertainment for the Meeting of Tribes! Have you seen the Foot The Ball game?”

“We have one of those too!”

Really? But I heard it was all the way from Liscor! Is there a tribe that’s gone that far north…? Or has someone figured out how to make those balls? The ones with the black and white dot-things?”

Gnolls were congregating to a new activity. And it seemed the tribe putting on this impromptu game and providing the tools was…Silverfang? Inkar wasn’t up to date on all the tribes, but she knew this was a bigger one.

And it was status, status, even for providing free things. The Silverfangs were tentatively setting up a field with some Gnolls with more clothing explaining the game. The Plains Gnolls listened, some drifting back to the Meeting of Tribes, some willing to give this a shot.

Inkar looked at both games. And she knew.

Oh—she hadn’t actually seen the broadcasts. The Longstalkers had debated getting a scrying orb, but Eska had called it frivolous and their [Shaman] agreed. They didn’t need to stare at something all day—although Deskie had privately told Inkar that the weavers were going to buy a cheap one so they could work and watch!

But Inkar had not seen…anything…yet. Until a week or two ago she had thought she was the only person in this world.

Then she had seen the crashed airplane and known. Now? She saw the game and had another thought.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Do you know this game? Baseball? Where does it come from?”

She began asking the other Gnolls around her, urgently. Most had no idea, but a watching person uncrossed his arms long enough to inform her in a slightly surly voice.

“Baseball. Comes from Liscor. It’s been on Wistram News Network. Liscor, again. We need to head there, Merrik.”

“Later. We still can’t move Yerra.”

“Hrmph.”

The Minotaur snorted. Inkar gave him a wide-eyed look, but thanked him, ducking her head. He nodded.

“Maybe I should try it. The swinging of that ‘bat’ seems very much my style.”

“Well, if I play, it’s going to be that. You’re not going to get me running after a ball all day. Peki’s down for it, though.”

The Dwarf indicated the Garuda, who was already joining the Gnolls kicking the ball around and listening to the rules.

Tkrn! Will you help us explain the rules? I forgot how many players there are!

A Gnoll waved at a younger one trotting across the ground. Inkar looked at the Silverfangs. It was unlikely they knew—there was not a Human in sight here. But she had to ask.

She walked forwards. And someone grabbed her roughly.

That’s the one. Colorful garments—smells of animals. You, Human. How did you get into the inner camp?”

Inkar looked around. The Minotaur and Dwarf turned back. An angry Gnoll—in fact, three of them with an unfamiliar tribe’s markings were glaring at her.

“What? I—I wasn’t anywhere.”

Inkar lied desperately. She might have told the truth—but these were not friendly-looking Gnolls. They weren’t necessarily warriors either. They looked like camp-Gnolls. But angry ones.

“Liar. One of ours saw you in the inner camp! No non-Gnolls are allowed there! The Decles Tribe is going to find out how you got in. Come with us.”

One took Inkar’s arm in an unfriendly grip. She shook her head.

“No! I am with the Longstalker’s Tribe! Let me go!”

She protested. One of the Gnolls snorted.

Longstalker’s? That’s some tale. They’re good, traditionalists. Not like the mavericks.”

He cast a glance at the Silverfang tribe and shook his head. Inkar didn’t see what was wrong with this game, but the Gnoll clearly did.

“If you are, the Chieftain will find out! Come with us!”

His grip tightened. Inkar yelped.

“Ow! Stop!”

“Here now. At least escort her without tearing her arm off.”

Merrik, the Dwarf, scratched at his beard. The Gnoll from the Decles tribe snarled at him.

“Back off, outsider! This is tribe business and this Human broke our laws!”

Merrik frowned, but the Minotaur put a hand on his shoulder.

“Tribal business, Merrik. We respect the laws or Feshi would have our horns.”

“Pah.”

Inkar wasn’t resisting. She marched with the Gnolls, reluctant to cause an incident—and besides, Eska could sort it out. It was uncomfortable, but she was moving with the Gnolls right until a Gnoll ran into the four, panting.

Oor. Late by a minute. The panting Gnoll had run everywhere, trying to track Inkar’s scent through the Meeting of Tribes. He would have arrived sooner if he hadn’t lost it at the checkpoint.

“Wait! She’s with us! Longstalker’s tribe! My Chieftain sent me to go with her!”

He gasped. The three Gnolls halted. One eyed Orr.

“We’re Decles tribe. This Human was in the inner camp—

“Yes! Yes, she’s with our tribe! Sorry—she’s with us.”

Orr! Inkar sagged with relief. But the three Gnolls didn’t seem happy with that. One eyed Orr suspiciously.

“You might not be Longstalkers. You could be a random Gnoll. And why would the Chieftain of the Longstalkers make such a foolish mistake?

Orr bristled at that. So did Inkar.

Chieftain Eska has her reasons. And both Ekhtouch and Greenpaw know a human is with us!”

The Gnolls snorted at ‘Greenpaw’, but frowned at Ekhtouch. They looked at each other uncertainly, but their leader bared his teeth.

“Fine. Then our Chieftain will investigate both matters! Come on.”

He tugged Inkar and she yelped. She was willing to go with them, but did they have to drag her? Oor frowned.

“That’s not necessary. We’ll go to Longstalker’s first if we have to. Let Inkarr—Honored Inkar go.”

The Gnolls around looked up. The Decles Gnolls gawked.

“You must be mad. Honored…? This is a bad ruse. You’re both coming with us.”

Oor reached for Inkar.

“I don’t think so. If you want to ask—ask Longstalker’s or Ekhtouch! Inkarr, I’m sorry. Let’s—”

“Don’t.”

The other Gnoll pushed Oor back. The [Warrior] stumbled—and then his eyes narrowed. He looked at the three. They glared back, fur rising. Inkar tried to say something.

“Oor, it’s fine. We’ll sort it out. Peacefully.”

“I’m not going to let them drag you to another tribe’s camp like a criminal, Inkarr. I am Longstalker’s warrior! Let her go!”

The other Gnolls shook their heads. One growled.

“Decles doesn’t answer to Longstalkers. Follow us if you want to, but we’re taking her—

He yanked Inkar and she stumbled. That was the last straw. Oor went for him. Which, in the annals of combat decisions wasn’t the most intelligent.

There were three of them and one of him.

 

—-

 

Tkrn was busy showing the other Gnolls proper form for swinging. He didn’t notice the fight and commotion at first. Then he heard a shout.

“Stop! Stop it!”

He looked up. So did other Silverfangs and Gnolls. One called out.

“What’s that?”

“Fight. Two other tribes. Don’t worry; Plain’s Eye or Az’muzarre or a Chieftain will sort it out.”

Reassured, the other Gnolls went back to the game. There was always minor stuff like that; even this morning, Tkrn had seen Akrisa break up a fight between the children of the Silverfang tribe. But his attention had been diverted. Then he heard the second shout.

Stop! Help, help!

He turned and dropped the bat. It was unconscious. In the outfield, Jerci’s mother, an avid player of the game, was warming up her glove. She saw Tkrn turn and go running.

He was a [Guard]. A member of Liscor’s Watch. He might not have been Beilmark or Klbkch-level, but there was one thing a member of Zevara’s force learned and that was that if someone called out, you ran.

[Guards] got paid to run towards danger.

Not blindly of course. Tkrn was already scanning the crowd. Looked like a classic brawl to you. And that was a female voice shouting for someone to stop.

It never occurred to him that he was out of his jurisdiction. Baseball had brought him home. So Tkrn bellowed, reaching for his side reflexively.

City Watch! Out of the way!

Gnolls turned and moved aside as he rammed through them. It worked—although their response was a bit different than Liscor’s citizenry.

“What did he just say? City…?

Tkrn halted as he saw the scene. Zevara had taught him well.

Assess the scene for critical threats. Weigh the odds.

It was three Gnolls beating on a fourth, with a young Human woman being held back by one as she tried to drag them back. By the looks of it, the Gnoll being knocked around had given as good as he got; two Gnolls had bloody noses and looked a bit battered.

But three versus one wasn’t an easy fight. And it was definitely this Gnoll receiving a classic beat down now. Tkrn strode forwards.

“Alright, break it up! City Watch! Who started it?”

The tone of command worked everywhere. The Gnolls and crowd turned. They stared at Tkrn.

“City Watch? Who are you?

The one holding back the young woman blinked. And Tkrn remembered that he was not in Liscor. His authority wavered—and went out.

“Er—Silverfang tribe. You can’t just beat that Gnoll to death!”

He pointed at the Gnoll [Warrior] who was trying to swing dizzily. One of the Gnolls growled.

“Stay out of it! We’re Decles tribe, and this Human was in the inner camps! A Gnoll tribe brought her in! We didn’t start this either—that Gnoll came at us.”

Tkrn saw one knock the dizzy Oor backwards. He nodded—and unconsciously interposed himself between the fighting Gnolls. Oor stopped. And the crowd murmured.

He’d done it now. But the [Guardsman] in Tkrn was telling him to do one thing—his brain another. What was he doing? Krshia would have his tail. But he remembered what she’d said.

You did the right thing in the end. Next time, do it faster.

“I think he’s had enough, don’t you? Let’s all calm down.”

The Gnolls eyed him, but it was another skill that any member of the Watch learned. Reasonable tones got you a long way in a heated situation.

“Fine. We have the Human.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong! Oor! Are you okay?”

The young woman protested. Tkrn frowned. He was stepping on the edge, he knew, but he held out a paw.

“Hold on. What has she done wrong?”

“She was spotted in the inner camp!”

The leader was losing his patience fast. But the crowd was watching and he needed to justify himself—even if he clearly thought it was a waste of time. Tkrn looked at him.

“You have eyewitnesses? On what authority are you taking her?”

Eyewitnesses? We’re not conducting some city-investigation! One of ours saw her and we identified her! We’re bringing her to our Chieftain. Stay out.

The Gnoll snapped back. Tkrn tilted his head.

“I have a truth stone. You didn’t even ask her if she was in the inner camp?”

That was proper procedure. Some of the Gnolls looked amused as the Decles tribe Gnolls stared at Tkrn.

“He’s got a point! Leave the poor Human alone! So what if one slipped into the inner camp?”

Shut up. This is our tribe’s business!

“Your tribe’s business? Says who? You’re Decles. Not Plain’s Eye.

We’re traditional! And Humans shouldn’t be allowed at the Meeting of Tribes! Any more than these other outsiders! Drakes especially!”

The Gnoll snapped. He gave an unfriendly look to all the non-Gnolls around. Tkrn frowned. The atmosphere was turning ugly. Confrontation did that. He wished he had a calming Skill.

The Gnoll behind him tried to push forwards, heedless of the danger.

“She’s not an outsider! She’s part of our tribe! Our Chieftain calls her Honored! She’s our guest to the Meeting of Tribes! You have no right to take her!”

The Gnolls listening were surprised. The Decles Gnolls? Contemptuous.

“That’s reason enough to bring her!”

“So—you’re arresting this Human because she went into the wrong camp? Despite being there because she came with a tribe?”

Tkrn made sense of it at last. One of the Gnolls shot him a warning look.

“She’s a Human in our sacred grounds. That’s enough. Now, we’ve wasted enough time! Move aside!”

He went to shove past Tkrn. And both Oor and Tkrn blocked him.

“No. That’s not good enough. You’re not Plain’s Eye and this Human has a right to be in the camp if a Chieftain vouches for her. It’s your tribe’s will against…”

Longstalker’s Fang! And Ekhtouch and Greenpaw vouch for her!”

The crowd blinked at Ekhtouch. The Decles Gnolls snarled—but they sensed they were losing ground.

It was a debate—or a quasi-one. Tkrn blocked the path of the Gnolls…but he had a bad feeling he knew where this was going. And he didn’t have any backup. He looked around—

Enough!

The Gnoll in front of him took a swing as Tkrn’s head turned. The [Guardsman] was ready for this, though.

“[Fast Leg Sweep]!”

The Gnoll’s fist never reached him. He went over backwards with a shout of surprise as Tkrn moved. Oor leapt over him and tackled the second Gnoll. The third growled and Tkrn reached for his baton…

…And remembered he wasn’t on-duty. Also? Not wearing his leather armor or chainmail. He raised his fists and blocked a furious punch. Ow. Tkrn lurched backwards, his hand-to-hand training coming to him. It was Relc who taught that. And Relc taught—

Tkrn’s fist hit the other Gnoll in the solar plexus. The Gnoll coughed—and the one Tkrn had downed was scrambling up, Tkrn obligingly kicked him in the stomach. Oh—

Shit. Suddenly, it was a fight. The two Gnolls took on the three from the Decles tribe as the crowd watched. Tkrn moved back, keeping them from getting around him. Watch training. He was actually better than a Gnoll [Warrior] in this kind of scramble. His heart was pounding. But more than that?

He knew Krshia was going to kill him.

 

—-

 

It was one fight among many in the Meeting of Tribes. And in an area of miles upon miles, no one was coming to break it up right away.

Anyways, it was normal. So many Gnolls of different tribes and there was always a quarrel. Sometimes you had to let it ride out.

The danger was in…escalation. But as of yet, the crowd was just watching. And to the surprise of the Dwarf, he wasn’t holding the Minotaur back. If anything, Venaz was calmly holding him back.

“Not tempted to join in, Venaz?”

“What am I, a savage, Merrik? This is clearly a dispute over law. We’d be interfering in a serious way if we got involved. That Gnoll with the leg sweep is doing well.”

Indeed, it was three versus two, but the Longstalker [Warrior] and the Silverfang city [Guard] were holding their own. The three Decles Gnolls weren’t exactly the highest-grade trained combatants. And no one was throwing out more than a [Quick Strike] or [Leg Sweep].

A proper brawl. But only five contestants. The young woman was hovering, but wisely not actually joining in. All five Gnolls were fighting as more Gnolls abandoned the game or came over.

“What’s happening? Are they fighting? What’s the issue?”

Some of the Gnolls turned their heads, catching more interested parties up.

“Fight over a Human being where she shouldn’t. Those two are defending her. Silverfang and Longstalkers, I think—the other tribe’s Decles.”

“Hrm. And the Human broke the rules?”

“That’s what they’re fighting about. Hey, you want a pop-the-corn?”

A Silverfang Plains Gnoll offered some of his gift to the newcomer. The Gnoll snorted. He watched as Tkrn, bloody-mouthed, got one of the Gnolls in an arm-bar.

“You…are…under…arrest.”

The Gnoll wheezed. Another Decles Gnoll was on the ground, stunned or unconscious. Oor was beating down the third in a reversal.

Tkrn was reaching for his cords, which he did have on him. And he was wondering what to do next. He didn’t have Zevara or a patrol of [Guards] to help him haul the Gnoll off. He should just find Krshia, Beilmark, or a Silverfang and…

Someone broke the ranks of the circle of onlookers. Tkrn was restraining the cursing Gnoll. He heard a voice.

“Which one of you is Decles tribe?”

Me!

The two Gnolls on the losing end of things shouted. Tkrn turned his head. He saw a Gnoll with thick, almost metallic gray fur nod.

“Understood.”

Then he grabbed Tkrn and hit him with an uppercut that sent Tkrn flopping off the downed Gnoll. Tkrn stared at the sky for a second and then jerked. He sat up. The Gnoll with the strange fur was standing over him.

“What are you—”

The other Gnoll kicked at him. Tkrn rolled away. He saw the Gnoll advance—then pivot and kick Oor off the third Decles Gnoll. The two awake Decles tribe Gnolls jumped the Longstalker [Warrior] again from both sides.

“What are you doing?”

“Supporting allies. Steelfur tribe.

The Gnoll cracked his paws. Tkrn scrambled up. He hesitated. Did he just say—

The other Gnoll lashed out with a much faster punch than the other Decles Gnolls. Tkrn dodged it and countered. His fist struck the other Gnoll in the jaw; the Steelfur Gnoll didn’t even try to dodge.

Ow.

Tkrn felt like he’d just punched chainmail. Spiky chainmail. He stared at the other Gnoll’s fur. Steelfur. Oh Rhir’s hells—

 

—-

 

“Now what’s happening? I can’t see. Give me a ride on your back, Venaz?”

“I would rather die. Another Gnoll’s joined the fighting. Seems to be on the side of the Decles tribe. He’s taking apart both of the other Gnolls. Well, it is three to two again.”

Venaz was commentating to Merrik and Peki. The Garuda was fluttering up.

“Steel fur. Not fair, not fair.”

“They’re losing.”

Venaz agreed. He was munching on some popcorn. He offered the Silverfang Gnoll some coins, but the crowd was passing around snacks.

“Isn’t anyone going to help the Silverfang? His tribe’s here!”

Merrik exclaimed. Some of the Silverfangs looked uneasy. They glanced sideways—

Seven Steelfur Gnolls looked around. They were watching the fight where their lone friend had joined in. Merrik sighed.

“Ah. Superiority by numbers. Good lads.”

A few Gnolls shared Merrik’s opinion, but they had reservations.

“We should do something.”

“They’re Steelfur. You fancy fighting armor for fur?”

Some of the Silverfangs were whispering. Someone was already running to get Akrisa, Cetrule, or another Honored Gnoll. In the meantime?

 

—-

 

Tkrn felt like he was fighting mini-Relc. Not as strong or as fast, but nearly as tough, at least without anything more than his fists.

The young woman was trying to stop them, but a Gnoll shoved her off her feet. Oor was down again—Tkrn growled.

This wasn’t right! He felt…he looked at the young woman, who had been singled out for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but mainly for being Human. He remembered someone else who had had a bad entrance to a good city. His city.

“Give up and lie down.”

The Steelfur Gnoll advised Tkrn. The [Guardsman] shook his head. His face hurt.

“Not a chance.”

He backed up though. Even one-versus-one, he was going to lose. The Gnoll advanced and Tkrn saw his buddies keeping back the Silverfang tribe. Tkrn’s head was ringing. Was he in Liscor?

Assess the situation. Weigh…

Brawl incident. Escalation with member of Liscor’s Watch. Danger of accidental death or injury. Human civilian in dispute. At this point in time, [Guardsman], what is the correct move?

Zevara was bellowing in his ear. He knew the answer. Tkrn dizzily reached for his neck. He produced something. The Steelfur Gnoll went cross-eyed. Inkar, lying on the ground, stared. Then she reached up.

She covered her ears before Tkrn blew on the whistle. Every Gnoll in a hundred meters shouted in agony and clutched at their ears. Tkrn blew again before the Gnoll knocked it out of his mouth. Then he punched furiously.

Reinforcements! Another Watch patrol would be here in—

A fist knocked him back into reality. Another one threatened to knock him out of consciousness. Oh, right. There wasn’t more of the Watch…

But the sound had definitely attracted even more attention. More people were asking what the heck was going on. Including some Gnolls investigating the weaving who recognized Inkar’s voice.

“That can’t be Inkarr, can it?”

One of the weaving group looked over. More were hearing.

“It’s a fight over a Human! Some Gnolls want to kick them all out! Steelfur and Decles are kicking the fur off anyone who disagrees!”

That was the garbled version of the truth that made its way out of the immediate event. Other Gnolls looked at each other. More went running for Krshia or Akrisa, but they were deep in their camp, discussing white Gnolls and Humans, ironically.

 

—-

 

And Tkrn was out of time. Dizzily, he looked up; the other Gnoll had a grip on him and was punching him. He blocked—then his arm slipped. The Steelfur Gnoll raised an arm—Inkar was being held back by the third Decles Gnoll, on his feet.

Someone grabbed the arm. The Steelfur Gnoll twisted.

“Who dares—”

“Enough. Stop this. Let the Human and these Gnolls go.”

Someone spoke. Tkrn was too dizzy to make it out. The Steelfur [Warrior] wasn’t about to listen to that, no matter how reasoned the tone, though. He spun—

“[Power Strike]!”

He hit the other Gnoll in the stomach with all his might. Tkrn heard a whoof and groan from the crowd. The other Gnoll growled. The Steelfur Gnoll went cross-eyed, staring at his fist. Then the answering punch laid him flat.

Everyone saw the Gnoll hit the ground. They waited for the Steelfur [Warrior] to rise. His eyes were rolled up in the back of his head.

Erad!

The other seven Steelfur [Warriors] rushed forwards. They charged Tkrn and the other Gnoll—the second Gnoll spun. The Steelfur’s Gnolls were fearless. Their fur was steel thanks to their Chieftain! They—

saw the magical sigils light up. They tried to stop. Merish hit a second Gnoll with an elbow in the jaw, then picked up a third and tossed him. The [Shamanic Warrior] squared off against a fourth and punched.

Tkrn got to his feet. His head was ringing. Suddenly—more Gnolls were fighting. One seized him and he saw more Decles warriors flooding into the fight. They jumped the lone [Shamanic Warrior]—for all of five seconds.

Then more Gnolls shouted.

“That’s Merish! Plain’s Eye tribe to me!

Gnolls spotted one of their kin under assault by Steelfur and Decles. They charged away from their posts and entered into the fray.

Wait, stop, st—

Tkrn kicked the Decles Gnoll who was shouting. Too late for both! He grabbed Inkar and dragged her back.

Protect civilians in a brawl—

“Stay back!”

He shouted. She nodded, wide-eyed.

What had been a five-person fight was now in the dozens. And the reason was getting more muddled by the second. Three more [Shamanic Warriors] and a number of Plain’s Eye Gnolls without [Warrior] classes ran forwards.

What’s happening? Merish! Merish!

An angry little Lizardman was hitting Gnolls with his staff. But he was one of the few using weapons.

 

—-

 

“What’s happening? Why are they brawling?”

“It’s a fight over whether Humans should be allowed into the Meeting of Tribes at all! They’re trying to kick that Human out!”

What? Inkarr?

The anti-Human Gnolls were increasing in number. Whereas Tkrn and the Gnolls embroiled in the fighting—now Silverfangs—were trying to shelter the one Human in the midst of the chaos.

Three students of Baleros watched, increasingly antsy despite the Minotaur assuring them it was a Gnoll affair and they were compelled not to interfere. They saw some of the Decles Gnolls grabbing at Inkar as the [Guardsman] tried to block them. It was looking bad—

The Steelfur Gnolls were just too tough for anyone but Merish and the [Shamanic Warriors] to go fist-to-fist with. Two joined the Decles group and they were dragging the young woman away. She blinked out of existence and the Steelfur [Warrior] snarled. He turned and saw her running.

Stop!

He ran after her. Tkrn was shouting.

Halt, criminal!

But he was embroiled in the fighting. The Steelfur warrior lunged at Inkar and ran neck-first into the arm. The second figure threw him to the ground.

I like Humans! Who’s bullying people?

She cracked her knuckles and removed the spectacles. The coughing Steelfur Gnoll tried to get up—the female Gnoll hopped on his chest and then leapt forwards. Merish was tangling with four Gnolls at once.

Emper! Elgrinna! Get over here!

She leapt and drop-kicked one of the Steelfur Gnolls in the back. They both fell down—and the unknown Gnoll hooked a leg as she came up. Then she shoulder-tackled another in the gut.

The angry two tribes found more outsiders joining into the fight. A Stitchman stopped a charging Gnoll with a palm to the chest. Inkar saw the Gnoll go flying and stared as Emper lowered his hand.

“[Force Palm]. Stay behind us, Miss.”

The [Monk] bowed to her again. The Dwarf just grunted.

“I’m going to kill Lemming—Suxhel, watch our backs!”

She lowered her head and charged headfirst into a groin. Emper strode forwards and the other Gnolls around Inkar were flung back. Not by a physical blow, but by a look.

The Gazer’s five eyes swung from target to target, moving them by force of…something. The four adventurers were joining in.

Venaz was vibrating. Merrik was staring at the female Dwarf, frowning.

“I swear I know her. How many female Dwarf adventurers in Izril are there? Venaz, are we just going to stand here with our beards up our asses?”

No! Dead gods! For the House of Minos!

Venaz charged into the fight. Peki and Merrik grinned. Although—at this point it wasn’t clear whom the Minotaur was fighting. It was just a brawl, and as Tkrn could have told you, at some point the reason behind it was lost.

The Gnoll staggered out of the fighting, spitting blood and feeling as though he’d cracked at least one finger. He looked around for Inkar and staggered towards her. Something began to pick him up, lifting him into the air—

“No! He protected me!”

Tkrn was dropped. The Gazer shifted her attention away. Inkar rushed forwards.

“Where’s Oor?”

“Who? That guy? He’s—”

Either enmeshed in the fighting or out of it. Tkrn looked over his shoulder.

The fighting was still making its way towards her. Some of the Decles Gnolls were rushing past them towards the Gazer and Tkrn and Inkarr. They passed some older, female Gnolls.

“It is Inkarr! She’s in trouble! Go find Chieftain Eska! Or Deskie! Now!”

A Gnoll exclaimed. One went bolting through the crowd. The Decles Gnolls passed the weaving circle Inkar had made friends with—

One of the [Weavers] grabbed a Decles [Warrior]. She was twenty years older than he was, but she put him in a chokehold and two more went down and the older Gnolls began kicking them.

Tkrn was laughing even as he towed Inkar away. It was—he looked at the young woman. She was different. But it reminded him of her.

Chaos for the right reasons. Merish yanked Gnolls away from Viri as the Lizardman insulted his opponents, hopping away.

“Where’s the Human? I—”

Someone charged into him and punched the Gnoll. He howled and knocked his opponent flat.

“The Human’s not here! Back away!”

He snarled at his smaller opponent. The Gnoll with white stripes on his cheeks hesitated, his paw raised to strike.

“What Human?”

Merish stared at him.

“Why are you here?”

“We heard there was a good fight!”

The Gnoll grinned and punched Merish—then regretted it.

 

—-

 

Venaz was carefully demonstrating the superior fisticuffs of the House of Minos. He was aiming for the Steelfur warriors, who were a proper fight, when he saw an old Gnoll walking through the brawl.

Instantly, he snapped out of his fight-mode.

“Old Gnoll! You! Honored elder! It isn’t safe!”

The Gnoll was short for his kind—closer to five foot five, which was a short Gnoll. He was gray, as old as the oldest Weatherfurs Venaz had met. The Minotaur blocked the combatants as he tried to steer the old Gnoll away.

“Safe? Ah, it’s a fight. A fight. Good…”

The old Gnoll looked around. He was naked except for a single, very traditional, loincloth. He looked at Venaz.

“Minotaur. Excellent.

He grinned. Venaz stopped. His internal warrior’s senses were tingling. He saw the Gnoll’s eyes open wide—and then his teeth bare themselves. Venaz saw veins stand out under the old Gnoll’s fur—then tendons.

Then the Gnoll’s eyes developed that spark of…rage…that Venaz recognized in Minotaurs. His body seemed to convulse. And was—he suddenly taller? Like, an entire foot taller at least?

“Ah—elder. I don’t want to—”

Too late. The old Gnoll [Berserker] grabbed Venaz’ arm. And the Minotaur suddenly had serious reservations—

 

—-

 

“Did someone just throw that Minotaur?”

The female Gnoll who had been wearing spectacles blocked a punch with her armguard. Some of the brown paint flaked off and revealed—instead of the disguised leather—a brilliant glow beneath. She punched back, then whirled.

Someone behind her! She raised a fist—

And Tkrn held up his hands, shielding Inkar.

“Stop, stop!”

The Gnoll looked at Tkrn. She blinked.

“Ah! It’s the Human! Get her to safety!”

“I’m trying! But it’s chaos!”

Even the nearby tents and stalls were involved in hundreds of Gnolls fighting. Even if that was only throwing things or cheering on their favorite tribe. The Gnoll adventurer grinned.

“Follow me! We’ll get you out! Emper! Where are…?”

There! There is the Human who started this!

A howl from the left. Tkrn and Lehra turned. Inkar, looking around for Oor, froze.

Warriors from the Decles tribe, including the original three. But this time—

They’d drawn their weapons. Tkrn groaned.

“Oh no. Escalation.”

The Watch knew this. Let a fight go on too long and eventually, if it wasn’t contained or just a spirited brawl, it turned ugly. Someone drew a knife. And that wasn’t necessarily the dangerous part. The dangerous part was—

They have weapons!

One of the [Shamanic Warriors] with Merish shouted. Instantly, he drew a steel throwing axe. The Steelfur and Decles warriors around him scrambled back. And they went for their weapons.

“No! Stop! No bloodshed!”

Someone cried that out. But it was too late. Ill will or the desire to fight had turned into real bloodlust. The Decles Gnolls advanced. Tkrn reached for the sword or baton he hadn’t brought—because the Meeting of Tribes was supposed to be safe.

“Stay behind me.”

“No, I’ll run! Don’t—”

“Stop.”

The female Gnoll adventurer looked calm. She blocked the way as the armed Gnolls advanced. They aimed their weapons at her.

“Move aside! We are Decles tribe and we will have that Human even if we have to draw blood to do it!

They were beyond reason—and indeed—the inciting incident was too petty for this. The female Gnoll held her ground.

“No. You’ll have to go through me to do that. And you don’t want to do that.”

“Watch out! They’re not going to stop!”

Tkrn shouted at her. She just grinned at him. He heard more howls.

Silverfangs had arrived at last. Dekava had arrived with her spear, but that was just adding to the danger. It was going to be a battle!

“Enough! This has gone on long enough! By my authority, that Human’s under my protection!”

The female Gnoll shouted. The Decles Gnolls charged, heedless. Tkrn looked around for a weapon. A torch on a pole. A baseball bat! Something to save the suicidal brave Gnoll—

The adventurer raised her arm. And the flaking brown paint on her armguard fell off. The Gnolls staring at her saw a flash of light on a metal beyond steel. She raised her arm and shouted.

In the name of the City of Stars!

The gauntlet glowed. And then—the Blade of Mershi flashed. The Gnolls around her cried out. Tkrn shielded his gaze. And when he looked again, the Gnoll was holding a spear. Her body was covered in segmented, glowing armor.

The armor of stars. Drake armor. The last heirloom of the Walled City of Stars. The Decles tribe halted as Lehra Ruinstrider, Named Adventurer, lowered the blade.

Everyone halted. Merish, panting, shielding Viri. Venaz, Peki, and Merrik, as Feshi and some Weatherfur Gnolls halted, skidding forwards.

Krshia and Akrisa, with Beilmark and some of the Silverfang tribe’s best warriors.

Wide-eyed, Dekava, Tkrn, and the others turned. Lehra lowered the spear, looking a bit embarrassed. She scratched at the back of her helmet.

“Darn. And here I was hoping to keep my cover for at least a day!”

She laughed as her team formed up around her. A Gazer [Wizard], a Stitchman [Monk], and a Dwarf [Axe Thrower]. Members of one of the most famous Gnoll-led teams in the world, and one of the few Named Adventurers of her kind.

Stargazer’s Promise, and Lehra Ruinstrider, the [Magical Warrior].

The fighting stopped. Mad with rage they might be, but the Decles tribe wasn’t suicidal. Nor did anyone want to challenge the Named Adventurer. Not even Venaz. Tkrn, panting, saw more Gnolls flood forwards in the sudden silence.

“Is that Lehra? The Stargnoll?”

Chieftain Eska stared for only a moment. Deskie didn’t even stare.

Inkarr! What happened? We heard the Decles tribe was kicking up a storm after you and came. Are you hurt?”

The old [Magic Spinner] checked Inkar over, and then the Longstalkers were surrounding her. Not just them; eighteen of the Ekhtouch and Chieftain Orelighn of the Greenpaw tribe was there with his people too.

“What is happening? Why are my warriors engaged in a brawl—”

Another Gnoll strode through the chaos. Krshia and Akrisa approached as Chieftain Eska looked up. Lehra turned and gasped.

“Chieftain Iraz!”

The Chieftain of the Steelfur tribe was one of the most famous Gnolls living, such that even Tkrn knew his name. And Steelfur’s might was founded on his Skills.

His fur looked like metal itself. And it was apparently tougher than even steel…sort of a misnomer for the tribe, then. Tkrn saw him halt.

Silverfang. Greenpaw. Longstalker’s Fang. And Steelfur. The Chieftains regarded each other in the aftermath of the fighting. And this too was familiar. Tkrn looked around.

“All you need now is a crazy Human to serve cake.”

He saw Inkar jump and look at him. Krshia stared at the slightly-dizzy grin on Tkrn’s face.

“What happened here? Lehra, those are my warriors you’re pointing your spear at.”

The Chieftain of the Steelfur Tribe was first to speak. Iraz looked at Lehra. The much-younger Gnoll looked guilty.

“Sorry, Chieftain Iraz. I didn’t mean to pick a fight with them. It was just—they were going to throw this Human out and I had to stop them.”

“Throw a Human out?”

Iraz’s brows came together. Instantly, the Steelfur warriors protested. They hurried forwards, clearly worried.

“Not that, Chieftain! We were coming to the aid of Decles, who were in a fight over custody of the Human who broke the Meeting of Tribes’ laws.”

“She did not!”

A howl came from the back. Oor stumbled upright, extremely battered but furious. Eska gasped.

“Oor! Who did this to you?”

“Those brutes went after Inkarr for being in the inner camp! Even though I said Ekhtouch and our tribe vouched for her!”

“And Greenpaw!”

Chieftain Orelighn added. Iraz looked around.

“Chieftains Akrisa, Eska, Orelighn. Are your warriors mixed up in this?”

“It appears so. One of our kin came to the aid of Longstalker’s Fangs. We just heard of it, Chieftain Iraz.”

Tkrn winced as Krshia and the other Gnolls glared at him. But not too long. Oor was still talking.

“They didn’t take our word for it. Nearly twisted Inkarr’s arm off and said that their tribe would decide things even after I told them to go to you, Chieftain Eska!”

“Is this true?”

The Decles Gnolls were off-guard and unhappy at the sudden change. They glowered, and one spat.

“The Longstalker warrior attacked us first! That Human was in the inner camp and we did exactly what we should have when one of ours spotted her!”

“You didn’t think to ask Plain’s Eye or the tribe involved before dragging her off? As for my warriors—did you jump into the argument without even establishing whether Decles was right?”

“And who would not take Ekhtouch’s word? If we vouch for her, one has either lied and used our word without our consent—or there is nothing to say.”

One of the Ekhtouch Gnolls sniffed haughtily. That actually helped since every Gnoll rolled their eyes at this. The Decles Gnolls were quiet. Iraz looked around, vexed. It was Krshia who coughed.

“No tribe is entirely without fault. Perhaps we should make amends and come to the truth later.”

“Well said. Inkarr, you will come with us. And if anyone would like to argue, come forwards!”

Deskie snapped. The esteemed weaver looked around for a challenge—even Decles wouldn’t step up to that one with her.

But they weren’t happy. Tkrn relaxed slightly as the mood deescalated. Iraz turned to Akrisa, Eska, and Orelighn.

“I will speak to Decles’ Chieftain. He will be furious—let us talk later.”

“Skies willing. Thank you, Chieftain Iraz.”

He nodded curtly and strode off. Half the Steelfurs went with him, but the other half remained to help fix the damages.

In the aftermath of a fight in Liscor, Tkrn was used to outrage. Drakes coming out in safety to assign blame, the Watch taking names and damages for punitive fines and so on.

This was different. The tribes were helping fix the damages, talking, making up—and, surprisingly, doing so with a fair amount of goodwill. A Steelfur warrior rubbed her jaw as she offered a paw to Merish and he took it.

“Good fight. Nice to see other tribes can still punch.”

Another Gnoll commented. Tkrn shook his head. This would have been the start of some serious grudges in Liscor. But the Plains Gnolls had a different attitude towards fighting. Sometimes it was necessary.

Then again—the Decles tribe’s Gnolls just spat and stormed off back to the inner camp. Someone tsked.

“They drew weapons first and they can’t even acknowledge a good fight? Someone should have slapped all of them as cubs.”

A Gnoll with those markings on his fur who had come for the good fight groused. It was an old Gnoll with grey fur—the same one Venaz was avoiding—who walked over and kicked him.

“You don’t beat children, you fool. You beat adults. Children are too small to understand, and too fragile. That was a good fight. But we missed it because all of you were too slow!”

He growled. Tkrn, reaching for a potion, eyed the newcomers.

“What tribe is that?

Dekava glanced over as she produced a potion to help tend to his and the other Silverfang’s wounds.

“That has to be Wild Wastes. They train [Barbarians]. [Berserkers] too. If I know that old Gnoll, he’s a famous one.”

Too right! And there was no one to fight. I wanted to take on another Named Adventurer.”

The old Gnoll had heard her. Lehra Ruinstrider was surrounded by admirers, but he seemed to be interested in her for entirely different reasons. He grinned.

“You were two feet taller in the fight.”

“[Berserker]. We’re Wild Wastes tribe. And those Decles Gnolls needed a good initiation ritual. I am Berr. Some called me Honored Berrigral. But I don’t care. You, youngling. You fight well for a City Gnoll. Shame you haven’t fought enough.

He gave Tkrn a gap-toothed grin. Here was a scary old Gnoll. He reminded Tkrn of Tekshia.

“Initiation ritual, Honored Berr?”

“To toughen up young Gnolls. We don’t beat cubs. But we do kick out the stupid of our young warriors when they’re nearly of age. Every Gnoll thinks he or she’s the toughest [Warrior] in the world. So. We make them fight a cow when they’re sixteen.”

The two young Gnolls looked at him.

“You mean…a Razorhorn Bull or something like that, Honored Berrigral?”

He looked puzzled.

“No. I mean a cow. An angry one.”

“So just a bull.”

“Mm. They don’t have to be male. We don’t give them any weapons. They get to fight with their paws versus a cow. All those spitfire Gnolls think they’re so strong until a cow sits on their legs. They usually don’t die, though. That’s what those Gnolls need. Traditionalists. Always arrogant.”

“Isn’t Wild Wastes a traditional tribe?”

Berr gave Dekava a blank look.

“I suppose it is. But we don’t care. Good fight, younglings! Call me if you have another. Especially if you get Iraz. I want to see if he’s any tougher.”

He wandered off. Tkrn stared after him. Truly, the Meeting of Tribes brought all kinds of Gnolls.

Krshia smacked him. Then she pinched his ear.

“And what were you doing?”

“Aunt! I was just trying to help—my ear!

Tkrn whined. Krshia was in the middle of tongue-lashing him when someone came over.

“Excuse me. Please do not be too angry at…Tkrn? He helped me. I would have been hurt otherwise.”

Tkrn and Krshia turned. Inkar had come over with the Longstalkers to apologize and thank him. Chieftain Eska nodded, a touch warily, at Akrisa. Krshia let go of Tkrn. She smiled, ruefully.

“At least he did some good this time. You are…Inkarr?”

“Inkar of the Longstalkers. Yes.”

“Inkarr the Traveller. And she is Honored Inkarr. I think of her as a granddaughter!”

Deskie put in fondly. Krshia blinked, but she smiled.

“Honored Inkarr. I am Honored Krshia. And this is my nephew who causes much trouble, Tkrn!”

He hung his head. But Inkar nodded at him.

“Thank you, Tkrn.”

“It was nothing. I’m uh—a [Guard]. I just acted on instinct, Miss Inkar.”

She blinked.

“Say that again.”

“I acted on instinct?”

“No, my name.

“Inkar?”

The young woman was delighted. She clapped her hands.

“I knew someone could say it!”

Tkrn realized he hadn’t put the rolling r’s on the end of her name that every other Gnoll did. A city accent—Inkar was laughing.

“Oh good, she’s safe. And is this Silverfang? I was going to play baseball.

A commotion. From the side came Lehra Ruinstrider, as some of her tribe kept the crowd back. Tkrn and the others stared. Half the Gnolls bowed—but she grinned.

“Hello. Is it Tkrn and Inkar? I’m Lehra.”

She casually stuck out a paw. Inkar hesitated, then she took it, and Tkrn did likewise. He blinked at her.

“You’re the Stargnoll. The youngest Named Adventurer in…”

“Don’t call me that. Just Lehra is fine. And you’re from Liscor, right? The city with…popcorn. I’ve been dying to try it, but not even Oteslia had any!”

“Popcorn?”

“And cake. I heard you have special, tall cakes. And ice cream and…”

The Gnoll looked longingly at her team. Half of them rolled their eyes—and when a Gazer did it, that was something.

This was the moment. Merish was shaking his head, a bit embarrassed. But he too was looking at the Human. Tkrn was speaking.

“Thank you for helping. I just—we have Humans in my city. So when I thought someone was trying to get rid of one because she was Human—”

“I like Humans. My entire team is like me!”

Lehra grinned. Merish looked at Viri, who was hopping forwards, excited to meet a Named Adventurer. And that was the attitude. He himself remembered a glorious company. It had been so short…

“You too. Hello. Thank you so much for coming to help.”

Inkar smiled shyly at him. Tkrn turned and began to thank Merish profusely. The [Shamanic Warrior] waved it away.

“I am warrior Merish—of Plain’s Eye. I only did what I thought was right. This is Viri, from Baleros.”

What a strange group. Venaz listened from afar, remembering his own business in Liscor. Tkrn was trying to assure Lehra that it wasn’t actually that hard to get popcorn.

“You can make some with dried corn and oil. And salt. And…yeast, although that might be optional. But we have some if you want. And cakes, I think.”

Really? Can I buy some?”

Tkrn shrugged. A second later, Chieftain Akrisa nearly knocked him flat. She smiled at the Named Adventurer.

“The Silverfang tribe would be honored to give you as much as you want, Adventurer Lehra. You and your team! And to a warrior of the Plain’s Eye tribe—please, you are all friends this day.”

Merish ducked his head, more reserved than Lehra, who was practically dancing at the idea. She turned to Akrisa.

“Chieftain—are you all from Liscor? Did the Silverfang tribe go there? I hear there’s all kinds of exciting stuff that way!”

“Not our tribe, Honored Lehra. But our kin work there and have come all this way to join in the Meeting of Tribes. This is Honored Krshia, my sister, who leads them. You know Guardsman Tkrn. Here is also Honored Beilmark…”

They did the introductions. Tkrn felt odd, standing next to such an important Gnoll. He saw Inkar keep glancing at him—and then at the baseball field, currently being repopulated—and then her Chieftain.

“Is this where baseball comes from? They are playing…baseball, Eska.”

A meaningful look. Tkrn nodded, without seeing the way Krshia’s eyes sharpened at the correct pronunciation of the game on first go. And…a Human among Gnolls. She nudged Akrisa ever-so-slightly as Eska’s ears perked up and she stared at Inkar.

“Yes. A Human in Liscor invented the game. Actually—I know Joseph, the Human who made soccer. Football, rather.”

Really?

Different emotions. Viri was excited and Merish, tired, was happy to see that in the Lizardman. Simple and plain. Lehra was interested.

Venaz curious as he came over to introduce himself.

Inkar? She blinked. Krshia Silverfang looked at her, and then saw Eska and Orelighn looking at her sharply. She smiled.

And she knew. She stepped back as she let Tkrn talk to this chance group, of extraordinarily important people. Feshi, who trained under the Titan of Baleros and whose tribe was as great as the Plain’s Eye tribe represented by Merish? The Named Adventurer, the Stargnoll?

That was one thing. But most importantly—she looked at Inkar. Whom they called Inkar the Traveller. Krshia bared her teeth as Akrisa watched her.

 

—-

 

Later that day, Elirr, taking a break from another Council meeting to discuss the war with Hectval received a simple missive from the Silverfangs at the Meeting of Tribes. He read it, reading the hidden code in the [Message].

 

Please prepare Mrsha to come. She will be needed.

Also—send one of the Humans. We have met another.

 

His eyes widened. And the Meeting of Tribes truly began as Tkrn met new friends and people after a game of baseball and a fight.

It was almost like the old days.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Why~ is it such a long~ chapter~?

I might have been able to do this in two parts. The tradeoff would have been a more boring chapter—but more expansion on the Meeting of Tribes and scenes.

There is definitely more to say, though, so perhaps this is fine. Either way, I hope you enjoy! We are three chapters in and I’m already tired of counting.

But I might be getting back into the stride of things. At least, I am enjoying Gnoll culture—are you? The Meeting of Tribes was actually supposed to be before this…by like a Volume or two before I realized how much there is to say.

So it goes. But more Gnolls and people are meeting. And I’m sure there will not be any dramatic results from all of this.

Ahem. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!

 

Simon-Erin by LeChat, commissioned by Gunmandude2!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/lechatdemon

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

Erin playing chess by asfaitita, commissioned by Maher!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/asfaitita

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/samiamarini/

 

Torsion Crossbow, Facestealer, Ivolethe, and Stitchworks by MrMomo!

 


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8.01

(One of The Wandering Inn’s readers, delta201, has written and published their own story in the same genre on Amazon! Check it out here if you want to read their story and congratulations!)

 

They were moving out.

Not that it was unusual; an inn had few permanent guests. But it was unusual in this inn. For, as Lyonette had once observed, Erin did not run a usual inn. She’d barely constructed a stables two months ago.

Similarly, she had few temporary guests. What she had made was…a home. Sometimes a home aways from home. Sometimes—the only true home her guests had ever known, like Bird and the Redfangs. And despite the craziness, it seemed the guests only left when someone had died.

Sometimes it was them. Zel Shivertail had once stayed here. Zel. Shivertail. But sometimes they left because someone else had died.

This time, it was because the [Innkeeper] was not there to keep them around. And the [Princess] was not there to oversee the farewell.

So it fell, as such tasks did, to Ishkr the Gnoll. Ishkr, whose defining trait was a lack of one. A helpful quality in a worker.

No, that wasn’t fair. Ishkr’s defining trait was that he lacked any negative ones, while possessing admirable traits in the right quantities. After all, he worked hard. He didn’t get upset easily. He was independent enough to do whatever he saw needed doing, like cleaning a spilled drink, or kick out a Shield Spider—and he did it. Motivation, independence, the ability to calm angry guests whose fries had been grabbed by little white Gnolls…

He had a lot of good traits. He was just not an Erin—or Drassi—or even Lyonette, all with admirable strengths, and a good deal of flaw as well. He was someone every business wanted because he didn’t drag his personal troubles with him. He did his job, he got paid, and he left.

But he was also part of this inn. Enough so that when Lyonette left, she looked at those who remained and saw Ishkr, who had been here the longest aside from Drassi and, unlike her, wasn’t torn between two jobs. For that matter, Drassi was more like The Wandering Inn’s mascot, or famous temp worker. If she put hours at the bar, it was just for her idea of fun.

She was here, though. She and Ishkr felt like it was important. And he was very glad, because he wouldn’t have known what to do.

It was simple, though. Drassi didn’t have a rulebook either, but she did what came naturally to the [Gossip]-turned-[Reporter]. She shook hands with Temile, gently closing her claws around his fingers, and Ishkr did likewise. To the other [Actors] too.

“I’m sorry. I really am. I just don’t think we’d—and everything’s changing.”

That was all Temile managed. Ishkr nodded solemnly. He felt like his fur was white; he checked every day in the mirror. Even Drassi’s ready smile was—tainted.

A good number of the Players of Celum—the originals from Celum itself—had stayed at The Wandering Inn. They were all moving out.

Bags packed, rooms vacated. Ishkr would need to clean them or…have them cleaned. Perhaps he could pay one of the employees for an hour or two’s work. He was, after all, [Head Server] now. He hadn’t ever dreamed he’d be in that kind of role.

He really had taken this job because it paid well, he’d been recommended and persuaded to by Krshia, and had just worked diligently into this position. He wouldn’t have accepted it, normally. Management was stressful.

But he’d liked Erin. So he found himself agreeing despite his inclination to have time to watch out for his sister. Liska. Besides—it had helped since some of the Watch ate and drank here.

“Where will you go?”

Ishkr looked at the other [Actors]. They shrugged.

“The new lodgings. Into the city. We’re trying to rent rooms nearer to the new theatre, anyways.”

“The new…?”

Ishkr realized he had no idea, and coughed, embarrassed as Drassi blinked at him. He wasn’t Erin! He didn’t know the minutiae of what was happening in their lives.

“Sorry. The new theatre for the Players of Liscor. The city’s subsidized it. It’ll be in the new quarter of the city. We didn’t know if we wanted it what with the [Grand Theatre], but…”

They looked at him. They were not staying. Could not stay, in the same building where Erin lay. Temile nodded.

“That’s half of them. I’m putting the Players of Liscor in Carrec’s h—paws.”

He patted a Gnoll on the shoulder. The [Actor] was one of the ‘newer’ ones, having signed up after the Players began performing in Liscor. Nevertheless, he was still months more experienced than the actual new Players.

“And you, Temile?”

“Invrisil.”

Ishkr started. Invrisil? He listened, abashed, but only slightly. It felt like everything else had mattered less since Erin had…died. He had been in silence so long, moving around the inn, trying to set everything in order. Not listening to the hushed conversations taking place.

“Invrisil?”

Temile was trying to smile.

“That’s right. It’s a promotion. I’m taking over for the Players of Celum in Invrisil. Emme told me it was me or…she didn’t have a second pick. I’m taking some of our best [Actors], though. Well, a 50-50 split.”

The others chuckled. Carrec stage-whispered to the others, with an exaggerated pose.

“He only says that so we think we’re one of the ‘good actors’ he left behind.”

They all smiled or laughed. Even Ishkr. How easy that was. Pretend, for a moment, that all was well. Then you caught someone’s eye and the smile froze. And everyone remembered Erin was dead.

Stop thinking that. Ishkr wanted that thought excised from his mind. He wanted the…pain to stop. The sorrow. The emptiness. Each one as bad as actual agony.

“You’re managing the Players of Celum? But then—what about Jasi? Wesle? Emme?”

Ishkr turned to Temile to cover the sudden silence. The [Producer] looked at him much like Drassi had. Then he smiled.

“I forget you might not have heard, Ishkr. They’re going north again. On the road to First Landing—although they probably won’t get there right away. After the performance they gave, half of Izril’s Human nobility want them to perform for them. And apparently—they’ve hired on more people.”

“Really?”

“They got a Level 40 [Tumbler]. If you can believe that. Scooped her up right after the Summer S…the party. Practically begged to join up. Claimed her act was stale and worthless. Emme says the party broke her spirits, so she snagged her before anyone else could. And they met other entertainers. Barelle the Bard—the Skylights—they’re in talks to combine performances, or at least put on some of Barelle’s stories.”

Big names. Famous names in the entertainment industry. Ishkr just smiled and nodded blankly. Level 40 was the only thing he understood.

“You’re always welcome here. Ishkr’s keeping the inn running, right, Ishkr? And you’ll see me.”

“On television. Wonders never cease. We won’t forget this inn. We owe our careers. Everything to…”

Reflexively, Temile swallowed. And the [Actors] fell silent. They had many fine words, written by masters. But even their soliloquies on death faltered now. They would be better performers for every scene like this. Perhaps too good. Because they understood it.

The Players of Liscor and Celum left the inn. Drassi stood there, waving from the threshold of the portal room as Temile bowed before stepping through to Invrisil. She watched the others walk down the hill through the main door. They preferred to walk, as if it mattered more than just going through the magic door.

It probably did. Drassi sniffed as they were gone.

“So it’s just Hexel, now. His assistants, Montressa, Palt, Bezale, Mrsha, that new Hobgoblin, Ulvama, Numbtongue, Bird, the Humans…not many at all.”

Ishkr nodded. Counting the seven Humans, it was still over ten. But the inn felt even quieter now. Drassi looked at him.

“How’re you doing, Ishkr? I haven’t been…around.”

“I saw you on the news. You have your job.”

She flinched, bit her lip and her tail drooped along the floor as if she was guilty.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“You’re doing something. My sister actually asked me to get your autograph. Besides. There’s nothing to do…here. Not much. Imani cooks food. I just sweep now and then.”

The Gnoll knew that wasn’t quite true. But Drassi accepted the lie with a smile.

“I can sign an autograph! You know, people are asking me for them? They’re crazy!”

“You don’t have to for her.”

Liska would just run her mouth off about it and Ishkr didn’t need her bragging or getting more excited. But he still told Drassi how to properly spell her name. The Drake was happy to do it.

Then they just stood there. Ishkr tucked the autographed cardboard into his belt pouch. Drassi looked at him.

“So how are you doing?”

What was he supposed to say? My employer is dead. The other one has left for Oteslia. I’m left in charge of caring for Mrsha—who won’t eat or move, despite Imani and Selys trying to talk to her. No one comes in here and but for the portal door, this place is empty.

“Fine.”

She nodded a few times. After a moment, Ishkr raised a paw and scratched at his chin.

“Well, actually…there is one thing I was curious about.”

“Oh? Can I help? I’m free today. Noass and Sir Relz keep cutting my working timeslots anyways. I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re doing. I’d love to help, if I can.”

She studied him. She’d badgered him into having an after-work drink a few times. Drassi was one of the co-workers who brought everything in her life with her. Ishkr had accepted, because she was genuinely friendly. But he could see why she’d been fired before. And why she was clearly headed on a different career path from his.

“Perhaps. I was just going to go into the city, actually. To check on someone.”

“Who? One of the staff? We can head over right now…”

They walked through the portal room. It too was empty. It was meant to be guarded; now, the only two guards were the Brothers. Two of them stood in the hallway each hour of the day. All night too, it seemed. Waiting. They took food and drinks, but they were clearly only here to…kill someone. They scared Ishkr.

When Erin was alive, she wouldn’t have accepted that. They would either be welcome guests, slowly absorbed into the inn, or gone after half a week. Right now, though? He just let them stay.

The two walked into Liscor, talking. Bells still rang for funerals. But most had ended. The city was silent. Tensed.

“You know, we’re still at war with Hectval. People are saying the Council might even consider conscription.”

“For war?”

Ishkr’s fur rose. He didn’t ask how Drassi knew. She talked to everyone. The Drake hastened to assure him.

“It’s unlikely. But—well, it’s not over. So who’re we meeting? One of the staff?”

“In a sense. We’ve—Lyonette—let go of most of the workers. Paid them, but told them it was unlikely the inn will be seeing much business.”

“She didn’t ask you to keep it running?”

Drassi was surprised. Ishkr shook his head. She should have, but neither one could picture it. That was why the Players were leaving. Who could drink and make merry knowing just behind the garden’s door lay Erin?

“No. But we have some permanent staff. I’ll be employing…my sister…”

“Liska. She’s nice.”

“No, she isn’t.”

Ishkr groused. Drassi smiled; that was as close to a lie as she ever told. She didn’t know Liska that well, though. That also helped.

“She can at least sweep up. But Lyonette told me to keep the Antinium employed; they don’t have other jobs. And the [Lords] might want to trade…the door’s not being used, but she asked me to start the regular portal services soon.”

“Oh, right. Good idea. So what’s the problem? Don’t tell me one of the Antinium’s called in sick.”

She laughed. Ishkr cleared his throat.

“Actually—he didn’t show up for work. Or rather, he did, but—he handed in his resignation this morning. Silveran has quit his job.”

Drassi stared at Ishkr so long she walked into a wall. She bounced off and stopped.

“You’re joking. H-hah. Good one, Ishkr! I never knew you had a sense of humor!”

He blinked at her. The [Reporter]’s smile faltered. She reached for her side, and produced…a notepad.

“Now this is news. Tell me everything.”

“I don’t know what there is to tell. He informed me he had found other work and left. I asked him why, and he directed me…well, this way.”

 

—-

 

As always, the world was changing. But it seemed that sometimes it turned faster. So fast that you could be sent flying if you didn’t jump with it.

Even the Antinium, now?

They found the Worker with painted, silver antennae sweeping up the shop front. He tried to hide behind the door when he saw them coming.

Ishkr and Drassi stared at the shop’s front. You wouldn’t have noticed the shop’s sign yesterday. Because it had been so worn and faded no one would have really seen it. But someone had climbed up, cleaned the frontage, then reapplied paint and varnish.

Carrotgrass Emporium. As names went…Drassi’s brow wrinkled as she stared up at it. She stared at the display and understood.

“Oh, a grocery.”

In fact, a quite well-stocked grocery. The glass windows had been shined, polished, and fresh produce was on display. Someone had gone through, replaced all the missing price tags, organized everything by produce type—there were carrots, as promised, actual grasses (the edible kinds)—and more. In fact, the shop had a supply of customers coming in and out with small purchases.

Perhaps just from the novelty of the change. But the truth was—cleanliness was appealing. This shop stood out on the street from the hard work that had been put into making it so nice.

Not to mention the Antinium. Ishkr and Drassi traded a look. Reflexively—they looked around. Because this?

This was the Solstice Effect. Trademarked, copyrighted, if such things existed, and stamped with The Wandering Inn’s official seal of madness. Ishkr longed to hear that familiar voice and laugh—

But there was just Silveran. He was the architect. And he looked very worried.

I am sorry. He signed at Ishkr before hurrying into the shop. Ishkr scratched his head.

“He really did quit! I know this shop and street! It’s never looked this nice! Did they replace the floorboards? They’re light! They used to be gray-brown! And the sign! I didn’t know this place was called Carrotgrass Emporium! That’s—that’s an objectively hilarious and weird name, right?”

Drassi was blown away. Ishkr just shook his head.

“So that was why he quit. Well…”

He was about to say more when he heard the voices. Some of the other [Shopkeepers] as well as customers were inside the shop, talking with the owner. Miss Pelessi. Drassi knew her; Ishkr did not.

This was a Drake neighborhood; he shopped from Gnolls, locally. But he peeked in with Drassi and heard the conversation.

“Pelessi. That’s an Antinium working in your shop.”

A Drake was pointing bemusedly at Silveran. He was restocking the shelves. He jumped when everyone looked at him.

The owner of the shop, Miss Pelessi, widowed, and now the sole member of her family, had known better times. And worse times. She blinked around the light store as if she was just as surprised as everyone else. But she leaned on the counter, and gave the Drake a look.

“So, Erils? Does that statement have a tail on it or are you leaving it hanging?”

The Drake considered his words. Drassi nudged Ishkr.

“Erils. [Appraiser]. For rocks, not other stuff. Local miners go to him.”

“How do you know him?”

“I’m Drassi.”

The [Appraiser] hmmed.

“Well, it’s just—it’s an Antinium. Not to say that it’s wrong to employ Antinium…I’ve known plenty of folks who live in a home Antinium have made. Never fallen on their heads. And some do butcher’s work. I even know they break rocks for very reasonable money—but it’s an Antinium.”

He let the statement dangle. Everyone in the shop except perhaps Silveran knew what was meant, anyways. The Drake frowned.

“And?”

And…I’m just observing, is all.”

Erils was unwilling to commit further on the off-chance this was a trap and he was a mouse dancing on the bait. Pelessi huffed.

“Well, observe how clean my shop is! He showed up yesterday—and it’s not ‘an Antinium’, it’s Silveran. One of the Painted ones.”

“Ah, right. Them. Well—you hired him?”

“That’s right. I don’t have more…tails to work in my shop.”

Instantly, the other Drakes coughed and looked at Erils. He bit his tongue.

“No, of course not. And if you wanted help, my boys could have—”

“Worked for how long?”

“Er…”

Pelessi gave him a defiant look, and the local neighborhood at large.

“I hired an Antinium because he cleaned my floors and shop and offered to come back. Seemed surprised when I asked if he wanted a job! And he came by at dawn to fix my supplies, cleaned up everything—I thought I was being robbed! He even fixed that mouse hole in my room! Ate the mice too, I think. Well, good for him.”

The others murmured. It was hard to deny that the shop looked better than it had yesterday—or for the last fifteen years, for that matter. One of the Drake [Shopkeepers] nudged his daughter.

“I wish you woke up and did a tenth of that, kid.”

She glowered at her father, whom she was apprenticing to. Erils nodded at Silveran.

“So he’ll be your employee? Which is fine, obviously. I was just asking.”

He looked around, hunted. Pelessi sniffed.

“Yes. I could hardly afford to hire an [Assistant]. But Silveran asked and he wants work so—yes. I’ll pay him properly, though! And he’ll get breakfast, lunch, even dinners he works for me. I feel like he needs such things, too. Silveran—that’s his name—will work until he falls down if you let him. And he’s less than one year old. Just a—a boy.”

“A year old?”

Everyone stared at Silveran. The news about Antinium ages wasn’t widespread—although it was obvious if you thought about it. They talked, well, debated without really calling it debating.

“I suppose that’s fine. It’s not like we haven’t had Senior Guardsman Klbkch in the watch all these years. And they’re the painted ones. I think that makes them special, doesn’t it?”

“I heard that means they can’t go Aberration. And that’s true! We had Klbkch—Pelessi couldn’t afford an apprentice. Good for her. Thought she’d waste away. And her produce is good! If you wash it twice, why, you’d never mind an Antinium touched it.”

