When Erin woke up, it was so cold that it hurt.
She was inside her inn when she opened her eyes and nearly screamed from the sudden pain of the cold. Not buried under snow, although that was her first thought. No; she and Pisces had been rescued and the snow melted yesterday. But she was still cold. What had happened? She’d gone to sleep in her kitchen after the Frost Fairies and Pisces had left and—
Erin was freezing. She looked around stiffly, and realized the cold wasn’t coming from an evil Frost Faerie or anything like that. It was just cold. Really, really cold outside.
Normally, on a cold day when Erin didn’t have anything to do, she would just curl up inside her blankets or shuffle over to the thermostat to crank up the temperature until her parents yelled at her for wasting gas.
But that was a normal day back at home, in a modern house with solid walls and heating. She was in a different world here, with an inn whose walls were damaged from undead attacks and where the only source of heat was an unlit fireplace.
And however cold Michigan could get, however terrible the snowfall could sometimes be, it really had nothing on the winter the Frost Faeries had brought. Erin couldn’t ever remember being so cold, and she could hear blowing winds shrieking through holes in the inn’s walls, bringing freezing temperatures in from the cold night outside.
Possibly only the five blankets Erin had bought from Krshia had saved her from freezing as she slept. As it was, she woke up before dawn, shaking so badly she could barely move.
Erin wanted nothing more than to stay wrapped up forever, but parts of her brain told her that if she didn’t move about, she would be staying here forever.
So that was how Erin found herself crawling across the floor, swathed in countless blankets, fumbling around with flint and tinder and pieces of wood in the kitchen’s fireplace until something lit.
She managed to get the fire going after what seemed like an eternity, and only noticed she’d set part of her blankets on fire after they started smoking. That was how Erin started her day.
Once Erin had warmed the kitchen enough so that she didn’t see her breath every time she exhaled, she curled up again and slept for a few minutes. Or possibly hours. She only got up to feed the fire more wood, and that was when she realized she was nearly out of firewood.
That was a problem, but in Erin’s frozen state she couldn’t help but add another log to the fire. She was cold. She’d deal with the problem when she woke up more.
Three hours later, Erin was more awake. She put some water in a kettle as she moved around with a blanket for warmth, and cooked herself some eggs and put it on toasted bread. She had to have hot food, hot drinks.
Hot water wasn’t exactly Erin’s ideal beverage, but it beat cold water and she was out of blue fruit juice. She was just lucky her bucket of water had thawed while she’d been asleep.
Life was more bearable with a hot breakfast in your stomach. Erin shuffled around and stared out at the frozen landscape. Somehow, she felt like she might actually not die of cold today.
It was also warmer. Erin wasn’t sure why, but the howling winds that had infiltrated her inn and frozen her to the bone had stopped. That was to say, she could still hear the wind blowing, but it didn’t seem to be entering her inn. Why? And for that matter, where was Toren? She’d called for him a few times to stoke the fire so she didn’t have to, but he never appeared.
The instant Erin stepped outside she found the answer to both her questions. She found a huge, white thing blocking her vision.
Let’s see. There was the snowy ground, there was the sky. And in between was a…wall? Yes, a wall. Made of snow.
It was a wall of compacted snow, which, in the rays of the sun, was slowly turning into ice as the snow melted and refroze. It was nearly ten eight feet tall, and Erin had no idea how it had got there.
The pieces fell into place as she saw Toren appear in her vision. Her skeleton was busy pushing snow with a piece of wood, clumsily scooping and packing the snow into part of the wall that ringed her inn.
Erin stared. And then she realized what had happened.
Sometime yesterday, while she’d been talking to Ryoka, she’d told Toren to clear away the snow outside of the inn. She hadn’t really meant for him to do it. It was just something to keep him occupied. He’d helped dig Erin and Pisces out of the inn and cleared it out, and then Erin had been too busy hiding in her inn and trying to get warm to remember him for the rest of the night.
So he’d been outside the entire time, shoveling snow. And somehow, over the course of that, he’d created this. A wall of snow that handily blocked the wind and also trapped Erin inside of her inn. By himself.
That was the thing. Tell a human to do something and they might do it, but they’d eventually get bored, or failing that, fall down dead at some point. But skeletons didn’t get bored. Or if they did, they kept it to themselves.
Erin had told Toren to clear away the snow around her inn. And he’d done that. All night long.
He’d fought the good fight and lost. Or rather, even though Toren had cleared a prodigious amount of snow away, more had taken its place. Erin stared at the huge ring of snow and glared at Toren.
“Hey! How am I supposed to get out?”
He looked at her and Erin could have sworn he blinked. At the very least the lights in his eyes dimmed for a second. Toren looked at the wall of snow and then back at Erin and shrugged.
