That night Erin cooked up a storm. She had far more visitors than usual; Drakes and Gnolls came into her inn in large groups, mainly to eat something quick after a day of playing in the snow.
Erin was only too happy to put her skills to the test. And it did seem like [Advanced Cooking] gave her an edge; she had many happy customers.
Soon though, her inn was more quiet and there were less guests. That probably had to do with her evening crowd.
Ryoka sat at one table with Klbkch, talking quietly and giving casual death-glares to anyone who walked too close. She was in deep conversation with the Antinium, and he seemed just as engaged. That was nice. Ryoka had made a friend!
There were more Antinium in the inn too, though. Klbkch had brought them. They were all Workers, except for Bird. He was now their…guardian, or minder Erin supposed. But she was disappointed Pawn wasn’t there.
They’d all come for the bees. Klbkch had been interested in the wriggling grub, although the Frost Faeries had carried it off in the end. So Erin had decided to use one of her harvests.
“Tonight I’ve got a special on bees! Big bees! Hot!”
Every single order from the Antinium was for a bee, so Erin opened the jar and gingerly extracted the dead bees the Frost Faeries had killed.
At this point Lyonette, who’d spent the rest of the day recuperating, had to go into the common room and serve drinks rather than watch Erin cook. She’d been surprisingly helpful today, in that she’d been actually helpful. She’d served drinks to Drakes, avoided annoying the Gnoll customers, and she hadn’t dropped any—she’d only dropped two things!
Erin was happy about that, but at the moment her attention was a little focused on the bees. She gingerly pulled them out of the jar, staring at their curled up legs and wondered if she had chosen the wrong kind of clientele.
But no, the Antinium were her guests! They were nice and they were polite—
Even if they did like to eat bugs.
She could handle it. Erin could handle the bees. Her [Advanced Cooking] applied to them, oddly. Slicing through the chitin and frying it up in a pan wasn’t disgusting. It wasn’t. It was horrific, but Erin didn’t throw up.
And when she was done, she had some steaming bees that she could drizzle honey and cheese on, couldn’t she? And it would be delicious.
Erin stared down at the glistening fried bees on the plates and shuddered. They still didn’t look good to her. She turned as Lyon appeared in the kitchen.
“Oh hey, Lyon. The Antinium’s food is done.”
The girl turned pale as she stared at the bees.
“Do I have to…?”
“I’ll carry them out. Don’t worry.”
Erin took two plates in each hand and walked out. After a second she saw Lyon grab a plate and, holding it out far in front of her, she followed Erin. Wow. She was trying! Why?
Maybe she was realizing that she should be more grateful for her job, and that it was better to be helpful than not. Maybe Lyonette had had a change of heart and wanted to be useful! Or—she could just be helping out so Erin didn’t make her go out on any more harvesting trips.
Either way, it meant the bees reached the Antinium quicker. Bird sat up when he saw the dead bee on his plate and clicked his mandibles together. Even the other Workers stopped playing chess for a second to stare at the food.
“This looks quite delicious, Erin Solstice. Thank you for preparing it for us.”
“Oh, it’s just something I had lying around. There’s a nest of bees around here, you know.”
“They are considered a Gold-rank threat. Without mages they are practically impossible to kill.”
Erin looked at the other Antinium as Lyonette handed a Worker a plate and fled. Bird delicately broke off a wing and began to nibble at it. Erin tried not to watch.
“Uh, where’s Pawn? I thought he’d be with you.”
“He is thinking. And speaking to the Workers in the Hive. He has duties below. What he does is important.”
Bird spoke solemnly. All the Workers nodded at once. Erin blinked.
“Oh? That’s…good. I’ll get the rest of your food. And then maybe we can play some chess!”
“That would be most welcome.”
Back in the kitchen, Erin saw Toren. The skeleton was standing over a pile of dishes. He was still a bit wet from his activities outside. He’d been pulling sleds up the hill for nearly eight hours straight. Erin was a little proud of him, and of herself for thinking up the idea.
“Hey Toren, help Lyonette carry the plates out, will you? I’ve got to make more food.”
The skeleton turned. He stared at Erin and then walked over to the plates. He knocked Lyon’s hand aside and grabbed two and walked abruptly out the door.
Erin frowned at him. If she didn’t know better she would have thought that was rude. Lyon sniffed as she rubbed at her hand.
“That thing bothers me.”
“Who, Toren? He’s probably just tired. Or something.”
Did skeletons run out of mana? Erin resolved to ask Pisces more when he came back. She sighed and picked up the pan she’d been using to cook the bees. Then she stared at it.
It wasn’t precisely messy, but bits of the bees had been broken off as she’d fried them. And certain internal fluids had leaked out. Slowly, Erin put the pan down. She carefully tied a piece of red yarn to the handle of the pan she’d used and pointed it out to Lyon.
“This is the bug pan now, okay? Bug pan.”
Lyonette nodded weakly.
Erin put it in the pile of dishes for Toren to wash. Then she got to cooking. She was hungry, and she had a good feeling about tonight. She’d invited Krshia to come over later, and Mrsha and Selys really seemed to have bonded.
“Lyon? Go ask Selys what she and Mrsha want. I’ve got hamburgers, and I can make pizza—ooh! Tell Mrsha I’ll put a little honey in a bowl for her, will you?”
Erin hummed happily as Lyon walked out the door. Today as a good day. And tomorrow would be even better! She looked at Toren as he walked back in.