“Where is Senior Guardsman Klbkch, anyways? I haven’t seen him, or Relc yet. Not that I miss that loudmouth…”

Ishkr heard some of the Drakes whispering. It was a Drake street after all. He motioned to Drassi and they tiptoed out of the door as one of the other Drakes remarked how he wished someone could clean his sign front. And Silveran looked up with that specialized madness of people who enjoyed removing dirt…

“He really did quit!”

Drassi was astounded. Ishkr just nodded to himself.

“Yes. Good.”

She looked at him sidelong. The Gnoll scratched behind his ears.

“The inn doesn’t have much to do besides make beds and clean up now and then. Good for him.”

The [Reporter] hesitated, and then nodded slowly. She cast a glance back.

“It’s just…no, I’m glad too. It’s just that…”

I wish he didn’t leave. That we needed him. That the inn was still open. Ishkr nodded again. Some things didn’t need to be said.

They left. Drassi wasn’t really working, and Ishkr had to get back to the inn. To look after Mrsha, although Imani had promised to keep an eye on her. But…what was there to watch?

He was glad for Silveran. Almost envious. But it was just another thing that Ishkr found terribly bitter. How quickly it changed.

 

—-

 

Far from Liscor, or even Izril, was a room. It was a room dedicated to observation, and thus contained six mirrors.

A Drake stood before them. It could have been any species, except Gnoll, really, even Dwarf. But she had volunteered and her species was appropriate. But more than Drake, she was—

[Mage]. [Seer], if you wanted to be specific. And her job was to watch. Normally—there wasn’t much to see. But now…

The Drake watched a much darker room illuminate as a beam of light struck a figure sitting alone. She lifted the clipboard and the magical quill poised, ready to transcribe everything word for word.

 

Observation Log #184:

Sole figure in the room. Changed locations. Single entity—designation ‘ Armored Queen’.

 

A vast figure in the center of the room. It moved, spoke, lifting a huge appendage. And her deep, large voice was recorded word-for-word on the clipboard.

“The Armored Queen speaks to the Flying Queen.”

“Flying Queen. What topic of conversation have you today, Armored Queen?”

A second Queen appeared in a second mirror. Illuminated by another beam of light. The [Seer] noted the change in location; no Antinium around her. The Armored Queen’s voice was slow, ponderous…almost stilted. The Drake made a note—‘different cadence observed’.

“Flying Queen, I would like to discuss our preparations for the possibility of war. Indeed, our secret weapons which we are poised to bear on a prospective enemy.”

A chill ran down the [Seer]’s back. Her tail flicked urgently and her magical quill scribbled faster. She hesitated, and waved at the head [Diviner], who was coordinating the Pallass News Network broadcast in a room connecting to this one. He trotted over as the Flying Queen nodded several times.

“You mean, our unspecified mass-destruction anti-magic artifact of unparalleled might, Armored Queen?”

The Flying Queen’s question made the Armored Queen visibly hesitate. After a second, she clicked her mandibles.

“Yes. That. Which we have in abundance. Capable of five hundred mile deployment and six hundred and twenty one foot destructive capabilities.”

“Yes. I have six such artifacts stored.”

“I have eight.”

“Indeed? This is good. We should produce more in case our enemies should threaten us.”

“Yes. As I have said, production is underway. That is all I wish to communicate.”

“Very good, Armored Queen.”

The two [Mages] watched as the mirrors went dead. The [Diviner] looked at the [Seer]. She shook her head slowly. It was the sixth such conversation she’d recorded in the last two days. She turned to the [Diviner], her boss, helplessly.

“I’m 70% sure they’re messing with us. But it’s disturbing that I’m only 70% sure.”

“Catalogue it for the Archmages. They’ll review whether to send it on.”

The [Diviner] grimaced. He’d certainly noticed that the Queens had stopped using their mirrors and changed their locations—as well as begun dropping very specific hints about improbable defenses and force distributions.

He doubted the Archmages would want to pass this on…their credibility had rather been deflated by warning the Walled Cities of a war that had never, in fact, transpired. Somehow, the Queens had caught on that they were being monitored.

That was not the only change among the Antinium, of course. A small number—but still, nearly a thousand Antinium had attacked and slaughtered a Drake force outside of Liscor. The [Seer] shuddered as the mirrors went dark—another sign that the Queens were probably aware of the spying. Or else why didn’t they leave them pointed towards them at all times?

For that matter—before they went dark, the Drake definitely noticed some Workers and Soldiers putting a blanket on top of it before the mirror was dragged elsewhere. Yes, the Antinium were changing. But she could not have known what inspired far more change than in just the Queens.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was dead. No, frozen. Don’t even think ‘dead’, for that was wrong.

But think of it and feel the all-consuming despair and hatred. Think of her, as she lies there. You did not even see her wounded. You were not there to shield her.

You could not heal her. So say it.

“[Summon Aberration].”

This time, he saw it more clearly. This was how it happened, in detail: the Worker watched as the others drew back, shivering, shaking. Even the Free Queen stared.

Something tore a hole in the air. As if the air were just…cloth or paper, and you could pierce it with your hands and pull apart a gap. Beyond the air lay only a void. Not darkness, not color, but a lack of it.

And out of it came a Worker. No—

An Aberration.

It shuddered, twitching with what Pawn knew was rage, a madness only the Antinium processed in this way. Just a Worker. And yet—even trained [Soldiers] had gone down to its madness.

For, Pawn realized, the Worker was armed. It had a kitchen knife in one hand, a carpenter’s hammer and awl in the other.

As if it were an actual Worker, and had seized the nearest tools around it before going on a rampage.

As they did. Aberrations were rare, but when they occurred, a Worker—or Soldier—would simply—snap. They would go mad and kill everything in sight, other Antinium, people, and only cease when they had been dismembered.

The ones he had summoned had killed the enemy before fading away. And this one…pulled itself out of the air and stopped.

It looked around and everyone drew back. Pawn himself. He felt afraid of his own creation, and he knew it was his creation. But the azure Antinium’s staff was raised, and even the summoned Antinium seemed to flinch away from her.

Xrn, the Small Queen. She watched with the rest.

“What…is this, Xrniavxxel?”

At last, the Free Queen asked. Xrn studied the Aberration. Her chitin armor, azure, unique, glowed with the light from her staff and eyes as she approached slowly.

“Something new, my Queen.”

That was her only answer at first. Pawn saw her step forwards; so did Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] was wary, afraid. But the huge Antinium—a full inch and a half taller than any other Soldier—was not about to risk Xrn being attacked.

She would not be. The aberration shuddered, but it did not track Xrn as she stepped around it. After a moment, she looked at Pawn.

“You can order it, can’t you, Pawn?”

“Yes.”

The [Priest] whispered. Xrn nodded. The other Antinium stared at him and he felt it again.

Change. Because those stares were laced with horror. Fear, where once he had never felt such emotions from the other Antinium. Belgrade, Purple Smiles—Garry was hiding in his kitchen.

He did not, could not flee from the gazes, though. So he stood there. Letting them all witness what he had conjured in the depths of his hatred and despair.

Aberration. Xrn pointed slowly.

“Can you…order it to climb that wall?”

A short wall of stone rose out of the ground. Dekass shifted; the Prognugators of other Hives had all drawn their weapons. He, Tersk, Pivr, and Xeu watched as the Aberration trembled there. Then—suddenly bolted for the stone wall. They readied themselves, but the Aberration clambered over it, and then came to another stop.

It was what Pawn had ordered it to do. Slowly, Xeu crossed her scythe-arms, relaxing a fraction. But she stared much as the other Antinium did.

Unsettled.

“I—I ordered it to move, Xrn, my Queen.”

Pawn’s voice was faint. Xrn nodded slowly. Of the rest, she seemed calmest. Just interested and wary as opposed to horrified.

“Good. That is what I thought. Can you make it…use that hammer?”

“On…?”

“Nails, I suppose. Does anyone have nails? Or wood?”

The other Antinium susurrated. A Painted Worker hurried away. In the silence, Pawn looked at the Aberration. And knew it was his. But what relieved him was perhaps only…that it was not an agent of some underworld, some dark place.

He hoped…it was just a delusion. A figment summoned by his power. There was no mind there. But either way, it was what he was.

[Doomspeaker Priest]. He had known his class’ goodness. Its hope. Now, he was leveling and understanding the fullness of what he had become.

So gaze upon my miracles. Know the power of my belief. What is good, and what I can give. And also know my wrath.

 

—-

 

Thirty minutes later, Pawn knew what [Summon Aberration] did. He had watched the trembling Worker—then another, so there were two—go through an obstacle course of Xrn’s design. Try—and fail—to use other tools. Then kill each other.

The glowing forms vanished. Xrn stood in front of her audience, and recapped brightly.

“They are akin to a [Summoner]’s creations. But without the need for a catalyst. More temporary, yet ultimately expendable, renewable. It appears Pawn has now achieved a fourth discipline into this field. Fifth? Sixth? Let’s see…”

She started counting on her fingers. The Free Queen snapped her mandibles together.

“Explain, please, Xrn of the Centenium. We are not all as skilled in matters of magic as you.”

The Centenium looked up and bowed slightly.

“Of course, Free Queen. To explain? Pawn has summoned fake beings. They are not real Antinium. Nor were they ever. I detect no realness to their bodies, for all it appears to be chitin. It is not magic flesh—nor is it real carapace. It is a different simulacra, but one nonetheless.”

All the Antinium seemed to sigh, and relax at this. Pawn himself relaxed.

“Ah. Like a [Summoner]’s creations? We have studied enemy combat-apparitions. I have slain them myself. They are not as strong as the real thing.”

Pivr fanned his wings excitedly. Xrn gave him a look, but nodded.

“Exactly. Closer to them than Golems or Undead. You see, my Queen, there are many ways of creating temporary or permanent apparitions to aid a spellcaster. [Summoners] use beings that once were, or temporary constructs—that is what Pawn is doing. [Necromancers] and [Golem Artificers] create what is permanent. There are numerous disciplines who do the same, in truth.”

“Really. I know only four.”

The Free Queen frowned—or her antennae drooped and mandibles lowered. Xrn shrugged.

“Druids call animals to them—or summon elementals. The talisman-users of Drath act like [Summoners], but some can also call forth artificial beings painted or drawn. Let me see…higher-level [Mages] can do a [Summoner]’s job to some degree. I have heard that there are even ways of creating Golem-type creations out of cloth, or substances beyond metal and stone, so perhaps a [Sculptor], or [Weaver] could do the same…it is not special.”

Her eyes winked white and yellow, as she entered into a scholarly mode.

“On the other hand—Pawn’s creations are unique. I compare it to a [Summoner] because they are superior and not.”

“Explain.”

Xrn nodded.

“The Antinium Aberration summons require no catalyst, which most [Summoners] require. Superior. They are expendable and draw upon something…other…than mana. Superior. However, they cannot be ordered fully. Pawn could command them to navigate obstacles—but not pick up a hammer. Any summoned creation—or undead—or Golem could at least attempt that. Inferior. Oh, and they fight with all the combat potential of…Aberration Workers. Hardly as dangerous as some summoned creations, for all their appearance. Inferior.”

She had distilled everything but the horror they generated, and the wrongness Pawn felt at creating them. He saw the Free Queen look at him, as if sensing that thought.

“I see. Do you have anything to add, Pawn?”

“Only—only that I regret learning this Skill, my Queen. I regret it. But I learned it because…because Erin was hurt.”

The Antinium shuddered. At least, the Free Antinium. Their Queen did not. Xrn did not. The foreign Prognugators did not. Erin meant less to them.

“Well, it has given Pawn a useful combat Skill! And in time, he may be able to summon Aberration Soldiers. Or perhaps even more powerful versions.”

Xrn brightly interrupted the silence. Pawn looked at her. She smiled at him, eyes dancing yellow and green, playful and academic. The Free Queen nodded.

“And all this is a result of Pawn’s class. A unique class. One that Klbkch allowed him to keep. Do you, after seeing this, still agree with that decision, Xrniavxxel?”

The Free Queen looked at Pawn. She knew his class. Tersk hesitated. He looked at Dekass, who shook his head, and Xeu and Pivr looked blank too. Their heads swung to Xrn. And she?

She smiled.

Blackness overtaking light. And red. And still that yellow.

“Oh, yes, my Queen. Better to know the enemy which we fight. I say it is good. I agree. Let Pawn continue down his path. I think the Free Antinium are far stronger now than they have been. A worthy addition to the Hives of Izril. Do you not?”

She looked around. The Free Queen nodded, and so did the Prognugators.

“Of course their combat-efficiency is much improved.”

Pivr. Tersk and Dekass, with the latter speaking in his stilted, somewhat obnoxious voice.

“Our presence assures the Armored Queen’s approval.”

Lastly, Xeu. She hesitated, rubbing her scythe-blades together with a faint sound that made all the Antinium’s antennae vibrate. She opened and closed her mandibles, her elongated, scuttling, alien form of the Silent Antinium hesitating. Then she spoke.

“Of course the benefit is observed. I shall communicate the Free Antinium’s potential to my Queen.”

Xrn smiled.

“Excellent! Then I will consider this matter closed. All is quite well.”

Except of course, that it wasn’t. Pawn bowed his head as the Free Queen dismissed them all. He sensed the other Antinium avoiding him as they left. Look at me, the monster. Look what I’ve done, for all I preach about Heaven.

And yet, it was still there. The potential to be unleashed, like a hundred thousand Aberrations squirming in his heart, compressed together.

Let us out. Let out your wrath. Summon us. Summon worse.

This was what a [Priest] was? Power to unleash what was in his heart?

Pawn began to fear it. Because he knew himself.

 

—-

 

Someone else who feared what he had become, what he had done, stood in front of the map and the Council of Liscor. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth.

He had not slept, not truly, with nightmares or terribly dark sleep. But he stood here, and he had worked these last four days, not despaired.

He had no time. When this was done, he told himself, as he handed out the dossiers, he would sleep. He would sleep and…and Erin would return.

But in the interim, he spoke.

“We are at war, Councilmembers. I am aware Councilmember Krshia is indisposed, as is Councilmember Raekea. However, we cannot wait for their return from the Meeting of Tribes. I am asking you to vote and authorize the following expenditures for the Watch and the city. Immediately.”

“War? Strategist Olesm? Hasn’t there been enough?”

That came from Councilmember Zalaiss. Formerly semi-exiled. Now…with a worrying amount of power since two of the Council’s majority-votes were lacking. It was still Lism, Elirr, Jeiss, Alonna, versus Tismel and Zalaiss. But they just needed one of the Council to waver to have a split vote.

Even then, Zevara would be the tie-breaker, or Olesm himself. But he spoke to all of them as they sat grave, quietly reading.

Was that accusation he saw on their faces? He deserved it. He deserved it all.

Erin was dead because he was careless. Maviola, because he was a fool.

He should have dragged the army back. Ordered Moore and the other hotheads to be restrained. He should have…

“Yes, Councilmember Zalaiss. As I said, Liscor’s army has sent back three more companies to augment the city’s defenses. Three hundred [Soldiers] and commanding officers, plus some reserves to replenish Commander Embria’s forces. However, they will be weeks away at best. But that is not enough. We are in a state of war, and immediate steps need to be taken.”

“And the army is not…returning, Strategist Olesm?”

The quiet voice came from Lism. He looked at Olesm over the report. Olesm shook his head.

“They are engaged in their contract. Furthermore…they would be willing to return, but only if the war escalates. And they would have certain requirements if they did.”

Such as taking over for the Council of Liscor. Lism nodded.

“And if Liscor would be sacked or razed by the Hectval-Luldem—whatever the hell that Ancestors-damned alliance is?”

His tail lashed furiously. Olesm cleared his throat.

“I believe the army is convinced the walls as well as the Free Antinium would prevent a siege from ever taking the city. They are…content to allow Liscor to resolve the issue beyond that.”

They would rather see the Hive burn first. If he had not ordered the Black Tide to fight—perhaps. But the responses had been clear.

“I see. Does the alliance have the ability to take our walls?”

“With an Antinium army plus our Watch? I don’t think they have trebuchets.”

Jeiss muttered. Alonna nodded. It was rare for a properly-maintained Drake city to fall to sieges. The walls were too high, the enchantments too strong.

“In that case—why this extraordinary budget, Strategist?”

Alonna looked kindly at Olesm, but with a shadow over her face. The city still mourned the dead. Olesm wore white clothing. He shuddered.

“Because, Councilmember Alonna, the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance will do anything short of sieging the city, and I would not put it past them to engage in a wider siege cutting off trade or food to the city if they can effect it. We are at war.

A timid, clawed hand. Tismel flinched as Lism glared at him, but he raised his claw nonetheless.

“But both sides have lost considerably from this last conflict, Strategist Olesm. Isn’t it enough?”

Olesm just stared at the head of the Cobbler’s Guild. Stared, until Tismel looked very uncomfortable. He saw similar looks from Alonna and even his uncle, though. Not from Jeiss or Elirr. They understood.

“Councilmember Tismel. It is true both sides have suffered.”

Hectval not enough. Olesm swallowed that.

“…But it is not an end to war. We have not signed a declaration, or asked Hectval’s alliance to. And nor would I suggest that. We are at war, still. And Hectval will be moving against us soon, if they are not already. We are at war because we are Drakes. And we do not let matters lie. Not when blood has been spilled. If we were Human or Gnoll, the answer would be the same. But especially because we are Drakes. No, it is not enough.”

A silence fell over the Council after that speech. Olesm closed his eyes a moment, swaying where he stood. Once, someone had talked about consequences. She had said to a foolish [Mayor], so incredulous—of course. Of course there are consequences.

“War. How long has it been since Liscor was, individually, at war with another city?”

Lism looked around. Alonna’s lips moved.

“We’ve fought with the north as a whole, we skirmished with Esthelm when the city was first founded, but even that was nigh on a century ago…the Bloodfields overtook the pass south for a long time, and was stifling travel before that.”

“Centuries, perhaps. What do we do? Can we even fend off an attack if Hectval comes at us?”

Zalaiss looked around. Elirr hadn’t spoken; the sole Gnoll remaining on the Council was just looking at Olesm. And he looked old, and tired, and worried. But he tapped the paper and attracted the Drakes’ attention.

“I believe Strategist Olesm has all the answers.”

Olesm bowed to Elirr.

“Not all, Councilmember. But I know what must be done. While we wait for the three other companies from the army, we will have to double the Watch’s size again. Watch Captain Zevara requires an expanded budget. Most important will be fortifying the Floodplains. That means far-ranging patrols, counter-scouting missions and knowing where the enemy is. You can see I have marked out spots for watchtowers to be built.”

“Watchtowers?”

The Council murmured. Tismel was incredulous.

“Why do we need them? They won’t stop an army! Double the Watch again? They’d be over ten-thousand strong! Let’s just have the [Architect] build a wall! Wasn’t that the campaign Lism ran on?”

Olesm sighed. Here was where his Manus-education paid off. At least for the obvious. He spoke, patiently.

“Liscor is growing. And Hectval can amass an army that large by themselves. Watchtowers are necessary because they…watch…for enemy raids, Councilmember Tismel. That’s the greatest threat. Saboteurs, small bands of Drakes who launch a [Fireball] at a village. Or at travellers. Hectval could kill our trade with the north, ruin our fields and thus our harvests.”

“And they have already launched one raid which did too much.”

Elirr’s voice made everyone go silent. Olesm half-nodded. The others regarded the maps. Olesm cleared his throat again.

“To your point about a wall, Councilmember Tismel, a wall does not stop any of this. Even if we stretched it across the southern entrance to the Floodplains; they’d just go around it, over the mountains. It costs too much to build, maintain, and we would never have it up in time.”

“So. Watchtowers. Feels weird we’re building them on our southern border.”

Jeiss muttered. He got nods from Zalaiss and Tismel. Olesm just raised one brow.

“They used to be placed to the north and south, Councilmember Jeiss. We’ll be rebuilding them on old foundations before the Necromancer destroyed them. And the Antinium.”

Jeiss blinked. Olesm saw him look askance, but the [Strategist] was too tired to care.

“I would like you to agree to my budget, Councilmembers. It’s underlined on the last page.”

They checked it out and gasped.

“This is far too much! We don’t have the coin to—”

“Even with all the new immigrants and taxes?”

Alonna was doing some math. Zalaiss was shaking her head.

“This kind of expenditure—”

We are at war, Councilmembers!

Olesm barked. The female Drake looked at him. He blinked again.

“Watch Captain Zevara will be meeting with us to discuss the expanded Watch’s roles. It would be within her power to expand the Watch this way, without consultation. We are at war—which means she and I both outrank you. I am asking you to approve what I feel is necessary. Not requesting your permission.”

It gave him no satisfaction to see their faces. The reality began to sink in. Olesm stood there, as the Council looked at each other.

“Then, Olesm…”

Lism. His eyes were very kind as he looked at his nephew. Olesm bit his tongue. He steadied himself with his tail. He pushed down everything and everything. Do your duty right.

“…What can we do to make your and Watch Captain Zevara’s jobs easier?”

Olesm gulped.

“Frankly, Councilmember Lism? You can consider a conscription.”

Silence now. Olesm spoke into it.

“Because unless we achieve the numbers of the Watch without it—we need an army and you saw what a pure militia force suffered, even with high-leveled support and Gold-ranks. They won’t join us for the larger war. We need an army to counterattack, stop enemy raids. Fight. The Watch isn’t nearly large enough. I’d say we need a mercenary army, but ours isn’t kindly disposed towards Liscor at this moment.”

“Our army seems to have abandoned us.”

Elirr commented. He looked around the Council’s room. Olesm sighed.

“Of course they have, Councilmember Elirr. They abandoned us after the Second Antinium War. We just never needed them until now. So. Either we obtain a second one, or we let Hectval burn the Floodplains down around us. Let’s talk about how much gold we need up front…today…before Watch Captain Zevara arrives.”

 

—-

 

Three types of Antinium walked the Hive.

The first were those who grieved. Who were broken. Despite Pawn’s sermons—they were the Painted Antinium, those who had known her, gone to that inn.

They were, ironically, the second-smallest group. The second had no idea what was lost. They were ordinary Workers and Soldiers who had never met her. Too many would never know what had been left.

No, they would know someday. Keep to that. Hold your faith.

The last? The indifferent. They knew, but they did not care as much.

Tersk was not of that group. He mourned. Pivr though…he and Xeu had little emotion. Xrn as well.

What enraged Pawn though, was Dekass.

He had been at the inn. He had been given food; practically gobbled it down day after day after day. And still…

This was his reaction.

“I…mgfh…believe your combat ability…mm…would be of great interest to the other Queens if it can be replicated…crunch crunch…Pawn. Imagine the tactical superiority of an army of ten thousand summoning twice their number? And then using the expendable army? Can your class and levels be easily achieved?”

Pawn stared at the Armored Antinium. He stared at the bag of crisps in Dekass’ hands. He was stuffing himself with all three other hands.

No other species in the world could achieve the same crisp-to-mouth efficiency as Antinium, with perhaps the exception being Dullahans, who could feed their heads with their hands and levitate their arms to reach the crisp bag across the room.

“I achieved my level and class because I knew Erin Solstice. I ‘achieved’ the ability to summon Aberrations because she died.”

Dekass hesitated. One of the salted crisps hesitated halfway to his mouth. Crisps, being a crucial distinction. Erin called them ‘chips’, but some of the other Earthers disagreed, claiming that chips were in fact, fries, and crisps were chips.

It was very confusing to Pawn and he wished that were all he had to care about in the world. Instead…he saw Dekass smile and crunch on another chip-crisp.

“I see. Then we must replace Erin Solstice at once.”

Pawn debated trying to kill Dekass. He took a single breath. Then another. He spoke in a very mild tone as the other Antinium in the Painted Antinium’s barracks moved around them.

“Is that so easy, Prognugator Dekass?”

“I believe so. Consider: I was upset to learn the purveyor of foods was rendered inactive. However, I learned that I could obtain these from a local vendor in Liscor. You see—others had copied her recipe.”

He waved the non-Wandering Inn crisps at Pawn. He’d bought them from someone else. Pawn nodded.

“I see. And you suggest replacing Erin in the same way.”

“Yes. It is the only efficient solution.”

“Understandable.”

I’m going to murder you, now. Pawn reached for his neck. He only stopped when someone approached him.

“Pawn.”

The [Priest] hesitated, with all four hands outstretched. Dekass eyed them and put a chip in each. Pawn ignored him and turned to the Worker who’d interrupted him.

It was one of his Painted Workers who stood there, with a cluster of Antinium behind him. Soldiers, Workers—all painted. This first Worker was Pawn’s, though.

He had a little yellow flower drawn on his shoulders, their roots and vines travelling down his arms. Erin called them close to ‘tattoos’, but the golden blooms were based off the very flowers in her inn.

Faerie Flowers. And this Worker was thus Golden Bloom. He was one of the [Acolytes] that Pawn was training.

“What is it, Golden Bloom?”

Pawn was surprised. There were two [Acolytes] under his authority. Only two, out of the countless others. They helped him serve bread and spoke little. They listened much, and knew all his stories, however. But this was unusual.

The other Antinium shifted, but it was clearly Golden Bloom who needed to speak. He clasped and unclasped his hands; he had the habit of putting two together like Pawn, in constant prayer.

“I—we—I have been asked on behalf of all—to ask you an important question.”

“Can it wait until I murder Dekass, Golden Bloom?”

“No, Pawn. It is important.”

“What?”

The Prognugator stopped crunching crisps and sidled back. Golden Bloom’s antennae waved urgently. He opened and closed his mandibles, in clear distress.

“Pawn. It is about Erin.”

“Tell me.”

Pawn turned away at once. He faced the others. Golden Bloom trembled.

“Erin is…is…is hurt. Dead but not dead.”

“She will return.”

The other Antinium nodded. Golden Bloom looked around.

“Yes. But if…if she does not…

A cold pit opened up in Pawn’s stomach. Already, it came. Did their faith waver in less than two weeks? Did they not believe?

Did he?

“You think this is what will happen, Golden Bloom?”

“No Pawn. I believe. I pray. I pray at least 31 times per day and I am trying to pray more. We all do. But if—if she is hurt. And not alive. Nor dead. Is…there no place for her in Heaven? Because she is not Antinium? Is that why she is neither alive nor dead?”

Pawn stopped. All thoughts of rage against Dekass and crisps left him. He saw Golden Bloom trembling.

“Because, Pawn, if that is so, I do not think it is a good Heaven. Not without Erin.”

It came out in a rush. The [Acolyte] looked at Pawn.

“I know she is not Antinium. But she should be there. And if—if there is no place for her—I will give her mine. If it is not enough, we will all give her ours.”

The Antinium nodded as one. Pawn felt his heart sinking in his chest. They looked terrified. But resolved.

“No. You do not have to do that. Please, Golden Bloom. Do not be afraid. Heaven—Heaven is not that cruel.”

He reached out and touched the Worker. The [Acolyte] looked at him.

“But she is not there.”

“Yes. Because she is not dead. If she was—”

Something was attacking Pawn from the inside. He spoke, despite it.

“If she was, she would be there. We will—will pray tonight. To make an exception for her, and all those that matter.”

The Antinium relaxed. As if Pawn—of course he would know. He would be able to make that happen. But Pawn was suddenly uncertain.

Did it work like that?

“Then we will see her again. And Heaven…Heaven will have all the good people, in time?”

In time? They would all die. Mrsha, Numbtongue…Pawn felt dizzy. As if he had only realized that today.

Yes, in time they would all be there. Even little Mrsha. Even…he felt sick.

“Heaven will hold them. We must make it. And—it will be large enough. Must be large enough for them.”

“Could it be too small?

Suddenly, Golden Bloom was worried. Pawn didn’t know. Reflexively, he looked around. And the same fear was in his heart. Until a hand touched his shoulder.

“No. It is not. It is a tiny thing. But wide enough for us all. Erin would fit. But it can be bigger. I know this to be true. For I have seen it before I was given life again.”

A deep voice. A commanding tone. And suddenly, the world stopped shaking. Pawn looked up. There was Yellow Splatters.

“Do not fear, Golden Bloom. You will be there. And so will all.”

“Thank you, Yellow Splatters. See? All is well. We will pray.”

The [Acolyte] sagged with relief. He led the other Antinium away. Pawn looked up. The [Sergeant] stood there.

“Thank you, Yellow Splatters. I did not know what to say.”

“I know.”

The [Sergeant] stood there. And he was a miracle like those Pawn had been told from Earth’s stories. He had died and come back to life. And he had brought something more valuable than anything with him.

Hope.

“You have seen Heaven. You should lead them more than I.”

“I do not have your class or faith, Pawn.”

The [Sergeant] answered steadily. He had been given a superior body. And he was always so sure. So…good a leader. He was leveling faster than even some Individuals. He would be a great leader. Pawn shook his head, pressing.

“But you have seen it. Can you tell me more about what it looks like? I—I confess, I did not know whether Erin would fit either. I cannot even imagine how that would work. You said it was tiny, but growing. What did you see? Who did you meet?”

Yellow Splatters paused for a moment, and his mandibles opened and closed. Eventually, he shook his head.

“There are no words to describe it, Pawn. I am sorry. I search and search—but how could you describe what has never been seen? I can only tell you—it is what you said. You built it. Have faith.

“Of course.”

Pawn smiled. Yellow Splatters did too. They stood there for a moment, then Pawn patted his hand with one of his. Faith restored.

Let it be for Erin, then. But not yet. Not ever, if he could manage it. He walked the Painted Antinium’s barracks, talking to others. For his job was to help them heal, and live, and fight for that Heaven.

Even if part of him still drowned in rage. He feared—and already, missed Lyonette. He should have said goodbye when she was there. But he was afraid to touch her.

To let the things stirring in his mind out.

The moment of change came upon Pawn in a seemingly-random encounter. He was touching the shoulder of a Painted Soldier.

“Green Baron. All will be well. We must believe. Tell me if you are upset.”

He had used his free bread, and benedictions already, to calm the most anguished of Antinium and wished he could use his Skill more. But he was speaking with words, hoping they meant something.

The choosing of identities had evolved among Soldiers and Workers both. The Soldiers could not ‘speak’…but then again, they could. And they were evolving past concepts like Purple Smiles, Yellow Splatters, and so on.

Green Baron had chosen his name after three visits to the inn and learning about the famous ‘Red Baron’ from a discussion of aircrafts and flying with Bird from Kevin and the others. He had chosen the name on the principle that green was probably better than red.

There were other…interesting names Soldiers had chosen. It was their identity, but Green Baron was sharing space with Soldier #1533, who had that number proudly written on his chest, Bacon Rashers, who, yes, had had that for his first real meal ever, and Kevin2. Because they liked Kevin. Also, π, who had tried to express as much of the mathematical constant as the others could remember on his body.

Pawn did not judge much. But he had stopped there from being a Kevin3 and Kevin4. Normally, Kevin2 was trying to imitate Kevin, in body language and personality.

But his head was bowed. He was curled up and Pawn recognized the look.

Pure despair. Pawn’s heart ached for them. He looked at Green Baron’s misery and spoke, gently, tightening his grip so the other felt it through his armor.

“We must have faith. We must believe, and strive. We must endure, Green Baron.”

He felt the Soldier shudder. Then—the Antinium with green airplanes drawn on his armor straightened.

Erin had helped draw them. And she was a bad drawer, so some were squiggly. But he treasured them. Pawn remembered that as the Soldier turned to him. And his hands rose and he said—

No.

He spoke. In the sign language that the Antinium had learned from Mrsha. They had created their own variation upon it, adding more words that Mrsha had not used. But it was the same language. Pawn’s mandibles opened slightly.

“No? What do you…mean, Green Baron?”

Green Baron thought for a second. His hands moved slowly, four hands approximating shapes. Crude fingers, a Soldier’s fingers. The Free Queen had told Yellow Splatters that future generations would get digits.

What if I cannot wait? What if I cannot have faith and pray for—sky’s—return?

He substituted the word ‘sky’, a spreading gesture with all four arms, for Erin. She had no need of a name. It was just ‘her’. But she should have one.

Pawn hesitated.

“Is it hard to pray, Green Baron? Do you not…believe?”

I believe.

Pawn exhaled. That was something. He was not one of Bird’s followers, who prayed at times, but did not believe. Green Baron saw the confusion and clarified.

I believe, I can pray. But I do not. There is…

He was struggling to express what the language had not developed enough to properly say, abstract concepts, and growing frustrated. Green Baron signed.

There is a problem. Therefore, I do not pray.

“Which is?”

Again, the Soldier had no words. He tried.

The city. The bad city. It is there. It should not be. It is bad. It should not be. I am angry. I cannot pray.

The bad city. Hectval. Pawn hesitated. He saw Green Baron clench a fist.

There were not enough words. Not for ‘Hectval’ or the true emotion in his signing. The Soldier looked at Pawn—and he saw the other Soldiers’ heads rise.

“I know. But—Olesm led an army against them. We fought. We have killed them. Liscor has suffered.”

“But they have not.”

Now, Kevin2 rose. And the others stood. Pawn looked at them.

“We killed the Drakes. You were there, Green Baron.”

Yes. It is not enough.

Not enough, was a Mrsha-gesture. Like gobbling but stopping halfway, as if finding a bowl empty. It did not fit this sentence or meaning. Pawn’s head bowed.

“I have cursed them. They are far. If their armies come, the Antinium will defend Liscor.”

It is not enough.

“Many things are wrong in this world, Green Baron.”

Is it enough for you?

The gesture was angry. The Soldier was showing rare emotion. He stepped forwards, as if to confront the shorter, smaller Worker. Force him to look at his words—

enNouGh?

The whisper froze Green Baron in place. The other Antinium in the barracks turned. The cadence. The [Priest] stood there.

Enough? Did you ask me if I thought it was enough? If I thought hECtvAl suffered enough?”

The Soldier took a step back as the [Priest]’s head rose. And there they were.

He did not have Xrn’s eyes, for which he was grateful. For if he did, surely they would have seen them.

A hundred thousand Aberrations.

A hundred thousand demons in the depths of his gaze, waiting to be let out.

I curse you by kindness. I curse you by the sky. I curse you to death. I curse you to suffering—

No, it was not enough. And no—his rage had not abated.

Did they think it had? Did they think a thousand dead soldiers of Hectval would have quenched the fury? The [Doomspeaker]’s hands clenched and unclenched.

“We are Antinium. We…must protect Erin’s inn. We will do that. Do I say it is enough? No. No! But what would you have me do? March upon them? Drown them in the Black Tide until their city is ash and ruin?”

Silence. Green Baron’s head began to move. Pawn whispered.

“I would if I could. But we would break upon their walls. It would be war across the continent. No. So we will wait here and pray.

He spat the words. Suddenly understanding that he was as disconsolate as the others at the world. It was not enough. He wanted it. Erin’s death had been—this could not continue. He could not be happy to tend to his flock.

Something had to change.

And as the Soldier hesitated in the face of that wrath, the answer came. It came in the form of one of the watching bystanders, and a sound.

Crunch.

Dekass bit into the crisp and saw every head look towards him. He hesitated, then offered the bag to Pawn. But he spoke as he did.

“Is that all you have to do, Prognugator Pawn? I am giving you this title since it seems appropriate and Tersk said I should.”

Pawn stirred.

“What do you mean, Dekass? Do not annoy me. I am not in the mood for it.”

“Am I being annoying?”

The Armored Prognugator gave Pawn an exceptionally surprised look. He went on in the meaningful silence.

“You claim there is no way to strike at Hectval. Or to change the Painted Soldiers, who are, while effective, prone to death as much as any other. I say: this is not so. I have been listening to the talk of Liscor, for I am a Prognugator and trained in the art of subterfuge. The citizens talk while unaware of my cunning infiltration buying crisps.”

There was so much wrong with the last part of that statement that Pawn ignored it.

What, Dekass?”

Crunch. Crunch. The Armored Prognugator finished the last crisps he held, and then he gave the rest to Golden Bloom. He looked at Pawn.

And for all Pawn regarded him as close to one of the ‘clowns’ that Erin described, minus the face paint and silly noses—there was something suddenly off-putting about Dekass.

He was ludicrous at times. Arrogant, as Tersk had been. Just like Pivr was obnoxious and talkative and lauded his Queen at every moment, and Xeu foreign. But you forgot—that was because Dekass was out of place here. An observer.

But he was still a Prognugator of the Hives. The Armored Antinium’s leader in war. He gazed at Pawn and beckoned.

“Come with me. And bring your Soldiers.”

He gestured at Green Baron and the others. Pawn hesitated. Then followed Dekass.

 

—-

 

Dekass moved through the Hive with Pawn and some of the Soldiers to show him his grand idea at the same time as Xrn stood in the Hive.

She did not need to read Pawn’s mind to know how he had gotten his new Skill. Nor was she unaware that the Antinium were changing. She did not know all of it, like Silveran, but she had seen the largest change shortly after Erin had been hurt.

The Black Tide had marched on Hectval’s army. Against her orders. She had told the Antinium to their faces to stop.

And they had disobeyed. She remembered it clearly. An ordinary Worker—one of the new [Archers]—looking at her and telling her they refused.

Also, their rage. Antinium that raged without becoming Aberration. Who were stirred to emotion by a Human’s death.

Xrn had felt their animosity, just as she felt their despair now. And she had felt that from Antinium only a few times before. When they fought Crelers, which even the imperfect copies of this continent knew to be a true foe. And when a Queen had died.

But these Antinium knew hatred because a Human had died. They were like…

True Antinium.

“They do not follow my orders, though. What should I do? Kill them all and have the Free Queen start again?”

Xrn mused aloud. That was the quandary she faced. She sensed…movement and her head turned. She saw the two figures shake like leaves. The colors in Xrn’s eyes changed for a moment—then her mandibles moved up and out.

“Oh, Chesacre. Thaina. You will forget that. And not communicate that to others. I was only thinking out loud.”

The two Soldiers held each other, as they did. Hand in hand. Xrn thought it was a word she had learned but never used.

‘Adorable’. Yes. And she quite liked the two female Soldiers, who had understood they were female. Who had survived the dungeon assault against all odds.

She had taken a liking to them. So they were here. Xrn smiled again—but detected their fear. She hmmed happily. That was fine. She addressed Chesacre and Thaina brightly. They needed to understand. Klbkch never told Antinium enough. Xrn would get in the habit of telling these Antinium more—at least, her intentions. They would learn.

“I called you here because Erin Solstice is dead. And thus, plans are ruined. Without her, the Individuals and Painted Antinium may—change in ways I do not understand. Undesirable elements have already appeared. But on the whole, your Hive is far more positive than negative. So do not worry.”

Another smile. The Soldiers nodded. But their antennae kept shaking. Xrn went on; she had closed the doors to her private quarters. And, as they had observed, expanded it. The Free Queen was most obliging. But she did not know what would happen here.

Xrn had already put up enchantments; she was not good at it, as she kept telling the Grand Queen. But good enough. She was best at spontaneous magic. As a [Mage] had once observed before she killed him—her class and nature was wonder. You could never predict her spells, but by the same token, she was weaker at bounded magics. Permanent spells were all but beyond her, really.

It mattered not so long as she was present. But what about all the battlefields and places where Xrn was not? Well…that was what other Centenium were for.

But Klbkch was a fool. Wrymvr stubborn, perhaps even insane. He believed in war with the Drakes. Xrn wished some of the others lived.

Well, she had wasted too much time placing her faith in the Queens to restore their glory. Too much time trusting them to be as smart as the First Queen—and yet look what the Free Queen had produced. It was just time for Xrn to…

“Improve. That is what we are doing today, Chesacre, Thaina! You see, if I do not have the ability to order the Free Antinium—that is a problem. What is the correct solution besides wiping them out and trying again? For that takes too much time.”

Neither Soldier responded. Voices. They would need them. Ah, well, Xrn was learning their sign language too. But neither one responded. They were looking at the door. Xrn smiled.

“The answer is: improve some to my standards. Chesacre, Thaina, I like you two. Therefore, I am going to risk your lives today. To make you better.”

The Soldiers edged to the door. They tried it. The door didn’t budge. Xrn went on, happily watching them and inspecting the rows of potions, vials, and so on she had sorted by strength. And more…

“They call me the Small Queen. But I have never sought to create my own Hive. Not once. For I am Xrniavxxel—unique. But it seems to me I have squandered my potential. It is fortunate that unlike Klbkch and Wrymvr, I am always willing to learn.”

She saw the Soldiers turn. Xrn walked over. Her eyes shone with anticipation. Hope. Determination.

“You two will be the first of mine. Or die. Endeavor not to.”

Thaina blocked Chesacre. Chesacre tried to interpose herself in front of Thaina. They both shielded the other, flinching, as Xrn studied them. They did nothing else. Just held each other as Xrn slowly raised a hand—

“Here. Drink this.”

Chesacre lowered a clenched fist. Thaina hesitated and clicked her mandibles. They stared at the potion. Xrn waved it impatiently.

“It is a mana potion. Drink. And then eat a Garry-pie. We will see what the first one does before…”

 

—-

 

The conversation ran something like this.

“You see? I was surprised that your Hive did not consider it. After all the trouble. But it is a solution of sorts, so long as it is accepted. I calculate the odds at 21%, but they are possible. Liscor is a strange city. Not that I would know.”

“It is more than that.”

“How so?”

“It is…more than that. Does it hurt?”

That was to another person, who responded in nonverbal ways. The first was miffed.

“It would not hurt. They are designed not to.”

“I know. But it is strange. And…right. More than that.”

“You must explain with more verbiage, Pawn.”

“I do not know if I have the words. I only know that this is like something of which I was once told. Not ours. But it is right…righteous. It is—it will make them something else. I do not know if it is correct.”

“You just said—”

I know what I said. My heart tells me this…this is necessary. Green Baron. What do you think?”

A reply.

“Yes. You would be the first. It is more than you know. More than…I do not know.”

“Why, Pawn? I agree. And I am Prognugator. You seem to agree.”

“I do. My heart tells me ‘yes’. My soul desires this. It is what we must be. It may be necessary. However. Something holds me back.”

“Which is?”

“Erin Solstice. If she were here, I believe she would stop me. I do not know if Lyonette would. But I think Erin would.”

“Why?”

“She is not here. I do not know. But I know. But we must be this, Erin. Yes. And no. It is only that, Dekass. Only a certainty.”

“Which is? Explain, Pawn.”

The second voice was silent. And at last, it spoke, weary. Tired. And so terribly sad.

“I think if she saw this, she would weep. I think she would cry for what it means. What we become. But she is not. And I cannot ask her what she would say. So I follow my own words. And they say this: rise, Green Baron. The rest of you. I will let you choose.”

There was guilt there. Guilt and sadness. That was the conversation, though. A blank Armored Prognugator’s voice, and the wavering, then firming decision of the [Priest].

That was then.

 

—-

 

Now.

The bells began to ring. Olesm Swifttail was still arguing with the Council over the proposed draft. He did not like it any more than they did. But what other options were there?

“Another funeral?”

Alonna murmured. But then she looked up. Someone was blowing a horn. Jeiss shot out of his seat.

“That’s a Preventative Alarm. Olesm—Watch Captain—”

What now?

The Drake whirled. They listened, looking in the direction of the horn blasts. Tismel took cover at his desk, eyes wide.

“An attack? Hectval again?”

“That’s not outside the city. It’s coming from the direction of—the Hive.

The three Drakes looked at each other. Zevara was out the door in a shot, the other two behind her. The rest of the Council followed.

 

—-

 

People in Liscor’s streets were streaming away from the warning horns. Even if they did not know what it was, or how to read the calls, they knew what a horn blast meant.

Someone was blowing a whistle, shouting for reinforcements. That was Watch-signaling. Olesm listened.

It was—off. He suspected something horrible. A monster coming through the Hive, perhaps. Or an Aberration?

But the sounds weren’t as urgent as an actual combat-alarm. They were what Jeiss had called them—a Preventative Alarm. ‘Come quickly because there might be trouble. Or soon will be’.

What was it? Citizens of Liscor who were braver, or more foolhardy, turned to see when monsters or trouble didn’t immediately materialize. Some who knew the signals watched at a distance.

They were the first to see the Antinium emerge from their Hive. Not just one or two. The shout raced through the air, down the streets as Olesm ran.

It’s the Black Tide! They’re coming out of the Hive! Thousands!

“Oh, Ancestors—”

Zevara’s eyes went wide. She whirled.

“Olesm—get to your last resort position. Your emergency spells—”

“It can’t be. Not today. Not—”

Olesm had the same thought. She pushed at him.

“I’ll see! Just get in position! Jeiss! Get the rest of the Council back! This—”

This could be the scenario the Walled Cities had warned them about. Olesm couldn’t believe it. He would have believed it more last year. But this one?

Yet the Antinium had left their Hive. In such numbers to make Liscor’s citizens shout their other name.

“The Black Tide of Izril is marching! Run for your lives!”

A Gnoll ran screaming across the street. And that began to start a panic. Olesm turned on his heel. If only Erin—Lyonette? Who could stop them if it came to…?

“It’s almost like she’s here.”

Ahead of him, Zevara remarked in a soft tone. Olesm looked back. Before he could run to the safe spot where he would be able to hold off even an overwhelming number of Antinium with the Watch before detonating every spell—it was too late.

Shouting spread down the street. People, some screaming, but most sounding—surprised? Confused? Or even something else.

Olesm looked back as the Council stopped. He felt the ground shake, from massed footsteps in perfect unison. He tensed as he saw the first ranks of the Soldiers, marching down the street. The…shining…armor?

Here they came. Eight abreast. Huge Soldiers, Workers with bows. But something was wrong. Olesm’s eyes widened. The Soldiers in front were wearing armor.

Plate armor. Specially-engineered armor to cover all parts of them. No breastplate for Humans or Drakes or Gnolls, but Antinium-forged metal. Steel and iron.

These Antinium wore the mark of the Armored Hive of the Antinium. A gift of esteem that had never been touched. For there were not enough for all Soldiers, so who would be marked thusly?

Besides—Klbkch had been in charge, then. Now?

The first Soldiers marched past Olesm with a thunderous roar. Their armor and footsteps were a thunderous din. And that was not all.

They carried weapons. Olesm saw a Painted Soldier. His body was masked by metal. But he had drawn the cute little green airplanes on his armor.

And he carried a steel mace in one hand, designed to be held by the Soldier’s clumsy grips. A huge, spiked weapon where Soldiers had always fought with mere fists. In the other?

A shield. There strode by the equivalent of any [Knight] that Olesm had seen. Heavy infantry. As armored and armed as any Drake in Liscor’s Watch could have hoped to be—

No, more. Because he carried four weapons. One for each hand. Below, in the Soldier’s lower grips, he had two long daggers.

Four weapons for a single Soldier. And that was the first rank of the armor-division. The Workers wore leather, or even wood-armor, also made for them. Each one carried bow and arrows.

The Free Antinium’s archer divisions. All of this was terrifying. It would terrify the Walled Cities—but it was still what the Armored Antinium already had, even if they had supplied the Free Antinium with enough arms for thousand—thousands of their own.

But Olesm saw something in front of the horde of Antinium that made him afraid. Not because of what it looked like—but who it was.

Pawn. The [Priest] carried his censer. Which had little meaning for most. But Olesm knew it meant something. He walked across their ranks as they stopped in one of Liscor’s largest plazas, with the citizenry, Watch, Council, staring at them.

Sweet smoke drifted from the censer. Pawn walked across the ranks of Soldiers. Each rank armed with different sets of weapons. Maces and shields in front. Pikes held by two hands, a crossbow for the other two in the second rank. Swords in the fourth…and so on. The Armored Queen had sent every kind of weapon her forges produced.

They were more than Armored Antinium, though. Pawn looked across them.

The Armored Queen had lavished the Free Queen with gifts of goodwill, hoping to be repaid in turn. She had sent exactly one thousand sets of armor, to join her first, smaller gift. Workers were outfitted in armor of their own. Not all the Soldiers were thus covered, and not all Workers.

But enough. Three thousand Soldiers stood to attention. A thousand Workers with bows. Five of the [Archer] companies.

Painted Soldiers and regular ones. They looked at Pawn. He raised his hand—

And they knelt. Pawn walked across them, whispering.

Somewhere—in some world and time far from this one, a better one—an [Innkeeper] was weeping. He thought he could hear her, but that was just his imagination.

Erin Solstice was dead. In this world, there was only wrath and war and damnation.

Silveran was one Worker who had chosen something else. Those who had not his grace had only hatred left.

Hate, hate, hate.

And wrath. And vengeance. And duty.

“We will never be the same. It is not enough to simply be. We must defend what we believe in. For we have enemies.

Pawn spoke to them. This was his decision.

“You are not Armored Antinium. You are not mere Soldiers or Workers. Each of you who chooses this—you will leave your Hive. You will march under sky and star. None of you may return. I pray you all will. But you will go to fight our enemies, risking your lives so that more might survive. You are more than any Antinium that have ever come before.”

They looked up at him. The first rank of Soldiers knelt. And Pawn blessed them. He named them for what they were, in the silence of his mind, as he had named them below.

[Crusaders]. More than [Knights]. Warriors of faith.

So once—now again. The Council of Liscor looked on. Olesm, Zevara—

“What is this?

The [Strategist] spoke, in a strangled voice. He approached Pawn, hesitating. And the [Priest] looked at him. Belgrade knelt at the head of the force. He rose and joined Pawn. The [Tactician] gazed at Olesm as if confused that he did not see it. He gestured at the Antinium.

“Liscor’s army. We are part of Liscor too. And we cannot forgive.”

The blue-scaled Drake was speechless. The Council horrified or…

A Worker with silver antennae stared at the kneeling Antinium. Shocked. Uncertain. For this was change. Each one to their choice.

But what was the right choice? The armor shone brightly under the sun as if it meant something. And they looked grand, mighty, terrifying, impressive, hot, depending on whom you asked.

The future was simply uncertain.

 

—-

 

The world quaked. Or so it felt some days. The Antinium marching could certainly make you feel as though the ground were shaking.

However, their appearance was…half show. Belgrade made that clear to Olesm.

“We will be joining the army as volunteers. We would like training in weapons, please.”

“Training?”

The new ranks of the Antinium armored in faith…and actual armor…were impressive. However, Olesm realized something crucial that would be missed from afar.

They had no idea how to actually use the weapons they were carrying. Maces, shields—he saw them holding them just a bit off, or experimentally swinging the weapons. It was an army with a lot going for it. Antinium morale, nigh-unbreakable. Quality arms and the ability to take commands that Olesm had wished the ragtag Liscor army could have had in the fight with Hectval.

But no actual weapons training. That grounded him.

“We’d have to put them through training. Guard-training—at least the week’s crash-course. Along with any other new recruits we get.”

Someone commented. Olesm’s head turned. He rubbed at one earhole. Jeiss.

“Um, what, Jeiss?”

“If we add them to the army.”

The Senior Guardsman was watching an Antinium swing a sword with a pained look in his eyes. The others were watching the poor imitations of thrusts and cuts. For that matter—they had four arms. The cycles of attack and defense were completely different for Antinium.

It was a [Strategist]’s equivalent of the blacksmith puzzle. A delightful avenue of possibility and optimization. But for an Izrilian [Strategist]?

“Jeiss, you must be mad. We can’t add them to the army! It would outrage every city in—in the world!”

Alonna barked. She was horrified. The Senior Guardsman however, had a different take.

“We need an army. Here is an army. It’s not like we wouldn’t call on the Free Antinium if Hectval besieged us.”

“But that’s not the same as enlisting Antinium [Soldiers]. For that matter—Belgrade! There are around three thousand Soldier Antinium standing there!”

“Yes. Do not worry. The Free Hive will be amply defended in their absence.”

Amply defended. Zevara broke out of her stupor and looked around. Olesm felt sweat running down his spine.

“But Belgrade…our treaty with the Free Antinium only allowed them to keep a standing force of three hundred Soldiers. We expanded that of late, but this is a violation of our agreement.”

He reminded the [Tactician] of that salient point. The Worker looked at Pawn. The [Priest]’s antennae waved.

“Really? I did not know that.”

The Council stared at Pawn and Belgrade. The other Worker scratched delicately at the top of his head.

“I remember that. Revalantor Klbkch told me never to permit more than three hundred Soldiers aboveground except in times of crisis, or mention our numbers.”

“Ah. So we have broken the rules?”

“It appears so.”

They turned back to Olesm and the Council. After a second, Pawn shrugged.

“Sorry. No one informed us.”

He didn’t even try to be apologetic. And what were you supposed to say to that? Shake your claw at them? They were far beyond that.

“Councilmembers—a quick discussion. Alonna, some privacy?”

Lism’s strangled voice. Olesm hurried over with Zevara.

“What in the name of the Ancestors do we do? This is a flagrant disregard for our treaty—”

“We always knew they had more than the treaty, Councilmember. That part of our agreement was always doomed.”

Zevara muttered. She was looking at the Antinium army. Four thousand. It wasn’t the largest force by far. Probably a lot scarier, even untrained, than Gnoll conscripts, though. They’d be the vanguard of your fighting force. Or a powerful, semi-autonomous force you could use to press the enemy on any wing…

What was he thinking? Olesm bit his tongue. But…Antinium sappers. They were famous for their fast earthworks projects. Who wanted to fight Antinium when they could collapse the ground under you, or tunnel and attack your command?

“This is madness. We can’t allow this.”

“And what would you have us do?”

Jeiss looked at Alonna, Elirr, Tismel, and Zalaiss. They were all horrified. But the Senior Guardsman had skipped to some logical point ahead of them. He put his hand on his sword’s hilt. Olesm unconsciously did the same.

The smooth handle of a Kaalblade. He flinched, jerked his claw away. Jeiss met his eyes.

“I think the dead cat’s out of the bag, to use a Human expression. Let’s say we don’t add them to our army, Alonna.”

“Yes! Which is only sensible!”

“And…?”

The [Mage] stopped. Jeiss nodded.

“Now we have an army of four thousand angry Antinium. With armor and weapons. Who might decide to do something about Hectval themselves. And if they don’t? We have an army of four thousand Antinium in the city, not under our command.”

“You’re saying it’s like a weapon with the Dancing enchantment. It’s active and unless you use it—”

“It cuts off your tail. Exactly, Watch Captain.”

There were a lot of metaphors being tossed around. But the Council began to catch on. Olesm looked at the first addition to Liscor’s army. Because, even after discussion, debate, neck spine-pulling—what else was there to do?

And oh, did this development change things. To war. Olesm’s nerves hummed. He understood why Pawn had come to this decision.

There were some things that could not be forgiven. Not as he was. The Drake had been ready to resign after doing his duty safeguarding his home. Now? His eyes turned southwards.

That city had taken two people he loved away.

 

—-

 

That city was called Hectval. Part of the Hectval…Hectval…

Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia Alliance. Ancestors, that was so obnoxious. Someone had to write that every time they referred to their alliance. It was even on the map. Oh, wait. She’d gotten it wrong. Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem. So much more important.

She had never heard of it before. Half of the people in this room only knew it by name; the other half had no idea where in the name of Selphid’s tits it was. It was only important because it had picked a fight with Liscor.

“Liscor.”

Once again, that name was on everyone’s tongues. The Antinium there had sent the Walled Cities into a roaring confusion of fury, panic, fear, and more.

To her, it was…disappointing to see. She had, in her youth, expected the High Command of a Walled City to always be some ice-cold, logical decision-makers who, in the face of overwhelming catastrophe, would just come to the best decision no matter what.

The truth was that they panicked and worried and argued like everyone else. True—they didn’t freeze up like civilians. And some of them were poised no matter what.

But to Rafaema of Manus, Manus’ High Command disappointed. Especially since she could compare and contrast to the many High Commands over the century-and-two-decades she had been alive.

The Antinium were new. Before this, they had been more solid in her estimation. The Humans were the enemies. Watch the shores. Watch the tribes. Everything had been so…reassuring. So she had been content to be a bratty child.

The Antinium had woken her up. She had seen how the cities scrambled to fight this new threat. And failed to adjust sometimes. She had the hindsight of age, for all she was only a youth…for a Dragon.

They were reactive, not anticipatory. That was their flaw. The new Antinium-contingent of Liscor’s army? The High Command of Manus had summoned its various security councils and she was in the inner-most one.

No one said ‘what do we do?’ at least. They said ‘what will we do?’ Rafaema liked that. Manus didn’t just debate, like Pallass, or sit on its tail until roused like other Walled Cities.

“Liscor seems set in its course. We’ve talked with their Council and their [Strategist]. Creler-brained, the lot of them. I almost think they do have eggs in their skulls.”

Spearmaster Lulv growled an agreement to [Hunt Commander] Makhir. The two Gnolls in the room and the Drakes plus Rafaema were ruling out options.

“They’re really taking on Antinium in their forces?”

[General] Milka was disgusted. It was Dragonspeaker Luciva Skybreath, one of the few people Rafaema respected without reserve and leader of Manus, who put her claw down on the table.

“Yes, Milka. You’ve seen the numbers. Liscor’s army is too far away and the Hectval Alliance outnumbers Liscor’s forces—even after their defeat at Whitterbone Pass.”

They had maps, detailed maps, with every possible factoid and location on them. Rafaema had watched Hectval get trounced in battle, but she hadn’t expected this result.

“A classic case of Liscor’s army doing the right thing and provoking the worst response.”

“How so, Wall Lord Allon?”

It was one of the Wall Lords of Manus. He half-bowed to Rafaema, his dusky silver scales glittering. A rare coloration; if he had been a Dragon, he would have been a Silver Dragon.

I heard there was one in the north. But he died too. Are there any of us left besides…Cire?

Sometimes that thought grew too loud, so Rafaema pushed it away. She looked at Allon attentively. She had earned this place; she wasn’t going to let anyone think she wasn’t taking her job seriously. Unlike Cire, she intended to lead by example.

“Liscor’s army is notedly at odds with the Antinium Hive in Liscor. It’s why they refuse to return to the city. Of course, we approve of that decision and have established links to Liscor’s army. They’ve worked well with us…”

“When we hire them. Otherwise, they’re stubborn battle freaks.”

Spearmaster Lulv growled, quietly enough for Rafaema to hear. He knew her hearing was as good as a Gnoll’s; he was her weapons-instructor, after all. Only Makhir would have heard, and the [Hunt Commander] affected not to.

“However, Wall Lady Rafaema, their refusal to return and fight for their city is forcing Liscor to take the Antinium forces.”

“Ah, naturally. Thank you for illuminating me, Allon.”

He nodded. Rafaema felt a bit foolish, but she hadn’t been clear. Perhaps some of the others hadn’t either, because Milka cursed. Another insight: not everyone was on the same page, although they appeared to be. How disturbing.

“If that’s the reason, let’s plan out best and worst-case scenarios. Best case? Hectval smashes the Antinium to bits, razes Liscor to the ground.”

“Unlikely. They don’t have the power to take their walls. They fight to drive other cities to ransom. They don’t have a record of actually taking cities.”

Another [General] put in. Everyone nodded; that was inter-city wars for you. Force the other city to capitulate and enrich yourself. It built grudges. Stupid, territorial grudges. But even Manus clashed with other Walled Cities at times.

“Then second-best. They kill the Antinium. Free Antinium’s Hive takes a while to replenish, and that’s that.”

“Not much of a win. What’s the worst-case scenarios?”

Makhir muttered. The war council paused. Rafaema answered for Milka.

“Those four thousand Antinium get all the levels and battle experience of these…Painted Antinium. The Free Hive gets veteran Antinium with levels and we lose the Hectval…the Hectval Alliance’s war potential.”

Nods. That was worst-case. War and battle gave levels. That wasn’t a problem with Antinium…until now.

Damn Liscor. Rafaema’s grip tightened on the table. Damn Hectval, too, for doing this.

And damn Ferris. I thought he was supposed to be good at his job!

Rafaema was angry, but mastered it. She listened. Manus’ High Command began to settle down. And in their calm, they began to debate.

“To avert the worst-case scenario I vouch for a few options: stop the war.”

“Impossible to do it diplomatically. Hectval’s stubborn—the Scalespeaker’s enraged and so is their Council. We could lean…”

“Liscor won’t stop. They’re spitting mad. Did you see the [Messages] they dumped on Hectval? Apparently someone was…killed?”

The Crazy Human of Liscor. Rafaema’s grip tightened on the table. Oh, she was going to rip Ferris’ tail off. If she managed to get a hold of him.

In that, she’d paid more attention to Liscor than the others. Liscor had changed of late, and the Dragon had noticed. Luciva raised a claw.

“If diplomacy will not work, let us abandon it. More…extreme decisions.”

Rafaema glanced up. It was General Milka who said it.

“Extreme? On one end—Manus moves out our Wyvern Rider forces. Fastest horse and siege. We can beat Liscor; they won’t have time to mobilize. Neither will Hectval. We raze Hectval. No casus belli for war. Liscor’s Antinium and army disband.”

