7.00

The air was warm, and the sun shone brightly as the Dragon emerged from his cave in the High Passes. The world over, spring had already turned into summer’s heat and warmth. That was simply a fact of life, which tormented the few people who knew anything about hemispheres and basic orbital theory.

But it was true. And summer brought warmth. Full harvests. And of course, life. The wildlife, fed on a longer spring than usual, was growing at breakneck speed. Goblin tribes doubled their population, herds of animals bore new young—and the monsters did the same. But if levelless nature was prolific, well, so were people.

Children were being born. Or growing. And those already grown dreamed and made their plans for a future generation. The [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril in the north plotted, schemed, and sometimes acted outright.

In Chandrar, the nations of the desert continent waited, at odds with each other but united by a common enemy. The King of Destruction. And Baleros? The companies were still battling in the jungles—when they weren’t trying to take a break in the shade from all the heat.

Rhir, coldest of the continents save for parts of Terandria and Baleros, had a milder summer, but no less eventful. The Blighted Kingdom was moving, excited. So were the Demons. While summer gave life, it also motivated each species and nation to pursue their own ends. Individuals could shape the fate of empires. They were after all, the inheritors of this world. Children.

And there were far too many of them. The Dragon lifted his head, blinking in the daylight. He growled. He was gigantic, larger than a plane from another world. In this one, almost unrivaled for size. His scales were gold—no. Brass. They shone brighter than gold, though, as the light caught them.

The Dragon’s head rose. The mane running along the back of his long neck was like molten copper. And his eyes were mismatched, heterochromia of heliotrope and cerulean. To look into them was to see the same light stars were made of, the essence of magic. And to behold him here would be to see a myth.

A Dragon. Even in this world full of magic, they were a sight few would see in their lifetimes. A story. But one existed. At least one. Now, he raised his head, looking up towards the clear, beautiful blue sky in the towering High Passes. Above him rose the mountains, which dwarfed even Teriarch’s form a million times over. Vast peaks that rose beyond imagination. But that wasn’t what concerned the tyrant of flames.

Teriarch opened his jaws, exposing brilliant, only slightly yellowed teeth. And he roared one word upwards.

Wretches!

He breathed fire. Dragon’s fire, shot upwards. Brilliant tongues of flame, so bright and vivid, curling upwards. So hot that air ignited around the magical fire, expanding, a flaming jet filling the sky. Monsters and animals alike fled the searing heat.

But what Teriarch was aiming at didn’t flee. The Dragon exhaled, the fire burning. Then he felt a cold sting. A chill in this summer’s heat. Frost blasted down around him, and the fire travelling upwards stopped.

A blast of pure frost, of chill wind and frozen air met the Dragon’s fire and exploded as cold air and hot air met. The Dragon covered his face with one wing as debris blasted around him, though there was little real threat. He growled, roared, and shot fire up again.

Begone, you brats!

And his words were fire itself. But the torrent of fire that shot upwards was met by an equal force. It came from not one mouth, but hundreds.

Circling above the Dragon, flying high overhead, Wyverns breathed a deadly, chilling frost. The Ice Wyverns of the High Passes were tiny compared to Teriarch. But there were hundreds. No—over a thousand. This clutch was tremendous in size. And though their individual breath attacks could barely stop Teriarch’s flames, together—

Another explosion rocked the High Passes. Panting, Teriarch wheezed as the Wyverns were blown away by the blast of air. They fought to group together again, shrieking their fury. The Dragon inhaled as frost tickled his scales. He looked up and pointed. One enterprising Wyvern had swooped lower and was blasting him with cold.

“You arrogant little worm!”

He pointed. A ray of light shot from one of his talons and the Wyvern attacking him was struck by the thin, red line of light. The Wyvern didn’t so much disappear as vaporize. Teriarch saw its form rapidly turn to ash and snorted. But then he ducked as the entire weyr dove at him, shrieking and unleashing their magical frost attack.

A note about Wyverns. Unlike Dragons, who boasted the ability to speak and vast intelligence, magical power, and all-around superiority that marked their kind, Wyverns were much like the inbred cousins of Dragons…if Dragonkind deigned to acknowledge the shared ancestry at all.

Wyverns were more similar to birds, having large hindquarters, grasping talons, and enormous wingspans. However, they shared many traits to Dragons, possessing thick, scaled hides, the ability to fly despite their amazing weight and size, and, in rarer breeds, the ability to breathe magical fire, or frost or even lightning or other elements that was the hallmark of Dragon-type species. A group of Wyverns was known as a clutch, or a weyr, or as Teriarch would put it—

You lousy nuisances! This is my territory! BEGONE!

The Dragon bellowed upwards, shielding his body with his wings as the frost attack redoubled. This might have been a poor move as the Wyverns were diving, talons outstretched to rend at the Dragon, but that was because Wyverns weren’t familiar with how Dragons fought. Or at least, this one.

The leading wave of dozens of Wyverns trying to dive down towards the Dragon saw a flash. Then—nothing. Teriarch threw the glowing meteors of light upwards, chanting softly, and watched in satisfaction as they punched through the first group of Wyverns, halting their charge in their tracks. Then he exhaled again.

Fire engulfed more Wyverns. The rest aborted their dive. They couldn’t get to Teriarch without clumping up dangerously, and the two Wyverns who got past both spells and fire—Teriarch swung his tail and crushed one against a wall. The second, landing and charging to bite, looked up and beheld the size differential between it and the Dragon. And it was alone. Teriarch bit—then spat out. He uttered another oath.

“Tamaroth’s beard!”

He spat, gagged, and then glared. His mouth filled with water and he swished it around his bloody teeth. The Dragon spat it to one side.

“Disgusting.”

He glared up, realized the weyr was preparing to breathe again and shouted.

Get out of my territory! Begone, you idiotic hatchlings!

The Wyverns wavered. The force of the Dragon’s bellowing—not to mention his very nature and the way he’d slaughtered two dozen of them was intimidating. But then the milling thousands heard a scream of rage.

A huge Wyvern, even by their standards, flew downwards. The Dragon spotted the leader of the weyr at once. His scales were pearled white and blue, and he was a third of Teriarch’s size. The Wyvern leader screamed a challenge. Teriarch rolled his eyes. He blew a long stream of fire up and the leader’s frost breath met it.

The Wyvern leader lost, and was blown backwards by the explosion of air. Teriarch snorted. The Dragon raised his claw and, in a very familiar way, shook it at the Wyvern.

“You little runt! You’re a thousand years too young to challenge me! I bested your matriarch two hundred years ago, or has your entire clutch forgotten? Wait. Maybe you have.”

He eyed the impudent Wyvern. The leader was shrieking his rage, and at his command, the massed Wyverns breathed again. Teriarch saw the frost incoming and swore.

This time the wave of frost blasting down wasn’t met by fire. It froze the entire area it hit. The temperature, a summer’s day of warmth, instantly fell far, far below zero. The cold froze rocks, cracking the very stone, and everything in it for thousands of feet froze in a moment. If there had been any animals present, they would have been dead, frozen to the core. As it was, there was only a Dr—

He was gone. The Wyverns stared. They couldn’t really blink, but their minds processed the empty space where Teriarch had been for a second. The Wyvern Lord, for lack of a better title, paused. Had he won?

No. Of course not. The Wyverns hesitated. The Dragon had gone back inside his cave, refusing to duel with breath attacks again. The Wyvern Lord swooped lower, as if thinking to dare the cave’s entrance. But that would bottleneck the Wyverns. He elected to shriek instead, a pure challenge. His weyr flew around him, screaming, hoping to draw the Dragon out.

“Little impudent—every decade it feels like—reproducing as fast as damned Humans—”

Inside his cave, the Dragon known as Teriarch panted as he carried himself back inside the vast cavern that was his home. For now. Gold and magic flashed as the Dragon hurried back towards his hoard. Because of course, he had one.

It was rather neatly organized this time. At Teriarch’s whim, the gold had been stacked according to denomination, weight, and purity over here. The magical artifacts had been organized by his personal filing system here and the artwork on display here…

Even so, it was still hard to find what he wanted. Teriarch growled, exasperated as he turned his head, hurrying as he heard the screams echoing through his home.

“Where is it? Sword. Swords…no. Wait! Where did I put the Baneblade? Over there? No. Scrolls…do I have one that conjures a meteor storm? Maybe—grave rot? Absolutely not. I’m not cleaning up all—”

Affronted, the Dragon exhaled a plume and engulfed a floating magical scroll in front of him. He peered around.

“Aha!”

His talon shot out and very delicately snagged one of the countless artifacts in his collection. And then another. Teriarch paused.

“This one too. And this one. My, did I have an original Wadeir and I never noticed it? How fascinating…”

 

—-

 

It took about five minutes before the Dragon returned. The screaming Wyverns were nearly convinced he was going to leave the territory and flee—after all, this was a challenge. But the sight of the gleaming Dragon made them falter.

“One warning. Begone or—”

Teriarch winced as the weyr exhaled. Another blast of frost, and it was cold even to the Dragon! He muttered and the freezing chill abated as a magical spell engulfed him. Teriarch growled.

“You asked for it.”

Without further ceremony, he flicked one claw. And one of the magical artifacts he’d taken from his cave shot from out of the air behind him. It flew upwards, faster than any normal arrow.

The Wyvern Lord saw the flash of metal. Forewarned, he desperately dove—and the trident missed him by inches. But it still went through three of the Wyverns flying behind him. Like a dancing arrow, it shot through the skies. Each time it hit a Wyvern, the tips of the magical trident vaporized what it hit. Wyverns fell, parts of their heads, chests, and wings missing. The rest shrieked and fled, avoiding the magical death.

“And this!”

The Dragon bellowed. He focused again and magical arrows sprang from a quiver. They shot upwards like hail. The air was filled with explosions as the magical arrowheads detonated. Teriarch smiled in smug satisfaction as the rain of magical crystal—so sharp and propelled so fast by the explosion that they pierced even Wyvern hide—burst in the air.

The Wyvern clutch was in full disarray. And as the reeling Wyvern Lord saw more Wyverns falling, it made the smartest decision since it had decided to oust Teriarch from his territory. The lead Wyvern opened its maw and screamed.

A note of defeat. The Wyverns fled after it, beating their wings furiously to escape the dancing trident still striking them down. Both the trident and rain of arrows stopped. Because Teriarch was out of arrows and the Wyverns were fleeing.

The Dragon snorted as the magical artifact floated down to him. He was smug—then aghast as he looked at the empty quiver. He telekinetically flung the quiver onto the ground as the trident rejoined his collection.

“Wasted! All on a bunch of empty-headed Wyverns! I could have ransomed a city-state of the Eullopian Territories for that many arrows! Begone! And if I catch you flying around my territory I’ll come up there and eat you, you arrogant little bratling!”

He bellowed up at the fleeing Wyverns. The Wyvern Lord shrieked a note of fury in the distance as a reply. They did understand each other in a way, Dragons and Wyverns. Teriarch snorted a bit of smoke and coughed. He was still breathing hard. He looked around.

Ice was slowly melting around the entrance to his cave now that the ceaseless attacks of frost had stopped. The Dragon had blood on his scales and—he was displeased to note—Eater Goats were already coming out to chomp on the bits of dead Wyvern.

“Scavengers. Almost as bad as Crelers!”

The Dragon glared and the Eater Goats froze. A few tried to play dead. The Dragon stared at them and reconsidered.

“Not as bad as Crelers. Feh, that would be what comes next, wouldn’t it? Darkscale’s breath!”

Grumbling, the Dragon turned and stomped back into his cave. And the creatures of the High Passes slowly emerged, Gargoyles, Eater Goats, Razorbeaks and more—all trying to claim a piece of the aftermath, or deciding to eat the competition.

The Dragon cared for none of it. He wearily trudged back into the center of his hoard. He lay down on the smooth marble—what kind of dragon would sleep on dirty, rough stone?—and sighed. The altercation, brief though it was, had exhausted him. As much mentally as physically.

“As bad as Drakes, really. Wyverns. An entire nest of the frost children and they can’t remember what happened a decade ago, let alone…hrmf. I shouldn’t stand for it. And the goats! I might actually have Crelers somewhere about. If there’s an adult hiding its thoughts…I ought to root them all out. A few passes. Scorch the area clean for a few years.”

He snorted as if to do so, but the Dragon was already sagging, yawning. And Teriarch, ancient of days, was already heading towards sleep. His voice grew deeper as the magical protections on his cave reactivated. His voice was a murmur now.

“I should hire some…adventurers. Yes. Deal with them. Why not? A few Gold-ranks…get to it when I wake…arrogant…get out of my territory. Goats…”

He fell asleep. Soon, the Dragon’s soft breathing interrupted by the occasional snore was the only sound in the cave. And peace returned. To him at least. And wasn’t that what really mattered? Teriarch gave no thought to the Wyverns, aside from a mentally scrawled note to hire some adventurers. When he woke up.

The Dragon never thought about what the Wyverns might do after losing their challenge against him. He didn’t consider the ramifications of a growing weyr, or the impact of so many hungry Wyverns on an ecosystem like the High Passes’, or the natural implications of his defense of his territory. Or where the Wyvern Lord was leading his clutch now. Teriarch was, in large, a selfish creature.

After all, he was a Dragon.

 

—-

 

It was summer. And the road was worn as the City Runner ran down it. The Runner’s pace never flagged, though the sun was a bit too harsh from where he ran. After a while, he had to pull out a water flask and gulp from it, but he kept running.

“It’s too hot.”

Fals, the City Runner who worked around Celum, was a Human man in his prime of life. He was also a [Runner], which meant that he had Skills that boosted his speed down the road. [Surefoot], which ensured he didn’t stumble even when the road got rocky, [Efficient Run], which conserved his stamina and allowed him to run far further before he needed a stamina potion, and, for emergencies, [Thousand-Step Sprint]. He could escape from even someone riding a horse…if he had somewhere he could hide.

But he was no Courier, or even a high-level City Runner with a fantastic ability like, say, [Double Step] which could literally double his running speed in theory. Fals could only run at normal, mortal speeds. He was a Runner, and he delivered messages, packages, anything that people would pay him for.

He was cheaper than a horse, could traverse terrain no mounted animal could—and most importantly, he was nearly as fast as a mounted rider over longer distances. Horses needed to rest. Humans could drink a potion and force themselves to keep running. Horses would throw you off and step on you if you tried that too many times.

Even so. Fals panted as he caught sight of a waypoint along his route. A city, small one, tucked along the winding road leading south, through the safe part of the High Passes. He wiped his brow.

“It is unbearably hot.”

Summer had come, and with a vengeance. The City Runner felt more sweat already beading as he ran towards the city ahead of him. It wasn’t a large one, even by the standards of the cities in the area. Even so, the walls were high enough to discourage [Bandits] and monsters and they were manned. Fals raised a hand as he ran down the road.

“City Runner!”

He already had his personal Runner’s Seal in hand in case the guards wanted to see. They waved him through, although they did keep a relaxed eye on him. Fals trotted through the gates, waving up at them.

“Hot day, isn’t it?”

“You’re not the one wearing armor, Runner!”

One of the guards shouted back. He was leaning on the battlements, but he didn’t take off his helmet despite the heat. Nor, Fals saw, did he stray too far from the longbow at the ready. Of course, that made sense. Esthelm, the city Fals had come to, had been sacked before. They wouldn’t allow it to happen again so easily.

The City Runner paused by the inside of the gates and continued his conversation with the guard. He was only about fifteen feet up, and he and his buddies seemed at ease. Esthelm was the furthest Human city south, and supplied itself by mining above all else. And visitors, save for trade, were rare.

“What’s your business here? Or is this just a stop?”

“Just a stop. I’m heading south towards Liscor. I just need a rest.”

The [Guard] gave a knowing nod to his companions. He rubbed at the scar on his cheek.

“You and everyone else. You need a drink, the Dancer’s a pub right next to the Runner’s Guild. Just down the street—there.”

He pointed. Fals nodded gratefully, though he wasn’t planning on drinking. Yet.

“I’ll check it out. Say, how are you all surviving this heat?”

He gestured up at the [Guards] on duty. They had on metal helmets, which reflected the bright sunlight, and chainmail over leather. Fals imagined they’d keel over after a few hours if they didn’t drink like mad. The [Guardsman] grinned.

“Cooling stones. Don’t you have one?”

Fals did a double-take.

“Too expensive for my blood. How much do they pay you all?”

The members of Esthelm’s Watch laughed. The [Guard] with the scar pointed.

“We have a [Runecrafter]! Try Bezoar Street—go right at the statue of the [Florist]. Ask for Miss Ediya. The old woman with the white hair. She’ll set you up.”

“Got it, thanks!”

Fals smiled and waved at the Watch. They nodded him off. It was a quick exchange, but a good one. Fals, as a City Runner, found it paid to be friendly with the local Watch. They could make a Runner’s life tough. But Fals had an easy demeanor about him. He was good at being friendly, and that was a skill as vital as a Skill for City Runners.

Esthelm really was a small city. Larger than a town, it was true, but only just. Fals knew of Esthelm only by reputation; he’d run deliveries to it of course, but seldom. Until recently, Fals had avoided going further south than Esthelm at all.

He knew the city had been sacked once when the Goblin Lord had attacked it. The survivors had rebuilt the city, fending off Goblins and undead to retake their home. With help, they’d restored the city and built it stronger. Higher. They could have fled, but instead, Esthelm had grown and it was now as large as it was before. Larger, in fact.

Some might have found it strange for people to be so possessive over a small city on the border of Drake lands. But this was the only home many people knew. And Esthelm had plenty of work to go around. The High Passes had deposits of minerals, ensuring [Miners] had steady occupation. And more than that…people had fought for this place. It was hard to abandon.

Fals saw evidence of it everywhere. As he trotted down the city, he saw more weapons on display than he’d ever see in a northern city like Wales or Remendia. Men and women carried shortswords, or he’d see a bow propped up by a [Shopkeeper] as they did business. The Watch had looked pretty sharp too. Yes, this was probably a poor place to be a [Thief].

The statue was set in a rebuilt part of Esthelm. Fals didn’t know its history. Nor did he care to find out. He stared at the image of the girl with a basket of flowers and wondered over it and the inscription only for a second. He paused, and then headed right.

Miss Ediya was indeed an old woman, but she had a glint to her eyes suggesting that her faculties had only sharpened with age. Indeed, she nailed Fals with a question the instant he entered her shaded, blessedly cool store.

“Cooling stone, right?”

“Yes Ma’am. Are you Miss Ediya?”

“If I wasn’t, that’d be an awfully odd question to ask, wouldn’t it, lad?”

The woman grinned and patted her desk. Fals walked forwards after brushing his dirty shoes against the doormat. Miss Ediya’s shop was cluttered—mainly with little stones with delicate sigils etched on them. There was very little space for a customer; the counter encircled Fals on three sides. Most of the shop was the [Runecrafter]’s workspace. The old woman was probably in her sixties, but she was quite fit as she bent to one side, grabbing for her desk.

“Let’s see. I have a dozen finished cooling stones. They’re selling quick! You want a high-grade one?”

“Actually, I’d prefer it cheap. I don’t have much money to spend on an expensive artifact—”

“Artifact? Where?”

Ediya grinned, exposing a missing tooth, but a lot of quite white, straight ones as well. She laughed at Fals’ expression.

“I don’t do high-level work like that, young man. And my work’s cheap enough for anyone! Here. Take a look at this. Esthelm specialty, right here.”

She brought out a small stone, about as long as his thumb, long and oval. It was a piece of lapis lazuli, polished but not shaped; Fals could see some other stone trapped in the material. Nevertheless, even this simple stone had a brilliant glitter to it. And what was more—

Magic. Fals saw the glittering rune etched into the stone as Ediya turned it towards him. It was a faint glitter, but it caught the light in an odd, enticing way. He blinked.

“How much?”

“One gold, three silver.”

Ediya shot Fals a calculating look. He winced. She tapped it.

“Don’t run off just yet. It can be recharged. And it will keep you cool! [Runecrafter]’s oath.”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to drop an entire gold piece on a cooling charm, no matter how hot it was. To buy time, Fals looked at Miss Ediya.

“[Runecrafter], Miss Ediya? I thought there were [Runesmiths].”

She laughed again.

“[Runesmith] is someone who got into runecraft from, well, metallurgy. They’ll engrave runes into their armor. Or sword hilts…it’s still not the same as a [Rune Master] or a higher-level class. And [Runecrafter] is someone who can’t swing a hammer or use magic like an expert! How about it? Give it a try.”

She pressed the stone into Fals’ hand after tapping it. Instantly, Fals felt his body cool down even further. He bit his lip. This was nice.

“It’s good, Miss Ediya. But a gold piece and three silver is a lot.”

“Call it one silver and one gold piece, then. And call it an investment. This summer’s only going to get hotter.”

The old woman eyed Fals as the City Runner mulled it over. He inspected the stone.

“It’s impressive how magic happens with a rune. And it just needs a bit of lapis lazuli?”

The [Runecrafter] snorted.

“Runes are just complex magical spells simplified. You can’t see half of what’s written here, young man! Nor can I simply write a cooling rune on any bit of stone I have around! I need pure lapis to hold the spell. It’s complex, and the magic doesn’t come from nowhere!”

“Of course not. I only meant…is the stone from around here?”

The [Runecrafter] nodded, a hint of pride in her voice.

“Esthelm-mined. The High Passes have all sorts of varied deposits and we have a seam…well, you could get better quality stuff from Salazsar, but you’d pay ten times for it. At least! And it will be cheaper than any cooling trinket you’ll get north or south of here.”

She gave Fals a pointed look. He knew that was probably true; he’d seen a smaller stone going for double what Miss Ediya was charging in Celum. He bit his lip.

“Alright. You have a deal.”

Miss Ediya’s face lit up as Fals rummaged in his coin purse. She took his money, giving him quick instructions.

“Don’t scratch the rune. There’s a coating, but don’t let it get chipped away by anything hard. Store it in a soft place. It should be good for one month or your money back. And anyone in my field can replenish the charm. Just watch for the fading glow in the rune—you’ll notice it too! And tell your Runner friends where you got it!”

“Thank you. Do I just touch it to…? Absolutely no water. Of course.”

Fals stayed for a few more moments before heading out of the shop. He might have stayed to ask about runecrafting—Miss Ediya seemed like a pleasant sort and she had no other customers, but he was on the job. And as he left the shop, the summer’s heat rolled back over him.

Not too much. Esthelm did lie in the shade of the High Passes, but Miss Ediya’s shop had been cooled by the very runes she drew. Without them, Fals felt unpleasant, so he decided to give the stone a try. He tapped it, hoping it was worth the expensive price tag.

Well, it was cheap for a magical item. But well worth the money. As Fals activated it, he felt a blessed cooling radiating from the stone. Not chilling; but it was cool enough that when he hung it around his neck, his head, all the way down to his stomach felt like it was a mild spring day. It was a good spell; Fals had used stones where the cooling effect was localized and the stone itself was so cold it would freeze your fingers. This was a full-body…half-body experience.

Ah.

The City Runner sighed in relief. He paused for a moment, and then in a much better mood, went to find the Runner’s Guild in Esthelm.

This too was a small affair. Esthelm was no major trade city and the Runner’s Guild had a single [Receptionist] on duty. She might have even been the Guildmistress; it looked like it was that small an operation. Fals pushed into the door and saw no other Runners; a city like this might have two dozen Street Runners at best, he guessed. He came up to the desk; the woman was playing with a little blacksmith’s puzzle and didn’t see him at first.

“Hello. I’m on delivery to Liscor. Anything for me going that way?”

She jumped and looked up. The [Receptionist] coughed as she put away the little wire puzzle and looked up.

“Good morning! Delivery to Liscor you said? Where are you from?”

“Just Celum. I set out two days ago. Do you have anything for me?”

It had been a long run. Fals had forgotten how far it was from Celum to Liscor. But he was being paid for the delivery, enough to justify the time spent. The woman blinked as she rummaged through her ledger, looking at all the orders the Runner’s Guild had for deliveries. She shook her head.

“Just a silver’s worth. Or two. Our own Runners keep us connected with Liscor. Well, all four of them.”

That was small. Fals tried not to let his expression show.

“I’ll take all of them unless they’re big deliveries.”

“Really? We could speed up this shipment of ore if you had a horse…oh well. I have the letters here…and a little sample here…it’s fragile. Be careful. I think it’s an ore—bound straight for an [Alchemist]. Appraisal. Don’t drop it, please.”

“Never.”

Fals took the letters and bound package, adding them to his mental list of destinations. The [Receptionist] sighed as she looked for anything else he could earn money from.

“That’s all, I think. Sorry, but we are close enough to Liscor that there’s no real money…”

“I understand. A silver’s enough for me. I’m already getting paid for a delivery.”

Fals patted his Runner’s pack. The [Receptionist] nodded. Of course. There was no point to Fals running all this way if he was just looking for work. She made a few notations, marking that he had all the deliveries she’d given him. Then she paused.

“Odd. We haven’t had a delivery from Celum through here in months. You’re the fifth one this week. What’s changed?”

The City Runner grinned a bit ruefully.

“No magic door. There was one from Liscor to Celum, but…”

“Oh. That’s right! The magical door!”

The woman’s eyes went round. She looked around, and then leaned forwards conspiratorially.

“You know, we have one too. That magical door-thing.”

“Really?”

Fals raised his brows. He vaguely recalled that. The [Receptionist] nodded.

“It brings us straight to Liscor. It was marvelous! Our [Miners] could bring ore straight to Liscor! And they brought a bunch of gifts. There was this Drake a while back—and the [Innkeeper] of course. The one that owns the door. Did you know she kicked out Commander Deint?”

“Who? I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard.”

“Our leader! Well, I say leader, but he was more like a [Tyrant]. No one could do anything about him, or rather, no one was going to. I didn’t really think how bad it was, but that [Innkeeper] marched in here and well, got rid of him! It was like magic!”

Fals had little interest in the politics of a single city like Esthelm. But the [Receptionist]’s description rang all kinds of bells in his head. He leaned over the counter.

“By ‘that [Innkeeper]’, do you mean a young woman? Around my age?”

“That’s the one. The owner of the inn. The Wandering Inn. I hear it’s a strange place. Filled with Goblins! Imagine! I’d never visit, even when the door was working. Goblins were the ones who attacked Esthelm. Them and the damned Goblin Lord. Although…”

The [Receptionist] shuddered and paused. She glanced out the window. In the direction of the plaza with the statue. Fals coughed.

“There aren’t that many anymore. I’ve actually been to the inn. I know the [Innkeeper].”

“Do you really?”

Another wide-eyed look. The [Receptionist] was all too eager to chat. But Fals was glancing out the window. He had to run, so he smiled apologetically.

“I’d love to stay and talk, but the door’s actually giving me a job.”

The woman’s face fell.

“Oh, that’s right. I’m sorry, I know you City Runners are always out and about. I suppose the door is why we’ve been getting more of you. It’s been inactive, right? For the last two weeks! But then—you heard what happened?”

“Oh yes.”

Fals inhaled. Word had spread in Celum as well as everywhere else. The [Receptionist] shuddered.

“Crelers. And the inn’s gone. Destroyed, or so they say. But then, I haven’t been to Liscor. Lots of folks are heading down there, though. There’s work to be had. Say—could you ask when the door will be working again? I mean, if it’s not broken? It would be nice to walk around another city. Assuming there aren’t too many Goblins in Liscor, of course.”

“Absolutely. It’s my first time heading back that way myself. Thank you, and stay out of the heat!”

The young man smiled and headed towards the door. The [Receptionist] waved him off.

“Good luck! If you’re coming back this way, please stop by! We have a few messages heading north and if you could take it to at least the nearest Runner’s Guild…”

 

—-

 

South the City Runner ran. From Esthelm, through the winding channel cut through the mountain range that was the High Passes. This was the only safe route by land towards the southern half of the continent. And it was a long road.

Not so long now, though. Fals knew Esthelm was only a stone’s throw away from Liscor so he ran hard and reached the natural basin where the Floodplains began after two hours. From there, he slowed.

Liscor awaited. But the path there was difficult. The road that led to Liscor went up and down, following the natural hills and valleys that were formed by the Floodplain’s annual rains. And there was some danger here. Fals stuck to the road, but he kept an eye out for Shield Spiders and worse, Hollowstone Deceivers, known as ‘Rock Crabs’. Also, because he was getting tired. And the Floodplains were large, for all they were a basin sheltered by the mountains.

But there it was. Liscor, a city set on a small hill. The walls were far higher than Esthelm’s, to keep the flood waters out. And as Fals ran from the north, he saw a small shape on a hill to the east. He knew the inn well. But even from afar, it was…different than he recalled.

Crelers in the Bloodfields. Something had happened at The Wandering Inn. Fals knew what had happened at the Bloodfields. Adventurers had fought an Adult Creler which had emerged with an entire nest of the horrors. And they had won. Even now, he recalled the name of the team credited with bringing it down.

The Horns of Hammerad. Fals smiled. He had been terribly worried for them. But news of their victory had been just as astounding. Now, he wanted to see them.

And the [Innkeeper] that Esthelm still remembered. But as Fals approached Liscor from the winding road north, the hill disappeared from sight behind the walls. And Fals was more distracted by the queue at the gates.

More people had come down the road before him this morning. And that was an unusual sight. Normally, it was just [Traders] and [Merchants] who came to the city. It was a rare traveller who would try to pass through the Bloodfields at this time of year. Yet now, Fals found a line at the northern gate. He saw nearly three dozen people lined up, the first being interviewed at the gate by a Drake [Guardsman].

They were workers. Not Antinium Workers, but Humans, like Fals. They’d come down the northern road like him. And they were here for…what?

“Purpose of entry?”

The Drake on duty yawned as he leaned on his spear. He was a huge fellow that Fals thought he recognized. The family nervously standing in front of him stammered an answer as a whole. The Drake paused.

“Work? Oh, more of you. What’s with the kids?”

He eyed a pair of scared girls hiding behind their mother and father, both of whom looked like [Miners] or [Laborers] of some kind. The mother shushed them.

“We’re here for jobs. We’re [Builders], sir. We heard there was good paying work, so we came down.”

The Drake picked at his teeth with one claw.

“Aw, more of you? Well, there’s not many places to sleep. But yeah, I guess there’s work. Fine, fine. You want to go down to the uh…”

The two parents, who’d been brightening, paused. Relc paused. He scratched his head, held up a finger, and sidled over to the Gnoll who was doing the same job next to him.

“Psst. Tkrn. Where do they go if they want work?”

“The Mason’s Guild! Right down Tellshale road!”

Tkrn growled at Relc. The Gnoll looked exasperated as he waved his people in line through. He was working a lot faster than Relc. Fals, and several other people in line, eying the two [Guards] at work, quickly switched to Tkrn’s line. Relc sighed. He went back over to the family and waved at Tkrn.

“Right. What he said. They’ll find you a job and houses. And stuff. Now…oh wait!”

He blocked them as the family tried to scurry past. Vaguely, Relc reached for a sheaf of parchment.

“Let me just make sure you’re not a wanted criminal. I have a list. And illustrations, see? If you look like anyone on this list, I get to stab you. Probably through the knees.”

One of the girls squeaked and the father protectively shielded her, growing pale. Relc rolled his eyes as Tkrn glared at him.

“Don’t worry! It’s only adults. Oh, wait, there’s a kid on here. Hm. Hm. Nah. You’re not on the list. You’re almost free to go.”

The family relaxed, then stiffened at the ‘almost’. Relc smiled as he leaned on his spear.

“Just one last question. On a scale of one to a hundred, how well do you think I’m doing my job? One hundred being the best, obviously.”

The two parents looked at each other, dumbfounded. Tkrn shook his head, exasperated. Then a roar echoed from behind Relc.

Senior Guardsman Relc!

“Oh shit.”

The Drake whirled and saluted. Watch Captain Zevara herself strode up to the gates. She glared at Relc.

“Hi, Watch Captain Z.”

“Senior Guardsman, you are the worst, most incompetent guardsman I have ever had the misfortune of working with! And you!”

Zevara pointed at the family and moderated her tone as one of the girls hid behind their parents. The Drake coughed. She looked around, and tried to smile.

“Um. I’m terribly sorry for my [Guardsman]’s performance. Please, go on ahead.”

She ushered the family through the gates, offering apologies. The wide-eyed family watched Zevara go and the twitching smile she tried to keep on her face. When they were gone, Zevara grabbed Relc.

“Can’t you do a single job right you—”

“Hey! I was just asking for—ow! Watch Captain! That hurts my feelings!”

Bemused, Fals watched as another Gnoll took Relc’s position and the people waiting were checked in within a matter of minutes. The Gnoll, Tkrn, blinked when he saw Fals.

“Ah, City Runner, yes? Sorry, this line was for the immigrants. Travellers. City Runners can pass. We should have waved you through. Or someone should have.”

He turned and glared at Relc, who was still being chewed out by the Watch Captain.

“Oh, really?”

Fals was a bit put out by that. Still, it was only a few minutes. Tkrn looked past him at a group of wagons headed his way. He sighed and Fals offered him a sympathetic smile.

“Busy day?”

“Not by half. Hrr. Have we met?”

The Gnoll sniffed politely at Fals. The Human paused.

“I’ve been to the city a few times. I’m actually bound to the Runner’s Guild to make a few deliveries. You wouldn’t happen to know a…Miss Raekea, would you? [Blacksmith]?”

“Ah! You mean Councilwoman Raekea. She’s no longer just a [Blacksmith].”

Tkrn puffed out his chest as Fals blinked. The City Runner blinked as Tkrn explained.

“She won the election. She is on the City Council, so she is not always at her forge. You could drop off anything she needs to see at City Hall. It is more convenient than her home or shop, yes? Just go straight.”

“Thanks. Oh—and I’m actually here for another reason. I saw the inn from afar. The Wandering Inn. Is it open?”

Fals was almost afraid to look. He’d heard it was destroyed. Tkrn paused, and Relc looked around.

“The inn? It’s open.”

“Really? But I heard it was destroyed.”

The young man saw Tkrn smile. Watch Captain Zevara left off haranguing Relc with a sigh. The Gnoll nodded to Fals, and pointed east, although the walls blocked it from view.

“It was. But it’s reopening today. You came just in time.”

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn. The family of Humans who entered Liscor already knew its name. Travellers from further north hadn’t heard of it. But those who had come to Liscor who found themselves queued up on the Mason’s Guild to see if rumors about well-paying jobs in this Drake city were true found themselves talking.

Not all of them were Human, but most of the new arrivals were. Some Drakes and Gnolls here to sign up for work looked disgruntled at the Humans, some of whom had come as entire families, others alone.

“Why are they coming here? Can’t they find jobs in their own cities?”

One Drake was heard to complain loudly, prompting nervous looks in the queue lined up at the desk. He was more well-to-do, and his function wasn’t as a potential worker, but a client of the guild.

He, and a group of Drakes and Gnolls were conferring with the Guildmaster of the Mason’s Guild. It was an ironic statement, made doubly so because some of the Gnolls looked disgruntled too. One of them, female, her fur combed and scented, frowned at the applicants.

“Is there enough space to house them all, I wonder? And surely it is true that there isn’t that much gold to be had, yes? This is our city. Not a Human one.”

Ironic indeed. Some of the younger Drakes and Gnolls in the group were nodding, but one of the Drakes bit her tongue on a reply. It seemed this Gnoll had forgotten that her kind had come nearly a decade back for the same reason.

The Guildmaster had not. Guildmaster Okr, a Gnoll who was both [Mason] and [Guildmaster], gave the younger Gnoll a reproving glance—when she wasn’t looking. His voice was brisk.

“Humans, Drakes, or Gnolls, we could use the paws—or hands or claws, yes? I’ll put them up in the apartments. It will be uncomfortable, but they will be building their own homes.”

“I just don’t understand the logistics of it.”

The Drake who’d been first to complain grumbled. Now, the female Drake who’d frowned spoke up.

“Maybe they’re here because we’re offering more silver than anywhere else, Zess. A few more silver pieces per week is a lot, especially if they’re high enough level to earn it. And we need the workers, don’t we?”

The Drake paused and flushed. He nodded to the female Drake.

“Of course, Selys. I’m only wondering if there would be uh, incidents. You know.”

“No. Do you mean between Drakes and Humans?”

Zess paused. He looked down at Selys Shivertail. There was all the makings of a trap in her smile and tone and question. The Drake tried to think on his feet and metaphorically fell flat on his face.

“Or Gnolls or Humans. I’m just concerned.”

“But why would they have a problem? Do Humans cause more trouble? Or would it be Drakes and Gnolls causing trouble? Or is there just a problem with hiring Humans?”

“Well…”

There was no good answer to that. Zess bit his tongue, wisely, and everyone else paused on a reply. Guildmaster Okr looked vaguely approving. The female Gnoll huffed, but most of the male Drakes and Gnolls hesitated to earn Selys’ wrath.

They were all wealthy. You could tell that by their clothing, and just their attitude. The clients of the Mason’s Guild, who were here to hire the very workers applying for a job were individuals who had money by inheritance or deed. And the newest among them, Selys Shivertail, was a face.

Niece to Zel Shivertail, the fallen hero known as the Tidebreaker. Even the Humans in line knew that name, and they stared at her. Granddaughter to Tekshia Shivertail, Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild. And—this was a new title—most eligible bachelorette in all of Liscor.

Selys was rich. She was a [Heiress], and right now…peeved. She sighed, but Guildmaster Okr got the group back on track.

“The Council is willing to let you subcontract my workers, yes? But be mindful—in your purchased lots of land, you must still accommodate the streets and sewer work already laid down. And your works must fit within the [Architect]’s overall designs.”

“But we have to pay for our own [Builders] to make what we want? And workers? That’s a lot of the burden on us, and for what?”

One of the Drakes grumbled loudly. He was the son of a [Landowner]. Guildmaster Okr sighed through his nose.

“Those are the Council’s orders. Now, if you would care to bid on the auctionable land…?”

He gestured to the map. Selys saw the Drakes and Gnolls look at each other sharply. For all their complaints, they eyed the plans for a new city like a hawk. Selys glanced at the lines of workers.

“Can you quote us how much we’re paying each worker, Guildmaster Okr?”

“Of course. They will be paid by level, so anyone below Level 10 will be paid according to this chart. By task, yes? Also, they must have insurance for injury or death. According to this chart…”

The Guildmaster had all kinds of bits of paper. The Drakes and Gnolls grumbled over them, although Selys, looking at the paper, thought it was a small amount of money for someone losing…a limb? She winced.

“How likely is this?”

“If building is done properly? Not likely, Miss Shivertail. But it is an expensive undertaking, as you can see.”

Zess threw down his pieces of paper with a hiss of annoyance.

“We can either fund part of the new section of the city being built or pay for it all ourselves? And can we charge rent as we please on our land?”

His tail lashed angrily. Selys glared at him.

“Assuming it’s not for poor Drakes and Gnolls, sure, Zess! Guildmaster Okr, I’ll buy this section of land here.”

She pointed at one of the auctioned spots on the map. The other Gnolls and Drakes bristled.

“You can’t do that! It’s going to be auctioned!”

“Okay, then put me down for the auction.”

Selys smiled sweetly at Rekka. The other Gnoll glared back. Okr made a little note, covering a smile as he did. Selys looked down at the map and shook her head. She looked around as a shout caught her attention.

“Build the walls! Yes! Payday!

A group of Gnolls and Drakes were celebrating at the desk. They must have been very pleased by the pay they were getting, because they were high-fiving. The landowners looked aghast, but Selys just grinned. She could see dirt and dust on their clothing. They must have been collecting their pay.

A new part of Liscor was being built. If you walked out around the walls to the west, you’d be able to see it. Already, the foundations were being laid. Buildings were going up, out of necessity as much as haste! The new wing of the city would have to be built and enclosed in walls by next spring. And there needed to be room for all the families coming here for work!

“It’s the Antinium who’re fastest. But would you want to live in a place they built? Let them do the sewers and outer walls, I say. If it wasn’t so expensive to buy land and hire enough workers—I’ll have to hire some Humans.”

Selys heard a conversation between two of the Drakes standing next to her. She grimaced.

Part of funding Liscor’s expansion was selling off parts of the new city to, well, anyone with money. The Council had funds from the army, the city’s own revenue, and gold from both the Antinium and the Walled Cities, but it still wasn’t enough. Not, at least, to fill the city with all the grand plans they wanted. So they’d decided to sell areas of the city to private citizens.

It would be their land, adding to the apartments and other establishments the wealthiest landowners owned at this moment. It would give them more property if they were willing to spend, and they were willing to spend despite their numerous complaints. And because Selys was rich, that number included her.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But she had money, and this was an investment. No—it was the future of Liscor. Selys just didn’t like that she was rubbing shoulders and tails with a bunch of people she’d always considered high-class snobs. She sighed and took a few steps away from Zess and the others. The males were also very interested in courting her newfound wealth.

A conversation caught Selys’ earhole as she took a few steps back to ignore the quarreling group debating how much the workers would be hired at with Guildmaster Okr. A group in line, the same family Fals had seen at the gate, were nervously talking with some Humans and Drakes in line.

“So there’s paying work? We came from Esthelm—not far—but we heard someone was from as far as Remendia! Is there really that much gold to be made?”

“Oh yes. Steady work too, if you can keep up. Liscor’s going to be a third again as big if we follow these designs!”

A Gnoll woman standing in line grinned at the anxious parents and flexed one arm. The parents looked relieved, but one of the Drakes standing next to her cast a glare over her shoulder.

“Not if the Antinium take all the work. They’re out there, stealing our jobs—”

The Gnoll reached over and smacked her friend.

“They’re laying the foundations, and the sewers. You want to dig through all that dirt, Hesna? Be my guest, yes? But the Council made it so we all have work.”

“You mean, Councilmember Lism made sure of it. Councilmember Krshia wouldn’t have—”

A loud chorus of boos and growls from other Gnolls and a few Drakes in the line shut up the angry Hesna. The Humans looked around, wide-eyed, as a Gnoll growled and thrust a furry finger at the Drake.

“Keep politics out of it! The election is over, yes?”

Most of the Liscorian citizens agreed. Hesna turned red as Selys grinned ruefully. People were still talking about the outcome of the election. The Gnoll who’d been speaking to the Humans turned back to them.

“Sorry. Anyways, there is room. And places to sleep, yes? Outside the walls.”

“Outside?”

The family looked horrified and the Gnoll hastened to reassure them.

“You’ll see! It is right in the new section of the city. There are apartments that have been made for all the new workers. The city, it is full to bursting, yes? But there is already a temporary wall. Twenty feet high! The Antinium made it, and the apartments. Quickly, too.”

She glared at Hesna. The Drake rolled her eyes.

“The Antinium? You mean, the bug-men, right? Are they…what’re they like?”

Some of the Humans looked like they were regretting their choice to come to the city. The Gnoll and Drake exchanged looks.

“The Antinium? They are fine, yes? Just don’t ask Workers anything. Especially not their names. There will be an orientation. And the Antinium are fine. You will barely notice them.”

“But are there bugs? In the apartment? Or is it…”

“Buggy? Not at all. They were very clean, actually.”

The Gnoll [Builder] grinned. Some of the other Gnolls and Drakes chuckled. The Humans looked relieved. But that only opened the floodgates to more questions. Selys smiled as they began pelting the other Gnolls and Drakes in line with queries.

“So—there’s a Hive under the city? And that’s safe?

“About the spring rains…”

“Is there anywhere to play? I can’t have the children running about the city or going outside, not with all those Shield Spiders and those horrible…rock…crabs!”

“Is she here? I mean, the [Innkeeper]? I was hoping to stay at her inn.”

Selys looked around. The husband of the family from Esthelm was talking to the Gnoll. The [Heiress] drifted closer as the Gnoll blinked at him.

“The [Innkeeper]? We have many, yes?”

“Well, yeah. But I mean…her. The one from—what’s the inn called? She was at Esthelm.”

The man was getting flustered. He turned to his wife and then back to the Gnoll.

“The young woman. Human? She runs an inn around here. I was told it’s fairly famous. And she’s a bit—off—”

The Wandering Inn?

The chorus came from every Drake and Gnoll in line. The Humans looked around. But Liscor’s citizens were nodding. Some smiled, some rolled their eyes, exasperated. But they knew the name.

“So it’s here? I asked, but someone said it’s not in the city.”

“It’s not. It’s just on a hill. Eastern gate. You can’t miss it.”

That worried the mother and the family intending to seek it out.

“It is safe? I’ve heard all manner of things about that inn. They say the [Innkeeper] ousted Commander Deint. She started a coup. Is that true?”

“Hah! I’d believe it.”

One of the Drakes laughed good-naturedly. A [Foreman] from Remendia blinked.

“That can’t be true. I heard about that inn, but the ‘magic door’ was closed in Celum, or so they said. There’s not really an inn around here that has one, right? Right?”

He looked around. The Drakes and Gnolls just grinned at him. One of the Drakes put a clawed hand on his shoulder and the [Foreman] jumped.

“Magic door? My friend. That is the least of what that crazy Human does.”

“So you all know her? You’ve met her?”

Selys smiled as the Humans asked questions. Most Gnolls and Drakes shook their heads, but a few spoke up. One Gnoll, a headband tied around his furry head, nodded.

“I’ve had a few dishes at her place. You know, she’s invented a bunch of rare foods? She’s a genius, that one. She makes new foods, and she plays that game. Chess. She’s beaten our own [Strategist] at it!”

“No she hasn’t. That’s just a rumor. He teaches her.”

Another Drake shook her head, looking put out. The first Gnoll snorted.

“She’s not a genius. She’s insane. Totally insane. She keeps Goblins in her inn, did you know? A bunch of them, in her basement.”

“I thought that was dead bodies. She’s a [Necromancer], too.”

“A [Necromancer]?”

The Humans were horrified. The Drakes and Gnolls began arguing.

“No she’s not! She employs a [Necromancer]. But her [Barmaid]’s are undead.”

“No, no. They’re the Goblins. She’s got like, a dozen of them.”

“She’s not right in the head. I thought all Humans were like that, but apparently she’s weird, even by Human standards. Sir, can you spit blood at will?”

“Me? No!”

The [Foreman] looked alarmed. One of the Drakes nodded wisely.

“Ah, well, she can. It’s like a breath attack. She’s one of the Oldblood, except Human.”

Selys covered her face. But she listened, with delight and chagrin. So did the newcomers to the city.

“They say she killed the Goblin Lord.”

“She fought off the Face-Eater Moths. And Skinner. Her inn’s survived the Raskghar! I heard she tore one of them apart with her bare hands.”

“She beat a Minotaur at arm-wrestling. She’s got a punch to prove it. Swear to it. I saw her lay out a fellow one time—”

“She owns a pet bee. And she was a [Thief]! We expelled her from the city, but there she is. An [Innkeeper]. Credit to her, I say, all things forgiven.”

“Absolutely mad. Quite charming. Good singing voice too. But absolutely mad.”

“Do Humans have testicles? I’m asking for a friend.”

At this, Selys had to laugh. And her laughter made the line go silent. People turned to her as Selys approached the Human family. She saw the two girls hide behind their parents. But Selys smiled without showing her teeth, and saw two faces peek at her. She addressed the parents, who might have never really talked to a Drake before. The Gnolls and Drakes of Liscor hadn’t known many Humans before Erin, after all. And there were still misconceptions.

“Excuse me, but if you want to visit the inn, why not stop by after you finish up here? It’s opening today. Reopening, I should say.”

The news caught everyone off-guard, not just the Humans. One of the Humans, the [Foreman], turned to Selys.

“So it’s true? The inn’s back? But I heard it was destroyed.”

One of the Gnolls laughed.

“You can’t just destroy The Wandering Inn! It’s more than just an inn! It’s like a—part of the city! Where would we be without that crazy Human? It’s a symbol. A metaphor.”

Hesna shook her head.

“You mean, a mushroom. You just can’t get rid of it. Those Humans keep coming back…”

She grunted as the Gnoll standing behind her elbowed her in the stomach. The Humans looked warily at the Drakes and Gnolls. They were new to Liscor. And Selys sighed, seeing a few very Lism-esque glances. But then she smiled. She turned back to the Human family and shook her head.

“The Wandering Inn was destroyed. But it’s back. It’s just a little different.”

The listeners looked at her. The wife glanced at her children, and her husband, and cleared her throat.

How different, exactly?”

 

—-

 

There, on a hill, sat an inn. It had been destroyed. Or so the rumors claimed. But that had been two weeks ago. A short time. Or a long one. Because for all that time, the inn had been closed. But now, today, this moment in fact, it was reopening.

The first visitors were already lined up outside the magical door that would let them into the inn. Because who wanted to walk even the short distance to the inn? But the magical door wasn’t working just yet. Like the inn, it had been out of commission these last two weeks.

Fals found himself waiting in line behind a female Drake. He glanced at her, and the Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes standing around her. He recognized the very same family from Esthelm. Then Selys. She blinked at him.

“F-Fals? Wait, do I have that wrong?”

“No. It’s Miss Selys, isn’t it?”

They shook hands. Selys smiled as she gestured to the line. There was a long one! It stretched down the street. Fals glanced at it. Then around.

“A lot of people are waiting. Is the door open? I heard it was broken and that the inn was closed. Hey, is Erin alright? I heard a lot of things. And the Horns…”

He trailed off. Selys smiled, but a bit sadly.

“They’re all okay. At least, I think so. The Horns are north, actually. They’re going to Invrisil.”

What?

“They took one of Erin’s door-portals north. They left about a week and a half ago. Sorry, did you come here for them?”

Fals sighed.

“No. I just—I wish I’d had a chance to talk to them. I’m just glad they’re alive. I thought maybe I could see them, but the door—”

“Oh, right.”

The Drake grimaced. She twirled a ring on one of her claws.

“The city took it after the inn collapsed. They needed it to clear the Crelers from the Bloodfields. And the inn was broken, so it was in the city.”

“Oh. So there were Crelers?”

Selys’ eyes glinted.

“Yes. I’ll tell you about it. Or let someone else do that for me. I wasn’t there. I saw the aftermath, though.”

Fals shuddered.

“But Erin’s alive? She didn’t get hurt?”

“Not from the Crelers. I hope we’ll see her soon.”

Selys sighed. Fals wanted to ask more, but an impatient voice called out from behind them.

“Hey! What’s the hold up? I want ice cream! I haven’t had any for two weeks! Look at my paw! It’s shaking!”

A chorus of voices rang out in the line. Selys saw a few people opening and closing the door experimentally, but nothing happened. Fals pointed and she shrugged.

“The door should be opening soon. I was told it was going to the inn today.”

“So is the inn rebuilt or something?”

“Yup. The Antinium put it up. Well, it’s still in progress, but apparently they got the most important bits up. We just have to wait…say, why are you in Liscor?”

Fals patted his backpack.

“Delivery.”

“Ah.”

The two turned back to wait. And the Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes waited in line, patiently and impatiently, all wanting to see the familiar, or the mysterious [Innkeeper], the owner of The Wandering Inn.

But the first visitors to the inn weren’t coming from the magical door. Rather, they were walking. The two proceeded from Liscor’s eastern gates, travelling down the hill into a small valley, up the grassy slopes. They were talking. Well, arguing.

“That jerk. Captain Z is always getting on my tail. So what if I like to add a bit of humor to my work?”

“You threatened to stab a child in the knee.”

“I didn’t threaten! I suggested I might. Anyways, she wasn’t on the list, so what’s the problem?”

“Besides excruciating and long-lasting mental trauma?”

“Hah! That’s not real. Wait, is it?”

“Do you still dream about the time your tail got run over by a wagon?”

“Ooh. Oooh. It still stings! Don’t remind me about it. Anyways I’m not that bad at my job! And she can’t dock my pay!”

“You are the most inept [Guardsman] I have ever had the misfortune to work with.”

“Hey! You’re not perfect, buddy!”

“I am not your buddy. We are coworkers.”

The two figures toiled up the hill. Well, they didn’t toil very hard. But they did have to balance the huge doorframe between them as they climbed. Relc glared at Klbkch.

“We’re best buddies.”

“I find this statement difficult to accept.”

Klbkch stared back impassively. Relc waved one claw, easily carrying his half of the magical door.

“Don’t be a lizard, Klb. If you’re not my buddy, who is? We’re partners, and a team! You can’t spell team without me. And…without I. Wait, how does it go again?”

The Antinium sighed.

“We are a team, but calling us ‘friends’ or ‘pals’ or ‘chums’ is a painful stretch in my opinion.”

“Huh? Why’s that? Klb, buddy, you’re wounding me.”

“I am increasingly reluctant to tie myself in a familiar way to you, Relc. Mainly due to your ineptitude and lackadaisical attitude at work, which is earning you the derision of our coworkers.”

“…But we’re best friends. Klb! You have to stick by me! I’m your only friend! Name one other friend than me!”

The Antinium paused as they carried the door to the waiting inn. He glanced up at the wide hill and shook his head.

“Erin.”

“…Name one other friend.”

“…Jeiss?”

“Aha! See? You don’t have anyone but me! Jeiss hates your guts.”

“He does not. We maintain a cordial working relationship.”

“We’re best pals, Klb. You can’t be pals with Erin. Erin likes everyone. Anyways, what would you do without me?”

“Enjoy my life?”

Relc kicked at Klbkch, but he missed as the Antinium twisted out of the way. They stared at each other. Then Relc jerked his head towards the inn.

“Let’s just get this door up there, huh, coworker?

“Yes.”

The two headed up the hill. And there it stood. The Wandering Inn. Relc peered up at the front of the building. He paused. Klbkch felt him edging left.

“Stop that.”

“Huh. It looks…different. Doesn’t it, Klb?”

“The design is fundamentally changed, yes. Were you not aware of this fact despite me repeating it to you several times throughout the week?”

“Klb, Klb…I don’t listen to you all the time. Ow!”

Relc glared as Klbkch kicked him. Then he went back to staring up at the inn.

“Strange. It looks…strange.”

Klbkch turned his head. And even the Antinium Revalantor couldn’t find a snippy comeback to that. As the two made their way up the hill, they looked at The Wandering Inn.

Aesthetically, there wasn’t much wrong with it. The inn’s solid stone foundation turned into thick walls, forming the base of the inn. And the first floor, three times as large as it had once been, was already done. Stone had been neatly piled up, and then cemented into a hard mass. Wooden beams joined wooden structure as the inn grew taller.

The inn wasn’t one building, the two [Guardsmen] saw, but a compound. It wasn’t solidly roofed, but rather looked as though one central building would be connected to several smaller ones when finished. As it was, the inn was wide as it was tall. And figures were crawling on the roof.

“Ants.”

“Workers.”

Klbkch corrected Relc reprovingly. The Drake was pointing out the Workers busily constructing a second floor. The Antinium had already built several rooms; Relc and Klbkch could actually stare into one as an Antinium laid the flooring. And more were busily covering a roof with fluted tiles. But what drew the eye was a little tower that had been built on the finished roof.

On the hypothetical third floor—which was also in construction—someone had nailed together a few boards very haphazardly, and with scavenged wood and determination, made a ramshackle tower. Both Klbkch and Relc saw a little Antinium Worker happily standing in his perch. He waved at them and Relc waved back.

Some things never changed. But as Relc approached the front of the inn he realized some things did.

“Look. Double doors. Fancy.

He poked the large wooden doors, reminiscent of a castle’s doors. In fact…Relc squinted up at the inn in progress. When it was done, it would rather be like a castle. Without spires or battlements, but with….inner and outer parts. And the keep waited within.

“Huh. Hey, how did Erin pay for all this?”

“The city granted her funds due to her inn’s part in subduing the Crelers. I believe there were also donations from concerned private citizens. And the Antinium have also taken this job on at slight cost.”

“Aw. You’re so nice.”

“Do not touch me.”

The two laid down the magic door. Relc sighed as he rubbed his left arm.

“That thing’s heavy!”

“You bet me you could drag me on it all the way here. Do not blame me for your bravado.”

“Well, I lost. So…shut up. Say, did anyone say where the door should go?”

“Right inside, to the left. In the entryway.”

“The left? Why not the right? Weird.”

Relc shook his head as he pulled one of the double doors aside. Klbkch did the same, and Relc jumped forwards.

Hey! It’s me! Where’s the f—

The Drake paused. Then he recoiled and stepped backwards. And he couldn’t say why at first. Klbkch had a different reaction; his hands instinctively went to his sword’s hilts. The two stared into The Wandering Inn.

It wasn’t the common room they found greeting them past the double doors. No—what they found was a narrow…passage. Or ‘entryway’ would be more appropriate. Because it was too narrow to really be a room. Rather, it was a long, open stretch of space flanked by walls on both sides which led up to another set of double doors. The hallway was just…a hallway. There were a few gaps along the walls, as if someone had forgotten to fully close the walls, but that was all.

A hallway surrounded on three sides. Just a hallway. But something about it made Relc distinctly uneasy. He glanced up towards the double doors, and then at the magical door. There was space for it along the left wall.

“Just here?”

“Yes.”

Klbkch was just as wary as Relc. The two [Guardsmen] wrestled the magic door in place along the left wall. There. It would allow visitors to enter the inn at the same time as regular guests. But in that case, why make people walk down this hall to get to the proper inn? It was hidden behind the second set of doors.

Relc didn’t understand. It made no sense. Right until he turned and stared at the narrow gap in the wall. It was…an opening. Although he saw what looked like faint shutters on the other end. What was—

Then Relc realized what it was. His scales crawled and he elbowed Klbkch.

“Hey. Is this…?”

“Yes. A kill zone.”

Klbkch nodded to the arrow slits. Relc peered at one and realized how thick the wall was between him and the gap on the other side. He glanced up—saw a faint outline freshly cut in the ceiling.

“Klb, buddy, do you think that’s a murder hole?”

“…Yes.”

The two [Guardsmen] edged out of the way of the faint, concealed outline in the ceiling. It could have been just a thin trap door. Or…if you were being highly suspicious, it might be a narrow opening which someone inclined could pour boiling oil down. Or acid. There were a number of those openings in the ceiling. And—Relc narrowed his eyes. This room was very solid. And now he looked, the door at the far end was very secure. He could imagine making this a choke point where one or two people could hold back…

“Hey, Klb. Didn’t you say one of your uh, Workers designed this inn?”

“Along with Miss Lyonette. Yes. Belgrade. He is fairly adept at making traps.”

“Right.”

The two [Guardsmen] hesitated. They walked forwards. Neither of them liked being here. Even if it was the inn—and it did not look like the inn at the moment to Relc—they felt instinctively that they were surrounded on all sides, easily flanked. Relc peered at the shut arrow slits. Then at the ceiling.

The inn was very quiet. The Drake passed by another opening in the wall. Put a crossbow or bow there and you could hit him from either side. And there’d be acid pouring down from the ceiling. Come to that—why was the magic door along the far wall? Maybe—

Something leapt on him. Relc screamed and whirled, spear in hand.

“Gaaaah!”

He nearly stabbed the furry, white shape tackling his legs. Nearly. But he saw Mrsha and stopped. Klbkch had nearly unsheathed his blades as well.

“You little rascal! Where did you come from?”

Relc’s heart was pounding out of his chest. He stared at Mrsha. The white Gnoll grinned up at him. She punched Relc’s legs, raced about him on all fours, and then held up her paws. She waved one paw, made a gesture where her paw closed and opened wide. It was her way of saying ‘hello! Tricked you!’

Mrsha, the white Gnoll cub giggled at the look on Relc’s face. The Drake raised his fist.

“Why, I oughta—take this!”

He punched. Klbkch staggered as Relc hit him in the shoulder. The Antinium caught himself, stared at Relc.

“Why did you do that?”

“I had to punch someone!”

“No you did not. I am extremely angry.”

“Where did you come from, though?”

Relc ignored Klbkch’s wrath and turned to Mrsha. She hadn’t come through the double doors; they’d closed behind them. The magic door? No. Relc looked around and frowned at Mrsha. The Gnoll was giving him the smuggest look he’d ever seen on a Gnoll’s face.

“Hey. You little scamp. How’d you sneak up on us? Answer me!”

Mrsha gave Relc a very Goblin-like shrug. But her eyes twinkled. Relc raised a fist.

“Don’t make me punch Klbkch again!”

“I will stab you first.”

For answer, Mrsha pointed. Relc looked as she pointed behind her, and then made another gesture where she covered her eyes and peeked.

“I have no idea what she’s saying. Do you know what her sign language is, Klb?”

“Hm. Cover eyes. Peeking. Don’t look? No—ah. Hidden. Secret.

Mrsha nodded excitedly. She pointed and Relc saw her scamper over to a piece of wood near the entryway. His eyes narrowed as she pushed on it. Then he saw the cleverly disguised—

“Door! Look, it’s a door!”

Klbkch nodded. Mrsha disappeared through a hidden door. Relc realized there were two, one on each side of the entryway. He looked around.

“Of course! So they can get at the door. But if they don’t like who’s coming in…arrows! Boiling curry! Evil Gnoll cubs!”

He waved his claws at the cleverly-designed hallway. Klbkch eyed the closed secret door. Mrsha had swung it inwards. He went over and pushed on the section of the wall. Nothing happened. Klbkch tried harder. Relc thought he heard silent laughter coming from behind it.

“I believe the door is able to be barred from the other side. Clever.”

“Yeah. Unless you do this! Hah!

Relc charged into the secret door. Klbkch heard a thud, and an alarmed sound from behind the wall. Relc picked himself up from the floor.

“Ow.”

“Erin’s Skills appear to be in effect. And you appear to be an idiot.”

“Klb. I don’t appear to be anything. Wait. That’s some tough wall.”

Relc rose, rubbing at his head. More relaxed now, he looked around. The double doors at the far end had opened, and a warm glow greeted him. The Drake inhaled and smelled…sawdust. But also, warm food. He grinned.

“Klb, do you remember when we first came to this inn?”

“I distinctly recall it was another inn, set further to the east. But yes.”

“Strange. Feels like a lot’s changed. A lot.”

The Drake nodded. He just looked around for a moment. Then he smiled.

“Alright. Let’s open that door!”

He strode over to the door to Liscor and yanked it open. A magical portal appeared, quick as thought. Relc saw a huge line of Drakes and Gnolls and Humans. He grinned at them.

“Hey! Look at—”

About time! What took you so long, you lazy bum? We’ve been waiting for over—

Relc slammed the door shut. He turned to Klbkch.

“Let’s toss the door down the hill.”

Klbkch only sighed and pulled the door open. Then he turned and punched Relc in the shoulder.

“Ow. Klbkch, that hurts my feelings.”

 

—-

 

And here they came. Relc and Klbkch in front, Selys pushing with Fals behind. Not just them. New visitors, like the workers from Esthelm. But more.

“Hey! Is the inn open again? I’m so hungry. Erin! Are you there? Ooh. Free snacks!”

Relc’s voice echoed ahead of the others as he made his way down the hallways, pushing Klbkch back so he could be first into the inn. And behind him followed a crowd. Drakes, Gnolls—and then adventurers.

A Garuda, fluttering through the door and blinking suspiciously at the arrow slits. A blue-scaled Drake who nodded approvingly at the very same and eyed the murder holes with worry. A tall, furry Gnoll with a bit of gray in his step and a cat riding on one shoulder.

And then a Centaur, trotting ahead of a nervous young Human woman holding a magical staff. A female Minotaur. Behind them, a harrumphing Drake glaring about, followed by a Gnoll [Shopkeeper] who looked ready to toss him back through the doorway. Not all were friends. But most were.

A bevy of Antinium followed the crowds, polite Workers and a few Painted Soldiers, gleaming. Among them, a giant a few inches taller than the rest, marked by yellow droplets of paint. An Antinium who smiled and clasped lower hands together in prayer.

Conspicuous among them were the faces who weren’t there. There was no half-Elf, no sniffing [Necromancer] or woman with silver arms. Or Antinium with only three arms. But then someone opened the side door, adjusted a setting on the magical dial, and a Stitch-girl stepped into the hallway with a Hobgoblin.

She was carrying a flask of bubbling liquid she was offering around for people to sample. The Hobgoblin had a guitar on his back. They joined the crowd slowly coming through the doors. And though some knew what to expect, the newcomers looked up.

Here she was. The [Innkeeper]. The owner of The Wandering Inn. A young woman, or so it was said. But one who played chess like a [Strategist]. Who befriended Goblins and [Necromancers]. Who fought monsters. Or served them. She could do anything. Or maybe she drew trouble like metal drew lightning. She was kind. Or just crazy.

There she stood. A little white Gnoll ran around her, excited as could be. She was shorter than the legends claimed. But she smiled with genuine delight as visitors saw her. Her hair caught the light pouring in through the windows, glinting red.

The common room of the inn, the true common room was wide, and vast. Too vast for the space it should have inhabited. But there was a point where the bright glass windows turned to smooth wood. And at the far end of the room, a stage waited.

So too did the tables and chairs. They were new, polished, waiting for people to fill them. A long bar manned—or womaned—or Draked lay along one wall. Kegs and bottles stood at attention, as did mugs and tankards waiting to be filled. And a large kitchen issued aromas of already-cooked food. But it would be fresh as the moment it was made, no matter how much time passed.

Indeed, over a dozen members of staff were waiting for this first crowd. Gnolls and Drakes, smiling and welcoming some guests. The newcomers relaxed—and then ducked as a huge bee floated overhead, flying upside down and pondering what it meant to be free. But the laughter of the young woman calmed them. She raised her hand and the bee flew down to land on her hand.

So this was her. The madwoman of Liscor. The [Innkeeper]. The guests stared as she greeted some of the faces she knew, smiling, bowing to the Gnoll [Shopkeeper]. They looked at her and wondered. Her legend was small, yet. But it was growing. A young woman, they said. An [Innkeeper]. And her inn, which had done so much in such a short time.

The Wandering Inn. And here was—

Lyonette.

The [Princess] smiled as she transferred Apista to one shoulder. She nodded to Krshia and raised her voice.

“Excuse me! Everyone keep moving, please! There are tables and chairs enough for everyone! We have a menu with illustrations and one on the far wall—the bar is serving drinks or our staff can take one to your table! Hello! Elirr! Mrsha was dying to see you! Is that a cat?”

The Gnoll smiled ruefully as the cat on his shoulder hissed at Apista. The Ashfire Bee menacingly poked it’s stinger at the cat. Lyonette smiled as she took the Gnoll’s hands and kept ushering people through the doors.

“It’s so good to see you. Thank you for putting us up—will you have a seat? We can put you over there, by one of the fireplaces…Ishkr? Ishkr!”

“Here.”

A younger Gnoll appeared. Lyonette turned to him as Mrsha dove through the sea of legs, happily seeking out friends.

“Open the side doors, will you? I think we have too many guests for just the double doors!”

“On it.”

The Gnoll nodded and Lyonette saw a stream of people begin appearing through another doorway. The press abated somewhat and she and Elirr moved to one side.

“Mrsha! Mrsha, come here you silly girl! You’ll be trampled!”

Mrsha appeared, grinning with delight. She was as excited as Lyonette and everyone else. Relc was bouncing up and down.

“This place looks great! Ancestors, you’ve got two fireplaces?”

“It’s a large room! And we have a private room—more buildings planned—Krshia! Oh, and Councilmember Lism.”

She politely bowed. Lism glared about, but brightened when he saw his nephew. Krshia came over, smiling.

“It is good to see you, Lyonette. It seems the inn is finished, yes?”

“Not by half! But the entryway and common room are done. And the kitchen! So we could reopen. Which is just as well, because some of the things I have planned—alright! Let’s begin serving tables! I’ll check on the Players of Celum as soon as we’re settled!”

The room was far from packed, but at least a hundred people had come through already and the flow didn’t seem to be ceasing any time soon. Lyonette was smiling fit to burst. So was Krshia, but something paused her.

It was Lyonette. Of course, it was Lyonette, not Erin Solstice. The uninformed were looking at Lyonette as if she was the rumored [Innkeeper], but she wasn’t. She was a [Princess]—although you’d hardly know it by her neatly tied back hair and businesslike way she was managing people. Or maybe you would.

In either case, she was still not an [Innkeeper]. And that was the one face conspicuously missing among the crowd. Even as Relc chortled over a full bowl of spaghetti filled with meatballs and sauce, he was looking for her. The Antinium lined up by their table were turning, ignoring the frightened looks they were getting from the Humans. Krshia sniffed the air, but she’d already determined it.

“Erin Solstice, she is not here still? Lyonette?”

The [Princess] paused.

“Not yet. But she knows the inn’s back. At least, her Skills are active. Her [Grand Theatre] Skill began working two days ago. But she’s still away.”

“What’s that? Excuse me. Hello! I’m sorry to intrude, but—”

A voice interrupted Lyonette. Fals hurried over. The City Runner paused, recoiling as Apista fanned her wings threateningly.

“Oh! Fals!”

Lyonette ever-so-gently flicked Apista’s head and the bee, mollified, relaxed. Fals smiled.

“I didn’t think you’d recognize me amid all the crowd. Hello! It’s good to see you Miss Lyonette and, er…Miss Krshia?”

“Good morning to you.”

Krshia growled a polite greeting. So did Elirr, who introduced himself. The Gnoll plucked the cat off his shoulder as it tried to climb up.

“Shoo. You wanted to see the inn? Well, I hope Mrsha eats you.”

Affronted, the cat leapt from the Gnoll’s shoulder. She landed on the ground and came face-to-face with a very large Gnoll cub. Well, by cat standards. Mrsha was a giant compared to any housecat. The cat warily backed away. Mrsha grinned. They darted into the crowd, playing a game of Gnoll-and-cat.

“Mrsha! Don’t—”

Lyonette sighed. The confusion was familiar and aggravating. But the inn was filling! It was in fact, raucous. But someone was missing. Fals looked around.

“Is Miss Erin not here?”

“Not yet. Do you have business with her?”

“I would like to see her. I imagine many of us here would.”

Elirr nodded to the tables full of friends and single enemy contained in Lism. Olesm was staring at the dedicated chess tables that some Antinium were already filling. But he too looked around.

“I actually have a delivery. That’s why I’m here. And to talk, obviously. But I have—”

Fals had produced a rather large, square object, wrapped very securely. Lyonette eyed it, curious, but she had to shake her head.

“She’s not here, Fals.”

“You mean, she’s out?”

“Hey! Where’s Erin? This pasta doesn’t taste like her pasta! I’ll have another thanks, and a hamburger. Where’s Erin?”

Relc shouted, waving a fork and trying to talk around a mouthful of pasta. Lyonette sighed. She looked at Fals.

“She’ll be back. But maybe not just yet, Fals. Can I take the package for her?”

“I have to give it to her. If she’s out on a walk…”

“No. She’s not here.”

It took the City Runner a moment to realize what Lyonette was saying. He paused, and looked at her.

“Then where is she?”

“Pallass. On holiday.”

Lyonette said it simply. Krshia nodded, her eyes flicking to Lyonette, then back to the magical door. Fals paused.

“For two weeks?”

“She needed a break. She’ll come back. When she’s ready. At lot happened while you were away. And I think Erin needed time. I’ll try to get word to her that you’re here. She should know the inn’s open.”

The City Runner hesitated. ‘Can I go to Pallass?’ was something of a hard question, even though he knew the door was able to take him there. He settled for nodding.

“Do you think she’ll be back tonight?”

Lyonette’s pause was telling. Fals sighed. And some of the old guests were catching on. From their seats, four of the Antinium were rising. Lyonette saw and waved a hand.

“Excuse me, I’ve got to keep moving. Take a seat, please!”

She ushered the others to a seat and then made her way to the Antinium. There were four of them. Pawn, Yellow Splatters, and…Lyonette stared at the other two.

They looked somewhat like Soldiers. But they were…different. A bit taller. And their hands were actual hands, not stumpy digits. More importantly, they wore no paint. They were as alien to Lyonette, who knew what Antinium were like as…well, what Antinium were to most species. She focused on Pawn first.

“Pawn! It’s so good to see you! And you’ve brought the Antinium!”

“Lyonette. It is good to see you.”

Pawn took Lyonette’s hand softly. Yellow Splatters nodded.

“We have come, as promised. Thank you for your invitation.”

The Soldier’s voice was deep. Almost unsettling since it came from a Soldier, but Lyonette smiled and nodded.

“It’s a bit of a rush as you can see, but I have acid flies all ready for the Workers and Soldiers. And plenty of soup!”

The two Antinium brightened. Pawn hesitated, looking around.

“Is Erin not here, Lyonette? I thought she would be.”

“She’s still on vacation, Pawn. I think she might be back tonight. I’ll send someone to look for her first thing after this settles, I promise. And get the Players of Celum. I completely forgot, and I want them to perform here tonight. Ishkr, can you—”

The harried-looking Gnoll rushing past Lyonette turned. Lyonette caught his eye.

“—later.”

Pawn nodded, but he was still looking around as if Erin might materialize from nowhere. Lyonette glanced at the two strange Antinium standing next to Pawn and Yellow Splatters.

“Um, Pawn. Who are your friends?”

Pawn jumped. He looked at the two Antinium and at Yellow Splatters. Lyonette saw his mandibles open and close and paused. Yellow Splatters paused too, but it was one of the two not-Soldiers who replied.

“Hello. We are ordinary Antinium Workers, here for sustenance.”

Lyonette stared at the Antinium. He stared back. She looked at Pawn. The [Priest] couldn’t quite meet her gaze.

“Workers?”

“Um…”

The second Antinium not-Soldier must have read Lyonette’s clear confusion, because he jabbed his companion with one of his four arms hard. The other Antinium started.

“We are ordinary Antinium Soldiers. Excuse me.”

Lyonette stared at them. Then she looked at Pawn and Yellow Splatters. It was hard to read Antinium expressions most of the time. But this was a look. She cleared her throat.

“Oh. Well then. I’m very pleased to meet you. If you’d like some food, someone will bring you a menu very soon. Um…welcome to The Wandering Inn!”

The two ‘Soldiers’ nodded. They turned and marched back to the table. Lyonette swore she heard one of them whisper to the other above the hubbub.

“Nearly perfect infiltration.”

“Thank you, Tersk.”

Lyon stared after the Antinium for a second, mouth open. She caught Pawn poking himself repeatedly in the forehead with one finger. She was about to ask a question, but then Pawn turned to her.

“If Erin is not here, I will let you get back to work, Lyonette. We will be able to speak later. Tonight? I know you must be very busy.”

“Of course. It’s a promise.”

Lyonette smiled. Pawn nodded and made his way back with Yellow Splatters. Lyonette looked around.

“Where’s…?”

She spotted a Centaur sitting down at a table to her left. Palt, Montressa, and Beza were looking around warily. And not getting a lot of friendly looks. But they had an invitation back here and…Lyonette murmured.

“They’ve been gone for two weeks. Did they take Isceil’s body…?”

She was about to go over when she heard a chant. Relc was on his feet.

“Hey! Where’s Erin? Where’s the [Actors]? Let’s have some entertainment!”

His words were followed by a cheer. People turned to the empty stage and Lyonette cursed.

“The Players of Celum aren’t here yet! They’ll be here tonight!”

“Boo! Then we want Erin! Erin! Erin!

The chant was taken up. Relc stood up on his chair. And his voice was joined by Klbkch of all people. And Olesm. Lyonette tried to shout an abbreviated explanation, but then other people were shouting the name, taking it up.

And not out of pure peer pressure. It was true that the inn was here. The guests were here. And some things were changed, others different. But something was missing. The heart and soul of the inn had yet to appear. That [Innkeeper]. The crazy Human.

Erin Solstice.

But she was far away. And as Lyonette tried to calm the mob and Mrsha snuck up on Beza with a spring-loaded cat, and Bird happily sang a song in his tower, summer was underway. A single Ashfire Bee buzzed happily. Birds weren’t singing for fear of Bird singing.

And cause and effect was well at work. In his cave, a Dragon rolled over and flapped one wing lazily. That had nothing to do with the thousand or so Wyverns flying out of the High Passes.

And here they came. An army of Gold-rank threats, descending from the heights of the mountains. Enraged, driven out of their territory, led by the furious Wyvern Lord. And what should meet them but a city, a place of Drakes? And as before, the monsters descended. Lower and lower. The Wyvern Lord drew breath as Bird looked up, staring at faint specks in the distance.

“Ooh. What is that?”

The Wyvern Lord stared down at the city and the small oddity on the hill next to it. His sharp gaze spotted the Antinium, the milling Drakes and Gnolls. He snarled and dove.

Some things never changed.

—After a second, the Wyvern leader changed his mind. He stared down at Liscor. And his feral mind did some busy calculations. That was a rather small city. And bugs? He wasn’t about to eat bugs. He rose, shrieking at his companions. The weyr flew after him. No, for a clutch this large, the Wyvern Lord needed a proper place to make his nest, not some titchy little place like this. He flew on, affronted.

South. Over crimson earth and plants that didn’t interest Wyverns one bit. Southwards still, slowly making their way mile by mile. Searching for something…

 

—-

 

And far in the distance, too far for sight yet, lay a city. A jewel of the south. Pallass, the City of Invention. And call it chance, or luck, or twisted fate, but there she was.

A young woman lay on the grass outside of Pallass’ walls. She could see the Walled City in the distance. But right now she was lying by a gentle stream. On a bit of grass. The sky was clear. And she had no idea what was coming, hour by hour across the four hundred miles.

But she was there. And some things changed. And some things never changed. Erin Solstice lay on her back, staring up at the sky. She hummed under her breath. Just staring up the sky, sleepy. Relaxed.

“I’m on holiday.”

She spoke dreamily, in that sleepy way you had, between actual sleep and wakefulness. There was nothing to do. No grand adventures to be had, not even much excitement. A little fishing net and line lay next to a rock. And in the distance, Pallass waited. Erin didn’t look at it. She just lay there. And after a while, which could have been minutes, hours, or forever she got up.

She sighed, shaking out her lazy body. She stretched.

“Ow. Ooh. I should do that more often.”

Then she looked around. At her little getaway. At the still-clear skies. And Erin sighed. She sensed it, to the north. Not the Wyverns. But a glowing beacon.

Home.

It was such a familiar feeling. Painful, sweet. It called to her. But was she ready to go? The young woman lifted her hand. She put it to her chest, over her heart.

Painful regret. Sadness. Guilt. It all lay there. And yet—what glory. What sights she had seen. What friends waited?

“It’s boring being on break. And I suppose it’s time to go back. And do it all better this time. Differently.”

Erin Solstice smiled. A bit sadly. A bit painfully. But there was happiness there too. She drew her hand back from her breast, cupped it.

A small flame glowed in her palm. It burned, magic fire glowing with a vibrancy beyond mortal fire. The core was blue, as deep as the sea. And the fire was lighter. Brighter. It glowed like the sky itself.

Fire and magic. And memory. It was warm and sad and beautiful. For a moment she let it burn in her hands. Then Erin blew it out and turned. She smiled again, and began walking back towards home.

It had to be said that she had poor timing.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.68

(The Wandering Inn is on break until January 18th, or the 21st for public readers! Have a great New Year!)

 

He was known to some as the fifth most powerful [Lord] in the world. If you were doing a ranking, that was. If you looked at the most dangerous, most influential, and most high-level [Lords] the world over and made a list of the top five, he always appeared on the list.

Usually exactly in spot five, no matter your criteria. Because Lord Hayvon Operland did not stand out like, say, the [Lord of the Dance] of Terandria, Lord Belchaus Meron, who topped the lists for both eligibility and strategic genius. Lord Belchaus had held Terandria against foreign fleets for over a decade and his presence alone ensured that the coast where his fleets patrolled remained safe harbors even in wars.

Similarly, Lord Hayvon was rich beyond most mortal dreams. But not as rich as Yazdil Achakhei, the serpentine Emir of Chandrar, whose wealth wasn’t just beyond most mortal dreams, but immortal ones. He wasn’t the charismatic [Slave Lord] who was considered among the most intelligent men—or males—in the world. Cunning and intelligent.

No, fifth place was for Lord Hayvon. He was no Tyrion Veltras, rumored to be the best [Lord] in personal combat, or Lord Imor Seagrass, the self-styled [Stormlord Captain] who ruled over much of the sea with his vast armies that ensured trade. Lord Hayvon was simply a [Lord] in service to the Blighted King of Rhir.

Fifth. Largely boring compared to the rest. He had no unique quirks people liked to talk about. No one would remember his name outside of Rhir if you spoke it in most circles.

And yet—fifth. Fifth most important, and of Rhir, the greatest of the nobility. What did such numbers mean? If one were to tell Lord Hayvon he was fifth-best, he wouldn’t bat an eye. He didn’t care about such things.

What Lord Hayvon did care about was the sight from his personal mansion’s balcony. It overlooked a series of fields, extremely close to his home. Not just close in that ‘you could see it if you really squinted’, but close as in if you hopped past the tiny garden, you’d be knee-deep in wheat.

The [Farmers] grew their crops extremely close to the Operland mansion, where most of the nobility would prefer them out of sight and out of mind. But Lord Hayvon did not believe in wasting space. Rhir had nothing to waste and vanity was an extravagance he could not afford. He spoke absently as he watched the sun dawning over the fields. Men and women were already hard at work, cutting down a spring harvest and replanting quickly for multiple summer harvests.

“You know, I was something of a [Historian] in my youth. I had an endless passion for literature. I even gained the class. When my father found out, he beat me within an inch of my life. My mother would have done the same if she’d been first, I have no doubt. I would too, had I the ability to reach back in time and strike myself. Sometimes I wonder if Nereshal might indulge me—but you understand my point. It is a waste of a class, for a [Lord] of Rhir.”

No one responded. But Hayvon had an audience. Three people stood on the balcony behind him. The [Lord] went on, watching a [Farmer] with a scythe clear a huge radius with a single swing.

“These days, I don’t level in the class. It was removed by his Majesty, and if I do indulge my love of history and understanding the world, it is in my [Lord] class. All in service of Rhir. Still, betimes I think that if I had not been born into my position, I might have made a fairly decent [Historian], or perhaps a [Poet]. I have little time for such pursuits. But I do keep up with worldly affairs.”

Silence. Hayvon paused. Two people were standing behind him. One was seated.

“Yesterday, Rhir’s courts received word that a Silver-rank team had earned the title of Hell’s Wardens. They slew an Adult Creler in battle. A Silver-ranked team. Of course, his Majesty celebrated the news. I myself broke open a fine vintage. Can you imagine? An Adult, felled by Silver-rank adventurers?”

Someone moved slightly. Lord Hayvon nodded.

“A bit of history. You may be aware, High Magus, that the Crelers were a product of the blight that afflicts Rhir. Our foul continent has been settled, lost, retaken—many times. The last time it was lost, the world believed it was better to abandon Rhir to the blight, rather than attempt to retake it. That was about six thousand years ago.”

He paused. Again, no one responded. Lord Hayvon sighed, his eyes going north and west, his voice growing dark. In the distance lay one of Rhir’s walls. The second wall of Rhir that few enemies had ever crossed. Four sheltered the Blighted Kingdom from invasion, and a fifth was being built. Attempting to be built. Hayvon went on.

“The world left Rhir’s blight alone, cursing this land, this hell to isolation. And for that, it paid the price a thousand fold over when the Crelers emerged. For eight hundred years we fought the Creler Wars, before we drove them back. They devoured entire nations, reduced the world to a dark age. But when the Crelers were defeated, it was in a time of legends.”

Lord Hayvon half-turned his head. He smiled, clenching his fist.