“Hey Toren, we’re going to go out tomorrow and get more stuff! Get ready because we’ll be running around all day!”
The skeleton stared at her. Erin turned back to her cooking and hummed happily. The skeleton stared at Erin’s back for one second and then picked up a plate with a bee on it. He walked towards the door and then tripped. Deliberately.
I look up when I hear the crash of breaking ceramics, but it’s just Erin’s pet skeleton. Toren dropped one of the freakish bees Erin was cooking for the Antinium and now it’s rolling across the floor.
That’s the thing about Erin. Yup. I don’t consider myself squeamish, but I’d never touch one of those gigantic bees, let alone cook the thing. But Erin can fry them up without a second’s pause.
“Aha! Free food!”
From overhead, one of the Frost Faeries jumps down from a beam in the ceiling. She grabs the bee and she effortlessly flies it back up overhead. The group of faeries sitting above the other diners begins to tear it apart and I look away.
Klbkch stares up at the Frost Faeries. He can’t see them like I can, but everyone saw the bee flying through the air.
“The Antinium have no knowledge of these Frost Faeries. I am intrigued that you are able to see them and talk with them.”
I nod. Intriguing isn’t even close to the word I’d use.
“They implied there was a glamour or some kind of illusory magic on them. I think Teriarch can see them, but no one else I’ve met has been able to.”
The Antinium nods. He and I are sitting at a table in one corner of the room, away from any potential listeners. I’m wary of the Gnolls, but they seem engrossed in their own conversations so I try not to stare too hard at them. The key to talking in secret is not to look like we’re discussing anything important, after all.
“They are regarded as natural forces by the citizens of Liscor. That you are able to pierce their spells may be another result of your coming from another world.”
“It seems that way.”
I look up at the faeries. They’re an odd bunch. They’re still devouring the bee—happily, I can’t make out any of the details in the shadowed rafters—but they aren’t everything I expected of them. They’re surprisingly caring when it comes to children, and while they obey rules and bargains made, they can break said rules and interfere to help people as well.
“I’m going to try and speak more with them. But it’s hard to get a faerie to tell you anything. Trust me on that one.”
“I wish you luck. But I believe we were discussing your theories on leveling. I have news.”
I look back at the Antinium, all my attention instantly focused. Yeah. This is the real reason we’re sitting together. Now that I have someone I can trust—besides Erin—I have countless things I want to ask of him*.
*I’m still not entirely sure I can trust Klbkch, of course. He has a past—and of course he is still loyal to his Hive. But he makes a good case for himself. If he wanted to, he could easily capture either Erin or me and force us to tell him everything. On the other hand, if he wants our cooperation, well, better to be a useful chess piece than a disposable one.
“What have you learned? Does your Hive’s data match my theories?”
“I have reviewed several hundred individuals with high levels, and their cumulative level rarely approaches one hundred. More than that, individuals with more than two classes rarely surpass Level 30.”
I sit back in my chair and exhale.
“Correlation, if not causation.”
“I am unfamiliar with these terms.”
I try to explain to Klbkch the basis of scientific theory. He nods.
“That sounds accurate. Even if there are nuances to what you propose, there is a high likelihood that cumulative levels factors into the leveling process rather than age.”
“And that means…”
I pause. What does that mean?
“It means we have to tell Erin. And that I have something to give to Krshia and the Gnolls.”
“But no one else?”
“Are there any Antinium you’d tell?”
Klbkch shakes his head.
“My people rarely level in any case. Only the Queens level and they almost exclusively level in the [Queen] class. I could inform other Prognugators, but that would likely lead to every Hive quickly learning this information. I may inform the Individuals, but I will observe them before doing so.”
I frown at Klbkch.
“Why don’t the Antinium even level up that much? Is it because your species is a hive mind?”
“So my Queen has speculated. Even Soldiers do not gain levels in the [Soldier] class that often. She believed that this was due to the Antinium not making their own decisions, hence her desire to create individual Antinium.”
“So this information doesn’t help the Antinium that much.”
“Indeed. I suggest you use it to placate the Silverfang tribe. If you believe it is worth the information spreading, that is.”
Is it worth it? But Selys knows now, and once someone knows the information will eventually spread. And we need the Gnolls, Erin and I. At the very least, they can’t be an enemy. I think of Brunkr and—no.
“I’ll tell them. But you and I need to speak more.”
“What would you like to speak about, Ryoka Griffin?”
I stare at Klbkch’s face.
“Everything. I—Erin and I—we’re living in this world ignorant of everything that’s occurred. We don’t know geography, history, or any kind of politics. I want to know how magic works, how things like healing potions are made, what kind of dangerous people exist in the world…”
“I will tell you some of what I know. But I fear I may not be able to answer all your questions in that regard.”
Klbkch taps the table slowly.
“To begin with, my Hive has its own sources of information which it does not share with other hives. And though we have accumulated knowledge, much of it is…specialized.”
My heart sinks.
“Meaning you don’t pay attention to world events?”
“My Queen does, and I hear conversations. But I believe only the Queens look beyond this continent. Most of what my Hive knows of are locations of mineral deposits, fertility of soil, monsters lairs and dungeons and so forth.”
I sit back in my chair and frown. I pinch at the bridge of my nose as I think.
“I see. Damn.”
“I have much information that will be useful, however. It has occurred to me that there is another facet of the leveling system that may prove crucial.”