Silence. Rafaema’s jaw nearly dropped. The rest of the High Command was just quiet.

“Not ideal. But if it stops an Antinium force from gaining war experience, we could probably effect it with minimal casualties. How fast could we assail the city?”

“Two weeks maximum. Call it a week minimum if we stick to magical munitions and no siege weapons for a proper attack force.”

“Too far in my opinion. But let’s put that on one end of the countermeasures.”

Everyone nodded. Rafaema breathed out. This wasn’t their first option. But it was on the table.

She was learning a lot.

“If we could just do that to Liscor—”

“That starts the Third Antinium War. And we’re not ready. Especially not with Saliss of Lights out of his war potential.”

And helping the enemy. Did you see…?”

“Discussions on our Named Adventurers later, gentlemen. Ladies. I see Hunt Commander Makhir has an option.”

The Gnoll leaned on the table. Rafaema sat up.

Makhir and Lulv she liked to hear from. They were Gnolls. She wasn’t partial to Gnolls more than Drakes, but she had the opinion that if Gnolls had gotten into Manus’ highest command council, they were undeniably the best, as opposed to, well, hereditary positions of command, even if they were earned.

“I am a [Hunt Commander], Dragonspeaker. My ideas are simple. Run down the enemy. Pursue the quarry. Take out the enemy by the neck.”

Makhir grinned around the table. His paw touched Hectval—then Liscor.

“War comes. Antinium forces are going to level if they fight. That’s inevitable. Without destroying a city for the Antinium—why not cut to the heart of the problem?”

“The leveling Antinium? I don’t follow your trail of logic, Makhir.”

Luciva frowned. The Gnoll nodded.

“It’s war, after all. There’s an alliance of three cities. Liscor has their forces and the Antinium. And the Antinium are going to fight and level. If they survive. What if someone joined…Hectval’s side? And made sure they didn’t?”

The High Command stirred. Rafaema blinked.

“Ah.”

General Milka nodded and smiled. Lulv scratched at his chin.

“A veteran spear-group. Or anti-armor infantry. Tell Hectval we want to help them. Chew up the Antinium group.”

“Exactly. We can also see their combat potential. The Queens no doubt did this to test out their Armored Soldiers in battle. I suggest we do the same.”

“War by proxy. I like it.”

Another Wall Lady murmured. Luciva was nodding.

“We’ll put that one higher. Let’s continue discussing options, however. I’m also minded to simply…”

 

—-

 

The discussion went on. Rafaema listened intently, then began to tune out as the High Command went over the same ideas, looking for weak points.

She had guessed—and she was right. They went with Makhir’s solution. She voted with the others, and Dragonspeaker Luciva did not overturn the collective decision. It was done, and Spearmaster Lulv was appointed to lead Manus’ reinforcing group.

“Are you sure you’ll be fine?”

Rafaema walked with the Gnoll as they left the inner chambers of Manus’ citadel-fortress, in the heart of the inner city. The City of War, with two layers of walls and their confusing layout, stretched beneath Rafaema as she walked with her teacher.

“Of course. I’m smart enough to know when to retreat. I’ll tell you how the Antinium fight. Even show you.”

“And you won’t miss the Meeting of Tribes?”

Lulv shrugged.

“I am a City Gnoll of Manus. I wouldn’t be welcome there.”

“I see. You’ll have to tell me more about Gnoll culture. That is…”

He smiled with all his teeth. Lulv hesitated, glanced around, and then patted Rafaema briefly on the shoulder.

“It would be my honor. Perhaps we’ll ask Makhir, eh? He knows more than I. But good you want to know.”

“Someday, I will lead Manus. I should.”

He nodded at that, greatly pleased. Rafaema thought she had Lulv’s respect. But ‘someday’ was…a long ways away.

She was still young. For a Dragon. A hundred and twenty three years. Eighty more until she was a ‘young Dragon’, and equivalent to a Drake who had earned her majority, a full adult.

Rafaema thought Manus didn’t understand that child or not, a century plus of time made you older than most. But then—she’d also met Cire. And he was a perfect argument for why that wasn’t so.

So the High Command began to effect their plan vis-à-vis Liscor. Without Rafaema. She was included in decision-making, they listened to her, explained their thinking.

But she wasn’t one of them. Not yet. So the Dragon had begun her own plans. She needed to be more than she was.

Her first action had been to investigate Liscor. To learn why it was changing. And it was…

A complete failure. Rafaema ground her teeth as she found a private place on the walls and retrieved her speaking stone.

“Ferris. Report. Ferris. I am going to murder you.”

What had happened? She’d thought she was doing it all perfect. Suborn one of the minders assigned to watch over her. She’d chosen the best—Ferris. Get him to retrieve the Human so Rafaema could understand how the Antinium were changing.

He’d arrived in Liscor, posing undercover, and told her he was reconnoitering. He’d identified the Human—Erin Solstice. Said he was going to make contact and try to retrieve her.

And then? Delay. And then? Just a bit longer. And then? Conflict of targets—perhaps it’s this other Human and the ‘Crazy Human’ is a front. All this while an army invaded Invrisil, and Rafaema was hearing of strange new devices coming from Liscor, Pallass losing Pelt the [Smith] to some Human city of Esthelm.

And then? Whoops. A Hectval raiding party shot and killed the Human target. Ferris had been quiet after that. Wisely, perhaps. But if he returned to Manus without picking up the speaking stone?

Rafaema would throw him off Manus’ outer wall. She did not make false threats.

It seemed like he’d refuse to answer his speaking stone for the third day in a row. Rafaema ground her teeth. She knew that at this range, even the most expensive speaking stones she’d…acquired…from Manus’ vaults only gave them a short amount of speaking time before needing to be recharged. But all he’d said was he’d ‘update her on the situation’ three days ago.

Then nothing. She was about to storm off and review the Meeting of Tribes—she was curious about that—when the speaking stone sputtered to life.

Rafaema. I can’t talk long.

Ferris? What in the name of the Ancestors is going on? You have some explaining to d—”

“I was in the custody of Pallass’ own infiltration agency until about two weeks ago. Pallass’ Eyes. I’m on the road now.”

Rafaema’s eyes widened. Pallass’ Eyes were to their city what Ferris was to Manus.

“How? I gave you instructions to lay low and contact that [Innkeeper]!”

There was a growled response; muffled voices in the background. Ferris shifted the position of his speaking stone and the voices grew more muffled, his clearer.

“Yes. And guess what? Grand Strategist Chaldion himself visits that inn. I tried to make contact, but I couldn’t entice the [Innkeeper]. I gave it all I could.”

“You failed. Didn’t you offer her a free tour? Incentives?”

The Gnoll [Infiltrator] growled at Rafaema. She blinked at the stone; his professional attitude from when they’d first met was fraying.

“You sent one agent without backup or resources to get an [Innkeeper] who has Hobgoblin bodyguards, multiple Level 40+ individuals staying in her inn, and a Named Adventurer and the Grand Strategist of the south staying in her inn! Pallass’ Eyes detained me and I was helpless until—the incident with Hectval. Are you aware of…?”

“Yes.”

Rafaema relented a bit. She was willing to admit mistakes had been made. Maybe even by her.

“We’ll discuss the matter. You’re returning?”

“No. That’s what I’m contacting you for. Mission achieved—partly. I’m enroute to Oteslia. With a Human. Four in party. Be advised—names are Lyonette, female, late teens early twenties. Wilovan, Gnoll. Early forties, late thirties? Unsure—tall hat. Ratici—”

Rafaema blinked. her memory was close to perfect, but—

“Slow down. What? What Human? The [Innkeeper] is dead!

“Not dead. On ice. Perhaps alive. Listen. Do a check on Wilovan, Ratici, Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Criminal group. I couldn’t get them to Manus, but they’re heading to Oteslia. And—”

Hey Ferris-guy! Are we going or what?

Rafaema heard a loud voice. And then a snap of someone hitting Ferris on the shoulder. She blinked. She’d heard that voice once on a memorable visit from Pallass to Manus with Grand Strategist Chaldion. It couldn’t be—

“Right away, Sir Saliss. Just…taking a break.”

“Leave him alone, Saliss. Five more minutes to stretch our legs, Ferris?”

“Absolutely, Ma’am!”

The Gnoll’s voice was cheerful, if harried. Rafaema heard shuffling. When next he spoke, it was quietly.

“I think he knows who I am. But I haven’t been outed. I’m in the company of those three. And…Saliss of Lights.”

“Why?”

Rafaema stared blankly at the stone. Ferris sighed.

“You wanted the Human responsible for Liscor’s inciting incidents. Well—one’s under a kind of stasis. But I have a [Princess] of Terandria, Lyonette du Marquin travelling to Oteslia on business. I may be able to convince her to head to Manus after this. I’d need actual funding, though…does that satisfy?”

The Dragon’s mind was racing. She raised the speaking stone and heard a tinkling sound. She stared at the speaking stone. There was pointed silence on the other hand.

“…Yes. Yes, it does. Good work, Ferris. I can…use this. There’s no need to convince this Human to go to Manus, either. There’s a way for me to meet you in Oteslia.”

They both knew roughly how. Ferris grunted.

“The High Command will have my tail for this if it gets out.”

“They won’t. This is what I wanted. Just get them there and I’ll meet you. Don’t let Saliss of Lights know who I am.”

“I won’t. He knows I’m from Manus if he has access to Chaldion’s network. But I never let on who I was. To him, I’m just an agent of Manus. I have to go. We’re moving. Miss Lyonette! Are you ready to—”

The speaking stone cut out. Rafaema was left standing there. And now…well, she hadn’t gotten what she wanted.

But she had something. Her eyes narrowed. And Saliss of Lights? He was actually an important figure in Izril. Named Adventurer. Two reasons, then. It outweighed the bad, and frankly, she had resented that last High Command meeting. She was still a child to them and it was clear she hadn’t been needed.

But this? Luciva would have to acknowledge actual intelligence about the Hives. Or more. And…well, it had been a long time since she’d been out of Manus. Her Walled City, both beloved and a cage, wore on her.

All of this was reason enough to outweigh the one good reason not to go to Oteslia. Rafaema sighed and made up her mind.

 

—-

 

Dragonspeaker Luciva was speaking to a group of Manus’ top [Commanders] when Rafaema approached. But she broke off. She had time for Rafaema.

Everyone had time for Rafaema.

“Wall Lady Rafaema. Can I help you?”

Some of the younger [Commanders] gave Rafaema a look. Those who didn’t know…her…and that was most of those outside the top brass, gave her supercilious looks.

Rafaema tried avoid doing this. She knew what they must think. A spoiled, orphaned Wall Lady humored by High Command, given favors because of her family’s rank.

Well, it was the backstory. But she took the stares now.

“If I’m not interrupting, Dragonspeaker Luciva?”

“Of course not. Is it urgent?”

“Not…pressing. But I had a desire—if it’s alright—to make an appointment to visit Oteslia. It has been long since our last visit. And you did say that you wished to make more meetings happen.”

Luciva blinked. And then she smiled. It was so rare to see her smiling after her daughter…passed. But it almost made up for what came next.

“Naturally, Rafaema! What brought this on?”

The Dragon’s tail tried to curl up. But she forced herself to smile.

“Well, I was just missing the city, that’s all. And I parted…somewhat badly from uh, Cire. I’d like to apologize. And meet him again.”

“We’ll make that happen. I’m delighted! And of course—we’ll have to organize a proper transport. The Meeting of Tribes is ongoing, but a Pegasus flight—of course, Rafaema. Cire should be delighted. As will the First Gardener.”

Rafaema’s teeth hurt. Especially because for her, they’d have her on a flight before you could blink.

“I will be so happy to see her. And Cire. Especially…Cire.”

Luciva was already motioning for one of her people. It might have been strange, what with Antinium and politics, for the Dragonspeaker to care so much about Rafaema visiting the city.

But the key was Oteslia. And Cire’s name. Rafaema had learned that long ago.

After all…there were only two Dragons in the Walled Cities left. One male, and one female. It wasn’t exactly hard to see why their relationship was what Luciva and the First Gardener worried about.

Two Dragons left in the entire world. Unless there were more. Somewhere else…

Rafaema sighed as she crossed her claws behind her back, suppressing the pang in her chest. Sorry Luciva. But she was going to Oteslia on her business. All for Manus and the cities. Cire?

She hated Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn. He really got on her nerves.

 

—-

 

News of the Antinium did not concern just Manus. The Blighted King no doubt knew of this—although his attention was likely focused on the Demons. Many people paid for news of the Antinium, though.

To some, it was more pressing a concern than mere interest.

Magnolia Reinhart put down the missive.

“Erin Solstice strikes again. That young woman is more nuisance than not some days, I swear, Ressa.”

“She is singularly effective it seems. Should we arrange to meet with her?”

“Later, perhaps.”

The [Lady] of House Reinhart was delightfully caught up with certain events. And not with others. Even this news had been delayed in reaching her.

Her information net was in shambles. Her people undercover, or evacuated. Her holdings in the north, recovering, for all the Circle of Thorns was on the run.

She herself had left her homeland and was at sea. It was disastrous. How easily things fell apart.

Well, she had seen that before. Magnolia Reinhart drank some sugar. And yes, that was how you should put it. The tea was secondary to the sugar.

A slight rocking disturbed the liquid in the cup as she put it down. They were on the ocean. Magnolia scowled. She didn’t like water that much. Unless there was sugar in it, and seawater had only salt. She sat there, contemplative.

“Ressa, at times like this, one likes to reflect on one’s weaknesses.”

“Only at times like this, Lady Reinhart?”

“I am not in the mood, Ressa. I will have you swim if you keep it up. This time—among others—one likes to reflect on one’s weaknesses and strengths. I do not like war. I am, it seems, poor at keeping [Assassins] in line.”

Ressa’s cheek twitched. The only other person in the room with them—Reynold—adjusted his position. He glanced at his lower half.

“You don’t say.”

“Ressa, I am sitting in a floating tub in the ocean. Yes. I am aware of my own understatements. I am just saying…what are my strengths? I thought I was rather good at intrigue. Perhaps I am not. Let’s list the real, quantifiable strengths I possess. A certain flair on the dance floor? Please, be honest. I know that is so difficult for you.”

“No.”

“Ah. An elegance and charm about me?”

“Wrong again.”

The [Lady] pursed her lips.

“I was afraid you’d say that. Then, it seems, Ressa, the one true gift I have that I can reliably state is my strength is…making money.”

Ressa thought about this for a worrying amount of time.

“That’s quite true. You make money quite well, milady.”

“Thank you, Ressa. But it is a shame. If I trusted other people to handle Izril’s future, how delightful it would have been to pay them to do the job. Like…Zel Shivertail.”

Silence. Yes, look how all the best-laid plans fell to ruin. Magnolia Reinhart sipped more tea. She sighed again.

“But here I am. Thrust into the role of trying to steer Izril in a better direction.”

“Kicking and screaming, whether they like it or not.”

Ressa checked under the blinds, eying the position of the sun. She looked at Magnolia. The [Lady] was serene.

“Quite so. Because I believe I am right. Ah, but my talents do not align. Making money. I should have been born into the House of El. But I would have never fit in, what with my ability to actually retain money in my coffers and make decent business decisions.”

“I shall inform them of this sad fact upon my latest convenience.”

“Mm. Thank you, Ressa. I always have you to keep me grounded. Is there any other pressing news to hear? It’s nearly time.”

Ressa consulted her notes. Spotty intelligence, politics…she discarded it all for later. Because now was a waiting time and she knew her mistress’ mood. She found one thing that might distract and half-smiled.

“Ah. Your niece wishes to speak with you. It’s quite urgent, or so she claims.”

Magnolia Reinhart made a face, as if the tea had suddenly gone sour.

“…This wouldn’t happen to be the niece who enjoys…fornication with her step-brother, would it?”

“No. This is one of your nieces that you like.”

Magnolia Reinhart blinked. She put down her cup.

“I have one of those?”

The [Head Maid] nodded.

“Yvlon Byres.”

“Oh, Yvlon!

Magnolia smiled and laughed.

“I would never do her the disservice of calling her family, Ressa. Oh, my niece. Well, I will attend to her very soon, then. Right after this.”

“Very good, milady.”

Ressa straightened. Magnolia chuckled. And for a moment, she was distracted. Reynold waited, looking at his legs. The ‘floating tub’ rocked as the waves moved them slightly.

It was nearly time.

 

—-

 

Armies. Schemes. Dead [Innkeepers]. It was a tumultuous time. In this world, where levels and Skills shaped lives and power and authority were measured on such things—

Now to someone without levels. A rarity in this world. Not so much in others. Someone who had…chosen to refuse what was seen as natural.

Asale sat in his office in one of the huge towers that some called the ‘Fangs of Zeres’. From afar, the Walled City, southernmost of those on Izril could be seen, a circular harbor with the famous walls encircling it. The harbor was in fact, a vast gateway that could be closed if need be.

And Zeres was unique in that it faced two fronts, rather than prepared for enemies on all sides. Land and sea, and had changed its city to adapt for both eventualities.

Zeres, the City of Waves. Ruled by the Serpentine Matriarch—well, her and the Admirals.

Multiple admirals—that was their title. Drake command being what it was, one could not have a leader in one of the multiple areas be subservient to a mere [General]. So they were thus Admirals—and this Drake was Admiral of the Supply.

Asale of Zeres. Noted, famous, infamous? Because he had no levels. Also, because he’d risen to one of the highest positions a Drake could hope to achieve despite that.

‘Admiral of the Supply’ was one of the posts that was somewhat ironic. He was in fact, essentially a [Quartermaster] for the entire city. Again, without the Skills that normally accompanied such a position. Still, Zeres’ High Command seemed to agree that Asale made up for the lack of Skills someone else in his position could provide. And he was still an Admiral…of the supply.

He had the smallest office of the High Command. Which was still big. He was busy doing paperwork; he also helped manage all the imports and shipments of goods, and was thus almost as important as the Admiral of the Harbor.

Admirals. But it was wrong to think that Zeres just has [Admiral] as a stand-in for [General]. To prove that point, a jovial foot kicked the door open.

Aha! You’ve done it now, Asale! The Serpentine Matriarch is going to have your tail! Hah! Everyone’s shouting confusion from the docks and who’s to blame? This Drake!”

The muscular Drake who stormed into the room smelled of salt and sea. He was Sharkcaptain of Zeres—another post unique to the City of Waves.

There were the Admirals of Zeres. The Serpentine Matriarch. And her champion—the Sharkcaptain of Waves. Other posts of course, but Zeres was unique in that it had the Serpentine Matriarch.

Not a [Queen]. The Drakes were very staunch about that. No Walled City had royalty per se! But the Serpentine Matriarch was rather unique. Drakes hated being compared to Lizardfolk. And yet—they had the Serpentine Matriarch. Because if you were going to have a ruler who compared themselves to serpents and thus snakes and thus Lizardpeople by proxy, she might as well be the Matriarch.

It was rumored her lineage had connections to the Ancestors of Drakes…only not the ones you were thinking of. Rather than Dragons…Wyrm. Indeed, the Serpentine Matriarch had a rather long tail, a genetic tell along with other features. It ran through Zeres, some subtle differences of different heritages.

But the Sharkcaptain was a hereditary post, who was appointed because he was the fighter the Serpentine Matriarch chose to represent her—and accompany her. Personality and a talent for battle went hand-in-hand—not necessarily grand strategy. Hence the ‘captain’ bit. It differed from Sharkcaptain to Sharkcaptain.

In his way, he was as important as an Admiral of the Supply, though. And he was positively beaming with smugness as Asale put down his reports.

“What is it this time, Femar?”

Femar of Zeres, Sharkcaptain, who had more scars on one arm then Asale did on his entire body, grinned. He carried the weapon of his station, a barbed spear. Enchanted—made of some seafaring monster’s tooth and viciously sharp and deadly.

“Don’t be so upset, Asale. I’ve come to save you from being killed by her. Have you not looked out the window?”

Asale turned his head. He had an unparalleled view of Zeres’ harbor from his tower—and threats by land. A huge glass window let him stare out across the City of Waves, and it could survive a Tier 6 spell’s impact without so much as cracking the glass.

Still, this was not a job for those with vertigo. He glanced down.

“I hate heights. What am I supposed to be seeing, Femar?”

The Sharkcaptain stared at his companion. He gestured.

“The harbor’s empty.

So it was. And for Zeres, the largest harbor in all of Izril, only matched by First Landing for scale and business, an empty harbor was…incredible.

Oh, there were ships docked. Zeres could accommodate armadas, and it had its own standing force. A navy that could go claw-to-toe with any in the world, or so they boasted. But so many berths were empty. And they were always in rotation.

“Someone messed up. There are ships waiting to dock and [Captains] screaming that they want to unload their cargo. But someone filed the wrong schedule and the Admiral of the Harbor is going to have your tail! Well, it is her job. But both of you are going to have her on your tails.”

Captain Femar was gleeful at having caught Asale out. It was more like a childish rivalry than any actual malice.

“Tell you what. I’ll distract her and no one needs to know—if she hasn’t looked out the window already and seen what’s happening. You can buy me drinks later.”

He began to saunter out the door, already thinking up ways how he could drag out Asale’s inevitable embarrassment. The Admiral of Supply stopped him with a word.

“Why?”

Femar turned.

“What do you mean, ‘why’? The harbor’s empty!”

“As it should be. I don’t see anything wrong with my schedule.”

Asale indicated the list he’d tacked to a wall, in plain view. Femar, astounded, strode over to it and stared.

“Each berth’s filled. But there are no ships there. Asale! I can see ships waiting to come in.”

“Yes. And we’ll wait a bit longer before they do.”

Something about the way Asale said it made Femar look up. He narrowed his eyes. The necklace of giant shark’s teeth he wore dangled as he leaned over.

“Asale…?”

“You might as well tell the Serpentine Matriarch we are expecting rather significant guests in…”

Asale checked the light-clock he had near his desk. It showed the position of the sun in the sky in real-time, and calibrated itself to a specific time based on that. Tuned to the heavens.

“Within the hour. Within four minutes, actually, if everything’s on-time.”

“What? No one told me!”

Femar was astounded. The Admiral of the Supply sat back down. He looked up. And his gaze was orange—orange irises that were disconcerting when he really looked at you.

“I know. The other Admirals don’t know either. You may tell them now, Femar, that Magnolia Reinhart bought those berths, so they’re hers to do with as she pleases during her time slot. Although she should be arriving shortly.”

The Sharkcaptain rubbed at one earhole. He must have gotten some seaweed in there.

“You mean…Magnolia Reinhart as in, leader of the House Reinharts who is our enemy?

“She’s coming by way of Zeres to Oteslia.”

“And you didn’t tell anyone?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“The Matriarch would have made a fuss. As would have you. I decided it was better to allow her passage as Admiral of the Supply. We can discuss it at the next conference.”

Femar opened and closed his mouth. He stared at Asale. What he did not say was ‘you traitor’, or ‘how dare you’? Because Asale clearly dared.

Zeres was not Manus. No Walled City were alike, obviously, but Zeres was a city of tradition, almost as much as Salazsar. And along with the Serpentine Matriarch, they had a tradition that rankled some other, military-minded Drakes’ ideas of command.

Each Admiral was a law unto his or her own. They were semi-autonomous; they answered to their fellows and the Serpentine Matriarch, but they could act and did act without each other’s approval. That included keeping secrets.

“You—”

Before Femar could say half the things boiling on his tongue, he heard a sound.

Boom. Boom.

It was the beating of a vast drum from sea. Asale glanced out the window.

“That would be her arrival. I understand there’s a party to be had at Oteslia soon. With her name on it.”

“And you decided to let her come by way of Zeres? The other Walled Cities—”

“She is not our enemy today. Also—she paid quite well for the berths. We’ll discuss it at the next conference, Femar.”

The Sharkcaptain roared his fury. His aura sprang to life and the guards outside Asale’s office shouted in panic. For Femar’s aura was like a shark’s, not an element, not like that of a [Lord]. It was so physical that it tore the carpet around his feet, sent loose papers flying, even cut at the drapes—

Asale threw an ink-pot at Femar. It bounced off the Drakes’ head. Femar recoiled. Asale sat, scowling, in the center of the destruction.

“Get out of my office.”

Femar hesitated. But then he ran out of the room, cursing. Asale sighed. And he heard the sound again.

Magnolia Reinhart was entering the city of Zeres. Coming to you live from Wistram News Network. He wondered just how mad the Serpentine Matriarch would be.

 

—-

 

The High Command of Zeres, minus Asale, was surprised. The Wistram [Mages] poised to record the event? Less so.

The Walled Cities? Well, Oteslia knew, because Magnolia Reinhart was travelling there by invitation. And thus the other Walled Cities knew, or were aware of the fact of one of the Five Families treading upon their soil.

It had seemed such a huge deal…months ago. Now, overlooked. Eventually, it was decided she could definitely travel to Oteslia. It was her neck, not theirs.

They had, perhaps, forgotten to ask the question of how she would arrive. It had been assumed she would come from the north, past Liscor, around the Bloodfields—although that was a longer route. But she had her famous pink carriage. Why, she’d have to sail to Zeres or another port if she wanted to come by sea.

Recent events could have suggested that was more likely. However, again, so what? She’d arrive by sea.

Except that this…was an event. Magnolia Reinhart heard the first rolling toll of thunder from the drums at the same time as the people of Zeres. She listened, hands gripping the teacup firmly.

“Planning. I had time to plan this one. I’d like to call that Strength #2, Ressa, if I may.”

“Perhaps.”

Magnolia nodded and sipped from her cup.

“Planning. When it all comes together, I like to think I do it quite well. Are you sure we can’t add ‘social graces’ to the list?”

“You’re not that charming, even with Skills.”

“Well, drat. But I’d like to think I at least know the difference between Drake and Human politics. We have come to this delightful party in Oteslia.”

The First Gardener had invited her. And perhaps she felt it would be a first step, a tentative one, between North and South. Perhaps she felt it should be small, but it had been momentous just achieving one meeting.

Another might not come again. It would not be easy a second time. So, if that was the case—

It would be a visit to remember. Magnolia Reinhart sighed.

“I would never fit in with the House of El. Because I hate spending money. Wasting it, rather. But if it is to a purpose—”

Her eyes glittered.

“You might as well do it properly.”

 

—-

 

The people of Zeres looked up as the booming drumbeats sounded across the water. They had already noticed the empty harbor and people had been jesting at the Admiral’s expense about the rare mix up.

Now…they saw boats approaching the harbor. The watch towers came alive with voices.

“We’re sensing multiple—multiple illusion spells incoming. Identified as [Darkness]—”

“Multiple ships on approach—the Serpentine Matriarch is asking to confirm. Magnolia Reinhart inbound…?

“Admiral of the Supply confirms. This is on-schedule and approved! Stand down. Stand down!

“The Admiral of the Fleet—”

“The Matriarch demands we—

Stand down by order of the Admiral of Supply!

They were barking at each other as, in the scrying orb, an excited [Mage] was talking.

“Yes, Drassi. I think we are seeing Magnolia Reinhart’s fleet at a distance! Zeres appears to be partially caught off-guard, but I understand the harbor has been empty all day. What you’re hearing are drumbeats from those ships. And—oh! We’re seeing [Darkness] spells covering the harbor.”

Indeed, the air was going dark as multiple spells filled the air. It sucked away the light, and the citizenry not near the bay definitely noticed that. They began heading in the direction of the most light; the approaching fleet.

Now, the television was showing dozens of ships approaching the harbor at full-sail, glowing with colored mage-lights. The [Mage] breathed.

“This will be the first time in living memory that a member of the Five Families steps foot in the City of Waves. The second time that Magnolia Reinhart has walked through a Walled City! One for the history books, Drassi.”

“This is such an amazing moment, Merri. Thank you for covering it!”

The Drake [Reporter] was covering the event live from Pallass. She had kicked Sir Relz’s chair off-screen and she was clearly enjoying every minute of it.

And then—ah. When you put it like that. One for the history books. You began to understand that it could have been a moment without fanfare or notice.

But Magnolia Reinhart had decided it was not.

 

—–

 

Walled Cities in conference.

Manus to Oteslia. We are aware of Magnolia Reinhart requesting travel permissions to your city. We were not informed of any entry-display to Zeres. Zeres, please confirm this is happening.

Oteslia. Magnolia Reinhart’s approval was acceded to by all six Walled Cities. Nothing has changed.

Fissival. This is on the news. It is being declared a landmark event, like Reinhart walking on Pallass’ walls. ‘First of the Five Families to step on the Walled Cities in generations.’

Pallass. Magnolia Reinhart did not ‘step on Pallass’. Retract statement, Fissival.

Manus to Zeres. This event was not agreed upon. Zeres?

Salazsar. We’re online. What’s happening?

Oteslia. Magnolia Reinhart is simply travelling by way of Zeres.

Fissival to Oteslia. We’re counting at least twenty, maybe thirty ships approaching. That is not ‘travelling’. This is a spectacle!

Oteslia. Calm down.

Zeres. This action has been approved. We are in the middle of her entrance. Busy, Manus.

Manus to Zeres. Please halt Magnolia Reinhart’s arrival until the Walled Cities have come to a decision.

Zeres to Manus. Are you serious? How?

Fissival to Zeres. Confirm this isn’t an invasion? Fissival to Oteslia, are you certain this is not a surprise attack?

Oteslia to all. Magnolia Reinhart is travelling to Oteslia.

Pallass to Oteslia. Was Oteslia aware this would occur?

Oteslia. Standby.

Pallass to Oteslia. Not funny. Was this planned with the First Gardener or is this Magnolia Reinhart’s initiative? Oteslia, confirm.

Oteslia. Standby.

Zeres. Reinhart incoming.

 

—-

 

A fleet was approaching Zeres’ harbor, spread out on both sides. Like…a procession. Not all were warship-class. But in the distance, the largest of the vessels was slowly moving forwards.

“That’s…the damned Velistrane.

Someone breathed in the watching crowd. The famous warship. As Drassi heard—and the audience of the world from the excited Drake [Mage] reporting—

…the largest warship ever built by House Reinhart. A relic from the Colonization Wars—of course, the Humans of Izril have a different name for their war of aggression. It has participated in hundreds, hundreds of naval battles and been sunk three times—each time repaired and refitted. The Velistrane is of course famous for having sunk a Dragonship in naval combat in a two-day running battle. As first impressions go, this is both a show of force and spectacle from Magnolia Reinhart, perhaps an attempt to reclaim her damaged reputation—

That was background chatter, interrupted by the boom of drums. Multiple enchanted drums in fact, hit in near-perfect synchronization from multiple ships.

[Captains] stood at the prows of their ships, flanked by…servants? Yes, the iconic [Butlers], [Maids], and so on of House Reinhart. They sailed into the harbor in a rough inverted-‘V’ formation, leaving a single path for the mighty warship.

“Is this a show of force, Merri?”

Drassi was asking, leaning over the desk at the glowing image; she was in a corner of the broadcast.

Ulvama was gobbling popcorn; other leaders were watching. The view switched back to the excited Drake.

The Velistrane might be—at least, as a symbol of the Five Family’s might. However, we’re seeing the first ships approaching and—dead gods, look at that!”

Lights began shooting up from each vessel as the servants raised wands. A lights-show, magical fireworks blooming.

Some were fireworks as those from Earth knew them, simple magical explosions to awe and amaze. But what a poor use of illusion spells. The real magic was the magical animals that were called into being.

They leapt off the decks and raced across the surf, even making sounds. A gazelle leapt past the orb, golden-yellow, showering sparks of light as it struck the cobblestones. Drake children gasped and reached out as the harmless illusions swept off the decks.

It’s like the very best of [Illusionists]! Well, Magnolia Reinhart seems to have decided Zeres will have a show with her arrival! And look at that! If you want a symbol—here’s one!

Four dozen [Servants] armed with wands were pointing towards the central display of lights. There—the audience gasped and looked up.

A Dragon flew through the skies. Glowing red, fiery. It circled overhead as the combined illusion created a vast magical illusion. Becoming realer.

Fiery light turned to scales. The Dragon flew as lesser Wyverns and other flying animals like Rocs appeared overhead.

Dragons for the Walled Cities. Is that a nod to the Walled City’s history—or—a taunt? This is Noass—

In the corner of the screen, Noass tried to fight his way into the broadcast. Drassi began shoving him off.

“It looks more like a nod of appreciation to me! And this is my segment—oh, the ships are drawing close to harbor!”

Indeed, they were docking at the berths, each ship perfectly fitting those in place. From his tower, Asale was making notes.

Trade ship, The Redsail, check. Former Pirate’s cutter, Marevong’s Mead…check…

Some were trade-ships, probably hired for the occasion, others vessels belonging to House Reinhart. As they drew to port, the wary Zeres forces clustered at the docks. [Soldiers]—or rather, their naval equivalent—[Sailors] and [Marines], ready to fight.

But the servants weren’t armed for war, unless you counted the wands. They were instead poised, dressed in black and white. As the ships smoothly dropped anchor, they moved as one.

Illuminated by the lights, the servants bowed. They were Human, without exception, at least, the front rank. They gracefully knelt or curtsied. Then lifted their hands and began to toss something down towards the crowd.

Flowers?

That was Drassi’s first thought. But it wasn’t flowers. There were cries—and someone distinctly shouted ‘ow’! But then shouts of glee.

“It looks like they’re throwing silver coins into the crowd! Wait—I see gold too!”

Merri scrambled for a coin and produced a fat gold coin. That broke the harbor’s silence. The crowd might have not been all on board with Magnolia Reinhart, but suddenly everyone wanted to grab some money.

Is she—trying to—buy—affection from proud Drakes—

Noass fought onto the screen with Sir Relz. Drassi grabbed the magical microphone and began to kick at them.

“I’d rather have that than flowers! Why are you determined to be so negative? Oh, and look at that!

The [Servants] at the railings throwing coins, and yes, some flowers continued to do so as others fulfilled roles under the cover of the [Darkness] spell. Which became obvious as they were illuminated.

Lanterns began to glow from the ship’s port and starboard sides on both sides of the harbor, illuminating the way down the center like…well, an arrow. The servants on the sides not facing the docks held up the lanterns or wands, standing to attention.

The drum beats began to intensify. And then suddenly—ceased. In the sudden silence, people looked up, even stopping squabbling for the coins for a second. Merri, caught off-guard, was still shouting.

This seems to be as dramatic as the Reinhart family is said to be at times! A show of goodwill! Oh. Sorry. A show of goodwill, if the coins are any indication. What’s the symbolism? Reinhart paying her way into Zeres? The Dragon is most certainly a nod to the Walled Cities, but the Velistrane is inbound. And that’s the other, closed hand of northern Izril’s might. Or so one assumes…

Here it came. The mighty warship, aglow with magic. So vast that it was in a class of its own.

 

—-

 

“The Velistrane.”

Asale, the Admiral of Supply, stood before the Serpentine Matriarch. She had summoned him, and the other leaders of Zeres, except for the Admiral of the Harbor and Admiral of the Navy, who were in the harbor in case this was a sneak-attack.

“One of the last great warships the enemy possesses.”

The Drake who sat on the not-throne glared at the image. Her fingers twitched as much as her tail.

“I could destroy it here and now and rid Zeres of it once and for all! If we unleashed all the harbor-spells—”

She glared at Asale, her eyes baleful. The Admiral of the Supply raised a claw.

“It is possible the Velistrane could match our harbor defenses and fight back for the minutes it would take to escape the harbor, Matriarch. Even if we attempted to close the gates.”

“But if we closed the gates and sank it?”

He met her gaze.

“…Then no ship would trust the word of Zeres when it offers safe passage again, Matriarch. Or at least, not for years.”

She cursed him.

“Why did you let her arrive, Asale?”

The Sharkcaptain was glowering too. The Admiral of Supply sighed.

“We are not at war with Humans, Matriarch, Admiralty. I remind you of that. Or have the Antinium suddenly lost their strength? I say: let her pass.”

“And if I disagree?”

“You may accept my resignation.”

A second aura curled around Asale. He brushed it away and waited. Two slitted pupils glowered at him. But nothing was said.

 

—-

 

Here came the warship. The people at the docks looked up at the glowing lines of the ship, drawing closer. It was projecting its own luminesce, the wooden sides of the ship glowing.

And there was the sigil of House Reinhart—and that name.

Velistrane.

The citizens of Zeres tensed. Noass did them a disservice, suggesting that the coins were enough to buy goodwill. They knew that famous name from stories of wars with Humans.

[Sailors] now—from around the world, were less picky. They took off caps, or watched as one of the grandest ships remaining slowly entered the harbor.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart exhaled as she watched the scrying orb. She hadn’t been certain. Fairly sure, yes. But the Serpentine Matriarch was notorious for her temper, even if Magnolia had never met her before.

“I almost wish I could have brought Bethal to meet her. That would have been a meeting to remember—disastrous as it might be. Well, the hardest part is done. Now…let’s see how they react to this.”

 

—-

 

The drums had gone silent. The sound of surf against the docks was the only noise, aside from the breathing of those around. The [Servants] had gone silent. But more figures were arrayed on the decks.

On the Velistrane too. There were…hundreds. Hundreds, not even counting the [Sailors]. The Admiral of the Harbor watched, grinding her teeth.

“They’re in ranks. If they’re going to attack—they’re being open about it. I don’t see…weapons.”

“What, then?”

Her counterpart looked at her. The Drake cursed the [Darkness] spell, despite having near perfect night-vision despite the enchantment on her.

“Pieces of parchment? Paper? I have no idea what—wait. Is that Magnolia Reinhart herself?

She pointed.

Everyone saw the light illuminate the prow of the ship. There stood a woman in a pink dress. She was certainly a grand lady—her hair flashed in the light. A proud…the Admiral hesitated.

We might be seeing Magnolia Reinhart herself! Wait…is that Magnolia Reinhart?

Merri was commentating. There was a ripple of confusion as the woman spread her arms out, as if greeting Zeres.

 

—-

 

“That’s not Magnolia Reinhart.”

Lord Tyrion took one glance at the scrying orb and told Hethon. Sammial’s breakfast fell off his fork; they were eating.

“It’s not?”

Hethon was unsure. So were the people in Zeres. Pink dress, standing on the prow of the boat…Tyrion didn’t look twice.

“It’s not her.”

But he was watching out of the corner of his eye.

 

—-

 

“Is it Magnolia Reinhart or not? She’s big. The Sharkcaptain might be smaller than her!”

“I heard Magnolia Reinhart’s fat. Eats sugar all the time.”

“Who told you that?”

The arguing voices interrupted the silence as the capital ship drifted closer. The woman stood there, perfectly poised, arms outstretched, welcoming. As if she were the figurehead.

The ranks of silent people on each side of the ship. The two Admirals in the harbor eyed them, tensing. It couldn’t be Magnolia Reinhart; this was a bad spot to put the head of one of the Five Families. One stray [Sniper] could kill her.

And it wasn’t Magnolia. The woman had actually very few passing resemblances to Magnolia aside from…gender? And the pink dress. She was taller than Magnolia, and yes, heavier-set. From afar you could confuse them only so long.

But then the Velistrane was slowing, moving even slower to the docks. And as the silence stretched out—the woman moved at last. She opened her mouth.

And began to sing.

 

Through storm and Kraken’s Pass, do I see the shore at last?

Standing tall amidst the waves?

Where Dragonsail flies, my harbor remains.

Zeres, City of Waves to shelter me~?

 

It was an operatic voice. The kind of tone and…lungs that even Crowdcaller Merdon would respect. Not just sheer lungpower, but Skills.

The [Singer]’s voice echoed across the harbor, rendering mute the Admirals, the Drake [Marines], even the squabbling Drakes on the television.

It was a deep, commanding voice. But also, so lovely. And she’d done the entire first verse at full-volume and in one breath.

“Now there is a singer I respect.”

So said the [Popstar] of Terandria. She was watching, jotting down the lyrics of the song with a free hand.

But she needn’t have bothered. Merri gasped.

“That’s—that’s—our city’s…anthem.

The people of Zeres stirred. It was indeed. And now, as the first verse echoed, the opera singer, the woman on the prow of the Reinhart’s famous warship, was joined by a swell of…song.

The shadowed people on deck were illuminated by more lights. They were revealed as a cellist set bow to instrument, delicately perched on a seat from the middle of the warship. More accompaniment—but the true cavalcade of song came from the massed voices.

Hundreds of [Singers], a choir lined up on each side of the deck joined the lead singer as the music swelled again.

 

I shall sail to world’s end and carry my head high

For I have seen my Ancestors fly.

Each land I pass by, each sea I travel

Leads me ever to my glorious home.

 

They were singing Zeres’ anthem. At first, the people of Zeres couldn’t believe it. Noass and Sir Relz were trying to say—something—but Drassi was delighted.

You could argue the coin throwing. The Dragon conjured by illusions. But this? This was blatant. Patriotic. More than one Zeres [Soldier] and [Sailor] clapped a claw to their breasts and joined in, despite their officers hesitating.

Part of why it was so hard to deny the…laudation of Zeres were the lyrics. The choir sang on, in perfect voice, a massed voice—so inspiring to hear when done with their level of skill.

 

No city shall compare to Zeres’ sights,

No glories safe but the ones I leave behind

Oh come, travellers, and [King] and [Queen]

And speak jealous of where I have been.

 

At this point, some of the audience from afar began to listen to the words. Drassi blinked. Noass and Sir Relz stopped fighting.

What did they just sing? That’s their national anthem? That can’t be Zeres’—wait, have you ever heard their song, Sir Relz?

I don’t make a point of listening to other Walled City’s anthems, Noass. Er—is that actually what they sing?

Yes, it was. And if the two Drakes—their outrage beginning to change targets—thought that that was the most self-aggrandizing part of the song, they hadn’t ever heard Verse 5.

Jaws dropped. The citizens of Manus, Oteslia, Fissival, Pallass, and Salazsar listened, half in outrage, half in wonder. Zeres’ song was…patriotic. But that was Drake anthems for you. If there was anger, it was not at Magnolia Reinhart for choosing it.

Indeed—she had hired the woman known as the Voice of Renar—Miss Terinda Renar—to sing on a world-class stage. And she had given her a choir, a celebration—all seeming to honor Zeres.

One of the Five Families had paid for this, on her dime. And she had not spent anything as low-class as dimes on this event. If she even knew what those were.

The [Singer] and the choir finished the anthem, singing every verse—a rarity since it was a long song that usually only had the first two versus sung—leaving their audience in shock.

Or approval. Yet, the audience realized, one thing was unaccounted for.

Magnolia Reinhart herself. Now, where was she? They saw something interesting too.

The Velistrane was not docking at the harbor. It was turning, as the [Singer] gave a bow and applause came, even from begrudging Drakes. But the ship was turning…having done a perfect U-turn in the harbor while the song commenced.

“What’s happening? Is she…leaving?

People watching in confusion. But the Velistrane was moving out of harbor. Then—the lights illuminating that grand vessel winked off.

More lights illuminated the empty dock in the center of the harbor. Fit for a ship of the Velistrane’s class. But waiting.

The [Servants] had disembarked from the ships. Some of them. Unnoticed during the song like the best of stage-hands, they had set up something. Now, a huge…red…carpet was being unrolled down the length of the dock, onto the streets.

It was hundreds of feet long. The kind of grandiose thing that seemed more at home with well, stories, than real life. Someone had stitched that thing together. The red carpet unrolled…and unrolled…and more [Servants] were lining the vast carpet, which you could march a military parade down.

They were carrying objects. Now…the Admiral of the Harbor’s senses tingled. But not with [Dangersense].

“They’re carrying something expensive. Lots of expensive artifacts. We should—”

She was pushing towards them with the other Admiral of the Navy when the departing Velistrane issued a sound.

Horns. The brass peal of horns, trumpeting, triumphant. The people staring at the red carpet looked up. And saw, as the warship turned—it.

Of course. The [Darkness] spells began to come undone. From the harbor’s entrance first, and then towards the city itself. Like dawn breaking through darkness. And there it was.

A pink carriage.

Repaired, well, replaced, rather. Not that they would know that. But the most famous, iconic thing about Magnolia Reinhart.

A tub in the water. Well, Reynold would admit that if you didn’t activate the enchantments it rocked a bit. But now—the [Butler] lashed the reins.

And it sped towards Zeres, down the harbor. It had been practically invisible in the darkness and with all the other sights. Now, it shot towards Zeres, into the open harbor mouth at top speed.

Across the waters. Merri was shouting. The wheels of the enchanted carriage were racing on top of the water, cutting through the surf and leaving a vast spray behind it. The spectral horses surged as if it were solid ground.

Everyone watched as the pink carriage moved towards the docks. It would crash—no. The wheels left the surf as the carriage sped, faster than any boat in existence, upwards. Through the air.

Water droplets sprinkled the crowd as the pink carriage slowed. The wheels touched the ground. Then the carpet’s edge.

Reynold parked the coach and hopped off. He opened the door, and stood to attention. As one, the servants lining the way bowed once more.

Everyone in Zeres watched as a figure stepped out of the carriage. The broadcast showed…

Ressa. The taller woman stepped out of the carriage, nodded to the audience, and then helped the [Lady] in the pink dress out. Magnolia wore the same hat she had when she walked on Pallass’ walls. The same dress.

The same smile. She winked at Merri.

“Thank you for the lovely coverage, my dear. Hello, Drassi. Admiralty of Zeres.”

She nodded at the two [Admirals], who jumped as the magical camera panned towards them. Magnolia Reinhart smiled wider. She let Ressa precede her, then the two were side-by-side. They walked down the carpet.

“Please let the First Gardener of Oteslia know I’ve arrived. Oh, and I’ve brought some gifts. Thank you for renting the harbor to me. My ships will be out of your bay momentarily—I just need to unload all my little party favors.”

Magnolia addressed the Admiral of the Harbor as she passed. The Drake opened her mouth.

“Tell the—party f—

The [Lady] didn’t stop or slow. She walked on, greeting some of the [Maids] or [Butlers] or [Manservants] by name.

“Teln, don’t drop it. It’s glass, not enchanted. I know you wouldn’t, but I worry so. Are those gemstones properly polished, Eary?”

“Absolutely, Lady Reinhart. I will inspect them once we arrive at Oteslia.”

Wonderful.

The [Lady] paused, to let the Wistram camera-crew catch up. And then—Drassi, Merri, and the audience caught sight of the artifacts being carried by the servants.

A multicolored glass vase, so delicately blown it seemed the gloved man’s hands might break it if he applied a hair of pressure. A set of jewels in a crown of…bronze? Each one seeming far more expensive than the bronze itself.

Treasures. Some people even recognized. Jaws dropped.

“Did she just say those were party favors to the First Gardener of Oteslia?

Merri whispered. Magnolia Reinhart turned her head like, well, a shark.

“Oh, no, Merri. I meant to the guests. There’s an event in Oteslia and I couldn’t just come without some. Haven’t you heard?”

Another wink. Ressa nudged Magnolia slightly. She was overdoing it.

But the effect?

 

—-

 

“Wait, that’s the Bronze Crown of Manus! We took it from them in war nearly a thousand years back! How does she have—she can’t give it to them!”

Because he was a ghost, Regis Reinhart did not need to stop screaming to draw breath. Which, in fact, he hadn’t, not since catching a glimpse of the first artifacts on display. Magnolia Reinhart had more, as evidenced by the coffers being borne by the servants. But she had put some on display.

 

—-

 

“Reynold, bring the carriage up. I simply must thank the Admiralty—is the Admiral of the Supply here? Asale? I have to thank him personally for allowing me my little entrance. I trust it was entertaining? Such a lovely song…my, this carpet gets longer each time I walk down it.”

Magnolia was strolling down the carpet with the servants. The [Combat Butler] was rolling the carriage forwards and it was indeed being loaded with some of the treasures. The rest?

“We have transport and escort for the rest of the treasures, Lady Reinhart.”

Ressa was saying publically, gesturing to some waiting carriages. Of course, that part was show. They’d already moved what needed to be moved on ahead; only the objects on display would be going with the pink carriage. And this time—there would be no ambush in waiting.

What party?”

That came from the Admiral of the Navy, belatedly realizing that there was something he’d missed. But in truth, it wasn’t his fault.

It was a tactic Magnolia Reinhart had learned from, well, Maviola El. If you said it, they would believe it. She laughed.

“Oh, Admiral Krallow. You do like your jests. I hope to see you there. I don’t think the Matriarch said if she was going…? But I will quite like to see Oteslia. City of Growth. I’d love to stay in the City of Waves, but I’m a teensy bit behind schedule. I do so like to settle in and it doesn’t do to just roll up to the event on the day, does it?”

“Er…”

Magnolia was heading towards the pink carriage, which had replaced itself at the head of the carpet. But there was one last thing.

Or perhaps she had anticipated it. She looked at Ressa, and the [Maid] gave her a slight nod. She looked ahead at Reynold. And he had it ready. Bundled up in the carriage…it had made a nice blanket. Now, he covertly handed one of the [Servants] a long pole.

“Magnolia of House Reinhart.”

Someone stopped Magnolia Reinhart before she could make her grand departure. The [Lady] smiled.

“Sharkcaptain of Zeres.”

“You know me.”

Femar’s voice was flat. He held the famous spear idly. He was watching Ressa as much as Magnolia. And she eyed him.

Asale and two other members of the Admiralty of Zeres had joined the Sharkcaptain of Zeres. He bared his teeth as Magnolia Reinhart halted.

Auras met in the air. This was Zeres, his home. Femar’s eyes narrowed. Magnolia smiled.

“Admiral Asale. My thanks for allowing me passage.”

“Of course, Lady Reinhart.”

The Drake was watching her, curious, but also Femar. The Sharkcaptain frowned. Then, conscious of the others watching the silent clash of auras, smiled wider.

“The Serpentine Matriarch was quite pleased by your tribute to Zeres, Magnolia Reinhart.”

“Thank you, Femar. I do so enjoy it when my hard work is appreciated. Please, tell Ieneessa I appreciate the compliment.”

The [Lady] gave him an icy smile. Asale sighed as the Sharkcaptain blinked. He was the wrong person to try and dance with Magnolia—at least with words.

“The Matriarch of Zeres enjoyed the display.”

Femar began again, lying through his teeth. He eyed the Crown of Manus—the bronze one—being slowly carried past him. Idly, he lowered the spear.

The [Maid] holding it halted. Asale was impressed; the woman knew what was coming, it seemed, but it was still impressive to not flinch or even blink at the Sharkcaptain’s spear as it halted in front of her chest.

“There is just one thing, Lady Reinhart. Before you leave Zeres—it seems you’ve brought quite a number of objects to bring to an Oteslian party?”

“Party favors, Femar. Do keep up.”

He flushed slightly. There was a ripple of laughter. The Sharkcaptain’s teeth ground—then he caught himself.

“Yes. Well, you are free to head to Oteslia. The First Gardener has invited you, after all. Just as soon as we ascertain the value of all your gifts and collect a proper import tax.”

Someone made a sound in the crowd. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t blink. But she did sigh.

“Oh dear. Really?”

“Surely you knew the laws of a Walled City before you arrived?”

“Femar…”

Asale wanted to shake his head. Since he was on television, he did not. Merri made an incredulous sound.

“But they’re gifts…”

The Sharkcaptain heard her.

“Gifts or not, artifacts are taxed if they are meant to be exchanged.

“But I will not receive anything in return.”

“Goodwill could be considered an exchange.”

The Admiral of Supply kept his face blank. This was petty—Zeres didn’t do this for other people. Nor, if they kept to this implementation of the law, would they be one of the most active harbors in the world.

He’d argued against. But the Serpentine Matriarch? She was what was politely called ‘petty’ at times.

Magnolia Reinhart eyed the spear blocking her servant’s path.

“I do not believe other [Merchants] or [Captains] need pay a tax on gifts, Femar of Zeres. Is this a new rule or will it be applied across all ships from now on?”

His eyes narrowed. Asale stepped in before he could respond.

“I believe the Serpentine Matriarch’s will extends only to such notable events as these, Lady Reinhart. As she phrased it—an appropriate measure of tradition for a Human family with old ties to the Walled Cities.”

That was one way of putting it. There was laughter—and this time at Magnolia’s expense. The crowd, who was marginally on her side, didn’t seem to think this was too much to ask.

Magnolia Reinhart on the other hand? Asale didn’t like her smile. Femar was happy. But he had failed to notice what Asale made a point of noticing.

She wasn’t surprised by any of this. And he didn’t like that one bit. That meant she’d planned around this. And you know what they said about Reinharts.

They always laughed last. Usually over the dead corpses of their enemies.

“Femar, this really is troubling. I had intended to be on my way within, well, five minutes ago. But a delay to inspect, not to mention calculate the worth of all the objects I am carrying? Why, I don’t think I brought a big enough purse, do you, Ressa?”

Magnolia admitted after a moment. The [Maid] shook her head.

“One imagines the value to be considerably difficult to transport in a bag of holding, milady, even a tax.”

Femar’s eyes glittered. The other Drakes looked eager.

“Well, we can always arrange partial payment. Say, one or two of the artifacts? Never let it be said that Zeres isn’t willing to bargain to make sure everyone’s satisfied!”

He threw out a huge arm. More laughter. Magnolia looked up at him.

“Indeed. But you know, Femar…”

His eyes snapped back down as her aura pushed at his. He glared at the use of his name. Magnolia’s smile developed an edge. And she looked around for Merri and the scrying orb.

“I am rather disappointed. I come here in peace and goodwill, as you saw. I rather feel I bent to show my respect for Zeres. This hardly seems in keeping with my gesture.”

He opened his mouth. She went on.

“However, you are right. We have such old ties. The Velistrane reminds me of that. If you would like me to answer the Matriarch’s will as she presents it through you—I would be willing to do so.”

Her eyes glinted.

“But I am quite good at games of economics. It is one of my two strengths.”

The laughter and chuckling died out. Femar’s eyes narrowed. Slowly, he planted the butt of his spear on the ground.

“You stand in Zeres, Magnolia of House Reinhart. If you want to try something, go ahead.”

“Femar.”

Asale murmured, but his friend was too angry to listen to reason. Magnolia Reinhart smiled sweetly at him.

“I never thought you’d ask. Well then. For Zeres, the City of Waves? I rather did not want to do this. But it seems a traditional city like this requires a traditional reply. Reynold.”

She looked past the Sharkcaptain. Asale’s neck-spines itched. He turned—

And saw the pole.

It was a pole of wood. Reynold had, in fact, assembled it. It was in multiple parts—you locked the wood together.

Nothing fancy. Just smart-cutting, something Pallass would approve of. But as old as, well log cabins. No magic.

It created a pole far taller than the carriage, that was the point. A long stick. You couldn’t even really use it as a quarterstaff unless you were giant. That wasn’t the point, though.

His eyes narrowed. So did Femar’s. So did…because of course, what did that kind of instrument make you think of?

What was it Sir Relz had said?

“The first Reinhart to set foot in the City of Zeres in generations. The first of the Five Families to walk in one of the Walled Cities in…and not as a prisoner.”

A symbol. Think of laws. Magnolia Reinhart had.

Were there laws against…? Femar began to stride towards the carriage.

“You. Put that down.”

Reynold had a bit of fabric in one hand. He had looped it; it was meant to be carried aloft in a similar manner. He glanced at Femar, but ignored the Sharkcaptain.

The Drake’s steps quickened. Reynold handed the pole’s base to a [Maid]. Another maid joined them. They began to haul it up.

“Stop!”

Femar raised his spear, but it was too late. Merri saw one of the Admirals go for the scrying orb. But she was already turning.

The pole rose. And attached to it, the fabric. Or could you call it…a banner? A flag?

If you would press me thusly—Magnolia Reinhart watched as the Sharkcaptain leapt forwards, too late. Asale looked at her.

Claw for claw? Insult for insult? He held his breath. The Matriarch watched, shrieking her fury as the banner—

 

—-

 

“The Banner of Reinhart! That girl! Hah! Hahahaha!

Regis was shouting in exuberance, all his rage transformed. His eyes locked on the fabric. Then his face twisted in confusion.

 

—-

 

“That’s not the Banner of House Reinhart. The Banner of Terland?”

Lord Tyrion Veltras muttered. But he was already shaking his head. It wasn’t that either. It was—different. It was more colorful than even the Banner of the Terlands.

It was—his eyes widened.

 

—-

 

A color lost to time. Colors lost to time. And it was fabric. It was…blowing in the air. That much everyone had gotten right. But they were wrong in one huge, important detail.

It was not a flag. It was not a banner.

Behold. It flapped in the breeze—then caught the air. Nearly blew the three [Servants] off their feet. They held it steady, but it could have yanked them into the sky if the breeze were stronger. It had been meant for a far larger thing than just them.

A…ship. And what blew as they held it aloft was a beautiful thing. Wrought before even the Five Families had planted their standards on Izril’s soil.

Though time and war had damaged it, though its beloved vessel had been lost, still, it retained its beauty.

The Dragonsail fluttered in the breeze as the Sharkcaptain of Zeres stopped. His spear was ready to cast, to tear it down. But his arm halted.

He froze, eyes wide. The Drakes stared up and cried out.

A Dragonsail? But the Dragonships were—

“Lost. The Velistrane sank one in combat long ago.”

Asale murmured. And he understood. He looked at Magnolia Reinhart. She was smiling at him. At Femar, as he turned—and for the cameras.

It was not a nice smile. But neither was it as cruel as it could have been.

“Yes. The Dragonsail. We kept it. We keep everything. That is my reply.”

“What?”

The Admiralty started. Magnolia Reinhart gestured at the impromptu banner hanging in the wind.

“It is in your anthem, isn’t it? And this is Zeres, City of Waves. City of tradition. Dragonsail. Friend. By your laws, those who fly the Dragonsail are kin to your city. I claim right of passage, exempt from the Matriarch’s will under that. Or will Wyrm overturn the will of Dragons?”

She stood in place, beaming around at everyone. Asale saw her glance up as the wind threatened to snatch away the relic again.

“I didn’t want to be this direct.”

She murmured, as if to herself. Asale shook his head. But she’d planned every event so far. He doubted they’d been far off her reckoning.

So there it was. The choir, the coins, even the song of Zeres from the mightiest of the Reinhart’s ships for Zeres, all of it was so lovely. Wrapped up with a pink bow.

This was the other half. Dragonsail. Look at it and remember. Magnolia Reinhart sighed.

“My gifts are many things we’ve kept over the years. I hope to give back some—and spread goodwill. But we shall see at the party. In Oteslia; I bid you all adieu until then. Asale, my regards to the Matriarch. You have a lovely city.”

She walked to the carriage as the Dragonsail was lowered. The carpet was rolled up. The [Servants] not accompanying her headed back to the ships. It was so fast that it caught them all off-guard. Magnolia Reinhart’s pink carriage shot through the city.

And there she was. Almost as fast as rumor. Almost as quickly as news. As gossip and rumor spread—

Lady Magnolia Reinhart had entered the land of the Drakes. She was headed for Oteslia.

She was not the only one. Here came a [Princess]. Hither travelled a [Lady], and Wall Lords and Ladies.

And a Dragon.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It’s done. I had actually debated having…every part of this chapter later in Volume 8. It’s about timing, you see. Sometimes some chapter are better here rather than there, and perhaps that’s for when you finish the story to edit it, move stuff around.

I think, and hope, this fits here. Perhaps it’s better somewhere else, but it’s done and I’m writing chapter by chapter.

Did you enjoy it? From this chapter to the next! We have a lot of ground to cover, but I think we got decently far. Even if boats are slower than pink carriages.

Not all will be this long; I’m actually hoping I can make them a bit shorter. But you know me and promises. We’ll see what happens! Volume 8 is beginning! Strong! Weak? Pink? Thanks for reading!

 

The Free Queen and the Mirror by LeChatDemon, Commissioned by Richi!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/lechatdemon

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

Antinium War, Foliana, Gazi, and more by HolyChicken!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/q_thebird

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/quintenthebird

 

Reinhart Crest, Veltras Crest, Laken, Erin, Maviola, and more by Tomeo! (Laken made by Picrew Image Maker).

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.00

(Andrea Parsneau, MouthyMaven, will be live-recording Book 3 of The Wandering Inn on her Discord server! Be sure to join the server if you’d like to listen!)

 

Three days after the Summer Solstice, there was life. A heart began to beat. A body stirred.

In the city of Liscor, there was life where there had been so much death. Still, the mourning continued. Not just for one person; lives had been lost.

War between the Hectval Alliance and the city of Liscor had claimed lives. The city was both silent and noisy, and too much of each.

Yet there was life.

Beneath the city, bodies stirred in vast, semi-transparent sacs of liquid. Shapes that would have been called foreign, alien, disturbing to Humans or other species, began to move. Their heads were triangular, and they bore antennae. Their bodies—insectile, a fusion of ant and beetle. They had rounded, tough shells on their backs, and four arms.