“Imagine it. For all the Crelers destroyed, legends rose to fight them. Over eight hundred Silver-rank teams killed Adult Crelers during the Creler Wars. What we think of as Gold-rank Adventurers were commonplace. People leveled like they breathed. There were documented cases of individuals passing Level 80. One of them was the first Blighted King, who settled Rhir and created our kingdom that such a threat might never come to pass again.”

He waited, but the seated figure made no sound. Lord Hayvon sighed.

“So. That brings me to my point. Do you know, High Magus, what impresses me after all this time? Slaying an Adult Creler, certainly. But wheat. Growing wheat impresses me.”

He gestured at the [Farmers] below.

“You may argue the point. But growing wheat is a task. You cannot do it overnight, even with all the Skills in the world. In a week? If you had magic, Skills, everything at your side, perhaps. But growing plants is far more difficult than say, flying. It is not difficult to fly. Anyone may fly. Like so.”

So saying, Lord Hayvon stepped up and into the air. His feet left the ground. And his boots shone. Lord Hayvon’s Pegasus boots, made of ancient hide from the very animals and decorated with feathers, carried him up into the air. He soared higher with each step, then walked forwards.

He took a short lap of eighteen steps, walking off the open balcony and into the tiny garden that was his nod to decadence, and back around to step neatly onto the stone railing. He spread his arms, looking at his audience. The two [Mages] standing next to her didn’t move. And the seated High Magus never spoke. Hayvon paused, then stepped off the railing and landed lightly on the ground. He went on.

“Flying is simple. As simple as buying the right artifact, or magic spell. But wheat? Corn? It takes the highest-level [Mages] to create magical food, and that is a poor substitute for the real thing. A man may starve on food born of a cornucopia artifact if he eats only of it each day. He can literally burn more energy than the food grants him. I have seen it.”

He shook his head.

“There are five artifacts in this world capable of creating food on par with what can be grown in the soil. Five. And a Level 30 [Farmer] can out produce all but one of them. Think on that, High Magus. The food you and I grow fat on cannot be conjured, and in times of famine, it cannot be bought.”

He waited. She stared at him, sweat rolling down her forehead, although it wasn’t warm yet. Lord Hayvon turned back to the fields.

“I have no end of respect for the [Farmers] in my domain. No—in all of Rhir. For not only must they grow food in this blighted soil of our continent, they must safeguard it from plague, raids, even monsters and insects sent by the Demons. They grow food in hell, to keep the kingdom safe. Thus, I think of them as valiant as [Soldiers], in their own way. Emisa?”

One of the two [Mages] standing next to the High Magus lifted a bowl. The High Magus flinched as Lord Hayvon turned back. He plucked a small, wriggling shape from the bowl and regarded it with disgust. It was a tiny caterpillar, hairy, small—with an oversized head. It had a very large mouth, tiny, nubs of legs. It wasn’t a cute caterpillar. Lord Hayvon showed it to the High Magus.

“These are one of the plagues the Demon King has sent against us, in ages past. One of his Deathless created it. The Vorepiller is a cowardly bug. It flees everything, and it does not evolve. But it reproduces faster than any species and it is highly inedible, such that other insects and birds will not eat it. The Demon King unleashed them in our fields and Rhir nearly starved during that decade, oh, around three thousand five hundred and two years back. 2118 Zekol, by Rhir’s calendars. Have you ever seen one, High Magus? Or have you never seen our fields battling these infestations?”

She said not a word. Lord Hayvon dropped the Vorepillar on her hands. It joined the hundreds of tiny caterpillars squirming over her hands. Her arms. Eating the High Magus alive. Lord Hayvon stared down at the insects chewing into her flesh. They had torn away the first layer of skin. And they were burrowing deeper, eating…everything.

“Healing potion.”

The mass of Vorepillars fled as one of the two [Mages] silently brushed them away and applied a healing potion to the exposed flesh. It regrew in an instant, and the hungry caterpillars fell back on the spot, devouring the woman anew. Hayvon looked at High Magus Laisa. She was sweating, her face white, but her lips were sealed. Lord Hayvon patiently studied her.

“You will not speak? High Magus Arneit confessed many things long before this point.”

“I have nothing to say. Lord Operland.”

High Magus Laisa spoke through pale lips. Lord Hayvon shook his head.

“You stand accused of high treason against the Blighted Kingdom, High Magus. You and six others! Six of our High Magi! Tell me why, at least.”

The woman opened her mouth. She bit back a sound of pain and snarled.

Why? You need to ask, Hayvon? Performing the ritual again is madness! Sheer madness! One million lives! For a fraction of what? Children? The Blighted King has lost his mind.”

The two [Mages] standing next to Laisa moved. One nearly struck her, but Lord Hayvon shook his head. He stared down at Laisa and then turned away. Back to the fields. He spoke, absently.

“Do you know what happens when the Demon King marshals his forces, High Magus Laisa? It looks nothing like the stalemate of today. And you have fought on our front lines. But when his Deathless take to the field, armies die.”

“So you don’t care that a million unborn children will die?

Laisa snapped. Lord Hayvon rounded on her. And heat entered his voice.

“I care. Do you think I would not? Do you think His Majesty does not? But he and I would sacrifice anything to end this war. To finally drive the Demons back! Wouldn’t you?”

“Not like this. Are we Demons? I thought his Majesty was better than the Demon King, Lord Operland.”

The High Magus glared at him. Lord Hayvon drew breath to respond as his hand twitched towards his side. Someone opened the doors to the balcony.

“Lord Operland? The guests have arrived.”

Lord Hayvon paused and addressed the servant.

“Have Sir Richard and his company delay our ride a moment longer. I shall be with them shortly. What of Sir Tom?”

“Retired to his quarters already, Lord Operland.”

“I see. Leave him be unless he requests anything.”

The [Lord] waved the servant away. Then he turned to the High Magus.

“High Magus Laisa, you would have the Blighted Kingdom sheathe its sword rather than attack the enemy. I have a son and a young daughter. I know what the ritual entails. But I would use it. I have ordered tens of thousands of men and women to their deaths with a single word. No doubt, I have overseen the death of a million souls at least.”

Lord Hayvon stared at his hands. Scarred from battle. He shook his head.

“What are a million lives unborn compared to the horrors the Demons will inflict on us? What makes this the step too far, High Magus?”

She said nothing. Laisa’s lips were compressed as the worms ate deeper once more. Hayvon paused. He leaned forwards and the cowardly Vorepillars fled even his shadow.

“Tell me where the other [Mages] are hiding. And what they fear more than Demons, that they have rebelled against the kingdom.”

For a moment, the High Magus seemed like she might keep silent. But pain—or anger—loosened her tongue. She shouted back.

“We fear tearing the world apart. We fear a spell that should not work! Magic that has no origin and rips a hole in a void we cannot even sense! We fear—”

She paused, breathing hard. Her eyes went to the door and she whispered.

“We fear that child’s madness. That [Clown]. And another world filled with weapons that can sunder islands! We fear the Blighted King’s ambitions, Lord Operland.

“You have lost faith with him?”

“He is consumed. Impaired! Nereshal should have never let him live so long! He will lead the Blighted Kingdom to death! You must convince him to change his mind! The ritual—”

Lord Hayvon turned away. He waved a hand and one of the [Mages] gagged Laisa with a spell. Hayvon shook his head.

“Dead gods. The Fool’s madness is spreading. His Majesty is the finest ruler Rhir has had in centuries generations, Laisa. And this ritual is no act of desperation or foolishness. It is a chance.

He pointed back at her.

“You are only delaying the inevitable. Your fellow [Mages] will not leave Rhir.”

He nodded at the [Mages].

“Question High Magus Laisa under truth spell. If she refuses to answer—leave her in the care of an [Interrogator]. One will have arrived from the capital.”

“Yes, Lord Operland.”

They left. Lord Hayvon didn’t say anything more. He just watched the [Farmers] at work. In time, his eyes fell on the one with the scythe. An old man, well into his seventies. And yet, his body was hale. He cleared an entire field in minutes, his scythe clearing a far larger arc—nearly three times what the instrument should reach—with each swing.

“Him.”

“Lord?”

A [Servant] reacted to Lord Hayvon’s words. He pointed.

“That [Farmer] with the scythe. Inquire as to his health. His means. Let it be known that if he wishes it, he shall retire to the capital and live in comfort for the rest of his days. Or even further. He and his family will obtain passage to any city in the world, and they shall have gold for the rest of their days. I remember him as a boy. He has served Rhir for over five decades. If he wishes it, let him rest, in this continent or any other.”

“Yes, milord.”

The [Servant] paused as Lord Operland raised a hand. Hayvon looked at the old [Farmer].

“And if he wishes to stay—take his name. And all of my estates shall break for three days of feasting after the spring harvest in his honor. It is a time of plenty, after all.”

“Yes, Lord Operland.”

Lord Hayvon listened to the door close. Fifth best, yes. And all that entailed. His armies stretched beyond sight when he called them. His wealth was beyond mortal measure. He was one of the blades of the Blighted King. The fifth-most powerful [Lord] in the world.

“Flying is so easy. But wheat is terribly difficult to grow. Far easier to gather a hundred thousand men than feed them.”

It was a time of plenty. The fields of Operland were rich and bountiful. The [Lord] looked down on them. No plague of Vorepillars had struck them, no airborne attacks. No Demon raids—Rhir bloomed for once. And yet…he spoke softly.

 

“Let the harvests grow golden,

And the fields burst with plenty,

Let the [Farmers] sharpen their scythes

And the bellies of old and young grow fat.

Let the world rejoice and lie replete for a moment,

And peace hang in the air,

But never let the war forges grow dark,

Or lay down the arms you bear.

For this age is but passing,

And peace remains a fleeting breeze,

Stoking the embers of strife,

War ever beckons, and soon

Smoke shall blot out the sun.

And arrows fall in place of rain, while

Demons stalk out of Rhir’s blight. So be watchful;

Dark will come that night.”

 

He paused.

“It needs work.”

Lord Hayvon turned away as a [Servant] found the old [Farmer]. The [Lord] turned, and his gaze went north again. He stared towards the blight, the land of Demons. And then he turned. The children from another world awaited. And there was much left to do. But surely—he felt it in his breast.

Hope. Lord Hayvon murmured as he walked away.

“Someday soon, Rhir will know true peace.”

 

—-

 

Daly had heard it said that some part of Baleros was always at war. And sometimes it seemed that way. Mercenary companies fought each other over every part of the rich continent. And the jungles were alive with monsters. Baleros was unsettled, at least insofar as colonized landmass. It was the largest, the most unclaimed, the wildest still of all the continents.

And he hated it. He hated the way people died to monsters, how they killed each other so—casually. He hated it, and loved the magic, the sights he could never dream of. He loved the fact that there was a world where mysteries still remained.

He would have been happy, if he was the only one here. But he wasn’t. Daly sat in the conference room of the United Nations company. He was representing a concept from Earth. A dream that had never been fully realized there. And here—well, there was some irony in it. Because the united nations of Earth, all that they had gathered, was small. Weak.

Young men and women sat in the chairs around the room. Ken, Luan, Paige, Aiko, Siri, Kirana, and lastly, most importantly, Geneva. The [Doctor] sat with drink in hand. A stiff one. Daly could have used it himself.

“You’re sure it’s real, Geneva?”

Paige was speaking, looking shaken. Geneva took a long drink and regarded the paper again. She held it up and Ken saw the beautiful wax seal glittering in the light. Magic. Magic wax. Who’d have thought.”

“It’s real. I could get it tested, but I’m pretty sure it’s real.”

“Luan?”

The [Expert Rower] shifted in his seat.

“I told you all, I talked to the Minotaur, yeah? It’s real. Trust me—they can pay however much they want. The Minotaur had more gold than I’ve ever seen in my life, and he was a student.

The company sitting around the table nodded. Daly was still in a bit of shock about how much gold Luan had brought back. Enough to solve the daily expenses of the United Nations company…forever. Pretty much. Already, they’d upgraded their headquarters, bought all the amenities Paige and Kirana wanted so much. Some of the people working hard jobs could quit and look for better ones. And Geneva’s clinic was fully stocked.

The only thing Luan’s gold couldn’t buy was magical gear for the Bushrangers. The crossbow-wielding team was set up with leather armor, good steel—but no magic. Even so, the money he’d brought in was amazing.

And more was on offer. Aiko looked at Geneva. The young woman from Japan hesitated and raised her hand.

“So, this letter. Will you please explain it again, Geneva? I did not understand parts of it.”

The [Doctor] paused, and someone else spoke for her. Okasha. The Selphid moved Geneva’s lips, speaking in a different inflection. More friendly, deeper. Daly was used to it.

“It’s an invitation to have Geneva demonstrate her techniques to the students in the academy at Elvallian, Aiko. The academy run by the Titan of Baleros. One of the most powerful people in the entire continent. He’s offering her gold to do it. Lots of gold.”

“Not that much gold.”

“Says the City Runner who brought back a heaping bagful.”

Luan grinned as Siri looked at him. Ken smiled too, but he was looking at the letter as Geneva passed it to him.

It had come through official channels, not from Venaz personally. The note was signed by someone called Peclir Im, and there was even a travel expenses fund that Geneva could call upon at the Merchant’s Guild if she accepted. It was…big.

“This is it. Isn’t it? This is what we’ve been waiting for. Geneva can show her medical techniques to the world. I mean—this is huge. Right? Why are we nervous?”

Paige came out and said it. Everyone nodded, but they were disturbed. Siri murmured.

“It’s the Forgotten Wing Company. One of the four Great Companies. It’s—well, it’s big, Paige. When they go to war, it’s like five nation’s worth of armies fighting at once.”

“But they’re not fighting.”

“But they’re huge. And they can be dangerous. Remember the Roving Arrow company? The Razorshard Armor company? They can do what they want.”

Daly spoke up quietly. Luan nodded as the others grew sober.

“I told you what I saw at Daquin. That was a—a game, and people died. At least six, I heard. They brought in warships.”

“Tulm the Mithril.”

Ken murmured. The Japanese [Negotiator] looked around. Luan’s return had hardly been quiet. People had seen him playing at Daquin. Even now, Dullahans kept stopping Luan, wanting to buy him a drink to hear all about the Titan’s game and his role in it. And Tulm the Mithril. The [Rower] nodded.

“When Daly says they’re dangerous, I agree. But it is a big opportunity. And as I said, I saw the Titan of Baleros.”

“He’s tiny! A Lilliputian, right?”

“I have no idea what that is, Paige. But yeah, a small man. Only—”

Luan gestured with his hand. Daly shook his head.

“No wonder the buggers at the bar laughed their asses off when I asked how tall he was. Bastards.”

Siri grinned. The Swedish [Ranger] paused, then looked around.

“All we have to do is say yes or no. That’s simple. The harder part is—the Mage’s Guild.”

Daly nodded. All eyes turned to him.

“Daly, will you tell us what you saw again?”

The Australian man took a seat. He shrugged at Ken.

“Like I said, Ken. Nothing much. I saw an American flag in the Mage’s Guild. Just…over the counter. Someone had made one. I think I played it well when I asked the [Receptionist] about it. But I also think she took down my name and details.”

Silence. Dead silence around the table. Kirana was nervously clasping her hands together. The [Housekeeper] looked at Paige. Paige, their [Engineer], looked at Geneva. The [Doctor] was frowning.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a coincidence? Maybe there are other flags—”

“With fifty stars and stripes? Believe me, I counted, Geneva. You can look yourself. But—be careful. That [Receptionist] wanted me to talk with the Guildmaster. She’s on the lookout for people from Earth.”

“But what does that mean? Does that mean Wistram knows about us? Are there people at Wistram? Wherever that is?”

Kenjiro paused.

“I hear Wistram is…different. I hear many good things about Wistram. And bad things. The war with Tiqr, for instance.”

“What about it?”

A hand. Paige cut off Ken’s reply as she looked around the meeting of the company’s leadership.

“Ask Ken later. Look, the flag tells us one thing. There are more people from Earth. They’re at Wistram. We know they’re at Wistram. The question is: are they there against their will? Do we trust the academy? Do we trust…anyone?”

She looked at the letter as Aiko passed it to her. Paige picked it up, speaking quietly.

“What do we do if Geneva goes? Tell this Titan about Earth? It’s one thing to get attention on Geneva’s medicine. Another to give anyone what we know.”

She looked at Daly for a moment and he paused, his face blank. Luan sighed.

“We have to do something. We can’t be alone.”

“We’re too weak. If another company attacks Talenqual and beats the Featherfolk Brigade—we can’t even kill most Silver-rank monsters, let alone Gold. The Bushrangers, I mean.”

Siri agreed. She looked at Daly and he grimaced. His hand went to the pocket crossbow unconsciously as his trigger finger twitched. But even the bigger one wouldn’t go through a giant serpent’s hide. But…

“That’s not exactly true, Siri.”

Daly looked up sharply. The young man stared warningly at Paige. But she was staring back. He shook his head warningly as Geneva, Luan, the others turned to her questioningly. Siri paused.

“What do you mean, Paige?”

“It’s time I told you something.”

The young woman met Daly’s eyes. He felt his heart skip. He opened his mouth, but Paige was already talking. And it was a relief. So Daly waited.

Paige rose. The [Engineer] looked around. At Ken, who understood other people, who kept them together. Luan, their champion athlete. At Daly, who led the armed branch of the company. And finally at Geneva.

Geneva, who some still called the Last Light of Baleros. Paige’s eyes were filled with guilt. She spoke slowly, looking at the [Doctor].

“Everyone, I—changed my class. I leveled up thanks to some work I’ve been doing. So I gained—I think they call it a class consolidation.”

“What?”

The table erupted in gasps. Daly blinked. He hadn’t heard of this! He stared at Paige.

“Isn’t that a sign you’re gaining power? What level are you, Paige?”

“It’s amazing! Why didn’t you say anything earlier? We have to have a party!”

Aiko clapped her hands together. Paige tried to smile. It failed.

“Don’t…celebrate. Just yet. I gained my new class…because I’ve been experimenting hard. With weapons. From our world. I…Daly?”

She looked at him. Daly felt all eyes turn to him. He looked around. Luan was staring at Daly. Ken looked confused. But Geneva—the [Doctor]’s gaze pierced him. She knew. He met her eyes, looked away.

“I asked Paige to work on some weapons for the company. For the Bushrangers. To fight monsters. Or people.”

“Weapons? You don’t mean the crossbows, do you?”

“What weapons?”

Geneva’s voice was low. Intense. She stared at Daly, then Paige. The [Engineer] murmured.

“This is my new class.”

She lifted a hand, placed it on a table. Spoke a Skill. Daly saw black powder fall on to the table, from her palm. Just a bit. Just enough to make a small mound. But he recoiled fast.

The others just stared for a moment. Then the tang of the powder filled the air. Some, like Ken and Aiko, still didn’t get it. But Luan shot back in his chair. Geneva rose, staring. Paige looked at the powder. Then she looked up.

“[Blackpowder Engineer]. I can make gunpowder. A tiny bit. Every single day. With a Skill. And I can make more out of the ingredients. I figured out the recipe. Daly and I have been working and we’ve created grenades. Bombs.”

Dead silence. Kirana froze. Siri rose, staring at Daly. But it was Geneva—the [Doctor] looked at Daly.

“You made gunpowder?”

The young man nodded. He met Geneva’s eyes. The [Doctor]’s look went beyond betrayal. She stared at him and he wondered if she could see his soul. But even so. Daly spoke, looking at her, around the table.

“I did. I asked Paige, so it’s on me. But—I’ve seen what the world has to offer. If I had a tank at our disposal, I’d still sleep uneasy. We need gunpowder. To fight.”

“You’re bringing guns into this world?”

“Not. Yet. Just bombs.”

“Just—”

The table erupted into shouts. Geneva was just staring. Ken was looking around. Aiko looked horrified. Kirana was backing away as Siri exploded to her feet, shouting furiously. Luan got up, staring at Daly.

Quiet!

Daly bellowed. The room fell silent. He looked around. Then at Geneva. The [Doctor] was still looking at him. Just looking. And Daly wondered if he’d taken away her smile again. But even so.

“Listen up. We can’t go back in time. We’ve got an offer from the Titan. Wistram’s got people from earth. And we have gunpowder. The cat’s out of the bag. Now, let’s talk about what happens next.”

 

—-

 

Flos Reimarch liked balconies like he liked thrones. He could take them or leave them, but he had to admit, they did give a view. But he wasn’t much for pontificating.

“Look! Another group of my people! There, Orthenon!”

“I see them, your Majesty.”

The [Steward] stood next to his King. Flos of Reim was doing what he loved: watching his people. In this case, his people returning.

From far and wide they were coming. Across Chandrar’s arid land. People. Citizens who claimed allegiance to the King of Destruction. Flos’ proclamation of peace had sparked a migration.

It had been hard-won. Tiqr had fallen. But the King of Destruction had kept to his vow, when every nation had been prepared for him to break his word. And because he had, his people had come.

Neither Flos nor Orthenon were using any sight-enhancing artifacts, so the distant group was hard even for Orthenon to count.

“It seems like a group of ten thousand, your Majesty. I shall send riders to appraise their condition. And they must be settled, at least temporarily. Perhaps in Hellios or Germina?”

His words were as always, crisp, precise. And pointed. Flos ignored the look as well.

“In time, Orthenon. But they must come here first. They are my people. They have travelled here for me. Should I not greet them?”

The [Steward] sighed, but he didn’t argue with that point. Flos was smiling, with pure, genuine happiness.

“Orthenon, my horse. I’ll ride out to greet them.”

“Your Majesty, it would be more dignified to wait for their arrival.”

“Nonsense—”

“It would honor them, my Lord. Think of your position as it affects them. Do the service of greeting them as they would will it.”

The King of Destruction paused. Orthenon heard the female voice and turned his head. Gazi the Omniscient grinned, two of her four eyes on Flos, the other two inspecting the far-off band. She looked at Orthenon and he gave her a grudging nod.

“Hrmf. I suppose you’re right, Gazi.”

Flos looked displeased, but he acquiesced. He stood on his balcony, resting his scarred arms on the stonework as he stared at the approaching group. Some were moving faster towards Reim than the others now. The [King] blinked as he stared. Then he looked at Gazi.

“Gazi—do you see—”

The half-Gazer only smiled. Flos made a sound.

“What is it?”

Orthenon looked at Gazi, keenly aware of how good her four lesser eyes were, never mind her injured main eye. The [Scout] grinned.

“Armored troops. Look.”

She pointed out a fast-moving group, all on foot, surging ahead of the rest. Orthenon saw Flos’ eyes widen. He breathed.

“The Rustängmarder.”

“What? Are you sure?”

Even the [Steward] looked astonished. Gazi nodded. Flos was staring at the fast-moving group of about a hundred or so.

“At least a company of them. How did they abandon their contract…?”

“They must have split from the main army.”

Orthenon smiled, despite himself. One of the finest infantry groups in the world was marching straight towards the capital. The [Steward] could even hear their chanting from afar. He wondered if they’d brought their death drums. With even a hundred, they could…

Flos’ exclamation made the [Steward] look up. The King of Destruction had seen another sight, another group moving nearly as fast as the armored [Soldiers]. He pointed.

“Look! Orthenon! Look! They’ve made the journey!”

Orthenon saw. And this time, he realized that the group travelling weren’t as far away as he thought. Flos spread his arms wide. They were overtaking the Rustängmarder with ease.

“My old friends! How did they pass as refugees?”

“Maybe no one dared to stop them.”

Gazi murmured. The three watched as the second group strode towards Reim. Faster than even the marching infantry. There were actually more of them than the company of soldiers. And they were laughing, shouting as they pointed at the citadel. Some of them were close to the gates, now. They saw Flos and a roar came from them.

Half-Giants. Some as tall as sixteen feet high! [Nomads], [Travellers]. And—warrior classes too. One of them raised her hand and bellowed a greeting up at Flos. He laughed and shouted back.

My friends!

King of Reim!

The bellow came from the famous band, one of the last groups of half-Giants in the world, who could travel even the Great Desert, Zeikhal. Flos laughed and spread his arms, welcoming them.

“With the Nomads of Sky and a company of the Rustängmarder, we could hold an entire stretch of our borders. Assuming the Nomads are willing to fight entirely. We will have to speak with the Tallest Strider—”

The [Steward] was revising his estimates of their war strength. Flos flapped a hand at him.

“Oh, hush, Orthenon. Let me savor the moment. There are children with them! They’ve grown, see?”

“Thanks to you, my Lord. It seems time has only helped that.”

“Open the larders, Orthenon!”

“We will have to.”

The [Steward] sighed. He massaged his forehead. But Flos’ mood put a smile on even Orthenon’s face. The King of Destruction sighed. He paused as the Nomads of the Sky began to enter the city. He waved, but then turned to his two vassals.

“You see, Orthenon. My proclamation of peace is bearing more fruit. At cost. But it grows Reim.”

“Yes, your Majesty. But so many numbers will strain Hellios, Germina, and Reim’s ability to produce to the limit. Even the [Edict of Bloom] might struggle to grow enough. Even with the rains.”

Flos nodded.

“And yet, now I have an army large enough to challenge even Nerrhavia. Not every nation, but a proper army, Orthenon. What I lack now are more of my vassals. And arms, artifacts for my officers! They will come. There are dungeons to be plundered, stashes of artifacts—my vassals are more difficult. Many are still far removed from Reim, and they cannot march to me without being attacked. Some may need to be convinced to rejoin me. Or simply rehired. That is the task before us.”

“Raiding dungeons?”

The half-Gazer raised one brow. Flos laughed.

“It makes you feel twenty years younger, eh, Gazi? Why not? Mars can walk in front! But I shall need armor and artifacts, even if Nawalishifra can produce a Naq-Alrama blade for me. That is not all, either.”

He paused. And then he looked at Orthenon.

“Last night, I received a…message of inquiry from a potential ally. Reim is not completely alone, and with Khelt to watch our flank, we are increasingly well-set.”

“From where?”

The [Steward]’s brows snapped together. Flos waved a hand, and Gazi’s eyes all spun, checking for secret spells or listeners. Even so, the [King] lowered his voice.

“Later. But as I say, Reim is increasingly well-placed. All that remains is to strengthen our hand. And…Amerys.”

He paused. Orthenon saw a flash of discontent pass over the King of Destruction’s face. The [Steward] thought now was a good time to bring up another point.

“There is another factor I would like to bring up, my King. Hence my return to the capital. Takhatres reports that the Empire of Sands has pulled back multiple armies and [Mage] battalions. His tribe has begun taking casualties.”

Flos grimaced. He looked back at the approaching lines of refugees.

“Tell him to buy me the summer if he can do so without losing his tribe. The summer, Orthenon. And I will have a position to fight the Empire of Sands from. How far has it grown?”

“By summer’s end, it may be half as large as Nerrhavia’s Fallen. And its armies are gaining in level rapidly, my King.”

“A race?”

Gazi looked at Orthenon. The [Steward] folded his arms.

“That is not how I would describe it, Gazi. Reim must consolidate its power. The only thing protecting us is distance—”

“And Takhatres. Let him hold the Empire of Sands at bay as long as he can, Orthenon. I must prepare Reim. Or it will shatter in the first true conflict.”

There was no denying that. Orthenon bowed. Flos nodded and turned away. He grew pensive, and he stared north. And east. As if he could see…his voice was low.

“Amerys. I have sent letters to Wistram, Orthenon, but I have no strength abroad. Yet I must see her. If it is her choice to remain, I would hear it from her. The last of my Seven is needed. All of you are. But if it is her choice—

“She would not abandon you, your Majesty.”

Gazi murmured. Flos nodded.

“Not the Amerys I knew. So then—what? Wistram feigns ignorance, but I have no patience for lies and petty politics. They have Amerys. So—Orthenon.”

He turned his head. The [Steward] smiled coldly.

“Your Majesty’s will?”

The King of Destruction paused. And then he spoke, calmly.

“Publically—yes, publically—[Message] the Iron Vanguard. The Seer of Steel, or the Mithril—ask them how much the Iron Vanguard would ask to take Wistram.”

Gazi’s brows rose. Orthenon considered the state of the treasury. He opened his mouth, and Gazi interrupted.

“I have a better idea, my lord. One that need not beggar Reim?”

Flos’ cold look vanished. He looked at Gazi and raised one eyebrow.

“Oh? Then I’ll hear it, Gazi.”

“Later, my Lord. Out of public?”

“Of course. Hold on asking the Iron Vanguard, Orthenon. They’re the only ones with a navy, aren’t they? A pity.”

The King of Destruction looked at Gazi and she smiled her enigmatic smile. Orthenon sighed. He looked at Gazi, and then at the King of Destruction.

“One question, your Majesty? You will have your armies, and your vassals and perhaps even magic and artifacts. But you have sworn peace. You have no cause to declare war, even on the nations that brought down Tiqr.”

Flos paused. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the railing. He shook his head as he looked out at his people.

“I do not need to declare war, Orthenon. I think, perhaps I fear, that I will have more than enough reason soon enough. After all, this is Chandrar. Now, come. I must greet my people.”

He smiled, ruefully. His hair blew in the dry breeze as he turned.

“This should prove to be a most interesting summer.”

 

—-

 

“Amerys.”

Three of them greeted her. The shackled, bound prisoner didn’t respond at first. Only when one of them called her name again did she raise her head.

“Ah. Feor. Naili. Viltach. Back again?”

She grinned. The three Archmages of Wistram paused. Feor, the half-Elf of two hundred years, Naili, the Star Lamia, and Viltach, the Archmage of nobility in Terandria. He, at least, was Human, like Amerys.

But Viltach had none of her intensity in his gaze. They stopped before the magical barrier. Feor spoke slowly.

“Amerys, we are told you have refused to eat for the last week. You must eat.”

“I’m too weak. Feed me.”

“You bit off the last [Mage]’s fingers. Poor Teligrain didn’t deserve that.”

Naili leaned on her staff, looking at Amerys with interest. And wariness. The former Archmage grinned.

“Oops.”

Vilatch’s voice was harsh, impatient. He stared at Amerys, as if she was beneath him. Ignoring the magical wards drawn around her, the antimagic field in her cell, the physical chains and bindings wrapping her.

“You won’t get out of here by resisting. If you starve yourself, we’ll simply be forced to feed you. Be reasonable. If you accept—”

Amerys spat. It was a good shot—the glob of spit hit the force field in front of his face and Viltach recoiled. She laughed as the Archmage reddened. Naili hid her own smile as Viltach cursed at her.

“Never. I will swear no oath. Release me or kill me. If you had the courage, you’d have done one or the other long ago, Viltach.”

“You do not get to make demands, Amerys. You are our captive.”

“Political prisoner.”

Feor corrected Viltach with a frown. The Human glared. And again, Amerys laughed. She was, Naili reflected, good at it. The mocking laughter bothered the three Archmages. It was contemptuous of their position, their power. Everything about them. Amerys caught herself and shook her head.

“Tell me, Feor. Viltach. Naili. Does Cognita not still rule Wistram? Because you talk as if you do.”

The Archmages paused. Naili smiled at Amerys.

“Not yet. But we’ve got more Earthers on our side. Did I tell you about the shock orb I made? It’s nearly as good as a Level 30 [Lighting Mage] on its own, Amerys. We are advancing in power. And you—”

“Nailihuaile.”

The Lamia fell silent as Feor shot her a warning glance. Amerys just laughed again.

“You think you’ll beat Cognita with tricks from another world?”

She shook her head as far as the chain would allow her. She looked at Feor, the ancient Archmage of nearly two hundred years.

“You are a fool. Put your ‘Earthers’ against true magic, Feor. Against the kind of magic that tears at time and created the Golems of Wistram! Place another world against my King. He will devour and destroy it. And I will join him. You cannot keep me here forever.”

“You will not escape so long as we do not come to an accord, Amerys.”

“Really.”

“Yes.”

Amerys rolled her eyes. She looked past Feor.

“Naili. I will ally Reim with the Revivalists and give you Wistram if you set me free.”

Viltach and Feor both wavered. Naili hesitated.

“When you say—”

Archmage Naili!

Feor looked at her. Naili closed her mouth. Amerys looked past her.

“Viltach, then. Or one of the other ‘Archmages’. You cannot keep everything balanced, Feor. I will get out.”

The half-Elf hesitated. He motioned and the Archmages drew back, conferring. At last, Feor stepped back.

“Tricks will not get you anywhere, Amerys. Consider our offer.”

“Go back and hide in your rooms from Cognita, Feor.”

The half-Elf turned away stiffly. Amerys watched him go. She kept smiling, a moment longer. They were coming more often again. They must be getting worried. She paused. And then Amerys sighed.

“I’m bored.”

 

—-

 

Fragments. Across the world, history was in motion, being decided. Some events were momentous, or reaching a precipice. But in some places, time flowed onwards. Steadily. The world wasn’t one big buildup to the next event. And the future, however interesting, still came one day at a time.

In Liscor, two Gnolls poured themselves a drink in Elirr’s pet shop after retiring early from a game of baseball. They were tired of watching Grimalkin hit the ball out of sight, anyways. One of them was the owner.

The [Beast Trainer] had a stiff Gnollish drink in one paw. Cats meowed and wandered around the shop. But Elirr ignored them as he raised the cup.

So did Krshia. The [Royal Shopkeeper] smiled.

“The month of Rerrk ends. To the warm days, Elirr.”

“Thank you, Krshia.”

They clinked cups gently and drank. The Gnollish drink was smooth, not like the fiery stuff Drakes liked to imbibe at every opportunity. But it was also very strong. Krshia growled with pleasure as she felt it warm her up.

Drinking a cup to mark the end of the month of Rerrk was a Gnollish tradition, and as such, one the Plains Gnolls practiced by themselves so they didn’t have to explain or justify it to everyone. Even Erin. Both Gnolls liked Erin, but knowing her, she’d introduce pizza to it somehow.

There were other things to do too, of course. Although the drink and conversation was important. Elirr and Krshia were the best match, hence them standing in Elirr’s pet shop. Across the city, Gnolls would be doing the same. Krshia spared a thought for little Mrsha—but she didn’t need to observe it yet. She sighed as she took another sip.

“An eventful spring.”

“More so than I can remember. Raskghar, Moths—I think I shall lose all my hair. Or turn grey entirely.”

Elirr grumbled. He was already refilling his drink. Krshia couldn’t disagree, either.

“It feels long. But then, the Winter Sprites came late and left early, yes?”

He nodded.

“A shorter winter. So if the spring was four and a half months…maybe two months till the summer solstice?”

Krshia thought about that. Four months per season. And if Rerrk was about now…she shrugged.

“Close enough. The time of the meeting of tribes is upon us at last. It feels like forever since the last one, yes?”

“Ten years. I can remember where I was. There were less cats. Shoo!”

The Gnoll grinned and shooed a cat trying to sniff at his cup. The affronted animal turned and flipped its tail at Elirr, exposing its butthole. The Gnoll rolled his eyes and turned away.

“I don’t know how they all learn to do that. Or that it’s so disgusting. Yes, the meeting of tribes awaits. Although…do you know what Erin called it? The Gnollmoot. That…what’s a moot?”

“Hrr. I have no idea. Another drink?”

“Ah, here.”

A pause as both refilled their cups and drank again. Krshia sighed.

“Ten years. And this time, we have a gift worthy of our tribe! I have not told my sister yet what it was except in vaguest detail lest it be overheard in our correspondence. But it will be unsurpassed, I think.”

Elirr grinned, sharing her delight.

“And there are Gnolls in power in a Drake city. That is not little, even compared to our gift!”

The female Gnoll nodded. She grinned, showing all her teeth, but then she paused, contemplatively. It was such a huge change. She was on the Council. Who could have imagined that a year ago?

“It was a struggle, yes. Perhaps too large a gamble, but Elirr—I hope to take as much as we give. And we have much to discuss. Gnolls must move as one to deliberate over Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. I hope to gather aid from our mightiest and wisest. I only have a few fears. Such as—”

“Mrsha.”

The old Gnoll looked into his cup. Krshia nodded somberly.

“She must come to the Gnollm—the meeting of tribes.”

“I fear for her safety.”

Elirr offered that cautiously. Krshia hesitated.

“We will look after her. The Silverfang tribe all will. But she must come, you agree, yes?”

He sighed.

“Yes. Magic and white fur. The other tribes must see and witness. But I have heard that the Magus Grimalkin, he is training another Gnoll capable of magic. That is strange, yes?”

Krshia paused.

“Strange indeed. Our grudge of four decades against Wistram is passing odd. How could they not have known? Perhaps—”

She broke off, waved a paw.

“We shall see. Honored Elirr, I am nervous and excited for the future. Our people have enough enemies, let alone infighting. The Raskghar is my second fear.”

“Honored Krshia, they are my nightmare. But while some remain—let us speak of happier things on the end of Rerrk.”

“True. My apologies.”

Another drink. Krshia smiled, looking at Elirr. Her chest beat with excitement, but the moment was far off yet. Still. She dreamed of it. Seeing her sister again. Seeing her tribe. This time…she raised her cup.

“To the future. Let the tribes gather.”

The two Gnolls drank a third time. After a moment, Krshia looked over.

“Hrr. Elirr, your cats are trying to drink the alcohol.”

She pointed at the cats, who’d knocked a bottle into a water dish.

Elirr just sighed.

“I’m convinced they’re trying to kill themselves. One day, I’ll let them.”

 

—-

 

Cats were intelligent. Dogs were fairly smart. But raised by a [Beast Trainer], let alone a [Beast Master], animals could be scarily intelligent. That was how two Antinium walking down the street saw a pillar of cats unlock Elirr’s door and then charge out into the street. The irate Gnoll raced after them.

Get back here! You’re not getting dinner if you run off! Come back!

He raced after the cats, grabbing the slow ones and bringing them back. The intelligent felines grumbled, and a few, wary of Elirr’s threat, crept back inside. But most, like cats will, ignored the Gnoll and happily escaped for a few hours of freedom.

“Why do I raise them? Why do Drakes love you pestilential creatures so?”

The Gnoll trotted past the Antinium, talking to a happy cat, too busy to notice them. The two Antinium watched him enter the shop.

If Elirr had been watchful, he might have noticed that the two Antinium were…different. They were both much like Soldiers. They had four arms, the same general build—but their bodies looked even more reinforced than the average Soldier. And they had fingers on their four hands, not the stubs most Soldiers used for combat and little else.

The two Antinium stared at the Gnoll’s shop. One of them turned and opened his mandibles. He spoke, another huge clue.

“What were those things, Prognugator Tersk?”

“I believe they were known as ‘cats’, Prognugator Dekass. They are listed as safe consumables and also kept as animals of reconnaissance and scouting roles in Drake society.”

“Ah. Infiltrators. Very clever.”

The two Antinium nodded to each other. They stared around the city and then kept walking. One of the Antinium was a bit taller than the other, as befit his higher status. His name was Tersk. The other was known as Dekass. They were Prognugators. They did not wear their customary steel armor. They were being subtle.

“Prognugator Tersk.”

“Yes, Dekass?”

“I do not comprehend why we have been sent to establish relations before the Grand Queen’s envoys to the Free Antinium.”

Tersk turned his head as the two wandered down the street.

“We are acting as both a personal greeting from the Armored Queen, and a…preparatory measure of sorts, Dekass. A warning. My desire to visit the city of Liscor is also personal, as I have informed you.”

Dekass analyzed the statement and nodded.

“Even so. I understand that the Armored Queen desires closer ties with these ‘Free Antinium’, Tersk. But I do not comprehend your personal ‘connection’ with the Antinium Worker known as Pawn.”

Tersk paused.

“There is much here that may benefit the Hives, Dekass. I have seen it. And you will observe the same too. Soon. Now, I must inquire for directions. Maintain the disguise.”

A Drake was passing down the street with a Gnoll. Both of them were fairly young, and they halted as Tersk raised a hand. The Prognugator spoke slowly to the Drake.

“Hello. Sir. We are normal Workers. Looking for our Hive. Will you direct us to the nearest Antinium location? That, and/or the whereabouts of Revalantor Klbkch of the Free Antinium?”

The Drake and Gnoll stared at the two towering Antinium. They looked at each other. After a second, the Drake pointed.

“Hive’s that way.”

“Thank you, sir. We will humbly go about our duties.”

Tersk and Dekass strode past the duo. The Drake opened and closed his mouth. The Gnoll growled.

“This city, man. I tell you. It gets weirder every day…”

The two Antinium didn’t hear. Dekass turned to Tersk as they went in the direction of the Free Antinium’s Hive.

“Communications were successful, Tersk. The citizens are completely ignorant to our presence. This city is weak. The Armored Antinium could take it with a single legion thanks to the access tunnel.”

Tersk nodded. The access tunnel was done. And the two Antinium were the first visitors to the city. More would come.

“Liscor is indeed vulnerable. But I am convinced the city is useful to the Antinium in its own way. The Free Antinium may be a more substantially allied Hive than the others. Especially the Twisted Antinium.”

Dekass paused.

“If the Armored Queen desired an alliance, Prognugator Tersk, she would have informed us.”

“I am merely speculating as to her plans.”

“Speculation is a form of extrapolation not needed by Prognugators!”

The other Antinium grew agitated. Tersk looked coolly at him.

“I am the first of the Armored Prognugators, Dekass. Speculation is within my domain of allowed thoughts. Focus yourself. We are all working to a greater purpose. We are all Antinium. It is our destiny to conquer Izril. Even if there is dissent. Combined, the six Hives may finally complete our objectives the Grand Queen has laid out for us. Or the Armored Queen’s personal directives.”

Dekass’ antennae waved furiously as he walked with military precision after Tersk.

“I have doubt that these Free Antinium have much to show the rest of Antinium, Tersk.”

“You are wrong, Dekass.”

The other Antinium considered the statement. Grudgingly, he opened his mandibles.

“I will concede one point. The inn we passed was somewhat enticing. At least that was impressive architecture. Very porous.”

Tersk nodded.

“Mm, I agree with you on this detail, Dekass. It had a very Antinium-like structure. Which reinforces my point: there is worth above after all. Now, follow me. First we will inform the Free Queen of the tunnel’s completion. Then, we shall find Pawn. And perhaps find some soup. Soup is very tasty.”

“What is…soup?”

 

—-

 

The arrival of two strange Antinium to the city went unnoticed by everyone except the Antinium. The Watch was distracted with the Bloodfields and the Crelers, and anyone who might have picked up on the subtle hints was playing baseball. Or distracted.

Someone else might have noticed, if he had been paying attention. But Az’kerash, the Necromancer, was speaking to himself. And his servant, Ijvani, was far from Liscor. She stood in a cave, listening to her master speak.

“Strategically the battle was completely lopsided. Were it not for the arrogance of the Adult Creler, the adventurers would have perished. It sent the Crelers into the magical doorway, rather than encircle them. And yet, the odds of it falling was remote. And they did it.”

Yes, Master.

The skeleton’s inner voice was patient. She adored her master’s words. But he had gone over the battle over four times now. To the undead, who never forgot, it was odd. But she still luxuriated in her master’s attention, his words. And his satisfaction. Az’kerash spoke, all of his thoughts focused on one thing for once.

“I was never an adventurer. But I have fought Adults. I have walked Rhir and seen terrible things brought to life by the blight, by the Demon King and his Deathless. Opponents that I will face at the end, one way or another. Even now, they wait, and the world forgets the peril of assailing the Demon King.”

Was this Creler nest particularly dangerous, Master?

“Not to an army. The Adult might have bested you, Ijvani. But not Venitra, or Kerash had they used their abilities correctly. But to Silver-rank adventurers? It was…”

The Necromancer caught himself.

“It was an…amusing distraction.”

I did not collect the [Necromancer] known as Pisces, Master. I am still able to do so, if you wish.

Anxiously, the black skeleton wondered if her master didn’t think she was capable. But she was reassured by Az’kerash’s casual flick of hand.

“Let the young [Necromancer] be, Ijvani. His victory is unexpected. But insignificant in the larger scale of things.”

Yes, Master. What…what are those things?

The Necromancer absently split his thoughts.

“There is much I must do. Create more of my Chosen, perfect my creations. And yet—at least that Dragon knows I exist. And the City Runner. Time works for and against me.”

He sighed. His elation faded, cold logic returning as he reassessed his situation. Got back to work, so to speak. He thought about the state of the world, split part of himself to analyze his analysis.

“The state of the world is relatively stable. For now. The King of Destruction is a welcome distraction. Perhaps I should encourage his victory, at least for now. And sow dissent the world over. The Antinium Hives continue to grow in strength while the north is fragmented after their failure at Liscor. But that is hardly war, which suits my ends. Perhaps—”

He broke off. Ijvani actually felt her master’s thoughts halt and reverse. Perril Chandler paused. He stared at an invisible memory.

“They never left. Not once. They summoned a Frostmarrow Behemoth. Poorly, of course. Spontaneous magical combination. I have seen that…they never left. She told him to run.”

He kept coming back to it. It was…strange. Ijvani felt her master’s elation, then him suppressing it, growing calm. And then—memory.

His. Perril Chandler stood on a battlefield. Alone. No one stood with him. No one living. They had all fled. Ijvani saw them, saw the bright [Knights] in retreat, their banners broken. Saw faces she half-recognized from her master’s thoughts. Saw a face like Bea’s looking back.

But she did not stand with him. Perril Chandler stood alone on Calanfer’s borders, as four armies advanced. But the [Necromancer] never stepped back.

The broken dead of Calanfer stirred. Four kingdoms halted their approach as the dead rose. Alone, the Necromancer of Terandria stood. And that day, he earned the title of Archmage of Wistram. That day, they called him the Undying Shield of Calanfer. When he stood. Alone—

But he had not been alone. The memory, which was glorious and overshadowed by bitter regret changed. Ijvani saw a memory of a young man, standing with his team. Holding hands with a half-Elf. And she felt something rise in her master. Something…soft.

The skeleton looked down at her own empty ribcage. Oh, wait—not empty. The Healing Slime shivered as she poked at it. Around Ijvani, the Defenders of the Cave hid. For death walked among them. The [Blackfire Fireball] still burned in Ijvani’s mouth, ready to detonate as the teleportation sigil gleamed around her.

Her master’s voice was slow. Thoughtful.

“The Horns of Hammerad. Perhaps. Perhaps I have been without allies for too long. And there are a few, even now…Fetohep? He and I have never spoken, despite my admiration. Why did I never venture…?”

He paused.

“Loyalty to hearth and home. Ah.”

His laughter was tired. But it was laughter. And Ijvani sensed her master’s thoughts splitting again. In a new direction.

“Allies. A few. The Stitch Witch, for one. Does she remain on Izril? Perhaps. Perhaps—”

Once more.

“They never ran. And she—she came back for him. ‘There are worse monsters than me’.”

Softly, Az’kerash sighed. And Ijvani hesitated. She was loathe to interrupt him. But it was time. She yearned to see him. She spoke.

Master. Should I return home?

Az’kerash paused.

“Yes. Return, Ijvani. Erase the sigil as you leave.”

Yes, Master.

Happily. Ijvani took the burning, compressed fireball out of her mouth. She inspected the black flames, ready to detonate, let it hover in the air. At last she could use the spell.

The Defenders of the Cave froze as a wall of bone rose, trapping them in the cave. Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers scuttled towards the entrance, away from the fireball. But the wall of bone was absolute. They scratched at the wall. But the flickering fireball began to pulse. Expand. The skeleton stepped into the teleportation sigil.

And stopped. Something was pounding at her chest. Like a heartbeat. She looked down.

Stop that.

The Healing Slime was trying to stop her. It felt the power waiting to be unleashed in the fireball. It threw itself against Ijvani’s ribcage, making a tiny sound. And both she and the Necromancer heard it.

“Ijvani? What are you doing?”

Guiltily, the skeleton tried to hide the slime.

Nothing, Master. It is just a slime I found. It reminds me of Oom.

“Show it to me.”

The skeleton pulled the healing slime out. It writhed, trying to get away as Az’kerash stared at it.

“Odd. That’s no slime I am familiar with. The magic in it looks—is that a potion of speed? No—”

Ijvani felt something biting her leg. She looked down, casually kicked. A Fortress Beaver went spinning across the floor. Az’kerash paused. He frowned.

“Leave the creatures, Ijvani. Fortress Beavers are a part of this world as much as spiders. Leave them.”

Master, the fireball—

“No. Alter the spell sigil to erase itself.”

But Master—

The skeleton’s mental voice became something like a whine. The Necromancer sighed.

“Enough, Ijvani. You may bring the slime. I will inspect it.”

The skeleton brightened.

Thank you, Master!

She erased the fireball and lowered the bone wall. The Defenders of the Cave fled as the noble Healing Slime, trapped, distracted the death-thing. Woe! Woe, for Mrsha the Great and Terrible was not here to do battle with the foul thing! Darkness had triumphed, as the skeleton adjusted the spell sigil that would teleport her back to her foul lair.

Ijvani was nearly done altering the spell as Az’kerash patiently adjusted the teleportation rune on his end. He paused as Ijvani turned her head left and right, ensuring the matrix was perfectly altered.

“What is that strange…?”

Master? I’m done. Is something wrong?

The Necromancer paused. He thought he’d sensed something through his connection with Ijvani. But the skeleton wasn’t him, so there was a limit to how far he could extend her natural abilities. He waved a hand.

“No, it’s probably nothing. Teleport back, Ijvani.”

The skeleton smiled as she stepped into the teleportation sigil. At last!

I’m going home. I’m going—

 

—-

 

Some days, she wondered if she had less bad days than before. She couldn’t remember. But perhaps, the point wasn’t how many bad days she had, but how she handled them.

Ryoka Griffin tried to smile. And it was easier. It wasn’t forced. She could smile. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t like—well, Erin. Or Mrsha. Ryoka was not a happy person.

But she was getting better. That was the point. She couldn’t be perfect, ever. But she was better than before.

Better than last time. She’d be better still next month, hopefully. It was a learning process, and more than that—

She was learning to laugh with people. Ryoka and Fierre sat together in the Huntress’ Haven, eating lunch and laughing. It didn’t matter what they were talking about. Well, it did, but it was just so strange.

Ryoka was relaxing. She had no purpose. She was just…’hanging’. Which was awkward the instant you thought of it like that. But really, it meant she wasn’t running. She wasn’t forcing herself to be social.

It was easy to be her. And wasn’t it wonderful and depressing how rare that feeling was? But as Fierre giggled over a terrible joke Ryoka had made, the young woman found herself smiling.

Just for a moment. Then of course, something happened. In this case, something was Mad Madain. He kicked his way out of his room, growling as he clutched at his head.

“What the fuck is making that racket?

It was midday, but the man had just woken up. He stared red-eyed at the two young women. Ryoka looked up.

“Sorry, did we wake you, Madain?”

“Too fucking right!”

The man’s glare was designed to start a fight. Part of Ryoka instantly bristled, but she had changed. She nodded towards the door.

“We can leave if you want.”

Ryoka offered casually. If she had to, she’d be angry. But she would leave. And probably…probably not dwell on this moment for the rest of the day. It was a referendum on Madain’s reaction, not her.

And surprisingly, the mad [Innkeeper] paused. He glared, but then he shook his head like a dog.

“Gah. I’m going out. You two stay and chatter like women. Can’t lose my last two bags of coin, can I? Now that bastard [Fistfighter]’s gone.”

Ryoka and Fierre blinked. The Vampire girl looked up at the ceiling quickly.

“Alber’s gone?”

Madain was drinking some stale water straight from the pitcher. He grunted as he swallowed.

“Alber, right. He’s off to another city. Left last night.”

“Oh. He didn’t say anything to me. How about you, Fierre?”

The broker shook her head. Ryoka felt a pang of guilt. She had liked Alber. And she was afraid he hadn’t liked her that much. Another missed opportunity.

But—don’t dwell on it. Or if you do, not now. Ryoka smiled as she looked back at Fierre and Madain disappeared into his kitchen.

“Alright, contrary to what Madain says, I’m pretty sure neither of us want to be here when he has breakfast. I’ve seen him eat.”

Fierre laughed and shuddered as she rose. The two got up and headed for the door. Ryoka was smiling, but the news about Alber reminded her of something.

“So—Fierre. I might go to that address you gave me. If you’ll tell me which city it is. Or just give me the address again. Come on.”

She held out a hand. Fierre had told her the address before, but celebration drinking had wiped most of it from Ryoka’s head. And now she was being very reluctant to hand the information over to Ryoka again. The Vampire girl paused. She looked at Ryoka as they stood in the shade outside Madain’s inn. She pulled her hood over her head.

“I—look, Ryoka. I know this matters to you. But that group you had me find is backed by…her.”

“I know.”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt. I mean, the…Stitch Witch is one thing. But this is another very dangerous lady.”

Ryoka sighed. Reflexively, she scratched at her missing fingers.

“I know. But Fierre—”

“No, listen.”

The Vampire girl gripped Ryoka and swung her around easily. She was so much stronger than her appearance suggested. She stared up at Ryoka, her red eyes intent.

“Look, Ryoka, I know you’re advancing fast as a City Runner. You’ve got credibility, speed, your wind, and some fame for your runs. You’ll be getting the real contracts, soon. Private ones, or even the kind of requests that Couriers might get. High-level City Runners can compete with some Couriers. It’s all in the future. I just don’t want you to toss it all away by making an enemy of…her.

Fierre hesitated. Ryoka understood nervousness, but Fierre was reluctant to even say the name out loud.

“The Flower Lady. She—she’s ‘nice’ now. But do you know how she gained control of her family? Do you know what she can do? What her family did in the past? Balmer has stories—”

Ryoka put a hand on Fierre’s shoulder. Tried to budge her. It was like trying to move a rock. She sighed and tried words instead.

“I’m sure. Please, Fierre. I’m not going to make her my enemy. I’m just going to…negotiate. Make a trade. And she knows me. If she was going to kill me—well, she’s had a lot of patience with me so far.”

The Vampire girl hesitated. She looked Ryoka up and down.

“Can’t I talk you out of it?”

“I did pay you all that money to find them. Trust me. It’s fine. I’m not going to start anything. Runner’s honor.”

“Hah!”

But Fierre did let go of Ryoka. She fished in her belt pouch and pulled out the bit of parchment where she’d written the address. She handed it to Ryoka and the City Runner unfolded it.

“Aha. I knew I remembered the street. But not the city. Hold on—”

Ryoka stared at the address. Then she frowned. She looked at Fierre, and went for the small map in her belt pouch. Ryoka unfolded it, stared at the city listed on the piece of parchment. Stared at the map. She cursed.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. They were right there? All this time?”

She jabbed a dot on the map barely thirty miles south of Reizmelt. Fierre grinned weakly.

“In fairness, it was really hard to find them. I only got one tip when I asked about…odd people. But then someone connected me with all the details. That’s them. About eight of them. They’re listed as Bronze-rank adventurers, some of them. Half are enrolled in the local Mage’s Guild…you’re sure they’re the ones?”

“Pretty sure. I’ve never met them. But the names match up. I’m going to visit them.”

“And you’ll be—”

Ryoka hugged Fierre with one arm. She grinned at the Vampire girl reassuringly.

“Stop worrying! I’m just going to make a little trade. I’ll be back before night. Everything will be fine, Fierre!”

She turned and jogged into the sunlight before the Vampire girl could stop her. Ryoka took off at a jog. It would be fine. She was a changed person. Nothing was going to happen.

“…Probably.”

 

—-

 

It was a spring day when the young woman ran down one of the large paved roads, heading south. Not on the actual stone road; she ran to the side of it, to avoid the traffic as well. Wagons, people on horseback and foot—all were travelling on the last day of spring.

The City Runner ran barefoot, and the wind blew at her back. Some people, sensing the breeze, or seeing her distinctive features among the fairer-skinned population of Izril, as well as the bare feet, called out.

“Wind Runner!”

She waved at some of them. A few months ago she’d been new to the area. Now, people knew her. Little children followed her about with improvised sails, laughing. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt ran, blowing a gentle breeze with her.

She had made mistakes. But she had also had her triumphs. The Pithfire Hounds, returning with a wagon full of dead Stelbore corpses, waved at her, and she caught the whiff of charred flesh and hair. Not exactly good, but the dog that sat up and looked at her made her smile. She paused a moment, ran on.

It was a short run, at least in how City Runners measured such things. It still took her a good while, but there were harder roads. Longer paths. You could run for a month straight and you might not even get to First Landing. And she was a bit faster. A bit wiser.

A bit older. The young woman ran to another city, well, barely more than a glorified town. But the city of Laiss was still populated by countless souls she’d never met before. Some of them looked up as she blew into town, through the gates, flashing her Runner’s Seal at the guards.

The young woman ran through an open square. As she did, she passed by a [Fistfighter] plying his trade. Alber glanced up and he met Ryoka’s eyes for a second. She waved—he kept standing in his little boxing arena.

Ryoka found her destination wasn’t far from the square. In fact, it was a pretty little home in one of the nicer districts in the city. Of course it was. Magnolia Reinhart might not flash her wealth, but she wasn’t going to buy an apartment. This was—well, a mansion much like the one in Celum. Far from her true estates, with the moving animals on the walls, the massive garden and so on. But it was better than any townhouse.

And it was occupied. Ryoka paused at the gates. How many mansions did Magnolia have across Izril? Were they all staffed? She spotted a little root cellar to the right, past the smooth walkway that led up to the doors. Delicate stonework gave the mansion a commanding overlook of everything around it. Narrow windows, though, closer to crenellations. Ryoka wondered what style and point in history this mansion had been made in.

She wiped her feet on the street, getting some mud off it before she walked down the pristine stone walkway. She hoped there was a rug. Maybe just wipe her feet on the grass over there?

The double doors opened, catching the young woman trying to wipe her feet on the soft grass. She froze as a [Maid] appeared in the doorway. Definitely a [Maid], dressed in the Victorian-era dress. The woman eyed Ryoka.

“Can I help you, Miss?”

“Sorry. City Runner. May I speak to Miss Rose? Or Mister Joseph?”

Ryoka flashed her Runner’s Seal. It didn’t work as well on the [Maid]. She studied Ryoka up and down.

“May I ask if this is a delivery, Miss Runner?”

“Um—no. I’m actually just a friend. Well—I don’t know the—”

Ryoka hesitated. This felt awfully familiar. She tried again, smiling.

“Sorry. I’d just like to talk to Rose. Or Joseph? Imani? Galina? Troy?”

The [Maid]’s face grew more hostile with each name. Ryoka knew there were three others, but Erin had never remembered their names. She hesitated.

“I’m—are they inside? May I speak with them?”

“I’m afraid I do not know who you’re referring to, Miss Runner. This is the estate of Lady Magnolia Reinhart. She is not inside at present. Perhaps you have the wrong address?”

The [Maid] looked at Ryoka. The City Runner sighed. She’d thought it would come to that. Now, what was old Ryoka’s move? Challenge the [Maid] to a fistfight, probably. So…don’t do that at any cost.

“I’m sorry. I’m aware this is Magnolia Reinhart’s estate.”

“Ah, then perhaps—”

“I know they’re living here. And Magnolia Reinhart knows me.”

The [Maid] paused, one hand on the door. She looked back at Ryoka suspiciously. The City Runner tried to smile.

“I’m Ryoka Griffin. I…I’m like the others. Lady Magnolia knows me. Can I just have a word? Please?”

The woman’s eyes flickered at Ryoka’s name. She looked at Ryoka, and then she stepped back.

“One moment, Miss Runner. I shall inquire within.”

She closed the door. Ryoka stood outside, shifting from foot to foot. She sensed people on the street, idly passing by and watching, probably wondering what delivery Magnolia Reinhart was getting. One of them called out to her, cheerfully.

“Hoi, Miss Runner! You’re arriving at a busy time, eh? You’re that Wind Runner, aren’t you? Can you conjure us a breeze?”

He was loitering around with a few of his buddies, male and female. Ryoka grinned and waved at them. A little breeze blew their way. The man laughed.

“You’re alright, then! Hey, you lot—fifteen minutes before break’s up!”

He turned back to his companions. Ryoka refocused on the door, smiling. Yeah, smile. She saw the door open—the [Maid] reappeared.

“I’m afraid Lady Reinhart’s orders are quite clear, Miss Griffin. There are to be no visitors. Kindly remove yourself from the grounds at once.”

Ryoka sighed.

“Look, I know Magnolia doesn’t think highly of me. Are those her orders directly, or just in general? Can I send her a message? I promise, I just want to talk. Make a trade—”

“I’m afraid my orders are quite clear, Miss Ryoka. Please leave, before I am forced to summon the Watch.”

The City Runner bit her lip.

“Look. Does Magnolia Reinhart know I’m here? If not, can you let her know? I’ll leave! Just let her know I’d like to talk. And—”

A shadow appeared behind the [Maid]. The Human woman glanced back and moved out of the way.

“And what were you intending to do, Miss Ryoka Griffin?”

Ryoka looked up. A towering Gnoll appeared in the doorway. She was definitely she. And she had on a maid’s outfit, complete with a headband. But…it had to be said that she really carried the black and white dress well, but it just didn’t suit…her. Ryoka recognized the Gnoll.

“Uh—”

“We’ve met before, yes? Tell me, Miss Griffin. Are you planning on forcing your way into the mansion? Because that would be most inconvenient for the staff. Yes?”

Bekia, the Gnoll [Maid] was about, oh, seven feet tall. And her arms were thick with muscle. Most importantly though—she was built for that height. Gnolls weren’t Humans, where seven feet tall was an aberration.

They, male or female, were perfectly capable of living long lives at such heights. And fighting with all the height and weight and reach that entailed. Bekia looked like she could take apart a heavyweight boxing division, male or female. She grinned down at Ryoka. The six-foot-tall runner girl stepped back

“We have met. I was at Lady Magnolia’s mansion. You remember me?”

“I’ve seen you. Hrr. I hear you cause trouble from Theofore. Will I have trouble, Miss Ryoka?”

“Um. No. I just want to talk.”

Ryoka raised her hands carefully. The Gnoll [Maid] inspected her. She frowned.

“Are you sure? What if I poked you?”

She raised one huge paw and poked Ryoka with a furry finger. Ryoka edged back.

“What? No! I’m just talking. I won’t cause trouble. I’ll leave if—who’s Thomast?”

Bekia paused. She looked disappointed.

“Pity. I thought you’d try to beat Nerrissa.”

“Is that why I had to answer the door?”

The Human woman looked outraged. Bekia shrugged. She turned to Nerrissa and shook her head.

“Inform Lady Reinhart that Ryoka Griffin wishes to see the children. Come in, Miss Ryoka. Would you like some tea?”

She opened the door and Ryoka stared at her. Bekia grinned with all her teeth.

“You could always throw a punch too. That would be most welcome.”

 

—-

 

“She’s where? And she just walked up? She—did she punch anyone? Scream? Prevaricate in any way? No? That is odd. I wonder if she’s come down with something.”

Lady Magnolia Reinhart spoke into the little speaking stone as she sat with Ressa. They had broken off deliberations about the upcoming visit to Oteslia at the sudden news that Ryoka Griffin had found the place where Magnolia’s guests were staying. Ressa listened intently as Magnolia drummed her fingers. She pointed at Ressa.

“Send Reynold over at once.”

Ressa nodded and vanished. Magnolia spoke a few more words—Ressa reappeared.

“He’ll be there in less than thirty minutes. Should Bekia detain Ryoka Griffin?”

“Not forcibly. Not, Nerrissa. Have her sent to me. No—by all means, let her talk with the children. Tell me what she says. Thank you!”

Magnolia cheerfully ended the call and turned to Ressa. The [Head Maid] raised her eyebrows.

“Ryoka Griffin found the children from Earth. What does she want?”

“I imagine we’ll find out, Ressa. Now, back to our visit. What’s an appropriate gift for—who’s next on our list? Ah, Helessia Gemscale. And Navine Gemscale. Both Ladies of the Wall of Salazsar. So not gemstones, then.”

Ressa tsked as Magnolia went back to her list.

“Magnolia. Are you sure this is the time to be travelling around Izril? The Guild of Assassins has been too quiet. And the Circle of Thorns—doesn’t it bother you?”

The [Lady] looked up with a sigh.

“Ressa, it does bother me, but forging an alliance is essential. Izril cannot descend into war. Not with the Necromancer and the Antinium. This [Trade War] is forcing the hand of the local nobility. I’ll do a circuit before I leave. Mend as many bridges once they’re inclined to listen. But we must have peace with the Drakes. It won’t be more than a week, at most.”

“And a dangerous trip, even if we use the carriage.”

“I rather think we won’t. By sea, Ressa. Let’s not alarm the Drakes. Although I’d like to bring the carriage…we must go over our planned entrance. And all these gifts.”

Magnolia sighed. Planning out a thoughtful gift for each Drake she planned on meeting was taxing even her ability to host. Over a hundred gifts were already neatly packed away and it was a king’s ransom of goodwill she hoped to buy. But that was the good and bad thing; you could buy goodwill among Drakes with a good present. They were refreshingly straight forward in that way. Like Dragons.

“Speaking of which…I wonder if Teriarch knows about him. Or her? Both of them? Neither?”

Ressa looked confused. Magnolia’s relationship with Teriarch was something even the [Head Maid] and Magnolia’s oldest friend didn’t know the full details of. She herself had met Teriarch…fourteen times.

“How wouldn’t he?”

“He sleeps. And I think he’s stopped caring about the Walled Cities—no. Surely he knows. Perhaps he doesn’t. Either way, I’d better prepare—no, wait. I’m not supposed to know. And I imagine the Drakes will not take it well if I suggest that I know. For now. Or ever, perhaps. They would be rather…I wonder how many know themselves?”

The [Lady] mused out loud. Ressa shrugged.

“Maybe telling them is worth something politically. Why not try it and see what happens?”

“Ressa, you would be a terrible [Politician]. Either I start a war or…no! Absolutely not.”

“Fine. But what name am I crossing off the list?”

“Oh—that one. No, wait. I’ll still meet him. So…just make a little note?”

Ressa pointedly made a note on the paper, all without taking her eyes off Magnolia. The [Lady] ignored the look.

“Now, let’s discuss what to bring again. I may have to bother the old man—either old man—for a better bag of holding. I simply must bring enough magical mirrors to communicate with. Or those terribly gauche talking marble busts. But bringing so many artifacts together in a limited space without having them all explode or react to one another is…”

“Expensive.”

Magnolia threw her own quill at Ressa. The [Head Maid] caught it deftly. The [Lady] scowled.

“Difficult! Ressa, we are sparing no expense. This is our one chance to end this ridiculous conflict between Humans and Drakes. They wouldn’t even let one of our ships into Zeres’ harbor most times, let alone brook the idea of peace! It has to go well. These Drake [Ladies] are the one sensible option we have, and if I have to give them half of the artifacts Regis has plundered from them over the years—”

She broke off and Ressa saw Magnolia’s eyelids flicker. The [Head Maid] bit off the retort she was making about how many cargo ships that would take and looked at Magnolia, worried. The [Lady] paled.

“Wait. Something’s…”

Her head snapped around, staring at some unseen sight. Ressa reached for her dagger reflexively.

“What is it? The Stitch Witch? I thought you said she was moving away from—”

“No. Ryoka. The children are in danger. Warn Bekia!”

Ressa shot to her feet.

“Reynold is already on the way.”

She shot out of the room. Magnolia looked around.

“Ryoka Griffin. What has she done?

 

—-

 

Ryoka found herself having tea with Bekia. The Gnoll [Maid] was rather informal, not like the other servants in the household. That was because she was actually a former [Chieftain]. Of a Gnoll tribe.

“You’re kidding me. The [Chieftain]? Like—Urksh of the Stone Spears tribe?”

“Oh yes. I was for a while. But I got in trouble, yes? Got kicked out—came here. Being a [Maid] is rather fun. Relaxing. But I miss fighting. We had sparring matches in my tribe.”

Bekia grinned as she sipped from her tea cup. Ryoka eyed her brawny arms.

“So…Magnolia put you here, to watch over the people from Earth? Rose and everyone? And they are here?”

“Oh yes. Hrr. Nerrissa should be getting them since Magnolia has given you permission to speak. And yes, we rotate in staff to look over them. It is a chore.”

“I bet. Er—I mean, I heard from Erin that they were here, but I never met them myself. They were gone when I came. I heard they were…troublesome?”

The Gnoll [Maid] only grinned in response. It had an edge.

“Tell me, Miss Ryoka. Do you think you have worked hard to become a City Runner? They speak of you, even here. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. And I saw Miss Erin Solstice, when she came. I understand she runs an inn. Did she work hard?”

“Yes. I know Erin did. And I worked hard too. Not as hard as I could have. I—made lots of mistakes. Magnolia was very patient with me. In her way.”

Ryoka had mixed feelings about Magnolia Reinhart, but she had to admit, she wouldn’t have been as tolerant of her. Bekia nodded reasonably.

“Yes. Lady Reinhart, she is good at being patient, yes? But she demands people try. They must work, if not their hardest, at least some, no? But these children…I am afraid they have exhausted her patience. Hence why they are here.”

Ryoka considered her words. She glanced past Bekia—she thought she could hear some voices from further in the mansion. And she found herself arguing against what old Ryoka would have said. Old Ryoka was probably all on Magnolia’s side.

“Yeah, but sometimes people need help, Bekia. Sometimes they need guidance. Or…just a helping hand. Not everyone can make it alone. I know Magnolia is good, but she’s far from perfect.”

Bekia laughed.

“True! Hrm, you have good points, Miss Griffin. But this group—they are rather good at needing lots of help, yes? Lady Reinhart offered them many opportunities. But they are rather content to be—well, you shall see for yourself.”

Her ears twitched, and Ryoka heard the voices getting louder. She stood up uncertainly, as the parlor doors opened and someone stumbled through. She saw a young man, a spray of messy hair. Ryoka stepped towards him.

“Joseph—?”

And then she caught the whiff coming from him. Ryoka recoiled and Bekia sneezed. It was distinctly alcohol. The young man was inebriated. No—drunk. And it was barely midday! He looked at her. Then Ryoka saw a group of young men and women pour into the room.

“Nerrissa! Who is—”

A young woman with a slightly worn shirt, jacket, and pants, all too bright and colorful to be made in this world, was complaining to the [Maid] as she was shepherded into the room much like an actual sheep. She turned—and stared at Ryoka.

Oh my god. Are you her?”

“Uh—”

“Who’s this? Rose?”

One of the others stared blankly at Ryoka. Another looked at her feet. The drunk guy stared straight at Bekia’s chest. The Gnoll sighed. Ryoka looked on the people from Earth.

What a wretched hive of scum and…well, the Antinium Hive was actually quite neat. These…kids weren’t. Most of them were well—dressed, aside from the drunk Joseph, and another sloppily-dressed guy. The girls were clean, at least. But they looked…indolent.

Yeah. That word described it. A bit too lazy. As if they weren’t running about each day, or working. Too…bored, relaxed. They sat down in the parlor, sprawled over the couch, stared at Ryoka as Bekia rose and stepped back.

“You’re her, aren’t you? The Runner! The one that Erin told us about!”

Rose gasped. Some of the other Earthworlders stared at Ryoka. Joseph jerked up.

“What? We’ve got someone else joining us?”

“No. I’m just visiting. I found out you were here. And I—my name’s Ryoka Griffin. Nice to meet you.”

Rose stared as Ryoka held out her right hand. The City Runner didn’t know why—until she remembered her two missing fingers. She hesitated, but Rose gingerly shook her hand.

“How’d you find us? I mean—you’re an actual Runner? A Street Runner?”

“No. City Runner.”

“The Wind Runner of Reizmelt.”

Bekia spoke helpfully. Nerrissa blinked. Rose and the others just looked blank. Joseph looked excited.

“Wait. Is that a title? Are you famous? Or is that your class? I’m Joseph. [Warrior]. [Mage].”

“Oh. Pleased. What level?”

“Uh—Level 4? And 6?”

Ryoka stared at Joseph. She looked around. Rose was trying to introduce the others.

“This is Galina, Troy—hey, where’s Imani?”

“Coming. She was in her room. Oh my god. Do you have a computer? An iPhone?”

“I do, but—”

Show us!

It was—Ryoka found the others fighting for her iPhone, despite Rose’s attempts to keep order. Joseph, ignoring the fight over the technology, was trying to explain.

“We’re all sharing devices, but only one of us has a laptop. Mac. So we synched everything up—except for the Androids because…Macs. We don’t have any new songs, and we take turns playing all the games on Troy’s laptop—”

“Oh my god! She’s got podcasts! And music! And Pokémon!

Ryoka turned beet red as the theme song began playing from her iPhone. She nearly grabbed it back, but she turned to Joseph instead. She caught sight of Rose, staring at her.

“How are you all doing?”

“Good. I mean—we’re Magnolia’s guests. Do you earn a living for yourself? Do you know what happened to Erin? I thought she’d come with us, but she never came back.”

“She’s fine. I think. She has her own inn.”

“Her own inn? She’s an [Innkeeper], right. But why is she doing that?”

“Well, she has to earn a living.”

It was like they were from different planets. Or worlds. Rose blinked.

“But Magnolia offered her a chance to stay. She could come here. Are you staying?”

“No. Actually—stop that, please.

Ryoka grabbed at her iPhone. They were going through her pictures. Disappointed, the other kids—they were only a few years younger, but it felt like more—stared at her. Ryoka took a deep breath and met Bekia’s stare.

“What do you do all day? Are you adventurers? That’s what Erin said you were doing.”

The Earthworlders…paused. They didn’t quite meet Ryoka’s eyes. Rose hesitated. She looked at Joseph.

“Some of us tried. But it’s too dangerous.”

Joseph rubbed at his arm.

“It’s really—hard. Turns out killing monsters isn’t our thing. We fought these Goblins—got cut up. It’s—not for us.”

“Oh. So what do you do?”

Ryoka thought she knew the answer. Joseph looked around and waved a hand vaguely.

“We just go sightseeing. Around. I’m learning a bit of magic, but—it’s hard, you know? We’re all low-level because it takes years to get to Level 20! And—we’re from earth. What can we do? I don’t know how to use a sword or a bow. I’m practicing.”

Ryoka looked at Rose. She paused.

“I’m studying to be a [Mage]. I’m Level 11. I think I really have a knack!”

“You’re Level 11? Do you have any other classes?”

“No. What’s your class?”

“I don’t have one.”

The others stared. Even Bekia and Nerrissa.

“Why not? Have you seen what Skills can do? Show them your [Power Strike], Joseph!”

Not inside.”

Bekia barked. The Gnoll restored order as Ryoka had to take a step back. Thankfully, Bekia drew her back, forcing the others to sit and have some tea. Rose clearly wanted to talk to her, as did the others, but Ryoka needed one second.

“They have a stipend. And we clean up for them. From time to time.”

The Gnoll murmured to Ryoka. The City Runner stared at her.

“You’re babying them. That’s why they’re like—”

She waved a hand at them. One, Troy, went up to grab his laptop to synch Ryoka’s iPhone. Nerrissa followed him, exasperated. Bekia shrugged.

“Lady Reinhart did let them try to live alone. They were rather poor at it, no? Hold on—”

As Troy left, someone else entered the parlor. The eighth member of the group. Ryoka saw dark skin, downcast eyes. Imani paused when she saw Ryoka. Bekia turned to her.

“Imani, are you well? You look much rested, yes?”

The Gnoll’s voice was much gentler than it was with the others. She led Imani forwards, offering her a cup of tea. The young woman went to Ryoka instead.

“Are you…?”

Her eyes were too wide. She looked sleep-deprived, too. Ryoka looked at her and remembered something else Erin had said. Something from a phone call. A chat room.

“My name is Ryoka Griffin. Who are you?”

“I’m Imani. I’m—you’re from Earth?”

Imani looked Ryoka up and down, desperately. Ryoka smiled.

“That’s right. I’m just like you. I work as a City Runner.”

“You go outside?”

Imani’s eyes widened in horror. Ryoka nodded. The young woman stared at Bekia.

“But—”

“Imani ran into monsters when she first came here.”

The Gnoll murmured quietly. Ryoka looked past Imani at the impatient others. Rose was keeping them back. She was looking at Imani. Ryoka turned to the girl.

“What sort of monsters?”

“Tunnel Crawlers. They—we appeared right next to them. Lots of us. We ran. And we got a call—but no one helped us.”

Imani’s voice trembled. Ryoka’s stomach clenched.

“Tunnel Crawlers? Oh. Crelers. How’d you…?”

“We got onto the rocks. The big ones. They couldn’t climb the rocks. And the little ones—we kept throwing them off. Or trying to. I was…I was the only one that made it.”

The young woman’s voice broke. Bekia took her shoulder reassuringly. Ryoka didn’t know what to say.

“I’m so sorry. I’ve only ever seen Crelers once. And I ran and reported that nest—I’m sorry.”

She hesitated, and then touched Imani’s shoulder. The young woman flinched. But then she looked up at Ryoka.

“Are you here to stay too?”

Ryoka looked past her. Joseph, Rose, Troy, Galina, who was arguing with the others about spilling tea on the expensive couches—Ryoka bit her tongue. Joseph waved at her.

“Yeah, are you going to stay, Ryoka? We could use more company!”

You’re all pathetic.

That was what Ryoka wanted to say. But she didn’t. She really, really wanted to shout it at them. Maybe drop kick Joseph or all of them except Imani. But she didn’t. For one big reason: it wasn’t really their fault.

Okay, it was. But on the other hand—no. Ryoka looked at the expensive mansion, the staff who’d keep the Earthworlders alive, if not always happy. Food on the table, roof over your head—and a stipend. All for nothing.

This is what happened when Magnolia Reinhart didn’t like you. She treated you like, well, like a child. And it was unfortunate that it seemed like it worked.

Ryoka had met people like the Earthworlders. Spoiled, rich children with too much power and wealth. They wanted for nothing except everything. She’d been one of them, in her way. It wasn’t everyone. Some people took wealth, even if they’d grown up in it, and still worked. But Ryoka thought those were the exceptions, rather than the rule. Money changed you. And there was a surfeit of money here that no one had earned.

Perhaps just as Magnolia had intended. Ryoka took a deep breath. She addressed Rose and the others.

“I’m not here to stay. I have a job. I am a City Runner, and I can’t stay.”

“But—why? At least let’s have some drinks. Do you live nearby?”

“I—not at all. I run around a lot.”

“You’re working?”

“Yes.”

“Why—”

“What did you come here for, then?”

Rose elbowed Joseph and looked at Ryoka. The City Runner nodded to herself. Time to make her pitch. She pointed at Troy’s laptop.

“I want to make a deal. I need your tablets, smartphones, computers—MP3 players, even—anything you’ve got. Every electronic. I’ll return it to you, I promise. But I need to borrow it. For two weeks. Tops.”

The Earthworlders stared at Ryoka. Then someone laughed incredulously.

“Are you kidding? No!”

They reflexively held onto their possessions. Ryoka understood, she really did. It was the last working thing from their world. So she dug at her money pouch.

“Here’s what I’ll pay you to borrow them.”

She put down stacks of gold coins onto the table, her entire fortune, almost. She saved twenty gold coins to sweeten the deal and to survive off of. She’d borrow from Fierre if need be, but Ryoka was making a gamble. She doubted Magnolia’s stipend was that high.

And she was right. The Earthworlder’s eyes went round at the sight of all the gold. Troy nearly reached for it.

“How did you earn all that?

“I’m the Wind Runner. Look—I’ll borrow everything for two weeks. You can manage for two weeks, right? And I’ll bring it back.”

Two weeks was a good amount of time to reach the High Passes. Ryoka saw Bekia looking narrowly at her. Nerrissa grabbed Bekia’s arm and towed her back. The City Runner looked around.

“Well?”

Rose was blinking and shaking her head. She seemed taken aback by all of it. She looked around, and then at Ryoka.

“This is all so sudden. Can’t you explain things? Come on, sit down. Tell us everything. Why are you—”

Ryoka Griffin! Step away from them, now!

Bekia’s voice roared. Ryoka jerked backwards. The Gnoll charged forwards. She was suddenly growling, her hair standing up. She made one huge fist.

“Back away from them slowly. Hands behind your head!”

“What? What’s going—”

“Do it!”

The Gnoll had a battleaxe in one paw. She had her own bag of holding. Ryoka saw it cut the air—she froze, hands up.

“What’s going on? Bekia!

Imani screamed as Nerrissa covered Ryoka with a crossbow. More staff flooded into the room, [Servants], [Maids]—Ryoka froze as Bekia advanced. The Gnoll was snarling.

“What did I do?”

The Gnoll stared at her.

“What did you do? You don’t smell like guilt. But Magnolia Reinhart, she sent an immediate warning. What did you do? Tell me now, or—”

Something exploded. Ryoka saw a blast of fire, saw the splinter of wood. One of the servants coming in through the right door jerked. She saw a splinter of wood enter through the woman’s neck. She collapsed. Bekia whirled. She stared at the fallen maid. At Ryoka. Then someone tackled Ryoka.

Down! We’re under attack!

Get them to the safe room!

The Earthworlders were shouting in panic. The servants shot out of the room. Ryoka heard a shout. Screams. A roar.

To the front! It’s not Ryoka! To arms!

Whoever was on top of Ryoka let go. The City Runner rolled, getting to her feet. One ear was ringing. She stumbled past Rose and the others. And she saw—

The front of the mansion was gone. The gardens and walkway were on fire. Ryoka saw Bekia standing with the battleaxe gleaming in the sunlight. She was staring at a man. A silhouette, rather. Garbed entirely in black.

An [Assassin]. He stood behind ranks of black-clad figures, all wearing dark colors. Some wore dark armor, others bound cloth. A few had masks. One or two were even bareheaded.

Assassins. Ryoka’s breath caught. Where had they come from? Then the leader spoke.

“Strange. The Gnoll’s a high-value target. Miss Runner, you ran out of time.”

He nodded cheerfully at her. Ryoka recognized the voice. It was one of the loiterers who’d called out to her. He nodded at his companions.

“Ignore the City Runner. She’s not on our list. And the extras. Be professional about this or I will kill you.”

He pointed. Ryoka whirled. Rose and the other Earthworlders were stumbling out of the broken mansion, wide-eyed. Bekia turned her head.

“Get inside! Now!

“Is this a joke? Oh my god, it’s like the other time at the mansion! They’re coming after us!”

Galina screamed. The [Assassin] looked at Bekia.

“We’re not here for the civilians. We’re here for you. Reinhart’s staff. You may surrender. The Guild of Assassins has marked Magnolia Reinhart’s—”

Thunk.

The [Assassin] blurred, dodging left. One of the black shapes folded up behind him. The leader tsked as Nerrissa lowered the crossbow.

“Fine. Go.

The [Assassins] charged silently. Ryoka saw half of them throw something and dove.

Down!

The wind blew fiercely. It knocked the Earthworlders off their feet. Ryoka hit the ground, but most of the [Assassins] weren’t aiming at her. Ryoka got a kick as the group flailed, but she was on her feet.

She saw a full-scale battle behind her. The staff were fighting with the [Assassins], pulling back into the mansion. The leader beheaded a [Maid] and a [Butler] with his sword as Magnolia’s staff drew their own weapons. He leaned back as Bekia swung her axe. She halted mid-swing, brought the axe down.

You filthy rats!

The axe glowed. The magic in it exploded outwards. The lead [Assassin] cursed and vanished. The ones behind him weren’t so lucky. A scythe of gold cut through three. One spun away, grabbing at his arm. But he never made a sound.

Fall back! Behind me!

Bekia roared. The [Maid] swung her axe as if she wasn’t wearing a maid’s uniform. So quick—Ryoka saw her bisect a jumping [Assassin].

“Oh my god.”

Someone threw up behind her. Ryoka turned. The Earthworlders were staring at the violence.

Get to cover!

