About pirateaba

I actually like to eat green apples more than red ones. Hi everyone, I'm pirateaba, author of Pirate Blog and writer of books! One book, so far. Anyways, all I do revolves around a strange girl with a sword: Pirate! Check out my daily blog or if you're so inclined, my writings about Pirate both as a fully-fledged novel or as free short stories! http://www.amazon.com/dp/B017WV4FRS https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/595416

2.31

Erin remembered staring down the barrel of a Dragon’s nose. It wasn’t the most glamorous or exciting way of putting it, but that was what had happened.

She’d stepped around the corner, into what she’d thought had been her bathroom, and then there had been a Dragon, larger than life, larger than a house.

Breathing fire.

Erin could only vaguely recall the screaming and panicked rush filled with fire and a roar that sounded almost like a voice before she was out of the cave, running for her life. But she could still remember the moment she’d stared into the Dragon’s swirling blue and violet eyes.

Her heart had stopped. The world had gone silent, and Erin had felt the same sensation that always overtook her when she used the [Immortal Moment] skill now. She had been overwhelmed by his presence.

She felt the same thing now. Lady Magnolia Reinhart was just sitting there. And she was just a woman, not particularly tall or big. But she had a presence.

And then the woman spoke, and the moment passed. But Erin still remembered it.

“Do come sit, Miss Solstice. Or—may I call you Erin? Formal titles are so tiresome, and I gather your people speak somewhat more casually than mine, is that right?”

Your people. Erin blinked as she awkwardly took a seat opposite Lady Magnolia on the couch. She practically sank into it, it was so soft. And comfortable. And cool!

The air was filled with the faint scent of lavender, and the room was cool and pleasant, the perfect temperature to be in. Erin had a terrible desire to just lie down on the sofa and relax, but she couldn’t do that. She scrambled to answer Lady Magnolia’s question instead.

“Um, yes. I mean, we do. Sorry! I can try—”

“Think nothing of it. I find it delightfully quaint. But where are my manners? Do forgive me. I am Magnolia Reinhart. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice.”

Magnolia held out a hand and Erin took it. She had the oddest impulse to kiss it as if she were a knight, but perhaps that was because of how elegantly the other woman moved. She had no wasted movements, no hesitation. She was the picture of grace, and good cheer for that matter. Lady Magnolia had a slight smile on her lips and a face naturally given over to laughter and energy.

“I have been terribly anxious to meet you, I must say.”

To Erin’s surprise, Lady Magnolia had a firm handshake. The older woman withdrew her hand and picked up her tea cup and saucer.

“I have tea, if you will share it. Unless you prefer something stronger? A fruit drink, perhaps? I’m afraid I have no coffee and nor do I know of any substance like it as of yet, but do let me know if you desire anything else.”

“What? No. I’m fine. Tea is fine, I mean. Thank you.”

Erin watched as Ressa deftly lifted the steaming pot and filled both cups with a gold-green liquid. It smelled like citrus and tasted like—

Limes?

Lady Magnolia chuckled at the look on Erin’s face.

“Do excuse me. This is a favorite tea of mine. I find it does wonders for the inattentive mind. But where was I? Ah yes, allow me to welcome you into my household. I apologize for the delay; I was meeting with some rather important people and then of course you had met the young men and women from your world. I would have been remiss to draw you away from that gathering, but now that you are here, would you like to play a game of chess?”

The question came at the crest of a tidal wave of words and hit Erin in the face. She stared at Magnolia for a few seconds.

“Um—yes?”

“Wonderful. Ressa?”

Lady Magnolia clapped her hands in delight. Erin watched as Ressa took something off a shelf—a chess board and pieces, already set up as if it had been prepared ahead of time.

Everything was moving a bit too fast. Erin hesitated as she held the tea cup between her fingers.

“Um.”

“Yes?”

Lady Magnolia twinkled at Erin. Almost literally. In the course of a few seconds she’d gone from being a mysterious, almost scary person in Erin’s head to the down-to-earth genteel noble in front of her.

“Well—I just wanted to say thank you for bringing me here. And sending the coach and uh, helping the other people.”

“From your world.”

“Um. Yes?”

Lady Magnolia chuckled again at the expression on Erin’s face.

Don’t look so alarmed, my dear. Please, relax. I assure you, I only wanted to speak with you, hence the rather rude and abrupt way I brought you here. Do accept my apologies.

“What? Oh, no, it wasn’t rude—”

Erin tried to wave one hand and hold the tea cup and saucer while Ressa put the chess board on the table between the two. Lady Magnolia smiled again.

“I’m told you play chess quite well, and I must confess, I had hoped you would indulge me in a game.”

“How did you know—?”

“Oh, a [Lady] has ways. Do pay it no mind. I would simply love to play a game with you while we chatted. I believe you’ve met a very striking Runner named Ryoka Griffin? I would so love for you to talk to me about her as we play.

And so they did. Erin blinked at first, but when Magnolia asked her whether she wanted to be white or black and they began playing the game, her chess instincts kicked in and she began to play, chatting as she did.

“So you knew Ryoka a long time before I did?”

“Oh, I had seen her delivering a number of curios to my house.”

Lady Magnolia replied casually as she moved her pieces out. She had learned to play somewhere, because her opening was a good match against Erin’s.

Ressa stood to one side of the table, silently listening to the conversation, hands folded in front of her. She was like a statue, and Erin thought it was sort of odd to have the head maid here on serving duty, but maybe that was just how it worked?

She was feeling a lot more relaxed that she had been, even more than when she had been with the other people from her world. Lady Magnolia’s open face and natural charm just…invited Erin to talk.

And so she did, about Ryoka, about her job as an innkeeper, and the people she had met and the monsters she’d had to kill. Lady Magnolia was an excellent audience, and they were halfway through the game when the conversation changed.

“The undead and Goblin tribes? My, you are adventurous. I had the impression you were quite self-sufficient, but I had no idea you were quite so extraordinary.”

Erin blushed at the compliment. Lady Magnolia smiled, and she picked up something on the table. A monocle, but a very strange one. This one had a rim made of black rock—obsidian? And it looked like tiny runes had been carved into the sides that made the glass move with odd colors.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, this?”

Lady Magnolia blinked at Erin through the monocle for a few seconds, and then put it down lightly with a shrug.

“A simple keepsake. It helps with bad eyesight. I confess, my vision is not what it used to be. Age, you know? Pray, ignore it.

“Oh. Okay.”

The game continued. Erin frowned. Lady Magnolia was quite good. Erin had taken several of her pieces, but the other woman was doing just as well.

“You’re a great player. I’ve only met a few people as good as you.”

“You are too kind.”

Lady Magnolia beamed as she delicately moved a pawn to block one of Erin’s bishops. She looked at Ressa.

“Young Erin really does have a way with words, doesn’t she Ressa? I fear I am going to blush.”

Ressa bowed her head slightly. Magnolia turned back to Erin, smiling again.

“In truth, I fear I don’t play nearly as much as I should. But I did learn the game when I was sixteen, and I’ve played regularly with at least one good opponent since then. Still, I am glad that I can keep up with someone of your caliber.”

Erin nodded distractedly. Whatever Lady Magnolia said, she was some kind of expert. She was pressing Erin hard, and the game required her concentration, which made her happy.

But she did notice something happen. Perhaps it was because she’d gotten to know Ressa earlier, but when Lady Magnolia spoke about playing chess, the other woman had…shifted slightly. It was just a slightly movement of her feet, and in anyone else Erin would have dismissed it as being tired or sore. But Ressa had been like a statue throughout the game and the conversation, and somehow it struck Erin as odd.

It was because she was playing chess that Erin noticed it. It was the odd sense she sometimes got, of being aware of the board and the room as a whole at the same time. In two seconds Erin had nearly forgotten what she’d noticed.

Lady Magnolia cleared her throat.

“Ah, but this is hardly the time to talk about my past, is it? I am glad you are here, Erin. I was afraid you might turn down my invitation if you were anything like Ryoka.”

“Yeah, she is like that, isn’t she?”

Erin smiled, and Lady Magnolia laughed again.

“Well, we were all like that, weren’t we?”

“I don’t think I was.”

“Ah, but you are so open it’s quite refreshing. I trust the carriage ride was pleasant? I only ask because I was afraid you might have lacked for company. A single [Butler] for a driver is rather sparse company, isn’t it?”

Erin blinked. She looked up from her game at Lady Magnolia.

“The butler? You mean Reynold? No, he was great. I really liked him.”

And again, there it was. This time it wasn’t Ressa who shifted, but Lady Magnolia’s hand paused for just one fraction of a moment as she lifted the tea cup to her lips.

“Ah yes, Reynold. It is good that you know his name. You know, your friends never bothered to ask any of the names of the servants that attend them. Or is friends too strong a word?”

Lady Magnolia’s eyes flicked up to Erin’s face searchingly. Erin wasn’t sure how to respond. She wasn’t friends with Joseph and Rose—they weren’t people she disliked, but friends? No.

But what was the polite way to say that? Erin didn’t know, and fortunately Magnolia didn’t seem to require an answer. The woman laughed as she delicately advanced a pawn two spaces to threaten one of Erin’s knights.

“Do excuse me; I am rude today, aren’t I? Of course not everyone from one world would know each other, let alone be friends. On the other hand, I would be delighted to say that I am now your friend.”

Friend? That sounded right. Erin’s stomach stirred slightly, but not in hunger. She frowned. Something was nagging at her. Oh yeah. That was important.

“Um. Lady Magnolia—”

“Magnolia, please, Erin. We’re all friends here, aren’t we?

“Oh, right, sorry—um, well, you know that I’m from another world, don’t you?”

“I do indeed.”

Erin stared at Lady Magnolia as her hand hovered over a chess piece. She felt that was far too calm a response. Lady Magnolia noticed Erin’s expression and waved a hand.

“Please. I know how extraordinary this is, but I have had quite a while to process this fact. And what kind of [Lady] would I be if I were not collected and calm at all times? I know you are from another world. I know the other charming young men and women downstairs are from another world. That is why I have gathered you all here.”

She moved a piece forwards and took one of Erin’s knights. Erin frowned. She’d played a great counter to Lady Magnolia’s move, but suddenly she’d just lost two pieces in a cunning fork that had completely blindsided her. That was normal—but Erin couldn’t believe Lady Magnolia had seen through her so quickly.

Amazing. She tried to focus on the conversation as she continued playing, focusing harder on her pieces.

“Uh—well—then why are we all here?”

Lady Magnolia studied Erin for a second, and then deftly moved a bishop out of harm’s way. Not immediate harm’s way, but out of a trap that would have come two moves later.

“Well, I hope you will stay here. Now that you have seen my small estate, I hoped I would be able to convince you and perhaps even Ryoka to accept my hospitality for as long as you stay in this world. You will say yes, won’t you?

Something was seriously wrong. Not about the conversation, but on the chess board. Erin could sense it. Lady Magnolia was no great player. She was good, but nowhere near as good as someone who’d memorized opening and strategies like Erin. Her opening game had shown that, and even now she made small mistakes no seasoned player would make simply by virtue of experience.

And yet, she kept hitting Erin in exactly the worst places, or started pulling her pieces out of the way when Erin tried to attack or set traps. It was almost as if she could read Erin’s mind.

Maybe she could. Erin glanced up. Lady Magnolia was smiling at her.

“Um, sorry. What did you say?”

The other woman blinked. So did Ressa. Erin grinned sheepishly.

“I’m so sorry. It’s just that when I get into chess, I sort of—sorry!”

“Not at all, not at all. Do excuse me. I should be focusing on the game as well.”

Lady Magnolia moved a piece forwards, blocking Erin’s advance that would have threatened her Rook. Erin frowned. Maybe—

She moved a pawn forwards. It was a ranging attempt, meant to pressure Magnolia’s pieces back so Erin could get a shot at her King.

Lady Magnolia castled. Erin saw the move, and felt the pieces fall into place. She looked up, and saw Lady Magnolia’s smiling again. She had such a nice smile.

“I was just wondering if you would stay here. If you would, I would greatly appreciate—

“—Excuse me. You’re reading my mind, aren’t you? I mean, you’re doing something to me, right?”

The room froze. Lady Magnolia paused, mouth open mid-word, and Erin felt Ressa’s eyes boring into her. But she stared at the [Lady] opposite her calmly.

Nobles and maids. Neither one had obvious expressions, but now Erin had learned what to look for. Magnolia’s eyes flickered to Erin’s face, and then she sighed.

“Am I really that transparent?”

She half-turned in her seat and frowned at her maid.

“Ressa, why didn’t you tell me I was being that obvious?”

“You appeared to be quite subtle, milady.”

“I thought so too. Ah, well.”

It was as if someone had flipped a switch. Lady Magnolia sighed and put down her tea cup. Erin blinked at her.

“And here I thought I would get away with everything quite easily. Oh well. I suppose you’ve found me out. What will do you now?”

She looked at Erin expectantly. Erin blinked at her, hesitated.

“Um. Uh. I guess I’ll ask you not to do it when we’re playing chess?”

Lady Magnolia paused as she stretched her hands out. She eyed Erin. Ressa was doing the same.

“When we’re playing chess?”

“Yeah. Well actually, I don’t mind it so much, but it would have been good to know. I was actually just curious if you were doing it.”

Ressa and Magnolia exchanged a look. Lady Magnolia sat back in her couch.

“Ah. I see.”

She paused. Erin stared at her. The silence grew uncomfortable, and then Lady Magnolia smiled.

“I most sincerely apologize. I wished to see you playing your best, and so I broke the rules most shamefully. Allow me to concede and tender you my deepest regrets. If you wish, we could restart and play another game fairly…”

Erin shook her head.

“No. Actually, I’d like to play another game just like we are right now.”

A second blink. This time Lady Magnolia’s eyes met Erin’s, and the girl felt a slight jolt.

“Intriguing. Why, pray?”

The young woman shrugged awkwardly.

“I think it would be sort of fun. But you are reading my mind?”

“…Yes. It’s nothing as advanced as knowing what you’re thinking; I possess a skill called [Sense Intention] and I am quite adept at using it. I can sense which pieces you are focusing on, which allowed me to play as well as I did.”

“Cool.”

“Cool?”

“That’s so cool.

Erin grinned. She looked at the board and began moving pieces back to their starting positions.

“Can you do it again? While we’re playing, I mean. I want to see if I can beat someone who can tell what I’m trying to do.”

For two seconds, Lady Magnolia stared at Erin with genuine surprise written all over her face. And then she gave Erin a real smile. It made all of her other smiles seem fake and plastic by comparison, because it was truly, wonderfully filled with delight and mirth.

“I should be delighted. You are quite the unusual young lady, you know.”

“Really? I guess. Hmm. I guess I’ll start as white again.”

The game restarted. Erin put her pieces back in place, and wondered how to beat someone who could sense what she wanted to do. She noticed Ressa staring hard at her, and Lady Magnolia was looking at her completely differently now. With less confidence, and a lot more intently, as if she was trying to read Erin.

But Erin had learned to play chess with a poker face. She adopted her best one now, trying not to give away anything more than what Magnolia would sense. Erin began to play, in silence this time, and remembered the past.

Once upon a time, she’d loved chess. Then, later, she’d grown to hate it. She’d hated the memorization, the constant games, the agonizing over win/loss ratios, and the way chess had consumed her entire life, leaving time for little else.

She had grown distant from the game, and eventually stopped playing altogether, despite many people urging her not to waste her talents and quit. But Erin had grown sick of that small board, and she had been happier being normal.

And yet, and yet…Erin had passed through the years, and slowly she’d realized that chess had changed her. Even a casual game was different for her, because she was not an amateur, but she was still not a professional. No one in her school or even her district could challenge her, and yet the top of that strange world was still far away from her.

Too, Erin had slowly realized how much chess meant to her. Without it, she had nothing that set her apart from other people, and that was good and bad. She was tired of chess, yes, but she was meaningless without it.

And so slowly, Erin had grown to love the game again. She’d played for fun, and then rediscovered the feeling she’d had when she first learned to play. She had begun to enter the world of chess, and then she’d travelled into another world.

And then—

If there was a god of Chess, or perhaps, a goddess, they were a cruel, calculating god that bestowed their gifts like curses upon the people who lived to play. If there was a god.

A metaphorical god, that was. Not the actual gods and goddesses that claimed the game, but the living spirit of chess itself. Erin thought of it in that way. The God of Chess was silent and often cruel, living through cold stone and static rules that broke people across the unchanging boards. But she had touched god in her games, and when she had come to this world, he, she, it—had blessed her.

Immortal games. Opponents to teach and learn from and who loved the game as much as she did. Erin was no longer the same player she was. She might be clumsy, and stupid, and whatever else, but there was one thing Erin was good at. One thing in which she stood at the very peak of in either world. And that was—

“Checkmate.”

Erin moved her knight forwards and completed the trap. Magnolia’s king stared up at her, forlornly cornered by several pieces just waiting for him to make a move so they could dash his brains out.

“Remarkable.”

Lady Magnolia breathed the words as she gently tipped her king over. She looked up at Erin, and her eyes were full of light.

“I have seldom lost a game of chess when using [Sense Intentions], Erin Solstice. And even without it, I consider myself an adept player. But Skills matter very little against someone of your level of skill, or so it would seem.”

“It was a good game.”

That was all Erin could really say. She smiled and cracked her fingers before she realized that would be rude and blushed. Lady Magnolia chuckled.

“It was. Surprising as well; I had no idea it would be that obvious that I was reading you.”

“Well, I just have a sense with these things, I guess.”

“Indeed. I wonder, can you sense anything else?

Anything else? After scratching her head a bit, Erin shook it.

“Not really. I’m really only good at chess because I play it so much.”

“That is readily apparent. Indeed…”

Lady Magnolia tapped her lips with one fingernail and sighed.

“I have a friend who I would dearly love to introduce you to. I suspect you might triumph if the two of you were to play a game of chess, and I would love to see the expression on his face if you do. You are certainly one of the best players in this world; I can see that for myself.”

Again, Erin felt herself turn red. Best player? In the world? That would be a complete and horrible lie in her world, but here? She wasn’t sure if she should feel happy or sad that was the case.

“A child who grew up studying a game which is…new to this world. How intriguing. But I would imagine there are least…five people who would be able to best you. Don’t you think the number is five, Ressa?”

“I would not know, milady.”

“Liar.”

Magnolia smiled fondly at her maid. Erin was happy to see that; it seemed like she was friends with her servants. But what she’d said caught Erin’s attention. The chess maniac in her raised its head.

“Really? You know other people who like chess? Can you tell me their names?”

Maybe one of them was the person who’d sent her the chess board. It could happen. Magnolia studied Erin, and then smiled again. She seemed to like the secretive smile.

“They aren’t necessarily chess players, but they have the ah, skills and temperaments to be the best in any such game. But as to their names—I would hate to ruin the surprise. Let us just say they include an old fool, the world’s smallest strategist, a reclusive mage, a miserable king and a dashing and quite charming lord. One genius on each continent—except for Chandrar, that is. I don’t imagine the young [Emperor] or the King of Destruction’s Left Hand would be quite good enough to defeat you.”

That made no sense to Erin, except the King of Destruction, and she had no idea who his left hand might be. Assuming it wasn’t literal and he had a giant left hand that played chess. She’d heard of crazier things.

“Well, I just like chess. It’s not a big deal, but I’d love to meet them.”

“Nonsense. Anyone who can claim to be one of the greatest experts in any field is worthy of note and admiration.”

Lady Magnolia leaned forwards and refilled Erin’s tea cup herself, against Ressa’s mild protests.

“That is simply another reason why I must insist you stay at my home. I would be delighted if you would act as a chess teacher, or if you simply consented to play games against some of my guests.”

“Me?”

“That is why I requested you visit me. Why else did you think you were here? For the pleasure of your company of course, but I believe it would only be right to offer you the same hospitality I have given to the others.”

Erin’s mouth fell open.

“Really? Here?

“Is it so surprising? I believe you would quite enjoy your stay. We could put you up in a guest room, perhaps, until more permanent accommodations could be found. What do you say? Won’t you accept?

For some reason, the offer sounded extremely generous to Erin. Of course it was, but she couldn’t take it, right?

Why not?

Because—

Erin shook her head slightly.

“No, but I—I have an inn.”

Lady Magnolia’s smile didn’t waver. She lifted the tea cup to her lips and drank a bit.

“Ah, but isn’t it terribly dangerous? Wouldn’t it be easier to relax in comfort rather than risk your life working such a difficult job?”

“I like it. I mean, it’s hard, yeah, but—”

Erin wanted to accept Magnolia’s generous offer. Part of her did. But another part was thinking of everyone she would have to leave behind. Ceria, Selys, Krshia who was in trouble, Toren, Pisces, Rags, even Lyonette. What would that girl do without her? And then there was Ryoka—

But Magnolia was speaking more quickly now, and Erin found herself hanging on every word.

“Far better if you stay here with the others. They will become excellent adventurers, and you will all be safe here. Don’t you agree?

Erin wavered. But only for a second. Why was she even arguing about this? Lady Magnolia had been so generous to her and everyone from her world. Why wouldn’t she accept? She would be comfortable here, happy—

But it would make her friends upset. Erin knew that, and it hurt, but her desire to say ‘yes’ was far, far stronger.

So she wavered. Only for a second. But that second was an eternity upon which Erin stood, gazing out at two forks in the road of her life. She held her own destiny in her hands, and weighed each choice, remembering the past.

A second became a moment. A moment became a day, then a year. The year became eternal. And in that immortal moment, Erin realized something was wrong.

She was not in control. Because as her mind weighed the choice, every part of her pointed towards her inn. Yet…something was telling her to say yes.

Something was wrong. Erin felt it. It was a sense in the back of her head, the same thing she’d felt all throughout the conversation. Only, Erin hadn’t known it was even there, so insidious and quiet had it been. Yet now it was out in the open, exposed by her own Skill and relentless time.

One second passed. Lady Magnolia was staring at Erin intently, and so was Ressa.

“Well?”

The air smelled of lavender. Erin shook. Her mouth opened to say yes. She bit her tongue.

“Mmngh!”

Blood filled Erin’s mouth, and pain shot through her mind, breaking her out of whatever was holding her. Lady Magnolia blinked, and Erin kicked the table over, sending both drinks and chess pieces flying.

Lady Magnolia stared at the flying objects in shock. A tea pot full of hot liquid flew towards her head. She did not raise her arms to block or try to move out of the way. She simply stared at the flying pot with a look of mild surprise on her face.

A hand shot out and grabbed the pot. A body interposed itself, and the hot liquid splashed against her back. Ressa flung the pot away and reached for Erin. The girl saw the hand reaching for her throat, as quick as lightning—

“Stop.”

Ressa stopped. She stepped back, and the chess board cracked against one wall, the delicate wood breaking with the force of the impact. Chess pieces rained across the carpet and Lady Magnolia sighed.

“Teriarch did say this would happen sooner or later. But did it have to happen when I put my favorite tea pot out?”

Erin stared at Ressa. Her [Dangersense] was clanging loudly in her head. The [Head Maid] was staring at Erin, but there was nothing maid-like about the look in her eyes. She looked like she was ready to kill.

“Ressa. Your lovely rear end is in my face. Move aside please, and have someone clean up this mess.”

Ressa paused. She turned and Lady Magnolia patted her.

“It’s quite alright. Erin isn’t going to try and kill me, or so I believe. Is that right?”

“Um. Yeah?”

“Well then.”

Ressa hesitated, and then moved swiftly to one side. She withdrew a bell from her pocket and rang it. In four seconds, the door opened and maids rushed in. They stopped when they saw the mess, but Ressa began snapping orders and they sprang into action.

“Do follow me. I think we had better let them get to work, and I would hate to get in their way.”

Lady Magnolia nodded to the doors. Erin stood up and followed the older woman as Ressa stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Ressa! Stop that!”

Two minutes later, they were in another sitting room, a larger one that lacked the intimacy—and the pink—of the first. Lady Magnolia sighed as she sat. She looked at Ressa.

“I hope you weren’t burned too badly by the tea.”

“It was lukewarm.”

“And your dress? Feel free to change it.”

Ressa glanced at Erin before replying.

“I am quite comfortable, milady.”

“Stubborn.”

Lady Magnolia sighed, but she turned to Erin. This time she did not smile, but just looked at Erin. Just looked.

And then everything came full circle. Because her gaze was like a spotlight, and it fixed Erin in place. It was the same look she’d given Erin when the girl had first come in; a searching stare that tried to strip everything that Erin was away and see her inner self.

Erin stared back. She wasn’t good at staring, but she’d gotten a lot better. And now that she knew what was happening, anger was fueling her stare just as much as anything else. Her stomach tried to roil, but even this was still better than the pure terror Skinner had brought.

It was like staring into a jet engine, or the sun. Erin felt like she was literally about to be blown away—her body was shaking just trying to keep still. But she kept staring.

And then it was over. Lady Magnolia blinked, and Erin could look away. She looked around and saw Ressa was standing far away from the two of them, looking at a wall. The maid looked back at the two of them, and Lady Magnolia sighed.

“I cannot underestimate anyone these days, it seems. First Ryoka, and now you. I thought she was rather unique, but perhaps it was she who was merely uncommon.”

Erin didn’t understand that. She stared at Lady Magnolia and wondered what to say.

“What do you want?”

“Uninspired.”

Lady Magnolia frowned at Erin.

“Excuse me?”

Erin frowned back. Lady Magnolia shook her head.

“After all that insightfulness, force of will, and commendable chess playing ability, that is hardly a question worthy of you, Erin Solstice.”

A small pit of anger had been bubbling in Erin’s stomach since she’d realized what had been happening to her. It grew a bit larger.

“I’m sorry that I’m not smart enough to ask the right questions.”

“Oh hush.”

Lady Magnolia reached out and tapped Erin’s nose. The girl blinked in outrage and the woman continued.

“I am complimenting you, Miss Solstice. You have quite magnificently foiled two schemes of mine, which so rarely happens that I am in shock. And yet you appear quite naïve in other matters, which is why I will be extraordinarily blunt.”

“Thanks. What was all—?”

“I was attempting to persuade you to join the group of rather sorry individuals I have managed to save from being torn apart or beaten to death so that I might protect you. I confess I was also testing your ability in chess in the hopes you could be useful, but my main goal was to simply sequester you away from the world where you would no longer be able to cause any harm.”

Lady Magnolia delivered the statement in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone of voice that lacked any smiles or charm. She stared at Erin. Erin stared back.

“Why?”

“Because I believed you were not like Ryoka Griffin. Now, I believe it might be Ryoka Griffin who I must measure against you.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Good. I would hate for you to be as perspicacious in all things as you are at evading my Skills.”

Erin didn’t know what perspicacious meant either, but she bit her tongue and listened. Lady Magnolia paused.

“Tea please, Ressa. Raspberry, I think. Cooled.”

Ressa nodded, and Lady Magnolia turned back to Erin.

“When I first met Ryoka Griffin, I believed one thing. I believed I had either met the most capable and amazing young woman I had ever encountered, or that I had met someone who possessed knowledge she could not possibly acquire in this world. Possibly both.”

Lady Magnolia flicked her fingers, and Erin saw she was holding the monocle again. She peered at Erin through it again, frowning as she continued.

“I believed she was unique, but I soon learned that she was not. I soon realized she was one of many, and that led me to find the others like her and question them.”

“With torture? Did you find the others so you could—”

“No, and no. I found them because they were in danger. Two groups were dead, slain by monsters before I was even aware of the need for action. I found poor Imani nearly too late, but we saved her at least. The others, including young Rose, were far easier to locate and retrieve. And I asked them about their world, using [Charm] to persuade them to reveal more than they otherwise would, yes, but it was hardly difficult. Drink and a lovely woman or lovely young man listening attentively does wonders.”

Erin could believe that. She was trying to follow what was happening, and that was hard because she was still reeling from what had happened.

First, Lady Magnolia was nice. Then it turned out she was using a Skill on Erin, hence the table flip. But she didn’t want Ressa to smash Erin’s brains out, which the [Head Maid] could possibly maybe do. So Erin was safe. For now. And now it turned out Lady Magnolia wanted to find everyone from Erin’s world because she’d met Ryoka. Because…?

“Why? Why are you doing this?”

Lady Magnolia rolled her eyes, but Erin cut her off.

“I’m just a girl. From another world, right, but why are you so interested in us? Is it because we know things you don’t?”

“You come from another world. Of course you know many things we do not. I wished to ascertain what exactly that was, and when I realized what a vast difference in technology we possess, I immediately decided that you, Ryoka, and anyone else from your world must not be allowed to talk freely.”

“Why?”

“I wish you would stop asking me that question. You are quite intelligent enough to know why.”

Erin thought.

“Guns?”

“Among other things, yes. But merely the existence of another world would drive many Kings and fools into a frenzy and might begin a war that I am sure, absolutely sure that my world would lose. The nations of your world possess weapons far too deadly for all but the greatest magics to overcome, and the cost regardless would be far too great.”

Lady Magnolia looked up as Ressa let a maid approach with a pot of tea. She accepted a cup and Erin refused hers.

“If I intended to poison or drug—well, perhaps raspberry is not for everyone. I delight in sweet things. I digress however; even putting aside the knowledge that your world exists, any one weapon from your world would be deadly if knowledge of how to make them spread. Fortunately, not one of the children I found knew the exact details of how to make these weapons, and so my beliefs changed again.”

A hand tightened on the stem of the teacup, and Erin realized Lady Magnolia’s voice was trembling slightly.

“The technologies they so thoughtlessly spoke of would bring this world to ruin, but fortunately none of them know how to make any of what they claim is possible.”

Ressa nodded at this, one of the few movements Erin had ever seen her make. Magnolia continued.

“The few experts I know of and one…worldly confidant of mine assure me that even if this knowledge has spread, which I am sure it has, it will take years and quite a lot of groundwork to reproduce on a larger scale. And I shall search this world for traces of such preparation and quash it wherever it may be found.”

That sounded good. And it was good, wasn’t it? Erin wasn’t sure what to think.

“And so, now I find myself back where I started. I believe Ryoka Griffin is an extraordinary young woman, if only because she knows when to keep her mouth shut.

Lady Magnolia stared at Erin as she sipped from her cup again. Erin folded her arms.

“What are you going to do?”

“Throw this tea cup at you if you continue asking such questions.”

“Fine. What are you going to do about Joseph and Rose and Imani and the others?”

“I intend to indulge their requests.  You know they have petitioned me—repeatedly—about becoming adventurers? All of the young men seem quite excited by the prospect, as young men often are. The young ladies would like to travel into the cities with pockets full of gold and shop, or so I gather.”

Erin frowned.

“They did tell me that. Joseph says you were going to help them. Give them magical weapons and armor.”

“Yes, and they are quite excited about the prospect. I have a mind to send them out with a few guides and let them enlist as Bronze-rank adventurers, with perhaps a gift of coins and a few choice items. What do you think of that?”

She didn’t even have to think. Erin replied instantly.

“They’d all die in a heartbeat.”

Ressa nodded. Magnolia smiled briefly.

“It would be amusing, or perhaps, sad, to see. I don’t believe any of them have actually killed anything in their life, or even helped butcher an animal. That might have informed their opinions. Only young Imani seems sensible and she is distraught with grief.”

Erin glared at Lady Magnolia. So. That was the plan.

“Are you going to kill me too?”

“Kill you? Haven’t you been listening to what I have been saying?”

“But you said—

“I said I would send them out to become adventurers. But I will not let them die. I believe a few non-life-threatening injuries and a healthy dose of terror would be good for them.”

“That’s mean.”

“On the contrary, it’s quite generous considering that I do not owe them anything and I will be saving their lives in the long run.”

Erin frowned.

“You’re treating them like pawns or—or people to be manipulated. That’s wrong.”

Lady Magnolia sighed in irritation.

“I will stop treating them as pawns when they stop treating my world as a game to be enjoyed. As it is, that drunk group of young travelers below us are thoughtless, careless individuals who insult my servants, causes messes, throw up in the upholstery, and do not realize the gravity of the situation. I believe half of them are convinced this is a fictional reality, a dream perhaps, or some kind of living game.”

Erin bit her lip. She couldn’t deny that. Lady Magnolia paused, and went on.

“Not all are so foolish. Rose for example seems to understand the need to meet with others from your world, which is why I watch her in case she is called again on that…phone. And Imani is quite sensibly afraid of going out; I believe I will give her a bedroom away from the others now that you have opened her up.”

All of that still sounded suspicious to Erin. She stared at Lady Magnolia and raised a hand as if she were in school. Magnolia eyed it.

“Can I ask a question? Why I am I here?”

“You are here because I assumed you were like the others. I intended to confine you, perhaps after teaching you a few lessons about this world and the dangers therein.”

“And now?”

“I suppose you will have to go back to your inn. That is, unless you wish to accept my offer of hospitality. It still stands, and I would allow you to travel if you so wished.”

“Why?”

Lady Magnolia paused. She looked behind Erin.

“Ressa.”

A hand smacked Erin lightly on the back of the head. Erin yelped and turned, but Ressa stared blankly ahead, face expressionless. Lady Magnolia tapped her tea cup with one nail to get Erin’s attention.

“Consider my position, Erin Solstice. I have found visitors, or perhaps, refugees from another world. They know of terrible weapons, but have not the knowledge to create them. And yet, even the knowledge that such things can be created is enough to cause destruction in the long run. And these children—yes, children—are by and large helpless. They are walking magnets for chaos, and I dislike chaos.”

Erin sat in her seat and thought about that.

“Yeah. Guns would be bad.”

A hand smacked her on the back of the head again. Erin turned around, and Lady Magnolia smiled.

“I believe the young woman will hit you if you do that again, Ressa. And she has both [Bar Fighting] and [Minotaur Punch] as skills. I would be careful.”

“How do you know that?”

Lady Magnolia lifted the monocle in her lap.

“A little device made for me by a friend. It allows me to read [Skills] and [Levels] unless they are concealed. I would love to know what [Immortal Moment] and [Wondrous Fare] do, by the way. But to your point—yes, many of the technologies the others have described sound incredibly dangerous. I do not wish for any of them to become public knowledge.”

Erin rubbed her head as she nodded.

“That’s what Ryoka’s afraid of. She doesn’t want anyone to find out what we know.”

“And that is why I wish to speak with her. But, quite ironically, she is the one person who rightfully distrusts anyone like me.”

“Isn’t that smart?”

“Oh, of course.”

Lady Magnolia waved a hand. She drained her cup and placed it on a table.

“It is an excellent assumption to make. But in this case, I believe Miss Ryoka and I—and even you, Erin—are all on the same side.”

“And what side is—”

Erin looked at Ressa. The other woman’s hands hadn’t moved, but her lips twitched. Erin scowled.

“What side is that? It’s a smart question!”

Ressa shrugged impassively. Lady Magnolia rubbed at her eyes.

“I suppose it is? Erin, we are all on the side that wishes for peace, prosperity, and a lack of monsters or wars. I think that is a fair statement for me to make.”

“Right. I’m on that side.”

Erin nodded reluctantly. Lady Magnolia nodded as well.