They were Antinium. And they were being born, as the Antinium understood it.

The luminescent liquid that was growing them was in fact, a being of its own. Albeit with no real conscious mind. Antinium called them Birthers—and they were to their function what Workers and Soldiers were. These specialized Antinium produced each new generation at a speed unmatched by any other sentient species. A Worker or Soldier could form in a month at average production; less if need be.

And there were hundreds such Birthers, carefully contained in this environment, free from any foreign contamination or interference. The ‘food’ they were given was specifically calculated and the Birthers accepted only liquid nutrition that another Antinium had to process to render into usable material.

It was another form of reproduction for a species that had decided manual labor sort of sucked and was pretty inefficient. This new generation would not emerge as infants in body.

In mind, perhaps. But as each Antinium began to drift upwards and be extracted from the sack—or extruded much in the way most infants were—they did not cry or make sound. They stumbled only once; then found their feet.

To one of the new Workers, it was of course the strangest experience in its life. It had been vaguely…aware…near the end of its completion. But unconscious. What it had been processing was information.

 

How to walk. How to manipulate objects. Basic combat. Grab the enemy and kill it. Bite, tear. Pick up this object. Use a hammer like so. Nails go in point-first.

Clothing is to be worn thusly; without it is unacceptable. Beware of moving vehicles. Pronounce ‘Antinium’ with the following syntax…

 

A thousand different concepts, imparted into its mind from previous generations. Even as the Worker looked around the dim room and saw more forms rising, shaking off the nutrient-rich liquid—which was running in grooves in the floor down to a sloping basin for repurposing—it could have joined a construction team in hammering nails into pre-designated positions, or taken up a position in a battle, if only to charge the enemy and attack with bare hands and mandibles.

The Worker knew basic things; that was all. It could hammer nails, not construct a house or see the logic in tactics. The rest it would have to be taught. But it was still a rapid advancement on a Drake baby, whose only instinct after being born would be to cry, or grab the shiniest thing possible and stick it in its mouth.

This generation was not a vast army, just another addition to the Hive. Ninety eight Workers and Soldiers; the Birthers were not synced to all produce Antinium at once. It was a continuous rotation and even now, they were being prepared for more Antinium.

But what now? The Worker stood straight, opening and closing its hands, waving its antennae. Thinking and realizing it was consciously thinking for the first time. Yet it had no direction, no purpose. What—

 

I am your Queen.

 

The thought struck the Worker and it froze in an instant. From somewhere else—another position in the Hive—it felt a presence.

Vast, powerful, a mind reaching out through dirt and space to touch it. And the other Antinium. They froze as the Free Queen of the Antinium touched them, briefly.

 

I am your Queen. You are a Worker. You are Free Antinium. Your purpose is to defend the Hive. Your role will be given. You are to be a butcher of meats.

 

And thus it was done. The Worker received a second download of information, as well as understanding. It was a Worker. One of many. And it had just felt the presence of the Queen, for whom the Hive revolved around.

Certainty steadied the Worker. It was now a butcher. It would learn its job, but already it understood it would be using a meat cleaver to separate meats. Basic ideas like ‘do not get dirt on this’ had been imparted.

Normally, it would then walk to a specified place in the Hive, and follow another Worker about for a week or two, learning the rest of the nuances of its craft. But two things were different with this group of new Antinium than the rest.

The first was that of the hundred Birthers and Antinium—only ninety eight had risen. Two lay on the ground.

Dead. The Workers in charge of this section paused uncertainly over the bodies. The Antinium were whole in every way. A Soldier and a Worker, without defect or flaw, which normally would have been caught in their creation, at least visible ones.

But they did not move. Something was wrong. The Workers slowly began to remove the bodies. The other Antinium watched, not knowing what to feel or think. Death—the idea of death—had not been taught to them in more than an idea of what would happen if they were injured.

No one taught new Antinium to grieve or weep. Or no one had. But things were changing.

 

Go here.

 

The voice of the Queen sounded a second time in the butcher-Worker’s head. He jerked, and then began to move with the other new Antinium. It was the last time the Worker would directly hear the Queen’s voice, except to receive the briefest of orders to reinforce a position or change occupations.

But sound, audible sound, began to filter in as the Antinium left the space where they had been born. Their antennae twitched and their steps stuttered. But they moved smoothly and entered a tunnel.

And there were more Antinium. Hundreds. Thousands, marching in perfect sync. The new Antinium beheld how many of their kind there were—and fell into place into the moving lines without missing a beat.

That was what it was to be Antinium. Born and used and dying without ever leaving the Hive sometimes. With a lifespan of hours in times of war.

But it was not how it should be. Or so some said. And so, the second deviation from the experience of the new Antinium was this:

They were all going the same way. The butcher-Worker realized it was moving right behind an archer-Worker. It had caught a bit of the Queen’s transmission to the closest Worker, this one. Neither acknowledged the other. The butcher-Worker stared at the back of the archer-Worker’s head. But if there was ever a connection…

They might never see each other again. Not with so many different Antinium, they looked quite alike even to their own kind. It made the butcher-Worker a bit glad they were walking together for a while.

The new Antinium filed into a side tunnel after leaving the main thoroughfare. They walked in a line of four, turned left, then right, following the Queen’s instructions in their head. And they came to a large room.

Just a tunnel of space. The Hive was compact walls of dirt and stone, primitive in construction, but made by experts who knew how to brace against flooding, earthquakes, and other dangers. This was a hollowed space, and unlike other tunnels or rooms the new Antinium had passed by, oddly inefficient.

In that it was not claustrophobically built so the ceiling was only a tiny bit above the Antinium’s heads. This was a proper chamber. And more Antinium were gathered here.

Many more. And many…strange Antinium. The New Antinium had been born eight minutes ago, but already they were able to make that distinction. Normal Antinium looked like them. But these had…something strange on their bodies.

Color. Splashes of some vibrant substance. And…clothing? One of them wore a kind of loose robe. Another? An apron and an odd, white, floofy hat. The butcher-Antinium stared at it, and his mind confirmed this was another point of clothing. Not like the loincloths he’d be issued; this was proper garb. It even had words.

He read the first words of his life haltingly, using the new centers of his mind to process the insignia on the apron as the other Antinium turned to regard him.

‘Hug the [Cook]’.

Now what did that mean? And what was the odd, pink-red off-triangle thing below it? The other Worker looked a bit perplexed by the appearance of the New Antinium too. It opened its mandibles.

And then there was a voice. An actual voice, the first the New Antinium had heard.

“New Antinium? Ah. Stand there, please.”

The New Antinium snapped to attention. They looked forwards, ready for orders. And what they saw was…

A Worker. Like them. Dressed in robes, but wearing no paint. His body was more worn than theirs, bearing marks of existence. But he was not…painted.

Still, there was something to him. He stood behind a wooden thing. A lectern. And two of his hands were clasped together for no apparent reason. But when he spoke…something in his voice drew them. Surely, if they had tried to copy his words, they would lack some substance there.

“Welcome.”

That was all he said. But he meant it. The Workers and Soldiers filed into line, and saw how many Antinium were present. Thousands. They stood in this place, listening intently. Somehow—intently, even for Antinium. With every fiber of their being. The Worker at the lectern leaned on it.

He looked tired. And…sad. His antennae drooped. His head hung. But then he straightened. And he gazed across his audience and spoke.

“Who is Erin Solstice?”

It was a question. The New Antinium stirred; they had no answer. There was no ‘Erin Solstice’ in anything they had been taught. They saw the other Antinium stir; some knew the answer. But they also understood it was a rhetorical question, something else the New Antinium would have to learn.

The Worker speaking went on.

“Who is Erin? Not who was Erin. New Antinium, in the days to come, you will hear her name often. To those of you who attend this sermon for the first time, who have lived in the Hive but never had the chance to meet her…the same.”

He looked at some of the Antinium without paint then, and they stirred. They were old—some perhaps as old as five whole years, but unpainted and thus…different. Summoned, like the New Antinium, for a reason. The Worker went on, shaking his head.

“What you will find are things Erin did. Things she helped make. Me. The idea of Painted Antinium. It was not just her. But she was there at the start. We have become far more. But she was there. You must know who she is—who she was—to understand what we are. And then, you must know that she is gone.”

Now, the Antinium stirred. The Painted Antinium shook as though a breeze had blown far underground. The New Antinium experienced a moment of…unease.

Something terrible had happened. The Worker leaned on the podium. His name was Pawn. He was a [Priest].

But he too had changed. The Antinium looked up at him, some uncertain, some with awe, having understood they were being chosen. Regular Antinium regarded him with wonder. The Painted Antinium?

Some…with fear. For he was Pawn. First of the Individuals. Leader of the Painted Antinium—if not in military might like Yellow Splatters, then in charge of their souls and great cause. Yet they looked at him with fear when they had not just a week ago.

[Doomspeaker Priest]. And by his will and hatred, he could conjure that which terrified Antinium.

[Summon Aberration]. The Skill felt dark and twisted in his mind even as he thought it. He had become wrath. Pawn spoke on, seeing the Painted Antinium looking at him.

“Erin Solstice is lost. And she was a good thing. Not just good. The best that has ever happened to the Antinium. Because of her, you will become Painted Antinium. You will have names. A purpose beyond what we were. Because of Erin, you will see the sky and taste food and, perhaps, live far longer than any before you.”

The Antinium looked up, hungry for his words. The sky. They longed for it, even the new Antinium. The thought that there was even more was an addictive drug. Once you saw the sky…you could not go back.

And yet there it was. Where once he had delivered the sermon with only one emotion, there was now nuance. Erin Solstice was…

The Painted Antinium were silent. The [Priest] went on, slowly, painfully.

“Yet Erin was lost. Is lost. She is…she was hurt. By terrible fools. She will be avenged. But she is lost and that is…”

Too much. The Painted Antinium susurrated with grief.

Three days. It had been three days since the Summer Solstice. Longer since Erin had been frozen. Too long. Already—Pawn felt the beginnings of madness once more.

He had seen it once, when he had told the Soldiers of the idea of heaven. Now, he sensed it again.

Heaven exists. A better place for Antinium after death. Erin is dead. Or at least, not alive. In that case, logic made things simple.

This world has lost all that is good and right about it. Why not hasten that journey to a better place if one exists? Especially if she is there?

It was a terrible conclusion, but one that Pawn had seen Antinium come to. He had to tell them they were wrong. So—his sermon was more important than his grief.

“It is true Erin is not here. But she is not dead. And that is why you must not give up. Continue.”

He looked across them.

“There is more to—to life than just Erin. She will return. Have faith.

They listened, believing his words because Pawn knew them to be true. Erin was so much.

But she was not everything.

“There are clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes in the sky. You see—each one is different. And flowers. There are more flowers than you could imagine. In every shape and color and size. I have not seen them all. Not even a tenth. There is good food; a [Cook] named Imani makes new ones every week.”

The Antinium listened, hungry, as Pawn described these things. He tried to tell them what it felt like to pet a sheep. They licked your fingers, even.

“All these things are good. All these things must be protected. We are at war with Hectval. Erin is dead. But she is not lost. She can come back. She will. So we must protect what matters. Her. Her inn, each other, the Hive—the city until then. Believe.”

It was so easy to say that. And they did. Because he was Pawn, their [Priest]. Perhaps he even fooled the two [Acolytes] he had chosen, who began circulating with fresh bread.

Bread he had conjured with his Skill, supplemented with Garry-bread, both of which Antinium could eat, in sparing amounts. The Workers and Soldiers got a bit of honey with each. For the New Antinium it was almost cruel; it would be far more glorious to taste this than the food they would normally live with.

But that was what Pawn wanted to give them. Happy things. He could…say it better than he practiced it. In his heart, he was still kneeling in front of the bier.

Lost. And whilst his sermon kept the Painted Antinium from falling into despair, there it was. Pawn looked at Garry as he prepared to induct the new Antinium who were ready into the ranks of the Painted Antinium. They would be given paints, and a day to choose their identities. They would have been thinking of it for the last week of course.

Those who were just beginning their journey, like the New Antinium, would simply mingle with the Painted Antinium and experience reading a book, or playing chess for a while.

That was what was new in the Hive of the Free Antinium. Pawn resumed his sermon, trying to tell his people to hold to faith. For Erin would return. Surely. Someone would help bring her back.

But it had been three days since the Summer Solstice. And now—a week and a half since she had been lost.

 

—-

 

The sermon concluded. The regular Antinium were released to their duties. The New Antinium stayed, still savoring the taste. Foolishly, they’d scarfed down the honeyed bread, unlike the regular Antinium and Painted Antinium, who knew to savor each bite and make it last for hours.

The Painted Antinium remained, as did the Individuals. For instance, the Antinium with the poofy hat, Garry.

He was to the Antinium what a celebrity was. Garry, Bird the [Hunter], Pawn, Belgrade, and Anand. They were the Individuals, with an option on Yellow Splatters and Purple Smiles and so on as later Antinium of note. The other Antinium—even Painted Antinium—hung back as he moved towards Pawn.

For Garry was grieving too. As was Belgrade, still shaking with it. Pawn went first to them, speaking quietly, touching Antinium on the way. Did they grieve the most? Perhaps, for they were first. They had known Erin longest. Therefore, their grief mattered more than lesser Antinium.

And if that were true, then the Worker who had refused to take bread or honey felt it must be a pain so intense you could barely stand. He did not want to feel that. This?  This was bad enough. He watched as the Individuals gathered in the center of the room, with all other Antinium attending them. Yellow Splatters was moving towards them, Purple Smiles, even the foreign Antinium—Tersk and Dekass.

The ones who mattered. The Painted Worker hung back. For he did not. He had paint on his antennae, and only there. Silver paint. And thus he was ‘Silveran’, or so he’d been named.

A Worker with a nickname, a rarity even among their kind. He watched, enviously, as Pawn embraced Garry. His voice was audible even from here.

“The New Antinium. We must hold on, Garry. We must…”

They were turning to the new near-hundred Workers and Soldiers. Silveran, who was one year old, knew that a lack of a full hundred meant this group of Antinium had had faults with their generation. Some defect in the Birthers?

Or something more insidious? He had heard the words from the scrying orb, spelling a third bad thing in this week. And bad things had happened, so much already that Silveran couldn’t take it in.

The new Workers and Soldiers stood to attention as the others regarded them. They would probably be disoriented; Silveran remembered clearly how his first hour of creation had been filled with combat.

Slimes had broken through cracks close to his area and the Queen had ordered the Workers and Soldiers to fight with her first contact. Silveran had watched a Soldier engulfed by a giant Sewer Slime before tearing the mana core out of the slime and watching it die.

These would have a gentler introduction. For that, Silveran envied them. But they would not meet Erin, even if they were allowed a patrol on the surface. So he pitied them.

Something was different about them, too. It wasn’t completely obvious to them of course since they had no idea, but Silveran detected a fluidity of movement in them. A slight…enhancement around the legs?

Improved muscular design in the lower structure. Or so he’d heard Yellow Splatters remarking. The Free Queen had implemented one of her upgrades to the Worker and Soldier designs and it was only now showing up in later generations. In a month? They’d see a lot of upgrades. Perhaps deficiencies too. Sometimes a Worker or Soldier was created with a flaw in their process that manifested itself only when they were functional.

Pawn was walking to the New Antinium, reaching out to touch shoulders. Garry, meanwhile, had offered a pie around and was sharing slices. Belgrade was being supported by his aides, and there were the two Armored Antinium.

All important. Silveran was not. At least, not in the same way. He was—had been—privileged beyond belief. A Worker employed in The Wandering Inn, a job position beyond belief. But Erin was dead.

So Silveran waited a moment, and found Pawn’s sermon had done nothing to close the hole inside of him that he could not see, only feel. Then he left.

 

—-

 

The city of Liscor was noisy and silent by turns as Silveran left the Hive. He walked the streets, listening, observing.

Was he allowed to do this? Debatable. Silveran was Painted Antinium, but even they couldn’t do what they wanted. Only Garry, Pawn, Bird, Belgrade, and Anand were that special. Yet Silveran?

He would normally be above, already in the inn, sweeping floors, serving drinks, doing whatever was needed. Hauling water from the well; he was good at that. He kept very far back in case he fell in of course. That was his biggest fear. But he was always on time. Erin had told him he could not arrive two hours early the first time she caught him sweeping up before dawn, so he always came exactly on time.

It was such a good job. Had been such a good job. Silveran had been specially chosen for it. Over four hundred Painted Workers had competed. Erin had no idea when she asked Pawn for a Worker to try out in the staff that there would be competition of course.

But Yellow Splatters, Xrn, and Belgrade had all agreed with Pawn that the best Worker should be chosen for the job. They had reviewed each Worker’s levels, and settled on Silveran because he was a Level 7 [Sweeper] and he had participated in eleven combat-events with no injuries.

Yellow Splatters had wanted to make the finalist Workers spar. But Pawn had been content with Silveran and chosen him after seeing Silveran handle a knife.

First of the Antinium staff. There were two more, but Silveran had been there almost every day. He’d go at the crack of dawn and walk for thirty minutes, strolling really, to get to the inn on time.

Such a good thing. He would arrive and clean up and Erin would insist he had a hot breakfast first, and Miss Imani would say ‘hello’ and he would see Erin first thing and work until his shift ended.

Even Pawn wasn’t that lucky. Even Garry saw Erin only once or twice a week. Silveran had considered he was the happiest Worker in the Hive. He’d kept that to himself of course; it was as close to…heresy…as anything to say that he was happier than Pawn, or more fortunate than Bird or Belgrade.

But he’d thought it. He saw how often Bird said hello to Erin. Statistically, the Worker did have as many Erin-contact events as Silveran, but he sometimes missed meals. So Silveran had more seconds of Erin-proximity by far than Bird, even if Erin had conversations or chess games with him.

And yes, he counted. Silveran had counted every day he got to work in the inn. He had the number scratched into his permanent sleeping-cubby in the Painted Antinium’s barracks, and his money was carefully sorted by coin in a small space he’d hollowed out himself. He hadn’t bought anything with it; he would have given it to the Painted Antinium’s funds, but Yellow Splatters had said it was his.

Silveran had even leveled more than all but the most active Painted Soldiers or Individuals. He was a proud, Level 15 [Server], having changed from [Sweeper] to [Server] and he had a Skill Erin had been very happy about—[Remove Mess]. Silveran could just point at a small spill or mess and it vanished! She had said it was ‘the best Skill ever with Mrsha around’ and Silveran had written it down on a scrap of paper.

He paused in the street to open it now. The little, discarded piece of paper with one of Lyonette’s shopping receipts on front was legible in the morning light.

‘The best Skill ever with Mrsha around’.

Yes, it said that. But it no longer filled him with joy. Erin was dead.

Shot with crossbow bolts. Even now, Silveran felt like curling up at the memory. He had been in the inn, weapons drawn, ready to defend the inn if anyone got past the hallway kill zone. When he’d heard a shout and…and…he’d run outside and she was lying on the ground.

She’d been shot with the crossbow bolts right outside the inn and he hadn’t stopped it.

The Worker shuddered. He dropped the piece of parchment and hurriedly bent to pick it up. His fault. He was surprised Pawn and Yellow Splatters hadn’t told him to walk into the dungeon. Or thrown him into a Shield Spider nest. He’d been waiting.

Because, clearly—all of this was his fault. Erin dying and being frozen, the war with Hectval—everything was Silveran’s fault because he hadn’t been outside to defend her. He should have been, even if he didn’t know she’d been right there when the Drake raiding party attacked. But he should have been. All Silveran knew was that he should have died, not Erin.

Ergo, his fault. The logic was clear. Silveran picked up the parchment and put it away in his belt pouch.

Like Pawn, he wore clothing. Robes were the Antinium style since few things covered their bulky bodies. However, Erin had done some experimenting and her outfit for Antinium staff was an apron over their fronts, and a kind of kilt-like lower half, so they weren’t tangled in robes. Silveran had a belt with pouches, a standard, for most people on top of that.

He was just closing the pouch when he heard another bell tolling. The Worker started. He looked around and saw—

A procession. Drakes, heads bowed, carrying—Silveran was hurrying to the side of the street at once.

Carrying a casket. This was a funeral procession. The bell rang again, and Silveran saw it was hanging from the casket being borne by the Drakes. A crowd was following and the Worker pressed himself against a wall.

He knew at once it was someone going to be cremated. Or perhaps the casket bore their ashes for interment in one of the cemeteries.

There had been many of these. Three days of it. Funerals for the dead in the war with Hectval. Silveran remembered that, too.

A soldier bursting through the door to the inn, shouting for the Black Tide at Olesm’s orders. People going to fight—the huge Minotaur with one arm charging through with a roar. Silveran, about to join the thousand-some Antinium when Lyonette had told him to stay, to guard the inn and Mrsha.

So he had. He had not witnessed the battle. But he had heard…Pawn had conjured Aberrations. He had cursed the Hectval army and they had been driven to retreat despite ambushing Liscor’s army. It was a victory against the odds, especially since Liscor’s army had rushed to attack Hectval without preparation and been caught by three armies in a pass.

Still…they had taken too many casualties. The funerals were proof of that. Silveran hung his head as the weeping Drakes passed. They were silent; the pedestrians who’d all stopped to take off hats or watch the procession were not.

“Damn Hectval. And damn whoever thought it was a good idea to attack them!”

A Drake whispered furiously after the mourners had gone. Silveran heard some murmurs.

“Not the time.”

“Isn’t it? That Earl from Terandria and our [Strategist] were all charging off and look what happened. Hundreds dead! Thousands! Why is he still a [Strategist]?”

“I didn’t hear anyone saying to stop at the time.”

A Gnoll snorted.

“The Watch Captain did. But who listened to her? Anyways, unless you have a good [Strategist] in your pocket…”

The first Drake growled, adjusting his coat as his tail lashed the ground. Silveran crept past the group; they paid no attention to the Worker. Liscorian citizens seldom did.

“It’s not right. And where is the army? We’ve needed them more this year than any other and they’re off south, fighting for coin.”

“No arguments there. In fairness—this year’s been like no other.”

“Thanks to that Human. Oh. Well…perhaps it will be quieter.”

The group fell silent. The growling Drake’s face turned suddenly abashed. The others glared at him and he shook his head, coughed into a claw.

“—Just not right, that’s all. I’m not saying Hectval shouldn’t be punished. But we don’t have enough of an army. We need ours back yesterday. Not just for Hectval. If it’s war with Rhir…”

Silveran walked past the group as he heard murmurs and then them breaking up. They were angry. Distraught. And not just because of Hectval.

More bad things had happened too.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn stood on a hill outside the city. Silveran walked up to it; he was used to foot traffic, people using the door and thus a constant flow of people in and out, using the outhouses, lining up to go to another city.

It was deathly quiet today. As it had been yesterday, and the day before. Silveran opened the door and saw…

No one. The inn was silent. He looked reflexively left and saw a blank wall. Oh. Right. The magic door had been moved to the portal room. The door to that was closed though, and he heard no one moving behind it. No one wanted to visit The Wandering Inn today. Or if they did? No one was here.

He walked down the long, suspiciously smooth and empty hallway. Halfway across, he heard the faintest of sounds. A shifting—Silveran paused. The Worker looked around and heard a voice.

“Antinium. Recognize it.”

It was muffled. The Worker froze in place and heard it coming from a tiny crack in the wall. A camouflaged arrow slit. He looked at the gap and saw a crossbow bolt aimed not-quite at his chest.

It pulled back. The Worker hesitated, and then walked on. As soon as he came to the door at the far end, he opened it.

An empty common room beyond. The Worker stared about. He heard a faint voice from further in the inn; saw nothing but tables and chairs, sitting empty, everything perfectly clean. Someone was in the kitchen, but no one was cooking anything.

Curious of who had been speaking, the Worker turned right, towards a door set into the wall. He opened it and found a passageway that ran along the hallway. It connected to more private dining rooms and other points in the inn, but notably allowed those in this hallway to peek into the other one or even use the hidden doorways.

Or arrow slits. A pair of men with hats were sitting on stools by one of the arrow slits. They turned as Silveran opened the door. Both had the inn’s crossbows trained and they were just…waiting.

One of them tipped his hat slowly, cautiously, eyes on the Antinium.

“Guard duty. Sir. Pardon the crossbow.”

Silveran recognized the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings at once. He also knew the grizzled, older one. Crimshaw. Silveran hesitated, then nodded. The two Brothers went back to waiting.

So someone was in the inn. No staff, no guests, though. Silveran felt…disturbed. He had known The Wandering Inn had been empty at times, but never during his employ. There was always some regulars eating Erin’s food, playing chess, watching the play…

He walked into the common room again. Turned.

The [Grand Theatre] of The Wandering Inn made this a venue that hundreds of people could enjoy at their leisure. In fact, the room was separated by a huge curtain that ran the length of the room. As Silveran ducked behind it, he felt the air go silent.

[Silence] spell. And normally, the stage would be illuminated by mage lights, and an [Actor] would be declaiming to the silent audience below, performing a play. Silveran would enter from the side, with a tray of some quiet food, maybe some drinks, moving around to give it to the person who wanted it…

No one was here. The stage was empty, dark. The backstage clearly deserted. No one at any table. Silveran looked about.

All wrong.

But the wrongest part was in the garden. Silveran…didn’t want to go there. It hurt too much. On that hill with the mists was the frozen bier. And Erin.

To avoid it, he walked back into the main common room. Inspected a table for dust.

Dustless. No dirt to be swept. No dishes to be bussed. At a loss, the Worker wandered to the kitchen. Maybe he could clean up—

He heard the weeping before he entered. The Worker stopped at the doorway. He heard Imani’s voice before he saw her. She was in the kitchen, crying.

The Worker backed away. Palt was there, not smoking anything, eyes red. Imani was leaning against the counter and neither noticed Silveran as he retreated.

This was The Wandering Inn after the solstice. And Silveran felt like it was a terrible dream. He hurried away from the kitchen as quietly as he could.

So empty. Silveran had been here three days ago and he felt the inn hadn’t changed. It was trapped by what had happened. He desperately wanted to turn around and—

Silveran! My favorite Worker! Wait, don’t tell the others I said that. Finger guns!”

Erin Solstice gave him the finger guns, which was their new tradition. Two versus four, unless Silveran was carrying something. She laughed, and gestured to a bag on the floor.

“I bought this huge bag of beans from Pallass. I think they’re beans. Can you help me get it into the kitchen? Imani, don’t be upset, but these are magic beans, see…”

Silveran bent to pick up the bag as an outraged voice came from the kitc—

No one was there. There was no bag. The Worker looked around and remembered. Oh. That was two weeks ago.

Ages ago. If he could have walked backwards in time, he would have. But he couldn’t, and weeping continued. Palt’s quiet voice. Silveran turned away.

And saw that the common room of the inn was not empty after all. Someone was in it, but had been so still and camouflaged that he hadn’t seen her.

A little white Gnoll sat under a table, leaning against the base. She didn’t move. Silveran stopped—then hesitantly lifted a hand.

Mrsha didn’t move. She stared past his leg, blankly. Her tail didn’t move. He barely thought she was breathing.

The Gnoll child was growing. Hardly as large as Gnoll adults who were taller than most species, but she had put on muscle and weight since she had first come to the inn. Lyonette complained about piggyback rides, and Silveran knew the girl well.

She was Mrsha. Mrsha the Brave. Mrsha the Wizard. Mrsha the…the child who was always running about. Sneaking food, playing tag with her little friends. Causing trouble—more often than not, Silveran’s best Skill was used to clean up a mess she made, upon which time he’d have to get Lyonette or Ishkr and she’d cling to his leg, begging him with sign language not to tell. But he always did.

Today, she was motionless, silent, unmoving. So still he hadn’t even noticed her, despite the pure white fur that so fascinated him. Gnolls thought it was unlucky, cursed. Silveran had always thought it was beautiful, like clouds. The color did not exist belowground. Except in chalk deposits. And chalk sucked.

She did nothing as he waved at her. Silveran hesitated…but then moved on. The crying made him feel like he was intruding. So he walked out of the common room.

Not upstairs. He did not wish to pass by Erin’s room, which was first on the right. And besides, he only swept up there, changed bedding…he was used to working here.

Instead, he followed the second sound in the inn. The hallway on the left was just as long as the one the two Brothers were in. It connected to Stitchworks at the far end, as well as to other parts of the inn.

The Antinium-only rooms, the secret, door-less Earth rooms that Silveran had helped build, and so on. There was a weights room next to Stitchworks, one of the main attractions, and before that…

The rec room was one of two, with some key distinctions. After her initial creation of the rooms, Erin had divided the dice, cards, darts, and billiards table into one room, and kept the other full of quiet games.

More chess tables, Go boards, Shogi…as well as some couches and places to just sit. For one of the main attractions of this room was the large, enchanted mirror on the far end of the wall.

That was what had been making all the sound. Silveran peeked his head in and saw another employee of The Wandering Inn—albeit inside the mirror.

The scrying spell reflected Drassi and Sir Relz, both broadcasting Pallass News Network on the screen. Both Drakes were dressed in white, the color of mourning in Izril.

Compared to that, the Human man wore a dark violet, which was the style in his nation. He was speaking and it was that which faintly echoed through the silent inn, despite the closed doors.

“…Retaliation must be brought to bear against the Demon Kingdom on Rhir. That’s not under debate, Sir Relz. But the question is: how. If this Death of Magic really was responsible for the—the abhorrence that took place four days ago, it is entirely conceivable it might happen again.”

Oh yes, the second bad thing. Silveran listened as the two Drakes shuddered. He read the written caption at the bottom of the screen.

‘The Demon’s spell, discussion with Lord Verqen of Ailendamus. Ongoing segment…’

Drassi spoke, and Silveran heard her familiar voice, normally so cheery, laced with emotion.

“Are you saying we—that is—well, our young are in danger of a second spell of this magnitude, Lord Verqen? Please tell me you’re not.”

The Drake with the monocle, Sir Relz, looked uneasy at the very suggestion. The [Lord] instantly shook his head.

“I wouldn’t say that Miss Drassi. And I would hesitate to alarm anyone. I am simply—”

He broke off, and even the [Diplomat] looked pained. Because children had died. Across the world—it was the Demon’s doing, Silveran had heard. Everyone was angry. Grieving. Three bad things, then.

The war with Hectval. The Demon’s spell. And Erin was dead.

“What I am saying is—concurrent to armies, retaliatory forces—anything—is finding out how a spell of such power could be cast. Using safeguards against this magic! It bypassed every protection across the world. Frankly, until we know how it was done, and how it can be prevented…Ailendamus will be safeguarding first. I think we all will, despite his Majesty Othius’ insistence. We have been wounded and that is a fact. But there will never be forgiveness.”

Everyone nodded at that. These were the facts that were being reported. A terrible thing had happened. And the Demons were to blame. Children—unborn children across the world had died.

It unnerved everyone, except perhaps the Blighted King, who was a pillar of terrible determination in these dark hours. He had broken the news, wrought with guilt over his inability to stop the Demon’s treachery. The rest of the world was outraged, grieving—but less committed to an assault than he was.

But there would be vengeance, oh yes. In time. But unease and loss were first, even more than anger. Rhir and the Blighted King were used to loss, to the Demons being their great enemy who would do anything, sink to any lows. It was one of the first times the world had suffered that feeling, though.

Someone had left what Erin called the ‘television’ on. Silveran was about to turn it off when he noticed the mirror had an audience. He stopped, for he saw a familiar person watching the news.

Numbtongue? There was only one species with naturally green skin, so Silveran expected it was him. Then he remembered the other Goblin guests. Let’s see. Snapjaw had left. So this was Badarrow.

Because Numbtongue was in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He had been three days ago and he did not move. The terrible sword was on his knees and he stood watch over Erin’s bier, as if afraid of…something disturbing her.

That had suited Silveran. He blamed Numbtongue for everything as much as himself.

But was this Badarrow? Badarrow was thinner. And this Hobgoblin was heavier than both Numbtongue and Badarrow, who were rather lean Redfangs. Also—Silveran was pretty sure it wasn’t Numbtongue now, because he was fairly certain Numbtongue did not have mammaries.

He edged around the couch and saw her half-sprawled across it. She wore about as much clothing as your average Antinium, and could have actually fit in because her body was covered in glowing paints.

But such colors and style! Silveran had to admire that. The Painted Antinium could take lessons from this unknown Goblin. They were intricate drawings, and clearly magical. In fact, he was now certain this was not Snapjaw, who wore no such warpaint and had a big head and big teeth. This was…the new Goblin.

She saw him at the same time as he finally remembered someone had arrived on the day of the Summer Solstice. Ulvama’s eyes went wide and she let out a shout of surprise as she grabbed her staff.

Silveran fled backwards and she rolled off the couch, staff raised and aimed threateningly. She bared her teeth, her crimson eyes wide as Silveran froze. He raised all four arms.

Bug! Bug thing! Shoo!

Ulvama hissed at him. She was wide-eyed, but calmed a bit as she recognized Silveran. He stared at her.

This was the Hobgoblin who had come through the magic door on the Summer Solstice. The latest guest of The Wandering Inn. Lyonette must have let her stay. He had only seen her once, and she was clearly warier of him than he was of her.

Back!

Her staff’s tip glowed warningly. Silveran walked backwards and knocked over a chess table. The crash of the wooden pieces hitting the floor made both wince. Silveran bent down as Ulvama stared at him. She looked…afraid? But her staff made Silveran afraid.

The door opened and someone appeared there. Silveran and Ulvama turned and he saw Er—

Ishkr. The Gnoll had hurried over and he stared at Silveran and Ulvama both. He recoiled from the glowing staff.

“Silveran? What are you doing here?”

The Worker waved and began to sign that he had come to work, but Ulvama had already slunk down. She glared at Ishkr over the couch.

“Miss…Ulvama? Is everything alright? Did Silveran startle you?”

The Gnoll hesitated and looked at her. He was [Head Server], and Silveran was used to obeying him. The Worker picked up the pieces as the Goblin [Shaman] didn’t reply. Ishkr scratched at his forehead, sighed, and looked at Silveran, who was trying to set the board up to a pre-game state.

“Silveran, leave the board. Come with me, please.”

Silveran did just that. He walked out of the room, feeling the [Shaman]’s eyes on his back. Ishkr closed the door, and turned to him.

“What are you doing here, Silveran?”

Working.

The Worker signed with his hands. Ishkr read the gesture; it was a copy of Mrsha’s language. The Painted Antinium felt more at home using sign language than speaking, mostly. But Ishkr still looked puzzled.

“Silveran. There is no work. Everything is clean. And no one is…here.”

Silveran hung his head. He knew that. Ishkr gestured.

“Lyonette is not asking for staff. She cannot pay you, and there is nothing to do. You should go h—go to your Hive. She will ask for help if it is needed.”

He knew that. But he wanted to stay. There was nothing to do in the Hive. No one had remembered Silveran had nothing to do now. He wanted to be here.

And yet, Silveran looked around the inn. Down the corridor to the common room where Mrsha sat like a stuffed animal. The faint crying—the lack of Erin.

He wanted to be here. And he hated and regretted coming already. Slowly, he nodded. Silveran saw Ishkr hesitate, then reach out and pat him on the shoulder.

“It won’t be long before we need help. Miss Lyonette has orders while she’s gone. She is leaving today, I think. But soon—Erin will be back.”

The Gnoll was young—at least, young for his position but he had earned it by working hard and being the most reliable person Erin and Lyonette had hired. And he lied well.

Just not well enough. Silveran had heard the same thing from Pawn, Lyonette—everyone. Soon. Someone was going to bring Erin what she needed. A potion, an antidote, a scroll. It would be soon. Erin had friends.

Slowly, Silveran left The Wandering Inn, and walked into Liscor, lost and even less happy. They said these things. But it had been close to two weeks now, and Erin was not back. The city’s bells rang in the distance.

Silveran hated it. He hated the silent inn, the pain in the streets, and how lost everything seemed. Because if Erin were here, she wouldn’t have stood for it. She would have hugged Silveran and told him it was all okay, then done something that would have made people feel better. It wouldn’t have fixed everything. But it would have been something.

If she were here. That was the point. She was gone. Silveran walked into the city. People said she would be back. But people had been trying to bring her back already.

And they had failed.

 

—-

 

Unlike Liscor, this city had not always been a city. Many settlements had a sort of evolution where a village slowly became a town, and slowly added things like walls, more buildings, and became a city at some stage.

Of course, some cities like Liscor were built as such from the start, as checkpoints between north and south, or great projects.

But this had been a village not so long ago. Yet someone had made it into a city over the last few decades. One person’s presence had transformed it. And that was an extraordinary thing. Most people in Liscor would take umbrage to the claim that one [Innkeeper] had transformed Liscor entirely. It was multiple factors. But here?

It was a city-in-progress for all that, still expanding, still growing. It couldn’t contain even half the actual population in the area, so the vast suburbs of temporary housing, tents, even buildings made by people who realized they would be staying for a while or taking over from previous tenants, sprawled around the actual walls.

It was they who really funded the city, so while the [Mayor] disliked them and the walls were high and the gates manned at all times to prevent them flooding the city themselves, the crowds were grudgingly allowed to trade and enter the city, if only for the day.

It was an odd economy system, even including cities like Liscor who had survived on a roaming mercenary army, or nations like Khelt, whose entire foundation was based on undead labor. Because at least both cities had a permanent income source! If the crowds ever vanished, this city would lose its lifeblood of coin.

But so long as they had the very person whom the city was founded upon, all would endure. So it was built around her. And such was her reputation that people came from all over the continent, around the world, waiting for weeks, months…

Years, just to have the Healer of Tenbault lay her hands upon you once. Because that would cure you of all that ailed you, or so the rumors claimed.

The truth was different. The truth was that the city of Tenbault was always packed with supplicants. And that while people did see the Healer—it was few per day. And those slots were always spoken for.

The young man who went sprawling in the street found that out the hard way. He was on his feet in an instant, but wisely didn’t move—the spear one of the Healer’s guards was leveling at him was backed up by two more, and a look.

The look came from the leader of the inner city’s defense force. He was a huge, barrel-chested man with dark skin and a prodigious voice. Even when speaking, it seemed as though you were being exhorted by the sheer suppressed volume.

No exceptions! I don’t care if you’re related to the King of Destruction himself! No one enters without a pass guaranteeing the Healer’s treatment! And those are nigh-impossible to get, even for a Gold-rank team. Try to get in again and you’ll suffer for it, boy.”

He pointed at the young man. He hadn’t even drawn the mace by his side—but his left hand bore studded leather knuckles. A cestus; an old fistfighter’s weapon. He wore azure armor though, marked with the Healer’s sigil; a palm holding a bloom in white.

The guard occupied the gates to the inner city of Tenbault. The outer city was devoted to making money off the countless people seeking the Healer, but she lived in the inner city—and unlike the city’s [Guards], her security let no one in, no matter the bribe.

And they were good. One of them had caught the young man trying to sneak past them in a moment, despite the [Invisibility] spell. He coughed, and then sniffed as he rubbed his bleeding cheek; a hair slower and they might have speared him through the head.

“I merely wished to ask the Healer—”

“You and everyone else. Back up. Now.”

The man’s voice was ominous. The [Necromancer]’s eyes narrowed, but the silver-armed woman by his side grabbed him.

“I told you it was a bad idea, Pisces. Listen—I am Magnolia Reinhart’s niece. Yvlon Byres—”

“Unless she’s here, you’re not getting in, Miss. And frankly, I’ve seen enough desperate Gold-ranks try to take a run at getting in. You want to try it? The next time, not even the Healer will be able to help your friend.”

It was not an idle threat either. The guards were not [Guards], but a team of adventurers—nearly twenty strong. An irregularity among most adventurer teams, which tended towards small sizes, but these were paid by the Healer to protect her.

So they had achieved Named-rank status as a team. And their leader was a Named-rank adventurer himself. Even Elia Arcsinger’s team, Arcsinger’s Bows, had only her to boast of, not a Named-rank designation as a team.

They called him Crowdcaller Merdon. No guesses why; he exhorted the crowds gathered outside the inner gates to the city with the same speech every day. As he turned away from Pisces and Yvlon dragged him back, she heard his prodigious voice ringing above the demands, begging, and shouts for the Healer of Tenbault.

“Attention to all those gathered to see the Healer of Tenbault! The gates are closed and no force of arms will open them! Any intruders will be dealt with without mercy! The Healer will only see those with a pass—which can be obtained in lottery if you have not one yourself! All those gathered, disperse unless you have proof of entry!”

Of course, that didn’t stop them. People came forwards, demanding to be let in because they were rich. Or famous. Or producing ‘passes’ they’d paid for, or asking for clarification…

Merdon dealt with none of them. He walked past the hired [Mercenaries] who supplemented the Shield of Tenbault’s adventurers. The bored [Mercenary]-[Guards] dealt with the crowds. They were a law unto their own.

“That—that arrogant man.”

Pisces spluttered, touching the drying cut on his cheek. He was red-faced, but Yvlon dragged him back.

“Well, you’ve tipped him off you want in. I told you to wait. Come on, it isn’t safe.”

Indeed, the adventurers on duty were watching Pisces like hawks, recognizing perhaps one of the real threats to their job security. Not that Pisces had even gotten close; one had nearly beheaded him as he tried to [Flash Step] past invisibly.

Yvlon pulled Pisces back. The [Necromancer] let himself be pulled away. He watched a wave of people trying to get forwards. Like yesterday, they pushed and pushed—

And then someone made a fatal mistake. Like Pisces, they tried to get through. Only this time it was a [Trader], clutching what might have been a wife, or daughter. He tried to bull-rush past the [Mercenaries] with an escort of [Guards].

Back! Back!

The [Mercenaries] were yelling. But the [Guards] were pushing in. Not bearing steel; they were smart enough about that. But the crowd pushed forwards, encouraged. As if they thought they could overwhelm—

One pushed past the first rank of mercenaries towards the adventurers guarding the sole gate. The walls were fortified with a magical barrier. He reached back to open the hole wider as the [Trader] fought forwards. Then an arrow went straight through his head.

The [Guard] dropped like a stone. There was a scream—then a roar of fury so loud Yvlon and Pisces clapped their hands to their ears. The [Mercenaries] had already put their hands to their ears.

Enough!

It was just a shout. But what volume! Yvlon’s ears rang and she had not been the actual target. Crowdcaller Merdon’s shout reduced the crowd, minus the mercenaries who were magically protected or immune to his Skill, to a group of writhing people on the ground clutching at their heads. Some began throwing up, or just lay, stunned from the vibrations in the air alone.

“He just downed all those people. Some weren’t even trying to get in!”

It was Yvlon’s turn to be outraged. Pisces shook his head.

“That’s Named-rank for you. It was that or let them push their way into the inner city.”

“Don’t tell me you approve of that!”

Yvlon’s fists clenched. Pisces glared at her. Yvlon resisted the urge to hit him—to hit something. He spoke, voice taut.

“I’m just being practical!”

They glared at each other and then, abruptly, relaxed. Both their nerves were frayed to breaking. Yvlon saw Pisces hang his head.

“I should have chosen my moment more carefully.”

“At least you weren’t killed. Come on. Let’s find Ceria.”

Yvlon mumbled. They walked away. They were the Horns of Hammerad, two of them, and they had journeyed as fast as possible to reach Tenbault, southwest of Veltras lands and just out of the shadow of the High Passes, seeking the Healer’s aid.

They were realizing it was unlikely they would get it. It had been four days since they arrived. Each like the last.

 

—-

 

The inns in Tenbault weren’t great. They weren’t even amazing. They were definitely overcrowded and certainly overpriced.

For reference, Yvlon calculated that it would be three times cheaper to stay at the Tailless Thief for a night, and that was the most expensive inn in all of Liscor. And this wasn’t even the best inn in Tenbault. Far from it.

They found Ceria in her room, which was better than the common room of the inn. But one look at Ksmvr’s guilty ball of shame and Ceria’s condition as she tried to hide something behind her back and Yvlon knew.

“You’re drinking again.”

“Am not.”

“I tried to stop her, Yvlon. But I have failed.”

Ksmvr spoke from the floor. Ceria looked guilty as she took another sip from the amphora of something. Pisces wrinkled his nose.

“We have to sleep in here.”

“Sorry. I’ll cast a spell.”

Ceria waved her hand and nearly went over backwards on the bed. The amphora spilled; Yvlon and Pisces both cursed as she sat up.

“Damn. Sorry…”

Yvlon sat down and put her head in her hands. She resisted the urge to hit Ceria. One did not do that to a team captain. And if Yvlon’s instinct was to hit something…again…Ceria’s was to drink. Instead, she did the equivalent with words.

“While you were getting drunk, Pisces nearly got himself killed trying to sneak through the gates. A hair slower and I would have brought back his head and body independent of each other. And he’s not a good enough [Necromancer] to deal with that yet.”

Ceria lowered the amphora at once. Ksmvr stirred.

“Pisces! I told you—”

“We’re never going to win that lottery. I thought it was worth a shot. They were distracted—but their spells were too good. I don’t think they even noticed I was [Invisible].”

The [Necromancer] sat on the bed, eying the stain. Yvlon grimaced.

“And now Merdon himself knows our faces.”

“Crowdcaller Merdon? You got to speak with him?”

“Right before he sound-blasted an entire crowd off their feet. They do not play games at the gates. I saw the team kill a poor [Guard] who was trying to get through.”

“Tree rot.”

Ceria raised the amphora again, but Pisces had conjured it towards him. She wobbled, scowled, and put a hand to her head. Her skeletal fingers were coated in frost; even the spilled drink was beginning to freeze. Cold swirled around her, although you had to be within a foot or two to feel it.

“Maybe we can find another way. Did you say you were—”

“Magnolia Reinhart’s niece? Yes. It won’t work. I’ve heard members of the Five Families get turned away without a pass, Ceria.”

“But Magnolia Reinhart can. I mean—she gets in, right? Can you call her up?”

“No. She’s at sea, anyways, and I’m not that close. I tried—but I don’t even know who to ask to [Message]. I just left a note.”

Yvlon hung her head. Pisces nearly spat out the wine.

“This is disgusting.”

“It’s for me. Give it back.”

“You have imbibed a large amount of wine already, Captain Ceria. Perhaps—”

“I’m fine, Ksmvr.”

Ceria snapped and the Antinium went silent. Instantly, Yvlon kicked Ceria. The half-Elf went over the other side of the bed with a cry.

“Sober up, would you? We’re here for Erin.

The half-Elf’s eyes flashed, but she pulled herself upright slowly. Yvlon tried to calm herself. She shouldn’t have done that. It was just—

Look at them. Ksmvr was miserable, now guilty about Yvlon and Ceria fighting. Pisces wasn’t his usual cool, sneering-but-caring self, but taking risks that had nearly gotten him killed—and he valued his life more than anything else! Yvlon had nearly been ready to go after Ceria for lying about drinking and the half-Elf was…

Ceria hung her head. She let the dregs of the amphora sit. Then, pointed with a curse.

The entire thing froze into a block of ice. Ceria kicked it across the room. Then she grabbed her toe.

Aaah! I just split my toenail!

The Horns of Hammerad considered it was a perfect event to sum up their experience. They watched as Ceria sat on the bed and Ksmvr anxiously produced a potion and inspected the break. Ceria, wincing, put a drop on it.

“We rode for five days and nights in the undead chariot for this. Four more days waiting here…is there any chance we win the lottery today? Ksmvr, what’s our number?”

“#2301, Captain Ceria.”

Ksmvr produced the carefully-marked lottery ticket. They were issued each week, and the winners were drawn per day. But there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people with passes and there were sometimes only ten winners per week.

“Is that lucky?”

Ceria shook her head. They’d lost three days in a row, but perhaps today? They would be listening as the numbers were shouted across the city, of course. Winners had an hour to present themselves at the gates.

“How much does a winning ticket go for, Pisces?”

“Assuming someone is willing to sell it? I’ve heard a hundred thousand gold pieces sometimes.”

“…You’re joking.”

“More or less. Ceria, there are entire groups of people who make their living trying to get a winning ticket once. Upon which time they sell it.”

An entire economy based on the Healer. Yvlon shook her head as Ceria swore faintly. The half-Elf rubbed at her toenail. Then she produced a dagger.

“I need to trim them.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Yvlon and Pisces both looked away as Ceria glowered at them. The half-Elf’s oddities from eating bugs to picking her teeth in public somehow ranked below Ksmvr in terms of social acceptability.

“Let’s face facts. I doubt we even have a 1% chance of winning the lottery. Pisces?”

“I did the math with some people downstairs. It is in fact, zero point zero, zero, zero…

“Please stop.”

Pisces did. He didn’t look happy to deliver the news. Yvlon had often accused Pisces of being uncaring, dishonorable, and so on. But she remembered how they had learned about Erin.

Madness. They had been split on what to do. Go after Hectval and burn it to ash? Go to the inn and see? In the end—they had come here.

And much good did it do them. Ceria, wincing and cutting her toenails, muttered.

“Okay. Let’s say we…get a pass.”

“If you’re going to say we mug a winner—”

“Pisces!”

The [Necromancer] coldly met Ceria’s eyes.

“I looked into it. The Shield of Tenbault tracks winners. We’d end up fighting them.”

“Damn. I was going to suggest that.”

Ceria ignored Yvlon’s look.

“From someone who didn’t need it, Yvlon. One of those fake-supplicants, like Pisces was talking about.”

“There might be a lot of them. But there are more people in actual need than I ever want to see. It’s…”

Disturbing. Yvlon saw Pisces nodding, lips pressed together. Tenbault was a thriving city—on people who genuinely needed aid. There were people who had lost limbs, who were sick of some unknown disease—they were kept far away from the city, and indeed, illnesses did spread from guests, hence the Horns paying for an inn which was safer—people who had taken head injuries, children who had gone blind…

And those were people with long-term diseases. People died in the city at the gates, bleeding of wounds no potion could cure. Some who had taken poison, or anything a [Healer] and magical medicine had no answer for.

Tenbault was as much morgue as place of hope. It disgusted Yvlon. Ceria looked at the [Armsmistress].

“What I need to know is: will it even help? We don’t have Erin with us. And the rules state…”

She found the wadded up instructional and opened it. Yvlon saw Ceria go down the page and recite.

“…patients may be accompanied by no more than (2) assistants and/or guardians. Furthermore, the Healer of Tenbault will only administer her practice to those who appear before her directly. Infectious diseases, dangerous ailments of any kind, etc. are to be subject to further inquiry and may not be treated. The Healer of Tenbault does not guarantee success of any kind, no matter how a pass is acquired…”

“It’s a scam.”

Pisces folded his arms. Ceria broke off reading. The [Necromancer] looked around as Ksmvr wiped at the spilled wine.

“Excuse me? Pisces, all these people are here for her. It can’t be if they’re here.”

“This seems exactly like a scam to me. The Healer is making a fortune. Note the wording? We don’t have Erin. Our best bet is to convince her to help Erin—which I do not believe we can do. But I was also not aware of how she conducted her craft. This seems like a scam. Perhaps she has a fake class and is fooling a few people with temporary relief each month…”

Ceria bit her lip. Certainly, this wasn’t the saintly [Healer] they had been led to expect. The Healer of Tenbault was a name people talked about with the worst injuries. A distant hope.

Reality sucked. However, it was Yvlon who disagreed.

“It’s not a scam, Pisces. It may be that the Healer is less than the rumors say. But I know it’s not.”

“And how, pray?”

The [Necromancer] snapped, and then swiveled to watch Yvlon’s foot. It twitched, but the [Armsmistress] contented herself to folding her arms.

“Because my aunt, Magnolia Reinhart, made the Healer of Tenbault. I had hoped that counted for something, but apparently not.”

The other Horns looked at Yvlon. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened.

“Is this true, Yvlon?”

She nodded and gestured. He scuttled around the bed and sat next to her. He had been so…quiet on the way here. Depressed. They all were. To keep hope, Yvlon nodded.

“It’s a story she told me when she used to visit. Or was it mother…? Well, either way, I know how it started.”

“Ah, you mean, the Legend of the Healer of Tenbault.”

“Yes, the—wait, what?”

Ksmvr produced something and held it up. It was…an illustrated placemat from one of the inn’s tables. Yvlon stared at it.

“Ksmvr, I told you that is propaganda.

Pisces snapped. Ksmvr had apparently snatched it last suppertime. He pointed at it.

“But Comrade Pisces, the Healer has endorsed this telling. During the Second Antinium Wars people fighting the Necromancer’s filthy minions, the Goblin King’s armies and Antinium who are foully hated—”

“Um, Ksmvr.”

Two representatives of the three were in the room. The foully hated Antinium looked at Ceria.

“I am taking their opinion for the retelling, Captain Ceria. Comrade Pisces is always well-bathed. It says the Healer appeared here, and began to treat people by the thousands. Such is her legend.”

He brandished the slightly-dirty mat at Yvlon. She leaned away, smiling bitterly.

“Not quite, Ksmvr. Pisces is right. That’s how she might tell it—or this inn. But Aunt Magnolia says it was after the first Antinium War. And it wasn’t so much thousands at first. She saw there weren’t enough [Healers]—or rather, those who could take on serious injuries without potions. So she helped…create the Healer. Rumors spread and it grew out of control, but the Healer was first and foremost someone who was meant to replace potions.”

“Tell us.”

It was Pisces who leaned forwards, eyes glittering. He did love secrets. But the other Horns were just as intent.

“You mean she’s not a great [Healer]? Lyonette said Erin needs—Erin—”

Ceria gulped. She looked around for a drink—then steadied herself.

“An antidote. And…something to unfreeze her.”

“I don’t know. Aunt Magnolia never said exactly how the Healer works. That was why I wanted to see her.”

Yvlon confessed. She searched her memory, hunting for more clues to recollect, then shook her head.

“All I know is that the Healer of Tenbault does heal people. According to Aunt Magnolia, it can be an hour-long process—or days for diseases—but usually minutes.”

“Impossible. Is she some kind of [Alchemist]?”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed. He was becoming more skeptical by the second. But he was listening. He needed to know. This was valuable information. Especially to…he saw Yvlon shake her head.

“Not an [Alchemist]. But she’s not a [Healer], either. What I heard was that somehow, one time, Ressa—that’s my aunt’s [Maid], we saw her once, remember? With Ryoka.”

The others nodded. Yvlon gestured at her hand.

“Er—one time, she got her hand sliced off.

“Wait. How?”

“Aunt Magnolia didn’t say. I think she hinted it was a kitchen accident, but I’ve never actually seen Ressa cook anything.”

“Maybe that’s why. She looked, uh, handed to me. Better than mine.”

Ceria waved her skeletal hand. Yvlon almost smiled as she ducked her head.

“Sorry, Ceria. Well, apparently they had the hand so they rushed both over to the [Healer] in that coach of hers. And Ressa got her hand back; not even a problem.”

“Wow. And that’s from Magnolia Reinhart herself?”

“She told it to us when she visited. I don’t think she lied—maybe she exaggerated. But we have seen people go in and come out…fine.”

It was true. The Horns had seen a man with a leg so badly mangled by a bear attack go through the inner gates and come out walking and praising the Healer’s name. They hadn’t detected any illusions or anything else. But it boggled the mind. How?

Ceria sat back.

“Then we have to meet her. Meet her and ask if—if—she’ll go to Liscor. Or we transport Erin. Maybe we can barter with her?”

“We would have to get past her security first. And I do not believe we are equipped to kill a Named-rank adventurer at this moment. Or his team. I am sorry, but my crossbows and blades are not deadly enough.”

Ksmvr hung his head. So did Yvlon. All three Horns saw Pisces raise a finger to his temple and rise.

“I’m…going to take a walk.”

He murmured. None of the others stopped him. Pisces left the inn as the Horns waited.

The lottery tickets for the day? #199, #4022, #5. Please come to the inner gate. The Healer will see you now.

 

—-

 

In The Wandering Inn lay a young woman. She was an [Innkeeper]. A friend. A young woman from another world.

She was smiling. Her lips were slightly parted. She looked…almost peaceful. Except for the crossbow bolts still sticking out of her chest. Six had struck her; five remained, two with broken shafts. Blood was frozen around the wounds.

She was frozen. She lay there, preserved, neither dead nor alive. You could use magic to check. But she would not stay that way.

She would live. Surely, someone would heal her. She had friends. She was not dead. Surely…

That was the refrain. It came from the hopeful, those in denial. But the truth was that her friends had been told. And still, she lay there.

It was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact, of all the ones he remembered—this was the one which was most bitter.

Desperation. Denial. A willingness to part the seas and take on armies if only the ones he loved might live. But all his magic had never brought back the dead.

Now? Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, was in a unique position. For he…sympathized…with the young man. But two things stayed his hand.

The first was that pragmatically—it suited his goals better that Erin Solstice remain dead. He was Az’kerash, bane of the living! What care had he for a mortal life?

Still. He had once been alive. And it was the young man who begged him that…swayed the Necromancer. A bit.

Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer], self-taught largely, a Gold-rank adventurer, a former student of Wistram, and someone trained in the art of fencing. So like him and unlike him…

He was not an apprentice. Not like the Goblin Lord had been. In truth, the Necromancer had not wished to involve him so fully in his designs. But Pisces had caught his eyes for a number of reasons. His creation had provided Az’kerash with the key to leveling, that he had hunted for over a hundred years.

And he himself? The Necromancer had seen the day when the Horns of Hammerad had become Gold-rank. And it had reminded him of a man called Peril Chandler, Archmage Chandler of Terandria.

So he listened when the young man begged for aid. He listened, especially when the boy said what should not be said:

“I will do whatever it takes to heal her.”

Never let it be said that the Necromancer did not listen to those kinds of words. So he sat in his castle, pondering the dilemma. And hit upon the second problem of Erin Solstice’s death, one that must have occurred to the Wall Lord of her acquaintance, the Earl of Desonis, the Grand Strategist of Pallass, Saliss of Lights and all the others.

It. Was. Difficult.

“I was an [Archmage] of Wistram. I was called the Undying Shield of Calanfer. I have surpassed my mortal self many times over and I command death in every form.”

The Necromancer spoke as he passed a hand over the thing lying before him. He saw the ice melt…he murmured a spell.

The frozen fox failed to rise. The Necromancer stared at the corpse. He murmured a second time.

[Regeneration].

His forehead began to bead with sweat. This—this one-word spell was a magnitude beyond what most [Mages] could dream of casting. He could cast greater, but this spell lay diametrically opposed to his magic. Life versus death. Even so, he forced mana into the spell, into the body…

But it failed. The body had died the moment it warmed, despite the [Stasis Field] he’d set up. The sixth failure. The Necromancer shook his head.

And you could not regenerate frozen flesh. It was like a conundrum at the academy—but he’d award any of his students who solved it the highest grade. He sipped a mana potion, thinking.

“Why freeze her flesh?”

Annoyed, his eyes flashed and the fox got up and walked off to drag another frozen animal over. It made no sense. He was aware of preserving mortally wounded people of course, but ice?

“If they had simply cast [Stasis Field] or [Breath of Life – Extended] or…”

Exasperated, the Necromancer snapped his fingers. Someone scurried around the side.

Master?

“Ijvani. Peruse my library of tomes again. Search for…cryomancer healing magic?”

At once, master!

The [Skeleton Mage] hurried off. Az’kerash wondered how many days she might search. Healing magic was not a kind of spell he collected and spell tomes were rare, especially since he had lost many books of his collection after his ‘destruction’ at Liscor.

The Necromancer focused on his ongoing communication spell instead, undividing his consciousness. He had been patiently listening to the young man recap the Healer of Tenbault’s information.

Young Pisces. Enough.

The anguished voice cut off. Az’kerash heard emotion there, unfiltered through the mental link. He remembered many friends who had died. And his comrades had begged him to revive them, hadn’t they? He had always refused, for when he did to give them one moment to say goodbye…

It was always the more bitter.

He felt the emotion, clung to it—then banished it. Cold logic. Yes. He was the Necromancer. And he helped this young man only because he too was a [Necromancer] and he might owe Az’kerash a favor. No other reason at all.

“I know of the Healer of Tenbault, young Pisces. If her craft has advanced, perhaps she may help you. But she is a reclusive researcher, not the generous soul rumor has made her out to be. Nor is she a [Healer].”

Surprise rippled through Pisces’ link, though he tried to conceal it. He was learning.

How so, Archmage?

Why did he enjoy the appellation so much? Peril Chandler squashed that emotion too. It was simply nostalgic. And correct, so he didn’t rebuke Pisces over the title.

I investigated her in decades past. She is no charlatan; but she is not a skilled medical expert either. It is correct to say that Magnolia Reinhart created her, however.

Az’kerash sorted through his memories. Ah, yes. When he had first conceived the Izrilian campaign.