Ryoka snapped. She grabbed Rose and pushed them. Imani was already inside. Ryoka saw more staff flood down the steps. She stared. These servants were armed.

A pair of [Maids] threw open a window and aimed crossbows down at the [Assassins]. They fired, then retreated behind the narrow opening. Their bolts missed both their targets, but they exploded as they hit the ground. One of the [Assassins] vanished in a cloud of acid.

Hold the entrance!

Bekia roared. Ryoka saw a pair of [Servants] armed with dueling swords take up flanking positions inside. They swung as an [Assassin] leapt through the doorway. The man blurred, turned to smoke for a second, landed, and engaged both. More [Servants] fell back.

Then—a shriek. Metal screaming. The [Assassins] paused. Ryoka looked around wildly. Something was—

A Steel Golem burst out of the cellar door, exploding the wood and iron like fireworks. It exploded onto the mansion grounds. The lead [Assassin] stared as the towering Golem swung the huge sword it carried and cut two [Assassins] apart.

Holy god!

Someone shouted behind Ryoka. She stared. Then the pieces fit. More [Servants] appeared. They were changing into armor. And more carried weapons. The windows of the mansion opened.

Crossbows. And magical ammunition. The first quarrel struck an [Assassin] and exploded. The other [Assassins] dove out of the way as the staff loosed a deadly volley.

“A trap. And I had to pick this assignment. The other strikes better be going better than this.”

The leader’s voice was resigned. He leaned out of the way as the Steel Golem swung at him. It stopped the blade, tried to strike him on the backswing. The [Assassin] raised his sword.

“[Still Blade].”

He blocked the Golem’s swing with a sound like thunder. The man turned to the other shadows.

“I’ll bring down the Steel Golem. Hold off the Gnoll [Maid] until I do.”

Shadows blurred forwards. They leapt at the Gnoll [Maid]. She whirled the blade, howling. Ryoka grabbed Rose. The young woman was shouting as she stared at the Steel Golem.

“That was in the basement the entire time!?”

“Run! Follow me!”

Ryoka shouted. She dragged at Rose and the others. They broke out of their paralysis, looked at Ryoka. She pointed left, around the fighting.

“But—”

Run!

The City Runner screamed it in their ears. The Earthworlders ran.

Get back here!

Bekia howled. She swung the enchanted battleaxe like it weighted nothing at all. But the darting [Assassins] were forcing her back, battling the staff at the entrance. They weren’t prepared for this mansion’s army of armed servants. But this was a trap. The Earthworlders—and yet, the [Assassins] ignored the Earthworlders and Ryoka as they ran for the gates.

But if they weren’t after them, then who? Ryoka saw reinforcements charging into the fight. More shadows. A townswoman drew a veil over her face. She must not have heard the leader because she saw Ryoka sprinting out of the mansion’s gates with Rose and the others and she drew a throwing dagger.

Wind!

Ryoka pointed. Wind blew the woman off her feet. The dagger went wide. Ryoka saw the woman backflip backwards.

“Oh my god. Joseph!”

“I don’t have a sword!”

Ryoka ignored the young man. The [Assassin] caught herself. The second blast of wind buffeted her, but she crouched low. She drew a second throwing dagger, aiming at Ryoka—

Alber hit her. The [Fistfighter]’s blow rocked the [Assassin] alongside the jaw and she stumbled. But she didn’t fall. She slashed at him and the [Fistfighter] ducked back.

Ryoka lunged forwards. She took aim; there was no time to kick. The female [Assassin] raised her dagger, got a jab to the face. Then two heavy hits. One-two—Ryoka hit her, ducked back. She had her hands up, guarding her face. She swung in, fast, as the dagger slashed wildly. Three, four—five—

The masked woman folded up. Ryoka stood over her, panting wildly as the Earthworlders and Alber both stared at her. The Earthworlders’ eyes were wide; Alber just blinked. He looked at Ryoka.

“Ryoka.”

“Hey, Alber.”

She panted. The [Fistfighter] looked at the unconscious [Assassin].

“Nice punches. I guess you do know something. What’s happening?”

Magnolia Reinhart’s estates were under siege. [Assassins] fought with [Maids] and [Servants] as the city folk stared in horror. There were so many [Assassins]! The staff were retreating inside the building. Ryoka saw Bekia dueling the leader—the Steel Golem had been beheaded! They were going to—

Something blurred past Ryoka, shooting down the streets. Alber grabbed her as a ghostly horse raced past.

“What is that?

Really fast pink death. The carriage hit the first group of [Assassins] and Ryoka saw one bounce off the front before landing on the ground. Another tried to dodge; the impact sent her flying. She was actually alive when she landed—right until one of the carriage’s wheels ran over her head.

Reynold!

The [Combat Butler] took the carriage around in a tight loop. He’d drawn his sword and was defending himself from [Assassins] trying to leap on the pink carriage as it ran over another fleeing shape. Ryoka nearly turned back—but what could she do?

Protect the kids.

“Let’s get out of here! Follow me!”

She pointed. Rose and the others needed no encouragement. Even Alber pounded after her as they fled the fighting. The City Watch was gathering uncertainly, wide-eyed [Guardsmen] staring at the combat well above their pay grade and level.

Past the crowds. Out the gates. In the confusion, no one stopped him. The Earthworlders were babbling questions—Alber was staring back at her.

“What was that?”

Ryoka felt a twist in her stomach. She hesitated.

“It wasn’t me. I’m pretty sure. Magnolia Reinhart is under attack. This is a war.

“A war? Between Reinhart and the Assassin’s Guild?”

Alber paled. Ryoka nodded tightly.

“Them, and whoever else is against Magnolia. Alber, you should get out of the city. Thanks for helping me—”

“What do we do?”

The City Runner and [Fistfighter] turned. Rose stared back the way they’d come. Smoke was rising from the mansion. Ryoka looked at them.

“It’s not safe for you. You’ll be targets if you stay under Magnolia’s protection. These [Assassins] had no idea you were even here. The next lot will.”

“But—what do we do?”

The young woman demanded, pale-faced. Someone, Troy, was being sick again. Ryoka looked at them. People from Earth. But not—she hesitated. They were looking at her. What could she do?

“There’s someone I know. From our world. He—no. She can take care of you.”

In a split second, Ryoka made a decision. She looked back at the mansion. Then at the Earthworlders. They had their electronics, at least. Ryoka looked at Troy’s laptop, a smartphone in Galina’s hand. She felt at her belt pouch and cursed.

“I’m going to have to borrow money from Fierre. Alber—I need to get these people to Reizmelt. Will you help me?”

The [Fistfighter] nodded. Imani looked back.

“But—Bekia. Nerrissa. What will—”

“I’ll come back. But regardless of what happens, you’re not safe here. You need to go somewhere else.”

Where?

“The Wandering Inn. Erin runs it. She can help you.”

Ryoka could have said the Unseen Empire, Riverfarm. Laken. But she made a decision. And the world changed. Rose’s eyes widened. The Earthworlders looked up.

“It’s a long ways away. But I’ll help you as much as I can. But you’ll have to make the journey.”

“What? But—”

Ryoka ignored the protests. She looked at Alber.

“I’m going to find a wagon. Anyone to take them. Will you ride with them? I’m going to stay. See who wins.”

She pointed at the mansion. Alber just looked at her. Top to toe, mystified.

“Who are you?”

“Me? I’m just a Runner.”

Ryoka pointed at her chest. The [Fistfighter] shook his head.

“Sure you are.”

He paused. Ryoka had to laugh. She held out her hand. And Alber took it. His palm was callused and rough, and his grip was strong. Ryoka shook Alber’s hand.

It was so simple. Ryoka turned back as she ran towards a moving wagon, shouting for the driver to stop. Termin raised his brows. And Ryoka felt it in her bones.

Changing. Everything was, not just her. She almost smiled. Then she feared for the future. But she looked back, at the lost group from Earth. And she thought of her friend. Trouble was coming her way. Or at the very least…

Interesting times.

 

—-

 

Peace. Consequence. Growth. Rebuilding. Plans for the future. Alliances. Regrets. War. The world changed. It repeated history. It stood still.

None of it mattered. None of it at all. The world was a vast, uncaring place. Coincidence looked like fate. Here, now, was all.

And the world itself paused. He felt it. Nothing mattered outside of this building. This place. There was only him.

And her.

There she was. After all this time, after so long. Toren the skeleton stood in The Wandering Inn, arms outspread. Welcoming the young woman who sat at the table in front of him. Amid the broken inn, the partially collapsed ceiling and floor. The inn was not what Toren remembered. But it was still the inn.

And he was home. So was she. The young woman with her light, brown hair with that slight hint of orange, hazel eyes. Longer hair than he remembered. Different clothes. But that was all. She was the same person. His owner, his mistress, his…

Erin Solstice.

“Toren…?”

She spoke, breathing the words. He smiled.

It had been a long time. So long, he had almost forgotten her voice. But he couldn’t really forget. To Toren, memory was unfading.

Even so, she was here. In front of him. Erin. The skeleton waited. The young woman, the [Innkeeper] half-rose. Paused. Staring. She hadn’t seen him for a long time. He’d seen her lie down at the table, pretend to level up. And he had been waiting.

“Are—how—”

Erin Solstice stumbled over her words. She stared at him, her eyes wide, breathing faster. Toren saw it all as he waited.

He had waited a long time for this. Hiding, watching the inn from afar. He had run out of mana potions, even. So he’d come to the inn.

It made sense. The door was gone, hauled out by the Drakes and Gnolls. So the inn was full of mana. Full of magic! It astounded Toren. When had this come about? It filled him, gave him strength. He could live, here. And only here. If he ran, he might make it to the dungeon.

But he wasn’t going back. Toren looked at Erin. Studying her as she tried to process his being there.

There she was. Alive. But he didn’t feel her. She was—gone.

She’d tried to kill him. The thought hit the skeleton again and the purple flames in his eyes flickered. That was the truth.

No—maybe it was an accident? Maybe, yes, maybe all of her magic had gone into the inn. That was a possibility.

He didn’t know. He didn’t know. He thought he knew, but there was nothing in this world that was sure. Nothing that was true. So Toren had come here, to find the one thing he could believe.

To know.

For a long time, the two just looked at each other. The young woman, seated, breathing quicker. Eyes wide. The skeleton, alive in undeath.

Their history played before them. Toren remembered it all. Waking. First becoming him, obeying orders. Struggling with her orders.

Leveling. Finding joy in it. Finding joy in killing. Growing. Hating her orders.

A song.

An exploding inn.

Lyonette. Mrsha. Snow.

The sleigh.

And then—Esthelm. The Goblins. Her…death.

The dungeon. Hearing her name.

And back to here. Toren didn’t know what Erin thought as she looked at him. But he remembered it all so clearly. So clearly—and yet the Toren of old was a stranger to him.

A foolish skeleton, who understood nothing. Who took pleasure in simple leveling, in fighting. Who knew nothing of—pain. Of regret.

Because Toren regretted killing Erin. It had torn at him. He had lost the pleasure he took from killing, from leveling itself! He had become she. And she had tried to show him something.

But it turned out he and she had been wrong. Because Erin had never died.

She tried to kill him.

Or perhaps not. The skeleton waited. He was alone. The sword he’d stabbed Bevussa with hung at his hip. A worn shield lay on his back. He had torn away the clothes she wore, left them, and the mask in the kitchen. Erin was…unarmed? She had a knife on the belt at her side. Two potions.

A golden ring on one hand. It looked strange to Toren. Gold, then bronze. Magic flickered.

Toren didn’t move. He was waiting for Erin. He would wait forever, if need be. Now, in this moment, he was afraid. Relieved. Furious. Happy. Something…else. So many emotions, but balanced perfectly together, waiting for the uncertain future.

Anything could happen. And Toren didn’t know what came next. He had no idea. He waited for Erin to do something. She might attack. Flee. Question. Her head might explode. She could just go back to sleep.

She might even hug him—

Toren waited. And at last, Erin stood up.

“Toren.”

He jerked at his name. Erin smiled. She spread her arms.

“It’s so…good to see you, Toren! Are you okay? I thought you got lost when I told you to carry me in the sled—”

Toren smiled. But then—he heard a sound in his skull. He twitched.

Ding. The sleigh bells. He remembered them. He remembered everything. He remembered why he had hated her.

No. Wait. Erin was looking at him. She’d paused when he moved. Her voice was cheerful, bright. She gestured around the inn.

“I…I’m so glad you’re back! The inn’s a bit of a mess. But it wasn’t your fault this time! It was Crelers! Hey—why don’t you grab a broom, or help me clean up? I’ll just go look for one—”

Clean up? Hey, Toren! Clean the rooms! Hey Toren, get me some water!

Hey, Toren!

The skeleton stared. That wasn’t it either. Erin paused as his arms dropped. She stared at him. And he stared back.

Waiting.

“Doesn’t look like there’s a dust rag around here. I’m just going to…”

The door. She was edging towards the door. Then one of the holes in the walls, closer. Toren walked forwards. Erin halted.

“Toren?”

He walked around the table. Blocking the way she’d come. Erin’s eyes flicked towards him. And then the opening. She looked around. Toren stared at her. Erin looked back. And he saw it.

Something in the eyes. More than fear. More than surprise. Something—the skeleton hesitated.

“It’s so good to see you.”

Lies. He read it in every line of her posture. Tense. Wary. The skeleton paused. This was all wrong.

Slowly, Toren looked at Erin. She waited, eyes flicking past him. The skeleton hesitated.

Then he opened his jaws. The ivory teeth parted. Toren spoke.

Erin.

Erin looked at him. The skeleton paused.

“Um, hello? Toren?”

She hesitated. Toren spoke.

It’s me.

But that was only a thought. Not sound. Again, Toren tried. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He clattered his jaw, helplessly.

“Yes. It’s great to see you. Really cool. Um.”

Erin moved around the table. Toren watched her, turning his torso. She couldn’t hear him. He tried to speak. He tried with every fiber of his being. But he was voiceless.

How could he make her understand? The skeleton looked at Erin. Could he write on something? Did he even know how to write? He could read any language in the world. But could he…?

She didn’t understand him. Or maybe she did. Erin stared at Toren as his jaw opened and closed silently.

“What is it? What do you want to tell me, Toren?”

He just looked at her helplessly. That was what lay between them. Unspoken words. Did she know what he wanted to say? Could she read into his heart? He waited. Hoping.

Erin studied Toren. And this time, he saw that flicker in her eyes growing. Something staring behind the smile she gave him.

“Toren. I have something to tell you too. Let me just go get a thing real quick, okay?”

She tried to walk around the table, towards the door. He blocked her. The young woman halted. Stared into the skeleton’s eyes.

“Toren. Let me pass.”

The skeleton felt the order. He put out an arm. Blocking her. Erin looked at him.

“Huh.”

That felt good. Toren almost smiled. He opened and closed his jaws.

Erin. No, that wasn’t right.

Erin looked at Toren.

“I’ve heard a lot of things about you, Toren.”

So have I…mother.

A dark light flickered in the young woman’s eyes. She was breathing more slowly, and her voice was growing calm.

“I hear you did some bad things.”

Mother!

Toren screamed the word. He looked at Erin.

“You killed people. Is that true, Toren?”

Mother. Erin. Hello. Can you hear me?

The skeleton waited. Erin looked at him.

“Do you…understand me?”

He nodded. Erin’s eyes widened only a bit.

“Thought so. Then—answer my question. I heard you killed people. Is that true?”

The skeleton paused. Erin stared at him. Straight into his…he nodded. Then he tapped his chest.

Can you hear me? Can you—

The first punch knocked his skull across the room. Toren’s skeleton crumbled as Erin shouted.

“[Minotaur Punch]!”

His skull hit a broken beam, cracked. The rest of Toren jerked. Erin turned and ran for the door. She hurtled for it—and Toren leapt. His torso tackled Erin, bringing her down. His skull flew back towards his head. Erin fought, knocking Toren off him

Mother! Listen to me!

Help! Help!

Erin screamed, but there was no one around the abandoned inn. They were all playing baseball, far from the inn. She punched as Toren grabbed at her mouth.

No! Listen to me. Talk to me!

But she heard nothing. She wasn’t listening. Toren saw a flash—he recoiled. The edge of Erin’s knife sliced through the front of his skull. So sharp.

Mother! Are you my mother?

Erin slashed at Toren as she tried to kick him off her. Her knife went through his bones like hot butter. But the mana in the inn was already mending them. Toren stared at Erin. How could they ever understand each other? He tore Pelt’s kitchen knife out of Erin’s hand. Flung it to one side as his bones began to mend.

The young woman finally got a foot under Toren’s chest. She heaved and the lighter skeleton went flying. He hit the ground, scrambled up. Erin was already on her feet. She panted, staring at them.

“You killed them. Why? Why did you do it?”

Killed who? Why does it matter? Mother, it’s me. Don’t you remember me? Don’t you need—

“Was it me? Why did you kill all of them?”

The young woman feinted, went for another opening. Toren charged her. Erin’s fist came up. This time she hit him in the solar plexus. The skeleton went staggering backwards. Erin ran for the door.

He threw his shield. It hit Erin behind the knees and she stumbled. Toren was on her again. But Erin threw him off. She kicked, catching him in the ribs, but the blow failed to scatter his bones.

You killed them.

Why shouldn’t I? Mother, what am I? Why was I created? Why—

Erin grabbed Toren’s arm, threw him across the room. He was too light! The skeleton went over a table. Erin turned. Then she grabbed at something. An emergency box still lying there, contents half-spilled.

As Toren rose. Erin looked at him. She looked at the opening in the wall. The skeleton ran at her. Erin looked at him.

“Why are you so…evil?”

Evil? What was evil? What was good? No one had ever taught him that! It was just—‘bad Toren’! ‘Don’t do that, Toren!’ ‘Stop that, Toren—’

The acid jar hit Toren in the chest. He staggered as the acid covered him. The skeleton stared as the green liquid splashed around the tables. Erin stared at him.

“Toren.”

He looked down at his melting bones.

No. She’d hit him with an acid jar. Toren raised one hand. He saw his hand begin to melt off, eaten away by the green liquid. It was on his skull, his ribs, his bones. He was dissolving.

No. Mother—

He took a step towards her. Another acid jar hit Toren in the face. The skeleton’s head slowly began to melt away. He took another step. Tripvines exploded around him. Erin stared at Toren. He was melting.

You hate me?

The skeleton stared down at his body. His leg collapsed. He began melting into the acid. Erin Solstice watched. And that look in her eyes.

Toren understood it at last.

Hatred. Pure and simple. It was such a familiar look. He’d seen it in Nokha’s eyes. In the eyes of the Goblins. The [Knight]. The people he’d killed. Even animals. A pure, simple thing.

She wanted to kill him. Not tried. She wanted him to die. The skeleton looked down at his dissolving bones in the acid. It all made sense now.

The undead skeleton smiled. And part of him relaxed. It was all so simple, in the end. He’d never made a mistake. She’d wanted to kill him from the start. She didn’t want him. Or need him.

Mother. Why do you hate me?

Erin was watching Toren dissolve. The acid had taken his legs, part of his arms, his ribs, his skull. But something was wrong. The rate of disintegration was slowing. Then—his body began to rebuild.

Piece by piece. The melted bone reformed, slowly started to regenerate. Erin’s eyes went wide with horror.

“That’s not—”

She’d realized he was healing. The acid ate at Toren, as fast as his bones could regenerate. But there was a limited amount of acid. Toren rose, slowly. Erin had never known the limits of the magic in his bones. She’d probably thought that would kill him, despite his abilities.

Erin looked at the open door. But it was too late. The skeleton slowly drew his sword and Erin froze. He looked at his blade. And then at Erin

She’d tried to kill him. He had his answer at last. Something in Toren was screaming. He’d wanted her to hug him. But what he wanted would never have come to pass.

What did I do? Why is killing bad? Why do you not listen? Why can’t you hear me? Why—

A thousand questions. But she’d never answer them. So Toren asked himself one important question.

What did he want to do?

That was easy. Toren charged, dropping his sword. Erin turned. He leapt at her, and she punched.

“[Minotaur]—”

A fourth time. This time her fist snapped his ribs. But what were ribs? He was undead. Toren grabbed Erin. He brought his head back and smashed it into Erin’s forehead.

She stumbled. Erin blinked. Toren raised a fist. She brought up her guard too late. He punched her as hard as he could. She staggered.

That felt good. Toren grinned. He’d wanted to do that since—

“—Relc kick!”

Erin’s foot cracked Toren’s leg, sent him stumbling backwards. She hit him, across the face. Toren’s skull rocked backwards. Another punch, then a kick to his midsection. The skeleton stumbled back, blocked a punch. Regular. Weak. He swung his fist, saw the uppercut too late.

[Minotaur Punch]!

The skeleton’s head went flying again. Erin ran. But the skeleton’s torso leapt and kicked her in the back. He was used to being broken.

But how strange! She was so good at fighting. For someone whom Toren had seldom seen doing it. He’d watched her fighting the undead. Erin twisted, kicking Toren off him. The skeleton reclaimed his head.

Help! Help!

Erin was screaming now. Toren lunged—took a kick. He came in low the third time, impossibly low to the ground. She kicked his shoulder and he struck her in the stomach.

The [Innkeeper] doubled over, but she swung at his face with a hook. Toren leaned back. Again! He hit her on the cheek, his knuckles cutting open her skin.

That was for every sweeping job, every petty errand! Every time she made him gather Ashfire Bee honey and be torn to pieces! Toren stood over Erin and kicked her as she fell down.

Look at me! Look at me! Do you see me now, Mother?

She rolled over and yanked up on one knee. Toren tried to balance, but Erin heaved up and he went down. His skull cracked as the back of it hit the floor. Erin pulled and tore off his leg.

She was better than he was. Stronger. She had flesh and bone and he was a weak skeleton, despite it all. Even with [Lesser Strength], he was weaker than she! She had the same Skill. And—Toren felt her throw the leg, run for the door.

See how she hated him. How she feared him. Wanted to kill him. That hurt Toren. So he hurt her back. He reached out for a blade lying on the ground. Threw it.

Pelt’s knife went through Erin’s leg. She cried out, falling, grabbing at the blade that had gone straight into her bone. Toren’s leg reassembled. He rose, adjusting his skull, as Erin yanked out the blade, scrabbling for a healing potion.

I hate you.

I ____ you.

Toren looked at Erin and then he smiled. Bitterly. The skeleton spread his arms like he had at the beginning, as Erin pulled herself up. She stared at him, panting, blood dripping down her leg. And at last, he understood.

Mother. You want to know why I do what I do. But I have only done what I want. What pleases me.

Erin got up. Toren jumped and kicked her in the chest. She reeled back and struck him across the ribs. They broke, and he broke her nose. She reeled backwards and Toren brought his hands together and clubbed her across the skull. More blood.

How strange. He should be enjoying this. And he was, immensely. And not at all.

Strange.

The skeleton’s head went flying again. This time, Erin blocked his swing. She swung again and this time hit his lower spine. The skeleton frame fell, but one of his arms tangled her legs. As he reassembled, Toren saw Erin’s golden ring glowing. The words glowed.

Salazs—

So Toren ripped it off her finger. Erin grabbed at the ring, running for it. Her hand closed over it and Toren stomped down on it, grinding her fingers. Erin refused to let go, so he kicked her in the stomach.

I care for no one in this world. No one, but perhaps you. And you don’t love me at all, do you?

Erin rolled away. Toren let her go. She clutched the ring, looking at the golden letters. She tried to put it on her hand.

Toren picked up his sword.

Erin paused as he aimed it at her. Slowly, she put the ring in her pocket. Toren tossed aside his sword.

They looked at each other. Erin was breathing hard, a rasp in her voice. Toren’s bones steamed as the last of the acid burnt away. And both understood each other, a bit, then. Erin found her last potion, the glass cracked. Her nose popped as she drank it. She spat blood, coughing. And Toren waited. Anything could happen.

But he knew that only one thing would. And Erin nodded. She clenched her fists.

“Fine. Let’s do this.”

She stared into Toren’s flaming purple gaze. And he saw the depths of her hatred for him.

Was I ever more than a thing?

“You’re my mistake. All of the dead people. Esthelm! Numbtongue’s friends—all of it’s because of you. Come on.”

Erin raised her fists. Toren saw her look past him. The [Skeleton Knight] leapt. Erin whirled and decked him. She jumped on him, trying to break him long enough to get away. The skeleton rose. He bit, and Erin screamed. She hammered at his skull, throwing it off him. Crashing into one wall and scattering his bones. Toren refused to die. He tripped her up. The skin on Erin’s hands tore. She ripped a rib out and stabbed it through his gaping jaws.

There was nothing glorious about it. Just two people, rolling about, fighting in a broken inn. A young woman. An unwanted skeleton.

He hurt her. Toren knew. He put his fingers in her eye and she screamed. He bashed her head with a chair and she planted the sword in his ribs. Erin drove the sword through a table, pinning him. She turned. Toren stared as she ran.

At the edge of the inn, past a broken wall, Erin stumbled. Toren tackled her. She went down, rolling down the muddied, broken slope with him. Toren felt his bones leaving the inn. Magic faded.

Pisce—

Erin’s voice broke as Toren struck her in the throat. She choked. But she kept moving.

He was hurting her. But he wasn’t hurting her. Toren realized it as he beat at her face, feeling her fists striking his bones. Look at her. Look at her eyes.

All he was giving her was pain. But it didn’t hurt her. Not Erin Solstice. He couldn’t do that with his fists, or even his sword. Not to her. But she was hurting him. She had hurt him by making him hers, by not understanding.

By not needing him. Toren rolled as Erin threw him. In the mud, they fought each other, trying to knock each other down, get up. How could he hurt her as much as she hurt him?

[Minotaur—]

Erin’s fist struck Toren. She looked up. The walls. Someone had to have seen—

They were on the wrong side of the inn. Erin couldn’t see the walls of Liscor. No one could see her. Then she remembered what she’d forgotten.

A Skill. She drew breath, deep, deeper, and Toren sensed her lungs inflating. He remembered. [Loud Voice]!

“—”

The skeleton’s hands tightened around Erin Solstice’ throat. She choked. And the words never came out. Toren stared down as Erin’s eyes went wide. Her chest convulsed. She tried to throw him off her.

He choked her. Strangling her. His grip was weak. His body fragile. Light as bones. But no matter how much she tore at his grip, broke his bones, shattered his skull—

He wouldn’t let go.

“—”

Silence. She was like him now. Toren saw Erin’s mouth opening. Closing. She struck him. But she couldn’t break him.

Toren waited. He felt her legs kicking, but he was kneeling on her chest. Erin’s fists flailed on his body. Still—he waited. Ready to roll. The golden ring. Someone from Liscor.

Anything.

But nothing came. Erin did nothing. Her eyes were wide, locking on his. Fluttering. Blood filled her eyes. She was trying to say something.

He wished he could understand her. The skeleton’s grip tightened.

Once. Erin convulsed, her fist struck Toren’s chest as she punched up. Too weakly. But—Toren looked around. Erin’s arms fell.

Where was it coming from? What spot? Who? What?

But nothing moved. And Toren realized nothing was coming. She had nothing left. He stared down.

No one would stop him. No one but himself. The skeleton looked down at his hands.

They never loosened. Erin Solstice’s mouth fell open.

Her hand rose.

 

Fell.

 

 

Her legs went still.

 

 

 

 

Her eyes opened wide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She stopped moving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erin Solstice inhaled with a gasp. Air flooded into her lungs. She jerked—trying to move, her mind fragmented. Thoughts spinning. What? Where—

She sat up. Her lungs were burning. Her throat rasped, her windpipe broken—

She felt at her throat. It was whole. And the pain in her body—gone. Erin looked around.

And she saw him.

“Toren?”

Her voice rasped. The skeleton was standing in the sun. Staring up at the sky. He made no move as Erin shakily got to her feet.

It hadn’t worked. Even at the end, he hadn’t hurt her. He couldn’t hurt her, only kill her. And if she died—if she died, what was the point?

Nothing. He had lived without her, once. And that was enough. Toren turned his head back from the sun. He looked at Erin.

But living was worse. She didn’t love him. She hated him. To her, he was just a thing. That was why he had left her to die. That was why he hated her.

“Toren.”

She spoke his name. She looked at him. Maybe—maybe—the skeleton saw the fading marks around Erin’s throat, still healing from the potion.

No. Anything could have happened. But no more. The future he’d been chasing vanished. And the skeleton grinned a mirthless grin.

He saw it all so clearly. The folly of his creation. His damned, worthless life. Toren raised his hands. He looked at Erin. And he did what he should have done long ago. A minute too late, now. Toren placed his hands together, curving them. And Erin stopped.

It was not one of Mrsha’s sign-words, or part of any language. But it was universal. Something even Erin could understand. She looked at Toren’s hands, placed just so. Forming a symbol that was nothing like reality. But one she knew, without ever having seen one in truth.

A heart.

The skeleton looked at Erin. He held up the heart and faced her. He touched his chest, his skull, his burning gaze. And he pointed at her. The heart rose again.

It broke into two pieces.

Now, she understood him. Toren spoke, without words. Hoping she could hear the rest.

I’m so tired, Mother. If not even you love me, if there is no place for me in this strange, painful place, then why was I created at all?

Erin tried to speak. Choking, coughing. The skeleton stepped back. The sun shone on his bones. There was no magic here. Just him. Fading away.

I have nothing. And I—even she has something. But I don’t even know what I’m missing. I don’t know how to find it. And you won’t give it to me. You hate me.

“Toren. I—I thought you—please.”

You hate me.

He’d tried to kill her. Erin reached for him, but she was too weak. She fell to her knees. Toren looked at her.

Maybe there was a way back. But it was too far. And it all hurt too much. He nodded at her.

Mother. I just want to not worry anymore. To not feel pain. So look, Mother. Look at me.

His bones were trembling. The fire in his sockets were growing dim. Toren slowly reached up, feeling his skull.

I ____ you.

Hurt her. Erin tried to stand. Her mouth opened.

You should have never given me hope.

It was so easy. The skeleton found the base of his skull, gripped tight.

Goodbye.

“Toren—”

He pulled his skull off his body. The purple flames in his eyes went out. Erin made a sound. She stared into Toren’s eyes, the depths of his soul. And then nothing.

On a bright day, the last day of spring, a skeleton collapsed onto the ground. The skull fell from the hands, as the bones fell into a messy pile. The skull struck the ground, the jaw detached. And the empty socket stared up at the sky, as the young woman who ran and bent to pick it up. Nothing appeared in the sockets.

But it was smiling.

 

—-

 

There was nothing grand about it. It was a silly little story. About a skeleton and a girl. Miscommunication. A wish one had, then the other. Then shared, a moment too late.

Ijvani nearly laughed. But her master was silent. He watched the young woman, Erin Solstice, kneeling there. They’d arrived too late except to watch. Now, the young woman stood up. She stumbled back into her inn. Making not a sound.

“Take the skeleton’s body, Ijvani. It is…unusual. Maintain the animation spell with your mana if possible. Make an imitation—no. Make a pile of ash infused with death magic; disperse it with the wind. Teleport back then.”

Yes, Master.

Ijvani approached, invisible, unheard. She bent over the broken bones. She paid no attention to the [Innkeeper]. After a while, she left.

Erin Solstice knelt in her broken inn and wept. She was bloody, battered. Injured. But she was in pain. She was hurt. Too late, she understood something she had never grasped. She had heard the silent scream, seen the pain, the longing, too late.

She understood now her failure. Erin sobbed, in the center of her ruined home. It stood, in that spring day. As its owner cried for what she’d thought was a thing.

And perhaps the inn was just a thing. Something creaked. Wood, disturbed by the fighting, shifted. It was probably just the fight.

Nevertheless. It was hers. It was part of her, and she of it. It defined her.

Long had it stood. Amid tears. During grief. Through triumph and victory, basked by glory and haunted by cowardice and treachery. The Wandering Inn had withstood it all.

Now, it was enough.

As Ijvani left, her hands holding the ivory remains, Toren’s skull flickered with a tiny spark. His soul screamed.

Erin wept.

And the inn broke. It showered down around Erin Solstice, falling to pieces. The upper floors slowly collapsed, roof, beams, copper nails, all breaking at last. Raining down around the young woman. Until naught was left but rubble.

That, at least, was seen by the city. By the audience sitting in the sun of the baseball game. They turned. And the city over, people, ran. They rushed for the hill. Guests, enemies.

Friends.

The Wandering Inn was gone. A pile of broken pieces lay on the hill. It was gone. The first of the people raced onto the hill, crying out, digging at the heavy wood. Searching.

Sometimes, the world hurt. Sometimes—the skeleton screamed, unheard, crying out for death. And a hand smacked his skull.

Stop that. Noisy thing.

Ijvani stared at Toren. And he stared up at her, into golden, burning flames. A beautiful gaze. Like his. And Toren’s scream stopped. Ijvani sighed and walked back into the cave. Going home.

The end was never the death of it all. It was always the beginning of something new. So the digging people found her kneeling there. Protected by a beam that had caught the weight of the inn. Erin Solstice wept as they carried her out.

Spring ended, and summer began on a quiet day.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 40!]

[Skill – Inn: Garden of Sanctuary obtained!]

[Skill – Like Fire, Memory obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I’m still a bit sick. But almost entirely better. You wouldn’t believe it to hear me cough. Hello. And welcome to the end of Volume 6. It probably could have been tightened up in parts.

It’s always imperfect. And it could always be better. But that’s the nature of this story, of web serials, of writing. What I enjoy is seeing people read it as soon as I publish it. That’s a rare gift to an author.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes I make grave errors. And as I say, nothing is as good as if I revised each draft. I’m going to publish this chapter after about 9 hours straight of writing and it could use a month, maybe even a year to sit and let me work on it. But that’s just not how it happens. And for putting up with my typos and inconsistencies, I thank you. For enjoying it? Thank you.

With that said, everyone needs breaks. Mine will last until January 18th, which is when I’ll post the first chapter of Volume 7. I think that’s enough time for me to recharge a bit, but I will try to take a break at least once every three months of around two weeks. That may seem like a lot, but I think it’s needed at this point to keep me refreshed to write like I do. If I need more, I will take more breaks.

But I do like writing. Despite how hard it is hard to write at times, despite my complaints. It’s a strange, wonderful problem I have. And I turned it into a job. How about that?

It’s been an interesting volume. Not one filled with war, or one overarching plot. It had high points and low points, good chapters, and bad chapters. But say it like that and it sounds like any other story. I hope you enjoyed it, though. Don’t you hate the book in your favorite series that just felt slow and you read or skip it when you go back to the series? I’d hate for Volume 6 to be that volume.

My hope is that while some chapters might not be good, there are always more good than bad. And that you’re with me. I know many are, in fact, the web serial has never been better. But there will always be the part of me that asks. After all, I’m just sitting here, writing, staring at a screen. I don’t read my story like other people do. But I’m glad you enjoy it.

We’re not done yet. And if you’re with me, let’s keep telling this frantic, relaxed, terrible, glorious, happy, and sad story. Thanks for reading and see you in Volume 7,

–pirateaba

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.67

In another world, in another time, it might have looked like this: Ceria Springwalker looked up and grinned as she lounged around a table with eleven others. Such a large number, in fact, that all eleven of them wouldn’t have been there. Some would have been in the town, spending their pay, or maybe they’d just have quit, high on the success of killing an Adult Creler.

In that other world, it would have still been a miraculous victory, where none of the Horns died. Some other adventurers had died, but the Horns—

No. Ceria Springwalker looked up with a grin as she finished a mug of warm beef broth. She was elbow-to-elbow with a Human man, Gerial, so close she could feel his body heat. He was complaining about the chill, but in that tone of voice that told Ceria he didn’t really mind. Across from them, Hunt would be comparing scars with Marian, while Sostrom exclaimed over his new class.

It would be noisy, raucous even. And the half-Elf would have eventually expected a certain grumpy Minotaur to tell everyone to behave like ‘proper warriors’. But again, his good mood would betray him.

In another world, that would be so. Where the original Horns of Hammerad had never died. But in this one, the room was quiet.

Not silent. There was sound in this warm, quiet room. The sounds of people breathing, shifting, a scratching noise as Pisces turned a page in his book. And quiet slurping.

Ceria’s cup of beef broth was really quite good. Drakes and Gnolls both enjoyed the beverage. It was flavored differently from, say, beef boiled in water. Which was how the half-Elf assumed beef broth was made.

She wasn’t a [Cook]. But she was happy to eat, albeit alone. She was sitting next to Pisces, but not cheek-by-jowl. They sat at a comfortable distance, where both could stretch out.

Nor around a raucous table, either. Their seats weren’t tavern chairs, but padded, and their room was private. Across from Ceria, the half-Elf could see Yvlon bent over a piece of metal. It was, or had been, a bit of armor. Ceria thought it might be a pauldron, but again, she wasn’t an [Armorer] either.

Neither was Yvlon. But the woman was patiently bent over it, cleaning the bit of shaped metal of blood and grime with a cloth and some soap and water. She was also repairing the damage to the armor, her fingers pushing at the metal to repair a divot in it. The pauldron wasn’t exactly thin or weak, but the [Armsmistress]’s fingers moved the steel slowly and surely to true.

It wasn’t necessary work. But it was busy work, and it clearly gave Yvlon some satisfaction to do the job. She may not have been a [Blacksmith], but she was Yvlon Byres, and she knew how to maintain and repair gear. She’d declined a book.

Beside her, Ksmvr was slowly and patiently doing the same thing—but to a blade. He wasn’t bothering with repair, though. The Antinium [Skirmisher] was instead polishing the blade, clearing it of debris, blood, and then sharpening it. He had a small whetstone and file and, for a reason that had puzzled the [Hostess] who’d brought it to him, a very fine bit of sandpaper.

However, Ceria had seen Gerial and Calruz at work long enough to know what the Antinium was doing. First, Ksmvr took the file and used it to grind down the blade, exposing a continuous edge if the blade was damaged or chipped.

When he had something to work with, the Antinium switched to the whetstone. A little bit of oil on top let him smoothly move the blade back and forth, polishing it and cleaning it. Lastly, came the sandpaper. The Antinium was even more precise still, letting it sharpen the blade with delicate pressure. Not too sharp; the edge might break too easily in combat. Sharp enough. Then, the Antinium would delicately clean the sword of debris from the entire process until it shone.

It was a rhythmic process, as involved as Yvlon slowly polishing each bit of gear. Hypnotizing in its monotony. Yet, Ksmvr seemed to enjoy it. Ceria sipped from her cup and savored her warm drink as she looked at Pisces again.

The [Necromancer] was reading a book. There wasn’t much more to it than that, other than that Pisces lingered on each page, turning them slowly. The occasional soft rustle of paper was all that filled the room.

And that was it. Ceria Springwalker took another gulp from her drink. She was just sitting and drinking. Her posture was loose and relaxed, and the broth was warm and good to savor. Every minute or so, she’d take a little sip. Yvlon worked, cleaning her armor, and Ksmvr set down a dagger and picked up a hatchet.

Quiet, not silent. But the comfortable quiet, where no one needed to talk. It could go on forever, if you let it. Time seemed not to exist in this place. Or if it did, it was passing at a rate no one could measure. The world stopped. So they sat in the slow, sleepy present. Until someone spoke and brought forth the future.

Ceria didn’t need to. Nor did her team. They could have done this until the end of time. But there was always someone who was first to move, who couldn’t handle the quiet. And this time it was her.

Erin Solstice looked up as she fidgeted on her seat. She couldn’t bear it any longer, so she spoke, interrupting the four adventurers.

“I’m so glad you’re alive. Are you all better? It’s only been one day and—what?”

She paused as Ceria smiled and put down her cup. Pisces put down his book and Yvlon and Ksmvr’s heads rose. They looked up at Erin. She had been sitting and trying to play a game of chess with herself. But now, the Horns of Hammerad focused on her. Erin felt like an outsider, for all they were her friends. But then—they were a team. A…family.

The Horns were all chuckling, or smiling. Erin looked around, and Ceria answered her question.

“We’re just happy to be alive, Erin.”

“I know. But you’re so…calm.”

Erin eyed Ceria. The half-Elf bore no signs of fighting since yesterday. No blood, no scars—her one nod to any injury was a bandage over her left arm. Pisces had one on his left leg, under his robes, and the flesh along one arm was newly-healed. Yvlon and Ksmvr on the other hand—

Yvlon’s arms shone. And they were their own thing. But the woman had multiple bandages on her torso and legs. Ksmvr was covered in bandaged spots. Much had been healed, but apparently Creler poison delayed instant recovery in certain areas. Both warriors claimed it didn’t hurt much.

And they were all still recovering, even if the damage wasn’t all apparent. Ceria tapped her head as she shook her head at Erin.

“I’m not calm, Erin. I’m stupid.”

Everyone looked at her. The half-Elf’s face went slack for a moment as she registered the hilarity on Pisces’ face and Erin’s.

“Today. I’m stupid today.”

Pisces let out a guffaw. Erin laughed too, and so did Yvlon and Ksmvr. Ceria scowled, but Pisces nodded after a moment. He looked at Erin over his book.

“Ceria is right, Erin. We can’t cast magic or concentrate too hard…concentrate…facilitate concentration…”

He paused. Ceria grinned at his expression.

“Our minds are overworked. We’re both stupid. We can’t cast magic, either.”

“What, really?”

“Every time I try, I keep thinking about animating bones. Which I can’t do. Palt says we’re suffering from the linked magic we did. Combining disciplines means we’re having trouble uncombining. Did I make sense?”

“Sort of. Are you going to be okay?”

Ceria nodded.

“We can’t cast spells for a few days and we’ll be bleh for a while. But we’re fine. We got off lucky, really. If we kept pushing it, our brains would have melted out our ears.”

“Hah.”

“Yeah.”

Ceria and Pisces nodded seriously. Erin’s tentative smile faded. She looked around. So did the Horns. They could go back to the silence, but it had been nearly two hours. A quiet opening to the morning. And time was moving on. Ceria looked up as someone knocked on the door to their private room.

“Can I get you anything else, sirs, madams?”

A female Gnoll with combed, neat hair, and a charming smile, almost as good as Erin’s untrained charisma, opened the door a bit. Ceria looked around.

“This beef stuff is really good. Warms me up. Anyone want anything else?”

“I’m full.”

Yvlon waved a hand. Ksmvr nodded.

“So am I. I will disgorge to make more room if I eat more, Captain Ceria.”

Pisces just shook his head. Erin peered at Ceria’s drink. But then she shook her head as well.

“We’re fine, thank you! Breakfast was awesome.”

“Our pleasure, Miss Solstice. If you need anything—”

The Gnoll [Hostess] left. It was funny, seeing her waiting tables, because she didn’t look like Drassi or the [Waiters] or [Barmaids] or [Servers] in Erin’s inn. But that was because this wasn’t Erin’s inn. Rather, this tavern was known for its staff who were entertainers, relentlessly good at cooking, games, casual conversation—and could do menial tasks like pouring drinks and waiting tables too. Today, they were just serving food, and the Horns of Hammerad were their guests.

They were in a private room at Wishdrinks. The famous tavern really was the best in the city. Erin had to admit their food had that thing her critics liked to call ‘spices’ and ‘delicacy’, and their staff was friendly. Their rooms were plush, comfortable, with private dining areas and a public area—even a dancing floor! And their tavern wasn’t blown to bits and being cleared of Creler corpses.

One day had passed. Or rather, a sleepless night. Erin was still unsteady and yawning, even after a cup of bracing tea that really ought to have been coffee. But the [Host] had added a bit of stamina potion and Erin had perked right up.

Last night. Erin remembered it in flashes. Getting the adventurers immediate medical attention, trying to understand what had happened. She’d feared the worst when Relc had spotted the adult Creler still alive.

But it had been dead. And what followed was understanding how it had died. More than that, clearing the dead Crelers, finishing off the living ones hiding in the inn and the Bloodfields, scouring the area for their eggs. And then finding the fallen.

It was still going on. But Erin wasn’t part of that work. Nor were the Horns. They had slept after the battle, almost from evening till midmorning of the next day. They’d eaten here, courtesy of Wishdrink’s owner. The tavern was open to the adventurers who’d killed an adult Creler.

So, here they were. Relaxing. Or, maybe, waiting. Erin had expected wild celebration, but that wasn’t what the Horns had wanted. This wasn’t Albez. And they hadn’t won a great victory. It had been hard-fought. A miracle. But one still written in blood.

After a while, Erin looked up. She hesitated, but it had been about thirty minutes.

“Do you…want to go?”

The Horns looked up. Erin clarified.

“To the Adventurer’s Guild. To make your reports and stuff. You don’t have to! But there’s just a few things…”

She waited as Ceria traded a quick look with her team. Pisces really was slow because it was Yvlon who blinked at Erin for a second and then nodded with a smile. The [Necromancer] was fairly guileless as he put down his book.

“I suppose so. Even reading is tiresome.”

He got up. Ksmvr and Yvlon began packing their gear away. It probably wasn’t normal to do maintenance at the tables, and they’d left a small mess, but the staff who saw them off didn’t even bat an eyelash.

“Thank you for your patronage! It was a pleasure. We have your company reserved for tonight, so do stop by. And if you have any other needs in the interim…”

“Thank you. Um—”

The [Host] smiled at Erin as she fumbled at her belt.

“No tips needed, Miss Solstice. This is a courtesy to the Horns of Hammerad! Hell’s Wardens.”

He bowed slightly at the adventurers. They blinked at the title. Yvlon looked embarrassed. But then they left the inn.

“We’re coming back for dinner?”

“Oh. Yeah. Didn’t you know? One of the workers who survived is the cousin of the owner. She’s really cool! Miss Aplesia.”

“Huh.”

The Horns left the tavern. They walked down the streets of Liscor, slowly. Yvlon’s bare metal arms gleamed in the light. Erin couldn’t help but stare. Her skin was metal, but living metal. It melted into the flesh at the shoulder, and it was…beautiful.

Beautiful, a bit unsettling, and magical, all at the same time. Just for that, Yvlon would have attracted looks. But Ceria also did her part. As the half-Elf walked down the street, a few snowflakes appeared out of the air and began to fall around her. Erin and Pisces moved out of the way.

“Ceria, it’s cold.

“Oh. Sorry. Am I doing it again?”

The half-Elf’s eyes crossed for a second and the snowflakes immediately melted in the air. It was a warm day for spring, and the sudden chill that had appeared around her vanished. Vaguely, Ceria looked around.

“Sorry, I have to keep working at it. My head hurts. I’m stupid.”

“You don’t say?”

The half-Elf elbowed Pisces. The [Necromancer] staggered. And Ksmvr smiled and Yvlon and Erin laughed. They walked down the street.

And they were being watched. Gnolls and Drakes turned as the Horns passed them by. They didn’t cheer and they didn’t applaud or greet the Horns. They just pointed them out, from afar.

“That’s them. One of the teams.”

Erin quite clearly heard a Drake pointing at Yvlon’s back and talking with a friend. Not accusatorily. More like pointing at a story.

Hell’s Wardens. Crelerbane. They had killed an adult Creler. Erin had seen it, for just a second. A huge, armored shape, collapsed onto the ground. It had given her shivers. And she had had seen the other Crelers, twitching limbs, broken black shell and chitin around orange, viscous liquid.

Monsters. But the kind even regular monsters feared and hated. And the Horns had killed it. They had killed thousands of Crelers, held them off for the others to escape. They had made a stand and lived. Them, and nearly a hundred other adventurers.

Less than a dozen who’d stayed and fought had survived. And of that number, none hadn’t been wounded. The Silver-rank teams had stopped the Crelers with blood and steel and magic.

Them, and Montressa. She was alive too. Erin hadn’t seen her today. But she’d seen Palt, Numbtongue, Lyonette—Relc—and she’d been part of the cleanup, in her own way.

As the Horns walked down the street, Yvlon began asking about it.

“The Adult Creler. Is it still out there?”

“No. And don’t worry—the Watch was out all last night and today, cleaning up the Crelers.”

“Cleaning them up? Are there any alive?”

Ceria blinked up at Erin. She nodded.

“A few. They were hiding, but Zevara said the Watch is getting every single corpse. And the adult. Nothing gets left behind. Grimalkin’s overseeing the disposal. They’re burning the corpse, blasting it into parts so it’ll actually incinerate, throwing the acid jars on it—”

 

—-

 

“Another live one! In the corpses over there! One—no, two!

Tkrn’s fur bristled as he whirled. But the [Scout] who’d found the living Creler was already backing up. And two [Captains] from 4th Company were already advancing with their squads.

“Sergeant Gna! Have your [Soldiers] take down the Crelers properly.”

Embria bellowed as she strode across the destroyed grasslands. Tkrn looked up and saw the [Soldiers] advancing on the pile of Crelers. They did uproot the Crelers, jabbing with long spears and baiting the monsters into coming out. The Crelers tried to burrow under the Drakes and Gnoll’s feet, but the movement was seen. The squad divided, hit the Crelers as they unburrowed with spells and magic and impaled what remained.

“Two more for the heap!”

One of the Drakes announced as he slung the Creler over his spear and deposited it in one of the piles of corpses. Tkrn’s stomach roiled as he did the same. The Watch was disposing of the Crelers.

Junior Guardswoman Jerci, drop that Creler! You do not hold them with your paws, even with gloves on!”

A voice bellowed and Tkrn saw a nearby Gnoll drop the Creler she was grabbing guiltily. Embria stormed over. The Wing Commander was overseeing the cleanup and a night of work hadn’t done wonders for her temper. She pointed.

“Use the long-handled tongs! If you want one of the Crelers to bite your arm off, by all means, grab it! That’s also a great way to get an egg growing in your arm! And you do not want to see what happens when a Creler decides to make your body it’s nest until it’s nice and big!”

Jerci blanched. She grabbed the tongs and lifted the Creler up. Another fell into the pile of tangled limbs and oozing innards. Tkrn bent to grab another one himself and paused.

Crelers littered the battlefield. Parts, dead ones—the torn ground and all the limbs meant there was no end to the clutter. The Watch was out in force with 4th Company, cleaning them up. But what was dangerous were the Crelers hiding among the dead. And even the dead—some were still twitching.

“Guardsman?”

Embria saw Tkrn raise his spear. The Gnoll aimed at a larval Creler. It’s belly had been torn out, and the glowing gel part of it torn away, but it was still moving.

“Just making sure it’s dead, Wing Commander.”

She nodded as Tkrn stabbed the corpse a few times. The Creler twitched, but it was just the dying motion of the limbs. Shuddering, Tkrn lifted it up with the tongs. And paused.

“Wing Commander? I have a…”

Embria turned. The Drake paused as she saw what Tkrn had uncovered.

An arm. Orange-scaled, at least, part of it. The Creler had been tearing it apart. Tkrn blanched and Jerci dropped the Creler she was holding. Embria nodded at it.

“Bring it to the others after you dispose of the corpse, Guardsman. Carefully. Make sure it’s inspected first. For eggs.”

Tkrn nodded. It was just one part among many. Dead adventurers of all species had died here. And parts of them kept being found. He took the arm, feeling sick, and brought it over to the other…collection.

The piles of dead Crelers were one thing. But the remains of the deceased occupied another spot. It would be wrong to say the Watch and [Soldiers] just shoved the corpses and parts they found together. But they did have to match them. What remained.

Armor and weapons and so on were placed neatly on the ground, and adventurers were lying in the shade under a tarp as a [Healer] tried to…reconstruct them. Identify them if nothing else remained. And made sure none of the bodies were infected. They would all have to be burned in the end.

This was the task that came after the fighting. It had to be done. The Crelers could not be allowed to remain as corpses. Tkrn approached with the arm and the [Healer] looked up. He wiped at his brow.

“Place it—over there.”

Tkrn did so. He saw the Drake pale as he studied the orange scales, and then move it next to a little mound with a cloth covering it. Tkrn tried not to inhale. He was already using a little nose cover with herbs, but it wasn’t enough.

We need more wood! Someone get more from the door! Two wagonloads!”

Embria’s voice rang out again. Tkrn saw someone trot through the magic door and soon emerge, pushing a handcart. The door was set up—not connecting to the ruined inn, but directly in the center of the city. Wood was pushed towards one of the burning piles of Crelers. They were being incinerated, but even that was hard.

“They’re having a lot of trouble with the adult’s body. It doesn’t want to burn.”

The Drake [Healer] nodded towards a huge shape in the distance. Tkrn looked. The adult Creler’s body was still immersed in the bonfire that had been burning since last night. It was a huge inferno, but the corpse didn’t seem much smaller since it had begun. Tkrn stared at the twisted, broken form.

“I heard Crelers were nearly fireproof. That is tough armor. Has no one thought of making it into armor, like Shield Spiders?”

The Watch had some Shield Spider chitin armor. It wasn’t as good as pure steel most of the time, but it was light and could take some blows. But the [Healer] just shook his head.

“People have tried. They find eggs buried in the armor. Or they get mysteriously sick. Rhir sets down guidelines and everyone agrees: nothing remains.”

Tkrn nodded. He trudged back to his spot on the battlefield. As he did, he passed by the crimson-scaled Wing Commander.

Embria paused, turning her head tiredly, listening to [Scouts] calling out living Crelers, the Watch and laborers collecting and burying the dead. She was tired, but she was used to working for over a day without rest. More than anything, she was frustrated. There had been a battle and she had missed it. All she could do was bury the dead and finish off the stragglers. That too, was familiar.

Even so, her helplessness bothered her. Especially when she saw the huge, muscular Drake stomping back towards the work. Embria rode forwards and met him. Her warhorse snorted, avoiding the dead Crelers; it was the only animal even willing to enter the area.

“Magus Grimalkin. Do you need assistance…?”

“No.”

The Drake replied shortly. Grimalkin was covered in dirt, and his expression was even more annoyed than Embria’s. He paused, stretching, and shook his head.

“The Creler nest is dealt with. I incinerated every inch of it and my detection spells tell me I’ve gotten all the eggs. There may be more caches, but I can’t sweep any further.”

Embria nodded respectfully. She looked over Grimalkin’s shoulder, towards the red.

The Bloodfields sat in the distance. The brown stain where the Crelers had been was already being reclaimed. And the Watch and 4th Company didn’t venture near it, for all that was the origin of the Crelers.

“High Command’s policy is to sweep the area for all Creler eggs, Magus Grimalkin. I don’t suppose it’s possible to…?”

The huge Drake looked up at Embria and she paused, embarrassed. He outranked her, even if he was of Pallass’ military. But he was also Grimalkin, the Fist Mage. The Drake shook his head tiredly.

“No. It’s impossible, even if I had the time to walk through the Bloodfields and fight every damn thing in it. I saw the flora and fauna attacking Creler bodies; they won’t suffer them. I’d like to think the Bloodfields can handle larvae-form Crelers, but Liscor will have to keep an eye on the Bloodfields. Pallass as well, of course.”

Embria nodded. Grimalkin went on, staring at the adult Creler burning in the distance.

“I’ll begin vaporizing parts of the adult soon. It looks mostly immolated, save for the shell. But it must be destroyed down to the last piece.”

“I regret that 4th Company’s [Mages] can’t even break the armor, Magus Grimalkin. We have a group ready to go with warhammers if you think the fire’s done its job…”

Again, the younger Drake was embarrassed. Grimalkin just shrugged.

“Let me hit it with spells first. The spell resistance should be weakened by the Creler’s death and the fire. Ancestors, I forgot to grab that juvenile’s corpse I saw back there. A Watchertree downed it, but…”

The Drake grimaced. Embria dismounted and stood with Grimalkin for a moment. He spoke, absently.

“In my report, I will state this, Wing Commander: I believe the Bloodfields can defeat any number of larval-stage Crelers, and a number of juvenile-stage Crelers as well. But adults and Crelers in number can and did infest a portion of the Bloodfields. If they had not been caught, or the adult had escaped, this situation would have become drastically worse.”

“My thoughts as well, Magus Grimalkin. May I ask, though—why was it imperative to slay the adult Creler at once? My company has only ever battled nests with juvenile Crelers or smaller. But High Command’s doctrine is to pursue adults even to the point of risking a company’s defeat…”

It was a question she should have asked her superiors, if they were in the field. But Embria was far from the main army. Grimalkin answered her, rubbing at a scratch on his scales. He’d walked into the Bloodfields alone to destroy the Creler nest.

“The risk of leaving Crelers alone is always that they’ll multiply, Wing Commander. But adults are far, far more dangerous than smaller Crelers. It is perfectly acceptable to let young Crelers stay where they are while proper steps are taken to eradicate them. Adults—no. Adults will retreat if they think there’s real danger. They think. So they have to be hunted down, or they just hide for a century or a decade and then there are ten.”

“If this one had escaped…”

“It would have fled. Into the High Passes, although something might have killed it, Ancestors willing. But most likely, into some other remote area, and it would quickly rebuild all the nest’s numbers. It has happened before. All of this—is what I would consider acceptable casualties. The adventurers saved more than themselves and Liscor.”

Grimalkin met Embria’s eyes and the female Drake nodded. Grimalkin stared at the burning adult as the flames began to die down. He rubbed at one arm unconsciously.

“Adults are cunning. This one never thought it was in danger or it would have fled. And Crelers always attack when they have the upper hand. These Crelers were trying to grow—and fast. There was no brown spot reported last year, and we must have missed it during the battle with the Humans this year. Or perhaps the Crelers infested the area only a month or two ago?”

“Then all their numbers…”

“Crelers evolve faster with more to consume. We might have had two adults within as many years. More, if they ate the entire expanse of Bloodfields.”

Embria shivered. Grimalkin went on, quietly.

“Oteslia fought off six one time. Six adults. I heard Manus’ report on the battle claiming that if two Elder Crelers had attacked the city, it might have fallen.”

“Elders? How many classifications of Creler are there, Magus Grimalkin? The army doesn’t—we find nests every other year, but that’s all.”

Grimalkin folded his arms and glanced at her.

“There are two classifications above adult. Elder. Ancient. Elder takes at least a century. Adult takes at least a decade and a half. The world has done a good job of destroying most of them, Wing Commander. More than Goblins, Crelers have to die. There hasn’t been an elder spotted in over a thousand years. Be grateful of that.”

“And Ancient? Is the difference just size or…?”

“No. Elder Crelers are apparently capable of far more than adults. I have never fought one, but they are allegedly capable of wiping out armies alone. And ancient? There have only been five Ancient Crelers back when they first emerged from Rhir, before it was recolonized. It’s all in the history books.”

The magus sounded reproving. Embria flushed and tried to recall her readings, but she honestly couldn’t. It might mean those battles were outside of modern history, or not fought on Izril. Grimalkin went on after a second.

“One of them killed two Dragons. In an era where they were still seen. But a Dragon brought down one in turn, so I suppose that proves nothing save for a baseline of strength.”

He left Embria with that. The Wing Commander stared after his back as Grimalkin walked towards the adult. The [Sinew Magus] paused as he stared up at the dead shell and the vacant sockets of the adult. He looked at it without sympathy or remorse. But he did nod once, as he uncrossed his arms.

“Not bad. I should attend the celebrations after this.”

 

—-

 

The Horns of Hammerad entered the Adventurer’s Guild of Liscor and paused. Yvlon had expected it after seeing Erin’s expression, but Pisces and Ceria were caught unawares by the crowd waiting for them.

Adventurers, Gold-ranks from the dungeon, Silver-ranks of Liscor’s own, Bronze, and friends, familiar faces like Octavia, were gathered in the guild. They turned as the Horns walked in.

The celebration was already underway. Eight other adventurers were at the center of it all. Walt and three of his friends, Alais and two others. And a Gnoll.

The survivors. All eleven of them were gathered in the guild now. Eleven. The other teams had just…Ceria looked up and saw a single member of the Boltspitters who’d made it to the door. Part of another team. A few stragglers.

But those who hadn’t run—eleven remained. The workers from the road crew, some of the adventurers who had retreated—Liscor’s Council—they were all there. Alais was holding a piece of cake.

“What’s all this?”

Ceria blinked around at the gathering. Erin smiled as she pushed Pisces into the guild. A loud, irritable voice rang out as the Horns paused in the entryway.

“You know, I’ve heard of idiots walking through the Bloodfields before, but never in my life have I heard of a Silver-rank team stupid enough to challenge an Adult Creler.”

Tekshia Shivertail walked forwards, leaning on her cane that was occasionally a spear. She glared as the people around her fell silent. The Horns stared uncertainly at the Guildmistress and Pisces stepped behind Yvlon. Tekshia glared at him, and then looked at the Horns.

“Well, come on. You’re late.”

“Late for what?”

Ceria walked forwards with Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Pisces. Tekshia waited until they stopped in front of her. She looked up at them. And her tone was waspish. She prodded Ceria in the stomach with her cane, but gently.

“You really are cooked in the head, aren’t you? Mages. Figures. Just stand there and smile.”

The half-Elf opened her mouth, and Yvlon nudged her. Tekshia looked around, meeting all of the Horns’ eyes.

“I don’t tolerate fools in my guild. Much less idiots who can’t take a hint and keep trying to stab things above their rank. Any Silver-rank team that takes on an Adult Creler is brain-dead. And also dead. Since you’re not, I suppose you’re just idiots, and there’s a rank for that.”

Erin covered her smile as Guildmistress Tekshia’s words provoked a wave of confusion in the crowd. But then they understood what she meant.

Yvlon’s eyes widened, and Ksmvr looked back at her and then at Tekshia and his one antennae went still. Pisces frowned, and then he stood straighter. Ceria just looked blank.

“What, Bronze-rank? We’re being demoted?”

Someone guffawed in the back. Relc doubled over, laughing and clutching at his stomach.

“Ha! Ow! Hahaha! Ow!

More laughter followed his. Tekshia stared at Ceria.

“Shut up.”

Grandmother! Can’t you at least be nice? Today?”

An exasperated voice called out. Selys pushed to the front. The [Receptionist] glared at her grandmother and then turned to face the Horns.

“What Guildmistress Tekshia is trying to say, Ceria, is that no Silver-rank team can slay an Adult Creler. So you’re being promoted.”

The half-Elf’s eyes went round. She stared at Tekshia. The old Drake nodded and raised her voice.

“As Guildmistress of Liscor’s Guild, and by my authority I…make you Gold-rank. Congratulations.”

She tapped Ceria’s ankle with her cane. Hard. Ceria yelped and Selys swung at her Grandmother. Tekshia blocked with her cane and walked away.

“What? Just like that?”

Yvlon stared at Tekshia’s back. In the crowd, Alonna and the rest of the Council sighed. They’d been hoping for more pomp, and so had Erin. But this was all Tekshia had been willing to do.

“That’s right. You’re Gold-rank. We’ll announce it to the other guilds tonight. Everyone in Izril will know you’re a Gold-rank team by the end of the month. Um. Congratulations?”

Selys smiled at the Horns. They blinked at her. Then Yvlon let out the breath she’d been holding. Ceria swayed on her feet.

“Us?”

She looked at her team. Then she heard a whoop. Erin threw up her hands.

“They did it! Gold-rank! Three cheers for the Horns of Hammerad! Hip, hip—hooray!

If there was ever a hype-woman for the occasion, it was Erin. The confused audience cheered along with her. And they shouted. Tekshia grumbled as she watched, but approvingly. And then it hit Ceria. She looked at Pisces with tears in her eyes.

“We’re Gold-rank?”

Even the cynical [Necromancer] was blinking in surprise. It hadn’t even occurred to them. In a dream, they looked around. But then it hit Ceria. She looked at Erin. She spotted Octavia in the crowd, Drassi, Ishkr, Lyonette, holding up a waving Mrsha—Relc, leaning on Klbkch—and she realized it.

This was their triumph. This was their party. The half-Elf looked up. She smiled. And she stared at her team.

“Wow.”

 

—-

 

Gold-rank. Erin had meant for it to be a surprise, a joyous occasion. But—strangely, she realized Tekshia had been right. Perhaps it was just the old Drake’s natural contrariness and irascibility, but—as the party began again, Erin thought the old Guildmistress knew more than she had let on when she’d refused to make a huge speech congratulating the Horns.

They weren’t celebrating. Or rather, they weren’t running about waving their arms and screaming, which was how excited Erin had expected them to be at first. But she’d forgotten. This wasn’t their first triumph. And the battle was too close. The dead were still being counted. The moment of joy, the wild exhilaration of being alive, the triumph—that had been when they had stood in Erin’s inn. This?

This was just good. Good, not perfect. Good, not all-consuming. The moment had depth. Bitter, mixed among the sweet.

Not to most. Erin lost track of the Horns for a second as people surrounded them, wanting to shake hands, congratulate them. The [Innkeeper] looked around the full guild. The first person she spotted was Tekshia herself.

“I’m not giving them a medal. Adventurers don’t get medals. Besides, they’re not even Liscor’s team.”

The aged Drake was serving herself some of the cake Erin had made, partly ignoring Jeiss and Lism who were trying to convince her. She waved a fork dangerously near Lism’s eye.

“You don’t even like them. Fair’s fair—I don’t either, particularly. Let them have their rank.”

“It’s the look of it, Guildmistress. We have to congratulate them—”

“So let them eat cake. Not all of it. I’m having another slice. Move over.”

Tekshia grabbed the strawberry cake as well as the carrot one. She caught sight of Erin at the same time as Jeiss and Lism. The two male Drakes eyed her and Lism nodded.

“Miss Solstice.”

“Hey, jerk! And Jeiss.”

He glared at her. But then he moved aside, and Jeiss followed. Tekshia glared up at Erin.

“You make this?”

“Yup.”

“Hmf. It’s sweet. Got any cookies?”

“Over there.”

Erin had salvaged some from her kitchen. Tekshia made a beeline for the cookies and grabbed four. The old Drake had sweet teeth. So did Relc. He came over with six, munching on them.

“Hey Erin, these are great. You doing alright?”

“Oh, hey Relc. Yeah. I’m good. I uh—how are you?”

Erin was staring at Relc. He was covered in bandages from head to toe. He looked like a mummy, but the Drake was happily eating. He noticed her stare and slapped one of the bandages on his arm.

“What, this? I’m fine! See? Ow. Damn. Uh—well, I’m mostly fine. Creler poison stops healing, you know? But I can eat cookies! In fact…”

“I have more. I took a lot from the inn, actually. All the food’s…”

Erin pointed vaguely at the spread which she’d catered to the Adventurer’s Guild, mainly because it was out of her kitchen and would spoil soon. That meant the party had everything from pizzas to steaks to spaghetti and risotto and scrambled eggs. And saffron rice.

Most of it was still basic food, but there was a lot of it. And the guests were only too happy to scarf it down as they talked. Erin saw Relc brighten as he grabbed a whole hamburger and a steak and then spotted a pitcher of blue fruit juice.

“This is amazing!”

“You are eating the food meant for everyone to share. Try to show some level of restraint.”

Klbkch appeared at Relc’s side with a bowl of the saffron rice. The Drake was trying to eat both hamburger and steak at the same time.

“Shut up, Klb. You’re not the one who got half-eaten trying to save people. I’m a hero.

“Which makes the Horns of Hammerad, what? Legends?”

“Sure, if they want. Hey! I got hurt saving Erin.”

He pointed at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blushed. She hung her head, and Klbkch nodded.

“Yes. And I died saving her.”

“Braggart.”

“Glutton. Please stop eating with your mouth open at least.”

Relc tried to reply and choked. Erin was laughing and smiling. But there it was again. This wasn’t a celebration. She kept seeing the Crelers pouring through the inn. Almost reflexively, Erin clenched her hands—

“Erin, have something to eat. The act of eating is wholesome in all examples save for Relc’s.”

Klbkch offered Erin a plate. She started and blinked at him. Then she looked around, and realized he was right. She smiled, took the plate, and nodded to him.

“Thanks, Klbkch. Are Pawn and the others…?”

“They are eating the food you delivered to the Hive, but their presence was not necessary at this moment. I believe they would prefer to celebrate in number in the Hive.”

“Oh. I thought Pawn at least—”

“I declined the invitation on their behalf.”

Erin paused. She stared at Klbkch for a long moment, and then she slowly nodded. She peered at his bowl as she changed the topic

“Okay. I’ll have to see them later. Can you—is the rice—I thought you couldn’t eat bread!”

“Rice is not gluten, Erin.”

“Really? Wow.”

Erin began wandering through the crowd, hunting for food. She remembered there was some kind of platter with meats and cheeses somewhere and she was snacky, not hungry. She found it at the same time as she found Temile.

“Temile.”

The [Director] looked up at Erin. He waved—and she saw his missing thumb. The man paused, seeing her look, but he smiled. And it was only a tiny bit forced.

“It’s a souvenir, Erin. Besides, I don’t need it to teach [Actors] how to act!”

“Are you okay? I mean…”

“Yeah. I didn’t get eaten. And this—it’s a good story, right? I was too slow so I got bit by a Creler. Well, I cut one.”

“I heard you got the rest of the Players out first. Mister humble [Actor], who’s actually a hero.”

Temile smiled, turning a bit red.

“I’m the [Director], aren’t I? Emme would kill me if one of the lead actors got eaten. Besides—I leveled up. So…”

He trailed off. Erin squeezed his shoulder and one of the [Actors] found a drink for Temile. Erin lingered there. Oh yes. Not appropriate for rewards and celebrations at all.

“Erin?”

Some people could genuinely smile. Like Mrsha. The Gnoll was happily trying to eat everything from a bowl as Lyonette carried her about. For once, the [Princess] didn’t scold her about what she was eating, and Erin smiled as she bent down.

“Hey Mrsha! You having a good time? Eat up, because this is all the food we’ve got! But don’t eat too much because we’re going to eat at Wishdrink’s later! And it has good stuff too!”

“What Erin means is don’t stuff yourself.”

Lyonette prodded Mrsha’s stomach and got a swat from a little paw. The [Princess] looked at Erin over the little Gnoll and her smile faded as she shifted Mrsha.

“Belgrade will take a look at the inn tomorrow. If the Watch will be done with the cleanup by then? I mean, the Antinium can help. He says the inn might be…”

“We’ve got money. And the city is going to pay us for helping get rid of the Crelers. Right?”

Erin looked around for Krshia. The [Shopkeeper] was talking to the one Gnoll survivor amid the Silver-ranks. Krshia looked up and nodded and Lism rolled his eyes. He was bogarting a pudding. Lyonette nodded.

“Later. We’ll—later.”

Erin nodded. She bent and rubbed Mrsha’s head.

“Did you have a good sleep, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll looked up and nodded. She signed a few words.

“Ooh. Comfortable? Not too cramped? I slept at Selys’ apartment. It’s big! Ceria and Yvlon will be there too, and Pisces and Ksmvr get, uh, a room in an inn.”

“At least she has room. You don’t need an apartment that large, Selys.”

“Well, it’s perfect since Erin’s inn doesn’t work right now, right? And I’m not having you move in, Grandma!”

Selys hissed at Tekshia. Erin smiled.

“And Bird’s going to sleep in the Hive. The Halfseekers are in the same inn as Pisces and Ksmvr—are they still there, Lyonette?”

The [Princess] nodded.

“Moore and Seborn are resting. Both got chewed up pretty badly. But they’ll make an appearance later.”

“Got it. And what about…our guest?”

Lyonette met Erin’s eyes as Krshia turned her head.

“He’s resting too. I left him a book.”

 

—-

 

Numbtongue realized halfway through the book that he had to pee. So he got up, wandered over to the toilet, and stared at it.

It was apparently connected to Liscor’s sewers. Plumbing. Now there was a handy invention! The only difference was that the Hobgoblin would have added a bolt hole so you could jump into the sewers if you needed to.

But perhaps that was paranoia. Numbtongue peed, and then went back to lying on the couch. After a moment, he realized he was hungry. But he could only have liquids right now. His torn stomach needed to heal.

The Hobgoblin drank a bit of the broth Lyonette had left him. He was lounging on a worn couch. In the middle of Krshia’s apartment. Lyonette, Mrsha, and Krshia had all left for the party, leaving Numbtongue behind.

Not alone, though. Apista buzzed past Numbtongue and landed on the bed of Faerie Flowers that Lyonette had rescued from the upper floor of the inn. The Ashfire Bee fanned her wings and Numbtongue stared out the open window.

“Hrgh.”

He touched at his stomach, feeling the faint pain from his half-healed wounds. This is why he hated Crelers. The Redfang had never fought them himself; the High Passes were deadly to even smaller Crelers. But according to Pyrite’s memories the poison would prevent healing for the next few days.

Still, there were worse fates than drinking chicken soup and lying in a warm apartment with blankets and a pillow. At least Reiss’ ghost couldn’t follow him here. He was bound to the inn, or so it seemed.

He’d saved Numbtongue. But he was…the Hobgoblin shook his head. He winced—then he glanced out the open window.

The issue of finding Erin’s guests and the occupants of the inn homes was a small problem, but it was a problem amid all the rest of the drama over the Creler attacks. Much had been said, but in the end, the facts were clear. Despite…no, even in the given situation, a Goblin could not be in Liscor.

Not after all that had happened, the unresolved debates and arguments. So a Goblin was not in Liscor. Especially not in Krshia’s apartment, in a street full of Gnolls. And they weren’t sniffing at him from their windows.

The Goblin sniffed back. He smelled a lot of…Gnollishness in the air, but they could definitely smell him, he was sure. Despite all the strong-smelling things Krshia had hung around the room to disguise his scent. But if there was trouble, Numbtongue wasn’t about to start it. And the Council had decided to not let him into the city. It was just expedient. He wondered why they’d agreed. Because he was fairly sure he remembered another time when Goblins hadn’t been let in.

He never forgot. But for a moment, however it happened, the Hobgoblin luxuriated in where he was. Here. After a while, he got up to pee again.

 

—-

 

Gold-rank. It was a bemusing thought. Incredible. And yet, Tekshia had hit Ceria with it so fast the half-Elf couldn’t really process it. Much less in her fogged-up mind after casting so much magic. Ceria felt like she was both hung over and drunk at the same time and exhausted—that was how hard it was to concentrate. Stupid indeed.

But still. Gold-rank. It was what her team had dreamed about. The original Horns of Hammerad. It was the dream of all adventurers, really. This was it. The big leagues were waiting. Fame, glory—it was all in this rank.

And yet, it was too soon. This party was nice, but for once, the half-Elf wasn’t stuffing herself. She was eating some fries, but she was mostly just standing with her team.

Talking. The first person to come up after the handshakes, backslapping, and so on was done, was Selys. She paused. She looked first at Pisces, then the others.

“You did it.”

“Yeah.”

“Good job. I—I heard about the attack, but Keldrass and the other teams were in the dungeon. And they ran into a bunch of undead. So I—”

“No one expected the Crelers.”

Ceria shook her head. She was looking around the room. A lot of adventurers were there, but few had approached. The ones who’d escaped through the door were hanging back. But Ceria thought she saw a familiar face among—she frowned, looking back at Selys.

“Wait, a dungeon attack? What happened? Was anyone hurt?”

“Oh—no. I mean, no one was killed. It was another undead assault, a big one. But the Gold-ranks and Silvers held the line. Some got chewed up, but no one was killed. Bevussa was stabbed, though.”

“What? Is she alright?”

Yvlon looked around as Selys raised her claws.

“She’s fine! She’s at the [Healer]’s. Her team is all there—they got overrun by Ghouls! And they were saying something about a traitor in the dungeon. But only Bevussa saw—well, she’s out cold, still. She took a Ghoul apart with her talons! Keldrass and his team had to bail them out. They must have burned at least a thousand undead.”

“That’s good.”

Ceria relaxed. She looked around. Hadn’t she seen…?

“Keldrass?”

That wasn’t who she’d spotted. But the Drake was a familiar sight. He looked perfectly hale as he strode towards her. Out of armor, of course, although Ceria had seen one of his teammates wearing the Heartflame Breastplate. The Drake paused.

“Ceria, congratulations. Hell’s Wardens.”

“Oh, that’s not—look, don’t call us that.”

The half-Elf flushed. Keldrass just shook his head.

“It’s an official title. You slew an Adult Creler. That means you’re allowed to claim the title; the Blighted Kingdom itself sent a commendation and the reward this morning.”

“They did? I mean—a commendation?”

The Drake nodded. He eyed Pisces; the [Necromancer] was absently loading his plate, but nodded as Yvlon and Ksmvr came over. He hesitated at Ksmvr, but spoke to them as a group.

“That’s right. Aside from money, the Blighted King does honor all those who slay Adult Crelers. I’m not sure of the specifics; it’s a decree. Not a noble title or estates, but apparently it can do something for you. If, say, you’re a [Shieldbearer], you might become an [Honored Shieldbearer].”

“Nice. I mean, two of us have changed classes and we’ve all leveled up…”

Ceria stumbled over her words. The Drake nodded. He was looking at her, and glancing over his shoulder. But he paused.

“Miss Shivertail—the younger—also looked up your feat. You’re the 1268th team to kill an Adult Creler at the Silver-rank level. Before you became one of us, obviously.”

Us. Ceria focused on that word, then what Keldrass had said.

“Wait, over a thousand Silver-rank teams have…”

Her face must have fallen, because Keldrass’ serious face turned into a smile for a second. The Drake shook his head as Pisces wandered over. The adventurers were congregated at one side of the guild mixing with some of the civilians, but they were…waiting. Keldrass looked at Ceria.

“Miss Springwalker, think of it another way. In the history of our world, of every confirmed Adult Creler kill, of teams who would go on to become Named Rank, or at least Gold, over the last six thousand years since the Creler Wars—since a time before the Demons, when Crelers fought Dragons and overran nation after nation and every species in the world fought them!—only one thousand and two hundred Silver-rank teams have ever killed an adult.”

“Oh.”

The half-Elf blushed. That did make more sense. Keldrass grinned at her amusement, then became serious once more. He glanced over his shoulder.

“It’s not something my team’s ever done, even in a larger group. I—well, we were fighting undead. You held the line. You and the others.”

The Horns sobered. Ceria nodded shortly.

“Yeah.”

“Some of them are here. You might have words—hear them out first. You need to see this.”

Keldrass jerked his head backwards. Ceria blinked at him. Then she realized the Drake was looking at her somewhat warily. She had a…premonition.

A face in the crowd. She saw Walt looking uncertain, Alais talking to someone in the midst of the adventurers. They made way as Keldrass led the Horns over, and adventurers parted. Some shamefaced. Others staring. A few, like Keldrass, looked ready to stop a fight. Ceria’s heartbeat quickened.

Could it be?

Stan—

Pelico turned. Desirel broke off from eating a bit of cake. Hauntgheist, five members of their team, stood still as the Horns saw them. Ceria halted in her tracks.

“What?”

Yvlon dropped her plate. Ksmvr dove and caught it. Pisces stared. The [Armsmistress]’s gaze locked onto Pelico.

“How—”

Surprises. Some of the adventurers who’d fought at the Bloodfields had gotten away. Not Kam. Or Stan. But some. Hauntgheist was the truly astonishing thing, though. But Ceria realized it wasn’t a miracle.

“Scrolls of [Lesser Teleport]. Our entire group has one. It’s our final insurance. I came up with it—it costs a lot and all our members have to buy into a scroll or go without. We always set it for a quick escape. As it is, we lost three. That damn Adult hit us with those spikes. But the rest of us bailed out.”

Pelico spoke quietly, to Alais’ team, Walt’s, and the Gnoll, the survivors. To the other adventurers as well, the Silver-ranks who’d fought then fled through the door, or just ran. Keldrass and some of the older Gold-ranks like the Lifwail Blades stood next to Hauntgheist. Preventing a fight, perhaps.

Ceria just stared. Pelico’s face was pale, but the [Rogue] spoke to everyone present. But mainly to them.

“We took cover in our bailout spot. We saw how many Crelers were out there—and the Adult. We just…we hid. I thought it would be suicide to…”

He trailed off, looking away. Keldrass eyed Ceria. And every eye turned towards the Horns. The others had seen Hauntgheist before, it seemed. Walt was clenching his fists, but he hadn’t thrown a punch yet. Alais wasn’t looking at Hauntgheist. And Ceria—she looked at Yvlon. The Human woman looked back, waiting.

“Good. You made it.”

Hauntgheist started. But Ceria’s face was calm. She tried to smile, and in fact, it wasn’t hard.

“I wish we’d all had scrolls. But they’re expensive, right? You made it. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same. I’m glad…I’m sorry for the ones who fell. Were they…?”

“Chaida, Sell, and Vend.”

Ceria vaguely recalled Vend’s face. She nodded. The other adventurers relaxed. At last, the wary tension resolved, and more broke up, talking with the civilians.

Non-adventurers. Ceria found herself shaking Drakes and Gnoll’s claws and paws respectively, letting them thank her. It never occurred to her to say it was nothing. But neither was it entirely hers, not by a long shot.

“There were three teams out there with Hauntgheist. The Watch hasn’t even found their bodies.”

“Who were they?”

“The Scales of Anarchy, Traveller’s Yawn, and…anyone know?”

“I—I didn’t stay. We went for the door right as it opened.”

“You were right with us up till the end. We’d have gone if we weren’t on the other side of that Creler.”

“Has anyone seen Montressa? The Wistram team?”

“They were burying their own. The Oldblood Drake.”

“Isceil.”

Yvlon murmured it as she shook Reikhle’s paw. The [Master Builder] looked Yvlon up and down and only now did someone broach the topic of her arms.

“Miss Yvlon, I can’t help but notice your change. Is it part of a new class?”

The polite question made everyone in earshot look over with interest. Yvlon smiled.

“That’s right. I’m an [Armsmistress] now. It healed my arms. And changed them into…”

She gestured at the silvery metal that was now her flesh.

“I see. That is, may I see? I am a tiny bit interested.”

“Go ahead?”

Ceria bit her lip to keep from laughing as Reikhle bent, nearly touching Yvlon’s arm as he carefully peered at it, sniffed it—he might have actually tried licking it before he caught himself. But he was a [Builder]. Yvlon looked up as Walt wandered over.

“[Armsmistress]?”

She nodded. The man paused.

“You don’t say.”

Ceria burst out laughing as the room erupted with it. Even Yvlon had to laugh, although she punched Walt on the shoulder. He swore.

“My arm!”

It was easy to laugh. Harder to note the missing faces. In time, Ceria found herself standing with adventurers, in the center of the larger party. People who had been there. Alais delivered the harder news.

“The confirmed dead—I found Kam. And…Stan’s on the list too. All the Boltspitters but Gerit are.”

Ceria’s stomach twisted.

“They found his body?”

“His bag of holding. You saw him go down, Ceria?”

The half-Elf saw Stan turning, trying to reload—she closed her eyes.

“Yeah. I don’t think he made it out of that. Did they—”

“No.”

No one was in charge, but Keldrass was present, like a…teacher. Or a helper. He cleared his throat.

“There’s a bounty from Rhir on all Crelers the world over. The Blighted Kingdom pays it on top of whatever local bounties are in place. Izril’s Adventurer Guilds have standard rates too. So…there’s gold for killing the adult.”

He looked at Ceria. Instantly, she raised her hands.

“We don’t want it. It goes to the dead. Their families—it goes to them.”

“Yeah.”

Alais and Walt both nodded. So did the Gnoll, the lone adventurer. Keldrass nodded. Ceria had to turn.

“I’m sorry. Can I ask who you are?”

“Egliv. Part of Steelhowl.”

The Gnoll clasped Ceria’s hand, and repeated it for the other members of the Horns. He seemed worn. So tired. Ceria knew the feeling. But something in his eyes lit up as he looked at her.

“You took down that cursed Creler. Thank you. It got half my team. The rest…I’m not sure how I made it.”