My eyes snap open.
The Antinium nods slowly.
“I believe I had informed you of my levels? I possess a wide variety of classes, that will prove detrimental to me leveling up. However, there may be another way to address the issue. I may be able to merge my classes.”
What? I stare at Klbkch.
“You can do that?”
“I am aware it occurs in some rare cases. Two classes may merge to create a new, hybrid class. For instance, a [Warrior] and a [Strategist] class may merge to form a [Commander] class.”
“But—wait a second. You have the [Commander] class, don’t you? And the [Swordslayer] class. Why didn’t those two merge?”
“I can only speculate. But I received my [Swordslayer] class long before I became a [Commander]. Moreover, the [Swordslayer] class is an advancement of the [Warrior] class. It may be that the classes become…”
“Yes. Or I simply may have wished to retain my purely combat-based class rather than focus on a leadership role.”
“I get it.”
I nod and sit back in my chair. Merging classes? What other secrets does this system hold? Prestige classes? Are there certain classes that can only be met by fulfilling rare conditions? Klbkch studies me for a second and then speaks.
“Class merging is rare, and up until this day I had regarded it as a somewhat negative phenomenon.”
Right. While a unique class might be useful, two classes would be thought of as better than one, right? Double the skills. But if it helps with the level cap…
“Here’s a question for you, Klbkch. How much of a difference between Level 20 in [Swordslayer] and Level 44 is there? How strong were you back then?”
In short, how dangerous is a Named Adventurer? I’ve seen Gazi fight, but was that only because she had her enchanted eye?
Klkbch pauses, and then he sits back in his chair. He opens his mandibles, and pauses. I look up. Toren’s stomping over to us. He shoves a plate with a dead bee onto the table in front of Klbkch—so hard it nearly flies off the edge—and then turns and walks back into the kitchen.
Klbkch inspects the food as I try not to stare at it. Is it just me or is Erin’s skeleton acting oddly? Can skeletons think? Damn. I should ask Pisces about that.
“Pardon me. I will eat as I speak if that is not rude.”
I wave one hand at him, and try not to look as he begins to tear the bee apart. I doubt I could eat in any case right now; his meal is making my stomach roil.
“To answer your question, the difference between my abilities now and in the past is…immense. At the height of my levels, I was quite capable of fighting against even the most powerful of monsters.”
Klbkch stares past me, as if he’s remembering. I have to keep reminding myself how old he must be. I’m not sitting in front of someone my age, or even twice my age. He’s like an old man.
“What kind of Skills did you have? Were they more powerful as you leveled up or did you get useless ones?”
“I would occasionally receive less useful skills, but they did get progressively stronger. One Skill I received at Level 30—at the same time I received the [Swordslayer] class—allowed me to deflect a blow with my swords, even if I was being assaulted by considerable force. I believe I once used it to knock aside a ballista bolt at point blank range.”
I whistle. That’s scary.
“So leveling up in one class sounds better than taking multiple classes.”
“I believe so. My Level 40 skill was named [Continuous Cut]. I was able to use it to strike down enemies with such speed that I could eradicate entire battalions by myself over the course of a battle.”
A battalion? Isn’t that…five hundred soldiers? My chest is tight.
“Klbkch the Slayer.”
“So I was named. But as I believe you know, my skills were inferior to General Sserys. He slew me in battle and I have never regained my former levels.”
Wow. Again, I have to wrestle with myself. Levels are so damn useful. But—bah. It doesn’t matter now, does it? I have a feeling the reason the faeries are so friendly with me is because I don’t have any levels. If their friendship is contingent on me not leveling, that’s already one very compelling argument not to level.
No matter how cool Skills sound.
I scoot my chair closer to the table, even though that puts me closer to the bee Klbkch is devouring. He’s leaving the exoskeleton alone, though.
“Is that really enough of a meal for you?”
Klbkch looks surprised as I point at the bee. He sucks something into his ‘mouth’ and hesitates.
“It is not wholly adequate for my dietary needs. But there is food in the Hive and this is a tasty…treat.”
“Erin told me the Antinium can’t handle gluten. What do you eat, then?”
“We harvest meat and grind it into a paste along with other substances. We do have plants we cultivate—we use them to feed other species we rear for the purpose of consumption.”
Ah. Good. The Antinium have perfected livestock production. I shake my head.
“Hey you two!”
Both of us look up. Erin bustled over to the table, beaming.
“How are you doing? Sorry the food took so long Klbkch—and uh, sorry I haven’t made yours, Ryoka. It’s really busy tonight!”
I shrug. Klbkch nods at Erin politely.
“This is a most satisfactory dish, Erin. Thank you.”
“No problem! Do you want seconds? I think we’ve got more bees in the jar. And I can whip you something up if you want. Ooh, how about honeycomb? And Ryoka, do you want a hamburger?”
Hell yes. Give me some greasy, disgusting food. My arteries can take it*.
“I’ll have a hamburger. Two, actually. Rare.”
“I would be delighted to try some honeycomb, if that is not an imposition.”
“Great! I’ll be back with your orders!”
Erin beams and bustles off. A few seconds later Lyonette appears with some drinks.
“I have water and milk. And ale. Which one do you want?”
“I’ll have the ale.”
“I shall have water.”
She puts the drinks on our table and leaves. I stare at her back. Huh. Erin managed to make her useful. There’s something I thought I would never see.