“Most people are, but the problems emerge when selfish individuals place their own desires above that cause. Hence the infighting and petty bickering which grips both Drakes and Humans on this continent, and to a lesser extent, the Gnolls.”

She sighed.

“We waste time and resources killing each other while the true enemy grows stronger. Ah, if only the [Lords] and [Ladies] of this continent could see what I see. But of course, some do and others only pretend to. Vision is not hereditary, I’m afraid. And it is opinion which matters more.”

“So you’re afraid these nobles will cause trouble if they know what we—I—people from my world know?”

Anyone would cause trouble with such knowledge, Erin. Anyone. But some would be more dangerous than others, I admit.”

Erin frowned. She needed a notepad, or something to write on to figure everything out. But she did her best.

“Let me get this straight. You found Ryoka, and realized she was from another world.”

Possibly from another world. I had other suspicions at first.”

“Okay, but you found her and found other people. And when  you realized that we all know bad things—”

Lady Magnolia winced at Erin’s choice of words. Erin glared.

“—You decided to keep us all here so we don’t cause any trouble. But you’re letting me go?”

“Because you are not as thoughtless as the others, and moreover, because I believe you will do more good where you are than under lock and key.”

“And Ryoka?”

“The same, although if she would consent to helping me, it would make my life so much easier.”

“So you can make guns?”

“No.”

Lady Magnolia said that flatly. She stared Erin straight in the eye.

“I will never create these weapons. Not unless someone else has already spread them to the point where they have become commonplace.”

“Why?”

“A thousand reasons, not least of which is that it would destroy this world. Ryoka knows this, which is why she has sensibly avoided me for fear I would use such weapons.”

Erin nodded. That was what Ryoka had said, more or less, so she supposed she could believe Lady Magnolia.

“And where is Ryoka?”

The other woman paused. She looked at Erin, and then shook her head.

“If she has not told you, I will honor her discretion as a Runner. I do worry that she is well of course; but we must make gambles, and I rather like the idea of rolling the dice, especially if my die is Ryoka Griffin.”

“You’re gambling with her life?”

Lady Magnolia looked insulted that Erin looked upset.

“Of course. Every person of note and power on the continent is a gambler who plays for the highest of stakes, Erin Solstice. Except for the Antinium Grand Queen. I’m afraid she only takes safe bets with acceptable risks. But until I am sure I play against her and her alone, I must resign myself to uncertainty. And to minimize that risk, I find it is important to get to know people.”

“Like me.”

“If you like. Now, let me offer you a few reassurances. I will not harm the others from your world…unduly. Nor will I share their dangerous secrets, unless of course there is something actually valuable from your world that might be used in this one. I would quite like to taste a pizza and hamburger, you know. Perhaps you could leave the recipe with my [Chef] before you go?”

“Um—”

“Also, I am not interested in harming or impeding you or Ryoka in any way. I simply desire your cooperation and perhaps your help. Actually, I desire Ryoka for all these things, but I shall include you as well.”

“To do what exactly? Making the world a better place?”

“If you could do that, I would be most grateful. No—in helping to defeat the one enemy that truly threatens this continent. The Antinium.”

Erin’s brain halted when she heard that. She cleared her throat, wishing she’d taken another cup of tea, and then spoke.

“The Antinium…aren’t your enemies.”

Lady Magnolia raised a finger.

“A few Antinium you are acquainted with may not be my enemy. But the rest are. Indeed, if their Queen ordered it, I would not place high odds that they would not cut you apart.”

Erin swallowed.

“Pawn and Klbkch wouldn’t do that.”

Lady Magnolia raised an incredulous eyebrow.

“Wouldn’t they? How much do you know of the Antinium? How much do you know of Klbkch the Slayer’s past?”

Klbkch the Slayer? Erin had never heard of that title. She opened her mouth, but the other woman waved her to silence.

“I am Lady Magnolia Reinhart. I have no enemies upon this continent, or so it is said. And yet I consider the Antinium Queens my greatest nemeses. Consider that for one moment, and please, think before you reply.”

Erin opened her mouth, hesitated, glared at Ressa, and then thought. Magnolia watched her, not without a bit of sympathy.

“The Antinium do battle much in the way your world fights, or so I gather.”

Erin blinked. Lady Magnolia smiled and clarified her statement.

“What I mean is, they fight under the assumption all soldiers are equal. They raise their warriors to be excellent, but no individual is better than another in their doctrine. That is because the Antinium do not level. But other armies fight differently.”

Lady Magnolia lifted her cup, accepted a refill from Ressa and drank a bit before continuing. Erin saw Ressa glance at her mistress, and something flickered across the maid’s face. It almost looked like…worry?

“In this world, an individual can change the course of a battle. A single hero can win a war. And that is because we level. Armies protect their highest-level warriors, or risk them in order to deal damage to opposing forces. But a hundred Level 15 [Soldiers] would not be worth the life of a single Level 30 [Vanguard]. So we sacrifice the many for the good of the few, that they might grow stronger. That is the difference between our worlds.”

Erin tried to imagine it. It wasn’t actually that hard. It was like…superheroes. They could fight entire armies by themselves, and that was sort of like a high-level warrior, right? Lady Magnolia nodded.

“Now consider this. What would happen if your world’s technology fell into Antinium hands? Or rather, feelers?”

Erin tried to imagine that. Her heart sank.

“Weapons of war. Tanks, these flying planes of yours, and of course, ‘bombs’. Terrible weapons that require no levels to use. And worst still, a gun. A weapon with exceptional range that can fire faster than a repeating crossbow if made correctly. Such weapons would allow even children to kill the greatest of warriors. All races would take that technology and kill with it, but the Antinium would benefit most greatly. That is why this technology must not be realized in this world.”

Again, Erin raised her hand. She lowered it when she saw Magnolia staring at it.

“Um, but why wouldn’t you just use a gun or something and not share the way the weapons are made?”

“Aside from the obvious point that any weapon can be used against its owner, I have found that nothing stays secret for long. The instant a weapon is used, it is copied a thousand times over. Have you not witnessed this yourself?”

Erin thought of her hamburgers and had nothing to say. Lady Magnolia sighed again.

“If these ‘guns’ were to become widespread, two groups would benefit most from their usage. In less than a decade, the House of Minos would fall to its ancient enemy and the Antinium would sweep across the continent.”

Another pause.

“Were things otherwise, and were I more foolish, I might even consider manufacturing these devices myself, regardless of the risk, to deal with the Antinium. With them, I could create an army capable of killing Dragons; a force that would humble even Flos on the field of battle. But I am a bit wiser than that. By the time I defeated the Antinium—and that is still not wholly predictable—the entire world would be armed thusly, and we would burn nations to the ground and slaughter entire species before the bloodletting was done. No.”

Erin was quiet for a while after that. She didn’t know what to think of Lady Magnolia. The woman herself sipped her tea quietly as she watched Erin. At last, Erin looked up.

“I still don’t think they’re your enemies. The Antinium, I mean.”

“You do not know their history. You have not seen what they do.”

“Kill people? But Humans do that.”

“And we are a wretched species. But the Antinium are sadly better at killing than we are, and their Queens attempted to wipe this continent free of every living species once before. Consider this, Erin. Even in war, [Lords] and [Generals] often spare civilians. It is a point of honor, and practicality. Not even [Soldiers] relish that level of violence, and so the few who slaughter are condemned by every nation.”

She raised a finger.

“But the Antinium have fought thusly from the beginning. They leave no survivors. And what is worse, they make no permanent peace. I believe they have simply been waiting since the last Antinium War, building their strength for the final war in which they will win and slaughter us all.”

Erin couldn’t believe it. Klbkch, do that? But—she’d seen him killing Goblins that one time. And yet Pawn—

“It is not the individuals I speak of, but their Queens. They are heartless and care nothing for other species. If you will not believe it of the Antinium you know, believe that.”

Erin could. She remembered the Queen, and the cold way she had spoken about Klbkch, her subject.

“So that’s it? You’re fighting a war and you want help from us?”

“…If you want to put it that way, yes. Rather, I simply hope you will not make things worse. I don’t expect much help from you.”

“Hey, that’s—!”

“Accurate.”

Erin opened her mouth. Lady Magnolia stared at her. Erin closed her mouth.

“Erin Solstice. A young woman who treats Goblins like people and teaches the Antinium how to become individuals. That alone makes you extraordinary, but it will not win a war.”

Lady Magnolia drummed her fingers on her leg.

“I should like nothing more than for the Antinium to all become individual. That would mean they are people, and people can be manipulated, flattered, bribed, intimidated, or threatened. A swarm simply devours everything in its way. But it will not happen, because while the Queen in Liscor is a visionary, the other Queens and the Grand Queen lacks her ideals. No, it will not change what is to come.”

“And that is?”

“War. And not just any war. A world war, as your people have spoken of.”

Lady Magnolia said it calmly. She looked out one of the windows, at the setting sun.

“Perhaps it will not begin on this continent, but it will come soon. Already the idea of it hangs in the air, whispering in every ear.”

Erin felt a chill.

“How do you know?”

“From whispers. The Isles of Minos have closed. Perhaps due to the actions of a traveler from another world? Their ports are barred to any ships but their own, and every spy I have planted in their kingdom has gone quiet. A Goblin Lord has emerged in the south, and if a King should rampage again, we may all fall to the youngest species before the Antinium.”

Lady Magnolia started ticking off points on her fingers.

“Az’Kerash builds an army of the dead, and I only pray we may stop him. I would send heroes to slay him before he unleashes his madness, but they are in short supply. Between him and the Antinium, we face two major enemies, although one is far more dangerous than the other. An individual versus a swarm, you see? And then there are simply dangerous fools among the Drakes and Humans who would start bonfires over matchsticks anyways. Flos goes to conquer, and perhaps he is the least dangerous of all. He at least desires to create a kingdom rather than break everything apart. And all of this happens because of your people, Erin Solstice.”

The room felt darker, and not just because the sun was setting. Erin tried to swallow around a dry mouth.

“My people?”

“We were at peace before you arrived, Erin Solstice. A factitious, torn peace full of petty battles and squabbles, yes, but peace nevertheless. The world was slowly healing, but all too soon the truce forged of paper will burst open like scabs and war will once more ravage the people and land.”

Lady Magnolia paused. The shroud around her lifted, and she looked over.

“Mm. That was quite good, wasn’t it, Ressa? I shall have to remember that to Teriarch next time we speak. Write that down, would you?”

“Yes, milady.”

Magnolia turned back to Erin.

“I don’t mean to sound completely hopeless. There are threats, true, but I hope that my preparations will guard against some of them. This continent is strong, and I have done my best to ensure the north is stronger than it was. But that is the truth of it. War is coming. And you few travelers are caught in it.”

Erin tried to breathe and had trouble doing so. It seemed so huge when Magnolia said it like that.

“What should we do, then? I mean, is there anything—?”

“Nothing. You can help those you meet in your inn, and perhaps that will change things. But unless you know of a technology that saves lives…? There are a number of curious things the other young men and women talk about, but they are frustratingly vague on details. I will pursue that line of questioning, however.”

Erin shook her head.

“I still don’t think it’s right, keeping them here.”

“And what would you do? Let them loose?”

Magnolia frowned at Erin. Erin shrugged.

“Maybe not, but they’re not as stupid as you’re treating them.”

“Fools seldom are. But they are thoughtless, which is worse. What could they do that would not cause more harm?”

“I don’t know. But give them a chance.”

Magnolia paused as she sipped at her cup.

“A chance? As what, adventurers?”

“Maybe. But just give them a chance to do something rather than lock them up and let them be useless.”

Erin tried to explain.

“I have this annoying—this girl in my inn. She’s really, really troublesome, but if I left her alone she would die.”

“Ah. Lyonette de Marquin. Dreadful girl. I’m not sure she is the example you should use.”

“You know who she is? I mean, she said she knows you—”

“I’m sure she does.”

Lady Magnolia made a face as if the tea had suddenly gone bad. Erin looked around and saw Ressa making a similar look of disgust, which disappeared as soon as she noticed Erin looking.

“She says she’s really important and that you’d take her in. But the [Butler]—sorry, Reynold—wouldn’t let her come with me.”

Magnolia sighed as she swirled her tea around with a silver spoon.

“She certainly is…important, but I fear she overstates her value. She wrote me several strident letters demanding that I offer her the hospitality of my house. I do not wish to do so.”

“But she nearly died by herself! She was getting exiled and she would have frozen to death if I hadn’t found her!”

“A pity.”

Erin’s heart grew silent in her chest for a moment. She looked at Lady Magnolia.

“Just because someone is really…really annoying or useless doesn’t mean they deserve to die.”

“Neither does it mean that I should waste time and resources saving them.”

“But that means you’re killing them if you don’t help. That’s wrong.

A sigh. Erin gritted her teeth as Magnolia looked at her.

“What if they are a danger? What if killing them would save thousands of lives? Would that not be the most morally correct choice?”

Now Erin was getting angrier. Magnolia was—well, she wasn’t a bad person. Maybe. But she was getting on Erin’s nerves.

“You don’t get to decide that. God—gods know everything, so I guess if they existed, they’d be able to say if that was right or wrong. But the gods are dead. Everyone tells me that. So no one gets to decide if things are moral. You can kill however many people you want, but you can’t say it was the right thing to do.”

“Fine then. I chose to let Lyonette die. I do not regret it, any more than I regret confining the others from your world. I cannot release them into the wild because they would die, and neither will I risk them spreading dangerous information as they so casually do. But they are quite a drain on resources.”

“So? You offered to take them in.”

“To save their lives. But I may soon lock them in a house and toss bags of grain inside than keep them here. They are not worthy of this house, or the people who must put up with them. They eat, argue, talk about games and laugh at monsters as if they were harmless, and talk to my servants about freedom as if they were slaves.

“They do? I mean, really?”

Lady Magnolia scowled.

“One of them does, at any rate. She doesn’t seem to understand the difference between employing a family of their free will and forcing them to work.”

“I’m sorry if they’ve offended you. But—”

“I will give them a chance, which may be more than they deserve. Enough. It is growing late, and I wish to impress one thing upon you, Erin Solstice.”

“What?”

“Numbers. Or perhaps—worth.”

Lady Magnolia put down her cup and looked at Erin directly.

“The smallest of the Antinium Hives – the one based in Liscor – holds at least three thousand Antinium at any given time. More, as of late. At least two thousand Workers and a thousand Soldiers are ready to go to war at any moment; my estimate puts their numbers at a thousand more in their Hive. And that is the least of the six Hives, if there are only six. The others are larger by an immeasurable factor.”

The numbers staggered Erin. Three—no, four thousand Antinium? Why didn’t they help when Skinner attacked? But Lady Magnolia wasn’t done. She pointed at Erin.

“You are worth two Antinium Soldiers in a battle. Ryoka—with items, perhaps she could defeat a dozen. Two dozen. But I very much doubt it.”

She shook her head.

“As dangerous as you are, as unique as you are, you are only one Human. But I require an army. I seek heroes. I have children, bright and full of weapons that would shake the earth—none of which I can use now or without having them used against me in time. You and Ryoka Griffin are extraordinary in your own ways, but you are still young. And small.”

Magnolia looked towards the window.

“I will hope that you rise to the challenges you will face. If there is a way I may aid you that will encourage growth or help myself, I will do so. But I am playing a game against titans, and I am only a small Human.”

Erin didn’t know what to say to that. Magnolia looked large and small at the same time—a giant in her own right, full of more force than anyone else Erin had met—but still so small compared to the things she talked about.

“If you are able to, I hope you will persuade Miss Ryoka to visit me. I am in need of whatever aid she can give; whatever she can remember. These new defensive potions and alchemist creations she has made cheaper will save countless lives in the long run. But convincing enough farmers to grow spicy peppers will be difficult. Bottles are equally expensive, but if it can be manufactured into a spray as young Rose claims…”

Magnolia sighed, and looked at Erin.

“Which brings me to you. You, Erin Solstice, the girl of many odd talents. You have skills, and a brain hidden behind all that fluff, but you maintain a small inn and do little with what you have. Is that all you will ever do? What is it you wish to do in this world, Miss Erin Solstice? Do you want to go home to your world? Or perhaps, do you want to stay here? This world is full of wonders, but I am sure yours is filled with just as many.”

Her eyes bored into Erin’s, unblinking, and Lady Magnolia’s voice seemed like the only thing in the world. Erin couldn’t look away as the questions hit her again and again.

“Will you protect this world? Save it? Do you simply want to live in peace? Or perhaps you would like to destroy it? Do you even care?”

Erin opened her mouth, but Lady Magnolia silenced her.

“I don’t believe you have an answer that would not prompt me to throw something at you.”

“I do.”

“Really? This tea pot is quite heavy and quite expensive. I would hate to waste it.”

“I want to protect the people around me. That’s all. I have friends. I don’t want them to die. I want to help them, and some day find a way home. And live in peace. That’s all.”

Lady Magnolia stared at Erin for a while.

“Hmph. Well, at least you don’t have small dreams. Well then, Erin Solstice, delightful and infuriating as this conversation has been, I believe only one thing remains for me to do with you.”

Erin tensed. Ressa had moved behind Magnolia, but she was fast.

“And what’s that?”

Lady Magnolia smiled.

“Send you home.”

 

—-

 

It was a small group that gathered outside the coach. Reynold held the door open as Erin climbed in, and the girl realized that Joseph and Rose and the others were watching her from a window. And trying to shout to her, by the looks of it.

She’d wanted to say something to them, but Lady Magnolia had vetoed that suggestion. She claimed she had no desire to listen to another hundred complaints and besides, Erin had nothing to say to the others that they would not learn soon enough.

Erin had silently agreed with that, but she still glared at Lady Magnolia as she got into the carriage. She was fairly sure she didn’t like the [Lady], but at least in public Lady Magnolia was all smiles and rainbows.

“I trust Reynold will see you safely to your inn. I also took the liberty of sending a meal with you, as I shamefully neglected to play the good host. Do take care.”

“…Thanks.”

The door began to close, but a slim hand interposed itself before it could shut. Erin wondered what would happen if she slammed the door, but then Magnolia opened it. She lowered her voice so that only Erin could hear.

“Oh, and by the way, Erin. Though I laud your desire to protect those around you, I believe you will soon find that answer means changing the entire world. So the question remains: what will do you? Will you try to save this world we live in, or wait for others to do it for you?”

Erin stared at Magnolia. The other woman was smiling.

“If I punch you, would Ressa kill me?”

Magnolia’s smile widened.

“Quite likely. Do agonize about your future on the ride home. Goodbye.”

The door closed. Reynold waited until Magnolia was clear, and then snapped the reins. The carriage began to move swiftly away, and Erin sat back in her seat.

“I think I really hate her.”

Lady Magnolia. She was like a hurricane trapped inside of a bottle inside of a tornado inside of a washing machine. She was all go, and even thinking about what she’d just learned made Erin want to vomit up thoughts.

And she was so confident she was right. She’d seen right through Erin. Or maybe—

Erin turned and glared out the window as Lady Magnolia’s mansion disappeared in the distance. She had a small thought in her head.

Maybe…she was actually a good person. A rich [Lady] trying to save the world by herself.

Probably not. She was still a jerk. But the things she’d said—

Outside, the world began to blur as Erin sped away from Lady Magnolia’s house, and back home. Thoughts whirled around in Erin’s head, not least of which was that Magnolia had put enough food in the carriage to feet both her and Reynold for a week. But that wasn’t as important as what she’d learned.

So many things. War? The Antinium? Were they really the biggest threat? Could Magnolia be trusted?

Erin wanted so desperately to talk to Ryoka about it all. But without anyone to talk to—besides Reynold, and he really couldn’t help with this—Erin found herself drifting off. Her mind began looping, and only a few thoughts repeated themselves.

What had Magnolia said? Choose. Erin thought she had an answer, but war? She couldn’t even imagine—

What should she do?

 

Live alone.

Save the world.

Run away.

Ask for help.

Live in peace.

Fight for freedom.

Bring democracy.

Protect secrets.

Go back home.

Save the world.

Protect her friends.

Save the world.

Give up.

Save the world.

Save the world.

Save.

The.

World.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

2.30

Erin sat in an expensive cushion in an expensive coach, staring at a [Butler] driving the vehicle pulled by magical (and probably expensive) ghost horses and tried not to get anything dirty. Her ears were still ringing.

“I demand to be taken along!”

Lyon had screamed and thrown things and even tried to hit the impassive [Butler] for the better part of an hour. The poor man had stood immobile and unyielding in the face of it all. In fact, Reynold the [Butler] had repeated only one thing:

“The invitation is extended to Miss Solstice alone. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

In the end, Erin had to forcibly restrain Lyon via use of Toren. She’d told him to close the inn until she was gone, to look after Lyon, and then she’d run into Liscor and told Selys what was happening.

One confused conversation and a sign on the inn’s door later, Erin was in the coach, wondering if she’d made a horrible mistake. The landscape blurred past her, ground and trees and even people disappearing in a blink of an eye.

It was very much like being in a car, except that even cars rumbled and moved left and right and were generally unpleasant to be in for longer than forty minutes.

But this carriage was smooth. Erin didn’t even feel like she was really moving. It felt unreal, and she was used to taking airplanes and cars around.

But the [Butler] seemed to be completely at home as he steered the carriage…somehow. There was a wall with an open window that Erin could speak to him through, but most of her view was blocked.

Erin guessed that normally this carriage would have been full of rich people, probably sipping fine wine and talking about important things. She felt out of place inside of it, but at least there was wine and food available.

Quite a lot of it, in fact. A bottle of wine sat in a bucket of ice while small crackers, cheeses, and even some fruits Erin hadn’t seen in the markets were carefully arranged for her consumption. Erin was still too afraid to touch anything, even though she was getting tempted by the spread.

“I do apologize for the sparse accommodations.”

Reynold looked back apologetically at one point and delivered that shocking statement as if he really was sorry. Erin just blinked back at him in astonishment.

“What? No! It’s great! I mean, this is so much—and your carriage is so fast.

“Your words are too kind. Please partake of the refreshments. If there is anything I can do, do not hesitate to ask.”

Erin nodded, and Reynold returned his focus back to the road. He was a very silent guy, or maybe it was just the fact that he was a [Butler]. It had taken her a few tries to even get him to tell her his name.

She nibbled nervously at a cracker smeared with cheese and ate nothing more. It was a long, long drive. Reynold had told her the trip would take at least four hours, and after fifteen minutes she was already antsy and bored. So Erin did what she did best:

Talk.

“So uh, you’re a [Butler]. What do you do?”

“I serve the Reinhart house, Miss.”

“Oh, right, right. Like uh, cleaning things and welcoming guests?”

“…That is largely correct, Miss.”

“But sort of incorrect? Do you always travel around like this? How do the ghost horses work? What if you get attacked? Do you want some of this cheese? There’s lots.”

Two hours in she got him talking.

“In truth, Miss—”

“Erin.”

“…Erin. Well, in truth I’d say that most folk wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a normal vintage and a well-aged reserve. You see, it really comes down to the situations in which a bottle is enjoyed in.”

“Oh, really? I mean, I can’t really tell the difference—not that I’ve had much. But how can you tell? Do you have a really good sense of taste or something?”

Reynold chuckled softly.

“I? Hardly. While it is true the [Butler] class has several qualities and Skills that overlap with [Gourmet] and other such critical classes, the true test of experience lies in how much wine you drink and the pace at which you drink.”

“Ooh. I think I get it.”

“Quite. A proper tasting should involve first sampling the wine’s bouquet—that is to say, aroma—before slowly imbibing the drink. Simply tossing it down will ruin the subtle flavors of each sip, and they are quite exquisite.”

“So you’ve had a lot of expensive wines? Because you serve a lot of them, right?”

“Indeed. It is one of my functions to ensure that I do not serve an inferior glass. Also, it is a custom dating back to the time when poison was used liberally in drinks. Not that I fear being poisoned. And should I just mention it—pairing the right food to go with a glass of wine is often an art form in itself. Do try some of the Perisgraé Cheese with the wine, will you?”

Erin did.

“This is really good! You should have some!”

“It would hardly be—”

“I’m putting some through the window! Here!”

“Ah. Thank you.”

“Mm. This cheese doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had before. What’s it from?”

“A goat subspecies that eats rocks, I believe.”

Bufh. Really?”

Erin coughed and eyed the cheese. It didn’t taste like rocks.

“Indeed. A number of excellent foods come from rare magical species. Alas, such products are inevitably in short supply, but Lady Reinhart has the means to secure even the rarest of delicacies. Some of her most prized wines were made from plants and fruits no longer present in this world.”

“Wow.”

Erin enjoyed talking with Reynold, and she got the impression that he was surprised that he was enjoying talking to her. They chattered on about small things for an hour or two; he told her that Lady Magnolia was quite rich and had many servants with lots of levels in strange classes, but he was apparently not allowed to say more.

Still, it was good to make a friend, and Erin enjoyed his tips on how to best savor the snacks in front of her. She thought she might buy a few cheap bottles of wine when she got back to the inn. Or maybe she could make some herself? She had a Skill for that, didn’t she?

But once their conversation had lapsed into silence, Erin found herself worrying. There were butterflies in her stomach. Massive, flesh-eating ones that were probably a real thing in some part of this world.

Everything had happened so suddenly. One minute she’d been in her inn, the next she was going farther and faster than she’s ever gone in this world. Reynold assured her everything would be alright, but Erin was still worried.

Lady Magnolia. Ryoka had told Erin briefly about her, but from what she’d said, Lady Magnolia was just some rich woman who liked expensive things. She’d apparently gotten interested in Ryoka and started hiring people to follow her, but that didn’t exactly explain the magical carriage and butler appearing out of nowhere. How had she found out Erin was from another world? Had Ryoka told her? That didn’t seem likely. And she’d found other people from Erin’s world?

How? Where had they been? Erin stopped eating as she wondered. What would they be like? Who were they? Did they know anything about why all this had happened?

When the coach finally began to slow and then stopped and Reynold opened the door, he found Erin in a state of near-panic. The sight of his distinguished mustache helped calm her down. Maybe it was just his suit. It was so cool.

“We’ve arrived, Miss Solstice. Allow me to escort you out.”

Caught up in her thoughts, Erin had completely neglected to look out the windows in the last half of her trip. If she had, she would have witnessed the famed city of adventurers, Invrisil, and probably be shocked and amazed. But as soon as Erin’s foot touched the paved pathway and she looked around and found herself on Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s estate—

“Oh.”

That was all Erin said. She stared around, slowly taking in the fact that she was standing in a courtyard…leading up to a huge wall with holes in it…which turned out to be a house…a big house…with architecture…

She had expected a mansion. She hadn’t expected…this.

Ryoka had visited Lady Magnolia’s home in Celum, but to compare that modest space to the true home of Lady Magnolia Reinhart was to compare a one-room apartment to Versailles.

Erin had seen pictures of mansions owned by celebrities and millionaires, so she wasn’t exactly blown away by the size of the Lady Magnolia’s home. It was big, yes, but still believable. What left her speechless was the Architecture.

It had to be Architecture, because it was the kind of thing that couldn’t go uncapitalized. The best way Erin could think of it was that there were no flat spaces. Houses in her world tended to have flat surfaces as walls, and indeed, most skyscrapers were just giant rectangles with the occasional artistic design.

But this was a building made back in the time when people took years or even decades to build structures. It had art in every inch of the building. Erin stared up at the sculptures carved into the walls, and the decorative reliefs made of metal and stone. Words like crenellation, fenestration, and porte cochère leapt into her head, although that last word was just because Erin had taken French class at one point. And failed.

But still, even that would have been comparable to some of the better antiquities in Erin’s world. What set Magnolia’s home apart was the magic. There was a lot of it.

It was in the air. Literally in the air. Erin stared up at a cloud, a cloud moving just twenty feet off of the ground in what looked like the massive garden. It was a dark storm cloud, and it was raining into the lush vegetation. Another cloud enshrouded a section of Lady Magnolia’s mansion, engulfing the topmost windows. Erin longed to reach out and touch it, but—

A fish swam across the front of the mansion. Erin blinked, but she hadn’t gone insane. Not yet. A silvery fish swam across one glass window as if it were underwater and then leapt into the next window, so lifelike that Erin had to convince herself that part of the estate wasn’t underwater.

“Ah. The intruder defenses are activated.”

Reynold murmured that quietly as he stood beside Erin, perfectly at attention. She blinked and looked at him, but he stared ahead as if he’d said nothing.

“What does that mean? The fishes?”

They weren’t alone. A wolf prowled across the front of the building, and a bird flew across the roof.

“Quite. But do note the guard Golems to your left.”

Erin turned her head and gasped. Both Rags and Toren would have immediately recognized the towering behemoths clad in steel armor, although these Golems were made of silvery metal rather than black. They were also, disconcertingly, gilded with pink metal. It did not make them cute or less threatening. And both Goblin and Skeleton probably would have run away immediately given that instead of one enchanted suit of armor, there were four.

They walked with mechanical precision, patrolling the large courtyard and grounds in front of Lady Magnolia’s gated estate. Erin’s eyes bugged out as she saw the Golems; when she looked up, they nearly popped out of her head.

“Oh my god! It’s a Pegasus! A Pegasus!

Reynold tried to pry Erin off of his arm as she grabbed him.

“Please calm yourself, Miss Solstice. It is a spell. A summoned guardian. It is not real.”

“Can I fly it!?”

The [Butler] coughed and Erin caught a hold of herself.

“Right, probably not. Sorry. How is all this possible? I mean, Ryoka said—but—how? Is Magnolia really that rich?”

Reynold lifted one eyebrow.

“Lady Magnolia? She is the heir to the Reinhart family and one of the richest individuals on the continent.”

Erin stared at him. For the first time, she began to wonder just exactly what Ryoka had done and said to get Lady Magnolia’s attention.

“Miss Solstice?”

Erin turned as Reynold snapped back to even more perfect attention. She saw a tall woman dressed in a sombre black dress, as official-looking and impressive as Reynold’s own attire. She was flanked by two other women, dressed like English maids or…Japanese cosplayers.

There were frills. And even bows. And a certain white and black color coordination that struck the eye. But the two maids were clearly following their leader, who turned out to be a maid herself.

“Miss Solstice? My name is Ressa. I am the [Head Maid] in service to Lady Magnolia. I will take you to her, if you would follow me?”

Erin gaped. Then she rallied and gaped harder.

“Um. Wow. Okay. Uh.”

She looked around. Reynold was standing straight and staring ahead. Erin hesitated, and then nodded.

“Thanks for taking me out here.”

“Think nothing of it, Miss Solstice. I trust that you will enjoy your stay.”

He answered her politely and without meeting her eyes. Erin felt a pang, but then Ressa was by her side.

“If you will follow me? Lady Magnolia Reinhart awaits your company.”

There was nothing to do but follow. In fact, not one person hesitated as Ressa led the way into the mansions. The double doors swung out as if they were automatic when they were in fact, magical. She strode along so quickly that Erin had to move fast to keep up.

But again, who would argue with Ressa? Erin might not have known it, but just one look at Ressa was a glimpse into her personality and function in the Reinhart household.

Ressa looked almost inhumanly good. It was a feature of her class, although Erin couldn’t have known that. All Erin did know was that Ressa looked how she wanted to look when she was full of bad self-esteem and dreamed of being taller and a supermodel. She was beautiful, but also stern and imposing. Exactly like the head matron or schoolmistress out of some old children’s book.

Or a queen.

And there was certainly something queen-like about the way Ressa strode through the halls and the servants bobbed their heads to her—or maybe Erin—and began to work twice as hard.

Erin noticed that with part of her mind, but the rest of her was trying to take in the mansion that Ressa seemed determined not to show her. Paintings, statues, and what looked like magical artifacts blended together with long corridors and rooms filled with wonderful furniture and objects that disappeared as Erin moved past.

It was all too much to take in. Erin could barely focus on one thing at a time; her eyes would catch on something and then transition to something else, so the only thing she remembered was wealth and beauty and grandeur.

And that was sort of annoying. Erin frowned. She looked at Ressa’s back as she passed what looked like a gallery of magical items in glass cases. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and then spoke up.

“Excuse me. Could we slow down for a second?”

The air froze. The servants trailing Erin and Ressa flinched. The tall woman looked over at Erin.

“What was that?”

“Oh, sorry. I just wanted to look at some of this stuff. It’s really incredible. Unless Lady Magnolia is waiting for me?”

Erin blinked innocently up at Ressa. The [Head Maid] hesitated.

“Lady Magnolia is extremely busy at the moment. You may wait for her in a dressing room.”

She was disarmed by the smile the younger woman gave her.

“Oh. If she’s busy I wouldn’t want to disturb her. Can I just look at these displays instead of waiting in a room? It’s really amazing.”

Reynold seemed to be trying to swallow his tongue, and the maids were staring between Erin and Ressa and slowly trying to edge away. Ressa blinked, but then her brows snapped together.

Erin felt the slightest tingling in her gut, and a vague sense of unease passed through her—for just an instant. She blinked, and it was gone like a moment of indigestion. She looked at Ressa and wondered if she was going to let Erin look. She was staring at Erin’s face pretty hard. Thinking? Erin wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

After a few seconds, Erin realized that this was intimidation, not pondering thought. Erin stared back, not smiling anymore. Was the other woman trying to scare her? She was tall, but that wasn’t scary.

Again, the briefest moment of unease passed through Erin as Ressa’s glare seemed to intensify. But Erin just stared back. She’d looked at Skinner; this wasn’t very scary.

And now Ressa seemed confused. Erin looked around as she scratched her back awkwardly. Reynold and the other two maids looked pale. Was something happening? Was Ressa using a Skill? Why wasn’t it working on Erin?

Maybe it was some kind of intimidation skill. Erin frowned. Should she get upset? But maybe Ressa just wanted to do her job well. It couldn’t be easy, leading people around all the time.

“Um. Is that too much of a bother?”

Ressa blinked. The tingling in Erin’s stomach faded, and she heard people start breathing again. The head of Lady Magnolia’s staff stared at Erin and slowly nodded her head.

“The drawing room may wait a while longer. What do you want to know?”

Erin shrugged.

“I don’t know. It just looks interesting. Is everything magical?”

She pointed.

“What does that thing do?”

—-

“…This sword was used by the young Lady Magnolia during her first battle at the pass in Liscor during the First Antinium War. She successfully defended herself and injured four Soldiers when they broke through the ring of guards to attack her. You will note the enchantments for sharpness and frost etched onto the blade.”

As it happened, Ressa lectured like a teacher as well, with excellent oratory skills and clearly a lot of passion when it came to her mistress. Erin nodded approvingly as she studied the shortsword in one of the many cases on display down a long hallway with windows looking out on the courtyard.

“Yeah. It’s shiny.”

Ressa glanced at Erin as the girl held her hands just over the lid of the glass case. It wasn’t locked, but Erin had the definite impression this was a ‘no touch’ sort of deal. She could actually feel the air growing colder around the pedestal.

“And what’s that? Is that a powerful ring?”

Erin moved over to the next object on display. Ressa nodded stiffly as maids and servants stared at the two and furtively scurried around behind their backs.