“Nor are we.”

That was it. But Egliv, Alais’ teammates—Caddin was dead. The other two introduced themselves.

“Shelda and Poiv.”

“Right, we’ve met…”

“You punched my lights out.”

Poiv pointed at his eye and Yvlon ducked her head. Shelda was a [Shield Warrior], only, she used armor made of Chitin. Poiv used bone arrows as an [Archer].

“My boys and I got through it. Yvlon, Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr—this is Dogil, Grant, and Terrim.”

The three men nodded at Ceria. Grant’s eye was gone and he had a patch over it. Dogil had wounds all over his arms, but the man had kept fighting with his axe to the last. Terrim—he clasped Ksmvr’s hand first. The orange-haired redheaded man grinned.

“Took down the adult. Nice fucking jump! Tommie would have been proud.”

“Thank you.”

The Horns looked at the other seven. Ceria did not know any of them well, save for Alais and Walt, but she would remember them. Egliv accepted a drink; alcohol was flowing freely in the Adventurer’s Guild along with Erin’s food.

There were things to do, even now. The Council came over to thank the adventurers again. Ceria missed part of the speech on the way to the bathroom, but she heard Elirr speaking solemnly to the others.

“Liscor’s Council has allocated funds for all the teams who stood and fought. I know it is not much, but it’s what the city can afford. We shall pay a pension to the dead as well.”

“And we had to go to the Antinium to pay it and keep on budget.”

Lism muttered from the back, so quietly only the Gnolls and Ceria heard. Krshia reached over and punched him.

The other adventurers accepted the monetary reward, as did the Horns. That was extra. But the Creler’s bounty on top of the one Izril’s Adventurer’s Guilds put on all the Crelers would go to the fallen. Ceria had a word with Keldrass about it as Walt and Alais joined her.

“Do you know—what will happen with the adventurer’s things? Their bodies?”

The Drake hesitated. He waved a claw and Selys came over.

“We’ll have to burn the bodies. Or rather, the Watch is doing that. The Adventurer’s Guild will distribute the possessions of the adventurers to their families or listed recipients if they have wills. Why?”

“I—Ksmvr?”

Ceria looked around. Ksmvr stepped forwards. The [Skirmisher] bowed slightly.

“I would like to purchase Captain Crossbow Stan’s bag of holding and crossbows. If it is acceptable. I understand this is a form of inheritance that adventurers practice.”

“Crossbow Stan’s…”

Alais looked startled. Keldrass peered at Ksmvr, then Ceria.

“Market price?”

“Yes.”

“That’s better than what the Adventurer’s Guild would offer. I’ll—I think that’s fine. Let me make a note.”

Selys looked for a quill and ink. Alais looked blankly at Ksmvr and shook her head.

“I can’t believe he’s dead. You’re sure you saw…?”

“I’m sure. There’s no way he survived that, Alais.”

“It’s just—he’s Crossbow Stan. He’s been around forever.”

“I actually knew about his team.”

Egliv put in. The Gnoll gestured around the guild as Selys came back, writing.

“His team was around thirty years back. The Boltspitters. They came south once, my father said. They were good. Not Gold-rank, but they helped kill a bunch of Wyverns with other teams.”

“Stan was a veteran. He just—earned money. For his kids.”

“Oh dead gods. His kids.”

Ceria murmured. Walt nodded.

“How old’re they?”

“Must be—thirteen and fourteen? Dead gods. Seems like Stan’s been watching them for decades…”

“Nah. He married late, remember?”

“But he divorced—”

“Do you think she knows?”

“The Guild will inform everyone. Don’t worry. And I’ll get Ksmvr the bag of holding. We’ll do the transaction later, alright? And his family will get the gold, from the bounty and everything else. I’ll make sure of it.”

Selys broke in gently. Ceria nodded. The Drake patted her arm and stepped back. After a moment, Alais broke in.

“So. Did you level, Ceria? Your eyes…”

The half-Elf’s eyes were less noticeable than Yvlon’s arms, but they had changed too. Walt started; he hadn’t noticed. Ceria nodded.

“Class change. You?”

“Not a class change, but…I leveled four times. And I gained a few Skills. To help with my lightning. Look. I can throw it without it going everywhere.”

So saying, Alais conjured a bit of lightning and threw it from one finger to the other, catching it in midair and creating a small ball of lightning. Ceria and the others recoiled at first, used to Alais’ unpredictable magic. Ceria smiled.

“That’s better control than a third-year Wistram student, Alais! Congratulations.”

Alais smiled weakly. She was still barely on her feet, and leaning on her staff hard.

“It’s what I wanted. I’m stronger now. I can feel it. If I had it back when we were fighting—if I—if I had—”

Her voice broke. Poiv and Shelda reached for their Captain and she buried her face in her arm. Ceria stared at her and the others looked down.

It was a common adventurer’s refrain. Those that survived the worst battles invariably leveled. Becoming stronger. And yet, too late. If I could go back and do it again, as I am—

You couldn’t think about it too long. Down that road lay madness. Ceria turned to Walt as Alais went to sit down for a moment.

“What about you, Walt?”

The man would have normally bragged about a single level. Now, he just smiled quietly and exposed one thick arm. He flexed it, and then held it out for Ceria to lean on. His arm didn’t move as much as a centimeter.

“Look. [Enhanced Strength]. Fucking unbelievable, right? It’s like that Minotauress’ scroll is working on me all the time. Dead gods, I’m going to hit Level 30 before I’m thirty. I never thought of that.”

Egliv too. The [Axeman] was now a [Savage Axeman], owing to the Crelers he’d hacked apart. He even had a [Furious Rage] Skill.

“Must be the [Barbarian] in me, yes? Not that many Gnolls qualify for the class.”

“You’re too civilized. What’s the requirement for [Barbarian] anyways? Seems so…what’s the word?”

“Pejorative?”

Pisces came over, massaging his head. He seemed to be getting over his mental mind-blanking better than Ceria. She nodded at him.

It was Yvlon who looked around.

“How many Silver-rank teams are left? Out of fourteen? Five? Six?”

Keldrass sighed.

“Eight, but only three full-strength. Some, like the Boltspitters will have to be disbanded. Or…find a new team.”

“Dead gods.”

Egliv nodded.

“I have an invitation from The Pride of Kelia. Nailren, he invited me. I might take it.”

“Nailren’s good. They’re a ranged team, but they could use someone like you. Hell, Gemhammer might have you, Egliv. They’re all about muscle and melee combat.”

“I—I guess Thunder’s Solace needs to recruit too. We’re going to still…I mean, we have to keep going.”

Alais looked blank as she rejoined the conversation. Walt stared at Egliv.

“Yeah. Our team’s down too. Hey. You want to join us?”

Ceria, Yvlon, Alais, and Pelico all stared at Walt. He looked around.

“Can’t hurt to recruit in Liscor. We could use more fighters. We’re all shields, but…I think the Ensoldier Shields need a [Mage] or two. [Archers], at least.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Egliv looked surprised, gratified, but he shook his head. Keldrass did too.

“Don’t think about adventuring just yet. You all need rest.”

“Even so, so many teams…”

“That’s what happens.”

A steely voice cut through the conversation. The adventurers turned and saw Tekshia walk past them. The Drake sipped from her cup as she entered the group.

“The Silver-rank teams around Celum are torn to bits. It’s the Bronze-ranks and a few Silvers left, now. But we have at least three teams who might be Gold-rank in the future.”

She nodded at Walt, Alais, and Ceria’s teams. They looked at her. Tekshia’s voice was strict, but not unkind.

“This is what happens, children. Good teams die, and the survivors level up. You, Horns. Did you level or did that [Necromancer] just pop in a few new eyes and some arms?”

Yvlon choked on her drink. Pisces nearly exhaled his pasta all over everyone else. Only Ksmvr clapping a hand over his mouth saved everyone. The Antinium politely wiped his hand on a napkin as everyone looked at the Horns. Ceria hesitated, but now wasn’t the time to keep secrets, surely…?

Pisces broke the silence, coughing and thumping his chest. He pointed at himself.

“Two levels in my [Necromancer] class for summoning both behemoths. However, my [Mage] class hit Level 20 for a second time.”

Ceria blinked at him. The young man shrugged.

“I gained a new Skill. A powerful one, in my estimation. [Mana Well]. Ashen.”

“Ooh.”

“What’s ooh?

Walt looked confused as Alais and Ceria both nodded. One of Keldrass’ teammates was nodding as the [Necromancer] explained.

“Of the Skills which [Mages] obtain to increase the font of their power—and they are the lynchpins of most sources of power, [Mana Well] is considered average. Rather than increasing the body’s natural mana regeneration, or changing the very world or body itself to conduct mana better—”

He gestured to Ceria.

“—I simply have deeper reservoirs of mana to draw upon. And I may…charge my reserves with ambient mana of a specific grade. Death magic, in my case.”

Walt frowned.

“So…”

“He’s got an extra amount of magic in his body to use.”

Tekshia snorted as she chewed on a cookie. Pisces looked at her and she glared.

“You use too many words, brat! Yes, that Skill’s useful for a [Necromancer]. Not earthshattering. What happened with you, half-Elf?”

She poked Ceria, aiming her fork at Ceria’s eyes. The half-Elf flinched backwards.

“I changed classes. I’m…an [Arctic Cryomancer].”

It was a modest class change, but it got another ooh of appreciation. From almost everyone this time. Shelda frowned and looked around.

“What does arctic mean? I’m not familiar with the word.”

“Cold. You know, arctic weather?”

“Oh, right. So that’s an upgrade? Cold [Cryomancer]?”

“Colder. I think it’s a hint about my specialization. I didn’t get a powerful new spell, but I did get two Skills that change…well, look.”

Ceria gestured, and a wall of ice rose. Instantly, Tekshia struck it with her cane, lancing it out like a spear.

“Not in my guild—”

She paused as her cane thwacked into the ice. The tip of the cane vibrated away from the ice wall, chipping a bit with it. But it didn’t break. Keldrass raised his brows. Behind Tekshia, Relc pointed and crowed.

“Oh snap. Old Tekshia’s lost her—don’t throw it!

Tekshia lowered her cane as Relc ducked behind Klbkch. She turned to Ceria and the half-Elf gestured at the [Ice Wall].

“[Glaciersheet Ice]. And [Adept Iceform]. An upgrade of my old Skill. I can make my ice different, see?”

She gestured and a row of spikes emerged from the [Ice Wall]. Ksmvr brightened.

“Ooh. It has spikes. There is much potential here for pushing.”

“Push people into a wall, have the wall come up and impale them…”

Pelico was impressed. Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha popped over with a crowd, to watch Ceria’s demonstration. Lyonette frowned as Mrsha tried to touch the spikes, so Ceria made the ice wall flat again. Erin looked at Ceria, beaming with pride.

“You did it! It’s tough, right? And you can shape it? Can you do a couch made of ice? No, wait! Make a castle!”

Ceria’s head was smarting. She winced—even this one spell was giving her a migraine. But she tried the couch. She had to give up halfway as her headache became blinding.

“Palt said no magic!”

Alarmed, Yvlon touched Ceria’s arm and the half-Elf gave up. The others inspected the angular bit of ice.

“It looks sort of like a couch.”

“Someone sit on it. How long will it last?”

“Longer, I think. Darn. My head—”

“No more magic, even for demonstrations.”

Ceria nodded, and someone pushed an unlucky volunteer onto the couch. It turned out to be Ishkr. The Gnoll tensed, and then shuddered.

Cold! I’m stuck to it! Help me off!”

His fur was frozen to the ice. Laughing, Ceria watched, massaging her head as half the [Mages] volunteered to burn Ishkr off, including Keldrass’ team. In the end, some hot water did the trick.

“But you can also make snowflakes! You have that cold…bubble around you! Show them, Ceria!”

This wasn’t magic. Or at least, it didn’t hurt to show off. Ceria concentrated, and the air around her grew frosty. Ice began falling from the air and Mrsha put her paw out and caught one. It melted when she tried to pull it out. Lyonette put her hand towards Ceria and drew it back fast.

“It’s cold!

“[Aura of Rime]. That’s my big Skill, I think.”

“Is it that powerful? Seems sort of weak if all it does is make snow.”

Walt commented as he stuck a mug next to Ceria’s cheek to cool. She narrowed her eyes and his drink froze into a slurry. Selys raised her eyebrows as Walt swore.

“Auras are physical manifestations of magical fields. Hers could boost her abilities, freeze things more quickly or act as a weapon. I’d say it’s good. Like Pisces said, [Mages] get different Skills that shape how they perform higher tiers of magic.”

“Is it like your master, Captain Ceria?”

Ksmvr looked at Ceria as he experimentally waved a burning torch near her and watched the fire go out. Ceria’s aura was pure cold, not just a manifestation of winter. The half-Elf shook her head.

“Illphres didn’t have one. But she only cared for her magic. Her style was more…well, I don’t know what she had. But I’m okay with my style. Besides, I don’t feel cold. The real trick is turning it off.”

The half-Elf smiled. Everyone turned to Ksmvr and Yvlon. The [Skirmisher] waved one hand helpfully.

“I regret that I did not gain any noticeable level advancement or class. I am a failure—”

“Ksmvr!”

The Antinium paused, looking straight past Ceria and his team to Klbkch. The other Antinium’s arms were folded. After a moment, Ksmvr looked away and nodded to Ceria sadly.

“Oh, very well. I cannot even be a failure. But I have only gained two Skills. One of them is [Surefoot], which is a very practical Skill with little entertainment value.”

“We could make a mud hill and push you down it.”

Relc was grinning as the other adventurers nodded. Ksmvr considered the option.

“I believe my other Skill is more applicable to demonstration.”

“What is it, Ksmvr?”

Ceria hadn’t been able to ask yesterday amid the bigger concern of her freezing everything around her and Yvlon’s new arms. The Antinium took a few steps into the center of the room. He raised his arms—

And back flipped. Erin’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. Ksmvr did a tight, springing backflip, landed, front flipped back, and then flipped to the side.

The Worker’s squat body and rounded back shell was not meant for that kind of aerodynamics. Antinium didn’t…do that! But Ksmvr did. Everyone stared, and then Mrsha broke out into applause. Ksmvr landed on his feet, looking pleased as he smiled.

“[Evasive Flip]. Whee.”

“That’s amazing, Ksmvr!”

“Whoa! Do it again!”

Erin agreed. Ksmvr happily flipped forwards as the crowd watched, then sideways, back—after about ten flips in a row he paused and held out a hand.

“I am growing very sick. I may expel the contents of my stomach. Stand clear.”

After that, everyone turned to Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] smiled.

“I gained a new class. [Armsmistress].”

Just [Armsmistress]?”

“There may be a few more words in there, Pelico. But just [Armsmistress] for now. I don’t know everything about my class, but I did change my [Crescent Cut] Skill. It’s now [Sword Art: Curve of the Moon].”

Yvlon drew her broken, battered Sword of Weight with one arm to demonstrate. Erin blinked at Yvlon.

“I thought you’d turn your [Crescent Cut] into something that breaks armor. Like your mordhau thing you did on the Crelers. Into…[Ultimate Mordhau]?”

Some of the [Warriors] laughed and Ksmvr made a chuckling-clicking sound. Yvlon smiled.

“You’d think that, but apparently I qualified for a sword art. Which means I’m good enough with a sword to use an actual technique.”

“You can’t change your original Skill into something completely different. A sword art is an indication of ability. This one wouldn’t ever get it, for instance, just a Skill.”

Tekshia poked Walt and the Human glared at her. Keldrass was nodding.

“Sword arts need to be used in combat, at the right time. You have to set them up, not like Skills. They’re powerful, but situational. Drathians are reported to be experts in that field. As are [Martial Artists], [Blademasters], [Sword Dancers]…”

“Relc’s a [Spearmaster]. Hey Relc! Do you know a spear dance, then?”

Everyone looked at Relc. The Drake folded his arms smugly.

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.”

“It’s Level 30+ Skills. I know he’s got [Triple Thrust]—that might be the only thing.”

Selys eyed Relc critically. The Drake scowled at her.

“Well, at least I’ve got that! And it works with a spear and in bed—actually, I’ve never tried it in—whoa!

He broke off as Yvlon demonstrated her Skill. She’d begun cutting in arced cuts, building up to the sword art. When she unleashed it, Erin saw a flash of silver—and Relc and Klbkch dragged her off her feet. Half the audience stumbled back as Yvlon’s cut went across the floor, hit a rafter, and sliced a table a good eight feet in front of her in half.

Dead gods! The table!

My floor!

Tekshia hissed. She glared at Yvlon as the [Armsmistress] halted her blade and stared, wide-eyed at the damage she’d caused. Her Skill had extended the reach of her sword!

“Oops.”

“It’s got range.”

Walt breathed. Then Tekshia jabbed Yvlon in the side. Yvlon shouted as the Drake hit her in one of her bandaged spots.

“Use another Skill in my guild and I’ll use you to fix the cracks! Ancestors, you overexcited—”

The Drake grumbled as she stared at the rift Yvlon had cut in the floor. Krshia growled as she inspected the broken table.

“Good thing we were planning on moving the guild, yes?”

“I’ll say. But can we not damage parts of the city?”

Alonna eyed the cut in the rafters. Flushing, Yvlon sheathed her blade.

“That’s the best Skill we’ve seen yet! No offense, Ceria, but Yvlon wins here.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Ceria waved a hand as the [Warriors] crowded around Yvlon. Keldrass eyed Yvlon.

“Any more Skills, Miss Byres?”

“Aside from that, and the Skill that turned my arms into this?”

“Well, yeah. Aside from that. Obviously.”

He cleared his throat, embarrassed. Yvlon smiled. She raised one hand.

“Well, as part of my new arms and skin, I can apparently do this.”

Her arm slowly changed as the crowd watched. Keldrass recoiled as Yvlon’s arms, a perfect mimicry of Human flesh, shifted. The metal moved, reshaping until it looked like Yvlon was wearing armor—over the outside of her arms. A smooth, silver metal gauntlet protected her forearms, and more armor appeared on her arms, stopping at the shoulder.

If Yvlon had been wearing her breastplate, it would have been a perfect fit. The [Armsmistress] regarded her hand, now a gauntlet, and held it out. Keldrass shook his head, but Ksmvr touched the arm softly. The woman looked around, a crooked smile on her face.

“[Armform]. This is my duelist form. I can make them normal as well. And this—let go, Ksmvr?”

He did. Yvlon whispered.

“[Armform (Razorkind)].”:

Her hand changed. Erin inhaled sharply and the crowd stirred. When Yvlon raised her hand next, a cutting edge had developed along the outer edge of her gauntlets. But that wasn’t what was unsettling.

Yvlon’s fingers were blades. Not just as if she’d put on a metal pair of gauntlets. No, the fingers, what should have been flesh and bone were now edged, longer, cutting razors. In silence, everyone stared at Yvlon. She looked up, her face a bleak smile—

Mrsha began applauding. Yvlon started, and then someone laughed. A few others began applauding uncertainly, but then there was laughter. Yvlon relaxed, and her hands returned to normal.

“I can even make a cutting edge on other parts of my arm. So if someone grabs me, they’re in trouble. It’s not too useful.”

“It’s powerful.”

That was all Keldrass could offer. Ceria hesitated, and put a hand on Yvlon’s shoulder. It was cool, but not as cold as metal. The woman could feel her—she looked at Ceria.

“Something to get used to, huh?”

“Just when I got used to having metal in my arms.”

The [Armsmistress] joked weakly, but Ceria had seen her expression.

“Are you okay with…?”

“I have my arms. I’ll live with them changing. What do you think, Ksmvr?”

Yvlon glanced sideways. The Antinium was inspecting her arms, poking at her fingers cautiously. She wiggled them and the [Skirmisher] looked up solemnly.

“We must analyze their strength, Yvlon. Your arms are a valuable asset to this team and we must be certain of their exact strength.”

“Go ahead.”

Bemused and amused, Yvlon let Ksmvr inspect his hand. He prodded her fingers, flexed them, seeing how far they’d move, poked her palm, the inside of her elbow—

“Stop that. It tickles.”

Yvlon laughed. Her skin wasn’t as pliable as regular skin, but it did move. It was nearly as sensitive too in its regular form, or so it seemed. Ksmvr was oblivious to her discomfort.

“Does it tickle more or less depending on your duelist form? Please change one arm to your duelist form so we may compare sensations, Yvlon. This is important data.”

“Stop it. Ksmvr, I’m serious—”

He began tickling her. Yvlon tried to pull away, but gently. Then she began laughing. And it was such a refreshing sound that Ceria joined right in. She tickled Yvlon’s sides—until the [Armsmistress] smacked her gently on the head. And ‘gently’ was something Yvlon had to get used to.

After Ceria’s head had stopped smarting, Ksmvr announced his findings to a very few interested people.

“To recap, Yvlon’s base skin strength is already stronger than average skin, but her [Duelist] form lacks sensitivity and has a comparable strength to enchanted armor. This is good, because I had been concerned with the weakness of skin in my teammates—”

Ceria wandered away from Ksmvr’s analysis. She’d seen Tekshia sitting down at one of the intact tables. The old Guildmistress looked up as Ceria approached.

“Something you want, Miss Springwalker? If you’re looking for hugs, go find my granddaughter. Although she seems to be reserving them for the [Necromancer].”

She glared at Selys and Pisces, who were talking quietly together. Ceria shook her head.

“I’m fine, thank you, Guildmistress.”

She sat down across from Tekshia. The Drake eyed her then snorted.

“Out with it.”

“You…didn’t say anything about Pelico’s team. Or the other Silver-ranks.”

The ones that had run. Some had come up to Ceria to apologize. And she’d forgiven them with words, at least. Others hadn’t. Ceria wondered if they’d avoided coming to the party. Pelico—she could sense him looking at her and the others from time to time. She wondered if she could ever sit and drink with him in the same way. Or if there was really anything to forgive.

The old Drake [Spearmistress] snorted. She looked at Hauntgheist and shook her head. Then she gazed at Ceria.

“Say what? It was your decision to ‘forgive’ them. What should I do? Smack their tails for doing the sensible thing? They’ll remember their choice for the rest of their lives. As Silver-ranks. That’s what they’ll be. They had a chance, and they ran from it. Sensible. Which is why they’ll never be Gold-rank.”

She leaned back in her chair and fished in her belt. Ceria was surprised when she saw a familiar, fat cigar. Or maybe a spliff was more accurate. The Drake paused and offered one grudgingly to Ceria.

“Puffer?”

“Is that—you smoke them?”

Ceria was a former Wistram student, and she could smell the dreamleaf. Tekshia smiled as she lit hers.

“When someone’s in the area. I got a bundle because I threatened that horse to eat him. I still haven’t forgiven those [Mages], but they did nearly die, and one did, so I suppose I’ll let it go. Funny how real monsters change things, isn’t it?”

Ceria nodded. After a moment, she accepted the spliff and the match. She recognized it from Octavia’s sh—Ceria’s eyes narrowed. She looked around for the [Alchemist] and realized that Octavia had been stealthily doing a bit of business. Some things never changed. But the [Alchemist] was genuinely listening to Ksmvr as the Antinium explained the difference in Yvlon’s skin to her.

“Whew. That’s strong stuff.”

“Not bad. This is the kind of hobby you can afford now.”

Tekshia nodded as Ceria took a few deep inhales and coughed out some smoke. The Drake was more steady, but Ceria had a purpose.

“Not happy, huh?”

The [Arctic Cryomancer] hesitated.

“Is it that obvious?”

Tekshia put her feet up on the table, leaning back in her chair.

“I don’t have to look. Day after a battle like that? With all the dead? I told the Council not to throw a party, but they insisted. Your little [Innkeeper] friend too. At least she makes a decent cake. But what did they expect? This isn’t a party. It’s a wake.”

She pointed at the workers on the road crew. They were speaking solemnly and toasting with their mugs. Ceria realized that the food had mostly turned to drinks. She wondered if Tekshia had been instrumental to that; it wouldn’t have been high on Erin’s list. She didn’t understand some of the pleasures in life.

“I guess I can’t really be happy. I wish we’d—being here after all of yesterday—you know?”

Tekshia nodded silently. She took a drag on her puffer and exhaled.

“If you were smiling the entire time after all that, I’d stab you, girl. Mind you, that’s what some Named Adventurers look like, even after a slaughter. I remember one…no. No, you don’t need to smile. And you don’t need to be here. It’s just silly idiots trying to make themselves feel better.”

For some reason, that helped more than anything else. Ceria smiled and looked at Tekshia.

“What do we do?”

“Do? You’re Gold-rank. You’ll have time to figure it out. I’m sure everyone has an opinion. Just sleep. Wake up. And keep going as long as you want. Then—stop. I stopped. Some of us don’t.”

The Drake lazing waved her spliff in the air. The half-Elf nodded. They sat together, smoking, until Erin Solstice came over.

“Hey! Are you doing pot? There are kids here, you know!”

Tekshia glared at Erin. She very deliberately blew a cloud of smoke at Erin.

“This is my guild, girl. You may exit if you don’t like it.”

“Well, maybe I will!”

“Good. Get out. Leave the cake and cookies.”

Erin hesitated. She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf waved at her.

“It’s not bad, Erin. Honest.”

“Well—well—I’m going outside! Krshia says there’s something cool by the southern gate, so we’re going to all go that way. Olesm’ll be there. And the Horns. And Montressa and the others.”

Ceria sat up. Tekshia gently snorted as the crowd inside made for the doors. Some remained, but after a moment, Ceria got up and followed Erin. She reluctantly froze the spliff for later.

“Where’d you get that?”

Pisces muttered to Ceria. She pointed. His brows shot up.

“She’s not going to give you one. I don’t know how Ceria got one off her. She never shares anything.”

Selys complained. Erin gave her a betrayed look. The [Heiress] rolled her eyes.

“Oh, Erin. It’s fine! Grandmother’s been having those for ages. I used to get into them as a kid.”

“You’re all stoners!”

“And you’re being a hatchling.”

Ceria didn’t listen to the argument erupting behind her, which was mainly Erin and Lyonette versus everyone else. Yvlon seemed on Erin’s side, but she elected not to join in. The adventurers and civilians walked down the street, heading towards…what?

Just outside the southern gates, Ceria realized what it was. She saw curiously flat ground in a wide space, nearly a thousand feet diamond next to a flat, stone road. Newly-laid.

Master Reikhle’s workers had been active here as well. No; they’d continued their work here instead of the Bloodfields. But they had also smoothed the lumpy terrain of the Floodplains. And standing outside was a Drake. Olesm turned in the middle of consulting with Octavia. She’d snuck out of the party early. Now, she was helping him lay down a bright, white powder in the grass.

It took Erin only a moment to figure out what was going on. She exclaimed at the same time as Relc and a few others.

Baseball!

“Whose balls?”

Walt growled. The Drake was smiling as he came over to the Horns. But he faltered as he looked at Ceria. He opened his mouth—and she hugged him.

“Hey, Olesm.”

“Ceria.”

The [Strategist] returned the hug, awkwardly. He looked up and Pisces held out a hand. The two smiled as they clasped palms, and Ksmvr and Yvlon patted him on the shoulder. Time changed a lot.

“Hey, you jerk!”

Erin glared, but even she couldn’t be angry. Olesm ducked his head as he saw Selys, Krshia, and the Gnolls. They regarded him with stately politeness, but Lism beamed.

“And what is this, nephew?”

“Baseball, Uncle. I told you—”

“How’d you do it? No, wait—why didn’t I think of it? This is amazing, Olesm!”

Erin was agog as she popped up in front of Lism. The [Strategist] smiled slightly. He pointed at the temporary field Octavia was working on, and a few people warming up on the pitch. Some of the Drakes and Gnolls who’d played last time were already swinging the bats. And more were watching from the walls and the grass.

Including the Halfseekers and the Wistram [Mages]. All four of them. Ceria started and pointed them out to Pisces. The two abandoned the group as Olesm spoke.

“It was simple. I mean, I know the game just requires flat ground. So I asked the team working on the road here to move some dirt around. The Antinium were able to help since this is close to the city. It’s obviously not feasible in the spring, but for now we have room for at least one game. And people can watch and play—I’m going to have teams sign up for time. There’s a lot of interest.”

“I’ve got to play! Klb, we’re going to get on a team! And look! There’s Grimalkin!”

Relc bounded forwards, excited. Klbkch spotted Grimalkin, swinging a bat experimentally. Erin was delighted.

“This is so cool—and look! There’s the Halfseekers! Jelaqua! Seborn! Moore! Are you all okay?”

The three adventurers looked up. They were all speaking together, Seborn half-lying down. The Drowned Man was nearly immobile from his injuries, but Jelaqua and Moore had lifted him out on a stretcher. Jelaqua was wearing a female Gnoll’s body. Moore was heavily bandaged and wincing, but he smiled as Mrsha leapt into his lap.

“Careful, Mrsha, careful…”

“Hey, Erin. You’re alright.”

Jelaqua smiled as Erin walked over. Seborn nodded and grunted. Erin threw up her arms.

“Did you see? Baseball! In Liscor!”

“Yeah. It’s going to be fun watching Grimalkin hit the ball. I think the Watch might also enjoy playing. I looked in on them; they’re nearly done with getting rid of the Crelers.”

Jelaqua smiled a bit. But she looked back at Moore and Seborn. The Drowned Man just stared at her and the Selphid glanced down at the grass she was pulling up bit by bit. Erin wavered. She looked at Seborn.

“How are you doing, Seborn? Moore? I didn’t get a chance to thank you—”

We’re alive. No thanks to Jelaqua.

The [Rogue]’s voice was flat. Jelaqua looked away. Moore paused in patting Mrsha’s head, and the Gnoll looked up, worried. She looked at Jelaqua’s body, sniffing the Selphid and sneezing at the smell of the preservative the Selphid was using.

Jelaqua’s wasn’t the only dead body sitting in the grass. A ways away were the four Wistram [Mages]. Ulinde, Beza, Montressa, and Palt.

Bezale was crying. The Minotaur’s head was bowed. Ulinde just stared ahead. She was wearing a Gnoll’s body too. Female. She bore no physical scars from yesterday. Nor did Palt, really. But they didn’t move.

Montressa’s eyes were red, but she had no more tears to give. And her guilt was less, in a way. She hadn’t run. But nevertheless.

Isceil was dead. The Wistram [Mages] looked up as the Horns approached. Beza stirred, staring at Yvlon, her arms. She wiped at her eyes and the [Mages] got up. Nervously. But the grief was written across them.

Perhaps this was the first teammate they’d ever had die. Even including the accident at Wistram, they might have never lost someone fighting. Their expressions looked too familiar to Ceria. Palt slowly exhaled a bit of smoke as he got to his hooves.

“We’re not going to fight. Please don’t—”

“Who would do that now?”

Ceria looked around. The Wistram [Mages] were silent. It felt like yesterday and forever ago that Ceria had been willing to try and kill them—hurt them at least, to keep them off her backs. Now? She looked at them.

“Can we sit?”

“Sure.”

Montressa whispered. The eight sat down, all watching as, in the distance, Olesm marshaled the Council and some interested citizens of Liscor into playing a game of baseball. Grimalkin was on the other team with Relc and Klbkch. Ceria felt vaguely sorry for the Council, even as she watched Grimalkin staring at Klbkch. But that was background.

As the first pitch was thrown and Elirr swung one of the baseball bats, Ulinde spoke.

“Isceil’s dead.”

Everyone looked at her. The Selphid’s expression was bleak. Lost. Yvlon paused. She looked at Ceria and said nothing. Neither did Ksmvr, or Pisces.

“I’ve failed. I had to flee. I left my teammate’s body behind.”

“We had to run. If we’d stayed…I’m sorry, Beza. But I’m no hero.”

Palt spoke quietly. He smoked his cigar, looking at the Horns. He inclined his head to them. Ceria nodded back. So did Pisces. Beza’s tears rolled down her face.

“You should have left me. We should have protected Isceil.”

“How? The adult was too fast. It went for him because he was the most dangerous.”

The Centaur [Illusionist]’s voice was too reasonable, too calm. Ceria saw how furiously Palt was smoking the dreamleaf, but Beza didn’t. She rounded on him.

“We let him—”

“It was no one’s fault, Beza. There was nothing we could do. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I couldn’t save him.”

Montressa whispered. She leaned on her staff. She looked pale, exhausted. Overused from too much spellcasting beyond her limits. Ceria knew how she felt. The [Aegiscaster] looked at Ceria, at Pisces.

She said not a word. But the hatred, the wild hate and fear in her eyes wasn’t there. She just looked tired and sad. None of the Wistram [Mages] said anything as Elirr struck a ball and sent it flying. The crack made some of the people sitting in the grass look up with interest, though, especially the Gnolls.

“I—didn’t like your friend. Isceil. But he did the right thing at the end.”

Yvlon spoke slowly. If it was—well, Ceria saw Ulinde look up. The Selphid spoke shortly.

“Don’t say that.”

“What?”

The [Armsmistress] met the Selphid’s gaze.

“Don’t say it like that. Like he was just a…a…you didn’t know him. He was awful to you, but he was our friend. He was brave.”

Yvlon paused. Then she nodded.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. He didn’t run. But for him, and we might have all died.”

“‘Drakes don’t run’. He could have, but he didn’t. He stood and fought. Of all of us, the Creler feared him the most.”

Pisces murmured. Everyone nodded at that. After a while, Beza’s tears stopped. Palt looked at Yvlon’s arms. He brushed some ash off his clothes.

“You killed it. You’ve all changed.”

None of the Horns replied to that. After a moment, Palt looked ahead. Ksmvr glanced at him.

“What now? Do we continue our battle?”

“No. I’m done.”

Montressa stood up. She looked down at Pisces, then at Ceria. She shook her head.

“I’m done. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you, Pisces. Beatrice—she still hates you. But Palt has his deal. He’ll be hanging around Liscor.”

“The inn’s gone. Maybe Miss Erin will…”

“No. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll see. If anyone wants to come with me, I might…Palt? Ulinde? Beza?”

The Minotauress didn’t respond at first. Palt glanced back towards Erin.

“I have to stay for a bit, Montressa. Beza?”

“I—what are we going to do?”

“Keep going. Search. Go back? I don’t know, Beza.”

The Minotauress nodded.

“We have to deliver Isceil’s remains to his home.”

Palt and Montressa nodded.

“We’ll do that at least. Ulinde?”

The Selphid was quiet. She rose, her Gnoll body turning to look in the same direction as Palt. But not at Erin. The Selphid hesitated. Then she looked at her team.

“I’m going to quit. I’m going to join the Halfseekers.”

Ceria blinked. Montressa stared at Ulinde.

“What?”

“Ulinde—”

Beza began, but Ulinde stood up.

“Miss Ivirith forgave me. And it’s my dream. They need a [Mage], a dedicated spellcaster. Why not me? I could do it. Moore and Seborn said they’ll consider it. They’re rebuilding their team. If I can—”

She looked at the others, pleadingly. Palt exhaled slowly. His eyes were still on Erin.

“If you want to, go.”

Montressa leaned on her staff. She was just…she looked at Ceria.

“We should talk, before…”

“Another time.”

Ceria stood up. Montressa nodded, looking relieved as the Horns rose with her. Palt hesitated, then he turned. He held out a hand.

“I misjudged you. Forgive me?”

He reached out to Pisces first. The [Necromancer] hesitated, but then he took Palt’s hand. Neither Beza nor Montressa did the same. Ulinde was already approaching the Halfseekers.

“I’m sorry.”

The Centaur shook Ceria’s hand. She nodded, looking again at Montressa. Beza’s horned head was in her hands. Silently, Ceria got up.

“What do we do now, Montressa?”

Beza whispered. Montressa just wiped at her eyes and watched as the Horns of Hammerad walked away. Palt blew a cloud of smoke that eddied into the air.

 

—-

 

The baseball game was underway, and Octavia was smiling as she greeted the hooded shape that hopped out of the gate and made a beeline for her. Numbtongue and the [Alchemist] sat together and watched the game.

On the baseball pitch, Grimalkin was thinking over the logistics of baseball and the merits of the game. He casually caught a ball shooting at his face with a bare claw. And the spectators groaned.

Two on base, one out. The audience was filled. But they were not all together. Some of the Antinium had come out of the Hive and Yellow Splatters was organizing a team of Painted Soldiers and Workers. Bird was curled up into a sulking ball as Anand, Belgrade, and Pawn tried to cheer him up. He glanced up as the Horns passed by him.

Olesm was refereeing the game, but the others were sitting together. Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, Krshia, Selys—a familiar sight. Mrsha was happily balancing, one foot on Krshia and Lyonette’s hands as they hoisted her up into the air. The Gnoll cub was giggling silently and reaching for Apista as Lyonette warned her to keep steady. But they’d catch her if they fell.

Still, it was to the Halfseekers that the Horns looked. And there was the one note of discontent. Jelaqua sat silently as Seborn and Moore argued. Ulinde was trembling in front of them.

“I—I have gold! And contacts at Wistram. I can be of use! I promise! I can put more into the team if you need me to—I could probably get an artifact if I asked—”

That’s not the issue.

Seborn growled. He was trying to prop himself up on a pillow. Moore gently tried to help him and the Drowned Man swatted at his hands.

I’ll do it myself. Leave off, Moore.

“What’s the problem, Seborn? You said we could use more members. And I think it’s worth a shot. I don’t mind being the other [Mage] on the team. I’d prefer another one, actually—”

I’m not against Ulinde, you idiot. I’m for it. But I’m asking whether we’re a team, or a glorified bunch of [Layabouts]!

The Drowned Man snapped. He looked at Jelaqua. So did Moore and the Horns. Ceria put a hand out to keep Ksmvr from walking over and joining the conversation. Erin and some of the others were not-so-secretly listening in as Seborn glared at Jelaqua.

“You’ve been dancing off to Pallass every damn day since you met that Dullahan.”

“Maughin. His name’s Maughin.”

And is he a member of the Halfseekers or not?

“I like him.”

Jelaqua’s expression was closed. The [Rogue]’s Human hand tightened on his bandaged side.

And so you’re abandoning your team? For what? When the Crelers came through that door, where were you?

“Seborn! That’s not fair!”

Moore looked shocked at the accusation as Jelaqua went still. Seborn scowled at his friend.

Is it? We had to drag that damn door around for days. We’re going to Invrisil! We’re adventurers! Jelaqua is our Captain, our leader! Not some lovesick child! If we’re going to be a team and take on new members, I want to know we’re actually going to work, and that we have a leader I can respect. Otherwise, I’d rather go find work elsewhere.

“You don’t mean that. That’s—Seborn!”

The [Green Mage] looked rattled. Ulinde’s expression became one of horror. Seborn looked at Jelaqua.

I mean every word. I’m not going to wait for another week, much less a month. If Jelaqua can’t stay with us while we’re working, I’m out. She can take her time off however she pleases. But if we’re going north, we won’t be coming back to this inn every night!”

“But Jelaqua can come back if we’re nearby. She’s been gone a bit—”

The half-Giant shut up as Seborn pointed a finger at him.

“Stop taking her side. You’ve been just as annoyed as I have. What if we take a request that puts us a month away from Invrisil, Moore? Jelaqua has to make a choice. Her personal life or her team. Which is it?

He looked at the [Iron Tempest]. Jelaqua was staring at the ground. Now, she paused. Moore opened his mouth, but then he slowly looked down. The two Gold-rank adventurers waited, looking at the Selphid. Ulinde stood, petrified, staring at her idols. And then Jelaqua looked up—

And burst into tears.

Moore, Seborn, the Horns, and everyone else froze. Jelaqua began to sob. She didn’t cry, but her body did everything short of producing liquid. She even wiped at her eyes, giving great, hiccupping sobs in her Gnoll body.

It was so unexpected that Mrsha began to cry as well.

“Jelaqua?”

Erin looked over uncertainly. Jelaqua was sobbing, and something was running from her nose and eyes. Not tears. She tried to speak, hiccupped, tried again.

“It—it’s not fair! It’s not fair!

Seborn stared at Jelaqua, too taken aback for words. The Selphid turned her leaking, sobbing face to him.

“I just—I don’t want to go! I like him! He’s the first person I’ve found that I like. Why can’t I stay? It’s not fair!”

Moore and Seborn looked at each other. The half-Giant raised a hand and patted Jelaqua on the shoulder.

“There, there, Jelaqua. Seborn was being angry.”

You damn traitor—

“There’s the door, Jelaqua. We can work around Invrisil. You don’t have to avoid Maughin. It’s just—”

“I know! But I don’t want to quit the team, guys! I don’t want to—but I know we’ll have to leave! If we take a big mission we’ll be gone for months! And I can’t ask him—I just wanted to stay for a bit longer. But then the Crelers got you and Seborn and I nearly lost my guys—”

Jelaqua’s outpouring of liquid was rapidly stopping. The Selphid sniffed something up her nose and Ceria had to look away. She was making wet, bubbling sounds as she spoke.

“I—I’m sorry. I know, Seborn. I know. I wasn’t there for the fight, or the Crelers—we can take Ulinde. We can try. I just need to talk to Maughin. But it’s so—”

She began to hiccup. Loudly. Moore was staring at Jelaqua, helplessly. And enviously. Seborn looked up at the sky, around at the staring people. He glared and everyone looked away. At last, the [Rogue] growled.

Fine. Shut up. We’ll do it.

“Huh?”

Moore and Jelaqua both looked at him. The [Rogue] looked like he was spitting nails. He nodded at Jelaqua.

We’ll work in the south. Take jobs around Pallass. They have work anywhere we go.

“What? Seborn—”

Jelaqua’s eyes widened. The [Rogue] lifted a finger.

If you sail off on us when we’re working, I will quit. But we’ll take jobs, work from Pallass. We did it once. On two conditions. We’re getting steady work, not taking breaks for your little holidays. And second, we recruit. We try Ulinde out. And we find more teammates and—

Seborn!

Jelaqua tackled him. The [Rogue] vanished with an oath before she could hit the stretcher where he was lying. Jelaqua grabbed him as he reappeared to the left, hugging and kissing him.

“I love you! Thank you, thank you, thank you—

Let go of me you damn idiot!

Moore was beaming and smiling as he tried to hug the [Rogue]. Seborn drew his dagger and both he and Jelaqua let go. Ulinde stared at the three Gold-rank adventurers.

“D-does that mean…?”

She’s not getting a full share of the bounty.

Moore poked Seborn affectionately.

“Shut up. That’s right, Ulinde. You’re a member of the Halfseekers. We’ll try you out and—”

Ulinde’s screech made even the baseball players look up. She threw up her arms.

“I did it! Palt! Montressa! Beza! Did you hear? I’m a Halfseeker!

“Oh.”

Montressa smiled, but she ducked her head and her shoulders sagged. This was how it ended. This was how it began. As Ulinde rushed over, Erin got up.

“Congratulations. Jelaqua?”

The Selphid was smiling fit to burst. Seborn looked irate, but Moore was smiling too.

“I guess we’ll see you on Pallass’ side, Erin. We don’t want to tax your door. But we’ll be around.”

“That’s good. But—who’ll take the door to Invrisil?”

Erin looked at the Halfseekers. Seborn paused.

Right. We left the door.

“We could always finish delivering it. It’s not too far.”

Let’s just hire Hawk to deliver it to Invrisil. We only didn’t do it to save money and because we were going that way.

“Where is he? On delivery? We can take it out of Jelaqua’s share.”

“Hey!”

The debate between the Halfseekers cut off as Ceria walked forwards. She raised a hand.

“I think it’s us.”

“What do you mean, Ceria?”

The half-Elf smiled at Erin. The young woman blinked as the Horns came over. While the Halfseekers had been debating, they’d had their own conversation. Now, Erin looked at her friends. It was Yvlon who began.

“It’s been a while since we finished the dungeon. And we always knew we wanted to go to Invrisil. I mean, we have to, in order to exchange our…”

She looked at the Halfseekers. Seborn nodded.

We have contacts there. We’d have done it already if it wasn’t for someone jumping that Dullahan every time she—

“Hey Seborn? You made your point. I’ll hit you right where the Creler bit you.”

Silence. Ksmvr took up where Yvlon had left off.

“I have never been to Invrisil. But it seems that this city is quite important for Gold-rank adventurers to visit, is that not right, Comrade Pisces?”

“It is certainly one of the major cities of Izril. And it would present us with a chance to update our equipment, purchase new spells—and work.”

The [Necromancer] was looking at Erin. The [Innkeeper] had a blank—perhaps deliberately blank—look in her eyes. Ceria concluded.

“And we’re done here. I mean, I’d love to stay. But we can’t. We need to…go. So if the Halfseekers aren’t going north, we will. We’ll take the door to Invrisil. It’s, what, only a bit away, right? We’ll go through the door, head north. Maybe do some work along the way, but we’ll open the door in Invrisil. And then…”

She looked at Erin. The young woman was looking at Ceria. At the Horns.

“We’ll stop by every chance we get. But we might be away for a while.”

Erin Solstice took the news silently. Mrsha popped up from Lyonette’s arms. She’d stopped crying, but now she began to howl.

“It had to happen someday. And we’re not going to be gone away forever. Erin—”

“No, I get it. But you’ll stay for a bit, right? You need to recover. And we need to have a farewell party! I can—”

Erin stopped. She slowly caught herself and looked around. So did the others.

The Wandering Inn was barely visible from the baseball field at the southern gate. It was to the east, a small building on a hill, past the tall walls of Liscor. Even from afar, Ceria saw how it was broken. The walls caved in. The floors crumbling.

She had seen it broken before, but never this badly. Erin trailed off. There was nowhere for the Horns to stay. Slowly, she looked around.

“You’re going to come back though, right?”

“Of course.”

Ceria realized her eyes were stinging. She tried not to cry. This was silly! They’d always known this day would come. And she wasn’t even leaving yet. It was just her…aura. Conjuring a bit of snow.

That was all. Slowly, Erin looked at her friends. At Ksmvr, pausing, head turning towards the distance, already calculating provisions, supplies, thinking of his team. At Yvlon, feeling at her arms, smiling crookedly. Ceria, trying not to cry and failing as she looked at the young woman. And Pisces. He looked…tired. But happier than when they’d met. He bowed slightly as Erin looked at him.

“Thank you for taking care of a rather wretched fool, Miss Solstice. Erin. But we all must go. We shall come back. That is a promise.”

“Always.”

Ceria sniffed. Erin looked at them. And then she did cry. The last day of spring was a bright one, too bright and warm for tears. But they fell anyways. For good or ill. For that truth of truths.

Everything changes.

 

—-

 

He saw no light of day in his cell. Nor did he see his friends. Calruz the Minotaur could neither move nor stand. But he was alive.

“I’m alive. I’m still alive.”

The Minotaur wept and laughed, uncontrollably. Despair and a fierce relief ran through him. Despite it all! He had hurled himself into the heart of the inn, into death.

And it hadn’t been given to him. He could have died with honor. But they had found him. Erin had. And she’d pulled him back.

Into hell. Into damnation. Calruz saw a little rat scurry over him and nibble at one of his bandages. It fled as he laughed again, hysterically.

“You should have let me die. Why? Why didn’t she? Why didn’t you?

Watch Captain Zevara sat on a little stool across from Calruz. She looked at him.

“I suppose because I’m a cruel person. Because I think you can still earn redemption. Because I don’t want you to die. As for Miss Solstice? She can be cruel.”

Calruz looked at her. The Minotaur laughed again, hoarsely.

“I leveled. I changed my class.”

The [Honorbound Prisoner] stared at the [Watch Captain]. She smiled, slightly. Then she looked past him.

“I can’t change your cell, Calruz. Nor can I pardon you for your crimes. Or prove your guilt or innocence one way or another. Not yet. But I can do what is in my power as Watch Captain. You won’t earn your freedom for risking your life once. Even against Crelers.”

“I just wanted honor. And death.”

The Minotaur whispered. Zevara paused.

“I know. But I can’t give it to you. I still see an innocent person in my cells. One day, I’ll prove it. Until then, I’m sentencing you to hard labor. To—certain death. Should the Watch be in need.”

“Again?”

Something like hope surfaced in the Minotaur’s eyes. Zevara looked at him.

“There’s always something. I can’t offer you anything else.”

“But you’ll let me fight? Let me—face odds like that again?”

“It’s a promise.”

The Drake looked at Calruz. Slowly, the Minotaur sat up. His body screamed. But his soul shouted louder. He looked at Zevara. And he recalled the nature of the Skill he had gained. His new class.

Maybe it was wrong. Or maybe he could believe he’d reclaimed something he thought lost forever. Perhaps it wasn’t for the system to decide. But for a second, Calruz let himself believe. He looked at Zevara and closed his eyes. The Skill burned its name into his mind, louder than the whispers. A promise.

Salvation.

 

[Death Before Dishonor].

 

“Thank you.”

 

—-

 

After a while, Erin stopped crying. She sniffled, wiped at her eyes, and hugged Ceria fiercely. Then Yvlon. Pisces demurred until she squeezed him tight, and he hugged her back, gently.

Ksmvr was last. The Antinium looked at her, and she saw their history together. But she reached for him and he uncertainly spread his arms.

You!

A furious voice broke the peaceful moment. Erin whirled. And she saw a furious person charging at Ksmvr.

Bird. The Worker rammed into Ksmvr, knocking the [Skirmisher] back. But true to his new Skills, Ksmvr just caught himself. He backed up as Bird attacked, all four arms swinging wildly.

“You! It is your fault! You—you bad Ksmvr! Idiot! Fool! All of you!”

He swung his arms wildly, at Yvlon. She raised an arm, but Ksmvr blocked Bird. The [Bird Hunter] flailed at Ksmvr as Erin, startled, cried out.

“Bird! What are you doing?”

Klbkch turned, his hand on his sword as the other Antinium and audience rushed forwards. Bird shouted, furiously snapping his mandibles together as he battered at Ksmvr.

“It is your fault! You should have killed the Crelers and not brought them to the inn! Now the inn is broken! My tower is broken! My tower is always broken!”

The enraged Worker hit Ksmvr with all four arms, slapping him on his back shell and head, battering him. Not hard, like, say, a Soldier might. More like a child throwing a tantrum than deadly force.

Even so, he was smacking Ksmvr on his injuries. Erin rushed over at the same time as Yvlon, Pisces, and Moore.

“Bird, stop that! Stop! Ksmvr didn’t call the Crelers! Stop hitting!”

They gently pried Bird away from the [Skirmisher]. He flailed at them. Then, abruptly, he sat down and curled up. Bird turned into a ball, ducking his head down, immobile. Much like Pawn once had. Erin hesitated.

“Bird?”

“I want my tower. I am sad.”

The Antinium’s voice was small as he curled up. Erin knelt by him as the others drew back. She hugged him.

“Bird—I know you’re upset.”

“I am muchly upset. It is all gone. Why is it all gone?”

Erin looked at her inn. Mrsha began to sniff again, until Lyonette cuddled her. Erin’s voice was very soft. Her own heart hurt too as she stared at the distant inn. It was broken. But it was hers. She looked up at the Horns, standing around her. What mattered.

“Bird, sometimes bad things happen. But do you know what the good thing about the inn being wrecked is?”

“…You do not have to cook?”

Exactly—no. It’s that we can make things better next time. Okay, Bird? Sometimes, things break. But you can make them better. So—so don’t be mad at Ksmvr, alright? It wasn’t his fault. Or anyone’s but the Crelers.”

Bird paused. After a long moment, his head popped back up.

“Oh.”

He looked at Erin. She smiled.

“I know you’re very sad, Bird. So am I. But you should apologize.”

“Yes. I was very angry. But I did the wrong thing. I am sorry I hit you, Ksmvr.”

The Worker turned and looked at Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] hesitated, but then he nodded. Yvlon was checking his bandages.

“I accept your apology, Bird. I have made mistakes as well. I should apologize for them too. Properly.”

He looked past Bird, at Pawn. At the Antinium, who stared at the once-Prognugator. Erin let out her breath in a sigh.

“After all this does anyone else want to pick a fight? Say something sad? Anyone? Now’s the time!”

She looked around. No one did. So, slowly, Erin got up.

“Why don’t we have a bit of fun, then? Come on, there’s baseball! And—and some of us might be going, but this is a celebration! Right?”

“I think it can be now.”

Ceria smiled. She stood with her team. And they smiled. The adventurers looked at the baseball game, at Grimalkin at bat and the outfielders standing deep. And Erin smiled. She laughed, and looked around. At Palt, waiting for a chance to talk to her, Selys, tickling Mrsha, Numbtongue, so relaxed and tired that he was sleeping in the shade.

A perfect moment. Or nearly. The Horns sat back down, and began talking about Invrisil with the Halfseekers. About the future. Some of the adventuring teams opined that they’d like to try baseball themselves. Grimalkin hit a baseball and snapped the bat he was holding like a twig. Ksmvr dove and caught the pop fly.

Even the Wistram [Mages] looked up. Beza took a bat when it was offered and stared at it. Something lit up in her eyes and she took a place in line and practiced a swing. Montressa looked at Pisces, and then turned to stare at the distant mountains, just thinking. Palt surreptitiously edged over to Lyonette, who was counting over the inn’s funds with Belgrade. Apista buzzed overhead as Liscor’s Council played baseball or retired, panting.

It was a perfect day. And summer was oncoming. But for the broken inn on the hill, you might have never known something had occurred. But for the pause sometimes on the faces of the living, a moment of silence, you’d never guess.

Why was it that the inn was such a source of danger? Perhaps it was cursed. Or maybe that was just the fate of inns. They were, after all, places where stories began and continued. The inn sat on the hill. Waiting.

After a while, someone entered it. A young woman. Not really a traveller. She sat down at a table, eying the collapsed second floor, the place where the basement was exposed. A bit of floorboard was hanging above her head—she avoided it, walked around a fallen pillar.

The Crelers were gone. And the inn had been swept, and the blood was mostly off the floors. But it was wrecked. So much so that Erin couldn’t imagine repairing it. That—that was probably a support beam, right? You couldn’t just replace that, surely.

Not even her [Grand Theater] Skill was working anymore. There wasn’t really a room for it to activate in. Erin looked around for a chair and table. Then she slapped her forehead.

“Duh. [Partial Reconstruction].”

She pointed, and a chair and table reassembled for her. Erin tried it on a few more tables and chairs. But it wouldn’t work on the broken floor, or the sagging ceiling in places. And she’d known that. She knew her inn was…

The young woman put her head down on the table and closed her eyes. Her inn was dusty. And she was so tired. She told herself that it didn’t matter. But in truth, it did. Not as much as her friends.

But it did. Who would ever lie about that? This was hers. And it was—breaking. But she would give it up again, a thousand times! In a heartbeat, to save a single one of the people who mattered to her!

Again, and again. In the silence, Erin Solstice closed her eyes. Far, far away, the people played baseball and smiled in the sunlight. But here, the [Innkeeper] closed her eyes. She was so tired. So Erin Solstice relaxed…and…slept…

 

“[Magical Innkeeper Level 40!]

[Conditions Met: Innkeeper → Awesome Innkeeper Class!]

[Skill – Inn: Unlimited Mana Pool obtained!]

[Skill – Kamehameha Punch obtained!] Whoo!

 

Erin burst upright, waving her hands. She looked around wildly. Waiting, hoping for the magical voice.

But nothing came. So the young woman sat back, laughing and shaking her head. She looked up, struck by a thought.

“I wonder if there’s any popcorn left.”

She stood up, turned, and saw him. He stood in the kitchen’s doorway. Still as a statue. He’d been there the entire time, but she’d missed him at first. Now his eyes burned with purple light. The skeleton moved. He grinned as he spread his arms, welcoming her back. Home himself. At last.

Toren.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.66 H

The Creler spoke to Yvlon. As the thousands poured across the landscape, as the giant adult crawled forwards, surrounded by its kin, she heard it speak.

Not in words. But she heard it nonetheless. It spoke in the same language as Skinner, when she had beheld the creature in Liscor’s crypt. When she had fled, and her team and her dreams had died in darkness. But this thing was beyond even Skinner. It was more than just mindless destruction. It thought. It gloated.

Yvlon turned her head as she ran. And she felt the Creler’s amusement at all that had come before it. The useless bloodshed and hatred. It exposed her flaws with its magnificent, terrible, simple evil. Everything paled beside it.

Look at me, it laughed. Look, and see how petty your squabbles are. How futile your hopes and dreams. I am the end of all things. I shall consume the world and leave naught behind. I am your death.

“The door.”

Someone panted. Yvlon turned her head and saw the Silver-rank teams. They were making for the door to Erin’s inn. Behind them, the tide of Crelers spread out, some pausing to devour plants, the Bloodfields, the rest coming on. And the adventurers, monster slayers, fled.

They ran. Adventurers. Men and women. Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. Mortal souls, fleeing a real monster. She couldn’t blame them.

But they’d never make it. The door was closed. Yvlon saw the scrum around it, people desperately pounding on the door.

[Message] spell! Tell Erin to open the door!

Ceria screamed at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] tried.

“The Mage’s Guild—there’s no one at the inn! I’m trying, but no one’s near the inn.

Panting. Her breath caught in her lungs as her arms pumped. She was slowing, unconsciously. Yvlon turned her head again, measuring. The Crelers could outrun a horse over time. The smaller ones. And they were overtaking the slower adventurers. The door wasn’t open.

“We’ll never make it.”

Yvlon heard the distant voice. She saw Stan, looking back, seeing what she did. The Crelers would catch them before they got to the closed door.

In that moment, Yvlon saw both past and future. She remembered a horde of undead. She saw the Crelers advancing. She turned her head and saw the Silver Spears. Her team, falling, fleeing, fighting and running.

She saw Isceil stumble. His right arm was gone below the elbow. The adult Creler had torn it away. Spat something. Beza seized Isceil.

Keep going. Keep—

Yvlon slowed. She saw Stan look back at her. The old man wavered.

Yvlon.

“Go.”

The [Wounded Warrior] felt dreamy. Her head was light. But she was also focused. She drew her sword and turned. Around her, adventurers were slowing. They had the same thought.

Horns of Hammerad! Stand and fight!

Ceria turned. Ksmvr was already running backwards, his bow drawn, the Flamecoat Dagger in his off-hand. Montressa looked backwards, eyes wide. Beza stumbled as her head turned and Isceil looked up. The Wistram [Mages] turned back, staring.

For a moment, Yvlon thought they were alone. She looked around, her pulse drowning out voices, the sounds of the advancing Crelers.

“Pisces…?”

He was still running. His [Flash Steps] carried him across the ground, faster than anyone else. He looked back, seeing his teammates stopping. Yvlon turned her head and met his eyes.

“Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] hesitated. He looked at the distant door, and then he whirled. He came back. And he wasn’t the only one.

“We’ll hold for one minute. Just a minute.”

Ceria whispered. Yvlon looked at her silently and the half-Elf met her eyes. They had a debt to pay, the two of them. It was fitting. But they couldn’t do it alone.

A running figure turned back. Captain Stan whirled. He shouted as he drew two crossbows and fired.

Boltspitters, hold the line!

His team slowed. Two ran on, but the rest came back. Alais’ team slowed. The [Aeromancer] raised her staff.

Thunder’s Solace, to me!

More adventurers were stopping. There was no wild bravery in it. They’d just made the simple calculation that Yvlon had. Someone had to stay.

The Crelers screamed as they came. Yvlon saw a rank of men wearing armor surge back towards her. Walt, his face white, his mace raised, raised his shield. He bellowed.

“The Ensoldier Shields stand here! We stand here!

They came. All of them. Tommie, Belt—Yvlon saw them look at her and nod. Someone roared.

More. The rest were still running. Captain Kam, horseless, turned. She cried out.

“Whistling Bows—”

Gone. They’d left her behind. So the [Bow Rider] advanced alone, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the others. She drew an arrow and loosed it, drew another one, her hands moving in a blur. Yvlon saw a single Creler stumble, fall into the roiling mass coming towards her.

They’re staying? Are they mad?

Beza slowed. Palt, Ulinde, Montressa—they looked back. The Centaur was incredulous. Montressa stared back at Pisces. But Isceil turned back.

Isceil!

The Drake shook off her hand as she grabbed at him. He stared down at the stump leaking blood. He looked at her.

“Let go of me, Montressa. I have to stay. We have to stay.”

“Madness. There’s no stopping that.”

Beza looked at the adult. It was so big. And the other Crelers—the Minotauress wavered, looking at the closed door. But Isceil walked forwards. He pointed his other claw and fire erupted in a line, burning towards the Crelers. He looked back.

“Go, if you want. But Drakes do not run. Drakes do not run!

He came forwards. The [Mages] stopped. Then they followed Isceil. It was that or run. Such an easy choice. And yet—

More teams turned. Yvlon didn’t even know their names. But the Drakes and Gnolls set themselves next to Humans. And Yvlon looked at them. She saw a Drake with wildflower reds and yellows on her scales, aiming a crossbow.

A Gnoll with short-cropped fur, dyed black across half his head, lifting an axe. As Yvlon’s gaze passed over them in a fraction of a second, it felt like forever. She met a Gnoll captain’s eyes and he lifted a paw. She nodded to him.

“Barriers, there and there! They’ll cover us! Break them up—stagger the lines! Enchanted armor and line-holders to the front!”

Stan pointed, bellowing. The adventurers moved. The line in the grass grew, spreading out, forming two ranks. It became a formation, a half-circle. Yvlon was on the outmost edge. She saw walls of ice raising around her, creating shields to her sides.

“[Shield Wall Formation]!”

Walt’s team formed a single line to her left, shields raised. Another adventurer planted a tower shield in the ground.

“[Tower Guard’s Bulwark].”

Adventurers in lighter armor took the second ranks. The third rank stood behind barriers. Seconds. They had seconds. The Crelers were making for the spot of defiance.

“Hold. Hold the lines. If they swarm you, you’re dead! Potions don’t work if they poison—”

Stan was shouting, but Yvlon didn’t hear anymore. She waited. Arrows and spells flew over her head, disappearing among the first wave of Crelers. It didn’t seem to make a difference.

One last look back. To her left, to her right. Adventurers met her gaze in that moment that dragged into eternity. Familiar faces and strange ones. She would remember them for the rest of her life. Yvlon saluted with her sword and raised it.

“Silver and steel.”

She looked for her team. Pisces was standing next to Ceria. He raised a hand and she saw black magic strike a Creler. It collapsed, dead. Ceria was still pulling ice from the ground. She didn’t see Yvlon.

But an Antinium stood at her back. The Human woman looked and saw Ksmvr. He had let go of his bow. Now, the Forceshield was in his hand, a shortsword and the dagger in the other. He looked at her.

“You must not die. My team must not. Run away, Yvlon. Please?”

She looked at him. And she wanted to tell him…but there was no time. The Crelers were sixty feet away. Fifty.

She hugged him and kissed him on his cold cheek once. Then they turned. Ksmvr fell back.

Yvlon turned. The larval shapes leapt. She swung her sword and the adventurers met the Crelers. Yvlon’s enchanted blade slashed through two Crelers. Dozens crashed into the ice walls surrounding her. More flooded past her, trying to surround her. They raced up her armor, biting, tearing—the enchanted metal held.

Break them apart! Don’t let them swarm you! Hold the mage-barriers!

The [Wounded Warrior] swung her sword, cleaving three in half. She shouted as the ground exploded around her. Arrows pierced the Crelers. Shards of ice struck Yvlon’s armor, blasting Crelers off them as they raced for her head. She saw a huge shape, swung.

The juvenile Creler charging at her recoiled as the magical blade shattered part of its carapace. It tried to rear up and cover Yvlon. Ksmvr leapt forwards. His Forceshield took the impact. The Antinium stabbed with his dagger and the huge Creler burst into flames. Yvlon swung her sword low, cutting Crelers down. She saw an [Ice Wall] rising, cutting off the wave. Yvlon charged left, towards another gap.

Magic and steel. The first wave of Crelers were funneled into gaps, and the adventurers cut them apart. Yvlon saw a Drake falling as she screamed, six Crelers digging into her leather armor. The Gnolls with her ran back as the Crelers poured through a gap. The [Wounded Warrior] ran towards it.

Fire and lightning. Yvlon saw a tempest of fire and electricity flash past her. The Crelers, the dead Drake, all vanished. A gap appeared in the wave of oncoming Crelers. Isceil exhaled. And Crelers died. He turned, and the magical breath swept the ranks of Crelers. Palt and Ulinde stood with him, linked.

Burn! I’ll burn you all the way back to the blighted lands!

The Drake screamed. The adventurers looked up. Ceria pointed.

“[Fireball].”

“[Lightning Bolt].”

The [Mages] were casting magic. Alais’ spell blasted Crelers back as the warriors cut Crelers apart, refusing to give. Yvlon saw Walt blocking a huge Creler tearing at his armor and shield. She lifted her sword and brought it down. The chitin covering the Creler cracked. Orange blood ran from its innards. Yvlon swung again and her heavy Sword of Weight crushed the thing’s head. It still tried to move, but Walt shoved it back.

“We can do it! Hold! Hold!

He called at his team. Yvlon saw a glow of magic as Montressa raised her staff.

“[Five-fold Arcane Barrier].”

The [Aegiscaster] was blocking nearly fifty feet by herself. Her glowing shields kept back the black shapes, the glowing forms pressed up against her barrier. Her staff glowed as the brass orb spat lightning. Yvlon felt her heard surge. She turned—

And she felt it laughing.

The adult. It had stopped as the adventurers halted the first wave of Crelers. Now, the house-sized Creler opened its—mouth? The maw gaped, revealing orange light as tearing mandibles and incisors parted. It spat, straight at the adventurers. At Isceil, burning the Crelers down by the dozens with each second.

The same thing that had taken his arm. Now, Yvlon saw what it was. Pieces of its own body. Shards, like Ceria’s [Ice Spike] spell, but dozens of them. Faster than an arrow. Shell or bone or—the barrier protecting Isceil shattered. Montressa screamed. She planted her staff, desperately reforming the spell.

Hold that barrier! Hold it!

Stan shouted as he reloaded his crossbows. He looked up. The adventurers dove. Isceil turned. He saw the adult opening its mouth wider, aiming—

The second volley tore him apart. Or it should have. The Drake vanished. Palt’s illusion disappeared and Isceil appeared to the left. He roared, throwing a [Fireball] at the adult. The flames burst uselessly on the thing’s head.

“It’s useless! It can’t be hurt by pure magic! [Stone Spear]!”

Beza bellowed. The Minotauress raced forwards, and her hand found Caddin’s back. The [Spellscribe] read from the scrolls of parchment in her hand.

“[Stone Skin]. [Haste].”

Caddin glowed for a second. Then he parried a Creler leaping at him, knocking it down. Another tried to tear at his wooden armor. But his skin resisted the cuts! He became a blur and Beza ran past him. The Minotauress stomped a Creler flat. She touched the Ensoldier Shields as Yvlon and Ksmvr tore at the Crelers trying to cover them.

Walt’s armor was failing. The thick steel was being cut by claws. Beza placed a hand on his back.

“[Lion’s Strength]!”

Walt’s eyes went wide. He raised his mace and brought it down with a roar. A Creler turned to paste. Yvlon felt a touch on her arm.

“[Haste].”

The [Wounded Warrior] blurred. Her sword cut two Crelers apart mid-leap. Yvlon advanced, cutting everything apart in a whirlwind of steel. Ksmvr looked around hopefully, but Beza was running past him, towards another breach. The Minotauress’ scrolls, her fortune, spilled from her pouch.

Every coin. Every moment used, to buy another second. By Isceil, Ulinde was casting with both wands. She was throwing [Fireballs] as fast as she could point her wands. The [Spellslinger]’s spells halted a section of the waves of Crelers for a second. Then two. Then five. Then she faltered and the rest charged through the burning ground, over the bodies of their comrades.

But they were stopping. Ceria shouted triumphantly. She and Pisces were throwing spells as a Bone Horror held one of the gaps. The Warbear tore at the Crelers, who bit at the bones, trying to get past it.

“[Deathbolt]. Ceria, there—”

Pisces pointed. Ceria saw adventurers falling back, overwhelmed. She pointed.

“[Ice Wall]!”

She froze a group of Crelers in place, the [Ice Wall] spell engulfing the smaller ones. But the Crelers began heating up, melting through the magical ice. But it slowed them.

Hold! Boltspitters, there! [Volley Fire]!

Stan’s crossbows shot as his team shot around another group of adventurers. They were falling. Ceria saw another Human go down, his chest laid open. A Junior Creler raced over him. Isceil blasted it with frost. He gasped, his breath rattling in his chest.

“Just another minute! We’re holding them back! We’re—”

Ceria looked over her shoulder. The half-Elf froze.

The door still wasn’t open. More Crelers were advancing at the group of adventurers and workers around the door. Ceria saw them fighting there. She looked around.

“The door—Erin—”

Across the ground, the adult Creler charged. It surged for the adventurers. Montressa du Valeross looked up. She raised her staff.

“[Fivefold—

The adult hit the layered wards with an impact that tore the air. Adventurers looked up. They saw the magic flicker. For a second it held. Then two.

And then the magical barriers splintered. The adult tore through the lines, breaking Ceria’s [Ice Walls]. It was headed for one figure.

Isceil. The Drake stared up at the adult as the lesser Crelers poured through the gaps after it. The adult Creler descended on Isceil. The Drake breathed flames once, roaring his defiance—countless limbs tore him to pieces.

No!

Ulinde blasted the adult with [Fireballs]. Rays of magic shot from her wands, slicing through the air. The adult turned. Scythes cut at the Selphid. It spat, and a group of Gnolls vanished.

The adventurers looked up. They saw the giant Creler turning, tearing apart the barriers protecting them. The adventurers fell back. Their formation broke.

Horns, to me! To me!

Yvlon ran, hearing Ceria’s voice. Scuttling shapes raced around her, biting, hounding the adventurers. The adult was turning, searching for a new target. It tore the lines of adventures in half. Yvlon saw it fix on a new target.

A gleaming wall of ice rose. The Creler smashed through it. But more ice was rising. Ceria Springwalker stood on a bluff amid the mud and grass. She was making a fortress of ice, as the adventurers tried to hold the gaps funneling the Crelers.

Fall back! Fall back!

Another voice. A weak, shimmering barrier was holding back Crelers opposite the walls of ice. Montressa and the three Wistram [Mages] were protecting the other group of adventurers retreating towards the door. Crelers encircled both positions. Now, they overran both sides, advancing as the adventurers tried to hold them off another second.

And the adult watched. It was laughing. Yvlon was certain.

“You. You have to die.”

The [Wounded Warrior] whispered. She saw adventurers loosing arrows. A [Piercing Shot] from Kam’s bow shattered on the Creler’s armor. The adult was too strong. Too tough.

Even the smaller ones. Yvlon saw Walt’s team trying to batter down a junior Creler, the thick plates covering the Creler shrugging off the [Warrior]’s blows. Yvlon ran forwards. She gripped her sword, brought it up and down.

The Creler’s armor cracked. The junior Creler collapsed under the weight of the blow. Yvlon’s enchanted sword shone as Walt’s team attacked the spot where she’d broken the Creler’s armor. Yvlon whirled. Her sword cleaved through one of the smaller Crelers. She stared at it.

At the adult. Yvlon began to run. She didn’t hear Walt screaming at her to get back. She didn’t see Ksmvr running after her, leaping into a wall of Crelers, slashing.

Someone had to kill it. The adult was gloating, confident in its armor. It noticed Yvlon as she surged through the Crelers.

Cover her!

Ceria screamed. Stan pointed and his team loosed their crossbows. On the other side, Ulinde threw spells from her one remaining wand. Pisces pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

The magic struck the adult Creler as it aimed its jaws at Ceria, lazily. The Creler jerked. It aimed up and Ceria and Pisces dove. The top of the ice fortress vanished as the projectiles tore it apart. And Yvlon reached the Creler’s head.

It looked down at her. Sunken eyes—dozens of them—gleamed at her. The entire thing was armor. It had no weak underbelly, no gaps. But it had a head. The [Wounded Warrior] shouted as she ducked under one of the adult’s limbs, slashing at her.

There. She aimed for a smooth section just past the eye. The head. Her Sword of Weight cut the air. Yvlon swung her blade with all her strength.

It could do it. It was a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer. The blade struck the thick armor across the Creler’s head.

And rebounded.

Yvlon felt the ringing impact. She stared down at the blade as it shivered and bounced off the Creler’s head. The adult turned. Long limbs stretched out, thin, sharper than steel.

Yvlon Byres swung again. Harder. Her reinforced arms brought the blade up. Slashing down. It struck.

Cut away a sliver! Crack! Yvlon screamed. But the blade just rebounded. Yvlon stared down at it.

An enchanted weapon. A powerful artifact taken from Albez.

Magic, nonetheless. It failed to break the adult’s carapace on the second swing. Then the third.

Yvlon, move!

Ceria screamed, but the [Wounded Warrior] was transfixed. She swung her sword, hitting the same spot. And the adult looked down at her. Yvlon stared up as the creature moved, hundreds of segments shifting, sunken eyes staring. Laughing with hideous glee.

She swung again. And she saw a flash of movement. A cutting limb. She twisted. Felt something touch—her—

Yvlon looked down. Her right arm was gone. Ceria screamed as the [Wounded Warrior] staggered backwards. Another slashing limb came for her face—Ksmvr leapt and blocked it with his shield. It threw him through the air.

“My arm.”

Yvlon looked around for it. She laughed as she saw the perfect cut just below her shoulder. The cut had gone through her arm, into her enchanted breastplate. Just like that. She giggled, helplessly.

“That was so easy. Why didn’t someone do it earlier?”

She sank to her knees as the Crelers laughed and swarmed around her. Looking around vaguely for her sword. Crelers bit at her. Blood ran from her shoulder. And the adult laughed. Yvlon wanted to laugh too. At the bitterness, the helplessness, the unfair nature of it all. And her arm—she saw it on the ground, still holding the hilt of her sword. She looked down at the blood covering her armor.

Funny. It was so terribly funny. Even now, she didn’t feel a thing.

 

—-

 

“They will not bring it down.”

Az’kerash, the Necromancer, spoke coldly. He watched the battle through the scrying spell, through Ijvani’s eyes. He watched as Pisces whirled, blasting another Creler with a [Deathbolt] spell. The [Necromancer] frantically pointed and the Bone Horror rose again, snapping, the bear heads biting.

But it was third time the Bone Horror had been animated. And the Crelers swarmed over it, biting through bone.

And the door was still not open. Now, the workers and adventurers were fighting Crelers too. Az’kerash watched. It had been eight minutes.

Eight minutes, and the adult Creler had torn the adventurers apart. Lazily, it surged forwards, ramming into the ice barriers Ceria had conjured. The ice fortress held as adventurers fought the smaller Crelers. But the adult—it turned, shot more projectiles. Montressa’s barrier held again.

Arrogance. The Creler was just toying with the adventurers. It feasted on their suffering, letting the offspring do the killing. Az’kerash stared down at the adult. If it had one flaw, it was that. The arrogance of power. Intelligence beyond savage hunger.

And yet—the Necromancer spoke curtly.

“They cannot defeat it with magic alone. Adult Crelers are the death of everything. And yet it can be done. If they had warhammers, if they surrounded it. But there are too many larval-stage Crelers and juvenile-stage ones.”

Master? What should I do?

Ijvani’s voice came through his mental link with his Chosen. The skeleton was nervous. This had not been planned. But her master was calm. He ignored Ijvani, appraising the battle. His eyes fell on Yvlon.

She was grabbing at her sword, lost. Shell-shocked. He saw her blood running onto the ground. The adult had ignored Yvlon after cutting her arm off. And baby Crelers were swarming around her. They would have killed the blonde-haired warrior. But a shape danced around her.

Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] slashed, his shield raised. His shortsword ran through Crelers, his dagger set others on fire. They covered him, biting, tearing at the Antinium. But his carapace was thick. His Ring of Barkskin made his body stronger.

But they were eating him. And yet, the Antinium never stopped. He tore Crelers off his body as he protected Yvlon. Az’kerash watched.

Antinium. A Prognugator? None of his artifacts can hurt the adult. But that sword—no. The [Warrior] has lost her arm. The adult is too powerful. Too cunning. It will let nothing break its armor. These adventurers cannot stop it. The only logical choice is to flee.”

He looked back at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was gasping. His [Deathbolt] spells were killing Crelers, but there were hundreds for every one Pisces brought down. His head was turning. Az’kerash nodded.

“Ijvani, wait for Pisces to retreat.”

Master?

“The adventurers are breaking.”

The Necromancer’s voice was blank. He looked down, watching the adult pause. Contempt. It ran through both beings, Necromancer and Creler. And he had it for all he beheld. But his eyes flicked back to Pisces. Then to Montressa and the remaining Wistram [Mages] slowly retreating away from the bastion made of ice. His lip curled into a sneer.

“They are just adventurers. They will flee. So will Wistram’s [Mages]. Those not blinded by pride. You will unleash your magic then, to cover Pisces’ retreat. Raise physical barrier spells such as [Wall of Stone] to impede the adult. Do not use [Blackfire Fireball] on the adult directly; it will negate the majority of the spell. Prepare personal protective wards to cast on the young [Necromancer].”

Yes, Master.

The Necromancer turned. He shook his head, watching as some of the adventurers began to run, fleeing towards the door. It was still not open.

“They will run. And betray each other, before the end. It is what they do.”

Who, Master?

Az’kerash sighed. He closed his eyes, bitterly.

“Everyone.”

 

—-

 

Isceil was dead. Just like that. In a moment. The thing had seized him up, broken her barriers. Broken magic, all her years of craft in a second.

It wasn’t fair. Montressa was sobbing. Tears ran from her eyes as she raised more magical wards. [Forcewalls], [Barriers of Air], [Stone Spires]—anything to keep the Crelers back.

But the adult just spat and tore, and her protections broke. The [Aegiscaster] screamed as they tore, taking parts of her with it. The backlash hit her. She felt the mana in her veins revolt—

Montressa! You have to keep the spells up!

Palt shouted at her. The Centaur put a hand on her shoulder, and stabilized her through their link. Magic rushed through Montressa. She planted her staff and another layer of gold magic appeared. Montressa aimed at the adult and screamed.

[Lighting Bolt]!

The brass orb flashed, discharging its battery of power. The adult paused as lightning struck its body, deflecting. Dissipating.

Stop aiming at it!

The Centaur turned, pointing his fingers. A rain of arrows made of light struck Crelers advancing from the left. Montressa saw Ulinde, fighting alongside Beza. The Selphid had lost her left shoulder and arm. Crelers had eaten part of her face, but the [Spellslinger] was still fighting. Beza was crushing Crelers, tearing them off her, the last of her scrolls flashing as she used them.

“[Stone Spear]! [Acid Orb]!”

Spells flashed around the [Mages]. Adventurers were fighting, still. But the adult was unharmed. It opened its jaws and—Montressa saw her barrier break. A man looked down at the jagged spike impaling his stomach and began screaming. White-faced, Montressa raised her staff. Palt shouted at her.

“Another barrier—Montressa!

It wasn’t fair. Why could something like this exist? Montressa stared at the walls of ice still rising. She saw Ceria pointing her wand. Adventurers fought at her position, holding back Crelers swarming around the base of the walls of ice, climbing, being thrown back.

Their forces were cut in two. Half were nearer to the door and the fighting around it. The other half was protected by Ceria’s ice walls, fighting in the center of the Creler mass. Montressa looked over her shoulder.

“The door! Why isn’t it open?

“Montressa, we’ll give you our mana! Keep up your barriers!”

Palt gripped Montressa, bringing her back into reality. Her wards were the only thing keeping the Crelers back from their position. She tried again. But then, Montressa saw a flicker of white. She turned.

A Bone Horror was tearing left, towards her position. It was throwing Crelers off it, but the burning eyes were looking towards her. Right at her.

Montressa froze.

“No, no, no—

She jerked. Palt looked around.

“Montressa, what—it’s just an undead! No! Montressa!

The magical walls protecting them disappeared. Montressa’s focus vanished. Ulinde screamed as Crelers covered her, passing through the vanishing walls of magic. Beza grabbed for her and a juvenile Creler knocked her off her feet. The Minotauress screamed.

No!

The undead filled Montressa’s sight. Palt cursed at Montressa. But the young woman was panicking. She let go of her staff. Tried to run.

Montressa!

The Centaur fanned his fingers, pointed. Smoke and mist covered the adventurers and [Mages] and the Crelers lost track of them for a second. But the illusion lasted only a moment. There were too many and they were too—foreign—the Centaur gasped.

“Montressa, come back—”

She was fleeing from the Bone Horror. Crying like a child again. Even now. Palt swore at her then. He cursed her as Crelers raced at him, looking for Ulinde and Beza.

“Damn you.”

He tried to reach her. But Montressa had stumbled towards the Crelers, mindless. She saw them too late and flung up her arms. She screamed as they bit—

A rapier stabbed one of the Crelers into the ground. Pisces let go of it, pointing.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].

The death magic struck two Crelers, sending them backwards, limbs curling upwards. Pisces grabbed Montressa, flickered—he reappeared behind Palt.

[Flash Step]. The Centaur jerked. He saw an adventurer throw three Tripvine Bags. Another swung his axe.

“[Whirlwind Cleave]!”

For a moment, the Crelers fell back. Montressa was still screaming, crying. Pisces looked down as she flailed at him. He shook her as Palt grabbed the fallen staff. The Bone Horror rose behind him, holding the Crelers back and Montressa froze.

Montressa! Mons!

“No! Monster! Monster!

Montressa was incoherent. Pisces shook her harder. The [Necromancer] hesitated. Palt was raising a hand to slap Montressa. He saw Pisces reach out. And he took Montressa’s hand.

It was the first time they’d touched since Wistram. Montressa jerked, filled with panic. Then she looked up at Pisces. The fear filling her vanished. Palt whispered a [Calm] spell, but it was Pisces who held Montressa’s hand. With the other, he pointed. The second Bone Horror rose, whip-like arms slashing at the Crelers. Pisces looked at Montressa.

“You fool. There are worse monsters than me.”

They looked at each other. Then Montressa grabbed her staff. She raised it, and the magical shields appeared again. Just in time.

Too late. Palt galloped towards Ulinde. The Selphid’s body was jerking, but the Crelers had eaten her face, parts of her legs and torso—Beza tore a Creler loose from her arm. She reached for a potion and drank it. She stared down at the holes in her body.

“Poison.”

Despair filled her tone. She sank as Pisces covered them. Palt dragged his friends back. He turned his head.

“We can’t hold out any longer. The poison—”

The Creler’s poison was eating away at the adventurers. They were drinking stamina potions and healing potions, but both were failing as the poison worked its way into their blood. Only a few were unharmed. The rest couldn’t heal.

“We’re going to die.”

Ulinde spoke quietly. Palt knelt next to her. He dragged her onto his back.

“No. No, we’ll live. We’ll—”

His head jerked up. He looked at something. From her position next to Ceria, Kam lowered her bow for a second. The [Bow Rider]’s bleeding fingers dropped an arrow and she pointed.

Look!

Ceria turned. Her eyes went wide. The half-Elf gaped. Then she realized the huge, flying shapes coming at them weren’t flying Crelers. No—they were—

Moths! Dead gods! Take cover!

The half-Elf’s voice was filled with despair. But Stan was laughing. She didn’t understand why. Then she saw the moths descending. The red tide of Crelers turned as the moths flew down at them, biting, shrieking.

Face-Eater Moths. There must have been another colony in the foothills. They came at the Crelers in a mindless rage, and the Crelers were attacking them. The adult whirled and its wings fanned. It leapt and the adventurers ducked. The adult’s wings fanned the air and the wind blasted the adventurers flat like a spell as it flew, straight into the Face-Eater moth clouds.