“You seem interested in the former thief.”
I look at Klbkch and nod.
“I uh, think she’s special.”
“She did possess a number of powerful magical artifacts. And she claims kinship with Magnolia Reinhart.”
“Right. She might be more than that.”
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain it later. Right now, I’d like to ask a few more questions about what’s going on in Liscor.”
“I see. I will answer to the best of my abilities.”
Honestly, Lyonette is small potatoes next to everything we’ve been discussing. I put her out of my mind and concentrate on more pressing concerns.
“Apparently all these Gold-rank adventurers are in town looking for a dungeon that’s buried underground. But the Antinium should know about it already. Is there a dungeon, and if there is, what’s inside of it?”
Klbkch sits back in his chair. He regards the stripped bee carcass and pushes it away.
“There is a dungeon under Liscor. My Hive has been doing battle with the monsters emerging from the dungeon for many years now. Some are drawn to the location; many seem to have nests within the dungeon. But there are traps and many magical defenses as well. Until recently, my Queen had desired to secure the dungeon herself, so that our Hive might reap the rewards of what is contained within. However, this has proved unfeasible and so she has elected to open an entrance in the hopes that adventurers might eliminate some of the traps….”
Erin beamed around the room. She had Antinium eating, Drakes eating, Gnolls eating…she had a full inn for once! And everyone looked happy.
Well, true, the Antinium just looked expressionless and Lyon kept turning green every time she looked at them devouring the bugs—as did the Drakes and Gnolls for that matter—but the point was, she was in business!
And to top it all off, just as a family of Drakes exited the inn after paying Lyonette, in walked Krshia.
“Oh, hey Krshia! I’m so glad you could make it! Brunkr’s not coming?”
Krshia smiled briefly.
“He is nursing the bite young Mrsha gave him. I believe he is also afraid of you, yes?”
Erin laughed. Privately, she was glad Brunkr wasn’t with Krshia. He was kind of a jerk. Out of the corner of Erin’s eye, she saw Ryoka and Klbkch turn in their seats. Krshia nodded gravely at Erin and smiled ever so slightly as Mrsha bounded over, tail wagging.
“It is good to see you, Erin Solstice. And you too, young Mrsha, yes?”
She bent down and ruffled the the younger Gnoll’s fur gently. Mrsha sniffed at Krshia and the taller Gnoll sniffed back. Then she looked at Erin.
“It has been too long since I have come here. I would eat here, unless you think it unwise?”
“Oh, no, no. Come in? Unless—”
Erin glanced over, suddenly concerned, and saw Lyonette. The girl had frozen against one wall, eyes wide as she stared at Krshia. The Gnoll sniffed.
“I will not be troubled by the thief, no. And I would sit with Ryoka Griffin and Klbkch if they will have me.”
Ryoka stood up and Klbkch politely made room so Krshia could sit at their table. Both seemed intent, but Erin was just happy to take Krshia’s order—honey-glazed roast ribs, made with real honey—before she bustled off into the kitchen.
She was so busy! Lyon and Toren were filling drinks and serving food, but Erin kept having to cook things. Which she didn’t mind, but it was a relief to sit down after a while and play a game or two of chess with Bird and the other Workers. She won of course; but the games were fun, especially when she played them without looking at the chessboards.
The ghostly chess board called to Erin, and after a while she played some more with her mysterious opponent. They always seemed to be awake; once Erin moved a piece she’d receive a countermove within the hour at the latest, and then they’d both play for as long as she was able. She really did wonder who was on the other end.
Mrsha wandered around the busy room as Selys ate and laughed with some Drakes that she knew. The young Gnoll peeked at the chessboards, and after she overcame her initial skittishness with the Antinium Workers, she sniffed at their bees, tried to eat a chess piece, and eventually sat on Erin’s lap, drowsy with exhaustion.
“Uh oh. Time for someone to go to sleep.”
Erin carried Mrsha upstairs and put her in a small bed she’d made up in Ryoka’s room. The Gnoll curled up in her blankets and Erin’s heart hurt for a second.
This was no place for a young Gnoll, no matter what Ryoka thought. She had to find Mrsha a home, maybe with Krshia or another Gnoll family. If only that nasty Brunkr wasn’t there, and if only Mrsha didn’t have white fur. It wasn’t unlucky. It was…beautiful.
“Maybe a bucket of paint.”
Erin softly murmured the words as she closed the door and tiptoed back downstairs. She entered the common room with a big smile, just in time to hear Ryoka cursing. And Erin was relieved that Mrsha wasn’t around to hear that.
I know it’s unoriginal. I know there are a thousand different curse words I can use to express my ire. But there’s just something simple about that word. And I’m annoyed, so I’m not in the mood to wax poetic in my anger.
“I am sorry, Ryoka Griffin.”
Krshia sits at the table and stares gravely at me over her meal of ribs. She lifts one up delicately and chews at the tender meat. I stare at the remains of my second hamburger and scowl.
“You’re sure it’s not enough? Really sure?”
The Gnoll shrugs her broad shoulders.
“It is a valuable gift. But it is not enough, yes? What you offer is a secret, the kind that may shape the world. But it will do so too slowly, and it is…”
She hesitates. Krshia, taps her claws on the table as if in thought.
“Forgive me. I do not know this word. It is not enough.”