“…A ring of teleportation. Or should I say, [Lesser Teleportation]. It is fixed to an anchor, but no mages have been able to discern where the rings leads to. Putting it on might be deadly, hence the reason it is kept here.”

“But it’s not guarded or anything. Isn’t it dangerous if someone teleports to this ring?”

Ressa shook her head. It had taken a few minutes for her to start talking, but Erin had finally gotten her to explain what each object was and did outside of a one sentence reply. Either she was nicer than she looked, or she’d just given up trying to scare Erin.

“Each object here is protected by the enchantments of the mansion. Only a truly powerful mage would be able to penetrate the wards here.”

“But what if they did break through? And what if they, I dunno, brought an army?”

“That would be amusing to see.”

There was a glint in Ressa’s eyes. Erin blinked, and then nodded slowly.

“Right. So all of these things here are really valuable, right?”

“To a…certain extent. They are hardly the most prized artifacts in the Reinhart’s possessions, but they are important curios.”

“Like this other ring? What does it do?”

“It conjures a Hellhound to protect and defend the wearer for four hours. It can only be used once a month unless recharged with magic sooner, and the summoning time takes one minute.”

“Whoa.”

Erin eyed the ring. It looked like someone had melted and then twisted together metal and some kind of red stone to form the band that sat on a dark purple pillow.

“That sounds really useful. But why not give this to a servant? It could be useful when they’re out doing things. I mean, I was sort of worried we’d be attacked on the way here.”

Ressa sniffed dismissively.

“The [Butler] assigned to escort you has a number of magical items at his disposal and adequate Skills to ward off most attacks.”

“The [Butler]—you mean Reynold?”

Ressa paused. She looked at Erin oddly.

“…Yes. I do apologize if he acted with undue familiarity towards you.”

“What? Oh no, no!”

Erin waved her hands frantically at Ressa and nearly knocked over another pedestal that held a key in a display case. Ressa silently moved Erin away from the displays.

“I had a great ride. He was really nice! I just talked to him and he told me about wine and stuff.”

“Wine? Ah. One of Reynold’s duties is overseeing the wine collection.”

“Yeah. He talked about that. I made him, really. So if he’s in trouble—”

“Please, pay no mind to my comment. I am…glad you found his company so refreshing.”

Ressa glanced out the window as she spoke, and then looked at Erin. She nodded slightly.

“I believe Lady Magnolia will be finished with her business shortly. If you would accompany me?”

“Oh. Sure.”

Erin awkwardly trailed after Ressa. This time the [Head Maid] didn’t walk nearly so fast, so Erin could stare around the mansion.

“This place really is the greatest. I haven’t seen anything like it.”

“Truly?”

Ressa seemed surprised, but Erin nodded.

“Yeah! There’s magic and maids and butlers and all kinds of amazing things. Like that painting of the mountain. I’ve never been in any place as fancy as this.”

“I would have assumed you had seen similar sights. You come from a world far more…advanced than ours, do you not?”

Erin paused in surprise. But that was right, if Lady Magnolia knew Erin was from another world and had people here, they would have talked to Ressa and the others.

“…Yeah, but I mean, it’s nothing special.”

“You fly through the air like the greatest of [Archmages] I am told. And you build buildings into the sky.”

“What, skyscrapers? They’re nothing special. Not like this.”

Erin was no world traveler, but she had visited other countries, often to play in chess tournaments. And she had visited fancy hotels (and not so fancy ones), but they were products of steel and glass. As magnificent as they got, they were still creations of a company that was probably less than a hundred years old.

And no hotel Erin had ever stayed at had a Van Gogh behind the receptionist’s desk or a statue carved by Rodin in their lobby. Lady Magnolia’s home had more works of art than Erin could count; it was like she’d turned a museum into her home.

And the magic. The magic was far beyond anything Erin had ever seen. There was something real to the statues of armor and the summoned guard Pegasus that no CGI or animation could replicate.

“I think your world is a lot more fantastic than mine. We have some things that are more advanced, but that’s only technology. We don’t have magic.”

Erin said it truthfully, but Ressa stopped walking for a second and looked at her in surprise.

“Thank you.”

For what? Erin opened her mouth, but the maid began walking again.

“We are entering the guest suite of the mansion. If you will inform me of your preferences, I will have food and drink prepared for you immediately. I do not expect Lady Reinhart will be occupied for more than—”

“It’s her!”

The loud voice was a shout of surprise and jubilation, totally at odds with the quiet dignity of the mansion. Erin jumped and Ressa turned as a door flung itself open.

A young man stood in the doorway. Erin was treated to a…normal face. When you got down to it, it was a normal face. The young man was not a Drake, nor a brooding veteran like Halrac. He didn’t have a face full of hair like Krshia, and his eyes were brown, as was his hair. He didn’t have exposed bone or glowing eyes and he wasn’t armed.

He was a normal Human. It was a relief. And he looked just like someone from Erin’s world. That’s what made her stare and gape.

He was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. Completely normal, again. But that was so abnormal for this world that it was a shock. His t-shirt was black and had the green Android robot staring creepily at Erin. He had a watch—no, a Fitbit on his wrist, and a smile on his face.

Ressa did not. She blocked the young man’s path as he flung the door open and walked towards Erin.

“Mister Joseph, I must ask you to remain in your room. Lady Magnolia wishes to speak with Miss Solstice bef—”

“You’re actually here! Come on in!”

The young man—Joseph—ignored Ressa and tugged on Erin’s arm and suddenly she was in another room. She blinked, and looked around, confused, and then she was surrounded by people.

A young woman sitting with knees drawn to her chest stared at Erin from her chair. She had black skin—which again, was normal where Erin was from, but was the first person Erin had met who looked like that in this world. Now that Erin had grown used to brown fur and scales of different colors, it was another shock.

But another young woman was in front of Erin—more of a teenager, actually. She had a casual shirt, loose pants, and a cotton jacket on, and two rings. And she had painted nails, dark purple flaking slightly at the tips.

Erin stared at her. The other girl had a pair of sunglasses perched on her forehead. She was just like any normal girl from Erin’s world. Any normal girl.

It was almost too much for Erin to handle. She stared at the other girl and exclaimed.

“Oh my god!”

“Oh my god!”

A second’s hesitation, and then they threw their arms around each other. More people crowded around, ignoring Ressa as she spoke loudly behind them, and suddenly Erin was back home.

For a few seconds, Erin could stare around and only see people from her world. For a few seconds. And then the opulence of the room they were in hit her, and she realized she was standing in a sitting room that even the Queen of England might have envied. Maybe. Erin had never been in the Buckingham Palace, so she had no way of comparing the two. But this room was up there in terms of poshness.

Gold-backed chairs. Rich sofas and rugs that were probably real fur rather than machined fibers. A table made of crystal, and another one of those platters heaped with exotic foods and drinks.

Oh, and a huge glass window that looked out onto a massive garden where the storm cloud was still making its rounds. Erin stared around, but then the young people were around her, talking, demanding her attention.

And they were young. Erin was 20 years old, but they all seemed younger than her. Maybe it was just her perspective, but none of them could have been older than sixteen. But apparently they were close to her age or a few years younger.

The young man who’d dragged her into the room was the first to make himself coherent over the outpouring of voices. He shouted everyone else down, and Erin finally managed to count how many people were in the room.

Nine—no, ten. The girl in the chair hadn’t gotten up, but she was still staring in Erin’s direction. Ressa had left.

The young man smiled at Erin again, revealing straight teeth, probably the result of braces, another oddity. He introduced himself at last, along with the others.

“I’m Joseph, this is Rose. And this is Galina, Troy…”

Erin looked around, forgetting names, shaking hands, waving, and nodding at the people he introduced. They were nearly equally split between genders, and with Erin there were exactly five boys and five girls in the room.

“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. How did you all get here?”

Erin stared around the room, still slightly in shock. The hubbub started again, but this time the young woman who’d hugged Erin—Rose—explained.

“I was travelling to visit France, and these guys were a group of international students visiting the United States. We were all in the Chicago airport when we were taken.”

“You mean, abducted.”

Another boy said that. He had Asian features—although Erin wouldn’t have  been able to guess where he was from. She blinked at him, and Rose looked irritated.

“It wasn’t an abduction! It was a spell, a spell!”

“How do you know?”

“That’s what happened to the Americans, remember? I told you, they said there was a spell. That has to be it!”

“But why didn’t we all end up in the same place? Was it just a mistake?”

“It has to be a spell. What else could it be?”

Erin blinked as Rose began arguing with the other guy. Joseph jumped back in, cutting the two off.

“We arrived in the world just last week! It was crazy—one second we were waiting for our flight, and the next, we were here! We—the seven of us—appeared in this city in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was screaming, and Rose ended up in a forest!”

“What? One week?”

Erin stared at him. Joseph was wearing a huge grin, and he seemed to be practically vibrating with excitement.

“Yeah. All these soldiers ran up the instant we appeared and arrested us. We had no idea what was about to happen and they brought in a mage to look at us when Lady Magnolia arrived! She got us out of prison and took us here. Can you believe this place?”

“Wait, hold on. How did she find—no, wait, what’s happening back home? Does anyone know we’re missing? I’m missing?”

Erin grabbed Joseph. He looked startled and shook his head.

“No—we haven’t heard anything about missing people. Why. When did you get here?”

She didn’t even know. Erin let go of Joseph and shook her head. Ever since she’d landed in this world, each day had felt like a week. Or a year.

“I—don’t know. Three months? Four? It feels like two years.”

Three months!?

Everyone looked startled, again, except for the girl sitting in her chair. She was rocking back and forth and staring at Erin without participating in any of the noise. Her eyes were sunken and she didn’t seem to blink.

“Three months, are you serious?”

Joseph stepped back and ran a hand through his hair. Rose stared at Erin.

“Do you have an iPhone? Were you part of the call?”

“The call? Wh—oh!”

Erin remembered the call Ryoka had told her about, the one with people from all over the world. She shook her head.

“I don’t have anything from my—our world. But I know a girl who does. She was part of the call?”

“What?”

Again, the exclamation and uproar nearly deafened Erin. The guys were talking excitedly, and the girls were asking Erin where the other girl was, what her name was, when she was getting here, and so on.

Erin raised her hands.

“I don’t know! She’s out on a delivery. She’s a Runner and I haven’t seen her for a week.”

“A Runner? What’s that?”

Erin blinked at Joseph. It seemed so obvious, but he really hadn’t been here. She tried to explain.

“It’s like a post office worker here. She delivers messages, packages—usually she runs from city to city, avoiding monsters and bandits.”

“What? That’s so weird. Why would anyone want to do that?”

“Well…”

Erin stared at Joseph. She shook her head slightly.

“It’s what she had to do to survive. I mean, I became an [Innkeeper]—”

“You’re an [Innkeeper]? Why?”

“…Because that’s the only way I could survive. I didn’t know there were other people and Lady Magnolia wasn’t there, and I found this inn and got the class, so—”

Erin could only shrug. She looked at Joseph and the others helplessly.

“You’ve only been here for a week?”

They nodded.

“Maybe longer. But not much more than that.”

Rose interrupted. She pointed at the girl sitting in the chair.

“Not Imani. She was with another group of people in the airport. She ended up somewhere else.”

Erin looked at the girl again, and this time the young woman seemed to retreat further into herself as everyone stared at her. She clutched her knees to her chest with two arms.

“Um. Is she okay?”

For a second Joseph’s face lost its good cheer. He lowered his voice, although he was clearly audible in the room.

“Imani ran into monsters when she and the others appeared. She was the only one who got away, and she was in this small village until Lady Magnolia found her.”

“Monsters? What kind of monsters?”

Imani shuddered. She looked up at Erin.

“Crelers.”

She whispered the word as she rocked back and forth on her chair. The room went silent. It was the awkward silence of people not knowing what to say. Erin moved over, until she was close to Imani. She hesitated, and then pulled up a chair next to the girl and sat next to her.

“I’m sorry. I ran into a Dragon the first night I was here.”

“A Dragon? Reall—”

Rose, or perhaps it was someone else, kicked Joseph. But Imani looked at Erin. She seemed to understand.

“How’d you get away?”

“I ran. And then I ran into a group of Goblins.”

Erin had to smile bitterly at the memory. She could still taste the fear and feel the burning on her arm and leg as she ran, screaming and crying through the night. Imani looked at Erin and then uncovered her legs a bit.

“I hid. On the rocks. They can’t climb rocks.”

Erin put a hand on Imani’s shoulder. The other girl gripped her so tightly Erin could see Imani’s hand go white.

“I’m sorry.”

“They all died.”

It was a whisper meant only for Erin. And then Imani began to cry. Erin held her, as the other young men and women—the other boys and girls, really—stood around in awkward silence, not knowing what to do or say. But Erin did. She hugged Imani to her chest, and the other girl broke down in her arms.

It was something only they could share. Something only Erin and Imani could understand. So Erin held the girl and talked quietly, until she was sleeping and the others were sitting together.

They were no less talkative, but they were more subdued. Still, Erin saw the energy blazing in the eyes of all of the boys and most of the girls. And she began to understand a tiny bit of what was happening the more they talked.

“They might not be dead.”

“What?”

One of the guys looked at the sleeping Imani and lowered his voice even further.

“They might not be dead. I mean, Imani says she saw them die, but what if they just…woke up? If this is a game, then…”

Erin couldn’t believe her ears. She stared at him, but it was Rose who spoke up, sharply.

“This world isn’t a game.”

“How do you know? If this is some virtual reality—”

Joseph looked at Erin.

“It’s insane, this world, you know? Levels? Classes? I saw one of the maids use a Skill, and it blew my mind! She was cleaning up a spill, and then she just moved the mop and—it was all gone! In one go!”

Erin nodded slowly. She’d explained about her inn and Ryoka in briefest terms, but it was hard to communicate all that had happened to her to these people. They had no frame of reference to understand it.

“Drakes? You mean Dragons?”

“No—I mean they’re like walking lizards, only they don’t like being called that. And there are Gnolls—”

“Ah! I know Gnolls. Do you have to fight them off? Do you have any combat skills or spells?”

“No. I mean, I learned how to defend myself, but I’m no warrior.”

“What about magical items?”

“Magical items?”

“Like a sword or a ring. Something enchanted!”

“I have a chessboard.”

“A chessboard?

“Yeah, it’s—well, it’s magical. Nevermind. It’s a long story. But what are you all going to do now that you’re here?”

Erin wanted to know what Lady Magnolia intended to do with everyone. But not one of the people in the room knew.

“We’ve been stuck in Lady Magnolia’s mansion for the last few days. Ever since she found us. We can go out in the garden or wander around, but she doesn’t want us leaving this place. She says it’s too dangerous.”

Erin nodded, although she noticed the dissatisfied look on Joseph’s face.

“It is dangerous. I’m glad Lady Magnolia found you all.”

“Yeah, but look out there!”

Joseph pointed to the window in frustration. He waved his hand and nearly spilled the goblet of wine he’d filled to the brim. Erin eyed it.

All of the international students and Rose were eating some of the food that had been laid out. It was all rich stuff, and delicious, but they were also drinking. A lot. Some of the students from other countries – like the guy from China and the one from Poland – were drinking at a slower pace, but the rest were enjoying alcohol liberally, especially the ones from America. Joseph kept offering Erin a cup, but she was sticking to a mild fruit juice.

Now Joseph took a gulp of wine and pointed out the window. In the distance, Erin could see countless buildings, spreading out across the horizon.

“Look at that! Even the sky is bigger here. And there are monsters and magical artifacts! I want to get out there and start leveling.”

“Leveling? In what class?”

Joseph shrugged as he grabbed a sausage off a plate. Rose gave him a disgusted look; she was using the silverware, which was actual silver.

“I don’t know. I’m thinking of learning to use a sword and becoming an adventurer. Or spells.”

“An adventurer? But that’s such a dangerous job!”

Joseph gave Erin an odd look. He shrugged.

“Yeah, maybe at first. But if I get to a high enough level and have potions, it won’t matter, right? I was thinking that we could form an adventuring team! I mean, there are eight of us—nine, including you Erin—but we don’t all have to go out. Some of us could take levels in supporting classes.”

“But why would you want to do that? Lady Magnolia wants to keep you here, doesn’t she?”

Another guy shrugged. He was from…Spain? No, that was Joseph.

“She says that she’s considering it. We’re hoping she’ll give us some magical weapons and armor—you know, to give us a head start. And maybe teach us some magic. I mean, what else should we do? Nothing?”

Erin shook her head.

“That’s really not a good idea. It’s dangerous out there. I mean, you could get killed.”

She wanted to add that they would get killed, but she couldn’t say it. Everyone—except for the sleeping Imani and Rose—didn’t seem to get the danger. Two of the guys seemed almost ecstatic as they began arguing over the best class to take.

“So what about this Ryoka? Why isn’t she here? I know Lady Magnolia was looking for someone else besides you. Is she that far away?”

Erin’s heart sank as Rose asked her the question she’d been dreading. Erin had been wondering that very thing herself.

“I don’t know. She was going south, to meet some kind of important person and do a big delivery. She was going to earn eight hundred gold coins for it, but I haven’t seen her.”

“Eight hundred—!”

This time Joseph did spill some wine on the carpet. He looked guilty as Erin scrambled for water, but waved her away.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve spilled stuff before and the maids clean it up. But eight hundred gold pieces? How’d she get that?”

Erin hesitated and sat down.

“I don’t really know. She uh, mentioned a client, but she ran off before I could get all the details. She was being chased. By Frost Faeries.”

“Faeries? No way!”

Nothing would do then, except that Erin tell the entire story of her meeting the faeries as they brought winter. Joseph shook his head, grinning again, when Erin had finished.

“Faeries. Wow. Bring a bottle and a net for extra lives, huh?”

“No—it’s cold iron. They’re dangerous, right?”

Erin nodded.

“I’m just worried Ryoka is okay. I tried asking the faeries to forgive her, but they all left a while back and I haven’t seen one.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. Don’t worry about it. If she’s got levels in this uh, [Runner] class and potions, she should be able to outrun anything and heal up, right?”

Erin shook her head.

“Ryoka doesn’t have levels. Or classes.”

Why?

Erin could only shrug. She couldn’t really explain it, not to these people. She went on, growing more silent as the others began talking and arguing more and more.

It sounded like they had gone over these topics many times before, because Erin sensed each group had their own opinion. Rose wanted to make contact with other people from their world, along with two of the other girls, but Joseph and the guys wanted to try fighting monsters. With magical items, of course. The other girls just wanted to explore the city and the world as if they were tourists.

Rose glared at Joseph as he argued with her. Both of their movements were growing exaggerated, and they were getting louder the more they drunk. Joseph grabbed something from one of the tables, and Erin saw with a shock that he had a tablet in his hands. Apparently, this group had been holding their carry-on luggage, so they had quite a number of objects from their world with them.

“You’ve got a phone, and I’ve got a tablet right here. All we need to do is level up in the [Mage] class—or earn enough gold to hire someone to cast the right spell! Lady Magnolia could help with that, and once we get strong enough, we can probably travel there ourselves.”

Another guy—Leon from Poland—nodded. He pointed to the expensive furnishings of this room for emphasis as he spoke.

“It’s all about getting the right start. It’s almost like a cheat to have Lady Magnolia helping us—if we get magical artifacts right off, we can fight tougher monsters without being worried about getting hurt. We gain gold, level up, and do that until we’re high level!”

“And then what?”

Leon looked at Erin as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“We’re going to find a way to go back home. Through a magical portal or something. Or a spell. There has to be one.”

Joseph nodded.

“If we got here, there has to be a way back.”

Everyone nodded. There had to be. Erin stared down at her hands and thought of Pisces and Ceria. She was sixty years old and she hadn’t hit Level 30.

Oblivious to Erin’s thoughts, Joseph grinned.

“There’s so much I want to see. Like Goblins. I hear they’re pretty nasty. I wonder how dangerous they are? Erin, could we take on a tribe with some swords and potions?”

Erin looked at Joseph and tried to imagine him facing down fifty screaming Goblins as they charged and screamed. She shook her head.

“Goblins aren’t all evil. Some of them friendly. Or can be.”

“Oh, you mean they’re not all dangerous? Do some have peaceful villages or something?”

Erin hesitated.

“No—they’re just—”

She gave up. How could Erin explain Rags to the people here? She hadn’t even talked about how the Goblins had killed Klbkch, or the day when she’d woken up and seen Relc holding the severed Goblin heads. She hadn’t talked about fighitng the Goblin Chieftain or Skinner, or anything else.

She just listened, growing more silent as she sipped at her drink as the talk wore on. They were going to explore, leave the mansion soon. Erin was supposed to be the last member of their group since Ryoka couldn’t be found. Lady Magnolia had promised them weapons, gold, even lessons on magic. They were going to find a place to stay in the city, enroll in the adventurer’s guild—at least the guys were—and they’d all find good classes. One girl asked if they could stay at Erin’s inn for a while. Erin imagined them meeting Toren or dealing with a Rock Crab and couldn’t reply.

It was as if someone had let a fly or a mosquito loose inside of Erin’s head. She thought she heard buzzing, faint, but inescapable. It grew louder as the conversation progressed, until it was trying to burst out of her head. The voices around her became fragments, and more slurred the more the others drank. They were so excited from Erin’s arrival that they ate and drank quickly, talking in bursts over each other.

“We need to find a place to stay. An inn, like Erin’s, or we could stay here. But what we really need is potions—”

“I want to learn magic. Did you see that Pegasus outside, and those suits of armor? We could be [Summoners]—!”

“I played Dark Souls. Not the same thing obviously, but if we keep an escape route open we should be—”

“—Tactics. Someone has to be a tank. We can get defensive equipment—”

“—Tame a monster—”

“—Wonder when we’ll go back home—”

“—Learn to cast magic—”

“—Hang out here. It’s like a hotel, isn’t it? Way better than back home—”

“—As soon as we can get Ressa to leave us alone, I want to see if they’ve got any artifacts in the armory we can use.”

“Ressa?”

Erin’s head snapped up. She looked at Joseph.

“What about Ressa? She seems nice.”

He made an expression of displeasure, one that was mirrored across the other’s faces.

“She’s a pain in the ass. Lady Magnolia gave us the freedom to go wherever we want, but Ressa keeps insisting we stay together in this part of the mansion.”

“Really? She didn’t seem that way to me.”

But Rose was nodding.

“She and Magnolia—well, they’re not bad—”

“Ressa is.”

“Right, but Magnolia’s generous. It’s just that she’s awkward, you know?”

“No?”

Erin had no idea, and Rose struggled to explain.

“Really awkward. It’s like she’s a countess out of Downton Abbey or something, you know?”

“Oh come on, she’s not that bad. She’s pretty outgoing!”

“Yeah, but watching everyone bow to her is kind of cringy, isn’t it? And she keeps laughing when we explain elections and democracy to her—”

“At least we’ve got proper toilets and they wash their hands here. I was really afraid they’d all be eating with crap on their hands or filthy and depressing like Game of Thrones.”

“I know, right? And the servants don’t seem to have any kind of education. You know they don’t have schools here? It’s as if—”

The girl that had been speaking broke off quickly. Erin turned in her seat, and saw the door at one end of the room was open. Ressa was standing there, quietly emanating…dissatisfaction.

Perhaps it was the look of the room. Food was scattered across the sofas, on plates or on the carpets. More drinks had been spilled, and half of the people within were lounging around or fiddling with the electronics they’d brought. Erin had been shocked to learn all of them were still able to use their devices thanks to near-daily [Repair] spells.

The [Head Maid] looked at Erin in the silence.

“Miss Solstice? Lady Magnolia will receive you at your convenience.”

Erin stood up.

“Looks like I’m going to meet her. Um, nice meeting you guys.”

She walked towards the door. Joseph stood up awkwardly as if to follow Erin.

“I’d—we’d like to go with Erin. To talk to Magnolia.”

The expression on Ressa’s face froze as she held the door open for Erin. She did not look quite at Joseph.

Lady Magnolia will speak to you at a later date. For now she wishes to speak to Erin alone.”

“Yeah, but she’s one of us. Why does she have to be alone?”

“That is what Lady Magnolia wishes.”

Erin stepped past Ressa. She heard Joseph raised his voice.

“Could I—?”

“No.”

Ressa closed the door. And then she took a key from her pocket and locked the door from the outside. Erin wondered if that was overkill, but two seconds later she heard the door handle rattle slightly.

The maid turned and nodded to Erin again.

“My apologies. If you will follow me?”

Erin walked with the tall maid in the corridors for silence for a few minutes. It was hard to reestablish the conversation after all that. Erin cleared her throat silently, and then spoke up.

“Um, we were in there a long time. Was Lady Magnolia busy?”

Ressa shook her head as she walked Erin back through the corridors, and then up a long flight of stairs.

“Lady Magnolia felt it best that you mingle with the others for a while, given you had already met. She is now free from any business at the present time.”

“Oh. Good.”

More silence. Ressa was walking faster than normal again. Erin thought, and spoke to the maid’s back.

“I’m uh, sorry about the mess they made. I’m an [Innkeeper], so I know how it gets. I’ve got [Advanced Cleaning]. Maybe I could help…?”

“The [Maids] have the prerequisite skills. Do not worry.”

Ressa hesitated, and then looked at Erin.

“Thank you for offering, however. It is not often that we entertain such visitors.”

“Really? I thought she would have tons of guests.”

“She does, but they rarely stay for more than a few hours at a time.”

Joseph and the others had mentioned the servants weren’t too helpful with directing them or finding mages to cast [Repair]. Erin wondered how much of that was intentional.

“Do you uh, not like them? The people from my world, I mean? They don’t think you do.”

Silence from Ressa. She slowed as she passed by an open doorway. Erin caught a glimpse of a massive library filled with tomes being slowly dusted before she passed the entrance.

“We serve Lady Magnolia. We clean and cook, but we do far more than simply maintain her estate. We are there to help her.

Not anyone else. Erin swallowed what she’d been about to say next.

“Here we are.”

Ressa stopped by a pair of double doors. She rested one hand on the golden knob and looked at Erin.

“I trust you will extend the same courtesies to Lady Reinhart as you have shown me. She is close to royalty as this land has to offer.”

Erin nodded seriously. She hesitated as Ressa pressed down on the handle.

“Um. Is there anything I should say? No one really told me why she wanted me here. What should I do?”

It was the mystery that not even the people from her world knew the answer to. Ressa paused, and looked at Erin.

“Be honest. Be truthful. Lady Reinhart has only your best interests in mind, and she has devoted quite a lot of money and time to gathering your companions here.”

Erin nodded.

“Thank you for the help.”

“You are welcome.”

Ressa smiled, just for a moment, and then the door opened. Slowly, Erin walked into the vast room and stopped.

It was pink. That was to say, someone had decided the theme for the room was elegant luxury, and the predominant color should be light pink. It wasn’t displeasing to the eye, but Erin felt that there was just too much of that color and not enough of anything else.

It was also a smaller room than Erin had expected; she’s almost believed she was entering an audience hall, but Ressa had led her to an intimate sitting room, the kind of place where you could chat and converse and gossip, but elegantly.

A large couch sat in the center of the room, across from its twin. A small table sat in the center, holding a tea pot, cups, and some light snacks.

And a woman was sitting at the couch. She wasn’t normal. Oh, she was no radiant beauty like Ressa, but neither was she ugly. She was quite attractive, but she wasn’t a young woman either. She was in her forties, a larger woman than Ressa, if shorter, and she was dressed in a shimmering gown of green that looked either magical or magically made. Her lips were lifted in a slight smile as she studied Erin, and Ressa stepped quietly behind her as another maid slowly closed the door behind the girl.

She was not normal. It wasn’t that she looked different, but that she held herself differently. From tip to toe, she was graceful, refined, and serene. When she moved or spoke or even laughed, it was still with a base of what could only be called class.

And she was looking at Erin. Her eyes were the only parts of her that weren’t veiled in politeness. They were like searchlights, sweeping Erin from top to toe, looking through her, at what she was, what she had done, what she would do. They were unsettling and mysterious and that, more than anything, made Erin stop where she stood.

Lady Magnolia was sitting, but Erin’s heartbeat grew faster as she stared down at this woman who owned so much. Erin thought of the Queen of the Antinium, sitting on her throne in the dark caverns. She swallowed once, and took a deep breath.

This was her. Ryoka’s pursuer, the one who’d pieced together the truth of Erin’s nature. A woman with wealth and power, a [Lady], and a living legend in her own right. The head of the Reinhart family, the heroine of the First Antinium Wars, and the woman who loved ice cream and blue fruit juice.

Lady Magnolia.

She smiled at Erin, and raised a cup of tea as she gestured to the couch in front of her.

“Good evening, Miss Solstice. Do take a seat. We have much to talk about.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

2.03 G

She was not prepared for this. For any of it.

That was the first thing Rags realized the day after she became leader of not only the Red Fang Tribe, but all of the allied and subservient tribes under Garen’s control. She was not ready to lead such a host. She knew it, and he said it to her.

Repeatedly.

It was the first thing Rags thought when she woke up in one of the cleared out Shield Spider nests and pushed aside her dirty blankets and realized what had happened. She climbed out of her pit and stared around.

The small valley where she had made her last stand was still filled with the dead, mostly of her tribe, but also of the Red Fang Tribe’s warriors and mounts. Rags looked around and saw her Goblins awkwardly binding wounds, or making food…of the dead, but most were still slumbering.

They had been pushed to the brink by the Red Fang’s harrying. And only now did Rags see the cost of it.

Death.

Garen Red Fang, leader of his tribe and several hundred miles of territory north of Liscor, had been sleeping. But he woke up quick when Rags jumped onto his stomach from the top of the pit. He roared in anger, reached for his sword, and stopped when he saw Rags.

“Chieftain.”

He spoke, with words not in the Goblin language. Rags was still struggling with that. But Garen nodded to her and stood upwards effortlessly, stretching as if he hadn’t been in a fight to the death yesterday and had part of his face melted off.

“Food?”

She scowled at him, but jerked her head towards the top of the pit. Garen’s war cry had woken her entire tribe; Goblins don’t ignore subtle clues like someone screaming and few of them were about to go to sleep after a scare like that.

The snowy world descended into organized chaos as the green-skinned Goblins began scurrying around. Rags watched as those Goblins with levels in [Cook]…or more accurately, its sub-classes, [Butcher], [Scavenger], [Stewer], and so on, began making food. Garen blinked around at his tribe and waved at them. Then he looked at Rags.

“Much to speak of, Chieftain.”

She stared at him, and then nodded. Yes, there was much to speak of. She and Garen wandered off as her tribe got to work, watching the Goblins mill about.

There was organization in it, despite how it might look to a non-Goblin. Each individual had their task and role in the tribe, but they would take over each other’s jobs in the blink of an eye, usually communicating with a grunt or a poke or punch. Sometimes they got into fights and screeched at each other, but that was quickly broken up by the sub-leaders of each tribe: the Hobs.

They were big, generally mean, and generally committed to the idea that if someone else was doing the job, they didn’t have to. They enforced Rags’ orders and helped make decisions. Such as: were the Carn Wolves edible or poisonous? Did the Goblins skin them and keep the pelts, or try to eat them fur and all?

Garen watched his wolves being cut apart with no real emotion, although his eyes did tighten for a few seconds before he looked away. He glanced over where his mount was lying by the fire. Rags looked too.

Of the fifty-odd Goblins Garen had taken with him to harass Rags’ tribe, a little over twenty were left, and all of them were injured. On the other hand, only a handful of wolves had survived; Rags had ordered her tribe to kill the mounts first.

The Red Fang warriors seemed to be getting along fine with her Goblins, Rags noted. In that way they were like any Goblins; they might not be slapping backs with the Goblins who’d been trying to cut them apart, but they understood the changing nature of dominance within the tribes.

The wolves on the other hand were confused by this ceasefire, and still understandably upset, more so after they saw their pack being devoured by hungry Goblins. Several snapped at the Goblins walking around them, and only let their riders tend to them. They calmed down when they were fed dead Goblins, but they still stared hard at Rags’ tribe.

Garen noticed Rags’ stare.

“They will obey. They take time, see you are leader.”

Rags nodded absently. She stared at Garen, and then recalled a bit of what had been said the night before.

 

Why?

 

It was a question she hadn’t really gotten an answer to. Garen shrugged.

“Must be done.”

Rags didn’t understand that. Her brows furrowed, and she glared at Garen.

 

You kill many of tribe.

 

He shrugged and sniffed the air.

“A test.”

 

You are stronger. Why me?

 

He grinned.

“Stronger. Yes. But cannot lead. Not like you.”

She didn’t understand. But after they had eaten—roasted wolf that filled the stomach which even Garen devoured readily—she began to realize what he meant when they decided what to do next.

Normally, Rags would be in charge of everything. But Garen was no ordinary Chieftain, and neither was she, for that matter. He told her the rest of his tribe was on the way, with the allied tribes.

“My tribe is quickest. Others are slow.”

Garen flicked a bone into the spider pit as the Goblins dragged the remaining bodies into each one. They could be buried; perhaps the Spiders would eat them, or some other creature would, but Rags had decided it was better than leaving them out and making Liscor’s Watch suspicious.

 

How many in Tribe?

 

Garen shrugged. He looked at a warrior from his tribe, and the Goblin scratched his head with his one good arm. The other was bandaged. They argued, and Garen eventually came up with two hundred as a rough estimate.

Rags frowned. Most Chieftains knew almost exactly how many Goblins they had in their tribe, but Garen seemed very casual. But she was busy overseeing ways to move the injured, and plotting their next destination. She wanted to take the tribes away from Liscor, back to the cave perhaps, or somewhere else they could rest and regroup.

She wanted to meet the other tribes, but Rags scowled when she heard one of her Goblin scouts reporting that they were dragging their heels, walking towards her tribe at a snail’s pace as word of her victory over the Red Fang tribe was done.

Garen was all for letting the tribes disperse as Rags deliberated what to do. She glared at him: she’d been thinking and he was interrupting her. No one bothered her when she was thinking, not even other Hobs. But Garen clearly thought he was more important than anyone else.

He was right, of course, but it was still annoying.

“Let tribes go. They will come if you tell. But you are not Goblin Lord.”

Not yet, and perhaps never. That was what Rags heard. She nodded reluctantly. With the Red Fang tribe, she would replenish most of the Goblins she’s lost, and as her tribe neared a thousand individuals, she would have trouble keeping track of them all. Managing the thousands of Goblins in all the allied tribes was beyond her, so it was wisest to keep the Chieftains apart rather than cram them together and risk a fight.

 

Tell them to go, then. But not far.

 

Garen nodded in agreement, and he sent two of his least injured riders to spread the message. Rags began moving her tribe north as the last Goblin corpses were buried, and then she and Garen found themselves moving at the center of her tribe, in a small space of their own.

Rags was used to it, but the fact that Garen was still following her was annoying. She glanced at him a few times before deciding to bite the poisonous toad, so to speak.

 

What do you want?

 

He grinned at her, unabashed by the tone in Rags’ voice. Garen patted his mount, the gigantic wolf he rode who was limping at his side, and replied to Rags casually.