Erin scowled, but her face wasn’t really in it. The wall certainly made things more bearable. She could hear the wind blowing, and even feel part of it as it came over the wall. But the snow was breaking the wind quite helpfully so she just pointed at the snow in front of her.
“Get rid of that. I need out.”
Toren nodded. He walked over to the area of wall and started kicking and pushing away snow. Erin went inside and boiled some more hot water to drink. It was good to have a skeleton, even if he didn’t really think that much.
“Okay, here’s the plan.”
Toren looked at Erin expectantly as she shivered at him. She pointed in the direction of Liscor.
“I’m going to buy more stuff. Food. And I need to check on my friends. While I’m gone, I want you to find more firewood. Got it?”
The skeleton nodded, but hesitated. He looked around aimlessly. Erin realized he didn’t know where to find the firewood.
“I don’t know where any is. Go find some trees.”
He nodded and walked off. Erin watched Toren slowly trek down the side of the hill and wondered if that was alright. But if he could build a wall of snow, he could find some wood, right? Toren was helpful like that. Give him a task and he got it done.
And she had a goal as well. Get to the city. Erin took a deep breath and set out. Get to the city. It was probably warmer there.
Trekking through the snow was unbearably hard, especially because Erin didn’t have enough layers to keep the snow from soaking her pants. In the end, she wobbled through the southern gates of Liscor, nearly frozen from the knees down and fighting against the horrible, stinging pain of her half-frozen skin.
Tkrn the Gnoll was on duty at the gates. He said something as Erin stumbled past her, but she couldn’t really respond.
“Miss Erin. How are you d—”
“Colghd! No trk!”
He blinked at Erin as she moved past him. She ignored the Gnoll and moved at a rapid shuffle towards Market Street. Her only thought was to get to Krshia. Krshia knew about warm things. She had fur. Maybe Erin could hug her until she was warm?
The cruel pain of existence lasted for several more minutes after Erin was inside the city. It was even worse because everywhere she looked, Drakes were walking around bundled up and Gnolls were walking around still practically naked. But then Erin found Market Street, and the world became a small slice of heaven. Or hell. Hell was probably warmer.
They had braziers along Market Street, iron poles and basins holding burning coals that make the air warmer. Some shopkeepers were even cooking food over the coals and selling it to pedestrians.
Erin didn’t even bother to think twice. She smelled roasting meat in the air and she was in front of the Gnoll frying food in an instant. He blinked down at the shivering human as she raised a shaking finger and pointed at the food roasting on the grill.
“O-o-one m-meat thing please.”
It was just a cut of meat dripping with fat and juices. Erin burned her mouth on it and chewed at the gristle, savoring the heat. It was the best thing she’d ever eaten—today. Possibly this week. She was quite certain she’d eaten better things over the course of her life.
She wolfed it down, and then another. Only then did she remember to pay for the food. The Gnoll accepted the greasy bronze coins and nodded to Erin, bemused.
Krshia had been watching Erin’s after-breakfast snack. When Erin finally remembered to come over to her shop, the two talked for a short while. Even then, it wasn’t a productive conversation.
“You need winter clothing, yes?”
“I have many furs and warm clothing. Do you prefer wool or something else?”
Eventually Krshia just started picking out clothes for Erin. She shoved them in the young woman’s hands, told her to find somewhere to change and come back when she was warmer.
Erin took the advice, and that was how she ended up in the Adventurer’s Guild, changing her clothes and trying not to stare at a naked Drake as female adventurers changed out of armor.
“What are the adventurers doing all day?”
That was the first question Erin asked Selys once she finished changing out of her cold, wet clothing and into the warm winter clothes Krshia had given her. Selys wrinkled her nose and twitched her tail at a group of adventurers sitting at one of the tables. They stank.
“Rat infestation in the sewers.”
“Ew! But wait, why is that a job for adventurers? Isn’t that a job for an exterminator or something? Cats?”
“We don’t have many of those things in the city. Cats…Gnolls don’t like cats that much. Anyways, they tend to disappear when people get hungry in the winter.”
“Besides, these were giant rats. Nearly this high.”
Selys indicated a point just below Erin’s navel. The young woman gulped.
“It’s not a threat the Watch wants to deal with, and it’s not that dangerous. Well—not dangerous enough to make any of the guardsmen wade in that muck. So they put out a contract. Hired the adventurers.”
Selys waved a hand at the unhappy group of warriors.
“It pays well, but no one’s happy about it.”
Erin didn’t even know that Liscor had sewers. She said as much to Selys.
“Oh, it’s just a place to put all the horrible stuff. We can’t just toss it outside the city, and all those people living together creates a lot of—”
“—Stuff. So we dump it underground and let it flow away. The Antinium dug the tunnels, but they’re not obligated to clean it or get rid of the monsters.”
“I wish I had sewers. All I have is an outhouse and now that I’m out of acid, Toren’s going to have to start cleaning it by hand. Or shovel. I need to buy a shovel.”