“Hrm. Yes. It is inadequate to what must be given at the meeting of the tribes. It is a valuable gift, but one too cheaply won.”
“I am unsure as to the meaning of your statement, Krshia Silverfang.”
Klbkch speaks to Krshia and she nods at him. They’re very polite towards each other, Klbkch and Krshia. I get the impression they respect each other—but they might not like each other’s company.
“It is hard to explain to non-Gnolls. I shall do the best I can.”
She puts down her bone, totally cleaned of all meat and takes a drink from her ale. I massage my temples and listen.
“Each tribe, each one knows of the gathering that occurs every decade. And so all tribes work to collect or make something that will help all Gnollkind, yes? Some tribes amass wealth to be shared out; that is an easy way of doing things. Others collect food, or arms—my tribe received a Dwarven-made set of arms at the last gathering. The tribe who collected such weapons for every tribe rose in standing much from that.”
“And your tribe wanted to gather spellbooks.”
I understand that part. Krshia’s brows draw together and she sighs heavily.
“Yes. It was supposed to be a secret, but it is hard to hide in Liscor. In any case, it would have been a great gift, one worthy of much praise among the tribes.”
“And yet, this information Ryoka has shared with you has the potential to change your entire race, does it not?”
Again, Krshia nods at Klbkch.
“It does. But there are two reasons why it is not enough. The first, it is that it is not a good secret to have, yes? It raises many problems.”
“Mrr. When I think of what you have said, it means that to gain a higher level, one must take only one class. This is…problematic. If one must take only one class, it means Gnolls must choose their classes early and never change them. That will make life in the tribes more difficult.”
I guess I see the problem. Gnoll tribes are very practical; everyone contributes towards making the tribe a better place. One day someone might be a hunter, but the next they could take over cooking duty if need be. If everyone has one class though, then suddenly everyone’s a specialist. And, to quote Robert A. Heinlein, specialization is for insects.
“I see the problem.”
“Not all of it. The second problem is that such choices of classes must be made when Gnolls are very young; barely more than cubs, yes?”
Krshia looks troubled. She shakes her head.
“It is not what I or any of my tribe would wish, to force our young to do what they might not want. And yet, it would be necessary. We would have to decide the fate of our next generation. And that is…troubling.”
Oh. Oh. I get it. Klbkch looks confused, but this is about free will. Gnolls probably hate to force their kindred to do anything; it’s all give and take. Putting someone in a set path for life might work in China with tiger moms, but it’s not going to fly among Gnoll parents.
“I see your problem, Krshia. But this information might help in any case. Even if you don’t choose to make your kids take one class, at least Gnolls can be more aware of what’s happening.”
“This is so, and even with these issues, it is an important gift. A secret of the world. It will take all the tribes to decide if such knowledge should be shared or hoarded.”
“Well, only Selys knows about it so you might have a chance of keeping the secret. Would all Gnolls be so uh, tight-lipped though?”
“If it is decided, they would not betray the pack.”
Hmm. That’s a lot of confidence. I shake my head.
“Okay, what’s the second reason why the secret isn’t good enough?”
“It is too cheap. For a work of ten years, it is too cheap. I am sorry.”
Krshia spreads her hands on the table. She looks at me and Klbkch.
“It is an important secret, but you and Klbkch have uncovered it in days, yes? The other tribes have labored for a decade to bring that which is most valuable to us. How can my tribe’s Chieftain raise her head high with only one small secret to offer the other clans?”
When she puts it like that…I look at Klbkch. Damnit. I really thought we’d solved the problem.
“I get it. I’ll…I’ll think of something else, okay?”
Krshia nods gravely.
“That you have made such an important discovery will help, Ryoka Griffin. I will share what you have told me with the Gnolls in the city. That will please them and keep them obedient. For now.”
And like that, the secret spreads. No matter what Krshia says, I feel like in a year everyone will know about this leveling system. Oh well. I’ll take what benefits I can get from it for now. I need to tell Erin about that too, though. But…
I put my head in my hands as Krshia and Klbkch look at me. Gods. I thought I really had it, this time. But instead I haven’t solved anything.
Just what am I going to do? I think of Teriarch, and I know I have to leave soon. But Mrsha’s still here, and Magnolia’s spies are all over the place and there’s people from my world in her mansion—
What am I going to do?
Ryoka looked like she was having a busy conversation with Krshia and Klbkch, so Erin left them too it. She was busy playing chess, cleaning up dishes, talking to patrons—
“Aha! I see yon keg is unguarded! I declare it plunder!”
“Free drinks! On the house!”
—And chasing Frost Faeries.
“They’re not free! Stop that, you little thieves!”
Erin shouted as she ran after the Frost Faeries. They laughed as they swooped around with mugs in their hands—they were amazingly strong to be able to carry the heavy containers so easily.
Chess board, drunk faeries, collecting payment from her guests—Erin ran around until her feet were sore and it was past midnight. Only then did the last of her guests leave.
Bird departed with Klbkch and the other Workers as Erin bid them good night—or an early morning, rather. Krshia had already left, and Ryoka was sitting at one of the tables, her head in her hands.
“Hey Ryoka. I’m going to lock up, okay?”
The other girl nodded silently, and Erin closed up the inn. Ryoka looked stressed, but Erin felt good as she curled up in her kitchen cot. She’d done some solid innkeeping today, and gotten a lot of cool stuff she couldn’t wait to mess around with tomorrow.