“Am walking. Not good?”

Rags’ brows snapped together. She glared at him, ignoring his growling mount.

 

I am Chieftain.

 

“Yes. But I am better Goblin. Older. Wiser. Stronger. Must teach you before you are better Chieftain than I.”

She pondered this. Rags had never heard of a Chieftain being taught – they normally learned what they needed to from observation, or made up everything as they went along. It was a non-Goblin concept, something Erin might come up with. Rags didn’t entirely dislike it, but she had to make one point clear.

 

I am Chieftain. You are not.

 

She could have no fighting over her position, especially since Rags knew she would lose if he challenged her. Garen nodded.

“Will not fight, Chieftain. Do not want to lead.”

That was another odd statement, but Rags saw the truth of that once she saw the rest of the Red Fang Tribe. Her Goblins had been moving at a reasonably quick job for little over two hours when she heard a warning cry, and saw the Red Fang tribe approaching.

Her first reaction was of disappointment. Not because there were less Goblins than advertised; there were actually around three hundred by her quick count, and nearly forty wolves not including pups. It was a vast tribe, made even stronger by the fact that they had six Hobs with them, the highest number she’d seen outside of her own tribe.

And indeed, the Red Fang tribe was clearly a giant among the tribes of the area. They had quality armor on most of their warriors, and weapons to match. But Rags was disappointed because when she looked at the Goblins who were not warriors, she saw her own tribe, back when she had not been Chieftain.

All of the non-warriors were thin and scrawny. The children were ragged or naked, and the Red Fang tribe didn’t look like it was carrying much food at all. They were clearly a tribe of warriors, but most tribes Rags had encountered had a simple scale of welfare. If one Goblin was fed, they all were. True, the Chieftain would be fed most, but tribes with a strong fighting force seldom had food issues.

Yet this tribe did. Rags called a halt as she approached the tribe. Immediately, the Goblins bowed their heads and didn’t meet her eyes. She was in control.

Garen sauntered over as Rags did a quick circuit of her tribe. He poked her, and she debated knifing him.

“Should teach how to fight now. Be stronger.”

She shook her head. This was far more important. She had just acquired three hundred new bodies; it was time to reorganize and rethink her tribe’s structure.

Garen frowned, not understanding.

“What? Why wait?”

Rags sighed, but she grunted at him as she looked around at the tribe. They were all watching her intently, the Hobs especially for some reason. She hoped they wouldn’t be trouble. All of these Hobs looked even stronger than the ones in her tribe, and she would need each one.

 

Food. Clothing. Weapons. Sleeping place. Must have things.

 

“Food?”

Garen’s brows rose dismissively. He shook his head, and then pointed at a Goblin, seemingly at random.

“Chieftain wants food. Get food.”

The Goblin stared at Garen and then at Rags uncertainly, but no harder than Rags was doing. She watched as he poked a few Goblins and they began to shuffle off. They had no direction, no weapons outside of the ones the Goblins were carrying, no way of retrieving their food—

 

What are you doing?

 

Garen looked blankly at Rags.

“They get food. Kill something. Find something. Bring back.”

What if they didn’t have enough food? What about logistics, and the need to find a food source if the tribe would stay in the area? Garen just stared at Rags, and then pointed again.

“Hobs will take care of it.”

Rags looked over. Indeed, one of the Hobs had intercepted the food gathering group and was trying to give them order. He gave Rags a look of long suffering and then she understood.

Garen might be a warrior beyond warriors, and unbeatable among Goblins, a devious attacker and even a former adventurer who knew more about Humans and other races than even other Chieftains…but he was no leader.

He had no levels in the [Chieftain] class, or even the [Leader] class. His idea of leadership was leading the small group of warriors he had handpicked and trained himself into combat, and letting the Hobs and other Goblins sort the rest out.

In fact, Rags learned to her mounting indignation, Garen hadn’t even really grown his tribe himself. Goblins had simply wandered towards his camp like moths drawn to a flame and he’d let them stay. The only reason he even had a tribe was because he felt the general urge to, but he was incapable of leading any more than his few hundred, despite his overwhelming strength.

It wasn’t a huge flaw in a person, but it was in a Chieftain. As the leader of the Flooded Waters Tribe, Rags felt for the Red Fang Tribe, so she sprang into action, much to Garen’s annoyance.

The first thing Rags did was cancel Garen’s idiotic food gathering order and send out scouts from her location. Not to find food; she wanted a place to make camp at the moment, and her scouts would report any good food sources around.

Next, Rags began identifying useful Goblins in the tribe while she ordered her tribe’s food stashes to be emptied to feed the hungry Red Fang goblins. She always brought as much food as her tribe could carry, and so Rags watched as it was devoured by the newcomers.

The Hobs of Garen’s tribe looked on with relief as Rags began separating the Goblins, identifying classes, making the children and mothers and elderly stay together—she took the six Hobs who she’d decided were fairly competent and gave them the task of overseeing the different groups in her tribe.

Rags had dedicated scavengers, hunters, warriors, and many other groups dedicated to doing one thing in her tribe. She’d set up her internal system so that at any given time one group of Goblins could be out doing something, another could be relaxing, and her warriors could be ready to assist or protect the camp at any time.

Garen had none of that. He wandered around as Rags struggled to find a way to manage his Carn Wolves. They were distrustful of her, but they seemed to realize that she was the new boss.

At last, Rags’ scouts came back with a number of locations they’d spotted, and she picked out a large forest sitting at the base of one of the mountains as a good place to stay for a while. They’d also told her that there was a herd of Corusdeer nearby, and as far as she was concerned, that was an excellent source of meat.

Normally Goblins helped mitigate the huge number of mouths to feed in their tribes by eating their dead. But Rags considered that having dead Goblins at all was a sign of failure, so she was extremely careful to find new food sources. By the looks of the Red Fang tribe, they’d been forced to eat their dead numerous times already.

Perhaps it was time to grow food out of the ground like she’d seen Drakes and Gnolls doing. Rags knew it was possible; she didn’t know if it was possible in the snow, but it would be nice to have a reliable source of food. For the moment though, she wanted the herd of deer slaughtered. They could salt the meat; another thing Garen’s tribe didn’t do.

Still, Corusdeer were dangerous. Normally Rags would hesitate to attack a herd, even with her Hobs. So she sent Garen instead. He frowned at her when she gave him the order, along with a large number of warriors armed with pikes and bows, slings, and crossbows to keep the deer at bay and strike them from afar.

“Why? I am not hunter.”

But he was strong. And more importantly, Rags had said so. She glared at him until he went, with strict orders to keep as many Goblins alive as possible.

He came back after Rags had firmly established her camp, with designated places to eat, sleep, and excrete. Garen eyed the orderly camp Rags had made, and the way the young Goblin was organizing several groups each led by a Hob to go out and enter caves and other dens for more food.

The former Goblin Chieftain dismissively tossed a Corusdeer’s carcass down at Rags’ feet. He’d beheaded the alpha stag in the group, and Rags was pleased to note that the group she’d sent with him was only down a few Goblins.

Garen wasn’t even wounded. His skin was like armor, but the deer hadn’t even gotten close enough to gore him. According to the Hobs that had gone with him, Garen had ignored their hunting formation – closed ranks of pikes and stakes to hold the deer back and archers striking deer on the edges of the herd – and had walked into the herd, swinging his sword and cutting down Corusdeer even as they turned the snow into fog.

No other Goblin could do that. Not even a Hob, or a Chieftain. Rags could see the admiration in the eyes of the other Goblins who had gone with them. She understood. She’d felt it herself; it wasn’t just seeing him fight like that which was amazing. She’d seen adventurers striding around in magnificent armor, slaying huge monsters. But this was different. Garen was a Goblin. He was one of them, a being who could fight like a hero.

He was what Rags had dreamed of being, before those dreams had been crushed. But seeing him made her want to be strong again. She was strong as a Chieftain, but as an individual Goblin?

“We talk now?”

Garen was irritated, but he grew less so when he realized there was more hot food available and a comfortable place that had been cleared of snow to sit in. The forest was an ideal campsite for Goblins, so long as Rags made it clear to keep fire away from the trees.

It was time to talk. Rags sat with Garen and they ate again, as she finally asked all the questions on her mind. Some she had worked out, but Garen confirmed the rest.

Garen Red Fang. It wasn’t just his tribe’s name, it was his own. He had been named by the Shaman of the Old Fire Tribe, but he had wandered away from his tribe as soon as he had grown older, dissatisfied with working for his Chieftain and wandering to become stronger.

And he had. Oh, he had. Garen had learned to fight by himself, and he’d leveled up as a [Warrior] quickly. Not only that; he’d become a Hob as well, and ended up terrorizing quite a stretch of land far to the north by himself, clashing with other Goblin Tribes and local monsters until he came to the attention of a Silver-rank team of adventurers.

They’d hunted him down, and nearly killed him, but something strange had happened then. Intrigued by a Goblin who was intelligent enough to fend for himself and clearly independent, the leader of the adventurers had spared his life, instead just chasing him away.

Garen had fled, but not far. The encounter with the adventurers had changed him as well; he grew curious of the Humans and other species who he’d only regarded as enemies and prey. Consumed by his desire to understand more, Garen actually disguised himself as a traveler, hiding his green skin and face behind robes and a crude mask and gone into villages and towns, listening to Humans talk.

His first few tries had been hugely unsuccessful, but Garen soon learned to speak passably in the Human language, and no one would suspect a Goblin of being so tall, or peaceful. Garen managed to even enter cities, usually in secret and while the guards at the gates weren’t watching. But he was strong and clever enough that the few times he was caught, he could fight his way out.

And so Garen had gone searching for the adventurers who’d spared him once before. He tracked them down, and after finding them, he’d challenged them a second time.

He lost again, but this time he’d volunteered to join their group. After much debate, he’d been accepted, and so Garen Red Fang had become the first Goblin to ever journey with adventurers. With his team, they’d take on normal monster-hunting requests and even explored dungeons, eventually progressing to Gold-rank status.

That was how Garen had gotten his sword, and become such a devastating warrior. He’d formed close bonds with the adventurers too, Rags gathered…until the day when he betrayed them.

That was the only thing Garen wouldn’t talk about. The tall Hobgoblin had clammed up about it, sucking the marrow out of a bone and staring moodily into the fire. Rags had let it drop, because the next part of his story was more important still.

After his betrayal, Garen couldn’t stay in the world of non-Goblins anymore. He’d retreated to the area north of Liscor, a land where Goblins were generally ignored aside from the monster-slaying requests posted with regularity in each village. He’d wandered around the High Passes, and even tamed a Carn Wolf when he began to desire a tribe.

In the truest Goblin fashion, Garen had found the biggest tribe around and challenged the Chieftain to a battle. He’d even allowed the Chieftain to fight with as many warriors as he wanted, but apparently the Hobgoblin in charge had taken one look at Garen and fled, quite sensibly too. Thus, Garen had his tribe.

Normally, the story would then become about Garen growing his tribe, thanks to his incredible abilities as a warrior. But as Rags had observed, Garen was a terrible Chieftain and he quickly realized that as well. So instead of expanding, the Red Fang tribe had established a local superiority, rivaled only by the Broken Spear Tribe and Ghostly Hand Tribes to the south.

Until the day the Goblin Lord had emerged.

This is where Garen paused, and Rags sat up. She understood why he’d done what he had, vaguely. He’d gathered his tribe, and the nearby ones, to form an alliance that would be able to defeat the Goblin Lord. The problem was that they were fractured, having no great Chieftain to lead them. Garen was strongest, but he couldn’t manage them effectively. But when he’d heard of an upstart Chieftain who’d absorbed several tribes and was using actual tactics and formations—

Well, he’d tested her, with blood and death, and she’d passed. But Rags wanted to know why he’d decided this Goblin Lord was so wrong.

She knew what all Goblins knew. Obey the Chieftain. But there was a sense—yes, a sense in her head that told her to obey a Goblin Lord. And a Goblin King? It was like the memory of the sun for someone who’d lived all their life in shadows. She wanted a King, so she couldn’t understand what was wrong with a Goblin Lord.

“He is wrong.”

That was what Garen said. He stared into the fire, tossing the fragments of the bone into it.

 

Who? Broken Spear Tribe Chieftain? Ghostly Hand Tribe Chieftain?

 

Rags was sure she would have heard if either was expanding; she would have expected them to go after her weak tribe first. But Garen shook his head.

“Neither. Different. Broken Spear Tribe Chieftain surrendered. Ghostly Hand Chieftain is dead.”

That rocked Rags back in her seat. The Chieftain of the Ghostly Hand Tribe was dead? But she was a [Shaman] capable of powerful magic! And yet, apparently the Goblin who’d replaced her as Chieftain and started expanding her tribe was more powerful still.

“I met him. Once.”

Garen had gone south, evading adventurers and cities to meet this new Chieftain when he’d first heard of his power. But the Red Fang’s leader had left as soon as he’d seen the Goblin.

“He is…bad. Bad Goblin.”

It was a word Rags had never heard spoken of another Goblin, but she understood his meaning. Bad Goblin. One who could not be trusted, could not be part of a Tribe. Who must be fought against, even if it meant war between Tribes.

 

So. I am Chieftain to fight.

 

Garen looked up and shrugged fractionally.

“Not yet. Goblin Lord is slow. Growing Tribes. Much time. Good. Need time to make you stronger.”

Stronger? Garen nodded.

“You are weak. Must be far stronger. I help.”

That was how Rags found herself sparring with Garen in the middle of her campsite after they’d eaten. She blinked at him as he picked up a tree branch and faced her. She had a shortsword and her buckler, but he only had a piece of wood.

Goblins and Hobs gathered to watch as Rags stood in front of Garen. It was a ludicrous matchup. Despite his lack of arms, he was twice her height and all muscle. She had muscle, but nothing like him.

“Attack me, Chieftain.”

She blinked at him. Rags gestured to her sword.

 

I will cut you.

 

Garen grinned at Rags lazily. He poked at her with the branch.

“Cannot. I will show you the difference between us. Your weakness.”

She hesitated. Garen raised a hand and beckoned.

“Come. You will not h—”

Rags lifted a finger and cast [Firefly]. The insect-bird made of fire flew at Garen’s face. He lost his smile and twisted out of the way, but the bird tried to descend on his torso.

Garen dodged backwards, incredibly fast, and swatted at the spell with his branch. His swing cut the air, but all that happened was that he set his weapon on fire.

Which was a good thing if he wanted to hurt Rags, but the firefly spell was still coming at Garen. He backpedaled, striking at the fiery thing again and again. Rags wondered if he didn’t know what to do when Garen hit the firefly again and it burst and vanished into wisps of flame.

Casually, Garen tossed the flaming branch into one of the fire pits and looked at Rags. He grinned.

“Spells can be broken.”

She stared at him. She had no idea you could do that. But now Garen was advancing, barehanded, and she raised her buckler.

She’d fought him once, seriously. Even if he’d been taking it easy on her, she had a chance. Before Garen could strike, Rags darted forwards, shortsword stabbing at his stomach. She saw him draw his right foot back—

When Rags came to, Garen was emptying a potion on her. She nearly screamed as the pain hit her.

Garen hadn’t bothered with dodging. He’d just kicked her shield arm hard enough to send her flying, rolling, and crashing across the campsite. It was enough to merit a potion, and as Garen pulled her up he only grinned.

“See? Weak.”

Rags glared at him, but she could find no words to argue against that.

 

—-

 

It was an odd thing, to be taught to fight. It was almost counterintuitive; all Goblins knew how to fight. But the difference between Garen and normal Goblins was that he knew how to fight well.

It wasn’t tactics or strategy. Rags understood that. It was positioning, the way you transitioned from blow to blow, even the way you stood and held your weapons. Garen gave her a crash-course on that before he moved to sparring.

He was big on sparring. It was one of the few things he did well as Chieftain, and Rags immediately saw the benefit of it. His warriors were the cream of the crop despite their low numbers, and they could hold their own even against larger opponents by virtue of their combat prowess.

She’d made it mandatory for all her warriors to spend time sparring, although she’d insisted on blunt weapons. For her and Garen, though, there was no need for restrictions.

“If you can hurt me, you are ready.”

So said Garen as he let Rags attack him, effortlessly dodging and parrying her blows with his sword. Occasionally he would attack, and when he did, Rags nearly always suffered for it.

Garen did not hold his blows back—much. Rags would go flying, find herself waking up in pain, or just occasionally, block and live to regret it. She complained to Garen, but he was relentless.

“Must hurt. Training only works when hurt. Level up cannot be without pain.”

That intrigued her. Rags stared at Garen after one training session.

 

Can level without fighting others?

 

He nodded.

“Slowly. Takes much time, but can.”

It was a revelation, but only to her. Apparently that was common knowledge among non-Goblins; just another way in which they were woefully behind. Indeed, when Rags went back into her memories of past Goblin’s lives she realized that older Chieftains had indeed leveled up by training themselves and their warriors.

Garen was intrigued by the Chieftain’s memories. As a poor one, he could barely look back more than one or two generations, but even he had a sense of his heritage.

“Goblin King. Was famous. I asked many questions, but much is history. In books.”

He couldn’t read books, and even his adventurer companions were wary of telling him much about the Goblin King. But what Garen did know was fascinating to Rags as well.

“Was not always warlike. Was peaceful.”

Peaceful? Yes, apparently so. Rags found that some of the Chieftains she’d conquered – the Gold Stone Chieftain in particular – knew more about Goblin history than she did. It was custom for Chieftains to meet and trade on occasion, another thing that neither Rags nor Garen knew.

Neither of them was a conventional Chieftain. But Rags led by virtue of her superior mind which the other tribes respected, and Garen was strong, which was enough.

And yet, apparently the old Goblin King had been beloved by Goblins. That was what the Gold Stone Chieftain claimed.

 

Was strong. Was smart. Traded with Humans.

 

Rags and Garen exchanged looks.

“Traded?”

The Gold Stone Chieftain nodded importantly as he relayed this information while they ate. The Goblin King had had a tribe larger than any other, and he had been largely peaceful. He had been a Goblin Chieftain at first, and then a Goblin Lord, and then had come the day when others called him Goblin King.

It had been glorious, apparently. What few scraps the Gold Stone Chieftain could recall was of his ancestors being happy, fed, and safe. But then something…bad had happened, and there had been war.

Terrible war.

Rags had no idea what to make of that, but one thing was clear: a Goblin Lord was close enough to being a King that all the other species grew very nervous when one emerged. That was enough for them to send armies against the Goblin Lord. They might win or they might fail; either way, it gave her time to make her tribe stronger.

“You do not need to make tribe stronger. You need to be stronger.”

So Garen insisted, and Rags agreed. In part. She willingly practiced with him, but she wanted a strong tribe to rely on as well. Garen disagreed.

“I am [Dragoon]! Strongest [Warrior] and [Rider] combined!”

He thumped his chest and announced proudly to the awestruck Goblins. Rags had never heard of a Goblin receiving a unique class, but Garen had high levels in both classes. And he was a [Beast Tamer].

“I tamed wolves. Hit them. Made obey. Fed with. Hunted with. Slept with.”

His Carn Wolf was a massive alpha wolf among his pack. On his back, Garen was twice as dangerous, and he claimed he was more than a match for any single Gold-rank adventurer, even with magical items. Garen had a few of his own as well; a ring that helped protect him from arrows, another that resisted poisons, and his sword.

Rags stared at the crimson blade suspiciously. It was sharp, and Garen apparently never needed to polish it, but there was nothing overtly magical about it.

Garen grinned as he held it aloft. He muttered a word, and the blade began to glow white hot. He used it to cut a branch apart and watched in satisfaction as the wood caught on fire. Rags grumbled as she stamped out the flames, but she was impressed.

“Is good not to show. Magical blade helps against strong monster. Good surprise.”

Garen put his blade in the ground and eyed Rags’ bronze weaponry pointedly.

“Need magic weapons. Very important.”

He also wanted her to stop leveling up in other classes. Garen had many things he wanted, but he was insistent on this point.

“Must choose what to do. Cannot be everything. Strong warriors are one thing. Archer. Fighter. Mage. Choose.

Rags disliked that part of him the most. She disliked being pushed to do anything, especially since he was under her authority. But Garen seemed to regard himself as her teacher and thus he treated her orders as suggestions to be ignored or interpreted. It wasn’t ideal, but Rags was willing to admit that she wasn’t able to risk a confrontation with him just yet. As he said, she was too weak.

 

—-

 

A few days after they had settled in the forest, Garen came to Rags holding one of the stone crossbows she’d invented. He tossed it dismissively on the ground before her, as he often did when he found something lacking.

“Too weak.”

She blinked at him. Rags was trying to use one of the holes the Goblins had dug, but Garen didn’t even seem to care. She glared at him, but the former Chieftain clearly wanted a reply now.

 

Not weak. Good weapon. Easy to use.

 

He shook his head.

“Too weak. Cannot hurt enough. Arrows better.”

He demonstrated, firing the crossbow at his own palm at point-blank range. The clay pellet shattered harmlessly on his skin. Garen shook his head again.

“For hunters. Not for fighting.”

Rags partly disagreed. The stone crossbows were excellent weapons, and not just for hunting. Their ease of use and cheap ammunition meant they were perfect weapons to give to Goblins who weren’t active warriors. Anyone could use one, which meant she could arm all the children and noncombatants with a crossbow.

But again, Garen was convinced he was right, and as soon as Rags was finished doing her business, she explained why she didn’t have more ‘proper’ crossbows.

 

No parts. Need metal. Wood. Turning things.

 

Garen blinked at Rags, uncomprehending. She showed him the screws and explained how hard it was to get them. He just shook his head and laughed.

“Hard? Not hard! Very easy. Come!”

That was how Rags found herself sitting on a hill, staring down at one of the roads leading out of a city. The Goblins could hide fairly well in the snow, and so Garen brought her and a group of warriors out so they could watch the traffic going between Human cities. He’d posted scouts on other hills and observation points, waiting for the right item.

“There.”

Garen pointed, and Rags saw a covered wagon rumbling out of the city, pulled by a pair of horses and guarded by several armed warriors. She squinted.

 

Turning things?

 

Garen had no idea, but it was an ideal target nevertheless, according to him. He explained.

“Not Runner. Slow. No strong guards. Full of not-valuable things. Food, or other things.”

Runners were too hard to catch for most Goblins. Besides, they tended to post large bounties if they were attacked, and Garen had a policy to avoid conflicts with adventurers. If they killed Goblins, that was bad. But if the Goblins killed the adventurers, more would come, and higher-level ones, too.

But wagons? Wagons were fine. Garen had learned to target a few from each city to avoid raising suspicions. He’d even identified some Runners who were good targets.

“See? Thin girl.”

He pointed one slower City Runner out to Rags as she left the city with a few others. According to Garen, she ran with a few City runners at all times and she was a coward. It was easy to send a few Goblins after her and make her drop her packs.

On the other hand, there was a slow runner the Goblins avoided. He pointed her out as well. She was big, ran slowly, but apparently she was made of tougher stuff.

“Strong. She punches hard. And she had nothing good.”

He scowled at her. Rags was of the personal opinion that a crossbow bolt between the eyes would solve any problem, but Garen had insisted that not killing Runners was the smart thing to do, and she reluctantly deferred to his judgment.

They shadowed the caravan with the wagon for several miles as it pulled out of sight of the main city. It was still along the main road, but Garen’s tribe was experienced at these kinds of raids.

He pulled his warriors out of cover and mounted them up behind a hill. Then, Garen had Rags wait in some bushes with archers while his mounted Goblins drew closer to the caravan. Rags held her black crossbow, sighting down the shaft as she waited.

The caravan was rumbling along, warriors reasonably alert, when the travelers on the road heard the howl of a Carn Wolf. It was quickly joined by others, and the Humans realized a pack was hunting.

Most of the Humans began to run immediately. The slower-moving wagons and carts were abandoned, and the warriors on the road drew close to their caravan, closing ranks and looking around wildly.

It was a good tactic. They could probably scare away the Carn Wolves, especially since they had a mage in their group. But they weren’t prepared for mounted Goblins. The Humans gaped in shock and terror as Garen burst out of his cover with his warriors, shouting and charging the Humans.

Rags saw the [Mage] stand up on the wagon and aim at Garen. Her finger pulled on the trigger of her crossbow, and she felt the crossbow snap forwards and the mage fell down. The Humans looked around wildly as her archers stood up, and Garen crashed into them, sword slicing apart their armor with ease.

It was over in minutes. Garen had his Goblins loot the cart, and then he burnt the entire thing and scattered the pieces, as if a spell had obliterated both cart and Humans. His warriors let their mounts savage the dead Humans, and then they were away with their spoils.

As it happened, the cart had been carrying a bunch of weapons, no doubt for sale in another city. Garen gleefully showed the wonderful blades and shields to Rags, and she had to admit that the raid had been a huge success.

Even so, a part of Rags hurt as the Goblins raced away with their prize. She stopped and stood next to one of the bodies, staring down at it.

A female Human stared blankly up at Rags, red hair made redder by blood. Rags bent down and closed her eyes.

Garen walked over, his wolf sniffing at the dead Human. He looked dismissively at the body.

“Annoying mage. Good shot.”

Rags had killed the woman with a bolt in her back. The smaller Goblin shook her head. She wasn’t feeling guilty—no, not really. But she stared at the woman’s face and thought of Erin.

Garen had no such feelings. He kicked the woman dismissively.

“Dead Human. Do not worry. No one will come.”

Rags shook her head.

 

Not all Humans bad. Some…good.

 

Garen laughed at her. He shook his head.

“All bad. They hate us. Fear us. We are trash to them.”

That was true and not true. Rags remembered being hunted, remembered the fear and terror and hatred she had of Humans. But then she had met Erin, and her life had changed.

 

Not all. One is not.

 

Garen looked at Rags curiously. How could she explain in their limited language about Erin, a Human who defied explanations? Garen listened, but dismissively.

“I have met many Humans. All are the same.”

His cavalier dismissal of Rags’ opinions angered her. She glared at him.

 

What about party? Adventurers. All same?

 

Garen hesitated.

“That is different.”

 

How?

 

He didn’t want to say. Garen shook his head.

“Is not important.”

 

Tell.

 

He stared at her. Rags folded her arms. She was Chieftain. If he wouldn’t obey, then he was not part of her Tribe. Garen hesitated, ground his teeth, and shook his head.

“Different. Not Humans.”

Drakes? Gnolls? But Garen shook his head. He muttered, trying to find the words to describe it.

“Not Human. Half. Part. Were different. Like me.”

He broke off their conversation, turned his mount, and insisted it was time to go. Rags frowned, but she let him hoist her up and ride back to camp. But Garen’s past was a riddle to her, and she wanted answers.

 

Why kill them? Why betray?

 

For several days Garen refused to answer even as Rags pressed him. But at last he gave in. He took her aside and showed her something. Something small.

A key.

Just a key. It was a black key, made of a shining material that looked like onyx. It was clearly valuable, but it was just a key, not some magical weapon or powerful artifact. Rags stared at it in complete disappointment, but Garen tucked it away in his belt, more careful with it than he was with his sword. He tapped his belt.

“Is most valuable thing. The key is important.”

Worth betraying his entire party over? Garen nodded.

“Is the key the last Goblin King wanted.”

Rags stared. But that was all Garen would say. He had killed his fellow adventurers over the key when they had found it at the bottom of a dungeon. They had recognized the artifact on sight, and Garen had demanded it for himself. When they had refused, he had fought and been forced to kill many of them before fleeing with the key.

But what did it unlock? Garen knew, but he wouldn’t tell Rags. It was another mystery, but he was adamant that neither he nor she could reach the thing the key unlocked.

“Too dangerous. Not even old Goblin King could reach. Is death beyond death where treasure hidden. Maybe someday tell. Not today.”

And that was it. Garen refused to talk more about it, and Rags found herself pondering the key, but not often. She had so much to do!

Manage her tribe. Find new food sources. Meet new Chieftains. Create new weapons. Devise tactics and formations. Train with Garen. Learn to ride?

Yes, of all the things Rags found herself doing, riding was one of the most surprising things. After she’d met with one of the smaller Goblin tribes to show the new Chieftains who was boss, Garen had taken her aside and shown her his wolves.

He was a [Beast Tamer] and the animals responded to him. But his tribe had adopted the Carn Wolves and so many Goblins knew how to ride and care for the animals even if they didn’t have the class. But Garen was of the opinion that Rags should know how to ride, and so he wanted to find her a mount.

It was a tricky problem. All of his Goblin riders were normal-sized Goblins, not Hobs, since the Carn Wolves could only support so much weight. But Garen had chosen the biggest normal Goblins to ride. Rags was still young, and she was so small that it would be hard to control even a small Carn Wolf.

But Garen had a solution. He brought her to a den the Carn Wolves had created, and showed her a litter of pups that had just been born. Rags eyed the half-blind, furry creatures with a bit of disgust, but Garen bent and picked one up, ignoring the objections of the nursing mother.

“Here. Good wolf.”

He showed her an albino wolf, a runt of the pack. The wolf had glorious white fur, and it blinked at Rags. The Goblin blinked back. She looked at Garen and he explained.

“Wolf will grow. Will become good mount for you. Raise. Teach. Ride.”

He offered the cub to her, but Rags shook her head. She thought about the cub, and looked at Garen.

 

Not good.

 

He raised an eyebrow.

“Why? Too small? Will grow.”

She shook her head.

 

White wolf. Is target. Normal one better.

 

Garen stared at her for a few seconds, and then laughed. He put the small albino wolf back with the others, and the small thing bumped over to his mother’s teat and latched on.

“I will find another. Teach you to ride a normal one.”

And so their days continued, but with a small problem. Rags knew she was growing, learning, and her tribe was certainly benefitting from the time to rearm and grow. But she herself was…impatient. She found herself looking south more and more often, until only a week after her victory over the Red Fang tribe, Garen found her staring south on a hilltop.

“What, Chieftain?”

He still used her title so casually. Rags made a face, but she didn’t answer right away. She was thinking.

She’d left so much behind in Liscor. Not just the inn and the games of chess, but the dungeon. Now of course she was bigger, more important, with a huge tribe at her disposal. But—

But she couldn’t help wanting to go back. She was missing something, Rags felt. Garen was teaching her how to be stronger in his own way, but he was not enough.

What would Erin do? She was weaker than Garen, but she had her own strength. And she had things he had never dreamed of. She had defeated Skinner, and even made friends with the terrifying bugs. Her skeleton lived even though he was dead, and the dungeon—

Rags’ fist clenched. Garen looked at her curiously. He was the strongest Goblin she had met, but was he stronger than Relc? He was a single Goblin, and he thought that was fine, but it wasn’t.

She’d wanted to be strong. She’d wanted to be able to fight for herself, but now she was a Chieftain. Would she become one Goblin, mighty by herself but held back by weaklings?

No, no. There had to be something else. Goblins couldn’t just be like Garen’s tribe, a group of powerful Goblins still inferior to a group of similarly trained and armed Humans. They had to become stronger some other way.

He didn’t know how. But Erin might. She might. And suddenly Rags knew what she wanted.

She looked at Garen. The tall Goblin was staring at her expectantly. Well, he’d snuck into a city once, hadn’t he? She met his curious gaze and explained what she wanted to do. Garen stared at her, and then laughed and laughed until he was nearly sick.

 

—-

 

Two Goblins walked through the snow towards Liscor. They were Goblins, but no one looking at them would have made the connection. Externally, they were hooded travelers, a father and daughter perhaps, unwisely travelling in such harsh conditions by themselves down the main road.

The few travelers who passed by didn’t even give the two a second glance, other than to shout greetings. Both travelers waved back, and in no time they came to the city gates. But here they took a detour and walked south around the walls, towards a small inn on a hill twenty minutes’ walk away from the city.

It was a simple inn, but well-crafted, with glass windows of all things. The tall traveler stopped as the smaller one led the way. They would stop for something to eat perhaps, or a bit of conversation. Rather, to listen to conversations. Really, it didn’t matter what happened so long as they were there. The inn was a place of safety, and at least one of the two Goblins was very curious as to what he would find inside.

But something curious happened as the two approached. A black carriage suddenly ran through the snow, making both Goblins stop and watch in amazement as ghostly horses pulled the vehicle to a complete stop. Someone got out. It was a young Human girl that one of the Goblins recognized. She waved to the driver inside, and then walked to her inn.

That was the first interesting thing that happened. The next was that shortly after visiting, a Drake, an Antinium, another Drake [Receptionist], a Human [Scout], and finally, an annoyed [Princess] and a skeleton entered the inn shortly after the girl did. The Goblins hesitated, but entered the inn as well.

And then there was a fight. But that was hardly unusual.

This is the tale of the Wandering Inn, a day before Ryoka returned to Liscor. A day before that, Erin had left her inn behind. She had gone to the City of Adventurers, Invrisil. And there she had met Lady Magnolia for the first time.

 


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2.29

My heart is beating out of my chest. My legs are burning.

I am fit. I think. No—I know that I’m in good shape. Better than good shape. If you compared me with any athlete from my world, you would find—

My suspicions don’t matter right now. But I know this: I am at the peak of my ability in this world, despite all that has passed. It’s not that I have any Skills or classes, but it is due to the nature of this world. I am more than I was, and that bothers me.

But even if I am quicker, stronger, and healthier by some unknown margin, I am still not superhuman. I can’t move as fast as Gazi, I don’t have the ability to shatter the earth like Calruz. Hell, I only know a few spells that I can cast once or twice thanks to Ceria.

What I have is earned. Even the spells I know are things I had to learn, not things that were given to me. [Flashlight], [Flashbang], [Fl—]

Well, the last one is conceptual. But all of these spells stem from the few things I understand. You can make the [Light] spell brighter, alter its shape, and even toss the orb if you want to surprise someone. But it’s still not a strong spell. I can’t use it to kill something.

That’s the problem. That’s what I fear as I run through the night, flecks of snow stinging my uncovered face, as I stare up into the dark sky at the lights.

Frost Faeries. They glow with a shade of blue and depth to the color indescribable in the words we Humans use. And they fly through the wind and darkness as if neither exists, pausing briefly only to wait for me. They know where Mrsha is, and they’re taking me to her.

But in my heart I fear I might be too late. Or worse, that I might fail. All I get is a chance. A chance to save her life.

I have no idea where Mrsha is. She disappeared while she was gathering food. She could have gotten lost, but—no. No, if she had she would have returned. If she went that far enough away from the Gnoll she was with, it was because she was taken, or she had to flee.

A monster, then. Or something…else. I don’t know. But if that is the case, I might have to fight whatever took Mrsha. And I fear I am too weak to do that.

The faeries fly a bit higher in the sky and I see the ground shifting upwards. I have a torch, given to me by one of the Gnolls. Its flickering lights illuminate the ground in front of me. I could discard it and use [Light], but I need to conserve every bit of magic I have. Casting a single spell tires me, and I cannot slow now.

I am stronger than I was, but I am still weak. My heart is racing, and I am afraid. Not just because of monsters.