“Yeah, I heard about your inn. It got covered in snow, right?”
“Who told you that?”
“Your mage friend.”
“No. The other one.”
“Pisces isn’t my friend.”
Erin laughed and Selys grinned. But then she made a face.
“He came into the city covered in snow. He tried to let me stay in the guild until I chased him out. He kept saying there was an avalanche. In the middle of the plains?”
Erin’s happy expression changed into a scowl.
“There was. Thanks to those evil faeries.”
Selys looked puzzled.
“The what? Oh, you mean those things. The sprites. What happened?”
Erin paused. She remembered that Pisces said no one could see or hear the faeries.
“I uh, made them mad somehow. And they caused an avalanche and nearly buried me in my inn!”
Selys looked sympathetic.
“Nasty. You should stay away from them.”
“That’s what people keep telling me. But they’re so pretty.”
“Um. Never mind.”
Selys shook her head at her strange friend.
“They don’t go indoors so you’re safe. Just try to avoid making them mad, okay? They don’t usually bother people unless you’re someone like Relc.”
“Why? What about Relc?”
“You don’t know? Every winter the sprites follow him around for a week and cause trouble. Snow falls off roofs, he slips on ice…one time a chimney broke and fell on his head!”
“Why? I mean, is it because of the faeries?”
“Yep. He hates them. Every time he sees them he throws stuff at them or tries to grab one. They always freeze his hands off, though.”
Erin frowned. The faeries were jerks, but Relc was huge.
“He should just leave them alone.”
“He did, but they keep bothering him either way.”
For a while the two kept talking about Relc and the various ways the faeries like to cause mischief. Erin got the impression the Frost Faeries were regarded as a force of nature, rather than actual creatures by the people of Liscor.
“They’re not a threat. Well, they can cause a lot of damage if you bother them, but they’re not worse than a flood or a lone Goblin. It’s rare to hear of someone getting attacked like you were. Besides Relc of course.”
Selys paused. It was a slow day at the guild, or all the adventurers were still fighting rats underground. She looked at Erin suddenly, and asked a question that had clearly been on her mind for a while.
“Erin. Is it true what people are saying? Has the King of Destruction really awoken?”
“It’s just something I heard Krshia saying when she got back from the city. You know, after you rescued that Ceria and Olesm. She said the other human—”
“—Yes, her. She said the other human said he was back.”
“That’s what I heard too. But I don’t know who that is.”
“I’m sorry! It’s just—”
Selys sighed exasperatedly.
“I know, I know. But you of all people should know him. He’s one of your kind, a human, I mean. And even we know of the King of Destruction.”
“He’s bad news, huh?”
Ryoka hadn’t said much about Flos to Erin, only that he was some king who ruled a huge amount of land before he disappeared suddenly.
“More than that, Erin. He conquered nearly all of Chandrar and his armies were crossing the sea and landing on our southern shores before he vanished.”
“Wow. That’s pretty scary. But…I mean, why is he so famous? He never got far into this continent, right?”
“It’s not that. It’s that he managed to cross the sea and bring an invasion all the way here!”
Erin waited, but that was it.
“Okay, so he got across the ocean. So what?”
“Erin! Do you know how hard it is to cross the sea with an army? Wars on one continent are one thing, but someone actually being able to cross the thousands of miles to another continent is unheard of!”
“But it’s only a sea, not an ocean, right?”
Selys looked at Erin blankly.
“Is there a difference?”
“I think so. A sea is like the water next to land, while the ocean is…not. Plus, oceans are bigger.”
“Okay. So it’s an ocean. The point is that he did it. And now he’s back!”
That did seem serious. Erin made all the appropriate noises of concern while a thought clanged around in her mind.
“So the King of Destruction might be coming here, and that’s bad.”
“Very bad. Although…”
“I don’t know that the council will do anything about it. Or the army, really.”
“Well, he’s so far away. What would we do? All the kingdoms and lands he conquered don’t obey him anymore. Chandrar will probably join together to fight him, so we don’t have to do anything.”
“So there’s nothing really bad happening?”
“No. Yes! I don’t know, it’s just really big, that’s all.”
“I get it. Oh, and by the way, I got the [Warrior] class yesterday.”
“Really? That’s great news, Erin!”
Selys’s face lit up and she smiled at Erin, worries over a distant king forgotten.
“What level are you?”
“Just Level 2. But I was wondering why I got the class now. I mean, I’ve fought a lot of things before. Why did I get it for going into the ruins?”
Selys frowned and thought.
“This is the first time you went looking for a fight, wasn’t it? I mean, you went exploring before, but you never really went out knowing you were going to kill something.”
“That’s the difference?”
“It’s all about purpose. I mean, I cook food for myself but I still haven’t gotten the [Cook] class. But if I tried to make that my hobby or job, I’d probably get the class right away.”