[Innkeeper Level 26!]
And for once, it sounded like the world agreed with her.
The next day, Erin woke up early because she had to pee. She stumbled around, banging into pots with her face and nearly knocking over the jar full of Snow Golem snow, before she finally made it to the outhouse. She sat, shivering, as she did her business, and then went back into the inn and tried to get to sleep.
The only problem was that the cold had done the work of a cup of coffee, and no matter how Erin tossed and turned she couldn’t doze off again. So she got up, despite having only had about two hours of sleep in total.
Lyonette blinked at Erin as she came down the stairs—early for once—and found breakfast was already made. Erin stared at her food and scowled as Lyonette opened her mouth.
“I have leveled up in this…[Barmaid] class yet again.”
“Good for you.”
“And I have a Skill! [Basic Cooking]!”
Her tone made this seem like an outrage rather than a good thing. Erin eyed Lyonette wearily from her table as Toren stepped into the inn. She’d told him to come back in the morning.
“It is an outrage! Why would I need such a Skill?”
“…To cook stuff?”
Erin held her head in her hands. She sighed as she spooned delicious honey onto her buttery crepes. At least that was good.
“Honestly, Lyon. It would help me out if you can cook. And you could manage the inn when I’m gone, too.”
The girl paused with a huge forkful of dripping crepe a quarter of the way towards her mouth.
“Yes? No? Maybe? I’m gonna go out and get more bees. That’s what I’m gonna do. The Antinium like them.”
Erin groaned into her food. She looked around at Toren.
He looked back over at her. He seemed almost…annoyed, or antsy. He kept fidgeting in place, as if he was bored. But Erin was too tired and grumpy to care.
“Get the sleigh ready. And get some jars. We’re going exploring again.”
He stared at her, and then stomped out the door, not even bothering to close it until Erin raised her voice and called him back. Lyonette stared at the skeleton and then at Erin.
“Me? You mean, I would own the inn?”
“Not own. But you’d be like uh, a temporary innkeeper. It’d be like your castle, and you’d be like a princes—”
Erin bit her tongue on the words. Lyonette was staring at her.
“Ahahaha. I mean uh. Yeah! Like a princess in a castle, except…not. Yeah.”
She looked around wildly. Ryoka and Mrsha were still asleep, but she knew the young Gnoll would be up soon, and thus, by default, Ryoka.
“I’m uh, I’m going to go get more bees with Toren now. I’ll be back soon—you just hold down the fort. There’s plenty of crepes and if anyone comes by, you can serve them hamburgers. I showed you how to make them, and [Basic Cooking] will do all the rest. Bye!”
She fled the inn before she could say anything else. Outside, Toren stood next to the sledge. He wasn’t wearing his jingling harness. Erin scowled at him.
“Come on, put on the harness, Toren! I haven’t got all day.”
Soon enough, she was in the sledge and Toren was pulling it along. Erin told him to go back to the bee cave. She distinctly felt him hesitate, but soon enough they were there.
“Okay. Here’s the plan.”
Erin crouched in the snow as Toren stared at her. She’d chosen a place far, far away from the cave and with a lot of snow for cover. She pointed at him.
“You go in the cave with two jars this time. Try to get as much honey and as many bees as possible. Actually, go in with four jars, okay? I want two jars of honey and honeycomb, and two full of bees.”
Upon reflection, she probably could have ordered him to do all that by himself, but there was something satisfying about getting out and doing the job herself. Sort of. Erin hid in the snow and watched as Toren ran about and ended up getting lifted into the sky and shattered again by the bees. But he got the honey and a lot of bees, surprisingly.
“Good job, Toren!”
She said it to the head as she helped put him back together. The skeleton just stared at Erin as she gingerly held up the jar he’d stuffed with living bees. Some were still buzzing against the lid.
“Creepy. Okay, next we’re going to look for more mushrooms, okay?”
Erin had the vague idea she could feed them to the Frost Faeries, but she really just wanted to stock up before she went back into the inn. It was only just past breakfast, so she had plenty of time.
The sledge felt wonderfully soft as Erin climbed back into it. She’d added a blanket and a pillow since yesterday, and now she snuggled into them, keeping the jar of dead bees far away from her on the sledge as Toren pulled them onward.
Yes, this was the life. Being an [Innkeeper] was hard work when you were doing all the cooking, but now Lyonette was finally pulling some of her weight and Toren was pulling Erin’s weight and more besides.
The landscape passed by Erin’s fluttering eyes as she rearranged the pillow on the sledge. It was so comfy here. And there was something hypnotic about travelling like this. It was almost like a ferry ride, but with snow instead of water. And Erin had always slept well on car trips.
She yawned. She was so tired. A nap wouldn’t hurt, right? Lazily, Erin raised her voice.
“Hey Toren, let me know when we’re at the next cave, alright. I’m going to take forty winks.”
The skeleton’s head rotated on its shoulders and he stared at her silently. Erin waved at him.
“Don’t hit anything or run us into a pit, okay?”
She closed her eyes and yawned again. It was so pleasant, riding along on the sledge. Sure it was cold, but she had a lot of layers on, and she didn’t get bumped around.
Erin began to doze off. Within moments she was snoring softly as the cold air blew around her.
When Toren heard Erin’s words, he couldn’t believe his ears. Not that he had ears. He couldn’t believe his earholes, rather.