The Face-Eater Moths darted at it. The adult Creler cut them apart, and the moths scattered. One shot past Ceria and the [Cryomancer] raised her wand. But the moth just tore at a Creler, biting at it with its razor-mouth.

“How—”

“They hate Crelers! This is our chance!”

Stan was laughing in delight. He pointed and Ceria saw. The wave of Crelers that had gone after the adventurers was splintering, dividing. The Crelers were doubling back, tearing into the Bloodfields, eating the grass, the insects, the Blood Slimes—and everything else. They brought down a Watchertree, ignoring the stabbing roots that killed scores of them.

But everything was attacking the Crelers. Moths, the Bloodfields—everything. The things from Rhir were everything’s foe. Insect-beds in the Bloodfields erupted and the small, vicious insects were torn to shreds as they swarmed over the larger Crelers. Even the floods of insects were of this world. Part of it, destined to die and become food in time. But Crelers were not.

“We can do it. Regroup! Get to Montressa’s side! Around the door!”

The half-Elf was laughing. She pointed. As the press of Crelers cleared up, the Ensoldier Shields, Thunder’s Solace, the other adventurers broke from the icy fortress, making a dash for it. Ceria saw a shape amid the fighting.

“Ksmvr!”

He was supporting someone. Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] was holding her arm. Ksmvr let go of her, raising his shield, as Ceria slid down the ice walls, towards him. Stan shouted something.

Ceria! Watch out, it’s coming back!

“What? What is—”

Ceria looked up and saw the adult Creler flying at them. It was roaring. The half-Elf saw the remains of the Face-Eater moth swarm. She saw its maw open—a flash—

Ahead of her, Kam disappeared. The [Bow Rider] vanished in a plume of dirt. Ceria stared in blank shock.

“Kam? K—

The adult Creler landed. It turned, aiming again.

A second spray. Ksmvr’s Forceshield caught part of it. Ice shattered around Ceria. She felt something tug at her side. Looked down and saw the ice shrapnel in her side, the torn robes. Saw the blood beginning to stain her clothing.

“Ow.”

“Bring it down! Kill it! Everyone, together!

Stan bellowed desperately. The adult slashed towards him. Belt raised his shield—a leg went through it and his body like a spear. Walt howled, attacking the leg—it knocked him flying. The adult Creler bit an adventurer in half.

Kill it!

“Acid jar! Take cover!”

A Drake pulled out a glowing jar of green acid. Ceria fumbled for a potion, drinking it. The adult Creler turned as the Drake threw. It spat—everything above the Drake’s torso vanished. But the jar of acid flew.

The glowing green jar hit the Creler across the head. The burning acid covered the chitinous armor and Ceria cheered as smoke rose—

The Creler shook itself and the spray of acid flew, covering the ground, adventurers, other Crelers. It clawed at the place where it was struck, then paused. The acid smoked on its armor. And then the smoke stopped. Dully, Ceria stared at the adult.

“Even that?”

“There’s no way to kill it. We can’t get through its armor.”

Stan’s voice was shaking. The [Crossbowman] looked around. The adventurers looked at each other. Tommie spoke.

“From the inside, then. We get inside and hack its guts out. That’s the only way.”

The man lifted his sword. His shield-arm was torn to pieces, and his shield had been ripped apart by Creler’s jaws. Ceria stared at him.

“Tommie, no! That’s insane!”

The Human man looked at Ceria, and then Yvlon and Ksmvr. He nodded to them.

“I owe you one. Belt, cover me.”

The [Warrior] turned. His friend grabbed his axe. Walt shouted, but the two Ensoldier Shields charged. The adult was cutting down another Silver-rank team.

Tommie!

Ceria shouted. She raised her wand and a wall of ice shot upwards, blocking Crelers swarming from the side. Belt raised his shield.

“[Target Shield]!”

The Creler’s head turned. It loosed another salvo. Belt vanished. Tommie ran on. He screamed, charging at the Creler. It reared up, and Ceria saw Tommie plant his feet.

“[Armored Leap]!”

He flew. Ksmvr looked up as Tommie jumped as high as he did. The man was aiming at the adult’s mouth. Ceria stared. He was going to make it. He was going to do it!

The adult Creler’s mouth was open, preparing to loose more deadly projectiles Tommie grabbed the edge, tried to drag himself in. The Creler had no teeth. But it had rows of—

Multiple incisors hacked at the man. Tommie screamed, but he had a potion bottle in his mouth. He pulled himself into the mouth as his armor was torn to shreds. Trying to get into the guts. He was screaming, his sword in one hand. The adult shook its head, trying to throw Tommie out. But he was climbing in.

“Dead gods.”

An orange glow. Something moved in the adult’s mouth. Tommie looked up and his snarling face went slack for a moment. And then Ceria saw them too.

Baby Crelers. They poured out of the adult’s mouth, climbing out of the thing’s stomach. Tommie never had a chance to let go. They covered him and the [Warrior] shouted once. A forlorn, lost sound.

If only. The adult shook the body off it, disgorging more Crelers from inside itself. Ceria saw the wriggling Crelers cover the motionless corpse as it fell and looked up.

Walt screamed. He charged the adult and his team bashed at the thing’s side. But the Creler just slashed out and Walt stumbled back, his armor and flesh torn to the bone. It turned to regard them and Ceria braced. But the adult just waited as the smaller Crelers swarmed over the adventurers.

It was enjoying this.

Crelers swarmed past the adult, larvae, hungry, tearing at the exhausted warriors. Caddin collapsed, trying to claw the Creler burrowing into his neck. Alais reached for him as she lifted her staff.

Caddin!

She lost her focus. The bolt of lightning caught the group of Crelers and Walt. The man screamed and dropped his shield. Alais paled.

“No. I didn’t—”

They were splintering. Ceria looked for help. Someone had to be coming. Seborn, Moore, Grimalkin—

Erin?

She heard a distant cry and looked up. At last! At last—

“The door’s open! It’s open at last!”

Ceria’s face went slack. She saw the crowd around the door pouring through. The Crelers surrounding them advanced wildly as the workers poured through. The Silver-rank teams fought, trying to get to the door. The adult Creler whirled, sensing its prey disappearing.

“It just opened now? But we’ve been fighting for—”

A lifetime. Ceria waited for someone to come charging out. But the waves of Crelers followed the adventurers and workers in. And—the other teams looked at the door and the Crelers as all of them, all of them, began swarming for the door. Ceria saw Stan looking at her. Across the ground, Montressa’s barriers winked out. Palt turned. Pisces, panting, looked at the door.

They began to flee. The adventurers closest to the door fought to get in, falling as the Crelers attacked from behind. It was so far from where Ceria was.

Go! We’ll cover you!

The [Ice Mage] pointed her wand. More walls of ice. Her body was freezing with too many ice spells. She looked around.

“Stan! Get out of here! You have children!”

The old adventurer looked at her. Across the ground, Palt galloped forwards, out of the lines of Crelers, his entire body aflame. Crelers dropped off him and the Selphid. What remained of her.

 

“Montressa! Get on my back! Beza!

The Minotauress wasn’t able to stand. The poison was dripping from her wounds. The Minotauress tried to argue. But Palt just yanked her onto his back. The Minotauress grabbed at her belt.

“Take—take—”

The scrolls tumbled out of her grip. Pisces couldn’t reach for them. He was conjuring more undead. He looked around.

“Montressa?”

She hesitated. She looked at Pisces. Palt grabbed at her.

Come on!

“I have to—you can’t get away without me.”

The [Aegiscaster] was holding her barrier, preventing the Crelers from getting past her. Palt looked at her. He was swaying, trying to carry Ulinde, himself, and Beza’s weight. He gritted his teeth, looking at Pisces.

“I can’t carry her too. Beza, [Lion’s Strength]! Where is your sc—”

One of Montressa’s barriers failed. Crelers poured forwards. Pisces pointed. The Warbear charged into the gap. He looked back.

Go!

Palt met his eyes. The [Illusionist] turned.

“I’m sorry.”

He galloped away, Beza on his back, Ulinde clinging to him. The other adventurers around them fled, leaving only Pisces and Montressa. Her barriers flickered. Failing.

Stan.

Ceria saw Palt running, galloping as the Crelers flooded the doorway. She turned to Crossbow Stan. He looked at her. The Boltspitters were running. Ceria looked at him, putting all the magic she had into creating a wall of ice, shielding their escape.

She tried to think of something to say. But then the old adventurer turned without a word. She thought she heard his voice, but it was lost. The half-Elf whirled. Another wall of ice blocked a charging group of Crelers.

The other adventurers were abandoning their positions. Only those who couldn’t run remained. Ceria looked around desperately.

“They’re climbing over the ice walls! Get to the door!

“My arm—where’s Pisces? He can fix—”

Yvlon looked at her severed arm. Ksmvr had drawn his blades. They couldn’t run. So Ceria watched as the last adventurers ran.

Palt made it. The Centaur fled through the doorway, through the Crelers, a magical shield knocking them aside. And the rest were pouring through the doorway. They turned, as the adventurers tried to make it to the doorway.

They failed.

The Crelers poured around them, cutting them off. They were inside the inn. Ceria screamed, shouting at them to come back. But the shards of ice couldn’t stop the Crelers. She saw Stan turning, firing his last loaded crossbow. He reached for another and found none. The other adventurers kept running.

Rhir’s nightmares cut them off. They poured into the open doorway, after the ones who’d fled. The rest surrounded the last adventurers. Ceria saw her friends forming a circle. Falling.

Stan!

He never heard her. The old man’s expression was grim, concentrating. He reached for a crossbow bolt and disappeared as a juvenile Creler struck him from the side. Ceria saw them cover him.

She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she heard Yvlon laughing. Bitterly. Slowly, Ceria stood and looked around.

The Crelers were gone. Few remained where they stood. The last of the adventurers stood amid Ceria’s broken palace of ice, facing a fraction of the horde that had assailed them.

A hundred, instead of thousands. The rest were in Erin’s inn, or fighting the Bloodfields. But the adult remained. It turned, counting. Ceria stared up at it.

“Damn you back to hell.”

She raised her wand. Yvlon picked up her sword as Ksmvr held her, tying a tourniquet around her stump of an arm. Ceria counted.

The Ensoldier Shields, Thunder’s Solace, three other teams, a few adventurers. Yvlon, Ksmvr—herself—

She looked up. He was—there. Or he had been. Montressa’s barriers were gone. She searched the ground, saw him running. Away, towards the hills.

“Pisces?”

 

—-

 

The [Necromancer] fled. The [Flash Step] spell carried him past Crelers who leapt and missed him. Pisces blurred across the battlefield, slowed. He ran.

Montressa was in his arms. The [Aegiscaster] was limp. The young woman was clutching her staff. The brass orb had fallen. Spent. She looked up at his face as he ran from the Crelers. Towards the foothills, away from the Bloodfields, away from the Crelers, the door.

His team.

Pisces halted on an incline. He stopped, wheezing, his lungs rattling as he tried to breathe. He dropped Montressa on the grass. He looked at her, choking on blood, spit. She tried to stand, but she was too exhausted. Pisces turned his head, but the nearest Crelers were too interested in the inn to pursue him.

The young man met Montressa’s eyes. He was bleeding from cuts that had torn open his robes, bites that had taken pieces out of his left leg. But he wasn’t hurt badly. He panted.

“Make for the doorway. You can survive with your barriers. No—hide in the hills. Use [Invisibility]. Split up.”

He pointed, his finger shaking, towards the rocky incline in the distance. Montressa stared at him, and then at the distant adventurers. They were making their stand on the icy fortress. She saw the adult Creler. She knew it was death. But even so—she looked at Pisces.

“You’re leaving again.”

He didn’t reply. He was looking back.

The Horns of Hammerad stood together. Ceria was drinking her last mana potion, blasting Crelers climbing the walls of ice off her. Ksmvr was leaping, landing on Crelers, cutting at them. Yvlon had her sword in her left hand. She was swinging the enchanted blade with her one arm, staggering, as Ksmvr fought around her.

“It is suicide to stay.”

Pisces spoke through pale lips. He didn’t meet Montressa’s eyes. He hesitated, looking at the distant foothills. Safety.

“You’re going to run away.”

Montressa voice was dreamy. She looked at Pisces. She wasn’t scared of the bones any longer. They were just bones. She’d been so silly. But she was afraid. She saw the fear in his eyes. Pisces turned away from the adventurers.

“Even if I tried—I would fail. I can neither save my friends nor escape that creature. If I return, I shall most likely die. I have one thing left to try. And it is not enough. Logic dictates one action.”

Somewhere, unseen, Az’kerash nodded slowly. Montressa looked at Pisces. He spoke the truth. If she were at Wistram, his words would have been lauded. He was right, of course. Logic dictated one course.

Pisces began to turn away. Montressa du Valeross, lying there, looked at his back. Slowly, she raised her staff. Aiming for his back. She looked back at the fighting.

“She’s waiting for you.”

The young man turned. He looked and saw Ceria’s eyes on him. For a second, across the distance, their eyes met. And Pisces froze. He looked over his shoulder. And then at Montressa. She waited.

And Pisces sighed. His shoulders slumped. He raked a hand through his hair and again he looked at the distant foothills. Then at the adult Creler. He laughed, once. Bitterly. With humor. And he relaxed.

With one hand, he pulled out a mana potion and drank it. Then another. And another. Montressa saw him gulping down the potions, sweating, struggling to down the mouthfuls. The [Necromancer] shook. And his eyes flickered, but he controlled himself. Pisces spoke slowly.

“The gods are dead. But I still see devils and demons. And heroes. Their company shamed and changed me. I think I’ve been happy.”

He drew his rapier slowly and walked forwards. Backwards. And Montressa saw him glow. She saw the lines of power shift. And she saw the bones shift.

They came out of the bag of holding, spiraling upwards from the battlefield. Ivory, floating upwards and around Pisces as he walked back. The [Necromancer] lifted his hand and pointed.

“I gave it all to necromancy. So if it is my end. Come, rise. For my dearest friends.”

Across the grasslands, the Crelers stopped. The adult turned, and the gleeful contempt in it faded for a second. It sensed the magic and turned. So did Ceria. She looked up, and saw the bones spiraling into the sky, floating down.

Assembling. Creating a gargantuan shape. A hulking giant, larger than any Bone Horror. It rose, assembling itself from the dead. Bones twisted and merged in the air as the towering figure reached ever higher. The adult Creler looked up and saw a massive shape, taller than even it, building, rising.

A behemoth.

Dead gods.

Montressa saw the undead rising. She wanted to scream, but she saw the Creler. And it was more terrible than any undead. She saw Pisces stumbling, collapsing as the magic left him. But he pointed. And the giant made of bones, a hulking shape, planted all fours on the ground. Pale, green flames appeared in its eye sockets as the adult Creler shrieked a challenge. The undead creation put one paw on the ground.

Then the Bone Behemoth charged. The adult Creler shot forwards, tearing the ground with its many limbs.

The two met in a shockwave of sound. Ceria stared—until she saw a glowing shape crawling towards her. She pointed and an [Ice Spike] pierced the Creler through. But only partway. She was so tired—

The Creler’s organs exploded. It was leaking ichor, but it scuttled forwards. They didn’t die even when they were dead. Ceria drew her knife, slashing at it. She heard a voice, and a steel rapier ran the Creler through. Pisces appeared on the ice fortress. He stumbled, and Ceria caught him.

“Pisces?”

The adventurers turned. In the distance, the Bone Behemoth and Creler were fighting. It was taller than the Creler, but the huge adult was tearing into it. It had more limbs than the ape-like thing. The behemoth tore at the Creler, biting.

“Sorry. Montressa is over there.”

Pisces pointed. Ceria looked at him.

“Your eyes.”

They were filled with blood. Pisces wiped at the red coming from his nose, spat.

“I overtaxed myself a bit. What do you think? It may be slightly inelegant, but it is rather impressive, isn’t it?”

He grinned, blood running down the side of his mouth. Ceria stared at the Bone Behemoth, battling the adult.

“It’s too much! You’re going to—”

“No. I’m afraid it is not enough.”

Pisces sighed. He looked backwards. And Ceria saw the adult tear the bones off the behemoth. Pisces smiled wetly at Ceria. He blinked as blood ran from his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

 

—-

 

“Fool.”

Az’kerash watched as the two giants collided. Ijvani was trembling.

But you said he was Level 30, Master! This is—

“He is talented. But he will kill himself. And it cannot bring the Creler down. He should have fled.”

The Necromancer rose. He stared at the battle. The Creler was moving around the giant made of bones. It was like an ape, a huge, fanged skull biting, heavy limbs smashing. But the Creler was closer to an insect—segmented. Its body was armor. And—it was far heavier than the construction of bone.

“The Bone Behemoth is too light. It is made of bone! Too weak! The Creler outweighs it many times and the construct cannot break its outer shell! But he made it. He learned it.”

Az’kerash’s voice was caught between emotions. He stared down as the behemoth smashed at the Creler, forcing the horror’s legs into the earth. The Creler slashed back with dozens of legs, cutting into the bone.

“See—it cannot break the shell. If it were heavier or there were two—but he can barely sustain one. He went back. He saved the girl who tried to kill him. Why?”

The Necromancer was clenching his hand so hard he would have drawn blood if he had any left to give. He stared down at Pisces as he stood with the Horns.

“They would not do the same for him. Nor will they. He is a fool. They will not—”

The Necromancer’s voice was trembling. Shaking with emotion and memory. Ijvani was afraid. She whispered.

Master?

“They will abandon him in turn. That is what they do. Watch.”

The skeleton hesitated. It seemed like they were seeing different truths. Different visions.

Master, I don’t think—

Watch!

 

—-

 

“It’s going to lose. Dead gods. The—it—”

Ceria watched as more bones went flying. The Bone Behemoth was trying to pin the adult, but the Creler was heavier. Stronger. Part of the undead construct tore away as the adult Creler lunged, tearing the bones to pieces.

Pisces stared dully. He pointed and the Bone Behemoth tried to move around the Creler. But it was faster too. It fanned its wings, leaping back. Jumped. It struck the behemoth from above. The creation of bone cracked and Pisces sagged.

They sat in Ceria’s ice fortress, a weak copy of Illphres’ spell. Ceria forced a mana potion into Pisces’ mouth. Half of it dribbled away as he tried to swallow.

“Can it—can it do anything?”

The last of the adventurers stood with Ceria. Sat. Walt and the last four members of his team were bandaging poisoned wounds. Alais was lying still, as Thunder’s Solace stood around them.

No one tried going for the inn. No one moved. They wouldn’t make the five minute run before the behemoth fell. They were exhausted. Only Pisces could have made the distance.

And he came back. Ceria looked at him. She glanced up as Ksmvr appeared. The Antinium’s body was cut—there was no part of him left unscathed.

“Captain Ceria. Comrade Pisces. Yvlon is hurt. You must make her better.”

He was supporting Yvlon. The armored woman tugged at the bloody bandage around her arm. Pisces and Ceria looked up. Yvlon grinned bloodlessly at them.

“It got my arm. Fix it, please?”

Ceria stared at the perfect cut. At Yvlon’s…arm. Blood and flesh and bone and metal. The [Wounded Warrior] waved it at Pisces. The [Necromancer] stared at it.

The Bone Behemoth collapsed. The adult Creler began tearing it apart from the skull. The smaller Crelers advanced on the adventurers. Pisces stared at Yvlon.

“I can’t—”

“You have to. Fix the bone. You can do that.”

“Not the muscle. Yvlon—”

“Please? I can’t die like this. Not after all this. Let me try one last time. Let me—please?”

The woman’s voice broke. The [Necromancer] stared at her. Then at the adult Creler. It was destroying the bones of his creation. Slowly, he rose. He stumbled over to Yvlon, put a hand on her stump.

“Put it—place it here—”

She connected the arm to her shoulder. Pisces put a hand on the spot. Ceria saw him mumble. And the bone—fused. Yvlon made a sound as she let go. The severed limb dangled. She fumbled for a healing potion, poured it over the gap. Ceria waited.

Nothing happened. The bone had fused, but the cut flesh refused to do the same. Yvlon stared at her arm. Ceria looked at Pisces.

“Can you heal—”

“No. If it were right after. But no—”

No. It has to heal.”

Yvlon grabbed at her arm. Ceria reached for her. Ksmvr was just staring. He looked back at the Crelers.

“They are coming. Please, Captain Ceria, sound the retreat.”

“To where, Ksmvr?”

“The door. I will cover you—”

Work, damn it. You’re my arm!

Yvlon shouted. Her left hand found the inside of her arm. She stared at the cut cords, the flesh in her arm. She grabbed the tendon and muscles and pulled, trying to connect the severed parts to her arm. Ceria made a sound.

Pour.

The woman looked at Ceria. The half-Elf took the healing potion. She poured. Yvlon held the two pieces together, pulling the part of her severed arm together as the potion dribbled over it—

The skin began to move. The muscle and tendons slowly fused. Ceria saw flesh closing, reluctantly. She stared as Yvlon gasped. In relief. Her severed arm was reconnecting. But—as Yvlon let go, as it healed—Pisces stared at Yvlon’s right arm. It was still limp. The [Wounded Warrior]’s face twisted.

“I can’t—can’t move it.”

She was trying. Trying to lift it. With her left hand, she lifted the enchanted blade. She tried to make her right hand grasp the hilt. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt. Lifted with both arms.

Move. Move!

Her right arm moved slowly. Awkwardly. There was no strength in it. But still, Yvlon swung the sword. She couldn’t change the grip of her fingers. And her arm wasn’t moving right. Not everything had connected. But the sword did move.

“Dead gods. Yvlon—”

“It’s fine. It’s enough. I knew it would be like this, someday. I just wish—”

The Crelers poured over the ice walls. The Horns turned. The adveturers rose. Yvlon cut one larval Creler apart. She saw a huge Creler smash through a wall.

“Silver Spears to me!”

For a second, Yvlon forgot where she was. Laughing, she reversed her grip on the sword, grabbing it with her right hand, then her left. Holding the blade in her gauntleted hands. She swung, the pommel and hilt striking, hammering at the giant Creler’s abdomen as it reared.

Murder-strike. Mordhau. A sword-fighter’s trick to attack opponents wearing armor. She’d used it once. This time, the blow cracked the Creler’s underbelly, exposing insides.

The juvenile Creler fell back, leaking gore. Jerkily—Yvlon pursued it. She swung her sword, breaking the thing’s chitin as Ksmvr slashed at it from the side. Then a shadow fell across her. She looked up.

The adult Creler hit the fortress of ice and destroyed it. Yvlon saw huge chunks flying, felt herself crash onto the ground, shoulders first. She went over backwards, hearing parts of her back crack. She was sure something was wrong. But she rose.

“Didn’t feel it.”

She grinned. The adult Creler turned. It looked for the last adventurers. And it saw Yvlon. She struck it along the head. It was still whole. Nothing had torn its shell.

Fall, damn you.

Yvlon swung, performing the murder-strike once more. She hammered the same spot again and again, alongside the nightmare’s head. But the armor refused to give.

A limb like a sickle swung for Yvlon’s head. She ducked it, chuckling. But the second one tore into her chest. It went into a rib and withdrew as Yvlon danced back. She looked down at the blood. Poison, too.

“But I didn’t feel that either.”

The armored woman struck again. The adult Creler inspected her, confused more than anything. She wasn’t afraid. She didn’t feel the blood running down her armor.

Yvlon!

Ceria was desperately trying to freeze the huge Creler, immobilize it. Pisces looked past the Creler, towards the broken Bone Behemoth. He pointed and the bones stirred—Pisces collapsed. He panted, staring up at the adult Creler. It was still toying with Yvlon, cutting her, trying to make her scream.

Arrogance. The adventurers looked up and saw the Creler opening its maw wide, wide. It disgorged more Crelers and paused. Gloating. They could not kill it.

Nothing could.

“If only it was stronger.”

He whispered through bloodless lips. Beyond him, Yvlon hacked at the armor.

“Just break. Why won’t you—”

She stared down at the slim blade that had cut through her armor. She giggled.

“I didn’t feel a thing.”

Another blade cut her across the side, rebounding off part of her enchanted armor. But it still cut deep. Yvlon felt the impact, but no pain. She grabbed a potion and drank it. Some of her wounds healed. She looked up as the adult Creler focused on her.

No.

Ksmvr saw it open its maw. He leapt, slashing at the Creler’s back. He landed, a tiny bug, slashing, biting desperately, trying to distract the adult. It ignored him.

Yvlon, dodge!

The armored woman lurched to the side. The wall of ice exploded as the Creler loosed more spears from its mouth. Pisces pointed, swaying on his feet.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathb—”

The death magic flickered out as he stumbled. Yvlon struck the adult as it turned towards Pisces. It looked at her again. Laughing.

Yvlon was tired of the laughter. She was so weary. She looked at her sword as she raised it to strike again.

“Give me something. Please?”

She swung, a perfect mordhau. Yvlon put all her strength, all her weight, behind the enchanted blade. The Sword of Weight swung, a heavier blow than a warhammer. It hit the adult Creler alongside the head.

The pommel cracked as the blade rebounded. Yvlon looked down at her sword as the enchantment broke. The sword became heavy in her hands. So heavy she could barely lift it with her exhausted limbs, let along swing. Thirty pounds of weight on top of the metal.

She stared down at the metal. And she sank to one knee. The adult Creler reared up, as the woman knelt, too tired to stand. It fell on her.

Yvlon! Run!

Montressa du Valeross shouted. She threw up a magical barrier, and gold-violet energy blocked the adult. It landed on her ward and Yvlon looked up. Montressa held her staff, shaking. She expanded her spell, drawing on the last reserves. She looked around as the adventurers, the Horns, looked at her. The [Aegiscaster] smiled.

“Run.”

 

—-

 

Az’kerash saw Montressa blocking the adult. He stared as he heard her words. He saw the Horns turn. His eyes stayed on Pisces.

“When one of them dies, go, Ijvani.”

He was staring at Yvlon.

 

—-

 

Ksmvr landed beside Yvlon in the mud. One of his antennae was gone. And he was bleeding green. Yvlon looked at him as the enraged adult smashed into Montressa’s barrier again and again. But she refused to let it drop.

“Yvlon. Can you move?”

“I—my sword’s heavy.”

Yvlon tried to lift it. Her arms shook. She was too tired. And it was far too heavy. Ksmvr stared at her sword. He shook his head.

“Drop it.”

Yvlon hesitated. She looked around. Broken weapons. A scroll lay in the mud. Beza’s. Ksmvr looked at her and put two of his hands on her sword hilt. He pointed at the inn.

“Thank you for everything. Flee. I will not let it kill you.”

He looked up at the adult Creler. Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. His Forceshield was flickering. The magical buckler went out. Ksmvr stared at it, and then looked at her.

“Run. You must run, Yvlon. And live. I will be happy. You have given me everything I never knew I wanted.”

The words made Yvlon flinch. She looked at him. Slowly, Yvlon reached out with her good arm as the other hand held the sword, resting it in the mud. Yvlon touched him.

“You have to go, Ksmvr.”

“No.”

He stared at her, shocked. Yvlon Byres smiled weakly. She placed her hand on his chest.

“You can make it. My quick [Skirmisher]. My friend. I can’t.”

“No. I must die. You must live.”

She shook her head. Montressa was screaming defiance as the adventurers fled, moving towards the edge of the barrier shielding them. The adult was screaming too. It wanted them. It was done playing. Yvlon touched her chest with her fingers.

“I’m sorry. But not again. There’s nothing left here—”

She touched at her right arm with her left. Then the holes in her body. She felt nothing, but she saw them, leaking blood.

“I’m broken, Ksmvr. There’s no fixing this. Or this. You have to go.”

“I must stay. I cannot lose you.”

Yvlon smiled.

“If you stay, I stay. I won’t leave.”

“But if you remain, I must stay too. Please run away. You mean more to me than my life. Please?”

What an impasse. What terrible, twisted love. Yvlon reached out. She hugged Ksmvr, as tightly as she could. The magic flickered overhead.

“I’m sorry. But I love you too. I guess we’re both too stubborn. Watch my back until I fall, then.”

“…Please?

She let go. Yvlon turned. So did Ksmvr. They looked back, at two distant figures. Montressa screamed as she lifted her staff.

Ceria! Pisces!

She whirled. And there she stood. Montressa du Valeross. Mons.

A [Mage] of Wistram.

A young girl who had fallen a tiny bit in love, until it turned to betrayal. A fellow student.

A child afraid of the undead.

A friend.

She pointed at them. Ceria was bleeding from one temple. She wiped the blood away from her head and looked up. The Creler was smashing downwards. Below it, Yvlon and Ksmvr stood together.

Yvlon was picking up something. She unfurled the scroll and Ksmvr turned.

Run.

They all shouted it. The barrier came down and Montressa collapsed. Ksmvr ran past her. He leapt into the oncoming ranks of Crelers, kicking, slashing.

Yvlon was reading the scroll with one hand. Ceria saw a flash of magic. Yvlon straightened and she grinned.

[Lion’s Strength]. She lifted the broken, heavy blade and charged the adult. Montressa was looking back. She mouthed the word again.

Ceria saw Gerial’s face. She looked up and saw Skinner. The adult Creler was ignoring Yvlon, watching the other adventurers. Walt, laying about him with two of his teammates. Alais, slumped on the ground, dying, as her team tried to protect their leader. A Gnoll, fighting alone with a bent sword and buckler. The adult opened its mouth and the Gnoll vanished.

Fifteen left. The adult was counting. A Drake ran. She’d fought the entire time, and her daggers had broken in a Creler’s spine. Now, she was hundreds of feet distant, time bought by Montressa. Running for the door. The adult Creler opened its mouth. The Drake cried out.

Vanished.

Fourteen. Sick, Ceria looked up at the adult. It didn’t want to let any of them go. None of them could leave. Except Ksmvr. Except—

The half-Elf raised her wand. Pisces was on his feet, panting. He was drinking his last potion, a stamina potion, with one hand, shaking. His rapier trailed in the mud. He looked up as the air froze.

Cold. Colder. So cold that even Frost Faeries would scream at the chill. Colder than Illphres’ ice. Ceria was reaching deep in herself, pulling magic from her very bones. Pisces stared as she lifted her wand.

Walls of ice rose from the ground, shielding them. They thickened, creating a shield of frozen water. They would not break.

“Ceria—”

She was making a shield on her hill. Ceria looked up and grinned at Pisces. She pointed.

“Go on. Get out of here. You can make it.”

Pisces stared at Ceria. He was the only one who could hear her in the shattered howling battle, the sounds of dying. Pisces—and Az’kerash.

“What? But—”

She pointed into the distance behind them. Towards the Bloodfields. The Crelers had fought to the death there. Some remained, but if you could outrun them, even the adult might stop. Everything would attack it there.

“Get lost, Pisces. I’ll cover your back.”

The ice was growing thicker. The air was turning to vapor. The Creler recoiled from the chill. Aiming at her. At Pisces. The first volley struck the walls. And the ice held.

Pisces looked at her. Uncomprehending. Ceria smiled. She waved one hand.

“I won’t be mad. One of us has to do it and I’m too slow. Besides, I already had my turn. So did Yvlon. If Ksmvr comes back—maybe they’ll let him. Go. One of us needs to live.”

Far away, the Necromancer stared, listening to unfamiliar words.

Master?

His hand moved and his mouth opened. But then he sat back.

No. No. It will make you strong, boy. We must be alone. Even she will—let her die like this.”

He covered his eyes and wept. But he had forgotten how to cry.

Next to Ceria, Pisces looked at her face. She turned back to the adult. It was charging her walls of ice, ramming into them. She snarled at him.

“Go on, you idiot. Do the smart thing!”

“I—”

Ceria saw a flicker as the adult Creler opened its maw. She shoved him away. The ice shattered around her. But still, it held. And it grew again, reforming. The half-Elf taunted the monster in front of her.

Come on, come on! Try it!

Her body was turning to ice. But she didn’t care. Ceria’s heart stopped. Her blood froze in her veins as she drew more and more. Liquid ran from her eyes and froze. She pointed at the adult Creler and it stopped. A third time, it opened its mouth and Ceria waited. She laughed as she raised her wand, focusing the cold into one last—

Something hurtled at her from the side. It knocked her off her feet. The spell vanished from Ceria’s mind. She turned, gasping, and saw Pisces. He stared at her and the ice exploded around them.

Both hit the ground. Ceria stared up at Pisces as he scrambled to his feet.

“I told you to run!”

The [Necromancer] nodded. Then he paused.

“I tried. But—how strange. It seems I’d rather die than leave my friends behind.”

He grinned at her, a wide, wild smile. Ceria stared at him. She blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes.

“You idiot!

“Yes. I am. I’m sorry.”

Pisces held out a hand. Ceria took it. Above them, the Creler was hunting for them. Killing. Laughing.

But Ceria Springwalker was still smiling. Somehow. Maybe it was because Pisces was standing with her. He gripped her hand tightly and she didn’t let go. They held hands as they stood and faced their end.

“If only it was stronger.”

Pisces murmured ruefully as he lifted his rapier. Ceria nodded. She was so close to him. As close as they had once been. They looked at each other, friends. And Ceria felt something flicker in her heart. Her right hand held her wand. Her hand of bone held Pisces’ hand.

Bone. It should have been the other way around. But he was a [Necromancer]. If anyone wouldn’t mind, it was him.

“If only I could have frozen it. But I wasn’t—”

“We weren’t—”

They trailed off. Their eyes met. And they shared a thought. Then—the two minds became one.

If.

Pisces’ eyes went wide. Ceria felt something pushing in her. She felt her bones shift. And she saw the world change. All the death. All the dead. But there it was.

A broken heap of bones. Pisces looked at Ceria and felt cold. Not the superficial chill of the body, but the depths of ice. The essence of frost. He saw Illphres’ face, smiling behind her mask of ice.

Magic flickered. Bone moved. It wasn’t a spell, an incantation—it was a thought. It surged through him, through her, back. It was part of both of them, connecting the two. Deeper than any physical connection. Connecting their minds, their will. Their very souls.

Magic.

The [Necromancer] and the [Ice Mage] looked at each other. He was frost and she was bone. He called upon death and she pulled ice out of the air. They thought as one.

The broken bones of the behemoth were smashed to pieces. Ground to dust and fragments. Motionless. The magic touched it. And pale light flickered in the broken skull. The adult Creler turned uneasily.

Something was happening. The bones were reshaping. But not—not like a normal undead. The bones rose into the air, melding together. A tundra swept over the ivory, coating the bone with ice. Like flesh. Like skin. Heavier—stronger. The Crelers backed away from the magic shaking the air.

The adult paused. It opened its maw, loosing the deadly projectiles. Ice shattered, bone splintered. But the construct kept forming. Limbs grew thicker. Ice and ivory. Both were weak on their own. But together—

The adult charged. But something held it back. A flickering barrier. Magic. Montressa howled as the Creler stopped. Yvlon swung her sword and one of the Creler’s legs buckled. It looked down as she swung again. A single leg snapped and for a second the Creler paused.

Enough. The behemoth rose a second time. It exhaled and frost swept from its jaws. Taller. Stronger. Heavier.

It rose over the Creler, a thing of death and cold. A being animated by necromancy and strengthened by ice. It moved slowly at first, but then with undead strength. A limb rose, and the adult Creler was hammered down by a strike like a mountain falling.

A glacier’s might.

Montressa du Valeross looked up. She stared at Pisces and Ceria, illuminated by the glow of their combined magic. The air was swirling around them.

“A link? No—”

They weren’t two people, but one source of magic. And their creation was born of both. It rose as it hammered the Creler flat. The thing opened its jaws and roared.

The sound was made of grinding ice, moving bones. It tore the air as the adult Creler backed up. Not a Bone Behemoth. Not a Frost Golem or anything of either side. Both! Magic made of two elements!

Impossible. A Frostmarrow Behemoth.

Perril Chandler whispered. He stared, and his eyes widened. Ceria and Pisces pointed. They spoke with one voice.

Take it down.

The Frostmarrow Behemoth charged the Creler. This time, the impact knocked the Creler flying. It landed, righting itself, and shrieked. Again, the two collided, but this time the Frostmarrow Behemoth didn’t give ground. It hammered the Creler down again, crushing it flat, trying to pound it into the ground.

But the Creler refused to submit. It fought back viciously. The adult flew. It flew up, blasting pieces off the behemoth. Landed on top, scything, clawing. The Frostmarrow Behemoth threw the giant Creler off of it.

Yvlon watched, mouth agape as it pinned the adult, ignoring the pieces being ripped away by the many claws. And Yvlon saw the head descend, the limbs pounding. Blows that shook the ground struck the Creler.

But even now, the Creler didn’t break. Its armor absorbed the crushing blows, flexible. Ductile. Yvlon saw Pisces and Ceria waver as it tore upwards, cutting at the behemoth, trying to get free.

“Still?”

The [Wounded Warrior] looked at the Creler. She lifted her sword. [Lion’s Strength] still surged in her. So Yvlon charged. She aimed for the same spot alongside the Creler’s head.

She’s going.

She has to break it. Nothing else can.

Ceria and Pisces spoke at the same time. The half-Elf pointed and the behemoth pinned the Creler, giving Yvlon an opening. The [Wounded Warrior] charged past the smaller Crelers. An Antinium flew, cutting them down. And Pisces had a thought and Ceria had a thought. He looked down at his ring. The half-Elf stared as the [Necromancer] raised his ring, flicked it.

“[Shatterbolt].”

The magical dart of energy flew across the ground. The spell hit the Creler’s head. Yvlon heard a piercing sound tearing the air, but the armor refused to break. She raised her sword, feeling the strength in her arms.

Again, then! And again until the end of time!

She swung her blade again. Mordhau! Murder strike! The pommel bounced off the Creler’s carapace. Again! Yvlon lifted the sword! Until Beza’s enchantment vanished! Until she was dead! The Creler fought to get free, but the Frostmarrow Behemoth was holding it, trying to crush it. Yvlon swung her sword, shouting.

Acid, magic. And her sword. Dozens of blows, Isceil’s magic. All of it. At last, something gave.

Crack.

Yvlon heard the sound distantly. She felt the impact, saw the break, the splintering in the black exoskeleton. It split the air.

The adult Creler felt it too. It tried to move, but the behemoth was holding it in place. Yvlon stared at the broken spot.

Break it open!

Tear it apart!

Ceria and Pisces pointed. The Frostmarrow Behemoth slammed the Creler down and the cracks grew. Yvlon laughed. She reversed her grip, and her sword’s tip tore the first layer of plating away. She cut again. And the adult Creler, twisted.

A hundred larval Crelers squirmed out of its mouth. They came for Yvlon, digging into her armor, biting at the Human woman’s flesh. But an Antinium tore them away. He stood, shield raised, guarding her back. Swinging his blades as they tried to pour over him. And Yvlon dug deeper. She rammed her sword’s tip into the Creler’s head, prying loose a piece of the armor. She saw flesh—

The Creler heaved with desperate strength. It tore itself away from the Frostmarrow Behemoth and Ceria and Pisces screamed, collapsing, as the spell failed. They rose, shaking, and tried to assail the monster. But the Creler ignored the spells striking its side. The Creler turned, twisting. The Human woman. Where was—

I have you.

Yvlon was clinging to the thing’s head. With one hand she held on to the broken part of the Creler’s head. With the other, she shoved the blade deeper. Her enchanted sword was in the Creler’s head. Yvlon was twisting the blade, cutting an opening. The Creler thrashed and Yvlon nearly flew off. But she held on. Beza’s scroll gave her strength.

Cut it apart! Yvlon!

Ceria was on her feet. She saw Yvlon tearing off pieces of the Creler’s armor, exposing soft innards! She was sawing into the thing’s head, cutting with her sword as the Creler tried to throw her off!

Yvlon felt the Creler now. She was so close, she could practically feel its thoughts running under her. It was afraid. It tried to throw her and she braced—it slammed Yvlon into the ground.

Her armor bent. It dug into her skin, tearing into her. Yvlon lost her breath. But she didn’t let go. She would have laughed, if she had any air left.

After all that, you think that would make me let go? She thought the words. I didn’t feel a thing!

She grabbed the sword, cutting more flesh away. The Creler felt that. It shrieked, and Crelers swarmed over its body, trying to protect it. Ksmvr tore them away. The adult tried to strike the [Skirmisher], it tried to reach Yvlon, but she was too close! She felt its fear and laughed.

It wasn’t fair. It was one single wound, one chink in its armor! Why was that enough? The Creler screamed, writhing, rolling, trying to dislodge the thing clinging to it. But she felt no pain. She didn’t let go. She would never let go.

Its limbs tore at Yvlon. But she was clinging to its side. Digging into its head. Deeper, deeper now—orange blood was rushing around her. Yvlon was in the hole, cutting with both hands as the Creler writhed. She was burrowing into it, killing it from the inside!

Like a Creler. Like the very thing it was. Yvlon saw only heaving, pulsating orange now. Shifting liquid. She carved with her sword; it was the only thing she knew was real in this world.

She could feel nothing at all. No pain. No part of her body. But still, she burned. Her thundering heart was everything in this world. And her will. Through lips she could not feel, the [Wounded Warrior] laughed.

Deeper still. Something was moving in the adult. It’s innards were trying to squash Yvlon! But she felt nothing and cut and cut—towards its brain.

It was right there. It had one. A pulsating, terrible mass. She could hear it now, bargaining. Thinking so loud it nearly overwhelmed her. Whispering. She ignored it. Yvlon aimed her sword towards the brain and realized her strength was gone.

Beza’s enchantment had faded. Yvlon gritted her teeth. She pushed forwards, plunging her sword at the thing’s brain. It’s very insides moved to block her. Yvlon fought forwards, shouting.

“I am Yvlon Byres—”

Something inside the Creler struck at her. The woman felt it tear open her cheek. She turned her head, cutting, and it stopped. Just a bit further! Just a bit! She plunged deeper. Her arms. Her body—

Silver and steel be my guide! Everything dies—”

Something pulsed. Something looked at her. Even here, it fought her. Yvlon tried to ram her sword deeper. But everything had stopped moving. She fell backwards. No, not yet! Just a bit—

She fell. The Creler threw her out of its body and Yvlon hit the ground. She stared upwards, unable to move her head. No. No! She was so close! Nearly—

The adult Creler was turning, trying to flee. It had to flee! But it paused, and turned to Yvlon. Kill her, first. It opened its maw, ignoring everything. Yvlon stared up. She looked into the Creler’s gaping maw, and then past it. And she grinned.

He flew out of the skies. A falling shape. A flying insect. Antinium. The adult Creler moved too late. Ksmvr landed on the wound in its head. He dug down into it, burrowing, tearing. Reaching for Yvlon’s sword. He found it.

Vengeance. The Creler shrieked and Ksmvr drove the sword home. He plunged it into the pulsating, moving brain and the scream tore everything apart. Yvlon watched the Creler freeze. She saw it move past her, saw the shape drop from it. Ksmvr fell to the ground, stumbling, falling. He ran towards her.

“Yvlon. Yvlon.”

He reached for her, cradling her, feeling at the blood. She whispered up at him.

“Well done. I’m so proud of you, my little friend.”

He held her as her head fell back. A smile crossed the golden-haired woman’s face.

Ksmvr held her. Neither one moved, as the Crelers stopped and stared up.

The adult. Was it…?

It was still upright. Still—still moving. After all that, with a sword lodged in its brain. It was moving—just moving? The little Crelers looked up at the giant as it lumbered away. Away from Ksmvr, from Yvlon. Aimlessly.

The giant Creler paused, and then it kept moving. Away from the two, towards the Bloodfields. Silently. The little Crelers hesitated. Then they swarmed towards the still Antinium. The first Creler reared up, towards the unmoving pair.

Venge—

An invisible bolt of magic, shot from afar struck it in the chest and the Creler curled up. It came from a skeleton’s finger. Then—another. A [Deathbolt] struck the first Creler, then another. A second Creler fell, dead, and they turned and saw the [Necromancer].

Pisces and Ceria were supporting Montressa. The other adventurers rose, turning towards the last Crelers. There were so few.

But they stood. Walt and his three. Alais, bloodless, and two of her teammates. A pair of Gnolls. A Drake. They could barely stand. But they did stand. The horrors of Rhir paused. And horror felt fear.

The adventurers charged across the ground.

 

—-

 

They were too late. They had been too late from the start. And the Drake knew it.

Grimalkin of Pallass was first out the door. He charged onto the bloody ground, scattering Crelers. Most were dying, or injured. They were trying to burrow, to grow and hide. He ignored them. He had only eyes for one. The threat that had plagued the world over. The thing that would create an army by itself.

An adult. He had killed them, once. And he still had scars. Grimalkin’s head turned. He saw the bodies, the broken bodies.

And the huge shape in the distance. Grimalkin pointed.

There!

Jelaqua raced after him as the [Sinew Magus] charged. After them came the Antinium, 4th Company, the Watch. They fell on the smaller Crelers as the Gold-rank adventurers and Grimalkin went for the giant.

It was still alive. It had killed them all. But the adventurers had exacted a terrible cost. There had to be a thousand dead Crelers at least! Grimalkin raced forwards. He would make sure they were avenged.

On me! Surround it! Watch Captain, fall back and keep the nest off our backs!

Grimalkin roared as he charged across the ground, Jelaqua at his side. Six Gold-ranks followed, all under the effects of half a dozen enchantments. They raced towards the Creler. It didn’t react. It was moving south. Back towards the Bloodfields? It had to be trying to hide. It was moving slow—how badly had they hurt it?

“I’ll break its armor! Non-magical flail! Give me an opening!”

Jelaqua screamed at Grimalkin. She was wearing her Raskghar form. Grimalkin nodded. He pointed at its side.

“Go! Midsection—go for the underbelly after destroying the legs! Be careful—it can move even when its limbs are gone!”

Rampaging.

The Selphid accelerated, bounding left. Four of the Gold-ranks peeled off, following her. Grimalkin aimed his claw. The Creler still hadn’t turned. It was still moving. A trick? They were cunning. Were more buried?

No matter. Grimalkin concentrated. Fire took form in his claw and he threw it.

“[Grand Fireball]!”

A huge orb of fire shot across the ground. It exploded on the Creler’s side. But the creature was spell resistant. The fire would barely hurt it. But it would hurt it. Grimalkin braced for the counterattack at range as Jelaqua charged from the side. Dodge—

The Creler kept walking forwards. Grimalkin faltered. The Gold-rank adventurers and Jelaqua hesitated. Jelaqua jumped forwards, lashing the Creler’s legs with the strength of a Raskghar enhanced with a Selphid’s strength and Grimalkin’s magic. She battered one leg, cracking with dozens of blows. A [Axehunter] cut halfway into another leg.

[Treefell Chop]!

“Encircle it! Wait for a trick—”

Grimalkin’s bellow stopped as two of the Creler’s legs collapsed. The huge thing slowed, but the legs kept moving. And the adult didn’t change course or even—

The Drake and the adventurers stopped. In the distance, the Watch, Embria, galloping towards the Creler, the Antinium—they all paused. They stared.

The horror was still moving. But—the giant beast aimlessly wandered forwards. It ran into a hill and kept walking into the dirt and stone. It wasn’t—wasn’t—

“Magus?”

Jelaqua stepped back, keeping a wary distance. Grimalkin ran forwards.

“Is it—”

He caught sight of something on the Creler’s head. A gaping opening from which orange ichor was still seeping. One of the adventurers exclaimed.

“Dead gods. Do you think—”

“It could be a trick. Hold back.”

Jelaqua hesitated, but she let Grimalkin go ahead. Slowly, the [Sinew Magus] approached the hole.

The adult was huge. Bigger than some of the adults he’d fought. Smaller than others. But larger than a house. And its head was torn open. Grimalkin saw something pulsing inside the glowing innards and the Drake put up his guard, ready to retreat. But he saw how something had cracked the armor that made Crelers invincible against spell and steel. Cut through the insides, creating a tunnel of gore. It was huge, wide enough to accommodate someone smaller than he was. He could see into the Creler’s—

“Incredible.”

Slowly, Grimalkin stepped up to the dripping opening and paused. Something was still in there. The writhing mind of the Creler yet lived. He could feel its presence. Feel the dark thoughts. And yet—he saw the torn hole in its head. And whatever was in there tried to strike at the Drake. But it was fading. Already dead. It screamed orders that the body could not interpret.

The brain’s stem was torn apart. All that remained was a mind, and a body mindlessly moving. The Creler’s body kept crawling forwards as the [Sinew Magus] lifted a claw. What was inside shrieked at him.

“Stand clear.”

Light bloomed. After a moment, Grimalkin stepped away. He looked at Jelaqua. The Selphid paused, flail in her paws.

“What—”

“Something carved a chunk out of its brain. It couldn’t move. It might have repaired itself. I finished it off. I think. We’ll have to burn the body.”

“Turn it to ash. There must be eggs in it, and I hear they can come back from—”

The Selphid agreed unconsciously, then caught herself. She stared at Grimalkin.

“Wait. It was dead?

“Someone killed it.”

“No way. This thing’s an adult and a decade older than most! One of the Silver-rank teams got…”

One of the Gold-rank adventurers began. Grimalkin spun.

Watch Captain! Search for survivors!

Here! On me!

Zevara had already seen them. Grimalkin spotted the distant shapes. He raced towards them with the Gold-rank adventurers. They slowed, staring.

The Watch approached the figures standing amid the dead. Watch Captain Zevara, Wing Commander Embria—they saw the fallen bodies. The broken ice and ivory. But they had only eyes for them.

Adventurers. Less than a dozen. They stood—stood, because they were too tired to sit. Stood, because they had refused to fall. Not one was uninjured. They barely moved as their rescuers stared. Grimalkin stepped forwards. He saw a head turn. A moving throat, whispered words. Grimalkin nodded. He reached out and caught the half-Elf as she collapsed.

“Who—who is this team? Who did this?”

The Gold-rank Gnoll demanded. She looked at the adventurers. At the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s fading remains. At the dead Crelers. Grimalkin knelt, reaching for an antidote.

“The Horns of Hammerad.”

 

—-

 

Never. It screamed at her, you will never stop us! We will eat the world! For that is why we were made! You have not seen what gives us our charge! You have no idea of what lies dreaming!

But it died. And she laughed and laughed. Because it never understood. She sensed it dying, uncomprehending. It was all hunger and malice. It understood nothing of sacrifice. Nothing of how to die well. She reached up, wondering if she would see them again.

Her arms—she thought she could feel them. Yvlon Byres smiled, relieved there was something else. Something—

Someone was calling her name. Reaching for her. Shaking her. Telling her she had to wake up. Voices were screaming at her, telling her—Yvlon fixed on the one voice. But her arms—her body.

It didn’t matter. For him, for them she could bear it. So she reached back, pulling. And still, she felt—

“Please, you must wake up. Or else, why would I live? Please?”

Yvlon opened her eyes. And when she did, he was still holding her. She looked up. And she met Ksmvr’s eyes.

“Ksmvr?”

He froze. Yvlon stared up at him.

“Yvlon?”

She thought she was still dying. Yvlon had to be. Because she felt—she looked up at him.

“What? I thought I was—”

She’s awake! She’s alive!

Someone screamed. Yvlon stared at Ksmvr. The world came back. She realized she was not staring at the sky, but a ceiling. And Ksmvr—he was bandaged. His antennae was torn. But he was alive. The woman tried to move. And she realized she could.

She was alive. But—she couldn’t be. Yvlon remembered. She remembered the wound she’d taken. Her arm. She looked up at Ksmvr.

“You are alive.”

He told her. She tried to smile. But she was blinking away tears. Let it be. For him, she’d try. She tried to raise her head. Her friends were shouting her name. But she looked at Ksmvr. She was afraid to look down.

“I couldn’t leave you behind, my little friend.”

“You did not.”

The woman tried to smile.

“My arm. And my back—I—I’m going to have to rely on you from now on, Ksmvr. Okay?”

The Antinium looked at her. Yvlon wanted to reach for his face. He trembled.

“Why? Are you going to die, Yvlon?”

“No. No, but my arms—both of them—”

“What about them? They are very pretty.”

Yvlon paused. Ksmvr looked at her, tilting his head, confused. And she realized something. She could feel his hands. His three hands, so tenderly holding her shoulder. Her right arm. Her left. She hesitated. She could feel his touch. But it felt different.

And then it hit her. Words that screamed in her very soul. She hadn’t heard them. But now they echoed again.

 

[Wounded Warrior Level 32…

[Skill Change – Crescent Cut…

[Conditions Met: Wounded Warrior…

[Skill – Armform (Duelist)…

 

Dozens of notifications. Voices repeating themselves again and again as her mind finally registered them, as if once wasn’t enough. Telling her she’d changed. Telling her—

Yvlon’s eyes went wide. She jerked up. Ksmvr caught her, and Yvlon hesitated.

“My arms?”

He looked down. And the woman hesitated. Slowly, she raised her arms. She looked down. For a moment, Yvlon thought nothing had changed. She stared down at her arms and saw metal. Pure silver mixed with burnished steel.

Her armor? But then, Yvlon saw her skin. Muscle, the curve of her flesh. But—silvery. Shining as it caught the light. Her breath caught.

My—

Skin made of metal. Imitating the flesh she had once had. But—her arms were half armor too, flesh turning to angular armor. But it was all her. The armor made of her very body.

Her arms were silver and steel.

 

[Conditions Met: Wounded Warrior → Silversteel Armsmistress Class!]

 

Her new class screamed in her mind. [Silversteel Armsmistress]. Disbelieving, Yvlon raised one arm, saw the metal skin moving. She felt—she felt. She touched her chest, felt the soft bandages under her fingertips. But no pain, as she pinched her arms. Or—faint.

“I am afraid your sword is broken, Yvlon. But I found it for you. Caution. It is very heavy.”

Ksmvr offered her something. Yvlon saw it was her sword. The tip had snapped. And the pommel was cracked. The enchantment was still there, and the Antinium had to use two of his hands to hand it to her. Unconsciously, Yvlon took it in her right hand.

She lifted the broken, heavy, enchanted sword with one arm. It was light. Yvlon stared at her arm, as it flawlessly lifted the blade. Ksmvr blinked.

“Ooh.”

“I—my arms. I’m—”

She stuttered, staring at her arms. They shone. Ksmvr looked at Yvlon.

“They are beautiful. You did not leave me. I knew my team would not die. I knew you would not. But do not scare me like that again.”

He looked at her, and she saw him shaking a tiny bit. She heard it in his voice. And Yvlon forgot everything else. She hugged him, and he hugged her back fiercely. Yvlon felt the Antinium quivering.

“Yvlon.”

Someone called her name. Many people were, but this voice made Yvlon look up. She saw Ceria and paused.

She had changed too. Cold and frost lay on the table where Ceria was sitting. The half-Elf’s eyes were winter-pale, and faint blue and grey. Something swirled in their depths.

Snowflakes fell out of the air around her, melting as she left her seat and walked towards Yvlon. The woman stared.

“Your eyes—”

“I leveled up. It’s nothing special. Nice arms.”

The half-Elf paused. Pisces limped over next to her, and Yvlon saw another depth of power in his eyes. She looked at him. At her. At Ksmvr.

“Thank you.”

She didn’t know to whom she said it. But she heard the word repeated.

Running feet. Yvlon turned as Erin flung herself at the Horns of Hammerad. She half-tackled Ceria and Pisces and the two adventurers nearly fell over. The [Innkeeper] was crying. The world opened up, and Yvlon realized it wasn’t just them.

The inn—The Wandering Inn was around them. Destroyed. Walls were torn open, and only a few spells were keeping the ceiling up. Despite that, it was filled. Adventurers, some wounded, others fresh, stood next to [Soldiers] from Liscor’s army. Liscor’s Watch. They stood, staring down at the Horns. Erin was hugging Ceria and Pisces.

You’re alive! You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re—

“I saw it dead. You brought it down.”

Someone spoke to the side. Yvlon turned her head and saw a Drake with crimson scales staring at her. Embria waved a hand towards the door.

“An adult Creler. You killed it. The four of you.”

Embria looked at the four adventurers, mystified. Yvlon blinked up at her.

“Oh. Well, we had help.”

“How did you—you’re alive.

Erin buried her face in Ceria’s shoulder. Then she cried out; her tears were freezing! The half-Elf poked herself.

“I guess we are. Right, Yvlon?”

“Yes.”

Yvlon blinked. She opened her mouth and closed it a few times. Embria stared at her, but Yvlon just went back to hugging Ksmvr. She didn’t have anything else to say.

Erin turned and grabbed Yvlon and Ksmvr. Then another pair of arms encircled them. Bird. Yvlon felt Mrsha jump at her, sniffing her arms—

Yvlon! Ceria! Pisces!

Alais was making her way over to them. She was barely able to walk, but she was alive. So were Palt, Beza, the Minotauress staring in shock. Ulinde waved excitedly from her ruined body. Moore was limping up the hill as Jelaqua carried a protesting Seborn in her arms. They were staring. And someone began shouting.

Hammerad! The Horns of Hammerad!

Crelerbane! Hell’s wardens!

Someone else bellowed it. Walt. He was pointing at the Horns, laughing and sobbing. His three teammates stood around him. The last—Yvlon looked around as people took up the chant.

Hammerad! Horns of Hammerad!

“You did it.”

A flash of red hair. Not Lyonette—she was hugging with Mrsha. Pisces turned.

“Montressa.”

She bowed towards him, silently. There were too many words, not enough. Not in this moment. Grimalkin roared above the shouting.

“We have witnessed an extraordinary event! A feat that few in this world can boast of! The death that comes from Rhir has been slain by a team of adventurers! The Horns of Hammerad!”

Now the Watch and the [Soldiers] took up the chant. The adventurers were saluting them. Grimalkin looked at the Horns. He just nodded, folding his arms, approvingly. Yvlon didn’t know what to make of it all.

“But so many died. It wasn’t just us. It was—”

“You. And Ksmvr. With a little help.”

Pisces looked at Yvlon, smiling crookedly. He glanced at Ceria. The half-Elf smiled as snow fell around her. She stared at Yvlon’s arms. Erin sneezed.

“It’s cold! Can you turn that off?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Ksmvr just remained still. He whispered, so softly that Yvlon was the only one who could hear. And some of the Gnolls.

“You must not die. Promise?”

“I promise.”

That was all Yvlon said. Then she felt tears fill her eyes.

Enough. Say no more. In silence, she hugged her friends, as the cheers became a roar, applause. But Yvlon needed only this moment. That was all she wanted. No levels, no Skills. Let it be for a while. Silently, the Horns embraced each other. Then they rose and looked about.

The inn was broken. The dead unburied. Darkness had come again. And it still waited. It had torn and tried to bury the sparks of light. In the end, the world was still not perfect. Soon, they would count the fallen.

But for one moment. Right now—Erin Solstice clung to her friends. The Horns of Hammerad held each other and the crowd of [Guards], adventurers, [Soldiers], and civilians, [Barmaids], [Princess], [Waiters], [Mages], and the little Gnoll cheered. And the noise chased away the future.

From his seat, the Necromancer bowed. And a skeleton watched, seeing something else, something he didn’t quite understand. And he saw her face, laughing and smiling. But even that was later.

Ksmvr looked up from hugging Yvlon and felt her touch his arms. His spare one wiped away tears from her eyes for visual acuity. Ceria leaned on Pisces, and the [Necromancer] smiled, looking around with water in his eyes that he’d never admit was there. The half-Elf laughed, and the Horns remained there for a second. Savoring it, that moment in time. After travail and trial, before time moved, they were in it and remembered it for the rest of their lives.

For one moment, everything was alright.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.65

The Wandering Inn had breakfast. It happened every day, but it was always different. It had changed, from when the inn had first been reoccupied. And since then, breakfast, so often overlooked, had defined the inn. Because there was a story there.

At the beginning, breakfast had been scraps, badly-cooked food or blue fruits, eaten by a scared, lost girl. Later, it had been a young woman, making pasta and eggs, serving two [Guardsmen]. Then—a skeleton had appeared. After that, a few more guests.

Adventurers. Antinium. Still in small groups. And often, the young woman ate alone. But then had come a day when a City Runner sat and ate with her. And—a [Princess]. Later, had come a small white Gnoll cub. And for a while, the young woman had vanished and the inn had grown dark. Until a [General] sat in the inn, and the [Princess] waited on the tables instead.

At some point, the [Innkeeper] came back. And by that time, the inn was lively. More adventurers came, and there were daily guests now. A bee began flying about. The staff increased. Once, there had been five Hobgoblins, always early for breakfast. And now, the inn was fuller than it had ever been.

There had been dark days, though. Days when no breakfast was served. When the young woman sat at an empty table and wept. When grief walked the tables. Days of mourning, when spilled blood was just drying on the floorboards. But days of triumph, too. Glorious mornings. To have lived them all was to have seen a story, told only in breakfasts.

And he had seen them all. Or most. Even in his head, Pisces Jealnet had to clarify that detail. Most, not all. But he had seen The Wandering Inn change over time. And this was better.

This was how Pisces began his day at the inn. He roused himself, over-weary from a late night of studying. But he did rise, and early too. He found Ceria stumbling half-asleep out of her door, went downstairs as she tried to lean on him. Yvlon and Ksmvr were there and Pisces greeted them and ate breakfast.

“Saffron rice! With eggs! And sausage?”

Erin Solstice still hadn’t quite figured out how to add nuance to her breakfasts. But the rice was delicious and the food filling. Pisces ate it with good humor, adding extra black pepper on his eggs. Ksmvr discovered he loved rice. Ceria requested a steak. Yvlon vetoed it.

“You need to stop eating like that, Ceria. I know [Mages] burn energy and half-Elves don’t get fat. But you don’t need a steak for breakfast.”

“But I can have one.”

“Captain Ceria, I must inform you that the risk of parasitic worms or eggs is notably higher in meat products than anywhere else. It is a common issue in the Hive. Insects burrowing out of your head would be unpleasant, or so I feel.”

“…Well, now I’m not hungry.”

Yvlon smiled at Ksmvr. The Antinium twitched one antennae in a ‘wink’ and both Ceria and Yvlon stared. Pisces did not. He sat back and ate his breakfast, ruminating on what he’d studied. The bickering was pleasant background.

The inn wasn’t empty, of course. These days, breakfast wasn’t just Erin and her guests. It was a bit of a crowd. Drassi was eating her breakfast before getting to work; Erin was helping Lyonette serve tables for once.

“Hey Relc! Is it your day off?”

“That’s right. And I’m gonna be here. Drinking and watching plays! And Embria’s working. Which is too bad, obviously. But it’s play-day!”

The Drake crowed. He had a drink in one hand, alcoholic. The only other person in the inn with a drink this early was the Drowned Man, Seborn. He was sitting at a table and Pisces caught a fragment of his conversation as Lyonette stopped by.

…taking no for an answer. Jelaqua’s stopping by today and we’re having it out.

“And we need to talk to her about Ulinde.”

Yeah.

Pisces filed that away. But he was more conscious of the room as a whole. Drakes and Gnolls he didn’t know by name were present, eating breakfast. But as Palt and others had observed, including Wall Lord Ilvriss, Erin’s inn wasn’t filled with masterful cuisine. It was fresh and fast and simply good, and that was the best part. No, it was the other things that drew people here.

The [Actors], for one. Pisces turned and watched the Players of Celum setting up on stage. Practicing for the evening. This early, there wasn’t much to be seen; the [Actors] were practicing their lines on the floor while a few declaimed from the stage. It was just practice, for all they did their best, but some, like Relc, were here even for that.

Pisces observed one of the performers attempting to practice her lines for Pygmalion. The Players of Celum were now fully comprised of three species: Human, Gnoll, and Drake. Temile had been actively recruiting and come up with a fairly wide cast. The [Actress] he’d cast in the part of Eliza, or rather, ‘Eriza’ for a more Gnollish-name was struggling to live up to his high standards.

“No, no. Be the character. Don’t speak to me! I’m not here! Remember—face the audience, but don’t look at us. Now—from the top! Professor Hissins enters. And—begin!”

A Drake hurried onto the stage, pretending to be getting out of the rain. He began, speaking in a carrying, conversational tone. He was decent, Pisces observed. He’d performed before. The Eriza [Actress] hadn’t.

She was a young Gnoll. Female, auditioning or a newly-minted member of the cast. She began her part and Pisces saw Temile wince almost at the same time the [Necromancer] did.

It wasn’t that the young Gnoll woman was bad. It was just that she wasn’t good. She spoke her lines…not exactly stiffly, but clearly from memory. She spoke them as if declaiming to a room, but aware she was on stage and determined to not show it. So she was aware of the audience, and yet trying to pretend she didn’t notice the stares. After a moment, Temile cut her off to explain why that was a problem.

Pisces already understood what Temile wanted. True actors, whether by class or nature, didn’t act like that. Some spoke to the crowd, acknowledging them as part of their performance. And to others—the audience was truly invisible, and they lived in their world, alone. That was the height of acting in either fashion.

He watched as the Gnoll girl tried again. And she was doing better. Pisces had a moment of sympathy for her. After all…he was much like her. A poor actor who was caught between extremes. Trying to pretend he didn’t see the audience.

The [Necromancer] looked around. And he saw the three faces turn away from his. The morning breakfasters pretended to be talking with their friends, or interested in their food. But they had been staring at him. Exactly at him, not just looking his way or idly browsing. There was a difference.

Three, today. Pisces had observed them out of the corner of his eyes. The [Necromancer] affected not to notice. And that was an act. Here he was, performing the [Actor]’s contradictory role. Pretending not to know he was being watched. But like the [Actress] on stage, he always saw the audience. Pisces couldn’t help it.

It was a self-defense mechanism. Too much attention, too much anger or hatred or just dislike, and he would be in trouble. Pisces could remember the look he got before a mob gathered, or someone started an incident. He didn’t suspect it would come to that here, but habits died hard. And even now—

“Hells, I hope we get an easy job after yesterday. And a bonus. We’ve earned it, right? We’ll probably have to wait until we’re paid.”

Ceria’s voice made Pisces look up. The half-Elf was yawning. They were all tired after yesterday.

The Bloodfields. Pisces still remembered the battle there. He’d gone over what he could have done better. Practiced with the [Shatterbolt] spell so he wouldn’t miss a distant target a second time. And considered that [Deathbolt] wasn’t a good spell to use on slimes or plants. He still needed to learn [Acid Orb]; Grimalkin was right about that. He nodded as Yvlon sighed.

“We all got out of it fine. It was dangerous. But I’m proud of everyone. When are we meeting?”

“Twenty minutes. They’ll all start coming through then. Plenty of time for a hamburger.”

“Oh no.”

Pisces smiled slightly. Yesterday. He’d gone out drinking, been toasted for his part in saving two adventurers from Walt’s team. The huge [Warrior] had even gone as far as to clap Pisces on the back and say he’d misjudged him. So, today, the Horns were minor heroes, even if only among the teams working in the Bloodfields.

The [Necromancer] turned his head. A few of the Drakes and Gnolls that would be working on the road were breakfasting here since it was convenient. And some had waved at the Horns as they’d come down. Just—waved. It wasn’t as if the Horns had helped save the city from the moths, or just come out of Albez. But the feeling was the same. They’d ventured into the Bloodfields and come out.

“Glory. And yet, it changes nothing.”

“What was that, Pisces?”

“Nothing.”

Exactly that. It didn’t change anything. Pisces turned his head towards Ceria and felt them again. Four stares, now. He’d missed one of the Gnolls by the door. That was the thing. They were staring at him. After his team had been hailed for their valor yesterday. But that was the nature of people. And of Pisces’ class. He knew it would be so. Even in a smiling crowd he could pick out the frowns.

And even now, there weren’t many smiles. Not at him. More for Ksmvr, even. Because for all the Antinium was Antinium, one of the scourges of Rhir, a nightmarish foe that was the enemy of Drakes and Gnolls and all species—he was disarming, friendly, innocent. He was a member of a species. But Pisces was different. He had a class. And he had chosen.

Necromancer. The word hovered above his head, unspoken. It defined him. But each day, Pisces pretended not to notice the stares he could see, the way people watched him. He paused as one of the starers stood.

A Drake. He was one of the workers on the road. Pisces knew that by his clothing, nothing else. He didn’t know the Drake. And for a moment, Pisces thought the Drake would go to the outhouse or somewhere else. But then the Drake started walking towards the table where the Horns sat.

Pisces paused. He looked up, still watching out of the corner of his eyes. His teammates saw the Drake approaching and turned. So Pisces did too. He met the Drake’s eyes. Saw him fully.

Pale yellow scales, tough arms and legs. A [Laborer], perhaps. Not one of the skilled workers, but not unkempt either. He’d been sitting alone. Watching Pisces.

Now he stopped in front of their table. He was—trembling. With nerves? And a suppressed anger. Pisces saw it all. Ceria did not. She blinked up at the Drake.

“Hi there. Can we help you?”

Both Pisces and the Drake started. They’d been so focused on each other. The Drake turned his head.

“What? I—no, Miss. I’d like a word with…”

He gestured to Pisces. Ceria sat up a bit. Yvlon frowned.

“What about?”

The Drake looked at Pisces. He opened his mouth, and Pisces saw he was missing a tooth, a molar, but the rest of his teeth were sharp. White, barely yellow—he must take good care of them.

“The name’s Mesiel. Hey. You’re that [Necromancer], right?”

“I am. How can I help you, sir?”

Pisces already knew. Yvlon was staring at his face. Pisces realized he was being too calm. He should look confused. But it didn’t matter. The Drake hesitated.

“I saw you yesterday. Daring the Bloodfields to save those two Humans. That was brave.”

“Thank you. It was what we were hired to do.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t see any of the other adventurers doing it. It was…brave. Good thing you got them out.”

“Yeah.”

Ceria nodded uncertainly. She’d picked up on the Drake’s tone too. She looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] waited. The Drake, Mesiel, swallowed hard. And then he came out with it.

“I wanted to ask you something. Pisces, right? Pisces Jealnet?”

The Horns looked at Pisces. He felt his heart jump. His last name was unfamiliar. Unwelcome. But he just nodded.

“That’s me.”

“I read your bounty. I’m not here to collect! But I read it. Do you—do you know that Liscor had a problem with the undead? Not just with the crypt. That’s new. But back during the Second Antinium Wars. The Necromancer hit the city over a decade back. You heard about that, right? Az’kerash.”

The word came from Mesiel’s lips like a curse. Again, Pisces’ heart jumped. He nodded, straightening in his chair. Waiting. The Drake’s eyes were locked on him now. A familiar look. Anger and grief and—confusion.

“I was there. The undead—they put our city under siege. For months! The Necromancer was destroying the wall piece by piece, and the army and the Watch had to try and rebuild it while fighting the undead. We were all fighting. If someone died in Liscor—they came back. Even the rats. Even the damn rats.

He was going somewhere. Far away. Back in time. The Horns waited, caught up in the Drake’s memories. Pisces’ stomach was twisting. Waiting. Which one was it?

The Drake gulped.

“My mother died to a zombie during the siege. It snuck past our lines somehow. The sewers. And it got into her house. She was just an old Drake. And it ate her. But that’s not all. It turned her into another one. A zombie. I came back and found her. Undead.”

He looked at Pisces then. Yvlon opened her mouth, but whatever words she was looking for weren’t there. Pisces nodded. He looked at the Drake’s eyes.

“I’m sorry for your loss, sir. I was not there, but I am sorry.”

“Yeah. Thanks. But I wanted to know—how can you be one? A [Necromancer]? How can you do that?”

The Drake was shaking. And around them, people were turning, listening in. Erin Solstice looked up from her conversation with Relc. Hesitated, began moving their way.

Pisces looked at her and shook his head. He looked up at the Drake, and rose. Mesiel took a step back. But Pisces looked at the tables around him. His audience. He spoke to them, to the Drake.

“I am sorry about your loss, Mister Mesiel. I am. But yes, the undead are dangerous. And they wish to slay the living, it is true. But I attempt to control them. I cannot speak for other [Necromancers], but I want to understand them. And I am not Az’kerash. I am an adventurer, and a [Mage]. And a [Necromancer]. It is my occupation.”

It wasn’t a perfect speech. Far from it. There were no perfect, elegant words that Pisces wanted to deliver. It wasn’t even the whole truth. But it was the best he could give.

And even so. Mesiel listened to Pisces’ words. He stared into the Human’s face and shook his head slightly.

“Why do you do it? What’s there to be gained in—I could understand [Summoners]. Or making Golems. But undead? Rotting flesh and bone? People?”

Pisces’ shoulders began to hunch, but he straightened them. He met the Drake’s eyes. It was as if they were the only bright things in the world. So hard to meet.

“I attempt not to use people, sir. And I work with bone. It is—a material. To be used in creation.”

That was the wrong thing to say. The Drake jerked back.

“A—but why dead bodies?

Pisces opened his mouth and hesitated. Say it another way. He spoke slowly, trying not to stumble over his words.

“It’s what I’m good at. I understand it, like a [Bladesman] understands his sword. What do you do for a living, sir?”

“I’m a [Builder]. I work with constructing stuff, fixing, mainly.”

The young man nodded.

“Then I enjoy necromancy as much as you might while swinging a hammer. It may not be a direct comparison, but if you understand passion for your work—the satisfaction of completing a task well—that is what I have towards necromancy.”

The Drake nodded jerkily. He searched Pisces, and then his team. Pisces wondered what Ceria and Yvlon’s faces looked like. The Drake tried again.

“But couldn’t you make golems instead? Why bone? And the undead. Do you enjoy making them into—puppets?”

He was going in circles. So was Pisces. Erin trotted over.

“Okay! Hey! No bothering Pisces, okay?”

The Drake looked at her.

“I just want to know. He’s got a bounty. I read it.”

“It’s false. Wistram made it up. Parts of it.”

Ceria stood up, protectively standing by Pisces. He wished she wouldn’t. The Drake turned back.

“Parts of it are fake? What parts?”

She hesitated.

“The—look. Pisces did some bad stuff. There was an accident at Wistram. People got killed, but it wasn’t exactly—it was an accident. And the [Mages] in Wistram? Montressa and her team? They have a grudge. But—Pisces isn’t—the necrophilia isn’t true.”

The aforementioned Pisces closed his eyes. Erin inhaled her lips. Mesiel just looked at Pisces. And Pisces looked at him. He bowed his head slightly.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mister Mesiel. But cannot give you what you want. I am a [Necromancer]. But I am not Az’kerash.”

“But why?

The questioned lingered, even as a Gnoll and Drake came to pull Mesiel back. Pisces met his eyes.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

It was the most honest answer. The most unfulfilling. The [Necromancer] watched Erin chivvy the others back. He turned. Now, they were all staring at him.

“Damn. What was that? He can’t just—”

Ceria was flustered. She turned. Ksmvr was looking anxiously at her and Pisces. Yvlon just met the [Necromancer]’s eyes. She nodded. So did he.

Pisces sat back down at the table, although his appetite was gone. His team sat around him and Erin came back. They looked expectant. He just shrugged, keeping his face straight.

“It is—tolerable. Fine, even. He asked, which is more than I am accustomed to. In truth, I am surprised no one sought me out before.”

“People didn’t know. They might have, but I guess rumors are spreading.”

Yvlon murmured. She looked around and Pisces sensed heads ducking back. The [Wounded Warrior] frowned, but stopped when he shook his head. Pisces glanced up at Erin, managed a smile for her. But it didn’t fool her.

“That Az’kerash guy was a jerk. Not Pisces. Well—Pisces is a jerk, but he’s not a bad guy. And they’re not the same.”

Erin’s comment made Pisces smile. The [Necromancer] stood back up, pushing his plate back. He looked around.

“But he was the Necromancer. That’s how they remember him.”

No one replied to that. At last, Ceria muttered as she drained her cup.

“Let’s get to work guarding the Bloodfields, shall we?”

Pisces nodded. He felt tired, despite having just risen. Not physically, but with that mortal tiredness. He turned towards the magic door. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Yvlon’s. Ksmvr put his hand on the same spot. Two of them, in fact. And Ceria gripped Pisces’ other shoulder. She raised her eyebrows. And despite himself, he smiled. His heart lifted for a second and his shoulders relaxed.

He was not alone. And so, the [Necromancer] walked towards the doors, surrounded by friends. It was just another day. They were always like this. They had been ever since he’d gained his class. Like breakfasts, some had been dark days. Many had. But they were getting better.

Yes. Better. But he wished he had an answer for Mesiel. A perfect answer to tell him the truth. Pisces sighed and shook his head. He hadn’t found it yet.

Why do you do it?

Because I want to. That’s all.

 

—-

 

Someone else was having an unordinary, ordinary day. Bevussa, Gold-rank Captain of the Wings of Pallass, descended into Liscor’s dungeon with her team. Ready to slowly explore the dungeon, kill monsters, get paid.

She’d had breakfast at The Wandering Inn. Or maybe—a snack? Bevussa’s beak opened and she made a disgusted sound. She was still tasting it, nearly twenty minutes later.

“Something wrong, boss?”

Zassil, one of the winged Oldblood Drakes and a competent [Flier], looked curiously at Bevussa. He was actually a [Battle Flier], which wasn’t that noteworthy. But it was unique to flying species. Bevussa spat, opening and closing her beak and grimacing.

“That soup. Gah! I know Erin said it keeps well, but—Ancestors! It’s coated my tongue!”

She drank from a water flask as her team walked through the cleared tunnels. By now, all the traps had been carefully outlined in glowing paint, and the adventurers had barricades up, maintaining a safe zone. Even so, the Wings of Pallass were wary; monsters could bypass the barriers.

Wary and yet not. This was a job. They’d done many days of this routine. It could turn deadly at any second, but it was what they were used to. This dungeon would make their fortunes. Or become their grave. Even so, they could chat.

“It tastes awful. I’ll give it that.”

Issa muttered as she flexed her wings. Bevussa nodded and Zassil and Kin, their [Mage], all agreed. Erin’s Scale Soup was so foul that it beat out even potions. It was the texture on top of the taste.

“Why’re we using it, Bevussa? I know it’s not much, but none of the other teams go to Erin’s inn every day for it. The Flamewardens didn’t.”

“They have the Heartflame Breastplate, Zassil. They don’t need the potion. Dead gods, but I’d love to try it on myself, even if I couldn’t fly!”

Kin looked envious. Even Bevussa nodded; she’d been raised among Drakes and the famous Heartflame Breastplate stirred feelings of awe and envy in her feathered chest as well.

“They’re just renting it from Miss Shivertail. Can’t we do it after them, Bevussa?”

“And do what? Turn into a land-bound team, Zassil?”

“Well, maybe it’s light enough to fly in? And if it’s not, one of us could stay on the ground. They’d be just as safe with that artifact on! Have you seen the flames?”

“Keldrass is paying for it and I’m not wasting gold on something we don’t need. The Flamewardens can pay to use the armor.”

“And we pay to drink Scale Soup? That’s a terrible tradeoff, boss!”

The Wings laughed. So did Bevussa, but she shook her head.

 

“Let’s think about it, team. Erin’s food isn’t as good as, say, a Stoneskin Scroll like the one that we bought from that Minotauress, but it’s a tiny fraction of the cost! And it’s pretty good!”

She thumped a fist on her chest for emphasis. Her skin was tougher now, like leather. Zassil, Issa, and Kin nodded reluctantly. Bevussa gestured back the way they’d parted with the Flamewardens.

“It doesn’t make much difference if you’ve got armor. Some, but anything that can go through plate mail will go through her enchantment. But if you’re wearing light armor or nothing at all? The Scale Soup was made for our team!”

The Wings of Pallass stopped in front of a barricade. Zassil muttered.

“It still tastes like Wyvern shit melted into a pot.”

“True, but it’ll keep you alive. So eat it. I’m actually thinking of asking Erin if she can make it more palatable. She said she forgot how to make it the other way.”

“Why doesn’t she sell more of it? Dead gods, if it tasted good I’d eat it all the time.”

“Lack of interest? Apparently to make it she melted like, eight pots and nearly killed herself a few times. I’ll talk with her. But no complaining. Now, let’s get to it.”

Bevussa checked the barricades, unlatching the bolts with Issa. Beyond this point lay unfamiliar territory. Monsters, and treasure.

“Think we’ll get a haul today, boss? Something we don’t have to gamble for, like with the Raskghar? I’m still mad about that armor! Did Keldrass say he finally got it appraised?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s classified as Siegespell Armor. It might be a variant, but it’s close to Named-rank gear.”

Zassil hissed as Bevussa shoved the barricade aside. She reached for her shortsword, grimacing. She felt exactly like the rest of her team.

Damn. That’s not fair! We didn’t get nearly as much for our share!”

“It’s luck of the draw, Zassil. But let’s all be on the lookout for secret rooms, huh? If there’s magical armor and an invisible bow and whatnot in this dungeon, there’s something for us. Stay sharp and on me! Kin, take point!”

The Wings of Pallass straightened and nodded. Bevussa watched Kin take the lead and followed after, Zassil in the rear after Issa. Her team got to work. It was an ordinary day. But it could turn special or dire in a second. She just wished she could get the damn soup’s taste out of her mouth!

 

—-

 

Palt, the Centaur [Illusionist] had not had breakfast at The Wandering Inn. He hadn’t really had breakfast; just a few oat snacks he’d eaten while talking. Negotiating, really. He was yawning, tired from an early morning. Dawn, practically. But the Ullsinoi faction had been in heated conference last night, and they’d come to a decision as promised.

Naturally, they’d included Palt in the conversation. He’d said as much as he could, but the Elusive Lot, the leaders of his faction, had done the deciding. And they’d decided right! The exhausted Centaur grinned as he trotted down the street. He didn’t mind the stares the Drakes and Gnolls gave him; he was used to being an oddity.

And nothing could shake his good mood. It was going to be a good day. Possibly an amazing one. No—it was already exemplary. Terrific!

And because it was this particular day it mattered. The day might not have been special, but now it would be. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Palt wasn’t interested in the philosophy of such things.

He murmured to himself as he paused by a market stall. The Gnoll attending it looked somewhat familiar. But Palt was too busy to listen to her talking policy with her customers. He murmured to himself as he pointed for a few ingredients and she happily packaged them up.

“I’ve settled the matter. The Ullsinoi faction has convinced the Revivalists not to interfere in your inn for a few—a very few!—concessions. You can offer us more than sheer military matters. Plays, your door as a hub for our people—how much Miss?”

“Four silver and three coppers, yes?”

Palt happily paid Krshia, not noticing the Gnoll staring at him. He thanked her and hurried off, thrusting the ingredients into his belt pouch.

“—only a few concessions. The Ullsinoi faction would love for your inn to stay right where it is! And if it connects to both Pallass and Invrisil? We just need to put a few—markers—on the door. And if you’re able to tell us—”

He was so relieved. The Elusive Lot had seen his points! In fact, they’d realized how valuable Erin was even outside of her status as an Earther. That was what Palt liked about his faction. They were practical, and they stayed in the world, not apart. Erin would get what she wanted. Montressa wouldn’t, but Palt would get what he wanted. And perhaps more.

The Centaur distractedly pulled out a mirror and checked his appearance. He could always use a glamor spell, but that would be a waste of magic. He pulled out a comb as he trotted towards the inn. Okay—now, he needed a smooth transition.

“So, shall we discuss the matter over a meal? Somewhere else than your inn? I know it’s work—no, wait. I’d love to show you some more of my cooking. No—”

The Centaur halted. Careful! He tried again.