I thought she was a force that might wipe out my undead with the ease of the [Clerics] of old.

How wrong he had been. The young [Necromancer] was coy, but the desperation-desire-trepidation was clear.

Then may I ask her true nature, Archmage Chandler?

“It is simple, [Necromancer] Pisces. Her nature is [Mage]. She is a [Restoration Mage] capable of casting [Restoration] numerous times per day. That is all.”

Shock through the link. Az’kerash smiled. And it was such a unique thing that Ijvani stopped and stared as she returned with a book on cryogenic attack spells. The Necromancer waved her away and she hurried off.

Even his tone was different as he spoke-broadcast the reply.

[Restoration], as I doubt you were ever told, is a spell a Level 40 [Mage] can learn with the right disciplines and Skills. Twenty levels higher without specialization. It is a useful healing spell—one of the few spells that can restore a body. However, it cannot heal your friend. And as the Healer of Tenbault has learned, it is limited in scope. I have no doubt she has found many permutations of how it can be applied. But she is no [Healer] who understands injuries. Merely a [Mage] funded by her healing that Magnolia Reinhart gave the spell to.

It was possible she could heal the [Innkeeper]. But not as simply as casting the base spell—Az’kerash had tried that. Perhaps she had some kind of Skill that allowed healing through stasis and restored frozen flesh? The Necromancer allowed that possibility.

I—see.

The disappointment from young Pisces was immeasurable, however. The Necromancer felt…a desire to say something. He searched his mind, but the truth was—he did not have a ready answer for the issue. He would of course, puzzle out the problem in time. But it reminded him of his few weaknesses. He had never specialized in life-magic. Nor did he cultivate a collection of objects that did.

But he knew someone who had them. Yet…that particular foe would slay a hundred Pisces’ in a moment. So the Necromancer hesitated.

Best just to abandon it. Effort has been spent; this is not a cost-effective use of your time. So said his logical self. He decided to ignore it for a second.

Young [Necromancer]. All is far from lost. While I have not the time or inclination to heal, greater magics than the Healer’s exist.

He decided not to mention that [Regeneration] had failed. In theory—if [Detect Death] did not work on the young woman, she was alive. It was most curious. Even fascinating. If he were in Wistram, he might have devoted research to the phenomenon, especially if her Skills were still active. As it was…

But you could, if you wanted to, Archmage?

Archmage Chandler hesitated. Ah. He was reminded of mortal conversations. Even when he had become [Archmage]—

 

—-

 

“Don’t lie to them, Zelkyr.”

It was one of the few times he snapped at the Archmage of Izril. The Drake, classically, went on the defensive, which for Drakes, was the offensive.

“We’re Archmages. We don’t show weakness to our students, Chandler.

Normally the situation was reversed. However, Perril was uncharacteristically annoyed.

“If you don’t know a spell, don’t claim you do and then say ‘I won’t cast it because I’m too busy’.”

He floated over the gravy boat towards him; the other Archmage’s eyes flashed, but he continued eating. The high table was, of course, warded so their conversation was unintelligible, even to Wistram’s most avid secret-seekers.

If there was anyone who was going to reveal the heated discussion, it was the uncomfortable, young, Truestone Golem standing silent sentry behind Zelkyr. Cognita, first of her kind, did not know how to deal with confrontations of a verbal kind, especially since she had been told repeatedly that Perril was one of Zelkyr’s few trusted allies. If anything, Perril felt guilty, but Zelkyr usually enjoyed watching his creations in distress. For how else would they learn?

Zelkyr huffed, but the truth was someone was going to be perusing spell tomes all night or he’d have to own up to it. And—like they had when they were students—it ended up being the two searching the library, arguing and hiding from students with [Invisibility] spells…

 

—-

 

“…Ah.”

Why was he remembering that now? He had not given thought to his life for decades at a time. But now, memory swept in.

He was changing. As well as making his old mistakes.

Knowing full well the memory his consciousness had unearthed proved his hypocrisy, the Archmage’s reply was still the same.

Naturally. It is a task complicated by the nature of this…stasis in a frozen state. But there is little I cannot do, young [Necromancer].

He wondered what the mortal Perril Chandler would have said if he could have been here. Ah, how would that man have ever believed he could come to this? If only he knew the treachery.

Even now, that memory provoked a fury like no other. Even in death, he could not forgive. But…the young man pressed on. That too, he had forgotten.

Archmage. I would surely accept any debt, repay it in any fashion you desired if you could…heal her.

Longing in his tone. And now—well, undead did not sweat. But the Necromancer did experience an unpleasant feeling of tension. He gestured for the undead fox to drag another creature over. A bear, frozen by Ijvani’s spells. Maybe a larger specimen would reveal the issue. The fox did so, with incredible strength for its size.

Now, what was a suitable response? Something truly Zelkyrian…

Young Pisces. I am the Necromancer of Terandria. I do not have time to waste on the living. I grant you this time purely out of interest. Had you the means to compel my aid, I would have offered it. Does your own intelligence not guide you to these facts?

Silently, he waited. After a moment, he thought-heard a faint reply, colored by disappointment.

Of course, Great Master of the Dead.

A [Necromancer]’s salute. Az’kerash sighed. He stood there, preparing the frozen bear for revival. Well, he saw Zelkyr’s point, nigh a hundred and fifty years too late.

Then, I leave you to—

I will provide a suitable gift, mighty Az’kerash. Until then, please bear my request in your mind.

…What? But the connection broke before Az’kerash could inquire into what that meant. He blinked, and again—realized he had forgotten. When you were so desperate, you would do anything.

Lies. How much trouble they caused. He really should have taken his own advice.

 

—-

 

Failure and failure again, though. Pisces returned from his walk looking pale and silent. No one asked where he’d been.

“There’s no way we get in. People have tried; the Healer isn’t likely to respond to a request made at dagger-point anyways. So unless we want to take on twenty Gold-rank plus adventurers and Crowdcaller Merdon—we get lucky or we get more money than we have. A lot more. The kind that makes the Healer of Tenbault travel all the way to Liscor.”

Ceria was already into the hangover section of her days-long drinking binge without more fuel. But one thing was clear: there was no hope here.

“If she can even help. She’s not a [Healer]. She casts [Restoration]. A spell.”

Pisces spoke as Ceria tossed belongings into her bag of holding. Yvlon looked up sharply.

“How do you know that?

“I looked into it.”

The [Necromancer] returned the gaze. Yvlon frowned mightily, but he flicked his gaze to the door and windows. So she closed her mouth.

He had earned trust. The Horns looked at each other as Ksmvr bounced on the bed. Funny that the [Innkeeper] didn’t even bat an eye at an Antinium so long as they could pay. But then—half the people had thought Ksmvr was some kind of Balerosian Gazer or something. They really didn’t know what Antinium looked like and didn’t believe he could be anything but a horrific  monster tearing apart everything in sight.

Ceria had possessed the same view of Antinium before coming to Liscor. And if she had met one on the street and known it for Antinium? She remembered her first reaction to Pawn and the others.

But someone had looked past the insect features and asked a Worker their name. And she was…

Ceria closed her eyes. Drinking was preferable to being sober. But neither helped.

“What do we do, then?”

“Pay the [Innkeeper] for another week. Or look elsewhere.”

That was Yvlon. Pragmatic. But it was wrong to say she cared less than Ceria. She was not as familiar as Ceria was with Erin—but hadn’t they known her for almost as long? Ksmvr—Pisces longest of all—she had changed their fortunes.

And why the [Necromancer]? Why did he care? If you were unkind, you could claim Pisces had few reasons to keep lingering attachments or friends. Certainly, he had cause enough to doubt those bonds.

But Pisces sat there. Guilty, because he consorted and begged Terandria’s nightmare for aid. Guilty, because he had not been there. And because this was a fool’s errand.

As for why? It was also simple. He was a [Necromancer]. He had spoken to the Necromancer and beheld in Az’kerash’s contact an apathy for life. A grudge against the living so great he would embrace a dead world. That was what history had done to the Archmage of Terandria, Archmage Chandler, who had once been called a proud friend and ally by Terandrian kingdoms. A [Necromancer] respected by [Knights].

Betrayal had made him bitter. And Pisces had seen reason enough to share his feelings. The two continents he had known, and the Academy of [Mages] were not kind to [Necromancers]. He might have continued down Az’kerash’s trail of thought in time.

But he had met someone who, despite being irritated, repulsed, and disagreed with what he did—offered him food. Safety. On the basis that he was still a person.

Because of her, he saw a world different from Az’kerash, where necromancy could exist with the living. Could benefit more than just the dead.

“Why should I help those who judge me in ignorance and fear?”

Pisces murmured. Ksmvr’s head turned. He opened and closed his mandibles, but the [Necromancer] answered the question before the [Skirmisher] could.

“Because you’re a better person than they are.”

“What was that, Pisces?”

“Something I was once told.”

He did not have to say from whom. Ceria’s ears drooped slightly. But Pisces just sat there for a second. Secrets. Oh, he had many. Fewer than people might believe, but some terrible ones.

He owed her a great boon. And for that…Pisces looked up.

“I suggest, Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr, that we decline renewing our room. That we leave Tenbault. It does not have what we seek. But perhaps…”

The others looked at him. Ceria slowly nodded. Yvlon raised an eyebrow, but she was already grabbing her pack. Tiredly, they rose after Pisces. Ceria hung her head as she looked out the window towards the dome and magical barrier. Hope—the Healer—so close by.

“Okay. Let’s go settle our bill. And while we do that, I’ll tell Lyonette.”

Surely, they said, Erin would come back.

But not today.

 

—-

 

Lyonette, the Healer is impossible for us to reach. I’m so sorry. We’re going to pursue other leads, but we can’t get to her. I’m sorry.

 

We’re looking into passes for the Healer of Tenbault, but even all of Halrac’s acquaintances don’t have much. Where we are has a lot of important people—we won’t give up. But Ryoka’s thing didn’t work. This is Revi, by the way. Sorry.

 

To Miss Marquin in Liscor: Wall Lord Ilvriss sends his deepest regrets, but is unable to locate a curative of the required strength. He will continue to do search, but is unable to provide aid at this moment

            –Administrator Alrric, Gemscale Corporation, Salazsar

 

I am returning to Desonis. Wait for me to send word. Altestiel.

 

Deepest regrets. Sorry. Wait, and, ‘we will not give up’. It was cruel to say, but at some point, the messages intended to be encouraging, or reassuring sounded like—well, political statements.

‘Calanfer shall never forget this outrage!’ Wasn’t that what they said when Noelictus was attacked by Ailendamus during a war in Lyonette’s childhood? And she had believed it.

‘The Eternal Throne shall remember _____’s sacrifice forever’. They said that of some [Knight] who had died. But Lyonette forgot who it was.

She knew they meant it. Each and every one. Same with Jelaqua, who promised to look around—even beseech the leaders of her species for aid. But how long would she wait for them to find the cure? How long, until those daily [Messages] and updates became sporadic?

Hope was a bright, vibrant thing. But it went out fast. And all the flames had gone out of late.

Maviola and Erin both. And she did think of both. For one was gone forever. The other? There was a chance, but powerful people had tried and had no immediate solution.

So, then. It was not enough to wait. If there was one thing the [Princess] knew, it was that you could never outwait something like this. She had waited for years in her kingdom to become a proper [Princess], to find a lovely suitor, or grand adventure.

She had waited to be happy. So she was done with waiting. The [Princess] tucked away the slip of parchment. Then she returned to business.

The first object on the desk was more expensive than anything in the room. It looked like someone had taken a shadow from a dark room lit only by the moon’s glow and stitched it into a cloak. The interior was actually a quite lovely, dark maroon. But the outside was shadow-dark—a blue, in fact, but so close to black as to make no difference.

The Drake placed another object on top. A glowing amulet. Then she added a tiara. The young woman’s eyes locked onto that. The Drake read down the inventory list as she added more items.

“A Cloak of Balshadow. A spent Ring of [Fireballs]. An enchanted amulet that doesn’t work…a tiara with a high-grade protective spell on it, a Wand of Sticky Webs, estimated half-charge, what Mage Montressa assumed to be a Ring of Flash—”

Watch Captain Zevara watched as Lyonette reached out for the tiara. The Drake stood in her office, with numerous artifacts on her desk she couldn’t have afforded, even with a Watch Captain’s salary. She glanced at Lyonette.

“Does that match your list, Miss Lyonette?”

“It does, Watch Captain.”

They were being a bit formal. It was the occasion, and the role they found themselves in. One was a former thief—exiled from the city and managing to return by winning the graces of those she had wronged.

The other? A Watch Captain, who was overseeing the return of confiscated goods now all bounties and damages had been paid.

They were also friends. So Zevara relaxed slightly; normally she wouldn’t have even overseen this, just the desk-sergeant of the day.

“Do you ah, need a minder to escort you to the inn? I wouldn’t think it was too dangerous, but these are high-grade artifacts. And with all the influx of new people…”

Lyonette shook her head. She caught herself and lowered the tiara; she’d nearly placed it on her head. And it would have belonged there, Zevara felt.

“I’m fine, Zevara. Thank you. And I’ll be in the company of, um, specialists anyways.”

“A [Thief] and a [Thug].”

The [Princess]’ face didn’t so much as twitch.

“I have my escort, yes.”

“So you’ll be leaving for Oteslia after this?”

Lyonette reached for the rings. She put one on, put the spent Ring of [Fireballs] into her belt pouch.

“That’s right.”

Zevara waited, but the young woman said nothing more. She put on the Cloak of Balshadow next. Practically relic-class. It swirled around her like a bit of darkness, and then became a nice, grey cloak. Zevara resisted the urge to make a number of statements. But then she couldn’t help herself. She coughed into one clawed fist and Lyonette paused in fastening the amulet to her neck.

“I never asked who you were. I have had—hints. And information sources. I could have inquired, but I didn’t think it mattered. The law is the law. And…well, I never asked.”

The young woman regarded the Drake. Zevara saw her smile, faintly. But it wasn’t a true smile. She looked like she’d been stabbed and was smiling in spite of it.

Zevara felt the same way. She saw Lyonette shake her head.

“Do you want to know?”

The Watch Captain wasn’t sure. She saw the [Princess] reach for the wand and stop.

There, on the desk, was a little—the Watch Captain’s eyes widened. She reached for it at once, but it was too late.

 

Days Since Crazy Human Incident: 4

 

It was out of date. The Watch Captain hadn’t updated it since…

“That’s…”

“I’m sure she would have laughed.”

The [Princess] unfroze after a second. Zevara hesitated.

“Who? You mean…?”

“Erin, obviously. She would have laughed. And probably started selling them, or put one up in her inn.”

It was the first time Zevara had heard the [Innkeeper]’s name here since—the day. The Watch Captain saw Lyonette fumble to put the wand on her belt loop.

“She would have been upset, of course. And demanded—oh, I don’t know. ‘Days Since Dungeon Attack’, and ‘Days Since Mrsha Incident’. And that last one would never be above two, let me tell you. But Erin wouldn’t have been really offended—she knows what she does.”

There it was again. Erin. Lyonette kept saying her name. Zevara had only heard references to it. ‘The [Innkeeper]’. ‘The crazy Human’. The [Guards] spoke of it like that, if at all.

As if saying her name made it realer. But the [Princess] just adjusted the cloak and picked up the tiara again.

“I guess I should keep it off until I need it. It hardly camouflages itself, and it’s quite noticeable, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

Zevara had never really run out of words to say. She was Watch Captain and normally she didn’t have time to waste words. But she didn’t know what to say. After a moment, she sat back down at her desk and pretended to look at her reports. She glanced at Lyonette as the [Princess] sat back down, now wearing most of her old gear.

“I feel I should caution you, Mi—Lyonette.”

“How so?”

The [Princess] looked almost serene as she sat there. Far too composed compared to the rest of the city. Zevara shuffled her papers. She had to say it. She knew why, but she had to say it.

“Oteslia is far from where I’ve ever ventured. I understand it is as safe as any Walled City—but one can find themselves in great trouble, even behind the walls. I should know. There is danger there.”

“But I’m going.”

“Yes, but the risk—especially with two members of the gangs, is beyond what I’d consider acceptable.”

That was the real issue. Zevara spat the words. She’d looked into the Brothers—oh yes. And she couldn’t think of a riskier proposition. They might appear to be friendly, but they had as much blood on their hats as, well, any other gang. She met the young Human woman’s gaze. But Lyonette didn’t blink as she leaned forwards.

“Can you spare [Guards] to escort me, Zevara?”

“Yes.”

Now there was a blink. But only a second of hesitation. Lyonette dipped her head fractionally.

“And can they protect me better than two criminals? Can they help?

Zevara looked away.

“They would be more reliable than—”

“What’s the highest-leveled [Guard] you could send? Beilmark? Jeiss? They’re both married. Is it higher than theirs?”

They both knew the answer to that. So, Zevara’s last-ditch effort to talk Lyonette out of it failed. She had known it would.

“You have someone in mind?”

“I’m going to ask the [Druids]. Oteslia has [Healers], [Gardeners]—I’m going with Saliss of Lights, remember.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better. He has a criminal record as long as those two. Longer.”

“If you take away the nudism, how much has he actually done?”

“…Fair point. But there’s still destruction of property, disorderly conduct, tripping a [General]…wait.”

Lyonette smiled slightly as the Watch Captain frowned over the list.

“I’m going, Zevara. I know it’s risky. But I have to. You understand? For Erin.”

Zevara looked up. There the name was again, on her lips. The [Princess] was not okay. But she said the name. And she looked…determined.

“Watch over the inn for me. I’m leaving Mrsha, Numbtongue—everyone. I can’t take them. I wish I could, but—it’ll just be us four.”

Zevara half-nodded. Miserably, she put the papers down. There were a lot of things she wanted to say.

I’m sorry, for one. It was Hectval who had attacked Liscor. If she had more patrols. If she had—

But too many people had done the apologizing. And at least, Zevara knew that Lyonette did not want to hear it. It changed nothing.

The [Princess] stood. Lyonette du Marquin of Calanfer. 6th Princess to the throne. Zevara regarded the note Chaldion had sent her.

She said nothing. Lyonette breathed out, looking out the window.

“When I was a girl, I wanted to be an adventurer. Or go on one. I had a grand dream that out there was everything I wanted. Everything I dreamed of. I suppose that’s childish to you.”

“Everyone dreams of that.”

The Watch Captain had done the very same. In her own way. Lyonette smiled and the Watch Captain gave her a rueful grin.

“Mine was curing my breathing problems and becoming the Oldblood Drake everyone looked up to. I also wanted wings.”

Lyonette laughed. Then she grew somber.

“That’s true. Everyone wants that. But for me? That was last year.”

She looked out the window. Her hair was fiery red, the hallmark of royal blood a continent away. Her skin was fairly pale. But she had not the delicate hands of the aristocracy, but calluses from someone who had worked. She kept care of her nails, but she also cooked and cleaned.

She looked so much older than the [Thief] who had been hauled in front of Zevara, calling everyone ‘peon’. Lyonette shook her head and gazed at Zevara.

“Today? I would have been happy to grow old without adventure. I feel old now. Somehow, I became a mother. I know I didn’t give birth to her, but I would never be anything else. I made great friends. I did something important, more important than my old life.”

So said the girl who was eighteen years old. Zevara shook her head. Lyonette’s eyes shone.

“And then—Erin was hurt. And it turned out everything I thought was so secure was so fragile.

Yes. They all thought the Crazy Human of Liscor was…invincible. What a mistake. Lyonette wiped at her eyes.

“Now, it’s all fading away. So I have to fight to get it back. Thank you for keeping my possessions. But I have to go.”

She held out a hand. Zevara rose to take it. She looked the [Princess] in her eyes. Blue. Zevara supposed it was royal blue, appropriately.

“You could have paid for them any time you wanted, couldn’t you?”

The young woman had come here every week, or more often, to add a few silver or coppers to it with her paycheck. She had come this morning with the rest. The young woman smiled slyly. Sadly.

“I enjoyed our talks. I didn’t want to need them. I will see you when I return, Zevara.”

She turned away. The Watch Captain watched her walk slowly to the door. As she was opening it, Zevara called out.

“If I could, I would march the entire Watch out with you. I’d take a vacation, barring that. I’d order my two most idiotic Senior Guards to go with you. But they’re gone. And I’m needed here.”

Lyonette du Marquin looked back. Zevara, Watch Captain of Liscor saluted her briefly. The [Princess] bowed her head.

“I know. Thank you.”

Then she was gone. Zevara sat down, and looked blankly around her desk. It occurred to her for the first time—how small the Watch was. How little power she had. In this moment?

She wanted an army. But instead, a single [Princess] went in search of a cure. Zevara hoped it was enough. She could only ensure there was a city for Lyonette to return to.

 

—-

 

The young woman returned to the inn where silence reigned. It was not an entirely empty inn of course; there were the two Humans who watched everyone coming in. The Gnoll who cleaned things and waited for guests who never arrived.

And there were guests. Multiple Humans. A Naga for some reason—or one of the snake-breeds. Ulvama didn’t know. She’d search the memories of older Goblins for details later.

Nagas rarely came to Izril. So this inn was already weird. Another weird thing?

The [Shaman] stared for a long time at the chess board the Antinium-thing had knocked over. After a moment, she poked a chess piece.

“Hmm.”

She edged around the side. Now, what was this? Nothing in Goblin-memory knew what it was. At least—early Goblin memory. It was conceivable that the Goblins who knew what it was hadn’t died yet.

Either way, she was at a loss. The [Shaman] walked around to the scrying mirror and stared at it. Now a Garuda was talking about ‘lost eggs’. She understood this more than the game. Obviously, this was a scrying spell. And this entire room was…entertainment?

She had never been in an inn before. It was so interesting to her. Interesting and—

“Mrsha?”

The female Hobgoblin froze. She looked around—then scuttled behind a couch. She peeked out of it, hearing the young Human woman. What was her name?

Lyonette, right. Ulvama had a [Bolt of Spite] ready to fling, especially if that horrible bug-thing came back. But all she heard were quiet voices.

Still, she didn’t relax. Ulvama listened, sharpening her hearing with magic as she heard Lyonette moving through the inn. She heard…

A quiet voice from the kitchen. The cooking Human girl had stopped crying, which was a relief. The Centaur [Mage] was talking to her, quietly comforting.

Muffled conversation between the two dangerous Humans with crossbows and weapons. One was debating lighting a puffer. The other told him to put it away.

Upstairs, the rasp of a knife on wood. The other bug-thing was making more arrows.

Then a voice from the common room.

“Mrsha? Mrsha. There you are. Sweetie. Oh, honey…”

The little Gnoll-child was called ‘Mrsha’. Ulvama listened as the young woman crooned and sadly spoke to the child. Ulvama knew that the Mrsha-child hadn’t moved.

She just lay there; the young woman had to get her to eat. Someone had taken away the life from her.

Something terrible had happened here. So terrible that no one spoke of it.

This strange inn where she had found herself after going through the magic doorway on the Summer Solstice? It was in the middle of tragedy. Ulvama licked her lips. That was almost a good thing, for her. Because the inn was empty, and no one had done more than check on her, and give her food. That was good.

Because she was a Goblin and she was afraid.

Very afraid. Ulvama tensed—but the sounds were only of Lyonette going to the kitchen, interrupting the two there and asking if Mrsha had been fed. Guiltily, the two confessed they hadn’t thought of that.

Ulvama wondered if anyone had fed the strange Hobgoblin on the hill. Numbtongue was his name. A Redfang—but a broken one. Had they broken him? But he seemed to be grieving the frozen Human. Strange and strange again.

Ulvama’s heart beat anxiously, but her eyes found the sign hanging in the rec room again. It reassured her, though she did not know why. Why had she felt this place was safe to her? But it hung in every room of the inn, a promise, a rule.

‘No Killing Goblins’.

She had nearly laughed when she read it the first time. It was so ludicrous, despite how welcome the words were. But the Humans had obeyed the rule. They had refrained from slaying Ulvama, offered her food, a bed…

What a strange inn. Ulvama only wished she were not so alone, with a foreign Hobgoblin. The other had left, refusing to take her with him. He had been as broken as the other Hobgoblin and had not trusted her enough to take her with him. Unfortunately, he’d recognized her as Mountain City—their tribes had been enemies and he remembered it.

Badarrow. Two Redfangs, then. Had Garen Redfang’s tribe survived where all the Goblins had died in the battle for Liscor? For that was where she was.

Liscor, again. Where Humans had slaughtered Goblins. She should have been terrified of dying here. But she was only afraid, thanks to the inn and signs.

After a while, Ulvama heard Lyonette take the Mrsha-child to the common room and try to get her to eat. The Centaur and Imani-cook went with her. Ulvama slowly crept out from behind the couch, relaxing.

Then she reached down and crunched on some of the popcorn-things she’d been given by the Gnoll. His name was Ishkr and he kept asking if she wanted anything. She’d checked for poison, but hunger had won out.

Crunch, crunch. The Hobgoblin munched as she thought and listened. Weird food.

She wished Pebblesnatch was here. The silly little [Cook] would have loved the novelty of these ‘popped-corns’. She wished anyone else were here.

Ulvama was afraid. And guilty.

She had left Pebblesnatch behind. Why had she done that? It was a mistake, but one born of the moment. She had been at the door, shouting at the other Goblins.

Come! Hurry!

But they hadn’t moved. News of someone dying had made them all sad. A Human. And so Ulvama had rushed through the door, fearing the shadows and magic tearing the sky apart, that only she had sensed. The power so close to the Goblinlands.

Only to arrive here, in an inn that had not tried to kill her. To be fed, to see the signs and learn that a Human had died here, and everyone mourned her.

There was a connection there. But an incredible coincidence…Ulvama’s eyes narrowed. Crunch, crunch.

She should have grabbed Pebblesnatch and hauled her with Ulvama. But when she had told them of her escape plan, how they could leave this place, start a new tribe—the other Goblins had looked at her as if she were an idiot.

They all had. In that moment—Ulvama had realized they did not have her desire. For her, Riverfarm had always been a trap. They saw something else. An opportunity, even if it was behind walls.

Not for her. She was a [Shaman] of the Mountain City tribe! A Goblin who knew that Humans would always hunt Goblin, no matter what. They might be kind for a single generation—but always, they turned.

That was what the memories of Goblins past told her. Better to hide, or be strong. She was just building her strength, searching for more Goblins. A tribe to join.

She had to survive. She’d do whatever it took to survive. Ulvama knew how the world worked. The world was far crueler than it deserved to be, especially to Goblins. She’d take what mercies there were. If these people wanted to feed her? Fine.

But she’d leave. And bring the broken Hobgoblin on the hill with her. Maybe to whatever tribe Badarrow said was hiding in the High Passes. Ulvama liked that, though she feared that place.

Maybe to the Kraken Eaters? Molten Stone? She’d rather join a strong tribe, like Tremborag’s. She had worked so hard to get to the top there! And it was all gone!

Damn the Goblin Lord. Ulvama cursed as she ate more popcorn. She had a feeling it wasn’t the most energy-filled food. But she couldn’t stop munching. Yum.

Yes, another big tribe. The leader of Molten Stone had scorned Ulvama’s pleas, though. Stupid [Witch]. If Ulvama had to choose, she’d choose the Kraken Eaters. They were a dangerous, nomadic lot, not nearly as easy to live with as the Mountain City tribe, but they lacked [Shamans].

Molten Stone had too many. Hard for Ulvama to get to the top there—and their Chieftain was the Goblin Witch. Female, too. So harder to seduce.

Ulvama had learned how to get ahead as a Goblin, especially a female Goblin. You found other Goblins, and made them like you. Male Goblins? Easy. She’d gotten Raidpear to give her authority—but it hadn’t been a proper tribe in the Goblinlands.

Easier to start with the Kraken Eater tribe, especially if the Chieftain took a liking to her. She’d heard he was a second Tremborag, but even more warrior-like, so she’d opted to remain in the Mountain City tribe. But since Tremborag was dead…

It was simple, to Ulvama, how life should be. Eat, sleep, do not die. Gain power by bullying, giving things, persuading. Do not die. This inn was perfect for her to get what she wanted.

…She just wished the people would stop crying. The Hob bothered her. He was so empty. She’d tried talking to him, but he didn’t move or eat. She’d have to make sure he didn’t die. Goblins had to stick together.

Ulvama crept from the rec room, hoping she could get through that mysterious door again. Now, where was it? That was another mystery of the inn; the garden which could not be entered. She’d only been able to talk to Numbtongue when he left, and he hadn’t moved in two days.

Into the hallway, down towards the common room, head on a swivel for sounds or people. Ulvama peeked around the corner and saw something she wished she hadn’t.

The Lyonette-Human was hugging the little Gnoll. Whispering to her.

“I’m going to Oteslia, sweetie. I have to. To bring her back.”

The dead Human. Or not-dead one. Ulvama nodded to herself. The little Gnoll was stirring. A tiny paw encircled the Lyonette-Human’s neck. Ulvama looked away.

Stupid little children. They were all alike. Pebblesnatch was tougher than most, but children were children. She looked for the door to the garden as Lyonette whispered.

“You have to eat something, okay? Palt and Imani promised they’ll look after you. And Selys and…but I’m going to go, alright? So Erin can come back.

Her voice broke on that note. Ulvama listened for more pieces.

A Human was dead. And apparently, a city mourned. That was what she understood.

If she was callous, she could have sneered. She nearly did.

A single Human is dead? So what? Goblins have died by countless numbers. Enough so that we gave up counting long ago. Each one mattered to someone.

But she did not say that. She understood. She had known death. She knew what it was like. She had mourned her mentor. Her parents. Her first love.

Even Tremborag, in her way. Though she had not loved him. But he had still been her Chieftain. He had still died as a Goblin.

And this Human had put up the signs. She had taken care of Goblins. Ulvama didn’t understand that.

So she listened, furtively, to the conversation.

“I have to go. And you’ll stay. Okay? Please? Be good, for me. Eat and—”

The little Gnoll made a sound. She didn’t speak. Ulvama saw her cling to the young mother, though. And she read every word from the frantic look, the desperate paws trying to hold the Lyonette-mother.

“I have to. You’ll be safer here. I’m sorry.”

Gently, the young woman unclasped the paws. And now Ulvama did have to retreat. Because the sound the little Mrsha-child made was piteous. Ulvama put her hands over her ears.

Not a Goblin. Doesn’t matter. After a few minutes, she looked again.

The young woman was crying as she left. She kissed and hugged the child—but leave she did. As Goblin warriors did when they left for battle. Only, Goblins did not waste water.

And then? She found the Ishkr-Gnoll.

“Please take care of her. Make sure she eats—that she bathes and—”

“I will. I will, Lyonette.”

“I have to go. I’ll—I’ll be back in two weeks. Two weeks, even if I have to return, Mrsha. Even if I’m not done. I’ll bring you with me if it’s safe? Okay?”

The little one said nothing. More tears. Ulvama waited. Then she heard her name.

Ulvama—have you seen her?

The [Shaman]’s heart beat anxiously. She readied herself. Oh, how she wished she had a few Goblins who could fight for her! She could fight—but she was a [Shaman]. She drew her strength from a tribe! This inn was lush in mana, but she was not an expert who could make herself invisible. Turning a bunch of regular Goblins into giant, blood-crazed berserkers? That she could do.

But Lyonette was just talking to the Ishkr-Gnoll.

“I saw her this morning. She is very…wary. What should I do with her?”

Ulvama flinched. But all she heard was Lyonette sigh.

“Just—keep an eye on her? She is a foreign Goblin, and Badarrow said she was a ‘Mountain City Goblin’. How he can tell, I don’t know, but he said Snapjaw was enemies with her tribe.”

“Should I ask the Brothers or Palt or Montressa to keep an eye on her?”

Dangerous [Mages]. Ulvama licked her lips. But Lyonette just shook her head.

“Feed her. Let her do what she wants so long as it’s not dangerous. Ishkr…they’re waiting. I have to go. Please keep the inn until I return?”

“I will. Best of luck, Lyonette.”

And then she was walking to the door full of magic. The Gnoll lingered, and more guests came to see Lyonette off.

It was a moment for them. Ulvama took that chance, while they were all in the hallway, to creep through the common room.

Door, door…where was it? She looked around—then nearly tripped over the little Gnoll.

She was sitting on the ground. The Mrsha-child looked up at Ulvama—then at the door where the [Princess] was saying her last goodbyes. She was listening too. And Ulvama saw her empty gaze.

How bitter. She stood over the Gnoll for a while. There the little one sat, like a doll. Ulvama had seen it before, after great loss. Pebblesnatch had been like that until…

She hesitated. Reached out—then hurried away.

She was not a Goblin. Not Ulvama’s business. Hers was only…

The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] was in the kitchen this time. Ulvama pursed her lips. Why did it move? She peered into it. She knew the broken Numbtongue was in there.

“[Unlock Door].”

She murmured a low-level spell, calling upon the magic in her ink and the inn. There was so much that she could cast most spells even without a tribe nearby. She pushed at the door—

And her hand ran into solid air. She growled. Again! She heaved on it. Tried another spell.

[Frost Ray]! The staff emitted a ray of, well, frost. It hit the door—

Disappeared. Ulvama peered at the door, the open air. Strong magic. Or…a Skill? She kicked the door’s opening and hopped in silent agony.

Voices. They were coming back. The Hobgoblin froze. She looked around—

“We have to take care of the inn.”

“But no one’s coming, Palt. What do we do?”

Clip-clop went the Centaur’s hooves.  The Imani-Cook was talking to him. Ulvama shivered. She did not trust them. But…

“It’s not like the inn’s poor. Lyonette put money in the Merchant’s Guild so she can take it out in Oteslia, but I have coin—guests might come back, Imani. Worst comes to worst, I could make sure everyone gets food.”

“Thank you, Palt. But what about Mrsha? She doesn’t even move—

“I could try a tonic. I um, don’t have ‘happiness’, though. Just calming, sleep…I can look it up.”

The two entered the kitchen. Ulvama breathed out, sidling towards the door. Imani sniffed.

“I just—it’s all wrong.”

She leaned on the Centaur’s side and he put an arm around her. Ulvama recognized familiar scents. She eyed the cigar he had. She wished she could steal one of them. Aside from that—he probably had a lot of herbs she wanted. She had been debating breaking into his rooms before she escaped.

Strange. She recognized attraction when she saw it, and even in grief, here was a couple. The Centaur was a bit distracted, though. He kept looking around. Did he sense her magic? Ulvama edged a bit further over as her camouflaged skin rippled against the kitchen’s…

“And Numbtongue hasn’t even left the hill! He hasn’t moved for days. He’s going to starve himself!”

“What?”

Imani and Palt jumped as Ulvama accidentally spoke. They whirled—and saw the chameleon-Goblin standing against the counters shed her spell.

Aaah!

Imani leapt back. Palt nearly crashed into a wall, but caught himself from running again. He grabbed for his wand—

“It’s—it’s the Goblin! Ulvama!”

Imani stopped him. Palt still raised his wand. Ulvama backed up.

“No hurt! Only want food, food! Nice Goblin, yes!”

She gabbled, in a mockery of proper language. That’s right. Pretend to be a scared little Goblin…well, she was too big to pull off the trick entirely.

“It’s alright! It’s—”

Imani recovered first. She held out an arm in front of Palt and spoke for both Ulvama’s and his benefit.

“You’re Ulvama, right? Did you want food? We didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Scare her? I nearly died!”

Palt exhaled hard. He fumbled for his cigar, staring at Ulvama’s [Chameleon Skin] spell.

“[Shaman] magic. I would have noticed it at once if I’d been looking.”

Hah. Ulvama rolled her eyes. But he wasn’t, so she would have knifed him twice if she’d been trying to kill him. [Mages]. She backed up.

“Not hungry. Am fine. Sorry Goblin. Is go now.”

She began to scuttle out of the kitchen. Then…stopped. Ulvama ground her teeth. She had to know. She looked over her shoulder and pointed at the door.

“Broken Goblin with sword. He not eat?”

“Broken…Numbtongue? No…he hasn’t.”

Imani looked at Ulvama, and then at Palt.

“I tried to give him food, but—well, I think the plate’s still up there. It’s not like it’s gone bad, but he hasn’t touched it.”

“You…give food to him?”

Ulvama was surprised. Imani nodded, with something like actual concern. Blown away, Ulvama saw Palt nod.

“I could try to talk to him again…but I don’t think it’ll work.”

He half-trotted into the door. Ulvama’s eyes narrowed.

“How do that, you?”

Imani’s forehead wrinkled. Ulvama might have been overdoing the bad speaking. But most Goblins spoke like this. Mountain City tribe was different.

“We…we can go through the garden. Oh. You can’t. Erin’s Skill—”

She and Palt shared a look. That was the frozen Human’s name. Erin. Ulvama hesitated, eying the Centaur.

“I go through? I am Goblin. He is Goblin. I talk to.”

She smiled, trying to look unthreatening as possible. She shouldn’t have shown them she could blend with the walls. Palt hesitated.

“I don’t know. We can’t just bring new people in.”

“They came for the wake. I guess the door’s not letting anyone through? We could…bring her in? I don’t know how, though.”

Ulvama’s smile turned to a scowl as Imani’s back turned. Darn. She thought for a second, but the Garden didn’t actually have much of what she wanted. Just that Sage’s Grass on the hill; Ulvama would love to cut a bunch of the plants. And truth be told…

Goblins could live for up to a week without food. Twice as much if they had the right classes. Tremborag could probably have starved for a month. But without water? She hesitated. But that stupid broken Goblin…

“You give him food. Numbtongue. He eat. Food, water.”

She urged Imani. The [Cook] looked helpless.

“But he won’t eat.”

Ulvama eyed her.

“So? Make him Hungry Hungry Stew.”

“Hungry Hungry…what?”

Did she not know what that was? Ulvama tried to translate.

“Make him stew…with Skill. That makes him very hungry. So even sad Goblins have to eat. You have Skill?”

She looked at Imani hopefully. The [Cook] blankly looked at Palt. He shrugged.

“Must be a compulsion-effect. I don’t know it. I could cast a spell on a dish. But do you know that Skill, Imani?”

“No…”

Ulvama cursed. Most Goblins got that Skill. It’s utility wasn’t just in making sad Goblins eat. It was generally to uh, make Goblins so hungry they ate stews with worms and mud and bark in them without objecting to the taste.

What other ways did you cheer up sad Goblin warriors? Well…she thought Imani and the Centaur would object if she told her to go have sex with the broken Goblin. Getting a Chieftain to kick the sad Goblins into action and go kill something didn’t work either since there was no Chieftain.

“I go into Garden, I help.”

Imani hesitated.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to do it.”

“Human poo.”

Ulvama cursed. She leaned on her staff. Then she had an idea.

“I know how to make broken Goblin eat. You have water? Food?”

“There’s a plate. But I could get um—a regular stew.”

Imani fussed with the bowls. Palt came back in and found her a large one, and a spoon. Ulvama nodded. She saw them fill up the bowl with a hearty broth; how fascinating that nothing began to rot here! Another useful Skill. Tremborag would have loved to conquer this inn.

“You give to Numbtongue-Goblin.”

“He won’t eat. He barely moves.”

“He will. I will tell you magic words to make him move. Special, Goblin-words. You must tell him exactly. Um…you.”

She pointed at Palt. The Centaur blinked. Ulvama thought he’d refuse. No Centaur she’d ever met would have treated a Goblin with respect, much less taken orders.

But she was desperate. That broken Goblin should live. And he only hesitated for a moment before nodding.

“I’m willing to try anything. What do I say?”

Ulvama beckoned him over. She knew roughly what the words should be. She whispered in his ear and Imani eyed them. Palt’s mouth opened.

“Er…”

“You say. It work.”

Ulvama urged him to the door. Imani went after Palt as he trotted, bemused, into the garden.

“What did she say?”

“Magic words? I don’t know. It might work—”

Ulvama craned her neck as she saw him head up the hill. Imani followed and then turned to Ulvama curiously.

The female Hobgoblin couldn’t see up into the hill with the mists where the frozen Human lay. But she could see the Centaur ascending most of the way at a fast trot. It was so silent she heard his voice.

“Hey Numbtongue? Numbtongue, you have to eat. This is from Imani and me. And that female Hobgoblin. Ulvama? You need to eat, friend.”

Nothing. Of course not. The Centaur tried a few more times, clearly trying to cajole the broken Hob. Then he sighed.

“Okay. Listen. I was told to tell you this—”

His voice dropped to a murmur. Ulvama waited. She was almost certain—Imani took a few steps. Then she heard a shout.

Raaargh!

That was about right. Ulvama heard Palt shout.

Aaah!

There was a roar of fury, then a terrified bellow and Palt racing down the hill as Numbtongue went after him, in a blind fury. Imani shouted.

Palt! What did you say?

She looked back at the [Shaman]. Ulvama nodded, satisfied.

The words always worked. Palt raced past her line of view, pursued by a Goblin driven mad with rage. Numbtongue hadn’t brought his sword; he just ran, practically frothing at the mouth, trying to beat the Centaur’s brains in.

For about half a minute. Then he dropped as the rage left him, looked around, bewildered. Palt, his hindquarters to the wall, lowered his wand.

“Wh-wh—all I said was—”

Numbtongue was breathing. He looked up, and Ulvama waved at him. He stared at her, then Imani. Palt bit back the words Ulvama had taught him. It was…close to a magic spell.

“Velan, Curulac, Ierlv. You have failed them all. The Goblins Kings die! Shame! Shame upon you, Goblin! You have forgotten your oath.”

Magic words. Who needed an incantation when you could rouse any Goblin out of their funk with that? For greater effect, name more Goblin Kings.

Of course, it didn’t last. Numbtongue was panting; he was clearly dehydrated, such that he didn’t sweat. But he was ready to curl up.

“Give stew. Go! Go!”

Ulvama poked Imani into the doorway. Imani hurried over.

“Numbtongue! You have to drink something. Eat.”

“She’s dead. My fault.”

The Hobgoblin moaned. He curled up as Palt edged around him. He was shooting daggers out his eyes at the [Shaman], but she only had attention for Numbtongue.

“It’s not, Numbtongue. You have to at least have some water, please?”

“No point.”

Ulvama smacked into the door again. She wanted to beat some sense into that stupid Hobgoblin’s head! She rubbed her nose and called out.

“You! Broken Hob! Drink water, stupid!”

He looked at her. She waved her staff angrily and switched to their language.

I am a [Shaman]! You stupid Goblin! Drink, eat food even if stinking Humans make it! Eat, to be strong! Protect! Cannot protect if you eat nothing!

His eyes flickered. He looked towards the hill and Ulvama pointed.

“Human only frozen! Not dead! Eat stew and live, or protect nothing! Do not fail again!”

Imani and Palt were looking at Ulvama, impressed. They had tried their own variations on that line. So had Lyonette, Selys, Drassi—even Badarrow, who could at least move.

But no one had even gotten Numbtongue to blink. Ulvama had gotten him down the hill and now—

The words registered. Numbtongue looked at Imani. Back at the hill.

“Come into the inn. Have a seat.”

“I have to go back. Protect. Bad things…”

He muttered. But suddenly—his stomach growled. And Imani knew how to pick her battles.

“Then have a drink. Where’s that stew? Palt! You kicked it over!”

“I was running for my life!

The Centaur retorted. But he was already trotting back to get more, as Numbtongue let Imani help him back up. Food, water…Ulvama saw him gritting his teeth.

It would taste like mud, but he would live. She sighed in relief. Then she scurried away before the Centaur could take his wrath out on her. She paused in the common room. The little Gnoll hadn’t even moved. Ulvama—no. No, only Goblins.

Only Goblins. She had to live. Goblins had to live. She hurried off. Little Gnoll would be fine. Probably.

Why did she remind her of Pebblesnatch so much? It was probably the fur. It reminded her of that stupid white hat.

 

—-

 

Silveran the Worker was now jobless, and thus, the first Antinium to be laid off in the history of ever. Ksmvr did not count. He had been fired. Different, very different.

Silveran walked the streets of Liscor, lost. The bells tolled. The funerals took place, the people wept.

He could not weep. Nor was sadness the only thing in his heart.

Yes, he was sad. Yes, he was hurt beyond what he believed was possible that Erin was…but more than that, he was longing. He was desperate, an emotion of longing, desperation, want that he had no word to fully describe.

Because he wanted to return to a month ago. He wanted Erin Solstice to bound down the stairs, with some crazy idea in mind, or run about the inn screaming about something like ‘beavers in the bath!’

He wanted her to be back when he woke. He wanted those pleasant days to return. And he feared, now. Feared that those days would never return.

That was death. That was what death did. It took things away. And yes, it was the first time the Worker had contextualized the idea of death thusly.

Silveran had never feared it before. He had seen death in the first hour of his waking and known it was his fate.

Only now did he hate it. Only now did he understand why it was feared. Not for him. But for what it took away.

And in that moment, he knew why Pawn’s vision of Heaven mattered. But still, even if Silveran now longed for Heaven—what was he, Silveran, supposed to do?

He was not Lyonette, who was going to Oteslia. He was not the [Priest], or Garry the [Cook], or Bird. He did not have a grand vision for bringing Erin back. He wouldn’t even know how to begin.

So the Worker wandered. He walked the streets of Liscor, knowing there was nothing for him in the inn while it lay silent. He walked and he walked.

Until he stopped for a small reason.

It was close to evening, when the Antinium Worker found the shop. Not an inn. And it was not a derelict shop. Although it was close.

The doors were open, but clearly, no clientele were present, not even the owner. There was a dirty front, made of crude, cheap glass with warps and bubbles, displaying…Silveran peered at the display.

Dried local herbs and vegetables. Upon further reflection, he saw that this was intentional for the herbs; unintentional for the vegetables. This was a small, local shop that sold locally foraged or grown produce. A grocer’s, really.

But what really caught his eye, more than the nature of the shop itself was…the dirt. The door was open, and the shop was dirty.

Look at it. Someone had tracked muck off the street inside. Ground it into the floorboards. And it had hardened into that calcified mess that made cleaning it so much worse.

Worst yet—this was not a new problem. Clearly, someone did desultory sweeping now and then, which meant that the really bad stains, sticky substances, and so on, got worked into the floorboards between the cracks, until it was practically part of the masonry.

It was horrible to behold. Mainly because Erin’s floors had used to look like that before she got a proper, full-time cleaner. [Basic Cleaning] only got you so far.

The Antinium began to drift on. But then he came back. Lyonette would have him cleaning that floor in a moment. And look at it! Even the dried mud and bits of grass and such were just scattered there, let alone the stuff that required soap, a mop, rags!

And there was a broom, lying against one wall. No one had even picked it up? Silveran hesitated. He looked around…

Then scurried into the open shop. He grabbed the broom and began to sweep, furtively looking around. Someone had to do it. It pained him to see the floorboards so.

[Wide Sweep]. [Magnetic Pull]. And sweep! The particles collected around the bristles of the cheap broom, and without being left behind, he swept a good four feet of space clean out the door in one stroke.

That was satisfaction. You couldn’t get a sweep like that without Skills. It was practically an art form. A lesser [Attendant] sweeping her storefront paused to gape at Silveran’s first mighty work of the broom.

“Whoa.”

The Drake girl of perhaps ten watched as the Antinium turned and repeated the motion. Dust and debris whirled out the door. The Drake girl leaned on her broom, a newfound appreciation for the art of sweeping suddenly instilled in her.

This was his craft. This was his art. Silveran barely needed five minutes to get the main floor clean—then he went behind the counter, around the edges. Three more minutes and the floors were swept.

But not clean. He looked around the empty shop, noting the back door was closed. Still deserted, and no one had stopped him. So he looked at the floor and saw…a bucket.

It held some dead leeks. But if you took them out and got a bit of water, why, you had water in a bucket. And there was some cloth hanging right there! Probably used to hold the fresh veggies.

Silveran knew where all the wells were in the city. He hesitated. He shouldn’t be in here. But the floors…

 

—-

 

Twenty minutes later, the Drake girl watched as the Worker carefully put the cloth into the water. She observed, with the sagacity of youth, that he had no soap. And once again, she underestimated the power of a Level 15 [Server].

Silveran reached into his belt pouch…and produced powdered soap-in-a-vial. An Octavia creation! He dumped half into the bucket and swished the cloth around inside. Then, he fiddled with the broom—the Drake girl craned her neck to see. What was he doing?

The impromptu mop only took some twine and two of the cloths. Silveran dunked it, placed it on the floorboards, and began to mop. Yes, this was how you did such things!

Of course, he was only going after the first level of muck. The trick was reducing the general smudge on the floorboards. First you went after the loose debris. Broom and sweep. That was easy, pleasurable, really.

Second? What water and soap could accomplish. It wouldn’t get it all, but the Drake girl saw the Worker pick up just pure filth on the first swab of the floor. She and he were so disgusted, Silveran got a second bucket so the dirty water wouldn’t contaminate his good source. He began emptying it into the street where it ran into the gutters.

Water and soap cleaned a world of sins. And yes, Silveran had more Skills, mostly devoted to cleaning. He saved his trump card, obviously. One did not simply waste a Skill where a minute of work did the job.

[Fast Drying]. The most important Skill, actually, was to dry the water before it could swell the floorboards. That was why you didn’t splash water down; you were economical. Silveran moved down the shop like a hurricane of mopping, leaving behind cleaner floorboards in his wake. The Drake girl was so moved she copied him, giving her own floors an amateur’s first attempt at a sprucing up.

But once again she did not have Silveran’s insight into the art of clean. Because even after the entire store’s floors had been mopped—after three passes!—he was not done!

The madman. The insanity of the Antinium! Now three apprentice shop workers were watching out of the corner of their eye. Because Silveran had cleaned the floorboards with soap and water, without letting the water actually seep into the foundation. He had swept the floors. And he was now…taking a minute bit of metal and individually removing dirt from each crack in the floor! Scraping at sticky stains that had resisted soap without damaging the wood itself.

You needed the fine control of a [Bladesman] and the nerve of a [Battle Captain] to shave the tops of the floorboards so. The patience of a [High Mage] studying spells to individually lever out each crumb trapped between the floorboards, that they might finally join together in proper harmony.

And he did it. No apprentice Drake or Gnoll would ever have the patience to lie on the floorboards and make sure each was sparkling. They watched in awe, even horror at the dedication to the art of spotlessness this Antinium employed.

Silveran was in the zone. He was enjoying himself, and he had not for weeks. After this? He’d probably do a second mopping because of the micro-bits of dirt he’d left from this removal of the crack-dirt. Then he’d have to wax the floorboards, because, obviously, you weren’t going to leave them unprotected, were you?

Actually, you should probably apply a layer of varnish, use the [Fast Drying] to effectively dry that, then wax, and then obviously polish everything by hand. And then you could move onto the walls—

He was so preoccupied with his craft, he didn’t hear the outraged voice until it was right on top of him.

Who’s there? I’ll kill you, you little thief! I’ll—eh?”

The Antinium whirled as a female Drake burst from the back rooms with a meat cleaver in hand. He froze, throwing up all his arms and she stopped and stared.

“An Antinium? What the—”

She was as astonished as he. Silveran looked around the shop and suddenly—realized he had gone too far.

What was he doing? This wasn’t his shop! He was cleaning on unauthorized grounds! He was in so much trouble. He got up to flee—then nearly ran over the gawking shop apprentices. They turned to run, and Silveran saw the Drake [Shopkeeper] interpose herself between the exit and him.

He froze, quaking. But the Drake had lowered the meat cleaver. She was looking around the shop, in awe.

Perhaps she had never actually seen the color of her floorboards. They were, in fact, beechwood, a light, blonde color. They had been dark brown just this morning.

The entire shop looked ten times brighter. The floorboards? Well, Silveran hadn’t applied wax, but you felt like you wanted to step on them, and then apologize for making them dirty!

“Dead gods.”

The Drake breathed. Silveran trembled. She was clearly in the paroxysms of rage. He raised a trembling hand as she looked at him. The Drake blinked.

Hello, my name is Silveran.

He had a card. Mrsha had helped make him one. The Worker held it out, like a shield. He didn’t have another. The Drake blinked.

“Silveran? Wait. I know you. You’re one of them…Painting Antinium. From the inn.

Her eyes were bloodshot and red. She looked—well, not well. About as well as the average person in The Wandering Inn. She blinked at the meat cleaver in her hand, then put it on the counter.

“What did you do to my shop?”

I cleaned it. I am sorry. Do not kill me. I will pay for the damages.

Silveran signed. He saw the Drake stare, nonplussed at his hands and realized—she didn’t know Mrsha’s sign-language. He opened his mandibles—and she shook her head.

“You cleaned my floors. They’re so—bright.”

She raised a claw, almost to shield her eyes from the glare of the bright floorboards. She stepped back, wonderingly, and Silveran saw his chance.

He ran past her, out into the street. He heard the Drake call out after him.

Stop!

Silveran hesitated. There was a Watch patrol coming down the street! They looked up for the criminal at the shout. They saw only Silveran, so were perplexed. But he froze. He put his hands in the air—

The jig was up. Nowhere to run. He slowly walked back into the shop, to face his fate. The [Shopkeeper] just stared at him.

“You cleaned my shop?”

Silveran nodded miserably. This was a fine fate. What would happen? Would he be executed? What would Pawn say? How much trouble would the Hive be in? The Drake blinked a few times at him—then looked around.

“Well, you can’t just run off after all that. Come with me.

Crime and punishment. Silveran believed in the justice system. He hung his head and walked into the shop. He stood before the counter as the Drake disappeared into the back room.

“Everything alright here?”

One of the [Guardswomen] asked the shop assistants as they watched the Worker. They peered around, but they still didn’t see a [Thief] or anything. The ten year-old pointed.

“Yeah. That Drake—Miss Pelessi—just shouted at the Worker.”

“The Worker? Did it do something?”

The Guards stared blankly at the Antinium. Then they grew worried. Was this the Aberration-event? They’d heard about that kind of encounter. They steeled themselves—but the Drake just shook her head.

“He cleaned her shop. Look at it.”

They all blinked. Silveran saw the Drake—Pelessi—reappear with his punishment. It was…

Rock Crab bisque. She placed the soup in front of him, with a spoon attached.

“Here. Have that.”

Silveran peered at it. Was he…supposed to drown himself in the bowl? Tricky, but he’d do his best. The Drake stared at him.

“To eat. It must have taken hours.

“That Worker was working for the last four, Miss Pelessi! He was digging dirt out of the floorboards!”

A young Drake shouted. The [Shopkeeper]’s eyes widened. Silveran hung his head. Then he raised it. Wait, eat the soup?

Death by poison was appealing. He took the spoon, took a sip. It even tasted good. The Drake watched, a bit warily. The [Guards] were admiring the floorboards.

“Beech wood? Such a lovely color. I’ve walked by here hundreds of times on my beat and I would have never thought. Some luck, eh, Pelessi?”

They jested with her, gently. The Drake replied, scowling. Half-smiling. But the red eyes and tear tracks on her scales…

Something bad had happened. Silveran ate meekly, seeing her gaze on him. And then—she clapped her claws. He nearly dropped the bowl and ran.

“A chair. Why are you standing?”

Why was he standing? She fetched one from behind the counter. It was a stool, but Silveran didn’t object to the improper taxonomy of the object. He sat on it and ate. Which was even better than standing and eating.

“You cleaned my shop. Even my husband didn’t do as good a job, when he was alive. I certainly never did.”

The Drake marveled. She was touching the floorboards. Silveran wanted to apologize for the shoddy work. It was just a compulsion.

She looked back at him once. The Watch had apparently decided that Silveran was no Aberration, so they were walking on. But the Drake…they all saluted her.

“Sorry for your loss, Miss Pelessi.”

She gave them a stiff nod. Silveran saw her turn to him. And apparently his blank stare finally registered. She gestured.

There was something on her chest. The toga-like robes, a light yellow, had something attached. He hadn’t noticed it since it was a white bloom. But Silveran knew what that meant.

“My son.”

She saw the Painted Worker stop eating. Pelessi blinked at his bowl.

“You eat as fast as my boy. Do you want more?”

Silveran didn’t know how to respond. So the Drake got him some more. Workers could always eat—but it seemed to him the act of giving him food was just as much for her as him. She spoke as she came back.

“He went out to fight them. Hectval. For her. That—that—all because he had a mug of that Minotaur’s Punch. That glory drink and he said it made everything make sense. Losing his sister. All the good times, the bad—he kept wanting me to come and try it. Because he said it made him remember why she was beautiful.”

So there had been husband, sister—daughter, rather—and son. Silveran looked around and saw not a one.

Ah. He dipped the spoon into the bisque, unsure of what to say. The [Shopkeeper]’s chin rose, as if daring him to. But Silveran said nothing. He just ate the bisque.

“I’ve seen your kind about. The new, Painting Antinium.”

Painted. But Silveran let her talk. The Drake went on.

“I voted, you know. For Lism. This is his district. I didn’t have anything against the Antinium—not much. But Goblins and…it was all too much. My son agreed, until he visited the inn. I thought he was mad. I’ve never involved myself with the Antinium, though. I never thought one would clean up my shop.”

She hesitated.

“Thank you, for that. Why did you do it?”

Silence. The Worker hesitated. Then he gestured. He’d spilled a bit of bisque in his fright earlier. He pointed—and the Drake saw the stain vanish.

Her eyes widened.

“You have a Skill?”

He nodded. He industriously used the rag to wipe some more off another bit of the counter. As if to say ‘there is a mess. I clean messes.’

Then he shrugged. Pelessi almost laughed.

“That’s all? You saw a mess and cleaned it? Half the shops on this street would love you to do that. We can never keep it clean—this is Clawgrass Way.”

She said that as if it mattered. Silveran assumed it was the street name. The Drake explained, seeing another blank look.

“We sell food. Vegetables, the butcher’s down that way—and whatever people pick. [Alchemists] come here for cheap herbs. Do you know how much dirt that brings in?”

Lots? Silveran just ate the bisque. The Drake looked past him.

“It was hard enough keeping the store clean with four pairs of hands. Now? What am I supposed to do now? They said we’re at war with Hectval. I hope the city burns. But what am I supposed to…?”

She looked lost. The dried produce, the shop in disarray…Silveran put down the spoon. She noticed.

“Keep eating. At least the store’ll be clean for a few days, thanks to you. I heard…the Antinium fought Hectval. Stopped them from killing everyone. Good.”

That was all she said. Then, as Silveran put the spoon in the bowl, she whispered.

“Thank you.”

He had done nothing to earn her thanks, or so he felt. Silveran stood as she took the bowl. The [Shopkeeper] looked at him, then turned away. She put the bowl in the kitchen—where she had made altogether too much Rock Crab bisque, forgetting…there was only one person to eat it.

The Antinium was gone when she opened the door. She was glad of it, somehow. She—

—Nearly tripped over him as he levered up a tiny pebble in the floorboards. The Drake stared at him.

“What are you doing?”

Cleaning. The Antinium’s antennae waved. He was never one to leave a job half-done. She protested, but then stopped. The assistants—and [Shopkeepers]—began to gather. They stared. What horrifying dedication to the art of the broom! And when he started waxing the floors?

The Drake objected. Then she just watched. Because at some point, she realized the cleaning was as much for him as the bisque had been for her.

 

—-

 

The Horns of Hammerad walked out of the city of Tenbault. Ceria paused to raise a finger to salute the glorious city and the Healer. Ksmvr raised four.

“No, Ksmvr. It’s the middle finger. The middle one. You can’t just raise four.”

The Antinium lowered the four fingers on his upper right hand.

“Ah, thank you, Captain Ceria.”

“So what now?”

Yvlon felt tired. They had gone all this way, waited, tried their best. And for what? Another dead end. They were no closer to helping Erin.

It was Pisces whom they turned to. The [Necromancer] had been quiet. At last, he spoke.

“I have an idea. I did not want to mention it so long as Tenbault was the likelier solution. But—you are no doubt aware that I procured the information about the Healer from somewhere.”

Ceria and Yvlon slowly nodded. Ksmvr shook his head.

Pisces turned to them. He looked as uncertain as they had ever seen him.

“I have contacts. I would tell you more but…I cannot.”

It didn’t matter to Yvlon what he was hiding now.

“Just tell us, Pisces. What’s your idea?”

She hung her head, her golden hair drifting across her silver arms. She stared at them, wishing she could use them to any purpose.

Erin Solstice was dead. What seemed like it had been a beacon of hope in the days after the dungeon—a permanent lighthouse—had ended.

What was there now to look for? How did you bring her back, short of a miracle?

Pisces spoke.

“When we left Liscor, Selys asked me if I would go on a quest for her. To find a missing piece of the Heartflame Set.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked at him. Ceria walked into a bush.

“…What?

“Did you just say the Heartflame Set, Pisces? As in, the other pieces of the armor?”