From the camp of the Stone Spears, the landscape slopes gradually upwards. They are camped at the foot of a mountain, one of the ones surrounding Liscor. If I look up I can see it, a massive wall of stone and ice reaching up into the sky.

It is vast. I am reminded of the Himalayas, but I wonder if these peaks are even higher. And I am afraid.

If I have to climb that place, will I get to Mrsha in time? How far could a child go?

Right now I’m wearing heavy clothing. Winter gear; boots, padded pants and coats that cut the worst of the chill around me. But this is no ultra-thin fabric from my world. The things I am wearing are heavy, cumbersome, and as I sweat and run through the snow and ice, they grow heavier.

Added to that, I have been running all day, searching for Mrsha. My body isn’t even fully healed from using that potion Teriarch gave me. And I am mortal. If I step into a bad spot and wedge my ankle, I could easily break my foot.

All of these things would make finding Mrsha impossible. And I must find her. I must. But I only get a chance.

Fate. That’s what the faeries mentioned. I look up at them as I run, gasping for air. My legs are burning already. I shouldn’t run so fast.

 

“Why do ye slow?”

 

One of the faeries flies down as she notices I’ve reduced my speed. I shake my head, but I need to answer, so I gasp a reply.

“Conserving energy.”

I have to. If I go full-throttle I’ll run out of gas far too quickly. And I know I’ll need a lot more in all likelihood.

The faerie shakes her head in disapproval.

 

“Strange. You mortals have strange ways. Why run slower to run faster later?”

 

I don’t know if I should talk to her. Wasting energy? But anything I can get out of the silent faeries is important.

“If you know how close I am, just tell me and I’ll run as fast as I can.”

The faerie looks at me, unsmiling.

 

“Do not ask for more than you were given, mortal. We are breaking a rule now, to give you a chance.”

 

“But is it fate? Do you know what will happen?”

That’s the question that lurks in my heart. Fate. Is this all some grand scheme? If it is—

The faerie stares at me with cold eyes and flies upwards. I watch her go, frustrated. She won’t tell me. But why would immortals tell playthings anything? If we are that simple, why bother at all with us?

I think I understand why they are so disdainful of us. The real question is why they even bother to talk at all.

Fragments of immortality. Eternal stories. Children. These are the things the fae love. So perhaps that’s why they’re helping.

But either way, the rest is up to me. So I increase my pace, just a bit.

There’s a rhythm to running. I’ve done marathons, and I know enough about running on uneven terrain to move quickly. But I am so slow compared to how I would be barefoot and without all these clothes.

The faeries fly on, overhead. They lead me around a forest, up a slope, and onwards. I recognize where we are, now. I’ve come this way earlier today.

We arrive at the place where Mrsha was last seen. A hill where edible plants hide underneath the snow. Countless feet have trampled the snow, but the faeries don’t even pause when they come to it. They fly north, up from the hill, towards the mountain.

Urksh was right. If there was a place Mrsha ran, it was up there. It’s a place where the Gnolls wouldn’t have searched that hard. Go too high up, and you’d be lost forever. No one can hear or smell you if you get buried underneath an avalanche.

I run upwards, up the slope. My legs—I run up the hill, and then higher still. I can’t stop.

Please, let me not be too late.

 

—-

 

She is cold. Mrsha sneezes and whimpers in the place she cannot escape from. She is very cold.

She has never been this cold before. The winter air is freezing her. Normally, she would be back in the camp her tribe makes, huddling with others for warmth in a tent or sitting near a fire, so near her fur would be in danger of catching on fire…

Just the thought makes Mrsha moan, but she’s too tired and frightened to make any larger sounds. At first, she had howled and cried out for aid, but no one came.

She knows she went too far up. She knows. All the elders told her again and again, never to come up this far. She knows they cannot find her here.

But she had no choice. Mrsha glances at the thing lying half-covered in the snow and shudders. She tries to move away from it, but there is no space. And she is hurt.

She sits and stares up towards the sky. It is cold. She is hungry, and desperate. She fears she will not be rescued, now. And she is growing tired. She raises her nose to the air and sniffs again.

There it is. The same scent. Not just from the thing beside her; it is in the air. Mrsha’s nose is keen, even for a Gnoll’s. She can smell the scent in the air, all over the mountain.

They are everywhere. And the thought of them makes Mrsha afraid. But she can do nothing. So she sits. And waits.

If she believed in gods, she would have prayed. But Mrsha knows the gods are dead. So she just hopes. She tries to believe.

But it is so cold.

 

—-

 

Higher. And higher still. I am following the faeries as they lead me to the base the mountain. I think they’re trying to guide me on the easiest route, but—

I climbed a mountain once. But that was nothing like this. There’s no road here, no easy path. The ground becomes vertical in places, and now I have to use both hands and legs, sometimes pulling myself up as my feet slip on the snow-covered rocks.

The faeries watch me, stopping to settle on a rock and I pull myself upwards, straining and grunting with effort. Their faces are expressionless, but their eyes are not. I think they’re pretending not to care, but they fly ahead, showing me the way with too much alacrity for me to believe otherwise.

They care. But they fear I’m not going to make it.

“How far?”

One turns back to stare at me as the others fly overhead. She says nothing. I gasp, and cough. I’m moving too fast, now. I can taste a bit of blood where I bit my tongue when I fell, and from my searing lungs.

I don’t care. Faster. I gulp air into my lungs.

“How…far? How much time?”

They don’t answer. But they fly higher. So I grit my teeth and move.

 

—-

 

Urksh waits, standing at the edge of the place where the Stone Spears have made camp. He waits, and listens.

But he hears nothing apart from the falling snow, the crackling fires beside him, and the words of his hunter, Hekra.

“More have gone missing. All to the north and west.”

He looks at her. Hekra’s face is still, but her ears and tail betray her agitation. She is worried, and so is she.

“That makes thirteen.”

Thirteen adults, hunters and warriors all who are missing. Three patrols sent out to look for Mrsha that never returned. There is something out there, and both Gnolls know it.

Yet what worries Urksh most is that there was no trace of those who disappeared. No howls to indicate enemies, nothing. Whatever happened to the Gnolls of his tribe happened swiftly and took them by surprise.

“Have every warrior ready, no? All of them. And pack what is needed.”

What is needed. In case they have to flee. He doesn’t have to say that part out loud. Hekra nods and trots off. Urksh looks back into the darkness.

Something is out there. Something. And he can catch faint whiffs of it on the air. It is a familiar smell, but odd. Twisted. He knows he smells his enemy, but there is something wrong with the scent. There is death in the air.

Urksh stares the way the Human named Ryoka Griffin had gone, following the strange, indistinct lights in the air that she claimed were living creatures. Winter Sprites. Frost Faeries.

He hopes she will be safe. But right now Urksh is more concerned about his tribe. To the east, Ryoka Griffin claimed an army was approaching. A force from the Drake cities. It has doubtless camped for the night, but Urksh’s instincts tell him to bring his tribe closer to the camp, regardless of the tension that might cause.

There is safety in numbers, and he is worried. But he dares not move his camp. If Ryoka returns with Mrsha, they will need to find them here.

So the Stone Spears wait, watching the darkness. And the darkness watches back. Silent shapes spread out across the highlands, slowly encircling the Stone Spears tribe’s camp in a vast net, waiting.

Waiting.

 

—-

 

How long has it been? I can’t tell. Hours? Just an hour? Perhaps. It feels like hours.

My hands are raw and cut and blistered. Despite the gloves I have on, they’re not enough. The jagged rock and rough handholds I can find cut into my skin, but I ignore the pain.

How high am I? High. I’ve been climbing for a while, and still the faeries lead me onwards. I can’t believe Mrsha got this high up, but the route we’re taking isn’t impossible for a kid, especially not a young Gnoll.

Especially not if she was being chased.

My feet slip, and my arms windmill as I nearly slip down the slope in the darkness. Careful. I push myself back up and look around.

“Okay. Where n—?”

The faeries are gone. One second they were ahead of me, leading the way, and now they’re not. I look around, heart beating fast. It’s dark. I had to toss away the torch the Gnolls gave me a while back to use both hands. Without the faeries, the side of the mountain is full of shadows.

“[Light].”

A ball of yellow light appears in my hand and flies upwards. I stare around, but see only rock and dirt where everything isn’t covered by snow.

But if the faeries aren’t here.

Mrsha!

I raise my voice and cup my hands to my mouth. My legs are exhausted, but I don’t dare sit. And neither do I dare take any more steps. The ground looks stable, but—

Mrsha! Can you hear me?

 

—-

 

She is going to die. Mrsha knows it. It makes her cry, but she only sheds a few tears because it hurts when they freeze on her fur.

She is going to die. She shouldn’t have strayed so far away. But she’d wanted to chase a snow hare, and then she’d smelled the thing and it had leapt out at her—

She shudders. It is so cold. Her eyes are flickering, but Mrsha knows she must stay awake. But what is the point if she’s not going to be rescued?

The Gnoll child sits with her back against a stone and breathes more slowy. She is so tired. But then her ears hear it. The faintest of sounds, and then—louder.

—sha!

The Gnoll looks up. There it is again.

Mrsha! Can you hear me?

It’s a voice! A familiar voice! It’s not the sound of any of the elders Mrsha knows, or any of her playmates. But she knows this voice even so. It’s from the Human, the one who tells stories.

How is she here? But Mrsha hears the Human shouting, and sits up. Someone came for her.

Hope.

She raises her voice and howls upwards, desperately. With all her strength.

She wants Ryoka to find her. She wants to be saved. She doesn’t want to die here alone.

Not like that thing.

 

—-

 

I’m shouting, but I hear nothing. The wind is blowing around me, and I can’t feel my face. There’s so much snow.

Am I too late? My heart is shuddering. Is that why the faeries left? Because they’ve given up hope?

Mrsha!

There’s no response. I’m too late.

But then I hear it. A sound, growing louder. A wild howling, high-pitched and frantic, like and unlike any animal’s call I’ve ever heard.

Mrsha.

I stumble in the direction of the call, and then stop.

“Stop damn you…think!”

Think. I can’t blunder ahead blindly. If I die now, she dies.

I raise my hand, and the orb of light floats to it. I can control the light. So I flick my hand and toss the orb ahead. I can’t control it after I’ve thrown it, but it illuminates the ground in front of me.

There! The orb of light sails over a small crest of snow and then reveals that the crest is in fact a precipice. The ball of light reveals a sudden drop as the ground slips, a natural, concealed crevasse in the mountainside. Cautiously, I cast [Light] again and walk forwards, staring at that spot, praying I don’t trip.

The howling is coming from below. I stare over the edge. The light cast by the orb is too weak to illuminate the depths of that place.

“Mrsha?”

 

—-

 

She hears the voice, and then sees the light. Mrsha howls up desperately, and hears an answering shout. The light is very faint. But then it changes, and a beam shines down. It sweeps the place Mrsha is in, bouncing off the slick rock walls, and then catches her. She waves her paw weakly.

“I see you! Hold on!”

 

—-

 

God. Gods. She’s at the bottom of a crevasse. No wonder no one heard her.

I stare down at the small, brown shape of Mrsha. She’s sitting at the bottom of a crevasse. Not too deep, but far too far down for her to climb back up.

I squint. There’s something—next to her? Some dark shape covered by the snow. But I can’t make it out. It doesn’t matter. I need to get down there.

But god. This is a nightmare. I’ve attended lessons on how to conduct emergency rescues of people trapped in situations like this, and I’ve climbed before, and this is about as bad a situation as you can get.

I need to get to Mrsha, but that means I need to climb down there. I don’t want to try tossing her the rope Urksh gave me and have her pull herself up. I need to go down there.

Down? The sensible part of my brain laughs at how stupid that is. I don’t have the equipment to do that. I don’t have a harness, any climbing gear—hell, I don’t even have a backup!

But I’m already tossing my pack down and fishing things out. The first thing I grab is the furs the Gnolls gave me. It was for Mrsha, but I toss it down on the edge of the crevasse. If I put the rope down, I don’t want it to fray and snap.

Maybe it won’t, if it’s magical. Wouldn’t that be amazing? But I don’t want to test it.

The rope Urksh gave me apparently stretches or lengthens. Good for it, but I need an anchor. I don’t have anything to help me with that, and there aren’t any trees around. I stare around the mountainside, aware of the need for speed, but also the desperate need to do this right.

Okay, okay. First things first. If I’m going down, I need an anchor.

I find one close to the precipice. A rock horn helps me as I loop it around another part of the rock. No way to equalize the anchor points, and all I can do is use more and more rope. I loop more rope into the rock and tie it off and stare at the horrible mess I’ve created.

A constriction anchor. Fuck me. At least this rope is magic, for what it’s worth. It had better be, because with all the rope I used to make the anchor secure, I’m not going to be able to get all the way down, much less do what I need.

Moment of truth. I can hear Mrsha making agitated sounds from below. She thinks I’ve left her. I shout something reassuring down at her, and take a deep breath.

Rappelling without a harness. Okay.

I slide the rope between my legs so I’m holding one end with my left arm and the other end that’s going through my legs with my right. I stretch the rope out, and approach the edge.

This is madness. But Mrsha is down there. So I lean on the rope and step out into the air.

Rappelling. I hold the rope hard with my right hand, and take a deep breath. Mrsha is going insane down below. She’s probably never seen someone climbing like this. Descend, rather.

I jump down the cliff and Mrsha screams. It’s more like a howl. But I arrest my fall and absorb the impact as I kick into the wall. I hold my position for a moment, look down for the next place I want to move down towards, and then jump several more feet down.

Abseiling. I’ve done it countless times, but always with a safety harness and a spotter. What I wouldn’t give for a carabiner…

I’m running out of rope. I see the end, and I pray Urksh wasn’t lying to me. Come on, rope. Do your magic thing. I pull, hoping it will do something—

And it stretches. Or rather, elongates. Rather than running out, I find more rope as I slowly rappel downwards.

Pause. Jump. One second of descent, and then I brace as I land on the wall, showering Mrsha with snow. Pause again. Jump. Each second I’m terrified my hand will slip, but the tension stops me as I jump down again, and again…

My feet touch the ground, and then something rams into my side. I shout, but its Mrsha. The small Gnoll jumps all over me as I have to sit at the bottom of the small crevasse.

“God.”

I cover my face with my hand for just one second. Then I nearly fall over as Mrsha swarms over me. The Gnoll is licking and hugging me desperately.

“It’s okay Mrsha. I’m here. I’m—”

She’s making small noises. Whimpering, the sounds an animal would make. Or a child. I hold her for a few seconds.

“I’ve got you. It’s going to be alright, okay?”

I’m shaking so hard, but no more than she is. I found her. I found her in time.

But the worst is far from over. And we can’t stay here. Mrsha is freezing, and I need to get her up. Somehow.

I have a plan. And I’m about to tell it to Mrsha when I look over and go rigid. Mrsha cranes her neck to see what’s happened to me, and then she growls softly.

It can’t be. But lying in the snow, half-buried is a small shape. It’s not a rock like I initially thought. No.

It’s a body.

Not just any body. I slowly let go of Mrsha, and she backs away as I hesitantly go over to the shape. It’s lying face-down, but I turn it over and already know what I’ll see.

A Goblin’s face stares blankly up at me, red eyes dimmed, face frozen. He—or she was wearing armor, some sort of scale mail, but it wasn’t enough to save them from the fall. Their neck is bent at a wrong angle.

It must have chased Mrsha. She was out gathering and it surprised her. She ran, and both fell down here. Mrsha got lucky, but the Goblin died.

Goblins. If there’s one, there’s more. And this one is armed. I stare down and see the axe at its belt. Armor and weapons. This Goblin is way more dangerous than the ones I’ve seen to the north.

Danger. But I can’t focus on that now. I stare upwards. I need to get Mrsha to safety first. And now that I’m down here, I can look up and realize how fucked I am.

The crevasse is only about twenty feet deep. Only. Hah. But it’s a horrible mess. The edge of the precipice actually juts outwards, so that the ice and rock wall is further inside. In short, it makes climbing up with your hands impossible unless you can go nearly horizontal at the top.

I have one thing that will help with the ascent. A rope. And that’s a good thing. But still.

A damn rope. No equipment, nothing else. Just a rope and my two exhausted arms to carry me up twenty feet.

I have no ascender. Nothing to help me climb. I don’t even have any damn knots in the rope that I can use.

I look at Mrsha. She’s staring upwards, hopefully. Maybe she thinks there are others nearby. I hate to disappoint her, but she’s got to know what I’m going to do.

“Mrsha.”

She looks at me, full of hope. I’m the adult here; she’s relying on me. It makes my stomach twist.

“I’m going to get you to safety, okay? But you need to listen to me.”

She nods. I tell her what I’m going to do.

“I’m going to tie a harness around you. Uh, that’s this rope. It will help me lift you up. And then I’m going to climb to the top and pull you up. I’m not going to leave you, okay?”

She stares at me. Does she even get it? But then she nods, a small motion. I take a breath.

“Okay. Lift your arm.”

At least I know how to make a rope harness. I stretch the rope further, looping it securely around Mrsha’s legs and around her groin, tying bowline knots. Now square knots here, fisherman’s knots…

She doesn’t wriggle much, but she stares at the rope harness in confusion. Again, not something Gnolls are used to I guess.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be able to pull you up. Now—”

I stare upwards. Now comes the hard part.

To make all this work, I need to climb to the top of the crevasse. By myself. Without any handholds except the rope.

I can’t do this. My arms are already tired and so is the rest of my body. But I have to.

I hesitate for a minute as Mrsha stares at me, but her eyes are what make me move. Making sure she’s out of the way, I jump up—

And grab the rope.

Immediately, my legs tangle around the bottom of the rope. I fumble blindly with my feet, until I’m wedging the rope between my boots. One boot goes up, and the other steps on the rope, trapping it, giving me a way to stand and support myself. But that’s only if I can climb. So I take a deep breath, lift my hand, and begin.

One hand goes up and I pull myself up. And then another. At first I get up the rope fast, and Mrsha makes sounds of encouragement, running around below until I shout at her to stop. I can’t handle the sway.

It’s been a long time since I climbed a rope. Too long. I haven’t been working out my upper body as much since I came to this world, and hell, I don’t remember the last time I went climbing. And I’m so tired.

Pull. Acquire the rope with my legs. Stand. Pull. Already I can feel the shaking weakness in my arms.

Why didn’t the faeries say to bring anyone else? Why me? Because I asked? How can I do this?

My arms burn as I pull myself up. I nearly let go as my muscles start to give and quickly stand on the rope again.

I can’t do this. My arms are going to give out. But I have to. I have to—!

Somehow I pull myself up again. Impossible. I’m not this strong. But I can do it. This world—what’s happening to me?

Again. And again. Screaming inside my head. Up. I can’t pause or it’s over.

It’s so far up. Just twenty feet? Feels like forever.

I’m wearing too much gear. My winter clothes—should have taken them off. Should have rested. Told Mrsha that. But too late now. I pull myself up again, and see the top.

So damn close. Pull. Grip. Pull. Grip. Pull—

One hand lets go of the rope and reaches around the precipice. I grab desperately, and then pull

Up, damn you—!”

Slowly, slowly, my body lifts over the ridge. I hear Mrsha making sounds below me, but I can only focus on pulling myself up. Every fiber of strength I have left goes into getting myself up and over—!

And then it’s over. I collapse onto the ground and crawl forwards, gasping with exhaustion. I don’t know how long I lay there, but eventually Mrsha’s anxious barking rouses me. I poke my head over the side and see her staring up at me, eyes full of fear and worry.

“It’s okay.”

It’s okay. I seize the rope and call down to her. Once Mrsha realizes what I’m going to do, she untangles the rope and sits down. Slowly, I stand and begin to pull.

If the climbing was hard, this is easy. I can lean back, pull her up a bit at a time. I’m heavier than Mrsha, and I can use that to help me pull her up as she sits in her harness, making faint sounds of worry. But she’s safe so long as I don’t let go and she doesn’t panic. And I won’t let go. I would never let go.

It feels like an age, but I brace myself, pulling hard, and then I hear a noise. I pause, and realize Mrsha’s at the edge. I pull, very slowly, and then I see paws scrabbling at the ledge. And then a head.

Mrsha comes over and instantly the Gnoll is bounding to her feet. She tangles in the rope, but then frees herself and leaps at me. I grab her, and hug her.

And she hugs me back. For a second we just embrace, as I feel her shaking slow and my own fears ease. She’s alright. She’s going to be alright.

And then comes untangling the rope harness and getting Mrsha into those furs. She wriggles into them and sneezes as I sit on the ground. I need a minute.

But now Mrsha is safe. I look over the mountainside, across the empty landscape. Huh. We’re pretty far up. Amazing she managed to get this far. But fear will do that to you, I guess.

What now? Well, we’ll get back to the camp. Urksh is probably worrying, and we’re still sitting ducks if a monster appears. It might be hard to find the way back, but the faeries—

The faeries. I look around. They’re still not here. No—they might be, but they’re still hiding. Invisible.

Why? I got Mrsha. She’s safe. It’s over.

Unless it’s not.

My heart begins to pound. Mrsha looks at me as I slowly stand up and stare around. What else could be wrong? But we are in danger. If they aren’t here—

And then I see the sparks in the distance. From our position on the mountain, at first they just look like sparks. But then I realize what they really are.

Torches.

First one, and then a group. And then the lights spread. Not just one or two or even a hundred. But thousands. Fire flares and spreads as the darkness below becomes lit by countless pinpricks of light.

Mrsha goes stiff beside me as she crouches and stares at the sight. I stare too.

“That’s not the Stone Spears tribe.”

It can’t be. There aren’t enough Gnolls by far for that. The army of Drakes? But this feels different. A chill runs down my back.

What is happening? But Mrsha looks at me, her face full of fear, and the pieces come together.

Smells on the wind. Strange shapes watching. The dead Goblin.

Mrsha whimpers, the smallest of sounds, and touches my leg. And I feel the eyes on me and realize we are not alone.

Watching.

“No.”

It can’t be. But they are silent, and watching, like snow-covered statues. I cannot be.

But there they stand. Goblins. They look down upon the two of us, red eyes shining. How many? Twenty? Thirty?

A scout party, perhaps. They might have heard Mrsha and me, or maybe they were following from the start.

What do they want? But I know the answer. They’re all armed, and they’re wearing armor. These aren’t wild Goblins in some tribe.

This is an army.

And they are going to kill us. I see it in their eyes. Goblin eyes might be different than Human or Gnoll eyes, but there is an expression I recognize there.

Pitilessness. Cold wrath. Death.

They look like monsters, but they are all the more terrifying because they look like people. One of them raises a hand and points down at me.

“—”

I can’t understand what he’s saying. It’s in the Goblin’s tongue, chattering and incomprehensible. Slowly, the Goblins descend from the rocks, encircling us. They draw their weapons.

I feel Mrsha at my side. The Gnoll is hugging me so tightly I can feel her claws piercing my leggings. I know she’s terrified. So am I.

“We are not your enemies.”

The Goblin in who pointed at me, a warrior wearing chainmail and holding a mace, stares into my eyes. There’s nothing there. No empathy. No sympathy.

They’re going to kill us. Already they’ve encircled the two of us. I glance towards the south. The path down is that way, but there are Goblins waiting there. I have no weapons. I’m exhausted, and Mrsha can’t fight.

Slowly, I raise my hands to my head and above them. A universal sign of surrender. Some of the Goblins laugh, but their leader just watches me.

My heart is pounding out of my chest. I watch as he steps forwards, and then put my hands on my head. No time to think. Just—

You don’t need to use your hands to cast magic. My thumbs find my ears and I shout.

[Flashba—]

The world goes silent and dark as I close my eyes. The flash passes, and I look around. All I hear is ringing, but there’s Mrsha, lying on the ground as Goblins around me flail and open and close their mouths like silent mimes.

I grab Mrsha. She jerks and claws at me, but I pull her up and throw her over my shoulder in the fireman’s carry. And then I’m running, knocking Goblins aside and charging down the slope, sliding around rocks, praying I won’t fall.

Mrsha is on my back. I think she knows I’m carrying her, but she’s still struggling. She must be in pain from the spell. She screams, loud and anguished. I only know because I can feel the vibrations she makes as I grab her and run. I didn’t have time to tell her to cover her ears or eyes and she’s deaf and blind as I run with her down the slope.

I am, too. I can barely see with all the shimmering shapes burnt into my retinas, but I run anyways. I can hear the Goblins shouting and blundering after me above the ringing in my ears.

And then—a scream. I look back and see two shapes tumbling into the crevasse. Good.

Down the slope. Dodge around rocks. This terrain isn’t right for running, but I slide down and take the impact on my legs and lower body as I crash down the side of the mountain. Run. Run.

Run.

 

—-

 

They’re following. I know it. I charge down a hill, slipping in the snow, and Mrsha growls anxiously in my ear. I try not to fall, but I’m trying to run at the same time, to go faster.

The Goblins are right behind us.

I can hear them shouting, screaming in that high-pitched battle cry of theirs. They’re following us, and occasionally one tries to loose an arrow or whirl stones at my back.

But if there’s one thing I’ve got on them, it’s speed. Despite Mrsha on my back I can run faster than they can with their short legs. But I’m still running through the snow and that slows both me and them.

And I’m lost. I run straight now, as the hill transitions to an open plain, but I don’t know where to go. The tribe. I have to get to them. But where—?

Claws dig into my arm and I gasp. But Mrsha is patting my head, growling anxiously and I realize she’s trying to tell me where to go.

Mute. She’s mute. I look around, and see a paw pointing just to my right. I don’t hesitate and immediately take off running that way.

Arms burning. Legs aching. I’m at the end of my tether. But I have to keep going. I can’t slow down, not now.

How many Goblins are around us? The blizzard is still pouring snow, but I swear the sky is orange now, and there are glowing lights on the horizon.

Goblins.

Mrsha screams in my ear and I see shapes ahead of me. More? They’re coming at me, but they’ve doused their torches to try and hide. I run around them and sense something fly past my back. The little Gnoll on my back is screaming.

She’s a target. If they aim at my head, they’ll hit her. But I can’t do anything. I can only run faster.

Mrsha is howling, loud and anxious. I want to tell her to shut up, but she’s trying to call for help, and the Goblins know we’re here already.

She taps my arm and points. That way. I change directions, trying to get traction. But the loose snow is making me slow. And I’m carrying Mrsha. I could put her down and let her run—

No. Keep moving.

A forest ahead. I hesitate. They could be hiding there. But go around? It’s too far. I take a deep breath and charge in.

Something steps out of the trees. Mrsha screams again, but I kick the Goblin in the chest and run the other way. Deeper into the forest. They’re jumping out around me, but I bull rush another and break out of the trees with a horde of them on my tail.

Open plains. We’re getting closer now. Mrsha’s tapping my head again, and she points me further to the left. I run on.

“Got to—”

We’re going to make it. I have to believe that. But then I see more torches moving rapidly to my left. So I turn right. But there are more torches that way.

And ahead—

The two groups of Goblins race ahead of us, encircling our position. I slow, and then there are Goblins all around us.

Mrsha is silent. Slowly, I stop, in a circle of armed warriors. They’re closing in.

“Ah.”

I guess this is how it ends. I put down Mrsha in the snow. Gently. My heart is thundering in my ears.

“I guess it’s because you’re not a killer.”

Erin’s words echo in my ears for some reason. I stare at the Goblins and slowly pull away my coat. No time to take off any more layers. They watch, silently, as I discard what clothing I can.

Get lighter. Stay out of reach. They’re not shooting up, which is a mercy. But I can see it in their human expressions. They want to cut us apart. Make it slow.

Ah, Erin. For some reason I remember that Goblin she introduced me to. Rags. Would she be part of this? Is this her tribe? I doubt it.

I raise my fists, slowly, as the Goblin warriors advance. Mrsha is at my side, but I nudge her away.

“Stay back. Run if you see an opening.”

Hollow words. Where will she run to? But maybe she has a chance if she can get ahead of them. She outran one.

Erin. If I were at her inn, I could bar the doors and stay safe. Why am I thinking of the inn?

One of the Goblins steps forward. It’s the leader, the one I blinded. He bares his teeth at me.

The inn. My heart is racing. My hands are clenched into fists. It will be hard to kick in the snow.

I really just want to sit in front of the fire again and lose a few games of chess to her. I want to sit in her inn and listen to people talk and laugh. I want—

I want to live.

Their blades are sharp.

“If.”

And then he runs at me, and I raise my leg—

 

—-

 

This is what Mrsha saw. In the dark storm, as snow fell all around her, the small Gnoll huddled close to the ground, watching as shapes and shadows fought in the flickering light.

The Human, Ryoka Griffin, stood alone in a circle of Goblins. They came at her, laughing, one and two at a time, to play with the unarmed Human.

The first Goblin raised his mace as he charged the young woman. But Ryoka raised her leg and kicked out, catching him in the chest, too fast for him to block. He stumbled back, and she pointed at him.

“[Flashlight]!”

A beam of light burst from her finger, catching the Goblins by surprise. The light was so bright the young Gnoll had to look away. The Human leapt forwards as the Goblins shielded their eyes and struck the Goblin with the mace twice in the face.

He fell down. Ryoka punched him as he lay on the ground and he did not get up. She stepped back, and raised her hand. The Goblins watched her, surprised and now wary.

The Human pointed straight up, into the sky. She took a deep breath, and said a word Mrsha didn’t understand.

Ryoka fired a flare into the night sky. An incandescent red light shot from her hand and flew upwards as the Goblins cried out and retreated. But it wasn’t an attack.

The red light hung in the air, defying gravity as Mrsha stared upwards. Ryoka looked into the sky, her face grim. She fired the flare again, making the snow and landscape grow red. Then the light touched the ground, and the world became dark again.

Mrsha didn’t understand. Nothing had happened. The Goblins looked at the Human, but when it was clear she had no more spells, they regained their confidence. They came for her.

Punches. Kicks. Mrsha had seen the warriors and hunters of her tribe practicing and even fighting with spears and the occasional sword or axe. They had their own ways of fighting, rough, but efficient. But the Human—

She flowed from punch to kick, pivoting, trying to keep her back secure. She fought in ways the young Gnoll had never seen before, holding the Goblins back and hurting them, even without a weapon of her own.

But she was one and they were many. Ryoka pointed and light blinded them again, but they pushed her back, slashing at her wildly. And she was tired.

Every time she raised her finger and light blinded the Goblins, Mrsha saw the Human girl’s face twist as if she was in pain. And then she would be a little bit slower, a little bit weaker.

And the Goblins were many. They ran at her, half-blind but too many for her to stop. Ryoka fell back and Mrsha saw a Goblin slash at her leg. Ryoka dodged the sword, and punched the Goblin. But then he seized her hand and his mouth opened—

Mrsha saw the teeth close on Ryoka’s hand as she tried to pull away. She heard a crunch and a scream, a shout of agony. Ryoka pulled her hand away and Mrsha smelled the blood before she saw the stumps of her pinkie and ring finger.

Ryoka raised her bloody hand and looked at Mrsha. The blood dripped to the snow as the Goblin laughed and swallowed the digits. And the Human’s eyes were full of regret as she stared at Mrsha.

 

—-

 

“Ah.”

I stumble back from the Goblin who bit me. He laughs, and I look around and see Mrsha, crouched in the snow. And then there’s my hand.

He bit me. He took…my fingers. I stare at my right hand in shock.

Two stumps glisten wetly as blood begins to run into the snow. Automatically, I cover the wound. If I lose too much blood in this weather it would be bad. And it will sap my body heat.

Not good. I—

Another Goblin charges at me with a knife. I turn and kick, and he falls. But then I stumble.

“My hand.”

They’re laughing now. The Goblins watch as I clutch my wounded hand, and more slowly advance. I walk backwards, until Mrsha is touching my leg.

Can’t run. Can’t die.

I try to clench my hand, but it’s not right without those two fingers. There’s a gap and I can see straight into my palm. It looks wrong.

A Goblin advances towards me. The one who bit me. He raises his sword and grins around bloody teeth. I step towards him—

And hear a roar.

The Goblin turns, surprise becoming fear, and then his head disappears. I blink. Something flashes in front of me, and then there’s a Gnoll.

Not Mrsha. This one is taller, stronger, male. Urksh. He hacks another Goblin with an axe and the smaller warrior falls, head torn open.

And more Gnolls. They attack from the left, archers and warriors. I see…Hekra, standing with three other archers. She raises her bow and her hand blurs. Two Goblins fall, with arrows in their chests.

Nice skill.

I stumble, and a Goblin slashes at me. I step back, but he advances, and now there’s a lot of blood in the snow. Mine.

I punch him in the chest, but he’s got armor on and just stumbles. He raises his sword—

And Mrsha lunges into him from the side. She bites and tears with her small claws and he shrieks. He raises the shortsword and I grab his arm. I twist with my good arm and I hear his arm break.

He screams. I let go and pull Mrsha back. And then the Gnolls are around us, fighting, killing—

“—Griffin. Ryoka Griffin.”

Someone is grabbing me, holding my wrist. I look around. Urksh has me. He’s wrapping something around my hand, putting rough cloth on—

“Aah.”

It’s starting to hurt now. But more than anything, it just feels wrong to have something on the two stumps of my fingers. Urksh holds the cloth over my hand and nods to a Gnoll.

“Watch. They are coming.”

The Gnoll disappears. I blink at Urksh.

“I found her.”

He smiles at me, briefly.

“You did. Now we will handle the rest. Do not move. We will carry you.”

“I can—”

Too slow. He lifts me, and with another Gnoll, they run with Mrsha and me. The wind is cool on my skin as I blink around.

“I’m okay. I can run.”

“Rest. You did a great thing. I am honored to have met you, Ryoka Griffin.”

Something about his tone makes me look around. We’re not headed back towards the camp.

“Where—?”

“They are coming. We must flee.”

And then I see it, and I realize what despair tastes like. We were closer to the tribe’s camp than we thought, Mrsha and I.

Close, but too far. Too late.

This how it ends. This is how we die.

Hundreds of Goblins—thousands—stream across the plains. They are lit by mage light and torches as they run, firing, fighting with the few Gnolls who stand to hold them off.

The rest are fleeing. I can see over a hundred Gnolls, adults and children, running as fast as they can towards the west. But they’re being harried. Goblins are coming from every direction. It’s as if the world is being consumed by them.

And in the distance I can see the main host. A black tide of shapes, like some horrible flat beast, writhing towards us. There are larger Goblins among the main horde. Hobs. They’re firing arrows too.

Urksh runs with me in his arms, tireless as he rejoins the tribe. I look back and see more Gnolls breaking away, charging the Goblins coming at us without fear.

“What are—?”

“They buy time. Here. Run.”

He puts me down, face grim, and I understand. A few Gnolls are going to fight. They run at the Goblins, taking arrows, stumbling, many not even reaching the armed warriors. Those that do fall in an instant, cut from every side.

It’s all happening so fast. I can’t process it all. War? It’s so sudden, but then I see a blue glow.

Frost faeries. They’re hovering high in the sky, watching it all. And I wonder why they’re here. But then I realize, it’s because they’re no longer watching me.

Because this is not my story. Not in the grand scheme of things.