“And you’re a [Warrior] now as well, aren’t you?”
Selys nodded proudly.
“Does that mean you’re going to buy a sword and start killing monsters?”
Erin couldn’t see her friend doing that, but she supposed anything was possible?
“What? No! It’s just nice having another class. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking to become an adventurer or anything.”
Selys raised one hand and laughed.
“If I’d started training with a sword when I was young…maybe I’d be around Level 12 by now. But now…how many years would it take to reach Level 20? Probably at least a decade. Only someone like that Ceria has the time to level more than one class.”
“Really? That long?”
“Of course. I mean, if I were a soldier fighting on the front lines maybe it would only take a year or two, but I don’t fancy risking my life.”
That was odd. Erin was leveling up a lot faster than Selys was describing. Why was that? She started to ask Selys, and then remembered what Ryoka had said about discretion. She closed her mouth. Then she opened it again, deliberately.
“I got to Level 18 in my [Innkeeper] class after the undead attacked.”
Selys had been taking a sip from a glass of water she’d poured herself. Disappointingly, she didn’t spray it all over Erin, but she did choke and spill the water on the desk. Erin swept the paperwork and inkpot out of the way before they got drenched.
“What? Seriously, Erin?”
“Very seriously. Do you know why I’m leveling up so fast?”
Selys had to frown as she mopped distractedly at the spilled water with a cloth.
“It must be all the things you’ve done. I’ve never heard of an innkeeper fighting off an undead attack, or—or starting and running an inn by herself.”
“So it’s doing hard stuff that makes us level faster? Adversity?”
Selys had to raise her shoulders and tail helplessly.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, Erin. I know how my class works. The more people I serve, the better a job I do at keeping people happy and sending adventurers on requests, the faster I’ll level. But this guild is so small I’ll never get past Level 20 before I retire. You’d have to ask other innkeepers how they level.”
“Oh. But I don’t know any other innkeepers.”
Erin saw Selys tap her lips with one claw. The Drake glanced around the mostly empty guild and then seemed to come to a decision. She nodded at Erin.
“My shift is over soon. If you want to wait with me until then, I’ll introduce you to a good one.”
Erin walked with Selys down the streets of Liscor, staring around at the unfamiliar sights.
“That’s it. I have no idea where we are.”
She was in a different part of the city, where Drakes were the main foot traffic on the ground and the shops and buildings seemed to cater more to their kind. And she had no idea where she was.
“I never knew Liscor was so…so big! And I’ve never seen this place!”
Selys laughed at Erin for that.
“Erin! You never go anywhere except the Market district and to visit me!”
That was true. Erin blushed as she and Selys walked slowly through the streets, her friend pointing out places she liked to visit.
“It’s not that I don’t like new places, but the first time I came here…”
Erin remembered getting horribly lost and annoying everyone around her. She’d stepped into more than one building to be chased out when she realized it was someone else’s home. Besides, back then she’d felt definitely unwelcome.
But now with Selys at her side Erin felt comfortable, if not welcomed in this part of the city. Some Drakes knew Selys by name and no one was throwing stuff at Erin. It was a good start.
“So who are we visiting? And where are we going?”
Selys pointed down the street.
“We’re heading towards the north side. There’s a good inn there – the Tailless Thief. It’s the most famous—and expensive—inn in the city. The innkeeper’s the one I want you to meet, though.”
Erin felt at her belt pouch.
“I uh, didn’t bring that much money with me.”
“Oh don’t worry. I know the innkeeper we’re going to meet, and you’re new. We’ll get at least one free drink and probably a hot meal.”
“Sure. Peslas is generous. Just let me say hello first.”
Peslas turned out to be the biggest Drake Erin had ever met, with the possible exception of Relc. But where Relc had huge shoulders and massive arms, Peslas was just…huge.
He wasn’t fat. Not exactly. He had a huge belly and he was a big Drake. Some of the fat was actually muscle. Erin was pretty sure of that because when she first saw him, the Drake was hefting a huge keg of alcohol onto a counter by himself.
The instant he saw the younger Drake, Peslas broke into a huge smile.
“Child, how have you been? It’s been months since I last saw you! Come here!”
Selys smiled politely at the large Drake and moved forwards so he could hug her with one huge arm. Peslas grinned at her as Selys introduced Erin, and then his smile faded a bit and was replaced by surprise.
“A Human? I heard there were still some in the city after the undead attacks but—wait, I know you! You’re that [Innkeeper] in the abandoned inn! Well, you know young Selys?”
“I brought her here to see your inn, Peslas. That’s if you’re not too busy?”
“Of course not. How could I turn away Isshia’s grandchild? And you, human.”
Erin stuck out her hand and received a crushing handshake. She didn’t wince though, and Peslas smiled toothily at her.