“I just happened to have—no, that’s trite. Miss Solstice, would you care to accompany me for a night out? No, that’s far worse. She might not even get the nuance if I said it another way, though! Argh!”

His hooves did a little dance on the cobblestones. This was the hardest part! Palt glanced around.

“Let’s share a meal and discuss it. My treat. A table at Wishdrinks? Or perhaps a place in Pallass. I insist! We’ll need to work closely—no. I’d like to get to know you better. Damn, damn.”

He wasn’t used to Human traditions. Centaurs had it easy. And Dullahans! Lizardfolk were delightfully straightforward—Humans were complex in their inelegance and Palt didn’t know what was normal in Erin’s culture. But he’d workshop it.

“Hm. Go now or deal with Montressa? She’s all the way in the Bloodfields. Damn, damn.”

A passing Gnoll father glared at Palt and the Centaur saw his son staring up at the Centaur. The Centaur closed his mouth. He cast a localized [Hush] spell.

“No, no. Deal with Montressa first. She’s going to throw an unholy fit. Let’s go there first. [Flash Hooves] it is. Then—a dinner? No…how about—a chess game! Wait! Has she played Go? Palt, you’re a genius!”

He happily galloped towards the eastern gate. Montressa first. He’d present Erin with everything she wanted and then they’d nail down the deal over a meal. Take it slow. But there were first steps, and Palt intended to make this day one he’d remember. Should he get her flowers? But that was so trite and she wasn’t going to eat them…

The Centaur laughed as he ran out of the city. He smiled as his heart leapt. It was going to be a special day, he knew. Because it was today!

This day.

 

—-

 

Ceria was worried about Pisces after the awkward, tense confrontation in the inn. But the [Necromancer] didn’t seem too bothered. Indeed, he even made a small joke as they entered the grasslands bordering the Bloodfields for work.

“One would imagine venturing into the Bloodfields, battling a Watchertree, and nearly being consumed by insects would merit us a day off.”

The half-Elf blinked. Then she laughed, relieved.

“That’s because we’re soft. I bet Master Reikhle doesn’t see it that way. See? He’s already at work!”

The Gnoll [Master Builder] was indeed already chivvying his workers at the road. It was sloping upwards, heading into the foothills, and the Gnoll was shouting orders.

“Stone! Yes, lay the foundations! I don’t care how fast it has to be—we’re making this part out of stone!”

He was pointing at the road, which would cut into the foothills around the Bloodfields to pass south towards Pallass. Ceria wondered if that would slow the pace of the road; it was being built incredibly fast! Already, the road stretched for miles, and she’d heard a second team was connecting it to Liscor’s eastern gate.

A scrum of people not being shouted at caught Ceria’s eye. She paused and whistled. Yvlon had already seen and raised both her brows.

“That’s a lot of adventurers! Is something going on?”

She pointed ahead. The Horns picked up the pace, heading for more Silver-rank teams. But not the usual five or six. Ceria’s jaw dropped.

“Dead gods. Nine, twelve—fourteen teams? Everyone’s here!”

She recognized all the teams who’d signed up on the first day in Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild. Even a few native Liscorian teams of Drakes and Gnolls. But mainly Humans. Ceria waved to Alais and Stan in the back as Yvlon nodded at Kam and her team. Hauntgheist, Thunder’s Solace, the Boltspitters—even the Ensoldier Shields were here! Walt’s team was back after yesterday’s dire battle.

“Ceria! Good to see you! Your team’s not on a break?”

“Not us! We’re back at work. But what about your guys, Walt?”

“Hah! It’ll take more than a few hits to knock us down! Tommie and Belt are fine. See?”

He pointed out the two warriors. Both men had holes in their armor and were wincing, but the healing potions had put them back on their feet. They waved and came over as the Horns were welcomed among the teams. Walt slapped Pisces on the shoulder and the [Necromancer] winced. But Walt was trying.

“We still owe your team more drinks! You slipped away. Dead gods, but your Antinium guy can put them away.”

“I was sufficiently inebriated. Hello, Captain Walt. Hello, Captain Alais. Captain Crossbow Stan.”

Ceria laughed as Stan and Alais came over. They nodded to her. Things were even easier among them now. And even Pisces being welcomed. Not as easily, but Walt kept slapping Pisces on the back. He’d shown them. Ceria smiled, then saw Yvlon gesturing at the huge group.

“Why are all the teams present, Stan?”

Crossbow Stan shrugged. He was yawning and shaking his head.

“No clue. We just received word all of us were supposed to come today. It’s got to have something to do with the Bloodfields and the incident yesterday.”

“They’re not making us fight there!”

Alais was alarmed. Ceria shook her head.

“No way. We’re not being paid for that. And we’re not doing it. Maybe it’s another demonstration…?”

“Whoops. We’re finding out. Here comes Master Taskmaster himself.”

Reikhle was striding over with a few [Scouts] and his subordinates. The Gnoll shouted.

Attention! Listen up!

The adventuring teams broke off from their gossip and turned. The Gnoll didn’t beat about the brush.

“You all heard what happened yesterday? Good! The Bloodfields are more dangerous than we thought! Those spores that got the Ensoldier Shields are putting my road in jeopardy, and Liscor’s Council and the Watch both want to know what the Bloodfields are capable of! So you’re all being called in.”

“To do what? Fight?”

A voice called out nervously in the crowd. Reikhle shook his head.

“We are taking every precaution against the spores and these new plants in the Bloodfields. Until we determine the outer range the spores might travel to. So. All teams will be deployed to the Bloodfields today—on standby, mainly. You lucky slugs! A few teams who should be able to resist the spores, like Hauntgheist, will do the scouting.”

“So we’re just here to bail them out. Excellent!”

Ceria cheered up at once. A few of the teams assigned to scouting groaned, but they seemed relieved by the precautions. Ceria turned back to Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr.

“Looks like we get time off, huh?”

“Not so fast! Since none of you will be scouting ahead, you’re all working here! Which means anyone who can lift is going to help my teams!”

The adventurers began cursing. Reikhle ignored them and began issuing orders. Ceria groaned, but good-naturedly. She hung back with Stan, Alais, and Walt. She couldn’t lift things, anyways. And that meant she had plenty of time to relax and gossip. Rank had its privileges. Ceria began to grin. She nudged Alais.

“You know what’d be really nice? Chairs. Think we can get some from Erin’s inn? Or I can make some out of ice. And some drinks!”

Yvlon rolled her eyes, exasperated.

 

—-

 

As the adventurers milled about and the workers resumed building the road, they were being watched. Montressa du Valeross stood on a small crest, nearly two thousand feet distant. She wasn’t worried about being spotted; she was under an [Invisibility] spell. And she was using another spell to magnify her vision of the adventurers.

She was searching for her target. She’d lost him for a second. But then Montressa narrowed her eyes.

“There he is.”

She was staring at Pisces. Her hands clenched on the magic staff that Archmage Nailihuaile had personally created. Like the brass orb, it had been a temporary gift, meant to be tried in the field. Both were powerful magical artifacts. But even without them, Montressa was first of her team.

They were standing with her. Well, Isceil was sitting on a rock. But he glanced up and nodded, spotting Pisces. Beza’s arms were folded as she stared at the distant adventurers. Ulinde was sharpening her claws. She was still wearing the Drake body she’d been gifted by the Halfseekers. Montressa glared back at her, then looked around.

“Where’s Palt? He’s late.

The Centaur and fifth member of their group was indeed absent. Montressa looked around. Isceil yawned.

“No idea. Stop glaring at me, Montressa. Beza?”

“I have no idea what he’s up to.”

The Minotauress snorted. Ulinde shifted nervously, glancing at Montressa out of the corner of her eye.

“He—he said he needed to take care of something in Liscor. He’ll be over in half an hour, he said.”

“Well, he’s late. I want everyone here in case we need to move!”

“And do what, exactly? There’s fourteen—no, fifteen teams of Silver-ranks down there, Montressa. Unless you want to link up and blow them all to pieces, we’re not fighting our way through that many Silver-ranks.”

Isceil pointed out. He complained loudly and irritably, having marched all the way here in the morning. Even with movement spells, it took the Wistram team far longer to get here and set up than the others; they were still banned from The Wandering Inn, save for Ulinde. And Palt.

Montressa ground her teeth together.

“There might be an opening. And the Horns might do something. Go scouting.”

“And if they do? What do we do? Kill them? We could have let them die yesterday, Montressa.”

Beza pointed out. She looked pointedly at her leader. Montressa said nothing. Her knuckles whitened slowly. Beza looked at Isceil and Ulinde. The Drake nodded.

“If we did nothing, they might be dead. I’m not saying we should have. We saved those Humans. Although they barely thanked us! But if you wanted Pisces dead…”

I know, I know!

Montressa turned and shouted at Isceil. He leaned back. Montressa struck the rock she was standing on with her staff.

“I know! But there were innocents! We’re not—we’re not him!”

“But he was going to save the adventurers. He and Ceria—”

Ulinde shut up as Montressa whirled. Beza looked concerned as she put a hand on Montressa’s shoulder. She turned to the Selphid.

“One good deed doesn’t excuse what he’s done. Still, we can’t go after them without violating Liscor’s laws. And there is Erin Solstice to consider. Montressa, all this observation is pointless. Why don’t we focus on the inn?”

“We can do that. Later. You can. But we’re watching the Horns.”

Isceil exhaled loudly, shooting a flurry of sparks out of his mouth. He looked at Beza and grimaced. Then he shared a look with Ulinde. Montressa ignored them all. Her eyes were focused on Pisces.

“I’ll get him.”

“You could have let him die. Maybe he’s—”

Beza slashed with one hand across her throat. Isceil shut up, and just in time too. Montressa’s eyes blazed as she turned her head. Isceil fell silent.

Why wasn’t he showing his true colors? What would it take? How could she get him? Montressa’s mind was locked up, going in circles. She stared down. Beza sighed as she shifted her weight.

“I might as well do some scroll scribing. But after this, we need to talk about this observation, Montressa. Focus on what we’re supposed to do. Montressa? Montressa.”

The young woman didn’t answer. After a moment, Beza made a disgusted sound. She sat down and pulled out her equipment.

“Not like Palt’s missing anything, anyways. Hey Ulinde, those Halfseekers talking to you, then?”

Isceil began chatting with Ulinde. The Selphid nodded, glancing nervously at Montressa’s back. The [Mages] waited. Beza writing carefully, Isceil chatting with Ulinde. Montressa waiting.

They were being watched as well. Like some comedy skit, the Wistram team’s vantage point was being spied on from another position even further back. A black, grinning skull slowly rose over a rock. She stared down at the [Mages]. She was only six hundred feet back, and she was listening to every word the [Mages] said. And she could also hear the Horns chatting thousands of feet distant.

The black-boned skeleton peeked over the ridge. She was under the effects of so many concealment spells she wouldn’t have been visible anyways, but even so, it was style.

“Ijvani, cease peeking and keep your vision still.”

Yes, Master.

The black skeleton wilted. The voice in her head was Az’kerash’s. The Necromancer was watching through her mind. Like Ijvani, he was simultaneously listening to multiple inputs at once, watching through a fixed [Scrying] spell as Ceria argued with Master Reikhle about being allowed to sit in chairs. The Gnoll didn’t mind that, but he drew the line at a table and drinks and snacks. They were on watch, not relaxing!

Across the Bloodfields, Hauntgheist and two other teams were approaching the Bloodfields, getting ready to measure the effects of the spores and the range they might be blown. Az’kerash observed everything, as well as listened to Isceil grouse.

He was also keeping himself busy. In his study in his hidden castle, the Necromancer had split his mind to divide his focus. But managing four or five inputs was trivial. So he devoted the rest of his attention on a scroll in front of him.

He was scribing a spell as well. Beza had given him the thought. But the [Spellscribe] would have wept to see the difference in the quality and scale of the spells both were scribing. Her [Stone Skin] scroll, being written on the finest parchment with gemstone ink was nothing to the black scroll that seemed to suck in the light, being inscribed with glowing dust that shone like the moon.

Az’kerash couldn’t even use a quill; he was melding the dust into the scroll, forming the basis for a spell. And even he had limits; scroll scribing wasn’t his talent, so creating a scroll of [Greater Teleport] was beyond even him. Even so—this scroll would sell for maybe a hundred thousand gold coins on the market. Or a few; Az’kerash didn’t pay attention to the market for Tier 6 spells.

It was mindless work, really. Something to keep him occupied. Not like the focused creation of new undead he was normally consumed with, or the machinations that kept him abreast of the world, finding new sources of power. Really, he was focused mainly on the Wistram [Mages] and the Horns.

And Ijvani did not understand why. She was happier than she had been, to have her master directing her personally for so long. But why today?

She had to ask. The skeleton mage sent her thoughts to her Master, not bothering with verbalization.

Master, why am I here? I have kept the [Mages] under observation. But why is today important?

As she thought, she prodded the little, quivering ‘heart’ in her ribcage. The Healing Slime quivered away from her, which was fun. Az’kerash thought absently, his words appearing in her head with perfect clarity. Conveying more than mere words, in fact. Image, intention, emotion—it was all part of it.

“Because of the communications within the Ullsinoi faction. And the larger debate that occurred in Wistram yesterday, Ijvani. I was not…privy to the communications within the [Illusionist] factions. But other factions in Wistram are less talented. Montressa du Valeross’ mission to pursue Pisces Jealnet will be rescinded today. And his bounty will be mitigated. Not erased.”

The skeleton nodded, then remembered to keep her vision steady. Montressa was not aware of this fact yet. In a thoughtless way, Ijvani looked forwards to her anguish. But then she had another thought.

Master.

“Ijvani, you are testing my patience.”

I am sorry, Master. But why does it matter for me to stay here, then? If the [Mages] are unable to pursue this Pisces…

Az’kerash looked up from his work on the scroll. And Ijvani saw/felt his bitter smile. The Necromancer rose, and focused on Pisces, standing together with Ksmvr as the adventurers began helping the workers. He nodded to the image in his mind. And Ijvani felt…

“Because they do not forget. Because she will not cease. No matter what happens, they will drag him down. Watch, Ijvani. Wait for my signal.”

Az’kerash stared at Montressa’s hunched back. And Ijvani felt another image flash in her mind. It looked like Bea’s face. But alive. Turning away.

A [King] sat on his throne, pointing down with a shaking finger—

Az’kerash’ mind closed abruptly. Ijvani nodded, shaken.

Yes, Master.

She grabbed the Healing Slime as she waited. Motionless. In her jaw, the [Blackfire Fireball] waited. Az’kerash sat down and resumed work on his scroll. But—impatiently. His three Chosen, peeking at him, saw him pause to address Ijvani every few minutes. He was waiting. But he was certain. Because he was waiting for something, and it would matter not at all to his grand schemes. But it mattered to him. So the Necromancer waited and watched with his minion.

This day.

 

—-

 

“We have to help carry all this crap?”

Walt’s outraged voice rang across the groups of sitting and chatting adventurers. Ceria looked up. The leader of Ensoldier Shields was one of the people conscripted for work. Many of the adventurers, like Kam, the [Bow Rider], weren’t obligated to work, not having particularly useful Skills or builds. But some, like Walt, were good for sheer labor.

Ceria watched as the burly adventurer was shouted into working by Master Reikhle. She was relieved not to be working. And indeed, no one in her team had been conscripted. Yvlon and Ksmvr were surely candidates, but perhaps this was a silent reward from the surly [Master Builder].

If so, Ceria enjoyed it. She sat back in her chair and looked around. Pisces was standing, talking to a group of adventurers with Yvlon as Ksmvr practiced shooting with Kam. It was relaxed, but Ceria’s ears perked up as she listened to Pisces talking.

“Yes, I have met other [Necromancers]. A cult, in fact. I have no inclination to associate with them.”

“Criminals exist in every class.”

Yvlon put in. She was glaring at the adventurer who’d asked Pisces the question. The woman raised her hands.

“Obviously! I was just wondering.”

The half-Elf rose, a bit warily. Pisces was at the center of attention again. Like the inn, his actions of yesterday had earned him wary recognition. But with it had come the questions. They weren’t—accusatory. But adventurers and workers alike wanted to know more.

And the [Necromancer] was answering them, politely. But Ceria thought she could see some tenseness in Pisces, under his polite, open façade. She came over and Alais turned towards her. The [Aeromancer] hesitated. Then she nodded at Ceria with a smile.

“You know, that ice chariot of yours was something yesterday, Ceria!”

“Useful. And it’ll help out a lot with scouting. Far better than walking like my team has to do.”

Stan agreed thoughtfully. Ceria smiled.

“Well, it’s only possible with Pisces’ horses. Undead horses don’t mind if their legs break.”

The adventurers laughed, some awkwardly. They turned back to Pisces and Ceria saw more adventurers were keeping back, listening, but not part of the conversation. She looked at Pisces and saw he knew it too. But the [Necromancer] was smiling.

“If I could conjure more horses, I would, Captain Stan. But they can’t be controlled by anyone but me.”

“Pity. I’m footsore from walking. And I’m not as young as you children!”

Stan smiled around. He was in on it too, from the way he was making people laugh, relax. Yvlon smiled as she drank from a water flask.

“Still better than Ceria.”

“Hey, Yvlon!”

“Am I telling lies, Ceria?”

The half-Elf spluttered, but she was glad of the laughter. It took some of the attention off Pisces. But they were going to keep asking questions.

And—it was actually Yvlon who glanced at Pisces. Then she hesitated, adjusted the gauntlets on her arm, and nodded at the workers.

“You know, Master Reikhle should really be coming to Pisces, not Walt or his team. The Ensoldier Shields and all our [Warriors] can lift, but Pisces could conjure a dozen skeletons and have them work twice as fast as even a low-level [Hauler]. Right, Pisces?”

The light conversation died as if Yvlon had stuck her sword through its heart. Every eye turned to Pisces. He was looking at Yvlon. But she had the same look as yesterday, when she’d suggested the ice chariot. And she looked at Ceria and then nodded at Pisces.

And he? He hesitated.

In his study, Az’kerash sat up. And he saw Pisces nod, at Yvlon Byres.

“That is…correct, Yvlon. I had considered it, but I think it would be imprudent to use undead.”

“Why? You did it at Albez. That’s how we managed to clear all the dirt and get to the treasure by ourselves, Alais, Stan.”

“Really? And you’d conjure…undead?”

Alais looked at Pisces. Yvlon shook her head.

“Animate. He has the bones for it.”

“From where?”

Someone laughed nervously in the back. No one else did.

“Bandits. Ksmvr killed a bunch of them. I saw Pisces recovering the bones myself. And I’d swear on truth spell it’s just bandit bones. Is that a problem?”

The armored woman spoke coolly, looking around. A Drake adventurer coughed.

“So long as its Human bones.”

Some chuckles. But the other adventurers were just waiting. Stan leaned on the table the adventurers had taken from Erin’s inn.

“So, these skeletons would be under your control, Pisces?”

“Perfectly. I would be watching them. I could set them to a task, but they wouldn’t deviate so long as I maintain direct control.”

“And what can they do better than the [Workers] here?”

“Run? They don’t get tired, Kam. Think about it. They’re not as strong or as tough as we are, but they can work all day. Go on, Pisces, show them.”

“Yvlon, I don’t believe—”

“Show them.”

Ceria stared at Yvlon. But the woman’s face was clear, knowing. Pisces hesitated.

“One skeleton?”

“It’s not like it’ll go out of control.”

Ceria’s heart was beating far too fast as Pisces hesitated. But he undid the drawstrings on the bag of holding. The adventurers drew back in a wide arc, all save Yvlon and Ceria and Ksmvr. As the bones spilled from the bag of holding and rose, they tensed. When the glowing green flames appeared in the sockets, a few half-drew their blades. Yvlon looked around.

“It’s one skeleton. I could beat one of those with a beer mug. Old Stan might have trouble, but the rest of you?”

That put their backs up. One of the Human Captains laughed, but shakily.

“I could kill a group with a fart.”

“I’d believe that.”

A Gnoll growled. There was a quick punch, laughter. But still, it was Stan who approached first. He warily waved a hand in front of the skeleton. It didn’t move. Stan reached out and touched it.

Gaah!

Ceria shouted. Stan leapt back. Everyone looked at the half-Elf. She scratched at one arm.

“Cramp.”

Damn it, Ceria!

Stan swore at her. The half-Elf laughed. And that did it. A few more adventurers approached. One prodded at the skull as the skeleton stared forwards, unmoving.

“Dead gods, I’m creeped out. And it won’t move?”

“Not so long as I control it.”

“I can just imagine it turning and going for me—”

“But it won’t.”

“Are you sure?”

Yvlon glared at the Drake.

“It’s not even got a weapon.”

“Well, if it grabs mine—”

One of the Gnolls ignored the debate. She knocked on the skeleton’s head thoughtfully, then tried to pry it off. It came loose and the skeleton collapsed. The Gnoll paused.

“Oops. Can you—”

The skeleton jerked back upright and the Gnoll swore, retreating. Then she laughed.

“It’s not exactly strong, is it? How could this thing outdo our [Workers]?”

“Well, they could gather stones, drag all the heavy stuff rather than put it on wagons or have our [Haulers] do the job. And they don’t get tired, so they can go full-speed. For skeletons. Go on, Pisces. Show them.”

“With what?”

“Well, if we gave it a bag of holding…”

Stan was rubbing his chin. He eyed the workers, who were hauling pieces of stone to lay a foundation. Reikhle was overseeing the mixing of some kind of cement or mortar that would form a sturdier section of the road. It was backbreaking work.

“Can a skeleton pick up stones? They’re not that smart.”

“The ah, intelligence of an undead like this is limited, but they can do so. I haven’t put them to this specific task, but this skeleton should be capable of it. Shall we test it out?”

Pisces looked around. The adventurers murmured.

“Why not?”

“Should be interesting.”

They followed the skeleton over as Pisces pointed. It began picking up stones at the base of the foothills. After a moment, someone looked around.

“It needs a sack. Hold on.”

“Yeah. It—it certainly beats having to pick all that up yourself, right?”

“Right. But—

“What if there were six? Do they need to stop?”

“Never.”

“Never. You’ve seen undead, Ovelel.”

“Sure. But—okay, I mean, I saw a Golem once at one of those massive farms. And that thing was worth every gold coin. Never stopped working; could plough, chop wood overnight. And fight! But undead aren’t that convenient.”

“Because they might go wild. But—hey, Pisces! Can you do six?”

“Easily…if no one would be alarmed by it?”

“I mean, it’s six skeletons. And his farts…”

There was an odd mood in the air. Something was happening. Something that wasn’t magical. Or if it was, it wasn’t a kind Ceria could conjure. It reminded her of Erin. And it was spreading. The adventurers stood back warily, watching, commenting. But then there were six skeletons. And they picked up stones, loading them into a sack. And they were just…working.

One picked up a pickaxe and the wary adventurers stood back. But all the skeleton did was hit the stones with it. Clumsily; it didn’t have the exact finesse of a [Miner]. But it could get the pointy end in the right place, breaking up weak rock. And if you watched it, saw how Pisces calmly made them move…

It took Master Reikhle a good twenty minutes before he noticed the commotion. Then, the approaching group of eight skeletons, carrying huge sacks. The workers stopped and the Gnoll stormed over.

What is going on here?

He stared at the undead, his fur standing up on end. But they just trooped past and unloaded their cargo. Workers sprang aside, cursing, and backed up, grabbing at improvised weapons. But the skeletons neatly deposited the stones into the trough that would form the road. They emptied their sacks, then turned, and held still.

“What is this?”

Reikhle looked at Pisces and Ceria and the adventurers following him. It was Yvlon who replied.

“Undead workers. Master Reikhle. Skeletons. We thought you could use extra workers.”

“I don’t need—”

The Gnoll hesitated. He stared at the skeletons. Alais nudged Pisces.

“That wasn’t bad. But can they run?

Silently, Pisces pointed. The skeletons charged back the way they’d come and began grabbing pieces of stone, loose rocks, and piling them into a sack. When one was filled, a skeleton grabbed it, hoisted it up with the worst lifting technique imaginable, and ran back.

It wasn’t fast, with the weight on its back, but it was faster than any of the Drake or Gnoll [Haulers] who weren’t about to run. And it was less than they could carry, it was true. Drakes and Gnolls stood aside, watching as the skeleton deposited the bag in the trough.

“But they’re undead.”

Someone commented softly. And yet—Master Reikhle was watching the skeleton charge back. The others had already filled another sack.

And that was the thing about the undead. You could look at them and imagine them turning on you. The adventurers had seen it. The potential for what they were was there. But—they didn’t tire. They didn’t slow. And they were completely expendable. They followed orders to a fault.

Slowly, the Gnoll [Master Builder] rubbed his fur. It was still standing up. But after a few cautious sniffs, he turned towards Pisces. He nodded towards the work.

“My team can do all of that. There’s no need! Hrr. But tell me. There’s rocks to break up ahead to smooth the road. Those things. Can they use a pickaxe?”

And the moment continued. Ceria saw Pisces raise his brows. His lips quirked for a second.

“Of course. I can also animate horses. If you needed something to traverse the rocky terrain. I’m at your disposal, Master Reikhle.”

 

—-

 

Palt didn’t gallop all the way to the Bloodfields, but he was still breathing hard when he arrived. Even a Centaur took a while to get there, and he did not like rocky inclines. But he made it. Just in time to hear Montressa’s voice.

“No. No. Nononononono—what are they doing?

The [Aegiscaster] was staring down at the road. At the ten skeletons hard at work, helping create a smooth incline for the road to ramp upwards. She was white-faced, pale.

“Montressa, it’s alright. It’s just skeletons. [Calm]—”

Palt reached for her. The young woman slapped his hands away. She stared around.

“Are you seeing this? They’re using undead! They’re using his undead!

“I see it. Idiots.”

Isceil spat over the cliff. Beza just shook her head.

“Like using Golems. Don’t they see those things will take away their jobs?”

“I don’t know. There’s work to go round. And it’s not much worse than Golems, is it?”

Ulinde flinched as Montressa whirled on her. The young woman’s eyes were wide.

“They’re monsters. Both of them! You can’t trust—they’re letting him do it.”

“It’s only ten skeletons. I could take them out without even using my hands.”

Beza began, but Montressa wasn’t listening. She pointed, hands shaking.

“I’m going to stop it. They don’t know—they don’t see what’s going to happen!”

“Montressa! Nothing’s going to happen! This isn’t Wistram!”

Palt panted, catching his breath. He felt annoyed at having to work so hard. But—this was it. He looked at her.

“Montressa, it’s over. You need to stop fixating on Pisces.”

“What? No it’s not. We’ll go down there. Now. Everyone on me.”

She turned to him distractedly. Palt shook his head. he saw Ulinde, Beza, and Isceil look up.

“It’s over, Montressa. You can’t go after Pisces anymore. Or the Horns. Wistram is going to reduce the bounty on his head. From two thousand coins to two hundred. Not commute—but they’re also rescinding the order to bring him in. You don’t have a mandate anymore. It’s over.”

For a moment Montressa didn’t hear Palt. Then her eyes went wide.

What? No!”

“Ask your faction. The order should have come in by now. It’s resolved. As is the matter with Erin Solstice. She’s…being allowed to stay.”

Palt trotted backwards. Isceil and Beza traded glances as Ulinde twiddled her claws. Montressa put a dazed hand to her temple. Then her eyes focused on Palt. They narrowed; she wasn’t an idiot. Slowly, the young woman took a step forwards.

“You. You did this.”

“Is Erin Solstice coming back to Wistram?”

Beza stared at Palt. He shook his head, warily.

“It’s too costly politically to abduct her. And I’m sure she won’t leave of her own volition. There are some deals Wistram can make that will benefit the Academy even if she remains where she is. So the other factions have decided—”

“You bastard! You got to her first!”

Isceil shot to his feet as the penny dropped. Beza growled.

“You went behind our backs?”

“The Ullsinoi faction—”

“Damn them! What about our groups?”

“I don’t think they mind, given that you’re still banned from her inn and the first thing you did was start a fight that ended in your arrest!”

Palt snapped back, losing his temper. Isceil and Beza squared off as Ulinde turned her head. Beza glanced at the Selphid.

“Ulinde, you sold us out?”

“I didn’t! I just thought—Palt was the only one who can talk to Miss Erin! So he made a deal—”

“This isn’t over! We want that Earther too! I’m going to go back to that inn—”

“Go ahead. If she doesn’t blind you with curry, you can pitch her any deal you want.”

Beza snorted furiously, Montressa was swaying on her feet, staring down at Pisces.

“Do we get anything from this, Palt? Or is it just you stabbing us in the side?”

“Sorry, Beza. It’s nothing personal. But I saw an opportunity to benefit my faction and took it. I’ll support you on another Earther, like this ‘batman’, but this one’s ours. She wouldn’t leave the inn. It won’t help your faction either way. So—look, I did what was best. We can’t go after Pisces anyways. You know that, Beza.”

She opened her mouth and the Centaur kept talking. No spells—you couldn’t [Charm] fellow [Mages]. He didn’t need to, anyways. He was using facts and truth to do his persuasion.

“Do you really want to wait for them to leave Liscor and ambush them? That’s cowardly, Beza. We’d have to fight to the death and they’re dangerous. Montressa, it’s done.”

The Minotauress shifted uncertainly. But a flicker of relief showed in her eyes at Palt’s arguments. Isceil was still furious.

“You cut us out!”

“I’ll make it up to you! What do you want, Isceil? Secrets? Gold? But we’re not going to loiter here for weeks or months fixating on one team and trying to persuade an angry [Innkeeper] while risking fighting an entire city! Ulinde agreed to back me.”

“That’s right. It’s—it’s going to be alright. This is the best solution. And we can stay here a few days. I want to talk with the Halfseekers. And that Pisces helped save the adventurers. So…”

A noise came from behind Palt. He turned. Montressa was staring at him blankly.

“Montressa. I’m sorry. You can say whatever you want. But—”

“No.”

The word came from her white face. Montressa stared at Palt, her eyes huge in their sockets. The Centaur paused.

“Montressa, that’s an order. From your faction. Ask them. They’ll contact you.”

“No. I’m not going to walk away.”

The other [Mages] paused. Beza stirred uneasily. Montressa was too still. And she wasn’t blinking. She looked at Beza, then Isceil.

“He’s a monster. You came with me to hunt him down. You promised.

Isceil flicked his tongue out uncertainly.

“Yeah, but if the Academy’s pulled their order—”

“I didn’t get it.”

Montressa turned. Palt exclaimed.

“Ask them! Montressa!”

“I didn’t get it. So I’m going to do what I came here to do.”

“You can’t do that—”

Montressa whirled. She planted her staff and Palt saw the magic flare too late. The bolt of reduced lightning was still a bolt and it knocked him flat off his hooves.

Palt!

Montressa! You can’t—

Beza froze as Montressa aimed the staff at her. Montressa spoke dreamily. But Palt, looking up, dazed, trying to breathe, saw too late that he’d made a mistake. The young woman had snapped. Montressa du Valeross looked at Isceil and Beza.

“I’m going to get him. And you’re going to help me. If you get in my way, I’ll hurt you. But you promised, Beza. He’s a monster. A murderer. Are you coming or not?”

The Minotauress paused. She looked at Isceil. The [Oldblood Magus] hesitated. Then he got to his feet.

Isceil!

Ulinde was fumbling for a healing potion as she knelt by Palt. The Drake looked at her. He bared his teeth in an apologetic smile.

“I agree with Montressa. And I have a score to settle. Let’s go.”

He turned. Montressa leapt from the rocks. Beza turned. She wavered. Palt gasped something at her.

“Don’t—”

The Minotauress looked down at him. Then she shook her head.

“Some things you can’t forgive. Don’t get in our way.”

She turned and followed. Palt struggled to his hooves.

“No.”

It was supposed to be a wonderful day.

 

—-

 

Ceria was smiling, watching Pisces working. And the [Necromancer] was working. He had ten skeletons and an undead horse moving, helping the road’s construction. The other workers were wary, but the undead worked silently and without rest. Master Reikhle was already thinking of ways to send them ahead so he wouldn’t have to look at them.

“Clear the road in advance. Yes, we could do that.”

“They creep me the hell out.”

Walt muttered. And his voice was far from the only one expressing the same sentiment. But—the undead were there. Not killing anyone. People saw what Pisces was doing. And that was enough. Ceria thought it was enough.

But then someone called out. At first, all the adventurers shot up. But Hauntgheist and the other teams had barely begun their circuit outside the Bloodfields. There was no danger from them.

But down it came. Out of the mountains. Leaping from rock to rock, slowed by the [Featherfall] spell. Ceria’s heart lurched as she saw her old friend.

Montressa du Valeross. Followed by Isceil and Beza. No—Palt and Ulinde were following, but slower. The three [Mages] strode towards the construction site.

“Hey! This is our site! You can’t just—”

A [Taskmaster] strode up, angry at the unexpected visitors. Montressa raised her staff. Lightening shot from the brass orb orbiting it, earthing feet from the Gnoll. He ran backwards, alarmed.

“Oh hells, she doesn’t look happy. Pisces—”

“I see her. Ksmvr! Get over here!”

Yvlon checked her sword, taking hold of it. Pisces turned and the undead slowed. They collapsed, bones flowing back towards him. Master Reikhle shouted in fury. But then he turned and saw.

Ceria found herself drawing her wand. Her instincts told her to do so. Not just them either. Her [Dangersense] was going off again.

“Steady. It’s those Wistram bastards.”

Walt looked around, cursing. But the other adventurers had seen Montressa’s face. Stan pulled a crossbow out.

“If they’re after your team, Ceria—”

“We can’t fight Wistram [Mages]!”

“If they’re attacking us, it’s a damn war!”

Ceria shook her head.

“No one’s fighting. Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon, on me. We’re going to meet them.”

“Should I strike first, Captain Ceria?”

The Antinium tilted his head, eying Stan’s crossbow. The [Cryomancer] shook her head.

“No one’s starting anything! But be ready—”

“We’re coming with you. They’re not attacking you again. Liscor’s laid down the law and you haven’t done anything wrong! Whistling Bows, on me!

Captain Kam snapped. Her team mounted up. Stan waved his hand.

“Boltspitters, to the side.”

“Hold on! This isn’t—”

Pisces!

The word split the air. Montressa pointed her staff at him. And the Horns walked forwards. Ceria was on Pisces’ left, Yvlon his right. Ksmvr stood next to Yvlon, his bow in two hands, the Forceshield in his third.

They met in the grass, two hundred feet from the road. In the distance the Bloodfields waited. But Montressa had no eyes for the road or the Bloodfields. She only looked at Pisces.

“Montressa. What do you want?”

The young woman didn’t reply to Ceria’s tight voice. She just stared at Pisces. And her gaze was hateful, angry. And also lost. She looked past Ceria, at the dozens of adventurers standing warily at their backs. Isceil and Beza were eying the small army nervously. But Montressa’s gaze found Pisces’ again. She shook her head slowly.

“Well done. Good job, Pisces. You did it. Again.”

“I did what, exactly?”

Pisces’ hand was on his rapier. He met Isceil’s eyes and fury drew the air taut between them. But Montressa—her hand tightened on her staff.

“You don’t even know? That’s funny. Apparently, the bounty on you is being reduced. And the Academy is abandoning their pursuit of you. I’m going to get orders not to bring you in.”

“What?”

Ceria’s chest untightened suddenly. She smiled, looking at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] didn’t’ take her eyes off Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] shook her head.

“Palt did it. He betrayed me. He—and that [Innkeeper] of yours.”

“Erin did—?”

“I didn’t ask them to. But I am not your enemy, Montressa. I told you, what occurred was an accident. No—my fault. But I never intended it. I am sorry.”

Pisces’ voice was strained. Beza snorted. Montressa’s level voice never changed.

“No you’re not. But it’s funny—I believe you didn’t do anything to Palt or Erin. Because you didn’t have to. Look at you. You’re making undead to help build this road. And you got the Academy to lift its bounty on you. Well done. How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

Montressa didn’t seem to hear Ceria. She looked at Pisces.

“You tricked them. Everyone. All these people—Erin, Palt—everyone. For a little while. And because they trust you—because they help you—they’ll die. You’ll ruin them all. Because that’s what you do. Someday, you’ll show them who you are. And they’ll die, or they’ll suffer. Because of you.”

“That’s not true. Montressa. You’re overreacting.”

Stop! Montressa! The Academy has ordered you not to pursue Pisces! Everyone, listen to me! Montressa and the [Mages] here have no authority to take Pisces Jealnet in!”

Palt caught up at last with Ulinde. He was clutching at the scorch mark on his chest. The adventurers stared at him. Montressa ignored the Centaur.

“I’m not going to let you go, Pisces.”

“You have no authority here, [Mage]. We’re adventurers and this is an adventuring team. You want to kidnap one of us, you go through all of us.”

Kam snapped. She drew on her bow and Beza and Isceil tensed. Montressa stared at her, then past her. The adventurers were undecided—but over half put their hands on their weapons. They had heard about the ambush at the bar. And—they looked at Pisces.

Alais lifted her staff. Walt drew his mace. Ceria looked around as the Silver-rank teams aimed at the Wistram [Mages]. Montressa’s face, already pale, drained of all color.

“You tricked them too. How do you do it?”

“I tricked no one, Montressa. I am not the evil creature you make me out to be.”

Pisces voice was shaking with restrained emotion. People were looking at him and Montressa. She shook her head.

“No. No! You’re a [Necromancer]. That’s what you are! A liar! A thief! A murderer! You bring back the dead! You twist them!”

“Enough! He’s not one thing! He’s not like Az’kerash! I’m tired of you slandering my teammate!”

Yvlon snapped. She half-drew her sword. Isceil’s wand appeared his claws. Two dozen adventurers aimed at him and he froze. Montressa didn’t even see them, though. She pointed at Pisces with her free hand. And her voice was rising, turning into a scream.

“You can’t hide what you are! [Necromancer]. That’s what your class is! That’s what you are! Monsters! And you create only suffering!

“Montressa, it’s not true! It was an acc—”

The young woman’s staff glowed. Ceria saw Kam draw hard on her bow and raised a hand. But Beza grabbed Montressa’s staff.

“Montressa. We’re outnumbered. We can’t do this.”

The Minotauress was looking at the sea of faces and the adventurers. Montressa fought her, but then relaxed. She went quiet again. And she stared at Pisces.

“Again. You got away again. But it doesn’t matter.”

She looked at Pisces, and Ceria saw madness in her eyes. Not insanity, but grief and loss, spiraling. Montressa’s finger shook. And she was screaming at Pisces as her friends dragged her back.

“You can’t hide what you are! They’ll see! They’ll see I was right! All of you—don’t trust him! He’ll kill you! He’ll turn! That’s what he is!”

“Come on. Don’t listen to her, Pisces.”

Yvlon grabbed at the [Necromancer]’s arm. She tried to turn Pisces. He was staring at Montressa. Slowly, he turned, seeing the adventurers staring at him and the Wistram [Mages]. He began to walk back. Montressa was still screaming. Ceria turned to follow her team.

I won’t stop! Someday, I’ll bring you down! I’ll show everyone what you are. You think that bounty is for show? You won’t be safe! Not you, or anyone who tries to protect you! No matter where you run and hide! No matter who protects you! You murderer! [Necromancer]!”

The word struck Pisces and he staggered. He turned back and Ceria grabbed for his other side.

“Pisces. Let her go.”

“I can’t.”

He moved forwards. Yvlon grabbed at him and Pisces turned to her. Their eyes met for a moment and she let go.

Beza and Isceil froze as they dragged Montressa backwards. The adventurers turned as Pisces stepped forwards. He looked around. In the distance, Ijvani stared down at him. Az’kerash listened.

Pisces spoke slowly, not to Montressa, but to everyone. He paused, and the words came haltingly, painfully, not like his usual, sophisticated drawl.

“[Necromancer]. What a filthy word. It describes me. Pisces Jealnet, [Necromancer]. And you think you know what I am. But in truth, none of you comprehend what’s in my being. Even if you believe you do—you do not.”

He looked around, meeting Ksmvr’s eyes. Ceria’s. Yvlon’s. The adventurers, Montressa and her team, they all stared at Pisces. He touched his chest.

“There is neither pure malice here. Nor altruism. I am a [Necromancer]. But I am also Human. I am a [Mage]! And a person. I love, I weep. I make mistakes. So many errors they define me. Because I cannot outrun the past. Adventurer—hero—it doesn’t matter what I become, does it? For I will always be one thing: [Necromancer]. And yet you do not know what it means! None of you know!

He whirled. And his voice was rough, his eyes furious. Pisces pointed, not at one person, but everyone.

“I’m sick of it all. You don’t understand me. And that is fine. Who here in this world truly knows someone? But my class is an indictment, a curse! You may find it appalling, what I do. You may hate the idea of what I am capable of. But why, why is it a crime? Tell me. When did being me, being a [Necromancer] become a sin? I have done many terrible things. But when I was judged, it was first for what I am.”

The young man drew a shuddering breath.

Necromancy. You want to know why I practice it? Because I am good at it. Because I want to use it! Because it is what I love! There is no greater reason. None. But even if I did nothing with it, I would be hunted. And that is not fair. It was never—fair.”

He paused. And his eyes found Montressa.

“I have been a liar, a thief, a fool, and yes, I have let good people die. I have killed. And I have done many things, good and ill. But I have never thought of myself as a villain. But that is what you make us, Montressa. You—you and everyone who looks at our classes before our very souls. Even when we hide, you drag us out. Hunt us down like beasts. [Necromancer]! Monster! As if we cast away our humanity by practicing a different kind of magic! If we lost anything, it was because we were chased by you all!”

He shouted, his voice raw with emotion and pain. Ceria felt her heart shaking. Her eyes stung. Because Pisces’ were overfull. He clutched at his chest.

“I wish I could show you. Show you my soul, to prove it was there! I have never wanted to be anything but good. And yet, I found myself sinking lower because all I did turned to dust. Because wherever I tried to extend a hand to help, I was stabbed by prejudice in fear. Until I looked like the very thing you called me. Until I believed I was a monster myself. It was so hard to remember who I am.”

The [Necromancer] bowed his head. And he wiped at his eyes.

“I am different. But I wish I could just exist and it would not hurt you all. But it seems I cannot live in this world so easily. I never wished to be this. I dreamed of being a hero. I thought I could become one, regardless of who I was. When did I go so far astray?”

Far away, Az’kerash half-stood. He stared at Ijvani’s projection of the young man, and his hand rose. Searching for the place where his heart lay. And he saw Pisces turn, looking at Montressa. Her eyes were filled with empty hatred. Pisces stared at her. And he sighed, his voice exhausted.

“Montressa. I’m so very weary of it all. Exhausted, of the chase. Of being me. But most of all, watching the good people suffer for what you and your kind do. Watching trust turn to ash. I—I am a poor friend, a worse man. But [Necromancers] are not one and the same. If we are monsters, some of it was what the world shaped us into!”

He reached for the rapier at his side. And drew it. The steel glinted in the sun of another day. Pisces spoke slowly, staring at the blade in his hands.

“It’s been too long. I, running, and you, chasing. Unable to forget. So. Let’s end it, Mons. This old mistake between us. I am Pisces Jealnet, a [Mage] of Wistram. [Necromancer]. And I challenge you to a duel.”

Pisces pointed at Montressa. Beza let go of Montressa. Ceria breathed.

“No. Pisces—”

I accept! Let’s finish this!

Montressa grabbed her staff and strode forwards. Isceil followed her. Ceria cried out. Pisces’ face was pale as Montressa’s. But his eyes held a terrible truth. A certainty. And Montressa—she stepped forwards, and Ceria saw death in her eyes.

“No. Yvlon, help me. Ksmvr! Pisces—you can’t!”

The [Ice Mage] grabbed at Pisces’ arm. But Yvlon stepped past Ceria, knocking her arm aside.

“They won’t stop. Pisces is right, Ceria.”

She drew her sword. The adventurers fell back as Yvlon lifted the enchanted blade in both hands. She pointed at Beza.

“Come on, Minotaur. Come, or don’t haunt our backs ever again. If you believe what your friend says. If you want to take Pisces—step forwards. Because you’ll go through me.”

“This is a duel!”

Beza hesitated. Yvlon’s gaze never wavered. The same fury in Montressa’s eyes was reflected in hers.

“Then let it be. Between our teams. Step forwards or forswear hunting Pisces! I’m tired too. He hasn’t deserved this. Come on! What about you? Or you?”

She pointed at Palt and Ulinde. The Centaur backed up.

“No. Montressa, pull back.”

“I—I can’t. Palt is right. Beza!”

The Minotauress hesitated. But then Isceil spoke up. He lifted his wand and walked up next to Montressa. He pointed with his free hand at Ceria.

“They still tell stories about a monster who was one of our Archmages. He had friends, until they saw what he was. But they did see when they looked. His evil heart. His wretched lies. Step aside, half-Elf. I see a monster.”

Stop! The Academy won’t allow it!”

Palt tried to trot forwards. But Beza’s arm stopped him. The Minotauress had made her decision. She reached for the scrolls at her belt.

“Honor matters more than the laws of Wistram, Palt. I’ve seen the death this creature caused. And others like him. I don’t believe him. And I won’t let my team fight alone.”

“Ceria—”

“Pisces. You can’t do this.”

“Then I should let her attack again? Attack Erin? Look at her, Ceria. She will do anything. I won’t let it happen.”

Ceria looked. Montressa stared at her, wild-eyed. She had lost something. Slowly, in a dream of her own, Ceria let go of Pisces’ sleeve. She looked around.

“Step back, then. Alais. Stan.”

“Ceria! You can’t do this.”

“I’m not letting Pisces die.”

How did it come to this? But look—look at her eyes. Ceria had seen a reflection of them somewhere. Where?

Illphres. Do or die. Montressa would never give up. Something was broken in her. Or—she was gone. Even if Ceria ran, she’d attack. Where had her friend gone? Ceria looked for her, but she couldn’t find the girl she knew.

“A duel?”

“Fall back.”

The adventurers were hesitating. Stan looked around.

“Move back! Clear the area!”

“We can’t let them duel—”

“It’s that or fight. Neither’s backing down. Look at them, Alais. Get out of range! They use lightning spells!”

The adventurers were falling backwards as the Horns and the Wistram [Mages] slowly walked to the right. Towards the Blood Fields, away from the road.

“I’ll take Beza.”

Yvlon’s voice was cold. Ceria looked at her, then at Pisces.

“It doesn’t have to be like—”

She looked at Isceil and her voice trailed off. The Drake was aiming his wand at Pisces’ heart, a smile on his face. Ceria took a breath.

“I’ll stop the Drake, then.”

“Fine.”

Pisces’ face was pale. He looked at Montressa. To the side, Ksmvr looked at Palt and Ulinde. He aimed the bow in their direction.

“Is it battle, then? You are both off-guard. And I understand that killing you before a duel has begun would be considered improper. I would not wish to disgrace my team.”

“What? No. We have to stop this!”

Palt cried out. He was going over the list of his spells, desperately, but he knew Montressa’s abilities. Ksmvr nodded.

“I see. In that case—I am content to watch also. If you move, I will kill you.”

The Centaur froze. Ulinde turned. Ksmvr aimed the bow straight between her eyes. The adventurers scattered around them.

“No! We have to stop them!”

She tried to step left, but Ksmvr pulled and she froze. Palt raised his hands.

“Look—Ksmvr? We need to stop our team. Let us go and—”

“No. I do not believe you.”

“We’ll pull them apart! Don’t you—why don’t you believe us?”

The Antinium tilted his head.

“Because that is what I would say to allay suspicion before I killed both of you in a surprise attack. Move and I will shoot.”

“They’re going to die. This is madness.

The [Skirmisher]’s voice was calm.

“No, it was inevitable, I think. Your leader, Montressa, is beyond reason. So Pisces must kill her.”

“She could kill him! You don’t know Montressa—”

Ksmvr shook his head. He never turned his head as the five [Mages] and Yvlon took their distance.

“He will not lose. My teammates will not fall, any of them. Or I would be in error. And my reason for living would be torn away. Watch.”

They did. Stan was arguing with Ceria, trying to convince her to halt. But it wasn’t in the half-Elf’s control. Pisces stood apart from Montressa. Yvlon was advancing towards Beza at a walk as the Minotaur read from her scrolls. Isceil pointed his wand at Ceria.

“Move clear, adventurers. This is a duel. Between all present. A duel of honor, which is more than the [Necromancer] deserves.”

“You bastard. Didn’t you hear a word he said? Get away, Stan.”

The old adventurer retreated, shaking his head. Ceria had drawn her own wand. Ice formed along the tip as she aimed it angrily at Isceil. The Drake sneered.

“I heard pretty lies. Anyone can lie, half-Elf. Even to truth spells. And everyone’s a victim in their own book.”

“Montressa. You can walk away. Promise me. The Academy doesn’t want me. It’s you. Swear not to come after me. Swear. Please.”

Pisces looked at Montressa. For a moment, Ceria saw the rage clear in Montressa’s eyes. She looked at him, and hesitated. Fear and loathing and anger. But it wasn’t enough. She shook her head and lifted her staff.

“Me? How could I believe you?”

Pisces bowed his head.

“Yes. How could you?”

There was no signal. Yvlon’s pace accelerated as Beza’s sixth scroll scrambled to dust in her hands. The Minotaur began advancing, her fists clenched. She was wearing a shining, glowing magical gauntlet about her own fists and she moved too quickly. Ceria looked at Pisces and Montressa. They were still. The orb was rotating slowly around Montressa’s staff as the magic gathered about both.

Ceria!

Ksmvr’s voice was a warning. Ceria jerked her head up. The first [Fireball] shot towards her face. She flung herself left as she screamed.

“[Ice Wall]!”

The fire struck ice. The explosion hurled Ceria to the ground. And then it was battle.

 

—-

 

The workers at the road stared. Master Builder Reikhle snarled, watching the battle.

“Fools.”

But no one could stop it. The duel between the two teams had begun. Montressa conjured a barrier as Pisces leapt—he appeared in front of her, slashing with his rapier and blasting fire. The magic and steel glanced harmlessly off her barrier. She shot lightning and he dodged the bolt.

Yvlon and Beza were trading blows. The Minotauress was inhumanly quick, but Yvlon’s sword was heavier than even Beza’s punches. Yvlon staggered as a punch hit her armor—Beza’s arm was deflected by a heavy cut. Her Sword of Weight would have gone through the Minotaur’s arm without the magical armor and the [Stone Skin] enchantment.

But it was Ceria’s and Isceil’s duel that was the most mortal. The Oldblood Drake had conjured a barrier of his own, but weaker than Montressa’s. He was firing spells from his wand and breathing flame. It melted the [Ice Walls] Ceria was conjuring. She was running, firing [Ice Spikes], but outmatched by the sheer firepower Isceil was throwing her way.

Another [Ice Wall], three feet thick, began to melt as Isceil exhaled burning flames. Then he switched to acid. Ceria’s [Ice Armor] began to melt and she screamed and conjured another wall, blocking the deadly acid.

Surrender, half-Elf! I am Oldblood! I call on the power of Dragons! What can you—

Isceil swore and dove sideways as five [Ice Spikes] shattered on his barrier. The flickering aura of magic went out and he desperately raised it again. Ceria lowered her skeletal hand and conjured more [Ice Walls] between them, creating disposable shields. Her jaw worked for a moment. Then she pointed her wand and her skeletal finger.

“Fuck you.”

Shards of ice blew apart Isceil’s second barrier. He fired back, dodging, weaving—he could use [Flash Step] too! But if he had mobility—Ceria’s training with Grimalkin had paid off. She was raising thick walls of ice, preventing him from aiming at her. And the last layer of defense—the armor of ice on her skin—had stopped all of his spells.

“Your little ice walls can’t stop me!”

Isceil bellowed. He conjured a wall of stone as Ceria shot spells at him. She aimed a [Fireball] and he inhaled.

The explosion blew the stone wall to bits. It rained on Isceil’s barrier and he flinched. But then he exhaled.

A firestorm of air and flames blasted forth. Two elements. It hit Ceria’s walls of ice like a shockwave, blowing the half-Elf off her feet. She landed, feeling the heat pierce even her icy armor. Blisters rose on her arms as she shielded her face. As she rolled over, she saw her terrain had melted. She—

A spear made out of obsidian hit her in the chest. Ceria fell back as the adventurers shouted.

Ceria!

Kam screamed. She saw the half-Elf jerk as Isceil crowed. A barrier of ice grew around Ceria. She reached for a potion, smashed it on her chest. Rolled away as the next [Fireball] blew her cover to bits.

“She’s losing. Let us go!”

Palt stared at Ksmvr. The Antinium was hesitating. He stared at Ceria.

“She will not lose.”

His voice trembled a bit. Ceria was rising to her feet, shooting [Ice Spikes] at Isceil. Walt turned to Alais. His team was tense, and he saw hers was watching the fight.

“Can she take him, Alais?”

“I don’t know! They’re both better than me! Ceria’s got aim and she can make ice walls, but he’s got too many powerful spells! We have to stop this!”

Uncertainly, she raised her staff, but Walt grabbed her.

“It’s a duel! We can’t interfere!”

“Hells to that!”

Alais snapped, but by her side, Stan shook his head. He had a crossbow in one hand and was watching.

“Hold on, Alais.”

“For what?”

“Neither side’s in danger yet. They’re both equally matched. Wait. If we stop them, it’ll just turn into a feud later. Watch—and pray the Horns win. If we step in, it has to be at the right moment.”

Alais hesitated. Then she heard a roar. Isceil had inhaled for another breath attack and Ceria had pointed both wand and fingers.

Six [Ice Spikes] hit the Drake’s barrier and one got through. He stumbled backwards, swearing, as one of the deadly shards of ice struck him in the chest. Alais expected him to fall. But—the Drake regained his balance.

“Armor spells. You can’t take me, half-Elf!”

He snarled as he shot a volley of magical bolts back at Ceria. The half-Elf didn’t respond. She was ducking forwards, conjuring more walls of ice. Isceil darted left, inhaling again—

He ran over a patch of ice and slipped. His blast of lightning shot into the air and some of the arcs lanced downwards towards the adventurers wearing armor. They moved back even further as Isceil tried to roll to his feet. And Ceria ran.

“She’s going into close range!”

The [Cryomancer] shoulder-charged the Drake as he got up. His first spell cracked her [Ice Armor], but then she was on him. Ceria advanced, slashing with the dagger in her hand. The Drake backed up, cursing, wide-eyed.

“This is a duel! You call yourself a [Mag—”

He ducked a cut and aimed his wand. Ceria felt the flames engulf her, but the Drake was too unsteady to use more than a Tier 2 spell.

Now!

She tackled the Drake to the ground and then they were rolling. She slashed and bit, magical spells blasting from both wands. The Drake tried to fight her off. Beza and Yvlon raced past them, fighting, ducking back. Yvlon grunted as she ducked one of Beza’s swings. But the Minotauress was wary of her sword. Twice, Yvlon had slashed her down to the bone.

“What is that sword? It’s nearly cutting that Minotauress in half!”

Walt exclaimed. Yvlon’s sword flashed as Beza ducked back. But then she charged in and copied Ceria’s move. Yvlon went sprawling back as Beza tried to grab her. But the Minotauress couldn’t grapple; Yvlon’s fist caught her in the face and the [Wounded Warrior] got up. Her slash nearly cut Beza’s horns off.

Lightning flashed past Yvlon, some of it earthing on her armor. Yvlon staggered, turning. Montressa blasted more lightning and both Beza and Yvlon sprang clear. Pisces was a blur, avoiding lightning, throwing spells back at Montressa. But theirs was a stalemate.

“Stay away! Stay away!

Montressa was screaming at the [Necromancer] as she blasted another skeleton apart. She screamed, wildly sweeping her staff and blowing a Bone Horror to pieces. She was enmeshed in her barrier spells which soaked up each of Pisces’ attacks. Each time he took down one of the outer layers she conjured another one. It was a stalemate. She couldn’t hit him yet and he—

He ducked in, slashing across Montressa’s face. She recoiled, caught herself as her barrier flashed—aimed her staff. Pisces disappeared. But then one of the skeletons rose. Montressa’s shriek was followed by a [Chain Lighting] spell. It blasted the bones so far away that it nearly hit the observers. The [Aegiscaster] was panicking as Pisces harassed her with undead.

“He’s baiting her spells with the undead. Trying to wear her down. That’s the only way.”

Ulinde whispered. The Selphid had the best view and eye for the battle. The [Spellslinger] watched as Palt clenched his hands. He couldn’t move; Ksmvr was aiming at both him and Ulinde and the Centaur couldn’t race an arrow.

“We have to stop—damn.”

In their rolling brawl, Isceil finally got a leg under Ceria’s stomach. He kicked her off him and the half-Elf stumbled up. She looked for Isceil as the Drake muttered a word.

“[Dust Storm]—”

He vanished in a cloud of dust. Ceria cursed and raised [Ice Walls], shooting spikes wildly with her skeletal hand. She whirled, creating her own stationary barrier. The adventurers coughed, moving backwards. Ceria looked around—

Captain! To your left!

She turned too late. Isceil’s lightning shattered the ice wall. The half-Elf aimed her wand, and the Drake closed his maw. He pointed his and the [Delayed Fireball] flew.

This time the explosion engulfed the ice barrier. Ksmvr made a sound. Ceria was lying on the ground. The [Ice Armor] had caught most of the spell, but she was dazed. Isceil aimed his wand at her as she threw up a hand.

“Got y—”

The black bolt of magic hit Isceil from behind. It passed through him, bursting out of his chest. Isceil fell forwards. Yvlon stopped. Montressa’s eyes went wide as Ceria rolled to her feet.

Isceil!

Ksmvr’s head turned. Behind the Drake, Pisces lowered his finger.

“[Deathbolt].”

Isceil fell to one knee, face white. Ceria looked up and Pisces dodged a huge comet as Montressa screamed, firing spells with both her wand and the brass orb. Ceria looked up at Pisces. Isceil raised his wand as the [Necromancer] appeared, conjuring a barrier.

Pisces looked down at his ring. [Shatterbolt]. He hadn’t used it on Montressa. He couldn’t. But Isceil? The Drake looked up, stood, shakily.

“You coward.”

The [Necromancer] didn’t reply. He just set his stance, preparing to lunge. The Drake reached for a potion, wand at the ready.

Pisces!

Montressa screamed at Pisces, but her barriers kept her locked in place. She took a step, unsure, and saw Ceria advancing towards her. The [Ice Mage] met Montressa’s eyes. She smiled bitterly.

“Hey, Mons. Let’s settle this. Team captain to captain.”

Montressa looked at Ceria. The half-Elf looked at her. For a moment they remembered. Ceria’s voice was low.

“I should have said this all that time ago. He’s not perfect. And he never was. But he is my friend. If you want to hurt him, I’ll stop you.”

“You don’t understand what he is.”

Ceria shook her head. She looked at Montressa, with pity in her eyes. And she raised her wand.

“No. I don’t think you do. And you’ll kill him? You’ve gone mad. Come on, Montressa. Let’s settle our pasts.”

She lifted her wand. Palt kicked himself.

“Madness. She probably lost her grip when she saw the undead! We can [Calm] her. Ulinde! Ksmvr! Let me go to her! She’s not thinking!”

The Antinium looked at Palt. He hesitated.

“That is a very good try. I almost believe you. Don’t move.”

 

—-

 

“Bevussa. I think I see movement ahead.”

“Where?”

The Garuda froze as Kin halted in the dungeon. The Drake [Mage] aimed her wand ahead.

“There.”

“Facestealer? Ready—”

Bevussa instantly warned her team. They clutched the magical amulets they’d bought. Zassil and Issa flew back, out of range. Bevussa hunkered down, ready to move. She waited—

And a masked, clothed figure appeared around a corner. Bevussa stared, and then she relaxed.

“Dead gods! You scared us!”

The masked warrior waved at Bevussa. The Garuda waved her forwards. She recognized the clothed body and the mask.

“We haven’t seen you in over a week. Where were you? Are you alright? We have to talk. Can you write? I’ve brought parchment and ink—”

She paused. The Garuda stared as the masked woman jogged forwards. Something was—off. Kin paused.

“Hey, does her mask look different to you, Captain?”

“Stop!”

Bevussa instantly raised her shortsword. The masked warrior stopped. She tilted her head. Bevussa stared at her. It was dark in the dungeon, lit only by Kin’s [Light] spells. But the mask was indeed different.

“Miss Warrior?”

Now it was a question. The woman nodded. But Bevussa looked at Kin. The mask was different. This one looked crude. Made of wood. It was more like a slat with eye holes.

“Stay where you are. Kin, this might be an imposter. Zassil, Issa—”

Bevussa turned her head. And the masked figure charged. Bevussa’s head snapped back up. She swore, her sword swinging up.

“Kin, get back—”

The masked woman lunged. Her sword blurred. Bevussa’s eyes went wide. She jerked backwards. Only a sweep of her wings kept her out of range as the masked warrior reappeared, her sword slashing at where Bevussa’s throat had been.

[Mirage Cut]. The Garuda cursed and lunged in. She knocked the woman’s blade back, using her aerial mobility to throw the warrior off balance.

“What’s wrong with you? Stop! Stop or I’ll—”

The stranger slashed. And Bevussa’s sword blurred. She buried her enchanted shortsword in the woman’s chest. Kin gasped, scrambling backwards. Bevussa stopped.

“I’m sorry. I—”

The masked woman looked down at the sword. Then Toren pulled off the mask. His eyes flashed. Bevussa stared into the skeleton’s grinning face as the enchantment hit her.

[Fear]. She choked, cold, icy fear running through her.

“What are—”

Toren’s enchanted blade took her in the stomach. He stared into Bevussa’s eyes. Saw them go round with shock. Ah, yes. That was what it looked like when they died. He’d almost forgotten.

He hummed a tune in his head as he twisted the sword. Bevussa made a choking sound and Toren put a foot on her chest.

Bevussa!

The Drake [Mage] screamed. She lifted her wand, aiming at Toren. He dodged, and the ray of magic went past his chest. Zassil and Issa flew forwards, shouting. Toren pointed, and from around the corner bounded Ghouls. Two dozen of them.

Undead!

“Captain—”

The hallways turned to confusion. Bevussa was gaping at Toren, gagging with pain as he twisted the blade in her stomach. The Ghouls swarmed past her, attacking her team. Toren kicked her off the blade as the Wings of Pallass screamed and fought the undead suddenly overrunning them. He inspected Bevussa as she fell back, weakly grasping her shortsword.

It hadn’t been that deep a cut. Toren hadn’t been able to run her completely through. She had tough…feathers. Oh well. Toren wasn’t about to stick around for the fight. He pointed and a Ghoul leapt on Bevussa. And Toren walked on. He pulled his mask back into place, leaving the Wings of Pallass.

Undead attack! Form up! Where are the Wings of Pallass?

Three corridors down, Toren strolled past a team of adventurers fighting for their lives. They called out to him to help. He walked past them. The undead were storming the tunnels. Toren had brought them from his inn. His fake inn. He’d opened the metal door and let them out. How many?

All of them. The Crypt Lords led an army of the undead through the tunnels. Thousands, falling upon the Gold and Silver-rank teams. Even so, it was a familiar fight. Toren had seen it happen once and there was no huge flesh-pit this time or the crawling undead.

Hold the line!

At one point, the undead splintered and broke on a wall of flames. Toren avoided that tunnel, but he saw the unit of Drakes holding there.

Keldrass. And his second-in-command was wearing the Heartflame Breastplate. Between the Siegespell Armor and the Heartflame Breastplate, the Flamewardens of Pallass were holding the line, surrounded by the undead. If Toren’s goal had been to kill the adventurers, he would have been disappointed.

But it wasn’t. Toren passed through the tunnels, followed by a smaller group of undead under his personal control. The adventurers were too busy to stop him. And too busy to stop what happened next.

Toren arrived in the section of the dungeon where the roof had collapsed. He looked up, and saw the ropes leading upwards. Light shone down. Toren stared up. He had missed the sky. Slowly, he took off the mask. The clothing. They were just props. Hers. And he was all that remained.

The skeleton seized one of the ropes. A team of Ghouls and a Crypt Lord held the entry point as Toren began to climb. Alone. They advanced back into the dungeon, cutting the adventurers off. It didn’t matter that they’d probably be destroyed.

Toren climbed. He felt the magic of the dungeon leave him. Felt himself began to bleed magic. But he had enough in his bones. If he didn’t die, he wouldn’t…die.

He kept climbing. Soon, he was at the top. Toren looked down into the dungeon and listened to the screams and shouts from below. He nodded and looked around. The Flood Plains waited. And in the distance—a small building on the hill. The purple flames in the skeleton’s eyes narrowed into pinpricks of light. He stared down into the dungeon.

Slowly, Toren drew his sword. He went to the anchors that held the ropes the adventurers had descended on. And he cut the ropes one by one. Then Toren turned. Today he’d find out if the rumors were true. He walked towards the inn. Towards home. He wondered if she were there. He was coming home today.

This day.

 

—-

 

Captain Pelico, Silver-rank team Captain of Hauntgheist, was leading his team around the Bloodfields, scouting the area where Walt’s team had fallen prey to the spores. His team was keeping a vigilant watch, armed with ranged weapons, moving forwards at a steady, wary clip. They had no [Scout] leading them. Nor were they aware of the magical battle drawing closer behind them.

They hadn’t heard about the battle on their scouting mission. If they had turned around, they would have seen the duel in the distance. But all of their attention lay on what was before them.

The Bloodfields. Hauntgheist shuddered as they did a slow circuit of the perimeter. Still two miles out—but too close for Pelico’s liking. Even so, his team was one of the few who could investigate the spores. He’d volunteered them, for the healthy pay bump. Hauntgheist had dealt with airborne threats like this before.

They covered their faces and every exposed body part in thick clothing over their armor. They even had glass goggles. And to breathe, they wore bandannas, charmed to keep all but clean air out. It was a cheap way of dealing with airborne threats like poison gas and so on. But if that failed, Hauntgheist’s members all carried stakes and rope to anchor themselves into the ground.

Again, an easy solution. Adventurers might be stumped or fall prey to a trap or trick a monster used, but their strength lay in their ability to adapt. Even so, Pelico was on alert. The Bloodfields had any number of tricks and the [Rogue] was only being paid to scout.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. Theirs was the closest team to where Walt’s team had been hit by the spores, but they’d done three passes and there was no sign of the spores. Or what had caused them.

“Look. The spore patch is gone. I know where it was. There! But it’s gone, Pelico.”

Desril came to the conclusion after the fourth pass. He pointed, indicating a patch of ground.

“Gone? You sure you’re not looking in the wrong place, Desril?”

The former [Raider] glared at his leader.

“I’m sure. You can see there’s some shit there. Left over, like. But the spores’re gone. Maybe they did their job? Maybe Walt’s team has them growing in them.”

“They were checked over by a [Healer]. It can’t be that.”

“Maybe the spores’re just one-use, then? The plant dies and comes back later? Like mushrooms.”

Another member of Hauntgheist offered. She adjusted her goggles to see, frowning. Pelico nodded. Nothing would surprise him around the Bloodfields. Even so—the [Rogue] shifted. His [Dangersense] wasn’t going off wildly, as it should near the Bloodfields. But he knew that was because there was a trap ahead. [Dangersense] was tricky. It only gave you a little bit of warning. Traps and the like you got a few seconds. Well, it was actually going off now; he knew the Bloodfields were dangerous.

“Perhaps something ate ‘em? Blood Slimes, maybe. Or those insects. The Bloodfields have to devour themselves to survive, right?”

Another [Rogue] offered. He eyed the Bloodfields and Hauntgheist shrugged. Frustrated Desril turned to Pelico.

“What do we do? We’ve gotta see the spores to get paid, right?”

“Maybe there are more. We’ll keep moving a few more miles. There are definitely more spore patches.”

No one in Hauntgheist liked that idea. Pelico grimaced.

“We’ll do it at a distance. Maybe borrow horses or—or the Horn’s chariot. Scout around the outside. We’ll reconnect with the teams first. Don’t worry; we’re not going further without a lot of support.”

The adventurers relaxed. They nodded at the commonsense idea. Then Desril pointed, frowning.

“Hey, what’s that?”

“What’s what?”

Hauntgheist turned back. The [Raider] pointed again. There was something past the spore patch. A large…odd…area. Not the usual red of the Bloodfields. Brown, in fact. Dead and lifeless.

“That brown spot. It looks dead, not like something else is growing there. See? There’s just no vegetation like a Watchertree would leave. The Bloodfields are just…dead, there.”

Pelico frowned, staring at the spot.

“Walt did mention that. That’s—strange. It looks dead.”

“Dead is good to me! Should we check it out, Captain? If we could investigate and find out why we might earn our pay—”

“No.”

Pelico and half of the seasoned adventurers immediately overruled the idea. The [Rogue] shook his head.

“It might be a trap. Or poison. Or something. Maybe nothing, but we don’t get anywhere close. That’s just idiotic. Let’s wait for a request, huh? And it had better be a good one. Look, one more pass and we’ll call it in to Master Reikhle. The other teams found nothing.”

He pointed ahead, at a team of Drakes similarly geared, checking out another patch of the Bloodfields about three thousand feet ahead. Pelico cast a troubled glance at the empty place Desril had pointed out. The spores were indeed gone.

As Hauntgheist moved slowly forwards, some of them began to debate what the brown spot was.

“What could kill the Bloodfields? Salt? Fire? It just regrows! People have tried even drying the area out, but the Bloodfields are just too tough.”

Desril frowned. He glanced at the dead zone. Far wider than what any one Watchertree would leave, true. And there was no distinctive towering plant, either. He muttered to Pelico.

“You know, it reminds me a bit of grass what’s been nibbled on by moths. You know, with tons of larvae? I knew a [Gardener] once—got a bunch of them in his plots. Looked just like that. Maybe—”

“Dead gods! What’s happening over there?”

Both men’s head snapped up. Pelico readied himself, but his teammates was pointing back towards the road. Desril swore.

“Don’t scare me like that! What?”

Then he saw it. Hauntgheist stared, seeing the duel between Montressa’s team and Ceria’s at last. Adventurers were racing after the six running shapes.

“What? Is it a fight? Dead gods, all the teams are out there!”

“What’s happening? [Bandits]?”

“No way. That’s—hold on, that’s the Wistram team! They’re dueling the Horns!”

Hauntgheist exclaimed. Pelico saw Ceria at a distance. She was battling one of the other [Mages], who was pursuing her, surrounded by a magical bubble of energy.

“Dead gods. Springwalker’s in trouble. Should we—”

“If it’s a duel, we can’t interfere.”

“Bugger that. Let’s put a bolt in those Wistram bastard’s heads. Look! Springwalker’s on the run!”

Desril pointed urgently. It was true. Ceria was retreating, towards the Bloodfields. The battle had shifted in that direction as Yvlon and Beza’s duel took them further back, the [Wounded Warrior] pressing the Minotauress [Spellscribe]. The other four dueling [Mages] followed them, threatening each other’s battles.

“They’re getting near the Bloodfields—”

“We’ll cut them off. Hauntgheist, hold up!”

The adventurers watched the end of the battle. Ceria was running. Her [Ice Walls] were shattering under Montressa’s spells. The [Aegiscaster] could fire two spells with both the brass orb and her staff.

But so could Ceria. Her [Ice Spikes] flew from both her skeletal hand and wand. She hit Montressa’s barrier, watching the magic flicker. Montressa advanced, shouting as she cast spells.

“Coward! Coward!

Ceria ignored her. She ran back, forcing Montressa to keep advancing. The [Aegiscaster] couldn’t layer her barrier spells on the move! And as one of her lightning spells hit the [Ice Wall] where Ceria was hiding, the [Cryomancer] moved. She took a step out and pointed.

“[Ice Lance].”

From her skeletal fingertip, a huge spear of ice formed. It shot across the ground, like a bolt launched from a ballista. With her wand, Ceria aimed at the same target.

“[Fireball]!”

The cold froze even the bones on her hand, turning her skin to ice, deadening it. Her wand-hand was burning with the backlash of the other spell. The half-Elf could control neither perfectly. But she ignored the burning/freezing pain. Mana burned in her veins. She felt as if she were burning away her very soul, as she always did when she was reaching her limit. But she reached for more magic.

Both spells hit Montressa’s barrier. The [Ice Lance] first. The crash threw Montressa back from within her barrier. She looked up—

And the fireball finally broke the magical shell. Montressa got to her hands and knees.

“Staff? My staff—”

She couldn’t see or hear after the explosion. Ceria advanced, her wand raised. She hesitated. She had a shot. But then Montressa grabbed her staff. The barrier reappeared. Ceria halted.

“Oh shit. [Ice W—”

“No!”

Kam saw the lightning throw Ceria off her feet. The [Ice Armor] had saved her, but Ceria was down, writhing in pain. Montressa, swaying, stumbled closer. Kam saw her aiming at Ceria.

“No. Enough! I’m stopping this now, duel or not!”

The [Bow Rider] aimed her bow at Montressa’s back. She drew—and a sword kissed her side.

Kam froze. She stared at the Drake adventurer standing next to her. He was resting his claw on the hilt of the bullwhip he carried as the shortsword touched her side.

Tellis! What are you doing?

The other adventurers reacted. Half of them drew weapons on Tellis. The other half—the Drake’s team backed him up as he shook his head.

“No one’s interfering in the duel. Lower the bow, Captain Kam.”

“You’re on their side?”

Kam stared at Tellis. The Drake paused. He looked past her, at Pisces. The [Mage] was battling Isceil. Both he and the Drake had hit each other. Now, Isceil was blasting apart one of Pisces’ Bone Horrors, snarling. Tellis shook his head.

“Neither. This is a duel. My team won’t interfere no matter what happens. But no one else does either.”

Kam looked at Stan, Alais. Walt, and all the other Silver-rank Captains. They were hesitating. But half of the other teams were silently opposing them. Stan’s hand twitched towards his bag of holding. Then he shook his head. He looked at Ksmvr and Palt and Ulinde. None of them had moved. they’d followed the battle, but they were at a stalemate. Ksmvr’s Flamecoat Dagger was aimed at Palt’s chest.

“My team will not die. My team will not die.”

The Antinium repeated the words. And none of the adventurers could move. Palt’s face was pale as he watched Ceria conjure a wall of ice, trying to get up. Montressa blasted it apart. Hauntgheist saw Pisces jump in. Slashing. Isceil caught a slash across the jaw, but he exhaled. Pisces went backwards, howling as acid burned at him. The Drake had conjured a buckler made of stone. But he didn’t advance on Pisces. He was waiting.

[Shatterbolt]. The [Necromancer] flicked his wrist and the Drake [Flash Stepped] out of the way. But the spell didn’t come. The two exchanged another volley of spells. Isceil watched Pisces’ ring. The [Necromancer]’s arm was bleeding.

And across from them, Yvlon watched Beza stagger upright. The Minotaur’s magical gauntlets were gone. She couldn’t block Yvlon’s sword, even with them. Now, stone covered her arms, like scales. She charged, head down, and Yvlon advanced. Two-handed, she swung her sword, aiming for Beza’s chest.

The Minotauress aborted her charge, flinched back. Yvlon advanced. Her Sword of Weight was heavy in her hands, but all she’d drunken was a single stamina potion. Beza had healed her cuts twice.

“[Haste]—”

The Minotauress blurred as she reached for another scroll. Yvlon’s eyes narrowed. She swung her sword in rapid arcs, cutting at the Minotauress as she tried to strike at Yvlon. But Beza couldn’t, without risking one of her arms. Yvlon’s armor was too sturdy. And Bezale refused to attack from a distance.

One minute. That was how long Beza’s scroll lasted. And she’d used three. Yvlon took a hit across her helmet that made her head ring. A punch to her breastplate sent her staggering back. She cut, keeping Beza at bay. A kick to the side—Yvlon heard something crack. But she felt no pain.

She slashed, and Beza jumped backwards. Yvlon had cut down the Minotauress’ side. Yvlon kept counting.

Fifty eight, fifty nine—

Beza slowed. The Minotauress reached for another scroll, but too late. Yvlon charged. She brought her sword down in a two-handed cut. Beza’s armored gauntlets went up to block the strike, turn it. And Yvlon shouted.

“[Crescent Cut]!”

“Yes.”

Ksmvr saw the cut. Yvlon’s sword arced. It turned, changing its trajectory as the [Warrior] used her Skill.

A Skill meant to kill people. The Minotauress’ eyes went wide as the enchanted sword curved impossibly fast, changing its position. Her arms were in the wrong place. Beza staggered as the enchanted sword cut her deep across the pelvis.

Yvlon halted the cut, swung the other way. The second cut tore into Beza’s arms. It lodged in bone. The [Spellscribe] bellowed in pain. And she tore away.

One arm hung limply as Beza fumbled for a scroll. She dropped it as Yvlon charged her. The Minotauress stumbled back, lost her footing. She fell. Yvlon swung her sword up.

“I yield.”

Beza gasped. Her eyes were wide in her head. Montressa turned. Yvlon looked at her bloody sword. She stared down at the Minotauress, shielding her head with her one good arm. Yvlon closed her eyes. Then she opened them. And they were cold.

“…No.”

Stop! Don’t make me kill you, Montressa!

Montressa blasted away Ceria’s last barrier of ice. The half-Elf aimed her wand at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] stopped. Ceria aimed at Montressa’s heart. And Pisces slowed.

“Beza.”

Isceil pointed his wand at the Minotauress. Montressa, breathing hard, stared at Ceria. Her staff was glowing. Her barrier intact. Pisces looked at both stalemates. He glanced at his hand. And then at Isceil.

The Drake was looking at him. Flames and electricity crackled out of his mouth as he spoke.

“Try it.”

Pisces turned. He had two targets. The Drake and Montressa, battling Ceria. The Ring of [Shatterbolt] glowed on his hand. His rapier rose in the other.

Isceil aimed his wand at Yvlon as Pisces lifted his hand. The Drake’s mouth opened as he inhaled.

The magical ring flashed.

Pisces hesitated. Ceria looked up at Montressa. Why did it have to come to this? The [Aegiscaster] stared down at the half-Elf. And Yvlon swung her sword down at the yielding Minotauress.

It was just an ordinary day. But it mattered because it was today. This kind of day.

This—

The ground exploded. Pelico turned. He saw the Bloodfields erupt. A shower of dirt fountained up into the air, from the brown patch of land. The [Rogue] Captain stared.

It wasn’t his fault. Or even Yvlon’s. Her blood had awoken them. But it was no one person’s fault. Hauntgheist hadn’t done anything to provoke them. None of the adventurers had, really.

They hadn’t gone near the dead patch in the Bloodfields. Or provoked anything after their encounter with the Watchertree. But that didn’t matter. What rose, seething, hungry from the depths didn’t need a reason. It only needed food.

The brown spot. It wasn’t a trick. It wasn’t some ruse. It was exactly what Desril had said. Dead land, in the middle of the Bloodfields. But how was that possible? The red wastes had survived fire and salt, every effort to kill them off. It had survived cold and drought.

What could kill the Bloodfields? No—not kill. Pelico stared up and realized what the truth was. Not kill. Eat. Something had eaten the rich vegetation of the Bloodfields. Had preyed on it, like the Bloodfields preyed on other creatures. But what could do that?

Crelers could. Something was moving in the ground, two miles distant. Pelico stared. It was as large as a house. Larger. In the red earth, something stared at him and laughed.

It rose out of the ground and kept rising. The wet soil fell around it, exposing an armor of blades. Scuttling legs. Wings. A terrible maw. And eyes. Sunken sockets. Too many limbs to count. And it rose still larger. Pelico stared up at it.

This was no child. Nor even half-grown creature that he had battled. This thing was old. It had grown here in secret. And now it rose. A colossus. Screaming—he was screaming and it was laughing at him.

An Adult Creler. It’s shriek tore the sky as it surfaced, digging itself out of its deep coffin of dirt. Everyone, adventurers, far-distant workers, [Mages]—Yvlon, Ijvani—stopped. They turned. And they saw it.

Out they came with it. Hundreds of Crelers. Swarming across the ground, hundreds, no, thousands of larvae, red-pulsating bodies and exposed organs withdrawing, revealing sharp, chitinous legs, biting, tearing parts. A nigh-indestructible body. And juvenile Crelers, some as large as bulls, giant pill bugs with too many limbs, fast—faster than horses. Too many limbs to count. Too many to count.

Monsters that came from Rhir’s hell. They had nearly overrun the world, once. Pelico turned, looking for salvation. But they were so fast. They were so—

 

—-

 

“Dead gods.”

Ceria breathed the words as she stared at the distant Creler. It was shaking itself. Dirt cascaded everywhere. And a wave of red and black flowed down off it. Crelers, crawling all over each other, biting, tearing at everything in sight. For a moment, the sight transfixed the half-Elf. Then she realized she was still lying down, aiming her wand at Montressa.

She stood up slowly. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Thousands of Crelers were streaming towards them. She looked around. The adventurers were all frozen in shock. And the tide was coming on, shrieking.

“Crelers? Are those—”

Montressa was swaying on her feet. She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf turned. She looked back to see if she was dreaming. Then she pushed Montressa.

The young woman stumbled. She lifted her staff, staring at Ceria. A line of blood ran from a cut at her cheek. Ceria looked around.

“Run.”

The adventurers stared at her. Ceria looked around. She heard the distant shriek, now. She drew in a breath and screamed.

Run!

The paralysis broke. The adventurers turned and ran. Ceria looked over her shoulder.

Thousands. Her team had killed a few dozen once and nearly died. But that was a Junior Creler. And there were at least a hundred of them. They were coming! They raced across the ground, chittering. And the Adult Creler shrieked. The noise made Kam’s horse rear and scream.

RUN!

Beza got to her feet as Yvlon grabbed her. The duel was forgotten. They stared at each other and ran. Behind them came death. Ceria looked back.

“The other teams!”

Alais turned, but Stan grabbed her. He was white-faced. Hauntgheist was gone. Crelers were covering the Bloodfields, eating—eating the plants and creatures there! But their prey lay ahead.

Run! They’re already dead! Get to the door! Sound the alarm!

Kam galloped past them, screaming an alarm. In the distance, Master Reikhle turned. He had heard the shriek. He stared. And the Gnolls and Drakes turned to stare. They were transfixed. Then they ran.

The door!

One of them beat on the door. But it wasn’t opened. Erin had changed the door. The workers looked back.

Ceria ran. She could see the scrum at the door. She screamed at Montressa. The young woman was stumbling to keep up.

“[Message] spell! Warn the city!”

Palt galloped after them. Ulinde was on his back. They were all miles away from the door. How far had they gone in the duel? Ceria looked back over her shoulder.

“No—”

The Crelers were overtaking them. They moved like lighting across the ground, skittering, charging the slower adventurers. And the adult was coming. It was charging forwards, maw open.

“We’re not going to make it!”

Alais gasped. She was falling behind with the slower adventurers. Walt’s eyes were wide.

“We can’t fight that many! We’re outnumbered hundreds to one!”

“Hold them back! Spells!”

Kam galloped back. She loosed an arrow into the sea of Crelers. Ceria didn’t even see them land. But the adventurers turned. Ceria pointed her wand.

“[Ice Spike]! [Ice Wall]!”

The spells hit the first wave of Crelers, but the ones that were caught up were overwhelmed. A large Creler smashed the wall apart. Ceria saw the adult moving faster than the others. Isceil cursed. He turned back.

“[Mages]! Link! Montressa, give me power! I’ll blow them apart!”