The [Necromancer]’s eyes glinted.

“I did. She is an [Heiress] and inherited the armor.”

“I didn’t know she changed her class.”

He harrumphed mildly.

“Well, she obtained a unique Skill in return. Hints as to where to complete the armor.”

“I am very confused. Do you mean to imply the breastplate was merely a piece of a greater set of armor? That would mean it is…very powerful.”

Ksmvr’s talent for understatement almost made the others smile. Pisces nodded. But he looked troubled.

“I told Selys the odds of us reaching the…destination and recovering the armor piece were remote. We would need to prepare, even ally with other teams to get it.”

“You know where?

Yvlon was incredulous. Pisces shrugged.

“She was given the hint in the form of a riddle. ‘To find the helm of fire/Look to death’s ire;/That village without rest,/Where the Putrid One met his death.’

The others looked at each other in shock. Ceria was trying to pull her robes out of the bush. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles and stroked his chin in an imitation of Pisces.

“A difficult riddle indeed. One must look to the clues. A village narrows down the options from possible billions to perhaps only tens of thousands of options. However, by my deductive reasoning—”

“It’s the Village of Death. It has to be.”

Ceria breathed. Ksmvr looked almost hurt.

“This is an obvious deduction, Captain Ceria?”

Yvlon nodded.

“It is to adventurers. The Village of the Dead. I don’t know about the Putrid One—isn’t that an old [Necromancer]?”

“The Necromancer before the Necromancer. And yes, I had the same thought. Any northern adventurer would know it; the clue was not exactly difficult for me to decipher. But…”

“The Village of the Dead. That might be a Named-rank encounter.”

The half-Elf breathed. She looked uneasy. They all knew that place. One of the truly dangerous zones you avoided. Not as large or memorable as the High Passes—but no one had ever found out what lurked in the center. And armies had tried…

“But it’s the Helm of Fire. Not a cure. Why are you bringing it up, Pisces? I’m sure you didn’t tell us because you wanted to inform us when we had a chance of getting it. Or just to be secretive.”

Pisces blushed a bit at Yvlon’s gaze. But he met her eyes.

“That was my intention, Yvlon. But things have changed. I promised Selys I would try—or bring the idea up to you. Now? I am suggesting we get it. And…trade it for a cure.”

The Horns of Hammerad stopped. Ceria’s head slowly rose and she stopped tugging on her robes.

“You mean, to the Healer of Tenbault? That might get her attention.”

“Not to her specifically. I know of someone who might…trade a cure for a relic-class artifact.”

“Your contact. Who you won’t name.”

Yvlon leaned on her sword. Ksmvr was opening and closing his mandibles. Pisces chewed on his lip.

“Yes. But I would also say this: if that was where a [Necromancer] as powerful as the Putrid One met his end, there is surely treasure beyond compare there. The kind that…would pay for the Healer. And the Helm of Fire? A Walled City might pay a fortune for it.”

Any Named Adventurer would. Any [Lord]—even royalty might. Yvlon’s heart began to beat faster. But Ceria had a thought at the same time.

“But Selys was the one who uncovered the prophecy. It’s not hers, but…”

“I know. I am hoping there is more there than just the Helm of Fire. Yet I am still suggesting it. Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr. If it came down to it, I would trade the Helm of Fire for a cure for Erin. And I do believe it is the only solution. No matter what Selys thinks.”

Pisces looked at them. And there was resolve in his eyes. Yvlon exhaled.

“Are you mad?”

He half-flinched. But the [Armsmistress] was straightening.

“Selys would pawn the Heartflame Breastplate itself if she thought it would bring Erin back. Well—I think she would.”

Pisces smiled at that. But he raised a finger.

“The Village of the Dead is…an unknown threat. If the Putrid One really died there—it is certainly a Named-rank threat. We are not of that level yet.”

“But we are going. That is what you are going to say, aren’t you, Pisces? Ceria? Yvlon?”

Ksmvr looked around. The Horns jumped. Ceria spluttered.

“I didn’t say that, Ksmvr! It’s dangerous—”

“But you will go.”

“We could die—”

“But you will go.”

“You sound sure, Ksmvr.”

The Antinium [Skirmisher] looked at Yvlon. And for the first time, he smiled.

“Yes. Because I know my team. I do not mean to interrupt the decision-making process. But I find it inconceivable we would not.”

Pisces blinked. Yvlon opened her mouth and Ceria scratched at her head. The [Warrior] had been going to say it was dangerous, and that they were taking a huge risk and that they needn’t all go.

…Then she was going to say she’d go with Ylawes’ team alone if no one else wanted to. And to look at the supercilious expressions on Ceria and Pisces’ faces, they had been about to do the same.

“I am simply expediting our decision-making process. Please correct me if I am wrong.”

Ksmvr’s shoulders hunched. But then he was embraced by a laughing Ceria.

“You’re right, you silly Antinium. I was going to say—”

She looked around and took a breath. So did Yvlon.

The Village of the Dead. The Dungeon of Liscor had been one thing, Albez another. It had been a while since they had taken on a threat like this before.

Was it mad? Yes. Was it foolhardy? Even to suggest it.

But was it a plan where they had been drifting hopelessly? Absolutely. And if risking their lives meant a chance—

It was she who put her hand out. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr stared at the metal hand as the silver-steel skin flexed and opened.

“Erin is gone.”

Yvlon saw the others flinch. She went on.

“But she’s not lost. And if there’s even a chance—no village full of undead scares me. Not with a [Necromancer] on our side. That already gives us better chances than most.”

She looked at Pisces. He smiled. Actually smiled, and brushed hair out of his face.

“Agreed. And obviously, for the…treasure and levels we might accrue, and knowledge, I would never sit this one out.”

“Of course not.”

She elbowed him gently. He blushed, but put his hand on hers. It was warm.

“I will go. This is a team effort and I owe Erin Solstice…almost everything. My team, the rest.”

Ksmvr put his hand there, without hesitation. Ceria was last. She exhaled.

“This is stupid. Even I know it’s stupid. It’s so stupid that Calruz himself would have said ‘let’s think about this’. You all know that, right?”

“Yes.”

Yvlon looked at her. Ksmvr nodded. Pisces scowled.

“My hand is getting tired, Ceria. Are you in or not?”

The half-Elf glowered. But only for a moment. As Ksmvr had said, there was never any decision to be made. She reached out with her good hand.

“One more adventure. A real one. The most important one. Whether it takes us to the Heartflame Armor or—however far.”

The Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. And then they laughed and nodded. It was done. To the Village of the Dead. They broke into a run, heading for their hidden chariot-wagon. Ceria ran, panting, after Yvlon, then Pisces, and Ksmvr. Death and glory, preferably one without the other!

For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.

 

—-

 

It was just a little thing. But the shop was gleaming when he was done. The Drake thanked him. She wanted to pay him, but Silveran refused. He only took the coins when she said that she couldn’t let him go without it.

She looked so lonely there. The Antinium had cleared her displays, cleaned everything, set all the signs and polished every surface. But that was not enough. So he stopped at the entrance.

Miss Pelessi looked as the silver-antennae ant paused in the doorway.

“Did you forget something?”

She looked around, but the shop was spotless. He shook his head. The Antinium Worker gazed around the store, then at her. Then he opened his mandibles.

“I. Will come back tomorrow. To sweep. I am good at sweeping. And put things in boxes. I am decent at that.”

Her eyes went wide. The Drake started.

“You can talk?

She stared at Silveran. He thought about this.

“Yes.”

Then he walked out of the shop, leaving the dumbfounded Drake behind. Workers could talk.

Hadn’t everyone known that?

And he would come back tomorrow. Not because he wanted coin, or because he thought the Drake could make the shop that dirty in a single day. But because he was needed here.

He thought Erin would approve of that.

 

—-

 

The inn was quiet after all. Great deeds had once been done here. Crowds of people, armies had come through these doors.

But it was empty now. Quiet.

The legend of the inn…had become a wake. And a little Gnoll sat on the floor. Waiting. Waiting…and despairing.

Her mother was gone. Erin was gone. All was lost. The others tried to take care of her, feed her. But they were all lost. Always. All the ones she—

The butt of the staff nudged her.

[Slumber]. The Hobgoblin saw the little Gnoll yawn—and then slide over and curl into a ball before she even thought about it.

Ulvama tsked. Then she tossed the blanket on the ball of fur. Stupid, silly, little children. Children were so hard to take care of. That was why she had never had any, although a lot of attempts had been made.

Anyways, she was only taking care of the little Gnoll because she was staying at this inn for a while. And if the Gnoll-child died, people might blame the Goblin. Yes, that was why.

Someone had to. The Hobgoblin stomped off, to go watch the scrying mirror for more entertainment. Then—after a few minutes, she stomped back and tugged at the blanket so it only covered the little Gnoll’s body, not her head and everything else. Children could suffocate themselves. That was how impractical they were.

She accidentally touched the Gnoll’s paw as she adjusted the sleeping body. Tears had long since dried on the fur. Ulvama, grumbling, tucked the paw into the blanket. Then shouted.

She snatched her fingers back and did a dance of pain.

Ow! What was—

Ulvama stopped. She eyed the strange, flicking thing on the end of her claws. Wait, she wasn’t being burned by…she hurriedly blew on her claw tips.

There was a wisp of smoke. The [Shaman] scrubbed her hand on her side a few times. She blinked, then stared at the little Gnoll suspiciously.

“Huh. Weird.”

She gingerly poked the little Mrsha-child with her staff a few times to make sure she was asleep. Then she eyed her hand.

Fire? Gnolls were so strange. But it hadn’t burned her. It was on her paw. Now, where had that come from? Ulvama backed up. But she still saw it flickering. It had leapt at her. The child still held it.

As the Goblin left, and the child slumbered, and the world changed, it continued to burn. The legend of The Wandering Inn was not ended. And the fire still burned.

It flickered like…

Hope.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is the first chapter of Volume 8. And I’ve realized that the first chapters are harder than the last. Because I know exactly how the volume ends. But starting one? Harder. Because there are so many things to do, but how do you start?

I hope it was good. As I wrote at the top, Andrea is beginning to record on Monday—and I am writing!

And The Wandering Inn won a Stabby! It is the third and last we will ever win (because you can’t win more than three in a category), but three more than I ever thought we’d achieve! It was a huge honor, and I have you all to thank for it. The post is here, and I thank you for still voting and reading.

Volume 7 has ended, but you’re still here after that. Let’s see how Volume 8 goes. Thanks once more, and see you next chapter. I’m just getting back into gear. Until next time!

 

Hope, Snuggles, an alternate freezing-story and more by ArtsyNada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

The legendary Trash Dragon, Pawn’s wrath, and Inkar by AuspiciousOctopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 

Sad Numbtonuge by JackEnza!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Solstice (Pt. 9)

The world shifted. The hilltop of gentle grass, the stone gateways—changed. Not disappeared. They blended into another form.

A truer form? No. Just a different perspective.

The flowers were swords. And the hilltop was barren.

Just dirt. Dust. A substance that was less than either. A powder of the end of the world.

On the outskirts of the lands of the fae—nothing existed past this place. And each hilltop? A gateway.

This one stood with doors sealed, until you opened it. A vast structure of some metal Ryoka had no knowledge of. And planted on the hill were…swords.

Weapons. Buried in the earth. A warrior’s salute. Broken flags. Armor, hung and torn from the blades the owners had borne.

To war.

How many times? Ryoka’s eyes widened.

Her friend stood there, pale among the starlit sky. A shimmering light like the countless stars beyond. Distant realms amid the blackness.

“You have been in that world before.”

 

“Many times. Once, we came as friend. Later—as warriors. Look.”

 

Ryoka was afraid to. She turned—and the world changed again.

Statues stood in the hallway. The door at the end looked like Erin’s door. Just a simple wooden door, waiting for someone to open it.

But the hallway was vast, so long she would have to run for days without end just to cross it. It was so long because each space was occupied by a statue.

A statue—like the garden. Each one of a fae.

Some were like Ivolethe. Members of the Court of the Fae. Others? Ryoka saw a true Brownie, whose shape Nama had borrowed. Humble pixies. And proud folk like Silver Pine, as tall as the world itself.

She saw Dragons. Wyrms. She saw so many countless statues, all named. All reverentially treated.

Flowers. Swords. Statues.

“No. No.

A terrible fear gripped Ryoka as her feet carried her down the hallway. She did not want to see. The last piece of the truth was at the end. Two in one.

A flower.

It was not the tallest. Not the most unique on the hill, even. Ryoka’s feet halted unwillingly in the grass. She had seen it once before. She had wept for it then. And not known why.

Two blooms twined together. Two ideas.

Summer and Winter.

Ryoka saw, across every perspective. It had always been there. And it was written in her tongue. In English. Spanish. French. In all the tongues of Earth. And all the ones she did not know.

Written in a way she could understand it. Writ in every tongue, in every tear.

 

Here lies Maeve. Queen of the Faeries.

Here lies Titania. Queen of the Faeries.

 

Slowly, Ryoka sank to her knees in the grass. The flower bloomed. The twin statues stood. The two swords stood in the dirt.

Ivolethe was weeping. So was Ryoka. There weren’t enough tears, though.

“How? How did it come to this?”

Ryoka turned to Ivolethe. The Winter Fae spoke through her grief. A simple answer.

“We kept our promises.”

That was all. Ryoka collapsed. Ivolethe urged her upwards.

“I have a promise to fulfill, Ryoka.”

But the Wind Runner had no will to ask her. Not one more. Too many. Too many. She looked at Ivolethe.

And the day ended.

 

—-

 

Abruptly, Numbtongue wondered what he was doing. He raised his head as the night echoed around him.

Mrsha was asleep in Lyonette’s arms, tears still drying on the [Princess]’ blouse. Everyone was silent around them.

Antinium, staff, Bird—but they were in Timbor’s private room.

Not The Wandering Inn. Why? Why had they not been in the inn on the Summer Solstice?

Numbtongue only asked these questions because Shorthilt and Pyrite did. They had been screaming at him all day and he had not heard.

“Reiss? What happened?”

He whispered, but the ghost was not here. Of course not. He was at…

The inn. A dread surmise filled the Hobgoblin. He stood. Without bothering to wake the others, he hurried out of the inn. Ran down the streets. Tossed aside his guitar, his worthless sword to run faster.

Something was wrong. Something had been wrong. He felt it. He ran down the streets, for the magic door, realized it was set to the wrong dial. So he ran out the gates, past the alarmed guards who set up an alarm.

He ran as fast as he could. But he had always been too late.

The door was ajar when Numbtongue reached it. Someone had walked through the front door. But left no footprint.

Reiss!

Numbtongue howled. No one answered him. He ran down the hallway, into the common room! No one was here! For a second, he felt relief.

Then he saw the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary], forced open. The broken iron bands. And the Goblin knew true fear.

He stumbled forwards, with bare hands. Weaponless. But it was too late already. Numbtongue stepped into the Garden, looking around.

And found a statue. A statue barred his way. The Hobgoblin stopped. He stared down at the tiny Cave Goblin.

Its arms were outstretched. A defiant gleam in its eyes as it looked up at…at something. The Hobgoblin stared. The statues had never left the hill. But this one—

Was one of many. The Hobgoblin saw more. And he realized…something had come through this door. And the statue had tried to block it.

The [Bard] reached out with a trembling hand. He touched the statue and found…stone.

Rough, stone. That was all. Grey. Perfect. But stone. Something was gone.

Past the first statue was a second. A trio of Redfangs stood with hands out. Two male, one female. One a hob, the other two short. They were snarling defiance. They formed a chain—but there was a gap.

Numbtongue stumbled past it. He saw more statues, all blocking his way. And he realized—he was following the trail of something.

Something…that had walked through here. Past the pond, where even the Fortress Beavers had fled for a day. Up the hill, past the Sage’s Grass. Past the dead faerie flowers. Up the hill and to the highest point in the garden.

To the hill covered in mists. To the bier of frost.

He was so afraid. But it was too late. So the Hobgoblin stopped. Seeing the path.

The statues blocked it. Diverted, trying to drive it down the hill. But they could not stop whatever had come here. Each statue stood, rooted in place. Dozens…hundreds…thousands of Goblins.

But something was odd. There were—gaps. In the lines of statues. Goblins stood, linking arms, holding hands with…nothing.

Ghosts that had never been known to the [Innkeeper]. Yet the Goblins had held off something as one. The gaps Numbtongue slipped through, climbing, following the slow trail. Higher. Higher, as the day turned to night.

The statues were clustered so thickly at the hill that but for the gaps, he would never have gotten through. Numbtongue ran into the cleared mists on the top of the hill and stopped.

Eater of Spears looked down at him. Grimly barring the way. Spiderslicer was next. Grasping at an invisible sword.

“No.”

There they were. A last group of Goblins barred the way.

Bugear, defiantly shouting. Redfangs. Little Cave Goblins, some piled up on top of each other as if to stop something that way.

No!

Numbtongue ran left. Then he saw the last of them.

Gaps where his friends had been. There had never been a statue of Grunter or the others. But they had been here, don’t you see? Standing here.

And the faces of the Goblins were changing. They had been so bitter. Defiant. Even afraid. But now—Numbtongue saw a laughing Cave Goblin, pointing up triumphantly. A mocking Hobgoblin.

Furiously barring the way. As if…something…had grown impatient.

Just a few steps. And there he was.

Headscratcher’s statue stood in front of a frozen bier. His arm was blocking Numbtongue. And the Hobgoblin’s face was relieved. So relieved. Tears ran from Numbtongue’s eyes. He ducked under the arm.

The last Goblin was laughing. Laughing so hard he was nearly doubled over even as he blocked the way.

Garen Redfang. A fierce grin on his face. Pain—Numbtongue saw the body beyond. And…

Someone stirred as the Hobgoblin stopped. Terrible fear seized Numbtongue. The body was moving. He reached for a sword he did not have.

And then he saw the flickering, tattered Goblin’s head rise.

“Reiss!”

The Goblin Lord made no response as he rose. He blocked Numbtongue. And he looked—

Incomplete. Parts of his body and face were missing. Not missing the same way his wounds in death had been. But gone. Yet he stood, barring the way with Garen, his brother. He spoke.

“—begone. Stay back. Back—

He swiped at Numbtongue. The claws passed through the Hobgoblin without force or feeling. The [Bard] reached out and the Goblin Lord hissed.

“Back! Do not touch her! Back—

He did not recognize Numbtongue.

“Reiss? What happened?”

The Goblin Lord jerked at the name. The head and blank eyes looked around, searching.

“Who? Who is there? Stay back.”

He shielded the body lying on the bier. Numbtongue saw…

Erin Solstice. Resting there. Frozen.

The Goblin Lord tried to block Numbtongue. Softly, the [Bard] shook his head.

“It’s over, Reiss. It is…gone.”

He looked around. But he knew it was true. The Goblin Lord stirred.

“Over? Done? Who…who are you?”

“Friend.”

The Hobgoblin whispered. Tears in his eyes as he understood part of what had happened. He reached down. The Goblin Lord reached up.

They clasped hands. Numbtongue helped him up.

“Thank you. Thank you.

The figure smiled. And then vanished. Numbtongue waited. But all he heard was a whisper.

 

[—ry – Reiss—d obt—!]

[Skil—]

 

Flickering pieces. The [Bard] knelt by Erin, weeping for his friends. Then he stood, and placed his back to his comrades’. That was how they found him.

Amid the statues. Triumphant.

 

—-

 

Five of them howled in fury. The long day had ended. One, a figure that was more ravaged than even the others, so…alien in nature, was raging.

But the fae were triumphant. The last had appeared in fury as the day ended.

Tyrion saw Melidore snarl. He raised his sword and—

—bellowed as the five closed in. The shadows were so close now. The mortals so tightly bunched together. And yet, the Summer Fae roared.

“Nothing assails us, kin! Nothing has dared cross into the boundaries of this party! Nothing has no right to be here.”

He pointed his sword at the five. They had stopped, warily. The six fae warriors stood, swords bared warily. Bloodied. But refusing to fall.

 

You dare to show your craven forms after all this time? You dare to test the might of the fae? On this day? In this place?

 

Melidore roared. The five did not fear him. They wanted the mortals. Laken most of all. But the fae’s presence kept them back. A terrible rictus of rage crossed Melidore’s face. More than a mortal being could carry. It changed his very features into that of maddening anger, such that even the five wavered.

 

There shall be naught for you! Nothing to feed on! Nor anything shall remain! I see you. I remember your names!

 

Laken shouted in horror. Tyrion felt a lurch of dread. What was the fae doing? The figures firmed and seemed shocked themselves. The fae were screaming at Melidore. Why was he doing this?

For answer, the fae raised his sword to the sky.

We uphold our oaths. We will never forget! My liege! My king. I call your name. Oberon! Oberon!

The word was faint at first. But then it began to echo. It rang in the air. The fae jerked. The five’s smiles…vanished.

They began to back up. But they had come too far. Now—the six fae warriors blocked their path. Shadows began to flee.

Melidore stood alone in the light. The fae dropped his sword and howled at the sky as the echoes grew louder. This time his voice tore at reality.

 

“Oberon!”

 

—-

 

The word ran throughout the land of the fae. Ryoka and Ivolethe heard it come through the doorway. It rang through the forest, the city, the lands beyond.

A single word from Melidore’s voice. Ryoka felt the world singing it, ringing like a bell. It shook her.

He calls his name! Is he mad? What has—no. No!

Ivolethe knew what it meant. She darted towards the gate and recoiled in horror. Ryoka looked at her.

Shadows around the fire. She was afraid. But then Ivolethe’s teeth bared.

More fools they. Melidore has trapped them. He comes. He comes!”

“The Faerie K—”

And then Ryoka sensed it. A change in the air. The word kept ringing and ringing, like the tolling of bells. It was more than just one name. She heard Oberon, and a hundred other names. Melidore knew them all.

Ivolethe had told Ryoka she could have summoned one aspect of the Faerie King by luck on that day. Melidore?

He summoned all of them.

Ryoka and Ivolethe’s heads turned as the name faded into sudden, strange silence. They could not help it. And perspective…Ryoka looked past the hills.

Past the distant road leading into the heart of the lands of the fae. Past the forest and the great trees. Past the broken city.

Past the pieces of worlds and homes of the guests from afar.

Past even the Court of the Fae.

In. To the center of this world. And there he was.

Oberon, the Faerie King rode a great stag. No—he was the stag. The Stag King! No, he stood astride a chariot—

Countless forms flickered across Ryoka’s vision. Countless aspects. The Faerie King walked out of the heart of the world. And behind him came his court.

His army.

He walked down the one road in the world towards her. In a straight line. That was how it had always been. The entire world of the fae was one road towards the gateway and the Faerie King passed before all present.

Nama, the giant with three eyes, the three Kings around their sword, the Wyrms—everyone. They all bowed as he passed. Kneeling. Paying their respects to the one ruler of this place.

Oberon. In his wake followed the fae, armed for war. Ryoka had heard of the legendary armies of heaven that would descend during the end of the worlds. This was a host like that.

The world trees walked. Those like Silver Pine, amid their smaller kin. Dragons took wing and then forms like Teriarch’s, walking behind the Faerie King.

Magical beasts joined the army. Ryoka saw them all following that ruler of the fae.

And he saw her as well. His Wild Hunt followed, their enmity with Ryoka forgotten. The Faerie King was far away—and he was right in front of her.

Ivolethe was prostrate. So was Ryoka. She feared his wrath, and she dared not meet his eyes.

But then the great, horned head dipped. Ryoka looked up.

For a second, she met the eyes of Oberon. She saw only a fraction of what was there. Anything more and she would have been overwhelmed. But what she saw—

Was sadness. A terrible grief.

The Faerie King mourns. He was terrible. Terrible and wondrous and…

Not without kindness. Ivolethe had broken the rules, so he had punished her. But there was no malice there.

Just weariness. And resolve. In that moment, he nodded to her. And her transgressions were forgiven. She had broken his laws. She and Ivolethe had defied his will.

This matters more. The Faerie King raised a horn and blew it. And the realm shook as his army marched to war.

How many times? Did it matter?

We kept our promises.

Oberon looked ahead. And his wrath descended upon the world beyond.

 

—-

 

Othius the Fourth saw the ritual burning bright. He felt something opening beyond him. The countless potentialities were about to be sacrificed. An exchange of unparalleled magnitude.

My King! Please! Reconsider!

Laisa begged as the lights burned a hole between times. But she was now caught by the spell. Beholden to its will.

And the Blighted King’s. He saw Nereshal looking at him uncertainly.

A hundred thousand lives this time. Unborn—and yet—the last one had caused the Fool to defect. It had been a price bitter enough.

This time? The Blighted King raised a hand.

“Fear not, Laisa. The Blighted Kingdom shall not give so many lives.”

The High Mage and the others sagged. Othius went on. He clenched and unclenched his hands. And his fury, bittering of centuries, rose in him.

“For so long we have held the breach! We alone, aided so little by the other petty lands of this world! A bulwark only remembered when the fate of all trembled on the balance! This time—yes, this time—let the rest of the world pay the price! Take it from all but Rhir!

Laisa’s eyes widened in horror. The High Mage struggled. Nereshal whirled.

“Your Majesty! The other nations—”

“Be silent, steward! Do it! Complete the ritual!”

Nereshal ran forwards, but it was too late. The High Mages, linked, were conduits for Othius’ words. The spell burned, like brimstone and the scent of pure magic, howling against the dust and darkness in this place—

Othius smelled fresh berries upon a sudden breeze. He heard birdsong. He looked around, mystified.

“What is—”

 

—-

 

The five were fleeing. Backing away from the gateway that had appeared in the sky. A true gateway. But they were trapped. They had come too far, and now Melidore and the fae were trying to keep them back.

 

Die! Die!

 

The fae stabbed something as it fled. And something—

Died with a scream so piercing that even the other shades stopped. Even the five. As pitiful as it had been, Tyrion wept. For a ___ had died—

And more would die. The power filled the air. It filled—

 

—-

 

The treants looked up from the sea. They began to bloom in every profusion.

Wild beasts took wing, flying—mighty Rocs, proud Griffins, even a horned Unicorn knelt in the direction of the gathering.

“What the—”

Eldavin—Teriarch whirled in his cabin. He kicked out the door, gasping.

“It—it can’t be.”

What did Ryoka do? Also—he’d missed this?

 

—-

 

The ritual! Suddenly—the scent of spring was in the air. And something was twisting—twisting the magic apart!

It was as if some other power were ripping it apart! The High Mages screamed and Othius raged.

“Stop! I command you to stop!

The Summer smote him and Nereshal down to the ground.

 

—-

 

“They have returned! Bring them death! Death and fulfill our vows!”

 

Ivolethe had gone mad. She was shouting at the Faerie King. He had not even entered the gateway and already, Ryoka felt the power flowing past her.

She was begging him to do the same. She could have watched that procession forever. But it was also so hard to watch. Look how they rode to war. Again and again.

See what it had cost.

Someone seized her shoulder. Ivolethe. She dragged Ryoka towards the gateway, ahead of the Faerie King.

“Ivolethe! What are you doing?”

Ryoka stared at Oberon. He was watching them as he rode/walked. Ivolethe was panting.

“We must find Erin’s life! This way! This way!”

“But the Faerie King—”

It does not matter! Not anymore! The laws do not matter! With me! We go to find—

They leapt through the doorway. Stumbled into—

 

—-

 

It was all breaking apart. The Blighted King saw something tearing apart the connection. Or was it…mending a gap?

Either way, what had been poised to be his great opening, a rift rather than a gateway perhaps, but still a link of torn reality—

Was closing. He had no idea what it was, not fully. Not even Nereshal could explain as he dragged himself up, head bleeding from where he had fallen.

Your Majesty, stop!

My armies! My prophesied heroes! Come to me! To me!

The Blighted King ran over the failing ritual’s sigils. Past the High Mages struggling against a far superior foe. He almost saw the opening.

“—”

There was a sound coming from the other side. A sound unlike any Othius had ever heard. Strange bells. Shouts of alarm.

Another world lay beyond. Othius stopped in front of it, adjusted his garments, his crown.

“—you. Who—?”

There was something beyond. People! They were asking the most obvious question. The question anyone asked.

Earth? Othius had read all the accounts. Talked to Sir Richard and all the others. He saw—he almost saw someone on the other side. Many people. Where was this?

The image—flickered. He saw a room full of people. A strange multi-bridged place with huge metal things rolling along. Countless faces. The room—asking a question.

He had prepared a speech for this eventuality. Othius reached for his bag of holding. Then he gave up.

Again, the question came. Who are you?

He almost heard it. From many sources. Many places where the worlds connected. The ritual was screaming around him. Othius raised his voice and spoke, shouting to that world beyond.

“I would be your King.”

The voices stopped. He heard gasps. Questions. Someone was saying…

A prayer.

Othius’ ears were ringing. He shouted on, desperately, reciting his speech.

I call you from your world. To me! To fight evil in every form it takes!

The voices from beyond listened. The Blighted King roared, beseeching them.

“Send me your righteous souls, to fight the last war! The eternal war! Until the Demons are driven back and hell itself is cleansed! Bring your greatest armies to make war upon the end of the world! This is the day of reckoning and I call you to my side!

Screaming. Voices—he reached out, but the world’s link was fraying—

 

—-

 

The Faerie King was coming. The five were fighting desperately.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin landed in Innworld with Ivolethe. She stared at the Frost Faerie.

“Why are we here?

“I told you! Erin sleeps in this world? Cure her in this! We follow the threads of fate! Um…here!

The faerie was rummaging around somewhere. Ryoka focused around her.

“Wait. Where the hell are we? This isn’t the party?”

The faerie kicked over something. It crashed onto the floor. She rounded on Ryoka.

“Of course not, you fool! Do you think that party has what Erin Solstice needs? We are where her hope lies!”

Ryoka focused on the place around her. They were in a vast room. With a ceiling. She noted that. Then the giant fresco on the walls. The…armory…of weapons…

As she grew used to the new world and the disorientation faded, Ryoka more clearly focused on what Ivolethe was tossing carelessly around.

“Must be buried…stupid trash!”

She hurled a bowl of glowing waters to the side. It joined what might have been a relic of ancient magic…currently lying smashed on the ground.

“I-Ivolethe?”

“What?”

“Where are we?”

The fae shrugged.

“Where we need to be.”

It wasn’t Teriarch’s hoard. But it was second-best to that. Ryoka stared at the sigil on the wall. She recognized it. She went dead white. But Ivolethe was reaching down.

“Aha! A cure for a half-dead c—”

 

—-

 

And there he was. Aaron felt something was happening. Something…momentous.

Wistram Academy was practically shaking as mages ran about, shouting. They felt it too.

But he felt, no, he knew he was at the center of something just as great. His finger wavered.

All he had to do was…he looked around.

“Do it.”

Emerrhain stood in front of him, over the intensely complex magical circle. Not even Nailihuaile and Feor combined could have copied it. But it was…familiar. Aaron’s finger wavered.

“I don’t know if I should. I don’t—I don’t—”

I don’t want to. But he didn’t even think that. Emerrhain sighed.

“This is the answer to all you wish to know. You will know so much after this, Aaron. I cannot help you if you do not help me. What I want, you want. What you want, I want.”

His eyes. Aaron tried to look away. He tried to put down the iPhone.

It sat in the center of the circle. Aaron’s finger jerked. But it was lowering. He looked up. Emerrhain’s eyes were focused on the glowing screen. Desperate.

 

—-

 

They were screaming. The first of the fae poured through the gateway after them. Things were dying. But the five remained. And yet he came.

Oberon!

 

—-

 

The ritual was failing. Othius thrust forwards a hand, trying to tear the gap apart himself. Nereshal hurtled forwards and knocked him down, dragging him back as the Blighted King fought and kicked.

 

—-

 

“Aha! There!”

Ivolethe had found something in the pile of relics. Ryoka saw…a scroll. It was so gentle and warm she laughed to see it. Ivolethe swore, her fingers touching the thing.

“It is strong. I cannot pick it up as I am. Ryoka—”

The Wind Runner bent…

 

—-

 

Aaron sighed. His sweating stopped. He looked at Emerrhain.

“Did I ever have a choice?”

The scholar had his hand on Aaron’s. He smiled, with gentle compassion.

“No.”

He pushed Aaron’s finger down onto the glowing button.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin stopped. Her hand was almost on the scroll. But she felt it. Ivolethe felt it. She cried out.

 

No! No, no!”

 

The Wind Runner did not know what had happened. But Ivolethe was—screaming. She screamed towards the sky—and Ryoka felt it.

 

—-

 

Laken Godart saw the vengeful fae halt. The five figures turned. They stopped cowering. Stopped fleeing.

At the tiny sound. It filled the world. Interrupted the wondrous sounds of spring. The raging battle. It was just a small sound, but it did not fit. Not in this world.

It was artificial.

Ding.

Slowly, so slowly, Laken Godart reached into his pocket. Across the world—

 

—-

 

The Drake recoiled as the device, which had been out of power, lit up. She fled backwards—then saw something on the screen which stopped her heart for a second. She collapsed.

 

—-

 

Cara O’Sullivan picked up the glowing iPhone with trembling fingers.

“Aaron?”

She turned it. And saw one thing.

A message. A text message. Sent to all the devices from another world. Such a simple thing.

 

The Gods are alive.

 

She dropped the device. She backed away. But the young woman from Earth—

Believed.

 

—-

 

Laisa was screaming. The ritual was warping her. She was glad, though. Something was mending it. Something was bridging the terrible damage she and the others were wreaking—

Then the hands appeared. The song of spring ended.

She felt them. She heard laughter. A man’s voice. Something reached out and tore at the very nature of things. The High Mage collapsed as the magic expended itself. Othius howled in triumph.

 

—-

 

In a bar, past midnight, Rufelt heard a cry. He shot out of bed.

“Lasica. What’s wrong? Lasica!

His wife appeared in the doorway to their room. Her eyes were wide, frantic.

“Rufelt. Something’s—”

 

—-

 

In Rhir, something stirred. Three Hives vanished in a moment.

 

—-

 

The Death of Magic flew into the sky, screaming.

What have you done? You idiots!

 

—-

 

Across the world, great [Mages] were afraid. Az’kerash and Belavierr dug themselves out of the snow and the Stitch Witch stood oblivious in the cold.

“They have torn the threads.”

And her eyes betrayed fear.

 

—-

 

Ryoka felt everything change. One second, Ivolethe was rejoicing. Then—screaming.

And then?

She stood there. The scroll forgotten. She looked at Ryoka—and then tugged her arm.

“Ryoka.”

She dragged the City Runner out of the vault. Ryoka reached for the scroll—but suddenly spectral chains appeared around it and her arm.

“No!”

She struggled to rip it from the magic protecting it.

“Ryoka! We must leave! They are—”

Figures were already shouting, bursting into the vault from the other side. Ryoka heard their voices.

Protect—treasury—

“Ivolethe! The scroll! The scroll! Let me—

Ryoka shouted at Ivolethe, but the fae dragged her through the bridge between worlds, and Ryoka dropped the scroll as the magic pulled it away from her. She was screaming at her friend, but Ivolethe’s eyes were wide with fear. Everything else was forgotten.

 

—-

 

The realms of the fae. Ryoka stumbled through the gateway on the hill of flowers. She whirled.

“It was right there! Ivolethe! Erin—

“Ryoka Griffin. I am sorry. But look.”

Ryoka’s rage faded. Her head turned. And she saw.

The Faerie King, Oberon, stood in front of her. His great head bowed once. In sorrow. Ryoka stared up at him and the host.

She saw the fae warriors, six of them.

Melidore.

Sikeri.

Silver Pine, his head bowed in sorrow and rage.

The Summer Court.

The Satyr.

They were all here. They had walked through the portal. Now—the fae turned as one. They began to slowly march away from the doorway.

“What are you doing?

Ryoka ran after them. What had just happened? They had been going to—

One look at Melidore’s anguished face, Ivolethe’s, and the Faerie King’s bowed head and Ryoka knew the answer.

No more, no more. The hour is past. Too many lives have been spent. No more shall die. It is too late.

Something terrible had happened. And the power of Oberon himself had been thwarted.

“I am so sorry. I tried to make an end to it. But we cannot return. Each one of us becomes a weapon against you. Each blade, each piece of us—”

Melidore looked at Ryoka. He hung his head wearily. The Wind Runner fell to her knees.

“But Erin? Can’t you just…?”

“Look. They are closing our gate from their side.”

Ivolethe whispered. The stones were shifting. Ryoka saw the portal trembling.

“They will not.”

It took Ryoka a long time to realize the voice had been the Faerie King’s. Fae surrounded the gate on this side. She looked at Ivolethe.

“No.”

“My friend. I cannot help you anymore. Everything has changed.”

The fae wept. Ryoka knew it. The fae were struggling just to keep the gateway open. Ivolethe pointed at it.

“We cannot be trapped there. Surely we will return. To do battle. But this day—oh, Ryoka. It is just what I feared when I was told of us.”

She shed more frozen tears. Ryoka looked at the Faerie King, watching. Then at Ivolethe.

“What? Can’t you tell me all of it?”

“No. It will give them…strength. You must find it out yourself. Seek the truth. Seek the wind. You will have it now. You can be more than wind. My King.”

She bowed and Oberon nodded. Ivolethe whispered something. Then she kissed Ryoka’s forehead.

“Go with our ways. Seek out…Goblins. Seek out friends.”

“B-but Erin. But everything. What am I supposed to do?”

Ivolethe shook her head.

“The wind can guide you. More than that? I—I do not know anymore. What can we give her?”

She turned, suddenly desperate. The other fae of the court, great figures, all looked at each other.

“Something. A great weapon! Melidore, your sword!”

“It would only become theirs. You know that, Ivolethe.”

The faerie’s eyes closed. Ryoka saw her shoulders hunch. The Wind Runner looked at the trembling gateway.

Back. Back to…what? Failure. It had all fallen apart. Her great meeting, her time with the fae in these lands? She had searched for a cure. And she had failed.

“No. You did not fail. You have changed. And you will bring that with you.”

Ryoka turned. The Faerie King stood next to her. She saw Ivolethe look up, tear-stained eyes wide.

Oberon had no voice of power. He did not need it. He spoke naturally to Ryoka. He was a horned man. A figure with stag horns, like some stories showed him. He looked at Ryoka.

“A terrible foe of ours waits beyond. One we could not match alone. You have seen what it cost us once.”

“Yes. But—”

But what am I supposed to do? The Faerie King smiled.

“Few are ever alone, Ryoka Griffin. But it is a terrible burden. And you bear another.”

He looked up. And Ivolethe’s head rose. Ryoka Griffin faced the King of Faeries.

“There’s a prophecy about me, isn’t there?”

“Yes.”

One fathomless eye regarded her. Ryoka shuddered.

“Is it…like the King of Knight’s fate?”

“Nothing so certain. It is an if. Then. You have come far, Ryoka Griffin. And it may be the journey ahead is painful. This world is.”

He regarded the gateway. So—then. Oberon turned. He bent and regarded her with kindly eyes.

“If you wish it, I will send you to your first home. And let prophecy end.”

He pointed. Ryoka’s head turned. She saw a blank gate spring to life. She gasped. So too did the court of the fae.

“My king—

Ivolethe cried out. Then went silent. Oberon nodded to her. Then to Ryoka.

“If you wish to abandon it…”

“No.”

He blinked. Once. Ryoka blurted the word out so fast she interrupted him. She caught herself.

“No. I’m sorry, your Majesty. But I’d never choose that. Ever. I have…friends. I can’t run away.”

Go to Earth? Abandon all this? Even if she forgot it—what else was there?

Oberon smiled.

“Very well. Then speak with your friend.”

He stepped to one side, away…towards another hilltop. Ryoka was confused.

“He is so relaxed.”

She confided in Ivolethe. The Frost Faerie looked at him, and then laughed sadly.

“Ryoka Griffin. Ye art the only fool who’d both refuse the Faerie King’s generosity before he even finished speaking and call him relaxed.

Ryoka blushed. She stood at the fading gateway as Ivolethe looked sadly at her.

“I wish I could help you. But…”

“Faeries aren’t you-know-whats.”

“Aye. I’m so sorry, Ryoka. I never thought we would meet like this. I truly had no knowledge, or else…”

The fae shook her head. Ryoka reached for her hand.

“What did the prophecy say about me, anyways?”

“It says many things. I cannot tell you—”

“Of course.”

The Frost Faerie stuck out her tongue. And she was small, glittering. She hugged Ryoka, fiercely, with tiny arms. Then embraced her fully in her other form.

“You fool! It was a prophecy of ifs! Maybes! I searched for you, you know! When it was first spoken! But the fates never tell us when. So I searched and searched for a mortal like you until I was jaded and tired and bitter! And then, after so long, I met you when I had scarcely remembered it! That is how stupid prophecy works.

“But why did you want to meet me so badly? If that’s not secret?”

Ryoka was afraid that Ivolethe wouldn’t answer. But Ivolethe laughed. She floated backwards as Ryoka slowly looked at the door. The Faerie King was returning.

“That I can tell you. The prophecy told me one day I would meet you and something would happen. I laughed to think of it! But it came true.

“What was that?”

The fae stepped back. Then threw her arms wide as she danced in the air. And she laughed like snow falling.

 

“It said we would be great friends!”

 

Ryoka waited. But Ivolethe just laughed and laughed. And so did the fae.

“W-what? Just that? Best friends?”

“Nay! Just great friends! And isn’t that something worth waiting forever for?”

Ivolethe hugged Ryoka one last time.

 

“I will always be your friend. I wish I could come with you. But go. Go—and the wind will help you.”

 

She stepped back, face clouded by sorrow. Ryoka saw the gateway shrinking. She saw the Faerie King returning, though—and the trembling passage halted its end.

“Before you go, Ryoka Griffin. The fae do have something for you. What you have taken, keep. What you have learned, use. You are friend of the fae.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Ryoka sniffed.

“That’s enough of a gift for me, Your Majest—”

“Shh.”

He silenced her. Then he beckoned someone forwards.

“The might of the fae is dangerous in the wrong hands. But take this.

Someone stepped out, looking awed and timid behind the Faerie King. Ryoka saw…a figure in plastic armor salute. She saw him holding out a plastic dagger.

Ryoka’s eyes went round. The soldier saluted.

“I think it might look different where you’re going. It does for me.”

Slowly, she reached out. Oberon took her hand as it closed over the little weapon. He looked in her eyes.

“It will avail you little against your true foes. But may it help you in some small way. I cannot see the future where you go.”

“Do I need it, your Majesty? This is—”

He smiled and nodded at her uncertainty.

“Yes. The time has come for you to do more than just run. Now go.

She stepped through the gateway. Then it closed.

 

—-

 

The longest day passed. A terrible tragedy struck the world.

A party ended, with guests frightened, wondering what had happened. Each one unharmed—even the young woman who stepped out of the sky. Tyrion Veltras saw Ryoka’s pale face as she put something in her bag of holding.

The wind blew around her.

And the Blighted King celebrated. Something had happened. Not all of what he wanted but—he felt it coming. More and more.

He left the frightened children in Nereshal’s care, stepping around the corpses of his High Mages. The [Chronomancer] stared silently after the Blighted King’s back.

Othius the Fourth gave voice in the morning, with a prepared [Scrier]. The Blighted King’s posture was perfect, his clothing brilliant. He spoke gravely to the audience who woke to his words.

“I am the Blighted King of Rhir, Othius the Fourth. This night, the Demon Kingdom unleashed a spell of unparalleled magnitude across the world. Their great weapon aimed at all those who oppose them—

The truth spell glowed serenely behind him.

[A King’s Truth].

 

—-

 

Across the world, the Gnoll tribes of Izril were gathered. A [Shaman] raised high his staff and shouted as they gathered.

Let the Meeting of Tribes begin!

 

—-

 

And lastly? The Wandering Inn.

The hour was dark. Just past dawn. It seemed so few lights were visible anywhere. Even in the light, there was too much shadow.

Lyonette heard Montressa out. She nodded slowly.

Ryoka Griffin had failed.

The [Innkeeper] lay frozen, protected still. But not living. Not here. It was a terrible day. A bitter time.

Not even Erin Solstice had been able to stop this tragedy. No one had been able to overturn this madness. This…broken reality.

The others were silent. What could be done? Erin was gone. Lyonette took a breath.

“Well then. I guess we have to do it ourselves.”

The others looked at her. Selys. Olesm. Mrsha, Numbtongue, Bird—in grief and fury and despair. And all the others.

“Us, Lyonette? But Erin’s…”

Drassi gestured weakly at the door. The one who had been responsible for all the happy chaos, the madness, wasn’t here to make it happen. Lyonette looked at the Drake and shook her head. Slowly, she picked up Mrsha and hugged her.

“Erin is not this inn. She’s the heart of it. But it was never just her. Now, she needs us. More than ever. I won’t give up. I’m going…to Oteslia. To find a way to bring her back.”

“I suppose, then, you’d need an escort, Miss. A proper one.”

Someone tipped his hat to her. The [Princess] turned and the Gnoll and Drake looked at her. Numbtongue’s head rose.

“Keep her safe. She’ll be back.”

Lyonette looked around the inn. And she saw the others’ heads rise. The [Princess] felt tired. Despair clung to her like cobwebs, but she stood, because someone had to. Everything Erin had done…everything she had been?

The fire was not out. The [Princess] walked slowly towards the door. She adjusted it, dial after dial, clicking it into place—

The red gemstone flashed. Lyonette felt the door slam into her foot. She stumbled back.

A Hobgoblin burst through the doorway with staff in hand. She raised it threateningly—and stared down at Lyonette. She caught sight of Numbtongue, and lowered the staff.

“Huh. Where this?”

On a really, just terrible day, a guest found an inn on the hill. She looked around. And then she stared up and read the sign.

Then the story continued.

 

 

 

 

End of Volume 7.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is the end of Volume 7. As stated. It has been a long, long volume. If you can believe what they tell me…two million words? One year of writing.

I am very tired. And I believe I shall rest for at least two weeks. Probably only two weeks, but I need it. I need to do nothing, not write, just do something…else.

I think we could all use a break from The Wandering Inn. Not forever. For two weeks. That’s all.

But we will be back.

The story is not over. And it is a story. Sometimes, the story ends on a high note. Sometimes…there is something wrong that needs to be fixed. A quest. I hope you have enjoyed this volume, for all its highs and lows. The next ones will hopefully have more of all that.

Happiness and sadness. There’s no meaning to one without the other. I wrote The Wandering Inn because I wanted a story where not everything went perfectly according to plan, even for a story about other worlds. Also, because I wanted characters you cared about. Not so much to talk about food.

I’m exceptionally humbled and grateful that so many people have enjoyed it and found it this year. Which is the proper emotion to be! It’s amazing to think this story is what, five years old? Four? And it will continue next year.

Right after my break. Thank you for reading, and I will see you soon.

 

–pirateaba

 

The Wandering Inn’s Family for Volume 7’s Ending by Plushie!

Solstice (Pt. 8)

She walked out of the forest with Nama. Behind her, the wind howled.

The blizzard was beyond anything Ryoka had ever seen or could ask the wind to be. A storm that would herald the end of other worlds. An ice age in itself.

She left it behind her. Sheltered by her strange protector she’d met in the forest, and the King of Camelot’s sword.

The two had put the Wild Hunt to flight. Ryoka stared back wonderingly, then at the furry, slightly round figure with spectacles and the spoon which had laid low faerie warriors.

Perspective. She felt ashamed and silly. And relieved.

For all the land of the fae had horrible in it, like the truths revealed in the city, there were good people. Fair and foul, and indifferent.

She’d been rather foolish, hadn’t she?

Ryoka saw her thoughts leak out, like words. And Nama saw them too. She smiled widely as the young woman’s eyes widened.

“Yes, but few mortals do well the first time. Far harder than asking a bird to swim. Which some can do. Everything that makes sense to you is wrong, you see?”

She gestured; and flicked them forwards in the conversation, so that Ryoka understood and was nodding. That was what she had been doing the entire time.

Only, now, Ryoka was seeing it. Acclimatizing to this world.

“What funny words you people have. Words for everything. Or you try.”

The Wind Runner nodded. Then she made a conscious effort to…

Nama’s eyes fixed Ryoka and she adjusted the spectacles. After a while, she hopped over a stump, and flicked her tail.

“…Do you have something to say?”

Ryoka grinned. So that was how Sikeri had done it. She let Nama catch that thought and the kindly hostess harrumphed.

“Don’t be excited because you mastered your own thoughts, Ryoka Griffin. Beyond here—well, we’re in at last.”

The young woman’s smile faded. She looked up—and gasped.

In. Past the forest and city. Both things were locations in the realm of the fae. Outer realms. Ryoka understood there might be more. But she also knew this was where she needed to be.

Closer to the heart of the fae. Closer to the faerie king’s court. And thusly—

She stared across a meadow, towards an ancient, medieval farmhouse and fields of wheat. A lone tree sat idly upon the hilltop overlooking it all, and a stream passed by a slowly-turning water wheel. A village beyond.

“What is this?

“This—is in. Past here, you will reach the courts of the fae. But this—look awhile. You know what it is.”

Ryoka did. A village. But she took Nama’s meaning and flicked across her perceptions. If she looked at it like…

Mundane. The tree remained. The village, the people, the farmer and his family moving around the fields? Vanished. Only the tree on the hilltop, and a little…

Toy set. Everything she had seen in miniature, a little plastic river, static figurines, dollhouses…Ryoka blinked.

Grand. The village sat there. The tree remained. People moved about; children fought, rather viciously too, in the mud. Laughter and quietus and…

Decay. The houses were empty. Run-down, long-abandoned. A few looked as though someone had tried to repair them. But weeds had overtaken the fields, time eroded rooftops.

Ghosts wandered this place, laughing, calling out. Ghosts of people. Humans. And the tree—

…Was a man, sitting on the hill, watching them play. He looked old. He looked like bark and root and like Silver Pine. Perhaps less august, but…

“Oh.”

“Do you see?”

Nama was watching Ryoka approvingly. This was but one part of this place. And Ryoka looked past the village, towards great caves set into the mountainside. Something moved across them, some vast shape.

Another denizen. Another flash of insight.

“This place isn’t one thing, is it? It’s…the old world.”

“Many old worlds. You see it now, don’t you?”

Ryoka did. It was like…looking at a bunch of tiny states, or plots of land. Where the treant’s village ended—there was someone else’s domain. The giant mountainside and caves, a grassy expanse as far as the eye could see with grass like fire and a shimmering heat haze…

“Homes.”

Ryoka looked at Nama for confirmation. Again, she nodded.

“More permanent than the city, in truth. One was meant for guests. This? This is what they brought. It was not here a while ago. Or half so large.”

The Wind Runner stared past the many linked places. Few strayed from their areas; and why should they? They had everything they wanted. But some did, talking, walking about.

It looked to her like a glorious place. She would have loved to walk through the village, eat and talk to the locals and know what their lives had been like. Not in some perspectives; the ghost-village would have been terribly sad and she feared to know what it looked like in horror. But here were legends and their homes.

But from another perspective? Ryoka looked again and saw…

“…This looks like a refugee camp. How many people have fled here?”

Nama leaned on a walking staff, which had replaced the ladle. She peered up at Ryoka, suspiciously.

“You say this as if you are surprised, Ryoka. Everything dies. So why not worlds? In the past, they did not come here. But of late, he has allowed them to flee here. Like that large thing which tried to eat you. But mostly, they behave.”

Another clue in place. That was why Melidore had offered Mavika and the [Witches] sanctuary. When their craft died and their time had come.

Ryoka shivered. It was merciful, generous even. But it was a downer on the lands of the fae.

“Yes, well, it is my home. And such is the mood of the place. When he feels happy, things will change.”

A tap on Ryoka’s head from the staff. Ryoka winced. Nama stared out, pointing ahead.

“You need to go in to find your Ivolethe. I would come with you, but…if I go, there will be conflict. Then again, maybe I should.”

She hitched up her apron, reminding Ryoka of her disastrous city expedition. Ryoka held up her hands.

“No, wait. I’m getting better, Nama. You’ve done enough. I can guard my thoughts and see better.”

“I suppose you can.”

The hostess conceded after she eyed Ryoka up and down. She didn’t look convinced, though. She stood among the trees—suddenly she and Ryoka were far apart.

“I’ll be right here! Call my name if you get into trouble! But only do so if you must—you will have to run twice if I venture forth!”

Because she’d cause a fuss? Or lots of fights? Ryoka glanced back at the forest. The blizzard still raged; she hoped the King of Chivalry would be fine. Then again…if he wasn’t fine, Ryoka was dead.

Tentatively, she jogged forwards into the old world. She would have stayed, wandered up to the treant, walked across every home and asked each person why they were here and their story.

But this was not a forever-land. Time…was ticking on. Time was running out.

 

—-

 

Six times. Tyrion stood with his sword drawn, in the narrowing circle of safety. Beyond there—the fae fought. Not all of them, and not all with the same perfection of skill as Melidore and the warriors.

But they fought. Driving back the shadows. And the four.

Six times Melidore cut the bearded man’s arm from his shoulder. Each time, the shining sword severed something, and provoked pain.

Yet six times the figure came onwards, forcing the fae back with a sword of his own. They locked blades and Melidore forced the figure back.

But one refused to stay cut. Tyrion half-understood what Melidore was trying to do. Cut, and cut again until the arm stayed severed!

It was this moment. This time. With each step into the party, the four seemed more real. Less rotten. They were coming for the mortals, and Tyrion, despite himself, feared to challenge…

My name is _______! Say it!

The leader of men howled. The Humans and other non-fae covered their ears and screamed. Laken was holding up a hand, backing up.

Slowly, the circle narrowed. Tyrion wondered if this was a last stand. But why then did Melidore not order a retreat? He saw the fae looking up as he whirled to confront the dancing man. He repeated the gesture, and so did the warriors. The fae. What were they staring at?

The moons. They were rising overhead, both of them. And somehow—faster than they should have. So fast Tyrion saw its progress through the sky. Melidore was pointing upwards, beseeching the celestial bodies.

Come! Come, fair ladies! End this wretched moment!

The four advanced. And Tyrion understood.

It was a race against time. The shortest night. He stepped forwards with sword raised and cut at a flickering sight in the air.

Until the day ends! Families of Izril! Until the day ends! Keep them back!

The Flowers of Izril started. Laken Godart’s head turned and his face changed as he understood what Tyrion had seen.

“To arms!”

Magic bloomed as the mortals began throwing spells, cutting and fleeing back into the lines of safety. Halrac loosed an arrow—

The huntress caught it. She put it to her bow and shot it through one of the faerie warriors. The figure stumbled, but refused to fall.

Hurry, hurry.

They whispered. They were getting more desperate. They advanced further, desperate. Tyrion saw Melidore snarl. He raised his sword and—

 

—-

 

The second time, Ryoka sensed the giant tiptoeing up behind her. The malice oozed at her. She whirled and looked…up…

There he was again. A giant to make Zamea look tiny. Three eyes, staring. So large he might have been the same kind that had fought…other beings…in the age where he had come from.

“Mortal. Another mortal! The one that got away. My belly is filled today. Today is a good day!

He was in a good mood. Ryoka blanched as she saw blood around his mouth. She backed up as the hands reached down.

Nama. Ryoka felt the name rise to her lips unbidden. She had walked through the amalgamation of worlds for hours, and the forest was distant behind her. She was passing under the shadow of the mountain and network of vast caves, each of which could have swallowed her, if not the titan.

No! Not yet! Ryoka remembered Nama’s warning. She backed up.

“Stay back!”

The hand reached down. Ryoka flung herself sideways and the wind blew her just past the fingers as they dug into the earth. The hand scooped up a huge amount of dirt and rock and rose. The figure sifted through it, then one of his eyes fixed on Ryoka.

Quick mortal. Come here!”

She had to do something. Ryoka scrambled to her feet. And she thought—

 

—-

 

Three rather lovely, sinuous ladies leaned on the windowsills and watched as a screaming young woman ducked—then straightened. They had a lovely mountain cottage; handmade, really. No, wait—

The mountain was just a foothill, and they’d built into it, carving the stone gently to make a home for the three of them. But the humble façade belied the interior, which was like a mansion any million—billionaire would envy.

Was that an indoor pool? Marble tiles—Ryoka’s head turned.

She saw an oafish man with three eyes and a club look around. He was…about eight feet tall. And looked rather like the giant, only in miniature.

“Huh?”

Ryoka heard a cackle of laughter from the three sisters as they peered at Ryoka.

“Would you look at that? Darling girl! She has that idiot dead to rights!”

“How long has that fool been wandering about? And a mortal gets the best of him?”

The figure was scratching his head. he stared at Ryoka.

“You got large. Is this a trick? If it’s a trickster god, I’ll eat him and scatter his bones across the world!

He waved his club around furiously. The three sisters sneered at him as he looked around, perhaps for some other presence. Ryoka stared at him.

“It worked!”

Perspective. And the giant had none. He stared at Ryoka and then his face turned into a huge grin.

“More of you to eat, then!”

He raised the club and ran at her. Ryoka hesitated. He was still eight feet tall! Huge, like a wall of flesh running at her! She—

…Pulled out the Pepperspray Potion and tossed it in his face. The brute screamed, surprisingly high-pitched, and writhed on the ground.

The three sisters collapsed into gales of laughter as they emerged from their home. Ryoka stared at the empty bottle, and then the brute. She turned—

 

—-

 

Unbidden, the world shifted back. The mountain sat above her, so vast it could have been one of the High Passes. The world was shaking.

Ryoka saw the titan writhing on the ground, screaming such curses the air itself turned black and fled his presence. She shook so hard her bones tried to vibrate out of her—

“Enough. Begone, you pesst!”

Someone hissed. The giant’s howl became a distant thing, for all he thrashed and the shaking stopped. Ryoka turned…

Three Wyrms peered down at her, each one smiling with so many teeth that their vast heads looked like forests of ivory unto themselves. They had emerged from the caves and were staring at her.

How smart! Of all the trespassers who made it this far, none had the sense to look at him differently!”

“She smells of the forest. And the city. Did you go through both?”

“And strange and powerful meetings. She has protectors, this one. No wonder she made it this far. Will we let her go further?”

Ryoka heard the three voices speaking a sibilant tongue she could not understand. But meaning was clear. She stared up at the Wyrms.

Oh no, not more of them.

Fortunately, she caught that thought before it leaked. The three twined around her, moving over each other to form a circle with their bodies.

“Um. Hello! Honored Wyrms. I’m sorry about that. That guy’s been following me about—”

Ryoka desperately willed herself to see the three socialites and their mansion-home. But the oldest of them, with dark green scales mixed with chalk-grey, laughed.

“None of that now. We won’t be reduced so easily. Our perspective matters more than yours. What is your name, smart mortal?”

“Er…Cherise.”

One of the vast tongues flicked. All three frowned. One of them turned to the others.

“Is she actually trying to lie to us? She’s managed to hide her thoughts.”

Cheh. Mortals. And here I was beginning to like her.”

Ryoka wished the automatic translation in her head wasn’t so…normal. It made the vast Wyrms less awesomely terrifying—

And she should be terrified.

“Try again.”

The smallest advised Ryoka. And small was comparative; her scales were dark red, fading to a kind of orange-green that would have fit luminous caverns of fungi in the dark. Ryoka had a feeling the Wyrms weren’t outdoor-types.

“I’m uh—Ryoka. Look, I’m just passing through.”

“We know. But we’re curious how you got here. We smell one of our friends on you.”

“S-Sikeri?”

The others looked at each other, giant heads turning.

“Oh, the party.”

“The party.”

“That greedy-guts must have gone to an interesting one! I should have gone too!”

They sighed, then fixed Ryoka with more huge stares.

“Why don’t you come in? Tell us where you come from, girl. Tell us what you seek.”

“We’ll let you dine with us in whatever viewpoint you please!”

“And even help you. If you give us something in return.”

…Yep. They were doing the exact same thing as Sikeri. And Ryoka had no time for this! She had no time for the giant, either. She bit her lip.

“Honored sisters. I’m delighted by the invitation. But I have nothing to give you. And my business is er…actually, I have a friend coming you probably don’t want to meet.”

She had a sudden thought and smiled. The three Wyrms narrowed their eyes and twined a bit…closer together.

“Friend? We fear nothing, girl.”

“Not even your large protector from the forest. We are three and she is one.”

“You may have met Sikeri, but we are far more than she.”

Great. Super-Wyrms. But Ryoka remembered something. Wyrm they might be, but they were the same kind as Teriarch. And the boy in the city, for that matter. She licked her lips.

“This is all true, great sisters. Greatest of the Wyrms. Er—peerless beauties with a hoard even Dragons would envy and cry in shame to behold.”

The largest made a crooning sound and bent her head lower.