It’s his.

The Goblins are pursuing us, an endless horde of them. They’re striking our backs and flanks, trying to bring the adults protecting the children down, trying to block us off. They’re so focused on us, they never see the Drake charging towards them.

His armor is battered, and he has no magical items. Not like the other Drake who’s hot on his heels, holding a shining sword filled with magic. But the Drake in front is different. He has no weapons, yet his claws can cut steel. He runs at the head of an army, and as the Goblins turn, their faces change.

Maybe they can sense it in the moment before they die. Maybe they realize it. How could I not?

But he is a legend. A hero among Drakes. He must be.

Zel Shivertail charges past me and our gazes meet for one eternal second. Then his army and the remnants of Wall Lord Ilvriss’ army crash into the Goblins, cutting them apart, throwing bodies into the air as they rampage through their unguarded ranks.

The entire Goblin mass ripples in shock, but Zel doesn’t even stop. He runs forward, and his hands blur and Goblins fall down, torn, bleeding, dying.

Ilvriss is there as well, swinging his sword left and right, teeth bared. Are they on the same side now? They must be. The two generals cut through the first rank of Goblins and the next, and then they’re charging at the vanguard of Goblins.

That’s when I see the Goblin Lord for the first time.

He’s standing in the center of a mass of Goblins wearing magical armor. It’s not that he’s bigger than the others; he’s actually just a bit taller than your average Goblin, definitely smaller than the Hobs.

But his eyes are a thing of horror. I have seen them once before. His pupils are white, and the rest of his eyes are black. They glow, and even miles away, I somehow see them. He looks at Zel, and as his gaze passes mine, I feel terror in my soul.

He raises a hand, and suddenly the battle shifts again. Goblins cry out, and their ranks form up. Zel’s charge pauses as he finds himself running into a wall of shields.

A proper army, one with formations and tactics. And then I stop running as Urksh spins me around. His teeth are bared, and I look forwards and see more despair in the face of hope.

“No. No.”

Hobs. Another army falls on us from the side, encircling the Stone Spears before they can move away. I see Gnolls running back, but the battle is already joined behind us.

And this ambush party is attacking the Gnolls from the flank. Too many Hobs. I see warriors falling, unable to stop their advance. And neither Zel nor his army notice. They’re too busy cutting towards the Goblin Lord.

“Help us!”

I shout it at the Drakes and Gnolls, but they’re too busy fighting. No—the soldiers think we’re part of the army, or they just want us to hold the Goblins off while they attack. I see Hobs, so many of them! Over a hundred of them stride forwards in heavy armor, cutting Drakes and Gnolls apart.

How is this possible? I stare up. The faeries. They’re still watching the battlefield.

A Goblin comes at me. I kick him, and look wildly around.

“Mrsha!”

She’s hiding in the snow again. She never made it within the protective line of adults, and Goblins and Gnolls are struggling around her, nearly trampling the small girl.

I push towards her. Goblins in my way, Gnolls too. Someone stabs me in the side and I feel the pain and punch. They move away, and I stumble towards Mrsha.

“Here.”

I grab her, and she clings to me. I turn to run, to find safety, but there’s none to be found. Everyone is fighting. And the Stone Spears are dying.

A Goblin [Shaman] blasts the Gnoll Shaman of the Stone Spears tribe apart with some magic. And then I see his body rise, and I realize what’s happening.

The dead. Not all the Goblins are dead, and some of the Gnolls are beginning to fight against their kind. This Goblin army is raising the dead. The Goblin Lord is another [Necromancer].

And now Zel’s army is being forced back. He is still fighting his way towards the Goblin Lord, but his charge is faltering, and fewer people are at his back. If he doesn’t retreat, he’ll be cut off. But if he kills the Goblin Lord—

Either way, we die. I look up again as Mrsha holds me and sobs into my clothes.

“Help us.”

The faeries stare down. One speaks, and it’s a whisper in my ears despite the screaming and clash of weapons around me.

 

“We have. Would ye ask us a second time? Do you know what the fates will ask?”

 

“Please!”

 

“There are rules.”

 

“We will die.”

I look at them, and see the faeries nod.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Help us. I beg you.”

 

“There are rules.”

 

Goblins around me. I spread my arms. One last try.

“Are the fey slaves, or are you free? Help me! I am Ryoka Dawning Griffin, and I offer everything! Change fate. Save us.

Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I look around, and see Urksh. He clutches his stomach, and Mrsha stares in horror as he holds his guts in place. The Gnoll looks up towards the faeries, hovering high overhead.

“We offer everything.”

The world goes silent. I see the faeries overhead. I see Urksh, feel his paw on my shoulder tighten once, and then fall as a Goblin stabs him from behind. I see Mrsha screaming, and a Hob raise his club. I move to block him, and the world freezes.

 

—-

 

Zel ran, cutting Goblins apart, trying to force his way through their ranks towards the Goblin Lord. There were only a few ranks left until he ran into the Goblin Lord’s personal guard. He saw the strange Goblin staring at him, eyes pale and unearthly. He was surrounded by Hobs, but Zel knew he could kill the Goblin if only—

He cut left with a claw, and a Goblin fell back, throat opened to the air. Zel threw another Goblin aside, and saw only one thin row of Goblins ahead of him. They were pale. And dead.

“Undead Goblins?”

They didn’t seem strong. Zel hesitated. His [Dangersense] was going off nonstop, but he could see the Goblin Lord waiting for him. He clenched his fist, and felt a presence at his side.

“Shivertail.”

Ilvriss was injured. Even his magical armor and the weapon Zel had restored to him hadn’t saved him. Zel was hurt too, cut in many places despite his defensive Skills and armor. The two Drakes stared at the Goblin Lord as the leader of the Goblins watched them silently.

“We have to end this now, Ilvriss.”

“Agreed. The world needs no more Goblin Kings”.

They prepared to charge, but then Zel heard a sound and felt the chill. He turned.

Part of the battlefield had turned to ice. No—not just the battlefield. Goblins stood frozen in place in a huge circle around a group of Gnolls. The tribe he’d seen fleeing. They were cut down, only a few adults standing. And while the Goblins around them had died, more were closing in.

And there were children among them. Zel saw another adult go down as she tried to shield two cubs. The Goblins were trying to hack them apart, and his army was too busy fighting the other Goblins to see.

“Shivertail!”

Ilvriss was gripping his sword, and Zel could see the Goblins around him forming up. He would only get this once chance. But the children—

“Ilvriss. That Gnoll tribe is defenseless. Retreat.”

The Lord of the Wall gaped at him.

“Are you mad? We’ll never get another chance!”

“Retreat! They’ll all be wiped out if we don’t push them back!”

Zel turned, and yanked Ilvriss back. The other Drake fought him, snarling, and destiny changed.

One of the undead Goblins had been advancing on the two Drakes. If they had been closer—

The dead Goblin exploded. Zel and Ilvriss were caught on the edge of the blast, and they were thrown backwards, through the air. Only his armor and skills kept Zel intact as he crashed into the ground. He heard ringing in his ears, and sat up.

A huge crater was all that remained of where the undead Goblin had been. But Zel saw another one walking slowly through the empty zone, towards his soldiers. Living Goblins scrambled out of its way, and Zel found the breath to bellow.

Retreat!

His soldiers heard his voice. Zel surged upwards and grabbed Ilvriss, who was crawling around, looking for his sword. He forced the Drake up, and they ran backwards.

Towards the Gnoll tribe. They were all dying. Children, adults—Zel howled as he saw a Gnoll cub being cut down, but he slew the Hob and covered the rest of the children as his army ran to guard them. But they were all retreating now, in face of the overwhelming Goblin numbers. The Hobs had formed up, and a hundred of them were leading a charge. Even experienced soldiers fell before their blades.

Zel seized a child, and saw his soldiers saving the rest. The adults were dead. They lay where they had fallen, teeth bared, bodies filled with arrows, hacked apart. A few stood, undead, now slaves in death to another master.

Something grabbed Zel’s foot as he turned to go. He looked down, ready to kill, and saw an old Gnoll, gripping his leg. The Gnoll mouthed something, and Zel bent to listen. But there was too much noise, and the Gnoll died, half-smiling.

Zel straightened, and looked around. His army and Ilvriss’s forces were running now, the rearguard putting up a defensive line. He would join them. His skills would allow his army to retreat, but the Goblin Lord’s army was unstoppable. He stared at the Goblin Lord and felt those terrible eyes on his.

And then Zel saw a blur of movement. Someone was running, running past the Goblins. A Human girl ran, surrounded by blue lights. She was holding something in her arms. A small, struggling shape. A Gnoll.

She ran and the few Goblins who tried to pursue her froze in place. Zel watched the Human go and saluted her once with one claw.

For luck. He looked back at the Goblin army closing on them and saw only death. Death, those who commanded death, and an army large enough to threaten the continent.

They had to be stopped. But Zel could not do it here. So he retreated, tasting defeat in his mouth as the Goblin Lord stared at the [General]’s retreating back.

And smiled.

 

—-

 

Ryoka ran. She ran through the ranks of Goblins, in a world of her own. Cold air blew around her, and the faeries flew in front of her, leading her to safety.

They had done something. Each step Ryoka took felt like ten. She flew across the battlefield, like wind, snow rushing past her face. She was filled with magic.

But her heart was empty and broken.

A Gnoll struggled in Ryoka’s arms. A small shape, a small child cried out as Ryoka left her tribe behind. Two innocent eyes watched as adults and children fell, dying. She cried out, but Ryoka didn’t listen. The Human ran on, until the last lights of the Goblin army were far behind them.

At last, the faeries stopped, and Ryoka slowed, coming to a stop in knee-deep snow. She wavered, her head and body completely empty.

A faerie flew down in front of Ryoka, face expressionless. But there was sadness in her eyes, and Ryoka knew without asking what the cost had been.

“Can you…really see fate?”

Was it all pointless? Was it all preordained? The faerie just looked at Ryoka. Just looked.

“If there is destiny, I defy it. I will not bow to fate.”

They were meaningless words. If there was fate, there was no way she could fight against it. But she had to believe. Tears fell from Ryoka’s eyes. Tears that mixed with the blood on her body. Ryoka lifted her right hand and stared at the two stumps.

A small price to pay. Not enough, though.

Urksh. Ryoka bent down and put Mrsha in the snow. The Gnoll child looked up at Ryoka, and the Human blinked.

“Oh. Your fur.”

At some point in that endless run, something had happened. Mrsha’s brown fur had changed. From the colorful forest brown, it had become pure white, as white as snow. Blood and grime darkened the child’s face, but it was not hers.

“I’m so sorry.”

The Gnoll child said not a word. Her eyes were filled with tears. Ryoka stared at Mrsha’s fur, and then looked at the faeries. She gazed at the faerie in front of her, and saw immortal eyes. Tired eyes. A reflection.

“Next time I will save them all. Or die trying.”

Ryoka thought she said the words. She blinked, and then collapsed, falling face-first into the snow.

Mrsha looked at the fallen Human and slowly reached out to shake her. Ryoka didn’t move.

Overhead, the faeries exchanged a look. They nodded, and began to spin around in a wide circle overhead. Mrsha stared upwards as the snow falling from overhead stopped. And then the air began to warm.

All around Ryoka and the Gnoll, the snow began to melt. The child stared around, wild-eyed as grass and flowers began to grow upwards, creating a soft bed of new life around the two.  The air was warm, and for a second, the frozen crystal of the Frost Faeries’ skin changed, and grew brighter. The colors of spring ran through their bodies, bright and green, the color of grass and sunlight and clear blue skies.

But then the moment was past, and the faeries were ice and winter again. They hovered in the sky, above the small sanctuary they had formed. Ryoka slept on, unheeding. A voice spoke in her mind, a toneless, emotionless announcement delivering a message into her mind.

 

[Barefoot Runner Class Obtained!]

[Barefoot Runner Level 8!]

[Skill – Flawless Stride obtained!]

[Skill – Enhanced Movement obtained!]

[Skill – Dangersense obtained!]

 

[Skill – Final Run Learne—

 

“Nae, she will not be learning anything. Not from you at least. Leave the fool alone, ye thing of dead gods. She is different.”

 

[Level Ups Cancelled]

 

Mrsha raised her head. She heard nothing of the faeries’ words, knew nothing of what had passed. She touched the motionless Human, and raised her head towards the moon. It shone down around the clear patch of grass and flowers blooming in the center of the snowy wasteland.

She howled up at it, her voice loud and wild, filled with grief.

But no one answered her call. And so Mrsha howled and howled into the night, alone. Knowing that she was alone.

A sudden noise split the silence of the night. Mrsha leapt back from Ryoka, hair standing on end, as something in the girl’s pack began to ring, emitting a strange sound she had never heard before.

The iPhone rang for five whole minutes as Mrsha looked around and the faeries watched silently from overhead. Then it too fell silent.

Far to the south, the Goblin Lord pursued Zel Shivertail’s army, forcing them to run until the Goblins finally gave up on the chase. They gathered once more, to grow and become even stronger, until the northern tribes could be subjugated. They would sweep north, soon.

Across the world, a group of mages stopped casting, and changed their target. Another phone began to ring, on another continent.

None of it mattered. Where Ryoka lay, dreaming of fire and darkness, sleeping next to a small Gnoll who curled up next to the Human, there were no sounds. The faeries hovered overhead, guarding the two into the night.

There was no noise here, no words that could be spoken.

Only the slow, heavy sound of silence.

And the memory.

Of death.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

2.28

I walk because it still hurts to run. I move because it’s just a bit better than staying still.

But yeah. I’m in pain.

Overhead, the sky is clear for a brief window of time, exposing clear skies. But clouds are coming in fast, and there will be a blizzard before nightfall. I’m no meteorologist, but I’ve got a bunch of flying faeries that tell me this is so. And I believe them.

I’m not crazy, I swear.

Some days I think I am, actually. In the past, I was sure I was sane despite what other people thought*. Now though, I’m beginning to wonder if this is all because I’ve snapped and I’m in the straightjacket at last.

*Lots of diagnoses from people with long degrees. What all the talk of social disorders really meant was that I was an uncooperative brat who hated authority figures. I locked a therapist in his office one time and walked out with the key. Good memories.

But as I take another step in the snow, I decide that fantasy doesn’t hurt nearly as much as this reality. My entire body is—

Frankly, it feels like I’ve been hit with a car and then beaten with sticks for a few hours. I feel like curling into a ball and crying every time I move, but that would hurt even more.

The potion Teriarch gave me has worn off by now, obviously. I sort of slowed down about twenty minutes after I drank it.

I say twenty minutes, but what I really mean is this endless blur of motion – all sped up in my head, but at the time it was all moving at normal speed for me. I ran out of that battlefield, and back towards Liscor. I think I covered over fifty miles in those twenty minutes—I could be way off, but I was literally running faster than a car so who knows.

Anyways, after the potion wore off I just fell down. The faeries laughed their little asses off when I started feeling the pain from my legs, but I somehow managed to drag myself into a cave they found for me.

That’s another thing. The faeries were with me while I was running, the entire time. They were actually faster than I was—no, I don’t even think they were having a hard time keeping up. How fast are they really?

Back to the important bit. You know how you can tear muscles if you run really hard? Imagine what running that fast does to your body.

I had several healing potions in my pack before I made it to the Necromancer. They were good quality potions too. They’re gone now, and my body still hurts.

For two days I think I sat in a cave, trying to heal my torn muscles and just—just remembering. After I stopped, for a while I couldn’t even process the world around me. My mind was still too busy catching up from where I’d left it.

Fast forwards to now. I finally left the damn cave and started moving again because I was feeling better, and because the faeries were getting bored and dumping snow into the cave. If I’d left it another day, I probably would have been trapped inside.

So yeah. That’s what my life has been recently. I stumble through the snow, heading back the way I’ve come. It’s a long way to Liscor, but I’ve got plenty to think about.

Like Az’kerash. The Necromancer. The battle, Wall Lord Il—whoever he was, and…

Periss.

“Damn it.”

It all happened so fast. I was a runner, and then a prisoner, and then a noncombatant in a warzone, and then…

I led them to their deaths. That was my fault. True, they were chasing me and probably going to hit me a lot and take me prisoner, but—

My fault. There’s no way to escape that. Periss might have been a loyal hound for her master, but she was also brave. And she let me go to fight what she saw as the greatest threat to her people.

The Necromancer. Az’kerash. Perril Chandler. I remember what I saw him creating, and my stomach heaves.

“Oh right. The letter.”

I pause.

“Fuck that dragon.”

I hate him so damn much. One of the faeries hears me muttering and floats down to laugh at me.

 

“What’s wrong? Is it not what ye expected?”

 

I glare at the faerie. How is it that I’ve probably talked to these floating freaks more than anyone else in this world or—most of my life?

“When I get told to deliver—no, when a Dragon casts a spell on me to do a delivery and pays me nearly a thousand gold pieces to send sometimg to a legendary Necromancer, I expect it to be important.”

 

Hah!

 

The faerie laughs in my face. She flips upwards and settles on my head. For some reason they really like sitting there. I’m not sure if she’s one I’ve talked to before; I think she is, but I’m not being racist when I say they really all do look alike. It’s hard to make out frozen features on minutiae, alright?

 

“If it was important, the Dragon would have used magic, fool! But he had no wish to break through the dead raiser’s wards and he wished to be polite. More fool you for thinking what ye carried was valuable.”

 

I grit my teeth, but she has a point. If Teriarch can alter memory and disguise himself as a Human – and if he can teleport me all the way back to Celum in a few seconds – he really doesn’t need even the best Couriers.

Polite damn Dragons. Who would have guessed?

“Fine. Whatever. Get off my head. You’re giving me a headache.”

 

“Ooh, and what will you do if I don’t?”

 

I raise my finger and point it at the faerie.

“[Flashlight].”

For a second the world around me lights up, and the faerie shouts in surprise. I grin as she takes off; swearing in what sounds like…Welsh? Their accents seem to vary between faeries, which is odd, but not so much if you assume they occupied different parts of Europe. I could swear I heard one of the faeries talking with a German accent, but they might have just been messing with my head.

But of course, any action against faeries prompts a greater or equal reaction. She dumps snow on my head. I swear and flash her again.

With my finger. It shines into the sky, so bright I can see the beam even in the light of the day. It turns out that I can adjust the intensity of the light very well, and so I blind the faerie again.

 

“Ye daft bugger!”

 

She flies around erratically, as I shine my light at her, and then she stops, flies back on my head, and grins at me.

 

“Ah, well. ‘Twas quite a good surprise!”

 

That’s faeries for you. Insult them a bit and they’ll hound you, but do something like that and they just regard it as a bit of fun. I’m starting to understand them more, but they always surprise me a bit. The faerie on my head doesn’t even seem to mind the light anymore. I frown at her as I walk on, trying to substitute the pain in my head by thinking about faeries.

“Did you just turn off your eyes or something?”

 

“What? Are ye stupid? Nae. I just saw past the light, ‘tis all.”

 

“…I see.”

Multiple layers of vision? Obviously a faerie might have access to all kinds of spectrums of light. But even that might be too simple; she could very well just ignore the light on my wavelength if she wanted to. Huh.

A tiny head lowers into my line of sight as the faerie grins at me.

 

“If you really wanted to surprise us, ye’d do better to make the loud sound and noise along with the light!”

 

“What? Oh—you mean the [Flashbang] spell.”

That was a good one. I had no idea I could do it, but while I was in the cave I started experimenting with the two spells I did know. [Noise] and [Light]. My reasoning was that if I could alter the [Light] spell with some work, why not the [Noise] spell? Hell, why not combine the two?

A day and a half later, and two aching eardrums prove I’m right. The burst of noise and sound isn’t exactly like being hit by a real life stun grenade—and there’s a whole lot less death and injury since this is just light and sound, not actual explosive force like the damn things people use, ‘non-lethal’ my ass—but it works.

Sound and light. Light and sound, just amplified. It’s the easiest thing to remember, especially if you’ve actually seen a flash bang go off*.

*Yeah. Police drug raids, wild party, and I wasn’t actually doing drugs. But try explaining that to a bunch of officers tearing up the place. The one time my father’s connections actually bailed me out of trouble I didn’t start.

It’s a great spell, and I can see how useful it would have been with all those soldiers. Hell, it might have slowed Periss enough—well, the [Flashlight] spell works well enough just to blind people. The [Flashbang] spell is a bit more intensive, and it hits me as well which is a major problem. Since I can’t move the [Noise] spell, it’s always set to friendly fire which sucks. And there’s one more problem.

“I feel sick after using that spell just once. I don’t have the mana to keep using it.”

 

“Weakling.”

 

I glare up at the faerie dangling her cold legs on my forehead.

“As far as I understand it, magic isn’t something I can actively train myself to have more of, unless I want to alter my body somehow. What I have is what I get and I’m grateful for that. Unless you know something about magic that I don’t?”

I’m sure they do. For all I hate these faeries at times, they’re a damn goldmine of information. If they choose to share it.

Which this faerie does not. She sniffs at me, arrogant as a queen despite the fact that she’s naked and tiny.

 

“Of course we know how magic works. But why should we tell you? And how would you understand? Would ye explain breathing to a rock?”

 

“I’d give it a shot. And I could try to understand your view of magic. Unless you don’t understand your powers enough to explain it in the first place, that is?”

The faerie pauses, and I think I’ve got her. But then she laughs, clear and bright as a bell. She takes off, and a few more of her friends fly down to laugh at me as well.

 

“Ooh, look. The plaything is trying to be clever. Take this!”

 

They flick their fingers at me and I flinch. But no snow appears. I frown, take a step—

And slip on the ice patch they’ve just created. I crash to the ground, swearing as they laugh and sit on my side as I struggle to get up.

Faeries. But I guess I deserved that? Wait a second, no I didn’t. I just asked a damn question about magic. Screw their opinions about what I should or should not be allowed to learn.

But each time I talk to them, I swear it’s worth it. Bruises and all.

Plaything. That was another word they kept using. Once the faeries have stopped laughing I ask them about it.

“What do you mean when you call me ‘plaything’? I’ve heard you call me that before. Whose plaything am I? Teriarch’s?”

Huh. That makes the faeries stop laughing. They exchange a look, and I watch them. Then one of the faeries shakes her head.

 

“As if the Dragon would bother with you. Nae, ye are a plaything of greater powers still. But you don’t even know what ye’ve given up, do you?”

 

“Given up? What do you mean?”

 

“Ach. How would we explain it? What good can a slave do with the chains on their neck? But you put it on willingly, didn’t ye?”

 

She looks at her companions and shakes her head again.

 

“Your…classes, fool! Your levels and foolish things. You are a plaything, and you know not what that means or who plays this game.”

 

And there it is. Part of the mystery, right there if only I was smart enough to put all the pieces together. I frown, but then I notice the faerie’s expression. She’s…glaring at me. So are the others.

Hm. They really, really don’t like this subject. And I can see they’re getting ready to either fly off or do something nasty to me, not just prank me.

So I look her in the eye and shake my head.

I’m no plaything.”

 

“Liar!”

“Lies, you are all playthings! Ignorant slaves!”

“You cannot hide the truth!”

 

Okay, now they’re pissed. The faeries fly around me, and more of them come down. They look angry.

Faeries. Quick to change emotions. And dangerous. I gulp, but hold my hands up.

“I’m telling the truth. I have no classes and no skills. I never leveled. I chose not to.”

They freeze. One of the faeries squints at me.

 

“Truly?”

 

“Can’t you tell?”

They hesitate, and then shake their heads reluctantly. Huh. Seems like that’s one of the things faeries can’t do. One of them, the first one, I think, floats closer and eyes me suspiciously.

 

“Do not try to trick us, mortal. Tell us plain: do you have levels? Did ye accept the power of this world?”

 

I look her straight in the eye. If ever this was a time to be honest…

“I swear it. I swear it on the water, by the grass and earth and sky and on my name. I swear it by honor and life itself.”

I’m not sure if those are the right words. I don’t know any faerie oaths and I’ve forgotten any famous ones in the moment. But it seems to work. The faeries exchange a glance and then look at me. one speaks.

 

“That is…good. And interesting. It changes much, Human.”

“And nothing.”

 

Another one mutters that. Some faeries nod and others shake their heads. For the first time I see them start to argue, but then they look at me. Almost all of them fly out of earshot and the first one—I think it’s still her—remains.

“Would you like to explain any of that?”

She lifts her small nose up at me.

 

“‘Tis for us to discuss. We will tell you if you need to hear it.”

 

“Thanks.”

I sigh. Faeries. Secrets. It’s not as if I’m not used to this already. I glance over my shoulder the way I’ve come. A long, open stretch of snow is behind me, and a small forest seems to be ahead.

“Damn it. Do you at least know where I am? Am I even headed back to Liscor?”

She hesitated, and then nods stiffly.

 

“You go the right way, Human. You and others march towards the city that floods.”

 

Wait, what? Two parts of that sentence bother me.

“Me and others? What do you mean?”

She squints behind me. I look over my shoulder, but I don’t see anything. But the faerie does.

 

“‘Tis a great column of the children of Dragons and the walking dogs following your trail. About a day’s journey behind.”

 

Oh no. My heart begins beating faster again. I remember Ilvriss and the other one. Zel-something.

“Do you know which army it is? Is it the one who captured me, or the other one?”

She shrugs. Well of course faeries don’t care about mortal affairs. She eyes me as I try to pick up the pace.

 

“Ye know we will not interfere in mortal affairs.”

 

“I know. But you seem to interfere a lot in my life.”

She shrugs as she floats by my head.

 

“Some rules may be broken. Some may not. But we speak to you now because your life is not in danger. We will not save ye if you were to fall off a cliff, say. We do not interfere with death.”

 

For a second her eyes are ancient again. I shiver.

“Because of the price? Or because it’s forbidden?”

 

“All things have a price. Ye would do well to remember that.”

 

Silence follows that statement. I mean, what the hell do I say to that? I clear my throat as I try and force my legs to move faster.

“Well. Ah, I will remember. But thank you for helping me before. With everything.”

I wonder if they broke the rules a bit to help me get to Az’kerash? True, I might not have been in danger of dying until I got in sight of the castle, but—

The faerie eyes me as if she can see inside my head. And if she can see on different planes, why not? But she nods.

 

“You are a curious mortal. Almost interesting, even though ye art a fool.”

 

“This mortal does have a name, you know. My name is Ryoka Griffin.”

 

“Good for it.”

 

I glare at the faerie. But part of me actually wants her to know my name. This is not like the phone call with the person who wanted to scry on us or Teriarch. This is a faerie. I want her to remember my name and—

“What’s your name?”

I look at the faerie, and realize I’ve never asked. I thought faeries didn’t even have names, but perhaps they do. She looks at me.

 

“Why should I tell you? Names are important and not to be thrown around lightly, Ryoka Griffin.

 

Damn. Was that a mistake? But they can find me and mess with me even without a name. I shrug.

“I’m just curious.”

 

“Curiosity has killed many cats. Few come back. Besides, ye would never pronounce it.”

 

“Try me.”

The faerie stares at me archly as I raise an eyebrow at her. Okay, it’s clichéd, but faeries don’t know modern tropes and taunting them often works. She opens her mouth, hesitates, and then vanishes.

“What?”

I blink. One second she’s there, the next…wind and silence. Why? Did I bother her that much? Did I offend her by asking for her name?

Faeries. Let’s see. Names…ah, they’re bad to give to faeries. But I told her my first and last name, and my first name is in kanji, so that would make it difficult for her to control me. I don’t even think they’re that evil, but I didn’t mention my middle name either.

Maybe it’s just because she didn’t want to answer? But even when they get snippy they still talk. So what—?

Hold on. Hold on. The faeries don’t disappear except in one case. When they can’t interf—

I look around. I’ve kept walking as I talked to the faeries. Hell, it’s practically my default state of motion. I’ve gone a small ways into the forest, and the trees were sparsely planted so I have plenty of room to walk between them. All is silent, and I don’t even see any animals.

…And neither do I hear any birds, which I would expect to hear in a place like this. Even in the winter there should be some around.

Immediately I lower my stance. My body’s sore, but it can move. I can cast [Flashbang] if need be, but I have no more potions or bags. I look around warily. Nothing but trees, and yet the faeries are gone.

“I know someone’s out there. Come out!”

Silence. Even the wind is still. I look around.

“Show yourself!”

For a few seconds I’m tense, waiting. I can’t see anything that makes me think there’s someone nearby, but now my skin is crawling and I’m sure there is something there.

And then someone steps out behind a tree that seems far too slim to hide them. A Gnoll walks out from behind the brown, snowy bark, holding a bow in her hands.

She was so invisible that my heart skips a few beats when she moves. I flinch, but if she’d wanted to kill me, she would have while I was standing around like an idiot. The Gnoll is wearing only a few garments despite the cold, and her breath clouds the air. She nods at me, gravely.

“Mrr. Ryoka Griffin. I am Hekra of the Stone Spears Tribe.”

Her bow is lowered, and I relax when I hear what tribe she’s from. I smile at her.

“Sorry. I was wary—are you out hunting?”

“Hunting, yes. But not for game. There are none to be found.”

Some Gnolls are taciturn, but Hekra seems more distracted than anything else. Her eyes flick around the forest, and then to me.

“Were you talking with the Winter Sprites?”

I frown. What’s this?

“Yes. I was. Were you expecting something else to be nearby?”

She shrugs.

“I am not sure. There is something in the wind.”

Hekra hesitates, and then points out of the forest, east and to the north.

“It is dangerous to be alone. Our tribe’s camp is that way. I will take you there. Follow.”

I nod, and the Gnoll begins to walk through the snow. Not fast; in fact, she’s silent as she moves through the trees, despite the landscape. I feel like an ox as I blunder after her in my heavy shoes. And her head is scanning left and right as she moves, and her ears are twitching.

She’s listening for something. And looking. For what? A monster? Enemies?

I don’t know, but I frown as I walk after her and try to keep silent. The faeries reappear slowly as I continue moving. Perhaps they didn’t know if Hekra had been a threat or not either. Good to know they’re not omniscient. But their sudden disappearance and the news of the army following me bug me. Almost as much as Hekra’s own wariness.

Is there something out here? Something else? I follow the Gnoll as she leads me towards her tribe’s camp. And now I’m listening as well.

Where have all the animals gone?

 

—-

 

“There is nothing out here.”

Ilvriss snapped at Zel as the two Drakes marched through the snow, at the center of a huge column of soldiers and prisoners. Zel Shivertail wondered if he could ignore the other Drake, but politeness dictated he reply. Plus, Ilvirss would remember any slight.

“I’m sure there isn’t. but this is the way the Human Runner went, and I want to follow for a bit.”

Wall Lord Ilvriss glared at Zel. He was a prisoner, as was the bulk of his army. They’d surrendered fast after Zel had charged their lines and they’d realized their leader had been captured. Now Zel was marching with a huge number of them captive among his lines.

He wasn’t worried about the prisoners trying to stage an escape or attacking in his army’s sleep. For one thing, his soldiers were on alert and for another, it would violate the laws of war and Ilvriss’ own sense of honor. Say what you would about the Lord of the Wall, but the Drake was honorable. He’d as soon break the rules of warfare as he would cut off his own tail.

That was also why Ilvriss was marching next to Zel in the snow. He’d even been allowed to keep his armor; it was cold, he needed his dignity, and without his sword Zel could trounce him with one claw tied behind his back.

None of that improved Ilvriss’ mood.

“This is pointless, Shivertail. We should be headed back to your damn alliance cities so I can be ransomed. You are wasting time following a Human who is long gone.”

“She can’t have gotten that far.”

“Oh, really?”

Ilvriss made a sound that in a lesser Drake would have been called a snort. Zel thought of it a snort anyways.

“Didn’t you see her escape? At that speed—”

“At that speed, I’d be surprised if she could sustain it for more than five minutes. And afterwards, she’d have to rest. Potion or not, there are limits to what bodies can handle.”

“The Human’s tracks might be there, but she is still a Runner. She is far faster than this slow army.”

“True, but I want to head this way anyways.”

“Why?”

“Curiosity. She helped me win the battle, if you don’t recall? And there is also the matter of Periss and the soldiers you sent after her.”

Ilvriss looked at Zel out of the corner of one eye. He and Zel hadn’t talked much aside from the ritual offer of surrender and a few short acerbic conversations while they were marching. He shrugged.

“She disappeared. She must have lost the battle.”

“You can’t believe that.”

Zel knew Lord Ilvriss, and he also knew Periss. The very idea that she would have lost a fight to the girl named Ryoka Griffin was ridiculous, and both generals knew it. But Ilvriss just shook his head.

“I will not speculate. I will investigate this matter when I am restored to my city with all the power and resources I have, however. The city we are marching away from as we speak.”

Well, that didn’t bode well for the Human. Zel sighed.

“We can go this way until we hit the main road. Then we’ll start moving south. A day or two of detouring won’t slow us, unless you have another army waiting in ambush?”

Ilvriss shook his head.

“Would I need one? My army would have defeated yours easily. If—”

“Yes, yes.”

Zel ignored the Wall Lord as he walked ahead. He’d deployed heavy scouts ahead of his main army. He didn’t know why, but his instincts were telling him to do so.

He was no [Tactician] or even a [Strategist]. Zel had ranks in the [Commander] class, but only that. In truth, he was a [General] who led from the front and he did his best fighting when he trusted his gut.

And his gut told him there was something else. Not just the Human; she was interesting and possible important, but there was another presence in these empty forests and highlands.

Zel tightened his fist and silently assessed his condition. His army might be battered, but they were more than capable of managing the prisoners and Ilvriss. With him, they were more than a match for any army a city-state might field, with the exception of the Liscorian army and a few others. But Liscor had sent their mercenaries far to the south. So what was making him so uneasy?

He didn’t know. But Zel ordered the pace to be picked up. The supply lines could damn well catch up later. He had a mystery to solve.

He hated mysteries. This foreboding he felt reminded him of the Antinium and if it was them—

No Hives were allowed to be constructed outside of the six already present on the continent. Even then, they weren’t allowed to expand past certain borders. It wasn’t beyond belief though that the Antinium might hide something this far out here. How else would the girl have made Periss vanish like that?

It was an outside chance. But if it wasn’t the Antinium out here, he wanted to know what it was.

And if it was an unauthorized Hive…Zel’s claws clenched. If it was, it would mean another Antinium War.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But he had to investigate. So Zel marched onwards, wondering. Listening.

What was it?

 

—-

 

Ryoka walked into the Stone Spears camp, smiling as she saw Urksh, the Chieftain of the tribe, standing at one of the huge bonfires the Gnolls liked to make. But that smile faded as she took in the camp.

It was not the same place she had left.

Before, the camp had been sprawling chaos, but organized for all of that. Children had run around freely, and Gnolls had been at work performing various tasks.

Now though, the camp looked like it was under lockdown. The children were nowhere to be seen, but Ryoka thought they were in the tents. Gnolls with bows and spears stood at the edges of the camp, and groups of them moved into the camp and out of it, talking with Urkrsh before heading out again.

Something was clearly wrong, and Ryoka jogged over.

“Urksh.”

He looked at her.