The Wistram [Mages] halted. Isceil grabbed Montressa’s hand. She stared at him and Stan screamed!

No! Keep running!

But Palt and Ulinde had galloped over. Beza’s one good hand found Isceil’s shoulder. He closed his eyes. Ceria saw the magic flash around him, gathering.

“Buy them time! Everyone, turn and fire!”

She whirled, stopping. Pisces whirled and pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

The leading Creler collapsed silently. But it was one. The adventurers turned. The ones with arrows and spells launched everything at the first wave, holding it back a second. Isceil was mumbling.

“Three elements. Hit the Crelers. Hit that thing—”

“Isceil! Do it!

Palt bellowed at the Drake. The [Oldblood Magus]’s head snapped up. He inhaled and from his lips shot lightning and fire and air. A tempest shot forwards, a flaming whirlwind of lightning.

For a moment it tore the first wave of Crelers apart. The smaller ones just vanished as the searing fire and electricity hit them. But the adult was Isceil’s target. The Wistram [Mages] pointed.

“[Valmira’s Comets]!”

A hail of glowing comets followed the firestorm. Ceria saw the barrage hit the Creler as the lighting and fire engulfed it. She heard a scream. Saw the massive shape falter.

Even the Crelers slowed. The adventurers cheered. Ceria looked back. Let it be dead or hurt! She saw a shape move, cutting through the flames. And then the monstrosity emerged.

Unscathed. Isceil stared. The giant Creler bore no marks from either the comets or his attack.

“How?”

They resist magic! Adult Crelers have spell resistance!

Walt screamed at the adventurers. He was running. The Crelers were advancing again. Montressa stared.

“But that’s not fair. That’s—”

Come on!

Palt yanked her off her feet. He galloped forwards. The adventurers ran. The spells had lost them ground. The Crelers were advancing. And now they were angry. The adult was surging forwards. It opened its maw and spat something. Ceria saw a flicker. A projecti—

Isceil spun slightly, around in a perfect circle. He registered the impact with the others only after it had come. He looked down. And Ceria saw nothing.

His right arm was gone. The Drake looked around.

“Huh? My wand—”

Beza slowed, staring back at Isceil. Bemused, the Drake looked around.

“It got me? But I didn’t even see—”

Another flicker. Captain Kam dove and her horse’s head vanished. She hit the ground. The adventurers screamed.

The door!

“It’s not open! I sent a [Message], but it’s not open!”

Ulinde screamed at Palt. Someone bounded past her. Ksmvr twisted in midair, loosing another arrow. He landed next to Ceria.

“Captain, we will not arrive in time. The Crelers are too fast. There are too many.”

“Ceria.”

Pisces was panting. He appeared at her side. The half-Elf’s breath was caught in her chest. She inhaled. And for a long moment, like one of Erin’s [Immortal Moments], she felt time slow.

Yvlon was running next to them, her helmet missing. The woman’s hair was streaming as she turned her head. Pisces was stumbling, clutching at his side where he’d been hit by a spell. Ksmvr was pointing back. Saying something.

“We’ll never make it!”

Alais had seen the same thing. She screamed, and the adventurers looked back at her. Fourteen teams, but even the fastest were falling. Ahead of them, a group on horseback vanished as the adult spat something again and it cut the armored horses to pieces.

Ceria saw the crater appear, realized she was running towards it. Ksmvr dragged her to one side and she stared at—nothing. She couldn’t even see what the Creler had spat, it was buried so deep in the earth.

“The door’s not opening. And we’re not going to outrun them.”

Stan wheezed. The second time, his words registered. Ceria saw the Gnolls and Drakes pounding on the door. She looked back. The leading wave of Crelers was less than four hundred feet away. Closing.

It was Yvlon who broke the silence. She was running beside Ceria, blood leaking from one of the gauntlets. She laughed, and it sounded like despair in Ceria’s ears. She turned her head and met Ceria’s eyes.

“Again. It’s happening again.”

Skinner. Ceria saw Gerial’s face. She opened her eyes and met Yvlon’s gaze. Ksmvr was screaming at them.

“Yvlon, we must keep running. Go, and I will ensure you reach the door!”

Ksmvr’s voice was a shout. Pisces looked at Ceria.

“I can carry you. But the door’s not open. We won’t make it.”

In that perfect moment, Ceria saw the future. She saw Yvlon turn. Around them, adventurers were looking back. Counting. Realizing the same thing.

Ceria met Pisces’ eyes. She looked around at her team and slowed.

“Not all of us. Everyone, run. We’ll buy you time.”

The Ensoldier Shields stopped. Walt bellowed as they fell into line. Captain Kam raised her bow. Crossbow Stan stopped and turned, already firing. Half his team ran past him. Alais hesitated. But Ceria was looking about. Montressa stared back at them.

“Ceria! Ceria!

She saw Ksmvr whirl, pointing. Yvlon had already stopped as she lifted her blade. And Pisces? Ceria stared at him as he slowed, still running. She looked at him. And then at the Crelers.

Horns of Hammerad—

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was making lunch in her kitchen when she felt it. She fell to her knees as her head exploded. But the next moment she was on her feet.

[Dangersense]. It was the loudest Erin had ever heard it. Louder than the Face-Eater Moths. Louder than anything. Erin dropped the ladle she’d been holding. She ran.

The common room was full of laughter when the [Innkeeper] burst out of the kitchen. People were watching the Players of Celum on stage, performing. Erin stumbled out, and a few heads turned.

Something’s coming! Get out! Get out!

Her voice made heads turn. Drassi looked up from the bar she was manning. Lyonette, feeding Mrsha her lunch, paused, in patting sauce off her lips. In Octavia’s shop, Numbtongue glanced up at the door.

“Something wrong, Erin?”

Relc paused over his third drink. Erin whirled. Why weren’t they—

Something is coming. My [Dangersense] just went off! Run! It’s bad! Worse than Skinner!”

Relc’s face went slack. Erin felt like she was trapped in an [Immortal Moment]. She looked around. Temile was on his feet. Ishkr was stopped, a tray of empty mugs in one hand.

“Worse than…?”

“My [Dangersense] isn’t going off.”

A Drake began at a table close by. Erin turned.

Numbtongue!

The Hobgoblin ran through the door, sword drawn. He wasn’t paralyzed. And neither was Relc. The [Guardsman] turned and sprinted for his spear. He looked around.

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Everyone, its coming! Get up and run!

Mrsha clutched at Lyonette. Everyone was staring. Erin was white-eyed, shouting. They had never seen her like this. Then Lyonette stood.

“Get the potions! Where’s it coming from?”

The frozen moment broke. The Players scrambled off the stage. The guests surged to their feet. Lyonette grabbed Mrsha, shouting.

“The potions!”

“No, run!”

“Where? Where is it?”

Relc sprinted to the windows. He tore the front door open, looking around wildly. Erin ran for the door.

“Erin—”

Octavia shouted, but Erin slammed the door in her face. That didn’t change her [Dangersense]. She turned the dial on the door.

“Liscor. Lyonette, go!

“What if it’s Liscor?”

Erin hesitated. She looked around. Relc called from the door.

“It’s not outside. What the hell is it?”

The dungeon.

Drassi whispered. Someone cursed. Erin looked around.

“I don’t know what—”

She looked at the door. Turned the dial to the yellow stone. Erin yanked it open, saw a full street. A Drake [Guardsman] leaned forwards.

“Hey, you need a receipt.”

Something’s coming. Something’s about to hit Liscor! Warn Venim! Sound the alarm!

Erin shouted at the Drake. The [Guardsman] stared at her. Then he grinned, uncertainly. The people on Pallass’ street looked around.

“What?”

He stared past Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked around.

Drassi!

She grabbed the Drake. The [Gossip] stared at her.

“Erin, what—”

Go! Tell Grimalkin something’s coming!

Erin shoved her through the door. Drassi stumbled. One of the Drakes on duty cried out.

“Hey! You can’t do that! You need—”

Something is going to attack the inn.

Erin saw the Drakes looking about incredulously. Relc was checking out the door, but there was nothing. It was such an ordinary day. The young woman pointed.

“Something—my [Dangersense] is going off. Something is going to happen!”

“Miss, I don’t sense anything. And I have [Dangersense].”

A [Guard] protested. Erin drew breath to scream as they tried to shove Drassi back towards the door. Then a familiar Drake shoved the others aside.

Kel, the surly Drake, stared at Erin. He met her eyes.

“How bad?”

“Worse than the moths. Worse than Skinner.”

She panted. Time was too slow. A second was an hour. Kel stared at Erin. And then he nodded.

“Get Watch Captain Venim. Sound the alarm! Move!”

“Erin!”

Drassi shouted, but Erin was already fumbling the door closed. Lyonette reappeared; Mrsha was clutching her neck.

“Erin! Where is it?”

“Do we go to Liscor? Celum?”

“I don’t know! Celum! Yes! Maybe? I don’t know where it’s coming from!”

Erin was looking around, panting. Relc growled.

“Aw, nuts. What is it? Raskghar? Monsters? Those damn [Mages]?”

Mrsha sniffed the air. Erin looked towards the door. If it was the dungeon, and they went out—but if it was in Liscor?

Erin, we’re here. What are we looking for?

Seborn appeared at her side. Moore on his left. Erin counted. Numbtongue had his sword and guitar out. The Hobgoblin looked at her.

“Stay in the inn? Better cover.”

He gestured around. Erin wavered.

“I—I don’t know where it’s coming from—wait! Wait! Relc, Seborn, Moore, Numbtongue, everyone get ready!”

It was growing stronger. Erin saw Seborn flicker over to a window. Desperately, Erin turned the door. Maybe there was a clue? She flung it open.

Liscor, nothing. People on the streets.

Pallass, Kel staring.

Esthelm, empty, a man asking to come in.

Celum, Octavia, gaping.

The Bloodfields—

“It’s open! Run!

The wave of Gnolls and Drakes poured into the inn, knocking Erin off her feet. The crowd gathered around her drew back as the workers charged into them. The Drakes and Gnolls didn’t care; they scrambled over each other, shouting.

Move! They’re right on us!

“Dead gods! Dead g—”

“Warn the Watch! They’re here!”

“What? What?

Relc fought the Drakes off him. He seized an arm. Master Reikhle turned.

Crelers!

The first Creler scuttled through, mandibles tearing. It went straight for Erin. A spear came down. Relc ran it through, but the Creler kept moving. The Drake stared at the hideous thing, nearly a third of Mrsha’s size. Then he looked up.

“Oh—”

They poured through the door. The adventurers came with them, fighting, screaming. The inn turned to chaos as everyone went for the doors. Erin stared. She saw the first huge Creler barrel through, biting a fleeing adventurer, sawing his spine in half with one snap. The dead man fell, blood spraying her. She stared at the huge Creler. At the hundreds, pouring in.

Out the door! Go!

Those inside the inn were fleeing towards the actual door. Erin took a step forwards. Her magical door was open. And the Crelers were pouring through. They were covering the last people who’d come through. They were already—

They came for her. Erin kicked, felt one race up her leg, so fast. It opened its mandibles, coming for her face. She had to close the door—

Erin!

Relc bellowed. He tore the Creler off Erin, taking her skin with it. The [Guardsman] roared as his spear flashed in every direction. Giant Crelers were forcing their way through the door. Erin slashed at one. She was surrounded—

“The windows!”

Lyonette screamed as the Crelers filled the inn. She whirled, Mrsha in her arms and ran. She fumbled at Erin’s windows. Unlatched one. The Crelers covered Drakes and Gnolls fleeing at the door, ran at her.

A Juvenile Creler, up to her chest and longer than she was, charged at her. The [Princess] screamed, trying to force Mrsha out the door. Apista was trying to sting it, but the Ashfire Bee couldn’t even penetrate the armor. Lyonette pushed Mrsha out as the Creler reared up, biting, tearing—

Numbtongue threw himself forwards, grappling with the giant. He roared at Lyonette.

Get out!

She scrambled for the window as the Hobgoblin screamed. Something bit into Lyonette’s shoulder, tearing flesh like paper. She screamed and tore it off. Apista flew past her as Mrsha dragged her out. But Numbtongue was still in the inn, fighting the Creler.

It bit him repeatedly as the Hobgoblin shoved it back. He slashed with his sword, but the steel rebounded off the shell. He whirled.

“Erin—”

Crelers poured up his leg. Four of them. The [Bard] tore them off, saw two huge pinchers. He jumped back. Stared at his exposed stomach.

“You’re dying. There are too many for me or you. Run.”

A Hobgoblin stared at Numbtongue. Reiss grabbed Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin fell against a table, staring at his organs.

“Get up and run!”

Pyrite moved Numbtongue’s body. He threw Numbtongue out a window, smashing through the glass. Crelers came after him. Lyonette screamed, but Pyrite was smashing a potion on Numbtongue’s stomach.

Run.

“Erin—”

Pyrite looked back once. Then he grabbed Lyonette and Mrsha and ran for the city.

 

—-

 

Drakes and Gnolls flooded out the inn’s doors, screaming. They ran for the city as the Crelers poured out the inn. Only a handful were left, fighting for the doors. Seborn cursed as he looked around.

Move!

Moore threw one of the Players through the window. The half-Giant whirled, planting his staff in the ground.

“[Earthen Spire]!”

A huge pillar of earth rose, smashing the floorboards and impaled one of the Junior Crelers. But only one. They were still coming. And the half-Giant was a target.

[Flurry Blades]!

Seborn flashed around Moore, stabbing so fast he could barely see his own arms. Crelers died around him, but more were biting him, tearing at him. He felt the poison entering his blood and howled.

Moore!

Where’s Erin?

The half-Giant turned desperately, swinging his staff and throwing another spire of earth up. Erin had been by the door. She was d—

Relc emerged from the sea of Crelers, his spear blurring. He tore Erin out of the sea of bodies. Seborn seemed slow compared to him. The [Spearmaster] was roaring, killing the Crelers around him as he fought for the door.

None of them touched Erin. But they swarmed over the Drake, biting, tearing. Their fangs pierced his scales. Relc impaled a huge Creler charging him through the head. It kept coming and the [Sergeant] staggered. He tore another off him as Erin threw a potion. The Tripvines slowed the Crelers for a moment, but they began eating the bag and vines!

“Poison. Damn, damn—”

“Potion!”

Erin yanked open the door, grabbing for her belt. Seborn pointed.

Moore!

The half-Giant screamed; Crelers were burrowing into his side, trying to eat him alive! Seborn flashed over and stabbed until the Creler was dead. Relc roared as he held the door.

“Healing potions don’t work! Move!

The Halfseekers turned. They went through the Crelers, grabbing the last living person in the inn. Temile’s thumb was missing, and the Actor was bit so badly he couldn’t move.

Moore bellowed and threw one of the huge Crelers into the sea pursuing them. The half-Giant staggered, turned and ran. He was bitten down to the bone.

“Go. The city.”

Relc’s breath was growing slower. His spear never stopped moving as Erin dragged Temile out. The Halfseekers ran as Seborn stopped.

“Go.”

The [Rogue] turned. Moore stopped. He looked back, then seized Temile. The man in his arms, he charged down the hill. Seborn and Relc held the door for a second. Five. Ten.

The Crelers covered them, biting, eating—

 

—-

 

“La, la. I am Bird. It is noisy down there. I am Bird. That is a good word. Bird. Birds.”

Bird sat in his tower. He was munching on one of the birds he’d let sit out for a few hours to get nice and squishy. He wasn’t supposed to eat them, especially when they had wriggly things, but he wanted to and he didn’t have to tell Erin. He listened, hearing the commotion below.

“Something is very loud.”

The [Bird Hunter] stood up. He heard screams. Then saw people rushing out the door. The Antinium’s head jerked up. Those were not good screams. He drew an arrow, looking about.

“Bad things? Bad birds?”

Then he saw the first red, insectile shape crawl out of the windows and appear in his line of sight. Bird froze, but his bow did not. The arrow nailed the Creler pursuing Ishkr to the ground. Bird stared. Then he began to scream.

Alarm! Creler attack! Alarm! ALARM.

They were coming out of the inn! The Worker saw Drakes and Gnolls fleeing in every direction, then turning to the city. Bells were already ringing in Liscor, but there was no army here to stop the tide of Crelers.

Only Bird. His bow sang as he loosed arrows as fast as he could, drawing with three arms and loosing. Crelers fell, impaled by the arrows from above, but more were coming. Big Crelers, but barely more than children. Juvenile-grade. The Antinium recognized them and avoided them. He couldn’t even stop them. The giant ones chased the others. Lyonette and Mrsha were being carried by Numbtongue.

ALARM. SOUND THE ALARM.

Bird was shouting at his Hive. With his mind. He didn’t know if they could hear him, but they must! Crelers! Crelers were here! They would eat everything!

The Worker saw the last few running out of the inn. There were so many Crelers coming out! A vast nest! The Antinium heard movement behind him and whirled. He stared down the stairs.

They were coming up the corridor, dozens of them. Bird drew and loosed an arrow in less than a second. He watched the shaft hit the Creler in one of the glowing midsections, hitting the vulnerable innards. But that barely slowed the Creler. They wouldn’t die from a single arrow, or even a dozen. Not even the larvae. They wouldn’t stop even until they were completely dead! And sometimes not even then.

Alarm!

Bird called one last time. Then he climbed out of his tower. He hit the roof and began to slide near the edge as the Crelers boiled out of the roof, swarming down at him. The Worker skidded down the roof on his back shell. There was the ledge. He put his feet down. And then he leapt.

For a moment Bird flew. And even then, his heart soared. Then he felt gravity catch him.

“Alas.”

He crashed down off the roof and got up. Erin turned. She was outside the inn. That was good.

Bird! Run!

The Worker got up and ran. He saw Seborn stagger out of the door, then Relc. They were the last to leave the inn. The Worker turned as Moore turned back.

Seborn!

He grabbed the [Rogue]. Seborn collapsed, bleeding from dozens of wounds. The half-Giant turned as Erin and Temile ran. Relc was stumbling after them. Bird turned.

“This is bad. We are going to die. Alarm! I have been very happy, Erin. Alarm!

He was loosing arrows as he trundled down the hill as fast as he could move. The arrows slowed the first wave of larvae, but not the bigger Crelers. A Juvenile exploded out of the doorway. Bird saw it charging down the hill at them. Moore turned. Relc raised his spear.

“Bird, no!

The Worker happily blocked the Creler’s path as it came for Erin. He drew a dagger. She screamed and threw her knife. It lodged in the Creler’s exoskeleton, going hilt-deep into the head. But that didn’t stop a Creler. Bird saw Erin turn.

And the Creler exploded. Bird saw the flash, felt the kick—and he was flying again. Then he landed. The Antinium waved all his limbs on his back. Then he got up.

“That was not me. I think.”

He looked up. Erin picked herself up as the hillside exploded. Another spell shot down from the heavens. Liscor’s walls sent a flaming ball of magic down and the first wave of Crelers coming out the inn vanished. She looked around—they were regrouping. They were going after Relc! He swung his spear as they leapt—

And another spear impaled one. Hooves trampled the others. Embria turned her horse in a quick circle and shouted.

“4th Company! Cut them down!

Drakes and Gnolls surged past the fleeing people. They formed a line as Liscor’s Watch charged out of the gates. Wing Commander Embria thundered past Erin. She leapt off her horse and landed beside her father. Her spear stabbed, killing Crelers, cutting them to pieces.

“Kid? Ancestors, that was fast—”

Relc fell to one knee. Embria grabbed him.

“On your feet, soldier!”

“Not—I got bit.”

The Drake’s body was covered in deep lacerations. He was bleeding, but green and yellow ran with the blood. Poison. The potion Erin had used on him hadn’t worked.

Embria stared at him, wide-eyed. She turned and bellowed.

[Healer]! Sergeant Tilk! Creler poison! Get over here now!

Erin stumbled towards Relc. But a Gnoll shoved her aside. The [Healer] ran as Embria turned. The waves of Crelers pouring out of the inn didn’t stop! All of them were coming through the door!

“What happened? Where are they coming from?”

The [Innkeeper] looked around. She knew the answers as soon as she asked. She spotted adventurers, Silver-rank, collapsed outside the gates. All of them were wounded. But there weren’t enough. Less than a third who’d gone through were back. Most of the road crew was alive. Reikhle was babbling as Olesm pointed.

“They came out of the Bloodfields! Thousands! We barely escaped—”

“[Attack Formation]! Hold that line! Embria, advance!

Olesm bellowed. The Watch was forming a line as the walls unleashed their spells on the Crelers. The huge Crelers were being brought down as Embria and the high-level [Soldiers] aimed at them. The small Crelers died to swords, arrows, maces—even boots. But they died hard. And Gnolls and Drakes were screaming as the Crelers bit straight through steel!

“We didn’t see it. They just appeared—”

A female adventurer was babbling as Olesm turned to her. The [Strategist] was swearing.

“I don’t care! How many? An Adult? We need to sound the alarm in Pallass! [Rapid Retreat]! Pull back on the flank!”

“The Horns? Where are the Horns of Hammerad?”

Erin called out. She saw Lyonette and Mrsha, tending to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was on the ground. The [Princess] was shouting for one of the [Healers].

“They’re still out there.”

A voice. Erin whirled, expecting to see—

It was Palt. He was bleeding. Creler bites had torn open his chest. The Centaur was half-collapsed. Ulinde was on his back. What was—Erin stared at the Selphid. Something had torn her half to pieces. And Beza—the Minotauress was silent.

“The Horns? There are adventurers out there?”

Olesm whirled. Palt was staring at Erin. The [Illusionist]’s voice was a whisper.

“We—we held as long as we could. I tried. I’m sorry. Isceil’s dead. It killed him. We fought—but we couldn’t hold out.”

“But it was minutes—”

“Ten minutes. You didn’t open the door for ten minutes!”

The female adventurer whirled on Erin, cursing. The [Innkeeper] looked at her.

“No. My [Dangersense]—I checked the door not a minute after it went off—”

“We were there! We sent [Messages]! But you didn’t open the door!”

“I didn’t know.”

Erin whispered. Palt looked around, vaguely. He was shaking.

“They stayed behind to buy us time. They were trying to retreat. But there were too many Crelers! Hundreds! Baby Crelers and Juvenile ones—and an Adult. An Adult Creler.

Olesm looked at Palt. He stared at the inn. So did Erin. The Crelers were slowing in coming out. But they were still coming. Dying. She looked at Relc, trying to move. Seborn and Moore, downed. Numbtongue.

Something in her head began counting.

“How long…?”

Ten minutes ago. Plus nine of fighting. Nine? About right. Erin stared at the Watch, holding the Crelers back.

Nineteen minutes.

 

—-

 

Grimalkin of Pallass folded his arms. He stared at the breathless, wide-eyed Drassi as his students paused on their third lap around the city.

“No.”

“What?”

The [Gossip] clutched at a stitch in her side. She’d raced across the city, looking for him. The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.

“I’ve told Miss Solstice time and again: I am not her personal [Bouncer] or her eternal ally. I have my own duties. The Watch’s entire purpose is to protect citizens of Liscor, like Erin Solstice. She should go to them first, not me.”

“But she said—she was really afraid! Please, you have to help!”

The Drake begged Grimalkin. But she didn’t know what ‘it’ was. Grimalkin paused. But then he shook his head.

“If the crisis demands it, she should flee to safety in Pallass itself. But I will not—cannot—drop everything to bail her out of danger every time. Unless she sent you with an offer?”

“No! There was no time! Please—”

“Magus Grimalkin, we could investigate for you?”

One of Grimalkin’s students suggested. Grimalkin glared and the Drake shut up. Grimalkin sighed as he looked at Drassi.

“Miss Drassi, was it? Whatever the situation is, I will react when called upon by Pallass. Not by an [Innkeeper].”

“But—”

Grimalkin was turning away when a [Guardsman] raced up. The [Sinew Magus] saw Kel appear, panting.

“What is it now?”

“Magus Grimalkin! Liscor is sending out a third-priority alarm to all nearby cities! Crelers have been spotted around the Bloodfields! A nest has invaded the inn—hundreds of Larvae-stage Crelers and Junior-stage! And—there is a confirmed Adult-stage Creler.”

The muscular Drake paused. He saw Drassi turn pale. Grimalkin’s students looked up, and Grimalkin paused.

“Alright. I’m on my way.”

“Oh, thank you—”

Grimalkin was already sprinting towards the door. The [Guardsman] raced after him. Grimalkin bellowed as he left the Drake behind.

“Convene the Watch! Let nothing through that door!”

He ran. Drassi had caught someone else on her way to find him. Jelaqua was surging up the steps, shouting for people to clear the way. The Selphid had changed into her Raskghar body. It took Grimalkin off-guard—until he saw the flail in her hands. The Selphid roared.

Grimalkin! The inn!

“I heard!”

“What’s attacking them?”

The Selphid leapt up the stairs. Grimalkin was faster. He touched her arm and both accelerated. The citizens of Pallass stared as the two dashed past them.

“An Adult Creler! I haven’t fought one of those in over a decade. I would appreciate the assistance.”

Jelaqua sped towards the door. She slammed into the wall before she realized it was closed. There was already two squad’s worth of [Guards] at the door.

“Magus Grimalkin!”

“Step back! Crelers will swarm your formation! Lock down this street! Get me [Mages] and high-level [Guardsmen]! When that door opens, we are going through.”

Grimalkin snapped. The [Guards] jumped out of the way. Jelaqua stared at the door.

“It’s not open—”

“The inn itself may be under siege. You. Where are the Crelers coming from. The Bloodfields? Or have they assailed Liscor?”

“The [Message] didn’t say. We are asking for a confirmation—”

“Send it to me by magic when it arrives! Miss Ivirith, have you fought Crelers?”

The Selphid turned. Her eyes gleamed and the Gnolls present stepped back. The Selphid’s voice was low.

“I was part of a force that fought some in my Silver-rank days. Three Gold-rank teams and six Silver to back them up and destroy the entire nest. Two of them nearly tore us all to pieces. The Silvers won’t stand a chance! Seborn and Moore need me.”

She slammed a fist on the door. Grimalkin grabbed her.

“You won’t help them by damaging the door.”

“Sorry. The door—”

Grimalkin paused. He put a claw on the door but felt nothing.

“I see. It’s not connected at all.”

“Do you think maybe the Crelers—”

Grimalkin was nodding. The worst-case scenario was already appearing in his minds. He’d thought about it after hearing about the Raskghar attacks. The door was a weakness too.

“You—[Guardsman]. Did the door open after Miss Solstice warned you?”

“No, sir.”

The Drake saluted palely. Grimalkin nodded. Jelaqua stared at him.

“What do we…?”

“We wait. Send word to the Assembly and Strategist Chaldion. Pallass’ [Generals] too, everyone in the city. If the nest contains multiple adults, it must be purged before they escape.”

Grimalkin looked at the [Guards]. They were incredulous. But they moved at his words. He turned back to Jelaqua.

“If there are multiple adults, Pallass’ First Army will take to the Bloodfields at once.”

“It they hit the inn—”

Neither finished the sentence. Jelaqua turned back to the door.

“Hold on, boys. Hold on.

The wooden doorframe cracked in her grip. Grimalkin opened his mouth. But he didn’t stop Jelaqua. He inhaled, feeling his muscles tense.

He waited. And he was counting too.

Twenty four minutes.

 

—-

 

Twenty four minutes had passed. Erin knew that—somehow. A part of her, a watchful, calculating part, was incredibly calm amid the rest of her. Someone had pulled her behind the lines and she was kneeling next to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was lucid but—in pain. The Creler poison was eating at him and the healing potions didn’t work against the parts hit by the poison. Mrsha was holding his hand as the Hobgoblin bit the rag in his mouth.

Twenty four minutes since the Crelers had overrun the adventurers. How long could they hold? With—

“Get Sergeant Relc on his feet now!”

Embria’s voice was bellowing at one of the [Healers]. The Gnoll was hunching his shoulders as Relc’s head lolled.

“It’s Creler poison, Wing Commander. I can’t cure it, only stop it!”

“I’m good. I just—I got tagged. I hate this feeling—Erin, you okay?”

Relc was gasping. His scales were pale. Erin looked at him. Embria knelt next to Relc.

“Yeah. You saved her, Dad. Not a scratch.”

“Hah! Takes more’n—where’s Klb? I gotta get up there—”

“Don’t move. You’ll make it worse! You can’t fight with Creler poison. They’ve stopped coming out of the inn.”

“Oh. Right. Let me just lie here and…”

Erin saw Embria rise. She heard more cursing from the side. Seborn was being treated as well.

Damn. Damn Crelers—is Moore…?

“I’m here. I—I’m okay.”

The half-Giant was lying. Parts of his chest had been eaten away. Only the [Healer] stopping his blood loss was keeping him alive. But the poison wasn’t as strong on such a huge body and the potions were working. Agonizingly slowly. Erin could see his muscles knitting together.

“He saved me. They were everywhere and he got them—”

Erin caught Embria as she stalked back to her position. The Wing Commander stared at Erin’s huge eyes. She jerked her head.

“That’s his job. Don’t worry, he’ll live. Watch Captain, Strategist! Wounded are stable! What news?”

Olesm and Zevara turned. The Watch Captain had surrounded the inn. The hill the Antinium had worked so hard to enlarge was torn to pieces. Creler bodies were everywhere, bombarded by the wall’s spells and hacked to death by the Watch and 4th Company. Zevara exhaled.

“We’re burning the bodies. But they’re in that inn. Your inn. Miss Solstice, our [Mages] found—”

“I know.”

Erin could feel them in there. They hadn’t emerged from the door. But they were inside. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand or more. Zevara eyed her. Then she stared up at the inn.

It was silent. Dark, windows busted. But deceptively so. After the initial rush, no more shapes emerged from the inn. Yet Erin knew, knew, they were inside.

They were waiting. They could think. Zevara turned.

“Ordinarily, I’d blow the damn inn to bits. But your reinforced walls would make that difficult. Worse, there’s that door inside. We can’t destroy it.”

“I—”

“I’m not doing it for you. It’s a valuable artifact.”

“Watch Captain, there’s also the matter of the adventurers in the Bloodfields. They’re still holding out. They could be alive.”

Zevara looked up at Olesm. The Drake [Strategist] was speaking in an icy calm. Like Erin’s. She hesitated.

“They could be. But we’re not going in there unprepared. Beilmark!

“Yes, Watch Captain?”

The Senior Guardswoman appeared. Jeiss was at her side. Everyone who could fight had been rallied. Zevara pointed.

“What’s Klbkch’s status? I want Antinium here now!”

The Gnoll nodded.

“The Antinium are moving on the inn, Watch Captain! They plan to strike from below.”

“Below?”

Olesm exclaimed. Zevara hesitated. But all she did was nod.

“Good! Then we’ll combine our assault when he signals readiness.”

Embria frowned.

“Watch Captain! We can’t take that inn! It’s suicide! Even if I put my best people through that door, the Crelers are waiting! We need Gold-ranks. The Heartflame—”

“Something’s wrong in the dungeon. We got a distress call. The Gold-ranks came under siege by the undead. They’re holding, but they’ve taken casualties.”

Zevara’s voice was terse. Erin looked at her.

“We can’t wait for them. The Horns—”

I know. Wait!

Zevara paused. She stared up at the inn. Then she came to a swift decision.

“Prepare to assault from all sides. Olesm, I want [Mages] to tear holes in there. We’re going to hammer the Crelers. Tell Klbkch to wait for my signal. And Beilmark? Get me the Minotaur prisoner. Now.

“The—”

Beilmark saw Zevara’s head snap up. She saluted.

“At once, Watch Captain”

Erin saw her run. But too slowly. Everything was too—slow—

Twenty nine minutes.

 

—-

 

The Hive was in uproar. Klbkch strode down the tunnels as Workers and Soldiers checked the tunnels. Creler attack. They’d gotten Bird’s message. The Antinium Worker had run to deliver it himself, along with the Watch.

“Prepare three thousand Soldiers and two hundred Painted Soldiers for combat. If Crelers infiltrate the Hive, protect the Queen at all costs.”

Klbkch’s swords were drawn. Anand, Pawn, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters, Purple Smiles—all of them were following him. He snapped at Belgrade.

“You will hold the Hive. The Crelers are reported at the Bloodfields and overrunning the inn. If they attack—”

“Is Erin safe?”

“If they attack the Hive, you will hold—”

Is Erin safe?

Pawn shouted at Klbkch. The Revalantor nodded.

“She’s alive.”

The Antinium relaxed, but only slightly. Belgrade nodded to Klbkch. Anand looked at the Revalantor.

“What is the role of the strike-force, Revalantor?”

“Assault the inn. Use the Inn-route. Is the tunnel clear?”

“Clear, Revalantor. We will emerge in the basement. How many to lead the strike?”

“I will take Painted Soldiers in.”

Yellow Splatters rumbled. Klbkch paused.

“Send in a wave of Soldiers first. One hundred.”

The [Sergeant] hesitated. But he nodded slowly.

“Very well. The survivors will become Painted Soldiers. And I will follow the hundredth.”

“I will come with—”

No.

The word came from all three. Klbkch pointed at Anand.

“Strategist! Lead the assault, but do not enter the inn! Yellow Splatters, choose your strike force and advance! Wait for the Watch to commence their strike and breach the basement!”

“They are in position. What is our signal?”

Klbkch didn’t know. He strode for the surface.

“I will send it. Watch Captain Zevara is preparing an assault. Wait for our signal.”

Thirty minutes.

 

—-

 

Erin stared as [Mages] surrounded the inn. Olesm was looking at her.

“We’ll go through the walls. Can you—”

“Yes.”

“Erin, I know—”

“I don’t care. What’s taking her so long?”

Zevara was standing close to the doors with Embria. 4th Company was interspersed among the Watch. Waiting. But the Watch Captain hadn’t given them the order to attack. The Crelers were sitting in the inn. Erin thought there were more than before. They might be going through the door until it ran out of mana and then coming in. There were so many. She felt them in her inn.

In her. She felt sick. Ill. But she knew the plan.

“Why is she waiting? The Horns are—”

“Erin. An Adult Creler can kill a Gold-rank team. Gold-ranks can kill them, but depending on the team—the Horns could have fled. But if—”

Erin stopped listening. She ran towards Zevara. Just as Beilmark raced out of the city with someone. Erin’s head turned. She saw adventurers and [Guards] jerk back. She stared as Zevara turned.

“Calruz?”

The Minotaur was in enchanted chains. Zevara nodded at him.

“Calruz.”

“Watch Captain. What’s going on? I heard—”

“What is he doing here?”

A Gnoll growled. Beilmark looked at Calruz with hatred. Zevara ignored them. She reached for her belt. Produced a key. She stepped over and unlocked Calruz’ chains.

Watch Captain!

Embria aimed her spear at Calruz’s heart. The Minotaur stared at Zevara.

“Battleaxe.”

The Watch Captain addressed one of her [Guards]. The Drake stared at her. Zevara snapped.

“Battleaxe!”

She seized it and handed it to Calruz. The Minotaur stared at it as his one arm rose slightly. He looked up.

“What are you doing?”

“There are Crelers in that inn. We need to take it to get to the door. The Horns of Hammerad are on the other side. They held the line so others could escape. They may be alive. But we cannot bombard the inn. We’ll bring the walls down, but someone needs to draw the Creler’s first wave. There are thousands in there.”

Erin’s eyes went wide. Embria stared up at Zevara. The others realized what the Watch Captain was saying. Calruz stared at the battleaxe as Zevara held it out to him. The Drake’s arm was beginning to tremble with the effort of holding it level with one hand.

“I see.”

“That’s suicide.”

Erin looked at Calruz. The Minotaur jerked. He turned around to her. He opened his mouth. Then turned his head to the inn.

With his one arm, the Minotaur lifted the axe.

“Did you say the Horns were inside?”

“Yes. Try to flee and I’ll have to kill you. But I won’t force you to go in there. Guards, advance!

Zevara drew her blade. The Watch moved up the hill. Erin saw Olesm signaling her. But her eyes were on Calruz. The Minotaur looked down at the axe for one second. One [Immortal Moment]. He stared at Erin. And then he turned and surged up the hill.

“Take down your Skill, Erin!”

“[Reinforced Walls]! Off!”

Erin twisted something in her mind. Something crashed in the inn. Calruz strode up to the door. He lifted the axe. And Liscor’s Watch stared up at him.

The Minotaur raised the axe. He met Zevara’s gaze and she saluted him. Calruz turned. Erin Solstice stared into his eyes and he thought she could see his soul.

The Minotaur turned. His foot kicked the door open and the darkness waited. His death moved. And Calruz laughed.

He howled as he charged into the inn, alone. The words came from his heart. His very soul. Unbidden.

Death before dishonor!

The Crelers saw the huge shape tear into the inn. They rustled. And Calruz turned. His eyes were red with blood. He saw the wall, the floor, shift. Crelers covered every surface. Glowing organs and black, twisted forms. Nightmares given life. A sleeping god’s musings.

Huge Crelers clicked, sensing their prey. It was alone. The Crelers raced forwards, one all-consuming hunger. Malicious thought given form. But the Minotaur only laughed. He swung his axe and bellowed a challenge.

They swarmed at him. He crushed them with his feet, striding into death. They tore his skin, bit his very bones. But they could not break him. He had already been broken once. His soul screamed one word.

Honor. The Minotaur roared and the Crelers fell back. His axe cleaved through a giant Creler’s torso. The Crelers surrounded him, cutting off his escape. But onwards the Minotaur charged.

Towards salvation.

Watch Captain Zevara heard Calruz’s scream. But she held her claw up. For one agonizing second. Then five. And in that moment, the Minotaur refused to die. He faced the thousands of Rhir’s nightmares alone. And they could not bring him down. Then she pointed.

Go!

The Watch surged up the hills. The first spell blew open the eastern wall. 4th Company, led by Embria, charged inside. Erin saw the walls exploding as spells brought them down. She stared, feeling her eyes sting. But it didn’t matter.

The walls of The Wandering Inn came down. [Guards] and adventurers flung magic and loosed arrows into the gaps. They advanced as a wave of skittering horrors broke across their ranks. And below, the first Antinium exploded up into the basement. Soldiers poured upwards, attacking the Crelers who’d fallen through the floorboards. They climbed up, grappling with Crelers, smashing them.

Yellow Splatters was the seventieth. He stepped over a fallen Soldier, charged, and met a Juvenile Creler. Anand was shouting.

Flood the basement! Bring down the floor and go up the ramps!

The inn was collapsing. Crelers boiled out the gaps. Erin saw them fighting with Drakes and Gnolls. Bringing them down. The few Silver-ranks able to fight were fighting alongside the Watch. Erin thought she heard Calruz’s roar. She pointed at the inn.

Stop.

[Inn’s Aura]. Erin focused it, her very being of the inn. As Calruz went through the door, as the Antinium swarmed upwards, Erin focused.

She began trembling. Olesm looked at her.

“Erin—”

Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. Then her entire body. Inside, the Crelers slowed. The Minotaur brought his axe down, crushing a massive Creler’s body. He roared, tearing them off him. The Crelers came at him. But slower. Just a touch—

“Erin! Stop! You can’t use an aura like that!”

Lyonette was grabbing at Erin. The [Innkeeper] didn’t hear her. The inn was breaking. So was her body. But the Crelers were slowing. They fought her. They fought the Watch, the adventurers, the Antinium. They fought and died. That was foregone. But it was taking too long.

Forty minutes.

Erin collapsed. She felt Lyonette and Olesm catch her. Her head was ringing. She realized later she’d burst a blood vessel in her nose and eye. It wasn’t bad.

Others had suffered worse. Zevara stood in the inn, looking around. Her voice didn’t tremble. She didn’t let it.

“Calruz?”

The Crelers were dead. They were hacked to pieces, vaporized. The Watch was still making sure they were dead. The basement was a sea of bodies. Some of them Antinium.

The floor was collapsing into the basement in places. And the upper floors were exposed, falling to pieces as the destroyed rafters and support beams began to tear down the inn.

Erin walked through her home in a dream. A Minotaur lay next to a table. She bent to check if he was breathing.

Forty-five minutes.

“Erin, stay back! We need to sweep the area—”

“The door.”

It was blank. Out of magic. Erin looked around.

“I need [Mages].”

Get me [Mages]! Now! Erin, stand back! If that door opens and the Crelers come out—

Zevara roared. Embria took up a position.

“4th Company, assemble!”

Forty seven minutes.

The door flickered open. Erin saw milling Crelers—but the Watch Captain slammed the door too fast. She switched the dial.

Zevara!

“Pallass!”

Zevara snarled at Olesm. She yanked the door open and Grimalkin appeared.

Seborn! Moore!

Jelaqua hurtled through the doorway. She stared at the carnage in the inn. Grimalkin’s eyes widened. There was a gasp from the other side.

“Watch Captain, status?”

“We have the Crelers in the inn! There is still an adult and possibly more than half left in the Bloodfields!”

“I understand.”

Grimalkin stepped through the door. Zevara closed it. She turned the dial to the Bloodfields. Klbkch was in the inn, arguing with Yellow Splatters and the Antinium.

“Watch Captain, the Free Antinium are not permitted to march without direct authorization from you and the Council—”

“Where’s Seborn? Moore?”

“They’re alive. But the Horns—”

“Oh, no.”

Jelaqua turned. Zevara turned to Grimalkin.

“Magus Grimalkin, take an advance party. Gold-ranks only, and Wing Commander Embria’s best! The Watch will reinforce the Gold-rank teams in the dungeon and cover their escape! Strategist Olesm, take twelve squads and Jeiss and Beilmark! The rest will follow me through the door. Anyone who can still fight!”

“Hang back. Taking an unprepared army against an adult is a slaughter. They can fire projectiles and they’re resistant to magic. I cannot protect the Watch—”

Fifty minutes.

Erin wanted to scream. But every second was a delay. Zevara was nodding.

“Magus Grimalkin will clear the way. We go on his signal. If there are multiple adults, we retreat at once! But an adult cannot be allowed to escape and breed! Form up!”

The Watch was flooding the inn. Yellow Splatters moved out of the basement. Anand grabbed Erin, speaking to her. She pointed.

Fifty-six minutes.

Grimalkin. Embria and three [Captains] and their [Lieutenants]. Jelaqua. Tekshia. A Gold-rank team. The [Sinew Magus] looked around.

“On my mark.”

Fifty nine minutes.

He held up four claws. Counted down. Erin watched him swing the door open. The [Sinew Magus] pointed. There was an explosion.

Go!

Jelaqua leapt through first. The others surged through after her. Zevara and Yellow Splatters waited until they heard Grimalkin’s voice. Then they were coming through.

One hour.

Erin watched the Watch disappear. The others fell back, Relc was there, leaning on one of the [Guards]. He stared through the open door, cursed. Erin wanted to see, but the others were holding her back.

One hour. Maybe longer.

“Pull back to the city. Wounded first! I want [Archers] on the walls! Wall spells ready to go! Encircle the inn—[Guards] on horseback only! Prepare to engage and fall back if Captain Zevara retreats!”

Relc bellowed. The [Guards] stared at him. The Drake howled at them.

Move!

They flooded out of the inn. Erin tried to go for the door. She had to see. But hands were pulling her back. Anand was speaking.

“Belgrade, form up the strike force at the entrance to the Hive—”

“Are they alive? Are they—”

 

—-

 

Toren saw the group depart the inn. He stared, but he didn’t see Erin’s face among the confusion. Yet—he knew.

He stood there, looking up at the sky. Looking down at his bones, feeling the magic in him fading. Toren reached for a mana potion, counted how many he had left.

He stared towards the inn, observing as Liscor’s Watch surrounded it. Searching the faces. He had seen Lyonette. He paused. And the inn stood there. And so did the skeleton.

Waiting.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.64

“I don’t like it. It’s staring at me.”

“Then don’t look at it. It’s not going to creep up on you.”

“I can’t help it. It’s like a loose scale, you know?”

“…No.”

“Okay, then a rough patch of fur or something. You know what I mean!”

“My fur is always combed, thank you.”

“Go to Rhir. Look, I swear it’s watching me. Don’t you feel the same way? It’s always there and I feel like it’s growing.”

“It’s your imagination. Just get back to work.”

“You’re telling me you don’t get nervous when you stare at it?”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m not bothered.”

“…Your fur’s standing up.”

The Gnoll [Worker] glanced up and patted the hairs on his neck. The Drake [Laborer] crowed. He pointed at the red splotch in the distance as the two took a break from clearing the earth. The green grasses, fed by spring rains, were growing tall and wild.

In places, flowers, grass, and other plants were waist-high. There were only a few actual trees; even this far out from Liscor, opportunistic [Lumberjacks] would take down the comparatively rare wood and haul it back to the city. And the High Passes were not forested in large, anyways. The rocky terrain of the higher hills supported only shrub-like plants or smaller.

And yet, the valley here leading out of the High Passes and into southern Izril seemed idyllic. For grazing, at least! But no [Shepherd] would raise their animals around here. They preferred the Floodplains, for all of the dangers of Rock Crabs and Shield Spiders. Because beyond the lush grasses lay a crimson stain. It occupied the valley, cutting off an easy route south.

The Bloodfields. They waited in the distance. The two workers unconsciously turned. The Gnoll sniffed the air warily. They were too far and the wind was blowing the wrong way. But even so. The foreign terrain that began where the red grasses began was…uncanny. To Erin Solstice, it looked like a vision of Mars.

Not Mars, Mars, the actual planet which was mostly dust and hot stuff. Erin had seen all kinds of actual data about Mars from her world. But the Bloodfields looked like what people had imagined Mars might be if it was inhabited by alien life.

Red grass occupied the Bloodfields. It seemed—shiny. The light caught the blades, which were razor sharp. Even the grass thirsted for blood. But the grass was hardly the worst of it. Large, bulbous plants dominated the landscape. In places, strange, spore-like protrusions and huge thorny vines, dense clusters of plants seemed to be almost like a jungle. But the sudden dense spots were like oases amid the crimson. The rest of the Bloodfields were apparently spacious.

Deceptively so. Tall, pale trees, some sixty feet tall, others even higher, dominated vast, circular dead zones. Watchertrees. And the bulbous sacs were filled with insects. What few creatures made the Bloodfields their home were also changed. Erin had seen a rabbit. With teeth! And the rabbit had looked more like a predator.

“See! I told you! You don’t like it either!”

The Drake crowed, catching Erin’s attention. The Gnoll grumbled and turned away, refusing to answer. He caught sight of Erin watching him and paused. She waved.

“Hi.”

“Uh oh. It’s her.

The Drake saw Erin too. He stared at Erin. She waved again and lifted the object in her hands.

“I’m just watching. Wanna cookie?”

The Drake and Gnoll stared at the cookie Erin was munching on. Well, she had a little basket. The Gnoll sniffed again and seemed to like what they saw. The Drake licked his lips.

“For free?”

“Sure! I mean, you’re working really hard.”

Erin gestured around vaguely at the immediate area. About three miles south of the Bloodfields, Drakes and Gnolls were building a road. A legit road. It was flat, and everything. True, it wasn’t asphalt, but they were tearing up the sod, pounding the road to somewhat smooth levels, even rolling objects over the surface.

They were creating a wide path, able to hold two wagons abreast comfortably, out of the wilderness. And they were building it around the Bloodfields, bridging the impassible expanse in the spring and summer. To bring Liscor into contact with the other cities.

They were doing it fast, too. It had been only a few days and the road stretched as far as Erin could see in one direction as she leaned out of the magical doorway. A nice, straight road, heading south. Towards Pallass. She waved the basket at the Gnoll and Drake.

“Cookies?”

“I’ll have one.”

The Drake came to a sudden decision. He trotted over and grabbed two. Erin had only offered one, but that was fine. The Gnoll came over too. He took a cookie and bowed slightly.

“Thank you. Er—”

“Erin. Erin Solstice.”

“Of course. We’ve uh, heard of you. Thank you for the—”

“Cookie. Don’t worry, this is just a vanilla one. It’s made of sugar. Flour, butter, eggs—mostly sugar. And vanilla.”

The Gnoll brightened. He took a cautious bite and smiled even further. Erin smiled too as the Drake scarfed one.

“Hey! This is really good! Can I have another?”

“No. But your friend can take another.”

The Gnoll did. He dipped his head again. He cast a longing glance past Erin into her inn. It was a fairly good day, and some guests were inside, watching the Players of Celum. It was also cooler, and Drassi was passing by with some cooled beers on a platter. Erin would have invited the Gnoll to step inside, but a loud voice came from behind the two workers.

“Hey! Break time’s over! Get back to work, you two!”

“Aw. Damn. [Taskmaster] Eigusha is on our tails again.”

The Drake groaned as he turned. The Gnoll made a face too. He hesitated and looked at Erin.

“We’d better get going. Thank you. It’s uh, good to meet you, Miss Erin.”

“You too!”

The [Innkeeper] smiled as they left. She could hear the Drake and Gnoll as they trotted back to the working team, scarfing their second cookie.

“That was her? She’s shorter than I thought she’d be. And a lot less insane.”

“We saw her going through her inn. I told you she wasn’t crazy.”

“Yeah, but you hear things. Remember the skeleton in her inn?”

“No. I thought it was a Hobgoblin.”

“No, that’s different. She had like, five. I thought she was mating with them, but it didn’t smell like that—”

Erin lost her smile. She stared narrow-eyed at the Gnoll’s back. Then the world began to move. Alarmed, Erin jumped—until she realized someone was picking up the doorframe that connected her inn to this position. She peered out the door and saw two grunting Drakes hauling the door. They jumped when they saw her.

“Hey! Where are you taking me?”

“Moving the door, Miss. Master Builder Reikhle’s orders. Don’t mind us.”

“Oh. Okay, then. Wanna cookie?”

“Sure—”

“Miss Human! Please stop feeding my workers!”

An aggrieved voice shouted at Erin. She turned, and stepped out of the doorway. She looked around, feeling the warm air on her neck. There was a breeze, but the sun was out in force. The grasslands south of Liscor felt hot. And hotter when you saw the teams, the Drakes sweating, the Gnolls with damp fur. They were not a happy lot, but they worked hard, in shifts. And the one motivating them to work harder was striding towards her.

“Oh. Hey. Master Builder. I was just—”

The Gnoll strode up to Erin. He pointed at her door.

“We’re moving your door up. To follow the road. There’s no point in keeping it the same spot. And I need more workers, so I’m sending Eigusha through to Liscor. No problems, yes? Good? Good! Stop bothering my workers, please. What’s that?”

He pointed at Erin’s basket. She lifted it.

“Cookie?”

The Gnoll sniffed the basket, took three cookies, and chewed one. He frowned.

“Sweet! I’ll share this with my quartermasters. Fine, you can give them out if they’re free. But don’t get in the way. Eigusha! The door!”

He waved and another Gnoll, female, trotted towards the door. The Drakes paused and she hopped up. The Drakes were carrying the door, so the floor of the inn appeared at torso level. Eigusha jumped and landed on the inn. She blinked around unsteadily, suddenly in an inn. It was an odd experience the first hundred times you did it. Then she turned. The door closed as she briskly adjusted it to Liscor.

“Ooh. I hope Drassi gets it back to here.”

Erin frowned. The Gnoll shrugged.

“Eigusha will be back in less than twenty minutes. And this door’s handy. We don’t have to set up camp, we can request supplies and personnel in moments—you’re not charging us for it, right?”

“Nope. I’m getting money from the city. Well, I don’t have to pay as many taxes.”

“Ah, excellent. In that case, I’ll keep using it how I please.”

The Gnoll [Builder] nodded to himself. Erin eyed him.

Master Builder Reikhle was…interesting. The Gnoll had no time for anything that wasted time. He’d been hired through Pallass to do a job, and this was it. Anyone—adventurer or worker—who was shirking got the back of his paw. In a literal sense. The Gnoll wasn’t afraid to knock heads, but he wasn’t violent.

And it was true that a Drake and Gnoll work team needed it sometimes. Erin had seen two fights as she’d watched that day. The workers got on each other’s nerves, both working and on break. And it fell to Eigusha, the [Taskmistress], or Reikhle, or the other supervisors to deal with the arguments.

Snarling Gnolls and hissing Drakes weren’t the adventurer’s jobs to break up, especially because the Humans were often the target of ire of both races combined. Speaking of which…Erin followed Reikhle as he strode back towards the door.

“Where’re you putting the door?”

“Just up towards the front of the road. We’re not going to walk all the way up when we can move the door, surely?”

“Oh. Makes sense. But aren’t we closer to…the Bloodfields?”

Erin gestured at the red grass in the distance. Reikhle glanced over. Like the other Gnoll, he sniffed the air, but dismissively.

“We’re three miles out. And I have the road moving away from the Bloodfields. See?”

He pointed impatiently, striding so fast that Erin had to jog to keep up. The road was being built along wooden stakes hammered into the ground. Reikhle himself had measured it with some device from Pallass, and now the road was straight as an arrow. [Laborers] were moving ahead of the team pounding the road flat, pouring dirt, raising it above the surrounding dirt. And another team was digging…Erin frowned.

“Is that a ditch? Why’re you digging that?”

“To have enough dirt to elevate the road! And for drainage, obviously!”

Reikhle snorted. Erin peered at the road.

“Oh. But it’s made of dirt. Won’t it wash away with rain?”

The Gnoll gave her a side-eye.

“Not my roads. This one will eventually degrade, but [Weather-resistant Structure] is my Skill and this road will last thrice as long as a normal one! We could have made it out of stone of course, but your city wants the road done fast. And dirt is a lot faster. We’ll probably be rebuilding it in the years to come, but I’ll have a temporary road built in less than a month. If you slugs would get to work and stop sitting on your tails!

He bellowed past Erin. A group of Drakes and Gnolls cursed at Reikhle as Erin winced. The Gnoll strode past her.

“Don’t bother my workers or get in the way!”

He left Erin. She walked to the side; the road was indeed moving at a rapid pace. Almost as fast as she could walk! Part of it was Skills, but the rest was just organization. Reikhle had teams such that everyone was always working. Erin sidled up to her door as the two Drakes put it down.

“Cookie? Cookie.”

She offered her basket. The two sweaty Drakes took it with gratitude. One was a female Drake. She leaned against the door as Erin stared at her arms. This Drake had muscles. And breasts. Fun fact: Drakes were mammals. Erin hadn’t really known that. The Drake eyed Erin too.

“Thanks, Miss Innkeeper. Don’t mind Reikhle. He’s always like that.”

“Oh? You’re from Pallass, then.”

The Drake nodded, flashing Erin a grin. Erin smiled back as the other Drake scarfed another cookie, more interested in her basket than anything else. The female Drake smiled crookedly.

“That’s right. We’re part of his team. I’m a [Hauler]. Decent-leveled, though. See these?”

She hefted one arm. Erin nodded appreciatively.

“What Skills do [Haulers] get?”

“Ones that let us work harder.”

The other Drake grumbled. The female [Hauler] nodded.

“But also carry more than we should. It’s like having a miniature bag of holding for dirt. See?”

She nodded at the team dumping dirt on the ground. Indeed, they seemed to be carrying far more than they should, and the team pounding the dirt flat didn’t need to stop for quite a while. Erin whistled.

“Nice. So—Reikhle’s a good boss?”

She’d seen him striding about, and after a few days of having him walk through her inn to work, she was curious. Hence the basket of goodwill—Erin twitched it out of the reach of the male Drake. He’d had four cookies. The female Drake grinned and took another one.

“Reikhle? He’s decent. Hey, these are really good! You have any water?”

“Oh—when the door’s open—”

Erin gestured at the door. The Drake nodded, wiping sweat from her brow. She nodded at Reikhle.

“I know he’s tough. But he’s a [Builder], not some prancing [Architect] or [Engineer]. You need someone to make one of those complex elevators or some artful piece of marble, get someone else. Reikhle gets the job done cheap and quick. Without magic, too! Which is good. [Mage]-built roads always have something wrong with ‘em.”

“Huh. Well, I’m just interested. You’re all working hard, so I thought I’d share some…say, are the adventurer teams here?”

Erin looked around. The Drake shrugged. She waved a claw.

“There are a few on watch over there.”

“Useless sacks.”

Her companion grumbled. He eyed the two teams of Silver-rank adventurers standing around, chatting, a few keeping watch in every direction. His ire might have also been due to the fact that the teams were Human. Entirely so. Erin inspected both teams. But she didn’t see the ones she was looking for.

“Where’re the others?”

“Scouting ahead. Scouting the area. You know, to keep the immediate area clear of monsters. Watch for gaps. We’re going into the hills to get around the Bloodfields. And dead gods, that’s going to be a pain.

The Drake nodded knowingly towards the incline ahead of them. The grass disappeared and rocky terrain began. Erin imagined the builders would have to break the stone, find a way to build the road up. She nodded.

“Ooh. Yeah, that’s tough. Condolences.”

“We’ve done it before. But it’s no picnic. You looking for a team?”

“The Horns of Hammerad. They’re friends. They stay at the inn. I was just wondering where they were.”

“They’re probably on patrol. They’ll be back, but don’t hold your breath. They could be a few hours; they’re all on foot, save for one team. Say—can I have another one of those cookies?”

“Sure.”

 

—-

 

The Bloodfields waited. A bit closer from where the road was being built. But not too much. The furthest edge of corruption was still two miles safely away. And there it stayed, no matter where her team went. That was intentional. The [Scout], Hissle, and Ceria’s team had strict instructions not to get any closer to the Bloodfields. And the half-Elf couldn’t argue with that.

She panted as they hiked up a steep incline. Little stones cascaded down around her, dislodged by Yvlon who was climbing after the Drake, Hissle. Their [Scout] moved efficiently, sure-footed even on the rocky terrain. Yvlon was less graceful; she was wearing full plate armor, and despite the good fit and light, enchanted metal, it was still armor. She was sweating in the heat.

Ceria wasn’t. She’d taken to cooling herself down with ice magic. But she was tired. She stumbled on a rough patch of footing heading up the slope. She tipped backwards, began to flail—and a hand caught her.

“Captain Ceria.”

“Thanks, Ksmvr.”

“Steady.”

Yvlon turned. Ceria regained the balance and kept climbing. She was wheezing when they got to the top of the crest. Hissle was surveying the area. He turned as Ceria’s loud panting broke his concentration. The Drake eyed the [Cryomancer] and the other three adventurers. Pisces was sitting at the top of the hill on a rock; he’d used [Flash Step] to get up and was reviewing his book. Yvlon wiped her brow, looking only slightly fatigued. Ksmvr waved at Hissle. The Drake hesitated.

“Alright, we’ll take a five minute break!”

Ceria collapsed onto a rock next to Pisces. He eyed her as she panted. He opened his mouth. Ceria pointed at him.

“If you—say anything—I’ll stab you.”

“Ah.”

The [Necromancer] went back to looking at his book. Ceria wanted to die. She was dripping sweat. A cool object pressed against her cheek and she started.

“Water.”

Yvlon offered Ceria the flask. The half-Elf gratefully took it and drank. The water was cool—thanks to the ice cubes she’d added to it not half an hour ago. She handed it back after a few sips—she knew better than to gulp it down—and Yvlon drank gratefully.

“Ah. It’s nice having an [Ice Mage] around.”

Ksmvr nodded, also drinking. Pisces glanced up at Ceria as said [Ice Mage] bent over.

“Indeed. Are you all right, illustrious captain?”

“Shut it, Pisces. I don’t…want to hear it from you. [Flash Step] is illegal!”

“I could teach it to you. If you were so inclined. But it does require work. And if used incorrectly, you could break a leg on these rocks.”

Pisces raised a brow. Ceria groaned. She’d seen Pisces using his spell to carefully ascend.

“I don’t want to work! Why are we working? Someone tell me that! We’re rich from the dungeon! Why are we working?”

“I thought you said you wanted to keep our team busy. I was only too happy to rest.”

The [Necromancer] raised one brow. Yvlon smiled.

“This was your idea, Ceria.”

“Shut up, Yvlon.”

Ksmvr opened his mandibles, peering around. They had a good view from the rocky bluff they’d climbed. And the hills looking down onto the valley gave them a view. Green, and the basin that was Liscor to the north. And south? The Bloodfields. But also, the rise in land. Hills, rocky, unable to support even the crimson death zone. It was through this area that the Horns, led by Hissle, were traversing. Finding a route for the new road.

“Captain Ceria, I believe we will not be going uphill for the moment. There is a valley ahead. I believe we will be scouting it next.”

The half-Elf didn’t look elated at the news.

“If we go down, we have to go up again, Ksmvr.”

“That is true, Captain Ceria. Is my motivating speech a failure? How about this: our time is finite, so we only have three hours left by my calculation until our assigned work period ends. We will only be marching for two more hours, upon which time we will begin our return trip. How is that? Captain Ceria? …Captain Ceria?”

The half-Elf was trying to lie down in the dirt. Yvlon rolled her eyes. But she looked a bit tired herself.

“Ceria, get up. We’ve only been hiking for two hours.”

Two hours!

“You’re out of shape. Grimalkin is right. You got soft at Erin’s inn. You’ve done worse.”

“When I had to! But this was a mistake! We should quit!”

Ceria groaned. They’d been working on their job with Liscor for the last week, now. Enough time for all of them to get used to the routine. And hate it. Every day was the same. Stand around on guard duty or help build the road, or patrol. And the patrolling, the scouting, was the worst.

The worst part…was the constant hiking. Not the tedium. Ceria could handle tedium; she and her team were able to amuse themselves teaching Ksmvr new things, arguing with Pisces taking on all comers, or just gossiping. But the hiking was tough. On her especially, but it was just hard.

Scouting meant, well, moving, stopping, and moving some more. Hissle would survey for potential threats or problems that would impede the road—like a deep valley—and order them to check it out, or keep moving across the uneven terrain. They’d gone up very steep, rocky inclines, following Hissle, their dedicated [Scout].

The Drake was sympathetic—to a point. But he came back and pointedly nodded.

“We have to check out the valley. Reikhle won’t build through it, but there might be threats. Everyone up! Be watchful for monsters.”

Ceria hauled herself to her feet with a groan. She descended, stumbling after Pisces as the [Necromancer] zipped down the first incline with a smooth [Flash Step].

“Hissle, why can’t we use horses?”

The Drake sighed.

“Two reasons, Miss Ceria. First, horses attract monsters. So do we, but animals are tasty to monsters. But we could use them—if we had animals used to this terrain. But without, there’s no way a horse can navigate some of the spots we need to move. Like that gravel a while back.”

He nodded at the rocky landscape.

“I wish I had a Skill that gave my mount [Sure Footing] or something. But without it, even a pony would break an ankle in this terrain. I’m sorry, but aside from that other team—”

“The Whistling Bows. Kam’s team.”

“They’ve all got that Skill. Or their leader does.”

The half-Elf cursed. She’d seen Kam’s team riding in the distance, happily chatting to each other. Yvlon shrugged.

“I’m not a fan of hiking either, Ceria. But it’s good exercise and it keeps us out of the inn. Where you’d be drinking and eating by midday.”

“I’m allowed to do that! Where does it say that’s illegal? I can live how I please! I just wish we had horses.

Ceria snapped. Yvlon shook her head. Ksmvr raised one of his three hands helpfully.

“There are a breed of huge goat in the Terandrian kingdom of Kilav that are suited to mountainous travel. They are domesticated for riding and considered extremely dangerous siege specialists due to their ability to traverse mountains and nearly vertical ground with ease.”

Everyone, Hissle, Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon, turned to look at the Antinium. Pisces nodded; Ceria just frowned.

“How do you know that, Ksmvr?”

“It is part of my education. I studied Kilavian warfare, among others.”

“You know about mountain goats in Kilav and not how to tip [Waitresses]?”

Ceria shook her head. They passed by Pisces. He was sitting on a rock. Even Hissle eyed Pisces askance as the [Necromancer] used his Skill to zip down the slope to another seat. He wasn’t lording it over them, but—Ceria glared daggers. Pisces coughed, hiding a smile.

“That is actually not Ksmvr’s failing, Ceria. Drakes do not prefer to tip, as a species. The fees for those working in such industries are calculated as part of their wages and thus the menu item costs. In that sense, Ksmvr was educated properly.”

“Well, why am I tipping, then?”

Ceria frowned. Then she cursed as she felt a familiar irritation on her feet, where her sandals were rubbing against one heel. She stopped.

“Blister!”

“I told you sandals were a poor idea to go hiking.”

Yvlon looked disapproving. Ceria had torn her toes open twice and gotten blisters. Now she applied some healing potion, ignoring Yvlon’s disapproving look at the waste. Ceria grumbled.

“I don’t care if it’s a mountain goat or an Eater Goat! I’d ride anything—I’m getting blisters on my feet! Isn’t there a better option?”

“None. So keep moving. We have to cover this ground, Captain Ceria. And you are contracted with the city.”

Hissle urged Ceria onwards. The half-Elf groaned and picked up the pace. She was indeed used to this, for all she ran her mouth.

By now, the adventurer’s teams were actively betting and lobbying for duty watching the building teams, rather than going scouting. Ceria agreed; casting [Icy Floor] to help some workers transport a block of stone, or so on was preferable to this. Only teams like Kam’s who had horses weren’t complaining.

It wasn’t a bad job. They were being paid well for guards! And they weren’t in much danger; the few monsters they’d happened across had been easily dispatched. And the dangerous ones the Silver-rank adventurers had teamed up on, like the Face-Eater Moth nest a few days back. No, it just wasn’t fun. And Ceria had forgotten how hard some jobs adventurers took were.

For instance, lunch. Again, it was worse for Ceria. Ksmvr happily chowed down on the food provided for the adventurers and workers alike. It was free as part of their job, so Ceria shouldn’t have complained. But she did. Vocally.

“What’s this? This is just—rations!”

She eyed the salted fish, bit of crumbling cheese, and hard bread they were given. It was filling, but hardly good, even washed down with cold water. Yvlon sighed.

“Ceria, enough. You’ve been complaining over every little thing. You’ve gotten spoiled by Erin. This is no worse than I had in any number of jobs. But Erin serves that greasy stuff. Filling, but this is better if we’re going to fight. And the city’s providing it to us for free.”

The reprimand turned Ceria’s cheeks pink. Embarrassed, the half-Elf waved the bit of fish around.

“But I like Erin’s food. This is—”

She stopped as she realized everyone was looking at her. Even Pisces was staring at her meaningfully. Ceria turned red. She chewed in silence. Okay, it was decent food. Just—

“I admit, Erin’s food is somewhat more flavorful.”

Pisces acceded after a minute of silent chewing. He gulped down some water and silently traded his bread for Ksmvr’s fish. The Antinium had a thing about gluten. Pisces chewed on his fish and then continued.

“Erin could provide us with lunches. One wonders why the city didn’t ask her to cater for our teams.”

“Knowing the inn? I’ll bet Lyonette charged too much and Erin didn’t want to make that much food in advance. Which is a shame. She needs to hire a cook.”

Yvlon cast a knowing glance towards the magical door sitting—currently inactive—in the distance. They could actually see the road from their vantage point.  Ceria nodded, still embarrassed. She peered down at the workers, and then pointed.

“Hey. Isn’t that Erin?”

“Where?”

The other Horns and Hissle looked. The Drake shaded his eyes. He had a Skill, and nodded after a moment.

“That’s her. She’s got a basket. Looks like…what are those things?”

“Cookies!”

Ceria didn’t have to guess. She sat up longingly.

“She’d handing them out to—the Ensoldier Shields! Damn! Walt and his team! Just because they’re all wearing armor they get to sit around—”

“Ceria!”

The Horns were watching from their spot. They were just above the lip of the valley, and any further down they’d miss seeing Erin. Hissle looked about, ready to order them to stop hanging about, but then he glanced back.

“What’s that?”

Erin was shouting furiously. From the distance, no one could hear her, but the [Scout]’s enhanced vision saw her furiously pointing at one of the adventurers. Ceria shaded her eyes.

“What? What happened?”

“Looks like something’s made your friend mad. Oh—I think I saw. One of them slapped her on the behind.”

The Drake said it passively, but the half-Elf swore and Yvlon twitched.

“Those disgusting idiots! I’m going to kick Walt’s teeth in!”

“It wasn’t on the tail. Oh—wait. I guess that’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Like the tail.”

Pisces informed Hissle. The Drake frowned. Ksmvr nodded.

“I understand this is another form of establishing dominance between sexes. A bad one.”

He looked at Yvlon and the [Wounded Warrior] nodded. Hissle stared back down.

“Well—your friend’s not having it.”

Erin had thrown the basket down and was advancing on one of the laughing adventurers. The all-male team of the Ensoldier Shields were arguing with the other team—Hauntgheist, whose female members were also looking very upset. Then—

“Ooh! She punched him! Did I see that?”

“Yup.”

Hissle watched. He looked at the sprawled figure.

“Nice hit. That had to be a Skill, right? Alright, back to work!”

“What? But I want to see—”

“No excuses! We have three more hours! We need to check out this valley now! Keep marching!

 

—-

 

Palt the Centaur was cooking when the door slammed back open and Erin Solstice stormed back into the inn. He heard her voice first, shouting.

Those jerks! Hey! Hey! Let go of me! I’m gonna kick him in the nuts! I’m gonna boil nuts and throw it on his face! I said let go—”

“Sorry, Miss Erin. But they are working. Master Reikhle wants you off the work site.”

“He slapped my butt!”

“It wasn’t your ears or t—oh, wait. Well, it’s all better if you stay away from them.”

The voice was male. The female one’s was far more sympathetic, but whomever was pushing Erin back into the inn had orders. There was a commotion coming from the magical doorway. Palt longed to investigate, but he couldn’t even send a spell out. He was concentrating.

“And…we add the saffron-mix. Note how I have the crushed saffron threads with a few uncrushed ones? We add that to the water—the caramelized onions are already mixed with the rice. And now it’s cooking! You see? Simple, easy—this is flavor. Just enough salt, saffron, some onion and we’ll have a dish. Now, we need some sides…”

The Centaur [Illusionist] was in the kitchen. He addressed a white Gnoll cub perched on the counter next to him. She stared into the bubbling pot as the Centaur checked the flame. He blew, and flames shot from his mouth, adding to the blaze.

“Just a bit more heat. That’s a good boil! Now—reduce!”

He waved his fingers and the flames abruptly reduced. The Centaur moved quickly, going to another tray. He addressed his audience as he spoke. Lyonette was sitting next to Palt, on a stool, taking rapid notes.

“Now, the rice is excellent even on its own, but it needs more to make it good. You can make a good chicken mix, or vegetables, or a sauce—but this is my favorite. We have some squash, some sweet potatoes here, and some Yellats. I add the Yellats for the spicy taste, but if you just want the sweet and savory, you can omit. See, we’ve chopped the vegetables and added the herbal oil. Remember to use spices! Now, we have a nice cover of the oil on the tray—we’re going to bake this in the oven.”

He trotted over to the stone stove. Lyonette raised a hand.

“What spices, Palt?”

“I use thyme and sage and some pepper and salt.”

“Thyme, sage…pepper…salt…”

Mrsha wagged her tail, watching the Centaur add fire to the stove with a flick of his fingers then insert the tray.

“It doesn’t take long to bake. Now, I’m going to use some magic to expedite the process, but that’s because I’ve been doing this a long time. Non-spellcasters can just wait fifteen minutes. You have to get an even cooking, so just throwing flames won’t work.”

The Centaur was warming the inside of the stove. It was complex—if you didn’t know how to create a magical field inside the stove—but he had a magical formula he could use whenever he wanted to cook like this. Erin was still kicking up a fuss as the Centaur lectured about proper heat.

Soon, the veggies were baked. Swiftly, the Centaur returned to the rice pot he’d been checking. The saffron rice was nearly done! The water had evaporated, but it wasn’t dry.

“Perfect. Now, stir in the vegetables at this stage. We’re losing the rest of the moisture, so be sure it’s at this point! Now, we take off the heat and cover this with a towel!”

“A towel?”

Both Lyonette and Mrsha stared as the Centaur did just that. He winked at them, navigating the kitchen, which wasn’t made for a Centaur, with surprising grace.

“Exactly! To steam, you see? It makes the baked vegetables softer. Now, we’ll add the baked vegetables we didn’t add for difference in consistency. Put some other dried vegetables on top—see? Some nice leaves, dried to add some crunch—and there we go! It’s not exactly [Chef]-cuisine, but its fast and my favorite go-to.”

Mrsha and Lyonette stared down at the finished dish of saffron rice mixed with vegetables. Mrsha sniffed at the rich scent and Lyonette blinked.

“That looks—really good!”

The Gnoll cub looked doubtful. There was no meat in the dish! Palt waved a finger.

“Save your skepticism, little Mrsha! This is excellent cooking! Your Gnoll tribes love this food, believe me. Of course, you’d add lots of meat like some chicken—I’ll give you the recipe I use for Isceil and Beza’s share, Lyonette—but this is vegetarian. No meat! Centaurs don’t like as much meat in our diets.”

“It smells really good. Go on, Mrsha. Try some!”

The Gnoll cub didn’t need a second prompting, for all her doubt about the lack of the good stuff. As Palt put some into a bowl, she blew on a spoonful and popped it into her mouth. She chewed doubtfully, but then her eyes went round. Flavor! Such as she’d never had! Mrsha began scarfing the food.

“Don’t gobble, Mrsha!”

Lyonette looked amused and embarrassed. Palt laughed.

“She’s tasting the saffron. Now, remember, it’s quite expensive, so just use a tiny bit. And don’t waste any!”

Lyonette nodded, eying the rich, red-gold threads that Palt had given to Erin as a present. She tasted the rice and gasped.

“It’s so—good! The flavor is amazing!”

“You think so?”

Palt sighed in relief as he preened a bit. Lyonette nodded.

“Erin doesn’t cook like this. She uses spices—when she remembers to—but her foods like the pizza don’t have much.”

“Ah, yes. Well, it’s good in its own way. But this is cuisine. You could give it to a [Gourmet] and they wouldn’t throw it back in your face. Most of them. And the pizza would be a hit at Wistram. Actually—”

This must have been the thing Aaron kept trying to make! Unsuccessfully. Palt wondered if the other Earthers had rediscovered it. But he was low on the need-to-know poll and the Earthers were a huge secret. He smiled as he eyed the pizza Lyonette had prepared.

And he’d memorized the recipe! It was just a little secret, but he’d send it back to the Ullsinoi faction tonight. Even recipes were being restricted in Wistram! The Academy’s factions were fighting over everything from Earth and the big ones had a monopoly, hence the Earther-hunt.

“What do you think? The rice might be hard to come by, but you can use saffron in any number of ways.”

“It’s excellent. Thank you, Mister Palt.”

Lyonette smiled at the Centaur. Mrsha did too, a bit warily, but pointed at her bowl. Lyonette scolded Mrsha that she was ruining her appetite. But Palt was only too happy to offer her more.

“It’s nothing. And I have my own stock of rice—I can give you a bag! I imagine you’ll have to import—no, wait. Ask if Pallass imports it from Oteslia. If the Walled Cities aren’t fighting or having a tiff, I’m sure Oteslia grows it.”

“Is it expensive?”

Palt waved the question away.

“It’s like wheat, Miss Lyonette. It’s just that it grows best in Baleros. We grow it in the water, you see. Lizardfolk love it. Rice is to Baleros what bread is to Terandria and Izril.”

“I see. It’s certainly different. Thank you for showing us how to make it. And cook with spices. As I said, Erin’s got her own style of food, but it’s…well, simple.”

The American-based fast foods Erin liked to whip up were popular, but this reminded Lyonette of food from home. It took a bit more effort, even for what Palt called a simple dish. But the Centaur had only been too happy to do some cooking.

“Now, shall we see what’s gotten Miss Solstice so upset?”

“I suppose so.”

The [Princess] sighed. Palt trotted out of the kitchen with a plate in hand. Erin was still fuming, talking to Drassi, one of the female Gnoll [Waitresses] she’d hired, and two female [Actors]. Everyone male was out of range.

“And he was acting like he did nothing wrong! Hey Lyonette! And—Palt? Hey! Guess what happened when I was giving out cookies?”

Erin was surprised to see Palt, but only a bit. He’d been here every day, trying to ingratiate himself into the inn. The Centaur winced when he heard about the butt-slap incident. He wondered if the adventurer who’d made the unfortunate life decision had lost any teeth.

“It’s a compliment, they say. Like touching your tail. Eugh! Old Drakes doing that are the worst.”

Drassi was complaining. Erin folded her arms.

“Anyone does it in my inn, they get kicked out! And hit with hammers! Got it?”

She glared around. Lyonette just sighed. The [Innkeeper] was on the warpath.

“Erin, did you find the Horns? I thought you were going to check on them.”

Erin hesitated.

“Oh. No, they were on patrol. But then that jerk Walt and his team—”

“Was it their fault? I mean, I wasn’t there, but maybe they got the wrong impression?”

That came from the side. Erin looked askance as she stared at a Drake.

“What?”

He looked uncomfortable at the stares, but he went on, determined to make his point.

“If they thought you were flirting—”

“I wasn’t!”

“Did you smile?”

“Of course I—smiling is not flirting! I can smile at you without wanting to flirt! And butt-slaps aren’t part of that! Hey! Who thinks a smile means I’m automatically interested in you? Huh?”

No one was willing to look at Erin. The lunch crowd—one half of it—coughed and went to their drinks. Relc, sitting at his table, nudged Klbkch.

“Idiots. You know they’re into you if their tail touches yours. Right, my guy? Right, Klb?”

“Stop elbowing me. I am not your ‘guy’ either.”

Erin was still fuming as she sat down. Mrsha hopped into her lap and gave her a hug. She smiled, but then she scowled at the door. Palt approached with the steaming plate and a few Gnolls looked up.

“Why don’t we all calm down? Miss Erin, I’m sure the adventurer has learned his ways if I know you. Rather than dwell, try this!”

“Ooh! What’s this? Rice? And it’s yellow! Like uh—stir fry!”

Palt’s face fell only a tiny bit. But then he brightened.

“You’re familiar with it?”

“Of course! Yeah! It’s like uh, Chin—”

Erin paused and bit her tongue on what she’d been about to say.

“—rice! Did you make it, Palt?”

“I showed Miss Lyonette a bit of how to use the saffron. Would you like a taste?”

Modestly, the Centaur offered Erin the plate. She took the spoon and gingerly tasted it.

“Whoa.”

“Is it good?”

Whoa. It’s good!”

Her comments and the word saffron made more guests look up. One of them coughed.

“Is there more?”

“Saffron rice with vegetables! Any takers? It’ll be—two silver a plate?”

“That’s a lot! Your prices are sky-high!”

One of the regulars complained. Lyonette scowled.

“It’s new! I’ll drop the price later! But this is made with saffron. You know, the stuff that comes from Chandrar and is worth gold for just a tiny bit?”

More interest. Palt watched as Lyonette hurried into the kitchen. Erin was still exclaiming over the food as Mrsha tried to sneak bites off her spoon.

“It’s so—flavorful! Hey, I wonder if Lasica knows how to make this? You told me you cooked, but not like this, Palt!”

The Centaur sat at the table, moving a chair out of the way. He was pleased by her reaction.

“I do dabble. I’m fond of using spices and no one else in my team can cook. Well, Isceil prefers to roast meat and Beza can make…Minotaur cuisine. But I do most of the work.”

The [Innkeeper] eyed Palt.

“Oh yeah? You know spices well? Because you’re a stoner?

The Centaur sighed.

“I really wish you’d stop calling me that, Miss Solstice. There’s nothing wrong with what I do. I’ve explained it. It’s a personal choice. The fact that you’ve never tried anything is what’s odd.”

“No, it’s normal!”

Erin scowled. Palt sighed. He really could have used a good cigar, but Erin had banned it in her inn, talking about second-hand smoke. But she really didn’t like the idea of drugs. Palt didn’t either. Drugs? He wasn’t passing out powders or the kind of stuff that made your hair fall out! It was just dreamleaf! Dead gods, [Healers] used it as medicine!

But he was here to charm Erin, not to fight. So the Centaur patiently nodded to her meal.

“I can assure you, there’s nothing harmful, Miss Solstice. And my offer stands to try some of what I have to offer. But if you don’t want to try it—are you happy with the dish?”

“Yeah! It tastes great! And rice—I haven’t had rice in ages!”

The Centaur crooked his fingers, conjuring a [False Sound] spell around them. Well, it was more than just a spell—it was a fake conversation, far more advanced than your average [Hush] spell. He’d had to copy Erin’s voice and mannerisms, but anyone listening in would hear a conversation about trite nonsense instead. Far less obvious than Montressa’s methods. Palt was an [Illusionist].

And he was here against Montressa’s wishes. The Centaur glanced around, but Montressa wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Obviously; she was still banned from Erin’s inn. But he recognized a friend sitting in one corner.

Ulinde was speaking with Moore and Seborn. The two Halfseekers were sharing a drink and speaking to the Selphid. She was wearing a different body—a nice, female Drake’s. Palt was sure she’d gotten it from the Halfseekers; he remembered how hard the Selphid had been looking for a replacement body up till now. He flicked a finger under the table and Ulinde glanced up in the middle of laughing at something Seborn had said. She only flicked a finger before turning back to the two Halfseekers. Palt saw a flicker, invisible, but readable if you saw magic.

Later.

He nodded and turned his attention to Erin. Palt was taking a risk, speaking to her. Not in a physical sense; he was pretty sure she wouldn’t try to kill him. No, he was jeopardizing his relationship with his team. With Montressa, especially.

She had not been happy to learn that Ulinde and Palt had visited the inn without telling her. There had been an argument, nearly a fight. But the Centaur deemed it worth the risk to keep doing so. Erin was valuable. Montressa, she was fixated on Pisces and the Horns of Hammerad. But Palt had his eyes on the prize.

Erin Solstice was letting Mrsha lick a grain of rice off her face when she looked up and saw Palt chewing on something. She paused. The Centaur was chewing on a toffee, and yes, there was bit of dreamleaf in it. But Erin didn’t know that. He coughed.

“So, Miss Solstice. Not to bother you, but I was wondering if you’d thought about my proposal—”

Erin put down the spoon and Mrsha picked it up. She frowned at Palt.

“The one where I go with you to Wistram? Or give up my door? Nah. Nope. No way.”

Palt looked at her.

“You won’t consider it, just a bit? There are people from your world in the academy, Miss Solstice. You’d be safe!”

“And a prisoner, right?”

“Not—exactly. The Academy wants your protection, and there are powerful forces at work—”

“Like Wistram? So you want us to be the most powerful? Or just to keep your secrets.”

The Centaur bit his tongue. Erin went on, staring at him.

“I’ve seen what your team did to my friends. I don’t trust Wistram. And besides, this is my inn. I’m not leaving, right Mrsha?”

The Gnoll looked up as she finished Erin’s plate. She frowned and waved a spoon at Palt, nodding. The Centaur forced a smile.

“Nevertheless, Miss Erin, we have been sent to rescue anyone from Earth. This world is dangerous.”

“Yeah, and so’s Wistram. I’m not going.”

“Fair. But if you’d consider—”

Palt broke off. He hurriedly twisted his fingers as Lyonette approached the table. His spell unwound and the [Princess] approached Erin.

“Erin, can I borrow you a second? Sorry, Palt.”

“Not at all.”

The Centaur sat back. He kept Mrsha company as Erin got up and spoke with Lyonette. He was listening, of course. Mrsha licked the plate as Lyonette drew Erin aside.

“So—we’re ready to start work on the inn, Erin. Can we start with the back wall today?”

“What? But we’re having lunch! Can’t you finish work on the rest of the inn, first? Like the basement and stuff? Or—or make the other buildings you wanted first?”