“Go on. I like you. I’d rather like to keep you.”

“Ah, but you wouldn’t. Because my friend is coming. And—you can tell I’m telling the truth, obviously. You won’t like to meet him. The King of Knights is coming, and he has Caliburn—

The shriek turned Ryoka deaf. She saw—

 

—-

 

The three sisters ran for their cottage. One of them hit a remote and steel shutters began to slide down in front of the entrance. They slammed windows shut, screaming.

The King? You awakened him?

Begone! Get lost!

Don’t let him bring that wretched sword near us! Shoo!

They threw things out the window. Vases, a painting—Ryoka dodged a handbag and decided her perspectives needed work. She ran on, wondering if it had been a magical force field in reality or if Wyrms actually invested in security. Probably. But who supplied that kind of thing? Gnomes?

Ryoka ran on as the Wyrms harangued her—then ran back and picked up the handbag. She ran off as they shouted every manner of insult at her for stealing it. But she really wanted to know what the hell it was.

She was journeying across the lands of the fae. And like Nama—Ryoka flicked through adventures that took hours or days. She stopped by a potluck filled with what she thought were feathered folk of all kinds. She travelled past the fields of grass and fire, and only Nama’s foot wraps kept her feet from being incinerated.

She bribed the Phoenix with the handbag to slow the Wild Hunt as the storm blew across the old worlds, angering all the denizens. Fire and steam and ice raged behind her.

Stories. Ryoka Griffin had only one more encounter of note. That was—an encounter of note because it was less wondrous than all the others which were all noteworthy, if that made sense.

She was nearly at the next place when she found six people wandering about, looking terrified. Ryoka slowed as they hid behind a rock, babbling to each other.

She was used to this by now and switched across the layers of—

An artificial glow illuminated the dark landscape. One of the figures turned—and Ryoka heard a crackle. She saw the other five react. Three brought up something in their hands. Ryoka stared and her jaw dropped as she saw the flickering visors. The machined armor. The guns—

She dove a second before they discharged. Flashes of light burned across the dis—

Pew, pew! The little toy guns emitted the blasting sound and light flashed across Ryoka’s torso. She landed and the figures panicked.

Another one! Keep firing!

They took cover behind the little rock, toy guns blazing at her. Ryoka got up shakily. She did not try to change perspectives.

It looked like six…adults…in plastic toy costumes. They were shooting at her, shouting with the crackle of a radio in the background as their toy guns played little lights off Ryoka’s torso.

No effect! Commander—

“Fall back! Fall back to Rally Point 12!”

They got out behind their boulder and started running. Ryoka stared at them.

“No fucking way. Hey! Hey!

She ran after them. They were fast. Well-trained, and they all looked like soldiers. One turned around, saw Ryoka, and pulled—

She flinched as the plastic grenade landed next to her and exploded into confetti. The others kept running, shouting about ‘hit—no effect!’ On a hunch, Ryoka switched back to—

The dirt was still showering down and she jumped back from the glowing, red-hot crater of superheated stone and dirt—Ryoka saw plumes of smoke from the broken landscape. She saw another glowing flash—

“Holy shit!”

Ryoka ducked. A nerf-gun pellet bounced off her chest. Was that a missile? She stared down at it shakily. Then she saw the others fleeing.

No way. But…they stared over their shoulders as Ryoka ran after them, shouting.

It’s catching up to us at maximum velocity, Commander!

“Hold! Turn and switch to close quarters weapons!”

They whirled and drew…plastic knives. Ryoka saw behind the visors, distinctly alien features—she held up her hands.

“Whoa! Hold on! Listen! I’m not going to hurt you!

The six froze. One of them adjusted his helmet.

“—Can’t make it out, Commander. Sounds like some kind of sonic-based language. I can translate—”

“Doesn’t look dangerous. But we can’t tell.”

“Lower your weapons!”

The leader of the six held up an authoritative hand. Ryoka was scratching her head. She really wanted to switch back—but she had a feeling she’d gotten lucky those two times. If this was real—these people were packing serious firepower.

Which appeared to her to be toy guns and Halloween-costume armor. Which made sense if it was…

“Hey. Um. You. Can you understand me?”

She pointed at one of the figures, who jerked slightly. It raised a hand.

“Hold on. I don’t have enough of a sample, Commander. It’s definitely trying to communicate…”

Were they stupid or something? Or…Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. They all had big moon landing-type helmets on. She kept hearing the crackle of radios. She was certain this was all an…analogy to what they really were, but no one else had been unable to hear her.

On a hunch, she strode forwards, hands raised. Instantly, three of them brought up their guns.

Pew, pew! Light harmlessly played across her chest.

Back up! Back—

Ryoka grabbed the figure she’d pointed at and yanked the helmet off. He flailed at her, stabbing her six times with the plastic knife.

“Ow. Ow. Stop that, would you?

She yanked off the helmet and shouted at the figure. If he’d gone hand-to-hand he would have hurt her. He was taller than she was, and she saw pale orange skin, some strange horizontal…were they even eyes?

He jerked back, shouting in alarm.

“Suit seal compromised! She tore off my helmet like it was—wait. What?”

Ryoka backed away as the others blazed their guns at her.

“Hey. Can you hear me now?”

The figure raised a hand.

Cease fire! Cease fire! I just established communications!

He looked around wildly.

“I’m—I’m not dead? I’m breathing—”

Soldier! Restore your gear now before—

“Can you tell her to shut up?”

Ryoka pointed at the commander. The soldier hesitated.

“Commander, are you getting any of what this person’s saying?”

He stared at her. And seemed to see her at last. Indeed, he looked around incredulously—then at his toy gun.

“What is this?

“We don’t have any communications with this creature. Just the sonic communications which we haven’t translated—”

“Tell them to take off the helmets. They’re getting in the way.”

The…alien…stared at Ryoka. She stared back. He holstered his firearm, staring at the cheap toy, then at Ryoka.

“…How do I know this isn’t a trick?”

Ryoka sighed.

“Well, if I wanted to, I probably could have kicked all your asses. Your guns aren’t working.”

His eyes widened.

“You’re familiar with firearms? You have an understanding of technology?”

“Yes I do. What are you, wearing, spacesuits?”

He frowned.

“…You mean our battle armor? And our rifles…”

He glanced at the toy gun. Ryoka shook her head.

“What are you doing? You don’t bring technology into the lands of the fae! They’re toys! Are you—mortal? Are you from space?”

The stranger gave Ryoka a long, puzzled look.

“We’re all from space. Unless this place doesn’t have a stratosphere? Is it even a planet? Are you from here…Miss?”

“Nope. So you’re spacefaring people?”

“That’s right. What planet are you from?”

He was muttering into his toy wrist-radio to the others. Glancing at Ryoka. She saw a fake-looking scanner beam play over her and folded her arms.

“I see that. Stop scanning me!”

She snapped at one of the helmeted figures. He recoiled and the beam snapped off.

“But I was scanning her on a non-refractable wavelength—”

Ryoka wasn’t sure if the Kings Arthurs was crazier—or this was. The figure looked at her uncertainly.

“Your home star? Miss?”

“Um. I don’t know what it is. We just called it the sun. Sol? And I’m from Earth.”

Ryoka saw the alien look around. One of the others cautiously removed his helmet and gaped at her and then his suit and weapons. The alien raised a finger—one of eight.

Which Earth?”

 

—-

 

Communication took about twenty minutes. Forty, before their commander removed her helmet. Ryoka was sitting on a rock, as they looked around, mystified.

“Perspective? Magic? Commander, this is clearly misinformation.”

One whispered through their crackling radio network. Ryoka threw a rock at him.

“If I’m wrong, why can I hear you and why are your guns as good as spit, huh?”

She flickered down the layers of perspective and—

–They were tall. Ryoka gulped as she stared up at one of the giant suits of armor and the half-translucent visor. It did indeed resemble something close to a moon-landing helmet. But set into the kind of battle gear that belonged in science fiction.

The barrel of one of the guns tracked her, glowing with unspent power. She saw one of the figures, helmet off, blink. The others reacted at once.

“Hold on. Now I’m getting all kinds of scans. Basic biology. Unknown dimensional compartment, but Threat Rating of Three—no advanced metallurgy, no dangerous chemical compounds—”

Ryoka switched back and the toy-armor and weapons returned. She took a breath.

“You’re in the wrong place for your kind of weapons.”

“I think that has become clear.”

The commander sighed. She had four eyes, each one unmoving and spaced around her head. Like…those security cameras, Ryoka decided. She also lacked a mouth; Ryoka wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from. Probably a translation.

“Ryoka Griffin. You resemble some of the peoples we’ve met on our travels in our…dimension. Can you explain where we are?”

“The lands of the fae. I told you.”

The others shook their heads. One was consulting a little hologram-display.

“We don’t know what that is.”

“Then how did you get here?”

The commander sighed.

“This is classified. But we’ve lost an entire Victory Company to this disastrous affair. Take a look at this. Soldier?”

She gestured and one brought out a primitive TV screen. Ryoka was sure it was more impressive, but she saw a cartoonish representation of planets, a bunch of aliens holding hands…

“This is our federation. We’re currently under threat with a second empire—and looking for options to turn the battle in our favor. We discovered this…gateway and activated it after sixteen years of research. The phenomena defied scientific understanding, so I was tasked with leading a Victory Company into this place to conduct research.”

“Er. You came on the Summer Solstice?”

“What’s that? Is she referring to a horological event? According to which star?”

The others muttered. The commander looked at Ryoka and shook her head.

“This phenomena occurs every sixty two years.

She stressed it, as if years were longer for her than Ryoka. The City Runner shook her head.

“I guess time’s different for your place than mine. Look—you need to get out. The gates will close when the Summer Solstice day ends.”

The others looked up, suddenly nervous. The commander gave Ryoka a wretched look.

“We’ve been trying for the last eighty days, Miss Ryoka. What do you mean, it will close in a day? We’ve been wandering this place—our entire Victory Company was lost the moment we entered that damn city! We brought in enough firepower to level five planets and they ate our vehicles like it was paper!”

Ryoka felt bad for this person. If she had done poorly—they had no idea what to expect. The poor people had brought technology to a magic fight.

“How did you survive this far?”

“Our weapons worked on some opponents. Others? It was as effective as you. We were split up. Two entire strike groups made it out of the city while the rest retreated to our entry point. We made it here…but kept taking casualties. A giant…thing…devoured an entire strike team.”

That bastard with the three eyes. Ryoka gulped.

“How many people are in…a strike group?”

“Counting robotics?”

“No.”

“Four hundred.”

Ryoka blanched. The commander nodded.

“That’s about what we’ve been dealing with. We have no direction; our sensors are broken and we’ve been able to communicate with exactly three things before you.”

That made sense if they kept their helmets on. Ryoka patted the commander on the shoulder, gingerly. The alien woman blinked at the gesture.

“Look. You need to go back the way you’ve come. Keep your helmets off, be polite—um—”

They were never going to make it. Even if she could give them the crash course on fae rules, they were going to die. But Ryoka had a sudden idea.

“…If we can get to the forest, I know someone who can take you back.”

The commander looked at Ryoka warily.

“I’m not in the fashion of trusting strangers, Miss. But we’ll take any help we can get. However, my mission is to find something that will justify this loss—

Contact! My sensors just overloaded! Four hundred kilometers out—

One of the soldiers screamed and Ryoka saw a bit of smoke emanating from his helmet. The rest scrambled to their feet. She raised her hands.

“What? What? Don’t do that!”

They had their toy weapons raised. One was shouting at the commander and she put the radio up to her ear.

Energy signatures just broke my systems, commander! Threat Rating has no scale for this! Recommend evac!

She looked at Ryoka, worried. The young woman looked over her shoulder. She knew who it was.

The Wild H—

The King of Chivalry walked across the ground, whistling, with his two companions. The young boy Arthur, the old one, and the glowing sword was resting on the young King’s shoulder. Ryoka gasped in relief.

“Arthur!”

You could power half the stars in the federation with that thing! Our suit’s systems are shutting—aaah!

Behind her, the other five were rolling on the ground, crying out. Ryoka looked at the commander. Helmet off—she put her face in her hands.

“…Is that what we’ve been doing this entire time?”

“Yep.”

 

—-

 

It was refreshing to meet people who were worse than she was at this. Really. Ryoka yanked off the helmets with the commander before Arthur walked the forty paces or so over. She made introductions.

“Milady Warrior, an honor.”

The oldest King bowed. The commander stared at him as the others muttered about ‘sensor readings’ and ‘no biological life signs detected’. But their leader had a more…adaptive mind. She bowed, copying Ryoka’s gesture stiffly.

“What happened to the Wild Hunt? Nama?”

The young King with the sword grinned with plain delight.

“They fled rather than fight, especially when they found you gone! Your great protector is safe. It would take the entire hunt, rather than a fraction, to bring her down.”

“Wait, that wasn’t the entire hunt?”

“Of course not. Did you think all of them would hunt you? It was barely more than a handful.”

Ryoka scuffed at the ground. That hurt her feelings a bit. But then she looked at the King of Knights.

“…Why are you here, though?”

“To escort you in. We’re going for a walk.”

The boy informed Ryoka with grave dignity. She could only bow to that.

“Can you help this lot too? They’re lost and I’m afraid they’ll never make it back to the gateways before the solstice ends. They’ll be trapped here. And definitely die.”

The six shuddered. The King of Chivalry nodded, gravely.

“Of course. Let us walk to the Courts of the Fae. Then—I shall return these to their destination.”

“Who…are you? Sir King? And may I ask—is that…war weapon something that could be obtained, here?”

The commander didn’t even seem to recognize his form of address. King Arthur Pendragon smiled as she stared at his sword.

“Only if you have the will to take its burden. I would not if I were you. But tell me of your troubles, warrior.”

And so the unlikely party marched. The three Kings. The visitors from another time far more advanced than Ryoka’s, clinging together in a tight knot and looking terrified as children.

Ryoka expected more trials. More travails. But in truth—her journey ended with that last eventful encounter.

All those they passed did not trouble the King of Albion. They bowed, or called out greetings, or slunk away rather than challenge him. He walked on, and on—

Until they came to the last place. The inner place, perhaps second only to the heart of the fae.

Here was the Court of the Summer Fae and Winter. Ryoka stared up at the vast, hallowed structure. Seeing where the countless miniature worlds, the patchwork of homes, ended.

There, on the border between things, before the land turned into the home of the fae—a place where anything was possible, the greatest danger still, perhaps—

Ryoka saw a group of people arguing.

They were all rather tall, slender, elfin without being exactly Elves. Somehow, Ryoka knew this. They were, in fact, like larger copies of figures she’d once seen in moving crystal and ice, or dancing among mortals in the party.

Her breath caught. Her eyes went wide. She beheld the arguing fae—each one adorned in the colors of their court. Not the lively, gay colors of summer.

The subdued magnificence of the Winter Court.

They were arguing loudly, fighting. Two sides, one smaller, trying to get away from the larger mob. Ryoka saw a female form being yanked back by the angry ones wanting her to stay.

Forbidden! Absolutely forbidden! The Wild Hunt has her!”

“Hah! Ye foolish bastards. If they got her so easily, where are their ringing horns of triumph? Let go, I said! Let go!

“He will be more wroth with you than he has any other for thousands of years! Do not do it for one petty mortal! Ivolethe!

The figure strained as they dragged at her clothes. Then her head turned. The arguing fae at the border stopped. Their eyes bulged. King Arthur laughed as he rested on his sword and the other two bowed.

Ryoka stepped forwards as the female figure tore loose of the suddenly-slack hands.

“Ivolethe?”

There she was. Her skin was blue, like the very crystal and ice she had been when she met Ryoka. She was tall! Taller than Ryoka, six foot three, perhaps. She looked like a courtier at a noble court. Or—

Flicker.

A bunch of swooping faeries argued in the air, stupefaction lost.

 

The King of Chivalry! He walks about? Why here? Why now?

Strangers from other worlds! More mortals? What fools they be, even today!

What happened to Melidore? Why did he let her through?

 

They flew at Ryoka angrily. She moved her persp—

Each one was so old. They had the radiance of Melidore about them, each and every one. They were ideas, history, parts of stories all in one. Like condensed stacks of information and personality at the same time as being wondrous figures. Ryoka cried out in a pain, tearing at her eyes—

Someone touched her. And the overwhelming glory of the faerie court faded. Ryoka saw a gentle hand, two icy eyes. A familiar voice.

Not as high and ringing as before. And the figure certainly wasn’t as small. But it was the same cool touch, the same, half-mocking smile.

Ivolethe bent, and eyed Ryoka as the visions ceased.

“Ye great fool. Always, you have to look. Always, you have to ask questions, poke your nose where you don’t belong. Kick your bare feet into everything you see. You defied the will of our king, dared the Wild Hunt to come after ye, and walked into the land where no mortal belongs.”

She bent slightly, so they were eye-to-eye. Her wings shimmered at her back, her clothes moved as the wind blew gently around her. Ryoka Griffin looked into those eyes. At the smile.

“I—I—I did it for a friend. Because I really wanted to see her. Because I had to. That’s what friends do, right?”

A gentle snort. Ryoka felt a cold finger flick her on the forehead. And then, Ivolethe embraced her.

“You are my most foolish friend I have ever made among mortals, Ryoka Griffin. But you did come. Be welcome!”

The other fae muttered darkly. Some laughed, and applauded Ryoka, or stomped off in a fury, threatening to tell him.

Ryoka heard none of it. After so long, she had done it. She embraced Ivolethe. She had lost so many friends. Seen so many terrible things. At last, at long last…

She had gotten one back. And in that moment, Ryoka’s long journey ended.

Everything was well again.

If only for a moment.

 

—-

 

Ryoka was smiling and crying when she let go of Ivolethe. It was a hug she had been waiting for, without knowing it, for so long.

“Ye crying child. How did you ever manage to get this far?”

Ivolethe said that, in a voice that was almost normal, not her magical fae voice. But she didn’t mean it. Her eyes were glimmering themselves.

And she was here. Ryoka could touch her.

The adventure had ended. She didn’t realize it at first. Ryoka breathed out.

“The Wild Hunt’s chasing me, Ivolethe. We might have to run. Even with King Arthur. And this is Commander…I can’t pronounce her name. And—”

“Shh.”

“But—”

Shh, you silly girl.”

A cold finger pressed against Ryoka’s lips. Ivolethe turned and nodded to the King of Chivalry. The oldest nodded back as the boy bowed awkwardly, and the younger King inclined his head. He did not bow, even to the fae.

“Milady. May I leave Miss Ryoka Griffin in your care?”

“Yes. And I thank you, King of the Sword. We must thank those who helped this one. But we shall return to meet you again before the day ends.”

“Surely.”

The three in one nodded. Ryoka blinked.

“But the Wild Hunt—”

“Forget about them. You found me. And now, you are under my protection.”

“But they’re the Wild Hunt.

“And I am Ivolethe!”

The faerie snapped back. Ryoka opened her mouth, and then it struck her.

She had come here to find Ivolethe. The Winter Fae grinned.

“Yes. And whilst my kind prevented me from reaching ye, I bet them you would make it. Neither they nor the cold hunters will trouble you. Nor any other.”

She looked around triumphantly. The Wind Runner opened her mouth.

“…But you were trying to find me, weren’t you?”

The Winter Fae hesitated. She glowered at Ryoka and muttered.

“I might have grown nervous. Ye are a fool. I imagined you wandering off into a trap somewhere, or angering the prouder folks.”

“What, me? I’d never do that.”

The young woman scoffed. She avoided Ivolethe’s gaze as the faerie raised an eyebrow. Ryoka coughed.

“So what now?”

Her answer was a smile.

“Now? Now, we are here, Ryoka. We will talk! But first, we must do what is right. The King of Chivalry and yon children helped you get here. Did anyone else worth thanking?”

Ryoka nodded.

“One. Well, a number of people. A Dragon, a phoenix—some people gave me food—but one person in particular. Someone called Nama—she’s waiting for me at the forest’s edge.”

“Then we shall see her and thank her properly.”

Ivolethe decided. She pointed back the way they’d come. Ryoka protested.

“But it was so long. And I know time isn’t unlimited here, Ivolethe. I came here for—”

Would you stop worrying for one moment?

A hand took Ryoka’s and Ivolethe glared back at her, truly irate. She reached over and flicked Ryoka’s ear. The young woman swore.

“That hurt!”

“Well, good. I was too small to beat you properly all those other times! You need it! I told you: you are with me. And my friend will not come to harm.

So saying, Ivolethe pulled Ryoka past the fae. They scoffed at her and she made a rude gesture in reply.

“Come find me, kin! Or does this mortal who walked here not merit a single moment of yer time?”

Paugh! We will see, Ivolethe!”

They shouted her name, but that was not her…name. Just what Ryoka had come to think of her as. She heard Ivolethe’s true name, or a whisper of it behind the meaning in her mind and shivered.

“Ivolethe?”

“Time enough for names and all that later. Come, come.”

The faerie dragged Ryoka back the way they’d come. Ryoka feared they would run out of time. But the Winter Fae stopped and smiled back at Ryoka.

“My friend. Do you remember the lesson I taught you? Tell me. How do you fly?

The Wind Runner stopped. Her heart leapt.

“You step into the sky—”

Her feet left the ground. Ryoka Griffin cried out in shock. But Ivolethe just laughed. And her laughter was magic. She took Ryoka’s hand.

And all that had passed before became the journey. This?

This was the wonder at the end of the rainbow. The moment she had won. Ryoka left the ground and flew after Ivolethe.

The eternal summer sky over the old worlds turned grey. Dark—but not depressing. Below, the peoples who had come to the land of the fae from their homes looked up.

Snowflakes began falling from the sky. Fat, billowing down, as the wind blew. And among the sky, two figures flew over the land.

Ivolethe let go of Ryoka and she was floating. Flying, without aid of the wind. Wonderingly, she flew after Ivolethe as the fae dove.

This was not the power of the wind. This…was a dream. The truest magic. Ryoka only had to think and she dove, skimming across the ground.

She saw all the way she had come flash past in a moment. The three sisters, hissing angrily up at her. The Phoenix, flying and raising a wing.

And the Wild Hunt. They were returning to the Court of the Fae. They looked up as Ryoka halted in the air. The hounds bayed. The warriors raised their weapons.

But they did not strike her down. They saluted her, the quarry who escaped. And they bowed to Ivolethe. She laughed as she flew over them, urging Ryoka onwards. The wind howled around them, delighting in the company, but Ryoka did not feel the chill.

The farmers and village people of memory pointed up to her as she flew overhead. Ryoka gaped down at them with much the same expression on her face.

Flying. This was Ivolethe’s power. Ryoka stared at her friend, flitting through the air as nimbly as she had as a Frost Faerie in the other world.

“Ivolethe. Who are you?”

The fae turned, laughing.

“I’m the same person I have always been. Your friend! Come—I see your protector. There! You met one of them?

She stared. Ryoka gazed down. And there was Nama.

The little hostess blinked up, and smiled as Ivolethe alighted on the ground lightly in front of her. Ryoka realized the fae was barefoot too. Ivolethe bowed slightly.

“Ah, they call you Nama, do they not?”

“And your little friend calls you Ivolethe. Well met.”

Nama smiled as she saw Ryoka.

“You found her, child.”

“I did. Thank you, Nama. Ivolethe and I came back to say thank you. Truly.”

“Yes. We did. On behalf of the Winter Court, I thank you, Nama. You have done much for my foolish friend. Is there aught you desire for this deed?”

Ivolethe swept a more formal bow, which surprised Ryoka. She was speaking to…something much higher than Nama’s head. The little furry woman raised the spoon as she adjusted her apron.

“It was a pleasant thing. I ask for nothing but the memory of it.”

The fae nodded slowly.

“Then I thank you twice. As does my friend.

She nudged Ryoka. The young woman started.

“Thank you so much, Nama.”

She blushed. She’d been trying to figure out—the woman smiled at her. Nama’s furry paws grasped Ryoka’s for a second.

“I enjoyed it. You have met your friend. Be well, Ryoka Griffin. If you ever come back here—visit me again. But I doubt it will be so.”

“Thank you.”

Tears sprang into Ryoka’s eyes. But Nama did not prolong the farewell. She gently touched Ryoka’s cheeks with her furry hands. Then turned.

“Kneel.”

Ivolethe whispered to Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked at her. Then she did, bowing her head. Ivolethe kept the bow. She looked at Ryoka as Nama walked back into the forest.

“You are luckier than I could have dreamed. To have met her.”

“She protected me from a giant. And—the Wild Hunt. And some of the lesser fae.”

“Aye. She could do that. You are lucky she was kindly.”

“Could she not be?”

The young woman felt a slight bit of unease in her chest. She gazed after Nama.

“She’s a Brownie, right? A type of…”

Ivolethe was staring at Ryoka. She shook her head slowly. Then narrowed her eyes.

“Ah. She’s fixed an image in your head. No Brownie could have held off the Wild Hunt. You silly…silly thing. Did you not ask yourself who could do that?”

“I…but she looks like…”

Exactly what she wanted Ryoka to see. She had never said she was a Brownie. Ivolethe nodded.

“What do you think I see?”

So saying, she reached out and touched Ryoka’s eyelids gently. And Ryoka looked up.

The forest of world trees rose higher than she could see, even if she craned back her head. Unimaginably vast.

The forest of the fae, where the Sword in the Stone rested. And all things could live there. Even—

“I chose the largest tree I could find. And it is still a bit too small.”

In the place where Nama had been, the vast trees shifted as something passed them by. Ryoka’s legs stopped working. Just as well she was kneeling.

“She lost her husband and her child.”

“Yes. No doubt she did. And she was still kind to you. Be grateful.”

Ivolethe bowed again. And then rose and took Ryoka’s hand. The young woman stared at her.

“This place is so wonderful. And horrible.”

“Would you have it any other way?”

She laughed at Ryoka. Then, Ivolethe pointed.

“Now we have thanked the one who matters. We will meet some of the others again. But it is time, Ryoka.”

Time?

Ryoka’s nerves hummed. She looked at Ivolethe. Yet her friend was just smiling.

“Yes. Time. Let us fly. I will show you the delights of my world.”

“But Ivolethe—I need your help. Erin—”

“Tell me about it.”

The faerie leapt into the air. Ryoka copied her, flying higher as the world disappeared below her. Ivolethe laughed, swooping around.

“Don’t fly like a straight line, fool! Fly like this!”

She dove corkscrewing about and pulling up out of the dive in a near-vertical climb. Like the Frost Faeries always flew. Ryoka tried to copy her. She shouted in delight and alarm.

“But Ivolethe!

“Tell me your woes! I know some of them! But tell me! We have time!”

“We do?”

Ryoka slowed. The Frost Faerie drifted back to her, sitting on the air.

“We do. You have won the time. So let go, my dear friend, and tell me everything. You have been gone such a short time as we count such things. So why did I miss you?”

She mock-glared. And then seized Ryoka in an aerial hug again, swinging her down, then letting Ryoka fly across the sky. The young woman caught herself and flew back. She tackled Ivolethe. And the two were laughing.

Their time was not unlimited. But Ivolethe had promised Ryoka and so it was. As night passed across the Summer Solstice of every world—the sun shone in Avalon. They flew across the many lands of the fae. They landed, talking, meeting folk.

Laughing, jesting, telling each other stories of what had passed.

For the shortest night—the briefest day. That was Ryoka’s gift for all she had done. Ivolethe took her flying. She called the wind and blew them like tiny leaves into the tallest tree imaginable. Taller than imagination, and perched upon the branches.

Ryoka ran across a single leaf, marveling at it, and Ivolethe made it fall. Ryoka rode it down, a natural rollercoaster flipping and dancing through the air to the ground.

They stole sweets from other fae, bringing back their gifts from other worlds. They danced upon frozen lakes, and then watched them warm and fled the angry behemoths in the depths.

There was no danger here. Not with Ivolethe. Even the King of Chivalry’s aegis couldn’t compare to her presence. She was of this land. A member of the highest court. The Winter Fae.

It was glorious. And too brief. Ryoka and Ivolethe paused, gasping, and Ryoka pointed at the fading sun, which had only begun to move when she had met Ivolethe.

“It’s not long enough! Even this is too short, Ivolethe!”

She wanted to weep, even as she was having the best moments of her life. The faerie shook her head, sadly, and happily.

“It never will be. That is what makes it so precious. That is why we envy you mortal folk, for all your pain and grief and suffering. It matters. Each moment you draw breath matters more to you than we.”

“We only have this short day to talk?”

Ryoka grabbed Ivolethe’s hands. The faerie scoffed at her words.

“Only a day? Yes! You did what few have ever done. Do you think it was a small feat? Do you think it changed nothing? You won a day in the land of the fae. Do not think you will ever be the same.”

It was true. Ryoka had no idea what would happen when she returned. Nor did Ivolethe. She was not all-seeing, all-knowing.

She was not a god. But she was powerful. Strong enough to command the Wild Hunt to abandon its chase. To defy the faerie king’s order. She scoffed at that last as they sat, watching a waterfall’s mists drift into an abyss.

“Anyone can defy his orders. From the lowest pixie to the greatest of our court. But no one can escape his wrath.

“Was he angry with you?”

Ryoka turned anxiously, feet dangling over the drop into blackness. Ivolethe turned her head, her smile waning slightly.

“A bit. I interfered with your death. Such things are not done lightly. Let alone in your world.”

“Is mine special?”

“We have sworn not to interfere. So he punished me, yes. Most of it was just what you know. That we might never meet again.”

“But we are.”

“So we are.”

Ivolethe was so sanguine about it that Ryoka narrowed her eyes.

“Ivolethe…what happened?”

“I was punished. Part of it was prophecy. No doubt I will be punished again for meeting you. It is…whatever.”

She flicked her fingers, so casual that Ryoka knew it was not. She also knew her friend didn’t want to say what had happened. Ryoka’s fingers tightened on the crumbling stone cliff.

“Did it—hurt?”

The Winter Faerie paused for a moment.

“Only a bit. We are immortal, Ryoka. I would have suffered ten thousand times that to meet with you.”

Ryoka sniffed. Ivolethe kicked her off the cliff. She shouted as Ryoka caught herself and flew back up.

Stop sniveling! Today is a grand day! My friend has done what few could even dream! Let us laugh! Let us celebrate and not weep until afterwards! Let the consequences come! But this time is for you and me. I am proud of you.”

“You are?”

Ivolethe reached down and pulled Ryoka up.

“Of course I am, fool.”

The young woman smiled. She saw Ivolethe roll her eyes.

“You must hear something to believe it? You have the ego of a mole. I am proud of you, again. How many times do you wish me to say it?”

“A few more?”

The faerie took wing, snorting. But her voice drifted down to Ryoka as she flew off to another sight.

“I am proud of you. I am proud of you. How many more times…?”

 

—-

 

They were alike. That was why they were friends. For Ryoka, Ivolethe happily defied the will of the faerie king, no matter what he might do.

“Be honest, Ivolethe. What could he do to you?”

“The worst of it? Do you really want to know?”

“Really. Please.”

Ivolethe thought about this.

“For such as this…he might lock me in a place without light or sound or sensation. Take away my form and imprison me in a wretched body. Until a star was born and died.”

“…Fuck.”

“He probably will not. That was a punishment for the old days. I think he will be wrathful, but not that much.”

Ivolethe hastened to assure Ryoka. She paused, and then her smile turned melancholy.

“I truly doubt he will be that wrathful. He will respect your journey. And he does not punish us as in the old ways so much. We are too few, these days.”

Ryoka looked at Ivolethe. The truth about the faerie lands—all secrets—they were one of the reasons she’d come.

“Ivolethe…I came for Erin. She’s—half-alive. Half-dead. Neither.”

“Aye. We will do something about that.”

“We will?”

Ivolethe nodded.

“As much as can be done.”

“Should we—petition the faerie king for aid? I could do it. If it means he isn’t angry at you—”

Smack. Ivolethe hit Ryoka. With a fist, rather than a palm. Ryoka rubbed at her shoulder.

“Ow! What the hell, Ivolethe!”

“Are you stupid? You want to invoke the Faerie King? He’ll punish us both. You nearly did it at the party didn’t you?”

“I—ow! Ow! Maybe! I thought it might help?”

Help? Does his name and the idea of mercy often join hands and dance about in your mind?”

Ivolethe had Ryoka’s ear and was shouting into it. The faerie looked delighted at being able to push Ryoka about; Ryoka remembered doing that to the little faerie. She winced as Ivolethe let go of her ear.

“Okay, bad idea. But we need help!”

“And I’m not good enough? He is too much! If you had spoken his name, even in your world…”

“But I don’t know his name. Only…well, one of the ones in stories.”

The Frost Fae looked disgusted. She thought for a second, floated off, then called over.

Oi, Wind Runner of Reizmelt!

“Ah.”

Hey you. You over there with the black hair! Ye cunt of an idiot! Do any of these names not fit you?”

“I get it! Fine! But what would have happened if I called his name?”

That was a better question. Ivolethe floated around, and found a stone on the ground. She tossed it.

“There. Which side did that stone land on?”

“Um…I’m going to assume that was rhetorical.”

Ivolethe grinned toothily.

That was the aspect of him you would have summoned.”

“Ah. Shit.”

Exactly. You might have summoned nothing at all, most like. If the other fae watched you, it was to see what would happen. Perhaps he would have been all sunshine and rainbows, and pardoned me and given you ten thousand cures for your friend while dancing ye about! Or perhaps your entire party would have disappeared.”

Ryoka gulped. Ivolethe shook her head, disgusted. Then she turned and gave Ryoka a tiny look of approval.

“…I say this. But you did not say his name. And you bypassed the petty Wyrm and one of the Summer Court. That Melidore, I will make him suffer for his tricks.”

She growled, speaking his true name behind the half-name Ryoka heard. The Wind Runner blinked.

“You know him?”

“He is…about my station. Once, he was of both courts. These days? He only walks among the Summer Fae. He does not wish to visit your world in winter.”

Ryoka whistled.

“Really. But he was so powerful. Er—no offense, Ivolethe.”

Her glare told Ryoka she took all the offense. She put her hands on her hips.

“He took his form. I took the form of ice and magic. It was far weaker. Do I look weaker than Melidore here?”

She pointedly looked around. Snow began falling once more. Ryoka raised her hands.

“No, no! You’re—amazing. Magnificent.”

“Yes.”

The Wind Runner hesitated. She lifted a finger.

“…But Ivolethe. I have to bring this up. I—carried you around in my pocket! I fed you snacks!

She looked at the Winter Fae, who answered only to the Faerie King, and tried to conflate her with the petty little Winter Sprite who ate wasps and such and begged for treats. Ivolethe stared at Ryoka. Her mouth worked a few times in puzzlement.

“Ryoka. Answer me something, honestly. D’you not want to sit in a great huge blanket and eat snacks the size of your head all day?”

The young woman thought about this.

“I envy you so much.”

 

—-

 

As their day drew onwards, their talk became more serious. Ryoka told Ivolethe of Erin’s condition and her history. The Frost Faerie was puzzled.

“Why did you come to this world for a cure for her? Your world has more miracles and tonics to revive her than this.”

“Really? More than the land of the fae?”

Ivolethe shrugged.

“More easily accessed, shall we say. You want a cure for death? There are many! But do you think they are easily gotten? Your world is…cheaper.”

That seemed like a polite way of saying it had wholesale miracles. Ryoka remembered how Nama had taken three healing potions as a gift.

“So my world…”

“The rules are bent in ways few are. Or do you think Skills make sense?”

Ivolethe’s eyes glinted. Ryoka nodded slowly.

“Will you tell me about why that is?”

“No. It is dangerous.”

“Even now?”

“If you got back home—yes. And you are smart enough to know a bit of why that is.”

Ryoka did. Or she had suspicions. Ivolethe changed the subject abruptly.

“Before we think of ways to cure that fool Erin who danced in front of crossbows, let us talk about your failings, Ryoka.”

“Which ones?”

Ivolethe spun. She sniffed Ryoka, pointedly jabbing her in the neck and then plucking at her hair.

“You met a Witch. The Witch of Witches, who has in her nature the same immortality as a Dragon’s get. And you did not instantly run off? You also consorted with Vampires? Oh, the most safest of beings to deal with! And you cured one of their sickness!

She screamed happily in Ryoka’s ear. She was enjoying chastising Ryoka. The Wind Runner was too, a bit.

“I did it for you! You daft cunt!

Ryoka saw Ivolethe recoil. And then the Winter Fae started laughing. So did Ryoka. After a moment, Ivolethe leapt up.

“You could not stay away from immortal folk for two seconds, eh? Well, the Vampire child sounds less dangerous than the Witch.”

That reminded Ryoka. She raised a finger.

“Also a Djinni. Karsaeu-Dequoa wants to tell you that she misses you.”

Ivolethe sighed.

“And we they. Poor slaves, they are. Fine. Ye met some of the old folk and acquitted yourself well. Sometimes.

She raised an admonishing finger as she looked at Ryoka.

“But you don’t have enough caution! You are too weak to survive their wrath, for all you court their amusement and affection! Like a minnow who keeps the company of whales, ye are. For that matter—hm. Don’t take off yer clothes. But turn around. Open your mouth. Stick out your tongue.”

Ryoka blinked. She did, and Ivolethe flitted about her, peering intently. She cried out.

Aha! I knew it! Ye have a thread on ye.

“What? Where?

Ryoka panicked. Ivolethe plucked something. Ryoka shouted.

“My hair!

“Not your hair. A thread. See?”

Ivolethe yanked a strand of hair out of Ryoka’s scalp. It came out with some blood and skin. Ryoka stared at it. It was indeed…thread. It glistened blackly.

“Oh no. Belavierr?”

“Mhm. She must have touched ye. That one lays plans like webs. However—”

Ivolethe briskly drew the thread up. Then she snapped it between her pale hands briskly. Ryoka gasped.

“Ivolethe! Can you do that?”

“Of course I can.”

The thread turned to ice and fell to pieces. Ivolethe drew them up with a pointing finger and blew.

“Return to your mistress with my gift! For my friend’s troubles, have at ye, you stupid Witch!”

 

—-

 

Belavierr the Stitch Witch was at work on the balcony of the Necromancer’s castle when she stirred.

“What broke it?”

Az’kerash felt it too. He stopped his work, warily. He felt a chill coat his entire castle in a second, despite the layers of magical protections.

Dead gods. What? Belav—!

An avalanche of snow poured out of the sky onto the dark castle out of the summer sky. Belavierr raised a hand—

The entire castle was buried in ice.

 

—-

 

“Ivolethe! What did you do?”

Ryoka stared. She had seen the power go through the frozen strands before it vanished. Ivolethe grinned and dusted her hands.

“I told you. I have power, here. I just warned that fool weaver what happens when she interferes with my friends.”

“Won’t you get in trouble?”

“I am already in trouble. Ryoka. Ryoka, Ryoka, Ryoka.”

The Winter Fae took Ryoka’s hands in hers. She looked Ryoka in the eye, the spirit of mischief and…honest friendship there.

“You came to me for aid. You shall have it. I shall break every law I can for you. After all—we are friends.”

Ryoka felt her skin prickling. But her smile was as wide as could be. No holds barred. Not on this day of days.

They were flying about, looking for the visitors from space. Ryoka was talking to Ivolethe about Melidore.

“He hated our world. He came to the party, he said, for nothing.”

“Aye. Do not hold his actions too much against him. I shall beat him until he is bloody, after all.”

“Um. Okay.”

Ivolethe nodded. Her gaze was sympathetic as much as it was annoyed with her kind.

“And he was different, an age ago. He was of one court, not half of the whole. He laughed; he was a merry prankster. He still is one of those things. But your world has made him bitter.”

“My world?”

“The one you came from.”

Ivolethe clarified. Ryoka blinked. Innworld alone had made Melidore the way he was? Ivolethe was nostalgic and playful as she pointed down; Ryoka saw the three Kings from afar, the six aliens—and some of the fae host, all walking through the city. She was sure they’d been untroubled.

“When he was of old? He would have been the party of parties! He loved mortals more than most of our court. Er…just as well he wasn’t his old self, then. In ages past he would have bedded a dozen and put a faerie’s child in all of ye. You would have born them a full year and day and woken with flowers and gifts and no babe…”

Ryoka spluttered. Ivolethe was looking pointedly over her shoulder as she descended.

“What, me? Give me some credit!”

“Are you saying that you would not have been interested had he come to you as such?”

“I have standards!”

“Yes. Mostly for those who live many times your lifespan.”

Ivolethe snorted. Ryoka was beet red as she touched down upon the ground.

“I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant—

“Yes you would. And there would be a new faerie, in those days! You would have woken with gifts in your arms, and—”

Ivolethe’s face abruptly fell as she turned, from a dance into a stumble. Ryoka saw her laughter turn to sadness at once.

“—that was then. We do not have children anymore. None are born to the fae.”

“What? Why?”

“You will see before you go.”

Ivolethe’s smile had vanished. She looked—so sad. Just for a second. Then she turned her head.

“Later. Let us at least meet with this lot. King of Knights! Ryoka wishes to say ‘thank you’ more formally. My kin, we make for the outside.”

“So you intend to defy his will to the fullest, Ivolethe? He will take away your wings.”

One of the Court of the Fae cried out in disgust. They were not always summer or winter, Ryoka saw. They could be more things, here. They regarded Ryoka sternly. She ducked her head guiltily, but Ivolethe just kicked the speaker in a good imitation of Ryoka.

“Bah! You forget yourself, Eniav! You have forgotten what friendship means with mortals! It means—happiness! Passing delights! Breaking rules and burning down cities! Hah!

She laughed wildly as the other fae scoffed. They weren’t the wild partying fae that Ryoka was familiar with. She suspected few of them went to become Winter Fae. Indeed—Ivolethe was the spirit of rebellion and flight among them.

She had never been as silly or capricious as the other Winter Sprites, by the same token. One of them stared at Ryoka with thinly-veiled annoyance.

“If you must do this—”

Ryoka missed the rest. The six travellers led by the commander had come over, anxiously.

“Miss Ryoka. We’ve been talking and we seem to be close to where we started.”

“If we survive the city.”

The orange soldier looked dourly around, his toy-gun abandoned. He looked ready for a fist-fight and his eight-digited fists were probably a better bet. Ryoka indicated the King of Chivalry.

“You’ll be safe.”

“Somehow, I’m sure of that. Which is odd because it makes no sense.”

The commander fretted. She looked—weary. No doubt if they’d been here for eighty days in their perception. She was clearly anxious to return home, but her fear caused her to grab Ryoka’s arm.

“Listen. We came here for a weapon. We’ve lost a Victory Company. Nearly two hundred ships!”

You mean its two hundred ships you put through here?

Ryoka half-screamed. The commander flinched.

“We came here under the assumption our weapons would work. I hope more than I think made it back. But…we need something. Is there nothing we could trade for?”

“You mean, with your weapons?”

Ryoka indicated the cheap plastic. The commander sighed. Ryoka thought. And her travels in this world…her eyes opened wide.

The fae, including Ivolethe, stopped arguing and pulling hair and kicking each other to peer over as Ryoka leaned forwards.

“I have an idea. I can’t guarantee it’ll work but—do you have gold? Synthesizers? Jewels? Treasure?”

“We…do. Or we could procure some. Why?”

The other aliens listened closely. Ryoka pointed. She had multiple people she could have directed them to, but she felt this was fair.

“A little ways in here there’s a…kid with a stick. Don’t go over the wall he has, and definitely beg Arthur to take you. But trade for the stick.”

“A stick.”

The woman said faintly. Ryoka smiled.

“You might see it as something different if you put on your helmet. And it might be a stick—but imagine what it could do to, uh, battleship armor?”

A gleam entered the commander’s eyes. She whirled to her soldiers.

“Communicate with the fleet if we have anyone still at the gate. Get me all the—did she say a basic element?”

“Sounds like it. We’ll get jewels too. Thank you!”

The soldier saluted Ryoka. She hoped it helped. Also—that she was doing a good thing.

“Very smart. You would have been a good person to have in my kingdom. I wish I could take you.”

Ryoka started. She looked around. The boy-squire Arthur looked up at her.

“Your Majesty. Thank you. I think Ivolethe is going to take me away. So we might not meet…”

He nodded and extended a small hand to shake.

“I could not lift the blade yet. I’ll learn swordsmanship. And how to be a King from Merlin, I suppose. I’m not looking forwards to meeting him, from what the others have told me.”

Ryoka peered at the boy. He was earnest, wearing his squire’s tunic—

And old with the knowledge of what is to come.

“I don’t want to destabilize the time-space continuum, sire…”

The commander and her forces turned worriedly. Ryoka ignored them.

“…but are you sure about your decision?”

The young Arthur laughed. He was only ten, but he looked so old—until he laughed. Then he was the boy again.

“I think so. I must. If Camelot is to rise. If Albion is to be saved—I must take up the sword. I see the hour of my death.”

He indicated the old Arthur. The young Arthur Pendragon closed his eyes.

“…But that is a fine thing. Because I can choose it. And I choose to be more good than ill in this world. Is that not a worthy use of a life for anyone?”

He looked up at Ryoka. She knelt.

“Yes. I wish everyone thought like you. It’s just—heavy.”

Understatement of the year. The young Arthur’s lips quirked as the soldiers begged the older two to show them to the child living in the rubble. He watched them go, the shining Caliburn keeping all evil back, and turned to Ryoka. He hesitated.

“Can I tell you something?”

For a moment he was a boy again, anxiously looking at his older selves and standing on tiptoes to whisper. He deserved to be that, so Ryoka knelt and listened.

“Of course, Arthur.”

He nodded and whispered into her ear.

“I don’t like my older selves. They told me everything. My—second self I don’t like the most. He talks about his glories too much. Parties, his accolades. He talks about things like how many women he’s slept with. He says I’ll enjoy it, but it seems…not as important as making sure my people are happy. And when I die—”

The boy shuddered as he stared at the pierced armor, the bloody back of the King. He shook his head.

“It’s not that I fear it. Not…too much. But the old me tells me how I fail. Those around me. Lancelot will hang himself. My wife—Merlin—my son.

He reached out to Ryoka, then controlled himself, squeezing his fists tight.

“I don’t want to make those mistakes. I am not afraid of dying, but failing. The only reason I would not bear the sword is if—someone could not make my mistakes. I wish I could take you—take this knowledge and do it right.”

“So do I. I’m sorry, Arthur. I think we all want that.”

The boy nodded miserably.

“But it’s already done, as you said.”

Ryoka’s heart broke for the boy. She should not have been there. It should have been the [Innkeeper] who would be King. Who might have taken his sword and told him something incredibly stupid like ‘let’s go together, do things right, and break the time space fabric forever! No Killing Goblins! Huzzah!’

But Ryoka was just Ryoka. She didn’t have any giant words of wisdom. Any simple grace. She thought of something to say. And she had a stupid, Ryoka-thought.

She half-smiled and dug around in her bag of holding for something.

“Arthur. I don’t think I can give you something to take with you. And I’m afraid of the…consequences if I could give you a note. But maybe…you could give me something?”

She proffered a square of white cardboard and a quill. The boy blinked at it. Ryoka held them out.

“May I have your autograph, Arthur? So I can show it to people and tell them what you wanted to do wherever I go?”

It was just a silly thing. Ryoka felt embarrassed just as she asked. But Arthur looked—pleased. He glanced over his shoulder at the place the two older Kings had been.

“Don’t you want one from them? They are the King of Chivalry. I’m just Arthur at this moment.”

Ryoka smiled. She didn’t know how to resolve the angst of doomed fate or failure—much less how to be a good friend. But she did know how to cheer a kid up. She shook her head.

“I’m sure it’s worth the most. For here is the boy who could be the King of Chivalry.”

His eyes brightened. And a true smile touched his lips. Arthur took the quill, and dipped it into the inkpot. He wrote on the cardboard.

It could have taken seconds, or hours. He labored on it. When he handed it back, Ryoka saw a splendid signature crossing the page. More artful than mere lettering.

“There you are. It’s not very good. I’m just learning my letters. But it looks nice, doesn’t it?”

Arthur looked up at her anxiously. Ryoka smiled and nodded.

“I’ll treasure it forever. Thank you, your Majesty.”

He beamed at her. Ryoka wondered what Welsh scholars would have made of that handwriting. She neglected to tell Arthur she couldn’t read the signature.

She was saying goodbye when she realized the two other Kings were standing beside her. Both of their arms were folded. Ryoka jumped.

The two Arthurs were staring at Ryoka. Haughtily. Time being what it was—the commander already had a stick and was swishing it about, talking about ‘unknown composite substances’ with her team. The oldest Arthur coughed.

“Have you no need for the signature of the King of Albion, Miss?”

Ryoka hesitated. The boy Arthur looked downcast. Ryoka produced two more cardboard pieces and the quill and inkpot.

“…Can I have one for some friends? Multiple, actually.”

She turned, and winked at the boy. And he laughed. Ryoka reflected that…she really should have waited for the three Wyrm sisters to throw more stuff at her.

She wondered what that handbag had been.

 

—-

 

“You will drive your friend against the king of these lands, Ryoka Griffin. And she will never prevail against his wrath. She has already done too much. Tell her enough.”

After saying goodbye to the King of Chivalry and shaking the hands of each, Ryoka found the fae waiting. Ivolethe was standing apart, arms folded. Ryoka slowed.

“I would—but we’re friends. And she won’t be punished…that much?”

The fae raised their eyebrows. Ivolethe scowled at Ryoka.

“Ignore them. They know nothing of sacrifice!”

“She will not get away lightly. And believe us—even we suffer. Even we die!

A male of the Summer Court warned Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated. She looked back at Ivolethe. Then she grew angry.

“Well, maybe I need help! Ivolethe is going to help me bring back my friend. My friend, who once nearly stole Excalibur from the grave of the King of Chivalry! My friend, who defends Goblins and once led an army of them! Who entertained your kin, sir! Erin Solstice! Remember her name! If you knew her, you would help too and damn the consequences!”

The Kings, the aliens, and the fae blinked as Ryoka pointed back the way she’d come. Ivolethe smiled.

“Sometimes we have to risk our lives. I did so for the chance to meet my friend! Isn’t it right to fight for what is just? When evil comes, will you simply turn away and hide here?”

Ivolethe’s smile vanished. The King of Chivalry hesitated. The young King raised a gauntleted hand.

“Miss Ryoka. I would watch your words.”

A buzzing filled the air. The Court of the Fae’s eyes narrowed. Ryoka blinked as their surprise turned to wrath.

“You dare to accuse us of cowardice? Us?

The Summer Fae hissed at her, his eyes blazing. Ryoka gulped.

“I only meant—this cause—”

“Your petty, mortal cause? A single life? Should we march from our realm and bear arms for your war? Theirs?

The soldiers flinched as a fae furiously pointed, her garments of frost shimmering in the fading day. She spat at Ryoka’s feet and frost bloomed around the spot.

How many times, mortal? How many times should we do so? We have marched ten thousand ten thousand times for your ends of the world. Our kin have sacrificed themselves time and again for mortal friends. Do you think you are the first? We worry for Ivolethe because we fear what she will do for one life!”

Another piece of puzzle at the sudden wrath. Ryoka backed away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She whispered. The angry court of the fae advanced on her—then the wrath ceased, abruptly.

“You did not.”

The frozen fae, Eniav, shook her head slightly. Incredulously. She looked at Ryoka.

“You come from that world and you—no. Go. Go. I pardon you the insult once. Go. And see properly this time. Then, ponder what you ask Ivolethe to do.

Her wrath had faded abruptly. Turning to sadness and realization. The others looked at Ryoka, and pointed.

Go.

They spoke. Ryoka stumbled back. She saw Ivolethe looking at Eniav, nodding her head, as if in thanks for sparing Ryoka.

“Let us go, Ryoka. It is time you saw.”

 

—-

 

The day was coming to its end. And all that had been wrought—began where it ended.

Amid the gateways on the hills. And the blooms among the hilltops.

Ryoka flew back the way she’d come, blurring past the city and leaving all those she had met behind in an instant. And like stories—she realized something had been leading her into the land of the fae only so she could return.

Because the answer had been in front of her the entire time. She had walked past it.

The hills were there. Each one with menhirs, giant primitive stones like Stonehenge. Gateways to another place at the right time.

“The lands of the fae connect to all realms. Well—some gateways break. Some have no magic for them.”

Ivolethe pointed out a hill where the stones had fallen, the portals breaking. Ryoka saw the soldiers in the distance, making for their home. She raised a hand and they did likewise.

“In times long past, all folks came here. This was a place of great meetings. Danger—always danger, but it was so filled that on this day countless hilltops would be alive. Children would stumble deep into the lands of the fae. Travellers likewise! Heroes on great journeys! And even…gods.”

Ryoka jerked at the soft word. Ivolethe held up a hand.

“From other worlds. You understand?”

“I…I think I do. But there’s something I’m missing. This place is a refuge, now. Something terrible has happened. Why are no faeries born?”

“You know. Put it together. Here we are, Ryoka Griffin. As Eniav said. Look and see.”

Where it all began.

The hilltop where Ryoka and Ivolethe alighted was as Ryoka remembered it. And she had noticed something, the first time she looked around.

There were flowers here. In such profusion, in such number as to be incomparable to other hilltops. Now—Ryoka wondered why.

Some hilltops had no flowers. Others? One. Some, and these were rare even among infinity, many.

None with more than here. Here.

A dread understanding filled Ryoka. She looked at Ivolethe. And the flowers she would never, could never, step on.

“See.”

The Frost Fae whispered. And Ryoka—

—Saw.

Solstice (Pt. 7)

And she was back. Nama spoke, insistently.

“Remember what you saw. That’s it. Back. Back and back and…there you are.”

Ryoka stood on the ground of the dirt road. Behind her, the forest lay, perfectly tree-like. No vast world-roots, though. Just trees. Sixty feet high, maybe.

The city lay ahead of her, more like a broken, run-down metropolis. Like…a nuclear wasteland’s version of a city. New York with about a week of anarchy.

The mob of fae were running too, like the Summer Guests, just more insectile. They shouted insults in normal language. Ryoka shuddered.

And here was Nama. The woman held Ryoka another second, then let go.

“There. All better? I didn’t think you’d run into them the first instant. Or you’d be so unwise as to not listen to sense.”

Ryoka hung her head. Then threw up. Nama tsked, and backed away. Ryoka, shuddering, looked at her. She wanted to cut off her feet rather than stand on the ground.

“I saw—the forest! The city! Everything is—”

“No it’s not. You just saw that.”

“I know what I saw. It’s all twisted! It’s all—why were you the same?”

“Why would I not be? You may see me as I am. Not as what your mind makes me.”

Nama smacked Ryoka on the head with the spoon. Ryoka clutched at her ringing skull.

Somehow, that made it better. She looked around.

“Then the forest isn’t a grove of flesh and insects and…?”

“Would I live there if it was? You just saw the worst nature of that lot. They’re not the Summer Court. Or the Winter Court. Tsk, tsk. Now you’ve upset them. You won’t get through the city. The forest it must be. And the winter folk have your scent.”

Nama sighed. Ryoka hung her head. But the hostess just adjusted her apron.

“Come now. I’ll take you. It seems I must. Stop crying and follow me. We can stop at my place for another quick rest. You surely need it.”

She took Ryoka’s hand and led her back into the forest. Ryoka kept looking behind her, fearfully.

“But—was that a Dragon? He was a child, with a stick. And then…”

“Of course he is. A brave child. He must have decided to go there rather than fight with the others for space in the forest, though.”

“But he had a stick—

“I wonder what it was. Don’t you remember? Perception, Ryoka. Perception. What you see is half of reality.”

“And the other half?”

“Actual reality. Now, come along. We had better hope the cold hunters don’t find us. Even I won’t be able to keep you safe.”

Back into the forest. Behind them lay the ruined city. Ryoka looked at Nama.

“What happened? This is the land of the fae, isn’t it?”

“The one with your friend, certainly.”

The woman smiled sadly. Ryoka shuddered.

“But it’s so…what happened here? Why is it so broken? Why is it so empty?

She had seen so few people here. Nama looked at Ryoka, and the answer came to the Wind Runner unbidden. The empty home of her hostess. The city. The young boy—who was also alone, his lair made among the ruins.

They had died.

The lands of the fae had seen tragedy too. The question was: why? How?

The answers lay before her. The Wind Runner followed Nama into the forest. They picked up the pace.

They had to hurry.

Time was running out.

 

—-

 

But an hour had passed since sunset in Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire was dark. The party was ongoing in the village.

Of the special place? Nothing. No one crossed the boundary. Those who had a question for Emperor Laken, or business with any of the nobles, did not seek them out. They were busy. Obviously.

It was as if everyone had forgotten it existed.

A lot of weird things were happening. Not just the gathering of the…guests. Something was up. Worldwide.

Ulvama felt it. She kept staring at the sky. She went around, poking Goblins.

“Up! Up! Get pack! Get ready!”

She kicked Leafarmor and Raidpear, but the Hobgoblins were sitting. In depression. Ulvama made a tsking sound and then rounded on the Cave Goblin in the pot.

“Pebblesnatch! Get ready to go!”

The Cave Goblin said nothing. She was sobbing into her hat. Ulvama stared up at the sky again.

That power! And she felt uneasy at what she had forgotten. The party…? The [Shaman] felt the power of the day. She grabbed Pebblesnatch.

“We leave! Today!”

The Goblins didn’t respond. Grief had overwhelmed them. Ulvama smacked Pebblesnatch on the head, but lightly. The [Cook] didn’t even move.

The [Shaman] stormed back to her tent. She stared at the door, claws clenching and unclenching. It wasn’t open!

But she’d doubled the mana stones. She’d only get one chance—

Something was wrong on the other side. But this was the time when the power was strongest! The [Shaman] cursed, sweating. She wanted to be through. No matter what lay beyond. She stared up at the sky. Then at the shadows.

Anywhere else was better than here.

 

—-

 

“Nearly done. Nearly…”

Aaron was sweating. But he leaned away before the sweat ruined the complex pattern he was tracing.

It wasn’t hard. And it was hard. He was just copying the design Emerrhain was showing him. But that was still intensely difficult, even broken down.

“What am I doing?”

“Hurrying. You must hurry.”

The wise man said. The scholar looked at Aaron and the young man kept tracing on the ground.

“Why?”

“Time is running out.”

The young [Mage], Blackmage, half-nodded as he continued the painstaking work. He thought about stopping. But he did not. He…

Thought about stopping.

 

—-

 

Time was fleeting on this day of days for all. For all of mortality, the world passed by so…slowly.

Yet here, in this place, time was immortal. Seconds became days for those of other ilk. Only on the Solstice did time align. And then—only for other places.

This place in the forest was not a rotten graveyard. Nor beset by wildlife. It was a sanctuary. A place so powerful that the forest around it was peaceful, untroubled by any other, be it beast or person.

Stories. Stories made up this land, for all the stories of late had been so, so sad. Yet all stories flowed through this place.

Avalon.

The sword sat in the stone as it ever had. A blade beyond compare, of immortal make. Waiting for the hand to take it. Not any old sword in the stone, either.

The sword. The stone.

The young woman stumbled into the clearing quite by chance. She was panting. In the distance, for the first time in ages, the sound of battle broke the tranquil forest.

Frost lay on her skin. Behind her, the roar of a great protector battled the howling winds of the coldest foes. The young woman was panting. She saw the sword. The stone.

Three figures turned from their contemplation of the sword. The young woman blinked.

Ryoka Griffin saw a boy, barely ten in age, a young man in his mid-twenties, and a man near fifty turn. Each one was dressed differently.

One, in a squire’s tunic, hair frazzled. The second, in splendid armor, a crown on his head.

The third—armor broken. Blood, mortal wounds covering his body. His crown broken. It didn’t seem to bother him.

The three stood there. And they were all…similar. Hair the same. Features changed by age. But the same.

Ryoka Griffin stared at the sword. Then the men. One of them blinked at her. The oldest man coughed after a second.

“Greetings, stranger. Do you too come for this blade?”

He gestured at…Ryoka stared at the sword. The stone. She glanced over her shoulder. Nama’s battle against the Wild Hunt seemed far away. Each cry stretching out until she stood in a moment between such things.

“Oh no. This can’t be happening.”

She looked at the three-in-one. The sword. The oldest man with the broken crown raised his brows.

“What can’t be happening? Come, traveller. And tell us why the Winter Court hunts you so.”

He beckoned. Ryoka approached, staring, eyes wide. She stared at the boy. He waved at her. The young man looked her up and down. Then he did a double-take.

“…Are your feet bared? What curious customs some people have.”

Of all the—Ryoka gazed at him. Then she looked at the stone.

“No way. Just to be clear—hi. My name’s Ryoka.”