When he turned and looked and saw her lying on the sledge with her eyes closed, he couldn’t believe it. When she started to snore, he believed, but he was really upset about it.
She was asleep! The emotion Toren felt wasn’t just anger, it was indignation. She was asleep and he—he was pulling this stupid sledge!
The feelings surged and fought for dominance in the skeleton’s chest as he ran onwards. He wasn’t tired, not physically at least, but the part of him that thought and felt was sick of pulling Erin on her pointless errands. He had no desire to be smashed by bees again, and he found gathering all these mushrooms…tedious.
And then there was the sound. The awful, endless, sound.
The sleigh bells rang as Toren ran on. They were the most obnoxious things he’d ever heard. They clanged together on his harness. His chains. They were sounds to drive any creature insane.
Dingle dingle dingle.
He was angry. No; he was furious. Toren resented every order coming from Erin’s mouth now. The endless sleigh rides where he’d been forced to pull it up a hill for laughing Drakes and Gnolls had been torture; this was the final straw.
In Toren’s mind he began to wrestle with Erin’s orders. She had given him orders, but they were bad. No—they were worse. They were unacceptable.
Part of him told Toren to obey. This was his duty, what he’d been created for. But—no—he didn’t want to do it! Toren wanted to be free, free to fight and kill and—
He hated this. He hated taking orders, and hated pulling this stupid device. Toren wanted to grab his sword and hack the sledge to bits. Or—or he could use it on Erin to—
No. he couldn’t do that. The magic binding him still prevented him from doing that. But he was beginning to feel the limitations of it in his soul. Yes, he had to obey orders. But he could misinterpret. He could act slowly. He could—
What had she said? Let her know when they were at the next cave. And she wanted him to pull the sledge. Toren thought about those words. Erin meant other things when she said them to him, of course, but the literal wording gave him a lot of leeway.
What could he do? Toren looked back at Erin. She was his Mistress. But she wasn’t worthy of that title. He wanted…
Dingle. Dingle dingle.
He wanted to be free. And so he would take his freedom, even if it meant getting rid of Erin. He couldn’t harm her, but there were other ways of getting rid of her inconvenient orders, weren’t there?
But could he do that? Toren wrestled with himself. He wanted to be free. But he had orders. But he wanted to be free. Yet, could he—
Toren heard the snap in his mind and in real life. He stared down at the bell in his hands. No more. Nevermore. He would never be a slave again. He would be free.
No matter what he had to do for it.
Slowly, the skeleton adjusted his course. He glanced back at Erin, and saw she was deeply asleep. He began to run north, away from Liscor, away from the inn, this time running as fast as he could. He had a plan.
The sledge travelled northwards, away from the inn, and the mountains. It was clearly going in the wrong direction, but this early in the morning who would be outside to see it? And who would care?
Two Goblins sat one a hill. One was sulking as she adjusted her crossbow. She wanted to eat at the inn, but she’d been banned for reasons that weren’t her fault, even if she understood them. The other Goblin was bored. But his eyes were keen, and so he saw the skeleton, saw the sledge change direction.
The Goblin saw everything. And he grinned. But he said nothing to the other Goblin.
Slowly, the sledge disappeared over the last crest of the hill. Garen Redfang smiled to himself, and wondered when Rags would decide to return to her tribes. She still had much to learn, and this soft place with that strange [Innkeeper] was not the place for her to be right now. She had to be tough, strong. She had to lead the tribes. She could be a Goblin Lord, he knew. And the fewer annoying Humans there were to impede her progress, the better.
Erin woke up slowly. She was cold, and stiff, and no longer moving. That was when she realized she’d stopped. The sunlight was bright, and Erin felt like she’d had a good nap.
She blinked, looked up at the sky, and gasped. The sun was high overhead! She must have been sleeping for hours!
“Toren! Why didn’t you wake me?”
Erin shouted as she sat up and looked for her skeleton. But she received no answer. And as she stared around, Erin realized something was very wrong.
The sledge was sitting out in an open field in the middle of snow. That was normal. But the landscape around Erin was not. Erin stared around. Wait a second, where were the mountains? Liscor was surrounded by mountains, but now she couldn’t see any. Except for those much smaller mountains over…there…
Her stomach twisted into knots. Erin stared over to her left. There was trees over there. A forest. There weren’t any forests near Liscor, except for the boom bark trees on that one hill. And why was the ground so flat over here?
“Toren? Where are we?”
Erin looked around wildly now, but her skeleton was gone. She took a few deep breaths, trying to release the knot in her stomach.
Okay, okay. Don’t panic. She was okay. She just had to take stock of her situation. Think. What did she have?
She had: a jar of dead bees, another two jars of honey, a pillow, a blanket, and a sledge. Oh, and her handy frying pan that she kept in case of danger. And her money pouch? Maybe?
What she didn’t have was Toren, any idea of where she was, or any money.
“Toren? Hey, Toren.”
Erin raised her voice hopefully. Maybe her skeleton was nearby, but he just hadn’t heard her. Or maybe—maybe he’d gotten lost trying to find a cave, and now he was scouting around. That was it, right?
He was going to appear at any second. Any second. Erin raised her voice.
“Toren! Where are you?”
There was no response. The cold wind blew, and now Erin felt very alone. She stared around the wilderness. That’s when she noticed the dead wolf.