“Ryoka Griffin. I am pleased to see you well. But this is a bad time for greetings. Forgive me if I do not offer you all the hospitality.”

“No. That’s fine. But what’s wrong?”

Urksh nodded to Hekra and she trotted off to join a group of hunters heading out. Ukrsh watched them go and shook his head before he looked at Ryoka.

“Mrsha. She is missing.”

A hole opened up in Ryoka’s stomach. She stared at Urksh.

“How?”

He shrugged.

“We do not know. This morning she went out to help gather plants from beneath the snow. She wandered from the gatherer with her and we have not seen her.”

“She just left? Did anyone hear anything?”

“No. But that is not uncommon. Young cubs, they wander a mile or two away to help or play.”

That seemed like a risky way of looking after children, but Urksh explained.

“Even if they are a ways away, children may howl. And we take care that they do not enter places where any monsters may lurk. She was only gone for a few minutes, but when the caretaker searched, she was nowhere to be found.”

“Wouldn’t she have said where she was going?”

Urksh shook his head. Ryoka knew she was asking all the stupid questions, but she had to. Her stomach was beginning to churn. Mrsha? It seemed like just yesterday she’d seen the Gnoll rolling in the snow and following her about.

“Mrsha is different, no? She is healthy, yet she does not speak though her throat is undamaged.”

“Is she mute?”

The Gnoll looked at Ryoka, confused. Did they not have mute Gnolls? She shook her head.

“Can she make any sounds?”

Urksh nodded.

“Yelping, growls. Small sounds. She is young, but even children can howl. That we have not heard her is worrying.”

It was a terrible question, but Ryoka had to ask.

“…Could she have gotten hurt? Injured? If a monster—”

The Gnoll instantly shook his head, which made Ryoka feel better.

“If she was attacked, she would have made a sound, no? And if she were dead, we would smell blood. No. Something scared her as she was wandering. That, or else she went looking for something.”

There was an inflection in his tone that made Ryoka hesitate.

“Something? What kind of thing?”

The Gnoll Chieftain did not immediately respond. He looked towards the sky. It was just past midday, but the storm clouds the faeries had warned Ryoka about were closing in.

“A smell in the air. It is faint. And it may be nothing, but some of our hunters feel as though they are being watched.”

He looked at Ryoka.

“Normally we would have more searching. But the miners, they are not back, no? We have not the numbers to mount a search.”

He was worried. Ryoka could tell in the way he changed his manner of speech. Gnolls usually said ‘yes’ at the end of sentences, but they only used ‘no’ when they were upset or angry.

“You can’t get in contact with them?”

He hesitated.

“We may howl, but they are a few day’s journey away. If we do not find Mrsha before the storm comes…”

He didn’t finish the sentence. If there were tracks, or…a body, they would be covered by the deep snow. And even if the young Gnoll was alive, could she survive that cold a night?

“Forgive me Ryoka. I must go lead another search. We are combing the mountains where she was.”

Urksh bowed to Ryoka and began to walk off. She didn’t even think. Ryoka caught Urksh’s arm as he started to leave the camp with other hunters.

“Let me help. I can run, and I owe your tribe a debt.”

The Gnoll looked at her, and then nodded.

“You are limping. We have a poultice. Use it and then join us. We will need to move quickly before light fades.”

He loped off, and Ryoka stared around the campsite. High in the air, the Frost Faeries hovered, watching.

“Do you—?”

Ryoka bit her lip. They wouldn’t answer. Mortal affairs. She shook her head and moved towards one of the tents. Healing poultice, and then she would run. As fast and as far as she could. She owed the Gnolls a debt.

More than that, she wanted to see Mrsha’s face again. But a small part of Ryoka was whispering in fear, and she had to push the voice back.

Let it not be so. It was just an accident, a lost Gnoll. Nothing more.

Everything would be fine.

 

—-

 

Ryoka ran through a forest, Gnolls spreading out around her. They ran in a curious bounding motion across the snowy landscape, separating so that each Gnoll could cover a large patch of land.

Normally Ryoka wasn’t anywhere near as fast as a Gnoll, with her heavy winter clothing and boots. But she’d abandoned all of that to give herself some more speed and mobility. She’d wrapped her feet in fur and bound it to her legs instead of boots and she was down to her shirt and pants.

It was risky, and Ryoka could feel the chill in the air. But so long as she got back to the Gnoll’s camp she would be fine.

And she needed to move fast.

Mrsha!

Ryoka shouted as she ran through the forest. Frost Faeries flew around her, their translucent forms for once lacking the vibrant energy they normally possessed. They flew over Ryoka’s head, silent, watching. She ran, paused, and called out again.

Mrsha! Can you hear me?

Around her, Ryoka could hear faint howls in the distance. The Gnolls were calling out for Mrsha in their own way, pausing to listen. But they clearly heard nothing, because they howled again from different spots a few minutes later.

Where could she be? Urksh had said she was gathering a plant which grew high up on the slopes, and yet the Gnoll child could have ranged down the side of the mountain or in the forests. Normally the adult Gnoll would have smelled or found her instantly, but for some reason she’d disappeared.

She knew not to wander far off, and she would have made a sound if she was attacked. So then why had she gone so far away? Ryoka’s mind was racing as she ran and called out, and each suspicion she had was worse than the last.

Mrsha!

The small Gnoll had light brown fur and an inquisitive, curious face. She had always been poking around in Ryoka’s things or touching the Human girl while she was in camp. At first it had been annoying, and then it had been almost relaxing. The Gnoll child was unafraid of Ryoka, and she’d enjoyed bothering the girl.

Ryoka wished she could feel that small claw poking into her back.

Mrsha! If you can hear me, call out!

Was there magic she could use? Ryoka ran out of the forest and up a slope, looking for places where a young Gnoll might have tripped or fallen. Pitfalls, a subterranean cave entrance, a Shield Spider nest—Urksh said they’d cleared out all of the nests nearby and marked the ones that they hadn’t, but could Mrsha have fallen into one?

Surely the Gnolls would have checked. She would ask when she got back. Ryoka ran up the slope, ignoring the way her feet slipped and legs cramped up.

The mountain was silent. It loomed overhead, higher and higher, the snow gradually giving away and revealing rock the higher you looked. No sane person would climb that mountain. But would a young Gnoll do that if she was afraid?

Afraid of what?

Ryoka ran upwards, calling out. Frost Faeries flew around her as Ryoka shouted, waiting, hoping for a reply.

But no one answered.

 

—-

 

“Rest. You must rest, Ryoka Griffin. Eat this.”

Ryoka looked up. Urksh was offering her something. She reached up and found he had a bone with cooked meat on it. She took it and bit, ignoring the heat and bloodiness of the food.

She wanted to keep moving, but her body had grown too tired. And the Gnolls had come back to camp, most of them, anyways. Ryoka had  gone back to see if anyone had found Mrsha, but they had not.

They hadn’t found anything.

Forest. River. The frozen lake. The higher passes. Even the few caves they knew of, both inhabited and not. The Gnoll [Hunters] and other adults had scoured each location, even travelling further than they thought Mrsha could move. But they hadn’t found any tracks or signs of her. And that was telling, because the girl would have left some fur or traces of her passing, wouldn’t she?

And now the mood in the camp had changed again. Instead of the subdued panic Ryoka had sensed earlier, now the Gnolls were silent. Completely so. The [Hunters] still conferred, but there were less of them going out to search. They had few spots left to cover.

They were giving up hope.

Urksh sat with Ryoka by one of the fires as she ate mechanically. She looked at him.

“I’ll head out again after this. Give me a few minutes.”

“You must rest. It would not do to lose you. It is beginning to snow.”

He was right. Dusk had set in, and with it, the storm had finally arrived. Thick flakes were beginning to fall from the sky, and they were only the beginning. Soon, wind and snowfall would make visibility impossible. And then—

Ryoka’s hand tightened on the bone and she nearly burned herself. She let go and wiped her hand on her pants.

“She’s not lost yet. There are places we haven’t looked. Higher in the mountains, perhaps.”

Urksh shook his head.

“She knows that there is death up there. She would not go unless she was desperate.”

“And if she was?”

His gaze was steady as he met Ryoka’s burning stare.

“If she was, she would know that there are many deep crevasses. If she fell into one, we would never hear her or catch her scent. If she survived the fall.”

Ryoka looked away and clenched her fist. Urksh looked at the sky.

“We do not think it is that. Only a monster would chase her so far, and most are too smart to go high up. The ones in the mountain are large enough to spot and smell…but another might have caught her.”

She looked at him. Urksh stared into the fire. He had searched longer than most, as long as Ryoka, and dark sweat still stained his fur.

“A Wyvern can grab even an adult up in seconds. If it swooped down, it would take only seconds.”

Ryoka stared at Urksh. But she saw the same expression on his face. Gnolls were practical. They would keep looking, but if they didn’t find her by tomorrow, then realistically Mrsha would probably be dead.

Humans might look for far longer than that, in hopes of finding a miracle or the remains. But Gnolls had to face facts or die in the wilderness.

“She’s not lost yet.”

“No. And we will search for her until we have lost all hope.”

He stood. Ryoka hesitated, and stood with him.

“Magic?”

If they had any, they would have used it. Urksh shook his head.

“Our [Shaman] knows no spells that will aid us. He can heal and fight but little more.”

“A beacon, then. If she’s just lost, maybe we can show her the way back. I have a spell that might—”

Again the Gnoll shook his head.

“She knows where we are camped. And we should not draw too much attention to ourselves. Not tonight.”

He looked at her.

“There is something in the mountains. We have sensed it.”

Ryoka nodded. She had too. She pointed, and the Gnoll looked up.

“The Frost Faeries seem to think there’s something out there too. They disappeared when I met Hekra—I think they were expecting something else. They won’t help if someone’s life is in danger, and there’s that army…”

She’d told Urksh about the army coming this way when she’d remembered. He’d simply shrugged. Gnoll Tribes had their own peace treaties, and the Stone Spears had no issues with any Drakes at the moment.

“If there is something we will fight or flee. We have watchers and there is nowhere to hide in this flat space. But we dare not send the entire tribe out to look any longer.”

Ryoka nodded.

“I’ll keep looking. Don’t worry about sending someone with me.”

Urksh looked at her directly.

“You will not find her by searching the same places again, Ryoka Griffin. Do not waste your strength.”

Ryoka bent down and tried to tie the wrappings around her feet even tighter. She’d begun to get frostbite by the time she’d returned, but she’d been able to run far faster like this. It was worth the pain, especially since she could use the healing poultice.

“I have to look.”

“If you had a location, I would go with you myself. But this is a vast wilderness. Who will tell you where she has gone?”

She tried to ignore the voice of reason. Gritting her teeth, Ryoka bent to touch her toes and tried to stretch.

“I don’t know. I just have to h—”

She paused. Who would help her search? Gnolls were experts in this terrain. The Stone Spears knew every spot in the area. Who would be better at tracking than they were? Who could see—?

Her eyes travelled upwards.

The Frost Faeries. They’d been so silent as Ryoka searched. They hadn’t disappeared, but they hadn’t said anything. Normally they’d be showering Ryoka with remarks and jokes, but now they were just watching.

Perhaps they were worried about Mrsha too. They liked children. But maybe there was more to it than that.

“We are forbidden to help in mortal affairs.”

Ryoka said the words very quietly. Urksh looked at her, and another Gnoll’s ears twitched across the camp.

“What do you mean by these words, Ryoka Griffin?”

The faeries weren’t looking at Ryoka. They were staring elsewhere, but she knew they knew she was watching them. And their eyes were good. They could sense an army on the move a day away, and they’d known when the hiding Gnoll was there. They could see through a Necromancer’s enchantments, and even a Dragon’s.

“They know.”

All the Gnolls looked up. The Frost Faeries stared down, faces expressionless as Ryoka pointed at them.

“I want to speak with you.”

One flew down. Urksh’s eyes narrowed and he squinted just to the left of the faerie, but Ryoka just stared grimly at the faerie as she flew in front of the Human girl and the Gnoll Chieftain.

 

“What do you want, mortal?”

 

“You know where Mrsha is, don’t you?”

The faerie looked at Ryoka silently. Her face wasn’t filled with mirth or mischief or any of her normal range of emotions. It was old again. Old and timeless and terribly dispassionate.

 

“What if we do?”

 

“Tell me where she is.”

The faerie shook her head.

 

“This is no concern of ours, mortal. And we are bound not to interfere with your lives.”

 

“Tell me.”

Urksh looked at Ryoka. She remembered that he couldn’t see her. She looked at him.

“They know.”

Instantly, the Gnoll grabbed for the faerie, but she just flew around his hands and froze his paws. He growled, but suddenly all the faeries were around the Gnoll. The other Gnolls in the camp had seized their weapons, but they hesitated as the central fire and then all the fires in the Gnoll camp suddenly went out.

There was a dangerous look on the faeries’ faces.

 

“We are not bound by your rules, but ours, mortal. And ours are ancient as time itself. We do not interfere with your concerns.”

 

“What if I offered you a trade? Something worth breaking the rules?”

Ryoka had no idea what that could be. But she was desperate. The Frost Faerie looked at her and shook her head.

 

“You have naught that would suffice. And the price is too much for you to bear.”

 

Urksh hissed as he cracked the ice on his fur. He looked at Ryoka.

“What do they say?”

“We don’t have anything they want. And Urksh—I think they’re not allowed to help us.”

He shook his head and stared at the faeries.

“We cannot force them?”

The faeries stared at Urksh dispassionately. Ryoka shook her head hard, noting the other Gnolls and the bows they were not quite raising.

“Don’t try. Please. They might do a lot of damage to you, and I’m not even sure you can hurt them.”

Urksh stared hard at the faeries, but eventually nodded. Bows were lowered, but the expression remained. Now everyone was staring at the faeries, and they were watching Ryoka. Silently.

“There has to be something I can offer. Something you want.”

 

“You have nothing you can give us, Human.”

 

And if a faerie said it, it was probably true. But Ryoka couldn’t’ leave it like this.

She turned away from the faeries. Not to leave; but to pace. Urksh watched her silently as Ryoka walked back and forth.

Think. Think of faeries. They made deals. They never gave anything without asking for that much or more in return. They…honored their word.

None of this could help. Not if they didn’t want to make a deal. Or couldn’t.

“Stories?”

But stories weren’t enough. Not for a life. Not if this was what Ryoka thought it was. Think. What could she do to faeries? Nothing. She was like dust in the wind compared to them. She had nothing to threaten them. Nothing to offer them. Then, what did they want?

Ryoka looked up. Faeries. She had nothing to give them, but they were still faeries.

“Do you want Mrsha to die? Is that why you’re not helping?”

Urksh stirred. He looked at the faeries. They stirred too. And now there was anger in their expressions. The temperature in the air lowered again, and Ryoka began to shiver uncontrollably as one floated closer to her, eyes narrowed.

 

“Do you think we are Sluagh, mortal? Do ye think we delight in the suffering and death of innocents? Nae. We are no Redcaps nor Finfolk to delight in death of children. We are not monsters. Speak carefully lest ye offend us.”

 

It was hard, so hard to meet the small gaze in front of her. But Ryoka did it. She spoke to the faerie defiantly.

“But you’d let a child die.”

 

“Because there are rules.

 

The faerie hissed at Ryoka, and the girl felt parts of her face go numb from the intense cold around her. The faerie was like an avatar of frost, a thing of primordial, endless cold.

“But you could help.”

 

“You have nothing to offer.”

 

“But you want to help, don’t you?”

And the faerie hesitated. Just for a second. Ryoka went on, speaking quickly.

“We have nothing to offer, but if there is a price, I’ll pay it.”

Urksh interrupted.

“We will. The Stone Spears will bear any price for our young.”

He couldn’t have known the other side of the conversation, but he put a paw on Ryoka’s shoulder and gripped her hard. She nodded at him.

The faerie was silent for a long time. She stared back at her fellows, and then looked at Ryoka. And there was something else in her expression. A bit of sadness?

 

“You do not know what you offer. The price is too great, mortals. Do not ask.”

 

“Please.”

Ryoka bowed her head, bowed in front of the faeries. Urksh did the same. Across the camp, she sensed Gnolls doing likewise. The faeries floated above her head, silent judges.

 

“The price is always the same. Life for life. Death for death. And even if there is not death, you ask much of the fates.”

 

Fate. The word sent a chill down Ryoka’s spine. Was this all fated? She was too afraid to ask.

“Please. Give her a chance. I’m asking you—as one who called the fae her friend. As someone who needs help. Please. For a child. For life.”

The wind began to pick up. Overhead, the snow began to fall harder. The faerie glowed in the darkness, but not with any light to chase away the horrors of the night. The glow she gave off was terrible and beautiful, but it was not kind.

 

“Very well. So it is agreed. We promise nothing, but we will offer you a chance.”

 

Ryoka looked up. Urksh stared at her as she stood.

“What do we need to do?”

 

“Only follow. And only you.”

 

She pointed at Ryoka. The girl hesitated, and turned to Urksh.

“I need to go alone. They’ll take me to her.”

He grabbed her. The old Gnoll’s eyes were full of fear, but also hope.

“Go. Please. And take this—”

He hurried inside a tent, barking orders. Gnolls scattered, and then one came towards Ryoka holding a torch. It was wood coated with resin, and the Gnoll muttered words to get it to light. He must have been the [Shaman].

Urksh came out of the tent holding bottles. Potions. He handed them to Ryoka.

“For healing. Take. And this.”

He gave her something else. Ryoka stared at it.

“What is this? A rope?”

He nodded as he helped store it in Ryoka’s pack. The rope was unlike the gear she had seen Gnolls use. It was long and thin and light, and it seemed to coil itself naturally as Ryoka put it into her equipment.

“It is magical. It will stretch a long ways. If you go where I fear, you will need it.”

Another Gnoll came over with a fur coat, and another, small enough for a child. It was hard to wrestle then into her pack, but Ryoka discarded her clothes and everything she didn’t need to make room.

“I’ll go. I don’t know what the faeries will ask or if I might fail. This is like—”

She hesitated. It reminded Ryoka a bit of an old Greek myth, like the tale of Orpheus. Quests involving life and death always ended badly. But she had to try.

“—It could be bad. If I don’t return, don’t send anyone after me.”

Urksh nodded. He grasped Ryoka by the shoulders.

“Go. With all our hopes. Save her, we beg of you.”

He lowered his head. Ryoka grabbed his arm and squeezed it once. Then she turned. The faeries were still floating overhead, watching.

“I’m ready.”

 

“Follow, then. And quickly. May ye not regret your choice.”

 

With that, the faerie flew off. North, towards the mountain. Ryoka didn’t hesitate. She ran after them, as fast as she could. She ran across the open plain, picking up speed, and then uphill as the land began to rise.

The air grew colder around her, and the snow began to fall harder. Soon it would be too cold for all but the most determined to survive. Yet even that could not match the cold in Ryoka’s heart. A pit of fear held itself in her stomach, but her body was burning. Exhaustion fled. She ran. She ran with more force in her step than she had put in anything before.

She saw a young Gnoll in her mind, and knew that she could not fail. Ryoka ran on, and overhead the faeries watched her slow progress with eyes that beheld immortality.

In the distance, Zel Shivertail’s army marched onwards, ignoring sense which told the [General] to make camp. His scouts had seen the bonfires in the distance, and even if they had gone out, he was sure he could find the Gnoll tribe. He marched on, listening to the wind and the sound of the foreboding in his heart.

And high above the rest, watching from a distant place, something twisted the Gnoll [Hunter]’s head around and lowered the dead Gnoll to the ground. The other Gnolls lay where they had fallen, arrows sprouting from their bodies, magic-torn wounds gaping open and steaming for only seconds in the cold air.

Dark shadows stood on the cliff, watching as the faint fires of the Stone Spears tribe were rekindled. They looked out, and more shapes moved. Hundreds of them. Thousands. The night was filled with shadows, and as the blizzard began to engulf the land in earnest, the dark shape stood. It bit into the Gnoll and ripped flesh away, chewing.

And then the Gnoll slowly sat up. Lifeless eyes stared at the one who had brought it back, and the Gnoll stood with its fellows.

Waiting. And the blizzard consumed everything and the girl ran on, hoping, praying.

She would not fail. She could not. But the word whispered in her ears again. The word of despair and madness. The word to shatter all hopes and dreams. The word of playthings. The word that meant she could do nothing.

It whispered to her, spoke to her. Haunted her steps.

Fate.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

2.27

Some days he could not bear to see her as she was. He remembered when she had been smaller, and the first time she had walked through the tunnels of the Hive. But now she was bloated, obscenely huge, grand and horrible and beautiful all at once.

That is what Klbkch thought as he gazed upon his Queen. She was not what she once was. She was greater now, yes, with a Hive full of thousands of Antinium who followed her every order. But sometimes he wondered if she was a captive, a helpless prisoner. He knew he was.

“—We will dispose of the bodies of the Goblins for the city. I believe they will be largely useful as food supplies unless they carry some kind of invisible affliction.”

“Very well.”

His Queen gazed down at Klbkch, as they had often done. He stood at perfect attention, in the darkness of his Hive underneath Liscor, speaking up to her. This was his duty; true, he had other tasks now, but he had done this for decades, and it was what was needed. His Queen was the ruler of the Hive, but Klbkch was her eyes and ears and sword, if need be.

Up until a few weeks ago. Now Klbkch was a Revalantor, and in theory he should have been reporting to his Queen less and working with Pawn and the new individuals, but the situation had changed. Klbkch shifted slightly, a movement his Queen picked up.

“Is something amiss, Klbkchhezeim?”

“Not as of such, my Queen. However, casualties from the latest incursion from the dungeons were quite severe.”

“Yes. It seems activity above has woken more of the wretched things.”

“I believe it would be wise to proceed with the uncovering of the dungeon as soon as possible.”

“So you have said. Repeatedly.”

Above him, the Queen stared down at Klbkch. He knew she was not pleased. She wanted the Hive to do this alone, but he had argued this point for years. He thought he’d convinced her after Skinner to take the opportunity, but was she having second thoughts?

Klbkch braced himself for another argument, but instead his Queen just shook her head.

“What then, of the adventurers? Will they locate the dungeon themselves or must we point them to it?”

“They have been unable to locate the exact entrance, but two Gold-rank teams have already approached me and asked if the Antinium would dig in search of it.”

“Ah.”

Was that a good sign or not? Even after so long, Klbkch wasn’t certain.

“…They have offered a sizeable sum of gold to locate the entrance to the dungeon. I believe they are offering us a higher price than the normal rate.”

“That would be useful.”

Gold was not really an issue for the Antinium, but every bit helped. Klbkch nodded.

“If we were to accept a lower price, we might surprise them and influence their feelings towards us in some positive manner. Griffon Hunt appears to be especially hostile towards us.”

“Is that an issue?”

“It may not be, but I would prefer to do so if you will permit it.”

Another sigh.

“Very well. I trust your judgment, Klbkch.”

She trusted his judgment, but didn’t understand it. It was an odd thing, but his Queen—all Queens, really—did not value goodwill or friendship as a resource. They only thought of other species as variables to be influenced, and hence that was why Klbkch occasionally had to argue like this.

Perhaps this was why the Prognugators had been created; to fill the voids of each Queen’s personality. Of course, each Prognugator and Queen was different; Klbkch knew other Hives had vastly different ways of approaching their work.

Regardless…

“We will construct a tunnel with multiple branching sections to the entrance of the main dungeon and unearth it in…three days. I believe that should be enough time.”

“No doubt. But it is these adventurers that concern me, Klbkch. Regardless of their designs on the treasure; will they be enough to be useful in the first place?”

“They are Gold-rank, my Queen. They should have the combined capability of at least a thousand of our Soldiers.”

“Mm. Indeed, if they could disarm the traps it would be best. But I more referred to their lack of numbers. I would prefer at least one Named Adventurer and twice as many Gold-rank ones.”

That surprised Klbkch enough to make him hesitate. From being so opposed to any interference, his Queen had changed her opinion quickly. Why? He wondered if she’d been speaking to another Queen.

“—I believe more will flock to the area as the dungeon is uncovered and its scale is noticed. The minor treasures and artifacts will doubtless encourage some. It is only a matter of time.”

“Well then.”

He nodded. There was nothing more to say.

“Then, finally, I will initiate the next part of the plan regarding Ksmvr, with your permission.”

His Queen sighed and shifted on her throne again. Sometimes Klbkch wondered if she were growing tired. She was certainly old. Perhaps it was time for her to go through the Rite of Anastases, but that would necessitate bringing her to another Queen, or Queens, and the effort involved would be immense.

“I dislike the need for it, but very well. You are sure he suspects nothing?”

“As far as I am aware.”

“Hm. Disappointing that he does not think or wonder. But then, he is young.”

And untested. And experimental. Klbkch added these words in his head, but did not say them out loud. Ksmvr was his Queen’s pet project, and he might be useful—

If he were stronger.

“I will return to my duties. I believe Pawn is speaking with the other Workers, both individual and not. The others will arrive within the week.”

“I see. Then go.”

His Queen waved her feeler again. There wasn’t much more to be said. After her initial excitement, she had gone back to managing her Hive. Antinium didn’t dwell on emotional matters, if they even felt anything.

Klbkch understood. It was a practical choice. But he had changed in the last few months, and recently, he’d begun feeling—

He turned, and walked out of his Queen’s presence before she could sense his emotions. So much was changing within the Hive right now. She needed him more than ever. He would abide for a while longer before he acted on his concerns.

And he had work to do. Klbkch’s legs carried him swiftly through the tunnels, occasionally passing by Workers and Soldiers who moved aside so as not to impede his progress. That was how it worked in the Hive. Soldiers would move as quickly as possible through the Hive, usually to rest, eat, or reinforce areas under attack. Workers would scuttle around, stopping or moving out of the way to accommodate Soldiers. And Klbkch?

He walked in a bubble of his own. He was Revalantor, a step above Prognugator. No one would get in his way. Within his Hive, he was alone.

As he had always been. Ever since he had arrived on this continent. But it had not always been this way.

Lost in thought, Klbkch only came back fully into reality when he was at his destination. He stopped at a tunnel less trodden than the main channels and walked into a small storeroom big enough to hold a single bedroom’s worth of goods.

It was one of the many storage rooms the Antinium of Liscor had built. True to their nature, each storage area had its own designated location and purpose depending on the value and need for each item contained within.

Because this storage room contained items not useful for Soldiers and Workers fighting in the Dungeon, it was located closer to the surface. But given the value of the items contained within, it was relatively close to the Queen’s room.

There were no guards at the doors, and there was no door for that matter. There was no need. Anyone who had penetrated this far into the Hive would have to have slaughtered almost every single living Antinium to get here, and if that was the case, what good would a door be? In any case, the need to open and close a door and station Soldiers there was a needless waste of resources.

And the Antinium did not waste resources.

Klbkch walked into the room and carefully walked over to a closed box. He opened it, and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He handled it with extreme care because the parchment was cracked and crumbling with age.

The Antinium walked out of the storage room and up through the maze of tunnels, closer to the surface. He entered a side tunnel, and then entered into the cellar of an ancient building that had been buried underground.

The walls of this building were crumbling; the stone looked as if it would fall apart at the touch. A beam slanted as it seemed to audibly groan under the pressures exerted on it from above. The door leading upwards was jammed open, and collapsed earth could be seen blocking the way upwards.

It was clearly some lost building that had once been part of Liscor, or at least, part of some ancient city. Klbkch advanced into the room and looked around. He had no fear of anything collapsing, despite the precarious appearance of the room. He was an Antinium and could dig through dirt with ease, and he’d spent nearly a week overseeing the construction of the room to begin with. The stone may look weak, but it was as structurally sound as any part of the Hive.

“Ah. There.”

Klbkch strode over to one wall, where he’d had some Workers drag in a wine rack and nearly fifty expensive vintages and smash the entire structure before adding a coating of dust to the mix. The Antinium knelt, lifted a broken board, and tucked the folded parchment underneath it. Then he raised his head.

Footsteps, a bit too quick and too soon. But it didn’t matter. Klbkch straightened, took a few steps into the center of the room, and turned just as Olesm entered.

“Ah!”

The Drake screamed and leapt back from Klbkch, fumbling for the dagger at his side. Perhaps it was seeing the motionless Antinium standing in the nearly pitch-black room that had scared him. Klbkch raised his voice.

“Olesm. Excuse me, I did not mean to alarm you.”

“What, me? No, I’m sorry Klbkch. I just didn’t expect anyone down here.”

Flustered, Olesm stepped into the room and hesitated. He looked warily at the walls and ceiling.

“Ah, is it safe to enter?”

“Some structural reinforcement is necessary, but the room is safe for now.”

Klbkch lied as Olesm cautiously stepped further inside, looking around surreptitiously as he held the small lantern in one hand. Klbkch had no need of the faint glow it emitted, but for the rare visitors to the Hive, it was essential.

“I see you are alone. Have you finished teaching chess to the Workers?”

It was another redundant question; they had been the ones to inform Klbkch of Olesm’s movements. But the Antinium listened attentively to Olesm anyways.

“Oh, yes. They’re making great progress, just great! Some of them have no interest of course, but the ones who do play constantly. When they’re not working, of course.”

“Of course.”

Klbkch liked chess, but his interest was a shallow drop in the bucket compared to the waterfall of passion some of the Workers displayed for the game. It was…odd. The Antinium had never brought games or anything like it into their Hive. It was pointless, again, a waste of resources.

But had that been the clue all along? When Klbkch had suggested it, his Queen had grown silent before dismissing them. Was the key really just that?

…No. There was more. It had to be other people, not just the Antinium. People like Erin, special people who could teach them. That was why Ksmvr had to leave, and why this was important.

“I see you have come here again. Are you looking for additional maps of the dungeons? Was the one recovered not enough?”

Olesm shrugged slightly. He seemed a bit upset, insofar as Klbkch could read Drake emotions. His tail was twitching more than usual, but he wasn’t shouting or throwing things as Relc often did.

“I’m sure it was fine. The Council was very grateful for the discovery. But ah, I’m just looking for anything else that might be of use.”

“I see. Well, we have not completed our search of the area. The Antinium have discovered more buildings, but few remain even partially intact. This one seems to be the most important.”

“Yeah, you’re right. There could be something else here, couldn’t there?”

Olesm peered around the room, aiming his lantern at corners as Klbkch watched.

“I mean, I don’t know who lived here, but if this was some kind of [Cartographer]’s basement…”

“Could more maps be trapped under the rubble?”

“Maybe. Would you ah, like to give me a hand?”

“Certainly.”

Klbkch moved forwards and he and Olesm began searching the room systematically. Klbkch focused on the side of the room opposite the destroyed wine rack, while Olesm searched the other side of the room.

Even so, it would take Olesm a while to find the hidden parchment, as the Drake was focused on one corner of the room and very slowly making his way over. Klbkch decided to make small talk, if only so he would not become bored.

“I had expected that you would be at Erin Solstice’s inn instead of down here.”

“What?”

Olesm looked over as Klbkch picked up a fragment of cloth and discarded it. The Drake hesitated.

“Well…I mean, you did offer to pay me to teach the Antinium. It’s good money, and I always love playing chess.”

“Ah. But Erin is the greatest chess player in Liscor.”

She might be the best in the world. Certainly, she was among the best from hers, or so Klbkch had gathered. That was something else he had not told to anyone, including his Queen. It was…his secret. Erin had told other people of course, but who among them came down here to talk to the Queen? If he did not speak, she would never know. At least, not until the moment was right.

“Erin? Yeah, I mean, she is the best. But ah, I don’t want to disturb her. Plus, there are other reasons…”

Olesm’s voice trailed off and Klbkch observed his tail thrashing even harder.

“You seem upset. Is something the matter?”

“Yes! No. I—I just had a bad morning, that’s all.”

“Ah.”

Klbkch went back to searching through the rubble. He didn’t say anything. In his experience, non-Antinium would say what was on their minds eventually. In this case, it took Olesm only ten minutes to blurt out what he was thinking about.

“It’s Ceria. And adventuring. And Erin, I guess. I just feel like I’m not in their league anymore. In terms of levels, I mean.”

“Oh? I fail to see the issue. You are the highest-level [Tactician] in Liscor, are you not?”

“Hah!”

Olesm laughed bitterly as he tossed a rock against one wall.

“That’s nothing compared to the [Strategists] in our army. I might be higher-level than some of the Humans in the northern cities, but so what? I’m still weak.”

“You are young.”

“But I could be improving, don’t you see?”

Olesm’s tail raised a cloud of dust as he turned to Klbkch in frustration.

“I wanted to join Ceria and become an adventurer. I thought if I did that, I could develop some skills, maybe even transition into a commander class…! It’s possible if you gain enough warrior levels, you know.”

“I am aware.”

Enough levels in [Warrior] and [Strategist] and the two classes would merge into a new class, usually [Commander]. It was an odd feature, especially since some people could level in [Commander] right away. As far as Klbkch could tell, it was simply a way to consolidate levels, but he had no idea why that would be useful. Two classes were better than one, weren’t they?

“But she said no. She said I wasn’t strong enough—”

Olesm grabbed a piece of wood up and clenched it hard in a scaly fist.

“Adventurers live quite dangerous lives. Silver-rank adventurers face threats that may be above your level at the moment.”

“I know! I know, but the way she said it—can’t I go with them? Why do I have to be here?”

This was an unexpected development. Klbkch paused, and decided to continue with the conversation.

“Is it not Liscor’s policy to keep at least one [Tactician] in the city to ward off potential attacks?”

“It is. But I could delegate the job or—I just want to be better, you know? I feel worthless every time I play Erin, now that I know she’s taking it easy on me. I mean, I knew she was already, but now…”

Klbkch nodded slowly.

“I can understand your position. After my death, I too lost quite a number of levels.”

“Really? I had no idea that was how it worked. Does it happen like that for all Antinium?”

Olesm looked at Klbkch in surprise, and the Antinium felt a small moment of kinship with the young Drake. He couldn’t close his eyes, but Klbkch looked down at the ground, remembering as he spoke.

“Revival is rare even among my kind. But yes, once individuals are revived, they lose ten levels among their classes.”

Ten!?

“It is a small price to pay for life, is it not? But without at least ten levels, individuals are unable to be revived.”

It was a secret Klbkch was telling Olesm, but not a big one. The Drakes and Gnolls had figured out the Antinium’s ability during the First Antinium War; only the exact nature of the resurrection and the amount of levels lost had been a secret. And it was one worth telling to Olesm, Klbkch believed.

“I was stronger. Once. But I am pleased to say that I have regained five of my lost levels already.”

Fiv—how? Please, tell me how you did that!”

Olesm looked at Klbkch pleadingly.

“I’ve leveled a lot since Erin came, but it’s not nearly fast enough. How did you do it so quick?”

Klbkch paused. Now here was a secret he couldn’t speak of.

“The Hive has suffered a…few monster attacks as of late. I have helped fend them off and recovered my lost levels as a result.”

It was true except in the details. Olesm nodded in understanding.

“Oh, like those giant tunneling worms or Shield Spiders? Those can be nasty.”