She was panting. She switched through her layers of reality. Mundanity, epic—even horror and despondence. She had the trick of it, now. Each one revealed nothing different.

Sword. Stone. The three. The boy held out a hand.

“Hello. We’re pleased to meet you.”

Ryoka hesitated. She shook the hand, very gingerly, prepared for it to turn into…

It was just a soft grip, soft in nature, the boy’s hands callused by work. The other two instantly held out hands.

“I apologize for my appearance.”

The eldest of them indicated his armor and wounds. Ryoka stared at him.

“Just to be clear. I’m a mortal. I’m just passing through. I—I’m being hunted.”

“You will be, the moment you leave this place.”

The young man nodded amiably. His eyes looked Ryoka up and down.

“Bared feet. But you are mortal, aren’t you? Strange. Few of your kind ever walk here.”

“That’s what everyone says. Look—please don’t mess with me. I’ve been having a bad day. You’re not King Arthur of Camelot, right? Right?”

Ryoka stared at the sword in the stone. She looked up—and the two men bowed.

“I am King Arthur.”

“I am King Arthur.”

“I’m just Arthur.”

The boy offered. Ryoka covered her face slowly.

“No you’re not. This is silly. It’s gone too far. That’s not Excalibur. I’ve gone mad. I drank too much and this is a fever dream.”

The three looked at each other.

“Why is it not? And that isn’t Excalibur.”

“Oh, g—”

“That’s Caliburn. I will wield Excalibur when Caliburn breaks. I prefer this sword. I will have it in my glory, not my fading days.”

The young man pointed at the sword. Ryoka stared at him. Arthur smiled, looking excited for the future. The old King found a seat on the grass.

“It will last a while. But the worst is yet to come.”

The boy and the young man nodded to each other. Ryoka looked around.

“I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“Sit, sit milady Griffin. Time will not bother you here. It does not us.”

Like a knight, the young man and boy refused to sit until she did. Ryoka did, staring at the blade.

“Why are there three of you? What is this?”

“The sword in the stone. Where it always is. I have yet to pick it up. Or rather, I have. I just haven’t pulled it from the stone.”

The boy informed Ryoka, licking his lips nervously. He looked about.

“You see, I needed a sword for my brother who broke his. But I could only find this one. And Merlin—”

“Bastard. He tricked us.”

The old man muttered. Ryoka nearly spat out the stamina potion onto the younger King Arthur. He politely offered her a handkerchief.

“—He told me to take this sword. So I did. Now I’m here.”

“I lost my sword in battle. This was the moment before I returned the blade to the Lady of the Lake for the second blade. Did you say ‘Excalibur’?”

The young man was interested. The old man nodded.

“You will never lose with it. Which does not mean you will not suffer. I am the last Arthur, who releases my burden to Sir Bedivere that he might toss it into the lake.”

He touched at his wounds. Ryoka looked at him. The old Arthur smiled.

“I’m dying. Not a quick death. Long enough for me to order my loyal knight to return what is not mine. You’re going to have to do it three times, by the way.”

“What?”

The younger Arthurs exclaimed at once. The old one rolled his eyes.

“He keeps coming back. But this time is the last. Ere it leaves my hand—that is me.”

He looked at Ryoka. Three Arthurs sat there. She rubbed at her face.

“So you’re the King of Knights. King of Camelot. King of Chivalry and Albion and…that Arthur. Each time you took up or let go of the blade.”

“Exactly. Have you heard of us? Then does the kingdom I must build endure?”

The boy leaned forwards. Ryoka looked at him.

Her mouth worked.

“I don’t understand, though. Why are you here, then?”

“We are all here at once. You see, it is a moment that defines us.”

It was the boy-Arthur who spoke to Ryoka in a lecturing tone. He was as young as he was that day. Ten years old. But Ryoka sensed…

That immortality. That age. He had been here forever. Listening to the other two. He hung his head.

“I confess. I am pondering my fate. It is a terrible decision I must make.”

“As am I.”

“I am not. But I come to tell the other two what may be. Each time. Forever.”

The oldest Arthur nodded at the younger two. Ryoka began to understand.

“So it’s a choice.”

Exactly.

The three nodded as one. The youngest pointed to the sword.

“If I draw it, I will become all you say, Miss…what was your name again?”

He blushed.

“Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin.”

“Yes. Miss. You have an odd accent. Were it not for magic, I would never understand you.”

The young King remarked. Ryoka realized that she heard his meaning—but the real language was incomprehensible. Welsh. Old Welsh, perhaps. She rubbed at her ears.

“I’m from the future. Well—a future.”

“Ah. Well, then you know my story. If you know my name. That gives some meaning to my life. I will have to build a kingdom. And get two stupid Dragons to help me fortify the ground of my castle.”

The youngest Arthur was self-satisfied. He looked at the young King. The oldest Arthur grimaced.

“Merlin will settle it. He tends to do most things—until Morgan gets him. You’ll do fine. Well…but for Mordred. And Lancelot. And…”

The other two looked downcast and he began counting off his failures on his hand. Ryoka shuddered.

“I know your history. Are you saying you do?”

The boy nodded gravely.

“I have been told all of it. I will be a great king. Form an order of knights who will do great things. We will save my kingdom to be, and make it great. But I will fail my wife. My friend. My son will be my end. I will die bitterly. All these things I know. So—I am debating whether to pull out the sword.”

He shuddered. Ryoka saw he believed in his fate. He knew what was coming. Still—the young King-Arthur’s face was set. The old one raised a hand.

“Wait a while. You can still wait. If the burden is too much…”

“If not me, then who? My kingdom will fall to ruin if I do not draw the blade.”

“Lancelot. If I knew…”

The three spoke at once, as if going over an old argument. The young king raised a rueful head and looked at Ryoka.

“You see, the instant I throw the broken blade—I will forget this. Only here, do I have the right to know my future and still choose.”

Ryoka Griffin looked from face to face. She stared at the blade.

“I see. So I’ve interrupted that?”

“You’re a welcome visitor. You see—we do like guests. Come, sit. But do not touch the blade. Our fate will be yours in part if you do.”

The oldest Arthur spoke. Ryoka stared at Caliburn. Then at them sharply.

She had not expected to be here. But—something had drawn her here in the mad flight, when Nama told her to run.

“Wait a second. Have you met…a young woman? Shorter than me? This high—she told me once—”

Ryoka had laughed at Erin, when she confessed about the dream and Ivolethe. Erin herself hadn’t believed it. But Ryoka was suddenly wide-eyed.

Did she touch this blade?

The three Arthurs turned to each other. One stood up, as if to inspect the blade.

“A young woman? Yes. Yes, she did. She came dreaming. She nearly took it out of her dream—but one of the Winter Court stopped her. Just as well. What was she?”

“An innkeeper. My friend.”

The oldest Arthur nodded.

“Then she would have woken as a King. Of…innkeepers. Or just a King. And the terrible fate of ours would be shared by her. In some other way.”

“But she didn’t. Erin was here?”

Ryoka stared about. The other three glanced at each other.

“Are you lost?”

“I’ve been trying to get in. But the Wild Hunt is following me and—this is so strange. You can’t be the Arthur of legend.”

“And why not?”

Ryoka clutched at her head. They were so—normal. Okay, she could see the entrails leaking out of one of them and the sword—but here?

Kindly, one of the Arthurs drew her down.

“Sit, Miss Ryoka. Sit. Time will not touch you here. Even the other fae are respectful. The Wild Hunt will not trouble you. I’ve ridden with them myself. What cause have they to hunt you? Pettiness?”

The young King assured her. Ryoka sat, despairing.

Meeting after meeting. She explained an abbreviated version of why she was here and the three nodded.

“Other worlds. Mine seems so small and insignificant, my kingdom so small at times. Yet—my legacy endures?”

The oldest Arthur turned to Ryoka, greedy for assurances. She hesitated.

“After a fashion, Your Majesty. You see—I don’t know if you ever were on my world. Historically? I’m not sure. But…they tell stories of you.”

“Stories?”

The oldest’s face fell. Ryoka winced.

“That’s all they have.”

“Does Albion not stand in your world?”

“Um.”

Ryoka didn’t want to get into geopolitical events of Earth. But Arthur demanded to know. He raked a hand through his bloodied hair, dislodging the fragments of crown. Then he stood.

“Stories. I commanded the greatest kingdom the world had ever seen. The deeds of my knights struck awe and hope into the hearts of all who heard them and fear into that of all of Albion’s foes! And that is all Camelot…all my kingdom…”

He trailed off, shaking his head. The younger two watched him anxiously. At last, the old King laughed.

“Perhaps that is all I can hope for. My great kingdom was the seed of the next nation. Perhaps—stories are enough of a legacy for any man. So long as they remember chivalry and honor, let it endure.

He reached for the sword. Ryoka felt a chill at those grave eyes, the sad smile. The oldest King turned to the others.

“I will not change my mind. That is for you two to decide.”

Ryoka felt so sorry for this man—who had a rough life despite all his triumphs. She longed to say something, but she didn’t feel she belonged here.

And yet—the three seemed glad of her presence. The young man frowned.

“If not me, then the burden will fall to someone else. I only wonder if I am the right one for this blade. If there is a better king—let them take the sword.”

“There are many. We are reflected across many stories. Or so the fae claim. And Merlin. But they’re tricky and he is a liar. I hate Merlin.”

The oldest Arthur sighed. The young King nodded, a touch uncertainly. Ryoka wanted to take notes. She had no notion that Arthur had ridden with the Wild Hunt. Or was it alluded to in some story? And Erin was here? Well, there were stories of mortals walking the worlds in dreams. Even so—and Erin had just grabbed the sword. Typical.

“I bet I couldn’t even pull that damn thing if I tried, but my friend got it out.”

The other Arthurs chuckled. The young King leaned over conspiratorially.

“You see, it’s actually not hard. Anyone can do it. It’s a twist of the wrist as you pull.”

“What? No way. Really?

“Yes, I’m joking.”

King Arthur laughed at her dumbfounded expression. The old man and young King fell over themselves laughing and back-slapping while the boy gave Ryoka a long-suffering look of sympathy. Clearly, Arthur changed from time to time.

…Presently, they calmed down. It seemed this was their fate. When they drew the blade, they would rise once more to their fates. It was just this reflection of them that remained, to know all and choose forever.

It sucked. But that was the kind of thing old stories loved. Ask Sisyphus. Actually—if Ryoka met him, she’d break that stupid boulder. She doubted it, since it was the wrong mythology, but she’d always felt bad for him. And Prometheus.

“I think I have to go. Nama—my protector—is helping me go in. And she might get hurt. They found us, you see.”

“Mm. I don’t know the whole of it, but it seems a young woman such as yourself does not deserve the Faerie King’s wrath. He can be…capricious. Although I have heard he has lost his wife.”

“Er…she might have run off with a mortal again. She did it once, I think. There may be a story about that?”

The old Arthur coughed. The boy turned red as the young King rolled his eyes.

“And Guinevere is going to do the same? Wonderful. Maybe I won’t draw the blade.”

“It’s your fault. I mean, mine. And Mordred. If only we could undo it. Try to remember.”

The oldest Arthur seized the younger one, caught for a moment by fresh emotion. The younger one nodded, trying desperately to fix the knowledge in his memory that history might change.

What tragedy. Ryoka looked away for a moment and then had a thought.

“Listen. Guys. I don’t know if this is right to say…but maybe I can clear up your dilemma?”

The three Arthurs turned, eagerly.

“How so, Lady Griffin?”

Ryoka flushed at the attention.

“Well…there’s this thing called the time traveller’s paradox. Basically, if one of you is from the future, then he’s already done everything that leads up to him going back in time. So…there’s no point deliberating because you’ve already chosen. It’s…basic…logic…”

She trailed off lamely. The three were staring at her. And all three were glaring.

“If she’s my descendants of descendants or what humanity looks like after my reign, maybe I won’t pull the sword out. What’s the point?”

The boy kicked a clod of grass. Ryoka lifted her hands.

“Look, guys. It’s just logic—”

“Have you learned nothing? Logic matters little with such things here. I am choosing. And right now, I’d rather a drink.”

The young King leaned on the stone grumpily. Even the old one looked annoyed. Arthur gestured at the stone.

“I could choose not to. Even now. Even from whatever time you come from, Ryoka Griffin.”

She smiled, half-uncertainly.

“Yeah, but if you did—”

“I could choose not to.”

And then there was silence. Ryoka Griffin and time froze uncertainly as King Arthur stood over the stone. He looked at her. Her tongue was stuck in her teeth.

“I’m…I’m going to go. Sorry. Very sorry. I annoy everyone. Please pull out the sword. I’ll just…”

She walked backwards to the very edge of the clearing. Until time began to follow her, also running from that eternal moment. Also, kicking her in the back of the head for nearly unmaking reality as they knew it.

The two Kings and the squire looked after her. Slowly, they looked at each other. Murmuring. Ryoka turned.

“I’m sorry. I just want to find my friend. And I don’t want Nama or anyone else to die. Thank you—I’ll remember meeting you forever.”

She turned away. Knowing she would and wishing she could speak longer. Longer…she heard a voice calling out after her.

“Miss Ryoka!”

Arthur the squire stood by the sword in the stone. He shook his head.

“I’m but a boy. And he is a dying old man.”

He gestured at the old man, who glowered at the youngest Arthur. The boy returned the gaze, steadfast. The last King Arthur spoke.

“But I am the Arthur of your stories. You say they tell stories of me?”

“They do, King of Camelot!”

She shouted, tears springing to her eyes as he smiled by his terrible burden. The King nodded, pleased.

“—Then. Chivalry is not dead. Nor will it ever be. Nor is it now.

She didn’t know what he meant. But then she saw the young man reach down. His crown shone golden. His armor gleamed.

He drew Caliburn from the stone. And raised it high overhead.

The world went still. Ryoka stared as the young man strode towards her. No—

King Arthur Pendragon. He held the blade aloft as the other two remained. Walking out of the clearing, into the forest consumed by a winter’s storm. Fearless. He saluted Ryoka as he walked.

“I have never left a maiden in distress. Nor do I fear the Winter Court. Come, milady. Let us find your friend and rescue your great protector.”

He offered her an arm to rest upon, in the fashions of old. Ryoka Griffin stared at him. She stared at the arm. She edged away from the arm, but then she bowed.

“Are you sure?”

The King of Chivalry smiled. He stepped beyond the glade and was engulfed in winter. Ryoka’s skin froze—the world became a howling snowstorm without direction.

The winter fae were everywhere. Great shapes; wolves of the end time bounding about the lone figure in the blizzard. Somehow, she was keeping them all back. Ryoka threw up an arm as her body turned to ice in front of the wind—

But the light of Caliburn protected her. The winter fae spotted her and the warrior in icy armor charged at her, lifting the blade no one had matched.

He did not see the young King until it was too late. Did not expect any foe but Ryoka. The blade swung up—and the winter warrior’s blade was blown backwards. The ringing sound halted the other figures in the blizzard. They turned as one, and saw the light.

Caliburn swung down, and the blow sent even the faerie king’s champion stumbling back. The King of Chivalry shouted, and knocked aside an arrow made of hoarfrost as it sped at Ryoka’s chest. He blurred as he whirled the sword around and the Wild Hunt charged him—and fell back.

Ryoka saw it now. It was a sword and an idea. It was a kingdom, the kingdom made then, and in the future, when the Once and Future King returned to reclaim his lost kingdom, when his subjects needed him most.

It was all those things. To break it, you would have to break all those things at once. And the immortal skill of the fae—King Arthur turned in the howling winds and locked blades with another warrior of the Wild Hunt.

The fae was pressed backwards. The man laughed. He had all the knowledge of his life, before and after! In this place—he looked at Ryoka as Caliburn’s light forced the others back.

I’ll return it in time. But unless the Winter Court would try to slay the King of Knights, let them flee!

He laughed into the storm as he advanced and the fae fell back. Ryoka saw Nama waving her spoon amid the snow and vast figures. She stared at King Arthur’s back.

Fairytales. Ryoka Griffin stumbled forwards as winter drew back. The King charged alone and scattered an army before him.

For the King of Innkeepers who will never be! For honor time and time again!

She would have followed him forever. But he was doing this for her. Ryoka turned as someone clutched her arm. Nama pointed.

In! In! We are not far now.

They ran, past trees and figures who poked their heads out of the trunks themselves—they were trees! Nymphs? Ryoka saw a few denizens of the forest come alive, wondering. The King of Chivalry was a sight even here. They stared at Ryoka.

“More mortals, today?

Her head turned, but the gawking Dryad was just there a moment.

They ran and ran. And on this day of days, this day, amid meetings both foul and fair, as the faerie king’s warriors tried to keep her from breaching his will—

Ryoka Griffin ran out of the forest. Out of the second layer of the realm of the fae and deeper still. She heard the distant horns fading. The clash of blades disappear.

In.

Solstice (Pt. 6)

“hEy, WhAt’s WRoNG?”

The thing holding Ryoka’s arm bubbled. A clicking, jittery mass of flesh wobbled, gripping her other arm.

!!$GH -^*(@!

It made a sound that screamed in her ears. She had already begun screaming.

“don’T yOU wANT to CoMe iN?”

The first asked. Ryoka looked ahead and saw.

The vast, insectile hive bloated itself on the corpse of the building. Layers of wax and skin and detritus had built up, the product of such things overflowing again and again. Each dark charm she had taken for windows revealed itself now, gaping holes by which things stared down at her.

Each one salivating, each figure twisted as the first. They gibbered and clicked and beckoned, mimicking the acts of friends as they led her inside.

For one moment she caught a glimpse of what lay beyond. She saw what had been tables and chairs and dining utensils to reveal themselves to her in all their gruesome truth. Eyes stared at her from beyond twisting forms which scrabbled themselves forwards with such intensity and longing that they made her sick.

Flesh scraped against the ground as it pulled itself forwards. Inside, she saw twisted forms, grasping hands, the only logical shapes in the world—like hers—

Upon the tables. She gazed at the two holding her and screamed once more.

“s%$h33 ^!)Nvs.”

They realized she saw them at last. The buzzing grew louder. Ryoka tore free, leaving part of her skin behind in one of their grasps.

She turned to run, and the hive exploded with shapes. They oozed from the windows, poured out of every opening imaginable. Calling for her to come back, come back!

Join us. She ran, screaming, as the wind, which had muted itself due to the power of this group, now howled, trying to pull her free. But they were still—

Fae. And the wind tore at her. Their fingers pulled at her. Be with us. Become us. Feed us. Let us v$#H!d with you—

Ahead of her, the wall stretched ever higher. How had she bypassed it so easily? The figures could not get past it—nor could she.

Ryoka ran left, down a street, pounding ahead as the shapes poured after her. She looked back and saw how they did not fit this—

She nearly vomited from the sight of them but kept running. Their natures slowed them, but they didn’t move right. They slipped across the ground, across the walls of the ruined buildings, through cracks—

Run!

She heard the roar. But she feared what the Dragon was, too. Was this the reality? Was Ivolethe…?

She had not gone far into the city, or so she thought. Ryoka ran past a broken light, beholding it now in truth; an empty sac, the glowing mucus spilled. The streets were flesh! There were eyes between the cracks!

The sky was watching her. Beyond the curvature of the world, it stared down at her. Ryoka screamed and ran and ran and—

The forest was no better. She halted as she left the outskirts of the city and beheld the trees. It was crawling from everything! Tiny pieces of the trees and leaves scuttled around. She had walked through them! Ryoka saw the mob following. No! No! She ran towards the trees since she had no choice.

“i hAvE y—”

One of them caught her. Ryoka saw the mouth open and open and open a third time as the head unfolded. She shrieked—

Foul things!

The spoon descended and smacked the fae off her. Ryoka saw Nama stride forwards and the gibber—the creature of—

The round, furry woman waved her spoon around and the horde of things halted. Ryoka stared at her.

“N-Nama?”

“I heard the little one roaring. You fool! Why did you not heed him? And why are you looking like that?

The woman turned. The figures lunged—she smacked one and it screamed. The spoon raised like the wrath of cutlery and the entire horde…retreated?

Back, into the city. Ryoka Griffin saw the ground itself slithering back around—

Enough of that. Look at me.

Two furry hands seized Ryoka. She cried out, struggling against what she knew was—

“Look at me.”

Ryoka—

Blinked.

Solstice (Pt. 5)

The fae’s voices faltered. The chanting slowed.

Begone. Be—

Even some of the mortals had joined in. But they stopped as the rotting figures revealed themselves. Yet even then—

The first of them crossed the boundary into the party.

It had been the bearded man. The leader of all. He reached for Laken.

I will not be kept away by word.

He reached through the invisible barrier, as if…following…an opening. And the others slipped through after him.

Suddenly, the shadows were among the party. The fae cried out, and their voices were filled with horror.

 

They enter! How?

Begone! Be—flee the touch!”

 

Flickering shapes. Tyrion tore away from Laken and drew his sword. He ran for Jericha, who blasted magic at—

At what? Not even shadows. Just flickering thoughts. Voices. Ideas, that squirmed towards all those living here.

And the four of them, kindred, but still distinct, advanced on the fae, the guests.

Laken. Their arms were outstretched. Mouths open, begging, reaching for food, touch. Naught but rotting corpses now, revealed in the light.

Remember me—

The sword cleaved through one of the four. The warrior of summer hacked down, and the dancing man stumbled. But just like Melidore’s challenge—one second, the figure was falling, bisected—the next, reaching for the summer fae, who moved smoothly back out of range.

The six warriors were in motion! They drew their weapons and hacked at the four, the shapes. The other fae had drawn weapons as well.

The Satyr had the branch. Sikeri spat something into the shadows and Silver Pine struck down a flickering shape. Tyrion heard a shriek. Then a voice.

 

“Warriors. To arms! Nothing has dared to enter this place. On this day. So nothing dies.

 

Melidore. He drew the shining blade and even the four stepped back. Suddenly, the fae had drawn weapons. The Summer Court advanced upon the shadows as the mortals formed an inner ring. The fae snarled, lashing out at the shadows.

The warriors of the faerie king and Melidore advanced upon the four. And now—now—Tyrion, warding his sons, saw true battle.

The glorious huntress was first. She drew a blade that hurt his mind to comprehend. The dancer, likewise. Figures, half-seen, moved around the aged woman, protecting her and assailing the fae.

Melidore struck at the leader, and was blocked. The fae warriors, who had been peerless in skill, struck and parried blows.

And they were equally matched against their foes. The four visitors fought with the same grace. The same immeasurable skill.

…But one side was rotten. One side was—

Again, a blade severed the huntress’ arm. She cried out—and in the next second, the moonlight fae was stepping back. He had cut her. But neither blood nor body remained so. The huntress attacked, and Tyrion could not tell who was winning. The fae, who had not been touched, or the…thing…which showed no wounds.

The fae did not let them touch even a hair of their forms. Melidore snarled as he struck the bearded leader a blow and was rewarded with a cry of pain.

Actual pain. The shadows rippled.

And yet—Tyrion saw fear in the eyes of summer.

Fear and hatred. The shadows danced closer.

 

—-

 

She walked, weeping, among the broken city.

Once, she knew, this had been a place where legends dwelt. First had come those who settled here, in splendor, from every world and place and time.

Invited by the Faerie King. They had erected edifices fit for them. At some point, it had been a competition.

See from whence I hail. See what glories my world contains. See what will endure past even my comings and goings.

It had begun so small. She saw it, some history revealing itself to her unspoken. First had come the guests, and a great competition. A gathering that would last beyond their transient visits.

They had erected this city in honor of the fae, and in the glorious first days, the Summer and Winter Courts and all nature of fae had danced with the otherworlders. This glorious place had been the bazaar between worlds. A crossroads by which all might enjoy.

She passed by a broken building whose glass was so sharp that a single cut of a single broken pane lying on the ground would have never been healed. She walked past statues faded, their homages to great rulers and places lost.

Time had not wrought this. Time alone could not. Not here, in this place. To look upon some of these buildings, materials that would not ever fade or break—was to realize that something else had broken the buildings like rubble.

Loss. Neglect. The stream of visitors had slowed. The lives that had lit up this place abandoned it.

Something terrible had occurred. So terrible that the countless worlds ceased to pour hence. Then, this city had become what she saw.

A memorial of glory. The Wind Runner walked across it.

The silence was vast.

The city changed with each street. Hinting at what marvels must have been.

There was a terrible allure to it now, broken as it was. A different kind of beauty.

But not one that she could revel in.

She was being watched. The Runner shivered, and wished for the forest.

But everything had changed. And she feared to enter the forest once more. To call Nama’s name and see the true sorrow of her house. The two framed pictures that were not pictures.

Loss.

Ryoka was rounding a corner when she heard…voices. They came from a ruined building. A street with more life in it than many others.

In the distance, a building blazed with light against the sudden dark. A perpetual gloom infested this city. There could never be glorious sun here. Not amid tragedy. Ryoka saw, ahead of her, figures entering and leaving…

“A pub?”

Perhaps. A tavern, an…inn…

Just a building. A timeless structure, where all peoples came to mix and mingle and rest. Ryoka stumbled towards it, down another worn street, past buildings in disrepair. One had all but collapsed, and she saw, in the distance…

People. Some of them were singing. Others talking. A few walked in circles, as if confused. Just…passing time. Many more lay inside. Ryoka longed for someone to talk to her, for directions. She realized she’d have to pass by the ruined building, part of which blocked the street, to get to the pub.

It was so bright and alluring. Ryoka stared at the windows; they looked like there were hundreds, each one a glowing pane exposing the lovely refuge. An inn. Perhaps she might find…?

She was trying to climb over the rubble blocking the street. It was piled high, but there was a route leading up across the slope. A steep drop on the other side, she realized. Like a wall. Had someone done this? She saw the neatly-assembled rubble a second before a figure rushed at her out of the dark.

Intruder! Begone! Begone, I say!

A figure ran at her. Ryoka whirled. Nama had given her no weapons, just the foot wraps, but she had hinted Ryoka had useful items. The Pepperspray potion was in Ryoka’s hand. She had uncorked it to toss in the face of—

The little boy charged at her with the stick. His clothes were ragged, his face and body dirty. His ears were slightly pointed, but his face was twisted in surprising fury as he waved the stick at her.

Ryoka stared. She raised the potion—then held up a hand.

“Hold up. I don’t want to hurt you!”

The boy halted. He squinted at Ryoka suspiciously.

“Hurt me? You—intruder! Begone before I tear you limb from limb!”

He swished the stick menacingly at her. Ryoka raised an eyebrow. She had not expected this. But whoever he was, the street urchin’s seeming failed to alarm her.

“Look, kid.”

How dare you! What are you doing here, you, you—mortal?”

The boy did a double-take. He squinted at Ryoka. Then his jaw dropped.

The stick lowered, to the relief of no one but perhaps the stick. The boy blinked at Ryoka.

“A mortal? Here? After so long? Are the gates open? Hath the Faerie King’s great grief lifted? Her Majesty returned?”

Hope lit up his eyes. Ryoka blinked. Like Nama—she had the definite impression this boy was something else, but she couldn’t tell what it was.

“What? No, no. I just came here for the Summer Solstice.”

The boy tilted his head. His glittering eyes turned shadowed at once.

“Oh. An intruder. So it was you the Winter Court seeks with such passion.”

He grumbled, kicking at a stone. Ryoka saw it fly past her head.

“Watch it, brat.”

“Call me ‘brat’ again and I will kill you, eat you, and shit your remains upon my home for trespassers to find.”

He warned her, raising his stick. Ryoka’s jaw dropped slightly. That was a hell of an insult for a kid. Was he a kid?

“Well, you look like one to me. Sorry…young man? How old are you?”

Old! Older than you!

His voice wobbled uncertainly. Ryoka raised one eyebrow.

“Uh huh.”

She was put in mind of Sammial Veltras at once. But the boy was young and old. He regarded Ryoka for a moment then snorted.

“A mortal. Well, if you must pass my lair, do so! I have no wish to deal with frost or a lone mortal on this day. You may pass, mortal, for the novelty of it.”

He pointed, bowing slightly and glancing up at her. Ryoka hesitated.

“…Thanks kid. So I just go over…?”

She pointed at the wall. The boy was immediately furious again as Ryoka climbed towards the pub.

Kid? How dare you! You insolent—do you know who I am? And where are you going? That wall is there for a reason!”

Ryoka turned her head. Then rubbed at her ears. Was that a faint…hum beneath his words? Or from somewhere else? She pointed at the distant building all aglow.

“I’m trying to go in. By which I mean—”

“I know what you mean! Wrong way, fool! And don’t go over that wall!”

A tug at her arm. Ryoka nearly overbalanced. The boy dragged her back with surprising strength. She pointed.

“But the pub’s…there. See?”

Ryoka tugged at one ear absently. The boy stared at her. Then at the pub. His jaw actually dropped.

“Are you stupid or something? You want to go there?

He pointed at the shining building. Ryoka gazed at the distant revelers. She shaded her eyes.

“Those are fae, right?”

They looked like the Summer Court. The boy nodded slowly.

“Surely.”

“Then that’s where I want to go. It’s an inn…”

“Of kinds. But you do not want to go there, surely.”

“Yes, I think I do. Look, kid. I’ll just climb over and—”

“Do not!”

He was urgently tugging her backwards now. Ryoka knew something was…off. The kid? There were no kids she’d seen before now, which told her he was someone else. Like Nama. But the inn was so inviting. So warm amid this city.

“You’re staring at it. Look away!”

“I am. See?”

She felt like the inn was the most beautiful thing she had ever wanted. Like she was a…a…moth.

“No, you’re not. Don’t climb over that—”

Ryoka climbed over the wall and wandered across the ruined street towards the inn as the voice became a buzzing in her head. The fae loitering around outside blinked as she approached.

“Hoi there! A stranger to dine and pass the time away with us? Come in! Come in, on this day!”

One called out, laughing. Another was puking outside, holding a wall for support. Normal pub behavior, in short. They waved at her cheerily—then, like the boy—did double-takes.

A mortal? It cannot be!

Jaws dropped. Ryoka waved, smiling.

“Hi. Sorry, I’m just passing through. I’m on my way in, you see—and I was hoping for directions. Is this an inn? Could I come in?”

She saw them glance at each other. Then laugh.

“A mortal comes on the longest day! And she makes it all the way here and asks to enter? Yes! This is an inn. Of sorts. Come in, come in!”

They giggled strangely, drawing Ryoka towards the building. She stopped to admire it. Behind her—the little boy was howling insults.

Fool! Idiot! Get back here!

He was standing on his little barricade, waving the stick. The fae chuckled. The sound was like buzzing in her ears. Actually…Ryoka rubbed at her left ear absentmindedly.

“You know yon angry one?”

“The kid? Yeah, he nearly hit me with his stick. You know him?”

“He guards his place, as do we. We do not bother him. ‘Tis a fearsome stick!”

“Yep. Why are you here in this broken city, though? Are you of the Summer Court? Is this where they are? I was told they were in.”

They laughed at this. More came out of the glowing building, and some opened the many glass windows to stare and point at Ryoka. The two fae who’d first spotted her nearly fell on the ground, they were laughing so hard.

“Them? We’re far from as grand as they are! No, we stay here to pass the time. We haven’t the heart to go in. But if you want directions, we’ll show you! Come, come. We’re eating. You may drink and eat with us as a favored guest!”

They were drawing her towards the door. Ryoka smiled giddily. But her ears kept…they were ringing. With the boy’s invocations. And…the buzzing.

The buzzing. That had been in her ears since she’d spotted the inn. Ryoka shook her head as she gazed at the many windows. At the fae.

“Hold on. I’ve already had something to eat and drink. A lot, actually. If you could just show me to where I want to be, that’d be great. Which way’s in?”

“Come into our home and we’ll show you. Come on, just a few more steps.”

The fae encouraged her. Ryoka hesitated. The boy was screaming.

You stupid brat yourself! You deaf, daft mortal! Don’t you see? See, you idiot! See! By my kin, I command you! Look!

Ryoka Griffin blinked. Something—the nature of his voice—she wavered. The buzzing was so loud. But beyond it—she heard the boy’s voice. What had he said? Kin? She heard—

A roar. So loud and vast. But she had heard a similar voice before. Ryoka’s head turned. She—

She saw a Dragon. His wings were vast and golden, but covered in the grime of this place. His den, the broken shell of a great structure. Behind her, the wall rose higher than any wall or structure humanity had ever conceived. He roared again.

“Look! Look!”

The young Dragon howled as he breathed golden flame. Ryoka turned and—

Faltered.

Solstice (Pt. 4)

Chrysanthemum’s subtle scent blew upon the halting wind. A breeze which moved between the dappled light, spotted shadows traced beneath the sky of branches.

Green eyes, like the leaves of the very trees she stood underneath, opened. The young woman’s torn clothing ruffled in the breeze. A splatter of dried blood rendered scentless stained her upper sleeve, beyond which recently-mended flesh lay, like a pale scar between her royal blue tunic, sewn together and mended with the sigil of House Veltras in patterns around the edges.

Ryoka Griffin felt the wind shift her raven-dark hair and looked around to see an aged wall of bark in front of her. Wonderingly, she put her hand out and felt at the rough texture. The bark flaked away in her grasp.

“Strange.”

She murmured, her voice slightly husky in the changed air. The changed world. The young woman studied the tree’s trunk. Then she looked around.

What had before been a small clearing in the forest had changed without sound, only in perception. A vast trunk lay in front of Ryoka, akin to a wall of wood. She stared at it. And realized that what had been before a tree was now—

The world’s tree stretched upwards, so vast it had a beginning and no end. The roots she could have run across, stumbling, scraping at her knees, feeling the rough bark of countless ages ascending upwards.

The tree towered beyond the limits of her vision. High overhead, leaves so vast as to be rooftops of their own betrayed the false sky with faint points of light.

And the branches continued to stretch across the sky. Reaching out, and then tangling with…

Other branches, like a spider web across the forest’s ceiling. Ryoka gazed upwards and a flash of insight revealed the truth: this was but one tree in a forest.

And yet, the one tree encompassed more than she had beheld the moments prior. The young woman started, and her heart caught in her throat, adding a wobbling cadence to her next words.

“I—what happened?”

A slight exhalation of breath. Then she turned and saw how the land beyond lands had altered.

The ring of fungi had altered markedly as well. What had been slightly discolored, ordinary whitecaps or some other form of indigenous fungi had sprouted higher. Until Ryoka could safely walk under the vast caps of reds and violets, gaze upwards at the lines of the mushroom’s growth.

And see life, where life had not been before.

A profusion of webs caught her eye, scintillating lines of glittering silk spun with dewdrops and the remnants of prey. The young woman reaching out to touch the uneven mushroom’s stalk snatched a hand back.

For she saw the glittering eggs lining the trunk. And overhead, the interior webs splayed about the inside of the mushroom’s cap, eaten into the half-rotten vegetation.

Spiders, not Shield Spiders but of a stranger variety still, stared down at her. Hanging from strands of silk, some as large as her head.

Tens of thousands. The largest of them began to creep downwards and Ryoka leapt away from the fungi, a curse on her lips. She stumbled forwards—foot striking a shard of pain from a buried rock—

Into the heart of the faerie circle of mushrooms. The young woman halted as the wind blew again, catching an unwary foot as it drifted downwards. The tug was fierce and insistent, a physical barrier of air which resisted and pushed her back.

To safety. For Ryoka Griffin saw the grass had grown wild, in profusion, bearing plentiful, fat seeds, among wild flowers and plants of every nature.

No weed but grew in this forest, as there was no great gardener. Already, Ryoka had felt the prickling of weeds; a nettle’s faint kiss which made her swear and adjust her posture.

“What happened? This wasn’t here a moment ago.”

The confusion tangling her thoughts did nothing to change the reality she now found herself in. Indeed, Ryoka believed this circumstance more than that of a second ago. A second kiss of another nettle made her reach for the emergency boots she carried in her bag of holding.

Ryoka sat on the grass of the faerie circle, applying a balm which soothed the biting itch and at the same time put on socks and the enchanted boots she had taken from the Archmage’s mansion.

The worn leather was a tad bit too large for her and left room on her feet—but it was preferable to standing on the grass. She had used it to run over stone and rock, and Hedault had claimed they would be proof against the thickest of thorns. A wise investment to keep them, Ryoka reflected in that moment.

Still, the City Runner’s eyes were roaming the glade nonstop. Now she stood below a single tree, and this circle of mushrooms, however vast and home to inclement life, a footnote before the tree itself.

Life chittered around her, creeping spiders which she hastily stood up to avoid contact with, forest beetles, and, climbing the lesser trees craving for light, squirrels and other mundane animals.

Even there, though, Ryoka espied a difference. One of the squirrels turned a multi-faceted eye, yet still flesh rather than chitin, at her. Eight eyes where one should be. It was as long as her arm minus the ragged tail, and it regarded Ryoka as a possible foe, rather than danger. She backed up—

And the wind blew her foot back. This time the City Runner’s stunned mind focused on what lay beneath.

An egg. It was ovoid, glittering. The translucent membrane faintly orange crossed with strands of green and turquoise. A large egg, to make no mistake of it; as large as a stomach, or perhaps a basketball, half-sunken into a depression in the ground.

It lay perfectly in the center of the faerie ring. And Ryoka, backing up now, realized that the spiders, wildlife, all avoided the grass around this spot for about six feet. The wind had twice protected her from stepping on it.

For good reason, it seemed. The egg lay at a natural ley line between the mushrooms, which were so evenly spaced as to be unnatural, for all they had grown with the perfect randomness of nature.

The mushrooms were not in themselves anything perfect; for all they were vast titans to the normal fauna. Some were half-rotted. And Ryoka suspected each were infested by the arachnid populations, which consumed local wildlife, and no doubt cannibalized each other.

But through the imperfection of the component parts had come this ideal spot. And into it—the potentiality had begat life. Either that, the Wind Runner thought, or this place has sprung into being around this very egg.

She gazed into its depths and saw a shape forming within the translucence. If she had dreamt of a winged shape, or some sparkle of a glorious being, the Wind Runner was disappointed.

But only just. The budding spider glowed. With the same vividness of existence that Melidore had, a kind of supernatural aura below the skin that Ryoka sensed, by virtue of her own understanding of immortals.

To summarize then: she backed away slowly, feeling the building hostility in the caps of the faerie ring towards her. If she had stepped unwisely, it would have been her last gesture, she knew.

The wind had saved her from disturbing this spider. Its lesser kin had built nets around it, perhaps as a form of worship. Perhaps to be consumed, or led to some glorious future when it was born.

A single spider’s egg. Ryoka could not fathom what the adult of it would be—or if it had ever walked this world. All she knew was that as she hurriedly stomped out of the faerie’s ring, she crushed spiders covering the grass, and began to run before the adults took further umbrage at her intrusion.

A faerie ring. Trees so vast each one could have been a world’s tree in my world. Ah, I see it now.

The Wind Runner caught her breath sixty meters away from the ring of mushrooms. More strangeness; she felt the stitch in her side more keenly now. A sharp, ragged bit of pain.

She had not felt such in her flight from the Wild Hunt before. Nor, Ryoka realized with another gasp of insight, had she perceived the distance she’d crossed in any quantifiable form.

Here, she did, in every step across mottled grass, over more thistles her boots protected her from. She was realer in this place than before.

She had run past countless trees of the same ilk she stood under. Thus; she had no doubt crossed leagues upon leagues in her other perception.

“Perception is the key. Drink me. Alice in Wonderland syndrome.”

The Wind Runner chuckled to herself. Of course. Faerie rules. Alice in Wonderland syndrome, like the story it was based off of—and Ryoka’s experience to some degree—was when someone perceived things as being larger and smaller than they were.

Extend that metaphor to her current condition and Ryoka’s hypothesis was that she had shifted everything, not just her sense of scale. The humble trees had been here, instead of the forest a moment ago. Or…had they truly been so humble?

Questions without answer. The City Runner walked on, shuddering and brushing off a hanging spider from her sleeves. She could not say whether this was better, in truth. Now, she keenly felt she was in a forest without end, such that her only hope did not lie in simply running as far as she could. Even in this place, she would take countless days to find the edge, even if she retraced her steps.

Could she shift her viewpoint once more? The Wind Runner tried, but she did not quite fathom how she had done it to begin with. Perhaps it was unconscious. Or perhaps—

A noise stopped her, a rumbling susurration of vast lungs within the forest. It was so intense a sound that the spiders went silent, the other wildlife quieted, and Ryoka Griffin herself felt her heart stop in her chest, a flash of panic overwhelming her other senses and thoughts.

What was that sound? She glanced about her—and then saw the beast which had uttered the noise.

It was, naturally…the rabbit. But what had been a mere white rabbit, small, without noticeable detail was now…

A vast, raggedly-furred creature stared down at Ryoka. A torn ear near the left’s tip, brambles and thorns caught in the pelt of the lord of rabbits. Some ancient beast with eyes far too intelligent and cunning for a regular animal.

Teeth, as it yawned, that could tear her apart in a single bite. Its passage through the forest had left countless burrs and other markings on its fur, but a lance would have hardly penetrated its body.

It regarded Ryoka, slightly unkindly, but with indifference. She gulped and halted in her tracks, her bowels suddenly urging her to walk behind a tree.

She was too afraid to move. Ryoka’s flippant comment the moment before dried her mouth.

“I—I—I’m sorry if I offended you. Lord Rabbit?”

She felt as though this beast were not an animal, but akin to something far greater. At least it could have eaten Carn Wolves for breakfast. She saw one vast eye open, and the brown sclera, in itself a tapestry of complex biology, regard her for a second. She saw the untorn ear flick, and the great thing heave itself to its feet with a sigh.

Granted, mortal.

The rabbit spoke. Ryoka felt her jaw drop; she had expected intelligence. Not vocalization. She saw the muscle and fur ripple—then it launched itself from its hindquarters.

The lord of rabbits or whatever it was, leapt out of sight. Bounded off a trunk—and vanished. The leap was so fast that the passage of air made her stumble. She felt the impact; caught herself, whirled—

And it was gone.

“I—buh—that was—did I—?”

Stupefied, the young woman stared at the flattened bit of grass. Then around at the forest of the fae. She felt grateful for having met whatever she had met. Then—terribly uneasy. She heard a chittering and realized that she had benefitted from more than one way by the white rabbit’s presence.

It had staved off the wrath of the spiders. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder as a wave of multi-faceted legs and eyes surged towards her. Shield Spiders and these magical ancestors alike. She ran, heart and legs pumping.

 

—-

 

The strobing pattern of lights was growing harder to watch from the ritual. It seemed as though countless conceivable spells were melding together to form one complex, unknowable effect.

That was how it appeared to the Blighted King, Othius the Fourth. To the mages, struggling as they linked hands and forced magic into the ritual, the effect might have been different.

He was keenly aware of the flaws in the moment. The stone dust shaking down from the ceiling, possibly disrupting the intricate magical flows.

His own disorganized clothes, slightly askew. Twice now he had attempted to correct it and failed, given up for sheer annoyance. This moment should have been timeless.

Instead, Othius kept staring at Nereshal. The man was one of the imperfections. He kept exhorting the others. The [Chronomancer]’s job was to be such, but it still rankled.

Maintain your mana flows! High Mage Lerid! Your output is faltering!

As if he were coaching students. Othius bore it as a necessity. Still, he longed to tell Nereshal to be silent. As well as inform the man he has some spittle glistening on his chin.

But Othius had forgone his servants, his host of colorful and resplendent courtiers and accompaniment. This was to be secret.

For this ritual would differ in considerable ways from those past. Already, the scope was far different.

“Ten thousand souls we sacrificed for a bare handful, a fraction of that last time. This time shall be different. Even spread out as they may be. I will bring the Demon Kingdom down to its knees and purge Rhir before my end.

The compulsion gripped Othius. Nereshal nodded.

“It shall be, my king.”

The Blighted King scowled, for he had not wished a response nor meant to voice that feeling aloud. But Nereshal at least understood part of Othius’ great burden, his determination like adamantine to do what must be done.

Ten thousand of Rhir’s children had been sacrificed unborn last time. This time…

High Mage Laisa cried out as the magnitude of the spell struck her again. She was only providing power, yet—yet something seemed wrong to her.

“Your Majesty! Please, let us lessen the scope of it!”

“No.”

Othius snapped his reply. He had heard their fears. The spell was exponentially more powerful the more it was scaled up. The High Mages feared what it could do. But let it tear a hole between worlds! Let it bring him the armies the children had spoken of.

Let it be a worthy end, such that the world would ever remember his name. The Blighted King knew the incisive moment was still ahead. He waited, sitting impatiently, adjusting his clothing.

Laisa—Laisa felt something was going wrong. But she could not stop this. Not now.

 

—-

 

After about four hours of trekking through the undergrowth, Ryoka had trusted to the wind to see her to safety.

Her connection to it was immeasurably stronger than it had been in her first stage of perception. She felt it carry her around treacherous cliffs disguised in the underbrush, towards some destination—Ivolethe perhaps—and most crucially, away from the myriad dangers here.

The spiders were only the first of them. Twice, Ryoka had spotted vast shapes moving through the lesser trees amid the world-sized ones. Once, a shape high overhead, and a call so terrifying she’d huddled under a root network in fear for fifteen minutes before coming out.

Flora and fauna were strange. She passed by a perfectly red tree, taking care not to touch the bark, and did not eat any of the fruits or drink from the water of any stream.

And still—she felt the pursuers at times. In this modality, they were like distant blizzards sweeping across tens of miles away. Still so cold they sent wildlife running. And this time—she was sure she would not outrun them.

Perhaps her humble place in the forest was just as well. But Ryoka still cursed as she saw another flat lake barring her way. The wind urged her to not even go around the shore, and Ryoka did not trust the serene, glowing yellow-blue waters.

Anything could lurk there. And yet, for all she had seen great beasts, even chased strange predators away with the stink-potions, she had not seen one of the fae yet. No living forms of sentience besides the rabbit, the pursuers, and the warrior.

Ryoka was beginning to believe she would never meet anyone. That was when she did. The wind blew her left—and she came upon a door set into one of the vast trees.

It was slightly larger than she, but a homey thing, with a cut, decorative opening lined with glass at the top. No sign or windows or anything else, but Ryoka thought it was a wonderful little door.

She did not knock. Nor did the wind urge her that way. In fact, the instant Ryoka laid eyes on it, it tugged her urgently back. As if the wind itself had not expected the door to be here.

Hardly reassuring. Ryoka backed up, licking her lips nervously. The wind blew her backwards—

And nearly into the…foot…Ryoka stared at a huge, cracked toenail. Fungus and dirt underneath. Yellowing, unclipped. A foul odor. How had she not seen it a second before?

The answer came as she looked up at the tiptoeing giant thing behind her. It grinned, three eyes focused on her. Its skin was off-yellow, its ‘hair’ long, a continuous growth from its spine to its neck. It exhaled fumes with the noxious odor of putrid meat and—

At this point descriptions needed to end because Ryoka was already backing up. She scrabbled for a potion at her belt.

“W-wh—stay back!”

The thing did not answer her. It bent down, down, as it took a step as quiet as the rustle of leaves. It was so large one finger was larger than her. But still, it had crept up on her.

Mortal flesh.

That was all it said. Or—Ryoka heard a rumbling tongue. Words that hurt her ears. But she understood the meaning. She saw the hand dart forwards. She screamed, and tossed the potion.

The burning oil struck the hand. It didn’t so much as stop it. Ryoka saw the huge hand move towards her—

The wind blasted her off her feet. That saved her life. The giant had misjudged his strength; had he struck her, she would have been paste. As it was, she landed with a bone-jarring thump. The thing made a sound.

Wind and mortals and hunting cold. Long have I hungered for flesh, since eight stars grew cold.

…Is what the translation said. His true tongue she half-heard, a rumbling sound conceived before Humans had ever existed. She scrambled backwards, but it was so quick. It blocked her on one side, digging up dirt to form a vast wall—then did it again.

Like a boy would to trap a frog or mouse. Ryoka scrabbled for something that could harm this thing. Carefully, it bent, trying to squeeze her with two fingers.

From peace to death in an instant. This was the authentic fae experience. Ryoka cried out for the wind, and it assailed the monster, but it just laughed as the wind barely blew a refreshing breeze that moved the strands of hair slightly. Ryoka resolved to toss the pepper potion into its eye when it grabbed her when she heard a voice.

“Come inside. Or do you wish to let it eat you?”

Both Ryoka and the three-eyed giant looked over.

The door had opened. Someone stood in the humble, lovely little home. Ryoka’s eyes focused on a furry face. Two tufts of bushy hair that might have concealed ears.

Forest brown, russet brown, and a slightly rotund figure. She had…spectacles. And blinked up at Ryoka with a broom in hand. Ryoka thought she saw a pointed nose—but again, descriptions were not for this moment.

“Wh—wh—”

“Come in. If you wish to. But I rather think that your hunters and this one would eat you. I promise to do no harm.”

Ryoka hesitated. Above her, the giant was rumbling.

“That is mine! My mortal!

“Away with you.”

The kindly woman waved her broom at it. He growled furiously and two beady eyes narrowed. Hers. His were locked on Ryoka’s. She looked at the woman, the door, and had a thought.

Brownie. Ryoka took a chance as the wind tugged at her. Between the giant and the woman?

She dove. The giant howled. Ryoka rolled past the furry, rotund figure. She saw a long tail, almost like a rat’s? And she realized the woman had been wearing an…apron…

Right before she shut the door. Ryoka leapt to her feet on the wooden, homey ground.

No! Don’t—

A roar shook the air just outside the door. A roar so loud the entire world’s tree shook. The giant voiced its fury—and then Ryoka heard a howl.

If one was a person’s fury, for all he was primitive and a titan—the other was animal. Primal. Ryoka heard a shout of fear, and then crashing footsteps. She herself quaked, but then there was only a kindly sigh and the door opened. A smiling woman walked inside with the apron and broom.

Brownie? Ryoka gaped. She had heard tales of the faerie folk who were helpers to mortals, fierce protectors if angered, but mostly just gave out food and were helpful guests or even servants for a time. But she had never dreamed of finding one of them.

“No, and you won’t, not thinking as you do. My, why did you want to see things this way, girl? And why did you come into the forest? The city would have been safer, even with the cold folk hunting you. Well, all’s mended now you’re here. Come, sit, sit.”

The woman swept past Ryoka in a moment. The Wind Runner whirled with the passing—

And she found herself sitting in a comfy, nature’s home. A seat made of a stump, a smooth table, a kitchen leading into the dining room, and two open windows that revealed nature without a guard of glass.

She looked around, and found she was holding a wooden mug and staring down at a plate of food. The woman smiled at her.

“Your wind is rather flighty. It should have taken you out of the forest long ago, but perhaps it feared the Winter Court more than what lay here. Silly wind.”

She blew something into the air and it swirled about before landing on the floor. Tea leaves? She also addressed the breeze around Ryoka as if it were one kind of wind.

“Of course it is. Now, eat. It has been far too long since your kind stepped foot in my home. I hope what you have is to your liking?”

Again, the woman spoke. Ryoka jumped; but like Sikeri…she peered into her mug. She saw a thick liquid, creamy, slightly yellow…she took a suspicious sip.

Eggnog? With nutmeg? That was what it seemed to Ryoka. She smacked her lips then stared at the pancakes and eggs with syrup on them that the woman had been cooking. Ryoka blinked at her cup, and realized it was the fifth one she’d had.

“I don’t know—excuse me, thank you for saving me.”

“Would you stop saying that, Miss Ryoka? It’s the sixth time, you know. Gratitude wears.

A spoon tapped Ryoka on the head. Hard. The woman handed Ryoka another cup. The Wind Runner realized she was sipping—and she’d eaten part of the food in front of her! She put down the fork instantly.

“I—I shouldn’t do this. Eat food? Here? Thank you for saving me, but I don’t even know who—what—you are.”

She stared at the woman with trepidation. How had she sat long enough to have five cups of drink? The food? She was sure this woman didn’t know how to make fluffy pancakes and processed butter the exact way Ryoka liked them, and if they had factory-produced chicken eggs…

Sit. My, you’re a strange one. So anxious.”

This time the bonk on Ryoka’s head actually made Ryoka see stars. She slumped into the chair and the woman tsked.

“When I invite someone into my home, they will partake of my hospitality. What you eat is what you desire.”

“P-pancakes and eggs?”

“More reassuring than some grand feast, I imagine. What a delightful little drink you have.”

The woman had a cup of her own, sipping it as if she had no idea what she’d served Ryoka. She smiled, and was sitting before Ryoka could blink.

“I know, I know, it’s all sudden and you’re terribly frightened. Mortals often are. Especially when they used to get lost in this forest. Those who met me—well, they were usually braver sorts than you. But you must have been special to get here. Even today.”

She looked Ryoka in the eye. Ryoka opened her mouth—

“Your friend? Ah, she’s not here.”

—Time fast forwarded again. Ryoka stared at the slight stain around a cup; sure proof that you needed a coaster. She stared up in alarm and the eyes twinkled at her.

Green, like hers, amid brown. The…brownie…if that was what she was, rolled her eyes.

“I know it’s impolite. But you’re in a hurry, so I thought you needed the content without the delivery. How do you feel? Another cup?”

Ryoka realized her bladder was empty, her stomach was full—but she’d been digesting it, and she felt relaxed. Her bug bites were soothed, and the chafing on her feet? She stared at the bandages wrapped around her bare feet, a primitive but effective foot covering.

“How long was I here?”

“Five minutes. And five hours. Would you like to sleep?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I ate faerie food—”

“We’ve been over this. Don’t start fretting. My, you panic about everything. Do I wash my hands?”

She snorted. Ryoka leaned out of the way of the spoon of wrath. She must have asked that. The woman waved a finger.

“This is hardly that food. If you meet the tricksters, don’t talk or take anything from them. But we could hardly all be getting about if all food was wondrous entrapments, could we?”

“I suppose that’s so. Um—t-thank you. Have I asked what you are?”

Four times.

“And did you answer?”

Twinkling eyes were her response. Ryoka looked around the room.

“It’s a lovely home you have here.”

“I made it of the biggest tree I could find, but it’s still somewhat small. But that’s perspective for you. If I wanted, it could be vast. But I like keeping it here. Now, tell me more about this world of yours.”

Ryoka did, or thought she did. Another minute passed and she was sitting up on a couch, apparently hand-stuffed. The fabric…leather? Some hide, soft. Comfortable as could be.

“I see. I see. You’re from that place. Such a terrible thing. No wonder they hunt you so. So Ivolethe must be one of the Winter Court. They seldom come here. Your breeze tugged you in both directions because you want to go in.

“In?”

Ryoka leaned forwards. She blinked at the dishes she was washing. She must have insisted, because the woman was taking her ease, smoking a pipe as she watched.

“Of course. You came from the outer place. Gateways. The forest and city? Well, we’re closer, but you want to go at least one level further. That’s where the courts are.”

“By in, do you mean, a different level of…? Another plane? No—”

Blink. Ryoka had it, and wondered how long it had taken.

“Four minutes. You do know some things.”

Ah. She vocalized the answer.

“It’s all one plane. But instead of geographical distance, I’m travelling across areas. I need to go through the forest or city to get to the next spot.”

A beaming smile was her answer. Ryoka felt like she’d won a medal. The woman waved a paw.

“And now you’re rested and you have proper footwear for your journey! I’ll take you to the edge of the forest as well. All in less than ten minutes. Just as you wanted.”

Ryoka stood, and wondered if she had stayed here ten minutes or ten days. The woman seemed to be moving Ryoka through her time as she pleased. Perhaps that was for Ryoka’s benefit, but—

 

She stood, looking up at the two framed pictures. And knew they were not framed nor pictures. That was just how they saw them.

The sunlight was rising and her gracious hostess still abed. The Wind Runner looked up at them and then realized she had slept in the little one’s rooms.

“Then…”

“Yes, my dear. Even we die. Just not of age.

Ryoka spun, guiltily. Her hostess was looking at her, tiredly from the opening.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

The Wind Runner spoke nervously. The woman shook her head as she walked past the two books Ryoka had read yesterday.

“I invited you into my home, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Now, rest. You must rest. You ran further than you know, from the cold folk. One more day…”

But as she looked up at Ryoka, the young woman knew her welcome was—

 

Memory flooded back. Ryoka looked at the stranger.

“Nama?”

Nama the…hostess…smiled.

“I knew you’d figure out how to remember your stay. Sooner rather than later. Some never remember.”

“I don’t know how I can repay your hospitality. Will you take something, at least? Gold? Potions?”

Ah.

The eyes lit up. Ryoka saw a moment of greed, or perhaps, simply desire in the woman’s eyes at last.

“Now those are things of value. Don’t give them away so lightly.”

“They are? I mean—they are. Because…”

Ryoka’s entire collection of items was set out on a table. The woman plucked three healing potions from the bag and looked at Ryoka.

“Of course they are. They’re from your world’s rules, after all. And each world has different rules. For instance…these? Very valuable. I will have three, if that is fair.”

She shook the best of the healing potions in the bag of holding at Ryoka. The young woman thought it was cheap—but she saw the hostess’ meaning.

“Of course, Nama. Take them. And if you want…?”

“No. You may have need of healing.”

The woman stopped Ryoka. Slowly, the Runner nodded and put them into her pack.

Twenty minutes. When she rose, Ryoka Griffin stretched. She felt light as a feather. The bindings on her feet? A second skin that neither thorn nor insect would pierce. She had never felt better.

She would remember her stay. Later. But she was in a hurry, so she turned and bowed. Nama tsked.

“Don’t be rid of me so quickly, Ryoka Griffin. I can at least take you through the city.”

“You don’t have to, Nama. Really—just to the city will do. You’ve been such a gracious hostess this…week?”

Ryoka tried. She saw the lips move upwards, and the fur ripple, as it did when she amused or delighted her hostess. The apron was still there, but Nama had changed broom for walking stick.

“You are so stubborn. Perhaps. I will at least take you out of the forest. At least you know this trick.”

Ryoka followed the older woman—so much older—to the door. Ryoka belatedly wiped her feet on the welcome mat, guiltily, and got a chuckle. She saw the door open—

And there were some trees, small, younger, some underbrush, and less than a hundred meters to the road. Beyond it lay the city.

“You have to go through it. Just the outskirts. But better than the forest.”

Ryoka stepped out hesitantly and stared about the landscape. This was not the forest where she had encountered the sneaking giant. She glanced at the door; Nama winked.

Ah. The same trick. Ryoka Griffin exhaled slowly.

“Thank you, Nama. I think I can go from here.”

“Are you sure? If you’re not, just call for me. As long as you’re here, that is.”

Ryoka was tempted. But at the same time she had a feeling that Nama wanted to be…here.

In her home. It was too much of an imposition to ask her to leave the memories behind, even for as long as it took. And Ryoka felt light on her feet.

“I’m good. See?”

She hopped up and down. She got a laugh again. Nama waved from the opening as Ryoka jogged for the road. The city beyond it—

What a strange encounter. Like this mode of thinking—a faerie’s story. Nama was right, though. In between lecturing Ryoka, she had told her she should have stayed with the mundanity of the first vision. She’d gone faster, then.

But Ryoka had wanted to see wonders. So, this had occurred.

Now she jogged out of the forest and saw the city in the distance. Only—

Something was wrong. She left the forest behind, travelling that road which was really just filler between places in a moment and a long time. Seeing the city approach.

But what had been just a city like one from home was…different now. Ryoka’s eyes widened.

“What…what is this?”

She came to a halt. Her bound feet uncertainly stopping on the dirt path. Ryoka looked ahead, to where dirt became stone. The city lay beyond.

But like the forest—she saw it for what it really was.

As she had first seen it, the city of the fae made sense to her as a city from her world.

In style. But every detail was changed.

Golden spires like skyscrapers. Strange, rounded buildings unlike the square design. Honeycombed entrances at every level, of every size, for people who didn’t need only one entrance on the ground.

Vast streets, lit by glowing streetlights like stars. Windows of substances more beautiful than glass. Architecture beyond mortal means.

It was like the capital of Khelt, the greatest of paradises in other worlds, but wrought by immortals rather than their lesser counterparts. It was the most wondrous city that Ryoka had ever seen, home for a people of every species in this place of eternity.

It brought her to her knees with awe. Or it should have.

But reality was different. That was what the city should have been. Ryoka Griffin looked up. And she saw the golden spire crumbling. Half of it destroyed. The other half lost to time.

The streets were broken. The lights fading. Unattended.

The buildings decayed, as if time had leaked in, unbidden. The windows shattered, materials like glass coating the ground. A few buildings burned with light, pristine against the backdrop of the broken city.

But the rest? The rest had fallen into disrepair.

Ryoka Griffin saw the world flicker. And suddenly, the glory of the trees was faded.

Fading.