It was just a wolf. It wasn’t a Carn Wolf; it was smaller, had dark grey shaggy fur, and it had been brutally decapitated. Its head lay in the crimson snow, staring up at Erin. She stared back, too shocked for words. And that’s when she realized she was alone. Lost and alone.
Ryoka woke up slowly when she felt someone licking at her face. She pushed the furry thing off of her and ignored the complaint as it hit the ground. Two seconds later, Ryoka woke up fast as Mrsha cannonballed into her stomach.
“Damn it, Mrsha!”
The Gnoll ran out of the room in fright and Ryoka tumbled out of her bed, tangling in her sheets. She arrived downstairs to find Mrsha hiding behind Lyonette. The girl looked at Ryoka reproachfully as Mrsha quivered behind her.
Ryoka rubbed at her face. Wonderful. She’d already made a mess of things and it wasn’t even five minutes since she’d gotten up.
“I’m sorry, Mrsha. I didn’t mean to shout. Just don’t—hit me in the stomach, okay?”
She rubbed at her stomach and sat down on the floor. Slowly, Mrsha came out and gave Ryoka a hug. Sometimes she nuzzled or licked, and sometimes she acted just like a kid.
Ryoka asked that question to Lyonette after she’d eaten a few crepes. Mrsha had smeared the delicious honey all over her face and she was busy cleaning herself. Lyonette shrugged.
“She took that horrible skeleton out to ride her sleigh. She said she was going to get more bees.”
Ryoka sighed, but ate her crepes and wondered when Erin would get back. She needed to talk to the other girl about a lot of things.
Selys dropped by in the morning, to say hi to Mrsha mainly, and eat some more crepes. It turned out that there weren’t quite enough, but Lyonette made some to everyone’s surprise. The other girl acted haughty about it, but she fed Mrsha one under the table when she thought Ryoka wasn’t looking.
Ryoka waited for another hour, talking with Selys about how to take care of Mrsha and playing with the Gnoll cub. She had no idea how to really play games with children, but Selys knew a lot of games, including patty cake, although the lyrics she used were quite different.
Time passed. Ryoka went outside to see if she could spot Erin riding around. She ended up going into the city, and Selys went with her, this time to take Mrsha to a bathhouse. The Gnoll had begun to smell a bit.
Ryoka met a Drake who called himself Olesm on the way to the city. He claimed to know Erin, but when she told him she hadn’t seen her all day he seemed depressed. He elected to wait in the inn and Ryoka went to talk with Klbkch.
It turned out he was busy acting as a guardsman, so Ryoka went to the top of Liscor’s walls to look for Erin. She didn’t see her, or the sledge.
After midday and a lunch she bought in the city, Ryoka was getting antsy. She talked to Krshia and then went back to the inn to talk to Lyonette and the Drake named Olesm. None of them had seen Erin all day.
This time Ryoka went directly to Klbkch and asked him if his Hive knew where she was. He told her his Listeners couldn’t hear Erin nearby, and that Erin herself hadn’t been spotted since she’d left in this morning.
There was no sign of Erin at the bee cave that Lyonette pointed Ryoka towards, although the snow was disturbed. Ryoka returned to the inn and worried.
By the time evening had fallen, Krshia, Klbkch, and all of Erin’s friends from Olesm to Selys were looking for signs of Erin. Lyonette swore she knew nothing else, but the tracks of Erin’s sledge had crossed with the others too many times for Ryoka to tell where they went.
For once, the ubiquitous Frost Faeries were nowhere to be seen, and Krshia said that she’d spotted them flying south and spreading more snow in the morning. Ryoka sat in her inn, worrying, until she remembered Halrac.
The Gold-rank [Scout] was grumpy as ever and irritated that she’d roused him from his discussion with Bird of all people about some kind of digging project, but when Ryoka told him that Erin was missing he immediately agreed to go look for her.
The [Scout] tracked Erin’s trail all the way from the inn to the bee cave, and he found the set of tracks that led away from the cave and towards the north. They went on and on, and Halrac’s keen eyes spotted the tracks still going north for miles.
Ryoka went back to the inn and spread the news. She listened to Erin’s friends talk and debate, and thought long and hard about why Erin would decide to keep going. She thought about dangerous bees, possibly monsters—although Halrac had found no tracks—and then about skeletons. She thought about Toren, and thought about stories like Frankenstein.
The night was very long for Ryoka. Lyonette made food—a bit burned—for Mrsha and Selys, and Ryoka talked for a while with Krshia and Selys and made arrangements. She gave the Drake and Gnoll most of her gold coins and had to tell Mrsha three times what she was going to do.
The next morning, Ryoka left the inn bright and early, leaving Lyonette behind and Mrsha with Selys. She ran north, looking out for any signs of a sledge, and asking travelers if they’d spotted any sign of a girl or a skeleton. But she heard nothing. Found nothing.
And so Ryoka ran on, and thought of a Dragon that could scry for people if he knew their names. She ran a bit faster after she thought that.
And far away, a [Skeleton Knight] stabbed a pair of travelers to death on the road. He took their coins on the vague chance they might be useful, and kept walking. He was going back to Liscor, to a dungeon where he could level up. His purple eyes glowed and he smiled.
He was always smiling, but this time it was because he was happy. So happy.
Blood dripped down from his fingers, ran down his battered armor and into the snow. The skeleton left a trail of blood as he walked on. At last. He kept thinking those words.
He was free. And when he was a higher level—just a bit higher—
He’d finally be free forever.