“Here to learn from the best, are you? I can’t say I blame you. Some parts of my inn are trade secrets of course. But then, we all start at the bottom so look away! I doubt you’d be able to copy any of it.”
With that, he called for a barmaid to seat Selys and Erin and in moments, they were seated and being served drinks and some crunchy meat pasties. And what Erin saw was an inn in motion.
Peslas’s inn was close to full despite it not even being midday. He had a range of customers, from old Drakes that Erin guessed were retired to younger Drakes who looked like affluent business owners. And of course there were the barmaids, all female, and all Drake.
In short, this was an inn for Drakes and run by Drakes. Erin saw not one Gnoll, and she realized she was getting a lot of casual glances. Selys covered for Erin though, chatting away and keeping their conversation light as Erin looked around.
So. This was a proper inn. Erin could see all the signs. No broken chairs, no holes in the walls or clumsily patched spots, and bright lamps and a bustling staff to boot. The mug she’d been given was filled with some kind of fruity, thick drink that was tasty as it was alcoholic. And the food was good, too! It was an inn without any flaws, fights, or skeletons.
And Peslas was at the center of it all.
The big Drake moved from table to table, not with the speed of someone serving drinks, but a lazy amble that took him to each customer, where he could chat, share a pint, and gossip. Occasionally Peslas would disappear into the kitchen and return with a plate or show someone to a seat – or lift a keg – but these were clearly all things he did as a favor to friends. He didn’t need to work.
What Peslas did do was interact with customers. He made sure they were served on time, listened to their worries and successes, and talk. His mouth never stopped moving.
“No. She left you? Even after you got her the ring?”
Erin saw Peslas sitting across from them two tables over, listening to a maroon-scaled Drake as he sniffled into his meal. Peslas was holding a tankard in his hands – the sixth Erin had seen him drink in the hour.
Apparently, from what Erin could gather, the Drake that Peslas was talking to had lost his girlfriend of several years right as he was about to propose. After the woebegone Drake had spilled out the story, the older Drake’s eyes were brimming with tears.
“You were always too good for her.”
Peslas wiped the tears from his eyes as he patted the younger Drake on the shoulder. He turned and shouted for a barmaid. She came over with two mugs and Peslas seized one.
“Everyone, a round is on me! Let’s all toast young Relss and drink to his luck in future loves!”
The inn cheered. Erin found another large drink heading her way and wondered how many times Peslas did this every week. Or every day. He was generous. Sometimes he insisted a meal was on the house if a customer had had a bad day, or he’d invite someone from off the street for a free drink.
“Can he afford all this?”
Erin whispered to Selys at one point when they were finishing their meals. Selys looked surprised, and then nodded.
“Oh yes. He’s quite wealthy, and his inn does a tremendous amount of business. All of his regulars come by often. Well, they’re all just as rich as he is.”
“And he’s the best innkeeper in the city?”
“The best innkeeper in a hundred miles, you can be sure!”
Peslas boomed from behind Erin and she nearly spilled her drink. He caught it, laughing as he seated himself at the table.
“I’ve heard there’s an innkeeper who’s nearing Level 40 in the Human city up north.”
“Oh, the biggest one. What’s it called? First Landing. Yes, that’s the one. That’s the highest-level innkeeper on this continent, but then, most of the ones around my age are at least Level 20 or higher. Some are even Level 30, like me!”
He tapped his broad chest and laughed. Selys and Erin smiled at him, and Erin scooted back a bit so she wasn’t right next to the big Drake. He grinned toothily at her again.
“So? What do you think? Can your little inn take some of my better ideas?”
Peslas gave Erin a patronizing smile, but the human didn’t rise to the provocation. Erin nodded to herself as she looked around.
“I think so. I’ve figured out something, at least.”
Peslas and Selys leaned forwards over the table, expectantly. Peslas’ eyes were dancing, but Erin didn’t pay him any mind. She gestured to one of the Drakes serving a table.
“I need a barmaid. Or a waitress. Or someone who can serve drinks and clean up while I cook.”
Both Drakes blinked. Erin went on.
“I’ve got Toren, but he’s not really the serving type. Plus, if I don’t have to cook I can do other things. Like not cook. So yeah, that’s my new goal. Get a barmaid.”
Peslas looked incredulous.
“You don’t even have a barmaid? Are you by yourself in your small inn, Human?”
“I’ve got a skeleton, but he’s busy finding firewood and getting water for me.”
For a second, Peslas stared at Erin and then he howled with laughter. Other customers looked around, already smiling for the joke as he slapped the table. When he’d stopped guffawing and entering into the wheezing stage, he looked up at Erin, wiping tears from his eyes.
“I like you. Yes, you’re nothing like the Human nuisance I heard about!”
“I’d heard you were just a pest that went around causing trouble. But you’ve got spirit for a Human! I like that. A shame your inn will never be half the inn mine is.”