Erin was arguing with Lyonette. Palt relaxed; it was a familiar quarrel he’d heard before. Lyonette looked frustrated.

“The Antinium have expanded the hill. It’s three times as large! Belgrade wants to lay foundations, but he needs to get at the inn. Which means tearing down parts of it for a tiny bit. Erin, it would really be easier if we remodeled the inn first and then worked on the periphery. Belgrade estimates that he can have the Antinium do most of the work I want in three days. Or less! Erin, we went over this before! It’s one wall! It won’t be down for more than a few hours—Belgrade can make a temporary cover as well!”

Erin squirmed. She hesitated, looking at the walls of her inn.

“I know you want to change the inn, Lyonette, but—maybe wait for a little while? The inn’s solid. And I sort of want it in one piece for the thing with Montressa, you know?”

The [Princess] sighed.

“It’s not going to explode, Erin. The Antinium built this inn, but they can make it better.”

“I know that! I wasn’t thinking of—look, just a little break so I can make sure the Horns are safe.”

“But you put me in charge of the inn. Erin, I know what I’m doing. Why can’t I change the wall? It’s my call, isn’t it?”

The young woman squirmed. Lyonette was frowning. From his seat, carefully looking the other way, Palt thought Erin was being more than a bit stubborn.

“I know that! And you’re in charge! Totally! But—I want the inn to be secure, y’know? In case…”

She glanced back at Palt. The Centaur pretended to be scratching at his side. Because of Montressa and his team. Curse her! It was making his job so much harder! Lyonette scowled, but nodded reluctantly.

“Fine. How long?”

“How long?”

“I’m not going to ask Belgrade to stall forever! He says the Antinium can put grass on the hill, do some more prep work. And work on the basement, I suppose. But how long until they can work with the inn itself?”

“A few—one week?”

“One week?

Erin looked pleadingly at Lyonette. The [Princess] wasn’t happy, but she glanced back at Palt as Mrsha waved her paw. She was offering a bit of saffron to Apista who floated over. Palt leaned back as the Ashfire Bee buzzed past him. Lyonette blew out her cheeks and threw up her arms.

Fine. But after that—”

“I promise. Let me just speak to Palt. I think I can convince him—”

The Centaur sat up as Erin came back. Of course, he knew what he wanted as well. So he began with honesty. He wasn’t here to trick Erin. Tricks were always found out. He wanted to convince her, and he’d adopted another tack.

“Miss Solstice, about our discussion—if you’re truly set on not leaving your inn, I’ll reluctantly accept that. However, I have to warn you, Miss Solstice, that my team might not be as—as understanding as I am.”

“Is that a threat?”

Erin frowned at Palt. So did Mrsha, and she held out Apista, stinger poised. The Centaur edged back from the Gnoll, waving around her attack-bee.

“Not at all! Not at all! Rather, it’s a warning. I can’t control Montressa or my teammates. I’m low on the hierarchy. I have a say, but Montressa outranks me in a number of senses. She has orders to bring you to Wistram.”

“And get Pisces. You said you’d try and sway her.”

Erin looked hard at Palt. The Centaur nodded.

“And I am! I will! But listen. Ulinde isn’t as determined as Montressa. Neither am I. But Isceil, Beza? And Montressa herself? They shouldn’t be underestimated. I am not trying to threaten you in any way! But I want you to understand that we are full [Mages].”

“Which means what?”

Palt chose his words carefully.

“It would be better if I could stop Montressa rather than have her try to—force—anything. Because my teammates are dangerous. Isceil underestimated Pisces. And Beza was likewise overconfident. But frankly, aside from being ambushed, we won our encounters somewhat handily. If we’d put barrier spells up, none of us would have been hurt. Even your duel at the inn might have gone further south until Grimalkin arrived. Well, that Drake with the anti-magic spear was dangerous too by all accounts.”

The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed.

“This all sounds like a threat, Palt. If I don’t do what you want, it might come to a fight.”

“Call it my attempt to educate you before it comes to that. I’m being honest, Miss Solstice. I’ll swear on a truth spell that Montressa might start something even with my best efforts. I’m not the scary one, Miss Solstice. I’m an expert at utility spells. I don’t throw [Fireballs]. But I can hold my own with any Silver-rank [Mage] in the world in a spell fight. And my friends are far, far better at battle than I am.”

Erin nodded slowly. She eyed Palt, and he imagined she was trying to tell if he was being truthful. He hoped she had some Skill or method because he was. He’d tried to talk to Montressa and it was like slamming his head into a wall. Repeatedly.

“If it comes to a fight—which I am trying to prevent!—I need to warn you that a second fight won’t be safe. Even here, Miss Solstice. How strong is your inn with [Reinforced Structure]? Can it withstand siege spells? Because Isceil can do more damage than a [Siege Fireball]. Beza has six enchantments she can use at once. And Montressa—you saw her take a hit from Liscor’s wall spells. That orb artifact can cast [Chain Lightning] on command.”

“It’s still just magic. Bop any of them on the head when they don’t have a magic barrier up and they’re done, right? And it’s not going to come to that. Right?

Erin looked at Palt. He hesitated.

“For you, Miss Solstice? I’d normally say Liscor is enough of a deterrent. But Montressa and that [Necromancer], Pisces—I told you what passed between them, didn’t I?”

“Pisces and Ceria did too.”

Palt nodded cautiously.

“Well, I will say it again. Montressa’s hatred runs deeper than a grudge. She fears the undead. To this day. And Pisces is more than a murderer in her eyes. I’ve tried talking to her. But…”

“Would she break Liscor’s laws? Zevara will throw her in jail forever if she does.”

Palt twiddled his thumbs, hesitating. Erin narrowed her eyes.

Would she?”

“Wistram Academy has an…equation it teaches the [Mages] that it allows to represent it. In short, it’s something like—if the risk to the academy is worth the cost and the reward, a [Mage] should pursue the opportunity. The risk of offending a single Drake city is acceptable to recover someone from your world, Miss Solstice. As is your magic door and potentially being able to replicate it. The Horns? That’s Montressa’s call, but if she came back with you and the magic door, Wistram would most likely consider it more than worth the cost.”

Palt pointed at Erin. She blinked down at her chest.

“Me? But then—”

She looked at Palt. Then she sighed.

“Okay. Just tell me.”

“What?”

“You’re giving me threats about how bad Montressa is—”

“Not threats—”

“Threats!”

Erin slammed her fist on the table. Mrsha did the same, glaring fiercely. Palt recoiled as Apista buzzed his face. Erin patted Mrsha on the back.

“—a warning, then! But you think you can stop it or you wouldn’t tell me. What do you want? What’s your angle?”

Palt took a breath. Erin was cannier than he’d like. In some areas. He nodded, growing serious.

“Very well. My proposal is this: I can call Montressa off. Both you and the Horns, if I do it right. Certainly, I can ensure that retrieving you isn’t necessary. But to do that, I’d need to leverage my faction, draw on support within the Academy.”

“Your faction?”

Erin frowned. Palt nodded.

“We’re all from different parts of the academy. Mine is small, but we have some influence. Montressa’s from a major faction. One of the biggest. The Revivalists. However, my group, the Ullsinoi faction, is quite flexible. If the Elusive Lot—”

“Who?”

“Oh, our leaders. I don’t know who they are, but they’re the best [Illusionists] and spellcasters in their field in Wistram. If they fight for it, we could probably force the Revivalists to call off the bounty on your friend. Even ensure that your name is…lost. Or that you’re left alone.”

Palt was fairly sure they could do it. But it would be an ugly struggle. Erin thought about it.

“What do I have to do?”

“Give us information. Be an—ally. To the Ullsinoi faction.”

“What kind of information?”

“Anything you can think of. From your world.”

Mrsha looked up. Erin narrowed her eyes. She stood up.

“No.”

“Miss Solstice! It’s the only thing I can think of! I swear, on a truth spell, there’s no other way to get Montressa to back down. I can’t convince her with words!”

Erin rounded on Palt as he got to his hooves.

“The only way? Maybe for you. All I had to do is be your faction’s ally? You say that, but I bet [Illusionists] are all tricky. And jerks. Probably fun jerks, but jerks who walk around invisibly and pull pranks and stuff. Am I right? Why should I trust your faction? What’s Ullsinoi mean, anyways?”

Palt bit his tongue.

“My faction is somewhat notorious, but it’s not evil, Miss Solstice. All you have to do is answer questions.”

“Answer questions. Like how to make guns?

The Centaur was silent. That was a big one. But the Ullsinoi faction wanted more. Like how to create electricity, harness lightning. Fly into space.

The Centaur sighed tiredly.

“Let’s be frank here, Miss Erin. I came here to find something to help my faction. I’m loyal to them, and I think we’re not bad. Wistram is taking people from Earth. For their protection, but also for gain, yes! And you’re a piece on the board, to make a chess reference. I’m offering you all I can, but I can’t help you for nothing. My faction will fight for you if I tell them to. But they have to have something. It’s all I’ve got. Will you at least consider it?”

He waited. Erin Solstice wavered. She looked up, thinking hard. At last, she smiled at Palt. The Centaur’s heart leapt. Erin opened her mouth.

“No. Shoo!”

Then she turned and walked away.

 

—-

 

Palt the Centaur turned and stomped off towards the door. He was angry. Erin Solstice watched him go, feeling satisfied. And nervous. She felt like he’d been telling her the truth. But tell his faction, tell Wistram about guns and stuff from Earth? Ryoka had warned her about just that! No, she was tired of bringing new things into this world. Erin sighed. They’d just have to find another way to convince Montressa. She turned—

And Lyonette caught her arm.

“Erin, come with me for a moment.”

“Huh? What’s the matter, Lyonette—”

The [Princess] turned and dragged Erin into the kitchen. She was surprisingly strong! She nodded at Mrsha.

“Guard the entrance, Mrsha.”

The Gnoll cub nodded. Lyonette pulled Erin into the back of the kitchen and lowered her voice. Even Gnolls would have trouble hearing them above the background noise. The [Princess] glared at Erin.

“Tell him.”

“What?”

Erin stared at Lyonette. The [Worldly Princess] snapped.

Tell Palt yes, Erin! I caught the last of what he said. He offered you a deal, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. He wanted to know about—about stuff from home. I had to join with his faction or else Montressa might do something. I told him no—”

“Don’t be an idiot! Tell him ‘yes’! Mrsha, don’t let Palt leave!”

The Gnoll threw Apista. The Ashfire Bee buzzed after the Centaur and there was a shout. Erin looked at Lyonette.

“What are you talking about? Lyonette, we talked about this!”

The Princess had been privy to Palt’s careful negotiations with Erin over the last few days. The Centaur had been circumspect, trying to buy Erin’s goodwill. The [Princess] had been the one who had told Erin to wait for Palt’s pitch.

And Erin had! She’d discussed it with Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Bird, the rest of her family, as well. And the Hobgoblin had vouchsafed that it was unwise to trust any Wistram [Mages] given their reputation. Not in so many words, but Erin had agreed. Bird hadn’t had much of an opinion, but Lyonette had insisted Erin hear Palt out.

“I listened, Lyonette. But he wants secrets about our world! Like about guns and missiles and stuff! No way. Remember what Ryoka told me?”

The [Princess] ground her teeth.

“Did he say he wants that exactly, Erin? Or does he just want your help? Tell me what he said. He was using a spell, so all I heard was you two talking about bananas.”

Frowning, Erin repeated the gist of her conversation with Palt. Outside the kitchen, the Centaur was ducking Apista who was guarding the magical door. Lyonette exhaled when she heard Palt’s offer.

“Erin! Tell him yes! Ask him to help!”

“What? But I can’t do that! I’ll have to tell him—”

“You don’t know what you’re telling him yet! Guns are just one thing! And if it comes to it—tell him!”

What?

The [Innkeeper] was aghast. Lyonette leaned in and whispered fiercely to her.

“Someone else will! How many people from your world did Palt say Wistram has?”

“At—at least a dozen? I dunno. But Lyonette! Guns are—”

“It’s information, Erin! If you don’t tell him, one of the others will! Listen to me. Palt gave you an offer! It was fair, and you shot him down without even considering it! That’s not how you negotiate! Go back out there, tell him you want to discuss the matter, and get his help to call Montressa off Pisces and you!”

“But I’d have to help his faction! And they could be jerks!”

Lyonette’s red hair tossed as she shook her head.

“You don’t get it, Erin. You’re already in trouble. You have a team of [Mages] who can destroy your inn if you’re not careful! And you have one of them who’s willing to deal with them. You need an ally in Wistram and Palt is the best one! Or do you trust any of the others?”

“No—but why do I have to deal with Wistram? Why shouldn’t I tell them to go away?”

Erin snapped back. She didn’t like Lyonette’s tone. The [Princess] looked at her as if she was an idiot. She pulled at her hair.

“Because that’s not how it works, Erin! Do you think you can just ignore or—or fight something as big as Wistram? Do you think, really think you can be the lone, independent force that never negotiates, and gets her own way? Don’t answer! That’s exactly what you think!”

“I don’t—”

“Yes, you do! You’re stubborn! You’re more stubborn than anyone, even Pisces! Even Zevara, and Embria! You think you can offend Wistram and take no sides but your own and you’ll win! But guess what, Erin? Wistram will just do to you what they did to Pisces! Listen to me. You need allies! I know what I’m talking about! I was a [Princess] of Calanfer, and my kingdom does not stand alone! We make allies! Even bad ones! That’s how Calanfer has survived for thousands of years! You need to do the same.”

Erin blinked in the face of Lyonette’s tirade. Where was this coming from? She felt uneasy.

“But the inn’s always been fine on its own.”

“No it hasn’t. It’s always had the Watch, or the Gnolls, or someone on its side, Erin. This is the first major power dealing with you besides Pallass, and you had Wall Lord Ilvriss and Zel Shivertail to protect you. Palt is offering you the same. Don’t turn him down.”

The young woman folded her arms. Erin wanted to object.

“But if I tell him—”

Negotiate, Erin! Don’t tell him how to make guns. You don’t even know how! But think. They have people from your world. One of them—maybe all of them are going to help the other factions. You need this one, so give them something! Dead gods, you’ve been making food and bringing in plays—yes, give them plays! But don’t you dare just insult Palt and walk away.”

The [Princess] practically shoved Erin back out of the kitchen. The [Innkeeper] tried to protest, but part of her realized Lyonette was right. The other part didn’t agree, but—Erin saw Palt trotting through the inn, followed by Apista.

“Miss Erin! Call your bee off, please!”

The [Illusionist] shouted as guests dove out of the way. Lyonette clapped her hands.

“Apista, back!”

The bee obediently flew towards her and landed on her arm. The [Princess] gave Palt a smile.

“Sorry about that, Palt. Apista must have found you interesting. Erin?”

She nudged Erin. The [Innkeeper] bit her lip. She looked at Lyonette. But—Erin hesitated. Was she being stubborn? No! Okay, maybe. She didn’t like the idea of selling anything to Palt’s faction.

But what are you going to do? If Montressa goes nuts? Palt just said they can blow up your inn, even from the outside. And if they fight, your friends have to fight too. If any get hurt when you could stop it, it’s on you, right?

A little voice in Erin’s head, one of the rare ones, whispered. The [Innkeeper] frowned. She folded her arms as Palt looked at her.

“It’s my way or the highway. I shouldn’t be bullied!”

“That’s idiotic. That’s not how the world works, Erin. You want to do that, be my guest. But if you put Mrsha in danger, I’ll have Apista sting you!”

Lyonette snapped. Erin flushed. Reluctantly, she walked over.

“Hey, Palt. A word?”

“Certainly, Miss Solstice.”

The Centaur snapped his fingers. A hush enveloped the two. Erin hesitated and looked at Lyonette. But there was no help for it. She looked up at Palt. The Centaur was expectant. Even hopeful.

For a moment Erin hesitated. Did she trust Palt? No. Not entirely. But then again, he’d been nothing but a good guest. He’d helped cook, answered her questions—and he seemed reasonable. He was part of Montressa’s team, and he’d helped beat up Pisces. And he was sneaky, like when he’d come to her inn invisibly. And he did drugs.

But—Erin had never done weed. And she’d always thought she wouldn’t. Even if people said it wasn’t addictive and stuff! But it was a drug. And drugs were bad, right?

But you said the same thing about alcohol and it was pretty nice. And you serve that. And your faerie flower drink.

Erin bit her lip. She didn’t like the thoughtful voice in her head. Because it usually meant she was wrong. She hesitated. Sighed. It was only negotiations. Lyonette was right about that, at least.

“Palt. I changed my mind. Can you—talk to your faction? I can’t give you guns. I don’t even know how to make them. But I—I could work with the Ullsinoi faction if you can promise you can call Montressa off.”

Palt’s eyes went wide. He smiled.

“You’re sure?”

Erin nodded. The Centaur looked up. His eyes flickered and she wondered if he’d lied. But then he looked at her.

“I’ll talk with my superiors at once. And I will pull all the levers I have, Miss Solstice. You have my word. And I’ll ensure that whatever my faction wants isn’t too arduous. The best deal is one that puts both sides ahead, Erin. Give me a day—no, two at most. You won’t regret this! I’ll lay out what my faction wants and you can accept or refuse it. But thank you for trusting me.”

He seemed so earnest. Erin blinked as he reached out and took her hands. She felt less bad about her decision and glanced at Lyonette as she nodded to Palt. The [Princess] was smiling in relief.

The Centaur trotted towards the door, and Erin saw Ulinde excuse herself. She frowned, but then looked over as Lyonette joined her. Mrsha walked over on two legs and grabbed both young women’s hands. Erin looked down at her, and then at Lyonette.

“Negotiation, huh? Numbtongue thought it was a bad idea.“

“With respect to him, and you, neither of you are used to politics. And Numbtongue is a Goblin. He’s right to be skeptical. But this was good.”

“You really got mad at me.”

The [Princess] tossed her head, looking only a bit embarrassed.

“Well, you are infuriatingly stubborn, Erin.”

“I am not!”

Erin frowned. Mrsha and Lyonette both stared at her. So did Apista, on top of Lyonette’s head. Erin looked around.

“I’m not. Am I?”

 

—-

 

“Yes! Yes!

Palt did a little dance with his hooves outside the inn. He hadn’t taken the magical door to Liscor. He wanted to walk. He pumped one fist in the air. He’d done it! What had changed Erin’s mind? Her [Barmaid]? Palt could kiss Lyonette! Or Erin.

“Palt!”

The Centaur turned as Ulinde hurried out the doorway. The Selphid saw him and strode over. She was limber in her new body, and it was pleasantly fresh. The half-rotted old man had been hard to deal with. The Centaur nodded to her.

“Had a good chat with the Halfseekers?”

“Oh yeah! Two of them! Miss Jelaqua is still in Pallass, but Seborn and Moore have let me talk to them a lot! I think they’ve forgiven me! A bit, at least.”

The Selphid looked as excited as Palt. And why not? Her heroes were in the inn. The Halfseekers. Palt didn’t get the Selphid’s excitement, but he was grateful for it. They began walking down the hill.

It was indeed expanded, the grass meeting a huge amount of freshly dumped dirt. The Antinium had expanded the base of the hill three times over, creating a gentle slope the two walked down. Palt saw more milling at the base of the hill and shifted uneasily, but then Ulinde nudged him.

“So? What did you want to talk about.”

“Oh. That.”

Palt collected himself. Time to get to work. If he wanted to land a deal with Erin—and he did, because his position and the Ullsinoi faction stood to benefit—he needed to work fast. Contacting his faction would be important since the Elusive Lot needed to debate, but Ulinde was more important. Palt turned his torso to her.

“Well, I wanted to ask you something, Ulinde. Are you—enjoying the company of the Halfseekers? The Wandering Inn is rather excellent, isn’t it?”

“It really is! And I love it there. Moore and Seborn are great. And that Miss Erin is nice—I mean, she still glares daggers, but she had amazing food, which I can taste with my new body! And the actors—”

“It’s a wonderful spot.”

Palt agreed. It would have been amazing if the inn were in Wistram. The plays alone—his pulse quickened. Yes, that was valuable and the Ullsinoi faction would see the value in that! He made a mental note to bring that up as something Miss Solstice could definitively offer. He turned to Ulinde.

“It would be a shame if we had to take Miss Erin, wouldn’t it? Or go after Pisces? Montressa, Beza, and Isceil—they’re on stakeout, watching the adventurers, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. And Montressa wants us to join her. I—I’m not doing it.”

“What?”

Palt saw Ulinde look up. The Selphid glared at him.

“I’m not kidnapping Erin. Pisces is one thing—and I don’t want to go after him! But I’m not doing anything with Miss Solstice! If I do, the Halfseekers will never forgive me! And they have! Seborn and Moore have, and I’m not losing their trust again! I’m warning you, I’m not helping with Erin! And I’ll tell Montressa that!”

The Selphid pulled out her wand. Palt nodded carefully—Ulinde was a dangerous duelist, as good as Isceil—but then he smiled in relief.

“I had the exact same thought, actually. Which is what I wanted to bring up, Ulinde.”

Her eyes widened in relief.

“You did?”

“I did. I think we see the same thing. Erin Solstice may be an Earther, but she’s better here. And it’s not worth the risk or cost of going after her. Or Pisces, frankly.”

“That’s right! Her inn’s valuable! Seborn and Moore told me what Miss Erin did! She’s got great guests, she’s saved Liscor, and her inn’s full of valuable people. The most attractive, amazing—”

“Absolutely. Er—”

Palt murmured, then caught himself. He looked at Ulinde.

“Are we talking about Miss Solstice?”

“No! I mean Moore and Seborn! They’re so—cool! And Moore is handsome, don’t you think so? I like his body. And Seborn? He’s funny, when you realize he’s not always moody!”

Ulinde shivered with delight. Palt eyed her.

“You enjoy his company? He seems grumpy to me.”

“That’s part of his charm! He’s Seborn, the [Rogue]! I heard all these stories—my friends will be so jealous when they hear I’m talking with him! I wish I wasn’t with Montressa’s team. If only I could apologize to Miss Jelaqua—I’m so afraid she’ll be mad again—”

The Selphid sighed. Slowly, eying her, Palt took out a cigar and put it in his mouth. It seemed Ulinde and he were on more similar pages than he’d thought. Thoughtfully, he lit up and blew a ring of smoke. Then he handed one to her. The Selphid happily accepted.

“So. I have a…proposal, Ulinde. I know your faction of Selphids is tied to the Revivalists. But could you persuade them to ally with mine? Montressa’s clearly in the wrong and she’ll land Wistram in trouble if we go down the path she wants.”

Ulinde was no fool, starry-eyed or not. She glanced up at Palt and frowned, puffing on the cigar.

“I…could make some [Messages]. But what does my faction get?”

“Aside from helping the Halfseekers? Well, let’s discuss it.”

“The hardest thing will be convincing Montressa. Even if her faction calls her back, she’s mad about Pisces. Like—Beza mad.”

“If she’s ordered away, what can she do? Let’s talk to her tomorrow. But do I have your ear?”

The Selphid hesitated. She looked up at Palt and the Centaur waited. Then the [Spellslinger] nodded slowly.

“Sure. Let’s chat. And it’s an earhole, thanks.”

 

—-

 

Montressa was dreaming. She knew she was dreaming, but only in the vaguest way. In the dream, she was in the moment. And it was always the same.

She was a girl, young, new to Wistram, in her second-year. Her robes flapped around her ankles and she stumbled as she ran. The halls of Wistram, illuminated by torches and magical lights at all times of day were shadowed. Dark. Magic and fire were both failing.

The air was full of screams. The sounds of magical explosions. Frantic voices. Montressa ran, stumbling, hearing shouts behind her. She was running. Calvaron had told her to run! Run, and find help!

The banquet hall had been chaos. [Mages] and students fought in the vast space. Golems too. But the enemy had come at them by surprise.

It had just been a normal dinner. Montressa had been sitting with Calvaron, waiting for Beatrice. Then they had come.

Undead. But not Ghouls or zombies. Or even Draug. No—wraiths and specters, dark shadows floating through the air. Fast—deadly. One had run through a Council-mage in the first moments. The others had set upon the diners. A horde of the undead!

They had been stalemated. Amerys herself had thrown lightning, blasting the undead. But there were so many. The younger [Mages] had fled as the older ones fought, trying to keep the undead back. Calvaron had been galloping, covering Montressa’s escape. Three of the half-real undead had been on his tail.

And more were coming. Montressa ran, shouting. She could hear distant voices, shouting echoes of what she was screaming.

Undead attack! Get the Archmages!

High-level Undead! Clear the halls! Put up barriers! Get the Golems!

Montressa skidded down one of the halls leading to the banquet room. She knew this spot—a three-way intersection, a common meeting point in the Academy.

Right now, it was a warzone. Two Golems were battling the undead. They struck at the floating ghost-things. The silhouettes of the undead weren’t just Human—they were in every species. One, half bone, gripping a two-handed greatsword, swung down, passing through the Golem’s fist. It slashed, cutting the Golem’s arm off. Undeterred, the construct swung its other hand, but the undead ignored its blow.

From the side, a fifth-year student blasted the wraith with a jet of light. The undead shrieked and dove at the student. Montressa saw the blade flash down. A severed torso fell. She screamed and ran, darting back down another corridor as the wraiths turned.

“Someone! Help!”

Montressa sobbed as she ran. She glanced over her shoulder, but the specters were distracted, fighting the Golems perhaps. The [Mage] girl slowed, clutching at her side. She looked around. She was heading towards some of the student’s rooms. She ran forwards. She had to warn them! They had to find an Archmage or someone!

The hallways were dim. Montressa realized she was running in near-darkness. She conjured a [Light] spell, but the glowing orb barely lit anything up. It was as if something was eating the light itself.

Panting, Montressa stopped by the first of the student’s doors. She knew some of them; they were fellow second-years, like hers. She saw some doors were ajar. That wasn’t normal. Montressa halted. She called out, uncertainly.

“Hello?”

There was no reply. Had everyone already run? Montressa looked around. She might have moved on, but one door stood out to her. She knew who lived here. Chaise, a girl Montressa was friends with. She stepped towards it. There was a…noise…coming from beyond it, a faint panting sound.

“Chaise? Are you there? We have to run! There’s an undead attack!”

Montressa stepped towards the door. She felt a chill running down her body. She looked around, but the long hallway was empty. One hand found the doorknob.

“Chaise—?”

Don’t turn it. That was what all of Montressa said. That was what her true self, watching the dream, said. But Montressa, the student, the girl, had to know. She always had to know. So she opened the door. And she saw Chaise.

The girl was lying on the floor. Montressa saw her torso and legs first. Then—she froze.

One of the undead had come this way. A ghostly, dark figure made of blackness. And it had found Chaise. The shadow was kneeling over her, stooped low. Chaise wasn’t moving.

“Ch—Chaise?”

Montressa was shaking. But her friend might be alive. She drew her wand. The tip sparked weakly, the light sucked up by the darkness that seemed to be drawing in everything. She saw the specter pause.

Montressa du Valeross raised her wand. She tried to shout.

“Get away from her!”

The specter turned. And Montressa saw its face. It was a Human face, the only solid thing in the ghostly, shadowed figure. But the Human face wasn’t right. It was deathly pale. And contorted in a huge grin. Eyes wide. Bloody teeth grinning at Montressa.

The girl halted. She stared at Chaise—her friend’s face—on the specter’s body. Then she saw the blood dripping from the teeth. She looked down.

It had eaten her face. The specter—Chaise—grinned at her, eyes wide. Montressa screamed. She screamed and screamed, backing away. The specter rose, floating. Chaise laughed. It was her voice.

The undead laughed and came at her. Montressa screamed as she threw up [Barrier of Air], the spell Pisces had taught her. The specter passed through the wall of whirling air and reached for her. And Montressa’s scream was real, in the dream, and in life.

Laughing and laughing, and Chaise screamed at her as the undead reached for Montressa—

 

—-

 

The [Aegiscaster] woke up. She clutched at sweaty bed sheets, a second scream on her lips. Her throat was raw. She looked around, stared about the lit room, at the hovering [Light] spell by her bed. Even at night, her room was illuminated. For a second the young woman, years older, just sat there. Then she covered her face and started crying.

No one had heard her screams. Her rooms were warded. Montressa knew to cast the spell each night in case she dreamed of the past. She was too afraid to sleep again. So she just sat there, too afraid to cast a [Sleep] spell.

The dream was always the same. Chaise’ face. The last time she had seen Calvaron alive. Death, flying through Wistram’s halls. Death, regret, horror. That was all Montressa remembered.

She didn’t dream of the next part, where Cognita had reached out and torn the undead apart, her body bright crystal that glowed golden. She didn’t recall the [Mages] fighting off the undead, and the comparatively few casualties the Academy had taken. If it had been a city without so many high-level [Mages] and the Golems, the undead might have slaughtered hundreds of thousands. As it was, they had killed few.

But Chaise and Calvaron were part of that number. And in a way, Montressa was part of that casualty too. Even now, the [Aegiscaster] could close her eyes and remember.

A girl, rocking in a corner for months afterwards, [Light] spells illuminating every corner of her room. Ostracized in class for her friendship, no matter how much she denied playing any part in—

She opened her eyes. And her fear subsided. Never gone away. Never that. But now she had the object of her fear in front of her.

Pisces. The one who had unleashed death. Who had walked away after being exiled, with nothing more done! Because Cognita had demanded it. Because no one had brought him to justice.

Slowly, the sun rose. Montressa slowly untensed as the light illuminated her room. The rays dried her tears. She rose and dressed herself. When she greeted her fellow [Mages] the next day, she showed nothing of her night. Of the girl who had seen nightmares come to life.

But she never forgot. She could never forget. She greeted Isceil and Beza, ignoring Calvaron—no—Palt’s look as she told them what they’d all be doing today.

“We’re following them. All of us.”

 

—-

 

Work was work. The days were much like the previous. Sometimes you could forget, think they were all the same. But time didn’t stop. And sometimes, you dreamed of what had been. What you’d taken for granted.

Infected again. Yvlon took the news silently as the [Healer] checked her arms the next day. The Gnoll [Healer] made a faint growling sound as she unwrapped the poultice she’d put around Yvlon’s arms. The [Wounded Warrior] looked at the weeping, red skin. She felt nothing as the Gnoll sniffed and made a face.

“It’s not better.”

“I’m sure my poultice worked, yes? But your skin—the first infection, it is getting better. But this spot—”

The Gnoll pointed. Yvlon nodded. The metal and skin didn’t mix. It irritated the skin, a foreign body. The [Healers] in other cities had suggested that in time her skin might accept the metal. Or not. Either way, at the moment it was a danger.

“Thank you. Can I use a healing potion?”

The Gnoll [Healer] hemmed and growled, but nodded. She held up a cautionary finger.

“If—if you are in danger, the potion should heal your skin and the worst injury first, yes? The body will use the potion best. But it will also give strength to the infection. Perhaps it will heal itself. But it may grow worse. My advice is you should not adventure—”

“Will I get better if I wait?”

The [Healer] couldn’t answer that. So Yvlon stood. She fished in her belt pouch.

“I appreciate all you’ve done.”

The Gnoll woman refused the tip. She frowned as she packed her tools away.

“Come back in two days, no? Or sooner if it looks worse. Clean it, try not to bother it—I will send a [Message] asking for a better poultice from my tribe.”

“Thank you.”

Yvlon smiled. She put the armor over her bandaged and resalved arms. She felt nothing. The Gnoll [Healer] watched her go. Yvlon stepped into Liscor’s streets, out of the small clinic. She sighed. And then she went to find her team.

Some things never changed. Ceria groaned when Master Reikhle put them on scout duty again. Yvlon wasn’t surprised. The Gnoll didn’t like Pisces or Ksmvr around. What was surprising was that Walt’s team was on scout duty too.

“But we’re wearing armor!”

“Shut up, Walt! Your team was full of the idiots who decided to bother Erin!”

Ceria snapped. Walt and his team scowled.

“It was one slap! It’s not like it doesn’t happen in the north!”

“Erin’s not a [Barmaid]! And that’s not the point!”

Silence! Get to your [Scouts] and get to work! This isn’t a nursery!”

Master Builder Reikhle bellowed and the adventurers all shut up. With ill-grace, the Ensoldier Shields trooped off, and the Horns did likewise. Yvlon marched alongside Ceria, listening to the half-Elf grumble. She agreed in broad with everything that made Ceria so mad. But she had to admit, seeing the man who’d slapped Erin complaining about having his nose broken and his eye blacked made her wonder how far Erin had gone in return.

“There’s such a thing as too much retaliation, Ceria.”

“For Walt and his idiots?”

The half-Elf looked at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] met her gaze.

“What if Erin had broken his arm?”

“Well—”

“If you say that’s fair, you might be over exaggerating. Then again, I’d probably do that. At least deck whoever it was. But if she broke both his legs?”

“Okay, that’s going overboard. A bit. But Walt just doesn’t get it.”

“That’s true.”

There wasn’t much more to say after that. And Ceria was already huffing after the first thirty minutes. She really needed to build up her endurance. She was getting better, though; she didn’t need a stamina potion already. But she was still complaining.

“I think we should take less shifts. I mean, I’m practicing being boiled and trying to learn new spells. We could all use more practice time.”

“That is not what you said last time, Captain Ceria. I believe your quote was—”

“Don’t quote me, Ksmvr! I’m unreliable!”

The half-Elf waved her hands. The Antinium nodded, assimilating this information. Ceria sighed.

“It’s just—work. I thought we’d level a tiny bit, but we’re not exactly fighting, are we? We can find better work. When the Halfseekers finally get to Invrisil…”

It was a common refrain. But Yvlon doubted Seborn and Moore were in any hurry. She’d seen them recounting stories to Ulinde this morning. The young Selphid was hanging on every word. The two Gold-rank adventurers weren’t in a hurry to get back to the road. Nor was Jelaqua.

But it would happen. Someday. And sooner than you thought, even if it was later than you wanted. Yvlon rubbed one arm, adjusting her vambraces unconsciously. When they got to Invrisil, the Halfseekers would help the Horns cash in the bounty they’d taken from Liscor’s dungeon.

It made sense to do it in Invrisil versus Pallass—the Gold-rank adventurers knew someone who’d give them the best deal and you wanted that with all the various objects the adventurers needed to turn into pure gold. Griffon Hunt had taken their share to their broker already no doubt, but the Horns needed to build up a network.

And when they got the money? It would be a lot, even split four ways and three ways per team. It was a lot of gold. Yvlon had been thinking more and more about how to spend hers. She could upgrade her armor, buy artifacts—put the money to work, even. The Merchant’s Guild would help with that, as would Yvlon’s family. In fact, her parents could use some, if only for all they’d done to Yvlon. And the families of her old team, the Silver Swords…

But perhaps she could use it for something else as well. Yvlon bit her lip as she scrambled up a hill, taking Ksmvr’s hand as the Antinium bounded up, using his Ring of Jumping.

I could use my share to set myself up. Even divided, it’s enough money to make me as rich as any [Merchant]. It’s a better head start than Ysara had—

Abruptly, Yvlon looked at her teammates. Ceria was panting as Ksmvr stopped next to Pisces. The armored woman looked around and broke the silence.

“Have I ever told you about my sister?”

“Not once.”

“You have a sister?”

“You have spoken of her at length in our drinking chats, yes.”

Pisces and Ceria turned to Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] returned the look blankly.

“This is not a common occurrence with you two?”

Yvlon smiled slightly. But she lost it as she grew thoughtful. Hissle waved them on and the Horns followed, listening to Yvlon.

“She’s the eldest in the family. The Byres family is only five people. My parents, Ylawes, me, and my older sister. Her name is Ysara.”

“Of course it is. Why are all your family members named with ‘Y’, Yvlon?”

Ceria rolled her eyes. The [Wounded Warrior] looked reproving.

“My mother isn’t. But she did marry into the family. Honestly, it’s just tradition. We used to have a complicated reason involving honoring our Terandrian roots, but no one in the family cares about that. Not even Ylawes and my father, and they uphold a lot of the traditions like well seeding, attending the birth of the first animal each spring, eating silver—”

“You have the weirdest traditions. Go on about your sister.”

Yvlon nodded. Pisces strode next to them rather than [Flash Step] ahead.

“Nothing much to say, really. She was the eldest. Not like Ylawes. She’s very—relaxed compared to the rest of the family. But growing up, all three of us were taught the sword. And Ysara was gifted, and I mean gifted with a sword. You’ve seen Ylawes fight, right? Well, he was never good at it and he’s better than me.”

Ceria raised her brows, but Pisces nodded thoughtfully. He touched the rapier at his side.

“I could believe that. His footwork and swordsmanship is average. He is adept more at using his Skills and fighting in actual combat than he is at the pure art of it.”

Yvlon frowned at Pisces. The implication being that Pisces was better? The [Necromancer] shrugged and Yvlon took it at face value. Pisces didn’t lie when it came to his abilities in fencing.

“Yes, well, Ysara is good. She might be better than you, Pisces. She’s beaten [Fencers] before. When they’ve used Skills. But she’s not a [Knight]. She doesn’t even have a [Warrior] class. She used to, but—well, she upholds the other tradition of the Byres family. If we’re not [Knights], we become [Merchants].”

“[Merchants]? No, wait, you told me about that once.”

Ceria looked at Yvlon. Ksmvr cocked his head.

“This is not new information to me, but I am rapt with attention.”

“Thank you, Ksmvr. Yes, she’s a [Merchant]. A good one. And I say [Merchant], but it’s actually [Armored Merchant]. She works in the north, which is why I haven’t mentioned her in a while.”

“And why did you bring her up?”

Yvlon shrugged self-consciously, avoiding Pisces’ gaze.

“Just thinking. I wanted to be a [Knight]. But that was mainly because I wanted to be like the female heroines in my books. I wonder how I’d do as a [Merchant].”

A thoughtful silence fell as the Horns marched on. After a moment, Ceria shook her head.

“I can’t see it. You? Selling, what? Silver goods?”

“My sister does sell arms. Well, armor, mainly. But I wouldn’t have to do that. It’s just a thought. You can’t imagine me being charming?”

“Yvlon, you’d be charming right up until a client insulted you. Then you’d push his face in. You have a temper as bad as—as Seborn’s!”

“Hm. You’re probably right.”

Yvlon ducked her head, brushing a blonde strand of hair out of her face. She glanced up and sighed as she felt sweat sliding down her back. If she had to put on her helmet in this heat—

“You know, I don’t think I can stand another day of marching in this heat. It’s summer. I’m calling it.”

The Horns nodded. Ceria grimaced.

“Want some snow?”

“How about cold air?”

The half-Elf nodded and pointed her wand. Yvlon sighed as the cold breeze chilled her. Almost too much. She shivered and Ceria lowered her wand.

“I can cool us down, but I can’t do anything about travelling. Dead gods, should we stop working as much?”

“We did sign up, Ceria. We can’t just back out after one week. Two would be a show of good face.”

“Darn.”

“If you wish, Captain Ceria, I shall carry you.”

Ksmvr offered. Ceria looked like she might take him up on the offer. But Yvlon had a thought. She glanced around. But—to Rhir with it. She understood why Ysara had become a [Merchant] instead of the [Knight] like her father, Yitton, and Ylawes had wanted her to be. She understood what Ysara had meant when they’d talked. The Yvlon of now wished she’d been able to talk to her sister, because she understood Ysara now. You had to do your own thing. And Yvlon was getting good at thinking like—

Casually, the armored woman walked a bit ahead, next to Pisces.

“All this marching about. It’s not exactly snow, but nearly as bad. It reminds me of that time we were in the snow and we’d just fought those Crelers, remember?”

“Oh? I remember us at Albez, having to drag our loot back. The Crelers were different. We fought a juvenile one, right? Which was huge. And Pisces used the bears, but I don’t remember the trek back. To the cave was hard. But on the way back, didn’t we—”

Ceria’s rambling voice cut off. She looked up at Yvlon sharply. So did Ksmvr. He tilted his head. Yvlon raised her brows.

They stared at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was muttering as he read from his notes.

“The spell is complete, but how do you enhance the effect like he claimed? It makes no sense! Is it just pure mana or is there a way of adding more death magic to the [Deathbo—”

He looked up and blinked at the others.

“What?”

“We were talking about the Mossbear cave, Pisces. Remember? And how we got back to Esthelm?”

The [Necromancer] looked confused for a moment. Then his eyebrows shot up. He hesitated.

“…That would be frowned upon, surely.”

The Horns looked at each other. Yvlon raised one eyebrow.

“Says the [Necromancer] with a two-thousand coin bounty on his head.”

Pisces wore a very curious expression. Tentatively, he paused. Hissle looked back, confused. The [Necromancer] regarded his team.

“Even if I had a—solution, what would the other teams say? I assumed we were trying to ingratiate ourselves with the other teams.”

Ceria nodded, and her voice was reasonable.

“Yeah, but my feet hurt.”

“It is utilization of your abilities, Comrade Pisces.”

“And you’re our teammate. So stop holding out on us.”

Yvlon nudged Pisces. He blinked at her. It was something old Yvlon would have never said. But—if you looked at old Yvlon, and the one now, they were so different. She smiled a bit. After a moment, Pisces smiled too.

“I’m afraid I only have two. But that gives me an idea.”

 

—-

 

The team working on the road was laboring and cursing another day. And it was another day. Thunder Solace and the Boltspitters had both drawn the lucky straw today and were at rest. Alais and Stan were even sitting, letting their team maintain their watch. But they stood warily when they heard the commotion.

“Something wrong?”

For an adventurer in his middle years, Stan could move fast. And he had a crossbow in his hands, ready to fire. Crossbow Stan and Alais saw Caddin and a bunch of adventurers and workers pointing at something in the distance.

“What? What’s the delay?”

Growling, Master Builder Reikhle came storming over. For an answer, one of the Drakes just pointed. The Gnoll growled. Then his eyes went wide as he shaded them.

“What is that?

In the distance, something was racing over the hills. Not the various adventurer teams scouting around, and not Kam’s mounted team. No—this was something else. Alais bit off an oath.

“What are they doing now?

She pointed and Stan stared as well. At first he didn’t know what he was looking at. Then his eyes widened.

It was…a chariot. Or a sled. No, it had wheels, so it was technically a chariot. But it was more like a sled. The wide-bottomed chariot was made of some pale yellow wood and had a decent lip to prevent anyone tumbling out. But it was mainly a box on wheels.

Wheels made of ice. That was the first ridiculous thing. Alais spotted the icy wheels from a distance. That had to be Ceria’s doing. No—one was pale ivory. Bone! It was made of bone!

Then you realized—the entire chariot was made of bone. And ice! But that wasn’t the main thing that had the workers and adventurers in uproar.

Two undead horses pulled the chariot. They were clearly undead; they were made of bone. Alais’ jaw dropped. The undead horses pulled the chariot up a steep hill. They were heading back this way! Of course, it was time for the Horn’s break.

“Are they using that thing to travel? What the hell are they thinking?”

“It beats walking!”

Some of the adventurers nodded. They were all footsore from yesterday. Even so—Alais saw the chariot climbing. The undead horses struggled their way up a hill. It was not a smooth ascent. The chariot, as a vehicle of travel, was not designed to go up rocky terrain. Nor were the wheels; the ice was chipping apart! But it was being repaired as fast as it broke.

And the horses were relentless, despite their burden. It was more like the horses dragging a block of wood up an uneven slope. Normal horses probably would have thrown off such a burden, but undead horses didn’t complain or even falter. They ascended the crest. Alais saw the steep incline. The riders didn’t because one horse went over the lip, then the other. Alais saw a half-Elf shouting, waving her arm. Then the chariot went down—

The idea of a rollercoaster hadn’t been invented yet. And if anyone saw the Horns and Hissle going down the hill, screaming as they smashed into rocks and bounced off parts of the hillside, no one would think of a rollercoaster either. But soon the Horns were riding across a flat. Now, Alais could hear them arguing as they drove towards the staring workers.

“I said brake!

“How? The horses can’t do it! Whoa! We’re tilting!”

“The wheel’s broken on the left!”

“Cast [Ice Wheel] on the left side, Ceria!”

“That’s not a spell! Give me a second—”

“[Bone Wheel].”

Pisces pointed and bone appeared, bridging a crack in one of the wheels. Ceria protested.

“Hey! Ice is better!”

“Bone is lighter.”

“Well—ice is heavier. And thicker!”

 

“Can’t you combine the spells? Make a bone-ice wheel?”

They stared at her. Yvlon raised her hands. The chariot clattered towards the adventurers.  Ceria was trying to keep her balance as the chariot threw its passengers around. It was hardly a smooth ride.

“Ow. Ow. This is not comf—”

As the chariot came down, it tilted sideways, throwing Ceria against one wall. She bit her tongue.  Yvlon, who was wisely keeping her mouth shut, shrugged.

“It’s not comfortable, but we’re not walking.”

“True!”

“What in the name of fur is this?”

Reikhle strode up to the Horns, staring. He glared at the undead horses as the workers murmured. Ceria appeared over the side and waved at him.

“It’s our means of transport, Master Reikhle. It can get us around. Don’t worry, we won’t make Hissle run; he can ride with us!”

The Gnoll stared. His eyes shifted to the Drake and Hissle waved one claw weakly.

“Master Builder Reikhle, it is faster than our march.”

“You’re using the undead, Ceria?”

Alais stared at the half-Elf. Ceria stared back at the [Aeromancer].

“That’s right, Alais. Don’t be jealous.”

Jealous?

“Our horses don’t break their legs. Or if they do, Pisces can fix them.”

Yvlon looked around. Alais hesitated. There was a point there. She stared at Pisces and cleared her throat. Stan spoke.

“Were the horses—how’d you get the bones?”

The [Necromancer] raised his eyebrows.

“I bought them, of course. I have any number of bones. The issue is actually storing them in my bag of holding. But to your point—finding horse bones is not difficult given any population of horses in a city. Rather, buying them is difficult. [Hostlers] are surprisingly difficult to persuade when it comes to a beloved creature.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Anyways, this is our mode of travel. We’ll walk if we have to, but this is easier. If bumpier. Hey, Ksmvr! Go grab us some pillows while we have lunch at Erin’s inn.”

“I shall attempt to persuade Bird to impart some of his Fortress of Fluff.”

The Antinium hopped down from the chariot with the others. Reikhle eyed the undead. But after a moment, he just nodded.

“Do your work! You’re covering a mounted team’s share, then. If you can’t keep up—everyone, back to work! You’re not being paid to stare!”

“Undead. I can’t believe it.”

Caddin shook his head as the others returned to their posts. He stared at Pisces as the Horns took a lunch from the magical door and began to eat, chattering about how to reinforce their chariot. But some of the other adventurers were less hostile.

“I’d ride that instead of walk.”

Stan looked at Alais, murmuring to his team. Some of them looked horrified, especially at the bone chariot, but more than a few were inspecting blisters. And on their wagon, the Horns were grinning. It was—different. True. But it was them. And Pisces was smiling, slightly.

“Not a bad idea, Yvlon.”

“Thank you. I’m ashamed you didn’t think of it. Looks like we know who the better [Necromancer] is.”

The [Wounded Warrior] replied, straight-faced. Pisces choked on his mouthful and Ceria laughed so hard she had hiccups. Ksmvr opened his mandibles in a smile. The Horns turned to the fifth member of the chariot. Hissle eyed the specially-made lunch they’d received from Erin. He lifted a hamburger and eyed the brownies on the floor of the chariot.

Hissle looked at the Horns of Hammerad, and his voice was resigned.

“You’re going to insist we travel by chariot from now on, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

Ceria raised her eyebrows at him. The Drake nodded, sighing. Then the [Scout] looked around surreptitiously and lowered his voice.

“Good. I was getting tired of marching everywhere.”

 

—-

 

Laughter. Walt’s team was far from the road and they couldn’t ride back for lunch. But they’d seen the chariot, and they were muttering about it.

“Undead horses? Dead gods, is there anything [Necromancers] won’t animate?”

“Better horses than people. That shifty-eyed bugger must have come up with it. What’s his name? Pisces? Disgusting. At least they’re not zombies. Little better, though. How does his team trust that [Necromancer]?”

The Ensoldier Shields nodded. The all-male, all-[Warrior] team was not in a good mood. They were still annoyed by their encounter with Erin, which had earned them a ban from her inn! And derision and scorn from their fellow adventurers.

“Yeah, well, Ceria’s always been insane. And Byres is cracked in the head ever since losing her team.”

Sourly, Walt, the [Shield Captain] leading the team, poured water onto his face. They’d been marching hard and since they were all wearing heavy armor and weapons, they were tired. But Walt wasn’t about to pay for stamina potions for everyone!

“Those bastards are eating snacks while they’re driving around, Walt.”

One of Walt’s teammates, Tommie, groused. Walt swore in reply.

“Troll balls, I saw it, Tommie! What do you want me to do? Let those idiots ride around. We have a job! Hey! Hey, Gnoll lady! Are we taking a rest yet?”

Ahead of them, the [Pathfinder] assigned to their team looked back with an annoyed look on her face. She reluctantly held up a paw.

“Five minutes!”

“Bitch.”

None of the Humans were in a good mood. Even so, Walt cuffed the [Maceman] who’d said that, and the man swore at him. But pissing off the Gnoll in charge of their group wasn’t smart. Walt was in a filthy temper.

“Shut it! We’re going to get this done, and get back! Five minutes!”

The Ensoldier Shields took their break, groaning and cursing. Walt reluctantly got on his feet and ordered the rest of his team forwards after the Gnoll after what felt like one minute. They weren’t always this bad-tempered. Erin Solstice breaking Belt’s nose and blacking his eye over a single incident was what had them angry. If she slapped back, that was one thing, but that was too much!

But the debate over the incident between the adventurers and Walt’s team was background noise to Walt. He’d say something to Ceria when they got back. Or Stan. Stan, now he was good at being friendly. Walt was tired as he marched on, but they were on the lowlands now, bordering the Bloodfields. That was something. As their grousing turned to silent marching, Tommie pointed to the left.

“Lookit that. The Bloodfields. There’s a brown splotch. See it?”

Walt turned. The omnipresent Bloodfields that had stolen the easy route through the valley was usually out of mind, if not out of sight. But it was true. There was an irregularity, in the already-irregular Bloodfields. Walt had noticed how the terrain changed from dense to desolate, but it was always red, with some other colors. But this—he paused.

“Hey! Gnoll lady! Uh—Teriska?”

“Hmm?”

She trotted back, frowning at him. Walt pointed out the spot.

“What’s that?”

The [Pathfinder] looked. It was indeed a large brown patch of land amid the red. The ground looked dead there. She shrugged.

“Looks like dead earth to me, yes? Perhaps even the Bloodfields could not survive.”

“Or someone did the sensible thing and salted the earth.”

Tommie grunted. The Gnoll nodded.

“I noticed it, and we will make a report, yes? But we must scout around it.”

“Sure. Lead on.”

Walt grunted. They were as close as they were allowed to the Bloodfields—two miles away from the closest edge. Far out of range of anything. Even so, Walt did not like their proximity to the Bloodfields. He stared at the brown spot, then something else caught his attention

A patch of huge, spore-like mushrooms. But big suckers. If he could see them from this far away, they had to be huge, twice as tall as he was. Walt stared at them, considered pointing them out to this team, but then decided against and kept marching. You didn’t want to stare too hard at the Bloodfields.

They kept walking. And in time, they got back to debating about the undead chariot. Not that they wanted one! It was too bad you couldn’t use horses everywhere. But undead horses? Well…

None of the adventurers nor the [Pathfinder] Gnoll noticed the change in the air at first. Then, the Gnoll looked up. She called a halt and pointed.

Something was blowing towards them. The Ensoldier Shields were downwind of the Bloodfields, and they saw a faint—mist?—on the wind. No, not a mist.

A faint red…haze in the air. It blew over the adventurers before they could do anything. Reflexively, Walt covered his mouth and didn’t inhale, and the others did the same. The Gnoll sneezed as she lowered her paw.

“Everyone okay? What was that?”

“Pollen.”

The [Pathfinder] announced. Some of the red was in her fur. Walt saw a bit on his armor and flicked it off uneasily.

“Damn pollen? Is it acidic? Poisonous?”

“Doesn’t feel like it. Damn, damn—anyone feeling sick? What didn’t that bird-lady warn us about—”

“Pollen’s not part of the Bloodfields. They do not flower. Nevertheless, we should report this. I am calling us back.”

The Gnoll [Pathfinder] looked visibly uneasy. She pointed back towards the distant road. The Ensoldier Shields brightened. Now that was more like it! In high spirits, they turned and began marching back towards the road.

But something curious happened. After a few seconds of marching, Walt frowned.

“Hey! Stop, stop! We’re going the wrong way!”

The adventurers paused. They looked ahead and realized Walt was right. The Gnoll was taking them across the Bloodfields. Embarrassed, the Gnoll shook her head.

“My apologies. To the left!”

They resumed, going left, around the Bloodfields rather than through the outskirts. But after a few more minutes of walking, Tommie frowned.

“Funny—it feels like we’re—”

They were veering into the Bloodfields again. Walt looked at Teriska. The [Pathfinder] was shaking her head.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re going the wrong way. I—walk left! Follow me!”

She took them directly opposite the Bloodfields. The Ensoldier Shields hurried after her, now alert. They were no fools. But after a few minutes Walt swore.

Stop!

They were walking straight into the Bloodfields. It was no more than a thousand feet distant. The adventurers looked around.

“Illusion?”

“No. Something’s wrong. Stay put.”

Walt hurried over the to the Gnoll woman. She was smelling at the pollen on her fur. He nodded at it.

“You don’t think…?”

“A trap. We have to get back to the road. I will send a [Message] spell.”

Teriska’s face was pale behind her fur. She reached for a scroll at her belt. Walt nodded.

“Hold tight everyone! We’re under some kind of illusion effect! Hold—”

He turned. And his face went pale. The Ensoldier Shields were walking forwards, their faces blank. Straight towards the Bloodfields. Walt bellowed.

Halt! Company halt!

The former [Soldiers] and [Warriors] jerked. They looked up and stared at Walt. A few took steps towards him—then began to swerve. Walt bellowed.

No one move! Sit! Damn it, sit!

His team wavered, but then they did. Walt turned to Teriska.

“We need someone to drag us out of here! And [Healers]!”

She nodded. The [Message] was away. Walt nodded at her—

Captain! Stop! Stop!

He jerked. He was—walking towards the Bloodfields. So was Teriska! Walt tackled her. Then he looked around. His team was fifty feet distance, bellowing at them.

Stay! Down!

Walt bellowed at them and grabbed the ground, as if it could hold him. Teriska’s face was pale. The Gnoll looked at Walt. He snapped at her.

“We’re under its effects. Do you have an antidote? A Skill?”

“No.”

“Then we wait. The other teams will bail us out. We wait and—Tommie! Belt! Stop!

The [Shield Captain] looked up. Two of the Ensoldier Shields were moving. They got up and wandered forwards, faces blank, ignoring their friends grabbing for them. They walked into the Bloodfields. Into the sea of red.

 

—-

 

They saw, of course. Before Teriska’s [Message] spell had even arrived, the adventurers had noticed the odd behavior of Walt’s team. Stan ran forwards, bellowing.

You’re off-course! Come back! Get back here!

But the Ensoldier Shields were too far away. As the [Message] reached Reikhle, the other adventurers raced forwards. The Horns of Hammerad scrambled towards their chariot. But they were miles distant! And the tiny specks of the adventurers were advancing towards the red.

Two of them trod on the crimson grass as Ceria watched. The half-Elf went pale. By her side, Master Reikhle uttered a soft curse.

“Dead gods.”

He had a magical spyglass to his eyes. Tommie and Belt were walking forwards. They jerked as whatever effect the pollen had on them left. And they turned. They saw Walt and their teammates waving at them, screaming frantically. The two [Warriors] looked around, realized where they were, and panicked.

“This way!”

Tommie tried to charge out of the Bloodfields, but the pollen turned him. It carried him towards the distant spore sacs. Belt grabbed after him, swearing.

“Tommie! No! Tommie—

Too late. The first man ran over the razor-sharp grass. He tripped over a long root in the ground.

And the Bloodfields came alive.

The root ripped up and snagged the man in armor. It pulled him off his feet and began to drag him, screaming, towards the Bloodfields, hundreds of feet distant. Belt froze. He ran after Tommie, grabbing after him. He seized the man’s arms and pulled. But the root was too strong. Tommie and Belt both began pulling across the ground. Tommie let go with one hand and tried slashing at the root with his belt knife. But it was like steel.

“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!”

“I won’t! Cut it off you! Get your armor off!”

“It’s crushing my legs! Help me—”

Tommie was on his front as Belt tried to slow him. The red grass was cutting his face, into the gaps in his armor. He was bleeding. But then he entered a barren spot in the ground. The grass vanished. Tommie froze. He twisted his head.

“Belt. Run—”

“Wh—”

The man looked up and saw the Watchertree. Forty feet high, it towered. A silent, pale sentinel. The area around it, two hundred feet, was clear. Belt froze. He let go of Tommie, reaching for his shield.

The first root stabbed up. It went through Belt’s armor, spearing his left leg, shattering bone and metal. He screamed. The root pinned him, drawing blood. Tommie shouted.

Belt!

Then another root burst upwards. It went through the ensnaring vine, severing it. Tommie struggled, trying to get the severed part off him. He was halfway free—

A root went through his shoulder. Barbs tore flesh. The man stared at the bloody anchor in his shoulder. He began to scream. Belt was screaming, pulling at the root. But it was holding him, pulling him into the ground. Tommie looked up. And the Watchertree waited. They were bleeding. Tommie fumbled for a potion.

“Got to—heal up, Belt—cut it out—”

He drank. His flesh began to heal. But the root tore his wounds open. And then another root, a spear of plant, went through Tommie’s right leg. He stared up at the Watchertree. Then down at his bleeding body. He looked at the healing potion in his hand.

“No.”

They were trapped. Walt saw his two companions lying on the ground, being—being bled by the plant. He swore as Teriska held him down with his teammates.

“Let go!”

“We’re all infected! Don’t, Captain!”

Let me go! Tommie! Belt! Hold on! Hear me?

Walt was bellowing. But it was too late. The men were bleeding profusely. And the nearest team was—

Walt looked up. He heard a voice. He turned his head and stared.

One team was advancing across the grasslands. Faster than the adventurers on foot. Even the ones on horseback. They were heading towards Walt’s team with ropes, intending to drag them back. But the second team, riding a chariot, was headed straight for the Bloodfields.

Go!

The ice-chariot shot forwards as Ceria pointed. She was hanging on, her wand drawn. In front of her, Pisces was gritting his teeth, directing the bone horses. Yvlon and Ksmvr hung on in the back. They ignored Stan as he rode alongside them.

Turn back! Turn back, damn it! You can’t get them! It’s a trap!

Pisces! Faster!

Ceria ordered the [Necromancer]. Pisces nodded. The undead horses picked up speed. A thousand feet out, Stan turned his horse, swearing. He raced towards the Ensoldier Shields. And the Horns of Hammerad went on.

 

—-

 

“I can’t believe it. Are they idiots?”

From their hidden vantage point, the Wistram [Mages] stared down at the ice chariot. They’d been camping in the foothills, observing the Horns all day. It was Montressa’s obsession and Palt and Ulinde weren’t the only objectors to being forced to monitor the Horns. Even Beza and Isceil were chafing, and that left Palt hopeful.

But he hadn’t expected this. The ice chariot surged forwards, crossing into the red. Isceil looked delighted and incredulous.

“They’re actually going into the Bloodfields. Are they crazy? Those two adventurers are as good as dead! That entire team is!”

Montressa looked just as surprised. She’d been horrified and filled with loathing when she saw the undead horses. But this?

Beza half-rose. The Minotauress stared down at the tableau. The adventurers were in the aegis of the Watchertree. It would let them live, use potions, until they were out of blood to nourish it. It was a cruel death. Beza turned to Montressa.

“What do we do, Montressa?”

“Watch.”

The [Aegiscaster] hesitated. She half-rose. The brass orb rotating around her staff hummed. She hesitated. Turned back to her team. Palt held his breath, watching the four adventurers in the chariot. His promise to Erin. His eyes flicked up.

“Montressa—”

Watch.

 

—-

 

There was no time to think. The Bloodfields surrounded them as the ice-chariot raced forwards. Yvlon felt the danger immediately. She bellowed.

Ceria! The roots!

The same trap roots that had gotten Tommie lay in their path. Ceria saw them and screamed.

Left! Left!

The Horns flung themselves to the side. The chariot turned, the undead horses carrying them onto the left set of wheels, missing the trapped root. Pisces turned the horses, swearing.

“What do we do?”

“Take us to the Watchertree! We need to get to them!”

Ceria pointed. But the red plains were coming alive. Yvlon saw movement to the left. And the huge insect beds.

“Steer clear of them! Pisces! Those are trapped!”

“On it!”

The [Necromancer] urged the horses onwards and Yvlon braced as the chariot bounced across the uneven ground. She stared ahead. The two men were prone.

“It’s—bleeding them. But they’re alive!”

“Tommie’s got a potion. So does the other one. But the tree keeps stabbing them!”

Ceria called out. The chariot slowed, at the edge of the barren dead zone. Pisces hesitated.

“If we run in there we’ll be hit!”

“Captain Ceria! Movement to our rear! Monsters!”

“What the—”

Ceria turned. Her eyes widened. Yvlon was staring at Tommie. The two men had seen the Horns.

“Get back! Get back! We’re trapped! The root’s as strong as steel!”

Tommie was screaming at them. He was hacking at the root in his leg and shoulder, sobbing with pain. Belt wasn’t moving. Pisces pointed at the Watchertree.

“That is the heart of the plant. Let me try to strike it! [Shatterbolt].”

He flicked his wrist, and the magical dart shot towards the tree. But Pisces missed. Only by a few inches, but it turned into a large gap as the magical bolt flashed past the tree. The [Necromancer] cursed. Then he pointed his finger.

“[Deathbolt].”

Yvlon jerked as a magical bolt of energy flashed from Pisces’ finger. This time it struck the tree, but nothing happened. She looked at him.

“Did it—”

“I don’t know! It’s too strong! Ceria!”

The two adventurers turned. Ceria was staring at something behind them. She jerked as Pisces grabbed her.

“Ceria! Hit the tree!”

“Right!”

The [Cryomancer] turned. She rose, aimed her wand.

“[Ice Spike]!”

The first shard of ice was dead-on. It hit the Watchertree along the bulbous top. But the ice broke harmlessly, not even leaving a mark. Ceria stared.

“Cast something stronger! [Fireball]!”

Pisces was shouting at her. Ceria nodded and raised her wand. This time the [Fireball] exploded on the Watchertree’s base. The flames flared, and Ceria heard the roar. She peeked up and—

“Oh dead gods.”

The Watchertree was unscathed! No—it was smoldering. A bit had been torn out, but—Ceria raised her wand to cast again.

“Ceria! We’ve got company!”

She whirled. The half-Elf’s eyes went round.

“Oh, tree rot. What is that?

Dozens of huge, red…blobs were rolling towards them. Dark red, covered in what looked like crude armor! Ksmvr loosed an arrow and watched it sink into the exterior.

“Blood Slimes. Captain Ceria, this is a Silver-rank threat!”

“They’re big! And they’ve got—armor!”

Ceria aimed an [Ice Spike] at one. She watched it shatter on the armor.

“[Ice Wall]! Pisces, fire!”

“On it!”

He shot flames at one of the Blood Slimes. With the other, he pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

The magical energy hit a slime, slowing it’s roll towards their chariot. Ceria stared.

“What the—”

“Tommie! Forget the slimes! Get Tommie!”

“My spells aren’t strong enough! The slimes—”

Yvlon looked towards the slimes and then Ceria. Pisces was conjuring a Bone Horror. He gritted his teeth.

“I’ll send my Bone Horror. It may survive an encounter. I could try something larger, but that tree—”

The Watchertree was stabbing its roots up randomly, trying to attack what had hit it. Yvlon stared at it, and then at the slimes. She looked at her sword.

“I’ll get the tree. Keep the slimes off us! Ksmvr, we’re going in.”

What?

Yvlon ignored Ceria. The half-Elf turned, cursing and reinforcing her ice walls. The huge slimes were slamming themselves against them. Pisces’ Warbear charged forwards as the [Necromancer] shot another [Deathbolt]. He was panting already.

“Comrade Yvlon—”

The Antinium [Skirmisher] hesitated. Yvlon grabbed his shoulder.

“Don’t argue! Ceria, freeze the ground and keep me covered! Now!

What? What are you—

The two [Warriors] leapt from the chariot. They landed on the red grass. Ksmvr ran past Tommie and Belt. Onto the dead zone. Into the reach of the Watchertree.

Ksmvr!

Ceria screamed. The Antinium was running fast, like a blur towards the Watchertree. But then—he leapt!  The Antinium jumped. Ksmvr’s Ring of Jumping carried him into the air. Twenty feet! And below him, the earth exploded.

A piercing tendril shot towards where the Antinium had been, trying to skewer him. It shot up and up—just missed his feet. The [Skirmisher] swung, turning in midair, but he missed with his Flamecoat Dagger as the tendril began to withdraw into the ground. Too slow, though. Yvlon charged after Ksmvr. Towards the withdrawing root.

She swung her Sword of Weight. Unlike Tommie’s or Ceria’s spells, the enchanted blade had all of Yvlon’s strength behind it. Plus another thirty pounds of the enchantment. It cut into the thick, pale red tendril and cleaved through. Yvlon staggered as the root severed, the end flexing wildly. Ksmvr landed. Yvlon pointed.

Go! Cover me, Ceria!”

She ran straight at the Watchertree. Ceria turned as Pisces leapt from the chariot.

“Go!”

With rapier in hand he [Flash Stepped] into the red slimes, thrusting at a mana core floating in the bodies. His Warbear tore another slime apart. Ceria whirled. She pointed.

“[Ice Wall]!”

The ground grew a thick layer of ice which cracked as more stabbing tendrils tried to break through. Yvlon ran, slipping and cursing, charging towards the distant Watchertree.

At the same time, Ksmvr landed. Tommie was struggling with the roots. He looked up as the Antinium landed left to him.

“Potion! Belt needs a potion!”

“I have one. Recovery—”

Ksmvr splashed the potion on the man’s torso. Ksmvr began sawing at the tendrils, then leapt back as more tried to hit him. He landed, paused, and jumped again. The Watchertree was stabbing at Ksmvr, trying to strike Yvlon. But she was nearing the base of the tall spire.

“[Ice Wall]—”

Ceria tried to block another root. But she was panting. Too slow. One arced out of the ground, stabbing at Yvlon. It tore across her armor. The enchanted metal took the impact. But it dented. And—Yvlon twisted as the root deflected. It shot past her face, striking across her helmet, gashing her face. Her blood spattered the ground, watering the red soil.

But she kept going. She shouted as she reached the base of the Watchertree. It stood, immobile. A malicious sentinel.

Yvlon lifted her enchanted sword. She gripped it with two hands and swung. The first blow cut halfway into the trunk! Ceria saw the entire tree shiver. The tendrils stabbing into Tommie and Belt convulsed and both men screamed. The Watchertree tried to hit Yvlon, but she was inside its range and the walls of ice were blocking the stabbing roots.

Yvlon wrenched her sword loose and swung again. The second cut enlarged the first. The Watchertree shook. The [Wounded Warrior] tore her blade loose with a shout.

Fall!

The third strike cut through. The Watchertree fell. It began to tilt and Yvlon ran back. The ground tore around Yvlon. The roots—tendrils—were spasming, flailing wildly! Ksmvr dragged Tommie out of his roots as Ceria scrambled after Belt. A flailing root hit her in the chest and knocked her flat. It was Belt who got up.

The chariot!

Pisces was falling back. The Blood Slimes had dissolved the skin on his hand and the Warbear was missing a head! Yvlon charged back across the ground. The adventurers piled into the chariot.

“Let’s go, let’s go—it’s getting worse!”

Ceria screamed at Pisces. The Blood Slimes were rolling back, but all the plants around them, even ones hundreds of feet distant were shaking. Trembling! The [Necromancer] pulled Belt up.

Yvlon lifted Tommie with a grunt. They piled into the chariot. The undead horses carried them forwards and Ceria thought they’d made it. Then she looked ahead.

Pisces—

The [Necromancer] glanced up. He’d been scrubbing at the caustic liquid on his arm that was trying to eat him alive. He looked up and his eyes widened. He turned—too late.

The chariot strayed close to the house-sized…plants. The huge, plump, rotten walls of plant that Bevussa had pointed out in their first introduction. Ceria saw the thing quiver as it sensed the chariot. She opened her mouth as Yvlon swore.

The first huge insect bed burst. Yvlon and Ksmvr looked up as the packed plant disgorged its contents. It had been hollow, and insects—tens of thousands—rained down. The adventurers looked up. Then the other three beds nearby exploded. The sky, the ground—all became insects.

“Hell on Rhir.”

Tommie whispered as he looked up. A swarm of hundreds of thousands buzzed down from overhead. The adventurers screamed. Ceria conjured [Ice Armor], but the bugs were already landing. She felt some tearing at her skin.

Keep—

Yvlon inhaled a cloud of bugs. She gagged. Pisces—Ksmvr—Tommie—Belt—they were engulfed as the flying swarm began to descend. Huge bugs, as large as their hands, larger, were trying to eat them.

Biting. Sharp fangs, spiked legs that tore at the flesh. Ceria screamed. She could hear Ksmvr shouting, biting back.

“I am not food! You are food! Yvlon, there are too many to eat!”

“Pisces! Get us out of here!

The [Necromancer] tried. He was blasting fire in every direction, hitting Ceria, the other adventurers. But the insects were slowing even the chariot. And Ceria had no idea which way was forwards. She screamed. The bugs were eating her. This wasn’t how it ended. This wasn’t—

 

—-

 

“They’re dead.”

Amplified by their observation spells, the Wistram [Mages] could see and hear the other teams battling the waves of insects. It engulfed the chariot, a wave of writhing blackness. Palt felt sick. He could see Pisces and Ceria fighting the insects with fire, but even a [Fireball] wouldn’t have made a dent in the sea of bugs.

And the insects were attacking everything. Even the other plants—and the adventurers at the edge of the Bloodfields themselves! The ones who’d gone to save Walt were in mortal danger too as the insects flew at them.

Alais was shooting lighting through the air in wild bursts, but there were just too many bugs. Crossbow Stan and the other adventurers were helpless. Like Walt’s team, they could only swing their weapons, retreating.

“If we wait, the insects might do our job for us.”

Isceil’s voice was too calm. The Drake looked at Montressa, waiting for her reply. The [Aegiscaster] was biting her lip. Beza snorted.

“Those adventurers are innocent!”

“Montressa—”

Palt began. He saw the young woman’s face snap up. Montressa stared at Palt. Then she cursed. She stood up.

“Traitors take it! Everyone with me! [Mass Featherfall]!”

She launched herself off the edge of the cliff. The other [Mages] leapt after her. They floated downwards. Montressa ran forwards towards a bluff.

“There! Link! Isceil, take the focus! Hit the bugs!”

“First we hunt them, now we have to save them?”

The Drake complained, but he bounded past Montressa. He lifted his wand and Ulinde pointed hers at Palt. The Centaur nodded. He concentrated—

And joined the others. The Centaur felt his magic shift, combining with Ulinde’s. Beza grabbed Montressa’s arm. Then Montressa’s staff touched Ulinde’s wand.

Four. Isceil was the lead. The Drake inhaled as the four linked. His eyes flashed. He inhaled and all five [Mages] united their will. They drew on the mana in the air, in their beings. And the air charged.

Below, Alais looked up. Screaming, smashing insects, Ceria saw a beacon, like the sun. Isceil rode the magic. He opened his mouth and drew in a breath. The magic flowed through his lungs, igniting, changing. Palt felt it course through him, glorious. Isceil bellowed.

“Frostspark Galebreath!”

Then he exhaled. And magic, raw mana, took form. It shot from his mouth, a cloud, a blast shooting thousands of feet in seconds. Freezing wind and lighting, propelled by a blast of air that was actually visible. Three elements.

It hit the cloud of insects with a sound like an avalanche. The huge, black-red swarm exploded as ice froze them, lighting bolts struck them apart, and the wind sent the rest flying. The Wistram [Mages] staggered with the backlash of the magic. Isceil fell backwards, his throat torn, grabbing for a healing potion. Montressa was first on her feet. She pointed.

“[Chain Lightning]! Everyone, [Valmira’s Comets]!”

Palt raised his hand. He joined his magic to hers, drinking a mana potion. And comets of light, some the size of horses, shot forwards. Magic, glorious and bright, tore the sky.

 

—-

 

For a moment, she though it was over. Yvlon was engulfed. She was fighting, trying to breathe as she inhaled insects. Then—she heard the explosion. Felt the wind, blowing bugs off her. She inhaled, and it was glorious. The adventurers emerged, coughing. And Yvlon saw the insect swarm regrouping overhead. But then the magical comets flew down from the hills. Yvlon looked up and breathed.

“Silver and steel.”

The rain of magical comets tore apart the rest of the swarm, vaporizing anything hit directly, sending burning carcasses raining down from just the heat. The adventurers in the chariot ducked as insects, alive and burning came down. The chariot drove onwards, free of the swarm.

Stragglers attacked them, but the bleeding adventurers were healing, using potions. Pisces swore and shot his own flames overhead; Yvlon swatted a few coming for her head. Ceria conjured a layer of ice, and Ksmvr just bit a few bugs and spat them out.

“They taste bad.”

The two members of Ensoldier Shields and Pisces were worst off. They swatted and cursed as bugs showered them, but the chariot was soon racing clear. The insect swarm, decimated by the comets and breath attack, fell backwards, uncertain. And then all the adventurers were racing away from the Bloodfields. Yvlon coughed. There were bugs in her throat, moving!

She leaned over the edge of the wagon and threw up. Pisces, Ceria, Tommie, Belt—all did the same. Ksmvr didn’t, but he methodically crushed every bug clinging to the chariot. Yvlon wiped her mouth, wretched, spat out something—and then just lay back.

She was covered in insect gore. In blood. Her face was gouged deep. The healing potion was closing the wound—and she was coughing on bile. Ceria and Pisces looked little better. Tommie and Belt? Even with the potions they looked half-dead.

Yvlon started laughing. The Horns looked at her, and the two Ensoldier Shields. Then they started laughing too.

They were alive.

 

—-

 

The adventurers met the ice chariot, along with Master Reikhle and [Healers]. The Horns and the two Ensoldier Shields were helped down as potions were thrust forwards. Everyone was exclaiming, asking what had happened—shouting about pollen—when the Wistram team approached.

They walked down out of the foothills. Ceria looked up from Alais and Kam hugging her and saw them. Ksmvr pulled a huge beetle’s mandibles out of her back.

“Montressa?”

They’d saved them. The Wistram [Mages] were panting. Montressa du Valeross stared at Ceria. Then she focused on the skeletal horses.

Of all the things in the moment, that was the least consequential to Ceria. But Montressa’s face went white. She stepped backwards—and ran up against Palt. The Centaur put a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“[Calm]. Montressa, it’s alright.”

The [Mage] visibly calmed. But she stared at the undead horses. Then at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was being clapped on the back by Walt and supported by Stan.

“You—you saved us. You took care of the insects.”

Alais was the first to say something. She looked at the Wistram [Mages]. Isceil coughed.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

The Drake looked up at Ceria. He glared, spat a bit of blood.

“We’re not monsters. We saw the other adventurers were in trouble and decided to give our aid. No need to thank us.”

Palt eyed Isceil. Ulinde hesitated. The adventurers and workers were silent as they stared at the Wistram team. Montressa hesitated. She looked at Ceria and then at Pisces.

“We did it because we owe Liscor. Not you.”

She turned away. Ceria opened and closed her mouth a few times.

“Thank you. You saved us.”

Montressa didn’t reply. It was Yvlon who spat out a pincer and growled.

“Funny that you’re all the way out here, though. Why were you here, then? Watching us?”

“Yvlon—they just saved us.”

Ceria stumbled as she walked over to her friend. The [Wounded Warrior] glared. Abruptly, she tore loose of Caddin and the other two adventurers supporting her. She began walking forwards. Her sword was still drawn. It rested across her shoulder blades, gleaming across the silvery metal armor the [Wounded Warrior] wore.

“Yvlon!”

The woman ignored her. The Wistram [Mages] tensed as she approached. Beza made a fist, but Palt put his arm out.

“Steady.”

“We’re not fighting. We saved you.”

Yvlon kept walking. Straight at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] hesitated. She raised her staff and the glowing brass orb hovering next to her pulsed.

“Yvlon—!”

Ceria’s voice was one in a dozen. But Yvlon didn’t stop. She never blinked. Her grip slowly tightened on the hilt. The [Mages] wavered where they stood. Then Montressa leapt aside. Isceil stumbled back. She walked past them. Her head turned and she stared straight into Beza’s eyes. The Minotauress opened her mouth, and nothing came it out.

“Thanks for the assistance. Stay away from my team.”

Yvlon strode towards the door to The Wandering Inn. Ceria’s jaw dropped. The other adventurers stared after Yvlon. After a moment, Walt exhaled hard.

Damn. Byres does not fuck around.”

 

—-

 

Later, Erin shouted when she saw the Horns. She rushed forwards.

“What happened? Are you all alright?”

The Horns had to debrief Reikhle, and get Walt’s account and the [Pathfinder]’s. They told Erin—then Olesm and Zevara—then the Council. The Bloodfields encounter was not small fries. Master Reikhle himself sent through a missive to Pallass.

“The pollen and those pulling roots—those are new. The Bloodfields are…evolving.”

Olesm paled as he checked reports for anything like the pollen that Walt’s team had been hit by, or the grabbing-roots that had got Tommie. Zevara nodded.

“The Bloodfields are always dangerous. But this is another step. I don’t know if I can recommend we proceed with the road. Councilmembers…”

Lism paced back and forth, tail thrashing angrily.

“Damn the Bloodfields. An army could clear it. A hundred [Mages] throwing long-range fire spells? We should get Pallass’ army to do it! We only fight there to avoid having another Bloodfields somewhere else!”

“Better not to fight at all! If the Humans would stop sending their armies and return our land—”

Ceria was so tired, she didn’t hear the other Drakes and Gnolls arguing. After a moment, Zevara stood up.

“Enough! There’s only one decision we need to make. Continue the project or not?”

“We need a road.”

Lism’s statement got nods from even Krshia. The Gnolls looked around, finding Olesm.

“What do we do, Strategist Olesm? If the road’s in danger of that pollen or the plants reaching out—”

“We alter course even further east. If need be, we’ll build a wall alongside the Bloodfields to keep the plants from endangering travellers. But it can be done. From now on, no team is allowed within four miles of the Bloodfields. I’ll notify Pallass, confer. Master Reikhle, do you think it can be done?”

The Gnoll was longer in replying. But he did nod.

“I can make the road out of range of even pollen. It can be done, yes? But it takes brave teams such as today to guard us.”

He nodded at the Horns. Ceria grinned. Pisces cracked one eye open, blinking. Lism hesitated, but it was Krshia who nodded.

“Indeed. This is a heroic act, yes? Worthy of commendation, or at least a bonus? Hrm?”

“Well, it was pretty good. And those Wistram [Mages] helped. Damn. I suppose they earned their keep. But even so, they weren’t authorized—”

The Council began arguing over the ramifications of the Bloodfields, the politics—the Horns didn’t listen. Erin tugged them away, offering them food, baths, and beds. Wearily, Ceria collapsed onto a table, leaning up on Pisces.

“Hells. That was something.”

“Montressa and her team saved us! Can you imagine—”

“They were watching us.”

Yvlon tried to raise her head. Now other adventurers were coming over. The Council was embroiled in a huge debate, with a crowd of their own on one side of the room. But the exhausted adventurers were on another. Walt came over.

“Ceria. Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr. You all alright? You’re looking worn.”

“I need—five baths.”

Pisces muttered. Ceria nodded.

“And sleep!”

“I’ll drink to that. Hell. I still have some of that red stuff on me.”

Walt was drinking with one hand. But he came over. He hesitated, then clapped Pisces on the shoulder.

“You lot do the bathing thing. But after that—we’ll buy you all drinks! Even the bug-fellow, if he drinks. You saved my guys.”

He pointed. The Ensoldier Shields were shaken, but in one piece, clapping their two teammates on the shoulder. They looked up. Half raised their cups. Ceria blinked. Then she looked at Pisces. He looked up at Walt, but the man was staring at him.

“Hell of a thing. Taking down that tree-thing? That was Gold-rank, right there.”

Stan nodded. Ceria blinked around. She had a thought, and smiled.

“Hey, didn’t Tekshia say that Gold-rank teams would take a stroll through the Bloodfields to prove they were worthy of their rank? Anyone fancy copying us?”

“Forget that. Even a chariot’s too slow.”

Yvlon muttered. She was feeling at her arms.

“But you did it! And—dead gods! I take back what I said, Ceria. Come on. Let’s get to the bathhouses! Liscor has some, right? Then drinks are on my team too!”

Alais grabbed Ceria. The half-Elf blinked, but then Kam was on her other side. The other adventurers helped lift the weary Horns up. Bemused, confused, but happy, the Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. Ceria looked at Pisces. He was staring. Then smiling.

He met her eyes. She laughed. And the world felt better.

 

—-

 

Montressa du Valeross listened to the laughter. Her team was standing outside the inn. They hadn’t received much thanks. Isceil was growling insults under his breath. Beza’s arms were folded. Palt was arguing with her.

“You see, Montressa? You saved his life. All their lives.”

“I didn’t do it for him. Or her.”

The [Aegiscaster] glared at Palt. The Centaur exhaled slowly.

“Montressa—you have to give it up. You saw them. They went into the Bloodfields! To save two adventurers! I know what he did. We all did. We all had friends in that accident! I did! But you need to forgive—”

Montressa saw a grinning face. Blood, dripping from the teeth. She shot upright, her face white and pale.

“Forgive him? After what he did? Why is he allowed to be happy? Calvaron, Chaise—they’re still dead.”

Palt looked around. Beza hesitated, but nodded. Isceil bared his teeth.

“He don’t get a free pass for being a hero today.”

“I’m warning you, Montressa. You may not have a choice.”

“I didn’t come this far to run away, Palt. This isn’t over. The Horns got lucky because they were helping other adventurers. But we’re settling this.”

White-faced, Montressa stalked away. Palt threw up his hands. He looked at Ulinde.

“It’s over. She’ll get the order tomorrow.”

The Selphid nodded uncertainly. After a moment, Palt entered the inn, and she followed. Montressa stormed back to the city, haunted.

 

—-

 

The Bloodfields were silent. The insects had retreated, gathering in the insect beds, leaving countless of their dead behind. The area where the Watchertree had fallen was being engulfed. The damage done to a small part of the Bloodfields had already begun healing. But—it had been a loss. The Bloodfields had ensnared its prey, and the prey had fought back. Only a bit of blood had been taken, and the damage—

Magic had torn the earth and sky. Magic, a power beyond even most of the Bloodfield’s most dangerous threats. Who, adventurer, insect, plant, could stand in front of that? Perhaps nothing.

And yet. On the barren ground, at the foot of the Watchertree’s stump, the place where Yvlon’s blood had fallen on the ground sucked up the red greedily. And the battle, the carnage, the magic and death was a conjuring. A sacrifice.

The Bloodfields shivered. Went silent, all of a sudden. A wind blew as the sun fell. The red grass swayed, no longer waiting.

And something woke up.

 


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