“Among other things. They are difficult to deal with.”

“Good thing we don’t get Crelers down here, right?”

“Not anymore.”

Klbkch hated Crelers. Olesm shuddered, and went back to working after a bit longer.

“I just wish I could level like that, you know?”

“Perhaps you will. It just takes time.”

“Yeah, but I—”

Olesm paused as he lifted a piece of wood, and then his voice rose in excitement.

“Klbkch! Look! I found something!”

Klbkch walked over and saw Olesm holding up the ancient parchment as he held the lantern up with trembling claws.

“Is it another map of the dungeon?”

“N-no. I don’t think so…? No, wait, I know what this is! It’s a map of another dungeon!”

“Indeed?”

Klbkch peered at the faded lines and nodded as if impressed.

“This is quite a find. Is there perhaps another dungeon beneath Liscor?”

“There can’t be. That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? No, this must be another place. Maybe nearby…?”

Olesm stared at the faded writing on the map. Klbkch had a hard time reading the old Drake language, but Olesm had studied it, another reason why he’d been invited into the Hive.

“Albez. Huh. I don’t know where that is.”

“Perhaps it is a location north of here? A Human or native to that region might know. Ceria Springwalker or her companion, Yvlon Byres, perhaps.”

“You think so?”

Olesm hesitated. He looked at the parchment and carefully folded it up.

“Can I…borrow this? I’ll return it later.”

Klbkch shook his head, but not in denial.

“The Antinium have no use for maps. Do with it as you will. I only hope you will mention our efforts to the Council when you report.”

“What? Oh, yes, I will. Thank you!”

Olesm was already headed towards the tunnels. Klbkch watched him go, and knew the Drake would be making a beeline for the surface…unless he got lost. Mentally, Klbkch ordered a few Workers to intercept the Drake at tunnel intersections.

Klbkch’s job was done. He sighed. It wasn’t as if this had been particularly tiring, but Olesm’s mention of levels had brought Klbkch back in time again. It was playing on his thoughts when he’d stood before his Queen.

The past. Klbkch hadn’t given it much thought, but after he’d met Erin and died again, it was starting to weigh on him.

Klbkch reviewed his classes. He was a Level 21 [Swordslayer], a Level 18 [Commander], a Level 6 [Diplomat], a Level 13 [Guardsman] and a Level 14 [Assassin]. He’d been stronger, once.

Yes. Klbkch remembered a time when he hadn’t had any levels in either [Commander] or [Diplomat]. He’d been a pure warrior, a Level 44 [Swordslayer], and a Level 26 [Assassin]. He hadn’t even been a Prognugator, then.

Was it just him, or was it harder to level now? Maybe it was his age as well. It had been so long since they’d left Rhir, and even longer since he had first been hatched. He could barely remember his first Hive, deep in the darkness. Maybe there were still—

Klbkchhezeim.

Klbkch snapped to attention, all memory passing from his mind in an instant. He knew what his Queen meant in a single touch of their minds.

It was another attack. More monsters were swarming out of the dungeon, and the Soldiers needed him. Klbkch ran out of the fake cellar, heading directly towards the scene of the battle.

Forget the past. The Centenium were dead. He was a Revalantor now. Klbkch grabbed at the two swords at his waist, feeling the blades slide out of their sheathes. If only he had his old swords. But then, he and his Queen hadn’t been allowed to take anything of value when they established this experimental Hive. Maybe after the others came and saw what they had done…

No time for thought. Klbkch ran faster as he heard the first shriek of rage in the air. His body was light, his mind was focused. He was the blade of his queen.

It was time to go back to work.

 

—-

 

“Wow. Wow. And you fought the Goblins off by yourself?”

“With the help of the Watch. And Halrac. And the villagers and quite a bit of luck.”

Ceria grinned at Erin as the half-Elf sat at a table in the inn, drinking beer and relaxing with the other three adventurers. Erin assumed they were adventurers. Of course, Pisces had just been a mage and Ksmvr was an Antinium Prognugator, but they were adventurers now, right?

She didn’t quite know what that word meant. Erin hadn’t met many adventurers outside of the Horns of Hammerad, Griffin Hunt and a few others. She got that they went into dungeons and killed monsters, but the idea of just wandering around helping people sounded more like being a hero to her.

It was a different world, especially in how one second Ceria could be sitting in the bar, and the next she’d be out fighting a Goblin army.

“Raiding party, Erin. I told you, it’s a raiding party.”

“What’s the dif—oh, right. Numbers. But two hundred Goblins is a lot.

“Not compared to an army, believe me. And in truth, this raiding party is small compared to how big they can get. When a Goblin King emerges, you can see raiding parties in the thousands.”

“Which isn’t so much a raiding party as another army. Bah, the terminology used is wholly insufficient.”

Pisces scowled around his drink. He seemed happy Erin had brought out the alcohol, but even happier that she’d made more food—lunch, this time. It felt like she’d just served breakfast, but here was another crowd, even larger thanks to some of the Guardsmen who’d decided to eat at the inn.

Speaking of which—

One of the Gnolls in armor waved a paw, and Erin turned.

“Can you get that, Lyonette?”

Across the room the girl hesitated, and then slowly walked over to the table with Gnolls and Drakes, displeasure evident on her face. The guardsmen didn’t look that happy to see her either, but in a few seconds she was walking into the kitchen to get more food.

Erin had made soup. It was a nice, easy dish to make and she could keep serving it instead of having to constantly make more for new guests. She’d added all kinds of spices and meats and vegetables in it—it almost felt like Erin’s skills were doing all of the cooking, rather than her.

“This is really good, Erin. Thank you.”

“Oh, no, thank you? Um, I’ve got more if you want it.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself. I’m quite full.”

Yvlon put down the spoon in her bowl and sighed contentedly as she reached for her drink. She’d requested milk, a stark contrast from the others.

Ksmvr nodded silently. He was drinking water, and he’d finished two bowls of soup in near-silence. Erin’s eyes were drawn to the stump of his third arm, but the Antinium didn’t even seem to notice his wound.

He was still probably depressed. Erin couldn’t believe he’d been kicked out his Hive, just like that. She wanted to talk to Klbkch about it, but she hadn’t seen the Antinium and Ceria had said he wasn’t with the Watch who fought the Goblins.

“It’s just so scary, thinking there could be more of them out there. And they’re not Rags’ Goblins, you said?”

“I’m almost positive about that.”

Ceria nodded and Pisces murmured his agreement. That made Erin’s heart ease a tiny bit. She’d hate to imagine Rags getting hacked to bits.

“Well, I’m glad you’re all okay. We got attacked by Goblins too, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as this.”

What?

Ceria looked up sharply, and Erin raised her hands.

“Don’t worry! They never even got inside the inn.”

“What did you do? Did my creation kill them?”

“Who, Toren? No. They never even got close. I sort of yelled at them and they ran away.”

All four adventurers exchanged looks. Yvlon coughed politely.

“You yelled at them?”

“Sort of. I mean, I didn’t use [Loud Voice]. But it was that…that other skill I learned. Remember when everyone was fighting at the inn?”

Pisces massaged his stomach and scowled.

“How could we forget?”

“Well, back then I shouted and I felt everything sort of get heavier, remember?”

“I remember.”

Ceria frowned.

“I thought that was just a spell one of the Gold-rank adventurers cast. But you did that?”

“I think so. And when I saw the Goblins coming, I sort of just shouted at them to get lost and they did. I don’t know what happened, but the inn felt…bigger for a little bit after that happened.”

“Bigger?”

Ceria looked skeptical and Ksmvr and Yvlon just looked confused, but Pisces shook his head.

“It’s an aura. I haven’t heard of an innkeeper using one, but it’s quite common among leader classes.”

“An aura? Oh—you mean, [Inn’s Aura]? That’s one of the skills I got!”

“It’s quite a useful skill. It allows you to control the area; in this case I suppose around your inn to aid allies or impede enemies.”

“Whoa. That’s so cool!

Erin smiled, and Ceria had to laugh.

“How do you not research your Skills when you get them, Erin?”

“I’ve got a lot to do, okay?”

Pisces cleared his throat, and everyone looked at him. He tapped the table as he settled into his lecturer voice.

“The aura skill is a powerful tool to aid in combat, but not one I would rely on. Any powerful monster or individual will be able to resist most of the effects. However, I will admit that it seems particularly well versed in deflecting low-level enemies. I suspect you may also be able to use it as a basic fear effect, or at least as a form of intimidation as evidenced by your chasing off of the Goblin invaders.”

Erin blinked at Pisces a few times while Ceria rolled her eyes and Yvlon just looked confused. It had been a while since she’d heard Pisces go all scholarly on her.

“Well, it seems quite useful.”

“Quite.”

“Good that you got rid of the Goblins. I’d hate for you to be in danger.”

Everyone nodded, and Erin did too, but the truth of it was that she’d never been in danger. It had been nine Goblins who’d approached her inn, and they’d already been hesitating when they saw Toren come out wearing armor. Erin shouting had probably been the last straw.

Ksmvr drained his mug, and looked at Erin.

“I would not like to bother you, Erin Solstice. But—”

“Water? No problem!”

Erin took the mug and whirled into the kitchen. She filled the water with some from a kettle she’d boiled and glanced at how much was left. Not enough. She could boil snow of course, but it was easier just to get some from the stream. It hadn’t frozen over despite the weather.

“Lyon, we need more water. Can you fetch…two buckets?”

The girl scowled as Erin walked back into the common room. She folded her arms.

“Me? Go out there?

Erin frowned. She didn’t like that tone of voice. Never mind that it was Lyon’s semi-permanent tone; it meant trouble whenever she heard it.

“Yeah. You’ve done that a hundred times. What’s wrong?”

“Those horrible little monsters! They attacked the inn and they could be lurking outside!”

Lyon pointed to the door as if the Goblins were hiding behind it. Erin sighed.

“They’re all dead or run away. The Watch made sure of that.”

“How can you be sure?”

Erin paused.

“I can’t. But I’ll send Toren with you, how about that?”

It would defeat the purpose of sending Lyon in the first place, but at least then they’d be able to carry enough water back to last a good while. But the girl didn’t like that idea either.

“I won’t be followed by that horrible thing!”

“In that case, go by yourself. It’s not far.”

Alone!? Absolutely not! I refuse to work until you hire an adventurer to exterminate all of them!”

Erin’s good mood slowly evaporated. Ceria blinked up at Erin from her table and nudged the innkeeper with one foot. She whispered up at Erin.

“You haven’t told her about your…other guests?”

“They haven’t come back for a while now. Um.”

Erin glanced over at Lyon. The girl was giving Erin a triumphant look, as if she had the moral high ground. It was always like this, and Erin didn’t want to deal with it. She looked over.

“Toren?”

The skeleton paused as he industriously mopped a table with a rag. He slowly turned, and Lyon screeched as she backed away from him.

“No! I will not—!”

The skeleton’s purple eyes flashed and Lyon ran out of the inn, emitting a half-sob, half-shrieking sound.

Ceria watched as Toren followed the girl out of the inn, frowning slightly. She looked at Erin.

“You don’t think it’s kind of cruel, making Toren deal with her?”

“Is that cruel for Toren or her? I’ve told him he can’t hit her, push her, poke her, or do anything to her. And I can’t deal with her.”

It was a painful admission for Erin, but it was true. She’d tried—oh, how she’d tried!—but Lyon would simply refuse to work. No matter how nice or mean Erin got, the girl would just sneer at her. Toren had a way with Lyon, in that he never gave up and could scare her with his eyes, but Erin didn’t have that same ability.

“I suppose.”

Ceria looked troubled, but Pisces just shook his head.

“I analyzed my creation after Miss Solstice pointed it out to me. He has absorbed the magic from that gemstone into his spell matrix. It appears to be a lesser version of the original spell, but it seems quite useful in sheparding the annoying girl around.”

He raised his mug and drained it as Erin nodded in relief. She had been worried about Toren. In truth, she still was. She’d thought her heart would stop when Halrac had shot him in the head. She’d had no idea what the red gemstone was, until she’d realized that Toren had picked up one of Skinner’s ‘eyes’ after the battle. How he’d gotten a hold of it she had no idea.

It was starting to bother her, to be honest. Not the eyes—Toren didn’t try to scare her and Erin doubted the effect would work on her after Skinner in any case—but it was how much Toren had changed.

He wore armor, he disappeared at random times…if she wasn’t so busy, Erin would have tried to see what was going on with her skeleton. Was something wrong with him? Maybe Pisces should take another look at him. Toren seemed more intelligent than he had been when Erin had first got him, but still.

Still, Erin was always busy now. She was cooking, serving guests, and didn’t have time to do much else. She’d hoped that Lyonette would take some of the burden off, but in this case, the girl had added to Erin’s workload.

“I need another helper.”

“No, you need a better helper.”

Ceria corrected Erin as the girl took a seat at the table. No one was shouting for her, and Erin had been on her feet all day.

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe Pisces can raise another skeleton for me?”

The mage snorted.

“Hardly. You don’t have the mana to sustain it, and Toren was a work of art.”

“Oh? He looks quite mundane to me, Pisces.”

“Come now, Springwalker. Surely you’ve observed his ability to reanimate? I layered the reanimation spell across each individual bone and tied the entire spell together. It can’t be replicated.”

Ceria eyed Pisces suspiciously as Erin blinked. Was Toren that impressive?

“It seems odd you’d give that to Erin for free.”

Pisces hesitated and then shrugged.

“Well, I owed her a small debt for my meals, and I observed her sterling work with the Antinium. The individuals such as Pawn—it seemed to me she would appreciate a fine worker.”

“I guess I did.”

It was odd, but Toren had been invaluable. Erin thought about that as Ceria pushed aside her empty bowl and pulled something up from the table.

“Alright, I’m feeling a bit more alive right now. Time to take stock of what we got from the Goblins.”

“What?”

Erin stared as Ceria pulled out two rings, a short sword, and an odd necklace of rough leather with a large claw attached to the end of it.  The half-Elf laid all four objects carefully on the table as all the adventurers leaned in.

“What’s that?”

“Magic. Or at least, they’re all magical. We pulled them off of the bodies of the dead Goblins.”

That was plain to see. One of the rings had blood all over it. Erin shuddered, but Pisces and Ceria ignored the blood as their fingers hovered over the rings. Erin expected them to pick one up, but neither did. In fact, she noticed that Ceria had lifted all four objects up with a handkerchief covering her hand, and as the half-Elf turned the necklace over, she used it again.

“Why aren’t you touching them? Are they dangerous?”

“They could be. It’s one of the rules all adventurers learn: don’t touch magical objects unless you know what it is. They might be trapped or warded against being stolen.”

Yvlon nodded. She was keeping her hands well away from the magical items.

“In the worst case scenario, they might kill the user, or explode. Even if they’re not deadly, I’ve seen objects start screaming or emit horrible gas or just melt.”

Erin blinked at the items on her table. Then she edged behind Ceria.

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve done this before. We won’t destroy anything.”

The half-Elf reassured Erin as she and Pisces studied the items. Pisces was muttering under his breath, but he wasn’t doing anything obviously magical. Ceria returned her attention to the sword, frowning.

“Besides, it’s not as if these have particularly strong enchantments.”

“You can tell?”

“Oh yes. Items have an…intensity about them. You remember how magic has tiers? It’s like that. I’d say these are Tier 1—maybe Tier 2 on one of the rings at best. Mind you, Tier 1 is still good; it’s not like any enchantment is worthless.”

“Ah, but this one is.”

Pisces tapped the sword’s hilt as he looked at Ceria.

“Very common. It’s just a minor reinforcement, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Glad to see you waited for me to confirm it.”

Ceria grumbled, but nodded. She lifted the sword.

“This is just a basic hardening enchantment. It improves the strength of the blade, but not the sharpness or anything else. A bit better than nothing I suppose; Yvlon, Ksmvr, you want it?”

Yvlon shook her head.

“I suspect my longsword is better quality in any case.”

“Really?”

Erin looked at the sword at Yvlon’s side in surprise. It was certainly…shinier, but it was better than magic.

“Of course.”

Pisces snorted as Ksmvr accepted the shortsword.

“Quality steel forged by an expert? Compared to that, this is an iron blade—of acceptable craft, but not nearly good enough to compare. Magic cannot replace the actual base material it affects.”

“Not unless that magic’s really good. Looks like this is just random trinkets the Goblins stole.”

Ceria eyed the necklace and grimaced.

“Hey, this looks exactly like the dining hall at Wistram, doesn’t it, Pisces?”

The other mage looked at the necklace and nodded.

“Indeed. Resistance or nullification of improperly prepared foodstuffs.”

Erin couldn’t believe her ears.

“You mean it stops food poisoning?

“It’s handy if you eat a lot of raw eggs. I’d take it, but I’m afraid the magic isn’t contained properly.”

Ceria shrugged as she lifted the necklace up and offered it around. Erin had no idea what she meant and said so.

“Well, mages have a hard time wearing magical gear unless it’s made really well. Take my robes for instance—they don’t leak any magic and their enchantments are…tightly woven is the best way I can describe it. But something like this—”

The half-Elf lightly flicked the dangling claw and shook her head.

“It just interferes with me if I’m trying to cast a spell. Think of it like this. If I was wearing a ring that resisted fire and tried to cast [Fireball], the magic in the ring would try to cancel mine out. Well, it’s more complicated than that—”

“—Far more complicated.”

“—Shut up, Pisces. But that’s the general idea. Wearing that necklace would interfere with a lot of my spells. I could cast around it, but it might take a bit more time and mana, and it’s not worth it to resist the occasional illness.”

“I see.”

Erin stared at the claw. She didn’t need it; if she was making bad food, she deserved her stomachache. But to her surprise, Ksmvr raised his hand again.

“I apologize for my unseemly behavior, but I believe it would benefit me the most.”

“Really?”

He nodded at Erin.

“Perhaps this trinket will allow me to consume products of dairy.”

“Hey, that’s a good point! And it’s not as if this is expensive stuff; here.”

Ceria tossed the necklace to Ksmvr who caught it and bowed his head.

“I am most grateful.”

“I’m fairly certain it won’t affect the enchantment on the shortsword either, right Pisces?”

He nodded. Erin scratched her head.

“So enchantments on different magical items…?”

“Affect each other. Only naturally. If they didn’t, every adventurer could wear a thousand magical spells on their person.”

Pisces nodded as Ceria began studying the two rings. He pointed at Yvlon.

“Why do you think experts in physical combat usually only use a sword and shield and a few enchanted items? Why not enchant every piece of armor?”

Erin had no idea what adventurers normally wore. Pisces continued.

“It is possible of course, but the skill and craftsmanship that would have to go into each piece of equipment would be extraordinary. Thus, only the most legendary of warriors would have multiple enchanted items and most adventurers carry a singularly enchanted blade and ring in most cases.”

“And us Silver-rank adventurers are generally too poor for any of that.”

Ceria sighed as she tossed one ring at Pisces. He studied it as she looked over at Erin.

“Getting magical items or finding one is the first step towards Gold-rank. My robes, for instance are half of the gear I’d probably need. If I had a good wand or stave and a higher-Tier spellbook, I could probably call myself a Gold-rank adventurer.”

“Another worthless ring. Minor enchantments against cold weather.”

“Yup. Let’s sell it for a gold piece or two—unless you’re feeling cold, Yvlon? Ksmvr?”

The other two shook their heads. Ksmvr was fastening the claw around his neck.

“I have imposed too much already.”

“I defer to the mages.”

Yvlon smiled at Ksmvr, awkwardly, but the first time Erin had seen her do so to the Antinium.

“I suppose you’re one of us now, Ksmvr. Don’t worry so much about formality or debt; when the time comes, we know you’ll help us out too.”

He paused, and then nodded.

“The notion of social debt has been imparted to me. I will remember this favor.”

“Close enough.”

Ceria sighed, but her eyes lit up as she studied the final ring, a wooden one traced with black lines in a crude pattern and then polished until it shone. She hesitated, poured a bit of her drink out to wash the blood away, and nudged Pisces.

“Hey, look at this. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but if you compare it to [Protection from Arrows]…”

Pisces bent over to look, and Erin thought that the two mages looked like excited researchers bending over a text—or maybe archaeologists looking at a piece of broken pottery in a dig site. She supposed that to identify enchantments, you had to know the actual spells that went into them.

“Magic’s harder than it looks, huh?”

Lyon paused as she entered the doorway and scowled hard at Erin.

“Of course it is.”

Toren nudged her with the two buckets he was carrying and she stomped into the kitchen. Erin saw Pisces trace the pattern on the ring and then he looked up.

“A valuable find. A single-use regenerating enchantment of deflection…?”

“Close enough. Yeah, this one’s good.”

Ceria put the ring on the table and looked at the others.

“This ring deflects a single arrow that’s shot at you, and then the magic recharges until it can do it again. It’s worth good money—at least ten or twenty gold coins, possibly up to forty depending on how strong the deflection spell is and how fast it restores itself—but I could see one of us using it. What do you think?”

Yvlon stared at the ring and scratched her head.

“This is what helmets are for in my case. Ksmvr might be able to use it, but he’s got his outer…skin.”

Ksmvr nodded.

“My carapace will resist most arrows. And I have already claimed half of the items here. I believe this would be more suited in the hands of one of you two?”

“It’s not got much of a magical leak. And I could use some protection.”

My robes are unenchanted.”

Ceria and Pisces stared at each other for a long moment, and then she sighed. Pisces took the ring and Ceria sat back.

“I get first choice of any spellbooks, got it?”

“That is acceptable to me.”

Erin smiled broadly. It was just dividing the loot, but there was something…exciting about watching it happen. She felt like she was part of the adventure herself, and she had to ask.

“Okay, now you’ve got some magical items. What happens next?”

All four adventurers paused and looked at each other. Ceria shrugged.

“I guess we register our name, and then take on some easy requests until we get some money saved up. Sewer exterminations, guard duty…stuff like that.”

Erin’s face fell.

“Oh. Nothing like going on a quest or exploring a dungeon?”

“Look how well that turned out last time.”

Ceria slapped Pisces on the back of the head. He glared at her, and Yvlon smiled ruefully.

“Adventuring isn’t all big explorations, Erin. We need to save up money before we can handle bigger assignments, and then…well, it also depends on if we find anything good. The ruins were our one big shot, or so we all thought. That’s why all the teams decided to risk everything.”

“And now they’re gone and we’re poor again.”

Ceria sighed as she pulled her drink back closer to her. All the excitement of before was gone, and she stared into her mug.

“Killing rats. That’s how I started my career. I killed over a thousand of the damn things until I could find a better job, and I thought I’d never have to do it again. But here I am again. Killing rats.”

“Are they that big of a problem?”

“If they breed and spawn giant ones as long as a Minotaur, yeah. Mainly they’re just too big for most cats and they bring plague so we earn coppers for each tail we bring in.”

Pisces sniffed.

“I hate the sewers. My robes—”

“Just learn a cleansing spell!”

“Got a book?”

“I hate to admit it, but my armor is going to stink for months afterwards.”

Yvlon sighed and even Ksmvr nodded.

“I am uncomfortable with the smell, but I wish to aid this group I am a part of. Regardless of the location.”

Erin looked at him and smiled slightly. It looked like he was really trying what she’d suggested—being a part of a group like Klbkch and Pawn were. But her smile faded as she looked at the despondent adventurers.

“Um, well, maybe you can do a few other requests.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe.”

“Not likely.”

Ceria sighed.

“With all the adventurers around, we might get one or two good jobs, but steady work will be stuff like standing guard at night or killing pests. Even if we go north to Esthelm—and that will take coin we don’t have yet—it’s better if we start small. We need good equipment before we take on missions like fighting Mothbears.”

“What’s a—?”

“It flies and it’s a bear. With antennae. And claws.”

“Oh.”

“Some of them are poisonous.”

“Ah.”

“But honestly, I’d take on a group of them if we had the coin. If—”

“A month of work? Then we could look into riskier missions.”

“Yeah. It’s just…I’m sorry you guys. I wish I had better news for you, but if you’re all committed…”

Ceria looked around helplessly. Yvlon nodded.

“I’m with you, Ceria. I told you that.”

Pisces shrugged.

“I suppose wading through muck with you would be preferable to working with lesser companions.”

Ksmvr bowed his head slightly.

“I will work hard to make the most of the opportunity you have given me.”

Ceria smiled. It was a faint smile, but it was there. She stood up, and put her hand on the table.

“I’m sorry. It’s been so long since I’ve done this, I’d almost forgotten. But when we gather to form a team, it is a special thing. I was a member of the Horns of Hammerad for years; I was part of the team when Gerial and Calruz and I first formed it, and we were the greatest of friends, the closest of companions then.”

She shook her head and a shadow flickered across her face.

“They’re dead now. That’s what happens to us in the end. But the Horns fought until the end, except for one, who ran because her friends sacrificed themselves to keep her alive. Well, the Horns of Hammerad are not gone so long as I live. And if you’d fight by my side, then the Horns of Hammerad will keep fighting.”

Yvlon instantly rose and put her hand on the table. Erin held her breath as Pisces stood.

“You will keep the name? I believe it came from the Minotaur, did it not?”

Ceria shrugged.

“Unless you have a better one?”

“I do not. And I will fight with you, Springwalker. For pay of course.”

“Of course.”

Pisces gently laid his hand on the table. He smiled, and for a second Erin thought it was one of the most genuine looks she’d ever seen from him. Ksmvr was the last. He hesitated.

“I came here in despair. I was recommended—is it truly alright for one such as I to join so quickly?”

Ceria and Yvlon laughed.

“That’s adventuring for you. We’re spontaneous. An enemy can be a friend and fortune can change in a moment. If you’re with us, just don’t betray us.”

He nodded.

“I will not. I swear it.”

A fourth hand joined the circle. Erin held her breath, and the Drake standing behind her did too. Ceria, Yvlon, Pisces, and Ksmvr held their hands together for a moment, and then stepped back.

“The Horns of Hammerad live again.”

Yvlon shook her head.

“They never died.”

Ceria smiled faintly.

“And now, as your glorious leader, I will lead you in the greatest hunt for rats the world has ever seen. We’ll be wading through dung for weeks!”

Pisces shook his head and Yvlon laughed lightly. And another voice spoke, quietly.

“What if you didn’t have to do all that?”

Erin turned. Olesm was behind her again. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised. He’d come in—she’d sensed someone behind her a while back, as the four were forming their team. But he didn’t have the same energetic look about him.

Ceria hesitated. Pisces rolled his eyes and Yvlon sighed.

“Olesm? What are—”

“I ah, heard you forming your team. Congratulations.”

The Drake bobbed his head as he stared at the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria hesitated, and glanced at Erin. The Human girl could see the pain in her eyes.

“Um. Well, Olesm, they just formed the group but I’m sure if you became an adventurer too and trained, you could be—”

The Drake shook his head.

“No. No, I can’t be an adventurer.”

“Olesm. Just because I said—”

“It’s not that. I just received word via mage spell. There’s a Goblin Lord in the south. He’s raised an army, and until he’s dead, Liscor will need everyone on the walls if he heads north.”

Ceria gasped and Yvlon shook her head. Erin was confused.

“Goblin Lord? Is that bad?”

“Not like a Goblin King, but close. Did they say what size his army is?”

Olesm shook his head.

“There’s no details. But he’s strong. Zel Shivertail himself clashed with the Goblin Lord and retreated. He had a smaller army, but—”

“Dead gods. Shivertail lost a fight?”

Erin realized her inn had gone quiet. She looked over and saw some of the guardsmen were on their feet. They looked pale. Olesm turned and nodded.

“His army was already reduced, but until armies are sent to destroy the Goblin Lord, the city will be on alert. Captain Zevara will tell you more.”

The guardsmen exchanged glances and some of the other patrons in Erin’s inn rose and began putting money on the table. She hesitated, but Toren was there to sweep away plates and coins. Olesm looked at Ceria.

“The Council would never accept my request to leave. Even without me, Liscor’s walls would never fall in the time it took for reinforcements to arrive, but I’m the strongest [Tactician] around so…”

He spread his hands helplessly.

“I’m here to stay.”

Erin’s heart ached. Ceria hesitated, and reached out for Olesm. He moved past her and put something on the table.

“I found this earlier today. You should use it.”

Confused, Erin watched as Olesm cleared the table and then spread the parchment out. It turned out to be a map, a faded parchment detailing some vast complex. It had branching pathways, what looked like secret rooms—

“What is it? I mean, it’s a map, right?”

“A map. Yes.”

Ceria and Yvlon studied the map as Pisces stared hard at the symbols covering the parchment. They were faded, and Erin couldn’t read them. It looked like the odd script the Drakes used. She’d seen proper English writing, but this was different. But Pisces could clearly read the language. His lips moved, and then he looked up and turned white.

“Albez. You have a map?

Ceria’s reaction was immediate. Her head raised and turned so fast Erin thought she’d get whiplash. She looked at Yvlon, and the two immediately raced to the windows. Erin stared at they began shutting them.

“Erin, can we lock this door?”

“What? S—”

Ceria barred the inn’s door and then helped Yvlon cover the last of the windows. The inn was suddenly very dark, but Pisces cast [Light] as the two adventurers went back to the map. Ceria’s face was pale, but her hands were shaking with excitement. Yvlon looked the same.

“Dead gods. Look at it! This is a map of Albez!

“Are you sure?”

Yvlon looked at Ceria. The half-Elf paused.

“There should be landmarks. You’ve been there too, Yvlon. Can you see…?”

There.

The armored finger pointed down at a round building on the map. Erin craned over to see.

“That’s exactly like the ruined building that Carn Wolves use as a base sometimes, isn’t it? The one with the broken dome.”

“You’re right!”

Ceria stared at the map hungrily. Her finger traced the page.

“Look, if you see here—that’s got to be a secret room. It leads directly to what looks like a storeroom. If we could go there and verify—Olesm, do you know how valuable this is?”

The Drake nodded slowly. He smiled at Ceria, sadly, Erin thought.

“I had some idea. Look. It’s a gift. You need this, don’t you?”

“Olesm, this could be our big break.”

Erin still didn’t know what was happening. She looked from Olesm to Ceria to Yvlon and back again. Ksmvr was doing the same thing.

“What does it mean? This is good, right?”

Yvlon nodded slowly. She spoke as she studied the map.

“The Ruins of Albez are up north. They’re famous for well, being full of treasure. But most of it was cleaned out decades ago; adventuring teams can find something extremely valuable now and then, but it’s usually a fruitless effort.”

Pisces’ eyes were alight with avarice as he studied the ancient parchment.

“But if we had a map of the entire place and we knew where to search, we might find treasures never found before! It’s just a matter of hiding the fact we know as we request permission to explore and dealing with the monsters and traps there. But the potential—”

No one has ever had a map of the ruins before, Erin. No one.”

Ceria stared at the parchment, and her hands gripped together tightly.

“This is big. Possibly bigger than the ruins here. Because most of the traps, all of the big monsters and guardians of this dungeon are already gone. Albez was unearthed during an earthquake. So if there is treasure, it might be unguarded. And the best stuff might be waiting for us.”

She looked up at Erin, and the girl felt a shiver of excitement as she saw the look in Ceria’s eyes. There was something blazing in the depths of the half-Elf’s eyes. A look reflected across the other three adventurers, even Ksmvr.

“This could change everything.”

 

—-

 

They left after four hours. Erin had been present for all of it, letting Lyon retreat to her room and Toren clean up and wander off as she listened to the adventurers argue and talk. Olesm had left early too, and Erin wished she’d had something to say to him. He’d been gloomy, and unfortunately, Ceria had been so excited she hadn’t said more than goodbye as he’d gone.

But the adventurers were consumed with a passion that Erin had only seen once before, the last day she’d seen the Horns of Hammerad together. No; this was even greater than that, in a way. Because the treasure was out there. They knew it, and they wanted to find it first.

They borrowed money from Erin. A lot of her gold, which they promised to repay when they got back. If it meant they would come back, Erin would have given them all of it.

She offered food and supplies and even Toren, but they only took the first bit. They were heading into the city to buy as much as they could, leaving Erin in her inn.

It made her feel lonely, just a bit. Her life wasn’t like that, full of passion and danger and possibilities. Part of Erin had wanted to say ‘take me too’, but she wasn’t a killer. Or an adventurer.

But a tiny part of her wanted to be. A small bit of Erin wanted to join them, and so she was sitting at a table, head propped up on her hands, thinking.

“Maybe I can be an adventurer. I’ve got Skills.”

She had some skills. And she had two levels in the [Warrior] class. Okay, that wasn’t great, but maybe she could train?

It was a beguiling thought. Erin had never considered herself a fighter, which is why she hadn’t leveled, according to Selys. But maybe if she wanted to…

Was there an [Adventurer] class? Probably not if Ceria and Yvlon didn’t have one, but could you make a class? Erin had never thought of that before. Perhaps—

Someone knocked on her door. Erin jumped, and then realized Ceria and Yvlon hadn’t even unshuttered the windows. They’d been terribly afraid someone would find out they had the map, especially one of the Gold-rank teams.

“Coming!”

Erin went over to the door and opened it. She expected another guest, perhaps coming for dinner. But instead, she blinked and her jaw dropped when she saw the butler.

He had to be a butler. Either that, or he was the coolest-looking manservant in the world. His hair was dark and combed, his coat and leggings were dark black with a white shirt perfectly tucked beneath, and he looked at Erin with an expression of courteous expectation. Silver lined the edges of his coat, and the buttons looked like they were made of gold.

Erin stared. She felt like she’d walked out of this world, and back into England or somewhere like that. The butler stood in the trampled snow outside, as more flakes began to fall around his head.

“Miss Erin Solstice? I am a [Butler] in Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s employ.”

Even his voice sounded formal and amazingly cool. Erin had no other words for it. Just…cool.

“What? Um, what? How do you know my name?”

“I am not at liberty to say, miss. Would you care to accompany me? I have an invitation for you to join Lady Magnolia Reinhart at her estate in Invrisil.”

He stepped back, another smooth motion, and raised his hand to indicate the carriage. Erin hadn’t even seen the carriage before that. It was a dark green edged with gold, and the wheels were painted black. And it had horses that looked like ghosts.

“Wh—”

Two spectral horses stood in the snow, pawing at the ground and snorting as if they were real. But they were both a bright, golden color and shimmered with magical energy. The [Butler] inclined his head slightly.

“Lady Reinhart hopes you will accept her invitation to join her. No harm will come to you.”

“W—b—why? What does she want with me?”

Ryoka had mentioned a Lady Magnolia, hadn’t she? Had she gotten her confused with Erin? But the [Butler] didn’t seem perturbed.

“To take you to the others, of course. Lady Magnolia wishes to reunite you with your people.”

“My people? I have people? Who are my people?”

The [Butler] raised one eyebrow.

“The other people from your world. Lady Magnolia has found eight others, not including Miss Ryoka Griffon and yourself. They are gathered with her, under her protection. Would you like to meet them?”

Erin stared. And then she looked at the carriage and the magical horses. And the [Butler]. And at the carriage and horses again.

Suddenly, she wasn’t sure if Ceria and the others were the ones she should be envious of.

 


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