Curious, Erin leaned forwards slightly. The alcohol was good, but she wasn’t getting drunk thanks to her skill. Peslas looked slightly tipsy, though.
Peslas flicked his fingers at the same time as his tail.
“Why else? Location, girl. I told the Human who used to own that inn the same thing, but he never listened.”
“There was a Human who ran Erin’s inn before her? I never knew that.”
Now Selys was part of the conversation. The Drake blinked down at her second tankard and then at Peslas. He nodded at her, smiling and waggling a claw.
“That was years ago. Back before the Necromancer—well, we got a lot more visitors from the south. People weren’t afraid to cross the Blood Fields back then, and there were more than a few villages. A small one grew up around that inn, thanks to the human who ran it. But it was all destroyed.”
“Why? What happened?”
For a moment Peslas’s broad face grew serious as he looked at Erin.
“The undead happened. They forced everyone to flee the area. When the human did come back, he never really got the inn running again. No one visited and one day he just stopped coming into the city. I warned him. The fool.”
Erin remembered the skeleton in the upstairs room. Peslas laughed, and she looked at him.
“I think he was brave.”
He shook his head at her, chuckling.
“Stupid, yes. Brave? Maybe, but bravery doesn’t sell drinks.”
“But he did his best. Anyways, he started his inn from scratch.”
“You need more than your best. You need something special. That’s what you need to learn, young—Erin, was it? You need a hook.”
Peslas gestured around his inn.
“My inn’s known for being the best around. Best service, best food—best beds and best drinks as well! What do you have to offer people to make them come all the way to visit you?”
Erin shrugged. She wasn’t sure she agreed with everything Peslas had said about his inn. It was good, but if it only served Drakes, how good could it be?
“I play chess. I’m not the best at it, but I’m pretty good.”
This time Peslas’s laughter echoed even to the furthest corners of the room.
“Chess! There’s something interesting! You play, do you? Would you wager on a game? A few gold coins? Silver? I’d bet two coins to your one. Whatever you like!”
Selys frowned at Peslas, but the larger Drake didn’t seem to notice. For Erin’s part, she remained calm.
“Oh, if you wanted to make a bet, I’d bet everything I had. Ten gold coins? Fifty? Your inn? Want to take me up on it?”
For a moment Peslas blinked. Selys cut in, smiling at the innkeeper.
“Haven’t you heard? Erin beat Olesm in a game of chess the first time she met him. She’s never lost a game to him, and he plays her almost every day.”
That caused a ripple among the Drakes who were listening to their conversation. But Peslas just laughed again, and waggled his tail in the air.
“Spirit! Humans are full of it. Just like I said to the last innkeeper. What was his name again…?”
He flicked his tail dismissively. Erin stared at Peslas, not smiling. He was rude, or maybe just drunk. She would have offered to play him a game anyways – perhaps with a handicap like being blindfolded – when she felt something touch her foot. Erin nearly freaked out until she realized it was Selys’ tail.
The young Drake smiled at Peslas as the larger Drake finished laughing again and making a joke to his friends about humans looking alike.
“It was nice to see you again, but Erin and I have to visit some of our friends. Thank you for letting us watch you at work though.”
“Of course. Give my regards to your grandmother, will you?”
Peslas got up and showed both Selys and Erin to the door. As Selys had said, he made no mention of the bill, but he did stop Erin at the door.
“My inn is always open to other [Innkeepers]. Come by if you’re ever bored and have a drink with me! But I think even your far-off inn will be getting business soon enough, Erin.”
He nodded sagely, tapping the side of his nose—or was it snout?—with a claw.
“My [Intuition] skill tells me that this is so. I’ve never known it to be wrong. Prepare your inn well, and perhaps you might level up a bit young Erin. Ah, well. Best of luck on your little endeavor!”
They were several streets away from the inn when Erin finally decided to break the silence.
“Um, thanks for letting me visit the inn, Selys. It was really helpful.”
Selys looked at Erin out of the corner of her eyes and then burst out.
“You’re not mad? I’m so sorry about Peslas, Erin. I didn’t know he’d be so rude!”
“He wasn’t so bad. I’m sorry too—that I was rude to him at the end, I mean. I know he’s your friend.”
Selys made a face as they walked along.
“Erin, he’s not my friend. I barely know him. He’s an acquaintance of my grandmother, that’s all. I barely talk to him every other month. Besides, he married a girl who’s nearly as young as I am!”
Erin tried to imagine that and thankfully failed. Selys scowled as she walked along, her tail twitching in irritation.
“Anyways, he’s a jerk. I’m glad he hasn’t earned more than one or two levels even after his inn became the biggest in the city.”
“Really? But his inn’s so busy.”
“Yeah. Isn’t it strange? I guess there’s some other reason why he’s not leveling, but it doesn’t really matter. Peslas is rich, and that’s all he cares about. He doesn’t need any more levels.”
“I guess. It’s just that his inn was nice. I just thought it was odd he didn’t have any Gnoll customers.”
“They don’t—come here that often. It’s not that he wouldn’t serve them, it’s just that they don’t ever really go outside their parts of the city.”
“Humans go wherever, but your kind don’t really live in the city.”
Erin was still thinking. She was thinking about her inn and she understood what Peslas had meant about location. She thought he was wrong, but she got it. She and Selys walked on again, out of the Drake residential district. At last, Selys broke the silence.
“Anyways, I’m sorry he was like that. He’s not rude to me. But you’re another [Innkeeper] and…Human.”
“It’s no problem.”
From there the conversation lightened. Erin and Selys were smiling again by the time they reached guard barracks.
It had been a huge surprise to Erin to learn that Liscor did not in fact have a hospital. Selys hadn’t even known what she’d meant when Erin described the building and its function.
In Liscor, people either healed up in their homes and hired a [Healer] to visit with herbs and potions, went out to get cured, or relied on organizations they belonged to. The Adventurer’s Guild had several beds for wounded or homeless warriors for instance, and the Watch had the same.
So that was where Erin and Selys found Ceria and Olesm, resting up in a secluded part of the building. The half-Elf and Drake weren’t strictly under guard, but neither were they free to run around. But they weren’t in trouble, either.
“We can’t really be blamed for the entire ordeal. The city knew we were going in, and besides, we lost almost everyone in the attack.”
Ceria explained the situation to Erin as she accepted a cut and peeled apple from the young woman. She was resting in one of the beds while the other three sat around her. Ceria was still quite thin and paler than normal, but Erin was happy to see she looked a lot better than she had.
“We fought, rather than just run away. That helps. And there’s also the fact that all the treasure—such as it is—was taken by the city. That’s enough of a fine.”
“And I told them that Ceria and the others shouldn’t be blamed.”
Olesm sat on the stool, nodding furiously as he crossed his arms. He was more active than Ceria, although he too looked thinner and paler than normal. He gestured in the direction of the rest of the building.
“I told Zevarra that, and she was very understanding. I think the adventurers will be let off without any charges. But um, they might not get their equipment back.”
“As if we could use it. The few that survived are either still wounded or don’t ever want to pick up a sword again. I went to see Yvlon and she’s barely responsive. As for me—”
Ceria shifted in her seat, lifting her other hand as she chewed at the apple. Erin and Selys both froze up a bit as the yellow bone and blackened skin of Ceria’s spell-damaged arm appeared. The mage grinned crookedly.
“I’m not going adventuring anytime soon. My good hand’s ruined and even if I do decide to adventure, I have no wand or spell books. Rot, I don’t even have any gold to my name. I dropped it all in the Ruins.”
Erin exchanged a look with Selys. She looked at Ceria, trying not to make it seem like she was staring at the skeletal hand.
“But you’re okay? You’re feeling fine except for the…”
Ceria shook her head and gestured to the limp bones.
“I’ll be fine. My hand is a small price to pay for my life. If I could have traded it for the others—”
She broke off, and everyone was silent for a minute. Erin’s eyes still stung at the mention of the others. Gerial. Sostrom. Calruz.
Olesm was the first to break the silence. He gestured at his own bed, on the other side of the large room from Ceria. The Watch didn’t have enough rooms to give the two privacy. That had scandalized Selys until Ceria pointed out that she and Olesm had had plenty of time to get to know each other in less-hospitable beds.
“I can’t wait to get better. I’d leave right away, but Captain Zevara insists I take it easy.”
He grinned at Erin.
“Then maybe I can visit your inn and play a few games of chess with you. We could play now, if you’d like…?”
Erin ignored the hopeful look in the Drake’s eye and shook her head.
“That would be nice, but I need a better hook.”
Selys frowned at her friend.
“Oh come on, Erin. You can’t listen to what Peslas said.”
“But he’s right. Chess doesn’t earn money, especially because none of the Workers are coming back to the inn. Not that there’s…many…left.”
Another silence fell over the small group. At last, Ceria cleared her throat.
“Well, I’m certain the lovely Watch Captain will kick me out of here sooner or later. When that time comes I’ll probably be looking for a place to stay. Erin, would you mind if I went to your inn? I don’t have any coin, but I’ll pay you back as soon as I earn some.”
Olesm and Selys’ tails froze up as Erin looked indignant.
“I’m not going to ask you to pay. You can stay in my inn for free! As long as you like!”
Ceria smiled and shook her head at Erin.
“That’s very kind, but I know you’re in need of money too. I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“No, I insist. You’re Ryoka’s friend too, and I’m sure she’d want that. Besides, you can earn your keep! Can you cook?”
“Nothing you’d like and not with the ingredients from around here, I’m afraid.”
“Well—well, that’s fine. You can do magic. I’m sure I could find a job for you that would really help. Yeah. I could…hire you as a barmaid?”
“Not a good idea. I’m not the bar-serving type and I don’t do well with…males. Besides, what could a one-handed barmaid do?”
“Well, either way, I’ll let you stay as long as you like. Money doesn’t matter more than friends, after all.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Selys and Erin spent another hour talking lightly to Olesm and Ceria, and Erin even played one game with Olesm, winning handily, before they left. The last stop Erin knew she had to make was back to Krshia. To pay for the clothes, for one thing.
But she had an unpleasant surprise when she visited the Gnoll. Krshia still had everything Erin need in stock, but the Gnoll told Erin it would cost half against as much as it had last time Erin had visited.
“Food is far more expensive now. I will give you my best, but it will cost much more. And I cannot deliver it anymore. I am sorry.”
“My Street Runner, he is busy, yes?”
Krshia explained as she began packing items into a bag for Erin to carry.
“My Runner, he does many deliveries in the city now and elsewhere. Many were hurt and killed when the undead attacked. He has much to do and cannot make the trip through the snow to your inn. Not without charging more money.”
“Normally we’d be finished preparing for winter by now, but what with the attack and repairs, we’re shorttailed. Besides, winter never comes when you’re expecting it. Everyone’s really busy.”
Well, that meant Erin had to carry her goods from now on. She looked glumly at the massive shopping bag Krshia was preparing and imagined a trip back through the snow.
“Well, if that’s how it’s gotta be…”
“Mm. Again I am sorry. But do you have anything else to add?”
Erin blinked. She suddenly remembered one of the things she’d planned to get while in the city.
“Oh yeah. I’m looking for some special stuff while I’m here. Ground beef! I want a lot of it, and some cheese. Ooh, and some mustard! And bread. I need sliced bread, or buns. That’s even better. And tomatoes, vinegar, and um, eggs. I’ll take a lemon or two as well if you’ve got any.”
Krshia didn’t have any lemons, but she did have everything else. It was expensive—but the Gnoll told Erin she was lucky that the winter had just started.
“By the end of the season, such things will be too expensive for you and me, yes?”
“I’m just glad I still have money to pay for it. Business is slow and I need to make something amazing!”
Erin nodded to herself as Krshia finished packing the last of her additions into her bag. Erin reached for one strap, hefted the bag—
And felt all her confidence drain away.
“Hey! This is really heavy!”
“I am sorry, but you ordered much. Perhaps you should leave some and make two trips?”
Erin tried to imagine going back and forth twice in the snow and shuddered.
“I really don’t like that idea. Isn’t there another way? A sled, maybe?”
“Hey, I’ll carry it if it means I get fed.”
Erin turned. Relc was standing behind her, smiling down at her. And by his side was a familiar face, but one Erin wasn’t used to seeing again.
“Klbkch! Relc! What are you two doing?”
“Guarding, mostly. But we came by to see you. I’ve got a message for you, and Klb is just bored.”
The Antinium nodded politely to Selys and Krshia before turning to Erin.
“Good evening, Erin. I hope you are recovered from events a few days ago?”
“What? Oh yeah, I am. You’re okay, right Klbkch? Gazi cut you up bad.”
“I have fully recovered, thank you.”
“And me! I’m better too, thanks for asking!”
Relc interjected, puffing out his chest and showing Erin and the others a few new scars on his chest and arms. He looked at Selys as he smoothed the spines on his neck, but she only sighed and rolled her eyes.
It was good to see both were well, even if it was odd to see Relc so friendly. Erin remembered how he’d been before Klbkch had returned, but she put it out of her mind.
“So you can carry my stuff?”
“This? Of course. I carried stuff twice as heavy every day when I was a soldier.”
Relc grinned at Erin and flicked Krshia’s bag dismissively. The Gnoll sniffed at Relc as Klbkch addressed Erin.
“We would like to visit your inn tonight, Erin. If that is not an imposition?”
“What? No! Come on, by all means! I’ll cook up a feast!”
Erin smiled happily at the two guardsmen. For once, it seemed like everything was back to normal in a good way. Relc was ebullient as he seized Erin’s shopping bag.
“Great! I want a lot of food tonight! You can take the cost of me hauling this to your inn out of my tab, okay?”
Kblckh’s elbow shot out and rammed Relc in the side. The Drake yelped and glared at his friend.
“I was just joking.”
“No. You weren’t.”
“Ants. This is why…”
Relc grumbled as he lifted the pack with ease. He looked around for support and found none. He scratched at the spines on his head, muttered under his breath, and then looked at Erin.
“Oh, hey. Your inn exploded by the way.”
Everyone stared at him. Relc looked at Klbkch, and then at Erin.
“What? Didn’t I say that earlier?”